Olkhon Island: Center of shamanic energy on Lake Baikal

Olkhon Island Shamanic cave

Breathe in and breathe out. When I stood on the top of the hill with the gaze focused on endless green valleys below me, magical atmosphere of the place went through my whole body. Apart from strong wind that toyed with our hair, everywhere reigned mysterious silence. Who knows, maybe the spirit of this place closely watches our every move on the island of Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal in Russia.

Olkhon Island
When I stood on the top of the hill with the gaze focused on endless green valleys below me, magical atmosphere of the place went through my whole body

Arrival to the island

Upon arrival to the island by ferry, which lasted from the lake shore about 15 minutes, we were welcomed by the smiling faces of people Buryats. You would not find many of these native people here anymore – on the island lives just a little over a thousand. To begin our journey we entered the small, obsolete bus. Until then we had no idea that the island has no paved roads and so we embarked on dusty roads for a new adventure.

old bus in Baikal lake
Full of expectations we entered old, small bus.

How we needed to save our vehicle

“I would like to welcome you on the tour through the Olkhon Island, the largest island on Lake Baikal” … hop! … “It has an area of ​​730 square kilometers and” … hop! … “It is considered to be a shamanistic island where the powerful mystical powers live” … hop! Speech of our tour guide was constantly interrupted by bouncing of our vehicle. But wait, what’s happening? The bus started to sink into the mud! Concern over the fact that our trip would end sooner than we thought was replaced by determination, when everyone started to push vehicle to move further. And we succeeded!

Bus stuck in mud in Baikal lake
Because of the rain during the previous night, dusty roads changed into mud.

Capital Khunzhir

We drove over the green steppe, which covered the island on one side and through the dark forest, taiga, that reigned on the other. Through the slightly steep cliffs we approached the capital of the island – Khunzhir. Place consisted of a few wooden houses built along the dusty road, interesting gift shop with a small museum and several restaurants offering local specialties.

Khunzhir - capital of Olkhon Island
Capital of Olkhon Island – Khunzhir

Shamanic experience

Just few steps away from the city Khunzhir, however, is the greatest treasure on Olkhon Island, Shamanic cave. It is said that Olkhon Island is a mecca of shamanism, a place that is inexorably spreading magical energy. Shamanic cave is said to be one of the five world shamanistic power poles. It is believed that in this piece of rock supposedly lived Azhin, Lord of Lake Baikal. Shamans regularly meet in the cave to perform their rituals.

Shamanic cave Olkhon
Shamanic cave is said to be one of the five world shamanistic power poles

But beware, tourists can´t get to this holy place too close! However, you can comfortably watch the cave from a nearby peak. On the peak, you will find couple of high pillars with plenty of shamanistic coloured ribbons bounded to them.

Olkhon shamanism
Pillars with plenty of shamanistic coloured ribbons bounded to them

And then the amazing moment came – we had the opportunity to participate in the ritual which people committed to shamanism normally do. In front of pillars was the place where the coins and cigarettes were placed – it was a sacrificial place where anyone who wanted to come closer to the columns, paid to gods for this honor. “Circle 3 times clockwise around the columns and think of something positive – make a wish.” My tour guide whispered to me and I knew I was entering the place I will never forget.

shamanic sacrificial place Olkhon
Shamanic sacrificial place where anyone who wanted to come closer to the columns, paid to gods for this honor

The whole group, otherwise very noisy, was suddenly without a word – each with his own story, with his own desires and wishes. After performing the ritual, participants in our group stood motionless at the edge of the hill, looking at the calm surface of the lake and the cave in front of us. We could almost tangibly feel the wishes of the people flying above us in the air. With whatever intention we, as the group, came into the island, this moment completely unified us. We had the opportunity to try something new, magical, something that may never happen again.

Traditional food of Olkhon Island

Still silent group returned full of impressions to the city Khunzhir – time for lunch. We sat down to a local restaurant and tasted traditional food. We drove away the greatest hunger with smoked fish, called omul. Omul is a freshwater fish similar to salmon, which can be found only in Lake Baikal. The fish is very tasty and therefore no wonder that it is the most hunted fish on the lake. The largest fishing of omul was in the 40s in last century, when even gulag camp was build for this purpose in village Peschanka on the island.

Omul Olkhon
Omul is a freshwater fish similar to salmon, which can be found only in Lake Baikal

As main course we were served with perhaps the most traditional meal on the Olkhon Island – Buuzy (another name Pozy). Food consisted of minced meat with cooked onion hidden inside special dough. We were impressed by it´s shape – it should look like yurt, tent dwelling for nomadic tribes from this area.

Buuzy traditional food Olkhon
Traditional food Buuzy has a shape like yurt.

In the end locals brought us a traditional alcoholic drink – Tarasun. It is a strongly alcoholic, colorless liquid which is prepared by fermentation and distillation of mare milk.

The island of traditional culture

After strengthening lunch we returned to our minibuses and moved to the place where our guides revealed us even a little bit more of the local culture. We learned the local dance. At the beginning movements felt silly and ridiculous to us but soon it completely catched us. We were following tour guides circling uncontrollably around singing different sounds reminiscent of an eagle. It’s just a pity that we could not catch a glimpse of nerpa from the cliff, the only freshwater seal in the world that lives only in Lake Baikal.

Olkhon Island nature
Magical atmosphere of Olkhon Island

Beautiful evening at Olkhon

Early evening on the island of Olkhon was wonderful. Silence reigned over the green countryside, some brave members of our group jumped into the icy waters of Baikal and the rest of us admired wild horses freely galloping around. Thank you, dear guides, for such an amazing experience. Even now, sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel the magical atmosphere of the island Olkhon.

Olkhon island evening
Evening at the Olkhon Island was beautiful

MAP:

TRANSSIBERIAN DREAM vol.4: Socialistic Tyumen

Tyumen Tura promenade

Trans-Siberian Railway – one of the most famous and longest railways of the world, the pride of Russia and the magnet of tourists looking for an adventure. From rainy Saint Petersburg, through a magnificent Moscow, surprisingly beautiful Kazan, socialistic Tyumen and touristic Irkutsk to the greatest jewel of my trip – Lake Baikal. A group of 40 young people from the organisation AEGEE decided to fulfill their travel dreams. This life adventure has brought many contrasts. Wealth of the former tsars vs. wooden shacks cut off from the world. Strong midday heat vs. unceasing rain and cold nights. Decorated Orthodox church vs. shamanistic ribbons blowing in the wind. Endless taiga vs. steppe without a single tree. Centers of the modern architecture vs. traditional socialist apartment buildings. Thousands of kilometres, five time zones, the quantities of powder pasta and a lot of fun- this is how my adventure looked like.

Transsiberian dream journey

Didn´t you read the first part of this journey about Saint PetersburgMoscow and Kazan? Click on links to do it now.

Tyumen – the capital of Siberia

We are in Siberia! More specifically, right in its heart in the capital city of Tyumen. Tyumen is totally different than anything we have seen so far. If you are interested in rich history better choose some other city on your journey throughout Russia. Although Tyumen was founded in 1586 as the first Russian settlement in Siberia, its today’s character is particularly marked by the Second World War, when the industry stared to grow here. Today Tyumen is home to many flourishing business companies, mainly with oil. No wonder, the region is full of strategic resources.

Tyumen
Although Tyumen was founded as the first Russian settlement in Siberia, its today’s character is marked by the Second World War.

The first night we spent at the party. As it was a working day, we were almost alone at the bar. Cool for us, this way they could play our favourite playlists and we truly enjoyed it. Along the way to the bar we made a short stop at ul. Volodarskogo, 45 where a huge statue of Lenin stands. Lenin personally visited Tyumen during World War II. Wait, it can´t be! At that time Lenin was already dead! And yet it’s true. During the war the body of Lenin was evacuated from Moscow to Tyumen to keep it safe. Tyumen State Agricultural Academy served as a temporary mausoleum at that time.

Discovering what Tyumen has to offer

The next day we started to explore the city from the square at ulitsa Respubliki, 129. Interesting. On one side stood a beautiful drama theater. However Socialist unsightly blocks that lined the square from the other sites were forming contrast to nice theatre building. And this contrast did appear across the entire tour. Newer buildings and decorated churches were built in between old functionalist buildings, which gave the city a special character.

Tyumen
Socialistic buildings in the square at ulitsa Respubliki 129

We approached the City Park of Culture and Leisure. The park was full of various statues, iron ornaments and even carousels. In the middle was a large fountain and the weather temperature was so high! Hmmm it was so tempting, let’s refresh us in it!

Tyumen City Park of Culture and Leisure
City Park of Culture and Leisure – the fountain in the middle was great refreshment duing the hot day

Tyumen´s most beautiful place is definitely the promenade by the river Tura. Promenade still breathes novelty since it was built only recently and offers its visitors views of the city across the river. While walking in heat on the long promenade, trying to catch every shadow possible, soon we reached the most famous bridge in Tyumen – Lovers Bridge. And we just met there fresh newlyweds. Coincidence?

Tyumen Tura promenade
The most beautiful part of Tyumen is its promenade next to Tura river. Photo with the Lovers Bridge and Trinity Monastery in the back

From the bridge in the distance we saw the pride of Tyumen – Trinity Monastery. If we walked another 20 minutes along the promenade we would get to this lovely monastery and serene gardens surrounding it. However, the sun was burning and we were tired. Nobody wanted to walk on and so we decided to get on a bus to drive us across whole town to the gym, where we were sleeping.

Tyumen Lovers Bridge
In Lovers Bridge we met fresh newlyweds!

The final impression from Tyumen?

Our stay in Tyumen was slowly coming to an end. We packed our things and moved to the station. Behind us was a city without tourists. The city, which might seem unsightly. The city, quite ordinary, in which residents deal with quite ordinary worries. And that’s what made Tyumen so magical. We saw the real life, the real Russia. Tyumen has provided us with a whole different view of this diverse country, and for that I am grateful.

Tyumen Aegee
The spirit of our AEGEE group in Tyumen

Back to the train. Our longest train journey is right in front of us – two days on the train without a break. But we are already used to, nothing can surprise us. The road will pass quickly and we will not even realize how soon we will be in Irkutsk. Or am I wrong? You will find out in the next article.

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TRANSSIBERIAN DREAM vol.3: Surprisingly beautiful Kazan

Kazan Kremlin

Trans-Siberian Railway – one of the most famous and longest railways of the world, the pride of Russia and the magnet of tourists looking for an adventure. From rainy Saint Petersburg, through a magnificent Moscow, surprisingly beautiful Kazan, socialistic Tyumen and touristic Irkutsk to the greatest jewel of my trip – Lake Baikal. A group of 40 young people from the organisation AEGEE decided to fulfill their travel dreams. This life adventure has brought many contrasts. Wealth of the former tsars vs. wooden shacks cut off from the world. Strong midday heat vs. unceasing rain and cold nights. Decorated Orthodox church vs. shamanistic ribbons blowing in the wind. Endless taiga vs. steppe without a single tree. Centers of the modern architecture vs. traditional socialist apartment buildings. Thousands of kilometres, five time zones, the quantities of powder pasta and a lot of fun- this is how my adventure looked like.

Transsiberian dream journey

Didn´t you read the first part of this journey about Saint Petersburg and Moscow? Click on links to do it now.

Kazan – such a surprising city

Kazan was the biggest surprise on our journey. Who would expect city so beautiful and modern hidden in between Europe and Asia? Historical monuments, riverside promenade, interesting museums, great bars and plenty of souvenir shops. Kazan has everything which you would expect from perfect holiday location.

Kazan from Kremlin
Kazan has everything which you would expect from perfect holiday location

Bauman street

Our first steps in Kazan lead to the most famous street in the city centre – Bauman Street. This lively street immediately caught our attention. Imagine the place where the tower of Epiphany Cathedral is proudly towering above the street. Birds are drinking from the nearby fountain. People arepassionately visiting one shop after another while the sellers of souvenir shops try to negotiate the best price. Imagine the street full of street artists. Street, where you unconsciously stop and listen to the sensual tones of street pianist. Have you ever thought of henna tattoo? Here you have a unique chance to try one from street tattoo at a low price. But be careful, do not expect a lot from that, nice tattoos will last only a few days.

Bauman street Kazan
Bauman street – lively street immediately caught our attention
Cathedral Kazan
Tower of Epiphany Cathedral is proudly towering above the street

It took us quite long time to get to the other end of the street. Not because it was long, but because on every step some sculpture attracted us and we needed to take thousands of pictures. In addition, while being on the most famous shopping street in Kazan, we couldn’t skip Kazan traditional food – echpochmak.

Kazan traditional food
We couldn’t skip traditional food – echpochmak

Kremlin – the pride of Kazan

At the end of Bauman Street perhaps the best known monument in Kazan was waiting for us – Kremlin. When we stood in front of the gates, watching the statue of Zilant, the most recognisable  symbol of Kazan, we had still no idea what a surprise is hidden behind the walls of Kremlin. We entered through the white clock tower. Suddenly we saw something very rare. Various churches of different religions were standing next to each other. Kazan is the centre of the Republic of Tatarstan, where the population of Tatar is mixed with Russian. Kazan People have learned to respect each other and therefore we can admire Muslim and Christian churches peacefully standing next to each other in harmony.

Kazan Zilant
Zilant, the most recognisable symbol of Kazan

Beautiful Kul-Sharif Mosque immediately caught our attention. If it is not enough for you to admire it from the outside you can enter and climb up to the balcony, or on the contrary, come down and see the Museum of Islam.

Kazan Kremlin
Beautiful Kul-Sharif Mosque immediately caught our attention

Legend of Suyumbike Tower

One interesting legend is associated with the next monument in Kremlin – leaning Suyumbike Tower. Kazan was formerly conquered by troops of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan liked the Tatar princess Suyumbike and forced her to take him as her husband. Unhappy princess said she would marry him only in case Ivan builds the highest tower in Kazan in seven days. Ivan, as a powerful ruler, however, mastered this job easily. Suyumbike, rather than accepting proposal of the Russian ruler, climbed to the top of the tower and jumped to her death.

Kazan Kremlin
One interesting legend is associated with leaning Suyumbike Tower

Holiday spirit caught us in Kazan

Evening is coming. We are impressed by the view from Kremlin to the city below – Kazan is much greater than it seemed. Impressed by the atmosphere we turn on the music on street and started to dance spontaneously. Power of Kazan! With the feeling of holiday spirit we slowly moved down to the river. We were not the only ones enjoying sunset on Kazan´s promenade. And what could be better ending of the evening than open air picnic in the park under the majestic Agricultural Palace and a great party afterwards. Good night! The next stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway – Tyumen.

Kazan promenade
We were not the only ones enjoying sunset on Kazan´s promenade

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GRADARA – love story hidden in the charming town

Gradara

There are only few places on earth where I feel like definitely coming back one day. And Gradara is one of them. I have not even entered the gate of the town walls and I already felt positive atmosphere in the air. Warm summer evening gave to this small Italian town a special shine. Let´s together reveal the magic of Gradara.

Gradara
After entering the gate I already felt positive atmosphere

Two hours in Gradara are sufficient – but why not forever?

Our trip to Gradara was very spontaneous. After all, why not to enrich the evening by visiting a small town near to our holiday destination. But when we parked the car and for the first time saw our destination, it was clear to me that the planned two-hour-long trip will not be enough. The city is really tiny – if it was a common place, a two-hour visit would be quite sufficient. Gradara is however so charming that I can imagine spending there hours, days, or perhaps months.

Gradara
Gradara is so charming that I can imagine spending there days

Castle like in fairy tale

The most visited monument rises high above the city. A well-preserved castle offers tourists the opportunity to walk around the rooms with medieval furniture, old fortification, torture chamber, or the room where soldiers used to sleep only on wooden planks. Exposition is installed very well. With a little imagination, if you close your eyes, you may pretend to be the owner of the castle and stroll around your chambers bathed in the evening sun.

Gradara castle
Gradara castle – the most visited monument

A tragic love story

The castle and the town became famous thanks to the love story portrayed for the first time by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The story says that the young Paolo falls madly in love with a woman of his brother Francesco. Her husband, Gianciotto, had a job position due to which he could not live with the family. Francesca who reciprocated Paolo´s love often ran behind him to Gradara Castle. One day Gianciotto suddenly appeared in Gradara and caught two lovers in the act. Anger, and jealousy mixed in his soul, nor Paolo neither Francesca could run away from his sword. This is how tragic story of great love ended.

Gradara
Love is in the air – the castle and the town became famous thanks to the love story

But what are the known facts? Francesca was really the wife of Giovanni who couldn´t attend his own wedding due to work duties, so Francesca married Paolo by proxy of Gianciotto. It is also known that the father Paolo, along with Francesca often visited Paolo in Gradara castle. However no one mentions love. So what is the truth? After all, decide for yourself what you believe in.

Streets full of souvenir shops and restaurants

In Gradara one main street leads from the entrance gate to the castle lined with romantic Italian houses with small shops with souvenirs. Books, postcards, magnets, ceramic products, cups and other small things are being sold by nice people. They try to help you, even if they do not speak your language. In the side streets attract visitors cafes and restaurants with terraces decorated with flowers, overlooking the Italian countryside. If you can´t resist, bon appetit!

Gradara
Side streets attract visitors with cafes and restaurants with terraces

Museum and the opportunity to walk on the old town walls are just further proof that Gradara lives from tourism. But don´t worry – don´t expect crowds similar to Venice. As I told my boyfriend after a few minutes in the city – Gradara is happy and satisfied town.

TRANSSIBERIAN DREAM vol.2: Magnificent Moscow

Red Square

Trans-Siberian Railway – one of the most famous and longest railways of the world, the pride of Russia and the magnet of tourists looking for an adventure. From rainy Saint Petersburg, through a magnificent Moscow, surprisingly beautiful Kazan, socialistic Tyumen and touristic Irkutsk to the greatest jewel of my trip – Lake Baikal. A group of 40 young people from the organisation AEGEE decided to fulfill their travel dreams. This life adventure has brought many contrasts. Wealth of the former tsars vs. wooden shacks cut off from the world. Strong midday heat vs. unceasing rain and cold nights. Decorated Orthodox church vs. shamanistic ribbons blowing in the wind. Endless taiga vs. steppe without a single tree. Centers of the modern architecture vs. traditional socialist apartment buildings. Thousands of kilometres, five time zones, the quantities of powder pasta and a lot of fun- this is how my adventure looked like.

Transsiberian dream journey

Didn´t you read the first part of this journey about Saint Petersburg? Click here to do it now.

The first minutes in Moscow

The train is after the whole night journey approaching its final stop. Interesting. Last night I was, in spite of the evening party, short bed, and monotonous train sounds, sleeping quite well. As the speed slows down and urban buildings start replacing nature, it’s time to pack the last things and get ready with the backpack in the narrow train aisle.

Moscow train station
Train approaches Moscow train station – new adventure begins!

Our first breath of the Moscow air was… hot. Warm and shining sun which dominated in morning Moscow´s sky was in contrast to the rainy St. Petersburg. A few metro stops away and we are already carrying our backpacks up the stairs to our new accommodation – Safari hostel. We all certainly enjoyed that the hostel is this time very close to the most famous sights of Moscow. When will the city tour start?

flowers in Moscow
Colourful flowers, lanterns and birds were embellishing streets. Was there some festival in Moscow?

A paradise for children

And here it comes! First steps in the streets of Moscow surprised us. Colourful flowers, lanterns and birds were embellishing streets. Could there be some festival taking part? The first stop of our city tour was, unusually, shopping centre. But not just the casual one. The building itself was hiding the 73,000 square meters of shops and entertainment areas for children. Children’s theatre, children’s meals, children’s decorations and a lot of children’s brand stores. Do you think you could find there your favourite toy from childhood?

Central Children's Store on Lubyanka
Central Children’s Store – a place where you become a child again

From the world of fairy tales, we moved to the top floor of the shopping centre and saw the roofs of Moscow. So many buildings and roads were beneath us that we couldn’t see the end of the city. It was right there, where I for the first time discovered how magnificent Moscow is.

View from Central Children's Store on Lubyanka
View from the Central Children’s Store on magnificent Moscow – where is the end of the city?

Like a ballerina

We are standing in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. This building, which is for many years considered one of the main sights of Moscow was opened on 20 October 1856 on the occasion of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. Can you imagine a more beautiful and more romantic evening than viewing famous opera or ballet in this building? Since we did not plan to stay to see performance, at least we have posed in front of the theatre as a group of ballet dancers.

 

Red Square and Kremlin – the pulsing hearth of Moscow

From the theatre it was only a few steps to … Red Square. I think everyone was eager to see for the first time this world-renowned center of political and historical life in Moscow. And that time came now. We walked along the entrance gate of the Historical Museum on one side and the Kazan Cathedral on the other. First impressions: The huge square, beautiful cathedral (in reality much nicer than the pictures on internet), plenty of tourists trying to get the best angle for picture and high red walls separating the pulsing heart of this amazing city – Kremlin.

Kazan Cathedral
Kazan Cathedral is standing on the most famous square in Russia

Kremlin is a fortified complex in the very center of Russia. Inside it is housing 5 beautiful palaces and 4 cathedrals. Only in Kemlin you can see 800 years of Russian history in one day. Visit Assumtion Cathedral where in the past Russian kings were crowned and Archangel Cathedral which even now serves as a resting place for dead emperors of Russia. Don´t forget that Kremlin is the official residence of the Russian President.

Red Square
Red Square – the highlight of every visit to Moscow. Red walls at the right side belong to Kremlin

Fairy tale cathedral

St Basil’s cathedral is perhaps the first thing you think of when someone mentions Russia. As such the queen, the cathedral is showing off its colourful domes to the eager visitors. The cathedral was built at the request of Ivan the Terrible in honor of obtaining Kazan from the hands of Mongols in 1552. One legend (not based on reality though) is associated with this cathedral. It is being said that when architects Burma and Postnik Yakovlev finished the cathedral, Ivan the Terrible let them blind so that they could never build anything so beautiful. Interesting is that the interior of the cathedral is quite different than you would expect. No large open space with the altar and benches. Interior of the cathedral consists of eight smaller churches and so the visit is definitely worth of it.

St Basil´s Cathedral
St Basil´s Cathedral – its architects were blinded so that they could never build anything so beautiful

Largest department store

The other side of Red Square, opposite the Kremlin, belongs to the department store GUM. Just like the other buildings on this square GUM is also very rare and historically significant. It opened its doors to customers as early as 1893 and still remains the largest department store in Russia. We had the pleasure to admire the architecture inside while having lunch in one of its restaurants.

interior of GUM in Moscow
GUM remains the largest department store in Russia

Line of the people waiting to see dead body – also this is Moscow

Line of the people every day between 10:00 and 13:00 (except Monday and Friday) willing to wait an hour to see dead body for 3 minutes. Yes, it is a picture that can be seen regularly on Red Square. The most famous mummy in the world, the body of Vladimir Ilytch Lenin, is on display in the mausoleum at the Kremlin wall. Despite the fact that the father of the Soviet communism wished to be buried with his mother in Saint Petersburg, he is still shown to the eyes of visitors that come from respect to the former ruler, or from curiosity.

Lenin´s Mausoleum
Mausoleum of Lenin – despite the fact Lenin wished to be buried in Saint Petersburg, he is still shown to the eyes of visitors

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is another monument situated in Alexander Garden near the Kremlin wall. It is a war memorial to Soviet soldiers killed during the World War II. On the tomb are engraved words: “Your name is unknown, your deeds immortal.” This place of reverence is completed by the eternal fire and guards, changing every hour.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – guards are changing every hour

Cathedral with bizarre history

From Red Square we moved to the final point of today’s tour – to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The cathedral was built with a cost of several million rubles, in honor of the victory over Napoleon. The amount of years workers needed to complete the cathedral was very similar to the amount of years cathedral was serving its purpose. In 1931 the government decided to blow it up into the air and use the space for building there the vast Soviet monument – Palace of Soviets. The building should be the largest in the world and at the top should stand a giant statue of Lenin. The palace has never been build due to several problems, instead a huge public swimming pool appeared there. With the end of the Soviet Union came decision to re-erect the cathedral and so since 2000 the cathedral finally serves its purpose. Interesting, what a surprising history the walls of this magnificent building hide. As the sun hid behind the horizon we slowly moved in the shadow of the cathedral to reach the subway and so finish the first day in Moscow full of experiences.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – after the turbulent history finally stands on its place

Back in time to the days of the Soviet Union

The next day, big things happened. We were transferred to the past. Do you know who were the pioneers? In the past, the government organised movement which gathered and raised children and teenagers. Except that the organisation has led children to various activities and sports, they thought them to be in favour of the Communist Party as well. Pioneers were dressed in white and bound a red ribbon around the neck. Well, that´s seems interesting! Let´s become pioneers for one day! And what other place would be better in Moscow to cycle in our pioneer costumes than park VDNKh.

the group of pioneers
AEGEE group dresses like a pioneers standing under the monument of space engineering. Photo by Sergey Agaltsov

This huge park serves as a permanent exhibition of national progress and achievements at the time of Soviet Union. It includes a number of pavilions, each in a different sign of success whether for conquering the universe, agricultural machinery, or, for example, nuclear energy. Gates, fountains, statues and socialist symbols create in this place a special atmosphere. Learning about the past and this directly from the mouths of people who live in the country… This is also why travelling is so rewarding and important.

pavilion in VDNKh in Moscow
One of the pavilions in park VDNKh

Moscow on the ship

In the evening we returned back our bicycles and white shirts have been replaced for costumes. The long night spent on a cruise ship was waiting for us. Well- known songs in addition to the carnival costumes dominated the deck and we truly enjoyed beautiful views of the night Moscow. Vibrant shopping malls, skyscrapers and alighted gorgeous Kremlin. Boat trip in Moscow was truly amazing.

boat party
The amazing night at boat floating along alighted Moscow. Photo by Sergey Agaltsov

The most beautiful metro

Day 3 was marked by discovering another pride of Moscow, this time underground. Moscow metro is among the most beautiful ones in the world. Platforms look more like palaces with various sculptures and paintings depicting the era of communism. You could perhaps sit in the metro train and discover new stations throughout the day. Would you believe that at one station you can slide a coin towards a metro wall and it will travel along a roof just to fall back to the ground at the other end? Or that you can whisper next to the column and someone standing a few meters away at another pole will hear you? Such objects and many more are hidden in the Moscow underground.

Moscow metro
Metro in Moscow belongs to the most beautiful metros in the world.

University – a small city in itself

By metro, we reached the hill housing the Moscow State University. Wow! It was the biggest university I have ever seen. 39 faculties and 15 research centres speak for themselves. High tower rather resembled palace. In this palace, however, the kings are students. Or professors? Whatever is the case, the university is a small city in itself. Students would easily survive whole their studies without even leaving the building. To the university, however, connects some legends. The University was, at the request of Stalin, built by prisoners. It was a common practice at that time. It is said that one prisoner wanted to escape so that he created wings and jumped from the top of a building. Artificial wings did not maintain the wight of the body and the escape attempt ended up in death. Since that time students sometimes hear ghosts haunting at the highest floors of university.

Moscow State University
Moscow State University – students sometimes hear ghosts at its highest floors

Dance workshop

Travelling with the organisation AEGEE is not just about cheap travel, sightseeing, or great parties. AEGEE brings together different cultures and opens their eyes. Such experience we had during our last day in Moscow at the dance workshop. The organisers showed us Russian folk dance and we learned a simple choreography! Therefore we not only saw part of the culture we also experienced it with our own bodies. Thank you for that! If you are now wondering how a Russian dance looks like, check out this video on YouTube:

Kremlin and souvenirs

Last afternoon in Moscow. And we still do not have any souvenirs! Let’s change it right now! We drove to the cultural complex to Kremlin in Izmailovo. Colourful buildings hid many cultural activities. You could attend workshops and visit some of the museums such as Chocolate Museum, Museum of Russian toys, and Museum of the History of vodka. Guess, which one we visited! In addition, in the nearby market we could buy many different kinds of Russian souvenirs. So who gets the best price for Russian matryoshka dolls?

Izmailovo Kremlin
Kremlin in Izmailovo is full of cultural activities and ideal place to buy souvenirs

Day is slowly but surely coming to an end and we are walking back to the station. The next night on the train is waiting for us and we are already impatient to see what will offer another city on our great route – Kazan.

 

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Transsiberian Dream vol.1: Rainy Saint Petersburg

AEGEE people in front of St Isaac´s Cathedral

Trans-Siberian Railway – one of the most famous and longest railways of the world, the pride of Russia and the magnet of tourists looking for an adventure. From rainy Saint Petersburg, through a magnificent Moscow, surprisingly beautiful Kazan, socialistic Tyumen and touristic Irkutsk to the greatest jewel of my trip – Lake Baikal. A group of 40 young people from the organisation AEGEE decided to fulfill their travel dreams. This life adventure has brought many contrasts. Wealth of the former tsars vs. wooden shacks cut off from the world. Strong midday heat vs. unceasing rain and cold nights. Decorated Orthodox church vs. shamanistic ribbons blowing in the wind. Endless taiga vs. steppe without a single tree. Centers of the modern architecture vs. traditional socialist apartment buildings. Thousands of kilometres, five time zones, the quantities of powder pasta and a lot of fun- this is how my adventure looked like.

Transsiberian dream journey

How did it all start?

On one pretty ordinary day while checking emails some extraordinary thing happened – I discovered I was accepted to participate on Summer University through the organization AEGEE! Transsiberian dream – that was the name of my next adventure. The following months were marked by the different arrangements and visits of administrations. A hard nut to crack was dealing with visas. If you are planning a similar trip, do not wait till the last minute! The Russian visa centers are strict and documents need to be 100% correct. A few days prior to departure I had fortunately everything I needed so I could full of expectations sit on the plane in direction of Saint Petersburg.

AEGEE people in front of St Isaac´s Cathedral
AEGEE group – 40 young people met in Russia to fulfill their biggest travel dream. Photo by Sergey Agaltsov

Welcomed by rain

The plane arrived on time and I was glad that there was the AEGEE organizer waiting for me, ready to bring me to the hostel where we were staying. During the way, I immediately noticed that the bus operates differently than I am used to. No tickets or paying to the driver. Instead there was a lady in the bus personally selling tickets to all passengers. Uff, good that I had some Russian money – rubles. While I was enjoying my first ride in Russian bus, the sky covered with clouds and the heavy rain started. Only a few seconds of necessary transfer were enough to get completely wet. Well, no wonder, Saint Petersburg greeted me with it´s true face.

rainy Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg is famous by it´s never-ending rain.

First contacts

In hostel I immediately realized I can forget about some long hot shower. We were too busy with meeting new participants, ordering Russian sim-card, first shopping, ice breaking games and traditional Russian welcome from the organizers of the whole trip. What else would be better welcome present than Russian vodka. When the evening came, we went to the bar, where the cheap price of alcohol (100 rubles per shot) surprised us, and later to a nearby club. Organisers advised us that if we want to enter, we need to dress appropriately – no jeans and T-shirt, girls had to have a mandatory dress or skirt. At the end of the day – or rather at the beginning of the next one, when we walked back to the hostel, feelings of fatigue, confusion from so many new names and excitement from this new adventure were mixed in my head.

 

Saint Petersburg as a European city

It was only the next day when we enjoyed the real, authentic taste of St. Petersburg. And of course, how else than in rain. Saint Petersburg is a large city with a population of nearly 5 million, situated on several islands around the river Neva. Saint Petersburg acts as a city that you could easily imagine somewhere in Central Europe. Already Peter the Great, the founder of Saint Petersburg, dreamed of a building a representative town designed by the European architects. And so it happened. Saint Petersburg became the cultural center and attracts countless number of tourists.
Walking through the town, I felt tiny. Houses lining the streets were massive and proudly showed their past glory. Roads separating the pavements had a lot of lanes for cars. It was obvious that the city was from the outset built with a view to grow into a huge city.

Rainy Saint Petersburg
And what that it´s raining? We want to see Saint Petersburg! Photo by Sergey Agaltsov

City of cats and superstitious Russians

During our city tour we met a few statues of cats. According to legend, cats became prominent residents of Saint Petersburg, when the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, gave the order to bring the best cats from the city of Kazan to rid the Winter Palace of rats. Cats played a similar role during the World War II., when the city was besieged and food was endangered by malicious rats. People of Saint Petersburg were so thankful to these four-leg defenders of the city that they built them statues. Try to find one on Malaya Sadovaya street. Don´t be surprised if you see people standing under it and throwing coins to the air. No, they are not fools. They are just trying to get their portion of the luck. If you are superstitious, like many Russians, try to throw a coin on a platform towards a cat and if it stays there make a wish. I wish you a lot of success!

cat in Saint Petersburg
Cat statue to thank these four-leg defenders of the city… will you make a wish?

Magnificent cathedrals

The city is full of beautiful cathedrals. The first we visited Kazan Cathedral. Tsar Paul decided to build cathedral that combines Orthodox and Christian religion. Maybe that´s why Kazan Cathedral is so similar to St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. We entered cathedral around the colonnaded arms and then we enjoyed an interesting interior of the cathedral… and the shelter from the rain.

Kazan Cathedral
Kazan Cathedral came out of the dream of Tsar Paul – to build cathedral that combines Orthodox and Christian religion

Next cathedral on the list was Cathedral of St. Isaac. Before visiting it we appreciated a rest in Alexander Garden and took pictures with statue of Peter the Great on horseback. What a relief to sit after a day of walking! Sunshine accompanied us on the way to the cathedral, but just a few meters from the entrance dark clouds came incredibly fast and whole sky filled with thunders and heavy rain. Fortunately, we were safe under the roof of the cathedral. When this scary game of the nature stopped we climbed the stairs to the top of the cathedral and enjoyed spectacular view of Saint Petersburg.

St Isaac´s Cathedral
St Isaac´s Cathedral – shortly before storm started

The highlight of the day was, however, still about to come. The most beautiful cathedral in the city is the Church of the Spilled Blood. Colored dome from afar attracts visitors to come closer and admire the beauty of architecture typical for the Russian Orthodox Church. What from the outside looked like a fairy tale was even more interesting inside. I was captivated by the images on the walls created by small mosaic stones. Church of the Spilled Blood charmed me and I dare to say that I haven´t seen more beautiful church in Russia.

Church of the Spilled Blood
Church of the Spilled Blood – What from the outside looked like a fairy tale was even more interesting inside.
Church of the Spilled Blood
Church of the Spilled Blood – wonderfull images on the walls created by small mosaic stones

Hermitage

The next day in Saint Petersburg was marked by the visit of the most famous monument – Hermitage. Upon arrival to the Palace Square, we could hardly find words other than WOW. Majestic palaces surrounded huge square on both sides. In the middle towered Alexander Column commemorating the victory over Napoleon. An interesting finding was that the column holds on a pedestal only by its own weight! Well, I am happy the wind was not so strong that day!

Palace Square
Palace Square – Alexander column on the right holds on a pedestal only by its own weight!

Hermitage – Art Museum, where you, as the art lover, could roam throughout the whole day, dominated the square. You can discover a collection that already Empress Catherine the Great started to build and admire the architecture of the Winter Palace, which served as the residence of the Russian tsars between 1762 and 1917.

Hermitage
Hermitage – the place where the Russian tsars lived

The palace rooms themselves are wonderful experience! I was impressed by the majestic Jordan Staircase through which we have entered, as well as by the gilded throne room and luxurious rooms worth of tsars who lived there. The sun’s rays penetrating inside the rooms through curtains were only contributing to this royal atmosphere.

Hermitage interier
Hermitage is not only art museum. You can also admire luxurious rooms worth of tsars who lived there.

After several hours spent in Hermitage, we crossed a busy Dvortsovy bridge and went up on Vasilyevsky Island. From the bridge we observed a number of ships sailing along the Neva River. From afar, we caught a glimpse of the place where the history of the city began to be written. In 1703 Peter the Great decided to create the city directly on this marshy area around the river Neva and built Peter and Paul Fortress, the very first part of Saint Petersburg.

Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress – place where the history of the city began to be written

The end of the first stage of a long journey

With sunset, we gradually moved to the hostel, where the organizers prepared a presentation on how to survive in Russian trains. The presentation was in the reality vs. expectations spirit. What could possibly discourage others, just excited our group of AEGEE travellers. In the end we all could not wait to experience our first Trans-Siberian journey. There was no longer the way back. With rucksacks on our backs we moved to the Moscow station where we waited for our train … Saint Petersburg offered us amazing adventures and experiences. Within a three day from foreigners became friends ready to start our first Trans-Siberian train ride. Moscow calls.

Interested to discover how this great journey continued? Click here to read about Moscow.

TIPS FOR SAINT PETERSBURG:

  • Plan in advance! Russian visa centers are strict and documents need to be 100% correct.
  • Take some cash – exchange some amount of money to Russian rubles already at the airport.
  • Take some fancy clothes if you are planning to visit night club.
  • Take an umbrella! It rains a lot in Saint Petersburg.
  • Don´t drink tap water! To prevent stomach problems drink better bottled water – in tap there are bacteria.
  • Bridges on river are being lifted during night from 1am to 5am. Don´t get stuck on the wrong side of the river!

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