London to Hong Kong Part 7 – “The Trans Siberian train from Moscow to Irkutsk”

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We weren’t expecting much, so to our surprise, we got more.

As opposed to the nail biting stress we experienced in St Petersburg getting to the station on time for our train to Moscow, we allowed PLENTY of time to board the Trans-siberian.

This IS the journey we have anticipated for so long. An amazing trip that some only ever dream of doing, is becoming a reality for us.

What lies ahead of us is 3 days and 4 hours on a train, sharing facilities with other passengers.

We don’t know what to expect of this train trip, but from what we read in terms of reviews and online information, we knew that the Rossiya was the best choice. What we didn’t know was that it would surpass all expectations!

Expectations vs Reality

We had read blogs, books and talked to other people about this journey. Here are some of the things we had heard:

* how expensive the trans-siberian train can be

* how there may not be adequate heating on board, or if there is, it’s quite primitive (a bit of a worry when we are in the middle of winter- surely they would have that down pat?)

* how unhelpful/unfriendly the Russians can be

* that vodka is drunk all the time by Russians

* we didn’t think we would be able to have access to fresh water. We had convinced ourselves that we would need to use the water from the urn to fill our stainless steel water bottles and leave the water to cool down over night. So we brought a lot of water on board just in case.

* reviews of the restaurant cart were pretty bad that we did not plan on visiting the restaurant. Instead, we bought a load of 2-minute noodles, snacks, milk, porridge etc…

* we weren’t sure whether our cabin would have power to charge our electronics so we brought various battery chargers

We actually were quite surprised to find that the train was well heated, almost to the point of boiling stinking hot! The restaurant cart was actually decent and they have a chef onboard. We tried the schnitzel with fries for two nights in a row (haha). Although the schnitzel was not big and the fries were a little greasy, it was tasty and better than what he had expected.

Each cabin has their own power socket, which was most helpful!

Thankfully our huge luggage fit under the seats. The Russian ladies on board were very friendly (although there were exceptions on the other carriages).

And… to top it off, the carriage was well kept. The ladies emptied the rubbish, cleaned the toilets and vacuumed every cabin everyday – It was wonderful!

Booking our tickets

We booked our tickets in second class with Rossiya train 002. There are many options as far as trains on the Trans-Siberian, but we read many reviews about the different trains and all said that the Rossiya was the best option. Considering we would be spending three whole days on a train we thought it best to do it on a decent train. Of course this train costs just that bit extra, but on boarding our train at 11.20pm, I was glad we opted for Rossiya.

You can book tickets at: http://www.rzd.ru

Our tickets were approx 40,000 Rubles for the four of us.

The trains are very punctual and at 11.45pm on the 1st January, the train left Moscow. Our carriage number 2, was not full. In fact there were only four out of the eight cabins occupied.

First class consists of a two-birth cabin, while second class is a four-birth cabin. It’s cozy and similar to the Niece to Moscow train we caught from Warsaw, with the beds just a little more narrow.

Third class is all in the carriage with no closed doors. The seats convert into beds and is the cheaper more popular option for most Russians.

They say:

“In a forest of a thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. Similarly, no two journeys along the same path are alike”.

Here we are experiencing this grand journey on the Trans-Siberian and no matter what our journey brings, it will never be the same as another.

On the train there are not too many places to go to except your cabin, the hallway, in between carriages and the dining cart.

The scenery is a rotation between small villages, train stations and snowy trees/bare lands. After a while the novelty wears off, but from time to time there is something that grabs our attention and whenever a new person boards the train it feels like they are entering our family (as strange as that sounds).

The people in the cabin next to us is a group of four friends travelling together. Harry and Diane from the UK are both journalists, Paola (polish is married to Harry) and Max who is originally from the UK but lives in Tokyo. We met with them the first night at the restaurant cart and ended up staying until late playing cards over drinks.

On our other side there was a lovely Russian couple from Omsk, also with two young boys (6yrs and 3yrs). We exchanged contact details and hopefully will stay in touch in the future.

On the second night, we thought we’d have our free meal that they offer on board. We were disappointed as it was horrible!

We ended up going to the dining cart. We bought a bottle of Georgian wine. Unfortunately they did not have a bottle opener (go figure!). The lady signalled “one moment” and left with our bottle of wine. After a few minutes she walked passed with some pliers and a screw driver. From that moment we knew we would be having corked wine. We tried to signal to her that we probably didn’t want the wine anymore, but it was no use.

Corked wine it was. Nevertheless, it served as a good laugh and something we will remember for a long time.

The restaurant staff weren’t what you’d say extremely expressive, but they were amicable and with our limited language communication we were able to grasp their humour and friendly nature.

We tried to get off the train everytime it stopped for around 20mins in order to go for a quick walk and breath in the very dry, fresh, cold air. Nearly everyone on the carriage got off to stretch their legs. It was a mix of smokers and those just wanting to wander up and down the platform. I found that it was a nice gathering of us all and it almost became a ritual to greet your fellow traveller at each stop.

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On the third day a man arrived onto the train, in the carriage next to ours – he took over where the lovely family from Omsk had been. He was an intetesting man but quite strange. He had limited social awareness. He greeted us in Russian and commenced having a conversation. We tried very hard to comprehend and even got google translate, but with little reception, it was useless. He plonked himself on the seat next to me and was telling us something that seemed very important to him. Everytime we shrugged our shoulders and said we didn’t understand he would roll his eyes in frustration. He then lifted his sleeves and showed us a tattoo of a parachute he had on his left arm. Pointing to the boys who were in their own world watching a movie he was chatting passionately.

Jason made out that he was trying to communicate that he had served in the army and was part of the forces sent to save the children in the Beslan school siege in 2004. Once we affirmed we had understood, he seemed relieved. He was a troubled soul and I imagined that an event like that would have definitely scarred him.

He continued to talk but this time he was whispering and and shut the door of our cabin. This is when I started to feel uncomfortable. Not only did he invite himself into our cabin, but now closed the door and started to behave oddly. We got the Google Translate out again to see if it worked. We set it to ‘conversation’ and it picked up:

I’ll just take your wife.

From then I wanted him out of the cabin! I took my Google translate to the lady and told her that the man made me feel uncomfortable. No other words were needed and she came to the rescue and asked the man to leave in the most polite manner possible!

We went to get dinner at the restaurant cart again and from what we heard, the same man had just left the cart after causing a little bit of a scene and had to be escorted back to his room. We felt sad for him because he probably just wanted company but he was troubled and seems to seek comfort in alcohol. I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

As we progressed into Siberia it got colder and drier outside. It was also crazy to see how the window to our room froze up from the condensation. Towards the last night the doors leading into the next carriages were so frozen up and that some of them stopped opening. We got stuck at one point coming back from the dining carriage and the maintenance guy had to come and fix it.

We were getting close to Irkutsk and I was slightly nervous about what was to come. We were going to be picked up by a man from Eastories and I was hoping he would be there!

London to Hong Kong Part 6 – “St Petersburg & Moscow”

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Over night train from Warsaw to Moscow

The train was very comfortable and possibly the best overnight train we have ever been on so far. New and clean, with everything you need – even a shower if you wish! The compartment has a little bench that when the top is lifted, is a wash basin.

The only con was that we had never really experienced an overnight train shake as much as this one. It felt like we were laying on one of those massage chairs – making sleep ‘interesting’.

We arrived into a snowy Moscow on Christmas day, but it felt like any other day. It appears the Orthodox Russians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January.

We caught the metro to the station where we would head to St Petersburg. But first we stopped for lunch and were impressed by the grandeur of the buildings in both restaurant and metro!

They say first impressions last and that you sum up a person within the first couple of seconds of meeting someone. I would say that similarly you sum up a country by the way you experience the roads as a pedestrian. We were somewhat surprised to find that the Russians giveway to pedestrians at the zebra crossing or jn general. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we sure didn’t think they would be so polite. Of course you do get the odd nut job who drives straight through.

St Petersburg

The one thing we remember from this train journey was the fact that the food was similar or worse than airline food. Pricey, not much in it and not so cheap.

We arrived in St Petersburg and although there was a ceiling at the platform station, the platform was full of snow.

Our first night we had dinner at a place called Kazan. And we stayed at a really nice Airbnb unit on Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa right near Admiralteyskaya metro. We really liked this place because it had three bedrooms, was cosy and close to everything. The only downside was that the prior guests smoked in one of the rooms and the smell would not leave no matter how much we aireated the room.

The Winter Palace and Hermitage museum

Similar to other museums, the Hermitage may be a little much for young kids. For adults it’s quite amazing and full of works by famous artists like Rembrandt, Pissaro, Egyptian artefacts etc…. and definitely a must! With kids, you may find yourself walking that little bit faster past rooms.

One way you may wish to engage your kids during your visit is to prepare a booklet for them. I selected a couple of artworks that I knew would be at the Hermitage and got them to find them as we walked around. They then had to write/draw their thoughts about this artwork, or try to recreate the artwork in their own “style”.

Just some images of the Museum inside:

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Church of the Saviour on spilled blood (also known as The church on spilled blood).

This cathedral is one of the most popular sights to visit in St Petersburg. This church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by political nihilists in March 1881. The church was built between 1883 and 1907. The construction was funded by the imperial family (wiki).

We didn’t go in but it is a spectacular cathedral to admire from the outside.

The Sitadel and Cosmonaut

Moscow

We found a small unit in the Arbat district and very close to Smolenskaya subway. It wasn’t the best unit as j bad to use my jumper as a pillow because it was too hard and stunk of mould; the shower was tiny and had no water pressure; the toilet didn’t flush very well. Nonetheless, the location was great and it was good value for money.

Moscow Metro

It’s difficult to believe that an underground metro can be a popular tourist attraction, but when you visit Moscow, you’ll soon realise why.

The Moscow metro, also known as “the people’s palace” is one of the biggest and densest in the world.

  • Trains come past every 90 seconds!
  • Contains 12 lines, 200 stations
  • The deepest station is 84 metres below ground (Park Pobedy) and has the longest escalator – 126 metres long!

Most Moskovits know the quickest routes to take underground, connecting one line to the next. It’s another world down there with everyone walking to-and-fro! Clearly we didn’t know these quick routes, and on our arrival into Moscow from St Petersburg, we needed to go from Leningradsky station (situated on Komsomolskaya Square) on Line 5 to Smolenskaya on Line 3.

Unfortunately we didn’t take the right entrance and ended up having to carry our suitcases up and down many stairs. It was very stressful and tiring especially while trying to manage two boys during peak hour people traffic.

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We were very impressed with how quickly the Russians stand to give up their seat for children! I don’t think there was a trip we did with the boys through the metro, where they stood – amazinginly polite people!

The Yusopov Palace (or Moika Palace).

This was an interesting visit to the house of the Yusopovs and see how rich this family was. This was so the place where Grigori Rasputin was murdered.

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The Red Square

The Kremlin

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It was New Year Eve and the Red Square was feeling very festive. Security was very tight with all sections of the square and city closed and full of security checks. We stayed at the square to celebrate. We grabbed dinner at an American style diner on Arabat street (go figure).

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We left our unit at Moscow at approx 10pm on 1st January, to head to the station for the commencement of our Trans-Siberian journey.

London to Hong Kong Part 4 – “Berlin”

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The train journey from Paris was quite pleasant. Frist class on the TGV was really spacious on the second floor, with a great view of the world. I got stuck into a book given by our friends in Paris called “Aleph”, which they thought would be quite appropriate, given that it captures Paolo Coello’s journey through the Trans-Siberia.
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At Mannheim we changed trains to Berlin and the boys went to a kinder group onboard. The first hour or two child-free since our trip!

Arriving into Berlin Hauptbahnhof felt like we were returning to a familiar town, even though neither of us has ever been to Berlin. The fancy lights, the very large christmas trees, the organised busyness all seemed so familiar to our last German visit. We love Germany, and we are happy to experience it again in December.

There is not much to do on the first day, because we arrive in the evening and all that is left is to grab dinner – which we do close by to our place at ‘Stadtklause‘ on the recommendation of our airbnb host. A really cute pub, with a home-style menu doesn’t and it disappoint. The meal sizes are quite generous and you can only pay by cash. I recommend visiting this place if you ever get a chance.

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Topography of Terror Centre & Checkpoint Charlie:

We have started to become accostomed to the sun rising around 8am. The boys are waking up close to 8 and I don’t have to feel guilty about staying in bed until at least 8:30am! It’s like a sleep-in every day.

Our target today is to visit the Pergamon museum, wandering the streets on our walk there to see what we find. We first come across part of the Berlin wall and Topography of Terror Centre, which was apparently THE headquarters for all the crimes committed! This is a very interesting place to visit. Children may not find this as appealing as a lot of it requires reading. The one thing the boys did take away from this place was the fact that not all the SS officers were blonde/blue eyed, but also had dark hair. Why did a country need to build a wall? And why did everyone like Hitler if he was so mean? All of these are sound questions, and I have often asked myself, how could anyone with such outlandish views receive so much public support and very little opposition?


Checkpoint Charlie:

 

Christmas markets

 

Gendarmenmarkt

Everyone raved about the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas markets, because it is “the biggest and the best in Berlin”. As you can imagine our expectations were high. The square is undoubtley very beautiful, surrounded by the German and French Cathedral and Schinkel’s Konzerhaus (concert hall). We walked into Gendarmenmarkt around midday. There was still quite a bit happening, but obviously not as much as what would occur later in the evenings.

If you enter the market after 2pm you have to pay $1Euro. This was the first time we have ever come across a German Christmas market where you have to pay. Whilst it’s not expensive, compared to the other markets we visited that were free, we didn’t think Gendarmenmarkt was THAT amazing other than the location. With kids, there no rides, as found in other markets. This market would be best enjoyed if you’re going as a couple (without kids).

 

The Berliner Weihnachtszeit

is apparently the oldest christmas market in Berlin and also attracts quite a lot of people. It has a large ice-skating rink, huge ferris wheel, rides and Santa visits and talks to the children from the sky on his moving sled. It’s very impressive at all the little intricacies put into this market. As a bonus, we got to enjoy a Glühwein while the boys had a ride on the merry-go-round.

 

 

Postdamerplatz

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River cruise

We came across a river cruise, it was a bit chilly (or so I thought) and the next session was about to start in 15 minutes. To our suprise, Anna, who was the tour guide was very animated, friendly and quirky in her presentation. She made everyone laugh and was quite knowledgeable.


I would highly recommend getting a cruise and hope that you get Anna as your guide!


Tiergarten & Victory Column


This is a huge park (520acres) in size and leads to the victory column.

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Island museums

These are some amazing museums that if visiting without kids, you would be able to take your time, read all the signs, listen to the audio with intense interest and soak all the historic information in with a sense of awe and appreciation!

Our boys did well walking through the Pergamon and Neus, but we didn’t get to experience this museum as you would child-free. My audio guise ended up having to be shared and half the time I was rousing on them to not run around and hit each other. The Ishtar gate will be remembered as the moment I stood admiring it’s grandeous size, letting my imagination run wild, only to be sadly and abruptly interrupted by a little person desperate to go to the toilet! 😡

If you want to really soak in these museums – go child-free!

Pergamon and Neues museum


Unfortunately the Pergamon gate was unavailable this visit as the museum is undergoing renovations.

 

 

Brandenburg gate, Reichstag, Sinti & Roma memorial

 

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe

This memorial is quite artistic, containin 2,711 concrete stelae that seems representative of coffins. It also has a an terranian information centre. This is to honour the up to  six million Jewish victims throughout Europe.

 

The Berlin Bunker story:

I highly recommend this museum! Very informative and has many original photos of events, a remake of Hitler’s Bunker and his whole life.

Visit this museum if you are ever in Berlin!

Natural history museum & Berlin wall memorial

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Some other pics around Berlin

London to Hong Kong Part 2 – “London”

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Day 1

Our flight arrived into London at 6am. It was a cloudy, cool day and we couldn’t get into our Airbnb until the afternoon. We had a whole day to kill, but we were tired and had our luggage with us. We ended up catching the tube to Piccadilly circle in search for snow/winter boots for the boys. It was a little struggle trying to pull around 25+kgs of luggage and manage the boys – particularly when some of the metro stations had no lifts!

We caught a taxi with a most chatty/friendly driver. He gave us a brief rundown of the history of Brixton and told us to take care as though things were better, it was always better to remain vigilant. The unit is in a big building complex that looks like it was once housing and pretty rough sideof town. With large thick gated security, I wondered whether it was worthopting for the cheaper accommodation.

We had dinner at “The Lord Nelson”, where the boys had a little game on the pool table and we sat back and relaxed.

Day 2:

We walked through Borough markets and grabbed lunch. We passed the Tate Modern, crossed the Millenium bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, walked across Blackfriars bridge and then walked along South Bank and checkedout Winter Wonderland in this area.

 

Day 3:

We went to the Belarus embassy in the morning to get thetransit visas. We then spent the day in the Natural History museum. In the evening we tried ice-skating outside the museum. According to Marcus, ice-skating is just a matter of step-step-glide. He soon found out that this is not as easy as it sounds.

Day 4:

We returned to the Belarus embassy to pick up our visas and then walk around Kensington palace and the gardens. It was a spectacular day, with blue skies. The boys really enjoyed playing in the Diana memorial playground, which had some great equipment like a big pirate ship, musical instruments, tepee huts, tunnels and not to mention squirrels that wandered around like little thieves going into people’s prams and bags that were left lying around.

We passed the Diana memorial fountain, went to the science museum that was quite interactive and enjoyed by the boys. Finally, we made our way to the British museum. Out of all the museums, the British museum was the one that the boys enjoyed least. At lot was based on history and old arti-facts, which although interesting, was not age-appropriate. 

 

Day 5:

We catch the tube to Piccadily circle and return to Trafalgar square. Unfortunately for us the day is not quite as spectacular as yesterday and it is cloudy and gloomy – something that one would expect of an English winter. The change of the guard at Buckingham palace is in on the cards and so we walk there and soon discover with the growing crowd that there will also be a marching band and parade of the guards. It seems only logical towait and see such a spectacle. As ceremonious as one can expect, the show ofthe guards proceeds, yet I never quite understand why in the 21stcentury there is a need for guards to continue in such antiquated traditions.My only conclusion is that it makes for good tourism and some traditions areworthwhile keeping.

Our next stop is the Tower of London. This is quite a magnificent site and more-so at dusk with the bridge in the background. This is definitely a place that the boys enjoyed and was easy to keep them entertained. The artillery,the armoury, the castle-like buildings, the royal jewels etc… This isdefinitely a place that the family can enjoy.

Our final destination for the day is none other thanPaddington station. A visit to London would not be complete without having paid homage to Paddington bear. There is nothing amazing about this place, except that the boys recognised the station and were able to take a photo with thePaddington statue.

 

Day 6:

Mr 6 has woken up unwell and with fever from last night. Him and I stay home while Jason and Mr 5 head out to find the Elephant man at the Royal London hospital museum. The boys heard a story by John Hammond a couple months ago about the elephant man and of his experience when he went to visit the skeleton. This impressed the boys so much that all they talked about for weeks was going to visit the elephant man when they are in London. Mr 5 saw the replica skeleton and was happy to have the evidence to show his friends andfamily back home. Our time in London has come to an end and we exit that afternoon on the 3:31pm Eurostar train to Paris.