Jonathan Brun

Russia part II – Catherine the great palace, Moscow, Irkutsk, Listvyanka

The Catherine the Great palace lies 1 hour outside of St. Petersburg and was truly stupendous. The original castle was completely destroyed during the second world war and the famous Amber room was stolen by the visiting Nazis. Over the past 60 years, 29 of 55 palace rooms have been restored to their former glory, including the amber room which was just opened and is as amazing as I had imagined. Three different architecture is found throughout the building, neo-classical, empire and traditional Russian style.

We then took an overnight train to Moscow, our first russian train. It was much more luxurious than we anticipated – clean sheets, TVs, hot water, if only Lenin knew! In fact, our first stop in Moscow was to see the man himself, who now rests less than 500 meters from a McDonald’s. The old patron, Lenin, is unfortunately the worse for wear, growing more and more translucent, there is even talk of removing him from his mausoleum.

After visiting the main sites in Moscow – Kremlin, Museums, Churches; we bought our “real” train tickets, 3rd class on the Irkutsk Express – three and half days. Life on the train was lively and all aboard were more than friendly. They happily gave us more salted fish than we could chew along with gallons of beer to wash it down. Since the Russian government has raised taxes on Vodka, many comrades have turned to beer, which is not really considered alcohol in the motherland.

On the train, we met families, soldiers, grandmas and children. All of whom offered us their food and hospitality. Jon, the father of a cute young girl, even insisted we visit his brother in Irkutsk, he gave us salty fish and said we had an amazing aura. Sadly, we could not take him up on his offer, maybe next time.

At Novosibirsk, the Ulan Ude Tai Kwon Doe team got on the train after placing second at the Siberian Open. Their conquest of our car culminated in the renaming of the train to the Karate express.

We came to Lake Baikal to rest and visit the oldest, deepest lake tin the world. In the small village of Listvyanka we set out to find rooms for a night or two. This proved harder than expected, the town seemed to have more dogs than people and even less signs for hotels. After crossing a group of Australian tourists, we were informed of the Russian word for rooms, which we now realised, was plastered on every other home. We rang at one door clearly marked Rooms for Rent, to be politely told, “Hello, Go home!”. Luckily the hostess changed her mind and let us in.

During our visit,  we climbed up to a run-down soviet hotel called, you guessed it, Lake Baikal. The place has certainly seen better days, not that long ago, the rooms were likely full of powerful soviet politicians. Today, it still retains its 1950s Shining charm, superb view over the lake and surprisingly delicious food.

After our stint on the great lake, it was back to Irkutsk where my girlfriend and I headed south to Mongolia and my brother continued to the majestic, or is it magical, city of Vladivostok.

Published on March 18, 2010