Three weeks we’ve spend in Russia and reflecting on the trip, the word ‘contrast’ comes to mind. The colorful buildings in the center of Moscow and St. Petersburg are in big contrast with the Soviet buildings you see in the outskirts and other cities. We’ve came across ugly cities where millions of people live as well as cute little villages made up of Russian colorful wooden houses. Those houses you see all over the country. Close to Moscow in Suzdal, in the middle of big cities in Siberia – surrounded by flats, as if the owner refuses to leave – in the countless villages along the Transib, all the way up to tiny remote village Khuzhir at Lake Baikal. Same with trees. Russia has countless trees. This probably explains why there are so many wooden houses and timber factories.
Which reminds us as well of the Gulag we’ve visited in Kuchino, close to Perm. These Soviet forced labor camps were often timber factories. It was sad and interesting to be there. Particular, as our guide who is in the seventies explained a lot about the Soviet time and her own experiences. It’s in contrast with how live is today.
Also, the nature is in contrast. As said, Russia has many trees and along the train journey the land scape is not changing very much. So, if you ignore the fact you are crossing a big part of the earth, you’re travelling on the longest railway line in the world, you’re on top of a world wonder (the line is in operation for about a 100 years and still working despite the very cold Siberian winters) and the cozy life on the rails. If you ignore all this, it is actually very boring. Trees, trees, trees and more trees.
Underneath Russia it must be very interesting, though. They have of course a lot of oil and gas, but they also made us believe there is a whole system of underground rivers and caves. And thus, we went to Kungur Ice Caves in the Urals where you stand on the bottom of a sea that settled down millions of years ago in the Perm time. You see some underwater lakes and ice, but mainly rocks. We felt we were back in a geography class in high school, getting explained again about stalagmites and permafrost, haha. Although I must say it was pretty cool to see permafrost live in front of us.
The highlight, after all the trees between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk, was by far Lake Baikal. As with a lot of things in Russia, the lake has some number one positions. It’s the largest freshwater reservoir in the world, it’s the deepest, the oldest and considered also the clearest. For us it was especially nice. We stayed at Olkhon island, which is pretty untouched and remote with just some sand paths, wooden houses and almost no traffic, other than some cool Russian ‘biscuit tins’ (if that does not translate from Dutch, sorry but hope you get the idea) to bring people across the island.
The lake was still covered by ice and having the first cracks. That in combination with blue skies and beautiful sunsets the views were simply amazing. Breathtaking. So beautiful. After three days we’ve left with great memories and hundreds of new screensavers.
We loved our time in Russia. The history, the people, the buildings, the food, the nature, the life on the rails. But it’s hard to explain Russia. The soviet time versus live today; the prestige buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg versus cute wooden houses and ugly Soviet buildings; buzzing metropoles as well as peaceful, sleepy towns; the ‘boring’ trees across the country versus beautiful lake Baikal, the very friendly people as well as the grumpy Russian faces we eventually met. It’s all Russia. The largest country on earth. There are so many things said about Russia in history classes, television and the news. It was fascinating to see a glimpse of it with our own eyes.