Ulan Ide to Vladivostok is about 3,600 kilometers.
That's roughly the distance if you drove from L.A. to New York.
Allow me to share the highlights from the last leg of our Trans-Siberian journey. Just when we thought Russia couldn’t get any more interesting….
Let’s start with the Old Believers. We met a community of people who consider themselves to be the “Old Believers” of the Russian Orthodox church. They got upset around 300 years ago when reforms were made . So they broke off and decided to keep doing things the old way. That made the Zarina of the Russian Empire mad and she started sending them to Siberia. Nowadays, for a small fee, the descendants of Old Believer exiles will tell you all about Old Russia, do folk dances and make dinner. They also make you do an introductory dance outside their house in temperatures dipping to minus-20 Fahrenheit. This stop was also the scene of the most traumatic outhouse experience (of the many) that I had on this trip. Think pitch black night and gale force Arctic winds.
Eating Mongolian food. Once you get to Ulan Ude, you know you’ve entered very un-European Russia. Lamb testicles were on the menu. We stuck to regular old dumplings.
Oh, and the biggest Lenin head statute in the world resides in the main square of Ulan-Ude….try to contain your excitement.
Lake Baikal – truly majestic, even when it’s almost frozen. Dried fish, native people, and little gingerbread-like houses greet you there.
Back to the train. Everyone got really bad cabin fever by kilometer marker 8,000. Crankiness and some kind of toxic shock syndrome (from all the ramen noodles) started to set in. Group got very “Lord of the Flies” on each other.
Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk are very cool cities. They are attractive places and feel a bit exotic thanks to the cool history of the Jewish Autonomous region of Russia. Stalin thought he could create a paradise for Jews in Siberia. That didn’t work out so well. Yet, by modern Russian standards, there’s a sizable Jewish community in this area. Khabarovsk, by the way, has an impressive distinction: It’s the coldest city in the world with more than 500,000 people living in it. It was, indeed, the coldest place I’ve ever visited.
Ice sculptures. We saw lots of pretty ice sculptures going up in all these cold cities. I guess they can keep them up for most of the year. So their artwork got pretty elaborate.
Vladivostok was pretty beautiful! It starts to feel like what you would expect from Asia and you truly understand how far you are from Moscow. The people are really nice. The town is getting dolled up for a big APEC conference next year so there is lots of construction going on. Sadly, you aren’t exactly on the Pacific Ocean but it’s the Sea of Japan which felt cool enough.
Vladivostok is 80 miles from North Korea – likely the closest I will ever get. And it’s slightly under 80 miles to the Chinese border. We managed to find a North Korean barbecue restaurant which was fabulously exotic to us.
For some reason we aroused lots of suspicion in Vladivostok. We realized that we were being followed by FSB (the new KGB) agents. We were only there for two days but it was enough to get to know our “minders”. We still don’t know if they were just bad at their jobs or if they wanted us to know they were watching us. But it became obvious, as we kept seeing the same two guys everywhere: the hotel, the stores where we shopped, on the elevator (conveniently getting off on the same floor as us). They were even bold enough to photograph us. I then got bold enough to photograph them (see below). This had happened to us in Belarus as well so we’re getting used to it. But it was still freaky, and I hated it. You can’t help but feel violated when you know you’re being watched. But other than that, Vladivostok was great!
If you do this trip (and I think you should) definitely find a fun route to fly home. We headed to Maccau and Hong Kong en route to Moscow – just for the weekend. It was a great Russia break and we were able to warm up a bit.
|The Old Believers|
|Traditional Russian meal|
|One van that had no heat-it was so cold inside the vehicle that we could draw in ice on the windows.|
|You don't need a stroler if you've got a sled in Lake Baikal.|
|Lake Baikal getting ready to freeze.|
|Yuri teaching me how to cut up a sort of smoked/dry local fish.|
|He did the whole dissection without ever putting down his cigarette.... I didn't like the fish.|
|Mongolian food in Ulan Ude|
|Ice sculptures in Ulan Ude|
|The largest Lenin head in the world! It was dark and hard to take a pic...|
|More ice...I really liked it...|
|One of the many desolate Siberian roads....|
|The monument that greats you in Khabarovsk|
|The end of the line!!! In Vladivostok!|
|The very strange North Korean barbecue place|
|Finally at the end of our journey|
|One of the unfinished bridges in Vladivostok|
|Pretty amazing WWII memorial honoring just the members of the Russian Navy from Vladivostok how died-there were so many names.|
|One of our FSB agents taking pictures of David. The nerve!|
|Rewarding ourselves with some warmth-Maccau|
|Palm tress and pointsettas-made me very happy!|