Featured journey: The Cossack

(This blog has now moved to www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.)

The Cossack is one of the most rewarding itineraries in the Vodaktrain brochure. You get to see countries in more depth and on some departures experience our “Summer Extras” – various activities that are included at no additional cost in 4 summer departures (Jun-Sep) on eastbound journeys. Please, check our brochure to find out the exact dates. Read on to be more prepared for your Trans Mongolian adventure with Vodkatrain!

Moscow and its Circus

Comminist simbols are still present in Moscow

Moscow is a fantastic place to visit. It has got controversial charm about it – capitalism blends with the traces of communism and the very symbol of the USSR – Vladimir Lenin carefully guarded and preserved rests in the country’s heart – Red Square. You know that communism has been well forgotten when you witness the latest models of BMW and Bently flashing past you. But it reminds of itself when you queue to get a train ticket or exchange money and a mid-aged woman treats you like an annoying fly. Well, she’s got a power!

Moscow has got wonderful sights and its cultural life is never boring. Most likely you won’t be paying a visit to Moscow’s many drama theatres to see Chekhov in the original language. However there is a show that you don’t really need lingual abilities to understand and it is the world-famous Moscow Circus. The oldest and most renowned of Moscow circuses is located right near Godzillas hostel – where all our groups are accommodated.  Performances are very popular, they are well directed and kids love them Therefore it is hard to get tickets! So if you wish to see the circus it is worth checking the ticket’s page of the venue or ask your Honcho!

Suzdal and banya

Moscow hasn’t always been a capital of Russia. Back in the 12th-13th century Russia was the country that consisted of a few principalities and was similar to today’s Germany in size. While a small town on the Moskva river was accumulating lands around it,  the city of Vladimir was a prime seat of the early Russian rulers while Suzdal was a religious capital.

Onion domes are in abundance in Suzdal

Suzdal is known for the highest ratio of churches per capita but when you get there , you realise that now you are in Russia. There is no lack of onion domes and the pastoral setting of this once turbulent site is very charming. Suzdal has got its own Kremlin. Don’t expect Medvedev to greet you from the window but it’s worth learning that Kremlin is a Russian word for a fortified fortress that used to protect population from the invaders and there are a number of kremlins in the western part of Russia.

If you happen to travel on one of the Cossack departures from Moscow to Beijing you are lucky to experience the “Summer Extras” at no additional costs. When in Suzdal and being overwhelmed by how Russian this town is, it is nothing but logical to go ahead and challenge yourself in banya – Russian hot sauna. Frankly speaking the main challenge is to sustain the temperature (close to 100 C) and try to relax having believed to your Honcho who promised you would feel newly born after this experience. And of course the birch branches massage will give you a good story to tell your mates back home!

Kazan – the third russian capital

Kazan’s Kremlin panoramic view

If there is any Russian ruler that is well known to the international tourists that would be Ivan the Terrible. We won’t elaborate on how terrible Ivan was , but it’s important to know that Kazan has become a part of the growing Russian state back in the 16th century thanks to the infamous Tzar. Historically Kazan had been home to the Tatars’ tribe that was quite powerful and had a set and well-organised state with the capital to the south of modern Kazan. After it was integrated into the Russian state, the Tatars had become a minority although today their rights are well looked after. It is one of the few regions in Russia where language of the minority is recognised as the second official language with all the documents, street signs, public transport announcements being dubbed in two languages. Tatar language belongs to the Turkic family of languages and is quite similar to Turkish. To add more facts to your brain basket and make your visit to Kazan more meaningful here are a few interesting facts about the city:

  • Kazan celebrated its 1000-year anniversary in 2005. City’s centre was greatly renovated, Kazan’s biggest mosque built and a new “Millennium” bridge came to being.
  • Kazan is located on the Volga river – the biggest river in Europe.
  • New stadium will be built by 2018 as Kazan is one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
  • Kazan has officially been recognised as Russia’s “Third Capital” (meaning not only it is an important and developed city in the country but an increase in real estate prices and cost of living)

Itineraries for west and eastbound Cossack journeys are slightly different due to the train schedules. To brake a three-day journey from Irkutsk to Kazan on the westbound Cossack and make the most out of the given time we have a short stop in Ekaterinburg. The city is closely connected with the two meaningful events: the assassination of the Tzar Nicholas II and his family in 1918 and thus the end of the Russian Empire; and birth of Boris Yeltsin – the first president of modern Russia and the symbol of Russia’s transition from communism to democracy. The Cossack itinerary doesn’t allow much time to explore the city thoroughly although having a chance to have a brief look at the last big city in Siberia/Asia before entering Europe adds to the experience.

Pearl of Siberia

A hike along the lake is beautiful

Lake Baikal is a natural wonder and it is magnificent to walk around it in the summer time. The transparent waters, steep cliffs, peculiar flora and the wonderful smell of the coniferous forest leave an unforgettable impression. One of the great extras of the Cossack trip is a hike along the shore of lake Baikal for about 18 km. Four eastbound departures in 2011 from June to September have this hike included as a part of the scheduled activities. After a wonderful, inspiring walk along the shore with impromptu picnic and refreshing swim in the lake’s inviting (but cold!) waters your Honcho will make sure that you get to the village of Bolshoy Koty in time to catch a hydrofoil back.

Hydrofoil connects Bolshoy Koty with civilization

The distance that normally takes about 6-7 hours to walk will be covered in 20 min by this fast boat with underwater wings.

The village of Bolshoy Koty is only connected with the civilization by waterways in the summer and one can reach it on the ice in the winter. It used to be a site for river gold-sifting and it is popular with Irkutsk citizens to come for a weekend getaway.

The Cossacks’ connection

Lenin is alive!

To make a transition from Russia into Mongolia a smooth one we stop in Ulan-Ude. The Cossacks founded Ulan-Ude in 1666 and it was then called “Udinskoye”, the name deriving from the river Uda that flows nearby.  Ulan-Ude is the centre of the Buryat republic (within Russian Federation) to the east of lake Baikal. Buryats are ethnically very close to Mongolians, majority of them practice Buddhism although many has assimilated with the Russian culture and converted into Christianity. Shamanism practices are still very strong among the Buryats and you may notice a lot of ribbons on trees which are generally tied when people make a wish and hope that it will be blown to the sky to the shamanists gods who will ultimately make sure they will come true. It doesn’t hurt trying, so if you want one of those Bentleys but travelling on a credit card, tie one up.

Ulan-Ude is also famous for the biggest statue of Lenin’s head and it is a great fun to make some pictures with it. It feels surreal.

Mongolia: steppe, stars and nomads

After the ordeal of crossing the border you wake up greeted by the bright sun of Mongolia and its endless steppe. Rolling hills, rising sun and dots of gers create a wonderful picture and it is perfect time to make some photos. As your train pulls into Ulan-Bator (Ulaanbaatar in Mongolian spelling) you notice city’s outskirts comprised of the Soviet-style apartment blocks, warehouses and gers. If you haven’t yet figured, ger is a name of a traditional Mongolian round felt tent.

Relocating nomads

Something that really sets the Cossack itinerary apart from the others is a visit to Kharkhorin – the ancient capital of Mongolia. To get there is an adventure on itself. With the population of only 3 million people Mongolia occupies a massive territory. It is expected that infrastructure is very undeveloped and roads are often unpaved. The scenery is stunning though. Did you see the Mongolian paintings: endless steppe, horseman, couple of grazing camels, gers located seemingly in the middle of nowhere? The reality will beat that. This journey is a good chance to see the life outside of Ulan-Bator and contemplate on the hardships and rewards of the nomadic life. Enjoy your summer extra in Mongolia, help the nomads build a ger – apparently it only takes an hour – and get blown away how mobile their homes are!

Remember to watch the stars when you are staying at a ger camp – often it seems you can reach them with the ladder. On the practical side of things set your mind ready for a lot of mutton dumplings and a very limited choice of vegetables. Having travelled from Ulan-Bator on unpaved roads you will understand though why the supplies are limited and infrequent.

Change your wheels – crossing into China

After the countryside, the hustle and bustle of Ulan-Bator will feel overwhelming. This will get you ready for Beijing – which is immense and its population nearly exceeds the population of Australia.

On the way to China!

By now you will feel like an experienced train rider. A good reason to be excited – you’ve got a Gobi desert to cross today! This train leg has got a surprise for you – train wheels will have to be changed to match a narrower Chinese track. Couple of hours of shuffling and bumps, then carriages get lifted up, old wheels replaced with the new ones and you are ready to go! Since all of it is happening in the warehouse there will be no access to the toilets during this time and it is recommended to postpone celebrations of being in China to the time when the train gets going.

China will greet you with crop fields, bridges, water reservoirs and rocky mountains. The change in lifestyle – from nomadic to settled, is striking and tells you more about history than any text book. You will miss a bright blue sky of Mongolia when you reach Beijing, although the air purification measures start bringing some results.

Overeating is unavoidable in China

Beijing will amaze you. It’s big, busy, hot and has got everything and more. Enjoy its parks, join in the street dancing, have a bite at the night market, check out the acrobats (don’t try to repeat though!) and make sure to set a limit on your card! Indulge yourself in the abundance of delicious Chinese food and climb the Great Wall.

As a “Summer Extra” on the eastbound Cossack itinerary you also have Longqing Gorge included. Get some advice from your Honcho on things to do and places to visit if you are staying longer after the trip finishes. And don’t forget – there isn’t much strain on the Vodkatrain 😉

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3 Responses to Featured journey: The Cossack

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