Russia; cities, trains and cold smoke

posted in: Trip reports | 5

Last year I rode a chairlift in Goderdzi (Georgia) together with Jesper from Denmark and we discussed our skiing plans for the near future. We found out we were both inspired by “Skiing around the world”, a fantastic book written by Jimmy Petterson, and as a result we were skiing as many different places as we possibly could. I like to say I’m seeing the world through skiing since the cultural experiences one gets by skiing in exotic locations are simply invaluable. Jesper and myself had never skied in Russia which made things pretty simple, either Kamchatka or Siberia was on the agenda for the next year!

I had started a new job in March which made skiing in spring a bit complicated. So Kamchatka was off the list (for now…) and since Siberia offers some of the best early season powder skiing, in November, we had made up our minds and booked a week of ski touring near Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia. I decided to visit Moscow first, take a 87-hour train journey to Irkutsk from where the ski trip would start and finish my visit to Russia strongly with 5 days in Saint Petersburg. Jesper unfortunately had to cancel his trip at the last moment but Polhovsky had to pay homage to the country where his nickname originates from…

St. Basil’s Cathedral at night

I usually book a relatively basic guest house for the start of a trip but this time I took a different approach. A nice offer for the Hilton Garden Inn persuaded me for a 4 nights stay and provided a comfortable start of the trip. Moscow is a huge city with over 12 million inhabitants and I expected that getting around would be a challenge. Luckily its metro system is one of the best (if not the best) in the world. Every two to three minutes a metro arrives no matter at what station you are. Navigation in the metro is easy since announcements are made in both Russian and English and the names of the stations are provided in the Latin alphabet. Taking the metro in Moscow is an experience in itself. Escalators go down for more than 80 meters and some of the stations are true monuments. I did some research and made a list of metro stations I wanted to visit and created my own tour…

Arbatskaya metro station is a fine example of a Moscow metro station

Some of the most beautiful stations, according to my humble opinion, are Arbatskaya, Mayakovskaya, Komsomolskaya, Kievskaya, Novoslobodskaya and Taganskaya. Arbatskaya, displayed in the photo above, was built in 1953 and has a very classy feel. The station features low, square pylons faced with red marble and a high vaulted ceiling elaborately decorated with ornamental brackets, floral reliefs, and chandeliers. It turned out to be my favorite metro station. Multiple benches are provided so it’s also a great place for people watching.

According to many, Mayakovskaya and Komsomolskaya are the most beautiful stations but I happen to like Novoslobodskaya as well. Alexey Nikolayevich Dushkin, a Soviet architect who worked primarily for the subway and railroads, had designed the Kropotkinskaya and Mayakovskaya stations and wanted to utilize stained glass in the decoration of a metro station. As a result Novoslobodskaya was opened in 1952 with 32 stained glass panels, every single one set into one of the station’s pylons and illuminated from within. A true masterpiece of art if you’d ask me!

Novoslobodskaya metro station is best known for its stained glass panels

Once I had completed my metro tour, I continued with the regular sights. When one thinks of Moscow, the Red Square and the Kremlin immediately come to mind. Even though November is not known as the perfect time to visit Russia, it seemed that half the population of China was trying to enter the Kremlin. Since being surrounded by a huge spitting and munching crowd is not my ideal pastime, I decided to skip the frenzy to get a glimpse of what the most famous sight of Moscow has to offer. The Red Square, just around the corner, was home to the remaining Chinese and therefore not ideal either but at least I could walk around freely and observe the beautiful architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was built from 1555–1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and was the largest building at the time. The original building contained eight churches arranged around a ninth central church and in 1588 a tenth church was added. This colorful piece of art has been renovated over the years and is fascinating from an architectural point of view with the beautiful domes and different colors. During my stay in Moscow I walked passed this cathedral a few times since it’s located in the absolute center of the city and it never disappointed.

Another fantastic sight in the Russian capital city is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. With its overall height of 103 meters, it is the tallest orthodox Christian church in the world. The current church is the second to stand on this site after the first one had been destroyed in 1931 on order by Joseph Stalin as part of the USSR’s anti-religious campaign. In February 1990 permission was granted to rebuild the church but was only consecrated in August 2000. Thanks to the million Moscovites who donated money to keep the construction going, we can admire this spectacular sight as of today. The interior design is impressive but I preferred the looks on the outside. The white marble and granite walls with glittering golden domes are simply spectacular!

the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow

Moving around in Moscow I noticed a few things. As in many large cities people are very much on their own. They walk around with headphones and looking on their phones as if they are the only one in the entire world. Even though I find it sad to see, it wasn’t anything new. A strange thing is that many older women constantly bumped into me, even when the street was more or less empty and there was enough space to pass me without any contact. Usually I go out of the way when I approach a giant strong man on the sidewalk but I don’t worry too much in case of an elderly woman. Well, in Moscow it was the other way around. These elderly Russian women walked straight through me. Tough bitches!

Besides this weird fact, I found Moscow to be surprisingly well organized. Even though the city is really large, I never felt to be amongst millions of people. Part of this is probably due to the wide and very clean streets and the fact that much of the entertainment takes place indoors in winter so it’s relatively quiet outdoors. Following these rules I found my entertainment one evening in the Esse jazz club, located in the center of the city next to the Novokuznetskaya metro station. On November 5, Valentin Lakodin and his band let jazz meet blues. Completely unexpected, this authentic Russian singer had a true black voice allowing him to cover the most famous blues songs. Together with the nice atmosphere the Esse jazz club offered, this made for a great evening. Without any doubts I bought the CD from Valentin as a nice reminder!

Valentin Lakodin and his band performing at the Esse jazz club in Moscow

Some years ago I met Vladimir, a friendly Russian man, in Las Leñas (Argentina). Ever since we had kept in touch and we even met last year in Georgia. Of course, my visit to Moscow could not pass by without spending some time with my Russian friend. Unfortunately he left town for a few days but he would be back on the 6th of November, my last day in Moscow. In the meantime he had arranged a ticket for me to a Spartak Moscow game. In previous years Dutch player Quincy Promes had upgraded the team but nowadays the team is in a true crisis. There were really no attractive players and they got beaten at home by FK Ural. Let’s say at least the stadium was very nice…

On my last evening in Moscow I met Vladimir next to the Mayakovskaya metro station. He knew a nice traditional restaurant in the neighboring area. So far I had tried some traditional food, before visiting the jazz club, but that actually turned out to be Ukrainian instead of Russian food. Nevertheless the golubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls) at Taras Bulba restaurant was delicious. Of course, I also had to try some authentic Russian food and Vladimir, as expected from a true Moscovite, knew exactly where to find that. The Mari Vanna restaurant had a fantastic interior design to begin with. It couldn’t feel more homely and, to top it off, they had a fat stubborn cat wandering around underneath the tables. Vladimir took care of the order after pointing out the specialties on the menu. It was clear I had to try a salad and dumplings together with some Russian lemonade as we were both on a non-alcoholic regime. We ended up ordering two different salads and two different types of dumplings and shared everything. In between the meals we exchanged stories about skiing, of course. As always, Vladimir was also very interested in the current state of Dutch football. Luckily I could be positive for a change…

traditional Russian food, dumplings (left) and golubtsy (right)

My stay in Moscow had come to an end, so it was time to move on. A large part of the Trans-Siberian Express was ahead of me. In a mere 87 hours I would travel from the Russian capital to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in Siberia. Why would you actually take an 87-hour train journey while you can cover the same distance in a few hours by plane for even less money? That’s actually a very good question which is not easy to answer…

Hospitality is usually very good on trains. You visit the diner wagon every now and then for a chat with other travelers or to grab a bite to eat and the staff tend to be helpful where and whenever they can. My first encounter with the Russian railway service was during check-in. Some very unfriendly women, to put it mildly, checked my ticket and finally let me enter the train, but not after they had given me some stern looks. My bad relationship with these women would continue for the days that followed. The diner car was awfully decorated (completely bright green) and its service was in line with what I had experienced already. At times I was completely ignored and my order was simply not taken. When I was lucky, they served me reluctantly. I decided not to visit the diner wagon anymore and ignore the staff as much as possible for the remainder of the journey…

Russian train in the middle of Siberia…

Usually some of the main arguments to take the train are to travel slowly, see the landscape changing and interact with local people. Well, the landscape between Moscow and Irkutsk is rather boring and interacting with locals is extremely challenging if not impossible in Russia. What remains is the peaceful sleep one can experience by listening to the clickety clack of the train. During my journey I was joined by the main character of TLC’s new show 600-lb locals on Russian railways in my compartment, providing an extra dimension to the already amusing experience. This beast turned out to be a true snoring machine. When his counterpart joined us on the second day, peaceful sleep was completely out of the question…

the main characters in TLC’s new show, “600-lb snoring machines on Russian railways”

Was everything bad about this train journey? Well, not everything. I met a nice French guy on the first day of the journey. At least I could have a conversation and together we laughed about my ‘roommate’. Unfortunately the only person on the whole train I could talk to, left on the second day. From that moment onward the journey became extremely tough. Another 600-lb guy entered my compartment (can you believe it?) providing stereo snoring at night, and at times during the day as well. The interaction with locals selling food at the stations was limited. Apparently the Russian government wants to modernize its railways making the authenticity, tourists like me are looking for, disappear. Perhaps it had also something to do with the temperatures in the evening. I can imagine you don’t want to walk around with your sandwiches in -15 degrees Celsius. To summarize, this train journey had not much to offer for me. I guess I have been a victim of aggressive marketing campaigns about the authentic Trans-Siberian Express…

So, after 87 hours I finally arrived in Irkutsk with about 10 hours of sleep at most. Next time I will take a plane! In Irkutsk I checked in at the Rolling Stones hostel. They offered affordable private rooms and it turned out to be the meeting point for my ski adventure to Mamay. Being in a hostel meant I was surrounded by the usual suspects, backpackers who all think they’re so unique and cool but in fact are all playing with their phones and bragging about wodka and playing stupid card games. Oh boy, do I love the backpacking scene…

don’t you just love the wooden architecture of Siberia?

Let’s forget about the backpackers and focus on the positives. Irkutsk, located near lake Baikal, is one of the largest cities of Siberia with a population of nearly 600 thousand and is known for its wooden houses. The wooden architecture of Siberia of XVI-XVIII centuries is characterized by great simplicity and severity. Houses were constructed from large logs, at least 35-40 cm thick with gable roofs. Interestingly, the windows in the houses in Irkutsk were often larger than those of typical Russian houses. If the usual height of the windows was 50-70 cm, then here it often exceeded a meter. The presence of shutters is hard to ignore. Originally installed for safety purposes but also adding a nice touch in terms of design. Many of these houses can be seen in the 130th city district, the tourist area of Irkutsk, where the traditional houses have been restored based on old drawings and photographs. Luckily many original wooden buildings have been preserved on the streets of Irkutsk as well, giving a more authentic feel.

Despite the fact I always wanted to become an architect when I was a kid, I hadn’t traveled 87 hours by train to check out the buildings in the middle of Siberia. No, the true purpose of my trip was ski touring in search of Siberian powder. During the train journey I had seen some snow and experienced low temperatures in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk but on arrival in Irkutsk, the streets were not covered by any snow. The Mamay gorge, the crime scene for the skiing during this trip, is located a few hours by car from Irkutsk offering some of the best early season powder skiing with views of lake Baikal to top it off. At least, that’s what I had read so hopefully I hadn’t become victim of another marketing campaign…

on our way to the hut…

The evening before departure I met both the guide as well as the other members of the group. Konstantin Bartosh was my guide for the week and the group consisted of Russian splitboarders, some of whom had visited Mamay before. After some final shopping and preparations I tried to make the most of the night in the Rolling Stones hostel, a serious challenge, and got ready the next morning at 8 am. With a decent lack of sleep I made it to the minibus and left in search for snow…

I caught up on sleep during the journey to the gorge and early in the afternoon we all transitioned into touring mode. The majority of our equipment was transported by quad bike, so we only had to carry a daypack. First signs of a promising relationship with Mother Nature this trip were there, it had started to snow quite heavily from the start of the day and flakes kept on falling. In a true winter paradise we all started skinning towards the hut. About three hours later we arrived at our cozy home for the next 5 days…

our home for the week…

The hut consisted of two floors. The first one featured a fully equipped kitchen and a common area and the second floor was an open space reserved for our mattresses and sleeping bags. One of the main advantages of transporting goods by quad bike was the possibility of having great food in the middle of the mountains. Konstantin had brought his girlfriend Ana as a tail guide and a second Ana as a chef to guarantee our safety and to make sure we had enough energy to tackle the Siberian mountains. I guess Konstantin prefers to work with Ana’s…

In previous years I have spent quite some time in mountain huts all over the world and the schedule of the day is actually pretty much the same wherever I was. Everybody wakes up early for a quick breakfast in order to start their adventures and returns to the hut somewhere in the afternoon. Dinner is served around 6 pm and from 8 pm onward people go to bed. Some will read a bit, others fall asleep immediately due to the exercise previously during the day. Let’s say it’s usually quiet time after 8 or 9 pm. Well, not in Siberia…

dinner in the hut

During my stay in the hut in Mamay, we usually had lunch around 5 pm and diner at 9 pm. At this point however, the day was far from over. Card games and alcohol shots were on the agenda till at least midnight. Since this schedule was new to me, I had to get accustomed to it and used the first full day to recover and catch up on some sleep. Yes, that’s right, I skipped a day of skiing which hopefully would pay back in the days that followed. And I can already tell you, it did. Payback time was good!

According to Konstantin and the two Ana’s, the snowpack was rather shallow this year compared to previous years. Nevertheless we skied powder every single line. On my first day in the mountains we skinned up to a ridge and skied two gullies on the backside in completely untouched snow. We finished the day with a run through the trees back to the hut. A nice first encounter with the Siberian mountains and its snow. Back in the hut, one of the Ana’s had prepared delicious food and we were even treated by cake for dessert!

on the summit of a peak in Mamay with lake Baikal in the background

More powder skiing followed. Siberia offers probably the best early season powder skiing in the world. Where else can you ski fresh snow in the beginning of November? Another popular place in Siberia for ski touring is Luzhba but the terrain there is more or less limited to tree skiing while Mamay offers some nice alpine terrain as well. That is exactly the reason I decided to visit Mamay. During my second and third day we skied some nice alpine terrain. Nothing too steep but very enjoyable angles in combination with a nice layer of soft snow. The first couple of days we experienced minor competition from a large group of mostly Germans but from day three we were all alone in the mountains, what a pleasure!

skinning on another gorgeous day in Mamay (photo credits: Slava)

Before this trip I had never heard of Konstantin Bartosh (or his company Smart Mountains) who works mainly in Russia and Georgia but is planning to expand his working area. After a few days of skiing with him I can only recommend him as a guide (and believe me, I’m not sponsored by or affiliated to him in any way). He is both a great skier and snowboarder, takes safety very serious, has an eye for his clients and above all, is a very friendly guy. Because he speaks English fluently, communication is never an issue. In the afternoon of the second-last day he mentioned snow showers were in the forecast. In the Alps this means a couple of centimeters will come down from the sky but in Siberia snow showers turned out to have a completely different meaning…

plenty of good skiing in Siberia but the combination of tree skiing and alpine terrain is what makes Mamay unique

That evening we were treated on some delicious tiramisu (where do you get tiramisu as a dessert in a mountain hut?) before we all went to bed for some sweet dreams about new snow. When we woke up, we slowly started to get an idea of the definition of Siberian snow showers. At least half a meter of dry snow had already fallen out of the sky and it hadn’t stopped snowing yet!

Sasha, the most fanatic snowboarder of the group, was ready earlier than usual in anticipation of the conditions to be found in the trees. He was ready to go since, as the saying goes, you don’t have friends on a powder day. Well, soon everybody was ready and we went to the trailhead together. In order to ski down, one first has to go up. Earn your turns, you know. By now, close to a meter of fresh snow had fallen which meant breaking a new trail was extremely hard work. In fact, it was so tough that we took turns taking the lead…

breaking trail in a meter of fresh snow is hard work…

After more than three hours we had climbed around 300 meters of vertical before we decided to try out the new snow, more than a meter by now! I had never skied so much fresh snow. In fact, I had never seen so much snow. And I have skied quite a few times by now. With this ridiculous amount of fresh snow, one suddenly has to deal with other challenges. When falling you can be buried by snow or when a binding releases your ski can be hard, if not impossible, to find. And then there is the cold snow in your face and the lack of visibility during the descent. Well, all luxury problems of course. There was about a meter of fresh cold Siberian smoke to enjoy for god sake!

cold Siberian smoke is very tasteful… (photo credits: Konstantin Bartosh)

Konstantin skied down about a hundred meters or so before we followed one by one. It was so deep you had to gain some speed before making a turn and try to breathe whenever you could in between inhaling the cold Siberian smoke. There was so much snow that one member of the group had to skin back down since making turns was simply impossible on a small snowboard. Others gave up after one run. They could only go straight, being the reason. I figured I had to go for a second run, if only to justify breaking the trail earlier that day…

This time, Konstantin and I covered the 300 vertical meters in half an hour, what a difference. Konstantin wanted to open another run for the season. Both tightly and more widely spread trees would eventually lead to a series of creeks at the bottom, before the trailhead would take us back to the hut. First we had to transition into ski mode, something not too easy for me in the immensely deep snow. I lost balance when stepping out of the first binding and almost got buried in the fresh snow. If you don’t die during an extreme descent, it might happen on a flat spot in Siberia. You’re never too old to learn…

Everything in my backpack was completely soaked and my goggles had turned useless by now. Luckily Konstantin was so well prepared that he had some spare goggles I could use. And they turned out to match my new jacket too, what a bonus!

Enough chit-chat, time to ski. After the first run, I had a better idea of what to expect in the very deep snow and it was time for some nice turns. The snow was a bit deeper again since it still hadn’t stopped snowing. Soon I found myself in the ‘white room’, a term used when you can’t see a thing because the fresh powder snow is all over you while skiing down. I suppose this is what Japan is famous for, except that it was November in Siberia!

into the ‘white room’ in Mamay…

More delicious turns followed before we arrived at the creek which was covered by a layer of fresh snow, making traversing a delicate act. After all, now we couldn’t see the creek. But, I was in the safe hands of Konstantin who knows this area by heart. After some careful navigation, we made it back to the trail head at the bottom of the run. High fives seemed appropriate. We both had skied some of the deepest snow in our lives and we opened this run for the season. In addition, and perhaps even more important, we had just shared a unique adventure!

After 4 days of skiing powder, my time in Mamay had come to an end. I really enjoyed skiing with Konstantin and I hope to ski with him again (plans enough…). Looking back it might have been an even better experience if Jesper would have joined, for me but also for the other clients who were now accompanied by one stranger. I spoke a different language, didn’t drink the shots and was not on a splitboard. The skiing however exceeded my expectations and I clearly hadn’t become victim of any marketing campaign. The skiing in Mamay is simply very good!

early November, yeah right…

Now the ski trip was finished, I still had two nights in Irkutsk, to recover and check out the city. When staying in a hut for several days, I always look forward to go back to civilization for a nice hot shower and comfort. But, once I’m back in the city for about 10 minutes, I want to return to the mountains as soon as possible. I guess this has something to do with the grass that’s greener on the other side…

Nevertheless, the shower was good and getting some clean clothes out of the bag wasn’t a bad thing either. We enjoyed a final dinner together before saying goodbye. The next day I explored Irkutsk. I actually had no idea what to expect but went on a little mission in the severe cold weather that had reached Siberia by now. It was a mere -17 degrees Celsius during the day, so I had to wrap myself in warm clothes. In my case, this meant I took gloves in addition to my regular clothes…

Wooden houses and two phenomenal churches were on the agenda together with some culinary objectives not to forget. After an interesting lunch at Kung Fu restaurant, I walked from the center to the Kazan church trying to spot as many traditional wooden houses as possible. I actually found quite a few nice examples, where one looked a bit more authentic than the other. I simply love it when everything is skewed and tilted instead of perfectly renovated. You can clearly tell the wannabe architect in me beats the mathematician here!

this wooden house pleased both the architect as well as the mathematician in me

Having walked from the historic center to the edge of the city, meant I was in the vicinity of both the Kazan church as well as the Prince Vladimir monastery. The Kazan church makes for a nice change in the street scene of Irkutsk with its lively colors. It is known for having Irkutsk’s largest church bell and its inner spaces are decorated with fresco paintings but, to be honest, I mostly enjoyed the exterior design. Roughly a 15-minute walk from the Kazan church, in a residential area of Irkutsk, one can find the Prince Vladimir monastery. This huge complex has been constructed in 1888 to honor the early Russian prince who’d Christianized Russia nearly a millennium ago. Surrounded by construction works, this striking building was in a strange place. Nevertheless it was a nice little excursion and on the way I noticed more authentic wooden houses…

the Kazan church in Irkutsk is a colorful building

My final evening in Siberia had arrived. Before the skiing, I had found a nice little place called Kimchi which I really wanted to visit again. They offer a combination of Korean, Chinese and Thai food, not bad if you’d ask me. After the freezing temperatures during the day, I was looking forward to a spicy Tom Yam soup. The waitress recommended a main dish consisting of pork and vegetables after she had made clear my initial pick from the menu was not one of the specialties of the restaurant. Boy, do I love bold honesty!

Without a surprise, the food at Kimchi was delicious. For dessert I moved to another location. When I first checked in at the Rolling Stones hostel, I noticed a flyer of the KwakInn, a Belgian beer cafe in Irkutsk. With some skepticism I slowly made my way to the side street of Karl Marx street, where the pub is located, still finding it hard to believe I could actually have a Belgian beer soon. However, only minutes later, I was enjoying a Bush Blonde, my favorite beer which is almost impossible to find in the Netherlands. What a perfect end of my visit to Siberia!

haute cuisine in Irkutsk: Tom Yam soup and pork with vegetables at Kimchi restaurant (left) and my favorite beer, Bush Blonde, at the KwakInn (right)

The next day I flew to Saint Petersburg via Moscow and went back 5 hours in time. In Russia they have a magic app named Yandex Taxi which allows you to take taxis without negotiating, making transportation easy and affordable. The ride from the center of Irkutsk to the airport, roughly 30 minutes, cost 275 Rubles (≈ € 3.70) and the ride from Pulkovo airport to the center of Saint Petersburg cost 795 Rubles (≈ € 10.60). In the evening I checked in at my classically decorated apartment just opposite the famous Hermitage.

Saint Petersburg, with 5 million inhabitants the second-largest city of Russia, offers spectacular architecture and culture but is also home to many fantastic restaurants. The city was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great and had several different names ever since. In 1914 the name was changed to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg. Not surprisingly, given its geographical location, I found the city to be a mix of Russian and Scandinavian influences.

St. Petersburg’s architecture shows similarities with Stockholm or Copenhagen, right?

The most famous attraction of Saint Petersburg is without a doubt the Hermitage. Due to its enormous popularity I wanted to avoid the busloads of tourists and waited for Friday late afternoon to pay a visit to this impressive museum. First, I explored the city. Actually just walking around is a pleasure in Saint Petersburg since the architecture is very attractive regardless of where you are in the city. Therefore I walked to some interesting sights, spread out over the center, killing two birds with one stone.

I had already noticed that churches are very popular in Russia during my stay in Moscow and Irkutsk and Saint Petersburg is no different in this regard. The most famous ones probably being the Church of the Savior on Blood and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Unfortunately the first one was being scaffolded which took away all the beauty. The latter was located near my apartment and was quite impressive from the outside. However, it was nothing, in terms of design, compared to the third church I visited, the Smolny Cathedral. A long walk from the center took me through several residential areas to the edge of the center all the way to the Bolsheokhtinsky bridge which crosses the Neva river. There, the remarkable Smolny Cathedral can be found…

the Smolny Cathedral is a remarkable piece of architecture

The church has been designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian baroque architect who also redesigned the Winter Palace (the official residence of the Russian monarchs) and many other major landmarks of the city. The cathedral was part of a complex planned by Elizabeth (Peter the Great’s daughter) to include a nunnery and a new school for girls and construction of the cathedral began in 1748. Elizabeth’s death in 1762 prevented Rastrelli from completing his grand design and her successor, Catherine II, strongly disapproved of the baroque style. As a result funding for the construction ran out and the building was only finished in 1835 with the addition of a neo-classical interior to suit the changed architectural demands at the time. Currently the interior is being renovated, but the exterior design alone was definitely worth the walk!

Walking around the center for a few hours stimulated my appetite for sure. This ain’t a problem in Saint Petersburg since the city is full of very nice restaurants. During my stay I enjoyed Indian, Korean, Thai and Mexican food (Russian food is clearly not at the top of my list…) and all were delicious and to top it off, the value for money was superb. In particular the restaurants Tandoor and MakkoLi offered fantastic food. Tandoor is a bit more pricey but offers class at the same time. The Bengali fish curry they served me tickled the senses and made me wanting to travel to Calcutta immediately. Well, I have to wait a bit but who knows…

not only the snow is deep in Russia @ Admiralteyskaya station in Saint Petersburg

OK, back to Russia and Saint Petersburg in particular. As I mentioned earlier, by far the most famous attraction of the city is the Hermitage. Friday afternoon I left my apartment around 3:30 pm and 15 minutes later I had bought my ticket, left my jacket in the cloakroom and entered the museum. Not bad at all!

I opened the museum plan (a map describing the different areas of the museum) and found out there are three floors. The ground floor exhibits mainly antiquities from Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Greece, the Roman Empire and more. On the first floor you can find paintings from mostly European and Russian artists while the second floor hosts all kinds of antiquities and art from the Middle – and Far East. This enormous collection of art is housed in the Winter Palace, a stunning classic Russian complex containing 1500 rooms which served as an imperial residence back in the days. If you want, you can spend days if not weeks and still have plenty of things left to be discovered. I spent about three hours in there since my attention span is somewhat limited…

a fine example of a ceiling painting in the Winter Palace

After a while it became clear to me, the Hermitage is truly overwhelming. The museum is so big that I easily got lost. I wasn’t particularly interested in the antiquities but the abundance of paintings pleased me very much. The architecture of the Winter Palace is another appealing feat of this place. The classic design with its many ornaments and chandeliers is simply breathtaking. The layout of the Hermitage is almost like a maze with all the galleries but all in all it was pleasant to wander through and admire all the art. Of course, I couldn’t ignore the ‘Dutch gallery’ with many paintings made by Rembrandt van Rijn, Ferdinand Bol, Jan van Goyen, Bartholomeus van der Helst and Melchior de Hondecoeter, just to name a few. The collection of Dutch paintings in the Hermitage is impressive which isn’t that strange because Peter the Great was among the earliest collectors of Dutch Masters. For a moment I felt at home…

Other galleries I paid close attention to were the ones from Flemish -, French -, Italian – and, of course, Russian artists. The differences in the various paintings with many styles and techniques were fascinating, even though I am just your average layman. After seeing hundreds of paintings and many, many more Chinese tourists, I couldn’t absorb any more information and time had come to leave the museum. The remaining time of my trip to Russia was used to reflect on the trip, relax and enjoy Saint Petersburg.

one of the many art galleries in the Hermitage, here on the right you can get a glimpse of a painting made by Dutch artist Melchior de Hondecoeter who loved to paint ducks and other poultry

Time for the summary of the trip. Overall, my time in Russia has been fascinating. The country, no matter what you think of it, really speaks to the imagination. Ever since being a little child this enormous country with its famous leaders, space program, extreme climate and tough language has nurtured my curiosity. As a result moving around in this country feels quite special. As always, not everything was great. Many Russian people seem to be rather tough, at least at first. Don’t expect check-in at airports or trains to go very friendly, to put it mildly, and waiters in many restaurants don’t seem to work for a tip, if you catch my drift. Communication is a challenge in general, and is even more complicated in Russia due to fact that the vast majority of people do not speak a word of English and the Cyrillic alphabet is abacadabra to me. Of course, I’m the visitor so I can only blame myself here for not speaking any Russian but the fact is that interaction between locals and tourists in Russia is a tough one.

Luckily there is also a huge list of positives from this trip. First of all, the three cities I have visited were all very interesting but also completely different at the same time. In Moscow I observed daily life and truly enjoyed the amazing metro system with its spectacular stations. Beautiful buildings are absolutely present but a bit more hidden than, for example, in Saint Petersburg. In the latter city, the architecture is overwhelming in general. In fact, it’s quite a challenge to find something unpleasant for the eyes (unless you travel far away from the center where you can find poverty and terribly maintained buildings). The Hermitage alone is worth a visit to this city but the many churches and nice restaurants should not be left out of any itinerary. As a tourist, one doesn’t rely on the metro system as much as in the capital since the majority of the sights can be covered by foot. The underground stations are really beautiful as well in the second-largest city of the country but can’t beat the ones in Moscow in my opinion. Nevertheless it remains exciting to go down 80 meters on the escalator in order to take a ride!

Irkutsk offered a completely different, but not less exciting, experience. You clearly enter a different world compared to the popular cities in the western part of Russia. Wooden houses, low temperatures in winter and a more general authentic feel can best be used to describe this Siberian city. When you put in some effort and look around carefully, you can definitely find surprisingly nice restaurants and bars here. An advantage of traveling here in November is that the city is not overloaded with tourists, something I always enjoy and that adds to the authentic feel. I really enjoyed spending some time here and actually would have liked to spend some more…

Then, of course, there was the skiing. Before the trip I was a bit skeptical to be honest. Photos of powder skiing in November couldn’t really convince me and I was afraid to find horrible conditions. My fear was strengthened during the train ride where the amounts of snow were extremely limited, even in Siberia. But, nothing could be further from the truth. The snow in Mamay turned out to be great. Yes, there was less of the white gold compared to previous years, but I skied powder every single run and the last day I experienced the deepest snow ever. Even Konstantin had never seen such a big snowfall in Mamay and he has been skiing there for years. In addition to the great skiing, nice food with lovely desserts were served every day in the cozy hut.

So, I hope to return to this fascinating country one day and discover more places to ski. In case I do, train journeys will probably be avoided or my bag has to be full of sleeping pills!

Click here to see more pictures from my trip to Russia!

5 Responses

  1. Fleur de Beer


    Ben helemaal stil van je verhaal, zo waanzinnig. EN dan al je foto’s.. poeder happen! Wat een feest, wat een beleving, wat een avontuur!
    K WIL DIT OOK,….
    Wat een mega gave reis,.. zo! En hoe jij dit allemaal op papier zet, woow super leuk om te lezen.
    En sommige stukken zo herkenbaar.
    Zoals: Now the ski trip was finished, I still had two nights in Irkutsk, to recover and check out the city. When staying in a hut for several days, I always look forward to go back to civilization for a nice hot shower and comfort. But, once I’m back in the city for about 10 minutes, I want to return to the mountains as soon as possible. I guess this has something to do with the grass that’s greener on the other side…

    Paul hoop je snel weer te spreken over allemaal gave ski tripjes en data science.
    Ik ga de week voor het future proof event naar Macedonië, dus dan kunnen we die maandag even bijkletsen.
    Nu al zin in.

    Ik denk dat ik je stukje nog een keer ga lezen… 😉

  2. Olga

    “Man in train” is amazing..) ho-ho-ho)) it was really interesting to read about our country! Hope you will be back soon)

  3. Jesper Rasmussen

    The trip would definitely have been better with me dammit
    So sad that I wasn’t able to join you on this adventure Paul.
    Your blog takes me there with you though. As always, very well written and funny.
    So glad you got some of that famous siberian powder.
    1 meter of snow! I will have to visit Konstatin at one point!
    And now I am suddently not jealous of your train trip.I agree with Olga. funniest pictures ever of the snoring twins.

    All the best from Copenhagen!
    Hope to see you soon

  4. Cyril

    Looks fantastic. we are in the process of planning our own trip to siberia and are now interested in how you found your incredibly looking accomodation in the mamay valley‘
    cheers cyril

    • Paul

      Hi Cyril,

      Thanks for your comments! I booked the ski trip (start and finish in Irkutsk) with Smart Mountains (, a company run by lead guide Konstantin Bartosh. Highly recommended, nice accommodation (I believe they have actually put real beds in there by now), good, knowledgeable and very friendly guide and great food. I think you could arrange accommodation yourself if you ask around in Irkutsk or if you have a Russian contact. There aren’t too many huts though and the place was getting more and more popular. Good luck and enjoy the trip!

      Cheers, Paul

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