The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Kyoto Nights

I spent a week in Japan in 2011. As I was told at the time, it wasn’t long enough. It’s also the only time that I’ve spent in Japan to date, despite my desire and plans to return (blame an eclipse for that). In my defence, I was planning the trip on the run, aware that I was eventually going to run into funding and timing issues. So I figured that spending a week crossing the centre of Japan from west to east would do for a taster.

It wasn’t enough, as the desire to return should make clear. But it was an experience that was endlessly entrancing. For the seven days that I was there, the moments of rest that I had saw me soaking in a culture entirely unfamiliar to me, and the time I spent wandering until my feet ached felt as refreshing as a soak in a deep Japanese bath.

A birthday view of sunrise over Japan.

The Japan section of the trip was dreamlike from the start. I woke up on my birthday and, along with those of the travelling group still on board ship, went up above decks to watch the sunrise. As presents go, the perfect sunrise over the Land of the Rising Sun was a close to perfect as you could ask for. I felt frazzled and exhausted after about a month of travelling, but from that moment I hit a groove that would last most of the rest of the trip.

Landfall was accomplished at Sakaiminato, a small port town set amid gorgeous forests hills, and farewells were said by the few of us who’d shared the past few days on board. As with much of my travels of the previous few weeks, my communication abilities were restricted to saying thank you and please, but that proved enough (along with my multiple ticket and booking printouts) to get me on a train through landscape of fairytale beauty, until I got arrived at a Shinkansen station to take me the rest of the way.

The view from the slow train from Sakaiminato.

There was a bit of a hiccup with regard to ticket prices (my Japan rail card didn’t cover the fastest versions of the Shinkansen bullet trains) but that was quickly smoothed over and I was set on my way at speeds that sent my dodgy camera equipment into a tailspin. Everything looked slanted in the pictures, and while the ride was perfectly smooth, I felt like I ought to be leaning into the speed.

Time dilation effects aside, I’d arrived in Sakaiminato early in the morning, and it was no later than lunchtime when I got off the Shinkansen in Kyoto. The gaps in my forward planning got the better of me again, as the hotel I’d planned to stay in was booked up, but a helpful tourist advice staffer set me up in a nearby ryokan, just south of Kyoto’s city centre and just across the river from the temple district.

Ryokan living. Not pictured—the deep soaking bath in the next room, which I grew to love.

As an introduction to traditional(ish) Japanese hostelry, this turned out better than I could have hoped. Drop the shoes at the door, shuffle into a pair of slippers, shower yourself clean and soak in the deep bath for an hour or so, then sit on the tatami mat in your kimono and watch sumo. That works, doesn’t it?

Once settled, I went a-wandering, getting my first look at the hillside full of temples that sits to the east of the city, as well as the Tokyo-lite neon wonderland of the city centre. If there’s a reason to recommend Kyoto over the other cities I visited, it’s this: you get both sides of Japan living cheek by jowl. There are temples and palaces aplenty, but the city stays alive deep into the night, with pockets of fun to be found if you’re willing to look.

First meal in Japan: herring noodles and my namesake beer.

This hungry traveller fed himself at a Lonely Planet-recommended traditional restaurant that was mostly empty when I ventured in. For the first night at least, I was very much out-of-sync with local sleep-wake scheduling. Fed and beered, I wandered a little more, but my steps spiralled in on my ryokan, where my futon bed and tatami mats awaited me, to be followed by a brief period of unconsciousness, and then followed by an even more welcome breakfast of thick-cut toast and orange juice.

If Kyoto and Japan had been welcoming to the confused traveller the day before, they were now about to entrance me completely. I set out to wander the temples of the city and the hillsides that they sat on, and I proceeded to do so for until sunset caught me with aching feet, far from home. I experienced temples, palaces, and spider webs stretched across entire paths. Bamboo groves and overgrown canals. I got a haircut despite the language barrier, and I sampled many different flavours of ice cream. I fell entirely under Kyoto’s spell, as I suspect many have before me.

The Kinkaku-Ji golden temple, where my day of wandering came to an end.

While my body was refreshed by a soak in the bath on returning to the ryokan, my mind was still fizzing with new experiences, and I ventured out again for a beer in one of the pubs I’d spotted during my earlier explorations. This kicked off several more hours of adventures, as I fell in with a Tokyo-based musician from Louisiana and his local friend, who brought me to a tiny rock bar, around a quarter of the volume of which was taken up with speakers, which proceeded to play Irish music for the rest of the evening as soon as they learned where I was from.

The next day wasn’t quite so Kyoto based. I headed south on a slow train to Uji, site of the Tale of Genji museum. Based around a classic of Japanese literature, this was perfect for a day trip and a dive into the history of Japan, which I’d mostly neglected in favour of immediate experience while in Kyoto. Again, I enjoyed simply roaming this place on the fringes of the greater Kyoto urban area, getting a feel for Japan (and a taste for yet more flavours of ice cream).

Green Tea ice cream. Well worth giving a go.

I couldn’t stay too long though. I’d stuffed my bags into a locker at the train station, for I had plans to continue further south along the line, this time to another ancient capital of Japan, Nara. But that can wait until the next post.

My introduction to Japan had been dreamlike and unceasing, and in Nara I would get a chance to slow the pace a bit and adjust properly. But I had no complaints about my few days in Kyoto. The people had been wonderful, the culture a constant delight, the food and drink next to perfect, and every step brought me something new. I’d already made my first plans to return, and I mean to stick to them.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Eastern Shores

In European myth and storytelling, the western ocean is romanticised. Whether it’s Atlantis or Tir na nOg, or Tolkien’s Valinor, there’s a feeling of something of worth to be attained in the uttermost west. A few years before the Grand Tour, I’d visited California for a wedding and watched the sun set over the Pacific from the San Diego waterfront. For me, that moment was my furthest west. It could hardly be a surprise that my exploration reoriented itself afterwards.

When the time came to plan the Grand Tour, I had a choice. Take the Trans-Mongolian into China, like most travellers do, or take the traditional route past China to Russia’s eastern entrepôt, Vladivostok. Deciding that China was best kept for a more focused trip (because there would always be time, wouldn’t there?) and that I could hardly resist the opportunity to travel to Vladivostok when it presented itself, I went for the latter option.

All Siberia, all of the time.

First though, there was the small matter of actually getting to Vladivostok. My journey across Russia from Moscow to Irkutsk had been just the first half of my Trans-Siberian experience, and now I had four days from Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok to look forward to. For company on the train, I was sharing my cabin with two Russian women and one of their sons. Luckily for the sake of my fast-atrophying social glands, they had a smattering of English and a willingness to teach the strange Irishman some Russian card games.

So that was how the next four days went. Getting taught card games, questioned about what I was doing in Russia, and interrogated about why I, a man in my mid-30s, wasn’t yet married with kids. Staring out of the window at landscapes to which dissidents had been exiled in all-too-recent times, and roaming the carriages of the train and feeling like that ghost of the iron rails again. (Approach the restaurant with as much caution as the bathroom facilities on these trains.)

On a four day trip, what else are you going to look at?

Even more so than the first half of the Trans-Siberian journey, this part felt like a venture into unknown spaces. Russian East Asia backs onto the furthest edges of the Russian realm, reaching all the way to the Bering and Arctic Seas. The first signs of oncoming winter were visible in patches, but I was surfing the line of its arrival and passed north of China and on towards Vladivostok before any great change came over the land.

So to the eastern city then. The Trans-Siberian reached its terminus in the early morning of September 19th (I think. The dodgy clocks on my phone and camera and the effects of time zone shifting make timing awkward.) and I said my farewells to my fellow travellers in the darkness of the train platform. I was wildly early to check in at my hotel, so once again I hefted my bags and found a coffee shop to lurk in until dawn.

Vladivostok Rail Station in the early hours.

The exploring itch was hard to ignore, but first I needed to shuck my burden. When I could, I headed for the hotel and once again ran into a wall of Russian bureaucracy and had to explain that, yes, everything had been booked long ago. Eventually alternating between sitting around waiting and standing at the desk pointing at my printouts proved an effective strategy and I was accepted as a guest. While I couldn’t set up in my room, I could at least leave my bags behind and go a-roaming.

I had three days, more or less, in the city. I won’t take you through every step of the way, but it was a dreamlike experience to be so far from home and surrounded by so much that was familiar and so much that was a reminder of that distance. Like San Francisco, Vladivostok is a port city, built on hills by the sea, and like San Diego it’s also a naval base, with a massive Russian navy presence.

A bridge, unfinished, yesterday. Well, ten years ago, actually.

The massive bulk of the half-completed Zolotoy Bridge became my constant companion, looming over the city as it stretched across the Golden Horn Bay. (Another familiar name from a previous trip.) I climbed the hills to watch the sun go down and rise, I ate dinner in a rooftop restaurant for Russia’s rich, and I roamed around the crumbling wharves where fishermen waited patiently at their rods.

Like Ulanbaatar, Vladivostok’s pavements veered between pristine and piecemeal, depending on where in the city you ventured, and I had to watch my step. Still, I spent happy hours crossing the city while listening to the Kermode and Mayo podcast, peering into tiny tanks in a hidden garden and taking a tour through a beached submarine where I somehow managed to avoid banging my head off the low-hanging ironmongery.

Have a submarine, streamlined for your pleasure.

As much as I tried to connect into the city’s social life though, I didn’t manage it in Vladivostok. It’s not something I was good at, either then or now, but the city itself has a weird melting pot quality. The European side of Russia exists in full force here, as an outpost of the empire that was, but it’s layered with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and even American flavours. Vladivostok is a city well worth the visiting, but it’s not likely to offer you any easy answers.

On my last day in the city, I roamed in the morning and did a bit of shopping, picking up a proper Russian fur hat from a military surplus store (which would mostly serve as a store for my growing collection of fridge magnets over the rest of the trip). I’d located the ship that was to take me onwards the day before, and it was no great problem to get on board and find my berth.

Vladivostok’s famously well-endowed tiger.

The actual experience of being on the ship was the first time I’d been around other traveller since leaving the Australians in Vladivostok. Our sleeping quarters were bunks in shared dorms (segregated by male and female) so most of the time we just wandered the decks. Most travellers were Korean and Chinese, but there was a core of people like me, who were in Vladivostok as part of longer journeys and now set to move on.

We formed a temporary social circle, one I was very glad of, and we chilled out, chatted, and partied as the evening drew on and the sun and land both disappeared in the west. It was a release for me, awkwardness mostly forgotten as I tried to restart those social skills enough to get through the experience.

Party time on the boat.

The next day, we were due to pull in at Donghae on Korea’s eastern coast. The Eastern Princess plied a triangular route between Russia, Korea, and Japan, and this was the intermediate stop between when I got on and when I got off. Eager to add an extra country to my journey, I joined a few of the other travellers in braving Korean customs and catching a bus to the city centre. One quick trawl of the markets later, we returned to the ship laden down with fresh food, just in time to cast off.

We’d lost a few of the travellers to Korean adventures, including a couple of Austrian motor bikers, so it was a smaller group who partied that night. I even tried out the boat’s Japanese-style pool, but the dregs of a typhoon raised some heavy waves, resulting in an excess of sloshing. The bathers were ejected from the pool and returned to a ship that was still rocking and rolling.

Saying farewell to the Austrians in Korea.

I’ll leave it there for now. That was the evening of the 22nd, and it’s the evening of the 22nd now too. Russia had been left behind and Korean become another stop along the way. The Grand Tour felt like it had a momentum of its own now, and I was happy to just enjoy it, but Japan was waiting under the rising sun, and I had yet to understand just how much I was going to enjoy the next week.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Khan of Khans

My idea to turn getting laid off from work into a round-the-world trip might have seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t actually get called crazy and have my life choices questioned until I was on the train to Ulanbaatar.

To be specific, I was sharing a four-person berth on the Trans-Mongolian train from Irkutsk to Ulanbaatar, along with two Icelandic fellow travellers and a Russian tour guide. Being that they were doing the same thing as I was (as were the rowdy crowd of mostly Spanish travellers whom the tour guide was shepherding), that in itself wasn’t a problem for them. No, what bothered them was the fact that I was crossing the Russian-Mongolian border twice.

My Icelandic fellow travellers, whose contact details I sadly lost, somewhere on the Russian-Mongolian frontier.

Why was this a silly, nay crazy thing to do? Because not only does the bureaucracy of post-Soviet states result in a multi-hour, passport-less ordeal of tedium in a settlement that’s essentially a neglected border town from a forgotten era, but the fact that Russia and Mongolia use different rail gauges means that the entire train has to be taken and, carriage by carriage, lifted from one set of bogies to another (look it up). During this, all you can do is to roam around the content-deprived wasteland and hope to god that you’ve remembered to bring a decent book.

And I, knowing none of this, had volunteered to do it twice. Because my visit to Mongolia was a two-day add-on for my Trans-Siberian experience, and I would be returning to Russia when I was done. All of this only occurred to me when I was counting the minutes and seconds in an empty and little-used waiting room, and while I didn’t regret my choice, I could only hope that the company for the return trip would be as good. As it turned out…

Much of the Trans-Siberian is single rail. Have I mentioned that?

But that’s getting ahead of myself. After the sun went down and our passports were returned (and I bought a bag of “Khaan” chips to sample the local fare) we boarded the train again and slept through the night until we were dropped off at Ulanbaatar railway station. Farewells were said, though temporarily in the case of the Icelanders, who I’d run into again before leaving, and I was collected by my own personal tour guide. It turns out that travelling solo on an eclectic schedule in the off-season gets you a little bit of attention.

Cue a drive in a sensibly priced, medium-sized sedan out of the city and past the outlying tent suburbs, into the first taste of the Mongolian steppe. From here, world-conquering armies once arose. Somewhere in the vicinity anyway, even if the sole remaining sign of them was the Chinggis Khan Country Club golf course. What I was being brought to was a tourist tent camp for that authentic, ersatz Mongolian experience.

Your author at his rest beside the wood-burning stove in a Mongolian ger.

Try not to judge me too harshly. I’d booked the entire trip quickly and was relying on Trailfinders to get me from A (St. Petersburg) to B (Vladivostok) with a stop in C (Ulanbaatar) along the way. They did a good job, and while I might do things differently now, I was excited then and remain excited now to actually have been in Mongolia.

My tour guide did her absolute best to guide the clueless, oversized Irishman around a range of traditional Mongolian activities. A little bit of archery, some pony trekking on a steed who was far more in control than I was, and a bit of clambering over the famous Turtle Rock. Even getting dressed in traditional garb and sampling some traditional tea and curds. My first and only night in the tent camp ended with some knuckle bones in the company of some Norwegian tourists who were the only others in the mostly deserted resort that night.

Mongolian knucklebones with genuine Mongolian sheep knuckles.

The highlight of my stay though, and indeed one of the highlights of the trip, came the next morning. Looming over the camp was a decent sized rocky hill, and I decided I wanted to greet the dawn from its summit. The night before had been one of the most startlingly clear I’d ever known, with a blazing full moon, and I scrambled up the slope in the pre-dawn, dodging marmot burrows and their ankle-threatening depths in time to see that same moon descending towards the horizon, even as the sun rose on the other side of the sky.

Not to descend too far into a mysticism I don’t pretend to indulge in, but as I sat there on the hill, I could see a lone rider cutting a path across the heart of a broad valley. I could feel for a moment distant from the modernity that had brought me here. And I could feel, for a moment, a strange kind of balance in the world, with me sitting at the fulcrum point. No wonder the heart of Asia has given rise to so many empires when it inspires such thoughts.

Golden Eagle and Black Vulture by the roadside.

I had a few hours more in the camp, but before too long breakfast was done and I was on my way into the capital once more. We paused for a moment or two to say hi to a kid with a few hunting birds perched on roadside stakes, but before too long I’d been dropped off at my hotel for the second half of my Mongolian visit.

The important thing to know about Ulanbaatar is that it has layers. The age of the Mongol Empire may be restricted to the museum and celebratory statues in the public square, but there are the famous dinosaurs of the Gobi Desert there too, as well as Buddhist temples and palaces from the days of the Bogd Khan, the last independent ruler before communism. Then too there are Soviet era trains rusting in a neglected railway museum, and tall glass skyscrapers overshadowing tiny shrines.

Skyscraper and shrine, living together in harmony.

It’s a fascinating city that was in the throes of rapid change when I visited, and I felt more comfortable roaming it than any city I had since Stockholm. Even if the occasional absence of pavements to walk on was a problem, I still managed to fill every hour going and wear down my shoes a little more. What Mongolian cuisine there was on offer, I sampled, but it was mostly my eyes and ears drinking things in.

Looking back, it feels like it was in Ulanbaatar where I finally clicked into travel mode properly. The initial concerns of dealing with Russian bureaucracy in St. Petersburg and Moscow faded away, and I was able to just enjoy new experiences. As with Japan later, I regretted not having more time to spend in Mongolia, but I didn’t regret a single second of the time I did spend there.

A four-person berth on the Trans-Mongolian.

Eventually the time did run out, and I had to get to the train station. For the return trip across the border, I didn’t have any fellow tourists to travel with. Instead, I was bunking with a few members of the Mongolian security forces, travelling to Russia for training. They didn’t have more than a word or two of English, so there wasn’t much conversation, and after sleeping and living through the return trip across the border (this time without any distractions at all, so I got plenty of writing done, I got into Ulan Ude towards the end of the day.

Ulan Ude sits on the eastern side of Lake Baikal. If Irkutsk is where European Russia meets its ultimate limit, then Ulan Ude is where Asian Russia truly begins. The city felt more Mongolian than Russian, even with its famously massive head of Lenin dominating the town square. I was lucky enough to be hosted by the family of a famous writer for my one night there, but roaming the city while waiting for my train onwards only emphasised the feeling of being in a truly distant land that I felt.

A really big head of Lenin. Really big.

So distant from home was Ulan Ude that the local Irish pub (for there is always an Irish pub, no matter where you go) is known only as “The Irish Pub.” No other identifier would be useful. The local museums and art galleries are well worth roaming, but even more worthwhile is just taking the time to admire the traditional wooden architecture that remains in the post-Soviet era. Much of it might be decaying, but it’s a taste of the Siberia that was, before the Russia swallowed but never digested it.

For it was Siberia that awaited me now. This last part of my train trip would take me across four days of Siberian wilderness, around the northward spreading bulk of China and from there to Vladivostok. From the very heart of Asia, the Pacific was calling, and the iron rails were ready to take me there.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—The Lake in the Middle of the World

Four days on the train. Four days when nothing much changes except the world around you. A constant stream of changes, gently but insistently carrying you into a new world. Punctuated only by the occasional train station, offering you a chance to test your Cyrillic comprehension and sometimes even a chance to stretch your legs further than the length of a railroad car.

If I had my time again, I would probably arrange a few more stops along the way. The cities of Russia slipped by and looking back at the photos I took then, I can’t recognise any of them. Storied Novgorod was on the other Trans Siberian line, and while Omsk was on mine, it was just a brief stop among many, where people more sensible than I disembarked.

Omsk railway station, glimpsed only briefly.

There isn’t another rail line like the Trans Siberian. Or rather there is, but it’s the Trans-Siberian’s sister line, the Trans Mongolian, which runs from Moscow to Beijing instead of Vladivostok. This first stage of my journey was the part of the line shared between the two, a four day run from Moscow to Irkutsk. There’s a northern and a southern branch for part of it, but I can’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.

For those travelling long-distance on the Trans Siberian, most of whom are Russian, not tourists, it can be a hypnotic experience. The rhythm of life on the rails infuses everything, from the moment-to-moment rattle of the rails themselves, to the sunrise and sunset schedule of sleep, to the gradual shifting of the immense landscape of Russia, carrying you imperceptibly from fields to mountains to plains that all seem to stretch on forever.

One of many water (signal?) towers on the Trans-Siberian railway.

For four days I shared a four-person cabin with a rotating cast of Russians. Or rather myself and an elderly Russian couple shared the cabin with multiple guest stars. I did my best to communicate when I wasn’t scribbling in my notebook or staring at the landscape as it passed by, but I wasn’t wholly successful. The one fact I did manage to convince them of was that strange Irish tourists couldn’t feed themselves. I’ve no idea how my diet of snack bars, bottled water, and black tea from the carriage samovar could have given them that idea, but they pressed a share of their own food on me whenever they thought I looked hungry.

It was probably standard Catholic guilt over not being able to repay this kindness, along with a breed of recklessness that comes from being train-bound for four days, that led me to supplement my diet with a strange meat and pastry combination from a vendor’s stall on one of the platforms the train stopped at. For the standard Trans-Siberian traveller with guts of iron, this would be a straightforward choice. For me it was to cause significant gastro-intestinal distress over the next few days.

The Trans Siberian is a living experience, a long way from here-to-there travel.

Eventually though, Irkutsk approached. I said my farewells to my long-time companions when they disembarked a few stops before the city. For myself, I lasted around an hour longer before being deposited on the platform of Irkutsk’s main station. I had no time to look around though, as everything had been booked and arranged months before. Myself and a few other travellers were bundled into a jeep and driven along the short and well-paved road to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal.

If the Trans Siberian can feel like it crosses half the world, then Baikal feels like the lake at the centre of the world. In the very heart of Asia, there’s much about it that could be dropped into a fantasy novel and not feel out of place. Unfathomably deep, its waters are cold and clear and freeze thick with ice when winter comes. It has its own species of seal and sturgeon, and while I saw neither, I saw sunset over the lake from Listvyanka and didn’t feel robbed.

Sunset over Lake Baikal, as seen from Listvyanka.

Listvyanka as a resort is very popular with Russia’s well-to-do set, but I’d arrived in the off season, so myself and a small group of Australians heading in the other direction on the Trans-Siberian felt like we had the place more or less to ourselves. Despite the ongoing trauma of my culinary adventures the previous day, I felt a deep peace while we were there, whether lazing in our chalet or roaming the shores of the lake itself.

No pause lasts forever, and no moment of ease can be luxuriated in too much, especially when the call of travel continues. But I did have one thing that I wanted to do before I left. On my last afternoon in Listvyanka, I donned my swimming trunks (mostly unused on the trip other than this) and baptised myself in the waters at the centre of the world. It was as cold and refreshing as I’d hoped and worth the trip thus far, even if the Russians on the shore were undoubtedly wondering who the crazy pale person was.

The author post-Baikal dip. Cold but very pleased with himself.

That was it as far as the blue skies and deep waters of Baikal went though. The next morning, the jeep returned to bring me back to Irkutsk, so I said my farewells to the Australians and boarded. My train wasn’t setting off until late in the evening, and the Irkutsk station was pretty unfriendly when it came to people hanging around in the lobby, so I had a day to myself to explore the city.

If St. Petersburg is an imperial city, and Moscow is the seat of power, then Irkutsk is an outpost. From this city, the vast Siberian wilderness had been explored and, if not tamed, at least brought within the compass of the Russian state. Here, the European soul of Russia reached its limits and came to a compromise with its greater Asian self. The museum of Siberian exploration is a must visit for anyone roaming Irkutsk, but there’s just as much to be seen across the city itself.

A photo of Russian explorers, as seen in the museum.

I wandered the shores of the massive Angara River and watched a judo exhibition in the sunlight (Putin was a fan, apparently). I saw another of those fairytale Russian weddings take place under blue skies, with a gilded crystal carriage straight out of Cinderella. I saw Russian Imperial architecture clash and meld with frontier Siberian wooden shacks. I saw statues and fountains of modern Russia sit incongruously amid it all. But at length I saw the sun go down and returned to the train station to wait.

For I was continuing not onwards but southwards. For the next few days at least, I was abandoning the Trans Siberian for the Trans Mongolian. A border crossing or two awaited me, and a nation of people feted across history as conquerors. It was Genghis I was going in search of, and as I settled into a new cabin, with two Icelandic travellers and a Russian tour guide for company, I had an inkling that the best was yet to come.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Heart of Empire

Not for the last time on this or other trips, my fondness for overnight train journeys dropped me off in an unfamiliar city somewhere around dawn, when only fools and insomniacs are up and walking around. I’ve rarely had much problem sleeping since I was a teenager, so I must have fallen into the former category.

My fuzzy-headed recollection of that first morning in Moscow has a few clear spots. A somewhat unfriendly cafe where I found some breakfast, the westernised precincts of the GUM shopping centre, and Red Square right next to it, with its unapologetically Russian architecture, the tomb of Lenin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I was way too early to even think about checking into my hotel, so I found a nearby museum to wander around for a few hours, and more importantly to drop my rucksack into the left luggage room.

Moscow’s State Historical Museum, good for red bricks and the occasional pointy tower.

That first day was a jumble of impressions. High points included that initial period of roaming around Red Square and seeing the local sights, as well as finding a full-size prototype of the Soviet “Buran” space shuttle in Gorky Park. The main low point was making my way to the outskirts of the city to the Ismailovo Beta hotel and spending an hour or two persuading staff of my existence and subsequently the existence of my room reservation. (Not the last time I’d face this problem in Russia.)

The hotel itself was an anonymous block, and I didn’t even notice the casino on the ground floor until I checked my photos. But I had a great view of the local forested park, and I was only a short walk from the Partizanskaya metro station (the main reason I’d ended up in this location). So on my ventures to and from the city in the next couple of days, I would at least have the pleasure of inspecting Soviet subway architecture.

Soviet subway stations are heavy on the revolutionary sculpture and statuary.

Day One continued as it had started, with a lot of walking. There was sunshine aplenty, so that worked out well enough, and I did my best to get a feel for a city that seemed more reluctant to open up than most I’ve come across before or since. The Moskva River was my main point of navigation, with its frankly surreal statue of Peter the Great aboard a ship much too small for him and the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, far larger but much less attractive than St. Basils.

If Day One was wandering, Day Two began in a more structured way. Structured around museums, admittedly, but the Kremlin has its fair share of those. Amid intermittent showers, I visited the Tsar Bomba cannon and Tsar Kolokol III bell, both the largest of their kind. I wandered past stacks of cannons, perhaps retrieved from Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, and watched stern-faced Kremlin guards remain impassive in the face of local cats taking shelter between their feet.

A mammoth exhibit. Some ice-age tusks retrieved from the permafrost.

Mostly though, I appreciated the chance to get to know Russia better. St. Petersburg had been a decent introduction, but Moscow was a tougher nut to crack, and I had weeks left before I left Russia behind for good. Roaming through Russia’s history, military and otherwise, under the watchful eyes of Russian grandmothers serving as security, helped. But simply roaming the city helped even more, and the latter half of the day saw me make my way through Moscow until sunset and beyond.

By the time the day was over, I had a decent feeling for the physical layout of the city, but the spirit of it was something that I never quite figured out. I never did get to feel comfortable in Moscow, probably not helped by the fact that I can’t recall a single conversation I had while I was there. Even at a distance of ten years, that lack of recall speaks of a failure on my part. Fortunately, I had a lot of Russia left to experience.

Dancing fountains in the Moscow sunset.

The last vestiges of my time in Moscow faded into a kind of strangeness. I walked uneasy through the darkness, coming across a statue of Frederick Engels and a museum exhibit of colourful Lego. I woke the next morning and said my farewells to the Ismailovo Beta hotel, only to come across a woman on the subway who was using an Irish Dunnes Stores carrier bag. I made my way to the train station to catch my Trans-Siberian connection, only to find myself fascinated by the number of cigarette stubs tossed between the platform and the train.

Perhaps I just felt odd because I was doing something I’d thought of doing for years. Something that was the centre and the entire point of this trip. My Trans-Siberian voyage would have some breaks but the first section would be a full four days. Far more than the overnight train journeys that had been my previous limit. Even with my chunky guidebook, I had little notion of what to expect and Moscow had not been helpful in guiding me.

Cigarette butts discarded on the Trans-Siberian train platform.

So now I’m more or less caught up with my ten-years-ago journey. Still a couple of days behind (I left Moscow on September 4th), but that’s covered by that first four-day stretch. I’ll resume in a few days with some reminiscences about my time in Irkutsk and Lake Baykal and just how that first few days on the Trans Siberian felt.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Tsar is Born

I like walking. Despite my increasingly decrepit feet and knees, that hasn’t changed and isn’t likely to. I still believe that the best way of getting to know a city is to get out and walk down its streets, be they grand central thoroughfares or narrow alleys in the old quarter.

That said, I’m still not sure whether my decision to walk from the St. Petersburg ferry port to my hotel by the Neva River was driven by a desire to get to know Russia’s former imperial capital as soon as possible or a desire to avoid having to expose my utter lack of Russian to the unforgiving eye of bus or taxi drivers.

(Who am I kidding? It was the latter.)

My first sight of Russia: a fine piece of Soviet concrete brutalism.

This is something of a habit on my travels, I’ve found. I won’t avoid human interaction, but I generally won’t seek it out either, and my favourite activity in any city is just to roam on my own until my feet start complaining. I do my research and generally have an idea of where I’m going, but it’s the moments in between and the serendipitous discoveries that tend to provide the most memorable moments.

Ten years ago, lacking any form of mobile internet access as I roamed, all I took with me was a shoulder bag containing some ID, a camera, and a heavily annotated guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway (still several days in my future). My travels up to this point had been entirely Western European (Tallinn was too brief to count), but St. Petersburg was my first encounter with the world’s largest country. It proved to be an oddly familiar experience.

Not familiar: a hydrofoil on the Neva River (with bonus Cyrillic signage).

St. Petersburg is, as noted, a former imperial city. It was built expressly as such, in fact, by Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great and his successors, and it has a scale and opulence to match. However, it’s also of a specific era. Dublin, where I’d been living for close to half my life when I visited St. Petersburg, is of a similar age, but whereas Dublin was an outpost of empire, St. Petersburg was an imperial capital with a scale to match. Buildings were taller, streets wider, and decorations more ornate. I lost track of the number of times I was fooled by the similarities between the cities into thinking I had a shorter distance to walk than I actually did.

Roaming St. Petersburg was a pleasure, due mostly to its combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. Much of the architecture took its design cues from Western Europe, reflecting the need of the Tsars to not only be a part of, but also outdo that world. At the same time, the presence of Russia bled through in everything. From the scale of the streets and buildings, to the genuinely Russian architecture of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination.

Old school (old church?) Russian architecture.

There’s almost too much to recount about St. Petersburg, and any attempt to do so would turn this post into a list of “I went there, I did that.” The Winter Palace museum has an Indiana Jones feel, with locked-off cellars full of artefacts, and the streets around are crammed with streetside stalls selling babushka nesting dolls of every celebrity you’ve ever heard of. I came across rows of stretch limousines and fairytale Russian weddings, and I watched an untranslated movie in a cinema converted from a baroque opera house.

For the three days I was there, there was far too much to take in. Roaming and venturing into one of the many museums or churches, and taking a canal boat tour around the city (the Venice of the north, if Copenhagen can be ignored) was the best I could do. The one big planned venture I had was on one of the aforementioned hydrofoils, out along the waterfront to the Peterhof. There, gilded statues and carefully tended gardens were signifiers of a lost era, of lavish excess and imperial disdain. For the many tourists and locals enjoying the sights, it was just a nice day out.

Grottoes, fountains, gold, and porphyry. The display is the point.

I admit I was probably overwhelmed. There was never a point during my period in St. Petersburg when I was lost for something to do. Even venturing out from my “B&B” in a massive old apartment building (where I had early encounters with Russian bureaucracy) for dinner of pelmeni Russian dumplings was an appreciated delight. But my itinerary was carefully laid out and especially in Russia didn’t admit of any deviation.

So I enjoyed my final day with all of its attendant distractions, and made my way at last to Moscow Railway Station at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Not as grand as many stations I’d come to know, and not yet the Trans-Siberian (that left from Moscow itself) but a start to my Russian odyssey. With St. Petersburg I began the process of leaving Europe behind. There would be a long way to go before I saw the last of it.