I vividly remember searching frantically through the book stacks in my high school library, trying to find the perfect subject for a book report due just a few days later. The assignment was to write a report on a biography and I was struggling to find the perfect subject. After dismissing the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas, a book simply titled Catherine the Great caught my eye. I grabbed it off the shelf and started flipping through pages and, before I knew it, I was through the first two chapters. I didn’t realize it then, but reading that biography of Catherine the Great sparked an interest in Russia that continued to grow for over twenty years.
Everything about Russia fascinates me – its vast history covers a wide spectrum including terror and war, economic successes and failures, cultural reforms and progress, extravagant and excessive rulers, and intriguing, controversial and mysterious characters.
There’s just one problem. I haven’t actually been there yet.
Sure, I majored in Russian and East European Studies for a while in college and studied Russian language for three years. There were countless times when I looked over brochures for study abroad programs in Russia, only to talk myself out of pursuing it. And when I first started planning my post-bar exam trip, I first considered a guided tour to Russia, but others convinced me I should start my international travels to more “traditional” Western Europe instead.
Ten years and 19 countries later, Russia remains untouched – and here’s why: I don’t want to shortchange myself when I first visit such an amazing country. For me, Russia deserves more than just a two week blip out of my life. It deserves a month or 2 or 3 – or as long as the Russian authorities will let me stay!
What does my dream trip to Russia look like?
I would start with St. Petersburg. Founded and made the capital of Russia by Peter the Great, it later “became a cosmopolitan city with an imperial court of famed splendor” (in the words of Lonely Planet). My list of sites to see in St. Petersburg is so long, I likely need a few weeks there: the Hermitage, the Summer Garden, the Russian Museum of Ethnography, Sheremetyev Palace, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Yusupov Palace (including what I am sure is a cheesy Murder of Rasputin tour), the Peter & Paul Fortress, numerous churches and cathedrals and, on the outskirts of the city, the parks and palaces of Petrodvorets, Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk.
After a thorough exploration of St. Petersburg, I would head east – about as far east as one can go – to the Kamchatka Peninsula. I love the thought of exploring the Valley of the Geysers, climbing volcanoes, kayaking in the Kamachatka River and tracking reindeer herds. It would be a challenge and adventure like nothing I have ever experienced before, but that is what would make it so incredibly rewarding.
Next up would be Vladivostok, for many people simply the final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For me, Vladivostok would be the jumping off point to join one of Dalintourist’s “Tigerland” trips – a six-day excursion north to visit the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve and the Russian-American Siberian Tiger Project. It would not be cheap, but being a huge animal lover and a lifelong owner of cats, it just seems too cool to pass up (of course, it could be horribly cheesy, but I won’t know if I don’t try, right?).
Vladivostok would also mark the start of my Trans-Siberian Railway journey – one of the most epic train journeys on earth. I would make several stops along the way, stretching the trip out to last well over a month. My must-see stops along the route include:
- Ulan Ude – the capital of the Buryatiya region and home to Buddhist monasteries as well as the world’s largest Lenin head.
- Lake Baikal – the world’s deepest lake, containing a whopping one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. They are currently in the process of constructing a hiking trail encircling the lake – the Great Baikal Trail – and I would love to stop for a couple weeks to volunteer with that effort.
- Tuva – similar to Ulan Ude, Tuva (a republic, not a city) appeals to me because it is not stereotypical Russian. The Tuvan people tend to be Buddhists or follow shamanism and their culture is distinctly Mongolian. I would spend a few days there visiting a shaman, enjoying the varied scenery and checking out a throat-singing performance (something for which Tuvans are famous).
- Yekaterinburg – of greatest significance to me because it was where the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II and his family, ending the Romanov dynasty in Russia.
- Kazan – the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, Kazan is 150 years older than Moscow. In addition to exploring the city and its kremlin (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I would like to take a boat up the river to visit Sviyazhsk Island, home to a variety of churches and monasteries.
Finally, I would end up in Moscow, the capital of Russia. I suppose you could say I would be saving the best for last, but this actually appeals to me the least. Sure, I want to visit the Kremlin and see St. Basil’s Cathedral. Novodevichy Convent & Cemetery would be on my list of stops as well. But really, Moscow just seems like another big, expensive city to me when I really prefer the small towns and villages. So more than anything, I would use Moscow as a base to explore some of the towns in the “Golden Ring” – Vladimir, Suzdal, Yaroslavl, Rostov-Veliky and Sergiev-Posad.
And then I would head home. Or maybe I wouldn’t….
Have you been to Russia? What do you recommend seeing or doing? And if you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?