I Dream of Russia

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.

Peterhof

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.

Kamchatka Peninsula

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?).

Siberian Tiger

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.

Lake Baikal

Tuva

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?

 

Photos: jimg944, Russell Neches, Sergey Gabdurakhamov, Alex Polezhaev, Daisyree Bakker

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20 thoughts on “I Dream of Russia”

  1. I have places like this too- I dream of going, have studied them a lot but still haven’t made it there. I hope you make it to Russia, I’m sure it will exceed all the dreams you’ve had about it!

  2. I went through a phase where I was really into Russia. I studied the history a lot, the art, read a lot of Russian authors & literature. It’s still high on my list of places to get to, but I think it’s no longer at the top.

    I’ve always wanted to go to Italy but never for a short trip. I think my next trip will have to be there, and I’ll have to stay for at least a month…

    1. Wow, and here I thought I was the only person to get really into Russia! 🙂

      Hope you make it to Italy soon – I’ve been there a couple times and it’s great. After Russia, my next favorite obsession is Roman ruins so Rome was right up my alley!

  3. I’ll be the negative voice. Loved St. Pete. Really great city. The rest of the country that I saw was amazingly ugly and the people weren’t much better. I wish you the VERY best on your big journey. Hope you like it a heck of a lot more than I did. It is on the very, very short list of countries that I don’t really care if I ever go back to 🙁

    1. No worries being the negative voice – always good to get different perspectives. 🙂

      I don’t know many people who have been to Russia, but most I do know loved St. Pete and didn’t care so much for Moscow. I don’t expect great things from Moscow either(although I do have a former classmates who has lived there for years and seems to like well enough, so who knows?).

      Did you go anywhere else when you went?

    2. I can understand where you’re coming from, Michael. I found that the people were quite harsh in both Ukraine and K-stan until I got to know the language and culture a bit more. The former soviet countries just literally do not know what to do with tourists, so I think someone that’s approaching the area without the background would find it completely off-putting.

  4. I’ve never been to Russia but I do have a bit of a fascination with it. My first trip overseas was to Estonia in the mid 90s which was part of the USSR. My best friend from college spent a year in eastern Russia near China. Sacramento has one of the largest Russian populations in the United States and I encounter nearly Russians every day. Fascinating people and culture.

  5. Just to say that Tyva, where I accidentally lived for over 2 years, is not actually on the railway system – yet. I fear that the line now planned, mainly to export coal, will have the same effect as that to Tibet, more’s the pity.

    I also accidentally lived in the Republic of Kalmykia, the only Mongol, Buddhist country in Europe. It too is worth visiting as possibly the most bizarre European nation, with Europe’s largest desert, only antelopes and biggest Buddha. It has, uniquely, been historically populated by Shamanist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Marxist peoples. Weird. See for yourself.

    Happy journeys – and go with the accidentals!

    1. Thanks for the comment – yep, aware to get to Tyva I’ll have to stop off at Krasnoyarsk and probably take a bus from there. 🙂

      Where is Kalmykia? Not familiar with that area at all!

  6. Isn’t it funny how we invest so much time and energy into studying and dreaming about places we have never been? I think your Russia is my Greece. I somehow never manage to go, but I am always dreaming about it. I know I would need loads of time too to see all I want to see.

  7. Moscow, is amazing, yes a big city, but I spent about three weeks there in total and long to go back. The Metro is the most Fantastic Art Gallery that one can ever see. Stalin built to rival the West and I think he did. The people are amazing. I have some places to see. Good Luck Katie!!

    1. Thanks Ryan – will definitely be in touch when I get there to get some tips/suggestions from you!

  8. A week ago I had 10 minutes to kill before my train, so I walked into a bookshop, and as usual, made straight for the guidebook section. I ended up with a guidebook about Russia and was intrigued. With this post, I now know if I can ever afford it I’d absolutely love to head to Russia, though probably with more of a focus on the Asian side…and in Spring

    1. Definitely check out the Asian/Siberian side, but don’t miss St Petersburg! It was probably my favorite city in Russia.

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