My Soviet Sojourn: What I Don’t Want to Miss

Smolny Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

My Big Adventure (or perhaps, more appropriately, my “Soviet Sojourn”) has been two years in the making.  Along the way, I developed a mental list of the experiences that I absolutely had to include along the way.  I meant to post this prior to my departure but, well, life got in the way.  So, better late than never, here are the experiences I do not want to miss as I travel through the former Soviet Union over the next year:

1.  Volunteer in at least 3 different countries. From the beginning, I envisioned this trip being more than just months and months of sightseeing. As cheesy as it sounds, I hoped to use my background in law, fundraising, event planning, volunteer management, social media and tutoring English to connect with, and make a difference in, local communities along the way.  I have sought out (and am still seeking out) opportunities to do just that. If anyone has any leads with local organizations in any of the former Soviet countries, please let me know!

2.  Become fluent in Russian. After several weeks of language classes and several months of traveling through countries where Russian is either the primary or secondary language spoken, I hope I will be at least close to fluent. I have already made it a goal to not start another conversation by asking “do you speak English?”

3.  Run an international marathon. This has been on my life bucket list ever since I ran my first marathon in the fall of 2008.  I am happy to report I checked this one off when I finished the Tallinn Marathon on September 11.

4.  Visit Lake Baikal. This lake in Siberia is the world’s oldest and deepest lake. It is also supposed to be one of the clearest lakes in the world and is the most voluminous, holding 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water.

5.  Visit Yekaterinburg. My love of Russia comes in large part from its fascinating history and I have read dozens of books about the tsars and about the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1918.  Therefore, Yekaterinburg, as the site of the family’s murder, particularly intrigues me.

6.  Ride the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow. As one of the most famous train journeys in the world, the allure of riding the Trans-Siberian during my time in Russia was irresistible. In addition to the train ride itself, I am looking forward to stopping off at several towns along the way to get a feel for Russian life outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this will be completed November 9-December 4.

7.  Visit Chernobyl. In 1986, Chernobyl was the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, releasing radioactive smoke fallout into the Soviet Union and Europe. Nearly half a million people were evacuated and resettled out of the most severely contaminated areas and the disaster is to blame for thousands of deaths. Organizations in Ukraine now take visitors to the nearby town of Pripyat, which remains just as it was April 26, 1986.

8.  Visit Transdniestria. In the eyes of 99% of the world, Trandniestria does not exist as an independent country. With Russia’s backing, it effectively won its independence from Moldova in a civil war in the 1990s. I couldn’t resist adding this “16th” country to my itinerary.

9.  Take the Black Sea ferry from Odessa, Ukraine to Poti, Georgia. I just think crossing the Black Sea by boat would be really cool.

10.  Take the Caspian Sea ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Ditto for the Caspian Sea.

11.  Go hiking in the Yangykala Canyon in Turkmenistan. I think Lonely Planet explains it best when they say “Yangykala is a breathtaking sight and one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Turkmenistan. Just as alluring as the beautiful views is its solitary isolation in the desert: few Turkmen are aware of its existence.”

12.  Take a pilgrimage to the mosque of Beket-Ata in Kazakhstan.  Multiple underground mosques can be found in the Mangistau deserts outside of Aktau in western Kazakhstan and Beket-Ata is the most famous (as famous as a place can be that 99.9% of people outside of Kazakhstan probably have never heard of). The mosque’s namesake was a Sufi healer in the 18th century and is buried nearby. Every day, pilgrims journey to the mosque and stay overnight to pray and receive inspiration. It is said to be an incredibly spiritual experience.

13.  Visit the Aral Sea. This is another one of those sad places that just draws me in.  A environmental disaster of epic proportions, I feel like I need to see it for myself to really grasp the extent of the damage that was done to the sea and surrounding area.

14.  Travel the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. Marco Polo wrote of the Pamir Mountains: “The region is so lofty and so cold that you cannot even see any birds flying.”  The Pamirs contain some of the tallest peaks in the former Soviet Union, with several reaching over 7000 meters, and the region in general has been incredibly isolated throughout history.

15.  Stay overnight in a yurt. A yurt is a portable dwelling made out of a wood frame and covered in felt, historically used by the nomadic peoples of Mongolia and Central Asia. I envision staying in a yurt as both giving great insight into the nomadic culture, but also being kind of cozy. My best bet for doing this is probably in Kyrgyzstan.

Have you traveled in the former Soviet Union? Is there anything you think I should add to this list?

19 thoughts on “My Soviet Sojourn: What I Don’t Want to Miss”

  1. Wow, Katie, what a list. Your journey is so unique – I love it! While the rest of us are shoving our faces with haute European cuisine, or treading the SE-Asian banana pancake circuit, you’re making your own path through parts of the world some have never even heard of, let alone considered visiting. Steve and I went to Georgia earlier this year so we’ve had a little taste. Absolutely loved it… keep up the adventuring!

  2. I love your list. It looks fantastic. I hope you are having a wonderful time and i just wanted to wish you all the best with achieving everything on your list. From a fellow traveller, stay safe and goodluck.

  3. Every time I read more about what you’re doing and what you’re planning on doing, I become more impressed and more excited to hear about your trip. It’s so unique and interesting!

  4. Great goal list! I’m excited to keep track of you as you travel. I have a few of those items on my “Bucket List” (Trans-Siberian Railroad, Chernobyl), and I’m especially fascinated by the Aral Sea, and would love to stay in a yurt myself.

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  6. Awesome list, Katie! I can’t wait to hear about your experiences as you check things off that list. Hope you are well, I think about you often as I sit in my cube 😉

  7. Great list Katie! Love the idea of volunteering. Check with Lauren at @NEFootSteps as she just went on a tour of Chernobyl. However, sounds like they closed those tours.

    1. Yep, I checked out Lauren’s post. Actually it sounds like it is just a temporary closure, which is still odd because the Ukrainian government had announced last winter that they planned to open up more tours to Chernobyl. But the websites of the tour operators I have looked into all indicate they expect to be able to resume tours sometime soon. I won’t be there until January or February, so hopefully they’ll resume by then!

  8. Privet Katie, kak dela?

    I am excited for you and I hope that things become easier for you along the way. Your initial challenges will only help you down the road. It has been a dream of mine to visit the former soviet republics since studying Russian in jr. high and high school for five years. I got a chance in college to visit Moscow and St Petersburg for a month. Walking into Red Square for the first time and seeing many of the things that I thought I would only read about in books was incredible. I can only imagine what you will experience!
    It will be fun to read about your journey and live vicariously through you. I cannot wait to read more. Good luck.

    1. Xorosho Matt! Cpacubo! (I really need a Russian keyboard to do that justice…)

      Thanks for reading and commenting – glad you’re enjoying living vicariously through me a bit – and I hope you’ll make it yourself sometime soon!

  9. I haven’t been there but I love your list!

    I think staying in a Yurt would be an amazing experience and defiantly on my travel bug-ket list ^_^

    Can’t wait to read about your adventures!

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