By Paul McDonald
“My journey across Russia was part of a long train trip that I took from Saigon in the south of Vietnam to London, via the Arctic Circle. I took the Trans-Mongolian version of the Trans-Siberian to explore this vast, wonderful country.”
“The first stop on my journey was Lake Baikal, which is part of Siberia. This is the largest freshwater lake in the world, holding around 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. Being winter (and -24 degrees) the surface is frozen solid, to the point where you can walk or even drive on it."
"I was present at the lake for the Russian Orthodox Epiphany. On that day, a big ice cross is built and a hole made in the ice beside it. The priests and the congregation parade down from their little church to the lake where the priest blesses the water in a ceremony. For that day the water is considered holy and people come from miles around to collect it. They even dunk themselves in it.”
“My next stop was Krasnoyarsk, which Russian writer, Chekhov, rightly called the most beautiful city in Siberia. It is built on the Yenisei River. Although temperatures in the area fall to -20 degrees and below, the river never freezes because of the fast-flowing current resulting from a hydro-electric dam upstream. A beautiful steaming effect seems to come from the water.”
“The highlight of my Russian trip was a day long hike in Stolby Nature Reserve. There is no better way to experience the true Siberia than to walk through snow covered and tree-lined wilderness, and up the snowy rock formations Stolby is famous for.”
“Yekaterinburg is the city sadly most famous for being the place where Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, was executed in 1918, together with his family and close servants. The major landmark in Yekaterinburg is the beautiful Church of All Saints, which is built upon the site where the excavations to exhume the bodies took place."
"The bodies of those murdered had lain in two secret burial sites in the forest on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg until the first burial site was discovered in 1979. Due to the repressive nature of the Soviet Union at that time, it was not until 1989 those who discovered the bodies brought the burial sites to public attention. Tsar Nicholas II’s body was ultimately taken to St Petersburg and interred at the St Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998, joining the bodies of almost all former Russian Emperors since Peter the Great.”
"After visiting the church, my guide drove me to the spot in the forest where the bodies had been found. The gravesites are now marked by two simple wooden crosses. The area is not signposted from the road. It was quiet, deserted and very moving.”
“Moscow was my penultimate stop and after many nights sleeping on trains, I booked myself into the Savoy. The heated indoor pool offered some respite from the icy temperatures outside. After four days of rest, I decided to hit the city to see the usual attractions, i.e. Red Square, St Basil's Cathedral, etc.”
“No trip to Moscow is complete without a subway tour to view the individually designed and decorated stations.”
“Finally – to St Petersburg. The Hermitage is stunning from the outside, but I found nothing of interest on the inside save for the exit. Taking that fortunately gave me time to visit the Siege of Leningrad Museum, which tells yet another incredible story of Russian bravery and hardship."
"Another incredible site is the Peter and Paul Cathedral; the last resting place of the Russian Tsars. Most of the tombs left me cold, but it was a truly special moment to see the final resting place of Tsar Nicholas II. Rounding out the cultural experience that is St Petersburg, I spent my last night in the newly restored Mikhaylovsky Theatre enjoying the glorious sounds of La Boheme."