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    Posted January 28, 2013 by
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    Cities and Villages along the Trans-Siberian Railway (Russia)

    Inspired by Paul Theroux's book "The Great Railway Bazaar" and my child-hood fascination with the Trans-Siberia, I spent a month in Russia taking the train from Moscow to Lake Baikal.

    Yes: A must-stop for history enthusiasts, culture buffs and night-life magnets. Moscow has many museums, galleries, theaters, historical sights, all-you-can-drink bars and many other revenues which can keep one busy for weeks. A good transport hub for buses, trains and flights to Europe and the rest of the world.

    No: Moscow is simply too big, too energy-draining for those who seek a more authentic Russia. Also, it is crazily expensive for a former communist country, even if that city is Moscow.

    Yes: A fresh switch from ubiquitous Christian presence to Russia’s Muslim culture. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan Republic where Turkic tribesmen from Mongol plateau arrived and stayed during Chinggis Khan’s time. Take a boat trip to Bolga.
    No: Not on the official Trans-Siberian train route, requiring a 10-hour detour from Moscow.

    Yes: Known for the Bolshevik’s assassination of Tsar Nicolas II and his entire family, including the Hollywood-famous princess Anastasia. But this isn’t the only past which propelled this city to fame. A famous native son is former president Boris Yelsin. Yekaterinburg serves as the base camp to explore the Ural mountains, and if you want to stand between Europe and Asia, here is the right place to do it.
    No: If you don’t care about mountains and history, there isn’t much in this city.

    Yes: A nice alternative to Novosibirsk, the first Siberian city for travelers coming from Europe, dying to get out and get a taste of Siberia. Naturalists, hikers and climbers certainly find their places at the Stolby (spiky volcanic rock pillars) Natural Reserve.
    No: Lone travelers without any local contact will find Krasnoyarsk very boring, utterly boring. It is a small Siberian city with nothing spectacular to wow visitors. However, I was lucky to meet an exceptionally nice local, Marina, through Couchsurfing, who showed me around, took me to the Stolby, and I learned to like this city very much.

    Yes: Most foreign travelers from Europe Russia stopped in Irkutsk for a couple of hours/days to arrange transportation to Olkhon island. Irkutsk, nicknamed Paris of Siberia, is a pleasant place to relax and explore with its facisnating history as the main settlement for exiles and convicts, unfortunately the city loses its appeal due to its close location to Lake Baikal.
    No: If you don’t plan to visit lake Baikal and continued to the Far East or you are local Russians. The Russian tourists I met on the train didn’t stop at Irkutsk, they went a little bit (think 1 day) further east to Chita and explored the lake from there. I guess, Chita is cheaper compare to the super tourist-trap Irkutsk.

    Yes: Definitely a big YES. Conveniently situated in the middle of Lake Baikal, the famous lake which attracts poets, and adventurers alike, Olkhon island becomes a popular base for both local and foreign tourists. This is the name you’ll hear on the lips of every backpacker who travel to Siberia. You can easily spend days here staying just at one place. If you decide to camp and hike around the island, the magical landscape can keep you busy for weeks. Damn the Russian visa.
    No: Can’t think of any except time constraint. The travelers I met whom didn’t set foot on the island had no time, thus took a day trip from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, a village by the lake to get their feet wet. That’s why many choose to fly to Irkutsk to save time, instead of taking the train, but then again, being in Siberia without taking the Trans-Siberian train doesn’t do it justice.

    Yes: If you fancy the view of the lake from the other side. Travelers I met commented on good hiking routes around Ust-Barguzin. After the busy Olkhon island, full of local and foreign tourists, I enjoyed my quiet time in Maksimikha, a small hamlet across the lake, 30 km from Ust-Barguzin. However, there was nothing special really about this town. I chose it because one backpacker I met showed me a nice photo of the lake and pointed to the word “picturesque” in the Lonely Planet. The person who crossed the lake with me wanted to be in Ulan-Ude (UU) as soon as possible, thus I figured we should move closer to UU and didn’t stay in Ust-Barguzin. Also I didn’t want to backtrack to Irkutsk to catch a train to UU, then from there traveled up the lake to Ust-Barguzin and/or Masimikha and then returned to UU.
    No: The scenery is much prettier from the west side. If you have been already on the west side, why see the less beautifu viewl? The ferry is expensive and only runs once a week, thus might not fit into your travel plan.

    Yes: Similar to Irkutsk, UU serves as a connecting point to the lake for people coming from Mongolia, heading westward. It is also a convenient stop for those who just came from a long bus/train ride from Mongolia or the final stop to get your things together before continuing to Mongolia. While many find this city charming despite or because of its ridiculously large Lenin head sitting in the middle of the main square, some stay here only to enjoy the convenience of the big city (wash their clothes, shops…) UU is located very near to Russia’s most important Buddhist center and the Old-Believer town.
    No: The train and bus station reminded me of an ugly former communist city. Well, it is.
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