page 1 of 4
Northern European Russia
Stretching just 600 km north of Moscow to well-beyond the Arctic Circle and into the northernmost reaches of Russia, the Arctic Ocean islands of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land, Arkhangelskaya Oblast would require lifetimes to fully explore. This is not due to its size but more the absolute absence of transport connections and even roads throughout much of it and the sheer quantity and variety of fascinating potential destinations it has to offer. Taiga in the south and tundra in the north, the province is home to 2500 lakes and vast forests inhabited by bears, lynx, wolverines, martens, eagles and more. In the Arctic, for example the nearly abandoned town of Amderma, polar bears can be seen wandering the streets on occasion. The province is full of hard-to-reach log cabin villages with some great examples of ancient wooden churches and still lived in peasant cottages from previous centuries, the most easily accessible of which are around Kargopol in the south. Another easily reachable destination in the province are the Solovetsky Islands, home to a 15th-century monastery complex.
BAM (Baikal Amur Mainline)
Siberia and the Far East
The BAM is Russia's other great train journey. It splits off from the Trans Siberian not long after Krasnoyarsk then runs parallel and 700 km to the north until it hits the Pacific coast. Completed in 1991 just as the Soviet Union collapsed, it fell almost into disuse shortly afterwards. Many of the boom towns that grew up to house railway workers have been abandoned. Outside the crumbling, grey concrete of the towns, however, the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Taiga forest, towering snow-capped mountains, the breathtaking, unspoilt northern section of Lake Baikal and even desert are just some examples of what the BAM has to offer. Taking local buses away from railway towns will also get you out to quaint hunting and fishing villages of log cabins, picket fences and traditional carved window frames. There is little tourist infrastructure, few actual sites or attractions and not many travellers visit this Russian Wild East. However, its friendly locals, great scenery and rough around the edges Soviet towns make for a fascinating trip.
Republic of Buryatia
A lovely fishing village of log cabins, picket fences and traditional carved window frames surrounded by forest and snow-capped mountains on the northern shore of Lake Baikal, Baykalskoe and places like it are important (but often missed out) parts of any BAM railway trip. Traveling from town to town along the BAM, one might be tempted to think that the area is no more than a string of gritty, grey, architecturally uninspiring Soviet towns. Remember though that taking public transport out of the towns can take you to places like Baykalskoe, just 45km from Severobaykalsk. Russian Cossacks arrived here in the 17th century but the site had been inhabited by Buryat tribes and their ancestors since the Stone Age. Nearby there are Buryat holy spots, shamanic petroglyphs, inland lakes, glaciers and views on Baikal and its islands. There are lots of great forest, mountain and lakeside trekking opportunities to local beauty spots but be careful as even in Baykalskoe itself bears can be heard roaring in the surrounding woods! Locals live by hunting, fishing and herding cattle and horses.
The Curonian Spit (Kurshskaya Kosa in Russian) is a nearly 100 km long, narrow, sand dune spit that separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. The southern section lies within Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and the northern within Lithuania. At its narrowest, the width is merely 400 m, making it possible to look across when standing on a high sand dune. The uniqueness of this fragile landscape of drifting sand dunes has made it an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in Kaliningrad Oblast. The National Park Kurshskaya Kosa makes up most of the spit, but there are several villages along the single road that goes the full length of the spit. The two main sights are The Dancing Forest, a collection of twisted trees, and the giant sand dunes at Efa. Not every local has been to these semi-famous spots, so beware when asking for direction or taking transport. The rest of the spit is mainly pine forest and long sandy beaches favoured by picknicking families during summer.
Kalyazin, Tverskaya Oblast
Alhough Kalyazin lacks the sheer concentration of glittering golden domes, centuries-old monasteries and traditional wooden cottages that several other Golden Ring towns boast, its one site, pictured above, is among the most unusual yet least known in the whole region. This lonely bell tower, taking up almost the entire surface of a pancake-flat island in the middle of the River Volga, is all that remains of the 15th-century Makaryevsky Monastery that once stood on the site. Under Stalin the monastery and most of the old 12th-century town were flooded during the creation of a nearby reservoir, as happened at more than one location along the Volga. Perhaps not worthy of a trip from Moscow especially unless you find it particularly intriguing, Kalyazin nevertheless makes an interesting and unusual addition to any Golden Ring trip.
Irkutsk is the mandatory stop on the Trans-Siberian journey if you want to go to the gorgeous Baikal lake. During the colonization of Siberia, it played an important role as an administrative centre, which still today gives the otherwise pleasant town a bit of a wild-east edge. There several colourful Orthodox churches and some residential quarters are still made up by wobbling old wooden houses with windows at curb level. Down at the lively market area, there are a lot of food stores (think smoked fish) and fur shops, along with street vendors and tough looking men in camouflage clothes hanging around - probably just like during the Siberian gold rush.
Kaliningrad is the capital of the Russian exclave of the same name, Kaliningrad Oblast. Pre Soviet times, it was known as Königsberg, a cultural and elegant university city, home to several famous mathematician (Euler, Goldbach, and Hilbert) and other famous scholars, like Kant. During World World II, the city was heavily bombed, not leaving many surviving buildings. After Königsberg became a part of the Soviet Union, it changed name to Kaliningrad and was transformed into a classic drab Soviet city with bleak apartments blocks and bombastic monuments. Luckily, in some residential areas, a few old German houses were left untouched, along with the many parks and ponds, all of which give the city some grace. But Kaliningrad isn't very appealing at first sight. The handful of architectural masterpieces from the Königsberg era are drowning in the sea of shabby Soviet-era concrete and modern buildings in glass and steel. But the brand new cathedral (of Christ the Saviour) on the main square is impressive and a step out of the dark shadow of the Eastern Bloc.
Russian Far East
The Kamchatka Peninsula, dangling from the Russian Far East into the Northern Pacific Ocean, is a land of stark contrasts. It is home to some stunning natural scenery, including 160 volcanoes, while its towns, small and few in number though they are, are widely regarded as the dirtiest and dingiest in Russia. Little has changed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital, since the fall of Communism and nostalgia for the days of Stalin is strong. Most travellers see little of this, however, coming instead to spot the bears that infest the Kamchatkan wilderness, climb the Northern Hemisphere's largest volcano or visit the reindeer herding nomads who inhabit remoter parts of the peninsula. Travel here is widely regarded as being prohibitively expensive and a helicopter essential. In fact, however, winter and spring flights here can be cheap, plenty of incredible land-transport tours are available and, for the really adventurous, hitch hiking to some amazing sites is also possible.
Kamchatka's indigenous minorities
Before the 17th century Kamchatka was inhabited solely by Koryaks, Itelmen, Ainu, Aleuts and Chukchi. The indigenous Even arrived a hundred and fifty years ago, migrating away from Russian expansion in Yakutia or from other indigenous groups who moved into Even territory after being pushed out of their own. The Itelmen and Ainu have now been assimilated into mainstream Russian society, although many still claim indigenous origins as it grants certain hunting and fishing privileges. The Aleuts were re-settled by the Soviet government to the remote Commander Islands where they live in one village to this day. The Even, though still herding reindeer and horses, have mostly forgotten their own language and are fairly "Russified". The reindeer-herding Koryaks have their own autonomous region which takes up the whole northern half of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Chukchi live in the far north of that region. A few of the Koryaks from Olyutorsky and Penzhinsky Districts in the far north of Kamchatka have preserved their shamanistic religion and some of their traditional chants.
Northern European Russia
Karelia is a land of undulating hills, countless lakes and rivers, endless forests and, nestling amid all this natural beauty, timeless log cabin villages with ancient wooden churches and cottages from previous centuries with traditional carved window frames. It is also famous as the home of Europe's two largest lakes, Ladoga and Onega. On the island of Kizhi on Lake Onega stands Karelia's most famous tourist attraction â€“ an outdoor museum of wooden architecture with structures brought here from all over Russia. Impressive though the main church here is, it is only a museum. With a little effort, and ideally your own transport, you can explore Karelia's network of dirt tracks and isolated little villages full of hidden gems. While the wooden architecture in these villages is, admittedly, slightly less impressive than that at Kizhi, it is fascinating because the churches are used and the houses lived in to this day. Other attractions in Karelia include the Valaam Monastery on an island on Lake Ladoga and the petroglyphs at Belomorsk.