Russia travel guide
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 – 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.
A mosque next to a cathedral in a kremlin at the end of a street lined by Tsarist-era buildings with grey Soviet high rise on the horizon? There’s only one city it can be – Kazan, the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic and once the centre of the ancient state of Volga Bulgaria. Later it was ransacked by the Mongols then once again by Ivan the Terrible when he claimed it finally for Russia. The city has been an important, valued stronghold for whichever civilization has held sway over the Volga region throughout its long, turbulent history. And it still is – St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square, one of Russia’s most famous landmarks, was built to celebrate the capture of Kazan. Alumni of Kazan University, Russia’s third oldest, include Tolstoy and Lenin. Today the city is a mix of new and old, of post-Soviet, Soviet, Tsarist and pre-Tsarist. The population is half Muslim Tatar and half ethnic Russian. Throughout Tatarstan, beautiful Tsarist architecture can be found a stone’s throw from ruins of Volga Bulgaria, while street signs are bilingual in Russian and Tartar.
Over 8,500 kilometres from Moscow and just 30 from China, the Far East's second largest city feels surprisingly cosmopolitan. Though cold in winter, in summer an explosion of greenery fills the city's streets and parks, street cafes open up and locals hang out on the beach or stroll along the banks of the Amur. Forts were first built here in the 1650s by Cossacks intent on exacting fur tribute from the natives. They were destroyed fairly quickly though by the local Nanai people, the Koreans and the Chinese, the area becoming a part of China for well over a century and a half. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the area fall back into Russian hands and Khabarovsk was gradually built up. Beautiful old buildings remain from the early days but the more recent architects and planners at work in Khabarovsk have also done well at keeping the centre looking fairly classical. Nearby villages of the indigenous Nanai people can be visited, including Sikhachi-Alyan which has ancient petroglyphs, but they are now fairly "Russified" compared to some other Siberian peoples.
Most of the Kola Peninsula lies above the Arctic Circle and has a vast amount to offer. The southern half is taiga forest and mountains while the northern part is tundra. Some of the inhabitants are Saami, indigenous to the area, as well as Komi and Nenets who arrived from the nearby Kanin Peninsula 150 years ago. Many of them practice semi-nomadic reindeer herding and, in the winter, some keep their herds high in the mountains. The driving of the reindeer down the mountain slopes and into the tundra in late April is a truly spectacular event. Another non-mainstream culture on the peninsula is that of the Pomors, descendents of the first Russians to arrive starting in the 11th Century. A trip along Kola’s White Sea coast will take you through some of their wooden cottage villages as well as past a few beautiful, centuries-old log churches. Before all these cultures, however, another one lived here since at least the 3rd millennium BC and has left its mark in the form of petroglyphs, standing stones and stone labyrinths that dot the peninsula in hard-to-find locations.
The BAM's biggest and prettiest town, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure is only eleven hours from the railway's terminus on the Pacific coast (and the ferry to Sakhalin island) or six from Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was named after volunteers from the Komsomol youth organization but was actually mostly built by Gulag concentration camp victims. Women from all over the Soviet Union were then sent out to populate the previously all-male city. Unusually for a Stalin-built town, particularly for a BAM town, its centre has pretty, modestly colourful buildings built in the Tsarist style, some wide avenues, strollable river banks, outdoor cafes and even a beach. Not far out of town there are impressive mountains with trekking, rafting and skiing possibilities. There are also some villages of the indigenous Nanai people in the area, although most of what remains of their pre-Russian culture is limited to museum displays.
Lake Baikal is so large that it is hard to fully grasp its immensity: 636 km long, about 60 km wide and up to 1637 m deep, making it the deepest lake in the world. Any view from the shore makes it look more like sea than a confined body of water. The crystal clear fresh water is drinkable at most places and is home to some very yummy fish, like the omul. The railway from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude runs parallel to the shore for a while but to really experience the lake, go to Olkhon island or at least Listvyanka, a village on the shore 70 km from Irkutsk.
A lot of things have changed in Russia since the red communist days. Moscow has climbed out of its Soviet shadow and is today ranking as the most expensive city in the world. This doesn't mean that Moscow is all glam, fancy shops, sophisticated eateries and new high-rises. They certainly are all here, but the main attractions and sights are still Soviet relics, in one way or another. The Red Square with the mausoleum of Lenin, the gorgeous decorated metro system, old Soviet bunkers, KGB headquarter and so on. But then, when the night falls, the new Moscow wakes up. The drinking/bar/clubbing scene is diverse - and there is absolutely nothing Soviet-drab about the party crowd.
A working class city if there ever was one. Murmansk is rough around the edges, with a no-nonsense character and a population toughened by the arctic Russian winters, the heavy industries and the gritty port. It is not pretty, but it's fascinating to spend a few days soaking up the city's atmosphere. One of the best ways to do so is by joining the Walruses, Murmansk's ice swimmers, on one of their daily plunges into Semenovskoye Lake. More traditional sights include the museum-cum-relic Lenin, the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered icebreaker, and the Alesha, a 30 metre statue commemorate the Soviet defence of the Arctic during World War II; and the Museum of the Northern Fleet. Nightlife and be found in the new House of Culture, while most other places are limited to heavy drinking of vodka. If the harshness of the city get to you, Murmansk is also the obvious base for visiting the Kola Peninsula.
This is the last corner of far northeastern Europe before the border with Siberia and the neighbouring Yamal Peninsula. Most of it lies beyond the Arctic Circle and, though over four times as big as Switzerland, has a population of only 42,000. There is almost no road network so land transport is by river boats in summer and snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles in winter. Many of the indigenous Nenets reindeer herders here now only work three-month shifts with their reindeer, although they still live in conical reindeer-hide tents when doing so, move camp by reindeer sledge and wear reindeer fur clothing. Sadly, alcoholism is widespread and most people under forty no longer know the Nenets language. There is one nomadic Nenets community, however, that managed to completely avoid collectivisation under the Soviet Union. To this day, they do not go to school, speak Russian or have passports, living year-round nomadic existences. The Okrug is easy to get to as permits are required only for areas within 20 km of the coast or islands, such as idol-strewn Vaygach, the former Nenets "Mecca".
Traveling for hours or even days along Eastern Siberia's BAM railway through endless taiga forests, towering snow-streaked mountains, following the white waters of rivers crashing over lethal looking rapids with chunks of ice the size of houses still melting near their banks, it can be quite a shock when all of a sudden the pristine, primordial, middle-of-nowhere nature disappears to be replaced by somewhere like Novy Urgal. Founded in 1974 mostly by people from Ukraine and the Baltics and with a population of around 6,000, its peeling paint, crumbling walls and lack of any new buildings give the impression that the town has gone into decay somewhat. And, given the fact that itâ€™s the biggest settlement for 14 hours in one direction and 24 in the other, there's not really anyone around to do anything about it. Novy Urgal is probably not the sort of place your average tourist will be keen to visit, but for those fascinated by the BAM, the Soviet Union or the Russian Far East in general it makes for an interesting stop.