Month: January 2016

Overnight Train From Kazan to Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg is about 900 miles east of Moscow. I took the overnight train from Kazan to Yekaterinburg in 2nd class. Like all trains up to this point in Russia, it was mostly full so I was sharing a compartment with 3 others.  When I got on at Kazan, the three others had already been on the train for most of the day as the train originated somewhere else.

Sasha was an older man who immediately started talking to me in Russian. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak much English and was slightly tipsy. The others in the compartment were Demyan and Maxim. Demyan was probably in his mid to late 30’s and spoke the most English but was rather shy about it. Maxim was the spitting image of Harry Dean Stanton wearing giant 80’s-style gold rimmed glasses. All three spoke at least a little English; and Maxim, curiously, could write English very well. No one knew each other before they got on the train but they were all chatting away like old friends by the time I got on in Kazan.

Technically, you are only allowed to drink in the dining car and bringing alcohol on board is forbidden. Sasha, however had brought on a 5 liter plastic bottle of sweet wine that he immediately insisted that I try with him.  Occasionally the train attendant (provodnista in Russian) would poke her head into our compartment, point to Sasha’s wine and say something in Russian. Sasha would then say something back and she would scurry off. Sasha was probably in his 60’s and a navy veteran so I think the provodnista gave him a little leeway.

The wine was sickeningly sweet but I didn’t want to be rude so I slowly sipped on my wine while Sasha asked me about various rock bands that I liked. He was more of a classic rock guy and went on and on about how much he loved Credence, Deep Purple, the Beatles, etc. At one point he pulled out a phone that looked like a 10 year old Nokia and started playing some of his favorite songs.

As the evening wore on, Demyan’s shyness started to fade and he began asking about where I was from, if I had children, what I did for a living, etc. etc. He showed me pictures of his children, wife, and house on his phone and I did the same. Since he spoke the most English, he served as de facto translator. Occasionally his English would fail him and then Maxim would write something down in English for me. Maxim barely spoke a word of English but wrote very well. I’m not sure if he was shy about speaking or if he only ever learned writing.

Sasha then pulled out a picture album and showed all of us pictures of his family and his modest but lovely dacha (cabin) which he was very proud of. He also had a small bag of pins that he had collected or earned while he was in the navy in the early 1970s.

Around 8 pm, all three began pulling out food to eat for dinner and insisted that I share with them. I had some bread, salami and cheese that I offered but they vehemently refused to take any of my food. Even though we were all four strangers to each other, I felt, as the non-Russian, like a guest and was treated with warm hospitality by all three.

No one in the compartment was drunk despite the wine so by 11 pm everyone was drifting off to sleep. Except for Maxim who I think sat in his bunk all night doing crosswords or leaving to smoke between the train cars.


Kazan is roughly 500 miles east of Moscow at the confluence of the Kazanka and Volga Rivers. “Mother” Volga is the longest river in Europe and holds a similar romantic pull to Russians as the Mississippi does to Americans.

When I was planning my trip and looking for places to stop along the way, I was torn between Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. I finally decided on Kazan due to it’s unique social and religious make-up. Tatarstan, and Kazan as its capital, is renown as a place of religious tolerance with about roughly half the population being Muslim and half being Russian Orthodox.

Kazan is the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan and has one of the most well preserved fortresses (Kremlin) in Russia. As I arrived at the train station and headed to my hotel, I was immediately struck by the bright white walls of the Kremlin sitting atop a high bluff overlooking the city’s two rivers.

Kazan Kremlin walls. #kazankremlin #kazan #tatarstan #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

The Kremlin was built after Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatars in the mid-16th century and tore down their fortress and mosque. Within the Kremlin is the Annunciation Cathedral, one of the best preserved 16th century Orthodox churches in Russia, several towers and one of Europe’s largest Mosque. The Qol Sarif mosque was finally rebuilt in 2005 after having being destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in 1552.

In addition to visiting the Kremlin, I also checked out the excellent Museum of Tatarstan. Housed in an old 1920’s department store, the museum provides a good overview of the Tatar people. While all the displays were not in English, many were and Google Translate took care of those that weren’t.

I also strolled down the lovely Bauman pedestrian street, passing the bell tower of Epiphany Church and the occasional stray but friendly dog. Overall Kazan was a lovely stop-over with a friendly population, interesting history and walk-able old town.



I stopped at a small convenience store near the Kremlin to buy some snacks. This store was very small, no larger than a couple hundred square feet. I picked up some bottles of water, bread, cheese and candy (I really miss Russian candy). Anyway, I went up to the counter where the lady rung up the water and candy but pointed to the bread and cheese, said something in Russian and pointed behind me. I quickly realized that this tiny store was actually two separate businesses and, depending on what you were buying, dictated who would ring you up.

I stuck to the old town during my visit, across the river, however, looked like an entirely different city with brand new high rises and a new soccer stadium being built for the upcoming World Cup.

Tatarstan is one of the most industrially advanced republics in Russia and the city is exceedingly clean, prosperous, and friendly.

The weather was gray and snowy both days I was there so I didn’t take as many pictures as I wanted.


Russian Rail

While I had done plenty of research on train travel in Russia, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect traveling from St. Petersburg to the Mongolian border by train.

Overall, I found the Russian rail system to be excellent. All my trains ran on time, cars were clean, and workers were generally helpful and hospitable.  Train stations were not quite up to Western standards of amenities or cleanliness. After having come from 7 months in Germany, the rail stations in Russia were definitely a throwback to the Soviet era.

Getting tickets was also straightforward. I booked everything online at This is a third party reservation site that charges a very small markup for train tickets. I used them because the official Russian Railways website wouldn’t take my non-Russian bank card. I printed all tickets online so I never had to wait in line at a train station for tickets.


From Helsinki to St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg to Moscow I took high speed trains that rival most high speed lines in the rest of Europe.

771 Sapsan, St Petersburg to Moscow. #sapsan #stpetersburg #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

From Moscow to Kazan I took an overnight train with new double-decker first class sleeper cars.  As I was waiting for this train in the Moscow Kazanskaya train station, I watched as one train was boarding for Tashkent, Uzbekistan and another for Bischkek, Kyrgyzstan. These were extremely old and uncomfortable looking trains  and most passengers were loaded to the hilt with bundles of clothes, food, food oil, electronics, and cookware. I have no idea how long of a train ride either of those destinations are but one look inside one of the cars and I was glad I was headed to Kazan.

Kazan to Yekaterinburg was another overnight train on a traditional 3-class train. I was in 2nd class on this leg of the trip and shared the cabin with 3 Russians in various stages of merry intoxication. (More on that in a later post).

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk is around 50 hours through Siberia. I was by myself in a 1st class berth and had the entire train car mostly to myself. Up to now, all the trains I had been on were mostly full. I was able to get a lot of reading done on this leg of the trip but missed the forced camaraderie of 2nd class.

From Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar, I was back in 2nd class but only had one other berth-mate, a young German who was headed to Mongolia for an indeterminate amount of time. This particular train was older but still clean and comfortable. I also noticed that they put all the foreigners together in one car, which at this time of year meant a total of 6 people including myself.

Passport control and customs was also a little different than when I entered Russia through Finland. The train stops for about an hour on the Russian side and all the cars are inspected with sniffer dogs. Once in Mongolia, we stopped for about 90 minutes even though passport control only took about 30 minutes to complete. I have no idea why the long stopping time because it’s about 11 at night in the middle of nowhere.

Food on Russian trains is basic and fine but more expensive than bringing your own. Stops at larger towns almost always have vendors selling all sorts of food and drink right on the platform. I did my best to stock up on tea, bread, cheese, etc. at grocery stores before departing. Hot water is available in every car from the complicated looking samovars.



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