Author: Chris (page 2 of 6)

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.



The Great Firewall of China

Apparently China’s vast and perplexing firewall includes blocking innocuous US based WordPress blogs. Therefore, posts won’t be coming again for a couple of weeks.
My laptop does have VPN but not strong enough encryption to not be detected and blocked.
I’m currently writing this post from my phone because my US based TMobile phone does have good enough encryption and VPN to not be blocked. I can’t recommend TMobile enough,  their service has just worked in every country I’ve been.
Anyway, I’m not going to write 500-1000 word blog posts on my phone but you can follow me on Instagram at: 


When I was in 7th or 8th grade I had a civics teacher who was a right-wing, Reagan loving, Joseph McCarthy apologist. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a card carrying member of the John Birch society to boot.

When she wasn’t maintaining her undying love of Ronald Reagan and explaining how he was going to single-handedly defeat those ruskie commie bastards by the sheer strength of his patriotic mind bullets, she would occasionally show us “educational” films about the “Real Soviet Union.”

I have no idea where these films came from but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been produced by the Jack Van Impe Ministries or some similar cockamamie enterprise. The Russia depicted in these films was universally bleak, poor, depressing, and full of drunk and/or incompetent communists. The subtext was that Russia and its people were wrong and immoral. To be sure, life in the Soviet Union wasn’t a joy ride for 90% of the population but even at that young age, I knew that 99% of what was in those films was pure unadulterated bullshit.

While those films portrayed no known reality, information from and about the Soviet Union was so scarce and distorted during the Cold War that that is literally all the exposure that many people, myself included, had about the everyday life of millions of people. What’s most frustrating is that I still remember those films from nearly 30 years ago and somewhere in the recesses of my brain they in some small way informed my expectations of Russia in general and Moscow specifically.

My middle school teacher’s attempts at brainwashing notwithstanding, nothing really prepared me for the sheer delight I had in visiting Moscow. It is a huge cosmopolitan city; and the three days I spent there hardly scratched the surface of all it has to offer. It was clean, easy to navigate, most people were helpful (despite my complete lack of Russian), and the restaurants I ate in were all good.

Day 1

I was staying near the Kremlin and I woke up early to check out Red Square and the surrounding neighborhood. As the Kremlin itself is closed on Thursdays, I then headed over to the Novodevichy Convent via subway.

The convent grounds were nice and some of the buildings were open but a lot of renovation was going on so the main cathedral was closed. 

Novodevichy Convent. #novodevichy #moscow #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

There is a cemetery next to the convent where many famous Russians are buried, including Chekhov, Bulgakov, Krushchev, and Gogol. Unfortunately, the little map of graveyards was only in Russian and the graves were not well marked so I only found Chekhov and then gave up on the rest.

Afterwards I wandered around the neighborhood and then walked next to the river to Gorky Park. It was late October when I visited and they were already setting up the ice rink that probably stays open until early May.

Day 2

Tickets to the Kremlin include access to Cathedral square which consists of three cathedrals, a palace and two other churches. The palace is inaccessible as it’s President Putin’s residence but you can go into all the churches.

The Kremlin itself is huge but visitors are only allowed access to Cathedral Square and the Armoury Chamber and wandering around aimlessly is strictly forbidden. The Armoury is now a large museum dedicated to the treasures of the Russian state going back to the early Tsarist era. Imperial Russian regalia remains surprisingly intact despite the Revolution of 1917, the ensuing Civil War, and nearly 70 years of Soviet rule.

After the Kremlin, I walked around Red Square and, despite Amanda’s prompting, decided to skip Lenin’s tomb. I’m pretty sure Lenin’s body was replaced with a wax replica long ago.

Red Square. #redsquare #kremlin #moscow #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Day 3

In the morning I went to Patriarch’s Ponds, a park in a well-to-do neighborhood just north of the Kremlin. Despite the name, there’s only one pond in the park but it’s the setting of the beginning of one of my new favorite books, The Master and Margarita by Mikail Bulgakov.

Afterwards I walked past the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior and then down to yet another park that contains some old Soviet era statues and an excellent Modern Russian art museum.

St. Petersburg

I took the high-speed train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. The trip into Russia from Helsinki could not have been easier. Just inside Russia, the train briefly stopped and passport control and customs agents boarded the train. Then, as the train continued on to St. Petersburg, agents came through the train to check passports, visas, paperwork, etc.

Customs didn’t ask me any questions and the passport agent spent about 2 minutes going through my paperwork, stamped my passport and migration card, and then I was officially in Russia.

The Hermitage

The first day in the city, I walked to Palace Square and toured the Hermitage Museum located inside the Winter Palace. This museum is massive and contains the largest collection of paintings in the world. My ticket included entrance to Peter the Great’s old Palace which was kind of a waste of time as well as entrance to the General Staff Building which was recently renovated.

The General Staff Building displays later European art from French Impressionism to the Mid 20th Century. There was also a temporary exhibit by Steve McCurry, most famous for that National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl.

I liked the Hermitage mainly because, even though there were thousands of visitors inside, the place is enormous enough where it didn’t feel crowded. There’s no set route that you have to take through the palace so you can wander around the 300+ rooms however you want.

Peter and Paul Fortress

On day two I started off by taking the subway closest to the Peter and Paul Fortress. I got off at the wrong stop so ended up wandering around Vasilyevsky Island for an hour or so.

Peter and Paul Fortress contains several museums, the old mint, and the famous Peter and Paul Cathedral where many Tsars were coronated and also buried.

Nevsky Prospekt

The next day I walked from my hotel to Nevsky Prospekt which is St. Petersburg’s main street running from the Admiralty to the Moscow train station.

Just off Nevsky Prospekt, I toured the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood. This church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, hence the “Spilt Blood” in the church’s name. This is an unusual building for St. Petersburg. Built in a more Moscovite style, it definitely sticks out from its more classical European surroundings.


St. Petersburg was a lovely city and a good way to ease into Russia. I don’t think I actually needed 4 whole days as, once I hit the highlights, I got a bit bored with the homogeneity of the city’s classical architecture. Central St. Petersburg has done well to preserved it’s classical European architecture  but that also means it lacks the variety of a larger city like Moscow.

Thanks to the currently weak ruble, Russia is cheap. The ruble has lost nearly 50% of its value against the dollar in the past year so most things are a bargain.

Chocolate and bread in Russia are fantastic!



I started my trip  through Russia, Mongolia and China by taking the train from Berlin to Copenhagen and staying the night in Copenhagen. I´ve written about Copenhagen before so I´ll skip it this time.

The next day, I took the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm and then an overnight ferry to Finland. I had two and a half days to explore Helsinki and found it to be a charming little city. My biggest impression was its natural beauty. Set on a small peninsula on the Gulf of Finland, the city is also surrounded by hundreds of small islands.

I took the ferry to the Suomenlinna islands during one day of my stopover. Suomenlinna was first developed as a fort by the Swedes and then taken over by Russia in 1808 when Finland became a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Empire. The fortifications and buildings were interesting but the real charm of this place was the natural setting.


The other highlight for me was a visit to the contemporary art museum Kiasma.  Kiasma is world famous for putting on cutting edge and thought provoking exhibits and I was not disappointed.

The downtown area is exceedingly walk-able and meticulously clean, I wasn´t more that a 20 minute walk from any of the main sites.

Helsinki is an expensive city so I purposely stayed in a hotel with a small kitchenette so I could buy groceries instead of eating in restaurants.

Headed Home

As explained in my last post, I am headed to Minnesota but am taking my sweet time. That means taking the train from Berlin to Hong Kong passing through the following cities:

  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Moscow, Russia
  • Kazan, Russia
  • Yekaterinburg, Russia
  • Irkutsk, Russia
  • Ulan Bator, Mongolia
  • Beijing, China
  • Xi´an, China
  • Chengdu, China
  • Chongqing, China
  • Yangshuo, China
  • Guangzhou, China
  • Hong Kong, China

I´m then flying from Hong Kong to LA and taking the train from there to Portland, OR then home to St. Paul.

I´ll be posting entries on each city along the way and you can also check out my instagram here.


Auf wiedersehen Berlin

Screenshot 2015-10-26 at 19.12.06


Amanda departed Berlin last month to start her new job, working from home for the same company. She is already settled in our new apartment in St. Paul and reunited with Goofy the dog.

I´m on my way home too but am taking my sweet time by traveling through Russia, Mongolia and China by train.

We already miss Berlin for so many reasons and are looking forward to returning in the future.

A short list of things I will miss about Berlin:

  • Transportation: We never once felt limited by not having a car. The bus, subway, train, tram system goes everywhere and is simple to use.
  • Costs: Coming from the Bay Area, there were many things that were cheaper in Berlin, mainly our rent and groceries.
  • The people: Generally speaking, Berliners are laid back and friendly. More so than other places in Germany. It is also a diverse city with people from all over the world. In some neighborhoods, you are more likely to hear English than German being spoken.
  • Dogs: Dogs are everywhere in the city and 90% of the time are off leash. This is never a problem as dogs are extremely well trained and know how to live in a big city with lots of people. It´s not unusual to see dogs waiting patiently outside of shops, hanging out in cafes, or running errands with delivery people.
  • German language school: Amanda is going to disagree with me here but I loved going to school and not only learned a ton of German but also got to interact with an extremely diverse group of people who came to Germany to start new lives. While it was difficult and exhausting at times, the immersion method of language really worked for me.
  • Food: When I get home I´m going to have to perfect my version of Currywurst and Doner Kebab.
  • Going to the movies: In Germany, when the movie starts, the phones are switched off and people are silent.
  • Restaurant etiquette: No server ever asked me if I had ever been to their restaurant before, no server ever gave me their name, no one ever asked me how ¨everything was tasting!¨, and the check came when I asked for it. This is the way I like dining; servers were quick and efficient and happy to help when I needed something and we never felt rushed. Amanda is going to have to restrain me the first time some overly chipper teenager in the US slips me the check while I´m still in the middle of my entree.
  • Street art: Graffiti is everywhere in the city and a lot of it is just dumb tagging but there are so many places with interesting artwork that you can enjoy by just walking around.


At the end of the Cold War Berlin had three aging commercial airports. It was decided in the late 90´s that all three were too small to handle the growing traffic of the new German capital.

A new site was selected just south of the current Schoenefeld airport and construction of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport began in 2006. Originally scheduled to open in 2010, it is now the end of 2015 and the airport remains unopened. The airport has officially cancelled four opening dates and there is currently no scheduled opening date for the airport. You can, however, take a two hour tour of the new airport, which I did a couple of weeks ago.

The main cause of the delay is the fire protection system. However, other issues have also come to light in the ensuing years of delays like, among other things, the wiring conduit being too small, roof tiles being unsafe, and the main construction engineer not having the proper training and credentials (he was actually only a qualified draftsman).

As of today, workers continue to remedy the various issues while some politicians have called for tearing the whole terminal down and just starting over.

Once the new airport is opened it will immediately need to be expanded as it will be running at or over capacity from day one.







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