Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tales from Russia

I wrote these words on the train from Atyrau, Kazakhstan to Urgench, Uzbekistan and I am finally taking the time and reliable  internet connection to catch up on some travel tales. We are having the time of our life and are very excited for what the rest of the journey holds.


From Kiev we took an overnight bus to Voronezh. After a late-night border crossing I manages to sleep a very hours, but was still quite tired and disoriented by the time we got to Voronezh. There are not many hostel options in Voronezh, but we stayed at "Podsolnuk", a short walk from the city center. In the end we had a positive experience there with friendly owners and clean facilities, but let me just say that my first impression was a bit of a shock. Just imagine walking into a room of half a dozen 30-something Russian men sitting around in their underwear. Anyhow, the situation improved by evening and since we were only there to shower and sleep, it served our purposes perfectly. And for 6€ per night I'm not going to complain. Our first day in Voronezh was rather exhausting because of an over-eager hostel guest whose offer to "quickly show us the way to the center" turned into dragging us around to all his favorite spots in the city for several hours while talking absolutely non-stop. Now, normally I'm up for an adventure, but having neither eaten nnot drunk and having barely slept,we soon began contemplating how to politely get rid of him. We, thank goodness, eventually did and enjoyed a nice lunch and lots of hydration in the outside seating area of a cafe in the city center. After a few more hours of walking around we found a spot in the shade along the river and dozed for a while before heading bback to the hostel to freshen up and find somewhere to have dinner nearby. I slept like a baby that night on my wobbly dorm-room bunk and woke up the next day refreshed and ready to explore. We had lunch at the Voronezh-famous BARak O'MAMA cafe and found the Gorky Sanatorium just outside the city. I think the sanatorium is a good insider tip for anyone visiting Voronezh. Just to visit the facilities if you're not staying there is free and they have a beach as well as a nice wooded area where one can go walking. While our time in Voronezh was certainly nice, we much more enjoyed our next destination...

The famous BARak OMAMA cafe

View from our hostel balcony


As I mentioned in my previous post, the overnight train to Volgograd definitely exceeded our Russian-train expectations. That's not to say we weren't still rather sleepy when we arrived at our hostel, but a shower and a coffee was the perfect remedy to shake off our sleepiness. Our hostel in Volgograd, Scotch Hostel, is the place to stay in Volgograd. Clean, spacious, plenty of toilets and showers, curtains, a lamp, and an outlet on every bed, helpful staff, nice common areas - really, any backpaxker's dream ;) The "Motherland Calls" statue, taking a speed boat across the Volga to an island where we could swim and sunbath, and a delicious dinner at "Steak House" were the highlights of the trip. Even if they did forget my meal and then bring the compensation desserts, which were with ice cream, when I had barely begun to eat my food. Makes for a good story at least! The rest of Volgograd I think is better shown with pictures.

No Russian city is complete without Lenin Square

Motherland Calls Statue

The Hall of Heros

Stalingrad Battle Museum

Flour Mill destroyed in the battle


Our journey on from Volgograd took place on an express train. It was a nice change of pace to have seats instead of beds and to travel by day instead of by night. By late evening we were in Astrkhan and made it to our hostel, only to have the owner admit that he had forgotten our booking and therefore accidentally overbooked the hostel. We ended up with a sweet upgrade at a hotel owned by his friend. We woke up early enough to head to the central station and figure out our best route from Astrkhan to Aksarajskaya where our train to Kazahstan would depart from at almost 10 PM that night. After that we checked out the Kremlin in Astrakhan, but honestly it was much to hot and sunny to do anything much else except retreat to our air conditioned hotel. Now, let me tell you, this journey to Atyrau, Kazakhstan was quite the adventure! We were quite early in Aksarajskaya, so we checked out the tiny train station and confirmed the arrival time of our train. Suddenly a young man came towards us and started asking all sorts of questions about where we're from and where we're traveling. His conversation was generally friendly, but then he started saying he was from some federal security service and wanted to see our passports. Honestly, we didn't believe him because he wasn't in uniform and didn't persist when we were sceptical and didn't get our passports out and basically just walked away from him.  Finally we decided to sit down in a roadside cafe across from the station. The owner is an extremely kind hearted man, who offered us watermelon and plums for free and explained with pride how his refrigerator works with the help of a modified air conditioning unit and that his Soviet car from 1952 still runs. His face lit up when he told us that he named the cafe after his daughter. By the time we left and he wished us success,happiness and all the best, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a friend.  Well, what would you know, back at the entrance to the train (where they also did passport control for the Russian side of the border) there was our secret service friend along with the border guards and police. Yep, that's right, this plane-clothed officer who had approached us earlier really was part of some sort of Russian secret service. Actually, as soon as the border guard behind the window saw our passports, she asked the other border guard if this special officer was around. He took our passports to have a look after we had gotten our exit stamps and had a lot of questions about my travels. I think he realized thar we were harmless travellers. Maybe it was a completely random encounter with this officer, but it felt a bit like the Russians are keeping tabs on us. Or maybe I've just got too big of an imagination ;) As we entered the train and found our spots, literally EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that train was staring at us. It was almost only men and all Tajiks and Uzbeks, coming back home from working in Russia. After some initial scepticism from both sides, we ended up having a really nice time chatting and laughing and getting to know one another. They gave us apples and also offered us tea, but I was by that point avoiding liquids in order to avoid the toilet, which Mario confirmed was just as disgusting as I feared. Mario stayed awake later talking with them all, but I could barely keep my eyes open. In fact, I was the only one who stayed in the bed during he Kazakhstan passport control. Thankfully they took pity on this sleepy tourist and didn't make me get out of the bed and stand up. With the border crossings behind us, the train rolled on through the night and the Russia chapter of our journey came to a close.
Astrakhan Kremlin


  1. Chelsea, what great stories!!!!!! :D That's so cool that you and Mario are having these adventures together, I love it! And the BARak O'MAMA cafe totally cracks me up :p

    1. Do you know this Youtuber - ? He's how we found out about BARak O'MAMA :)

    2. Hahahaha, I can't believe it came from Philochko! What a small world :) He sure seems like he has a cool life, btw.