Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trans-Mongolian Adventure - Part 4 - Kazan to Saint Petersburg

The final leg of the Trans-Mongolian Adventure started in Kazan. Kazan lies on the banks of the Volga river and is the capital of Tartarstan, another semi-autonomous region of Russia. The Kazan Kremlin (castle in Russian) is an architectural reminder that this region is the crossroads between east and west. Within the fortified city, you will find an exquisite Muslim mosque and a beautiful Russian Orthodox Christian church. It even has its own leaning tower that dates back to the time of Peter the Great.

Because of its history and the diverse population of Kazan, the city has a different feel than other cities that we visited. This was evident in the food as well. Whether it was a mixed grill reminiscent of the kebabs we ate in the U.A.E., the uniquely geometrical Echpochmak, or the ever present Chak Chak, every meal reminded us that we were in a special place.

Like most of the stops on the trip, our time in Kazan was up before we knew it. We headed back to the train station and made our way to Nizhny-Novgorod.

Nizhny-Novgorod is a beautiful city on the Volga that was once closed off to foreign travelers due to Soviet military research and production facilities within the city limits. The Nizhny Kremlin has a commanding view of the river and can be seen from almost every point in the city.

Nizhny-Novgorod turned out to be one of the most pleasant cities that we visited on the entire trip. It has a laid back atmosphere and just seems like a nice place to live. And for me, it had the best desert on the trip as well... homemade pistachio ice-cream. It was so good in fact, that we ate it two days in a row!

Unfortunately, the trains don't wait, and we were soon on our way to Vladimir.

Vladimir was once the Medieval capital of Russia and claims one of the countries most famous buildings, The Assumption Cathedral. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was lucky to survive the devastation brought upon Vladamir by the Mongol Golden Horde in 1239.

Located nearby is the town of Suzdal. Suzdal is considered to be one of Russia's oldest towns, and it too was once a capital of Russia. Suzdal is overrun with churches, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The town is incredibly picturesque, which explains the ridiculous number of wedding parties that we saw as we walked the streets.

After two relaxing days in Suzdal, we caught the train to Moscow. Our first day in Moscow was almost a complete shutout due to a heavy rain that engulfed the city. But we made the best of it by riding around the city in buses, and we continued to eat some fantastic food.

By day two, the skies cleared, and we off to see the sights. Moscow is, of course, a massive city. We did not even scratch the surface of what it has to offer. But we did visit the obligatory stops such as "THE" Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square and took a cruise down the Moskva river.

We caught our final train of the trip to Saint Petersburg. Once considered the most Westernized city in Russia, St. Petersburg is home to Russia's finest palaces and the stately Hermitage museum. My brother visited here in the 90's and he brought me back a T-Shirt featuring St. Petersburg University. I've wanted to visit ever since.

One of the most iconic buildings in St. Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Blood. Like Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, this church sports iconic onion domes.

Saint Petersburg's most famous resident has to be Tsar Peter the Great, but a close second is likely Gustav Fabergé. The House of Fabergé is known worldwide for the incredibly ornate and exquisite jewelry and exotic gifts that they create. Most notably, the Fabergé eggs that were the favorite gifts of the Russian Tsars.

Another famous resident of St. Petersburg was Rasputin. The mystic monk holds a special grasp on the Russian people, and his legacy seems to be growing as time passes. In the basement of the Yusupov Palace, you can catch a glimpse into Rasputin's last night on earth where he was poisoned, shot, and finally drowned.

And you know, even though St. Petersburg is the most "European" of all Russian cities, it's still Russia, so you have to expect the unexpected. How about penguin crossings and bus toilets! Why not.

Our last night in St. Petersburg was spent at the famous Mariinsky Theatre, home to the ballet Swan Lake. The theater is gorgeous, and the ballet was incredible.

After 39 days, 3 countries, 5 time zones, and 4,735 miles, the Trans-Mongolian Adventure was finally complete. The trip was so long and involved that it has taken over six months just to write about it. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and we will never forget it.

Flying home to Hong Kong was both sad and exciting. Sad because we were leaving such an incredible experience behind... but exciting because we would finally be able to wash our clothes!

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