A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter 22 - Vegemite and Vodka (Suzdal and Siberia)

By Neil

semi-overcast 24 °C
View Cape to Cape on capetocape2017's travel map.

Suzdal, Russia

“So the story was, she dressed up a baby doll and pretended it was her child”, said Natalia, our guide in Suzdal.

Euxodia Lupokhina, the first wife of Peter the Great, was sent to the Intercession Convent because Peter deemed the marriage unhappy. It turns out that both this excuse and outcome were pretty common for wives of the time. Anyway it was unclear as to how may children Euxodia had (and by whom) due to this rumor about the baby doll.

The Intercession Convent and the Kamenka River, Suzdal, about 200 km’s east of Moscow

“They thought the story was not true until, during the Soviet era, they were looking into some old coffins and found one had a baby doll in it”.

Having been exiled Tsarita Euxodia had an affair with a bloke called Stepan (turns out being exiled was not all that bad). He ended up being quartered (um, well, at least not for her). Er, ouch!

Peter the Great had 14 children to his two wives; Euxodia (3) and Catherine (11). 11 of the children died before the age of 4. Bloody Hell!

One of his children to Catherine became Empress Elizabeth, another married but died at the age of 20 from a post birth infection after she gave birth to the future Tsar Peter.

Peter’s only son who lived to adulthood, Alexei got into a bit of a disagreement with Peter. Oh My Lord! I’ve just read how Peter had him killed! Suffice to say, it was really, really nasty! It kind of made quartering look nice ….

Suzdal, however, is an idyllic Russian town, located 240 km east of Moscow.

Now there’s a thing. It gets bloody cold in winter. And the big church gets really cold. So they build a big church for summer and a small church in winter….. Makes sense to me…

The fields are green, the flowers bloom, the stream is clear and there are beautiful churches.

The Cathedral of the Nativity in the Kremlin, Suzdal

Nearby Vladimir was the capital of Russia for almost 160 years, long before Moscow was a glint in anyone's eye, and these towns form a part of the Golden Circle of towns and cities around Moscow, which preserve early history of the Orthodox Church in Russia and are renowned as 'open air museums' due to the extraordinary number of unique monuments of Russian architecture dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, including churches, kremlins, monasteries and cathedrals. Suzdal' fortunes dipped when the efforts of the local commerce tried to influence the building of the Trans-Siberian railway through Suzdal in 1864 failed (losing out to Vladimir) and it faded into a beautiful relic of of former times.

The 1590’s built Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour has a bell ringer who has definitely had quite a bit of coffee before he starts his hourly gig of playing a dozen by himself bells for over 10 minutes.

Just add coffee….

Founded in the 14th century to protect Suzdal’s northern entrance, the Saviour Monastery of Saint Euthymius was one of the mightiest monasteries of the time, partly due to the patronage of Ivan the Terrible.

The monks quarters, however, reflect some of the darker aspects of Russia’s past, becoming over the years, a delinquent boys home, a prison, and a part of the Gulag system. It is now a museum.

Suzdal really is very pretty. Particularly at sunset:

An old wooden church.


And then in the daylight.


With wooden houses:


And log restaurants:


It really was extraordinarily pretty.


Vladimir, up the road, was made Russia’s capital in 1157 by the fabulously named Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky after he’d had a stint in the Holy Land on a Crusade. He started the Assumption Cathedral in 1158 and it is the oldest continually used church in Russia. It is also the model for many of the other churches of the time, including those in the Kremlin in Moscow.

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow.

However, my favourite in Vladimir (pronounced Vladeemer, like redeemer) is this place...

The Cathedral of St Dmitry, Vladimir

Not because it was built between 1193 and 1197. And not because it is on of the only surviving churches of its time with ornate limestone carvings covering both biblical and mythological beings. But because, well, the Russkies like their cognomina, e.g. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great (Not impressed with that. Maybe they should have gone for ‘Catherine the Fabbo’ or ‘Catherine the Shpeshalist’ or something), and the bloke who started off this Cathedral was called ‘Vsevolod the Big Nest’ because he was very fecund. He had 14 kids! Definitely going to start calling Nikki’s dad ‘Johnonnonski the Big Nest’ now.

Vladimir (the town, not the person), was the capital before….

The Greatest (Most Brutal?) Horsemen of all time.

Whilst Vsev was building his Big Nest in the late 1100’s, probably the greatest horsemen of all time, The Mongols, were starting what was to become the second largest empire of all time, the Mongol Empire.


Genghis Khan got really close to Vladimir/ Suzdal in 1227, but Genghis’ grandson, Batu Khaan, finished the job in 1237.

Batu Khaan – 1207 to 1255

Russia was part of the Mongol Empire for 250 years until 1480.


A Bloke went for a ride on a horse

In the last chapter of this Blog, I mentioned that a bloke called Karl Bushby went for a walk. From Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina to Uelen in the Russian Far East. Across the Bering Strait.

This bloke, however, went for a ride.


Of course, it wasn’t a ride around a field. It was a big ride and his book was my first literary partner on the Cape to Cape trip.


Tim Cope, from down the road in Warragul in Victoria, Australia, decided to go on a bit of a trip.


From 2004 to 2007 Tim Cope rode his horses 10,000 km’s from Mongolia to Hungary. Why? Because he wanted to understand the relationship between man and horse and the life of the Mongol nomads.

He found that the Mongols were unbelievable horsemen. I don’t know one end of a horse from the other, but Tim’s description of:

- how the mongol’s rode,
- the materials they put on the horses backs to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- how they treated those materials to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- How they managed to find enough water and feed...

...is just fantastic. However, to try to understand just how far it is from the town of Vladimir to Mongolia, I couldn’t walk, I definitely couldn’t ride a horse (can you imagine? Just getting on I’d end up facing the wrong way….), so the only option left was for us to take longest train ride in the world – the Trans-Siberian. The Lonely Planet has a beautiful description that the Trans-Siberian ‘makes all other train rides seem like once around the block with Thomas the Tank Engine’.


The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian is 9,829 km’s and runs from Moscow to Vladivostock

Map of the Trans-Siberian railway.

We were only going to do a hop, skip, and a jump on it; from Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow to Irkutsk (4 time zones away) next to Lake Baikal, 4,205 km east of Moscow. 43 hours on the train. Nice.

We got on the train at 3am on the first day. It was a nice train. A cabin for 4 shared only by the 2 of us. Clean. With a little table. An electrical point. Clean sheets. And a window.

Trans-Siberian railway cabin window. And Breakfast.

There was a restaurant car with a menu.

The Trans-Siberian railway restaurant car menu.

There were trees out of the window. Quite a lot of trees actually.

View from the Trans-Siberian window

There were cards to pass the time. And Nik had bought a bottle of vodka.

43 hours on the Trans-Siberian is a long time

There were more cards. And Nik had vegemite.

Vegemite and Vodka.

Then it was night time.

Then it was morning.

Then there was vegemite and gherkins and a weird Russian mushroom spread on a brick of brown bread.

Then more of the same at lunch due to the restaurant car being closed.

Then there were more trees.

Trees and a storm..

Then there was a house.

A house…

Then there were more cards. But there was no more wine. Only Vodka.

Then I looked at the map.

“Crikey”, I said to Nikki. “We’re going to have to go really fast to get to Irkutsk by 6 am tomorrow morning”.

That’s when we discovered that the trip was not 43 hours as expected, it was 70 hours. Oops.

So then it was night time. So more gherkins and vegemite and then bed.

Then it was morning time.

This time with no gherkins or brown bread (we only bought enough for 43 hours not 70) and so we resorted to pot noodle and chips (there still being no open restaurant car).

Then the cards commenced again. Gin Rummy. First to 10,000 points. But there was no vodka or wine. By the way, if you ever get the chance to buy Yukon Gin, don’t. But it was all we had. It was so rough we needed something to mix it with. There was only Sprite. And no ice. Gin and Sprite. Hmmm….. But after the first couple of mugs, it seemed ok.

Cards. Gin Rummy. And Yukon Gin. And Sprite….

The Trans-Siberian, by the way, although it travels 9 time zones, remains on Moscow time for the whole journey. Including the dining car. Which is a bit weird.

After a few attempts, on our final night on the Trans-Siberian we found the restaurant open. Hoorah! We got a beer. With a German Bloke and a Russian-German-Armenian-Macedonian bloke.

Then, after 2 days with only pot-noodles, they kicked us out again so they could serve the kids!

However then we, and all of the other starving tourists, came back to the restaurant car at 8.30 pm and wouldn't go away until they fed us. And gave us another beer.

And wine.

Then the guitar came out.


Everyone sang along to the Boxer. Lei La Lei! is international. The Russians took the guitar and poured the vodka.

That is real vodka and real fear…..

Everyone started singing.

Everyone including the Russians joining in…

Then there was more vodka and singing.

Everything suddenly got blurry.

Then we were kicked out of the bar but a couple of people came back to the cabin with more vodka.
Nik woke up sitting up in bed at 5.30 am with the light on. She had not been able to lie down. I had passed out. The Providnista, the carriage attendant woke us up at 6 to say Irkutsk was approaching.

Unfortunately, I had died during the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…..

Sometimes I wake up a little dusty in the morning. This was not dusty. That Vodka is bad stuff…..


Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

We were taken by bus to a hotel lobby in Irkutsk where I slept for a couple of hours waiting for the transfer to the ferry. Nik even managed to get back onto solid food.

Then we took the ferry out to Bolshie Koty, a tiny hamlet on Lake Baikal.

Maps showing the location of Lake Baikal and also Bolshie Koty (at the bottom close to Listvyanka).

Lake Baikal is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It is 636 km’s long. It is up to 1,637 metres deep. It contains 20% of the worlds fresh water. It is incredibly clean. And it freezes in winter.

Lake Baikal freezes in winter

In summer, the ice melts and it is very, very beautiful. There are current attempts to build a walking path around the entire lake that will be over 2000kms in length when completed. Both days we walked out along the track for spectacular views of the lake.

Stunning views from the lookout north of Bolshie Koty over Lake Baikal.

The view over Bolshie Koty from the lookout.

View from our hotel towards Lake Baikal

Traditional wooden Russian architecture in Bolshie Koty.

Views taken from our walk along the Great Baikal Trail.

It was, however, really difficult to imagine that, in winter the whole lake is frozen.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the Trans-Siberian was pushed beyond Lake Baikal. The area around the south of the lake was very difficult to build and involved 33 tunnels. Until it was built they put passengers into an Ice Breaker to get across the lake. In the very cold winter of 1903/ 1904, tracks were laid across Lake Baikal and the carriages were drawn by horses across the ice…..


Eastern Siberian Road repairs:

Lake Baikal is in Eastern Siberia. The winter is really hard on the roads and this was true in Bolshie Koty too. The roads had dips in them. The local people had been very thoughtful and put sheets of old roofing material into the dips. The building material had broken up a bit. Then a car went down the road. There was a bit of dust.

The tricky thing was that the old roofing material was Asbestos sheeting……


What is the Russian word for Mesothelioma?


End of an odyssey

Luggage transport - Bolshie Koty style

With that we headed back to Irkutsk and got on the flight to, inevitably, Moscow and then on to Riga in Latvia.
Russia had been amazing. We had experienced and learnt a lot. We had met some great people.
If you get the chance go…..


Posted by capetocape2017 08:50 Archived in Russia Tagged lake railway trans-siberian baikal suzdal boshie koty

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.