Kazan: The place where pluralism is celebrated and wearing scarf is normal for Russians

The first thing that’d cross my mind when anyone mentions Kazan is Ivan the Terrible. Well, that was before I arrived in Kazan,that is, According to legend, after Ivan the Terrible seized Kazan, he wanted to celebrate by taking the deposed Khan's niece, Suyumbike, as his bride. Of course the beautiful Princess Suyumbike said no at first. She would only agree to marry him if he could build a tower higher than either of them had ever seen. The spire was erected in just six days. What a dedication, aye? 

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Planning to do Trans – Siberia railways? Here’s what you need to know

Now that I have done 5 legs out of 6 and completed my 30 days out of 74 days of travelling, I believe that I am eligible to write something about it. If you want to know what Trans- Siberia railways really is, the routes and what not then I suggest that you ask Mr. Google and do some reading. These are based on my experience and remember everybody has his or her own journey. If you feel like reading an SOP then pardon me for doing so. It’s just the technical writer in me doing the writing.


Research! Research! And more research!

Before I finalized my destinations, I did an extensive research on the attractions and the activities available at each location. Of course a few locations were selected on the basis of visiting my friends. But most of the locations were chosen for the museums that they have and the sceneries in winter. Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Railways was the first book that I read. But after reading some forums, I found out that most of them have been reading Trans-Siberian Handbook by Trailblazer.

The three Trans-Siberian’s traveler whom I met along the journey read the book too and religiously followed the recommendations. They made their preparations and chose their locations based on what was written in it. I must say that it is more comprehensive compared to Lonely Planet’s edition. Based on the book’s recommendation, I brought my own tumbler and food container to be used on the trip. You can prepare your instant noodles, eat your cereals or make your own tea for there is hot water boiler in each coach. There is even a chapter on what you should wear when in the train. Thank god that I read the whole chapter for I had known what to expect on the train. Wearing pajamas on the train for 52hours train trip is nothing to write home about but be prepared to see men walking around in their boxer and normally those are drunken people. Some of the sights that I have seen along the train journey are not for the faint of heart. Consider yourself being warned. 


It’s all about the money! Money! Money!

Trans-Siberia railways trip is not cheap. I paid 750-pound sterling for my tickets, which I bought from Real Russia. This company is excellent in providing suggestions and their service is superb. Buy your tickets early so you can get some discounts. Along the trip you will spend your money on some other things.

For this journey, I booked hostels that are in town center, has kitchen and laundry facilities. So far, most of the attractions that I visited are just a walking distance. A hostel in Kazan upgraded me to their hotel room next door for free since I was the only traveler at their hostel. I usually take taxis if I arrive at the stations too early in the morning or late at night. Most of them are booked through the hostel so I don’t have to negotiate the price and it is far more reasonable too.

As for me I always like museums, so 5 percent of my budgets for each country goes to museum fees. For example, the average entrance fee in Russia is around 100 to 250 rubles and additional 50 rubles for camera. Since I’m doing this on a shoestring budget, I am quite particular about my transportations budget hence the long walk around town and of course I try to set a budget for money spends on museum’s entrance fee.

Since Halal food is scarce, I turn on my vegetarian mode and get my protein from milk and cheese. I also brought some ‘serunding’ ,daging dendeng and ‘sambal ikan bilis’ from home. I try to plan my food supply based on locations and activities so I could save up on my money. Energy bar is great should you decide to spend some time at the museums or just walk around town for it is cheap and fast energy source. Rice could easily be found, so if you stay at the hostel with kitchen then just cook your meal. When I stayed in Irkutsk, I planned my menu and cooked my meals for a few days. I’m no Nigella Lawson but suffice to say I won’t end up starving and trust me when you’re travelling you’d suddenly become very creative and hyper at times. If I get too lazy, I’d just cook some rice and eat it with my Malaysia’s food supply. Or boil some spaghetti noodles and mix it with tuna in tomato sauce. Still lazy? Just call for food delivery. The keyword here is budget and not frugal.  


Cold? Nah! It’s super chilly!

I’ve heard stories of the harsh Mongolian weather and dry Russian winter so I deduced that it’s nothing like the European winter that I have experienced before. Thus, I decided that it’d be wise to let my body slowly get used to the weather so I could enjoy the trip. And it works for my body that is. When I arrived in Beijing, it was already end of autumn so the temperature was somewhere around 2 °C to 0 °C. When I got to Ulaanbaatar, it snowed a bit and the temperature could easily drop to -5°C in a blink of an eye. I fell on my bum for the first time here, for I was still struggling to walk on icy pavements.

My body has already got used to the cold weather by now and I could walk around town with only 3 layers of clothing. On the night that I arrived in Yekaterinburg it was 0°C and I was surprised that it felt quite warm for my body and I ended up going to the supermarket only in my fleece jacket. Just imagine that when I arrived to the -2C in Mongolia, my teeth were chattering and I couldn’t feel my nose! All I could think of was that my toes would fall off! Now here I am in Moscow with -13°C with just 3 layers of clothing. Should you decide to do this trip in winter, I beg you to really understand how your body works. You wouldn’t want to be sick or feeling tired along the journey, would you? So decide on what season to travel based on your body and of course your pocket. If it’s deep enough then summer is definitely for you.


To exercise or not to exercise

I went to the gym before kicking off this journey for I was scared that I might be panting for air when I walk the distance. I would be lying if I say that the image of me crawling on the street alá Ju On to get to Kremlin in Kazan has never crossed my mind. It’s a big complex, mind you and the distance from my hostel is around 3 km up the hill. With the strong wind and heavy snow, it could easily take up to 30 minutes. So a little jog around the neighbourhood or some cardio routines before your trip won’t hurt your body. I had some routines before I started this trip so suffice to say that I could walk around town in the heaviness of my shirts while most of the time I look like a penguin. Suffice to say that I don’t have to hop on a cab just to get back to the hostel. What if you’re not fit and keep gasping for air even when walking to the pantry? Worst-case scenario: You might end up being towed away in an ambulance.


Do I look fat in these?

Clothing also plays a crucial role in my journey. They burnt quite a hole in my not-so-deep pocket. But after 30 days into my journey, I believe that it is worth every ringgit.  I bought my jacket from a friend who ordered the wrong size from Amazon so I saved up a bit from this purchase. I got my thermal base layer from Columbia and they are superb. As for the pants, I bought additional fleece pants from Ulaanbaatar. I could easily wear it as a second layer or be worn on its own when I get on the train. The temperature in the train is usually between 20C to 24C so it would be best just to wear some t-shirt and pants like we usually put on in Malaysia. Or else you would end up sweating like a pig the whole way through.

If you decided to do your journey in winter, please make sure that at least your outer jacket and boots are waterproof. Heels are optional and Uniqlo’s thin jacket should be worn with layers. Melting icy pavement mixed with snow is just like the mud after rainfall in Kuala Lumpur. And letting your feet wet in this kind of temperature is like asking a vegetarian to eat chicken satay. It’s ok to ask the vegetarian to eat it but beware of the consequences. Either you end up with one black eye which is not as fun as Black Eyed peas or long lecture on the importance of being a vegetarian. And since I brought my DSLR with a few additional lenses, I put them in a waterproof bag for the walk in heavy snows. Love thy camera like thy love own life.



Before your trip, just learn a few phrases in local languages to make sure that you get a good service. Saying thank you or asking how are you in Russian will definitely take you far. My life on the train was quite easy when I, without fail asked the coach supervisor how he is in Mandarin. It’s the quickest way to win the local’s heart and it shows that you have full respects towards the country that you visit. If you’re going to stay for more than a week in a non-English speaking country, I suggest that you spend a few ringgits and get yourself the phrasebook. Nothing warms the cold Russian’s heart better than hearing you wish them good morning in Russian. It warms their body just like vodka, I should say. Besides, learning a new language is always a fun thing to do. Ask Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love. She’ll vouch for it.


Go, Gadget, go!

If you have a smartphone, then fully utilize it. It’s not only for Camera 360 or Candy Crush, people. In Mongolia and Russia, it is easy to get Wi-Fi connections at the cafes and even in the train stations. So if you are lost, then just step into any cafes with the Wi-Fi sign on its door and order yourself a cuppa. I use Google translate apps on my mobile phone and amazingly a few other Russians in the service industry used it too so they could offer a better service. I even used it to hold decent conversations with a few Russians. Not many cafes in Russia offer free Wi-Fi so make sure that you utilize the connections at the hostel before you step out.

Foursquare definitely is ace in finding the cheap cafes that the local frequents to and finding attractions near to your hostel or choosing the best museum to visit. Bear in mind that in each Trans-Siberia locations in Russia they have at least five museums. So, choose wisely!


Feel free to ask on the comment section or send me a snail mail. I will do my best to reply, I promise! Unless I get carried away at people watching then I would take some time to reply. Till the next update, here are some pictures from Yekaterinburg to Kazan taken while I was in the train. Enjois! 

Yekaterinburg: Where dark history is good for tourism

For those of you who are not in the know, Yekaterinburg is in the limelight for being the location where the Ural Soviet killed Nicholas II, his family and four of his servants. Disney even had a movie called Anastasia, which is based on the tragedy. It was also one of the reasons why this place is chosen as my pit stop for I wanted to visit the Church on the Blood. An uncanny name for a horrific tragedy I suppose. 

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How I survived the 52-hours train ride

This is the longest train ride for me in this trip. 52 hours in a coupe with strangers. And not any stranger, but Russians for God sake! The next paragraph definitely is not for the faint of heart. Some of the stories would be labeled as 18+, as seen on one of the books read by my fellow berth members. Yes, they have age appropriate guidelines printed on the book cover. Sounds absurd? Welcome to Russia, boys and girls where vegetables are more expensive than vodkas and fur never goes out of style.


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What I learned from Russians, so far.

Here I am in the hostel room, looking at the snow falling through my window. I woke up early today to do my laundry and get prepared for the next train to Yekaterinburg. It is a 52-hour train ride, mind you. So before you start preaching on how I should at least enjoy the city before I leave, please consider the emotional preparation that needs to be done beforehand. And of course the food supply. It’d be freaking stupid to be on the train without proper food supply. Mental! Hence, I’m doing the best I can before I turn into a green chilli and eat the Russian women. Hats off to them for being able to walk on the icy pavement with the 5-inch heels and fully clad in fur. You guys deserve the Guinness book record just for the heels!

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Why don’t you love me, Mother Russia?

Second leg of my train journey is now completed. No soul is harmed during crossing the Mongolian border to Russia’s soil except from being asked to step out for interrogation. I was lucky for there was a Mongolian woman who speaks Russian in my cabin and she helped to translate the conversations carried out in Russian.

It all started with the immigration officer that is as dull as the dishwasher who alerted her higher-ranking officer. It was done on a basis that I might be carrying a fake passport and destinations listed in my Russian visa are considered as not common for Malaysian travellers. I was then asked to step outside and followed the higher-ranking officer for interrogation. I thought that I should scheme my way out by mentioning that his blue eyes really compliment his immigration uniform. But with the stern look given by the other immigration people, I ended up by saying I heard Russians are a bunch of nice people when he asked why I come to Russia. My passport was taken away for further inspection, as it is fairly new with only 4 pages used for stamps and visas. Besides, they are not sure whether it is the latest issue with the black and white photo. It felt like an eternity when I was being interrogated and I can’t help but to feel like being in a movie as well.  You know, a bit like Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. 

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Mongolia: In retrospect

I was sad to leave Terelj National Park. The beautiful panorama and its fresh air: definitely to die for. I could just sit outside and look at the stars if not for the minus temperature, that is. The sounds of dogs barking in the middle of the night somewhat made me hoping to see a glimpse of Jacob Black or Jon Snow even! But that wasn’t enough reason to spend the night freezing your toes off outside the ger. Maybe I’ll come back during summer and get to the Northern part next time. I heard that it is really beautiful place and seeing reindeer people with my own eyes would be an awesome experience. Oh well, too many places to go and not deep enough pocket.

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Terelj National Park : Day 2

Second day was free and easy. We hiked to the Aryapala Meditation Centre from the ger camp. We wanted to take a shortcut to the camel rock but then were warned by the neighbor that he didn’t tie up his dogs. Mind you, the dogs here are way bigger and way fiercer. So better burn up the calories then having rabies. While we were making our detour, suddenly came a moggie running and followed us around. It was so playful and cheeky, running around and climbing up trees! It made the long hike a bit bearable or else I’d be panting and grunting all the way through. It sent us to the Centre and waited for a while but after we got to the peak we heard some dogs barking. And when we got back to the entrance, it was no longer there. I guess the wild dogs chased it away.

The long hike was worth it. The scenery, I should say is to die for. If you happen to travel to Mongolia, then Terelj National Park is a must. Stop complaining about the Meditation Centre being locked up or lack of maintenance whatsoever. Do it for the scenery and the serenity. When I got to the peak, it was almost noon. We just sat, enjoyed the sun and chatting away. The best way to soak in the beautiful panorama!

I suppose my photos wouldn’t do the beauty justice but hopefully it gives you the idea. Till then, ciao!

Terelj National Park : Day 1

I was getting tired with the hustle and bustle in Ulaanbaatar, not forget to mention the insanely polluted air. After some thoughts, I decided it’s about time to be one with Mother Nature. In another word, stay in Mongolian Ger with basic necessities; without modern toilet and Wi-Fi and wander around Terelj National Park to burn the calories. Gasp! 

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When in Mongolia, walk like the Mongolians

First day starts off with lots of surprises to me. Snow kept falling the whole day and I was only wearing my GAP jacket with 3 other layers  (1 jacket + 1 long sleeves t-shirt + 1 thermal). What is the best that I could make out of the situation? Jogging? Well, I won’t be caught dead jogging in Kuala Lumpur anyway. After some observation, I came to the conclusion that you must walk as fast as you can as if the crazy cat woman is chasing you.

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Leg 1 : Beijing to Ulanbator

The traffic jam in Beijing starts as early as 6.30 am and I was determined to get to Beijing station before that. I almost had to brave through the traffic peak hours for it was hard to get the cab along the hostel’s alley. Tadaaaa! Made it to Beijing Train Station and arrived before 7am. And yes, the queue for the security check was already long. So, it’s better to arrive before 7am so you have ample time to go through the security and rest a bit before embarking on the train. Bear in mind that you have to check in 40 minutes before departure time.

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Zài jiàn, Beijing. Sain baina uu, Ulanbator!

It was free and easy for my last day in Beijing. Sunny and warm with occasional wind all day long. Before I got here to Beijing, I’ve bored my friends stiff with my plan to cycle around Beijing. And the day has arrived!I attempted to get to Jingshan Park without having to go through Tiananmen Square. After being stopped numerous times on the first day, it’s most practical to get there using the back alley. And yes, no policeman stopped me today.

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'Sup, bro?

Survived the second day in the sunny but very windy China. What would be the best way to spend it than to go to the Great Wall of China? 'He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man' as the famous Chinese saying goes.

 In case you haven’t heard about the legend. The Great Wall is design in such a way with the help of a dragon that traced out the course of the Great Wall for the workforce. The builders subsequently followed the tracks of the dragon.

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Ni hao ma?


First day in Beijing went better than I have expected. If not for the policemen who kept asking for my passport at Tiananmen Square, I’d have a fabulous day I should say. It was sunny and bright today with occasional strong winds. The best way to start my trip, in my head that is, was to visit Tiananmen Square and to the Forbidden City next.

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Ready or not Beijing, here I come!

I thank you all for the supports shown through “Like’ on the website and Facebook page. I could never depict how massive the positive vibes and words of encouragements sent in my way throughout the week. Gazillion thanks to those who sent in the emails through my contact’s page. I am touched by your thoughtfulness and the kind words really touched my heart.

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What's in your backpack, Dora?

With less than 24 hours to go, it is time to pack my bag and focus on having fun throughout the journey. Not! I will be frantically walking back and forth and struggle to remember if I have left anything out. However, I finally decided to pack light for my 76 days winter trip. Yes, you have read it right. Pack light for Siberian winter. I’ll be taking 2 bags with me: 1 75-liter Deuter backpack and 1 sling bag for camera and MacBook Air.

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8 days and counting


Meet my travel companion. She’s as excited as I am to see the world. The handbook will be my new best friend along the way. Let’s see whether all the tips work and maybe there’d be room for improvements. It’s raining now in KL and I hope all the Hindus is having a great Diwali.  I suppose in a week or two I’ll have to brave the snow and strong gust of wind instead of the rain.


Smurfette the Traveler

Smurfette the Traveler