Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6pm on Day 1. You can arrive at any time as there are no activities planned until this important meeting; please ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so please ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader. Please have two copies of your passport, visa and migration cards ready. One will be collected by your leader, the other is for you to keep on you at all times whilst on this trip. In Russia you have to be registered on the arrival place and then in each place where you stay more than 48 hours. Hotels usually do it automatically but ask them in advance. Keep these forms until your departure. Truly one of Europe's finest cities, built of baroque European architecture combined with the opulent palaces of Russian royalty, St Petersburg was built by the Russian tsar Peter the Great and his legacy will clearly be felt as you explore its enigmatic streets and visit its showcase cathedrals and museums. If you arrive early, we recommend you visit St Isaac's Cathedral and climb to the colonnade from where you will have magnificent views over the city. Why not walk along Nevsky Prospekt - St Petersburg's main thoroughfare - maybe popping into one of the many bakeries or pancake shops along the way, or head down to Aleksandr Nevsky Lavra where Russia's great musicians and writers like Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are laid to rest in the cemetery.
In the summer months, we take a night-time boat tour of the canals and waterways with a local guide to see the illuminated architecture from a unique perspective and to witness the spectacular opening of the bridges over the Neva River. In midsummer it will still be light as the sun barely sets during White Nights. Outside of these months we'll have a boat tour of the city's canals and waterways during the day (weather permitting). Please note that should the boat trip be unavailable or for trips during winter this activity will be replaced with a guided walking tour of the city centre.
Enjoy many of St Petersburg attractions inlcuding, St Petersburg's highlight for many: the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's premier art collections housed in the former Imperial Winter Palace. Please note that in high season (May-Sep) there can be very long queues to enter the Hermitage. In order to avoid waiting to enter and to make the most of your free day it's possible to book tickets to the Hermitage online in advance from the museum's website: http://hermitagemuseum.org Escape the city and enjoy the peace and quiet of Pushkin (25km from St.Peterburg via subway and minibus) Home to the magnificent Ekaterininsky (Catherine's) Palace, a royal summer residence famous for the amazing interiors and rich in history. The residence originated in 1717, in the time of Catherine I. During the siege of Leningrad, German army destroyed the residence and since then, the palace has been rebuilt, including the famous Amber room. Visit the Kunstkamera where Peter the Great's ghoulish collection of oddities is on show. The city is surrounded by the summer residences of Russian tsars. Peterhof Palace is considered to be one of the best - take a trip out to discover for yourself (approx 30 mins by bus). Head to the railway station by public bus to take our first overnight train to Vladimir (approx 11 hrs). We recommend bringing some food with you to eat dinner in your compartments before getting an early night as this is the only daily direct train to Vladimir and we'll arrive at the crack of dawn.
Arrive in Vladimir and transfer by minivan to Suzdal (approx 30 min). Suzdal is one of the famous towns in the so-called 'Golden Ring' - a group of ancient towns and former capitals of Russia. It's a beautiful place that feels like a fairytale, with many glittering onion domes dotting the skyline, opportunities to drink mead by the river, and a symphony of church bells to be heard in the evenings. Crumbling churches and lovingly decorated wooden cottages line the narrow streets and alleys of this magical spot. Join our local guide for a walk including some of the Suzdal's sights, the Kremlin, trading square and monasteries.
We transfer back to Vladimir by private van (approx 30 min) and then to the modernity of Moscow by public bus or local train (approx. 4 hours, although can be longer depending on traffic. We use the metro for our city transfers in Moscow to avoid its notorious traffic jams. The metro is a fantastic introduction to this bustling city although it can be very busy and there are a lot of steps and escalators. The great city of Moscow has survived centuries of revolution and seen Russia through some of its most turbulent years, from the days of the tsars through the communist era to the growing pains of democracy. Beneath its modern veneer - a sign of Russia's recent embrace of capitalism - Moscow is a fascinating, historic city with a wealth of sights to see.
Head to iconic Red Square. Visit Lenin inside his mausoleum. Please note that on occasion Lenin's Mausoleum and Red Square may be closed to the public during regular opening hours without prior warning. Enter the Kremlin grounds which house the oldest and most important churches in the country, where many Tsars and Tsarinas are laid to rest. Also head inside the Armoury Museum which houses a glittering imperial collection of regalia and items once belonging to the world's richest monarchy, including Faberge eggs and ambassadorial gifts. As Moscow's premier tourist attractions, tickets for the Kremlin and Armoury are in high demand. In order to control the number of tour groups entering these sights at one time the Moscow Tourism Administration has set strict quotas. For this reason some groups may visit Red Square in the morning and return later in the day to enter the Kremlin and Armoury rather than visiting all the sights together. The amount of time guides can spend with their groups is also restricted to 90 minutes in each area, with any exceptions possibly resulting in the guide losing their license, so while we appreciate that some travelers would like to spend longer in the Armoury Museum we ask for your understanding that the guide is under pressure to keep to the schedule. The Diamond Fund isn't included, but after the Kremlin and Armoury there is time to visit. Entrance tickets cost RUB500 and can be purchased in the ticket office at the Armoury. The Diamond Fund is open for visitors from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 4pm. Thursday it is closed
In your free time here you may like to visit some of the following:
There are a lot of places to take a boat on the Moscow river - the broad river that flows through all the city. In winter months a boat is still available, the boat being equipped with ice-breaking technology (although the Moskva River doesn't really freeze in winter.) The boat is heated and has a restaurant. During the 2.5 hour tour you will see most major sights of Moscow - the Kremlin, Moscow State University, Gorky Park, Novodevichiy Monastery. Join the cruise near the subway station Kievskaya at Taras Shevchenko naberezhnaya, the Hotel Ukraina pier.
Step inside the colourful St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. Legend has it that tsar, Ivan the Terrible, had the two architects blinded so that they couldn't build anything as beautiful. Relive the nation's turbulent past at Victory Park. During winter try Ice Skating in Red Square or in Gorky Park, which has the largest artificial skating rink in Russia, if not in Europe (up to +15C)
Take the metro to Yaroslavsky Station - the starting point of the Trans-Siberian Railway for our 3-day/4-night trip to Irkutsk (approx 90 hrs). Please note that there's only one daily train between Moscow and Irkutsk that has a total travel time of less than 100 hours and departs at a convenient time from Moscow. Some foreign travel companies that have less regular departures than Intrepid may take the train that departs late evening, however this train only departs every second day. In order to ensure that all this trip can always run on the same itinerary we take the daily train that leaves during the day. The downside of this is that we only have a limited time in Moscow so need to plan carefully to fit as much in as possible. The upside is that the train we take has less foreign tourists on board and gives us much more chance for interaction with regular Russian travellers.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world's most famous train line. It's also the longest, extending from Moscow across Siberia to the far-flung town of Vladivostok. We experience part of this celebrated train odyssey from Moscow to the Siberian city of Irkutsk (4 nights in total). Traveling through five time zones, we wind our way through forests, small Siberian villages and big industrial Russian cities, to the far reaches of this vast and varied nation. During winter departures it really does feel like the Siberia that legend describes. It' s cold (minus 15- minus 25 celsius, and covered in snow. Sunsets can be amazing with the snow turning pink as the train rolls on.
The train stops roughly every 4-5 hours at major cities in Siberia, and some smaller ones as well. Lists of stations where we'll stop are available, along with time spent at each one. Major stops (15-40 mins) are usually at Vladimir - Nizhniy Novgorod - Kirov - Perm - Yekaterinburg - Novosibirsk - Omsk - Tyumen - Krasnoyarsk - Tayshet and finally Irkutsk where we disembark.
The duration of each stop ranges from 2-40 minutes but ALWAYS double check with the carriage attendant and your leader and do not stray too far from the train if you get off for a walk on the platform. Trains in Russia run on Moscow time even as we pass through different time zones so make sure you and the train are on the same schedule. It may be a very long wait for the next train to come through and it's unlikely that many people at the station will speak English if you get left behind (it has happened!). Even if you get off the train for a short stop make sure you have your passport and valuables with you, as well as the itinerary with contact details of your leader and your train ticket. Additional safety issues will be discussed by your leader at the group meeting.
It might seem like a long journey but the majority of our travellers are actually surprised how quickly it goes! Spend the days learning some Russian, chatting with your fellow travellers, having some meals in the dining car or taking a chance on finding some babushkas hawking local produce or baked goods on the platforms. Watch the landscape roll by, read up on the upcoming destinations or play cards. There's actually plenty to keep us busy and enjoying this relaxing part of our journey and you may even be reluctant to get off when we reach our next destination.
Our long rail journey finally brings us to the charming Siberian city of Irkutsk - gateway to Lake Baikal. Drive direct from the train station to the lake by private minivan (approx 90 mins). Lake Baikal is the world's deepest, amazingly holding over 20% of the world's fresh water. There are plenty of optional activities to choose from: hiking, swimming and boat trips. You can visit the markets or the Baikal Museum, or stretch your legs along the Cirum-Baikal railway tracks at Port Baikal. Here we stay in a lovely village right on the western shore of the lake for 2 nights in a local family run guesthouse, accommodation is on a mixed, multishare basis. Time at the guesthouse can be spent playing games, helping the host's cook learning new recipes, karaoke, mountain biking, or simply relax and enjoy the sun and magnificent views of the lake and Hamardaban Mountains from the verandah.
Don't miss out on experiencing a Banya - the Russian saunas that locals say gets you cleaner than any other form of bathing! You are welcome to jump into lake after taking Banya - it's just 200 meters to run. Why not take a ferry between Listvyanka and Port Baikal, returning on an evening ferry. This is a public ferry both for cars and people which crosses the Angara Rriver several times a day year round. The Angara is the only river that flows out of the lake and the current is so strong that the river doesn't freeze over. You will have about 3.5 hours in at either Port Baikal or Listvyanka until needing to return. Please note the ferry schedules are often changed, so confirm with your leader the actual times. During winter departures we stay in a guesthouse in the village of Listvyanka. Our guesthouse is located 900m from the lake. There are excellent opportunities for hiking in the surrounding hills. You can also take a chairlift to the top of one of the hills and enjoy the views of the area and the lake. The lake doesn't freeze over until mid-January. Skiing, tubing, snow mobile rides and dog sledding are also available.
Once a boom town of exiles and gold merchants, Irkutsk suffered under the new regime that brought Russian architecture and communist propaganda to its streets. Fortunately, the sophisticated atmosphere it once offered is not totally lost and Irkutsk remains one of the most charming of Siberia's cities. Some parts of town are still lined with traditional houses and the old homes of liberal aristocrats exiled from Moscow early in the 19th century. Visit the House Museum of Maria Volkonskaya. Sometimes called the Princess of Siberia, Maria was one of the many Decembrist revolutionaries' wives who voluntarily accompanied their husbands into exile. Her house is still filled with many of her personal items and visitors can get a sense of how she must have felt, a young aristocratic woman banished to the frozen plains of Siberia. Walking through the city we see some of the original wooden residences and stop off at the Central Market to taste some of the amazing range of local produce for sale and to stock up on supplies for our next journey.
Board the Trans-Mongolian Railway for a two-night train trip (approx 40 hrs) that takes us into Mongolia. This train is the most basic on our journey and a restaurant car is not always provided so we recommend bringing some supplies with you for your meals. There's only one train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar that departs daily - other, faster trains only depart once a week. We take the daily train to ensure we're able to offer this trip at regular, set departures without the need to change the itinerary each time. During the journey we cross the border from Russia (Naushki) into Mongolia (Sukhbaatar). There's a long wait at the border towns while passports are processed, customs does their checks and we wait for the engine to rejoin the train to take us on our way. It can sometimes be a long, hot and frustrating day, so a healthy dose of patience and understanding is recommended. After everything is finally completed we are rewarded with the magical landscapes of Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar (affectionately known as UB), is a city where new meets old as elderly Mongolians in traditional dress mingle with the nation's young business elite. Mongolia's close relationship with the USSR is evident in the Soviet-style architecture and city layout. Explore the city's many museums to learn about the country's turbulent history, including the reign of history's most famous Mongolian - the feared and respected Genghis Khan. We meet our local guide for a unique introduction to this city. As more and more traditionally nomadic Mongolians are moving to the city in hope of a better life they bring with them their traditional lifestyle of living in gers and Ulaanbaatar is surrounded by a growing number of such 'ger districts'. Life here is hard with unemployment high and little access to facilities such as electricity and running water. We visit one such district to meet some of the residents, have a cup of traditional Mongolian tea and a chat. Some groups may have the chance to visit some local organisations that are working to improve the lives and opportunities of Ulaanbaatar's ger residents or to visit a local school to do some volunteer English teaching. If you are interested in the English teaching activity please let your leader know at the start of your tour so we can try to arrange this. While the school and children would no doubt appreciate donations in order to make sure we are contributing in a manageable and sustainable way we recommend asking your leader to check in advance what they need before bringing anything from home.
Travel to Terelj National Park by private van (approx 90 mins). With rolling meadows, forested hills and imposing rock formations this is the perfect place to take in Mongolia's natural beauty. We have a local guide with us to share some insight into Mongolian customs and culture, as well as lead us on a hike to a local Buddhist retreat. In Terelj, we stay in a holiday ger camp with full board. Vegetarians can be catered for although choices may be limited - please let us know if you have any specific dietary requirements at time of booking. The gers at our holiday camp sleep up to four people with comfy beds and plenty of blankets. In the colder months you might want to stoke up the stove in the centre of the ger and you'll be toasty warm in no time! We share our meals together in the dining quarters. Bathroom facilities here are basic with no showers but do have toilets and basins with cold water in a support building outside. Please note in the colder months when plumbing is no longer functional there will be no running water and we'll use the outdoor pit toilet. Get involved in making your own dinner by learning to cook buuz - traditional Mongolian dumplings. Return to our hotel in Ulaanbaatar.
Return to our hotel in Ulaanbaatar.
Travel from Mongolia to Beijing, the next part of our epic train ride. The overnight journey (approx 30 hrs) leaves early in the morning and includes a long stop at the Mongolia-China border where the train changes bogies (wheels) due to the different rail gauges. The train may have a basic restaurant car but it's advisable to stock up at the supermarket before leaving Ulaanbaatar. Please note that due to the high demand for train tickets from June-October and the fact that the train only runs once a week, some groups may need to depart Ulaanbaatar a day later and stay the extra night in Mongolia at the ger camp. The itinerary will be amended to fit in all our included activities. For this reason we recommend either booking a late night flight on departure day or plan to stay a few extra days in Beijing.
Arrive in Beijing and take the subway from the central train station to our hotel (3 stops and a line change) Although we will be travelling outside of peak hour, be prepared to carry your own bags in a crowded environment. The capital of the most populous country on earth, Beijing is quickly shedding its historical face in favour of modernity. However, there are still plenty of places to go that will give you a great insight into the nation's ancient past as well as sights that showcase China's contemporary culture.
Take a private vehicle out to the Great Wall. Walk the Mutianyu Great Wall (approx 2 hrs drive from Beijing). An incredible piece of engineering, it stretches 6,000 km westwards from the mountain ridges north of Beijing. It was originally constructed to protect Chinese empires from the 'barbarians' of the north and even though it failed in this purpose, it's still without a doubt one of the country's most remarkable achievements and an iconic destination. Please note that the wall is quite steep in places so make sure you have some appropriate footwear for this activity but it's up to you how far you walk once up on the wall. There are so many great experiences to have in Beijing. Some our suggestions include: The Forbidden City is the former home to China's imperial rulers. Take a guided tour of the palaces, buildings and seemingly never-ending grand courtyards. Explore the vast Tiananmen Square, the very heart of the nation for local Chinese and a truly grand sight. A trip to the 798 Art District on a Beijing Art and Architecture tour will give you a taste of where art is heading in today's China as you wander the multitude of galleries housed in this old factory complex. Cycling through the traditional hutongs, Chang'an Avenue or universities is a wise choice for exploring Beijing thoroughly. You can take your time, enjoy the beautiful view on the way, and experience the real life of the locals.
There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart our accommodation at any time. Please check the 'Finishing Point Hotel' section for checkout times and luggage storage possibilities.