One month after graduating from Exeter University with a degree in English, I found myself on a train travelling eastwards, towards Russia. It was the start of a grand adventure, which would see me cycle overland to the country I had read so much about. I had never felt so excited about a train journey, or about leaving the familiarity of home so quickly.
The day after I arrived in Russia, I set my alarm a little early, eager to make the most of my first day in the country. I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the dining car, where I was met with a gorgeous sunrise; the train was approaching a tunnel and the sky was taking on a glowing orange hue. As the train emerged from the tunnel, a massive mountain rose up in front of me, shrouded in mist, the first sight of Russia I had ever seen.
That afternoon, I bought a guidebook to the country and started to plan my route. I wanted to do as much as I could to take advantage of the time there. The next day, I boarded a bus to the town of Gorki, which is where I was going to stay for the next few nights. After getting off the bus at the stop closest to my hostel, I set off on foot and soon found myself immersed in a world of colour. The air was alive with the hues of red, orange and yellow, as the sun beat down on me. The ground was covered in a blanket of vibrant green, as summer finally descended on Russia.
I had heard so much about the hospitality of the Russian people that I decided to extend my stay for a few more nights, before continuing my travels. I walked a short distance to a bus stop, where I got on a bus to Nizhny Novgorod. It was another two hours before the bus finally delivered me to my destination – a charming town, which despite the early hour, was coming to life with shoppers and sightseers. I checked into my Airbnb and went out for a walk, which took me to the banks of the Volga river. That night, the air was filled with the sound of trickling waters and crickets chirping contentedly. The next morning, I set off for a nearby cafe, where I spent the morning drinking coffee and eating homemade pastries, looking out over the river and its verdant banks.
I arrived in St. Petersburg a day later, and was met with a city that was breathtaking in its size and majesty. After getting my bearings, I meandered over to Vasilyeva Island, which is connected to the mainland by a short bridge. It was here that I had the privilege of meeting a real-life Sherlock Holmes; Mr. Vladimir Markov, the legendary detective, whom I had read about, but had never expected to meet in real life. He was an old friend of my grandfather’s, and during our short conversation I realised that he somewhat resembled my granddad, with his slicked back hair, bushy eyebrows and piercing blue eyes. Perhaps it was the cold that had brought out the grey in his hair and bushy eyebrows, or the fact that he had spent many long hours under the hot sun of the country, detecting and solving crimes. Regardless, I was extremely grateful to have been able to spend some time in his company, even if it was only for a few hours. After our meeting, I set off on a tour of the city’s Hermitage Museum, which was absolutely fascinating and filled with fascinating facts, as well as priceless works of art. The highlight for me, however, was a short walk from the museum, to the Winter Palace. It was an unseasonably cold day, and as I entered the palace, the cold penetrated my layers of clothing, making every one of my fingers, toes and ears tingle. Inside, it was as lavish as one would expect, with marble flooring, crystal chandeliers and elaborately carved woodwork. It was from here that I had the most wonderful view of the whole city. Unfortunately, the palace’s icy interiors felt more welcoming than the outside air, and I was glad to warm up again once I was back inside the hotel.
Lined with books, my next stop was one of the greatest libraries I had ever seen. Its vaults were filled with thousands of books, and since it was Saturday, I was able to go down into the stacks and search for books on my grandfather. It was a thrill to find a book that he had read and remembered talking about, and even more exciting to see that it had been in his possession all these years. I remembered him saying that he had never cared much for books or going to the bookcase of a library, but that this one was different – it was important. As I leafed through the book in my hands, I felt a sense of achievement that I had finally found it; having given it much thought and planning, I knew exactly where to look and had managed to find a copy. It was an old Bible, written in Latin and dating back to approximately 1480, which I had spent many happy hours reading in the past. After my search came to an end, I headed back to the hotel, where I curled up on the sofa, with my Bible and some good TV shows, and felt completely at home.
The following day, I was up early, excited about my trip to Ucraina. It was a stunning country, and one that I had heard wonderful things about. I arrived in the city of Lviv, and was overwhelmed by the beauty of its churches, cobbled streets and ornamental plazas. That afternoon, I walked to a nearby park, where I was met by a small gathering of musicians, who were playing classical music. Just as I was about to sit down and enjoy their performance, a trumpet blared out, and the music suddenly stopped; the performers turned to me and bowed, asking if they could continue. I smiled and nodded, realising that I had been holding back tears all along. I hadn’t felt so connected to a church-going community in a long time, and it was a beautiful way to end my first day in the country.
The following morning, I set off to see some of the city’s famous historic sites. The first was the Clock Tower, a grand building from the 16th century, which served as a focal point for the city’s budding tourist industry. That afternoon, I wandered into a cafe, where I was served a plate of chilaquiles. Those little fried tortilla chips, stuffed with red onions and jalapeños, were ambrosia. I made a mental note to go back there as soon as I could, and when I returned to the UK, I duly went back to that little cafe, a place that felt like a home away from home.
I stayed in Lviv for three nights, before continuing my journey. The next stop was the beautiful city of Kharkiv, a major train hub, and a place that had a very interesting history. During World War II, the city’s Lenin, or Grand, Statue had stood as a monument to the thousands who had died in the struggle for freedom. In 2014, the statue had been toppled by a pro-Russian separatist, who had then held up a Russian flag over the city. This was the first time I had ever seen a flag of any kind outside of a museum or historical site, and as I looked up at the statue, my jaw dropped; it was as if he were raising his hand in a gesture of surrender. The sheer audacity of the act made goosebumps rise on my arms. The statue had been one of the main triggers for my trip. Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was it a gesture of defeat, or was it an act of resistance? In the end, I decided to leave the politics and warring factions aside, and treat the city as an excuse to explore its culinary delights. That afternoon, I walked to a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, where I was greeted by a warm smile and a plate of meat. The food was excellent, as was the service, and I tucked into a mountainous hunk of creamy white cheese, followed by some herring, then chicken kiev and a pork cutlet. After a few more mouthfuls, I realised that I had eaten more than I should have, and excused myself, asking the restaurant owner if he had any milk left. When I looked down at my glass, I saw that it was half-empty, and I knew that there was no point in asking for another glass; in truth, I had had more than enough. Before leaving, I decided to try the local brew, which was strong and delicious, and drank happily as the afternoon faded into evening.