Black Sea Coast
A narrow coastal strip edges the Black Sea from where rolling hills ascend fairly rapidly into mountains in the southeast and low uplands in the northwest. This is the Black Sea coast (Побережье Чёрного моря), Russia’s sole seaside playground until the Kremlin's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The Golden Ring comes with a diamond and that’s Suzdal. If you have only one place to visit near Moscow, come here – even though everyone else will do the same. In 1864, local merchants failed to coerce the government into building the Trans-Siberian Railway through their town. Instead it went through Vladimir, 35km away.
Once Siberia’s capital, Tobolsk is one of the region’s most historic cities, sporting a magnificent kremlin and a charmingly decrepit old town. Tobolsk is off the Trans-Siberian main line but is easily reached from Tyumen. The centre of the Russian colonisation of Siberia, Tobolsk was founded in 1587.
Nominally independent before WWII, fascinating Tuva (Тува in Russian, Тыва in Tuvan) is culturally similar to neighbouring Mongolia but with an international cult following all its own. Philatelists remember Tannu Tuva’s curiously shaped 1930s postage stamps. World-music aficionados are mesmerised by Tuvan throat singers.
At first look, Vladivostok is something like ‘Russia’s San Francisco’ – a real stunner, with pointed mountains springing up above a network of bays, most strikingly the crooked dock-lined Golden Horn Bay (named for its likeness to Istanbul’s). Closer up, it can be a little grey, with Soviet housing blocks squeezed between new condos and century-old mansions.
Talk about bizarre: the world’s coldest city stands on stilts (the shifting permafrost collapses buildings otherwise) and is pretty much cut off from the already remote Far East; a dodgy road to the BAM line takes a ferry ride and 24 hours, and airfares cost over R13,000 just to reach Vladivostok! Yet, unlike so many remote Russian cities out here, Yakutsk roars with optimism.
Alternatively called Solovki, these distant, lake-dappled White Sea islands are home to one of Russia’s best-known monasteries. Transformed by Stalin into one of the USSR’s most notorious prison camps, Solovki was described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as being so remote that a ‘scream from here would never be heard’. Visiting the islands is an adventure.