Embark on a journey of a lifetime to one of the world’s last travel frontiers. This 18-day tour reveals the cultural and geographic wonders of Siberia and the Russian Far East. We begin in Irkutsk, an old Cossack settlement and the cultural capital of Siberia, and then travel to the beautiful Lake Baikal, sacred to the indigenous Buryat people. Returning to Irkutsk, we take the famous Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulan Ude, a culturally Mongolian town that is the centre of Russian Buddhism. From here we fly to Khabarovsk, a gracious nineteenth-century town on the Chinese border, before continuing to Kamchatka, to explore its extraordinary landscapes, wildlife, and the culture of its indigenous husky-raising people. The tour ends in the bustling port city of Vladivostok.
Irkutsk, an old Cossack settlement where the exiled Decembrists sought to recreate the cultural life of St Petersburg
The immensity and tranquility of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, including sacred Olkhon Island
A day on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude
The heart of Russian Buddhism at Ulan Ude’s resurgent datsans and monasteries
Private helicopter and walking tour of Kamchatka’s snow-capped volcanoes
The awe-inspiring sight of Kamchatka brown bears on the summer salmon run
Outstanding local seafood in the bustling Pacific port of Vladivostok
Days 1–5: Arrive Irkutsk, hear tales of exile at the Decembrist Museum. On Lake Baikal, meet with a shaman on Olkhon Island.
Day 6: Return to Irkutsk and retrace Siberia’s Civil War history at the Znamensky Monastery.
Day 7–9: Board the Trans-Siberian Railway for Ulan Ude. Encounter the ‘Old Believers’.
Days 10–11: Fly to Khabarovsk and explore this gracious town on the Chinese border.
Days 12–15: Fly to Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky. Marvel at volcanoes and Kamchatka brown bears; relax in natural thermal springs.
Days 16–18: Fly to Vladivostok, a vibrant Pacific port closed to foreigners until 1991.
The tour begins at the airport in Irkutsk and ends at our hotel in Vladivostok. Korean Airlines offers suitable, one-stop connections between Irkutsk and Vladivostok and Sydney and Melbourne. Contact us for quotes and bookings.
Included meals are shown with the symbols B, L and D.
Wednesday 14 July: Arrive Irkutsk, Russia
Your tour leader, Matthew Dal Santo will meet the group arriving on the Korean Airlines flight arriving in the late evening at Irkutsk Airport and transfer with you to our hotel. Overnight Irkutsk.
Thursday 15 July: Irkutsk
Founded as a Cossack fortress in 1661, Irkutsk later prospered as a way station for the fur and tea trade between Russia and China. In the 19th century, the surrounding districts became a place of exile for thousands of political prisoners. Today, it is a pleasant, tree-lined city of 600,000 people with important aeronautical industries. We begin our exploration with a visit to Irkutsk’s oldest standing structure – the 1706 Church of Christ the Saviour, which once stood at the centre of the original Cossack fort, out of which the modern city grew. From here we depart for Volkonsky House Decembrist Museum, which tells the story of the Decembrists – Russian noblemen who rebelled against the Tsar in 1825 and were exiled for life to Siberia. Among the most famous of the noblewomen who voluntarily followed them into exile was Princess Maria Volkonsky who sought to recreate in Irkutsk the cultural and intellectual life of Imperial St Petersburg. We visit Maria’s home in exile. In the afternoon, we visit Irkutsk’s central marketplace before returning to Christ the Saviour for a masterclass in the art of Russian church bellringing. Dinner is at a local restaurant. Overnight Irkutsk. (B, L, D)
Friday 16 July: Irkutsk
This morning we make a visit to the superb Taltsy Folk Architecture Museum, which offers an evocative window on life in Old Siberia, including a 17th-century Cossack fort and the log cabins of 19th-century homesteaders. In the afternoon we drive to Lystvyanka, Lake Baikal’s main port. In addition to gaining our first glimpse of the great lake, we visit the local aquarium to get up close and personal with its most famous denizen, the mysterious freshwater Baikal seal or nerpa. For dinner, we are guests of a local Siberian family, who prepare a typical Russian meal from the produce of their own garden. Overnight Irkutsk. (B, D)
Saturday 17 July: Olkhon (Lake Baikal)
Today, we travel north from Irkutsk through the lands of the Western Buryats, a formerly nomadic people related to the neighbouring Mongols. Claiming the mother of Genghis Khan as one of their own, the Buryats have driven their herds across these lands for centuries. Buryat culture is a dynamic blend of Tibetan Buddhism and indigenous Siberian shamanism and, though suppressed for decades under Communism, today it is again thriving. Reaching the shore of Lake Baikal in mid-afternoon, we board speed boats for a thrilling cruise across one of the lake’s most picturesque arms, the so-called “Little Sea”, to the enchanting “Stupa” Island. From there we make our way, again by speed boat, to Khuzhir, the main town of Baikal’s largest island, Olkhon. Overnight Olkhon Island. (B, L, D)
Sunday 18 July: Olkhon (Lake Baikal)
A deep inland sea separated by thousands of kilometres of steppe and forest from the sea, Lake Baikal (which is estimated to hold about one quarter of the world’s fresh water) is an ecosystem like no other. This morning we climb board 4WDs to cross the forests and grasslands that lead to the soaring cliffs of Khoboi Cape, where the “Little Sea” meets the waters of Baikal’s main body. On our return to Khuzhir, we visit Baikal’s most famous beauty spot, Shaman Cape. Resembling a perfect Japanese miniature, the Cape is considered the “eye of the world” by local shamanists. We meet a local shaman to learn more about the significance of this holy site to the Baikal’s indigenous people. Overnight Olkhon Island. (B, L)
Monday 19 July: Ikrutsk
Today we bid farewell to Baikal and return to Irkutsk. Arriving in the city in mid-afternoon, we retrace Siberia’s role in the Russian Civil War of 1918 to 1922, with a visit to the Russian Orthodox Znamensky Monastery, where the Bolsheviks executed the counter-revolutionary leader Admiral Kolchak in 1919. Finally, in preparation for our departure tomorrow aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, we pay a visit to Irkutsk’s monument to Tsar Alexander III, the Railway’s imperial founder. The evening is at leisure. Overnight Irkutsk. (B, L)
Tuesday 20 July: Ulan Ude
This morning we board the famous Trans-Siberian Railway for the seven-hour journey to Ulan Ude. Stretching from Moscow to the Pacific, the Trans-Siberian was one of the world’s great feats of engineering when work was completed in 1916. We travel a scenic section of the railway around the southern shore of Lake Baikal. Arriving late afternoon in Ulan Ude, we take the evening to unwind and watch the sun set over the north Asian steppe from the top floor of our modern hotel. Overnight Ulan Ude. (B, L, D)
Wednesday 21 July: Ulan Ude
Ulan Ude is the capital of the semi-autonomous Republic of Buryatia. About one quarter of the population of Buryatia is Yellow Hat Buddhist, the spiritual descendants of 17th-century Tibetan missionaries. Centuries-old links with Tibet were severed by Stali 1930s. Today, however, the temples and monasteries that stud the landscape are once again living centres of Buryat culture. This morning we visit its spiritual home at Ivolginsk Buddhist Monastery, where we witness a morning prayer service and learn about the deep historical links between Buryatia and Tibet. For lunch we are guests at the home of a local Buryat family, where we learn about the realities of life in a ger. In the afternoon, we visit the Atsagat Buddhist Temple, spiritual home to Buryatia’s most famous son, Agvan Dorzhiev, with a beautiful location on the open steppe. Overnight Ulan Ude. (B, L)
Thursday 22 July: Ulan Ude
This morning we embark on a walking tour of central Ulan Ude. In Soviet times, local Communist Party authorities sought Moscow’s favour by constructing the world’s largest bust of Lenin. More than 25 years since the demise of the USSR, the bust still has pride of place in Ulan Ude’s central square. At noon we depart by bus for an unforgettable visit to a village of one of Siberia’s most enigmatic peoples – the so-called ‘Old Believers’. After rejecting a series of Church reforms, the Old Believers split from established Russian Orthodoxy in the 1660s and either fled or were exiled Siberia, where they have preserved their beliefs and culture unbroken for centuries. We learn about their customs and traditions and, after a dinner of home-grown and locally–raised produce, enjoy a stirring performance of their songs of exile, hope, and determination. Overnight Ulan Ude. (B, D)
Friday 23 July: Khabarovsk
Today we fly to Khabarovsk, the major city of Russia’s Amur region. Originally a Cossack border fort, Khabarovsk shot to prominence in the 19th century when it became the centre of efforts for the annexation of what is now called Russia’s ‘Maritime Province’ from China. At the height of the Cold War in 1969, the region was the scene of tense skirmishes between the Soviet and Chinese armies. Today, Khabarovsk is a relaxed city with an elegant 19th-century core. Offering prime habitat for the endangered Siberian (or Amur) Tiger, the Russian Far East is the focus of Russian and international efforts to save the species. This evening we enjoy a briefing on the tiger’s conservation status from the famous tiger tracker, Alexander Balatov. Overnight Khabarovsk. (B, L, D)
Saturday 24 July: Khabarovsk
We start the day with a walking tour of central Khabarovsk, including the elegant, river-side gardens that are the city’s modern calling card. After this, we travel to the Ussuri Bridge Museum. Known as the “Wonder of the Amur” when it was first completed (at the height of the First World War) in 1916, the 4-km long Ussuri Bridge was the longest bridge in Eurasia and a major feat of Russian engineering. In the afternoon, we board a pleasure boat for a cruise on the majestic Ussuri River that separates the city from China. Overnight Khabarovsk. (B, L)
Today we fly to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, capital of Russia’s remote but spectacular Kamchatka peninsula. Kamchatka’s mix of geology, scenery and Russian and indigenous cultures is quite unlike anything else on earth. We begin our exploration with a visit to the local Volcanarium (brainchild of the Kamchatka-born volcanologist and physicist Sergei Borisevich) to learn more about the unique geological forces that have created Kamchatka’s spectacular scenery. Overnight Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. (B, L, D)
For thousands of years, the sled dog has been at the heart of the lives of Kamchatka’s indigenous peoples and this morning we visit ‘Snow Dogs’ Kennel and Education Centre. With more than 120 dogs housed on one site, the kennel offers a unique insight into the role of dogs and dogsledding in Kamchatka, with the kennels doubling as an educational centre dedicated to the culture of the indigenous Koryak people. After enjoying a fireside performance of native songs and dance, the brave can experience the thrills of the dogsled for themselves. After lunch we take to the water to explore Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s spectacular Avacha Bay, a flooded caldera forming a vast horseshoe that is home to a rich array of sea, bird and mammal life as well as Russia’s Pacific nuclear submarine fleet. Cruising aboard a comfortable motorboat, we enjoy a dinner of fresh fish onboard before returning to Petropavlovsk. Overnight Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. (B, L, D)
Today we embark by helicopter for a full-day tour of Kamchatka’s spectacular, volcano-studded landscape. Our first stop is Kuril Lake, some 200km south of Petropavlovsk. Protected by stringent environmental controls, the Lake is a UNESCO-listed wilderness famous for the annual salmon run which, in the course of the season, attracts hundreds of local brown bears. The Kamchatka brown bear is among the world’s largest and, with a professional guide and armed guard provided by the national park, we watch the bears fish from the safety of a specially constructed viewing platform. We then reboard the helicopter for the active, 3450ft-high Ksudach Volcano, which last erupted in 1907. From here, we board the helicopter again for a well-earned soak in the naturally heated waters of Khodutka Hot Springs. Flowing piping hot out of the ground at the foot of Khodutka Volcano, the water from the hot springs mingles with the cooler water of a local river. Walk along the wooden boardwalk to find your own “sweet spot” for a soothing Kamchatkan bathing experience. Changing rooms are available. Lunch will be served as part of our helicopter excursion. Dinner will take place in a local restaurant. Overnight Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. (B, L, D)
Kamchatka is renowned for the instability of its weather and this is a “back-up” day in our itinerary: in case wind or rain makes our helicopter tour impossible earlier in the week, we will (weather permitting) do it this day. If our helicopter tour has gone ahead as planned, however, we will use this day to explore Kamchatka’s maritime history. In the 18th century, Kamchatka was a leading base for the exploration of the so-called North West Passage between the North Pacific and Europe. This morning we visit the memorials of two great navigators who lost their lives in its pursuit, the Danish Capt. Vitus Bering (after whom the strait between Siberia and Alaska takes its name) and the British Capt. Charles Clerke, who took command of Capt. James Cook’s Third Voyage to the Pacific after Cook was killed in the Hawaiian islands. After lunch in a local restaurant, we hit the souvenir shops of Petro-Pavlovsk Kamchatsky. Overnight Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. (B, L, D)
Thursday 29 July: Vladivostok
Today we depart Kamchatka, by air, for Vladivostok, capital of the Russian Far East. After a flight of three hours, we arrive in the afternoon. Founded in 1860 on a superb natural harbour known as the Golden Horn but closed for decades under Communism to foreign tourists, Vladivostok is once again a free port and a bustling hub for Russian trade with North Asia. Our hotel, among Vladivostok’s best, offers a panorama lounge with superb views of the Golden Horn. Dinner tonight is in this lounge. Overnight Vladivostok. (B, D)
Friday 30 July: Vladivostok
We begin our exploration of Vladivostok with a walking tour of the harbour foreshore, including the triumphal arch erected in honour of Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, when he visited the city as Crown Prince in 1891. After decades of relative neglect, Vladivostok has benefited in recent years from a spate of government development projects. Many of these have been focused on picturesque Russky Island and we depart by coach for a visit to one of the most impressive of these projects, the brand-new Russky Island Aquarium and Research Institute, where we come face-to-face with the rich marine life of the Russian Far East. Returning to the city, we visit the Eagle’s Nest for spectacular views of Vladivostok’s famous Golden Horn Suspension Bridge. In the evening, we gather for our farewell dinner at the cutting-edge seafood restaurant, Café Morye. Overnight Vladivostok. (B, D)
Saturday 31 July: Depart Vladivostok
The tour concludes after breakfast. Korean Airlines flights depart Vladivostok via Seoul for Australia. (B)
Dr Matthew Dal Santo
A writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator, with Honours degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge Universities.
Dr Matthew Dal Santo is a writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator who currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. Born in Sydney, Matthew lived most of the past fifteen years in Europe. The current focus of his interest is Russia. From 2014 to 2017, Matthew was Danish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, with a grant to study how Russians think of themselves in the light of their history 25 years after the collapse of Communism and 100 since the 1917 revolution. He is particularly interested in how the revival of Orthodoxy has encouraged the return of the age-old idea of ‘Holy Rus’ as well as rehabilitation of the culture and achievements of Imperial Russia, as for example in the canonisation in 2000 of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family as saints. Matthew has travelled extensively in the Russian-speaking world, from Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus to Siberia and the Russian Far East. He is currently writing a book called The Romanovs and the Redemption of Putin’s Russia: Remaking Holy Rus. Before returning to academic work, Matthew was briefly a policy officer with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Matthew has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History from the University of Cambridge, where from 2005 to 2008 he held the Lightfoot Scholarship. In 2007 he was elected Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge’s leading college, and was appointed Associate Lecturer in the award-winning Faculty of History. Matthew also has an MPhil from Cambridge and a BA (Hons I) from the University of Sydney, where he won the University Medal in 2004.
In addition to English, Matthew speaks Danish, French, Italian and Russian.
We asked Matthew, what motivates him to lead a tour to Russia?
“I lead Academy Travel’s annual Russia tour. This is something I really enjoy. My aim with the tour is not only to provide people the opportunity to visit Russia’s famous historical sights and great collections of art in St Petersburg and Moscow, but also a chance to engage first-hand with the way the identity and world view of this most perplexing of countries has been transformed in the two and half decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. My lectures take a close look at Russian history and politics, with the aim of showing how ‘Putin’s Russia’ (so-called) is still grappling with processes set in motion hundreds of years ago, often in ways that have a deep effect on Russia’s often difficult relations with the West.
Coming from a long line of teachers, I also find the training and development tours that I lead for the NSW History Teachers’ Association a great source of pleasure and inspiration. Of course, Russia is a very big country and my view is that too few people ever get to its vast reaches east of the Urals.”
As Siberia and the Russian Far East are still relatively new destinations for international travellers, hotels do not always meet Western standards. Wherever possible, we stay in the best local hotels. Often run by Korean firms, these are high-quality and comfortable with all the conveniences you would expect anywhere. Elsewhere, however, patience is needed. This is particularly so on Lake Baikal and Kamchatka where only more basic, though still entirely clean and acceptable, facilities are available.
IRKUTSK, Central Hotel (4 nights)
The four-star Central Hotel is in the very heat of the city’s historic quarter, within walking distance of the main (Karl Marx) street, central square and river embankment. Housed in a renovated, turn-of-the-century property, the hotel features air-conditioning, cable TV, and complimentary WiFi.
OLKHON ISLAND, Baikal View Hotel (2 nights)
This hotel is just a short walk from the shores of Lake Baikal. Rooms are simple, but the best available on Olkhon and come with private bathroom, WiFi, and views over the lake. Other amenities include an a la carte restaurant, swimming pool and sauna. Probably the best thing about this hotel is enjoying a drink on the elevated terrace bar, with Baikal’s famous Shaman’s Cape in the distance.
ULAN UDE, Mergen Bator Hotel (3 nights)
Opened in late 2013, the modern Mergen Bator hotel is located in the city centre and features a pool, fitness centre, sauna and hammam. Rooms include a TV, complimentary Internet access, in-room safe and bathrobes. Its brash appearance above the Ulan Ude skyline may raise eyebrows initially but its spacious, modern rooms make it a good-quality four-star hotel. The rotating rooftop bar/restaurant offers a panoramic view as the sun sets over the steppe, visible beyond the edges of town.
KHABAROVSK, Parus Hotel (2 nights)
Located on the banks of the Amur River in a building dating from Khabarovsk’s heyday before the Russian Revolution, the hotel has comfortable, well-equipped rooms with all modern conveniences. A restaurant, bar and sauna are also on-site.
PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, Avacha Hotel (4 nights)
The Avacha is located close to the city centre and market. Rooms feature WiFi and satellite TV. There is a cafe onsite. This is the most basic hotel we shall stay in during the trip. A borderline two-to-three star hotel, it is nonetheless the best that Kamchatka offers. Rooms are small and dated, as are the bathrooms. But it is clean, the beds are comfortable, and there is plenty of hot water!
VLADIVOSTOK, Lotte Hotel (2 nights)
The four-star Lotte Hotel stands in the historic centre of Vladivostok. Formerly known as the Hyundai Hotel, this is a big Korean-run hotel that is solidly four star. The rooms are comfortable and spacious. Amenities include air conditioning, WiFi, satellite TV, and mini-bar. A gym and Korean restaurant can be found in the basement. From the rooftop bar, views over the Golden Horn are spectacular.
What is included in the tour price?
Unless otherwise stated in the itinerary, our tours include the following:
Any flights mentioned in the itinerary that take place during a tour
Land travel by private air-conditioned coach. Where appropriate, taxis or public transport are also used for short distance travel on some tours
All accommodation in hotels or apartments as stated in the itinerary
Breakfasts, lunches and dinners specifically stated as included in the itinerary
Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included
Background talks on tour, site notes and online resources
Services of tour leader throughout tour
All entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary
Local guides at some sites
Tips for drivers, local guides and restaurants for included meals
Costs involved in obtaining visas for countries visited, where required and when stated as included
Tours begin either at the arrival airport or the first hotel, depending on the itinerary. If you have booked your international flights with Academy Travel and arrive before the tour commences, we will provide airport to hotel transfers to the closest main city on your arrival, and to the closest airport at the end of the tour. These may be either individual or group transfers.
What is not included in the tour price?
Our tours do not include the following:
Return international/domestic air travel unless those flights take place during the tour
Special taxes and airport levies that can only be paid in cash at the destination. We will advise you of these charges (if any) before you depart
Travel insurance. We require all participants to have comprehensive travel insurance. A typical policy for one of our tours will cost from $160 upwards, depending on your age, pre-existing medical conditions, the countries you are visiting and the overall length of your trip
Lunches and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in the itinerary
Personal expenses such as laundry and phone calls
Costs associated with any activity mentioned as “optional” in the itinerary, or any suggested free time activity