Friday, 17 December 2010

My Last day in Russia, Ulan Ude, 9 December 2010

I Stood there in the passage way of the train with all my bags, I let the three other men who joined me in the middle of the night stinking of stale tobacco.  The landscape was completely black apart from the fast approaching lights of Ulan Ude train station which were soon upon us.  The train slowed sown and crawled into the station at a leisurely pace at 6.13 on the dot.  I moved down towards the door of the carriage, bidded farewell to the Provodnitsa and climbed down the steps onto the platform below.

Dimitri had informed me that a man would be there to meet me to drive me to the hostel as it was early in the morning.  However, I couldn't see anyone waiting for me.  I decided to stand there for 10 minutes and see if anyone would turn up and that would be the 'cut off point' where I would get one of the thousand taxi drivers trying to get business in this early hour to take me.  I did not have to wait long before I was approached by a man who asked whether I was Adam.  Usually I would get very annoyed at being called Adam but I have learned during this trip I will need to let it go and not dwell on it.  When it happens here, it is an honest mistake, when it happens at home, it is the ignorance of the people.

So with my new Russian chauffer, I placed my bags in the boot of his car and we were away.  This was the first time I had been in a car in Russia. It was pointed out to me by Christian that some cars have oddly have their steering wheels on the correct side, the right side and others have them on the left side.  I never noticed this until he showed me.  Since then I have noticed more cars with the wheels on the opposite side to what they should.  I thought perhaps these are imported Japanese cars or another fact is that a lot of cars that have been written off in the UK are bought by foreigners and exported abroad where safety standards are non existent.

We drove for around 5 minutes to the hostel and the man was pointing out the main attractions of the city.  We pulled up into a quiet part of the city and was greeted by the mans wife.  They quickly got me into my room and told me about Ulan Ude and where I need to go to buy my bus ticket to Ulan Bator.  As it wasn't even 7am I thought I should have a couple of hours rest before heading into the centre to get my ticket.

The hostel was a small bungalow with three rooms a kitchen and bathroom.  Every where I turned there were electical devices that had signs on them stating that they were broken.  I was apparently sharing the bungalow with a Russian Mother and her son who were there for a basketball tournament.

I woke up a few hours later and climbed into the shower.  Why is it that anywhere you travel, you always feel dirty at the end.  After cleansing myself and putting on some warm clothes I headed out of the front door.  In fact, I got to the front door and was stopped in my tracks as the front door was locked despite the lady saying the door always remains open.  The problem was, I didn't have a key and was effectively a prisoner in the hostel.

I began by knocking loudly on the front door hoping that someone would hear me and release me into the wild.  That didn't work, so I got out the peice of paper with the hostel details on them and thought I would call the owners.  There wasn't a number!  I thought OK, the internet must have contact details for them.  They didn't!  I got out my Leatherman and tried to open the door as the lock looked as though it could be opened with a phillips head screwdriver.  It couldn't!  To my relief I spotted a neighbour passing and began banging hard on the door and shouting "hello, I'm locked in!"  Luckily he spotted my pleas for help and came to my rescue.  He went to the owners bungalow which was behind the hostel and they came out to unlock the door that trapped me.

Having been released from the confines of the hostel, I walked towards the tram stop that would take me into the centre of Ulan Ude.  The first thing I noticed with Ulan Ude was that the demographics of the population had much more asian features than those in Irkutsk.  Travelling overland gives you the opportunity to see the subtle differences in the people and landscape.  However, this seemed to be a big jump.  I suddenly felt more like a tourist and was being looked at more often.  This is the beginning of Asia and the end of being able to fade into the background of the everyday person as I did in St Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg.

I successfully bought my bus ticket to Ulan Bator which cost 1000 Roubles from a travel agency in an upmarket hotel.

I then began to explore Ulan Ude and search for the biggest Lenin head in the world.  It didn't take much to find it and I can honestly say it is a very big head!  I feel that they must have had plans to do the whole body to and make one giant statue but gave up.

In the same square there were many men creating ice sculptures for Christmas/New Year.  Their work was spectacular and very grand structures that were designed for people to walk over.  Unfortunately they weren't finished but I think it was more interesting watching them being created.  They weren't the first ice sculptures I've seen on my trip as I came across those in Irkutsk.  It seems as though it quite a big tradition here.  Let's just hope that they don't get too warm and melt!!

Having walked around town I decided that it was my last opportunity to send those post cards which I had bought in Moscow, so I walked back towards the hostel where there was a post office.  What an experience.  The Russian queue is tightly compacted and if you leave a inch of empty space in front of you, someone will have it.  I got to the counter and done my usual routine of asking whether she understood English, she said no and so I told her I didn't understand Russian.  I then passed her the letter and thought it would be a simple request.  It was obvious I want to send these cards and all I needed to do was pay her to stick some stamps on it.  She kept saying things to me that I obviously didn't understand, but with the help of the other ten people in the queue they all scrapped the English they knew from their brains and helped me communicate.  Fifteen minutes later I paid the lady and left the postcards behind, which may or may not get to their inteded destination!

Arriving back at the hostel, I was again confronted with a locked front door and had to knock until the Russian mother came to let me in.  I tried to ask her not to lock the front door as I had no key.  I thought she understood until I tried to leave at 6am the next morning.  I had to wake her up to let me out, I was quite happy to be leaving that place,

My bus was scheduled to leave at 7am and I was warned that it would be -30c so was advised to wrap up warm before I left.  I left the hostel and it was pitch black.  The cold was certainly there and I struggled to breath at some points on my walk downtown.  I got to the bus with plenty of time to spare and was the first person to get onboard.  I wasn't sure how long the journey was going to be but was excited that in a few hours I would be in Mongolia, the unknown land full of nomads. 

It was a sad but symbolic moment when I stepped off Russian soil for the last time and onto the bus.

More people started to arrive and at 7am precise, the bus moved off and headed out of Ulan Ude to the Mongolian border where I was hoping Russian border officials would let me leave without too much of a bribe!!!

Please note that photos are being added as and when I can.  There have been a few uploaded already and I will do the rest soon, so keep checking!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Irkutsk, Baikal, Birthday Celebrations and a Hangover, 6 - 9 December 2010

I removed the glove of my right hand exposing it to the -20c night temperature of Irkutsk so I could punch the security code into the mechanical lock of the door to the block in which my hostel resided.  I hit the numbers and heard a clunck as the lock released the door and I entered the building and I climbed one flight of stairs and knocked on the door that had a helpful sign requesting me to knock.  The door opened and a young Russian man greeted me with a handshake and introduced himself as Dimitri.  As I walked further into the apartment, the bathroom door, which was now behind me, opened and a someone proclaimed "I recognise that voice".  It was Christian who I had met in Yekaterinburg.   He said he had arrived just a few hours before me.

The hostel, called International Friendly Hostel is a small apartment which was decorated quite drably, to be honest, I don't think it had been decorated since the fall of the USSR.  In a strange way it was charming and felt very homely.  After Dimitri orientated me and showed me maps of Irkutsk, I headed out to get a few beers and some food from the nearest 24 hour shop which turned out to be quite a long and very cold walk.  I left the hostel and since being there it had begun to snow and the roads had been covered in a fine white layer.  Irkutsk is known as the Paris of Siberia and I could see why.  It is an absolutely beautiful city and walking through the deserted streets and making my mark in the unbroken snow, I felt a sense that this was a completely different city to Petir, Moscow and Yekaterinburg.  It was extremely calm and quiet.

I found the shop and it was one of those where you had to ask the lady to fetch what you wanted so with broken Russian I got a few bits and pieces, but the problem came when I wanted beer.  There's such a wide selection, I didn't want what I got but it was the only brand I knew how to pronounce.  I soon got back to the hostel and cracked open the beers.  Christian had also opened up a rather potent bottle of vodka that stripped your mouth of all you taste buds and burnt as it made it's way into your stomach.  Absolutely disgusting! 

The following day Christian and I took the bus to Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal.  Unfortunately after the bus journey there it was so cold and there wasn't anything happening.  Apparently this is the dead time of year when it's cold but the lake isn't frozen over yet.  When the lake is frozen they have ice skating and plenty of other things happening on the ice and of course in the summer people flock there to swim and dive.  Lake Baikal is the the oldest, deepest and largest (by volume) fresh water lake in the world.  I would love to take time and explore the area surrounding the lake but unfortunately I believe that should be a persuit for the summer, not the winter as it can reach -40c during the winter months.  We went into the tourist information centre to ask for some advice on what we could do there and were pointed the direction we needed.  As we walked down the promenade it soon became clear that nothing was open, but we continued to walk until we reached a yard with an open gate.  We looked around, couldn't see anyone but a old boat that someone was working on, so we tentatively walked in hoping that we wouldn't be shot at.  The yard was full of delapidated buildings which seemed to have housed quite a successful industry in the past.  Around one corner we noticed a plume of smoke escaping from a shed and realised that they were smoking fish.  Omul is a unique fish to Lake Baikal and they prepare it by smoking it.  Christian really wanted to see some being smoked but we weren't able to.

After exploring the now empty buildings we came to the shore again where we found the most amazing icical hanging over the lake.  Following a few photos being taken we took the opportunity to smash something and started to destroy the icicals.  It was satisfying snapping of these huge shards of frozen water and throwing them to smash others.  We spent quite a while doing this until the ice got it's own back and Christian managed to slip and fall into the lake.  At this moment we thought we ought to stop and move away from the ice.

Having walked out of the yard we wondered around town for a while and then decided that there was nothing more that we could do there so we headed back to the bus stop to buy a ticket back to Irkutsk.  Having bought our tickets we had around half an hour to wait so we decided to go into the little cafe and have a couple of coffees before the bus arrived.

The road back to Irkutsk was breathtaking, hugging the lake and winding its way up and down hills and through thick pockets of forrest.  The surface of the road was incredibly icy and I put all my faith into the expert skills of the driver.  I felt quite safe until he was trying to overtake a slow moving truck whilst another vehicle was approaching in the opposite direction.  The driver braked, swerved back onto the right side of the road and you could feel the back end of the minibus loose its grip for a moment.  This didn't worry the driver and he continued to overtake the truck.  As I was write this Great Britain is currently under a snow and has ground to a halt as usual.  I believe all drivers should come out to Siberia during the winter and learn how they continue to drive on ice with normal tyres and no accidents.  It might be the bottle of vodka they drink before they get in the car that gives them such fearless skills.

Back in Irkutsk I took a walk around and it does surprise me that they still have Karla Marx Street, Lenina Street and still have a statue of Alexander III.  It's bizzare how the Communistic leaders have their streets leading to a statue of a Tsar whom they wanted out of power.  It's the case all over Russia, both the communist leaders and imperial family are celebrated.  They say that it's all part of their history and that it cannot be simply removed from the books.  However, they jumped at the chance to build the church in Yekaterinburg to mark the spot where Tsar Nicholas II was executed just 20 years after Boris Yeltsin ordered the destruction of the house that it happened in.  Does this mean they didn't like the Russia of 1918-1990 and they would have rathered be under the rule of the Imperial Family?  This cannot be the case as you've got Lenin embalmed in his mausoleum in Moscow that attracts hundreds of Russians that want to pay their respects every week and still countless number of statues devoted to the Tsars, Marx and Lenin.   don't have an answer for this but it is worth considering when in Russia.

During my last evening in Irkutsk, Christian and I decided to find a restaurant that served good local food.  After a while of walking in and out of deserted restaurants we found one that had some people in it.  We went in, checked in our coats and were shown to a table.  I chose the Omul and it was definitely worth it as it was delicious.  As we finished our meal a couple lads in their early twenties approached us and asked where we were from.  They had come from a group of people sitting in the corner celebrating one of their birthdays.  We got talking and were soon asked if we wanted to join them for a drink.  Of course it is rude to decline such an offer in Russia and we went over and were introduced to the rest of the group.  The group of students were all students studying engineering at the local university.  They soon ordered a bottle of vodka and some things to eat between toasts including some roar Omul.  After sharing two bottles of vodka and some beer a war of arm wrestling broke out and of course the Russian might overpowered both German and English.

You could sense that the waitresses were anxious for us to pay our bill and leave as it was getting quite late.  We paid our bill and tried to give the Russians some money for the drinks but they absolutely refused and continued to say that we were their guests.  The country seriously does get better and better and my preconceptions of Russia have just about faded completely away.  We then asked whether they wanted to find another bar to have a drink in but they weren't so keen on that idea and we ended up in a shop buying bottles of beer, Kalimari and dried Omul.  The guys then took us to the park opposite next to the opera house and cracked open the bottles and began to drink in the freezing whether of Irkutsk,  After a while they said that we should go back to our hostel and Christian and I were convinced they wanted to come inside and continue the party, someting I'm sure would have upset Dimitri who was sleeping in the front room.  When we got there though they it became clear that they just wanted to make sure we got back alright and said a quite long goodbye with plenty of handshaking.

By this point we were both quite drunk, Christian more than I as he had another bottle of beer, but he insisted that we go and find another bar.  So we embarked on a mission to locate a decent bar with Russian ladies inside but we failed miserably and within 20 minutes we were back inside our hostel.

What an absolutely brilliant night though and another example of the fun you can have in Russia.

Christian was so drunk when he got into bed he asked me extremely politely whether I could get him some water, which I did.  However, within a few minutes he climbed down from his top bunk but managed to tip the whole bed over.  Luckily nobody was in the bottom of it!

The next day was our last day in Irkutsk and was a write off due to a hangover from the beer and vodka.  We both caught the same train that evening however, I was heading to Ulan Ude and Christian was heading straight to Ulan Bator, Mongolia.  I was going to go straight to Ulan Bator too but Dimitri convinced me that I should get the train to Ulan Ude, stay a day and night there and then catch a bus to Ulan Bator.

My last Russian train journey started off brilliantly, I got into my compartment and found myself to be the only person.  I thought that it was excellent and that I would be able to get a good nights rest to recover from the one before.  During the journey though three men joined me in the middle of the night and all stunk of cigarettes.  The smell made me nauseous and I struggled to go back to sleep.

Beep Beep!  My alarm went off and soon after the Provodnitsa entered the carriage to say we were approaching Ulan Ude.  I collected my sheets and returned them to the Provodnitsa got my bags together and the train soon pulled into the station at 6.13am on the dot.  Welcome to my last destination in Russia, Ulan Ude.

More on that in my next blog!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Going deeper into Siberia, Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, 4 - 6 December 2010

Hello everyone.  Once again I bring you an account of a journey on the Russian Railways.

A short while after I had settled into my chair in the waiting room, the lady approached me and informed me in Russian that my train had arrived and was at platform 1, so I collected my bags and dragged myself to the platform.  In one of my bags I had a bottle of Russian vodka that I could share just in case I was put into the same situation as I was on my trip from Moscow.  The train arrived as soon as I left the warmth of the terminal and was thrust into the ice cold outside.  I found my carriage as quickly as I could, checked that it was the correct train with another passenger and climbed aboard.  I walked clumbsily down the carriage searching for my berth and soon found it, I opened the door and to my shock, someone was already in my bed.  The person wasn't present but their pocessions were.  As I was thinking what to do a man approached me from behind and done the typical Russian thing and started speaking at me whilst I repeated I don't understand.  Another passenger intervened and stopped this man from speaking and reiterated that I was English and that I didn't understand him so there was no point in talking at me.  I was soon made aware that the Russian gentleman wanted to swap beds with me.  I had no problem with this but wasn't sure on what the Provodnitsa would say.  I soon found my new bed and settled in.  The attendant came round and checked tickets, he pointed me down the carriage and I explained I swapped, he didn't seem to care all that much so I continued to make my bed.

In my compartment there were two middle aged Russian gentleman.  I introduced myself to the one that was awake and he didn't seem all that sociable so I said I was going to rest for a little while.  An hour or so later the men had swapped what they were doing and I introduced myself to the other one.  This gentleman had lost a lot of fingers on both hands.  I presume he had lost them through frostbite. He came from a town near Magadan and I got the impression that they were fishermen.  I don't know why, but that's the feeling I got from them.  Niether of the men spoke English or were very sociable so I spent most of the journey reading or watching films on my Zen.  This suited me quite well as I still wasn't feeling that well and I though rest would do me the world of good.

During the evening a lady became the fourth person in our compartment.  She immediatly noticed that I had a cough and a temperature.  She fished around in her bag and revealed some pills.  Her name was Christina and alleged that she was a pharmacist.  I took the pill, not sure what it was or whether she was a pharmacist but thought, what the hell!  I don't think it did anything to help, but again it shows the fantastic hospitality you receive from Russian people.

The journey was long, but I continued to watch movies and just read my book.  I confused myself with regards to the time zones too as the schedule on the trains were printed in Moscow time, I thought I would revert my watch back so I could keep track of what stations we were stopping at.  Two hours different isn't so bad, but then it goes to three, four and Irkutsk is five hours ahead of Moscow.  I found myself living in Moscow time and wondering why the sun was going up so early. 

The only conversation I really had on the train was with a twelve year old boy who was in the compartment next to mine.  Unlike older Russians, the boy gestured when he spoke and pointed to things so I could understand what he was saying.  He taught me a lot of words one evening but I couldn't remember them all.

The train wound it's way steadily through the snow covered wilderness of Siberia and it reminded me of something somebody said to me, Russian trains are always on time because they are never in a rush.  It's so true.  The train makes it's way steadily across Russia, stopping every now and again for a rest.  However, someone later told me that the drivers are paid bonuses according to their 'on time' record, so they make sure they create a schedule that they can keep.

One morning I was lucky enough to wake up during sunrise and oh my god, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life.  The sun peaking over the horizon, it's beams of light bouncing of the ground, dispersing throughout the frozen air and once in a while framed through the trees.  My description cannot possibly describe the beauty of this and unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it to share with you.  I was hoping to get one the next morning, but unfortunately I missed it as I was going East, it was constantly getting earlier.

During my last few hours on the train journey, an English speaking Russian version of a friend of mine, Laura Landamore, took the place of the pharmacist.  The girl was a training, travelling Russia training people up on technology.  I was so happy to finally be able to converse a little with somebody in English and somebody who was able to translate at least a little of what the other passengers were saying to me.  Apparently one of the guys was fascinated as to why I didn't eat much on the train, because he was constantly munching away on anything he could get his hands on.  This meant the Russian guy made me sit down whilst he made me tea and force fed me some chocolate cereal.  Again, another experience of excellent Russian hospitality.

I arrived in Irkutsk around 6pm and followed the directions I noted down before I left Yekaterinburg, they seemed simple.  I got on number one tram outside the station and asked the attendant to alert me when I got to the stop I wanted.  The next direction was to walk in the direction of the church.  PROBLEM!!!  It was dark and I saw no church whatsoever, so I checked on the map but there was no church mentioned so I took an educated guess and walked towards civilisation but soon discovered that yet again I had walked in the wrong direction and soon came to the end of the road.  After retracing my steps, I discovered that if I had walked one hundred yards the other direction I would have soon a huge white church, but it was not lit up and was under renovation.  The rest of the directions were easy to follow and I arrived at my new hostel a few minutes later.

In the next installment, I will tell you about my time in Irkutsk, a visit to Lake Baikal, Icical destruction, Russian Birthday celebrations and my trip out of Russia and into the wild Mongolia!



Saturday, 11 December 2010

Eurasian Flu and Walking in Ice, Yekaterinburg, 1 - 4 December 2010

The presidential house.
Wading my way through the thick snow on the paths with my backpack, struggling to breath through the bout of Eurasian flu I picked up somewhere, I finally made it to my hostel.  A little later than anticipated due to the time difference from Moscow.  All train times in Russia are given in Moscow time, which can be extremely wierd when you turn up to a train station in Siberia and the clocks are all 5 hours slower than the local time.  I was sure that on my e-ticket the time stated said local time.

After I found the building I tried to call up to the hostel, however no one answered.  Luckily a couple came through and entered the building and I slipped in behind them.  Absolutely exhausted, I climbed the seemingly endless steps and triumphantly knocked on the door.  However, to my distress, nobody answered.  I was too tired to move anywhere so I made the decision I was going to camp out on the mezzanine and hope someone would come and let me in.  I must remind you that I was still bursting for the bathroom at this point.

A few anxious moments later I heard footsteps clambering up the stairs.  I sat there hoping it would be someone to let me into the hostel.  It was.  It was Katia, the owner of the hostel who had just popped out to get something from the shop.  Apparently she sent me a text message trying to confirm my time of arrival, but my phone had stopped working on the train so didn't manage to get it.  Bless her, she waited for two and a half hours for me to arrive.  She noticed that I was not very well, so after she had checked me in, she marched me down to the chemists and got me something to ease my cough.

I had the hostel to myself, which was great so I could catch up on some of this blog writing and sit there and watch a film on the computer.  It was absolute bliss to have your own space again, to sleep in a room without smelly, noisey and extremely strange individuals.  I thought I was going to have the place to myself for two of my three nights, but as I was cooking dinner on the second night, the door opened and to my surprise in walked Christian, a German graduate who was travelling across Russia heading to South East Asia.  I didn't know it then but we would spend quite a few days together after this.

Frozen River under 6 inches of snow
Yekaterinburg is an absolutely wonderful place.  It has got such a great atmosphere and I felt at home as soon as I started wondering around.  The people were so much different from the people you find in Moscow and St Petersburg, they smile for one.  The snow was knee deep and the temperature reached -25c in the day time.  It was so cold my nostels froze and my eyeballs begun to become hard as my tears froze.  The pathways were completely full of compacted ice and I though it was dangerous to walk on although the Russian ladies seem to have no problems walking along in their high heels.  It absolutely amazed me.

The city is just on the Asian side of the Ural mountains that splits European Russia from the rest and you could begin to see the changes in the demographics.  I personally found the girls much more beautiful than in Moscow or St Petersburg, perhaps it's because their lives are also much more relaxed than those in the big cities and they have time to smile more.  Walking around I got a sense that there is a good feeling there and people are happier.

A student jazz band shows local artistic flare of Yekaterinburg
On my second day in Yekaterinburg, I was invited to the Eurasian conference at the local university where I was promised dancing, art and music.  I certainly saw music and dancing, also photography but they packed up within one hour and I was left there wondering what was going on.  I had a conversation with a micro-biologist/photographer for half an hour and then decided to leave as nothing more seemed to be happening. 

Church on Blood
Yekaterinburg is definitely a place where I would like to return during the summer, when you can go out hiking in the Urals and spend time drinking in the outside cafes and bars.  It has quite a big music scene with lots of jazz bars, but the hypothermic nights makes it unadvisable to go out too far.  I didn't see too much whilst there as I wanted to try and shift the cough before it got deeper into my lungs.  The main sight that I saw was The Church on Blood which is a very new church that was built on the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family where executed during the revolution as previously mentioned.

During my last night there, Christian left and I was joined by man from Luxemburg and a very sweet Russian girl who was taking an French exam the following morning.

My short time in Yekaterinburg was far too quickly over and I left Yekaterinburg on 4 December to head to Irkutsk on my longest train journey I would have to complete in my whole voyage around the world.  The train was around two and half days and when you're not feeling too well it seems to take a lot longer.  I arrived at the train station early so that I could get my ticket, board the train, make my bed and have a rest.  Unfortunately it was a train that originated in Moscow and was going all the way across Russia to the Pacific coast so it wasn't there and I had to wait around 45 minutes until it arrived.  During my time at the station, I found a waiting room which I went in and sat down, however, I was immediately confronted by this lady asking for money and pointed towards a price list.  I have never had to pay to wait for a train before and found it an utterly bizzare concept.  The price was small and the room was warmer than the platform so I decided to part with a little of my money for a little confort.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

United States of Eurasia! Moscow to Yekaterinburg - The First Russian Journey, 30 November - 1 December 2010

Standing on the platform at Moscow's Kazansky train station, I waited patiently with the wind blowing freezing air into my face.  The actual temperature is never the worst thing, it's the wind chill that gets through your clothing.  It will find any gap no matter how small and how hard you've tried to cover up and seals those holes.

With me there were other people waiting to board the train, either heading to Yekaterinburg or any city in between, as there are many.  My journey was going to take me roughly 34 hours.  I just waited in anticipation, hoping that the people I would be sharing my four berth compartment would be friendly and hospitable.

The moment arrived when the Providnitsas started to open their doors to their patient cold passengers.  I passed the provodnitsa my ticket along with my passport.  After a few seconds checking the details on my ticket and confirming that it was my ticket, she said something to me and waved me on board.  I had no idea what she said, nor did I know what berth was mine, so I cautiously entered the carriage and hoped to find someone to ask.  I was followed on by a youngish guy who was dressed in a black Adidas track suit.  The provodnitsa outside obviously asked him to help me find my bed as he quickly pointed me into a compartment and patted the upper berth on the left hand side.  This guy then placed his bag in the luggage compartment under the lower left birth and I then became aware that he was my first "compartment mate".

My first impression of the train was that it wasn't to such a high standard as the St Petersburg to Moscow train, which was luxurious.  This train had hard brown seats a tiny table and ever window had been filled with expandable filler.  It felt as if my friend Luke Later had been here.  A few years ago three friends and I travelled round Europe in a motorhome and Luke wielding a can of expandable filler filled in every single hole that was visible.  However, it made quite a mess and we didn't know until afterward that it was impossible to get the stuff off your hands!!

I soon introduced myself to my new Russian friend, called Eric, and asked him in Russian whether he understood any English, to which obviously, he responded "Niet!".  So I just hoped that the other two people yet to arrive would speak at least some English so I could have a conversation over the next day.  Unfortunately Dimitri arrived and he did not understand either.  So I climbed up to my bunk and retrieved my handy phrase book which was given to me by a work colleague as a parting gift (cheers John!).

After many tries to ascertain what they did for a living and why they were going to Yekaterinburg, I found out that Eric was a sniper for the Russian Army and travelling home to his family, and Dimitri was a high ranking Police Officer working in Moscow and travelling back home to Kirov.  I joked with them and pointed to "We need a translator" in my phrase book, they laughed and said "Vodka!".  A little later they disappeared for a cigarette and appeared in the doorway a few minutes later with a big bottle of vodka.  Dimitri searched deep into his bag and found what he was looking for, three plastic shot glasses.  Food also started appearing on the table from their bags, such as sausages, bread and chocolate.  Seconds later, the vodka bottle was opened with the help of Eric's massive flick knife and the first of many rounds was poured.

After every round a suasage was thrust my way by Dimitri.  I could tell Eric didn't much like his vodka as he also took so long building up the courage to take the shot and preparing some water to drink directly afterwards.  I was surprised at my tollerance for vodka, I am not a spirit drinker and could actually quite easily drink.  I always had a belief that I was going to die on a train after hearing stories of gallons of vodka being consumed on such journeys.  Dimitri was also surprised and kept calling me "Russian Boy, Russian Boy!".

The way Russian's drink is quite respectable; you toast, you drink and you eat. You always eat, they say to drink without eating is foolish and only for drunkards, although I'm not sure how you classify a drunkard here.  Multiple toasts were given to me and one of my toasts was, "Strashnoy Tarakan!" which was taught to me by Ann, a former colleague, and it means "Terrifying Cockroach!".  This caused great ammusement.

After a few hours of drinking and talking with my new Russian friends, the exhaustion I had been trying to surpress since I got on board finally became too much, so I made my bed and crashed out.

A few hours after falling asleep, I woke up with a deep cough, headache and felt really hot.  Dimitri and Eric had also crashed out by this point.  I did not feel well at all and quickly fell back into broken sleep.

At 2am the train pulled into Kirov, I heard Dimitri gather his things together so I got up to say goodbye.  Soon after he left a group of other people arrived.  There was two young guys and an older guy.  They had obviously been drinking before hand and were quite loud.  My head was pounding and the fever had set in.  I was hoping that they'd just find their beds and I could meet them the next day.  This did not happen, I was poked by one of the younger men, talking at me in Russian.  I felt as if I should be polite and respond, so I just said "Good evening" and they asked me where I lived and I answered.  They then carried on talking at me and I had no idea what they were saying.  Russian's have the tendency not to use any gesticulations when trying to communicate with non-Russian speakers.  They just repeat themselves over and over.  It really is exhausting trying to figure out what someone is trying to say to you and I had no energy left, so I just said, in English "I have no idea what you're talking about and I'm going to sleep" and rolled over.  Minutes later I was awoken again by "Andre, beer?" to which I responded no to.  If I had not been feeling unwell, I would have participated.

The next day, I climbed down from my bed and started to talk with these unknown people who arrived in the middle of the night.  One man was a Kazakhstani man who claimed to be in the militia and kept making punching gentures and saying, "you OK, you friend!".  I still couldn't help but still be a little apprehensive of him.  The other young guy was a Russian driver of some sort.  Is he a gettaway driver, a lorry driver, taxi driver...  I had no idea.  They then offered me vodka, to which I initially declined but the Kazakh man played the guilt trip and said "Russian tradition, friends...", so I gave in and said a Malyanka (small one).  Small portions of vodka don't exist.  As soon as I had gulped one down, another was poored and offered to me, I said no again but failed.  I told them that this was going to be my last one and that I was only doing it for them and their traditions.

The last few hours of my trip to Yekateringburg were spent talking and the Kazakh sharing photos of family.  As we pulled into Yekaterinburg station where Eric and I were leaving, they all got off the train to give us huge handshakes and bid us farewell.  Having left the train, I was immediately shocked by the sheer difference in temperature between there and Moscow.  There were huge piles of snow where workers tirelessly try to clear the paths and roads.

Eric very kindly offered me a place to stay with his family for the evening, which I would have loved to accept but I had already booked a hostel and the owner, Katia, was waiting for me.  The Russian generosity never fails to amaze me.  People have a very tainted view of Russia and I can honestly say it's all wrong.  I had never felt safer in a capital city than in Moscow.

So after a long trek to a tram stop through the unbroken snow with Eric leading the way, I said my goodbyes, got on and headed to the hostel.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mighty Moscow, 25 - 30 November 2010

I arrived in Moscow a little after 8am.  I bidded Vladimir farewell and stepped off the train and began the hunt for the metro station.  There was a sign pointing towards the metro but it made no sense as I ended up walking into a public toilet!  Perhaps it was a misreading of the Cyrillic on my part.  I ended up walking into the cold outdoors and was unfortunately surprised that the snow that was in Saint Petersburg had not yet arrived in Moscow.  I eventually found the metro station and bought myself a card.  The politeness of the people selling tickets is no different from Petersburg, you ask for one, they take a deep breath, snatch money off you and throw your change and ticket back at you.  Swiping my ticket at the barrier, I entered the metro station and was confronted with a huge mass of people trying to squeeze down two escalators.  I suppose turning up in the capital city during rush hour was not such a great idea.  I took the initiative to stand back and wait for the crowd to die down before attempting to descend into the depths of the metro.  I was joined by two middle aged Russian gentlemen who had so much gold in their mouths I couldn't believe.  They looked a little shifty and asked if I was American, to which I replied no, I am English.  One of them pointed down the escalator and drew his finger across his throat, now that can mean either; if I go down there, they will kill me or if I go down there, there are so many people I will be suffocated to death.  I hoped it was the later one.  We spent the next hour and half together, I shared chocolate and they sang Tom Jones to me.  The crowd eventually died down to a controllable amount at around 9.30 and we all made our way down to the metro.

The Moscow metro stations are the most beautiful and one of the busiest networks in the world. It opened in 1935 and interestingly the Soviet Union consulted the London Underground, the world's oldest underground network, for help prior to construction.  Each station has it's own theme and my favourite station I visited was the Ploshchad Revolyutsii which has bronze figures of Soviet soldiers wielding guns, farmers and other people. 

Having reached the bottom of the escalator it was again time to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet and find out where I needed to go to get to the hostel.  Luckily the Godzilla Hostel website had extremely good instructions how to get there, so it wasn't difficult to get there at all.  The only problem with the metro system I can find is that the temperature difference between outside and inside, going from -15 to +30 can't be that good for you.  I arrived at the hostel and checked in, my first impression of the hostel was that it seemed more like a hotel than a hostel and I was concerned that there wasn't going to be any communal atmosphere where you can meet anybody else.

After checking in I went in search for the Moscow Arts Theatre, one of the most important things for me to see whilst in Moscow, however my first attempt failed.  I found the Constantin Stanislavski Theatre, the Tchaikovsky concert hall and a Moscow theatre but not the Moscow Arts Theatre.  Having failed, I went back to the hostel all disappointed.

That evening I sat at the computer doing the Facebook thing and I could hear a recognisable voice coming from the TV room.  It was Ash, a girl that I had met briefly in Tallinn, literally her and her boyfriend had arrived as I was leaving.  Having entered the TV room, several other people were there, Eugenie (German/Russian) and Eric (French) and we all got on quite well.  We ended getting a pizza delivered from the local Pizza Hut and watched Hot Tub Time Machine, which I personally found hilarious but I'm not sure if the others found as funny.  I also enjoyed a bit of banter with Eric after he corrected me on my pronunciation of Auviour I proceeded to corrected him every time he said a word beginning with 'H' like hotel, he was saying 'otel.  After I made the effort to ridicule him for this he was saying hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhotel.  Later that week we had a hilarious conversation on how France donated 80% and Germany donated 20% to create the English language.  I love the Anglo Franco relationship!

On my second day in Moscow, I walked around with Ash and I got my first real taste of Moscow. I walked into Red Square for the first time, however it felt a little smaller than I imagined.  Perhaps it was due to the monstrosity of an ice rink they had erected in the centre of the square.  Red square is still an amazing place to be, so much history in such a small place.  Just to stand there and think about those extensive military parades to show the Soviet might.  Lenin's embalmed body remains there in his mausoleum, I never got to go and pay my respects because of the limited opening times and huge queues.  Lenin, a great man with great ideals, shame they never worked!

St Basil's Cathedral sits at the end of Red Square and is truly another amazing piece of architecture.  It's actually a cathedral made up of different churches.  This cathedrals marks the geographic centre of the city. 

Tomb of Unknown Soldier
As we walked into the Alexander Gardens we were confronted by lots of police shutting off an area around a car which had been deserted in the middle.  I have no idea how it got down there.  The police had sniffer dogs and what I presume was a bomb disposal squad.  Moscow is still in a high state of alert after the terrorist attacks on the metro system earlier this year.  Having been on the metro and witnessed how busy and packed it is, I can't imagine how frightening it must have been to all those people trying to escape.  We walked back through later that day and it was all cleared up.  The gardens also has the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded by soldiers all day.

On our walk round we got to Arbat Street which is supposedly the Bohemian centre and one of the oldest streets of Moscow.  As the guide wrote, it's a tourist trap, and I can confirm that.  So many souvenir shops and people trying to herd you inside.  However, there were some musician playing down the street and it had a nice atmosphere.  I suppose, like many things, the street would be better visited in summer!

On my third day in Moscow I did absolutely nothing.  Sometimes walking around sightseeing becomes to much to handle, especially in the bitterness of winter.  So Ash, Eugenie and I went to an Italian restaurant and spent the afternoon eating yet another pizza and drinking warm alcoholic drink before heading back to the hostel where we said goodbye to Ash as she headed up to Saint Petersburg.  That evening I met Brigid who is also doing the Trans-Mongolian, I was so relived that I wasn't the only crazy person to do the journey in winter!

Also at the hostel was Karen who was an American lady who was desperately trying to find work anywhere in the world.  She had just been working on elections in Uzbekistan I believe.  She is also second cousin to Tina Dico, a highly successful Danish Singer Songwriter.  I had many a conversation with her about many subjects during my time at the hostel, I just hope she managed to get back to the US for her to get a job.

On the Sunday I visited the market with Eugenie and it was so cold we had to keep stopping for tea every 30 minutes.  The market was enourmous and full of souvenirs and second hand stalls where you could by an arsenal of weapons functioning or non functioning.  Eugenie bought a few souvenirs to take back to her family.  I would have liked to have done the same, but it's very difficult to buy things at the beginning of your trip as you have to got through the ordeal of finding a post office, trying to get the person to understand and waiting an anxious three months for your parcel to arrive back at home.

After walking around the ice cold market for a few hours we decided to leave as I wanted to go and see Stanislavski's house before it closed.  Eugenie left me on the metro and headed back to the hostel as she was recovering from a cough and cold so wanted to get back in the warm.  I arrived at Constantin Stanislavski's house as it was turning dark. It was an unremarkable house from the outside and I wasn't sure I had the right address or not.  I walked around the back of the building and attempted to pull the door open.  It did open, next I was hoping that I wasn't walking in on some families home.  I was relieved to see a photo of Stanislavski hanging on the wall in the entrance.

Stanislavski's desk, the beginning of great things
As I wrote part of my dissertation on Stanislavski and the Moscow Arts Theatre, seeing his house and his study where he wrote 'An Actor Prepares' and 'My Life in Art' was truly amazing.  These books have been the actors' bible ever since he took the time to experiment with psychological acting and create certain processes for actors to get a more naturalistic performance.  Stanislavski's 'system' was then later taken and evolved into American 'method acting' most people have heard about. It seems strange to think how much influence this one man from Russia had on the world of theatre and film.  He totally radicalised the contemporaneous acting style of Russia which was melodramtic.

His house was more like a mansion, he had is very own studio where he worked with his actors, which at the time I visited was playing host to a concert so I couldn't go in, but I peeked through the doorway.  His study also turned into an ad-hoc performance space.  During Stanislavski's final years, he moved his bedroom next to his study and would write continuously from the moment he woke up.  There was a photo of Edward Gordon Craig's set that he built for Stanislavski and Nemorich-Danchenko for their production of Hamlet, however, the part on the English translation had a line through it so I believe it had been taken away.  This was a shame, because I wrote about this very production in my dissertation and would have like to have seen the original photo. 

Having read his books, studying him for years and using some of his techniques, it was great to see the family side of his life, as we do sometimes forget that great figures also had families and we just see them for their work.  He dedicated the upper floor to his children.  The Soviet Union ordered the house to be made into a museum for Stanislavski and his work. 

On my last day in Moscow I had my last chance to visit the Moscow Arts Theatre and Museum.  I was walking around with a Scottish guy called Will and went into the theatre box office and I had a wonderful time laughing with the lady there as neither of us understood each other.  I asked in very broken Russian whether there were any tickets for that evening's performance, to which she replied Niet!  I was absolutely devastated as that would have been my only chance to have seen the inside of the theatre which Stanislavski and Nemorich-Danchenko founded.  I then asked about the Moscow Arts Theatre Museum and was pointed in the direction of the museum entrance.  We made our way to the museum but there was no one there apart from a security guard who pointed us back to the box office, we were confused but saw that the ticket office was open from 2-7pm so we thought we'd go back and try later.  Around 3pm we visited the Museum again and was politely informed by another security guard that it was closed.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was not to be able to go into the theatre and the museum.  This was number one on my list way way above the Kremlin, St Basils etc.  I took solace in the view that Moscow isn't that far away from the UK and that I can come back in the future, preferably in the summer!

My time in Moscow saw me make my first two mistakes.  One: getting shaving foam instead of deodorant. Two: Getting 15,000 Rubles out of the cash machine instead of 1,500!  The shaving foam is fine but I'm not sure if I can actually spend 15,000 Rubles before I leave Russia!!

My last night at Godzilla's Hostel was spent with the people I had met whilst there.  We took a trip to the local shop and enjoyed a feast.  I also began learning some more Russian and can now say Salad, Cucumber, Pepper, Cabbage!  It was quite a funny story, we were in a book shop hunting for a picture translation book where you can just point to a picture to indicate what you want.  I hunted around the whole shop and found the only similar thing, which had pictures and the Russian word on the back.  I thought that's great.  I got back to the hostel and showed Eugenie what I had bought and she looked confused, I asked her why and she replied, the word doesn't reflect the picture on the front.  It turned out to be a game of some sort. One day I may learn more words but I'm quickly running out of time in Russia!

I woke up early on the day of departure so I could get packed, return my sheets and towel, chill out a bit and say goodbye to people before heading to the craziness of Russian train stations for my carriage to Yekaterinburg.  My train was leaving at 12:40 and I left at 11 to give me a good margin of error just in case anything goes wrong.  Nothing did go wrong and I took my last metro ride in Moscow and boarded train 092 heading to Yekaterinburg.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Saint Petersburg, 19 - 24 November 2010

All dazed and culture shocked I stood there at the reception desk being checked in whilst lots of half dead people appear from the dorms and head to the kitchen for breakfast.  I was shown around and told that I'd have to wait until midday until I was able to find a home for my bag and somewhere to sleep.  Taking the first opportunity I grabbed a towel and headed to cleanse myself of the nights travelling.  Finally I was feeling refreshed and headed to the kitchen to meet the fellow travellers and have something to eat.  I was confronted by many people, so many I couldn't quite take in who said what and where they had come from.  One Australian guy welcomed me to Russia and presented me with a Big Bong, a Russian equivalent to Pot Noodle but in a bowl and having tried it later that evening, much nicer!

A certain amount of relaxation is required by all of us mere mortals so I decided to take the first day easy and just have a walk around the local surroundings and get my Russian visa registered in Saint Petersburg.  Not only do you have to fork out a lot of money to buy a visa for Russia, you have to also register it within three working days of entering the country at an extra cost of 600 Roubles (about 20GBP) and again if you go and stay in another city for three or more working days.  Real Russia who I got to acquire my visa for me, gave me a name and address of their partner company in Peter who could register it for me.  Luckily enough it was only the next road up from the hostel so it shouldn't have been a long walk.  But me being me I walked the wrong way up the street until I found some building numbers and realised I went the wrong way.  I got there in the end though and sorted it out easily.

Having registered my visa, I took a walk down Nevski Prospekt which is the main street in Saint Petersburg.  I was struck by the grandiose buildings that were built down the entire length of the street and throughout the city.  After Tsar Peter the Great gained the land during war against the Swedish he build the Saint Peter and Paul fortress and begun the development of St Petersburg and taking inspiration from European cities, he used serfs and prisoners of war to build 'the Venice of the North'.  Once completed, the capital of the Russian Empire was moved from Moscow to Petrograd by order of the Tsar.  It's a truly bizare place and must have been worse during the USSR days.  Such grand buildings and yet so many poor people.  After the revolution Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

I stumbled upon the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.  It's was my first sight of this type of Russian architecture and was absolutely amazed, it was like something out of a fairy tale.  I began to read the plaques outside and discovered that the church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.  I was going to go in but was stalled when I saw the entry price and that non-Russian Federation citizens have to pay double.  That price was too steep as I had little money left after paying the hostel and visa registration costs.  A few days later I did get to visit and the inside was completely decorated in mosaics and was absolutely fantastic. 

I was utterly disappointed to be in a snowless St Petersburg, it was cold, bitterly cold down by the river and by the Peter and Paul Fortress.  The fortress was built by Peter the Great to protect the Russian Empire from Swedish invasion as they had previously been able to sail straight down the Neva.  However, the fortress was never used for that purpose and became a prison for enemies of the state, such as, Dostoevsky and the Decemberists.  The Peter and Paul Cathedral was also quite a sight, here most of Tsars lie in state, including the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his family and servents who were executed in 1918 during the Bolshevik revolution in Yekaterinburg.  Their remains were recovered from a mine shaft just outside Yekaterinburg and were brought back to rest with the other Tsars but in their very own chapel within the cathedral.  Two of Nicholas' sons were never found.

During my stay I went to see Il Viaggio a Reims at the Mariinsky Theatre. The theatre was absolutely amazing.  The opera was in Italian, and they had subtitles in Russian so I didn't understand a word.  I really enjoyed the performance, unfortunately a lot of the action happened off stage in the auditorium which I couldn't see from my seat.  The turn around with shows at the theatre is truly amazing, they have a different show on every night.  I would like to see how quickly they can strike a set and rebuild for the next show.  As I left the auditorium, smiling at the fantastic performance I had just seen, I was confronted with St Petersburg under snow!  It had been snowing all day but nothing had settled, but during the show it had laid and was quite deep.

They say that you should get a taxi after dark in Russia because it is not safe to walk around, however that would mean you would need to get a taxi before 9am and after 4pm.  Since being in Russia, I have not felt threatened once and have been able to walk around unhindered.  I'm not sure if it's because I can pass myself off as a Russian or whether it is as safe as it feels.

To pass yourself off as a Russian, you must follow some simple rules:
  1. Never smile
  2. Let go of doors which means smacking the person behind you in the face
  3. Pretend people aren't getting off the metro and walk through them to get on board.
Saint Petersburg also hosts The Hermitage and Winter Palace. The palace originally built by Peter the Great was the home of the Russian Tsars.  The Hermitage is one of the largest art galleries in the world and was the creation of Catherine the Great who wanted to share the countries collection of art.  I'm not the biggest art fan but the building itself is a piece of art.  Every room has it's very own decoration style and I found myself more interested in the building than the art hanging on the walls.  If you are a fan of art, you could easily spend a whole week looking through the endless collection.  They have so much they can't show it all at once and continually rotate it.  The Hermitage also has collections of artifacts too, such as Ancient Egyptian mummies.

I returned to the hostel one night to find that a crazy Brazilian man who wore florescent trainers and a Brazil fleece had joined us.  He said that he was surprised that he got stopped by the police and asked for his passport and registration documents.  He was a very strange man who kept going on about how he hated the English because of what happened to Jean Charles de Menezes, and I tried to convince him that we also didn't like what happened to him either.  Then he said that he would like to see Elizabeth II die and he'd visit her grave.  At this point I was speechless and didn't really want to be alone in the same room as him!  He did teach us all a trick of his though.  He said that he doesn't like sharing toilets on plane journeys, so he take a bar of chocolate and covers the toilet in melted chocolate which stops others from using it.  This all made us laugh hysterically although it might have been down to the consumed alcohol.

During my last day I wanted to visit the Leningrad Blockade Museum which commemorates the The Siege of Leningrad which lasted for 900 days and saw 332,000 army and over 16,000 civilian casualties.  Unfortunately you never know which days places close in Russia as they seem to be any day they like and it so happened that the day I wanted to go, it was closed!

Since arriving in Saint Petersburg I wanted to go out for a drink, but the people staying at the hostel were all couples and didn't want to go.  This all changed when I was about to leave as a couple of British guys came and wanted to go out for a drink.  Unfortunately it was my last day and I had planned to go and see Giselle at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre.  As I had seen an opera, I thought I should see a ballet too.  Unlike the Opera or theatre, you can understand ballet (if done well) as there is no language.  I enjoyed the performance and the dancing however became tired at some points as it seemed like they were just repeating the same choreography.  I sat right up in the gods and next to this lady who decided that it would be a great idea to blow her nose during a very calm section of the performance, and also was texting on her mobile phone during the second act, to which I gave her a look that said 'put the bloody phone away'!

After leaving the theatre, I needed to get back to the hostel where I would have about one hour before I needed to catch my overnight train to Moscow.  When I am travelling, I like to be at the place of departure with plenty of time to spare just incase anything happens.  I was however convinced by the people in the hostel to chill out for a bit and Pavlik, who worked in the hostel, would take me there.  We got to the train station five minutes before my train was scheduled to leave, which would have been plenty of time if my carriage wasn't the last one. So I had to run down the platform being very cautious of the ice as I did not want to slip over and hurt myself!  With a minute to spare I gave my passport and ticket over to the provodnitsa (Attendant) and was thrust onto the train with the door closing behind me and the engine kicking into life.  I found my compartment and was impressed with the quality of the train.  I was met introduced myself to Vladimir, a business man and there was a guy already asleep on the top bunk.  Vladimir wasn't very talkative so I climbed up to my bunk and made myself at home and fell asleep.  The train was extremely hot it was like stepping off a place in the Mediterranean but stepping out of the freezing cold of Saint Petersburg into the warmth of the train.  Eight hours later I arrived in Moscow.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Back in the USSR - Friday 19 November 2010

After spending an hour and half in purgatory between Estonia and Russia, not having a clue what was happening, we finally got back on the bus and headed through another gate officially marking the border.  I had a overwhelming sense of relief as the barrier lifted and we drove into the Russian Federation.  I had finally made it after years of planning and dreams.  I suddenly realised why the bus was taking 7 hours to get to St Petersburg, the roads were in an incredibly poor state of repair and the bus drove at a steady pace of 40 miles per hour for a fair distance.

Looking out of the window in a sleepy state I inspected the snow covered Russian landscape and saw some incredibly run down houses that looked like shacks and it reminded me that Russia has a fantastically huge gap between the rich and poor.  I soon fell back into a state of unconsciousness and woke up several hours later once we had reached the outskirts of St Petersburg.  The scene this time was completely different and there were countless number of people scuttling around, running for buses and people working on the streets.  The clock read a little after 6am which I though was a bit early for this type of activity.   However, I was unsure of the time difference between Tallinn and St Petersburg but was sure it was in alignment to Moscow time which is +3 GMT, in which case it was actually 7am, perfect time to commute into work.

An hour later, the bus arrived at the Baltic train/bus station in St Petersburg.  I had no idea if I was in the right place.  I approached the driver and using the international sign language of pointing and repeating Baltic station, he simply responded "Da!", as we were in mutual agreement, feeling semi relaxed and reassured I headed off to find the hostel.

Before leaving Tallinn I consulted the world wide web and wrote some directions down for my journey from the Baltic Station to my hostel and realised that it was only a 'short' metro ride to Moscow Station where my hostel was situated.  I wondered into the train station and took my time to get acquainted with the building and noticed that every sign was written in Cyrillic.  I approached a beautiful young lady who was squashed in a ticket booth and had my first chance to practice my Russian and asked 'Do you understand English?' to wish she simply but politely responded, 'Niet!'  However, she pointed me in the direction of the metro entrance and said something which I could only assume meant that I buy metro tokens outside, to the right and inside...

As I struggled my way through a bombardment of Russian workers, I noticed that not one person was smiling.  I finally made my way down into the deepest underground network in the world and it is absolutely spectacular.  The metro stations in Russia are all decorated in different styles and they are incredibly clean.  The London Underground is an absolute disgrace compared to the Russian's spotless and more efficient metro network.  I suddenly realised that I had arrived in Saint Petersburg the same time as everyone making their way to work.  I purposely chose this time as I could save money on a nights accommodation.  Was this a good idea?  Not sure.  The word courtesy is not synonymous with Russia.  In an ideal world there would be queues, people would allow others to leave the train before entering themselves, people would hold the door open for the person following them instead of letting it slam in your face, people would say "dobroye ootro" and "spasiba".  Despite the Russians trying to create the ideal society over the last two hundred years, I can honestly say that this is not it.

I was pushed and shoved, squeezed and squased for my entire journey of only four stops which seemed never ending until I finally arrived at Ploschad Vosstanyia where my hostel was just a short walk away.  I left the metro station the only way I could and walked out into the biting cold of Saint Petersburg, happy that my first ordeal of the metro was over.  Having seen the "how to get to the hostel" video and armed with my directions, I felt confident I knew my way, so I walked in the wrong direction for quite a long while until I decided to turn around and consult a map.  I found a map on a wall outside of the train station and quickly looked at it to find the road I needed and this time, walked in the right direction and I finally arrived at Soul Kitchen Hostel, warn out, hot and in desperate need for a shower.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

And in the beginning... Estonia, 14-19 November 2010

Hi all,

This is my first update since beginning my journey around the world.  I left a rather rainy England and headed for Estonia.  As soon as I stepped out of the car at Stansted Airport, I was complaining about the weight of my backpack, although I spent the previous two weeks unpacking and discarding non-essentials and repacking the bag again, it was still too heavy!  Once we had checked in for the only flight I will be taking until Singapore (hopefully further, but we'll see...), we were asked to check our baggage into the outsize desk because of the straps.   The official took an interest in my bag and asked me to leave all my belongings on me outside with Matt whilst I accompanied them in their office whilst they search me and my bag.  Matt was watching the proceedings from outside and he had to laugh when the gentleman  pulled out a tin containing an All Day Breakfast which my friend Mike Hearn gave me for my trip.  Perhaps that accounted for some of the weight in my bag, also the Smarties and mint imperials...

Tallinn, Estonia - 14 - 18 November 2010

Our flight went without delay or hitch and we landed in Tallinn within good time, got straight in a taxi and arrived at our hostel, The Flying Kiwi, from the outside it looks like a dark, dingy and run down building .  Both Matt and I did not share our first impressions and waited to see the inside before making any judgments.  We were greeted by Amanda, a Kiwi, who promptly checked us in and took us to the closest bar for our first Estonian beer along with a couple of awesome Aussie girls from Perth.  we shared a great many laughs and they even went through my bag to see if I could shed anymore items.  I got rid of a few things which took a little strain off my back and onto Matt's as he had to take it home with him.

Tallinn itself is a wonderful place, the hostel was situated within the old town close to all the treasures it has to hold.  I thought it was going to be deathly cold in Tallinn but it was actually not too bad at all.  Maybe it's down to the superb Berghaus coat I've got!  We spent a few days just wondering the town and going through any open door we could find.  This also meant we walked into and open casket funeral which felt extremely wrong, especially as they were still selling postcards during the ceremony!  It amazed me that there were still people selling goods to tourists despite the distinct lack of them around.  Nevertheless, we got some rather warm nuts from a beautiful Estonian lady and Matt minted his very own Estonian good luck coin.  But before I could finished asking the trader about missing tourists, a large group of camera wielding Japanese tourists came around the corner.  Oh how we laughed.  However, it wasn't just the tourists that were missing, there were no Estonians either! 

The next day we took a day trip to Helsinki, Finland.  The journey across the Baltic took us only a 1.5 hours.  The departure point was a strange place, we climbed several hundred steps over a huge piece of Soviet architecture that houses the Tallinna Linnahall, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics to stage the sailing events, once we reached the top I had a sense of achievement much like climbing Snowdon! The crossing was a chance to catch up on some sleep which I had been needing.

The first thing that struck me about Helsinki was the cleanliness of the city.  There was absolutely no litter on the floor.  We walked round for the whole day walking in and out of buildings, sneaking past security guards to get into museums for free and visited the most amazing church.  We were actually purposely looking for this temple as we heard good things.  So we set off armed with a rather small map picked up at the port and searching the skyline for spires, we soon reached the spot on the map where it should have been but there were no spires or church like buildings anywhere just a pile of rocks.  It soon became apparent that the temple was actually below us!  The Temppeliaukio Church was built into the rock during the late 20th century and was decorated with a lots of copper.  The roof apparently contains over 20km of coiled copper.  We were also lucky enough to hear a singer and his accompanist practice so we could hear the superb acoustics the building offers.

The day was spent with two Italian girls whom we met in our hostel back in Tallinn.  They went to Helsinki for couple of days and were embarking on their first Couch Surfing experience, something which I have never done but would like to try out sometime on my trip.  Couch surfing offers free or incredibly cheap accommodation at a participants house or just the chance to meet a local.  I have heard from them and they have reported good things!

As Helsinki, alike to other Scandinavian countries, is extremely expensive we made sure we spent as little as possible and only eat one cheap burger whilst we were there and headed back to Tallinn where birthday celebrations for the hostel owner, Jenn, were underway.

That night, Jenn, Amanda and Jonny took us to a basement bar called Shimo which was really fun.  The best thing about it was that we didn't have to make any decisions on what drink to have as we just asked Matt the barman to give us a surprise, which he did every time.  I have absolutely no idea what we drank that night but they were all very good! 

Estonian Occupation Museum

Today, Estonia has population of just under 1.4m people which compared to Russia's 145m and Germany's 81m is incredibly small.  The same difference was felt in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact was signed in which Stalin agreed Russia would not enter into war against Nazi Germany should they invade Poland.  There was also a secret pact which divided up Poland and gave all of the Baltic states (Lithuana, Latvia, Estonia) to the Soviet Union.  Estonia had such a small population at the time that they new they had no chance fighting off the Soviets or Germans so it decided to declare a bloodless handover to the Soviet Union.  This agreement was supposed to last 10 years, but cracked in under 2 when Germany invaded the Soviet union on 22 June 1941 in a surprise attack.  This was when the Soviet Union entered World War II.

(C) Matthew Duncan 2010, Thank you!
During our time in Tallinn, we visited the Occupation Museum which documented the unfortunate situation Estonia was put in and the life of the population under each regime.  During 'The Red Year', Estonia was under Soviet rule as per the non-aggression pact and the handover of power from Tallinn to Moscow.  It soon became apparent that the Soviets were arresting, deporting and torturing any person that went against the government or done anything contrary to the laws.  This problem became so severe that when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the surprise attack in 1941, the inhabitants of Estonia were happy to see them and felt as if they had been freed from a state of terror.  Unfortunately it was inevitable that the Nazi's dream of a perfect race would release a whole new style of terror to the peace hungry Estonians.

During the battles of 1944, The Soviet union returned with vengeance once again gained control of Estonia.  Estonia felt as if they had been finally freed and raised their national flag in celebration of independence.  However, this did not last long as the Soviet's Red Army arrived in Tallinn, took down the flag and replaced it with the red flag and declared Estonia was to be run by them from Moscow.  The next 50 years saw a continual fight for independence from USSR until finally the last of the red army withdrew during August 1994.

I found it horrific to think how powerless the Estonians must have felt during the changes in rulers.  To not be able to defend your own land and just give it to whoever wanted it must have been incredibly hard and if they refused they would have just been deported to Siberia or even tortured and killed.  Unfortunately we couldn't watch all of the documentaries showing in the museum as there were 6 of them and each lasting 30 minutes.

The First Snow

The first snow fell as Matt and I were sitting in a Taco Express restaurant at around 1am and continued to fall all night.  When we woke up, we were greeted by a fantastic snowy scene and it was still falling!  That was the day we were leaving Tallinn, Matt was going back to blighty and I was heading to Russia, so we didn't wanted it to fall too much.  They are extremely efficient clearing the  roads though so it wouldn't have made a difference anyway.

At 6pm Matt left the hostel in a taxi bound for the airport and that was when I was  officially left alone for my journey across the world.  My bus wasn't leaving Tallinn until midnight so I had arranged to go to the bar with Jenn, Amanda and Jonny from the hostel for one last drink before I left.  Unfortunately they had to wait for a couple of guest who were delayed 24 hours at Stansted due to their flight being cancelled.  They finally arrived around 10.30pm and we got to the bar around 11pm, just enough time for one quick bottle of Alexandra and get a taxi to the bus station.

I always get a little concerned when the taxi driver doesn't speak English and there are more than 1 bus station in the city as you never know if you will be dropped off at the right one.  Luckily he did understand me persistently repeating "international bus station" and "Saint Peterburi" and I arrived with plenty of time to spare.

Boarding the bus it quickly became apparent that I was the only English speaker on there and no one else could understand or speak it.  I had a piece of paper thrust into my face by the Russian driver, which turned out to be the migration card you need to fill in before you enter Russia.  I filled it in, sat back and relaxed whilst the bus cut its way through the North East of Estonia heading to the Russian border, getting woken up by the stench of a cigarette being smoked on the coach.  Some things you just don't like and the smell of cigarette smoke is one... but I'm with Russians, they do as they please!

We arrived at the border around 3am and a Russian border official boarded the bus and took our passports from us and promptly returned to her small booth.  I could see her through the window as she took around 30 minutes to inspect each passport carefully and check the visa.  I spotted mine as it stuck out like a sore thumb between the other Russian ones.  I got a little concerned as she seemed to take a particular interest in mine.  But she soon arrived back on the bus with our passports.  I searched eagerly through mine hoping to get a glimpse of my first stamp, however, there wasn't one and i began to worry that I hadn't got an entrance stamp which would cause severe issues later down the road with visa registration and exiting the country.  The gates opened and we drove on another 200 metres before we stopped again.

I felt helpless as nobody on the bus spoke English and the driver barked orders at us in Russian over the tannoy.  Suddenly everyone on the bus got up, left the bus, collected their baggage and walked into a dark, dingy building.  All I could do was follow them blindly and hop for the best.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered this was passport control and the first lady was a preemptive check.  I got  my stamp and walked casually over the border with my bag in one hand and my passport in the other.  I still didn't understand anything but I knew one thing for sure...  I was in the Russian Federation!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Under 2 Weeks Until Departure

Hi all,

It's been a few weeks since I updated you on the progress of my trip.  I have got some good news and not so good news.

I'll begin with the 'not so good' news.  Due to financial and time constraints I have had to go against my rule of no flying.  I looked into several different ways of getting to St Petersburg by land and sea but it either cost a lot of took too long.  One of my favoured routes was to get a ferry from Harwich to Hoek of Holand and then train to Rostock, Germany where I'd get a ferry to Helsinki, Finland where I could get a train to St Petersburg.  However, I have got a visa for Russia which runs from 14 November to 13 December and the dates are not flexible at all.  So to make the most of the time in Russia I would have had to leave straight after finishing work, which would not be practical.  Therefore, I have decided to fly out to Tallinn, Estonia.  This way I have cut out most of Europe which I have visited before anyway, with exception to Latvia and Lithuania.  It makes me feel better when I think, I've been on a bus to Warsaw from London anyway so, I've done most of the journey already!

The good news is...  I have now completed my course of vaccinations and have finished work. 

The Scheduled Journey So Far...

  • 14 Nov 10 - Flight from London Stansted to Tallinn, Estonia, 4 nights here along with Matt Duncan
  • Overnight bus to St Petersburg, 5 days in Peter
  • Overnight train to Moscow, 5 days in Moscow
  • Train to Yekaterinburg, 3 days in Yekaterinburg
  • Train to Irkutsk, 2 days in Irkutsk
  • Hopefully spend a day at Listvyanka by Lake Baikal 
  • Possibly travel on the Circum-Baikal Railway, but this will be decided when I am in Irkutsk.
  • Train to UlaanBaator, Mongolia, before 12 December where I will stay for a week before heading to Beijing.
The World's Highest Railway

 The world's highest railway runs between Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet and reaches 16,000 feet (5,072 Meters).   I want to undertake this journey via Xi'an.  My other decision to make is whether to continue on into Nepal or go to Hong Kong.  As I have a double entry visa, I can only leave China once, so I am going to have to decide where I'd rather go. 

More details on this journey can be found here.

Chinese New Year

The Chinese new year will be celebrated on 3 February 2011 and I would like to be there for this if I could, but where?  Another decision I will have to make.  I can stay in China for 2 x 30 days so if I planned it right I could do it.  The reason why I was going to head into Honk Kong was to get a Vietnamese Visa, but this can be done elsewhere in China.  At the moment I am happy with my initial plans as Russia is the most expensive part of the first leg and had the strictest visa control.

Ciao for now people!

Oktoberfest - Heaven on Earth & Mark's Stag Do.

First day and first stein of the festival
The best way to describe Oktoberfest is 'Heaven on Earth' and that is an understatement.  What more can a man ask for other than beer, meat and very lovely ladies.  It's very hard to describe the world's biggest beer festival, it's just so good.  The atmosphere is second to none.  Everyone is out there having an absolutely amazing time, enjoying the beer, music and meat.  I would implore everyone to go at least once in their lives.  Oh the chicken, how good was the chicken!?!  It was the best piece of succulent chicken I have ever had. 

The festival ground itself is massive.  You can't believe they take it all down after the festival and put it up again next year. 

Our trip there was long and was not helped by a Kiwi who was not relenting to shout Pingu every 10 seconds when people were trying to get some sleep, however the 20 hour bus journey was definitely worth it.  We camped around 10 minutes outside of Munich and there were bus shuttles going to and from the grounds all day.  The campsite itself was just a sea of tents with thousands of Kiwis and Aussies, beer was served all day either from the shop or the beer dispensing machine.  Which meant the grounds turned into another smaller festival at night.  I honestly don't think we ever went 10 minutes without a beer in our hands!

On one of the days we went for a bit of respite from the festival and visited Dachau concentration camp and Andechs monastery.   Dachau was the first concentration camp to be built by the Nazis when they got into power.  It was home to hundreds of political prisoners who the Nazis believe were against their cause.  The camp was a sobering experience for everyone and it is important to remember what happened during the reign of the Third Reich.  It's very concerning that the circumstances that brought about the rise of Nazism is reflective of what is happening today, for instance, high unemployment, high immigration, a country in recession.  This is why parties like the British National Party concern me.  The displays at Dachau inform you how Hitler was initially ridiculed and imprisoned for his attempt to forcefully gain power and then how support for him grew rapidly after his release and release of his book Mien Kampf.  It astonished me how a country such as the Weimar Republic could change so radically and so quickly into Nazi Germany.

Andechs Monastery was a wonderful place to visit and drink.  Sitting on the top of a hill looking out on the rolling Bavarian landscape, it's brewery has been brewing beer since the 15th century and I can confidently say it was beautiful. They offer three varieties of beer, Dunkel (dark), Weiss (Wheat), and Helles (Light).  Of course we tried all three once and then the Helles and Dunkel again to conclude which beer was the best.  My favourite was the Dunkel by far. 

Andechs was certainly worth a visit and was a highlight to the trip.  That night I discovered my limit to beer consumption.  I did not feel unwell but I literally couldn't consume anymore, my stomach was full of the beautiful stuff.  It's true what they say, this beer does not give you a hangover.  The main reason for this is Reinheitsgebot or 'Purity Order', which restricts breweries to use only the main ingredients of hops, yeast, barley and water.  This makes the beer absolutely incredible and easy to drink.  Since being back, I clearly taste the difference Bavarian beer and British larger, the British larger is full of the nasty stuff like preservatives which gives you the hangover.

Our last day was spent going on the fairground rides and having our last drinks.  On the first night Mark, Duncan and I went on the most amazing ride whilst drunk... A-MAZ_ING.  Walking into a beer tent and ordering our first drink of the day, watching the ladies go by and listening to the band, we were completely unaware of what we had walked into...  We were politely informed by a merchandise salesman that in that tent, on that day, it's gay day.  Our eyes were opened and the filter which makes our brains only recognise females was lifted and it was so obvious!!

We left there after we finished our beer and went on a revolving bar to enjoy a weiss beer whilst watching the world going round and then returned to the Lowenbrau tent where we started to gobble down our last taste of heaven before our return to England. 

What a fantastic place and a brilliant experience.  Words cannot do justice to how good it is, so I'm not going to bother to write anymore....

If you'd like to see more photos, click here.