Monthly Archives: September 2013

Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia!

We are currently rolling through the Russian countryside around 1096 km from Moscow heading for Yekaterinburg (we just passed a km marker but these are not always accurate). We are eating a breakfast acquired  from the platform of a station where we the train rested for several minutes. In all we are settled and ready to spend the rest of the day watching the autumnal scenery as we move from through Russia, into the Urals and from Europe into Asia.

Our trip to Yekatrinburg began with an organised transfer from our Moscow hotel to the station. As we are travelling with a company called Real Russia, but on an unaccompanied tour we were curious as to whether we would meet any other travellers on the transfer from the hotel. We didn’t and the short transfer quickly passed with only a few grunts from our Russian driver as he left us in a car park and pointed at a station entrance.

The arrival at the station was very early. Our train was due to leave at 16:50 but we had been dropped off shortly before 14:00. This left an unexpectedly long and unnecessary 3 hours to fill. First stop was to get provisions. We weren’t sure what would be available on the train and from platforms so made sure we had the essentials: beer, coke and crisps (we already have the vodka). With a lot of time left to fill and a serious lack of seating in the station we headed for a nearby Subway for a sandwich and to pass some time. At this time our train was not even showing on the departure board but we had at least found evidence of it on a timetable so were confident we were in the right place.

After what felt like forever, a platform for our train eventually appeared on the departure board. We moved to platform 2 and found our carriage but they weren’t yet ready for us to board. We stood and watched streams of Russians pass along the platform carrying all shapes and sizes of baggage. With no restriction on carry-on luggage enforced at the Russian end of the Trans-Siberian trip, if you can get it to the train and get it on, then go for it. Most people had at least a large laundry bag of clothes (very few had suitcases). Some had their own trolleys to cart a mound of possessions. Others even recruited passers by into helping them carry bags, piles of toys, electrical goods and kitchen sinks to the train (ok, not quite sinks but anything else).

IMG_7118

As we were waiting we took  few photos. What I believed to be a Russian approach to wait at the same door as us. He started taking photos too. After I had got in the way of one of his photos we established that he wasn’t Russian and was actually Mike from Walthamstow who is also travelling with Real Russia. He is now in the cabin adjacent to us. The reason we had not seen him so far on the trip is that he is on an Explore tour and we are on Discover. There are some differences in accommodation (he has homestays while we have hotels) and we have more tours arranged. It is possible there are other Real Russia travellers on the train still as we are in first class (cabin for just the two of us) but there was also an option for second class travel.

The train carriage is a lot more modern than we expected. It is probably from the 1990s at the earliest and even has comforts such as a flat screen TV and a power socket in the room.Vicki did have dreams of old wooden panelled carriages, more like those we travelled on from Vilnius to St Petersburg, however this is more than acceptable being comfortable and spacious for the two of us in our cabin.

IMG_7123

On leaving Moscow we spent time exploring the cabin trying to see how things work and settling in. Some things took a while to work out such as putting the seats back after stowing luggage took us about 5 minutes of fiddling to achieve. The provodnista (train lady) came to check our tickets and tell us about the train. She spoke extensively(in Russian) for a couple of minutes but all we took from it was toilets down the corridor to left, restaurant car down corridor to right. She then tried to sell us various items such as food, slippers and very optimistically Russian crossword puzzles.

After 2 hours of travel we had our first stop. We couldn’t tell you where this was but we had 20 minutes there which meant we had time to step out onto the platform. We didn’t stray far from our carriage for fear of being left behind by the train however all sorts of traders came to us. We were offered flashing trinkets, glassware sets, chandeliers and even taxidermy owls and squirrels. We politely declined all offers – 10 weeks is a long time to be carrying a squirrel around.

Back on the train, Mike had found another English speaker on his movements through the train. Pauline Scott is a 72 year old lady travelling on her own from St Petersburg to Beijing. She is on a longer tour than us with more stops but has the same initial leg to Yekatrinburg. We all descended on Mike’s cabin where his Russian bunk mate, Valentin, seemed quite welcoming to 4 people he had very limited means of communication with. Over vodka and cokes we learnt a lot more about Pauline as she has many stories to tell of her time as a carriage driving competition judge, pub landlord and world traveller.

As Valentin was to leave the train at 4am we left his cabin to allow him to sleep. Instead we moved to the restaurant car where a beer and Russian salad were waiting. The food was much more reasonably priced than we expected at 100RUB for a beer and 159RUB for the salad. That makes about £5 for the meal overall. The food was good and conversation continued until we decided it was time to retire for the night.

Back in the cabin I decided to watch a movie before bed. On the recommendation of Rob WA (friend from Imperial hockey) I brought a film called Tran Siberian along. This is a thriller about drug smuggling on the trans Siberian. It seemed appropriate ton be watching it on board even at the risk of nightmares about being left behind or falling out the back of the train.

Our nights sleep was unsettled as it seemed they were trying to cook us alive. The heating would occasionally be set on full blast and in a small enclosed cabin it quickly became sweltering. Our discovery that the window opened saved us and allowed us to cool the cabin a bit. Unfortunately it was too windy to leave the window open  all the time so brief periods of cool were used when the heating was put on too high. Fortunately the heating was not always on, at times it pumped out a cooling breeze instead. At this point we were very glad of being in a cabin for 2. Sharing with others in those temperatures would have been torture.

We woke as late as possible in the morning, eventually raised by the provodnista wanting to hoover our room. This wasn’t required however she insisted by repeated knocking only eventually to have here efforts thwarted because I had spilled my change on the floor in the night so she couldn’t hover anyway.

Being woken meant we were dressed and ready for our second significant stop. Again a 20 minute stop meant you wouldn’t want to leave the station. Luckily, traders were again on hand to provide supplies. We decided to get breakfast from the platform and I managed to buy two apple pastries before sending Vicki out to try and she managed a meat and an apple pastry. It was a case of just pointing and hoping what we got was edible which seemed to work just fine.

IMG_7133

The train ride continues now. I will be staring out the window for a while now and Vicki is taking a nap. We have a Moscow post to write up, some photos to sort I am sure we will read a bit. Generally we will just be taking it easy before our arrival in Yekatrinburg this evening. Onwards into the unknown…

End of Day Update:

We have arrived in Yekatrinburg. I spent the day continuing my theme of Trans Siberian movies and watched Dr Zhivago. Thanks to Nathan (BAML) for the recommendation of this one. The film stars Omar Sharif as a doctor/poet struggling to come to terms with post-Bolshevik revolution Russia. A large part is set in Siberia during the winter. I am glad our travels across Europe and Asia are in more comfort than theirs was. Very different to last nights thriller but a good way to pass 4 hours allowing me to look out the window at the same time.

Over the day I also manage to take a lot of photos of blurred trees and villages. Vicki spent a large part of the day reading. All in all a very relaxing way to travel.

IMG_5574

After a bit of a wait at the station for our guide we made it to our hotel. A quick (but excellent) pizza for dinner and we are now looking forward to a tour first thing tomorrow morning. Mike from Walthamstow will be joining us on this.

War and Peace

One of the books they say you should read on the Trans Siberian is War and Peace. We won’t be doing this however it seems we have written something nearly as long while on the train. Stand by for epic write up of Moscow. The first half was penned by Vicki, the second by Rich.

Day 1

Moscow started with a wet transfer from the station to our hotel in the south of the city. The hotel is right next to the subway so we could quickly head off to begin our sightseeing. With a tour of the city scheduled for the next day we didn’t want to hit the big sights straight off. We decided on exploring the theatre district however couldn’t resist a trip to Red Square first. The really iconic Moscow sights can all be seen from here, St Basil’s Cathedral, the Historic State Museum, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.

Since we had an early start to get the train from St Petersburg were were soon ready for lunch. Next to red square is the Gum shopping arcade. This became our Moscow lunch location after we discovered the self service restaurant inside. They had all sorts of different food available that was good value and easy to select. This little gem kept us out of the fast food restaurants at least.

Despite the fact that it was still raining quite heavily, we bravely soldiered on through the sightseeing in the afternoon, with a walk around the Theatre District, bumping into a statue of Chekov on the way.

IMG_5145

About 4pm, we were wet and cold, and fed up of trying to avoid puddles so called an end to the days sightseeing, and headed back to check in to the hotel. Having had an early lunch, snacks were required to see us through till dinner, and so having deposited our bags in our room we nipped out to find a shop near the hotel. At first we struggled to find a supermarket, but what we did find was an arcade full to the brim with little shoe shops – not just one or two, but about 50 all in the same place. Given that one of my pairs of shoes had fallen apart in St Petersburg, I thought this would be a great time to replace them with another cheap pair– I was mistaken. The cheapest shoes were about £50 – and these weren’t even designer shoes! Fearing I might be about to blow our travel budget on shoes, Rich hastily guided me out of there, and after stocking up with beer and Pringles, we retired to the room to watch a film and wait for the rain to subside.

Which it didn’t. By the time we headed out for dinner, the rain was at least as heavy, if not heavier than before. We has used the guidebook to find a restaurant for dinner, but the trouble with using a guide book updated in 2007 is that 6 years is a long time to expect things to stay the same! We weren’t able to find that restaurant, instead opting for a log cabin style place, with an indoor stream and woodland decoration. However dubious the decoration, the Georgian food they served was delicious, and we are now trying to seek out Georgian food in our next few stops.

IMG_20130923_212314IMG_20130923_221906

Day 2

Day 2 in Moscow didn’t get off to the best start – the guide who had been booked to give us a half day tour didn’t show up. By the time we had contacted the company and re-arranged the tour for the afternoon, it was already late in the morning. Never the less, we donned waterproofs (again) and headed out to explore the south area of the city. We came across lots of pretty churches in various states of disrepair and finally ended up across the river from Red Square. We had arranged to meet the guide on the opposite side of Red Square, and so naively thought that we would cross a bridge and walk across the square to meet him. This was a key example of one of Moscow’s failings as a city – it is just not designed for people to walk around. There are major 5+ lane roads through the centre, and to find a crossing point you may have to walk 300 metres up the road from where you want to be. There is also a lot of building work happening, which results in pavements being closed, forcing you out into the traffic – definitely less than ideal, which is why I suppose everyone drives – it is just easier!

Despite the best efforts of the Moscow traffic planners, we made it to the rendez-vous point with our guide in good time. However, after waiting 15 minutes, the guide himself had still not turned up. I was getting distinctly grumpy at this point – after all, what is the point of paying for a guided tour if the guide doesn’t show up? It turns out that he had been waiting downstairs in the Metro station, which is apparently what Russians do, as opposed to waiting outside the station, which is what Londoners do.

And so after brief discussions about what to do, we set off in the direction of Red Square. As already mentioned, Alex (our guide) was a Stalinist, new-monarchist, deeply religious man, whose views on certain aspects of life were certainly different to our (“Stalin only killed 600,000 people, America killed more in Vietnam, and so therefore Stalin wasn’t a bad man”). However, he was amazingly knowledgeable, and gave us lots of information about the history of Moscow.

Given that the rain was now torrential, we opted for a tour of some of the metro stations. In the UK, this would be considered an odd thing to do, but in Moscow, the Metro stations are a sight in their own right. They are elaborately decorated with mosaics, lots of marble, and brass statues depicting various scenes in Russian history, as well as Russian constitutional ideals. My favourite was the station with the statue of the man and his dog – everyone rubs the dog’s nose for good luck as they pass, and this dog now has a really shiny nose. (Alex: “This is superstition. Superstition is sin. Don’t do it”, Us: “Ok…”)

IMG_20130923_223550

Alex also gave us some recommendations for dinner, but as it was only 5.30pm, we declined and went to a bar instead. We had intended to move on for dinner later, but as it was still raining, we just ended up having food in the bar – slightly worryingly, the drinks bill was double the food bill!

Day 3 (Rich writing now)

We woke up to find it had stopped raining. This was fabulous news. We headed for the centre to see the dead dude mentioned in our last post. It seems this confused a few people who were wondering who this dude was. Of course it is Lenin who lies in a tomb in the middle of red square and people can visit, filing past him to pay their respects. These days very few Russians visit whereas in the past a visit was a big thing to people. Now it is mainly tourists who go out of a sense of curiosity.

The visit was quite strange as you walk around the maze like tomb. Along the way are very young but solemn looking guards. You then come to a chamber where Lenin lies in his box. Having been dead for around 90 years he is in remarkably good condition. He looks quite wax-like leading to some debate over whether it is really him still or if he has been replaced. Overall the experience was quite weird. Having seen this I think they should close off the old chap and let him rest in peace as I have since read it was never his desire to be put on display in this way and he just wanted a normal burial.

Continuing to tick off major Moscow sites, the next stop was the Kremlin. This was much bigger than we expected – there are 3 cathedrals in the complex plus other palaces, museums and conference venues. It was a nice area to walk around, although slightly spoiled by the herds of coach parties trekking with single minded focus from one site to the next. We also bumped into our guide Alex again, but as he was guiding some others people round a church we didn’t stop to chat.

IMG_5376

The security is very visible in the Kremlin, as you would expect being the location of the government, and where president Putin has his residence. However, this doesn’t just extend to restricting access to certain areas, it also results in whistles being blown if you cross a the practically deserted roads outside of a designated crossing point. Many tourists were victims of frantic whistling but fortunately we remained their good books.

Our last big sight was St Basil’s cathedral. Although we had already seen this a number of times we took the opportunity to go inside. The cathedral is made up of 9 separate chruches around a central space. A quartet singing hymns resonated around the different chambers as we wandered though.

Having had our fill of sights for the day we decided it was time for a run. The biggest park in central Moscow is Gorky park and actually a sight in itself. We did a leisurely 4.5 miles between two metro stations taking in a large portion of the park. We found a space shuttle on our route and managed to avoid a short rain shower by taking strategic cover in the woods.

IMG_7095

IMG_7112

We escaped a football crowd around our hotel for the evening by heading the the north of the city for Georgian food. We had been promised by Trip Advisor that while they didn’t speak English or have an English menu the staff were very helpful. I had been looking forward to muddling through with the help of pictures however it turns out they do now have the English menu. This allowed us to acquire some delicious dumplings, Georgian bread, chicken in walnut sauce and dolma. For me this was the best meal so far in the trip and we will be looking out for more Georgian food in the rest of Russia.

Day 4

With a morning free before our transfer we decided to head out of town to a park called Kolomenskoye. This is the site of one of the earliest Moscow settlements where you can now find a number of churches and other historic buildings such as one of Peter the Great’s log cabins (we had already seen another in St Petersburg). With the rain holding off again we had a very pleasant walk through the park. At one point we found ourselves in an orchard where many people were picking and collecting fallen apples. It was a lovely place to spend a morning making a huge contrast to the urban throng elsewhere in Moscow.

IMG_5456

Moscow is a vast sprawling city that we could easily have spent more time exploring. There were some areas we didn’t visit but wanted to and many museums we didn’t go into. Also due to the bad weather we missed out on seeing the sights by night. Another trip to Moscow some time in the future will no doubt be required.

From Russia with Basil

We are moving through all the herbs it seems. This time greetings from St Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow.

IMG_5348

This isn’t a full report on Moscow but just an opportunity to further drag out the poor title based joke from my last post.

It is coming to the end of our third day in the Russian capital. We have had 2 days of rain but today has remained dry with the sun even making the odd appearance. Highlights from Moscow have been seeing a dead dude, having a tour from a Stalinist turned Monarchist, Russian Orthodox Moscow enthusiast and visiting the kremlin for a Putin party. We have just been for a run around Gorky park and now preparing for an expedition out to a Georgian restaurant found on the interweb. If you want to see where we are check: www.shepkina.com.

Tomorrow we move on using the first of the Trans Siberian trains (Moscow to Yekaterinburg). This is only an overnight train leaving at 13:30, arriving at 18:09 the next day Moscow time. We lose 2 hours though as we move to GMT + 5 so arrive 20:09 local time. The time difference will put us the equivalent of New York away from GMT but in the opposite direction from London. Progress around the world is being made!

To let you know what else we do with trains here is the breakdown:

  • Moscow to Yekatrinburg – about 1 day
  • Yekatrinburg to Irkutsk – about 2 days
  • Irkutsk to Ulan Bator – about 1 day
  • Ulan Bator to Beijing – about 1 day

Choo choo!

Since I don’t want to talk about what we have done in Moscow I will ramble about other things…today’s topic is reading (NB. small R so not the Berkshire town).

The amount of time we have on trains will give a great chance for catching up on our reading. So far I have gone through:

I Think I’m Ok by Christopher Kenny. This is a story about a guy who spent his childhood in a variety of care homes. I got it as a free kindle book on Amazon so wasn’t expecting much but was surprised about how engaging the story was. Having recently read a few other prison themed biographies this was continuing a theme. Writing the book was clearly meant to be a cleansing activity of the author but in doing so he has given us an insight into a world that most of us are oblivious to. Easy read and well worth the money spent on it.

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. John, my brother, bought this for us as a leaving gift. It seemed very appropriate as a travelling book (although we left the present copy at home we downloaded a free version to kindles – thanks for the thought John even though we by-passed the extra weight). We aren’t quite doing 80 days around the world, ours is 78 days halfway around. Phileas Fogg had a lot more commitment than we did. I enjoyed reading this for what I believe is the second time. I couldn’t help myself picturing Phileas Fogg as a well dressed lion though.

Never Go Back by Lee Child. This is the next book in the Jack Reacher series. I have read the whole series and really enjoy them. Despite Jack’s ever more extraordinary abilities to take on the world and come out unscathed they still entertain and as usual I didn’t want to put this one down. Some parts of these books are always dubious however it was the interesting view on 50/50 probability that annoyed me the most this time. If you are a Reacher fan this meets expectations. If you haven’t experienced him yet, definitely go for the earlier books first.

I am now reading The Cuckoo’s Calling  by Robert Galbraith. It is a shame I know who the author really is as I keep thinking of wizards while reading it. I guess without the hype of the un-masking I would never have read it though so can’t really object.

You probably gave up reading a while ago since this is not about travelling. Hey ho. Rich out.

From Russia with Parsley

Read “From Russia with Love” first.

As Vicki has already written the official blog and we still have 2 hours of our 4 hour trip from St Petersburg to Moscow left you get some unofficial reflections from me too. Vicki is reading over my shoulder and will soon criticise (as I criticised her over use of bracketed asides in her blog). We currently are speeding along on a comfortable Saspan (saucepan?) train at 220 kmph through the Russian country side (choo choo!). Getting to it required a 6am wake up when it was still dark (boo). This is the earliest we have been up all trip (we have been quite lazy). Even the bus driver gave us a lie in until 8am.

In the style of our guidebook, my top 10 thoughts on St Petersburg…

IMG_20130923_231858

1. Metro – liked it. Really deep escalators as it was designed to double as a nuclear bunker. Vicki was a bit scared of these, escalators that is not an impending nuclear holocaust. The tunnels were far more spacious than you get on the tube. The St P metro would be better called the cavern than the tube. Stations were also very elegantly decorated but apparently Moscow is even better so something to look forward to. 28 RUB per ride which is a bit over 50p. That wouldn’t get you far in London, would it?

IMG_20130920_232610

2. Traffic – didn’t like it. Most of St Petersburg is not suited to pedestrians. There are many 6 lane roads passing through the centre. The best way to describe it would be the A3 does Oxford Street. I mean the big bit of the A3 out by us too. Lots of underpasses and long diverted routes to find crossings were required. This took away a bit from the impressive surroundings and if I were in charge I would kick out a lot of the cars and make people get the bus leaving a lot more room for everyone else.

3. Cycle tour – enjoyed it. As Vicki said, cycling here was very different to at home. It was more about hoping up and down pavements and cycling across pedestrian crossings rather than obeying the rules of the road. St P has a long way to go to becoming a green city. The tour itself was fun but could have been better structured. Our guide gave us a lot of info but jumped around a lot between periods in history rather than trying to link it all together with any kind of narrative. I think he was more interested in playing on his mountain bike than planning tours.

4. Crazy Russian shop assistants – quite scared of them. On the way home on Saturday I stopped to get a quick snack / breakfast from the shop and Vicki went straight into the hotel. As part of the transaction, the crazy Russian shop lazy stole all my change and gave me a 50 RUB note in exchange. I managed to save the metro tokens before she took those too and think I came out on top but that is debateable.

5. Crab crisps – undecided. Like prawn cocktail but far more fishy.

IMG_20130922_180947

6. Mosquitoes – hate them. One of the damn things was resident in our room. We could here him and caught occasional sight of him. Unfortunately even a dousing of insect repellent didn’t stop him feasting on Rich based suppers two nights running.

7. Food – so so. Before heading off I was told bad things about the food in St P, and I personally have mixed feelings. One of the issues was getting food when it is all advertised in Cyrillic. Pasta with red caviar at “The Idiot” was excellent and easily ordered from an English menu. Beef stroganoff from restaurant in hotel also good. Borscht disappointing as I am yet to get a really thick soup I would expect, so far all quite watery. On 3 occasions in St P we gave in to the ease of fast food to get something to eat rather than trying to obtain food by pointing and hoping for the best. Although Big Mac, Whopper and Steak and Cheese Sub are written differently in Cyrillic they are fortunately pronounced the same so very easy to order.

8. Run – not so pretty but good to get out and exercise. Although we have done a lot of walking it still isn’t the same as a good run. Evening run had a couple of good parks but linked by many nasty roads. Tried to along a canal but found the towpath permanently sealed off and forced back to path beside the dual carriage way. Would go on a Metro ride to get to a bigger park and stay in it if doing another run there.

9. Canals – enjoyed strolling by them. More central ones which only had moderately bad traffic along side them did give the city a nice feel. They are missing out on canal-side cafes to sit and pass the time in though. As we did the cycle tour and a lot of walking we skipped a boat tour. I usually like a boat tour but was ok with this decision as tours were mostly in Russian anyway. Would have been good to do a night boat tour to see the bridges lifting but this would probably be better on a summers evening.

10. DK Top 10 guide book – annoyed with it. I like a good guide book and usually go for the Dorling Kindersley ones as they have good range of informative content, itinerary suggestions and restaurant recommendations. The top 10 one we had here was chosen because it was lighter than the main one. This was a bad compromise in the end as I found the information we wanted scattered although the guidebook in different top 10 lists rather than being arranged by area.You also find you get padding on the lists when there aren’t actually 10 things to say.  Much like I have done here. Happily we have the full guide for Moscow.

Back to book reading now as we still have time before Moscow. Looking forwards to lunch there as we weren’t very prepared and didn’t bring much food for the journey. The people next to us had sausage sandwiches and even brought themselves a bag of parsley that they used as a garnish. They are now eating a second meal of sushi washed down with a swig from a hip flask. Show offs.

IMG_20130923_080544

Vicki blogs while our neighbours eat parsley.

From Russia with love

St Petersburg is known as the “Capital of the North” and has a reputation for being more relaxed, and more friendly than Moscow, and so this seemed like a good place to begin our Russian adventure.

Day 1:

Getting off the train in St Petersburg was a bit of a shock to the system as all signs were now in Cyrillic rather than Roman text. Not being able to read the road signs until you are three feet away (the Roman translation is in very small writing underneath the Cyrillic) really slows things down.

Note to self – always double check which station you are coming in to – if may not be the main station. We had purposely found a hotel near the station to get our train to Moscow. Unfortunately, we had come into a different station further away and so had a 20 minute walk to our hotel. This went through some less than picturesque bits of St P. At this point I have to say that I was starting to wish we had stayed in Vilnius! However, once checked into the hotel and out site-seeing, the charms of the city started to become clear. A quick metro trip later and we were standing outside the mint coloured Hermitage, which  is a very impressive site, slightly let down by the 6 lane road running alongside it.

IMG_4823

A trip down the main street allowed us to tick off several more sites including the Church of the Lady of Kazan (complete with the women who had brought her cat to church) and the Church of the Spilled Blood, a candy coloured structure with what looks like an ice cream swirl on top.

IMG_4907

Next to the church was a park, where about 6 couples in full wedding regalia were having their photos taken  – we were trying to work out how many of the photos would have another wedding photo-shoot in the background!

Dinner that night was at the “Idiot Cafe” (no jokes please) and featured free shots of Vodka Smile

Day 2:

Day 2 started out dull and a bit rainy – perfect weather for a bike tour we thought. It turned our that we were the only ones to think that, and so we had a guide all to ourselves for 3 hours as we took our life in our hands around St P.

As you will know, both Rich and I cycle in London, and so should be used to hair-raising cycles, but this was some else entirely! Cyclists use the pavement, dive across roads, don’t indicate, and use whichever side of the road suits them (not so different to cyclists in London then I guess), but when added to the fact that the cars don’t seem to follow any of the rules of the road, then  it really does make for an interesting experience. When not fearing four lives, we got to see some of the more hidden parts of the city (some more scenic than others) as well as learning lots about the history of St P, and how this has shaped the development of the city.

One thing that struck me was how run down a lot of the city is – much of the housing is in disrepair, with broken windows and damaged brickwork. Given the depth of the winters here, that really surprised me, as I would have thought that maintaining the housing and offices to a weather-proof standard would have been high on the agenda.

During the afternoon, the sun finally made an appearance, the first time we had seen it since Brussels, and so we made the most of it by going the beach!  There were some crazy people swimming, but the amount of pollution (and the fact that the water would be freezing) meant that we gave that a miss, in favour of the Peter and Paul Fortress, a kind of St P theme park – a cross between Madam Tussauds, St Pauls Cathedral and the British Museum. The Peter and Paul Cathedral was tour group central but was interesting to see as it contains the tombs of the Romanovs, recently returned from their long stay in a mine in Yekaterinburg.

IMG_5000

Day 3:

We woke to rain again, and so decided that today was Hermitage day. On the way though, we came across something that we are more accustomed to spending our Sundays doing – a  running race, finishing outside the Hermitage!  Sadly we didn’t know in advance about  it, and having looked since, we still couldn’t find anything about it!

We decided to devote a decent chunk of time to the Hermitage – although in reality, if we had spent all of our time there since arriving in St P we still would not have covered it all. It is HUGE – there is just no other way to describe it. We were selective, and just tried to see the top 20 pieces, but it was hard not to get side tracked by other things, particularly the malachite statues and tables, which were just such a mesmerising colour.

Once we extricated ourselves from the Hermitage, we decided to make the most of the surprisingly nice weather and go for a walk along the canal (who new that St P had canals?). A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, taking in Lion Bridges and the Mariinskiy theatre (the outside anyway). A quick trip to the top of the colonade of St Isaacs Cathedral gave some lovely views of the city, although the open-to-the-elements rickety metal staircase covering the last 20 feet was not my favourite part of the trip!

No trip to a new city would be complete without a run, although St P is really not designed for pedestrians or runners. There are very few parks, and the roads are generally 4-6 lane affairs with limited crossings. I would have to say that the run was one of the least scenic that I have ever done – and I would say that this is a general theme of St P. There are some very lovely parts (and those rival the top sights anywhere) but outside these main areas then there is a high degree of  neglect and disrepair. In common with Warsaw and Vilnius, there is also a lot of grafitti, on a scale not seen in London, and I think that this detracts from the feel of the place.

Zeppelins and our escape to Russia

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was our first stop with the luxury of a night in a hotel. For me (Vicki writing today – hello!) this really was luxury as she didn’t want to qleave the most comfortable bed she has slept in for a long time. Sightseeing waits for no one though and the Old Town of Vilnius was calling. One the largest surviving medieval old town in Europe, Vilnius offered a lot to explore and seemed to tick all the boxes: Cathedral, Presidential Palace, many churches and lots of little bars set in pretty squares (note – next time we should come when the weather is actually nice enough to sit in the little bars in the squares!).

Lunch was traditional Lithuanian fare – Rich got stuck into some “Zeppelins” (thanks Rob for the recommendation) whilst I had a bread bowl full of soup (which was so good I had it again the following day).
Lunch was very good, but it also very heavy, and so in the afternoon we walked it off with a trip up one of Vilnius’s 2 hills – this one had a small castle on it. It was a steep walk up, and probably the not the best way to let lunch settle, but the view from the top was amazing, and well worth the slog up.

IMG_4737

On the way back to the hotel we came across some trees and lamp posts that had covers thoughtfully knitted for them. No idea why, but they looked pretty funky. One even had a knitted RFID, but sadly, it didn’t work.

IMG_4760

Dinner that night was in a specialist beer bar which was hidden down a small street, and without Trip Advisor directions, we would never have found it. Rich seemed to enjoy the beer, and the food was definitely an experience (Lithuanian food seems to involve a lot of pig’s ears).

Early the next morning, it was run time! We planned a route that would take us to the “Uzupis republic”, a small area in Vilnius which has its own constitution and where, on April Fools Day, the police will stamp your passport. Whilst the run was very scenic (it is always a good way to see a  city) it was distinctly hilly, with one part being a gigantic set of wooden steps (in various states of disrepair) up to the highest point of Vilnius.

IMG_7009

The post-run breakfast was provided by the market across the street from the hotel. It seemed to sell everything from hundreds of varieties of sausages, to clothes to wooden souvenirs – and the traders didn’t even bat an eyelid at 2 sweaty runners wandering around.

The afternoon saw a trip to the Genocide museum, following the brutal history of Lithuania from the 1940’s up to independence in the 1990’s, housed in the ex-KGB building. The most chilling part was the KGB execution chamber, where you could still see the bullet holes in the walls.

That evening saw the most torrential rain I think I have ever seen – we practically had to swim to the station to get our train. It meant that we were getting an overnight train with soggy clothes and shoes, which were already a bit on the pungent side. This would have been fine if it was just the two of us in a compartment, but this was one of the few times we were sharing a 4 berth cabin.

This second night train to St Petersburg was very different to the first (Cologne to Warsaw). The antique train had corridors with dark wood panelling and burgundy patterned carpet. The cabins had a net curtain, and a lace doily on the table. After a nodded hello to our cabin mate we settled in for a quiet evening as our Lithuanian / Russian wasn’t yet at a conversational level.

As this train was to take us into Russia, we had been advised that at the Russian border, the guards would come aboard to check our tickets. Having heard various horror stories about Russian visas, I would say that this was the bit I was most nervous about of the whole trip! About 2am, a guard came aboard the train and checked our visas, closely followed by a sniffer dog (I’m not kidding – at 2am it is very odd to have a dog’s nose thrust in your face – next time I am taking the top bunk!). Having thought that was all sorted, I went back to sleep, until at 3am, the door opens and another guard wants our visa – and this time takes it away with her. 30 minutes (and two more cabin inspections) later, we finally get our passports back and I can breathe a sigh of relief – we made it in to Russia!

Euro Nights (Trains vs Buses)

We have just had two quite different night time travelling experiences. When we last left you we were heading into Poland on the EuroNight train. Today we are in Vilnius having seen Warsaw and moved on using the overnight bus, Lux Simple Europe. How different the two were!

First off, let me give you a Poland update. It was promised in two entries already and now we have been there and done that. Warsaw was always going to be a short stop. In fact we had 12 hours between our train and bus. This means no hotel, just sightseeing and then waiting. Unfortunately Warsaw tried to make this hard for us by emptying the contents of several clouds on our heads.

Being hardy travellers, we simply donned waterproofs, grabbed umbrellas and tried to make the best of it. Warsaw central station is located in the newer part of Warsaw, and so we made the 25 minute trek/swim to the Old Town. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that it was bucketing down, the Old Town was pretty quiet.

IMG_4647

Having had enough of walking in the rain we decided a pit stop was due so went into a chain restaurant just off the main square. We had already seen another outlet for this chain which featured Polish dumplings (pierogi) for Rich and potato pancakes for Vicki. We thought it was a good meal even if some trip advisor reviews describe it as the Polish equivalent of McDonalds. One of the highlights was watching old German men trying to take photos of the young waitresses who were wearing supposedly authentic dress as uniforms (see sample from their website below – http://www.zapiecek.eu/).

On leaving lunch the rain was still falling so we decided some culture was in order. Therefore, we went in to dry off in the castle. A bit of quick history of Warsaw, during the second world war it was pretty much entirely flattened. Houses gone, shops gone, old town gone, castle gone. So the castle we went it was built in the 1970s and opened in around 1981. This was the story with a lot of the old town, it isn’t actually that old with most places having been rebuilt in the 1950’s or later. Most buildings had two dates associated with them, one old and one post-war to indicate when the building was first built and then when it was rebuilt. It was amazing to see just how much devastation had been caused in the city and how much work had to be done to rebuild. Back in the castle, it seems they have done a very good job. Many original artefacts were saved even if the original building was not. This meant there was still a lot of history to see with the old and restored combined with great effect.

IMG_4684

On leaving the castle the weather gods smiled on us and held back the rain. This gave us chance to properly explore the old town as other tourists also came out from hiding and the place livened up a bit. The afternoon passed with a drink/wifi stop to rest for a while then the walk back to the new area of town where we had left our bags at the station. This seemed like a mistake at first as this part of Warsaw is seriously devoid of character. We passed very few bars/restaurants and none that we even considered going in. We were almost considering heading to the same chain as at lunch time when we stumbled across a little gem.

The Radio Cafe was once the headquarters of the Warsaw branch of Radio Free Europe. I won’t pretend to know much about this but just think of people living behind the iron curtain but spreading news/propaganda from the west via radio. Basically although we didn’t fully understand the history, going into this bar was like a step back in time. With 4 hours to fill before our bus, we managed to spend 3 of them sitting in this bar, drinking, snacking on plates of Polish appetisers and people watching.

At 10pm we began to move towards our 11:20pm overnight bus. This left from an out of town railway station (Warsaw Zachodnia) built in 1936 and not updated since, and this gave it an ominous atmosphere. Poor lighting and few people gave Vicki the feeling of being in a horror movie. Fortunately we found the other people waiting for overnight buses huddled in a small waiting area, which we were subsequently thrown out of when it closed at 11pm, instead being made to stand in the rain outside.

When the bus arrived it was a pleasant surprise. It had wifi and in-seat on-demand entertainment. I would say it was better than quite a few airlines (I am talking about you Ryanair). Although technologically equipped, it can’t compare in comfort terms to the cosy cabin we had on the Euro Night train the night before. As a necessary evil due to engineering works stopping all trains in September on our route the journey to Vilnius passed pretty quickly and was far less horrendous than expected. The sleep wasn’t great but luckily on arrival in Vilnius we were about to check into our hotel early and catch up on a few of the hours sleep we missed on the bus.

Mussels in Brussels

Day 1 was very much a travelling day. This means you are about to get a summary of several train journeys. Feel free to look at the pictures and skip ahead. We took the Berrylands flyer into town (no seat as usual on the rush hour train), Victoria line to Kings Cross St Pancras, Eurostar to Brussels, domestic train to Liege, Thalys train from Liege to Cologne/Koln and then onto the Euronight train to Warsaw.

After the Eurostar left us in Brussels at 14:05 we had until 18:14 to get to Liege for our next train. Our ticket allowed us to travel anywhere in Belgium but we settled on a quick hop into the centre of Brussels. Leaving our bags at the left luggage at Brussels Midi we arrived in at Brussels Central very quickly and soon found ourselves in Grand Place. We treated ourselves to lunch in the square, having some very good beer and mussels.

IMG_4566

No trip to Brussels would be complete without a visit to the Manequin Pis -who wouldn’t want to see a little boy pissing? The real highlight for Vicki though was the chocolate covered waffle she devoured on the way back to the station. The small amount I was allowed was very tasty. (Vicki: well, you can’t go to Belgium without having Belgian chocolate, it just wouldn’t be right!)

IMG_4575

As we were being cheap we didn’t get the ICE train directly to Cologne but instead moved to Liege for a Thalys train. This was under half the price of the ICE train when we were booking and proved worthwhile as it was a simple trip to Liege on a comfortable domestic train (even at rush hour there were plenty of seats – Southwest Trains take note) where there is a fabulous modern station. It was a really impressive sight and well worth seeing on our train adventure. A short stop allowed time for a raspberry beer/Baileys and hot chocolate. The 5th train of the day was probably the most comfortable, an hour on the Thalys (free wifi always pleases me) and we were in Cologne for dinner.

IMG_4598

Cologne is a fabulous city and well worth a visit. This was my second short stay their following an evening stop over on a tour round Europe with my brother John in 2001. I always said I wanted to go back and now I have. Unfortunately there wasn’t much time for sightseeing, having arrived at 19:30, but we had time for a stroll around town and dinner by the Rheine before boarding the Euro Night Sleeper train for Warsaw.

IMG_4633

After some deliberation on the platform and consultation with the leader of a school group we interpreted our ticket and found where to stand. We had a short panic moment when we realised we had beds 42 and 46 in the carriage and thought we may be in different compartments. Fortunately they skip a lot of numbers and we weren’t placed with any strange Polish people for the journey. We settled into our cosy cabin for our first nights sleep on a train. (Vicki – the cabin was a definite highlight for me – it was so cosy being just the two of us, and the beds were surprisingly comfy. The guard even brings you a cup of tea in the morning!)

We finished our last blog by saying see you in Poland. We still haven’t made it there by this point so once again, see you in Poland!

Here we go!

IMG_4537

Well, we have made it to Kings Cross St Pancras, and are now sat on the Eurostar – so that is a good start! After a tearful goodbye to Steve, and a quick photo shoot at Berrylands, the first two train rides of our journey were completed uneventfully. Our train has just departed, and hopefully the weather will be as good in Brussels as it seems in London – mainly because the waterproofs have been packed in the bottom of the bags.

IMG_4536

Over the last two weeks we made the most of our time off by taking long cycles, visiting Chessington World of Adventures and having a few rounds of mini golf. The time flew by but we found we got a lot done and managed to catch up with lots of friends before heading away. We think some people were sick of us by the end of the two weeks and thought we would never leave, particularly so at running club where we seem to have had 4 different last runs.

IMG_4541

Look out for more blog posts coming thick and fast as we travel through Europe. Today’s destinations include lunch in Brussels, dinner in Cologne and then an overnight train to Warsaw. See you in Poland!

Packing and planning

IMG_4535

Vicki:

Exactly how much stuff does a person need for 2.5 months away? Well, it turns out the answer is quite a lot, as shown by Richard’s packing above! Despite cutting it down to the absolute minimum (or what we think is the minimum) we still seem to be carrying a considerable amount of stuff. It would definitely be easier if we were sticking to a single climate, but what with sleeping in Yurts in Mongolia, trekking in China, and beach time in Thailand, I think it is fairly reasonable that I look like a tortoise when I put my bag on.

Given that we are trying to cram in as much as possible in a relatively short period of time, we have had to be quite strict with out planning, and we have more or less all of our hotels, trains and planes booked. Whilst it has meant that we have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks sat in front of the computer, this has to be preferable to sitting in an internet cafe someone in the middle of nowhere trying to book a hotel, when we could be out sightseeing. This also means there is one less thing for us to worry about, as we at least know where we will be sleeping that night.

Rich:

I don’t have that much stuff really. The above was condensed down after a careful, pre-packing, packing and then re-packing process. I call it Rich’s 3 step process for packing perfection  and may write a book on it. Perhaps packing consultant can be my new job when we return.

To defend our planning approach, we are very structured people (not boring, just well prepared) who like to know what we are doing. I blame many very well organised family holidays for this. Winging it doesn’t come naturally to either Vicki or I. I am sure somewhere along the lines our careful planning will collapse and we will be forced to go ad-hoc but at least we have a solid framework to start with. This sounds all too much like work rather than travelling though, fingers crossed we will now let our hair down (I don’t have much but will try) and go with the flow from here on in.