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Getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning is not my idea of a holiday. Lucky then that I wasn’t going on holiday. Not for me the all-included 2 week pampered package. No siree. For I, the noble traveller, was embarking on a trip. You could call it a challenge, a mission even, but not a holiday. Definitely not a holiday. I had a higher purpose. My plan, if you could call it that, was to get all the way from my home in Bath, England to Sydney, Australia without flying and without using any motorised transport which had to go somewhere specifically just for me. No taxis, no hire cars, no mopeds, no tuk tuks, no jet skis. Just plain old public transport. As environmental crusades go, I’m the first to acknowledge this was, at best, a symbolic gesture. Ultimately, I will still be clocking up a huge number of miles. In my head at least, I think the justification was simply trying to prove you could see what the world had to offer without necessarily having to jet about everywhere. Well that, a love of travel, a lack of career, and an annoying stubborn streak which seemed to make me ideally qualified for this kind of a challenge. So come, armchair adventurer, join me on my voyage and let us see what we can discover.
What we first discover is that £1 National Express tickets do exist. With a rare bit of forward planning, I’d booked the early bird special to London. Perhaps not the most glamorous of starts but a bargain’s a bargain. Even with all the rules I’d laid down, I’m hoping my modes of transport will occasionally stray into more exotic territory. Thanks to my alarm clock not being adjusted for British Summer Time, I was running a bit late but sacrificing my cup of coffee, I still managed to make it to the bus station for the requested 10 minutes before departure. Which was more than I could say for the coach. No major drama as it did turn up a few minutes later. In the monotone and well rehearsed words of our driver, it was time to sit back, relax and let him handle all the stress because that was what he got paid for.
As much as I would like to portray myself as a complete free spirit who goes wherever he likes whenever he likes, the truth is on a trip like this, some degree of planning was required - organising visas if nothing else. I think my general approach to planning is doing the minimum I can get away with. It’s not the planning I dislike, it’s the having to stick to a plan. What if something better comes up? Sydney was a long way away and I did have a rough route in mind, if only to realise 2 longstanding travel ambitions: to ride the Trans-Siberian Express and to visit Japan. The rest I was happy to make up as I went along. The stumbling block to my free-form travelling creativity was having to be somewhere on 23rd April. Specifically, Vladivostok. On that day I was catching the ship to Japan and if I missed it, there wasn’t another one for a month. This gave me 15 days to travel approximately six and a half thousand miles. No problem.
Into Victoria coach station for 9.30 and then across to Waterloo by tube. The Eurostar was leaving at 12.30 so I had plenty of time to pick up a few snacks for the journey before finally settling down for my delayed coffee on the balcony of a first floor cafe. Okay Mr Driver, now I’ll relax.
It was my first time on the Eurostar and apart from its go faster nose cone, it was disappointingly just a train. If anything, they had learned a trick from the airlines and squeezed in more seats by reducing the legroom. Fortunately, I did have 2 seats to myself and a power socket to plug my mp3 player into - have to save those batteries. Whiled away the time listening to whatever ‘random’ wanted me to hear as I watched the scenery rush by. In fact, it might have been my imagination but I’m sure the train seemed to find an extra gear at some point, scenery rushing by even faster.
My first change was at Brussels. Why is it all big stations manage to project a seedy aura? I suspect the seediness largely emanates from the people loitering in them. Time for a quick beer in the not very Irish Murphy’s Law bar.
Back in kiosk land, I attempted to buy a Mars Bar by pointing at it. I was slightly taken aback when the woman serving told me how much it was in English. “J’ai un visage anglais?”, I said, hoping I’d asked if I had an English face. And yes, apparently I do.
Not so lucky on the Brussels to Cologne leg. A rubbish old train and a restricted view due to my seat not coinciding with a window.
When we arrived into Cologne, I was impressed by the fact that the famous Gothic cathedral was right next door. Tourist duties done (well, photos taken) and I didn’t even have to leave the station.
Also on the doorstep was a veritable smorgasbord of drinking and fast food opportunities. Someone needs to tell them that 0.2 litres is a woefully inadequate beer measure. Maybe it’s a child’s portion. The bratwurst was good though.
My final train of the day was the overnighter to Warsaw. It was the first of many I was due to be experiencing over the next couple of weeks and I was curious to see what conditions would be like. I thought I’d paid for a place in a 4 berth compartment but in turned out there were potentially going to be 6 of us. They’d managed to squeeze 2 triple bunks into something the size of a small shed. Just 2 of us to start with. Me and a middle-aged Polish woman who acknowledged my presence then went back to her Walkman. A couple of stops later, 3 generations got on: young daughter, mother and grandmother. One of the middle bunks appeared to be broken so mother and daughter shared. Our final companion, a pregnant woman, joined at the next stop. So, technically, we had 7 in the compartment.
SUN headline: “travel stud sleeps with 4 women on first night”. We’ll ignore any Wayne Rooney/Gary Glitter similarities.
Needless to say it was a bit cramped but somehow workable. I mainly stayed out of the way in the corridor until it was time for bed. It was then I discovered that my (top) bunk was about 6 inches shorter than I was. Back to the womb.
At the risk of sounding like a whinger (but let’s face it, I am), I am pretty much guaranteed to have a lousy night’s sleep unless I have perfect conditions. I suffer from the killer combination of being a light sleeper and having a spiteful back which continues to exhibit a varying catalogue of aches and pains. My back hates me. Suffice to say, I had a lousy night’s sleep. Obviously it didn’t help being woken up at 3.00 to have our passports checked.
Flat and rural is how I would describe the landscape before we headed into Warsaw. The houses seemed to follow a fairly boxy utilitarian blueprint as if there was no money to spend on fancy frills. Into Warsaw for 9.00 to be greeted by a bleak and mostly closed station. Once again, representatives from society’s bedraggled underbelly were out and about, hustling for money. It must be a grim existence.
I’d made the schoolboy error of arriving with just the name of my accommodation - the dubiously titled Oki Doki Hostel. No address, no directions, no phone number. While the taxi drivers did not fill me with confidence they knew where it was, they were still willing to charge me 25 Zloty to get me there. What I needed was an internet café but again communication proved to be a problem, with no one willing or able to understand me. It was probably the latter because walking around the block, I found a 24 hour place tagged onto the side of the station. With my printed out directions, it took me just 10 minutes to walk to the hostel. The first of no doubt many problems solved.
In spite of its name, the hostel seemed to have worked hard on creating the right atmosphere. Housed on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors above a bank(!), it had been decorated with a bit of imagination, had helpful English speaking staff, free internet, and a shop which when the need arose, also doubled as a bar. Speaking of which, my room wasn’t ready yet so I wandered into the bar and was cordially invited to join a table of drinkers who were starting early. Before I knew it, I had a beer in front of me. The Irish guy and the English guy were over for a long (drinking) weekend. The Aussie couple were on a round the world ticket although hoped to get work in Canada. I baled out of the next round with the excuse of needing to check in.
I’d read that each room had its own theme and I was curious to see mine. “The house of a 1001 hands”. Black handprints had been imprinted all over the ceiling, curtains, cushions and lampshades as well as a Plastacast Chinese Theatre style border around the whole room. Strange but suitably funky. It wasn’t long before I found myself indulging in an obviously much-needed power nap. Felt better for it. Even better after a shower.
The Brits were still drinking in the bar and I was rightly accused of being a lightweight when I said I was off to do a bit of kulcha.
And so after barely a day and a half, my prediction of losing something came true. My beloved and much travelled Carhartt beanie had disappeared. Damn.
Walking through the old town with its narrow cobbled streets and wide plazas, I had instant flashbacks to Schindler’s list. Very eerie. Shame about all the Carlsberg umbrellas spoiling the photo opportunities.
Purely by chance, I found an Irish pub and had a breather from tourist duties and the rain, watching Newcastle vs. Arsenal on TV. File it under “diverse cultural experiences”. Headed back to the hostel, looking for something to eat that wasn’t McDonald’s. Settled on the Sphinx restaurant and had what was effectively chicken kebab and chips without the pita bread. The waiter seemed very disappointed I hadn’t gone for something more expensive.
More power-napping at the hostel and even then I could only manage one beer in the bar before calling it a night.
The Palace of Culture and Science beckoned.
The huge, imposing building dominates the centre of Warsaw and if you pay your money, you get to go to the top, in a lift, with James Blunt appropriately providing the muzak. Sadly, the elements and a hefty security grill were against my best photographic endeavours. On the 4th floor there was an exhibition of Polish art. Somehow I had managed to go the wrong way and found myself in an empty ballroom. Definitely some impressive indulgence by someone. It was all very eerie with no one else around. Even more so with the wind whistling up through the elevator shafts. Talk about ghost in the machine.
Moved on to the Technology museum which was a little bit dated and tricky (read: impossible) to follow with all the information in Polish. I did like the Cray Super Computer with its massive 512 MBytes of RAM and 300MHz of power.
As a vague mission, I was on the lookout for a replacement beanie and so trawled the new looking shopping mall near the station. Lots of glass, shiny copper cladding and English shop names. Definite signs that somebody thinks people have money to spend.
Idly watching the world go by, I found myself trying to characterise the archetypal look of a Polish woman. No, not letching, merely observing for scientific purposes. I’d say there were some good looking women but very few absolutely stunning ones. Most seemed to be blonde or wanting to be blonde, slightly pinched features and almost looking as though they were trying too hard. Says the shabby, ageing, unwashed backpacker.
Still no beanie.
Back on tourist duty, I wanted to track down the only remaining Jewish Synagogue to survive the war. I eventually found it but the main entrance was closed. Tried the ‘tradesman’ entrance and was told to go round the corner and press the buzzer. 5 zloty to get in and was given a skull cap to wear. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was all very simple and lacking any unnecessary embellishments. A bookshelf in the corner with religious clothing casually left out. It just seemed like a living, breathing, working house of God. Up in the balcony, again the seats were just plain, long wooden benches. Somehow the whole building managed to convey a sense of understated dignity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I had a religious experience but I did find it both profound and moving, especially given the context. And I got to keep the skull cap.
Back to the shopping mall for coffee at a café called “Cava - cup of pleasure” where, I’m guessing, the main attraction was the waitresses wearing girdles and fishnets.
On from the soft porn café to the Hard Rock Café for a beer (although thinking about it, it should also probably be called Soft Rock Café). I know I really shouldn’t give this franchise my custom but I am a sucker for seeing what Rock trivia they have. In this case, I couldn’t see much in the way of “as worn by” stuff but they did have an entire wall covered with sawn in half electric guitars - which was pretty cool.
The train ticket I had for Warsaw to Minsk said it was an 8.50pm departure. What was less clear was that this was the time it left Warsaw East. It was 8.30pm from Warsaw Central. Good job I checked. I was down on the platform with plenty of time but there was absolutely no information to indicate I was at the right place until 2 minutes before the train arrived. Lots of barging and shoving to get on in spite of all the sleeping compartments being specifically allocated. So, slightly surprised to find 2 men already in *my* compartment. “No problem”, one of them said, pointing to the compartment next door as if to say I could take that one. Fair enough, as long as someone official can confirm this was okay. Which she, the carriage attendant, did finally do.
And at the risk of sounding completely obsessed, I feel I must divulge that female Polish carriage attendants wear high heels and tight skirts. I swear, if she was in Britain, people (men) would be convinced she was wearing what a stripper would wear if she wanted to give the vague impression of working for British Rail.
So, it turned out I had the 2 person compartment to myself. My best description would be that of a room in a seaside B&B. Net curtains, plastic flowers, worn out carpet. Tired looking but still cosy. Next door there was an English guy, Richard, who was on his way to a nature reserve in Belarus. A week long trip in pristine undeveloped woodlands with the chance of seeing wolves and elk. We chatted over a beer about previous trips. He had also been to Africa and South America. More specifically, we had both been to a town called Pisco in Peru, the only difference being he had been mugged at knifepoint and I hadn’t.
Meanwhile, the train clunked along, seemingly as if there were no rails and it was deliberately hunting potholes, playing bumper cars as we stopped and started for no apparent reason. At some time early in the morning we had our passports checked as we left Poland and entered Belarus. Then, after we had been in Belarus for quite some time, we stopped to change the under carriage. Surely that can’t be a good thing if it’s done on a regular basis? The law of averages says they’re going to forget to tighten a nut sometime. We even had comedy sound effects: strange noises like we’d stumbled upon an alien landing, not to mention people talking loudly over the Tannoy. Finally, once they’d finished playing with their bogies (I thank you), we were on our way again.
With my new positive outlook, I won’t complain about the train because, all things considered, I had been quite lucky. That said, I think I got about 3 hours sleep. The countryside as we approached Minsk consisted mainly of very large fields, rustic housing, dirt tracks, and more worryingly, traces of snow. Although the train was toasty, it was going to be cold outside.
We arrived in Minsk at 8.00 am. After a minor bit of hassle from the waiting posse of taxi touts, I made my way into the massive maze of underground corridors and escalators, with not a single word of information I could understand. Having said cheerio to Richard (who was off to the airport to meet the lazier members of this tour party), I sat down with the book and tried to come up with a plan. I knew the hotel I had booked was near a metro station but I also knew I’d struggle to a) buy a ticket, b) make any necessary changes and c) get off at the right stop. I reckoned the hotel was about a mile and a half away and in spite of being fully loaded (bags not alcohol), I decided walking was the easiest option.
Russian street names with “K” in them are always handy as they translate to the same thing. Once I’d found a match for the first road on the map, from then on it was pretty straightforward. Finally reached what I thought was the hotel even though the name and the street didn’t match the names on the confirmation I’d printed out. Thankfully it was the right place: a big ugly tower block with lots of business types milling around in the lobby. Not a place I would naturally gravitate towards but, at £26 a night, it was the cheapest accommodation I could find.
My room was, predictably, fairly basic but there was the compensation of an 8th floor view – almost panoramic as city views go. Just as I was beginning to feel reasonably contented, someone started what sounded like major roadworks on the floor above. The vibrations were violent enough to make all the light fittings rattle. This wasn’t good. Thankfully it stopped after a few minutes. Time for a lukewarm shower and a change of clothes, the reviving effects of which should not be underestimated.
When I’d asked at reception about internet access, I’d got the impression they had their own café. No. What they had was a secretary who had been instructed to vacate her desk while I used her computer. Understandably she was not happy with the interruption, or at least that’s what I assumed was responsible for the permanent scowl on her face as she sat about a yard away while I checked my email. At 10,000 Belarusian roubles for 25 minutes (4200 = £1), I was the one who should have been scowling.
The one job I still needed to sort out was buying a train ticket to Moscow. I’d had a go when I was back in the UK but it had proved to be a bit tricky – for me at least. Conveniently there was a travel agency next door to the hotel and, even better, a helpful woman to book the ticket for me. Job done, it was time to explore the city.
On recommendation from the book I went looking for the National Patrimony Museum a.k.a. the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Even with a map I struggled to find it so when I stumbled across a proper internet cafe, I spent an hour in there instead. A more reasonable 2900 for me to discover how quickly I’m lagging behind on my blog. Sadly, I think it’s inevitable that you, my loyal readers are going to have to wait.
Armed with some directions, I did then manage to find the museum. Most of the exhibits seemed to be artefacts from World War II - medals, guns, uniforms, etc. Personally what I found more emotive were the photographs chronicling how the Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. One photo in particular showed a group of soldiers posing next to someone who had just been hanged. It was difficult not to draw uncomfortable parallels between this and the modern headline-grabbing mistreatment of prisoners by US and UK troops.
Next stop, the National Art Gallery. It looked like a new annexe had just been added to the original building and I think it says a lot that this exposed stone and white-wash extension was probably the most interesting thing to see. There were one or two Léger prints but the rest was nondescript “old stuff”. [In the interest of transparency, I have to say I'm not a big fan of all this religious iconography that a lot of galleries seem to want to display.] Bizarrely, I managed to walk in on what looked like the opening of a new exhibition to do with past Soviet astronautical glory. Life-size busts, sketches, etc. There seemed to be a few VIPs in attendance (cars with diplomatic plates parked outside). Obviously I didn’t understand any of the speeches but there were enough uniforms present to guess it was party political.
Time for food. The combination of the Cyrillic alphabet and anonymous door fronts meant it was quite difficult to spot anything obviously suitable. I settled for a place with helpful pictures of the kind of food you could get. All the staff were wearing traditional costumes and as far as I could tell the restaurant seemed to have two distinct sections. I was directed to the cheap seats. Losers corner. Adventurously, I decided on “stuffed potato dumplings” only to be told it would take 40 minutes to prepare. Luckily I had a beer and a journal to keep me occupied. It was worth the wait. Not like anything I’d tried before - a strange stodgy delicacy - but certainly filling. Half way through the meal, the entertainment turned up. Two women, who between them sang and played guitar. Please, please don’t come anywhere near me (I’m still haunted by painful memories of pan pipe bands in Bolivian restaurants). I needn’t have worried, only the privileged sector got to see them. To be fair, as traditional wailing goes, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. On my way out, the man on the door, who looked like suspiciously like René from ‘Allo ‘Allo, proudly showed off the photos of all the famous people who had been to the restaurant. One in particular was his favourite. “Shmerky”? “Shmooky”? No, I didn’t recognise the name or the group of people in the photo. Eventually the penny dropped. Ahh, Smokie. Yes, very good.
Back in the hotel, I knew they had a “Texas Hold-Em” stripper bar but discovered they also had a normal bar next door so, preferring to part with my cash at a more sedate pace, I went to check it out. I found a seat at the end of the bar, conveniently in front of a TV showing Bayern Munich vs. AC Milan and spent the next hour nursing a couple of beers, watching the game, writing my journal, and keeping a casual eye on what was happening in the rest of the room. Who says men can’t do multi tasking.
It was difficult to miss the table of women who looked suspiciously like Ladies Of The Night. I got the eye once but put my head down, bashfully, and was ignored from then on. I did see them try a couple of the other punters. What with this and next door being sanctioned by the hotel, I speculated on a theoretical checking out scenario. “Checking out Mr … Smith? Just the sundries to pay for. Let me see, that’s 4 miniatures from the mini-bar, 2 lap dances, and a blow job. We trust you enjoyed your stay with us.”
My train to Moscow was leaving at 9.50 pm so with my big bag dumped in the hotel’s left luggage I had a day to kill in Minsk.
Having made a promise to Dylan, my nephew, to send him a postcard from every country I visited, that was one of the day’s missions. And surprisingly difficult it turned out to be. Maybe postcards are not an Eastern Block thing. I’d expected them to be everywhere along with all the other tourist tat. No. One shop with a pitiful selection to choose from was all I could find. Sorry Dylan.
Equipped with my big camera, I wanted to take some arty shots of the austere looking Palace Of The Republic. “… Yeah, yeah, baby that’s great. The camera loves you. Now give me state-controlled menace ….”. I was also hoping for some grim weather to set the tone. Naturally therefore, it was a sunny day with clear blue skies. What’s more, someone had positioned fans of brightly coloured flags directly in front of it. This was not the look I was going for. As I was slightly paranoid about the restrictions on taking photos of official buildings, I’d checked with the two military types casually patrolling the area and they had nodded their permission.
Ironically, there had almost been a minor international incident 5 minutes earlier when I had wanted to take a quick snap of a classic old Russian car. The owner appeared from nowhere to express his outrage. It took my best miming skills to indicate that no, I hadn’t taken a picture.
More photo drama when I wanted to take a picture of the big statue of Lenin in front of the Belarusian Government Building. This time the official on patrol insisted on taking down all my passport details. You do wonder some times if it is worth the hassle.
More aimless wandering and time for idle thoughts. Why do all the women in Minsk appear to deliberately want to demonstrate that they have dyed their hair? Does it take a dictatorship to ensure that there is virtually no litter and no graffiti? All through the city I had seen small armies of weather-beaten middle-aged women sweeping the pavements. And at the most, I’d spotted 3 walls tagged with someone’s trademark squiggle. Strange.
Near my hotel there was a bronze Jewish memorial depicting a group of wretched, emaciated prisoners walking down steps as if to their death, in a gas chamber. Like the Synagogue in Warsaw, it was very moving, not to mention a strikingly original way of commemorating such an atrocity. Much more powerful then anything I had seen in the National Art Gallery.
I got down to the train station with a couple of hours to spare so I could spend some time in the Internet cafe. Oddly, the guy running the place was reluctant to give me all the time up front but happy enough if I paid every half hour.
When it was time to board the train, I was fairly certain I was in carriage 13 but all the carriages said 13. I kept on being pointed further down the train. Finally in the right carriage, I was settling into the lower bunk of my compartment when the couple already there disputed who had the bunk. My fault. Right carriage, wrong compartment. My new companions were two Belarusian hunters, Serge and Vladimir, on their way to Moscow to buy gun sights. Okay then. Serge could speak a little French so that was our basic means of communication. Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I was invited to join them drinking brandy shots and tucking into a whole array of snacks. It always seems rude to take advantage but I got the impression it was probably more rude to refuse. I bought a beer from the carriage attendant to give me an excuse not to indulge in too many shots. I think the attendant also asked me what I wanted for breakfast and assuming I would have to pay, I said I didn’t want any. She still came back with a plastic box full of food which was probably the default breakfast for stupid foreigners.
Remembering Richard and his nature trip, I had to see the irony of Serge and Vladimir proudly wanting to show me mobile phone photos of their latest hunting exploits. There they were, happily sitting astride a (dead) wild boar or posing in front of a disturbingly large number of (dead) foxes. They all had to be culled due to some disease, apparently.
When it was time for bed, thankfully my lower bunk was long enough. Just.
I was surprised not to be woken up in the middle of the night, and asked to show my passport. Serge explained it was because Belarus and Russia were both part of the same federation. Fine with me as it meant I had slept well.
Once again, the approach to the big city was mainly rural looking. Lots of trees and small wooden houses with tin roofs. On closer inspection, my breakfast variety box revealed: biscuits, Swiss roll, juice box, mushroom Dairylea triangle, pack of salami, chocolate bar and a bag of peanuts. A bizarre combination which reminded me of that cooking programme where the chef has to cook a meal from a mystery bag of ingredients. Still, it looked more appetizing than the cooked alternatives Serge and Vladimir were given. I politely declined to help them finish off the brandy.
And so to Moscow. The station was definitely an anti-climax. I think I had been expecting something akin to Grand Central but what I got was a shabby looking terminal in a run-down area. Maybe it’s a reflection of what they think about their Belarusian neighbours.
It’s difficult to describe the underlying sense of apprehension and vulnerability you can feel arriving, fully laden, in a place renowned (rightly or wrongly) for both corruption and menace. Paranoia tries to convince you that something unpleasant is about to happen, affecting your possessions, your health or both. I had no local currency and no real idea how to get to my hotel. You know everything is probably going to be okay but you just want to get over the first bit.
Randomly, I picked a road to walk down, hoping it would lead me to somewhere bigger and safer looking. It didn’t but it did provide a bank. The exchange rate said 1 pound = 5000 roubles but the ATM listed 4000 roubles as the highest amount that could be withdrawn. I suspected the rate was missing a decimal point.
Note to self: try to be more prepared when entering a new country.
Walking around the block, I eventually arrived back at the metro next to the station and, with a bit of help, managed to buy a travel card valid for 10 journeys. Thankfully the book had an underground map with the names in Russian and English. A godsend. From there on, things got a lot easier. The dodgy moment had passed.
In complete contrast to its overground equivalents, the metro stations were stunning. Classic architecture that belonged more in a stately home than a transport system. Even the old trains had nice art deco touches. And they run every 2 minutes. Joy upon joy for someone who has suffered 2 years of commuting from Bath to Swindon with First Great Western.
Just one change to the No. 7 purple line and then off at Ryazansky Prospekt, one stop short of the end of the line. First impressions was that of another run-down suburb with very little to suggest I’d want to spend any time there. Headed out of the station and threaded my way through alleyways of kiosks selling beer and cigarettes. I could see a big building that might be the hotel my hostel was based in. I didn’t recognise the name but I thought they’d at least be able to point me in the right direction. Even better, it was my hotel. The hostel or, more accurately, the travel agency was on the 5th floor and it was with some relief I finally got my hands on the Trans-Siberian ticket. With everything done by email, I did have my doubts. Once they had handed me my room voucher, that was the full extent of the hostel. It was then down to reception to book in.
My room wouldn’t be ready for another hour so I went for a coffee in the bar. It was a small room with a pool table and several worse-for-wear Russians. A guy called Eric introduced himself and immediately stated rather than asked the obvious: “you drink vodka”. Yes, but not usually at 11:20 am. He was disappointed. 5 minutes later: “Adams, you drink vodka”.
Equally importantly, he wanted to know what I thought of Russian women. The real answer was that I’d only been here 3 hours and clearly needed more time to pass judgement accurately, but that was probably overcomplicating things and, I suspect, not what he wanted to hear.
Escaped to my room and although fairly basic (shared toilet and shower with another room), again I was lucky with the view. 14 floors up, I looked across the roof tops towards the city.
I needed to get my clothes washed and both reception and “the hostel” looked at me as if this was the most amazing thing they’d ever heard. Neither of them had any suggestions that didn’t involve a train ride to another part of town. Heading back to my room with a plastic bag full of laundry, one of the cleaners asked me if I wanted her to do it for me. After lengthy negotiations, we agreed payment which in hindsight was probably too much. Clearly it was a sellers market. Still, job done.
Back into the city for tourist duties. The first thing on my list was the Red Square. Sadly, it looked like they were checking documents and I didn’t have my hotel registration with me. Tomorrow. Walked around the outside and it did look impressive. As did the huge multi-domed Cathedral Of Christ The Saviour and the various government buildings which were similar in style to the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. I have to confess to having struggled to find some places, my map reading skills letting me down badly. Curse that Cyrillic alphabet. Still, I was happy wandering around, soaking it all in. I did sense a slight air of menace with lots of people in police and military uniforms, and with all the smart black cars with blacked out windows and (as an optional extra) police sirens. There was definitely some money around and the desire to show it off with the choice of automobiles.
Found a pedestrianised area selling all sorts of tourist stuff: hats, t shirts, wooden dolls, and various items of military paraphernalia. Some traders had animals such as ferrets and it was hard to tell if they were selling them or the opportunity to take a photo of your nearest and dearest standing next to them.
Before heading back to the hotel, I stopped at an American-style diner for a burger and some beers. A singer/guitarist and a harmonica player were providing the live music which wasn’t bad. Surprisingly, all the songs were in English or should I say a slightly strangled English. “Living next door to Ellis” anybody? Ellis, Ellis, who the fuck is Ellis?
And, to belatedly answer Eric’s question, judging by who was in the diner, I would definitely say there are some beautiful Russian women.
Down to the restaurant for my breakfast, naturally expecting to be given a choice or at least told what I was getting.
“Sit down please”.
“But I …”.
“Sit down please”.
“Can I …”.
“Sit down please”.
Pre-milked cornflakes, a mini-muffin and a glass of black tea arrived a couple of minutes later.
Into the city with my big camera.
While travelling on the metro, I noted with interest that I appeared to be taller than most of the locals.
As with Belarus, women seemed to favour being smartly dressed. Boots were still popular.
My Red Square hex continues. It was closed off the whole day due to a demonstration. Curses. There was a big military presence but they seemed to be loitering rather than harassing. I retraced much of yesterday’s steps, taking (hopefully) better photos.
I also needed to get a close-up look of the the statue of Peter The Great which had entered high in the charts of my all-time favourite statues. It was essentially a man standing proudly on the deck of a 3 mast ship but it was the sheer size of it that impressed. If you want to pay tribute to someone, there’s a fine example of how it can be done.
Mid wandering, I happened upon the “John Bull” British-style pub and consequently had my most expensive pint for a long time.
When in Rome, drink Roman beer in a Roman pub.
I still couldn’t find the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and so when I spotted a travel agency, I went in to see if they could give me directions. Of the two people in the office, there was an older woman on the phone, which meant I was helped by her younger assistant who couldn’t have been much more than 18. I do not exaggerate when I say she had the most outrageous combination of plunging neckline and push-up bra I have ever seen. Ever. It was like I was in a Carry-On film and I found it extremely difficult not to get distracted from the task in hand. Sadly, she wasn’t much help. Even after phoning someone and looking at my map, she still didn’t know where it was. Oh well, it had been worth a try.
Back to the hotel to dump my stuff and buy some provisions from the nearby supermarket. The big train trip started tomorrow and I reckoned half bottle of Brandy, a bottle of Stoli, and several Mars bars and Snickers would keep me going for a while.
Into the city again in the evening. I wanted to do a quick reconnaissance trip of the station I was going to be leaving from. It was a good job I did because it was a bit tricky to find, being close to and easy to confuse with a couple of other stations. I didn’t fancy carrying my big bag any further than I had to. Feeling a bit peckish, I found a bistro-style place and ordered a slice of pizza. Clearly one slice was never going to be enough but when I ordered another, I was given a half. Sorry, the chef has gone home. Great.
Back to the hotel and down to the bar for a swift pint before bed. Within a couple of minutes I had become the English-speaking curiosity, especially for a young wannabe film director called Alex who was desperate to practice his English. Eric was also there. Still drunk and still disappointed when I refused a vodka.
Good news. The sky was blue and Red Square was open. After all my fussing about registration, no one was even bothering to check documents. I was in. As were a legion of other tourists. My initial reaction was the slightly clichéd “ooh, it’s not as big as I thought it was going to be” but nevertheless it was still an impressive space. Just inside the entrance was the diminutive Kazan Cathedral where a service was in progress. I sneaked in at the back and found myself transfixed by the strange ethereal atmosphere. Somewhere heavenly choirs were singing while the only light in the room was provided by a single shaft of sunlight beaming down on the priest as he let everyone kiss the cross. Very spooky.
I guess the weird and wonderful multi-coloured St Basils Cathedral is always going to be the photographic highlight of Red Square. It does seem out of place in the otherwise more formal surroundings but is all the more spectacular because of it. I joined the throngs, taking lots of lots of photos from every conceivable angle. I even got a couple taken of me standing in front of it but, sadly, I wasn’t quite so photogenic.
Lenin’s Mausoleum was across the other side of the square and although you could go inside it, the bad news was that there were too many tourists ahead of me who wanted to do the same thing. Likewise the Kremlin. Likewise (when I eventually found it) the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Where had they all come from? It was disappointing but I resigned myself to coming back sometime in the future and spending at least a week just in Moscow. There was just too much to see and do. I’d also decided it wasn’t as menacing as I’d first thought. Someone had told me all those black cars with the tinted windows were just the latest fad.
Caught the metro to Gorky Park - at least that’s one iconic place ticked off the list - and although it was just a amusement park that’s seen better days, it was still nice to stroll around in the sun. Lots of tin can allies – I even saw someone win a big cuddly toy with one carefully aimed shot of a crossbow. His girlfriend looked happy.
More wandering and more confusion over galleries. I was looking for the New Tretyakov and I think I bypassed the big building, understanding from what I was told that it was an antiques fair. I ended up paying to go into the sculpture park next door. It had one or two interesting exhibits but as with old art, it is not really my thing, the exception proving the rule.
Having dutifully ignored the William Bass pub on the way back into the centre, I did feel the need to go to the Hard Rock Café. For a city as big as Moscow the memorabilia was fairly disappointing but it did have a Jimi Hendrix jacket, so not all bad.
My time in Moscow was nearly done. I had missed the Kremlin, the major art galleries and most of the culture but I had caught a glimpse of a pair of comedy breasts. It could be worse.
It was now time for The Big Train Trip. Picked up my bag from the hotel and was at the station with an hour to spare. I spotted a group of backpackers but suspected they were “organised” so decided they were best avoided. We independent travellers do have our standards. When I finally boarded, I was the first one into the 4 berth compartment. I wondered who were going to be my companions for the next few days. It wasn’t long before I found out.
THE CAST OF THE CARRIAGE
The Durham ladies. Agnes and Alex. Both 22, met at Durham University.
Agnes - Going on to do an MSC in Science Communication. Gentle, happily engaging in conversation and managing to appear interested, I’m guessing slightly religious, meeting up with boyfriend in China.
Alex - Going on to do Medicine. Prettier, more bossy, more of an extrovert. I suspect she was more polite than enthusiastic about being in my company.
The London Crackheads. Alex(II), Adam(II) and Dave. All 19. Drug-fuelled hedonistic clubbers with a fixation for all things crack (as in Cocaine) related. They had way too much life experience for people their age and exuded a savvy that I certainly hadn’t noticed with the usual annoying first-time-away gap year kids. Adam(II) and Dave were on a longer round-the-world trip while Alex(II) was joining them for the first 5 weeks, culminating in the Full Moon Party in Thailand.
Alex(II) - A big lumbering bloke whom I suspected was capable of causing mayhem, be it accidental or otherwise. Probably the most social of the three and I am sure he would be proud to be labelled “party animal”, albeit one with an interest in literature.
Adam(II) - The organiser. Seemed very focussed on what he wants out of life. I’m guessing by the level of “personal grooming”, he was a serious womaniser.
Dave - the more laid back of the three. Easy to chat to. Likes his (club) music and sport. His claim to fame was that while working at Sotheby’s, he got himself in the papers as one of the people holding up a painting of Stalin which had been doctored by Damien Hirst.
Our Hosts. Ivan and Serge, Russian friends travelling to China for a holiday.
Ivan - 26, Captain in the paratroop regiment, worked in the Special Forces. Had killed 10 people in Chechnya (7 with hot weapon, 3 with cold weapon). Videos on his mobile phone of him doing some serious training exercises - jumping from high buildings, firing live rounds etc. Relentless, insistent, and moody. Always striving to be an officer and a gentleman.
Serge - 36. Works in protocol department. Happy, round and balding. A very generous, warm personality. Spoke the better English of the two. Worrying love of bad rock music from the 70’s and 80’s. Be-Bop Deluxe anyone?
The Frenchman - Jean-Marie. Owned a small vineyard. Allowed himself a 10 day holiday every year, and tried to go somewhere different each time. This year it was Moscow, Trans-Siberian, Vladivostok, flying back to Moscow and then home. Friendly but spoke little English.
The Russian family. Dad, a grumpy bruiser who never smiled and walked around with his shirt off. Mum who occasionally smiled and had a full-time job looking after the kids. The 6 year old boy with a satchel full of military-themed toys and colouring books. The baby who seemed happy (and quiet) enough in the swing that was set up on the door frame.
The 3 mystery Europeans. Hardly ever left their compartment. Always seemed to be playing cards. Think I spotted some Watchtower magazines in one of their bags, which might explain something.
The infinitely patient carriage attendant. Michael. You got the feeling it wasn’t his true vocation. Always looking slightly dishevelled and very rarely with a smile on his face although, I suspect, deep down, he was secretly amused by the various goings on.
So after a couple of minutes of having the compartment to myself, in walk Agnes and Alex. My new room mates.
(Sun headline: travel stud, 2 women, 4 nights, etc, etc).
My first reaction was “Oh God” which was possibly not the most polite of greetings. A few minutes later, the Crackheads moved in a couple of doors down. Alex(II) came and said hello and, not surprisingly, most of the conversation was directed towards the girls. It’s funny, I just hadn’t expected there to be so many backpackers on the train as it was supposed to be the off-season. Part of me was annoyed that I wasn’t going to get my isolated Russian experience but then again, 7 days is a long time and I may well end up being grateful for access to people with whom I could easily hold a conversation.
Later in the evening, once the Crackheads had made initial contact with Our Hosts, we were all invited to their compartment to drink vodka. Rude not to. Of course it was never going to be as simple as that. For starters, they had chilli vodka which tasted much better than it sounds. Then, with each drink you were given a piece of gherkin, a lump of potato and a chunk of meat. A 3 course shot. “Russian Tradition”. Eating something meant you didn’t get hammered straight away. Now there’s a concept. Ivan had a big sharp fold away knife which he was using to cut the bread with. Can’t speak for its previous history. Alex(II) was admiring it, occasionally using it too and before he knew it, Ivan had given it to him as a present. Amazing. If it had been me, I would have probably refused it for being too generous a gift but then again would Ivan feel snubbed by a refusal? Tricky this Russian etiquette.
The first surprise of the day was that our train tickets did include some meals. Michael delivered plastic boxes full of a random selection of items you might possibly want to eat for breakfast - or at least save for later if you were starving. After what didn’t seem like too long, another plastic box arrived. Lunch. And it was hot - well, warm at least. Pasta with small lumps of chicken. Edible and free so much appreciated.
Everyone soon settled into the routine of the day. Some chose to read, some to catch up on journals, and some to crank out techno tunes at high volume. There was always the window to stare out of. The ones in the compartment didn’t open which was a shame because they could do with a good clean. There were small windows in the corridor which did open, helping to take a clearer photo, so long as you could do it before Michael came along to politely ask you to close it. I think maintaining the warm temperature inside the carriage was an important part of his job. To be honest, the scenery was, at this early stage, fairly monotonous. Lots and lots of silver birch trees.
Stopping at the various stations became a welcome distraction, particularly at the bigger ones where there was usually 20 minutes to get out and stretch your legs. It was interesting to see what the track side vendors were keen to sell you. Beer and snacks you could understand but tree branches?
At one point, The Crackheads - with the help of Our Hosts - negotiated for a crate of beer. I think it made the old man’s day and he quickly rushed away to find another one.
Back to the booze in the evening. Our compartment was randomly chosen as venue for proceedings, probably because a lot of us were already sitting in there. More “Russian Traditions” to get used to. Women no pour vodka. Women no cut bread. Small pieces of food were passed around, usually pate, fish, etc on bread. The idea was that you took a bite and passed it on. I got a severe bollocking from Ivan for snaffling the lot when it came to me. It was tiny. Nevertheless, I should have taken half the tiny piece and passed it on. Lesson learnt. (7 people with hot weapon, 3 with cold weapon).