A Travellerspoint blog


Returning to Roman alphabets

It's strange how little things suddenly mean so much. After about 11 months of being in countries with different alphabets or character sets, crossing back into Latvia suddenly meant I was back again in truly familiar ground. And even the EU. Things really are coming to an end with extreme speed.

I'd spent 3 days in Moscow, partly just because I had a little extra time after the Kazan cock-up, and because I managed to arrange my ticket to Riga that way. It was the last possible way that I could have been tripped up and forced to fly (in theory), and even then I had several alternatives.

In Moscow it was heartening to see 90% of people wearing the national costume (jeans, black shoes and leather jackets) and also the requisite number of beer drinkers. I have never worked out exactly why, but i think it must be mandated by law that at least 50% of all Russians must have an open can or bottle of beer in their hands at all times. This applies at any hour of the day or night, and in any situation, with the alleged exception of drivers. Despite having the vodka reputation (vodka generally gets drunk at home and for occasions), Russia is very much a beer country with huge availability and vast variety of Russian - and some foreign brands - most of which are very good. And it is also surprisingly rare with such numbers of constant drinkers to see very drunk people in the streets, which I still find interesting. And of course, the requisite number of Russian stunners out in the sunny weather.

I had arranged to be in Moscow for less than the 72required hours, so visa registration was not an issue, so instead of returning to a hostel I managed to find myself a lovely host at short notice, with the excellent Natasha happy to put me up (the moronic Winston Wu should take note). Unfortunately, poor girl, she is a lawyer at a big firm and works long hours. On my first evening when I went to meet her at 10pm after work, she told me that something had come up and as such she wouldn't be able to leave for another several hours. But brilliantly (and I love this about CS), she was more than happy to hand her keys and directions to me (a strange foreigner she had known about less than a week and had met for less than 5minutes) and told me to make myself at home.

I'm always wary - especially in places where I don't know the language, and with people I don't know at all - about being given keys for the first time, as partly I feel uncomfortable in strangers houses without them, but more that I always dread misreading/interpreting the directions and ending up trying to break into the wrong building, leading to long a long and unpleasant interrogation by the police whilst things are being sorted out. I.e. How long have you known this person? 5 Minutes. Where did you meet? Online What is her surname? No idea. And the like. But happily I managed to find me way through the hoard of tower blocks in Bratislavskaya in the SE corner of the city and got into the correct apartment without being attacked or even queried by eagle eyed Babushka's. It later turned out that poor Natasha appeared at about 5.30. And went back to work before 9am.

After sorting my ticket, i spent a couple of days just wandering randomly, something I love doing in big cities, revisiting a few old tourist spots and doing some chores and bits of shopping. I spent a huge amount of time (and later, money) in a huge toy shop, marvelling over it's size and the sheer variety of stuff available to kids these days - I'm sure it wasn't like that in my day - looking enviously at a life sized fury camel (if I could have afforded it, and also worked out how to get it back to anywhere useful by myself, i would have bought it) which would have almost made up for Erik's sad recent demise and bought a pile of stuff for my god kids and a few others. And picking up other such essentials as a huge wall world map in Russian

The middle day with another CSer, a Portuguese language student and translator (In Russia you go to Uni to do language, meaning it's English and something, but cant seemingly choose the something. Olga had been assigned to Portuguese, like it or not) heading on a day trip to Sergiev Posad. One of the Golden Ring cities, it is one of the most accessible from Moscow and somewhere I had planned to visit on my way East, but failed. In fairness, It wasn't the most exciting place in the end, and the reason for it's golden-ness - the Kremlin - whilst lovely, was half closed to visitors and partly under reconstruction, which didn't help. But we had a good wander, I happily ticked off somewhere that had long been nagging me and Olga was great company and good fun.

Arriving in Latvia was a little anti-climax. No problem at customs, and barely a glance at my strange pile of toys in assorted bags, and I was then back in the lands of cursory passport checks and no stamps. I've acquired a fair few stamps and visa's on this trip and will soon need a new passport. Indeed, the reason that I was coming to Latvia at all is that the direct trains from Moscow to Vilnius all go via Belarus, and I don''t have either a current Belarus visa in this passport or enough space to get a new one. Less than an hour after arriving in Riga, I was on a tram to the outskirts, and barely 5minutes later had managed to find a ride (with a lovely Lithuanian in a huge new BMW on his way home from Tallinn, who even insisted on buying me dinner on the way) all the way through to Vilnius. I'd been in Riga just long enough to post some toys, change a little money so i could buy food and a tram ticket, and then head to the outskirts.

It really is coming to an end now, but despite very strange feelings to be back in Europe (the foreboding of which started before I had left Thailand) I'm still excited. No new places perhaps, but lots of people to see again and in barely a week there is apparently some football-type thingy beginning in Germany which might be quite good...

Sign near Red Square. Me thinks they haven't quite got teh hang of this yet...

Posted by Gelli 04:43 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trying to avoid becoming an adopted father...

The last long train journey of the trip.

Sometimes silly things annoy me.

I was disappointed not to be able to get a ticket from Kazan to Moscow, meaning that again, I had to drop Kazan from my plans. That's the 4th time that it has happened, and it's fast becoming my #1 must get to destination, just because it's proving so hard. But as I did manage to get tickets through to Moscow from Tyumen, it wasn't the end of the world. It meant that I would still be able to keep other commitments, leave the country before my visa expires and also get there without flying.

The thing that really annoys me is that after being told that there was no space on any train between Kazan to Moscow, the train I got to Moscow went through.... yup, Kazan. So no space on just K-M, but if I want to travel for the 18hours before Kazan as well, I can get a ticket no problem. Grrrrr.

Ah well, that's life I suppose.

The journey itself was somewhat interesting. I ended up opposite a family of mother and 2 young kids. The kids were wonderful and after the initial few hours distrust of the new strange person on the train became extremely friendly. Both kept bringing me 'gifts', at the quiet behest of the mother. I played football and hide and seek (not two of the easiest games to play in a train carriage, i must admit) with the 4 (?) year old boy, and then had a long session of learning Russian and teaching Swedish to the 9 (?) year old girl, with the aid of a Russian equivalent to an etch-a-sketch. I must admit that using an Etch-a-Sketch to make conversations etc on trains when there is no common language is a stroke of genius, especially when coming from a young girl. Admittedly, it overlooks the fact that I can't draw AT ALL, and my attempts at drawing simple objects for the naming in Swedish-Russian game were at best, abysmal.

The mother, whilst not admitting to speaking anything other than Russian spent much of the day watching me with a strange look in her eye that confused me a tad and worried me slightly more. It's a look I try and stay well away from. And it go worse after the kids had started to adopt me.

What I certainly wasn't expecting was that during the night when i was asleep (in Platskartny, or open dorm bunk style carriages), she decided to crawl into my bed with me. To say I was spooked when I rolled over to discover this strange woman lying next to me - on not un-cramped bunk - is an understatement. A mother and a young child, yes, but I have never even seen two people a bunk on Russian train before. Not couples or very close friends or even when dozing during the day. I somehow managed to wake her and to persuade her that she should possibly be lying somewhere else, but suffice to say i was a tad restless for the remainder of the night.

Why do I manage to attract such people on such a regular basis??

By morning, nothing was indicated about it, although the woman (and the man who had been on the bunk above mine) both suddenly discovered the ability to speak some English, and the woman also gave me two pairs of socks as a gift. I have a feeling that she must have been sent by the "good" people at T-K, as they are the only people I can think of who would be worried about the potential imminent return of my holey socks...

When I disembarked in Moscow, I admit to a feeling of sorrow. Not only had I passed from Asia back into Europe - and all that that entails - and made it to Moscow in 23days, but I was also getting off what was the last long through journey of my trip. From here on in, it's Europe where distances are relatively short and journeys faster, and there will be no more 24hour+ trips for me for a while. In fact, journeys of over 15 hours or so are now just a memory (until the next trip) and I wasn't happy by this fact. I really like long, slow journeys, and have grown to like them even more. Hmmmm.

And so, Moscow. Again. But that can wait.

Sadly, to end, I have some tragic news to impart, regarding my very good friend and long time hitch hiking partner, Erik. Erik, as some of you probably know, is a life sized inflatable (one hump) Camel who I have long hitched with for the simple reason that a heck of allot of people stop when they see a camel by the side of road, who would sure as heck not stop for a normal hitch-hiker. Especially when the camel is in Europe and with a sign saying somewhere as likely as 'Vladivostock' or 'Singapore'.

Erik was left in the care of a friend and hasn't accompanied me on my trip, for the simple reason that he is too damned big and heavy when deflated to be worth travelling with when you are not hitch-hiking the entire time.

Tragically, I have been informed that Erik - and he was an inflatable of growing years - has perished. He was being inflated to check all was well before he was due to meet me in Germany in a few weeks, but had given up the ghost instead.

A long time companion, he will be virtually impossible to replace, and in more ways than one.

Posted by Gelli 06:05 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

The tale of the human Trotskyist

There are some things that you don't always expect to see or be part of when travelling. And one of those is going off to celebrate the release from incarceration (2hours previously) of a crazy Trotskyist.

Let me explain.

I had stopped off in Tyumen for a night to visit Masha, my wonderful HC host from my journey over. For those that don't remember her, she is the crazy girl with the most amazing socks you will ever see. And some wonderful multi-coloured wellington boots that she wears.


Masha resplendent in her trademark socks and boots, and with the Human Trotskyist in one of her less colourful moments

Depressingly, after having so much luck with tickets in Irkutsk, my luck deserted me, and I failed utterly to get hold of a ticket for the Kazan - Moscow leg. I don't believe it, but allegedly all 9 trains were completely full in all classes for 3 days. And I had no time to wait. Instead I managed to get a ticket through to Moscow from Tyumen for the following day, and even p-ex'd my Tyumen-Kazan ticket. It could have been much worse.
And so to the Trotskyist.

It seems that Tyumen has 3 Trotskyists. Admittedly 2 of them remain entirely unknown and probably a figment of people's imagination, but Trotskyist #1 happens to be a friend of Masha and the gang. A week previously, said hero had decided it was time for a revolution, and that action must be taken.

Thus, he took a powder based fire extinguisher and spray painted the exterior entirely in silver. Then donning a silver contamination suit of the style worn by people in environments where getting the slightest contact with anything could kill you, and the inevitable gas mask he headed to a new shopping centre.

And as far as I know, no, he didn't travel there by bus.

Sadly for him, but perhaps not the rest of the world, In the act of setting off his extinguisher he was over powered by 2 security guards, who prevented his deadly chamber of, erm, fire extinguishing foam, from being released over a crowd of shoppers. Showing that his attack wasn't entirely planned to perfection, he was then taken to the police station opposite. Nothing like going to somewhere which the authorities will take time to get to.

Anyhow, his lawyers seemingly managed to argue 'attempted terrorism' down to 'breach of the peace' and he was given a paltry 500rouble (about 10gbp) fine. What happened next remains a bit hazy, but out Trotskyist seems to have objected somehow, and ended up being given a week's prison sentence.

And it was from this incarceration that our glorious hero (?) had just been released and to which everybody was heading to celebrate his return to the real world. I don't get invited to freedom parties for released convicts that often (this is my first in over 12months), so who was I to turn down the chance to meet the man aiming to start the next Russian revolution....?

I admit to being slightly disappointed, although not actually by the grand hero himself, but more by the level of his comrades in almost arms. My favourite part of the whole story is that, somehow, he managed to argue that the items confiscated (one silver coloured fire extinguisher, one chemical warfare suit and one gas mask) were legally his and as such the court has ordered that they be returned to him on his release....

Archive picture of the Human Trotskyist. If you see this guy wearing a gas mask (although, obviously, if he was wearing the gas mask, you wouldn't see it was him) and carrying a fire extinguisher, don't worry, either Panic, or get your camera ready...

Anyhow, Tyumen more than lived up to it's reputation and memory of my previous visit, and was great fun. A random place to be sure, but some amazing people, and always something different going on. The previous visit was all about Orthodox Churches (long, long story), whilst this was all about the Human Trotskyist. I admit to being hugely intrigued - and I still am - as to why he was being constantly referred to as a human Trotskyist, and not just a Trotskyist. To me, that kind of implies that the rest of them are not Humans, although I can't quite see how a pig, for example, could be classed as a Trotskyist...

A strange red glow across the Tyumen night sky

Posted by Gelli 02:03 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Back in the mother land

I awoke to a raging snow storm. I admit that this isn't unusual in Siberia, but in late May i was slightly surprised by it. In fairness, so was everybody else, and it was definitely unseasonable.

Spent a couple of days passing through the wonderful emptiness of Siberia. On the Southern edges near to Mongolia and China, there aren't even the trees and spread out shrubs etc that characterise the rest of Central/Eastern Siberia. Instead it's just empty rolling low hills and grasslands (or grasslands covered in Snow as much was). And after China, I loved the feeling of enormous emptiness.


Passing through Snow covered areas and past obscure Siberian villages in the wilderness on the Trans Manchurian train between the Chinese border and Irkutsk

Passed through Ulan-Ude, but sadly without time for me to visit my favourite head (the huge Lenin head. For details/pics, see my previous entry for Ulan-Ude) and then around Baikal in daylight, allowing me to watch the Lake pass by, and see that the Eastern side at least is still entirely iced over, with people walking over the frozen lake.

Amazingly, I made it Irkutsk without killing or at least seriously maiming any of the aforementioned stupid traders, although it took will power of Churchillian levels to avoid it.

Irkutsk was my next deliberate stop off. Through tickets to Moscow etc are prohibitive in China, and also the through services only have 2nd class Kupe, so I stopped off with the aim of booking my own way Westwards, and saving money by doing it in 3rd class Platskartny. I managed to book myself through to Tyumen on the perfect train, and even then get another ideal service from there through to Kazan.

It's not supposed to be this easy.

After spending a night in Irkutsk, getting my visa registered, and catching up on such missed Russian favourites as Shastlikh (a kind of Kebab in Eastern Russia) and Blini (Pancakes), I headed down to Listvyanka for a night.

I really wish that I had significantly more time to explore the Baikal region properly, as indeed I had wished on my last pass through. It will happen, definitely, but that's for another trip. And indeed, I am opening the floor to anybody else that wants to spend some time around Baikal and cross via the more Northern BAM onto Sakhalin - If anybody else is interested in such a trip, and might want to share ideas or even team up, get in touch. It will be a great adventure, and probably somewhat mad!

All the way down from Irkutsk on the bus, I started getting flashbacks and fond reminisces of my last visit, in company of Ala, Irek and the Polish lot. Even remembering the packed bus and people squashed together sleeping in the aisle on the way down brought a smile to my face.

It was out of season still, and whilst the West bank was free of ice, there were no other tourists around that I saw, and I had the place pretty much to myself. The mountains across the lake were wonderfully snow capped, the sky was blue and cloudless, and the sun shining. It was a glorious spring day, and I loved it. After a visit to our old camping spot (where I had ended up sleeping on the beach until woken by a rain storm around 4am, and had also learnt probably the single cardinal rule from this entire trip [even more so than 'don't carry liquorice through customs" and "beware unmarried Japanese girls], namely NEVER try and drink vodka with a group of Poles. The people, not big sticks) and the half built house where i had later slept in to escape the rain (happily still half built and unchanged), I did nothing except walk.

The house where i'd crashed to escape the rain on my way across from Europe, months earlier

On an aside, there's an almost funny story, or rather installment, in the travails of the wondrous Kiki and Christian, but I have decided not to regale it here unless requested by (un?)popular demand. It's up to you now.

After being in the chaos of China, and then on a train with stupid warring factions for 3days, it was wonderful to be out in the utter tranquility and calm of the shores of Baikal, in such glorious weather. I walked along the coast, and was quickly into an area of country and more or less utter silence. It was bliss.

With that, the following day it was time to return to Irkutsk, and after a quick wander around some of my favourite attractions (Lenin, of course, and the theatre for Dog shows) it was on to a train for another 50hours Westwards to Tyumen, and, almost, Europe.




The tranquility of Lake Baikal, Listvyanka village with the snow capped mountains across the Lake in the background, and old and new side beside in the village

Posted by Gelli 00:10 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

It was just one of them days...

It's only a tale of 24hours, but a long one. So get yourself a drink, and make yourself comfortable.

FOR a few days i had had a kind of premonition that there may not be any remaining tickets for my prefered option, the Monday evening boat to Japan. Luckily, these fears proved unfounded. There are few things that you actually need in order to catch a ferry to Japan, but undoubtedly one neccessity is a boat. This, ideally, would be the same boat that leaves every Monday at 18:00, which boarding notices I had seen on Saturday at the ticket office telling foreigners to meet at 14:00 on the 24th for customns checks, and which i had seen in harbour next to the office on the Sunday following it's scheduled arrival. And the same boat which had mysteriously left the same Sunday evening.

It is vaguely disconcerting to hear several hours before the departure of said ferry from Vladivostok to Fushiki that your options now seem to boil down to flights to Moscow (a 10,000km backtrack), Seattle (at least in the correct direction, if a little too far, and plus visa considerations as laughably, i need a visa to enter the US) and Pyongyang. And to realise that a first class flight to North Korea is actually your best option, despite the numerous inherent issues and problems is both funny and daunting. And that's before you even consider the fact that i don't fly.

I must admit that alarm bells had started ringing on the Sunday evening. On my return to the hotel, i passed the terminal building (also a shopping centre and favoured lookout post) and had seen an unfeasibly large number of people hanging around. They all looked like they were going somewhere, and it was a strange place to wait for trains from the adjacent station, and my ferry was the only one at the dock. They included several groups of identically clad children, and not a single Oriental person. I checked the ticket office (sign still on door, office still locked). I tried asking people, but found not a single person speaking a langauage i did or even happy to attempt a game of pointing and scharades. I waited a good hour or so for something to happen (it didn't), took another look at the boat (not sign of movement or even lights) and with no way to get hold of a ticket even if it was my boat, thought s*d it and around 11.30 wandered back to the hotel.

The sinking feeling turned to vague amusement and questions of "why me?!" on the monday when i went to the office at opening to try and buy a ticket and saw no boat. An English guy who was in front of me in the queue - Reevesie - who had just got off the train from Moscow that very morning had the news confirmed that the boat had indeed sailed the previous night (i later discovered that even the randomly bnrought forward sailing had been delayed by 6 hours) and we weren't on it. Oddly, despite the problem we now had, we both thought it funny rather than anything else, and typically Russian. I wasn't even surprised, 2.5months in the country, plus my continuing foreboding about not getting ferry tickets mean't it wasn't even unexpected. Although whilst being bad for me, visa issues mean't it was a near calamity for Reevesie.

Not only did he have a reservation on the boat and an email confirming it's departure on the Monday, but he'd come across Russia on a 10day visa which ended today, and in addition had to be in Tokyp within 5 days. So he at least, had to leave. The question was how.

With the next boat not leaving until the 29th (i.e. next monday at 18:00 as normal...) we pondered our options. The office of the Korean ferry downstairs had no ferry from Vladivostok until Saturday, although one leaving from a place 40km south today. Which gave us a glimmer of hope, until we discovered there was no space left, and that the options to get there mean't we wouldn't make it anyway. Land options were rapidly dissapearing for me, even though i had another 4 days to play with on my visa. The Russians sure as heck weren't going to make it easy for me to leave.

And so to the airline office. A surprisingly friendly (and English speaking) lady informed us that todays departures were limited to Niigata (which had left 30mins ago) and Seoul that afternoon (business class only). For Reevesie, It was that. Or swim. We went to the Korean embassy, intending to just confirm the visa regs for Brits - getting there and being turned around for having no visa really wouldn't have helped - but true to form, it had closed 10minutes earlier. We then attempted to find a UVIR for visa extension, but failed. With no other options, we returned top the airline office, failed to get a tciket, and then Reevsie dashed off in a taxi for the 50km trek to teh airport, with only 2hrs 30 remianing before departure, and not even having a ticket. Amazingly, he actually made it and is now sitting in a hostel in Seoul preparing to continue to Japan.

I booked myself an extra night at the hotel (the problems i had had finding space to begin with mean't i was sure i would end up on the streets the way things were going, although i loathed paying so much) and then went down to the harbour to start nagging freighter captains and the harbour master for passage to Japan. Or somewhere. Because of the sheer number of Japanese cars which are privately imported, there are a fair number of boats ploughing back and fore, and i hoped to get on one of them by bribery or payment. But that failed. Attempts to get on a Russian frigate failed as well, although an officer of a Nuclear Su that i talked to actually seemed quite amused by the idea of steaming into Yokohama unnanounced and when questioned by the port authorities, saying he was just dropping off a British hitch-hiker. And very nearly went for it. But realistically, it was never going to happen. And besides, i didn't have Erik, my inflatible camel, with me...

I then looked into train availability back to Kharbarovsk, with the intention of attempting my original 3rd choice fallback. Get a Chinese visa in a hurry at the consulate there and then get the daily boat down the Amur river into China. But there were no train tickets for 2 days, and then only 1st class on the 3rd day. So i returned to the airline office, which is where i was given the Moscow-Seoul-Pyongyang options. Whilst there are several weekly planes to Korea and Japan, they are extremely popular with tourists and car traders, and all were full until the following week, past my visa deadline. The only vague option was back to Kharbarovsk on the 1st class train in 3 days time, and mad dash to the airport for a flight to Sapporo. It seemed my only option.

It was at that point that i vaguely recalled that the Korean ferry guy had said that whilst there wasn't a boat from Vladivostok until Saturday, there was one on Wednesday from this random other port, and after reserving a flight to Pyongyang just in case (no kidding), i hot footed it back to the ferry desk. He confirmed that indeed, there was such a ferry. But his office had all sold out. He said i should try a travel agent in one of the hotels (high on the hill) who may still have one. But they closed in 30mins.

So i legged it up the hill through the streets of Vladivostok to the hotel, and got my first lucky break of the day. There was one ticket left, and it was even in the cheapest category, so i booked it then and there. WooHoo. Just as well. The person who came behind me wanted the same thing and was told there was no room left. By inches, i had a plan. Wandering back to my hotel, exausted, it then happened. With temperatures still high 20's and a perfectly blue sky, it started to piss it down with rain. I couldn't stop laughing.

After a bit of a relax and watching a strange concert of Korean-Russian mix on the beach, i decided to take the advice of the woman who had sold me the ferry ticket. She had said that buses were infrequent, and only the first of the day was guarenteed to get there before the start of customs control, and that the Russians often refused exit to those not there at the start. And that on days of ferry running, the bus was often full, and advance reservations were highly recomended. So i got a suburban train North 10km and 3 stops to the "central" bus station, where, with astonishing ease and with my luck obviously changed for the day, i got both a bus ticket and baggage ticket for the correct bus.

I then got on the train back, where after a few minutes i made the interesting discobvery that whilst i could get any local train north for 3 stops, the same wasn't true southbound. The train bore off to the left and i watched the line i should be on drift away to the right along the coast. Using my normal rules of the unknown, i got off a good 15mins later at a stop where virtually everybody else did, after a trip through a long tunnel which i prayed was not an under harbour tunnel.

My gut reaction on surfacing was to walk downhill to where i was sure the harbour was, and then follow it and i'd get back. But i saw a tram with "Station (in Russian of course)" on the side and jumped on that instead. Shortly after leaving the station, the tram bore gently to the right and started heading uphill instead of sharp right as i was expecting and kind of needed. About 10mins later we got to the end of the line and some random housing estate. Sure enough, Tram 5 does go to the station, but unfortunately in the other direction. And the tram signs hadn't been changed. And i'd just got off the last tram of the night.

So in a dodgy estate high on the hill of a strange foreign city, getting quite late at night and wearing only t-shirt and shorts, I again pondered my situation and it was at around this point that it dawned on me why i really love travelling alone so much. Many people i know, and some i have travelled with in the past, would have long ago lost the plot worrying, be constantly blaming me for everything, in a big huff and swearing constantly at me. It just wouldn't be enjoyable for either of us. Admittedly, some of it would have been justified but that's besides the point. Others i know would have just gone quiet and hidden behind me, praying for a good outcome. Some would have just shot me or kicked me hard in the nuts and stalked off. Very, very few i think would have seen the constant humour of the situation, and the 'that's life' of it all, and remained in un-acusing high spirits the entire time.

As many of you know, i'm quite happy to get get lost, and quite happy to walk. I often do just randomly walk off in odd directions in a city and just see what happens. And whilst many people will out it down to pigheadness, stupidity, pride, just being male, or whatever, i tend to think of it as being easy natured and not worrying - but if i'm not in any great hurry, i will rarely bother to ask somebody if i'm going the right way or not, and will never take a taxi, prefering instead to continue the, urm, adventure and try and solve the problem and find where i'm going myself. Sure it might take a long time, and periodically get me into lots of trouble, but i'm happy with it, and i get to see allot of places very few others ever do.

So I bought a beer and started walking back alongside the tram tracks in the way i had just come in the pitch black. And as anybody that has ever been to Russia knows, walking is perilous enough in daytime, as you never know what your going to step in next, or whether there will even be pavement there and not a gaping hole where the ground has collapsed.
A fairly typical piece of tarmac in Russia. You never know how big the next hole is going to be...

Amazingly, i didn't fall down a hole. I got back to the place i had got on the tram, and then did what i should have done to begin with and followed my gut in walking. It was a fair old trek but after about a 90min walk (and much longer return trip), i finally made it back to my hotel around midnight, went up to my room and lay down in the middle of the floor laughing, and just waiting for the fire alarms to go off.

Ten minutes later, it did. And that was two minutes after the sprinklers had started to go off...


So as it stands, for Wednesday 24th, i have a ticket for a 5.20am bus from a place 10km north which will require a taxi to get to, followed by a 5hour bus ride to somewhere i have no idea where it is or have ever heard of, somewhere near the North Korean border. That will be followed by the delights of long winded Russian customs and emmigration, which i'm told will take 5 hours and i'm now utterly dreading, followed by a ferry journey of unspecified legnth (nobody could tell me how long it lasts, even approximately) to a place i've never heard of in Korea, near the North Korean border. And as the ferry companies map shows Korea to be one country, i'm not even certain yet if it's North or South of the parallel....

And that's assuming the ferry hasn't actually left today.

And actually existed in the first place.

Posted by Gelli 22:06 Archived in Russia Comments (3)

Almost time to leave. I wonder where the heck i'm going?!

50 hours on a train, хабаровск and владивосток

I spent a couple of days in Ulan-Ude doing nothing much except enjoying the atmosphere in the centre and wandering at random around the wooden housed streets. Really i should have made an effort to get on one of the trips to the Ivolginsk Datsan (centre of Russian Budhism), 40 odd km away, but a combination of it being tricky to visit independently, being lazy and refusing to pay for a standard intourist trip (at the same cost as i've lived off for 2 weeks) mean't i didn't. In fact the only thing of relevance i acheived was that i got a long desired and desperately overdue haircut, although her idea of short and mine varied considerably, and it took her 7 attempts of trimming before she got anywhere near what i wanted, all the time with hushed and worried conversations in Russian with some Babooshka's, no doubt fearing that i would drop dead of cold the minute i stepped outside.

After a fun 4.33am departure (Moscow Time can be annoying sometimes when you then translate it to local and realise what time you actually leave or arrive), i was on the train for 2 days through nothingness. Beyond Chita, about 10 hours out of Ulan-Ude, there was essentially nothing for 40 hours except a few small towns and lots of trees and fields. The weather was decent, and the scenery not too bad, so the journey passed by quite quickly.

The last night i finally managed to get the newly arrived people in my open compartment to talk, and a long and lively discussion was had between the 4 of us (2 young girls and a guy) and the 2 Provodniks (both lads of maybe 18-20), plus assorted interested passers by, with only one of the Provodniks speaking broken English. But that, a phrase book and supply of beer mean't all was fine.

And the samovar died. I have never even heard of this happening before, but the 2 guys had real trouble keeping the fire going. It went out 3 times during the day, and watching their attempts to get it restarted were hilarious. If scary. But it mean't a trek through the train to find hot water for food/drinks.
Views from the train, East of Chita

By the way, a number of you have enquired about news regarding Anna-lise and whether there is any further info or chan ce of a reunion. You may recall that we split up after i made a daft comment to her after her Grandmother had died, and we were in Croatia. I can confirm that it is utterly dead. I had a couple of very interesting (and surprising) conversations/emails with people in the weeks after which utterly convinced me that it is over. In addition, a few of you have wished that i was more concise in my writings. Tough! This isn't for you lot you know?! It's as much (maybe more) for me. I've never done a proper journal before, and as such, have only basic dates and places for the last 10-12 years travels, plus memories, which scramble, fade or just disappear. So this time, i figured i'd try and write allot, so that i have a record myself of exactly what happened to look back on in the future. So there you are.

Kharbarovsk (хабаровск)is an interesting place. I wasn't expecting much - partly i was begining to feel the constant soviet architechture and designs monotonous and was anxious for a change, and having to pay an exhorbitant sum i had had to pay to change my ticket to have more than a couple of hours in Kharb (no Platskartny on any of the 3 later trains, so i had to go Kupe) i felt sure, sod would ensure to be a waste. But i actually liked it. It had a very European feel to it, many of the signs were in English (as well as Japanese &/or Chinese, the later just 30km away). Virtually all the cars were Japanese, and a relatively high proportion of the people were oriental.
The main square, buildings on the main street and a church in the square at the far end by the river

The sun was sparkling, lenin looked almost like a friendly uncle (hat, a bit chubby and no pointing), the bangles theme tune was by a large newly rebuilt church and a very impressive memorial (lots of people from here died in assorted battles), the fairground was bustling and the main streets lacked concrete, and where it had it, it was in a more sympathetic way (maybe Hamburgy, sort of) rather than the normal Russian way. The city had a prosperous feel lacking in most - no pot holes, freshly paved pavements, and large chunks of the river side area were restored or under retoration, and not falling into disrepair (although guessing they were before the work started). And the people even seemed to care. I would have liked to spend at least a night here, but time restraints mean't i couldn't.
War Memorial and church

And so on to Vladivostok. Or if you prefer, владивосток.

It was odd, really. Since i was young, the Trans Siberian to Vladivostok has been my single main travel dream (only Timboktu comes close). And whilst i knew i was going to be crossing a fair chunk of Russia on this trip, i wasn't expecting to get to Vladivostok, which would wait for a later trip. It's barely a week ago i realised that i would come here, and as such my brain/emotions are still a bit fuddled.
Vladivostok railway station. The end of the line after 9500km from Moscow

I have that "i can't believe i'm in fr*gging Vladivostok" feeling. Not the same one as the "i can't believe i'm back in fr*gging Aylesbury" felling though. Amazing. And i'm glad i did. It's one of the worst cities in the world, weather wise (the local saying is that in rains twice in July, once for 14 days, the other for 15) but i had glorious sun and warmth. In addition, people i have met who have been here say that it is nopthing special and a it of a dump, so my expectations were low. I wanted to come, because you just have to go to Vladivostok. But whilst it isn't exactly the worlds most wonderful and exciting city, it's not bad at all.
A view over the main beach area, the war memorial and submarine museum and a final statue of Lenin

It would be a perfect city to cycle in. Compact, but lots of short-ish steep hills (i know that doesn't tally with most people's idea of a great cycle city, but on a bike, i love hills), means that you get lots of decent view points. The harbour, whilst big and central, feels right instead of overpowering or being offlimits, and the warships and navy boats just lying about and numerous sailors a wandering the city seem normal. There are some decent musueums, and a relaxed beach area with a strange naked stone women standing in the harbour. And being a hilly city, there is of course a hill to climb. Thos of you who followed the earlier part of this quest, will remember that i gained an irrational urge to climb hills near citites. With most of the places i have been in in the last couple of months being on the flat side, i haven't had much chance to keep this up, and so in catch up, I was to climb up to the Eagle's Nest 6 times, and no, didn't ever use the funicular.

The main problem is the lack of anything vagely resembling cheap accomodation. I weas forced to pay 1600 a night (400 more than my previous highest, and in comparison, in Irkutsk i paid 300 a night. Admittedly 32gbp isn't the most expensive in the world, but it's a chunk, especially when i'm bugetting on 30ish a day all inc.), in the only hotel in the city which had space, accepted foreigners and wasn't going to cost 250usd or more. I know because i visited every sodding last one.

The most obvious sight about Vladivostok - if you ignore the navy presence - is that it is stuffed full of oriental tourists, mainly in groups, but not entirely. Many are Chinese, some Japanese and Korean, but they are everywhere. And in a city with many Chinese?Japanese signs, and also almost entirely Asian traffic (i may have seen a dozen European cars whilst here, and not a SINGLE lada or Bonsa), so far away from it's own seat of power, i suppose it is more of an oriental city than a Soviet one.
Unloading newly imported Japanese cars

I had a final cup of kvass (a drink that looks like beer, but is made from bread, and sold from huge tankers on the streets of virtually every Russian city) - a quite reasonable one, and in fairness only the Chelyabinsk restaurant stuff was foul, and one in Irkutsk a bit iffy tasting, had a last Shishlik and saw my last wedding parade*, and did a few bits of shopping and admin before my departure.
Littering is a bit of a problem in most of Russia

Yes, tomorrow, with luck, i leave Russia. I've loved it here, and my time has been nowhere near enough. Yet again, i have been overwhelmed by the people and their friendliness, and by the variety (and concrete) in this vast and unknown country. I will be back yet again, that much is certain. If for no other reason than i have so many new friends here, and i more or less have to recross it if i ever go back to Europe again.

I say with luck, for a number of reasons. The first couple of reasons are unlikely to stop me leaving the country, but concern me a bit anyway and could cost me a chunk of money. Firstly i'm abit worried of customs using their 'strict interpretation' of the rules to releave me of a chunk of cash i had hidden away and forgot to declare on entry. The second mobile phone could be fun to explain as well. More relevantly is the hole in my visa registration stamps caused by the Chelyabinsk farce. I'm hoping that either they will not notice the date gap due to the number of otehr stamps i have, and will just let me go, or that i can explain a fake travel scenario to them, and they will speak enough English to understand it, and buy the explanation without ticket proof. But i'm expecting a telling off, and a large fine/bribe.

But mainly, i say luck because i have no ticket and don't yet know where i'm going. Yes, of course, I have an ideal scenario, but over the last few days have been getting ever increasing feelings of impending doom. Added to my vast luck with boats in Russia (i even tried to take a harbour tour of Vladivostok, but that failed as well) and the short time frame, i'm not in any way optimistic. I'm not even optimistic of getting 'lucky' and being able to escape by paying supremely expensive first class rates. If my ideal fails, a number of factors come in to play, and things start getting potentially very tricky, and almost certainly anyway, expensive. I have a couple of other potential options, but both has its own problems and issues, and failing that, i may even be forced to fly out (at great expense, even if possible at all).

The only thing for certain is that i have to have left Russia by Saturday, or i'm in big trouble visa wise. And Russia is not a country you want to be overstaying your visa or having problems with it. Next update and news of how i managed and where will come when i'm in my next country.

And (unless i'm forced to fly back towards Europe) the exciting - for me, anyway - news is that it will be the first new country i have visited since Morocco a couple of years ago, and the first new one on this adventure.

Have fun all.

  • In Russia, it is customary after the ceremony for the bride/groom and a few close friends to tour all of the main city sights and have pics taken, before they head to teh reception, and i must have seen hundreds of "happy couples" in my time here. In some places (near the Kremlin in Moscow as an obvious example), its sometimes possible to see a dozen different wedding parties, almost in a queue system for the specific photo sight.

Posted by Gelli 03:33 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Улан Уде - God damned it, i love that head!

Despite the fact that my plans and ideas had fallen flat on themselves and i was going to miss the bits of Russia i had been most looking forward to, it wasn't all that bad. I now had a definite reason to come back except in transit, and a vague idea of a plan for next summer already. Or maybe the one after, as it is after all Germany 06 next summer. I REALLY want to see Sakhalin, and the BAM area, and i should be able to spend much more time there then. In addition, i'll be able to spend a chunk more time doing the bits around Baikal i wanted to, and also filling in the Krasnoyarsk gaps. Any takers?!

But as i had to scrap that, i had to go East by land and as such, had the opportunity to get to Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic, and somewhere i had been dissapointed that i would have to miss on this trip. Ulan Ude is the centre of Buddhism in Russia, and a large chunk of the people are of Mongol (well, Buryat) extract, giving the place a very different feel.

My plan of a day train from Irkutsk had worked reasonably well - the weather (annoyingly after the previous few days) was excellent, and for 6 or so of the 8 hour trip, the views of the Lake and scenery were definitely worth loosing a day over. Unfortuantely i happened to be in a train with no openable windows, and teh outsides were filthy, meaning that photos weren't a major option, but it was worth it all the same.

I liked Ulan-Ude immediately. I arrived in the late afternoon sun, and after a short walk to the centre, things took a turn for the better. I had stumbled into a large free concert in the main square, and i am a sucker for any kind of live music. And then i saw the head.

Yup, the main reason for my visit was a head. After the previous few weeks exploits and ongoing fascination with Lenin statues and their positionings (the guy that made them must have been in almost as bad state at the fall of communism as the guy who used to do the Gerry Adams voice overs), i couldn't really leave without seeing the head. Ulan-Ude's main kind of claim to fame is that it is home to the worlds largest Lenin head. I belive it beats the one in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch by a few cm's. Regardless, it is an impressive head. Slapped bang in the middle of the main City square, and at this moment with the base covered in concert goers, all looking not entirely unlike ants, or Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, i fell in love. I should try and dig out some dimensions or something, but as i doubt many of you have a local Lenin head to measure with a tapemeasure for compariosn purposes, i won't bother.

I spent a happy evening listening to a surprisingly decent concert of Russian acts, enjoying the feel of the crowd and just gazing at the head. Even the discovery that we'd lost to Spurs, looked dire and were bottom after the opening of the Prem season couldn't shake my mood. The last band in particular were very good (and popular), although for the life of me i couldn't understand what the constant images of Gabby Batitsuta scoring for Argentina, which were being shown along with the singers head on the big screen, had to do with anything.

It was odd, but prior to the last band, standing there with the concert and head, i was suddenly struck by the desire that I wished I wasn't alone. I have no problem with solitude and being surrounded by foreigners who i can't really communicate with, and I'm generally a solo traveller - and have been for most of my travels - yet have enjoyed myself imensely. And yet all of a sudden i wished i could share the experience with somebody. I don't actually know whether i was craving a partner, friend or random travelling stranger (more of the later i think - somone like Gary or Shan from a previous trip, who kind of worked with my warped brain and i could bounce stuff off), but there was a hole there. I came to the obvious conclusion. I'm getting old.

And besides, i wasn't alone for long. For reasons which are complex, surreal and mostly unknown even now (and a very long story which will not be recounted here), within 20minutes i found myself on stage as a 'lucky' winner, in front of maybe 20000 people having to sing along to some random Russian track. Which everybody else in the entire city obviously knew. And i'd never even heard before. And the only words they could find were in Russian. Which is in Cyrillic. Which I can't read. You get the picture. It wasn't pretty, but i did somehow manage to escape without being stoned or pelted with rotten fruit, which i considered a near miracle.

Yes, i'm in love with an inanimate object.

Posted by Gelli 23:45 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Boats just don't like me. Confirmed. Plus lots of Poles.

Новосибрск, Красноярск, Иркутск and Озеро Байкал

(((Apol, but struggling with letters P and K on this board, and I isn't great either)))

I left Tomsk at the ungodly hour of 3.35 (MT - but the local time of 6.35 was bad enough) on the solitary train to Novossibirsk. Sent much of the day wandering around aimlessly - it's somewhere i've been before a few times - without any reason except killing time. I took in the Tiny Church in the Central Reservation, allegedly built in the centre of the country (when it was much larger), Lenin of course - this time with other people, which is unusual - and the huge Opera house one of the largest in the world and who's constructon was completed mostly by untrained women and children, after the men had all b*ggered off to war.
Novossibirsk Opera House, Lenin and `friends` statue and the church in the centre of the country

The following morning i arrved in Krasnoyarsk. I felt strangely contented, as i had finally broken new ground. Whilst some of the places i had visited, especially recently, were new to me, they were stll on a trac that i had been several times (as i've been to Novossibirsk several times) and therefore, even the brand new ones ddn't feel like i was truly into the unknown. But now, 10 hours East of Novosibirsk, i truly was.

Unfortunately, time constraints (more later) mean't i only had 1 day in Krasnoyars, which was annoying as there were 2 day trips that i wanted to do, as well as see the city. And it just turned into one of those days.

My choices were Stolby, a Nature reserve to the North with large Granite pillars (some 100m+ tall) which have been weather beaten into strange shaes and even people's faces, and Divnogorsk - A 45min hydrofoil ride up river to a large damn on the Yenisey river which apparently has a very unusual mechansm for lifting boats over the dam, a kind of huge bucket escalator. The nerd in me decided that this was the most interestng/unusual option, so that's what i did. Or tried to.

I only new that the boat left every 2 hours. So dumping my stuff, waling nto town and grabbing food, i went straight to the pier and discovered that I had lucked out. The days first boat left at 11, and it was now 10.40. The mostly emty hydrofoil left on time, and for 5mins all was great. And then some cluning noises, and it stopped. This repeated itself, and although from then on it sounded OK, we returned to the pier we had left barely 20mins before. I didn't need to understand the Russian announcements to realise that there was a mechanical error and the boat was cancelled. Oh well.

I used the interlude to check into a hotel (extorsionate) and returned for 1pm. There was a huge crowd of mainly ids who got on first and then lots of peole got on and straight back off again (i hadn't got near the boat) and the boat left. I had no idea why. At 3pm I got on the boat, but was unfortunately the first person unable to fnd a seat, and - astonishingly - they were following safety rules and not allowing any standees. So off i got. Wth the following boat 5pm departure leaving me only 15mins in Divnogorsk before the last departure (and seeing my days luck, i wouldnt get on it anyway), i reluctantly opted out.

I will make it to Divnogorsk one day.

By then, of course, it was also too late to visit Stolby, so with both of my must-see's blown out of the water, i wandered around town. I managed to avoid being interviewed about some building on radio, but this is becoming a disturbing trend that i ee being approached lie this. I like Kras. It is on the river, surrounded by hills and has a thriving feel to it. The centre has some lovely old and wooden buildings, and the people seemed happy. Even Lenin seemed to have a grin on his face.

Krasnoyarsk church, quirky restaurant entrance and the view from my hotel room

The following morning i got yet another early train for the 18hour journey to Irkutsk. I hadn't deliberately choosen the only one of 8 trains which didn't run over night, that was done for me. The plan was to meet up with Ala (for any of you who have been stupid enough to read all of my inane warblings, you may remember her as being my host in Wroclaw) and a few of her friends on their way through to Mongolia, and head to Baikal for a few days together. She had sent me the train #, so it is entirely her fault i had to crawl out of bed at 5am.

And oddly, it did actually work. A few hours later i wandered down the train to meet up with Ala, Kasia (who i'd also met in Wroclaw), plus Ike and Eliza, 2 other poles they had met on the internet and were travelling with. And 2 more Poles. Kryzs and ??, they had randomly met on the train, in normal fashion. With the exception of Michel/Mjeh, who doesn't really count, they were the first non Russian/Soviet block people i had had contact with (or knowingly seen) since i left Moscow, and it was a bit odd to suddenly be back amongst people i could easily communicate with.

Ike, Kasia, Eliza and Ala on the train to Irkutsk

With a delightful 3am local time arrival in Irkutusk, we farted around the station for most of the night. The only moments of interest being repeated attempts to stick Ike (the only one who slept) to the bench with duct tape, and when Ala, Kasia and I took a wander to change some money and encountered a suicidal man trying to jump off the road bridge into the Angara. The odd thing was that the police were there, but hadn't stopped the traffic or pedestrians, and were actually sitting in their parked car in the central tram tracks shouting at the guy, whilst traffic and pedestrians went past between themselves and the jumper. It just seemed a tad odd.

Ike asleep on Irkutsk station, shortly before the duct tape incident

That afternoon, after a bit of a wander around one end of Irkutsk, and somehow acquiring a couple of new friends - an English girl, Sofia, and an American, Chad - we piled on to one of the few buses to Listvyanka. The bus was predictably late and falling apart, limited room for luggage beneath the bus meaning we had to lug stuff on with us, and despite us having reserved seats, was hopelessly overcrowded, meaning that the 3 Polish guys and I got to stand/sit in the aisle. And the journey was a combination of break neck down hill sprints and sharp corners followed by snail pace up hills (literally at 3 or 4mph). We got stopped by the police, and an elderly drunk guy kept fondoling Ike's legs, but we got there.
Cramed into the bus to Listvyanka. Note the 2 asleep Poles behind Ike

Listvyanka is a small port at the mouth of the Angara river on the banks of Lake Baikal, about 60km from Irkutsk. Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, and with a couple of exceptions, the water is completely safe to drink, and could easily supply the entire population of the Earth with it's drinking water for 40 odd years, even if every other source was to dissapear tomorrow.

Mainly due to Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is the one place on the route of all 3 Trans-Sib routes which is stopped off at by virtually all TS travellers, and hence has a more of a tourist feel/focus. and when in Irkutsk, virtually all visit Lake Baikal. Which means Listvyanka.
The village itself was a ribbon along the lake, and although containing a fair splatterings of lovely old wooden houses, was nothing special, and obviously very touristy. The central square was full of tourist stalls, and coach parties of daytripeprs from Irkutsk(inclucing large numbers of orientals) were much in evidence. It was odd that after seeing no foreigners at all for weeks, i was suddenly seeing them everywhere in a small village.

The weather was still wonderful, and after the amount of farting around and indecision that always accompanies a large group with no one leader (and the loss of one American), we walked along the coast out of the village and set up camp on the beach. Followed a few hours later by a group of about 10 poles, 2 of whom actually knew Krysz and his friend. Why is Baikal full of Poles??? A great evening of doing not allot except relaxing and drinking, admiring the scenery, failing miserably to keep a fire lit for more than an hour or so and eating Omul (a wonderfully tasty fish, found only in the Lake) was had by all (except Ike, who went to sleep in the eraly evening and wasn't seen a again!). The night was perfectly clear as well, and we got a fantastic stary night. There is very little i enjoy more than being in the country/middle of nowhere, with no artificial lights, and a clear sky, and just gazing up at all the stars. I get mesmerised by it, and can spend hours doing it, and this was probably the finest sky i had seen since my nights in the Sahara a couple of years previously.

Lake Baikal, near Listvyanka

I did get a timely reminder of something i tend to peridocally forget though. Despite my proximity to the worlds biggest vodka factory, i'm not a vodka fan. I can drink some, but not lots, and especially when tired or haven't slept much, my drinking vodka is, how shall we say, not pretty. At some point i wandered off, and probably after making a huge fool of myself and a being a drunken idiot (i'm waiting for the first people i have to pay off to come forward), lay down and half fell asleep and half star watched whilst ignoring everybody else. In the early hours as things were winding down, i was handed my sleeping bag, rejected the offer of tent space (we were already over capacity after we gained Sofia, and i love sleeping outside, so never had any intention of agreeing, although possibly the vodka had clouded my judgment. And the sky) but swiftly abandoned my original plan of heading up the hill a bit to sleep in favour of lying on the beach.

And so it was that i awoke at around 5am in the pouring rain. Most of you know that i have no great problem getting wet, and rarely even carry waterproof coat etc. In addition, i'm sure most of you are aware that i have a habit of sleeping in odd places etc anyway (sometimes by choice, but often not entirely - such as in the famous cases of Hoor station, the Odense hedge, Czech burnt out car and many others which assorted of you will know about), and don't carry a tent with me. But i'm not necessarily always a huge fan of lying asleep on the beach in the pissing rain without any sort of shelter. My sleeping bag was still dry inside, so for a good 30-45 minutes, i just lay there getting wet, pondering developments and what i should actually do about them.

Being the hardy (read: stupid) idiot that i am, there was no way i was going to admit defeat and sheepishly crash a tent. So i climbed the hill to the place i was originally going to sleep before vodka and stars won over. But the trees didn't give the cover i'd hoped, so i ended up cheating (or depending on your point of view, using intellect and quick thinking. This is admittedly unlike me, but everybody else subsequently thought it was), and head back towards teh village. In every Russian resort etc, there is a half built hotel, normally now sitting vacant and not still under constructon, as ideas &/or money have run out. And at the edge of Listvyanka, barely a half Km from where we had camped, there was such a structure which i clearly remembered. So i wandered to it, clambered inside, checked the area for brown lumps and smell, and then settling on a pile of straw in my sleeping bag, fell fast asleep.
Camping by Lake Baikal

The following day, the damage was assessed. Sofia was long gone, and most people were wet. It finally let up raining a bit, enough to pack up the camp (although Kryzs and ? were satying on for another few days), and we repaired to the village for coffee - Ike had cunningly woken up after about 16 hours and his first major act had been to kick over the boiling water, Mr Bean style - and freshly smoked Omul, amd to kill time before the return bus. A few of us took a wander around the village and up one of the side roads/valleys, which was quite pleasant with wooden buildings, but still felt touristy and the weather still wasn't great.
The Listvyanka fish market, back street with typical housing, Poles asleep after a night on the vodka and after pictures of coloured cows, i figured its time for some real ones

Back in Irkutsk, said fairwells to Ala, Kasia, Ike and Eliza who were only on a transit visa, and had to head to Mongolia that evening, and with the weatehr now (typically) cheering up, i went off to find a ho(s)tel. Frustrating to say the least, and took me 3 hours before i found one that (a) was still a hotel and open (b) had space and (c) accepted foreigners. And even then i got lost trying to find the building with my room in it, as they sent me back out of teh hotel and across the square! But i did. It was dingy, but only 300rbl a night (6 gbp), so can't complain. Although my visa registration cost more than a night in the hotel.

I spent 2 more nights in Irkutsk, and frustrating ones they were. Despite being a pleasant city with enough foreigners and influence around to make it feel Un-Soviet, It rained virtually the whole time, meaning that sight seeing wasn't as much fun as it could have been, although there were a few interesting things to see. And there was no real point returning down to the Lake as i'd hoped to. I also discovered that a combination of factors (high amongst them being no useable boat) mean't that my plan came unravelling at the spine.
Irkutsk - Church near the bus station, Cathedral, Lenin statue, Tomb of the unknown soldier, Monument to the Trans-Siberian railway workers and the building which if it was larger, in Sydney and an opera house, would be the Sydney Opera House, but is instead used mostly for dog shows

I'd long intended to get the boat up Lake Baikal, and then cross through the BAM region, get the ferry to Sakhalin, and spend a couple of weeks on thge island before heading on the ferry into Wakkanai, Hokkaido, the northern most Japanese island. In fact, the stretch Irkutsk - Baikal - Sakhalin - Wakkanai was the one on my entire trip/outline idea that i had been looking forward to most. But logistically, i had to conceed that in th eremaining visa time, it just wasn't going to happen. It might be pysically possible (just), but would be very tight and requiring allot of luck. And mean't i wouldn't see anything. So reluctantly, i had to scrap it. And come up with a new plan.

I wonder where the heck to go next?!

Posted by Gelli 23:44 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

In search of a womble. A specific one.


Some places you go to just because of the name. It is for this very reason that amongst many others, i have visited Hell (the road to Hell is a 7km long virtually straight downhill tunnel, if approaching from the East, anyhow), climbed Wank, and done the Fucking to Condom journey. And so it was that i just could not resist the temptation to visit another Womble.

I actually now have serious plans in the not too distant future to specifically travel and then write a book about visiting the Wombles. Just think of the places and extremes you would go to. It has to be done. I'm open to possible companions if anybody can say why they should accompany me. And if one of you steals me idea, a fate worse than picking up Rubbish awaits you.

If you have no idea what i'm talking about, this link may help explain...http://www.wombles.easyweb-solutions.co.uk/pages/fmain.htm

And so it was that i headed to Tomsk. I had planned to go straight through, but after a 16hour trip through to Novossibirsk, Russian beaurocracy and service got the better of me and after being shuttled between different ticket desks without ever finding the correct one, mean't i missed the connection, and by the time i found the bus station (not where my book said), i had just missed the last bus, and the only alternative was a minibus arriving at 1am and which would cost me an extorsionate 1000rbl (he'd seen a foreigner and trebbled the price). So i stayed the night. It was absolutely sweltering, and despite having had a shower, after going for a walk at 10.30, i was already drowning in sweat and as smelly as before within the hour. I also got to hear one of the very worst (but funny) bands i have heard in ages from the hotel window, and it took me a good 20mins to actually realise they were trying to play Pink Floyd songs..

After chickening out and hidding from a rain storm, i got the bus and made it Tomsk for 160rbl without incident except an interesting armed check point where guards came and wandered down the bus looking for whatever, but not checking papers. I tried to look Russian (or at least not Polish), and it seems to have worked.

Tomsk is an interesting place. The towns officials specifically wanted nothing to do with the Trans Sib when it was being built as they thought it would affect their trade monopoly on the Post Road. Sure, it did, but not in quite the way they were worried about, and by the time they realised this fact, it was too late. The tiny hamlet of Novo-Nikolayevsk (now Novossibirsk) which grew up just to house workers on the Ob bridge supplanted it, and Tomsk despite being relatively large still (about 500k), has a kind of strange off track backwater studenty feel - i think there are 6 universities, and a 5th of the population are students.

In terms of sights, the city is nice without being packed of must see's. Last year had been the cities 400th aniversary (celebrations cancelled due to Beslan), so allot of the buildings had been renovated, and money spent on new things which helped. There is a great Chekov statue, the inevitable Bangles song, Glorious leader statue and theme park (as in every single Russian town and city - it is a long held search to find one somewhere which doesn't have at least 2 of the 3. I figure there must be 1 town which they forgot about if nothing else), plus theatre and university buildings, plus some wonderful wooden buildings, although a number of these seem to now be falling into disprepair and several have apparently burnt down in suspicious circusmstances if they happened to be in prime locations...

I was staying with 2 HCers, the Pakulevs of Alyona and Evgeni, plus Nora a smaller than usual but still scarily friendly dog. Two lovely people and great hosts, and no problems despite Evgeni's lack of English and only basic German. Scarily, they had the most un-Russian appartment i had seen. It was all perfectly decorated, everything worked and was wired correctly and they even had running hot water, things i had begun to regard as vague memories.
Evgeni, Alyona and me outside of one of the few remaining mint condition wooden buildings in the city

It is at this point that i must mention the biggest travesty of the entire trip. Neither Evgeni or Alyona, nor anybody else i was subsequently to meet in Tomsk had ever even heard of the Wombles. I kid you not. People in Tomsk have never heard of Tomsk http://www.pennyhapenny.com/catalog/images/harroptomsk.jpg

What could have been a huge tourist and money draw for them, and obviously should have been a huge statue in the town centre, the good people of the city had no knowledge of it's existence. Education. I am now on a crusade to educate. And if anybody can locate a large stuffed Womble (of course Tomsk would be best, but any would work), please please let me know. I have some friends that i need to send it to...

I know i waffle on lots and so this thing is a good dozen times longer thanb it needs to be, but as i've said before, nobody is forcing to you sleep in front of it.
The War Memorial and standard eternal flame

On the second day, it was Evgeni's birthday and as all the family were coming around, and none of them knew about HC, it could be hard to explain the presence of random foreigner, so it was agreed that i would disappear for a while whilst the family was entertained. I was going to wander off alone (in search of wombles, naturally), but Alyona had otehr ideas. And thus i met Albert (and his friend Marina), a businessman with Chinese interests who was a newly signed up HCer in and was more than happy to lose an evening showing a foreigner around, and practicing his English. We wandered around the city a bit, saw the founding stone of Tomsk, and the rebuilt Kremlin areas and some of the centre and after dinner at a strange aborignal place we retired to the Siberian pub.
The rebuilt old Kremlin

Now i don't want to give the wrong idea about the Siberian pub, but from the moment i entered teh door i sensed that my ideas of what a Siberian pub would be like would be a tad off the mark. I'm not sure if it was the obviosuly Siberian artefcats of a life sized Beefeater, pictures of Lady Di or framed front covers of the Telegraph and Times which gave it away first, but in fairness, the White Hart on days when the fire is off is more like my idea of a Siberian pub than the one in Siberia. oddly though, they had no British beer on draught.

The following day was the real birthday celebration for assorted friends and a good 20 or so crowded into the flat, including one poor chap in a wheel chair (only 2nd floor) after a climbing accident a couple of months previously. In normal fashion, i was again the only foreigner in a group that in general spoke little English, but it didn't bother me at all. It's strange how you become used to being at parties/gatherings where you can only really talk to a small number of the people there, and normally end up just sitting there listening to assorted converstations in foreign without having the faintest idea what's going on. I think that's actually part of the fun, as your imagination works away to try and work out what they might be saying, and add your own translations to it, whilst being carried along anyway. I actually now find it really strange to be at a party etc where everybody is speaking English and i understand everything. Most odd. Suffice to say, a great time was had by all, and i even managed to coax more English out of some later on as the numbers dwindled.

One otehr thing to add - to my list of fast food and beer munchies that i think should be brought into Western Europe as soon as possible (see earlier thoughts on the subject), i must add Russian beer snacks. These guys know all about drinking beer and have come up with a number of excellent (and cheap) altenatives to crisps and nuts, including calamres strings, dried anchovies and what are approximately fried flavoured croutons. None of that does them justice, but they are all damned good.

And to top it all off, Carlie and Steve gave birth to their second daughter, Jessica. Congrats all around.

Posted by Gelli 01:26 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Papa Lenin and the farmers in Tyumen (ТЮМЕНЬ)

From Tobolsk, I took a late afternoon train back to Tyumen on the main Trans-Sib route (pron Tooo-min or some such) on which i was the only passenger in the provodnika's carriage, so on discovering i was also foreign, decided that i was worthy of full attention and lots of free food and drin, although she spoke not a word of anything I did.

In Tyumen - a city of 600-700,000 which is on the Main trans-sib route so passed through by lots of tourists, but none have ever heard of it or stopped off - i was met by my welcoming committee of Masha, Susha and Kostya, although sadly without the promised welcome poster. Masha is a HC member who wasn't able to put me up, but had said we could meet and grab a drink and show me around and find me a hotel. And that very afternoon, via a complicated sms convo (thanks Vaida!) with my arrival time confirmed had suddenly found a friend (Kostya) who was happy for me to stay, although he subsequently found a friend of his who... but i'm getting ahead of myself as usual. Time is so constricting being linnear. Has anybody else ever felt that?

I spent a good 3 or 4 hours amazing them that my English was so good until it dawned on me - and as those of you who are aware of my mental prowess will know, this is not a quick process - that they thought i was actually Swedish. Doh! They were 3 wonderful people, and i felt instantly happy in Tyumen, which is kind of odd as it normally it takes me at least an hour or so to adjust to people i meet and feel fully comfortable with them.

Although i got there quite late, I was promised the grand tour, and got it, but for reasons and ways which will only really make any ind of sense at all to those who were there, it didn't really work like that. It's amazing how many jokes and how much fun can be made out of Russian Orthodox Churches, Aquariums with no fish, Knives in nightclubs, Beyond the river 1 and 2 (actual districts and postal addresses) and stunningly lit Tyumen versions of the Golden Gate Bridge which wasn't Golden or even lit. And some of the most amazing socks ever seen by mankind. And for me to make such a claim is heady stuff as anybody who has seen what i walk around T-Kartor in will know. These were serious socks.

It seems that it was only lit until 1am or the bulbs had been borrowed by somebody to light a fountain, or some such. Susha insisted she couldn't stay out late due to an iterview the next day, which we assumed was morning but later discovered was 4pm, which kind of killed that. After paying homage to Papa Lenin, unusually, in Tyumen he wasn't pointing or even with an arm outstretched, and finally getting Susha home (to this day, i have no idea how the interview went), we got a bottle of winewhich is of no relevance except that it came with its very own corkscrew, something none of us had seen before. Yes it broke the cork and didn't open the bottle, but even so. Progress is a wonderful thing.

We then took Masha back and got a taxi out to a lovely concrete block (about 4am) to the house of DJ Sasha, Tyumen's #1 club DJ, and another to add to my musical collection of the trip, who was the friend of Kostya who had indly offerd to put me up. The 3 of us had a couple of drinks, talked randomly and listened to a selection of his discs into the morning. As i've possibly noted before in the strange case of Juste's mother becoming vegetarian, HC (and CS) are scarily powerful tools/communities. Within 12-15 hours, the friend of a friend of a member who had never even heard of the HC previously was happily hosting a visiting foreigner. And it didn't even really seem strange.

The thing which to me was most noticeable about Tyumen (and this trend continued as i went further East) was the sheer number of Japanese cars in the streets with the steering wheel on the right - Russians are on the left - which seemed kind of odd, as its not as if Japanese firms don't make LHD versions. Why i always notice useless little cr*p like this and not relevant things like the huge s*d off pot hole i'm about to fall into (except in Tyumen which was astonishingly lacking in them), i don't really know.

The following day, after being adopted by yet another large and drooling dog - Masha's - and with Masha limping like mad and Kostya falling asleep, we went on a daylit tour. Again the bridge was not lit, the ocean had no water and the aquarium no fish, whilst Orthodox churhes continued to abound, the socks were different but of the same high standard, the famous balcony was viewed from inside after the previous nights out (that no church was visable was dissapointing), and we took a 2 hour trip to try and find a huge anchor which we never found and which neither Kostya or I believe ever really existed. The one thing of note about Tyumen in the book i had - 2 huge pipelines going through the town - was also conspicuously absent, but i again got the Bangles going through my head, and got to see the very first stone laid in the town (although they seem to have forgotten to build the rest of the building around it, so it wasn't really a helpful stone), Siberia's first ever settlement. Just the idea of Siberia has mean't so much to so many and caused untold suffering and deaths that to visit the place where it actually started (as Russian Siberia - obvioulsy the land existed beforehand) and one which was just kind of there instead of covered in tourists or having a big deal made over it, like Auschwitz, was strangley moving.
Masha with the first stone, literally the building block, for Siberia

Tyumen's other claim to fame is that this is the town where the glorious leader Lenin's body was hidden during the war so that the German's couldn't get hold of it. I admit i hadn't realised that the entire WW2 was a smoke screen for Hitler to get hold of Lenin's body, but it wouldn't really surprise me. So for many years, randomly, enin lay in a classroom in the basement of the Tyumen Agricultural Institute. I don't know why that idea amused me, but i must admit i can't really see Maggie Thatcher's body being secretly moved and then cared for by a team of experts in the Bridlington farmers institute during WW3...

I would also speak about our plans for Tyumen's future rise to tourist superstardom, an idea for the begining of a huge postcard market and an incredibly stunning plan for a Lenin Statue in odd positions exhibition (with an afro/mohican, on the toilet, standing on his head, doing the riverdance and in Karma-Sutra positions amongst others), but we have fortunes to made before i can spill the plans and besides, the chances of any of you having even the faintest idea wtf i'm going on about is remote. So i won't.
Me and Masha at the station. Scarily, neither of us had touched alcohol in a good 20 hours, although there`s no way you could tell!

Posted by Gelli 00:38 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

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