A Travellerspoint blog

My arse, U2 without relevance to Bono and a trip to Tobolsk

Travels in Western Siberia - МИАСС, ЕКАТЕРИНБУРГ, and ?????

((Key not really working on todays eyboard - K))

And so in normal fashion, after a couple of weeks of frustration at plans constantly failing in Chelyabinsk, on the very last day, it started to work. So it was that we (just) got the morning train down to Miass, and then a minibus to Turgayak.

Turgayak is a wonderfully sited Lake, kind of a mini Baikal, situated a couple of hours Sth-ish of Chelyabinsk, and which we had been trying to get to for a while, and had twice had the chance ended at short notice. I used the opportunity to do as little as possible except doze, relax in the sun and soak up the scenery. On the shores was a Kids camp where Zhenya's mother was working for a couple of weeks in the summer, and because of some odd laws, the presence of guests of staff members was strictly prohibited, meaning a bit of sneaking around, although my departure mean't i missed the fun of the night where apparently Mjeh and Evgenia were playing hide and seek with guards and climbing through windows.
Lake Turgayak

That night - sadly missing Miass town itself due to time constraints - i went overnight back to Ekaterinburg, via a journey which seemed to consist solidly of people suddenly getting a moment of near Euphoria at the discovery of a foreigner amongst them. Not only was it a chance for people to have their photo taken with a a foreigenr (i don't understand either) and practice English - in some cases well, in some very badly - but i was the obvious person to be showered with marriage proposals (3, i think), alcohol, offers of animals (no sheep, alas) and use of peoples homes. Or at least i think so anyway.

Ekaterinburg is the first nmajor city in Asian Russia and one of the largest in the country, and has 3 main claims to fame. It is the birth place and home of Boris Yeltsin; It was here that the last Russian Royal family, the Romanovs, was murdered in 1918, hence ushering in Communism and the glorious reign of Uncle Vlad [the assassinations were ordered by Colnel Swerdlov, and it was in honour of this fact that the city was named Swerdlovsk in Soviet times] and it was near here that Gary Powers U2 spyplane was shot down during the middle of the Cold War, an incident which almost got extremely nasty.

Part of that reason was Powers suddenly deciding that he didn't want to die for the CIA/US after all, and parachuting out of the plane without hitting destruct in case he killed himself, despite being ordered to kill himself with poison and destroy the plane rather than let it fall into Soviet hands. Powers was captured and the wreckage recovered, and even his photos developed. There's a musueum, but the evil old hag working the reception refused to let me in, probably as i was a stupid foreigner.

The city is nice without being special or overflowing in sights, although there is the river, a nice central area with waterfalls, a couple of lovely churches, which i wandered around. Dodged a rain storm in an Irish pub where i had a pint of some strange English thing i've never heard of before and hope never to again, looked bemused at the utterly unguarded twin UK/US consulate, took in the inevitable Lenin head and couldn't really be bothered with the walk to the UPI building, promising though it looked from a distance. One cutrious thing i noted was the sheer number of people wearing England football tops - national as oppsoed to real - of assorted styles, including some which are unlikely to be even vaguely authentic (i don't, for example, remember Rooney or England playing a game whilst wearing an orange shirt with a pink stripe on it).
Assorted parts of Ekaterinburg, including the Romanov memorial and adjacent church

As some of you know, i periodically visit places for no apparent reason except on sudden irrational urges. And so it was that i took an overnight train to Tobolsk. It merited half a paragraph in the guide book i had, and didn't even have a Cyrillic translation of the name. But i had to go. One of the oldest towns in Siberia (1587, i think) and its former capital, its about 4 hours North of the Trans Siberian route in total wilderness and well off the tourist trail.
The journey was notible mainly for being given a large package of food and bottle of water for free (so was everybody else) and then a second free meal for no apparent reason (just me) by the train staff, something which i've never seen before, and uniquely, even the sheets were free.

I arrived at the most obviously communist station i think i've ever seen, in the middle of a forest, with no sign of any dwelling or town at all. After finally managing to leave my bag in a loacker (during which i was interogated by police, had my bag searched [very badly] for bombs - i have no problem with security, but i would guess that terrorists probably have more high profile targets that Tobolsk station. And guessing people normally put bombs in the middle or bottom of the bag, not the top - my passport scrutinised by 5 people and talked 2 hours to 1 policeman whilst he showed off his English [2 words - Amerrrica and Football] and waved a large gun in my direction) i left the station and started walking. An hour later, and only then passing a sign saying Tobolsk 10, i gave in and got a bus.

Buses in Tobolsk are of the "wholly cow how the heck is it still in one piece variety", with sticy tape and empty water bottles used to hold things open, plus holes much in evidence. They all look like they should collapse by just being breathed at, let alone touched. They have the interesting ability to not be able to go uphill at more than 3kph (no joke) or downhill at more than 3kph (brakes are so bad that theres no way of stopping), but as is my way, i digress.

When i am on a bus and arriuving in a aplace i have no idea where i'm going, i either alight at somewhere which looks interesting, or when everybody else does. I choose the later strategy in this case, and quickly discovered it to be the wrong choice. It was actually quite interesting to see the estate that i had been dumped into. Huge wide boulevards, and literally hundreds of identical concrete appartment blocks, but at this point i was begining to wonder if i had made a horrible mistake in following my urges. After all, my urges have got me in to plenty of trouble before, and thinking about it now, have come off even less rarely than the law of averages says that they should.

But after picking a direction at random and continuing to walk - and hoping like heck i'd be able to work out where my return bus left from - another 30mins or so, i suddenly saw a road sign, randomly in English as well as Russian, directing me towards the Kremlin which i followed, and eventually arrived at.

Tobolsk kremlin, i discovered is on the end of a large plateau (of which i had just crossed) and had answered the query i had about where the heck is the big hill i had been reading about. As with every other religious building in Russia, it is currently being renovated, but unlike most, people were at least working on it, and despite that is very picturesque. All the signs are in English as well (an oddly unepected bonus, and i didn't see a single non Russian tourist, and not many of them) so you can get some idea of what is going on. The view from the top over the old town and plains below is great.
Tobolsk Kremlin, and view off the Plateau from the Kremlin over the old city

I spent a good few hours just wandering aroubnd, sweating like a pig in stupendous heat, killing mozzies at a great rate and admiring the views, before paying a visit to Yermak (the founder of Siberia) and then trouping down the hill to wander around the old town, which has some wonderful old wooden buildings, but sadly has that 'decaying but theres nothing we can do so we'll let it decay' feel to it, with many of the buildings in a poor state of repair. On the plus point, when the City expanded rapidly in the 20th century, to their credit they left the Old Town and plains alone, insetad building the vast concrete estate on the plateau previously mentioned. Which means at least that the Old town in its higgledy piggeldy way and wooden building area does have hope to be restored in the future, although i have my doubts. I hid from the customary afternoon downpour in the Swedish gate where I got talking (sort of) to a group of Tajiks, who keenly offerd to host me the next time i happened to be passing through Dushanbe...
Typical style old wooden house, as found all across Siberia, and the statue of the founder of Siberia, Yermak

Posted by Gelli 23:22 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

A general update after 10 weeks

Just for the sheer heck of it!

And so, I’ve made it 10 weeks. 9.5 more than expected, and than most of the bets placed on my longevity!

In that time I have survived (and passed) both Hassleholm and Hoor, split with the gf, attended a TT Pissup, HC meetup and FT kickabout, been shot at in Bosnia, bitten by a dog and Pickpocketed in Romania, crapped on by pigeons and seagulls in several countries and eaten by more mosquitoes than should even exist. I’ve slept on a balcony and in a tent (both alleged hostel beds), boats moving and stationary, a bus, some trains, a hedge, a park bench and a huge assortment of couches as well as the more traditional floors and beds, including one in (allegedly) the most polluted city on the planet. I’ve played football a couple of times (recovery after first time – 5 days), chess and numerous card and board games, mostly very badly, and discovered a penchant for climbing hills in searing heat for no reason. I‘ve been shouted at by irate people in several languages, been given the wrong ticket in Srpska, conned at a currency exchange booth in Riga and queued to see a dead person in Moscow who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is just as dead as the last time I saw him.

Met a huge assortment of utterly amazing people (both randomly in hostels/traveling and more deliberately through HC and CS, both as great hosts &/or tour guides and including some incredible parents/families who spoke no English) and a few very strange, changeable and down right unpleasant ones. I’ve encountered a future Zimbabwean tennis superstar, a Russian independent film director and a Lithuanian TV presenter/reporter. Radio DJs in Bosnia and Slovenia and even some of my own customers in Croatia, whilst being offered 4 jobs, appearing on live TV and Radio a total of 7 times that I know about and attending the opening of a restaurant who’s chef used to work for one of Europe’s most corrupt and feared dictators. I’ve seemingly come across every Melbourner on the planet and an unusually large contingent of English and central Canadians (or Canukistanis) for no apparent reason, plus representatives from New Caledonia and the peoples republic of Seattle…

I’ve encountered potentially new and lucrative careers including VW Golf importer in Bosnia, Arm doctor/splint maker in Croatia, Window cleaner/concrete salesman in Romania, Scaffold suppler and Strawberry monopoly in Poland, dark glass specialist in Moscow and an extremely lucrative opportunity for somebody with a coffin and a cape as Dracula photographer at Bran. Discovered London Buses in both Belgrade and Moscow, realized that Vienna announces which transport lines are subject to ticket inspections on their website and radio and come to the conclusion that the gapping hole in most European fast food markets could easily be filled by the introduction of Cevapicci, Burek, Pierogi, Peasant Potatoes and Zapiekanka amongst others. I’ve been stalked both by my own private thunder cloud (and I do miss him now he’s on vacation) and coloured cows, and concluded that Dubrovnik’s huge cat problem and that of the Dog populations of Bucharest and Sofia could easily be solved by opening a few Chinese restaurants. And that the Salt used in the souvenirs from the UNESCO listed Wieliczka salt mines doesn’t even come from Poland!

All the cars seem to have dodgy drivers in Romania and breaks and tyres in Poland, whilst coach drivers are generally pyschotic and suicidal, especially on narrow hilly coastal roads in Croatia and main roads in the Baltics, and you don’t ever want to encounter a Russian street cleaner. Everybody drinks lots of beer on the streets in Russia and coffee on the pavements of Bosnia, which is a country lucky enough to have not a single McDonalds.

Update of assorted other friends on the road/planning last I heard…
Markey has become a Central American revolutionary and is desperately trying to make up for wasted years as a vegetarian by eating as much steak as possible; Em has split with John and is moving south from Cairns; Morten is terrorizing South Africa and Namibia, but without the Landy; Laura was trying (I believe unsuccessfully) to sell Russell to the Thai sex trade whilst Matt is running a school to teach Thai Air Stewardesses but is thinking of heading to Argentina; Katherine has left Japan for the summer; Joe was last heard of somewhere in the Haiti but has since disappeared (anybody heard from him?); Lil J is in finally preparations to finally leave the country for the first time, although Eve looks to be delayed until the New Year; Bev should also be leaving shortly; Tim, Daaaaaisy and the gang were in Ghana a while ago, but should be getting towards the end of their cross Africa journey; Jose is halfway around the world; Erika is returnng to Sri Lanka again, this time via Singapore; Aldo is in the States for a couple of weeks, where he’ll then catch up with Slobo who’s got to return to Chicago. But this time is taking no luggage whatsoever; Tina was in Bromley on her way to Spain; Ala and friends are off to Mongolia and I’ll hopefully catch up with them on the way; Andrzej is on his way to Portugal, Ivana has got a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands and Juste to India; the worlds least likely German speaker Colin has even now found a real job in Austria, Carlie and Steve’s second child is due any day, whilst Shan and Luke have made it to Melbourne to live, and Mjeh and Evgenia are moving to Xiamen, Vaida to Denmark, Josep to Caracas, Marta to London to study and Mike and Claire to Eynsham…

And I’m still loving it. The bank manager has yet to complain (too much), Ticket Stop Maps have yet to reoccur and need ignoring and – whilst admittedly coming extremely close – I’ve yet to be deported from anywhere. And so of course, the journey continues.

Missing photos will follow when i can get them up. Hope all well with everybody, and I’ll be in touch wherever I happen to end up next

Posted by Gelli 01:01 Comments (0)

Chelyabinsk (уепябинск). And relax.

Chelyabinsk (уепябинск)

((Apologies, but photos follow when i can get them off my camera again))

Some cites can be relatively large without being of any great relevance or interest to the outside world, and even unknown to a large percentage of people. This is especially true in the old Soviet Union (and China, for example) where there are any number of cties wth over a million inhabitants which remain unknown and unvisited by the outside world, although in many cases not entirely without reason. In to this category, I would add Cheliabinsk.

It’s a city of some 1.3million inhabtants, but in the LP of Russia which I stole a look, merits only a page, half of which is given to ‘nearby’ attractions which are 2 or 3 hours away. It was a city closed to foreigners in Soviet times, and houses a huge metallurgy works. It was a major centre in the production of tanks and armour plating, and in the good old days, a nearby nuclear processing site had blown up (the city got really lucky with wind direction). And it has also been listed as the most polluted city on the planet, although I personally doubt that claim.

Not long after joining FT, i‘d come into contact with Michiel (Also known as the Mad Professor and most commonly, Mjeh – and for those who have the faintest idea what i‘m talking about, I’ve decided it should be pronounced M-Yay) and we’d started talking. On discovering that I have been to Russia several times and even previously passed through Chel previously, an invitation was extended for me to drop off and stay a bit if and when I happened to be that way again. Mjeh, a Dutch-Canadian, had moved to Chel about 4 years previously in order to live with his lovely Russian girlfriend, Evgenia, and to try and teach some of the locals English.

Despite all of the dire warnings I had been given (by them) about how bad the place was, it wasn’t all that bad at all. I have seen many worse within the Soviet Block, and t was no where near the likes of Aylesbury or Hassleholm, for example. It was refreshingly Russian - A large Lenin statue in the square, a hotch-potch of building styles and buildings in various states of construction, the inevitable tomb of the unknown soldier (I’m forced to conclude that Soviet army conscription records and identifications were not quite as good as they could have been), and centre virtually without Western influence. No McDonalds or western fast food joints or cafes, with only the inevitable fake Irish bar, Benetton and Raiffeson Bank plus, more oddly, the smallest and most inconspicuous Ikea I have ever seen in my life (and I have to wonder whether Ikea themselves even know about it) as western influences. There is hope for humanity yet.
Whilst the city possibly lacked excitement and could be a dour place to live (along with temperatures of +35 in summer,-35 in winter) and lacked anything vaguely touristy or visually stunning, it was not unpleasant, and the amount of new buildings or those under construction indicated that there was at least some money in the city and hope for the future.

And so it was that I arrived in Chelyabinsk. Originally I had intended to stay for 2 or 3 days, but such was the amazing hospitality of Michiel and Evgenia and the way of the world, that i ended up staying for almost 2 weeks. It should have actually been a quite frustrating time as plans always seemed to fall through, but oddly, it didn’t really matter to me at all, although i would have liked to have done the things which all failed. This is obscure Russia, and attitudes and the way of life just goes on, regardless of what plans you have and try and make. And I had little problem with it. A 2 day rafting trip in the hills, a visit to Turgayak (a lakeside camp, where amongst other things Russian kids were enjoying summer camp, and where Evgenia’s mother was working for a few of weeks), Miass – an old town in the hills a couple of hours south and one of the LP listed places – and the Dacha (summer house – as in Sweden, huge amounts of Russians have summer houses, often barely an hour away from home, but out of the city centres where they spend their holidays) of Evgenia’s father, plus tennis and a second game of football all fell through for assorted reasons.

Instead we wandered randomly around town, went to the beach (always interesting with the nearest coast over 3000km away), bowling for the first time ever in my life (first game I scored 28, 4th an apparently respectable 128), entertain Evgenia’s father, walkng his huge and very friendly Labrador, Urmass; played Russian Billiards and numerous assorted board games (mostly very badly), and even played football. For the stupidity value as much as anything else, there had to be an official FT kickaround, especially as one of Mjeh’s colleagues, Yuri, was also a member. So a Chelyabinsk version happened long before a London one, which has been in the planning stages for at least 18months and I doubt will ever happen. There are a few photos and report on FT for those interested, but suffice to say, the world side beat the Russians in the battle of ChMZ, meaning my lucky charm attendance continues. Played 2, won 2, and astonishingly I didn’t even hurt like heck the day after – I barely felt it at all - as per the Vilnius episode. Scarily, we then played again (only the Stokie's ahead of Chel now) on my last day and again i felt fine the day after...

We also talked a fair chunk about China, somewhere which has long fascinated me and I hope to live and work in in the relatively near future. It is a country that I will be visiting later on this trip, hopefully for an extended stay, and which Mchiel and Evgenia are also moving to. They have finally accepted an offer which was favourable to both, and will be leaving Chelyabinsk within a month to go and teach English in a University on the SE Chinese Coast.

But mostly, I did very little. Even the most regular of travelers needs a short break every now and again and It was great to just talk lots and relax, respond to job offers, enquiries and emails, play some games, got chatted up by random curious locals (why does t always happen to me?!), got my washing and some bits of work and admin done, my journal finally up to date and photos sorted, catch up on sleep and virtually cut off the alcohol for a while. All whilst killing – and being bitten by - huge numbers of mosquitoes.

All of that was almost outweighed by the delights of the registration process though. By law, any visitor to Russia must register their visa with the local authorities in any town or city where they are for more than 72 hours on working days. If you stay in a hotel and some hostels, it is automatic, whilst in some cities, agencies affiliated with your visa supply company (such as in St. Petersburg) can do it for you. Anywhere else, or if you stay at a private residence, you have to register yourself at the local UVIR office. And if you have gaps in your date stamps, you need to be able to account for them (i.e. by showing train tickets to prove where you were). I won’t go in to the full story and problems here, but suffice to say that it didn’t go according to plan. It took us trips to 5 offices (some several times, including the place I needed the stamp on my migration card from who first saw us on Fri and didn’t stamp me until Wed), in and out of assorted offices, payment for lots of different forms (some of which then weren’t needed), huge amounts of queuing – We wasted literally days in queues, and the queues would have made very impressive rugby malls, in stuffy smelly corridors with lots of frayed tempers and temperatures probably touching 40-45. I’ve no idea why the Russians are so poor at the game on the showings I had - and general chaos and contradiction all around. And not helped buy strategically closed offices at certain times and on certain days (UVIR on thurs, then a separate office we discovered we needed an official stamp from on the Fri and Mon).

I arrived on the Tuesday morning and it took until the following Wednesday to finally get registered, meaning I was well over the 72hour limit (which would either have 2.30am Friday or Monday depending on whether Thursday counted as a business day. It was a normal business day, but not a UVIR one, and nobody could confirm which version was relevant) been could have all sorts of problems when I try and leave the country and have to pay a fine/bribe or simply be banned from Russia for 1/5 years or permanently. Or have no trouble at all.

But that’s a story for the future when I actually leave and know how the story goes.

Posted by Gelli 00:15 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

28 hours is a short time really

Ponderings of the Russian railways and Arrival in Asia

As soon as people realize that I don’t fly and have done all of my traveling by train, bus, ferry and hitching, they think I’m mad. Many people cannot comprehend how I would much rather spend, for example, close to 4 days and 7 trains getting from Sweden to Marrakesh, when I can fly it in under 4 hours. This is in no way a new phenomenon (many of you reading this will have said the same thing tome in the past) and doesn’t make any difference to me at all. In Russia, and indeed much of the former Soviet Block, this is normal however. Prices are with a few core exceptions significantly cheaper by train, in addition to being much more frequent, amazingly reliable and in general, much safer. Distances are vast, and a large majority of trains run over huge distances and several days, from/to points all across the Soviet Union, and whilst Moscow is obviously hugely important, it’s not even a network based almost solely on the capital, unlike many (admittedly much, much smaller) European countries.

As it was, my 28 hours to (Y)Ekaterinburg were nothing. I’ve personally done journeys over 3 times as long before, whilst the train I was on was heading to Tynda, East of the Northern end of Lake Baikal and 5 days out of Moscow. As such there had been only a very limited number of people getting on or off before I did, or even in Yekat, and many people were going either all the way through or making at least 3.5-4 day journeys. The journey was uneventful, although oddly, I singlely failed to find anybody in my carriage who spoke English or was even willing to attempt to talk to a foreigner, as normally happens on long Russian journeys. As well as having a walk through the entire length of the train, and 18 carriages of a moving train full of people moving all over the place and making themselves at home takes a not inconsiderable chunk of time, I spent the evening in the buffet car talking to 3 people I had met at the hostel (and probably half of the non Soviet contingent aboard) and took a wander at 3 or 4 stations with longer stops to stretch my legs and see what was for sale by the numerous platform hawkers. In true Russian style, Food and drink of all description, both fresh (fruit, bread, cheese, cakes, smoked fish and some veg etc) and pre packaged as well as some bits of stationery, cosmetics and toiletries, and games and books were being sold. At any larger station in Russia and any where trains tend to have longer stops (i.e. 15mins or more, either to change loco or as a built in delay time to catch up) this is big business, and the only way that such long distance trains can realistically be sustained. Even the train staff and restauranteurs take advantage to stock upon fresh/extra produce.

We crossed the Urals West of Ekaterinburg and into Asia (although as the train had gone via Kazan, not on the main Trans-Sib route so we didn’t pass the border obelisk), and arrived there about 45mnins late after a delay barely 20km out of the city. The delay mean’t I missed the last bus (I got to the bus station just in time to see it depart and the driver even waved back at my attempts to flag him down), but got a – hugely expensive at 525rbl, as no platskartny available, or about 10gbp as opposed to 18 I had paid from Moscow – ticket on a train leaving in a bit over an hour for the 5 hour journey, arriving at 00.30 train time, but 2.30 local time ((in order for the system to be able to function over 9 time zones, one time is used over the whole system, and this is Moscow time)). I ended up in a Kupe with just one other person, an extremely friendly Russian man of about 55, on the long trek from his home in Novyy Urengoy (in the middle of nowhere in the Centre of North Russia, barely 100km south of the Arctic Circle and chilly in winter) to a place in SE Kazakhstan. Possibly to visit his son, I’m really not sure. He essentially spoke no English (except to accuse me of being French as soon as I entered the cabin) and I no Russian, but as is the way on trains, we still managed to have a very cheery and surprisingly varied 4hour conversation whilst sharing our food.

Although Chelyabinsk has the proud claim (allegedly) of being the most polluted city in the world – although there is stiff competition from any number of Russian cities alone, for this exalted position – it was somewhere I had to go. I‘d passed through several times previously without ever stopping, but it wasn’t high on my list of places to explore until I joined FT and came across Michiel (aka The Mad Professor, aka Mjeh). Michiel is a Dutch-Canadian who had been teaching English in the city for 4 years, after moving from the Netherlands to live with his Russian gf, Evgenia. More of whom next time.

Posted by Gelli 00:13 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Moscow (москва)

St. Basils 3.JPG
St.Basil's Cathedral (and somehow, guessing you all already knew that)

Red Square and GUM.JPG
Red Square and the former GUM Department Store

I’ve long been of the opinion that Moscow is one of those cites which everybody should experience at least once, and nothing that I saw, did or occurred on ths trp changed that view in the slightest. It is an amazing place whch somehow still feels like it has all the mystery and intrigue attached to it, whch would have been in evidence in days gone by.
Its defntely deserving of a good few days / week, and of return visits, and whilst I spent 4 nights in the city I could happily have spent a couple of weeks more.

Red Square gatehouse.JPG
Entrance to Red Square

My first stop after finding the hostel was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour down by the river. It is more or less pure white in colour, on a large scale and with a stunningly ornate interior. But by far the most amazing part of the whole cathedral is that it was only built in 1997 – 8 years ago. Stalin had pulled the original down in the 30’s in order to use the prime rver front location to built a huge Soviet Peoples Palace, planned as the largest bulding n the world and with a 100m high Lenin statue on top. But the experts then concluded that the rive bank site wouldn’t hold anywhere near as much weight as the proposed building, so the site was abandoned. After a long wait, the worlds largest (and by all accounts, best) swimming pool was built on the site. In the 90’s, Yeltsin decided to rebuild the church as a sign of new Russian tolerance and prosperity and the Cathedral was rebuilt from scratch in just 4 years. Whether the huge cost was worth it (in honesty, the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere or on social reforms) is debatable, but the achievement and workmanship – it’s heart warming to see that humans can still build such stunning monuments and decorations, and at such a speed as well – are amazing.

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The rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

In the time I was there, I played tourist more than I had virtually anywhere else so far. Normally apart from taking in some of the absolute must see sights, I like to enjoy places at my own pace and get off the beaten track. Just walking and seeing what happens, what I see and where I end up, but in Moscow I was almost scarily standard in terms of what I did.

National Museum 2.JPG
The new National Museum, on Moscows Red Square

Chris, Christian, Me, Daan and Claire in Red Square in fronmt of the National Museum

Obviously I spent a large chunk of a full day at the Kremlin [probably best not to do it after along night out] in the company of 3 former English teachers in Korean, Daan (Dutchman), Chris (a girl from the peoples republic of Seattle) and an English girl Clare, plus another Dutchman, Christian, on his way via China to India. The Kremlin is a slightly odd place and probably more impressive from the outside than inside where there are concrete buildings (now home of the Moscow Kremlin Ballet) and large chunks including offices which were unavailable to the public due to it still being a working fort. Despite that, there was still some decent gardens and 5 churches/cathedrals to visit – oddly they all lacked anywhere really for the congregation to gather, even allowing for the fact that they would be used mainly by people within the Kremlin rather than all comers - as well as the worlds largest caliber cannon (never fired) and the Tsar Bell (largest bell ever built) with a large chunk separate which had broken off during a tenth century fire. I missed the armoury, the most impressive part, as allof the tickets had been bought by touts (tourists only allowed to enter with a guide) and I wasn’t prepared to pay their over optimistic asking price. And stood bemused at the Tomb of the unknown solder watching a soldier who can only be described as a “Imperal Sweat Swobber and Crotch straightener” appear with strange regularity to swob the sweat and adjuct the crotches of the guards on duty, which was most odd.

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Cathedrals inside the Kremlin

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Things to do in the Kremlin #1, according to Daan - Sleep. Claire and Chris pose on the worlds largest Bell in the Kremlin.

In the other days, I wandered around the Pushkin Art Gallery (impressive works, although a relatively small gallery, especially the day after visiting the Hermitage), took a tour around some of the Metro stations (many of which are wonderfully ornate and colourful – like parts of the Stockholm T-Bana - and unlike the dour dungeons that most metro/underground systems are) and wandered aimlessly around Red Square. In one day, in the company of Christian, we took in the former G.U.M store, went into St. Basil’s (bizarre from the inside is the only way to describe it – there is nothing even vaguely resembling a place to worship or central room, and it’s visbly not as interesting as you expect, being just a combination of narrow brick passages and rooms), down Al-urbat, past the Viking ship (ignoring statues of Thor and Odin near the entrance, the least like a claimed Viking ship i think i have seen – more of a Chinese Junk in style) along the river to the Novodevichy Convent and cemetery, past the Luzhniki and through Gorky park past the Peter the Great boat statue, before catching up with a Danish guy Jacob and taking n the evening atmosphere around the Kremlin wth the brass bands playing and people enjoying the streams and waterfalls, whilst waiting for it to get dark and St. Basil’s and the Kremlin to light up. And on the following day – my last morning – the three of us went to pay our (free) respects to Lenin in his mausoleum (perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s still a small dead guy) and look at the soviet heroes graves along the Kremlin wall including Gagarin, and urm, Stalin, amongst many others.

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Lenin's Mausoleum
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Statue of Peter the great with Christian and Jacob, near Red Square

As I was in Russia, obviously I had to play some chess. Suffice to say that my skills were a tad rusty, and I lost several times, before somehow snatching a stalemate from the jaws of victory against the best player in the hostel. Doh! On a couple of the nights we also wandered out to see what the delights of Moscow night life had to offer. The first night, Daan, Chris, Christian and I went to find something to eat (a proper Mongolian wok buffet, great stuff) before wandering in search of a place which Daan remembered from a visit several years previously. In an astonishing break with tradition (yes, I know I’ve stolen that as well, but I can’t thnk what else to write), we even actually found it. It swiftly turned into a fairly decent club. An oddly high number of people in there were wearing sunglasses whch added a slightly odd twist. After a couple of drinks, I even did something utterly uncharacteristic and got conned into dancing. Some of you will probably remember with dread or hilarity – depending upon the night in question, and also if it was one of the hospital nights - the few occasions that I have attempted this before and know that it is rarely a good idea. I’m happy to say that no bones were broken, and I even spent a good hour or so dancing with a really stunning local girl, who spoke no English, but oddly, some Swedish and ignoring the irritating habt she had of going for the pocket with my (very small supply of) money in it at every opportunity, we had a great time.

In true Moscow style, we hailed a random car on the street to get home, and although not overly expensive (gbp1 each), we were almost certainly conned. At virtually the same time as we returned back, another small group returned, including Claire (Chris and Daan’s traveling companion) and an Indian-Ozzie, Ken. Whilst the rest of their group entered, they hung outside, and t soon became apparent why. Between 1 and 8am, entrance is only by showing a entry card to the hotel (hostel is a floor in the hotel) guard, and ID so that he can check that you are supposed to be there. And Ken didn’t have his. And to make matters worse, he hadn’t on the previous night, and the (same) guard was now seriously p1ssed off wth him, and refusing entry without an entrance card, and checking dates and passports with great care to ensure that we didn’t manage to smuggle him in.

We grabbed a beer from the kiosk across the road whilst pondering the next move. Several stunningly intelligent ideas were considered (storming the guard, breaking into the guard’s car – don’t ask - somebody going in and attaching a card to a rock and throwing it down, somebody going to Kens room to hunt through all of his stuff to find the card, waiting all together until 8am, or simply letting Ken rot outside alone, and they were amongst the most rational plans) before action occurred. And so it was that we lifted Ken onto the parapet above the entrance for him to try and break into the first floor. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to some at the time. Unfortunately the first floor was locked, so he obviously started climbing up the balconies to the second floor, which was also locked. At approximately this point, the flaws in the plan were discovered, and not helped by the hostel being on the tenth floor, the plan was sadly abandoned… A while later, a couple of us finally got inside to go look for some help or his card, and after with his passport and surprisingly easy persuasion of the sleeping duty girl, got a note for the guard and we all trooped in.

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Ways to get into Moscows Travellers Guest House at night without an entry card. #3. Scale the building

As is the way with hostels, there is always a large turnover of people, and following night, a different crowd – baring the ever present Ken – headed out. It was a fairly big group (11 or 12) of about 9 different nationalities, only a single female, and with only 1 person knowing where we were going (Propaganda, from the guide book, and a place with notoriously harsh ‘face control’ – a more Russian phenomenon where instead of refusing entry due to jeans or trainers, for example, if they just didn’t like your face, you stood no chance) but not exactly where it was. As is the way with large groups, trouble occurred straight away when the rest of us somehow managed to loose the Dutch guy with the guide book on the way to the Metro.

We somehow all regrouped a good 20-30mins later, and got the metro without incident. After 3 or 4 wrong turns and much backtracking, we even managed to find Propaganda. Which of course was the same place as we had gone the previous night, but whose name I hadn’t known. If i had, would have got there no trouble. It was later than the previous night, and face control and queuing was much more in evidence (the previous night and with the place mostly empty, we had seen 2 darker skinned – possibly Kazakh – refused entry, despite their valiant attempts at pretending to be Italian and Spanish tourists) we weren’t in overly high hopes. A not very mixed group of 12, including a couple of darker skinned people (ken being one) and 3 or 4 (again, including ken. Poor guy had been having a hard time!) who had been refused entry to a couple of other places a couple of nights before, but in a 2 cases had even got into the same places a night previously. It really does seem to be all about luck. We split into 3 strategically smaller groups, with the most likely to be stopped going first, and utterly astonishingly, all of us made it in without incident.

With not many of us in dancing mood, the majority hung around the bar or people watched from the balcony for a while, watching the attempts of an Irishman and East German in picking up some Russian girls. Both even got numbers, although neither spoke English (or German in the Germans case)… We stopped for a coffee and chill out in a bar next door before heading home in the daylight again. All 12 of us walked to the side of the road to hail some cars home and it was really funny to watch a road going from empty to about 10 cars screaming up to us from all angles desperate to take us home. We disappointed all but 3, and got home for less than the previous night. Amazingly despite Ken’s presence (he even had his card, but had ceremonially tore it up in the last bar, as he seemed to enjoy not getting in easily) the doorman – a different one – let us all in after only seeing the first persons card. It wasn’t quite as easy as that though, as both myself and the Irish guy Jonathan discovered that our rooms were locked (mine from the inside with the key left in the lock so my night key didn’t work) and we couldn’t get in. After knocking a bit, we gave in. We discovered the following morning that the Danish guy Jacob had cunningly left the key in my door in the name of security, whilst Jonathans room had been empty all night by people who had taken both keys with them. There was a spare floor space in one room which Jonathan took, whilst I borrowed a top mattress (thin one on top of the main one) and a blanket and went and slept on the balcony in the correct position to take in the early morning Moscow smog, traffic and railway noises. I had a great nights sleep, although on wakng discovered that in keeping up with my journey’s battle with mother nature, I had been shat on by 2 (or 1 very messy) birds…

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Relaxing in bar after second night out at Propaganda

Moscow is an interesting city. Somewhere with the very rich and very poor, but not all that much in between. A large number of cars avoided problems of speeding and traffic rules by simply not having number plates, whilst every car is either a lada or a brand new BMW/Mercedes with blacked out windows. The occassonal lada with blackened windows adding variety. It’s also a place which can get very frustrating. I spend 4 days trying to contact a CSer, Nadi, I had been talking to and who had said she would love to spend some time showing me some of the more hidden parts of the city, but I never got through. I alternately got a fax, phone ringing off the hook or some message in Russain, and on the one occasion somebody did pick up, they either spoke no English or couldn’t hear me and hung up anyway. I also spent (wasted) an entire day looking for (a) my Visa company in order to get an intoduction letter for use in UVIR registrations down the line - who after much hunting, I discovered are based in an address which was demolished 5 years ago and (b) the offices that was supposed to have arranged my railway tickets (without commission). I never found any of their 3 offices to which I had the choice of visiting, and when I finally did find a 4th, they had no record of me and didn’t even sell internal rail tickets from that office!

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Entrance to the Kremlin
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Church on the fringes of Red Square

When I finally did sort some tickets for myself at the Railways office the following day, It was too close to departure for me to have any options at all, proving that I had been correct to try and sport tickets beforehand. My clever itinerary plan for the next few days was blown out of the water, with not a single night train to Kazan (baring an 2am arrival), or connection from there available within the time frame I required, and also no space on either of the direct trains - or Kirov connection - to get to Chelyabinsk. So with no other useful option, I got a ticket to (Y)Ekaterinburg, on the basis that it was East, the only Eastbound train with any space left on it and relatively close to Chel, so that I should be able to figure my onward movement from there. And even that train left over 12 hours earlier than I had planned, meaning I had to ditch my day trip to Sergi Posad, a town 90mns outside Moscow of which I had heard great things and been looking forward to seeing. On the plus point, my Platskartny ticket was absurdly cheap (900 roubles, or about 18gbp) for the 28 hour journey, and I discovered that some people in the hostel who were traveling Kupe on the same train to Ekat, had paid over 3000 roubles!

And so onto a train and in to Asia.

Me at St. ..s Night.JPG

Posted by Gelli 00:13 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

St. Petersburg, or whatever the heck it's called this month!

St. Petersburg (санкт-петербчрг)

Add somehow, after 9weeks of wandering and ever changing plans, I made it to St. Petersburg bang on schedule. Managed to get on to the metro and to the hostel without much incident (although obviously, I went the wrong way out of the station to begin with – following their instructions – so walked an extra couple of KM) although almost had an altercation with a street cleaner. On Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main street, in the early morning (7am-sh) they go around cleaning the streets and pavements of the excesses of the prevous day and night. The Footpaths are qute wde, so they drve large tankers up and down the pavement at full tlt, sprayng vast amounts of water out of the front, and stopping for nobody. The unsuspecting or those not payng attention get first utterly drenched, and then run over a few seconds later if that hasn’t woken them up…

Horse statue.JPG

I spent 5 full days in St. Pete’s (4 nights) and took n all the major sghts and attractons, as well as suffering horribly from mosquitoes (and bed bugs) for the first couple of nights. It had been their 300th Anniversary only last year, and as such, much of the city had been cleaned up and was pristine-ish. Got my visa registered and my tickets to Moscow without incident, and took in the Kazan cathedral (slightly odd looking to my mind), St. Isaacs cathedral with it’s huge dome (which i climbed for the views), the amazing Our Savour on the Blood Cathedral - which is not entirely unlke St. Basil’s n Moscow, but to my mnd even prettier and more ornate – Alexandrovsky Park, St. Peter and Paul Fortress (where i caught some international beach volleyball), Tomb of the unknown solder (of which I think there is one in each city) and the park/reserve complex of Krestovskiy and Yelagin Islands and Kamenny Ostroy amongst others

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Kazan cathedral, Our Savour on the Blood Cathedral and St. Peter and Paul Fortress

Took a day trip by Hydrofoil – those things really move, especially in the city areas where clearance under the centres of the bridges is barely a metre, and room for error slim - out to the amazing Petrodvorets (Peterhof) Palace, the former Summer Palace residence of the Tsars, with wonderful gardens, hundreds of fountains and so many Gilded gold statues as to be scary, although they didn’t really look out of place.
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Petrodvorets (Peterhof) Palace

Also spent almost a full day wandering around the Admiralty square near the hostel and into the Hermtage museum – one of the worlds premer art galleres wth over 3 mllon works of art and artifacts, and with the bonus of beng housed n the former wnter palace, wth all the splendour of the buldng itself and state rooms as an added extra.

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The Hermitage Gallery

St. Petersburg is a lovely city, but in no way Russan. It calls itself the Vence of the North, but to my mind is much more similar in style to Wien or Praha, but wth the addition of canals, Islands and the River Neva. The city was mostly desgned and bult by European architechts – Italians and Dutch amongst others – as opposed to Russians. T also had the bonus of when the Capital was returned to Moscow in 1917, the communists wanted to ensure that Moscow was the main city, and with St. Petersburgs connections to the Royal history etc plus a lucky location on such wet land (lack of foundations to bear the weight) meant that it was ignored to a degree whilst construction focused on Moscow and other cities. Which actually worked out really well for St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as it then was) in that the central areas were virtually completely spared from the communist experiments in concrete which blight so many other centres. And whilst admittedly have been here a few times before, after spending a couple of months traveling in Central/SE Europe and years going to cites such as Praha, Wien and Budapest, to me St. Petersburg didn’t really have that ‘wow’ factor for me this time which I thought kind of odd. That’s not to say I didn’t really enjoy it, but rather I think I was probably about ready for a change of styles and concepts.

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If it's the Venice of the North, there kind of has to be canals

One evening I met up with a friendly CSer, Lena (soon to be a staggeringly successful independent Film director if all goes to plan) and took a wander around and got some extremely interesting local perspective and thoughts, and on another night went out with a few people from the hostel and sat by the river until the ‘excitement’ of the bridges coming up. St. Petersburg is a working port, and in order to allow ships and larger boats to pass, ALL of the cities bridges rise between 1.30-2am and 5 – 5.30am (just make sure you aren’t caught on the wrong side of a bridge, or you just have to wait). It makes an odd spectacle as huge crowds gather to watch something which in fairness is about as exciting as bridges risng ever can be, but also the fact that there are normally 20-30 boats waiting at each bridge for it to rise, but 95% of them are actually low enough that they could pass anyway, even with the bridges down…

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Lee, Karen, Elan and Anya in a floating bar on the Neva waiting for the bridges to rise at 2am. And then they did

The most striking thing for me about St. Petersburg wasn’t even to do with the cty or its architecture, but rather about the people. It’s not specific to St. Petersburg at all – it occurs all across Russia – and isn’t even a new phenomenon to me, but I had forgotten about it. Street drinking is huge in Russia. It’s not exactly unknown anywhere in Europe to see people out drinking cans/bottles of beer, but it is mainly obvious alcoholics and a Fri & Sat evening issue amongst younger people. In Russia, it happens at all hours of the day and night, and covers young and old, male and female, rich and poor alike, and whilst I have been known to enjoy a beer on occasions, the whole idea quickly changed from one of possibility, tone of depression. For some reason I just found it depressing to see so many people walking around drinking, especially during the daytimes.

I must be getting old.

St. Saviour Church 5.JPG

Saw this and thought of a certain TP member... :)
Just for C..burg....JPG

Posted by Gelli 00:11 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Brief Baltic notes

Vilnius to St. Petersburg via Latvia and Estonia

Just to make you all really happy that you don’t have to read through another hugely long page, thought i‘d just summarise the week:

• My body doesn't like me
• Panevezys
• Olegs Border crossing
• Mosquitoes
• Friendly fun Franks
• Gross stupidity at the exchange bureau
• Frank
• 4th July Pizza
• The Saffer
• Legs
• Laundry woman
• Bournemouth Pole
• Mozzies
• Fins, Castles and Medieval clothing
• Casinos. Lots and lots of casinos
• No through Road
• Feer Kroooooni!!
• Deklararista
• Frigging Mozzies
• 90 mins early
• Plus lions loosing, London getting the vote and then, tragically, if not unexpectedly, getting hit on the Tubes and Buses.

See, i knew i could write a short entry if needed.

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Riga, Church and Typical Alleyway and back street in the Old Town

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Tallinn Old Town Hall and Main Square, Gateway to Old City, and Walls from inside with street traders

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Tallinn Castle District - The Castle, Cathedral and View from the walls

Posted by Gelli 15:39 Comments (0)

Vilnius feat. the adventures of Oleg, and a female penguin

After a couple of days, i was able to leave Warszawa again, although unfortunately it required having to get up waaay too early to get the train (night tran cancelled, bus ticket office closed the previous evening and leaving at short notce gave me only one option, the only train – with change – of the day). I was so early that I actually even broke my own vow of avoidng western fast food places n order to get a McDonalds breakfast/coffee to set me up for the 10 hour journey.

Oddly, my abiding mental associaton with Warszawa is squeeling tires. There is always the sounds of long skids and squeeling tires (although strangely, never a bang indcating that it hadn’t quite worked) for whch i can’t qute account, but to me seems to just mean “Warsaw”.

Orginally I had planned to stop in Kaunas for a night or two and then Vlnus for 2 on my way North. Unfortunately that idea overlooked one slght issue. I had forgotten just how much I love Vilnus. For assorted reasons I had regrettably dropped Kaunas from the plan and headed straight to Vilnus, still intending to stay just the 2 nights (and i even got my onward ticket), but 5 days later i was still there and only left under duress and due to an increasingly desperate lack of time, if i was gong to make St. Petersburg on tme.

Vilnius Cathedral square, currently undergoing restaoration before the cities upcoming anniversary

Due to the short notice of my arrval, i hadn’t managed to sort out any accomodation, free or otherwise, so ended up n a dodgy place near the staton – wth an evil landlady - I found by chance on arrival n the pssng down rain at 6pm and the info place shut (although t had a TV and Brazl were playng Argentna that very night so not all bad…).

Vlnus has a great feel to it – very relaxed and laid back with an old town at least on a par with many of the Central European hghlghts, cheap to live/stay/eat, stll relatively undiscovered n comparison to most smlar ctes, amazingly friendly people and stunning women. What more could you ask for?

Archway to the Old Town, looking out

On the second day i found myself a better (and cheaper) place to stay, and then checked my mails to dscover that as well as a couple of ‘sorries’, I had also received an offer of a freebie through HC. I tried the number and got a fax machine (impersonating fax machines is not my specialty), but I replied to the mail and left my # anyway, and soon enough received a msg from Vaida, and although i turned down her offer a floor space – partly because I had already pad for the night and partly because she already had a guest – we agreed to meet in the afternoon to take a bit of a tour.

Vaida, a cultural journalist for Lithuanian TV, is definitely one of the most amazing people i have been lucky enough to meet on my trip so far, and we spent a large chunk of the days I was there just walking (and looking for an outdoor shop – my rucksack was fecked and n need of replacement), talking or drinking and bascally enjoyng Vilnus. I got introduced to the Oleg story. Oleg is an Amercan with a Lthuanan father who had come back for summer, and whom a week or so previously Vaida had randomly met and invited to accompany her to HC Summer camp n Riga. He seems to have misled her a little, as she only found out at the border that he was actually only 17, and as such she was illegally aiding a minor to flee the country. Then at camp, Vaida had njured herself the frst nght and had been forced to leave on day 2 leaving Oleg to his own devices, where he somehow ended up n a mental hospital after beng pcked up drunk (and under age), appearing n a Latvian TV show as a warning about the dangers/temptations effecting todays youth, and fnally beng bribed out after 3 days and htching back to Lithuania penniless.


That evening we also met up with another HCer, Juste, who had also subsequently offered me somewhere to stay, and then later on with an Englsh couple from CS, Cas (on placement n Vlnus by, i think, the Royal Academy of Arts) and Simon, who had been unable to have guests, but were more than happy to meet up and show me around that evening. Between them, they (relatively easily) convinced me i should stay one more day, and to stick around for a big HC meet happening that weekend, whilst Juste was more than happy to put me up. The night moved on in its own way as it does – getting scarily serious and deep at one point later on – through different establishments and with people drifting off, before Vaida and I ended up in a pizza place around 4am, notable manly for the fact it was patrolled by serious looking armed guards, whch is a rare occurrence at Pizza hut and non existent in Mario‘s…

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Juste, Vaida, Cas and Simon

The following day, after checking out I grabbed breakfast wth Vaida, where also met Oleg himself, and her other guest, a Venezuelan named Raymond (neither of whom could really understand my accent. Bah!), before meeting up with Juste and heading to her place. That afternoon, with the weather good, Juste and I took a trip out to Trakai, about 30km away. Trakai was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century, and today conssts of a knd of strung out vllage on a peninsula into a large lake, with a large castle on an island in the middle connected by footbridge. It s a great place to just relax and take things easy, which is precisely what we did.

That evening we wandered back to the city and to a HC meetup includng a visitng Kiwi, Spaniard, a couple of Fins and Latvians (one of the Latvians being Maria, the girl who had bribed Oleg out of the looney-asylum), Raymond and Oleg and a good 15+ locals whch turned into a great evening. Juste left early (I wonder if i can find my way home?) not feeling well and down after following the worrying trend of failing an exam within a day or so my showing up. As others all started to drift off, a remaining core of about 7 wandered off to pay our respects to Frank Zappa, who’s statue adorns a small public garden near a church [scarily, 5 of the other hadn’t even heard of Frank before. If you think that’s bad, it gets worse] and then down to a small after party place. It was set up in a really interestng semi basement type of place which looked more like somebodies lounge than a bar or club, although with a few DJs (apparently really bg names n the national scene, but dsgracefully i‘m not as up to date on my Lithuanian DJs as I should be) and so laid back that 2 of our party ended up working behind the bar. And yes, somehow i did find my way back through the concrete suburbs alone as by that time, the trolleybuses were working again, although scarily managed the impressve trck of walkng rght through the central government parliament complex – I only discovered what it was a couple of days later – without even seeing a guard, let alone beng stopped.

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Churches in Vilnius

The following day, I again failed to leave, instead gettng conned into dong something so wrong and dangerous that I should have known better. I played football. Another HCer, Gorcha, had invited a load of us to join him and some friends n a park to play football, and somehow i had been talked into it. In the end, i was the only one stupd enough to join in, as we played aganst some random strangers. Great fun, 3 hours and we even won, but despite my stretching, being the most strenuous exercise I had done in probably 2 years, knew i was gong to hurt the following day.

I was quite right. I did. In many places. And I continued to hurt for the subsequent 5 days…

After a quick shower back at Gorcha’s, we rejoned the girls and a couple of others in town (notible manly for Vaida not being overly impressed by my alternately callng her poncho a carpet and rug, my amusement at peoples constant use of the phrase ‘much more better’ and for Juste getting a serous attack of hiccups near the end, which lasted well after we had got home and gone to bed). But as with the Oleg and other stores i had heard in the previous days and from past hosts, that simple thing once again showed what an amazing and powerful thing HC/CS is. Gorcha’s non Englsh speaking parents didn’t bat an eyelid when he brought back a random sweaty foreigner (who wasn’t even his guest at the moment, as Ilona – one of the Latvans - was with the girls elsewhere) to have a shower and instead showed amazing hospitality and went out of their way to force as much food/drink into me as possible. I know many parents who wouldn’t do that to their kids frends who they had known for years, let alone random foreigners who they didn’t even know exist before they walked through the door! Another example s that Juste had been converted to a vegetarian (and in turn, her mother), just because of somebody she had met once through HC. And to me, that’s just scary.

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Is it a carpet or a rug? Answers on a postcard...

In fact, the sheer hospitalty (yes, I know that’s what the H stands for) can be one of the clubs/ideas biggest problems – all of the parents etc I had met were so amazingly accomodating and friendly that they sometimes went too far to try and please or ‘mother’ me. Juste’s mother really did try and force food and drink into me at every opportunity, and i felt really awful at having to refuse, smply because i couldn’t eat any more or in cases, even at all. Some people can force extra food down, smply to be polite. In my case, I just throw up, and prior experience has taught me that that is much worse and causes sgnfcantly more problems/embarrassment all around than breechng rules of polteness and etiquete and refusing food to begin with.

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Very dodgy pic of Main Street in Vilnius Old Town

For the final day, I didn’t leave. Partly i wanted to keep enjoyng Vilnius and the company of so many great people, Juste and Vaida chief amongst them – I really hope can meet up with them again somewhere on our 3 respective travels, as they are 2 amazing people - and partly because my body smply would not let me. Parts of my body which I didn’t know I had (and bones I hadn’t even previously broken) hurt like heck, together with the more expected places for aches and pains. The day was spent just relaxing and wandering around Vilnius trying to loosen up and just looking. Later on met up with Vaida in a great lttle tea house and talked for a while. All was good – she had discovered that she had been given support by her parents and boss to leave work for 4 months to go on a Journalism course in Denmark as the sole Lithuanian representitve, and also go to the main HC summer camp in France. Juste joined us a while later on and had more good news as she had got a perfect 100% on her English exam (more than the sum total of some years marks for me…) and was going to get a trip to India in autumn to visit relatives. A final trip to Bix bar by the 3 of us that evening uncovered something staggering, or to me at any rate. Do you remember earlier that I said that most of the group at the Zappa statue had never heard of him, and things got worse? It was here. The TVs were showing edited versons of the Live 8 concerts, and i was utterly staggered to learn that not only had neither of them ever heard of the Boomtown Rats, but nether had heard of Midge Ure, Bob Geldoff and most scarily, Band Aid/Live Aid. I know that it was 20 years ago, but i was stunned that neither had ever heard of it (even though it would have been n Soviet times), let alone knew anything about it. And the only thing scarier I had come across in Vilnius was the discovery that HC can turn members mothers into Vegetarians…

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Typical cobbled back street in Vilnius

Posted by Gelli 15:38 Archived in Lithuania Comments (1)

Vrats-vrov (or some such), Poznan and Warszawa 2

(((Again, Keyboard problems with the letter "I" are not my fault!!)))

After realisng that I was gong to have to drop the Ukrane completely due to lack of tme,and that t wasn’t worth the effort to try and go to Lviv for a couple of days, decded to head West nstead, and have a look at another couple of cities i had long been tryng to fnd a few hours at least to stop off n nstead of always passng through, namely Wroclaw (pronounced something a bit like Vrats-vrov) and Poznan.

It was Wroclaw frst and I can confrm that t is a lovely cty, and bzarrely untouched / touristed (except a handful of Germans, vstng the place they once called Breslau) when you consider the fuss made about Krakow. If anything, i thnk its even nicer. The central square is a buzz wth street cafes and surrounded by wonderfully multi couloured Flemish style buildings, whch really worked well. The river Odra (also known as Oder) has been dverted several tmes over the centures, meanng that there are several tributaries of the rver (7 streams), and a handful of small islands wthn the city whch were great to walk around, and make the central area surprisingly large A large number of churches were dotted across the whole city (virtually all of whch had weddings gong on as t was the last weekend n a month lucky for weddings – I forget specifics, but n Poland t seems to be lucky to marry on months wth a certain letter in it, which June had and July at least, didnt), but n almost Bucharest style, they were dotted at random and interspersed amongst houses and other modern concrete structures etc. But the big difference in that sense was that none ever looked out of place.

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My great host in Wroclaw, Ala and her friend Ivana

I was stayng wth Ala (and her amazingly friendly mother), a friendly CSer who i‘d sent a speculatve message to a couple of days previously and had been happy to host me. Together with her frend Ivana, I was given the full tour of the cty and resolved there and then to come back at a later date f at all possble and spend some more tme in the city. After consuming a fantastc soup and the frst of ahuge quantity of strawberries i was to consume n the the following few days (it seems that n summer, strawberries are drt cheap n Poland, so everybody buys a kilo or 2 a day and uses them for everything possible – mlk shake, juce, jam, ce cream, sauces, cake/pie filling, and of course on there own. I ate more strawberries n 3 days than I thnk I’d even seen in the previous 10 years!) we headed out to the new Oder rver in the north of the cty to meet up with a load of their friends, and sit by the rver havng a BBQ (read: being eaten by Mozzies) where I showed off my near flawless Polish (ahem), and then retired to the City centre to have a drink sttng on a knd of brick pontoon in the mddle of another of the streams.

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Barbequeing by the Odra river, Wroclaw

The following day, and on the recommendation of some people the previous night we took a trp to the Jewsh cemetery. A strange place, manly consisting of graves of German Jews from the pre war Breslau days. Many of the tombs were of impressive scale, although large numbers were overgrown or damaged (storm, vandal or both), whch seemed a bit sad, as the cty suffered considerably durng the war due to ts large Jewsh communities.

After lunch with Ala’s mother, Aunt and Uncle, we were invted by the aunt/uncle to visit their new house n the country, nearing completion after 8 years of construction (in Wroclaw, huge numbers of buldngs were covered in scaffolding, but lttle work seemed to be being done. Scaffold supplier n Wroclaw can be added to concrete suppler n Bucharest, VW Golf importer n Bosnia and ‘arm doctor’ in Croatia, as unexpectedly lucrative careers…). When completed, t wll be a lovely place to live/retire, n the woods away from the cty, but close enough to not be rmote. The vllage tself s odd because lots of people had seemingly bough plots ofland, but there had been no planning to the construction, leadng to a rght htch potch of shapes, sizes and styles of house. The evenings entertainments didnt go qute to plan, as the famous (and who’s name i‘ve forgotten – Al di something?) Amercan Jazz Guitarist and his international support group who were supposed to be playng n the main square of Wroclaw were a good 3 hours late arriving….

The following day I headed for Poznan. Another place i had been through but never had chance to stop off in and even though I could only manage a few hours on this occasson, I couldn’t turn down the chance. And besides, another really friendly CSer, Ula, had responded to another speculatve message and invted me to vist, and even though i was unfortunately unable to stay the night, she was happy to meet up and play tour gude for a few hours.

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Poznan Town Hall

Whilst I didnt think (i know, i know) it was quite as attractve as Wroclaw, Poznan is nevertheless a lovely cty and well worth exploring for a day or so. Despte its larger population, the centre is more compact and the central square is smaller, but almost as attractve and desgned usng the same style of multi-coloured Flemsh buldngs and grid style of streets around it. Spent a happy few hours wandering around with Ula, her housemate Ania (who in the mddle of a scary trend here had both just failed their Englsh oral exams) and a Venezuelan-Pole friend Pamela who was visiting from Warszawa.

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The guiding girls - Ula, Ania and Pamela who's name i have forgotten, in Poznan

I headed back to Warszawa in the late afternoon, although in typical style, a combinaton of delays and problems meant I was later arriving than i should have been. Was met by Andrzej and a couple of other guests he had – Dominika, a girl from Lublin who i already knew online and her Kiwi friend Jay (they originally met in Croydon, poor people) and spent a couple of happy hours in a cellar bar in the old town (which, oddly and flying n the face of logic, is cheaper than places further out of the central core).

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Pictures from Warszawa from my two visits combined - The centre, the view across the semi-surreal University Library roof gardens, the Statue of King Zygmunt Waza at the entrance to the Old Town, The Theatre and satue in the Park, Dominkia and Jay and group photo with Andrrej, Me, Dominika and Jay

I’m being followed. That was an inescapable conclusion I had reached. Often felt lke I’m beng watched or followed – paranoia is a wonderful thing – but n ths case i knew it was true. In the week or so since i had last been n Warszawa, the cty had been flooded wth cows, in huge numbers, and now seemingly on the way to world dominaton.

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Selection from the numerous cows in Warszawa who mysteriously appeared in the week I was away, seemingly intent on following me or world domination. I'm not entirely sure which yet.

Posted by Gelli 15:38 Archived in Poland Comments (2)

Warszawa strike 1, and Krakow Owiecim-Brzezinka

With the exception of a gut which really didn’t like me (mine) and a few hours transit through Slovakia - the only visit to the country on this trip - the night journey from Budapest to Warszawa was uneventful. Despite my excursion to Warszawa and the fact that Andrzej should be receiving my cards – reliably informed that they would arrive before midday – he was unable to host me for another week or so, so on arrival went and checked in to my second Nathan’s Villa (after Sighisoara) on the trip. In between dashes to the toilet spent a few hours wandering aimlessly around the city waiting for news which never came. With no way of tracking the package except phoning the UK who agreed that t should have been delivered (and not managing to get an online tracking number even then, *sigh*) there was nothing that could be done. Poor Andrzej sat at home all day until 5.30 (yes, that is after midday), before calling it quits and arranging to meet me in town.

We had a wander through the new Old Town, a trip around the University library (the most bizarre place, including landscaped gardens on the roof), the old squares, tomb of the unknown soldier – which barely a couple of months before had been filled with 500,000 or so mourners after the death of the Pope – parliament and the Park complex whose name never remember, but which includes a lake, some theatres and watched a slightly surreal fight on the lake stage between 2 peacocks, who’s every move was greated by rapturous nose from the assembled other peacocks watching.

The following day whilst Andrzej kept vigil at home, took advantage of the rapidly improving weather to undertake my usual wander at random whilst also keeping n close contact with the wishes of my gut. Finally, that afternoon with money beginning to run low and hope even lower, good news emerged, and around 4pm, I met Andrzej at the station where he passed me not one, but two packages (slightly unexpected) of cards. He had discovered that the problem was that his street number had been left off the address, and hence the company had had to try and search phone books etc looking for a number. I don’t want to apportion blame, but Rowan seems to have fucked up. So, reunited with cards and a source of funds (which astonishingly actually worked as well), i was free. I groveled in thanks to Andrzej for wasting 2 days sitting at home, retuned and grabbed my stuff and headed straight to Krakow.

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Krakow main square
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Krakow city gate on Northern edge

Krakow has long been raved about, but its one of those places i‘d somehow never managed to see properly – i‘ve probably passed through it or changed trains there a dozen times, but never managed more than a few hours there to quickly look around – and was keen to make amends. After an amazing inability to move the following morning, I took a wander around town with a Canadian guy, Bob, who soon discovered had also spent a few days with the Swindon guys John and Farid from Bran/Brasov, I think in Budapest and the same hostel at around the same time as Melanie and Kate were meeting. Dodging the thunder clouds again, we took in the Jewish quarter, Vistula river, Wawel castle, some pierogi and the main square with the fabulously ornate (and very colourful, with its blue ceilings etc) Maracki church, whilst also wondering about the vast number of pope-mobile style golf carts used to transport tourists around the centre [‘follow that pope-mobile!’, anybody? – Admittedly that made more sense when I was actually there]
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Follow that Pope mobile!

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Wawel castle

The following day, and after 40days and nights, it was time to do something serious, so I took a trip out to Oswiecim-Brzezinka, a strange little town of a combination of lovely honeysuckle houses and harsh concrete tower blocks, but of much more relevance for its role under it’s German name, Auschwitz. I have been to concentration camp sites before, but Auschwitz was home to arguably the most horrific camp in human history, and some of the most cruel and largest ‘genocide experiments’ ever, and was a trip I had to make.
So much has been written about the camp that the history is already know in excruciating details, so i won't cover that here.

Although we visited separately, and I know its possibly disrespectful to do such a thing about such a serous place, but Bob’s account of the camp is extremely good and virtually identical to what I would write, so i have shamelessly plaigerised it using Copy and Paste. Bob - i hope you don’t mind too badly…

Bob Routhier:

Auchwitz has to be seen to be believed. I took a lot of pictures while I was there and I've since had them developed, but I don't think they can quite capture the feeling of the place. The odd thing is is that when I was there, walking through the barracks where the jews were held as prisoners and up and down the streets and pathways where many were murdered and beaten, I didn't feel as I felt I should. I was not sad, I was not overly moved. I was a nice
sunny day with a cool breeze and I was quite comfortable walking around. What I did feel was respect for the people who had suffered there and I was upset when I saw some high school kids running around and laughing in a place that I thought deserved a little more respect. I remember seeing the furnaces in Auchwitz where the cremations took place and there was a group of jewish high school kids who were passing through many of which broke down in tears at the sight of them. I just stood in the background and watched them. I tried to feel some of what they felt, but I couldn't.

In about half of the barracks there were exhibits on various aspects of the camps and nazism. One of the exhibits was for the material evidence of the crimes and was based on the plundered items that the nazis had left behind when abandoning the camp. What I saw was only a small percentage of what had been stolen from the jews and other prisoners. There was an entire room filled with suitcases that had been marked with the names of the owners. Another room was filled completely with shoes. Probably the most disturbing was a room
completely filled with human hair. The nazis had kept it with the intention of making textiles out of it.

I left Auchwitz and headed to the neighboring camp of Birkenau. Birkenau had been called Auchwitz II when it was built and was much, much bigger than Auchwitz. It lacks the exhibits that Auchwitz has but makes up for it in sheer size. When you enter the grounds of Birkenau you walk along a set of train tracks and through a large gatehouse. When I passed through the gatehouse I was immediately shocked by the size of the camp. The train tracks continue all the
way to the back of the camp and it took me ten minutes to walk to the end of them. All along the way were roads leading off from the main track and into rows and rows of barracks. To walk the circumference of the camp would probably take well over an hour. At the back of the camp are the furnaces where the nazis cremated the bodies of the dead prisoners. I think there were five crematoriums which each could cremate about 1000 bodies a day. They are in
ruins now as the nazis destroyed them before abandoning camp. I read a placard in one of the Auchwitz exhibits that said of all the jews presented for inspection only about 25% were taken to work. The rest; women, children, elderly and infirm were taken immediately to be gassed. In order to keep them calm and orderly they were assured that there would be jobs for them and that they first had to be disinfected to be sure that they would be clean. After the
gassing, the bodies were shipped straight to the crematoriums to be disposed of. It was an assembly line of death. Again, to emphasize the size of the camp, I had about fifteen minutes to get back to the front gate and catch my bus into town. Walking fast, I still managed to miss the bus.

With Many thanks to Bob!

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Oswiecim (Auschwitz) main entrance and old barracks which housed Prisoners in the original camp

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Oswiecim-Brzezinka (Auschwitz-Birkenau), main entrance with the railway unloading tracks, Inside a typical barrack cell, the ruins of some of the camp showing it's vast scale and the remains of one of the gas chambers where untold hundreds of thousands were murdered

After the somber experiences of the previous day, I did the other required day trip from Krakow and took a minibus trip out to the world famous Weliczka Salt mines. Huge in scale, over 300metres deep and 700 years old, and on the UNESCO world heritage list, expected something really special. And whilst it wasn’t exactly a let down or wasted trip, it didn’t quite live up to its billing. After decending 380odd steps, we wandered – or rather, were rushed - deeper into the mine, past at least 3 churches/chapels (one hugely impressive), some very tacky but bizarre tourist shows (mechanised characters and lights etc, but never really actually having any reason whatsoever) and endless corridors and staircases of salt – laughably, 98% of the salt sold in the gift shops etc isn’t from the mine, or even the same area, but rather is imported in from elsewhere. No idea where, but guessing it was made in Taiwan – and then the museum. The most notable place was a huge cavern which now was used as a 200m underground restaurant and bar, and even held wedding receptions, but what found most facinating was that it was originally built as a basketball court!

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Wieliczka Salt mine entrance Staircase (386 steps is a long way down and only goes to level 2 out of 7), the Salt Cathedral and Underground restaurant, originally a basketball court.

Krakow itself is undoubtedly beautiful and worth a trip, and at the moment as t has yet to be really discovered by the budget airline stag/hen do network is still untouristed enough to be enjoyable. It is relatively cheap to western Europeans, and has a great array of literally hundreds of underground bars and caverns to relax in later on, which are really cool, and amazingly untouched by the war, so without any concrete spoilers in the centre. But to be honest, for the amount of fuss made about it, I thought it overrated, especially considering the lack of tourist profile of any other Polish cites, some of which are some other equally beautiful and two of which I am about to visit.

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Krakow Cathedral

Posted by Gelli 15:36 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

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