A Travellerspoint blog

Helsinki & Stockholm

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9-11 July 2009: Stockholm

The weather was quite wet on some days with a maximum temperature of about 18oC. We took time to explore parts of the town on foot or on bikes, occasionally getting pretty wet! Lloyd and Lynda visited the Nobel museum which was just 3 minutes walk away. On Thursday evening we had a wonderful dinner with Lloyd’s friends Tomas and Petra. On Friday we took a steam boat to Mariefred, which was a 3 hours journey up river. Hils and Lloyd hired bikes (they only had 2!) and and rode through the country for a few hours. Lynda wandered around the pretty town and looked at Gripsholm Castle. See http://www.mariefred.info

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5-8 July 2009: Stockholm

Catching the fast train to the city from the airport, the ticket inspector, looking at the tickets we presented, said "I can’t even begin to tell you how many mistakes you made when buying your tickets". He took us to the ticket office at central station and they gave me a new tickets plus a refund of about AU $100. Not bad service.

The hostel is in the old town (Gamla Stan) on its own island. It is quite lovely (if a bit touristy) and there are no cars (except around the edges). Cobbled streets, cream and green and pink and terracotta coloured old buildings, very narrow lane ways. Hostel is in a convenient position – not too bad. Beds are nice and the showers hot and there is good broadband. What more could you want?

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Lloyd commutes out to his meetings at Kista each day. Lynda and Hilary have been exploring town on trains, on foot, by bike and even sea kayaks around the archipelago. The weather has been a bit grey and rainy – we have coped.

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5 July 2009: Helsinki – we’re not in Russia now.....

After sitting around on the border with Finland for what seemed to be hours, we arrived in Helsinki at 10pm. We wandered around and found our “hostel” (which turned out to be someone’s flat, but that was OK). Got to bed at midnight – it was still light.

Got to the station on Sunday at about 9am and shoved all of our packs into a locker and wandered around town. Everything was neat and clean and orderly (and damn expensive!) – we were not in Russia now...... Went to the main square and visited the Orthordox chruch (Upensky Cathedral) where a service was being held – it was lovely inside and the choir were quite amazing. Took the ferry to Suomenlinna (see Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suomenlinna), came back and looked at the market by the harbour. Gobbled a litre of really good strawberries. By then it was time to catch the bus to the airport.

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For the full photo gallery for Finland visit http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Finland/

Posted by hazelnutty 14:00 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Goodbye to "Rossiya"

Written on the train to Helsinki

Russian impressions, starting with the not-so-great stuff, but quickly getting to the wonderful bits. We're feeling like we'd like to know much more, but this is just our experience and what we saw .....

Terrible poverty, desperate need for welfare for people who are old or ill. Women sitting with a little stool, selling three small bunches of dill, or two lettuces. An old fella trying to sell some drill bits.

Environmental degradation. Dead and falling down factories, twisted piles of rusting metal, vast amounts of concrete. Chimneys billowing smoke. Over-logging.

Piles of rubbish outside villages, beside the railway and in pretty forest clearings. In fact all over the whole place.

Toilets that you were extremely excited to find, but which were so bad, you decided to hold on for another hour or two. Once described to us as “village style”! .... which of course became our name for toilet.

Obscene wealth in Moscow, Rolls Royces, Mercedes, hugely expensive restaurants and hotels, designer labels.

Not finding anywhere to stay in Khabarovsk. That was pretty grim, as was the subsequent night, spent trying to sleep at the railway station with a very drunk and chatty recently retired soldier with stitches in his shaven head, a television blaring and people coming and going all night..

Roads and footpaths that don't drain after rain – a country of potholes and puddles.

Hilary getting harrassed by men.

The disdainful eyes of younger Russian women.

Men in suits looking like they were doing dodgy deals.

No speed limits – made walking in cities noisy and just a tad too exciting.

Fashion sense – gosh!

A country where the ground is littered with sunflower seed husks and the odd fish head, instead of (no, as well as) other rubbish.

People everywhere – even the most remote stretch of railway had blokes cutting firewood, or fishing, or elderly couples tending little spud patches.

Poplar fluff – seeds – made clouds of “snyek” (snow) in towns and cities. Also made for some embarrassing exchanges of smiles when fluff got in the eyes, up the nose, stuck on teeth!

People standing beside the line in the middle of nowhere – we worked out that they were walking along the line, and got off while the train passed.

Pedestrian traffic signals that indicate how many seconds you have left until you will be dead, if you are not off the road.

Packs of dogs running their own doggie ganglands in many cities.

No bicycles to speak of – we were far too scared to venture onto St Petersburg streets.

Taking photos in the Moscow Metro, because it is SO fantastically beautiful, whilst knowing it was a risky game. Getting caught and paying a 100 ruble fine. Fun. Really!

Knowing what things meant in Cyrillic (Russian script) ... it was amazing how much we could make sense of.

Marshrutka – fantastic little buses that move many millions of people every day.

Doing things with the locals, like visiting the beautiful open spaces of Kolomeneskoye Estate or Peterhof for a peaceful afternoon, going to markets, queuing, shopping, walking, using the Metro and marshrutka.

The golden domes of orthodox churches, that can be seen from miles away. The stunning interiors with frescoes and icons and lots of colour, gold and candles.

People walking everywhere. Most people, every day, long distances.

People growing lots of their own food. Russians are really big on vege and berry growing. Gardens ALWAYS had mostly potatoes, but also onions, garlic, cabbages, lettuces, raspberries and currants, carrots, and in warmer places, tomatoes and cucumbers. Lots of flowers, particularly the most beautiful peonies. Apparently Irkutsk is borderline for apples, though.

Homestays – a great way to meet people and have a chat over a Russian breakfast

Markets – hours of fun choosing fruit, nuts, cakes and the most delicious and cheapest real local food in the Kafe. Wishing we needed a fishing rod or could buy some of the dozens of varieties of tomato seeds on offer.

Getting help from locals when we pointed at something, with a sign in handwritten Cyrillic script. They would tell the shop lady what we wanted. “Spasiba”, we would say. “Pazhaltsa” (please/you're welcome) they would smile.

Berry drinks – made fresh. YUM.

Lots of dumplings, beetroot, cabbage, fish and fish eggs.

Russian parks. Lush and green, big trees and very nice grass.

Lake Baikal – enormous, eerie and very beautiful.

Mountains all around Baikal – high, remote and covered in snow.

Midnight on midsummer night, watching fishermen row out on a perfectly still lake, to put out nets, as the sun dipped below the mountain tops.

Sharing sunflower seeds on the train from Irkutsk – that Andrey described as “Russian bubbly-gum”.

Getting off the train at long stops, and buying food on the platform, homemade stuff from local women. Delicious.

Wildflowers, wilderness, white nights.

Fantastically smooth rail lines.

Hermitage Museum – an absolutely unforgettable gem, with representation of every major art style and artist. Spectacular wings full of gorgeous Italian renaissance, Dutch, French, etc paintings. Whole rooms of Rembrandt, Rubens, Matisse and Picasso. Eastern, ancient and classical pieces, 3 million treasures. 2 days was not enough!

Platskartny – travelling third class and sharing food, card games and conversations with the help of drawings.

Trains, train stations, the view from trains and the places they took us.

People coming to our aid, in too many ways to list, but including – helping us to get train tickets, know how much to pay for things, find places, offering food, drink, umbrellas, inside knowledge and advice.

Giving our contact info to lots of people.... we hope some of them make it to Australia one day.

Having our eyes opened to a completely unfamiliar and often exciting, sometimes sad and always incredibly interesting place.

Posted by hazelnutty 13:39 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

A day in St.Petersburg

When too much culture is barely enough... (By Hilary)


View In Russia on hazelnutty's travel map.

Heading through the city streets, poplar-pollen swirling through the air like snow, we dodged the screeching cars to make our way into the calm, green park. Several women were using straw brooms to sweep the gravel paths...it seems to be a never-ending job.
It fills up by lunchtime, but Dostoevskaya square was still quite empty then- apart from the steady stream of people heading through the gates of the Hermitage Museum at the absurdly grand Winter Palace.

After standing in the queue that stretched across the entire vast courtyard for 2 hours, we were finally allowed in through the big doors and into the gigantic white-marble entrance. A crimson carpet guided us up the stairs of the foyer, painted white but laden with golden statues and huge, sparkling chandeliers, and into a series of equally impressive halls. Built for Catherine the Great, the Hermitage ('Ermitaj' if you're Russian) is composed of rooms from a broad range of eras and styles, even mixtures of different styles in a single room; they showcase the beauty of art, like the pieces on its walls, rather than being strictly correct.

Consisting of exactly 400 rooms and halls over 3 storeys in 2 linked buildings, the Hermitage Museum really needs several full days to cover it (Many, many more if you want to actually stop and appreciate every single thing). Despite its size, only 15% of the 3,000,000-piece Hermitage collection can be on display at once; the other 85% is kept at a storeroom elsewhere.

After gawking at the Palace interiors, 7 stunningly decadent and ornate halls of varying size and purpose, we meandered through 22 rooms of 15th -18th Century French art. We had an inexplicably expensive Museum-cafe lunch, before venturing into another 20-odd rooms of ingenious Italian art, then impressive Spanish, meticulous Dutch and stunning Netherlandish paintings. Time flies when you're having fun, so with only 45 minutes to spare, we raced through the unbelievable 19th - 20th Century French art, before all the lights suddenly went out. That's the Russian way of saying 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Museum will be closing soon. Please make your way to the exit', only instead you get the feeling that they would instead say 'Get out now or we will just throw you out the doors'. We scuttled through endless rooms filled with incredible paintings, tapestries, statues and relics, hoping that we could see them all tomorrow.

(Areas not seen:
Antiquities from Siberia, Central Asia, Antiquity, Caucasus, Ancient Egypt, Earliest Eurasian Art and Culture, Ancient East, European Arms and Armour, European art 19th- 20th Centuries, Byzantine Art, Art of the Far East, Art of Central Asia... maybe next time...)

We headed back to our hostel to get our tickets, via one of the many canals that earn St.Petersburg the name 'Venice of the North', which winds through streets composed entirely of stunning old Russian-style apartment buildings. Tickets in hand, mum and I headed to the theatre, braving the icy Arctic winds. We felt a little under-dressed in our nicest traveller clothes, but we hardly cared; we were seeing Swan Lake in Russia! The Theatre's interior was a stunning marriage of crimson velvet and gold, with a grand tassled burgundy curtain. While we pinched ourselves and took in every detail of the theatre, the orchestra warmed up, before the lights faded...

I don't know if everyone finds ballet that exciting, but having learned classical ballet for 13 years, there are few things I love watching more. I had goosebumps throughout (and maybe a tear or two), and knew how every step felt. Compared to Cechetti Ballet, the Russian style possibly sacrifices technical perfection, for expressiveness and some VERY impressive jetes and pirrouettes!

We shared our 4-person balcony seats with a Russian mother and son (about my age)- he too was sitting on the edge of his seat, shaking his head either in disapproval or complete amazement. Presumably the latter! The Dying Swan was saved, the bad guy sent to a better place, and the cast of 18 swans returned to the stage in a crowd, or flock, of white tulle and feathers for a final bow.

Out on the streets, orchestra members, instruments in hand, slipped through crowds of rowdy (smelly) men and disappeared up staircases to their shabby apartments. It was 11:00, but still broad daylight. Every night, incredible performances, preserving and showcasing Russia's beautiful traditional arts take place, in a very different world to that on the streets outside.

Posted by hazelnutty 00:25 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Russia - Moscow & St Petersburg

Russia Travel Map

Click on this Russia map link to see the detailed route and the main towns. http://www.travellerspoint.com/member_map.cfm?itinid=191181&tripid=191181

For the full photo gallery for Russia visit http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Russia/

4 July 2009: The Hermitage, St Petersburg

One day at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg was not enough. Lynda set off early and got into the queue AN HOUR AND A HALF before opening time. Pretty happy to be in the first 100 or so people. Got slightly saturated and hypothermic after showers and cool breeze, but hung in there, gratefully sharing umbrella space of nice Russian woman. The queue grew spectacularly long (and stayed that way all day).

Lloyd and Hils arrived one minute before opening and we joined the surge towards the TWO tickets offices. There were no lines, just a massive amount of pushing and shoving. No match for Russians, who are damned good at it, we ended up with tickets 45 minutes later, and were probably around the 3000th people to get in, that day. And we got to pay 350 rubles, instead of the 100 that “Adult citizens of the Russian Federation”. Hmph!

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It was just as fantastic and daunting the second time around, got the Audio guides again, and were gobsmacked by the representation of art styles and artists. Hils and I got stuck in the Dutch and Flemish rooms, while Lloyd attempted to do a whirlwind tour. We still missed enormous amounts, but got a little book with many of our favourites to take home. Very lucky to have seen the Hermitage – it alone has made the challenge of getting 3 Russian visas seem more than worthwhile.

3 July 2009: The Hermitage and The Ballet, St Petersburg

Lynda and Hilary went to the Hermitage. Seriously awesome art gallery. One of the world’s pre-eminent collections. You could literally spend days there.

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Lynda and Hilary went to the ballet at the Alexandresky Hall. Goose bumps. Just fantastic.

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Lloyd stayed at the hostel and worked.....

2 July 2009: Peterhof Palace (Petrodvorets), St Petersburg

We took the metro down south and caught a marshtrutky to the palace. This place, built by Peter the Great in the early 1700’s is just nuts – a huge palace and hundreds of hectares of gardens and fountains. You can’t even begin to describe the scale and opulence. Here is a website with some information: http://www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/index.asp

Entry to the front or upper garden was free – and it was absolutely stunning. Classic symmetrical 18th century geometric layout on a huge scale, with ponds, fountains, box balls, hedges, lime tunnels. We joined a queue and waited for nearly an hour to get into the main palace (it was unclear what to do as there were several queues and almost no info we could read). As at other museums, as foreigners we got to pay a special higher price for our tour which was all in Russian!! We tagged along (you have to go in a group with a guide – no free lance wandering) – of course we understood nothing, but looked at what she indicated and nodded knowingly (not). Room after room of portraits, mirrors, and more gold gilding than you can poke a stick at. Even more remarkable was that the place was largely destroyed in 1941 – they have been restoring it ever since: they have done a brilliant job. We finally found a guide book in English at the end of the palace tour and got an inkling of what we had just seen (could not get one for love or money at the entry gate).

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We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the spectacular gardens. There are 140 or so fountains and streams, cascades and ponds, running down to the Gulf of Finland through gorgeous parkland of enormous shady trees. Even though it was quite warm we were able to stay out of the sun for much of the afternoon. We have seen a lot of amazing gardens in Europe, but this was right up there.

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A cool wind whipped up and there was a brief shower with the change, but nothing of consequence. Had an obligatory ice cream in the warm sunshine, in the flower garden of the orangerie. The really interesting thing about the place was a) it was incredibly busy (peak travel time in Europe) and b) the visitors where overwhelmingly Russian. There were a couple of foreign tour groups, but by and large foreigners were not at all obvious amongst the crowds. There must have been 10,000 visitors, but they were well spread out. And we estimated that there would have been at least 100 staff in the palace and at least 200 gardeners working on the day, trimming hedges, raking up piles of grass, sweeping the many kilometres of paths. Unbelievable. Quite an operation.

Every fountain, bridge or seaside viewing spot was filled with families and friends taking photos of one another. We noticed that for photos, girls put on a very straight, unsmiling (sultry) face. Then laugh and smile as they check out the photo and walk on, chatting. Interesting that it seems to be considered the best look for photos. Girls often walk along holding hands. They wear some really creative get-ups and almost always, very high heels. Hard work on cobblestones and gravel.

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And finally, some exercise at the end of a long day!!
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Caught the bus then metro back to the city on the expectation that the Hermitage was going to be open late. But it was not to be. We wandered past the Admiralty and then climbed up the dome of St Isaacs Cathedral for a birds eye view of the city. It was raining for a while but the view was nice and the air was cool. The staircase of 221 steps was spiral all the way – beautifully carved slabs of bluestone radiating our from a central column – incredible craftsmanship. The columns on the church were marble, 3m diameter and 30m high – we could not imagine how they were made, let alone carried there and erected.

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Like Irkutsk, there are swirling masses of fluffy white seeds falling off the poplar trees – it really looks like snow!

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Had dinner at a great little place called Cafe Stolle – we all had out fill (with beer) for about AU $18 ($6 each) – best value meal so far!! (in contrast to some of the others). Lots of beetroot, buckwheat and cabbage and the typical freshly made berry drink. Yum. Walked home along canals and over bridges, past the Mariinsky Concert Hall (famous for ballet) then home at 21:00. Another big day down.

1 July 2009: St Petersburg

We love plastcart (3rd class train travel) – cheap, comfy and great people watching opportunities. A great mix of people, especially a lot of young women travelling alone. Almost all Russians. Had a pretty good sleep and arrived at Sanct Peterborg at 9:46. Successfully bought multi-ride Metro tickets and found the correct line. Lynda snuck in a sneaky photo of a gorgeous marble barrel vaulted hall, but got sprung. Had to fill in a form and pay 100 rubles fine. Also had to laugh – didn’t really know if the big, tough bloke in a uniform was for real, but wasn’t going to argue. So it’s true, you really shouldn’t take photos in the Metro! But I’m so glad I have, those mosaics and light fittings and sculptures and tiles are fantastic.

Bought piles of yummy fresh food at the market near our hostel, walked for about 5 hours and did a boat tour (with English commentary) on the canals and river. Saw the spectacular Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, the Hermitage museum (from the outside), Summer Gardens and most of Nevsky Prospekt. Came back, ate well (fresh stuff) and it’s now nearly 1:00 – got to go to bed.

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30 June 2009: Moscow

The Comrade Hostel was great expect for the snoring blokes. That and the lack of darkness. Lynda got an hour or so of sleep, Hils and Lloyd did better. Hit the Metro early, emerging near the Kremlin, where we got our tickets, went through security and wandered the grounds. A lot to take in. Particularly impressive were the 800 cannons taken from Napolean’s forces as trophies from his retreating army! Visited several of the highly historic churches, heard some gorgeous plainsong (I think) singing from 5 priests and admired lovely frescoes, icons and lofty vaulted ceilings. Went to Arbat ul, full of nasty souvenirs, but fell for beautiful etchings, and bought one – of Suzdalian churches with a garden and wooden house in the foreground.

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Had lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended cafe in the forecourt of the Conservatorium – nice but South Yarra prices. Ouch. Had several choices with Australian beef on the menu.

Next we saw some more awesome Metro stations (more sly photos) and found our way to the State Tretyakov Museum, a treasure house of Russian art. Hilary got stuck right into it, and Lynda loved the landscapes – flashbacks to Siberia, different seasons, painted over hundreds of years, but so many could have been produced now – the scenes were timeless. Religious icons from over a thousand years were fantastic, too.

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Spent the late afternoon at Kolomenskoye Estate, a huge park with rolling grassy hills, enormous swathes of apple and cherry trees, herb gardens, old churches, and thousands of people walking, sitting and hanging out with friends and family. Dozed on the grass, stayed till 8 o’clock, then caught the train back to town.

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Had scrumptious Armenian food at a place called Noah’s Ark, collected our gear from the hostel and caught our last Metro ride at midnight (more sneaky photos). Arrived at Leningradskaya station and waited in the half light with thousands of people, till we got onto our St Petersburg train at 12:45. Truly bizarre, not really dark, 25 degrees and hordes of people piling onto train after train. We made up our beds and were nearly asleep before the train left at 1:05. Precisely.

29 June 2009: Vladamir and Moscow

Got the local bus back to Vladamir and then piled on a bus that was heading to Moscow. It was packed as well. Cloudy, warm and sticky. Road was 4 lanes but very busy with trucks, buses and cars all the way. Took nearly 4 hours.

Managed to negotiate the incredible Moscow metro to our hostel, aptly named Comrade Hostel. As usual, it was located in a little back lane, but we had good directions. The hostel is friendly, there is a kitchen, a washer and super helpful staff.

Moscow is massive (the book says 10 million). Lots of people and cars heading in all directions. The bus dropped us at a huge market near Kurskaya Station, an enormous modern hub that looked more like an airport. We did pretty well to find the Metro and get our card of ten tickets each, and with the help of a smiling bloke in a scary uniform, launched into the incredible Moscow Metro. Saw absolutely stunning stations, all Art Deco, marble, vaulted ceilings, sculptures, elaborate reliefs in glazed tiles commemorating military endeavours, beautiful lighting, chandeliers – every station was individual and glorious.

Surfaced at Kitay Gorod, and found our hostel, recommended by a German chap in Irkutsk. Couldn’t believe it when one of our Italian friends from Galina’s homestay turned up. We all laughed. Mentioned our interest in seeing some ballet and had two Russian blokes enthusiastically looking online for what is on at the moment. After two loads of washing, tickets booked for “Swan Lake” in St Petersburg, hours of computer pfaffing around and a big Skype session for Hils and Kane, we headed out into the streets of Moscow.

IMPRESSIVE. In every way. We were astonished by every medieval bend in the road as we aimed for the Kremlin. We are in the oldest part of the city and the architecture ranges from tiny churches and monasteries to the most awe-inspiring grandeur. Vast, ornate pastel coloured buildings with columns and arches and sculpture, one after the other, as far as the eye can see. We were actually chuckling weakly, in the end, completely overwhelmed by every new view. Of course Red Square and St Basil’s Church finished us off, the square is enormous, backed by the towering walls of the Kremlin, and the beautiful St Basil’s crazily colourful, topped with dozens of domes, sitting in the middle.

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In beautiful evening sunshine, in the stunning Alexandrovsky Gardens, Muscovites out in their thousands, around fountains, lying on the grass, parading in extremely fashionable outfits and looking slim, suntanned and very rich.

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We walked until 11:00 pm, when it became obvious that Moscow actually doesn’t go to sleep, a whole other world gets going. Bars and clubs open at nine and close at 6am.

28 June 2009: Vladamir and Suzdal

A beautiful sunny day today – quite warm. Still endless forests and farms and little villages. It has been fun on the train but we have all had enough now.

Piled off the train and caught a local bus to Suzdal, about 35km north of the railway line. This was fairly entertaining as it was packed with locals and we were the only tourists. Suzdal is a small town that is part of the “Golden Ring” around Moscow. There are a lot of churches with golden globes on top – the guide book says there are more churches than inhabitants –could be true. A local said there were either 33 or 330 churches... (still not sure). It has had a long connection with the wealthy in Moscow.

We stayed at a lovely guest house called Likhoninsky Dom, which is a renovated 18th century home. It is a heavy log cabin construction with huge beams and very low doorways (about 1.7m). The lady was very friendly and helpful and we were able to sort out a few things with someone’s niece on the phone, who could speak a little English.

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Spent 4 hours walking the town visiting many of the churches and monasteries. There was a great local history museum at the Kremlin, but there was only Russian captions. Ended up back at the Kremlin monastery at an amazing restaurant in the basement. There were vaulted ceilings and the walls were at least 2m thick. The decor was nice and they played nice Russian music. They had an English menu, the food was great, the waiter very helpful. But there was virtually no one else there. Amazing. It was a cracker of a meal.

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The Dom had no internet, so Lloyd went off to find the alleged computer club in town that is open 24 hours. It was a very seedy looking room down a very dodgy corridor off a derelict looking courtyard. There was a bank of about 20 computers, but course they had no wifi and their network was setup to stop other computers connecting. The 12 year old who seemed to be running the place had no idea. I gave up and he went back to his computer game.

There was a large storm brewing loads of lighting and thunder. Rained heavily overnight. The weather has been warm to very warm and quite sticky.

Posted by hazelnutty 05:41 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Russia - Central Siberia: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

27 June 2009: Still on the train: 48 hours down, 24 to go. Only 2138km. The ride was smoother and faster last night – better, straighter lines. Everyone hankers to get out for a walk when the train stops. At Tyumen there were loads of people still on the platform buying stuff at the kiosk when the train pulled out – you can imagine the ensuing mad rush at the steps. Everyone was running alongside the train trying to jump on as it was moving including the army dogs. The train stopped again and everyone clambered on (including Lynda and Lloyd) – stern looks all around. We were in fact a few minutes late when we left.

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Country is mostly flat farm land (although mostly not obviously cultivated) with some forests. More regular towns, still loads of little wooden farm houses. Brick houses and sealed roads are now more common.

It is all good in our little capsule as we whiz along.

26 June 2009: Train 001 – “Rossiya”: 24 hours down, 48 to go. Gosh. We have covered about 2000km in the past 24 hours. Everyone rushes outside when the train stops for any length of time. There are a load of soldiers and 3 army dogs on board (large German Shepherds) – there appears to be a mandatory dog fight every time we re-board the train. There are various food vendors on the stations which is fun – old mammas offer home cooked veges. There is a power outlet in each compartment, so there is plenty of scope to listen to music or do stuff on the computer. A couple of nice young soldiers in Lloyd’s compartment. Lynda and Hat have a bloke with his young daughter (6) in theirs. There is a little possie of 6 year old girls who traipse up and down the carriage playing games and singing songs. The dad keeps feeding Lynda and Hills and making cups of chai. The beds are pretty hard but otherwise it is all pretty comfortable. The day is pretty much made up of eating, looking out the window, chatting, reading and writing.

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Loads of little villages in forests by the railway line. Incredibly rudimentary houses. No sealed roads - mud everywhere. Little vegetable gardens tended by hand. A very tough existence. Can’t imagine what it is like in winter at –40C. Some of the cities are huge. Power stations pouring out crap. Endless yards of metal junk and what appears to be industrial waste. Dinosaur industries slowly rusting away. Endless crappy soviet era high rise buildings.....

The atmosphere on the train winds up from time to time, especially towards the evening when some of the soldiers drink a lot of beer (and god knows what else). Our two soldiers are very nice and do not appear to drink at all. One is an officer and warns off the rowdy ones when they get pesky. He is reading a Jules Verne book in Russian. Sophie (14 years) was very keen to practice her English with Hilary. Andrey was a lovely electrical engineer from Krasnoyarsk.

It is hard to know what time zone we are in. The timetables are all on Moscow time (understandably). It is light for most of the night.

It was hilly for a while with larger forests. Now the country is flatter and more populated and (a little) more civilized. The occasional huge river flowing north. I can’t image how many trees we have passed so far.

We stopped for 42 minutes at Novosibirsk, so we were able to go for a good wander. This is the largest station on the trans-Siberian railway – it is huge. Almost art deco inside, very grand. Loads of lines join here. There are a couple of statues to commemorate the soldiers from Siberia that left by train from here to fight in WWII.

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25 June 2009: Irkutsk: Jack provided a recommended walking route around town. Lots of lovely grand buildings, traditional Siberian log homes and churches. Many churches have only been done up in recent years since the restrictions on religion have been lifted. There were some lovely parks as well. But there are lots of parts with heavy traffic, non existent footpaths, run down and dilapidated buildings and just wasteland. You would have to say that planning controls are pretty minimal in Russia, especially the far east. We went off to catch the train and settled in for the long journey to Moscow (72 hours).

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Here is a pristine house: IMG_1161.jpg

Here is one that needs some work: P6250209.jpg

Drainage is not too good and the footpaths are sometimes rough:
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But Irkutsk is mostly a lovely city with loads of character:
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24 June 2009: Irkutsk: The journey back to Irkutsk was thankfully quieter than the trip down. We had a nice home stay with Galina Tur, just around the corner from the hostel. She could speak some German and had a couple of words of English, so we could communicate. Had a great meal in a little cafe near the tram route. Not a word of English but they played Elvis, had lots of pictures and plates from Europe (especially Vienna) and the food was great. We then managed to extract vast sums of money from various bankomats to pay for the train tickets. Met a couple of likely Italian lads over breakfast who were also staying with Galina – they were a scream. They said there is not one easy word in Russian except for “da” (yes)...... They are probably right!

Nikita’s is a unique place!!
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Lake Baikal on the morning of our departure - stunning.
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23 June 2009: Baikal by boat

Headed down to the beach and piled onto a boat with a bunch of Russians and a couple of Germans, to visit a few spots around Lake Baikal. It’s the biggest lake on the planet (by volume), and contains one fifth of all the world’s fresh water that is not ice. We are staying on Olkhon Island, which is a wild place, and the mountain springs and sacred Buddhist island we visited today are even more remote.

Last night was the summer solstice, but there is still snow on the mountains. On the deck of the boat, our cheeks got sunburnt, but we were freezing cold. It is impossible to imagine how cold winters must be here. We travelled all day on the Maloe More (small sea) between the island and the western shore, and it was enormous. The other side of the island is steep, and plunges into the lake, to a depth of over 1600 metres.

We walked up into the forest on a far shore, and found all kinds of unfamiliar flowers.

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We landed on an island where Tibetan and Nepalese monks have built a stupa in tribute to an Indian goddess. Its location was chosen for its position on the crossing point of two ley-lines. It is amazing how religion is taking off in Russia, Orthodox churches are being lovingly restored in cities, towns and villages, and Buddhist monasteries are being built all throughout Siberia.

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After our very laid-back, relaxing day, we came back to the tiny village of Khuzhir and the craziness of Nikita’s hostel, a fantastic but kind of bizarre place with dozens of cabins and gers, that feels like a cross between the timberyness of the Wild West, the kids-outside-till-midnight/summer holiday vibe of Sandy Point, and the hippy-ness of the NSW North Coast. There are no streets, just rough ground that requires very slow driving. Cows and (as elsewhere in Russia) packs of dogs roam freely. It’s 11:00 pm and still very light, there is a lot of action out there, but we had better try and sleep, because it will be light again by 3:00!

See Wikipedia for more information on Lake Baikal - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Baikal

22 June 2009: Lynda and Lloyd rushed off to a “friendly” train ticket agent – these are apparently few and far between in Russia. The experience to date of the girls was that buying tickets involves queuing for hours at the station and lots of shouting by the person in the ticket office. Apparently, you have to “know” whether there are seats available on a particular train. If you ask for a seat on a train that is full, you have used your shot and you have to go to the back of the queue. Our friendly ticket lady work in the “Hotel Irkutsk”, a large soviet style place down by the river 3 blocks away. We rolled up at 9am – she waved us in and we started working. She was able to quickly work out when seats were available. She looked very stern look at all times, but was nice enough – very Russian. The only real option was 3 seats on train 001 “Rossiya” – the fancy pants one. It seems that there are just not that many spare tickets on any trains at this time of year. We also checked out trains from Moscow to St Petersburg. All looked good. Realised we had forgotten our passports, so went back to the hostel and Lloyd went back to the ticket lady. She was incredibly efficient. We got the seats we wanted to Vladimir (3 days non stop on the train), Moscow then St Petersburg and St Petersburg to Helsinki. By the end of our 40 minutes of complicated work she was almost cracking a smile. Went to pay at the end with my credit card – sorry, she said – cash only. Tickets were all printed with our passport numbers etc. Hmmm. Hard to get 50,000 Roubles out of no where. In the mean time Lynda and Marsha had organised 2 nights at Nikita’s on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal and a late departing mini-bus to accommodate our ticket purchasing expedition – they were waiting and ready to go. Crickey! Left a deposit and literally ran back to the hostel and threw our stuff into the van – left at 11:15. We were off. Realising we had little cash left, we stopped at a Bankomat on the way out of town to get some cash for the next few days.

The countryside was quite open – rolling green hills with lush green grass surrounded by birch and pine forests. Every now and again the there were funny little villages of essentially log cabins and little yards – very very rustic (or more spartan really). The road was sealed (after a fashion) but was pretty crappy in parts – lots of undulations. It deteriorated the further we drove from Irkutsk.

The forest came closer to the road it started to get hilly. Green meadows and beautiful streams flanked the roadside with larger hills and mountains in the distance, many snow capped. There were cows and horses – no fences. There was even some snow on the ground in places that was left over from the unseasonal weather last week. Suddenly the ground became rocky and the trees disappeared and the grass became very thin. The road by this stage had turned into essentially a dirt goat track – even at 20kph it was a fairly rough ride. The road ended up at a ferry (takes about 6 cars across a narrow straight to the island – about 2km across). Then it was another 30km of pretty rough road to the town on the island.

In the mini-bus we were befriended by Alexi, a rather large, strong sort of a Russian bloke (guess he was in his 50’s). Not the sort of chap you would pick a fight with in a pub. We learned that he rode horses (once went in a race and won a car), was a “tractorist” (tractor driver we assumed) and had 2 daughters – one about 16 and on 6. Apparently one of his daughters (=doch-sha) looked like Hilary (was a copy). He seemed to work on a farm digging holes. Some of the mountains in the area are very high (2740m) and it gets to -60C in winter – so he says. It may sound like we found a lot out about him. However, you need to bear in mind that he spoke to us in Russian in a very loud voice at point blank range for 6 hours continuous and could not speak one word of English. I am not joking. In fact he had two voice volumes, loud and shouting (when talking to the driver from the back seat or giving the other passengers a hard time). Not to mention that he had consumed a bottle of beer and the best part of a bottle of vodka (wodka). We consulted the Russian phrase book on an almost continuous basis and could find virtually no words that we wanted on the whole journey. We both pretended to throw it out the window on numerous occasions.

Here is Alexi!! - IMG_1072.jpg

About half of people on the bus got out when we stopped at a little shrine on the side of the road which was covered in what looked like prayer flags and there was a rock with cigarettes and money all over it (coins and even notes). This is some sort of offering – seems to be Shamanism (religion) (see Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism. There was a fair bit of pointing the roof and the heavens (not idea really) but it was not Christian. I had to drink a bit of vodka and tip the rest onto the shine. Very weird.
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This is real frontier land. The roads are unmade and there are little wooden cabins everywhere. Nikita’s is this amazing series of little cabins in a compound, all with intricately carved woodwork on the outside. It is sort of like a hippy love village. All fairly new and pretty impressive. They even took credit cards – amazing!! The lake here is absolutely stunning. Big mountains rising up out of the still clear blue water. It really is a special place.
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It is the summer solstice – it is 21:30 at night and the sun us still blazing through the window. Better go out and enjoy the traditional solstice music festival by the lake........

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21 June 2009: Lloyd arrived at the “Baikaler” hostel in Irkutsk at about 11am having negotiated a flight from London to Moscow then an overnight flight with Siberian Airlines (S7). The hostel was in the very centre of town but in a very obscure spot – located at the back of a building of flats with no signs. You walk up 3 flights of stairs (with an odd smell) to what is essentially a private flat that has been converted to a 14 bed hostel.
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The girl who worked there, Masha (pronounced Marsha), was a local but spoke perfect English (a real treasure in Russia) and she was a very knowledgeable local, which was a great help. The place was clean, had a kitchen and a washing machine (boy – did I need that), had a hot shower and a toilet and free wifi – what more could you ask for?!! Went for a stroll around the streets – negotiating a purchase for nearly anything (other than items in a supermarket) is nearly impossible. Russian is so incredibly different. Met Hilary and Lynda at the train station at 18:00. We had dinner at a lovely Mongolian restaurant (Hills was missing Mongolia, obviously) and went back to plan the rest of our trip through Russia. We poured over websites for hours trying to fit in Lake Baikal, Tomsk and Suzdal before Mosocw and St Petersburg – after many attempts it appeared that one of them had to go. Tomsk drew the short straw.

Masha and Jack (the owner) were incredibly kind and generous (and long suffering of their numerous guests). What a great place to stay in the wild wild east....

Posted by hazelnutty 19:21 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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