Location: Irkutsk , Russia
Today will be a good day because though it's -11, the sun is shining bright and it's one if those feel good days. Obv most travelling days are good but the train journeys make you enjoy these kind of days even more. Like prisoners on day release.
In addition to ambling around the town smiling like crazy folk, I report highlights:
1) hotel breakie was included in room price & amazing. Bread came with butter, bread was fresh. Bread, meat, cheese was followed by fully cooked omelette (some eggs are served see through over here); that course was followed by pancakes. This was all served with cowberry juice (yes cowberry which I think is what we know as cranberry) and by a friendly mother-type lady. Good start to the day.
2) my butch sallapettes (is that spelt right) have an amazing integral device which allows them to be tightened and thus avoiding showing underwear when bending down. These trousers were a purchase from aldi in Cork and though on face value they do bad things to be feminity, they keep me very warm and for only 15 or so. Good impulse buy.
Over & out.
Location: Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk , Russia
TRANS-SIBERIAN JOURNEY # 2
Three nights... Thursday to Sunday, it's like someone has taken that time & in return given you such a sureal set of memories...
Boarded late at night, about 22.30 after spending far too long killing time in a MacDonalds cafe (no they also don't speak English). We were convincing ourselves that we might get a cabin to ourselves... Of course not. Though at first there was a quiet Russuan girl in her bed when we boarded. And I say at first because a couple of hours later after we went to bed a soldier entered the cabin and took the vacant bunk. The beds are a bit like musical chairs... No-one is ever in the bed for long before a new face appears. The Russian girl then departed at about 3am. Then sometime in the morning we were joined by another random guy who greeted us with 'I'd like to ask you some questions'. Formal proposition but turns out his girlfriend teaches English & wanted to practice his skills rather than start some interrogation.
The next day was unevenful. I slept a lot, I read a lot. Oh and we were served a meal in our cabin as part of our ticket. There were a fair few soldiers on this journey.. They're notoriously heavy drinkers on trains so we kind of kept ourselves to ourselves, not that there is really an alternative. Not like there is a carriage with a giant ball pit or a night club carriage.
With a final change in cabin 'mates', we were joined by an Italian man. Whilst he could speak English he had no intention of making friends nor the social tools to provide the means. We tried to chat to him, offered him food (which is a very usual way to communicate to Russians - offer chocolate or any food). Fair enough he didn't want friends but did we have to get lumbered with the oddest Italian?
1) he stank of BO
2) he slept in his clothes for 2 nights; he didn't change clothes at all
3 he drank one sip of water in 2 days
4) he had 2 bites of food in 2 days
5) when opportunity presented itself he stared at Martin
6) he snored
7) I need to emphasise, he bloody stank
It did cross my mind that maybe he was some serial killer. However, since he can't wash himself I doubt he'd have much ability for planned crime.
To escape the states & the smell, we headed the restaurant carriage. Definitely the best move... We ended up drinking with some soldiers - yes those who are notorious for drinking. A great bunch of lads, a few words of English between them, assisted with the language of vodka. Bed at about midnight, rudely awoken by stinky Italian snoring, heard through my earplugs?! I loudly shushed him, many times and then Martin slammed his phone on the table before Mr Stinky rolled over.
Left the train early the next morning after arriving in Irkutsk.
Location: Yekaterinburg , Russia
TRANS-SIBERIAN TRAIN # 1
Our first overnight journey by train ended up being a pleasant enough experience. Newish train, clean, quiet enough and no weirdoes (apart from us). The Russuans do train travel well. Trains leave ontime, everything is orderly; the system works.
For those who don't care about train design or accommodation then skip to next para; a little description. Trains have 1st & 2nd class carriages. Maybe 3rd class too which are dorm. 1st has 2 berths, 2nd has is 4 berth...we're 2nd classers. There are 2 toilets with wash basins in each carriage, each carriage comprising about 8 cabins which equates to about 32 people. There aren't any showers so self-cleaning is conducted with wet wipes. Toilets are ok but you don't flush used loo roll here which normally isn't the biggest problem but on the trains this does get a bit stinky, however I have smelt worse. I haven't needed to stick a wetwipe up my nose to mask the smell which once happened in Malaysia. I really hate stinky wee-smelling toilets so believe I offer an accurate opinion in this area. There is also the 'provenista' - a female guard type character who checks tickets, gives you clean bedding, offers all sorts of snacks (& sometimes souvenirs), periodically cleans the bathroom and hoovered the carriage once a day. As well as your cabin, each train (of about 14 carriages) has a restaurant carriage. This plays 1980 tunes very loudly and serves hot, cold food & drinks. The staff here seem to be scary and stern. The cooked food is very mediocre... 'you can eat it but it tastes like sh1t' certainly applies and also helps to further realise the 'am I in prison?' type thoughts.
We were sharing our 4-berth cabin with an oldish Russuan couple who, like most Russians, don't speak English. However, courteous smiles were exchanged which translated as 'hi, I'm normal, I'm not going to murder you in my sleep'. Soon into our journey a 23-yr old guy, Sergei came to introduce himself (we met him briefly before by thinking our cabin was his & looking like eejits). Sergei was lovely and didn't seem very Russisn in that he was smiley, friendly and spoke some English. So we shared some stories over a few beers in the restaurant carriage.
After enjoying several hours of snowy Siberian countryside from the train window, we arrived in Yerkaterinburg in the evening.
Yekaterinburg was another nice city...the most exciting thing about our stay here was that we had an apartment to stay in which meant brilliant things: 1) we could once again appreciate clean clothes 2) we could have home cooked food. Clean clothes, as all travellers know, just mean so much esp when in Russia people smoke everywhere so you're clothes always smell like a pub in the 90s. And home cooked food.. eating out is a lottery, or more a tombola when the prizes are things like bars of soap and tins of baked beans.
Anyhoos, after a short but sweet & functional stay in Yekaterinburg we headed for our next journey on the live aboard prison, errm I mean the trans-Siberian train though one could easily think it was a live aboard prison with the close confines, the sometimes scary as hell restaurant staff & sometimes people smell like they aren't allowed to wash....
Location: Moscow , Russia
Thought St Petersburg couldn't be beaten... Moscow beat it, but mostly because they had the coolest Christmas market in the Red Square, and it was snowing, and they had ice sculptures. The city was beautiful... Photos show the sights.
1) Christmas market
2) Ismailovo market (big flea market)
3) Airplane museum
4) St Basil's cathedral
5) Purchase of fur hat. Looks hideous but keeps head so warm. Grateful to the rabbit who died for my warmth, not my vanity. Photo is proof.
1) really cold hands at the airplane museum
2) buying a Kiev after a few beers, not realising it was a Kiev as it was bought at some little shop with deli at 01.00, and had butter drip all over me
3) man at flea market wanted to charge us £30 for chicken flatbread at market stall. Really?
Location: St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg is beautiful. I love London, Rome & Paris for their architectural wow factors... St Petersburg is up their too. It's so grand... It was previously the capital and you can see the power that was represented in its buildings. Many grand churches were built to commentate something... The death of someone trying to overthrow the govt or the such. Many buildings have quite dreadful stories as their justification. That said some are just there as places of beauty.
Our introduction to Russia was, on the whole, great. We quickly learnt that we needed to grasp their alphabet if we had any hope of not starving. And we needed to turn a blind eye to our impression that St Petersburg people seem quite miserable. Fortunately, the future east we travelled, people's moods, range of colour on clothing & frequency of smiling all increased.
The photos tell our story. However I must express how absolutely amazing it was to go and see Swan Lake at one of best theatres in Russia (Marinsky, thanks Martin). At 34, it's probably too old to become a ballerina but I can dream. I must also tell you how Martin stepped in the stinkiest heap of dog turd ever right before we entered the theatre. The whole ticket queue was checking their shoes for the overwhelming stench... then we notice poop hanging off the side if his boot. Despite best attempts to get it all off, we could still smell a whiff of poop throughout the performance. As, I'm sure, many of those around us could too!
Also want to pay respects to a dead cat I walked past on the way home. RIP moggy.
Location: St Petersburg , Russia
Surely everyone gets a little scared when walking through immigration? Well this was definitely the case for entering Russia. We've read a lot about what it's like for foreigners to be in Russia... Naturally people write about the horror stories rather than report the benign stories that it was totally boring and normal. We paid the £115 for the correct visas though I certainly had a slightly elevated heart rate whilst I waited in the immigration queue at passport control!
No dramas and a cab journey later we arrive at our hotel in central St Petersburg. Went for walkies, ordered coffee. Developed four hypotheses which are proving true:
1) December in Russia is really cold;
2) Russian people don't speak English;
3) Menus are in Cyrillic;
4) Russia is prettier than what I have been led to believe.
Location: London Heathrow Airport hotel , UK
After a crazy week of cleaning the flat, packing up our lives in the UK & Ireland we made our way down to LHR; one-way car hire & a hotel near heathrow. Despite best intentions for it to be an early drive down & all nice and relaxing, it was a late departure from Bristol... late arrival at the hotel at gone 22.00....though Colonial Sanders was also partially to blame for the late arrival.
Hard to feel excited as both so tired from the previous couple of weeks of madness. The endless lists of to dos and the continuous thinking of 'oh god must do this' 'must do that'.... There was always some errand that needed to be done or some online stuff that needed to be changed... Not much sleep nor downtime was achieved in the run-up to our travels. Whereas months ago I daydreamed of beers in the final week and long chats about what was ahead. I guess this is rarely the case! The prospect of travelling felt like it'd be a welcomed break from the prep for it.
Bed at 01.30, up at 05.30.... Arrival at T5 for our 09.30 flight to St Petersburg was the first opportunity to relax and acknowledge our journey ahead. Excited but so tired plus the feelings of surreality meant that we were zombified. Nice BA flight helped us to chill out more; a nice inflight meal (curry for brunch?!) followed by a little snooze was a pleasant way to start the adventure.