September 5, 2006


For the past few days we've felt like criminals on the run dodging the police. Moscow police are notorious for stopping tourists and demanding to see their passports and paperwork. There are a few bad apples in the mix and numerous backpackers have been "fined" and forced to pay bribes to get their passports back. You learn very quickly to avoid police in narrow alleyways .. or in our case to avoid them if at all possible. It's become automatic for us to veer course or turn and look with sudden interest into a shop window when we see two grey uniforms on their way down the street. Avoiding them is an easy feat until you reach the Kremlin or Red Square ... this is where they swarm. Thankfully in these arenas their authoritative whistle blowing seems to distract from other work... they busy themselves blowing whistles at tourists who step off the path or cross into a forbidden area. It actually brings a great authoritative atmosphere to the place, you'd be disappointed if you could amble aimlessly around the Kremlin.

We're staying on Arbat Street, famous for it's artists and poets in the past. Nowadays portrait painters and street trader stalls line the street touting for tourist business. At night the place turns into a crazy zone. I forgot to mention in the last blog about how lax alcohol consumption laws are in Russia. Basically you cannot drink anything over a certain strength the streets (vodka) but your 8% beer is fine, any time any place. The entire population seem to wander around with a beer in their hand morning, noon and night. We got off a bus at 7am in the morning in St. Petersburg and there were people sitting around going to work drinking cans. Anyhow .. Arbat Street on a Saturday night seems to build into a party atmosphere with comedians telling jokes, contortionists double knotting themselves and people having a go at the "test your strength hammer". On the way home from Moscow day we managed to experience what happens after hours of partying. Scores of drunken people were queueing up for the strength hammer or arm wrestling challenge. Some folks opted to be lead on a drunken horse ride up and down the street. There were little old ladies selling bunnies, kittens and puppies to anyone who wanted company on their way home. You could just imagine waking up in the morning, sore arms and a new puppy.

Both here and in St Petersburg the metro systems are incredible. The Moscow metro moves more people every day than London and New York combined. 172 stations service 9+ lines. The stations are deep underground with escaltors running more than 7 storeys tall. The stations themselves are works of art. Each one different, some with bronze statues, some with mosaics and almost all with chandeliers, they are an attraction to themselves. Oh and you only have to wait 2minutes for a train, its great, noone runs to a train if they see one on the station, there will be another along in no time (every 30 sec in peak hour).

We have our train tickets to Ulan Baatar in Mongolia but it wasn't as smooth sailing as the last ticket purchase. With the added complication of crossing the border we knew from the outset that it would be trickier and we'd need the help of a member of the rare species of specialised friendly ticket agents. Arriving at the ticket booths we did a quick lap eyeing up the agents putting each into one of two categories "Not Friendly" and "Possibly Friendly". Systematically Marcus worked through the friendly ones ... each one's reply first off was "NYET" as in "NO" (but we're used to the nyets and just ignore them now). After been pointed to 5 different booths and then upstairs (where there were no cashiers at all ...) we were starting to question whether anyone in the station actually knew what was going on. Sense does say that if the train leaves from this station and connects onwards out of Russia then somebody must be able to sell you a ticket out of the country. It should be just a matter of finding that elusive person. On another go asking at all the booths we eventually secured a definite point to another building and moved to search to there. Eventually we found someone interested in making a sale ...a mere hour and a half of an exhausting search later. It's definitely a case of perseverance.

Moscow is not as pretty as St Petersburg but what it lacks in visible beauty it makes up for with history and authority. It is here that the seat of Russian power is located and you definately feel its weight walking around the Kremlin and Red Square. One of the highlights of Red Square is of course catching an on-the-move glimpse of Mr Lenin. Looking rather waxy these days it is rumoured that Mr Putin will send him to rest in St Petersburg with his mother as was his wish soon enough.

Again we were lucky to hit Moscow on its birthday (859th) celebratory weekend. As you would expect the full spectrum of Russian pomp and pagentry was on display around the city. We strode around rather confidently that day as the police had their annual relay run around the ring road here, and we thought that should take out any of the numble ones for a few hours. Most of the traffic in the area around the Kremlin and square was sealed off to allow multiple stages with concerts. Despite the relay, the police and militry presence was huge. You could not walk 10 metres without passing someone in uniform. The Russian approach to crowd control seems to be less spending on the metal barriers, more blokes standing shoulder width apart shaking their head when you get too close. We explored some of these before settling into the main area behind St Basils cathedral at one end of Red Square for the nights entertainment. The show consisted primarily of ethinc music and dance acts from all over Russia and indeed some selected other countries. As darkness fell some local pop stars got up to strut their stuff before the main event commenced at 9.30 (the billing was for a spectacular laser show). Now I say main event because the square was at its fullest and it was 9.30pm on a Saturday...but the main event was....lets just say, cringefull. Imagine 200,000 people standing in a square, filled with the anticipation of a 'spectacular laser show'. Well, the curtain in front of the stage went up....more raised expectation....then on went the fountains. Fountains...of the choreographed variety. Up on a stage, 300m from the guy at the back. I have no idea who designed this but the dancing fountains did their thing to various snippets of music (30 sec each) which covered everything from Pink Floyd to Bocelli. Along with the fountains some images were projected onto a screen of water...such creative images as time lapse photography of flowers blooming and horses running along a beach. Kitch to the extreme. Oh and the 'spectacular laser show' was something not obviously checked before the show, as it was projecting into the dancing fountains, throwing off some random green triangles every now and then.
Now it sounds like I am running it down, and I am, but we found ourselves looking around to the crowd seeing if people were giggling or looking decidedly short changed...nope, people seemed to watch almost waiting (hoping) for something good to happen.
After 45mins of this the real main event started. A truly spectacular fireworks display launched from the middle of the river. It was beautifully choreographed and seemed to only include the huge 'finale' fireworks...and none of the 'smiling cubes' that have become de-rigeur.

We met some guys at the hostel here who are in the middle of a great challenge. They are taking part in the Mongol Rally. Its a race of sorts for charity, from Hyde park to Ulan a car with an engine capacity less than a litre. They are doing it in a 1990 Suzuki Samuri ($200 worth) and have taken a great route across the continent, heading through Turkey, Iran and the Stans. They were in the hostel as they had come back to Moscow on the train from the border with Mongolia to try to source a new engine. Its well worth reading their blog to catch some of the great stories they have experienced. Very sound guys who are looking to put their story on TV.

We will wrap up this post with a final funny story from here. In front of one of the entrances to Red Square there are some bronze markings set amongst the cobblestones. These obviously have some traditional importance as the thing to do it to stand in the middle of the arrangement, get a photo taken and toss a coin over your shoulder. So imagine the scene, a person posing with a smile and a rouble in hand, the friend takes the photo, the coin gets tossed....and 4 homeless scallywags dive in to try to catch the coin (one hand one bounce off the cobblestones) before the others. There must be some pecking order as whoever gets the coin gets a good talking too from the other dero's. I wouldn't be surprised if these same folks don a snorkel and mask in the evenings to trawl the fountains for more coins.

We are off to the supermarket now to complete our full collection of 2-minute noodles for the 75 hour train ride ahead. We are heading to Irkutsk and then taking a trip up to Olkhon island on Lake Baikal which should be interesting (read no electricity, water, phoneline). Check out the map link on the right to see where we are headed.

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Four + weddings.....and a museum

St Petersburg is a spectacular city. Celebrating its 300th birthday a few years ago it is looking its best. Set amidst canals and public parks are unique and beautiful buildings almost everwhere you choose to wander and wander we did.

The Hermitage museum was a marathon cultural experience through 1057 massive rooms. The collection runs 3 million items so there is a lot to absorb in a day. We attacked it with vigour and made it around to most of the rooms, sometimes you're not quite sure whether you should be looking at the items on display or the room itself as the winter palace is incredible. By the end of the day we were definitely museumed out. The Anthropology museum had a slightly weirder collection - pickled 'mutant' babies in jars with tags like "cyclops baby". Not standard museum fare but a good break from Monets and Rembrants!

One of the funniest things we have seen here in St Petersburg is the customs that surround the photographic part of Russian weddings. At many of the famous monuments there is an endless stream of brides and grooms arriving and lining up. From huge stretch cars to battered Ladas the wedding parties pile out and get in line for their photos. After watching the events for a while we realised that if you wanted a flash occasion you could purchase two white doves, have your picture taken and then release them. I was a bit suspicious at the start because the doves seem to take off in a very choreographed manner and I figured they must land in the boot of a car the other side of the park ready for their next gig. A few weddings later we confirmed that there were fresh doves used each time. The deluxe package includes doves and firecrackers ... the tacky package was a photograph opportunity up on two smelly horses. In any case the whole wedding party launches into champagne and shouting and the bride and groom perform a weird kiss (it looks like they are trying to swallow each other). When it's all over the couple smash their glasses against a big rock sphere, climb back into their transport and head to the next location for a similar shoot. This goes on for hours and hours ... one thing you do notice is that the brides rarely make eye contact with anyone else in a white dress.... I guess that is not surprising!

Our hostel turned out to be in a fantastic location ... a 2 minute walk to the Hermitage and a 2 minute walk to KFC and McDonalds. One of the worrying things that we had heard a month ago was that the hostel was great but there was some construction work going on and during renovations there was only one working toilet - but not to despair as they'd probably be finished and KFC was just around the corner. Staying true to our expectations of Russian efficiency there was little progress. We got a tip of a guy in our room advising that there was a secret bathroom in an apartment next door that was ok to use. Pleading ignorance we started to frequent this bathroom avoiding runs to KFC. To everyone's astonishment a couple of days later real work men turned up and started to get cracking on the "out of order" bathrooms. Not only did they labour all day but continued into the night. The last job of the day was to put tar sealant behind the shower. Impatient (hardly believable for Russia) they decided that they wanted to dry the tar out as quick as possible and took a blow torch to the wall. A wall of fire, injured worker and billows of smoke later the bathroom renovation plans were but on hold for a while longer. Some day there will be no queue for the loo.

We were a bit let down by the food in St Petersburg. I think part of the problem was that we were out and about all day and by the time dinner time came fast food seemed more appealing than searching out restaurants or cooking. We did try a Turkish restaurant one night. It had a hot buffet section which promised to be a quick and easy canteen experience. Oddly enough they wouldn't let us take a tray and dole the food there and then - at that stage one scoop onto a plate would have done the job. Instead an astonishing display of inefficiency played out where we pointed, the manager told the waiter what we wanted, the waiter wrote it down, we sat down at our table, the waiter passed a piece of paper to the cook behind the buffet (who had been present all along), we waited for 15 minutes wondering what was happening and eventually when we thought that we had been forgotten about a bowl of soup arrived from the aforementioned and afore-witnessed bain-marie pot of soup.

After a lot of effort Marcus mastered the Russian railway internet site and managed to nail down exactly which trains we need get to get us across Siberia and into Mongolia. Life would be a beach if there was internet booking but unfortunately you have to throw yourself at the mercy of austere ticket agents who are likely to flatly deny the train even exists. Taking deep breaths and clutching the Russian phase book we went to the station. Much to our surprise the girl was approachable (had the ability to smile underneath surliness) and between handsignals and scribbled train numbers they managed to understand each other so we've tickets as far as Lake Baikal. Getting the rest of the journey will be another afternoon's adventure.

One of the must do day trips from StP is a peek at Peterhof palace and garden. Its about an hours journey on local bus from Baltaskya metro station to the Summer palace built by Peter. Its a spectacular setting right on the bay of Finland, acres of gardens with fountains at every turn. We wandered around the property for a few hours on a greyish day...coming to the understanding why Peter had a summer and Winter do not want to be out here in the rain. The fountains are fantastic.

So our first Russian train experience took us on train number 3 (the lower the number the better the train) from St.Petersburg to Moscow travelling in the relative style of 2nd class. We boarded the train to find our sleeper beds made, toiletry pack on top and a breakfast box waiting for us. All very plush! It will be interesting to compare it to our cattle-class 72 hour trip to Irkutsk on train number 10.

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September 2, 2006

Tall tales in Tallinn

Tallinn Old Town is the smallest of the three Baltic old towns and the most geared for tour groups with big wallets. It came across as a Disneyland like interruption of how life was like in medieval times. Staff in all the restaurants were dressed up in Ye Olde Worlde clothing, maidens sold sugared nuts from carts and the buildings had a designer old look to them. In short a great place for tourists wanting to step back in time but you didn't really get the feeling that real people lived in the town. On saying that, Tallinn is extremely beautiful and they have done an impressive job restoring and repairing the town. Not wanting to disrupt the diet too much we managed to find some pig's trotters to eat in the oldest pub in town.

We took some time to check out what was going on outside the old town coming across an old market with plenty of curios to make Marcus wish that he had a spare rucksack and more storage space at home :-) The food market didn't quite measure up to the quality and range of Riga, in fact the meat section was not the best place to frequent before one's evening meal. Guess sometimes ignorance is best when it comes to food. We climbed the hill beside the old town to visit two beautiful cathedrals and take a look over Tallinn Old Town and port.

After our short time in Tallinn it was time to get out the Russian phrase book, start learning Cyrillic and practising not smiling as we jumped on the night bus across the Russian border to St. Petersburg.

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