Thumper…

August 31, 2012

Trans Siberian Stations

My Dad enjoys trains, so when we were young, wherever we went on holidays, somehow we ended up travelling on a local tourist steam railway. I guess that interest is still there a bit, so while I was on the Trans Siberian, living on a train for 90 hours, I seemed to manage to get plenty of photos of trains and the stations that we stopped at.

Coming into Omsk Russia

While we travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk, we learnt to expect to see an old steam engine at most stations the further east we went. Of course I didn’t really get much time to check them out, but a photo is worth a thousand words apparently, so that will have to do. And the railway yards were so big! I guess there’s plenty of trains, they need big yards.

Steam engine, Barabinsk Russia

The level crossings were also quite interesting. The really do MAKE you stop. Perhaps it’s something we should look at over here seeing as we have so many people who don’t stop at them.

They MAKE you stop!

So, from the railway workers, to the tracks, to the yards, I’ve got plenty of photos of each, so here’s a few…

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August 27, 2012

Trans Siberian, Moscow to Irkutsk, Train 350

I got asked some common questions when I got back, so I thought I’d post some of the answers here.

What did you do? Ate. Looked out the window. Ate some more. Washed my plastic cutlery after my meal. Slept. Ate. Looked out the window. For something different, I looked out the window and took photos. One of our group translated the train timetable into English. Very useful – see below (thanks Jen). And by the way – the trains run by Moscow time. So as well as keeping track of local time (with all the changing time zones), we also had to keep track of Moscow time. Working out what time it actually was also filled in time. And of course, chatted to the fellow passengers in my carriage and got to know them.

Looking out the window

What were the facilities like? Facilities? Oh you mean the toilet, because there was no shower. The toilet was a vacuum toilet. That’s code for you press the foot thingy to flush and it goes on to the tracks below. That’s why it’s so important to know when the next big stop is – hence having a timetable in English is pretty handy! You can’t use the toilets half an hour either side of a major stop. As for the showers, we all got pretty good at “bird baths” while trying to avoid toppling into the toilet. At the Novosibirsk stop, we had 49 minutes. Our tour leader Yulia mentioned that at major stations they sometimes have showers if you can find them. We decided: let’s do it. We were ready. The train had no sooner come to a stop and we were off, heading to find the showers. Thanks to Yulia’s persistent efforts, we eventually got pointed in the right direction. We found them on the top floor of the station, tucked away in a darkened corner, administered by a couple of older Russian ladies who looked after the mothers room. They looked at us and said a shower is 170 roubles each. Without hesitating, we’ve all whacked the 170 rouble on the desk and said no worries, where are they. Somehow we managed to get 9 of us through 2 showers in 20 minutes. And the water was hot.

Shower straight ahead! Top floor Novosibirsk Station (night 3)

Was the train clean? Yes. We had two carriage attendants, an older lady and a younger lady. Between them both, they kept our carriage clean by vacuuming, straightening the carpet runners and cleaning the toilets. They also managed to tell nearly all of us off at some point for doing something they didn’t like. You can do your laundry on the train, but don’t hang it on the (seemingly) purpose built rails in the passage. You can’t open the windows. Don’t tie the curtains back (we kept on doing that). Don’t go to the toilet when you shouldn’t be. Etc. Etc. Of course they only spoke Russian and even though they knew we didn’t speak that, they would continually lecture us for at least 30 seconds despite getting blank stares and empty looks right back at them. Oh yeah – the attendants also made sure that we were back on the train in time at the stops and that it didn’t go without us!

It’s not as bad as it looks!

Was it air conditioned? Our carriage was. We were in second class. It was the only one on the train that was. Except when we were stopped at stations or it broke. Then we got told off by the attendants (and even a passenger) for opening the windows. Then when they finally realised it wasn’t working, they came and opened the windows…

Was there power? Yes, but it’s dodgy. There are only a few sockets that are the full voltage and one of them is in the toilet. Apparently one of our guys locked himself in the toilet for half an hour so he could charge his phone. The others work, but will take a very long time to charge your stuff. One Russian had obviously done train travel before. He ran an extension lead from the power socket to his compartment and spent the whole time on his laptop. Of course nobody else could use the power socket while he was on the train… (except of course when he was “accidentally” unplugged)

Any mobile phone reception? Hahahahah. Of course. At the major stops. Remember, you are in Siberia.

Where did you sleep? Each carriage had 8 compartments, with 4 beds in each. A top and bottom bunk either side, with a small table in the middle. The person on the bottom bunk had to pack up their bed each day so we had somewhere to sit to look out the window.

My house, in the middle of the train

Were you still rocking whenever you got off the train? Yes for quite a few days afterwards. It got to the point that we would wake up at night when we stopped because we were no longer rocking.

What did you eat? We were lucky enough to get tickets that included “service”. That means they served us one meal per day. We had tea one night, three lunches and breakfast on the last day cooked for us. We didn’t realise we were getting meals included, so we also had plenty of food that we’d purchased before we got on. The babushkas at each station could also keep us well fed if we got bored with the food we’d brought with us. The meals were served to us in our compartment. The lady would first come and take our order. After the first time she tried to ask us what we wanted and failed, she wouldn’t bother until our tour leader showed up to interpret for us. Then when she came around, she brought a brown paper bag. Opening that revealed a snack, plastic cutlery, bottle of water, a cup and tea bag. Whenever the brown paper bag showed up, we knew that our food was coming. Of course more times than not, the food coincided with a major stop, so we were all off buying ice cream for entree rather than eating the food prepared. The train also had a hot water urn, which was useful for cooking instant food with – ie noodles.

Train meal – rice and something…

Did you have a dining car? Yes. The food is overpriced and for some reason we never ate there (possibly due to the reasons given above). A few of our group had a drink there and we had our hat party there.

You have mail! Invite to the hat party

Final night Trans Siberian farewell hat party!

You had a hat party? Yep. As a final night party on the train, we had a hat party. Special invites were given out (written on dining car serviettes) and no admittance to the dining car without a hat. The dining car staff loved it. So did we. It was a highlight of the trip. Surprising the variation of hats made with our towels, paper bags, bowls, bottles and cutlery from the train.

Fascinating what you can do with plastic plates and cutlery!

Would you do it again? If I did I would want to do the part I haven’t done, across to Vladivostok. I went from Moscow – Irkutsk, Irkutsk – Ulan Ude, then Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I’d also spend some time at towns along the way rather than going straight past them.

But, it’s a great experience and I would recommend it. See my earlier post!

August 26, 2012

Trans Siberian – Moscow to Irkutsk

Filed under: Russia,Trips — pearsey @ 5:09 pm
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Other person: “You went on the Trans Siberian. Woah, that would’ve been cool.”
Me: “Yeah, but it was 90 hours on the train.”
Other person: “Did you seen any snow?
Me: “It was summer, definitely no snow!”
Other person: “Wow that would’ve been so cool, on the train all that way, that would’ve been fantastic.”
Me: (softly) “It was 90 hours on the train, or the best part of 5 days and 4 nights.”
Other person: (finally dawns on them how long 90 hours is. On a train.) “Oh. But still…”

Carriage 9, train 350, Moscow to Irkutsk, home for 5 days, 4 nights

That’s how a typical conversation goes with those back home when discussing the Trans Siberian. But still, yes the Trans Siberian is an amazing trip, don’t get me wrong. However, our trip was 90 hours and as much as I enjoyed it, I (and all the others in our group as well) were definitely ready to get off when we did. This section of our Trans Siberian route was a distance of about 5192km, from Moscow to Irkutsk (we completed a couple of other sections later on, more on them later). We travelled through about 4 or 5 time zones, gaining about 5 or 6 hours over the course of the trip. Every time zone was celebrated, and even though it wasn’t, it seemed like we were another hour closer to our destination, to getting off that train!

Moscow time? Local time?

We saw some amazing scenery. And some very repetitive scenery too. We passed some trees, more trees, pine trees, and then the trees changed to birch trees… then some rolling hills and open plains.

Trees

Each exception to the typical scenery was greeted with awe and wonder. Like when we passed a river or a lake. We would get excited – “RIVER ON THE LEFT”, or whichever way it was, so that we all had a glimpse of it. We saw some snow ploughs on goods trains ready to be transported somewhere – that was a bit of a novelty. There were also plenty of typical Russian cars as well. And it seemed like there was a train going past us every time something remotely interesting came along, or the trees would come back, interrupting the view of the interesting things.

River

But along the way we got to witness some Russian culture, away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. The houses changed noticeably, from the high rise of the cities, to the stand alone houses that were built to with stand the freezing winter temperatures on blocks of land. There’d normally be a vegetable garden alongside or behind those houses, chock full of vegies, often being attended to by the women in their bikinis, oblivious to being observed by the passing train passengers. It was often an hour or more until the next stop, but passing through this large expansive land didn’t mean that you would see houses. In fact, it was rather strange. Most houses were gathered in clusters, and that’s where the train stopped and the land in between was dormant, not being used for either crops or livestock. Maybe the summer is really too short.

Houses and gardens

Then out of nowhere, some industrial sized chimneys or apartment blocks would pop up, hinting that we were arriving at the next big town. At these places we would be greeted by Babushkas on the platform. These Babushkas were eager to sell as much of whatever they had as quickly as they could. Some were hardened, their faces told of a life that couldn’t easily be put into words, of hardships endured, aged beyond their years. Others were younger than those, new to the scene, but just as eager to sell you their wares. Don’t mess with these ladies. Perhaps their tough exterior hid a compassionate and gentler side, but in the hustle and bustle of doing as much business as possible in a short window of time, this side was rarely shown.

Fish anyone? Babushka selling fish

Anybody who wanted to part with their roubles could buy from these older ladies selling their home grown and baked goodies, or stall owners selling everything from ice cream, chocolate, fish and noodles to tissues, hats and stuffed toys. These stops were the longer stops, anything from 15 to 30 minutes, a welcome time for everyone to get off the train and get some fresh air. The first place we had a big stop (ie about 20 minutes) we got off and had some really nice berries. Strawberries, blue berries, gooseberries, raspberries – all cheap and tasty. Nothing else ever lived up to that stop. We bought berries at another stop later in the trip. This babushka was a little cunning. The berries looked good. Within about half an hour, they were mush. The good berries had been strategically placed around the top of the container. As soon as you removed the top berries, you were greeted with soft berries, already turning to juice in the warmer weather.

Berry time!

As the berries became scarcer, the need to replace those berries with something of equal or better value became more pressing. That’s when the ice cream became more important. Unless the babushka or store owner was selling ice cream, we weren’t interested! Our group was like the mafia, infiltrating each little store on the station until we found what we were looking for. A quick yell would bring everyone running and it was a first in first served deal with the ice cream.

Ice cream at the station in front of a goods carriage

Many places we stopped at for no longer than a few minutes, where regular passing trains, the lifeline between the east and the west of the country, were nothing more than a necessary interruption. The train stopped for such a short time that it was nothing more than a quick drop and pick up of passengers.

As we headed further east, we noticed at some of the smaller country towns that there were blocks of garages toward the edge of town. I think in these towns most of the houses didn’t have a garage on their block, so this was their garage. I guess in summer you could always park your car closer, then in winter if you couldn’t actually use it for months on end because you were snowed in, you had a place to store it out of the way.

Garages for the small town

It was summer, and it was the weekend (two of the four days anyway) and we passed a river, where it just looked like a typical river back home in Australia – nice holiday houses, people having picnics beside it, people floating down it on inflatable things and people generally out enjoying the sun. Good to see that even on the other side of the world people can appreciate a good river!

Floating down the river (with the obligatory power pole in the photo!)

We met some interesting Russians in another compartment in our carriage. They only spoke Russian. We only spoke English. We did however learn that they worked for the mines and were on their way back to work. You have about 3 or 4 months on working, then some time off. While you’re on site, you’re not allowed to drink. These guys made the most of their last night of freedom and we were quite happy to see the rowdy Russian miners disembark on the second day.

Bye bye miners, back to work for you!

We passed the marker marking the place where Russia is theoretically divided into two continents – Asia on the east and Europe on the west. Thankfully it hadn’t quite got dark yet, so we were able to see it. That highlight aside, we went back to what we did best: gazing out the window looking at everything, but nothing.

Asia Europe Continent Marker

Yep, our 90 hour odyssey through Sibera was only a snapshot of Russian life. We didn’t have time to linger and enjoy the local hospitality, the stunning scenery or to explore the little back streets in the many towns we passed. Half of the 5000km we did while it was dark. But what we did get to experience was a section of one of the most amazing train journeys in the world, through a part of the world that most people will never get the chance to see. That in itself made the trip worth it.

Coming up in my next post – some common questions about the Trans Siberian.

August 20, 2012

Moscow – The Kremlin

We’re in Moscow, at Red Square. We have been walking through Red Square, learning about the history and significance of this UNESCO world heritage area. The historic cathedrals, buildings, the names of things, quirky Russian stories, the somberness of the Eternal Flame and the joy of the gardens. Then our tour guide leads us to another area. Then pausing, for dramatic effect, with a big wave of his arm, he says “And over there, we have The Kremlin“. Wow… our large walking group gasps with awe and reverence, before a hush came over the group, and people look, drinking it in. No one is game to say a word. The noise around fades and time stands still. We are at THE Kremlin. The Kremlin in Moscow.

The main entrance to the Kremlin, Kutafya and Troitskaya Tower, Moscow Kremlin

Now is not the time to blurt out “So what’s the Kremlin?” I had no idea, but apparently it was famous (and still is). It was the fort built years ago to protect the city (ok, I still don’t really know, but i saw it…) This is where everyone finds out my education let me down. I didn’t learn Russian history at school ok! All we learnt about was the Egyptian stuff. And I had far better things to do than go home and learn about stuff in places that I was never going to visit… (hahahaha).

Truthfully, the introduction to the Kremlin probably didn’t happen like that (I couldn’t really hear the tour guide!). But I do know that I had no idea what the Kremlin was, and well, it’s really only thanks to a bit of inquisitivity on my part and google that I actually have any idea now.

So – I went into the Kremlin. We didn’t have a lot of time – it was even a last minute decision to visit after we missed out on tickets to the Armoury at the Kremlin. And, of course, not much was in English. The cathedrals inside had some sheets in English, but with limited time, we didn’t have time to take it all in.

Tsar Canon, Largest Canon in the world, Moscow Kremlin

One of the more interesting things I found out (afterwards) was that the Kremlin is home to the largest bell in the world (Tsar Bell) and the largest canon in the world (Tsar Canon). The bell has actually never been rung. While they were making it, a fire broke out. The wooden supports caught fire, so they put the fire out – as you do, which of course caused the bell to crack because it was still being cast.
The canon weighs nearly 38 tonnes and is over 5m in length. It’s never been fired, so why build it? Who knows, but I’m sure there was a point. If you’re trying to get a photo of either of those things, you’ve got to be quick. People clamber all around them and have their photos taken with them. Guess they know the significance of them…

You can walk anywhere you like inside the Kremlin. As long as you stick to the paths. Don’t walk down the wrong side of the road, don’t drift off the pedestrian crossing and don’t walk down the road. You’ll get a nice guard yelling at you if you do! (Nope, this time it wasn’t me, I was just watching everyone else.)

Again, the churches inside the Kremlin are older than Australia has been known to exist. There’s more info about the churches here and if you want more info on the kremlin, visit here.

One word of advice on the Kremlin: Make sure you go to the toilet before hand!

What a pretty party hat!

To complete the whirlwind tour of Moscow, our tour group met together that night and had a party. My pork came complete with a party hat! While we were in the restaurant it absolutely poured – we saw the pictures on the news of massive flash flooding, but by the time we got out it was only really wet instead of flooding. Ah the rain. Seemed to follow me through most countries… Hey hey hey Moscow Moscow!

August 19, 2012

Moscow Moscow – Red Square and Surrounds

The Red Square (red meaning beautiful) is rather different to other squares I’ve been in. It was more of a rectangle, but ignore that. It probably seems a lot smaller than it is when you look at it because it’s enclosed with buildings all around it. After walking the length of it a couple of times, it ain’t that small! At the southern end we have St Basil’s Cathedral, a stunning example of Russian architecture, a brilliantly coloured building, wonderfully restored, and at the northern end we have another cathedral and the state museum. Flanking the sides of the square are the Kremlin and the GUM shopping center. Other historical sites and buildings can be found within the square as well as in the immediate surrounds.

Dominates the sky line – St Basil’s Cathedral

St Basil’s cathedral was built in 1555-61: years before Australia was even known to exist. Sadly it’s not used as a church anymore, but is partly a museum. There’s another statue out the front of the church, this one commemorating Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who drove Polish invaders out of Moscow in 1612. There’s so many statues, but I guess so much history… Opposite St Basil’s Cathedral, at the south western corner of the Red Square we have Spasskaya (Saviour) Tower. It forms the edge of a wall of the Kremlin and just so we all know the time, has a clock in it. Of course it’s showing Moscow time. The tower was built in 1491 and the clock was believed to have been added to the tower between 1491 and 1585. 1491… Like… that is soooo long ago. We got a few buildings in our town that date from the 1800’s. We call them old.

Toward Lenin’s Mausoleum, Red Square

Then there’s Lenin’s mausoleum on the west side of the square against the wall of the Kremlin and the senate building. Who’d have thought they’d have Lenin’s body on display. Certainly not me seeing as it was closed and until I googled it I didn’t know what that building was… There’s no signs around, certainly nothing in english when there is a sign. Makes it a little difficult unless you have a guide or a guide book. But hey, I may not have known what it was, but I saw it!!

GUM Department store from Red Square

On the east side we have the GUM shops. This building again has some magnificent architecture and 3 levels of shops that I can say I didn’t go into because it looked waaaayyyy too expensive! In fact I didn’t see many customers in the shops, but plenty of people in the building. We did have lunch there though – second or third floor, right in the south east corner. It came recommended by a couple of people. The queue at the door suggested we were on to a winner. We obviously visited while they were having a bad day though…

After lunch we were going to the armoury in the Kremlin. We were going… but it was absolutely pouring. So we hung out under the shelter of the shopping center for a while, watching as the rain poured down over a red square empty of people. It was a fairly decent downpour, but as soon as the rain stopped we headed off to get some tickets.

For those who don’t know, the deal with the Armoury at the Kremlin is this: The Armoury museum is supposed to be very good. But tickets are really hard to get. They sell 100 only for each session. There’s only 3 or 4 sessions and there’s 3 ticket booths. They only start selling them 30 (or 45) minutes before the session opening time. You can’t pre book or pre buy them. You need to get there and line up. But you can’t start lining up too early because they’ll kick you out of the ticket booth. Others, mainly Russians, WILL push past you to get these tickets. Unfortunately we found all that out after the last session of the Armoury for the day. That was annoying… And we missed out on tickets by a whisker. I think the person in front of us got the last ones…

Kazan Cathedral, Red Square

Had a quick look inside the Kazan cathedral (no photos inside), it was a replica of one they’d torn down, walked through the resurrection gates a few times (missed the kilometre zero mark of Moscow (thanks google), must’ve walked past it 3 or 4 times at least, still wondering how I missed that, I like those type of landmarks) and took a look around Alexandrovsky Gardens. Alexandrovsky Gardens – nice flowers, nice grass, but what’s with this European thing of not letting people sit on the grass? Such a waste of good grass.

There’s some grass along the wall of the Kremlin in Red Square. I can understand why you can’t sit on that. It’s there covering mass graves from the revolution in 1917. Wow, everything in Red Square is so significant.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – The Eternal Flame, Moscow

Watched the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier – the eternal flame there is guarded 24 x 7 and every hour they have the changing of the guard. Interestingly enough the Russians only acknowledge the second world war as being from 1941 to 1945. They didn’t get involved until 1941, so whenever they mention the second world war, it is only from 1941, not 1939 when it really began.

Moscow – so much history packed into such a small area. Next post will be the Kremlin. Hey hey hey Moscow Moscow

August 14, 2012

Moscow Moscow Moscow!

Moscow Moscow Moscow! The whole time I was in Moscow I couldn’t get the words of that song (Moscow by Dschinghis Khan) out of my head! We only had 24 hours in Moscow, not by choice, but that was the way the cookie crumbled. We arrived in Moscow early morning (ok I guess 6.30am is really not that early), went to our hostel to dump our luggage (no link here for the hostel, it really wasn’t that good), then headed out to explore Moscow. We had a walking city tour lined up, so we caught the metro to where that started. The metro stations – wow, they are impressive. So impressive, that if you have time, you can actually do tours of the metro stations (all underground). They’re like whole historic buildings underground. Unfortunately we didn’t have time, but we did manage to see quite a few of them in our short travels around the city. The walking tour was good, but there were too many of us and I missed most of what was said.

Our first stop was the monument to Saints Cyril and Methodias in Slavyanskaya Square, not far from Red Square. Turns out they were the ones who are credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet (thanks google and wikipedia). That square is also home to All Saints Church Moscow, a church with a very interesting history. According to wikipedia – it’s been rebuilt quite a few times, used as a museum and even a place for executions by the NKVD. Thankfully it’s now back as a church!

For some reason some streets in Moscow used to be about 20 foot lower than where they are now. We leaned over the barricade on a street just near the Slavyanskaya Square and looked down on the footpath that was at street level in years gone by. Odd.

Saw one of the seven sisters. These sky scrapers were built to celebrate the 800 year anniversary of Moscow. Meant to be one skyscraper per 100 years, but the 8th one was never built. That’s a pretty big project to never finish… Maybe there’s hope for them yet.

Coming up in the next post… More of Moscow – St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square… Hey, hey, hey Moscow, Moscow

August 8, 2012

St Petersburg – Peterhof

Wow, Peterhof. An oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle! Ok St Petersburg isn’t really a concrete jungle, it’s a fairly decent city, but I’m not a city person, so I enjoyed the gardens and fountains of Peterhof immensely. It’s a fair way out of town, so we took the metro and a public bus to get there. Metro stations underground have some very impressive architecture. Metro was nice to ride around on. Didn’t recognise the bus seeing as it was almost like a mini van, but we made it on there and some helpful Russians told us the right place to get off.

Made the mistake of standing in the wrong line at the palace, got to the front and was told this was the line for tour groups. *sigh* We didn’t bother going into the palace after that, but just enjoyed the gardens. Oh and I got to see the sea! That was the only time I got to see the sea for my whole trip!

With plenty of water around, it was great to see that at least at one place the kids were allowed to go through the fountains. It was a smallish fountain, and the kids (and the odd adult) were running through it. But the water would only come on at random times. Quite funny to see the kids methodically stepping on each rock trying to make it come on. I’m not sure if many noticed the old man behind the fountain watching the kids and turning the water on at random times…

Came home via the hydrofoil boat and that was worth every rouble! We slept most of the way home in the comfy boat seats, with the gulf of Norway as scenery.

Took a detour via the souvenir shops near the church of the spilled blood to get some souvenirs, so after that I was carrying around a bit of extra weight 😦 Had a crazy banana ice cream, but didn’t get any photos of it. Food is mostly pretty good, St Petersburg has plenty of salmon on the menu, and I’ve ended up eating in a good variety of restaurants – although lunch tends to be whatever over priced food the street vendors are selling at the tourist places – including inside the gardens today. Stopped at a very nice cafe today, Kupetz Eliseevs. They were trying hard to emulate Uganda with fake meat hanging in the shop window. They had some very nice chocolates and cake, with very nice price tags to go with it. I did pick up a couple of macaroons for later on though and they turned out to be very nice. For all those who would like some delicate chocolate or cake from Russia – see the photos below, that’s as close as you’re going to get from me!

Today was the last day in St Petersburg. We left at about 10pm that night to catch an overnight train to Moscow – the first of our many hours on the train!

Anyway, the pics really do tell the story a bit better about the fountains and gardens at the Peterhof palace, so here goes…

August 7, 2012

St Petersburg – Museums and Canals

On the agenda today – State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, boat tour of the canals around St Petersburg, meet the rest of the people doing the tour with us.

State Hermitage Museum tips: Visit with a tour group or prebook your tickets online. #2 Make sure you’re in the right line before spending hours in line.

The lines to get into this museum are huge. The museum is huge. Thankfully we didn’t make mistake number 2, we jumped in a line, but sent somebody up the front to make sure we were in the right one. The first mistake though – we made. The box to collect your tickets ordered online was outside the area where you queued up, then you had an express line right to the front. We waited an hour to get tickets to get into the museum, to be greeted by another Russian who looked like he’d prefer to be anywhere but here. Thankfully he let us in before he shut the window and vanished for a while. To get into the Hermitage was like getting on to an aeroplane – we had to empty, or leave behind, our water bottles. Grab a map when you’re looking at the Hermitage and work out what you want to see before you go. That would be time well spent. There’s so much to see, paintings, sculptures, furniture and of course even the building itself was extremely opulent and lavish. I often wonder how back in those times people could live in luxury and opulence like that, but then more than likely have people living as third or fourth class citizens just outside.

One of the highlights of the museum was a room we found that echoed. I’m sure a few did, but we’d been told this one in particular did. We had to wait til it cleared out and we had it to ourselves, but when we did, we started clicking our fingers to hear the echo. Echo heard, we moved on. Many of the displays and notes about the displays were in Russian – not much english at all, so most of the museum was done fairly quickly. We still missed a fair bit of it though. Another interesting thing was a whole outdoor garden at the second floor level. Not sure how that worked, but we were definitely on the second floor (Russian floor numbers start at 1, not ground like us) and it was definitely a “floor level” garden. Weird. Around lunch time we saw some of the workers out having a game of volleyball in the gardens. Kinda weird being in a state museum and seeing the guys playing some volleyball. After a few hours at the museum, we were done – boat canal tour to do, but we could have spent more time there, we didn’t see it all.

Odd highlight of the museum: Visiting the unmanned post office. Even another person who worked there came looking for the attendant, never found them and just gave up, despite all the customers waiting. Eventually I gave up, and when I came back a bit later on, the post cards I’d picked were still there, so I grabbed them and posted a couple of postcards. I can confirm that they did arrive a few weeks later, so thankfully the slack service didn’t extend to the postal service.

Thanks to the boat tour guide for showing us this little 24hr supermarket tucked away downstairs, just down the road. Picked up some lunch and water and enjoyed some (very late) lunch (pizza and ice cream!) while cruising the canals of St Petersburg. Our guide spoke english, and he was fairly knowledgeable about the buildings we were passing as we cruised the canals. Can’t remember much of what he said though… Although he did say there was an old city and a newer city and to get into the old city you had to pay with large blocks of stone. Explains why there’s so much built out of stone. But, good to see St Petersburg from a different angle, many more canals than I thought there was and we even had canal traffic lights in a few places. Totally different to any Australian cities where the closest we have is a river through the city.

Later on that night we had our initial tour meeting and headed out to a restaurant close by. Unfortunately the restaurant wasn’t really set up for a group of 16, so my meal never really came out – they finally asked if I wanted something different. I didn’t, but if I didn’t say yes, I doubt I would’ve eaten that night… What I had was good except for all the mushrooms in it… which was half the meal… (I’m not a mushroom fan).

August 6, 2012

St Petersburg – Feel Yourself Russian

So here I am, in St Petersburg, enjoying the hot weather and getting ready for a day of sightseeing. I was over in St Petersburg to do the Trans Mongolian Railway with an Intrepid tour which began in a few days. Ev, a friend from work was also doing the tour and we’d met up in St Petersburg and had a few days to look around ourselves. Today we decided to see some of the cathedrals around St Petersburg, as well as have a bit of a self guided walking tour of St Petersburg.

First on our list was the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood. However we stopped to have a look at the Kazan Cathedral. Good, but just an old church really.

Onward to the Church of the Spilled blood! This impressive building caught your eye from the moment it was visible on the streetscape of St Petersburg. It was situated on the edge of a canal, really colourful on the outside with coloured domes drawing your attention and mosaic decorations on the outside. Of course the obligatory tourist buses and souvenir shops crowded the outside, but not to be detered, we headed in. This church was amazing inside. In a lot of ways it was laid out like most other cathedrals. But this had some incredible examples of mosaics inside it, all of which had been restored over the last 30 odd years. All of the “paintings” and coloured decorations in there were mosiac. Tiny fragments of tiles arranged in such a way that they came together to form incredibly detailed pictures of Jesus in various biblical stories. It was impressive and well restored. Easily the best and most impressive church (or cathedral) I saw for the whole trip.

From there we headed around to Palace Square, the huge square outside the winter palace (which is now the Hermitage museum). The square was lined with tourist buses and old buildings, complete with a statue (the Alexander Column) that’s meant to be a great display of engineering. The column weighs about 600 tonne, stands 83.5 feet high and was erected in less than 2 hours without machinery. Guess with no guide to tell us those facts we didn’t really understand the impressiveness of it so we kinda gave it nothing more than a fleeting look while we walked from one end of the square to the other.

Alexandrovskiy gardens provided a welcome relief from footpaths and old buildings. They had a display of the “united buddy bears” that had bears from different countries. Seems there was a few countries missing though – no Uganda, PNG, Fiji to name a few … at least there was Australia though. Apparently those bears are in Paris after St Petersburg and have been to many different countries. I consider it such a privilege to stumble upon an international exhibition that I didn’t even know existed… Imagine if I’d have missed it, I would’ve had to go to Paris!

You could spend days walking around the streets of St Petersburg, just taking in the contrasting streets, canals, old buildings and people watching (and soaking up the relaxing park with waterfalls). However we had a few destinations in mind, so we kept moving. We checked out St Isaacs Cathedral next. Seeing as we’d already seen a couple of cathedrals that day, we did the climb to the top and looked out over the city of St Petersburg. It was great having a clear day, so we could see for miles. It was also good to get up above the city and see it from an aerial view. The views were quite spectacular and you could walk the entire 360 degrees to see everything. Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever there.

From there we headed to Nova River, because I wanted to see the road bridges opening to let water traffic through. We were there at 1pm, to see the bridges open at, we thought, 1pm. When it didn’t open at 1, we thought, must be 1.30, so we waited a bit longer. When it didn’t open at 1.30, we started to wonder if we had the right bridge. We checked the map, the bridges and yep, looked like we were in the right place. We went and asked somebody. They said yep, right place. 12 hours too early. Or 12 hours too late, whichever you prefer. So, if I wanted to see the bridges open, I was going to have to come down at 1am in the morning to watch it. Funnily enough, I never did see the bridges open while I was there.

Observed the customary Russian weddings (it was wedding season we figured) while eating a hot dog picked up from a river side vendor. We expected some restaurants or eating places on the side of the river, but there was nothing. Guess with only about 3 months of summer a year there’s not a big call for riverside dining.

Peter and Paul’s fortress was next. There was a real festival atmosphere over here, it’s basically an island on the other side of the river to where we were – with overpriced souvenirs, hawkers, and street performers. And of course, anything extra you wanted to enter would cost you a few more hundred rouble. When we were in Uganda we joked about nothing was free and they’d charge you for every little extra thing. St Petersburg was no different. Gave most of those extra places a miss – really, you could pick up the feel of the place without going into everything and we’d seen a few churches, seen the inside of many other buildings and still had some to go, so I’m pretty sure we didn’t miss anything. Although it was a warm day, it wasn’t what we’d have called swimming weather. But there the Russians were, outside on the concrete beaches of the fort, sunbaking, swimming and enjoying the sunshine. Guess when your average temperature in winter is -30odd, a 20 something degree day is something to get excited about!

Hurried home via the Soldiers of Revolution and Summer gardens so we could get ready for the Feel Yourself Russian folk show that we’d booked tickets for. We booked a taxi for 5.45 and it showed up at 5.15. The taxi driver said he’d wait. Wow… So we went downstairs to find yep, there he was, still waiting for us. That might not sound surprising, except for the fact that there was no parking outside the hostel, so there was this illegal line of traffic blocking the rest of the traffic, of which our taxi was a part of…

Now the traffic in Russia drives on the opposite side of the road to Australia. One thing we did find odd though, that there was a mix of right hand and left hand drive vehicles around. Left hand drive was definitely the most common though and at that point in time we hadn’t noticed – so Ev can’t use that as an excuse. She decided to jump in the front seat. Without thinking she wandered around to the other side of the car, opened the front door and a panicked taxi driver started yelling at her – just as she realised her mistake! The poor taxi driver had waited so long, I don’t think he would’ve been impressed if we’d have driven off in the taxi…

The Nikolaevsky Palace was impressive – although I must admit I did expect the theatre to be a bit bigger than it was. If you’re ever going to see this show though, make sure you get there early, because even though they say that all the seats are considered to have an equal view, there’s two big columns on the stage, so you need to find somewhere that avoids them. The show itself was pretty good. Definitely enjoyed the singing and dancing by the Russian dancing troupe and the quartet of singers (who sang acapella and have toured Australia). The Orchestra though – well, they were good. I enjoyed the music. However they looked like they weren’t enjoying it and barely cracked a smile at all, in fact when one of them did, we took a photo of it (but I think I missed it!) Talking to one of the Acapella singers at interval and turns out he’d actually been to Bendigo to perform. Small world.

After the show, some souvenir shopping at the palace gift shop (where everything was priced in Euros grrr), some pics of us imitating Russian dancers in front of the palace (must be on Ev’s camera) and a walk home, picking up some traditional Russian food along the way in some restaurant. It was like the old style places where you go along and select what you want then pay for it at the end. Unfortunately our poor (read non existant) russian and their broken english (also non existant) meant that we couldn’t tell them that we wanted a couple of different salads or meats, so we ended up with a whole pile of the same thing. So did everyone else, must be just how they do it over there…

August 4, 2012

Where you going? Russia

Filed under: Russia,Trips,Uganda — pearsey @ 3:53 pm
Tags: , , ,

I’ve just spent nearly 7 weeks away, so it’s time to start sorting through the photos, posting some on the net so I don’t have to send them to everyone, and writing up a bit of a diary of my experiences (for my own benefit, but here is as good a place as any). I spent 3 weeks in Uganda, then headed off to Russia, Mongolia and China. I’m going to do the photos and blog for the second half of the trip first though, partly because I’ve already posted a few of Uganda, but partly because that’s the part that’s the freshest in my mind. So, strap yourselves in and get ready for a 3 week tour across two continents and three countries, a journey of over 6000km, through the lens of an Aussie tourist!

I began the tour leaving Uganda heading for Russia. Only thing anybody in Uganda seemed to know about Russia was that it was cold. I knew the temperatures were meant to be around low 20’s in summer, but I was expecting it to be cooler in the mornings, warm up quickly, hit the max, then drop back down. A bit like an Australian winter really! I love it that I was wrong about the weather!! It was hot, hot, hot! Our accommodation in St Petersburg didn’t have air conditioning (actually, I don’t think our land accommodation did anywhere until China), so at night it was pretty hot. The window opened directly on to the street about 3 or 4 floors below, so we did have a nice view and some fresh air. But Hostel Life was a nice hostel, clean, plenty of showers and toilets, plenty of hot water, food for breakfast and ice cream in the foyer (which I did not partake of incase you’re wondering!) But the traffic noise is very loud, and it’s really hot in there, especially on the top bunk. But I digress…

So I left Uganda, had trouble at check in when I was leaving – got stuck alongside the Ugandan Rugby Team and somehow everything took ages, so much so that they were issuing the boarding call for the plane and we’d only just got finished at check in. The woman at customs even asked “why you so late”… Well thanks to your friends at check in… Anyway, made the plane, sharing it with the Ugandan rubgy team (my closest brush with fame the whole trip) and not a window seat. Had an overnight at one of the Hotels in Dubai courtesy of Emirates, taking ages through customs, but the alternative was sitting in the airport anyway, so I wasn’t complaining at all. (Just in case you’re traveling with Emirates and have a stopover of greater than 12 hours in Dubai, Emirates will give you a free hotel room and transfer, but you will need to ring and organise it with them.)

Arrived at St Petersburg airport about 50 minutes early, which was chewed up by the extremely slow customs staff in St Petersburg. About 4 plane loads of people in an area about 30m x 30m, looking to get through about 3 or 4 exits. Did learn a bit about queueing in Russia though, which proved valuable at later dates. Tip: Don’t queue, just push toward the front. Taxi driver was crazy, actaully, on comparison to everyone else driving that I’ve seen since, he was probably about normal. Go as fast as you can as quick as you can and weave in and out of traffic cutting off as many as you can! It’s also ok to go straight ahead from the right hand turn lane if you’re the first car in the queue. (Remember they are on the opposite side of the road to us.) The motorbike riders ride down the road like it’s the grand prix – seriously, I am not kidding there. Nice to hear during the night as you’re drifting off to sleep…

Crossing the road is a unique experience, fraught with danger. The lights may turn green to cross, but that’s no guarantee that the cars turning will stop and give way to pedestrians. Mostly they’re going too fast, so you have to be on your toes.

My last meal in Uganda was pizza. My first meal in Russia was also pizza. But we also had some salmon shasliks as an entree. They were so good and devoured so quickly that I didn’t even get a photo. They make the list for one of the best meals while I was away. Actually, salmon in St Petersburg was quite reasonably priced, so I ate a fair bit of it. Nothing quite topped those first shasliks though.

The fashion in Russia, but more generally St Petersburg, was a little different to what we all expected. It was like a page out of the 80’s. Never did get quite used to seeing some odd combinations of clothing. I thought it was just me, but others confirmed it wasn’t.

The sun is a little lazy over here in St Petersburg, it doesn’t get dark til about midnight and I’ve heard it comes back up about 3ish (I was asleep though, so can’t confirm that). Did some washing at the hostel one night. Waited and waited for the machine to finish. It would’ve been nearly 1am and it was dark by then! Thought the machine was fully automatic – it was for everyone else, but I guess we had a bit of trouble interpreting the russian on the machine. We laughed at the teenage boys before us having trouble, but when it came to our turn, we kind of had the same trouble… lol. So we probably spent half an hour watching the machine sit there before we got impatient and hit a few buttons to get it going again.

Oh yeah, one of the other weird things in St Petersburg, and Russia in general, was the size of the toilets. They were tiny! There was virtually no room in them – and thankfully the doors open outwards, which is the opposite to doors over here. The one at the airport I had to do some kind of weird moon dance to avoid actually ending up in it while I was trying to put my backpack/camera bag somewhere. There was less than a foot of space between the edge of the bowl and the door. Talk about the door being in your face. The lifts are also pretty small. One person fits comfortably, two reasonably, 3 is nearly too close and 4 is doable, but pretty squishy. Pretty sure you wouldn’t want to be a big person here coz everything is made for small people (although not short people…) And another odd thing, which may be because in winter there’s plenty of snow… Most shops had basements in them, so you actually went downstairs to get into the shop. It wasn’t at street level, it was down stairs. Which doesn’t make sense, but maybe that’s just the way they did it.

Ok, there’s some random thoughts on St Petersburg. Next post will be a bit about what I did and saw in St Petersburg while I was there, which may be a little more interesting than this one.

Some pics…

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