Key Learnings from Russia:
1. Too much 'wodka' on the train invariably leads to a hangover which is further enhanced by the rocking sensation of the train. Not recommended.
2. A pack of wet wipes and ample application of deodorant in the toilet cubicle of the trans-mongolian, is no substitute for a real shower or banya (particularly evident on day 4).
3. Money cannot buy style - as demonstrated by those rich Russian women who think the highest heels, biggest hair and brightest 80s get-up equals style.
4. When travelling with the same group day in, day out where strange food is being eaten, all conversations really do turn to shit (literally). Those offended may substitute for 'loose stools', 'firm stools', etc, etc...
5. 'Niet' is the most useful word from my Russian phrasebook. Perhaps because it is the only Russian word I seem to be able to remember.
6. Do not joke with the guards at the Russian border. It will not speed up your interrogation!
My entry into Russia was fraught with drama. At border control, I was marched off the train for a full scale interrogation by some serious looking Russian military in dull uniforms leaving
Russian Provodnitsa & I
The beauty conscious provodnitsa was soon on our side when we gave her a nail file and sachet of foot soak. She loved us!
the rest of my group reeling in shock (and later I found out relief it wasn't them). It transpired that the Russian authorities firmly believed I was an imposter travelling with a fake passport and I was challenged to prove my identity with a signature and ID check, followed by an interrogation leaving me feeling like poor Schapelle Corby. It seemed that my passport had been tampered with (specifically the stitching), and they thought either me or the passport weren't genuine! In true Russian style they were somber, scary and did not crack a smile, however, after what seems like hours (just over an hour) of interrogation (my tracksuit pants practically frozen to the cold metal seat) they released me and I was allowed to return to the train and travel on into Russia.
The Russian part of the train journey was split into two parts - two nights from UB, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Siberia and three nights from Irkutsk to Suzdal (just outside of Moscow). So with no showers and limited facilities - save the samovar (boiling water tank) which we used to make innumerable teas and cup-a-soups and the restaurant car - it was important we got
Russian Orthodox Easter
For Easter we were given hard boiled eggs to decorate on the train
on side early with the Provodnitsa. We secured our comfort and happiness for the journey with a nail file and sachet of foot soak we gave to our beauty conscious Provodnitsa and were soon free to store our wine in her personal fridge and receive other special privileges - like access to the toilet when it wasn't supposed to be open.
Outside the train silver birch trees, snowy fields and frozen lakes screamed past the window. Every now and then we glimpsed a wooden cottage with brightly coloured shutters, or a fisherman fishing through a hole cut in the ice. Inside the train we were warmed by mugs filled with Siberian 'wodka' and local delacies like pirozhki (pies) and ravioli like parcels filled with potato or meat sold by babushkas at lonely railway stations. I had so many plans for things to do on the train - like read a few books, write in my journal, sew the button back on my 3/4 pants (yes, probably a little ambitious I admit), but the truth is with such great company and so much to see, time flew by and I didn't even have time to pick up a book.
Local home, Listvyanka
For many Siberians who reside by Lake Baikal, fishing is their main source of income.
Our first stop in Russia was at a small town called Listvyanka beside Lake Baikal (which was still completely frozen over). Baikal is the worlds deepest lake and holds 20% of the worlds fresh water supplies and is very sacred to the Siberian people. In fact, they are so proud of their Lake, that they've established the Lake Baikal Museum, where we were subjected to a particularly statistics oriented presentation (questions weren't really welcome) by the pointer wielding Natasha. The afternoon was spent settling into our homestays and exploring the town. I stayed with a Russian lady, Ludmila, who conveniently spoke no English (but did speak fluent German) in her small apartment outside town. It was more of a business transaction than a stay with a real family and despite the sensational food (like Omul from Lake Baikal of course), very comfortable room and smiling Ludmila - I really did feel a little dissappointed. Where were the questions in broken English about my family, my home, my travels?! I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but the Russian version of Neighbours was on, so I ate alone in silence.
In Russia, taxis are particularly hard to come
Russian Banya Experience
Pictured with 'vennik' (dried birch branches) used to beat yourself with whilst inside the sauna. Very invigorating!
by and hitch-hiking is apparently incredibly common. Our guide had booked us the use of a traditional Banya (sauna) to help wash away the grime we'd accumulated from several days on the train (and for the Aussies and Kiwis a unique way to celebrate Anzac Day). Unfortunately I was stuck in town and running very late. I powered back toward my homestay at record speed - but still had quite a distance to go - when a Russian girl pulled up beside me and asked me whether she could give me a lift - I was really moved my how friendly and interested she was. Certainly a contrast to my first impression of Russian people and a really nice change from the stereotype. Needless to say, I made it to the Banya in time and I've got to say it really was a highlight! The wooden banya building was seperated into several rooms. There was changing rooms with towels and large white toga-like sheets, a tea/chill-out room with table, chairs, music and tea, a showering room and finally a steam room (like a regular sauna). Basically you go into the sauna at intervals where you beat yourself or each other
Streets of Irkutsk
Paris of the East?
with dried branches (vennik) of birch. When this all gets too much, it's out to the tea room - before repeating the process once again. Very invigorating, although we couldn't follow the local tradition of jumping in the Lake or the snow as the lake was frozen and there was no snow!
After our homestay we left for the neighbouring city of Irkutsk which was once described as the 'Paris of Siberia' (a compliment the Siberians are holding onto for dear life!). The city was quite pretty in a shabby Euro chic type way and as it turns out the people are very friendly. On a night out in Irkutsk a group of us finally tracked down a restaurant to eat at when we were met with only a russian menu and no phrasebook handy to translate the cyrillic. In desperation (for our business) - the owner ran out of the store dragging back the beautiful Marsha and her boyfriend Roman. Marsha was an English-speaking university student and what began as a quiet night with her boyfriend, turned into a full scale menu translation. What a night! The food turned out to be Chinese (but delicious all the same)
One of the 40 churches in the UNESCO town of Suzdal.
and the owner even got up on stage at the end of the evening and sung us some traditional Russian songs! Other highlights of Irkutsk included the Faberge Egg exhibition, the Decembrists Museum and wandering the parks and gardens.
Our next stop was Suzdal. A tiny, Unesco heritage listed town with cosy-looking log cabins decorated by intricate and often colourful eaves and shutters. Our accommodation fell through and the group ended up a renting a massive cottage to stay in - which was quite luxurious. Though after three nights on the train, with thirteen people - a few more showers wouldn't have gone astray! Suzdal is famous for its many churches, monasteries and other religious buildings - apparently at one time there was a church for every 12 people who lived there (now there's about 40 in total)! From Suzdal, it was onto Moscow ...
Moscow was not the dark, grim and oppressive ex-communist strong hold I expected. Instead it was very much an exciting, modern, clean and prosperous European capital city. My first taste of the city was the Moscow Metro which is world famous, not just for being efficient, but also for its impressive station architecture
St Basils Cathedral, Moscow
We arrived in Red Square on Labour Day (which used to be May Day). No military men in sight!
(think chandeliers, mosaics, gold) and ridiculously long and steep escalators! Rumour has it that there is still a secret metro which was built in the 1960s in operation. Catching the underground was an achievement in itself with all the station names in Cyrillic (and our map in English of course!). Highlight of Moscow was the cobbled Red Square at night. St Basils the Cathedral built by Ivan the Terrible with its brightly coloured domes reminiscent of a Disney Palace dominates one end of the square. The story goes that Ivan blinded the two architects that built it to ensure that none more beautiful could be built. The other sides of the square are bounded by the Kremlin, Lenin's Mausoleum (which was unfortunately closed) and GUM - the largest shopping centre in Russia (complete with KGB inspired doormen in old style hats and long coats). In the evening of May Day (now Labour Day since the fall of Communism) the square was abuzz with people strolling, couples in passionate embraces, amateur paparazzi and children holding helium balloons.
Reeling from my passport experience and fresh with direction from Canberra (via Dad) to seek Consular advice in Moscow I set off for
Me & the KGB
Aka the doormen at the GUM shopping centre, the largest shopping complex in Russia.
the Australian Consulate. On the ever-reliable directions of the Lonely Planet I arrived at the Australian Consular Generals HOME (no consular office) where unfortunately I did not receive an invitation for a lamington and cuppa. Instead I followed some further misdirection, until I found someone who did not run when I approached them for directions (yes this did happen) and eventually found my way. On arrival I was so relieved to have finally made it I fell through the doors of the Australian Consulate - half expecting a VB and meat pie (sauce please) to be thrust into my expectant hands. No such luck. A decision was made that my passport was not normal and I should hot-foot it to London pronto to get a new one. Goodbye plans to travel through Eastern Europe from Russia. Hello plans to visit England, Scotland and Ireland!
Exhausted from this inconvenient and completely uncalled for holiday administration, I spent the remainder of my time in Moscow in less strenuous pursuits. I admired the art of Da Vinci, Monet, Cezzane, Gauguin et al at the Pushkin Museum and as always it was breathtaking. However, I was completely baffled by the famous statues including
many of Michelangelo's masterpieces I was seeing that seemed to have been assembled here. It all clicked when I saw the complete temple of Zeus from Olympia assembled in a room (which I had seen last year in Olympia), and realised they were all plaster casts of the original. I suppose back in Communist times, Russians would never have been able to see the real thing. Another highlight was the Cosmonaut Museum, who knew that they sent dogs into space before humans? I saw the stuffed little critters and their spacesuits on display and was treated to a Russian space documentary/propoganda and told to 'sit down, ruski!' (when I stood up to ask whether there was an English version that we could understand). Another great way to see Moscow proved to be from a ferry on the 'Moscow River' which was perfect relaxation after marching around all the above-mentioned tourist haunts. From Moscow, we caught another overnight train to St Petersburg. Fortunately, I did not end up in the same cabin as the Russian man wielding an enormous odorous fish and a cooler full of vodka!
St Petersburg was beautiful and filled with grand architecture, immense gardens, palaces, statues
and Venice-like Canals which we explored by boat. We really had hit Europe and for the first time since Beijing we saw many other international tourists. Treated to a walking tour by the refreshingly young and humourous Vera - we strolled the streets of St Petersburg and admired St Isaac's Cathedral, Nevsky Prospect (main st, St P), the Church on Spilled Blood and the Hermitage. The Hermitage is one of the worlds finest art galleries - though unlike its rich relations in the Louvre, MOMO etc - the Hermitage is literally that large, sprawling and uncrowded that you often have a room on your own to take in the art. It's also evident that the displays are not so well kept, visitors are allowed to take photos, some rooms are shabby and poorly lit by fluorescent lights and outside light shines on some masterpieces causing irrevocable damage. What is most unique about the Hermitage is that part of it was a palace, so many of the rooms are incredibly ornate with lots of gold, frescos, lavish furniture and exceptional views of the Neva River.
A visit to St Petersburg would not be complete without a visit to the Marinsky
Theatre to see the ballet and what better night than the last night of our tour. The lavish theatre was built in the 1800's and is home to the Kirov Ballet. Never having seen the ballet before, I was concerned I might find myself regularly checking my watch, but I was pleasantly surprised. The performance was of Odette and both the dancing and the music were sensational. In fact, our group finished the night with a few drinks at a local Irish bar and were joined later on my some of the principal dancers of the Kirov. Funny to see such feminine looking blokes drinking beer and smoking, unsurprisingly we drank them under the table! We ended the night with a bottle of Russian Champagne - a fitting end to my Russian journey!
Stay in touch, Ellen
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