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Published: July 11th 2006
I've made it - into Russia at long last! Sorry for the lack of updates over the past week or so - it's been really hectic here what with travelling and also a lack of internet cafes. Anyway, I'm typing this from a place in Moscow, just off of Red Square. A few of us got up early this morning to queue to see Lenin in his mausoleum and wow, what an occasion! As you can imagine, the tomb itself is very austere with soldiers around making sure you keep in line and keep on walking around the glass cabinet containing his body. The place itself is very dimly lit and cold (especially as it's about 30C outside at the mo). It's just off of Red Square with the huge walls of the Kremlin providing the backdrop on one side, St Basil's Church and the GUM store on the other - it's fantastic. I can't help but think of the May Day marches, tanks rumbling through the square with the old Soviet leaders standing on, watching the thousands of troops march past. Now the only troops we saw goose step was at the changing of the guard, outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I'm travelling with a few other people at the moment who I met in St Petersburg. We're all heading in the same direction initially - onto Beijing and then 2 others are also headed overland to Oz! Don't think we're running to the same timescale though, so will likely say goodbye in Mongolia. They're a great bunch - a mixture of Irish, English and an Aussie (believe it or not, one lives with an IBM'er in Portsmouth!).
I don't think I've updated this since Norway, when I was about to take the bus into Russia. Well in the end I met someone in Tromso who was taking the ferry up the coast to the border, so rather than take a 22 hour bus journey I decided to travel with her for a few days and had a blast. We watched the midnight sun as we travelled up the coast as it reflected off of the snowy mountains at 3am - a fantastic sight. Sleeping on the sofas in the bar saved some money too - and again we had the best view of the coast line in the Arctic Circle. I arrived in the frontier town of Kirkenes which was so different to Norway it was unreal. Russian voices and road signs were everywhere and there was a very different feel to the place - more of a stopping off point, people waiting for transport to Russia. A few years ago the temperature dropped to -56C - thankfully not this year! Anyway, I took the old Russian bus with the Russian and a couple of Norwegian travellers across the border and into Russia - with a nervous feeling in my belly... .
The bus took us through 250kms of untouched forest and past the town of Nikel, famed for it's, guess what, nickel mines. In fact, the factory that processes the nickel is responsible for the acres of devasted and stunted woodland - it looked like the moon as far as the eye could see.
We arrived in Murmansk about 7 hours later and I don't mind admitting that I found the first few days in Russia hard work. I seemed to be the only tourist around and I was stuck in a big hotel so no other travellers to talk to. Every sign was in Cyrillic (okay, I know I'm in Russia, but it's quite daunting to see that for the first time!) but it did mean that I had to try to learn at least the Russian alphabet quickly so I could undertand street signs. I even got myself a haircut - a babushka (older Russian lady) complete with blue rinse happily snipped away at my hair, chatting as she went to my da and niet!
Part of the reason for visiting Murmansk was because my Grandad was moored on the coast during WW2 as he was part of the Arctic Convoys, stationed on an aircraft carrier protecting supply ships travelling to northern Russia. I visited the Museum of the Northern Fleet and once I'd managed to tell them why I was there, I had a private tour of the whole museum. The ladies showing me around were really great - one spoke no English (although kept chatting away to me and laughing) but the other spoke a few words and together with sign language and my Russian phrasebook we managed to have a great tour - and they even invited Grandad and I back for a tour whenever we want! (Grandad, let me know!)
After a few days I took the train south to St Petersburg - all 29 hours of it. I was in a compartment (kupe) with 2 Russians - who spent what felt like the entire time trying to teach me English by pointing at things. Had a great time on board, eating raw salmon and drinking beer bought from the babushkas on the platform (although I smelt like raw fish the rest of the journey!).
St Petersburg is a beautiful city - the buildings are just amazing, especially the Hermitage/Winter Palace and the various little back streets with Venetian-esque canals. I visited a few museums - the Hermitage was really great - loads of Picasso, Matisse and Rubens were a real highlight for me, despite the masses of tour groups who faithfully followed their guides like lost sheep (I've nothing against tour groups, but these just wandered around with their mouths hanging open and blank expressions on their faces).
I met the guys who I'm travelling with now, at the hostel in SP. It was more like an apartment which meant there was a great atmosphere and was fairly central. I'm travelling with these guys all the way to Mongolia now - and tonight we take the train to Siberia! We have a 56 hour train trip to Tomsk, travelling 3rd class which should be an experience. We've read that it can sometimes resemble a refugee camp on long journeys - with towels, potties and sheets variously laid, placed and strung around the train carriage. 3rd class contains 54 poeple using 2 toilets and the free hot water and if you don't get on with the provodnitsa - the (usually female) attendant onboard it can make the journey miserable. You are on HER train and you play by her rules ;-)
Anyway, better go now. Off to Gorky Park this afternoon to see the funfair. I still can't believe that I'm in Russia. I'm enjoying it sooo much - what a relief to feel better after Murmansk. After Tomsk I'm planning to stay on Lake Baikal for about a week, mountain biking on an island in the middle of nowhere. Sorry there are no pictures this time - I've taken loads but don't have my camera with me at the mo. Thanks for all your emails and messages on the blog - sorry I haven't replied to you all in person, but will try to do so soon.
Cheers - and will hopefully log on again from Siberia!
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