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Published: June 26th 2010
A Sphinx in St. Petersburg?
Stolen from Egypt and now proudly on display in St. Petersburg - rather strangely.
We left a very wet and cold London on 7th June to arrive in St. Petersburg which was.....you guessed it, wet and cold. So much for trying to escape the unpredictable British summer then! Luckily it cleared up later the first day for our trawl across town to our first hostel of the trip.
We stayed in a hostel called Friends and i have to say it was just like staying in a Russian version of the TV show. The show was on loop (dubbed to Russian obviously) in the reception, pictures from the show were on the walls and they even had that picture frame thing on the back of the main door. Sadly the staff didn't look like Jennifer Anniston!
The first thing we noticed about St. Petersburg was how late it actually got dark. We were wandering around at 22:30 in complete daylight still, with the sun finally setting at around 1am for a couple of hours. This even allowed us to take a bicycle tour of the city highlights one evening which started at 22:30, lasting 4 hours. Admittedly this is really the only time you can do a bike tour in
Summer Palace St. Petersburg
The huge winter palace in St. Petersburg - one of many palaces in the city
St. Petersburg as the traffic during the day wouldn't be safe at all to do it and there aren't exactly bike lanes.
St. Petersburg is an architecturally very attractive city with lots of palaces around. These were generally built for the many Tsars who have lived here over the centuries as the capital shifted about between Moscow and here. They are all incredibly ornate, in particular the Winter Palace in the centre which is quite stunning. But really, every street you turn down has some kind of stunning building, usually along the main river (Neva River) or the many canals that come off it.
After 3 days in St. Petersburg, we caught the overnight train to Moscow. This was an 8 hour train which seemed to pass by fairly quickly. But it did give us our first taste of train sleeping, something we have been doing a lot of since.
We arrived in the early morning fairly refreshed into Moscow and got to our new hostel, this time dinosaur rather than Friends themed. After a quick freshen up, it was out onto the streets to explore. However, our exploring was a little curtailed by a
lot of the central area around Red Square being closed off due to Russian Independence Day. A large stage was being erected in Red sqaure for a concert that evening, while the square in front of the former KGB building had been transformed into a rally car race track.... British HSE would have a collective heart attack at how close the cars were to spectators, but the smell of burning tyres was memorable! By now temperatures had soared.
In Moscow we also met our fellow train passenger to Beijing. Braden from Sydney is a great travelling companion, very easy going and a similar age to ourselves.
We had greater sightseeing success for our remaining 3 days in Moscow. Most sights are centred around Red Square and the Kremlin. A tour of the Kremlin showed it to be a town inside the city really, with government buildings, lots of churches and the biggest canon and church bell in the world (The latter was too heavy to lift to a bell tower and cracked the first time it was rung, so not a huge success there really!).
Another unique attraction is to see Lenin's body, still preserved in a
Moscow Underground Station
Stations were designed to glorify the Soviet Nation
mausoleum on Red Square. After queueing and being stripped of cameras and phones, you can enter the mausoleum. Rules are really strict for the viewing - no talking, you are allowed in slowly in single file...and Braden, who had his hands clasped behind his back, was barked at to put them by his sides!
After 85 years of preservation, his suited body looks more like a manequin, white and plastic skin. However, people still flock to pay their respects to the body in a temperature controlled glass chamber. Other visits for us in Moscow included the flea market, St. Basils cathedral (FAO Westfourians - first West 4 around the world shot!) and the vodka museum to learn about the national drink (and of course taste a stiff measure).
As you may know, vodka has a huge significance here. It is drunk chilled and straight (never diluted with diet coke!). After her initial apprehension, Helen is coming around to this method of taking it. It is proving an ample substitute for wine i think. The other main drink here is beer which is consumed on the street, in parks at lunchtime, everywhere really.
We also toured the Moscow
underground which has some spectacular stations. Built by the communists to ensure Soviets got to and from work in relative comfort, it really is a cavernous airy place (The opposite of London!) Some stations have been extravagantly decked out to glorify Lenin, the Soviet republic and the joys of communism. We have a few pictures included here to give you an idea of how ornate some of the stations actually are.
Other things we have noticed about Russia include the incredibly glammed up women in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Very high heels and short skirts seem to be the norm among office workers and they really go to town. I think at school they must take the girls aside to teach them the skill of balancing on the huge heels! Helen fitted right in in her backpacker clothes! Luckily for Mike though, the men seem to make no effort whatsoever! The number of tracksuits would make Liverpudlians feel at home!
We also had a guide for a couple of our days in Moscow to make sure we left on the right train. Masha started out like all Russians, a little cold and abrupt. But when we got
West 4 ready for the Moscow Marathon
It seems Mike was the only entrant! So I won!
to know her she was really friendly and a great guide to Moscow.
Train # 28 Moscow - Tashkent
True to her job, Masha made sure we got on the 22:20 train from Moscow, travelling via Kazakhstan to arrive in Tashkent, Uzbekistan after 3,370 km (2,100 miles)! This was the "express" train, taking 70 hours and was stage 1 of the Nomadistan trip we had booked to get us from Moscow - Beijing ultimately, all overland.
We had stocked up with essentials for the train - there is a samovar of hot water in each carriage, so we rediscovered the student delights of pot noodles! There's also a restaurant car, in which we could take pot luck on what unknown (and usually tasty) local dish we got.
We were really looking forward to long haul train travel, and there is without a doubt a real romance and sense of adventure about it...the anticipation of boarding, the little kids sneaking peaks into our carriage, and drinking tea (from a delicate little bowl, local-style) while watching the landscape gradually change before your eyes, is intoxicating. A natural rythmn develops to your day, broken up by the excitement of
stopping at a station, where babushkas (old ladies) gather on the platforms to sell home made foods and drinks.
The first 24 hrs of the trip was fairly routine with a decent sleep the first night, followed by a full day on the train. The obvious change was the increase in temperature as we travelled South. However, a welcome station stop at 18:00 gave a chance to buy some cold beer which was much appreciated!
Being the only foreigners on the train (Of 16 carriages), we attracted some interest. The next door cabin wasted little time the first morning inviting us in. Communicating through their pigeon English, they rapidly (by 11am) produced a couple of bottles of vodka.
Yuri Senior was an 86 year old Uzbek war veteran (Who proudly showed off his many bullet wounds), while Yuri Junior was a 45 year old Russian train driver with a habit of walking around clad in nothing but his denim hotpants and rather large belly hanging over. He was also strangely hairless, and quite drunk by midday (I think they had been at the vodka before we were invited in!).
Yuri Jnr's wife (who, very sensibly, didn't
Some of our carriage guards posing at a station
There were many stations along the way - a chance to stretch legs and buy the local delicacy
drink), contented herself with giggling at her husband, trying to get him to cover up, and cutting up little snacks for us to have with the shots of vodka. It's traditional to down the shot, and then immediately follow it up with a snack - in this case, slices of cucumber or tomato or hard-boiled egg, sprinkled with salt. None of which we are used to consuming just after breakfast.
Our neighbours were really warm and friendly though, and would stop the travelling salesmen who would periodically pass through the train to buy us little gifts of worry beads and the like. It was amazing how much communicating we managed with no languages in common!
After a couple of prolonged border crossings from Russia to Kazakhstan in the middle of night #2, we were transitting across Kazakhstan en route to Uzbekistan for all of day #2. Taking in the endless, flat steppes of Central Kazakhstan all day. Day #3 saw us cross the southern part of Kazakhstan. More vodka was consumed prior to the Kazakh border crossing (To help the day pass), followed by a very prolonged exit from Kazakhstan and entry to Uzbekistan.
Long stops at
Registan Square in Samarkand
A truly magnificent square with 3 medrasses looking onto the square
borders, when the air no longer circulates in the cabin and you feel like you're in an enclosed sweatbox, become tests of endurance, when a good book is your best friend! We finally arrived to Tashkent (The Uzbek capital) by 21:30, desperate for a shower and a good meal.
Uzbekistan's Silk Road Cities - Samarkand & Bukhara
After overnighting in Tashkent, we were back on another train the next morning for the 3.5 hour (A breeze for us by this stage) train journey to Samarkand. This town, along with Bukhara, were important towns along the ancient Silk route which was hugely important in the transport of goods from 2nd Century BC for around 800 years. The silk route connected trade from China (In particular silk) and the East to the Persian Gulf in the West. These Central Asian towns were essentially clearing houses to keep the goods flowing in both directions through the surrounding pretty desolate desert areas. Through this, they accumulated huge wealth, in combination with the ideas exchanged between two very different cultures. We have to admit, we knew very little of this before visiting the areas. But i have to say we have been absolutely
gobsmacked by the beauty of these 2 towns, and Uzbekistan in general.
Samarkand initially hit us with the hugely impressive Registan Square on arrival. This is composed of three huge medrasses (Islamic universities) which make up 3 sides of the square. Each medrass is fronted by very intricate tiling depicting various Islamic speech, along with huges amounts of turquoise blue tiling, which is supposed to represent eternal life. This turquoise colouring is seen on every ancient monument in the part of the world. It really is a jaw-droppingly beautiful square.
The only slight annoyance are the policemen badgering us to bribe them in order to take us to the top of one of the minarets! We did also spend a while chatting to a charming 16-year-old schoolboy, who in his beautiful english told us that he wanted to go to London School of Economics eventually. He knew all about our footballers in the world cup, and wanted to ask about 'the english education system, what pets you have, and anything else'!
A number of other mosques and mausoleums are spread through the old part of town. These are all as spectacular as the last. Most are linked
Lots of dried fruit on display
to the local hero, Timur, from the 14th Century, who made Samarkand the capital of his empire. There are what seem to be endless beautiful sights in the old town.
The other highlight of our time here was to visit the local market. It was the usual mix of shouting sellers, chaos and colour. Particularly tasty are the numerous local dried fruits and nuts they produce (raisins, apricots, sugar coated nuts). We did get some good shots of the local sellers with their rows of gold teeth!
We also visited a silk carpet factory where they still hand dye the silk threads with natural dyes, followed by hand tieing the threads to make fantastic rugs. In some cases they have 1 million knots per square metre. The visit to the carpet factory was actually of great relief to get out of the sun, as the heat in Samarkand was fairly oppressive through the day (Around 35 degrees each day we were there).
However, if we thought that was hot, it increased again after the 3.5 hour train journey further west to Bukhara. Being on the edge of the desert, temps here reached 45 degrees during our visit!
This made it too hot to be out and about during the middle of the day.
Bukhara was similarly impressive to Samarkand in its buildings, particularly its Central mosque which can hold over 10,000 people. It also has a large, still functioning, medrass across the square from the mosque. It was a kingdom until the 1920's when the Soviets rolled in, and still has a very large citadel in the centre. There is also lots of evidence of the ancient silk route markets in the town in covered squares, which were hugely extensive.
The most scenic part of the town is probably the Lyabi-Hauz, a square built around a pool in the 1600's. Its a shady square with lots of mulberry trees, some as old as the square itself, and a number of restaurants with tables around the pool. The pool was originally used to provide drinking water, buts its long since become a pond for some geese.
Bukhara was a desert oasis (Hence its prominence on the silk route). The ponds around the city were used to tap the water table, to provide drinking water for the locals. However, frequent cholera outbreaks put a stop to
This beautiful mosque in the centre of Bukhara can hold over 10,000 people!
Overall we have been hugely impressed with Uzbekistan and the couple of places we have seen there. Despite the heat during the days, the grandeur of the buildings just take your breath away. But for now we don't have any longer to spend here as we are getting on the train to Kazakhstan.
We hope everyone is getting on well at home. Any updates anyone has will be great to hear. We'll be in touch again soon.
Photo Competition - Big Prizes Available
To give you an idea of the difficulties we have faced with translation while in Russia, and to reward those who have read this to the bottom, we have a photo competition. Name the well known logos in Russian writing. First to get them all right gets the big prize, a night paid for by us (in a hostel) in Delhi (Transport not included). Answers by comment to blog. The 4 pictures are included in the blog. Good luck everyone!
Tot: 2.478s; Tpl: 0.136s; cc: 13; qc: 28; dbt: 0.039s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.4mb