Thursday, June 12, 2008


We spent the last couple of days of the first stage of our trip relaxing in Riga. We arrived an hour late or so we thought (the clocks had gone back at the border but we didn't notice), having gone through a much easier border crossing than the way into Russia.

We were 'surfing' (see here for details.) with Rebecca, Kris and 2 yr old Konrad. Their apartment was right in the middle of the old town, which made sightseeing very easy for us. This meant we had plenty of time for snoozes in the park and beers on the terraces!

We've been hosting people in Singapore for a while but this was our first experience of being hosted, and it was fantastic. Couchsurfing is such a great concept and one that we've had a lot of good experiences with, its so nice to get a local perspective on somewhere rather than just following the tourist propaganda.

We were treated to an impromptu dinner party on the first night with some of Rebecca and Kris's friends. Kris cooked a splendid traditional Latvian feast for us all. We washed it all down with some good Latvian beer and wine. We were given a good insight into local life and their perception of us English (especially those disrespectful enough who pee on or moon their Freedom monument...). Sometimes our fellow countrymen are embarrassing when we travel.

Our last morning we were up early to say goodbye to our hosts before they left for work and play-school. We had a quick stop in the supermarket to grab snacks, vodka and heavy Latvian bread before boarding a crowded local bus to get us to the airport on time for our first flight since Singapore to Hong Kong. We spent our last Lats on more vodka and some chocolates in the airport. Our Ryanair flight bound for Liverpool was full of Latvians, no idea why they were all going to Liverpool? Maybe they're interested in the Capital of Culture.. Who knows?


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

St. Petersburg

Russia's northern capital greeted us with sunny skies early on Thursday morning. We had a fairly long walk to the hostel so that was our first stroke of luck! We checked in and decided to grab showers before going sightseeing. I bumped into an American professor who gave us a great tip; the Hermitage has free entry every first Thursday of the month. So we changed our plans and headed straight there! Stroke of luck number two!.

We spent a good four or five hours immersing ourselves in the Hermitage's extensive collection of fine arts, with no less that 2 whole rooms of Picassos alone it was no wonder the place was full of tour groups being led round in all major European languages. We just kept our ears open and enjoyed being able to stop when we wanted.

As we were wandering round we saw a concert stage being set up in the square outside, with the help of a free guide we deduced it was a Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) gig the following night. It turned out that the concert was a free gift to the city so we decided we'd attend!

The next morning we badly needed to catch up on washing our clothes, we'd heard about a cafe-bar cum laundrette which sounded like a good concept. As there were no closer places we trekked across the city with our dirty laundry to check it out. The place itself wasn't up to much, just a run down bar with student types hanging about. After 3 hours of sitting around sipping coffees and beers our washing was finally clean and we scooted back to the hostel for a quick change before heading back to the Hermitage for the concert.

As it had been advertised as starting at 7pm we were there early to get a good spot, as it turned out the band didn't come on till well after 9pm. The show was superb, made even sweeter by being free. I was given a can of what i think was Vodka-Redbull type drink by a lad in front of us in the queue, as he couldn't manage the four cans he'd brought with him (no alcohol was allowed inside the perimeter). So I was buzzing for the first hour or two, but after nearly five hours standing in the same spot my back was starting to give me grief! The band saved the crowd pleasers for the encore; 'Brick in the Wall' and 'Comfortably Numb' being the last two songs of the evening.

The crowds leaving took over the streets leaving the square and we were caught up in it all. Good fun though. Had to stop for food on the way back as we'd not managed to get anything beforehand! Didn't manage to get any photos though as it was chucking it down by then.

Saturday, we went to visit the Dostoevsky museum, which to be frank was a bit of a let down. I'm reading 'The Idiot' at the moment and I was hoping for more insight into the writer, unfortunately most of the exhibits were in Russian. There was a good food market across the street which we enjoyed as the vendors let us try all sorts!

We spent the afternoon strolling round the Summer Gardens and the Mars field nextdoor as the weather was good again although the wind had changed direction and was now bitterly cold! We warmed up in a Blini restaurant for dinner.

This morning we got up late as it's a moving day, checked out the Peter and Paul fortress, then wandered round the Tavrichesky gardens soaking up the sun on park benches and enjoying a tasty ice-cream, our reward for so much walking the last couple of days. St. Petersburg public transport isn't the easiest we've come across.

Tonight we're catching the train to Riga doubt we'll sleep well as we cross the Russian/Latvian border some time early in the morning...


Thursday, June 5, 2008


We were helped on our arrival by Mel and Donna's friends' son; Brad. He and his Russian girlfriend Luda assisted us in purchasing our onward train tickets to St. Petersburg and from there to Riga. Much to our embarrassment the queue took forever to go down. Then when it was our turn the tickets turned out to be more than double the guide books and internet suggested price. Brad and Luda thankfully lent us the difference until we could get to the ATM again as the station didn't accept credit cards!

After all the faffing in the station we were escorted by Brad and Luda to our hostel. Mel and Donna were also staying at the same place. We're so grateful for all their help and patience! Later that evening after gathering ourselves we went for a cheap dinner with Mel and Donna at a place nearby the hostel. We were all tired so we grabbed an early night ready for a full day's sightseeing the next morning.

We were up bright and early on Tuesday morning and despite the weather looking ominous we headed out to Red Square and the Kremlin, passing St Basil's Cathedral on the way. We were in the Kremlin fairly early and spent a good while admiring the architecture not realising the tour groups were soon to arrive. By the time we were ready to start checking out the museums so were the tour groups. We'd managed to see a couple so beat a retreat to Arbat street to get some lunch.

Arbat Street had been hyped as the place to get souvenirs and cheap food. We did manage to grab some cheap local food at Moo-Moos (My-My in Russian). The Borscht was tasty and hot, a lot of our other choices were on the sweet side though... As for souvenirs we weren't that impressed, we did bump into 'Matching Tracksuit' - couple from the Trans-Mongolian. They were staying with their Uncle Boris no less.

After our big lunch we decided to walk it off by following a long walking tour along the river past the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which was very tiring but worthwhile. We eventually wound our way back to the hostel just in time to avoid the downpour that had been threatening all day. Phew!

We weren't so lucky the next day as there were frequent showers all day, so after sorting our stuff out ready for leaving later we headed out into the rain. We got a good soaking so dried off touring the Metro system taking photos of all the ornate station decor. Not a bad way to waste an afternoon, seeing as though we only used 1 ride each as we didn't leave the system.

We got to the Leningradsky Station quite early and ended up having a broken conversation with a babushka in the seat next to us. There were a couple of station cats performing daredevil stunts high above the crowds below which helped us pass the time until the train was ready for boarding.

We were sharing a four berth cabin this time and as we'd booked late we had two top bunks. They were extremely narrow and being of more wide berth requirement i was dubious about getting any sleep. I shouldn't have worried. Thanks to the beloved eyepatch and earlugs I was out for the count soon after leaving Moscow not to wake until almost at St. Petersburg.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Trans-Mongolian (Beijing to Moscow)

After a pretty lousy night's sleep we were ready and raring to go before the alarm went off at
5:45am. We headed across the road to Beijing's Central station and joined the rest of the crowds waiting to board the train. As we'd decided to fork out the extra cash and splurge on a private 2-berth 'deluxe' cabin, we thankfully didn't have to share our 2m square compartment with the local traders and their cargo. The train departed bang on time at 7:45 and by half past ten we were ready to claim our free lunch in the Chinese dining car. The afternoon was spent snoozing as we'd been forewarned that we'd reach the Chinese-Mongolian border around midnight and would have to disembark while they changed the bogeys and completed immigration procedures. With our remaining Yuan we treated ourselves to some Mongolian vodka at the border supermarket, which turned out to be pretty tasty. Back on the train we were then subjected to the Mongolian customs and immigration process, conducted by a woman wearing an enormous hat and aided by another woman in a surgical mask and shower cap! It was after 2am when we finally cleared customs and were able to go to bed.

We woke up in the middle of the Gobi desert. After a bit of camel spotting we got chatting again to some of the other travellers in our carriage. Dave, the guy next door to us, had been sharing his cabin with a Chinese woman who was alighting at Ulaanbaatar. He didn't get much sleep the previous night as his cabin mate apparently could have been the Chinese snoring champion on an away match to Mongolia. Holly, another English lady further down the carriage, had had to endure a night with not one but two Mongolian traders who'd joined late in the evening accompanied by a substantial quantity of watermelons. They didn't even offer her any. We did later reap the rewards of the unusual arrangement when our conductors shared their spoils on the way into Moscow.

Holly and Dave joined us for lunch in the Mongolian dining car as we'd heard that it would be disconnected at Ulaanbaator (as it turned out it wasn't) . The food was ok and not overly expensive (US$10 for a bowl of noodle soup and a Mongolian beer). We watched the scenery go past for a while before heading back to our cabins for more snoozes as we'd read the Russian border crossing would be a late one again.

The reports were correct. The Mongolians weren't really as interested with us on the way out of their country, no shower capped, surgical masked women looking in the cabin going 'yes' this time. The Russians however took things a lot more seriously. Several hefty camo-clad beauties boarded the train, demanded forms we hadn't completed, then stood over us and badgered us into filling them in quicker, all the time chewing gum as her shot-putter of a colleague was prancing with great ease up and down the bunks checking every nook and cranny. It was all very James Bond-esque, floodlights, dogs, men with guns, quite exciting really.

The excitement continued for a good while as they took all our passports away for processing, leaving the customs people to rummage through the train. Donna and Mel, our Canadian friends, were put under the spotlight for a long time when the inspectors mistook the 4 gallon bottles of water they had for Vodka! When the inspectors realised their mistake they weren't so interested. They kept us all locked up on the train during this time and as we were stopped our toilets were locked. As you can imagine this had consequences to any of us that had had even a drop to drink that afternoon. To get some idea of the anxiety caused; try locking your bathroom, and any exterior doors for 4 hours after drinking just 1 pint of water. You get the picture? The dash to the toilets when the train door was opened after our passports had returned was comical. The woman charging for using the toilets had some cheek, luckily one of the two American guys paid for Dave and I (US$1 for three of us bargain!).

Eventually around 1am the train finally got going again, but the damage was done. We were late. This had a knock-on effect for the next day or so. At each subsequent stop the scheduled break was shortened to try to claw back time, which left us little or no time to pick up provisions along the way. By the evening we were glad when we finally got a break long enough to run to a small group of kiosks to grab bread, what I thought was OJ, some chocolate and several beers. The Russian restaurant car hadn't been up to much during the day, expensive and seriously poor quality and quantity.

We awoke the day after the Russian border looking out over Lake Baikal the World's deepest lake, it contains no less than 20% of all our drinking water, a nice thought that the Russians are polluting it daily with all sorts of nasties from the various factories around its shore, nice one Mr Kruschev. Its still good to look at though and with the mountains the other side of the train the morning was spent watching the last of the really good scenery drift by. Lake Baikal is so big we didn't leave it till nearly lunch time.

We spent the rest of the time watching Siberia float past the windows ( its surprisingly green, but quite repetitive, trees and huts, trees and huts), chatting with other passengers and drinking with them! The OJ turned out to be alcoholic-fanta by the way, it put me to sleep for most of the following afternoon...

Time flew once we were in the routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, counting kilometre markers, looking out of the window and jumping off and buying stuff whenever we stopped. Donna made some great purchases that she shared with us all, smoked fish at Slyudanka 1, Pro-gies at Malinsk we were more of the beer and crisps school of purchasing... Before we knew it, we were packing up our stuff and pulling into Moscow Yaroslavsky station, having swapped contact details with all our new Trans-Siberian buddies. All in all it was a great experience and in case any of you fancy doing it yourselves, we plan to put together some more detailed tips and info whe we get chance.