Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Nine time zones, no jet lag!

Day 58 - London - 20,946 km traveled

We've crossed from the Pacific to the Atlantic by land and sea, covering nearly 21,000 km and 9 time zones! When we got home, what we really wanted was a proper cup of tea:



On the way back, we stopped off for the weekend to visit friends in Vilnius, Lithuania. This was a great way to mark the end the trip: it's a really picturesque, charming city with no shortage of great bars and restaurants. And with locals to show us around, we were able to sample some great ones (the cigarette lighter is for scale):



We broke up the final leg of the journey with a quick overnight stop in Warsaw and breakfast—good bread!—in Cologne before boarding the Eurostar back to St. Pancras International.

As usual, time is playing funny tricks: it feels like only a few weeks since we left but if we focus on all the places we've been, things we've done, and distance we've traveled, it's hard to believe it has only been two months. We're both amazed at how well the trip worked out and, given the constraints we had to work with, we're really happy with where and when we went, how long we spent in each place, where we stayed, and what we did; if we were doing the trip knowing what we know now, I don't think we'd change anything much. And we're already thinking about planning our next train trip: a December jaunt to the German Christmas markets.

Oh, and in all the time we were away, I think the trains ran on time almost to the minute. Until we hit Europe, that is!

Update (bonus): this thematically relevant xkcd comic coincidentally came out last week

Saturday, 24 May 2014

60° North

Day 54 - Vilnius - 18,526 km travelled

Hot. That's the best word to describe our exit from St. Petersburg. We opted for 3rd class, where the train carriages didn't have air conditioning, and opening the tiny windows seemed to blow a lot of wind onto someone else's bunk without actually managing to circulate any air at all in the rest of the carriage. We lay on our beds wearing as little as possible, coated in films of sweat, trying to get some sleep before 2am when we knew we'd be woken up for the border crossing. We'd only worked out the uncivilized hour the day before—had we realized earlier we might have opted for a day train—but actually it was relatively painless compared to our earlier crossings: it took only an hour on the Russian side and 45 minutes on the Latvian and the whole process was pretty respectful of the fact that we were half asleep and sticking, half-undressed, to our bed sheets.

The train into St. Petersburg was air conditioned, which was great because St. Petersburg was hot too: highs of close to 30°C most days. Our beds—carriage 11, berths 18 and 20—would have been great too if it weren't for the conspicuous and total absence of a carriage 11 on the train. They sorted it out eventually with beds in another carriage.


St. Petersburg is an attractive city, spread out across several islands and sort of a cross between Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna, and Venice, which is not surprising given Peter's attraction to all things European. It's also much further north than I realized: we were still a month ahead of the solstice and the sun was already staying up until 10:40pm. One night we stayed out until 2am to watch the bridges over the river lift to allow ships to pass; this is a common activity and there were locals out socializing, running, roller blading, and so on well into the night. The bridges stay up for a few hours, so if you're caught on the wrong side of the river you basically just have to carry on partying until 5:00. The sky still wasn't pitch black when we went to bed. Next week is the start of the White Nights festival, which brings concerts and events all over the city to celebrate the season when darkness never falls.

One of the cultural highlights of St. Petersburg is the Hermitage, an art gallery housed in the old summer palace. I thought the combination of great art, fashion, and furniture shown off in magnificent, opulent architecture was wonderful. Wandering the palace rooms with their gilded ceilings, intricate floors, and amazingly fine mosaics was probably the best part, but you could absorb it passively without the feeling of dead, empty rooms that often comes with palace tours.

Another highlight for us was a trip to see the ballet La Bayadère at the Mariinsky Theatre. It was really impressive and quite beautiful. The first act had really great storytelling, though I was glad to have read a synopsis. The second act seemed to have been structured specifically to allow all the dancers to perform various solos and small group choreography; having only been to the ballet once in school I have no idea if this is common practice or not. Some of the routines were very impressive, though I did find the device wore a bit thin. The final act includes apparently one of the most famous scenes in the world of ballet, a dream scene with 32 ballerinas descending a ramp in single file. The whole act was wonderfully designed, lit, and choreographed for maximum visual effect. The whole experience was great.

We also really enjoyed our trip out to Peterhof, Russia's answer to the palace at Versailles. Tsar Peter filled the grounds with fountains, all running off gravity without a single pump. I actually found the fountains a bit underwhelming given how impressed everyone sounded in reviews and guidebooks, but the overall effect of the gardens was great and we spent longer than expected—most of the afternoon in the end—strolling around the grounds. Peter had a sense of humour too and there are a number of trick fountains that will soak unsuspecting visitors.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Magnificent Moscow

Day 49 - Moscow - 17,160 km travelled

Moscow has been awesome.
I think we both expected to like it but were expecting it to be quite grey, bleak and dramatic more in a post-Soviet kind of way. In fact, it's a really beautiful city with a vibrant cafe culture, lots of lovely parks, and amazing architecture on top of the cathedrals and museums it's famous for. For me, our few days here have been one of the highlights of our trip.

We've spent a lot of time just wandering round, stopping for coffee and beers along the way.  There are a number of lovely parks that run along the river, that are really popular with tourists and locals alike. They're full of nice bars and cafes, lounge chairs and hammocks, bike paths, exhibitions, sports grounds etc. And at this time of year there were stages being set up everywhere for the festival of the white nights, which runs from the end of may to July.

One of my favourite spots was Vorobyevy Gory, a park near Moscow State university which is full of joggers, cyclists and picnickers in summer but turns into a ski park in the winter - with an enormous ski jump that looks like it lands in the river! From the top of the park you get an amazing panorama of the city, where you can spot the 'seven sisters' - seven sky scrapers designed in the Stalinist style (see photo).


We've really lucked out on three fronts in our four days here - we've had amazing sunshine, our visit has coincided with international museum day, which means all the museums were free, and we stumbled across a free concert by The Bolshoi theatre orchestra after enjoying an afternoon at the New Tretyakov gallery, which houses a brilliant collection of 20th century Soviet art. Julian and I usually have a two hour limit in museums and galleries but we happily spent most the day here as there was so much to see.

Yesterday we enjoyed an afternoon at the Pushkin gallery and then whiled away the rest of the day at a terrace cafe enjoying a bottle of wine and a couple of beers, indulging in some serious people watching. Muscovites are seriously well dressed - I've never seen such a concentration of stiletto heeled beautiful people. We both felt somewhat out of place in our quick dry t-shirts and hiking shoes. Slightly tipsy, we went back to our hostel just as six fire engines arrived to extinguish the kitchen fire on the third floor. Guess where our room was? Yes, next door!! Luckily, the fire didn't spread beyond the kitchen, which was completely gutted.


We were advised that no trip to Moscow is complete without a trip to the All Russia Exhibition Centre - a massive park with monuments to agriculture, industry, education, etc. and pavilions for each Soviet Republic. It was mostly built under Stalin to depict the achievements of the USSR and glorify the ideology of communism. All of the buildings were closed but the park was still full of tourists and locals alike, many of whom were roller blading.

In Moscow, it seems all the young beautiful people's preferred method of transport is roller blades and, since the exhibitions were closed, we (Julian) decided it was only right to rent some. I was pretty apprehensive - I've never never been rollerblading and wasn't sure that this was the time to find out how good/bad I am at it. I'm pleased to report that after a shaky start I actually wasn't too bad. I might even get a pair!!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The long train west, part 2

Day 45, 8:00 am local time - Train 81, 1,419 km from Moscow - 15,894 km traveled

I haven't a clue where we are. All seemed good at about 3:00 this morning when we stopped in what was presumably Yekaterinburg, though we were awoken there by someone trying to open our compartment door and thought our days of privacy might be over. They seemed to quickly move on to the next compartment, however, and the train carried on into the night.

Now that I'm awake, though, none of the kilometre posts line up with the descriptions in the guidebook anymore and I've realized that none of the remaining stations on the schedule posted in our carriage appear on the guidebook maps or vice versa. Either Russia, over the past few years, has systematically renamed all the towns within a day's travel of Moscow, or I guess we're taking a different route.
It seems a curious route though as we're currently crawling along a section of only single track that is crossing what seem like new bridges. We also keep passing little guard huts surrounded by barbed wire. Where are we I wonder? As long as the numbers on the posts keep going down, we at least know we're still heading for Moscow...


I took a walk to the back of the train yesterday—the second train I've tried this on—and got the same result in both cases: strange, almost intimidating looks from a few passengers in the open carriages and unfriendly glares from the carriage attendants at the back of the train, even when I made it clear I was just stretching my legs or taking a photograph. I guess Russians don't walk around trains, a fact confirmed by the almost deserted restaurant car last night.

They had an English menu, but it had only three choices on it so we decided instead to decipher the Russian menu with the help of Google Translate and our phrasebook. Identifying sections called Soups, Salads, Second Dishes, Sides, Sauces, and Desserts (how's that for sibilant alliteration?) we picked out two promising second dishes: one talking about pork tenderloin and onions, the other potatoes and mushrooms. Despite [thanks to?] the layer of oil, they tasted quite nice, but we may have misunderstood something and it's a good thing we don't mind sharing because, as you can hopefully tell from the photograph, neither was large enough to constitute a meal and a dish of potatoes can't really count as a more than a side dish, surely. At £18, we didn't feel we were getting great value. For now I think I'm just going to stay safely in my compartment.


I suppose we'll need to start adjusting to higher food prices though, as we should be officially back in Europe now: the obelisk marking the highest point in the Urals is at kilometre 1,777; we basically crossed the Urals in darkness but should have passed that point shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg. We're really looking forward to four days each in Moscow and St Petersburg and only a few meals of porridge and instant noodles stand between us!

[We are now running at a reasonable speed again and back on dual tracks... still a mystery where though :-)]

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The long train west

Day 44, 11:20 am local time - Train 81, 3,006 km from Moscow - 14,307 km traveled

We left Irkutsk at 1:17 am local time yesterday, though the clocks in the train station all said 20:17 because all trains in Russia run on Moscow time. This is particularly confusing when, as in our case, the time change spans midnight and you need to book the train for a different date than your actual departure.


In 36 hours, we've covered over 2000 km so far, crossed two timezones, and passed the halfway points of all the trans-Siberian routes from Beijing and Vladivostok. We're making good progress but certainly have a lot of kilometres still to go. The train trundles along at a pretty steady 60–70 km/h but makes quite a few stops: sometimes these are for just a minute or two to let people on or off, but we also make some 20–40 min stops in the tiniest places, presumably for some combination of providing a buffer to keep the train on time, allowing other trains to pass, topping up water, and emptying toilets. This train is the first since we left Japan to have toilets with holding tanks, which means they aren't closed in stations; they would have been more appreciated on the trains with 8-hour border crossings, but it's still one less thing to worry about.

I saw a couple with backpacks getting on the train in Irkutsk but pretty much everyone on the train seems Russian; certainly we're the only foreigners in our carriage. So far, we've been lucky enough to have a compartment to ourselves: this does mean we only have each other for company and haven't spent our nights drinking vodka, but it also means we've been pretty comfortable and have slept well. And after the woman who shared our compartment from Ulan Bator unpacked half a sheep from a cloth bag and laid it out on the bed to dry, we've really come to appreciate the benefits of having our own space.


So far we've been spending our time reading (sometimes out loud), playing cards, and looking out the window... not that there's a whole lot to see. The weather's lovely this morning though and the guide book gives us occasional kilometre markers to look out for. Our compartment hasn't turned into Lord of the Flies yet!

We're thinking we might go check out the dining car tonight but we've got a good supply of tea, instant noodles, and porridge which we can make with the free hot water in the samovar at the end of the carriage. And we've got fruit, bread, cheese, biscuits, and snacks to fill in the gaps. Plus a couple of bottles of wine of course. :-)

Monday, 12 May 2014

Back in the saddle

Day 42 - 12,128 km travelled

We're just back from a fabulous few days on Olkhon island, the largest island on Lake Baikal. We stayed at Olga's guesthouse, where we enjoyed enormous portions of home cooked food.

The island is a tourist haven in the summer but at this time of year is fairly deserted. The main town felt a bit like a film set for a western, made up of ram shackled wooden huts and houses.

We were lucky enough to have two days of glorious sunshine although the lake was still partially frozen, which made for an impressive contrast with the golden sandy beach.

The island is a great place for hiking and cycling so we decided to get back in the saddle - this time mountain bikes rather than horses.


Now, before continuing, let me give you a bit of background to my cycling career: I was the last person is my class to learn to ride a bike, in fact it was such an event that the whole neighbourhood came out to watch when my stabilisers eventually came off. To cut a long story short, I'm not a natural cyclist.

We chose a 50km route across the island, over some rolling hills (which felt like mountains), through forest and alpine meadows. It was tough. I had to push my bike more than halfway up the first hill and it didn't get much easier. I'd like to blame it partly on the fact that I had a bike that was far too big - which made uphill particularly difficult and downhill particularly terrifying - but I'd just be making excuses. Julian didn't have to push once. It was only when I went over a steep summit and slammed on the back brake only to have my back wheel jump off the ground that I realised the brakes were the wrong way round - nobody told me that it's only in the UK that the back brake is on the left. Did I mention I'm not a natural cyclist!?

Physical challenges aside, it was a great day. The highlight was the halfway point, where the track meets the shore of the lake on the Bolshoi Sea side of the island. It was an eerily beautiful spot because the lake was perfectly calm and it was impossible to distinguish the water from the sky, meaning it looked a bit like the edge of the world.


On our second day we were reunited with the 'Soviet Jeep' for a tour of the northern cape. Our guide was an old Russian man who cooked us fish soup and served his wife's delicious fresh tomato salsa for lunch.

We finished off the trip with a banya - similar to a sauna - which is an important part of Russian life, particularly in winter when the temperature on the island hits -30 degrees.



Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Rawhide

Day 37 - on a train at the Mongolian/Russian border - 10,840km traveled

The narrow bunks in our shared 4-berth train compartment feel like luxury after our week in Mongolia—cold nights sleeping on floors, rough roads, days in a saddle—but it's been a great week.

It started off with a surprise as our train from Beijing descended from the Gobi steppes through falling snow and into Ulan Bator: we were expecting normal seasonal temperatures closer to 15 or 20 degrees! As the sprawling shanty towns of the suburbs wound by, with their densely packed gers and endless brightly-coloured roofs in red, green, orange, and blue tin, we wished we hadn't so ruthlessly discarded our thermal underwear while packing.

We only budgeted about a week in Mongolia and wanted to do a five-day trip to the countryside, ideally riding horses and staying in a different spot each night. Arranging this proved harder than expected, though, because businesses in Ulan Bator often don't have signs, the buildings aren't always numbered, and about half the listings in our 2011 guidebook seemed to have closed down. I think we actually dodged a bullet because we were close to booking a trip with a company called Ger to Ger, whose goal of supporting local nomadic families through authentic home stays sounded perfect, when I decided to check first for reviews of their tours. I actually encourage you to click through and read some of the replies at the bottom of that page because they're truly impressive, but some of the highlights are the woman who said "it got to the point where I'd wake-up and lie in bed dreading the day" and the couple who, after doing their orientation session, walked away from a $750 deposit rather than complete the trip. Seriously, go read some; I'll still be here when you get back.

As we were starting to despair, we found this glowing review of a riding trip to Eight Lakes with Sunpath Mongolia. After circling the block for half an hour the next morning, we managed to find the place and Doljmaa, the hostel owner, worked with us to create an itinerary that was exactly what we wanted and fit our tight schedule. She also arranged our onward train tickets at no charge, offered us breakfast when we arrived in the morning to start our trip, and on our return anticipated every favour we were about to ask by lending us towels for much-needed showers, letting us use the hostel kitchen, and giving us a lift to the train station.


We set out early in our van, the soviet-era military's take on a 4-wheel-drive Volkswagen bus, with the goal of covering the 500km west to Orkhon park, home to volcanically formed valleys and the Eight Lakes, connected in a chain through underground channels. We were told a story of 7 oxen who drowned in the third lake one year and were found the next day in the second. The van's suspension was clearly designed more for maximum clearance than for comfort and the highways in Mongolia are so full of potholes that, in places, vehicles opt to leave the road entirely and drive instead along parallel dirt tracks. We averaged about 50km/h, bouncing our way across vast, beautiful landscapes with endless small peaks, expansive plains, and not a fence in sight.


We spent three days on horseback: about 5 hours each on the first two days to reach the lakes and 8 or so on the third day, some of it at a trot, to retrace our steps back. Afraid of the wind and cold, we borrowed some traditional Mongolian long winter coats, so really looked the part! Miraculously, though, the weather cleared up just as we arrived and we had warm lovely sunshine—though freezing cold nights—all three days until about three hours after we got back when the wind started howling again.


The horses in Mongolia are quite small and are semi-wild, trained to be ridden but kept in herds that are left free to roam and graze. Mine was a three-times racing champion and clearly knew more about riding than my limited experience had taught me, but three days gave me lots of time to experiment and refine my technique. By the end of our trip, my horse and I had settled on a sort of power sharing agreement we could both live with and we finished off the trip in style with a decent stretch at a gallop: such a thrilling experience!


Throughout our trip we stayed every night in traditional Mongolian gers, circular tents about 6m across with a central fire and insulated walls and ceilings. They can be dismantled and moved, though nomadic families do so only a few times a year, sometimes moving only a few kilometres between summer and winter sites. In a couple of cases we stayed by ourselves in extra gers set up for tourism, but while riding we simply knocked on the door of a convenient home and were invited in for dinner and to stay the night. And for tea. Lots and lots of tea.

Mongolian tea is basically hot yak's milk, which is intensely creamy, diluted with water and seasoned with salt and a small amount green tea. It's served piping hot in bowls and drunk in large quantities at every meal and any time a visitor stops by. I'm pretty sure there's no other week in my life when I've consumed as much milk, which makes a big change from the near total dearth of dairy in our diets over the past month.

Mongolians, particularly nomadic families outside the city, are very welcoming and generous. They share everything they have and total strangers are treated as honoured guests, served first and seemingly given larger portions. Sometimes families shared beds so we could have one; other times they were already sharing so we slept on the floor. But we were always made welcome and sent on our way with a hot lunch and all with nothing expected in return. With our western cultural upbringing we kind of felt guilty, but were constantly reassured by or guide that they love having visitors—presumably a rarish occurrence when you live so far from your neighbours—and when we set aside our apprehensions it really is a wonderful experience.

As we seem to have developed a food theme to this blog, it seems the Mongolian cuisine deserves a mention. We'd heard horror stories of being served nothing but grizzly pieces of greasy mutton, but our experience was much better. There isn't an awful lot of variety, with most meals consisting of noodles or soup with various subsets of beef or mutton, onion, potato, and turnip. They use a lot of dairy products, making ghee, butter, cheese, yoghurt, strong cheese-flavoured hard sweets (the one thing I couldn't stand), a sort of cream cheese, and so on as a way of using and preserving all the yak's milk without refrigeration. Unless an animal has been recently killed, the meat is mostly dried and rehydrated when cooked; it was a bit fatty at times but mostly alright. Overall, I wouldn't rank Mongolian food as a particular highlight of the trip, especially given its repetitive nature, but there were some notable exceptions, including fresh creamy yak's yoghurt mixed with sugar, tasty slightly sweet biscuits, and some simple and very morish hand-cut noodles that reminded me of German spätsle. The other impressive thing was watching the women—it's always women as gender roles still seem very defined here—doing everything over a single fire. The top lifts off leaving a circular hole that can hold a large wok or bowl and there's a constant process of pouring, rotating, cleaning, wiping, and stoking to fry, boil, wash dishes, keep the tea flask topped up, process dairy products, and so on. It was a bit mesmerizing, like watching a dealer or croupier at a casino.

We've now been stopped on one side of the border or the other for about 7 hours, a process made much less bearable by the toilets on the train being locked when we're not moving. We don't have a clear schedule but suspect it might be another 3 or 4 hours before we get rolling again. Still, both sides have checked our passports and the snow's falling again so I think we're officially in Russia!