Friday, 31 August 2007

Altai Adventure (Southern Siberia)

Vodka, Vodka, Vodka.... and more Vodka!
That's the best way to describe the last couple of weeks. We left Moscow on the 13th of August and since then we've entertained shots of Russia's largest export in the following somewhat bizarre situations... to name but a few:
  • For Breakfast: Vodka Shreddies, Kellogs missing a market there, i tell you!
  • For lunch and dinner aswell: In fact any time food was around really.
  • With crazy Russian's on trains: We were approached by drunken locals regularly, one even claiming to be a Red Army Machine Gunner, but his pot-belly begged to differ.
  • While out in Barnaul - The usual night out with a bottles of Vodka close in tow.
  • With Immigration Officials - A portly fellow was trying to fine us 40 pounds each for Visa irregularities but while we sat with our translator in his stuffy little office, he couldn't resist cracking out a couple of shots in the middle of our 2 and a half hour "interview"!
  • While White Water Rafting - In between tackling the challenges mother nature was throwing our way, the local tourists on board would line up a few swift ones each to wet our, already decidedly damp, whistles.

One of the most remarkable things about this whole experience was the fact we were rafting with a local Police Captain, two Doctors, and the areas most respected Surgeon (which came in handy when Brownie dislocated his shoulder mid-rafting!) and none of them batted an eye-lid at the numerous intoxicating liquids being knocked back as we fought our way down the wild River Katun. We came to the conclusion that the health and safety blame culture which has griped Britain has yet to claw it's grubby mitts to Southern Siberia, and it sure was a breath of fresh air I tell you.

We'd met our motley crew of local big wigs and weathered pros in the Siberian city of Barnaul. From there we'd immediately headed off to the Altai mountain range and the the Katun River where we commenced the 5 days of rafting. It was on day 5 that we were all enjoying an easy stretch of water, Vodka shot number 4, and some lovely weather that disaster struck. All three mad Englishman had catapulted ourselves into the icy cold waters but one of our number managed to come out a little worse off for his heroics.

Brownie has a history with dislocating his shoulder, especially while on summer holidays it seems, and enjoys the prestige of having his own specialist back in the UK. Out in the forested wilderness of Siberia, however, isn't the ideal place to go popping ones bones out of their sockets, regardless of previous experience. It was while swimming that Brownie had his accident but luckily, the Surgeon with us was able to rectify the problem after nearly 2 hours of agonising (for Brownie, and for Jimmy who bore the brunt of Brownie's pain through his tightly grasped hand!) pulling and pushing on a random beach. On the plus side we all agreed that we couldn't quite imagine a more picturesque place to have gone through the ordeal.

After a few more hours finishing off the last bits of rafting, one man down, Brownie departed with the locals to head to the nearest hospital for a check-up and Jimmy and I continued as planned with the second part of our Altai adventure, horse-riding.

I still to this day can't understand how Cowboys can ride horses all their lives and still walk normally or even just sit down properly. Equally hard to comprehend is how the Cowboy family lines continue to reproduce with certain vital parts taking such a bashing on a regular basis! Other than this most uncomfortable side effect (I'm taking a box next time!) the horse riding experience was excellent, and the locations were unparalleled in their beauty and serenity.

Back in Barnaul (with an obvious limp) and re-united with our one-armed companion we enjoyed a night out with a handful of locals we befriended, and a couple of days adjusting back to life in a world with toilets, showers, and the occasion bar of soap.

It wasn't long though before we jumped ship once again and boarded yet another train headed towards Irkutsk and the worlds largest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal. Being as it's so big however, it'll have to wait till next time for a write up!

Only 2 weeks till we fly home now, so i look forward to seeing everyone, and would like to say a big good bye to my parents, as they should be just about boarding a one way plane to New Zealand as i write this... see you in sunny NZ at Christmas Mops an Pops!

Ta ta

Sunday, 26 August 2007

St. Petersburg and Moscow update!

Currently we head in the direction of Barnaul, our previous location being Moscow and the journey duration set to a cool 55 hours. Plenty of time to sit and think about the world, life, and everything in between. Nearly 20 hours into the leisurely jaunt across Russia's Siberian backbone however and conversation has dipped to the depths of discussing the ins and outs of the Moscow Sanitation System, and debating the continuing battle against illegal music piracy and it's role in funding global terrorism. So at this point I nod an acknowledgment to my peers, ascend to the top bunk of the carriage and set about penning a few lines to describe the last week or so spent exploring the infamous sprawling metropolis' that are Russia's 2nd city of St. Petersburg, and it's illustrious capital, Moscow!

St. Petersburg was as expected, and much more. The city exercises grandeur like none other. The faces of the buildings creating postcard perfect pictures on every turn and the glorious palaces standing majestic with all the pride and passion of a nation steeped in patriotic history.

In between visiting the usual tourist hotspots such as the cheerfully named Church of Spilled Blood, the vast Winter Palace, and the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, we attempted to get into the Russian mindset, as the saying goes: "When in Rome, do as the Roman's do". We decided to do as the Russians do and go for an authentic Russian Banya. There had been many stories floating around the hostel as to what we should expect from this experience, from being thrown around a room by a big Russian bear, to the usual connotations that come with foreign massages. Unwavered however by these mire rumors and determined to seek the truth we arranged ourselves an appointment with a reputable local Banya. Bags packed with Kendal Mint Cake, Ginger Beer, a towel, and a pair of swimming trunks (which we hoped to high heaven would be required!) we set about on a voyage of discovery and enlightenment.

Upon arriving at our destination it immediately became clear this was no David Lloyds, so with DL membership cards safely nestled back with the moths in our wallets we made our way down a dark passage off the main road, passed an elderly "woman" with child, towards a central parking area totally encompassed by towering concrete monstrosities. Somewhere in the distance a cat screeched and a siren wailed as three of the worlds most touristy looking tourists stood in a courtyard searching for a sign that this wasn't just a muggers dream scenario and that there was indeed a reason for our blatant disregard of all the warnings people had given us before we left home about dark alleys. Nearing desperation point, with clammy palms and sweaty brows we turned to face our exit point only to find it blocked. After a moment taken directly out of a John Wayne film we refocused on the looming silhouette and it became apparent that the old "woman" with child had infact hobbled down behind us and now extended a scrawny index digit in the direction of a red door. Without much hesitation we made a move towards this pillar of hope, and I'm left wondering if that was infact a young child in her arms or merely a turnip in a towel, both possibilities seem unlikely but we'll never never i suppose.

The Banya itself was a series of oven hot saunas followed by being plunged into an icy cold pool over and over again. Much to our relief trunks were welcome and bodily contact was kept to a minimum, both suited us down to a tee.

After having finished Banyaing and happy in the knowledge that we were now revitalised, we returned to our hostel for a good nights sleep before attempting to tackle to enormous Hermitage the next morning.

While St. Petersburg was of tremendous beauty and had an ability to captivate the soul, Moscow lacked this raw magnetism, but still remained of great tourist interest with such assets as Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, the seat of Russian presidential power within the Kremlin, and the eerily wax-like embalmed body of the Communist revolutions pioneer Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin died in 1924, but his preserved body remains on display for mourners and tourists to file by as if he had passed away only yesterday. We half expected him to sit up and enquire what was for breakfast, or how his beloved Soviet Union is coming along.

Unfortunately we were unable to find a bar in Moscow which had Sky Sports for the footy updates so we promptly packed our bags and left the most civilised place we'll see until Beijing and jumped on board the Tran-Siberian railway heading towards to the rising place of the sun, the far East.

Moscow behind us and Barnaul and the Altai Mountains to come...

(Due to lack of interenet access this is being uploaded later than anticipated, they didn't even have proper toilets in the mountains so a a good Broadband line was unlikely! IR)

Monday, 6 August 2007

Lithuania - Tallinn by Bus....

From the streets of Poland's depressingly unfriendly capital we trudged via tedious night bus through the plains that lie to the east in the land of the Pole, to the unknown entity that is Vilnius.
The first thing we noticed about Vilnius was that our Pole funds were obsolete, thus noting how we had now entered a new realm of law and order. The once Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now just the plain Republic of Lithuania, the Grand Duchy moved to Stevenage to open up a pub in his own name if I'm not much mistaken) welcomed us with arms wide open, but these wide and open arms carried treasures our disheveled and tired bodies greatly required. So after partaking in a swift couple of Lithuania's finest Svytury Ekstras (local alcoholic beverage, 1 pound a pint!) we were forced to hit the hay after 10 hours sitting on a coach. A coach that felt the need to stop every 2 hours for a break and thus go about waking all the journiers up from their blissful slumber. This cycle got tiresome (literally) and was the main cause for our only getting a poultry 2 hours of nap time in. Other causes of this travesty being the big smelly Polish person with a beer belly the size of Andorra being very noisy next to me, or even "her" annoying son and his insessant chair bouncing.
Vilnius itself has a lovely quaint "old town" which maintains an authentic medieval feel with a touch of modern capital city class. Then across a river is the developing "new town" with a couple of token sky scrappers and an umbiquous shopping mall. We decided to venture from our accommodation in old Vilnius over to new Vilnius just once but got side-tracked by a strategically located pub which sits half way between each shore of the dysecting waterway on a foot bridge, perfect for catching unwitting wanderers at the point of no return. So a few drinks and a pizza later and three decidedly more wobbly explorers decided to sack off the prospect of the modern world and return to the traditional establishments of yesteryear.
So while in Vilnius we kept busy doing a number of activities ranging from 360' spins on the magic tile, too wandering up hills to gander at castles and spectacular panoramic views. In the mean time we befriended a couple of Aussies, a Scot, and a Kiwi, I broke my flip-flops, had my trainers stolen and we dined Al Fresco in the middle of a cobbled street. All in all Vilnius was grand, plus it was lovely and sunny the entire time, with bright clear blue skies. (However I hear the weathers picked up with you folk now anyway so I needn't have come half way round the world to chase it, can't complain though!)
Estonia, the original stamping ground of Ram's legend Mart Poom, came next. With it's enormous church tower looming on the horizon we endured a couple of further bus rides, visiting the Latvian capital of Riga briefly, to get to our intended destination of Tallinn.
During our 3 days in the heart of this Baltic state one member of our team enjoyed his coming of age 20 years. For the fine fellow's celebrations we traipsed across town in search of the most splendid culinary experience we could muster. Unfortunately for the now aged traveller, the only place willing to accept us when we came knocking at nearly 11pm was the local town hall gift shop, so we indulged on a piece of quiche and a chicken wrap each and set about discussing the pros and cons of the governments proposed Identity Card scheme. Agh, the joys of being young, free and single!
Tallinn offered everything that Vilnius offered plus some more, bigger churches, more exquisitely preserved old town charm and heritage, but it charged marginally more for this pleasure, a jaw dropping 2 pound 50 pence for a half litre of beer (fast becoming the common standard for price comparison the world over... no arguments here!) But the people were friendly, the atmosphere agreeable, and the weather again excellent indeed (who would of thought we were further north than Newcastle at this point!) Bravo Tallinn and Vilnius, bad news for them though is at some point we intend to go back!!!
And so on we go, many a time we had wished to stay a little longer in a place, but we have a timetable and if schooling taught me anything, it's that you keep to your timetable. Any deviations for personal gain are received with letters being sent home to your parents! So onward to Russia, St. Petersburg and Moscow if they let us it!
Until next time, Dasvidanya comrades!

Friday, 3 August 2007

My voyage in pursuit of illumination has been long and arduous of late.Since I was last writing i've experienced 4 countries, 4 trains, and 6 different beers. So, the journey thus far, the route already trodden is as such:

London - Brussels - Koln - Warsaw

And I sit here now penning this at 5.26AM on a packed coach as we cruise steadily through the sun-kissed plains of the Lithuanian sountryside/ Our destination, the capital city of Vilnius.

Before Vilnius though i feel a need to inform people of the trials and tribulations of three wary adventurers cutting a path though the Eastern states to the orient.

We used Brussles and Koln as mire change over port, in one end, quick bite to eat, couple of pints, out the other side. Am they worked a treat for these intended means. The purpose of our trip is further East so we refrained from making a longer stop, which is not to say we wouldn't return in the future, I for one was very contented with my Croque Madame in Brussels. As for the continuing seach for improved weather I'm with-holding jedgemtn, there was a cool breeze in Koln to note, it was much cooler than most of the other breezes who wouldn't of been out of place in the chess club.

Between Germany's Koln and Poland's Warsaw (not to be confused with Birmingham's Walsall, i got a few quizzical looks when I asked for chips and gravy I tell you) we travelled by overnight sleeper train, and to say this was an experience would be an understatement. I've done sleepers before in Asia but never before have we had big armed soldiers storm our little cabin at 4AM shouting something about a fish he'd landed earlier that day. "Bass Caught" he would shout, "excellantly done" we all thought, "now bugger off so we can sleep." I personaly feel sorry for the poor aquatic dweller that recieves Das Boot from this behemoth. It turned out after 5 mins of discussing the best ways to steam cook a nice bass that "Bass Caught" was in fact "Passport" and I had come dangerously close to being extradited at the first hurdle for acting fishy.

We made it to Warsaw. Warsaw being "the city of the thousand smiles"... that is if you happen to walk around upside down. It was 6 hours until we saw our first display of dentures when a kind receptionist at out hostel greeted us. This could be down to a poor show on the weather front (nippy in thwe wind and overcast, not dissimilar to Cornwall), or down to the very prominent Communist hangover this country appears to carry, some 15 years since independance. The buildings in the capital are a mis-mash of traditional Soviet style blocks or new swanky capitalist built sky-scrappers. By far the nicest, most impressively ornate building is the Palace of Culture, as an outsider this enormous Palace dominate downs town Warsaw in a grand and majestic fashion. Locals, however despise this structure as it is a very real reminder of the countries Soviet past. The Palace was built in 1955 as a present to the Polish people from Moscow and the USSR. We dispured the local claims and visited the top for spectacular panoramic views of the city.From there we could quite clearly make out the "eye-sore" of Warsaw (wanted to get that in in ages) The abandoned national football stadium stands as a giant empty concrete bowl devoid of anything except overgrowth and an eery post-apocoliptic atmosphere. We ventured to the staium as we were told there was a flea-market near by, we'd been lied to... Unperturbed by this disappointment (I need a new flea, i keep sitting on mine!) we trudgd around the city, old and new, soaking up atmosphere, history, and the odd alcoholic beverage!

It was from there we joined this coach, bound for the city which lies in the city of Europe, so I'll save my report on that for another day, in the mean time, hope everyones well back in Blighty,I hope to bring news of the missing Sun soon.

Ta Ta