Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Russia (Part 2)

We got off of the train and walked through the station, waving goodbye to our cabin attendants we joined Sergey and Ira as we headed out into the city of Moscow. Natalie's sister, Amy, went on a travel exchange program to Moscow with her school and thus met Sergey, Galina and Ira. They've stayed in contact ever since and really they're just lovely people and we felt very lucky to have the opportunity to stay with them.

We waited outside the station for a taxi to arrive to take us to register. In Russia you have to register whenever you enter a new town or city, it's an immigration protocol and it's taken incredibly seriously, so we thought we'd get it out of the way as quickly as we could. As we entered the traffic in the taxi Sergey and Ira commented that "this is why we don't have a car," the traffic was mental, we were at standstills at traffic lights for over ten minutes sometimes and cars are weaving in and out of each other all over the shop. We eventually made it to register and handed over our documents, it was an incredibly easy process thanks to the efficiency of the agency that we made our travel arrangements with. After we had completed all the banal formalities of Russian bureaucracy we caught the subway to our hosts apartment. They live in a suburb of Moscow about fifteen minutes from the city center by subway. Like most other suburbs that we came into contact with it's like stepping into a soviet wonderland, just identical high rise after identical high rise overlooking small childrens playgrounds and mini markets. We walked through the estate and entered the huge soviet building that they lived in and we were pleasantly surprised as we walked into the apartment to find that it was just so damn nice inside. Galina greeted us with an amazing traditional Russian meal, the first of many more to come and we were given the obligatory house tour. We settled down for the night, contented that we were finally in one place and no longer on a train in Siberia.

Our first day in Moscow we went to the Moscow Kremlin. We must have spent seven or more hours inside seeing all of the museums, exhibitions and cathedrals. The orthodox architecture of the cathedrals in Moscow took me back to Romania who have similar churches and cathedrals dotting their landscape. They have beautiful curved gold steeples and white wash exterior walls and inside they have intricate decorative paintings and finely carved wooden sculptures. Even to somebody as completely opposed to the church as I am, the buildings were something to marvel at. The security at the Kremlin was nothing short of ridiculous, much like every building in Russia there seems to be a fear that someone is going to smuggle something metal in and do something untoward with it. Again, Russian bureaucracy, right? It's a little silly. We walked around the famed Kremlin armory and saw the Moscow Diamond Fund all rather extravagant but very interesting and set within beautiful buildings clearly built way before the Soviet era. After we had explored the interior of the Kremlin we went for some lunch at a Russian kitchen and headed to Red Square. When you first walk into Red Square you are struck by the magnitude of the place and the cartoon like beauty of the dominant St. Basil's Cathedral. St. Basils with its colorful steeples and interesting shapes stands at the Northern tip of the square (it could be the Southern for all I know) in front of it is a circular ring where dissidents and wrong doers used to be executed in the 18th and 19th century. Next to this stands the Kremlin, proud and tall, with its glistening red stars a top many structures that surround the bright red walls, no wonder it's called the Red Square, sitting in front of the Kremlin is Lenin's mausoleum and if we had actually been collecting communist leaders then I'm sure we would have visited him, but alas we already missed out on Ho Chi Minh and Mao, so we left it at a photo of the mausoleum. At the Southern end is the giant red and white historical museum and to the left of that stands a huge shopping mall reminiscent of Harrods in Kensington. A busy day indeed and we hustled home to more delicious food and conversation with our hosts.

Our second day in Moscow. it snowed, it was like the snow was following us from Mongolia and it had finally caught up. We visited a huge panorama of the Napoleonic War, which was quite a sight to behold, it was a perfectly circular painting that was all around you and it even bled out into sculptures and decorations on the ground beneath the painting of the panorama itself. It detailed a huge battle just outside of Moscow in which Napoleon was defeated by the Russian army. Oh, don't get me started on state proper gander now will you? We'll leave it at that. After this we visited the gigantic World War 2 or as the Russians call it the patriotic war museum. Why they call it the patriotic war is way over my head, I was under the impression that several countries (the allies) banded together to defeat the fascist imperialists but apparently I was mistaken and it's all about how awesome Russia is. Never the less the museum was fantastic and again included some great paintings and memorials and it was rather educational had you previously not known about Russia's involvement in the war effort. It's definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Moscow. After visiting the World War 2 museum the snow had died down and we went for some food at My-My, an awesome restaurant which serves a ridiculous amount of food in a kind of buffet, carvary style. After eating we walked down the famous Arbat street and looked at all the kooky over priced Russian dolls and other artsy items on display as we made our way way to the biggest cathedral in Moscow the Church of Christ the Savior. We stepped inside and obeyed the you must take your hat off and pass through airport security to get into the cathedral and we walked through the cathedral for a while. It was rather awe inspiring and magnificent in breadth and architectural style. It was actually destroyed during Soviet times but was rebuilt again after the USSR disbanded. We were getting pretty tired by this point but still had time to scoff our faces back at the apartment and play some Nintendo Wii, something I hadn't done in over a year.

The third day wasn't any less busy and we started off at a huge art gallery housing some of Russias most famous paintings. I've never spent too long inside galleries before but we spent a good three hours walking around this one, and it was enormous. We marveled at some paintings and frowned at others and then we went to My-My for some more lunch. After this we went to see the monument to Peter the Great which is the biggest monument I've ever seen, he is standing on top of a giant boat right in the middle of the city, quite something. After this we went with Ira to her weekly dance class and met her dance teacher who is the most Russian person I've ever met. She was pretty amazing and we watched everybody dancing and felt like we were experiencing some of the real Russia rather than just the tourist side of the place. The next day was a Saturday and we went to the Natural History Museum in the morning which is by far the best Natural History Museum I've ever been to, the amount of taxidermies was insane, they had everything set over a giant three floors. Then we walked back through the Ho Chi Minh square (as ya do) and went to catch a bus tour that the family had arranged for us which took us to some sights that were harder to get too via the metro. Once this tour had concluded we headed to the Moscow State Circus for a surprise treat that the family had planned for us.

I was reluctant to attend the circus as I had heard many stories about the tragic abuse that goes on there. It's certainly prevalent watching the show that these animals are abused and some animals they use in these shows should not be participating for the sake of entertainment, for instance endangered species like polar bears were playing the drums and cheetahs were reluctantly jumping over each other whilst a kangaroo was forced to wrestle with a man. This was hard to watch and was cringe worthy at times, how could people not find this utterly heart breaking? However, the acrobatics and other non-animal orientated elements of the circus was nothing short of amazing and as we didn't actually give the circus any money as it was a very kind treat, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it.

On our last day in Russia we went to Ismilovlad, this is a small Moscow suburb in the North of town which has its very own kitschy Kremlin to explore, all log cabins and cute gift shops, it was very Chrsitmasy and winter like and I felt like I was stepping into a Dickens novel had I not been in Russia and was far more likely stepping into a Tolstoy novel. Never the less we had a good time exploring the cute yet beautiful Kremlin and then did some shopping in a market close by. After this we swung by the Russian cosmonaut museum to get our space fix and even saw the first digs to ever go into space and some other really awesome space stuff at the museum.

Thus concluded our Moscow tour and we had an amazing time. There was a small incident which happened on our way home on the last night which did turn the trip a little sour. We were coming out of the Russian gingerbread store close by to where Sergey and company live on the estate and we were going to go to the pharmacy to get something for the flight the next day. As we were walking merrily along the road suddenly a very drunken, sturdy and rough looking Russian bumped straight into me, nearly knocking me to the floor. I didn't think much of it, and just wrote him off as drunk and rude and we continued to walk, but then I felt him grab my jacket from behind and he pulled me towards him. Sergey, Ira and Natalie all turned around and as we tried to keep walking he persistently kept following us becoming more aggressive with each step that we took away from him. We eventually ended up huddled into a corner of the street, Natalie was stood in front of me and the man had hold of my jacket with a very tight grip, Ira was stood to one side as Sergey argued with the man in Russian, as clearly I couldn't defend my "what the hell did I do?" in English as it probably would have made things worse. The man wasn't letting up and was determined that he was going to pull me to one side and beat me up or rob me, I don't know. He became increasingly aggressive towards Sergey and luckily at this point a man walking past must have either pulled the man back or got his attention and he lost his grip and we quickly darted away. We thought we had escaped as the man started to argue with the bystander, but before we knew it the man ran up behind us, ran past me and straight into Sergey's back, pulling the hood of his jacket, luckily the hood was buttoned to Sergey's coat and it came off in the mans hand and then fell to the floor, Natalie stealthily picked up and we all turned around again, only to find that the by stander had pulled right up to the side of the scene and was pointing a gun at the man who was trying to attack us. We all kind of froze as we had never seen a gun being pulled in public before. Sergey signaled to us that this was probably a good time to leave and unfortunately I can't conclude the story as that was the last we saw of the man or the bystander, but by gum it was a scary experience and I've never had anyone just openly attack for no reason, we blame the fact that he was drunk, but if it wasn't for the brave bystander with a gun, who knows what would have happened. We darted back to the house and collapsed onto the sofa, before we knew it we were eating our last Russian meal and smiling and laughing again, glad we had survived the ordeal. We took some photos with the family and settled in for the evening, in the knowledge that we had experienced some true highs and low of Russian life.

The next day we boarded our flight to Germany and now that is where we reside, we're home next week and we have many stories to tell that I just haven't been able to write about in these often rushed blogs. Weve had an amazing time but we're finally looking forward to coming home and seeing everybody, next time I post I'll no doubt be back in the UK but I will for sure write a post about Germany and then one final conclusive post from the comfort of my home.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Mongolia (Part 1)

We screeched into Ulaanbaatar at around one thirty in the afternoon. The sky was blue and the air was bitterly cold. We certainly weren't in Kansas anymore. Our hostel was lovely enough to pick us up from the station and we proceeded through the dull gray pallor of the streets to our hostel. It was a small building, and like most other buildings in town it was a leftover from Soviet times, looking out from behind the hostel you could see an estate with husky old men and women huddled around bonfires drinking vodka. This was like nowhere else I had ever been before. Gana, the owner of the hostel, would tell us stories about how Ulaanbaatar used to be such a great place to live but that now it was rough and dirty, and that he was disappointed in its people for turning it into the ex-soviet slum that it had become. But, really it wasn't that bad, I actually grew rather fond of it. Down the street from the hostel was the old monastery, a beautiful building with an emerald green Buddhist style roof on the top of a giant hill. Further into town there were many shopping malls, a huge square that houses the government buildings and monuments to Chinggis Khan (that's how they spell it), and the main museums in town. We spent our first day in Ulaanbaatar exploring these museums and trying to get a feel for the place, but even the museums felt a little run down and like they had gone past their sell by date. Snow started coming down and you could see your breath in front of you, so we headed to the state department store (a giant store smack in the middle of town) and stocked up on some warm clothes.

After a day or so of exploring Ulaanbaatar we knew all too well that it was time to get out into what Mongolia is famous for; it's endless countryside. We booked a ride with our hostel out to Terelj National Park. Gana gave us a ride out to our ger (a ger is a round felt hut) and it really was in the middle of nowhere. Gana told a good story and filled us in on many of the trappings of Mongolian culture. He told us how 95% of the roads in the country weren't really roads at all but just dirt tracks made by nomads, so it's hard to map Mongolia as the roads are forever changing. Most Mongolians live in the cities, I think a whopping 30 or 40 percent of them actually live in Ulaanbaatar, outside of that you have nomads, people who live a simple life, tax free and off on their own in the wild. Something we were hoping to get a flavor for.

The national park was beautiful, soaring mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see, endless fields with nothing in them but the occasional cow, or horse. Huge rocks cascaded over hills and aging monasteries rotted on the tops of the mountains. It was quite a sight to behold and we were staying right in the middle of the bottom of the valley. We went inside the family ger and were served some breakfast (a sign of things to come) the breakfast was cheese and bread and some mare's milk tea. I quite enjoyed it's simplicity but Natalie did not. After breakfast and meeting the family (mother, father and son Nick) we were shown to our ger. In total the family had three gers at their little country retreat, one for the family, one for the son and one for guests. Our ger was pretty big but not as big as the family ger, it was perfectly round and decorated in true Mongolian style with handmade cloth and blankets. In the center of the ger stood an iron fireplace that would become our only source of heat over many long nights in the bitter cold. We were also shown the toilet about fifteen metres from our ger was the outhouse. A hole in the ground that when you looked down you could see (and smell) the rancid decaying shit below. I can't say it was incredibly pleasant but it was all we had to work with as Gana drove away and left us there, in the middle of nowhere.

Next up was horse riding. Neither Natalie nor I had ever ridden a horse before but we swung our legs over our tiny little horses confidently. Natalie's horse had decided to be a little mischievous, so, Nick (our guide) tied Natalie's horse to his horse and they galloped off in front telling me to follow. There I was, sat on a horse, with no idea what to do. Nick signaled to me how to 'take off' if you will, so I gently kicked the side of the horse and said something loudly like "Haaa", and off the horse went. I pulled one rope for left and one rope for right and I kicked the side of the horse to go faster and could feed it several commands by making several different noises. Galloping through the Mongolian countryside on the back of a horse was an experience I'll never forget. I felt like Aragorn off on an adventure, and indeed the scenery was rather reminiscent of Middle Earth, just without any orcs.

We stopped off at a monastery, tied the horses up, and hiked up the many steps to the top. The view from up there was breathtaking and monks had painted beautiful works of art on the sides of the rocks on the mountains. A crazy old man with a machete, up there showed us the intricate workings of the artist who had painted the temple. There were pictures of people getting decapitated, a bit of the old bestiality and some other rather untoward images splattered onto this place of worship, very strange, very strange indeed. We hiked back down and over a very rickety bridge to our horses and this time Natalie was free to ride her horse by herself as well. We picked up speed and we were off. My back started to hurt and it was bloody cold, but I was still enjoying the adrenaline rush that came from riding my horse through the mountains. Who ever paid for horse riding lessons is a fool, this is where it's at.

We rode to Turtle Rock, this rock was huge and it genuinely did look like a turtle, we took some photo's and had a walk around the park from here whilst Nick got a snack in the local shop, may I add, the only shop for miles around and it sold, well, beer, vodka, and cookies. That's was about it. Oh, and lamb. We galloped back to the gers for lunch and you guessed it lunch was lamb, and dinner was lamb, and lunch the next day was lamb, and lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, bloody sick of all the bloody lamb. Mongolians eat a lot of lamb, very hearty food, I guess to keep them warm during the blisteringly cold winters. Ulaanbaatar itself is renowned as the coldest capital in the world, it has all those Siberian winds blowing over and nothing to protect itself. In the winter Gana told us that it can get down to -40. Can you imagine!?

We ate lunch and then played with the local wolf, it was a domesticated dog to be fair, but it looked like a wolf. Natalie befriended him and they were inseparable by the end of our stay. We went and did some more hiking around the park in the afternoon and started to worry about the night ahead. The coldest night of my life. When we fell asleep the fire was still ablaze, but when I woke up at around midnight, the fire had gone out and the door to our ger had swung open, there was no lock and it had a knack of doing that. So, all the bitter cold air from outside had come into the ger. I spent most of the night trying to relight a fire but with nothing but matches and huge logs of wood this proved rather testing, I did get it going again but it didn't last for long, so we shivered our way through the night, occasionally waking up to take a trip to the outhouse, also in the cold. But, hey, what can you do? It's all part of the experience, right?

The second day in the country and we did much the same as the first. We went hiking around the valley and found lots of old bones lying around. We got some magnificent views from a top some of the rocks and we chased neighboring gers puppies around for kicks. They were so cute. Mainly we just tried to not be cold and we tried to stomach all of the lamb we were fed, oh how we wished we could have a shower. Don't get me wrong though, I wouldn't trade in the experience and although the second night was rather similar in style to the first, it was fine, because we were in Mongolia and we were experiencing something very few people even know exists. Real freedom, real nomadic life, really getting away from it all in every sense of the word. Now I think I understand that idea of freedom a little bit more than I did before I rolled into Terelj.

The rest of our Mongolian experience was spent bumming around the national park and then further more bumming around Ulaanbaatar, it was so cold and eight days really wasn't enough to get out and see a lot more of the country. We would have liked to get down to the Gobi desert, or out to Khustain to see the wild horses, but I suppose it means that we'll just have to come back.

We left Ulaanbaatar on a snowy day from the central train station. We had picked our tickets up from another Soviet style estate a few days previously and we exchanged our money, packed our bags and got down to the station early as to not have another reenactment of catching our Chinese train. We boarded easily and found our cabin. The place that would be our home for the next five days. Five very long days, with no electricity, no idea what the time was, no shower and nothing to do but look out at the majesty of a snow covered Siberia.

Our attendants or provonvistas as they so like to be called, were everything we could have asked for and proved very helpful during the trip. They gave us extra blankets and provided us with all that we needed. Our cabin was pretty small, two beds, plush blue walls, a little storage space and a table with a kettle, or should I call it a flask. Yes, a flask. Home sweet home. As we screeched over the tracks at about 60km per hour we really had no idea what the time was and by the third day we just started living by the sun rise and sun set. The Russian border check was smooth but again it was at about midnight which totally disturbs any sleep you might have been hoping to get. We played a lot of cards, a lot of chess, we tried to steal electricity from the food cart, but they kept overcharging us so we told them where to shove their disgusting food and proceeded to live off of noodles and snacks that you could buy from each platform that the train stopped at. We had these delicious toffee filled wafers from Omsk, they were incredible. The scenery was very majestic and I'll not forget many of the sights we saw any time soon, but on the third day it did start to get a little tiresome. Chug, chug, chug. Noodles. Noodles. Noodles. I was dying for a shower. Sometimes I needed the toilet, but they were locked because we were at a station, or approaching a station, or departing a station, very frustrating, but again, this was the time for character enhancing experiences, and it was indeed that.

On the fifth day I was over the moon to finally be approaching Moscow. Sergey and Ira, our hosts, were waiting for us at the station with a big wave and we were finally of of that train. We waved goodbye to the attendants and set out into Russia. A story for part two of this blog. I'll write about Russia tomorrow, and then I would have finally caught up on these blogs, believe me I haven't been lazy, we hardly had a moments rest in Russia to write about any of this and I had no electricity on the Trans Siberian, but here we are and we're talking now, so isn't that lovely. I'm sorry if this felt a bit rushed but I wanted to get at least something written and posted this morning.

We're in Germany now, and it's not cold here, which is a relief. See you next time.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Still Alive: Moscow

We've just spent five days on a train through Sibera without a lick of electricity (not enough to write a blog on anyway), so I haven't quite caught up with writing about Mongolia yet, however, in the next few days I'll be sure to do so. The Trans Siberian train journey was quite an experience and I'll be sure to write all about that in my next post as well. For now, we're in Moscow and staying with a wonderful family whom Natalie's family knows, Amy (Natalie's sister) went on an exchange program here a couple of years ago and they've stayed in touch. They've been super accomadating and we're all full of delicious Russian food and ready for bed. A real bed! Also, we've showered! After not showering for five days straight I can't tell you how good it felt to feel the water cascading down my body. Well, before this starts to get too erotic I'd better go. Keep an eye out for a much longer and more interesting blog in the next coupl of days. Until then.