Monday, November 05, 2007


It certainly hits you when you get off the Trans Siberian Express. If Siberia was a country unto itself, it would still be the largest country on earth. That will tell you how long the train journey was.

You have been in close confines for days and are suddenly let loose in the open air. You have been warm, the carriages are kept very cosy, and are suddenly thrust into the cold air of Western Russia.

We arrived at Vladimir station where I suddenly realised that my train “uniform” of sweatpants, sandals and a thin t-shirt was not going to pass muster in the chill, damp air.

This became even more apparent when it transpired that we were not heading straight to our nice comfortable warm hotel but rather taking the “opportunity” to visit the local Cathedral which, while very interesting and all that, was probably not seen at its best in the pouring rain while wearing $1 sandals from Yangshuo market which had already seen far better days.

While the others went off to “ooh” and “agh” at the Orthodox church, I retired to the relative warmth of the small dilapidated mini bus which had collected us and huddled up in a corner feeling rather sorry for myself.

Still, the gang were back a few minutes later and we headed off to our next hotel, in the small but agreeable town of Suzdal.

Amongst the Russians, Suzdal is held in very high regard. It houses more churches per capita than any other place in the whole country, it is the destination for many tourists and is, in fact, a very pretty little town indeed. Certainly a good place to spend our first evening off the Trans Siberian.

We settled in with relatively little grief and I was soon showered. I was not, however, shaved as we were still very much in competition to grow the best porn star moustache. By now, mine was becoming a very accomplished effort indeed with a certain Zappataesque meets John Holmes air about it which made the others in the competition very despondent indeed. Particularly, our tour leader, Andrew who, shall we say, found the whole thing a bit of a challenge.

Suzdal may be a pretty town but I was more interested in the fact that they are also very well known in Russia for producing two things, cucumbers (OK, well, I admit, that was not of any great interest) and Mead, a honey beer. Once I was settled in and we had taken a brief orientation stroll, we dispersed and I persuaded two of my companions, Paddy and Henry to join me in search of what the Edwardians called “ a drop in” Being A New Zealander and Australian respectively, there was not a lot of persuasion needed and we soon found ourselves in a the dark basement of a local bar with three glasses of mead in front of us.

In truth, it was not to my taste. As one would imagine, it is horribly sweet and a few sips saw us all push our glasses aside and head off in search of another bar.

A few beers later and we were ready to meet up with the others and have supper, our first proper meal for a few days. It was remarkable only in that everyone, but everyone was in a foul temper and beginning to snap at each other. Most of the couples were at loggerheads and even Andrew was not in the best of spirits snapping rather spitefully at Jim & Betty, the senior citizens of our group.

To be honest, I lost my temper a bit at this. Jim & Betty were either approaching or just past their 70th birthdays and had despite their age, been stalwarts of the group. I had, as indeed had we all, become rather close to them and found the current atmosphere a bit grim.

I think we all decided that the best thing for everyone was a decent night’s sleep and I certainly got that. A full and rare eight hours of blissful sleep only punctuated by the odd feeling that I was still in a train carriage that was rumbling along the Siberian plains.

When we awoke and had an excellent breakfast of pancakes, eggs, Russian sausage and caviar, things seemed, in a way that perhaps only Bilbo Baggins would understand, a lot better and we were all in far more agreeable spirits and chatted amiably before we went to join a tour with our guide, Tatiana and look at the town and some local markets.

Like Julia in Irkutsk, Tatiana had a typically Russian way of presenting her home town to us. In a formal, but singsong voice she gave us fact after fact about Suzdal’s formation and history as the former 11th century capital of Russia. She obviously adored the place and despite the, er, unique style of presentation we all found ourselves engrossed in the churches, convents and houses of this small but entirely lovely little town.

However, it was only a stopping off point. A place to get a decent night’s sleep before we headed off to one of the most exciting cities on the planet, Moscow.

Forget what you think about Moscow. In fact, I had to forget what I thought about Moscow from my one previous visit. If you think it is going to be a grey, dull city still struggling its way out of the communist yoke, then you are 100% wrong. It is one of the most fun, exciting and vibrant cities I can ever recall visiting and it went right up to No 1 on my list of places to revisit if and when I have the time and income.

But, first we had to get there. Suzdal is a three hour journey by bus from Moscow and we decided to pass the time by watching video on the monitor at the front of the bus. There were a wide range of choices, primarily because the driver had taken advantage of the fact that illegal video piracy in Russia seems to be a way of life rather than anything to be frowned upon. In the end, the girls were shouted down and the instantly recognisable sounds of the James bond theme tune came out of the tinny little speakers as we watched Daniel Craig be impossibly hunky (for the girls) and macho (for the blokes) everyone’s a winner.

We made a couple of stops along the way. At one, Andrew introduced us to a man who owned a small shop selling artefacts from former communist times. I had neither the inclination nor the room to buy anything, but happily posed next to busts of Lenin and Marx that stood in front of his house by the roadside.

The next stop was much more interesting, to me at least. We stopped for a cup of tea. Now, I am not sure about anyone else, but on this great adventure of mine, the one thing I miss more than any other is a cup of tea. A real one, a cup of “builder’s” tea made with PG tips or the like and infused with the merest drop of milk so it remains strong enough to stand the spoon in. Well, I had not had one in months. Not in Australia, not in Japan or China and certainly not in Mongolia.

Here, well here I got it with knobs on and sat with a satisfied grin on my face while the others drank something called coffee. Weird, weird people you meet when you travel.

Andrew, by way of penance for his grumpiness the night before, I suspect, had also bought a cake called a Parvi which was made with pastry filled with caramel. Coupled with some meat and vegetables pies which we had bought before leaving Suzdal, they made a suitable alternative to the usual popcorn before while we watched Mr Bond save the world one more time.

The nights were definitely drawing in now we were further into Europe and, by the time we reached Moscow, it was dark.

One of the beauties of travelling with a group like Intrepid is that they always find interesting places for you to stay, from the Ryokan of Japan, the monasteries of China and the Ger camps of Mongolia. Moscow was no different. We found ourselves pulling up to The Gamma Hotel one of the buildings originally built as accommodation for the 1980 Olympics and now serving as a hotel complex of five buildings housing over 8,000 beds (officially, I think, the largest in the world)

I have never (and am pretty sure I will not again) seen anything quite like it. Each block is its own complete town, to all intents and purposes, with shops, restaurants, hairdressing salons, internet cafes, spas and more but all done in a unique and uniquely Russian way just to make sure you do not get too complacent.

There was the inevitable kerfuffle checking in, obviously and we had to persuade our way past a security guard once we had our tickets, but the rooms were clean, if Spartan and I have stayed in a lot worse place.

I have never, however, encountered tap water quite this colour before.

Now, I knew not to use the water to brush my teeth. That is true in many places around the world. But, I had never encountered water that made you feel less clean after you showered in it than before. I was brown. I don’t mean a slight tinge of the unclean, I mean a full, leprous, flesh falling off the bones brown. I needed a shower but felt like I was washing in acid rain.

Feeling little cleaner, I headed down to the lobby to meet the rest of my companions who had planned to take the Moscow Metro down to Red Square.

The Moscow Metro system is easy and cheap. It is also amongst the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is illegal to take photographs once inside and men with big guns enforce this very strongly with large on the spot fines for anyone who is caught, so you will, apart from this surreptitious picture of a chicken, just have to take my word that stations are filled with large bronze statues of various Russian heroes. As far as I am aware, the chicken never actually saw active service unless you count ending up on a dinner plate.

We also encountered members of one of Moscow's orchestras playing for pennies in the Subay. ice to see the arts being appreciated, no?

In what became a bit of a theme for our trip to Moscow, Red square was closed when we arrived. There had been a military tattoo there the night before and the whole square was filled with temporary seating stands still to be cleared away. So, instead, we took a brief stroll before dinner at a local restaurant.

The food, as so much of the food in Moscow, is nothing to inspire, but big bowls of borscht, herring, pancakes and pickles served to fill us all up particularly when helped down by healthy amounts of Baltika beer.

After supper it was time to head to St Basil’s cathedral, that glorious mish mash of a building that sits imperiously at the South side of Red Square. Designed and built in the 15th Century, it remains as insane a testament to its creators ( who were killed after it was built to stop them putting up anything like it again) as it did the day the first stone was laid.

We had planned to go and visit Mr Lenin the next day in the official building abutted on to Red Square where his mummified body is laid to rest. However, just as in Beijing where our attempts to see Mao had also met with pitiful failure, it was closed. But, for very different reasons

In China, Mao’s body had been closed because of repair works in preparation for the Olympics. Here, Lenin’s body was not on view because the soldiers in charge, in their very Russian way, just didn’t fancy opening up that day. They gave no reason why when asked, just waved their guns a bit and said “niet” loudly enough for us not to think that questioning them was a great idea.

So we split up and decided to go our own way for the day until the afternoon when we were due to have a tour of The Kremlin.

It hit me at this point just how lonely it can be when you travel by yourself. As you may have gathered, if you have read the blog at all, I am a fairly confident sort and have no problem traversing the globe on my Jack Jones.

However, there are times when being on your own hits you and here, in Moscow, the perfect city to share with someone as you wander, I was going to be on my own. I comforted myself with the fact that, after my stroll, I was going to head off for a very decent ( I hoped) meal on my own. My companions were interested in food, but for some reason believed that seeing sights and places of historical interest was more important that staring down a plate of Georgian sashlik. People are funny that way.

First of all, of course, I needed to work up an appetite, so took myself off on a three hour hike that took in Gorky Park, a sculpture park where remnants of Russia’s Soviet past lay unnoticed and unloved and, most interestingly of all, The Red October Chocolate Factory which stood in a sickly sweet cloud just South of The Muscvar.

By the time I had finished my stroll, it was just after midday and I headed for Tiflis, considered one of the best Georgian restaurants in Moscow and apparently the restaurant de choix for may of Russia’s oligarchs. It had suffered a bit in the last few months as Mr Putin’s embargo on all things Georgian meant they could not get the dark beers of that region nor the surprisingly decent wines which I had tried before.

Lunch was terrific. Just what I was looking for. Rolls of soft curd served in sour yoghurt, a salad of pomegranate and walnuts and best of all, a large plate of grilled lamb shashlik. It was expensive by any standards with the meal coming in at £60, but as I waddled out into the afternoon sunshine and back to meet my companions, I realised that meals like this were just as valid a part of my trip as any snack eaten on the hoof (possibly made of hoof) that I had eaten on my travels so far.

By now, three o’ clock, it was time to meet up again with my friends and tour the Kremlin.

Andrew was waiting for us and gave us a knowing, and rather evil, I thought, smile, before depositing us into the hands of our guide Ludmilla.

We soon realised why he had that smile and why he had decided not to join us on the tour. He had been before and knew what we were in for. What we were in for, was a three hour ordeal of being route marched through the Kremlin behind a whirling dervish who, I can safely say never once stopped to draw breath in between sentences in the entire time we were in her charge. Not once, not ever, never.

She repeated facts again and again as she dragged us from church to church, from important building to important building (including Mr Putin’s official residence) and then to the crowning glory, the Faberge eggs. By the end of the tour, we were all shattered and begging for mercy. But she showed none as, running out of time before the museums closed, she sprinted around the last part of the museum shouting out “on this side a love cup” and “ on that side a carriage” before finally depositing us battered and totally defeated at the feet of our grinning guide.

It is little surprise that, I was fit for nothing after that and, after going to an internet café to check my mails headed straight back to the hotel for a decent night’s kip.

Our last day in Moscow left us entirely to our own devices and, again, being Billy no mates, I headed off in search of my own entertainment. I finally got to walk across Red Square and, disappointingly, did not encounter any of the young Russian soldiers who try to weasel money out of unsuspecting tourists by telling them that their papers are not in order.

I began at a local market with a large kebab. The breakfast that keeps on giving.

I visited a museum or two (I can’t actually recall which, but they had suits of armour in them if that helps any) and I walked down the loud but entirely horrible Arbat with its souvenir shops and lousy restaurants until I came to one of Stalin’s “ Seven Sisters, large skyscrapers built by the Russian leader as apartment buildings for his cronies.

But, most of all, I just wandered. I dipped into a park here, a café there and even went to revisit GUMM.

GUMM was famous, or should I say infamous. It was, in its previous incarnation, the state department store where grumbling but powerless Soviet citizens would go and queue for a week for a loaf of bread. On my one previous visit to Moscow, it had been a dank, soulless place filled with, well, not very much.

My, how times have changed. Now it is one of the chicest, ritziest shopping malls in Christendom. Every brand name you can imagine has a spot here alongside cafes and restaurants. I can only hope that Russia’s former leaders are spinning crazily in their own little piece of Hell.

By six o clock it was time to head back to the hotel and collect my left luggage in time to meet the gang.

We were about to get board the train for the last stop of this particular journey

St Petersburg.

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