Category Archives: Places I’ve been

Components of the perfect Sunday

(Plus a roast.)

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Lisbon’s street art

Turns out Lisbon has been turned on to street art for some time. I spent time wandering around taking it in. Some are crude and scribbly, others are on an epic scale and use entire buildings as blank canvases. The Crono project is a large scale urban art project encouraging world-class artists to jazz up derelict buildings. Parts of the city have been designated as Galeria de Arte Urbana, authorised for painting.

Here’s a little gallery to whet your appetite.

And a map in case you want to cruise around and check it out yourself.

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God bless Glasgow

This…

…plus this…

…equals seven of these.

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Tea with the Queen

London is looking snappy having been extensively spruced up ahead of the Games. There are flags everywhere, the silverware has been polished and authorities are forcing the wheels of Olympic solidarity into motion, encouraging people to be peppy and involved at every turn. After so many turned out in the pissing rain to watch the Queens Jubilee flotilla, community spirit looks outwardly to be at a high. A long way from the riots just last year at any rate.

A friend was visiting from South Korea so I took the opportunity to go and do some touristy stuff. Of my latest escapades…

Recommended:

A stroll down Whitehall. Horseguards never gets tired.

Buck Pal, complete with bunting. Excellent to nosey at the State Rooms, a bonus exhibition on the Queen’s diamonds and option to upgrade your ticket to a free pass for a year at the end. Boom.

Piccadilly Circus and the statue of Eros. Buzzy.

Trafalgar Square. They’ve got a new temporary sculpture up on the fourth plinth and it’s always nice to see the giddy school kids climbing on the lions at the bottom of Nelson’s column (so to speak).

The National Portrait Gallery. The BP portrait award exhibition is free and bloody good.

The Tate boat between the two galleries with a cracking view of the Houses of Parliament

Picasso at the Tate Britain. Excellent exhibition.

Street pianos

Pints at the pub

The English Gardens at Regents Park

Regents Park in general. Have a mosey over to the fairy-lit open air theatre. It’s BYO…

Afternoon tea

Avoid:

I try. I always try to like the stuff at the Tate Modern. Hirst and Munch are the special exhibitions at the moment and they’re mostly rubbish. My favourite bit is and will always be the Turbine Hall.

I’d like to think of more stuff to avoid, but I can’t. London stepped up – well done.

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Two L and back

I know, I know. An indescribably bad pun but what’s good enough for Facey is good enough for the blogosphere.

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post and I’m frightfully behind. So here I sit at the keyboard in fair Bristol city with a glass of red to my right, poised to recount how I got here.

It started in Berlin. Actually it started with a hellish series of bus journeys from the marsh via Suure Janni, Parnu, Vilnius and Warsaw, stopping for a couple of nights in Riga while I got my shit together. He who said ‘the joy of travel is not in the destination but the journey’ has never had to kill time in Warsaw bus station at 4am. I stayed in a ‘party hostel’ (Fun Friendly Franks – rubbish name but good location) cos there was a deal on. It was good, well-organised and the girls working the desk were very friendly but it seems that the Australians have their revenge for the East Coast trail that British gappers have created Down Under.

For those that don’t know, the East Coast of Australia between Cairns and Sydney is an orgy of 19-year old debauchery. Probably because in Neighbours it is the nirvana to which everyone gravitates when they find peace or retire, Queensland is a popular route destination for young British gap year students when they reach the giant isle. In general, they nip up to the top and work their way down on ghastly bus hops specifically targeted at that audience. They will stop at Byron Bay, Nimbin (to get stoned), perhaps nip out to the Great Barrier Reef and then head back to Sydney via Brisbane. They don’t mix with anyone other than the people at their hostels and invest their time getting wasted and laid. Not wholly a bad thing but I’ll admit that I found it distasteful even when *I* was a 19-year old gapper.

Australians have recreated this trail in the Baltics. It’s easily avoided by skirting any hostel that dubs itself a ‘party’ hostel but eye-opening nevertheless.

Anyway, I met Big Len in Berlin where I had inadvertently booked us into a fruity guesthouse in the heart of the city’s gay district. I should have twigged from the Celine Dion and Ricky Martin posters on the wall in the promo photos. The signs were there. Regardless, Stars Guesthouse deserves nothing but praise. The owner, Olef, was very accommodating during the booking process, the price is a bargain and the rooms are chic and spotlessly clean.

That didn’t stop me bursting into a heap of giggles when I clapped eyes on Big Len’s bed for the night.

Big Len’s bed

Didn’t quite understand what the sign in the bathroom was driving at either.

No big dongs?

We headed out for a few pints, a cruise of the neighbourhood (that’s Dad) and enjoyed a genteel night of football and charred cabbage.

Pa distracted by the footie

With only enough time the following morning for a hearty breakfast the next day we opted to walk the 4.5km to the train station which was fine until I realised just how much ballast I’ve managed to load my bag with in the last two months. Good training I suppose.

We efficiently made it to the train with ten minutes to spare before the shuttle to Hamburg. Entertainment on the two hour journey = photo faces.

‘Excited’

Bond eyebrow. Not one of Big L’s better efforts.

Hamburg is a lovely place. Once again, knew very little about it except that it was proper to have a hamburger here. Turns out that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Bristol, being an old port city. Where the Luftwaffe flattened Bristol in the Second World War (the 60s planners who rebuilt it arguably committed a greater crime), Britain’s Royal Air Force razed Hamburg in return. Somehow I think this engenders the same sort of psyche in the city. What worse for poor old Hamburg was that it was targeted not so much for its strategic importance as to weaken the spirits of the German people after successful raids on Coventry, London, Bristol and other major British cities. The bombers used the tallest spire of St Nicholas’ church as a guide so it and its immediate surrounds could but smoulder. Now they’ve turned the church into a monument to the horrors of war and…it has a panoramic viewpoint at the top.

Sad sculpture in the remains of St Nicholas’ church.

The view from oop top. That right there with the green roof is the Rathaus or town hall

Our time was chiefly occupied with the touristy Hamburg trail:

Eating currywurst…

Drinking beers in the market…

(still learning sunnies)

Checking out the docks near Baumwall…

Strolling through the Planten un Blomen park (not a joke name)…

Eating hamburgers…

Testing the sub-river tunnel…

And resting in the giant chair

Our hotel was in the funky boho district of Sternschanze, out West of the centre of town. It turned into a punk and artist district in the 70s which has left a legacy of one-off shops, kebab houses, Portuguese restaurants and Asian snack cafes. In the 90s it was quite the place to be seen. You’ll probably see the Rote Flora on Schulterblatt, a tumble-down former threatre cum squat and the seat of many localised protests. Today it’s a cultural and political meeting place which hosts popular parties and concerts. I like it. Reminds me of the Montpelier and St Werburgh’s neighbourhoods at home.

Sternschanze neighbourhood from one of many street cafes.

In the spirit of training, we decided one day to go for a jog around Hamburg’s picturesque lake. The lady in reception had told us it was a breezy 10km but it turned out to be a somewhat wheezier 15km. We followed it up with an afternoon on the bikes and and evening of beers then couldn’t for the life of us work out why we were so tired the next day.

Train voyaging with the picnic

Our allotted two days in Hamburg were up so it was time to head on to Antwerp, a mere three train changes away (Osnabruck, Amersfoort and Rotterdam for the train nerds). Here I re-educated Pa in the lost art of the train picnic, loaded up at the local Lidl and kept the pen knife handy.

Antwerp’s central station

I learnt in Brussels last year not to underestimate Belgium. From the sweeping train station I was pleased with Antwerp. It is a comely city, famed mostly for its diamond trade (the less said about the blood variety the better, especially with Belgium’s traditional colonial links with the Congo) and for Van Dyck. The English Royals in the early 1600s liked his baroque portraiture a lot and his teacher – Rubens – encouraged this specialism. Not my bowl of rice but you can check out some more info on him here if you’re interested. He was a big deal for a couple of centuries.

Town square

Rainy street

Bonny

Secret medieval passage. Not *that* secret.

Our ‘hood

It too has a sub-river tunnel. Woo! What are the chances?  Beelined for that after settling in to our hotel, where for some reason loads of orthodox Jews in big fur hats were milling around.

Never seen these before. Ahem, distinctive.

Ancient escalator

Tunnel!

It didn’t really matter what was on the other side of the river, I was enthusiastic enough about the tunnel. But it turns out that you emerge into a mellow park scattered with random art. Worth the trip.

Art in the park. Love this wooden robot facing off the town.

Water shadow artiness

Our eurotour was a spontaneous decision and I didn’t want to fly. The Eurostar was upwards of £200 each two weeks in advance and train/bus connections to the ferry terminals were a pain in the arse whichever route you tackled. So I alighted on the notion of a coach, removing the fuss of transfers. Pa was very pleased. It’s been a long time since he took a coach.

Man of the people

Picnic mkII

In my opinion the bus is a great leveler. And I know my stuff about buses. Going our way were: a Dutch lady who’d been living in England for 20 years, a Singaporean family on holiday, a saxophonist, a selection of immigrants and a London wide boy who turned out to be trilingual.

‘Course the downside is that Eurolines don’t see fit to book their buses onto a mode of transport across The Channel. They know to within 3 minutes when they will arrive at the next bus stop but the watery bit throws them. Instead, they have a peculiar system whereby they drive the coach to the Chunnel, see if there is any spare capacity (presumably that they can get on the cheap) and if not, double back to the ferry terminal and try the same tactic. Three hours we spent at the Tunnel and in the port. As you can imagine, Pa was delighted.

I was however happy though as I wanted to take the ferry all along. I veritably skipped into the saloon for fish and chips before dragging Dad up on deck to blow the cobwebs away and look out for the white cliffs of Dover.

See. Ferries are fun.

There they are. But I ordered blue skies?

<Bump.> Landed back in the motherland. I won’t describe the final leg cos it’s boring and where Big Len’s language got a little ribald.

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Hamburgers in Hamburg

Hamburgers in Hamburg with Big Len

Midsummer

Midsummer: the longest day and my half birthday.

On leaving Tallinn, Rein had told me about a unique festival that is held on 22nd June each year near his grandmother’s old house in Suure Jaani. To be more precise, in the middle of a swamp named Hüpassaare. It is the climax of a music festival, marks the longest day of the year and celebrates the invigorating long daylight hours. It was enough reason for me to quit the farm and journey to the sticks, well a different part of the sticks.

I bid my Saaremaa family a sad farewell, leaving with an armful of bread, flour and pictures from the children. Five hours later I was welcomed into the bosom of my next adoptive family in Taaksi. I was there long enough for two ciders and to watch the football match with the gents before it was time to head to the swamp for the concert.

Rein’s sister, Kati, drove like a bat out of hell to catch the shuttle bus from Suure Jaani to the concert. I could only deduce that we were running a little late. The pleasure, their mother told me, lies in the walk as much as the concert. You have to stroll some kilometre or more through forest and across boardwalks over the lowlands to the actual venue, which is slightly raised above the real bog and has echoless studio acoustics thanks to the ecology. A few years ago they even helicoptered a grand piano in for the event.

Swamp at sunset, approximately 2am

Twilight

We took our time and stopped to look at the plants and information boards in the gloaming. The conditions here are so harsh and the peat so lacking in nutrients that the scattered pine trees that appear to be only saplings are in fact often older than your parents, no matter how old your parents are. There are a few bog pools as well, with water so brown that it could be cola. It’s also perfectly sterile so we collected a bottle to wash down the vodka.

Bog water

At 3am, once the collected crowd of about 300 people was assembled, the music began. Choral music, strings, and a bit of sax thrown in for good measure.

Some people come with a tarpaulin, lay it down and go to sleep. Seems like a frightful waste of money to me but it’s apparently nice just to let the music drift over you. I can recommend plowing through the brush to a distance of a few hundred metres from the audience to enjoy the strains of music drifting out over the eerie countryside.

The sun goes down at about 2.30am and by 4am, up it pops again! Curiously in the same place that it sets. It is accompanied in its resurgence by a carefully-selected, appropriate tune, this year a bit of Grieg. Then the crowds drift back to the vehicles, swatting casually at mosquitoes as they go, to slump into their beds in the wee small hours. Perfect.

Sun coming up over the small crowd

Kati admiring the morning sky

Ping! Estonian lady indulging the Estonian fad for swimming in icy pools of water wherever possible.

The beautiful country house stands next to a small lake in the village with ample land for growing vegetables and the mandatory sauna at the end of the garden. It used to belong to Rein’s grandmother but since she passed away it has become a family resource for everyone to use. It’s gloriously old-fashioned with a wood-fired oven in the kitchen and filled with bric-a-brac collected over a lifetime by the family matriarch. During the clear-up, pictures were unearthed that the 30-year olds had drawn in their childhood. Records were discovered and played from the 70s. There are several cupboards filled with warm, old clothes and it is something of a tradition to rummage around in the cupboard for something to wear, a tradition in which I needed no encouragement to partake.

Kitchen hearth

It was filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, partners and hangers on (me) for the summer party. They are a close family and even as I was there were discussing a grand outing en masse to Lithuania. Of course, everyone is also required to muck in in the maintenance and general housework. Curiously everyone seems to know their role without being told. The boys went off to chop wood, paint the dunny, plough a field and clean up the woodstacks for winter. The ladies weeded the garden, sorted the old clothes, spring cleaned and prepared endless volumes of food.

Me and Judith (sweetly pronounced Youdeet), Rein’s girlfriend, were not in the telepathy loop and so were at a loss for what to do once we’d cleared as many plates as we could find  and done the washing up. So off we traipsed up the hill, where we’d heard rumours of wild strawberries. Having finally hunted them down we went into a strawberry frenzy and could barely drag ourselves away from picking more and more, threading them on to blades of grass to deliver back to the house. But stop we must for we had been tasked with collecting birch, juniper and oak branches from which to make the vicht (bundle of branches) for whipping in the sauna. Triumphant, we returned, delivering sweet wild berries to rapturous applause.

The sweetest strawberries you ever did taste.

Sauna branches

Pleased with ourselves, we went on a booze run and settled down to drink beer. At about 11pm, after a BBQ feast and our first sauna and skinny-dip plunge into the lake (I know! Never thought I’d see the day.) of the night, the bonfire was lit. Ta daa! Much running around with children held on shoulders ensued before we went on a glow-worm hunt.

Bonfire

It is said that if you find a glow worm on midsummer’s night, you will have luck for several years. This was serious. After some hunting around the neighbourhood, we found eight and that will do for me. Apparently when Rein’s Mum was young you could find enough to make glowing garlands for your hair but they seem to be fewer and further between now. The ladies glow to attract the flying boys and so when you pick them up and hold them in your hand, they shrivel somewhat, cowed by the overwhelming worm oestrogen-fest.

After showing them to the girls as they toasted marshmallows, I returned them to the shrubs to glow once more. Normally sauna time is divided according to the sexes but as the night wears on, the boundaries seem to become blurred, especially as it is customary to sit in the ante-room and drink steadily.

In the light of the Sunday morning, people got up to potter about in their remaining tasks but steadily began to drift away. And me too, bidding a fond farewell to my second adoptive Estonian family. I got on a bus and headed South with only the notion of getting to Berlin to  meet Papa in place of a plan.

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Working the land

You cannot fully appreciate how small a carrot seed is until you’ve individually placed 7,000 of them in furrows.

In a minor variation from wwoofing (world wide opportunities on organic farms), I had signed myself up to help on a small-scale agriculture project through helpX, a site which links you up with any schemes internationally, farming and otherwise. Most still appear to be farm-based but there are some for decorating, hostels, homestays and the like. Variety is the spice. Hosts agree to shelter and feed you in exchange for hard labour. There are only five registered in Estonia and I was accepted by my mystery hosts at a place on the large island of Saaremaa off the coast to the West. I had no idea what to expect.

Home for nearly two weeks, as it turned out, has been the small farm of Koplimae and the extended family that it accommodates. I arrived one Saturday afternoon to find a baffling profusion of people and entered into the ongoing, endless game of dishwasher Jenga that such clans naturally entail.

The genealogy steadily materialised out of the gloom. My hosts were Marju (pronounced Mario) and Olev, together with their children Johannes, Artur and Maarja (who, to go off on a tangent, is being taught basic economics at school, an innovation on the teachers’ part and clever one at that). Olev’s father – ‘Vanaisa’ or Grandpa – lives with the family. The children’s cousins on Mum’s side – Jonas and Emma – are resident for their customary summer holiday stay. On the day I arrived, both grandmothers were visiting ahead of Maarja’s 9th birthday along with a variety of neighbours, friends and passersby. A steady and plentiful steam of food was constantly emerging from the kitchen.

It was just like home.

Except for the fact that conversations around the dinner table occurred almost exclusively in Estonian. That took a bit of getting used to as it’s hard to contribute when the only words you know are ‘lick the bowl’, ‘bon appetite’, ‘curd’, ‘stone’, ‘good night’, ‘grandpa’ and ‘thanks’.

Mum is part of the local choral society. Estonians as a general rule seem to love singing, clinging to their folk songs tightly in the struggle against Russian repression. Every few years there is a song festival held in Tallinn which last time saw 35,000 singers perform at once and 110,000 people cheer them on.

The farmhouse

Sunset beyond the garden

Greenhouse with flourishing tomato plants

Maarja’s birthday. Twelve excitable young ladies plus lots of sugar.

As they produce a lot of their food themselves or buy it from other farms on the island, there is pleasingly little waste. I think the eight of them produce in one week what four of us back at home produce in a day, and we’re fairly ardent recyclers. Just goes to show how much packaging is in landfills.

My tasks  have been varied. One day I was defender of the strawberries, which Pa Larkin showed I’m terrible at when he came in with a handful of bird-pecked fruit. Another I weeded the wild flowerbeds, rescued the irises from a nettle invasion, harvested chamomile flowers and planted white clover, a clever trick that the farmers play to keep the nasty weeds at bay. In fact, it turns out that I’m way more of an ignorant townie than I realised. People have chuckled at my stupid questions that only urbanites would ask: ‘You have to peel rhubarb?’ ‘If you don’t cut a pig’s balls off the meat tastes bad?’ ‘How do you tell when potatoes are ready to harvest?’

Of course, all that they’ve had to teach me so when not badgering them for something to do, I clean. I clean and clean and clean. It’s the only way I can feel useful without needing to be asked.

Diggin’

Strawberries. Hurry up and ripen!

Here at Koplimae Farm the focus is on grains – nominally spelt, rye and wheat – as well as kitchen-garden fruit and veg. The strawberries are award-winning when transformed into Marju’s delicious jam. Some of the produce is organic but they’re not religious about it which was a relief. There is nothing worse than an eco-zealot. Ok, a vegan eco-zealot, but nothing worse than that.

As a result the orders that keep the [home-made] bread and butter on the table are largely for home-milled flour, semolina, flakes and the cookies that Marju conjures from them. The two are very active in the island’s organic farming community and recently managed to secure EU funding through the Leader programme to help them with 60% of the cost of redeveloping their old barn into a swanky new cafeteria for hosting tourists and events. The official opening party is this week and you haven’t lived til you’ve tasted one of her cream gateaux or nettle quiches.

Cookies, packed and ready to go

I’ve learnt a lot. For example, at the peak of my flour packaging abilities, I could estimate to the nearest 18g when 500g of flour were in a bag. I know how many baking trays it takes to cook 20kilos of biscuits. I can tell a wild rose from a cultured rose. I know which nettles you can bake and which you can stew as tea.

As a nation, the Estonians are very creative and they tell me that this too comes from the Soviet occupation and dumb-silly collectivization policies. It being only 25 years ago, life under the Russians remains in living memory for even the middle-aged generation. There is even a resurgence of interest in Russian brands as people recall the products from their childhood. Back in those days, all the choicest cuts of meat, best vegetables and finest textiles – any produce – were mandatorily sent to Moscow, never to be seen again. Olev told me that he didn’t think he had tasted banana until after liberation. Marju said an old joke asked whether pigs were slaughtered with dynamite since all that was left to Estonian shops were the heads and trotters.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. The Russians might not have done the Estonians many favours, but in a ‘what did the Romans do for us’ Monty Python sense, they have wrought an enviable advantage of creativity. I’ve yet to meet a person on the island who can’t knit, do woodwork, make jam, cook, grow vegetables, sew, make music and fix the electrics. Everyone is very accomplished and I am envious.

The island itself is beautiful. There is a meteor lake, oak forests, beaches, windmills pretty countryside, quiet villages and a network of cottage industry farms and handicraft centres that you can visit. I have to question whether a cliff is a legitimate tourist attraction but there is some good information on things to see and do here.

On one day off that I had I met up with Dominik, a fellow couchsurfer who had climbed (read – coaxed me up) the rocks at Stolby with me in Siberia. We met in the island’s main town of Kuresaare, a pretty little town with formidable castle and picturesque streets. The island has been a strategic fighting point for many nations over the years, including the Russians, Germans, Danes, Swedes and Finns. As a result, there are many old castles and strongholds to explore, some in great working order.

We accidentally went on a 70km tour that the tourist office calls the battlefields route. I shamefully didn’t take much of the history in, but the views were cracking.

Knobbing around

Windmill, now restaurant

Waterfront

View from the stronghold near Orissaare

Kuressaare castle

Complete with portcullis

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Toil and trouble

Pre-train ticket fiasco I’d already been in touch with a lovely sounding CS host in Tallinn so it seemed churlish to refuse. What’s more, if you’re going to work through the Baltic States on your way back to the UK, you’re as well to start at the top and work down. Bloody Russians…

Anyway, all’s well that ends well so after an extra day with my lovely Latvian hosts, I hopped a glamorous Ecolines bus to Tallinn. I arrived at the bus station to meet my host with the instruction ‘meet me by No.1 bus sign. I’ll be wearing a hat and will have a black bike’. I in turn had told Rein to look out for red socks and the tell-tale backpack.

“Erm, are you the English couchsurfer?” a nice fella asked me as I squinted into the daylight looking for any sign that might represent the No. 1 bus sign (which, FYI, doesn’t exist).

Well, what luck to have not one but three members of the welcome committee! Our host Rein and my fellow couchsurfers Pol-Ewen and Will greeted me and plonked me on a tram bound for home, pedalling off with the wind in their respective beards to meet me there. Except Will and Pol got hungry and stopped off for a feed in the Old Town instead.

Rein and his two housemates live in a lovely apartment in the artistic/bohemian district of Kalamaja. (There’s quite a nice webpage regarding the different neighbourhoods of Tallinn here.) Remarkably for students (or not in Estonia, as it turns out) they are all deft cooks. Rein likes to bake rye bread at least once a week and will turn his hand to most other dishes in your average cookbook. Not that he needs a cookbook. The others too, so much so that we freeloaders inventively dubbed the house ‘the deli’.

Baking bread

Now. To teach you a little about Tallinn before I treat you to tales of ‘what I did on my holiday’.

The city is a medieval stronghold that somehow survived the ravages of war. The walls and watch towers remain largely in tact, if scarred by several hundred years of human politics. In the Central Square by the town stands the Town Hall, Europe’s only intact Gothic town hall. A queer but valid claim to fame. On the same square stands the oldest running pharmacy in Europe that used to sell dried frogs legs, worm skin and the blood of black cats but now sells more conventional stuff, like vitamins, pregnancy tests and sudafed. St Olav’s church with its 159m spire was from 1549 to 1625 the tallest building in the world…but then it got struck by lightening and burned down. When they rebuilt it, they capped the spire at 124m. It’s still pretty tall and a good viewpoint for illicit beers. The powers that be have taken the medieval theme and run with it so in the streets you’ll find jester creatures and serving girls hawking sugared cashews and almonds, amongst other things. Occasionally, they have a jousting festival.

They also stick unflinchingly to their own language, distinct from both Latvian and Lithuanian, nothing like Russian and a little like Finnish if you listen hard. There are 1.1million people in Estonia speaking it, plus a handful overseas. Quite an exclusive club. By no means everyone speaks English; many can only speak the local lingo. Product labels and instructions are legally obliged to print in Estonian but you’ll also find some Russia for the large alien population living here. In Narva, right on the border, 93% are native Russian speakers*, most don’t bother with Estonian at all and yet all the road signs and whatnot are resolutely Eesti. For me, it’s mad that a language unique to such a small population can be the genuine mother tongue, especially when they fight so hard to keep languages like Welsh alive. (I should add that I’ve been impressing my new friends with my Welsh sentences and words.)  But it is in large part a reaction to the Soviet occupation that also encompassed Latvia (remember the Occupation Museum?). Estonians determinedly clung to their language and to their folk songs in an effort to retain their national identity.

That’s enough from teacher for now.

On my first night in the city, we went to Hell Hunt, one of the city’s great pubs with good, cheap grub, for a pint before a wander through the Old Town to Kolmas Draakon, a medieval-style tavern replete with gobby, buxom serving wench where everything is €1 or €2, pies are plentiful and pickles are complimentary. A promising start. We then picked up a bottle of Vana Tallinn – about a billion times better than the toxic Riga Balsam – went to the city’s viewing platforms and drank it admiring the sunset.

Vana Tallinn. Mmmm.

Sunset with the boys

Behold

This was to set the theme for the week.

Rein and his friends a a cultural, musical, creative bunch. I can’t tell you what he actually does for a job as he skivved for two of the three work days that I was there. As befits such a group, they invest a fair amount of their time partying and for the time that I was there, I joined them and checked out a little of Tallinn’s music and nightlife scene. Tis very good.

This culminated in the others going for a swim in the Baltic one bitingly cold morning. I’ve learnt over the years that I really don’t like being cold and wet so I stayed on shore in my capacity as chief photographer and supped beer. Nevertheless, I doff my cap at the brave.

Contemplating

Swimming

Being sensible

By day, we explored the city on bikes or on foot. I recommend the flea market behind the train station for brilliant Soviet bric-a-brac. I yearned for the Lenin clock but my backpack said no. Also in this area is a jazzy redeveloped warehouse complex – F-hoone – with cafe, sprawling junk shop, ethno-tat shop and some sculpture. Kumu art museum is a spectacular building with a great collection and good music venues, plus it’s set in the delicious Kadriorg Park, established by Peter the Great (him again) for his missus, Catherine.

F-hoone complex

Kumu art museum

The Swan Pond in the park

Talvi, one of the housemates, invited us to join her on a trip to her family home in the countryside. Her name translates as ‘Winter Wolf’ which is alone enough justification for me so we mounted the bikes one bleary-eyed morning and set off on the train for the little town of Keila from where it was a short 10km pedal to her homestead.

Pedalling

The homestead

Have you forgotten how pretty dandelions are?

You have never seen so many mosquitoes. The game of swatting them was so easy with the sheer volume that it almost – almost – became tiresome. But I never weary of killing mosquitoes, especially when I saw what they had done to my back. Really, what role do they play in the ecosystem that is so vital we can’t just wipe them out? Answers on a postcard.

We came to enjoy the greenery but also to forage for freshly-reaped food. Strawberries, cherries, rhubarb, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, radishes, beans, peas, apples and everything else besides is grown at Talvi’s house, and most other gardens in the country, it seems. Yummy yummy.

Rhubarb and strawberries

Hello little radish. Get in my belly.

A lovely day wound up with a lot of beers and banter back in the city.

“You know,” started Rein as we hung out of the window smoking liquorice rollies, “you really can’t judge people by the cover. The longer you spend with them, the more pages you read.” I took this as a thinly veiled reference to myself, seeing how I’m a stubborn nut to crack, but as a compliment at the same time. “Yes!” agreed his girlfriend, Judith. “And don’t you hate it when you know someone’s reading you all wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

My but they’re ruminative, these Baltic folks.

With my liver beginning to ache and the haunted look of too many late nights, I bid Tallinn a sad farewell and went in search of wholesome goodness on the island of Saaremaa. It’s famous for being idyllically rural and I was bound for a little eco-farm where I could absolve my sins through virtuous hard labour. Or at least, that was the plan.

* I should mention that Narva’s population is, ahem, coarse. Here they have a fairly big problem with the evil drug, Krokodil, a derivative of morphine that steadily rots the user’s skin. I believe it functions as a social indicator.

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Riga arriba

I had no idea what to expect from Riga, having never considered it before.  I know Tallinn to be a stag party centre, I know there are three Baltic states with names and capitals that people often confuse, I know that everyone likes herrings and I know that it gets pretty cold, but aside from that my slate was blank. The British, on the other hand, have a reputation amongst Latvians for being sex tourists.

Arriving with zero preconceptions was refreshing. It helps you to see a place with even clearer eyes. Turns out that it has two of my favourite things by the bucketload – graffiti and art nouveau architecture. Observations #1 and #2.

To start with, I established myself on Caka Street – pronounced Chaka and not Kaka, as I fatally discovered – and noticed a preponderance of haberdasheries, money exchanges and bakeries. Observation #3.

Then I went walkabout, deliriously tired from my train experience but pleased to be back in the familiar surrounds of Europe. I checked out some of the main sights of the Old Town on my improvised walking tour and went and got as much literature as I could carry from the uber-helpful tourist office. Decided to kill some time by having a look in the High Street shops too. Now, ladies, I don’t want to alarm anyone but <stage whisper> it’s all the same. Same shit, different shop. Fashion – yawn.

The town seems to attract a number of foreign workers, I suppose because we’re back in the EU, and I heard Kiwi, British and Russian voices fairly frequently. I thought, being near the polyglottic Scandis, that most people here would speak English. I was wrong. They primarily speak Latvian, a language spoken by approximately 1.5million people here and abroad, while many also have a working knowledge of Russian and English. There are a lot of non-native speakers too, which I found bizarre for such a specific population. I met two guys from New Zealand living in Riga whose Latvian was pretty good. I suppose it could function as an awesome code language anywhere else in world.

The Old Town is beautiful and well-preserved. You can merrily meander about its streets taking in the picturesque buildings and cobbled roads at random. For some reason, despite my Spidey senses usually serving me well, I just couldn’t get my sense of direction within the city walls. It was like being stuck in an avalanche. After much cursing, I managed to find the Three Brothers, famous for being the oldest buildings in the city and housing an underwhelming but free architecture museum, and the Liberty Monument, but only an absolute retard could miss Liberty, it being nearly 43m tall. It was built to commemorate the many, many lives lost in the Latvian struggle for freedom. More on that later…

The Old Town from on high

Liberty monument

The Three Brothers, surviving architecture from the 15th century. i.e. well old

I turned one corner outside the Art Museum and found a man blocking the road with a plastic cordon ribbon tied to a drainpipe and then to his bag.

“What are you doing, friend?”

“Ah, we’re filming. A movie. We will take 3, maybe 5 minutes.”

“What movie is it?”

“A Korean movie. ‘In Berlin’.”

“Thiiis is Riga?”

That didn’t stop Brad Pitt and co. pretending Glasgow was Philadelphia last year though so I suppose I’ll let them off.

Despite coming from Russia, a land crammed with artistic sophistication even at the farthest reaches, I was deeply impressed by the level of culture in Riga. As I arrived, a ballet festival was drawing to a close and an opera festival was just beginning. One item in the programme was a manga opera – how good does that sound?? I wish I could tell you but the schedule didn’t work for me.

Instead, the main creative pursuits that I was interested in were the street artists and the architects. The buildings in Riga are all beautiful and I have taken hundreds of bland snaps of very attractive buildings in all manner of styles. Ask me for a slideshow some day.

Those of the early 20th century, the era to which I believe I should rightfully have belonged, interested me most. Luckily, you don’t have to go far to see deco. More than a third of the buildings in the centre are built in that style so it’s something of a capital for Jugendstil, as the locals and the Germans call it. Elizabetes Street and Alberta Street are two of the best examples for an easy walk. Peksens was one of the most celebrated local architects in the style and so they’ve turned his old apartment into a shrine to the art form. It’s authentic in the interior as well as the exterior and how one of my homes will one day look.

Alberta Street

I’ll leave the graff to pictures:

Graffiti

Work in progress.

Liberty monument getting minced

In most civilised cities there tend to be scuzzy areas that are colonised by students, musicians and artists. In Riga, this used to be the Andrejsala district next to the working docks until they closed it down with grand ideas of redeveloping it into a Tate Modern style art complex. At the moment that’s still nothing but hot air, but it’s still a popular place to pedal to of an evening with a basket-full of beers to enjoy the scenery and artwork. Very good it is too. The area of Spikeri behind the central market and on the edge of the ghetto has sort of displaced it but it’s a cheap imitation compared to before.

Arts area

One sunny Sunday morning I went to the enormous Central Market for a poke around the wares. There are several large buildings that look like hangers, dedicated to vegetables, meat, fish and local produce but outside spreads a sea of extra stalls, selling everything from chapkas to hanging baskets. The scent of strawberries wafts over since it’s the season and many old ladies stand in the pathways clutching fistfuls of beige tights to hawk at passersby. I particularly liked the woollen blankets, fluffy mittens, ceramics and felt Viking hats. I was replacing one of these hats on a stall after admiring it and thanking the vendor when he broke into an explosive rant of Russian and rushed off cursing me, snatching a bog roll as he went. I’m pretty sure that he was angry with me and not the urge to toilet.

Central market

Inside central market

Come and get your socks!

Speaking of Russians, Latvia had a bit of a bum deal when it came to being occupied in the early part of the 21st century – the Russians had two goes and Hitler muscled in for a while too. There’s a good historical run-down here. In the city centre there’s a sombre but very good museum dedicated to the Occupations – if you ignore the stupid man on the door getting offended when tourists greeted him in Russian.

In summary:

  • The Soviets claimed it in 1918 after WW1.
  • Liberation War ensues. Latvia is finally victorious and an independent republic is declared in 1920/21-ish.
  • Hitler’s Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and Stalin’s Foreign Minister Molotov sign a Non-Aggression Treaty, also known as the Hitler–Stalin Pact, which allows Hitler to attack Poland and later – Western Europe. The pact includes secret protocols which designate Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of Rumania as Soviet sphere of influence.
  • Soviet troops reoccupy the country in 1940 under spurious terms.
  • In 1941 more then 15,000 Latvian citizens are deported on Moscow’s orders to gulag camps as counterrevolutionaries. Only 1/5 of the more than 5000 survive. The families as accessories are sent to forced settlement areas in Siberia. Death rates are high, especially among the children and elderly. An estimated 25,000 (1.25%) Latvian citizens become victims of the one-year Communist rule.
  • A month later the Nazis attack the USSR, seize Latvia and bring in Holocaust policies.
  • When WW2 draws to a bloody close, the Soviets claim Latvia again and keep hold until 1991, sending lots of dissenters to camps in the meantime.
I think I read that during the three occupations one-third of the Latvian population was killed. Many understandably fled overseas as well.

First and foremost, they manage where Russia failed, to present the gulags as a bad thing. People being pulled from their homes in the middle of the night, separated from their families, put on trains to the middle of Siberia; desperate notes to loved ones dropped through the wagons onto the track in hope; shacks as shelters with only bare bunks and temperatures so low that your hair stuck to the wood in the night; forced labour for endless hours on pitifully small, rotten rations etc.

Very harrowing, but they also presented a positive tale of survival, endurance and resourcefulness under horrific conditions. For example, one man had made a violin from a couple of old boxes and some homemade glue. Women sewed birthday gifts from coloured thread pulled from their clothes. Fishbones were turned into needles; tin cans were melted into spoons. Much of it was ingenious.

On a lighter note, after I’d spent one night catching up on some sleep in a hostel, I couchsurfed with the lovely Annija and her buddies for a couple of days. She is a student working part-time in translation for a Latvian company. Impressively, she speaks Latvian, Russian, German, English, Norwegian and a sprinkling of other languages. We had great chats about Russian tattoos, good new music, transvestites, strawberries and fjords as we sampled her delicious cooking or listened to live jazz in one of the hip cafes down on Miera Street. I like her muchly.

One comment she made with regards to our generation being literally spoilt for choice, to the extent that it paralyses us, stuck with me.

“We have so much choice now and we expect to have it all. It means we view the options we don’t take as losses instead of simply a decision, almost mourning them. I think it’s part of the reason that people are so bad at committing these days.”

General ponder. Then we cracked open another beer.

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The 30-hour day

Flying back over in six and a half hours what it took you almost a month to cover by train is a surreal experience: the Trans-Siberian trains travel an average of 60kph over the full 9000km distance. Flying by day gives you a totally different perspective on the scenery that you drifted past on the train.

I took off from Ulan Ude airport one chilly morning, soared into the sky over the plains and was afforded a front-row view over the sprawling city. If tightly-packed cities such as Hong Kong are like foetal position sleepers, Ulan Ude is a starfish duvet hogger, languishing amongst the hills keeping casually to the Uda riverside.

Ta ta, Ulan Ude

River deep

Mountain high. Or just cold.

The hills then continue for several hundred miles over the Siberian hills, coated sometimes in trees or topped with the last of the winter snow. I’ll borrow a description from Mark Twain. Sure, he used it to describe the great plains outside Kansas, but it still fits.

“Just here the land was rolling – a grand sweep of regular elevations and depressions as far as the eye could reach–like the stately heave and swell of the ocean’s bosom after a storm.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. Course, there are mountain ranges in the form of Altai, Urals etc. but our path either didn’t cross over them or I was ignoring the view as we did.

Continental, Russian rivers are broad and powerful. Often they are studded with islands and look like a Curly Wurly chocolate bar but from 30,000 feet you can also see their power and organic evolution. Where a river snakes through a region the land some kilometres to either side of it is scarred with uniform marblings, streaks and tell-tale oxbow lakes that show where the force of the water has cut easier paths and moulded the land. It’s a geographer’s wet dream.

Then in the Siberian taiga you can see the neat bald patches where it looks like a heavenly hand has scored squares of forest from the map and removed them for an art project. Good at least to know that for the most part logging is managed. (Don’t shoot me down; I know black market logging exists still.)

The further West you go, the more emerald the greens and the more intensively farmed the land becomes. Larger cities are evident, increasingly cramped field boundaries are visible. People actually live here. Patterns of urban habitation begin to emerge and population densities clearly increase.

And then you land in dusty, pressed Moscow and are delivered into the bowels of the chuntering Metro system, ready to be processed and spat out at your destination.

I had one day left on my visa and didn’t want to take my chances with the burly border guards. There is a small booth at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport selling train tickets. Don’t use it. I was dazzled by the proper ticket printing machine into thinking it was a standard railways outfit. It’s not. It’s an agency charging over 40% commission on the tickets it sells. Ah, what the hell, thought I. Let’s just get the ticket sorted and spend a few hours mooching around the city.

So after much miming and writing down of times and dates and reinforcing what I wanted, I had a ticket in my grubby paw for Riga. I had wanted to go to Tallinn but tickets for that night were silly money and Latvia is a close neighbour anyway. Got my ticket, got the marshutka into town and went to see Bulgakov’s old apartment where he wrote some of his famous works. It has become a shrine to the celebrated author’s work and people have graffitied the stairwell up to the communal apartment that he and his wife used to have a room in. There were ten rooms and a communal kitchen and bathroom for the lot of them.

Bulgakov’s apartment courtyard

Bulgakov’s desk

Two characters from The Master and Margarita, his most famous work. If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy and see what you make if it. Never does any harm to be able to say you’ve read some Russian Lit.

Beard stroking

Settling down for a coffee after my beard-stroking museum time I decided to check the details on my ticket once more, just to see which train station I needed to make my way towards. Russia has such a huge network of trains that there are several terminals for the international and national departures, scattered around the city. Russia train tickets are jammed full of information so I’d already checked my train, time, carriage, bed once but…what’s this? She’s booked it for tomorrow?

<Sigh> The one and only time I use an agent, they balls it up. Booking online or at the station is flawless. <Whinging> I didn’t even want to go to Riga.

By this time it was imperative that I left that evening since the visa would run out the next day and I didn’t fancy running the immigration bribe gauntlet. It was already too late to get a ticket for the Tallinn train, so off to the train station it was to plead with them to change the ticket. This too involved an amount of miming and throwing money at the situation but I managed to secure passage for that night.

There was an hour to go so I waited on the platform for a bit, eating biscuits and taking pictures of trains.

Choo choo train

Not these people though. Despite the 17 hour journey ahead of us, they were desperate to get on board.

Train scrum

In this man’s case, I think it’s so he could get into his pyjamas asap.

PJs. May as well be comfortable.

Latvian trains are slightly different to Russian trains. They’re still old and characterful, but tea and mineral water are provided free of charge and delivered to your compartment by the matronly attendant-in-charge. There’s even wifi in the expensive carriages.

I was sharing with a military couple on their way for a month’s holiday in the West from the barracks in the East and a Russian bloke on his way home to Latvia after working in Moscow for the week. He does this every week as it’s better money in Moscow and cheaper to live in Latvia. He was an ex-con but now had gone straight and was earning his crust for his 11-year old son back at home. He was nice enough, friendly and trying to talk to me in English but not the brightest button in the box. Plus he had a habit of leaning in way too close to my face as he tried to talk and I’m already sick of that cloyed, sweet smell of stale booze that lingers around alcoholics. It’s one thing to catch the scent on your average Wednesday morning in the ITP office, but it’s another on every fifth person in a country. It was pay day and he had chosen to celebrate by drinking 5 bottles of whiskey (or so he boasted) and had another 5 bottles of vodka and beer stashed in his bag.

After chatting for some time, he disappeared off to some mystery location. I’d crossed 6 time zones on my flight back from the East and so was pretty tired in the course of my 30-hour day. We were going to be awoken at 4am for border formalities so at 10pm-ish, I settled down on my bottom bunk for a kip. About half an hour later, the drunk came back and sat on my feet before collapsing on top of me like a felled tree. I wasn’t enormously keen on sharing a bed with him so shoved him vaguely upright while a fellow passenger kicked him in the leg and told him to sort himself out. Enter train security who came and confiscated the rest of his booze for the night. I thought it prudent at this stage to switch beds for the relative safety of the upper bunk, especially since drunk man found it funny to poke my feet and wink at me. There was no way he was getting up there anyway.

Mind you, this wasn’t nearly as bad as the story that my friend Emma told me about being the only girl in a compartment surround by 8 drunk men, one of whom thought it was funny to drop condoms in her lap and pull at her toes in the night. She didn’t sleep. She kicked him in the face. But none of the blokes stood up for her either and at 3am one of the guys who spoke English told her that ‘he had shame’ for not saying something. Quite right.

About an hour later I looked down to see him sprawled on the floor by the table where he had fallen out of bed. I don’t want to cast stones, but I suspect he’d done a bit of wee too. Lovely.

4am came and it was time to complete passport formalities. The sun rose during the time it took to get everyone’s passport checked and stamped. By this time our friend was snoring so loudly it sounded like rocks falling down a well so I abandoned all further notions of sleep, stoically ordered 4 cups of tea from the attendant and lapped up the sympathetic smiles and knowing nods from my fellow passengers as they passed me in the corridor.

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The end of the road

Leaving Baikal was a wrench made easier by the fact that it was freezing and I wanted sensation in my fingers again. Early one morning a band of us bundled into a bus, packed in with bags and a pug dog. Pauline got chatting to one gent who was travelling with us, Maks, who was half-cut and holding a bottle of beer when he got on the bus, gave her a grouse foot and showed her a video of him killing a chicken. When we stopped for lunch on the 6-hour minivan journey we took the opportunity to exchange emails. ‘Mojna?‘ asked our drunk Russian friend, not wanting to be left out.

Then he drew this:

Cat arse

Thanks Maks.

Back in the big smoke of Irkutsk I took one last turn of the town and then sorted myself out with a ticket onwards to Ulan Ude. I settled myself into my bunk on the night train and introduced myself to my compartment companions who were among my favourite yet. Baba, as she called herself, was petite with beautiful laughter creases around her almond eyes and was dressed in a twinset with 20s style bonnet hat; her husband was wearing a leather flat cap and neat jacket and grandad trousers, blinged up by his dazzling gold grills. They laid out their little table cloth decorated with cartoon pigs and hearts and prepared themselves a late evening supper of bread, cured sausage and super milky, Buryat style tea. I was smitten just to look at them.

Then we attempted conversation. Less easy. Luckily I knew the two middle-aged gents in the next compartment as we’d been in Nikita’s together at Olkhon. I drafted Cuno and Chris in for a three-way translation from Russia into German and then into English, and back again. Baba asked me if I had enjoyed Olkhon island, if I had found it beautiful. ‘Yes; ochen krasevi‘ I gushed in my finest Russian. ‘And did you drink vodka with the Buryat?’ she asked, with a twinkle in her eye and a nod to the one and only can of beer that I drank on all the many trains that sat guiltily in front of us on the table. ‘Why yes of course!’ I laughed. She hooted with laughter.

The Buryat are famous for their particular fondness for a tipple. Elias, the couchsurfer who I accidentally trailed across the landmass, did a fair bit of hitching along the way and each time he reported getting a lift with Buryat people, fellow Russians would immediately ask if they got him drunk. The answer was always yes.

There are many groups of down-and-outs on the streets of Ulan Ude, more than I’ve seen in any other city. Mostly men, but sometimes women with distinctly Asian features cluster in groups in doorways and on benches early in the morning to start drinking the cheapest grog they can get their hands on. I got the impression, knowing the tribe’s reputation, that these were often Buryat folk and that the tribe’s social drinking problem is parallel with that of the Aborigines in Australia. Very much focused on one group but largely ignored.

I tried to delicately ask my host, Elena, but I think it’s a bit of a sensitive topic so I didn’t get a straight answer, although there are some scholarly articles on the subject to be found on the internet. Instead, we moved to safer ground, talking about our different travel and work experiences as we dined on pozi at the simple neighbourhood cafe next to the Buddhist temple. These are sheets of pasta filled with meat and onion, sealed with a twist at the top and steamed. You eat them by nibbling a small section of the side off, sucking out the hot juices from inside then chewing the rest smothered in your favourite sauce.

Elena is a super-interesting character who speaks English more fluently than I do as well as her native Russian and Chinese. She spent three years working in a bank in Mongolia before studying for an MBA in Italy for a year. Now she works back in Ulan Ude and lives in happy harmony with her Mum and 90-year old Granny. Granny is fit as a fiddle for her age and spends her days cooking, gardening and pottering relentlessly, saying that it is important to stay busy to stay healthy.

As we sat down for a supper one night, after Mum had come home from her table tennis club, we traded family stories. ‘Would you like some chocolates?’ she asked. ‘We’ve got so many boxes of them!’ Sure, but why so many I wondered? Victory Day, was the answer. Granny had served in the war for three and a half years on the Mongolian front and had the medals to prove it. On cue, they fetched the jacket and a photo of her in her wartime uniform for me to see.

Can I take her home?

During the day I looked around Ulan Ude itself. This was to be my last stop on my Trans-Siberian journey as the next natural stop is Ulaanbaator, the place where my attempt ground to a halt last year…

Ulan Ude is close to the border with Mongolia and close to Baikal. The culture here genuinely appears to straddle Russian and Mongolian, taking strands from both and mixing them wonderfully with local tribal customs. It is the Russian centre of Buddhism, with Ivolginsky Datsan acting as the epicentre, famous as it contains the preserved body of Khambo Lama who died in 1927 and is still upright in the lotus position. This is remarkable as dead bodies cannot normally do this for more than two weeks. Although the body has decayed a little (ewww) since exhumation and testing, he basically self-mummified. Now the temple, just outside the city, is seen as a place of healing power.

I went for a wander around the city to soak up the vibe that some people so rave about. Naturally the big Lenin head in the Soviet-style square struck me and as the first thing I saw after the train station, it was hard to beat. One year they made it a giant fur hat which is brilliant.

Lenin head.

Yeeeeah

The Opera that stands near this square is a beautiful building of elegant proportions with a lovely statue out front of a dancing couple, distinctly Asian-looking. By day they pump classical music out over the tanoy and people gather to lunch, drink coffee and watch the intricate fountains.

Opera. Cultural sophistication lives, even in the wildest outposts.

Ballet sculpture

I walked down through the city centre, past all the drunk clubs for a look at the oldest architecture and the cathedral. The streets are much more like I expected from Irkutsk – often unsealed and a bit more weather-beaten. Traditional architecture is mixed with Mongol ornaments, Stalinka buildings and grand stone buildings from the turn of the century. Proper hodge podge.

Walkabout towards town

Typical street

Interestingly (for me anyway) Elena had told me that contrary to my impression that Russian people were still into communal-ish living, contentedly living in small studios in large housing developments, suburbs of detached houses are growing up quickly as Russian people stake their claim on privacy. ‘People don’t want to hear their neighbours any more’, she said. It’s not like space is an issue.

Nipped into the cathedral which is pretty but, meh. How many cathedrals do you need to see? Dropped in on the City History Museum which offers an interesting story of how the city came to be as well as an avant-garde photographic art exhibition. I was going to go into the Nature Museum too, as it is supposed to be most illuminating about the wildlife of Baikal, but it smelt of farts and the nice, helpful man on the desk burped in my face.

Instead I contented myself with wandering around the market admiring the chapkas (fur hats) and unty, reindeer fur boots which look awesome and are apparently the only way to keep your tootsies warm when the mercury plummets.

Reindeer fur boots. Costly but very warm.

 

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Big Blue

Irkutsk was a most unexpected town. I had expected – being at the edge of Mongolia and in the middle of Siberia – a ramshackle outpost. But this was a town built largely by the sophisticated, upper class political exiles in the 1800s and 1900s and so it is an urbane city that looks like it belongs in a black and white postcard from the 1920s. Essentially Russia’s answer to Britain’s Australian POMs.

Irkutsk. Ain’t she pretty?

It is famous for the Decembrists, a group of gents who attempted an unwise and unsuccessful coup against the Tsar in 1825. Being gentlemanly sorts, instead of shooting them in the head the Tsar opted to send them to the back of beyond for some hard labour and piercing temperatures. Ok, he hung the five ring leaders, but then he only exiled the rest to the coldest outskirts of the empire. The nobles WAGS, left behind in Moscow, decided that they would follow their husbands into the bitter exile conditions, rather than continue the comfortable lives at home while they waited. One, Maria, was very active and used the time to establish schools, hospitals and theatres in Siberia. Good for her.

On the 18-hour train journey from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, I couldn’t help but notice the surfeit of timber cargo trains and lumber yards near the track. If there’s one thing that Siberia has in bountiful supply, it’s wood. Turns out that this is not only used to build and heat almost every home in Siberia, it’s also shipped out to the Chinese who now own the world and everything in it.

I stayed a night, hosted by Aleksander who like shooting his mates in the forest with air guns – paint ball, he says, is for wimps – wandered around exploring, and investigated the exit strategy. The visa is swiftly running out and onwards journeys to both China and Mongolia require further visas and leave me the wrong side of the world. Instead, I plan to exit back to Europe where visa constraints won’t bother me. The exit journey is going to be a long chain of flights and night trains. <Shudder.>

Irkutsk is nice but the real reason for coming here is for Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, 1637m at its deepest point, containing 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. <Trivia alert.> That’s more than America’s five great lakes combined. If the world’s water supply ran out tomorrow, Baikal could quench mankind’s thirst for 40 years. It has been formed by two tectonic plates pulling apart and as they continue to do so, Baikal will eventually become the world’s fifth ocean, cleaving Asia in two.

It’s also bastard freezing. The waters never get warmer than 15 degrees and way colder than that in winter when it freezes over with 1m ice thick enough to drive cars and camp on. That didn’t stop a few of my crazy pals going for midnight dips. Not I. I huddled by the beach fire and laughed. The immense body of cold water acts like a natural fridge, cooling the immediate area down much more than the surrounding countryside. It makes it a popular holiday and weekend destination in summer when temperatures reach up to 45 degrees.

It’s a six-hour bumpy bus journey from the city to the island of Olkhon (pronounce ‘kh’ like the ‘ch’ in a Scottish loch), half way up the water. I thought that the bus would skirt the lake for most of the way and so feared my Russian mime had failed me horribly when we sped through dusty, rolling countryside for the first four hours. This was compounded by the four drunken screeching hags who formed my bus companions. You get used to people clutching a bottle of beer at 9am in Russia but it’s unusual to see four ladies in charge of two small kids and a couple of kittens get raging drunk and pass out in a minivan. Turned out I was on the right bus though and after a short ferry ride across the water and another 40 minutes along dusty tracks, we had arrived.

Show me the way to Olkhon

The island is a little haven of wildlife (including gophers!), sandy beaches, pine forest, light hills and remarkable viewpoints. The main town on the island is Khuzir and is home to less than 1,500 residents. It stands next to the holy Shamanic rock and caves. The island is one of the five poles of shamanic energy, as perceived by the local Buryat tribe. You’ll often find them leaving the spirits gifts of fags, sweets and flicks of vodka at the religious markers scattered around the island. The lake is also famed for its fish delicacy – omul – served cooked or smoked. A little fleet of boats and some small processing plants form one of the island’s main economic activities. Apart from tourism.

Shaman rock

Shamanic totems, if you will

Rag-a-tag fishing fleet

The most popular backpacker haunt is Nikita’s homestay, a sprawling development of wooden huts that has developed something of a monopoly over the local travel scene. I checked in for two nights which includes all your ‘organic meals’. They might be organic, but they’re also a lot like school dinners, although the portions are generous and filling. The rooms are homely, well-designed, warm and comfortable, even if they do lack showers. Instead, you are invited to take a Russian banya, a sauna with wash down afterwards, to get clean every night. You have to sign up for your 20-minute slot each day…only there aren’t enough for everyone staying. Error.

View over Khuzir town to the lake from Nikita’s

It turned out that down by the village church there is an awesome couchsurf venue hosted by Sergey who invites travellers into his home and uses a little of their labour each time to continue building his CS village. However he and Nikita are friends and have to live together in a small village so he politely declined my couch request for another couple of days. Loath to leave the idyllic island and displeased with the vibe of disapproval I was getting from expensive Nikita’s at the suggestion that I would move accommodation, I looked at other options. I wound up camping in a tent in a barn for another two nights.

Tent in a barn

Flask of breakfast tea nobly provided by Petr, the in-house artist

Day times most involved exploring the scenery. One day I went for a walk through the forest and meadows up to a viewpoint, another I went for a wander up the coastal beaches,

At the moment the forest is filled with ladybirds and rhododendrons in the second coming of spring. The steppe is grasses and lichens and aromatic wild thyme. There are also some beautiful flowers around that look like something out of Avatar. They have a short fuzz around their pastel-coloured petals and stems, giving the appearance of almost glowing. I liked them very much. Some of the less sunny meadows and beaches have the remnants of snow from winter. The ice on the lake itself only melted three weeks ago.

The forest and one of many perfect summer camping spots

Forest filled with rhododendrons

Lush

Avatar flowers

And the coast path

Another day I went for an organised 4×4 adventure to the beautiful Khoboi cape at the very North. The trip takes you to some of the best viewpoints over the waters and introduced you to some of the legends. There is one rock formation called ‘Three Brothers’ said to have been formed as a father’s punishment. The powerful entity (non-specific) had turned his three sons into eagles. They were enjoying the wings of freedom but the condition was that they must never eat dead meat. I think he meant that they hadn’t killed themselves, else… Once, when hungry, they found a dead animal…yada, yada. Angry Dad then turned them into three rocks. Harsh but fair.

Another legend is related to the rivers flowing in and out of the lake. More than 300 rivers feed Baikal but only one flows out towards Krasnoyarsk, starting at a village called Listvyanka. At the beginning of this river is large rock, rising from the water. The story goes that Father Baikal threw the rock in anger to try and stop his cherish and beautiful daughter Angara running away to marry her lover. A fountain to commemorate this myth stands near the Opera Square in Krasnoyarsk.

Anyway, enough silly stories. I embarked on a day trip that took as its first port of call the remains of a gulag fish factory. It operated from 1938 to 1956 and would have been home to about 1200 prisoners. Once again, in the heat of spring and with only a Russian-speaking guide, it looked a lot more like a holiday camp. That said, no mention was made of the living conditions and you can bet your bottom dollar that they were tents on the freezing shore. Don’t think Stalin made a habit of comfortable lodgings.

Anyway, then we pressed North for a day of visiting the marvellous capes, beaches, dunes and steppe of the island. I’ll let some pics do the talking…

On the way…

Vroom

What do you call these? Remain of summat by the gulag anyway.

Included for your entertainment. Here I look like my dentures are slipping out…

Here I look like a fat-faced rodent…

And here, overlooking the lake to the North, I finally look normal. Don’t I? If not I seriously need to look into surgery.

Fellow tourists on the cape

By night, much time was spent meeting other travellers on the island, and my does it attract an interesting crowd. I met Emma, a British girl and aspiring novelist who has just travelled the Silk Road and is also travelling indefinitely. Petr, the in-house artist, a Russian who has pieces on show in Moscow’s celebrated Tretyakov Gallery. Not my bowl of rice but some of his stuff is very good. A band of three French folks who are travelling across Asia with no specific destinations or timings; the sole objective is not to use planes. Pauline is investigating eco-villages as she goes with the intention of setting one of her own up back in France. Two Australian sisters on their way to Europe for the mandatory two year working visa. Cuno, a German man who is part-owner of a mechanics garage and home and who leaves his wife and adopted daughter at home for 3 to 4 months each year to go travelling, often camping and foraging as he goes: The family join him if they can, else it’s just him and his dog. A Swiss couple who are crossing Asia by train and bike after a stint working in Tajikistan working on a water supply development project. Nicholas, a Frenchman who has been travelling, teaching and learning his way across and around Central Asia and Russia for seven years, developing a keen interest in photography along the way.

Then there were the locals. Nikita himself is a one-time world table tennis champion. I briefly met another guy in the dining room who had walked across the ice from one end of Baikal to the other this winter. Took him 40 days, camping and ice fishing as he went.

This merry and organic gang passed a couple of evenings around beach camp fires drinking nips of vodka, cooking fish and potatoes and sharing tales. One night some local fishermen joined us to offer more fish and show us how to cook them properly (lashings of mayonnaise and unhealthy amounts of salt). Not as crusty hippy as I’ve made it sound. A very nice group of outdoorsy people and very pleasing way to spend evenings. Not to mention the view…

Beach fire, with fish

Baikal lake at sunset

And the light continues to fade…

 

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Krazzers

“Do you know about the insects at Stolby that can paralyse you if they bite you?” asked Peter, one of the Bunk Brigade on the trip from Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk. Er, no Peter, I didn’t.

I was lucky that Peter was in my section as he had good English and could act as translator between me, Vittorio, Bahar and Tanya, a babushka figure who adopted me and fed me chocolates for the journey.

He referred to tick season in Siberia and the prevalence of encephalitis among the biting population. The disease is incurable and can render you paralysed. I wish I’d known about the inoculation before but I didn’t so I’ll have to take my chances that a) I don’t get bitten and b) if I get bitten it’s by one of the 50% that don’t have the virus. It’s not going to stop me going to the lakes and mountains, that’s for sure.

We had quite a long conversation over the course of our journey. It turned out that he was travelling a long-winded road to get to Krasnoyarsk to study. He has a family at his home in Irkutsk and his wife is expecting their second baby within a month. Russia is one of the few countries in the world with a rapidly declining population – about 600,000 each year – attributed to drug and alcohol abuse and a generally hard life. It’s also the given reason for hot women settling for frankly rotten mingers. Women are hardier than men so it has caused a 60-40 population skew. To try and counter this, Russia’s government has introduced what I will call ‘breeding incentives’. For your second child the government give you $10,000 (not in cash but in investable options for the child’s well-being); for the third they give you a plot of land. He also told me that heart problems are rife in Siberia thanks largely to the enormous 100 degree temperature range. Apparently 40 degrees in the summer and 45 below in the winter isn’t so good for your ticker.

Krasnoyarsk is tagged as a ‘Siberian boom town’ and is certainly a vibrant hub. It has a population of 2.9million and was founded to claim and protect that chunk of Siberia from the natives, but has diversified to become a popular place to send political exiles (in the 1800 and 1900s) and one of the country’s largest producers of aluminium. Being a stop on the Trans-Siberian train also helps with its popularity.  For me, it was the place that I began to notice more distinctly Asian influences in more faces. Don’t forget that we’re back in Asia proper now, having crossed the continental line back in Yekaterinburg.

Krasnoyarsk, by the station. Bit obsessed with the cars.

Krasnoyarsk’s emblem. A lion with a spade…

Truth. Proper Siberian boom town.

After a morning argument with the dudes at Subway who put ketchup in the disgusting sandwich that they made me and tried to double-charge me for the privilege (yes, I put a complaint in to HQ via the wifi that they kindly provided – look forward to their response), I met Zhenya at the train station, an eager English student and friend of my couch-surfing hosts Misha and another, female Zhenya.

We toured the city in the morning, taking in my favourite Lenin memorabilia, Sovietska architecture, art deco buildings, a toy shop, some statues and a coffee shop. All the tulips and early spring flowers that I saw at home over a month ago are now in bloom here so I feel like I’ve cheated the clock in getting another spring.

Daff seller

The Opera. Kras is big into fountains. Fanatical in fact.

Pretty. Y’all sick of churches yet?

Street. Nice.

A vision in grey alongside a statue of a famous artist. In Russia, it’s good luck to touch the statues’ noses. I know not why.

At lunchtime we met effervescent Vasilisa and her friend Maks. Vasa is a TV journalist at the local TV station and has just started using couch surfing to practice her already impressive English. Likewise, Maks is a science academic who has spent time in China and the US and so speaks very good English but wants to keep it up and, it seems, to show fervent tourists their city. Upon meeting they whisked us off to the chairlifts at the Bobrovy ski resort for panoramic views over both the city and the taiga forest beyond it. This accompanied by a picnic of sushi, prepared by Vasa’s capable boyfriend, and samogon, a fiery home-brewed vodka flavoured with pine nuts and prepared by her dear father.

Krazzers from on high

Maks and Vasa.

It was a beautiful spot from which to take in the cityscape and get your bearings, plus we were lucky enough to see an owl hunting in the grasses below as we sailed overhead.

“Have you ever seen a dacha?” she asked me.

‘What is a dacha?’

Decision made. Remember how I told you that Russian folks tend to live in apartments and covet gardens to such an extent that they keep a patch of land in the country with a little house to stay at in the summer? It turned out that Maks’ family are the proud owner of one and so they duly invited me to go and  see it for myself. <Beam.> Imagine an allotment with a substantial wooden house perched on it and you’ve got the idea. Now imagine a patchwork of them crammed into a fecund corner of forest. At this one there are more than 400 dwellings of varying style, size and state of repair.

Dachas

More dachas

Maks’ dacha

I’d seen plenty of them as I cruised past on the train but the chance to go and visit one for myself was a joy. They are little village communities that re-establish themselves each year and wind down each winter. For many families it is a tradition to grow a crop of potatoes but others like to just enjoy the tranquillity of the countryside or grow flowers.

On the half hour drive out, we stopped at a roadside stall to pick up some uber-fresh, unpasteurised milk and cream, wild garlic, sausage and bread. This was to be conjured into a magnificent feast upon arrival. Not before an appetite had been worked up by fetching water, Hansel and Gretel style, from the well at the bottom of the hill. We spent several sunny hours exploring the summer village and playing ‘guess the crop’ as the hopeless townies.

Roadside shopping

Vasa and the feast!

This will make your breath and burps smell for a couple of days, but it tastes *delicious*

The following day was an early start for a trip to the famous Stolby (emphasis on the ‘by’ syllable) national park that abuts Krasnoyarsk. In the 17,000 hectares of taiga forest stand 50 or more rock towers created by ancient volcanic activity and subsequent erosion. I went with Maks and Dominik, a fellow couchsurfer making his way back from two years in Oz via Russia and the Trans-Siberian. After a 7km gentle walk in, it was decided that we should ascend one of the rocks for optimum views. Everyone does it; in summer there is a queue for the most popular rocks. A noble-looking gentleman having his picnic and cuppa tea at the bottom pointed the easiest route out to us.

We began to climb and a scramble up the rocks swift turned into a climb. Fine for the nimble boys but less fine for a wuss like me without being in some way attached to the rock. I squeaked a lot and pulled faces. Ironic really since I was probably wearing the best shoes out of all of us. Luckily we made friends with two young climbing enthusiasts who were climbing the same route. The two undergraduates had bunked off university for the day to head to their favourite rocks for some climbing. One was wearing jeans and converse, the other a vest and some ragged trainers, changed for old-fashioned rubber climbing shoes when he wanted to demonstrate classic technique to us. “He told you that was the easy way?” they laughed. “He must be crazy.” Still, by hook, crook, rope and cajolement they spirited me safely to the top of the rock. And it was worth it for the rousing scene of mile upon mile of rolling Siberian forest. And a nip of home brew for courage.

Walking in to Stolby

The top. Forest as far as the eye can see.

Team Russia

Nice spot for a picnic

The way down was way easier, more like my definition of scrambling, and thoroughly enjoyable. So much so that our experts slid down sections of it head-first.

That evening we had local pancakes and beer at Matreshka Cafe back in town. I tell you, the Russian food is surprisingly good and varied. Pastas, salads, meats, delicacies you wouldn’t dream of. This is not just a land of borsch and cabbage. No sir.

On my last day in the city, kindly Zhenya once again acted as my personal tour guide and showed me more of the city, including tea in a yurt and the wild, beautiful Tatyshev park on an island in the river and popular with runners, cyclists, families and the omnipresent roller bladers. I was very sorry to be leaving a friendly and most surprising city, but the train waits for no man.

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Tell us! Tell us about the train!

You’re probably all wondering what 24 or more hours or more on a train looks like. No? Look away now.

The journey starts, naturally, with the booking. This is remarkably well organised in Russia. You can book online up to 45 days before your train on the slick, simple website. Except for the fact that it’s entirely in Russian, but that can be overcome by using the Man in Seat 61’s step-by-step guide. It even lets you choose your carriage and bunk. I always plump for Platzkart, the open-plan bunks in third class arranged in clusters of six. My official reasoning for choosing them over the slightly more comfortable koupe is that the koupe’s are four enclosed berths – you have no control over your carriage mates and winding up in there on my own with three drunk blokes would be undesirable. At least in 3rd I’ve got the no-nonsense aunties to defend my honour with rolling pins and feed me sweets.

But really I would choose this anyway cos the tickets are the cheapest.

Platzkart

Bunk view

On average, a 12-hour journey will cost you a ballpark 1,000 roubles (£20) but it can be much more or much less depending on your luck and the quality of the train. The tired old ones with offensive toilets tend to be cheaper. I find these charming but have twice been prepared to pay more for a newer train with bearable bogs and the odd bit of soap.

You could set your watch by the trains in Russia, so efficient are they. I don’t know what British Rail’s excuse for not being able to run punctual trains or second-guess whether or not you’ll get a seat when Russia’s runs so flawlessly over thousands of kilometres. When it arrives at the station, a gang of blokes goes around tapping the bogeys (the official term for the wheely bit, dontcha know) with hammers. It’s vaguely reassuring and I presume this has a safety function but I have no idea what.

One of the stations

Heeeeere’s Johnny!

In the station they have super-organised luggage rooms that operate 24-hours for 90roubles (£2) a bag. The bogs are clean and if you show them your ticket and are travelling or have travelled imminently, they don’t charge you the 15 roubles to pee. The stations themselves are wonders of architecture that the Victorians would have been proud of. All have 24-hour waiting rooms, cafes, showers, restaurants and facilities. Most of them have some Soviet mosaics of friezes to remind you where you are.

Helluva mosaic

Waiting room

Your ticket shows you your carriage and bunk number. On boarding the train, you find your seat, get your essentials for the day ahead, strip off your unnecessary outer layers (they’re always super-warm, even in winter) and stow your bag. Linen, included in the ticket price and comprising two sheets, a pillow case and a neatly-starched washcloth, is dished out by your stern-faced but efficient attendants. There is at least one on duty in every carriage at all times. No fare-dodging here.

Each person takes their turn to unfurl their bed roll and prepare their bed. You have to take turns cos there’s no room to swing a cat. Be prepared at some stage to have someone else’s arse near your face.

Linen bag

Blindingly white!

Bunk, prepared.

A poster is displayed in each carriage showing you the names of the stops (in Cyrillic so brush up), the time of arrival and time of departure. During the course of a full journey – often several days – there will be a few long stops of up to an hour, giving you enough time to nip in for a proper feed. At one stop near Lake Baikal in the East, the 15 minute is said to be enough to sprint to the lake for a dip and then sprint back to the train.

Info-mation

You’ll spend a fair amount of time in your bunk; many people sleep out of boredom. If you’re in the top bunk you’ll likely be reluctant to get in and out too often since it’s such an exercise of contortion. I think one lady on one of my trains slept for 22 out of the 28 hours. Champion! Me, I like to listen to tunes and podcasts on the iPod (largely to drown out those noises that I find so unsavoury; many people snore…), attempt bad conversation with people, read, write letters and gaze pensively out of the window. Travel scrabble would be a winner. Sudoku on the phone has once again come in useful. Other people like to drink steadily but passively, play cards, chat to their neighbours or stare at the foreigners. These same drinkers are often heavy smokers and will leave the train at every opportunity for a fag or neatly disappear to the smoking cave for a cig. They bring back with them a strong whiff of harsh Russian fags but many are considerate and bring a bottle of aftershave to douse themselves in afterwards.

If you choose to look out the window, here’s what you’ll see. It really doesn’t photograph well cos it’s majestic in reality.

Window view

Sunrise through the forest

And lots of this. Lots of lovely sweeping grass, fields and steppe.

Sunset

And some heavy machinery

When you’re not staring moonily out of the window or lying on your bunk, you will often find yourself eating. Food is frequently shared around in the convivial third-class carriages and I’ve often found sweets, fruit and tea forced upon me as a way of communicating in the absence of language. It’s lovely.

Each wagon has a samovar supplying endless hot water to the masses.

Old samovar, decorated lovingly with flowers

Shiny new samovar

More likely to nick this.

This heavily influences the choice of supplies. You can borrow a cup and teaspoon for the duration of your trip or bring your own if you’re finicky about germs (Ed Poultney). Many prefer to run with the pot noodles and Smash (dehydrated mash potato, allegedly). Me, I turn my nose up at the molten noodles and instead refuse to board without apples, yoghurt, cheese, bread, tomatoes and a fistful of 3-in-1 coffees. Trying very hard to resist the omni-present Twixes for which I have a long-standing weakness.

Never too many

People have devised ways to keep themselves comfortable on long distances. In China passengers often change into pyjamas for the duration of the journey. In Russia the tracksuit is preferred, leggings and a t-shirt for the ladies. Or sometimes just underpants for the macho boys with something to prove (or not, a is sometimes the case). You’ll find me in jeans and flipflops.

If you arrive at your destination at some unholy hour of the morning, the attendants will come around half an hour before to wake you with a ‘dobre ootra’ and shake of the ankle and give you time to clear your rubbish into the bins (found by the bogs), strip your bed and return your linen. Some of the attendants seem to think that you will develop an unbearable attachment and want to take the clinical sheets with you so will hold your ticket ransom until they are returned safe and well.

Welcome to the Trans-Siberian!

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Into Siberia…

Ksenia had brought the Altai mountains to my attention, the so-called Switzerland of Russia. It’s on the border with Kazakhstan and is filled with lakes and hiking bounty. I looked into a diversion, desperately longing to go there, but Russia is one big place and it is not possible to divert too far from plans. What on a map looks like the next-door neighbour is more often that not 15 hours on a train. Next time…

Instead, I was bound for Tomsk, a pretty university town on the Siberian plains. This time the train was 28 hours. It had come from Moscow and by the time I got on it, it smelt a bit fruity. Partly because of a conspicuous lack of showers, but mostly cos it was inhabited by coarse men who didn’t seem to think that soap or clean clothes were journey essentials. Some of these fellows were persistent smokers who then snorted, spluttered and snorer their way through the night. I should point out that in Russia, as in Japan, it is considered rude to blow your nose in public. Which means in effect – unluckily for me – lots of glottal sniffing. Praise be for iPods to at least partially drown them out.

My host here was Sergey, a geologist taking a well-earned sabbatical to enjoy summer and focus on his band of ethno-folk music. He and Elias, a fellow couchsurfer from Switzerland, met me in a cafe after the train had delivered me to the city one bitingly cold Sunday morning. We nipped back to Sergey’s apartment to allow me to sluice the train-grime away and dump my bag before heading to a workshop in a nearby woodland park that Eli wanted to go to at Sergey’s suggestion. I had no idea what workshop it was or really what to do with myself so I tagged along for kicks.

It turned out to be a sort of spiritual chakra workshop designed to improve the voice for singers. Ahem. Not really by bag. I stood by as the group first stood and shook all of their limbs, making a low humming sound as they did so. Sensing my reluctance to join in, Sergey took me for a quick tour of the park while they continued. When we got back, they had divided into groups of four and were taking it in turns to press the shoulders of one person crouched on the floor while he/she concurrently had to scream and use the ‘scream energy’ to stand. Imagine four groups of people doing this. The dogs were going crazy. There was clearly some sort of pain or spiritual element involved as a couple of them broke down in tears.

Then they all had to go and choose a tree to hug.

It was all I could do to focus on my phrase book and gulp down the spluttering guffaws bursting to get out.

Escaping the loons in the woods, we went for pelmeni, a Russian form of ravioli, at the Pelmeni Project down in the centre of town. It’s a really funky restaurant with a modern matruyshka doll theme and excellent food. Me likey. Took the opportunity to get a bowl of borsch down me too. What took me so long?

Pelmeni Project

Tomsk is predominantly a university town, boasting seven universities and institutes. Not bad for a Siberian outpost. It originally came to being because of mining but it also became (and I think still is) an important centre for uranium enrichment and was closed to outsiders until only recently. It’s a short diversion off the Trans-Siberian but a picturesque little spot and worth the extra couple of hours on a train. What’s a couple of hours between friends?

I love Sundays in cities cos it’s when all the locals and families come out and enjoy their parks and open spaces. Towns come alive with people on bikes, trikes, rollerblades and foot. With this in mind, I went to the Lagerny Gardens, a vast park at the end of Lenina Street (every city in Russia has a Lenina Street) with a large monument to those who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War – 30 million Russians, I’m told; for reference, 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust – and an eternal flame. This is a beautiful monument but the park that it is set in is yet more impressive. Several of woodland and bike tracks stand on top of the hill overlooking a sweeping curve of the River Tom below. A bike/walking track leads down to the river below and, quite naturally, a car park for the rude boys to practice doughnuts in. Shatters the peace somewhat but to each his own?

War memorial on the way into the gardens.

Cracking view

Mmmm hmmm.

Went for a walk along a separate bit of the river too, where you can find a less-than-complimentary statue of the famous Russian author, Chekhov. He slated Tomsk in his diary when he passed through and the locals, slighted, raised this caricature statue in memory.

Another bit of riverfront, with techno pumping out over the public speaker system

Fishermen. Never a stretch of Russian water without fishermen.

Chekhov and his big feet.

View from the tower.

The highest point in the city is the old fire tower – curiously made of wood – and you can nip up to the top for just 25 roubles and get your bearings over the city. Nice on a sunny day, for sure. There’s a gulag museum in town, supposedly dedicated to Political Oppression but the exhibition, while pretty, doesn’t really do much to show you how awful the gulags were or why people were thrown in them. Even my Russian sidekick didn’t really understand the logic of the exhibition rooms. The curator has managed to make the Siberian gulag look more like a holiday camp than an evil to be feared. I cannot believe that this is the desired effect.

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Yekaterinberg

Here is the train that was zipping to Moscow.

Zoom!

Here is my train to Yekaterinberg.

Plod

Ksenia settled me on the train with my new cabin buds, a group of middle-aged ladies on their way back from a holiday to Europe, apparently to tour the major war sites. How do I know this despite my limited lingo? Because we sat and went through all of their holiday snaps. Every single one. Some cracking Russian catalogue-classic poses which involved tree blossom, fountains and umbrellas. Aside from the photos, we were forced to mime our jobs to one another and finally resorted to simply exchanging food. We hunkered down in our bunk-based reveries and 22 hours later, arrived in Yekaterinberg.

This is an industrial city that grew up around mining in the Urals but has stayed the distance and is today the fifth largest city in the country (or thereabouts). My couchsurf hosts here were Sergey, his partner Sveta and their baby son Maks, 7 months old. Not forgetting the dog, mother-in-law and two teenage sons from Sergey’s first marriage. A busy but happy abode, even if the bed on the enclosed balcony next to a water butt was one of my least conventional beds over the trip.

Welcome to Yekaterinburg

The city

Trams and whatnot

Yekaterinberg is famous for scoring the border between Europe and Asia. The name is also Russia for Catherine, named after one of the Tsarinas. There are a few monuments to mark it. It’s also famous for being the site where the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in the cellar of a house that had been made their prison. The assassins shot them repeatedly, finishing those who didn’t die off with bayonets, kids, servants and all, before mutilating their bodies (so that they couldn’t become martyr idols afterwards) and burning the princes’ bodies in nearby woods. Cos everyone knows it’s utterly dastardly to kill kids as part of political power games. Today a lovely, graceful cathedral stands on the spot but back in the day it was a small palace.

Church of the Spilt Blood

From the park

Poor kiddies

That happened in 1918 and in 1998, Boris Yeltsin held a long overdue funeral. After a sunny picnic in the park outside, I nipped in and happened to catch a service in action. The choir was beautiful, even if the bowing and scraping was a bit much for me.

Took an evening stroll around the lake, where gents like to gather daily for games of chess and parents take their kids to practice roller-blading. I passed the fine arts museum and the pretty Soviet administration building on 1905 square but there isn’t otherwise very much remarkable about Yekaterinberg so I hopped the next train outta there to Tomsk. My first stop in Siberia…

Tchaikovsky, also a home-boy

Gagarin, famous cosmonaut, too

Government building

Gents playing chess

Soviet admin building in 1905 square

Lenin statue

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Surfing in Nizhniy Novgorod

I decided to take up couchsurfing again this trip. Don’t ask me why now instead of at any other point. I suppose it is just a quicker and slightly more formalised version of the home-hopping that I’ve been invited to partake in elsewhere. Russia, it turns out, is a top place to indulge.

NN station. I love these mosaic murals

The train from Vladimir – poshed up in a compartment for a change – was swift and very comfortable. A commute express whooshes between Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod so I hopped aboard in Vladimir and was at my destination in two short hours. It passed several submerged fields and swollen rivers on the way, which it turns out is all the ice and snow melt still filtering through. Or Russia’s version of a hosepipe ban.

Nizhniy (pronounced Nijnee) sits on the confluence of two large rivers, the Oka and the Volga. My host for the duration of my stay was Ksenia, the editor of a local newspaper, studying English and teaching nippers to speak the lingo in her spare time. One busy bee. She and her pals picked me up from the train station late one Sunday night and whisked me to her home in a towerblock in the suburbs for a midnight feast of caviar pancakes and vodka shots. This after she had run me a piping hot bubble bath. I liked her immediately.

Pancakes, caviar, vodka, Ksenia

Knesia’s district

Keen to make sure that I saw everything I wanted to of Nizhniy (hereafter referred to as NN cos typing it is a royal pain in da ass), she constructed a careful programme. The first morning I was left to woozily wake and enjoy the breakfast laid out for me before the lovely Olga picked me up to take me into town for a stroll around the old city, a look at her university, a peek at the photography museum and a hearty slice of apple cake. The bank that stands on the main high street was used as a depository for more than half the empire’s gold during the First World War.

Many Russians love the Soviet chintz as much as we in the West do so there are a sprinkling of cafes and bars dedicated to the design era.

Soviet caff

Later that evening, Ksenia had enlisted another friend, Ina, a guide, to take me on a historical tour of the city. There is a lot to it, since the city was founded in 1220. After a hot sunny day, the evening in continental Russia draws in quickly and bitterly so we conducted a speed tour around the Kremlin. Cold, it may have been, but it was also beautiful as the sun set over the Volga from our lofty vantage point.

NN at sunset

In the square below the Kremlin stands a statue, a copy of the one that stands in front of St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. It was put in Moscow when finally ready (after Napoleon had finished getting defeated). It represents the victory that Pozharsky had in winning Moscow back from a Polish-Lithuanian invasion in 1612. Pozharsky mustered a modest army and marched out through the Kremlin’s gates to seize Moscow back. Not an insubstantial task since it is 400km away. The army swelled in ranks as they went and by the time they reached the capital, they could easily crush the usurpers. Hoorah!

Within the walls themselves stands the tank that was used to liberate Vienna from the Nazis (they were built here) and the requisite Eternal Flame, devoted to the war heros. Ina shed a few tears at the monument, warning us that she always does. ‘Why does war make Ina cry?’ I quietly asked Knesia some time later. ‘I think it is because everyone was touched by it. Times were very, very hard. Everyone lost someone. It became normal to see corpses half blown away in the street. Some mothers, because their children were so hungry, would cut off a finger to make them some soup.’

Harrowing stuff.

Vienna’s liberator

If Moscow is the heart of Russia and St Petersburg is the soul, NN has traditionally been known as the pocket. It was a hub of manufacturing activity back in the day. Many manufacturing plants were located here and they seemed to churn out tanks and cars at alarming rates. Each year throughout the 1800s until 1929 there was an important international trade fair held annually which lasted for several months and saw the town’s population more than double. Representatives came from more than 60 countries and the trade fair only started to die down when technology and faster communications rendered it obsolete.

As sunset drew in, we headed for the monastery. Why? For tea with an orthodox monk, of course! The lovely Brother (is that how you address them?) Theodossi hails originally from Kyrgyzstan but has been in the service of God for many years, six years at this particular Monastery. Religion seems to be resurging in Russia. The Soviets had banned it and turned this particular monastery into a cinema and the graveyard into a football pitch (naughty), but people, like teenagers, always want what they can’t have. Baptisms continued on the sly and now that it’s allowed again, they all seem to be out of the woodwork.

Anyway, asides from being a pious man, Theodossi is also a cracking baker and loves animals. He served us a late supper of tea with fresh honey from the hive and delicious breads that he had baked himself. I was invited to come back again and stay for a month and sent away with a bottle of holy oil from Jerusalem pressed into my hand. Smiles!

Tea with a monk. Me trying to cover the boobies for modesty’s sake.

The day was not over yet, oh no. Now to Ina’s place for vodkas and a salad dinner which directly translated means ‘herring under a fur coat’, another of Ksenia’s delicious offerings made by piling herring under a mound of grated potato, beetroot, cheese and egg. And, as is mandatory for any Russian salad, lashings of mayonnaise. Ina and Ksenia both love the Beatles: everyone in Russia does. I think they’re the ones keeping McCartney in alimony. They also love Franz Ferdinand. It would be lost on most, but the Scots have penned a song about Margarita from the famous book by Mikael Bulgakov and use a lot of Soviet iconography in their videos. Eagle-eyed Ruskis don’t miss a trick.

Herrings under a fur coat

Russian homes are often studio-style apartments in suburban districts. Many of the Soviet buildings that Stalin built are still creaking along, for better or worse, and although people value their privacy more than before, the communal style of living is a continual theme. Apartments are limited in size and personal gardens almost non-existent in the city: most people yearn for one and many people ask me wide-eyed if my house in England has a garden. ‘The English are obsessed with gardens’ I humbly tell them.

Many Russians instead have a little allotment out in the countryside which they tend to each summer. Some of them even transplace themselves temporarily to small dwells on their patches so they can soak up the wholesome goodness. The soil isn’t always great quality but the amount of kitchen garden produce available for sale everywhere is remarkable. They do it for fun, as much as to sell it.

K’s full programme waits for no man, and certainly not for lie-ins. The next day it was up bright and early for tea with her lovely Mum (who told me I looked like a ballerina and she like Winnie the Pooh – not so, but chuckles regardless) and then a day trip to Gorodets. This is a cute little town in the countryside centred on crafts. The bus journey there took us through fields and forest before finally depositing us on the Volga riverside. We took in the toy museum, gingerbread (pranyik) museum and craft centre, fitting some street amblings and a park picnic in amongst it.

High street

Purdy

Samovar museum

Biscuit mould

Farmers’ Market

Oh chuckles! That’s no way to treat Len’s statue.

Back in NN it was time, at my request, for a tour of the city’s Soviet architecture. Celebrated architects were brought in from all over Europe to start constructing Stalin’s version of a utopia, districts of large communal flats, community facilities and plenty of activities for children built around prolific manufacturing hubs. Check out the pic below – it was built solely as the base for a giant train track for kiddies!

Stalin was particularly pleased with this one, built for the elite. Course, you can’t really see it for the trees.

Nice lines, S-dog

Soviet design

For the kids’ giant train track! Now the registry office.

I’d just read 1984 (seemed appropriate) which decries the evils of communism sounds a lot like North Korea so I was cynical about Stalin’s vision but Ksenia was keen to balance my views with the positives that socialism brought the Russian people. It was a time, she told me, when parents didn’t have to worry about whether they could afford to educate their children – it was provided free by the State. Society was meritocratic. Healthcare was free. People knew their neighbours and talked more freely (really? For all of Stalin’s tenure?). She’s right, of course. There are benefits and the ideal of a community-spirited country surely appeals to everyone of every political ideology. It’s something that should justly be encouraged everywhere. Love thy neighbour!

We wound up our day with dinner, beers and vobla (strong, salty dried fish) at Olga’s deliciously Soviet-styled flat. Her landlord has inherited a flat from an elderly relative and rented it out without touching it, meaning all the furniture, crockery and fittings are just wonderfully, nostalgically 50s. I loved it!

Olga’s room. Like your nan’s house. Lush!

I left under a shower of gifts and food, which I could only lamely attempt to balance with some Jubilee and London trinkets from the rucksack. Mind, who doesn’t want a Jubilee keyring?

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The Golden Ring

I’d quickly had enough of the big smoke and wanted to scarper to the East pronto. But Russia is a big ol’ place and deciding on how to spend the 30 days that the Russian authorities nobly bestow on tourists. I figured that the Russians weren’t stupid and had probably been building the majority of their important cities and cultural monuments in the more clement areas for a long time. Why battle minus 40 where you don’t absolutely have to? (A question to be put to the Inuits at a future date.)

This means that a lot of worthy sites are in the West and South. Not all, but a lot. By this logic, I decided that some of the places near-ish Moscow were worth some time. They call it ‘The Golden Ring’, which I childishly can’t read without snickering. It refers to a group of towns that circle Moscow and played significant roles in Russian history. They are chock-full of traditional architecture from the 12th-18th centuries and stand as living proof that there are only so many onion-domed churches that you can bear.

I selected Suzdal and Vladimir cheated myself and my Trans-Siberian blocks by heading over on the bus. On a Saturday morning. Error. The traffic jam stretched from the city limit faaaar into the countryside and the journey took most of the morning. It was, however, entertainingly broken by the sight of a large man cycling down the highway wearing nothing but briefs and trainers. It marked the first of my experiences in using the phonetics in the DK phrasebook; whiiiich are rubbish. I relied instead on the kindness of strangers and the thankfully international city names. There are in fact a lot of cross-over words in Russian and English if you care to listen for them. Friendly folks and a nice bus driver who spoke some angleeski helped me to the right stop. ‘Good luck’, called the driver as I disembarked. Yup. I need it.

Suzdal

On the final mashukta hop to Suzdal I was sitting next to a man who was, as they all are, clutching a plastic carrier bag filled with lord-knows-what and whiffing lightly of home-brew. Despite appearances, he wasn’t mad and in the end enlisted the help of the other retired gents on the bus to point me in the right direction of the town’s only hostel.

Godzilla’s was set on the bucolic banks of the river in amongst a bounty of churches, wooden houses, monasteries and chocolate-box deliciousness. As I strolled along under the dappled shade of the spring trees, I was one happy bunny. Happier still to discover that the digs were not some scuzzy pit filled with migrant workers who touch your feet in the middle of the night, but a converted wooden farmhouse of high, airy ceilings, new furniture and enormous beanbags. Took an evening saunter around town to take in the beautiful cobbled marketplace, two (count ’em) monasteries and intricate wooden carving that adorns every spare space of every wooden house in the town. It’s mental how they found time for it, what with all the potato-reaping the peasants had to do.

Walking along the riverbank to my new home

Space is not at a premium in Russia and so even small villages have the luxury of plenty of ground between buildings. Suzdal is spread liberally over a couple of bends in the river and contains an unfeasibly large number of churches. I was told by a local guide that many churches have two models – the roomy, reverential summer ones and the cosier winter ones that were easier to heat. One explanation for the numerous churches is the presence of those monasteries.

Just some of the churches and towers

A church on the hill, next to the marketplace, above a bend in the river. Big G couldn’t have located it better himself.

One, Pokrovsky, where I nipped in one blustery Sunday morning, used to be the richest in Russia. Why? Because it was also a dumping ground for unwanted wives of the noble set and they had to pay for their keep too. Famous inhabitants included the first wife of Peter the Great, although she was not alone in Tsarina inmates. If in doubt, nun them out.

And who should be on the security gate as I wandered in with my Colombian pal to see what was going on? Right! Boozebag from the bus, still reeking faintly of vodka. I should point out that it is not unusual or seemingly frowned upon for officials to drink while on duty. I’ve smelt more than one drunk security guard and seen police officers in their squad car taking nips from a bottle of beer. Only beer, mind. Spirits would be beyond the pale.

He motioned to me to cover my head and, just as I did, the Sunday procession came out of the chapel. Visitors are requested not to take photos of the sisters, which seems only respectful, but it’s a shame cos it was such a pretty sight. The religious ministers, sisters and a handful of devotees proceed out and around the church, holding their icons and brass crosses aloft. As they walk, a quartet of nuns sing in a sunny, fluttery soprano and another sister up in the bell tower with mastery over the bells sends appropriate, multi-faceted melodies chiming out over the fields. It’s beautiful, although I had to suppress a giggle when the priest stopped at one ceremonial point to literally whip holy water at the believers.

The church plays a peculiarly strong role in Russian society, peculiar only in that I thought God was more or less dead in developed society. Well, we’ve all seen how wrong I am on that front. 65%of Russians profess to be of the Orthodox church, and not, I suspect, in the same way that 40% of the UK are Church of England because they may as well tick one box on the form. In its rituals, it bears a strong resemblance (in my eyes) to Islam, in that women are required to cover their heads and wear modest skirts in church, people nip into church for a quick prayer whenever the mood takes them and the service itself involves no chairs, but lots of bowing and crossing yourself.

Standing on the hill around the river bend is a large, royal blue dome studded with stars. That, I decided, had to be investigated. Turned out to be Suzdal’s old Kremlin, destroyed many times and rebuilt just as many over the years. The Nativity Cathedral is a World Heritage site (where isn’t these days?) but it is famous as it was the first in Russian that ordinary people were entitled to use. Previously, cathedrals were for the exclusive use of the nobility (Knyaz’). Very pretty.

Kremlin and wooden church.

Across the river, via a convenient newly-constructed footbridge, lies a museum to Russia’s wooden architecture. There is a small area to the North of St Petersburg that is famous for wooden churches and I had longed to go there, were it not for the constraints of distance and time. Check out some pics here. Don’t ask me why; I’d just read about them once. This was my compromise to self and a conveniently compact one at that. It contains windmills, water wheels, churches and peasant dwellings, all made of wood. Evidently you could tell a poor pauper from a less-poor pauper from the level of decoration around their windows and the number of levels in their home.

Nice, ain’t it?

Vladimir

Nipped into Vladimir for a while, after struggling at the train station to make the stupid phonetics in the phrase book sound like they’re supposed to in real life. Luckily, I was saved by a guardian angel in the form of a friendly guy at the next counter who spoke a smattering of English, enough to translate my questions to the cashier for me. The most unsuspecting people speak English, I tell you. I would not have picked him out, looking vaguely thuggish with his blackened teeth and tracksuit.

The city was originally a defensive outpost for the Rostov-Suzdal principality with little influence during monarchs’ reigns until  Yury Dolgoruky ‘Long Arms’, 1154-1157. However Long Arms’ son decided to make it his principality’s capital and so it became a gilded city for about 60 years until the Mongols invaded Russia and had another brief renaissance as the seat of the metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus until it was shifted to Moscow. They didn’t shirk and in those years they brought stone masons from all over to construct graceful white stone cathedrals, towers and palaces. The Mongols and a great fire were effective in their razing and the only ones that remain today are the Assumption Cathedral, Cathedral of Saint Demetrius and the Golden Gate.

I went for a wander around the grounds of the Holy buildings. Assumption Cathedral needs no explanation; suffice to admire it. It was built on a big hill overlooking the river Kylazma to embody the power and importance of the region. It works.

Assumption Cathedral

And from a bit further back

The St Demetrius cathedral was originally the private chapel of Vsevolod the Big Nest (where do they get these names?), carved by experts from Russia, Byzantine and Georgia.

Sr Demetrius church

What the masters carved.

Next to the historic white-stone edifices stand some Soviet additions. I’ve got a growing enthralment with all the statues of Lenin, which a small group of people are petitioning to have removed. Anyway, here is the local statue of him, outside the bank, and a striking monument to the war.

Lenin and some tulips

Mighty monument, cloaked emphatically in grey

And a lady on a swing. I love Sundays.

To the train station and beyond!

Could be a 60s postcard

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Cops and sluts

“Someone told me once that Moscow is a city of cops and sluts,” announced my new Russian friend, Ilya.

“Is that so?” I replied, laughing. “Pravda?” I say in the literary version.

I was supposed to meet the rentals in here last year, as the more avid will remember, but Billy No Mates wouldn’t give me a visa. The rentals went anyway and I flew over the top on Aeroplop in a big strop and refused to buy a single thing in the airport on my 6-hour stop over. Mama and Papa stopped in anyway and were not at all enamoured with Moscow, finding her an edgy, threatening beast.

My experience has been very different.

Not once did I feel unsafe as I roamed around on my own. Not once did the cops even glance at me in a ‘shit where’s my passport?’ fashion. As I wandered around the diplomatic quarter looking for my digs, three separate people came up and asked if I needed help. Perhaps it’s cos I’ve got a touch of the Ruskis about me – people KEEP coming up to ask directions and are surprised when I flounder in Engleeski. Might have had something to do with the moon boots, skin-tight jeans and high ponytail look that I was rocking at the time.

Some myths ought to be dispelled, while others remain steadfastly true. The mullet is perpetually in fashion; shiny suits and grey shoes are de rigeur for many business men. However, the Russians are not styleless. Sure, they have divergent tastes to the European norms, but all women – almost without exception – don’t leave the house unless dressed to impress. About 95% are in sky-high Louboutins. It seems that 1950s etiquette still applies in Russian cities. Similarly, if chivalry is dead in the West (bludgeoned and cowed by feminism), it lives on in Russia. I don’t stereotype when I tell you that when couples stroll through the parks, the ladies hold a bouquet of flowers and the gents carry the bags. By and large, they are not rude either. Those that are are exclusively employed by the Hermitage and Tretyakov gallery. It has to be said that they are not a naturally smiley people – disconcerting when you’re used to a culture where smiles break the ice – but their language and interactions are full of niceties and courtesy, if you can just break through the language barrier.

Which, at the moment, I can’t. I’ve more or less grasped Cyrillic; what remains is to learn words. I’ve got some basics ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’, ‘1, 2, 3’ (no more than that yet), ‘good morning’, ‘goodbye’ and the like, but have you ever tried to have an adult conversation using just those sentences? Not recently, I imagine. Pre-prepared phrases wilt in the face of rapid-fire Russian and supermarket cashiers don’t take kindly to the dumb foreigner routine.

I need verbs in order to at least create pigin sentences. I don’t have any. It’s going to be a struggle, but once again, feeling linguistically impotent frustrates me beyond measure so I’ve started trying to cram as I walk down the streets. I look a bit insane.

I wanted mostly to soak up the ambience of Moscow, an economic and political powerhouse at the moment. Just a few days before, Putin had been sworn in at the Kremlin as ‘Ultimate Leader of Mankind’, or something like that. I believe it’s an eternal term.

Kremlin

Red Star

Kremlin guards, baking slowly in the heat

Kremlin Park

More of the park

Who knew Moscow was this pretty??

State Library. Awesome.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Nipped up to the Red Square to see where they’ve been keeping Lenin for all these years, check out St Basil’s and wander around the Kremlin. There was a pretty convincing lookalike of El Presidente posing for photos outside but I wimped it without company to bolster my resolve.

Red Square, Red Fox

Red Square

They’ve built this insanely good statue in honour of Peter the Great (see below) but it’s caused some controversy since some say that the Georgian sculptor has created an ugly eyesore. Me, I think it epitomises Russian style but see what you think.

Peter the Great. Stack of ships is supposed to symbolise the navy that he built.

Up close and personal

The Stain Skyscrapers are worth taking in, in all their 1950s splendour and I took the chance to peruse a few centuries of Russian art at the Tretyakov State Gallery, which boasts a collection of 160,000 pieces. The Pushkin Gallery also looks impressive but it focuses on European art so <raspberry> to you.

One helluva skyscraper. Well done Stalin.

Tretyakov State Gallery

Then I went underground to wonder at the extravagant architecture of the Metro, and that deserves a whole blog in itself.

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