Starting the epic journey that is the Trans Siberian…

I am now sat on my first proper Trans-Siberian train, not quite as nice as the St Petersburg to Moscow one, but not bad either.  It feels good to be doing this trip, it’s been so full on I haven’t really had chance to sit down and think about it!

I am loving the fact that the huge language barrier brings about constant surprises, be them good or bad!  I am unsure how the meals work on this train, but I believe I get one per day included, be that breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Anyhow I have just been brought in some noodle soup that I wasn’t expecting.  I’m not that hungry but I won’t pass up the opportunity to eat, who knows, the next surprise may be that I don’t get any dinner!  Everything is unsure in the world of ‘not having a clue what’s going on!’. I do love a food surprise too, pick something, bite into it, and find out that way what it is that you’ve picked! 

In my cabin is Ludima.  She speaks as much English as I do Russian, however I have established she is a doctor, and my job in Russian is ‘patyana’, that’s if my ‘charades version’ translated as it was meant to……! Her colleagues are in the next cabin, and one of them has brought us both in coffees and chocolate, and knows a handful of English words.  I was slightly bemused when he kept calling me their ghost…..until I realised he meant guest!  And, as I write he now brought us in ice cream, this is after also offering me beer and Pepsi cola! He says ‘Welcome, Russia’ a lot!

Ludima started spraying her face with a mysterious vapour, and to my bemused look she passed the pink contraption over to me and started to spray the vapour on to my face, let’s hope the vapour is something pretty innocent!  Must be as she’s spraying her own face with it!  Turned out it’s just water, a freshener I guess.

The lady at my hostel in St Petersburg said that on the Trans Siberian train I would see trees, trees…..trees…..and more trees.  You know what, I could look at these trees all day 🙂   Which is a good job as that is exactly what I’ll be doing for the next 3 days in fact!

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Further out into the countryside, there are many wooden houses with tin roofs, and I can’t help but wonder how difficult it must be for them in the harsh Siberian winters….

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Lots of great grafitti along the buildings that run alongside the railway

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Well, I’d got used to Ludima being in my cabin and her friend popping in, but early in the evening they’d obviously reached their destination and they left the train.  Another travel bubble burst.  Although it turned out I had the cabin to myself for the night – result!  So it was just me, my music, and a couple of beers for the night.  Happy days.

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Next morning I tried to get breakfast from the restaurant car, only to be told, as I understood from the body language, hand gestures, and tone, that there was no more breakfast.  Oh well, least I have muesli bars and a huge bar of chocolate.  I bought a tiny carton of apple juice for £1.60, so perhaps it was just as well I didn’t get breakfast there.

I now have a new girl in my cabin.  I don’t know her name but boy do her feet smell!  Stronger than the packet of TUC biscuits I had in my possession.  Let’s hope this one won’t be a stayer either!

A few hours later….

Luckily she was not a stayer!

One more girl came and went, and another came last night and has been here all day, and it’s looking like maybe for another night too, but you never know.  I am fully in my Trans Siberian bubble, and this again, could burst at any moment.  But, when one bubble bursts, another, different bubble is created.  I have spent my time on the train mainly: sleeping, reading, blogging, eating, drinking beer and listening to music, and contemplating.  It’s all been a pretty good experience so far.  Even the carriage assistant is used to my ‘one beer please’ and ‘hello’, and ‘thank you’.  Pretty much my limit.  Oh, and I can say black cat, Ludima taught me that, although haven’t found use for that one yet.

My cabin to myself

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Now, going back to my earlier comment about how I love food surprises?  Well, that’s because I’d never had a bad food surprise…..this morning a carriage attendant selling what looked like some kind of pastry or croissant passed by our cabin.  I called him back and pointed at one of the food items, as I was a little hungry for breakfast.

Deep fried cabbage donut anyone?

No, me neither.  I must admit the cabbage innards themselves weren’t too bad, so I ate these from the centre.  But the stodgy deep fried sickly surround…..?!  This one goes down as a bad food surprise!

Last day in Moscow and Gorky Park

So, I start my final day in Moscow with the intention of going inside St Basil’s Cathedral.

Plans sometimes don’t work out as intended, but sometimes, this leads to better things…

Yet again the Russian guards were out in force, blocking off entrances to metro stations, the paths in the gardens by the Kremlin, and the main road with four lanes was empty, another blockade.  Do they do this for fun?!

Anyway, I’d kind of had enough playing cat and mouse with guards and subway tunnels, and the thousands of people all trying, but failing, to get somewhere….anywhere!

I couldn’t do it anymore, so I grabbed my little guidebook map out, and looked for the biggest bit of greenery on the map I could find – I needed to escape this frenzy of people and find somewhere to chill.

Boy did I strike gold….

The large area of green I found on the map was called Gorky Park.  So I got the metro (as I now considered myself pretty darn good at catching those trains and arriving in desired station!) and took a walk over the bridge into the park.  The park was huge, and it was such a lovely hot, sunny day.  I stumbled across a live native Indian group playing some really nice music, so I sat on a bench and whiled away about an hour, soaking up the sun and the relaxing sounds, and partaking in a spot of people watching, this was just what I needed.

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After a while I was starting to feel a whole lot more chilled and rejuvenated, and I took a wander further into the park. I came across some skateboarders competing on the ramps, and sat awhile watching the crazy kids practise their free running skills on a purpose built practice area.

I came across a group of break dancers, battling it out amongst themselves

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I carried on wandering to find beach volleyball, plenty of ice cream shacks, a boating lake, unusual places to sit, beautiful gardens and fountains…

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Capoeira dancers and drummers

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And an amazing brass band, who played a great version of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’

Just getting the lungs ready!

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And then, the best find of the day, a gorgeous little outside restaurant that served my favourite tipple, Prosecco! I sat at a table with the early evening sunshine beaming down through the trees, and as I sipped on the Prosecco (yes I can be civilised) and tucked into a Thai green curry, I thought what a perfect day it had been. All in all I spent 8 hours here, watching, chilling, eating, and most of all escaping, getting away from the frenzied tourists and grunting guards. Thank you, Gorky Park!

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After my first week in Russia, and my tales of Moscow

Well, I’ve already done one week in Russia, and what a baptism of fire it has been into the world of travel!  I can now attempt and sometimes succeed, albeit very slowly, at reading a Russian word out loud (usually street names or metro stations) as a case of having to, so I know I am on the right track, as usually I only knows the names in English from my map.  

Day one in Russia –  I arrived with a tense, nervous, terrified feeling in the pit of my stomach, and this only intensified as I arrived at my accommodation, which was a half hostel set up, only private rooms but shared kitchen and communal areas.  This feeling would not shift!  I wondered if it ever would?

Day two – by the second day, the feeling had subsided greatly, which I was thankful for, but not completely.  A couple of days in, and then I found my St Petersburg bubble, and got into the swing of things.

The move to Moscow refreshed those feelings, but only on a smaller scale, and this has led me quickly to learn about the travel bubble, as I have named it.  This consists of so far, a nervous start, then a little familiarity, then really getting into the swing of it and having a feel for where you are.  Then, all of a sudden, that bubble can burst, as quickly as it was formed.  This happens at an alarming regularity at the moment.

Anyhow, going back to my arrival in Moscow, after what I must say was an extremely pleasant overnight train ride, I had no idea where I was, only an address of the hostel I needed to go to, along with my map, in English.  I went to information and they kindly gave me a metro map, in English, and showed me which metro station I would need to go to.  Excellent, I thought.  The absolute sheer panic when I arrive in the metro station, something that had been so easy in St Petersburg, had now turned into a logistical nightmare, in that no Russian metro station was actually written in English, so both maps were practically useless as I could not correlate with the Russian in the metro station!

This is where one lucky member of the Russian public gets me coming up to them and saying the name of the station I need (very slowly I might add!) And pointing at the train I think might take me there….yes was her answer (or ‘da’, as she also knew none of my language).  She even kindly held up her hand to say 5 stops once we were on the train, and then ‘2’ more stops as she got off.  What a kind lady.

I spent my first day in Moscow wandering around haplessly, partly due to my inability to understand any Russian, and partly due to the fact that there seemed to be a major event going on and half, no, most of the subway exits were closed off by guards….and being told ‘No’ in a rather deep, stern voice, by a Russian guard is enough to send me in the other direction, no arguing.

The thing is, all I needed to do was to cross the road.  It was a huge one, granted, and could only be done underground.  However the closed exits were hindering my progress, as I kept popping up from underground, thinking I had got somewhere (ie. across the road) only to realise I was still on the same side of the road, however a little further down each time.  Frustration is not the word!  I felt like a poor mouse in a maze, and the cheese was still no nearer!

I remembered there was a tour of the underground stations at 4pm, so thought I’d try to make my way to that, to try and actually accomplish something in this day!  The meeting place – blocked off.  Alternative meeting place?  Well I didn’t actually think I’d need that did I!  Anyhow managed to find an open WiFi spot to find the alternative meeting place, I make my way back up the road, through the maze of guards and blockades,  only to arrive there a few minutes too late, tour gone 😦  Mission abandoned!

I wandered back down the street and watched some of the event that appeared to have caused this chaos.  It was Russian graduation day, there was a brass band and scores of young people clad in beautiful dresses and tailored suits, the Russians it appears, really know how to dress up.  A stunning red satin and diamante dress is one that sticks in my mind, worn by an equally stunning young lady.

I headed back to the hostel, this one a little more social than my first, and a Dutch guy named Robert and a Russian called Andrei kindly took me to the supermarket so I could stock up on food and beer 🙂

As I was left feeling clueless and hadn’t really achieved much after Friday’s events I decided that Saturday would not be the same, and decided to go on the free city walking tour in the morning, to familiarise myself with Moscow, and not let it beat me!  Arriving at the tour over an hour early, (I had allowed plenty of time for getting lost on more than one occasion!) a guy approached me asking if I was on the tour, his name was Mahmut (not sure on spelling!) and he was from Turkey.  Mahmut actually turned out to be my saviour for the day, as I was telling him about the Moscow metro nightmare and how it was very difficult to navigate not being able to correlate any of the Russian metro station names with my English map, and how panic was setting in as I had to collect my train tickets from a location in Moscow and the thought of trying to get there was filling me with dread, so much so that the second I arrived back at my hostel on the Friday I had emailed my train ticket company asking them if they could deliver them to my hostel!  I then realised they do not work weekends and would not have got my email until it was too late, as my train was leaving on the Monday!  Anyhow, it turns out he had a map in both English and Russian, result! So I wrote down the names of the stations I needed in Russian, but then he said I could have the map as he could use his phone.  I was so grateful for this and it made me feel like I could take on the challenge and do it!

We went on and did the walking tour, followed by the tour of the Kremlin with the same guide, along with a few other people I’d met in the morning, Judith from England, Sarah from Australia, and Jamie from Spain. 

Here are a few photos from the morning and in and around the Kremlin and the Red Square

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St Basil’s Cathedral

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Our guide for the day, Irina

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My first experience of one of these, albeit quite clean!

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Mahmut the saviour of the day, and a lunch stop!

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One for Tammy

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Now, on getting inside the Kremlin itself, our group approached the entrance only to come across an absolutely colossal queue that would have taken an hour to get through.  This is where, the Lady in Yellow came into force.  Nobody knew where she came from, or how it worked, but she pointed and said something in Russian, to which none of the English speaking group responded, she promptly followed this with ‘go to me’, an American guy said ‘I got that one’, and we all followed her, up a different set of steps, to the side of the main entrance, and to the guards who were slowly letting the huge queue in, one by one.  Some words were exchanged, and boom, there we were, jumping this entire queue of people!  Not quite sure what was said or how this was done, but the Lady in Yellow came along with our whole tour, until nearly the end, where she disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared.  Never did find out how exactly that worked, but I’m sure a few rubles were exchanged at some point!

The mysterious Lady inYellow  

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And then she was gone…..

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Sarah was also going to a Russian National Dance show produced by the Russian ballet, and I asked if she could possibly ask her guide to arrange a ticket for me also.  She managed to do this, so after the Kremlin tour, we did a tour if the underground as many of the stations are like palaces themselves, see the pics below.  Although to be honest after this I was all ‘toured out’.  Those that know me know my retention of historical information is not great at the best of times, and although thoroughly interesting, and the guide was fantastic, I couldn’t absorb any more information in this small, fried brain of mine!  However, that being said, this was the best thing I could have done, because as much as I am loving being in Russia, amongst mainly Russians (obviously! but what I mean by this is even in my accommodations there has not been another English person, we are few and far between in these parts!) it was nice to be able to converse more than a few words with others, and also to be shown around the city makes it feel a lot less alien.  I have also made a point of learning some of the Russian alphabet, so I can fathom out what street I am on when looking at a map in English, it’s kind of useful to know!  All this put together meant navigating the Russian underground is a little easier, and every time I look at a Russian word and work it out in my head,  how it sounds, it feels like I am starting to crack this!

METRO PHOTOS TO FOLLOW

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Sarah from Australia

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Various parts of these statues are considered to be lucky if you touch them, hence the bronzing rubbing off on the dog’s nose, the cockerel’s head, etc…

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The Russian dance show, I have to say, was phenomenal, I mean, absolutely outstanding.  The number of stunningly beautiful costumes appeared endless, and the quality of the dancers was superb, this was by the Russian ballet of course!  There was one piece that was so beautiful I felt my eyes welling up!  I have NEVER felt emotion like this watching a piece of dance before, but this was something else. I am so glad that the day worked out like this and I had the opportunity to go to such an amazing show. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the theatre!

Sarah and I outside the theatre where the National Dance Show was shown

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Best of the rest….St Petersburg

In my hostel in St Petersburg, I met two very lovely chatty girls from Germany, Judith and Lara

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On my last day I took a walk to St Isaac’s Cathedral, here is the view from the colonnade:

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A few more pics from being out and about…

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The alleyway to a club that my walk guide took me to, to see her friend play Indian music. It was nice to have a couple of beers!

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Peterhof Palace and getting stranded due to bad weather (OK, not quite stranded but it felt like it for a bit!)

Well, this is the one place that was on my must do list, as the guidebook made it look stunning, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

After arriving on the fast hydrofoil boat that looked like a fish…

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I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the opulence of this place.

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There was gold everywhere! And when the sun came out this place truly shone, with the rays bouncing off the gold statues and weaving in and out of the sprays of water, the palace gardens felt magical.

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I visited the gardens and took several photos, but unfortunately you were not allowed to take photos in the actual palace. This was a shame because when I first walked up the main staircase and into the main room, I literally gasped it was so beautiful. The walls were adorned in gold, gold and more gold! What made it so special were the chandeliers and small mirrors which just made the place glow.

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They even have surfing ducks!

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It’s amazing where pointing and hand gestures can get you!

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A cheeky red squirrel! Wouldn’t quite turn around for me so this is the best I got 🙂

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So after I’d spent hours wandering the beautiful gardens and palace, although it had been a little cold I didn’t think the weather had been too bad, however, as I headed towards the pier at 6pm to get my boat back, the wind almost knocked me sideways! I made a beeline for the ticket office to show them my return ticket, only to be told ‘no more boats, weather very bad’. Oh, ok, so ‘how do I get back to St Petersburg then?’ (It’s about 20 miles away). ‘Bus’. Oh, ok, ‘so how do I get the bus?’ To this the lady points towards the palace. With this I hesitantly headed back towards the palace, quietly thinking, oh shit, how am I gonna do this then?!

I managed to get directions to the bus station and found the bus station, only to be greeted by lots of buses with nothing but Russian written on them (obviously!). So I say St Petersburg to the bus driver who promptly nodded and I hopped on. After a forty minute bus ride, the end of the line came, but unfortunately it did not come with any familiar sight at all! Saying the name of the main street in St Petersburg to the bus driver and conductress, neither of whom spoke any English, the driver kindly showed me his phone with another number on it, presumably the number of another bus I needed to get. Walking around a bus station with no such bus of that number, or even a bus stop with it on, well the feeling is hard to describe….I knew I’d do it eventually, but it suddenly makes you very, very aware, and it seems all your senses take a power boost to get you to where you want to be! Managed to find a metro, something I wasn’t going to bother with as I was intent on walking everywhere as I thought it would be easier, but when needs must….and it actually turned out to be the easiest bit of it anyway….(although this isn’t the case in Moscow, more on that later).

Photos from around St Petersburg

Well on my first day of waking up in Russia, thought I’d better get out and explore!

They really did go to town with the architecture here, some of it really is stunning, and such intricate detail!

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The Hermitage

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My first Russian cat sighting!

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Visited the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood – very dramatic title for an equally dramatic Church!

It really is beautiful to look at, here’s a couple of pics, including a mandatory selfie!

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Inside the church there are lots of beautiful, what I thought at first were paintings, but on closer inspection each and every one of them
was made from tiny little mosaic pieces – all painstakingly restored following years of being neglected while the church was used as a warehouse. All 7,000 square metres of them!

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Here even the children’s playgrounds are works of art! This whole playground is made of mosaics! Very pretty.

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Well, I did it, I got on that plane!

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Well the day finally came, I didn’t bottle it at the airport, and I landed safely in Russia!

I was met by my driver that had been arranged through my hostel, a Buddhist monk named Andrei, who very kindly told me in his broken but good English, about all the buildings and monuments we were passing. I had to laugh as he tried to parallel park his car, he was in and out so much even the guy in the parked car behind had to get out and knock on his window to tell him he was stressing him out the way he was trying to park!

But, I ended up in the right place, and that I was thankful for 🙂

After checking in to my cosy little room overlooking Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, in my eagerness for food I thought I’d take a stroll to a local supermarket. On the way back I saw a stall with an old Russian lady selling cherries. Mmm I thought, fancy a few of those. Momentarily forgetting the currency exchange rate, I handed over what I thought was £3, and pointed at the cherries and said ‘pazhalsta’ (please, phonetically, in Russian).

She scooped with two hands a large amount of cherries into the bag, then another two-handed scoop, and then another huge scooping onto what already looked like hundreds in my bag! I chuckled as I worked out I’d given her £6, and walked away cracking up with an entirely full carrier bag of cherries!

Well, it certainly lightened any tension I was feeling, and walked down the street chuckling away at my ‘cherry faux pas’!

Needless to say, as much as I love cherries, I wont be eating all of them! And anyway it has proved a nice way to talk to people by offering them a cherry or two!

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Follow me as I head off around the world!