Category Archives: Europe to Asia 2011

Rushing though Russia

From St Petersburg to Moscow we set off on the long journey east to Beijing, overland.

After Moscow, we detoured to the small historial village of Suzdal, famous for its wooden houses and onion domed churches.

We braved years of accumulated pigeon poop to climb the stairs up to the bell tower of the church in the main square. The view was totally worth the risk of bird flu.

We then popped into this medieval inn for some mead. There were all sorts of delicious flavours such as hops, spices, mint and rose petals. We mistakenly chose the most alcoholic option and had headaches all afternoon.

In all honestly, a whole day in Suzdal was about five hours too long, but the sunset over the onion domed churches was gorgeous.

Our trip back to the train station was less enjoyable however. Our driver, Yuri, embodied all the worst traits of Russian drivers, enjoying overtaking on crests, ignoring traffic lights, undertaking, and general speeding in the rain. I had to bury my head in Luke’s chest, if I looked up and saw what was going on, I involuntarily screamed out expletives.

Luckily we made it to the train station, and boarded out train to Yekaterinburg, famous as the place where Boris Yeltsin went to university (perhaps he should have studied economics rather than construction?), and where Tsar Nicholas and his family were murdered.

Yekaterinburg also marked the start of our journey into Siberia, and as you can see, the weather changed from lovely, to rainy and bloody cold. A perfect Siberian summer.

The train took around 24 hours, the scenery was gorgeous, mostly small farming villages with very cute wooden houses and barns. If we ever lost track of time and wondered where we were, this helpful timetable showed us what was what.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway runs on Moscow time, which was fine at this point, but later on when there was a 5 hour or so time difference between where we were and Moscow, it was very confusing! The timetable shows how long a stop there is at each town, so you can decide if you want to get out a buy an ice-cream or a beer. Not recommended for the stops of 1 minute.

Amazingly the train always runs on time, word is that this is achieved by building heaps and heaps of time into the timetable, resulting in the train often stopping for hours in the middle of nowhere to make sure it isn’t early. Good old soviet efficiency.

I loved visiting the Cathedral of the Blood, it was a really sad but beautiful church. It was built as part of the canonisation of Tsar Nicholas and his family, and featured gorgeous paintings of the family as saints. I lit a candle for the children, and enjoyed the babushkas singing from the bible.

Another highlight of the fourth largest town in Russia was this rubbish bin! Girl Power! Not forgetting the thrills of  the Geological Museum (shout out to Gresley and Gordon!), and a bizarre restaurant where the staff did an odd river dance every half an hour or so.

Next, Krasnoyarsk and Lake Baikal!

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Moskva


Luke reclining in comfort in our four berth cabin from St Petersburg to Moscow. Luxury!

After our glorious time in St Petersburg, we headed south by train to Moscow, the home of Lenin’s Mausoleum, Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, the busiest McDonalds in the world and more Lenin statues than you can poke a stick at.

Moscow is huge, noisy, crowded, busy and manic, the traffic jams on the ring roads can sometimes last 8 hours! The vibe is far more LA than St Petersburg, only the ultra rich can afford to live in Moscow and they enjoy their designer clothes, cars and dogs. Lucky them.


Stalin and Lenin hanging about.

Right off the bat, we visited the Fallen Monument Park, a lovely grassy park on the river, full of old communist relics and statues. There are still hundreds of Lenin statures in every Russian city, however the ones of Stalin have mostly been hidden away, or popped off to this park . I loved it, the nerdy politics gal in me had a total ball picking out who was who.


There are subtle reminders of the soviet past all over Moscow.

Another ‘do first’ in Moscow is Red Square. Red Square has St Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s tomb, the Kremlin and the ritzy, crazy expensive department store GUM (ГУМ) all in one spot. Oh, the irony of Lenin’s final resting place facing such a symbol of capitalism.


GUM all lit up at night time. See St Basil’s in the background?

St Basil’s is just as cartoony and overwhelming in real life as it is in pictures. Helpfully, there was a military tattoo being set up in Red Square while we were there, (oh look, you can watch a whole hour of it here on YouTube!) ruining the vibe slightly. However we still got the sense of how huge the square is, and how intimidating the red walls of the Kremlin are.

I have a confession to make. We didn’t actually make it in to the Kremlin for a tour, we only saw the outside. This is for a number of reasons, mostly because the lines were mental, then I was pick pocketed (grrr), then we were lazy and just drank beer in the park outside instead. Meh. The outside is cool anyway.

However, we did brave the lines to see Lenin in his tomb. Totally weird. It was a very soviet experience, we had to line up to check all of our bags at one window, then line up to see him in another spot, then we had to NOT SPEAK OR WALK TOO FAST OR WALK TOO SLOW while being in the tomb. Needless to say I still got told off for walking too slow and talking before I was entirely out of the mausoleum, and Luke made the grave error of putting his hands in his pockets. Lenin was very small and yellow and waxy. It made me feel sorry for him, he apparently wanted to be buried in the country with his mother, but the soviet machine had other plans.

Now, onto shopping! We visited the Izmaylovo Market, a huge sprawling outdoor market with food, souvenirs, trash and treasure and antiques. We, of course, bought ourselves some matryoshka dolls, and some woollen babushka scarves for our mums. We then ventured into the trash and treasure section. I could have spent all of our money and filled a shipping container with the treasures I found. Tea cups, tin toys, rocking chairs, soviet bits and bobs, I almost lost my mind. But, alas these items don’t backpack well, so I settled on some vintage dresses and lunch.


Luke sharing a shot or three of vodka with our new Kazakh friends.

I nabbed a table for us to eat our barbecued salmon and bread, only to have a large Kazakh man go for the table at the same time. I indicated that we were only two, and that he could join us. He and his two friends took me up on my offer, we all squeezed in together and shared our lunch. They had a 600ml bottle of vodka to share, and a large beer each for washing it down. They were very friendly and insisted that Luke and I join them in some vodka. After one shot, I pulled the ‘oh I’m only a lady’ card, which I rarely do, but it got me out drinking the very average vodka! Luke had to prove his manliness and drink two more, lucky boy! They then shared their lunch with us, pushing meat and more bread onto our plates. They were so friendly, they reminded me more of Greek grandmothers than burly mining magnates from Kazakhstan.


The always present Russian glamour shot.

One of my favourite things to do in new places is sit somewhere comfy and people watch. What did I learn while people watching in Russia? I learnt that the modern Russian woman loves a glamour shot. Everywhere we went, we saw Russian women perched at the edge of gardens, in front of statues or at the ballet, posing for their husbands and boyfriends. More often than not she was dressed in her best mini skirt, with huge hair, pouting and bossing her fake leather jacket clad photographer about. Hysterical.

One of our other highlights was hunting down the Stalinist era sky-scrapers, or Stalin-scrapers as I liked to call them. Called the ‘Seven Sisters‘, they are spread out around the city and are now hotels, government buildings and part of the Moscow State University. I love the gothic, baroque style of the buildings, they are all the same, but a little bit different. Who would have though Stalin had such good style? They are a bit scary looking though.

After taking our fill of Moscow’s museums, train stations, expensive restaurants and statues, we took our leave and headed eastward to Beijing.

It’s just a short train ride …

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Back in the USSR


You don’t know how lucky you are, boy. Lenin tells us how it is at Finlyandsky Station.

After our Berlin sojourn, we flew ourselves to Russia, the Motherland. This was always the biggest part of our trip, the train from St Petersburg to Beijing. Our flight left from a gate waaaay at the back of the Berlin airport, with lots of stern Russian staff and lines and bureaucracy. Excellent start.


This is the first photo of me in Russia. Eeek.

Luke had come up with an excellent adventurous way for us to get from the airport to our hotel – marshrutky. For the uninitiated, marshrutka are fixed route mini-buses, kind of like a mix between a real bus and a taxi. So we get ourselves through customs, score ourselves some rubles, and get out of the nutty airport. I need to interrupt my own story for a moment to say that the St Petersburg airport has no signs in English. None.

So. We negotiate our way out of the melee, and find ourselves outside, surrounded by about 20 marshrutka, all empty. Luke consulted his spreadsheet, and got us on the correct mini-bus and we set off. As with most airports, the St Petersburg airport is well away from anything useful and is surrounded by a knot of highways and industrial estates. So we are alone, on a speeding mini-bus, in the middle of nowhere, except for our charming driver and his wife who collected the money. A say charming, I mean grumpy and smelly.


We have a whole series of photos of us in front of familiar signs in cyrillic. Never got old.

Eventually, at high speed, we approach the city, and more and more people get on the marshrutky, then more and more, and Luke and I became separated and everyone is yelling in Russian, and being Russian and it blew my mind.

We made it to our hotel, dumped our stuff, and explored. Now, I NEVER step into a McDonalds while in Australia, but overseas, it is a source of wifi, a toilet and coffee. Winner. And in Russia, the added bonus is that everything is the same but in cyrillic.

A highlight of St Petersburg was a Sunday morning bike ride tour with Nikolai, our charismatic, yet stoned guide. I love getting to know a city by bicycle, and lucky for us, no-one else turned up so Nikolai bought a couple of his friends along and the five of us trundled around the city. The company only runs tours on Sunday mornings, because the traffic is so so bad all the other times.

Nikolai introduced us to the wonder that is Russian ice-cream. Russians have a sweet tooth and there is always an ice-cream to be found while out and about.


This one was my favourite, it had chocolate icing around the outside of vanilla ice-cream. Oh yeah. Although to be honest, the icing was so sweet it made me feel a bit sick.

The major drawcard for St Petersburg for most people is the Hermitage Museum. We spent almost a whole day at the Hermitage, and loved every minute. Totally not over-rated and full of gorgeous art (and busloads of very old Finnish people) in a gorgeous palace.

We got all cultural again one night, and saw Swan Lake at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre. It was stunning, Luke found his love for ballet and we wanted to go again in Moscow, but almost all the ballet companies are on holidays in August, so there weren’t any other shows to be found. So glad we went while in St Petersburg.


Blini, of all flavours.

Now. Onto food. In retrospect, the food in St Petersburg was the best food we ate in the whole of Russia, easily. We ate the best blini ever at this odd, hidden away Soviet style caffeteria. We pretty much ordered one of everything, the mushroom and cheese stack and the spring onion with cheese ones were my favourites. We tried butter and caviar, which is a classic, but didn’t really like it. Caviar is full on, we have simple tastes.


The charismatically named Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood.

Another favourite hangout was the church above. And it had wifi and beer! Well, something nearby had wifi, and you can buy a beer pretty much anywhere, including outside a church. We would often grab a beer, google away and take in the sights. Perfect.


Luke even got to go to the toilet with a monkey!

After our week in St Petersburg, it was time to start the Trans-Mongolian proper and get ourselves down to Moscow.

See you at Red Square!

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Paris to Berlin

After our river boating, we headed back to Paris where we ate some more delicious crepes and falafel, did a spot of shopping and some final French sight-seeing.

I bought these amazing Bensimons on special for only €19, and some fabulous vintage dresses, which I’ll blog more about later. You’ll see me in this gorgeous new-to-me dress lots, until Vietnam, when a silly washing man loses it off the back of his motorbike. Curse. Sob.

We did some posing …

… and popped down to Versailles where we rode our bikes around the huge, gorgeous grounds, and fought the bajillion tourists for a glimpse of the palace interior.

Sit down in front!

It was then, sadly, time to leave our beloved Paris and hightail it to Berlin! I soon made myself at home, and got stuck into a local bier.

We soon figured out our plan for the three short days we were there, even if it looked as though we were lost.

We loved Berlin. We visited Friedrichstraße, Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall, and Kreuzberg where we ate delicious Turkish food and drank beer in pop-up bar fashioned from double decker bus parked on an abandoned lot. Obviously. Very Berlin.

We spent a day and night with Raphaela, who was my exchange partner in Grade 10! Which was *cough* eleven years ago. Well, twelve now I guess. Luckily, neither of us seem to have changed much!

We did have a moment when we got a touch lost at midnight (or later), but my trusty rusty German got us through! Even if the ever helpful Germans insisted on replying to my German in English … I wanted to practise!

Me: Hallo. Zwei Bier bitte.
Waiter: Anything else?
Me: Nein danke.
Waiter: No problems.

Hrumph.

However my language issues in Germany turned out to be but a trifle compared to what was waiting for us in the Motherland. Oh to have even half a language in common, let alone two! Stay tuned for our Russian adventures next…

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Rolling on the river


Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan, soy capitan, soy capitan …

After our adventures in Paris, we met up with my Mum and Dad and headed south on the train from Paris to the Loire Valley. There, we hired a canal boat and zipped (well, slowly puttered) north from Nevers to Rogny-les-Sept-Écluses along the Loire canals. I bought the captain’s hat for Dad for his birthday and it became compulsory wearing for all boat driving. Please note that I drove for a maximum of 10 minutes. It freaked me out. Luckily Captain Rodney was happy to be at the helm.

This isn’t exactly the way we went, as this shows the road, but you get the gist. We saw some of the most beautiful little towns on our way, we were usually lucky enough to be able to moor our little boat somewhere lovely, except for the time we accidentally moored right near a sewage treatment plant and a nuclear energy facility … but to be honest it was still beautiful and we didn’t notice until morning.

The flower boxes were in full bloom and made everything look gorgeous. If you look closely in the top right of this photo you can see my Mum and Dad walking together holding hands. Aww.

As well as lovely French towns, we saw lots of ducks on our travels …

… and ate lots of this delicious dessert the French delightfully translated into English as chocolate brown softness. Indeed, Frenchies, indeed.

We all soon found our positions on the boat, with the intention of not driving each other mad given our seven (very close) days together. You’ll be happy to hear that for the most part we succeed. The copious amounts of wine and cheese certainly helped lull us into good moods.

Capitan Rodney took the wheel, First Mate Joanne sat next to him with the map and camera, while Luke looked cool in the bow. He was number one for lock duties, which involved chucking a rope to a lockman or lockwoman, who then guided us in, shut the gate and changed the water level to help get us upstream. If this makes no sense, read this. Luke was then also responsible for pushing us off, without falling in the canal. Champion. Mum was in charge of giving the lockperson a tip, either a euro or a beer (if Luke hadn’t already drunk them all).


Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river …

I busied myself with cracking the first wine of the day (at around 11am), setting out the snacks (stinky cheeses) and reading my book. I was obviously a vital part of the crew.

While Mum took excellent records and could be able to tell you the name of this town, what we ate and what she wore (I’m not kidding), my record keeping is a shambles and I have no idea where this was, but it was one of my favourite places. Mum, perhaps pop where this is in the comments!?

The week was glorious, and travelling France by canal is something I would most definitely do again. So long as someone else drives …

Next week, Berlin!

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This time, last year

This time, last year, Luke and I were in Paris, at the very beginning of our 11 week adventure that saw us travel (mostly) overland from Paris to Hanoi.

For the next 11 weeks, I’m going to share where we were, what we were seeing and what we were eating this time, last year.

We started in Paris, where climbed the Arc de Triomphe at twilight …

… saw Le Tour steam along the Champs-Elysées …

… and ate nutella crepes.

Stay tuned for next week when we tour the Loire Valley on a small canal boat with my parents!

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