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Wednesday, October 30

Mongolia

Location : Ulaan Baatar
Visited since last post : Ulan Ude, a camp out in the steppe
Mood : happy
Company : Toby, Christelle, a group of anglophones we met on the train, and Gans, our guide
Reading : I've mainly been updating my paper diary which was a few weeks behind my life
Weather : I don't think I've ever encountered weather this cold, except on ski trips. There's a thin blanket of snow in the countryside, making everything look great, but in the city pavements are treacherous.

Not much time so just a quick update: I'm in Mongolia now, and loving it so much that I decided to postpone my train to Beijing (should have been tomorrow morning) by a week. So far I've spent the last couple of days at a tourist ger with this large ad hoc group of anglophones, but most of them are off tomorrow as originally planned. Toby, Christelle (a French girl who we also met on the train) and I are going back out of town tomorrow with Gans, our guide, who is a great laugh. I have to go now because I'm meeting the others to go to a Mongolian music night, and I won't have any access to the internet for a while now, probably not until I'm back here, and I may not have time then, so it could easily be 10 days before I write again.
posted @ 1:02 AM -

Friday, October 25

once again I've written lots in several seperate entries. Scroll to the bottom of the page and start from there; it will make more sense
posted @ 2:10 AM -
AAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I had been writing probably the most important post of the whole trip, for about half an hour, when the FUCKING COMPUTER CRASHED

I don't have time to write it again, but here is the gist:

On Monday morning I was bitten by a dog in Irkutsk. The wound is minor - about as long as my little finger and not very deep - but I've had to have rabies shots, and the fear has actually affected me quite badly. There was no-one watching when it happened, so I was on my own with 2 dogs (only one of which actually bit), and until they went away I had no way of knowing they were going to stop there.

I'm really intensely pissed off about having lost the rest of the post, because it's a story I've been waiting 5 days to tell, and there was a lot to say. Anyway, picking up from where I left off:

the real problem is that this is haunting me. The village I've been staying in is full of unchained dogs who howl and howl and howl (when one starts it sets the rest off), and I've been getting very jumpy as a result. This, I know, will pass, and one thing that's been helping me is a very sweet dog in the village who keeps coming up to me looking for affection, serving as a nice reminder that not all dogs bite.

The real fear didn't set in till yesterday though. I had been quite happy with the medical care here (casualty serves people far faster than in Britain, and they seem to know what they are doing as far as I am able to assess), but yesterday I had to go back for my second injection, this time without an interpreter. It took a long time for me to explain to the receptionist that she already had a file on me, but when I managed to get that message across she found it quickly and everything seemed unnder control. Except that the doctor announced that I would need a third injection next week. Two problems: when I had the pre-bite preparation in the UK (doesn't stop you needing post-bite injections, but makes it less crucial that you go straight after being bitten, removes the need for an injection of gamma globulin (and therefore removes a major HIV risk), and means that the shots need only be in the arm rather than the tummy or spine) I was only led to expect 2 injections after a bite, and on the date of the third I am due to be in Mongolia, where I do not trust the hospitals.

I left the hospital on the verge of crying, because I had managed to convince myself that what this meant was that I had been given the wrong thing, and therefore if the dog was rabid I would be a dead man. I was a few phone calls away from returning to London, in the hope that something could be done there (like perhaps a test to see if I had been infected), and I was in a completely melodramatic mood, but in the circumstances I'm not sure I can be blamed for that.

My uncle came to the rescue, contacting a doctor in the UK and confirming that in fact what I had been given was right. I now have a vial of vaccine, and I've been carrying my own sterile needles anyway, so all I have to do in Mongolia is find an English-speaking doctor or nurse and give them all the materials to give me the final shot. That still won't be easy, but it will be possible (or at least I'll find someone to interpret for me), and at worst it will waste a day rather than having any long term consequences or forcing me to give up my journey.

For a while afterwards I was still tempted to return to the UK, because the result of this panic was to make me feel intensely isolated. It's that special loneliness that has nothing at all to do with being alone (Toby is very good company, and we are meeting others along the way who keep things interesting) but everything to do with having no-one around who really knows me.

I spoke to my parents (I was initially hesitant about telling them, because they are also on holiday and I didn't want to scare them, but I'm glad I did call), I spoke to my brother, and I spoke to one of my best friends, all of which helped, little by little. Finally I spent much of today walking around Irkutsk on my own, and that was actually the thing I needed most - the drawback of having all these unexpected day trips and tours is that I've had hardly any thinking time, and I really needed to just get my head around what has happened to me, and start assessing it rationally again.

I'm back in a state fit to enjoy myself again now, and I'm also mighty impressed with where I am. I'm out of time, because I need to get some dinner and pack my bag before catching the train to Ulan Ude, but in brief I'll just say that Listvyanka is a lovely village, with colourful wooden houses and a setting to kill for - spread a cross a few valleys that open on to Lake Baikal. Irkutsk feels a bit like a frontier town, with a mixture of wooden houses with intricate decoration all over them, and brick buildings that are often engagingly mad in their design. It feels quite run down, but in a way that is somehow charming, and I have been enjoying walking about.

time to go now - I want to go online for a few hours over the weekend because I have lots of email to write, but I don't know when I'll get the chance, and it may not be for some time, so don't go worrying about me or anything.
posted @ 2:10 AM -

Not the midnight train to Romford

[Saturday and Sunday past]
Location : Siberia. A train. For about 50 hours.

This train ride wasn't as entertaining as the last, but much more comfortable, both due to a considerable extent to the more subdued nature of the fellow passengers. This time round I was the one with sociable people in my compartment, but none of them spoke much English. With some pidgin German and lots of patience we did have a conversation of sorts, and they certainly seemed nice enough, but there's only so much you can discuss without a common language. For a day and a half we basically just read our seperate books and chilled out, though there was the obligatory exchange of food, so I got to sample salo - a Ukrainian speciality consisting of deep fried pig fat. It actually tastes quite good, but the texture is vile beyond description, and I refused further offers of it because I can't imagine how one could make a more unhealthy food without actually poisoning it.

On the final evening the vodka came out, and we did manage to have a bit of a laugh (though it had as much to do with laughing at our misunderstandings of each other as anything else).

Still, the train is a pleasant way to travel. I don't feel that Siberia has landscapes that are spectacular in the way that, say, the alps are, but there is an awe-inspiring sense of space when the forest clears and one can just stare out of the window at endless miles of steppe. There was a close to full moon and both nights were clear, so by night the landscape acquired a haunting beauty as everything turned from the daytime browns (perhaps part of why I'm not blown away by the scenery is that it's the wrong season) to silver and black. Through this the train progresses with a smoothness and steadiness that makes the journey feel like it will last forever, and makes it feel like this is a good thing.

Eventually we did arrive, exactly on time (something the UK railways could learn from - we crossed the equivalent of about 5 Britains and there was no delay), but this were things began to go wrong.
posted @ 12:47 AM -

Zen and the art of Volga maintenance

[Thursday and Friday of last week]
Location : Koptelovo
Weather : this was when there was snow on the ground, and it was pretty cold

I seem to have lucked out, because I didn't book (or pay for) any day trips as part of my Russia trip, but because I have the same itinerary as Toby, and he has booked these things, it seems to have just been decided that I will be brought along anyway. At times I find myself wanting to just wander around a place aimlessly, and certainly in Yekaterinburg I didn't get enough time to do that, but that consideration is far outweighed by the times the trips have brought me to places I wouldn't have made it to otherwise.

On our second (and last) day in Yekaterinburg, we went out to Koptelovo, which is an old agrigultural village, about 150 km from the city. It's a picture postcard place of one-storey wooden houses, with brightly painted windows, and everything was improved by the thin covering of snow. It feels distinctly like the only way life has changed here in the past century is the introduction of electricity - people still carry water in buckets from a spring (which doesn't freeze in winter - apparently the main reason for siting the village where it is), still wash their clothes in a shed by the spring, and still make their living directly from the land.

Anyway, the reason we had been brought to this specific place rather than any other village was that the residents maintain a very interesting museum, which is clearly a kind of village archive as much as anything else, and would have been meaningless without a guide. With a guide it was a fascinating insight into how life has changed over the centuries (in short, it's not just electricity, it's electricity + tractors + literacy), and an impressive illustration of something I've felt when speaking to most of the Russians I've met - how much pride people here take in where they come from. It's no so much the vague concept of Mother Russia - the scale of this country is just as incomprehensible to Russians as it is to me, and not many Russians even know what the regions away from their home are like - but a much easier to understand pride in their region. I think it's closer to how someone from Yorkshire would talk about that area than any overall sense of patriotism.

We also had a performance of some folk songs from a sextet of babushkas dressed in traditional costume, which actually made me feel quite uncomfortable, because (perhaps because the audience was only 2 of us) it felt a bit like a zoo, where the creatures had been brought out to perform. What I found far more interesting was that as we went around the museum we could always hear distant singing, as it seems these ladies sing these songs as they work. It's hard to know how representative this is, but it certainly made me feel that folk music is more alive here than in Britain, where the only songs people sing as they work are the ones that were on the radio yesterday.

After a good, if somewhat cold day the car we were in decided that things were going too well. Several times it started to struggle more and more, until the driver became fed up, stopped and adjusted something under the bonnet. Gradually the amount of time between adjustments shortened, until eventually the driver gave up altogether. If this happened in Britain, I think the chances are we would have had to wait in the cold until the RAC or whoever could come out and rescue us, but fortunately Russia doesn't quite work that way. It took all of 5 minutes for the driver to flag down a truck which not only towed us all the way back to Yekaterinburg (at least 50 km), but actually dropped Toby & I back to the houses we were staying in, and took the car to a garage. Now that is the right way to treat people....
posted @ 12:16 AM -

Thursday, October 24

In Russia there are no roads, only directions

Location : Irkutsk
Visited since last post : Koptelovo, Listvyanka, Port Baikal and much walking along the lake itself, as well as 2 whole days in the train
Mood : up and down like a yoyo. This will make more sense when I describe my past week
Company : Toby and assorted cameos
Reading : about Mongolia
Weather : changes constantly. It snowed a lot this morning and stayed for a while, but that looks like it won't stick for much longer

I am alive, and reasonably well, but I've had more adventure than I wanted. I've been staying in a small place for the last few days with no internet access - the first such place I've found on the whole trip. More to follow, possibly tomorrow - I have important information to dig up first.
posted @ 2:25 AM -

Thursday, October 17

It does get better

Location : Yekaterinburg
Visited since last post : spent more than 24 hours on a train
Mood : much, much better
Company : Toby, and assorted entertaining Russians on the train
Reading : Dr. Zhivago
Weather : the rivers are starting to freeze.

Pretty much immediately after writing that miserable last post I did begin to cheer up. Went to a lovely little cafe that evening, had a good meal and the first friendly service I've experienced in Moscow in a place where I wasn't the proprietor's guest. The next morning I managed to get to the station early enough, and leave my bag there, so I could spend a few hours at the Tretyakov Gallery. It's the first place where I've seen much non-religious Russian art (the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is dominated by work from other European countries, and churches have vast numbers of beautiful icons, but it's only one style out of many), and I was mighty impressed with what I saw. I knew nothing about Russian art before, and I don't exactly know much now, but I have the idea that I would like to see more.

Then the train.... So far, I've found overnight trains reasonably comfortable and convenient, but not especially sociable (with a couple of exceptions), so I was wondering what all the hype about people being so warm and friendly on the trans-siberian route was about. It turns out that things really are very different, I guess because people know they are on these trains for so much longer, so it's worth making it into more of a social thing rather than just dying of boredom. In my compartment was a young family, who were very sweet, but spoke no Russian, and the daughter (3 or 4 years old) had too much energy to burn off, so after a while became bit too much of a handful. I wandered off to the restaurant car, which was empty, but a nice quiet place to read and gaze out of the windows, and not be in a 6 foot square compartment for 24 hours. Eventually I wandered back, and invited myself into someone else's compartment because I heard English being spoken. There I met Toby, who is British and has the same programme as me as far as Beijing, and a similar vague framework from there until Hong Kong. He seems like a nice bloke, so if we don't manage to get on each other's nerves over the next couple of weeks I may well have found myself a travelling partner for November as well.

The others were all Russian, and only one of them spoke much English, but he was happy to act as an interpreter. There was Aleksander, a businessman who was doing quite well for himself (earning a salary that would be acceptable in the UK, so presumably quite a lot of money in Russian terms), Andrei, a conscript who had just finished his 2 years' compulsory service, and was about to see his family for the first time in 2 years so was understandably happy and excited, and Marat, who I can only assume is an alcoholic (at dawn he was incoherent and smelled of vodka, and while I've seen other Russians drink a lot, he's actually the first person apart from tramps who I've seen drink himself beyond the ability to speak). Much entertainment, much beer, vodka and food passed around, and so on. All in all a good journey.

Now I'm Yekaterinburg, and it's far nicer than Moscow. There's less to do here, but it's a pleasant place to walk around, the people actually smile (and in the restaurant where we had lunch someone wandered over to translate the menu for us - we had almost finished doing it ourselves, but nice gestures like that do a lot to give me a good feeling about a place), and there seem to be a sensible number of police, looking like they actually have jobs to do, which is a nice change. I'm staying with a host family, who are very nice. They were interested in my photos, but unfortunately the batteries in my camera ran out, so they've only seen Warsaw. Tomorrow I'll get a day trip out into the countryside to see an older style of Siberian life (which I'm sure wasn't included in the package I booked, but I'm not complaining), and then late tomorrow night we board the train for Irkutsk. I'll be on that train for 3 days, so the earliest I'll next be posting here (and reading email from anyone) is Monday, and it might not be till Tuesday.

One more thing: the results of my MSc will come out in about 2 hours and be sent to me. Wish me luck!
posted @ 4:17 AM -

Monday, October 14

...the biggest gang I know is called the government

Location : Moscow
Visited since last post : the Kremlin - saved the most obvious sight till last
Mood : rather fed up and eager to get out of here
Company : a very friendly neighbourhood bobby, who especially liked my wallet
Weather : Possibly even colder, but the sky has cleared so it's all OK, because there's that special crisp clarity to the light and air that only happens when it's cold

I'm really getting pissed off with this place now, or to be precise pissed off with the police. I don't think I've actually written much about it so far, but Russia, even after the downfall of the Communist system, is by far the closest thing to a police state I've seen (and do bear in mind that I'm comparing it with China as well as Western Europe). The streets are crawling with uniformed police and soldiers (I don't think the soldiers are on duty, but they certainly like letting everyone know that they are soldiers), and the police randomly stop people and ask for documents. I know they have the right to do so in most countries, but it's never happened to me before I arrived in Russia, and since then it's happened every other day. I've taken great pains to make sure my papers are perfectly in order, so there's nothing they can catch me out on, or so I thought.

This morning I was 'arrested'. My 'crime': crossing a road without using the underpass (when there were no cars around). A policeman who spoke particularly good English called me over, asked for my papers (all in order, as usual, and he did look somewhat disappointed when I even managed to produce the room card for my hotel, matching the registration on my visa - none of which is a requirement because actually you can register the visa anywhere in town), and then asked me why I just crossed the road. It took a great deal of effort not to say to get to the other side, but I remember that the last time I was patronising to an officer of the 'law' it got me into trouble (I nearly missed a connecting flight in JFK airport because the ignorant fool of a passport controller decided to make trouble for me), so I bit my tongue and explained that there was a monument I wanted a closer look at (as well as being true, it seemed like good policy to be flattering about something local). He asked why I didn't use the underpass (I hadn't seen it was there until I was halfway across the road), and then asked how come I didn't know the universal law about using these things when they are present. Once again I had to bite my tonque, because I was very tempted to give him a lecture about how where I come from nobody tells me how to get across a road, but I just acted sheepish.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was eventually offered the choice between paying a 'fine' direct to the copper, or going to the police station, where I would supposedly be arrested for 3 hours and fined. Not being convinced that the police at the station would be any different, and also not being entirely convinced that the offence was phoney (it sounds made up, but apparently someone I know was fined in Germany for doing the same thing, so you never know), I decided it would be easier to sort it out on the spot. The bribe (let's not beat around the bush here - if there's no paperwork the money can't possibly be going to the police service) that was first suggested was astronomical, so I said (because I didn't have that much on me, even though I always carry quite a few dollars with me rather than trust hotels with all my cash) he should take me to the police station. At that point I discovered something I would never have had the guts to try - things are so absurd in this country that you can actually haggle for bribes. Obviously he didn't really want to arrest me (in retrospect this is obvious - if you have to fill in 5 forms to import an ingredient for a restaurant, I shudder to think how much bureaucracy would be involved in issuing a fine, and for a Russian copper time spent filling in forms is time not spent extorting foreigners), and the amount dropped to something I could at least afford, and then he started being really chatty and friendly.

He started just about every sentence with my first name, and asked general things about my life, like how come I was travelling alone (and this sounded like genuine curiosity, rather than an attempt to insinuate anything - Russians find the idea of travelling solo much stranger than people do back home, to the point that I've even been asked what my mother thinks of what I'm doing), and what I do when I'm not travelling. At this point I also discovered that there appears to be a student rate for bribes - the cost halved. Then he started talking about how I finance my studies, and when I said that I don't know whether I'll get funding for the PhD or not the amount halved again. By the end I think the exchange of money was as much a matter of his saving face as anything else, because although I still had to pay him 1000 Roubles (20-25 pounds) it was less than a tenth of what he originally asked for (in dollars).

In the end the exchange of money was done in comical style. He was very eager to impress on me how important it was that this be done in secret, so he sent me away to count out the money and hide it in my right hand (he had my passport so he knew I couldn't do a runner), and when I came back we shook both hands, money in the right and passport in the left. I went off to admire the monument that had got me into this trouble in the first place, and then he came ambling back with his mate. I was worried that they were going to find another way to harass me, but what he actually wanted to do was give me a bit of a history lesson. He explained that the monument was in honour of the 1812 defeat of Napoleon (I actually didn't know that, so I was quite grateful for the explanation), and proceeded to tell me all about how Mother Russia defeated Napoleon's army, something that no-one else in Europe could manage. I was tempted to point out that England hasn't been invaded since 1066, but once again bit my tongue, this time as much as anything because he seemed genuinely knowledgeable so would probably just point out how many times it was luck that kept navies away (and a single cannonball and some fierce Welsh wives in one incident at Fishguard, but that's another story). After kind of ruining my day, this copper went on to be the nicest Russian I've met since arriving in Moscow, which helped me see the funny side a little.

Still, the whole incident did leave me in a bit of a mood, and the arrangements around the Kremlin didn't help. I don't object to being charged more than Russians (this is something that seems to deeply offend every other traveller I've spoken to, but I actually think that even rich countries should make their cultural heritage cheaper for natives to see than tourists, and when you consider how little money the average Russian worker has compared to even budget travellers like me it seems perfectly fair that we pay for the upkeep of these sites and they only pay a token fee), but I do find the panoply of extra charges they manage to stick on annoying. When the use of a cloakroom is compulsory it's pretty offensive to charge for it, and the extra charge for cameras is particularly irritating considering that the cloakroom warns you not to leave valuables in your bag, and they expect you to pay it just to carry a camera in even if you don't want to take photos. All this when I've generally been burning through money annoyingly fast here (the guidebooks warn that Moscow & Peterburg are both very expensive but in Peterburg it's quite easy to keep costs down, whereas here I'm just not managing) and have just had to give a policeman more than a day's budget.

Then there are the Kremlin police, who just blow their whistles and point. I repeatedly got sent to one route or another, until eventually one of them came up to me very aggressively to find out why I kept walking in the wrong places. When he finally admitted that he could speak English it became clear that what I was walking towards was not the Armoury museum (as I thought, having forgotten to take a guidebook out of my bag when I checked it into the cloakroom, so I had no map), but Putin's residence. It's reasonable enough not allowing people near it, but you'd think there could have been a sign somewhere to warn people.

Finally I got to the Armoury, but it took 3 attempts to actually get in. The door was closed, so I tried walking up to it to open it. Another copper with whistle and pointing stick appears, and sends me away. When I waved my ticket at him (they make you buy tickets for the museums inside at the main Kremlin gate), he sent me round the corner, where there is a door marked 'staff only'. Attempt 1 at entry: this is the staff entrance (with no response to my point that the main entrance is closed). Attempt 2: your ticket says 14:30 and it's 14:45 (at this point I had to try really really hard not to explode). On the third attempt (making sure I'm seen by a different person each time), someone finally let me in, but frankly I was in such a foul mood that I just stomped around what was probably quite an impressive exhibition, without deriving any pleasure from it at all.

Fortunately by the time I got back round to the various cathedrals in the middle of the Kremlin I had calmed down a little, and once I walked in to the first one my mood improved immensely, because they are really wonderful, but this place is getting to me. Today was the first time I badly lost my cool (and later in the afternoon I found a child's hand in my coat pocket [pointless, because I'm not stupid enough - the best thing he'd have got from me was a streetmap, as all my money stays a couple of layers of clothing further in] and had a very hard time not assaulting the bastard), and it is stopping me from enjoying myself now.

I can certainly see why Moscow is one of the few cities that has experienced a fall in tourist numbers for the last 4 or 5 years, even in spite of having so much to see and so much historical importance. For my part, I'm just glad I'll be out of here by this time tomorrow.
posted @ 9:51 AM -

Sunday, October 13

Back in the USSR

Location : Moscow
Visited since last post : only here
Mood : better, but I am quickly remembering why I don't like really big cities
Company : the Turkish Foreign Legion (catering development brigade)
Reading : the Trans-Siberian Handbook, by Bryn Thomas. It's infinitely better than the Lonely Planet, with which I am fed right up (more on this below)
Weather : cold. Bitingly cold. And I keep reminding myself that this is just the start of winter - the temperature will apparently drop by another 20-30 degrees yet, though I will be in the tropics by the time that happens....

I must admit that today's title has quite a lot to do with having heard a busker (the first bad busker I've heard here - there are a few excellent string ensembles hanging around in the Metro) maul various Beatles songs in the Metro earlier today, but there is a little more point to it than that. There are more reminders of the USSR here than I expected to see, ranging from the symbolic - hammers and sickles still abound, and I was particularly surprised to see one promintently on the Duma - to the controversial - Lenin's mausoleum, which has enormous queues to visit it, but there is apparently some sort of movement to shut it down and bury Lenin with his family, as his will originally requested - to the outright hilarious. My hotel is near VDNKh (���� - I can't remember what the letters stand for), which is a place that is difficult not laugh at. The name roughly translates to all-Soviet exhibition centre, and it was built to show off the achievements of the Soviet Union, but is now an enormous outdoor market. The monuments are still there (and they range from the genuinely impressive (particularly the one to the Soviet space programme) to the absurdly over-the-top) but where there would once have been a kind of permanent national exhibition there are now stalls selling everything from kebabs to the largest television I have ever seen (I watched 5 people struggle to get the damn thing into a delivery truck). Somehow a very appropriate symbol of the way communism has gone....

Nazmi, an old friend of my father, is in Moscow, overseeing the development of various new restaurants. I met up with him yesterday, saw the building sites, and learned an awful lot about how difficult it can be to get things done round here. None of this was really news to me, but it's one thing hearing vague talk of bureaucracy, and quite another when someone who has to deal with it talked me through the 5 forms that have to be filled in and kept in order to import any ingredient for his restaurant. The bureucracy also shows in all kinds of little way, like the receipts that are written out and filed every time you pay 5 Roubles (10 pence or so) to use a public toilet. They have to account for each transaction individually, so they have to keep a receipt for each one, and I can't see how the total cost of the paperwork and the staff to process it can possibly be covered by the money they collect.

Nazmi has been most helpful to me - apart from feeding me at the one of his restaurants that is already open, and giving me a completely different insight into Russia, he also asked one of his managers to guide me around town today. I'm particularly grateful for that, because Moscow is a difficult city to deal with. Certain things work very well, particularly the Metro, which puts the London Underground to shame with its efficiency and looks fantastic to boot, but the people make it hard work. To a considerable extent it's purely a matter of there being too many people in one place, just like London, but Muscovites are also singularly unhelpful. Most of what I heard about Russians before coming to Russia was about how warm and friendly and generous they were, but this is certainly not what I'm observing here. I'm just hoping that this is a big city thing, rather than a general trait about Russia. People here are completely unwilling to be helpful, and if I just try to stand still for a second (which is necessary in the Metro because someone had the bright idea of giving stations a different name on each line, and I still can't read Cyrillic as fast as Latin, so it takes me a while to work out where I'm going) people simply barge past as if I'm not there. Meanwhile I'm having serious difficulty communicating with people, even though I've learned more Russian than I have of the other language of any other country I've passed through to date. It's not a language barrier issue - if people are willing to give you a moment and be helpful the language barrier is always surmountable - it's the attitude of people. This is the first country I've been to where when I ask for something to be repeated because I didn't understand it, the response is to shout very loud (à la Basil Fawlty), rather than either repeating slowly or trying to find another way of explaining. It's a stereotypically British thing to do, but something I've always avoided, and now I know how damn irritating it is. Not only is it annoying being shouted at as though I must be stupid for not speaking Russian, but when people shout they ENNUNCIATE FAR LESS CLEARLY, so it's completely useless.

Meanwhile I've been surprised at how little effort the non-Russians I've met have made with the language. I find my lack of Russian highly embarrassing (for all that peoples' unhelpfulness is winding me up, I do sympathise to a certain extent - after all, I am in their country), but I appear to be the only non-Russian who's even bothered learning to read Cyrillic, and how to ask for anything at all without simply pointing. This makes me appreciate why in other countries en route people often seemed so pleased that I had made any effort with the language at all, because most people simply don't bother.

In that same vein I'm becoming very annoyed with the difficulty of finding free maps with Cyrillic on them. It's bizarre - very few road signs have Latin letters, yet the Lonely Planet and every free tourist map I've picked up have had Latin letters only on their maps. For me this is inconvenient, because I have to translate from a phonetic reading of the name to a muddled reading of a Cyrillic sign, but for someone who can't read Cyrillic at all it must be useless.

The Lonely Planet is particularly appalling in this respect - it advertises the use of Cyrillic and Chinese (I have the Trans-Siberian Railway one rather than the Russia guide) to help people recognise signs, but only has these things for city names. Every street map and every description of an attraction is in Latin only. To make things worse it doesn't even have a Metro plan - bear in mind that the Moscow Metro is about as extensive, and as complicated, as the London Underground. There are maps in the stations, but the crowd won't allow me to stand still for long enough to read one, with my slow Cyrillic. I've never been a great fan of Lonely Planet guides, but until now I've not been able to justify my opinion in a suitably rational way. This one, however, is really pissing me off. It's already led me on a wild goose chase for a tour operator who are based within a school (it gave the right address, but neglected to mention that they are inside the school, so I didn't just march into an infants' school, seeing as that would get me arrested back home and this is far more of a police state than Britain), led me right past various things that are not marked in the right place on the maps, and just generally not been nearly as helpful as a guide book should be.

Anyway, this digression wasn't meant purely to be negative. I have found a far superious guidebook to replace the Lonely Planet - the Trans-Siberian Handbook, published by Trailblazer. Among the many nice things Nazmi has done for me was to hang on to some books for me, so I now have Dr. Zhivago (it seemed like appropriate train reading for Siberia in the snow), and the handbook. It's about the same size as the Lonely Planet, but seems to have far more information, including a very interesting and extensive background section (I still know too little about Russian history, but the first parts of this book have filled in a lot of gaps for me), the essential Metro maps, and the name of every attraction, shop, restaurant etc. that it mentions is also written in Cyrillic. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the maps yet, but I'll see how I get along in Yekaterinburg (in another confusing throwback from Soviet days everyone seems to know that place as Sverdlovsk, even though it changed its name back a decade ago, just like St. Petersburg). The only thing is it's obviously aimed at a slightly more pampered class of traveller, because it describes Platskartny (the lowest class of sleeper) as not even worth contemplating, whereas I've already done a few journeys that way and have no complaints (though the class above is much nicer for not too much more money).

And finally, as my monologue rambles away from the point, to return to how I'm actually finding Moscow. I must say it doesn't feel like a very nice place. While I found the tourist attractions (except for the Hermitage) not that special in St. Petersburg, but enjoyed simply walking around, I am having the opposite experience here. The actual parts that people talk about are hugely impressive, but I don't like the feel of the city in between. As well as simply having too many people (I should be used to that having grown up in London, but it's always been my least favourite thing about London), too many of whom are pushy, unhelpful or outright rude (I thought getting off the Tube at Kings Cross in the rush hour was difficult, but here you really do have to push people around in a way that I don't like doing at all), the actual buildings and layout of the city are not very nice. It's smoky, with enormous factory and/or power stations chimneys right next to blocks of flats, and huge highways tearing right through town (though at least it has subways to cross them - one up on Warsaw), and a lot of the architecture is pretty oppressive too. Where in North American cities the high rise blocks feel shiny and new and like a sign of human energy, here they just seem to belittle people, and I can certainly understand why I've heard it referred to as 'suprematist' architecture. Most disturbing of all are the 7 sisters, seven very similar, very imposing and very dark (it's been suggested to me that the haunted apartment block in Ghostbusters was modelled on these, and I can believe it) tall buildings. Each on its own is actually somewhat attractive, in an overbearing way, but the disturbing thing is the way they seem to haunt me - I'll walk away from one, and then just feel like I'm seeing the same building again a few blocks later. It's also slightly disorienting; if there were just one it would be a helpful landmark, but as it is I'm never sure whether I'm looking at the same one as before or not.

I have enjoyed my stay here so far, but to do so I'm having to act in a way I'm not accustomed to - being far more thick-skinned, far more assertive, and actually far less polite than comes naturally to me. It's pretty obvious that if I don't do this I simply won't enjoy myself, but it's not an act I can keep up indefinitely, and I do get the feeling that when I leave here I will be glad to get somewhere smaller.
posted @ 9:20 AM -

Thursday, October 10

It's now or Neva

Location : St. Petersburg
Visited since last post : only here, but there's plenty here to keep me busy
Mood : a little low. I think the weather has triggered the hibernation instinct, and I need to wake myself up.
Company : a few nice Aussies during the day, but we repeatedly failed to meet up for dinner
Reading : Ubik. I borrowed it ages ago, decided to take it away with me, and I've finally started reading it.
Weather : SNOW! Proper snow that actually settled on the pavements for a day or so, though now it's melting and making everything damp and 'orrible.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. The photos I associated with the place don't really present it very accurately (for a start the Church of the Resurrection / Spilled Blood looks amazing from a distance or in a picture, but actually just looks tacky close up), because it's not so much a place with a few sights, as a place where every street is beautiful. Unfortunately the grey weather and the grey slush as the first snow melts again are spoiling my photos, but it's still a pleasure to walk around. More annoyingly an awful lot of the city is covered in scaffolding, because they are giving it a facelift in preparation for next year's 300th anniversary celebrations. It's not on the same crazy scale as Beijing's or Berlin's building projects, because they're only renovating, not redrawing the map, but it does still mean that s large proportion of what ought to be the nicest looking places are currently being worked on. It will look amazing when it's finished though.

I took that guided walking tour of the city, which was a good move for various reasons. Not only did I meet some anglophones, but it also took me through parts I wouldn't have wandered through otherwise, the guide was very knowledgeable, and most importantly she was eager to talk about day-to-day life as well as the history of the place. I have to remind myself that I've only spoken to one Russian, and particularly that she was young (I wonder if her conviction that anyone who wants to work can find a job might change once she's had to spend more time looking), but I did learn a lot more than I would have done in weeks of wandering around alone. I found her inability to understand why people in Western Europe accept paying taxes that then subsidise other people not working quite illuminating - yet another sign that this perception we tend to have that people in the East have not shed the ideology of Communism is at best out of date, if not downright patronising. It was also interesting hearing her account of childhood in communal flats - I've always wondered how much the perceived awfulness of such places was down to Western counter-propaganda (I certainly don't believe that everything we heard about the USSR back in the days was honest and fair...), but from her account it really was a pretty nasty way to have to live.

I'm finding it in turn amusing and irritating how absolutely everyone here is on the make in one way or another. The showers in my hotel are shared, and on the first day there appeared to be only one shower (between 200-odd guests) and a queue (though no-one was physically present to form the queue, making me doubt whether it even existed). On the second day I didn't have time to wait, and I discovered that if you slip the floor attendant (a job so superfluous that there isn't even a proper English word for it - the superfluous jobs thing is a part of the stereotype about Russia that is being borne out) a tenner then magically keys for other showers appear, with no queue. 10 Roubles is not much money - it will buy a cup of tea in some of the cheaper cafes - but to my British-conditioned mind there is something very wrong about having to pay for a shower, especially when the money clearly gets pocketed. I've also been stopped twice by police asking to see my passport, visa and visa registration; I don't see why they would care (even in China the police don't do this to foreigners, even when I was wandering around Tiannanmen Square taking photos last year), and my best guess is that they hope to find something wrong so they can get me to bribe them not to arrest me for it. I was warned before arriving that for this reason it's important to make extra certain that every piece of paper is 'correct', even beyond what the law demands (for instance visas only need to be registered within 3 days of arrival, but it was the first thing I did, and I'm sure if I hadn't done that I'd have had trouble with the cops).

In a nicer way, rules can also be bent if people see an opportunity. I went to see the Aurora (the cruiser which fired the shot that signalled the start of the October Revolution, but you already knew that, didn't you?), and admission is free but there are sections roped off. For a couple of dollars I had a guided tour of the actual control rooms, given by a sailor who seemed to be desperate for some cigarettes (they have compulsory service here, and as far as I know they don't pay the conscripts anything - the less resourceful ones on the Aurora were basically begging for smokes). The only thing is I'm left wondering whether I bought a bonus service, or whether he had himself roped the area off so that he could claim a toll....

I'm off to Moscow tonight. From what I've heard so far I expect I'll like it a whole lot less than here, but there's no shortage of things to do there, so whatever happens I know I won't be bored.

One last thing - the weather is going to get seriously cold from now on (it's not actually that cold yet, just damp), and if you were to ask me why I picked this time to go to this place, well, you wouldn't be the first. The answer is in the headline - if I didn't do this now, I can't see when I would next get the chance, and it certainly would be far enough in the future that I can expect my life to have changed dramatically by then. It might mean I miss St. Petersburg's white nights, but also don't get to see Siberia snowbound, it might mean that I'm less comfortable than I would have been in the same places a month earlier, and it might mean that my photos don't come out too well, but at least means I get to see these places.
posted @ 8:00 AM -

Monday, October 7

I'm here. I'm really here

Location : St. Petersburg
Visited since last post : managed to get lost in a forest near Riga and almost miss my train. Duh....
Mood : Nothing quite feels real at the moment
Company : erm... some people who claimed to be part of the Latvian national rugby team (looked far too small, but they certainly drank like rugby players) on Saturday night, some very depressed Russians on the train from Riga, and now just ickle me
Reading : the Russian phrasebook that I finally got around to buying today. I'm actually in this country for long enough to justify a concerted effort to learn a little bit of the language
Weather : partly cloudy with sunny spells, and cold enough already that I am very glad indeed I'm not here in winter

Well I'm here. I've been dreaming of this for longer than most people seemed to realise when I finally started doing something about it, and I'm finally in Russia. It was also a lot easier than the rumours would have one believe.

For a start the more people I spoke to along the way the more I began to understand that while they haven't relaxed things to the extent that China have (in case you don't know, China is a really easy country to get a visa for these days - it just takes a small amount of money and about a week of waiting for your passport to be returned, and though there is officially a requirement to specify your whole itinerary I didn't bother this time and I didn't get any hassle), the Russian authorities are far less concerned in reality than they claim to be about having pre-booked accommodation and travel and so on. I pre-arranged everything via a tour operator, and I'm still glad that I did that because it made things much easier at a time when I was extremely busy with work, but I've met several credible people (as opposed to the travelling storytellers who exaggerate or outright invent everything they say, are a little irritating, but are also very easy to spot) who say that they bought tickets and booked accommodation after getting into Russia.

More importantly, the actual formalities are straightforward. They don't entirely make sense - I have as yet to invent a good reason for having 5 people who [after the Latvian passport control, which is also seperate but just involves one passport controller and one customs inspector] walked down the train checking things. There was a lady in a sharp suit first of all who just wanted to know which bag belong to whom, then a boy (can't have been older than 16) in a military uniform checking and stamping passports. Then there were two people, one in a uniform and one in an old leather jacket in the style of Polish plainclothes ticket inspectors (ie looking very shifty indeed) with a large torch who appeared to be customs, but were only interested in opening the luggage bins under the bottom bunks and having a quick peek, as if a smuggler wouldn't think to put things inside a bag. After these, there was a woman in uniform who professed to be from immigration, and was only interested in the non-Russians, but then all she asked me was where I was going.

The point is, Russian border formalities are time-consuming and don't entirely make sense, but they are also very little hassle. The train itself is also quite amusing, because in imperial days Russia made a decision that would make Britain's Euro-skeptics truly proud: while Eastern Europe and China already had railways on the same standard gauge as each other, the Russians decided to use a wider one. This means that cross-border trains have to have their wheels changed, an operation that across this particular border (apparently it will be different when I leave) involves the entire train being jacked up while the passengers are inside. The worst of the travelling storytellers I've encountered so far claimed that the train is suspended by cables and raised 10 feet off the ground (see what I mean about obvious confabulation - if these people just told smaller lies I'd probably fall for it), but in fact it's a short distance on jacks. It does feel very odd though - it's not a direction that trains are meant to move in, and the whole carriage creaks rather worryingly in the process.

Anyway, I'm here, and this internet cafe is round the corner from the Church of the Ressurection, so I've just been walking up a canal towards it, but it doesn't quite feel real yet. So far I like the place a lot, but I feel a little bit too much like a deaf-mute observer, not understanding anything that I see. I guess it's partly because this is a bigger city than I've been to for a while, partly because a lot of history I know too little about was played out here, and partly because I've had so little time so far. Tomorrow I'll take a guided walking tour, which hopefully will give me a bit more of a handle on things, and help me meet anglophones, which is really a much harder thing to do now that I'm not staying in hostels.
posted @ 8:00 AM -

Friday, October 4

I tried to think of some puns featuring Warsaw, Vilnius or Riga, but the few I could come up with were too dreadful to inflict on you

Location: Riga
Visited since last post: the Russkie market in Warsaw (OK, so strictly I mentioned Warsaw in the previous posts, but the market is a different world), Vilnius
Mood: slow. I've been catching up on sleep but can't help suspecting I still need more
Company : an Aussie, a Kiwi, two Americans and a Korean [in Vilnius]. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn't it?
Reading : a friend's draft article. I've been carrying it around for a month and finally started reading it....
Weather : crystalline blue skies, but the evening cold is starting to bite.

My final verdict on Warsaw is actually that it's rather a shame I couldn't spend longer there, though the proviso that being in a hurry there is highly stressful still applies. Hassle notwithstanding, I did manage to get a new camera, and from what I've seen so far it's actually much better than my old one. I've also got a mini tripod and clamp (the mount for my other tripod was on the old camera when I lost it, rendering the tripod useless), which is handy because it's way smaller than what I used to have, but does occasionally lead to me looking very stupid as I try to see the screen on the back of a camera that's only 6 inches above the ground and pointing up. Perhaps I should invest in a small mirror, which would be even stranger but far less conspicuous....

The Russian market is an utterly bizarre sight. Take a stadium (about the size of the Milton Keynes National Bowl, and even more of a shithole than it), surround it with market stalls, the traders in which are not exclusively Russian, but do seem to exclude Poles, add lovely views of Warsaw as a backdrop, and you get close some idea of what I saw. What really makes it though is the selection of items on sale. The whole thing is arranged in 3 circles, as if symbolising Dante's hell, with the first circle consisting of relatively conventional market goods - worryingly cheap alcohol, clothes with brand names like Alf Lauren and Lewi's, and a fur coat stall that looked completely incongruous because it seemed to sell products that actually were of high quality. The only remarkable things about the outer circle was the complete lack of interest that the traders seemed to have in, well, trading. It's a cliche of the recently-communist countries that people supposedly don't 'get' capitalism, and actually in the majority of places it's quite an unfair perception (I'm fairly convinced that Germany is where shop staff were least interested in selling things to me, to the point that I did walk out of a couple of shops because I got so bored waiting for the attendant to finish his/her personal phone call). However, here at the market (where normally I'd expect capitalism to reach a far more frenzied pace than in standard shops) I'd have to stare at a stall for some time before the owners could be bothered to look up from their games of cards or backgammon. In the second circle things get a bit more interesting, with every sort of software and a vast selection of music and DVDs in obviously pirated editions, and an array of mobile phones which if they weren't all stolen would be worth an awful lot of money.

It was only in the inner circle that I quite understood why I had been told I had to see this place though. There was enough gear there to mount a revolution. Starting relatively innocently, with very large binoculars, and the sort of long heavy maglites that security guards in the UK need licences to carry because they are such useful weapons (and bear in mind that while some of the Polish police carry guns, others are armed only with sticks). As I walked around I started to see foot-long survival knives (because when you're stranded in the jungle, you really want to carry something that heavy, right?), and one of the traders obligingly demonstrated the sharpness of his wares to me by shaving his arm with one, and eventually guns. This might not carry quite as strong a resonance in the States, but bear in mind that I grew up in a country where if you see a policeman with a gun it's still a little surprising, and if anyone else has one you run like hell. It was pretty unnerving stumbling across a market stall covered in revolvers....

Nothing else in Warsaw was quite that remarkable, and I can see why it tends not be highlighted on tourist itineraries, because there aren't that many 'sights' to gather round in a hard and take photos of, but it really is a very nice place. I think it's the first place I've been to since Berlin that I could actually imagine wanting to live in. The youth hostel was terrible though. I started to get a bit worried about the fact that I didn't like anyone I spoke to there, thinking that perhaps it was me having suddenly become jaded now that I'm travelling alone (it wasn't - more on that below), and then to make things worse there was a school group of 10-year-olds staying on my last night, so I got very little sleep.

From Warsaw, I took an overnight train to Vilnius, which was a bit disappointing. It's not that I have any real criticisms of the city (except that there's no information visible at all on leaving the station), but it just seems to be an unremarkable and restrictively small place. Having found solitude entirely pleasant in Warsaw (and profitable - I don't know if it's because they took pity on me dining alone, or just because I expressed an interest in strange local drinks, but the restaurant where I had my last meal before leaving town gave me a succession of delicious sweet vodka-based spirits on the house), I think I would have been deathly bored, and consequently depressed if I hadn't met anyone interesting in Vilnius. The one thing that was good about the place though was the youth hostel. It's not an especially nice building or anything, but it had a good common room, where a large selection of interesting lone travellers hung out, and whenever anyone went into town if they didn't want to wander around alone it was easy enough to muster a small crowd. I hope things continue to work out that way, but I think that a lot of my Russian accommodation is in private rooms. Still, I'll be meeting one of the Vilnius people in Moscow and potentially again in UB, and most hostels are unconcerned enough about people loitering that I can always hang around in their common rooms anyway.

In fact there was one incident of note in Vilnius. We (6 people from the hostel) went out for dinner, and this very deranged and drunk (looking at his eyes he was either seriously unhinged or on a combination of heavy duty stimulants and booze) Aussie expat heard antipodean accents and came over, addressing what was essentially a monologue (with pauses in which people tried to respond sensibly, but he always ignored the responses) about Australia to the Kiwi of the group (who didn't seem too pleased about being mistaken for an Aussie by one). Eventually he left us alone, and went to sit with his two friends, who we think were Lithuanians, and in any case were very large and looked like hardened seaman types. Later on he decided to come back and ask me whether I was from Sydney or Melbourne. When I replied London he seemed to take offence and started making vaguely threatening noises about how he can understand everything you say, you know and there's always someone to ruin everything, and then as he was walking away he turned back and muttered something in either Lithuanian or Tongues. His large mate kept staring at me from then on, so needless to say we decided to make like a tree. What I found very funny was that occasionally I worry about being a conspicuous outsider and getting trouble from the locals, and so far the only trouble I've had anywhere has been from a bloody anglo. Still, he was very obviously of the sort who leave their homeland because they can't deal with normality....

I'm in Riga now, and this place has to stand out as the biggest pleasant surprise of the trip so far. For some reason I had it in my head that Latvia was simply like Lithuania, but less interesting, but I'm glad I wasn't forthright with that opinion, because it's completely unfounded. Riga is a bustling (at around 8 on a Friday that word can be replaced with heaving) city packed with beautiful and distinctive buildings in a cacophony of styles, with a particular concentration of highly decorated Art Nouveau. So far all I've done is walk around town, and there's plenty more walking (and photography) to be done, but I want to be a bit more organised tomorrow and either go on a day trip to Sigulda (which is supposed to be much more of a quaint small town) or actually go into some museums. I've generally seen remarkably few museums so far on this trip, which isn't such a bad thing seeing as they can get a bit monotonous over the course of months, but I know so little about Latvia that I ought to try and learn more while I'm here.

I'm staying in a hotel at the moment, which means that instead of meeting people without trying it's actually really hard to find anyone to talk to (especially when I speak none of the local lingo), but it's worth it because I was wearing myself out. Between two international sleeper trains (which means being woken up in the middle of the night for passport control that so far has always been hassle-free, but still keeps me awake for long enough that it takes a while to fall asleep again), and the general difficulty of having a lie-in in hostel dorms, I've not been sleeping anywhere near enough for the past week. I wasn't exactly ill, but I wasn't feeling well at all in Vilnius, so between the obvious need for more sleep and a warning from other travellers that Riga's hostels are annoyingly far out into the suburbs this seemed like a good idea. I think the extra sleep I've had so far (having gone to bed as soon as I checked in and not gone out again till lunchtime) and will get tonight should restore me to feeling 100% tomorrow, in which case it will have been worth the sacrifice of sociability....

On Sunday night I'll set off for Russia, where everything will get that little bit more exciting but also more scary. I hope I do find a way to meet people I can speak to, because wandering around alone for a few days is fun, but being alone for several weeks is one thing that would be sure to stop me enjoying myself.
posted @ 1:16 PM -
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