A Travellerspoint blog

Beautiful St Petersburg

semi-overcast -8 °C
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St Petersburg 27th Feb - 2nd Mar
What a difference a day and a train journey makes makes!
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Wonderful city, smiling people, clean (if somewhat tiny) hotel room, great location, gentle and knowledgeable guide ( I have her contact details)
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Highlights
Catherine Palace, Summer Palace on a snowy winter's day just outside St P.
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Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace
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Wandering the Streets and frozen canals of this amazing city, finding restaurants and coffee shops, attending a concert..(we thought for 4 voices but there seemed to be 400...maybe our musical friends can tell us what we went to!), smaller museums such as the Faberge museum
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Such history in this city but it's a survivor. This was where the first shots of the Revolution were fired from the Aurora battleship. The Nazis held it under siege for about 3 years, 1.5 m deaths mostly from starvation. Hitler and Stalin wanted to demolish it. We would like to return to admire it, its even worth the aggravation of the visa application!
We have to dash to catch a plane home now...wish it was a train

Posted by Valfowles 01:31 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Moscow

rain -3 °C
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Moscow 25th -27th Feb
What can I say? The author of fairy tales, if you get my drift!
There were some highlights, I must not be too negative. The Metro was beautiful and someone smiled at us and offered Steve a seat! The armoury museum had a really interesting collection of artefacts that had survived The Revolution and gave a glimpse into the life of the Tzars...oppulent. One of my favourite objects was the Faberge egg in which was hidden a modelTransiberian train. https://youtu.be/fUK7ZbyX8rk
The hotel location was excellent very close to the Kremlin and next to The KGB headquarters!
The weather was against us....freezing rain and dark, gloomy skies
Nobody smiles! One day I counted smiles, found 3. One a station porter, another someone receiving flowers at breakfast, and another someone chatting on their Mobile. 3 smiles found in 6 hours!
Military history does not really float my boat! Give me Thailand any day, for peace and smiles!
Our guide was young and enthusiastic but her legs and mouth were of "bullet train" speed rather than "tourist train"!
The hotel was the worst in all of our world trip...really bad. The first room which we refused did not even have a window!
The icing on the cake was when leaving Moscow the tour company arranged our transport to the wrong station!
Lessons learnt:
You don't have to use a tour operator. We did because of the need to have a visa invitation letter. We could have booked on booking.com and the hotel would have provided the invitation letter. Tour guides can be booked via the hotel. A taxi to the hotel would have been fine. Our tour agency took money from us and then booked really poor quality hotels. In Moscow he paid $110 for the hotel room his itemised bill to us was $256. We were done! He did give us a refund of £30 but then sent the transfer car to the wrong station. Fortunately at the station we accepted the services of a porter, who when looking at our tickets, realised the error. The driver had not left so we bundled our bags back in the car, tipped the porter (he wasn't moving from behind the car till we did and he had just averted much confusion!) And sped across Moscow in tne rush hour traffic to our correct station. We were in time to catch the Sapsan high sipped train to St . Petersburg.
A very comfortable train, and our means of escape!
Message me for name of the tour company to avoid if you are planning a trip.
I have to add that we used another tour company in China...same reasons of visa invitation and not understanding the transport system etc. I could not fault this company https://www.chinahighlights.com. They were outstandingly good and honest. Automatically refunding monies if they booked a different train etc. We again asked for 3* hotels and these were excellent, spacious, clean, and welcoming. I would use China Highlights again.
Red Square complete with fun fair and ice skating

Red Square complete with fun fair and ice skating

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Eternal flame memorial Kremlin.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

Gazing at Lenin! Moscow Metro

Gazing at Lenin! Moscow Metro

Posted by Valfowles 23:45 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Days 5 and 6 Trans Siberian. Destination Moscow.

snow -3 °C
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We are getting closer to Moscow. The snow is falling faster and virtually covering the KM markers at the side of the track. We become braver at leaving the train during the long station stops but are soon keen to return to the warmth of our carriage.
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Time to try and master Chinese Chess... we failed at that!
Reading takes on a new urgency, especially for books we have traded with our fellow travellers. In the mid 70"s Paul Theroux wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar " To get to the dining car that evening I had to pass through four carriages, and between them in the rubber booth over the coupling was a yard of Arctic. An icy wind blew through the rips in the rubber, a thickness of crystals on the wall, and the door handles were coated with frost'. Such an accurate description of our journey through the train to the Russian dining car.
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Here we share a beer with our new friends and try to understand how a train with so few passengers can possibly be viable. 15 carriages maybe 12 passengers, ( more for short stretches) 30 stewards ( Chinese). 4 Russian officials who lounge in the dining car in shorts and flip flops then don heavy coats with important badges and fur hats to patrol the train at stations! The Chinese and Russian staff never seem to mix. The Chinese staff seemed to spread throughout the empty compartments , Mah-jong in one, laundry in another, cooking another etc. Then there was a whole team of maintenance staff to change the bogies. I do hope that the Trans Siberian does remain viable and would highly recommend the journey. It was with a sense of sadness we settled for our last night on the train. It really had been so relaxing.
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In the morning we wake to more snow, it must have insulated the windows as our carriage was much warmer, or maybe our steward was more vigilant in keeping the fire stoked.
The towns and villages we pass seem to be less sleepy and we snatch glimpses of Monday morning daily life. The day care/ school run with buggies on runners rather than wheels. A broken down school bus etc.
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By early afternoon we have arrived in Moscow. Last chance for a platform photo with our cyclist friend. he has been travelling for 18 months, us for 4, I think he has perfected minimalist packing,,, we have some more work to do around this!
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Veronica our guide is waiting on the platform and the wonders of Moscow are beckoning.
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Posted by Valfowles 11:04 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trans Siberian day 4 Krasnoyarsk to Omsk

snow -6 °C

Day 4. 23rd Feb
Krasnoyarsk to Omsk
This train is beginning to feel like home, our neighbour is a Swedish man who shares our concern for the environment and has stopped flying. He is married to a Thai woman and so they return to Bangkok quite frequently. This is his 6th journey on the train… his wife and daughter are flying back in a few days. In the next carriage is a 50 yr German Geophysicist who has cycled from the Uk to Japan via the “Stans”, makes our journey seem a piece of cake! The train seems very empty, a few passengers are in the seated accommodation for short distances but despite the 15 carriages I have only counted 11 “sleeping” passengers. I think we have a 1-1 staff ratio. Each carriage has its own guard and steward. They seem to share the tasks of locking the toilets at stations, standing guard at the train doors when the train is on the platform, taking the coal delivery and stoking the boiler for the heat and hot water boiler. They also clean the floors and toilets and unblock the frozen drain when the crazy English woman has decided to “ shower” in sub zero outside temperatures! This crew is Chinese and the smell of vegetable stir- fry cooked on the floor grate of the coal boiler emanates through the carriage.
At most stations Babushka are selling food and drinks. Today we bought fish, vegetable salad, dried sausage and bread from just outside our compartment. A scrummy lunch and cheaper than eating from the buffet car.
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The station stops are often 40 mins or so, for some reason the engines are changed at frequent intervals, its also chance for coal and wood to be delivered to each carriage for the heating systems. Most of the stations are quite impressive architecturally, they are warm and comfortable with shops. ATMs etc photos show Novosibirsk station waiting room, pity we didn't have to wait!
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We are still in Siberia and the snow is lying thickly on the ground, fewer remote settlements today, more silver birch trees. We have left the mountains but have passed some impressive rivers and associated bridges.
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We downloaded lots of books, films etc. I think we may have to make the return journey to complete them!. We also planned to teach ourselves Chinese chess and to master a few card games.
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In short we are really enjoying this. One problem has been how cold the bottom bunk is at night. Everything we had read said that the train was warm and if anything too hot. I think most travel writers have travelled on their own and use the top bunk. Its warm there, the cold comes down the window and flows out beneath the blind like a vent. Puzzling over the solution to that!

Posted by Valfowles 11:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trans Mongolian/ Siberian Day 3

semi-overcast -12 °C

Day 3 22nd Feb
Ulan Ude to Irkutsk

Last night we left Mongolia about 10 pm. Fairly straight forward. A few questions, a cursory look at our luggage, passports stamped. Then into Russia. Here times become complicated; the station times and train timetable are on Moscow time which is 5 hours behind, however the dining car and living times remain local, So officially we crossed at 7pm but in fact it was at midnight. Now this crossing was impressively thorough. Our passports and visas checked by passport officers, both Belarus (why ? We are nowhere near Belarus!) and Russian, military officers, and then we were asked about the purpose of our visit by a friendly yet somehow not, plain clothes official ..KGB perhaps. I kept wondering if he knew who I had been to hear last summer! Next came the security check… they dismantled the carriage, took the panels off the walls and ceiling, checked behind the pipes, shone torches into every cavity. Then they used a thermal imaging camera, followed by 2 dog patrols (the Spaniel took a great interest in our picnic bag, now there’s a surprise!). This was for every carriage on the train. We were at the border with no heating (so they could check behind the pipes) and no toilets for 2 hours! They did take a cursory look in one of back packs. By 9pm Moscow time, 2am local time we were on our way, straight to the toilet and then to bed!
As we awoke the next morning the views were stunning, we were passing Lake Baikal, completely frozen and glistening in the sunlight. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake, 300 rivers empty into it and 1 exits. Before the railway ran the length of the lake winter transport involved an ice breaking steam ship, then in 1901 they tried putting rails on the ice and running a train across the frozen lake, it sunk! We , fortunately were travelling the shore. There were long ribbons of blue ice piled up like giant ice cubes, we figured this must be where fresh water had flowed into the lake pushing up the ice in huge chunks. Fishing holes had been made in the ice and the locals have elaborate means of leaving nets to catch the fish which can then be bought at the station. We were not ready in our warm clothes to disembark at this stop so missed that. We made our way to the dining car; the Mongolian car had gone and was replaced by a shining modern Russian car. The food was becoming more European, not a noodle in sight! Despite reading that we could pay in Chinese Yuan on every leg of the train and that card was not acceptable, the Russian dining car wanted Rubel or card (when the internet worked), they still fed us with a smile and started a tab as we were travelling with them for the next 4 days.
The lake scenery remained stunning for another hours, I had planned to write an assignment for my local preacher’s course but just kept gazing out of the window! The train made a 47 minute stop at Irkutz in Siberia.
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This time we were well prepared in our winter clothing and carrying our passports (just in case!) made a dash from the train and the platform to the station entrance. We found an ATM but it was only in Russian, then another…still in Russian, third time lucky and we had local currency. Then to a phone shop (still in the station) Russian Sim bought for about £8 but no idea of network or detail. Back to the train,,,phew it was there! Sim inserted (tip: if you are travelling bring one of those “pin things” for accessing Sim card…we unwound a spiral note book!) and back in contact with the world…no Russian needed to access the internet then we could use google translate to find out the number etc. easy peasy! The rest of the day passed with catching up with world news ( why did we pop our media isolation bubble!?) and family (that’s why!). I eventually wrote my assignment (2 more to go to remain on schedule) and Steve occupied himself with “leadersmithing” by Eva Poole. He is totally engrossed in this and will be looking to lead something or someone when he gets home…watch out! A shower (quite a feat on this train), a delicious Russian Goulash and a few episodes of Joanna Lumley’s The Silk Road and we were ready for an early night.
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Posted by Valfowles 06:41 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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