Lapland here we come…

Roger: Friday 18 December

The flight across the ditch to Sydney was uneventful; that is until I picked up my bag. It must have been fired at the edge of the carousel with great force, bending the pop up handle housing so the handle would not move. Air NZ has contracted out its baggage claims to Dnata. It should have been a very simple process of “as we can’t get the bag fixed by tomorrow when your flight leaves, go and buy a new one and we will reimburse you for the new bag”. The staff at Dnata were highly trained in “how to piss people off and be obstructive”. To cut a long story very short, after the best part of an hour on the phone to various people, most of whom didn’t have a clue, it got resolved.

Sylvia arrived up from Wodonga in the evening. We spent the night with long-time friends John and Lesley at Neutral Bay. John excelled with his pizza cooking skills while we had a great catch up over dinner.

Roger: Saturday 19 December

After a leisurely breakfast we drove to a bag shop at Mascot to replace my bag. John and Lesley bought a couple of new bags also as they too are heading to Lapland in a couple of weeks to do an ice driving course.

After checking in at Cathay we headed to Dnata, old bag and receipt for new one in hand. The staff at Dnata were in fine form. They must have just watched a customer service training video by “Fawlty Towers”! Another long story short I gave them the old bag and got folding off them for the new one.

Roger: Sunday 20 December

After nine hours to Hong Kong, a two and a half hour stop-over, and a further 11 hours in the air, we landed in Helsinki. It was around 6am and pitch black as we drove into the city. As we arrived in town and turned into Pohjoisesplanadi (the main street) we were taken aback by the amazing Xmas lighting display running through the park.

After a few hours’ sleep at the Hotel Indigo we took a stroll into town. It was 10.30am and with the shops not opening until noon there were lots of people around. Xmas markets have been set up in a local square selling all sorts of food and local goods. At Stockmans, a large retail store, people were gathered around with their kids looking at the Xmas window displays. At ten minutes before noon a large crowd gathered at the doors ready for the noon opening.

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At one we went back to the hotel to meet Pekka, who with his son had driven in from the local countryside for a catch up. Pekka is a Warrant Officer in the local defense force. He is also one of the guys from the sauna experience here last year (read ‘Training in Europe’ for that one)> We had a good chat and a stroll around town. As it got dark around 4 Pekka headed off. Sunrise here today is 0923hrs; sunset 1512hrs.

After taking some photos of the lighting displays and enjoying a meal at a local Mexican place we headed back to the hotel for an early night.

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Sylvia: Monday 21 December

I now better appreciate the impact that sunlight has on helping overcome jetlag. Up here where it is dark for most of the day and the daylight tends to be pretty thin and watery we are having quite a bit of difficulty adjusting to the new time zone…

We were awake bright and early and after a leisurely breakfast we caught a taxi to the airport for our one hour twenty minute flight to Rovaniemi. There had been no snow in Helsinki but up here everything is white. The temperature though is still very mild at -1’C and pretty clagged in.

We were met at the airport by Ina, our guide for the week, who drove us into Rovaniemi where we had lunch at a charming traditional Lappish restaurant. Gluggi (mulled wine) and a range of appetisers: blueberry herring (very salty), smoked salmon, reindeer pate, goat cheese and beetroot roulade etc, were followed by a delicious reindeer rack on parsnip puree and then cloudberry cheesecake. We were feeling pretty full after that!

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Ina took us the 50-minute drive to our accommodation for the next few days, Beana Laponia, a brand new (opened two days ago), adults only lodge out in the middle of nowhere. The road system here is very good, despite being covered in snow they were not at all slippery. After looking around the lodge we settled in for another early night.



Northern Hemisphere: May-July 2015 – Where we went


May to July 2015

16-May Depart Sydney 9:10pm – QF8413: Sydney to Dubai, QF8519: Dubai to Oslo
17-May Arrive Oslo 12:30pm 1. Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz, Oslo
18-May Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz, Oslo
19-May Fly to Bergen – SK267, depart 1:35pm, are 2:25pm. Stay overnight Clarion Hotel No. 13, Bergen
20-May 20 May to 3 June – Norway’s Fjords and Arctic Svaalbard Cruise with National Geographic
3-Jun Overnight Radisson Blu Airport Hotel, Oslo
4-Jun Iceland Air 317: Oslo – Keflavik, dep 8:25am, arrive 9:05am. Pick up rental vehicle Toyota RAV4 or similar at Hertz at Keflavik Airport. Overnight at Ork Hotel Hveragerdi, Breidamork. 7pm – Optional entrance to Fakasel Horse Theatre.
5-Jun Vik Icelandair Hotel, Klettsvegur
6-Jun Hofn Hotel, Vikurbraut
7-Jun Valaskjalf Hotel, Hjalla, Hallormstaad
8-Jun Sel Hotel, Skutustaoir
9-Jun Tindastoll Annex Hotel Solarborg, Kirkjutorg 3
10-Jun Grand Hotel, Sigtun, Reykjavik.
11-Jun Iceland Air 454 – Keflavik to London, dep 4:10pm, arr 8:10pm. Stay Charlotte Street Hotel, London
12-Jun Charlotte Street Hotel, London
13-Jun Eurostar London to Brussels dep. 10:58am St Pancras Station. Pick up rental vehicle at Hertz at Brussels Midi Station. Overnght Hotel Prinsenhof, Bruges
14-Jun Overnght Hotel Prinsenhof, Bruges
15-Jun Drive Bruges to Brussels. Drop rental car off at airport. Fly Brussels to Istanbul TK1946 dep 13:05, arr 17:25. Pick up rental vehicle at Garenta vehicles at Istanbul Airport Sabiha Gokcen. Stay Neorian Hotel, Istanbul
16-Jun Stay Neorian Hotel, Istanbul
17-Jun Drive to Eceabat. Stay Gallipoli Houses, Eceabat
18-Jun Stay Gallipoli Houses, Eceabat
19-Jun Drive to Istanbul. Drop off rental car at main airport. Fly Croatia Air OU535M – Istanbul to Zagreb dep 6:20pm, arr 7:25pm, Croatia Air OU664 – Zagreb to Dubrovnik dep 9:10pm, arr 10:05pm. Transfer to Hotel – pick up at airport. Overnight Hotel Kazbek, Dubrovnik
20-Jun Danielis Yachting Charter yacht – Dubrovnik to Split – Queen of the Adriatic
27-Jun Pick up rental car at Enterprise cars, downtown Split. Drive Split to Plitvice Lakes. Stay At Apartments Villa Irene, Plitvice National Park.
28-Jun Stay At Apartments Villa Irene, Plitvice National Park
29-Jun Drive Plitvice Lakes to Rovinj. Drop off car. Stay Villa Tuttorotto, Rovinj
30-Jun Venezia Lines Ferry to Venice, dep 06:45, arr 11:15. Stay Hotel Antiche Figure, Venice
1-Jul Orient Express: Venice to Paris. Dep Venice (Santa Lucia) 10:57am
2-Jul Arrive Paris (Gare de l’Est) 8:42am. Stay Shangri La Paris
3-Jul Train Paris Gare de Lyon to Lyon Part Dieu dep 10:58am, arr 12:56pm. Train Lyon Part Dieu to Valence dep. 13:09, arr 13:44. Stay with Wayne and Laure at Chatillon-en-dois
4-Jul Stay with Laure and Wayne at Chatillon-en-dois
5-Jul Train Valence to Lyon Part Dieu. Dep 8.20am, arr 8.54am. Train Lyon Part Dieu to Berlin Hbf. Dep 10:04, arr 20:22. Stay with Constantin, Fasanenstrasses 46, Wilmersdorf, Berlin
6-Jul Stay with Constantin, Fasanenstrasses 46, Wilmersdorf, Berlin
7-Jul Berlin to Helsinki – FinnAir AY 912, dep 12:10, arr 15:00. Helsinki to St Petersburg – FinnAir AY 169′ dep 17:55, arr 19:05. Stay Hermitage Hotel, St Petersburg
8-Jul Stay Hermitage Hotel, St Petersburg
9-Jul St Petersburg to Moscow Train 763A, dep 15:30, arr 17:40. Stay Metropol Hotel, Moscow. Bolshoi Ballet – 7pm.
10-Jul Stay Metropol Hotel, Moscow
11-Jul Moscow to Yekaterinburg Train 002M dep 13:50.
12-Jul Arrive Yekaterinburg 17:11. Stay Hotel Renomme, Yekaterinburg.
13-Jul Stay Hotel Renomme, Yekaterinburg.
14-Jul Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk Train 002M dep 17:39.
16-Jul Arrive Irkutsk 20:57. Stay Kupechesky Dvorak Hotel, Irkutsk.
17-Jul Stay Kupechesky Dvorak Hotel, Irkutsk.
18-Jul Irkutsk to Ulan Bator Train 362bl dep 22:02.
20-Jul Arrive Ulan Bator 05:40. Pick up by Sukhee, Help Taxis. Tour including overnight with family in Yurt.
21-Jul Tour with Sukhee, Help Taxis continues. Overnight Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
22-Jul Tour with Sukhee, Help Taxis continues. Overnight Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
23-Jul Ulan Bator to Beijing Train 024l dep 07:15.
24-Jul Arrive Beijing 11:40am. Stay Red Wall Garden Hotel, Beijing
25-Jul Stay Red Wall Garden Hotel, Beijing
26-Jul Stay Red Wall Garden Hotel, Beijing
27-Jul Train Beijing Xi West to XiAn Bei North – Train G87 dep 2pm, arr 6:25pm. Stay Gran Melia XiAn
28-Jul Stay Gran Melia XiAn
29-Jul Fly XiAn to Shanghai – China Eastern MU 291 dep 3pm, arr 5:15pm. Stay PuLi Hotel Shanghai
30-Jul Fly Shanghai to Auckland – NZ288 dep 14:15.
31-Jul Arrive Auckland 05:50
2-Aug Fly Auckland to Sydney NZ103 dep 9am, arr 10:35am. Fly Sydney to Albury VA1176 dep 2:45pm, arr. 4.10pm.

The final leg: Xi’An to Auckland

Wednesday 29 July

As we departed the hotel four staff came and said goodbye, one asking politely for us to put a comment on trip advisor. As suggested by the hotel staff we stopped at the Hanyangling Museum. This place was incredible, dating from the Han Dynasty, around two thousand years ago, prior to the Qin Dynasty.

The way they seem to do it around here is peasant digs hole, finds artefacts, government takes over. They stick a roof over the area and start digging. In this case the whole thing is underground, temperature and humidity controlled. We walk in viewing the diggings from behind a glass wall. The signs lead us to a corridor with a glass floor from which we can look down at the diggings. Then the passage takes us down some stairs so we are alongside the diggings. All the items in here are miniatures including, people, (men, women and eunuchs), horses, pigs, goats, sheep, cows and chickens. This whole place was a tomb where the emperor’s officials had prepared the place with provisions for his afterlife. The light was low in the place so I apologise for the poor photos.

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A Chinese lady who spoke good English asked us to have a photo with her and her family as we were somewhat unusual.

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The passages as always lead us to the shop. This shop was a little different, selling artefacts from around the area. Most were around two hundred years old. In one small display there were some eight different arrow heads. Speaking to the sales assistant I discovered they were over two thousand years old and quite pricey as they are only allowed to sell a few off. You got it. I couldn’t resist and now have one – by far the oldest weapon in my collection.

Arriving at the China East terminal check in they kindly put us on an earlier flight as ours was going to be delayed. It turned out this flight was also delayed. Arriving in Shanghai we had a good run into town until we could see our hotel. Then the traffic stopped and it took thirty minutes to cover the last three hundred meters. Waiting for us in the foyer were friends Jim and Liz. Jim has just retired after thirty plus years in the army and Liz is contracted up here with a food safety start-up company.

We dropped our bags and headed to the Bund, a vibrant part of down town famous for the Shanghai tower and other stunning buildings. It’s Wednesday night and the place is buzzing with thousands of people, bright lights and shops. Jim leads us to one shopping centre with a spiral escalator. All the brand shops here are very expensive as there are high taxes on goods. Liz told us the locals say one can fly to Paris and back buy a Louis Vuitton bag and still have change on what you would have spent here. The people here are a lot less aggressive than in Beijing. As Jim puts it, they move like bats never seeming to bump into each other, they sort of drive the same way.

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We jump a subway to another part of town. Here we enjoy a pizza meal in a restored hutong area followed by a rather tasty Godiva ice cream.

China has been a real eye-opener. Just the masses of thirty plus story buildings being built in every city and town we passed through blew me away. Then there are the new bridges, roads and flyovers and the non-stop green crops running for thousands of kilometres. Apparently huge amounts of pesticides and hormones are used to grow the impressive fruits you see in the markets. Stock are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones to maximise production. Google maps don’t seem to work here, BBC and CNN news have blank spots when the system doesn’t want one to see an item. Will all this have a long term effect on the people? Will they rise up and undo this currant dynasty which almost has a glimpse of democracy?


Thursday 30 July

Our last day was basically a travel day. After a quiet morning and a leisurely breakfast we headed to the airport and boarded our flight to Auckland. Apart from a bit of a delay all went very uneventfully and we arrived in Auckland early the following morning, tired but very grateful for the experiences we have had,

So this will be our last travel post for a while until we get our next trip together. The one thing we are going to do (for our own benefit as much as anything) is sometime over the next few weeks post a time-line of the dynasties of China and the various empires across Europe.


Beijing to Xi’An

Monday 27 July

At 0640 I snuck out of the hotel leaving Sylvia sleeping. A 30-minute stroll to Tiananmen Square was relatively quiet. I had headed there to check out Mau who like Lenin has been preserved or embalmed. We had checked out the sign yesterday and worked out it was open 0700 to 1100 in July. Reaching the square there were already thousands of people about, mainly in groups of fifty to a hundred with earphones in place with a guide gobbing into a mike. Obviously here early to beat the heat; it’s in the late 20s already. Reaching the tomb entry point there was no queue. The gate was closed. I managed to find out from the soldier on guard “closed Monday”!

The stroll back to the hotel was more interesting. Crowds of people were on the footpaths heading for work. I followed a large group that just seemed to melt away into the many tall buildings. Beggars were out in force holding up their disfigured children, a girl on a skate board displayed the infected stump of a missing leg.

The buildings are mainly large modern concrete structures intermingled with a few traditional style ones and the odd European dome-capped building.

Later a car transports us to the high speed railway station. Getting there took thirty minutes; getting to the drop of point another fifteen. Another hour got us to the business lounge after security and collecting our prepaid tickets. There are dozens of non-stop queues. There are more people in any part of this station than you get flies while gutting a deer in the Kaweka bush on a hot day.

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The train is impressive, much sleeker than the European ones. Guys are going along the outside with mops cleaning the carriages, windows are also being cleaned. There are 16 carriages and we are in the last one. Sylvia’s booked business class and there are only eight large seats in  our half of the carriage. Quite quickly we are out of the city cruising along at 308 kph. The ride is smooth and quiet, a real contrast from our last trains.

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An hour south of the city clear visibility is around 250 metres. The flat land on each side of the elevated track is intensively farmed; there is not a square meter of land that is not cropped or planted. With around 22 million mouths to feed in Beijing alone I suppose it’s not surprising.

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Two hours or around 600km south we are still amongst the non-stop planted fields.

We have passed through several cities with many tall apartment buildings under construction. In one place there were in excess of fifty twenty-plus storey apartments all under construction.

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A stop at Zheng Zhou Dong reveals a clean tidy station with twenty-plus platforms all for high speed trains. The construction continues south of the station. We head through some hills, the land on either side terraces growing stuff.

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Arriving at Xi’An it felt like we had just ridden through 1200 kms of enclosed market garden beneath a ceiling of smog.

The drive from the station to the Gran Melia hotel took about 40 minutes. We even spotted some blue sky along the way. It is like the smog is just a wall here. The hotel is stunning with a huge marble lined foyer. We are escorted to the Red Floor and checked in there. It has its own bar and breakfast area. We had just missed the happy hour – bugger! After declining the bag unpacking service we settled in and then headed down to the Spanish restaurant for dinner. The service was outstanding with the young Spanish manager giving us a rundown on the Spanish run hotel chain and the restaurant. The food was excellent plus to say the least.

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Tuesday 28 July

After breakfast we met our taxi driver for the day downstairs. He seemed to think he was Sterling Moss, swerving in and out of the traffic like he owned the road. I probably would have felt better about this if there had been seatbelts in the back. After about an hour we arrived at the site of the Terracotta Warriors. We negotiated our way through the mobs of tour guides and small stalls, managed to arrange tickets and followed the crowds to the museums. After first visiting a section on the Qi and Qin Dynasties and some impressive horses and chariots that were unearthed nearby we made it to the first of three halls of warriors.

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I had been prepared to be disappointed after hearing other’s experiences of this place but the reverse was the case. I found the whole place to be incredible. In the first hall row after row of soldier, each one unique, was in place. This has been an incredible labour of love and care from the archaeologists involved with the work still in progress. We could see parts that were not yet dug up, soldiers in various states of repair etc. I was quite surprised that the halls and soldiers were open to the air – the humidity of thousands of excited, noisy, jostling visitors everyday must be taking its toll but I guess it is also paying for the process. At 150 locals per person they must be raking it in.

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We wandered back to meet our driver again and headed back into the centre of Xi-An, passing through the old city walls, built during the Ming Dynasty around the 1300’s. Our first stop was Shu Yuan Men or Ancient Street, the art market, a street that has many traditional Chinese homes and stores with shops selling art supplies and different types of art. Some of the paint brushes were huge.

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Next we headed to the Drum and Bell Towers both built in the late 14th century. They used to mark time. We climbed up the Drum Tower where Roger couldn’t resist tapping on one of the drums – “the sign says don’t knock”! Given the amount of sound from a gentle tap, they must make an impressive sound when hit properly.

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Right next to the Drum Tower we explored the old alleys and streets of the Muslim area where we saw an amazing array of food stalls, from taffy pulling to chicken feet, mutton kebabs etc. It was an amazing array of colours and smells.

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Our driver then took us back to the city gates where we were able to climb onto the walls of the city which form a rectangle 14km around. The walls are in excellent condition with lanterns every few metres and a rampart every 100m or so. There are larger gates on each of the four sides. Outside the walls the moat has been restored creating a park like environment. We wandered along the wall for a while but at 40-odd degrees it was too hot to do the complete circuit.

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We headed back to the hotel in time for the Happy Hour and a nice relaxing evening. I have mentioned the ubiquitous umbrellas before – everyone seems to carry them to protect them from the shade. We were quite amused today to see even the motor scooters with umbrellas on – stretched out to cover the passenger as well.

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Ulan Bator to Beijing

Thursday 23 July

The Kempinski Hotel seemed to have slipped into the local way of not getting things right. The check-out was a shambles, I was expecting John Cleese to appear any second. Eventually a taxi took us to the station. The driver wanted 25k in locals for what should have been 6 to 8. Bugger, I only had a 20k note and he had no change. How convenient!! I went to a shop and got change. These buggers just love to try it on.

Chinese crew check us onto the train. This one is a lot older than the previous ones. Bang on time it shudders its way out of the station. One thing they do well in this part of the world is preserve old train engines. All the way through we have seen various vintages from steam to electric engines on display around railway stations. There was a line up we saw further up the line on the way to the station. We roll or should I say shake east for a while before heading south.

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The country side is really pretty with its deep wide green valleys dotted with gers, mobs of goats, sheep, yaks, cows and horses. These fourteen carriages must be the really, really slow train to China – it seems like it is hardly moving. Like the previous trains, toilets are locked at the stations as they drop their load straight onto the track, like they did in NZ forty years ago.

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Since arriving in Ulan Bator there has been a blue haze hanging in the air making good photos impossible. This is apparently from some forest fires in Siberia. A few hours south we move into the Gobi Desert. This is gradual as the ground gets more sandy but apart from a couple of kilometres of sand it all has some sort of growth on it.

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After 8 hours our first stop is Sainshand where we get off to stretch our legs. We are surprised by the number of people we run into on the platform that we had met on a previous leg of our journey – Imran and Sonalire are in the cabin next to us. Around six we head to the dining car for a meal. The old style car is the first one we have struck with people using it. It’s a set menu – a small salad followed by a soggy meat patty, rice and a piece of miniature broccoli. We get the bill = 46k each in locals or about 46 NZD. What a rip off! Obviously they don’t want to encourage repeat tourism. Or maybe the Chinaman running the place went to the same training place as taxi drivers go. When the average wage here is 400US a month they must have special “up the price” deals for tourists or the locals would starve.

There are many appealing things about the landscape and the friendliness of the happy looking people here. It’s almost like the tour operators are trying to stuff it all up.

We arrive at the border around 5pm. Soldiers stand at attention saluting as the train pulls in. Passports are collected, taken away, stamped and returned. A couple of hours later we cross the border to Erlian on the China side. Passports and forms are collected again. We are then shunted off to a big shed. Here the carriages are separated then lifted by four jacks with the Russian bogies staying on the ground. The Chinese bogies are pulled in on a wire rope pushing the Russian ones along out of the way. Pins are lined up and the carriages lowered down onto the new bogies and we are all set for China rail. During this process which is watched over by soldiers our passports are returned. The whole process is pretty efficient and took about an hour. We then had to wait around for a fair while before being shunted back to the station where we got to disembark and walk around the station for an hour or so. The doors to the street from the station are locked and officials quickly herd us back to the platform if we venture to far. There is no doubt a reason why we waited around here so long after the job was done but we will never know what it was.

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It is around one am when we finally start our journey south into China.

Friday 24 July

When we woke this morning the scenery was very different – much more mountainous and the villages tidier and very different architecture. As we got closer to Beijing we travelled through about 65 tunnels, interspersed with glimpses of mountains, lakes and rivers. It took quite a while to get to the station from the outskirts of Beijing as we passed many skyscrapers and houses all close together in the smoggy atmosphere. At one point we passed through a train station with about 10 tracks all with bullet trains on. We have travelled about 7826km from Moscow to Beijing, over roughly 5.5 days, our average speed has been less than 60kph. Admittedly some of that time (roughly 12 hours) has been sitting at border crossings but our average speed has still been pretty slow. At this point the bullet trains look pretty appealing.

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Last night we were discussing the trip with a Swedish couple over dinner. We both agreed that we had enjoyed it and would recommend it to others – although it is not everyone’s cup of tea. The best parts of the trip have been meeting other travellers (we’ve had some great conversations in the corridors of the train as we watch the world go by out the window), stopping off at some out of the way locations – especially Yekaterinburg and Ulan Bator, and for me watching them change the bogies at the Chinese border last night. I thought they summed it up really well when they said “the best thing is all the great places we stop off at but I must admit, that it gets harder and harder to get back on the train for the next leg”. In our case this was exacerbated as the trains definitely got older and less comfortable as we travelled further.

Eventually we arrived at the Beijing station and exited the train to be confronted by heat, humidity and endless crowds of Chinese people swarming around the station, many in large groups. Our first task was to get some local currency – success eventually at the fourth place we tried – two banks accepted Chinese cards only and one place ended up being a luggage storage place, not a bank! The second task was to get a taxi to our hotel – success eventually with the third taxi we tried – but I have no doubt we were seriously ripped off as we were both too hot to try and bargain!

Our hotel, The Red Wall Garden, is a delightful oasis in the middle of a hutong (old residential area) not too far from the Forbidden City. After checking in and enjoying a light lunch we headed out to explore, walking through the hutong area to the Forbidden City. There is very little English spoken here and we had fun trying to arrange tickets etc, especially as we arrived very close to when they stop selling tickets for the day. We made it though and had a speed tour of the massive complex that makes up the old palace area. Off limits to all but nobility for 500 years, the Forbidden City was the home to the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are numerous courtyards, gateways and halls as well as hordes and hordes of tourists.

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We eventually walked out the Northern gate and across the road to Jingshan Park, a much quieter area with a large garden and a large pavilion at the top of a hill from where we had good views back over the Forbidden City. The last Ming emperor, Chongzen, hanged himself from a tree at the bottom of the hill in 1644 during the uprising. This is commemorated with a large plaque at the tree where he apparently committed the deed.

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Saturday 25 July

Our driver arrived at 9.30am, thirty minutes late. We headed off to Mutianyu, the entrance to the Great Wall. Arriving two hours later we had to pull the plug on plan A which had been to climb up to the wall further west at Jiankou as the driver didn’t seem to know where he was going. Plan B – We arrived at Mutianyu and a short shuttle bus ride took us to the Cable Car and up we went.

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Once on the wall we turned left and headed west. This piece of construction is very impressive. How did they get all those rocks and bricks up there way back then?

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As we head through one of the turrets there is a guy lying on a stretcher with a splint on an arm and leg, his face is also bandaged. About a km along after a few ups and downs we hit some steep steps, a good 100 meters of them. Then there are 20 meters of really steep steps, maybe this is where the guy on the stretcher came to grief.

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Then there is a sign ” no tourists past here” we keep going up and up along the ridge line. The wall is still in pretty good nick here. Then another sign “no tourists past here.” We continue, Sylvia not saying a word. The “by the book girl” is either getting used to me or has given up. From here on the wall is pretty rough. There is just a narrow track to walk on with trees and scrubs growing on what was the wide path. The turrets have lost their roofs and are falling down. We pass several people coming the other way. After a couple of hours going west we turned back. It was really great to see both aspects of the wall.

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Unfortunately due to the smog good visibility was only about a kilometre, apparently this was one of the better days. In the distance we could just make out through the haze some other parts of the wall. According to a sign the wall was built in 1409. The restoration of the tourist part started in the late 1980s. As far is I can establish the wall history goes something like this: Originally different sections of wall were built around 700BC, then around 220BC Emperor Qin Shihuang rebuilt and linked old parts of the wall  to make one 4,800km stretch of wall. Originally built to keep out the marauding Mongols Huns and Turks out, later it was used as a road to transport goods across the country.  In the Ming Dynasty, 1388 to 1464, the brick parapets were built and the wall restored, which is what we see today. It’s really good to see how tourism helps to maintain and preserve many of the world’s great wonders and special sites.

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Back down the bottom we visited and strolled around the many over-priced shops.

It was rather hot so we had the world’s most tasty and expensive ice cream at nine bucks NZ a scoop. The driver was there on time to meet us. He took a different route back to the motorway playing chicken with oncoming bikes and cars as he overtook along the way.

Back in town we treated ourselves to a great feed at Morton’s steakhouse.

Sunday 26 July

We started slowly this morning with a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and a few catch ups with the folks back home. We then headed out to Tiananmen Square, taking an air-conditioned detour through one of the large shopping malls on the way – prices here seem extremely high.

Arriving at Tiananmen Square it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the size, the heat and the crowds. We see very few other European tourists, most seem to be Chinese, many with umbrellas for shade, which can create quite a hazard for innocent passers-by. Several of the men seem to roll their shirts up to their chests to relieve the heat. This can create quite an interesting look for those with larger guts. Security is everywhere – we have to go through scanners to get into the square and there are army and police forces at every gate, corner and in the centre of the square. There are well tended gardens running down either side of the square with almost completely round, flowering shrubs in the centre. And of course Mao’s portrait hanging at one end in front of the entrance gate to the Forbidden City. At the other end of the square are the remnants of the original city walls and a couple of imposing gates and flanking Mao’s mausoleum are four soviet-style statues, honouring the people.

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After wandering around the square for a while we decide to visit the National Museum of China. This entails queuing, security checks, showing our passports etc but eventually free entry to the huge complex. One thing we have noticed is the lack of courtesy among the majority of Chinese people – it seems to be a giant free-for-all with everyone pushing to get to the front of the line and no respect for others. I guess if you live in a place with this population that’s the way it has to be but we found it a bit off-putting at times. As soon as we get to any spot which is even marginally cooler (underpasses to cross the road, steps inside the museum etc) there are loads of people sitting around having a break or even a picnic lunch. This caused Roger to dub one of the underpasses we went through “the Beijing beach”.

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The lower floor of the museum has a very impressive display on the history of China from prehistoric times (10,000 – 50,000 years ago), through all the dynasties to current day. There were some impressive finds from as far back as about 10,000 BC including all sorts of statues and bronze artefacts. We might have found it even more interesting if we had started at the beginning and worked our way forwards in time instead of the other way round.

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As we were leaving the museum we realised that the memory card had not been properly in the camera all morning so retraced our steps around Tiananmen Square to ensure we had a good record before making our way, via the efficient and air-conditioned metro, to the Temple of Heaven. This is a large group of buildings from the Ming Dynasty set in the middle of about 270 hectares of park. The main building, a round 40m tower was built without any nails and has three levels covered with blue and turquoise that supposedly symbolises the colour of heaven. In the surrounding park were groups of musicians and even some people practicing a type of ballroom dancing.

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By this stage the heat was getting to me so we headed back (via metro) towards the hotel. We had planned to try the Beijing duck at a recommended restaurant but faced with a two-hour wait for a table decided to give it a miss and stopped at a basic, formica-table restaurant we passed and enjoyed a delicious and well-priced dinner there instead.

Trans Mongolian Railway: Irkutsk to Ulan Batar

Friday 17 July

Sylvia wasn’t feeling too good so stayed in bed. I took a stroll out to the east side of town. The streets are dirty, not with rubbish, but even sealed roads have in places thick patches of mud on then. Even in the centre of town there is a fine layer of dirt on the streets.

On the way I came across a bear shaped object with wire mesh over dirt that was being stuffed with grassy stuff. There were several of these around town in various shapes.

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Arriving at the water front a wedding is being photographed with the bride standing on a pile of stones trying to look seductive, the guy on flat ground in front trying to look tough.

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Eventually I arrive at the icebreaker Angara Museum. This is actually the ship which has been parked up here since the 60’s, It holds the record as the world’s most refloated ship as it has been swamped a few times. A grumpy lady took a hundred locals off me, filling out several forms and handing 2 to me. She sent me off down some steep stairs and a ladder into the engine room. Four big steam cylinders had powered the single propeller. Two huge boilers supplied, no doubt, a good head of steam. I had struck a group with a guide and interpreter so found out a little history.

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There were two of these ships built in the UK in kitset form and assembled locally. The first, the Baikal, built around 1896, carried 2000 passengers and 6 rail wagons, followed a couple of years later by the Angara, which only carried passengers. At this time the rail finished at the west side of Lake Baikal and started again on the east side. The boats were the link. They steamed back and forward until 1904. The rail link around the lake had to be completed as the boats were unreliable due to ice and bad weather. The Russians were fighting a war against Japan and needed continuity of supplies. When the revolution came in 1917 the icebreakers were armed up with machine guns and canons by the Reds (Bolsheviks) when the White Russians captured Irkutsk. Apparently the war went on around here until 1920. The Baikal was hit while in Port Baikal and caught fire – eventually the top part was scrapped, the rest sunk in the lake; nobody seems to know where. The lake is over 1400m deep so I guess it will stay hidden. The Angara was used as a prison for a little bit after the war until they took the prisoners up on deck one by one shot them and tossed them overboard. She then went back into general service on the lake until 1962. It’s probably the dirtiest and worst kept museum I have seen. I did get a smile out of the woman on the way out though.

A stroll back into town to the information centre was next. There I found a really helpful bunch with good English. They marked the map for me on the location of a military Museum and a shop where one could buy Matryoshka Dolls. I headed off to the Museum which was just an old empty building; the doll shop didn’t exist either. Were they just taking the piss??!!

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I strolled around a bit more of the town and headed back to the hotel. The receptionist was the only one of three who spoke English in spite of the guide book telling us they all did. I asked her why most of the people I had seen, especially the men, looked really grumpy. “That’s because they are – no one is happy here!” On inquiring why, “It’s 40c below here in winter and people are poor.”

Saturday 18 July

I was feeling much better after a good rest up yesterday and we headed off to see Lake Baikal. Roger had made enquiries yesterday and had sorted out directions to a bus that would take us to a boat that would take us to Lake Baikal. The boat was due to leave at either 12 or 12:30 depending on who he asked… It seems to me that the people in Irkutsk either don’t want to help or really don’t have a clue. We couldn’t find the bus anywhere and once we realised it would be too late to take the boat we started looking for other options. Eventually we found a minibus heading to the lake. Apparently they leave whenever they are full and you pay per seat so we piled in and headed off an hour and twenty minutes down the road.

Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world. Its surface area is not huge but it is the deepest lake at 1637m and holds 23,000 cubic km of water, which is over 20% of the world’s fresh water. (By contrast Lake Taupo holds 59 cubic km.) We reached the “resort town” of Listvyanka, a small, fairly uninspiring town on the edge of the lake with a four-storey, multi-coloured “wedding cake hotel” across from where the mini buses stop. The water in the lake is very clear and apparently cold. There is a species of seals that lives in the lake, the only one to live solely in fresh water.

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After a quick bite to eat we wandered long the shore of the lake to the museum, apparently the only one in the world dedicated to a lake. The exhibits were unfortunately only in Russian. Of most interest to us were the aquarium showing the many different species of fish in the lake, the two very rotund seals that seemed very bored in their small tank, and the photo exhibit on the top floor with photos of different areas of the lake from the 1950’s and present day highlighting the changes.

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Having met several people on the train who were spending more time in Irkutsk and/or at Lake Baikal, many of whom didn’t stop at Yekaterinburg at all, we felt pretty good about our decision. Irkutsk is the only place we have been to that we both would not have minded missing altogether. We caught another minivan back to town and after a quick bite to eat headed off to the railway station to catch our train to Ulan Batar.

Sunday 19 July

When I wake to the loud hailer at the station we are on the east side of Lake Baikal.

From Irkutsk to the border town of Naushki in a straight line is less than 300km but the train trip is over 800km. This is definitely the slow train to China, averaging around 50 km/per hour to the border. Once we eventually leave the trans-Siberian line and head south it is on an old style single track which still has the clickety-clack sound as the wheels go over the joins. The land becomes a little barren as we head south with huge flat areas surrounded by brown hills. There are the odd paddocks with large irrigation units. Small mobs of cattle are often accompanied by a herder. Grass is being cut in places by machine but hand stacked in the paddocks.

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We pass an abandoned military air field and a few derelict factories before traveling alongside Goose Lake where hundreds of small boats carry one or two fisherman dangling their lines hopefully in the clear water. All the towns we pass through have the same ramshackle houses we have seen previously. These have bigger gardens and often small corrals to hold stock. We even see the odd mob of sheep.

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At 1345 local time we roll into Naushki. After total confusion as to whether we were allowed to leave the train we did anyway – it turns out we actually had to as they took the train off somewhere else for a bit. For some reason, being a border town with immigration border control etc., I had expected shops, restaurants and a tidy little town. With a “don’t know the reason why stop here” a look around and a nice meal would be good. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The railway station and the building alongside were in good nick. Passing through the station past the uninterested police we stepped into another world. This place is far worse than any town we have seen from the train. A walk down a dusty road revealed an almost nice building containing a cafe. The food was ok too. They didn’t have change for my thousand local note but produced an Eftpos machine, which was not really in keeping with the surroundings. The rest of the place was a total shambles.

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Back in the station waiting room we had a chat to two young Aussi blokes who had been to Ukraine and visited the now defunct nuclear plant at Chernobyl. They are heading to North Korea after Beijing. Eventually we were asked to get back on the train to hurry up and wait for the border control people. Its 30 degrees C outside and hotter in the stationary train. An hour or so later they turned up. A dog sniffed its way up the corridor then a guy looked at our passports, another guy turned up with a PDA, entered and checked passports. Next an agile chick turned up and searched our cabin as we stood outside.

Eventually, bang on time at 1750 we rolled out of the station. There are tall barbed wire fences on each side of the track, a guard house down the track a bit then we are in no man’s land. A bit further down the track we stop while a bunch of Mongolian soldiers lift the barrier then run round to form up on a white line in front of their post after the train goes through.

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Next stop is Sukhbaatar about 20km on where we have another long wait on the train while the Mongolian customs collect our passports and go through the same process.

Mongolia is suddenly a different world. The ramshackle villages of Siberia have suddenly become tidy paddocks with fences. Even the odd derelict factory has a semblance of tidiness about it. Gers (yurt is the German word) stand in fields or alongside houses as we head south alongside a bright red sunset.

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Monday 20 July

At 0430 the locked door to our compartment is thrown open, the lights switched on and our grumpy provodnitsa says time to get up. We are due to arrive in Ulan Batar at 0550 and had set our alarm for 0520 thinking thirty minutes would be plenty of time. The best laid plans…

Arriving in Ulan Batar bang on time we are met at the station by our guide. It is too early to head off to the National Park and the only restaurant open is a Mongolian one that doesn’t smell at all appetising at this hour so we head off to look at the Zaisan memorial and Buddha park. This memorial is a tall, thin, soviet style monument that was built to commemorate unknown soldiers and heroes from various wars. The climb to the top was rewarded by great views over the city. It is a really interesting city with a mix of old Soviet era apartment blocks, new modern glass buildings, smaller houses and even the odd ger. At the base of the hill is a 16m tall standing Buddha.

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This killed enough time for the Rosewood Café to open – a delightful place where we were able to get a very good breakfast.

Next we headed off to Hustai National Park about 100km southwest. This reserve has been set up to protect the reintroduced takhi or Przewalski’s horse, a sub-species of wild horse that became extinct in the wild here and was reintroduced from zoos. There are now more than 340 in the area and over 500 in Mongolia. They are a pale tan colour with zebra stripes on the back of their legs and larger heads and shorter legs than the common domestic horse.

We picked up a local guide at the Park entrance and headed off, spotting marmots, an eagle and a vulture as well as a couple of groups of takhi. We stopped at one point to climb a hill to get closer to the takhi and were distracted by the different grasshoppers and insects we saw as well. Driving further into the park we came across some very old stone statues that had been carved during the Turkish rule in the 6th century. There were also 500 odd deer stones that lined a pathway – that they called the pathway to heaven.

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Our next activity was to arrange to stay with a local family for the night in their ger. We passed several groups of stock (horses, cattle, sheep, goats) and eventually came to a small group of gers. A few people had rounded up some goats and sheep in a pen to mark them. Our guides approached and it seemed an agreement was reached. We headed off to the ger with one of the young men now in tow and were welcomed by the woman of the house. This family of seven live in two gers. They move them at least twice a year – once to the ground nearer the river, where we were, in summer and once nearer the mountains where it is warmer for the winter. They have about 300 sheep, 300 goats, 40 cattle and 60 horses. There were a couple of calves and a dog lying outside one of the gers and a small group of young goats playing nearby – apparently they have to keep them close to protect them from birds of prey. We were invited into the ger and given some Mongolian milk tea, some sort of bread biscuit that tasted like mutton fat, some sheep’s milk cheese and some fermented milk “vodka”, all of which were definitely acquired tastes! It was agreed that we would go back and have lunch at the tourist camp where we had picked up the local guide and then return for dinner and the night.

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Before we left we were invited to the other ger to see the fermented milk process. The milk is boiled and then the condensed steam is collected. A frog was jumping across the floor and a 5-day old baby goat was snuggled under a small table in the ger. Two young children ran about playing with balls. Outside we watched a guy on horseback unsuccessfully try to chase three other horses to corral them. Eventually the guy from our ger left and got on a horse himself. He successfully lassoed one of the horses from about 20 metres away.

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We headed off back to the tourist camp where we dropped off our local guide. By this stage we were more than a little concerned about our guide. He had limited English, had not been well briefed and had not given us a good briefing on our three days, we had no briefing on how to behave with the family in their ger and we had gotten very lost on the way back to the tourist camp and been driven around on rough roads for over two hours. We were now told that lunch at this camp was too expensive and we had to go to another one further up the road. When we arrived there the restaurant (and it seemed the whole camp) was closed. By this stage we were tired and hungry and the idea of a long drive back to the ger, a probably unappetising meal and no idea of how to behave properly we decided to call it off and head back to UB for the night. We also decided to fire this guide and start again as we had lost confidence in the company.

Negotiations completed we headed back to UB and checked into our hotel for the next three nights. A lovely Japanese dinner rounded off the evening.

Tuesday 21 July

After a great sleep in a comfortable bed and a good breakfast at the Kempinski hotel we taxied into town. The first task was to find Great Chinggis Expeditions where we were to pick up our tickets for Thursday’s train to Beijing. The instructions were sort of clear. Eventually we found the run down building with a locked steel door. We punched in a number, pushed open the very creaky door, went up some poorly lit stairs, found room No 37, knocked loudly on the door a few times and finally a woman opened it revealing a nice set of offices. It felt a bit like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. Tickets in hand we headed back to the Square.

Chinggis Khaan Square, as it is now known, is also a memorial to Sukhbaatar, who was the guy that finally got independence from China and basically gave the country to Russia in 1921. The new 2006 memorial to Chinggis is huge, housing a State Museum and behind that government buildings. Interestingly there are a lot more military people around here than in Russia – they have the hard faces and do not make eye contact or acknowledge a thank you or hello. The State Museum had lots of really old stuff dating back to 300BC. This included gold horse harness decorations, swords, coins etc.

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Across the road is the National Museum of Mongolia. This place had the oldest stuff I think I have ever seen. Cave drawings dated back to 4000BC and there were all sorts of artefacts counting down the time of man’s development in Mongolia. This included a skeleton lying in a box from 600BC. A costume room showcased the remains of costumes from 1200AD, each with a new replica beside them to show what they would have looked like. The time line flowed through the evolution of Mongolia including the Turk’s rule of the 6th Century and a big section on Chinggis and his sons, who during the 12th and into the 13th century ruled most of Asia. Another big section is on the independence from China in 1921 and covers a bit about life under Soviet rule. The last section covers the break away from socialism, which ended after a huge number of protesters went on a hunger strike in the square.

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A stroll along a few streets revealed lots of people out with brooms and brushes trying to keep the place clean. Crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing takes a bit of getting used to; if you just stand and wait they don’t stop; walk and they don’t look like they are going to stop but do just in time. They drive on the right side here but only about 20% of the cars are left hand drive. It all seems to work.

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We paid a visit to the Victim’s Museum, which was once the home of Prime minister P Genden and one of the oldest buildings in town. He pissed off the Russians at some point and was taken to Moscow by the KGB and shot. Apparently his replacement towed the line but several other high ranking politicians were at different times invited to Moscow for ‘retraining’ with a deadly end. An old enthusiastic guy took us inside and pointed at various posters indicating the victims from various provinces during the USSR reign. Some 23-40,000 people perished. It appears a lot were executed on trumped up charges. One room contains skulls dug up from a mass grave, most with bullet holes to the head. `The walls of many rooms have photos of people- most were executed but some imprisoned. The odd one has an explanation in English. Many were executed during the Japanese invasion of 1935 when a minister came down from Moscow with a list of names suspected of spying for the Japs. Buddhist leaders were also seen as a threat and eliminated.

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Our next stop was the bar on the 23rd floor of the Blue sky tower. Here we enjoyed probably the best lamb burger we have ever had, followed by a stroll back to the hotel with a bit of shopping along the way.

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Wednesday 22 July

We were met in reception at 9am by our new guide, Munk, arranged through the hotel. He is a self-confident young man who spent 10 years studying and living in London (aeronautical engineering) and returned to UB a couple of years ago. After a brief stint with Mongolian airlines he decided to set up his own travel agency. His English is good and he answered a lot of the questions we have gathered along the way.

We headed off towards Terelj National Park, about 80km northeast of UB. Despite being somewhat overrun by tourist camps and hotels (the Mongolians definitely have a very different idea of a National Park to the rest of the world) it is still a beautiful area with fantastic rock formations and lots of grassy plains, dotted about with gers and the associated wildlife. A new one for me here was the yaks; several of these long, woolly cows grazed in the area. It must be incredibly hot for them with their thick coats but they seem pretty laid back.

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Right near the end of the valley we get out of the car and mount our horses for a two hour ride, across the river, through the woods, passed a few yaks and gers and up a hill. I was a little nervous at first having not ridden in a long time but Roger was very comfortable, even when his horse gave a few kicks. Apart from the flies it was very pleasant riding and we stopped at the top of the hill for fifteen minutes or so to give the horses a rest and take some photos before returning.

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Just around the corner we stopped for a Mongolian style lunch – lots of fatty mutton, first in a broth-style soup and then in some fried dumplings!

We headed next for the famous, and aptly named, turtle rock. We had great views from the top and enjoyed the squeezy climb at the ‘neck’ between the ‘head’ and the ‘shell’. Across the way we could see a couple of Bactrian (two-humped) camels, unique to Mongolia, taking people for rides and also a couple of guys wrestling, one of Mongolia’s main sports.

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We then stopped briefly at a cave where about 150 Buddhist monks had sheltered during the Soviet-era persecutions.

Driving further east we came upon the huge Chinggis Khaan statue. Built in 2007, one of many Chinggis Khaan monuments erected to reflect the new nationalist pride of this nation, this 40m tall, shiny stainless steel statue of Chinggis on horseback is quite a landmark. We climbed the stairs and walked out onto the mane of the horse with good views over the surrounding plains and a close up view of Chinggis Khaan. In the basement is a museum featuring some more old artefacts and a bit more information on the rule of the Mongolian empire in the 13th and 14th centuries.

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We then headed back to our hotel where we had a lovely meal and started to prepare for our early departure in the morning.

On reflection Mongolia is a stunning country with much to offer but tourism here is challenged. They seem to be pricing themselves out of the backpacker market but the quality of service is not at the level you would expect so value-for-money is not great. I hope that they sort this out over the next few years as I think there is great potential in the country.

Trans-Siberian Railway: Moscow to Irkutsk

Saturday 11 July

After another lavish breakfast, which for Roger again included champagne and caviar, we headed off in separate directions. I had forgotten to collect our tickets for the Trans-Siberian railway and had to find my way by metro across Moscow to a guard station to pick them up. Of course, at the first metro station I went to with my route all planned out (it is not that easy to find your way around with all the stations marked in the Cyrillic alphabet which I never learned before I came, despite my good intentions) I discovered that one of the main lines I had planned to use was closed for the day for construction work! No matter, I quickly recalculated and managed to collect the tickets without too much fuss.

In the meantime Roger had decided to visit Lenin’s mausoleum in the Red Square (it is closed Fridays so we were unable to see it yesterday). Getting there 45 minutes early he went for a stroll around the square, examining the new building we referred to in yesterday’s blog and some similar buildings behind the square. His conclusion – if you want to build something to last built it out of real stone, not look-alike.

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We had read yesterday that there used to be huge queues to visit Lenin but that these days there were few visitors, Roger was surprised to find an hour-long queue at 9:50am when he made it to the entrance area. Entering the tomb the young guys in front of him were told to remove their hats and get their hands out of their pockets. Descending down a large staircase, he turned  to the right where the glass coffin is raised about 2m above the floor with a staircase ascending alongside it to a platform and then down the other side. He reported that to his surprise Lenin appeared to be a tiny chap in comparison to the many statues depicting him around Moscow and St Petersburg. The story goes that his body is preserved in a special fluid that is changed every 2 years to keep him, complete with moustache and goatee in place. Maybe the preservative shrunk him – or did they make the statues too big? There is also some debate as to whether the body is in fact made of wax. This is Russia – who knows? Behind the mausoleum are buried many other post-revolution Russian leaders including Stalin and Brezhnev.

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Anyway, he eventually made it back to the hotel about 10 minutes after me and just in time for us to check out and make our transfer to the Yaroslavsky station. We had been advised to arrive at the station at least an hour early to allow time for security etc but security was quick and efficient which just meant we had a lot of waiting time. Roger did a bit of hunter-gathering to ensure we had provisions for our trip while I watched the bags.

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Eventually we boarded our train – greeted by our provodnitsa  (Roger calls her the hostie chick). Our cabin is remarkably spacious with two seats that fold down into beds and a table. We have a door that locks and toilet facilities at the end of the carriage. There is a dining car a few carriages down and several people come past offering snacks, souvenirs etc. A few hours in we receive a carbohydrate heavy snack.

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Unfortunately I was feeling very unwell so slept the first 2 hours or so and woke feeling much better. Roger had been enjoying the scenery and meeting some of the other passengers in our carriage.

In general this is a very relaxing way to travel. It is very much about the journey and not about the destination. The world rolls past our cabin window at about 70km/hour – lots and lots of untamed woodland with the odd village and/or city, many looking pretty dilapidated and run down. There are lots of old wooden homes with large garden plots out the back and some factories that look pretty discarded. At several places we pass large railway maintenance yards filled with pre-made stretches of track, already on concrete sleepers stacked up. We often pass freight trains so I would imagine these tracks need pretty regular maintenance.

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We spend time dozing, writing, reading, doing sudokus, gazing out the window and just generally relaxing. At the occasional stop, Roger races out to clean the windows – Whichever window is on the platform side gets a good clean.

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In the evening Wendy and Ash, a couple from England, and their three children pile into our cabin for a chat. They have trained from London (with a brief flight detour when they were deported from Belarus for not having the correct visa) and are travelling through to China, then on to Japan and eventually Thailand. We will get off in Ekaterinburg tomorrow but their first stop is not until Irkutsk some 50-odd hours later. They are very well-travelled and we enjoyed chatting for an hour or two while the sun set over the Volga river.

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In second class, the cabins are the same but with four passengers and bunk beds. Having Wendy and Ash in the cabin with us for a while was great but I am very grateful for the extra space we have travelling on our own in first class. With extra luggage as well it must be fairly tight in those second class cabins.

Eventually the motion of the train rocks us to sleep for the night.

Sunday 12 July

I am woken by the carriage rocking around on a bit of rough track. It’s broad daylight and a check of the clock tells me its 4am.

The countryside is much the same as yesterday. Large chimneys with their faded red and white paint mark huge rundown buildings, I presume once massive factories of the Soviet past. We have passed hundreds of these. Most houses visible from the train are rundown – mainly made of wood and asbestos roofing. They are still lived in with large piles of firewood stacked outside fuelling the thick grey smoke emerging from the small chimneys. It is 22 degrees C so I presume cooking is done on these fires. The green shrubs, occasional large untended fields and deciduous trees create a pretty scene. I can only ponder why this huge country with all the resources required to make a wealthy nation can look so run down and hard to live in.

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Back in Moscow and St Petersburg cars came from Western Europe, Japan and Korea. Even the cars stopped at the rail crossings out here are not made in Russia.

26 hours and 1814 kilometres from Moscow we pull into Yekaterinburg. We say goodbye to the hostie who is full if smiles as she stands by the door on the platform. The bottle of vodka we gave her must have worked.

Outside the station we approach a taxi driver, a serious chap with a large motor leaning on his rather large Pontiac-like, Russian made car. Immediately another guy approached – “I speak English, I am just here to help”, then there were three of them seriously discussing our destination. Eventually the huge boot opened, our bags were in and we were on our way with Mr Serious. Paying the guy his rubles and taking a photo of his car finally got a smile.

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At first glance this is a rough hard town with hard-looking people trying hard to move into the 21st century. From what I have seen so far it looks like Lenin’s legacy has not been all that good for the people. I ponder what would have been if the reds hadn’t come into power.

We wandered less than a block from the hotel and found a huge, modern shopping mall still going strong at 8pm on Sunday evening. The contrast is amazing here. Three floors up we found a superbly decorated Kazan-style restaurant where the tucker had really nice, almost Middle Eastern, flavours and the staff were excellent, responding really well to communication by pointing.

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Monday 13 July

Today has been a fairly dreary, cold (by my standards anyway – Roger still coped in shorts and a t-shirt all day) and, at times, drizzly day. I think fairly apt for exploring this town.

Yekaterinburg was established in 1723 as an iron and copper industrial town. It has had a chequered history since then as the capitol of the Urals region, technically still 260kms outside of Siberia. In 1917 the Romanov family were murdered here after the revolution. The area became a major centre for defence-related industry during the Soviet era and was closed to foreigners during this time. Boris Yeltsin grew up in the area. Then in the 1990’s the town became infamous as a mafia centre and there were several high profile killings between the two rival gangs that lived in the area. Our time here has focused on exploring different facets of many of these things.

The staff at the hotel have been incredibly helpful and patient, trying very hard to understand our many requests and taking time to help us make arrangements to see different things. First up we had decided to go and visit the infamous Mafia Cemeteries where several of the mafia mentioned before were buried, complete with life-size granite etchings of themselves – the bosses in suits and the enforcers in leather jackets and loose trousers. This one generated a few giggles from the girls behind the reception desk but we managed to get it sorted. We were picked up by a taxi driver in his nearly new Lexus who drove us around and waited for us – for 2/3 the price we paid for our clapped out taxi to the hotel yesterday… I enjoyed ribbing Roger about that one – even though he says he knew we were “being stroked” yesterday.

It is quite astounding to see these full size etchings and at some of the graves even picnic tables and chairs for visitors. But back to the contrasts in Russia, despite the huge expense of the graves, the cemetery was really rough, particularly compared with some of the immaculate ones we have seen in other places this trip.

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Right next door to the cemetery is the World War II memorial with some amazing etchings to commemorate Russia’s involvement in the war. I don’t think it matters which side you are on in any war, the human toll is still the same.

We headed back to the hotel and set off on a walking tour, first passing the Yekaterinburg Circus, and then a giant stone computer keyboard randomly placed alongside the river!?!?! We then headed to the 52nd floor of a large building which has been established as an observation deck overlooking the city. The views were quite incredible despite the howling wind. The city actually looks better planned and more modern from higher up.

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Continuing along we stopped at the History of Yekaterinburg museum, built in some famous guy’s old house. Most of the exhibits were in Russian only but it was still remarkably interesting as there were lots of interactive maps and videos etc. One in particular was really impressive – a large book that when you turned the pages had different pictures projected on to it showing the city in the 1700’s, 1800’s and now. We even watched a couple of 3D movies about the place – with note cards provided in English.

Our next stop was the Church of the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where the Romanov’s were murdered. The guide there was incredibly lovely, showing us around and ensuring we had our pictures taken in the right places. The exhibits here were in Russian and English and, having first heard their story when I was a child, it was really interesting to get a sense of the time around their deaths and the senselessness of it all. In the basement there were a whole lot of exhibits about World War II as well.

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We wandered back through the city marvelling at the many monuments and quirky statues about. We even stopped briefly at a shopping mall where I was amused to see Roger being fawned over by three sales women and one salesman while he bought a couple of shirts. I think he quite enjoyed all the attention – perhaps it just took four of them to make sense of what he was saying – or was it just outstanding service?

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Tuesday 14 July

We took a cab organised by the hotel heading north out of the city through the suburbs. It’s a pretty rough looking town. Like most eastern cities the road is very wide with two sets of tram tracks running along the overgrown grassy verge between the roads. The square box shape trams look very, very old – maybe 50’s era.  Old looking apartments and other buildings turn into small wooden lace houses serviced by above ground gas mains as we get further out of the city.

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We are stunned on reaching our destination. The Museum of Military Technology is mainly outdoors. It is immaculate, the grounds clean, tidy and well laid out. There is a WWII monument at the entrance. Inside the gates are every tank, artillery piece, and rocket launcher used by the Russian Armies from 1939 through to 1990. There are also planes, trains, boats and much more. Probably our favourite was the fully armoured train. Unfortunately the indoor museum was closed. At a glance it looked like it contained a collection of old cars, small planes and, I presume, much more.

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The same taxi later took us to the station; the fare in his Toyota was 250 locals. I knew the man with the big motor had ripped us off on the way to the hotel – 600 locals he charged us! I reckon taxi drivers all over the world must go to the same training school. I can never bring myself to trust the bastards.

Back on the train we head east to complete the 5153 kilometre journey to Irkutsk.

As we roll out of town passing again large disused factories and ramshackle houses the land flattens out. It’s really pretty country. Green prairies with clumps of silver birch type trees. Some of the unfenced fields are cultivated, others grow crops, and in places hay has been stacked in heaps on the fields. The odd village we pass has the same ramshackle small houses. Occasionally we pass a relatively modern factory that looks like it’s actually producing something.

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On the last leg our cabin was well prepared with cups, snacks etc. The friendly hostie chick gave us cards to lock the cabin. No such luck this time! The hostie is a big, strong, grumpy woman who looks like she used to pull trees for a living. Any questions receive the arms up in a cross, which we figure out pretty quick means no.

Back in 1975 my mother took this train from Vladivostok to Berlin – over 11,000km. She travelled on her own in a second-class carriage non-stop. I recall her saying the only happy looking people she saw were soldiers, of which there were lots. We have commented several times during this trip about how impressive it was for her to do this trip on her own, particularly back during the Soviet era.

Wednesday 15 July

Our journey continued today in much the same fashion. We stop for 20 minutes or so a few times at stations like Omsk and Novosibirsk where we can stretch our legs and replenish our supplies.

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Russia is a huge, vast country but so far the scenery has changed little. We have commented several times that it is pretty countryside – wide, flat fields with the odd stand of trees and cluster of houses. One of my enduring memories is likely to be the fields and fields of wild flowers, mostly purple and white, we pass along the way.

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In our carriage are other tourists like us travelling through to Irkutsk or further, and the odd local who is as likely to stay on board only until the next station. It certainly keeps the hostie busy changing over the linens in the rooms.

Tonight Roger whipped up a gourmet dinner of 2-minute type noodles with a bottle of Chardonnay. I broke up the chocolate for dessert. Truly a testament to our cooking skills. At least we had managed to find a couple of forks today. Last night we had to slurp our noodles soup style. And in truth, it was probably better than breakfast. Roger went off hunter-gathering at one of our stops this morning and did a half-decent job: the okay half – a sausage in bread kind of thing; the not okay half, some super smelly fish things that we had to wrap up and discard as soon as we started opening them, and the smell was still lingering in the carriage some 30 minutes later. This, I think is all part of the training experience.

Thursday 16 July

The first part of the day the country was similar to yesterday. Flat with areas of pine forest. Eventually we moved through some rolling, almost farm land, country but there was no sign of stock. We pass lots of freight trains. This after all is apparently the busiest rail freight corridor in the world. We pass thousands of cylinder like carts apparently carrying oil to Novosibirsk where it is exported via the Black sea.

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Interestingly since we entered Siberia we have not seen any gold domed churches.

We met a lady called Oksana who is traveling to Irkutsk. She is an economist and university lecturer from a city south of Moscow. She was explaining that when all the redundant factories were privatised in the 90s most went broke. They have now been replaced by smaller operations which are more competitive. When asked which was the better system she explained that a free economy has ups and downs whereas a managed economy has slow but steady growth. It would however take 120 years to prove which is better in the long run.

She also explained that the sanctions from the Ukraine debacle are good for the Russian economy allowing local manufactures to get traction in the market. About 30% of the cars we see on the road are actually manufactured in Russia.

As we close on Irkutsk 5153 Ks from Moscow we are starting to see more actual paddocks with a few cows and horses in. There are more signs of farming with huge recently harvested fields, even the odd paddock of hay bales.  This is very rolling, picturesque country still dotted with ramshackle villages.

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The trains run on Moscow time so as we approach Irkutsk at 1911 hours the clock in the carriage says 1412. We have moved through 5 time changes on this journey.

There are 9 cabins in this carriage. We have a couple from France, Fred and Fred; a couple from England, Imran and Sonali; a father and son, Gus and Daniel, from Ireland; and Oksana from Russia, all getting off in Irkutsk. Pablo, from Spain, is going non-stop all the way to Vladivostok.

We have had a few stops along the way, some just two to ten minutes, and a couple for thirty minutes when they change the engine and the tappers go along with their long-handled hammers and tap the wheels, springs and other bits, I presume detecting faults by sound. I thought these guys went out at the end of the steam days.

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We passed a number of trains loaded with military vehicles and some LAVs.

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As we arrived in Irkutsk the grumpy hostie raced through each cabin taking sheets etc.

We headed out to the station entrance to await our pre ordered ride to the Hotel Kupechesky Dvor who eventually turned up after a couple of phone calls. The hotel is well located with lots of restaurants nearby, at one of which we enjoyed some very tasty venison dumplings.

St Petersburg to Moscow

Wednesday 8 July

Heading down the passage of the Hermitage hotel we struck a Russian bride all frocked up. Down in the rather grand foyer a few pieces of brass spark up as the groom and about twenty people stand around. As we get to the ATM in the foyer the bride arrives down a sweeping staircase. The ceremony conducted in the foyer is over faster than I can get money from the machine – bubbles cracked, music playing and the gathering continues in the foyer.

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We had booked a ride to the Winter Palace in the hotel van. Just as well as we were ticked off a list as we boarded. The Hermitage museum was originally the Winter Palace of the Romanovs, the last Tsar family to rule Russia. They were in Ekaterinberg when the revolution took place. Subsequently they were rounded up and given the chop. The palace is overwhelming in every way. Some rooms are lined with gold, silver and marble from all over the world. Ceilings are spectacular and furniture outstanding. There are solid gold clocks, statues and ornaments. The museum also goes into a building that is attached to the palace. It has statues of big strong blokes holding up the entrance. Room after room is lined with different marble and filled with artefacts from various parts of the world. I am sure I haven’t done justice to this must visit place. It is by far the most impressive palace/museum I have seen.

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Leaving the palace we strolled across the river to the St Peter and Paul fortress. Built in the early 1700’s it houses a large, gold covered cathedral spire and dome of the Grand Ducal Crypt in the centre.  The inside of the cathedral is also gold lined in Baroque style. There are quite a few bodies lying around inside marble casks. Generations of royals are entombed here including the last Tsar and family who were relocated here in the 1980s. The fortress also contains the fort prison, with its large cells where some people stayed for over 30 years, the old mint and lots of other buildings.

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A stroll back across the river took us to the Church of the Spilt Blood with its many onion-shaped spires – unfortunately closed on Wednesdays but very impressive from the outside.

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A stroll back up past the Palace took us to the navy academy also complete with gold spire. Two statues one of Peter the Great and the other the Bronze horseman were surrounded by nice lawns and gardens.

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200 odd spiral steps, with stops for the unfit buggers above us, took us to the Colonnade of St Isaac’s Cathedral. The dome on this is coated with 300kgs of gold. The views over the city from here are really good. There are many gold spires and domes around the city visible from here – many not even marked on our map.

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A stroll through the streets alongside and across 3 canals took us back to the Hermitage Hotel.  On the roof top bar we were attended to by a great young waiter. From Near Irkutsk he is studying here before heading to Norway. I mention this guy because his enthusiasm and English were outstanding. The service right throughout the hotel is of a high standard. It is from the roof top we see a guy with a backpack on and a girl making their way across the roof tops of the adjacent building five stories up. Had they been on the Orient Express? Were we being followed? Or were the just out having fun?

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It was from the rooftop that I realised why this city of treasure and extravagance seemed to appear somewhat dull. It is flat as far is the eye can see and apart from the odd spire or dome all the buildings are pretty much the same height – although mostly different and many ornate they run in a straight line down the wide streets.

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Thursday 9 July

We had a lovely, lazy morning this morning, catching up on news, calling home and generally enjoying a bit of a lie in in the luxurious surroundings of the Hermitage Hotel. We had a late breakfast just before 10 and checked out of our room at 12. We had arranged a transfer to the train station for our trip to Moscow at 12:50pm so spent the remaining time sitting in the lobby, people watching and chatting.

The train station was a big bustling affair and once we figured out the sign system was pretty easy to negotiate. Our train was ready for boarding nearly straight away and our seats in the premium coach were very comfortable. Roger was particularly impressed when one of the attendants cleaned the outside of our window just before we departed.

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Overall the train here was better (newer, flasher) than those we have been on in other parts of Europe but the track quality definitely seems inferior and we felt much more motion, particularly early in the trip. We rattled along quite comfortably though at speeds varying between about 130km and 220km/hour, stopping occasionally (for a minute only) at small towns along the way. I got a bit of a kick out of the announcements which always started (in English anyway) “Dear passengers”.

At one stop, Roger delighted in the fact that construction workers are the same the world over, taking a quick photograph of a young man leaning on his shovel. In fact. Roger took general great delight in photographing many things out the window – we both agree that I will have a bit of deleting to do tonight when I edit as taking photographs from a moving vehicle is always pretty hit and miss.

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After arriving in Moscow we transferred to our hotel, The Metropol, a real Moscow icon, first established in the early 1900s. It is gorgeous with lots of stained glass and marble. We didn’t have much time to admire it as we had tickets to the Bolshoi at 7pm – we arrived at about 6:30pm. Luckily the Bolshoi is just across the road so we had time to change and wander over. The ballet was in the smaller of the two theatres but stunning nonetheless.

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Although I had originally been a little unsure about ballet, I was mesmerised. We saw a comic ballet and the quality of the dancers, their athleticism and perfection of timing was outstanding, as was the orchestra. I was quite surprised at half time and again at the end of the show how quickly it had gone.

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Afterwards we enjoyed a quiet drink in the hotel bar and soaked up some of the surroundings before retiring for the night.

Friday 10 July

The day began brilliantly with champagne and caviar for breakfast. The harpist stroked the strings sending soft mellow notes into the dining room at the famous Metropol Hotel. This place has got to have the biggest variety of breakfast I have ever seen – omelettes to caviar and everything in between.

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A short walk took us to the Kremlin – a big fort surrounded by a brick wall, originally built as a wooden fortress in the 12th century. First we visited the armoury museum with great displays from carriages to frocks. Only a small section on arms but large displays of silver and gold plates, goblets etc.

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Next was the Diamond Fund. This place has enough carats in it to feed the South Island rabbit population for years. One case of rough diamonds had thirty thousand carats in it alone. Another housed 12 large platinum nuggets, the largest weighing 7.8kg. There are dozens of gold nuggets the biggest weighing 36kg. The place goes on and on with crowns and jewels of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately pics weren’t allowed.

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We strolled around the grounds looking in and at various churches domes coated with gold.

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There is the world’s largest bell – at over 200 tonnes it never rang as a chunk fell out when it was cast.

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There is also what was the world’s largest canon or Tsar’s canon – never fired – to fire its big balls would have taken so much powder it probably would have blown apart.

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Parts of the grounds are out of bounds as I found out when going to cross a road to take a pic of some old canons. A whistle blew as a policeman came running towards me waving his baton.

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Red Square was next. Apparently Lenin still lies here visible in a preservative that is changed every two years. The tomb was closed today. Down the end of the square is the St Basils Cathedral complete with onion domes. This place was totally different inside than we expected. A maze of passageways and small rooms containing icons and other religious paraphernalia. Mainly brick and not well finished it appeared quite rough.

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A bite to eat at the Beverly Hills Diner created a bit of amusement.

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We came across the old KGB headquarters – not sure what it is now. Apparently there used to be a KGB Museum but it closed for an unknown reason. We also found the no longer open Gulag Museum.

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We did find a Napoleon and WWII exhibition on at the patriotic Museum of 1812. The Napoleon one was really well done even including the sled he escaped Russia in after getting his arse kicked.

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Exploring the Metro (subway) turned up a few surprises. First built in the 1930s and added to in the 50s lots of the stations are like memorials – described as a palaces for the people. Statues, mosaics and other art works grace the main stations deep underground.

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We popped up from the metro about 4km from the city centre enjoying a stroll through a nice pedestrian mall part way back to our hotel. Moscow is a really interesting city with a great variety of buildings and culture. For interest: Most of the old building here appear to be plastered brick. To the northeast of the main stone building in Red Square there is a new building being built in the same style but using a stone look-alike cladding which you can see cracks appearing in already.

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Visiting Friends: Chatillon en Diois, France and Berlin, Germany

Friday 3 July

We have a leisurely start this morning with breakfast in the Shangri-La hotel before taking the metro to the Gare de Lyon where we catch our train to Lyon at 10:58am and then on to Valence. The TGV whizzes along quickly and we arrive in Valence on time. We catch a taxi to the train station in the centre of Valence (about 10 mins) and then a bus to Die, about an hour away. We pass fields of sunflowers and lavender as we wind our way up the picturesque Drome valley.

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Good friends Wayne and Laure meet us at the bus stop in Die and drive us the 15 minutes to Chatillon en Diois, a gorgeous medieval village where they have a home. Laure spent much of her childhood here and they both seemed happy to show us around. At about 40 degrees it is very warm and we delay heading out until after 5pm when it has cooled down at least a little. It is amazing how much cooler it is in their renovated stone home – in the cave downstairs it is 16 degrees.

We wander around the small town, through tiny viols (small alleys) and narrow streets, passing many water fountains, where pure, fresh water flows directly from the limestone in the mountains. Laure points out many of the local points of interest including the impressive homes that belong to members of her family, including one large chateau that was abandoned when she was a child after a large rock fell into it from up the mountain while renovations were underway – luckily the workers had all left for lunch just before and no-one was hurt. The village dates from medieval times and was originally a Protestant village. The Catholics came in and took over, demolishing the castle and building a cathedral. The remains of the castle can be seen on a hill. There are now both Catholic and Protestant churches in town.

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We stop for apperitifs at a lovely little bar up the road from their house. The local Clariette de Die, a sparkling white wine, is delicious. We spend an enjoyable (long) evening with Wayne, Laure and three friends from the village, Adrienne (Dutch), Djinn (Scot) and Christine (local). All but Christine speak good English and we have a hilarious and entertaining time with both French and English being spoken. We head upstairs to the pool for nightcaps after dinner and eventually retire around 1:30am.

Saturday 4 July

Laure was feeling a little under the weather (I think it’s called the ouzo effect) as we drove down the pretty farming valley. Grapevines, sunflowers, freshly cut hay and lavender fields line both sides of the road. Laure and Sylvia shopped their way around the markets while Wayne and I found some shade and a brew. Back to Chatillon for a beer at the bar across the road from their house. They have it well sorted here with three bars/restaurants within a minutes of their huge, four-level house. Houses are all joined together here with parts built back as far as the 1400s.

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After a rather delicious, Laure-prepared lunch Wayne took us for a drive through the Gorge des Gats. The road follows the clear water of the Drome River up through the valley. There are huge cliffs – rising in places straight up from the valley floor, neat rounded stone barriers and neatly manicured hedges. Tunnels carved through the rock on the winding road lead us to the end of the valley.

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Back at the village we take a short drive out the other side of town to look at the track leading up to the Glendas, a point at the top of some cliffs 1500 meters above the village. In the past a favoured weekly stroll for Wayne. It’s 42 degrees as we head back to the house.

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An evening stroll down alongside the river and market gardens, returning through the bush on the other side rounds of the day.

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We are joined by Laure’s parents, Alan and Silvie, for a dinner Laure has spent the afternoon preparing.  Alan and Silvie have a house here but commute to Paris by TGV on Monday for work returning on Friday. Great food wine and conversation whiles away the evening.

Sunday 5 July

Today is a travel day. We are up early, leaving the house at 6:30am – Wayne drives us to the Valence TGV station with only a few minor detours on route. From there we catch the train to Lyon where we connect (after a bit of a delay) with the train to Frankfurt and on to Berlin. The trip to Frankfurt passes fairly easily with us variously sleeping, catching up on blogs, reading and enjoying the scenery. There had been a minor delay in Lyon but the time was mostly made up by the time we reached Frankfurt.

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German efficiency was definitely not on display when we reached Frankfurt. There was a bit of chaos as the train at the platform we were scheduled to depart from had broken down and no-one seemed to know where we would be leaving from, resulting in lots of very confused looking people running around. Eventually the correct platform was advised and we got away about 40 minutes delayed. We thought we’d buy something to eat on the train but the air conditioning in the dining car was on the fritz and it was declared too hot for staff so we were limited to snacks and drinks. We made reasonable progress, despite torrential rain at one point, until we hit Braunschweig where we sat for nearly 2 hours waiting for the tracks to be cleared. All in all, not the German railway’s finest hour. All of this of course is not helped by the fact that neither of us is able to speak any German and no English announcements are made. We eventually arrived in Berlin and caught a taxi to our friend Constantin’s apartment, arriving at about 1:30am to a warm welcome and a glass of champagne.

Monday 6  July

At 10am we enjoy a German breakfast Constantin has prepared. Constantin, whom we met with his wife Petra in Botswana in January, lives in New York and spends a few months a year in Berlin, the city he was originally from and where his three sisters still live. Petra is still in New York arriving later this week. The lovely apartment they have here is in one of the few buildings that was still standing after WWII.

We drove into the central city passing pieces of graffiti-covered Berlin wall still standing. From 1961 until 1989 it divided this city. We took a cruse in a river boat giving us a good appreciation of the many old museums and prominent buildings, including the parliament, in the city. It is easy to spot those that existed pre WW11 as they still bear shrapnel marks as do the walls on each side of many new bridges.

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We then drove around parts of the city heading north east out into the countryside. We were surprised by a number of nice country buildings in what had been the east bloc.

Heading back into the city we struck very heavy slow traffic which gave us plenty of time to look at the buildings. We got a great look at the recently restored, large, gold Victory Column, erected in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victory over the Danish.

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There are lots of parks and trees in Berlin which is great as apparently at the end of WWII not a tree stood in the city.

In the evening Constantin’s twin sister joined us for dinner at Manzini, a local Restaurant. Dorothee had spent many years in the German Foreign Service working in many countries including Australia, ending up as Consul General in a number of countries. She has many interesting stories to tell.

Tuesday 7 July

Another travel day… After another delicious, Constantin-prepared breakfast we headed for the airport where we boarded our flight, first to Helsinki and then on to St Petersburg. All was pretty uneventful except for a little “stress” when Roger discovered that he had misplaced his business-card wallet when we were laid over in Helsinki. He initially thought it might have been stolen at one of the security points but eventually decided it must have fallen out of his pocket in the first plane. We made a few calls to lost and found but no luck so we boarded our flight to St Petersburg expecting to have to follow up once we arrived in Russia. Imagine our surprise and pleasure when the cabin crew turned up at our seat and handed the wallet to Roger. I think he was also feeling a bit sheepish if truth be told.

We arrived in St Petersburg to much cooler weather – about 10 degrees – and pouring rain. We had an easy transfer to the stunning Hermitage Hotel where we checked in and settled in for the night in preparation for a day’s exploring tomorrow.

Venice to Paris

Tuesday 30 June

 We leave the Villa Tuttorotto with its Roman artefacts in the basement at 0500 for a short stroll through the old city, bag wheels clacking over the rough cobble stones. The locals must get pissed off with early departing tourists. The Venezia Line ferry departed at 0630. We were a little surprised to find we were heading south to Pula. We had originally tried get the ferry from there and they said there no sailings from there today.

There was a tour group on board; their guide rabbited on in great detail about what they would do for the day in Venice. We had a great chat with the Aussi mum and daughter sitting next to us who had just been to a wedding in Croatia. Both were well travelled and enjoying life. After a short stop in Pula we headed for Venice. Land was sited around 11.00 as we passed a couple of islands. The waterways were full of small boats.

After docking we caught a vaporetto (water bus) to the Hotel Antiche Figure opposite the train station. Staff in this hotel are incredibly helpful as they have been in the last three. After being upgraded to suite with its own lounge we head into town. Back on the vaporetto I am somewhat surprised at the state of the buildings along the Grand Canal. Most look like the need a bloody good scrub and others a coat of paint.  It’s all happening – water taxies, gondolas at 80euro for 30 min, dirty old police boats, and many more jockey for space on this waterway. We pass under the Rialto bridge, once famous butcher shops now just shops. Opening in 1591 it is the oldest bridge in town.

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Arriving at a people-packed St Marks Square we head to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Up the stairs we find a well laid out exhibition on the history of the Italian army from WWI through to the 1970s. But not a word on WWII? From there we moved through rooms with gold lined ceilings and massive paintings done hundreds of years ago. Next was the armoury – this is really well done with large displays of swords, armour, bows, arrows and firearms dating back to the matchlock days. We crossed the internal Bridge of Sighs to the prison. I still can’t work out why the kings of old seemed to want to have a bunch of bad buggers and traitors living right next door to them as is common in Europe. There are several floors of large stone cells with rounded roofs, some with solid wooden beds. .

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From there we strolled through many alleys (some blind), over many quaint bridges including the Rialto. There are many shops, selfie-stick sellers and handbag touts along the way.

A nice meal including a salad with shaved horse meat rounded of the day.

Wednesday 1 July

This morning we woke, packed and walked over the bridge to the railway station to board the Orient Express to Paris. Everything from the check in process through to embarkation is handled with amazing courtesy despite the heat. The poor porters and stewards are dressed in full 1920’s style outfits complete with hats and gloves and must be sweltering. I feel a bit sorry for Roger who is sweating up a storm in his long pants and collared shirt. Our steward Georgie shows us to our cabin – G5, complete with robes, washroom with luxurious toiletries, plush furnishings and Prosecco. We settle in and watch the world pass by outside our window.

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What a fantastic way to travel – we average about 70km/hour and have fabulous views of the countryside, mountains, valleys, vineyards and picturesque houses with their window boxes overflowing with colourful flowers. We will pass through Italy to Austria, Switzerland, Germany and into France.

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Lunch is served in the dining car – a three-course affair with silver service. The dining car is again in the old style and very plush. Back to the cabin we rest and read. I am really enjoying reading the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Malone (as referenced in the Gallipoli section – “No Better Death: The Great War Diaries and Letters of William G. Malone” – edited by John Crawford). Not easy reading but helping to give me a real first hand sense of life in and around WWI and the Gallipoli campaign.

It seems we have only just got back to our cabin when afternoon tea is served – we will certainly not go hungry on board this train! A few hours later and we head back to the dining car – all dressed up with Roger now adding a jacket and tie. When we are moving, with the windows open we get a good air flow and it is not too hot but when we stop at a station it gets very warm on board. Of course there was no air conditioning in the 1920’s. Four courses for dinner which we enjoy with a lovely couple, Brian and Jill from England. They were both in education, and have a strong interest in autism. Retired now, they are taking this trip in memory of an aunt who passed away and left them an inheritance – she had done the trip with her husband some time earlier. The food is fantastic – I am very impressed that they can cook and serve such top class food on a moving train.

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After dinner we retire for the night. Our cabin has been transformed, now with bunk beds and luxurious linens. We fall asleep to the clattering and occasional whoosh as we pass through a tunnel.

Thursday 2 July

The door bursts open. There is a big person with no face, just a skull, in full body armour, MP5 at the ready. “What did you do with it?” “What?” I say, trying to look surprised. “The body!” He shoves the muzzle into my face. Big mistake I think removing the gun from his hands as a kick is delivered from the bed to his head. A second kick sends him across the passage and out the open window into the path of an approaching freight train. Obviously not a cop or a nun as it had come alone. 

Backpack on, heading down the passage as the train slows, I am out the door, rolling down a grassy slope for a stroll in the French countryside. Suddenly the ground opens. I am swallowed up into a deep cavern. Hitting the ground running there is block encased tunnel that goes on forever, running and running as the ground closes in behind me. Rounding a corner the noise stops. There they are surrounded by bones, the crossed sculls all resembling the attacker on the train. 

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 Well we were on the Orient Express – there had to be a bit of excitement!

The detail on the train is amazing. All the carriages have been restored to the state they were in in the 1920s. All that is different is the running gear, a small electric fan and a power point in the room. The detail of the logos inlayed into the wood panelling, hand basin in a closet in the room, the old but new pump operated dunny down the passage serving the nine cabins in the carriage, no air con, wifi or other modern stuff. This is as it was and bloody well done.

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 Rising around 0630 Georgie arrives to turn our two bunks back into seats. This takes him around a minute. Everything – mattresses, blankets, pillows and ladder are neatly stowed away as the bunks fold back into a spacious couch. A very French breakfast is served. Bang on 0730 we pull into the Paris East station, the end of our journey.

After checking into our hotel across the river from the Eiffel Tower we caught the Metro (subway) to the Latin Quarter.  Wandering the streets we came across the Pantheon and the university. A lot of the buildings around here, apart from the churches, are very similar – all six or seven stories and made of stone. We came across the Jardin de Luxembourg. Most of the grounds are gravel and seem to be growing more chairs than plants, although there was a nice patch of grass surrounded by flowers in the middle.

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A few more kms down the road we came across the Catacombs (no it’s not a cat cemetery) where hundreds of years ago the Romans mined the limestone to build Paris. As we stood in the queue, which extended almost a full circle around the park, we did a little research.  In the late 1700s apparently they needed some more building space. Over the next hundred odd years they dug up some 6 odd million bodies and stacked the bones in a large section of the tunnels. Two and a quarter hours later we headed down what seemed to be a never-ending spiral staircase.

Then we headed off along a maze of stone or brick lined tunnels with columns in larger areas holding up the roof.  In the 1800s parts of the city around here started to sink so a bunch of engineers raced down here and sured it up. Many of their names are engraved in bricks along the walls. In a couple of places miniatures of forts and castles have been carved into stone. I am sure we are only seeing a small part of this underground maze.

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After about a km we come across the bones. Amazing, stunning, macabre!? I am not sure how to describe these neat stacks and stacks of bones 1.5m plus high with rows of skulls running through them. In places loose arm and leg bones have been tossed on top. The skulls have no teeth, there is no sign of pelvic, collar bones, spine or ribs. These tunnels seem to go on forever. Again I am sure we only saw part of what must be there. If one believed in the afterlife these people must have been pretty pissed of paying for a plot then being dug up and stacked here. This place is a must see.

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A stroll through the streets took us under the Eiffel Tower on route to our hotel.

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The evening had arrived and it was back on the metro to Moulin Rouge. Sylvia had got us tickets to dinner and the show at this famous place established in 1889.  The meal was fantastic including a bottle of bubbly. We were seated right by the dance floor. When the show started a stage came out so close I could have rested my elbows on it. The show encompassed everything from Broadway style to Cirque du Soleil. At one point the stage withdrew and up came a large glass tank with 3 three meter plus snakes in it. A girl dived in and entwined herself with the snakes. There is lots more. This is also a must see in Paris.

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