A Travellerspoint blog


Eastward Ho!

sunny 18 °C

We have passed the midway point of our journey across Russia; however the bulk of this vast country still lies ahead. The train will be our home for the next few days as we travel across Siberia deeper into Asia, but first a tour of the fascinating, historical city of Yekaterinburg.
We had read that Yekaterinburg, known as Sverdlovsk by the Soviets, was a grey industrial city and we didn’t have high hopes. But this place has shrugged off its dismal past and is a bustling international city that, inexplicably, pays tribute to The Beatles…
…and, even more bizarrely, Michael Jackson…
There are few vestiges of the murky Soviet years here apart from a large statue of Lenin in the city’s central square...
We could be wrong but it looks like old Len is now advertising the popular Russian SUV, the Land Rover, (known here by its Russian name - The Land Rover). But little here today would be recognisable to the Comrades of even thirty years ago.
Most of the concrete highrises like this...
...have been swept away and replaced with smart modern buildings of glass and steel...
While buildings like the Soviet Bank have been left to stand as a warning to future generations not to repeat the disastrous social experiment that communism became...
This is today’s bank…
And this is Elena…
… a happy young IT professional in the new Russia, who met us outside a supermarket just bursting with the finest products from all over the world: French cheeses; Spanish hams; English teas; American breakfast cereals; Italian wines; and every kind of smoked salmon and caviar imaginable. This place is a gourmet’s delight.
The upscale malls and pizzerias of Yekaterinburg bustle with smart young people, but the city is steeped in history...
This magnificent cathedral is relatively new – it was built on the orders of Boris Yeltsin, a son of Yekaterinburg, in the 1990s – and it stands on the spot where Nicholas II, the last Czar, and his family were massacred by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918. By all accounts Nicholas was a poor ruler whose mismanagement caused the deaths of millions by famine and war. However, in comparison to Stalin, he was a saint. The bodies of the royal family were unceremoniously dumped in an old mine in 1918 and, interestingly, it was a mystery writer who eventually discovered their remains. DNA from Prince Philip, a close relative, was used to establish their identities. Today, Nicholas II actually is a Saint and many come to pay homage at his shrine...
However, Yekaterinburg is best known in the west as the unintentional landing place of American CIA agent, Gary Powers, when his U2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet rocket in 1960.
But why does Yekaterinburg have a Scottish pub?
While visiting the royal shrine in the Cathedral of Spilled Blood we were intrigued to discover that, from 1894 until his death, the Czar was Colonel-in-Chief of The Royal Scots Greys – the oldest surviving Scottish regiment – which is now part of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and that a white bearskin presented by him to the regiment is still worn by the drum major.

That's it for European Russia. Our next stop is Krasnoyask in Siberia - unless we get hauled off the train and sent to a Gulag for poking fun at good old Uncle Len!

Posted by Hawkson 04:14 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Russian for Beginners

sunny 16 °C
View Through Siberia to China and Beyond on Hawkson's travel map.

Worried about language difficulties in Russia? No need. All you really require are a few tips on the cyrillic alphabet and a basic knowledge of international signs. For instance - you will find this very important sign everywhere except when you desperately need it...
And this is the word for cafe ...
So now we know that k is c and ф is f it is easy to figure out that this is a cafeteria...
However, in today's Russia it is just as easy to look for KFC, Burger King or T.G.I.Fridays - no translation necessary...
Now that you have mastered basic Russian we progress to road signs. Whilst most are exactly the same as at home the Russians have come up with a few teasers we can help you with. For example:
This sign means... "Right turn for Orange Trucks only".
While this cartouche warns... "Don't sit on the car you lout".
This directional symbol means... "Overhead Parking available".
... and, owing to the sheer ubiquity of this particular pictogram, you should have no difficulty in identifying it as meaning... "Corkscrew (or bottle opener) available 50 metres ahead".
This pavement sign is more obtuse and it advises... "Beware of Cracked Eggs."
While this one is obviously... "No Parking for Old Farts' cars".

Which only leaves us with this conundrum...
At first we wondered if it meant... "Heavy Showers expected on left at 11pm". But then we realised that it must mean, "Turn left for 2300 Car Washes."

So now you're fluent in the language and fully conversant with the road signs you will have no trouble deciphering the name and purpose of this
indigenous establishment...
But what on earth is this place doing in the middle of Yekaterinburg? Answer tomorrow when we tell you more about this fascinating city in the heart of the Ural mountains.

Posted by Hawkson 09:13 Archived in Russia Tagged travel train trans-siberian Comments (4)

Tarting up Tatarstan

semi-overcast 13 °C

We’ve slipped off the rails and onto the northern arm of the Silk Road to take a peek at the Tartar capital, Kazan, and are beginning to worry that some of you may have the wrong idea about travelling the Trans Siberia to China.
The super deluxe, (hence hyper-expensive), Trans-Siberian wraps its passengers in mink, feeds them caviar and champagne, and gently floats them from one side of this country to the other in two-berth carriages fit for a czar. And then there are the regular Trans-Siberian trains. These affordable boneshakers sardine four people into each compartment and jolt noisily along like clapped out rollercoasters.
Guess which trains we are taking?
But the trains and stations are immaculately clean; the staff helpful and friendly. Each carriage has its own stewardess who keeps the sheets spotless, the samovar boiling and the toilets daisy fresh. And the great thing about travelling on these trains is that we are not cooped up with a load of snobby tourists being spoon fed Beef Stroganoff made with genuine USDA “AAA” beef. We spend our time with locals like Irina, a thirty something mother, on the train for 5 days straight with her 4yr old daughter Mena. Neither spoke English but we soon discovered that “Peek-a-boo” and gurning, (Canadians will need to Google that), are fun in any language.
And then there was Ivan!
But first the good news – Kazan…
We are a long way from Istanbul but when we arrived and saw the size of the Turkish Airlines office and the adverts for Turkish Efes beer we thought we had taken a wrong turn. No - it seems that we had simply crossed into Tatarstan. Kazan is the capital of the Tatar republic that was captured by Ivan the Terrible in 1554. This conquest was celebrated by the building of St. Basil's cathedral in Moscow and the establishment of the Russian state. Tatarstan is now a semi-autonomous Muslim region whose population are Turkic from Bulgaria. They were once called Bulgars. Too much information? Enough to say that just like the Turks, their southern cousins, they are happy, friendly people who love their Turkish beer and doner kebabs, and speak their own language. We were just getting a handle on all things Russian and now we’ve got to start all over. For instance this is the Russian word for MacDonald’s…
But this is Tatarstani…
Translate that? No need, there are plenty of youngsters here who speak some English and if we get stuck we just turn to ‘Google translate.’ Communicating is easy in this Google world and it has served us well whenever we have been stumped.
The Tatars are tarting up Tatarstan in a big way. Kazan’s central street is a shopaholic’s Mecca - bright shiny stores filled with happy smiley people – and the city’s boulevards are lined with elegant mansions and beautiful theatres…

This elaborate 19th century storefront is being carefully preserved while a new mall is tacked onto the back....
And this is the magnificent new mosque inside the 16th century kremlin, (the Russian word for fortress). This is the biggest mosque in Europe and was consecrated in 2005…
Now back to our Ivan, or, as we came to call him, Ivan the Terrible. We were happy on our overnight train from Nishny Novgorod when our young travelling companion introduced himself as a policeman. No trouble there we thought, until he joined his mates for a raucous vodka session in the adjoining cabin!! At midnight he came noisily to bed and spent most of the night answering his cellphone, checking his emails and going to the loo – a great time was had by Ivan.

And this is our new friend, Oksana ...
...joining us to wish all our Canadian friends a happy pumpkin day from Kazan...
Happy Pumpkins y'all!

Posted by Hawkson 20:27 Archived in Russia Comments (6)

Yo Ho Heave Ho!

Suzdal to Nizhny Novgorod

semi-overcast 16 °C

St. Petersburg is ten hours behind us as the tracks lie, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of this enormous country. Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s 4th largest city, is much closer to Europe in every respect than it is to the end of the line at Vladivostock, and we could be in Milan or Paris if not for the language. But our first stop was at Suzdal – the city that time forgot when it was abandoned in favour of Moscow as the capital. This quaint city has streets of ornately adorned wooden houses…
Windmills in the outdoor museum of wooden architecture…
Tree lined boulevards reminiscent of Languedoc and Roussillon…
And more convents and monasteries than a Tuscan could shake a calzone at…
We ate in the Archbishop’s 13th century dining hall and for the first time felt we were experiencing true Russian cuisine. Borscht for lunch. And for dinner: red-caviar stuffed blinis, followed by fried pike with cheese-topped sautéed potatoes for him, and a local pork and potato dish for her. It was well presented wholesome food, but it wasn’t cheap. Eating out in Russia so far has cost about the same as at home and unless prices ease up we might have to join the bread lines when we get to Siberia.

Now for a mini quiz. (answers at the bottom of page – no cheating).

Nizhny Novgorod is Russia’s 4th largest city:
A) 10 points if you knew that.
B) 10 points if you know the city’s Soviet name.
C) 10 points for naming the dissident scientist exiled here from 1980-1986.
D) 10 points if you know Nizhny’s famous connection to Vancouver.
While you’re thinking about that, here’s a look at the ritzy pedestrianised shopping street in the centre of town…

Russian is unnecessary here - most of the stores and brands are exactly the same as in London or Vancouver. Everything is recognizable and many products are sold in English packaging without a word of Russian. This could be Frankfurt or Bristol as chic young women, cigarette in one hand, cellphone in the other, totter in tight skirts and painfully high heels along the elegant boulevards and up-market malls.
Nizhny is most famous for its 16th century Italian built fortress on the banks of the Volga River, (and, disappointingly, we have yet to hear a rendition of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen’ by the Red Army Choir). Here’s the fortress – now a government building and a WWII museum…
As for the quiz:
A) Bet you'd never heard of Nishny Novgorod before. 10 points if you had.
B) Gorky.
C) Andrei Sakharov – the nuclear phycisist.
D) In 1937 Valery Chkalov was the first person to fly solo from Moscow to Vancouver via the North Pole. He, along with Maxim Gorky, was born in Nizhny and this enormous statue overlooking the Volga is a tribute to him…
Now we are packing our bags for an overnight train to Kazan - the ancestral home of the Tartars. Meet us there under the station clock at twelve tomorrow.

Posted by Hawkson 21:58 Archived in Russia Comments (9)

Notes on a Train

A lyrical look at the Trans-Siberian

overcast 12 °C

The Trans-Siberian

We are strangers in a strange land yet no one is a stranger to us. A bevy of friendly folk wordlessly enfold and guide us to our train and our seats. Olga and Valeri sit opposite and happily dredge their minds for long-forgotten English. Corridor strollers stop to share sparse words. But no one scowls - we know we are welcome.

We race the seasons, speeding eastwards on the slow train to Siberia. Gilded mantles of a million silver birch, awaiting winter's hoary hand, glint golden in the autumn sun. Scarlet shrubs burst briefly into flame amidst the slender birch as they march relentlessly past, and then the scene shifts as a stand of lofty spruce spin our thoughts home to our evergreen island. Soon the endless auric army of birch takes back the landscape and will be our constant travelling companions across this majestic land.

In six thousand kilometeres, five days and nights, unhurried by man or the moon, the train will reach Lake Baikal. One day soon we too will pass that way, but ours is a journey defined by time not distance. We have time to meet and greet, to stand and stare, to taste the food and to smell the vodka.

Suzdal, the ancient capital of Russia, neglected and bypassed by the rails, lies like a ship marooned in a verdant sea of cornfields and a bus will be our tender from the train. But which bus? Where? How?
Smiling Olga, with her sweet round face and the biceps of a shot-putter, strongarms a wispy fellow to guide us. His wiry frame belies his strength and he hefts Sheila's bag and drags us in his wake. Across roads, up stairs, through buildings - effortlessly and uncomplainingly he guides us to our bus.

Suzdal is in sight, but we are lost. Which hotel? Where? How? We search the bus for an angel with a smattering of English and find the face of an eight year old. She doesn't know, but is not shy to ask. Suggestions, directions, opinions fly around; walk this way or that; take this bus or that. We now have more than thirty strangers pulling for us. But we are not strangers to them: we are just friends coming for a visit. We feel completely at home.

The rooftops of Suzdal

Posted by Hawkson 10:49 Archived in Russia Comments (7)

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