Sunday, 30 November 2008

Latvia and and Estonian camping adventure...

I'm very aware of the fact that I've neglected this for a good few weeks now, and in terms of where I'm currently traveling, I'm an age behind with the writing (this is being typed sitting at a hostel computer in Berlin... a good 3 weeks and 2 countries away from Lithuania), but I have been genuinely busy over the last while, and the longer I left it, the less appealing it became to write. But, I had an urge to write something tonight, so here it goes...

My first night in Riga was somewhat of a non-event. I arrived in time to watch the Arsenal vs Man United match and accidentally got very drunk on the strong local beer, making some vacuous clubbing friendships for that night with a couple of lads from London. However, I met a very interesting (if slightly odd) man from Bristol whilst watching the match who had moved to Riga, leaving his wife and family because God had spoken to him and told him he had to go and fix Latvia's problems. I quizzed him on his one man crusade, which he assured me was going very well up to that point. The conversation was different to the ones you mostly have when first meeting people because we were both so blunt with eachother, without being offensive, and it encouraged me to try and carry that on more rather than just going through the motions when you meet people and telling them what they want to hear. It's always good to be challenged on what you're doing and why you're doing it because it makes you re-evaluate your choices and get a clearer picture of where you're headed.

Riga itself is a strange city, a UNESCO preserved World Heritage Old Town which is punctured with ugly, newly built, glassfronted shops and bars. As far as Old Towns go, I wouldn't rank it up there with Krakow or Tallinn, but it does have a certain charm. It's most enchanting to wander it's streets at night, wrapped up warm carrying a 20p cup of tar-like coffee because the new buildings dissappear into the darkness whilst the Old Town buildings are lit-up, so it's much easier to forget you're in the middle of a quickly advancing capital. Because of this, I approached Riga in a different manner than I did in Estonia, and focused more on meeting people and trying to gauge opinions on the Nazi/Soviet comparisons I raised in the last blog. Those who I met from Western cultures tended to agree with me, and we threw about ideas about why it is the way it is, why Communism isn't as vilified as Fascim is in our part of the world, and the general concensus was that it was mainly because we were so far removed from it, that it didn't effect us at all, therefore it was easier to ignore. However, I did meet a few native people who still spoke up for Stalin, and still considered him to be more hero than villain because he did so much for the economy of their countries. Any attempt to show them that he was in fact a complete bastard were dismissed out of hand, and it just showed me how differently you view things dependent on how it effects you directly. I did manage to pick up a local magazine though in which there was an article about a forthcoming movie, "The Soviet Story" by Edvins Snore, which addresses this issue, and which has been funded partly by the EU... So maybe the tide is turning in an attempt to raise awareness of the oppressive regime which Stalin ran, and the damage it did. My views on the whole thing were strengthened by a trip to the Latvian Occupation museum, and how the story of that country paralleled that of Estonia so closely. The closing, bare statistics give you a sense of the museum's subject matter: "During the periods of Soviet and German occupation, Latvia lost more 550,000 people, more than one third of it's population. This is the number who were murdered, killed in fighting or fled"... "We were killed simply for being ourselves".

Much like the other Baltic states, Latvia is a haven for those who love the outdoors. I day trip to Jurmalsa national park saw me landed on a beach about 6 miles long, all by myself, and it's not often you can walk through a thick pine forest and still hear the waves lapping at the shore just a few yards away. It truly is a breathtaking part of the world, and one which I'd recommend immediately to anyon who just wanted to get away from life for a while and disappear with yourself (or with a few chosen friends). The same can be said for Sigulda (which is an hour away from Riga on the train and is called "the Switzerland of Latvia" dues to it's many mountains and valleys), although it attracts more tourists than Jurmala. But, traveling at this time of year benefits in that respect as there's not many other tourist about, if any... so I was free to hike wherever I wanted, castle spotting and wandering of the marked trails at will. It took two trips out there (one alone, and one with Pesh and Scouse when they came out for my birthday) to really appreciate it, but the time was defintely well spent doing so.

So aye, I turned 25 in Riga and a few of the lads (namely Scouse, Pesh, Veggie and Bangers) came out from Scotland to celebrate it with me. The days they were over were lost to a haze of Riga Back Balsam (the single most disgusting drink you can ever try) and football, but I had a cracking few days, and after travelling alone it was great to see some familar faces and not have to have the initial getting-to-know-you conversation over and over. The most interesting part, for me, was a trip out towards a part of Riga called Andrejsala, which we were assured was a buzzing bohemian neighbourhood, full of artists and cafes which we'd like a lot. Well, when we got there, we instead found a complex of run-down and abandoned buildings, graffitied within an inch of their lives and gutted by fire. But as I've mentioned elsewhere, abandoned building fascinate me, so the afternoon stands out for me as my favourite part of my time in Latvia, not least because I managed to pick up a couple of really cool (free) souvenirs from going inside said buildings.

Pesh had accidentally (or so he maintains) booked himself an extra week away, so we had to decide what to do. He was dying to visit Estonia, and since I'd loved it so much I wasn't adversed to heading back there again. We made plans to head to Tallinn for one night then to go hiking and camping in Lahemaa the following two days, and headed of the following afternoon, still reeling from hangovers. Once at the hostel, one of the staff took a shine to us and wanted to know what we were planning for the next couple of days - as soon as we mentioned going camping we were labelled as "insane" and "likely to freeze to death", especially because Pesh had no sleeping bag and we had no tent. Thankfully, the girl (who's name I can't for the life of me remember) managed to arrange the loan of a tent and a sleeping bag for us in an attempt to stave of death for as long as possible... the only condition was we had to head out to the ghetto to pick it up. After all Anton had told me during my previous time in Tallinn I was a little bit unsure of this, but we were assured it'd be fine, and thankfully it was. In fact, it was better than fine, it was brilliant - one of those nights you get when you're away completely through luck and entirely by accident. We sat with the girl and her friends, drinking tea and listening to Estonian music, whilst they ridiculed us both (in the nicest way possible). Things like that are what makes traveling what it is for me - personally I think too much emphasis is placed on how many imaginary lines you cross over, when it's really the people you meet that shape your experience, not the country you're in. Heading back, we were newly enthused for our adventure the next day because we were now completely ready to cope with anything that nature threw at us. Well, in theory...

In much the same way as I got out to Lahemaa, we caught the bus which dropped us off at Viitna. To save time we decided to hitchhike up to Palmse and were picked up by an amiable man who was more than happy to tell us tales of working in the oil fields in Siberia. He dropped us off, and our adventure was ready to start proper. For the next 5 hours, we hiked through the fantastic forests of Lahemaa, kind of knowing where we were headed, but also not really at the same time, but that didn't concern us, it was just great to be out there. In a round-a-bout way we got to our targeted campsite in Vosu and got the tent up before dark without any hitches at all before heading down to the nearby beach to take a rake of photos. I should point out here that the temperature during the day never got above 0 degrees, but because we were always on the move and carrying our stuff we didn't notice it, once you stop though you start to realise just how cold it is. The darkness came in really quickly and by 4.30 it was impossible to see eachother even though we were standing within four feet of one another. And yes, we had no torch. Not to be defeated though, we got a fire going and cooked our food whilst trying to keep warm in the ever dropping temperature... but by 6.30 it was out of the question to stay outside, so we retreated to the tent. At this point we realised that we'd gotten ourselves in some situation: minus temperatures, pitch black with no torch, and a good 14 hours to wait until sunrise. It was actually so cold by now that we both had on almost every piece of clothing we had (which for me was 2 thermal tops, 2 t-shirts, a hoody, long johns, jeans and two pairs of thermal socks) and were in our sleeping bags... and we were still freezing. The prospect of a further, inevitable, temperature drop was looming, and we still had 13 hours to kill before the sun came up... hmmm. In all fairness to us, we stuck it out as long as we could, but there were too many obstacles in the way of any enjoyment and personally I didn't want to freeze out of sheer stubborness. We decided that if we were going to go and ask at a nearby house for directions to a hostel, then it was now or never, because we couldn't justify waking up the whole house at 2am when our blood had frozen in our veins.

So, a little bit regrettably, we wandered over and knocked at the house nearby. The whole of the following just outlined to me just how good people can be when you're in need, there were no questions asked, just help given and solutions provided, despite the obvious language barrier. In fact, that made it all the more apparent to me just how good the people who lived there were, because they rang their daughter in Tartu (a good 5 hours away) to translate between us... One telling line in the translation was that we found out the Mother had seen us putting up our tent, looked at us and though we were completely mental. So, before we knew it, we had the tent down, it was packed into the back of a van, and we were getting a lift to the nearby hostel. Problem solved. Almost.

The hostel was shut for the winter.

Right... so now we had another problem, but this just elicited more help from the Man who'd driven us this far. He rang round his friends, found out who owned another hostel and had the fella come down and open it up, just for us and just for one night. I've been the beneficiary of help from strangers so many times over the last few months, and when you're stuck, someone going the extra yard to help you really stands out - but this time, we had far more help than we could have imagined... re-instills a bit of faith in humanity for sure. So now, we'd gone from freezing cold to being in our very own hostel - couldn't have turned out better. We were still massaging our bruised egos the next morning, but only until we looked out the window and saw that there'd been 2 feet of snow, which would have seen us buried in the tent! We also later found out that the temperature had dropped to a chilly -10 degrees during the night, so by that point we felt entirely justified in our decision.

That morning we spent down on the same beach we'd been on the previous say, except this time the sand had been entirely replaced by snow, giving the place a really magical feel. It was a first for me to see snow so close to the sea and we took numerous photos which I'll hopefully throw up on here when I get the chance, or on flickr so you can see it. There's something about snow which makes you instantly regress to the ages of 5 and we took the time to make snowmen and I laughed a whole lead as Pesh fell over and made a complete fool of himself. All in all it was a cracking adventure, and again was an experience that you don't get by sticking with tours... OK, so it had been decidedly dodgy at certain points, but I wouldn't swap it for anything else now I can safely look back on it. Rather than put me off taking risks, it's made me more likely to do it again (sorry mam!) because it's what really builds memories.

I'll tell you about Lithuania tomorrow night...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Estonia: Tallinn, Saaremaa, Tallinn (again), Tartu

I arrived into Tallinn at about 6.30am and was an absolute wreck. The Saturday's drinking and lack of sleep combined with no sleep at all on the Sunday night bus journey left me in a zombie-like state where everything just seemed unreal. Of course, being in a new country only intensified that feeling and I had to quickly figure out money, transport and accommodation all in a language which I realised I knew not even one word of. I'd spent so long gearing myself up for my month in Russia that I'd completely neglected anything post there and was now realising that that wasn't the smartest of preparation. However, I somehow managed to make my way to the hostel (despite the directions in the Lonely Planet guide being as useful as an inflatable dart-board) and dropped my bag off. The desk attendant wasn't too pleased at my early arrival (it was about 7.15am by the time I got there), but I couldn't have cared less at that point, I just wanted my pack off my shoulders and she'd just have to deal with that as far as I was concerned. I'm sure that the majority of you know how amiable I am when I'm tired, most probably have first hand experience, so you can imagine what my mood was like.

Leaving the hostel, map in hand, I walked over towards the Old Town part of Tallinn to kill the few hours before I could actually check in properly... But that few hours soon turned into half the day as Tallinn's winding, cobbled streets and medieval architecture soon made me completely forget any tiredness I'd previously been wallowing in. In fact, I positively bound up the hundred or so steps to the viewing point to look out over the city towards the docks, which at that time in the morning belonged entirely to me. As in St Petersburg, it was nice to know that I'd be in Tallinn for a good few days (albeit with a break in the middle) so again I felt relaxed about how to spend my time. There was no need to force myself through museums or art galleries, there was no real need to think about anything at all in fact, which was just as well because mentally, I was completely redundant for that first day.

On my second day I woke up feeling entirely refreshed and decided that rather than explore the city, I'd take myself off to one of the many national parks which are dotted around the whole of Estonia. It seemed easy enough in theory: one bus and then a 10km or so hike (or the option of hitch-hiking) towards where the park information centre was, and this time it actually worked out exactly as it was meant to! I caught the bus to a town called Viitna, which is out east from Tallinn, and then hiked my way through some fields and some forests to Palmse and the entrance to Lahemaa national park. The main reason to get to the centre was to get hold of a trail map to optimise the time I had before it got dark, because it gets dark very early in Estonia, I mean can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark at about 5pm, so rather than just roaming the paths and wasting my time in a way, I wanted to make the most of the trip there. Once inside, I very friendly and helpful lady not only showed me the best trails but also put on a DVD for me to let me into some of the background information on Lahemaa.

I should tell you at this point that Estonia is a professional hippy's dream. Acres of untouched forests, protected shores and marine areas, boglands and wetlands... you name it and this country has it. As a conservationist it was like being in heaven. What's more, the combination of these numerous areas and such a small national population means that you more often than not find yourself entirely alone in these habitats. Like I say, for me it was absolutely perfect, but I think that even without the pre-disposition to this type of activity you'd have to be a cold human being to not get a lot out of the experience. I picked my way through the woodland - past beaver dams, through collections of huge glacial boulders (most of which were bigger than houses), over rickety bridges, under the sounds of woodpeckers working away at the bark of the trees, all without meeting one other person. Having been in cities or suburban areas since leaving Baikal it was amazing to not hear traffic, to not feel the need to rush anywhere, to actually smell the pines needles, to see nothing man-made for miles around. I think areas like this are so important for people to make the most of... We have them back home, but very rarely do people take time out to actually visit. For me, there's a tangible relief to be felt when you take advantage of them.

That night I headed back to the hostel and since there was a party going on I joined in, drinking copious amounts of "scotch" with some American frat boys and then Brown Ale in a pub somewhere in Tallinn, I have no idea where though. Again, this wasn't one of my better ideas as I was booked on a four hour bus journey the next day to head out to the island of Saaremaa, and when it came time to catch that bus I felt like I'd rather die there and then on the cold platform than face the trip. Reading this back, it seems like I've been drinking a lot over the time I've been away, but I can genuinely say I haven't. It's just that the times I have done it have been to such lengths that it affects me for days. I promise. Well anyway, the major plan for going to Saaremaa was to really get away from city/town life, and for a few days, just to be on my own finding out what Estonia is really like. The bus journey was nowhere near as bad as I'd expected and by the time I'd arrived in Kurresaare I was feeling a lot better and ready to start exploring the next day.

The next morning I contemplated hiring a bike to take myself around the island on (anyone who has seen me use a bike recently knows has probably almost fell off their seat laughing) but decided that on my first day I'd see how far I could get on foot, and plus there was a lot of good things to check out in and around Kurresaare itself first. I walked down to the harbour where the majestic Bishop's Castle sits on the shore and has now been turned into a museum of the history of Saaremaa. Since the museum didn't open until 11am, I took in the amazing views from the harbour and walked along the beaches as the rain fell. Even the terrible weather that I experienced whilst there couldn't put a detract from how gorgeous a corner of the world I was in.

As far as museums go, the one in castle was very good. If you're like me then you probably have little idea of the history of Estonia (or the Baltics generally, apart from the fact they're used to describe how cold you are and that it was a war zone not so long ago), so the exhibits were a complete shock to me and really opened my eyes to the immense suffering that this are has been through, at the hands of so many different regimes. Estonia has had a very turbulent past, one it seems to now be trying to cut away from whilst also remembering those that helped it get to this point. It has changed ownership between Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Germany numerous times, suffering massively at the hands of the Soviets and the Nazis before, during and after WWII. To give some perspective to this, the pre-war population of Saaremaa was 60,000 and in the next ten years it dropped buy half to 30,000 through deportations to gulags (prison camps in Siberia... Perm in fact was a popular destination), murders and refugees fleeing to Sweden to escape the occupations. In fact, Estonia itself has still not recovered to the same population that it had before the Soviets and the Nazis decimated it's people, a statistic I found staggering. No wonder Estonia is now pushing forward with its own identity, and having been reading the news recently about the on-going Russia-US "conflict" then it could spell troubled times ahead again... here's hoping that's not the case.

Leaving the museum I picked up a handy map showing different nature trails to go on in the surrounding area, so I set off with this purpose in mind. I noticed that one was near Kudjape German military cemetery, which I'd read about in my Lonely Planet guide, so decided on that one. The cemetery itself is huge in area and contains the bodies of the German soldiers who fought against the Nazis (some of whom were Estonians who thought, wrongly, that the Germans were coming to liberate them). There's a sign beside the gates that declares the cemetery now "represents peace", which is a nice thought but for me needed a fairly large leap of faith to believe. Maybe what I'd just been reading about in the museum was laying heavy on my mind, but I struggled to understand how so many graves are can show peace. Surely they show how atrocious war really is? With that thought going through my mind I headed off towards the start of the nature trail, prepared to follow it for it's 8km or so towards a "town" called Upa. I say "town", because when I arrived there all I could see was one house - a very nice house, but still only one! The walk was easy and very enjoyable despite the persistent heavy rain (a feature of my time on Saaremaa), but I could only imagine how much better it is in summer. At one point there was a huge danger sign nailed on a tree, with no explanation at all, and I have to say that being in woods that you don't really know, and having only a rough idea of your whereabouts, there's nothing that's as disconcerting as a danger sign with no explanation... suddenly every sound I heard formed a completely different (and more threatening) idea in my head! Of course, I'm still writing this in one piece, so there was nothing to be scared of, but I do wonder what that sign was for?

On my second morning I decided to hire a bike and cycle to "Europe's biggest meteor crater" which was about 16km away... easy. Well, it would've been if it wasn't for the storm that had set in to the island. The boats out there had been stopped for the day, and fences and trees were being thrown around in the high winds... cycling along I was more unsteady than ever. It was frustrating because I ended up having to get the bus, having psyched myself up for riding there, and of course although the crater is impressive, the fact that you get blown around it takes away from the experience somewhat. I must've stayed there for all of 10 minutes before catching the bus to my next stop, down on the Sores peninsula. This part of the island was the sight of some of the most heavy fighting during WWII and to be there now you really couldn't understand that because it's so peaceful. It was strange to be there and completely alone having seen photos of the battles that what happened there whilst in the museum the previous day and the place had a slightly eerie feeling to it. Again, because of the weather it was less enjoyable than I'd hoped, but like I'd wanted, I was getting to see more of the "real" Estonia rather than spending all my time in the capital. I tried to go and sample the local pub on my final night, it's housed in a huge windmill, but the weather put pay to this as well, having blow part of the fencing down and all the windows were battened shut... a disappointing end truth be told.

Of course, the day I was leaving the sun was shining and the gale force winds that had interrupted my adventures had completely disappeared. Sod's law. After the three days completely on my own I was looking forward to meeting up with Siret and Anton (two friend of Scott's girlfriend who had kindly put em in touch with them) back in Tallinn, to spend a few days there and learn more about the city from people with inside knowledge. We spent the first night getting accustomed to Tallinn's alcohol and local pubs and had a great time, meeting some bizzare characters along the way (there was one man who couldn't talk, he only shouted at me very loudly in Estonian despite my puzzled looks and very un-subtle attempts to shake him off), but once more the next day I was paying for it. We'd planned to head out to different areas of Lahemaa than where I'd been previously - Anton and Siret both anjoy walking too so they were more than happy to take the car and take me out to these places... nursing a hangover in a forest is actually a lot easier than doing it on your own couch. We ended the day watching the sun dip under the horizon on a pier in a town called Viniistu, and I will definitely try to stick a photo up of that... I'm not talented enough to do it justice with words.

The next couple of days were very enjoyable, Tallinn is a great city, but there's not much I can tell you (especially about the Old Town) that you can't find very easily elsewhere. Siret and Anton are fantastic people, very friendly and funny and made me feel completely at home with them. I learn a lot more about the out-of-town areas down by the docks from Anton - they're inhabited almost entirely by Russians (therefore taking the form of the many sleeping districts you seen in Russian towns) and are actually condemned buildings, but the government aren't prepared to kick people out and deal with the housing shortage. So resultantly you have a scenario where there's heavy drug use, murders, prostitution, assaults, robberies and umpteen fires all in a very small neighbourhood. We drove down there so I could see it first hand, and it's a shame that its in the way it is because the setting is right on the sea and if anything could be done then it'd be a wonderful place to live - although I'm aware that's a somewhat idyllic view. Sure enough, the houses all have government warning signs on them for people to "stay out" and stating that they're all fire hazards, but people still freely come and go through their doors. One of the more depressing things that I'd seen on my travels, but just as important in understanding the way Tallinn is. I left Tallinn the next day and was quite sad to leave behind a couple of people that I know considered as friends, and who I'd had a great few days with, but when travelling around I think you're comforted by the prospect of new friends in a new town and all that that can offer as well.

Saying that... Tartu didn't really offer much. It's a student town but seemed very quiet to me. The most prominent thing that will stick in my mind from my time there is that that was where I was when Barack Obama was voted in as the next president of the USA - a victory for common sense everywhere. It's an exciting time I think, he has many challenges and has to galvanise a lot of people (not only Americans), but from following him for a while I've learnt a lot of him and am confident in his ability. Of course, he'll invariably let everyone down at some point, it's in the make-up of a politician to do so, but overall I believe it's a positive exciting step for the world as a whole. One thing I did feel whilst watching it was a sense of jealously - politics should enthuse a whole nation, much as it did with America just there... We need shaken up just as much as they did, but I hardly see Messr's Cameron and Brown instilling the same fight into our population.

On my second day in Tartu I visited the old house in town which housed the KGB cells, where opposition to the Soviet regime were taken for torture and interrogation. The upstairs of the building was now a normal office space, but the downstairs had been maintained as it was during it's use, complete with cell doors and beds and was now open to the public. The first room you're ushered into contains exhibits of clothing and an interactive board where you can listen to re-tellings of the suffering some people went through at the hands of the KGB. Following around and reading the bare statistics and further unformation gives more context to the stories and you start to form a picture of just how shocking the treatment was and how widespread it was too. The isolation cells which prisoners were holed up in for up to 3 days are the most awkward size imaginable, designed to prevent you from sitting or standing up straight - I'm sure like me you can't begin to imagine what that is like. The sleeping cells have bunk beds in them, but serve as normal cells during the day - the only difference being that during the day matresses are taken away and prisoners are made to sit on the wire springs of the bed frame. The rooms themselves the day I went were freezing, something I'm sure which was exacerbated when they were in use as guards used to throw buckets of ice-cols water onto their stone floors. Inmates had their heads shaved and were disciplined for covering them; a bright light shone in each cell, all day and all night preventing sleep. In short, conditions were atrocious, sub-human... and you could be made to suffer these all for the heinous crime of being Estonian.

I read more about the communist gulags further on in the next room: 15 specialist regime ones existed for political prisoners; 60 enormous camp complexes and 500 smaller labour camps also existed, all of which were scattered throughout Russia, but mainly in Siberia - I could even map my trip through there by the concentrations of gulags in and around the towns I visited, which really struck me. You leave Russia (despite some ill talk you hear) with a slightly romantic notion of communism, evne Stalin's years. The sense of collective achievement of that time at the expense of the individual does still live on, and even Stalin himself is still positively obsessed over my large number of the population. Even in the west we're guilty of not viewing the Soviet regime as anywhere near as bad as the Nazis. How? Any romance I felt upon leaving Russia, with it's communist souvenirs and monuments to Lenin (I mean, you can even see the man himself like I did... you can still lay roses at Stalin's grave if you choose to) was battered out of me in Estonia, and has been even more so in Latvia. The stark facts of the numbers of people wiped from the planet by Communism are staggering and sickening in equal measure. Because it didn't happen in as short a period as the Nazis did it, does it dampen the effect on us? I ask that seriously because I do find myself wondering how on earth Communist symbols have made it into fashion in the west, that communist parties there stil exist. Now, I'm as guilty as anyone of accepting communism in this way, and my change of heart has came by being confronted with all of this information as I've moved through the Baltics, so it must be something to do with the fact that we just don't know about it in teh same way we did the Nazis. Just because it didn't affect us directly a blind eye was turned and I think it's something we should be made more aware of. Now seeing the Communist symbols flying at anti-war rallies will bring the same sickening feeling me that I would have with someone openly flying a Swastika, essentially there is no difference between the two. They were ideologically so similar, yet Communism seems to have been accepted more so. Try as I might I just can't get my head around it, and I'm sorry that this may be construed as a rant, but really believe it's something people need to know about. Should a hammer and sickle or the red star really be more acceptable as a fashion statement than an SS badge? I used to think so, now I know it's not the case.

As you may tell from the above, my experience in the KGB cells certainly affected me somewhat... it even made me think back to some of the things I almost bought in Russia (as at that point I still thought nothing of the above) and made me glad I didn't. I decided to try and distance myself from anything which might continue to antagonise my thoughts on the subject, so I headed over to the Tartu University Botanic Gardens and relaxed outside in the bright sunshine and cold air. I also walked out of town to see what it's like in suburban Estonia, to find it's very similar to areas on Saaremaa - run down woodn houses, smashed windows here and there, but the people you pass and who come out their houses greet you with smiles and cheer. We have it so easy where we are!

Well, I then spent a pretty forgettable day and a half in Parnu, I wanted to go canoeing but that fell through at the last minute as the guy who was meant to email me just dind't bother, so I moved on to Latvia and Riga, which is where I type this from now. I'm aware that this blog may not be in keeping with the others in terms of this huge rant I did at the end, and I was going to apologise for it, but thinking more about it now I'm not going to, I think it's important to think about this type of thing, and I'd liek to know anyone's ideas on why it sits that way. It's a view that I've discussed with a few people as I've travelled on and a lot of people that come through this way have the same thoughts, so I'd liek to know what anyone back home thinks, especially if they've never been out here.

Estonia is beautiful... I want to come back again and again. There's so much to see, so much to do. I've made a couple of great friends, and had an amazing time in this fantastic country. It's not somewhere that anyone would ever really think to go, but if like me you enjoy getting out of the cities, then it's perfect for you... in fact, Tallinn is so good you can have the best of both worlds and enjoy city life as well! If you ever get the opportunity, take it. Although, if you take my recommendations seriously then you'll probably end up in every country I get to...


Thursday, 30 October 2008

St Petersburg

Although I'd been in Russia for the best part of a month, I'd not actually been in once place for more than about 4 days and I was starting to become very aware of this fact. There's a lot to be said for fitting in a lot of places in a small amount of time, but I was starting to want to get somewhere and stay there for longer, to get to really know the place and actually take my pack off and leave it off for longer than 3 nights... St Petersburg was the perfect place to do that.

"It's in Russian, but it's not Russian" someone famous (who's name I can't recall) once said about St Petersburg, and it's a perfect summation of the city. It's absolutely nothing at all like any of the other Russian cities, either in architecture or atmosphere... it's much more, for want of a better word, European. There's less police presence, the overall age of people is younger, it's more chilled out... it just didn't feel like Russia anymore. Even the road signs have their English translation underneath for anyone who can't get the Cyrillic down, and there's maps everywhere letting you know where you are, and an endless list of where to head to next. In short, it's a tourist's paradise.

So, like I said, in this city I was hoping to relax a bit more and take my time to get to know it rather than racing around - by the looks of things, even a week wasn't going to be enough time here, but I checked into the hostel and spent my first day just wandering around, orientating myself and checking out a few of the islands that make up the city. St Petersburg was built on marsh-land and as such has canals running along it to control the yearly floods which could seriously disrupt things. As well as the canal, there's the huge Neva river that splits the city in two, and each of the islands are joined by bridges which open to allow ships through at night. I knew that Zenit St Petersburg had a home match in the champions league on the second night I was there, so thought that I'd try to get a ticket for it. Outside the Sportivnaya stadium, touts were offering tickets for 2500 roubles (about £50) which was a complete non-starter... I decided I'd just come back before the game the next night to try again. And that was pretty much about it for my first day there! I knew my way around better than when I'd arrived, and I'd really just taken in a bit of the atmosphere of the city and wandered Dostoevsky's streets... it was a nice change from previously getting to a city and having to crowbar activities into every possible hour.

I don't know if anyone has heard of it, but St Petersburg is famous for the Hermitage, a huge art gallery/museum which is housed in the Tsar's winter palace, at the top of Nevsky Prospect on the banks of the Neva. It was famously attacked during the siege of Leningrad... Well anyway, it's absolutely massive. From the outside it towers over you intimidatingly and you're left wondering if you're prepared to be drowned in so much culture so quickly. The short answer for me was that I wasn't. I mean, not only is there the Picasso's, Rembrandt's, Monet's, Da Vinci's etc etc, but there's also so much other amazing Russian, Flemish, British, French and Italian art work... The Roman Sculptures... Then an Ancient Egypt exhibit... Then temporary exhibitions... Further classical art... And then there's the building itself who's interiors just leave you gobsmacked before you look at what's adorning the walls. It was free to get in (the bonus of having a student card) and I wish I'd thought on more and left after the first hour and came back to tackle more of it on other days, because after that first hour, which was absolutely amazing, I was completely saturated and wandered round with less and less enthusiasm in each room, to the point where I was basically on auto-pilot and going around just to say I'd seen it all, but not having any real interest in any of it. It was, I admit, a bit of a waste, and I'm left regretting it now... But I challenge anyone to spend 3 hours in a museum, to only see about 1/3 of what it has to offer and not feel overwhelmed. Actually walking outside felt like a relief that I wasn't penned in by priceless works of art anymore and could breathe air that wasn't musty! Don't get me wrong, it is absolutely fantastic, I just approached it wrongly - if anyone ever goes, take it in bite-size chunks rather than attempting to devour the whole experience at once.

That night, despite being completely shattered after the exertions of the day, I was still set on going to the Zenit match so jumped on the metro and made my way there. The match had just kicked off by the time I got to the gates and approached a first tout who wanted ridiculous money still... but I kept trying and with about 10 minutes of the game gone one fella must've decided to cut his losses and sold me a ticket behind the goal for 400 (less that £10)! I was like an excited schoolboy then and raced towards the stadium only to be confronted with a wall of riot police, each of who were well over 6 foot tall, 4 foot wide and carried batons and guns. I got searched by one of them who then shouted at me in Russian to move on and I stumbled, dizzy from the experience, over to the gate to go up the steps... where I was searched again by a man equally as big as the first. I don't think I'll ever forget the look that the second one gave me, it was like Ivan Drago when he's just killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV... In hindsight it's a great stereotype to have experienced, the overly-angry Russian riot policeman, but terrified me at the time. Never-the-less, I bound up the steps and took my place on the terraces.

It was absolutely brilliant: pints being downed, dirty burgers being eaten and spilt everywhere, cigarettes being chain smoked and swearing aplenty - and this was all from the glamorously dressed women. The men were like wild animals, jumping continuously, screaming and shouting, spilling beer everywhere... this is how football is meant to be! Retrospectively I can see just how, even though the Premier League and Sky have helped British football a lot, they have taken away the character of the game at home - I wish it was still like this. In fact it reminded me a lot of the days when my Dad used to take me to stand in the Fulwell end at Roker park to cheer on Sunderland, even the fact that the team I was supporting was losing 1-0 despite dominating the game. The wild eyed man next to me grabbed me by the shoulder as another chant started and must've noticed I didn't know the words, and asked where I was from so I promptly told him I was from England, to which he cried out, "ENGLAND?? AND YOU LIKE ZENIT?? AAAH! MY ENGLISH FRIEND!!!" and gave me his scarf! I gave him a Sunderland pin badge that I had on my jacket which he gladly took, although I doubt he even knows what it is now nevermind at the time. When Zenit scored to make it 1-1 it just went mad, flares going off, people hugging and crying, you'd have thought they'd won the league not equalised at home to a team no-one's ever heard of... and it really reminded me that football needs passion like that to appeal to people, and again, that's what seems to be missing from the majority of English football nowadays in my opinion. The match finished shortly after, and everyone traipsed off in whatever direction home was, drinking their bottles of Nevskoe lager and singing songs that I still didn't understand.

Wednesday a group of us from the Hostel decided to head out to Peterhof, about a half hours bus ride from the city centre and home to the Palaces of the Tsars. Tom (again!), a Russian girl called Lena, a German named Danny and myself all jumped on the bus and arranged to meet Roman, a friend of Lena's, out there to show us around. Inside the gardens themselves the fountains had actually been turned off by this time, much like most of the fountains in the Russian cities are at this time of year - I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's just to do with how cold it actually gets and fears of the water freezing in the pipes. But anyway, the gardens and the palaces of Peterhof are absolutely gorgeous, again almost something you need to see to believe because of the scale of them - the lower gardens are over 3km long and 2km wide and it took most of the morning for our tour. It was then suggested that we went to a nearby secluded Baltic beach to drink vodka and eat dried squid which everyone was more than happy with. Again, we were treat to the "customs" of Russians that results in drinking lots and doing so very quickly because our bottle of vodka was more than half gone after only being there about 15 minutes. Roman suggested we went off to his University halls and carried on the festivities because his room-mates wanted to meet us so we took the short trip there. More vodka and beer followed (as well as the customary post-vodka herring chasers) whilst we sat singing songs along to Roman's guitar playing and generally got a lot drunker, to the point that Tom, Danny and me decided it was time to head back before things got too messy. We said our farewells and they took photos of themselves with us because we were the first westerners they'd ever met... I don't think that the photo's they've taken will leave a very good impression.

That night a few of us from the hostel went out to watch the football at the pub (me and Tom decided that back in the confines of the hostel that we actually wanted more beer, not less) and then out to watch the bridges being raised and the boats coming in. We met a small man on the way who accompanied us and actually gave us some great facts about the bridges and the boats which passed through because he used to work on them. Back in the hostel, more alcohol flowed and I think we all ended up talking rubbish until about 5am. I did hear a great argument on the street outside the hostel which was kindly translated to me by Lena: One of a group of three lads was staggering away from his two friends professing "I have to go home!! I'm absolutely wasted!", to which his friends replied "What?!?! Stay out with us! Drink more!". The first lad then said "I can't... I have a wife! You should both go home too!" and the other two laughed and just said "All the more reason not to!!". I really enjoyed the fact that, although we consider Russia to be such a far off and completely different place, that a drunken argument was taking place that wouldn't have been out of place in any city or town or village in Britain. Maybe we're not that different after all?

The next morning came and went without me even attempting to get out of my bed. By about 1.30pm I'd finally got myself together and Tom and me headed off down to the Dostoevsky museum, which is housed in his old flat and was very very good. I was actually in the middle of reading Crime and Punishment when we went there (what a walking cliche I am) so I enjoyed it even more because of that. Then, since it was well after 5pm and everything was closing, we took the obligatory canal boat ride, which was completely rubbish because it was all in Russian and it rained very heavily. So, essentially we spent £6 to sit below deck on a boat not being able to see anything that the guide was talking about... not that we could've understood even if we had been able to see. Like I say, not one of the better decisions I made on this trip!

More sightseeing on the Friday included a "Peter's walk" which is recommended in all guidebooks and hostels as a chance to see an alternative side of St Petersburg. Like all those kind of things though, it had good parts and some bad ones - good bits included seeing Raskolnikov's flat (more Crime and Punishment), hearing of how close Lenin was to being caught the night before the Revolution, seeing where Rasputin was murdered and also being able to talk to the guide about growing up in Russia nowadays, which he claims is good, "as long as you don't take much interest in the politics and just keep your head down... much the same as previous generations". What struck me was that, even as educated as our guide was - a political science graduate with a top degree (well... so he told us!) - the level of anger he still feels towards America, and how he blamed their paranoia for the paranoia that envelops Russia now. I have to say, having been to America, the situation there is not anywhere near as bad, in my experience of official paranoia, as in Russia where you feel on edge each time you see a policeman. I don't see relations thawing between the two nations anytime soon, much as though I'd like to. Finally, we rounded off the week at the Russian Political History museum, which gave you a chance to go and sit in Lenin's office from where he dictated to his comrades, and see pictures of Rasputin after they'd murdered him, all of which were very gruesome.

Saturday? Well, I can only say that I found a pub to watch the match in... found a load of Mackems to watch it with... and got very drunk again. 2-1..... ;-)

My last day in St Petersburg I headed, hungover again, to the Russian museum which houses only Russian art and is very impressive... I have to say, there's something strange about wandering around an art gallery with a hangover and it's actually quite enjoyable - maybe because it's so quiet. I'm sure I was the only one in there in that state anyway. Inside, there was more work by VV Vereschagin (who I'd previously been impressed with in Perm), as well as a brilliant painting by Alexey Savrasov called "Sunrise in the Steppe". As I was leaving St Petersburg - and as such, Russia - that night, upon leaving the museum I had time to kill, so wandered around the streets a bit more. It was bitterly cold, but still really enjoyable. Like I said about Moscow, St Petersburg is a great city, but differently to Moscow, I'd move there in the blink of an eye. It has so much to do and see, the people are friendlier, it's more beautiful to look at... everything about it gets under your skin, or got under mine at least.

So I crossed the border into Estonia early on the Sunday morning, having not slept at all because the man in the seat next to me sat in 2/3 of my seat as well as all of his. The border crossing was simple... I expected more fanfare I think. Just like that, my Russian adventure was over - and even ended with a smile from someone in public service, a fittingly confusing end to it all. What an amazing country Russia is... So many potential countries and divides within it that even being there a month is nowhere near long enough to take it all in. I got so far speaking barely any of their language, I can only imagine what it'd be like to do it again being fluent. And then I wonder what it'd be like in a different season - to see Siberia covered in snow would be something else entirely. The people? Well despite all you hear, they're not that dissimilar to you and me. They have their worries and concerns, but they also, from my experience, will help anyone that needs it and talk away to you through charades and picture drawing if you can't find a common language. I had an absolutely amazing time. A major reason for me wanting to visit Russia was because we hear so little of it in western media, we know so little of what it's really like and have even less understanding. After a month there, I've learnt so much, yet I don't know if I understand it yet. There's so many contradictions that you encounter each day, and it is just SO BIG that I don't know if you can ever really understand it... So many natives don't so can I even hope to? What I do know is that it definitely doesn't scare me anymore, and I hope that me writing this has opened your mind to maybe go and experience it yourself.

It's nowhere near as scary as everyone tells you...


Sunday, 26 October 2008

Railways III - Back to Moscow!

I made my way down to Irkutsk station to catch my train at 4.30pm local time fully prepared for the mammoth journey ahead of me, stocked up with supplies of bread, instant noodles (the staple of any Trans-Siberian traveller's diet), fruit, teabags, chocolate and litres of water. There's a restaurant car on the train usually but you quickly find that most of the menu is never available, and besides that I don't fancy eating anything prepared by a man who you find picking at his belly button when you walk up to the carriage... people of a squeamish nature should think twice before venturing near the restaurant car. But yes, I was by this point a bit more knowledgeable about the survival techniques required for such a long journey and my supplies took up most of my bag space, as is the way with the Russians who use the railways.

86 hours is a long time by any stretch of the imagination - it's three and a half days in case you hadn't already worked that out, and doing one thing for that amount of time is enough to drive anyone a bit mad. By the time I'd gone back past Perm again (still a full 24+ hours from Moscow) I could feel a bit of Jack Torrance's problems running through my veins... I'd finished the two books I'd brought with me and my MP3 player had ran out of power so I had literally nothing to do. Of course, you can talk to the other passengers to alleviate some boredom, but this time around I wasn't as luck as my previous trips on the train as the people I shared my berth with (3 women from Belarus) spoke absolutely no English at all and my Russian still only extends to "What is your name?", "Where are you going?" and "Where's my hostel?", none of which are the foundations for an enthralling discussion in any one's language. What's more, the women I shared with had no interest in talking to me at all - not in an offensive way I have to say, but they weren't motivated to struggle through an hour long conversation which contained about as much actual information as an American Presidential debate. So there I was with 24 hours to go and nothing at all to do except sleep, daydream and stare out of the window... it passed very very slowly!

I have to tell you a bit about the women who shared my berth this time around because although I didn't get to speak to them, you can learn a lot from observing their group dynamics and generally just being around them. The first thing that struck me was their smell - like cabbage and mince boiled in sweat... it really was that disgusting. I mean, the train smells quite bad at the best of times but nowhere near as bad as this. From what I could gather, two of them were sisters and they constantly seemed to bicker with each other whilst the other woman squirmed uncomfortably which made me think she didn't really know them. They fought over everything: who won the card game, who's turn it was to make the tea, how many pieces of sausage constituted "enough", and who got to drink the vinegar from the pickled gherkins. Then, on top of this constant smell and noise during the day, they both snored ridiculously loudly anytime they closed their eyes for more than thirty seconds. To my mind, any non-snorer stuck sharing a sleeping space with a snorer that does so for over an hour should be within their legal rights to smother the offender. I couldn't be thankful enough that I'd Jenny had given me earplugs to take with me and that I'd actually remembered them... without them I don't think I would've slept for the duration of that trip.

Despite the monotony of life on the train, every-so-often you're audience to some fantastic pieces of theatre. To explain this properly I'll try and let you know a little bit about the alcohol drinking culture here in Russia because it's one stereotype which has been completely fulfilled in my experience - Russian people like to drink. A lot. On the street, on the train, in cafes, in take-aways, on buses, in cars, whilst driving, at night, during the day... If they could find a way to do it whilst sleeping I'm sure there would be some takers. I remember reading an article in the Guardian about 6 or 7 months ago which said about how bad this problem had became in Russia and that to get an alcohol fix, some people had taken to buying cheap aftershave or perfume and drinking that because the cost to alcohol ratio was way higher than any spirits of any kind - from being here now I can honestly believe that that could be the truth for a lot of people, especially those living on the street. On my carriage was a man who quite clearly liked his drinking and beer made up about 70% of his luggage. He spend all day everyday absolutely hammered, not just a bit tipsy or "under the influence", but out of it, barely able to stand, only functioning to lift a cigarette or another can to his lips. And he wasn't a small man, he must've been about 6 foot 4 and at least 17 stone. On the last night I got to see one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life and it directly involved this bear of a man as he attempted to get into his bunk whilst barely able to see because he'd drank so much. The step up to the bunks which run parallel to the walkway are tiny and I found it difficult enough whilst sober to clamber up them so you can only imagine how difficult this man found it. He must've been at it about 20 minutes and by this point the whole carriage was watching excitedly as he tried various combinations of techniques to reach his bed... he then had helpers come and push him up (I didn't volunteer because his exertions had made him sweat like I'd never known humanly possible) to finally reach his bed for the night. Or so he thought! The attendant had been watching from the end of the train, doubled over in hysterics at this mini circus and had clearly known all along that he was getting into the wrong bunk! She walked up to him as he must've just been dropping off to sleep and stirred him - as you can imagine he wasn't best pleased, but the rest of the carriage thought this was hilarious, me included. The whole procedure then had to happen over again for him to get into his actual bunk and everyone took great delight in watching him struggle again. I ached from laughing so much and I'd actually started to cry with laughter during his second attempts... it really was that funny. That alone was worth the train fare to Moscow.

I got into Moscow station at about 4.20am on the Saturday morning and decided that rather than pay for a hostel for just a few hours sleep I'd take my chances dossing in the train station. What I didn't know is that the police don't like this, and carry out random checks on people's tickets, as well as consistently moving along anyone who falls asleep... I didn't get any rest at all and in fact ended up getting exercise as I was constantly moved along by different policemen. I took part in this game for about 4 hours before deciding enough was enough and heading off to my hostel again. The next couple of days I finished up with sight-seeing in Moscow that I hadn't done the first time I'd been there, which included going to the Kremlin and Lenin's mausoleum. When I hear the words "The Kremlin" it conjours up images of spies being tortured, of power and threat, all negative connotations which I'm sure has a lot to do with the propaganda we were subjected to about Russia, but they actually mean "citadel" and once inside the walls of this mini-city you're presented with 4 absolutely massive cathedrals, which I didn't expect at all. As with all the cathedrals I'd seen to date they were all very ornate and must've taken a lot of maintenance to keep them looking the way they did. The only one that I really wanted to see what the Assumption Cathedral which has the throne of Ivan the Terrible in it, but that was handily closed to the public on the day I was in. That day though there was a big military parade and show in the square in the Centre of the Kremlin (the place is absolutely massive, I was taken aback at how big it is inside those walls) which was interesting to watch. I read about how in Stalin's day these type of shows were done to symbolise unity and power whilst also giving a collective feeling of "rapture and enthusiasm", and that seemed to be the aim that day as well as the soldiers goose-stepped around whilst a brass band played stirring anthems. An article in The Moscow Times talked about how this new Russian government (Putin and Medvedev) and also the younger generations still have an obsession with Stalinism and that period in their history, and that was backed up by this display, something I thought was just for the tourists but was actually being played out live on the Russian national news and radio. The article itself was very derogatory and blamed this obsession with the past on Russia's inability to move on in the eyes of the rest of the world, something I hadn't experience first hand until inside the Kremlin, but it rang very true with that display.

Lenin's mausoleum, where you can go and view the preserved body of the man himself, is now considered to be a bit of an embarrassment to the country and there's been much deliberation over whether to bury him or leave him on display. Handily for him, Putin put off any decision until 2012 leaving himself free of any controversy over the outcome. Lenin only accepts visitors between 10am and 1pm and you have to queue for a good twenty minutes to get in, whilst not being able to take in cameras, phones, bags or wearing any clothing which is deemed "offensive", such as shorts. Since it was only about 5 degrees outside that day I had jeans on so there were no worries with that. En route to the mausoleum itself you're shepherded past the graves of many other great communist minds, none of which were as clever as Lenin of course (did you know his brain was officially bigger than that of the average human? Hmmmm....) so weren't deserving of being kept on display beside him. You then go down some black marble steps in the pitch dark and turn a corner to the right where there's a glass case in the centre of the room bathed in red light... and inside is the man himself, tiny in stature and looking like a doll. It's a strange experience, and whilst I can understand that there is to be some reverence for the dead, the way the soldiers treat you on the way around (I was shouted at loudly to take my hands out of my pockets and made to move along, not stare too long at him) just makes it all seem a bit ridiculous. I found myself wondering if before he died he'd have known that this would be the way he'd be stored, mummified on display with overly-angry men shouting at tourists in the close vicinity, if he'd have decided to tell them to bury him. In trying to maintain his dignity they simply remove any shred of it which is left.

The last day in Moscow, where I'd met Tom again, we went over to Gorky Park - made famous by the film of the same name - for a wander around and to get out of the claustrophobic confines of the city centre. Moscow is a cool city and it's exciting to be there as a tourist, but it would take an awful lot to make me move there for any period of time. The police presence on the streets is heavy and unsettling (although I've had no run-ins with them, yet) and it's just so expensive. Plus, like any other capital city I've been to, every one's very busy rushing around and doing something which seems vitally important as life flies on around them. I don't think it would be healthy to move there for any long period of time. So now I'm in St Petersburg, the European capital of Russia... well, I've actually been here since Monday but I've fallen a bit behind in writing my blogs and am actually leaving St Petersburg for Tallinn tonight. I'll write about this place next time, it's a fantastic city and I've had an amazing week, topped off yesterday by Sunderland's thoroughly deserved victory over Newcastle. Come on, you didn't expect me to not say anything about it did you?! I watched it with a load of lads from the north east of England who are here working on a Nissan factory... you meet people from your home town in the strangest places. But aye, I've had a great week here and will write about it from Estonia...


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Lake Baikal and Irkutsk

Our minibus driver made a point of not overtaking. Well, that is unless it was on a blind corner or over the lip of a hill. And only ever at 90mph. I could've sworn that going to Listvyanka to visit Baikal was supposed to be a lot more stress-relieving than inducing! But, as the lake crept into sight, I slowly moved my hands away from my eyes because peering between fingers just didn't do the view justice. I could go on for hours attempting to describe the lake and I still couldn't get it right. I could tell you to go away and look at pictures of it and still you wouldn't quite get the same feeling. I don't know if it was due to the previous weeks of visual starvation of the Siberian cities, but Lake Baikal just looked like the most beautiful place on earth, and looking back at the pictures I've stored in my head rather than on my camera, I still think it is. I make no apologies for the lack of attempt to really describe it to you, because as I say it's almost futile - however, here's some astonishing facts about Lake Baikal:

- it contains 23,000 cubic km of water

- it is 31,500 square km in area

- the maximum depth is 1637m

- 20% of the world's fresh water is stored in it

- it supports 3,500 species of animals and plants, 2,600 of which are endemic

- it is 25,000,000 years old

- it is 636 km in length

- if all of the world's fresh water supply ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could support us for the next 50 years

But even having read all of this before coming out, you're just not prepared. I'd left Irkutsk to take the 60 minute bus journey out to the lake with a lad called Tom who is from just outside Limerick, and from the hostel I was staying in there we'd booked another one for two nights in a small village called Bolshie Koty which sat right by the lake. The only problem I was told we'd have would be that there were no boats to Bolshie Koty that day, so we'd need to take a 15km walk through the woods which would take about 4 hours... I was more than happy to do that and so was Tom, and after city hopping until that point I was prepared to get back into nature and enjoy every minute of the hike. Our first misadventure was completely down to my own stupidity and firing ahead without reading my map properly - I ended up taking us along the wrong road which led through a small shanty town and into a cul-de-sac which only had a tiny little coastal path as the route out. I vaguely remembered that the guy from the hostel had told me to not take the coastal path because it was dangerous, but I thought to myself "how dangerous can this really be?" and after a swift deliberation we decided to go for it anyway. I verified my idea with a man who was welding a huge boat nearby (it was fully 500m from the sea and I have no idea how he expected to get it back there so his welding seemed pointless, although I'm sure he knew what he was doing) and he seemed to think it was a good one so we set off along the path.

For the first half an hour or so it was quite easy going, mostly walking with a bit of scrambling every-so-often, but the views out over the lake towards the Khamar-Daban mountains, which are snowcapped all year around, were well worth the effort it took. However, the further along we got the more I realised why I was advised against taking this path as it turned into huge cliff faces which left me no option other than turning around and trying a different way up. This must've gone on for about an hour or so in the boiling hot sun and I was becoming more and more disillusioned with my idea... it was time to turn back. As we walked back past the boat-welding-man he gave me a look of disappointment, as though we'd failed some kind of test of our natural abilities as men by giving up on the path, and we trudged off back to the main road with my tail between my legs.

Once back on the main stretch in Listvyanka I realised my initial mistake and set off again with renewed enthusiasm up the actual road we should've taken in the first place. After about 15 minutes of tarmac the ground beneath your feet starts to break up and turn into very dry clay and mud, the birch and pine forest sneaks up upon you and before you know it, you're right in the middle of a Siberian forest. This was exactly what I hoped it would be! Driven on by sheer enthusiasm I hiked onward uphill with Tom in tow, following the path to our destination. Or so I thought. An hour or so on, this clearly defined forest path became a series of smaller paths which could easily have been mistaken for areas of water run-off and I was left unsure about my direction. Stupidly, I'd also left my head-torch back at the hostel in Irkutsk and as the sun was starting to set we were worried about going on too far and then being stuck without light, clothes, food and also without any idea where we was going. I again had to admit defeat and turned back on ourselves to re-tread our steps towards Listvyanka. I was gutted, absolutely gutted. Through a couple of really stupid mistakes, I had ruined both of our chances to get out to Bolshie Koty and was now going to have to spend the night somewhere in Listvyanka instead - hopefully indoors. It was easy enough to find somewhere though, and we were soon checked into a completely empty hostel for the night. The old Babushka that ran it spoke no english at all, so the customary game of charades was required by now to convey what we were after. If you're ever in need of an expert charade player to make up the numbers for a game anytime give me a call, after this month I'm now a finely tuned machine in terms of acting out what I want rather than saying it! As almost everywhere else I've stayed, this hostel was unique - I think I'm the only person who could find a hostel next to the largest freshwater lake in the world which would still have no running water. On top of this the there was only an outdoor toilet which made me long for the hygiene and smell of festival toilets. It really was that bad. I couldn't believe that I was staying here rather than in a little hut in an idyllic beach-side village, and to drown our sorrows we bought a few bottles and cans of lager from the shop a few doors down. However, we noticed a door hidden behind a curtain and decided to try it out of sheer boredom... it led out onto a balcony over-looking the lake with the sun setting behind it, the perfect place to sit playing cards and drinking beer! The sunset again left me speechless - I did take some photos, which I hope to show you all at some point soon, but not many. I'm quite conscious on this trip of taking too many photos and finding myself wholly reliant upon them for my memories. For me, it's much more important to remember everything about the place you're in, not just the image. The cold still air, the sound of the waves breaking on the beach and dogs barking in gardens, the smell of smoked fish and Baltika... it was the combination of all of these as well as the view that made that moment, and a photo just can't capture that. It can serve as a trigger, but I think it's important to not miss the whole experience through trying to capture it on camera.

The next day Tom left to make his way back to Irkutsk and then onwards to Moscow whilst I decided to stay for the day. I had previously been so long in the somewhat claustrophobic Russian cities that I wasn't yet ready to give up the lake and head back to them again. I spent the day again walking in the woods, hiking up to a hilltop look out point which gives you a fantastic view of where the Angara river flows out of the lake. When you reach the top there's a small hut in amongst the trees, all of which are decorated in brightly coloured pieces of cloth or ribbon as part of an old Siberian custom for good luck and I found a couple of pieces of ribbon to do this myself. Again the weather was fantastic with the sun was beating down, and as I was so far away from the town I was the only one about to enjoy this view so I settled down to sit there for a good hour and have some lunch before heading back to check out the Baikal museum to entertain the conservationist and scientific side of my character before deciding to sit down by the beach and read rather than head back to Irkutsk. Now I'm sure you all wonder what a Russian beach is like in October, well it's exactly any beach in the world when it's sunny, littered with tourists. Russian families come from nearby cities and towns for their weekend holidays to Baikal and bring along huge picnics consisting of bread, cheese, fish and sausages to feed their numerous mouths. However, it differs from a normal beach in one particular way - everyone still wears hats, gloves, scarves and coats, so I was completely bemused to see people heading down to sit on the sand, setting down beach towels and then sitting on them wrapped head to toe for winter weather. It's just one more thing to add to the list of surreal experiences I've had so far in this amazing country!

I headed back to Irkutsk late that night and spent the next couple of days seeing the few sights that that town has to offer. I've heard that it's previously been described as the "Paris of Siberia", but I can only imagine that any Parisians who visit take grave offence to the comparison nowadays. Like the other Siberian towns I visited, Irkutsk is in a state of transition with huge amounts of building work seemingly in progress, but with very few workers actually doing anything. Now, I have something of an obsession with abandoned buildings, the way that humans move out and nature slowly takes up residence, and it's an obsession which is fulfilled many times over in Russia. Nothing is seemingly ever knocked down, people and businesses move out and time moves on, but the buildings themselves are just left standing empty and on the verge of collapse. Instead of putting these soulless buildings out of their misery and knocking them down, building just happens around them. The result is you're left with a mosaic of old wooden huts, clay brick exoskeletons and newly built, towering concrete and glass structures... Paris this most definitely isn't. It's something that a lot of people I've met along the way have noticed about the Siberian towns, and I just don't understand why it happens. Is it that much more economically viable to just leave disused buildings to fall down on their own? That seems to be what the aim is as life around them carries on. It's very sad in a way and I think it's almost comparable to the way that people live in Russia: As the older people slowly go unnoticed about the city streets while the younger generations more openly and brashly push their way along, grabbing your attention. Everything that you see in this country just highlights how transitional a phase it's going through and despite how long it's been going on already it shows no signs of letting up.

I'm almost out of internet time here and have so much more to write, about my train journey back to Moscow as well as arriving in St Petersburg and the first few days here, so I'll write again tomorrow night. As a quick note, I read in the paper in Moscow the other day that Russia successfully tested long-range missiles and "independent Russian analysts" believe that their openess about it is entirely to antagonise America... maybe I've timed my trip here perfectly if that's the case. I see no reason why actual war would break-out between the two, neither has anything to gain from it at present, but if they both continue to posture and act in the way they have recently towards each other then I'm sure westerners will be made to feel less welcome by authorities here, if not the people of the country themselves. I really hope that's not the case, because the more time I spend here the more I realise how ridiculous some of the stereotypes I've been fed by western media about Russia are, and that this isn't a terrifying land of muggers, thieves and alcoholics that any westerner should be scared of. The people I've met have been warm, friendly, funny and prepared to go out of their way to help me and make me feel comfortable here, to make sure that I'm fit and well and enjoying their country as much as I should be. They've shown nothing but interest in me and some of the acts of kindness I've experienced have blown me away - it'd be a huge shame if that was all lost again in dirt-slinging between two sides in a conflict.


Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Railways II - Perm to Krasnoyarsk

I noticed Vladimir from a mile away. Being in a Russian train station at 5.30am (local time) is enough to keep you on your toes for potential hazards, luckily the only hazard to me from Vladimir was directly related to the contents of his 1 litre bottle of chili vodka. He approached me with a drunken stumble, slurring the already impenetrable "zzzz" and "tsch" sounds that make up the Russian language - to his credit, he noticed that I clearly had no idea what he was saying he kept asking my name, which I answered duly. His face lit up as he realised I was English and began slurring in that language instead, "Pete! You must meet Pete!". Pete was an electro-house DJ from London who'd beenwas fresh off the back of playing to 2000 clubbers in Perm that night and was now en route to his next gig.

We were booked on the same train (delayed by 40 minutes, a trend with the Russian railway system), but different coaches, so spent some time chatting and drinking straight vodka - easier than it sounds! Talking to Pete was fantastic after not having a conversation for 3 or 4 days. We're entirely different people with different goals and lifestyles, but shared a passion for music and his enthusiasm after his gig was infectious. To be honest, we could've been discussing dulux emulsion ranges and I would've been just happy to be talking to him. Throughout all of this, Vladdi slipped into a vodka-induced coma in the corner and politely left us to it. The train came, we swapped details and went our separate ways. I was already excited about this next leg of my journey - 36 hours long to Krasnoyarsk.

Being on the train is worth the journey out here alone. The Russian people that hurry by you in the street in the city, avoiding eye-contact at all cost, become wonderfully helpful, warm and generous once you get sat opposite them. It's a change that's confusing me more and more the further I travel, but is very welcome. Despite the journey being so long this time, it was even more enjoyable than the last one. In Yekatarinburg, a young woman got on and sat next to me, she noticed the book I was reading and asked if I minded talking to her so she could practise her english - I was more than happy to help out! Her english was excellent, and despite her continuous apologies for stumbling (completely unnecessary) we had a good conversation about why I was here doing this, about home and about my life back home. She was so interested in my life that it was an entirely one-way conversation and she left with me knowing barely anything about her, except she taught constitutional law and was visiting her parents.

As she left the train, night-time was coming in and I was left alone at my table staring out the window and the train moved steadily on, leaving me looking at a fantastic sight - a Siberian sunset. The land lies uniformly flat most of the way, sparsely littered by silver birch skeletons and marsh land. The sun lies low, glowing blood red for an hour or more, lighting up the wooden shacks that make regular appearances - it almost makes you wish you lived out there in one. When I first set out, I was initially disappointed that there was no snow lying or predicted, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to come out here, to see the real Siberia. But at that point in late autumn, with the view I had, it was impossible to feel like you were missing out on anything.

I woke up the next morning with two new table friends, both of who took great interest in me. The next few hours were spent muddling through my travel arrangements after Irkutsk, my studies back home and my family. As tradition has it, Viktor (a gruff looking 52 year old man) poured us shots of vodka and we toasted each other's names: Viktor, Andrei and Anatoly. Andrei was a member of the Russian paratroop regiment, way out on the east coast at Vladivostock. Only 21 and studying medicine, he wants to be a doctor more than anything but is first serving his conscription time - he was jealous that I didn't have to go through the same thing back home.

Around four hours before my stop, another girl (Elena) swung her head around the corner of our little table area. She was an enligsh teacher, and asked if we minded her translating for us to help with her english, which of course we didn't. The main focus of conversation this time was the differences between life in Russia and life in the UK. Viktor had an overwhelming interest in the price of cars and how long it takes to save for one in the UK! Through discussing salaries, Elena revealed to me that her mother is a deputy headteacher in a state-run school and earns only $12,000 a year - that's about 6,000 pounds. Unbelievable. I wasn't left with time to ask, but I wondered how it makes people feel, working so hard to earn so little whilst living in a land so prosperous for an "elite" few. They talked amongst themselves a while, and it became clear that the more Viktor learnt of life elsewhere, the less enthused he became with his own motherland, at one point turning to me and saying in English, "Russia's problem, is too big". Did he mean Russia's problems are too big? Or did he mean the problems in Russia are because it's too big? I think the two are inextricably linked, and the more you move through Siberia seeing the shanty towns with the huge oil drilling platforms slapped in the middle of them, the more you understand. Russia isn't really a nation, it's almost impossible for something that size to be. For all it's outwardly projected national pride, it's a federation of small states, each exploited to the maximum by a new wave of capitalism which is sweeping across it. Those not in Moscow resent the central powers, complaining that they make decisions for them without knowing one thing of life out there. The pockets of the already wealthy are lined at the expense of those less fortunate - not a problem unique to Russia itself, but one which is compounded so many more times by it's size.

Arriving in Krasnoyarsk, I could've been forgiven for thinking I'd made another huge mistake. The train journey had been excellent and again I'd made a lot of new friends and experienced what Russian people are really like - once in the city, that friendliness drains away and people are left rushing to a destination they're unhappy about. Each and every person in the cities looks wholly miserable, as though they're serving out their time in purgatory before it's all over - that this is just a means to an end. Maybe it is for a lot of them. I wish I'd learnt more Russian before coming away, then I could ask them about it and why they look so unhappy. I find myself envious of Colin Thubron (the book I'm reading) and his ability to communicate with Siberia's inhabitants and find out what life's really like for them.

I stayed in the fantastic Hotel Sever on Ul Lenina, the main street in town. My room looked as though the 1940's had been out drinking Stella all day, came home, smashed the place up and then vomited all over. The carpet, the curtains, the beds were all pattered- all different patterns, and I was left thankful that I wasn't epileptic as it would surely have induced a fit. My lights didn't work, my bed-springs were all broken, the window wouldn't close and the tap wouldn't turnoff. I suppose you get what you pay for at 6 pound a night! However, despite being in a hotel again, and alone, I didn't feel anything like the isolation I did in Perm and was excited to explore again the next morning.

I like Krasnoyarsk. It's a peculiar place, about which I can list plentiful reasons to not like it, and few reasons in it's favour - but it's won me over. There was a huge hydro-electric dam built here in 1971, it flooded out 48,000 people and nowadays results in large percentages of the population of the town contracting chest infections... despite this, the dam is celebrated, pictured on the back of the 10 rouble note. That in itself is intensely Russian - industry and progress at the expense of it's people is celebrated! Back to Krasnoyarsk though... every so often, a bitter metallic taste rushes in on the cold wind and catches your throat, but even this isn't enough to put me off this place. Far from the idyllic notions I had of Siberia, of small towns and homely winding streets, I'm finding the cities to be grey, filthy industrial scars on the land - Karsnoyarsk is no exception. But again, I still find myself liking it in spite of all this.

From the small chapel of St Parasceva (also on the 10 rouble note) you can look down on the town. A physical boundary is formed by rundown houses and a tributary to the Yenisei river, past which the large tower blocks loom in all their hazy glory. But, if you head down into the streets, you're surprised by the odd wooden mansion on a corner with it's intricate architecture, still standing despite lengthy abandonment. On Prospect Mira (another main street), speakers pump out jazz or instrumental versions of songs making it feel like Christmas. This town has character - and I think that's why I find myself liking it, forgiving it for it's misdemeanours. A short walk down to the main Yenisei river is excellent... the river itself is one of the biggest in the world and splits Siberia in two, east and west, flowing into the Arctic ocean. From it's banks it's an impressive sight.

My time there though ended and I moved on again, once more finding myself in a train station late at night. It's strange, but as a foreigner, I find myself more wary of the police here than I am of the other people - without any cause so far. However, in the station I met three New Zealanders, headed in the same direction as me and staying in the same hostel that I'm typing this from now. The journey to Irkutsk passed quickly, the train was quiet and there was little interaction. Special mention for the crazy man who, whenever the train stopped at a station, got out in just shorts and trainers (it's about 4 degrees here now) and sprinted lengths of the platform and then got back on just in time to move on... he made the journey more interesting! But yes, I'm now in Irkutsk, and plan on spending the next week or so here because I'm going down to Lake Baikal. If you don't know anything about it, look it up, and look at some pictures - it's absolutely amazing.

So, I'm safe, warm enough (despite the now falling snow) and having a whole load of fun. I'd doubtlessly write again at length from Lake Baikal.


Friday, 3 October 2008

Railway I - Moscow to Perm

As a non-native travelling the railways in Russia, you go through as many states of mind as you do towns. As I've mentioned already, Moscow's train stations are an unwelcoming place...home to many outcasts, and intimidating to navigate alone. As a westerner it's impossible to not stand out. The station building itself is nothing more than a glorified waiting room, massive in size and ornately designed, but only home to timetable boards and metal benches to give the commuters a final seat before their journey. The actual trains themselves leave from the platforms situated out the back of the station and after a quick consultation of the boards I found my train left from platform 1a so made my way there.

Once on the platform, it's no clearer which way you are to turn for your carriage - despite frequent reference to my tickets and asking numerous fellow passengers (all of whom responded only in Russian) I was no clearer as to where to go. I had noticed the number "3" on my ticket so I chanced upon that being my carriage and got it right. Getting aboard is muhc like going through customs and again you have to be made of stern stuff to fight your way through the train doors past the crowds. After some deliberation I made my push and got onto the train, found my bunk and sat down.

The person sitting opposite me at my table spoke not one word of English and looked somewhat surprised that I was on the train making this journey on my own. Through a few hand signals and a little bit of broken Russian I have picked up from the hostel and my phrase book I found out he was called Alexi and was heading to Vladimir, only about 2 hours away. I, however, had a mammoth 24 and a half hours in store on the train... looking around I couldn't understand how this was possible.

Igor at the hostel has advised me take 3rd class (Plaskartny) since I was travelling alone. This is comprised of a completely open carriage, but he assured me it was safer as I couldn't be locked in a berth alone with 3 unsavoury characters... it was also about half the price. Once on board the train becomes a sea of bodies and belongings as the commuters colonise their surroundings. Clothes, food, alcohol, games and bedclothes are littered around with abandon, no-one bothered if people are using their space and not thinking twice about using another persons. Again, as a westerner this is slightly startling at first, but you soon acclimatise and join in on the fun.

At the table opposite me a group of 4 men in good spirits (and by spirits I mean vodka) sat playing games and laughing out loud at eachother. However, they had no extra alcohol with them on board and one by one fell asleep quite quickly, as do most of the passengers. I couldn't manage that immediately though, these new surroundings and the new scenery rushing by the window kept me awake so I just lay listening to my music and trying to take it all in. It's difficult not to be intimidated at first I think, but this feeling quickly wears off and you settle down into your niche in the travelling community you're part of for the next while.

Through the dirty window I looked out Russia seems to be a country in constant conflict between industrialisation and nature. They strike a remarkable equilibrium, each vying for a larger piece of land than the other will afford it. As the train pulled away from one of Russia's many train stations and the sheds and pylons morphed into birches and pines my walkman threw up Stanley Kubrick from the Mogwai Live in Rekjavik recordings and it gave me a fantastic feeling of calmness... my favourite part of the trip so far.

The journey itself becomes somewhat monotonous once you've been underway for a few hours. Drifting in and out of a slumber induced by the train's rhythmn it feels almost like a dream, especially as you have little chance to engage in prolonged conversation. I have to say, the previously drunk men at the table opposite me did their best to take me in and fed me watermelon and cracked jokes I didn't understand, but which I laughed at anyway... they could well have been about me, but it seemed to endear me to them so I kept it up! One of them in particular took a liking to me and chatted away to me in Russian as I half-listened and half gazed out the window (the scenery continues to hold your attentions despite being mainly forest and the odd ramshackle house). His name was Alexi and he called me Anatoly - as I mentioned I had came from Belfast he made the universal signal for "crazy" by pointing his index finger at his temple and rotating it. It's nice to know everyone sees Belfast as the same! t one point further on, Alexi stood up and said something to the woman sitting behind him. She nodded and took out a hypodermic needle and injected him with something, after which he started to roll his shoulders and said to me, "injury". He showed me his jacket that he'd brought with him and on it was the Russian flag and the olypmic symbols, along with "JUDO TEAM".

Sleeping on the train snuck up upon me. One moment I was lying just listening to my music, the next it was light outside again and I'd been sleeping for about 7 hours. As I woke up, Alexi and his friends all laughed at me and waved then passed round more watermelon. I was getting used to this way to travel and was enjoying it alot. From there, not much else changed, not even the scenery by the window. 2pm approached and I was told that Perm would be the next stop... I got my stuff together and said my farewells, only just in time as the attendant barked at me for not getting off quickly enough!

Alighting at Perm I was excited. Bryn Thomas' guide romanticised the town as "nestled in the foothills of the Urals". I was expecting some great scenery and rustic charms, however this wasn't to be. Perm is an unwelcoming place, filthy with pollution and with locals who do nothing more than stare at you coldly. I rushed my way along the 3km to my hotel and checked in. That night I felt my decision to stop here was a poor one. The hotel itself is nice enough, but as it's a hotel it's nearly impossible to interact with other lodgers and for the first time on my adventure I began to feel lonely. However a quick chat with Jenny got me into better spirits and I woke up this morning determined to make the most of my time here.

I spent the morning in Perm's art gallery - one of the biggest in Russia. I'm unsure if it's due to the opression they've suffered or that tortured-dark-inner-soul that Russians are famed for, but they make some fantastically effecting art. One man in particular, named Vasily Vereshchagin had painted a picture of travellers from previous times making their way through the snow covered Ural mountains. The foreground of the painting was littered with frozen corpses of those not as lucky on their trek. Putting this in context with modern time it show how valuable the railway has become to travellers in this area, and despite the pollution it has brought along in the form of industrialisation, it has vitalised many communities.

I continued my wandering from the art gallery and found myself standing on the banks fo the Kama river looking out in the direction from which my train had arrived. At various spots on the horizon you could see the legacy of the communist era, living through industrial towns which pumped pollution into the air. As a somehwat hippyish person this made me sad, and brings to mind that Russia is way behind in terms of fixing environmental problems. However, walking along the banks cheered me up as I exchanged Hello's with dog walkers and other people out for a stroll. Even small interactions and pleasantries take on a greater meaning when you're alone.

The rest of the morning I spent looking for little and finding even less. Perm is not a town I would recommend to the lone traveller... or really anyone who was looking to make this trip. Bar the art gallery there's little of interest, and it wasn't for lack of trying! It is a University town, but I see little reason why people would relocate here to spend three years of their life.

I leave at 3.25am this morning (Moscow time, which is what the trains all run on. Local time is 5.25. Get it?) to make my journey of 36hours to Krasnoyarsk - deep in asian Siberia. I'm excited to move on, and even more excited as I arrive in Irkutsk on the 8th of October. My credit cards now work however, and I celebrated by buying myself a pizza and some matte tea. I was very proud of myself for my ability to order from a wholly Russian menu, my reading of cyrillic is improving eachday as a necessity. But, something got lost in the translation as the pizza that came back was big enough to feed me for 3 days.

This blog was longer and better... my apologies for the hurried end to it. The computer failed to connect to the internet and gave me a hideous cyrillic warning which I didn't understand really(despite me having claimed to be getting to grips with their alphabet), but half of the blog disappeared. I think Perm was sent to test me.

Anyway, I'll write again soon.