A Travellerspoint blog

July 2009

Week 21, 18.July.09 - 24.July.09

Parnu, Estonia to Turku, Finland

View Week 21 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Parnu, Estonia
Parnu certainly isn't famed for its cultural side. This is primarily a beach town, as I found out today... still, I did a bit of sightseeing for what is here. Started out with a stop into the city's oldest building, the Punane Torn, or Red Tower (even though its white.. and not much of a tower for that matter!).

Followed by a stroll through Tallinn Gate into Vallikaar Park along the 17th Century Swedish Moat. Next went to the New Art Museum which had some "interesting" displays,

then past a cathedral or 2 and finished up at the History of Parnu Museum. After the town sites, went down to the beach sites (really really nice!).

After dinner with the Belgian old man (who by this point was really trying my patience!), stopped by a live outdoor concert,

then to a club (sort of) for more live music. The 2 local girls the Belgian started talking to (I'll give him credit, he's certainly fearless) were fun to hang out with for some insight into the locals' views.

Tallinn, Estonia
I'm debating about whether to go out tonight here in Tallinn - primarily because I've been out way too much recently, but also not sure if much will be going on for Sunday night (that, & its starting to rain... boo!). Pretty uneventful 2 hr bus ride up today from Parnu, arrived here and got checked-in to a hostel then wandered around a bit; went to Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) and up the Town Hall Tower for some nice panoramic views of the town.

Next stopped by the surprisingly entertaining Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments - good thing I wasn't born 500 years ago - this stuff looks painful!

Ok, so now its starting to downpour & thunderstorm - definitely staying in!

Ok, so last night (this morning, technically) didn't turn out to be as quiet as I would've predicted. Around midnight, a loud group of kids were outside my hostel's dorm-room window, which woke me up - the trouble with being on the ground floor, you hear everything going on outside (as I learned back when I lived in my LES apartment). Next thing I know there is a loud crash and glass breaking. There was one other guy also in the room at the time, neither of us knew what happened but suddenly realized the window in the hostel was broken! I looked outside and saw the reception guy running after 2 kids. He did catch them and got ahold of the police (turns out they were 13 & 14 years old). The receptionist asked us to move to another location the hostel owned, down the street, since this one was now "unsafe" because the window was broken. Seeing it pouring outside, told him I'd take my chances here, because I wasn't moving! The other guy did move, but soon I was joined in the room by an Australian girl who just returned from dinner, and had a hacking cough keeping me awake. Next a very big guy (from Poland, I think) also returns and after a while is snoring - not just loudly, but borderline violently! I've never heard such loud gasping/choking/snoring in my life! I usually never bother, but had to wake the guy up to roll over or something, which worked for a while (like 10 minutes). So then about 02:30 another guy stumbles home from the bar, plops on his bed & I hear the can of Pringles open up - starts chomping away. By this point I realized sleep wasn't going to come easy, so went into my pack and busted out the iPod. A few hours later when I woke up, went out to check out Tallinn with the German biker dude Dennis (who was staying in the room upstairs and thus, had a peaceful night's sleep). First stop was over at Toompea, the small elevated area in the West part of Old Town, to see some great views of the Old Town Wall.

After, grabbed a coffee at this medieval-themed restaurant, complete with candle-only lighting and some kettle contraption to wash hands in the restroom (which, by the way, not easy to find my way out... only 1 candle lit the restroom on the opposite side of the door, I couldn't find the handle!)

Then made stops to Estonian History Museum, St. Olav's Church, Great Castle Gate & Fat Margaret's Tower (nice name).

Dennis bailed to try and meet up with a local girl from a few days before, so I continued on to round-off the sightseeing with stops to the Holy Spirit Church, Nevsky's Cathedral and Pikk Hermann Tower. Later after dinner, met up for some drinks with folks from the hostel, Mayuko and "Pringles" boy Andy - we went to the "Depeche Mode" bar with DM posters everywhere, and yep - only DM music playing.

Well, we could only take that for 1 drink!

Helsinki, Finland
Arrived earlier today in Helsinki; I took the enormous cruise ship from Tallinn the 2.5 hrs journey across the Gulf of Finland. The ship was ridiculous - 10 levels, several bars, restaurants - even a supermarket! Everyone on board (except me) also brought several cases of beer - a prelude to how expensive Finland is. Started out today back in Tallinn with a visit to the Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy) - not to buy any medicine, but rather wander around this relic - established in 1422, the world's oldest active pharmacy. Nice selection of ancient remedies on display - viper saliva, stallion hooves, mummy "fragments", dried dog penis - you know, cure what ails you!

After arriving in Helsinki and being thoroughly confused with their system of 2 names for each street (one Swedish, one Finnish - sometimes Swedish is on the bottom, sometimes the top!),

found the hostel and got checked-in. After dinner, wandered around a bit and stumbled upon a band playing in some alley lined with pubs - good beer+good music = good combination!

Just returned from catching some live jazz with the kids (literally - they're 18!) sharing in my hostel's dorm room. What I reconfirmed today, other than really expensive (ridiculously expensive), Helsinki overall is a pretty lame city! I think the most exciting thing that I saw was when the 2 teen girls walking along the main pedestrian street, when a pigeon flew down and knocked the hot dog on a stick one of the girls was carrying on the ground, followed by a swarm of pigeons to the food and all the girl could do was scream and get out of the way - hilarious! The first stop on the tour of discovery was over to Kauppaton Fish Market with some good views of cruise ships out in the harbor.

Made my way to the nearby Katajanokka island to visit Uspensky Cathedral,

then back over to the mainland for a stop at Tuomiokirkko Church,

where there was an organ recital/practice going on that I got to listen in on. Next went up past the parliament house and Finlandia Talo, Finland Concert Hall, to small Toolonlahti Lake - which was pretty tranquil and nice. Continued north to visit the 1952 Olympic Stadium,

and nearby Sibelius Park before taking a rest at Hietaniemi Beach, just as the clouds broke for some warm sunshine over the very clear water - too bad I didn't have my swimsuit! After a quick bite went back to the harbor and caught a ferry to Suomenlinna Island Fortress, where Helsinki's early history started. Originally designed by the Swedes in 1748 (at the time they controlled the area of Finland) for protection against the Russians, it is a set of 4 islets in the harbor that had a nice castle and old historical buildings (ok, so this part of Helsinki was cool!).

Back in town I had enough time before closing to visit the Kansallismueo National Museum to visit the exhibits like The Throne Room and The Drawing Room of Jakkarila Manor.

So I think I've officially seen all of Helsinki!

Turku, Finland
Ok, I didn't see all of Helsinki - forgot about the one notable landmark which is Temppeliaukio Church built from the side of this rock cliff. So I started this morning with a visit there (not all that great, so fortunately only a few blocks from the hostel!), then hopped on a bus to Turku in South-west Finland. Once I arrived I made my way to a hostel that was fully booked, then another hostel booked, then a B&B - booked. Considering Turku isn't really that big of a town, this wasn't looking too good! Come to find out this weekend is the Tall Ships' Races Baltic 2009 stop in Turku (coincidentally, this is the second city out of ~5 in the Tall Ships' Races rotation that I've been at during the stop, the other being St. Petersburg), so there is probably 50% more tourists here this weekend than normally. Finally found a hotel for 75 Euros (eek) and after getting checked-in went a bit to check out the nightlife. Roamed around Aurajok River, stopping by the riverboat bars where they were serving of all things, Brooklyn Lager!

I'm on the Viking Cruise Ship "Isabella", in my pretty-damn-small cabin (shared with 3 others), about to go wander around the various bars & casinos on the many levels.

Its just about 10 PM, and the rain is still coming down... non-stop all day here in Turku, and I'm talking cats & dogs. I did, however, manage to get around to most of the town's sites today. Started off this morning with a visit over to the Turku Cathedral, impressed by the history (over 700 years old) and architecture,

and the various side-chapels containing tombs of the past important bishops. Next, wandering along the Aurajok, got to see what all the hype of the weekend (and cause of hotel shortage) was about, ships from all over the world on display prior to the race.

Considering that many of these are around 100 years old, really does make the whole event pretty damn cool! Thoroughly soaked from the rain, I went over to the town's highlight, the Turku Castle. From the outside I can't say I was overly-impressed, but once you enter into the 1280 AD building boasting dungeons,

banquet halls and a medieval museum, can't help but be impressed! Finished off the sightseeing tour with a visit to the Turku Art Museum which Lisa Strombeck's "In Memory of all those who work without ever getting a reward" video (her dog) was by far the best exhibit. So goodbye Finland, tomorrow (7hrs from now), I'll wake up in Stockholm!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:04 Comments (0)

Week 20, 11.July.09 - 17.July.09

St. Petersburg, Russia to Parnu, Estonia

View Week 20 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

St. Petersburg, Russia
I'm sitting in the Dekabristov Park having a beer - one very cool thing about St. Pete is the tolerance of open alcohol on the streets. After a while yesterday, I felt almost out of place not carrying around a drink! I just returned from the hydrofoil trip to Petrodvorets (Peterhof), about 30k from St. Pete. Very posh atmosphere in Peterhof, something akin to the Hamptons I would say.

The fountains and gilded figures leading up to the Grand Palace were really quite spectacular.

I just bumped into the Irish guy with his Mongolian wife I had met on the Trans-Siberian -- seems they had an adventurous time on the train in 3rd class from Moscow to here; it'll be interesting for my 3rd class train ride to Latvia!

OK, I may admit that even 3rd class train travel may be better than bus, but not by much! I'm here at Vitebsky Station ready to depart on train #37, overnight to Riga.

The 3rd class car is very packed and the sleeping arrangements should be interesting - I gave up my assigned bottom bed to the older woman & now I'm on the side-bed in the passageway.

Last night I was able to stay up to go watch the bridges open up over the Neva river at around 01:30. It was a pretty cool site; more so for the atmosphere of the crowd (several 100's of people lining the bank) than the actual event - all the boats that passed through were small enough to have fit under the bridges while lowered!

Today I rounded off my St. Pete sightseeing with a visit to iconic St. Isaac's Cathedral,


then passed through the Admiralty Gardens over to Yusupov's Palace (site of the 1916 Rasputin poising), followed by a visit to the Russian Vodka Museum where all displays were in Russian, but who was I kidding - I went for the sampling!

For lunch went for beef stroganov - almost as good as the stuff I remember Randy making when I was a kid! Next stop was the State Russian Museum. After visiting the Hermitage I didn't think there could possibly be anymore art found in this city, but the Russian Museum had plenty of impressive works like Brullov's "The Last Days of Pompeii",

and Repin's "The State Parliament". All in all, while my vote is for Moscow, St. Pete lived up to its reputation as a great city!

Riga, Latvia
About to turn in here in the City Lounge Hostel in Riga - indeed, this place seems more lounge than hostel. After a few hours (hard berth + hot/stuffy + crying kid + dog barking + stops at immigration points = not many) sleep on the train last night, arrived this morning in Riga. Got checked in then walked around this smallish city, seeing the major landmarks like St. Peter's Cathedral,

Riga Castle,

Freedom monument, and photo-worthy skyline shots of other churches.

Stopped in the Dome Cathedral Museum (nice cloisters!)

and then over to the Museum of History of Riga which had very comprehensive English guidebooks (such a rarity, had to make a point to remember this!). Ate dinner at a Lido buffet-style Latvian restaurant (awesome - going there again tomorrow) before heading over to Livu Laukums Square to have some beers at the sports bar while catching some soccer game on the TV.

Had a nice day today checking out more of the sites in Riga - started off with a visit to St. Peter's (closed yesterday) for a nice view of the city from atop the spire.

Next I visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where I spent a couple hours but could have spent much longer - extremely detailed records & accounts of.. well... the history of Latvia's occupation, for a large part of the 20th century by the Germans and Russians. Of course I learned about the WWII and the Soviet Union in school, but I really appreciate the history much more when visiting a place so directly affected. After the museum I wandered around the cobblestone streets passing nice Art Noveau buildings next to various cathedrals & landmarks, like the 1698 Swedish Gate (built to "celebrate" the Swedish occupation at the time),

and ending up at the 14th century Powder Tower housing the War Museum. Having had my fill of observing depressing sites for the day, went back to the Lido restaurant for dinner (love that place) & some drinks at Livu Laukums Square.

Here at the Riga bus station getting set to head over to Liepaja, along the Baltic Sea in Western Latvia. The German(?) dude sitting behind me seriously needs to shower... 3.5 hrs to deal with this??

Liepaja, Latvia
After an uneventful ride across Western Latvia, passing countless number of hay fields and the occasional windmill farm, got into Liepaja and followed this guy David that was riding on the same bus (American, not the smelly German) to a hostel he had a reservation for (as I didn't have a reservation, nor map of the city, it was an easy decision!). It is a few blocks from the beach, and fortunately have availability! After getting checked-in, went to check out the beach - really nice white powder, not really what I expected along the Baltic Sea...

OK, there are 2 girls from the Netherlands here in the hostel that are complete wackos! Them, along with virtually the rest of the hostel, are about to head out to the bars - should be an interesting night!

Whoa - I am feeling it today. Last night was a rough one!

Not sure exactly what time I got home this morning, but it wasn't without effort - even with a map. For some reason, the smaller towns always seem more difficult to navigate around (well, the excessive amount of alcohol probably contributed to my navigation woes). After having a great breakfast at the Pablo "Rock Cafe" (because Liepaja is the Music Capital of Latvia... doesn't everyone know that?!?),

followed the tourist guide map around the town. This place is about as quaint as quaint gets - cobbled streets, old churches, craft stores - even the sidewalk has little musical note markings to follow along the suggested tourist route (because Liepaja is the Music Capital of Latvia). Swung by the Liepaja Museum for a look at their impressive displays of, uh... tin....

Then to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, home to the world's biggest mechanical organ (fitting for Liepaja, the Music Capital of Latvia!).

Got back to the hostel and checked out the ferry schedule for tomorrow up to Saaremaa, Estonia - good thing I did, as the ferry's not running this year! But unfortunately that limits my options only to backtrack through Riga and head up overland to Estonia.

Just got back from helping (well, watching) the 2 Dutch girls set up a tent on the beach with David, following a great BBQ dinner with some equally great views of the sun setting over the Baltic.

Parnu, Estonia
I'm resting up before heading to check out the nightlife here in Parnu. Had uneventful bus rides today from Liepaja to Riga, then the connection bus up to Parnu... so uneventful, in fact, that we didn't even stop at the border to get stamped (reminds me of the days back in Central America...)!

Had a chance to see Tori today on a Skype call back to the state (yea!), and then just got back from a nice dinner with the Fin girl and Belgian (old) man sharing my room. Looking forward to some more beach tomorrow!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 03:08 Comments (0)

Week 19, 4.July.09 - 10.July.09

Near Krasnoyarsk, Russia to St. Petersburg, Russia

View Week 19 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Near Krasnoyarsk, Russia
I will open up this entry declaring, "I've drank too much Russian beer today!". I awakened this morning to some spectacular views of Lake Baikal - it really is as clear, big and beautiful as I've read about.

I walked down to the restaurant car but decided to pass on the breakfast (R250, or about US$8.33 for 2 eggs & 1 sausage??), and kept walking to the end car - I think maybe 15 more cars from mine, so I'm guessing about 20 cars total on the train...

and all along the way when I'd glance into cabins, would see these Asians with big bags of merchandise - brand new jeans & towels, etc, still in shrinkwrap - there is a serious black-market operation going on! Since there's no way this stuff was made in Mongolia, my guess is these people have family/friends that work in the mfg plants (or work themselves) in China, & have smuggled the stuff through Mongolia to Russia (most of it, anyway, as a few towels and purses didn't make it!), to sell at black-markets. This was apparent at some of the stops we've made so far where the "passengers" hand over bags of merchandise to people waiting on platforms. Since I slept through the stop just over the border at Ulan Ude this morning (about 5 AM local time), I was still without Rubles not having hit an ATM yet. So when we stopped for 2 minutes at Slyudyanka, Alfred was nice enough to insist on buying for lunch some smoked fish (omul) from the "babushkas" selling on the platform - very tasty, despite all the bones you have to watch out for!

Also for lunch we started in on the 1.5 L bottles of beer (with a mere 8.0% alcohol content - yikes!).

The French couple got off at Irkutsk Stn., so the provodnitsa moved me down to Jenny's cabin, who was now also solo since the gold-teeth Russian woman got off at an earlier stop this morning. I think the provodnitsa wanted one less cabin to clean and/or look after? Not entirely sure, but I'm happier being paired up with a single English girl than potentially a family with crying kids or something. While stopped at Irkutsk, I got off for the ATM - since the provodnitsa said the stop was only 10 min, & the ATM across the tracks, through the station and about 300m down the road, I had just enough time to stop at the vendor kiosk to pick up 2 more 1.5L bottles of beer before running back... not seeing Alfred or Jenny, who were behind me a minute before, was really running to make sure I caught the train! Of course, the train in reality was stopped for about 20 min, making the run completely unnecessary. The group proceeded to finish off that beer while hanging out in Alfred & Anton's cabin (dubbed "the Party Cabin"), listening to Swedish reggae & appreciating the Siberian countryside views - just as I had imagined (minus the snow), rolling hills covered with pine trees & the occasional log cabin with indigo-blue window frames. The next stop at Zima, the provodnitsa told us it was a 20 min stop (which means 40), so we ventured out to the platform to restock supplies, namely, beer. I picked up 2 more 1.5L bottles (along with actual food), but was outdone by Alfred & Anton with their 2 ridiculous 5L jugs. At the stop I bumped into the 2 UK girls met in UB train station, who wished me "Happy Independence Day!"... it took me a minute to register what they were saying; I forgot it was the 4th of July! We invited them over to the Party Cabin, and once the train started up again, we went back to playing cards & drinking games (Fuzzy Duck, Ducky Fuzz, Does He?) - and it took its toll on me here at the end of the day. I calculated we went through a total of 16L of beer - ugh!

Near Novosibirsk, Russia
Its 16:30 on the train, which means its 19:30 here near Novosibirsk, capital of Western Siberia. All of the time-tables on the Trans-Siberian run on Moscow Time (MT). So in order to lessen the confusion of when the next scheduled stop is, as well as having some sense of stability as we will pass through 4 different time zones on this trip (5, actually - we backtrack at one point MT+4 to MT+5 then back to MT+4), I set my watch to MT as well. So when I went to bed last night at 22:00, it was really 02:00 the following morning (today). To add to the unclear time-check, the sun started coming up this morning at 24:00 (03:00) and was completely mid-day brightness at 04:00 (07:00), courtesy of the latitude position. So I've already had a lengthy day, but not much activity to speak of - read my Trans-Siberian guidebook a bit & listened to some tunes/napped to nurse my hangover. Of course the beer drinking started up again a couple hours ago. I taught the group Euchre & we played a round of Texas Hold 'Em. Novosibirsk stop was a major one for the smugglers to unload a bunch of crap,

and was 20 min, which was long enough for me to check out the huge Soviet-style station

& a bit of the surrounding area with very impressive architecture (& women as well!). Departing Novosibirsk, had an opportunity to see some nice views of Ob River, one of the world's longest flowing more than 400k from Altai mountains to the Artic Ocean.

Near Omsk, Russia
Now I'm getting ready for bed, its about midnight (MT). After the stop in Omsk, disappointing because of the rain and lack of kiosk stands, we played a few hours worth of Hearts. Now I hope to get a couple hours sleep before it starts getting light out - crazy!

Near Tyumen, Russia
07:00 (MT) stop here in Tyumen, Siberia's oldest town (founded 1586), gave me an opportunity to wake & stretch my legs down at the platform - alas, still no powdered milk for my crappy instant coffee at any kiosk stand. But I picked up the staple raman noodles for lunch/dinner.

Near Sverdlovsk, Russia
We're pulling away from Sverdlovsk (formerly Yekaterinburg) station, where after helping the Russian family next door off the train with their luggage, I took advantage of the 23 min stop to venture down the stairs & out of the station. In addition to picking up a back of apricots from a babushka, I got a good shot of a military-looking statue out in front of the station.

I'm not sure, but think it may have ties to the infamous 1960 USA "U2" spyplane shot down by the USSR at this site. Shortly after my "shower", which consisted of locking the bathroom, stripping down and splashing water (from the un-user-friendly faucet over the metal sink) and crap pink liquid soap over my body (luckily there is a drain on the floor), we had an unfortunate incident occur in car #3 where Jenny's unoccupied iPod charging in the passageway was stolen. Even though it was out of her sight for only a few minutes, I'm not surprised it was stolen, and even less surprised that neither the provodnitsa on the train nor the police at the station were any help. It is a really crappy situation, but at least I feel a bit better that I've taken extra care this trip with always locking up my bags, etc.

Near Perm, Russia
18:00 MT, and this day keeps getting more interesting. After spending the last few hours in the Party Cabin doing the usual - drinking, playing Hearts & occasionally breaking to take some shots of the countryside views just now past the Europe-Asia border,

and joined by the Brits later who were talking about meeting up in Moscow. As we approached the station (& getting elbowed by the Mongolians looking to get off the train first for their potential black-market sale on the platform), I looked at the sign in the car which said 20 min stop, but it was 17:35 when we pulled in, and distinctly recall saying, "You know guys, we're getting into the station late, we were supposed to arrive at 17:25." The famous last words... Despite having gone to the bathroom only 10 min earlier, since the train's bathroom door was now locked as always while at the station, Alfred & his small bladder decided they couldn't wait and needed to go to the station's bathroom, which was up the stairwell from the platform & across several sets of tracks. Well, the rest of us visited the lone babushka selling the usual crap on the platform & returned to the train after 10 min. As it started moving, I asked Anton, "Where's Alfred?". And when his response was only a blank stare like he didn't know what I was talking about, I added, "Because, the train's moving!". So we're starting to freak out, because the train's gaining speed and no Alfred. Anton tells the provodnitsa, who seems a bit concerned but basically giving us the sense there's no way she's stopping this train. About 5 minutes later, a huffing and puffing Alfred is heading toward us from the rear passageway door - turns out he found the bathroom, and sure enough had to run to catch the train, able to get on the last car. Wow - as we are now departing Perm rolling over the majestic Kama river, I am officially declaring, "OK, no more drama today, please!"

Moscow, Russia
I'm not sure why many people's opinion of Moscow are so negative - this place is amazing! The morning today started out (or I should say the last night on the train) with the Swedes and I taking a break from the usual Hearts with a stop at Kirov station at about 00:45 MT to appreciate the Russian White Nights...

After a few hours sleep, woke up near Gorky, Russia's fourth largest city & closed to foreigners until '91. A few hours from Gorky station, the train stopped at Vladimir stn long enough for the group to get out and stretch our legs, and to get a good view of an old Soviet-era locomotive engine.

At 14:28, on-schedule, we finally pulled into Moscow's Yaroslavsky station.

I navigated through the Komsomolskaya subway station - enormous & beautiful, and likely to give a person vertigo on the escalators that seem to be 100m high.

After I got to the crappy hostel to check-in, I made my way to the Red Square to meet up with the Swedes. Finally realizing I needed to go in the underground passageway to cross the streets, emerged facing the State History Museum,

which I thought was impressive until I entered into the Square and caught my first glimpse of St. Basil's Cathedral - quite possibly one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen, and really had a difficult time taking my eyes off it...

While admiring the other sights in the Square, we were approached by a woman who asked us only, "American?" - of course I didn't respond (unlike a majority of the Russian women I've seen, this one wasn't particularly attractive anyway!). But as we wandered around the Square, noticed that she kept following us, asking, "American?" - we couldn't get rid of her! Our attention was diverted toward the sounds of church bells playing at a quaint cathedral on the north part of the square opposite St. Basil's, and soon realized the bells were being played manually by a man using his hands and feet up in the tower - so cool!

After ditching the would-be Russian mail-order bride, we visited a restaurant/bar - Mexican, of all things - for a beer. We later me up with Jenny and the 2 Brits for a nice dinner (sans-noodles, hooray!).

After dinner, the Swedes and I were not ready to turn in, so went back to the Mexican bar for some drinks. We met some pretty cool (and pretty drunk) locals, and after finishing some shots the Swedes took off, but I wasn't finished yet! As the bar was closing, one of the locals, Oxana, decided to show me some of the Russian underground scene. We went to an after-hours club, and it didn't take me long to realize that 9 out of 10 women there were drop-dead gorgeous... oh, and prostitutes. Actually, I would have said 10 out of 10 were hookers if Oxana wasn't there!

After finding my way home from way the f- out in Western Moscow early this morning (not an easy task w/out rubles nor ATMs nor English-speakers to be found anywhere), I went and bought my train ticket to St. Petersburg for tomorrow night - and it was a good thing the girl working at my hostel wrote out my ticket request in Russian, b/c even with the note the people at the ticket counter were confused! Having already missed my rendevous with the Swedes, I headed directly to the Lenin Mausoleum. I was able to sneak in my camera, but the way the guards usher you forward and unable to pause more than 2 seconds for viewing, along with 2 guards inside the actual tomb, wasn't able to sneak the coveted photo of the well-preserved corpse (looks fake, really) and had to settle for a photo from outside.

Next stop was a visit inside St. Basil's, since last night it had already closed by the time we met up in front. This was one of the first times I can remember where the interior of the church, although very nice, couldn't hold a candle to the exterior.

Next stop was the long wait in line to get a ticket to The Kremlin (now reopened after the 2 day Barak Obama visit), where I saw impressive Squares & Cathedrals (although the Armoury Chamber, where they house the famous Faberge Eggs, was unfortunately closed and/or sold out of the special tickets).

After sightseeing, I went back to the Mexican bar to meet up with Oxana for a few drinks and live music (of course, I was solicited by a prostitute - elderly - while waiting for Oxana....)

I'm here at Leningradsky Stn getting ready to take the overnight train to St. Petersburg - I'm sharing my cabin with a Russian couple who don't speak English, & a Russian guy (Dmitry) my age who does speak English, and very cool. The couple was not very friendly at first, but lightened up after I offered some beer (although they refused, as did Dmitry, leaving me with the entire 1.5L bottle). I am really glad to get a chance to talk with Dmitry - having both grown up during the latter years of the Cold War, understanding Russia and its people was always mysterious so now to be able to share a train cabin exchanging stories about home life and traveling, has been a very cool experience.

It was another good sightseeing day, having checked out The State History Museum collections.

Wandered over to check out the former KGB Headquarters building. Then headed down to visit the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - & even though remade only 10 years ago (to erase Stalin's big swimming pool debacle), still impressive nonetheless.

Next was wandering over the pedestrian bridge to see the Peter the Great Monument

and peek of Gorky Park (listening to the winds of change??) before visiting the impressive collection at the State Tretyakov Gallery. Finished the (long) day with a trip down to the campus of MSU (Moscow State University) - very nice!

St. Petersburg, Russia
Its about 1AM (on the 11th) and I've had plenty of sightseeing already on Day 1 in St. Petersburg - my back is killing me! After arriving this morning about 06:30, I made my way to the hostel to drop off the pack and have a quick shower before heading out for a long day. First stop was the Admiralty (former Soviet Naval HQ)

followed by a visit to Palace Square for a glance at the Winter Palace.

Next I headed down the famous "Nevsky Prospekt", Russia's version of 5th Ave or Champs Ellysees, stopping along the way to check out the famous landmarks at their respective addresses; such as no. 14 which still displays a sign dating from the WWII Siege of Leningrad (advising pedestrians to walk on the other side of the street during shelling),

the Kazan Cathedral from 1811 (where the Soviets converted to an atheist museum),

Church of the Resurrection (close, but no cigar to St. Basil's in Moscow), Statue of Catherine the Great & finishing at Anichkov bridge crossing Fontank Canal for a glimpse of the equestrian statues. Next I hightailed it over to the Troitsky bridge to the Peter and Paul Fortress,

just in time (12:00) for the firing of the canon from Naryshkin Bastion. While on the island fort I also visited the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral to check out all of the Russian Tsar tombs, followed by a tour through the Trubetskoy Bastion prison (pretty cool), the printing workshop, engineers house & neva curtain wall (all very lame), finishing off at the cosmonaut museum (also lame until coming to the display of rocket/satellite engines with the very futuristic noises playing from the speakers - reminded me of "Lost in Space").

After leaving the island fort, had to go have a look at the impressive mosque nearby before visiting Peter the Great's log cabin (the first building in St. Petersburg - 1703 - and later converted to a museum, Russia's first).

Next, I headed to the Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace) for a nice 1 hr queue for ticket. While the museum displays some amazing works of art, the Winter Palace rooms themselves were equally as, if not more, impressive... it became almost comical going from one room to the next, each time expressing an open-mouthed "wow", followed by a "wow" when passing to the next room.

I thought the 3 hours I budgeted for the museum before closing was too much, but as it turned out I barely scratched the surface! Afterwards I headed back to the hostel to check-in and shower, and even though my body was resisting me taking 1 more step, I did venture out to the train station to buy a ticket for the overnight train on the 12th to Riga, Latvia. But for some reason I decided I needed to head out again (maybe it was to get some fresh air after eating that horrible gyro from the street vendor), and wandered to the Neva river where the city was still very much lively and bright at midnight...

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:59 Comments (0)

Week 18, 27.June.09 - 3.July.09

Tsetserleg, Mongolia to Naushki, Russia

View Week 18 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Tsetserleg, Mongolia
Sitting at a picnic table outside my own ger in Tsetserleg, enjoying a cold beer (cold, for a change - all the beer sold in the Gobi was room temp... so... hot). Just went and checked out the Galdan Zuu Temple, set high up in Bulgan Uul Mountain,

then visited The Museum of Arkhangai Aimag

before wandering around the (sort of depressing) town a while. Had to say goodbye to the group today as I was dropped off, while they're continuing to the White Lake and onward to Northern Mongolia for 8 more days. It was somewhat bittersweet - while I really liked meeting & hanging out with (most) the group, I think I've had my fill of sleeping in gers (or worse, tents), sans showering, for a while - really tired of bumping my head on the 3 foot-tall doorways (and apparently still haven't learned - did it again in this ger, twice!!). Plus, I think I've seen a lot & have gotten a real good exposure to Mongolia - the only problem now is I have to fill 5 more days (after tomorrow's ~11 hour bus ride) in UB, waiting for my Russian visa & train ride on the 3rd of July - it'll be interesting to see how I can fill my days....

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Back in UB at the Golden Gobi Guesthouse here on my 4-month mark of traveling, downloading photos from the past 2 weeks. I had an uneventful 10 hour bus ride from Tsetserleg today - uneventful, with the exception of at least 3 people (all locals on the bus) who got car sick, conveniently all sitting around me. When I arrived in UB, found my pack, which was stored in the luggage compartment underneath, soaked with smelly airag (fermented mare's milk) - looks like a jug of it opened up along the way & spilled out... lovely! After getting checked into the guesthouse, I went to an all-you-can-eat "Mongolian" barbeque restaurant ("Mongolian" by name, but the theme very much Westernized) & ate way too much - after 2 weeks of eating scraps in the Gobi, my eyes definitely became bigger than my shrunken stomach.. I feel like puking! There are some other backpackers here also recently returned from the Gobi, we're exchanging stories & about to watch a movie ("Hard Candy"), & chill!

Slept-in late today... still catching-up on missed sleep while out in the countryside. After breakfast went to Naran Tull, or the infamous "Black Market", a few kms outside of city center to do some souvenir & clothing shopping (pair of socks & long-sleeved shirt didn't survive the Gobi).

Surprisingly, I came away with all of my possessions (wallet, camera), which apparently only about 50% of the tourists are able to claim likewise, courtesy of one of the worst pick-pocket places in the world.

Went & picked-up my Russian visa (glad to finally have my passport back in-hand!) & train ticket to Moscow today - train is on the 3rd of July, so I've got 2.5 more full days 'till then - too short to do a trip to the countryside, and certainly too much unnecessary time in UB! But killed some time today visiting Choijin Lama Temple Museum, where the mummified remains of Choijin (the State Oracle) are housed in a statue inside the temple...

..met a local girl, Byambaa, on her lunch hour at the Temple (praying, not sight-seeing), and after getting an impromptu tour of the Temple and recommendations on ways to further kill time in UB, I asked if she wanted to get a drink after her work tonight, but was denied - the reason I was given is because "Mongolian men would be angry to see a local woman with a Westerner"... yeah, as if they weren't angry already?!? Anyway, after the Temple I visited the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial, chronicling the communist "purges" of the 30's, with very gruesome displays on-hand.

Finished the day with a stop to the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery, with some pretty cool displays; I especially liked Tsevegjav Ochir's 1958 "The Fight of the Stallions".

Now I'm resting my stomach - I made the mistake of again visiting the all-you-can-eat "Mongolian" bbq place for dinner - seriously, it'll be a miracle if I don't puke!

I had a good visit today to Zaisan Memorial, with equally good views of UB... it was particularly nice as it lies about 3km outside of the city center (I needed an escape out of town, even if only a short bus ride away).

Zaisan was built by the Russians to commemorate "unknown soldiers" killed in battle during WWII. It is located on top of one of the mountains that surrounds UB, so got some hiking in as well. Next went to nearby Buddah Park which, unsurprisingly, has a giant statue of Buddah.

OK, I think I've officially now visited every site in UB - so will need to think of something for tomorrow!

Today was pretty much uneventful, as predicted. Spent some time getting stuff organized/packed for the train ride tomorrow, & stopped by the post to mail home a collection of guidebooks & souvenirs. Walked around UB a bit (for once without a specific site to see), but it was blazing hot outside so also killed some time in the shade reading my neglected book!

Naushki, Russia
Its 23:30 & I'm officially out of Mongolia (thought that day would never come). Now is a long wait here at the Russian border town of Naushki for customs/immigration. I've been on the Trans-Siberian since 13:50, but the time has gone by fairly quickly today. At the station in UB, met a couple girls from the UK who had taken the train from Beijing & stopped over in UB for the past 2 days. Later, when the #5 Trans-Siberian arrived, it took a bit of time to locate the correct car, then the correct cabin, then the correct bed, as the ticket was printed in Cyrillic.

I'm sharing my "spacious" cabin with a couple from France, Romarick & Lise.

Next door cabin is 2 Swedes, Alfred & Anton, and down 2 cabins the other way (past next door with the Russian family) is an English girl Jenny (sharing with a unique Russian woman). It turns out, similar to the 2 Brit girls met in UB, all of these folks also came from Beijing 2 days ago; I was the only one who spent any significant time in Mongolia.

Meanwhile, the provodnitsa (carriage attendant woman) is quite a character - First she hangs up a new towel above each of our beds, but when we inquired (since there aren't showers in 2nd-class cars, why are we being given these towels?) she just gave the Mongolian universal sign of crossing her wrists (meaning "no"), pointing to us, then pointing at the towels then to herself (meaning they're hers). Same story in all the cabins, as we soon found out. Next she comes by with identical black purses, handing to everyone (including men), and saying, "one". So we've concluded she's looking for us to help her clear her load through customs here at the border, which is taking forever (much quicker exiting Mongolia, I must say).

Now the Russian customs woman just asked us whether the towels and purses were ours - of course we all said "no", so she confiscated them - hope the provodnitsa doesn't wind up in prison! It should be an interesting trip for 4 more days here on the Trans-Siberia, until we reach Moscow...

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:12 Comments (0)

Week 17, 20.June.09 - 26.June.09

Gobi Desert, Mongolia to Central Mongolia

View Week 17 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Gobi desert, Mongolia (near Khongoryn Els)
Sitting here in the ger waiting for lunch... just returned from a good camel trek in the sand dunes,

followed by an extra hike up to the top for some spectacular views.

My camel (Shai Jr) was great - very well behaved (good thing as I didn't have a clue what I was doing!). Last night we had the usual Chinggis vodka, while playing a round of Texas hold 'em, Lucy was the big winner (beginner's luck, I assume).

I just got out of the shower - and while it is really nice to finally be clean (especially after the 2nd camel trek of the day went through a sand storm, not to mention Shai Jr wiping his nose on my pant legs!), the conditions of the shower (basically a tin can with a door and intermittent cold water) certainly wasn't worth much more than the T2000 (about $1.37) it cost!

Central Mongolia (near Arvaikheer)
Just set up tents in a very crowded field, back up in central Mongolia about 75k north of Togrog. Had to fight for a parking space.

We said goodbye to the sand dunes in the Gobi this morning & the nomad family whose ger we stayed in (couldn't find any of the children to pass out the candies!), then drove up near Bayangiin Nuruu to check out the petroglyph carvings depicting goats and hunters with bow & arrows, several thousand years old - and out in the open field, not in museums or national parks...

Now we're about to toast to the Summer Solstice and pray to the Ovoo at the top of the hill for a night w/out strong winds!

We've stopped to set up lunch in a nice open field (with yaks!) outside of Arvaikheer.

Matti and Shai volunteered to cook shakshoka, an Israeli dish... better be good b/c I'm starved! Arvaikheer is a small town roughly 200km SW of UB, and the first real sign of civilization that we've seen the past 7 days.

Stopped there to refill on petrol and do some shopping (of course, the only purchase was another bottle of Chinggis. Oddly, several different brands named Chinggis to choose from...).

Central Mongolia (near Naiman Nuur)
We're now stopping at a nomad family's ger about 25k south of Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) for the night. This wasn't planned, as we were supposed to camp in tents, but no one's complaining as the rain is starting up. As most places we stop, we greeted the kids here with candies...

and lots of pictures (the one of themselves they love to see).

The ger we're staying in is particularly nice; it is not on the "typical" tourist circuit and thus decked out with more authentic rugs & animal skins (with the mandatory bowl of yak milk/cheese on top of the stove, of course).

And the family's ger had some homemade vodka brew ready for us to sample (after, we decided we'd stick with Chinggis).

Its 8:30 PM, and we just set up our tents somewhere near the first of the 8 lakes - but not sure how close. We set off this morning 10AM on a 3-day trek to reach Orkhon Khurkhree waterfall beyond the 8 lakes.

We were told the total distance over the 3 days would be 15k - probably lost in translation, b/c would couldn't have hiked less than 10k today alone! My feet and shoulders are feeling like someone took a baseball bat to them - I haven't trekked this distance in a long time, and definitely not w/ this much weight - I must be carrying 70lbs.! Then there was the crazy terrain... snow-capped mountains (in late June!) looking over lagoons in volcano craters make for spectacular views,

but crazy huge rocks/boulders all down the side of the mountain, basically jumping from one to another & with that weight was sure I was going to fall and/or break my ankle more than once. Then hiking through the valley & hopping between the rocks in the river (where I was sure I'd fall in), never once coming upon a clear path/trail until the last 2k or so.

Anyway - I'm not loving this! And our guide is really not mature enough for this - she had to be asked more than once to slow down, as some of the group was well out of sight. Of course, it didn't help when she got upset after being asked to slow down, but hopefully she'll get over it tomorrow.

Well, it soon became apparent after setting up the tents last night that we were in fact, lost, which helps explain why Zaya was getting upset. She took off after making dinner up the side of the mountain to try and spot the lake, but came back unsuccessful. After breakfast this morning, we spent some time discussing our options - whether to continue down the same river bank or go over the other mountain, etc. - and Zaya isn't exactly a take-charge kind of person, so the group consensus eventually was to continue down the bank. Really nice views of a lake after a couple kms, but not one of the 8 lakes we were looking for.

Had to cross a river at a point w/ no shoes - luckily not too wide since the water was freezing and rocks underwater ultra-slippery.

Finally got to a point where we were feeling really lost & considering backtracking to the start, but Shai & I scouted up to the top of a mountain on the other side of the bank & spotted a ger camp of in the distance further downstream. After hiking there, with the guide talking with the family, proclaimed the site was where we were supposed to end up for lunch tomorrow! But she didn't even realize/recognize until after speaking with the owners of the camp, meaning we were doubly lucky to find the place. The group voted to head (via van) to the site near the 8th lake to camp for the night where we were supposed to have ended up today (11k by foot, 50 by van). I personally didn't see the point, as we arrived near dusk already, and the lake was still ~ 3 k away, but everyone except Matti and I decided to go see the lake regardless of the time & hiked over. Matti & I set up the tents w/ the help of a baby sheep hanging around.

It was really fun spending time playing with the kids here also - they are running around wanting to be spun around and have endless energy! When the group came back (in the dark), they reported that the 8th lake was nothing great, just a lake - well, glad I didn't bother! We ate dinner with the family - a big bowl of animal inner organs.. the liver was edible, but when I tried the intestines I had to spit out- rude or not!

Central Mongolia (near Khuislin Naiman Nuur Nature Reserve)
I'm sitting with the Israelis outside the ger at the camp; we're teaching eachother useless Hebrew-English words like schos (cartilage) and tchor (hemorrhoids). We hiked through a nice forest back to the tourist ger camp from yesterday (still don't understand why we left in the first place!), and then met up with Bayr who had spent the past 2 days driving around the lakes and fishing. We headed a bit more north into Khuislin Nature Reserve where everyone did some laundry in the river. For dinner tonight, we're going to have goat - as in pick-out, kill, cut up and cook. Pretty disturbing to think about, but its how they survive around here... so when in Rome...

Bayr dragged the goat, took a hammer (same one we've been using for the tent pins, I noticed) and 2 swift blows to the skull (hopefully this is the humane thing), flips it over & knifes it in the belly while the other hand holds the mouth closed. Proceeds to pull out the heart, then talks to his buddy while waiting for the goat to die (as soon as the legs became limp) -- let's just say this wasn't the first time he's done this...

Dragged the goat into the ger, next came the skinning and disassembly of all the organs, legs, etc (blood splattering everywhere - so I guess its not a big deal when I asked "Won't it be messy inside the ger?", and Zaya saying "No!", as in, "Why are you asking such a stupid question?").

Afterwards, all (and that means all - with the exception of skin & fur) of the goat is put into a big pot with hot rocks, vegetables & salt/spices & a bit of water; sat on a fire to cook for 45 minutes.

Then, after the tradition of passing the hot rocks to eachother - feast!

There is another group here at the ger camp that just showed up - we were exchanging trekking stories & come to find out that the first lake where we were supposed to stop at but never reached, is actually only 1 hr trek from the point we started from 2 days ago?!?

Tsenkher Hot Springs, Mongolia
I'm about to turn-in for the night here at the Tsenkher hot springs - yet another adventurous day we've survived... After breakfast - bread w/ jam & dry biscuits again (won't miss that after this trip), drove to see Orkhon Khurkhree waterfall, which turned out to be no water at all, but a cliff with a puddle lake at the bottom. Even so, still really nice views.

Next drove to Tovkhon Khiid monastery hidden deep in the Khangai mountains - very scenic place, located in Khangai Nuruu National Park.

It wasn't the easiest drive to get there - bouncing around in the van while winding around trees on the road. While at the monastery, heavy rain started coming down, then switched to hail, so Zaya cooked in the back of the van & we ate lunch inside. Then the adventure began with the drive back - the van normally has held its own, but the terrain we were in was pure mud - a couple times the group had to get out & push (so much for the clean clothes from yesterday)...

and built makeshift bridges from fallen logs. We stayed out of the van while Bayr maneuvered down a steep hill - the van was sliding/fishtailing all over the place, gaining speed & everyone held their breath as the van headed toward a large tree... then at the very last possible second the tires gripped, Bayr gained control & steered the van within inches - literally - of the tree. We all thought for sure it was going to crash and we'd be stuck in the middle of the forest. After a few more near misses & pushing the stuck van, we were on our way here to the hot springs, where we soaked away the mud and rain with a few cocktails - great way to finish a trip to the countryside!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 02:35 Comments (0)

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