Off to Iceland -2015

Aurora Borealis or Northern lights, Iceland

Aurora Borealis or Northern lights, Iceland

Two days to go before we set out for Iceland via Singapore, Germany and Denmark

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Home

Just one of those days where you get up, have breakfast and pack for the flight home. We needed to re-jig the souveniers a bit so that our bags would not be overwieght.

We needed to check-out by 12noon(very civilized) and catch a bus to the airport just after. The bus was very comfortable and we arrived at Terminal 2 early, too early for British Airways in fact. Waited an hour or so having lunch before check in and now we are sitting in the “My City helsinki” bar at the airport drinking Australian Red Wine and Bubbly.

Three quarters of an hour till boarding for our flight to Heathrow where we have to collect luggage and re-check it with Singapore Airlines. This is no problem as we have 3 hours to make the connection (I hope!)

The flight went smoothly but things were not so smooth on the ground. Making our way to immigration we became aware of the need to get our luggage and transfer it to Singapore Airlines ourselves. The Immigration lines were horrific and a lady suggested we go to the Airline desk and see if they could get our luggage,

This was not possible and on the way we encountered a very slow and I believe deliberately obstructive security check but we eventually got through.

Ultimately we got our luggage and were able to get to the departure lounge. This is a hectic place and it takes about an hour before we get a departure gate for the flight. Ultimately we board the A380 and we are off to Singapore (12 hours away)

Debbie at Singapore Airport

The flight was good and despite the length it was fairly uneventful and we landed in Singapore just before dark. A quick turn-around and then onto the flight to Sydney (7 hours). Again no big issues, the in-flight entertainment helps a lot to pass the time and by 7.30am we are on the ground in Sydney.

We decided to have a night in Syddney before going home on the Sunday andpick up the dogs. The trip of a lifetime!

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finland-Estonia

It was a 4.30am rise at our Moscow hotel and an early breakfast before heading for the Allegro Train to Helsinki at 6.30am. The trip to Finland is relatively short given most train journeys to date, being about 3 and a half hours so with a time zone we will be there about 8.30 am.

Inside the Allegro Train.
 
This train has facilities for taking pets and children, there being a kids play area in our carriage.
 

The best thing about the train was its speed

 
Arriving at Helsinki the temperature was a little below freezing and just snowing. In fact the locals had not had much snow till the last few days. We walked to our hotel, The Sokos Vakuuna which is just across the square from the station. It is part of a shopping complex with supermarket and department store attached to it.
 
We couldn’t check in this early so a bit of time spent in the lobby online and doing some essential shopping was spent till our tour guide arrived. Then we boarded our bus for a city tour (the last) around Helsinki.
 
The city of 600,000 has a look similar to SPB without the canals, but it also has a freshness (Scaninavian ,possibly?) that the latter dous not have. There are some higher buildings but not towering. We head past one of the main churches (Lutheran) on a square with various government buildings as well as a big Rubic’s Cube that lights up for Xmas.
Helsinki’s main Lutheran Cathedral in sunlight
 
Rubic’s Cube and me
 
We then went down by one of the three harbours around the city where we were able to see the ferries that compete for business between Helsinki and various Baltic destinaions including Tallin and Stockholm.
 
Parkland near the harbour is popular on snowy days
 
We visited the memorial to Sibelius who was Finland’s premier composer and famous for his work Finlandia. The monement is a series of metal tubes and sits very effectively in a parkland setting amongst the snowy trees.
Jean Sebilius’s Monument
 
On the way back to the restaurant for lunch we dropped into another church hewn out of  a rocky hill in the city centre and spent a little while looking inside .

The alter beneath the domed roof

 
Lunch was at a nice place with a buffet entre of various fish dishes (I went the herrings) and I skipped the fish main for the nice chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. If I have learnt one thing this trip it’s that they over cater for the apetite. You cant eat three large meals a day and survive (ecept on pizza).
 
A nice afternoon to settle in to hotel and sleep before our final dinner which turns out to be at a Chinese restaurant. They do a good job both with the food and the Finnish/English/Chinese language thing!

Deb and Christabelle (r) next to Elena at the dinner

 
Then it’s back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep and no touring tomorrow.
 
 Sunday,8th January 2012
 
We have a slow start today, getting to breakfast on the top (10th) floor by about 9.45am. The restaurant is quite full with happy breakfasters. Getting the layout of a new breakfast room is very important if you want to make the most of what is on offer. I’m becoming used to the idea (not the practice) of the Russian/Finnish breakfast which has all sorts of cold cuts, meat, salami, cheeses and pickles etc. I’m not a breakfast salad person and so the various sausage/egg/potato dishes is better, but I am appreciating the fruit and bread /pastry options as well.
The views of Helsinki from the restauant are beautiful the am as the sun is coming up (but doesn’t get very far up being just 60 degrees North of the Equator.
A  camera team from the Travel Channel is having breakfast and doing a time lapse sunrise shoot for their program.

The sun just lights up the city skyline at 10.30am.The railway station is in the foreground.Might need the sunnies today!

 
We decided that today was going to be a slow day and tha we would just have a walk around and get our bearings in Helsinki. We set out about 12 noon and headed up the main shopping street before turning down towards the harbour where there are open markets and the ferry to the fortress islands.

The temperature on the building says it all!

 
We walk up to the Esplanade were the shops are all very much high-end retail and typical of much of the shopping in Helsinki.

A view accross the Esplanade

We bought some small items at a shop selling decorator stuff, especially Christmas decorations.

We didn't buy the train set!

Down by the harbour there were boats surrounded by ice which was just beginning to form on the water.
Thoughts of a quick dip were put to one side at this sight
A quick look around the open air markets and a look at the Cathedral overlooking the area followed.

Looking back to the markets from the cathedral.

 Some of the buildings in Helsinki have quite unique architecture.

An older buiilding in the centre of the city.

 
From the cathedral we went down to the docks and bought tickets to go accross to the fortress where there is a naval accademy and dock yards as well as numerous museums and cafes.On the way over there was ice beginning to form on open water.

Ice just beginning to form on the surface

 
At the fortress we visited the Lutheran Church which is popular for weddings. It contrasts with the Orthodox churches in its simplicity of decoration.

The interior of the fortress church

Kids were playing in the snow around the church.
This boy fell off his toboggan as I took his photo
 We went and had a look at a toy museum nearby and were amazed at the extent of the collection on display. A toy collector would pay a fortune for some of the ones on display.
 
Leaving the toy museum we noticed the fog coming in so we headed back for the ferry and the hotel.
Some of the fortress walls
Getting back to the city we walked till we came to an Itallian restaurant where we decided to have a meal. It was great to have pizza and pasta as a change from the Russian meals of the last few weeks. Back to the hotel and bed.
 
Monday 9th Jan, 2012
 
Today we intend to try out the transport system here by going down to the West Harbour where the Tallin Ferry goes from. We catch the 15A bus using the 3 day pass we eventually bought after much searching and found that the system works well.
We come back to the city centre and decide to walk down to the harbour where we went yesterday and walk around to the park on the point.
 

One of the Baltic ferries that service Copenhagen and Stockholm

 
The walk goes around towards a series of small piers where the islands that dot the harbour are visible below the low sun.

The sun never gets higher than this at this time of the year

We walked up through the parkland towards the large houses along the ridge. This is an area of Embassies and Consulates and sits next to some of the higher end residential areas of the city.

The Russian Embassy

 

Some of the Embassies along the parkland

The blocks of flats and units in this area are valued in the vecinity of 1,000,000-1,5oo,000 Euros.
 
 
 
This lake has frozen over and is used for skating.
 

A church sits above this frozen lake

 
The walk back towards the city area from here passes through more expensive residential area and a lot of high-end retail shops selling antiques, art, clothing and accessories.
We returned to the hotel for a drink in the bar before a saying goodbye for the last time to Lena who was about to board the train to SPB with Olga from the other tour group.
Later we went to a restaurant called ‘Bakers’ and had the Burger I had begun to crave during the Russian phase of the trip.
 
Tuesday, 10th Jan, 2012
 
We are not going to do too much today, we have a ferry booked for tomorrow to go to Tallin in Estonia and it leaves early so we don’t want to be too worn out for that. We have breakfast and after that set out to find a pub called Molly Malone’s which is an Irish theme pub. The only reason for that is that where ever we go we try to find an Irish pub and have a Guiness and maybe a meal.
We  found it a little way down past the railway and decided to come back there later.

Molly Malone's

 
On the way to this pub we passed a scating school for 3-4 year olds. Most of them were going pretty well.

An important skill in Helsinki

 
We walked around the block from the pub and found a shop selling Star Wars stuff and went in for a while to check it out. Lots of war gaming gear as well with a real live Finnish Nerd as the proprietor.

C3PO and friend

We found yet another snow covered park a little further on and while we were walking through it we decided to return to the fortress in the harbour and see the bits we missed due to the weather the other day.

I imagine Helsinki would be very green in Summer

Going back to the fortress, we were able to explore the gun emplacements that face out to the sea and the powder magazines that supplied the firepower for them.
 
 

One of many guns facing the sea

The magazines are lined up behind these guns.

A magazine in the foreground.

 
The fortress consists of many stone bastions which have gun slots and holes in them. The bastions are arranges so that an enemy would be forced to move along spaces between them that would become ‘killing fields’ that would allow no escape from the defenders fire.

A narrow passage between the fortified

 
We left the fortress for the city an a Guiness at Molly’s before a little shopping excursion and back to the hotel.

Despite these fortifications the Russians took over Finland from the Swedes in 1809.

 Wednesday, 11th Jan, 2012
Today we board the M/s Norlandia at 7.30am to travel to Tallinn in Estonia.It is about a 2.5 hr trip each way and we are looking forward to seeing the Medieval city for the day before returning tonight about 8.30pm.
 
 
Currently the temperature is about 2 below so a nice day with snow expected in Tallinn.
We boarded the ferry about 7 am and found seats on the deck that were a little like aircraft seats. Theses seemed to be hottly saught after and it appears there are only a few as it turns out the ship owners don’t really want the punters sitting there.
The reason is that the whole ship appart from the cabins is set up as a floating entertainment/shopping experience and there are lots of places to sit in the lounges and restaurants etc.
I checked there was enough life boats before we decided to move up to the cafeteria for breakfast.

My lifeboat!

The three hour or so trip is quite pleasant given the options on board. We were not interested in the duty free shopping but many are and they come on board with trolleys and bags in abundance.

There are plenty of poker machines available on board as well.

We ended up in a longe where a three piece band was playing for a crowd of mainly retirees who where dancing along enthusiasticly.

10am and we get into the party mood on M/s Norlandia

 
 One particular couple were very good dancers and were as much a part of the entertainment as the band, Bingo and the singer/guitarist in the next bar.
Arriving about 11.30am in Tallinn the snow was falling heavily.

Another ferry in the harbour.

We caught a taxi and took it up to the gates of the Old Town in Tallin.

Deb outside the gates to the Old Town

We made our way to the end of the street that leads from the gates and found a group assembling for a guided tour. Two of the tourists were from our tour group and so we joined them with a young Estonian lady doing the tour guide duties.

Our tour group outside a church

The snow was falling heavily and gave the old Medieval town a majical feel and we enjoyed our guide’s modern take on this recently 1990, reversion to democracy.

Part of the old wall and towers

 Any direction you turn the camera there is a picture-postcard view.

A church behind the houses

From a high point where supposedly ghosts have been regularly experienced you get this view.

The Old Town from above.

Modern Tallin sprawls around the Old Town but no building is allowed to be higher than the spire in the previous photo.
 
There are some interesting features of the old medieval walls including the structure up on this wall which is a toilet.

The long drop!

We finish in the main square where there is a pharmacy that is the longest continually opperating pharmacy in the world. We bought some Panadol from them and decided to try thr powdered unocorn horn next time we visited.

The cream building at centre is the pharmacy.

 

We had lunch and a Guiness at the Estonian Molly Moloy’s and then headed back to the boat to wait for the 4.30pm departure. We watched as semi-trailers and other trucks loaded onto the ferry through its open bow.

Loading a truck.

The trip back to Helsinki was uneventful, lots of dancing for the seniors and drinking by everyone else. A very good guitarist kept a few aging hippies very happy and we disembarked about 8.45pm.
Tomorrow we pack and head to the airport to fly to london enroute to home via Singapore.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

St.Petersburg

The Angleterre Hotel is in the geographic centre of SPB and looking out the front door at the largest Orthodox cathedral in Russia. An imposing building to look at with huge marble columns and a dome that soars into the sky.

The hotel itself is very comfortable and well-appointed. The beds are possibly the best of the trip and we slept like logs. The breakfast(always a good indicator) was excellent. Fresh pastries and bread rolls with all the things to go with it. Best of all (says Deb) was the bottle of champagne near the juices. Champagne and orange juice makes every breakfast just like Christmas morning.

We are off for a bus/walking tour of the city to begin with today, hopefully the party will be rested and ready for the day. Tomorrow night of course is ‘The Nutcracker Ballet performance which everyone has been looking forward to.

We start the tour of the city at 9am but it easily be 9pm as it is very dark and the sun doesn’t really come up till about 10.30am.Still, there are already tour groups and school groups at our first stop on the bank of the Neva River where a couple of sphinx nicked from the Egyptians are situated.

You can see how dark the morning it in this picture of a sphinx.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Around the corner there are some imposing buildings opposite two lighthouse towers where the original port of SPB used to be. It has to be noted that SPB is the Christmas City. No city I have seen does lights like this place and everything is festooned with all types of twinkling/flashing lights as can be seen below.

Deb standing at the base of one light column

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The merchants offices opposite the light house column above is equally lit up, and this is not unusual. The Christmas period in Russia takes in the 25th Dec. festivities but they are really just getting ready for the 7th Jan. when the Orthodox festivities get going.

The mercantile offices

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Nearby the ship that fired a couple of blank shots to signal the start of the 1917 revolution, The Aurora is moored. It flies a flag similar to the British one incorporating the St.Andrew cross and the St George cross, both patron saints of Russia. The flag is the Russian naval flag.

Note the ice in the river!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We make our way back to the English bank of the Neva and visit the statue of Peter the Great (who was great), on his horse. He founded SPB about 300 years ago. He was 204cm tall and not afraid to get stuck in and build stuff (log cabins etc.) himself. We saw a pair of boots he made for himself at the Armoury in Moscow; the knee would reach most people’s hip height.

Peter the Great on horse, not so great photo of me(does the sun ever come up?)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The architecture of this planned city is overwhelming. Every street and canal(there are over 60) is lined with magnificent architectural examples. The city is a shining example of a planned city.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It is hard to imagine that in this city, 1,000,000 people died in the 28 months the city was cut off from Russia by the Germans in WWII. It was called Liningrad at the time having been briefly called Petrograd in the early part of the 20th Century.
Shostakovich wrote the Leningrad Symphony in his unheated room in SPB during this seige and it was played and broadcast to the Germans as a sign that they were not about to give in.
We left the city by the main southern artery to the suburb of Puskin where we had lunch at a restaurant(reputedly a favourite of Putin) that had just been reopened after a fire. The entire building is made of pine logs.

The restaurant at Pushkin

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Getting amongst the Borscht

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lots of wine, vodka and borscht kept the group happy and it actually took a bit of effort by our SPB guide, Tatiana, th o get us out of the place to go to Catherine’s Palace.

Deb and Tatiana by one of the many canals in SPB with Christabelle.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Catherine’s Palace is an outstanding example of why the revolution of 1917 eventually happened.It cannot escape any reasonable interpretation that what is there at Puskin is an overblown statement of absolute power and autocracy. What the common peasant must have thought of this can only be imagined.
What we see today is a beautifluuy restored monument to the craftsmen and women who worked at the behest of the ruling classes.

Catherine's Palace

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Detail of the front of the palace

Despite seemingly deserted at the front, inside it was mayhem as the holiday period in Russia has led to a flood of locals going to museums etc. It took about 45 minutes to eventually get into the restored rooms and begin the tour.
I say restored because the whole palace was severely damaged and looted by the Germans in WWII.
 
 

A picture of what most of the internal structure was like after the War.

 

The inside of the main stairway today

The first floor is the one usually open to the public and it is here that the most opulent and impressive rooms are to be found .

The crowd and the main entrance chamber

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It seems to me that the building and its interiors are an amazing tribute to thpeople who built it, not those who owned it.

On returning to the hotel we prepared for our evening’s entertainment which was to be a performance of Russian folk music and dance called “Feel Yourself Russian” which may have lost (or gained) something in the translation but we were set for a good evening.

The Nikolaevsky Palace , nve the residence of Russian Nobility, contains a small 300 seat theatre and having ascended the stairs to the level of the theatre we are grreeted by a string quartet and attendants in period costume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The show consited of a quartet of male singers who went through a repertoir of traditional folk songs and orthodox religious music. The quality of the voices was impecable and the performance , faultless.

After this a folk orchestra led by an amazing accordian player  who led them through the whole performance with both singers and dancers.

Sitting in the front row to get a good view turned out to have consequences as I was taken up on stage to participate in the dances by one of the young ladies in thre group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This turned out to be quite an enjoyable experience and certainly one that I hadn’t expected.

A feature of the dancing was the men who were especially athletic and did stuff no human body should be able to do. In all and excellent night and memorable in more ways than one.

Thursday 5/1/12

This is our big day as far as seeing a major attraction in SPB. We go to the Hermitage, the largest Art Gallery in the world situated on the English Bank of the Neva and occupying five buildings of the old Winter Palace of the Czars.

The entrance to the main building

Fortunately today we have an entrance to an area away from the public entrance and this turns out to be a good thing. Although we are paying, the general public actually is getting free entry today. This leads to massive ques outside throughout the day.

Huge ques outside the Hermitage

To try and explain the Hermitage is difficult and without our local guide, Tatiana, we would have been hard pressed to get a picture of the extent and significance of this collection not just of art but historical and archaeological items. the link above will take you to highlights of the Western European art in the museum.
I took pictures of lots of famous artist’s paintings including van Gough, Titian, Michaelangelo, Monet, Degas, Rembrandt etc. It is probably the major rooms and internal decoration of the old palace that is the most inspiring.

The main staircaseDetail of the main staicase room

 

Ceiling detail and the huge chandelliers

 

This room was the hiding place for the Ministers of the Czar and where they were arrested the day the warship Aurora fired is blanks to start the revolution of 1917

 
We took the rest of the day to do some shopping, have a champagne in the hotel bar and to get ready for the night’s entertainment, the performance of”The Nutcracker Suit” by The Michailovsky Classical Ballet and Opera Company
You can see pictures of the opera house and its interior on the web link above.

Waiting for the performanceThe main box at the theatre

 

The final bows after a memorable performance

We had been expecting a short version of the ballet but as it turned out, this was a special pre-Christmas (Orthodox) performance and we saw Three Acts and not two. SPB regards ballet as one of its two main symbols and it was a full house on the night. People brought their children and it was a chance to dress-up for the occasion.
On the completion of the performance it was  interesting to watch ‘getting your coat from the cloak room’ as a contact sport. Russian women are particularly aggressive in this activity.
Home to the hotel for a late dinner and bed.
 
 Friday, 6th January 2012
 
A slower start today, at 10am we we set off for the smallest of the islands in the SPB area which originally over-run with rabbits has a very different use today. It is the site if the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great after the 1703 defeat of the Swedes and the establishment of SPB.
 It also houses within its grounds the Cathedral af Peter and Paul which is the burial-place of the tombs of all the Tsars since Peter the Great.
In a special chamber to the back of the main part of the cathedral there is a tomb for the last of the Romanovs, the abdicated Nicholas II and his murdered family and three servants who lost their lives after the 1917 revolution. The son Alexis and a daughter Maria are still to be identified from their ashes and bones found in Siberia. They will be interred when that happens.
We had the chance to hear a four-part male choir sing while there and I was blown away by the Bass singer (we bought the CD). While doing this I was sketched by a charcoal artist and bought the likeness as well (200RUB).  
Our next stop was the prison in the fortress used up till the 1930’2 for political prisoners. This section would have been quite unpleasant, especially if the heating was not in use. The corridors were carpeted so that prisoners could not hear the guards footsteps and the idea was to disorient them in order to break their minds.
While leaving for lunch we passed a life-size statue of a seated Peter the Great. He seemed to have a remarkably small, bald head. I posed with another visitor who shared a similarly bald head.
After lunch we had a special visit to the palace (read, rich person’s big house) where Rasputin was murdered. The Yusopov Palace owned by Felix Yosopov is a magnificent house in the centre of SPB where , with three others, Felix lured Rasputin and with Cyanide laced cakes and Madeira wine, attempted to poison him. The fats in the cakes nullified the poison and so he was shot.When checking the body later Felix found him still alive and Rasputin tried to strangle his attacker only to  eventually wind up outside the house and being shot again and dumped in the Neva River.
On finding the body (it wasn’t weighed down) there was evidence to prove that Rasputin was still alive when put in the river, only to die by drowning.
After the visit to the Yusopov Palace we finished our SPB tours with a look at St.Isaac’s cathedral opposite our hotel. This is an impressive domed building with the world’s most expensive interior decoration. The gold leaf alone amounts to 400 tonnes, which is twice what the USA paid Russia for Alaska. This does not include the precious stones and diamomds used in the decoration. The doors to the cathedral are the world biggest doors and the dome is the fourth highest in the world.
 

Tomb of Peter the Great

The last of the Romanovs

 
 
Peter and Paul Cathedral interior

 
The interior of the Peter and Paul Cathedral
 

The Peter and Paul Fortress.

 

Peter the Great and two friends

 

The room in the basement of the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin was Murdered

 

Felix Yusopov was one of Raspitin's killers

 

The spot where Rasputin was first shot after poisoning failed to do the job

 

The interior of the "Fruit Room" of Yusopov Palace where the furniture is made of Pear Wood.

 
 
 
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Three Inches

This is a short story that came out of our time in China

 

Three Inches

Apparently three inches was the general rule for desirable feet when May’s grandmother was a young girl in the early 1900’s. The practice of foot binding was practiced in China up until the 1920’s and so it was that in traditional rural China, all young girls’ feet were bound so that they would be considered a desirable mate in life.

I’m not certain that may’s grandmother actually achieved this measure of perfection and I’m not sure if three inches referred to length, height or width of foot but it cannot be imagined the ordeal that foot binding must have been for young girls.

By all accounts the grandmother married May’s grandfather in a traditional ceremony following the principal of arranged marriages. During the ceremony the bride’s feet are never to touch the ground (no bad thing after all that had been done to her feet) and she wore a veil to cover her face for the entire ceremony during which she neither ate nor drank.

It was not until after the ceremony and they were in the bridal chamber, that either party to the marriage actually saw each other for the first time. It must be said that divorce was virtually unheard of at that time and so I guess you just got on with life.

May’s grandfather was a landlord in his area and as such would have been considered well-off by the standards of the day. The region in the north of China, about a 24 hour train journey from Beijing, was presumably an agriculture based economy although today this is a coal mining centre.

The big changes in May’s family life were to come with the formation of the Chinese Republic and the Mao’s rise to power. The Cultural Revolution saw that landlords, doctors, teachers and anyone who held positions of influence were stripped of their possessions and positions.

So it was that May’s grandfather and family became a virtual outcasts and an enemy of the people; to suffer humiliation and ostracism. There were I think, eight children of whom one was May’s father. He served with the People’s Liberation Army as required, going around the country and bringing the people into line with Mao’s doctrine. He delayed being married well past the normal age of early 20’s because of the times and ultimately married at about 28 years of age when 1976 the Cultural Revolution ceased to be.

At this time the only work available was in the coal mines and so it was that both of May’s parents became coal workers. Changes had come about as a result of the cultural uniformity of the previous ten years and one was to allow marriages based on mutual affection.

May’s older sister was born and life was fairly normal until May’s arrival. As the ‘one child’ rule was in place, May’s parents had broken the law and found themselves without jobs in the mines as a result. The only solution was to become street-vendors to make ends meet as so many Chinese people do to this day.

Circumstances led to their selling becoming a small shop and so it was that they were able to earn enough to educate their two girls. May eventually went to university while her older sister married and later had a child. The decision to have a child was more through family pressure than desire for a family.

May moved to Beijing where for $90 a month she shared a very small room with another girl. The bathroom/shower was a public facility some two blocks away. Needless to say that May chose to find better accommodation and with her boyfriend and three dogs now lives about an hour from the centre of Beijing.

May works for a travel company doing tour guide work in her adopted city and surrounds. She was hoping to make the trip back to her home town for the Chinese New Year. We met her as our guide in Beijing and could not help but be struck by this vibrant, intelligent young woman of 29 who spoke excellent English and took such obvious delight in showing us her country and its culture.

The story I have just related came across during her commentary to our tour group and fitted neatly into the story of China as we now find it. Rapidly changing and looking towards the future. I was impressed by her dry sense of humour and acceptance of the growing pains that modern 21st Century life is bringing to China and its cities.

With young people like May we should hope that that future is bright.

May with trademark Panda on a stick

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Moscow

Saturday, 31st of December 2011, New Year’s Eve

We have a big day today and after all the sleep on the train I wake early and go out to the lounge area on our floor to type up some diary stuff and organise the last day’s pictures. Most of the day will be walking around the Kremlin and Armoury, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral.

Looking forward to breakfast and a little time to organise ourselves before the day starts which will end in Red Square after the New Year festivities late tonight. The train trip and the steady diet of dumplings, instant noodle and Russian beer has been good for weight loss. I’ve lost about 4 kilos so far. Must write a book about the new diet sensation!

We headed off at 9.30am to go to The Armoury within the Kremlin where treasures of the Czars and the Russian people are kept. Passing by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier we found ourselves in a long que to get in because Putin was in the Kremlin and security screening was being carried out. Ultimately we found our way in and set off for a tour.

St. Basils Cathedral built by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the Russian victory over the Tartars from Mongolia

To say that the collection is overwhelming is an understatement when you stand looking at clothing worn by Catherine the Great or any number of rulers of Russia. Crowns, ornaments, thrones and carriages are all there and beautifully presented.Unforrtunately no photography was allowed inside the armoury.

Deb in front of the Kremlin

I found the carriages one of the most interesting from the point of view of their size and intricate carving. Gifts from foreign ambassadors as well as Napoleon Bonaparte were all there including the famous Faberge Eggs.

The amount of gold, silver and precious stones is amazing. We could not look at all of the exhibits but just to see Ivan the Terrible’s throne and robes is quite incredible.

After this we visited the square where the many churches and chapels of the Kremlin were situated. The main cathedral where the Czars were coronated was impressive in its icons and frescoes.

The main cathederal in the Kremlin wher the Czars were crowned

The 200 tonne bronze bell that never rang and the huge cannon that never fired spoke of the Czars’ attempts to impress friend and foe alike. Overall the wealth and opulence of the rulers must obviously have led to the common people saying ‘enough’s enough’.

The two hundred tonne bell with its 11 tonne broken piece. It never rang.

 A lunch at a nearby restaurant was followed by a walk around Red Square which is so named because the word for red in Russian is the same as the word for beautiful in ‘Old Russian’. That is, it is really Beautiful Square. Today it was thronging with people who were obviously getting ready for New Year’s Eve and a huge number of them were young men from Kazakhstan, who are in Moscow as cheap labour around the city.To see the main Kremlin castle, the walls of red brick, Lenin’s Tomb as well as the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral is unique. On one side of the square is the GUM Department store which is really a multi-level shopping mall, packed with people.Lenin’s Tomb also had Stalin in it but he was’ kicked out’ in the 60’s to be buried behind it with other Soviet leaders.

In the evening we proceeded in all our finery to a restaurant in the vicinity if the Moldavian Consulate. The evening was marked by ample alcohol including copious vodka, a very sweet carbonated Muscat and a red wine that defied description. The entertainment was provided by a group of three women in national dress who sang with beautiful strong voices to the accompaniment of a man on button accordion who looked like he came out of Russian central casting.

A phone photo(blurry) of the singers

We danced and ate and drank till about 9.30pm when it was time to make our way to Red Square for the fireworks.

We were surprised to find it relatively easy to get into the square despite the security and about 1000 police. The square was much less crowded than that afternoon and we found a place to wait for the fireworks. We found that a lot of the young Russians who heard us speaking English approached us to talk and we found it easy to pass the time till about 11.30pm when needed to find the portaloos. This involved having to leave the square and proved unfortunate as some guys were collecting money to use them (we had no currency on us) and ultimately we ended not being able to get back into the square.

The GUM Department store at night

As it turned out, the fireworks which we could hear but not see, turned out to be very short and not very spectacular so we were not too disappointed. By all accounts the Russians don’t make much of a show of the fireworks, with no count-down or entertainment/music to go with them.

A few travellers at the NYE in Red Square

 Think we did OK to see the square at night and to have some good times talking with the locals.

Sunday, 1st January

 2012

We awoke to snow falling consistently in Moscow and this was a good sign for our visit to Sergiev-Posad a town to the Northeast of Moscow about 50km away. It is the site of a monastery established by St. Sergius of Radonezh who in his 20’s went to live in the forest and established a small chapel which through his good works became  a major monastery in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The monastery of St. Sergius

The monastery has a wall built by Ivan the Terrible and houses a small cathedral which sits on the site of the original built by the Saint and his body is buried in the church.
 
The snow lends a particular atmosphere to the place and the whole drive out of Moscow was very picturesque with a covering of snow. The city of Moscow has almost all of its residents living in high-rise accommodation which is centered around a hub of major services as well as parklands and a good rail infrastructure.

The snow outside or hotel looking towards Red Square

  • Inside the monastery there are a number of churches whose walls are covered with frescoes and icons. Most internal walls are carved wood with gold leaf embellishment.

St. Sergius is supposed to have befriended a bear as depicted in this fresco Debbie and Elena our tour leader outside tunnel at the entrance of the monastery showing more frescos

 

Many of the icons on the main wall of the church

The monastery is a very busy place with up to 300 monks and many faithful who visit each day.

One of the monks at the monastery

 After lunch we had yet another surprise (of a cultural nature) which builds on the reputation and position of this city as a centre also of toy making.

It turns out we were to visit and take part in a workshop painting Matrioshka dolls. These dolls began their rise to popularity in this area after the turn of last century and remains one of the main sites of production.

Our tour guide Lyuba(r) and the Tatiana(l) who is one of the artisans that paint the dolls.

 
A feature of the tour has been the detail and effort the tour company (Travel Directors) has put into the tour and this workshop was a good example of their work. Everyone had a doll to paint and this was a really enjoyable experience.

My effort after an hour or so.

 
After our cultural experience we went back to the hotel before dinner at a nearby restaurant. The notable part of the meal was the almost unseemly haste with which the waiters went about getting us fed and out of the place. As I have said before, some establishments have yet to come to grips with reasonable customer service.
 

Monday 2nd Jan 2012 We decided to opt out of the day’s program to have a bit of time to do things we wanted to do but could not expect the group to have to do as well. After a slow start we started to walk up towards the Red Square. On the way we passed the restaurant where we ate the night before and had a chance to see it in daylight. Thinking we might go and have a look inside St.Basil’s we started towards the square but remembering it was not open till 11am we headed for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to see the changing of the guard first.

The Eternal FlameThe two guards for the next hour march with their commander to the monument

The new guard march past 12 plinths each marked with the names of cities that are Heros of the Republic for their sacrifice during WWII.  Many people gather each hour to see this solemn tribute to the fallen each hour .On the way back to the square we stopped to watch the scaters on the ice rink set up for the holidays in front of GUM.

 

  After this we went to St.Basil’s and bought tickets to see inside. There is a museum integrated with the church which takes the visito on a winding and intricate route through the maze of chambers and passageways that make up the building.

At each stage are many historic relics, icons and archaeological finds associated with the history of St.Basil’s dateing almost to the founding of the original fortress(The Kremlin) on the hill overlooking the Moscow River.Audio-visual displays and detailed descriptions of the lives of Saints and fools for Christ are plentiful throughout.

 After an hour or so we went over to GUM to have a look around, hopefully withfewer people than the first day we visited. Fortunately this was how we found it and although uninterested in buying from the mostly up-market brand shops we had a coffe and something to eat near the top level.

Lunch in GUM The view from the top of GUM

As we were leaving GUM we stopped to buy some fruit in an unusual up-market supermarket on the bottom floor which was more of a supre deli-liquor store than anything else but it makes an interesting alternative to Woolies.

 On our return to the square we bought two Russian Style hats for Tom and me before passing over to the Bolshoi Ballet building to take some photos,passing by the statue of Carl Marx in the process.

Debbie and Karl

Returning to the hotel we retired to the bar for a few glasses of champagne with a few friends before dinner and packing to board the train to St.Petersburg tomorrow.

Tuesday 3rd Jan 2012

We began the day with a walk aroung the vecinity of the hotel by ourselves while waiting for the bus. This involved going over to the underground shopping centre and then back towards the entrance of Red Square via the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

View accross the top of the underground shopping centre

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
there was also a very inpressive set of horses in a fountain.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Although 9am there is still obviously no sunlight yet.
We return to the hotel to meet with the group and take a walk to the nearest Metro station were we would take a ride out to a station or two to look at the remarkable system built on Stalin’s orders.

There aree chandeliers even in the tunnel where the train comes in!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The stations are all fitted out with polished granite or marble with bronze statues or frescos depicting the idealism of the old USSR.

Deb found some chooks amongst the bronzes

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

One of the many frescos on the roof of the system

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There are also murals at the end of the station platform levels depicting events such as the end of WWII and the 1812 victory over napoleon.

The end of WWII as depicted in mural form.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The whole Metro seems to run very smoothly and efficiently moving huge numbers of people every day and in a very imspiring environment.
After this we get on the bus to head our to the site of a palace built on the high bank of the Moscow River where a magnificent (no longer existing) wooden palace was a favourite summer retreat for the Czars.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The site called Kolomenskoye is very popular as a place to visit by families as it has huge grounds with trees and open areas for picnics or in winter, skiing.

Looking back towards Moscow from the summer palace

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
There is a 1/40th scale model of the original palace on display in the main gate house.

The gate house

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Part of the scale model showing an impressive wooden building.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Before leaving the gatehouse area we were treated to a reanctment of a traditional Russian wedding involving the tour party as participants. I managed to get a gig as father of the bride.

The bloke in the very large hat at the back played his part very well

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
But wait, there’s more. The Moscow city fathers have actually built a replica of the old palace on another part of the grounds and our bus driver Edward (old Russian name?) took us to see it.

The recreated palace is now a museum, very popular with Muscovites.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It was now time to go to Leningrad Station (all stations are called after another place nowhere near Moscow!) and we boarded the Very Fast Train for St. Petersburg(SPB).

The high speed train(from website)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This proved to be a great experience sitting in aircraft type seats in a comfortable train travelling at up to 220km/h. It took about 4hours to get to SPB and so we pulled into the station at about 8.30pm.
 

SPB Station

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Our carriage

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The impressive station building is only the beginning of a city that is full of amazing buildings

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Off to the Angleterre Hotel through chaotic traffic and a very comfortable bed in preparation for tomorrow.
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trans Siberian Railway to Moscow

28th Dec, 2011

About 13 hours on the train and we have reached Ilanskaia which is about 750 km from Irkutsk. The time is about 8.45am local Irkutsk time but actually the train runs on Moscow time so it is 3.45 am. This is confusing so I’ll have some breakfast and see how I go then.

Breakfast done with I think I’ll go into some of the details of train travel in this part of the world. In contrast to the XPT in NSW, these trains run on time. Each carriage has a conductor who looks after the sleeping/sitting compartments throughout the trip. Two toilets are located at each end and are generally well maintained.

The current toilet in this train sounds like a jet engine starting up and I would imagine not to be flushed when still seated.

As I mentioned before, being in a two-up, two-down sleeper is much less enjoyable to having forked out for twin accommodation and I am glad we took the latter option but we miss out on the camaraderie of the 4 person cabins.

Each train has a dining car (although not the Ulaan Baatar-Irkutsk one) and they are run privately. The meals are quite reasonably priced and the service is quite OK. This train has a trolley that goes round the cars and sells noodles, hot food, drinks and snacks as well as a range of beer. We had a beer last night which came in half litre bottle and was 9.5% alcohol. Very nice, but deadly!

On the Trans Siberian from Irkutsk

Sleeping in the trains is surprisingly good. The carriages are warm (some are too warm) and the linen, pillows and blankets are clean and comfortable. We slept from about 10pm to 8.30am last night with just a few wakeful periods.

Boiling hot water is available in the carriage for tea/coffee and noodles and is heated by a coal fired furnace in the end if the car which also serves as the heating system. Electricity is available via 220V European outlets and so charging laptops etc. is no problem.

It is 10.20am by the local time and as yet outside the train is pitch black. There is snow all over the ground but as we get towards Moscow we expect the weather to warm up a bit. Instead of -200C to -80C it will only vary a few degrees either side of zero.

Some of the group have had some problems with the effort taken to dress warmly given we wear about four layers of clothing including two layers of sock and gloves but the effort is worth it. I’m sure that with practice and familiarity we would be like the locals who carry on their lives seemingly oblivious to the cold.

As mentioned before, the women especially use the cold to advantage by dressing in the most amazing fur hats, coats and other winter gear. Nothing could be further from a Gulag.

PETA would not have a lot of sympathy about furs from Russian women dressing for the cold.

Back on the train the day has passed quietly with most of us just watching the passing scenery, snow covered rural villages of wooden houses and backyards with green houses. Silver Birch forests interspersed with various conifers.

 

Sunshine breaks out on the snowy countryside in western Siberia

Some evidence of a timber industry in-between larger towns where industry seemed to be well established. Some areas show evidence of larger scale cropping although not in the winter. There is no evidence or sign of animal agriculture.

The country around Achinsk becomes quite flat with patches of forest. We try to go to the dining car for a beer but are told very firmly ‘piva nyet’ by the lady who runs the diner. As we were entering she was giving her staff an earbashing and by the look of her she was employed pre 1989 kick-starting tractors on a collective farm on the Steppes. When we then tried to buy a meal she ordered her staff to tell us the dining car was closed. I’m getting the feeling that Russia won’t be a major tourist success until a ‘service culture’ develops in the travel and accommodation sectors.

P.S. One of our party later gave her a small Koala key ring and she immediately became much more friendly,go figure! 

It has begun to snow in the last hour or so.

Time for bed although we are going to have to do something with our body clocks to account for the 5 hour difference between train time (Moscow) and local time bases on Irkutsk.

Thursday, 29th Dec

We slept in this morning local time so that we got up at 6am Moscow time. We have decided that today is going to be the time shift day and seeing as all you have to do is sleep in, it seemed the best option.

A cup of chocolate cappuccino and an apple and juice will do for starters until ‘dumplings girl’ arrives with something more substantial. I’m still avoiding ‘tractor starter’ in the diner.

Dumpling Girl bearing her trademark dumplings

Outside it is still dark and we don’t expect the sun until about 9am Moscow time, till then we will doze, read and type up diaries. The rhythm of the train has become very soothing and relaxing. The balance between activity and rest on this tour is largely achieved by these days of rail travel and the pace of activity at our stops. After 15 days on tour it is working out quite nicely. We are all looking forward to 4 days in Moscow and then the St. Petersburg stage which our guide Elena is really looking forward to as it is her home town.

Cold and dark outside the train

 

By 7am we are in Ishim, just about on time (4 minutes of so) which is amazing for a train that has come nearly 7000km. State Rail take note! Ishim has small shops on the platform selling bread and other small goods as well as a range of alcohol. The shops have a small hole at the front for completing the transaction and a wider window area to display the wares. Obviously this is a good idea in this climate.

I had better charge up the laptop battery as I want to show one of the tour group some photos later.

As we travel closer to the Ural Mountains and the boundary between Asia and Europe the landscape has continued much as before although the snow is falling more consistently and it is getting deeper on the ground.

Fortunately ‘dumpling girl’ has just come by and we have had some large deep fried dumplings which are probably more like potato cakes but they are very satisfying.  

Outside everything is covered with snow and it looks quite cold as the wind is blowing a bit. Looks like a good day to get some pictures into this diary.

As the day progressed we had some sunshine but not for long as the snow returned by mid-afternoon and taking pictures was made very difficult. There were a few trains with military tanks loaded on them and huge numbers of rail-wagons for transporting either oil or natural gas

 As the afternoon progressed we were keen to see the obelisk that is by the rail-line marking the Asia-Europe boundary but as it is getting quite dark now (4.10pm Moscow time) it would seem that we will not be able to see it.

It seems quite appropriate to be entering Europe from this direction rather than the usual route through Britain or one of the main European countries. As yet we have seen nothing of the Urals which lie along this border so they will pass in the night.

The sky lightened briefly to allow a view of the houses along the route

I guess a fact of having chosen to go by train is that you a limited to a particular view of the country but it also emphasises the vastness of the country and could not be fully appreciated from 30,000 feet up.

Very soon we will break out the ‘Bulgara’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Strandja-Chateau Rossenovo.

Earlier in the afternoon the trolley girl came past and we decided to utilize Irkutsk time (6pm) to have a beer. The beer is very cheap at about 50-80 Rubels for a 500ml bottle or about $1.5-$2.50 or close to 1/3 the price of Australian beer.

Unfortunately one bottle was a bit fizzy and we had a clean-up to do but with the help of our carriage attendant who we had praised in the official comments book was only too happy to replace our table cloth and towel.

We decided  to celebrate the crossing into Europe and will give the Russian Cab-Sav a nudge in our compartment before something to eat and then to bed.

We just heard that the dining car dragon had the mobile phones and playing cards of four Norwegian backpackers confiscated while in the dining car. Looks like some parts of the old USSR die hard.

The Cab-Sav is very sweet; although not undrinkable make that undrinkable. I’m not sure I have come across a wine that on the surface of it seems drinkable at first but after a few sips requires laying down and avoiding.

 30th Dec, 2011

8am somewhere between Kirov and Gorkii and outside the sun has yet to make an impression. Lots of snow still and overnight there must have been a huge rock-slide because the track seemed to be very uneven compared to the long stretches of smooth track on the other side of the Urals.

We have caught up with Moscow time and expect to be in Moscow about 6pm this evening.

The country is becoming more densely populated now with regular villages and towns of traditional wooden houses and more blocks of flats in the larger towns. The view from the railway tends to be somewhat bleak and industrial as the rail never goes up the main street. The railway activity is huge as this line is a major transport link between east and west.

We cross a few major rivers along the way including the Volga. Most are iced up at this stage with ice fishermen camped out on the surface. The sky is grey and beginning to look threatening.

Not the Volga River

At major railway stations there is a lot of activity with people travelling for the New Year and the upcoming Orthodox Christmas.

Mother and child wait on the platform

Travelling in through some satellite towns in the last hour before Moscow we see a better quality and bigger house being built interspersed with cropping areas.

Finally entering Moscow the accommodation switches to high-rise apartments with open spaces and treed areas between them as well as lots of areas with rows and rows of garages or lock-ups which I suppose are for the residents of the flats to use.

Arriving at Moscow station

In one of these lock-up areas there was a courtyard area with an old jet fighter parked in it. It was a long way from an airfield and I suppose it belongs to an enthusiast who only takes it out at weekends.

Finally we arrive at Moscow station and go by bus to the Metropole Hotel near the Kremlin Wall and just opposite the Duma (Parliament Building). It is an amazing hotel with all the trimmings, but very expensive laundry service.

The Metropol Hotel, our home in Moscow

Everyone was very glad to settle down to a three course meal starting with caviar on small pancakes, which makes a change from the noodles and dumplings on the train.

Champagne on arrival at the Metropol is a good way to start

A shower and a little diary work (free WiFi) and then to bed.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Siberia

We are currently going through the ‘no man’s land’ between Russia and Mongolia where photos are not to be taken. The landscape has frozen rivers and rugged hills covered with conifers and deciduous trees. There is just a light dusting of snow. Our carriage has yet to be checked by customs but already we are being instructed in no uncertain terms what we can and can’t have stowed in parts of the compartment.

Russia came into Mongolia in the 1920’s when the Mongols gained independence from China and only left in 1990. The culture of Mongolia is very much a mix of Russian and Chinese superimposed on the Mongol culture. With only 2.3m people, and 1m of them in the city of UB, this resource rich country is still adjusting to the freedoms of independence.

Much of the resources go to China and Russia and the country has yet to develop a strong industrial base.

In all we spent most of Friday sitting at the station in Naushki which is the border crossing. Fortunately we were able to get off the train for an hour or so and had coffee in a café near the station. Today was the first time that the sun has been partially filtered by the clouds and so the blue skies of the last week have gone.

A cause for some talk is the fact that since we passed into Siberia there has been much less snow, in fact very little on the ground. The rivers are all frozen but that is all. However since night fall there has been increasing amounts of snow on the ground outside so spirits are raised that Christmas will be white once we reach Irkutsk and ultimately Lake Baikal.

It is good to have the train moving again, the whole boarder thing is quite tedious but the train is comfortable and the day has passed quite nicely. It seems the train will be a bit ‘stop-start’ till we arrive in Irkutsk tomorrow am.

The ladies in the group have hit the grog tonight, mostly I think to ward off the possibility of the bug going round but by now the subject of conversation has turned a bit ‘blue’ so a lot of other issues are being aired and solved.

We are looking forward to tomorrow and spending at least four days in one place.

Saturday, 24th Dec.-Christmas Eve.

A good night’s travelling with about 8 hours sleep although I sat up for a while at 3.30am to watch the snowy landscape flash past. The train made regular stops for a few people to get off into the clod night air.

Entering Irkutsk

 

From time to time we crossed bridges over frozen rivers and the occasional house lights or sometimes a town could be seen in the distance.

At 6.30am our Russian lady in charge of the carriage opened the door to start the morning clear out of linen. We will be in Irkutsk by about 8.00am.

Irkutsk Railway Station outside where we met our bus

Arriving in Irkutsk we stand on the platform in the dark and light snow before moving to the station building and out to the waiting bus. Lots of people about and it seems eerie to be without sunshine or light at this time. We head off to our hotel, the Irkutsk, which sits alongside the Agara River;the only river to flow out of Lake Baikal. Over 200 rivers flow into the lake so the Agara has a strong current and huge volume causing it to never freeze over.

The river from our room

Outside the Irkutsk Hotel(below) and the Angara River from the Hotel room (above)

Our room overlooks the river and with the snow cover it is very picturesque. Breakfast at the hotel is a bit disorganised because of our late arrival but OK. A couple of hours to shower, settle in and walk along the river side before lunch. Lunch is typical Russian comfort food and goes down well.

A walk near the river in the snow

After lunch it is a city tour with our local guide Oxana. She is rightly proud of her city and Siberia as it is a harsh frontier area that has developed into a city dubbed the ‘Paris of Siberia’ and does have many fine buildings. The best part of this is the old wooden buildings with carved window frames and shutters that make the streets typically Russian. Some 600,000 people live there, 1 in 7 is a student of one of 20 educational institutions.

A typical wooden house. Note the level of the footpath that has progressively been raised over the years by maintainance.Another example of the traditional wooden houses in Irkutsk

The snowy streets are busy with people and it is especially noticeable how well dresses and style conscious the women are in this city. Our party marvel at how tall, elegant young and older women get around on high heels in the snow and ice. Most dressed in long furor padded coats and hoods or expensive fur head ware.

Keeping warm is a fashion statement

The best part of the tour was a visit to the central square where ice carvings make a winter playground with ice mazes, sculptures, ice-slides, etc. Large numbers of children and parents obviously enjoying the -80C temperatures and the giant Christmas tree and decorations.

An ice sleigh and reindeerOur chance at an ice slide was still to come

A visit to a number of historic churches also reveals beautiful paintings on the walls and abundant icons including one especially old and significant one. It feels vaguely intrusive to enter these places which are devotedly looked after by platoons of older women in headscarves.

There are many fine churches in IrkutskThere were a number of weddings the day we visitedOn marrying many couple pledge a lasting marriage by placing a lock on this bridge and putting the key in the river.

That evening we ate at a restaurant in the city and had a very nice meal. After we drove through the streets lit up for Xmas. Tomorrow we head out for Lake Baikal and Xmas festivities with a local family.

Christmas Day

A slow start, breakfast at the hotel(Russians just don’t seem to get breakfast),and a slower pace before getting on the bus for Lake Baikal. Very beautiful country on the way with forests of larch and birch as well as picturesque villages and settlements.

On the way to our visit to Lake Baikal

First stop is a hunting lodge in the forest where we start the days sliding down an ice slide on rubber tubes. Great fun and lots of hilarity as you plummet down with absolutely no control over the course of events till you come to a stop on the ice over a frozen lake.

The hunting lodge entrance

The big ice slide

Deb complets a run on the slide

Next was a sleigh ride through the forest pulled by three horses followed by brunch in the lodge with pancakes and honey with sour cream and red currants.

A sleigh ride with the "travelling Trib"The sauna house at the hunting lodge

Next it was off to Lake Baikal which holds 20% of the world’s fresh water and at its deepest is 1600m. A look through the museum nearby gives a very well put together account of this impressive lake which gets deeper and wider due to seismic activity. A monitor in the museum shows earth tremors occurring all the time.

Lake Baikal looking to the south where the Angara drain to the Arctic Ocean

The continental plate boundary forming Lake Baikal is constantly moving as this Siesmograph at the lake museum shows

After this we head to a house near the lake for Xmas dinner which turns out to be a very happy and convivial evening with secret Santa and all. The family puts on a huge meal with far too much to drink including bottles and bottles of vodka.

Bebbie sits with Andrew, a student from the area, at our Xmas meal

A Balalaika group entertains us with everything from traditional Russian songs and tunes, to ‘Classical Gas’.

Deb has a word to 'Santa' at the dinner

Our host took a lot of pride in smoking the local omul fish for our dinner

Outside our host house and Christmas Dinner

The tour group has begun to function well socially, especially when vodka become available.

26th Dec, 2011

A slow start to the day and a good thing too! I find that I have misplaced my glasses and gloves after the alcohol induced fog of last night. A walk around the hotel area before lunch in a Bavarian Tavern and some shopping in Karl Marx Street solves the glasses and gloves problem (I found the glasses later).

Before the evening meal at a French style restaurant in the city we visit the house of one of the Septemberists who led the initial uprising against the Czar and were sent to Siberia near Irkutsk for 30 years. His name was Volkonsky and after his internment at 24 years of age and with his wife giving up everything to join him he rebuilt his fortune and built a hose which still exists in Irkutsk.

Volkonsky's House

The pianist was a major part of the recital in the house of Volkonsky

We are given a tour around the magnificent wooden house that he built himself and when we reach the parlour we are surprised by a presentation and concert by a pianist and to singers who recreate the parlour music heard in the house at the time. Chopin, Mozart, and poetry by Pushkin were brilliantly performed using a piano that had been played by many famous composers including Mahler.

A feature of this tour has been the ‘surprises’ that the company has put on at various times and this one was no less different and memorable.

Back to the hotel to pack and get ready for the big one, the train trip from Irkutsk to Moscow and crossing the Ural Mountains into Continental Europe. Four days and three nights will be the longest leg of the trip covering about 6000 kms.

Tuesday 27th Dec, 2011

This day started with a walk to the Museum 10 minutes down Gagarin Avenue from the hotel. The gift shop was said to have a good selection of souvenirs at good prices. It did but wasn’t open so a small group went for a walk up Karl Marx Street to the statue of Lenin.

Gagarin is a favourite son of SiberiaLenin's statue is just up Karl Marx Street fom Gagarin's statue

 Interestingly, Irkutsk is the only Russian city to have Lenin St. and Karl Marx St. intersect, as usually they run parallel to each other. No one knows why.

This display only told us what we already knew!

It is -170C as we enter the place where Lenin’s statue is found. A few minutes to take a photo or three and we decide to return to the hotel via the Monet Café and Wine Club for coffee. Deb and I are the only ones to finally have coffee there as the others found alternate  distractions so we soaked up the atmosphere of the café and drank good coffee(unlike he hotel’s) while looking out on the snowy parkland leading to the Angara River.

 In general the hotel has been very good with free internet and good warm rooms etc. However, breakfast is another thing altogether and it seems that the staff and the hotel just don’t consider good service and quality food to be important.

Usually you can find enough to make a decent breakfast but it is touch and go sometimes whether the staff will have replenished dishes and for the type of hotel it is, instant coffee is just not enough.

We lunch at an English themed restaurant where the décor in the toilets is just a little interesting. Above each urinal is a small diorama involving Barbie dolls. Say no more. The food was good and by mid-afternoon we went to a shopping complex up the road to look at outdoor food markets as well as a big indoor food hall.

The guard poses with our guide Oxana(in Mink) and Ian while karen lurks in the background

At this point we also say a few kind words to Oxana our guide for this region. A native of Siberia, she has been a great ambassador for a region that until now most of us only knew as a gulag for people not wanted by the government of the day. Instead, especially looking around Irkutsk, the region comes across as a place rick in culture and natural resources with a long history going way past the original Cossack explorers who opened up the region and established most of the settlements.

Refrigeration is no problem for these fish sellers at the outdoor markets

A huge variety of produce is sold there with frozen fish and poultry in the open (freezing) air. At the meat market inside has huge chunks of every type of meat and flowers, cakes, vegetables and everything else is available.

 The main shopping building has clothing, footwear, electronics and hardware on four levels. Russians seem to be going all out to take advantage of the better living standards of the last few decades and are very fashion conscious.

By late afternoon it’s back to the railway station and wait for the baggage to be loaded before getting on the train for Moscow. Having opted for twin accommodation has made this travel a lot more comfortable than the rest of the group is experiencing. They share a small cabin amongst four and it is very cramped.

On the Trans Siberian at last

 The carriage is almost new and has a TV with three Russian channels and no subtitles. A few bottles of beer from the ‘trolley girl’ and we settle in for the night.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mongolia

 
Wednesday, 21st Dec. Tuesday 20th Dec.

Something I haven’t mentioned is the fact that a number of people in our travelling group have come down with a stomach bug so this morning there are a few who are probably not looking forward to an overnight train journey to Mongolia.

However, the train awaits and at 6.30am we set off for the Beijing railway station and the wait to board K23, the train to Ulaan Baatar. The station is impressive and cavernous as usually they are. We checked our larger bags the evening before and only had the backpacks and a shopping bag of goodies for the trip to worry about.

Deb and sleeping friend wait for Train K23 at Beijing Railway Station

Precisely at 8.05am the train pulled away and we were off.

Winter in this part of China is very dry. The city and countryside is covered in a fine greyish dust which may owe more to the pollution than the dust storms from the north. This all lends a hashness to the landscape and scenery that makes you wonder how people could live here yet the abundance of fruit trees and corn fields tells you there is a time of green and abundance.

Dry winter farmland and rural houses on the way to Ulaan Baatar

The trees often have dead leaves still on them which have been killed before the trees could drop them and this lends an added desolation to the scenery that is almost devoid of green. The soil appears to be an alluvial type, possibly windblown loess and judging by the corn grown along the way, quite fertile. Every field and orchard has earth banks for both catching and holding rainwater of for irrigation although this seems at odds with the fact that most streams are either dry or are mostly frozen.

Inside our compartment on K23

Farm houses appear as either isolated single buildings of a few rooms and a brick enclosed yard or as rows of similar structures with the same yards. Most houses seem to exist purely as functional residences with nothing in the way of improvements such as we would expect.

Coming straight from Beijing we first enter a mountainous, rugged region with agriculture clinging to any arable piece of land along with mines, dams and industrial areas which greatly contribute to thick smog that hangs over everything.

Mountain valleys, the river and farmland wedged into the arable spaces.

Towns comprising areas of poor, traditional houses in rows, and new blocks of high-rise flats for the workers are very much the norm. The coal mines and coal yards are much like you would expect in some Dickens description, while the powers stations, steel works and small industry mark this country as an emerging but largely unregulated economy with little regard for the environment of perhaps even its workers.

Where older blocks of flats exist the mainten

Old mud brick housing with Soviet style blocks of flats behind.

ance is poor and they have a down-at-heel appearance that adds to the desolation of the urban areas. And yet there are things that sit incongruously against this, large commercial buildings and installations, new freeways and railway lines, public exercise gyms and carefully landscaped surrounds and parks. Drab and dingy factory sites adorned with bright coloured flags and bunting, National flags and signage also in view.

The landscape begins to give way to flatter areas with more farming ,land, shepherds with small flocks, and in time areas of snow left over from the last fall. The climate is getting colder. In the distance and sometimes surprisingly close, remnants of the Great Wall still exist only now in mud brick form and eroding into the landscape.

Snow appears on the ground while a remnant of the Great Wall (mound in middle ground) crumbles away.

Night falls and into the dining car for a meal of chicken and rice with a bottle of ‘Great Wall’ red to wash it down and then wait for the border crossing when the whole train will be lifted off the bogies onto Russian ones for the new gauge rail line into Mongolia.

The change over takes place at Erlian. With its imposing railway building and piped music onto a mostly deserted and freezing platform, young Chinese troops occupy themselves skating along the surface in their boots.

The train shunts into a long shed full of cranes and rail bogies where large jacks lift the carriage and the bogies are rolled away and new ones put under.

lifters pick up the carriage and they disconnect the Chinese bogies and replace them with Mongolian/Russian ones. All the while we stay in the carriages as this takes place.

Chinese and Mongolian customs and immigration come and go with our passports while we sit fir an hour and a half waiting to pull out and continue our journey as it’s now 1.30am and we are keen to get into our bunks. Surprisingly we get to sleep pretty easily and before long its 7.30am and the sky is beginning to lighten.

Inside the shed where the jacks wait to lift the carriages

The sunrise over the Mongolian landscape is breathtaking. Snow from previous falls covers the ground except for the tufts of dry grass poking up through it. Rolling plains with mountains in the distance, small fenced groups of Yurts and a variety of animals scattered between the occasional coal mine, gravel/sand quarry and one or two industrial settlements with blocks of identical flats for the workers.

Sun rising over the frozen landscape of Mongolia

Brilliant sunshine over a rolling snow covered scene with blue skies is just how I had hoped the country would look. We expect to get into Ulaan Baatar about 1.30pm. A feature of the train now is the change to a Mongolian dining car with carved wooden decorations, tinsel and Mongolian artefacts and deer heads along the walls.

Moving between the carriages now becomes a very cold passage and care is taken on metal surfaces not to slip.

As the train gets closer to the city of Ulan Baatar (UB), the landscape becomes hillier and there are scattered conifer trees and many more small ger encampments with yak, horses and goats. We even saw a silver fox making its way back to its den.

Coming into Ulaan Baatar

On reaching the station at UB we get off to -200C and board our bus to the Bayagor Hotel. Our Mongol guide is Amra, a 28 year old who speaks excellent English with a Mid-Western US accent courtesy of his two years there learning English.

View from our room in the Bayangol Hotel in UB

Driving in UB is far more chaotic than Beijing, right of way etc. just doesn’t exist and the number of cars on the road makes for a permanent traffic jam. In fact the traffic had a lot to do with the itinery we followed over the next 36 hours.

Only having one night in UB due to re-scheduling trains means a lot has to be packed in but we do OK. We visited the Mongolian national History Museum and saw many relics and costumes of the long and significant past. The Mongols are rightly proud of their history and influence over a wide part of Europe and Asia, and none more so than Chengis Khan.

On the cultural side we strike it rich. The first evening we have a private performance by the State Philharmonic Orchestra with its horse head stringed instruments and amazing throat singers. The costumes and standard of performance are exceptional and thoroughly enjoyed by all in the audience.

We ate at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant where you put all you want (meat, veg. pasta etc.) in a bowl with sauces and spices and then with great flourish a young man cooks it on a BBQ before putting it in a bowl for you to eat. The meal was finished with vodka.

Although fading in its fabric, the hotel was warm and the beds comfortable, so it was with little trouble we breakfasted and set off for the bush the next day. Driving out on rough roads we eventually turned off to a nomadic settlement where we got to see yaks (and ride on one), horses as well as sheep, cattle and goats.

Chingis (Ghengis) Khan dominates the front of the Parliament building

The day was perfect. Bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine highlighted a white landscape of crisp snow. There were three gers and a stone walled enclosure off an undercover yard for the animals. The animals are fed hay cut in the summer and whatever they can find under the snow.

Debbie at the site of the Mongolian family we visited

We got to eat lunch in one of the gers which were very warm being covered in layers of felt and heated by a dung burning stove. The meal was based on milk from the yaks, mutton and hard cheese like food tasting very similar to blue-vein cheese. Best of all it was finished with vodka. Actually, as we all arrived we were offered mulled wine which was readily accepted.

I get in a bit of Yak riding before lunchAmra our guide pours the Vodka during lunch in the GerSome of the family go for a ride on their horsesA couple of the Gers at the camp we visited

 

Back in UB we visited the State Department Store where we buy some items for the next train journey as well as souvenirs.

The State Department store in UB. Now privately owned.

Before joining the train that night we dined at a Mongolian Hot-Pot restaurant (better than Chinese) and had another private performance from a group of singers, musicians and dancers including an amazing young contortionist.

The contortionist anf the Band at the Hot Pot dinner

More vodka before heading for the train at 9.00pm.This time we had a 4 berth compartment to ourselves and quite warm too. We slept above the covers and woke to a darkened railway station at Naushki where the engine and all but two carriages were left to stand for about 3 hours waiting for a new engine and customs and immigration to do their stuff.

Nearing the Mongolian-Russian Border

We are currently going through the ‘no man’s land’ between Russia and Mongolia where photos are not to be taken. The landscape has frozen rivers and rugged hills covered with conifers and deciduous trees. There is just a light dusting of snow. Our carriage has yet to be checked by customs but already we are being instructed in no uncertain terms what we can and can’t have stowed in parts of the compartment.

Russia came into Mongolia in the 1920’s when the Mongols gained independence from China and only left in 1990. The culture of Mongolia is very much a mix of Russian and Chinese superimposed on the Mongol culture. With only 2.3m people, and 1m of them in the city of UB, this resource rich country is still adjusting to the freedoms of independence.

Much of the resources go to China and Russia and the country has yet to develop a strong industrial base.

In all we spent most of Friday sitting at the station in Naushki which is the border crossing. Fortunately we were able to get off the train for an hour or so and had coffee in a café near the station. Today was the first time that the sun has been partially filtered by the clouds and so the blue skies of the last week have gone.

A cause for some talk is the fact that since we passed into Siberia there has been much less snow, in fact very little on the ground. The rivers are all frozen but that is all. However since night fall there has been increasing amounts of snow on the ground outside so spirits are raised that Christmas will be white once we reach Irkutsk and ultimately Lake Baikal.

Frozen rivers but not much snow

It is good to have the train moving again, the whole boarder thing is quite tedious but the train is comfortable and the day has passed quite nicely. It seems the train will be a bit ‘stop-start’ till we arrive in Irkutsk tomorrow am.

The ladies in the group have hit the grog tonight, mostly I think to ward off the possibility of the bug going round but by now the subject of conversation has turned a bit ‘blue’ so a lot of other issues are being aired and solved.

We are looking forward to tomorrow and spending at least four days in one place.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

China

Yass-Sydney (14th Dec 2011)

Arrived at Yass Junction to find the XPT was up to an hour late but fortunately that was eventually 35 minutes. After removing the guy sitting in our seats we set off for Sydney. As trips go it is always nice to go by train to Sydney once in a while and the scenery etc. is always nice to watch but as we got closer to Sydney the train became more delayed with each new speed restriction for track work. Eventually we crawled into Central having had to give way to suburban trains along the way making it an hour and a half late.

Waiting for the XPT at Yass Junction

Checked into the Mecure and kept the kitchen open a little while longer so we could eat and have a few drinks. On reflection the seats on the XPT leave something to be desired but you have a varied  including the old Chinese man who had his iPhone playing some old Chinese hits to which he sang along. This amused the young bloke from the farm out west who hadn’t heard anything like that before.

Sydney to Beijing (15-16th Dec 2011)

We spent the best part of Thursday around the city before ‘the bus ride from hell’ to the International Terminal. Singapore Airlines check-in was a little chaotic but we eventually found a lady who eased us through and so to the plane for 8 hours to Singapore.  8 Hours from Sydney I look a bit shell-shocked at Singapore.

Phil at Singapore Airport

The flight was not to bad, good food and service. Glad I bought a travel pillow. We landed in Singapore at 0025 on the 16th of December just in time to hop on the second Boeing 777 to Beijing for another 6 hours.This flight was very quiet as most people slept whereas the previous one was more lively with lots of use made of the in-flight entertainment system.

Arriving at Beijing International Airport at 0735 on the 16th we stepped out to -8 Deg. C. You take a train to the baggage collection after going through immigration. Very large airport built for the Olympics. Almost no-one there at this time of the morning but I guess we were the first flight in that day.

Clear skies and very little ‘fog’ (read smog!) so as we came in on the ‘plane there was a good view of the city and hinterland which has lots of high-rise accommodation.

We met our tour leader Yelana (Russian) and May (Chinese) and headed for the Beijing International Hotel to settle in. There is very little of the ‘old Beijing’ left and the drive was dominated by high-rise buildings and freeways.

Typical Beijing highrise buildings

Forget my previous mention of the ‘bus-ride from hell’. Mr Lee demonstrated the four basics of Beijing driving:-

  1. Goog Horn
  2. Good brakes
  3. Good heart
  4. Good luck!

The traffic lights are merely suggesting one of a range of possibilities for the motorist and as we later found out, pedestrian crossings are just strange markings on the road and not to be relied upon by the pedestrian.

Our Beijing Hotel

After settling in we travelled to the Silk Markets where the art of haggling is held in high regard. The sellers are both verbally and often physically aggressive and we quickly learned not to engage with the ones we didn’t want to buy from We bought padded coats, trousers and gloves for the trip and did well paying only $75 each for the lot. Had lunch up the top of the markets (Chinese/Western buffet).

The Silk Markets in Beijing

The afternoon was spent at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City which although we were all tired from the flight kept us entertained and informed. May (the guide) was very well informed and has a realistic ‘take’ on the politics of China and its history especially in regard to Mao.

Tiananmen is amazing and a highly visible police presence oversees hundreds of visitors even in very cold conditions. Two huge TV screens (20m long and 3m high) in the middle of the square show scenes of China. Mao’s Tomb, The Great Hall of the People, The  Chinese National Museum and The Forbidden City occupy the four sides of the 47 ha site.

The gates to the Forbidden City on the northern end of Tiananmen Square

 The Forbidden City is almost indescribable. 9,999 rooms surrounded by a moat 9m deep, the Emperors residence complete with concubines quarters as well as eunuchs and palace guards is amazing. Hundreds of huge iron and bronze pots up to 3m in diameter sit around the buildings to hold water in case of fire. The decoration and statues are all symbolic of the emperor and his power.

Inside the Forbidden City

The ’Dragon Lady’ who was the power behind the throne of the last three emperors looms large in the final stages of the cities imperial occupation. The young rulers where advised by the Dowager Empress until they came of age when she then had them killed so that a new young man would ascend the throne.

At the front of the city a 1.5 tonne picture of Mao overlooks Tiananmen Square although he never actually went inside the city.

Saturday 17th Dec.-The Summer Palace

An early start to visit the Summer Palace to the north of the city where the emperor and especially the ‘Dragon Lady’ lived in the May-October of each year, began our day. Accessible by canal from the Forbidden City, the emperors travelled there by boat. The huge site is set on a man- made lake that took 10,000 men two years to build.

Deb with the frozen lake at the Summer Palace behind her.

At this time of the year it is frozen but this does not detract from the visual impact of the many buildings, bridges and gardens that make up the palace. Over 14,000 unique painted pictures adorn a 700m long corridor linking the main buildings while a full size marble barge sits near the end of the corridor in the lake.

The Dragon Lady had the first electric lights in China installed there. She also had the first car brought to China but only used it once because the driver had to sit on the same level as her and that literally did not sit well with her.

The first electric lights in China

Following this we went on the obligatory factory outlet visit, this one was a company that makes pearl jewellery from fresh water pearls which I didn’t know existed. Multiple pearls form in each oyster and they are cultivated in the lakes around Beijing. They are also widely coloured. One 13mm pearl was priced at $15,000!!

Returning towards the city we passed the “Bird’s Nest” and the Water Cube where the 2008 Olympics were held.

The 'Bird's Nest"

Lunch was at”The Great Wall” Chinese Restaurant” back in the city. Beautiful food and service, we had beer brewed in the restaurants own micro-brewery downstairs and very good too. As we were leaving the staff were setting up for the next sitting using a string-line so that not only the tables and chairs were lined up on the meridian but so too the plates, condiments and cutlery.

Some time in our hotel rooms after this to get ready for the acrobatics show that evening. It was nothing short of breath-taking. The traditional balancing, gymnastics and trick-cycling was marvellous but the clincher was five motor cycles riding around in a spherical metal cage weaving in and out as well as riding upside down. The whole theatre was filled with fumes by the end.

One of the many amazing acts at the Acrobatic display

Amazingly the largely Chinese audience barely clapped and didn’t waste any time leaving at the end.

The evening finished at a Mongolian Restaurant where live singers, musicians and dancers played including this huge man who sang the traditional throat music. We ate carp, lamb and various other dishes and drank more Chinese beer.

Sunday 18th Dec

Today we visited the old part of the city called the Hutong district because of its narrow alleys. There is only 18% of the original Hutong left and this has been due to the rebuilding of the city post 1989.

Ready to visit the Hutong district by pedicab

 We were transported by pedicab to the centre of the area to see the night-life district with lots of bars/restaurants and then walk to the house of one of the locals to have a home cooked meal and see how the houses of the people are situated.

Silver was found under this bridge after the Cultural Revolution. It had been hidden by residents to avod its confiscation

Most of the houses are centred on courtyards which were originally the houses of the wealthy but now have about 8-10 separate families in 4 room apartments. Most have built on to these into the courtyard so that there remain just small alleys.

An alley in the old Hutong district

The meal was delicious and by now we are all well versed in the traditional cooking of China. The lady of the house says that the government subsidises them to live there and that she opens her house to tour groups for the extra money.

May our guide with the lady of the house

A surprise was in store for us on the way back to the Hotel as the bus swung into the carpark of the “Workers Stadium” which was home to the Olympic Soccer competition but now houses amongst other things a massage school.We were to be treated to a warm foot bath and a neck and shoulder massage before tea was brought out and we sat in bliss for another 45 minutes as a team of masseurs gave each of us a foot massage.

A very enjoyable foot massage

We left the stadium literally walking on air and all agreed it was a very welcome experience.

Back to the hotel for a rest and in the evening we went to another hotel that houses both a Peking Duck restaurant.The Peking Duck restaurant was another experience for the book. Very finely sliced duck dipped in sauce and with celery and onion rolled in a thin crepe. All of this was served with other dishes, fruit and nuts as well as beer and tea.

Exhibitionist Tea waiter at the opera

The Opera was wonderful. Very stylized acting and singing with amazing costumes and music. The storylines were very traditional and the words were shown on screens to either side of the stage. Often the number of words bore no relationship to the length of time taken to sing them!

I liked the bit where the queen was supposed to have frightened the young man while he was pissing. There was also a very skilful choreographed fight between two men in a dark room.

The chef carves the Peking Duck for us

While we sat watching, we had tables with tea (and an exhibitionist tea waiter), biscuits, nuts and fruit while the proletariat sat in rows behind us.

Next day, the Wall!!!!

Monday 19th Dec.

An early start today for the drive to the Great Wall begins with the usual hotel breakfast which in China encompasses the full range of meals. Basically I stick to the European style stuff but the coffee if strong and everything tastes good.

Heading out on the bus gives us the chance to see the suburbs as they are called. The original city wall is no longer in place except for a bit rebuilt by getting the workers to give back some of the bricks taken when the Cultural Revolution destroyed the original. The 2nd Ring road goes around Beijing in the same place as the old wall but there are now 5 ring roads and a 6th being built and we pass over these as we travel out. As you can imagine, the city is growing very fast and the vehicles on the road have gone from 400 twenty years ago to about 5,000,000 today. About 1000 new cars go on road every day so a rotating system of number plates keeps 800,000 off the road every day.

Out through the suburbs of Beijing

No triple fronted brick bungalows out here though as almost all housing is high-rise. There is plenty of agricultural land in between all this and farmers in China pay no tax to encourage them to produce food and fibre for the countries 1.3 billion people.

Farmland on the way to The Wall

About 40 min. out of the city we stop at a Cloisonné factory where copper pots etc. are decorated with fine copper wire decoration and enamels in beautiful colours. I nearly came away with two 1.6m high vases worth $160,000 for the pair.

One of the artisans from the Cloisonne factory(actually it is Deb)

Another 20 minutes and we begin to climb up through villages and farm land towards the mountains where at last we see the Great Wall up on the highest ridges. This section has been restored with the help of overseas companies and there is a chair-lift or gondola to take you to the top. Mind you, you need to negotiate the street vendors first.

A bactrian camel at the Wall where you had to pay to photograph th e animal (I didn't)

It is difficult to describe the wall as it is simply unique and has a presence all its own. Needless to say it is probably one of the most impressive things I have seen, more so because as the Chinese often describe it, it is the longest Mausoleum in the world.

Debbie with the wall in the background

Personally at the point where we saw it, anyone who could get across the mountains to the north before getting to the wall would deserve a free pass over it.

Rugged mountains on the northern side of the wall with Ian Rigney in the forground

UNESCO was approached by our travel company and permission was gained for us to have a picnic lunch on the top of one turret. This was weird as well as bourgeois as other visitors would stage at us when they came up to that point. Never-the-less we enjoyed the beer and food just so the proletariat wouldn’t think we weren’t enjoying it.

A Chinese picnic on the Great Wall

On the way back we stopped into a Supermarket to get stuff for the train trip the next day to Mongolia. The Chinese supermarket is also a very interesting experience and taught me how important packaging is to the consumer. A huge vegetable and fresh produce section makes the whole place noisy and chaotic. Ultimately we got a few things like noodles, fruit and chocolate to take with us. We also consulted with a young man near the wine section as to the best Chinese wine and came away with a Dynasty Cab. Sav. Not sure about that one but tomorrow will tell.

At the Supermarket

That evening we had a ‘hot-pot’ or ‘steamboat’ meal where a coke fired boiler in the centre of the table cooks the food all together and you fish it out and dip it in a sauce before eating it. Meat, tofu, potato, mushrooms, cabbage and other stuff made a great meal although very messy.

Back at the hotel we pack our bags for the train and prepare for another early start.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.