Monday, 30 August 2010

Trento Italy First Weekend

Saturday morning (28th) we embarked safely and without seat loss after an interesting last leg of the train journey from Munich to Trento. On which if you have the only 2 unreserved seats on a 1st class carriage on a 10hr ride, your seats are considered fair game if one of you goes to get some coffee or lunch from the dining car! We were met at the station by Joss' older sister Emma, whom we would be staying with in Trento, and after the better part of a month of travel without a friendly face, it was a very welcome change.

We had timed the arrival well as Sunday the 29th was Joss' birthday, so most of the weekend was spent familiarising ourselves with the beautiful town of Trento and celebrating the turn from 26 to 27 for Joss. In between we were able to find a replacement camera for Paul after looking all around Berlin and St Petersburg with no luck!

The view from the balcony overlooking the piazza from the inside and outside
Delicious pre-birthday dinner celebration at Tre Garofani, a bit of a Trento favourite.
Happy Birthday Joss, lunch and the cake!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

St Petersburg to Trento, With a Taste of Berlin

Wednesday night (25th) at 11:59pm (bit of an odd time to schedule a train we thought!) we boarded our next leg from St Petersburg to Berlin, with the ultimate destination of Trento, Italy. There was only 2 carriages going all the way to Berlin and these were visibly different on the outside to the usual Russian carriages - a bit sleeker and more modern looking. Lucky for us the differences were not just cosmetic - our cabin only had 3 beds and we were the only ones in it. We had a sink and a even a refrigerated compartment that was under one of the seats! The trip took us through Belarus and Poland before taking us into Germany, all in 36 hours. At the Belarus/Poland border we were in for another bogey change - for this one we all stayed in the carriages, and local women jumped on board selling beer, fresh berries, ice-cream, chicken and other food. Unfortunately we had used up all of our Rubles so could only afford beer, but with the refrigerated compartment we were happy with our choice!

The retro dining car
The fridge chair
The train carriages on jacks having bogies changed.

Thursday (27th), on time arrival at Berlin, and with about 10 hours until our next connection we decided to explore the city a little. The morning was spent scouting a few camera stores for a replacement, but with no luck. Afterwards we took a hop on/off bus tour of the city to get as much in as we could, jumped off and had a bit of a walk around. As we were wandering back to the station via one of the sites of Berlin, we bumped into Paul's high school friend Jessica! It was a complete surprise. She is over in Berlin for 3 months and we both happened to be passing the same spot at the same time. The world truly is a small place!

After some tasty dinner, we got ourselves ready to jump on the 3 different (!) trains to Trento. On the final leg we had to guard our seats as we were not able to book, and people were ready to pounce at any time you looked like you were leaving.

Brandenburg Gate
A sort of street festival we stumbled on
Some live music in the station to help pass the time waiting for the next train

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

St Petersberg

Monday (23rd), after an early morning arrival, we decided to explore the area around our hotel near the popular Nevsky Prospekt which is close to the Hermitage and the Church of the Saviour on Blood and a climb up the tower of St Isaac's. After a bit of wandering we decided to have a relaxing dinner in the sun (it is light until 9:30 - 10:00pm) for some, well, maybe not entirely but tasty, Russian cuisine. After only a day in St Petersburg, we were certain that we had made the right decision to spend more time there than in Moscow. It is more of a European city, which is no real surprise as they hired architects from all over Europe (mostly Italy and France) to design much of the impressive centre of the city.

Near Nevsky Prospect ... pre breakfast!
The top of the tower of St Isaac's
Church of the Saviour on Blood, modelled on St Basil's in Moscow

Tuesday (24th) we took a walk across the river to Peter and Paul's fortress. As luck would have it we happened to be there at 12pm, the time a canon is fired across the river. Although it was not one of the old school ball canons that were hanging around it was still bloody loud and impressive, especially from our vantage point on the roof - which was about 100m from where it went off! From the fortress we wandered back to the hotel via the Church of the Saviour on Blood and the obviously named souvenir markets, for yep you guesssed it a little souvenir shopping.

The Peter and Paul's Fortress
And another shot of the Church of Saviour on Blood

Wednesday (25th), our last day, we decided was a perfect one to spend wandering around the Hermitage. Due to a quick internet search we purchased tickets online, which enabled us to avoid the hour long queue to get in! Whilst wandering around the rooms of the Hermitage which were impressive enough as is, we also took in works by greats such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Mattise, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, and were lucky enough to also see a special Picasso exhibition that was on! Not a bad way to spend the better part of a day. After the museum we hit some rain and thought the best way to get out of the weather was to take a canal cruise around St Petersburg in a covered canal boat. Actually we had already decided to do the cruise, getting out of the rain was a plus! Following that we got ourselves organised for our next train journey to Berlin, via Belarus and Poland, a relatively short one at only 36 hrs!

The Hermitage

Using the audio guide, which looks suspiciously like a mobile phone
Some may recognize this famous painting by Monet

Sunday, 22 August 2010


Saturday (21st) very early morning (04:40!) we arrived at Moscow station and were met by a driver who took us to our hostel. This was a huge relief as we were a bit drowsy after being woken at such an early hour to disembark. However once we got to our hostel, we found out that our booking was cancelled the night before and someone else was put in our room! Tired already, this made us quite irritable, as the booking had already been paid for! We were finally put into seperate dorm rooms for a few hours rest... needless to say we were not happy and have already sent a terse email to our organiser.

But anyway, not to let a mix up get us down we were up early for our 10am walking tour of Moscow. We met up with Archie our guide out the front of the hostel, which is conveniently located right near ... a short walk to most of the major Moscow sites. It was perfect weather and we had a great intro to Moscow with a bit of local input. We saw many famous Moscow sights including Red Square, the Kremlin, St Basil's, Gum shopping centre (a converted military training building right near Red Square), the Bolshoi theatre and heaps more. Along the way we asked Archie what the most popular foriegn cuisine was in Russia, and was surprised to hear that it is sushi! Once made aware we couldn't help but notice that it seemed every restaurant had a sushi menu...even restaurants that were Italian or Russian!

A rebuilt cathedral that we were not allowed in on our tour because we were wearing shorts.
St Basil's

After the tour we were able to return to our hostel to properly check in, have a bit of a rest and head out to do some exploring by ourselves. We wandered around locally and had a beer before venturing to Red Square in the evening. We grabbed some dinner at another popular Russian cafe inside the GUM store (at most Russian cafe/restaurants, you line up with a tray and pick the food you want as you walk along, kinda RSL/Cafeteria style, needless to say the food is OK, but not about to win any stars or hats). We then went outside to take in the night time atmosphere around Red Square, which was buzzing as there was an open concert going on right next to St Basils with techno music from Tiesto (UK DJ) blazing into the night! Quite a contrast.

Night time at St Basil's, down to the bottom right is the stage on the top photo

Sunday morning (22nd) we got up and went to Starbucks for a bit of breakfast. (Now, before anyone derides us for our choice of venue, the number one reason we went there was for the free wireless) So we were sitting around minding our own business with our iced coffees, when all of a sudden a guy near us next to the window starts fitting...He had previously been shaking but was now having full blown convulsions! We of course know no Russian other than the niceties so called over the staff, who then called another over, and then they finally called and ambulance. But in the mean time no one seemed to be doing anything for the poor guy! The guy was at this stage going rigid in his chair and still seizing, frothing mouth and all. We of course were in a bit of a panic but didn't really know what to do! However rather than stand around helpless (which is what everyone else was doing) we went over and as he was sliding down out of the chair, moved it and all other furniture away from him, so that he was lying on the floor free from obstabcles. At this stage we had no idea what else to do, the ambulance was on it's way but the poor guy was not doing well - he was semi-conscious and sort of spitting to keep breathing. At this stage some Scandinavian guys also started to try to help and suggested rolling him on his side, but the staff told us the ambulance people said not to touch him! Anyway it all ended OK, the guy slowly started to get back consciousness, but looked completely shell shocked. He looked like he had had no idea what had happened.
It surely made our morning cofee a bit more interesting but also made us feel quite helpless, we did what we could but realised we had no real idea what to do in that situation. (PM: Mum, maybe you could comment on what the correct course of action would be, we have speculated a bit but do not really know)

After our eventful morning we headed over to the pier to take a river cruise. Although the weather was not as good as the Saturday, it was still a very nice way to sit back and relax with a few beers and take in the sites of Moscow. The river goes past a lot of the major sites that we had already seen on our tour and from wandering around, so it was good to just sit back and watch it all go by. After the tour we made our way to Red Square on foot before having some food, beer, and dinner, and then got ready to head off on our next leg. A short train one this time, 8 hours overnight to St Petersburg. It is safe to say 2 days was not enough time in Moscow, but figure that this trip was more of a taster anyway.

On the boat with the no shorts cathedral in the background
The view of the Kremlin from the river
Next to a statue of Dostoyevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment which is the book that Joss is reading at the moment... and has been for a while.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Trans Siberian - Irkutsk to Moscow on The 339

Tuesday (17th), in preparation for our longest train trip we stocked up on salami, flat bread, biscuits, sweets and red wine. With all of our luggage and food we had a transfer from the hotel to the station and after arriving to considerable confusion we eventually found out we were on a different train than what our itinerary indicated - which meant getting into Moscow 10 hours later at 4:40am Saturday morning instead of 6pm Friday night! Still, we were ending up at the same destination so it wasn't really a big problem. After finding our way to the platform and finding the train pulling in, we were greeted by Russian transport police, who were in plain clothes and singled Paul out by saying 'Paul Christopher? Hi, I am from Russian Police', and with no idea who it was, it kinda freaked us out! Anyway, they just wanted to look through our luggage to confirm that the camera was stolen and we were not filing a false police report! They were very nice and apologetic but it was still a nerve racking situation having them go through our luggage on the platform in front of a couple of carriages of people.

A little shaken and happy to be leaving Irkutsk, once on the train our disappointment at being on a different schedule dissipated when we found out that we had the 2 bottom bunks in the 4 berth cabin. This was a total score as we could sit opposite each other with the table and eat, play cards, drink etc. We had not been able to do this on previous trips because we had had the top and bottom on each side. Even better was that we had the cabin to ourselves the entire journey!

Us in our cabin, ready to eat, and a sheet of flat bread

Along the way we feasted not only on the supplies we had brought, but also purchased a fair bit of Russian food and beer off the friendly trolley lady from the dining car. She came down the train twice a day with deep fried bread like dumplings with meat in the middle (delicious!), boiled eggs, smoked fish, baked chicken, and some kind of meat roll. We played an enormous amount of cards (PM: I finished the book I set aside for the trans siberian trip, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence, a fitting read I think) and met a few friends. These included Azik from Uzbekistan, who gave us some chocolates and who we then gave a small bottle of Japanese whisky too in return. He then came into our cabin where we had a sign language conversation in English and Russian. And Sasha, a 15 year old girl from the Ukraine, who took quite a liking to Joss and kept coming into visit and chat in English. She first came into our cabin and spoke to us in Russian, then left a bit embarrassed only to return later with a notepad that read 'Do you know English' on one page, to which we replied yes, and then she flipped it over where she had written 'Can I speak English with you?' She also brought us a bit of food to share, including a pine cone! And yes at first we did think what the hell do we do with this, but she showed us how to peel back the segments to reveal the pine nuts inside! Delicious. We were the only foreigners in our carriage and there were only a few on the whole train, which was a stark contrast to our first train from Beijing! It is also worth a mention that the Provodnistas on this trip were the best we had had so far - contrary to what we were led to believe.

Cracking the pine nuts out, and a large cucumber
Joss and Sasha

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Lake Baikal and Irkutsk

Saturday (15th), quite happy to get off the train and hopefully forget the bad luck that went with it, we immediately went to the Transit Police station in Irkutsk to report the stolen camera so that we could get a police report. We were lucky enough to have a guide with us who got a bit more than planned when he was supposed to drop us off at Lake Baikal but ended up doing a bit of translation for us at the police station. And although he seemed like he was trying to help, he ended up being a bit of a hinderance due to some of his innaccurate translations, but we got it all clear in the end after spending more than half a day at the police station.

With that finally behind us we made our way to the Lake Baikal town of Listvyanka, which was the reason we got off the train at Irkutsk. After checking ourselves into our guesthouse we had a wander along the shore of Lake Baikal, which is the deepest (and oldest) lake in the world. It is so deep that you can get vertigo swimming in it in summer or walking over it in winter when it freezes. Due to the odd Russian timezones, the sun stayed out until about 10pm, making it perfect to sit back relax and enjoy the scenery with a few beers.

The shore of Lake Baikal

On Sunday (16th) we took a boat trip across the lake to see a section of the Circum Baikal railway which when originally built was the most expensive section of the Trans-Siberian railway. The railway now operates as a tourist attraction but only a few times a week so we did not have the opportunity to ride the train itself. Though we did get to see and follow the track on foot and by boat on the Eastern side of the lake. After returning to Listvyanka we again settled in for some beers and food at a lakeside cafe, whilst a few of the locals who looked like they had been at it all day got right into the pumping euro techno!

On board looking to the glassy water of Baikal
The boat
Circum Baikal
Sunset over the lake

Monday (17th) we hung around and took a walk along a boardwalk amongst the forest. Unfortunately with a power outage in the town there was a not a whole lot to do, so after having a bit of lunch (shashik, a pork kebab grilled over hot coals with spices) we headed back to Irkutsk, from where we would board the longest and most exciting leg of our journey on the Tuesday evening.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Trans Mongolian Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk

Thursday night (12 th) 9:10pm we finally embarked, wet and tired we were happy to be on board. The trip to Irkutsk would take about 36hrs, with us arriving about 8am on Saturday. We were sharing the cabin with a Czech traveller, who had spent a week trekking around Baikal with her brother and friend, and an older Russian man, returning home to Irkutsk. No dining car meant we had to be more prepared than the last trip, so were equiped for the journey this time with cheese, bread, salami, fruit, biscuits and instant coffee sachets! Although it doesn't sound like much it made for some simple but tasty eating onboard.

A couple of notable events:
In the cabin next to us we met a couple, an Aussie guy and English girl who lived in Crows Nest right near us for 4 years. They were taking a long holiday/travel on the Trans-Siberian before heading to the UK to live.

The other thing that happened was that Paul's camera was stolen. Without going into too many details we are pretty certain that it was a Mongolian who took it en route to Irkutsk with 4 days of pictures that we will never see, which was the reason that we didn't have the full compliment of photos for the previous blog. Fitting that a selfish act by 1 person deprives us of being able to show some of the beautiful sites of his country.

So although it isn't going to ruin our trip, it certainly was a hassle to have it stolen and put a bit of a dampener on the train trip.

R.I.P D5000 mk1

Friday, 13 August 2010


Sunday (8th) around lunch time we hopped off the train and conveniently were met by a man with a van to take us to our accommodation. We were not expecting much from Ulaanbaatar, from what we had heard it was drab and boring, and to experience Mongolia you have to go outside of the city (which we had planned). However we were pleasantly surprised, although not a bustling CBD it was definitely more cosmopolitan than we were expecting. If your expectations are low, then you can only be surprised. We spent the afternoon sitting back in a cafe with some free wi-fi having some snacks, coffee and then beers before heading out to a bit of dinner.

Monday morning (9th) at 10am we were picked up by our very friendly guide Tergel (pronounced Terka) and our driver (we could never remember his name, Mongolian is pretty difficult to pick up). Our first destination was Terelj national park outside of Ulaanbaatar approximately an hour and a half away. During our drive Tergel gave us some background information on Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia including some interesting information on goverment and social changes - they have only been a democracy since 1992. She also told us a bit about the traditional Mongolian house, the ger which we would be staying in. A ger can be purchased for approximately $1000 AUD and constructed and moved quite easily. Essentially the walls are a wooden lattice material with a centre pole section that supports spoke-like roof beams. Felt is layed over the structure and a material is then put over the felt. All very simple and effective, they were everywhere in Mongolia. Our guide Tergel, told us that Mongolians are able to go and stake a claim to a 3/4 acre piece of land wherever they like out of the city, they simply build a fence around this area and then will put up a ger and this will act as a farm or country home out of the city.

After arriving at Terelj and 'checking in' to our ger at Terelj Lodge Ger camp, we had some surprisingly good lunch. We were later told by another traveller that Terlej Lodge was considered the best for food. After lunch we did a bit of exploring around the camp by ourselves before heading to a large rock aptly named 'turtle rock' and then to a small meditation monastery which was perched on the side of a hill surrounded by stunning Mongolian scenery. The monastery was quite a highlight, very peaceful and although not grand and ornate still very beautiful. The keeper who was there was very proud to show us all of the different parts of the monastry, including the different painted murials on the large wooden support beams, representing heaven, earth and hell. The hell pictures were particularly gruesome, but quite tongue in cheek.

Near the ger camp
Inside the ger
The Meditation Monastery
We guess this represented those who went to hell for...public nudity perhaps?

Tuesday morning (10th) first up we headed to the Chinggis (Gengis) Khan monument, which is a 40metre high stainless steel statue of Chinggis Khan on horseback. There are plans to make it a large park complete with ger accommodation and restaurants etc, but currently it is bare land (and the plans do seem quite optimistic). From Chinggis we took a long drive to Hustai National park and arrived for a late lunch at the Hustai Park Ger camp. The camp is located just outside the National Park boundary and so is the only settlement for quite some time. The views were spectacular, and you didn't have to walk far to feel like your in the middle of nowhere. We also got to have a bit of a ride on some of the camp horses and although we were led along by a guide it was still fun, especially as it was getting close to sunset. We went right up to the top of a hill where the view was breathtaking. Once we returned to the camp we took off in the car to the national park to view the 'Takhi' (Mongolian wild horses) which is what the park is famous for. All modern day horses are decendants of the Takhi (pronounced Ta-cke) , and although they became extinct in the wild in the 70s, they have been reintroduced from various zoos around the world. Now the Mongolians are very serious about preserving them in Hustai.

Chinggis Khan on a hill in the middle of nowhere
Moving house - that is a ger on the back of the truck
Hustai Park Ger Camp
The view as we sat having a cool afternoon drink
Our trusty steeds - Mongolian horses are small, but we were assured, very strong
Us riding looking back to the ger camp... it really was that beautiful

The Takhi at dusk

Wednesday (11th) was the last day of our tour and before heading back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped in to visit a nomadic family. They live in 3 gers which are powered by solar cells although there is no proper toilet to speak of. However in stark contrast, they had an LCD television (which was showing Australia's got talent when we were there?!). We tried some of the very popular dried yoghurt snacks and 'airag', which is fermented mare's milk, that's right you read it right, we drank fermented horse milk! It is a little alcoholic and tastes like slightly sour and fizzy milk. Weird but we think we could see how it would be popular, especially on a hot day (which it was). After that it was back to our hotel and another night hanging in Ulaanbaatar, this time we went to the Grand Khan Irish pub for a bit of dinner and drinks.

Thursday (12th) we checked out of the hotel and had a day wandering Ulaanbaatar. We took a stroll to the main square and had a look in the Natural History Museum, which had a great display of dinosaur bones dug up in the Gobi desert. Quite impresive for the $2 entrance fee! After that we had lunch and wandered around the shops to get some souviners and supplies, and in the process Paul foiled a pick-pocketer trying to get into Joss' handbag. He pretty much just walked off quickly, and his accomplice split in the other direction. By this stage the weather was turning and we were happy to just get our stuff and get onto the train. This however turned into a bit of an epic adventure. We had to navigate the deteriorating streets of Ulaanbaatar in the heavy rain with our luggage to the station - without thinking we had already changed nearly all of our money out of Mongolian Tugriks (which is useless outside of Mongolia, as it is a closed currency). As a result we could not negotiate a cab from our hotel and ended up finding ourselves walking in what seemed like a less than savoury area of town. We sought refuge in a hotel and asked for them to call a cab - we were confident we would have enough to get there now as we were close to the station. Once in the cab we realised that it was a unofficial cab, with a sporadic meter! At one stage the cab 'stalled' and upon restarting the meter jumped up 1000 tugrits (about a dollar), at this point we said that we had to get out and pointed to the meter, but the driver said it was OK, and after getting to the station did not charge the amount on the meter, but something more like half, which we felt was reasonable. It was dark now and still rainy, and at the station we were lost, wet and just desperate to get on the train, a challenge in itself as there were no signs in English. We finally found information who directed us to our train. A miserable way to end off an otherwise great visit to Mongolia, and celebrate our 4th Anniversary!