Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wednesday July 29 – Homecoming

Neither of us slept very well; we were both excited at the prospect of being with Alanna today. Ray, I think more so than me, is also looking forward to getting back home to familiar surroundings and Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I too am looking forward to coming home; more so to get back into doing something more “meaningful" than the stress-free travel environment. I am searching for a way to put my knowledge and experiences to good use.

When you travel the world, and see different cultures and ways of life, it helps you to understand “existence” on a broader basis. The world over, life is about survival. As humans we all need the same things to be fundamentally satisfied. That is all the majority want: food, shelter, and community. Why then do we refuse to respect that in each other and enter into war, violent disputes, and political mayhem? It doesn’t matter how much land you have, if it’s not arable you won’t get food, or if there are no resources, you won’t have resources. To strive for the bigger picture of a “supportive and co-dependent” existence might be an answer to finding a peaceful world solution. I don't mean by this that the only answer is "democracy". It may well not be, or it may be that each country needs its own unique form of government. We might also be forced into that scenario if bugs and diseases such as H1N1 become the pandemic that many predict it will. Cool and intelligent minds, co-operation among governments, and creative science for cures and preventatives are what will get us through such an event should it come to that. I don’t know the answer to a better world order, but I know I will support those who have a viable suggestion versus those who manipulate populations through power and superiority.

So, I know you will want to know (1) did we have a good trip; (2) what were the highlights and the lowlights; (3) what it did for us; and (4) where are we going next! Give me a few days to contemplate all of that, and I’ll post a “Post-Trip Summary”.

We were up around 7 am this morning to catch the Hoppa bus back to Terminal 5 at Heathrow. We had breakfast in “Giraffe" at the airport; then I went duty-free shopping. The London airports are so exciting to shop in, and it’s one of the few times I’ve had on the trip to “shop”. So, Ray sat and waited, and I took off with my credit card!!

Security checks at the airport take forever, and I wonder how effective they are against “terrorists” as opposed to catching the forgetful tourist who has packed his pen knife or nail clippers in his/her checked luggage.

Our flight on a British Airways Boeing 747 left about 45 minutes late. Once again it was quite smooth with the exception of one part as we neared Canada which got a little bumpy from the turbulence. The skies were bright blue, and we floated on our bed of white clouds for about 7 hours. We were so excited when we landed at Toronto that my stomach was churning with impatience at the thought of seeing Alanna again. We are not sure what was happening at the airport, but as soon as we stepped off the plane a customs officer was checking everyone’s passport, so you can imagine the back up of passengers de-loading. As with everyone else, he took my passport, read the information, stared at me directly in the eyes, and then handed the passport back and allowed me to go forward. When we got to the customs hall, there was a team of four customs officers searching the crowd. One had a dog and he together with the dog walked very briskly and purposely up and down the rows of the passengers waiting to go through the customs desks into the baggage pick-up area. The dog sat down three or four times in front of one guy who was probably off the Caribbean Air flight that had landed just before ours. Poor guy must have been sweating, but obviously he was not the one whom the team was looking for.
While waiting for our baggage, we saw the team questioning passengers randomly in the baggage hall. Never saw them take anyone away, so haven’t a clue what it was all about.

Finally we exited into the Arrivals area, and there was our lovely daughter, full of smiles and as happy to see us as we were to see her. We are soooo lucky to have such a beautiful and kind daughter! Then, as we were all hugging each other intensely, our good friend Randall Osczevski appeared with a huge grin on his face. It was the most wonderful surprise and means an awful lot to us that he would leave his office and come over to the airport to welcome us home.

And, that is it! We went home with Alanna, ate dinner, chatted and chatted, drank too much wine and finally after being up for about 25 hours, we collapsed into bed for our first night’s sleep at home since March 11.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday July 28 – Farewell St. Petersburg

The worst thing about travelling is the “waiting”. We got to the airport in lots of time for our flight (even had time to check the Internet in the morning before we left the hotel). We hung around the airport waiting to go through security, customs, etc. and check in for the flight. We have had lots of time for reflection and discussion on the various events we have experienced over the past 4 ½ months.

St. Petersburg was a treat to visit. Where Moscow was energized, colourful, and “in your face”, St. Petersburg is serene, grey, and reserved. It has a beautiful city centre, friendly people, and a rich and colourful history. That said, the Navy Day celebrations were a “joyous affair”, and one shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that St. Petersburg is a pristine city. As mentioned before, you can walk around drinking beer, many people do, so there are often empty beer bottles lining the canals and river embankments, and you can certainly meet your fair share of those who have imbibed a little too heavily! However, this is all cleaned up very quickly and the city is generally quite clean.

Our three-hour flight from St. Petersburg to London on a BA A331 was smooth and comfortable, left and arrived on time, and posed no problems to our now “used-to-overcoming-challenges” attitude. Several times we looked out of the window and over the white layer of clouds we were flying over to see another plane literally “whiz” past us in the opposite direction at a combined speed of about 1000 to 1200 miles per hour. Of course, although they seemed awfully close, I am sure there was plenty of room between us!! Once at Heathrow we took the Heathrow Hoppa to our AAA-graded 3-star hotel where we arrived around 7 pm. The hotel was very active with lots of business groups, and we enjoyed dinner in the dining room with a much appreciated glass of wine before retiring to bed and enjoying two shots of CSI: CSI Miami, and CSI New York which were luxury entertainment to our English-TV starved minds, before turning out the light.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday July 27 – The End of the Our Journey: Last Day in St Petersburg

Our travel is drawing to a close, but we managed to fit in one last historic site: The Fortress of Peter and Paul on the north banks of the Neva River. The fortress was built in 1703/04 during the Great Northern War against Sweden, but apparently it was never used for its intended purpose as the war was won before it became active. The main purpose of the fort ended up being a prison, mainly political prisoners, and it was eerie to walk through the corridors, cell by cell, and read the stories of the people who had been imprisoned there. It all sounded very “comfortable”, but I have no doubt the heavy block walls have many different stories to tell as men and women lived out their last moments before passing through the Neva Gate on the way to their execution. Many of the stories we read were about the People’s Will, a group of terrorists who murdered Alexander II in 1881. Other stories included those of Leon Trotsky and Maxim Gorky from the 1905 revolution and stories of the Bolsheviks right up to 1921 when the last prisoners were held there. The other big attraction in the Fort is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul built in 1712 to 1733 and designed by Trezzini and later embellished by Rastrelli, both of whom have been a huge part of the architecture in St. Petersburg. The church both inside and outside is stunning with lots of gold gild in the true Baroque style. We listened again to some Russian choral singing in the Grand Ducal Crypt which was so mournful it tore my heartstrings. Two of the guys in this group had appeared in the group at St. Catherine’s Palace yesterday, and one of those two had appeared in the Russian Song and Dance Show we went to.
There are several other interesting parts to the Fort such as a museum and the mint, but to be quite honest with you I am absolutely overloaded with information. It’s time to go home!! Ray found me sitting on the steps outside the door of the museum staring into space and waiting for him. Usually, it is the other way around and he is dragging me out!

We wandered back to the hotel in the warm gently falling rain, along the University Embankment, past statutes, bridges, and finely architectured buildings that are famous the world over. It was a fitting “good bye” to a majestic city.

In the evening, we had dinner in a small Russian restaurant, bought a couple of bottles of vodka to bring back to Canada with us on the way back to the hotel, packed up our stuff and collapsed in bed around midnight dreaming of returning home and seeing our daughter and our friends.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday July 26 – Pushkin

We walked out of our hotel this morning to be verbally abused by a mad woman with a beautiful cocker spaniel. She had a wooden stick in her hands so we were a little careful of her! Tatiana, our St. Petersburg guide appeared, and steered us back into our hotel. After a few minutes, Arpana, Ray and I together with Tatiana, carefully stepped outside again, and seeing the way clear and the van parked by the side of the road, headed directly into it. Don’t know what was up, just a random wacko!! Tatiana though seemed quite upset by it. I guess she understood what the woman was saying; we could only guess!

We travelled about an hour (24 km) to the town of Pushkin on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, population about 100,000. It wasn’t an interesting drive though, as St. Petersburg is built on a swamp, which accounts for the mosquitoes we have been battling in our bedroom because I left the windows open one night. The attraction in Pushkin is the summer palace of the royal family “Catherine Palace”. It was originally built in Baroque style around 1752 by Catherine the Great. However, it was substantially destroyed by the Germans in WWII, and then by the Soviet government who destroyed the internal structure. In 1979 the Soviet government started restoring the Palace and this continued for 25 years. Today, the palace is stunning. The outside is painted blue and gold and surrounded by gilded black-iron gates. The first few rooms are heavily decorated in what was gold-gild and what is now gold paint. Then, because Catherine didn’t like all the baroque gold, the next few rooms are pained in classic blue and green, with white moldings ornately carved. Access to the palace is closely controlled. You have a “time slot” and move through with hundreds of other visitors in controlled groups. It’s certainly not the most pleasant experience, but I guess if you want to see historic sites of this caliber, this seems to have become an accepted method of controlling the crowds (remember our visit to the Potala Palace in Tibet?)

After our “controlled” viewing inside the palace, we walked through the beautiful Catherine Park with its English and French gardens, large pond where the reflections of the buildings glistened in the sunlight, and other out buildings. When we left the town of Pushkin, our driver had an unfortunate accident and managed to wrap the back end of the Mercedes van around a lamp-post and shatter the large window at the rear left side of the van. His van had been squeezed in by a car in front leaving him no room to maneuver, however, he kind of didn’t help himself because when the first grating sound came, he just kept reversing harder into the pole as opposed to stopping and checking out the circumstances. Anyway, we finally got out of the tight spot but the back-end was quite damaged. As we turned out of the parking spot, we were almost hit broadside by a vehicle travelling about 100 km down the road! I am sure our driver was “harassed” at the whole scrunching deal, but after jamming on the brakes to avoid being hit by the flying car, I am sure he was even more harassed. We hadn’t driven very far when someone said: “Oh, is there an accident?” I turned to look out the window and saw an elderly grey-haired woman lying prostrate on the road on her back and a highly distraught younger women standing by her car about 6 feet away from her on the telephone, but our van squeezed past and we were gone. It was a “traumatic” moment that left an indelible image in my mind. I don’t usually look when there is an accident; I don’t like to see injuries. Tatiana turned to us and said: “That’s been three things today: the verbal abuse by the mad woman, the van incident, and now the accident with the old lady.” I am glad to say, the rest of the day was good!!

When we got back to St. Petersburg, we had a great walk across the city by the canal from the Church of Resurrection to the Church of St. Nicholas which unfortunately is closed for renovation. We went into the Mariinsky Theatre which is the second most important theatre for ballet and discovered there were no seats available for Monday’s performance of “Giselle”. We were a little disappointed until we discovered the price which was about $150 to $165. By the time we arrived back to the hotel it was 7:00 pm.

Today was also “Navy Day: so there was lots of activity along the embankments of the Neva River. A lot of drinking too!! It amazes us that Russians don’t consider beer to be alcohol! This despite the fact I have noticed that their beers are quite potent and range between 4.7 per cent alcohol to 5.7 per cent alcohol. You can walk around the streets with a beer in your hand – not that we have done that – but all along the embankments are tons of empty beer bottles. Someone comes along and collects them all but to us, it’s a really weird concept.

We met Arpana, around 8 pm and went to dinner in the same Russian restaurant we went to two nights ago. Then it was back to the hotel and a very much needed bed around midnight.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday July 25 – Russian Art

It was raining when we set out this morning for The State Museum of Russian Art or more colloquially, The Russian Museum. This is one of the most important museums in Russia. We walked in the drizzle for about an hour along the University Embankment of the Neva River, across the Dvortsovy Bridge and along Nevsky Prospekt to the museum. It is housed in the majestic neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace which was built 1819-1825. I am not at all familiar with the Russian artists but we really enjoyed following the Russian art from the early 500/600s right up to the current day. We took an audio guide so learned a little about concepts, philosophies, and changes throughout the ages. The late 1700s early 1800s involved a lot of portraiture and it was great to see portraits of all the people our guides have been talking about and the artists themselves. I also fell in love with Serov and his beautiful ladies. After being in the Museum for four to five hours, we took a lovely walk through the peaceful and beautiful gardens then back out on to the busy Nevsky Prospekt which is the main street in the city centre, and about an hour’s walk back to the hotel. We walked back over the Blagoveschenskly most and up the pedestrian street on the 5th Line in Vasilyevskiy. We were looking for an Internet which we haven’t found yet and were happy to find one not too far from the hotel. We grabbed a quick dinner on the way and collapsed into our hotel room around 9 pm. We relaxed lying on the bed, watching Russian TV or the BBC News, and writing my journal while giving our feet a well earned rest.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday July 24 – Boat Tour on the Canals and Rivers of St. Petersburg

Our “trans-Siberian tour” officially ended at breakfast this morning and we said goodbye to our tour leader Chris. Jon, Ray and I headed out around 11:00 am for the Anichkov most (bridge) where we hoped to find a boat tour in the rivers and canals in the city centre with an English guide. Walking anywhere in the city centre is like walking through an art gallery and museum combined. Progress is slow. On top of that, Navy Day is on Sunday, and there are about six ships and one submarine in the Neva River. The ships have to slink in at night as that is when the draw bridges are open, so each morning has exposed one or two new ships in the river. This morning, the crew was lined up on deck of the ships on the opposite side of the River, and suddenly a huge “boom” resonated out over the whole area. In fact, I think there were 9 or 10 canon’s fired. It took us about 1 ½ hrs to walk to our destination, but we saw, and photographed so much! We found the boat tour, had about 25 minutes to wait and then boarded. The trip was about an hour. The weather was perfect; hot – 18C – sunny and bright blue skies. It was fun to see the city from the water – a different perspective – we travelled on the Fontanka River, the Moyka River, the Winter Canal and the Neva River and saw many of the historical buildings we are slowly becoming familiar with.

After our boat tour, we stopped in a bakery and had some delicious, but decadent, cakes and coffee/coke/fanta. Jon left us at this point to do some last minute shopping.

Ray and I took a slow walk back to the hotel. We had intended to go to The State Museum of Russian Art but when we got there at 4 pm we decided it was so huge we wouldn’t really have time to do much. Instead we went into Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It is an amazing ornate church both inside and outside. Tons of tourists though!! We also passed and went into the Kazan Cathedral. This was a complete contrast to the previous church. Where the Church of the Saviour was brightly coloured and Old Russian style, the Kazan is graceful, elegant and absolutely stunning. The altar was beautiful and we had the wonderful opportunity to be present at a wedding. There was a small choir way up in the balcony and their singing was so lovely it brought tears to our eyes. So once again, we ended up hurrying back to the hotel to meet Jon and Arpana, a new friend we have met in the hotel who is just starting a Sundowner’s trip on the 28th, for dinner.

We went to another little inexpensive Russian restaurant on Bolshoi Prospekt just around the corner from the hotel. The owner was there and embraced us with complimentary vodka, so it was a merry affair and a good send off for Jon who leaves tomorrow at 6:30 am and welcome for Arpana. After dinner it was back to the hotel and bed, in the half-light of the night.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday July 23 – The Hermitage

Today we visited the famous, State Hermitage Museum with its fine architecture, gilded halls, and decorative wooden floors. It’s attached to, and includes, the Winter Palace, home of the Tsars. The Hermitage was developed around 1764/1773 as the result of Catherine the Great’s love of art. She collected some of the world’s finest. Today, the museum owns around 3 million pieces of art, some of which are displayed over three floors in the Winter Place, The Old Hermitage and the Small Hermitage. All of the art collected in the museum was confiscated along with numerous private collections by the Soviet government after the 1917 revolution. Also interesting, and a bit of juxtaposition is the story behind the “Hidden Treasure exhibition. This is a beautiful collection of paintings by the great masters that the Russian soldiers rescued from the Germans during WWII. It was kept in storage for over 50 years before it was opened and put on display in 1995. It was discovered at that time that this was artwork “stolen” by the German government from private collections in Germany, many of them owned by Jewish families. Our guide indicated that the German government had tried to get the artwork back, but that no claims had ever been made by any of the families. The Russians have kept the art. As we spent the day wandering through the various 400 exhibit halls and gilded salons we saw paintings, sculptures, and historical artifacts from Russia, Europe and Asia including artists such as Leonardo da Vince, Michelangelo, Raphael, Carravagio, Picasso, Van Dyk, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, Van Gogh and tons of others. But of everything we saw, one of the true delights and my absolute favourite was “The Peacock Clock”. This is a clock that was probably made by an Englishman named James Cox pre 1781. It consists of a gilded peacock on a branch, a rooster, an owl in a cage, a mushroom with a tiny dragon fly sitting on it and several other smaller animals such as squirrels. The mechanism is contained in the mushroom, and the movement process is started with the dragon fly. It activates once a week and then the peacock raises its head, spreads its tail, turns around, turns back, and closes its tail; the rooster crows 3 or 4 times; and the owl moves its head, blinks its eyes and moves its paws. It is absolutely delightful. The whole building with its elaborate central staircase is an amazing and splendid architectural and interior design feat. It is so elegant it is easy to imagine what life must have been like in the times when it was in use. You also realize the incredible wealth that must have existed amongst the elete in Russia and I think you can understand why the Bolsheviks revolted against the tsars. We just about made it to closing time at 6 pm and then walked back to our hotel past elegant buildings, over ornate bridges, and through small, lush green parks. I wanted to stop so many times to take pictures of everything I saw but we had to hurry as we were meeting Chris and Jon for our final dinner together.

We arrived back in time to change quickly before setting off in the opposite direction across another bridge into Petrograd Island and a small typically Russian restaurant. We had a good evening, then back to the hotel and bed around midnight.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday July 22 – Arriving in St. Petersburg

Our night on the rails passed smoothly but with a lot of snoring emanating from our railway carriage. It seems even young people snore, although I think years add to volume and consistency! We rolled into St. Petersburg dead on time at 9 am and met our St. Petersburg guide Tatiana for transfer to our hotel “The Shelfort”. It is a unique boutique style of hotel on Vasilievsky Island, a central location for the city centre and has a distinctive “old European” feel about it. The rooms are simple, but tasteful and comfortable.

After a quick shower and a cup of coffee, we set off in our luxury Mercedes van to see the city. It takes time at first to assimilate yourself into St. Petersburg. The city centre is an amazing museum of architecture, art, and religious treasures that continue to intrigue from street to street, square to square, and building to building. I’m sure you’ll remember that St. Petersburg is built on a series of islands. There used to be 119 islands but many of these are reclaimed and now there are only about 41, so you are constantly crossing Venice-style bridges over canals and rivers. It feels like a mix of the banks of the River Seine and the River Thames but with its own quietly demure attitude. The bridges of the Neva River are all drawbridges and are raised at night to let big ships through. You need to make sure you don’t get stuck on the wrong side at closing time as they don't open till about 5 am in the morning!! We travelled all around the various sections of the city centre including Palace Square and the Hermitage, Admiralteisky and Vasilievsky Island, Upper Nevsky Prospekt, Vladimir Skaya and Liteiny Smolny, Petrograd and the Field of Mars. The many palaces are beautifully built and some are redone so that they are quite stunning. Gold colour onion domes on top of churches abound, and the art work around the city covers everything from a beautiful bronze horseman with only 2 contact points to ornate lamp-posts, and lighthouses. It is a beautiful city centre. There are tons of tourists, many Russian, and some parts are really cheesy. I guess that’s the price you pay today to see popular areas. Fortunately, it’s all in such a wide area that even off the beaten path visual treats abound. After the tour we went for lunch in a “blini” cafĂ© on 5th Line which is a pedestrian mall two blocks west of our hotel. After lunch, Ray and I went for a short walk and explored the food market area. Then we went back to the hotel and relaxed for a couple of hours while we planned our next six days.

In the evening we went to Nikolayevsky Palace to see a folk show of typical Russian song and dance “Feel Yourself Russian” ( It was fun and exciting to see the dancing but the singing was nowhere near the quality that we experienced in Moscow. Then we went to dinner at a well known “ex-pat” restaurant called “The Idiot” which was very close to the famous St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It was really cosy, had delicious food, and the additional attraction was that Dostoyevsky used to go there! Then it was back to the hotel and bed around midnight.

As St. Petersburg is situated at about 59 degrees north latitude, it never really gets dark in July and therefore there is always an ethereal glow in the sky. To put it into perspective it's in the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday July 21 – Moscow’s Metro

We had a free day today so we took our time in the morning and checked out by noon with our baggage and left it in lock-up in the hotel.

First on our agenda was a tour of the metro stations. Muscovites scurry pass beautiful artwork, sculptures, and chandeliers each day without the time to appreciate the immense “museum” their city has. We took a look at several stations. My favourite is the Ploshchad Revolyutsii where beautiful sculptures of people in action appear at the side of every archway onto the platform. We were really moved when we watched the locals stroke the nose of a brass dog statue, some lingering with emotion, as they walked past it to the train. Other items were stroked too such as the barrel of a gun of the soldiers. You could tell which ones by the shininess of the metal. I think this is done to bring good luck but nonetheless it was touching to see men, women, the old and the young patting the dog. And yes…of course we did too!! Another station, Novoslobodskaya, had beautiful stain glass panels and others had paintings, carvings, and beautiful chandeliers.

We continued on the metro to Park Pobedy and came out at the Triumphal Arch. We walked back up through Victory Park, took a quick moment in the beautiful Church of St. George, and reached the Great Patriotic War Museum. This was a huge, elaborate building built to commemorate the 1941-45 war in which Russia lost 27 million people, more than the rest of the allied countries combined. The displays were moving, tender, and artistic. The Hall of Memory and Sorrow was particularly moving. This was a darkened room with a highlighted statue of a woman holding a dying man. It represents all mothers, daughters, wives, etc. who suffered the loss of a man in the war. Hanging from the ceiling are 2.6 million crystals suspended from fine wire chains to represent 26 million tear drops. Are you crying yet? I was. Then there were the huge battle dioramas that take you right into the midst of the battle fields in the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities. They are beautifully done and very effective. The second floor contained all sorts of war memorabilia and the third floorwas an art gallery of Russian war paintings. All very beautiful and tastefully displayed. Other interesting exhibits included one on the holocaust and also one on Hitler’s vengeance against the gypsies which wiped out many communities entirely.

On our way back to the metro, we sat in the sun in Victory Park drinking a coke and reflecting on the dreadful sadnesses caused by wars.

We got back to the hotel, checked e-mail, called Alanna, had dinner, and headed to the station to board our train to Moscow. Amazingly, we saw one of the men from the Intrepid trip that we met in the ger camp on the platform. He is also on the train!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday July 20 – The Kremlin, St. Basil’s, and Russian Singing

I grew up in the age of communism and The Cold War. The Kremlin was always a destination held in awe. Somewhere unreachable, somewhere which didn’t quite fit into the “rest of the world”; and somewhere rather ominous. But in my young world, “Russia” was a country of great poets, music, and art. The Moscow that we have seen still has the juxtaposition of two separate worlds, but none of the “ominous”.

We took the metro from Partizanskaya to Ploshchad Revolyutsii on Line 3, and walked through Alexander Gardens to the entrance to the Kremlin. We had to check our back pack, but cameras were OK. Not really much security given the x-ray machines and air-puff detectors in other tourist sites around the world. The Kremlin is where Putin’s residence is. It was originally constructed in the 1100s as a walled fortress. It is a conglomeration of palaces, churches, and other buildings. As Russia grew, by the 15th Century the Kremlin represented the “power” of Moscow. Tsars were crowned and buried there. In the Soviet era, became the centre of politics. Today, you cannot cross the “white line” in the middle of the road because the “other side” belongs to the government, and you are only allowed to visit the “tourist” area. Still a total mystery. But it is an amazingly impressive area. We visited the area of the churches; saw the Annunciation Cathedral which was the private chapel of the Royal Family. It’s splendid, very different from our protestant churches. We were surrounded by, but didn’t go into, the Assumption Cathedral, the oldest and most important church in the Kremlin; the Cathedral of the Archangel, dedicated to the war-mongering Archangel Michael, this church became the final resting place for the rulers of medieval Russia; Church of the Deposition of the Robe; Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which is the Kremlin’s tallest building; Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles of the Patriarch’s Palace; and the Church of the Nativity with its distinctive gold coloured cupolas with the cross on top of each one. All the cathedrals are built in a different style depending on who had them built. The hardest part is trying to figure it all out. Our guide gives us so much information, and then when it is all over, you can’t remember all the details, and being a detail sort of a person, I really get frustrated by this!!

After the churches we went into the Armoury Palace. We were “allotted” a time from noon to 1:30 pm. It was really interesting seeing the exhibits of Russian dress for the Tsars, Empresses, religious leaders, etc; the armour for the soldiers and horses; and various gifts to Russia; beautiful carriages and sledges; and of course the beautiful Faberge eggs created for the tsarist family in the 19th C by the jeweller Carl Faberge. I think you either need to spend an enormous amount of time studying Russian history, or spend more than 3 days in Moscow to get a full understanding. But all I can really say is that it is all fascinating, beautiful, and so interesting; but we haven’t even scratched the surface of the intrigue.

After our tour ended, we met Chris and went into Red Square and had lunch in the GUM. This is truly a “high end” shopping mall. Splendid in its layout, three stories and three separate aisles joined by intricate bridges and containing all the well known labels. You know when de Beers has a store there, its “up-scale”!

My favourite site in Moscow has been St. Basil’s Cathedral which was commissioned in 1558/60 by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his conquest of the Tatar city of Kazan in 1552. It consists of 9 separate churches in one building each topped with a colourful onion dome and is based on the concept of Jerusalem. It is an absolute treat. It is rich in paintings, architecture, and icons. You wind your way through narrow passage ways from one chapel to the next in total awe of the beauty.

We met up with Chris and Jon and walked for about 20 minutes to Arbat Street. This is an attractive cobbled pedestrian street with gift shops, restaurants, and street artist such as musicians, and artists.

We continued our Moscow Tour with an evening concert in the Geological Museum. This was put on by Zlatoust (, a group of highly gifted men and women that moved me to tears with their soulful church music and rousing Russian folk songs. How I would love to see this group perform in Toronto. They are so professional and talented!

Then it was back on the metro to the hotel where we arrived shortly after 9. Ray and I went for dinner in one of the “tents” outside the hotel. While we were there, the skies opened, and there was a tremendous thunderstorm storm with heavy rain and wind. But inside the tent, all were dry. One group had a guitar player and he entertained us with Russian folk songs. Then it was time for bed. Another long day, tiring, but thrilling.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday July 19 – Moscow – City Tour

It didn’t seem as if we had had nearly enough sleep when it was time to get up. We headed to breakfast in the enormous dining room and were amazed at the huge selection of food. There was everything available. A far cry from China. There was: fruit; hot and cold cereals; cheese and pickles; cold meat and hot dishes; salads; potatoes; rice; eggs; bread; cakes; and deserts. I said to Ray that they must have been catering for a typical breakfast for every country in the world!! And, there was a pianist playing soft classical music to wake everyone up.

Jon, Ray and I met our Russian guide at 10 am and set off on our tour of the city. It was exciting; the beauty of the city was not what either of us had expected, as we were certain that St. Petersburg would be the prize, but it is spectacular and Moscow has become a real favourite. There are about 12 million people in Moscow; it has a huge population of billionaires; it has been the most expensive city for foreign employees in the world for 3 years and has only just been surpassed by Tokyo and Osaka this year; and its subway is the busiest in the world with 9 million users a day.

We saw so many beautiful sights, but unfortunately the Red Square area was closed because of the Formula One race in the afternoon so we didn’t get into any of the sights in that area. By the way, did I mention that the Russians like to drive fast…very fast? We have also seen more varieties of luxury cars (Ferrari, Maseratti, Lamborghini, Rolls, Aston Martin, etc.) here than I’ve seen in a day in Toronto! The roads fortunately are wide and in great condition. Drivers obey the rules, unlike India; there is no frenetic honking of horns!

The centre area is magnificent. The architecture is unique and colourful, there are many beautiful gardens, and the city is rich with statues and other artwork. We saw some beautiful churches, for example Church of St. George, Church of Christ the Saviour and my favorite, the Church of the Trinity which stands on the top of Swallow Hill. Painted with white trim it has five green cupolas and is decorated with beautiful paintings. Some of my favourite sites that we saw were: Gorky Park (did you see the movie or read the book? I gave up on the audio book, it was just a little too strange!)alive with roller coasters and Ferris wheels and people and kids all enjoying the hot summer weather; Peter the Great statute in the Moscow River which is riddled with controversy about its existence; the Park of the Sculptures; Gallery Street; The New Maiden Convent and the huge pond in front of the convent which inspired Tchaikovsky to write “Swan Lake”, and the park across from the convent where the bronze ducks which were donated by Barbara Bush to the children of Moscow from the children of the US are on display; and finally Victory Park with the huge obelisk of St. George and the Dragon (that was my high school in Edinburgh’s logo), and at the far end by the Triumphal Arch, the volley ball competitions.
When we got back from our tour, we met Chris and went into the Izmailovsky Market, an eclectic market for antiques, paintings, carpets; and souvenirs. The buildings around the market are unique but empty and we can’t help but think either tourism is really down or the venture has not yet come into its own. After this we had a quick moment on the Internet to check e-mail, time to change and freshen up, then dinner in one of the outdoor cafes around the hotel. By the time we crawled into bed, we were exhausted but what a wonderful and exciting day we had; we learned so much about Russian history, and saw so many beautiful sites.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Saturday July 18 – On the Rails – Day 3

This is our final day on the train and we arrive in Moscow just before 5 pm. I am excited! When I started out my life during the “Cold War”, I never imagined I would end up in Moscow – but it always held an immense attraction. So much has happened during my lifetime. I would never have suspected the breakup of the Soviet Union, and yet, now I have learned, nothing is permanent. Things change, personalities change, and ways of life change. Things never stand still.

It has been an amazing experience so far, seeing this vast country through its changing moods. The beauty of rail travel is that it is reality. You feel the distance; feel the ground you are covering bump by bump. It not like being in a plane where 5 hours later you are on a different continent, thrown into a new culture, and way of life. Train travel takes you into it layer by layer, like making your way through a dark jungle and coming out into a sun lit place on the other side.

So now I’m using Moscow time and it is 9:37 am and we are pulling into Nizhnynovgarod on the Volga River, one of the largest cities we have come to so far. Nothing much on the platform, get out and stretch our legs. Ate breakfast back on the train, porridge with pieces of strawberry. Later we go to the dining car – for an egg and potato and a coffee. Met Gareth Browne who knew the first King of Redonda - our neighbour's father is the current "King of Redonda". Redonda is a small uninhabited island near Antigua. There is quite a story here which I shall elaborate on in a separate email when I get the whole story from Bob on Sunday, August 2 - it's his 79th birthday. Small world! Wandered back to the carriage, and then another 20 minute stop at Vladimir, walk on the platform see Soviet era engine, and back on to the train. Sit and listen to an audio book. Lots of Russians walk on the woodland paths, or swim in their bikinis and bathing suits in the ponds along the side of the railway. The countryside becomes city, and five minutes after the scheduled time we arrive in Moscow.

We pack up our stuff, and sadly leave the train. We are surprised how hot it is. We make our way out of the station. Our Moscow Russian guide, Zoya, has not arrived. There has been a mix up in times. About 45/50 minutes later she arrives. We drive to our hotel “Alfa” which is in the hotel complex on the 1980 Olympic grounds near the Izmailovsky Market. This is a huge hotel, but it's really very nice. There is a concierge on each floor and you check in and out with her. She has all kinds of “stuff” available for sale that you might need, like shampoo, toothpaste, etc.. Quite a neat idea!! But one thing, it doesn’t have is the flasks of hot water that we have become accustomed to throughout the rest of our journey for tea, coffee, noodles, soup, etc.

We had a very quick shower and met back downstairs in an hour and set off with Chris our guide and Jon on the metro to Red Square. The metro is deep, and not quite as quiet and new as in Beijing. But the artwork in the stations is outstanding. According to Fodor’s, the first line opened in 1935 and the earliest stations were built as public palaces. We arrived in Red Square in daylight, and our breath was taken away from us as we entered through the arches by the History Museum at the Resurrection Gate and straight in front of us was the colourful structure of St. Basil’s Cathedral or The Church of the Intercession with its eight colourful onion domes; on our right stretching almost the whole length of the square is the wall of the Kremlin and Lenin’s Mausoleum; on our left the GUM or State Department store built in 1889-1893, a stunning building, all surrounding a cobble stone square where many of us will recall seeing the many military parades of the communist era. It was all an incredible sight and we walked around stunned by the beauty and the significance of the sights before us. In the square, we met two groups of people we had met on the train and in the ger camp, the Intrepid group and the Vodka Train group.

We ate dinner on a side street just off the square and opposite the GUM. By the time we had finished, the buildings in Red Square, including the GUM were lit up with thousands of lights and once again we were drawn back to the square to walk around it and gape at the lights and take more pictures. It was like a fairyland, which, given some of the history of events in the square, seemed like a bit of a juxtaposition.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves away, took a walk through Alexander Gardens in front of the Kremlin, and caught the metro back to the hotel, getting to bed just after midnight.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday July 17 – On the Rails – Day 2

Another peaceful night on the rail and depending on what “clock” you are on either a late, or an early morning. We passed through stations such as Barabinsk, Omsk where Dostoevsky was exiled to in 1849, Nazyvaerskaya, Ishim, Tobolsk, and Tyumen. The scenery is not the most exciting; semi-taiga, farmland, and marsh.

We wandered the platform for 15/20 minutes at Tyumen, but there was nothing really eye-catching or exciting, except perhaps the odd drunk from the train. During the day we talked, ate lunch and several snacks, snoozed, and generally allowed ourselves the luxury of staring blankly out of the train window. It rained on and off, but the platform stops were generally warm, mid 20s I’d say.

The passengers on the train change as we go along, but we haven’t spoken to too many, due to language mainly and the fact that all the Russians around us have their doors closed. What are they doing inside….or maybe, they are just avoiding tourists like us!!

Around 16:47 or 14:47, not sure what time, we stopped at Yekaterinburg for 20 minutes. The station was quite beautiful, but a train drew in just as we arrived and I wasn’t able to get a proper picture. There were some food vendors on the platform, and I bought a large plastic glassful of fresh cherries and apricots. Delicious! Otherwise, it’s just a big modern city.

The train rolled slowly on through the mixed countryside with its non-descript scenery, small communities with wooden homes, and larger towns with grey soviet-style buildings. We had a couple of beers then the four of us went down to the dining car for dinner. It says it closes at 2300 hours, but since there is 7 hours difference from beginning to end of this journey, it’s not always possible to know the “local time of the moment". Anyway, we decided to go for Moscow time so that next day wouldn’t be too much of a shock when we arrived in Moscow and put our clocks back.

Dinner was very tasty, chicken with tomato, cheese and some string-fried potatoes. The Russians love potatoes! The servings were small, which was perfect for me, but not really enough for the guys. After dinner we drank some vodka, sat and chatted with our group and the English speaking neighbours waiting for it to be dark enough to go to sleep …whatever time that was. Just before bed, we had one more stop at a rather dull station for about 20 minutes, so it was simply a leg stretch before curling up in bed and sleep.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thursday July 16 – On the Rails

We weren’t awake and up early but with the change of the clock, by an hour, it didn’t seem too bad!! We had our yoghourt, banana, and coffee/tea which we had bought in the supermarket yesterday and then visited the toilet for a quick wash, brush of the teeth, and freshen up. Must say, the washrooms have been kept exceptionally clean, and if they are not, you simply tell the provodnista and she attends to it….or has it attended to! I did mention that all trains have lots of boiling hot water available for drinks, noodles, etc. didn’t I? I slept in my pajamas because I hate sleeping in my clothes if I don’t have to. It just delineates the day and night better. Such a creature of habit and I hate compromising my comforts.

The landscape is totally changed. The vast, empty, areas of countryside are now heavily treed with birch, pine, and other trees I can’t identify. There are beautiful, peaceful meadows, covered with white, yellow, and purple wild flowers. We crossed the 1km long bridge over the River Yenisey.

At 9:16 am we stopped at Krasnoyarsk for half an hour and Ray and I got off the train. The station building was huge and painted white with a rusty, sandy colour on the bottom. The platform was lined with vendors with big plastic bags filled with fruit, bread, smoked fish, and all sorts of other foods. Two little kiosks sold “carbonated” water, juice, and beer. The platform was bustling with passengers buying food, taking photos, and stretching their legs. We even saw a couple “running” laps up and down the platform. Now that is too anal!! Then a few moments before the train leaves, the provodnistas give the nod, and everyone scurries back on board.

I had a nice chat with the English couple next door then a lady came around cleaning the carriage. She removed the runner over the carpet in the corridor, hoovered in the corridor and in the cabins, then came around and dusted all around the windows in the corridor and in the compartments. I could also smell bleach and she had washed the toilet out leaving everything spotlessly clean. The next hour I spent writing up my diary.

Shortly after 12:30, we decided to have lunch. We had bought some cheese and pumpernickel bread. It was really good and filled us up for quite a while. I had a 3:in:one coffee then settled down to read about Moscow and start an audio book – “Gorky Park” by Martin Cruz-Smith. I thought this would prepare me for any eventuality in Moscow!!

Around 5:30 p.m. we arrived at Mariinsk and a 20 minute stop. Once again we got on the platform and bought some meat and potato pies, some cucumbers and tomatoes, and some strawberries for dinner. Oh, and I bought 2 hot caramel pastries. They were each about 6 inches long and consisted of a chewy pastry filled with hot caramel and rolled up. They were scrumptious. When the English guy in the compartment next door saw them, he went to find the vendor, but didn’t have enough time to buy one. I gallantly gave him my second one but the truth was, I knew one would be quite sufficient for me!! He thought they were amazing too!! Why are some of the good things in life so bad for you!!

Once back on the train, Ray went for a beer with the couple next door, and I sat and listened to Gorky Park. In case you don’t know, this is a murder mystery set in Moscow. Round 7 pm we had “dinner” out of our platform purchases.

The train continues steadily on its journey. You ask: “How can you sit for so long in the train doing nothing?” It’s easy. You know how rocking a baby is soothing? That’s what being in the train is like. The gentle rocking motion as it moves along the tracks lulls you into a comatose state. You daydream as you stare out of the window watching the country go by. Maybe you dream about getting back home, maybe it’s about what do with your life next; maybe it’s about everything you’ve seen and done; and maybe it’s about all of that and more. There is no anxiety, no worry, and no stress. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything, and there are no time expectations. Life is lived in the moment, not the future or the past. You roll along hypnotized by the motion; taking each thought calmly, dealing with it, and either discarding it or tucking it into its box for future attention. I think that is what the journey is about. Examining all the things that are around you in a peaceful and relaxed manner; the scenery, the history, and the politics, the people, your thoughts, and yourself. To a degree, that’s what travel is about too. It’s about learning more of yourself and the world around you to put you in a better position to earn your “merit” as the Buddhists would say. It’s a “Cora”, a pilgrimage.

Anyway, so here are my latest thoughts on the differences between the old and the young: (1) the old like to party as much as the young, but can’t do it as long; (2) the old generally move a little slower than the young; and (3) the old talk about the things they have done, while the young talk about doing them.

After dinner we sat and chatted, got our beds ready and Ray went to bed to listen to a story on his I-pod. Around 10:30 p.m. we stopped at Novosibirsk for 15 or 20 minutes. At this point we were running about 40 minutes late. The station is supposed to have a fabulous interior, but we didn’t dare take the time to go over, because of being late, we were not sure if the stop would be shortened. The Intrepid group was out on the platform playing football, while new people joined us and others left.

After that stop, I climbed into bed to listen to “Cover Up” by John Franco on my I-pod.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday July 15 - Back to Irkutsk and Train to Moscow

We left Listvyanka after breakfast for a quick 70 km drive over the roller coaster highway to Irkutsk. It’s the administrative centre and one of the largest cities in Siberia with a population of around 500,900. It was founded in 1651 as a Cossack garrison to control the indegenouis Buryat peoples. We had a lovely drive around Irkutsk and noted many very fine and interesting looking buildings and also loved the smaller streets and wooden homes of the older part of the city. We could have done with more time in Irkutsk on our own to investigate, even just half a day, and less time in Listvyanka. I think we have decided we are definitely not "tour" people; it's a little too restricting because they think you have to be entertained all the time!! We much prefer to wander on our own taking our own time do do things and going where we find intresting . The "overland" trips are better at this. However, having said that, it makes it so much easier if you have someone who speaks the language with you. Nonetheless, its far more exciting figuring things out for yourself.

We spent a few moments on the banks of the Angara River and saw the statue of Alexander III one of the Tsars responsible for establishing public education and promoting the building of the Trans Siberian railway. The Angara runs through Irkutsk from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. It’s quite wide in Irkutsk and we were able to look over it to the railway station on the other side. We went into the Irkutsk Regional Museum located in a delightful building which had been rebuilt after the massive fire which destroyed three-quarters of the city of Irkutsk in 1879. We had a quick walk through the bottom floor which supplemented the information we gained at the Open Air Museum of Wooden Architecture the previous day and gave us insights into some of the indigenous peoples who still inhabit Siberia. Leaving there we drove to a hotel, passing the two Dutch boys we had met in the chalet in Listvyanka standing at the side of one of the city streets and exchanged big waves and smiles as we whizzed by. Small world. I hope they are travelling safe!! We went into a pizzeria and had a quick slice of pizza for lunch before heading off to the railway station. The station is a truly outstanding wooden building, recently renovated, and painted yellow with green and white trim. I went off with Olga to look for a notepad as I didn’t want to run out of paper on the train and ruin the opportunity to capture our inner thoughts and feelings. We found the perfect pad with vivid green leaves and a bright red flower on the cover and graph paper inside instead of lines, which I love, for 20 rubles. Ray and I then had a little wander around the busy station, taking some pictures, buying some water, etc. before loading on the train at 3:50 pm for a 4:20 pm departure. True to Russian precision, Train 9, The Baikal, started to move out of the station at exactly 4:20 pm.

There is 5 hours difference between here and Moscow, and so we travel through various time zones. We changed our clocks the first time when we entered Russia from Mongolia and will do so several more times as we travel through. The train time though is always posted based on Moscow time, so it’s all very confusing to know exactly what the correct time is, and which time everyone is referring to!!

The total train journey from Irkutsk to Moscow is about 5,185 km and about 100 hours of train time. The first part crosses fairly uninteresting scenery, flat, lush, grasslands and small Siberian communities with typical wooden houses. The train stops regularly, maybe every hour or half hour, and usually for two minutes with every so often a longer stop of 20/30 minutes. Our fellow travelers are Russian with one or two English speaking tourists in the compartment next door who are currently teaching at an international school in Bangkok. Its times like these that I would love to have an opportunity to live another life, at least one other, because there are so many interesting options for living it. It’s easy to become tied to the 9 – 5 option, working in your local area, struggling to make enough money to have a house, a car, educate your kids, buy nice clothes, etc. Then you meet so many people doing things differently, contributing to society in meaningful ways that you either never thought of, or never had the courage to pursue. I have learned though, that even at our age, there are still many opportunities available. You just have to seek them out.

Around 8 pm, Jon, Ray, and I went along the train, stepping tentatively over the metal floor panel joining the carriages. It’s fun staggering down the corridors to the sway of the train, passing all types and nationalities of people tucked away in their compartments, or standing out in the corridors chatting, or gazing laconically at the countryside rolling by, or smoking between carriages. Crossing between the carriages usually results in an extra violent stagger of both the body and the heart as you catch a quick glimpse of the rails speeding past underneath you. The dining car wasn’t too busy, and had a mix of English and Russian speaking characters. The ladies there didn’t speak English. The menu was partly translated, but still a little hard to figure out. Then when we chose something, a few minutes later we were told it was “not possible”. Ray ordered a cheese sandwich and when it came it was a half a piece of rye bread about 1” x 3” with a thin slice of cheese – hardly enough to sustain him! I first ordered some chicken which after a 10 minute wait turned out to be “not possible”. Next I ordered some solyanka soup with bread and got the same size of bread without the cheese. The soup was steaming hot and delicious; smoked ham, sausage, potatoes, onion, an olive and a slice of lemon. Jon had the hardest time. The first dish he ordered was unavailable. He waited then for a potato pie, which never came and on follow up the pie was “not available”. So, to be safe he ordered solyanka soup – which never came. So we asked where it was and eventually it came! I think we were in the dining room about 2 hours!

Around 11:15 pm, the last vestiges of daylight were dying, and we made up our train-bed and settled down to sleep.

Today I finished reading “The Stone Monkey” by Jeffery Deaver, the author of “The Bone Collector”. It was a quick, easy, and fun read; thrilling plot, good character development and full of interesting explanations about Chinese cultures.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday July 14 - Listvyanka, Lake Baikal

What bliss! We had a lovely long lie this morning with breakfast at 9:30 pm. It was good one too!! Egg, sauseage, delicious tomatoes, cheese, rye bread, fresly squeezed apriocot/prune juice, coffee and a delicious little cinnamon cake!

After breakfast we went for a casual walk around town; down the main paved road around the lake, past the harbour and the tour boats, up towards the hills on a dirt road past tons of pretty little wooden homes with colourful and ornate window frames and shutters of different shades of blue, green, pink - and white, ornate roof styles. Then we arrived at the unique art gallery of Vladimir Plamenevsky ( It is a quaint, and charming, wooden building showing the eclectic, and in some cases startling, works of about 50 Siberian artists. We walked back over the little stream rolling down to the lake, and on to some paths that took us to the Sryato-Nikolskaya Church. Very different from our churches, but small and sinmple and charming. I had to don a skirt and headscarf to go in, so I felt a little silly, but was totally moved by one young man in there praying who was sobbing so hard that his sadness filled the church. I felt my own eyes fill with tears, and was so consumed with his emotion I had to leave the church. No idea who he was, but I imagined that maybe he had lived there and either his parents/or wife's death, or some other life sadness was totally over-whelming him. We walked back to the main road and into a small cafe for coffee/tea and apple strudel. Ray and I went on and into the Mayak Hotel to use the deadly slow Internet to check our e-mail for an hour. We slowing walked back to the small fish market. We were passed by a guy and a young girl gallopping their horses carelessly down the paved main street, among many cars and Russian holiday makers. Seemed a little irresponsible to us!! In the market we had some barbecued skewers of chicken wings and pork with sour dough bread. Then we slowly walked back to the guest house and sat on the deck overlook the lake reading our books for a quiet afternoon. In the meantime, Chris, our tour leader took off to do some business in Irkutsk. We will meet him tomorrow in the train station.

At 7:30 pm we met Jon and walked down the narrow road leading from our guest house to the main road around the lake, turned right past a new aquarium with a seal show, and on to the harbour and a small cafe for dinner. It was really quiet, not much action at all, but the food was OK.

When we finished in the restaurant we strolled back to the guest house. Part of the way along the lake, a young girl (maybee 27/30) came up to us enthusiastically and asked if were tourists. At first, I thought this was a "pick-up" for Jon, but as she asked us to join her father in one of the wooden booths on the beach, I figured she was either completely innocent, or they were going to try and rob us!! Anyway, we walked down on to the pebbly beach and joined her father and 3 other young, rather strong looking men, one of whom looked really shifty! We declined a beer and some grilled fish and said we could only stay 5 minutes as we were meeting someone. I think it was all quite innocent and that she really only wanted to make contact with us and practice her English. It turned out that her boyfriend was a biathlete in cross country ski-ing and shooting. I think they had some sort of interior design business somewhere around. Anyway, they wanted to take us around etc. but of course we had no free time. We said our goodbyes, and went on our way to the chalet; sat outside for a short while with a tea/coffee and then went off to bed. It was still daylight at 10 pm and only just getting dark around 10:30/11:00 pm.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday July 13 - Irkutsk

We were awakened by the Provodnista this morning around 6:30 am and made ourslves ready for Irkutsk. There was a beautiful stretch of rail along the side of Lake Baikal and then we were in town. Our Russian guide, Olga, met us at the station, and we went for a pancake (blinis) breakfast just at the main square in town; then to "register" our passports with the officials; and finally to change some money before heading south out of the town to the lake.

After about an hour's drive we stopped at The Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architectue, a unique collection of wooden buildings that were rescued from the Lake Baikal area prior to a dam in the area being constructed for hydroelectric purposes. We got a quick but effective introduction into the settlement of the area by the Kossachs from southwest Russia and their traditional lives in Siberia.

Leaving the museum around 3 pm we drove into the village of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal. The town has a population of about 2500 and is Siberia's "nouveau-riche" play ground. We had a quick lunch then checked into the Listvyanka Chalet where we were staying. This is a neat log home built on the hill side with fabulous lake views. After settling in and a quick shower, we left to visit the Limnological Museum which gave us all the statistics re Lake Baikal which contains about 20% of the world's water supply and which puts Lake Superior in the shade. We also saw the seals that inhabit the lake and a display of the lake's fish. Very interesting, and a "must see if you are in the area.

We chose to be dropped off the van on the main street with our Russian guide; she went for a one minute 10 second swim in the frigid 12C waters of the lake, while we dipped our feet in for the same time. Freezing, freezing, absolutely freezing!! Then Ray and I walkd around the fish market; walked along the pebble beach; and then walked back to the guest house.

It seemed to us that this was definitely not a holiday ground for the rich; but its OK. The lake is charming, but I can't quite put my finger on the atmosphere. We met a couple of Dutch guys staying at the same guest house - one of them was stung by a bee and his arm was swelling up quite badly, so the Gillis medical team was consulted for advice - or chose to offer it!!. They can't wait to get out of Russia!! We gather they have seen both the "good" and the "bad" sides of Russia. So, at this point, the jury is still out! Scenery wise, it's vrey like Canada; the road we are on is somewhat like the higglety pigglety houses around some of the lakes in Qubec; the hills around us bordring the lake could b the Muskoka's; and the Lake stretches for miles like oun of the Great Lakes.

We had dinner in the guest house (not much else around); food was excellent - Ray had the local "omur" fish; chatted with Chris and Jon and ourselves; and went to bed.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday July 12 - Entering Russia

It was difficult to sleep overnight. The train stopped so many times, maybe 10, 15, no-one knows for sure. We also discovered in the morning that we didn't have the lower bunks properly set up for sleeping, consquently I kept feeling as if I would fall off and picking up the sheet and blanket off the floor. But it was the little house fly/flies that caused the most trouble as I kept feeling it land on a shoulder, or a bare leg. Evryone else said the same, so I gather he/she had a grand time flitting from body to body!! We pulled into Sukhbaatar around 5:30/6 am and when we de-trained shortly after that to use the station loo and brush our teeth, we discovered that the 2 engines had literally pulled us into the station,dropped off four cariages, and departed! It was a beautifully warm, sunny, morning with blue skies and hardly any clouds. We paid our 150 tugruk to go to the bathroom, washed up as best we could, and sat outside in the sun until the customs guys came along and "herded" us back on to the train to collect our passports. That was about 9:45 am. Our scheduled departure was 10:45 am and we started to move exactly on time. We moved through no man's land and about 25 minutes later came to the statue and "welcome to Russia" sign. We pulled into the Russian border town about 11:25 and sat on the train for what seemed like ages before they finally took our passports, processd them and returned them to us. Aftr that we went for a walk to the river and sat and ate our "picnic" lunch on the rickety wooden bridge, saying "hello" to the people who passed by and watching cows and kids in the river below. After lunch we wandered around town; saw the 1944-45 war memorial, and the vandalized artwork in the central park. Then it was back to the train and at 4:30 pm sharp we left.

The first part of the journey continued with the undulating hills and grass land, but slowly the countryside started to become more treed. Chris bought some vodka and we toastd our arrival in Russia, Chris and Jon in true Russian style; me with a vodka/orange; and Ray with a beer. It is apparently illegal to drink Vodka on the train, but if you do it discreetly, no-one objects. If you get too rowdy however, be prepared to be thrown off the train!! Chris had warned us that there may not be a dining car on the train, but when we found out there was, Ray and I decided to go and get some "proper food" instead of the snacks. We had a lovely stroganoff, but it wasn't cheap and dinner cost us about $25 each. Also, the dining car was empty, so I am not sure about the social life on the train that is so talked about. Shortly after dinner, the train stopped at Ulaan Ude for 20 mins or so, and we were able to get off and wander the platform, go to the ATM machine, buy some water, etc., then back on to the train and settled ourslves down for the night.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturday July 11 - Nadaam Festival

Our fire stoker came into the ger again at 5:15 am to light our fire and I got up shortly thereafter after a peaceful night's sleep. We left after breakfast to head back to Ulaanbaatar and the opening ceremonies of the National Naadam Festival celebrating the 803rd anniversary of the Great Mongolian State, and the 88th Anniversaryof the People's Revolution. Thankgoodness we arrived early as although the stadium was quiet when we arrived, it was absolutely packed when the ceremonies started at 11 am. It was exciting to be part of the colourful Mongolian traditions. The main arena filled with wrestlers and archers in national dress; dancing men and women in flamboyant costumes; a fashion parade of men and women's traditional dress; and military and cultural bands.

The event was opened by the President of Mongolia, Mr. Tsakhia Elbegdor, amidst a swirl of horses and military, and the crowd swelled with pride to the playing of the national anthem. Horses play a large part in life in Mongolia and thre were masses of them in the arna. It was like a mix of cirque du soleil acrobatics and the RCMP musical ride. To be able to experience this important event was spell binding.

After the opening ceremonies, we watched the first round of the wrestling. This is nothing like our hyped up North-American wrestling, but simply pure sport. There was no rink, and at least 4 couples were wrestling on the grass in the arena at one time. Events lasted anything from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes. The goal is to get your opponent on the ground. Matches were drawn out of a hat, and partners were often mismatched; large strong men were matched with small lightweights, and generally there was no "match". Even kids participated matched up to bigger men. On the big screen in the stadium we watched the horse racing. Again quite different from our own format. Horses, often ridden bare back, and often ridden by young boys, take off on a cross country course for different distances and arranged by sex, The Stallion Race, or by age group, Two Year Olds. It was fabulous watching them gallop across the Mongolian countryside flat out!

After the wrestling we left the large arena and wandered through the numerous food stalls ending up eating some typical dumplings which were delicious. Then we wandered into the archery. It all seemed very casual with all the men lined up in one row ready to shoot and the women in the next row, like golf with the women shooting from a tee closer to the pin. We watched two female archers who we sat and ate with in the food stall and then wandered out of the archery stadium to watch the ankle bone shooting. This was really different with a chap aiming a dominoe like chip towards two ankle bones sitting on a shelf in a rectangular box about ten feet away by a flick of his finger. Quite fascinating. After that we wandered around the various stalls; watched the kids getting pony rides, wondered at all the different costumes and generally enjoyed ourselves. Then it was time to meet the other 2 in our group and head back to the hotel. We had a shower, dinner, and quickly checked our email before leaving for the station to catch the train to Irkutsk.

This train is very similar to the Beijing/Ulaanbaatar train except that our carriage is newer and we are sharing it with Jon and Chris. It left the station dead on time with Russian precision. It took quite a bit to organize our carriage and put all our stuff away, but we did it and then settled down for the journey which we knew would be interrupted around 5:30 am for the start of the elongated border crossing into Russia.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday July 10 - The Guru Ger Camp

Someone came into our ger about 5 am this morning light the fire, but I think it was 7:30/8:00 am when we got up. After breakfast, around 10 am, we set off trekking across a couple of valleys with Flower to see a rock called Turtle Rock, because it looks like a giant turtle! The walk was fantastic; such beautiful countryside. We trekked up and down two valleys to the third one. There are a myriad of wild flowers; horses, cows, yaks, sheep and goat graze freely in the wide open, fencelss land. When we got to Turtle Rock, we climbed up the face of it, a little scary for me because of the height, then down inside it and squeezed ourselves through a fissure to get a fabulous view of the valley on the other side.

On the way back to our ger, we stopped off to visit a Mongolian family living in a ger and were greeted with a bowl of hot cow's milk, some fermented mare's milk ( a type of Mongolian alcohol...ugh!), and some delicious yoghourt and biscuits. We went outside and talked with some of the kids and animals and then went back to our own ger for lunch.

After lunch I settled down to write my journal, but was soon called away to go horseback riding. No resistance there!! We had a simply fantastic ride, trotting, and cantering over the grasslands. The fact that it started to rain didn't dampen our spirits at all. Ray had an unfortunate meeting with the ground as his horse stumbled and Ray lost his seat. His landing was quite soft so no major damage was done, although he may be a little stiff tomorrow. We were absolutely soaked when we got back, and as it continued to pour with rain, we sat in our ger, lit the fire to dry out the clothes, and sat around reading, journal writing, blackbrrying (Jon) and genrally relaxing and whiling away the time till dinner.

What a great surprise we got when we walked into the dining ger and saw Renate with a group of people. You remember that she travelled with us from Kathmandu to Shian? She left us there and went to the Philippines to spend two or three weeks with her friend there. She loved it - had a wonderful time; got her diving licence, lazed on the beach, and relaxed. She is on the Vodka Train, another Sundowner's trip. It was a rather sedate evening but we did have fun playing ankle bone games. This was a couple of games played with sheep's or goat's anke bones. There are 4 sides to each ankle bone: camel, horse, goat, and sheep; all different. In the first game for example, we had 19 fences to jump to win the race. Our "horses" lined up at the beginning. We threw 6 ankle bones as dice. If we threw a horse, we advanced one fence. Great fun!! Then it was bed really early - 10:30 pm. I think our guide thinks we need a lot of rest, or something, anyway, it's all good!!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thursday July 9 - Sightseeing in Ulaanbaator

Our city tour of Ulaanbaator began around 8:30 am when Flower, our Mongolian guide picked us up in the grey van. She was as lovely as her name! We drove out of UB to the south of the city. First stop was the Zaisan Memorial. This is a stunning memorial built by the Russians on the top of a hill to commemorate unknown soldiers and other heros from various wars. There is a tall, thin, statue to the side of which is a circle of paintings depicting various stones of Russian soldiers surrounding a pedestal in the middle, probably built for a flame. The views of the city are marvellous as you look down on ger homes, apartment buildings, schools, and the River Tuul. On the way down the hill from the memorial we stopped at the huge statue of Buddha, turned the prayer bells, and made three times around the statue for luck.

Ulaanbaatar is an eclectic mixture of buildings. As I said previously, it is not over all an attractive city but there are many attractive parts about it. The buildings are a mix of old and new; good condition and bad condition; and a variety of styles that would keep an architecture buff busy for days. There are soviet style high-rises and western style houses with pink, blue, and peach rooves; white gers with colourful patterns on the rooves; modern glass buildings and old-style historical buildings. Restaurants serve a variety of foods including Korean, Mongolian (of course) and Europpean, and there are bars galore including at least one or two Irish bars. The people are stylish and friendly but crossing the ceaselessly busy roads is a nightmare as drivers seem to aim straight for you and our guide assures us, will hit us if we don't move out the way. The language is closer to Turkish than anything else and is soft and whispery to listen to.

We drove back into town, along Peace Avenue (the main road) to the centre of the city at Sukhbaatar Square, named after the hero of the 1921 revolution which resulted in Mongolia becoming communist. A statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar on horseback stands in the middle of the square. At the north end of the square is an enormous bronze statue of Chinggis Khan and his son and grandson, as well as the Parliament building. Other beautiful buildings around the square include the City Hall, a hotel, the post office, a bank, and on the east side, the National Modern Art Gallery.

We walked across the square to The National Museum of Mongolia. The museum contains ten halls with displays from the ancient history of Mongolia, to traditional clothing, jewellery, and culture to socialist Mongolia and finishes in the 10th Hall with a current day display on democratic Mongolia. It was an excellent and well arranged introduction to Mongolia, with everything in English as well as Mongolian (see

Our next stop was the Gandantegehenling Monastery. The Monastery was built in 1838 and is the home of the spirtual head of Mongolia. Over the years the Monastery grew to include several
dastans, a library, and over 5000 monks. During the communist era (1921 - 1990), the communists suppressed religion. They killed or jailed the monks or forced them into the army. They destroyed five temples in the Monastery, and Russian officials used the remaining temples as accommodation or barns for their horses. The large statue of a golden Buddha was removed and taken to Russia to be melted down. It was only replaced in 1996. In 1990, after Mongolia went through the Democratic Revolution, Buddhism has once again flourished.

The Monastery now only has about 800 monks. It is quite small and not in as good repair as some of the others we have seen, but it was still lovely to see the beautiful statues, artwork, and chanting of the monks. Our city tour was then over and we returned to the hotel to pick up Chris and head out to the Guru Ger Camp in Tereij National Park via the supermarket for snacks. The drive was busy, bumpy, and exciting. We arrived around 3 pm and had some lunch, after which Ray and I went for a walk around the area. It is absolutely fabulous scenery. I had no idea Mongolia was this beautiful. The ger camp is nestled at the base of a rock formation and overlooks a taiga valley and the hills and rocks surrounding the valley. The grasslands are like velvet and it truly is stunning, peaceful, and beautiful.

We ate dinner around 8 and because it was Flower's 20th birthday, Chris had bought a cake and bottle of wine to celebrate it with. After that we watched a Mongolian documentary "The Weeping Camel" which was the story of a camel in a ger community who abandoned her baby because it was "white" but then after some months came back to feed it.....then bed. A really busy but extremely interesting day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wednesday July 8 - Ulaanbaator

I awoke around 8:30 am to a brilliant sunny day in the Gobi Desert. Looking out of the train window there was nothing except sand for miles and miles; flat, endless, sand. I made myself a cup of the 3:in:1 coffee I had bought for the train in Beijing and stood outside the cabin drinking it and chatting with others as Ray and Nary were still asleep. We were due to stop in Choyr at 9:04 for 15 minutes but it was closer to mid-day when we eventually did stop. The station building was lovely in blue and white, and a bunch of young kids were selling stones on the platform along with 2 or 3 vendors selling snacks. Then we were back on the train hurtling towards Ulaanbaator. As the scenery became more undulating grassland, peoples' energy levels rose, and many passengers got up out of their cabins and lined the corridor windows taking pictures of the front of the train as it wound around the bends ahead of us.

We arrived in Ulaanbaator around 4:00 pm, packed up our stuff, and transferred to our hotel, Kharaa Hotel, by van. UB (as Ulaanbaator is affectionately referred to by tourists) has a population of about 800,000. It's not a particuarly attractive city, but it is busy! It's Nadaam Festival time, and energy levels are high!!

We hurried into the hotel, took a quick shower, and scuttled along the road on foot to a small theatre to see a traditional Mongolian song and dance show - The Blue Sky Melody of Great Mongolia by the Moon Stone. It was quite different; it included throat singing which we had last seen in Labrador pereformed by an Inuit girl. The style of dance and movement also reminded us of the Native bands in Canada. Costumes were amazing and I got to see the "horse fiddle" played!

After the show, we went to a Mongolian restaurant for a Mongolian barbecue. We chose our food and watched it cooked on a huge round plate by a very skilled chef whose showmanship with the knives was eye-catching. Then it was back to the hotel, internet, and bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tuesday July 7 – The Trans-Mongolian Railway

On Monday evening we sat around the table with a couple of beers discussing what motivated each of us to spend 21 days hurtling across China, Mongolia, and Russia in a train, including 8 days and 7 nights on the train. For some it was the “mystery” of train travel, for others the anticipation of unknown places, and for still others, the special cultures of China, Mongolia, and Russia. We talked about how to spend your time; ideas such as reading, writing, and taking pictures came easily. Our group leader advised us on security issues for personal belongings, train schedules and the need to “stay close” to the train when we disembarked at the frequent stops; food on the train and snacks from station vendors; toilet and shower facilities or the lack of; and how to tell how many kilometers you are from Beijing. So when Tuesday morning at 6:15 am came, and we made our way to the station, we were all fresh with excitement, loaded down with snacks, and eager to embark on our epic 7865 km journey.

The journey to the train station was frenetic. Chris, our tour leader, was obviously concerned about time. We flew across Beijing in two taxis which dropped us across the street opposite the station and we had to get ourselves across a 6 lane divided highway with our backpacks and all our luggage. Fortunately there was an over pass. We made it into the station, had time to stop at McDonalds for some coffees, then loaded on to the train. When I dumped my bags and went back out to the platform to take some pictures, we had 15 minutes to spare. Perfect timing!

The building of the railway line from Moscow to Beijing started in 1882 at Chelyabinsk and continued along the rail from then until the opening of the 2880 km section from Beijing to Ulan-Ude in 1956. Our 21 day trip is going to be broken up into several section the first of which is from Beijing to Ulan bator.

There were about 16 carriages on the train. The carriage we are in is a long corridor with separate apartments each containing 4 berths, 2 upper and 2 lower. The Attendant gives you sheets and a pillow case and at night you simply spread the sheets over the berths and turn them into beds. It makes for really comfy sitting during the day! There are no showers. The toilet is shared. It is a European style toilet that flushes directly on to the track and every time I went I couldn’t help thinking of all the pee, poop, and paper being spewed out on to the track. One long latrine! There is a hole in the middle of the floor that you can look through on to the track, so your imagination does not have to work overtime! The loo got pretty grungy after a while; floor was wet, toilet paper and seat covers ran out, however, the water supply was good and it never really got too smelly!! You have to remember not to go to the loo just before or after entering a station as the attendants lock the door about 10 mins before arrival and 10 mins after departure.

Leaving Beijing we travelled through the dramatic mountainous regions of China crossing the San Gan River at 99 km, into and across the grasslands of Inner Mongolia near to where we had previously travelled; and on to the border at Erlian/Zamiin Ud. Between kilometer 80 and 50 we passed a series of tunnels and although we didn’t see it, you can also see the Great Wall at several spots along the way. We passed through empty stations where station guards in blue denim shirts and dark blue pants stand to attention on the deserted platform as the train hurtles past. There are lots of tourists on the train partly because it is the start of the Nadaam Festival in Ulan Bator. Early in the journey, westerners are reserved, pushing past you in the corridors determined not to make eye contact, but later on, conversations are struck up, new friendships are made, and addresses are exchanged.

Exhausted from our 8 hectic days in Beijing we are content to snooze, read, write, and quietly visit with other passengers exchanging travel stories, learning about new places, and discussing customs, culture and politics about places we had been to. We lunched with a US chap who is coaching tennis at the provincial level for the Chinese government, and a young Chinese chap who is in the military. Our companion in the compartment was a young Mongolian girl, Nary, from Ulan Bator who is studying medicine in Shanghai. She was lovely, and gave us her phone numbers in case we have time to get together in Ulan Bator.

We arrived at the Chinese border at around 8:37 pm only to be hauled off the train by the customs official because he couldn’t understand how we had gotten into China as there was no stamp in our passport because of our group entry into Tibet. That took a little bit of explaining, but fortunately their English is much better than our Chinese! The customs guys were really sweet, kind and gently, and it all got sorted. We had a 3 hour lay-over and all the passengers were “locked” into the Customs Hall and the platform. There was a neat supermarket where we got snacks as a replacement for dinner (the dining car was closed), and then stood or sat out on the platform under the station lights enjoying the warm, balmy evening. The reason for the long stop is to change the bogie wheels to match the Mongolian rail gauge. When this was all finished, we got back on the train and travelled about 25 minutes through no man’s land to Zamiin Ud to enter Mongolia. We stopped again for about 1 ¼ hours and about 1:40 am we set off across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. We spread our sheets on the berths, closed and locked the compartment door, and settled down to sleep. It was a good night; the regular beat of the train’s wheels lulled us all into a deep sleep within minutes which lasted until early morning.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday July 6 - Last Day in Beijing

Today is our last day in Beijing. Tomorrow we meet at 6:15 am to board the train for the first part of our 21 day journey to St. Petersburg. I am not sure if I will have an opportunity to update the blog before arriving home on the 29th July, but will obviously do my best. We met at 8 am after a typical Chinese/American breakfast and went off to see the Temple of Heaven. This is where the emperors went to pray to the God of Good Harvest..for a good harvest.. and to the Heaven God. As usual, the structures were outstanding, and it was really interesting walking around and learning the various processes of paying homage to these Gods. Next we went back to Tian'Anmen Square, this time having a proper walk around. Then Jon left us to go and see the Forbidden City and Chris took us to a supermarket to stock up on snacks for our train journey and lunch at a neat cafe. The Internet in the cafe is free, and I am quickly catching up on my blog before hitting the Trans Mongolian train tomorrow. This evening we are going to a Kongfu performance.....haven't a clue what to expect....then it will be to bed early to be ready to leave tomorrow. Ray and I have loved Beijing. Its a calm city, but fun and exciting. Safe to travel around, fantastic subway system, and very friendly and helpful people. It has totally changed our opinions about China, Chinese people, and the future. Keep checking for further the meantime, we are really looking forward to getting back home and seeing Alanna, Chloe and all our friends.....and putting some pictures up on the blog!!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday July 5 - The 2008 Olympic Grounds

Ray's pick for the day was to visit the "Olympic Green", the huge development that was constructed for the 2008 Olympics. The area includes a large landscaped park, an Olympic village, and various stadia including the National Olympic Stadium (affectionately known as the "Bird's Nest") and the Swimming Centre (affectionately known as the "Water Cube". There were other buildings as well such as the National Indoor Stadium which we did not pay to go in but passed by. Always game for an adventure, we decided to travel by metro. We left our hotel on Line 1 at the Wanshou Lu metro stop; changed to Line 5 at Dongden; changed to Line 8; then changed to line 10 to take us up into the Olympic Green about an hour later. When we stepped out of the metro station, the immensity of the area was overwhelming and we literally didn't have a clue where to go. There seemed to be a central road area with a beautiful water and park area, complete with pretty wild flowers, and then we spotted the Bird's Nest and headed for that. On the way, we found a map, and were able to somewhat orientate ourselves. One of the things we, or maybe I, have found confusing about site-seeing in China is the lack of written information and maps. The areas are usually huge, and its difficult to know where exactly you are and the best way of viewing the site. Anyway, we paid our Y50 each and went inside. As a stadium, I didn't think that it was as fantastic a structure as Toronto's Rogers Dome, but the stadium vibrated with the emotions that were experienced there: the nerves of the competition; the despair of losing; and the thrill of winning your event and taking your place on the podium in front of the thousands of peple there. We walked around in awe listening to the inspiring Olympic music and watching the Olympic replays on the huge video screen. Opposite the Bird's Nest is the Water Cube and we crossed over the wide concrete avenue and lined up to buy our tickets for that. Although nothing much to look at on the outside, inside the main pool area and diving board was very colourful with all the flags of the various countries competing around the ceiling and the beatiful blue colour of the water and the blues and yellows of the colourful diving boards. The day was really hot and muggy and very hazy, so we were quite happy when we made it back to the subway. We stopped at Xidan for a late lunch and to see if I could find the bookshop mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but, couldn't. So we came back to the hotel for a couple of hours before heading back out to meet the two guys at the Night Market on Donganmen Street just off Wanfujing Street. We left a little early because I knew there was another bookstore there. We found an even bigger bookstore, the "Wanfujing Bookstore", and went to the third floor (as directed by LP for the other book shop) and found all kinds of books in English. Ended up buying two in a big hurry and went on our way to meet the guys. About 5 mins later, as we were walking through the Wanfujing Pedestrian Street, the heavens opened and we were in the middle of a dramatic thunderstorm; lightening, loud peels of thunder, and torrential rain. Everyone rushed for cover through the instantly accumulated inches of rain, and we ran to the doorway of a department store to seek shelter from the driving rain. The umbrellas came out in huge numbers: people in yellow rain ware were running up and down the street selling new ones. All the "parasols" of the sunny afternoon suddenly became umbrellas, many of them turned inside out, and we looked out of our shelter over a sea of pouring rain dotted with colourful umbrellas. The rain lasted abut half an hour and eventually Ray went off to buy an umbrella! I imagined walking down the street with a pretty blue or pink umbrella, but he came back with some sort of blue plaid!! Oh well, it served a purpose. We walked up to where we were meeting the guys and of course they had gone. So, had most of the people at the Night Market. All the vendors were still there with various lamb, scorpions, intestines, etc. on sticks waiting to be barbecued. But the fun was out of it all; we were a little chilly, a little wet; and a little tired. We looked for a restaurant to eat in but it was all very weird food. We ended up in a rather grotty restaurant about 9:30; had some chicken, celery. and rice. We ate quickly, and caught the subway about 7 or 8 stops back to our hotel. Chris and Jon were waiting for us on the way in. They got soaked too and decided just to go and eat as well. By this time it was just after 11 so it was straight to bed.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Saturday July 4 - Relaxing in Beijing

Today was real relax day as we transitioned from our hotel Huguosi Hotel on Huguosi Jie to the Tian Tian Jia Ri Hotel on Wanshou Road in Wanshoulu District. We had breakfast and on the way back to the old hotel stopped into a store, Semir, or something like that. We had a great time spending about $35.00 on four t-shirts and two pairs of pants. The shop assistants and the patrons all had a great laugh - especially as the assistants were obviously telling us they had a two/for/one sale. The delightful young woman who was assisting us was "running" around the store getting us other colours, other styles, and other sizes. When did you last see an assistant in a Canadian shop with such energy? At one stage she was yelling to a couple of the other assistants with such glee, it seemed more than even double our purchase was worth. In fact, all the assistants were in on it, and the men took as active a part in checking out the clothes I was trying on as did the girls, and I think vice versa with Ray. It was quite an experience!! The shoppping is so fantastic here! So much choice. You would just love it!! The only downer, I needed an "XL"...shhhhh!! We are now settled in our new hotel. Its a little more luxurious than the previous one, but the area is really dull and boring. Its a beautiful residential area with high rises and flats, lots of trees, and every second shop sells only cigarettes and bottles of booze, I know, some might say: "That's not boring!!"; a few fruit stalls, and one or two shops selling water, soft drinks, ice-cream and snacks. Sort of reminds me of the Eglinton/Mount Pleasant area in Toronto without the eclectic shops on Mnt. Pleasant or Yonge St. We met our Sundowners guid, an Aussie called Chris and the one other passenger, an English guy currently living in Australia called Jon! Both young - it seems a really nice group, so we are hoping to have fun. Dinner in the hotel was a very civilized and expensive affair. Y70 each. We are used to half that! The food was good though: Peking Duck. After dinner, Ray and I took a quiet walk around the block, then back to the hotel about 10:15 p.m.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday July 3 - Beijing - Hutongs

We were awakened this morning by a phone call from Anying who was the Chinese lady we met in Datong. We agreed to meet for dinner. We had a leisurely shower and breakfast, and went to the bike rental shop to pick up two bikes. I have dreamed of riding a bike in China since we decided to come on the trip,and Beijing seemed the place to do it. As well, Lonely Planet (LP) said it was a good way to see the hutongs. "Hutongs" are "narrow alleyways". According to LP, after Genghis Khan obliterated Beijing, the City was rebuilt with hutong. At their height there were about 6000, by the 1980s. Now there are only about 2000 remaining as most of them are torn down to make way for modern highrises. They are the life and soul of Beijing. You see them in movies. We had so much fun driving through them, connecting from one series to another by riding on the busy roads and mixing it up with buses, taxis, and private cars, let alone all the other bicycles, rickshaws, and scooters. Never once did I feel threatened by any vehicle. The cars and the buses all gave us a wide berth. Maybe they looked and saw two tourists and thought they had better keep well out of way! The hutongs varied greatly. Some were renovated and turned into little boutique shops and restaurants and frequented by the tourists, both Chinese and Western. Others were the old genuine hutongs, little courtyard communities with roof gardens, some spruced up as up-scale living area, others a bit messy but full of character; some of the lanes were paved, others dirt, and yet others cobbled. We passed all sorts of activities from men playing chess, to little stores selling fruit and drinks, and others just talking, smoking, and generally living their life. It was all fascinating. We passed many historic sites such as beautiful gardens and temples, the first Roman Catholic university, sports centres, schools, etc. One highlight was driving along the wide boulevard between Chairman Mao's picture, and Tianaman Square. We stopped in the middle and have a wonderful picture of Ray and his bike with the Chairman smiling in the background. Eventually our bums got really sore on the not too padded bicycle seats and after about 4 hours, we headed back to the shop to return the bikes. I might add that the weather is sweltering hot - 36 to 40C! So we consumed quantities of water, and when we got back, quantities of beer. We barely had time to have a shower before Anying was calling us to say she was in the hotel lobby. So, off we went with her to continue our educational tour of Beijing. She took us to The Silk Market, a 6 storey building packed and stacked with everything from nick-knacks, to clothes, to jewelery, to suit material, silk goods, cashmere goods, etc. etc. An absolutely amazing place abuzz with the sound of people advertising their goods and trying their hardest to get you to buy from them - many of them spoke English - the prices started high, for example, I started off at Y890 (the fool price!) and ended up paying Y140!! So you really have to love haggling over the price! After this we caught a bus up to Wangfujing where we wandered through an outstanding mall in order to reach the Wangfujing Snack Street behind it. We took the bus from the Silk Market and passed beautifully highlighted buildings including the Beijing Hotel and the Beijing Railway Station magnificently lit among the stacks of elegant high rises, tree-lined boulevards and the most beautiful modern downtown environment. Of course, it could have been anywhere in the world too, but the neon signs gave our location away with their bright, exciting colours and lively videos. We had a simply delicious dinner in a quiet and serene restaurant; then we saw Anying onto her bus heading for home, and Ray and I caught a cab back to the hotel; grabbed a night-cap in a loud and noisy Chinese restaurant opposite the hotel, and headed for bed around midnight after another full and fun-filled day.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thursday July 2 - Beijing

Our second free day in Beijing. We succesfully got two boxes of our camping stuff and some heavy winter clothes mailed off to Canada - one box was 10kg+ and the other 8kg+ for Y1054. China Post is so efficient. They wrapped it all up, and it looks in good shape for the journey. We will see how long it takes. We chose the SAL service - so not the slowest ocean going service. Then we headed to Xidan Square for breakfast and back to the hotel by bus. Went to the Internet next door, then headed out for the Embassy District to pick up our visa; found the Bank of China - the right branch this time, paid our fee; walked over to the Mongolian Embassy; learned that all other tourists had the same problems; got our visas!!!....yeah!!; made the suggestion they advise people of the correct bank to go to! To celebrate we went into the Parisian Bakery and had a cafe latte, a tea, a cream cheese danish and a cinnamon bun while listening to delicate Parisian music, and looking out at tree lined boulevards and modern high rises that could have easily been in the business centre of any city in the world!! Too civilized!! I think the cost of this was more any dinner we have had on the trip! We also took a few minutes to think of our friends John and Pauleen who have just spent 2 weeks in Paris! W arrived back at the hotel at 6 pm; went for a beer with the same group as last night and sadly said goodbye to Olivia, (off to Shanghai) and Mike and Rachel (off to England to get married on July 18). Then we went off to the Internet; called Alanna; went back to the restaurant for some dinner 2 hours later and found the group minus those we had said goodbye to, still there. Ray and I were in bed by midnight.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wednesday July 1 - Free Time in Beijing

Our first free day in Beijing. We had 2 goals today! First, to submit our application to the Mongolian embassy for a visa, and second to post our camping stuff back to Canada. Easy? Not so easy! We set off early for the Mongolian Embasy; walked towards the subway (about 25 minutes); had breakfast on the way; got the subway to the Embassy District; found our way to the Mongolian Embassy; handed in our application; all easy! The subway is fabulous! Clean, air/con, comfy, smooth, silent, high-teck! In particular we loved the ad videos on the tunnel walls that flashed images to your brain as you flew by in the train; and we loved the electronic map that lit up the subway stop you were arriving at - in addition to an audio route info and to a visual route info. At the Embassy, we received a "ticket" for the visa costs, Y990 for both, which we had to take to The Bank of China for pyament. So we decided to head back to our hotel, regroup, and find a bank. All easy! Not so! The first branch of the bank couldn't accept payment; the second branch couldn't accept payment; and we were directed to go to the Head Office, which we did, and they couldn't accept payment and directed us back to a branch in the Embassy District. So, by that time we were exhausted, disappointed, and frustrated with the embassy for not telling us that we had to go to one particular branch of the Bank of China to make payment. Now it was time to visit a post ofice to find out about mailing our stuff, so we took a bus back to the road the post office was on and walked and walked to the PO; got all the info and arrived back at the hotel about 5 pm; collapsed in a small restaurant opposite the hotel and downed a cold beer and lunch; made a quick visit to the Internet to read email. Then it was back to the hotel to meet 4 of our group (John, Emily, Mike and Rachel) at 6:30 pm to go and meet Leon and Nat who were stayin at hostel near Tianamen Sq. for drinks and dinner.

When we checked email, I had an email from Alanna which read: " Guess who decided to jump out of the woods while I was sitting on the deck reading? Philthy, starving (uber skinny), and talking like crazy....but in-the-flesh (not my head)real...and breathing (had to pick her up to make sure)...Amazing. Wonder where she has been all this time??!! "

Chloe!!! So, as you can imagine, we are over the moon!! The little rascal. I can't imagine what must have happened to her. Perhaps she was trapped somewhere, was frightened by our grass cutting crew and ran away and got lost and just found her way back. I guess as Ray says, we will never know. We are just so happy to have her back. The way I have reasoned it is that it is a "gift" for the stance I took re the poor kitten in the fish pool! You never know!!!

We had a great evening with everyone in the Leo Hostel. It was fun geting there too. The street in front of the hostel was completely dug up and the few parts of what was left of the pavement (side-walk) was about 3 feet above the level of the excavated road - we litterally walked over planks, narrow shelves, wooden boards, dirt, boulders, order to get there. As usual Ray and I left around 11 am and the others around 2 am. As we walked out to catch a cab the roads were deserted and moments after were closed behind us. Can you believe that in all of this we actually met Ant, Adam, Stormi and Olivia trying to make their way to the hostel.