Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Comrades, this is the real Russia (7)

The overnight train was pleasant enough and brought us into Moscow on time. We shared this stretch of the journey in a four-berth compartment with a couple of Russians who, though they spoke almost no English, were no bother (and I trust we were none to them either!). I'll say more about the trains in a later post, but one slight concern here was seeing the stretcher in the toilet cubicle. At least they were prepared.

Somehow St Petersburg hadn't quite felt like Russia, but Moscow certainly did. It's not that I'd ever felt Russia before, but one gets notions of a place and St Petersburg had not coincided with my particular notions of Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, was different.

The train arrived in Moscow at a slightly unethical hour of the morning, but our driver met us at the station as planned and whisked us through the city to our hotel, pointing out a couple of places on the way. The hotel seemed at first to be in a rather obscure location as he had to ask a gatekeeper to let us into what looked like a run-down compound area, but it transpired that the front of the hotel was actually next door to a Metro station - jolly handy.

All change for the Kremlin guard
Lena, our walking-tour guide, met us and introduced us to the Moscow Metro, taking us to the city centre. Similar to the St Petersburg system, each journey cost a standard amount purchased here through a sort of swipe card which could hold multiple journeys for future use. Whilst Lena held our place in the queue for the mausoleum, we popped off to see the changing of the Kremlin guard. This was a relatively simple affair, though the goose-step does always look rather amusing and it was impossible not to be mindful of the Ministry of Silly Walks, from which these soldiers would need no grant. The idea of standing in the Kremlin was itself rather strange, considering that for years during my youth this had essentially been the very heart  of 'enemy' territory. Anyway, we’re all friends now, all differences forgotten and … well, actually, there are still a lot of differences not to be forgotten - and that’s quite ok. That’s one of the delights of travelling.

The Kremlin from the Moskva River
The guard having been changed, we rejoined the queue that was now slowly moving towards the mausoleum. Passing by the graves of Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, I knew that this was going to be another strange experience and eventually we entered the building and joined the hundreds of admirers, or voyeurs, that pass by the dead body of Vladimir Lenin each day. From 1918 until his death in 1924, Lenin was the first leader of the Soviet Union and now virtually worshipped by many as the father of Soviet communism.

One wonders how much longer can this spectacle continue. A body that has been dead for nearly ninety years requires a good deal of attention to keep it looking as it does, attention that consists of wiping it down every few days and then, every 18 months, submerging it in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax. The fact that Lenin himself wanted to be buried beside his mother in St Petersburg seems to be of little concern, though occasional voices suggesting that his wishes should be fulfilled are soon silenced by the political left and thought inexpedient by the tour operators. As for his brain, well it was removed after his death and spent the next forty years being dissected and analysed by scientists trying to discover secrets of his hidden genius. I would love to share these with you, but they are secret.

If standing in the Kremlin made me feel strangely as if I really ought not to have been there, staring at the dead body of Lenin was plainly bizarre. He may well have led the Russians in their godless revolution, but he is no longer there - and I suspect he knows much better now. And the irony of such a man being religiously revered by so many, so long after his death, did not escape me.

The Main Department Store (GUM)
A tour of the Kremlin would wait until the morrow, for we next headed across Red Square and towards a rather upmarket shopping centre which, ironically, stands opposite Lenin's mausoleum. Red Square, so named because the Russian word ‘red’ used also to mean ‘beautiful’ and has nothing to do with the colour of nearby buildings nor any allusion to communism. The real beauty here is St Basil’s Cathedral which lies just to the south east of the square, though the shopping centre was also impressive.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Vladimir Shukhov, a Russian engineer, was responsible for building the glass roof of a covered trading area that during Soviet times was known as State Department Store (GUM is the Russian acronym). Now privatised, it is known as Main Department Store (still GUM) and most of the stuff is rather pricey. Well the place is an architectural delight, with over 20,000 panes of glass in the roof its three arcades are each on three levels linked by walkways. And there is even a very pretty fountain.

The Dining Room of the Hotel Metropol
We would revisit the shopping centre later to enjoy lunch at Stolovaya Number 57, a retro Soviet canteen. First we had more of the city to explore with Lena who showed us the Hotel Metropol, an extremely posh hotel built at the beginning of the 20th century that is really a masterpiece of art nouveau. The stained-glass dining room ceiling really is a must to see, and many a well-known name has dined here.

We saw the ex-KGB headquarters which, appropriately, was under cover in the process of renovation. And then we walked past the Moscow Operetta Theatre where, in July 1918, Vladimir Lenin gave a speech at a Joint Session of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the Moscow Soviet, Factory Committees and Trade Unions of Moscow encouraging his comrades at a crucial time in their “struggle against the onslaught of the whole imperialist world.”

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre
Across the street from a statue of Anton Chekhov is the Moscow Art Theatre which produced Chekhov’s four major works including premieres of his Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. From here, looking west, it was rather interesting to note the architecture of various decades and of particular interest were the seven impressive, gothic-style skyscrapers, or the 'Seven Sisters', which Stalin had built in the mid-20th century.

Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57
Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57 is a must for all visitors to Moscow. I can't say I would whole-heartedly recommend the food, though it was quite edible, but the experience was worth any lack of palatability. I'm not sure that Shanae fully appreciated the significance of the rather plain cuisine of the set lunch, having never experienced the reality of the Soviet Union, but that diners were addressed as 'comrades' in a rhyming sign on the table asking us to clean our table after eating was most fitting.

One of Stalin's seven sky-scrapers from the river
The afternoon continued to be most sunny so we took to the river and enjoyed an hour and a half's boat ride that took us past a number of notable sites. We met a couple of English visitors who were over to cheer on the British athletes at the World Championships that were being held in Moscow. I asked them to do a bit of cheering on my behalf too - just so as not to appear totally unpatriotic. I'm sure it helped.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Venice of the north and the Masoretic quest (6)

The history of St Petersburg goes back only as far as the early 18th century when Peter the Great and his successors had grand designs for a city to be built after European styles. As such the city is very unlike the old capital, Moscow, which it replaced and its canal system earned it the nickname of the Venice of the north. By the early 19th century St Petersburg had become the cultural heart of Russia, but trouble was not far away. The excesses of imperialism led to several revolts and by 1917 the empire had fallen and, led by Lenin, the Bolsheviks gained control for the people.

Shanae and me on the boat tour
So much for the history. By morning the rain had passed and our plans to undertake what we understand to be the only English-speaking boat tour began to be put into action. It was a jolly ride through a part of the city from the bridge with the four horsemen out to the River Neva and back. The views were most pleasing as we cruised past the Peter and Paul Fortress, where, in 1703, the city was essentially founded, and alongside the Hermitage and Naval Museum. A great way to see many of the significant sights.

St Petersburg is, of course, home to the oldest complete Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament - the Codex Leningradensis (or Leningrad Codex). Written in A.D. 1008, or thereabouts, it is one of five principle Masoretic manuscripts upon which our Old Testament translations are based. It was not possible to visit the city without at least making an attempt to see the object and so after our boat trip I set about my quest.

I had no problem finding the Russian National Library. I had an awful job trying to locate the entrance. Once inside it became evident that without a reading pass it would be impossible to proceed past 'Go' and so one quickly filled out form, one simple interview, and one quickly taken photograph (the lady even asked if I was happy with the pose, as if such things can really matter) later and I was armed with my RNL reading card which was valid until the expiration of my visa - I didn't actually get around to telling them that after my first brief visit I wasn't planning on returning - but I don't think they'll be waiting up. Now things became a little tricky.

Entrance to the Russia National Library
It soon became increasingly evident that this place was in no way set up for the passing traveller. With no signs in any language other than Russian, and with very few of those, I set off to discover the manuscript department. Eventually I found someone who understood my slightly cyrillic pronunciation of 'manuscript' and I was kindly escorted through what transpired to be a labyrinth of corridors, through an area which looked totally deserted and uninhabited for decades, along more corridors and deposited in a room full of dusty bookshelves and desks - alone. The thought of having been abducted by secret service did momentarily enter my mind, very briefly, but my instinct was to make my way to the far end of this room and through a door where I found life.
For the first time in this whole experience I found a chap who spoke English. I explained to him my quest and he informed me that the manuscript in question was indeed in the next room but that I would need several letters of specific recommendation if I was to even contemplate setting my eyes on it. Fair enough, at least I tried. I didn't dare ask to see the remaining fragments of Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript we bought from the very same place almost 80 years ago for a mere £100,000. Nor did I think of offering a similar sum for the manuscript of my quest, but I was allowed to see a facsimile copy and so I spent the next hour or so perusing this until it came time for me to try to escape and meet Shanae as planned for lunch. All in all, though mission not really accomplished, a worth while and educational pursuit.

Peter the Great's not-so-great cabin
Following a quick lunch we crossed over the river to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, where it all began. A pleasant stroll and views, though torrential rain did descend at one point. I had particularly wanted to see the Cabin of Peter the Great who, unlike his descendants, chose not to live in a palace so resided in a 'cabin'. So we sauntered over to have a peep before spending a little time in a nearby souvenir market where the staff were genuinely friendly and keen to chat about all sorts of things.

The train to Moscow
Time began to run short, so after finding a place to eat where one ordered through an on-table screen and consuming a half chicken and chips, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the railway station for the night train to Moscow. The real Trans-Siberian adventure was about to begin - a journey that would take us from the west coast of Russia, across five time zones, three countries and through two continents, all the way towards the east coast of China. There were cultures to explore, people to meet, and vast, vast swathes of natural beauty to behold. Whatever else it might all be, this is my Father's world and he will always be there before me.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Underground and undercover (5)

Our second day in St Petersburg was wet and I felt rather sorry for our walking tour guide, Maria, who was to lead a wedding party tour in the afternoon when the main deluge fell. Nevertheless, it was an informative walk and though we had covered some of the same ground the previous day, it helped us understand the place and the people a little better. Russians still don't smile. In fact many of them consider strangers who smile at them to be silly - I thought they were missing out.

Following our walking tour we headed for the Metro, finding ourselves at the newest and deepest station - Admiralteyskaya. Taking about seven minutes on the escalators to descend to the platform - the first escalator was 410 feet (125 metres) long - we planned to visit a number of station recommended for their particularly artistic decor. On reaching the platform, I was really quite amazed by the sight. There was a central platform area with what looked like a polished marble floor under a lit arched canopy ceiling. At the far end was a huge mosaic mural of an 18th century admiral. Either side were marble colonnades leading onto the main platform areas. Impressive, I thought, but better was to come.
Avtovo Metro station
The train was not the newest bit of kit and the ferocity with which one was thrown around likely gave the impression of a greater speed than was actually being accomplished. It is a very inexpensive system with one standard fare payable by tokens that are bought beforehand, and once through the first ticket barrier one can travel on as many trains as one's heart desires.

Our first stop was Narvskaya where we got off the train to simply look around. Wow! The platforms were each lit by ornate chandeliers that would not have look out of place in a palatial dining room. Sculptures of miners, engineers, sailors sculptures, teachers and children adorned the platform columns. At Kirovskiy Zavod I was surprised to see a huge bust of Lenin - most were dismantled or destroyed following the fall of Communism. And at Avtovo were the most ornate, Babylonian style marble and cut-glass columns, plaster panelled ceilings and more decorative chandeliers. I imagine that many of the locals think nothing of it, seeing this day in and day out, but even though we were some distance underground it did all seem rather over the top.

Looking up at the ceiling at the Church of the Spilled Blood
Such a subterranean expedition was well-suited for such a rainy day, but back on top of the world it was time for another internal adventure - this time inside the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (a.k.a. the Church of the Resurrection of Christ). Built in 24 years, it took 27 years to restore and was reopened in 1997 - but well worth the wait, and well worth the entrance fee. I have never seen so much mosaic art in one place - 7,000 square metres of it covering every internal square inch of walls, columns and ceiling! No longer a 'working' church, this is an spectacular museum of religious art, both mosaics and painted icons, depicting many Biblical scenes and other events. It's hard to believe that for a time during Soviet rule the place was used to store potatoes and other vegetables, and it is understood that its thick walls and crypt made it an ideal place to shoot political prisoners and store their bodies. Charming.

On our way to find a bite to eat we passed a chap playing a rather unusual looking wooden instrument and singing in an equally unusual, but pleasantly serene voice. The instrument had a crank for winding, presumably for pumping air, and was played by plucking strings and pressing wooden keys. Fascinating. Deciding to avoid 'Killfish Burgers' we settled on pizza, a most traditional Russian dish, at restaurant called 'Italy', an equally Russian sounding name. Passing by 'Teaspoon', the pancake place at which we lunched yesterday, it was difficult not to stop and enjoy a pancake with berries before turning in for the night. So we didn't - not stop that is.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

On Russian soil at last (4)

The Princess Anastasia
Our disembarkation at St Petersburg was delayed after the immigration area had to be closed off due to overcrowding. But after waiting on board for over an hour, and retrieving my potentially lethal, yet beloved water heater, we found a fairly quick way through the queues and breezed through passport control. Our driver was waiting for us and took us through the city to the Vesta Hotel where we were to spend the next couple of nights.

As much as one wants to appreciate the local culture, and one does want to appreciate the local culture, it was pleasing to find that the chap at hotel reception spoke decent English. We were offered coffee whilst our passports were taken for registration, and then allowed up to the room which was more than satisfactory.

The hotel was situated just off Nevskiy Prospekt, one of the main roads of the city. In fact when our driver brought us to the place an hour or so earlier it seemed as if no sooner had we driven off the main road and passed between two buildings that we were in what appeared to be the relatively poorer neighbourhood in which the hotel was situated. So heading out to explore the city was no problem and we soon found ourselves a place to eat - a little more local culture with one savoury pancake, and one sweet.

Standing outside the Winter Palace at the Hermitage
Following these culinary delights we made our way to the Hermitage, one of St Petersburg's absolutely-must-see sites, and spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring some of its many and varied treasures.

The building itself is a real joy to behold and is essentially made up of a number of 'smaller' buildings: the Winter Palace; Small Hermitage; New Hermitage and Large Hermitage. Though formerly functioning as various palaces in pre-revolutionary days, it now serves as one of the world's leading museums with an impressive 365 rooms of displays. The Egyptian display was of interest, as were those of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the galleries themselves were most impressive works of art. Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) was delightful, as was his Benois Madonna, despite the intrusive and unauthorised Japanese flash bombardment. There are some beautiful works by Rubens and so many others, one would need several days to begin to truly appreciate the collection.
The library of Nicholas II
The late 18th century Peacock Clock was impressive. Made in England, as one might expect, it is a most intriguing piece of mechanical art acquired by Catherine II in 1792. I rather enjoyed the occasional views through the windows of small gardens to the south east and of the River Neva to the north west, but among the many rooms displaying the furniture of various periods my favourite was the library of Nicholas II. It forms part of the last Emperor's living quarters in the Winter Palace, preserved in its original decor. With its beautifully carved bookcases and quarter turn staircase leading to a balcony gallery, it would suit me perfectly.

Trying to navigate one's way through the Hermitage is no mean feat, not least for the almost complete lack of signage in any language other than Russian, but once closing time came we found ourselves back on the streets, exploring more sights in the evening sunshine. Perhaps the most impressive building is the multi-domed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Built between 1883 and 1907, on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, its canal-side setting is more attractive than that of St Basil's in Moscow on which is it partly modelled. So we took lots of pictures and waved at a few of the canal-farers who passed by.

Detail of the Church on Spilled Blood
I am somewhat disinclined to purchase souvenirs from merchants who thrust calculators bearing prices in one's face. It may appeal to some, but I'm not one of them. In contrast, the charming young lady at a nearby stall got my business and the first of all too few Russian bits were bought. She might actually have been the first smiling Russian we had encountered - certainly the sweetest! We were swiftly coming to the realisation that smiling is simply something that the Russians are yet to master - maybe one day.

Feeling a little peckish, we came upon a restaurant that looked enticing but its prices were not. The proprietor came out and suggested we should eat next door. "Cheaper'" he said "same kitchen." So we had a deal, and we sat down in a railway carriage styled (well, it seemed appropriate - even had a small loco front outside), rather dimly lit establishment and I tucked into a plate of goulash on mashed potatoes - delish!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Tallinn - a truly delightful city (3)

Beyond having once taught a student from Estonia and being aware of the country's Eurovision success, I knew little of the place and even less of its capital city, Tallinn. Ask me now and I'll recommend it as a place to visit. Though Stockholm certainly has a great deal to offer, and is also well worth a return visit, Tallinn was a most pleasant surprise. Rather quaint and full of historic interest, much of which (though not all) is to be found within the compact ancient 'Old Town', it was a real treat to explore.

After docking we had to wait some time to disembark but once we were able to get into the EU passport queue all was plain-sailing, or rather, fast-walking as we dashed to the Town Hall Square to pick up a free English guided tour of the Old Town at noon. Our guide, Celia, did a splendid job relating not only aspects of ancient history but also of more recent deliverance from Soviet oppression. Well worth the tip.

The memorial at Freedom Square
Our first stop was in the small park just in front of St Nicholas's Church which now houses Niguliste Museum, a museum of art where one might find Bernt Notke's 15th century Danse Macabre (Dance of Death). The Soviets had tried to turn the church into a museum of atheism, but apart from a couple of statues of individuals who didn't acknowledge the existence of God during their lives, they were not surprisingly at a loss for what to put in it. Perhaps filling it with simply nothing was most appropriate, for without God there is nothing.

Our next stop was at Freedom Square where there is a rather hideous looking monument to the nation's rather rare periods of independence which, we were told, were just as fragile as the monument itself.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
To the city wall we continued our stroll, on to the Kitchen Tower (where the guard spied on his wife's cooking through the kitchen window), past the Danish King's Garden (where the Danish flag fell from the sky, thus enabling them to be victorious in battle), to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This is a splendid looking building, in traditional Orthodox style, in deliberate contrast to the House of Parliament that stands opposite. A wedding had been taking place here, and beggars and priests were never far from sight. We popped in just briefly, but more elaborate interiors awaited us later on our travels.

A splendid view over the city
There are some splendid views to be had across the city to the port, and we took time to enjoy these before descending past the House of Government and back to the city wall. By now it was well past time for lunch, and following the tour we had been recommended a reasonable but delightful place to eat. Aed, or The Garden, is a traditional Estonian restaurant with considerable charm, pleasant workers and decent nosh. I opted for the pasta with smoked fish and rocket and, as prices were so good, finished off with dark chocolate cake with fir shoot ice cream - a novel flavour, I thought (the ice cream, not the cake).

Me and my new artist friend!
Time was moving on, as it tends to do, but I wanted to visit the Church of the Holy Spirit which is more of a museum and contains a memorial to the British Bearers of the Cross of Liberty, commemorating our assistance to Estonia in the sea battle of the Baltic in 1918. Walking down a small side alley we noticed a shop selling paintings of the city and after having a picture taken with my new artist friend, Tribol, I purchased one of his watercolours. One day I might tell you of my attempt at artistry - something I would like to pursue another time - but now it was time to resume our journey on board the Princess Anastasia and see what delights lay in store for the evening.

For some strange reason it seemed appropriate to eat a seafood pizza for dinner, what with being on the sea, and so after waiting an age for a table I sat down and sampled the Italian equivalent of squid on toast. To say that it was particularly palatable would be an over-statement. Edible, yes, but not particularly palatable. Apparently the freshly caught stuff is not quite so tough and I imagine that wrestling with the thing before it was dead might also be easier. Still, we put these things down to experience and to the list of things that ought not to be found on a pizza, we happily add octopus.

Town Hall Square
The evening's show was not an improvement on that of the previous evening despite the excessive, hyperbolic superlatives on offer. There is, after all, only so much one can do with a solo violinist, and even less with a karaoke singer who has delusions of stardom. The highlight was possibly the 'Mr & Mrs' contest where three couples were chosen to demonstrate their love to one another by taking turns to dance around their partner in some pseudo-romantic fashion. I should make it clear that if any female of the species were to make moves near me resembling those demonstrated on the stage I would either run a mile or insist that they be locked up on grounds of romantic delusion. Quite a spectacle!

I managed finally to obtain my printed copy of the rules and regulations concerning banned items and, sure enough, the list read: "Weapons, Explosives, Drugs, Heaters ..." I must confess I had never realised they were quite so dangerous. The chap on the information desk was really most helpful and pleasant - but he was an Estonian, from Tallinn, a city I would very much like to revisit.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Stockholm and the "happy accident" (2)

After rising at a reasonable hour, we began to explore this splendid Scandinavian city. The City Lodge, where we had spent the night, was very close to the Central Station and not at all far from the older part of the city. Built on fourteen islands, connected by a plethora of bridges, there are certainly plenty of sights to enjoy. Some streets are fairly narrow and what with their painted buildings make the old part of the city a delight to explore.

Shanae pausing whilst passing through one of the city's narrow streets
We made our way to the Parliament House and then to the Royal Palace where Shanae was told off for standing too close to one of the guards - inside his designated semi-circle! We were able to view the chapel in the palace where a most informative guide, spending most of his time telling people not to take photographs, tried to explain why there were statues of only six of the twelve apostles. Appanrently larger statues had been planned for the spaces now taken up by these which were removed from a now demolished Catholic cathedral - the remainder are now in storage.

A family giving thanks to God for their food in stained glass
Passing along more narrow streets we stumbled across Tyska Kyrkan, a German church in which we found some rather splendid stained-glass windows depicting scenes of everyday life of peasants in days of yore. Further on, ascending several flights of steps to a high point, we looked out over the city across the water to the north. Then after descending and strolling along the riverfront we came to Riddarholmen, the historical nucleus of Stockholm with its late 13th century church.
Stockholm City Hall
Our final port of call before heading to the port itself was to the City Hall where Shanae hopes one day to be presented with her Nobel prize! It is a fairly modern structure, and though we didn't tour the main chambers was worth a brief visit. Feeling more than just a little peckish we grabbed a bite to eat before retrieving our packs and negotiating what appeared to be a rather ambiguous, pre-paid ticketed bus service to the boat.

On arrival we noticed that there was a rather long queue to negotiate passport control before boarding the boat. A quick word with a friendly face enabled us to bypass this queue in light of being British (at least things were working the way they ought to). On reaching the Princess Anastasia, however, things ceased to work the way they should - this was, after all, a Russian vessel.
Our first contact with all things Russian was the luggage scanning device. My small rucksack made it through OK, despite there being a pair of nail-clippers inside, but my large backpack was not so lucky. There was an evident increase of excitement among the officials which I was to come to learn was rarely a good thing. I wondered at first whether they had detected my opened jar of Marmite and began to consider spending three weeks without it, or maybe it was the PG Tips!

With a degree of enthusiasm reserved for moments like these, the official pointed to his screen and murmured something in Russian which I found myself quite unable to understand. The image on the screen was of a coiled device at one end of my pack which I instinctively recognised to be the water-heater I had been recommended to bring (one can only live so long without tea). I tried to explain that it was a water heater but he made it abundantly clear that it was to be removed at all cost.

A view of Stockholm across the water
I half wondered whether one might have received a different sort of reaction were one to have tried to bring on board an inter-continental ballistic missile, but then thought that perhaps they suspected my water heater to be some sort of thermo-nuclear device with which I planned to melt the boat and take over the world. It was no use. I began to unpack my bag, slowly, piece by piece, not remembering in which end I had packed the thing, somehow enjoying the absurdity of the situation. Finally I found the thing and revealed it to the official who took it away, bagged and labelled it before locking it securely away. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to hear an English-speaking voice explain to me that no electrical devices were allowed on board, but no apology for the apparent rudeness of the luggage inspector nor explanation for what was to me a plainly absurd ruling. Welcome to the world of Russia.

Once I had been at least temporarily relieved of this dangerous piece of equipment, we made our way to our cabin which was not as expected. We had been expecting to be in different cabins, sharing with a number of other passengers of similar gender, and I had conjured up pictures of rowdy, drunken sea-lubbers singing Baltic sea shanties through the night, interspersed with relentless sessions of Nordic snoring. Little could have been further from what had been arranged for us. They had instead effectively upgraded us to a two-bunk cabin all of our own - and it looked luxurious by comparison.

The Princess Anastasia
It should be pointed out that the Princess Anastasia is a Russian cruise ship, seemingly mostly populated by Russians going on the holiday of a lifetime - well, sort of. By comparison, we were simply using the service as a means of transit to get from Stockholm to St Petersburg. On first boarding the vessel, after negotiating the aforementioned security measures, we had been somewhat impressed by the almost lavish nature of the decor on the main deck. Further explorations revealed a few restaurant areas, bars, casino and a cinema where "Movie tickets you can buy at a bar in front of". OK, their English is better than my Russian, I know!

Opting for the Coffee and Cake restaurant, we feasted on meatballs and mash which seemed to vaguely resemble what might be considered to be a local dish. It became clear that most of the passengers were indeed Russian, likely half way through their cruise from St Petersburg - Helsinki - Stockholm - Tallinn and back home again. It also became apparent that even when on holiday it was customary not to smile a great deal.
The incredible violinist at our spectacular show
The highlight of the evening's on board entertainment must have been the life-jacket putting-on contest. Having surprisingly never witnessed one of these before, I was a little unsure as to how this would proceed. The compere spoke first in Russian, but then explained in English that three men and three women were being chosen by "happy accident" - which I understood to mean 'at random' - to form three couples. The man was then to place the life-jacket on the lady, tying it up correctly, then she was to blow the whistle before being carried up and down the aisles by her partner. I was just hoping that by the end of the voyage we were not all going to have need to take part! Following this "amazing" contest, the really "spectacular" and "unique" show began which included an "incredible" violinist, a singing "star" and the obligatory dancing girls. What a "fantastic" treat - though not bad for the first night of a two-night journey.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

"Single to Beijing, please" (1)

At the time it seemed like a good idea to book the taxi for half past five in the morning. On reflection, I might have been better to book it for twenty minutes later and enjoy the extra time asleep in bed, rather than spend it mingling with that rather odd breed of commuter who congregate daily on Platform 2 of Peterborough Railway Station, before the hour of six o'clock. I use the word 'mingle' rather liberally as I would have struggled to look more out of place with my rucksack and smaller back-pack loaded with all I had remembered to pack the night before. If that had not persuaded the casual observer that this was not something I did on a regular basis, then my capturing a photographic image of the 06.10 train for King's Cross would certainly have done the trick.

The 06.10 from Peterborough to King's Cross
And no, I have not become a late-blooming, sad and confused, middle-aged train-spotter (I'm far too young for that sort of thing) - I had simply decided to capture a picture of every train upon which I travel on this epic journey. Far from spending the remainder of this day in some stuffy London office, pushing pens and mice across polished desks, I was destined for grander things. I was about to embark on what is the longest rail route in the world - the Trans-Siberian Railway - and what better way to get to its starting point than by locomotive power?
The journey to London was pretty much as most previous journeys I have made on this route. Just north of this point is where, a little over 75 years ago, the Mallard broke the world steam speed record - a record it has held ever since - but nothing of that nature was on the cards for today. Despite the absence of such potential excitement, I do confess it was somewhat difficult not to feel at least a little smug knowing that the next few weeks were to bring more joys than my fellow passengers had likely ever imagined. And as I saw the sun rise above the eastern horizon, I thought to myself, that's just where I'm heading. To the east!
The ICE train to Cologne
The Eurostar was most straight-forward, though one never really gets the feeling of crossing the English Channel to foreign shores when passing beneath it. Meeting up with Shanae in Brussels as planned, I found some lunch and we waited for the ICE train to Cologne.
The railway station in Cologne is immediately beside the cathedral which is generally worth a visit. Apart from it being a rather dark and drab building - it could really do with a decent clean - it is of fairly spectacular design and was remarkably preserved during the Second World War when all surrounding buildings and bridges seem to have been flattened.
Though having visited before, I had not previously known of the relics once housed within this edifice. Apparently, in centuries past, the bones of the three magi were once buried within the cathedral - and here we were now heading to the east from whence they came. OK, I realise that few subscribe to the idea of these chaps coming from China (or of these bones having any connection with those who came) but it was in that general direction. And if anyone is interested in relics of this nature, I have the skull of the lost sheep at home, not to mention a crumb from one of the loaves left from the feeding of the four thousand, etc.
Having found free Wi-fi in Cologne, our five hour wait for the Copenhagen train didn't seem quite so long. One cathedral visit, a half chicken and chips and several e-mails later, we attempted to board the overnight DSB sleeper to Denmark and settle down for the night. This was trickier than anticipated. Firstly, the doors of our carriage wouldn't open, so after entering via the adjacent car we discovered that there was also neither electricity nor lavatorial conveniences available. The latter were available in carriages either side, but without electricity we were to have neither lighting nor air conditioning - a bit of an inconvenience on a rather hot and humid summer night. But we had a bunk each, in a compartment we shared with four others, and the train did do the essential job of carting us from A to B.
Early Wednesday morning on the DSB sleeper in Denmark
I was fortunate to have the middle bunk whilst Shanae, who had the one at the top, found the lack of air conditioning to be rather oppressive. An open window provided a reasonable supply of airflow as long as the train was moving, but once the rather pernickety Dane on the lower bunk decided it should be closed we all began to fry in conditions more suited to their streaky bacon.
At some point in the night the train changed direction. A couple of the passengers disembarked, including the rather large German chap whose size appeared to defy the load capacity of the opposite bunk on which he had been perched, and finally we were woken to a glorious sunny morning. The Dane, who actually turned out to be a Swede, kindly offered me some of his delightfully organic crisp bread which would have been more palatable with a decent cup of tea - actually any cup of tea would have sufficed at that point.
Arriving in Copenhagen more than an hour late, apparently due to recent, inclement meteorological conditions in northern Germany, we had just enough time to step out of the station and pay an exorbitant amount for a sandwich before hopping onto our next train - this one an 'SJ' train, bound for Stockholm.
At first all seemed to be going rather smoothly. We both had window seats and were to have plenty of scenery along the five hour journey to the Swedish capital. We passed through and over the ├śresund (or Sound) Tunnel and Bridge to Malmo, but then things began to go wrong and ceased running smoothly. Actually they ceased running at all and the reason given for all the hassle lay at Hassleholm, as one might have expected, where there was apparently a signal failure. Our five hour journey ended up taking nine hours, but the beautiful Swedish scenery more than made up for it.
Our hostel in Stockholm
By the time we arrived in Stockholm and found our hostel it was nearly ten o'clock, so a rather late snack was in order before heading back to our two-bunk room - separated from the eighteen bunk room by a wall that didn't quite reach all the way to the ceiling. But, for Stockholm, it was a good deal and there was a kettle in the kitchen. Time for a cuppa before retiring.