Thursday, August 31, 2006

Part IV - Des bains pi des trains

Other than the Kremlin, our last day in Moscow was pretty uneventful (well, as far as Moscow goes!). However, with a little push from Erik, Natalie decided to go to a Russian bath with him (although men and women were seperated). A Russian banya consisted as such: shower, steam, cold dip in barrel, swim (for Erik only, Natalie got a whirlpool though), shower, tea and snacks, then repeat. And all naked mind you!!! There were also several services available, including (for women anyway) manicurists, hairstylists, massage therapists, laundry service, etc...It was the perfect thing to do before heading on an 80 hour-5000km train ride to Siberia.

The train ride itself was quite a feat. We really didn't know what to expect. I don't think there was anything that could have prepared us for what we experienced. We wanted the "Russian Way" and I think we got it. We got a Russian family anyway. For most of the entirety of 5000km we shared our cabin with not one, not two, not even three people. Yes, there were 4 + us. There was a family of three (including a two-year old toddler) AND the grandmother. It was however pretty fun at times. There were several questions exchanged but hardly any answers exchanged. We did however share some beer, some food, some pictures and we learnt at least a bit about our respective cultures.

Vlad and Papa

The Russian landscape was spectacular. We literally spent hours staring out of the windows into meadows and villages. It seemed (along the railway anyway) that people are mostly congregated in small villages made up principally of wooden houses. Gardenning appears to be at least sustaining if not profitable. Several of what we might call "shanty" houses had amazing gardens and small farms. Most of the roads were made of dirt and we regularly spied people walking everywhere. We'd like to say it was depressing but the reality is that it was quite charming in a pastoral kind of way. There were several places we passed where we both wished we could have hopped off the train to do some exploring.

As for sustainance, we survived mainly on the rations we bought in Moscow and from the awesome food that was available on the platforms from the babushkas. The train stopped several times a day including at least 1-2 times for a period of more than 15 minutes. So we wandered, stretched our legs and played a guessing game as to what food might be good. Out of the four days, we only bought one bad thing....pretty good I would say.

One thing quite pleasant about this kind of trip is that time seems to drift by. Unless we looked at our watches, it was often difficult to tell whether it was late morning or afternoon. Evenings passed by quickly. The train itself runs completely on Moscow time although we actually rode through 5 time zones.

Whenever we wanted exercise (and if we were willing to brave the smoking chambers between the waggons) we wandered down to the dining cart. We ate, played cards, read, tried to figure out why the waitress kept scowling at us, and relaxed.

Upon debarking the train, we were chauffered to Lake Baikal where we spent a couple of relaxing days but more on that later.

PS-For those of you who did not know, it is election time in NB. Does Erik show it?
Also click here: Erik made the NB CBC online news!!!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Part III - Moscow - Bringing Babushka Back!

Well, we arrived in Moscow after a relatively pain-free overnight train. We (Erik) once again haggled for a taxi and wound up at the Wallmart of hotels (actually, Erik believes it is more like the Giant Tiger of hotels, for those who remember this chain). We kid you not, this place is the funniest thing ever. There are 4 monstrous ugly grey buildings that are mostly linked together. Inside, you can find dry cleaning, several restaurants, bars, internet cafes, post office, a strip bar and even a bordello. All prices are overinflated (duh) but some of the services are convenient. With over 2000 guests PER hotel, car alarms are ringing 24 hours a day. And don't even start about the packs of wild dogs roaming the parking lots barking at people and cars. Scary.

One of the places we've been dying to see is the Red Square: revolutions, history, Ivan the Terrible, Soviet governments, even Lenin's tomb. It's all there and it is breathtaking. We've visited the Red Square 4 times so far and we still have about 24 hours left to go. We just can't get enough of it (and that's saying alot given that there are no benches).

Because of the plane crash a few days ago, Russia was in a period of mourning. Consequently (and due to regularly scheduled closings), Lenin's Tomb was not open. Erik was very disappointed. However, we did get to see Lenin live! (See below Lenin, although not pictured, was Putin. Yes, they were having quite a lively discussion, or so it seemed!)

Lenin LIVE at the Kremlin!

One of the higlights of this trip so far has been the food (who knew!). We've really lucked out in our choice of restaurants. From the obscure yet delicious Senate in St. Petersburg to this swanky splendor of the Metropolitain Hotel (pictured left), we've tasted some of Russia's finest foods. The Metropolitain is a venerable institution in Moscow. Everywhere you look do you see, golden trim, marble, stained glass and a beautiful water fountain. The service was also impeccable. It was a wonderful evening. Tonight we dined at an artsy cafe called FAQCafe where the service wasn't as great but the food was, and a third of the price of the Metropolitain at that.

We spent some time wandering the streets of Moscow today looking for souvenirs and fun items to bring home. We hit the jackpot at the Arbat where the streets are lined with street vendors, artists, boutiques, cafes and all kinds of other junk. If we saw 1 matrioshka doll, we must have seen over a thousand. We even saw matrioshka dolls made in the form of political figures. AWESOME. After a few hours and a few purchases of art, matrioshka dolls and soviet propaganda posters, we left with empty wallets.

One of the strangest things that we both realized is the vast difference that exists between Moscow and St. Petersburg. While Moscow is the capital of the country and the epicenter of all things Russian, the "happening place" appears to be St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, everyone was friendlier, sexier and filled with a joie de vivre that doesn't seem to exist in Moscow. In Moscow there appears to be less English (thanks alot Frommers, you suck!) and more abrupt. behavior. St. Petersburg brings the sexy back while Moscow just brings the babushka out of people.
Tomorrow, the Kremlin in detail, Russian baths (hopefully) and our trek to Siberia begins.


Erik still at work.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Part II - St. Petersburg - Bringing Sexy Back

View along Nevsy Prospekt (street described below)
We arrived in St. Petersburg mid-afternoon. We weren't quite sure what to expect at the airport however many of our fears were abaited once we saw English translations on most signs (good start). We made it out of the migration section and our first challenge was getting to our hotel. Cosmopolitain-Erik took control and actually bartered (quite fiercely, I might add) with a local driver (official taxis are almost non-existant so you literally get into strangers' cars). As soon as he pulled out of the airport drive-way, we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore...

The view from our hotel window
La ride de taxi etait une aventure en sois-meme. Nous avons appris tres vite que tout affichage, toute ligne routiere ainsi que les vois, ne sont que des suggestions. C'est une anarchie vehiculaire!!! Nous sommes arrives a l'hotel qui paraissait comme un dongeon du dehors. (On s'est presque fait lutte par l'ascenceur) Heureusement le patois "l'habit ne fait pas le moine" etait apte ici.

We decided to venture out into the St. Petersburg night for food and possibly some vodka. We started walking and soon realized that we had landed on Saturn. The cyrillic alphabet is really impossible to understand (for us anyway, at least on such little sleep). We finally found a restaurant (3 hours later) but not before consuming at least 2 beer each on the sidewalk like all the other locals and gasping several times at the unexpected beauty. The main drag, Nevsky, is a lively mix of shopping, restaurants, bars and beautiful women. Interesting observation....ALL women in St. Petersburg wear high heels.....ALL the time. And most of these heels are of the 6inch spiked heel variety. Disturbing, fascinating and interesting....all at the same time.

Finalement, a 11h30pm, nous nous sommes rendu a notre restaurant qu'Erik avait choisit. Il avait fait un excellent choix! Le "Senat" etait dans la cave d'un ancient batiment gouvernemental qui hebergeait un genre d'entrepot pour archives. Apres le caviar, le canard, le vodka, l'agneau, le chevreuil, le vodka et le vodka, nous nous sommes rendu a un petit bar quelques minutes de marche du restaurant.

One of our drinking stops. Cool huh?

Erik once again proved his awesomeness when he stopped a young local couple to ask them where THEY liked to go for drinks. They pointed us in the direction of an awesome bar called Novus. The DJ played US songs from the sixties, the beer was cold and the vokda was cheap. We had a great time! (emphasis on great). It was more than a little funny to see all the cute Russian kids dancing to the Beatles. The story goes on like this...we walk, walk and walk some more...we get lost, and an hour later we finally get to the hotel at 6am (see Natalie and Erik for further details!)


Le lendemain nous nous sommes rendu a l'Hermitage. Le muse est reconnu comme un des plus grands au monde et contient au moins 5 differents edifices. La collection d'art est remarquable, les queues pour se rendre au musee etaient tout a fait aussi remarquables! L'Hermitage se trouve dans un ancient palais royale qui est vraiment spectaculaire, peut-etre la chose la plus impressionante a date.

Erik is working IT at the Hermitage...even when on holidays.

(Chris, please feel free to use for propaganda purposes! Hahaha!)


Note to our parents:

Despite Russian plane crashes and Russian bombs...

We are still alive...barely!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Smoke Smoke Anywhere!

Hey el pere! (mom, print ceci pour papa): Tu aimerais bien ca St Petersburg. Tu peux boire une biere en marchant dans le milieu de la rue sans te faire harceler par un policier. Tu peut fumer dans les aeroports, places publics, restaurants, etc! Tu peux fumer anywhere...ANYWHERE!!!

For those of you who aren't fluent in both official languages, the rough translation to the above is, "HEY Dad, you can smoke anywhere here. You can also drink, literally anywhere. "

St. Petersburg is crazy that way.

More to come. Heading to Moscow tonight.

ps-we got in this morning at 6:30am!!!
pps-Lou, how's the dude, Genghirino?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Part I - London - Not vanilla ice cream

Gros Ben
London in itself was a realization to me. Kinda like finding out that you really like something that you never really gave much thought to. I have always considered London akin to store-bought vanilla ice cream; good but not great and certainly not all that interesting. I am really glad to be wrong about this one. London is anything BUT vanilla ice cream. The people are interesting, the architecture is eye-catching and the history is so rich with pride, tradition and scandal (what a great mix).

Nous avons commencer Londres du bon pieds: avec une pint de biere au pub le plus pres de notre hotel. En parlant d'hotel, notre chambre est tellement petite que meme un schtroumph (smurf) aurait de la difficulte a se trouver de la place! Ah oui, est-ce que j'ai mentionne que ca fait environ5 jours que notre hotel n'a pas d'eau chade? On prend nos bains avec de l'aide de la bouilloire!

London Tower Bridge

We started off our first day by sleeping in, eating at a local bakery and heading to Buckingham Palace. We're still not really sure what is so interesting about this building (the Queen aside)...there were literally hundreds of people lining the gold-tipped wrought iron gates taking pictures of a concrete structure....a boring building really. Erik and I had more fun taking pictures of the people than of Buckingham Palace itself. We then hopped on the top of a double-decker bus. We opted for the double-decker in order to get a better feel for the city and its sights. Great choice. Highly recommended.

Speakers' Corner (Not the Much Music one)

Un de nos arrets les plus interessants etait le ''Speaker's Corner''. Grand bastion de la liberte d'expression, sauf pour quelques exceptions(pas d'insultes liees a la famille royale). Les gens se presentent chaque dimanche a Hyde Park avec une boite (ou une echelle) sur laquelle ils prechent de tout et de rien: de religion, de guerre, de politique et de coneries. Les debats sont nombreux avec des centaines de personnes qui sont a la recherche de discours interessants. Assez impressionant!!!

St. Paul's Cathedral

In riding through the streets of London, we saw many things. We saw Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, the London Eye, the London Tower Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe and, of course, the infamous Harrod's. We finished the day at a great Indian restaurant with a mediocre bottle of wine. Lots to digest for such a short stop but a great beginning to our adventure.
Next stop: St. Petersburg...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Train Trip

(Click on image for a larger and more detailed view.)

Well, here it is. Here is the reason why we created this blog. Here is THE post which details our our trip across Eurasia. It consists of 10 steps (along with facts that you KNOW Natalie did not draft) .

We leave from Bangor Maine on August 19th and fly to London England, where we stay for 2 nights. Natalie is looking forward to sipping afternoon tea, drinking lukewarm pints and visitng the fabled Harrod's. We then fly to St. Petersburg where the real adventure begins and Natalie's knowledge of the world dwindles. Lonely Planet, anyone?

1-St-Petersburg (once known as Leningrad)
Peter the Great's window to the Western world. We are only here for a couple of days. Home of the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress and many things Russian.

2-Overnight train to Moscow
Hopefully this overnight train will not be as bad as the overnighter when we met those Italians (see Europe posts below). It's an 8 hour train ride. Should not be too painful...especially if a sufficient Vodka is bought prior to departure.

Here for three days. Well what can we say about this place? Home of the Kremlin, Red Square, Lenin's Tomb...It's Moscow man! What else do we need to say?!?!?!?!?!

4-Four day train ride across Russia
This is where our patience and resourcefulness will be tested. Not much food, not much drink other than vodka (recent vodka training will no doubt come in handy), not much service and not much English, nor French. No showers, no baths!!!

5-Lake Baikal stay
For those big RISK players, you know where Irkutsk is: Siberia. Lake Baikal will be our home for about 4 days. A family will be hosting us for a couple of these. Again, recent vodka training will no doubt come in handy.

6-Two day train ride to Ulaanbaatar
Another train ride talking with some locals and hopefully get some cool hints as to what adventures await us in Mongolia.

7-Jeep ride in Bayangobi
This is where Erik get's excited: We are going to the ruins at Karakorum, hopefully (ancient palace of Genghis Khan' ancestors), and to a monestary at Erdene Zuu. We heard rumours that there are only 81 miles of asphalt in Mongolia. Holy jeep ride! Can you say "middle of nowhere"...

8-Stay in Ulaanbaatar
Capital of Genghis Khan's Mongolia, celebrating 800 years since the world's greatest empire. We really don't know what to expect on this leg of the trip. We can imagine alot of walking around and statements to the effect of "Holy Shit, we are in Mongolia". FUN

9-Two day train ride to Beijing
Again, hoping to get some insight on Beijing from other riders. One cool thing we heard about this leg of the trip: there is a time during the train ride where they have to go so slow, you can actually walk beside the train. We might test this rumour out... lol

Confucius, Sun Tzu, Tian'an Men Square, Forbiden City, Great Wall, dim sum...Home of a great civilization (and hopefuly our first daughter).

We will also be stopping in London, UK for a couple days post Eurasia to cut up the travelling.

Well folks, that's the gist of it. More to come.

Please fasten your seatbelts and get ready for takeoff!!!