I was still feeling the effects of the dodgy belly/bowels that I had picked up at the end of my time in West Africa when I arrived back into London. I had planned to travel to Russia via Oman from Ghana but was unable to get my Russian Visa in Accra. Fate worked out well for me as I enjoyed my 9 days back in the UK and it was a good rest to get myself better again. It did take a month before I did a solid poop again and it felt amazing after so long of seeing toilets so close after eating.
It was a hectic time in London as I had set myself 10 days to plan and book my entire Trans Siberian adventure and also to obtain my Russian and Belarusian Visas. It took a lot of walking, early mornings and a little bit extra cost to get everything done so quickly but it all went to plan and on the 18th June I was sitting in Heathrow waiting for my flight to Warsaw and onto Minsk.
I had always known Belarus to be a hard place to get a visa for and also to be stuck in a Soviet Union style mentality and still very communist orientated. My visa ended up being very easy to get and once in Minsk I found the city and the people fantastic. I am not sure what I was expecting, maybe a softer style Pyongyang type of place, but it was a breath of fresh air to be there. The city looked nice, it was spread out, exceptionally clean and the people gave of such warmth about them as you passed that I was regretting all the years I had considered the people of the former USSR to be miserable gits.
There was not a lot to see in Minsk and my time was spent trying to purchase train tickets and people watching. The biggest thing I noted, which I did not expect from such a soviet themed country, was the young couples kissing very passionately in the streets. Every time I stopped at traffic lights I had to look the other way as these couples looked they were practicing for the opening scene of a soft-core film.
Unfortunately I had only 36 hours in Belarus, the most my transit visa would allow, but I have made a mental note to go back there again one day. It was cheap, safe, and friendly and I can’t wait to get out into the small villages and meet the true people of the country. It is the same in all countries, you cannot experience a place by seeing one of its big cities you have to get out into the small towns and villages to really get the heart and soul of a country.
Belarusians apparently pride themselves on being clean and tidy people so it was a pleasure to see this in effect on the overnight train I took to St Petersburg. I was concerned entering Russia as I would not get a stamp at the border due to Belarus and Russia not really acknowledging one! I hoped my Stamp for Belarus would be OK for Russia as well and made a point to register as soon as I arrived to make sure that my name was on record immediately.
St Petersburg was a great city with lots of parks and churches and museums and monuments and well, it just had everything including an insane amount of tourists. I only realised when I was booking my trip back in London that I had chosen the busiest time of the year to be heading to Russia. Busiest time of the year in Russia and hottest time of the year in the Sahara! Numpty. The whole of St Petersburg was swarming with people following the leader in front with the little flag and well basically just getting in everybody’s way. The day I bit the bullet and went to the Hermitage (one of the world’s biggest museums) was bedlam! At times you could not walk anywhere and would have to backtrack to find a section of the building not so busy. I too’d and fro’d so much that the attendants were giving me funny looks by the end, wondering why I kept passing the same way so often.
I did enjoy St Petersburg for the 4 days I was there, except for the crap hostel I got stuck in. It was apparently a bar that was not making money so they threw some bunk beds in their two back rooms and Walla, A hostel. One of the worst hostels ever but in a fantastic location for me to walk across the road to go and see Swan Lake. Felt like a bit of a Billy No Mates there on my own and certainly had no idea what was even happening for the 2.5hr show! The dancing was good and the music relaxing but how can that actually be anything resembling a story?
I also made a point to see the Zoological museum while there and it was fantastic. I lost count and was told that there are around 500,000 of the several million species they have on show. Everything from the smallest spec of an insect to Blue Whales and Mammoths, and of course the Tasmanian Tiger. In the end in got a bit boring as there was just too much to see.
Thankfully my hostel in Moscow more than made up for the one in St Petersburg, it was brand new and run by two fantastic guys who went out of their way to make you enjoy your stay. It was a great spot to spend 2 nights while I sorted myself out for the train trip to Vladivostok. I had wanted to stop half way at Lake Baikal along the way but could only get second class tickets for the second leg of the journey which cost $600 as opposed to the $250 in third class. So I booked a straight through ticket which gave me a 143.5hr non-stop journey to look forward to. I had stocked up on food back in the UK and was happy that I would not starve at all on the way across. Hot chocolate, Peanut Butter and Granola bars were my favourites.
As far as big cities go Moscow was a good one. I had heard reports of it being dangerous but besides a few drunks at the train stations it felt safer to me than a lot of cities I have seen. The Red Square and St Basils were great to see but do not live up to the hype they receive, I guess that’s why it is better to travel with no expectations and not be let down. Probably as popular as seeing Lenin’s Tomb or the Kremlin was to walk 50mtrs off the square and buy some McDonalds! Weird when you think about, the base for the soviet empire and communism for so long and now the world’s biggest symbol of Capitalism across the street.
I had no idea what to expect on my train trip and had loaded up with a few books and some podcasts to fill in the time and waited for the drunken Russians to come along and offer me some vodka, or give me some crap. Neither of these eventuated and my first 3 days were filled with reading, listening and playing cards with my bed neighbour and his wife and kid. I had to limit the length of the games we played as he seemed to think that hour by hour I was becoming more fluent in my Russian and would be more adamant that I must understand his question. He did seem a little upset when I said I didn’t like the Russian version of checkers, a famous game for them but something we stopped playing at puberty.
By day 4 I was ready to scream as all I had done for 3.5 days was lay or sit and walk 15mtres twice a day to the toilet and 10 metres in the other direction twice a day to get hot water for tea. My bed was also built for a little person aka Midget and my feet hung out around 10 inches from the end but I toughed it out and eventually my body conformed to its new system of lying and sleeping and my back stopped hurting and I started to think that I would like another 4 days on the train. I was showering in the toilet daily with baby wipes and felt clean and comfortable and still had plenty of food left.
So after a very boring, un-eventful and green 6 days we arrived to Vladivostok to the usual foggy as hell morning. I could not say I enjoyed the trip as there was nothing to enjoy as such but I did find it a worthwhile experience. 9300kms in 6 days across 5 time zones, in fact the time zones were the hardest thing to handle. At the half way point it seemed to automatically become day when it should be night. I never did get used to trying to sleep just as the sun was rising, my body clock was way out.
My trans-Siberian trip had come to end just as quickly as it seemed to have begun. I was glad that I hadn’t stopped in Lake Baikal as the train tracks followed the lake for about 4 hours anyway and yes, it is a massive lake, huge, not sure I needed to know anymore than that to be honest. I enjoyed my time on the train more seeing the culture of the Russian people, I had a perception of them being stone faced and cold people but that is the furthest from the truth. In business matters they maintain a very straight face yet I always managed to get a smile and a ‘you’re welcome’ when I was leaving and in friendly matters in the street they laughed and joked and smiled more than most of us. When you see them looking all serious you just want to run up and give them a hug knowing a smile will straight away follow.