Trans Siberian

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.

See photos for Belarus and Russia:

Close calls on the Gypsy Train

When people mention Romania I always seem to hear a mention of the dreaded Gypsies that you meet all across Europe and how annoying they are. I had come across them a few times so far and was a little worried to be heading to the country they seemed to originate from but had to go and see Draculas castle in person.

I left early in the morning from Varna and took the train to the Romanian border and waited a few hours to get my connecting train onto Bucharest. I could have taken a direct train but it would have cost an extra 4 Euros which adds up to a night’s accommodation in a lot of the countries I was travelling at that time and I knew how much fun waiting in train stations and people watching can be.

I found where I needed to be at the station and got my ticket and was immediately pounced on by taxi drivers telling me that the train was delayed for 6 hours and that it would be better for them to drive me there and that 15 euro was a very good price. I returned to ask the ticket lady if the train was indeed delayed, to which she replied ‘of course not’. Well that is what I guess she said anyway, couldn’t understand really but the taxi drivers immediately said she was wrong.

I spent the next 2 hours waiting for my train, trying my best to ignore the constant noise of the drivers harassing me. When my train arrived on time and I headed for it letting them know that it was here and not delayed, they all couldn’t care less and just went outside to wait for the next tourist they could try to scam.

I have always found that the best judge of what there is to do in a city is to wait for the local scammers to come up and offer you things. In Cambodia they offer a trip to the killing fields, to the shooting range, they then offer drugs or women to you so you know that those are the main sights in town that you can consider going to see. I had been in Bucharest for less than 30mins and I was offered drugs, then girls, then boys! I declined on all three and decided that with those choices I would only need one day in the city to see the sights before I head for Brasov and Draculas castle.

Brasov is probably the main tourist trap in Romania and it was not a disappointment. I enjoyed wandering the little town and taking the walk up the hill for the fantastic view that it offered. The scenery was amazing and the local life around the streets was a great thing to experience. I had already decided to head to Sighisoira the next day and that I would take the cheapest possible train, as I always do, to get there. I had been told by many locals and tourists that I should not do it as the train is dangerous for tourists and dubbed the Gypsy Train for a reason.

I said ‘screw it’ and thought that if I can survive my Indian journey then I can survive a few gypsies. I got to the station and got the ticket for the 4 hour train ride no problems and was happy to see when I got onboard that the carriage was completely full and the majority of people seemed friendly, as most Romanians are, and having a good time. The only problem I had was the local drunk who decided to sit opposite me and mumble away a load of crap for the next few minutes.

I had sat next to a lot of drunks and knew that when things like this happen they always want something from you, so be strong and except nothing from them or they will use that against you later. Mr Drunk started to sober up a little and pulled out a plastic bottle of what can only be described as ‘rocket fuel’ to start drinking. He offered some to me and forced me to smell it but I held strong and let him know nicely that I would go without.

He really started hammering the stuff down and the more he drank the more he looked at me and yelled some stuff. I was guessing it wasn’t good stuff when most of the people in the carriage were looking around and seemingly a bit embarrassed by him. One older man came up and told me to ignore the drunk and go to sit with him, he then signalled that the drunk was a very bad man. I said I was OK and knew I would be with so many people on the train. The ticket conductor kept passing through and laughing at me, I made a point of always giving him a big smile back.

As the journey went on Mr Drunk had nearly finished his half litre of rocket fuel. I also noticed that a big majority of people were leaving the train and I was left in the carriage with Drunkey, a young man and his daughter and around 4 others. Drunkey also seemed to notice this and started to get more animated in his attempted conversations with me. He now pointed at me, signalled money with his fingers and showed a fist or two to me insinuating that if I dint pay I would be in trouble.

I called his bluff and pointed to my wallet and said ‘yeah it’s OK I’ve got money, no problem its fine’. This continued for another 25mins and I was starting to feel really uncomfortable. The climax came when Mr Drunk stood up and came towards me and fell on top of me, I had my fists clinched and was ready to wallop him when I realised that he wasn’t lunging for me, he was trying to pull the emergency stop but was too drunk to stand.

It turned out that Drunkey had missed his stop and now needed to get off the train urgently. The locals all stopped him from pulling the emergency stop so he just mumbled some expletives, I assume, and headed for the door. By this time the train was not moving at full speed but it was moving at a decent pace, Drunkey didn’t care, he opened the door and despite yells from people to stop he stepped out of the train. We all looked back and saw him laying across the tracks beside ours and moving a little trying to get up.

I am not sure if he ever did get up or if he just passed out and got run over by the next train passing through. Either way I wasn’t so bothered about it, if a train had got him then it might have made life a lot easier for his family, living with a drunk like that as a poor villager must be a horrible thing.

I was now relieved and thought the worst was over so I offered the young guy with his kid another cigarette. I had given him one earlier to try to by his support when Drunkey was giving me hassle. I think the only reason I smoke when I travel is that I find it a great way to start a small friendship with locals, hoping that when things seem dicey they will then feel the need to help you instead of turning the other way.

This policy seemed to pay off about another 30mins further into the trip when a huge gypsy farmer came into our carriage and once he found out I spoke English it was game on. He looked me up and down and with a sinister look in his eye he just mumbled ‘ahhhh, English’ and smiled. I knew he was only thinking one thing….Money.

He sat opposite me and starting trying to have a conversation which I had to go along with in the hope that if I made a nice impression then he wouldn’t rob me as he seemed to be planning. The young man came across and joined him, leaving his young daughter at the window on the other side of the carriage. The conductor then came through and laughed at me more than he had before, I again beamed my smile back and just thought ‘Oh feck’

Our conversation went nowhere as expected but it kept being about money, no matter the language people speak you can always tell when things are about money, it’s that small thing of rubbing fingers together that gives it away. I knew was I was in a spot of bother and had it confirmed when I was left out of the conversation and farmer man, with forearms bigger than Popeye’s and full of cigarette burns, started talking with the  young man while pointing at me and doing that finger thing. I was very annoyed with myself for getting into this situation but kept smiling as though I knew nothing was wrong and thought about what I had on me, where, and what I could afford to lose and what I would have to fight them for. I even considered grabbing the guy’s daughter and using her as some sort of leverage, that would have just got me killed though, but a fight is a fight and you have to do what you have to do to win.

To this day I am certain that making cigarette friends with the young man is what saved me from a mugging as throughout the whole discussion about me he kept saying ‘Nah nah nah Polizei Polizei’. I don’t care where you are from, this translates into all languages as they are only talking about one thing.

At the point when I was most ready for it all to go horribly wrong the train went into a tunnel and everything went pitch black. I immediately freaked and put my arm directly up along the middle of my face, covering my throat in case anybody lunged and tried to grab me by it. I used my other had to search my pocket for my lighter and lit it as quickly as I could so that I could see exactly what my two potential attackers were doing. The tunnel seemed to go on forever and when the light came at the end I truly understand the meaning of the famous quote.

The train continued and I was super excited when we reached our stop and couldn’t get off quick enough, making sure I was protecting my pockets the whole time. The conductor gave me one last laugh, the young man invited me to his house and said that if I bought his daughter a new bike that she would be so happy and the Gypsy farmer just stayed on the train looking very very disappointed.

I told the young man that I had to go meet with the friends that I had told them on the train would be waiting for me at the platform, it’s not lying if it’s self preservation, and walked quickly in whatever direction he was not headed.

I made it to my hostel and told the young guy on the desk about my train trip, he was amazed that I had taken the gypsy train and not surprised at all by the story I told him. I never did actually make it Draculas castle either.

See photos for Romania:

 

My Bucket List beckons

At some point in your travels I think we all make some sort of bucket list of the places that we really want to see before we settle down. I had made mine sometime ago and already checked North Korea off the list, Sierra Leone is still waiting and I saw the opportunity to cross Iceland off as I headed back to Europe.

Searching flights from North America to London I was very happy to see that the cheapest flights passed through Iceland’s Keflavik Airport. I was also lucky to work for Hostelling international while in Canada and their hostel in Reykjavik had offered to give me a free stay as an ex-employee of the chain.

The pieces fell into place nicely and I was so excited to finally be seeing one of the countries I had always wanted to see. Heading to new destinations without any expectations is a very important lesson I have learnt while on the road. It is a horrible feeling to be looking forward to something so much that when you arrive you feel let down by it not being what you had expected.

I was careful not to let that happen when I headed for Iceland, and thankfully it didn’t. The moment I arrived I could tell that it was a place that was going to be special for me. My only concern was if it was going to be as expensive as people say and result in me living on instant noodles for the next 4 days.

I did my usual and walked from the bus station to the hostel, I hate taking taxis as they cost money that your legs can save you and I also feel I will miss something along the way. I was a bit nervous about the lack of salt put done for the icy sidewalks, I guess I had been spoilt in Canada with this and was very hesitant in my tired state on the walk to town. Slipping and meeting the pavement while wearing my large backpack was not an option, I have done it once before and said never again.

The walk in was nice and it feels great to get there without asking directions and without getting lost. Unfortunately it was too early to check in so I dropped my backpack and heading for a coffee and some breakfast at the Grey Cat cafe which the girl on reception had recommended to me. It was one of those cafes that catered to the artsy type folk and was great choice for the first few hours in Reykjavik. The people coming and going were so diverse that it really was a ‘sit down and watch the world go by moment.’

One thing I learnt about the Icelandic people while there was the way they don’t waste any time. At first I found them a little abrupt and possibly rude, I said hello to the immigration guy and his response was only ‘You staying’, which in hindsight is actually the best type of immigration officer to have. After watching them in the Grey Cat I realised that they are not rude, they are just efficient. There is now time wasting involved in any of their actions. In the cafe people would sit happily reading the paper and eating breakfast but on their last mouthful, while still being chewed, they would up and leave out the door.

I was desperate to see the northern lights while in Iceland, I missed them in northern Finland and was not keen to miss them again. After a delicious whale and potato dinner in a dingy little fisherman themed restaurant I headed for the tour to chase the lights. It is probably one of the most popular tours that people take in Reykjavik. Our company, one of the many in town, was sending out three full coaches this night. They also had the best reputation for finding the lights and would let you go again the next night free if you did not find them.

It is a pretty boring time chasing the lights, you get your guide talking some big load of crap the whole way while you leave the city and city lights behind in search of the Aurora activity in the sky. It takes a lot of stops and a lot of boredom before the guide sees some activity and finds the best place to stop and watch. Our sky was a little cloudy and although the lights were amazing they definitely came out a lot better in the photos that the company had sent us later on.

The next day I was really feeling the effects of a week’s partying after leaving Banff, and also the jet lag from crossing time zones for the umpteenth time, so I spent most of the day either sleeping or watching movies on my laptop. I did venture back to the same little shanty restaurant for a delicious lobster soup that hit the spot perfectly.

The next day was the big day, the blue lagoon. It is Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction and probably it’s most expensive. I hate to do the touristy thing when it seems the price is sky high just because the tourists will pay it but the blue lagoon just had to be seen from everything I had heard. The 28 euro entrance fee was a real rip off but after 4 hours off soaking in the mineral rich milky blue thermal waters and jumping out into the -10c air and into the sauna and back again it seemed that although high it was a justifiable expense.

I got so relaxed just soaking there that I realised I had become too relaxed and was no longer relaxed, it was time to get out and take some photos and head back to the hostel. I didn’t realise that going back to the hostel would involve not just relaxing but being in bed by 7pm and not moving until 9am the next day. So relaxing, I think I will need to go back to Iceland just for the lagoon.

My last day in Reykjavik was my photo and city sightseeing day so after gorging myself on the free breakfast buffet yet again I headed off to see some sights on a beautiful day with clear blue skies. The city really is amazing and worth a visit but if you have a delicate palate I would recommend against trying the ‘herkal’ aka shark that has been sat to rot for 3 months before the poison leaves the meat and makes it edible. I heard it was vomit inducing stuff but that seems to be a bit of overkill it’s not so bad and I had 7-8 little pieces before realizing it’s taste was actually a bit nasty.

Iceland seemed to be a place to eat! People came for the sights but seemed to talk endlessly about eating many different dishes you don’t get elsewhere, horse, puffin, whale, rotten shark and the one I tried on the last day….Hotdog. Never ever thought I would go to Iceland and a must do thing would be to eat a hotdog, apparently it is though and they are amazingly tasty. The secret ingredient for me was the crunchy stuff they put at the base of the bun, I say stuff because I have no idea what it was! Bacon deep fried? No idea but it was fantastic.

I made a point of not seeing too much outside of Reykjavik as I only went to Iceland for a bit of a taster. The accommodation was free and so was the stopover flight, I will definitely be going back sometime in the future, summertime when I can hire a car and drive wherever I want and just sleep in fields in the middle of nowhere. It was a very special place and worthy of a place on my bucket list for so long.

See photos for Iceland: