Friday, 21 August 2009


After a little time at home I have had time to think about the trip.I am so glad I went, it was an experience of a lifetime . When I got back I thought I had enough of travel ,at least lone unstructured travel,but now I am ready to start planning the next trip!
The trip met my need for a challenge ,new experiences and personal growth. What I had not expected was the spiritual experiences.
All I can say is until you get there you can have no concept of the size . It is possible to travel for days and the landscape not to change at all even when that landscape is man made. The parts I visited are neither beautiful nor spectacular with one exception the rivers . We followed a river for 6 hours on the train from Murmansk which must have been 500 m across and which no one could tell me its name. While the Volga is just huge like the Mississippi .

Had I not learned the language I would have not made it past Murmansk.I coped OK with the hygiene factors( food,travel, accommodation) but I failed every time I tried to hold a conversation and it showed me just how good you need to be to converse.This did not mean I did not get a lot from people but there is nothing like a natter and 6 weeks without one is a long time.
I am not alone in having a greater expectations of my ability than reality. Lenin who was a gifted linguist and learned German from an early age ran into the same problems the first time he was abroad as he reported to his mother.. "I asked a train guard a question,he answered and I did not understand him.He repeats the answer more loudly ,I still don't understand him and so he gets angry and goes away.In spite of this disgraceful fiasco,I am not discouraged and continue distorting the German language with zeal," I can relate to Vladimir Illiych completely.
Physically I had expected them to be short and stocky while mostly they are tall slim and often blond just like their Nordic neighbours. I think J Conrad was right " don't forget what is Divine in the Russian soul is Resignation" This no doubt comes from 1000 years of suppression . They are certainly stoic,generous ,inquisitive ,aggressive, and darkly they are insular to the point of xenophobia . However I was glad I spent so much time with ordinary Russians who are just trying to survive and have decent lives just like the rest of us and in the most part tried to make me welcome.
I think Russians are to a large part defined by their Orthodox Faith ,similarly I think it is no accident that Stalin spent time training to be a Priest. It speaks to that importance that faith after only 20 years since the collapse of Communism public worship is such a part of the landscape .The Orthodox Litany is very moving ,I certainly felt the presence of God in the ritual.
I have very mixed feelings about Russia but in the end I can not see how the Country works . It is as if the people and the Government and the bureaucracy are not connected but go on despite each other.That is so alien to me that it made me very unhappy. I hope for the sake of the lovely people I met that I am wrong about the lack of sustainability at the core of their state .
For those contemplating visiting ,do go , but if you do not speak Russian stick to an organised trip . Love John

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


I had hoped to spend some of my last day at the Monastery of the Caves a quite famous monastery in Kiev based on as the name suggests some caves used by the early monks to live in and now used as a repository of mummified bodies of monks .The complex also has a magnificent Cathedral .However it is the only time my Lonely Planet Guide let me down for despite following its guidance I could not find how to get there. So I spent my time reliving some sites in the Centre including the surprisingly small Dynamo Kiev ground.
So to the Airport and again the Con artists!
I was looking at the board waiting to find out where to check in when the man stould next to me started to ask me about the security netting over my back pack. During telling him as to how it worked how much it costs and where it can be bought from I found out he was a 67 yr old New Yorker called Mike who was born in the Ukraine now involved in construction in Kiev. After some pressure I agreed to join him for a tea in the cafe while we awaited our flights to be called. We had no sooner sat down than another man started up a conversation initially in Russian .At this Mike became very glum and would not give my new "chum " any eye contact.I found the whole atmosphere rather strange and sat back to find out what was going on.
The dominant Russian took the conversation through football ,UK and Russian, then asked Mike what Americans do at weekend ,to which he replied bar b q and play gin rummy a strange reply I thought.What is the Gin game the Russian asked ,cards was the reply . I like cards he said I play a German game called Skat. Mike asked what that was and the Russian produced a pack of cards and started to write down the points system. At that a man on the next table said are cards and moved to join us despite an obvious lack of enthusiasm by Mike and the Russian. I could not believe what I was seeing it was like something out of a 1950s gangster movie.By this time I was starting to disengage ,for while the con men interested me, I didn't want to get too involved. You are not listening John the Russian said, no I said I have no interest in cards or card games .So why am I explaining this the Russian said I have no idea I replied, ask Mike. At which the younger guy said I am going then,Mike said he had to pay for his drink and the Russian said there is an old Russian proverb when the circle breaks the components are dispersed . He smiled and left. Clearly I must look a right mug !
The rest of the journey was uneventful B A did us proud the tube and West Coast Pendalino were very crowded but it was good to be home in Lancaster for 10 00.
I will do another blog on my thoughts on the trip in a day or two .
Love John

Monday, 3 August 2009

What no chicken!

Well settled in Kiev, sorry for the delay in posting but it has taken me this time to find somewhere to do it , all Wi Fi I'm afraid Chris has been here too. The trip here was reasonably straight forward though I had a challenge at the airport over whether I had the right to be in Rostov at all. Clearly the concept of a country wide visa is still an issue away from major centres .It was sorted in the end ,no issues in Moscow.
Kiev is pretty relaxed with lots going on. The churches are magnificent and again there is a Paris feel with wide tree lined streets .The river is not as wide as the Volga but still pretty big .I went on a short sail the 1st day which was great and so decided to take a 4 hour trip up to the lake above Kiev created by the H E scheme . 2 young local couples joined me at the table and in Ukrainian style offered me a beer. Then food was produced and I was again asked to join in . All was OK till just after the turn round to come back. I only just made the heads in time before throwing up I had to visit again before getting back. I didn't want to upset my hosts who seemed OK but I must have appeared pretty miserable sort of person . A dash into toilets on the dockside ,throwing up twice in the street( what humiliation) and 3 times back at my room rounded off my day !!
A very quiet following day was had.I think the problem was some of the food had obviously been reheated .
The same day as the sail I had my 1 st encounter with street crime. I was just about to go into the metro when a small package of dollars dropped on the pavement in front of me. This is a well known scam where the tourist picks it up hands it to the dropper and then told there were 2 packages , the tourist must have stolen one. I side stepped the package but another man ,I think an accomplice, picked it up handed it back then I found myself being thanked and suddenly we were in the 2 package routine! I became strident in English( one of my few skills!) and suddenly there was a plain clothes policeman asking me what was the matter . He spoke good English and I told him .He asked me and the other guy had we taken it we said no and I produced my wallet and offered my passport.He told me to go ,he would deal with it. It is a power full scam because most tourists carry foreign money and could not account for every piece. Fortunately the policeman recognised what was going on no doubt from past experience .All part of life's rich tapestry !
I was going down the Babyn Yar the site of the massacre of 30,00 Jews and 70,000 others by the Nazis the memorials especially the one put up in Soviet times are very moving unfortunately the Jewish one has been vandalised !
I had hoped to visit the Chernobyl site but have been unable to sort it out as a key manager at the travel agency was sick. However I did make the Museum which is rather worthy but the last room with hundreds of pictures of the children affected and their toys moved me close to tears remembering those days in 1986 chasing the cloud and its deposition .It alone made coming here worth while.
Well home tomorrow all being well .Love John

Monday, 27 July 2009

In the land of the quietly flowing Don

The trip from Astrakhan to Rostov on Don was straight forward if a little tedious.I had to go back to Volgograd which meant an early (0400) start and was into Volgograd about 13 30. Having left my luggage at the station I went off to a cafe I had used when in town . I had no sooner sat down than one of the waitresses came up and said you left this last time you were here , it was the luggage token from the hotel.What was amazing was that i had only been in the cafe some 5/6 times and it was a week since the last time. good to find an honest and interested member of staff.
I have to say giving back the token to the hotel was more difficult with questions about had I paid the storage charge had I proof of I D etc ,in the end I just put the token down and left.
That day is the 1 st day I have had any stomach problems , nothing drastic just out of sorts.
I think it is just the heat , still felt better as the day went on. Over night to Rostov which proves to be about the size of Volgograd built in the same way on one bank of the river which rises up a couple of hundred ft above the river while the opposite bank is flat to the horizon .
What was interesting is that the steppe north of Astrakhan is of very poor quality with hardly any trees or agriculture while that north of Rostov is very fertile with lots of trees and intensively cultivated .A lot like east Anglia.
The hotel was hard to find especially as the taxi man dropped me well away , like 400 yds with no directions. However Russians are great at helping and within minutes I had a detailed instruction. It was worth it as the hotel is very new in what is at 1 st looking a rather dodgy neighbourhood.On closer inspection it obviously has been very run down , like the rest of the town but is now pulling itself out with the usual Russian building boom.
The most spectacular thing is the market which must be 10 times the size of Bury and very busy . The town has a feel of Paris with wide tree lined streets and the usual Russian parks.
I went to the Museum which reminds me of the one in Bury when I was a lad worthy but not very informative .They have lots of mature ladies to direct you round.Later I was photographing a spectacular piece of Socialist Realism street art when one of these ladies recognised me from the museum and started to tell me about Cossacks. Unfortunately in very fast Russian so all I could say was spaciba at intervals. I am not sure whether it is my charisma or white legs that make me so recognisable!!
Yesterday I went for a sail on the river which is very busy with commercial traffic all of which are sea going size . The anglers wade out to within 50 yds of the main channel which must make the sport exciting at times.
I had hoped to go to Azov today but the ladies at the station wouldn't sell me a ticket I don't know why as they just said NYET . That's life here some times. It has rained today so perhaps I am better here in town . Well I leave Russia on Wednesday for the Ukraine it has been great if at times challenging ,lots of love John

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

What no Hats

I am well settled in Astrakhan .It is a pleasant town with a Kremlin very similar in design to the one at Novgorod only triangular in plan.The Kremlin has a number of lovely buildings within its walls , with a particularly beautiful cathedral with restored frescoes.
The rest of the town is a mixture of old some what run down areas with what is clearly a major building boom clearing these areas and building large office and apartment blocks of a very high standard. Like many Russian towns it has a number of well laid out and maintained parks. The difference here is that they are smaller than say Volgograd .They are like London squares ,you turn a corner and there one is a pleasant surprise.Most Parks have statues ,the ubiquitous Lenin in his square is some what exposed given it is not a park but a newly paved area rather a challenge in over 40 deg hard sun.
I have been here a couple of days longer than planned ,one because I decided I wanted to see more one because I could not get a seat on a train to Rostov on Don,perhaps that should have warned me.
The hotel is fine and on the river and I have found two good places to eat.
Yesterday I went to the fish market which was smaller than I expected given this is a major river and sea landing spot. also the fish were mostly not fresh but dried and salted ,a local delicacy (chernoyer ) or smoked .There is an interesting church alongside the market which appears to have been open in Soviet times.
Yesterday I came to the conclusion I am going to fly back from Kiev. I had not intended spending a lot of time in Warsaw or Berlin and in total to get home it would be some 5 days on trains.
There is an Aeroflot lady at the hotel and she confirmed she could get me a flight to London on B A for 5,500 Rb ( 110 pounds !!). So off I went to the station to get the ticket for Rostov to Kiev which I knew had a daily service. However I was told there is only one ticket available on that train between now and early august and that on the day I arrive in Rostov.
This was a major issue and on the way back to the hotel I was doing a complete re plan as I have to be out of Russia by midnight 31/7 .However Aeroflot to rescue, I am now flying from Rostov to Kiev via Moscow. I would have liked to have trained but there we are. Again I got very good support from The Aeroflot rep and at least sympathy from the train ticket seller.
Public transport in Russia is plentiful and cheap. Some of the vehicles are over due replacement , I think the cheapness of fairs does not generate enough revenue.However there is extensive use of minibuses ( Transit size) that roar around towns stopping when hailed and dropping when requested .Similar to the Belfast black cabs I think. Well I had seen these in every town and so I finally used them here. A challenging ride with the driver taking the fixed fare( 11 Rb /21p) blasting everyone with his horn and weaving in and out of traffic .
Speaking of new things since it has been hot I have noticed0n the streets sellers of a dark liquid in plastic cups and bottles filled from an aluminium beer keg the seller pressurises with a hand or foot pump.Having seen lots of people drinking this, when I saw 2 city types and a policeman drinking it I tried it .It is called Kvas very refreshing and tastes of molasses, I have since learned it is beer made from bread.
I woke up this morning to find the Navy in town. Anchored in the river outside the hotel is a Destroyer ( TATAR STAN ) and a smaller frigate (ASTRAKHAN) along with a fast patrol boat.I assume they are on a good will visit from the Black Sea fleet.
And no hats, I have not seen a hat or coat made from the skin of new born lambs. I assume the Astrakhan reference is because long ago this was the port of entry rather than the source of such clothes,in the same way Windsor chairs got their name.
Off to Rostov tomorrow my last Russian port of call.Love John

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Russia moments and the Volga

I had a couple of Russia moments I want to share to hopefully help capture the experience.
In order to sail down the Volga I needed to shorten my stay in Volgograd When I alerted the hotel reception they said no problem just present your self when you want to check out and we will do a refund.Years of battling Western hotels on similar itinerary changes made me doubt this.However on the day in question I went to the reception and explained what I wanted to do . After a few repeats to cover my language issues she explained it would be fine but unfortunately they did not have the 2,400 Rb (50 pounds)to give me could I come back in a couple of hours.I said no problem and did just that.By this time they had scraped together the money the issue was how to do the paper work .
It was agreed I would cancel my original reservation and they refund the payment.Then they would re bill me for the new shorter stay and I would be left with 2,400Rb!
The point being that the reception staff were never less than help full they just had to figure out how to beat the system. This sums up a lot of my experience systems and sometimes the people driven by the system have a long way to go on customer focus but in general they are trying.
When I got to Astrakhan I had a different problem ,other than the hotel that Lonely Planet recommend has changed name and a new one opened with the old name ,resulting in a little 2 and froing! The hotel said they had a room but when I presented my passport they said it was inadequate where was my itinerary , stamps by other hotels in my passport and my flight tickets out of the Country.When I explained that I had none of these they said they could not accommodate me. The issue for me ,other than being homeless, was if I was an undesirable how would putting me out help.However in the end I produced my invitation which shows points of entry and exit and hopefully that is OK. I know we are very near to Grozny with all the implications to Russia but again it is applying a system without understanding why.Incidentally this is the 1st time this has happened.
The 3rd incident was a piece of old Russia something straight out of Pasternak .I was sitting in one of Volgograd's many tree lined perdition walks ,awaiting the hotel having a whip round for my 50 quid, when there appeared this procession. It was led by several young men carrying crosses , 4 priests carrying icons including one of the murdered Imperial family .There were some 300 in the procession mainly late middle aged and old women but with a fair number of younger people. They were singing hymns and the priests praying .There was a substantial police presence not as in the past to arrest them but to clear their path of people and cars. I asked at the hotel what it was about but they did not know,however I caught the tail end of a news statement ( no sound just the Rolling Stones!!) which indicated it was some kind of commemoration or anniversary of the killings.
Now a few more questions:
Why is it that even in the middle of large cities Russians can buy direct from the grower superb in season fruit and veg at cheap prices?
Why when Russians go off for a pleasure trip they are happy to take grandad ,baby and a few aunts .Ensuring the family stays strong.
Why is it on a Sunday afternoon young fathers take their infant and wife for a stroll and ice cream in the park instead of abandoning them while they go down the pub to watch football.
Finally the trip down the Volga. The Alexander Nevsky is a quite large river ferry ,now a bit long in the teeth,no air conditioning not good in 35 deg high humidity when trying to sleep.
However enough carping the 20 hour over night sail was wonder full with the quiet of the river and the blackness of the night only broken by camp fires of fisher men and campers. The early morning similar with no one up and just the soft drone of the engine and the lap of the water.The scenery is not spectacular ,trees and low sand embankments but in the several 100s of miles we only saw a hand full of villages and no towns. I am relay glad I took the river route, and for the 1 st time I had a berth to myself.Lots of love john

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Great Questions ?

Well back again ,I see Brendan is a reader I hope my spelling is not bothering him but I can't get spell check to work so you are all on your own. Not done a lot today as even hotter but I hope to get some shots after dark tonight .
I have been musing on what I have seen and it has led me to some questions. When you visit a country it is not the Economic and Political infrastructure that impacts but the little things that leave you guessing.
So for me here it is :
Why do Russian doors open outward?
Why is it that members of a nation that spent most of the 20 th century queuing walk straight to the head of a long queue and demand attention?
Why is there a shortage of 10Rb notes ,in fact at 20p each why do such notes exist at all ,even if they are crucial to getting through a day?
Why is it that even in hotel restaurants there is always at least 1 T V set on with the sound muted and a totally unrelated musical sound track playing?
Why do hotel bedrooms not have rubbish bins and their bathroom sinks no plug?
Well I am off to get some food ,boat down the Volga to Astrakhan tomorrow.
Hope you are all well,love john