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

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Onward and Downward

As I said in my last note I had wanted to try the local municipal banya or Russian bath house. However when I got there the keeper of the door was none to pleased to see me saying it was the day for ladies so I departed before he called the police . There was no way of knowing this fixing of gender days so I will have to try again else where though I will be checking if the same applies.
On my last day in Novgorod I went out to an open air museum for traditional wooden structures particularly farm buildings and churches. It is a lovely site by a small lake and is use for weddings. There was one on at the time with extensive traditional occurrences such as threatening and insulting the best man,the bride burning a posy and much singing and laughing at what I guessed were double entendre.While this sounds rather contrived it was well done and it was clear the whole party enjoyed themselves.
The train left on time and I found I was sharing with only one other, a soldier going back off leave( Maxim) .He had a bit of English so between us we managed to have some conversation.
Into Moscow at 05 30 after depositing my luggage at the station for Volgograd I set off to Red Square who's name has nothing to do with the Bolsheviks but has had that name for some 400 yrs and is a corruption of the Russian word for beautiful. It sounds stupid but it is just like the pictures. The one exception the Lenin Mausoleum is much smaller than I thought some 20 ft tall with the reviewing platform we used to see the Politburo on only some 12 ft up. I got some good photos around the square and the Kremlin including the Lubianka ( or the New Zealand embassy) not clear from the map. Then off for a 13 30 start for Volgograd. This time I shared the berth with a mother and daughter the latter about to go off to Moscow State University . They were visiting the mothers parents and were from Chelyabinsk ,which happens to be Irina's' mothers birth place.
The Hotel Volgograd is a large hotel very nice and central. I have to say the weather is a bit extreme for me , in the high 30s and I believe into the 40s at noon. So lots of water .My first day was spent at Mamaev Kurgen the centre of the battle, a mound some 102 m. high which now has the most spectacular war memorial I suspect anywhere . It is a 72m. high depiction of Mother Russia holding aloft a further 11m. long sword . As part of the complex there is a rotunda with lists of a small proportion of the dead and an eternal flame. All in all a very moving place making you remember that within a 3 Km radius of this spot but mostly on it 700,00 Germans and some 1,000,000 Russians died between august 1942 and the end of January 1943.( yes six months )
Today I went to the museum of the battle again very well done with lots of relevant material including a lot from ordinary soldiers. Interestingly this is the only place I have seen with extensive reference to Stalin.
I am off to Astrakhan on Friday by boat overnight down the Volga should be good.It is late I am tired due to heat so hope to say more tomorrow .Love to all John

Friday, 10 July 2009

Novgorod the Great

Good journey down though seats as hard as nails.Hotel very good and Novgorod could not be a greater contrast to St Petersburg. The town is quite small ,relaxed and clean with a lot of well laid out and maintained parks.

On the 1st night I had a second 'Russian with drink on him" experience.I went into the hotel bar and sat on a bar stool next to a man on the phone.When he had finished it was quickly clear he was very drunk and wanted to be my comrade.Vodka was offered and a list of questions asked ,I was thinking of Irina's warnings and how I might get out of it when the bar maid gave him the cold stare and with a lot of noise he paid up and left.

I spent yesterday doing the sites which include the very large Kremlin and a number of outstanding churches including St Sophia which is possibly the oldest building in Russia and the source of the onion domes seen through out Russia. I stayed for part of the service which was very moving, completely sung .The congregation stands through out as they would have done in a western church in the middle ages, the only seats being along the walls for the infirm( weakest to the wall).

Another ticket buying experience at the station!All was going well with tickets from here to Moscow and from Moscow to Volgograd ordered!Then the lady showed me the price on her calculator,I did not allow for there being Kopecks and I thought the price was 40,000 Rb(about 900 pounds!!). At that I started to panic , when I produced my card she started to panic ( no cards) in general no thinking going on. If I had thought ,I could fly home for that ,she expected me to have the cash and no one would routinely carry that amount.but all sense and Russian had left me . I wrote the amount down and asked was this right but she was not listening she had printed out the tickets and had no payment what was she to do. But all was well , the man behind me said its 4,000 you forgot the kopecks! I produced the money she wept ,I laughed and I then departed .Lancaster station was never like this.
Well I hope to try a banya this afternoon . Love to all

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Last day in St Petersburg, I had hoped to be away this morning but there is only one train to Novgorod.I don't think that is right but that is what the ticket office says. This might mean an extra day there, but that might be a relax day.
Yesterday I went to the Peterhof which the Russians call the Versaille of the north. The gardens are beautiful and the water cascades are amazing.The tour I took also goes in the main palace who's decoration is stunning if very much over the top.
The 2 things that particularly impressed were Peter the Greats own palace( mon plaisire ) for its modesty and the fact that the whole garden ,cascades and main palace has had to be totaly reconstructed after the war. The Germans devasted all that they held either for loot or as a scorched earth as they retreated.However there is a story,not from russians , that Stalin had the main Palace bombed because Hitler had bragged he was going to have a new year diner there.
The Germans came within 10 Km of St Petersberg and besieged it for 900 days.During that time 1,000,000 St Peterbergers ,soldiers and civilians died. To put that into context, if I need to ,Britain and U S lost 700,000 combined. With 27,000,000 dead no wonder the Russians call it the Great Patriotic war.
The only down side here is that as time goes on my Russian is getting worse I hear words on the street recognise them but do not know what they mean.That is why I am thinking of a day off in Novgorod.
Hope my readers are all well.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Still With Love

That was just a test so on with the heart stopping story. I left Kirkenes is a mini bus with 5 Russians and 2 Norwegians bound for Mumansk. Within 20 minutes we were at the border and had passed the Norwegian control. The Passport Officer spent some 10 minutes scrutinising my passport including a lot of use of a very strong magnifying glass.However eventualy I was passed through and the Customs took no interest in me. That is more than can be said for our driver and the driver of another car. 4 hours later the other car , the 5 Russians ( in others cars passing through) and 1 Norwegian had gone leaving me , a Norwegian angler and our driver who was clearly in some serious trouble over some industrial electrical components.
Eventualy our driver arranged for a car to take us to Murmansk. The driver another Norwegian was going to a wedding . The drive was exciting dodging pot holes and on coming lorries I am VERY glad I abandoned the driving option.However our driver gave off an air of quiet calm.
We paseed through Nickel , not likely to win a Russia in bloom award. It is a combination of Rotherham, the Taff valley and Avon Mouth 40 years ago with high rise housing to match. Joseph Conrad said the heart of the holy Russian soul is resignation ( thanks Melissa) it will certainly be needed there.
Mumansk is little run down very like Kirkenes but on a much bigger scale,however I understand there are plans to drill for oil off shore ,if so both towns ( if not the environment ) will benefit.Frankly there is not a lot to do but I got used to using buses ( they have clippies !!) asking the way and generaly trying to blend in. Then came the buying of the ticket to St Petersburg. Russian lady train ticket sellers have a justifiable reputation for terrorising supplicants ,mine was world class but efficient. I amazed the on lookers with my speed of being dealt with especialy as I was speaking Russian though I am not sure the on lookers felt that . I still find it funny , if it was at home distirbing, that you need your passport/ I D to buy train tickets and board.
Then came the train, I was due to spend 27 hours on the sleeper and was travelling coupee which is a 4 person compartment with 2 upper and 2 lower bunks. The lower bunks go 1st I was verck ( upper) .My companions were Ludmilla and her grown up son Andreyev going to visit her grand children in Latvia and Sasha going to a new job in Siberia.We settled in with some little unease of sleeping with strangers but soon the compartment was quiet . The following day the ice slowly broke due more to Andreys' English than my ear challenging Russian .Of course the Babushka came through with the goods and for lunch we had roasted chicken, potatoes and salad. It made my contribution of fruit and chocolate look a little thin .We parted on very good terms at St Petersberg with Ludmilla and Sasha of to Riga and Sasha facing another day on the train to Moscow and several on another to Siberia.
The St Petersburg metro builds its ticket sellers at the same factory as the state railways I am still recovering from just buying 10 tokens . However it is all worth it when you get on with Stations like Palaces the trains clean and often.
The hotel is very different from the International Standard Poliarni in Murmansk . The Veste is clearly family run with a rather laid back approach , though somewhat more expensive , I assume that is due t it being St Petersburg and on Nevski Prospect.. The room is huge with cooking and facilities.

From Russia with love

sorry there has been a break in comms but the nly conection I could find in Murmansk was Wi Fi I assume Chris has visited!!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Kirkenes At Last

I am now in Kirkenes.The flight was from Bodø to Tromso,then on to Kirkenes,all pretty painless.It is clear that without planes life would be pretty difficult in northern Norway.

The bus to Murmansk goes twice a day and I am booked on the 1400 tomorow. I understand it will take 3 to 4 hours .I am not sure what is going on here ,the tourist info people didn't know , but all the hotels are full.Fortunaly they were able to fix me up in a private home ,well a flat in a private house so I am better off than in a hotel.

Kirkenes is not a beautifull town .I assumed it would be like a northern Scotish town,bleak but handsome . It is a little down at heel with a number of businesses closed.The street signs are in Norwegian and Russian so I assume there must be a large trade across the border.There are a number of large Russian fishing vessals tied up in the harbour.
Well Russia tomorow , coming this way has not been easy but I am glad I did.