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