Ok, I didn’t really run away. We had agreed previously that Dasha would have some time with her girl friends road tripping around Latvia, leaving me with a couple of weeks to spare. So many options. Was keen to go to Egypt and Israel to hang out with Unca Funka, but it was too expensive to get there and back. The black sea beaches of the Ukraine sounded enticing, but needing an invitation from a local and the embassy in Riga closed for a week made it very easy to put it in the too hard basket. So, why not fly to Germany (for the 7th time) to hang out with my mate Zhenya (Eugene), a couch surfer that stayed with us and Pete in Melbourne for a few months between us. He lives in the far North of Germany, Husum, about 150km North of Hamburg. He would be working during the day giving me plenty of time to relax by both the North Sea and Baltic Sea for 12 days or so… right? Wrong. This turned out to be, as most ‘holidays’ do, a flat out adventure from one day to the next.

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Latvia, Midsummers!

Latvia. Home again.

Time to farewell Russia. It has been quite an amazing journey. And I highly rate both Lake Baikal, Lake Teletskoe (shame we didn’t get to explore the Altai Mountains a bit more), Moscow and Saint Petersburg. So time to do what we do best, catch another train. This train, or at least our carriage, was a different class to previous, Obshiy, which is one lower than Platzkart. This means that a bench seat is allocated to 3 people, and the bed above is a first in best slept arrangement. Of course that wasn’t us. So the 2 of us had to sleep sitting up. Worst night on a train ever! I highly recommend avoiding that class if you plan on travelling Russia or anywhere near.

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Saint Petersburg

Griboedova canal

A late night departure from Moscow saw us arrive in to Saint Petersburg nice and early. Again we had a couch surfing host, which was about to become one of the best hosts we’ve ever had. We set off on day one to meet some other couch surfers (our host had to work) and go for a bit of a walking tour around some of the city. From the first instant the city was magnificent at worst. All of the buildings have been crammed in, maximising the land space and street frontage. That doesn’t sound particularly nice, but combined with the height restrictions, all of the buildings are also the same height, creating a feeling of strength and power….”when their powers combine….” sort of feeling. In addition to this, the level of detail on every single building makes them an absolute piece of art, rather than just a building. The locals tell us that every day they are finding something new for themselves and we believe them.
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Tsaricyno palace

Our host was a young married couple and their 15 month old daughter, full of smiles and energy. Gave us a great place to stay and made us feel at home. We caught up with Dasha’s old friend Sasha and went for a walk around the city. It felt like a really big city, but not too overwhelming or over powering. Some really big buildings, but really cool old big buildings. Good vibes all round. We had decided we didn’t want to do museums and churches and the other boring touristy stuff, rather we would hang out with the locals and feel the city from their point of view. To the pub! Continue reading “Moscow”

One long journey

Our time in Artybash reminded me of an old Johnny Cash song, “How high’s the water, Dasha?” “5m deep and rising.” On the way there we were worried that the marshrutka wouldn’t get through the water over the road. Over the 4 days we spent there, we watched the level rise another few hundred millimetres. When it came time to leave (8.30am approximately exactly) and our bus didn’t show up, there was all sorts of rumours floating around the town. We were having serious concerns that we would miss our connecting train to Moscow, so it was time to try our luck hitch hiking again (without the dog).

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The vodka train

With the boat to Olkon cancelled, it was on to a marshrutka, picked up at the doorstep, at 6.45am. It was a quicker journey than expected, arriving at Ulan Ude by 11.15. A quick lunch and back on to the next marshrutka for another 7 hours to Irkutsk. Now I’ve had some bad (scary) drivers in my time, but this dude was a very good contender for a gold medal. At one stage, fairly early in the piece, he seemed to be driving on the opposite side of the road to avoid a bumpy looking section of asphalt. It was a little more in depth than that though. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’, well this dude’s motto was ‘the pavement is always smoother on the other side!’ He spent almost HALF of the time on the wrong side of the road. Oncoming traffic, hills, corners – nothing seemed to phase him. And he certainly wasn’t driving slow. We were overtaking everyone, again oncoming traffic, hills, corners… all while talking on the mobile phone! We made it to Irkutsk in just over 7 hours, which would suggest that you have to drive like a madman just to stick to schedule.
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Welcome to Russia!

Our first impressions of Russia (nay, Russians) as we entered a cafe in the border town, with a few hours to kill due to the bureaucracy of a border crossing, was a fairly poor one, yet one that seemed all too stereotypically perfect – a bunch of young blokes with scratches and bruises all over their faces boozing up on vodka in a hazy cafe during the middle of the day. Yes, that’s exactly how it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I make it sound. It was a Saturday, and the majority of them were also on the train on their way home after a year of compulsory army training. So if I were to put the thong on the other foot, remember some weekend boys’ sessions such as footy trips, then I must admit that ‘Bungy’ would be out and all types of behaviour would seem totally acceptable and expectable. The one bloke who had the worst of the facial damage was apparently a local, who, a few nights earlier copped a hiding for looking at the wrong girl the wrong way, or the wrong girl the right way? Anywho, after a short while their intrigue got to them so they came over to see where we were from. Turns out they were nice guys.
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Mongolia-a whole lot of bugger all

Ok, well maybe the title is a bit harsh, but that was our first impressions (which lasted 3 days continuously) as we left Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, in a 4WD minivan with our driver, Tiger, for an 8 day tour.

Ulaan Baatar itself is actually a fairly modern city. This was quite a surprise after coming from Beijing. There is international restaurants, people that speak English and/or Russian and people dress fashionably (no, not like Curly, real fashion – high heels, dresses and matching colours – that sort of thing). Our first Mongolian was Indra, from the train ride from China. She showed us around for a day and we had lunch at an expensive place with her friends, who seemed to be TV presenters and semi-famous people. Generally we found Mongolians to be very friendly and not seem to try to rip us off as much as Chinese. Every car in UB is a taxi, you simply stick out your hand and someone stops. The going rate is 500T/km ($0.40/km), but not sure how it’s measured. All I can say is that the system works! Even if an old lady with a fart box of a car stops to pick up 2 of you with 6 bags.
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China, Beijing

We can say we’ve been to China, but realistically we’ve only been to Beijing, and to be honest, it didn’t impress. Arguably the most un-tourist friendly city I’ve been to. Sure we didn’t have a guide book, stay in touristy areas or visit the main tourist information (if it exists), but we expected that a city that hosted the Olympic games would have at least a handful of people that spoke English, or would at least be interested in speaking to you at all. We did go to the tourist info booth at Tianemen Square. They gave us a map…. all in Chinese. And they didn’t know where the nearest hotel was. You would think that they would be 2 pretty common questions at a tourist information. We went to the train station to buy a train ticket to Mongolia- very silly of us. Everyone knows that you go to the Beijing International Hotel to do that! So we went there to buy a ticket for Friday or Saturday, depending what time it left, but turns out they only leave Tuesday and Wednesday. So change of plans, lets catch a bus. If it wasn’t for our new found couch surfing friend Jeremy, from Singapore, who could speak Chinese, we wouldn’t have had a hope. The bus station was ages away, with no train link or any simple or sensible way of getting there.
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Cairns and Curly’s 30th

Well, I guess the holiday officially starts the day you leave/move out of your house, so lets start there. We donned our flip flops for our first flight to Cairns, sunny Queensland Australia. Don’t believe the advertising friends, I can officially say that Queensland is cloudy 99% of the time. It is, however, a comfortable 28 degrees, perfect for shorts and t-shirts, even when it’s raining.
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