Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 5 St Petersburg

St Petersburg

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St Petersburg is stunning. From the moment I got off the train at the end of Nevski Prospekt, the main drag that runs a couple of miles up to the Neva river and the Winter Palace that sits on its bank, everywhere you looked there was incredibly beautiful and well-maintained architecture. It naturally has a fascinating and long history but there also appears to be a marvellously diverse nightlife and social scene and the people are confident and interesting.

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I got to my hotel, The Nevsky Central Hotel a short walk from the station on Nevski Prospekt, around breakfast time and was told that I could check in after lunch, so I stored my bag and walked to the Hermitage museum.

On the way I had a coffee in KFC. This man was sleeping in his suit, obviously worse for wear after a night on the times in one of the 24 hour bars or late closing nightclubs that dotted Nevsky Prospekt and its side-streets.

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This is a fucking Burger King

I didn’t eat here but simply had to go in to look at the layout of the place. It’s a Burger King. A. Burger. King. Every facet of the city seemed to want to maintain the tasteful, classical styles of the larger historic buildings.

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The Hermitage is incredible. From all the art that had been stolen from all over Europe by the Nazis, to the exquisite decorations of the Winter Palace, and the hall full of portraits of military leaders that fought against Napoleon. Then there’s the Egyptian collection and the Jordan Staircase. Much like the city itself, it’s difficult to walk ten metres without wanting to take pictures.

I was hungover and rather respectful of the hundreds of old men and women whose jobs seemed to consist of sitting in the corners of rooms and looking disapprovingly at people wielding Nikons in the directions of the paintings.

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The next morning I took the underground to Peter and Paul Fortress over the Neva from the Winter Palace. While waiting for my train. The doors of the St Petersburg underground are very unforgiving. Once they start to close, that’s it. You’re either in or you’re out and for a few people in the picture below, that was particularly bad news. The doors closed with a very young child on the one side while his family screamed in panic on the other. The look of desperation on the face of his mother and the sound she made as the train pulled away was horrible. I have to imagine that it is something that happens regularly, and they therefore are used to dealing with such situations. I hope everything was OK anyway. I felt particularly useless there at that stage, unable to offer any realistic help.

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Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the island stronghold built by the tsars, was home to a good number of attractions, primarily Peter and Paul’s Cathedral where the empire’s leaders’ bodies were all laid to rest and a certain Mr Tolstoy  was banished.

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The main lot were all laid to rest here, inluding Alexander and Catherine the Great who was put in the casket next to the brother she assassinated in order to claim the throne.

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People in tour parties were given the opportunity to climb the tower with a few of the active priests that wandered about the place. I was shouted at for taking this picture and wrongly identified as a member of the Italian tour party. What an amazing adventure.

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Visitors can exit the Nevsky Gate where people were sent for execution and walk around the frozen periphery of the island. I did so myself, noticing on the way Russians taking a load off here and there to relax while enjoying a view of the Neva. While frozen it must essentially look very much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. In the warmer weather it’s probably crawling with oligarchs’ yachts.

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Having done a circuit, I checked out the Naryshkin Bastion, the prison on the island that had been home to very many political prisoners including Trotsky, Lenin’s brother who would be later executed and a great deal more in addition to a good deal of members of the establishment after the revolution.

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Here and there in the more tourist parts of the city, people wandered around in period costume ready for photo opps such as these two newly-weds.

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St Petersburg wasn’t free of the panpipe menace.

This was a rather striking mosque

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This was a rather striking old ship

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And this was the rather stunning Church on Spilled Blood built on the spot where Alexander the 2nd had been assassinated in 1881.

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Inside, I was compelled to say the most inappropriate/appropriate ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’ since I’d visited some of the grander cathedrals in Italy.

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This is the precise spot where Alex Part Deux was forcibly shuffled off his mortal coil.

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Naturally, there was religious tat for sale to appease the angry God of capitalism.

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I left the church and walked back to the hotel, checking out the sights as I went.

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This was a lovely knife and gun shop I came across.

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This was a club shop for Zenit St Racistberg fans that were probably regular customers of the aforementioned shop (I’m sure this is an unfair reflection of the majority of Zenit fans).

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Below my hotel there was a bar/internet cafe establishment by the name of CafeMax. I went here to have some food and a beer before retiring for the evening. It was a Saturday but still surprisingly busy. I was informed that this was a city wide meeting for different ‘Mafia’ clubs and they were having a tournament that day. This was the kind of stuff I loved seeing, locals interacting and doing stuff that I could both relate to and which rather mystified me.

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The game seemed to be a sort of roll-playing game where they took it in turns to shout at each other. At the beginning they all wore blindfolds while an invigilator shouted more things I didn’t understand in Russian. Loud rock music played over the shouting. It was marvellous.

The players were animated and passionate, genuinely delighted and despondent having won or lost respectively. I sat there watching those that were waiting to play while drinking more strong Russian beer. These were to all intents and purposes what would be deemed nerds in the UK/US but they weren’t socially inept. In fact, probably buoyed by the heroic volumes of caffeine and sugary cakes they were ingesting, they were confident and talked animatedly.

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The women were fucking absurdly attractive as well. Russian women were by and large very attractive. Not so much because of their features, Russians resemble British people. They have a poise, and a knowing sexiness that they exude in the way they fix their stares on their partners and the way they walk, stand, sit, and slouch. The staff in the hotel in Irkutsk, for example, all had athletic bodies and the aforementioned poise. Like gymnasts and ice skaters that had had to take on more mundane professions to pay for their husbands’ alcohol abuse issues.

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All in all, I loved my very brief couple of days in St Petersburg and recommend it to anyone. However, Scandinavia was waiting.

Part 6 Helsinki to Stockholm

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Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

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The train got into Irkutsk early in the morning. Emptying out the fake brand goods mules that spoke animatedly into their mobiles as they schlepped their bundles of fake Diesel jeans along the platform. It was around -30 and I walked out of the station rather bleary-eyed and confused, taking the first offer of a taxi that presented himself. Unfortunately that happened to be a rather ratfaced and dodgy looking gentleman that led me to an unmarked black car. I settled into my backseat and as the buildings got more and more eastern bloc hellholish, I became resigned to the fact that I was about to get robbed and that Irkutsk was almost as much of a shitheap as Ulan Bator. Happily, however, Irkutsk is very much a city split in two by the Angara River with the older more salubrious areas in the south of the city. The taxi driver also kindly dropped me at my hotel, the Baikal Business Centre Hotel without murdering me.

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I took a shower, and got another cab (as the hotel was a fair way south of the centre) to Karla Marksa the main shopping/eating drag and proceeded to have a very nice walk around the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

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Irkutsk really was a nice place. Russians love a nice walk too, and they were all over the place enjoying the clear blue sky and crisp fresh air.

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After walking around for a few hours, I had some dinner and then a few pints in a decent Irish pub near the bus station. I noticed there something that I’d notice again and again and that’s that Russians love a good handshake. Everyone that walked in the pub shook everyone else’s hand, and they’d repeat the process upon leaving.

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The train was leaving early evening the next day. Sadly, the train to Irkutsk had passed alongside Lake Baikal during the night, so I had planned to take a bus there before leaving on my second day. But at this point all I wanted to do was get on the train again. I was enjoying the journey itself so much.

Also, outside the train, travelling on my own, I felt that everything was rather chaotic and just waiting to end in disaster as all of my connections were so closely timed. While on the the train, there was order to my universe. Timetables, scheduled stops, conductors, and the knowledge that you were heading in the desired direction. I had essentially become institutionalised, much like that sad old man in The Shawshank Redemption that kills himself because everything moves too fast now that he’s out of prison. So while I was drinking in the hotel bar the evening before, I decided to just get drunk, wake up late and head straight to the station.

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Though neglecting to visit Lake Baikal might sound a tremendous waste to most people, I suppose it does to me still, I’d like to stress that I really enjoy people watching. Observing the dynamics of people in very new places. Noticing the kinds of behaviour and how people interact. The hotel in Irkutsk was essentially very much a business hotel though the bar was filled with a handful of people that seemed to be familiar with the place. Sitting there, getting nicely toasted and watching these people just go about their regular lives was likely as fascinating to me as seeing the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world. Though it’s naturally much less of a photogenic activity.

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Solyanka is delicious

In Russia, the tickets can be picked up directly from the stations with a printed copy of payment confirmation. I picked up the ticket and almost shit myself as I read that my 1st class Rossja ticket had left at 1.15pm as opposed to 6.15pm as I’d been led to believe in the copies of the itinerary that had become as much a part of me as my wallet and passport. I ran around the station to find someone that spoke English, to no avail. I was convinced that everything had indeed been fucked. However, I finally found someone willing to at least try and communicate with me who informed me that in Russia, all the trains ran on Moscow times so my train was to leave in a couple of hours. Calm now, I headed out into the blizzard outside to buy provisions for the 75 hour trip to Moscow.

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There were a few people travelling the same route as me. The couple from the previous leg, some Australian retirees, Michael and Vicky who were doing everything on a planned tour type basis including dog-sleighing in Siberia, a German girl that was riding the train all the way to Moscow without getting off before taking a connection or two to Munich, and a French girl that was cheaping it to Moscow in 3rd class and being molested by one of the train guards for her trouble. He would unlock her empty compartment and stroke her hair while saying he loved her at night. She took to tying the door closed from the inside with some string.

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I booked the Rossja no.1 train in 1st class for the longest leg of the train journey and found myself sharing with Alex. He was a Russian from somewhere south of Vladivostock who smoked a lot and spoke around three words of English, ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ and ‘Sorry’. We would initially try to make polite conversation such as:

Me: It’s cold (pointing out the window)
Alex: No……warm
Me: Cold (pointing out the window more animatedly)
Alex: Yes

But he seemed a nice sort and after a while we became like an old married couple, content in each others’ company without having to talk with each other. I think he was a plain clothes security guard as he just seemed to be travelling on the train all the way to Moscow with very little luggage. He also seemed to be on excellent terms with the conductors and the restaurant staff.

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I gave Alex some of my beer. He liked that.

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The food in the restaurant car was better than the Mongolian fare but still overpriced and the staff seemed to systematically overcharge by adding charges to the bill for items such as chips that were described as part of the meal in the menu. I ignored it the first time, but on the second occasion raised it with them to immediate apologies by the restaurant manager who looked like Putin’s younger and far less successful brother. The restaurant staff seemed to try and get ever so friendly with some of the Russian diners and would tart themselves up after the kitchen closed. I found this rolling community rather fascinating.

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I woke up to find everything was white. The snow in places was waste deep out the window.

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This communist mural was outside the station in Krasnoyarsk where the train stopped for twenty minutes allowing me enough time to snap a picture of it. Trying to find some more beer to drink on the next stretch, I walked into the station building from the back entrance. Inside, a very officious and stern looking female railway worker started shouting at me in Russian. I made my apologies and started to turn around, but she didn’t seem happy with that and continued shouting in Russian. Envisioning  the train rolling away with all my luggage still in my compartment, I…ran away and back onto the train. Again, the outside world had seemed to want to scupper my plans via its inherent chaos.

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The three days and nights on the Rossja to Moscow passed understandably uneventfully. Longer stops in some of the larger cities such as Yekaterinburg and Perm served as opportunities to stretch legs and buy food at the little kiosks on the stations.

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In 1st class there were TVs in each compartment playing DVDs that you could give to the guard. For the first 2 days there was a kind of Muscovite Men Behaving Badly series played on a loop. For the last day and a half there was a low budget Russian Band of Brothers about a resistance force fighting the Nazis in a forest not too dissimilar to what was passing by outside. Finally, continuing the Second World War theme, we had a pirated copy of what looked to be a fairly recent film depicting Nazi war atrocities in a besieged city. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in one day.

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Part 4 Moscow to St Petersburg

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

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I arrived in Ulan Bator early afternoon on the 21st March having slept pretty well on the train. I found the lilting of the carriages accompanied by the metronome click-clacking of the rails helped me drift off…with sufficient beer.

I received a free transfer from the train station to LG Guest House hostel. It was only 400 metres from the station but I was to learn that that was a real stroke of luck that they offered the service by email prior to my arrival. It was a shithole around the train station and a shithole around the guest house. In fact, with the exception of a few gentrified, newly built newly moneyed Mongolian condo areas, and the area around Sukbhatar Square where the government buildings and museums are, it’s pretty much all a big messy shithole. There’s wifi on the buses but no street signs, not even in Mongolian.

Nevertheless, I’d be remiss to mention the following. This was a couple of years ago now and there appeared to be a lot of growth and development. The rate of that growth, with the yurt slums around the outskirts, seemingly indicating a migration into the city by people that still preferred the traditional Mongolian mode of housing and/or that they couldn’t yet afford the nice new condominiums being built in different areas of the burgeoning metropolis.

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I went for a walk to pick up my ticket for the next train from an agent in an office near Sukhbatar Square and got lost almost immediately, even with the big map kindly provided to me by the lady at the hostel. Generally, I don’t mind getting lost. I feel getting lost lends itself to really discovering a place and getting to know it as you have to truly have a good look around. On this occasion, with the strong icy winds slashing at my face like a gang of Glaswegian teenagers, and the fact that there was almost nothing of any note to look at save horrible communist era buildings and rubbish, it wasn’t a nice experience.

Walking across the bridge below, for the first and actually only time, the cold worried me. It worried me physically as the wind on my face and hands seemed to cause an excess of adrenaline. It was as if my body was confused by what was happening and thoughts of being swept head first down onto the frozen river filled my head.

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Across the bridge, I found one of the nicer aforementioned affluent areas with a university and a bank and some bars and restaurants. No one could speak enough English to direct me to Sukhbatar Square which is akin to a Korean tourist in London failing to get directions to Leicester Square.

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Nazi Bank

I finally walked into a bank, changed some dollars into the baffling local currency Togrog and asked the pretty English speaking teller for directions. I was apparently miles off-track and I was directed back over the bridge of death and….right. I finally found Sukhbathar Square, a central area dominated by a large government building fronted by a statue of Genghis looking grimly determined while having a nice sit down.

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The above was where I picked up the tickets, and is a fair representation of how uninviting almost every commercial building’s facade looked from bars that looked as if they should be called Knifey McKnife’s, Salmonella R Us restaurants, and shops you wouldn’t want to buy a box of matches from.

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Mongolian cuisine another chance and headed to the Modern Nomad restaurant. Here, I chose a plate that according to the menu gave a good selection of all the Mongolian favourites. The best I can say about it was that it was edible, but never has a national cuisine cried out more for some kind of sauce. A dollop of ketchup would have tripled the tastiness of the meal. But there was wifi in the restaurant so that made everything OK.

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After dinner, I found a bar that looked like I could have a drink without getting my throat slit and took the edge off while working out the route to walk back to my guest house.

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Unfortunately, the guest house was in the wrong place on google maps leaving me totally disoriented and again lost in a city devoid of signs.

Ulan Bator in the daylight is just an eyesore. People allow their kids to take open air shits along busy roads but at night there’s a more dangerous edge to the place. Public drunkenness is rife, muggings where victims are held from behind while an accomplice rifles through their pockets are, according to the guidebook, one of the more popular crimes and attacks on foreigners and mixed-race couples are also supposedly commonplace. I was walking near the main shopping centre, the State Department Store, when one of a pair of rather burly looking Mongolians veered directly towards me to give me a ‘Do you fucking want some?’ shove to my shoulder. I thought better of it, shook my head and marched on.

After wandering into what seemed to be an open air drug market and failing to get a taxi for a while as most Mongolians seem happy to just flag down random unmarked illegal cabs that will either take them to their destinations or perhaps rape them in a car park, I buckled and walked into a largish hotel and asked them to call a cab for me to my hotel.

Back at the hotel, I drank some beer, watched Deuce Bigalow Male Gigalow in Mongolian and went to sleep.

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I was leaving Ulan Bator late in the evening, so I had almost a full day to take advantage of the little that the city had to offer. Knowing now that the city wasn’t great for walking I looked into what buses I could take to get me back to Sukhbatar Square and the museums that were adjacent to it.

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I got to the square on the cheap bus and headed to the Mongolian National Museum.

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There were lots of pictures of Putin on the ground floor. They appear to like the Russians as much as they dislike the Chinese.

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In the main area upstairs there were loads of examples of the traditional dress of the multitudes of different tribes/ethnic groups found in Mongolia. Fascinating.

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To be honest, the only things worth looking at there was this Mongol horde warrior in full battle getup and a yurt.

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The National History Museum was better though still in dire need of smartening up. This vulture was the size of an eight year old boy. There was a decent dinosaur exhibition there. Still nothing to write home about.

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I saw a few different Beatles monuments in the ex-communist areas as if they were the embodiment of everything they’d been missing.
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It started snowing outside. It seemed to snow every time I was leaving somewhere. I doubted that the snow would be able to prettify Ulan Battor, however.

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Leaving the Mongolian capital, I reflected that Ulan Bator simply wasn’t ready for tourists or at least were someone to go there, they should arm themselves with transfers and guides to take them to wherever they want to go and that can only really be to stay in a yurt in the Gobi desert as far away from the city as possible.  Am I glad I went there? Definitely. Much like being a supporter of a football team that isn’t Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United, you’ve got to know the lows to truly appreciate the highs, and travelling is certainly no different.

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It was dark and still snowing when I left Ulan Bator for the 29 hour trip to Irkutsk in Siberia. I had bought a range of different beers to try. I found myself in a 2nd class compartment with Charles and Kate who I’d met on the train from Beijing and were up to Moscow on exactly the same itinerary as me. They had been working in IT and law respectively in Hong Kong for a year and were taking the train back to London. They were very nice and I was lucky to have been roomed with them for the two nights we were going to spend on the train.

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The scenery was as one might imagine, fairly sparse. The stations were rather bland in comparison with what was to come in Russia. The trip would be shorter than the previous one, but we would spend 6-7 hours going through the good cop/bad cop routines of Mongolian and Russian passport control.

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I went to sleep, knowing that I’d be waking up in Siberia.

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian