Sleeping In My First Snow Hotel

Have you eSnow Hotelver wondered how you ended up here… right now?

I do.

Often… and last night was one of those times!

It was 11:08pm and I was completely cocooned in my sleeping bag on my ice bed, in my -4C bedroom inside the Snow Hotel at Kirkenes, Norway.

I’d layered up from thermals to extra socksCocooned-A but also decided to add the extra extra socks and balaclava the hotel offered.. yes, that special touch, just for the crazies who thought this might be a good idea! My trusty, old long mittens were stretched to my elbows and I’d pulled my beanie over the balaclava… just in case! The hotel then proffered a huge sack like sheet… just like those ones we used for sack races when I was a kid, only bigger and softer… with the instruction to slip into it before slipping your sheet and self into an outdoors survival sleeping bag.

Our clothes for the next day had been rolled and placed into the foot of the bag so they’d be warm and dry in the the morning and my toes now reassuringly felt for them through the ‘layer-up-on-layer’ of socks. We’d also been advised that those that couldn’t make it through the night could head up to a heated lounge room at any time… but I wasn’t going to disappoint myself by even considering that as an option!

My-room-in-the-Snow-Hotel-1So here I lay in my Nordic cocoon peering out at the soft red glow.. reminiscent of Amsterdam windows.. of the backlit, princess ice sculpture etched into the snowy walls of my ice cavern room.

Why was I here?

Why would a moment of insanity convince me this was going to Ice Bar warmerbe fun?

Well, I believe that moment is caused by BBC…yes, Baby Boomer Consumerism… but we now have a newly adapted version!

My generation no longer collects material objects for instant gratification but instead, we collect experiences!

Yes, we do!

Who over 45 doesn’t have a Bucket List?

But this nRelief Ice Sulptureew BBC is more ideologically sound, reinvented and adapted to be guilt free. We are taking on the world and typical of BBs, it is bigger and better than ever and I have named it our ‘Boomer Idealogical Guilt Free Adapted Reinvented Consumer Experience’…

Yess! It’s finally here!

…it’s BIGFARCE!

We don’t need to have a problem with this change from objects to experiences at all because now we collect our experiences with responsibility so we are able to contribute back to society. We can learn from all our experiences about how other cultures live and  think… by walking in the shoes of strangers and tasting the temptations within their lives; by understanding and caring about their back stories and not just their backlights; by identifying our strengths or biases we can develop our intercultural capacity and contribute back to the good of humanity and our collective growth.

So here I was,Snow Hotel entrance lying on my ice bed determined to sleep there for the whole night and contribute this latest experience in my collection.

  • I was feeling the cold on my face and gauging my strengths.
  • I was developing our intercultural capacity by wondering how many shots were consumed in an ice bar by the crazy Norwegian who first thought this would be a good idea.
  • I had informed friends on social networks for the benefit of our collective growth.

But in the dark, what I truthfully realised was…

…. I was just ticking off #9 on Fiona’s Bucket List!

Onboard a Working Ship

Stopover According to legend, the name Norway comes from an old norse word Norðrvegr and means “the way north”.

This name was given to the long, craggy coast because it was largely ice-free in the wintertime.

Yesterday, we joined a Hurtigruten ship for a couple of nights cruising across the Arctic Circle from Tromso to Kirhurtigruten-route-map arctic circlekenes. These ships have been carrying local passengers and freight between towns and villages since 1893 and they’re still considered an integral part of Norway’s coastal life. Since boarding we have also been closely following the coast and at various times I’d wake throughout the night and peer out my cabin window and across the icy water to just look at what I imagined would be an empty, icy wasteland… but to my surprise, I saw lights, fairly regularly… yes, people living here!

Can you imagine?

CoastlineI might be making one of those crazy cultural assumptions… like someone who visits Australia and expects to see kangaroos hopping down our city streets.. but when I look at this amazing coastline, I’m guessing it must be one of the most inhospitable and harsh environments on our planet, and yet, people are thriving here, healthily and very happily.

Our ship, the Kong Harald, is apparently a working ship and so I thought we should commit to this new found, Nordic ethos and work hard too… because as all good Aussie Baby Boomers know… life wasn’t meant to be easy!

Fiona Welcome drinkOur first task I set us on board, contained several sections: find a bar; decipher all the unknown choices on the wine list; contrast a lighter Portuguese red with a slightly heavier Italian; make a choice and finish our first welcome drink onboard. Tick.

Our second task was much harder because of all the decisions needed to struggle through and complete it fully. Should I have salmon again for the third time today? Are pickled herrings really a Norwegian Masterchef moment? How many unknown, runny, ripe cheeses can one fit on a platter? How many laps of a ship are mandatory to fit in any of the deliciousness lying in wait at the dessert bar? Yes, you can only imagine how hard we worked at this… but we managed. Tick. Viewing Deck

Our third and final task was thankfully a little easier: find our way to the viewing deck; snare two really comfy lounge chairs together in front of our own huge window; put our feet up; order a well deserved nightcap and discuss our excursion tomorrow to the North Cape. Tick.

 

In the beginning, there was Tromso!

Well isn’t Tromso in Norway a delightful little surprise!!
I had never heard of this pTromso northern lightslace before (well, have you??) … but after being inspired by yet another travel show, I found so many reasons to visit:
* I wanted to catch a slow boat north to see the awesome coastline of the Vikings.
* I thought it would be fun to say daily “Winter is coming, John Snow!”
* I needed to visit a place so contrasting to where I have lived my entire life and know that others live quite happily never seeing 40C on a temperature gauge.
* I wanted to know what it’s like to stand amidst the giant, healthy, blonde skiers who win at the Winter Olympics.. just like Aussies used to do at the Summer ones!
* It seemed a good idea to literally chill in a happy land of never ending, snowy Christmases imagined from old English postcards
However, mostly, I just wanted to see the Northern Lights and Tromso is our starting point to see them but before we board our slow boat tomorrow, I thought we should explore and find out more about this buzzing little metropolis.

Tromso Facts we found out today:
* It’s a lovely, modern little city with about 72000 friendly people living here. This friendliness was proven today by the quietly spoken, local peacemaker who courageously interrupted our argument at the bus stop to offer the correct directions.
* It’s the ‘ArFiona and Arctic Cathedral 2ctic Gate’, frequented by heroes like Amundsen and just over 2000 kms from the North Pole… that’s Sydney to Townsville or Adelaide to Brissie and quite a doable road trip with good music, good company and a good red!
* It has the world’s most northerly university, beer brewery and cathedral and toarctic cathedralday we visited two of those on the number 34 and 24 bus.
* It’s ‘Arctic Cathedral’ is the most famous landmark in town and is a masterpiece in the shape of an iceberg. It is often referred to as the ‘opera house of Norway’ comparing it to the Sydney Opera House… I’m now feeling very ‘at home’.

Takk Tromsø
Thanks Tromso!

Turkish Delights

‘Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’ – Gustave Flaubert

I found it helpful to view this country extensively from on, sometimes from under and most memorably…  from above! 

Flying high over Cappadocia
Flying high over Cappadocia

 

The Turkish scenery in places is quite unique.

The landscape in Cappadocia appears surreal and I think even the inimitable Mr Dali would struggle with imagining such a panorama.

 The local guide tells me that Spielberg was inspired by this location to take us to another planet in his first Star Wars movie but my comprehensive, peer reviewed research (ok, I googled it) can’t confirm his story.

 

Fairy Chimneys
Fairy Chimneys

The fact is that about 40 million years ago, repeated volcanic eruptions covered the countryside with a layer of soft rock called tufa while erosion over time has imaginatively created these large mushroom capped columns that the locals likened to fairy chimneys. But, it is man’s creativity and practical need for safe refuge that burrowed deep into the soft rock to escape the harsh climate and other persecutors, as evidenced by the early Christians churches established deep within the underground cities.

‘Please be a traveller, not just a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.’ –  Andrew Zimmern

This country is full of contrasts; exotically indulgent and scarily intense to every sense at times.

Visiting a hamam or traditional Turkish Bath highlights these contrasts.

Led into a warm room, my body is allowed to ‘perspire freely’. It has no problem doing this but I could probably better describe it as ‘sweat like a pig’!

What is left of my steamed carcass is then sacrificed onto a flat, warmed marble bench where I lay face up while my attendant gently splashes shallow buckets of warm and cool water over my now calming body. I realise in hindsight that this was just to lull me into a false sense of security before their real fun begins.

Ms Hyde subsequently emerges with a rough loofah to scrub every part of my relaxed remains to within an inch of my suddenly decreasing life. However, just in the nick of time she ceases and I am flooded with a sense of gratefulness.

This of course is instantly replaced with mounting apprehension as I sight the young Amazonian approaching me again and swinging a large white pillowcase. Memories of sibling and cousin beatings on holiday sleepovers come flooding back and I lay trembling and wondering what tortuous process must follow. As she moves closer, the pillow is dramatically shaken and tossed like a matador teasing his quarry… before being ceremoniously thrown across my now terrified torso.

Ohhh…. what a relief!

Dr Jekyll’s pillowcase is filled with bubbles.

Immediately all apprehension disappears and there is only this feeling of tiny, frothy bubbles popping continuously and I get to enjoy the most indulgent, soapy, slippery massage ever. And as if that is not enough, I sink into the depths of complete decadence with an oil massage and a facial that I never want to end.

‘The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.’  -Samuel Johnson

Pammukale 'cotton castle'
Pammukale ‘cotton castle’

Pammukale means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish and is a natural site where water emerges from underground springs and deposits calcium carbonate to form travertine terraces. Myriad tourists wander never lonely upon these cloudlike forms and enjoying the cool water falling into pools and the nearby bubbling springs… just like their first Egyptian tourist Cleopatra did, centuries ago.

There is an earthy warmness in the rich, dusty colours that wrap themselves around you daily and cling to your heart. Aromatic spices hypnotically dance in the air around every restaurant and tastebuds are tantalised by aged olive oils, freshly dried apricots, creamy yoghurts and baklava dripping in dark, golden honey and dusted with pistachio. Hmm, but by the far, the best reward on a day when the mercury rises again, is a freezing cold mixture of goat’s milk, sugar and orchid root that magically transforms into a wonderfully thick, sticky icecream… and is always served with a teasing sideshow.

‘Time travel is such a magic concept.’ – Matt Smith

Ancient columns
Ancient columns

The Turkish story goes back to the beginning of time.

It seems the Hittites were the first, followed by the Persian, Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The Ottomans rocked in about the 13th Century and their sultans and sultanas enjoyed the fruits of their conquest until Attaturk declared Turkiye a republic in 1923 and dragged all his people into a brave and modern new world. Quite the dapper modernist, hero and reformist statesman, he encouraged the arts and women in education and died in 1937 about 20 years before my own current Prime Minister was born… hmm, interesting how opposite their policies appear. One would think it might be the other way around.

Johnnies & Mehmets

Australia and Turkiye share a tragic chapter in history together.

We will remember them.
We will remember them

The friendship between our peoples today has grown from a mutual respect and admiration of the young men who fort against each other so valiantly in the trenches at Gallipoli.  They called the Aussie Diggers ‘Johnny’ and themselves ‘Mehmet’… they were just normal, everyday guys; sons of mothers who  loved them dearly; brothers of sisters that missed them so much; fathers of children who cried for them and still do. It was a tragic campaign for the Allies in World War 1 and so it was with trepidation but a real sense of honour I made the pilgrimage to ANZAC Cove, Lone Pine and then on to the Turkish Memorial to remember the tragic consequence of war. We must remember because this is the only way we can avoid it reoccurring. We must learn.

I have loved my visit to Turkiye.

I have enjoyed seeing old friends, making new ones and finding new memories.

Ok, I didn’t love the heat… so when I return it will be in cooler weather.

I can’t wait!

Thank you Turkey!

Sana Turkiye ederiz!

My Big Fat Greek Holiday

♪♫Mamma Mia, how can I resist you? ♫♪♫ 

Of course there are no signs or directions!

So we asked around and played a bit of follow the leader before lining up…. at the wrong boat!

After a quick discussion made up of quizzical looks, Greek gesturing and s-l-o-w English (yes, it’s coming along well thanks but I’m not sure why others  are so slow to catch on), we were pointed in the right direction towards our downsized ferry to Santorini.

All good! We strapped ourselves in with cappuccino and croissants and slept, just waking one eye at each port of call to check weTourists arriving were heading in the right direction. No… we really didn’t have any idea!

Finally we arrived at Athinios, Santorini’s port at the foot of the cliffs.

The tide of tourists had definitely come in and there was a feeding frenzy amongst the local tour operators, car hirers and local buses. We were eaten alive!

Somehow we blindly followed the other lemmings onto a local bus and our luggage was stacked in the storage below. There was nothing to do but hold on and see what happened next…

Winding Road
Winding Road

Oh my! Our huge coach carried us up the side of the granite cliff face along this narrow, winding snake of a road. I can only imagine the goat track that had existed in days gone by and the number of non goats that had gone over the precipice that greeted us on every hair pin corner. I closed my eyes and only peeked out intermittently to find our final destination of Oia at the furtherest end of the island.

Ok, when I opened my eyes fully… what a wonderful sight awaited!

Oia
Oia

I had heard about quaint Santorini and its world famous sunsets but nobody had prepared me for the snow coned blue churches dripping in character and the winding laneways overflowing with grateful shopkeepers who made such easy sales. Their ship had come in everyday… and this time I was on board!

We filled our days sailing, snorkelling, sunning and hot springing before we changed back a gear to an even slower pace and repeated our sloth on the island of Paros. This time tho we added some historical kulcha with a guided tour of the ruins on Delos and a long lunch in Mykonos.

Sunset
Sunset

After several days of chart topping sunsets and  guilty decadence we were ferried back to whence we’d come… Athens.

Yes, we returned to our little hotel in the Plaka where we were spoilt with a breakfast view of the Acropolis and lulled to sleep at night by Michael Jackson classics adapted into Greek folk music wafting up from the restaurants in the garden square below. I fell asleep easily and dreamed of Zorba dancing and I’m sure he looked just like Anthony Quinn.

Since I had been a student at school, I had always dreamed of visiting Greece. I had enjoyed studying Art and Ancient History and was looking forward to pacing out the Parthenon, examining those Doric columns up close and finally understanding those bloody peripteral temple plans. I yearned to sit in the ancient Agora and feel where democracy had been born. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Plato, Aristocrates and good ol’ Pericles.

Parthenon
Parthenon

But in the end…  what I have taken away with me is completely different!

I have a new found respect and great memories of an engaging people who have a wonderful way of living life. They truly live, love and enjoy the unhurried moment. One day they might even finish the Parthenon!

And it is beautiful!

Thank you Greece.

Σας ευχαριστούμε Ελλάδα

      ♪♫and so I say, thank you for the music… ♫♪♫

Revisits

Apparently, I don’t enjoy returning to destinations that I’ve visited previously.

I guess it’s like eating that second ice-cream. While the first may have been the classic, culinary experience of a lifetime, that second yearned for repeat performance never quite lives up to expectations.

2014-07-13 16.19.36I first visited London nearly 20 years ago and while I’ve used both Heathrow and Gatwick as bouncing off points at various times since, I’ve had no real desire to return and play ‘Which Line Is That?’ on the Tube since my first heady tourist days back in 1998… so when my young friends Megan and George decided to follow in royal footsteps and celebrate their own nuptials in London then I packed my bags and my daughter and we accepted their kind invitation to party hard and check out London in their summer.

I hoped to revisit Her Maj so I practiced my courtesy, packed my best gloves and got my wave on. I looked forward to once again watching the guards change places down at the front gate or at the very least, I hoped to catch a glimpse of Harry and possibly the family jewels. And to top all this, I couldn’t wait to sit atop a red double-decker under clouds with silver linings and play ‘Icon Spotting’ with Prue.                                                              2014-07-13 16.16.00

Yes, we would cross their bridge; climb that tower; drop in at the palace gate; see how big Ben really is; find that ever concealed circus at Piccadilly; check the time at 0 longitude and get pics with the royals in wax.

But we didn’t!

London Eye
London Eye

When it came time to play tourist in between imminent nuptial bonding, I just couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to revisit sites I’d seen before and instead we hit the South Bank of the River Thames and fast tracked a trip on the London Eye while I conveniently forgot that I loathe and detest heights. I am constantly surprised at the change that overcomes me when I travel and I begin to believe I’m someone else and therefore do things I wouldn’t dream of doing at home!

After all the excitement of being 135 metres above the Thames, we wandered down to St James park and found a squirrel before heading back to enjoy the little green park I’d spied across from our hotel. We watched locals in the pub up the road loudly give instructions to the World Cup refs and we ambled up to Portabello Road Markets on a lazy Saturday morning to hunt down a bargain. One day we even worshipped at the altar of modern art in its very own contemporary cathedral – the Tate Modern. Oh what a delight, thank you London!

I love London and I love that it does pomp under any circumstance and traditions better than most, like… white Christmases,

St James Park
St James Park

strawberries with tennis, towers, bridges, waxed people and even muddy rivers…  but I don’t love their summers. It doesn’t feel hot enough and it comes and goes on a whim. For the first three days of this visit, it just felt like a Sydney winter.

I will remember all this when I return next year tho, when I visit one of my nearest and dearest who is now planning on living here for a couple of years. I don’t really blame her because it really has been fun!

I’ve decided revisits just need a different approach. Thank you London!

Countdown

What things do you look forward to when you’re heading off on a trip?

I’m about to escape from an Aussie winter and wing my way to where the cockles of my heart shall be ignited by a young friend’s gorgeous summer wedding in London. The plan after that is to just play castaway for a while and laze in the sun on some idyllic Greek Islands before touring with a friend to discover the ancient and aromatic delights of Turkey.

So what am I excited about?

What things kindle my sense of anticipation??

What burning desires flare up my will for a travel thrill???

Here’s my COUNTDOWN… of  5 things.

countdown- of things

    5. The Little Thing

♫♪ I want to get away ♫♪♫ I want to fly away ♫♪  

Just the idea of leaving every little thing behind and not having to care about mundane chores or everyday living is my most basic joy in taking a holiday or travelling away. Once I’ve devoured any English mad cows, Greek salads or Turkish delights then I won’t care about what happens to the plate… yes, it’s the little things… I am really just looking forward to not washing up!

4    4. The Hidden Thing

♫♪♫ Food glorious food, we’re anxious to try it ♫ Three banquets a day, my favourite diet ♫♪♫

There is nothing better than chancing upon a busy restaurant full of locals enjoying a meal, buzzing with life and taking it all for granted. That’s when I walk right on past those golden arches, head for a back alley and get lost looking for a little hole in the wall eatery and the opportunity to savour a native delicacy or spend a long afternoon imbibing on the local interpretation of a good red.

3    3. The Familiar Thing

♫♪♪♫♪ Exit light. Enter night. Take my hand. Off to never never land… ♫♪♫ ♫

Even before Metallica took me by the hand, my dreams had always been about visiting faraway lands. I looked forward to overdosing all my senses on the exotic, bizarre and exceptional; all of which were a complete contrast to where I lived at home. Travelling does give me an appreciation for the strange and different but it also teaches me gratefulness for the familiar. So now I’m a fully-fledged travel junkie and while I’m addicted to the dream… I equally crave my return home! “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchet

2    2. The People Thing

♫♪ People. People who need people ♫♪♫ Are the luckiest people in the world ♫♪

I have a fondness for people watching. I enjoy meeting new people. I love ‘walking in their shoes’. I really appreciate having my eyes opened wider to how others think and I relish any opportunity to discover our similarities and to understand our differences. It’s the contact with people that starts a process of education. “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

1     1. The Challenge Thing

♫♪ It’s my life. It’s now or never ♫♪ I ain’t gonna live forever ♫♪

This first world lifestyle has made me very comfortable and to truly appreciate how really fortunate I am at having won life’s lotto then I feel I need to be challenged; to push my contented boundaries; to extend my complacent self. Yes folks, I feel I am now ready to once again take on the greatest travel challenge of them all…

… surviving 23 hours of mind numbing, boring, brainless inflight entertainment!

          ♫♪  ‘Cause it’s my life! ♫♪ 

From Russia With Love

The Best Bits
Coats and boots street fashion
Coats and boots street fashion

CLASSIC CLOTHES – in particular…coats, hats and boots! European women wear their intimidation with classic styling while Russian women just nonchalantly wrap themselves in it before putting their best boot forward and strutting their confidence.  Note to self: I must buy some intimidation and confidence!

St Basil's
St Basil’s

FABULOUS FOOD Portion sizes are half the size of our traditionally upsized, over salted, extra added sugar, huge heart attacks on a plate. They also don’t offer up for consumption any super polished, genetically altered experiments with a required preservative list that allows left overs to glow in the dark or on the shelf for the next fifty years; instead they seem to be opting for taste in every small mouthful. Imagine!

AMAZING ARCHITECTURE It doesn’t matter if it’s a city cathedral, local church, historical house or the backyard fence… somehow they all encourage or include clever design, individuality and colourful embellishment.

Snow
Snow

SNOW It is just everywhere, powdery and sparklingly beautiful!

Moscow Metro
Moscow Metro

MOSCOW METRO It’s like you never have to step outside your own chandeliered palace to get to work. Costing less than one dollar to go anywhere at any time, this train system truly services the public in the best possible way.

Hmm, now there’s a tax payer, fact finding jaunt for an Aussie pollie… please go and see what is possible!

Beluga Caviar
Beluga Caviar

CHAMPAGNE & CAVIAR First impressions: pretty good… but I’m not sure I have tasted enough of either to critique with credibility. I believe I must keep sampling more until I can comment with true understanding.

HISTORY A diverse range of characters have interwoven throughout the fabric of Russian time to create a rich, historical tapestry. Dynasties of tsars, tsarinas, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses have ruled divinely and often with excess. Bolsheviks encouraged change through revolution and Soviet leaders marched on a Cold War world stage. The times have been a changing for a while now and I’m watching fascinated now to see if this new era’s leaders have learned from the past or whether they’ll just revert to it. Sometimes moving forward can be the most difficult.

The Hermitage
The Hermitage

ART Is the Hermitage the best museum in the world? In my opinion, I think the  19th/20th century French painting collection is probably the best of its kind that I have ever seen anywhere… but I am no expert.

Me & Matisse
Me & Matisse

Yes, there is a room full of Rubens and another of Rembrandt. Leonardo and Michaelangelo get a pretty good look in too. But do they really come alive for me? Hmmm, maybe I just need ‘A Night in the Museum’…please!

PEOPLE What a proud, fascinating people! Yes, it is hard to tell when a Russian is happy but once the vodka is opened it gets easier. Most of them speak far better English than I speak Russian, although my ability with charades and speaking s.l.o.w.l.y  i.n  E.n.g.l.i.s.h  is coming along just fine, thanks. They are independent, interesting… and have some of the best dressed dogs that I’ve ever seen.

Best dressed dog
Best dressed dog

   Wonderfully generous and welcoming….

                          I can’t wait to come back one day!

Q&A: Siberian Sojourn

Seven Questions Only                    

Listvyanka is a fairly typical village
Listvyanka is a fairly typical village

What did you expect to see?

Gulags, frozen peasants and snow! Ok, so I needed an update since watching Dr Zhivago but isn’t that why we travel?

Snow icing everywhere
Snow icing everywhere

What did you find?

Not a gulag or peasant, frozen or otherwise, in sight! It’s a wonderfully modern, diverse, interesting and quite prosperous Russian oblast (state/province) that destroyed every ignorant, preconceived stereotype I may have held.

 

Was there snow?

Old world charm
Old world charm

Yes! Yes! And more yes! But my idea of snow was so limited. I don’t believe I could ever have imagined how much snow there was or indeed, how beautiful it would look to my dusty Australian eyes. Rooftops on gingerbread houses were iced with thick, heavy layers of freshly fallen snow; larch trees on hillsides stood firm and dusted in white powder that glistened like sugar in the late afternoon sunlight; fallen, wooden paling fences sank deep into the snowline all the time outlining quilted downy fields that reflected the myriad pinks splashed down abstractly by the setting sun. Falling asleep to this fairytale scenery we travelled from Asia on the train for four nights before awakening, 5200kms to the west in Europe, to the same snow covered story. It is an immense and beautiful part of our planet!

How did you fill your days?

We wandered around the village where individuality and old world charm oozed together from the wooden fenced backyards, public corner wells and winding streets.

Dog sledding through the forest
Dog sledding through the forest

Crossing a snow encrusted bridge we spied an old Russian Orthadox church at the end of a lane and entered wondering what kind of faith we might find. Dedication to service was worn on the sleeve of the young nun who greeted us at the door; a timeless story of sacrifice and love was revealed in the murals that elaborately adorned every corner of the 170 year old timber structure that had survived a religiously oppressive political time; multiple candles burned for loved ones while icons were sold in a corner of this ritualistic space. We moved on.

Outside we found a dog sled company and paid the tourist price for a local experience. I can’t complain. It was great fun!

Which was the best part?

Without a doubt… walking on the frozen Lake Baikal.

Aussie tourists dancing on Lake Baikal
Aussie tourists dancing on Lake Baikal

This  is the deepest (1637m) lake and holds approx. 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies. Snow covered turquoise ice blocks piled up across the surface hint at what lies beyond.

Bubbles and cracks caught in layers below
Bubbles and cracks caught in layers below

The lake is covered by a 50cm layer of clear ice that magnifies the dark depths below. Because the water below is so clear we could just make out the rocks up to 10 metres below on the bottom of our bay. It was fascinating to see whispy veils of cracks in the ice and various size bubbles trapped below while Aussie tourists kicked ice footballs or danced the cancan and etched abstract markings onto the glassy surface.

How was the food?

Fish at the markets
Fish at the markets

We were welcomed with warm piroshky (fish or meat pasties) and our fingers frozen numb from the unforgiving winds outside slowly thawed as they wrapped around bowls of steaming solyanka (meat soup). Our taste buds reveled in the delights of Russian champagne and local caviar on toast before we dined heartily on smoked fish and potatoes before celebrating late into the night like real Russians with vodka shots, beer and the occasional Georgian red. It is easy to party hard when you feel so satisfied and warmly welcomed.

What did you learn?

I realize that past generations here at various times have suffered harsh realities and oppressions that I will never fully comprehend and also atrocities that I choose not to contemplate… but I also realize this is what has made the contemporary people who they are today. They are not dwelling in the past but are learning from it. The modern Siberian is aware of their many indigenous peoples and rightfully proud of their heritage. They have big hearts and are a modern, vibrant part of Russia today. While my contemporaries here grew up under extremely different circumstances and restrictions to myself, our children are growing in similar worlds now that are connected, blended and full of opportunity. I wonder only about who will squander their opportunity.

Lake Baikal snow covered turquoise ice
Lake Baikal snow covered turquoise ice

What would I like to say to Siberians?

Spa-see-ba = Thank you!

Das ve danya = Goodbye!

Selfie on the dog sled with driver
Selfie on the dog sled with driver

Nas da rovia = Good health!

Genghis Khan and other Fun Facts

Top travel tips for Mongolia…

Genghis Khan – pronounced and written Chinghis Khan but born ‘Temujin’; founder and Great Khan of the Mongel Empire;

Genghis Khan - never allowed pics so while all conquering, uniting good bloke..  probably wasn't big on the facebook of his time.
Genghis Khan – never allowed pics so while all conquering, uniting good bloke.. probably wasn’t big on the facebook of his time.

born about 1162 and died August 1227; was buried in a secret place and 600 horseman rode all over that place to erase the exact spot… then all 600 were killed. Now that’s public servant dedication!

Temperature – any temperature below minus ten (-10C) is irrelevant because nose drips have already formed icicles from the tip of the beacon illuminating from the centre of your face and Rudolph and Santa have conscripted you for work on Christmas eve.

Mongolian ger at sunset
Mongolian ger at sunset

 

Elves – I have never seen one but I hear they enter a ger throughout the night at 11pm, 2am and 5am to stoke the fire and add coal to create that ‘on the streets of Dubai temperature’ we all hanker for during March in Mongolia. It’s always a lovely contrast to the -35C outside. I would like to take an elf home.

Food – Vegetarians need not apply. Mutton is good. Mutton soup is good. Mutton dumplings are good. Muttonballs with anything are good. Mutton barbecues are great. Potato is the vegetable and potato cutlets are a highlight. Yes, mashed potato, crumbed and cooked like mutton.

Cashmere walking
Cashmere walking

Wine – a corkscrew is essential for fine dining and to accompany mutton masterchef moments.

Goats – cashmere walks before you wear it.

Fashion – The ‘Terrorist Look’ is in!

The 'terrorist' fashion statement.
The ‘terrorist’ fashion statement.

Clothing – getting dressed for that middle of the night toilet dash is a simple affair. Here are the layers I recommend:

  1. Wool knickers
  2. Thermal long johns – bright, colourful patterns optional
  3. Socks – 2 pair of woolen or possum at the least
  4. Jeans – optional
  5. Snow/walking boots
  6. Merino singlet
  7. Polypropylene long sleeved top
  8. Fleecy jumper
  9. Lip balm on
  10. Scarf – wrapped around head and across face at least twice
  11. Beanie – on top of scarf

    Princess Fiona and her Khan.
    Princess Fiona and her Khan.
  12. Long arm woolen mittens
  13. All weather duck down jacket/parker – collar turned up and zipped to your nose      
  14. Hood over beanie
  15. Sunglasses –  to keep cold off eyeballs. Yes they fog up but it is warmer!
  16. Antiseptic hand wash – in pocket to be used after because water in pipes are frozen.
  17. Now… run!!

What a wonderful experience to have visited this ancient land.  I feel like Princess Fiona has  definitely soared! 

My golden eagle ride.
My golden eagle ride.
View from the meditation centre in the clouds.
View from the meditation centre in the clouds