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

 

Lost In Translation

Nobody really knows what Bill Murray’s character whispers to Scarlet…

At the end of the movie it is left up to the viewer to determine whether it is a beginning or an end, and I have always felt that the story up to that point was only a prequel to the real story.

This is how Beijing feels to me today. It is only a beginning; an introduction to my Trans Siberian adventure; an invitation to return.

Calligraphy at dawn
Calligraphy at dawn

But what rich and rewarding stories unfolded in this super city.

Beijing parks bustle from dawn and the city awakens. Elderly folk silently practice tai chi, artists inscribe wet marks of calligraphy onto slate pavements while tiny children are indulged by doting grandparents.

Our tourist group gathered in Tiananmen Square where the symbolism of past events are truly overwhelming when put into context by the size of this famous landmark. Chairman Mao’s portrait is proudly displayed at the western end and I feel watched over with all the other passers by. This is the low season for westerners but it is still busier than most places I’ve known back home.

Inside the Forbidden City
Inside the Forbidden City

We are herded in lines into the Forbidden City where once again I’m saturated with a sense of history that I find difficult to fathom. The cobblestones courtyards are surrounded by red painted, veranda edged buildings topped with brightly, glazed roof tiles. Tourists huddle at cordoned off doorways of temples to grab a peek inside at a past life and I am reminded of the manipulations of court life and the excesses of the guilded cage that many of the concubines lived in far from their families and watched over by the ultimate public servant.. the eunuch.

Outside, we cross a moat and head back into the bustling modern life that is Beijing. We stop for dumplings in a back street before getting our caffeine fix at Starbucks. Later that night we visit the guide’s friend Alice for dinner in her tea house in a nearby hutong. Of course we can’t resist looking back to our own ancient 70’s heritage and name it ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. After dinner we are introduced to a diverse range and very distinctive flavours of tea.

We walked from Gate 18 to 6 on this section of the Great Wall
We walked from Gate 18 to 6 on this section of the Great Wall

The following day we visited The Great Wall at Mutianyu. What can I say? It is a brilliantly engineered, original idea of a 10000 kms long barrier to keep out the marauding Mongels. I understand the pain suffered building it and that can never be negated but I must admit that this architectural masterpiece is now my number one, número uno, favourite, most amazing, man made wonder of the world. I have never seen anything quite so spectacular in all my life! Pictures and words just can’t do it justice. You must go and see it.. and take the time to walk as many gates as possible.

What a wonderful country! What a delightful city!

Beijing has a population of 22 million and yet the streets are spotless and I found all the people I interacted with to be interested, intelligent, warm and inviting. Their English is far better than my Chinese will ever be and while there were some very funny, literal translations

Walking home after dinner in a nearby hutong.
Walking home after dinner in a nearby hutong.

on products, there was definitely nothing lost in translation of the smiles that greeted us.

I feel I’ve only just scratched the surface of this amazing place and I look forward to coming back one day in springtime or autumn to see the colours of nature as a backdrop to the swirling, kaleidoscope of bright colours that are the people of this fascinating country.

The next day we boarded the train early and our journey continued toward our next adventure… Mongolia!