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!

Bucket Listings

When you wish upon a star..

Have you ever waited years for a wish to come true?
In this world of instant gratification it doesn’t seem to happen that often anymore. And yet when it does,  after such a long time, my appreciation seems to reach an unparalleled value… well, at least for a while!

My travel bucket list is pretty extensive but ever since hearing about the entombed terracotta warriorsTerracotta Warriors in Pit 1 discovery while I was studying art back in my tertiary ed days, I had wanted to see them ‘en masse’, up close and personal. Yes, just like Mr Attenborough studying his obsession, I had my own natural curiosity to explore these unique objects within their natural habitat.. and so my objective was always to one day travel to Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, China and visit the Terracotta Warrior Museum.

On my Travel Bucket List it was listed right between
24. Visiting Uluru at midday, dusk and dawn
and
26. Enjoying Oktoberfest from midday, past dusk until dawn.
I still have to tick off 24 but yesterday I was lucky enough to tick off 25. See the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an accompanied by my very knowledgeable, young, local guide Maggie. She was wonderful!
Advertisement: if you ever need a great guide on your next visit then let me put you in contact with her.

What did I think? 

It still amazes me sometimes how all my acquired art appreciation skills can desert me and instead my instincts for the mundane shines magnificently through clear as dawn to dusk.

I’m not sure what I was expecting but it surely wasn’t the aircraft carrier size hanger like building that covers each pit full of warriors. Makes sense I guess but for some reason I mundanely thought it would all be outdoors.

This kneeling archer was found whole.
This kneeling archer was found whole. It’s only this photographer that cut off his head.

I’m guessing it was worked out pretty quickly that tourist numbers drop off on wet days. Today however was just cold inside and the dust from the diggings hung noticeably in the air.. but I did notice it was less dense than whatever was hanging in the air outside.

Maggie gave me all the stats on numbers, size, weights, years and then put it in context by explaining it was from the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) who had commissioned.. or just encouraged.. artists and local ceramicists to produce with crafted detail these 8000 more than life size individual figures weighing between 100-300 kg each, to be buried alongside him… along with his concubines, wives that hadn’t given children yet and various other lucky courtiers chosen to help him out in his next lifetime. Oh the joys of calling an emperor ‘best mate’!

I wandered around the three huge covered pit areas trying to take it all in; the way the jigsaw pieces 2-Jigsawwere found when dug up; how they had been lovingly restored and proudly displayed; the painted colours; methods; rankings; horses; bronze castings and adornments.

My brain buzzed with an overload of creative and statistical info…                                                             ….and so I did what all good tourists do in front of one of the most significant archaeological excavations of the 20th century, UNESCO listed world cultural heritage site and one of my own personal obsessions…

I took a bad selfie! 

Selfie.. yes, I did!
Selfie.. yes, I did!

Needing a break, we wandered off to enjoy lunch followed by a tourist tea ceremony,

Tourist Tea for Two
Tourist Tea for Two

a visit to the Banpo Neolithic museum showing a matriarchal cleverly run local society more than 6000 years ago. Yep, we’ve been running things well forever ladies!

And finally, I finished my day on a high note of kulcha with a last minute whim booking for dinner at ‘a very special only in Xi’an’ dumpling banquet and spectacular show of costumed singing, twirling, whirling, dancers, musicians and assorted performers on an ever changing cherry blossomed stage.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms
Performers
Performers

It was a full day of memorable touristy experiences… tick, tick, tick and tick.

But my appreciation for the warriors is still what’s keeping me warm today.

I am currently writing this as I enjoy my bucket list #67 Ride a bullet train anytime of day. Yes, I’m heading to Beijing, a super city with a population approximately the same size as Australia!

Wherever I May Roam

‘And the road becomes my bride. I have stripped of all but pride. So in her I do confide. And she keeps me satisfied. Gives me all I need… ‘   Metallica

Have you ever noticed that when there are two of you travelling together, that nobody offers tips on how to play those age old fun tourist games of ‘Which Way Up Is The Map’ or ‘Let’s Try That Direction’ … but when travelling alone, the locals willingly and regularly gift advice and smiles?

I frequently find silver linings when I observe my solitary glass is half full.

Flying solo allows me to go wherever I like, whenever I like and for as long as I like.

1-Midday-in-the-parkYes!

It’s the ultimate self-indulgence, with no need to apologise to a long suffering companion for another excess, to spend an entire afternoon aimlessly wandering through a park or walking in circles around a gallery that I accidently found when I first wandered left instead of right down an unknown back street while looking for the promised exotic aromas of a local produce market.  

Travelling alone lets me eat when I choose; to dine out… or in; on previously untried local delicacies… or on welcoming home reminding comfort foods; on a plan… or on a whim. I don’t have to discuss it with anyone else… well, as long as my hotel has 24 hr room service.

‘And the earth becomes my throne. I adapt to the unknown. Under wandering stars I’ve grown. By myself but not alone…’

But travelling by myself can also bring out a few self-preserving, ‘little girl lost’ insecurities and fears:

  • Is this airline I’ve never flown with before going to be better than flapping my arms astride a large fat duck?
  • Am I standing at the right departure gate? I better check it for the fourth time in the last 10 minutes.
  • A 6 hour marathon of Big Bang Theory in Chinese isn’t so bad? Ok, keep looking for the English translation button.
  • Did I hear the heavily accented translation over the loudspeaker correctly and will I fall asleep in this Transfer Hall while I wait for my delayed connection?
  • Will my tour guide still be waiting for me even though my connecting flight won’t arrive now until 2am in a place I’ve never visited, where I don’t speak their language and the alphabet may as well be hieroglyphics?
  • Am I worried because there’s nobody on the front desk at the hotel I was booked into?
    Street at midday
    Street at midday

    No, just follow my very patient guide into the thick, grey smog and around the corner to the hotel’s more expensive Big Brother and get out the visa card.

  • Blue skies
    Blue skies

    I wonder what health risks remain after an Air Quality Index reading of orange (unhealthy151-200) instead of green (healthy 0-50)?

  • Should I have changed my hair from blonde? It just seems blonder, for some reason, today.

    Follow your own path
    Follow your own path

‘Less I have the more I gain. Off the beaten path I reign. Roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond…        

Call me what you will…’

And so my new adventure has started!

I have arrived in Xi’an after 18 hours of travelling. I am tired but not from flapping my arms. I have spent my first day wandering around getting my bearings and now I’m looking forward to remeeting my guide tomorrow morning and visiting the Terracotta Warriors.

Education or Indulgence

Is a love of travel or new experiences just a new form of consumerism? When the obsession is not brands, but culture, does that excuse the excess? 

How will my travel experiences benefit anyone?
Am I educating or just indulging myself?

I have watched with interest, and yes *sigh* even participated in that all time favourite game of my Baby Boomer generation ‘Live Life to the Max Today Because You Deserve It All Now And Damn the Consequences to Following Generations’. We did it bigger, louder and longer than others before and then took on commercialism with such a passion that the only rules were to out-buy, out-decorate and out-own everyone else until now it appears the competition is about how much of our past lives are stashed in storage.
I also need to ask..  why is everything so big and brash? Were we ever subtle? Is it our insecurity that makes our commentary on life so loud? Or our confidence?

I love my generation.. I proudly believe we’ve contributed some world changing occasions, thinkers and inventions during my lifetime. We broke down the wall, flew to the moon, connected everyone on the internet, built bionic body parts, used celebrity musicians to unite the masses globally, grew Mandela, Obama, Oprah and my personal whimsy.. Johnny Depp.

But now it appear the boomers have arrived at a new stage where many have had an awakening.. our life is no longer about possessions.
Yes, minimalism is the new black!
Life is not about having.. but doing!
And so it is with a brand new gusto that we have swathed ourselves in our new mantra… ……’life is about experiences’.

The travel/tourism industry must be thrilled with so many boomers holding 50% of all spending power and many of them about to have more time on their hands to spend their grand children’s inheritance. Tourism has marketed the idea well that we need to spend the rest of our lives enjoying every better and lesser known corners of our planet.

I love travel. I have always loved it! The new scenery, people, food, music, art, language, customs.. the whole cultural experience! I love having my eyes opened to how others think and why they don’t always agree with or understand my point of view. I love walking in their shoes. There is nothing better than explaining Oz idioms to other cultures and having them explain theirs to me over some late night local beverages. It makes me aware of our differences.. and our similarities.
But is that enough?
Does it really benefit anyone else but me?

And so friends, what are your thoughts?