A Travellerspoint blog

Moscow and the beginning of the trans Siberian

followed by a rain cloud.

rain

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We awoke the following morning after a restful sleep to the sound of rain, pounding hard against the window of the train. The fields of sunflowers and endless sea of green of the Ukraine was now replaced by grey industrial smog filled air and concrete that makes up our entry to Moscow. As we approached the station the rain continued to pour down and of course our train carriage was at the opposite end of the station, but we finally made it to Moscow and no rain was going to dampen our spirits. It seems you have to leave the station to re enter it, unless we just went the wrong way. Anyway our plan was to put our bags into some lockers, freshen up in the station and then hit the streets of Moscow, before getting our train into Siberia which leaves at 21.35. Walking into the station is fairly intimidating as your greeted by armed guards, of course i had the random search, but it was fairly quick. On entering the toilets, which now seem to be dropping in standard, I found two glory holes cut into either side of the cubicle, nice surprise I quickly vacated as seeing an older gentleman doing his morning business isn't really the best sight. No lockers in Moscow train station, instead you must hand in your bags and pay a small fee. Of course the whole process baffled both Sarah and myself, so we stood like a couple of dumb tourists watching others hand their things in. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go and speak to the huge burly guy, dressed in a blue boiler suit and hands the size of my head. Knowing that I was a tourist he spoke English from the start and in our bags went. After thanking him in Russian, the man instantly became my best friend shaking my hand and congratulating me for having the ability to say a Russian word. As patronizing as that sounds the man's gesture was sincere, perhaps indicating the lack of effort he is used to from foreign visitors.
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We headed out onto the streets, still with the rain drenching us with every drop, we headed straight towards the Red square. (after walking back and forward for a while, due to our inability to read maps.) Moscow took us by surprise, once the center of Communism, it could easily be placed anywhere in Europe, with it's Macdonalds, Hard Rock cafe and Starbucks that litter the streets, bland like ever other flat packed city center from the world of America. We decided not to go into the Kremlin due to the costs and massive ques, but we did go to the red square to see St. Basil's cathedral and it is as impressive as it looks. By the time we had finished looking around the rain along with thunder and lighting started up again. Walking around like drowned rats we searched desperately for a supermarket to stock up on noodles and snacks for the long train journey up ahead, not easy in the center of Moscow. We then had to go get our bags from our new Russian friend and make it across to the other side of Moscow to the departing train station. There are many train stations in Moscow and Yaroslav, the station which we needed to get to, shares the same street as two other major stations. None of course are signposted.
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We were both so glad to board the huge piece of soviet steel, which was ready to cut through the Russian landscape. On entering our four berth cabin, or kupe as it's called in Russian, we met two Australians Pete and Cat. They were on honeymoon, traveling the trans Siberian and flying back home from China. Our lodgings together was short lived as they were moved next door to an empty cabin, giving us the luxury of having a room to ourselves. It was strange that we happened to be put with an English speaking couple, well that's what we thought until we realised that most of the train was full of English speaking passengers or Europeans. It would seem that this journey is more for the romantic westerner rather than for practical purposes. (the fact we all had copies of Dr Zhivago proves this point.) There was no whistle or announcement as the train pulled off, heaving the endless cartridges of steeltramps ready to embark on their epic adventure.
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Posted by Steeltramp 10:28 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Krakow to Kiev by train

Kiev and not one chicken Kiev.

sunny 30 °C

Whilst in Krakow we started to panic as we had not booked our ticket to Moscow. Time was ticking and we had to be there for Tuesday the 14th to catch our trans Siberian train which left on the Tuesday night. Now we arrive in Kiev Monday morning and the options were, try and get a ticket at the station in Kiev, a gamble as we read that the train quickly sells out in advance. Forget about going to Kiev and take the train up to Warsaw and then a connecting train or bus through the Baltic countries and into St Petersburg and down to Moscow. A long way but a more popular way to get there, or cheat and fly into Moscow, not my first choice as there's not enough milk in the world that could get me onto a plane. (A-Team reference.)

So Kiev it was. We paid an extra 20 pounds and got a sleeper compartment, which felt like first class. The porter with his little red waistcoat and red hat, ushered us on to a three bed room with it's own sink, complementary treats and a man by the name of Michael. A Ukrainian man that seemed rather displeased to be sharing with two ignorant tourists. We had stocked up for the journey, but felt like we needed some more bread, Sarah headed off with 10 zloty to get some. 10 minutes later she returned back with what she thought was a bread roll, but turned out to be a block of salty cheese. It was very tasty though.

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The train rolled off into the night, somehow the rocking of the train has started to become quite soothing to the both of us and aides our sleep. Although we felt we were cheating slightly by traveling in a better class it was nice to have a little more comfort and not spend the night crammed into a claustrophobic aisle. We were both a little fearful of entering the Ukraine, based on horror stories that from friends and family and reports from other travelers. We awoke the following morning feeling hot and humid from the early morning sun as we pulled into the main train station in Kiev. The station was packed full of Ukrainians heading off on holiday and was an ordeal to pass through. We headed straight to the ticket office and I presented my Cyrillic translation asking for a ticket to Moscow the ticket lady found it rather amusing but understood clearly what we were wanting and presented us with two tickets to Moscow for eighty pounds each. Feeling very relieved we walked out of the station heading towards our hostel. Outside the station, first impressions of the Ukraine were that it was going to be a country that we were going to have to be careful in. On the surface it felt rather unsafe but with the heavy presence of police and armed soldiers all around I doubt very much that there is all that much trouble. Following the directions that we got from the hostel website we felt confident in our ability to find the location. So heading out of the station we immediately felt glad to only have forty liter backpacks as the sweat was quickly pouring of us from the blistering heat of the sun. Approaching the first street we realized it wasn't going to be as easy as we anticipated, as Ukrainian street signs are written in Cyrillic which didn't match our instructions. We decided just to walk off aimlessly anyway hoping we'd come across a street map or a sign that would lead us to our destination. However forty five minutes late we realized that we were lost in the heart of Kiev. By this time Sarah was becoming rather agitated and worried at the prospect of not knowing where we were going. By a stroke of luck we came across a monument which was written in the instructions and from there with the aide of Divine Intervention we found our hostel which was not highlighted by any sign.

The hostel seemed to be run by a young girl who was very enthusiastic and helpful, highlighting all the attractions and sights of Kiev on the free map she gave us. Once we'd freshened up we headed out in search of some traditional Ukrainian food however after walking around for some time we ended up going into a cafe with an English menu! Sarah got a vegetarian pizza which came with brussel sprouts cauliflowers mushrooms and tomatoes all of which she picked off. Myself, I had gloopy spaghetti with no sauce and bits of tin in it. Tasty.

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Walking around Kiev took us both by surprise every corner you turn you're presented with a beautifully ornate buildings or a golden domed churches with hordes of babushkas outside blessing themselves and cleaning up any litter on the street. Markets in Kiev have quite an array of contraband, you're able to buy plenty of Soviet artifacts from Lenin statues to huge Soviet flags. Also in the markets you can buy lots or war memorabilia from gun holsters, war uniforms, medals and even a cosmonaut helmet! Best just not to ask where these items come from. It's amazing how the inner tourist comes out when given the opportunity to buy things that you would normally only see in a museum however being tight-fisted Scots we resisted the temptation.

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We both agreed after being fearful of the Ukraine that we wished we'd spent more time getting to know the city and the people but we had to continue our journey on to Moscow.

Our Moscow train was a huge Soviet piece of steel which would of have had Thomas the Tank Engine piss his pants. There was a bit of confusion with our cabin numbers as we didn't memorize our cabin number. The train porter had taken our tickets off of us. At this point a large Russian man complete with shell suit and gold medallion took over and got us seated, it turned out that we were sharing with this gentlemen along with an older sharply dressed Argentinian who every now and again jotted notes in his journal. Leaving Ukraine we first have to go through the Ukrainian border control police along with with their German shepard's and less intimidating beagle. The guards have you feeling feeling guilty of a crime you haven't committed and from the look on Sarah's face I'm surprised they didn't cuff her and take her away! Next we had to face the Russian border control, notoriously known as the most feared of all the border control police with their complicated bureaucracy. However after a quick check of our passports and a stamp of our migration cards we were through. And so begins our Russian odyssey.

Posted by Steeltramp 03:12 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Berlin to Poland

Bus and Train

rain 17 °C

Leaving Berlin we took a late night coach to Gdansk. At the station there didn't seem to be any other passengers waiting, 10.30 this very small mini bus pulls up with Gdansk written on the side. Inside we couldn't be more happy, loads of room and air conditioning and all for twenty pounds, our only concern was how much we should tip the driver. One hour later the Bus pulls into a station, and alas we had to transfer onto a larger coach full of people, no leg room and cold air blasting out onto us, so much for a relaxing journey. We didn't get much sleep that night.

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We arrived early in the much raved about Gdansk, to find that the weather had taking a dip, no longer was it hot with blue skies, but freezing with grey clouds above us. Getting out the station was an experience, not as pretty as we expected but, dirty with beggars and rough looking characters everywhere. Trying to find the hostel was a challenge, mainly due to not having a map to hand and following street signs that all look the same. Once there we found that the staff were very helpful running the Old town hostel like a military operation. The old town in Gdansk is very ornate, with decorative buildings. However I did find it a little like mutton dressed as lamb. There were flocks of tourists everywhere, but Venice it's not. There's a real gritty aggressive side to Gdansk, it's not hard to see that there is a lot of poverty in the city. Walking around it doesn't feel very safe, though we had no bother. We only stayed for one night, which was enough. The only saving grace was the hostel, where we met some very interesting characters, like a Swedish gentleman that worked as a doctor in war torn countries. His stories were amazing and his passport was very impressive. We would have liked to have spoke to him longer.

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At the train station we bought tickets to Krakow and tickets from Krakow to Kiev. The first journey was to take about 12 hours and the second 21 hours both by train. We decided to pay a little extra for the trip to Kiev and get a carriage with a bed, whilst the other we got a seat. As we don't speak Polish we wrote down what we needed and presented it to the ticket office, this makes life so much easier for both parties.

Never get a seat only ticket across Poland. We arrived at the Gdansk train station with plenty of time along with half of Poland that also had tickets for the train. When we got on every carriage was full with only the small narrow corridor to stand in, along with a whole load of students. Every time we sat down, someone had to go to the toilet, or with everyone smoking the windows were open with rain and cold winds pouring in. I thought it was going to be all to much for Sarah from the look on her face and to be honest I was ready to get off, sleeping on a platform would be much better than this. Even though all the spaces are taken, the station keeps selling tickets. Don't get me wrong we got what we paid for. Twenty pounds to cross a country, too good to be true. Once we got to Warsaw 7 hours in, most of the passengers got off, so we jumped into a carriage and got a seat before anyone else boarded the train. The journey was rough and took a lot out of us, but we did feel a sense of achievement as stupid as that sounds. We both know that we need to face difficult journeys in the weeks to come.

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Both of us starting to hate Poland, Krakow definitely saved the day. Getting out the station it was much cleaner, beautiful parks and friendlier people. We made our way to the Globeart hostel, easy to find and in a great old building. The staff were great, though it is a hostel that is aimed more for the tourist that wants to enjoy the nightlife and less for the weary traveler. We really enjoyed Krakow, especially the Jewish section, where the bread is to die for. There's plenty to see also with endless museums and places of interest. I don't think there's anything we don't know about the second world war now.

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Posted by Steeltramp 01:17 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Brussels to Berlin

the other side of the coin.

sunny 29 °C

After a long day kicking about Brussels waiting for our late nigh coach to Berlin, we got to see a much uglier side of Belgium. Like any big city, you get drunks, junkies and beggers everywhere you turn. But it's still worth seeing, with six H&Ms in one street. There are plenty of museums in brussels, but they all cost. Even if it's only a couple of euros we still need to be tight with our spending, so we found an old church with a bit of grass and lay there most of the day, watching the hoards of tourists stuffing their faces with waffels and ice cream ticking off all the places they have come to see. I read a quote earlier that said "The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see."

This time the coach was much better. We chose to go with Eurolines who is the sister company to the national express (not so good.) With loads of space and hardly any passengers we got to stretch out. The only time we got woke up was when a large border control guy came on to check all the passports. We woke up in Berlin about 8.30am and it has hot beyond belief, suddenly we realized we hadn't learned any German phrases other than yes and no. After making an arse of myself to the train attendant we managed to get a couple of tickets which last all day, which came in handy as we kept getting on the wrong train. (we still keep doing it.) The Berlin S-Bahn is a pretty great system, getting around Berlin is so easy and cheap and it only costs a couple of euros.

After our first couple of days in Belgium, we realized that we need to budget better. It's so easy to forget that we need to make money last and we're not just on holiday. So we've started shopping in supermarkets, all the hostel's will probably have a kitchen and cooking facilities. The one we're in just now is great, they even do cooking classes and the stuff that's left over is free for guests to use. No more eating out or visiting every museum the city has to offer, unless there's something we specifically want to see.

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Today we went to the German history museum, to look at the second world war from the German perspective. It's weird because you see what state the country was in pre war and what sparked it to happen, which leaves you feeling more sympathetic and understanding to the German people. After the first world war Germany was left in a mess, with the majority unemployed and starving, which is why the popularity in a national state. There was a lot of German people who fought against the Nazi party, but found themselves either imprisioned or killed, there was no freedom of speech once it took off. We then braved a massive thunder storm to go see what was left of the Berlin wall. Each section of the wall has been turned into a bit of art work. It goes on longer than we expected, well worth seeing. Berlin is a great city to visit with it's large park in the city and zoo which if you walk around the walls you can see in. (well we are trying to save money.) The people have been very friendly and chatty, though I have no idea what they are saying and there's a relaxed vibe to the city with very cool architecture and great graffiti on buildings. Well worth visiting.

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me and the wall

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sarah and the wall

On the last day we went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the only preserved one in Berlin. We didn't like the idea of visiting as tourists, wanting to photograph ourselves just to show others that we had been there. I was interested if the place would still hold a bad feeling of what had happened there as so many others have said, or would the grass grow over and flowers spring as if it was just any other place. It's very disturbing to read the surviving prisioners stories and to read them all would take more than a day. I didnt feel like there was evil lingering there though Sarah felt there was a cold feeling, when we walked down into the cellar. It was cold, but I don't think it was anything ghostly. When you know of the horrific events that happened there, that is what effects you most. I worry that the many that visit the place don't read the information that is provided, read about the experiments, torturing, and the strengh and determination to surrive a place like that, but go to say they have been, missing the importance of having a place like that open to the puplic and trying to ensure that such things never happen again.

The next stop we will make is in Gdansk, Poland. We still aren't too sure the stop after that.

Posted by Steeltramp 12:26 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

First leg

Home of a chocolate Barack

sunny

The journey begins with both myself and Sarah taking the Greyhound down to London. Fear and anxiety were all over our faces and suddenly clearing a clothes rail from the fitting room on a busy saturday doesn't seem too bad. No matter how many extra inches of leg room the coach may boast believe me its the most uncomfortable journey that exists. (I may take that back later) If being squashed isn't bad enough, we had some guy making phonecalls well into the early hours of the morning (thanks mate), which almost caused a mutiny on the bus with all the old grans that were all heading down to London for a bowling gathering.

We arrived in London to be greeted by a homless guys ass on full display, as he laid sprawled out across the entrance of Victoria train station. The plan was to dart across to Islington to pick up our passports and visas at real russia, then back to St Pancras to catch to the Eurostar to Brugge, easy. That was untill Sarah decided to throw up everything she had ever eaten. We rushed off the train to find a toilet, but in the end the streets had to do (sorry London) We finally found a cafe with a toilet for Sarah to clean up and luckily it was facing the real russia office.

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Getting back to the station wasnt too difficult as we just followed the trail of sick (who needs breadcrumbs) And off to Brugge, we went. Brugge is a funny place, almost straight a Bram Stoker novel, with the smell of warm waffels and chocolate. When we arrived the town was celebrating having the Blood of Christ. It's believed that during the crusades some templer knights stole a vile containing the blood of Christ, which now lies in the town and for a fee of only two euros, you can touch it. (The vile that is.)

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The festival was pretty amazing, with float after float depicting periods throughout Belgium's history. Smells of burning incense and songs of worship filled the air.

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Onto chocolate Barack. The following morning we visited a chocolate museum, which boasts a life sized chocolate Barack Obama. It really could be any president, but it is pretty impressive all the same.

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Brugge, very pretty with Gothic buildings, canals, windmills and a whole lot of tourists. Next stop Berlin.

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Posted by Steeltramp 10:31 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

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