Friday, 30 September 2011

Hue City Tour

Apart from the Citadel most of Hue's interesting structures (Emperor's tombs, palaces etc) are out of town so I took a city tour which visited them as well as the Citadel & a boat on the Perfume River - $12US plus $6 entrance fees, with lunch included.

Although I'm no arbitor of artistic quality I don't think they're high art like Angkor Wat although in the case of the Citadel this may be down to poor restoration after the American's bombed & fought over it. Few Hue historic building date earlier than the late 1800's & some, like the impressive looking Khai Dinh Tomb, are actualy built from concrete.

Out of all of them I found the Tu Duc Tomb site to be the most impressive because its not just a tomb but a royal countryside retreat for the Emperor. Despite having over a hundred wives & concubines Tu Duc had no children so he built it as his own epitaph. Its a characterful crumbling ruin of steps, gateways, terraces, canals, lotus filled lakes, pine forest & lakeside pavilions where he composed & recited poetry to his concubines. This is a place full of atmosphere that has the feel of people having lived here rather than just being buried.

Just before the rather diappointingly ordinary boat trip on the Perfume River that ended the tour, our guide took us to the Thien Mu Pagoda, which I almost opted out of but it had an interesting although gory surprise.

Deep inside what is actually a temple is the iconic Austin Westminster motor car that Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from Hue, drove to Siagon & subsequently set himself on fire.

This was 1963 & the image is one of the most iconic Vietnam war era photographs - that's widely referred to as the burning monk. Many people think his protest was about the war but in fact it was about the persecution of Buddhists by the Catholic minority that held sway in South Vietnam - supported by the Pope in Rome & the American administration in Washington. A fabulous example of double standards - supposedly fighting for the freedom of some whilst at the same time persecuting people for their religious beliefs.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


I must say that I miss my specialist rail holiday organiser - Railbookers - they've managed to get me all the way from London to Beijing without once having to hassle with ticket purchases or sort through endless accommodation options. Unfortunately, their reach doesnt yet stretch into Indochina so I'm having to procure my own rail tickets & search out my own accommodation.

The hassle I had getting a rail ticket from Beijing to Hanoi really emphasised the value of a specialist rail operator when in foreign lands. However, the little Phung Hung hotel in Hanoi simply picked up the phone & rail tickets to Hue were delivered to the hotel within a couple of hours - its always who you now.

An internet search found the decent looking Mondial hotel in Hue, which is near the station, so I pre-booked it for $45 a night. I asked if I could drop my bag off because I was arriving at 8am & check-in is normally 2pm. Moments later I got a reply saying they would pick me up from the station at 8am, I could have breakfast on their rooftop terrace & they would check me in as early as possible which turned out to be 10.30am. What incredible customer service - & I didnt even ask for any of it.

I'm bowled over by the Mondial hotel staff, they are just so dammed nice. Their genuine personal interest in customers outclasses almost every hotel I've ever stayed in. I'm struggling to find words that don't sound cliched; maybe I'm becoming a mug but no one sounded like they were paid to be nice, they're smily, happy, love their jobs & seem to find visitors really interesting.

Hue is a relief from the bedlam of Hanoi, there's plenty of bike traffic but its not so insistent or constantly in your face. The Mondial is ideal when arriving by train, however its not in the heart of the restaurant & bar district (which can be a plus), but the traffic free riverside walk into the centre is really pleasant & only crosses one road.

Like communist China, Vietnam has also found that its their old imperial history that interests visitors & not their politics. Both countries are as commercialised as any western State & there are no shortage of con-men so its pretty hard to see any principles of communism in action - apart from China's free speech blog blocking!

I met a regular 'crossroads con-man', on my first day in Hue. They usually target lone travellers & their patter is very standard - where you from, how long you been here, I'm a teacher or student (if younger), they often know a town near where you live & are deperate to have a chat or invite you home to meet the family.

These guys have a regular crossroad haunts near major tourist attractions so they can scan all directions for punters & they're invariably over-effusive & riddiculously over-friendly.

They pray on politeness - which is a difficult line to walk - as everyone should be polite to strangers but you need to know when this can be your downfall. I was pleased when walking away a few lads on parked motorbikes shook their heads & indicated he was a dodgy charater they knew well.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Thank you China & goodbye to the Grannies

I've just arrived in Hue in central Vietnam & I've got my blog back at last!
The Chinese government censor has been blocking my blog (& presumably every other blog) for the past 10 days. Whatever their blocking device is it also spills over into north Vietnam as I was still blocked in Hanoi.

This is the explanation for some inconsistent gaps in postings & the erratic dates - I've had to email them home & get someone else to post them from there.

This blog should have appeared on the 19th September.

The majority of passengers on the Tsar's Gold train from Moscow to Beijing were French & German speakers so I was grouped with an American TV film crew making - Grannies on Safari - a TV show broadcast in 120 countries & translated into 16 languages.

Regina Frasier & Pat Johnson ( are the star grannies & Julio Martinez is the camerman/director/editor whilst Barbara Azbill is the production assistant & the assistant camerman Darryn was rushed to hospital in Ulan Ude with appendicitis.

My first thoughts were, how the hell am I going to get away from these people but they were no sterotypical - American's abroad - they were clever, thoughtful, insightful, brilliant fun & Regina's organisational skills were breathtaking.

They're Chicago based & have been colleagues & friends for years; after retiring their combined professional background seemed to steer them into a second career of making travel shows.

Regina is the brains & the driving force & has an extensive travel background with a major airline - in charge of PR, corporate video & magazine production as well as arts & culture sponsorship, which gave her a wide network of travel & media contacts. Pat's a culture vulture with a background in international arts administration with museums, institutions & the City Dept of Cultural Affairs. She's travelled nearly everywhere & between them they make a great team with contrasting personalities & complementary skills.

The inspiration for Grannies on Safari came from the UK travel cookery series - Two Fat Ladies & before they told me this - that's exactly what they reminded me of - not the fat bit, I mean the oddball programme format. Their first show was in South Africa in 2005 & they've been travelling & filming ever since.

What makes their shows special, compared with so many formulaic TV travel shows, is their spontaneity; they're completely unscripted but of course have done their homework & have a story theme. There's none of the phony glitz & glamour of corporate clone travel shows. The essence of their progrmmes is to follow their passion for people & places & why things are the way they are - its about life - & travel is really a colourful backdrop.

I've spent nearly three weeks with the Grannies & Julio; they've just left for the airport & I feel like I've been orphaned in Beijing. I've got to start thinking for myself again - no Regina to provide all the energy & enthusiam, no Julio to say not there, this will be the best shot (heels or not) & no Pat to say, I want to see some art, isnt that amazing & why don't we sit down somewhere - a girl after my own heart.

I couldnt have had more unexpected or better travelling companions & I think the rest of my journey is going to feel like something is missing.

Monday, 26 September 2011

More Hanoi

I found a good, nearby Vietnamese place to eat today; its Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hang Dieu. Its a million miles from posh but it has a long stainless steel table & an adult size wooden bench so its a big step up from a baby seat on the pavement.

Its a finger menu, which is simplicity itself - 1 finger = 1 bowl, 2 fingers = 2 bowls. You get what they're cooking right in front of you & its the meat (beef) option or vegetarian - noodles, meat, miscellaneous vegetables with a sprinkling of peanuts. An excellent, if out of the ordinary, breakfast for 50,000 dong (£1.50).

Street life is what I spend most of my time trying to dodge - so its best seen from a stationary position in a cafe, but well located, comfortable places are few & far between. There's a great cafe diagonally opposite my hotel with basket weave chairs & decent coffee (60p). Only locals seem to use it & it has a great view of the street chaos swirling around it.

A really noticable thing about Hanoi is that its a respectable city - in the sense that I've seen nothing unsavoury, or at least not on public display. There are no sex bars, dodgy geezers don't approach you with lewd suggestions & no girls accost you in the street. All inevitable in Thailand but even Beijing had its street walkers patrolling around the Business District hotels every evening.

I decided to go south to Hue today as the incessant Hanoi traffic is really bugging me. I'm taking the 19.00 train from the main station which arrives tomorrow at 08.00. The ticket cost £24 so is about the same price as another nights accommodation in Hanoi. The hotel ordered my ticket from an agent who delivered to my door for an additional £1.50 - what a time & hassle saving bargain that was.

My random choice of the Phung Hung hotel in Duong Thanh Str, Hanoi was a wonderful bit of fortune. Its got a 4 star lobby although the rooms are small 3 star quality, however the bathrooms are good, the balcony rooms are great, the WiFi is free & the staff are really nice & as helpful as any 5 star hotel concierge service. They also have a couple of computers in the lobby for guests to use. There are cheaper places to stay but I doubt there are better value hotels for $30 a night. It doesnt appear in any of the guide books nor doe it get picked up by hotel internet search engines & some of the Lonely Planet's suggested hostel dorm accommodation is dearer than this.

I'm currently sheltering from the first spot of rain (Tuesday 26th Sept) since St Petersburg but I've been reading about the serious flooding further south - along the Mekong Delta up to Phnom Penh - all on my pending itinerary!


Frankly, Hanoi is a pain in the arse.

I know its rather un-PC to say this & it is a colourful & vibrant city but the uncontrolled traffic mayhem is unbearably insane - it makes the crazy Indian roads seem like models of order & discipline. At least there you can use the pavements & traffic lights do occasionally stop traffic so pedestrians can cross the roads.

I like to explore on foot but nearly every pavement in old town Hanoi is blocked with parked motorcycles, pavement kitchens, baby stools for dining, motorcycle workshops & of course street sellers. So you can't walk more than 20 yards without having to walk at least twice as far in the road - & then there are the roads.

The French Quarter & the Old Quarter are a maze of streets & byways which must have been full of character before the millions of motorcycles turned them into a city-wide moto-cross track.

No local people walk anywhere, everyone either has a bike or rides pillion with the moto-cross taxi-bike racers, who haunt every street corner.

The zebra crossings at every junction have no meaning beyond road decoration & I don't think I saw more than a couple of working sets of traffic lights, so the traffic simply never stops. There's no let up, it just keeps coming & coming until eventually you have to walk out in front of on-coming traffic or go back & cower in your hotel room.

To get from anywhere to anywhere means crossing dozens of roads so that's dozens of episodes of blood curdling expletives & elevated blood pressure.

Bizarrely its a relief to see a car or truck on the road because at least they tend to go in a straight line, its only a single moving object to watch out for, but best of all it displaces perhaps 6 weaving & swerving motorcycles that might just go anywhere.

I also blame the traffic for having eaten at the KFC next door to my hotel. I'm not prepared to squat on a 12 inch baby stool to eat some street noodles & its too much bloody hassle to go further afield.

Maybe I'm just getting more intolerant with age - but no, I think Hanoi is a bloody pain in the arse - unless of course you give up & add to the mayhem by taking to the roads yourself.

Arriving in Hanoi

Interestingly, having just passed into my ninth country, no customs people have taken any interest in my luggage - must be the dull grandpa image! There are only 2 other passengers on the 2 carriage train which is similar to the Chinese train except much shabbier with only a squat toilet. It finally leaves for Hanoi at 4am

When I wake we're trundling through jungle that whips at the windows on both sides of the train. Occasional houses are so close to the track you could lob stuff through their windows. At towns the train runs down the main street blaring its horn at the thousands of cyclists criss-crossing the track. There are no highrise apartment blocks here & only a few as we enter Hanoi.

It was a mistake to arrive with no prior planning. Vietnam was so far away when I set off from London that I thought I'd do some en-route planning - but I didnt. Perhap I thought there would be more English signage & English speakers, like Bangkok - another mistake.

So arrival was chaotic - no map, no guidebook & no bloody idea where I was or where I wanted/needed to go. I felt like a rank amature traveller; it would have been OK if I hadnt had a suitcase because that's a flashing light to any self repecting wide-boy on the make & they were around me like flies round shit.

So I refused everybody & sat having a cup of tea until they lost interest, although I did cave in & have my filthy boots polished & he did an excellent job for 200 dong. I hadnt even worked out what the exchange rate was & he ruined my good will by demanding 500, which sounded extortionate, so I settled for a street row & stomped off after giving him the agreed 200. It turns out we were arguing about a few pence - so another embarrasment.

Fifteen minutes after arriving I realising I was not going to come up with a coherant plan, I called over one of the cabbies & said I wanted to go to an internet cafe in the French quarter. He turned out not to be an actual cabbie but had a mate who knew a cabbie, so all three guys stood around the car trying to guess where I wanted to go, although I didnt know myself:
'Take me to an internet cafe in the French quarter,' I said. After heated debate they suggested - 'you want coffee?'
I made typing movements in mid air - 'ah, Post Office?'
Trying repetition with a louder voice - 'ah, City tour?'
'Write address, write address.'

Beginning to give up I started to get out of the car when inspiration struck, apart from Vietnam War history the only thing I remember coming across months previously was Finegan's Irish pub, I had even jotted its address in my note book. Trying to regain some measure of control of a rapidly deterioting situation I suddenly announced - 'take me to Finnigan's Irish pub' & I flourished the only Hanoi address I had; that'll have WiFi I hoped.
'Funniguns? Fine-a-gones? Fishigones?' Clearly this was not a regular haunt of Hanoi cabbies or their assistant's.

He couldnt find the place anyway so I just got out & decided to walk around, & desperate to dump my bag, I went into the first hotel I saw - what a plan? It was the Phung Hung hotel in Duong Thanh Str & it was surprising good for 30 US dollars a night - clean, street balcony, air con, WiFi - perfect. I love it when the absence of a plan comes together (a mis-quote, courtesy of the A Team).

Leaving Beijing for Hanoi

Beijing West station is not a convenient station as it has no metro link, even though it is huge. I arrived at 2pm with plenty of time to find the 3.45 train to Hanoi. The ticket office is incomprehensible mayhem so a good job I bought mine earlier at a ticket agents that only cost a few pounds extra. Without a local guide or a good hotel concerige life in Beijing is difficult for non-Chinese speakers with specific tasks to perform or deadlines to meet.

I always double or triple check advice I'm given & soon discover I've been told the wrong departure room for my train. Departure room 7 has about 600 people in it & 200 seats, so I find a little nook & squat on the floor - hoping that the spit-mop ladies have been asiduous. I attract much attention as I'm the only European face in the room; l expected to see a few backpackers.

30 minutes before departure I begin to feel edgy as nobody is moving except a group about 50 yards away on the far side of the room. A tiny sign says they're boarding the T5 for a 15.45 departure, so I join them. I'm the only occupant in a 4 berth soft sleeper cabin & feel smug after I see the ranks of faces peering from the cattle truck like hard sleeper carriage. They get a squat toilet & soft class get a proper sit down job.

Boiling water at the end of the carriage is used by people who had the sense to bring tea & dehydrated snacks for the journey, I've an apple & an orange; fortunately there's a restaurant car & I've kept back some cash

Trundling out of town there are blocks & blocks & blocks of apartment blocks - its truly mind boggling & gives some physical scale to the massive Beijing population. Three hours out of Beijing a relatively small town has dozens of skyscrapers under construction & this is replicated in every town down to China's southern border.

The restaurant car is like a old fashioned cafe, a team of cooks out back & waitresses shouting orders back & forth. There are no European passengers & no English menu but a friendly carriage attendant helps me & orders a spicy chicken & celary dish. Its a good job I can manage chop sticks otherwise I'd be scooping it with my fingers & everyone is already peering suspiciously at me as it is. Top notch food though, including 3 beers cost 40RMB, the price of a single Beijing beer (about £4).

It seems that older people chat together, groups screech & shriek whereas teenagers just fiddle with their phone & ignore each other. All Tee-shirt & sweat-shirts have English language motifs or slogans, I wonder if they're statements or merely symbolic.

I sleep very well & the train tracks are smoother than the Russian ones, not so many sudden lurches. We're 14 hours from Beijing & rice fields compete with peppers, onions, cabbages & much else I can't identify - but there are always houses in sight & occasionally grotty tenement blocks in the middle of the countryside. Presumably this is where the - too clever by half - intellectuals were sent to shovel pig-shit during Mao's revolution.

The landscape is straight from a Chinese painting - jagged mist shouded mountains in the distance, whose feet completely disappear & mysterious tree-clad pinnacles of rock standing like gigantic spoil tips.

Later I try one of the KFC bucket-sized pot noodles that many people have, you add 4 sachettes of flavours & its surprisingly good for 50p.

Changsha is a vast city of endless skyscrappers disappearing into the distance, within 3 minutes I count 37 massive construction cranes on top of new tower blocks - from just one side of the train. A couple with a baby join my cabin & the first thing they do is sit on my bed & get the baby to pee into the wastepaper bin.

Dad is very friendly & introduces the baby to me as 'Grandpa' & the baby, of about 18 months, puts his hands together & bows to me - they can't be Han Chinese. After half an hour & much chatting to the carriage attendant they move to a different cabin. Not sure if its out of respect for a grandpa, the wife's horror at sharing with a strange, inarticulate European & its plausable that I smell a bit as its been really hot & there's no shower. Either way its great news as I later hear the baby whinging & crying further down the carriage.

The rivers, ponds, streams, paddy fields & greenery make it very humid; there's bamboo, banana trees, oleander, fish ponds with water lillies, water buffalo, women in coolie hats working in the paddy fields & a huge factory chimney belching black smoke - almost a perfect vision of old world China.

Every station has stalls & kiosks selling food & there's a regular stream of sellers walking the train corridors - except its hard to fathom what's in the packaged food.

I'm escorted off the train at Nanning, where most passengers depart, & requested 'to rest for 1 hour', in a comfy waiting room. The train had been uncoupled & only 2 carriages continue on to the Chinese border control at Ping Xian, which is done on the train. It then continues on to the border town of Dong Dang where I disembark, go through Vietnamese border control & board a Vietnamese train.

Beijing sightseeing 2

There are several sections of the Great Wall that are accessible from Beijing. The Badaling section is the most popular & where most tour groups go, its incredibly touristy with museums, video presentations & a cable car. We went to the Juyong guan section, still pretty busy but not so commercialed.

Being so iconic & well known the Great Wall runs the risk of disappointment - but its one of those rare experiences that lives up to or exceeds expectations. There was an atmospheric feel about climbing the well worn steps although they're quite a hazzard as they vary in height from 2 - 18 inches & the gradient can be as step as a ladder. I climbed to watchtower 6 & was entirely alone as I peered north looking for barbarian hoards, except they were all back in the car & coach park.

Beijing's Lama Temple is the biggest in China & home to the Panchan Lama. All attempts to search the web for more info about the Lama was blocked by the Chinese censor so I can't comment any further - except they've also been blocking my blog since I arrived & I'm having to email copy home to post it from there. So not everything is rosy in the modern Chinese garden & free speech is still seen as an dangerous pest that needs eradicating.

Anyway, the Lama Temple is actully a vast complex of temples & the architecture is similar to that of the Forbidden City. It is a very busy religious site with lots of monks & hundreds of devotees moving from temple to temple following a set ritual of burning three sticks of incence at each temple.

The Olympic park area is surprisingly interesting & has become a popular Beijinger's day out. The Bird's Nest & other buildings really are impressive & they're in a vast acreage of paved open space with milling crowds, little stalls, music, basketball games & lots of kite flying. A surprisingly fun place to visit

Hutongs are the old narrow Chinese city streets & there are so few left in Beijing that they've become a major tourist attraction. There are lots of whinging web reports of rickshaw drivers ripping tourists off, but its usually only a few quid & if people are that bothered its easy enough to get hotes to arrange a tour with a trustworthy driver - its fun & not worth missing out. Behind the walls are small courtyards which 4 family houses facing into & the one we visited people were playing Chinese chess & a guy was painting names with the most stunning animal motifs.
Houhai is the classic, if touristy, Hutong but there are many more less touristy ones around the city.

Beijing sightseeing

Tiananmen Square is vast but its scale is masked by the massive crowds, its like a permanent rally but with an ever changing crowd. The Q for Mao's mausoleum is at least half a mile long but no hanging around is allowed so it is a steady shuffle in & out. I was even less inclined to join the Q when someone whispered - its only a wax replica, the real body is hidden at a secret location.

99.9% of visitors in the square are Chinese, most are in groups of about 50, each wearing idential group hats & led by a megaphone armed guide. Its bedlam with a dozen megaphones blaring at their groups, the lampost speakers occasionally shouting something & two 50 foot long TV advertising screens, with music - its one of the few occasions when you can't hear the Beijing traffic.

Cameras watch everybody, police patrol on Segways (& tell Julio to stop filming) & stocky plain clothes police stand around rather obviously scanning the crowds. But all the visitors seem really excited & enjoying their visit.

The red walled Forbidden City really is a city within a city with over 9,000 rooms inside 800 buildings scattered over acres of ground, along endless lanes & alleyways leading off vast courtyards.

Its now considered a museum but was home to 24 Chinese emperors between 1420 & 1911. Its easy to see how they might never leave this enormous complex & having up to 3,000 concubines must have kept them pretty occupied.

Its fairly regimented visit but that's understandable with such huge crowds & once you enter you have to continue on the set route, that's at least a mile. Its China's best collection of ancient buildings although they do begin to look a bit samey after the first few hundred.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Arriving in Beijing

It is obvious you are in China, as a general traveller I had no problem, although brown uniformed soldiers & officials swarmed onto the train & along the platform. A pleasant lady solider took my passport, looked under the beds & for any consealed ceiling spaces then later brought itafter an hour.

Poor old Julio the cameraman has had no end of customs hassle with signing in his camera equipment. If you don't get it signed into a country they may tax you or not allow you to exit with it. Our guide reminded us that, ' you're in China now, so you must do whatever an official tells you, otherwise there will be trouble.' The customs bureaucracy is crazy with dozens of pages of forms itemings every last gadget & battery - except none of the customs officials understand what the equipment names mean, so are always reluctant to sign the official forms. Without interpreters it would be impossible, regardless of the fact that all the forms are duplicated in Russian & Chinese.

The train leaves the Chinese border town of Erling at 18.45. We are instructed over the Tannoy system, in a 1984 or Butlin's holiday camp style, that 'the beige group (me) will attend the second sitting for dinner from 8.00 to 8.40 in restaurant car B. I ask if there is coffee & the answer is NO! Someone else asked if there is Coke, the answer is NO!

Nevertheless the very Chinese meal was exellent, although the one bottle of beer between four seemed a bit mingy. The beds were a harder than the Russian train but they are also wider & I slept well until the multilingual wakeup all. I had turned off the Russian Tannoy system but that's not possible in China & I thought someone was weirdly scratching at my door & talking to me at 6.20am so I twice shouted - OK & the said 'Oh for Fxxx's sake I'm awake' & threw the open the door - to an empty corridor! I had been inanely having a conversation with the Tannoy system.

The Gobi desert had disappointingly been replaced by the Beijing mountains that had been sliced & burrowed through before crossing a wide river into an industralised plain that ran all the way into the city of Bejing with its 20 million inhabitants. On every side there were huge tower blocks, factories, elevated motorways & the occasional beleagured bit of greenery.

The Gobi

I really don't want to leave Mongolia but the bloody train is going & I've got to be on it. We're trundling off into the night & will wake up in the ionic Gobi desert.
The train stopped for a couple of hours at Tsagan Hat in the Gobi, its not on the map as there's just a couple of huts; one with a gigantic satellite dish, so its possibly a communication point or maybe they just like TV. There's also a hint of Mongolia's 1.3 billion people mega-neighbour - a rusting Hanjin shipping container.

The people from three Gers up on the hillside brought a herd of camels & a few horses in the hope of persuading passengers to take a five minute ride - only one step up from a donkey ride on Blackpool beach.

Its bitter cold at 6am, the wind chills to the bone & freezes my ears & then surprisingly it begins to spit with rain, but not for long. There are low growing desert adapted tufty plants but there's nothing else to break up the landscape except the occasional small sandy hill. This is only the edge of the Gobi & further south & west it becomes utterly barren except for the recently discovered oil & precious minerals.

The Mongolian border town of Zamyn-Uud is bigger than expected & we wait in our compartments while immigration control collect passports, exit slips & the customs man merely collects the customs declaration given on arrival. Passports are returned within the hour & we are officially signed out of Mongolia.

The Chinese entry point of Erlian is 20 minutes futher east & we have to change trains for the final leg into Beijing. This was an alternative to the usual hanging around for several hours while all the wheels of the train are changed because Russia railways have a 5 foot wide track which doesnt match any other railway track.

The incompatible track size wasnt a Russian mistake it was a strategic decision intended to impede invading armies that might be planning to use their railway networks to move military forces onto Russian territory.

There was no entry hassle to China, no entry forms to fill in but swarms of guards & officials who just seem to be monitoring & showing a presence. Stayed in Erlian on the Chinese side of the border for a fairly grand 18 course lunch at the Pacific International Hotel, which in the spirit of international exhange - had no WiFi access.

The train was another charter, it was smart enough although spartan with no shower facilities or high end cabins & a Tannoy system that could not be turned off. At dinner I asked for a coffee & was told, 'No coffee'. Someone else asked for a coke - 'No'. We settled for an order of three beers & the waiter brought three sherry sized glasses, filled them & then took the half full bottle away.

More Mongolia

Travelling is a funny thing, you're keen to see new places but this also means you have to leave the new places you're already at. So far I've enjoyed everywhere I've been, on-route from London, but the one place I absolutely did not want to leave was Mongolia. Its fantastic, my favourite place by miles, three brilliant days was by no means enough; I need at least another week just to scratch the surface of this amazing place.

Mongolia is three times the size of France but with only 2.7 million people & more than half that population live in Ulaan Baator, so it has genuine vast open spaces. It also means that their nomadic culture is real & not just a tourist figment from the past. City folk are obviously not nomadic but most keep contact with their roots & frequently visit nomadic relatives at weekends & holidays. City folk also make up a major proportion of the 'tourists' staying at the many Ger camps around the country.

I had better quickly mention that according to local people, & their bank notes, it is Chinggis Khan & not Gengis Khan. The size of the old Mongolian Empire puts the Roman & the British Empires well into the shadows as Mongolian rule stretched from Korea across China & as far west as European Bulgaria. The capital of the Empire was moved to Beijing so China's mumbled historic claim over Mongolia is in fact completely back to front as Mongolia also has a legitimate historical claim over China!

I was also wrong in an earlier blog by suggesting that they don't use Cyrillic script - they do - its just not so evident in the capital city as it is in the countryside. From Ulaan Baator city centre you can see the mountains surrounding the city on all sides & the temperature can plummet at night because its on a high plateau around 4,000 feet above sea level.

On a journey 50 miles north east to Terelj National Park we passed camels, cashmere goats, yaks & trained hunting eagles, all in the most glorious Alpine-like countryside of mountains, valleys, rivers, little villages & lonely looking Gers. Being September we had missed the real Naadam (the Mongolian national games) in July but the train operator had persuaded some local people to put on a mini-Naadam for us.

Of course it was touristy, but these games have been entertainment & celebration since the days of Chinggis Khan. The Naadam may even pre-date the Greek Olympics & were probably a way of diffusing tensions between warring tribes.

All the contestants at our mini-Naadam were genuine Naadam combatants & the wrestlers gave no quarter as they fought to win, the archers focused their aim & pride drove the horsemen to the finishing line. The champion wrestler got to distribute little cakes, biscuits & Airag - fermented mares (horses) milk which was like a thin tangy yoghurt, but with a mild kick.

Lunch was a supurb Mongolian meal, cooked by local people, unlike our disappointing professionally cooked restaurant dinner in Ulaan Baator the night before. There was a range of mixed salads including kimchi, a thick lamb soup, Mongolian bread in the form of small deep fried discs. Then came ground meat wrapped as dumplings & steamed (Buuz) along with the very moreish deep fried dumplings (Khuushuur) & the finale was Khopkhog - mutton cooked in the age old way - for several hours in a sealed container of red hot river stones. The meal was topped off with home made yoghurt & blueberries. I think this has been the best meal since London, except the Kamchatka crab salad at the Kempinski in St. Petersburg.

What really made it a first class meal was that it was full of local authenticity served in a large Ger surrounded by mountains & rolling grasslands - absolutely unmissable.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Ulan Baator

This is an easy going city that seems like a good place to live. Hotels don't bother with all the big brother passport checking & recording as in Russia & China. If you've no local currency you can pay in US dollars & probably other currencies - but not Russian roubles.

The chaotic roads were explained as - 'people drive here like they ride horses - they go where you want when they want'.

A very noticable thing is all the English language signage like - the Mongolian Irish pub, the Cashmere warehouse, the Chicago Bar & Grill & most shops give a good clues as to what they are about. They use Latin script & not Cyrillic so working out where you are, getting around & buying stuff is less disorientating than in Russia.

I went to a music & folk evening at a large theatre house in the centre of town & expected to be a tad bored but it was absolutely fantastic. It was performed by the Mongolian National Song & Dance Academy who were stunning. The costumes were dazzling & the music & singing was traditional but also seemed to be modern.

You could imagine some of the dance moves on a slick London dance floor but with some Bollywood added in for good measure. The two man 8 foot long trumpets that marched in from the back of the auditorium had such a deep base sound that you could feel the sound rattling your insides. The 50 strong orchestra with dozens of traditional 1 & 2 string instruments were able to create as full a sound as a typical large European orchestra.

The only disappointment was the absence of a programme that might have given some interesting background detail. But in terms of the pleasure & the experience - it needed no props.

I stayed at the Bayangol hotel in the city centre, it wasnt anything special but I liked it; a really nice touch was giving guests a ready stamped postcard & they posted it for you - how great was that.


Leaving Russia was problem free although very protracted & it took a 5 hour wait at the border before passports were returned - but just stayed on the train so no bother. A few miles further on the Mongolian's arrived at 1.30am after which I went to sleep & the carriage attendant collected my passport & gave it to me the next day.

The morning landscape was pure Steppes - rolling grassland & a vast sky is full of what look like swallows. Its cattle country and early morning herders on small ponys are driving cattle to new pastures. Traditional Gers dot the landscape & in small villages children with knapsacks & bags can be seen, presumably leaving for school.

Ulan Baator has vast sprawling industrial suburbs, belching chimney stacks, newish & derelict factories & most noticable is the predominance of Chinese shipping containers & commercial international signage.

The strangest thing is that Ulan Baator (the capital of what the Chinese still call Outer Mongolia, ie the back of beyond) is more westernised than the slick cities of Moscow & St Petersburg. English language has become the semi-compulsory second language in school so lots of people have some facility.

Generally the Mongolian's smile more readily than the Russian's. Of course people stare at you as an unsual foreigner but it seems to be from curiosity & intrigue; children often say 'Hello' & then snigger, probably seeing us as big-nosed Coco the Clown type figures - but its fun & amusing & in no way uncomfortable.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Ulan Ude

Approaching Ulan Ude, a city close to the Russian/Mongolia frontier, life appears to be very different, village after village dot the landscape & many are surrounded by wooden stockades presumably for protection against wild animals.

Entering the city there are dozens of rail tracks, tens of dozens of engines & hundreds upon hundeds of freight wagons. The temperature has plumetted from yesterdays 27 degrees C to a chilly 5 degrees. The city centre has a classic Soviet style design, emphasising all that is utilitarian but people are working to restore some cultural identity. Buryat's were traditionally Shamanists but most converted to Tibetan Buddhism although there are also many Orthodox Christians.

A massive sculpture of Lenin's head (20 feet high) dominates the main square & is well worth a weirdness detour.

Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic, ranging south & east from Lake Baikal to the Mongolian border. The Buryat's are the indigenous nomadic people of Mongolian descent although it was the Cossack's who established the first permanent settlement as part of the tea trading route from China to Russia. The population is now about half Buryat & half Russian although most of the Russian's live outside the city on farms & small holdings so the city has a predominantly Asiatic feel.

One of the camera crew on the train was diagnosed with appendicitus by the on-board doctor & had to be rushed to the local hospital. All the train staff & local guides were very competent in organising immediate hospital admission & although the building did not look very impressive the medical staff were very capable and the emergency surgery was sucessful. The timing was fortunate as it was another 24 hours before we reached Ulan Baator.

Leaving Ulan Ude it is instantly obvious that this is a significant geographical position as the change of scenery is startling in its abruptness. The seemingly endless forest has disappeared, being replaced with an undulating grassy landscape with bare rocky hills & the occasional fir tree capped hill. A large range of cloud capped mountains to the east follows the line of the track for a hundred miles.

There are more cows in the first 10 miles than in the thousands from Moscow & the first herds of horses. Fields are marshy in places & if they grow anything it seems to be hay for winter fodder.


Siberia is not simply a place, its entered our vocabulary as a byword for a forbidding place, banishment & extreme punishment. All of which are true but it is not a Soviet communist concept, of course Stalin took it to extremes with massive penal colonies but originally it was a Tsarist concept. The Tsar's of old Russia were very keen on exiling individuals to work in Siberia's salt mines if they displeased them.

The Decemberists were a group of aristocratic army officers who in 1825 attempted to curtail some of the Tsar's absolute power & abolish surfdom but they failed & were either executed or exiled to Siberia. As aristocrats the exiles were not treated as badly as many others - money & influence followed them; but they are credited with bringing culture & modern education to the Siberian wilderness. The houses of Prince Trubetskoy & Count Volkonsky are now prized museums in Irkutsk.

These houses have an attractive rustic charm & are full of touching family memoribilia, although they would have been considered very grand buildings in their day. Volkonsky's wife Maria followed him into exile & among the many essential objects she brought was her treasured grand piano. As part of the train tour passengers were treated to a concert in the Count's drawing room, played on Marie's original piano.
In the 1850's Dostoevsky also displeased someone about something so he was exiled to Siberia for four years hard labour - but at least he got a book out of it. Jumping forward into the 1970's Solzhenitsyn's Nobel prize, was in no short measure, for his semi-autobiographical novel about his time in Siberian exile. So Russian's have always seen Siberia as a place of banishmennt & where people can be made to disappear.

The Cossacks were Russia's pionering explorers of Siberia & in 1651 they founded Irkutsk which was celebrating its 350th annerversary whilst we were there. Siberia is Russia's Wild West, except it was the Wild East & the indigenous nomadic tribes, like the Buryats, were either ignored or assimilated, rather than being forced onto small reservations as the Americans did.

Lake Baikal is staggering, wider than the English channel & holding 20% of the planet's entire fresh water supply. Its bigger than all of North America's Great Lakes combined & has evolved a unique range of wildlife found nowhere else. Its crystal clear waters are freezing cold & in winter it freezes to such an extent that cars & trucks can drive across from one side to the other.

Passing around the southern tip of Lake Baikal the train squeezes through huge towering cliffs of metamorphic limestone that have been blasted apart or burrowed through so the railway can reach eastern Siberia. I manage to hitch a ride on a hovercraft with the US TV film crew & take some nice shots of the train from the lake.

Still on the train

I've covered over 5,100 mls rail miles since leaving London 15 days ago; this includes the 3,140 mls on the 'Tsar's Gold' train from Moscow over the past 5 days & I've just arrived in Irkutsk in central Siberia.

Long train journeys are a strange experience, they tend to generate a sense of unreality, as you flow through the landscape in a little bubble - part of it yet only for a moment & then you're gone. You're a transient figment to onlookers, but onboard you're part of a busy social gathering - with complete strangers. You see them every day, you make friends with some & you gossip about others. You get used to seeing someone, maybe make friends with them & then they're gone.

Its nothing like flying, where your life is suspended & all control is taken from you by uniformed strangers - who do with you, what they will. You are turned into a package, posted in one place & delivered someplace else & inbetween - you just exist.

On a train, apart from the comfort of being just 18 inches off the ground, the rail traveller still controls their life. To train managers, carriage attendants & restaurant staff you're not a package you're a person & if you don't like the service - it gets changed. Whereas on a plane a complaint might get you off-loaded as a flight hazzard or an angry complaint could get you arrested.

Trundling through the endless birch & fir forest a full moon is hanging in the same place night after night & it seems so much bigger than at home. It also seems much brighter & illuminates the empty forest like a distant search light.

In the middle of the night, several hours east of Noviosibirsk, we pulled into Marinsk - a small town but a massive railway junction, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Trains were parked in sidings, drivers were waiting in cabs ready to go & through trains raced past on the way to somewhere. Vast railway sheds & signal boxes were illuminated by towering lights that gave everything a sickly yellow glow & in the distance were the twinkling lights of a town. And over in the distance there's yet another railway graveyard - old steam engines, filthy diesals, rusty electric engines & derelict passenger coaches. There's so much space in this vast country that no one disposes of old things, they just put them on the side - forever.

Like most places I've visited in Russia, Irkutsk is a complete surprise - totally unlike every impression of Siberia I've been given. First its roasting hot at 27 degrees C in September, second how large, elegant & sophisticated the city is & third how friendly so many people are.

The outskirts of Irkutsk is signalled 20 to 30 miles beyond the city centre - wooden houses, a vast factory with four red & white striped chimneys. Then a meandering river flanked with marshy reedbeds, great piles of excavated sand & random industrial buildings that seem to have no planning regulation. Post Soviet Russia is perhaps on the rebound from over-regulation so that now this vast landscape allows any entrepreneur to sprawl out in any direction without regard for the environment.

The hotel Irkutsk is our base for a couple of days as we leave the train for an overnight stay in town. Its a modern tourist hotel with a smart WiFi enabled lobby, coffee shop, souvenir shop, ATM, bar, restaurant & its clean throughout. Unfortunately behind the scenes doesnt get so much attention, staff have sour faces, breakfast is poor, rooms are spartan & bereft of tea/coffee/water, a little fridge is empty, yet there are bathrobes & slippers.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The End of the Romanovs

In Soviet times Yekateringburg was called Sverdlovsk after one of Lenin's senior party officials who hatched the plot to murder the last of the Romanovs in a basement of the town. They were kept prisoners in the house for 78 days while the Bolshevik's debated what to do with them. Lenin wanted to bring them to Moscow & hang them publically in Red Square after the fashion of the French Revolution. Others felt insecure & feared a public uprising against the fledgling new Communist State.

In the end Sverdlovsk's suggestion of just making them disappear was adopted as the best idea & on the 17th July 1918 Lenin officially ordered that:
'... your relatives in Germany continue to wage war against Russia & therefore you are condemned to death'.

It was a gory scene with 11 gunmen & 11 men, women & children to be shot. The gunmen ran out of bullets whilst the children were still running around the room bleeding & screaming so they were finished off with bayonets. When the bodies were stripped & thrown down a local mine shaft the children were found to have hundreds of diamonds and rubies sown into there underclothes & these had acted as bullet proof vests. The secrecy was blown when local villagers saw the bodies being dumped so the next day officials ordered them to be collected from the mine & burnt. Their remains have now been re-buried in St Petersburg.

Many Russians continued to remember the Romanovs with affection and people constantly brought flowers to the house where they were murdered. In 1979 Boris Yelstin, as local Communist Party leader, ordered the house to be torn down to stop it becoming a shrine. Now it is a massive shrine called the Church of the Blood & it draws more crowds than ever.

The Romanovs are now being talked about as Russian saints. They certainly were martyrs & became symbols of a time before the Stalinist tyranny began - but so were the other 30 million Russian's that Stalin is said to have had killed. The Romanovs did little to help their people or their country before the revolution and were robbing it of its wealth up until their grisly end.

Yekateringburg - the beginning of Siberia

Yekateringburg is on a high plateau in the central Ural Mountains and its where Siberia begins - where Europe meets Asia. Yekateringburg & Kazan argue as to which is Russia's third city after Moscow & St Peterburg. Its has an official population of 1.3 million but unofficilly its nearer 2 million - nobody bothers that much, its an easy going sort of place.

It was founded by Peter the Great in 1723 as an eastern guard post at the edge of the Russian Empire & as an iron ore mining town. It is staggeringly rich in mineral wealth with copper, gold, platinum, emeralds & rubies all being mined locally. The Urals was a closed area to foreigners until 1991 because of its military factories and nuclear facilities; these are presumably what Gary Powers was filming from his U2 aircraft when he was shot down over the city in 1960.

There are still many 'closed' cities in Russia - completely enclosed by fences & guards so that even local Russian's are forbidden entry without a permit. Siberia is also still a location for many prisons for criminals & the small town of Nizhny Tagil has 13 of them.

There's an official oblisk marking where east meets west but its 25km out of town along the Moscow road. Its a popular tourist draw but is also a place where newly weds go to celebrate. On the way to the oblisk there is a memorial to the 18,000 people found in a mass grave. The site was discovered during a road widening scheme during the 1990's but no one is quite sure why they were killed - maybe they had the wrong faces or were in the wrong place at the wrong time or were deemed to have offended the Soviet State in some way. DNA evidence is gradually enabling names & details of the dead to be identified and recorded on the memorial.

Irish themed pubs are found in major cities everywhere but somehow I didnt expect to find the Old Dublin pub here in Siberia. The design & contents were all you would expect, the Guiness was excellent, their menu was celebrating the 50th birthday of America's President Obama (he's part Irish in case you missed that PR stunt) & an England v Wales football match was playing live on TV.

In Soviet times the city was called Sverdlovsk after one of Lenin's senior party officials who hatched the plot to murder the last of the Romanov's in a basement of the town. Sverdlovsk is also credited with designing the classic yet sinister KGB outfit of long leather coat and leather trousers.

Boris Yelstin, often credited with being the father of the counter-revolution, was the head of the Communist Party in Yekateringburg in the 1980's before being promoted to higher things in Moscow & there is a modest modern art-style statue of him in the main square.

Yekateringburg seems a fascinating city & I wish I were staying for a few more days.

The Tatar City of Kazan

Kazan is a thousand year old Tatar city whose original inhabitants were the decendents of soldiers that rode with Gengis Khan, most coming from around Turkey.

Kazan is is the first major train stop 800 km east of Moscow & its the captal of the Republic of Tatarstan, although this is still part of the Russian Federation. Its on the Volga River & at 3,500km it's the longest river in Europe. The Volga & Kazanka rivers meet at Kazan & coupled with the trans-Siberian rail network this has made the city a major freight distibution hub.

Its a thriving city with a great deal of new building as well as its own Kremlin (citadel) which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ivan the Terrible laid waste to Kazan in 1552 & forced the Khan to convert to Christianity. Today the Kazan Kremlin has both the Kul Sharif mosque and the Annunciation cathedral & there seems little or no Moslem/Christian tension.

The city has the most startling eclectic mix of architectual styles imaginable, there is no uniformity about new buildings, they might be typical steel & glass tower blocks but they're just as likely to be French renassience, English Georgian or classical Palladian. The magnificent blue domed Kul Sharif mosque, gleaming with white marble from the Urals, looks like its stood there for centuries but in fact is just 6 years old.

The Train from Moscow

Boarded the train at Kazan station rather than Yaroslavl station because I'm travelling on a chartered train travelling the southern route via the Tatar city of Kazan. The ticket was booked with Railbookers ( because they have booked all my tickets & accommodation through from London.

About 120 passengers met up at a Moscow hotel & had been pre-organised into little sub-groups for local excursions - I'm in beige - that bland & dull colour - maybe this was a mistake!

I'd always intended to take the standard trans-Mongolian train but unless you take an organised tour you either go straight through or have the hassle of buying tickets for each leg of the journey. And I really think I'm past my backpacking phase & would rather not bunk in with a bunch of complete strangers - I always get the weirdos. Time, I thought, for a bit of comfort.

Beyond the city, the further east we travel, towards the Ural Mountains, almost all the houses are wooden - the only abundant building material. For hundreds of miles birch & the occasional fir tree stretch out to the horizon as far as its possible to see - there must be billions of them. Its impossible not to think that if you wandered off into these trackless forests you would never find your way out again.
An occasional cleared area stands out as a highlight; some are growing wheat, there are a few cows; sometimes clusters of wooden houses form tiny villages and then the forest returns as if the human imprint had never occured.

There are huge lakes that don't make it onto most maps, there are fishermen around the edge and little boats out in the middle & then the forest closes in again.

Freight is king out here, the rail track is not a simple single track but expands to half a dozen tracks in places & its busy with fright trains plying back & forth from east to west.

Moscow Sightseeing

Like all big cities Moscow has many facets but it's Las Vegas-style casino nightlife is no more, gambling was banned a couple of years ago & all the casinos of the Old Arbat district are gone. But its still a key shopping & nightlife district with the mile long pedestrian Arbat street filled with little shops, cafes, a British-style pub and an assortment of street entertainers, artists & musicians. Pushkin lived at number 53 & there's a statue of him & his wife Natalia opposite. He was killed in a dual with someone he considered was paying too much attention to his wife. She had to flee the scandal but she didnt flee very far as she later married her husbands killers brother.

Arbat also has one of Stalin's 'Seven Sisters' now a 5 star Radisson hotel, popular with visiting celebrities. The Sisters are gothic architechtural masterpieces in Stalin's favoured style - one of the few remnants of his tyranical reign that modern Russia is proud of. Two of these 1920's style New York skyscrappers are government ministeries, two are 5 star hotels, two are expensive apartment blocks and perhaps the best one is Moscow State University.

The other valued inheritance from Stalin is the Moscow metro system, with the most staggeringly beautiful underground stations in the world. Not only are they stunning they're incredibly efficient and in the rush hour trains arrive every minute, carrying ten million Muscovites to work very day. It wasnt that Stalin had a vison of the twentyfirst century needs of Moscow - in the 1930's he suspected that war was coming to Europe, again, so he had them built, unnecessarily deep, because they were actually conceived as secret bomb shelters; one of which gave him an underground escape route from the Kremlin.

The Bolshoi theatre has been closed for extensive remodelling since 2005 and is set to reopen at the end of this month (September 2011) but it was still impossible to take a peek inside at what six years work has produced.

My hotel is 100 yards from Lubyanka square which is flanked by the dull yellow KGB (now FSB) buildings featured in hundreds of spy novels set in the Cold War era. A Soviet era Intourist guide told me that in those days it was a serious offence to name these building & any enquirer had to be told that they were just apartment buildings. The statue of the KGB's founder that originally stood in the centre of the square has been torn down & disposed of.

Red Square & the Kremlin are of course Moscow's biggest attraction. But the Kremlin isnt merely the seat of government its a 69-acre citadel and the site of Moscow's 12th century founding. The 1.5 miles of red brick wall, with watch towers at each corner, enclose a secure government compound, the Armory museum, three cathedrals, the Kremlin palace & the 1960's Palace of Congresses. It a treasure trove for lovers of glittering royal relics - Faberge eggs, crowns, robes, thrones, State coaches, the 190-carat Orlov diamond & weapons galore. There is also the world's largest bell (200 tons) that cracked before it it was ever rung & the intricately chisled 40 ton barrel of the Czar cannon with its ridiculously heavy 1 ton cannon balls that was never fired.

Just off Red Square is the imposing Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which looks like its been there for centuries. In fact Stalin had it blown up in 1935 because it spoilt the view from his Kremlin window. But, as part of the policy of undoing some of the excesses of the old Soviet era it has now been completely rebuilt & was only finished in 2000. Faced in gleaming marble and capped with classic gold onion domes it now sees a regular stream of Kremlin officials attending it on State & religious occasions - Stalin must be turning in his grave.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Moscow Day

Moscow day is a celebration of the founding of the city and is held on the first Sunday in September - and that happens to be today. Stepping out today the insanely manic street - Tverskaya, is empty of traffic. Someone has organised children's pony rides and pedestrians are taking each others picture sitting on the central white line of one of Moscow's busiest streets.

This street, like many others, is blocked off by parked trucks and its amusing to watch huge black limos racing up & being waved away by the police. A flatbed truck pulls up and a five piece jazz band begins to play modern jazz for an hour. When it moves off another appears blaring techno music with pom-pom dancing girls - bizarre but brilliant.

Lots of street traders have set up stalls selling drinks, snacks, flags, balloons, face painting, trinkets etc. The free market may be flourishing but not every stallholder has got the right idea - one oldish lady stood behind her miniture glass animals frowning at anyone that approached, snapping answers and sometimes turning her back on potentional customers - she sold nothing while I watched.

At the other end of Tverskaya in a large blocked off square a huge free street concert is underway - there was a crooner who received a modest round of applause, then a Diva appeared & tried to whip up some enthusisam - two or three people put their arms in the air & waved feebly in time with her. She was followed by a high intensity heavy rock band that drew cheers and plenty of animation from the crowd. Later in the evening a concert orchestra played Tchaikovsky and the city was lit up like a Christmas tree - so something for everyone. And this isn't even the city centre.

Moscow is a city of up to 15 million so this must have been a logistical headacre but what a brilliant & sucessful city-wide celebration. If you're planning on a visit to Moscow - the first Sunday in September would be a good date to choose.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Moscow Savoy hotel

Its a grand building in a rocco style, the restaurant has an intricate marble floor, ornate mirrored ceiling, huge floor to ceiling windows, elegant French style furniture, gilt chandeliers, a lovely fountain & then teabags are dropped on your table & you have to go & look for some hotwater yourself.

The staff are a disaster with a poor concept of service standards - reception are pleasant but not particularly helpful or knowledgable ie they had no idea what was happening with the Moscow Day celebrations that were happening NOW. The bar was soulless & the barman had next to no English & went out back to chat to his mate & then charged me £10 for a beer.

But breakfast was the worst - staff ignore arriving guests, no smile, no welcome & no suggested seating. They only bring coffee if you can catch their eye and you have to ask & they always seem surprised that you should want some.
The food quality is very low, the cheapest cereal (chocolate drops in the museli), cheap fatty bacon & awful sausages but the scrambled egg slime was the worst commercial scrambled egg ever - I had to spit it out. If you are late there will be little left to select from.
And awful Musak playing in the lifts and the restaurant, more properly suited to Woolworths or an old peoples home.

The best staff were without doubt the cleaners & house maids as everywhere is clean & tidy & they were the only people who acknowledged my presence and offered me smile. My room was spotless and the attractive marble bathroom was always fresh & clean. The room has an attractive wooden floor, high ceiling and large windows, it has an elegant look but somehow its cold & soulless, but maybe that's the pervading ambience of the hotel.

The swimming pool, gym & sauna were excellent, although difficult to find.

So a very strange hotel, & I'm sure it has no connection with the Savoy in London, the best I can say is that its a 5 star building in a great location but run as a 2 star hotel. A complete failure of effective management and staff training.
I'd better mention that I am a professional hotel reviewer so I'm naturally picky but I've a lot of experience to compare this hotel with.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Moscow News

Teatralny Prospekt beside the Bolshoy theatre, right in the city centre, is an intimidating sight to behold. Its wider than the north bound M1 and M6 together and traffic moves faster, especially the many souped up cars that make it sound like Formula 1 track. Its so frantic that authorities have given up with pedestrian crossings and the only routes across are underground subways.

Instead of the usual rolling acres of Red Square, today it has all but disappeared under a forest of tents, awnings, temporary stadium seating, concert platforms and performers. Thousands were marching to military bands, orchestras playing Tchaikovsky, children's choirs, galloping cavalry and much more I couldnt see. All in preparation for tomorrow's celebration of Moscow Day - the founding of the city, held on the first Sunday in September.

There is a heafty police and military presence around the square and I've always wondered about the choice of official Russian headwear. Headgear is presumably meant to convey a message to onlookers - the SS = menacing and sinister, US Marines = brutish and thugish, British bobby = I'm shorter than I look. But the official Russian headgear, worn at a jaunty angle with those ridiculously oversized brims, look like they've been dressing up in their dad's wardrobe - its hard to take them seriously, except of course they've got guns - that certainly works and keeps me from smirking.

The GUM store in Red Square was still open and it seems a cross between Harrod's and Covent Garden - balconies, fountains, bridges, little trees with Dior, Cartier and Burberry, all under a huge glass roof. Generally Moscow seems a pretty expensive place - £260 for the cheapest room in a
reasonable hotel, £10 for a glass of beer - I'm not sure about anything else.

The St Petersburg to Moscow Train

The Sapsan train from St Petersburg to Moscow is a Eurostar class high-speed train taking around four hours. There's an alternative slow overnight sleeper and an early morning non-stop train taking 3 hours 45 mins. Its very spacious and comfortable as you would expect in first class but the standard of service is incredible

Slippers, eye shades and ear plugs are at passenger seats. On departure passengers are offered drinks - of any description; followed by a restaurant style lunch at your seat, served in three separate courses on crockery, with proper cutlery and some nice Spanish wine. If you require a taxi train staff will pre-book one to meet you on arrival - amazing!

Admittedly its Russia's flagship rail service but its a flag that's impresively waved and other rail operators could do with seeing what all the fuss is about.

The first class carrige is completely full unlike the fleets of empty first class carriages that trundle the length and breadth of the UK because of their ridiculously high prices. The late booking fare for a first class seat on the Sapsan is £95 for 680km, in the UK this would be a cattle-class fare with the high probability of no seat on popular routes. It seems that Russian's understand good business better than the Brits - filling all the seats makes more sense than charging twice the price and running half empty.

It was also nice to hear anouncements refer to passengers as passengers rather than travel units, customers, punters, mugs or however else UK rail operators perceive their passengers.

Arriving at Moscow's Leningradsky station is a bit disorienting as all signs are in cyrillic, no latin script alternatives, let alone English (there was a fair bit of English in St Pete's). You also need to buy a rail card to use the metro, which are great once you've got one.
So you do need to prepare for a Moscow arrival, I on the other hand met a really friendly Russian on the train who gave me metro access on his ticket and put me on the right metro line for my hotel - thanks Yakov.

Rasputin's last supper at the Yusupov Palace

The canal trip went past the Yusupov Palace, not a very imposing building, and the guide did not seem to think it worthy of mention. But its the site of one of those enthralling snippets of Russian history - the multiple assasination of Rasputin - mad monk or mystic healer and possible lover of the Tsarina.

Hated by courtiers for being a peasant with so much influence over the Tsarina, Prince Yusupov and some co-conspiritors plotted to kill Rasputin. He was invited to the Yusupov palace for a late night supper and possibly some illicite sex.

He was first poisoned with arsenic laced cakes, which had no effect; he was then given poisoned wine, still with no apparent effect. Eventually Yusupov fetched a gun and shot Rasputin in the chest. Satisfied that he was dead the conspiritors retired upstairs to celebate and when an hour later Yusupov returned to the basement Rasputin leapt up and attacked the Prince. The Prince escaped up stairs and Rasputin ran out into the courtyard where he was shot twice more in the kidneys and in the head.

Still apparently alive he was further bludgened in the head with a dumbell. Probably begining to fear that maybe Rasputin did have some mystical powers they wrapped him in a rug, tied it up and dumped his body in the frozen Nevka River.

When his body was found a few days later his arms were free and upraised as if he were trying to claw his way out of the frozen river - whoooooooo!

Its a well documented murder with police reports, pathologist records and admissions from the conspiritors. So, what does it suggest? That when a Russian wants to kill someone they really like to go to town or maybe they can be a bit inept?

Friday, 2 September 2011

St Petersburg - What's in a name?

St Petersburg (1703) - Petrograd (1914) - Leningrad (1924) - St Petersburg (1991)
Customs and immigration on board the train from Vilnius to St Petersburg were very simple and easy going although the carriage attendants (provodnitsas) sudden appearance, throwing open the door at 1am and shouting 'passports/permits' in Russian was a bit disconcerting.
Took the metro to the hotel rather than a taxi, as consistent advice was that station taxis are gang operated and the least you can expect is serious overcharging. It was easy enough and so much more pleasant then the London tube - more spacious, more trains althought still pretty crowded.
The Kempinski hotel, Moika 22 has a great position on the Moika river, opposite the Hermitage (Winter Palace) and near the start of Russia's most famous street - Nevsky Prospekt. Its an old aristocratic mansion, totally remodelled inside but retaining original fireplaces in the front bars and the old wine cellar has become a wine bar. The rooftop restaurant and terraces have one of the best 360 city views including the Winter Palace. Its run by Irishman Liam Madden but everyone else is Russian. It has impeccable style but without any stuffiness; very international but with plenty of Russian character.
St Petersburg has a long revolutionary history as 100 years before the 1917 revolution there was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the monarchy, and again in 1910. The 'Decemberists' that were not shot or executed were transported to Siberia - some of the earliest trans-Siberian travellers! St Petersburg was Russia's capital city until 1918 when the 'new order' decided it was too elitist and moved the capital to Moscow.
It was built by Peter the Great to rival the best of Europe and today its still a grand and stylish city. Home of Pushkin, Tugenev, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky the city features in many classic Russian novels - note: must re-read Crime and Punishment. It's also Russia's thriving western seaport into the Baltic and this played a pivotal role in WWII.
The Nevsky Prospekt has been one of my must visit places for years but its become an eight lane manic traffic throughfare so is not the pleasure it must have once been. Nevertheless the side streets make up for this with lots of restaurants, coffee bars and of course the universal littering of misrable looking burger joints. There are 42 islands and more than 300 bridges in the city centre so its no surprise that it gets tagged the 'Venice of the North', but in truth that should be 'Venice with Traffic'! A canal trip is on every visitors itinerary and its not just tourist trade it really does give a different perspective to the city. There are plenty of public tour boats but the Kempinski's small private boat, with a genuine historian, was in a league of its own.