Wednesday, 25 August 2010


25,500km, 12 countries, 3 continents and four and a half months later and finally I’m back in London.

First I spent a few days in Berlin with Ivan and Sabine, two friends of mine. The sun shines, the tree line streets pavements are filled with tables and chairs as cafes make the most of the weather and Berliners sip coffee in the dappled shade. We wander along the canal, buy cake to eat with coffee later in the day and drink a glass of rose in the sun. I meet other friends and we sip Prosecco over celebratory lunches and dinners.

Having lived here for a few months last year, Berlin feels familiar and welcoming and it seems as if I’ve reached the end of my journey. So when I pull on my backpack for the final leg to London, I’ve already lost some of my traveller vibe.

It’s a six hour journey to Brussels and the train breaks down just inside the Belgian border – unbelievable the first real delay of my journey. Then Eurostar speeds me from Brussels to London in just under two hours. It’s early morning. The sun is shining, the sky blue. I try to feel something as I look at the English countryside stream past outside the window but all I experience is a sense of anti-climax.

Then, too soon, we’re at Euston and I stop two French girls and ask them to take my photo. ‘I’ve just finished a journey from Australia,’ I tell them, but they don’t speak English and just smile and nod vaguely. As I pose, for a moment at least, I feel celebratory. ‘I’ve done it,’ I tell myself, a big smile on my face.

A few minutes later I'm negotiating Kings Cross station in rush hour as I head towards the Tube to travel to my friend Valerie’s house in west London. The Piccadilly line isn’t running, people are staring moodily at maps as they make alternative plans. I squeeze on with my oversize bag, pressed against morose commuters, hot and sweaty, changing in busy Victoria, then rattling for half an hour into the London suburbs.

When I emerge from the tube the weather has changed. There’s a cool breeze blowing and dark clouds scudding across the sky. I walk to Valerie’s house, looking forward to seeing her, to a cup of tea, to finishing.

But the walk leaves me feeling disoriented. London feels familiar but it doesn’t feel like home. I feel at once comfortable and a step removed: like looking through a pane of glass or watching a familiar cityscape on a movie screen. I don’t know if I belong here anymore. I’m already wondering what I’ll do next. And moment by moment the magic of the journey, the freedom of travelling, is slipping from my shoulders.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How long is too long on a train? St Petersburg to Berlin, 36 hours, 1,450km

To be honest I don’t know the answer to the question I’ve posed above. I’ve taken plenty of journeys of 20, 24 and even 36 hours and have always been a bit sorry to step off the train at my destination. My longerst journey (52 hours) was a pleasure from start to finish and I didn’t want it to end.

There is something delicious about the enforced idleness of train travel; a rare thing is this busy life. A train has everything you need: a comfy bed, regular meals, occasional forays into the world outside during the longer stops and a constantly changing panorama outside your windows. You sleep, eat, sleep, watch the scenery, doze, eat, read, write, eat, sleep and that’s about it. Frankly it’s bliss and I’m not entirely sure how I’ll cope when I’m back in real life again.

That’s why I’m making the most of every second of my last long journey from St Petersburg to Berlin: two nights of gently rocking sleep and one last day of train life.

Outside the windows it’s midsummer as we cross from Russia into Belarus. Wheat fields, burnt gold or just harvested and sporting conical hay stacks, roll along on either side of the tracks.

We stop at Orcha for two hours. It's warm, 30c, and I buy dumplings and fresh apples from the babushkas on the platform then sit with the rest of the passengers under a tree near the carriages.

When we get back on board the air conditioning stops working. The heat in the carriage builds and I start to consider that there are times when a train journey can be too long. I doze on my bed then stand in the corridor and stick my head out the window to catch some of the breeze. Eventually I decide to try the restaurant car, where for some reason the air conditioning is still working.

In the dining room, they’re playing Cossack tunes on the stereo: dalitza, dalitza, dalitza, da. I order an ice cold beer and take a big gulp and look out the window; a voyeur, albeit briefly, on lives unknown. The sun is moving towards the horizon and small villages surrounded by newly harvested wheat fields shine golden in the evening sunshine. We cross a bridge over a shallow river – the whole village is bathing or picnicking on its banks; 100 people or more splashing in water or sitting in the sunshine, legs stretched out. A man works a plough in a field and wipes his hat across his forehead as he watches the train go by. Deep yellow sunflowers stand tall against the pale blue wall of a village home and a white horse gallops beside the railway tracks, tossing its head in the summer sunshine.

Before long I realise that I’m back to where I started: there really is no train journey that’s too long to take.

Monday, 16 August 2010

A tale of two cities

Moscow and St Petersburg couldn’t be more different. In part it’s due to the weather – an unfair comparison given that Moscow was blanketed in smoke and heat while I was there, while St Petersburg welcomes me with perfect northern European summer days: sunshine, pale blue skies enlivened with the occasional fluffy white cloud and cool breezes. The light sparkles off the city’s canals and river and I take in big mouthfuls of fresh air.

But the differences between the two cities are due to much more than the vagaries of weather; they have fundamentally different characters and psyches.

Where Moscow is functional and pared back, St Petersburg is all ornate and ormolu. At every corner, along every street, bejewelled baroque gems sit beside classical buildings shining pastel pale in the sunshine. Be it an everyday housing block or palace, it’s obvious that the motto ‘less is more’ has no place in St Petersburg. Even the train stations conform to type. Where the Moscow metro is a hymn to socialism, the St Petersburg version is a Tsarist monument of pomp and glory.

And while Moscow is home to parade grounds and great civic squares of brick and concrete, St Petersburg is filled with parks – shady green spaces with fountains tinkling, flower beds and stately trees. Ironically (given its former name) this is the only Russian city in which I can’t find a statue of Lenin, though there are plenty of Tsars Alexander 1 and Peter the Great. In St Petersburg it can sometimes feel that communist Russia never really existed.

The people are different too. In Moscow, stout workers jostle with kittenish nouveau riche women in high heels and short skirts as they push urgently through the streets in search of business, wealth and work. In St Petersburg elegant couples with immaculately turned out children stroll in the parks in the late afternoon sunshine, eating ice cream and holding hands.

That’s not to say I necessarily prefer St Petersburg. The city is very beautiful, in fact it’s so picturesque that after a while I tire of photographing it. I head out into the suburbs to find something more real but even here the classic proportions are still in place; a little more run down perhaps but still undeniably beautiful.

It’s the same at the Hermitage. There’s so much to see that I feel first daunted then overwhelmed. For the best part of three hours I hold my own with the huge tour groups of American, German and Japanese tourists who are grimly working their way through the entire collection. Then the sunshine glinting on the Neva river outside draws me away and I make my escape, cross the bridge, buy an ice cream and sit with the citizens of the city on the banks of the Neva.

While the locals swim happily in the tea coloured, chilly water I find a shady spot, leaning against the rough bark of a tree, and settle down for a spot of people watching.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Moscow burning

Morning in Moscow dawns hot. By 10am it's 38c and the hair is heavy with acrid smoke. At my hostel, travellers lie in a torpor on their beds or gather in the lounge room. Rumours run riot: the Italian press is predicting that a nuclear arsenal is under threat from the fires; the Poles have evacuated their embassy. I check the BBC, which sets my mind at ease with a restrained piece about the health implications for local citizens. And, as I'm only here for a few days, I decide to brave the weather and check out the city.

The smoke is heavier than the night before. Visibility is low, buildings rear up out of the mist and the streets disappear, dark grey ribbons into the light grey air. Moscow feels utterly deserted. I walk along in the eerie silence until I get to Red Square, where a few other tourists are making the best of a bad lot.

The heat and the smoke quickly wear me down. For the sake of something to do I join the queue for Lenin's mausoleum. It gives me a sense of purpose and lets me stop, drink a huge bottle of water and try to catch my breath. Around me the line of tourists are silent and subdued. Many are wearing small white facemasks. I drink water and try to ignore my itching eyes and scratchy throat.

When I get to the front of the queue I find the Lenin is deep underground in a beautifully cool, dimly lit room. Guards quieten anyone who speaks, so we enter the mausoleum in hushed silence. Lenin is surprisingly small, a short and petite man, his hands, arms and torso visible (he's wearing a suit and waistcoat). The closer I get the more waxy and unreal he looks; the face a pale yellow with smooth skin.

Emerging again into the smoke filled air, feeling my eyes begin to stream, I realise that exploring Moscow is a no go today, so I take myself off to the Tretyakov Gallery. It's home to the best of Russian art from the 17th century onwards and as I walk by lush portraits of Russian nobles, generals, matrons and society beauties I feel a War & Peace moment coming on: these are the people Tolstoy was writing about.

I enjoy their company for three or four hours then I have the inspired idea to escape the smoke by checking out the Moscow Metro. This is not as train-spotterish as it sounds. Moscow's metro stations are a hymm to socialism and marble floors, stained glass windows, art deco lighting and gold mosaics abound. The girl in the picture on the left isn't in church; she's waiting for a train at Moscow's Prospekt Mira metro. The mosaic below is from a roof panel at Krasnye Voroya. It makes London's Underground look distincly pedestrian by comparison.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Travelling with Russians - Trans Siberian, Irkutsk to Moscow via Novosibirsk, 5,185km, 80 hours

Finally I’m on the Trans Siberian, a five day trip that takes me from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and then on to Moscow. On the first leg I share a carriage with three Russians – Ludva, a plump, jovial woman of about my age and Andrei and Ivan, two oil workers, part of the team laying the controversial pipeline through Siberian. They’re in their late 20s and heading home for annual leave.

I quickly discover that the first thing Russian men do when they board the train is request a moment alone in the carriage to change. They emerge after a few minutes wearing shorts. Their legs are starkly white and the shorts are almost uniformly too short and a little on the tight side. When the train halts at the station you can spot the train passengers from those that have just boarded by the bare legs of the former.

We leave Irkutsk at 7.30pm and are soon all eating the snacks and food we’ve brought with us. Ludva whips out a huge bag filled with enough food to feed the entire train. For the rest of the journey I watch with envy as she creates delicious lunches and snacks for herself: dark rye bread with cheese, tomato, cucumber and freshly cut dill (yes, she has a whole bag of fresh herbs in there); hard boiled eggs with chives and onion; dried apricots and peanuts and more.

Ivan and Andrei, in contrast, rely mainly on instant noodles. For one meal they bring out a tin and using a seriously sharp knife, cut the lid off. It’s filled with a kind of fatty beef; like spam but more meaty. They cut it into their instant noodles and eat with relish. To my disappointment no-one drinks Vodka or misbehaves. The men quietly share a large bottle of beer and then go to their bunks where they sleep, almost solidly, for the next 18 hours.

Travelling with Russians is a lesson in generosity. Everyone I share a carriage with offers me a share of their food and drink. Ludva presses fruit, biscuits and all manner of treats on me; the boys share their beer. I offer round my Australian made chocolate biscuit and share my red wine but am conscious as I do so that this isn’t something I do as a matter of course. I make a vow to be more hospitable when I next travel in Europe.

When the others doze off, I’m drawn to the windows in the corridor, watching the beautiful Siberian countryside pass by outside. Occasionally we flash past small rural stations where solitary passengers wait for the next train. At one, a soldier in full uniform sits in the last rays of evening sunshine, feet up on his kit bag; at another two women wearing headscarves and brightly coloured full skirts, stand beside grocery bags full of produce.

Small villages of wooden houses flit in and out of sight from among the birch and pine forests. As the sun sets dramatically in the huge sky the colours wane softly

The next evening I take a rest day from the train in the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk (a busy if uninspiring city of 2million with plenty of shopping and cafes and a fine Lenin statue) where I have a shower and stock up with more supplies.

Then, over the next 50 hours I travel across the rest of Siberia, over the Urals and into Europe proper, sharing my carriage with a succession of Russian women and Richard, an English traveller. First up is Olga, dark haired and dark eyed, she’s heading home to Tuymen. She refuses to believe I don’t speak any Russian and happily chats away to me for a couple of hours. I try to explain I don’t understand but eventually give in and nod and smile at what I think are the appropriate moments. It seems to work, halfway through her chat she whips out a box of chocolates that we share before we lie down on opposite bunks and sleep another night away.

When Olga gets off, Irena gets on. She’s younger, maybe 30, with hair dyed dark black at the back and a bright red fringe at the front. She plays trance and dance music on her mobile phone and drinks fizzy drinks almost constantly for the 12 hours it takes us to get to Yekaterinburg. Towards the end of her journey she pulls a small bottle from her make-up bag. From her miming I realise it’s nail polish remover and that she’s noticed the state of my toe polish (untouched since China) and that she thinks it’s time I took it in hand. I take her advice and soon my feet are buffed and repolished and to Irena’s high standards.

Russian women make a big effort with their appearance every day (unlike the men who don’t seem to bother at all). High heels, cocktail dresses and immaculate hair and make up are every day wear for girls, both in country towns and in the cities. All the women that share my carriage apply their make up each morning and do a thorough touch up before they leave the train. It leaves me, in full grungy traveller mode, feeling particularly scruffy.

I never get to know the name of my final carriage mate. She joins me at Nizhny Novgorod, eight hours away from Moscow. We pull out of Nizhny at 9.30am. She waves goodbye to her husband and makes her bed as the train gathers speed. Within 10 minutes she’s asleep; lying in a position she doesn’t alter until five minutes before we arrive in Moscow at 4.30pm that afternoon. She lies on her back, hands outside of the blanket on either side, face waxy and pale. It’s a little like sharing a carriage with a corpse.

In a way she’s a fitting companion to this last leg. We’re still 400km from Moscow when the views outside the window start to become obscured by smoke. The haze worsens as we approach the city and when I step outside I’m hit by a wave of heat and air thick with smoke. I draw a breath and my eyes water and throat tickles. The sun hangs in the sky, obscured by smoke it looks like a deep red balloon. I pull on my backpack and walk down the platform; all I can think of is Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel, The Road.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sunbathing in Siberia

Siberia is nothing like I expected. Though I’m not entirely sure what I expected (salt mines? fur hats? grey skies?) I definitely wasn’t thinking of 28c temperatures, water glinting in the sunshine and the sand hot beneath my toes as I rub sunscreen on my arms. I wasn’t thinking of flower filled meadows, sun dappled birch forests, lush green fields and a sky that stretches endlessly above, a pale blue bowl occasionally given depth by tall stacks of white clouds. It turns out that in summer at least, Siberia is pastoral and beautiful.

My introduction is Irkutsk, a pleasant town with wide streets. On the high street stand sturdy 19th century stone buildings, today home to a mix of stores you could find anywhere in the world: Mexx, Reebok and Benneton to name just a few. Cafes set tables out under the trees on the pavements and market stalls sell fresh strawberries and blueberries. It all feels very European and somehow very familiar and this despite the fact that Irkutsk is just one hour ahead of Melbourne in time zones and is further east than Bangkok.

After a day wandering the streets and enjoying the sensation of being back in Europe, I decide to head into Siberia proper and spend five days by the shore of Lake Baikal. Baikal is an enormous freshwater lake, some 600km long and 60km wide. It’s the deepest lake in the world (1637m on the western shore) and allegedly holds enough water to supply the entire world for 40 years. In summer Lake Baikal becomes a water playground for tourists from all over Russia. (In winter it freezes over and you can drive your car across it. As the lake thaws in spring it claims around 10 lives each year. Locals risk one last drive across the frozen water and each year the ice creaks, cracks and swallows them up. When they’re pulled from the water they’re often frozen with their hands still on the steering wheel, that’s how cold the water gets. Even now, in August, it’s still only 8c.)

I travel to Olkhon, an island on the lake, six hours drive from Irkutsk. We pass by low mountains, pine forests and meadows that are so filled with flowers the grass struggles to take hold. The driving is erratic and frightening; cars and buses veer in and out at high speed. All along the road are memorials to accident victims and we pass and we pass several accidents, including a distressing scene where a car is stalled diagonal across the lane before the body of a man, bloody and broken on the road. A woman stands beside him, hands to face, crying. Our driver speeds on.

It’s a relief to get to Khuzhir, the only village on Olkhon, with wide sandy streets lined by colourfully painted wooden houses. All around is sky and water and a deep restful silence.

The sunsets here are jaw dropping. The sky flames orange then red then violet pink; clouds are haloed with gold and the lake water, clear as glass, mirrors it all.

I stay at Olga’s guest house, which turns out to be something of a mix between camping and visiting your gran. My room has two small single beds with springs poking up through the bumpy mattresses and two large and heavy looking lounge chairs covered in brown velour. The bedding is bright blue with a pattern of yellow stars and a cartoon rabbit asleep on the moon. The toilets are drop toilets in the back garden and the shower is a camp shower (a barrel of water with a hose attached to the shower head). There’s also an outdoor sink for cleaning your teeth. There’s a communal dining room for the three meals a day that are included. Today we have eggs and fresh bread and jam for breakfast, fish soup (with fish freshly caught from the lake) followed by pork with mashed potatoes and salad for lunch and a vegetable and meat bake for dinner with still warm homemade cake for dessert. I can see I won’t be losing any weight in Russia.

There’s plenty to do on the island. You can hire a bike and cycle to the other side; take a jeep tour to the far north or a day long horse trek. Or, like me, you can layer on the sunscreen, lie on the sand in the sun and read War and Peace.

There are quite a few other travellers here and it’s very sociable. One day I take a hike with Tristan, an Aussie traveller and runner. He’s taken on a massive challenge for himself this year – he’s running 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 40 countries. Last week he ran 100km in Mongolia, this week he’s doing marathons in Siberia and Helsinki. Check out his website to find out more about his challenge or watch his YouTube video. Those of you in Melbourne who are feeling energetic, can join him on his final run on New Year’s Eve.

Another day I explore the town with Adrien, a sexy French aeronautics engineer and on the third day I have lunch with Marco, an Italian photojournalist who is doing a story on pollution in the lake (a controversial pulp mill is threatening the area’s UNESCO status). On the last night the four of us and Cecile, a Belgian teacher, go out for a few beers.

The pub is small and filled with heavy wood furniture and large Russians. To my disappointment they’re drinking beer not vodka but at least the cans of beer they’re throwing back are 1litre in size. The place smells of smoked fish – a local delicacy that everyone else is consuming with gusto – and sea air. Euro-pop bangs from the loudspeaker in the corner.

We sit and chat and drink until the bar staff throw us out at 2am. Outside the temperature has dropped. A chill wind is blowing and I’m grateful for my scarf and wool jumper. We take our final beer and sit outside Olga’s, wrapping ourselves in duvets against the cold. It’s the 31st of July but right now it feels decidedly wintery. And, finally, as I shiver while I sip my 1litre can of beer, I feel a little more Siberian.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Wheelin’ and dealing on the Trans Mongolian: Ulaan Batar to Irkutsk, 1121km, 25 hours

Starting an argument with someone who you’re going to be sharing a small cabin with for the next 25 hours in the first five minutes of meeting them is not necessarily a lesson in how to win friends and influence people. None the less that’s exactly what I do before the train has even pulled out of Ulaan Batar station.

I’ve just stowed my bag and sat down when the first of my cabin mates appears in the doorway. He’s a plump Mongolian, sweating mightily and wearing a pale green hand towel over his bald head. He’s lugging a huge suitcase (almost 1metre x 1metre), which he deposits on the floor with a grunt before disappearing again. A moment later he appears with another suitcase of the same size, squeezes it in the cabin and leaves. A few minutes later he comes again, with two more suitcases and his wife (a tiny woman, well under 5ft tall, with long hair bleached blond and pulled back in a tight pony tail). They all squeeze into the compartment. I am now sitting in the far corner, almost obscured by luggage. To my horror he disappears again and comes back with four smaller bags. It’s about now that I start shouting.

We don’t speak the same language but he gets my point: there are too many bags in the cabin. He starts shouting back. I’m pretty sure he says something along the lines of ‘well where do you expect me to put them?’. I tell him in no uncertain terms and we begin a lengthy discussion that only ends when the conductor appears. He shrugs and says ‘only 35kg per passenger’ then departs, leaving us to it.

We stop shouting and stare each other out. In the end, with more sweating, Mongolian cursing and a lot of grunting and heaving, he moves two of the large cases and all the small ones onto his bunk and his wife’s bunk. That still leaves two monstrosities blocking our leg room and, once the fourth and final occupant joins us with his two bags, we’re well and truly squeezed in.

I mutter and glare but there’s nothing to be done. ‘Are you moving house or something,’ I ask in my most cheesed off voice. He doesn’t understand anything but the tone and we glare at each other some more.

The train pulls out of Ulaan Batar and within 10 minutes it becomes clear that they are not moving house, they’re indulging in some Arthur Daly style wheeling and dealing. A steady stream of Mongolian passengers begins to appear at our door and Bob and Tina (not their real names but they’ll do!) start digging out new jeans, t-shirts, jumpers and souvenirs from their huge cache of luggage. Money and goods change hands and our cabin is a busy as TopShop on a Saturday morning.

Still in a huff, I wander off to take some shots of the Mongolian countryside that we’re rolling through. We’re following the tracks of a wide river. Herds of horses, pine forests and Gers sit bathed in late afternoon light.

I explore the rest of the train and meet a Swiss couple, David and Carole who I first met on the way from Beijing. They’re sharing with an American guy called Dylan and the air conditioning in their cabin has broken down. I sit with them a while and we fantasise about cold beer.

When the train takes a scheduled 15 minute stop, Dylan and I are on a mission for beer. The small store on the platform doesn’t have any but the shopkeeper sends her young son to guide Dylan to the nearest corner store. I stand nervously at the entrance and watching both the train and the road.

The minutes tick by. All the other passengers get back on board. I run to join them. ‘Wait, wait, we’re one short, we’re one short.’ I’m desperately calling to the signalman as I pull myself back on board. I can’t see Dylan anywhere but stand by the open door, hoping the train won’t move without closing the doors.

Two more minutes pass and I’m frantic with worry. Missing trains and planes is a particular fear of mine and being stranded in the middle of Mongolia as the daily Trans Siberian pulls away from the platform ranks pretty high in my worst nightmare list.

Eventually I see Dylan in the distance. ‘Run!’ I call to him and he breaks into a trot. As he heaves himself up to the train the signalman gives me an enquiring nod and I give him the thumbs up with shaking hands. The train wastes no time. A few seconds later it begins moving.

Dylan is laughing – in his hand he’s carrying an ice cold 2litre bottle of beer. We take it back to the cabin and manufacture glasses by cutting water bottles in half. We drink it and eat peanuts and crackers, enjoying the icy refreshment and giddy with relief that he hasn’t missed the train.

As we approach the Mongolian border I go back to my berth. The atmosphere in the cabin is one of tense calm and as we cross the border I realise why. My cabin mates are planning to smuggle their goods into Russia.

We pull up on the Mongolian side and customs give our room a cursory glance, stamp our passports and let us be.

As soon as the train begins to move, a hive of activity breaks out in my cabin. Bob and Tina begin ripping things from their bags, hiding them under the mattress of their beds and underneath sheets and blankets. They dash off with piles of clothes that the give to friends on other parts of the train.

As we approach the Russian border Bob is sweating more than usual, mopping his face and neck with his pale green towel every minute or two. He smiles obsequiously at the border guards, hands over his forms and then dashes off for a restorative cigarette. It’s after 10pm and we’re scheduled to be here for three hours so I lie on my bed and try to sleep. Bob paces up and down. We hear guards walking along the roof of the carriage; a sniffer dog is brought through; the bags are cursorily searched. I doze. Bob smokes and wipes his sweaty palms. Tina whispers instructions to him.

Eventually our passports are returned and with a final squinty-eyed look, Russian border police leave the train. As we begin to move Bob and Tina are wreathed in smiles. They’ve made it through undetected.

Some five hours later I wake to find that I’m in Siberia and have left Asia behind. I know that technically I’m not in Europe until I cross the Urals but one look out the window and it feels like Europe is already here.

Painted wooden houses with pitched roofs stand in neat gardens. Behind them is Lake Baikal, a vast blue sea. More wildflowers than I’ve ever seen before fill the grassy meadows with colour.

Mint green pine forests ring the blue of the lake and families camp and cook their breakfast by the lakeside as the train runs alongside. By 2pm we arrive in Irkutsk, the pretty Siberian town that is the stopping off point for travellers like me who want to explore a little bit more of Siberia.