Saint Petersburg: part 1

On Wednesday evening I made my way into St Petersburg and then took the metro for the one stop journey to my hostel. The journey was fairly uneventful except that it was much slower than necessary due to the train spending large parts of the trip travelling very slowly – so in that respect it was like the Trans-Siberian which probably did it’s slowest average speed over the last 250km which it did on the last day.

My hostel was in an excellent location in a nice part of town. It was next door to a branch of Loius Vittion. One of those international brands that I see everywhere except Oxford!

I then went out to my second favourite restaurant – KFC for dinner before returning to the hostel to sleep. This was fine except I was joined in my room by a crazy Russian who seemed to think that even given the signs and my polite requests it was OK to smoke in the room. I suppose you just get used to the western attitude of smoking being banned practically everywhere. It’s even banned outside at Oxford train station which I think is just a little bit harsh.

Anyhow the next day I got up fairly early and headed off to try and do my washing as my hostel didn’t supply a key ingredient – washing powder. Though I shouldn’t complain too much as otherwise it was free. On the way back though I went inside the gothic and dark looking Kazan cathedral which was very graceful and beautiful inside. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos. One thing worth remembering about Othodox churches is although if you are a man you are supposed to uncover your head if you are a woman you’re supposed to cover yours – consistent I know!

So after seeing that I headed back to the hostel to dump the washing powder and breakfast stuff I also picked up before heading out to try and go to a blockade museum describing the 900 day seige of the city by the Germans in WW2 (it was known as Leningrad at the time.). Unfortunately according to the tourist information map it seemed to have closed but then I rounded the corner to see the epic Church of the saviour on the spilt blood. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite 11am when it opened so I contented myself with a look at the outside before heading down the street to the nearby Russian museum. This is a huge collection of Russian art from a more St Petersburg perspective and it was excellent – especially the early icons and the stuff from the St Petersburg academy of art. After seeing this I headed back to my hostel to hang up my wet clothes (as it was free there was no tumble dryer.). Then I headed to the Peter and Paul fortress on the other side of the river for the rest of the afternoon which was OK. I then headed to look at Palace square and the breathtaking Hermitage and General Staff buildings around it.

Moscow

We arrived into Moscow on Monday afternoon, arriving into a busy city was great. First we wanted to get to our hotel and as we had a fair bit of luggage we thought we’d get a taxi. Unfortunately aside from the dodgy guys who offer you a taxi on the platform itself there didn’t seem to be an official taxi rank at the station. So we went on the metro instead. The metro itself has very attractive and expensive looking stations with rickety old trains and even wooden escalators. This leads to be bit of a contradiction actually. Anyhow after making our way to our hotel we settled down and I read a copy of the London Times, which seems to be a total joke these days. Before settling down to dinner in the hotel. The dinner was excellent and the food was well worth the price – so it wasn’t £100 for a small omelette or anything like that! After that we went to bed early and it was nice to be sleeping in a real bed rather than on the train for a change.

The next morning we got up bright and early at 7am and after breakfast we made our way into the centre of Moscow. At this point we first tried to get into the Kremlin, but it was too early so we headed up to Red Square to see if we could have a look at the stuffed Lenin as you have to do that early in the morning, unfortunately like Mao in Beijing he was undergoing “refurbishment” so we had to give it a miss. Red square is an interesting site however with the Gym (Gum) shopping centre on one side, the Kremlin on the other and St Basil’s cathedral at one end – now that is surprisingly small more on that later on.

Anyhow as Lenin was shut we made our way back to the Kremlin and after leaving our bags we made our way into the armoury to look at some of the arms and armour and other gifts the Russians had been given by various ambassadors as well as the stuff they’d used themselves which was very impressive as well as looking at the cathedrals around the Kremlin itself. These were fairly opulent Orthodox cathedrals that were well worth looking at. We also tried to look at the bell tower, but it was unfortunately “shut for lunch”.

After this we headed out of the Kremlin to see if we could get some ballet tickets, but they were a little more expensive than a cliched small omelette at about £60 each so we decided it was too expensive and gave it a miss, so we instead headed to a nearby mall to have some pizza for lunch, this was excellent until they brought the bill which seemed to take absolutely ages. And they also bought a fake 100 rouble note with it as the paper felt wrong. I of course asked for a real one instead. On the way we saw the one and only official taxi in Moscow, it is surprising that there are so few that even hotels like ours which wasn’t exactly a hostel didn’t even suggest the possibility of using one to get anywhere – even the airport.

After lunch we went back to Red Square and looked at the Gym shopping centre briefly which was good before we headed to St Basil’s cathedral which was nice, but actually pretty damn tiny. There is no large worshipping space inside the cathedral itself which was a definite surprise. It is very tall inside however.

After this we left and as we had a few hours and weren’t heading to the ballet we instead went to Tretyakov Gallery which had a lot of Russian art which was interesting. We saw the top floor which is about 30 galleries of good art before getting bored. It did seem that much of the older Russian art on display was quite constrained as it was all commissioned by the imperial family and the newer stuff was definitely better. After that we headed to a tastefully themed Russian restaurant for some dinner, I had some Salmon caviar but it wasn’t actually that tasty, but the main course which was another traditional Russian dish was great.

The next day I had to help my dad get to the airport and get to St Petersburg myself so I didn’t really manage to do any more in Moscow.

The trans siberian in Mongolia and Russia

After a good nights sleep we awake to be crossing the Gobi Desert, this is a pretty large desert in the south of Mongolia, we saw quite a bit of wildlife including sheep and deer as well as some traditional Mongolain yurts – it was mostly just scrubland. However there did appear to mostly be mobile phone reception. Also for breakfast some enterprising mongolians got on and we bought a surprisingly large number of mutton dumplings for US$3 each. Even though the Mongolian currency isn’t even in xe.com’s top 85 (which even includes the Cambodian currency which isn’t really in use) they didn’t seem to know how many tögrög’s there were to a US dollar so they asked for US$4 after giving us the food – the food was excellent though and at US$3 a good deal by any standards. As there wasn’t much else to do we headed down to the dining car after breakfast where we had some tea and a chat with the other people in the car.

After lunch in the dining car which was pretty good we arrived in Ulan Baator the capital of Mongolia, where a lot of people on the train got off, we did as well to have a wander around the platform and experience the high temperatures of -10ºC. It wasn’t as cold as I had thought though and like the rest of Siberia the thermals I’d put vast efforts into buying in Xi’An was wasted. It does go down to -40ºC in January though so they’d be useful then. I was surprised at how rich the capital of Mongolia appeared to be, I was expecting to see a country that was poorer than Vietnam and India, whereas instead I saw somewhere much more comparable to the development of China.

After we left the capital we headed north through land that looked similar but more scrubby than the Gobi as we headed towards the Russian border. Like in the Gobi there was also some snow on the ground, though it was a bit deeper than the bare dusting there – that was probably the years rainfall!

The next day we got up and went to the Russian dining car for breakfast, we weren’t sure whether it’d be up to the standards of the Mongolian or even the Chinese dining car, actually though it was pretty good and we had ham and eggs for breakfast. Then after breakfast we soon drew alongside the fairly large lake birkal which we spent about 4-5 hours following the shore of, what made it more impressive was that we only followed about 10% of the shoreline. The lake itself was mostly still frozen however and people were even driving cars over it, though at one point the lake had started to melt. There was still snow on the ground everywhere though it was a little deeper than Mongolia, but not as deep as in the alps for example – of course here it is cold enough that the snow falls and then stays until spring.

After leaving Lake Birkal the line curved around through a couple of tunnels, which were the only tunnels on the entire line, after which the train reached the town of Irtrusk. At this stop we got off the train to try and get some Russian roubles as we’d forgotten at the border, though unfortunately there wasn’t an ATM on the platform, if you’re doing this trip make sure you have enough roubles for the journey – you also may find them difficult to get them in China.

Anyhow after this we headed into the forests of Siberia, where we spent the next three days (well along with the occasional industrial town, and a few open spaces. Now I was impressed by the lake Birkal and I suppose I was impressed by the Siberian forests as well, but really 3 days was too much. The ural mountains also weren’t very exciting and the highlight of that day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk go by. Fun for all of 10 seconds.

UK Democracy still functions

I sent my MP an email on Monday over the chief medical officers plans to introduce minimum prices of £0.50 per unit of alcohol (US$0.70, €0.53) which has been rejected by Gordon Brown (UK Prime Minister) and was pleasantly surprised to receive an acknowledgement in the post this morning.

I’m impressed that he’s managed to read the message and respond to it so quickly, and on that basis I’ll almost certainly be voting for him in the next election.

I sent the email in the first place because the government is wrong to reject the proposal as it makes sense, it also isn’t particularly controversial as its just raising the minimum alcohol price to the same price as it is in China’s supermarkets given purchasing power parity – and the Chinese have pretty cheap alcohol.

Why you should update the software on your computer

One of the boring things I had to do when I returned to the UK was to run the software update on my Mac, as I had to update quite a bit of software as its been nearly 8 months since I last used it there was a lot to update – and god it was boring.

I had never realised how dull it was before because I always download the updates when I’m told about them by the software updater, or before if my favourite technology site tells me about them first which makes it far more bearable.

However it is really important to do it as explained on this Arstechnica article that actually security software isn’t particularly effective at stopping the bad guys. But if you keep software updated fully then you have the best possible chance of staying safe. It also goes without saying that you have to show some common sense online as well, visiting dodgy porn sites is dodgy, like walking around a strange city at 4am alone is.

Update:
By sheer coincidence Microsoft has released some information on email scams as well today. The link to the article discussing it is here. Microsoft usually has pretty good advice on security so its worth following if you don’t already. Of course like with everything it isn’t foolproof, and subtle stuff might still get through that checklist.

China on the Trans Siberian

I don’t have time to write much tonight, but I should at least begin writing some more content. We left Beijing early on the 4th March. First we actually headed south, but mostly west through beautiful mountains to the West of Beijing, unfortunately I was tired so I took a nap – though I should definitely have waited and missed some Siberian trees instead. There were ice rivers and stuff there which was really cool. As we continued on brand new track we slowly but surely made our way to the Mongolian border.

I was also surprised to see the level of development in out here though. There were often places where there was another brand new 2 track railway on the other side of the river valley showing that China is still marching ahead towards becoming a fully developed country.

Back in the UK

I flew into Heathrow earlier this evening and am now back at home. The flight was good and the British Airways food was excellent, we also got a great view of London which was a bonus.

I’ve had a great trip and now have a little more blogging to do on the trip covering the last couple of weeks. I aim to do a post a day for the next week so that I can talk about everything without overwhelming you (and of course myself :p).

After the trip is over I will probably continue to make the occassional post on life™ and of course when I travel in the future.

So you don’t have to check my website regularly you can also read the RSS feed of my posts, and if it isn’t clear I’ll get it all sorted in the next few days.

Arrived into Moscow

Very briefly as I only have a few minutes left online, but I’ve arrived into Moscow this afternoon on the train. To summerize there are lots and lots and lots of trees on the way. Lets just say the highlight of one day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk by the railway. There were some cool people on the train though and the first couple of days through Mongolia, China and by Lake Birkal were really cool.

The Lonely planet also suggests a shorter tour so for the first time ever the Lonely planet might actually be right :eek:.

Trans Siberian and home

Early tomorrow morning I’m off on the Trans Siberian railway train to spending a few days in Moscow and St Petersburg before I return to the UK in a couple of weeks.

As I’m going to be very busy squeezing everything into only a few days I’m not going to be posting any more blog posts until I arrive back in the UK.

Beijing

I arrived into Beijing on the train from Xi’an at 6am 10am before I made my way to my hotel where i’m staying in Beijing with my dad. After arriving by taxi I headed to a nearby coffee shop to have a fairly overpriced late breakfast while they got our room ready. After checking into the room I went out to try and do my laundry (as the hotel was overcharging.) before heading to the metro to get the train to the airport to meet my dad. Even though I had a bit of trouble figuring out which direction to go on the metro I managed to arrive at the airport at a perfect time – at which point I met my dad and we then returned to the hotel. By this point I was hungry so I headed to the nearby food court to have some Osaka rice dish which was delicious.

After this I met up with a Chinese girl I met in Malaysia and we headed to a traditional Chinese restaurant for supper. There we had lots of excellent real Chinese food (which is totally different from the stuff you get in the UK.) as well as some frankly mediocre spring rolls. We had this at a very popular restaurant called the Golden tile located near the Lama temple. After dinner we walked around a nearby park and some Hutong alleyways that were also very atmospheric before driving around to Tianamen square which was interesting to see at night.

The next day we got up early and headed to the Forbidden city. There we spent about four hours wandering around. The forbidden city is absolutely massive and even the walk from the west gate (which is comparitavely very close to the south of the palace rather than the north.) to the south gate is about 1km. Inside the buildings are yellow roofed and are incredibly attractive. What’s amazing is that even the opening square and the buildings directly around it would make a large palace. Inside we had a wander around and saw quite a lot – we got the audio guide but it was rubbish as it tried to be too clever by half and guess our location rather than using numbers. There were also a lot of exhibitions including some on clocks and some jade and other treasures. After this we then did some shopping in the afternoon – followed by a delicious meal at the foodcourt opposite the hotel. I had some Chinese dish that was great but I don’t know the name of as it was only in Chinese. Then we headed to the Beijing opera which is a colourful show of dance and acrobatics. This was pretty good – though I have to admit I preferred the Shanghai acrobatics which was also cheaper. We also met a good sounding English speaking guide (email: annalovetour hotmail com) at the theatre – she definitely spoke good English.

The next day we headed on a tour to the Great Wall. This left at a suitable 10:30am, and we went to the Mutianyu Great Wall. On the way we had a chat with the guide about Beijing and the wall before we arrived at the wall itself. The part we went to was a well restored part of the wall that I really enjoyed and we took a cable car to the top of the wall, then walked along the wall through 8 watchtowers before coming back down the chairlift on the other side. This was incredible and we got to see great views of the wall and the surrounding snowy mountains.

On a tour with BTG F.I.T travel (aka Dragon Bus) booked through our hotel (the Novotel) we then returned to a chinese medicine centre where we were attempted to be sold dubious herbal remedies which mysteriously managed to cost ¥1000! We were also given a foot massage which was apparently paid for by the tour but we were suggested to give a tip of ¥20. As I didn’t think my massage was that good (certainly it wasn’t as good as the full body massage I got in Shanghai.) I offered to give a tip of ¥5 for it which was refused and then I was asked for ¥20 which I refused to give. Frankly for a tour arranged through an international hotel it was disappointing as the only tour that went somewhere more dodgy was the one in Delhi to Agra. Then in the evening we went out with the Chinese girl again where we had some Peking roast duck and other dishes which was delicious. After that we picked up some supplies for our trip on the trans Siberian.

The next day we got up fairly early and headed to the temple of heaven on Beijing’s modern and clean metro system. This is an important temple where the Chinese ask for a good harvest. These days though in the grounds you get to see lots of people doing tai chi in the morning. We also saw the golden temple buildings around as well as an interesting exhibition on Chinese music. After this we headed out the south gate and after about 40 minutes of walking we reached KFC for lunch which even my dad thought was pretty good.

After that we headed to the lama temple which is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the north of Beijing. It was also blessed by the emporer so it has yellow roofed buildings (other buildings had to have grey roofs.) it was a nice temple and then to avoid the rush hour we returned to our accommodation to get ready for our early trans Siberian departure.