Moscow – an eventful stay!

That night we caught our first night train, to Moscow. We travelled 3rd class sleeper, which was really quite comfortable. The beds are pretty similar to those in other classes, but there are no divisions within the carriages – it’s basically like a big dormitory with two level bunk beds. Everyone had clean sheets in cellophane packets, woollen blankets, a bed roll, pillow and towel. We must have looked a bit perplexed about things, as the nice man sitting opposite us took us under his wing and helped to set up our beds. Lots of people were staring at us, which seems to be a norm in Russia, but makes you feel uncomfortable nonetheless. I would try to smile at people, but usually got a stony glance in return. The lady who had the bunk opposite us arrived a little late and spent some time clambering about and organising her affairs. She was a right misery guts and looked at us like we were something she had just coughed up after a hefty bout of grolliching (ask my mum what that means; it is what one might refer to as an onomatopoeia…). Luke got up into his bunk and I was about to arrange the blankets on my bed, when the nice man opposite came and tucked me in! I realised very quickly that in the roasting temperature of the carriage I was unlikely to even need the cotton sheets, let alone the woollen blanket, but felt I had to keep them on until he was asleep, in case he thought I was being disapproving of his tucking in skills! Sadly, I didn’t get a bedtime story.

As we lugged our things off the train at 5.30am the next morning, we were warmly greeted by our friend’s sister’s mother-in-law. She was a lovely, smiley lady; I would say in her late 60s, but she spoke only a few words of English. We made our way back to her apartment by bus and felt quite humbled that he had travelled all this distance to meet complete strangers at such an early hour. Her flat was in the northern outskirts of Moscow in an area with lots of Soviet style concrete apartment blocks. There were plenty of trees between the buildings, so that in spite of the concrete, when you were inside the flat, you actually had a feeling of being close to nature, as you looked straight into the leafy branches. Our hostess kept up the tradition we have had so far of being exceptionally well fed – lots of traditional Russian fare; including stuffed peppers and salads liberally sprinkled with a herb that I think might have been dill. We briefly met her lodger who couldn’t speak English either, but could speak a few words of French, and we had a brief conversation. He seemed very polite and friendly.

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Auditioning outside the Bolshoi Theatre

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St Basil’s in the background!

Later that morning, we headed into Moscow city centre. We were pretty tired from the night train, so contented ourselves with a visit to Red Square and the surrounding area. From Red Square you have a brilliant view of St Basil’s cathedral. It is quite similar to the church on spilled blood in St Petersburg, with its colourful onion domes topped with golden crosses, but is a few hundred years older. We sat for a while and drew and painted until rain stopped play. I painted a terrible picture of St Basil’s – architecture has never been my strong point – but one Chinese tourist told me it was beautiful, so that’s nice! I think my comment would have been, ‘don’t give up the day job,’ – to which I would have to meekly reply, ‘I have!’

We then wandered along an adjacent pedestrianized street, where there was a landscape photo exhibition. There was a busker playing guitar and we stopped for a while and listened; he was really good. When I gave him money, we got talking. I tried to sing along while he played ‘fields of gold’ and then we failed to find other songs we both knew. I told him I played the flute and we made a plan for me to return another day if it wasn’t raining. Meanwhile, Luke was making friends with a young fellow artist, trying to dissuade him from joining the army and to draw instead!

We navigated back to our apartment using directions written in Cyrillic script. This was quite an achievement we felt, as it was quite complicated! We had another wonderful meal and then decided to go to bed. Just as we were about to brush our teeth, the lodger knocked on our door and told us we had to leave now. I got dressed hurriedly, wondering what the matter was, and on leaving the room discovered two policemen in the hallway. They asked to see our passports, and we duly obliged, which seemed to satisfy them. They didn’t speak much English, so it was really hard to tell what was going on, and so a bit scary for us. Our hostess was clearly very cross with the lodger, and also quite embarrassed. We figured out that the lodger had phoned the police to come and evict us, but we didn’t know why. He was pretty drunk and the police seemed to realise this. After some persuasive talking in Russian, the lodger seemed appeased and turned to us and told us we could go back to bed if we liked, and the police left. We thought it had all been a drunken misunderstanding and decided that as our hostess seemed happier, that we wouldn’t book into a hostel for the following night.

The next day, we went to the Museum of Russian History, which was just off Red Square. It was brilliant, and completely different to all the museums and galleries so far. There were lots of archaeological remains – stone age tools, bronze age jewellery – I was particularly impressed with the early safety pins! I had no idea they had been around for so long. I can’t tell you the year, as it was in Russian, but they are something BC I think. SONY DSC

We progressed through the ages, and as museum fatigue kicked in, we messed around with silly photos.

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After leaving the museum thoroughly educated, I found the busker, Misha, and managed to play one song before it rained. It was just twiddly making things up, and I didn’t earn him any money, but it was fun all the same!

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We had dinner in a café; there were a few curious ants on the table and we struck up a conversation with Arkady, the waiter, about them. We made little ant voices and sang, ‘We want jam! We want jam!’, which he thought was very funny! I quite like how with limited language, a bit of silliness coupled with mime can form the basis of a conversation. This earned us a free cappuccino with an ant drawn on the froth. At the end of the dinner, Arkady asked us to write in his book. I drew pictures of ants, and then he said I was supposed to write how great he was at being a waiter! Oops! So I did a little speech bubble and rectified the situation. He said we were cool, which, daft as it may seem, gave us a little warm glow, as it temporarily elevated us from our role of dim-witted tourists!

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That night, we stayed up until 1am having a lovely time exchanging photos with our hostess. We were just about to head for bed, when two new policemen turned up in the hallway, having been called once more by the lodger. They were not so sympathetic and told us, ‘he is against’ and to leave our things in the flat, wrap up warm and walk around Moscow until 7am. We decided that was a silly idea. We were far from hostels and hotels, had very little cash and public transport had finished for the night. We started off on the stairwell outside the flat, as our hostess insisted we stay nearby. She brought us blankets and a little table and tea! Then the lodger came out to tell us to go back in, but we didn’t want to, as it was against the advice of the police and we didn’t really know what was going on and if it would be safe. After this we moved down to the bottom of the stairwell, and tried to sleep on the steps, with our hostess coming down at intervals to plead with us to go back in! It probably would have been fine, but we didn’t want to take any chances; from what we’d seen of him so far, he was pretty unpredictable. Eventually, we came up with a plan and crept into the flat at 5am. Our hostess walked us to the bus stop in time for the first bus of the day and we made our way to the train station to put our bags in storage in readiness for our night train to Yekaterinburg. We were utterly exhausted and passed out in a zombified state on a bench until we had enough energy to move and get on with the day.

We had heard about Russian banya, and thought this would be a relaxing way to spend the day, and would also allow us to have a wash. There is a very famous banya in Moscow, called Sanduny. The route seemed easy enough, but finding somewhere to buy a metro ticket was tricky, and rage inducing when you have had no sleep. So we followed our noses and walked through the huge buildings of the banking area, until we finally made it onto the map. When we reached the banya, we were greeted by a very friendly man, who explained that we would need to go separately as the women and men do not mix. He also gave us some strange hats as a freebie, which looked a little like large felt thimbles. The banya, unfortunately, was not the relaxing experience I had hoped for! After a very short introduction, which I understood none of, I was let loose. It was basically like a massive bathroom. White tiled walls. A row of showers on one side, a row of sinks on the other. Stacks of buckets – white, green, blue. A sauna room. A very small cold water swimming pool. Two cold water wooden baths with steps up. One normal bath with a shower attachment. There were about 3 or 4 other women in there, most of whom were walking around naked, some of whom had birch leaves stuck to their bodies from the traditional and cleansing birch branch bodily thrashing that is an integral part of the Russian banya experience.

I had been designated an area and a set of three colour coded buckets. I filled two of them up. Splashed water on my feet in one and splashed water over my body from the other. I felt like I was missing a trick. Other women were soaping themselves. I had no soap. Hmm. I thought – I’ll go in a shower (because I know how that works) and then I’ll sit in the sauna and may be able to snatch a bit of sleep. I walked confidently into the sauna with my towel wrapped round me, and as it was quite cool, I sat on the highest bench. An elderly lady was reclining on her towel, with her naked body on display, so I thought, ‘ah, that must be what I am supposed to do!’ I duly unwrapped myself and lay down on my towel. Then another lady came in and shouted at me to sit. I sat up. She shouted again to sit down, pointing at the bench below mine. I moved. She shouted at me to wrap the towel around me. I meekly did this. She then shouted at me for not wearing the hat, which I had thought was a silly souvenir, so I left to find it. I was too humiliated to go back into the sauna just then, so I went for a lonely swim in the cold pool instead, feeling miserable, dreaming of sleep and peace and quiet and not looking like a complete idiot for once. I found some face scrub and shower gel in my area and asked an assistant if they were for me to use. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘yes, you use them to wash yourself’. I started to use them, and a lady came up and told me they were hers. Oops. I then decided to brave the sauna again. I sat on the lower bench, with the towel wrapped around me and my silly hat on my head. The shouty lady came in and started shovelling water on. It got hotter and hotter. It was getting unbearable and I didn’t know how to say stop, so I just stood up to leave. She shouted, ‘SIT DOWN!’, but I just ran out, getting my face lightly scalded by steam in the process. At this point, I decided I couldn’t stick three hours of this and went to get changed. I decided to peruse the dinner menu I had been given, and lo and behold, there were all the instructions for what to do in the banya, in English! I discovered I could buy soap and a loofah, so did this and managed to at least have a proper wash! I emerged clean, tired and harassed, but it was good to hear Luke had had a more serene experience.

Back at the railway station that night, we fell asleep in the waiting room again. We were woken by our hostess, who had travelled by bus to bring us a plateful of homemade blini (Russian pancakes) and homemade jam! She was profusely apologetic (again!), even though none of it was her fault. It was great to see her before we left, as we felt we had left that morning on a somewhat down note, so we were able to make our way to our train in better spirits. I don’t think we have ever been so excited about sleeping.

Narva to St Petersburg

So, I’ve been quiet for a while whilst we have been travelling from place to place. From Tallinn, we headed by bus to Narva and stayed with our friend’s mum for a night. She was lovely, great fun and very welcoming, as was her husband, who beat Luke hands down at chequers, but we had to communicate via Google translate and plenty of confusing sign language! Paul always said his mum’s cooking was the best, and we weren’t disappointed. We had homemade borsch (a traditional Russian beetroot based soup), and each subsequent course seemed to be followed by another course until we were fit to burst – particularly as we had made the mistake of eating sandwiches on the coach!

That evening we caught the bus and Paul’s mum took us to the Estonian seaside for a wander along the shore. This was the estuary where the river Narova meets the Baltic Sea. Here, we saw this intriguing sign. We thought it might indicate ‘beware, dogs may be lurking in the water’.

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The following day we spent in the area surrounding Narva castle. Narva is in Estonia, but over 90% of inhabitants are Russian speaking. Here, the river Narova separates Estonia from Russia, and from Narva castle, you can watch cars, lorries and pedestrians crossing the bridge going through customs from one country to the other. In fact, this is the bridge where our friends Paul (who lived in Estonia) and Anna (who lived in Russia) used to meet. This is where they would whisper sweet nothings to each other before the customs officials moved them on their separate ways. Now they are married and live in England! Very romantic.

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One of the most exciting things about this area is seeing the two castles facing each other on opposite sides of the Narova. Narva, or Hermann castle on the Estonian side and the Ivangorod Fortress on the Russian side. I have never seen anything quite like this before – it is pretty impressive!

We then had a short tour of some of the other sights of Narva. We kept seeing wedding parties, and eventually gatecrashed one by the monument of the Swedish lion on the prompting of Paul’s mum, who told them we were newlyweds ourselves. The lion was gifted to Narva by Sweden to commemorate the success of Karl XII of Sweden against the Russian invasion of 1700. The original lion was destroyed in WWII, but Sweden gifted the second in 2000 to mark the 300th anniversary of the battle. Apparently, the lion has its backside presented to Russia in a gesture of mockery! It was here that we toasted the happy couple with plastic cups of champagne!SONY DSC

That evening we got back on the coach and joined those in the customs queue on the bridge. Most passengers wandered through without a problem, but Luke was held up going through customs for several minutes. The customs official examined his passport, looking suspiciously at him, then made a phone call where she said barely two words and received a short answer, after which he was allowed through. We have had some conjecture as to what this conversation was. “This one’s photo is really funny” – “Ha ha, great, that’s one for the hall of fame!”  Please feel free to comment if you have any ideas!

We arrived late at night in St Petersburg. We felt like we had entered a scene from The Arrival (a graphic novel by Shaun Tan). Everywhere there were symbols that we didn’t understand, when we tried to buy a metro pass the card was empty and when we went to buy a ticket from the desk we were confused to be only given coins in change – until we discovered that one of the coins was actually a metro token, equivalent to a ticket. As we bumbled about, even without our hefty rucksacks, we might as well have had TOURIST emblazoned in big red letters on our foreheads. In Cyrillic, of course.

After successfully navigating the metro, we eventually found our hostel with the help of a friendly young Russian couple, who had clearly read what was written on our foreheads. Having arrived at 120 Nevsky Prospekt, we found no sign of our hostel. Of course, silly us, the entrance was on the back of the street, on the other side of the building down a dingey urine smelling alleyway – which we had naively thought was a different street altogether. We collapsed onto our hostel bed and Luke read aloud some Wind in the Willows to help assuage the culture shock!

Sunday in St Petersburg. What a fantastic day!

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We started off by visiting the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood – which I think is currently my favourite building of the world. Beautiful and crazy; colourful higgledy piggledy onion domes, exquisite mosaics – a marked contrast to somewhere like the Taj Mahal where the beauty is in the symmetry (which is more traditional); here it is in the acquisition of a wonderful haphazard balance of various patterns and shapes. You might be wondering at this point why it is called Church on Spilled Blood. In 1881, the Russian emperor Alexander II was murdered on the spot on which the church was built. What a fantastic memorial! If you were going to be assassinated, you might as well have something like this built to mark the occasion. Best not to be assassinated at all though, really.

We nearly didn’t go inside, as I thought it could never be as amazing as the outside – but I am so glad we did. I never knew there could be such arSONY DSCtistry in mosaic form! The walls were covered in biblical scenes, each bordered with intricate patterns, which varied from wall to wall. Rather than the usual scenes depicted in churches where the art work is often stSONY DSCaid, the figures stilted and facial features display a limited range of emotions, here the expressions on the faces really told a story, each panel was like entering a little scene, it made you want to read on, like some sort of wonderful gigantic comic strip. And all done in tiny little bricks! If I had been able to read Russian, or had invested in an audio guide, I might be able to tell you how they did it. As it is, I can only wonder; but in a sense, the ignorance is just as fun. I can unweave the rainbow at a later point! That’s what Wikipedia is for, right?

The Russian Museum was our next port of call. We chose this over the Hermitage (well, okay, we didn’t realise that the Hermitage would be closed the following day), as we were really keen to see Russian art, rather than paintings by artists more familiar to us. It was well worth the trip. As well as the superb folk art rooms, with their fascinating displays of traditional, prettily decorated pottery, toys and clothing, there were rooms filled with wonderful paintings and sculptures by artists which I had never heard of before. Many of the paintings depicted scenes from Russian history and the Aussie-narrated audio guide was really enlightening.

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My favourite newly discovered artists include Ilya Repin and Vasily Surikov. Surikov painted this brilliant picture of the General Suvorov crossing the Alps with his Russian troops. It was thought impossible, yet here Suvorov is egging the men on with a joke: they start off laughing, but closer to the drop they grow more worried, until we see the plummeting soldiers with abject terror on their faces. Apparently, he visited the Alps himself to study the movements of sliding through snow to get the different stages of acceleration. I like to think he had loads of fun doing this, sliding on his palette, leaving painty streaks in the snow.

We finished up with the sculpture walk through the Summer Garden where we did some sketching, then dinner in lovely restaurant, where I had my first true Russian beef stroganoff. There were slapstick silent movies from the 1920s playing on loop, the toilets had typewriters and old communist propaganda leaflets in them and there were rabbits in cages in the back room. They looked healthy, but their cages were small; I hope they are let out often for a lollop!

Garlic? Ice cream?

We did go to the garlic restaurant last night and had a wonderful meal. I steered clear of the garlic ice cream though. At the end they ‘treated’ us to garlic schnapps on the house – INTERESTING. Bleearrrgh.

I have not succumbed to the buying of any wooden buttons or medieval paraphernalia thus far, but I was tempted by a clock made from a Reader’s Digest record that had been laser cut into the batman symbol. A winning combination, I thought. We visited the puppet museum, climbed up to the top of a cathedral for beautiful views across Tallinn and went to Fat Margaret’s Tower. We also had a wander around the little gardens made by people for the Talllinn flower festival. The best bits were the deep and meaningful explanations of the symbolism of the gardens, which were reminiscent of the sort of self analysis you do for GCSE. (Example: Luke’s GCSE art sculpture of a person without a face – because he ran out of time to give it a face – represented the ‘cold facelessness of Mother Nature’). Probably my favourite was the peaceful wildflower garden where as you walked through you would be, ‘accosted by various rushes’. Luckily we survived the experience.

We are in Tallinn!

We made it! There was bubbly waiting for us in our room last night. Luke said he was glad we didn’t have to go home with our head between our tails.(???)

I think if we were a two tailed dog, that might look something like this.

(This was much harder to draw than I thought!)

DAY 1 – 17th September

So! Day one of our round the world adventure…

First of all, I’d like to make a little disclaimer, and tell you a little bit of background to explain how we got to where we are now. (Where we are now is a little unexpected and unplanned for!)

Back in April (I think!), Luke proposed to me at Petworth House, a lovely National Trust property in East Sussex… and I said yes, of course. I got two knees instead of the usual one – bonus! From that time we started to plan not only our wedding, but also our round the world trip; something which we had been vaguely thinking about for a while.

So with full time jobs on the go, we set about our crazy scheme. We fixed ourselves a deadline for the wedding – September 6th of the same year – aiming to leave on our trip shortly afterwards. As well as the wedding and travel plans, we had to arrange for the house to be rented out and find new homes for our lovely tortoise, Bettina, and our piano.

The wedding was FANTASTIC. Cogges Manor Farm in Witney was the perfect venue for us; as well as being a beautiful setting, we were able to put our own stamp on the occasion – this included lots of paintings of tits (the birds, that is!), kazoos to lead us down the aisle, and we even had Molly the barn owl to – nearly – deliver the rings! Our family and friends helped us A LOT with the wedding. WE LOVE YOU ALL! Needless to say, there were many late nights in the week leading up to the big day – cutting out birds, painting tits etc – you know, all the important things.

Anyway. It was wedding, wedding, wedding, then all of a sudden I was Mrs Titley and it was, ARGHHH we have to get our house ready to rent out! For those of you that know us, it will come as no surprise that we managed to fill a large skip whilst clearing out the house. My parents came to the rescue and like whirlwinds managed to accelerate the proceedings significantly. Ele came over and took photos of all Luke’s sketches (there were a lot!) so he could throw them away. Our wonderful friends came over in the evenings to save us from drowning in junk. The marvellous Maws stepped in for Bettina, and she is now holidaying with some new tortoise acquaintances. We bid goodbye to the piano – it got out of our house alright, but Elaine had to remove a door to get it inside hers!

It took until just after midnight last night to get everything ready for the tenants. We had direct debits to cancel, mail to redirect, mortgage agreements to make and goodness knows what else (I’m sure something will come back to bite me!). More boxes to fill. The garden to tame. Then the endless bits and bobs to get rid of that seem to have no place. Oh and the small task of packing for a year of travel! Ha!

We arrived at Luke’s parents’ house just after 1am this morning, exhausted, but excited about starting our adventure with our flight from Luton airport to Tallinn early the next day. We knew we would only get 3 hours sleep, but it was going to be worth it.

That was the disclaimer part.

WE WENT TO THE WRONG AIRPORT.

We blithely turned up at Luton and examined the departure board with increasing incredulity…. Where was our flight?! We checked our boarding passes. Ah. London Gatwick. That was where our flight was. We weren’t going to make it. SO. An expensive plan B and Luke’s parents to the rescue this time… we are now about to board our flight to Tallinn…from Stansted Airport. Later than planned, but still the same day! What fools! Anyway, we are treating this as a timely reminder that everything needs to be triple checked – and at least this happened in the UK!