Thursday, 29 May 2008

Olkhon Island

Distance traveled: 7775 km

It was a misty morning at the train station in Irkutsk, when I hit the northern outskirts of the Asian backpacker trails - It was quite easy to tell since the number of backpackers at the station outnumbered the 1 or 2 odd travelers I'd seen at other station, by quite a substantial factor.

Behind me was a 58 hour train ride of 3 nights and 2 days, which is long enough in itself, but was made even longer by the fact that my cabin mates turned out to be to elderly Russian women (I'd jokingly asked for 3 Russian chicks when i was in Ekaterinburg, so I guess God has a sense of humour anyway) Not only were they not terribly attractive, they also seemed to be terribly worried about my health and size, so they were constantly feeding me with bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and god knows what else. Anyway I survived, and I can testify that Russian hospitality is indeed legendary.

Anyway, battle hardened from almost 3 weeks in Russia, I decided 58 hours wasn't quite enough of a challenge, and decided to head straight for the bus station for my bus to Olkhon island in lake Baikal (another 5 hours on a terrible road). But knocked by head to a big "Njet" from the Babushka at the ticket window - Road was closed apparently - or as i found out, the road wasn't exactly closed, but the rules and regulations demanded it to be so, and so it was.

Hostel was sold out, arranged a home stay, and just as i was settling, the hostel suddenly called at said a minibus was leaving in 10 minutes - Naturally yours truly was on it :-)

Ran into a great group of people, 3 couples - a British, a Canadian/English and a Icelandic/Danish on the minibus - and safely there and quite exhausted, we ended up having something of party in the sunshine on the balcony of our Bungalow anyway. Late that night, and a bit tipsy, and in search of a cigarette, I banged my head against a really large Russian dude. Who gave me a grave look, and in a very deep voice uttered "ВOДKA!" - and so, Vodka it was - everything after that seems to quite blurry! :)

The Island was beautiful, unfortunately we had the worst weather they had seen this time of year, in many many years. Which made it all that more fortunate that the guest house we stayed in, was so lovable!

3 traditional meals a day was included in the ridiculously low price - which basically meant you went to the restaurant, and in a matter of minutes, you'd be eating the most wonderful warm Russian stew, with cabbage and bread. It was sooooo nice! The rest of the 3 COLD! days on the island went with playing cards, sitting in the Banja (sauna)

... And lastly, we went on a grand tour to the north Cape of the island, with this wonderful Russian grandfather type, in his old army truck - the dark gray sky made the whole scenery look so dramatic - sometimes you'd look around and imagine you were on Greenland. And sometime it would look like lush Steppe. Our granddad for the day even made wonderful soup in a bowl under the open fire.

I'm back in Irkutsk now, and even though it's only a 5 hour (which is basically like 1 stop with the s-train, by Siberian standards - which I'm getting all used too) and we were riding though huge piles of snow in the mountains, here in Irkutsk you can wear T-Shirt and shots , pretty crazy!

Anyway, have 2 days here, and then I'm of with a train to Ulaan Bataar - The capital of Mongolia - on Saturday.


- Stefan

Monday, 26 May 2008


Distance traveled: 4160 km

We'd gotten of the train, and was trying to figure out a way to get to this Hotel - The Bolshoi (meaning large) when we bumped into a Swiss girl, escorted by to men in rather fancy uniforms. Turns out this was the case of two Russian gentlemen who had met our new friend on the train, and during their 5 hour layover, had insisted on escorting this "lost" woman to her hotel - In reality, they didn't have the faintest clue where this Hotel was, or how to get there - what they did have though, was the ability to speak Russian :-) and they did get us there, it has to be said.

Russia being the horribly expensive country it is, we opted for rooms without private showers, much to the bewilderment of our two captains, who was fighting a loosing battle trying to translate for us, add the confusion of 3 westeners on one hotel, going in two different directions, on three different days, to the registration paperwork - and we had a rather hillarious situation on our hands :-)

Anyway, we got our hard fought rooms, and we were all rather impressed with the place, until we arrived at our corridor, in the unrenovated section - and in a flash we were back so Soviet times!

Unpacked the girls had their comrade captains waiting, so we all went for drink, which very appropriately, since they were navy officers, hapenned on the Yellow submarine bar. Turns out that even though they were both 28 years old, we were the first foreigners they had ever met, seemed like we were making a rather good impression, since they had a 2nd beer with us before their train - and they weren't allowed to drink alcohol in the first place :)

We followed them back to the station, turned out they had been on the train for 3 days, going from Vladivostok, had another 8 hours, before they reached their destination, where they only had 3 days of recruitment to do, before they were going all the way back! crazy! Anyway we wen't back to the Hotel and a some beers and wine before going to bed.

Next morning we all went to the border between Europe and Asia, and had a foot on each continent, apparently it's very scientific, and the real deal, even though it didn't look all that impressive.

In the evening we were listening to music and drinking beers in the sun, at a bar in the park by the Hotel, sitting there enjoying myself, I had to admit that Russia is really growing on me!

Anyway goodbye to the girls, as i had a very late train to catch 1:45 at night, it even turned out to be an hour late, for a 3 nights and 2 days, train journey all the way across Siberia to Irkutsk. A journey of almost 3000 km

Monday, 19 May 2008



Well it took some convincing to get Phillipa here, but glad i did
since Kazan was an awfully civilized place, compared to what i've seen
of the rest of provincial Russia or even Moscow.

We arrived horribly early in the morning, possibly since we an a
heartfelt effort to fit in with the locals, drank some balticas before
bedtime. But the fact we were woken up a full hour before arrival, did
feel a bit like she was giving us a light taste of her migthy
powers! :-)

Safely at the station we were joined by one of those rare English
speaking locals, who offered to give us the grand tour. Which we did,
after a fair bit of dificulty getting our onwards tickets - Phillipas
name on the ticket had been past a russian numeraligist and was now
"Nationality Australian" in Mongolian. Not really useful neither for
boarding the train, or as proof of stay!

Anyway after all the fun, we joined our local, for a guided tour of
the city; the beautiful Kremlin and the old city. Before going on a
rampage in search of Bliny's for breakfast, all in vain, and rather
tragic our search ended on the local McDonalds - the only place open
this early. Next stop was an enjoyable wet picnic by the fountain in
the local park, featuring some very good local brews - and
fortunantly, this being Russia, no one found it the sljghtest bit odd,
to be drinking beers 11 in the morning on a weekday.

Out guide left to attend some Buisness, so we went in search of some
internet on the local university - guys im telling you, even CBS had
nothing on this place in terms of chicks :-)

Day ended hanging out in the sun, on the local beach, with view to the
lovely Kremlin.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Suzdal & Nizny Novgorod

Суздаль & Нижний Новгород
Distance Travelled: 2781 km

Ok then...

Morning of hangovers and on to the station, since there was a train to catch. Plans slightly altered the destination was now Suzdal, which is a world heritage site only a short ride out of Moscow.

We found our subway, and our station, relatively easily but then the luck sort of ran out, as we had apparently lined up in the wrong cue, which we naturaly only found out when it was our turn, after about an hours wait, wonderfull - Russian cueing, you either love it or loathe it.

So instead of another hours wait, we decided to give up on the train altogether, since it wasn't really working for us, and go for the bus instead, which turned out terribly easier, as this was quite simply a matter of boarding the first bus we saw, and paying the 150 ruble ticket, on the bus.

Well it all seemed a bit to easy, until i sat down in my seat, very much wanting to go to a hard sleep - but no - this being russia, my bloody seat didn't work - meaning i couldn't lean back for about 2 hours, through Moscow traffic and everything! After which i got so deperate that i actually managed to fix the seat, probably out of sheer desperation.

Once we had reached Vladimir, it was on with a local bus - had a fair bit of difficulty buying tickets for the bus, since the dear Babushka at the ticket counter, asked me something in Russian, and refused to go any further before i had answered a question, which, one would think, it was fairly obvious I didn't understand. Well luckely the lady in the counter next to her, seem to feel some sort of sympathy towards us, and away we were - on some German citybus - or atleast the entrance said bitte nicht aufsteigen :)

Arrived in Suzdal in late afternoon - and it turned out to be absolutely beautiful! especially in the twilight (the pictures should speak for themselves) . Well, as their always seem to be some minor complication going on in this country, obviously the Hotels were all full, since it was weekend - and a nice little weekend trip from Moscow.

Luckily we managed to land a room in Guesthouse (basicly a room in their house) at a wonderful and kind lady, it was so nice, and an absolute bargain! she even gave us biscuts and jam in the morning :)

Next morning we cruised around a bit and saw most of the sights (Suzdal is a rather small town, it does seem to have more churches than people though) and then it was of to Nizhny Novgorod, which turned out to be somewhat of a dissapoinment. However rooms was sold out, so we stayed in a proper western style hotel room - bathtub and everything - otherwise Nizhny is just a drab industrial town by the Volga..

We did have good fun ordering food here though, Russian/Cyrilic only menues. so it has basicly been a food lottery as of late - fun fun! and things havent gone terribly wrong yet! :)

Anyway, im outta time here at the internet place in Kazan, so.... to be continued :)

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Still in Moscow

Slight change of plans...

Still in Moscow, ended up with a pretty cool bunch of people at my hostel here, and we went out last night, once again, I promise you guys that Moscow night-life is absolutely legend!...

Anyway, might have found an Aussie to travel around with as far as Irkutsk, if everything works out all right - there is quite a bit of difference in our schedules - it would take a few more stops going through Siberia - first one would be Suzdal a couple of hours travel outside Moscow.

Anyway, I'll keep you guys updated.

Friday, 16 May 2008


Distance traveled: 2289 km

After 2 days further days of urban exploration, my impression of Moscow remains somewhat mixed.

Let me for a short while, go back to the subway system, since I made some additional observations regarding this peculiarity. The Russian officials responsible for the damn thing, have apparently decided on a spell of heavy vodka consumption, that if invasion is ever going come, the mighty American army will surely be taking the subway down to the Kremlin from the airport!

And so they have gone to great lengths to avoid this. For one - they can have giant flat screen TV's down in the deep, but ticket machines? they will have none of it! So at every station the potential invader would have to deal with grumpy old ladies, who just isn't going take it (or anything else for that matter). Second - They have managed at every single of the 176 stations on the system - not to place a map of the system. So unless you know exactly where you are going, and how you plan to get there, the Metro is absolutely useless, and they've made damn sure that everything is in Cyrillic too, so private Ryan won't stand a chance in hell - It's absolutely hilarious.

Well, some other stuff, I went to see Lenin, who is taking a rather large nap beneath the Red Square, apart of course, from his brain, which - sliced into thin pieces - are safely resting across town at the University of Moscow, Somehow I doubt he is going to wake up any time soon. But just to make sure no one does, the Russians have employed guards - to, well, guard, Lenin's tomb. And rather strangely at least one of them bears an uncanny resemblance to Gollum of Lord of the Rings fame, i wouldn't be terribly surprised if, after closing time, he climbs into the coffin with good old Lenin, and calls him "my precious".

Walked around the Kremlin, but couldn't get in - naturally - since it was a Thursday. That's obvious, or maybe just Russian.

Anyway during nightime i got to see the cool part of Moscow, went to a couple of clubs with a befriended Russian-Canadian guy. It was wicked, for all their flaws the Russians does know how to party, and the decor of clubs i went to, left London or New York very little to be desired. And naturally my halfway Russian host had me drink Vodka shots - i promise you - they're big, really big, and surprisingly tasty.

So naturaly next morning i woke up with hangovers - and to redeem ourself from a night of sin - we went cultural. First we wen't to the xxx museum, and among other things saw this painting which i absolutely love! then on to the armory of the Kremlin - very impressive - and i got to see some real faberge eggs too! While we were waiting for entry there, i got to see another glimpse of the bohemian Moscow that lurks in the shadows - we wen't for a bite, to a shady courtyard, down some concrete stairs, with damp walls - around a corner, through a security guard, and into the most classy restaurant i've eaten in for a very long time. Had an excellent Risotto!

Now waiting a bit until my train leaves for Kazan at 00:30.

Anyway, this anecdote, overheard on the street near the red square (Vlad translated). 2 police officers in full uniform talking to each other on the street, and one guy goes "Let's get a bottle of Vodka" And the other guy goes "Njet - let's get a box of Vodkas!" :-)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Arriving at Moscow

Distance traveled: 2289 km

- New cities can be disorienting!
- New cities where you don`t know the language or alphabet - particularly so!
- And a new city where you don't know the language, alphabet, and you arrive smack in the middle of rush hour where 10 million people are trying to get to work at the same bloody time, with the same bloody subway will just outright blow - you - up!

Well you guessed it, I did. The night train from Saint Petersburg arrived at Leningradsky (don't you just love that the stations are actually called that) station at 7.00 o'clock in the morning. And since the station seemed to be somewhat of a magnet for shady looking types, I decided against digging up my Lonely planet from the backpack, since it felt like it would be somewhat of an open invitation for one of those aforementioned shady charecters to come and rob me.

The priority, i thought, was getting my ass out of there as quickly as possible, and regain my bearings at more friendly territory. So I made for the subway, which, i wondered, was a very peculiar type of subway - as it had more than a handfull of exit points and not a single entry point. After a few rounds around the subway station, making me look like the stupid tourist i was anyway, I realized that i weren't the only idiot around, and a silly looking chap, wearing a metro sign was pointing down the street.

I followed his finger, or at least the direction it was pointing, and Eureka! 500 meters further down along the street, the architects must have run out of Vodka for a while, and actually added an entry point. However, for a metro with so many exits and so few entries there were an extraordinary amount of people in there.

And very rude ones too, at least those Moscowites haven't heard of cuing. So going down an escalator, with atleast a 1000 other people wanting to do just that, at the same time - and not being sensible enough to devise a cuing system, made navigation somewhat of challenge. Wearing a large backpack didn't exactly help things. Not knowing where i was, where i was going, and what line to take, didn't exactly brighten the outlook.

Anyway going on intuition, since i couldn't find a system map, and i couldn't find any signs informing me which station I was at (the architects must have found some more Vodka in a closet somewhere, by the time they reached 'signposting' on their agenda) I boarded a train, which was basicly just the train that send out the better vibes. 2 stations later i thought I saw some pink beneath some incomprehensible cyrilic writing, and decided to go for it - since my stop was on the pink line - this seemed to be a very reasonable idea.

And somehow, without really realizing what i did, i had ended up at Kitay Gorod, which was pretty much exactly where I needed to be.

My hostel seemed to share the general idea, that signposting is a bad concept. (I don't know, maybe it's the Vodka!) When you're located on the 3rd floor of a dodgy looking stair case, in a court yard of the main street, in my humble opinion, some sort of sign is not a bad idea!

Anyway eventually found it, and went for a walk around the Red Square and the Kremlin, very interresting actually seeing it yourself, nothing like i had imagined it to look like.

First impressions of Moscow, is that it lacks the grace of Saint Petersburg. While Saint Petersburg seems graceful, Moscow is bombastic. The girls in Saint Petersburg looked pretty, here they more than anything seem to look, well, Russian. And the clothing have changed too, from the very chick and fashionable in Saint Petersburg, to the more serious and formal here in Moscow.

Anyway, have two more days here, so you'll get a rapport on this - the largest city in Europe - in a few days.

- Stefan

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Saint Petersburg

Distance travelled: 1639 km

Finaly inside a Russia, the border formaleties were carried out on the train, and basicly went as smooth as anywhere else - and definantly smoother than what i experienced at Newark Airport in the States.

After crossing the border with some delays, the train continued for Saint Petersburg - the difference between Finland and Russia was very clear. The houses started to look like something that would fall apart any day, the gardens are used for everyday food - and not just pretty flowers, and the roads were looking in a much more sorry state than they had on the other side of the border.

It took a couple of hours from the border, until we arrived at the Finlandzky railway station in northern Saint Petersburg. Expecting to be attacked by people wanting me to go to their hotel and ride their taxies - I was very pleasantly surprised that this was not the case - at all actually - after a bit searching around for an ATM and getting my first rubles, I went for the subway to go downtown.

Ha! - i'll never forget the look at the ticket ladies face when I handed her a 5000 rubles note (1000 Danish kroner) for a 14 rubles ticket for the Metro. But she got even when she returned a freaking large bunch of Notes back to me at a overcrowded subway station :-)

The Hostel - Cubahostel - where i've stayed, is a cool and lovely social hangout - smack downtown - 2 minuttes of the main street 'Nevsky Prospect'. The days have gone by exploring the neighboorhood around the hostel by foot. And socializing at the hotstel during the evenings - Now i'm really travelling again :o) wee!

So far I haven't been anything but positively surprised by this strange country. Things seem to be in a far better shape than we hear about in the west. Sure, there is social decay, but so far i haven't seen anything that i consider worse than a trailerpark full of white trash outside Detroit or something like that. On the other hand, the middle class here in Saint Petersburg seem to be fairly large, people even in the outskirts of the city center are very very neatly dressed, in posh brands, and drive better cars than we do back in Copenhagen. I'm sure if I went out in the real russian suburbia, the story would be different, but i'm impressed all the same.

Went to the Hermitage today - i guess all there is to say about that place is - wow! a few pictures in the gallery. Also bought my first train tickets, for the Moscow - Irkutsk leg of my journey...

... In the interrest of my personal safety, the schedule is as follows.

May 13th 23:30 - 07:10 Saint Petersburg - Moscow
May 17th 00:30 - 12:50 Moscow - Kazan
May 17th 20:20 - 14:10 Kazan - Ekaterinburg
May 20th 12:30 - 17:45 Ekaterinburg - Irkutsk (arrive on the 22nd)
May 23rd 08:00 - 16:00 Irkutsk - Khuznir (Bus - Olkhon island)

Monday, 12 May 2008

Inside Russia

Distance travelled: 1639 km

Just a quick post to let you guys know im safely into Russia, and at my Hostel in St Petersburg now - so far im pleasantly surprised, but ill keep you posted a bit later

- Stefan

Saturday, 10 May 2008


Distance traveled: 1214 km

Finally i got to visit our brother people in the north, certainly the Finns are the odd one out in Nordic context.

My first impression comming out of the rather massive ferry from Tallinn, was something of a welcome to land of Nokia, when a girl on the bus showed a text message to the bus driver as her bus ticket - neat :)

Anyway, journey to my hostel turned out to be a bit of journey, as it was located 15 minutes outside Helsinki on the motorway, in a suburb called Mattby - and something totally unpronounceable in Finnish. Superb location though, nestled in a pine forest down by a narrow inlet in the gulf of Finland, with it's own beach - although i didn't dare venture into the water this far North in early May :-)

The next day went with sightseeing in Helsinki, which really doesn't say much, as here is not that much to see here, although the town is cozy enough. I went out to Sveaborg , which is an old giant fortification, on an island at the sea approach to Helsinki. Quite nice, it actually had a little tint of Christiana to it, probably due to the art school and the apparent left wing crowd living there.

Friday i was supposed to leave for Russia, but - luckily - i was double checking everything, and as it turned out, with tiny print, my Russian visa doesn't allow me to enter Russia before Sunday. So i tried heading for the embassy to have it changed, but the consular department was close, bummer, so i went for a travel agency close by, that had a big sign with Express Visas outside, and asked if it would be a problem. The middle aged lady at the desk looked at me with a patient look in her eyes, and with a firm voice made it clear, that this would indeed be a problem.

So on to the railway station in a hurry, since I had 3 hours until my train were leaving, and much to my great relief, there was no problem changing the dates of my tickets to St Petersburg and Moscow.

The 'Sibilius' leaves for St Petersburg at 7.00 tomorrow, and then the journey really begins :-)

- Stefan

Monday, 5 May 2008


Distance traveled: 1118 km

I came to Estonia expecting somewhat of a gentle introduction to the wonders and horrors of Eastern Europe - Well - those sneaky fucking Estonians...

While we've been walking around thinking of the Baltics as poor nations, riddled with organised crime from the Russian mob, human trafficking, and an economy in ruins after 60 years of Soviet rule. They've been busy - damn busy - and frankly there's very little things left around Tallinn, to suggest you're east of the Iron curtain. The buildings have been renovated, and anything giving even the slightest stench of hammer and sickle - have been blown smithereens by the city administration. The Lada's og Trabi's of old, has long since been replaced with Volvo's, Lexus', Mercedes' and BMW's. And a pint of beer down in the city center, will set you back 40 kroner. And that's not all...

Estonia, or Tallinn at least, seem to have been subjected to somewhat of a veritable Scandinavian invasion, a couple of 100 years since the last conquests (where, for those who knows our history, is where our lovely flag comes from). Apparently business leaders around the Nordic capitals, collectively decided that 'them darn Ruskis ain't got nothing on us'. So after the last sorry soldiers of the red army left, and the Baltic peoples celebrated their new found independence - in the spirit of our ancestors, they embarked on a capitalistic and cultural conquest on their own, to regain the territory lost 100 years ago.

And so it happened that today, 16 years after the Estonian independence, people drive in their Volvo's or Saab's to the Statoil gas station, buy a pack of Prince or Red Corners, and pay with their Nordea credit card. And before they drive home, they invite their friends out for a Carlsberg beer, with their Nokia phone on a Tele2 prepaid service paid for in Estonian Kroner (or Kroon). So it seems all natural that the city's only two tall buildings, that dominates the skyline of Tallinn - along with the hill where the old town, built by Swedes and Danes centuries ago, lies - would be a Radisson SAS hotel and the Estonian headquarters of Skandinaviska EnskildaBanken. The prime minister has even gone so far, as to suggest they change their flag to a Scandinavian Cross. But hey, atleast they seem more happy about us than the Russians :-)

The city itself is absolutely beatifull, the old town is pretty big, with brightly painted old houses, impeccably renovated, rising above the cobblestoned streets. Full of (expensive) restaurants, sidewalk cafés, and trendy fashion stores. And some huge churches thrown in here and there for good measure. Outside the old town many parts of the city has wooden houses with small gardens and cedar trees. If you look carefully you can see some old soviet concrete appartment complexes - appartently the Estonians decided that if the Russians build it, they can live in it - and left it for the large (40 odd percent) Russian population to live in.

Unlike the ethnic Estonians, that doesn't look all that different from us - The Russians here, still very much look, well, Russian. And from i understand, they don't have much more money than their counterparts on the other side of the border either. But then again - who are we too teach Estonians good morals - we we're having a good time building parcel homes and selecting which jolly garden gnome to put in the garden, while they we're being deported to Siberia for buying the wrong morning newspaper.

Anyway, food, beer, sleep and up for a ferry to Helsinki tomorrow (hopefully in that order).