Saturday, May 31, 2008

Leaves and fountains

Siamo arrivati ad Almaty passando per zone aride e desertiche. Certo giungere in una citta' che viene ricordata per i suoi viali circondati da alberi secolari non era quello che ci saremmo aspettati. Difficile parlare di architettura o di monumenti memorabili in una citta i cui edifici sono quasi interamente nascosti da alberi su ogni singola strada che abbiamo potuto vedere. In piu', ogni secondo isolato si trovano parchi e fontane suggestive. Sebbene sia una citta' piuttosto calda, l'ombra e la brezza la rendono molto piacevole.

C'e' molta vita, e molti negozi, bar, ristoranti punteggiano le vie centrali. Anche se non sembra, una macchina ogni due e' un taxi. Per andare a prendere I biglietti per il treno successivo ci siamo trovati a doverne prendere uno. Non si vedevano taxi sulle strade ma ho provato lo stesso a sbracciare un po' su un angolo e nel giro di 10 secondi stavamo gia' contrattando Il prezzo con un simpatico tassista non registrato.

Almaty e' un ottimo posto per provare il cibo kazako. Al bazaar o nei ristoranti o nei piccoli stand che si trovano lungo le strade, la scelta e' ampia e deliziosa. I samsa, lontani parenti dei samoosa indiani, sono delle paste sfoglie ripiene di carne. I shaslik sono probabilmente il piatto piu comune: sono degli spiedini, spesso di montone, cotti su forni a legna. Poi c'e' il plov, un risotto locale fatto con carne e verdure, e una serie di focacce deliziose. Frutta esiccata, noci, e latte di cavalla fermentato si aggiungono alla gamma dei cibi che si possono trovare per le strade.


We got to Almaty passing through arid deserts. Arriving to a city that distinguishes itself for its tree-lined avenues was not what we had expected. It's hard to talk about the architecture or about monuments in a city where every building is hidden behind huge trees in each and every street we could see. Plus, each second block we could find beautiful parks and fountains. Despite the heat, shade and breeze made the days very pleasant.

There is a lot of life, and lots of shops, bars and restaurants line the streets. Moving around the city is pretty easy, even if it does not look like, every second car is a taxi. Once we needed to get one but we could not find it. I decided to wave my hand at a corner anyways and in less than 10 seconds we were negociating the price with a funny unregistered driver.

Almaty is a great place to sample kazakh food. In the bazaars, in the restaurants or on the street, the choice is wide and delicious. Samsas, distant relatives of indian samoosas, are pastries stuffed with meat. Shaslik are a favourite: mutton kebabs cooked on a wood fired barbeque. A very common dish is plov, a local rice cooked with meat and vegetables in huge woks. Kazakh bread reminds me of the focaccias you can buy in italian pizzarias. Dried fruits, nuts and fermented mare's milk add to the range of food we found on the streets.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Horses and mountains

Prima di lanciarci sull'altra grande citta' Kazaka, Almaty, abbiamo deciso di spendere qualche giorno nella riserva naturale di Aksu Jabagly. Sono sceso dal treno mezzo intossicato dai fumi di pesce esiccato che la donna con cui dividevamo il compartimento aveva comprato. Per fortuna l'aria di montagna, il buon cibo locale e le escursioni nel parco mi hanno fatto rinascere.Che la si visiti in jeep saltando sui fossi a tutta velocita', o cavalcando cavallini kazaki che pensano solo a mangiare e a mordersi a vicenda, oppure a piedi, la riserva ha dei paesaggi formidabili, flora e fauna unici ed un'atmosfera rilassante che mi mancava vivendo a Londra.

Il parc
o si trova vicino ad un villaggio, nel quale una coppia kazaka-olandese ci ha ospitato. Il villaggio, Jabagly, ha 2000 abitanti e 600 di questi sono ragazzini che frequentano la scuola locale. Non ci sono bar, non ci sono ristoranti, non ci sono locande, c'e' un solo negozio che vende un po' di tutto. Veramente, a parte prendersi cura di pecore e cavalli, non sembra esserci nulla da fare per questi ragazzi. Quasi tutti I bambini che abbiamo trovato bighellonare per le strade sono stati entusiasti per mettersi in posa, e tutti ci hanno salutato in inglese.

Le tubature del gas sono particolari qui in kazakstan, perche' invece di essere interrate, sono tutte rialzate a pochi centimetri dal terreno per facilitare le riparazioni in caso di terremoto. Se c'e un passo carrabile, le tubature prendono la forma di una porta da calcio. Di ritorno da una escursione, abbiamo incontrato il solo esperto dei paesi vicini per tali tubature. Il poveretto non ha una macchina per cui si sposta di posto in posto facendo autostop.


Before going to the other Kazakh big city, Almaty, we decided to spend some days in the natural reserve of Aksy Jabagly. I got off the train half intoxicated from the fumes of the dried fish the lady we were sharing the compartment with had bought. Luckily, the mountain air, the good local food and the excursions in the park gave me a rebirth. Either speeding on the hills on a jeep, riding small Kazakh horses that only focused in eating and biting each other, or trekking on canyons, the reserve has amazing landscapes, unique flora and fauna and a relaxing atmosphere I really missed living in London.

The park is near a village where a kazakh-dutch couple hosted us. The village, Jabagly, has 2000 inhabitants and 600 of these are school children. There are no cafes, no restaurants, no hostels, and only one shop that sells a bit of everything. Really, except for talking care of sheep and horses, there is nothing to do here for those kids. Almost all the children we met killing time on the streets were keen in posing for pictures and they all greeted us in english.

The gas tubes are peculiar in Kazakhstan, because instead of being underground, they are lifted a few centimetres above the ground. If there is a passage for cars, the tubes take the amusing shape of a soccer goal. Back from an excursion, we met the only expert in the neighborhood for such tubes. The poor man had no car and therefore moved around hitchhiking.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Astana


Abbandonata la Siberia dopo un solo giorno di treno ci siamo trovati in un clima completamente differente. Il caldo di Astana, da soli 14 anni la capitale del Kazakistan, e' stata solo la prima delle sorprese. Grattacieli dalle linee che rifiutano ogni ortogonalita' dominano il paesaggio, spiaggie fluviali e foreste artificiali lo abbelliscono e monumenti mastodontici catturano l'attenzione all'orizzonte. Ben poco autenticamente kazaka, questa citta' sembra voler sfoggiare la trovata indipendenza e la ricchezza del terzo paese nel mondo in termini di riserve petrolifere.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Omsk and Tomsk


Nascoste nelle profondita' della Siberia ci sono due cittadine con simili nomi: Omsk e Tomsk. Sebbene piacevoli e rilassate, non hanno molto da sfoggiare. Entrambe costruite su fiumi i cui orizzonti sono costellati di impianti di estrazione, mostrano un volto meno turistico della Russia post sovietica.

Blocchi giganteschi di appartamenti in cemento e metallo arrugginito torreggiano sopra la citta' intervallati qua e la da cupole di chiese ortodosse, palazzine antiche e statue di Lenin. Lungo le strade principali cominciano a comparire alcuni negozi di catene occidentali, e si vedono cartelli pubblicitari di televisori, pellicce e videocamere.

Il fulcro piu vibrante della citta' rimane pero' il bazaar. Ce n'e' almeno uno in ogni citta', e' aperto tutti i giorni ed ha alcune sezioni al coperto. Ottimo posto per trovare cibo a buon mercato e per gustare un po della vita di tutti i giorni qui in Siberia.

Hidden in the depths of Siberia are two towns with similar names: Omsk and Tomsk. Though pleasant and relaxing, they don't have much to show off. Both built along rivers whose horizons are dotted with extraction plants, they show a less touristy face of post soviet Russia.

Huge concrete and rusty metal apartment blocks tower over the landscape, interrupted here and there by the domes of orthodox churches, statues of Lenin and antique mansions. Along the major streets some western chain shops are starting to sprout and you can see signs advertising TVs, fur coats and camcorders.

The most vibrant centre of life, however, is the Bazaar. There is at least one in each town. They are open everyday and have some covered sections. It was definitely worth visiting them when we wanted some cheap food and an insight on everyday life in Siberia.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Babushka!


The workforce in Russia is comprised of an army of little old women. They are everywhere- in hotels, museums, restaurants and trains. They are the tendons and muscles holding together the service industries. Some guard the floors in hotels, growling at bypassers until guest passes are profferred, to which they then wave you down the corridor to your room. Babushkas sit on designated chairs in museums and watch your every move. They stop you from leaning on and touching things, and slap your hand away from the camera when you shouldn't be taking photos. Some check your train tickets and most importantly make sure you get off at the right stop.Others are the keepers of public toilets, who sit outside and take your 10 ruble admisssion fee for the loo. The Babushkas clean up after, supervise and cajole their guests to make sure things are in order and everyone follows the rules. Without these endearing women, I suppose our travels in this country would not have been so comfortable. We were only to learn later that most of the Babushkas are forced to find menial jobs beacause they can't live off the measly state pensions allocated to them.

Tobolsk: wrong way, turn back!

Our holiday planning was based on the recommendation of our “Lonely Planet” book on Russia. We decided to allocate three days to Tobolsk. This little town used to be the place of exile of Tsar Nicholas II and Dostoevsky among others. It is a little off the main railway, so it took a few kilometres by bus to reach it. What we found was a bit of a shock.

We found a nice Kremlin (fortress) on top of a hill. Enclosed within triangular walls, there are two beautiful churches. We managed to sneak inside one. To show respect, women are expected to cover their heads with scarves. The fashion conscious younger women, however, wear scarves to match their trendy jackets, mini skirts and high heels!

Other than that there is really nothing to see or do. A tiny museum, a few shops, no cafes or bars that we could detect, one restaurant. The book in particular recommended the old town, so we visited it. There were rotting, skewed and twisted wooden houses, but not as picturesque as the slums in Tiumen, lots of stray dogs and plenty of sand and roadworks everywhere. The Siberian wind was creating sand waves and whirlwinds all over. In the distance, across the river, we could make out factories and oil extraction facilities, plus a few eyesores of soviet architecture.

There is definitely not much to fill three days with, and so we are taking it easy, relaxing, reading and walking around.On the other hand, I have to say that the people are really nice here. They try hard to understand and to be understood despite the language barriers, they are helpful and ready to smile back to our embarrassed faces. Every shop here seems to be selling mostly the same things. Whole dried fishes, small local semi-dried sausages and pickles are among the most popular products.

Abbiamo programmato le vacanze in siberia in base alle raccomandazioni che abbiamo letto sulla nostra guida. Cosi' abbiamo deciso di allocare tre giorni a Tobolsk. Questa cittadina e' stata il luogo dove lo zar Nicola II e Dostoevsky tra gli altri sono stati esiliati. Si trova un po' spostata rispetto alle linee dei treni principali e perfino per arrivare alla sua stessa stazione dei treni ci vuole un bus che viaggia per un po' in campagna. Quello che abbiamo trovato e' stato pero' un po' uno shock.

Abbiamo trovato un bel Cremlino (fortezza) in cima ad una collina. Racchiuse tra mura triangolari, ci sono due bellissime chiese ortodosse. Siamo riusciti ad entrare in una. Per dimostrare rispetto, qui le donne devono coprire la testa con uno scialle. Le ragazze piu alla moda pero', usano scialli che si abinnino bene con le loro giacchette, minigonne e tacchi alti!

A parte quello, non c'e' veramente quasi nulla da vedere e da fare. Un museo minuscolo, pochi negozi, nessun bar, un ristorante. Il libro in particolare ha raccomandato di vedere la citta' vecchia cosi' ci siam andati. C'erano case in legno in putrefazione, piegate grottescamente dal vento. E tuttavia non erano altrettanto decadenti e pittoresce quanto quelle nei sobborghi poveri di Tiumen. C'erano molti cani randagi e moltissimi lavori in corso e cumuli di sabbia e terra. Il vento siberiano creava ondate di sabbia e piccoli cicloni dappertutto. Da lontano, oltre il fiume, potevamo scorgere estrazioni e raffinerie di petrolio, e molti mostruosi blocchi sovietici di appartamenti. Decisamente non avevamo molto con cui riempire tre giorni, cosi ce la siamo presa comoda, ci siam rilassati, leggendo e passeggiando. D'altra parte pero' devo dire che la gente qui e' molto simpatica. Cercano di capire e di farsi capire nonostante le barriere linguistiche. Cercano sempre di essere d'aiuto e sono sempre pronti a sorridere per rinfrancarci nei momenti di imbarazzo. Ogni negozio sembra vendere per lo piu le stesse cose. Pesci esiccati interi, salsicce raggrinzite che sanno di mortadella e sottaceti sono tra I prodotti piu comuni.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cold Showers in Siberia


Tyumen was to be a brief halt as we waited for a train leaving the next day. The whole town is a construction site, quaint old wooden houses were being demolished to make way for new concrete and brick high rises. It smacked of progress and we wondered how much the town would change in the coming months and years.


For some reason, all the hotels in Tyumen were fully booked! We still don't know whether there was some big event going on that we didn't know about, or whether the appearance of two forlorn foreigners who hadn't showered for a while might have made them scared to admit us! After scouring the whole town, we found one hotel which turned out to be another soviet establishment. We were issued forms to fill in, and eventually our guest ID cards and keys from an unhelpful and perfectly useless receptionist. Then we were shown to a dingy twin room. The bathroom curiously had only one tap which swivelled between the shower recess and the wash basin, the latter appeaingd to be held suspended by some cabling. The toilet was lopsided so if you weren't careful you would fall off and end up in the shower... which only dispensed cold water!


After a freezing cold shower, we explored the town- which we found to be quaint and somewhat charming.At one end were all the modern facilities and amusements, at the other was a village of wooden houses. These traditional abodes were quite beautiful, but unfortunately deteriorating and poorly maintained. We walked out of the main town to a local monastery and then found a gem of an eatery a little off the main street. We were greeted by friendly waitresses who recommended some delicious food after seeing the looks of puzzlement on our faces upon encountering the menu.


We retired, exhausted, to our hotel room to watch some hollywood action movie with the original voices in tact, interspersed with Russian dubbing which followed the dialogue at five second delays.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Trans-Siberian

The first overnight train we took was on the main trans-siberian railway line. This was a modern train with the comforts of hot water, a restaurant, and a motherly carriage attendant who bustled about cleaning after us several times a day. We settled into our sleeper cabin with two middle-aged russian men who occupied the bunks below us. With much gesturing and face pulling, we figured out where one friedly roommate was from, where he was going to, how to store our luggage, switch off the lights, the radio and lock the door. Meanwhile, the other roommate aka “grumpy” occasionally grunted in our direction, frequently left the cabin for a smoko and otherwise snored... very loudly! We slept uneasily the first night and when we awoke, the room was a smelly sauna.

The next day we decided to try out the restaurant car. This turned out to be a cosy little parlour serving beer and simple food prepared by a raggedy cook smoking a cigarrette, whilst russian soaps were playing on a tiny TV in the corner. Here we met other travellers who were taking the trans-siberian and trans-mongolian routes, we shared a few good yarns which helped the time pass as the Siberian forests swept past outside our window....

2 days and 1500 kilometres later, we disembarked for our first stopover.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sweet Moscow

The days in Moscow went really quickly. It is a more modern city than St Petersburg but it felt somehow less authentically Russian. The city is expensive - prices are comparable to London, if not higher.

We spent the first day in Moscow's huge market, Izmaylovo. Covering over two square kilometers, it was way too big to see it all. Walking across it in one direction once already took a long time. Cheap international food, souvenir booths, hundreds of clothes and knick-knack booths, a big Persian carpet area mounted on old wooden walls and turrets, and a massive Chinese market are only a few examples of the variety we found there. It was indeed like a city inside the city!

The last couple of days were dedicated to visiting the touristy things. The Kremlin turned out to be a disappointment. A lot of rain, grumpy guards and mostly closed museums and churches made it a ripoff. On the other hand, St Basil's cathedral, the red square, a gorgeous river cruise and the old town showed us a pretty face of Moscow.

Some aspects of the hostel we stayed in was also interesting. The location was great. We were on a very touristy but cute and central old street, despite lots of western chains and shops. The guests were amusing. There was an American yoga guru who had lived for a month on a sequoia tree to stop a company from cutting it down. His wife is Russian but her mother won't let him sleep with her at home so he had to stay in the hostel. The administrators loved to listen to loud 90s disco dance all day and the building itself looked like it was being demolished and rebuilt.
Oh, by the way, I am 28 now! Suzie made me feel special all the day.. In the morning, she even managed to sneak outside of the hostel while I was sleeping and got me some nice fruity cake, ready in the kitchen when I woke up! Yum!

I giorni a Mosca sono passati in fretta. E' una citta' piu' moderna di san Pietroburgo, e in un certo senso sembra meno autenticamente Russa. I prezzi di certo sono paragonabili a Londra se non peggio.

Il primo giorno l'abbiamo passato nell'enorme mercato di Mosca, Izmaylovo. Copre piu di 2 kmq, era troppo grande per vederlo per intero. Solo attraversarlo in una direzione prende gia' molto tempo. Cibi internazionali a buon mercato, negozietti di souvenir, centinaia di stand tipici da mercato con vestiti e attrezzini vari, una grande area dedicata a tappeti Persiani, montata su antiche mura e torri, e un gigantesco mercato cinese sono solo alcuni esempi della varieta' che si poteva trovare li. Era come una citta' dentro un'altra citta'!

Gli ultimi giorni sono stati dedicati per visitare le cose piu turistiche. Il Cremlino si e' mostrato essere un pacco. Tanta pioggia, guardie incazzose e musei e chiese per lo piu chiusi al pubblico hanno fatto del biglietto gia' caro una vera truffa. D'altra parte, la cattedrale di San Basilio, la piazza Rossa, una meravigliosa crociera sul fiume e la citta' vecchia hanno mostrato un lato piu amichevole di Mosca.

Anche l'ostello in cui stavamo era interessante sotto certi aspetti. La posizione era grandiosa. Stavamo su una stradina antica, molto centrale e bella, nonostante le numerose catene occidentali di baretti e fast food. Gli altri ospiti dell'ostello erano particolari. C'era un guru di Yoga americano che aveva vissuto un mese su un albero di sequoia per impedire a una impresa di tagliarlo. Sua moglie e' di Mosca ma la suocera non lo lasciava dormire nella loro casa cosi' ha dovuto trovarsi un posto nell'ostello. Gli amministratori adoravano ascoltare musica disco anni novanta altissima a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte. L'edificio stesso sembrava essere in via di demolizione o ricostruzione.

Ah dimenticavo. Ho 28 anni ora. Suzie mi ha fatto sentire speciale tutta la giornata... la mattina e' pure riuscita a svicolare fuori dall'ostello mentre dormivo, per procurarsi una torta di compleanno che ho trovato quando mi son svegliato, pronta in cucina. Buona!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

St Peterburg Highlights


We've spent five jammed packed days getting a taste of St Petersburg. What do we think? Here's a little snapshot of our favourite discoveries.

Walking through history

We loved walking around admiring the city at ground level, it really has a buzz and atmosphere about it... we did, however, seriously understimate the sheer scale of the streets and blocks on the map, resulting in 2 very tired tourists at the end of each trek. One day we enlisted a local guide, Sascha, to show us the city off the beaten tourist trail. Looking dishevelled, big burly Sascha turned up to our hostel in the morning looking like a hairy shaggy dog. After a series of stopoffs to Cafes all over the city and five coffees later, he transformed into something more human.

We sampled the best local produce at Kuznecky farmers market, right in the heart of inner city St Petersburg. Here we tried pickled gherkins, pickled wild garlic and a sort of Russian curd similar to ricotta.


We also stopped off in a little artistic quarter, which opens into a courtyard painted in psychadelic colours dedicated to the Beatles. The artists based here had been squatting for several decades, at one stage coming head to head with local government officials. Nowadays, they are allowed to stay and in exchange the government takes credit for this initiative as their own.

Whilst Sascha downed his coffee, we were able to try Kvas, a non-alcoholic Russian beer brewed from bread.... its not as bad as it sounds! It's actually quite delicious and is enjoying something of a renaissance after it fell out of favour in Soviet times due to its connection with old monarchists who supported the Tsars. Following the fall of the Soviet union, western soft drinks such as coca cola were all the rage so Kvas even went out of production. We are certainly glad it's back!

Other quarters were home to best known Russian poets and writers, local neighbourhoods were the inspiration for the likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Seeing these settings helped to make these stories leap off the page a little.

Beautiful Buildings

St Petersburg's star attraction, and deservedly so, is the Hermitage museum. Housed in the winter palace of the Tsars, we saw a beautiful collection of artwork from all periods of history, all over the world. Most spectacular, though, were the decor and furnishings of this palace. Each set of rooms with their own themes and ornate trimmings. We had to be careful in rooms which were gilded in gold as we would receive the wrath of museum attendants for leaning on gold columns or against gorgeous doorways or walls.

There were loads of other beautiful buildings: St Isaacs Cathedral, the Church on the spilled blood and many palaces mostly built by famous Italian architects...including quite a few which Catherine the Great built as presents to her lovers!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Victory Day


Here in Russia, Victory Day which marks the defeat over the Nazis in WWII is an occasion for an important national festivity. It is very different from the celebrations I saw in other countries. The day's events included a large parade which seemed to be a display of both nationalism and military might. Soldiers and police lined the streets at two metre intervals, forming a human barrier between the crowds and the parade, which included heavy tanks and rocket launchers. Crowds cheered loudly at the passing military procession; there were children with toy machine guns; women handing flowers to old war veterans. On one hand it is nice to see that history was not forgotten here. On the other, people seem to really liked the idea of warfare, it looked as though they were celebrating rather than commemorating. It echoed of a sinister time of wartime parades where troops with weapons farewelled their home nation on the way to the frontlines.

Qui in Russia, il giorno della Vittoria, che marca la sconfitta dei nazisti nella seconda guerra mondiale, e' un'occasione per un'importante festivita' nazionale. E' molto diversa dai festeggiamenti che ho visto in altri paesi. Gli eventi del giorno comprendevano una grande parata che sembrava un'ostentazione di nazionalismo e potenza militare. Soldati e poliziotti si allineavano sui marciapiedi ogni due metri formando una barriera umana tra la folla e la parata, che includeva carri armati e mezzi lanciamissili. La folla urlava in eccitazione al passaggio di ogni mezzo. C'erano bambini con mitragliatrici giocattolo, donne che donavano fiori agli anziani veterani di guerra. Se da un lato e' bello vedere che la storia qui non e' andata dimenticata, dall'altro la gente sembra amare l'idea della guerra qui, sembrava stessero festeggiando piuttosto che commemorando. Mi ha ricordato un po' i tempi di guerra in cui le i soldati armati salutavano la loro nazione, in partenza per il fronte.

The Frog

Moving around this Russian city is an adventure in itself. It seamlessly changes from monumentally beautiful areas with canals, parks and imposing buildings, to dodgier and rougher areas, where people (especially tourists) have to watch their backs at all times.
Crossing the street here is a lot like it was in Italy some years ago. The colour of the traffic lights is often just a decoration on the street and pedestrians cross whenever they can. Here you have to watch in every direction for crazily pimped-out cars, rusty 70s Fiat-clones and hyper-polluting luxury SUVs speeding at traffic lights. It feels like being in “The Frog” arcade game, where one risks his life to get through the multi-lane roads to the safety of the pavement on the other side.
Public transport is interesting too. There are minibuses who stop whenever you wave at them, with no bus stops. The driver will be giving you the change while dodging the other cars in the little 14-seat van. If you find a seat, good for you, otherwise squeeze in!

Spostarsi in questa citta' russa e' un'avventura di per se. Cambia rapidamente da aree bellissime con canali e monumenti, parchi ed edifici imponenti, ad aree losche e rudi, dove la gente (specie i turisti) devono guardarsi alle spalle.
Attraversare la strada e' in certi versi come in italia qualche anno fa. Il colore del semaforo spesso e' solo un'opinione ed i pedoni attraversano quando possono. Bisogna fare attenzione in ogni direzione per macchine follemente taroccate, vecchie copie anni 70 delle fiat e superinquinanti fuoristrada. Sembra di essere nel vecchio videogioco “La Rana”.
Anche il trasporto pubblico sa essere interessante. Ci sono dei minibus che si fermano quando gli fai segnale, senza fermate. L'autista si stara' destreggiando nel traggico mentre vi dara' il resto, nel pulmino a 14 posti. Se trovi un posto a sedere bene, se no ci si stringe!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nel blu dipinto di arancio


Giovedi la nostra fortuna col tempo (mi sono abbronzato un pochino perfino io) sembrava essersi esaurita. Grosse nuvolacce si stavano avvicinando e le previsioni davano pioggia fino a domenica. Alcune delle nuvole erano cariche ri pioggia, ma altre erano veramente strane... avevano una tinta arancio un po' sinistra, giusto sopra la citta'. Dapprima abbiam pensato fosse inquinamento, ma le nuvole intorno erano perfettamente bianche. Alcune ore dopo, il sole e' tornato a splendere, e non se ne e' andato nemmeno nei giorni seguenti, nonostante le previsioni. Ci siam chiesti a quel punto se il cambiamento atmosferico tempo fosse collegato a quelle strane nuvole basse.

On thursday our amazing luck with the weather (even I could get a little tan) seemed to have started to fade... big dark clouds were approaching and the forecast was rain until sunday. Some of the clouds were loaded with rain and some were very, very weird, having a sinister orange tint to them, right above the city. At first we thought it might have been pollution, but right next to them more perfectly white clouds were floating in the sky. A few hours later, the sun came back to shine. And it kept shining for the days to come, despite the forecast. We wondered at that point what the big orange clouds were and if the sunshine afterwards was related in any way to this strange low hanging haze.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A daze, a haze and a little water - first impressions of St Petersburg

We disembarked at St Petersburg's Baltic Station, emerging in a confused daze from lack of sleep, still intoxicated by the awful stench of the man behind us. We headed for the the “Metpo” or underground, and joined the mile long queues under the watchful eye of stern policemen in green uniforms. For the first (of several) times that day, we were asked by locals whether we were standing in the queue... apparently if you don't look intent on your destination and determined to tailgate the person in front of you, then you aren't really queing by St Petersburg standards!

A brief moment of panic ensued when we couldn't find our metro tokens hidden amongst the pile of change we were handed by the cashier. After negotiating the crowds, we found ourselves on the longest, steepest escalator which seemed to last forever and take us very far underground- clunking heavily all the way. The platform was clad entirely in marble supported by many large columns extending the whole height of the cavity, given the distinct impression that we'd entered some sort of underground mausoleum. We then missed several trains whilst trying to decode cyrillic text to figure exactly which train we were supposed to catch...


Above ground, the peak traffic was relentless. We weaved through the wide streets whilst blinking away the haze of smog generated by cars burning low grade petrol. Our hostel room was sparsely furnished, with lacklustre walls and peeling linoleum. On one wall was a radio which played only one station. After learning a few basic words of Russian from the hostel receptionist, we set off to explore the city. We walked along the canals and waterways connecting the islands of St Petersburg, ate Bliny (Russsian pancakes), saw many grand buildings and took in the lollipop spires of the Church on the spilt blood- the site of the bloody assasination of Tsar Alexander II. On the way home, we popped into a local convienience store to pick up a “little water”, local lingo for vodka, for which we were spoilt for choice as there were so many on display on the little shop's shelves. Davide opted for a Russian soft drink, Kvas, which we had to ask for as it was stored (presumably for safe keeping) behind the counter!

Getting into Russia

So after two days touring Tallinn and meeting other amazing international travellers, we got on the bus for St Petersburg, Russia. We travelled for the whole night, which curiously seemed to be playing in fast forward as there were so few hours of darkness. By 4am we got to the border and it was quite bright already. Security did not care about our luggage, but was very tight on passports. They checked mine for longer than it had ever happened to me before, and had to refer to their “futuristic” database to identify Suzie's ID as they seemed to have never ever an Australian passport at all. The amount of police and militia, and the number of different uniforms and occasional parades of cadets in St Petersburg was is sharp contrast with Tallinn. I hope they don't find out my secret evil plan to conquer the world...
Dunque dopo aver passato due giornate a Tallin e dopo aver incontrato altri viaggiatori incredibili, siam saliti sul bus per san Pietroburgo.
Abbiam viaggiato l'intera notte ma e' sembrato strano dato che le ore di oscurita' erano davvero poche. Alle 4 siam arrivati al confine e sembrava gia' giorno. Alla dogana nessuno ha guardato i bagali ma son stati molto stretti sui passaporti. Hanno guardato il mio molto a lungo, e per quello di Suzie hanno dovuto ricorrere al loro "futuristico" database sovietico.
La quantita' di polizia e di militari, ed il numero di uniformi diverse e di parate militari di cadetti a San Pietroburgo hanno creato un contrasto sorprendente con Tallin. Spero non scoprano il mio piano malvagio per conquistare il mondo...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Riding around Tallinn


The second day in Tallinn was very active. We spent the morning on a bike tour. After missing out on a tandem bike, I of course went for the nicest hottest bright red bike I found, except I obviously overestimated the length of my legs and almost fell over before giving in for a more realistic choice. We rode along the Baltic coast to a monastery which had been jointly used by nuns and monks, parks within which the flying squirrels live and several monuments that would have been unreachable otherwise. After earnestly promising each other to spend it resting, we passed the afternoon hiking around the steep old town and the harbour instead. Because of so much action, the evening appetite could only be satisfied by a serious assortment of local sausages, including the Estonian blood sausage. They make them with barley, and they are served with lingonberry jam. Despite the off-putting name, it was truly delicious!
Il secondo giorno a Tallin e' stato molto attivo. Abbiamo passato la mattinata con un tour in bici. Dopo esserci persi il tandem per poco, io sono andato a prendermi la bici piu bella, rossa e brillante che c'era. Purtroppo avevo sopravvalutato la lunghezza delle mie gambe e dopo essere quasi caduto ho dovuto ripiegare su una scelta piu realistica. Siam andati lungo la costa Baltica fino a vedere un monastero condiviso tra frati e suore, un parco con scoiattoli volanti e diversi monumenti che altrimenti sarebbero stati difficile da raggiungere. Dopo esserci promessi di passarlo riposando, abbiam camminato tutto il pomeriggio in giro per la citta' vecchia ed il porto. Dopo tanto moto, l'appetito serale poteva essere soddisfatto da un assortimento di salsicce locali, compreso il sanguinaccio estone. Lo fanno con grani di orzo, e lo servono con confettura. Buono! Non lasciatevi scoraggiare dall'aspetto!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

You can check facebook anywhere, just don't drink while you're at it....


Here we were, feeling thoroughly unprepared for Tallinn. After an almost sleepless last night in London we dragged ourselves onto our plane, only to be greeted by men in fluoro 80s tracksuits, mullet wigs and too much bling for that time in the morning. Clearly, the introduction of easyjet flights to Estonia's capital had also opened the doors for hordes of London blokes on their bucks weekends....

Being the birthground of skype, we probably should have guessed, but were still taken aback to find wi-fi hotspots in parks and streets throughout the city. These are apparently part of a 300 strong network throughout the country, enabling anyone to tap into the information superhighway any hour of the day and night... hello facebook!

This wasn't the only surprise in store for us today as we were to find out that there is an 8pm alcohol curfew in this town. We'll be restricted to drinking only on liscensed premises after this time, during which even supermarkets won't sell alcohol for public consumption! So this is where I sign off cos the pub is indeed calling after a day of strenuous sightseeing...

Friday, May 2, 2008

Uzbekistan... A$$&%£€$!!...


...as our favourite wild-eyed, moustached, fluoro jumpsuit loving kazakh says!

The neolithic man behind the counter at the embassy spoke only in grunts.

Is my visa ready? narp
Why not? errh
When will it be ready? urrrghh *shrugs*
What should I do then? grbbwup

After yet more grunting and head scratching, it turns out that the Uzbek government is still checking that Davide is not an italian terrorist wanting to sneak in to deal pizza to the locals... what a cultural crime that would be!

With only few hours to go, we've re-routed our journey to take in more of warmer, friendlier Siberia on the way to Kazakhstan.

Uzbek Schmuzbek!!