Thursday, 30 October 2008

Yaroslavsky station and east

Yaroslavsky Station is a crazy art deco design from the early 1900's. Is is the main station for all points east, eg those banished to Siberia. The station was packed with people returning there of which many were traders with piles of baggage piled high around them. One can see the patient faces of many as they pass the hours away with stoically.

There are three Trans-Siberian routes. The north one goes to Vladivastok and is the longest at 9,300km and takes eight days. The central route goes through Manchuria and the shortest route id the southern one through Mongolia and ending at Beijing, which is the one i took. It is only 7,900 and takes just seven days.

Once on board i soon got to know the few other travellers making the trip. Nania, a book worm and art student from Vienna and the centre of all the action were the two lads from Ireland, Ken and Jimmie, with four bottles of best vodka and a selection of beers. They were the life, soul and centre of all activity. One beer of interest was 9.5% with an added energy drink in it as well. Jimmy said you could hear your heart pounding after imbibing it.

The feeling of this near endless travel is a bit like floating in a dream, all connections are severed, the villages and forests pass by silently, yet is is all so variable. There being no fences make you all feel very much part of the whole.

A particular oddity was that the railway runs on Moscow time, this is fine when close to Moscow, but when the evening meal for 6.00 p.m. is actually 11 p.m.

Various cities were passed through, all depressingly concrete, in contrast to the individuality of the wooden houses and gardens of the villages. Perm ar 1,500km was where the US U2 spy plane was shot down. 1,777km was the Europe-Asia obelisk set was in the Ural Mountains: a great divide. The point of no return for prisoners. Yekaterinberg/Sverdlovsk, where the Romanov family were murdered after the 1917 revolution. Sverdlov was the chap who arranged it all, in 1989, when things changed, denial set in by changing the city name.

The taiga up to this region is rich black soil and is full of minerals such as copper, platignum, silver, gold, nowthe soil supports little agriculture. Now the huge Siberian river seem to start. Much of the early trading was done on these rivers, which flow to the Arctic. These bridges are massive as they have to withstand packed ice and further east even ice bergs. Some are about 1km wide. The Ob crossed at Novosibirsk (New Siberia) is 4,500 long. The Yenisey River is 5,300km long and is crossed at Krasnoyarsk. (Gooogle them)>

Trans_Siberian Railway

Novodevichy Cemetry

Red Square and St Basils

top left is a view
of one of Stalin's seven skyscrapers.

A bitterly cold day to do such a visit. Maybe i had the brutality in mind of some of the tyrants who operated from here, there were some men dressed up as Stalin and Brezhnev to help jog the memory.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Moscow Metro

There are a whole series of heroic
statues on this station. The nose of
is worn. It is touched for luck.

Do not sit here in sub-zero temperatures!

Moscow Express

Warsaw West Station. (Hopper study!)

Polish Smoking Team Bus

The First step

Photos to come when possible


Arriving in Moscow at night and with a sub zero temperature, as well not a word of the Russian language, nor able to sound out the Cyrillic alphabet, had me in an anxious state. Constantine had written my hostel's address in Cyrillic to help when using a taxi. Raphe, my son, had warned me not to use the Metro at night. Matters were not improved by the kamikaze Chechin taxi driver, who seemed to have a death wish. I have never before been so petrified in a car.

There was not a lot of time before i was to be off on the Trans-Siberian Express, so the priorities on this visit, i hope there will be more, were: 1. The Metro. This was built between 1932-35, when thousands of near slaves were driven to please Stalin and accomplish his status symbol. It was directed by a young Nikita Kruschev. It is still growing and handles 9 million passengers a day, more than London and New York combined! 2. St Basil's and the Kremlin. 3. Knovodechina Monastery and Cemetery.

Moscow is the barometer and nucleus of the changes sweeping through Russia. Nowhere are Russia's contrasts more apparent than here - ancient monasteries and ultra-modern monoliths stand side by side, and 'New Russian' millionaires and poverty-stricken pensioners walk the same streets.

Moscovites seem to prefer international name brands to monolithic department stores, and the beautiful churches vandalised or abandoned during the Soviet era of hard line atheism are being lovingly restored. But the real flavour of this city is in its nooks and crannies, each of them unique. These were observed as i tramped around to my three objectives.

The cemetery beside Moscow's Novodevichy Convent resembles a sculpture park. The city has one of those, too, but at a different spot, where all those great, but now naughty men's, former statues have been unceremoniously dumped. Here, behind high walls attached on one side to the convent and among gnarled trees, lie the remains of many famous figures including writer Anton Chekhov, composer Sergei Prokofiev and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, ballerinas, anarchists, and over 1,000 other greats as well as and my own special man, Dmitry Schostakovich. I laid a flower on his grave and thanked him for over 50 years of pleasure that he has given me. The artfully chiseled gravestones, in many different materials and unlimited designs of form and typography, both busts and full portraits, make a visit especially worthwhile. Why can't we have such a place in England, instead of a little plaque, sometimes, in a church, if they were a practising christian? My highlight of Moscow.


What Napoleon and Hitler didn't see

In Polish rural areas house often look shabby and and patched up, in Belarus, too, as well as on the route into Moscow, however the Polish frequently have new roofs and fresh brick and cement around the window areas, where double glazing has been inserted. Russian villages seemed to be in a state of hibernation, with outbuildings collapsed and crumbling and weeds taking over the garden areas.

I travelled with two particle physicists, Constantine and Natalya, who had been at CERN and also had been attending conferences, they were both excellent English speakers, and were returning to Novosibirsk unwillingly. Constantine had to do part-time work as an electrician in order to make ends meet. Villages closer to Moscow were having their choicest houses bought by
"yuppiski" to use as dachas.

One particular village, 40km from Moscow is famous in Russia, Borodino, the place where Napoleon almost met his Waterloo. He suffered heavy troop losses, almost loosing the battle, which resulted in Europe smiling with relief, now knowing the little Corsican was not invincible. The rest is history.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Following in the Footsteps of Napoleon and Hitler

Today, as in the past, Poland is at a crossroads for invading forces, being situated on the Central European Plain, invading forces devastated and colonised its people over many centuries. Now it is a quite a different invasion that is taking place, with the laying down of smooth autostrada, which in many cases have replaced mud roads, modern trucks have replaced the formerly ubiquitous horse and cart. Roads are jammed with new trucks carrying goods in all directions, even outnumbering cars on these new routes.
The people of Poland are well-educated and hard working, which any gang master can attest to, they do not have the social problems that England has, often as a result of numerous immigrants and the loss of traditional working class jobs. Poland is strongly nationalistic, as well as having only one, well-established religion, the false teeth breaking language, which is full of unpronounceable consonants, must also deter.
Another visual observation to that of my beloved country, is that women i have seen, mainly in Warsaw, spring along lightly, with poise, elegance and confidence, as if their natural place is on the catwalk, slim as greyhounds, this all adds to their attractiveness, which is in stark contrast to so many of the obese, who can be seen shuffling along on our streets. (Present lady readers excluded, naturally). This happens despite a generally appalling diet of numerous dried sausages, and salami types of meat, with veggies cooked to a pulp, and plates heaped up with ladles of mashed potatoes: none of your five fruit and veg a day. Probably they do not eat much of it.
I maintain that Poland is destined to become very successful within Europe.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Two train and two bus rides in a day, however there is more to it. At Victoria Coach Station there was a major change. The striking French seamen caused the cancellation of my coach departure to Warsaw, three hours later i managed to find a coach that would accept my original National Express ticket. This now meant that my new schedule was going to be very tight if i was to make the transfer to the Moscow Express at Warsaw.
The frequent stops for long training sessions, by the huge, mixed Polish National Smoking Team, who were on board, or so it seemed, saw me slipping behind my required schedule.
After many vissitudes, with a last minute dash i arrived just in time to find the railway station closed, the rain pouring down; feeling abandonded in a strange city without a map, guide book, telephone number, or a word of the language at nearly midnight. Bugger the French!
The next morning, on my way back to the railway station i showed my useless railway ticket to the Polish taxi driver, who did not speak a word of English, but fortunately was fluent in Russian, which i am not. He being sharper than me, he noticed that today was the date of my ticket, not yesterday. Wow! The moral of the ''Law of Unindended . . '' is "Silly Old Fart".
Another thing also learned: Polish toilet paper is serrated on one side, just like a file. Be careful Rob.

Friday, 10 October 2008


Auswich was the most recent and by far the most horrendous result of all the invasions of Poland over the centuries. The camp is situated in Upper Silesia and comprised two camps. Camp 1 was purely for labour and Camp 2 was exclusively used for extermination. It is maintained as a reminder, lest we forget, where the loss of civil liberties and flag waving eventually ends up.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

"The Art of Travel"

Alain de Boton in his “The Art of Travel”, which is about artists and travel, not travel as as an art, draws attention to such writers as Baudelaire, whom T. S. Eliot said was “the first 19c traveller to give expression to the beauty of modern travelling places and machines, a kind of romantic nostalgia”. He admired not only the places of departure and arrival, but also the machines used. Ships, in particular, “have a profound and mysterious charm that arises from just looking at them”. John Betjeman, also, is able to evoke nostalgia in a certain style of travel. Baudelaire spent a lot of time at railway stations and ports. He had a major influence on the American artist, Edward Hopper, who was in Paris as a student in the early 19c. It is not just the scenes, but moreover the atmosphere of loneliness, isolation and poignancy, that arise from his paintings. Hopper also had an interest in trains and their associates. A half-empty carriage, dreaminess fostered by landscape, the rhythm of movement of the train and the sounds from the rail lines outside. In these environs one can be at one with thoughts and memories, in a timeless capsule.

The train, of all types of transport, may be the best aid to thought, with glimpses, though brief, but long enough to identify objects, or private domains. You can follow an object, through the window, or a scene, in a panning of perception, till the next one appears in one’s view, the previous one now out of sight and mind. This is more real than celebrity. One can become aware of the present through other peoples’ lives. This is a fly on the wall existence. The unfamiliar is the most eye-catching.

This is a process of travelling without reference to a destination, which connects us to our senses and experiences. Symbols of the abroad, chaos, richness, or even such a thing as a shitting donkey in a shop, which so fascinated Flaubert on a visit to Egypt and where a young boy cried out a greeting to him, “I wish you all kinds of prosperity, especially a long dick”.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Getting ready for the off . . .

Because i bang on about my green credentials i now find that i have talked myself into not being able to take the easy way, by air, doing so would mean a loss of face, and force me to keep my big mouth closed.

I have a rough outline of the route, largely dependant on finding a freighter across the ocean.

It is preferable for me to not plan too much about where i might sleep, eat, etc each day. From previous wanderings, over the past 40 odd years, the unknown and the unexpected things that happen on journeys themselves are the way: the interesting people one meets, the tips and advice one receives, the helloing and goodbyes.

Sheer serendipity . . . .

My rucksack is going to be half full of medical consumables, the other quarter will be travel guides and reading material. It is four years since i lugged a rucksack, shopping is about the only yoke i carry regularly.

Not yet sure what currency to carry, Euro or dollar? i've not yet been able to discover which is most suitable.

I have a train ticket from Uckfield to Victoria, a bus ticket from Victoria to Warsaw, (by National Express) and a change to a Polish bus, which is a fraction of the cost of the Eurostar and other trains, £59. The train from Warsaw to Moscow through Belarus, "the last outpost of tyranny in Europe", via Minsk and a rail ticket on the Trans-Siberian route through Mongolia, via Ulan Bator, to Beijing. There are two other routes across Siberia the northern route to Vladivostok, the central route through Manchuria, which enters into Harbin before Beijing. Also i have accommodation booked in Moscow at "Lenin's Hostel" in an 8-berth room and also a bed at a guest house in Beijing. Then the journey starts into the unknown . . .

Now got, the four visas, at last! Belorus, Russian Federation, Mongolia and China. This was was quite a traumatic experience, changes are not allowed, very strict adherence is required to all demands. Not many people know that registration is required, and a lot of cities and areas are still closed to visitors.