India

Days spent – 18 days (13 December 2016 to 24 December 2016 and 29 December 2016 to 6 January 2017)

Places visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai

Books read – Shantaram

Things done – Red Keep, Jama Mosque, Nagarwhal Fort

Highlight(s) – Shantaram

Lowlight(s) – Ill!

Cost – £536.40 (£29.80 per day)

India was quite similar to China in that you hear a lot of stories before arriving.  It’s the kind of place that everyone likes to talk about because they either love it or hate it.  I hear how dirty it is (heard that about China too), I hear how unfriendly the people are (heard that about China too).  But things happen before I go that lead me to believe that perhaps I should approach India with trepidation and caution.  Firstly, the visa process is a bit of a nightmare and I end up having to get two.  Secondly, there’s a cash crisis in the country.  The government have banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in an effort to crack down on fraud.  Very altruistic except the new notes won’t fit in the ATMs!  Oh India…

So to conclude, I’m a little nervous about going.  This is country number seventeen on this trip and it’s the first time I’ve felt like this.  To start with, my fears are allayed.  Delhi airport is every bit as modern as other Asian airports that fight their way to modernity, it puts the airport in Kathmandu in the dark ages where it belongs.  There is even a direct railway link to the main railway station in the centre of Delhi and very close to where I’m staying, easy (except getting cash to pay for it!).  It’s quite fast, it’s clean.  As it turned out, it’s the only place in India with rules.

I get off the train and am hit by an onslaught of craziness.  The smells of what-on-earth-is-that, the drivers of what-are-those-things all clamouring for the trade of the foreigner that’s clearly just arrived, the why-are-these-people-without-shoes begging for my money.  I’m suddenly thankful that my pockets have zips.  I must also give thanks to Cat – for once I arrived at my hostel she was the voice of reason.  She said things such as “The cash situation isn’t as bad as it was.”, oh good and “The trains are always cancelled or late at the moment because of the weather”, oh India…

But that said, two of the three things I did in India I did in Delhi on day two with Cat so thanks for that, my second best day in India!  After Delhi I decide to head to Jaipur as it’s quite close and on the way to Mumbai.  Because the trains are a problem I think a bus is the best idea but I’m advised against it by the people in the hostel.  It’s nine hours and I’m going for it, I head to Dhuala Kuan which is supposedly where the bus leaves from.   I head outside and look for it but I can’t understand the writing nor do I have any language skills…  I head back in to ask security and they say it’s outside.  Ok.  I go back out thinking how the hell am I going to find this bus?  I go to where I was before which at least looks like a bus station.  Upon arrival this time there’s a guy leaning out of a bus door shouting “Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur…!”  Hmm, maybe this bus goes to Jaipur.  I go over and ask in a questioning tone “Jaipur?”, he nods.  What a stupid question, he’s only just said it fifteen times.  He must think I’m stupid, perhaps he’s right.

Anyway, I get on.  It doesn’t stop but that’s just the way things are here.  I think there must be a rule, maybe unwritten, that means people can only get on buses that are moving.  After getting on I have second thoughts, this bus is older than I am!  It soon becomes apparent that the indicator system is people shoving their arms out the window.  I have visions of the acceleration system being Flintstone’s style.  I shouldn’t complain, indeed I won’t because it got me Jaipur.  It even stopped on the way so I could relieve myself which I’d heard is not always the case.  Near the end of the journey, on the outskirts of Jaipur I see the slums for the first time, oh India…

I’m not quite sure what to make of the slums.  On the one hand they appear to be the depths of human misery and suffering, but on the other hand it’s just like every other form of human settlement.  There’s a shop selling goods and children are playing in the alleyways.  Instead of playing with iPhone 7s, they’re playing with a plastic bag tied to a piece of string.  I’ve seen poverty before but not like this.  Before, the phone in my pocket has been worth about what people these people made in a year.  Now, the same value can be attributed to the shirt on my back.  Oh India…

Jaipur is a little different from Delhi.  The few creature comforts that were on offer in Delhi have disappeared. The only form of solitude here is the hostel, it becomes a sanctuary, it’s an oasis of calm in a desert of exhausting effort.  Walking down the street is an effort itself, not only does one have to contend with the stifling heat but the people selling you things, the traffic that tries to kill you at every turn and the people that want to rob you if you let your guard down.  It’s here that I wander to the centre of town, there’s a park there with an impromptu game of cricket.  The game halts to let me play…

I have to bat first, that’s bad news of itself because I’m more confident regarding my bowling.  Everyone has crowded round because there’s a white guy batting so I have about thirty fielders to contend with, I feel my only option is to go over the top.  The first ball comes down and it’s quite full outside off stump, I have a chance.  I take a massive swing, and miss it.  To my indignation, I get a ferocious round of applause for that, I thought it was a dreadful shot!  I nick another in the third-man region (maybe I do take after my Dad!) but before long I’m caught by one of the fifteen-or-so fielders stood at cover.  Ah well, language is a problem so I’m beckoned for a bowl rather than asked, ok here we go.  I manage to keep them relatively straight, indeed one even hits leg stump.  I say stump, it’s the nearest vaguely straight tree branch stuck into the ground.  It was nice of the batsman to just leave it, I sense some favouritism to the white guy.  At least England managed to get one up on India somehow last winter, I had not much else to cheer about.

Onwards from Jaipur is to Mumbai as this is where I fly home for Christmas from.  I land at the airport and head for the taxis to take me to where I’m staying.  There appears to be an efficient system where I get a ticket at a counter.  Ok, now I have to find the number plate of the taxi to take me there.  I find it, the driver asks me where I’m going, I thought I’d already done this bit.  I show him on a map, but he refuses to take me.  “Hindi, Hindi” he keeps saying, yes because I look like a guy that speaks excellent Hindi, let alone Marathi which is the actual language spoken by the Maharashtrians. I have to argue with someone that speaks vague English, the driver agrees to take me to the nearest landmark which is a big shopping centre.  Upon arrival, he wants more money, yeah right mate!  Oh India…

The lowlight: I was in India for eighteen days and I was ill for thirteen of them.  It was just Delhi Belly I presume but I never recovered until I left the country.  Travellers talk about places being dirty and I’m glad I’ve been to India because now everywhere else in the world will seem clean.  It’s horrendous, people say you either love India or hate it, well I hate it.  But people said the same about China and I loved it.  I was also ill on entry to China, I thought about not going back but I’m glad I did.  So stupidly, I applied the same logic to India, it’ll be better the second time around.  Err, no it won’t.  Oh India…

But it’s not all bad, although it’s not great either!  When your highlight is the book you were reading you know you haven’t had a good time!  In terms of food the best thing is probably lassi, but in Delhi I had one of the best coffees I had on the entire trip.  It was apple crumble coffee which sounds weird, but was divine.  Anyway, the book, is wonderful.  It’s another one, along with Wild Swans, that I’d recommend to anyone.  It tells the [true-ish] story of an Australian convict’s escape from prison and flee to India. He experiences life living in the slums and meeting his friend’s family in rural India.  It’s a wonderful read that covers all aspects of humanity, he eventually ends up working for Mumbai’s equivalent of the Mafia.  But I’m going to quote one of the main characters from the book, “[In India] sometimes in order to win, you have to surrender.”  My response is why would I do that when I can go somewhere and win without surrendering?

After my sixth or seventh straight day of being ill I’ve decided to go home.  Flights are now booked and it’s cheaper for me to go via Paris.  The main problem is that I’m still ill, I take some pills to try to stop… that…  It’s a bad idea…  The pills are trying to stop it but I want to go.  As a result, it’s like my intestines are playing snake with themselves, it’s turmoil in there and horrid, especially at over 30,000 feet.  We land at Charles de Gaulle; I’m tired, ill and pretty irritable.  It then gets worse, much worse!  

I get off the plane looking to connect to my other flight to London.  I ask they security guys where everyone goes through the visa checks and am told to go straight ahead to connections, that makes sense.  I can’t get my boarding pass printed off the machine so I go ahead anyway.  At this point I go through security, I don’t know why. I ask the security how I’m supposed to connect to terminal three and I’m told I need to catch a bus.  On arriving there I’m told there is no bus to terminal three and I’m sent back to immigration. Once there, I can’t get through because I don’t have a visa at which point I say “I don’t need a visa because I’m British.”  The guy looks taken aback that I know what I’m talking about.  I wonder why he’s so unhelpful and then I remember he’s French, it seems to go with the territory.  Oh France…  

I see red and storm off, by now I’ve missed my flight.  I unhook the things that makes everyone queue in a snaking fashion and throw them over my shoulder and storm towards connections again.  The police catch up with me and take my passport number.  Fine, fucking have it.  At this point I’ve had my little toddler tantrum meltdown and calmed a little, but only a little.  I then spend about ten minutes talking to the police and security.  The security speak English, the police don’t.  They say I need to calm down before I can achieve anything, they’re right.  I say if you weren’t so useless I’d have no reason to be frustrated in the first place, I’m right.  I get security to translate a message to the police that I have no problem with them and accept they’re just doing their job.  I then tell them that they’re completely useless.  To this day, I don’t understand what they do.  I say “security”, is that necessary when everyone goes straight to immigration?  I wish I’d done that, I would have caught my flight!  Their purpose certainly isn’t to be helpful anyway. 

I go through the rigmarole of going through security and heading for the buses again.  This time the guy at the desk there escorts me through the airport to the train that links the terminals.  Why couldn’t that have happened the first time?!  By the time I get to terminal three, I’ve missed the flight so I have to book another (€100) for tomorrow.  That means I have to stay in the airport hotel (€100).  I crash on the hotel bed, tomorrow is another day…

On the plus side, I got those amounts refunded as France accepted responsibility for being idiots.  Of course it took several emails without reply before they actually paid me the money. Oh France…  Oh India…   It was honestly like they were competing for which country can piss me off the most.

But I don’t want to leave my last blog on that note.  Instead I want to say thanks to everyone that made the trip special, I had a blast.  Now, as I write this blog, I’m in the same city as one of them!

Strawbs – written 17 to 23 April 2017, published 23 April 2017

Jama Mosque

The Red Keep

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UK II

Days spent – 5 days (24 December 2016 to 29 December 2016)

Places visited – Home

Books read – Shantaram (unfinished)

Things done – Not a lot!

Highlight(s) – Surprise!

Lowlight(s) – Leaving again

Cost – £101.97 (£20.39 per day)

Firstly, a note on cost, it isn’t really that cheap but I get free food and accommodation at home!

When I left in June I knew I would always at least consider going home for Christmas.  Come late October I’m in China and thinking that if I’m going to do it I need to start looking at flights, they won’t be cheap over Christmas.  I found one for four hundred pounds from Mumbai and booked it that evening, it seemed reasonable value.  That’s that sorted, I’m not going to tell anyone, now I just have to keep it a secret for another two months!

The problem with doing this is that it then plays on your mind.  I got back from Everest Base Camp on December 3rd and after that I was ready to go home really. I just can’t wait to surprise everyone.  In Kathmandu, Delhi and Jaipur I don’t do much, I’m just waiting to go home.

Christmas Eve rocks up and I’m spending this one travelling vast distances across the planet.  I’m awake at four in the morning which is early, but even earlier considering at the time it’s still Christmas Eve Eve at home!  The flight is fine if a little long.

I get off the plane and go straight to the Underground.  Can I call it that now?  I don’t have to use words like Metro and Subway.  Occasionally I say Tube, just to really flummox everyone!  On the Underground the announcements are in English, with an English accent and everything!  It sounds weird…  I head to Waterloo but miss the train I had pre-booked as my flight was slightly late.  I go to the counter to see if I can change it.  “Did you get a note from the pilot?” the guy asks.  Ah, I’ve missed the British sense of humour.  He stamps my ticket and on I go.  Onwards to Honiton…

As I’m on a later train it gets dumpsy on the way, but not before I’ve seen the rolling green hills of home.  The trains apparently have wifi now.  They’re not on time but that doesn’t matter, we have wifi!  Cars are driving on the right side of the road, I mean the wrong side of the road, I mean the right… the wrong…  The left, they’re driving on the left.

I walk out of the station with the intention of taking a taxi home but there aren’t any waiting.  That means I have to walk home to maintain the surprise, it’s over two miles and quite uphill, about fifty minutes, damn.  I get to the drive and decide to film my arrival and I narrate it.  Is my accent really that English?!  Unfortunately, it’s dark which is a little annoying.  I don’t really know whether to just walk in or knock on the door.  I’ve thought about it a lot on the way back and I still don’t know.  Upon my arrival I’m greeted by a doorbell that I didn’t know existed, that wasn’t there when I left.  I walk in, my parents are quite surprised to see me…

Dad will be annoyed at me putting that photo online but it’s ok because he doesn’t read these anymore anyway!  As I push the door open I nearly hit Dad with it.  Only my parents could be trying to put down a carpet at 6pm on Christmas Eve!  After popping in to see the bro I go to bed, I’ve been up for over twenty-four hours now.

Morning, Merry Christmas!  I’m up early enough to go with Dad to feed the pheasants and the ducks which was nice.  Many thanks go to Shane and Holly for letting me have Christmas Dinner at very short notice!  Many thanks also go everyone else who tried to fatten me up over this period!  I spend the rest of my time at home seeing people including Tom, we have a few beers and play pool, I won six to five, phew close one!  Before I know it, I’m flying back to India…

Strawbs – written 19 March 2017, published 24 March 2017

Home

Russia

Days spent – 13 days (19 August 2016 to 1 September 2016)

Places visited – Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Olkhon Island

Things done – Hermitage, walking tour, Saint Isaak Cathedral, Church of our Saviour of the Spilled Blood, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, Olkhon Island tour

Highlight(s) – Atmosphere, Lake Baikal

Lowlight(s) – Russian unhelpfulness

Cost – £706.35 (£54.33 per day)

Ok, I feel bad, I’ve lied to my Mum.  I told her I caught the train perfectly well in Irkutsk, that’s the lie, I didn’t.  I had organised to Skype home the evening before I left Russia because I could, and in Mongolia I wouldn’t be able to.  I’m watching the departures board and waiting for a platform number but it doesn’t appear.  The train arrives in eight minutes, perhaps I better find it, bye Mum.  I don’t find it.  It’s left without me…  When did I get so lackadaisical?  When did I become that over-confident?  At what point did I start to think that nothing could go wrong? What to do?  Well, panic mostly.  Not only have I missed the train but my visa expires tomorrow.  I quickly realise my only real option is to get a taxi to chase this train!  Let the negotiations begin, twenty five thousand rubles, about three hundred and ten pounds, not a good start.  I have limited Russian but nyet rolls quite easy off the tongue at that.  I try to play the ‘confident, I’m not desperate’ trick but I’m asking to catch a train!  I evetually settle on eight thousand and five hundred rubles, about one hundred and five pounds, after much fighting on Google Translate.

The first stop is an ATM because I have no cash because I’m leaving the country. There we wait, and wait and wait.  I think we need another driver but I didn’t really know then and I don’t know now. Someone else arrives, he gets in the back and off we go.  Traffic is still quite bad in Irkutsk so getting out of the city takes a while.  After that my driver morphs into a hybrid of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.  It was like a death cab, the smell of burning rubber, the scream of the unwilling engine, the mountainous chicanes and hairpins.  At one point we nearly have a head-on but it wasn’t the fault of my driver.  He’s driving fast but he’s good at it.  On an earlier train, I’d joked with people I’d met that I’d read stories online where people take a Russian taxi to catch the train they’d missed.  Karma has struck, I wasn’t sure why but I’ve tried to be a better human since.  We arrive at a station (I don’t know which one to this day) at ten past eleven, my train is at twenty past.  Phew, ten minutes to spare.  Except it wasn’t, the train arrived at twenty past eleven but it didn’t depart until five past midnight, fifty five minutes to spare.  Perhaps next time I’ll prioritise my safety.  At least I’m here to tell the tale and at least when someone asks if I have any interesting or funny stories to tell, I have one!

On the train, I sit in the aisle to charge my phone as I’ve used a lot of battery trying to sort my life out after the above incident and I won’t be near a plug socket tomorrow (or what is now technically today), Skype is also a battery killer.  I get chatting to a guy because we’re wearing the same shirt. He’s of Mongolian descent and it becomes immediately obvious to the carriage that I’m English.  Not only that, I’m the only Westerner, at least that’s still awake.  I seem to be a novelty here. Everyone wants to talk to me about English football etc. And suddenly I’m surrounded by a dozen Russians. They’re all trying to talk to me at once.  I feel like a clown!

I love Russia.  All you hear before entering are stories about Russian unhelpfulness and them being non-English speakers as if that makes them bad people or something.  I wonder if many of these people have actually been to Russia. What struck me was the atmosphere. Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow were a pleasure to be in.  Street performers and random dancing in the street.  In a restaurant I’m eating at, the waiting staff and I have a good laugh when a sudden thunderstorm assaults us, and they were kind enough to find me a charger!  I’d advise anyone to go, and that’s in spite of the difficult and costly visa application process!

That said, those Russian dissenters are partly right.  Russian unhelpfulness is pretty rife, especially in the west.  You need to be organised here because asking for help is virtually impossible.  In Saint Petersburg I’m getting the night train to Moscow.  It’s my belief that I need to print my ticket at the station before boarding.  After asking at least fifteen people to help I give up and hope for the best on entering the train.  As it turns out they only need my passport anyway.

The border getting into Russia wasn’t particularly fun.  I miss Schengen!  The night bus from Tallinn gets to the border at two am, it leaves at four.  Arrival in Saint Petersburg is at six, it’s chucking it down.  I’m going to Hermitage.  The Russians have told me it’s the largest museum in the world but the French have told me that’s the Louvre!  Who to believe?  I go to the art bit first because that’s the quietest place to get a ticket. Here we go again, me and art…  I go to the top floor to work my way down.  I wander into the room, look at that rubbish!  Right, let’s see if the have English on these plaques (yes they do – Russia one – France nil).  It turns out ‘that rubbish’ is by Henri Matisse.  It must be quite famous because even I’ve heard of him!  I found the realism section most interesting.  It’s cool to see the flaws of consumerism and materialism of Western societies highlighted in that way.

In Saint Petersburg I also visit the Church of our Saviour of the Spilled Blood  (yes – most Russian churches have crazy long names).  This one has an interesting history.  There’s a chapel in there on the site of where Alexander II was fatally wounded, hence the name. In the twenties it was used for storing potatoes, which is interesting given what was going on in Russian at that time.  In World War II it was a morgue.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Another travesty of the war that few talk about.  Saint Petersburg in the war was a city under siege.  One million people died of starvation.  Six thousand per day were dying, the city couldn’t cope so the church was used.  I’ve heard great things about the inside of this church, the decoration of the walls is one hundred per cent mosaic.  To be honest though, I was a little underwhelmed.

Moscow is the start of my Trans-Mongolian train adventure.  You know that meme with Bilbo Baggins skipping through Middle Earth and the caption reads “I’m going on an adventure”? That’s what I feel like!  Five thousand, six hundred and twenty three miles to Beijing.  The first leg is to Irkutsk where I get off, seventy four hours and forty three minutes later.  I know, the maths isn’t easy.  That’s three days, two hours and forty three minutes, plus five hours for time difference.  Time enough to get to know the Russian family I’m compartmented with, they’re really nice even if the language barrier is a bit of a problem.  The carriage I’m in is ninety per cent Russian but I do meet Ho who is Korean and two Swedes called Toby and Marcus (thanks for the entertainment guys).  We get to know each other quite well because there is nothing to do. There isn’t much to see either.  I’m asleep for the Ural Mountains and it’s dark for Lake Baikal.  Travelling through rural Russia, I knew it would be desolate. But I wasn’t prepared for how desolate. It’s easy to go for hours without seeing a car, a person, a road, even a field.  I see weird things, like an old lady walking her four goats.  The train creates its own market, both on the platforms and off them.  On the train you arrange trades with noodle boxes, chocolate and fruit. Off the train baked goods from the locals are available.  They sell a weird hot dog cross doughnut type thing, this works miraculously as a concoction somehow.  I wouldn’t say it was up there with mojito gelato or currywurst but it’s close. There’s a community feel on this train.

In Irkutsk, I stop and get off the train.  I have my first shower since Saint Petersburg!  Ahhhhh, bliss.  It’s a wonderful shower too.  It’s like the hostel knows everyone will be looking forward to a shower more than anything in the world, although to be fair everyone here is doing the train in one direction or the other.  Thanks to Kai and Jari for the night out in Irkutsk, it was great.  We were in a pub, the Chelsea game was on one screen and Audioslave playing live in Cuba was on another.  I was like a dog with two dicks!  I head back here after the lake and I’m the only patron there.  The guy at the bar puts ‘Classics’ on the TV, am I really that old? First song is Saltwater by Chicane, ahhh tune.  Oh god, I am that old…  Irkutsk is a great place.  But, the real reason I got off here was for Lake Baikal.  The largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world.  Asia is literally splitting apart here, in several million years it won’t be a lake, it’ll be an ocean.

A weird thing happened at the lake.  I get approached by two middle-aged Asian women.  Initally they speak Russian at me, no luck.  They use their broken English, ah success, I can understand, they want a photo.  One of them stands and poses and I go to take the camera from the other… Wait…  No…  They want a picture of her with me…  Wait… What?  At what point did I become this photogenic?!

The lake.  Damn I love that lake.  The lake, the island, the journey to the island (with great people (Jan and Siawjern)), the journey from the lake.  A photo that’s my favourite so far of the whole trip (headline photo for this blog too obviously!).  It’s a multi-hour bus ride to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk and again, everyone is doing the same thing so I hear a lot about it…  I hear it can take four hours.  I hear it can take ten hours. I’m advised to wear my seatbelt to prevent my head hitting the roof!  It can’t be that bad surely…  To start with, it isn’t.  The road is quite good and all is well.  The bus is old, the windscreen looks as though it’s been in a warzone. The seating layout is weird, behind the ‘cab’ are two seats facing backwards and two seats facing sideways before a normal layout commences.  It’s quite good though because it gives a communal feel to it.  Jan, Siawjern, myself and a Korean family from Busan have a great time.  The Koreans ply us with free food and I hate them for it because it makes me feel guilty.  I guess that’s a good reason to dislike a nation’s people, because they’re too nice…!  The island is great and Christopher and I do a tour (thanks again for the profile picture Christopoher!) which is really good and includes a lunch with Omul Baikal fish soup, presumably straight from the surrounding waters.  The bus back is more modern and quieter.  I don’t care, I’m so happy and content that James Blunt comes up on my playlist and I don’t even skip it!  I wonder what could go wrong to change things.  What could be so bad that would make me want to go home?  Six hours later, paragraphs one and two happened!  Was that my karma? For thinking those thoughts?  I left this paragraph until last because I wanted to remember that feeling that good was and is possible.

Strawbs – written 25 September 2016, published 26 September 2016

I just love this photo…

Who needs Venice when you have Saint Petersburg?

Couldn’t have a Russia blog without these…

The famous cannon at the Kremlin, the cannonballs weigh a tonne, literally!

Kazan Cathedral, my first panorama.

Rome has quadrigas, the Russians had to go two better.  In fact, when in Saint Petersburg I felt that parts of Rome had been airlifted in and dumped there.

Olkhon Island – there are some stories here.  Some say, this formation looks like an angel’s wings, if a couple struggling to conceive goes up the left wing, they’ll get a boy, the right wing provides a girl and twins for the middle. Others say it’s an elephant’s ears.  Our tour driver says it’s a woman’s legs…!

Estonia

Day spent – 2 days (17 August 2016 to 19 August 2016)

Places visited – Tallinn

Books read – Gone Girl (unfinished)

Things done – Walking tour, Torture Museum, City Wall walk

Highlight(s) – View of Old Town, Torture Museum

Lowlight(s) – Quiet, little to do

Cost – £79.67 (£39.84 per day)

Tallinn is a long way from Warsaw.  The journey was supposed to be sixteen hours but that turned into twenty hours. My one connection at Vilnius at ten pm turned into two connections, one in Vilnius at three am and one in Riga at seven am.  Nightmare. 

I eventually arrive in Tallinn and my hostel is a half hour walk from the bus station.  After it I feel I’ve already seen the place!  It’s tiny, Tallinn itself is only four hundred and fifty thousand people. Being a little country with a big neighbour they are fiercely proud of their independence.  Their flag is raised and their anthem played at sunrise and sunset every day at the parliament building except in summer when it’s no later than ten pm and no earlier than seven am.


This is because of the latitude, it’s quite far north.  In fact, it’s north of Inverness, which is not what you immediately think for mainland Europe. Despite this, the temperature is still a comfortable mid twenties by day and it’s not too cold at night.  It does seem to rain at seven pm like clockwork though.

The girls here are pretty too but what goes into the water here must be a little more diluted than it is in Poland.  I go to the walking tour but I have no idea what the guide said because she had eyes I got lost in.  After the tour I definitely feel like I’ve seen Tallinn.  The hostel has recommended this cafe so I check the online reviews.  According to one reviewer they have a girl working there who is the prettiest girl in the world (pretty big claim I think…), count me in! I get there and can’t believe my eyes, there’s three of them!  I have no idea which one he’s referring to.  They have a strange system regarding toilet symbols, one is a triangle and the other is an upside down triangle.  No local refers to this and the girls in the cafe took great delight in my confusion.

Another highlight is Tallinn’s Torture Museum.  For some reason I have this strange obsession with torture.  I post pictures below of a few examples.  You’ll be pleased to hear the first one was considered to be mild!  The second one is thought to be the worst.



The cost is a little unfair again as I had Euros so I thought I may as well spend them before I leanlve Europe for good. I’m not sure this is sensible…  I also spend more time than I probably should in that cafe!  Although we did disagree over what constitutes a large portion of pasta.

One thing I do remember from the tour is that Estonia is the most unreligious country in the world.  For me, that makes it one of the most intelligent.  It amazes me that in 2016 billions of people believe in adult tooth fairies and Father Christmases.

Strawbs – written 7 September 2016, published 21  September 2016


My first Russian Orthodox church…


The old City Wall

Poland

Days spent – 10 days (7 August 2016 to 17 August 2016)

Places visited – Krakow, Warsaw, Gdansk, Olsztyn

Books read – The Divine Comedy  (unfinished – and will probably remain so, it’s too hard going for me), Gone Girl  (unfinished – I succumb to a thriller)

Things done – Auschwitz, Mongolian visa application, Bury Tomorrow and Parkway Drive, Warsaw Uprising Museum, Museum of Matyrdom and Suffering, Wolf’s Lair

Highlight(s) – Girls(!), Parkway Drive

Lowlight(s) – Weather

Cost – £314.08 (£31.41 per day)

Warning – this blog contains paragraphs and images that some readers may find distressing.

Warning II – this blog contains words my Mum would deem inappropriate!

Crikey, what do they put in the water here?!  All the women are literally stunning, all of them!  After my gig (more on that to follow), I go to, ahem, a certain fast food establishment beginning with K…  There I am served by the eighty third beautiful girl I’ve seen that day.  I go and sit down and the eighty fourth walks in.  In England the type of girl that walks into KFC is one that really shouldn’t be in there and is wearing leggings but really shouldn’t be wearing them!  By the time I’ve eaten I’m up to eighty eight and by the time I’ve got ‘home’ I’m up to ninety two. I’m kind of disappointed not to get to a hundred.  When British ‘lads’ say ‘Oh, all the Spanish girls are so beautiful!’, I guaratee they haven’t been to Poland.

The first place I go is Krakow and quite close to that is this place you may have heard of called Auschwitz.  I hope I don’t have to fill anyone in on the history here but what really strikes me is the scale of the place.  I clock up several miles walking around.  The other thing that really hits home is the hair, the tonnes of hair, all still there.  In the museum there is a book which collates all known details of all known victims.  It’s about one metre high, two metres wide and six metres deep.  The building where Mengele operated (if you can call it that) is marked but I can’t bring myself to go there, the horrors that unfolded there. Second to not much in terms of all the bad things to happen on this planet.  It’s interesting to see the part the Nazis destroyed to try to cover their tracks. What I can never really understand, the scale of it, the amount of people involved, yet these killing machines went on and on and on.  My thoughts of this place are summed up quite nicely of this plaque…

Staying on the morbid theme, Warsaw has some great museums on World War II.  After all, did any country suffer more than Poland?  The Warsaw Uprising museum is probably the best I’ve ever been to.  The Museum of Martyrdom and Struggle is also excellent but quite small. In the Uprising Museum, there’s a 3D film which shows the ruins of Warsaw after the war.  It’s called City of Ruins, which is an apt title.  The ghetto: there is nothing left standing.  There is also a video of an old SS officer describing tales of what actually happened.  The worst one was when he told of about five hundred primary school children who were taken out of school.  The order was then given: “Save ammunition, use your rifle butts.” None survived.

Anyway, that’s enough of that.  Let’s talk about something more cheerful.  In Germany I get my ticket to see Parkway Drive supported by Bury Tomorrow. Parkway are probably my second favourite band at the moment.  I wonder how many people I’ve recently met are thinking ‘Wow, he really listens to this!’. Bury Tomorrow open the show and are brilliant as usual (fourth time I’ve seen them now I think).  Sadly, as they’re the opening act they don’t get a long set and so my two favourite songs of theirs don’t get played.  But my third favourite, Lionheart, does.  The Polish crowd is awesome.  Never before have I seen crowdsurfing to the music played in between acts (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody of all songs!).

It’s now time for Parkway (in a moment I’m lost, dying from the inside, her eyes take me away, tear me apart from the inside out…).  I’m second row, but during the second song I manage to get to the front row.  Which is great as the venue is small so I’m really close.  I’m so close I can see the set list duct-taped to the stage and I can read it.  They played a great set although not as long as I’d like as they didn’t play Swing. Unfortunately, because I was so close the quality of my videos isn’t that good so you’ll have to settle for a photo of Mike playing the intro for Wild Eyes. Lyrically, this band is pretty good, they have several that mean a lot to me.  The main ones being “You can win the rat race, but you’re still nothing but a fucking rat.” and “If home is where the heart is, why do I feel so fucking heartless?”  I thought it was a good question…

So Polish, what a language!  I hear nastepny prsztanek about forty six times before that sinks in.  I wonder if in the Polish version of Scrabble they start with twelve Zs and one E!  If not, they should. With the crazy accents I have no idea now to pronounce things.  They have this ‘l’ with a line through it ‘ł’, when I went to school that was a ‘t’. Because I’m waiting for my Mongolian visa I have to stay in Poland and return to Warsaw but that isn’t too bad as I’ve always wanted to go to Wolf’s Lair.  In German it’s Wolfschanze.  In Polish I don’t know, but it probably has another Z in it.

Wolf’s Lair is a bit of a trek from Gdansk, four separate trains with two of the switchovers being less than five minutes.  Somehow, it all goes smoothly getting there.  The last train (from Ketrzyn to Gierloz) is ‘new’ for 2016. I’ve put new in inverted commas because it isn’t, it’s old.  It’s an old train that some eccentric Polish guys have restored to run on the tracks the Germans used. It’s six zloty (about one pound and twenty pence) there and the same back, worth every penny.  As I approach Wolf’s Lair, the landscape change, the forest gets swampy, I get the feeling of something sinister up ahead but maybe that’s because I know there is.  Adolf Hitler spent about eight hundred days of World War II here.  The Nazi war machine protected by nine metres of camouflaged, reinforced concrete.  They tried to destroy it as they fled the Soviet advance but it isn’t that easy to destroy! The walls toppled and the roofs collapsed but that’s all they achieved and some bunkers remain intact and abandoned. After four trains there it’s time for three to Warsaw for seven in the day.  I get back to Ketrzyn but no sign of my train which means I’ll miss my connection to Warsaw.  This is especially annoying as I had already made a logistical mess of things and booked a night in Bialystok that I wasn’t using.  I now stay in Olsztyn, meaning I have three beds for the night.  I later learn that the delays were caused by someone committing suicide on the tracks. Perspective Strawbridge, perspective. 

Hitler’s Bunker

Strawbs – written 1 September 2016, published 7 September 2016

Palace in Krakow

Probably the most famous (definitely the tallest) building in Poland which is kind of sad because it looks identical to others in Russia

There aren’t words to describe how much I disagree with the translation of this…

Cool palace in an island in Warsaw

View from our hostel ‘beach’, ok river, campfire beer drinking session

The German translation of the Auschwitz plaque, look at the stones, there’s hope.

Czech Republic

Days spent – 2 days (5 August 2016 to 7 August 2016)

Places visited – Prague

Books read – None

Things done – Clock Tower pub crawl, Charles Bridge, castle, World War II and Communism tour, Astronomical Clock

Highlight(s) – Tour

Lowlight(s) – Not enough time…!

Cost – £109.14 (£54.57 per day)

A word of warning: the Czech Republic does not use Euros!  When my hostel asked for six hundred and ninety two I nearly choked but in crowns it isn’t so bad!

The first thing I’m going to talk about is Prague’s Astronomical Clock.  Before arriving, I didn’t know this was a big thing.  I arrive in the town square at eight pm for the pub crawl to be greeted by hundreds of people pointing their phones and cameras at the clock.  Sure enough, shortly after it chimes and everyone goes crazy.  I wonder what the fuss is about!  I take a photo, presumably this is an important event for some reason right?!  I ask the pub crawl guy and he says “Yeah, the tour guides oversell it!”.  Apparently there’s that sort of fuss every hour.  It does have an interesting history though.  Originally made it 1410, it’s the third oldest in the world.  Legend has it that Hanuš (who made it) was blinded on the order of the Prague Councillors so that he could not repeat his work.  In turn, he disabled the clock, and no one was able to repair it for a hundred years.  But, it isn’t the third oldest any longer because it was destroyed in World War II.


I join the infamous Prague clock tower pub crawl (also called Drunken Monkey – look it up on the Internet,  some funny stuff on their website) because I’ve heard good things about it (thanks Javier).  Two hours of unlimited drinks sounds like a good (bad) idea to me!  It’s kind of weird as a solo, a pure solo in fact as no one else from my hostel went.  A lot of English and Germans here and it’s a good crowd. It’s hard to get used to the fact that it’s legal to smoke indoors here. It’s strange when you tell people you’re solo travelling because everyone says “Ah, that’s so cool” or “Wow, that’s amazing” and most make an extra effort to be sociable.  On the way back to the hostel I succumb………KFC.

After spending too long in the morning in a cafe sorting transport to Krakow (surprisingly hard from Prague) I spend the afternoon on the World War II and Communism tour.  It’s quite interesting because the guide is half Canadian and half Czech and her grandmother left Czechoslovakia (as it was then) in 1968. Apparently, World War II was bearable but Communism wasn’t.  People forget what happened to the Czechs and Poles in the war because all focus is on Brits, French, Russians and Americans as the allies.

I need to mention costs again.  This cost is very unfair to the Czechs!  A pub crawl in a two day stay doesn’t have chance to be absorbed over time.  Also, because it is relatively cheap here I decide to live like a king for two days.  I’m eating two or three times per day and drinking to the bottom of the glass, repeatedly. Additionally, the bus into the country from Munich wasn’t cheap.

It’s here that I start to undestand the traveller’s number one dilemma, the costs.  I had a blast, but it wasn’t cheap. Struggling with that balance is an ongoing problem.

I didn’t know what Czech food was, and I still don’t!  But in Prague there are a lot of places with British influence.  It’s the closest place to home I’ve been to so far. Having succumbed to KFC, I also succumb and have fish and chips.  It wasn’t perfect, but I’m not sure my local fish and chips can ever be matched.  I guess all this just means I have to go back to do things properly!

Strawbs – written 30 August 2016 (on Lake Baikal shoreside at 6:30am), published 31 August 2016


Typical Prague


Prague main square


The first ever defenestration happened from the window of this town hall!


Cool tee shirt – I may as well declare myself.  At least I would be defending the realms of men…

Germany

Days spent – 2 days (3 August 2016 to 5 August 2016)

Places visited – Munich

Books read – None

Things done – Residenz, Englischer Garten,  Nymphenburg Palace

Highlight(s) – Englischer Garton,  wurst

Lowlight(s) – Not enough time…

Cost – £73.85 (£36.92 per day)

The first thing to mention in this blog is my journey to get there.  For I went to Munich from Venice by bus.  This means a lovely trip trough the Italian and Austrian Alps before arrival.  We stop in Trento and Bozen (Italy) and a few people get off at each.  I’m immensely jealous of them because they’re  such beautiful places.  We go onwards to Munich and because it’s such a ‘long’ journey (I’m writing on the Trans-Mongolian so long is relative I suppose!), we stop for fifteen minutes in Innsbruck. I don’t think I can claim this as me having visited Austria though.  The weather has turned and for the first time in about seven weeks I feel rain.  In Austria it’s that drizzly stuff we get in England that gets you wet without you realising.  So it’s a quick dash to grab supplies for the remainder of the journey.  In Munich it can rain properly and I get very wet going to the bus bound for Prague.

In Germany I also see the first KFC I’ve seen for about a month and a half.  They don’t seem to have them in Spain or Italy.  I resist the temptation to go in for now.  Having resisted that, I must eat something…  I’m sure I’m not the first to make this joke but German food is just the wurst!  More specifically, currywurst. What German genius came up with that combination?!  They need to hook up with the Italian that came up with mojito gelato and solve all the world’s problems.  What brilliant minds.

In Munich, I’ve been advised to go to Englischer Garten.  Well it should be good with that name, right?!  It is good, in fact it makes Hyde Park look rubbish. There’s a water system you can swim down but unfortunately I don’t have my swim shorts with me.  It’s twenty nine degrees while I’m here and everyone treats it like a beach and it’s massive so there’s so much room.

Regrettably, because I need to be in Moscow by the August twenty third I can’t spend as much time as I’d like in Germany.  I don’t even get to go to Berlin!  I also would have liked more time talking to Javier about exciting things like Tomorrowland.  But, perhaps the biggest sacrilege of all, I didn’t have time to visit a brewery.  Apologies to all Germans.

The cost shown above is flatters Germany somewhat as all things I did were free!  I didn’t eat out either (only there one evening!).  It is not the cheapest place I’ve been so far… Although, this just means I have to go back, to do things properly!

Strawbs – written 26 August 2016, published 28 August 2016

P.S: Can’t find half my photos (for Germany), but will hopefully track them down for Facebook photo album, I know they’re there somewhere…

Residenz garden

Nymphenburg Palace

If they’re not using them, do you think they’d notice if I took one…?!