Thursday, 29 September 2011

Hell on wheels

Welcome to hell
The horror. The horror.

Sam and I have discussed it, and we're pretty sure we just lived through the worst 50 hours of our lives, bar nothing. For all the bad times we've ever experienced, we can't think of anything to match it in terms of sustained, visceral misery. So, yeah - not the best journey.

What happened? This:
I will remove all joy from your life
Meet the stomach flu virus. Looks horrible, is horrible. Incredibly contagious, wildly unpleasant - and an unwanted passenger on our journey through Siberia.

It started about 4 hours into the trip. We'd been so looking forward to relaxing on the train - we were still nursing colds from Yekaterinburg, so the thought of lying down in a cozy cabin for three days seemed utterly blissful. We'd' stocked up on Lemsip, pot-noodles and bottled water. We had movies to watch, books to read - we were going to learn some Chinese, maybe get some writing done.

We did none of those things.

Within hours of setting off from Yekaterinburg, Sam started feeling nauseous. An hour later she started throwing up. We hoped it was just a spot of motion-sickness, but it soon became obvious that it was something worse. We barely slept at all through a miserable night - and started planning to get off the train (at the first town with an airport and a hospital) if she didn't start getting better in the morning. Inevitably, a few hours later, I came down with it too.

Stomach flu is miserable at the best of times, but on a Soviet-era locomotive, in the middle of Siberia - it pretty much crosses over into 'unbearable'. The train's shock-absorbers seemed to be made out of pig-iron and cement - the thing shook in every direction, all the time, even on the smoothest sections of track. Imagine being nauseous on a bouncy-castle, and you get the idea. We yearned for the occasional stops, when everything stopped lurching up and down - until we discovered that the carriage attendants locked the toilets while the train was in station.

Speaking of the carriage attendants, they were every bit as kind and helpful as we've come to expect, which is to say not kind or helpful at all. They literally shouted at us, frequently. When Sam had to throw up while the train was stopped in a station, the attendant first refused to unlock the toilet for her, then stood behind her yelling 'NO FLUSH! NO FLUSH!' while she gagged. The same attendant yelled at me for using both the carriage's loos to throw up into, instead of sticking with just one (I'd tried, but it was in use). She waited for me outside, presumably listening to my gasping and retching - and then shouted abuse at me in Russian, pointing furiously at the other (locked) loo. When you haven't eaten or slept for 30 hours, this is pretty disorientating to say the least.

Finally, there were the other passengers. The cabin next to ours contained a family with a young (frequently crying) child, and a CD player which they used to blast out Russian pop music long into the night. Lying in bed at 3am, fevered and squirming with gut-wrenching nausea, it was the sound of a little boy bawling his eyes out, competing for volume with a Russian cover version of 'The Fast Food Song,' that took everything to a truly perfect pitch of hellishness.

We did our best to look after each other. Whoever was feeling less sick at the time would take charge of mixing oral rehydration salts, and stroking the other person's hair. Sam finally stopped throwing up after about 24 hours, and I settled down a few hours later. We slipped in and out of uncomfortable sleep, praying for the journey to end. It was tough to comfort Sammy when all I could say was 'There there, only another 26 hours to go.' It just went on, and on, and on.

Beautiful Siberian taiga passed us by, we crossed the kilometre-long Krasnoyarsk Bridge, we chuntered through mining towns, logging villages, tiny fishing settlements - and we missed pretty much all of it. Because we were lying as still as possible, hoping for it all to come to an end.
File:Zheleznodorozhnyjj most, the railway bridge over the Yenisei in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, view from the left bank.jpg
Didn't see this...
The good news, then, is that we've finally reached Irkutsk. We've checked into a lovely little hostel, with an incredibly kind and friendly manager. We've eaten our first meal in 4 days. And we're about to go to sleep in beds which aren't bouncing up and down.

We're both getting back up to full strength, but between you and me - I bet Sam would love a 'Get Well Soon' e-mail or two from some of her friends. So please do drop her a line, if you have a moment.

Love to you all, from a thoroughly stationary
Ali x

Monday, 26 September 2011

Going dark

File:Oscar class submarine 2.JPG

We're on the train for the next three days, so won't be posting for a while. In fact, if you don't hear from us for a full week, don't read too much into it - we're headed straight to Lake Baikal, and who knows what the internet's like in Listvyanka...

In the meantime, here's a few links to things which we thought were interesting...

Catch you later, lovely people. Do svidanya x

You are not charming

Things you will realise about yourself, after receiving service in a Russian cafe, or restaurant, or shop:
  1. You are not charming
  2. You are not interesting
  3. You are definitely not funny
  4. At all
  5. Your attempts to speak the Russian language are in no way cute
  6. Or endearing
  7. Your desire to exchange money for goods and services does not in any way mean that you deserve respect
  8. Or politeness
  9. Or really anyone's attention
  10. At all
  11. You should be grateful to be tolerated.
  12. You know, in the way that people tolerate haemorrhoids
  13. Or genital lice
  14. At least until they can get hold of a decent ointment
You may not notice how much your self-esteem is buoyed by the dozens of tiny interactions you have each day, with shop assistants, baristas, waiters, receptionists (etc.) - the smiles (however forced), the polite inquiries about your needs (however insincere), the general sense that your custom, and indeed your wellbeing, might matter to somebody, somewhere...

... until you have it taken away from you, all at once. I'd hate to over-do it - it's not that you never get polite, good-natured service in a Russian service situation.

It's just... nearly like that.

Just so my Mum doesn't feel left out...

Message for a birthday girl

With love from Sammy, Ali and all at Mamma's Big House (the best cafe for comfort food in Yekaterinburg) xx

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Hidden Chicken

Our first taste of the Trans-Siberian railway: a 28 hour journey from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. I've been wanting to ride this train since I was 19 years old.
The back of our loooong train
Sammy immediately fell in love with our little 1st class compartment. Don't be fooled by the '1st class' moniker - it doesn't mean anything particularly fancy; just that we get the compartment to ourselves, instead of sharing the tiny space with two more people.
Your home for 1,100 miles
After settling in, we headed for the buffet car - which turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The buffet car had, without question, the most awesome menu I've ever read in my life. The selection of dishes included:

  • Soup modular
  • Ear "Fishing"
  • The Hidden Chicken
Excuse the terribly blurry photo below - it was all we could manage before the waitress came to take the menu away.
She's coming! She's coming! Take the photo quick or it's rude...
The descriptions of each dish were just as fabulous:

  • "Soup the modular meat, moves with mayonnaise and parsley"
  • "Beef, tomato, prunes. Moves in a pot."
  • "Beef fried with onions. Moves with a boiled potato."

In the end, naturally intrigued, we both opted for The Hidden Chicken.
Find the chicken
Thoroughly refuelled, we staggered back to our carriage, and watched the sunset from our little compartment.
This was a nice moment
And on drawing the curtains, Sammy decided that she could definitely do more of this 'adventuring by train' malarkey.

More like this, please
I can't say it was the most comfortable night's sleep in the world. The beds were so narrow that there was no conceivable sleep-position which didsn't result in at least one of my limbs dangling off the bed.

We spent most of the next day, still on the train, dozing. Weirdly, we slept much better after swapping beds...
Dozy but cozy

We finally arrived in Yekaterinburg six hours ago. We're both suffering with colds, which is a pain, so haven't been overly adventurous. Currently we can tell you exactly two facts about Yekaterinburg:

1. Our hotel is designed to look like a hammer and sickle when seen from above. (Constructivist architects were nuts for this sort of thing.) We are literally living in propaganda:
Iset in Ekaterinburg, Russia
Hotel, comrade
2. Some restaurants here entice potential customers by placing stuffed animals, in human dining situations, in their windows:
Admit it, you're hungry

We'll post more if and when we get out of bed tomorrow. <Sniffle, cough.> Otherwise we'll mostly be stocking up on Lemsip.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The only way to see Moscow

There are around 3 million cars blasting around Moscow's roads each day - and believe me, you notice it. Even in the heart of the city, roads with 8 to 10 lanes of traffic are not uncommon.
Saturday night in Moscow
(Picture from EuroRoss)
Now in our time in Moscow we've done boat tours, walking tours and museum audio-guides - but last night we saw Moscow the way it should be seen: in a blazing fast black BMW.
Stuff your tour bus
It was thanks to two fantastic friends of my Dad's - Igor and Natalia - who incredibly kindly gave up their Friday night to show Sammy and me around the city. At speed. With Igor at the wheel, we flew around the concentric ring-roads encircling the city - up to the amazing view from Moscow State University, down to Novedivichy Convent, across town to the Ostankino TV tower, and round the Kremlin from every possible angle. A tour that would have taken all day in a coach was blitzed through in just a couple of turbo-charged hours.

Unfortunately, I hadn't realised that we were going on a tour - so I hadn't brought my camera. Which meant I was reduced to taking blurry shots on my iPhone, and cursing my own stupidity. So here is the stunning vista from the State University:
It was utterly amazing in real life, I swear
This is the unutterably gorgeous Novedivichy Convent, by starlight:
It was way less blurry at the time
And here's a rather better picture of one of the Convent's turrets:
The pictures are better if you're up close
Fortunately Sammy had brought her point-and-shoot camera, which takes much better pictures than the iPhone. Unfortunately, Sammy hasn't really figured out how to focus her camera at night. So here's Moscow State University:
There was not, in fact, an earthquake going on
And here's a cute photo of me, Natalia and Igor posing with some metal ducks (a truly bizarre gift to the Russian people from Barbara Bush):
Ali's problem is: he lacks focus
Fortunately, however, Sammy's camera worked just fine for the stunning shot across the lake to Novedivichy - so here's a really beautiful picture of one of the best views in the city:

So we want to say a huge thank-you to Igor and Natalia, for an unforgettable evening. And if you're ever in Moscow - they're the fastest (and funniest) tour guides in town.

Vampires in Moscow

File:Kutuzovsky night.jpg

As some of you may know, I've always had a thing for vampires. I brought a limited pocket-edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula which I kept in my bedside drawer for years, only to throw it under the bed to make way for the Twighlight series. So when the Rough Guide to Moscow told me there were "seven sisters who brood over Moscow city like vampires", I was entirely distracted from repeatedly downloading the trailer for Twilight: Breaking Dawn (it looks immense). 

The 'seven sisters' in question are neo-gothic skyscrapers commissioned by everybody's favourite city-planner, Josef Stalin. Apparently he developed quite a complex about the Americans and their high-rise skylines and so set about carving up his landscape in competition. "We won the war..." he apparently told his underlings. "Foreigners will come to Moscow, walk around, and there's no skyscrapers. If they compare Moscow to capitalist cities, it's a moral blow to us." So he commissioned teams of his favourite architects to create eight megalithic Soviet Skyscrapers.

Walking back to our hotel from Red Square at midnight, we got our first impression of one of the sisters dominating the skyline. She is beyond impressive, looming on the horizon in all her gothic majesty...

Now that really is immense

I was happily convinced that one of the moths dancing way off in the flood lights was The Batman.

Muscovites call them them the Stalinskie Vysotky "Stalin's high-rises", and rumour has it that workers who died from exhaustion during their construction were simply tossed into the cement and worked into the walls. So if you decide to renovate your high-rise apartment with river views, you can expect to find a skeleton or two behind your closet.

As you walk around the city it's hard not to notice the others. They're like nothing I've ever seen - straight out of a movie... 
Moscow State University

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

You get the idea
Two of the Seven Sisters are residential apartment blocks - where a lucky few got to live inside a physical manifestation of Stalin's mind. The Kotyelinicheskaya Embankment Apartments (above) were home to chosen artists, writers and composers. Why keep so many arty types all in the same building? Obviously - because it's much cheaper to spy on them if they're all in one place. Imagine the cost savings. He was a shrewd man, that Josef Stalin.

These days the apartments are highly sought-after real estate - some of the most expensive flats in the city. But some of the original tenants - artist and spies - apparently still live there. Check out the amazing story here:

"Neighbors: Can't live with them, can't shoot them. But you can always inform on them to the authorities...".

Bargains galore on the streets of Moscow

Unbelievable. Simply incredible. I hate to brag, but I just picked up a 100% genuine Emporio Armani watch in a Moscow subway - for £15. Can you believe it? Fifteen tiny pounds, genuine Armani. Take a look:

100% genuine elegance
Now I know exactly what you're thinking. Haven't surveys shown that up to a third of consumer goods in Moscow are fake? How do I know my watch isn't as fake as Nicole Kidman's new face? Well maybe you missed it, but this timepiece says Emporio Armani on the clock face. In tiny writing. And it has the little salami-sliced-eagle Armani motif. Do you seriously mean to tell me that can be faked?
So genuine it almost hurts your eyes
Also, there's a sliced eagle logo on the buckle. Actually stamped into the metal. Now I don't care how good your factory is, that's tough to fake.
Look at my pale, shiny wrist. And the Armani logo.
And the amazing design decisions which have gone into this stylish timepiece all scream 'genuine Armani'. For a start, check out the 100% leather strap - which has been treated with some kind of space-age material that makes it feel almost exactly like plastic:

Space-age plastinated leather
Which is an awesome idea when you think about it. All the elegance of leather, with all the lightness and waterproofness of plastic.

Then there's the body of the watch itself. It looks like solid steel, but it's much, much lighter. Almost as if someone took a plastic watch body, and gave it a thin, shiny veneer. Again, I can only assume this is a proprietary Armani material - some sort of 'metalastic', if you will.

Metalastic fantastic
Finally, to differentiate their watch from the sea of boring Rolexes, Tag Heurs and so on, Armani have taken a truly brave decision with this watch - they've decided not to make it waterproof. At all. Seriously - despite the plastinated leather, and the metalastic body, this thing is as waterproof as a muffin. Wear it into the shower, and condensation droplets appear instantly inside the watch-face. And remain there for hours afterwards.

But that's what Armani want to happen. Because what stylish, elegant gentleman wears his watch into the shower? Or allows his watch to get wet, in the rain, when walking around a Russian city in Autumn? Not an Armani gentleman. Look at their brand ambassador, Cristiano Ronaldo. Does this look like a man who allows his watch to get wet?
No rain on me
He isn't even wearing a shirt. If he went our on a rainy Moscow afternoon, he'd get pneumonia within minutes.

So I say thank-you Armani, and thank-you tiny-dodgy-Moscow-watch-kiosk - for allowing me to share in the elegance of Armani products, at a fraction of the usual price.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Добро пожаловать к Москва (Welcome to Moscow)

The first (of many) Russian trains brings us to Moscow for four days. The Express train was extremely civilised - coffee brought to your seat, if you please... - and the view from our seats was simply spectacular.
Sammy admires the view
On arriving in Moscow, Sam is struck (as everyone is) by the gangs of Militsiya roaming the streets. We weren't insane enough to try taking a photo of them (instant camera-confiscation, possible arrest), but here's a photo taken by someone braver than me:
Drinking militsiya officers.  Source:
Fighting crime, one beer at a time
After dropping our stuff at the hotel, I insist on taking Sam to Red Square, even though it's getting dark. Red Square by night is like nothing on earth. On the way, though, we stumble into one of the (many) Crazy Bling Shopping Quarters of central Moscow.

Historic buildings be damned - I want shoes
The GUM shopping centre, once a dour Soviet hell, is even shinier than I remember.
Your puny camera cannot capture my awesome shininess
Red Square itself is breathtaking, of course - as are the views from the Moskva River.
You will be awed, decadent Westerners.
And we walk back to the hotel through a network of in-no-way scary underground tunnels

Nothing scary about this

"I'm so glad we did this, Ali."
Blogging may be light for the next few days, as our hotel's internet connection appears to be a Soviet-era telephone line. Uploading each photo takes at least fifteen minutes. It's 2am, and this has not been the most productive 3 hours of my life...

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Culture and Cake (but mostly cake)

Hi hi, Sammy here! I've never blogged before so here is my attempt at a post. Mumma, if you're reading, we're still very much alive and very much heavier.

This was amazing
This was amazing
It might not look it, but this was so amazing
we didn't talk for a while
But we haven't just been fatties, we've done a lot of culture, you'd be proud of me. And I only got grumpy with all the walking once. Or twice. And so we stopped for some of this:

It was amazing
 But as regards the culture, The Hermitage is outstanding.

Not the car, the bit in the background
So, so beautiful, vast and stuffed full of incredible art. Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Van Gogh and a little Gormley for good measure:

 Though the Hermitage staff did not appreciate my enthusiasm.

And after another cake in the cafe, we ticked a massive box on my 'Things To Do in Russia' list. Emily, if you're reading, this one's for you. Recognise this?

Not me, the thing in the background.

My dad's painting of St Isaac's cathedral has sat on our mantelpiece for the past five years and here it is now in a photograph, complete with scaffolding. And traffic signs. 

Lots of love, S xxx