Feeling Gravitys Pull

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 1, 2010

EVER since this blog started nine months ago, one part of the home page has been flashing orange, asking for one simple piece of information – the date it all ended.

For months it remained untouched because there was no end date. The day we arrived in New York was set in stone, but that wasn’t absolute zero.

That little piece of stamped paper in my passport, obtained after much explanation, a lot of form filling and one endless day sat in the confines of the American Embassy in London (give me a day on the pot-filled road from St Petersburg to Moscow any time), enabled me to stay in the USA until mid-November.

All that, plus explaining it all over again when we re-entered the States in Washington and, fortified by a good few beers, at Niagara, was not going to waste, so the plan was to stretch that final date out as long as possible.

And putting up a date would have been too much like a full stop. The end of this adventure. A bloody great stop sign in this new, much-cherished section of my life. Putting a finishing date up seemed like cutting that off, the end of this life, the return to normality and whatever comes next.

Don’t bother looking for that bit of orange text. It’s not there anymore. Finally, after a couple of weeks back in the UK – having returned just before the need for that infuriating visa actually kicked in – the question this site has been asking for months was answered by the flight home

It’s not as long in the States originally planned or hoped for (the visa will just have to be used sometime before it expires).

If that original plan was still in operation, it would probably have taken me to the west coast again now. Or exploring some small town in the south, explaining exactly where my ‘pur-etty’ accent comes from and why Wales isn’t really a part of England. And almost certainly watching baseball.

But coming home is not the full stop it originally seemed. More of a semi-colon – breaking up one part of my trip and laying the ground for the next part of an ongoing tale.

The next few months could have been spent clocking up even more miles in America, to go with the many thousands clocked up on the bus/train/boat/Green Tortoise in the previous 13 weeks.

But it began to dawn on me, quite early on after branching out from the safety of the trip family, that stretching this single trip out for quite so long would have ended with the largest, most abrupt of full stops imaginable on this odyssey.

The bank balance would have been exhausted, the credit card bill would have been out of control and travelling overkill could well have set in. There would have been little alternative than to return to the daily grind, both for financial reasons and to get some grip on reality.

Not that it has been easy coming back. Still living out of the same rucksack and, with my house still rented out, relying on the kindness of others to put me up, being back has been totally disorientating. It still is.

There’s a strange feeling of being out of place, out of time, out of synch with everything and everybody.

From a world inhabited by like-minded souls, be it swapping gossip and kit on the bus or swapping tales from the front line in a New Orleans hostel, it’s back to a world that doesn’t belong to me any more.

People’s lives are going on at a different pace, in a different direction and it’s hard to fall into place.

The closest is that lost feeling after coming out of a relationship, where your idea of normal has been skewed and there’s a constant sense of something missing. Well, apart from the urge to listen to a load of miserable, introspective music – at least, no more than normal.

I’ll get there, it’s just taking a little bit of time. And I’ve got no intention of shaking off the wanderlust. Not yet.

A few days back freelancing in the old office have helped get some semblance of normality – and helped to pay for the seemingly endless trips to the bar which go with this carefree, not working life – and, hopefully, more of the same will help to keep the bank balance in reasonable health and chip away at the credit card bill.

But the long-term plan is not to answer the oft-asked ‘what now?’, but ‘where now?’.

That earlier than originally planned return from the States means never reaching a point where the desire to travel, explore and generally get to know people and places all over this world was quenched. And there’s still enough money sat in that bank account to pay for another trip. For now.

So that’s the plan – or at least the fledgling part of one.

Having headed out to New York this time, top of the options list at the moment is another epic trip, this time veering south east after central Europe and ploughing on down through Asia and on to Australia, ending up in Sydney.

From there, well…. who knows? There’s always the option to get sensible and return to the daily grind, but we’ll worry about that when we get there. The plan has changed, been ripped up, recycled and tweaked so many times in the last month or so, who knows what it will look like by the time some form of decision is needed?

So top of the agenda, with some form of income needed in the meantime is to work out exactly what comes next.

The first couple of weeks back have been largely looking backward, editing the blog, collating an album of pictures from the trip and a variety of reunions – Nick (who lives here, of course), Mike (who also does now), Julie and Gerda, Dave, Pam and Phoebe (who I’d already been reunited with twice in New York) have all made it to Cardiff in the last couple of weeks.

And while more of that remains on the To-do list (yep, that old pre-trip favourite has returned and is breeding), it increasingly involves things throwing my life forward. Earning money stands near the top of the list. Just below not spending too much of it.

But there are a couple more items of business to settle before this blog gets consigned to the past).

First up is the next entry in which the Green Tortoise gets swapped for a little white Pontiac and I head out onto the wide open roads of the USA.

Then it’s time to sort out another date – the start of the next trip…

Next time: Life In The Furnace with John ‘Cougar Soddin’ Mellencamp

NB This entry originally appeared on the original version of this blog on another website (www.travelpod.com if anybody wants a simple way of cataloguing their own travels), which includes the start and end date mentioned in the opening paragraphs.

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Adagio For Skinheads Bowling

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 15, 2010

Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

DAY 26 on the trip and, fresh from a game of Russian Roulette in a station café on the Russian-Mongolian border, time for a condition check.

Put briefly – a bit battered and bruised.

Nothing of any great concern, but nobody who knows me will show any great surprise that the last few days have produced a few knocks, courtesy of one spectacular slip, a couple of collisions with door frames, an uncomfortable bed, being repeatedly catapulted into the roof of a van, an early-morning (translation: after a few vodkas) fall from a top bunk and, least surprisingly of all, a sports injury.

And a cold.

But as we are shunted around a railway yard waiting to cross the border, all is – pretty much – well as we have a bit of quiet time to recover from and reflect on one of the undoubted highlights of the trip so far.

Lake Baikal Sunset
Wow Moment – The sun sets over Lake Baikal

Before we had even left Blighty, what seems an awfully long time ago, the phrase “Wow Moment” had fallen into common parlance and mine came on an island cliff top, overlooking the frozen Lake Baikal at sunset.

Silhouetted across the skyline were the small band who had made the trek up the hill after dinner, each lost in our own thoughts as we sought to keep out the piercing cold with whatever we felt fitted best with the moment on our iPods.

Lambchop and Massive Attack came close, but Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, reaching its crescendo as the sun finally dropped over the mainland, was spot on.

A truly perfect moment and a new entry right at the top of my most amazing things seen chart.

Wish it had been met it with a “wow” or something profound, but my choice of words owed more to our former driver Martins, but think Fuck Yes captures the magic just as well (there was certainly plenty of swearing as we realised just how far below zero it really was and pelted back to base).

Lake Baikal Sunset
… and another one, the sun drifts below a tree

But let’s rewind to where you last left us – a while ago admittedly, but we have been out of range of wi-fi for some time – and how we ended up freezing our bits off on the edge of a frozen lake.

Back then we were already cold, clean (we’ve been away from showers as long as we have internet access) free from bruises and about to hit the town in Irkutsk.

Or we would, if there was much of a town to hit, so the bulk of us went bowling at the request of Mary, our oldest tourist.

And a good time was had by all, although Mike was less than happy our two hours ran out just as he was on a run of five strikes in six attempts, but by then my shoulder had become the first part of my body to succumb to the rigours of this trip.

The London Pub – about as London-related as the rest of Irkutsk – was followed by the restaurant and a stumble back to the boys’ hostel, for the first time our party was split up overnight, and a quick nightcap.

Irkutsk - Lenin
Lork’s a Lordy – Statue of Lenin in Irkutsk

Or it should have been, were it not for a few bottles of vodka with our new Norwegian friends, the lovely Mari and Sunniva, which went on until well into the morning – just before I dropped my phone off the top bunk and followed it quite quickly in my attempt to retrieve it.

The effects – of the vodka and the fall – were all too aware as we struggled to pull ourselves out of bed, gather our kit and climb into minibuses for the six-hour drive to Lake Baikal.

It was a journey to be endured on roads which only barely qualified as such, but it was only the start of our trek as all but three of us, who got a rather less treacherous second leg of the journey, were deposited on the banks of the lake.

Lake Baikal contains 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater and is around a mile deep in places, making it the deepest lake in the world.

It is also, in mid-April, still completely frozen so the final 2km to Olkhon Island was completed on foot over the ice.

Lake Baikal - Walk over the ice
The walk over the frozen Lake Baikal to Olkhon Island

What followed was a mix between a Ray Mears survival show, a documentary on oversized penguins and an episode of It’s A Knockout On Ice as most of our group scurried across the snowy bits and slid/pigeon-stepped across the glass-like surfaces.

Fran took the prize for most falls with “around five” which made my solitary tumble look quite good, if only it wasn’t accompanied by a crack of the back of my head on the ice which produced an instant flock of cartoon tweety birds.

Another bone-shaking ride followed to our home for the night, which was akin to a wild west stockade, only more homely and with more confusing toilet arrangements.

A quiet night was followed by a return to the ice, only this time we were out in vans or, in our case, an old Russian army ambulance with a driver who took every opportunity to show off to his colleagues and his captive audience with a string of 360s and controlled skids on the ice.

No matter how skilled he is, there’s little he can do to stop the poor sod at the back of the van being launched into the roof every time he hits a major bump.

Olkhon Island
The northern tip of Olkhon Island meets the frozen Lake Baikal

So – travel tip coming up – take it from me, if you are out on the Lake Baikal ice, don’t sit at the back. It hurts.

Despite the bruises, it was a fantastic day in the most beautiful surroundings – topped off by that post-dinner stroll up to the headland for the sunset.

Or it would have been if we hadn’t decided to mull over what we had just seen with a few vodkas and beers… hence a few of the normal suspects being less than perky for the long return journey back to Irkutsk and our second long train journey to Mongolia.

Which is where you find us, sitting on the train waiting for the customs guys on the border.

Thankfully, we have managed to get off and find a café which produced much amusement among the locals that we were wearing shorts while they are still well wrapped up and the game of Russian Roulette – ordering from a menu which could bring you anything, a brave move with no toilets available on the train for several more hours and another night on the train to come.

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We’ve Been On This Shift Too Long

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 10, 2010

Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

WHEN we started planning this trip, various points on the trip immediately leapt off the page as potential highlights.

The likes of St Petersburg, Moscow, Beijing and the increasingly tempting prospect of two weeks lounging around on the cruise ship were among the many things to look forward to as the miles rolled on. Even Auschwitz in a peculiar way.

At no point was a shower in the middle of Siberia high up on the expected memorable moments list.

But after four days on the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, clambering into a nice, hot shower in snowy Irkutsk and collapsing on a clean bed is about as good as it gets.

Moscow - Kremlin and Lenin's Tomb
Lenin’s Tomb lurks in the shadow of the Kremlin

There’s still a bit of an odour hanging around the hostel – the two teenage Norwegian girls who turned up over breakfast accepted much of the blame having just climbed off the train – but another good scrub should get rid of any lasting vestiges.

All in time to spend two days on a frozen island before climbing back on the train.

But let’s rewind to when you last left us, on a bumpy road to Moscow.

Having made our way into the Russian capital and with nothing particularly planned for the evening, the boys did what tourists do when they reach Moscow – we went to Red Square.

For someone who grew up watching the military parades from Red Square and Soviet leaders and Politburo watching on from the walls of the Kremlin, to be standing there openly taking pictures was a touch bizarre.

Moscow - St Basil's Cathedral
The distinctive coloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at the bottom end of Red Square

Finding a department store, complete with fairy lights and Cartier in the window, facing the Kremlin wall was not expected.

Having been to the obvious tourist traps, we headed into a Moscow backwater and discovered probably the only bar in Russia that didn’t serve vodka. Or coke. Or wine. What they did serve, they decided to bring to our table in jugs, regardless of whether we ordered it or not.

Rather than give them the opportunity to bring anything else, we headed back to the hostel via a supermarket to buy breakfast and vodka – under the constant glare of two security guys – which we then proceeded to consume before going to bed.

It wasn’t that late a night, but it was enough to ensure the early-morning call for a whistle-stop tour of Moscow with the formidable Galina was pushing it a bit for some of us.

Red Square Flags
One out of four ain’t bad – the flags fly in a Red Square group shot with only one shown properly

What she showed us was a very interesting city. Shame we couldn’t have seen more of it.

But after a stop overlooking the Luznhiki Stadium – home of the 1980 Olympics or, for those of us who got a bit carried away that night, Manchester United’s Champions League final victory over Chelsea – we headed back to Red Square and possibly the most bizarre stop on the tourist trail for this entire trip, Lenin’s Mausoleum.

Sitting in pride of place in the heart of Red Square – at least until they move him back to St Petersburg sometime in the near future – it is all a bit weird.

Plunged into darkness and silence – no cameras, no phones, no talking, no stopping or one of the soldiers stationed in the corners will leap out from the shadows – you emerge into a central room with the incredibly short, spotlit body of the Revolutionary leader laid out in state.

It barely looks real. In fact, it is hard to believe he is not a waxwork.

Packing Light
Packing light – Waiting to board the Trans-Siberian in Moscow

But then you walk back into the light and past the busts of other former Soviet leaders and you realise you have just walked past the body of one of the most important figures of the last century.

And certainly someone who didn’t want the likes of me besmirching the inner sanctum of his idealistic nation, let alone his tomb.

He certainly wouldn’t have been that keen on there being a McDonald’s 100 yards down the road, but very nice and very welcome it was too.

Particularly as it was the last thing to eat for four days that wasn’t cooked by adding boiling water or bought off some station vendor.

The Trans-Siberian has always been potentially the most awkward part of the trip, not least cramming ourselves, our luggage and the extra food and equipment we needed into some less than roomy cabins.

Our four-person room consisted of Mike and myself on the bottom bunks with Nick and Freddie in the upper berths.

View From The Train
View From The Train

Only one of us could comfortably stand up in there at any one time and it got oppressively hot at times – hence shorts and sandals for much of the trip, despite the constant snow and freezing temperatures outside – but we soon got everything packed away and opened Nick’s Bar to the general public.

It was a little bit basic with basically only Nick’s supply of vodka – designed to last the entire trip, we drank it on the first night – beer purchased from the trolley girl or at one of the longer platform stops and bottles of coke on offer, but it served us well.

We managed to get eight of us crammed in at one point, so it was all a bit snug.

You soon learned to be careful when swigging from a bottle of coke. It may not just be a soft drink, but could contain high levels of vodka – particularly if you try to dilute vodka using coke from a bottle that was already an extremely strong mixture. Ideal for those who like to taste it.

Throw in a few tunes, courtesy of my laptop, and we were well set, before we got well and truly told off for making too much noise from our carriage’s Niet-Niet Lady.

Each carriage in our section of the train is a row of sleeping compartments with a narrow corridor running the whole length, a toilet at each end, a hot water boiler and our own Niet-Niet Lady in charge – so called because her unsmiling response to virtually every query was a brisk “Niet”.

Omsk Station
Heading into Asia at Omsk Station

By day two, we were well settled into our regime – spend as much time as possible lying in bed, preferably asleep, stretch your legs at the longer platform stops (always given in Moscow time, despite travelling through five time zones) and cooking noodles, soup or mash.

That was all getting a bit much by the third day, long after the vodka had run out – bar the dodgy stuff from behind the counter at a station which not even the Russians would touch – Phoebe’s homemade backgammon board had been used to fillet fish by Phil’s rather scary roomie Sergei (the Kiwi bear, all 6ft 4in of him, refused to sleep alone with him and dragged Marlo in for reinforcements) and we had got sick of noodles, soup and mash.

But suddenly, what had threatened to be the longest, darkest night of the trip exploded into life in the dining car – an area few of us had previously dared to tread.

Before we knew it, half our contingent was being taught how to drink vodka the Russian way.

And we kept on practicing – hence the desperate scramble for roubles when it was time to settle the bar bill the next day – with our new friends Igor, the three girls from the restaurant car and even our Niet-Niet Lady broke into a smile.

She even offered Mike a boiled egg, although only after eating it did he realise that it was decorated and she might just have been showing him her Easter decorations.

Home Sweet Home On The Train
Our home on the Trans-Siberian for four days

The chaos spilled onto a Siberian platform which showed the temperature at -6C as bemused locals, passengers and the rest of the group watched us lot running around like loons and a quick skipping session (thankfully fully clothed, which is more than can be said of the even later session witnessed only by a few hardy survivors).

Thankfully, all this coincided with my idea to catalogue a day on the train, so photographic evidence jogged a few memories the next morning (despite me having to break off twice to carry a couple of people to bed), which was much needed to explain a few bruises.

Not surprisingly, the last day on the train was a bit subdued. As well as the effects of the night before, the confusion between Moscow and local time was kicking in and we were, frankly, going a bit stir crazy.

But eventually we were woken by the cleaning woman from a patchy night’s sleep, far earlier than we had planned, and eventually pulled into snowy Irkutsk, which – despite less than favourable first impressions – is actually quite a funky little place.

Apologies if this entry rambles on a bit, but hey, we had to live it. You guys can skip bits or walk away and come back.

Suggest a nice, long, hot shower…

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Stand By Me – Red-ux

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 4, 2010

St Petersburg, Russia

PREVIOUSLY on the road to New York… In the last episode, we left our intrepid travellers in Estonia, about to embark on their first major border crossing of the trip.

Did they make it across the border? Were Phil’s warnings about the time it would take mere scare stories to win the sweep? Will anyone in the back half of the bus ever really go to a bar for “just the one“? And how much vodka can we consume in Russia?

Read on for the answers to at least some of these questions.

Plus, find out how half the group got lost in St Petersburg, what is a ‘suicide lane’, why sleeping on a coach is so tough on Russian roads and how a Welshman found himself the star attraction in a Russian folk show.

And much, much more…

Please be aware, this episode contains strong language unsuitable for young children or those who have never heard a Latvian swear.

Hermitage Museum
Reflected Glory – The spectacular Hermitage Museum in the River Neva

THE fact this entry is being written while being shaken about on the extremely bumpy highway between St Petersburg and Moscow answers a couple of questions.

We’ve experienced some wonderful things since we crossed into Russia in a time of two hours, seven minutes – about as smooth as it gets – but the roads aren’t among them.

We face at least one major wait at a border as it takes at least eight hours to change the wheels on the train when we reach China, but that’s still the best part of two weeks off.

Before then, we’ve got more of Russia. Lots, lots more.

We can let the train take the strain most of the way, starting with four nights on the Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk from tomorrow.

St Isaac's - St Petersburg
St Petersburg – St Isaac’s Cathedral

While that holds its own fears and has left the bus crammed with food, drink (no vodka as yet), pots, pans and a collection of cutlery acquired in a selection of nefarious means, it means no more being bounced around the coach and hanging onto anything which might fly around (as has been the case for the last five minutes with my laptop).

Sadly, it also means we bid farewell to our driver Martins.

Barring a whistle stop tour of Moscow tomorrow which deposits us at the train station, today’s 700km marathon – punctuated by a couple of police road blocks and constant potholes – is Martins’ last stint. He will be missed when he turns round and heads back the way we came.

A man of few words, in any of his three languages, he is responsible for the catchphrase of the trip so far, the simplistic but hugely adaptable FuckYes and its little brother FuckNo – both creations of his alter-ego Marius.

Marius has only appeared twice on the occasions when the bus was off the road the following day and he has joined us for a few drinks. Which inevitably led to a few more.

Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood - St Petersburg
Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood – St Petersburg

He popped up on two of the trip’s biggest early nights out, in Prague and Vilnius, and – along with his good lady and, somehow, his daughter living in Spain – was responsible for us spending two nights in a Russian bar in his home town of Riga, from which tales are still being recounted.

Having steered us across Europe, Martins has been one of the team and will be missed.

Among his finest driving achievements has been dealing with suicide lanes in these parts.

They are basically thin strips down the centre of the road down which vehicles in either direction overtake, or merely use to avoid a huge pothole, requiring the oncoming vehicle and the one being overtaken to move over onto the hard shoulder.

Quite disturbing when you wake up from a snooze to see a lorry haring straight at you, but Martins has done us proud.

Dealing with such problems and all the hassle of getting into Russia was all made worthwhile by St Petersburg, my prime contender for best city of the trip so far, despite the reservations of several members of the trip.

Hermitage Museum - St Petersburg
Hermitage Museum – St Petersburg

The former Russian capital was built to rival the major Western capitals by Peter the Great and his successors as Russian leader right up to the revolution in 1917. As such, everything is on a grand scale.

Despite the punishment it took during the Second World War, the not always favourable treatment it received during the Soviet regime and the fact it is looking a bit threadbare around the edges, it remains a spectacular city.

There are some glittering sights and even some of its grimiest streets boast impressive architecture, as we found out when a trip for something to eat ended with an impromptu late-night walking tour of the city’s back streets when an attempted short cut sent us way off course and hopelessly lost.

It had all started so well, a wander around the city providing some spectacular sights and the successful location of the tucked away Idiot bar for food, drinks and the obligatory free vodka.

Madonna and Child - Early Leonardo Da Vinci
Getting cultural in the Hermitage – Madonna and Child, Early Leonardo Da Vinci

Having found one idiot, fingers have been pointed in various directions to identify the other idiot who suggested a different route home which saw a group of 10 splinter in two and totally unsure of where they were.

Thankfully, Freddie’s GPS system finally got us home – or, to be more accurate, to the Irish pub next to the hostel – to be followed by the stragglers minutes later.

Things then followed a more familiar pattern – a few beers, a drunken Russian taking a shine to Phoebe and a night that ran a little bit later than was really necessary with a full day’s sightseeing to cram in the next day.

Hence we may not have been at our best when our guide Anna was detailing some of the fascinating history of St Petersburg, the Romanovs and Rasputin as Martins carried us round the main sights.

She certainly knows her stuff and did not deserve to be met with snores from the back of the bus. But it was still early and we were very tired.

Refreshed and rejuvenated by free tea, coffee and, yes, mid-morning vodka at the Faberge shop, we tackled the Hermitage Museum which is, quite simply, spectacular. And huge.

St Peter & Paul Fortress - St Petersburg
St Peter & Paul Fortress – St Petersburg

Situated in the former Winter Palace – the one stormed by the Bolsheviks to spark the revolution – and later additions, it gives you not just a fascinating insight into Russian history and the ruling Romanovs, but contains a staggering collection of art.

It is said that if you spend a minute looking at each exhibit, it will take five years to see everything.

We only had a couple of hours, but thankfully, Anna knew her stuff and gave us the highlights package of the museum and the Peter and Paul Fortress over the River Neva where the Romanovs are buried – including the recently-discovered family of the ousted Nicholas II.

After such a staggering intake of culture, the evening’s folk show seemed a little bit of an afterthought. More than one of us considered not going, but boy were we glad we did.

Those readers who know me will be surprised at my enjoyment of an evening of traditional Russian singing and dancing, but it was breathtaking and had the added bonus of more free vodka and one of the comedy highlights of the trip.

Canal - St Petersburg
Last signs of winter – The ice melts on the canals of St Petersburg

Just before the interval, three of the female singers headed out into the audience to coral volunteers into joining in with the performance.

Settled as we were in the centre of the back row, we thought we were safe, but something drew one of the girls to Mike and before we knew it, the Welsh wonder was strutting his stuff on stage and playing to the crowd.

A quick drink – for us very much so – and that was that for St Petersburg, which is a shame as it is a wonderful city. A little jaded, but quite spectacular in parts.

Sadly, much of the countryside we have passed through since leaving has never reached the levels of jaded and grim just does not suffice.

Still, Moscow awaits – if we can ever find a service station with a loo…

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It’s The End Of The World As We Know It…

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 2, 2010

Tallinn, Estonia

IT would be unfair to suggest that the inhabitants of the bus don’t pay full attention to Phil when he issues his latest state of the nation address at the front of the bus.

Admittedly we are taking his estimates on how far we have to carry our bags from the coach to the hostel each day with a huge handful of salt (200 metres is obviously a lot longer in New Zealand than it is over here), but on the whole we listen intently as he passes on the information we need about our latest destination. Well, most of the time.

But at no point has he held our attention as completely when he warned us about tomorrow’s trip from Tallinn to St Petersburg.

Four hours to the border and another four hours the other side got us interested, focusing minds to a day bedded down on the bus as Martins clocked up the miles.

But then he came up with his coup de grace – the information that border crossings on this route take between two and 12 hours. TWELVE HOURS!

We are well aware that’s a worst case scenario, but even two hours on the border will add up to a very long day on the road.

Tallinn - Town Hall
Sun shines on Tallinn – next stop Russia

And it has reinforced the growing spectre looming over us as the week has drawn on – the crossing into Russia and bidding farewell to the world as we know it.

Yes, we have faced up to a string of different languages, currencies, food, drink and cultures (and a fair few local brews), but throughout the first 13 days of this trip, speaking English has been all we have needed to get by.

Those that don’t speak it are used to having English tourists around and are geared up to dealing with our inability to cope with even our own language, let alone anybody else’s. We haven’t even had to produce our passports, except on one of the many trips to change money.

But that all stops tomorrow when we – hopefully – cross the border into Russia.

St Petersburg awaits, with a full day’s guided tour around the city, Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace in store for us, followed by a whistle-stop trip to Moscow and then the next distinct phase of the journey – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Stage One of our railway trip, which rolls out of Moscow before dropping us off for a trip to Lake Baikal, means four nights on the train.

That prospect, coupled with the fears over the border crossing, has seen us running around for the last couple of days stocking up on kit and sustenance for the trip, mixed in with seeing the high spots of Riga and Tallinn.

Tallinn - Old Town Gates
Old Town Gates, Tallinn – Hostel more than 200m on right

Preparations have involved attempts to confirm an agreed set of rules for poker, which style is best and what currency we are betting in ahead of the proposed card school on the train, making sure all gadgets are fully charged, catching up with laundry and constant querying of exactly what food, drink and facilities are available on the train – constant hot water, vodka and what we can buy on stations basically.

There are even unconfirmed reports Freddie has repacked his massive bag, neatly folded and compartmentalised, in case the Russian border guards decide to rummage through it. Not sure whether that’s paranoia or the effects of spending too much time with Marlo drinking cocktails in the Skyline bar.

For Mike, Nick and me it has prompted a few dashes around the supermarkets and markets of Riga and Tallinn to squirrel away as much food that can be prepared with just hot water as possible – plenty of soup, noodles, mashed potatoes and tea bags – and items to cook and store them in. The bus is rattling with dried food and cooking implements until Moscow.

We think we are ready and have even managed to stock up with enough food and drink to see us through an entire day on the bus if necessary, to the extent that the three of us (or, to be more accurate, Nick) are cooking tonight’s pasta meal and saving half of it for the journey.

Whether Phil has any of his newly-created soup with him is debatable.

The Great Soup Experiment, Riga
Braving the great soup experiment, Riga

This culinary delight was invented on our final night in Riga when a group of us opted to stay in for an evening of cheese, ham, wine and other goodies. Discussion switched to how long it would take to brew a decent soup in a thermos flask.

In went carrots, stock cubes, whatever herbs and spices we had to hand, some blue cheese, venison sausage and, for some reason which made sense at the time, a biscuit.

Let’s just say more work is needed, but by the time we get off the train, we should have it perfected. The broth is good, the carrots just aren’t right.

That’s not to say we have spent all of our time in Riga and Tallinn preparing for Russia.

As much as anything, that would be a disservice to two charming cities which are well worth a visit by anyone and provide those willing to get out on foot and see what’s on offer plenty to experience.

Riga’s Museum of Latvian Occupancy is an interesting way to spend an hour.

The inability of several members of the group to spend a quiet night that doesn’t end nearer dawn than midnight also ensured we have seen plenty of both cities after dark.

Tallinn - Back streets
Back streets of Tallinn

With an early departure to Tallinn the next morning, we were determined to keep things quiet in our final night in Riga – right up until the point we were clearing up after our impromptu wine and cheese gathering.

It took just one suggestion of a quick trip out for one drink to use up our Lats and, before you could say “two large beers, a bottle of white and a malibu and coke, please”, Phoebe, Fran, Phil, Mike and I were safely installed in the same Russian bar which had been the scene of the previous night’s shenanigans.

And that’s where it all went a bit strange as our table attracted some unexpected attention from the locals – one who just came over to us, shouted at us in Russian and walked away laughing; another who insisted Phoebe dance with him to the thrash metal played in the bar and, more worryingly, the one who informed our resident Aussie weirdo magnet he had just had a fight down the road, was looking for another and had selected us for the pleasure.

You will be glad to know – but not as glad as we were – he never got his wish before sneaking off into the night.

Having sampled the delights of Riga’s nightlife, it would have been rude not to do the same in Tallinn.

We did see plenty of it in the day – it’s small enough to walk around much of the old town fairly quickly – and we even managed to end the two-week long hunt for a charger for Phoebe’s camera and fit in a sauna at the sister hostel down the road.

Not sure the sauna, tucked in the en-suite of one of the dorm rooms, was built for four, but we managed to squeeze in and – courtesy of a complicated system of knocks and sequenced door openings – managed to enjoy mixed showers without anyone losing their modesty.

The back of the bus reverted to type in the evening with a few beers and a meal in the Hell Hunt bar, followed by a few more beers, and a few more, in the aptly-named Drink bar.

As well as the requisite Aussies from the town’s hostels, we also met John and Sean, two Americans taking a lengthy spell out on the road and, in the case of John, sporting a quite spectacular beard.

It says something about the early stages of this trip that sloping off to bed early having downed another JD and coke at 3am put me among the early leavers.

But when you’ve got the luxury of a single room with a window on this trip, you don’t want to let it go to waste…

And that’s it, for the first time since London, fully up to date.

Tune in next time to find out just how long the wait at the Russian border was and whether we all got across…

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