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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I Shot The Sheriff – And Missed

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 31, 2010

Riga, Latvia

AMONG the many questions asked before and since this trip started is: “What are you going to do when you get back?”

The answers have ranged from the non-committal (“Haven’t really thought about it”) to the definite (thought the guy at the American Embassy might appreciate “Get a job” rather more than “Dunno”) with some rambling musings about possible career changes filling large chunks of the middle ground.

One thing that has become clear is that sniper or hit man is unlikely to provide that career change.

Riga - Nick at the shooting range
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Machins – Nick gets dangerous in Riga

This blow to my employment prospects follows our trip to a shooting range in Riga, our stop-off for two nights in Latvia.

We fulfilled the first part of our mission which was simply to find the place. Our guide Alex took us down a snowy path, across some wasteland and onto a rooftop, down a muddy path and finally into a very unpromising looking bunker.

Walking down the road 100 yards and down some steps would have had a similar outcome.

Once inside, any ambitions to become a hired gun were ended.

Our stern teacher showed us what we were supposed to be doing. Most of the group which had made the trek across the river looked back at him with a mixture of confusion, wide eyes and itchy trigger fingers.

First up was the pistol – five shots apiece at our own personal target. My performance was not the worst, but two out of five was far from the best. Worse was to follow…

In my defence, all three shots from the AK-47 assault rifle found the target. Only not mine. My target contained no more blemishes than before, but Freddie’s – two to the left – suddenly had six new holes. Not bad considering he only fired three shots at it.

Riga - Freedom Statue
The Freedom Statue in Riga – Renowned for being used by drunk British tourists on way back from bars

The instructor found this highly amusing – a moral victory as he had shown no previous signs of a sense of humour.

But redemption was at hand. Pistols and assault rifles may not be my weapon, but put a Winchester pump-action shotgun in my hands and look out… two out of three into the heart of the target and some pride restored.

While the shooting range is hidden away underground, most of Riga’s treasures are very much on public view in a pleasant, if rundown, city centre.

And after an overcast couple of days in Vilnius, the overall impression has been greatly helped by a rapid improvement in the weather.

The big freeze which has hit the city and left much of the river and streams frozen, cleared up almost overnight to present us with blue skies and sunshine – the winter hats being replaced by sunglasses as we headed out on a walking tour with the slightly mellow Alex (once we’d reminded him what day it actually was).

We yomped around some of the sights off the beaten track, taking in the fish section of the Central Market (the largest covered market in Europe), Little Moscow, the Thieves’ Market (no photos allowed and pretty much anything – bar Phoebe’s much-sought after camera charger – for sale), a hot chocolate stop which served basically thick, melted chocolate in a cup and the 26th floor bar of a hotel which offers great views over the city.

Throw in the picturesque Old Town and it all adds up to a very enjoyable city.

Riga - Hot Chocolate
Really, really thick chocolate, water needed to wash it down. Biscuit optional.

And there is plenty more to enjoy after dark, as we discovered via a meal in the crypt of an old monastery served by staff in medieval costume. Nowhere near as naff as it sounds and far removed from the theme park experience it threatened to be.

The plan, not for the first time, was to have quite a quiet night, this time watching football in an Irish pub.

But somehow, again not for the first time, it ran away from us. A couple of quick beers were followed by a couple more, tempted into it as we were by the lovely smile of the girl behind the bar.

By the time we stumbled out of there, any remaining plans for an early night were shot to pieces as we bumped into Martins the driver and his good lady and they insisted we join them in a bar in a local side street.

What went on from there is a little cloudy and we are still piecing together exactly what happened – both there and in a splinter group who spent the night sipping cocktails on the 26th floor bar.

Riga - Town Crests
Latvian town crests in Riga, including town of Ogre – popular crest when it included image of Stalin

Suffice to say there were some drunken locals, a Scottish hen party, cocktails involving local firewater/poison balsum, cross dressing and the lovely Inge sat at the end of the bar…

All a far cry from Vilnius, our previous stop off in Lithuania.

Well, maybe not that far for the member of the trip who ended up in a late-night bar being fed cocktails by “an extremely ugly Icelandic bloke”.

His identity must remain protected, except to say Mike spent the next evening drinking water.

Vilnius - Cathedral
Photo stop outside the cathedral in the old town, Vilnius

As well as being far less pleasant weather than Riga, Vilnius has far less to see once you have wandered around the old town, which does not take that long.

It also provided a few firsts: the first dodgy restaurant, a steakhouse with service so bad that one person was not served at all and two walked out fed up waiting to give their order, was followed by our first self-cooked meal – Freddie producing a much-appreciated meal on our first lazy day spent recovering from a few excesses of the days before.

A much-needed slow down before hitting the road to Riga…

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Life And How To Live It

Original posted on London to New York, March 28, 2010

Warsaw, Poland

AS well as providing details of places we visit en route to New York and keeping you up to date with the (printable) exploits of the inhabitants of the bus, this blog also hopes to pass on a few vital tips to travellers.

It is in that vain that anyone crossing the Polish-Lithuanian border on the Warsaw to Vilnius road is advised not to stop at the first available petrol station.

A small piece of advice, but one which could well come in handy for anyone taking this well-trampled trans-European expressway.

Stops have, like much of the trip, fallen into a regular routine, starting with a dash to the loos which is always something of an adventure to find out what awaits us.

Such a dash provided our first taste of Lithuania and it was not a good one – our trail-finding efforts sparing other members of the group from such an experience.

Thankfully, facilities on the other side of the road were rather better and provided a few options for lunch – although what appeared to be a ham and cheese roll turned out to be a ham and egg baguette which needed an industrial blast in the microwave before serving. And protective clothing before eating.

Warsaw Old Town
The Old Town in Warsaw – For some reason, the camera was largely kept in my pocket in Poland

With the absence of a cash machine and no chance to change any zloty before leaving Poland, my bank is left to work out to why one of its English customers was using his card to pay for something amounting to about £2.50 in Lithuania.

The food runs at petrol stations have also become a crucial part of bus life, replenishing the stocks of crisps, drinks, sweets and occasional piece of fruit tucked around the bus.

Travel days invariably start, far too early, with the fight for the showers and breakfasts, which have ranged from a wide range of hot and cold options (the breakfasts, not showers) in Prague to a few bits of less than appetising bread, a temperamental toaster and no milk in Krakow.

After piling into our regular spots the bus and after a quick rundown of the day’s arrangements from Phil we hit the road and, almost to a man – and woman – the back half of the bus goes to sleep until the first stop.

The population of the back half of the bus has remained largely unchanged since we climbed on board in London, although Fran has drifted from the front section to take up residence as far back as she can go – given that the back seat is being kept for use by those in need of a proper recovery session.

The hardcore occupants of this section – Nick, Mike Phoebe, Freddie, Marlo, Barry, Fran and myself – are most often in need of some sleep and recovery time after the night before.

As well as sleeping, there’s plenty of borrowing spare bits of kit – largely from Freddie’s Quartermaster Stores – sampling of Nick’s various flavours of TicTacs, more sleeping, recounting tales of the previous night’s activities, sleeping, blog writing, watching the world go by, listening to iPods and, in Phoebe’s case, raiding my iTunes. With added sleeping when needed.

One disadvantage of being towards the back is that we are usually the last to see the rooming list which gets sent down the bus for us to choose which rooms we are in.

Having shared with all the guys in the first week, there’s been no problems. Whether they are as happy to put up with my snoring (far from the only one, just the loudest apparently) is another matter…

Thought it was time to give you a run down of life on the bus because much of our time in Poland has been dominated by a couple of very long drives, from Prague to Krakow and then the current trip from Warsaw to Vilnius.

The other dominant factor in Poland since we rolled in on Thursday has been the Second World War and the crushing effects it had on this country.

The trip to Auschwitz has certainly been the major event, but it would be wrong to let that overshadow the country which has been our home for three nights.

It is not the prettiest. It shows the scars of its economic problems clearly, particularly in the countryside as we wander through, and the cities are largely shaped by German destruction and Soviet post-war rebuilding when aesthetics were not high on the agenda.

But amid the greyness, there are a few gems to be found if you are willing to peak behind the grey facade.

Krakow has charm, particularly around the old town and Jewish Quarter – where you can get a mighty fine scoff for just a few beans – while Warsaw boasts an impressive old town, rebuilt as accurately as possible after the war, and a lively central area which proved very handy for a night out. Shame it is surrounded by such grimness.

Grim is one way to describe our first introduction to Poland, the golden arch of the American Embassy luring us into a service station.

Unfortunately, the McDonalds sign was the only thing finished and with driver Martins needing to stop to keep his hours in check, we were left with little option than to use the rankest portaloos this side of Glastonbury.

Unfortunately, the length of drive that day scuppered the planned detour to Auschwitz, whose postponement to the next day, combined with a Warsaw traffic jam, also put paid to a planned trip to a salt mine.

We took all this upheaval with a pinch of salt (boom, boom) and settled into the Krakow hostel to make full use of the facilities, particularly the free shots in the downstairs bar. Followed by a few more and beers at around £1.70. It seemed rude not to.

Warsaw provided a bit more culture with a trip to the Polish Uprising Museum, the tale of the ultimately doomed resistance against the Nazis in the Second World War.

Very enlightening and entertaining, if a bit hard to follow at times. It certainly shows what a rough time, putting it lightly, the Poles have had as victims of geography to be sandwiched between the Germans and Russians.

A quick trip into the old town coincided with the end of the Warsaw Marathon and segued into something of a boys night out in town.

What goes on tour, must stay on tour (unless you absolutely have to know), but safe to say a good time was had by all, once we had avoided a major diplomatic incident.

And there was much sleeping on the bus the next morning…

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Auschwitz

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 26, 2010

Oswiecim, Poland

THE first question that met me after wandering out of Auschwitz was simple. “How was that?”

At least it was a simple question compared with those which had been raging in my mind for the previous couple of hours, wandering around the site of the former concentration camp.

Answering was not simple. It involved opening and closing my mouth a few times, shaking my head and uttering a non-committal, “Dunno, really.” Not insightful, but it has taken a while to form coherent thoughts on what we had just senn.

Having had a few hours to digest it all, three things stick in my mind.

The first was the chill which ran through my body in the short trip through the rebuilt crematorium, almost at the end of the museum.

Auschwitz Gates
Work Sets Us Free – The infamous entry gates to Auschwitz

A simple sign as you walk out of the somehow inappropriate sunshine into the cold, semi-darkness reminds you this was a place where many thousands of people walked to their deaths and asks for silence as you walk through.

That adds to the sense of the ghosts filling the air and the feeling of almost crushing confusion and desperation at what went on there.

There’s little to see – a simple memorial on one side, the fires used to carry out the final acts of such a cruel story on the other – and it takes just a few seconds to walk through.

You want to run out as quickly as you can, but that is fighting against the power seeping out of your legs as the sheer weight of what you have witnessed presses down on you.

It was certainly a relief to come out blinking into the sunlight and leave the darkness behind. Shedding what lies within the darkness from my mind will take a fair while longer.

The second point which hammered home came in the third of the camp huts which house a variety of exhibitions about what the camp was used for, how it was run and the people subjected to such horrors.

The first two catalogued why such a camp was set up, how the people were shipped in to work as slave labour until starvation, beatings or the sheer surfeit of cruelty ended their days.

Horrible as they are, they didn’t really get to me. This was little not seen before in films, documentaries or books. And the sheer numbers of people who were fodder for the Nazi machine in these camps is hard to take in.

But then you enter the third hut and the central hallway is lined down its entire length, several rows deep, by pictures of those who died here.

Birkenau
Endless horrors – the chimneys at Birkenau stretch into the distance

Face after face after face, many with a date of birth, each with their camp number and each with the day they entered the camp.

And the day they died.

Many lasted just a few weeks, a few reached four or five months. It takes a lot of searching to find anyone who lasted any longer.

The faces all show utter bewilderment. They did not know what went on in these places. None could have guessed the horrors that really lay ahead when herded onto trains.

After the incomprehensible scale of the numbers involved and the pile after pile of discarded suitcases, shoes and even hair from the previous rooms, these faces brought the whole thing back to a human level.

Each face, scared and confused as you try to wonder just what they went through, hits home. Hard.

Those endless pictures – broken every so often by a flower or ribbon left by later generations – make for uncomfortable viewing, but this was never going to be easy, was it?

In comparison, the third lasting emotion was anger – not at the people who carried out these atrocities. You do not need to visit Auschwitz to have that feeling.

No, this was anger at myself.

Every German and Polish school pupil has to visit a concentration camp every year, so the place is crawling with teenage tour parties.

Large numbers of them look extremely bored, block the way for anyone else and a few even laugh and joke at the most inappropriate time.

And, as happens walking around anywhere with lots of people, their attitude began to make me fume.

But how can you get angry at such behaviour here of all places? How did their behaviour really matter compared with what happened in the prison block, the gas chambers or at the execution wall?

How can you be intolerant of other people surrounded by this? Wasn’t that what caused all this – intolerance and a refusal to understand other people?

It was certainly a sobering morning. Not pleasant, not comfortable and not something to repeat in the near future.

But I’m certainly glad I went. From the moment the itinerary first arrived with Auschwitz on the list, it was down as a must-do trip.

Among all the beautiful sights which have come our way in the previous five days – and those to come as we plough on to New York – the images of Auschwitz, and sister camp Birkenau (with the endless rows of chimneys which are all that remain from the huts which housed the prisoners), will stay with me.

Not through photos – it just didn’t seem right to take more than the couple which appear with this entry – but by them being burned onto my mind.

And of that, I’m glad.

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All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit

Prague - View from castle
View over Prague from St Vitus Cathedral

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 25, 2010

Prague, Czech Republic

A VARIETY of things are already becoming second nature as we settle into life on the road.

The constant packing – or, to be more accurate, shoving stuff in – my bag to get it down to the bus on time, making sure you are not last through the door of your hostel room in the race for the best beds, the post breakfast snooze as we bed down for a day on the bus and the frequent changes of currency.

Rolling out of the Czech Republic and into Poland, we headed out of the land of the Krone and into the world of the Zloty.

Border crossings have been signalled not by passport control – yet to be asked for by anyone official as we cruise across the EU – but by the service station stop and a new problem.

As we rush to use the facilities, we discover they want a cash contribution which catches out those feeling smug at changing our Krone into Zloty late last night.

Prague - St Vitus Cathedral
Prague – St Vitus Cathedral

They want coins, we only have notes which sparks a frantic – thankfully, given our needs, not that frantic as they let us pay on the way out in Poland – hunt for coins of various currencies for something they will accept.

After his diplomatic victory over the Germans last time, Mike appears to be saving his finest moments for border crossings.

His plan after this latest one is the instigation of a Piss Pot on the bus to collect a variety of coins to ease the weary traveller’s path in their hour of need.

It is a small point, but one which should make it into guide books.

Those of you paying attention will remember crossing into Poland follows two nights in Prague, which certainly did not disappoint after being given a big build-up by various people before departure.

It helps the Plus Prague hostel is clean, well-equipped (although the much-anticipated swimming pool was sadly closed) and comfortable. Each dorm room of four comes with its own loo and shower, which makes life a lot more comfortable.

Prague - St Vitus Cathedral from Charles Bridge
Prague – The view back to St Vitus Cathedral from the Charles Bridge

We headed out for a tour of the city’s castle and St Vitus Cathedral which, as well as being beautiful in their own right, provide staggering views from their hilltop setting over Prague and the Vltava River. It is almost a town in its own right perched on the hill as the city sprawls out below in all directions.

With a bit of sightseeing/orientation and cheap beer and pizza back at the hostel under our belts, a group of headed out to The Cross Club.

A rabbit warren of tunnels and dingy corners running over several floors, much of it decorated with moving car parts, it certainly caught our imagination. What was supposed to be a couple of quick drinks ended in the early hours with the first sighting of a lubricated Marius – the alter ego of driver Martins when unencumbered by the constraints of driving the next day.

Prague - The Astronomical Clock
Prague – The crowds gather for the Astronomical Clock’s hourly show

Thankfully, the following morning provided a semblance of a lie-in (since when is being up just after 8am a lie-in?) and a lovely spring day sightseeing in Prague’s delightful old town, taking in the Charles Bridge – sadly partly scarred by building work at the moment – the town square with its crowd-pleasing, if slightly underwhelming, astronomical clock and Wenceslas Square, scene of much looking out and all major rallies which have dotted the recent history of this city.

It is a gorgeous place crying out to be explore, which saw the entire group dispersing across the city and clocking up the miles on foot.

Not sure which made a couple of the groups’ eyes go wider (names must be left out to protect the innocent), the sights at the Sex Museum or The Medieval Torture Museum. Not sure they were able to tell some of the exhibits apart.

Last night was pretty quiet, a couple of beers in town and a meal as thoughts began to leave Prague and turn to our next scheduled destination.

Prague - Wenceslaus Square
Prague – Wenceslaus Square, scene of much protesting and looking out

Sadly, the trip to Krakow took a bit longer than planned so the planned outing to Auschwitz, which has been at the back of my mind all week, had to be postponed by a day.

The prospect of visiting such a place produced a sudden change in mood and tempo – at least until the temptations of free welcome shots and a few beers in the hostel bar last night – and a mixture of anticipation and unease…

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