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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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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