Wow Moment

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

 A version of this article originally appeared in a travel company’s e-newsletter in November 2010, explaining a concept which became common currency on the London to New York overland adventure – and just some of the reasons travel got under my skin.

IT was the first or second day that the term ‘Wow Moment’ surfaced. We would, we were told, recognise one when it arrived and everybody’s would be different.

Rule number one: Drink it in. Savour it and bottle it away in the memory.

Rule number two: Respect everybody else’s ‘Wow Moment’. Let them get on with obeying rule number one.

As the days and weeks wore on, we all remembered that phrase and those rules as, individually or in groups, we had our ‘Wow Moments’ and began to recognise the signs of a new believer – the fixed grin, the sparkle in the eyes and the way they chattered on afterwards at least one octave higher than normal.

Mine arrived about as far from what many of us would know as civilisation and on part of the trip that had failed to stir my imagination before departure.

Wrapped up against the cold on a headland on Olkhon Island, stuck in the middle of the frozen Lake Baikal in the empty expanse of Siberia, one of those perfect moments appeared.

Four days from Moscow to Irkutsk by train, six hours on less than smooth roads and a two-kilometre walk across the frozen lake was more than worth it.

We’d spent an exhilarating day in jeeps on the ice when somebody suggested a post-dinner stroll to the headland to watch the sun set.

Which is how half a dozen of us found ourselves dotted along the cliff in the peace, watching the sun set over the mainland and shadows fall between the reflected glare from the ice. Quite, quite magical… the perfect example of a ‘Wow Moment’.

Well, it was mine and could have gone on for hours – if it wasn’t so cold as the sun dipped away, forcing a rapid retreat to the warmth of our homestead.

That was my ONE moment, but there were others that produced a similar reaction or gave my travelling companions the same feeling, those places and events to savour as we wound our way around the globe for three months.

The whole trip split into five six distinct legs, divided by a change of transport or geographic switch and each packing in enough highlights and memorable experiences to provide a remarkable trip in its own right.

First up was the European leg and its series of fascinating cities – Bruges, Heidelberg, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – before crossing into Russia and the twin giants of St Petersburg of Moscow.

There’s plenty of history to explore from St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the memories of the Soviet Union in Red Square and the horrors of Auschwitz – a ‘Wow Moment’ in its own, macabre way and certainly a day trip which will leave its mark – plus the burgeoning cities of the Baltic States and the charms of Prague along the way.

The second leg began in Moscow when we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway, a travel experience in its own right, which would carry us all the way to Beijing.

En route we stopped off not just in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but also in Mongolia, where we were provided with the friendliest welcome imaginable and another contender for moment of the trip – a night in a toasty, traditional ger in the middle of a national park. The most relaxed night of the entire journey.

A lot of time has been spent trying to explain the third leg of the trip to people. A bewildering assault on the senses – all of them – it provided a completely new dimension to the whole trip.

There is just one way to describe it – China.

From the moment we arrived in Beijing, China started working its way into our affections and never really stopped during our 10 days there.

Beijing provided some remarkable sights to tick off the traveller’s must-see list – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Birds Nest Stadium – Xi’an gave us the Terracotta Warriors, the ancient walled city of Pingyao a taste of old China and, of course, there was the Great Wall at Badaling, not to mention the precipitous Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain and Yungang Grottoes.

But China is more than its sights. To truly experience this magical country, get down the hutongs (side alleys) and into the markets to get among the people, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and the smells.

If arriving in China was a culture shock, leaving it provided another on the fourth leg as we climbed aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship – two weeks to kick back, relax in relative luxury and do as much or as little as you want. With stops in Korea, Japan and back in Russia at Vladivostock thrown in.

Leg five began as we stepped off the boat and onto American soil for the first time in Whittier, Alaska, and another major change – from luxury cruise liner to the Green Tortoise sleeper bus. Believe me, you have never travelled quite like this.

The Tortoise, our home from sea to shining sea, whisked us north through the wildlife and dramatic scenery of Denali National Park to the treat of Chena Hot Springs and midnight sun within reach of the Arctic Circle, before turning east into Canada and through the Yukon back to Alaska and a series of ferries down the Inside Passage and to the Canadian border again – all the while focused on the mountains, lakes, rivers, bears and moose which make this such a spectacular place to travel.

The final leg across the Lower 48 States of the USA actually started north of the border in Vancouver before we rejoined the USA at Seattle and crossed from west to east via the quite stunning splendour of its National Parks – the beauty of the Grand Tetons, sheer scale of Yellowstone and desolate wilderness of the Badlands – the charm of smalltown America and bustle of Chicago and finishing point New York.

Throughout all that, of course, was the sheer joy of sharing it all with a bunch of people who turned from strangers to friends, confidantes and a temporary family as we clocked up the miles.

Experiencing all these wonderful places was one thing, experiencing them with these people elevated it all to another level.

This select band of people who understand my love for Chicken, Alaska (permanent population, ‘err… about nine’) and who shared my 40th birthday celebrations in Arcata, California.

And each one of them has their own tale to tell, their own ‘Wow Moments’, their own travel story.

It’s out there for you to write your own as well.

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Everybody Ger-ts

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 18, 2010

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Four Men And A Ger
Four Men And A Ger – Our home from home for a night in Mongolia

THE United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Those of us who took up residence in the back half of the bus have not quite got round to declaring our independence, but we too hold these truths as self-evident:

  • That we will not go out for “just one drink”.
  • That whatever city we are in, there will be an Irish bar.
  • That the Irish bar’s sole concession to being Irish is serving Guinness, which will not be worth drinking.
  • That however organised you are the night before, you will always end up ramming stuff in your bag at the last minute to get on the bus the next morning.
  • That at some point during any journey, most of the inhabitants of the bus/train/minibus will fall asleep.
  • That the places you expected very little from will end up as one of the highlights of the trip.

The last maxim has now come true twice in a row.

Following on from the delights of Lake Baikal – a trip pencilled in as something to be endured before getting back on the road, but which provided a real moment of discovery – came Mongolia.

Ulan Bator - Parliament Square
Parliament Square in the heart of Ulan Bator, surrounded by the mountains

Mongolia was, in my mind, merely a bridge between Russia and China while the prospect of spending a night in a traditional ger after two nights on the train was less than enticing.

But what we found was the best welcome, the friendliest hospitality and the most complete, relaxing break from reality we have found, to the extent that it was with regret that we climbed onto the train to Beijing with just 48 hours in the country under our belt.

Capital city Ulan Bator is far from the prettiest place you will stumble across. It is functional and fairly crammed – one third of the country’s three million population live in UB – and had been given a fairly damning press by people we had met coming the other way.

But it is welcoming and, like the countryside around it, carries enough charm from its people alone.

None of them more charming than the crew of the Golden Gobi hostel and tours, who whisked us from the train and steered us through their country with oodles of pride, abundant good humour and an obvious feeling that absolutely nothing was too much trouble for them.

What faced Bob (the boss), guide Khishgkee and their team when they met us off the train just after 6am was a pretty sorry-looking mob.

Having finally rolled away from the border crossing from Russia nine hours after arriving, Nick’s Bar opened for one final blowout to get rid of the final bottles of vodka.

Genghis Khan, Ulan Bator
Genghis Khan stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Ulan Bator

Packed to capacity, seven of our crew were joined in our carriage by George, the poor soul who shared with Phil for two nights and got dragged into the last-ditch attempt to down all our booze.

We proved a little too good at it and ended up scurrying around a late-night stop for a few extra supplies, which then had to be downed and left various people embarking on early-morning life in Mongolia in less than pristine shape.

But our hosts ensured we were son back on our feet, ferrying us off to a bountiful breakfast – created by a brigade led by Bob’s mum – and a hurried shower (something which is met with increasing delight) before whisking us off to see their country.

After a tour of the highlights of Ulan Bator, we headed out of the city and into the wilderness of the Terelj National Park and our home for the night – a traditional ger.

Inside Our Ger
Our ger before it was turned into a sauna

What had been largely approached with trepidation proved to be the most comfortable, most relaxing night of the trip.

The pillows – which are becoming one of the first things we check out when arriving at a new destination – may have come second to Lake Baikal, but the whole package was just superb.

At least in our ger. While others shivered in the sub-zero temperatures, Freddie’s fire-starting skills ensured our room turned into a sauna.

Not only did my sleeping bag remain unused, but we actually resorted to opening the door for much of the evening to let some of the heat out.

View From The Meditation Centre
They may have been shut, but the climb was worth it for this view

The overall feeling of relaxation was helped by some stunning food and an afternoon’s yomp up to a Buddhist spiritual centre in the mountains.

The occupants may have been out, but it was well worth the trek up the slope and 108 steps. Climbing up them, it is said, cleanses you of your sins. Several of our number contemplated a second assent to make sure.

Refreshed from our night’s sleep and another wonderful breakfast, we headed out into the wilds of Mongolia – first to visit the giant, and I mean giant, silver statue of Genghis Khan and then to have lunch with a nomad family.

The trouble with nomads is they tend to move around and when we eventually tracked them down, it was on the other side of a river beyond the paddling abilities of our bus.

There was much discussion, phone calls and suggestions – among the Golden Gobi crew that is, we were making our own entertainment and playing Dodge the Pooh with the only things that came to hand – about how to solve the problem.

No problem, we simply descended on another nomad family without any warning and as we persuaded Fran that she had to hand the baby goat back, they plied us with their version of tea until Bob’s mum rode to the rescue with oodles of food from the original nomad family.

Personally, if a coach load of foreigners knocked on my door asking for cups of tea all round while somebody commandeered my kitchen, the response would not have been with such grace and abundant good humour.

One of many differences between Splott and Mongolia.

Golden Gobi Group Shot
The masses ranks of the OzBus and Golden Gobi

After all that, there was just one thing left to do – head out into Ulan Bator for a Saturday night out.

The Guinness in the Irish bar was, as expected, pretty awful, but the Tiger beer rolled down well, the band spent ages setting up, played a set of eight songs and then headed off and Paul Scholes settled the Manchester derby with a 93rd minute header.

An excellent night and a fine way to bid farewell to Mongolia.

China here we come…

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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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