The Lure of the Golden Arches

“The Russian rain was falling on the golden arch… All the way from Moscow to New York”

All The Way From Moscow – Jesse Malin

ONE of the great delights about travelling is the constant chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone and savour new experiences, be that meeting people from a different background, staying in alien surroundings or sampling the local cuisine.

But, seemingly wherever you go in the world, as soon as you hit any built-up area there is an option to feast on the familiar.

No longer does grabbing a quick bite to eat in Beijing have to mean nipping down one of the hutongs and wolfing down a delicious, stupidly cheap and ridiculously fast snack from a vendor who has never heard of health and safety (although it is to be heartily recommended).

Now there’s the option of tucking into something familiar. You can actually give directions around Tiananmen Square using McDonald’s and KFC as landmarks.

To eat in one of these homogenised outlets is sniffed at by the travel snob and responsibletravel.com listed it as one of the 15 bad habits travellers should give up for Lent.

Is turning your back on the native food and retreating to the familiar flavours on offer in your favourite fast food joint really travelling? Is it merely a long-distance version of the stereotypical Brit abroad demanding a breakfast fry-up, chips with everything and HP sauce as he soaks up lager and sun for two weeks in the Med?

Or is it perfectly acceptable, at least in small doses? After all, if the idea is to eat where the locals do, who do you think that is queuing up for a Big Mac? This is, when they can’t be bothered to cook, where the locals eat, just as we do back home. Otherwise the global chains would not be here.

And sometimes it is good to take a break from travelling when it is all you are doing 24 hours a day for weeks or months on end.

After an initial reluctance to retreat so completely into the familiar, my view is pretty much relaxed – as long as it is not overdone, but merely an occasional break from more complex meals.

Not that my attitude was always so relaxed and fair-minded.

The first time the ‘To Maccy D or Not Maccy D?’ dilemma came up was on a brief backpacking trip around France.

A week of sleeping on trains, in hostels and on platforms, cycling around the beautiful Lake Annecy, finding out my travelling companion could not swim at the precise moment a ferry looked set to plough into our pedalo and dealing with his sunstroke was highlighted by one of the worst fouls seen on a football field (which broke the post, squashed my duty-free cigarettes and left the young German on the receiving end being helped away, sobbing).

We ended up in the northern coastal town of Caen (having swapped our initial, wrongly-purchased train tickets to the southern coastal resort of Cannes) with little money left and time to kill before our ferry.

My desire to eat native (and save dwindling resources) produced the idea of some cheese, maybe a bit of ham, and a baguette before a stroll around the old town. My friend opted for the stroll, but only until he found a McDonald’s and piled all his remaining cash into the biggest collection of meat and special sauce in buns he could afford.

The difference of gastronomic opinion ended in conflict when his request to share my remaining bread and cheese on the ferry was refused – a division which grew on a long, cold, hungry night on a Portsmouth platform after we missed the last train home.

Good intentions have meant most trips have started with a desire to steer clear of the Golden Arches of the American Embassy, but they have never lasted too long, particularly after a few beers.

On the road from London to New York, that meant post beer Big Macs in Warsaw (where the staff spoke better English than the ones you find back home), just off Red Square in Moscow (strangely satisfying after visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum and with four days of dried food lying in wait on the Trans-Siberian) and on the final day in China. There’s only so many Chinese feasts you can take before craving normality.

And I’ve been kicked out of two McDonald’s.

Neither were entirely my fault. After all, if they were closed, why were the doors still open?

The one in Nashville was an attempt to quash a post-drink hunger (something the Americans don’t really cater for, Dunkin Donuts just doesn’t cut it). For some reason, the staff lined up behind the counter and actually took my order three times before a security guard appeared and escorted me out, leaving me to the vagaries of a motel vending machine for that evening’s meal.

Times Square, New York was a bit different, mainly as it wasn’t part of a search for food. The lights were on, doors were open and staff were inside. It looked open. Even at 5am.

The search for an open toilet ended in the back room of a neighbourhood deli still open and housing a meeting of figures from central casting who watched (and probably listened through the narrow door) my progress in silence. Thought it best to buy a pizza slice on the way out.

Maybe there are times when the familiar fast-food joints are a welcome destination…

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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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