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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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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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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There Are Times When I Think That Jack Kerouac Was Right

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 23, 2010

Bruges, Belgium/Heidelberg, Germany

The London Team Shot
The Opening Shot – The first team picture on Westminster Bridge

DAY Three on the road and about 100 miles from Prague, the normality we left behind seems an awfully long way away.

The Czech Republic is our sixth country since rolling out of Cardiff and my passport has yet to be pulled out of my pocket in anger. In panic, yes, on the regular moments of worry that my camera, wallet, passport or the dorm room keys have gone walkabout, but we have yet to be stopped at any border.

Eating up the opening miles, life on the bus has already settled into a regular pattern of catching up on the sleep forsaken in exchange for another couple of drinks the night before, getting to know our travelling companions and catching up on the latest news and gossip.

At the moment, that’s trying to figure out the exchange rate we got on the border for our Czech Krone and the details of the first international incident of the trip – a rare Welsh victory over Germany.

Mike, from West Wales via Cardiff and Caerphilly, decided a bunch of German kids should not get away with throwing their McDonalds wrappers over the service station car park. An impressive mastery of the international language of waving your arms around and pointing got the message across.

Bruges - The Grote Markt square
Bruges – The Grote Markt square, ideal spot on the opening day for sightseeing…

Prague hovers on the horizon. It is there the trip shifts into a different gear as we pull further away from the familiar and end our opening sprint across Europe with the first two-night stay in one place.

As well as the first opportunity to properly repack my rucksack and discover the things that should have been fitted in and which ones should have been thrown into storage in my spare bedroom, it gives us a chance to draw breath.

There’s been precious little opportunity to dothat since we staggered onto The Embankment just before 7am on Sunday and began the twin jobs of rolling out to New York and getting to know our fellow passengers.

The first job lasted about 400 yards before we were yanked off the bus on Westminster Bridge for a quick team shot in front of the Houses of Parliament.

The second job will continue to do so for most, if not all, the journey.

Bruges - Settling In
…or getting prepared for what lies ahead

In all, we are 16 strong, plus Phil our Kiwi guide and Latvian driver Martins, who is taking us all the way to Moscow and our rendezvous with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

That leaves plenty of room on the coach, although we are filling it with an expanding sprawl of kit, drying towels and provisions – particularly Marlo’s Pantry at the back of the bus – picked up at a giant supermarket in Liege.

It’s a fairly diverse group – not as young as predicted – which has, so far, got on very well.

Fortunately for the allocation of rooms, the 16 breaks down into eight girls and eight blokes, ranging from 18-year-old Freddie to 81-year-old Mary, with a fairly even spread of ages in between.

Among that we have one Aussie girl (Phoebe), one Irish girl (Leila), two Scots, Duncan and Barry, Marlo the Dutchman still waiting for his passport from his Russian visa application and Enrique the Spaniard.

Bruges - Canal
Not that we didn’t get out and about

Having escaped the clutches of the photographer and dropped him and his bike off somewhere in London, it was off to Dover, Calais – supplemented for the ferry trip by three hitchhikers from Glasgow raising money for Sport Relief – and onwards to our stop for the night in Bruges.

It’s not the biggest town – at least the old town isn’t – and gave us the opportunity to wander around the beautiful historic centre and head out for a guided bike ride or people watch with a beer in one of the impressive town squares (a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon).

The evening saw us descend on an Argentinian Steakhouse where much meat was devoured, beers were quaffed and the red wine flowed freely. Maybe too freely in one case.

By the time we took up residence in a darkened corner of a nearby bar, the survivors were on their way to getting to know each other – even those who needed a guiding hand home.

Some of the excesses of the night before – and the discovery of who does and who does not snore (I do, loudly) – were not so welcome come the early start to day two.

Heidelberg Schloss
The view of the commanding Schloss at Heidelberg from one of the town squares

Sure none of us had too many regrets about missing the Belgian scenery as we went about catching up on our sleep.

The long journey was broken up by Phil getting us all up to the front of the coach and giving an introductory spiel about ourselves. Two days in, names and faces are pretty much committed to memory and most of us have had a decent chat with everybody else at some point.

Destination on Day Two was Heidelberg, Germany, the old town’s collection of commanding churches, town squares – Europe does squares much better than we do back home – sitting on the banks of the River Neckar and in the shadow of the commanding Schloss. Very pretty and a very pleasant walk around its streets.

The evening followed a very similar pattern to the one before – a cheap meal in the hostel followed by a few more beers in a bar. It could catch on.

And so to Prague, of which more next time…

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