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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I Shot The Sheriff – And Missed

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

Riga, Latvia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life And How To Live It

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

Warsaw, Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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