Friday, 30 August 2013

Siberian Surprise

Go on.  Admit it.  When you think of Siberia, you imagine cold weather and oppressed people in drab clothes.  Well I did.  What a contrast the truth turned out to be.  Today we had to go in pursuit of sunglasses.  I had squashed my best charity shop pair with my rear end.  What a sad way to go. 

We found Irkutsk to be a thriving shopping centre with indoor/outdoor markets and Meadow Hell without the hell part. No crushes here.  One stall was selling reading glasses.  Pointing to the sun, then pointing to the boxes of glasses, I wanted to hug her when she twigged on.  Only six pounds.  A little more than my Blythswood specials but less than I expected.

Hubby was in awe of the size of the cauliflowers around here.  He wished he had a carrot as big too.  Oops, sorry.  Bit rude that.  Stalls positively groaned under the weight of buckets and bouquets of flowers.  

The inside market was just as interesting.  You don't get steaks that size in Morrisons.  Fish, meat, cheeses.  You name it and they had it.  Everything looked hygienic too.

From the market, we headed out of town.  We reached the end of the tourist green line.  This is an imaginary line.  Life would have been easier if the had painted it.  

Here there is a beautiful church full of icons and elaborate gold ornaments.  People were praying by different pictures so we stole quietly away.

Across the road we spotted a unique part of Irkutsk.  The oldest part of town has been restored.  Linked to this, new buildings have been added along with walkways and stairs to different levels.  It had a cosmopolitan feel.  Everyone looked happy and relaxed as the wandered around in their fashionable clothes.  

We walked up a set of stairs.  I was greeted by a custard-coloured Cyclops.  He got down on one knee but I had to refuse his proposal. From the top of the stairs we had a brilliant view across Irkutsk.

We took shelter in the air-conditioned shopping complex at the end of the walk way.  Even here, a bride was wandering having her photo taken.  We sucked in our breaths as she boarded the downstairs elevator.  Her dress just missed the closing teeth.  

Many of the shops here are exactly the same as those in Britain.  Part of me is relieved but there is a tiny bit that wishes I could have seen the old Irkutsk.  So now. We are waiting once more to rejoin the train for the next part of our adventure.  Bye for now x x 

Angels all over the World

Packed and ready for our drivers to arrive, we saw the young tourists heading for breakfast.  We thanked them for being so courteous as to let the golden oldies get their beauty sleep.  They looked none the worse for their night revelleries.  They made hubby's day when they joined him for a parting picture.

The cars arrived.  I like to think that a little London Land angel had taken note of my previous plight.  Pristine vehicles and a driver who told us various tales of the area.  Are there really Siberian tigers ?  A steady drive into Irkutsk with the occasional wobble.  The roads here have improved but there is still the occasional awkward camber which sent us towards the oncoming traffic.  Our driver smoothly corrected our direction.  Either that or there was an angel on the car roof.

Our homestay hostess greeted us in a warm manner.  We were shown to our rooms.  We had beds in the dining room while K and J were in the lounge.  All clean and tidy. She could converse in several languages and had once been a teacher of Russian as a foreign language.  Brilliant. 

She produced our meal voucher and explained that the driver would take us to the restaurant.  She gave us maps so that we could find our way home for dinner at seven.  Has she heard of our current lack of spatial awareness??

Lunch in the Petruschka restaurant was a four course affair.  Delicious local food.  They even gave hubby an alternative for the fish course.  The toilets even had those fluffy little white hand towels.  They used to have similar ones in House of Bruar until recently.  Expected tourists took them away.  I must point out here with vehemence that I never did.

Waddling out of the restaurant, we went in pursuit of my childhood hero.  We found him eventually but not before we spotted several other famous figures.  I expect you have heard of Stalin and Lenin?  Hubby found himself a hero.  A bevy of beauties emerged from a crimson limo.  They posed as he took their photo.  As a reward, they swarmed around him like bees to a honey pot.  Patricia Piglet took his photo.  I don't think I have ever seen him look so happy!!

Along by the riverside there were advertising billboards covered with pictures of angels - young children looking for new homes.  I welled up.  I would if I could but I can't.  So many of them.

We wandered on and discovered a picturesque church.  The stairs had flowers on either side to greet the heavily pregnant but radiant bride. 

From here it was back into the centre.  We sat by the fountain and drank bottled water, watching the world go by.  Sometimes, it went by in the form of a Cinderella coach.  Once round the fountain for a lucky child with enough roubles.

Time for home.  A refreshing shower then  we were gently summoned to dinner.  Oh I forgot to mention, our hostess looks like  Mrs Turtle from Crossroads.  You must remember her?!  Before us were plates of soup, a bowl of garlic dip, a plate of salad and an enormous bowl of pelmeni. For the uninitiated, this is pasta wrapped around what tasted like haggis.  Another one for the recipe book.

The four of us were pretty whacked.  Our hostess asked if we minded being left while she visited her neighbour.  She took the remains of the palmeni for the children.  What a kind angel she was.

After talk time, time for bed, hopefully to dream of angels. X

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Listvyanka at Leisure

Nothing like a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast to start the day.  Trousers really feeling the pinch now, so we went for a four hour stroll in a vain attempt to use up some calories. 

It was so hot here in Siberia.  I was so happy with my customised hat to keep the sun off my delicate skin.  Having very short legs, I had shortened the mosquito proof trousers. The cut off was exactly the same colour as my mosquito proof hat. Ta da!! One Tilley type hat at half the price. 

The locals are very industrious. We stopped by the local market.  I asked the owner for the price of a wooden comb( for my hair- ha ha).  We moved along and spotted the same comb.  I looked up.  The owner must have been a twin of the first guy.  On the third stall, I realised that this chap was not a triplet - it was the same man all along.  He owned all the stalls. 

Local builders were busy.  Health and safety regulations have not reached here yet.  That was evidenced as we watched a builder teeter around a tower.  No hard hat, no scaffolding.  Brave,  foolish or just out to earn his living.  The brickwork has little or no cement.  Could be a recipe for disaster in this climate. 

Had a brilliant Russian lesson from a most helpful lady in the supermarket.  She was excellent and so patient with us.if you ever visit, look for the second shop on the left as you.arrive from Irkutsk. 

When we got home, our landlady delivered the washing.  Lovely and clean but a little damp.  I festooned the picnic area while we ate our bread and cheese. Within ten minutes it was aired.  Good job too.  A group of bright, young people arrived on a tour.  I quickly gathered up my smalls and larges. 

What a great set of young people from all over the world.  They all took time to come and chat.  They even invited us to join their evening celebrations.  We declined.  We were young once!!

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and chatting.  We have grown quite fond of K and J now.  Our knowledge of life in Australia includes more than kangaroos, Sydney and Plane Man now.  

Another hearty and tasty meal then time for bed.  Wondered if the party goers would make it to bed - ha ha!  We really were you g once.  Night all x x

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Loving Listvyanka

There are two stations in Irkutsk. We tried to get off at the first one.  The provodnista returned us to our compartment.  We had learned not to tangle with this one. Hubby needed the toilet earlier. For some reason it was locked. He pleaded but she was not for turning.  

He hoped to go at the station.  Faint hope. A none English-speaking driver waited on the platform, bearing name cards for ourselves and the Australian couple.  Seizing two of our bags, he set off like Mo Farrah.  We scurried behind.  I kept turning to ensure the Australians were in contact.  I raised my arm like a city tour guide, minus umbrella, so they could keep track of us - and their luggage!

Once again, we played the game of 'Which vehicle?'  We saw a dilapidated old truck.  We thought the same thing.  We laughed hysterically with relief when we passed it.  The car which was ours would have kept our friend Bernard busy for quite some time. I don't mind old. I don't mind shabby. But the interior of this was impregnated with dirt and tobacco odour.  Our driver did not smoke whilst driving but he was suffering the after effects of his habit.  He snorted constantly and appeared to swallow whatever he was snorting.  Hope that didn't make you feel as queasy as I felt. 

The Australian had hit the jackpot in a pristine Toyota.  They are now winning 
2-0 in the comfort stakes. We have been told SEVERAL times of their wonderful home stay where they had the freedom to come and go, with description of food that made your mouth water.  Luck of the draw I guess, unless we upset the organiser.  I don't think we did.

Our drivers seemed to be in competition too.  Hubby had nodded off so didn't notice my white knuckles and green face.  The Irkutsk to Listvyanka rally was taking place with overtaking at high speed. 

We slowed down and the driver uttered one of three statements 'Lake Baikal'.  Yes, I understood that and beautiful it was too.  A few miles further we slowed again. ' Restaurant' Hmm. Well, I could see one but didn't quite understand the relevance. Even more confusing was the third and final utterance further along the village. '70' Now that had me baffled. 

We turned up a side street and arrived at a pretty Swiss-style building. Our room was clean and well presented.  We had a key too. Wonderful.  We looked forward to a restful sleep.  

The pension hostess (that is pension like a French B and B, not her age) showed us the showers and suggested we took one. Well, we had been on a train for three days. But I failed to operate the controls properly.  Red hot jets assaulted my tum whilst ice cold water streamed down on my head. Aargh. Brrrrr.

Ablutions completed we were taken by car to 'The Restaurant'. Point 2 made sense now.  Our landlady gave a cheery grin and climbed back in the car.  We asked what time she would return.  Her gaze implied 'No way Jose'.  Hubby put on his best pleading face and held his hands in supplication.  Once again a lady was not for turning.  'Taxi' she shouted as she sped off.

We entered the restaurant expecting to be expected.  Blank looks. Using headed paper, hubby's pigeon Russian we persuaded the proprietress to phone our landlady.  Still none too happy, she indicated we could eat. The four of us meandered to a window table with a view of the lake.  'Nyet, nyet' she shouted, pointing upstairs. We raised ourselves just as a bus load of Oriental Shearings clients burst through the door. They beat us up the stairs and were ensconced in the window seats by the time we had ascended.  

The meal was adequate and edible.  The service, not so.  Plates were banged down in front of all customers. Any request was treated with an annoyed glare. Mr Australia wanted milk for his tea.  We all were astonished when they presented him with a bill for the minuscule amount.  C'est la vie.

It took 10 seconds to decide not to call a taxi.  Glad we didn't, as the walk back didn't seem so long.  It gave us chance to appreciate the glorious lake and surroundings. And to solve the third and final mystery.  A very small blue and white sign which said 70.  This was the turn for our chalet.

Our landlady came back into favour. She offered to do our laundry for a very small fee. Then we went off for our pre-arranged sauna. Not just any old sauna. There were bunches of leafy twigs tied with string.  Not sure how hard you were supposed to hit the other person, my thrashing of hubby resulted in leaves everywhere.  It reminded me of our daughter's wedding bouquet which disintegrated when she tossed it to the waiting crowd. 

Hubby refused to put on the pixie hat but did take a cold shower. I merely dipped various parts briefly under the water.  One cold shower per day is enough. 

In an outer room a warm tea with infused black currant leaves was waiting.  We drank the lot ( except the leaves). 

Our excellent meal at 8 o'clock, a long chat with fellow guests then off to bed. Night all. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Testosterone Train Travel

When you reach a certain age, you dream about spending the night with a handsome, young man.  Not only did my dream turn into reality, there were two of them!!  Military men on a three month mission.  At first they pretended to speak no English and chattered to each other.   It was only when I used my ice-breaker Russian question 'What is your name?', they started to thaw.  They soon plied us with drinks and food.  They assumed we would have brought whiskey with us, when they learned we were from Scotland.  To ease their disappointment hubby Invited them over for a whiskey tour of the Highlands.  At this rate we will need to buy the castle next door to accommodate all our future guests.

They settled into their own special routine which lasted over the three days. Several shots of vodka, interspersed with Schweppes lemon followed by a few bottles of beer to wash down the bread, salted cucumber and sausage. After a bit of a chat, they would climb into their bunks and fall into a deep sleep. After a few hours, it all started again.

We fell into their pattern, minus the vodka.  Hubby hates the stuff.  He over-indulged as a teenager once which has left him with an aversion. Had they brought Tia Maria perhaps I might have had a little! 

Even with the alcohol, they were so polite  and respectful. They would go into the corridor if I needed to change.  I felt obliged to do the same in return.  Can you feel the pain??

By the second day we were like family, sharing stories and photographs.  They went and bought some lottery tickets from the Provodnistas in an attempt to raise the funds to visit Scotland. They wanted to take David shopping at one long stop station.  Having read stories of tourists whose train leaves them behind and knowing the plight of a couple who left passports behind, we persuaded them to take some money and bring back beer and sausage ready for the next 'party'.

As we travelled through the countryside,they would point out places of interest,saying 'Look Patrizzia' in a way to make any girl's heart beat faster. I almost had a coronary!!

They told us about Siberian winters and how cold it would become.  I am not sure if they were teasing me about tigers and bears?? 

By now the scenery had started to change.  There were still the trees flashing by, but now we spotted occasional hills and large expanses of golden cereal crops.  This contrasted with small stooks, which were dotted around near the small homesteads.  We saw these being stacked by old country folk with large pitchforks.  And so it looked as though they had been invaded by Cousin 'It' and his family from 'The Addams Family'.  

One more night on the train.  I woke at midnight Moscow time.  I wandered on the corridor and found a spot to watch the world flash past.  There was only one star in the sky.  I made a wish for all my loved ones.  Then the sun rose in a blaze of red and gold.  How lucky am I??

Alarms started ringing.  People emerged from their compartments and headed for the toilets.  All too soon, my military men collected their army equipment from a locked room.  They took it along the corridor then returned for a heartfelt 'Goodbye'.  What great companions they had been.

Two sides of a coin

After a tasty breakfast we were collected by our English speaking guide.  It was a relief not to have to worry about explanations nor to talk in a stilted fashion.  She was taking us to a local village and lake.  She was accompanied by a female driver who also spoke a little English.  Bliss. Coincidentally, she was also the hostess for the Australian couple we had last seen in Moscow. 

We drove smoothly along a highway, crossing from Asia into Europe.  She turned onto a track.  Her speed reduced to walking pace to avoid the potholes.  We rocked and rolled, forwards and back, side to side.  You would have paid a fortune for that in  Alton Towers. 

We looked around and noticed that the houses varied from large mansions to little more than wooden shacks.  Our guide explained that in recent years, the more adventurous had gone out and claimed land.  Now they were selling at profit.  

We were invited to visit two homes.  At the first, we toured the garden and the home-built wooden buildings.  The owner had once been a football player.  His injuries prevented him from working. His wife, aged 76, still worked in the city. She came home in the summer at weekends. He had to fend for himself in winter.  So the fruit and vegetables in the garden had to be preserved.  No Tesco deliveries around here. 

The wife wanted us to see her friend's house.  She thought it was better.  Her friend did not work, so had more time to dust and tend her garden. We all clambered into the car while her husband boiled the tates for our lunch.  This property had a mix of old and new elements which made life easier for the inhabitants.   A new brick built stove took centre stage.  This warmed the whole house in winter. Hope hubby took note of that. 

A short drive took us the lake where we admired the view.  None of us were complimentary about the large wall which has been built, surrounding a fake castle.  It looks so out of place here.

Back to the first home for a freshly prepared home salad.  That went down well as did the local spring water.  If my sister is reading this, it was just like the Strwaberry Gardens' water we drank as children.  And yes, there were no after effects. 

Visits over we headed back to town. Those who know me well, may recall I have a large chip on my shoulder - actually a bag of chips - for failing my history O-level.  From the excellent information of today's guide, I now feel competent in entering 'Mastermind'.  My chosen subject - Yekaterinburg! 

We had been told not to return until seven o'clock but if you want to know what fun and games we had the, you will have to persuade me to write a book.  Far too much for one finger typing on an IPod. Xx

Yekaterinburg Yokels

The post title, I must point out, refers to us, not local residents.  How else would you view two elderly travellers standing in the middle of a city, map in hand, looking somewhat bewildered?? We were trying to find the church commemorating the Romanov family.  Our Russian verbal skills would not stretch that far!!

Dear Nonna had assisted our journey to this point with a hand-drawn map and hand-made gestures. This directed us to the local bus stop. I had counted out my money and she had checked it (How old am I?  I fear I have regressed to infant level) I clutched my Robles in my sticky palm and waited anxiously for the number 19 bus.  Ah, here it was.  Dave and the rest of the group surged forward.  I was a little slower and found myself turned into a door sandwich.  Like a maggot in an angler's lunch box, I wriggled and wriggled.  With a final heave I launched myself inside and clung on to the nearest pole (note this does not say Pole. I will do many things but clinging onto a stranger is not one of them.). 
An olde English tradition still lives on the buses here - the clippie.  She can't always get to the customers owing to the crowd.  So, the customers help her.  One by one they pass the money along with a 'please' and a 'thank you'. They could be saying 'Why don't they get a bigger bus?' but their facial expressions indicate otherwise.  Then the conductress sends the ticket on its homeward journey in reverse order. 
So, that was how we arrived here.  After turning the map 360 degrees several times - he is a Queen's Scout - we headed off in the heat. I had my umbrella in my pocket.  Nonna's daughter had predicted rain.  It never happened.  Oh for my sun hat.  But I did have the flimsy scarf bought on the market in Moscow.  I transformed myself into Princess Grace of Monaco with trailing scarf and sunglasses. (One is entitled to dream)

Hubby was right.  As he is so fond of telling me, he always is.  We visited all the   Churches and museums as laid down in the guide book.  We purchased and drank the bottled water as laid down by Nonna as we wandered from one sight to the next.  The churches were elaborately decorated and people of all ages were coming to worship. Dave found this so different from his previous visit in the 80s.
Religion is definitely on the up here. 

Having had our fill of olde worlde things I needed to satisfy my Internet withdrawal, but you have read that already. 

We lost count of the number of weddings we saw.  The brides wore a variety of dresses and the grooms a variety of expressions.  Need I say more. 

We headed for 'home'. Nonna was wearing a frilly, lacy contraption around her knee. It was holding a cool pack to ease her arthritis.  I noticed Dave quickly avert his eyes.  It was not until the next day that he thought her frilly underwear had slipped!! Oh I love him. 

The ever-young looking daughter and nephew asked if we would like to visit the city tower known locally as the Beer Can. He drove us into the city and casually parked up.  I looked around for a meter. No need. It is still free there.  If the roads were better, I would bring the Motorhome.  We soared up 53 storeys high. The view was spectacular and various buildings were pointed out, including the KGB secret centre.  Not so secret now. One romantic had arranged for large letters to be placed on one roof. When he took his girlfriend up the tower, she answered 'Yes' to the words 'Will you marry me?' Big sigh everyone please.

Nonna cooked traditional Russian supper of buckwheat with sausages, followed by pancakes with fried fruit.  Afterwards she burst into an impromptu concert of Russian songs,  smiling and nodding as she sang.  She waved her arms for us to join in.  We hummed along then gave renditions of 'Loch Lomond' and other Scottish airs.  We couldn't remember all the words so we added a few of our own.  Hope she didn't notice. 

Our final piece of entertainment came from the nephew.  He showed us a small video called 'Scots Flat'.  That had us rolling about with laughter.  Look for it now on 'You Tube'.  Voice activation will never seem the same again!!

Friday, 23 August 2013

Nice Nonna

OK, have just finished my mains so while I wait and decide if I can be tempted by a  dessert, let me tell you about Nonna. That's what her name sounds like but she spells it Hohha!! We were met at the station by a lady holding our name card. She briskly walked ahead through the car park. Unbeknown to me, hubby was trying to guess which car would be hers. He had picked out a few classy ones but she just kept marching until she arrived at  a tiny vehicle. Now, we have packed quite conservatively but it was a bit of a heave ho, here we go to squeeze us in. The ensuing journey was a bit of a hair raiser.  Not our driver. She was fine if rather quiet. The rest of the city seed to be involved in a Grand Prix. Quite a culture shock after our sleepy town. Anyway, after weaving her way through a narrow path lined with cars, she pulled up beside a block of very rundown flats. But you should never judge a book by its cover. This cover was a metal door but its occupant is pure gold. We received the warmest welcome, with a torrent of Russian, a sincere smile and a genuine heart. 
Time for more wandering now. Will add more on our return. X x 

Treats on the train

With no wifi on board the train I resorted to the old pen and paper technique. After a day and a half of rambling, I had better be concise as some food is about to arrive and I AM HUNGRY. Can you imagine my delight to find I was sharing my compartment with not one but three males. And one of them was a real dish. He was calledi Misha. Misha and Tricia laying on the top bunks - a song in there somewhere. Oh, my food is here folks. Just take a look at the provodnistas. They took pity on the mad English woman. Just wait until you here my toilet tales - not for the squeamish. I will put a warning on that one. Seriously, the journey was great fun and our companions now have a greater grasp of the English language thanks to Pictionary and Charades. Tummy rumbling. Byee x 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Costa Coffee

It is a good job I lost some weight before we came away. I found so much to try at breakfast. My trousers are definitely feeling a little tighter but I could be tempted by the array of Danish pastries tomorrow!

At ten o'clock precisely a man with a beam as wide as the Forth Bridge, bearing an On the Go card came through the door. Our eyes met and it was, no that is the imagination taking over.  In truth, Costa was so helpful, explaining everything about the next stage of our journey.  Another couple were supposed to be there but they never arrived. Costa did his best to find them as they had checked in the previous night.  So, if you hear about a couple who cannot get on the Transiberian train because they do not have a ticket - it is NOT us!!

Kind Costa took us for a coffee and gave us some tips on getting around Moscow. Maybe he thought we needed a little extra guidance as he accompanied us to the centre of Moscow.  Then we were left to our own devices. 

We managed to cram in all the usual touristy spots such as St Basil's Cathedral and the Red Square. Sometimes I think we are really lucky because we arrive at certain places just as something special is happening. Today we saw horseback riders preparing for a military tattoo. It was amusing to see the Scottish pipers and dancers fronting the poster campaign.  That made us feel at home. 

 In another cathedral a male quartet sang a very moving religious piece. You could almost feel the floor tremble when the basso profundo (is that the correct term Matthew?) hit his lowest note. We were entertained by a very talented young orchestra and choir in the Gum store. They were celebrating their 120th anniversary. I tried to persuade Dave to buy me a little something from one of their exclusive shops. I settled for a Tiramisu, a Danish pastry and a cold bottle of water. See i could not even wait until tomorrow for the pastry.  The Changing of the Guard at the Eternal Flame added to our highlights as they strutted their stuff.  Dave managed to get that on video so he can practice the walk when we get home. 

We decided against visiting Lenin's tomb.  After all - if I want to see someone looking past their best, I only have to look in the mirror. 

So, did we have any low points today? Not really. We are loving it!! And feeling lucky now we have rubbed the dog's nose at the Partisan Metro station

Man of the Match today has to be Costa. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Time travellers

You thought we were travelling with Aeroflot.  So did we, until we arrived at Heathrow and noticed a familiar blue box waiting to whisk us away. Yes, it was the Tardis but I was very wary of our travelling companion!!  As we boarded, we were greeted by air hostesses in bright orange 'Thunderbirds are Go' outfits. Only those of a certain age will understand that illusion. 

It has been a while since we flew, so it was a surprise/shock to discover that we viewed the take off from the pilot's point of view. We couldn't resist pulling back on our joysticks to aid lift off.  

As for the inflight entertainment - well that has improved in massive leaps.  Please don't fall about laughing too much.  I did say we had not flown for quite some time.  I mean, you get your own screen now with so much choice that I spent half the flight choosing a film. I never got to the end, so I will have to come back next year. 

The landing was so smooth causing all the passengers to burst into spontaneous applause.  Or it could have been that they knew something we didn't ie it had been an emergency landing of which we were oblivious as we could not understand the captain's instructions.

Passport control and customs were completed with ease.  My imagination had contemplated being interrogated for several hours.  Instead, after looking briefly at my passport, we were given a migration card and a smile, then sent on our way. 

We had arrived!!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

One more sleep

And what a sleep this promises to be. An oversized bed with large, sumptuous pillows.  If we are not careful, we might just sleep in and miss the flight which Plane Man organised. Now we are near Heathrow the tummy trembles have calmed down.  I tried my best not to shed a tear when leaving our daughter but a bucket would have come in handy!!  We have had such a great time with family and friends as we made our way to the airport.  We shall miss them all but the adventure beckons. Even a summons for Jury Service at Tain Sheriff Court will not stop me - unless they turn up at the airport gate tomorrow !!
As we are about to set off on our adventure, I want to dedicate my blogs to a couple who have just completed life's most difficult journey. My heart goes out to them. For one of them, it means he is free to soar and his suffering is over.  For that I am grateful. Now I pray that his wife will soon find the peace she deserves for the love and strength she freely gave.  XX