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An Open Letter to Vladimir Putin

Dear Vlad,

I didn't know whether to address you as Prime Minister, President or Your Oil and Gas Baroniness, but out of respect I stopped short of dude. I know you're a busy guy what with the judo dvd and stashing that alleged fortune (will those journalists never stop their investigating?), so I thought I'd send you a quick heads-up on tourism in Mother Russia.

Firstly, what's up with that visa? You have to get someone to invite you into the country (who you pay a fee to), then you have to go to the embassy (who unsurprisingly take a fee) and then when you get to Russia you have to register the visa at every hotel (who also take a... wait for it... fee!). If I didn't know any better I'd swear you were trying to talk people out of visiting the Land of the Bear. And then there's all those uniformed characters (basically anyone who can match their pants to their shirt will try to be an authority in Russia) checking papers to see if they can fine tourists if the…

Trans Mongolian Railway FAQ

Here's a few questions people have been asking since I got back about planning their own Trans Mongolian/Siberian trip:

Do I need to book a ticket on the Trans Mongolian?
If you're going directly with no hopping off, it's possible to book a ticket all the way from Beijing to Moscow, which will be almost a bum-numbing week of sitting on the train. It's better to hop-off and see things for a couple of days. This may mean that you get stuck in a town a day longer (which happened to us in Datong), but once you're on the Trans Siberian mailine (from Irkutsk to Moscow) trains are fairly regular.

Is a tour the only way to do it?
Booking a tour can be a good way to get it all sorted for you, but it's not necessary. We booked each leg as we went. This meant hopping off the train and buying the next ticket as soon as we got there.
Once you're in Russia, the train runs on Moscow time so you'll need to be careful not to muddle Moscow Time and Local Time. There's a g…

Second City St Petersburg

Whether it’s Chicago to New York, or Melboune to Sydney, I’m a big fan of second cities. Being runner up means they try harder. And so it is with St Petersburg, the metropolis that’s arm wrestled Moscow for capital status throughout history but was largely shrugged off by the Soviets who liked their capital buried in the middle of the USSR.

Part of the problem might have been an identity crisis. St Petersburg has been called Petrograd and Leningrad, but is known as Piter to its friends. I first came here in the mid 1990s when the country was just working out what the new perestroika (restructuring) would mean. Today on the mainstreet it seems to mean SUVs replacing trams and plenty of sushi. The only thing I remember being able to order from the menus was bifstihk (beef steak) and mashed potatoes.

One of my favorite statues on Nevsky Prospekt are the four horses that rear up at Anichkov Bridge. If you look closely the sculptor, Peter Klodt von Urgensburg, has put in a joke about Napoleo…

Cracking the Kremlin

At the heart of Moscow – geographically, politically and culturally – lies the Kremlin. If you lived through the Cold War or even just seen early Bond films, even a mention of the Soviet-era landmark suggests KGB plots and political intrigue. In fact many Russian cities have a kremlin, a fortress that has survived since the Middle Ages. Moscow’s has become The Kremlin only because it was the place that Ivan the Terrible ruled from and created his nation.

Getting inside the Kremlin no longer requires a grappling hook and infra-red sights. The greatest obstacle is the tedium of lines – lines for a ticket, lines for the cloak room and finally the line to get in. But once you’re inside there’s a treasure chest of gold domes and buildings to explore. The world’s largest bell is cracked and broken in the grounds here. There’s a massive cannon built too large to actually fire shot – a curious metaphor for Cold War posturing. The tallest building here is the Ivan the Great Belltower - visible …

Red Squares

It would have been easy to bookend the trip by visiting the two embalmed leaders, Mao and Lenin, at either end. But we’re not that keen on either leader and preserving someone after their dead is just plain creepy. So we resolve to skip that part of the itinerary and make for St Basil’s – the grand church that is synonymous with Moscow and indeed Russia.

Also known less catchily as Pokrovsky Cathedral, the church was built to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Tartars in the 16th century. As we approach there’s a small parade of old people marching under the hammer and sickle flag singing Soviet songs. There are placards of Lenin held up and some good-natured shouting so it’s hard to work out: are they calling for a return to Soviet rule or are they just nostalgic?
Out the front of the State History Museum, the reminiscing is even cheesier. Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev impersonators work the area, allowing tourists to snap them waving the Russian flag or downing a Pepsi for a …

Sleeping for Gold

When we get to Moscow, we’re a bit dazed after almost three days on the train. Getting a hotel seems complicated – the first place we had a reservation at has never received anything about us and prices seem to have tripled. We go for the backup reservation – Hotel Izmaylovo.

It’s not every night that you can lay your head where Olympic champions once dossed down, but this massive hotel is a former Olympic village. With more than 8000 rooms across four different buildings, it remains one of Europe’s largest hotels despite being built way back in 1979. It’s so large that we’re not sure which of the massive four buildings to head for. Are we in Delta or Vega?

We opt for Delta, partly because these are the easiest characters to work out in Cyrillic. Behind the check-in desk they’ve never heard of our reservation either. It must be a Russian hospitality custom. They talk us through the rooms and we ask what the difference is between standard and business.
“Better furniture,” the check-in gir…

Farewelling Siberia

From Tomsk it’s an bum-numbing 50 plus hours to Moscow. It’s difficult to work out exactly how long this trip will take us because the train runs on Moscow time and Tomsk is a couple of hours ahead. As we travel along we go through three timezones.

We’re prepared though with plenty of supplies for in-carriage picnics. The dining car sounds like a good idea for a change of scenery but on the first night of the trip we get stung for over a thousand roubles including separate extra charges for tomato and cucumber slices. So we opt for self-catering mostly.
It’s really easy to hop out at stations and do some hunter-gathering. There are stalls, carts and hawkers selling beer, roast chicken and even pre-cooked meals at a cart optimistically labelling itself pectopah (restaurant). There’s plenty of time as stops last up to 30 minutes – even longer if the provodnitsa (carriage attendant) has to finish their cigarette.
The provodnitsa can make or break your trip. Mostly they’re overblown characte…

Tomsk is not just a womble

To get to Tomsk we have to make a connection that means 6 hours in the middle of the night in Taiga, an unimpressive industrial town. After some phrasebook fumbling and dodging a couple of Russians passed out from the national drink, we find the resting rooms. Above the station they’re like a mini-hotel where it’s possible to crash for a couple of hours if you don’t mind the whistles and toots of trains coming and going. Many of the trains out of here are bearing minerals and logs from Siberia and if you can’t sleep it’s easy to count trains. We’re out in about five minutes.

The matron of the resting rooms wakes us an hour before our train is due to depart. We’re in the notorious platskart, an open sleeper that has bunks crammed into every possible space – up to three lining each wall. There’s always someone walking by and security is nonexistent. It’s a short hop of a couple of hours so we grab a couple more hours sleep and keep our bags close by. Temperature-wise it’s actually more …

Mushing to Moscow

Irkutsk is the jumping off point for Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and weirdest lake. Water gushed into the space between two tectonic plates and created a huge crescent-shaped water that runs over 600km. It’s apparently more than a fifth of the world’s fresh unfrozen water. The tectonic plates are slowing moving away from each other and may one day split so that this could be the world’s fifth sea. Isolated within these depths is a unique ecosystem that serves as a sanctuary for freshwater seals, the nerpa, and the omul fish.

You get omul thrust at you as you get off the train at Slyuyanka, but the nerpa are hiding out under the ice. The frozen water lives up to its Pearl of Siberia nickname. As we walk along the lakefront there’s a curl of ice jutting out where the ice has shifted. Because spring sun is coming in you can hear the ice tingling and cracking around the curl. It’s still possible to walk out on the ice though as it’s more than a metre deep. Locals drive their cars out …

Among the Smugglers

When we board at UB, a Mongolian man strikes up a conversation with me. He quickly establishes himself as the Mayor of the carriage – chatting to the Buryat girl who shares our carriage and trading jokes with conductors. His knowledge of a couple of languages puts him at the centre of most conversations.Do you know Forex?” he asks me and I mumble something about foreign exchange. He brightens and bombards me with questions that would make an actuary queasy. No, I don’t know how to explain hedge funds. Yes, Barack Obama does seem to be spending a lot of money at the moment. No, I don’t know about the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they’ll affect the markets.Soon several ladies start wandering the carriage with huge bundles of jeans, t-shirts and handbags. At first I think they’re just selling them and a few pairs are exchanged for money, so a simple ‘nyet’ seems to suffice. But one of the conductors comes to plead their case – would I do them a favour of carrying two blankets across…

Really going

When do you really know you're really leaving on a trip? In the middle of your day there's the realisation in a month/week/day I'll be in another country. For me there's usually a physical prompt - something that makes me realise I'm leaving.
This week I got the last of my visas, which usually acts as a good nudge. The Russian visa however is the most anti-climactic- grey scrub on your passport though. Oddly it's also the visa that cost the most and required the most organisation. Mongolia just shrugs and charges you next to nothing, while China's does take a little organisation but at least looks impressive once you have it.
Packing is the other big signifier. People are always wanting to know how to pack or what to bring. I have revolutionary method that consists of putting out a bag a week before I go and dropping things into as I think of it. It's best in the loungeroom so you can look over during a commercial break and think "I haven't got…

No Souvenirs #2

A few people asked me if there were anymore non-souvenirs from Finland, so here's a few more.
First up one that I have no idea about. It could be a zoo badge or a fan of monkeys generally. I had thought it might be a salute to Soviet space simians, but the USSR sent monkeys into space between 1983 and 1996, which hardly seemed worth making a badge over.
This one seems a salute to the Soviet capital. My Finnish friend said she remembers her parents returning from visits across the border with badges like these of cities or regions. In a time when travel was limited, a badge like this would have been exotic. There are also badges for Baltic states like Estonia which citizens of the USSR would bring home as gifts or as proof they'd travelled throughout the union.
This guy looks like a classic post-war gent - much like the Maggie Thatcher badge. I think he may be Sergey Korolyov, a Ukrainian born rocket scientist who was called the father of the Soviet space program and designed the…

No Souvenirs

Buying souvenirs is always the last thing I get to. I'm so behind that when I was in Finland I bought this small collection of Soviet badges to make up for a trip I did way back in the 1990s. Not having much of a clue in Russian I'm only guessing what they're about.
This first one is obviously about the Olympics and is very topical when there's a lot of talk about not mixing politics and sport. The 1980 games were boycotted by the United States and more than 20 other nations. More than 10 European nations competed but used the Olympic flag instead of their own to protest the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
This next stern-faced character reminded me of Maggie Thatcher, but it was common to produce 'celebrity' badges though usually they were writers or composers:
Here's a cheerful representation of Soviet space glory or perhaps synchronised swimming in space suits: And finally a tribute to the armoured car:

Weird to think that while Western youth were wearing Tea…

Keep the Samovar Boiling

Lappeenranta in southern Karelia is another almost-in-Russia moment, but it sees itself as Karelian before any other nationality. Until the Continuation War Vyborg (now Russian) was part of Finland and the links are still very close. There's several boats a day touring between Vyborg and Lappeenranta, delivering nostalgiac visitors to both cities.

In Lappeenranta you see tha Russian influence with the language spoken on the streets and blinis on the menu. My favourite spot was the Kahvila Majurska that reminded me of a Russian teahouse right down to the boiling samovar and tsarist furnishings. But as you examine the walls the war hero portraits are of Finns and then there's the oceans of coffee (Finns famously average 7 cups a day) that make it not a Russian teahouse. This is what makes a border town - the seeping together of cultures as nations can't seem to hold back these cultural overlaps.

Unfortunately for me they do hold back people who don't have visas so I forgo …

Russia's summer hangout

Hanko sells itself as the sunny south of Finland, so it had to rain the day I got there. It was pouring so badly that I had to abandon mapping and take shelter in my villa.

It was the Russians who started with villas when they decided Hanko would make a good spa town. And they threw in a casino for good measure. The villas are the old dames of the town, sunning themselves by sea and many growing old gracefully. My villa is one of the few that's not named after a wife or daughter of the Russians who built them. It has seen better years and the single room could be a blocked-off corridor. I can't open my bag and stand up at the same time because of the limited floorspace. You can well imagine Uncle Vanya being set in one of these creaking old beauties.

Still in the morning it's possible to go out and explore with the sun living up to the tourist brochure. The beaches are fairly narrow by Antipodean standards, but there are huge lumps of granite that loll on and off the shore …

Envisioning Europe

Last night marked the big night for Europe's greatest show-offs and over-dressed hams with Eurovision live from Belgrade. I was in Scotland when Lordi won in 2006, but Helsinki was on the verge of a riot when the hometown boys got the continental gong and brought the award back to the cheering crowds in the city square. Perhaps that explains why they went with Teräsbetoni this year.


The lads came out early with their signature lack of shirts and the volume was turned up in the bar to drown out Finns happily singing along. At the end the performance the Finnish commentators murmured that they'd see us down in the square. But the plucky Russian lad had other ideas. The bar crowd were impressed by the way he spent most of the performance squirming on the floor, only really getting up for the Owen Wilson impersonator who ice-skated around him. It was moving stuff.

Azerbaijan, who made their first appearance this year, came in at a healthy 8th. Even Latvia with the hilarious Pirates …

Visa & Valo

Aren't visas the biggest scam? You've just forked over several thousand for a ticket which then has taxes added to it, and then you get stung for visas. More than the bucks, it's the hassle of visas that always trips me up. For the upcoming Finland trip, I was going to go via China and while in Finland I'm going to be in Karelia, which is the doorstep to Russia. It would be rude not to pop in, right? But the fiendish nature of these visas means that not only do I need to come up with several passport photos but also an elaborate invite/visa support. With the constant moving of goalposts that is China's visa situation it currently requires that you need to have accommodation booked for your stay. This means a credit card shuffle and a quick booking in a place I know will give me a receipt that I can attach to the visa application. Then wait two days, which turns out to be four.

The Russian system is even more convuluted. Their visa support document isn't a hotel …