Covering new ground – the adventure really begins!

When we were planning our trip, one of the really exciting parts was the journey across Siberia and the mass of nothingness…. So it feels slightly surreal that we are staring this stage of the trip square between the eyes, and we both really have mixed emotions about it.  How can it have come round already?  Are we really about to do this?  After months of planning it is actually happening!

During a stop on our Vilnius to St Petersburg journey

During a stop on our Vilnius to St Petersburg journey

I have been lucky so far.  I’ve had my own personal (Trafalgar accredited) Travel Director / travel buddy to show me around all the places we have been.  We hit the ground running in Warsaw, sought out the back streets in Vilnius, strolled around like a local in St Petersburg and rode the Metro with ease in Moscow (without Dean I think I would still be doing loops on the brown line!).  So for us, the real adventure was always going to begin when we left the comfort of where at least one of us had been before and where be both started to experience something new.  That in itself is exciting.

We (the Royal ‘we’ of course) have spent months planning this trip, pouring over train timetables and deciphering schedules, only to come up with our perfect route.  The choice of which train(s) to take was made for various reasons.  We could have split our next 72 hour journey up into smaller sections, stopping more often or evening staying on longer.  However we thought 3 ½ days on the train was long enough to get a real sense of the scales and size of the country and for us, it worked perfectly.  Besides we are travelling in winter, and some things are closed, fountains turned off and plants covered for the winter, so we had to be realistic about what we see and do. Seeing Red Square and St Basil’s with a dust of snow was magical, so for me it is a very special time of year to be here and I wouldn’t trade it for peak season for anything.

We are hoping for Animal Print covers on this train again...!

We are hoping for Animal Print covers on this train again…!

I remembering sitting on a bus from Alice Springs to Cairns, and it was one of the best things I did in Oz.  Watching cattle station after cattle station and kangaroo after kangaroo pass by reaffirmed what I already knew – Australia is a big place!  I’m sure this journey will do the same.  We have got some great stop overs on this epic journey, but first we must tackle the long first stage.

We are likely to drop at least 10 degrees along the way – and coming from a temperature of -4 today that won’t be pretty, but we are prepared.  We have our cold weather gear (not forgetting my awesome funky boots!) and our cameras at the ready.  We have our Vodka to keep us warm (!) and games to keep us entertained.  Above all we have our provisions – porridge, tea, noodles, soups etc. all to live like kings on this magical journey.  For us this is the really start of our trip, the exciting venture into the unknown and we can’t wait to get going… but we don’t want it to go too quickly!  Dean remembers talking to me in Africa and apparently I said to him that the next and last big trip I wanted to do was the Trans-Mongolian Train across to Beijing.  I don’t remember that conversation and neither of us knew at that point we would be doing it together!

All set and ready to go!

All set and ready to go!

So all that’s left now is to hope we end up with good cabin buddies on the train… who don’t make us drink TOO much Vodka. See you on the other side of / in Siberia!!!

–          Natalie

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean

Best Laid Plans

This was supposed to be the easy part. London to Warsaw, a couple of train changes and a nice easy introduction to training across the world, the perfect introduction to get us back into that travelling mindset.

Well, Day One of our adventure was more a baptism of fire than a nice leisurely break into solo travelling again.

This is how the day was supposed to pan out. After farewell champagnes with Natalie’s parents we caught the Eurostar to Brussels. In Brussels, granted, it was a short turnaround of twenty minutes, but then it was the German ICE train straight to Frankfurt and forty-five minutes to then board our overnight sleeper train to Warsaw.

Everything started well, we said goodbye to Natalie’s folks and passed immigration and security with plenty of time for the Eurostar. We had learnt our lesson from our honeymoon where we cut timings very very fine to make our train. The Eurostar pulled out on time and everything was going great, our adventure had begun, all the planning, the reading and researching was finally a reality.

Then we were thrown one of those travelling curve-balls that everyone experiences at one time or another. All your planning, all your research goes out the window and your travel experience kicks in.

We arrived at Brussels Midi station and had what we thought was an easy two platform changeover to the ICE train. However, when we got there the information boards were flashing red wording in both French and Flemish. While not fluent in either one of these languages, the translation was easy – ‘Leaves From Another Station’.

What?! This can’t be! We managed to track down a local attendant who told us to find the German train information desk. Running through the station, watching the minutes tick down until our departure we finally managed to find the Deutsche Bahn info desk to be told there was a problem with the train and now we had to catch a local train to Liege and hopefully a connection to Frankfurt from there.

We raced to the platform and jumped on the train to Liege (literally) as the doors closed and the train pulled out. The next hour and ten minutes seemed to drag on, we poured over possibilities, would we make Frankfurt in time for the sleeper train, could we meet it somewhere else or worst case scenario what to do if we missed it.

Upon arrival into Liege the conductor informed everyone that the ICE train would be departing from an adjoining platform, and would begin from Liege to Frankfurt. We had made it! Or so we thought.

We boarded what turned out to be our scheduled train, rail problems between Brussels and Liege had caused the rescheduling last minute, but now the train was departing over an hour late, and due to arrive into Frankfurt six minutes after our sleeper train was due to depart. I managed to hunt down the conductor and in my best German explained the situation – we just could not afford to miss that train. ‘Oh you will be fine’, he replied, ‘I think they will wait for you’.

Frantically doing some calculations

Frantically doing some calculations

As we hurtled through the night at over three hundred kilometres an hour watching the minutes tick by we became more and more nervous we would miss the train. Another visit to the conductor and this time less reassurance than my previous visit did nothing to calm our nerves.
As we pulled into Frankfurt station the conductors voice blared out over the speaker system, ‘Those passengers going to Warsaw your train departs from Platform 1 and is waiting for you, please hurry’.

Now this is where there is a little blurring between fact and fiction. I like to imagine that mad dash for the train to be like a scene from an action movie. The doors popped open and Natalie and I bolted out the carriage, down the stairs and through the tunnel accessing the platforms. 15, 14,…..4,3,2 and finally Platform 1. In front us now looked like what was the world’s largest stair case.

We scampered up as quick as we could to see the train slowly beginning to move, a conductor leaning out our carriage entrance calling for us to run. As we came up alongside the open carriage door, the train picking up pace, we threw first our day packs and then our rucksacks to the conductor. First Natalie, then I were dragged onto the train. Lying there exhausted, panting and out of breath, we looked up to the smiling conductor who slapped us on the back and thrust a bottle of vodka into our hands.

Sadly however that’s not exactly what happened. We ran down the access platform the stairs and finally made it to our carriage, literally we jumped on, the doors closed and we were met with the disdainful look of the female conductor, who muttering something in Russian under her breath, showed us to our sleeper cabin. We collapsed in a heap onto the bottom bunk and just looked at each other, we couldn’t believe we had somehow made that train. Surely the entire four months were not going to be like this.

A stressful Day One to our adventure, but a timely reminder that it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how much research you have done, things change at a moment’s notice, and it is these experiences we will never forget and can laugh about later on.

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

However, I really do hope we don’t have to run for any more trains!