From London to Irkutsk – The First Chapter

As we travel on the Trans-Siberian train its day two, there is a blissfully perfect wintery snowy scene out of the carriage window and its time to turn our thoughts back to all the amazing things we have seen and done on this adventure so far.  As we look back we find ourselves reaching for the brake pedal – slow down its going too quickly!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

The last few weeks before we went away were a whirlwind and before we knew it, we found ourselves on our first overnight train (just!).  For those of you that read Dean’s earlier blog you will know that it was a close calls that testing my ability to run with my backpack from the offset!!  Good job we had packed light!

When we woke the next morning we have travelled through three countries – from the UK through France, Belgium, Germany, and finally into Poland.  I remember Dean remarking that in many ways Poland was like the UK – full of Costa’s and Tesco’s!  I can’t deny there were definitely similarities, yet it had a character all of its own that was an amazing introduction to the trip.  Our day and night there would prove to be the first day where we walked our socks off and racked up the miles.  As we got off our train, we walked out of the station and were greeted with the mighty sight of the Palace of Culture – a big imposing building that welcomed us.  We discovered the ‘singing’ Chopin benches (that’s right – park benches that play Chopin music!), explored the buildings in the old own square, walked the Old City Walls, had a Costa coffee (why change the habit of a lifetime?!), dashed down to see the Jewish Ghetto Memorial as the sun was setting and eventually toasted our arrival with a Polish beer –  Nasdarovje!

The beautiful old town square

The beautiful old town square

Our next journey was by bus (double axel as Mum spotted in the pictures!).  It was possibly the poshest coach I have been on and came complete with cheesy chick flicks and aeroplane style entertainment system.  True to form I chuckled away at a naff film!!  After an 8 hour journey, next came Vilnius and our journey into Lithuania.  I had received many reports of what a pleasant city it is and it certainly lived up to that.  Our hostel was just outside the old city walls, so a short walk and we were down in amongst the beauty of it – you can certainly see why it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.  Lacking funds we had our first taste of noddles for dinner.  We had a full day to explore and again we walked and walked.  If this trip doesn’t tone my legs nothing will!!

The Green Bridge

The Green Bridge

We walked up the main shopping street and down to the river where we meandered along the banks and came to the Green Bridge.  Built in 1956 this is the only bridge in Lithuania that has statues on it.  Given the adornment of statues on bridges in other cites this fascinated us!  We then carried on and walked up the hill and went up the Gediminas Tower which gave us a brilliant view over the city.

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

All too soon it was time to leave.  On the way back to the hostel we came across this little local bar.  It was basically park benches outside, and I convinced Dean that it would be good to have a drink with the locals.  I was the only woman in there (apart from the lady behind the bar) but we paid our 50p and got our ¾ pint of beer.  It was so good that we thought we’d invest in the economy and have a second!!!  When we got on the train a couple of hours later, we were greeted with red velour beds and animal print blankets – it was almost like something out of a 1970’s dodgy film!!

Using up our last 50ps

Using up our last 50ps

It is fair to say that crossing borders on a night train doesn’t make for a very restful night’s sleep.  First our stop in Latvia and the Latvian border control where Dean got a stamp, and then an hour later came the Russian side.  At 4am we handed over our passport and hoped for the best.  To pass the time we had a midnight feast and tucked into our big bar of chocolate – bought to use up the last of our Lithuanian money and a great investment!  Finally we were stamped in and rolling again, and next came awesome St Petersburg.

Our cabin for the night

Our cabin for the night

We spent the next three days exploring everything from the Hermitage to St Peter and Paul Island, St Isaacs Cathedral, The Church of the Spilled Blood (my first introduction to the ornate frescos), Udel Naya flea market as well as going to an Ice Hockey game – go SKA!  We had planned to go to Swan Lake, but as it was too late in the season this made a nice alternative.  We ended right on the edge with the opposing team so we had to keep cheering for SKA so there was no confusion as to who we were wiling on!  It was no wonder the seats were both cheap and still available – no one else wanted them!!!  It was a mammoth couple of days full of taking LOTS of pictures (both day and night).  I couldn’t get over the amazing architecture everywhere – the buildings were just stunning and I was blown away.  Definitely a city to come back to!

In the Hermitage

In the Hermitage


Our last stop was Moscow before the journey onwards.  It had a lot to live up to for me as I’d loved St Petersburg.  We took one of the German built express trains between the two cities, and arrived into Moscow at lunchtime.  There is no denying that seeing St Basil’s for the first time is one of those real ‘I have made it moments’ and I was amazed by what I saw.  It is the most stunning building and really does stand up to every expectation you have about it.  We went inside and this amazed me too.  I expected a big wide open space in there, instead it’s essentially lots of smaller chambers with the most beautiful frescos and artwork.  Wow.  The next few days were spent paying our respects to Lenin (I was the first of the day in there and had it all to myself which was very eerie!), going round the Kremlin, visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, riding the Metro (Dean was amazing at navigating and we managed to sneak a few pictures) and going out to the old Communist All Russia Exhibition Ground.  There was a really funky memorial to the Russian Space exploration out there which was quite unique.  We loved our afternoon out there exploring lots of the old buildings and architecture.

Wow!

Wow!

So as we got to the first of the ‘big train’ train journeys there was a small amount of sadness that we were saying goodbye to these amazing cities.  It had been the perfect start to our overland adventure, and we were well and truly on our way!

So what have we learnt?  Successful travel as a couple is much easier if you a:  tell the other person when you are hungry, b:  tell the other person know when you are tired, and c: tell the other person when you are struggling!  Follow these simple guidelines and you can’t go wrong!

Above all, in the words of an advertisement in Warsaw…. ‘Life’s Good’!

Life's Good!

Life’s Good!

–  Natalie

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!

Dean