A Glimmer of Hope in Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row…

– John McCrae

This year marks the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War, the war to end all wars.

Sadly the Great War was not the conclusion of hostilities but rather the beginning of one of, if not the bloodiest centuries in World History.

The next four years will see major battles remembered, historical debates reignite, blame and finger-pointing intensify, because for many countries WWI was a defining point in their history.

Gallipoli, the Somme and Flanders are all spoken with a deep-seated respect and reverence as thousands laid down their lives, often in appalling conditions fighting a war that no one could comprehend but felt compelled to participate in.

The battles in Flanders were some of the worst, soldiers fighting in waist deep mud and freezing conditions during the winters of 1915-1917.

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

However during this dark time, a ray of light, a glimmer of hope sprang from the small town of Poperinge. The village is situated about 12 km from the town of Ypres, today know as Iper and during the war as ‘Wipers’ by the Commonwealth forces.

The front facade of Talbot House

The front facade of Talbot House

This glimmer of hope was called Talbot House. Talbot house was founded as a ‘every mans’ club by army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton. It was set up without discrimination of rank as a respite from the horrors of war. Men could shower and sleep in a clean bed often for the first time in months. Even if only for a short time, Talbot house was designed to allow men to forget the war and atrocities associated it, like Tubby Clayton said, it was “An Oasis in a World gone mad”.


Talbot House from the rear gardens

Talbot House from the rear gardens

Now days Talbot House is not only a museum but also a guest house with nine rooms in the original building and three rooms in the garden block. Staying at Talbot House truly gives you a very unique experience and a historical link to your Battlefields visit. The staff are very friendly and incredibly knowledgable and more than happy to sit down with you and help you plan your visit to the surrounding sites. Their hints, tips and advice all designed to ensure you get the most from your visit of the region, and it certainly helps getting some insider knowledge of out of the way places, monuments and cemeteries.

Talbot House is a great base to explore the region. From Poperinge you can easily visit the Tyne Cot Cemetary, largest in the region, or the Canadian Memorial commemorating the first use of mustard gas. Not far from Poperinge are some intact German trenches where Adolf Hitler served and was almost captured by Canadian troops and numerous other cemeteries and monuments.

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

Most convenient of all is the proximity to Iper which houses the stunning In Flanders Fields Museum and the famous Menin Gate. No visit to the region is complete without attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. At around 8:00pm every evening the Last Post has been played uninterrupted, (except during the Second World War) since 1928 and is an absolute must if in the area.

The Menin Gate in Iper with 54,896 missing soldiers names engraved on it

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

The next four years will be a sombre time for reflection and remembrance for the thousands of lives lost many of which perished in the mud of Flanders Fields. However while it is important to remember the tragedy that was the Great War, we should also remember men like Neville Talbot and Tubby Clayton and celebrate what they did to help alleviate the suffering of those weary soldiers. By basing yourself in Talbot House you are honouring their efforts, in a special way you are remembering those who fought and most importantly, you are keeping this amazing piece of history alive.

– Dean

“In all my experience I have never known a place so vital to morale as Talbot House”

– General Sir Herbert Plumer, 1928

What have you got Two Loos?

Now here’s a question to get started, after all everyone needs to learn one piece of useless information every day…. What are Urilifts?

After our pledge to make the most of our hometown, we googled ‘quirky stuff to do  in London’.  Up popped a whole host of options, but before we knew it we had picked our favourite.  We found ourselves booking onto one of the more random options – The London Loo tour!  “You are doing what?” asked several of our friends.  “We are joining the London Loo Tour” we proudly responded!  

This was met with two main reactions from our friends.  Firstly why on Earth would you do it.  This was quickly followed with a… ‘but that sounds quite cool’!

Armed with my big SLR camera (no one wants to miss that prize-winning dunny shot) we set off to meet Rachel, the self-proclaimed ‘Loo Tour Lady’ (LTL).  Rachel has quite possibly one of the most random job title ever, and you get the impression she loves it!  A former drama student, she guides you effortlessly through the U-bend of toilet trivia, and from here on in she will be referred to as ‘LTL’.


I've seen Dean take many photos before, but never of toilets!

I’ve seen Dean take many photos before, but never of toilets!

Although there are several tours on offer, we thought we would start with the original and the best –The Waterloo Tour (no pun intended).  This tour was set to last 1 ½ hours and provides practical trips for finding the best free loos in London, as well of course as the history of loos and lots of better-than bog standard jokes.  Cross-legged with excitement we met outside the toilets at platform 19 and the adventure began.  LTL, armed with her raised loo plunger held proudly in the air, walked us out of the station and we were off.  We were all very amused by the odd looks that we received and the double takes the plunger demanded!


Follow that plunger!

Follow that plunger!

Our first stop was to see the Royal Jubiloos….. opened along South Bank in honour of the Queens Jubilee.  These are pay toilets, but with Union Jack toilet seats, bins and mirrors they are well work the 50p entrance fee.  Of course being part of the London Loo Tour granted us VIP free access – just proving that there is nowhere the toilet plunger can’t reach!


A Royal occasion

A Royal occasion

It transpired that my keenness to find free public conveniences was shared with many in the group.  When you need to spend a penny you don’t want it to cost you a pound and I’m delighted to say LTL shared her top secret best haunts – both official and unofficial!  As a proud Londoner I thought I knew lots of the back roads, but as we wound our way through toilet-graffiti alleyways and discovered hidden parks I felt like I was rediscovering my own city, all whilst having several historical facts thrown in.  Who ever knew that I would find the history of the London sewer system so interesting…

Now back to that question of the Urilift.  LTL told us how things are a bit inequitable with loos.  For men there are not only static WCs, but in an attempt to stop them watering the plants late at night, the powers that be have come up with better ideas.


Watch out guys...

Watch out guys…

Perhaps my favourite of which is the Urilift.  When we saw it, it looked little more than a man-hole cover on the ground.  You have never seen us looking so excited as when we returned the following week and it had ‘popped up’ and was proudly stood in all its glory.  So bowled over by it were we, that we forgot to take a picture!  So instead I present to you the official Urilift website featuring the Urilift – Solution against street urination video….. It’s worth a watch if you, like us get excited by this concept!


The Urilift - for all your urination needs…. unless you are a woman!

The Urilift – for all your urination needs…. unless you are a woman!

All too soon our loo tour was up and where better than to finish than in a swanky bar that was once itself a public convenience.  You might think I haven’t included much about the tour here.  Well that’s the point.  We thoroughly enjoyed the walk, the wisdom of LTL but above all, her love of the most bog standard aspect of human existence.  We would urge anyone to go and found out all about the hidden gems of the London loo scene.  There are a choice of tours and I’d bet a flush on it that you won’t be disappointed!

–          Natalie, Toileteer

More information about the tours can be found on Rachel’s London Loo Tours site:  www.lootours.com

Melbourne: Seeing your home town differently

Having lived and worked in Europe for the past 11 years, married to Natalie and armed with my UK Residence Permit I guess I would now be considered to be an ex-pat.

While I am lucky enough to live in one of the Worlds most amazing cities, London, a part of me will always call Melbourne home.It is only when you live away from, and then return, do you truly appreciate your home town.

Working in Europe I always wondered if Parisians strolled down the Champs Élysées and gave the Arc d’Triompe a second thought, or as the Romans wizz past the Colosseum on their Vespas they realised what an amazing piece of history their city had, even if Londoners appreciated having the greatest public transport system in the world, the Tube? (I can tell you the Londoners don’t!).

So over the last few years I have had the opportunity to experience Melbourne in a different light, I have had the chance to be a tourist in my home town.

Melbourne's Flinders Street Station

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station

Put simply, I love Melbourne, it really is the best city in Australia. OK, city rivalries aside, Melbourne doesn’t have the ‘Big Ticket’ wow factors like Sydney does, such as the Bridge, Opera House and Bondi, and probably needs a little more exploration but once you do it is an incredible city.

One thing Melbourne is famous for is its cafe scene and it’s love affair with coffee. We can thank the Italian immigrants after WWII for really kick-starting this. One of the best places to experience Melbourne’s cafe culture is in Degraves Street. A small little pedestrian alleyway running between Flinders and Collins streets, it is filled with outdoor cafés and has an amazing energy and ultra cool vibe.

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

The Yarra River is the heart and soul of Melbourne and a stroll from Flinders Street Station down to the Casino and docklands area is also a must. Great restaurants, quirky bars and modern art awaits you, but it also gives you a great feel for Melbourne’s redevelopment over the last 20 years.

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Now if you are more adventurous you can head out to various suburbs for a different taste of Melbourne. Carlton is the ‘Italian’ district and Lygon Street plays home to some of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Or perhaps down to St Kilda for some city beach chill time. Every inner suburb has a different feel and is famous for something different, and only after exploring a few of them do you truly understand what Melbourne is all about.

Of course Melbourne is also famous for its love of sport and if you are lucky enough to visit during a major event you quickly learn Melbourne loves sport almost as much as coffee!! We finish our visit coinciding with the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix – one of the jewels in the city’s sporting crown. Much like Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams, in Melbourne, if you host it, they will come! In fact half of Melbourne will still turn up to watch a sport they know nothing about.

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Great shopping and great museums also contribute to the Melbourne experience. Every time I visit now I see something different and I have a greater appreciation for my home town. It makes me want to get out and explore London more, a promise Natalie and I have made repeatedly on this trip.

Now while I love Melbourne I am the first to admit it is not perfect, but no city is. Apart from the trams, in particular the Circle Line Tram which does a loop around the city and is free, yes free, ask any Melbournian and they will tell you the  public transport system is not great, (Londoners take note). Australia, not just Melbourne in particular is very expensive for tourists but these are small considerations. It is no wonder that Melbourne is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Melbourne's famous old trams

Melbourne’s famous old trams

If you have never been a tourist in your home town get out there and explore, visit the famous sites, eat at the famous cafés and restaurants, go and see that show or museum you have always said you would, who knows, you might just discover you live (or have lived) in a pretty incredible city and you never knew it!

– Dean

Chapter 11: Melbourne, The In-laws and the Great Outdoors


We made it, Melbourne, our furthest away point and the whole reason for our overland adventure was now a reality. Landing in Melbourne felt like a world away from what we had experienced through Myanmar, India, Nepal, Tibet and so on.

The sign at Melbourne Airport

The sign at Melbourne Airport

Despite our excitement about arriving back in Australia there was also a twinge of sadness. Australia was our penultimate destination, our target to reach by any means possible and here we were. So our excitement was tempered by the fact that in a few short weeks we will be back to normal life, well as normal as it gets for us! However this was not going to stop us having an awesome couple of weeks.

While I grew up in Melbourne, it is no longer ‘home’ ever since my folks sold up and retired down to Torquay. Put simply if there is a better place in the state of Victoria to live it hasn’t been found yet. At the beginning of The Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most stunning coastal drives, a short drive to the world famous Bells Beach, Torquay was the perfect spot for us to chill and relax for a few days after our epic adventure. Walks along the beach, a glass of red on the balcony looking for kangaroos, does life get any better?

Torquay front beach

Torquay front beach

Of course our visit to Oz wouldn’t be us if we didn’t try and cram as much into a brief visit as possible. This included catching up with awesome friends Matt, Kirsty and my favourite kids in the world and spending a few days in Melbourne itself.

I love Melbourne, it is such a vibrant and cool city. Natalie and I have developed a routine in Melbourne which revolves around shopping, particularly the outlet stores near the Crown Casino and Docklands area, walks along the river and normally a drink in Federation Square. We may do the same thing everytime we visit but it is the sense of familiarity we love.

This time however we had one important thing to do, and that was to pick up Natalie’s parents from the airport. They were flying out for our wedding party and it was a surreal experience.

Natalie’s parents help us out an awful lot, particularly with airport drop offs and pick ups and not to forget her Mum’s mercy dash to Paris airport with my newly issued residence permit so I could return to the UK after our honeymoon!

So patiently we waited, welcome sign in hand hardly believing this moment had come. If you have never experienced it, it’s quite a strange feeling picking up your parents or friends from home in another country.

Waiting for Natalie's parents to arrive

Waiting for Natalie’s parents to arrive

After a late night arrival the following morning we hit up one of Melbourne’s famous lane ways for breakfast before I returned to Torquay and Natalie spent the next day and a half exploring Melbourne with her folks.  They rode the free Circle Tram, had dinner on the Colonial Tram Car as well as going up the 88 floors to the Eureka Sky Deck viewing platform and they seemed to really enjoy catching up and re-living old haunts!

The Cole family’s arrival in Torquay was a chance for everyone to catch up, consume a little too much wine, and explore the surf coast region as we prepared for our Wedding Party.

It’s been great having both families together again and also wonderful that Natalie’s parents can see where I grew up and where we spend our time down here in Australia. Week one in Oz has been great and with dawn breaking on Wedding Party day we couldn’t wait to catch up with all our friends and family.

Australia, it’s good to be home!

– Dean

Eating Our Way Around China

Trying the various foods of the countries you visit is one of the real highlights of travel. Certain dishes are synonymous with some countries, such as steak in Argentina, curries in India, (which I can’t wait for), and pasta in Italy. So it was with great excitement, and a little trepidation that we arrived into Beijing.

One thing that Asia has that Russia And Mongolia were lacking was street food. Having both backpacked around South East Asia before we were hoping that China would be the same. For the budget minded traveller or those on a prolonged adventure like us, street food is your best friend.

As we do, once we arrived in Beijing we hit the ground running. On our first night we headed up to the Drum and Bell towers to hunt down a small little bar nestled between the two, have a drink to celebrate arriving at our most Easterly point overland and stare upon the beautifully illuminated towers to toast our success. Well that was the plan.

Sadly for whatever reason the towers were not lit up, but undeterred we stumbled upon a small hole in the wall bar to have a drink. It was about the size of a broom cupboard but at about a pound per beer how could we say no. Luckily the night wasn’t a total loss because not far away was our main aim for the night, a street called “Ghost Street”.

Ghost Street was originally home to a small evening fresh food market, and the silhouettes of the vendors against the lantern lights made them appear like ghosts. Now a days the street is a strip of flashing neon, red lanterns and dozens of restaurants specializing in hot pot cooking. We walked the entire length and the choice was endless! You could tell which restaurants were the good ones as there were huge crowds waiting outside, huddling under gas burners snacking on sunflower seeds while they waited for their table to be called.

We finally settled in for our first local food experience. One thing we had heard about China was how spicy everything was, and that they eat EVERY part of an animal and tonight proved to be the case. The menu contained what Natalie described as ‘every type of offal’, from turtle heads, chicken gizzards and feet, sharks fin and Ox intestines, it was there. You can imagine Natalie’s face with some of the options!! We ordered a tame beef dish and a “dry pot” potato dish. Both came out sizzling hot and smothered in loads and loads of chilies. Now I love spicy food but even for me this was hot! By the end of the night neither of us could feel our mouths and we made mental notes to avoid any dish with the word “spicy” in it in the future.

Following day as we explored the Forbidden City and numerous city parks we our first street vendor experiences. As you leave the Forbidden City you are instantly accosted by hawkers selling everything from tuk-tuk rides, scarves, Chairman Mao figures to all different types of food. It was these hawkers that drew our attention. On the back of a bicycle was a foam pyramid full of skewers of various fruits covered in a type of toffee. I can’t lie, I really wanted to take a photo of this guy’s bike so Natalie bought one as I snapped away a few photos. Wow! These little things became one of our favorites. Kiwi fruit, mandarin, small miniature apple like fruits and cherry tomatoes all dipped in a hard toffee. They would become our staple afternoon snack when sugar levels were low and energy levels flagging in the afternoons.

That evening it was time to splurge. Early on in the journey we had promised ourselves to blow the budget so to speak and go out and celebrate making it from London to Beijing overland, and if you are going to splurge in Beijing it means one thing…. Duck!

Peking duck is the signature dish in Beijing, and there is one restaurant that towers above the rest, the Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, established in 1864 and the most famous restaurant of it’s type in the city. Everyone from Fidel Castro, Pele, Sir Edward Heath and George Bush Senior to this night, The Smart Way Round have dined here. The restaurant was not only enormous but also beautiful, and looked like something straight out of the movies. We ordered our half duck with pancakes and eagerly awaited our dinner.
To make the experience all the more special, the restaurant sends a chef out to your table and freshly slices the duck up for you while you watch. The waitress then showed us how to construct your pancake using chopsticks and you are good to go. We persevered but decided that the ‘rolling with your fingers’ technique that we adopt at home is more efficient! While Peking Duck in Beijing is probably very different to what you may have experienced back home we both agreed it was well worth it!

Over the next few days we continued to try various street meals. Every morning for breakfast I would grab a plastic bag of steamed pork dumplings from a vendor near our hostel. Ten dumplings for a pound, what an awesome breakfast! By the end of our time in Beijing he would see us coming and greet us with a smile and my dumplings ready to go. Natalie tried various different things over the days including a deep fried bread stick and a pancake mixed with a fried egg, something that looked almost like french toast and some leaf vegetables. Street food was definitely the way to go.

We also fell upon a fantastic little local hole in the wall restaurant we ate at regularly for dinner. Not only was the food amazingly tasty but also incredibly cheap. A large beer (630ml) was only three Yuan or 30 pence! In fact our dinners were regularly coming in at around three to four pounds a night for two people. We were also quite the attraction, with locals asking for us to pose with them for photos and on our last night the whole family thanking us and saying good bye!

Our next stop on our China adventure was the stunning little town of Pingyao. From the moment we jumped off the train we knew we were in a small town, and it really felt we were off the beaten track. As we walked around the UNESCO Heritage listed streets the restaurant signs advertised ‘Assorted Cats Ears’, ‘Dog Meat Casserole’, ‘Sliced Donkey Meat’ and the ‘Clear Cooked Bulls Penis’. With so much choice we were never going to go hungry. We did try some fantastic corn cobs from a street vendor, bought some tasty apple chips and I tried a pretty forgettable steamed bean curd wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Needless to say, many of these options are slowly turning Natalie more and more vegetarian!

An overnight train has now bought us to the town of Xian, right in the heart of Shanxi Provence. Their specialty here is a 3.8m long noodle served in a soup or broth of your choice. That’s the great thing about Asia, if you are willing to go and look for it and prepared to go local you can enjoy some of the best food you will eat and eat for a fraction of the cost. Too many travellers (and we saw a lot of it in Beijing) only eat in their hostel or hotel because they serve “Western” food, but to get a real flavor of a city or country you have to hit the streets. China has been incredible so far, and one of our next blogs will be about what we have been up to, but for now we are of in search of 3.8m noodles!

Don’t forget to check our Instagram account for photos of our adventures in China. Thanks for the feedback to let us know Instagram is posting to Twitter and Facebook. See you all on The Smart Way Round….

– Dean



Thank you for your support

After the most amazing time in Mongolia (more about that in the blog to follow) we are really sad to leave this special place, but are looking forward to boarding our train to Beijing in the morning.  Internet access is likely to be a bit more ‘few and far’ between, and social media quite restricted, so we wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you!

Sending stories back about our trip has been different for us this time round.  In the past we have sent big round-robin emails, but this time we thought we would blog and see how that went.

I have heard numerous comments from people in the past (not always positive!) about people always putting things on Facebook and Twitter about their travels, so we thought the best thing to do would be to start up ‘The Smart Way Round’ Facebook page.  We invited all of our friends to ‘like’ the page, that way people could either opt in or out of our travel updates.  At the time it all felt rather self-indulgent and like we were promoting ourselves which was not the way it was intended at all!  In short, we were blown away with the response we got so maybe more people are interested in our travels than we first believed!

So above all this is just a big THANK YOU for your support both before and during our journey.  We will continue to post blogs were we can, although it may not be possible to post these on Facebook.  You can always sign up for email updates via ‘The Smart Way Round’ blog page, or alternatively we will be back on Social Media as soon as possible (Dean can’t be parted with Twitter for too long)!

For now, thank you and see you in China (you better pinch me as it doesn’t seem possible)!

– Natalie

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.



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

Adding to the Traveller Tat – when you think of Russian Souvenirs, what do you think of…?

… Russian Dolls (Matryoshka Dolls)!

I have got into a bit of a routine when I go and see Dean in Europe.  He works, I go off shopping.  Now for someone who isn’t really a shopper, it makes it all the better when abroad.  I can buy things guilt free as it’s simply written off as a ‘holiday expense’.  Granted nothing is ever that expensive, but it’s still nice to have something different.

This trip had to be different.  I confidently packed my main back pack and it weighed only 13.7kg – 1.7kg over my normal guidelines, but I decided to live with that given the cold weather stuff in there.  I intended it to stay light.  This meant no shopping.

Dean has a set of Russian dolls depicting former Soviet Leaders,  (given one of his previous blog posts you won’t be surprised!) bought whilst he worked up here and I wanted my own set (purple of course) to sit on the shelf alongside them.

Russian Dolls (Purple!)

Russian Dolls (Purple!)

Why the Dolls though?  Where do they come from and why do people have them? The Matryoshka dolls, or nesting dolls,  were first created in 1890, and were based on the design of wooden dolls from Japan. In 1900 they were awarded the Bronze Medal at the World Exhibition in Paris.  Shortly after this, production of the dolls appeared all across Russia and became a popular gift for any occasion. Now days they come in all shapes and sizes, anything from three dolls to twenty dolls fitting neatly one inside the the other. Soviet politicians, American Presidents, football teams, TV shows and of course the traditional scarfed girls can all be found adorning these dolls around Moscow and St Petersburg today.

We had kept our eyes open as we walked round, but nothing cheap enough, small enough and purple enough had stood out (guess the most important criteria there?!).  Well that was until we took a trip out to the ‘All Russia Expedition Centre’ –  a 2km long and 1 km wide former Communist playground, with masses of buildings and fountains (of course turned off) and wide pedestrian avenues, rich with buildings from yesteryear.  A fascinating place.  Contained within one of these buildings (next to a massive Lenin statue) were the usual array and tourist tat and there we spotted the newest addition to the Smart family!  From looking at the building outside you would never have guess what it housed.  Our purple and black doll!  Best still they don’t weigh much so all we need to do is guard her all the way home, and then place her on our ‘tourist tat’ table at home along with the miniature Pousse Pousee from Madagascar, miniature hat from Lesotho,  miniature beer stein from the Hofbrauhaus – I wont go on!

Outside with my purchase (s)!

Outside with my purchase(s)!

That’s it… no more shopping again now….. for a while…

– Natalie & Dean

P.S Oh and we might have bought my Russian Dolls some friends… Some Russian Christmas Dolls…. Watch out for them in a future blog!

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