Sunday, 11 July 2010

Doings in London

Our last week began in London and like our previous visits in 2006 and 2002, the weather was hot and sticky. Most uncomfortable for sightseeing, and the small friendly hotel we stayed in near Kings Cross did not have airconditioning. (They kindly upgraded the basic fan to a super-charged model though!)

The main reason for a return visit to London was to try and track down some of Peter’s Beckett ancestors who for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to be found earlier than 1871. A morning spent in the LMA (London Metropolitan Archives) only provided details of the death of a Beckett baby, and the possible place of burial for the family (Islington Cemetery, East Finchley). Of course I insisted on travelling there to inspect the registers ourselves rather than paying $90 for a postal request. By the time we paid for Zone 3 return tube tickets, a taxi fare from station to cemetery and return, Peter was muttering that the $90 fee sounded quite reasonable to him. However we duly arrived and were allowed to inspect the registers and what did we discover? Samuel Beckett was there but his wife who died 4 years earlier wasn’t. (What DID they do with her?). Apart from the grave location, no other details were discovered. No other family were there apart from Peter’s paternal grandparents (hidden in a wilderness area). Ah well, the Beckett family enigma continues.

Our second day was devoted to the British Museum, as Peter wanted to see the British-Romano collection, and I was interested in the British Bronze-age, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, etc. etc. artifacts. Both these sections had been closed for renovations during our last visit in 2006. We were not disappointed this time and spent several hours happily browsing the exhibits. Lunch was in the café within the Great Dome, then the trek back to the tube and a late afternoon siesta at the hotel. Decided on an evening meal at the local ‘family’ friendly Irish pub only to discover it packed with people watching the Germany/Spanish FIFA cup match, 99% of whom loudly supported Spain. Who were we seated with? A lone family of Germans!

Our final day was rather busy with visits to several museums. First was the Natural History Museum primarily to see the fossils found by Mary Anning at Lyme, Dorset. (I had recently read Tracy Chevalier’s fascinating “Remarkable Creatures” which tells of the marine reptile fossils found at Lyme, and just had to see for myself these huge skeletons).

Next across the road was the famous Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) with exhibits of art and design. The textile collection was just wonderful – tapestries, lace, woven fabric, carpets, etc., some of which were many hundreds of years old.

Later as Peter finally achieved his wish to travel on the London Eye, I walked around the block and spent several hours visiting the absolutely stunning Westminster Abbey. In the evening, we travelled via tube to the Covent Garden area to the Fortune Theatre to see “The Woman in Black”. Only two actors, but they were able to instil a scary sense of horror in the ghost story. Very well done.

Today, before travelling to Kent for a weekend with our relative, Brenda, we nipped over the road from our hotel to the wonderful British Library. They have a most amazing exhibition of original manuscripts. Some of the items there include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D’arthur (King Arthur) Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's writing desk and handwritten notes, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Captain Scott’s diary (of Antarctic fame) and even the original handwritten lyrics to the Beatles “Yesterday” to name just a few, also some absolutely gorgeously illustrated religious texts, ancient hand-drawn maps and a room devoted solely to Magna Carta. This is a stunning collection and incredibly not too many tourists seem to know about it.

Now we’re at the end of our trip and enjoying a couple of relaxing days before flying home on Monday. So, dear friends who have followed our travel adventures, I am signing off until our next trip. Best wishes to all!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


After hot sunny days on the canal, our arrival in Guernsey was a complete contrast – rain, a cool wind and darkness (early evening). Our hire car this time was a Ford Focus and although we had directions to our St Peter Port hotel from the hire car people at the airport, the combination of darkness, wet unfamiliar roads and strange car made for an ‘interesting’ (read ‘fraught’) beginning to our Channel Island visit. To make matters worse, the roads have French names which change at different sections, and while searching for one street invariably find we’re at the next section. Trying to read maps in the dark by the light of a confused Sat Nav just doesn’t work! (Sat Nav eventually found it wasn’t still in the Hertford area and re-adjusted its thinking).

Anyhow we did arrived at the Pandora Hotel – practically next door to the house once owned by the exiled Victor Hugo (more of that later), and it is very comfortable. I would say it would have been built early last century and it is two buildings made into one hotel. We are in a quite large room on the ground floor however to get to our room from ground floor reception this is the route: Turn left, go down 1 step, walk 10 steps, turn left, down 4 steps, turn right, 2 steps, turn left, down 3 steps, turn right, down 4 steps, turn left, down 7 steps - and finally turn left and we are at our room (still on the ground floor!). The hotel is built on a steep hill and so the adjoining building’s ground floor is much lower than the reception area.

Next morning the weather had cleared and we set out to drive around this exceptionally interesting island. Evidence of the WW2 German occupation was everywhere with concrete installations for gun placements, etc. The massively built underground German hospital was amazing. It was built over 3 years by POW (slave) labour and used also as an ammunition store as well as a hospital. In winter it was dry, but the condensation in summer made the complex so damp, I wonder that the wounded didn’t die of pneumonia. In fact I think it was really only used as a hospital for a matter of months.

Summer in the Channel Islands is delightful though – and the islands are very popular with holiday-makers. St Peter Port (the capital of Guernsey) is very pretty – narrow winding streets of shops clinging to the side of a hill sloping down to a harbour sheltering hundreds of pleasure craft. From the higher lookouts the views are stupendous – ancient buildings with stunning gardens and hundreds of hanging flower baskets of riotous colour with the gorgeous azure sea dotted with islands (Herm and Sark quite close by). Outside St Peter Port, country villages have ancient stone cottages or white painted homes and are ablaze with summer flowers and always close by is the sea.

On Sunday we caught a ferry to Sark and after about an hour came to this very interesting little island only about 3 miles around. There are no cars on the island, but tractors pull ‘carriage’ loads of boat passengers up the very steep road to the village. There are a row of small shops – souvenir, craft, bike hire, cafes, etc. Also waiting are horse-drawn carriages which we were happy to board for a leisurely 2 hour clip-clop around the island. We stopped occasionally for short walks to scenic spots including the connecting ‘bridge’ to Little Sark – originally bombed by the Germans, but re-built after the war by German prisoners. About 600 people live on Sark with farming, fishing and tourism the only livelihoods. The scenery surrounding the island is quite spectacular and the lush green of the gardens and small fields very pretty. It really is no wonder it is a popular place to visit.

On Monday we visited the St Peter Port house of Victor Hugo who had been exiled from France to the Channel Islands with his wife and two of his adult children (his mistress lived just down the road!). From the outside it looks like any other large Guernsey home. In the inside it is another story altogether. When he wasn’t writing, he was designing and supervising the décor of the house. No expense was spared (his books sold well), but he also scoured the local secondhand dealers and ancient carved chests, tables, etc., were bought, dismantled and incorporated into the built-in furniture. Paintings, Gobelin tapestries on the walls AND ceilings and priceless Dutch wall tiles were used. Some rooms were very dark with black wood panelling and decoration, and then the next room would be light and airy although still most unusually decorated. The contrasts were most evident unlike the hidden doors and passageways connecting and hiding fixtures and other small rooms (one for developing photographs). We have never seen anything quite like it and we’re sure we’ll never see another like it again. Just astonishing.

There were two other ‘must-see’ places to visit – the first to the German Occupation Museum which told the story of events during WW2 when Germany invaded the only part of the British Isles they could. It was interesting to read articles and view the items collected from that dark period of wartime. I found it fascinating to see how the Island people coped and the hardships they endured when food was in extremely short supply.

The next place to visit was the Guernsey Tapestry – beautiful embroidered panels about 1.5 metres by 1 metre with each panel covering a century and stitched by members of each area of the Island. It was instigated as a Millennium project and all 10 panels took two years to complete. It is a simply stunning work of art.

We loved Guernsey and were sad to leave just as we were getting to know our way around. Would very much like to return one day and perhaps go to Jersey as well.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

To Hertford via Narrowboat

I must tell you about almost losing our passports. When staying in Paisley, we made sure our passports were safely held in the Hotel’s safe. They were still safely there after we checked out and had travelled many hours down to England. However there is nothing that induces instant insomnia so much as to be awakened by husband at 4 am swearing: “Oh S***! I forgot to pick up the passports before we left!”. Problem was solved next morning by phoning the hotel and asking them to send them by registered post to our next port of call – the Broxbourne based Lea Valley Boat Hire company. Bless them, they posted them off that day, then phoned us to say they were in the hands of the Royal Mail and would be delivered in good time for us to collect them. Disaster averted.Whew.

We then had three visits to different relatives in two days which was a nice experience. All were Peter’s relatives – the first were some Becketts living in Norfolk who kindly loaned us an album of old family photos, and some other Leylands who also lived nearby. All very friendly folk pleased to meet for the first time some of the family from the other side of the world. The last visit was to Bert & Win (cousins of Peter’s father) whom we have known and visited for quite a number of years. Bert has a wicked sense of humour and it is always fun to spend some time and share a meal with him and Win.

Family visits over, we fronted up on Monday morning at the Lee Valley Boat Hire company in Broxbourne to begin our 5 day narrowboat experience (and to pick up our passports!).We had lived in Hertford for several years in the early 1970s, and decided this would be a great way to travel back to our old home. Leaving Broxbourne after some instruction, we slowly motored the Amelia along the Lee Navigational Canal. Broxbourne is only about 4 miles from Hertford, but there are 7 locks to negotiate and all take considerable time and muscle power. The top speed of the boat is only 4 miles/hour, so it is an extremely leisurely and relaxing way to travel through some very pretty countryside. We managed 4 locks on the first day and then tied up along the bank by some trees for the night. Next morning we felt more confident at the opening and operating of the various locks and so eventually sailed into a very nice mooring right in the middle of Hertford. The town’s layout is still the same as ever but many of the businesses we knew had gone whilst some were still operating in the same shops as they did in the 1970s. We are moored right beside the Old Barge Pub on Folly Island, and so walked precisely 10 steps to the pub for our evening meal. Afterwards when we strolled around the small island, the town’s church bell-ringers practiced their chimes. Such a lovely summer evening and a perfect way to end our first day’s return to lovely Hertford.

Next morning we walked about 20 minutes across Hartham Common and up a small hill to Bengeo where the lovely, ancient St Leonard’s church has been a place of worship for over 1,000 years. It has the oldest hung door (Saxon) in the country. We knew it well from the early 1970s, so it was on our ‘must visit’ list this trip to see how it was faring. We had made prior contact with one of the ‘Friends of St.Leonards’ and met her there for an inside viewing. We’re pleased to say that the little church is now very well maintained (and loved) with weekly Sunday services throughout summer and they hold concerts and weekend events to raise money to keep it in wonderful order.

Leaving Hertford and travelling back along the canal, we passed many other narrowboats – some moored and others that were travelling the canals and so well maintained they were the homes of some people. One couple cruised the canals of England during the summer months from May to September, then left their narrowboat for winter and went to India for a few months. They had been living this way for 7 years!

Tomorrow we’re off to Guernsey!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Scotland and back to England

After a stopover at a very nice B&B outside Penrith, we continued towards Paisley arriving early on Saturday afternoon. We are now comfortably installed in the Watermill Hotel close to the centre of Paisley and only a 10 minute walk to the Local History Studies Library. I spent only a couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon and found quite a lot of information on John Lang & Sons, a family company founded in 1874 and which had become famous for the manufacture of lathes. (Lang’s for Lathes). Another family company was J & W Weems who were plumbers of note starting up around 1850. John Weems was quite an inventor even demonstrating one of his inventions to Queen Victoria at a London Exhibition and eventually going to Russia to install heating in Royal residences.

On Sunday, we went to Kilbarchan where early members of the Lang family were handloom weavers. There is a National Trust cottage there that has been a weaver’s cottage for several hundred years. The volunteer guides were a mine of information and I was surprised to learn that weavers were considered to be ‘well off’ people and quite clever. To set up a hand loom takes about 20 hours and a good knowledge of mathematics is needed. As a result many weavers believed in getting a good education for their children. It’s not so surprising then that the John Lang who began his engineering works was a son of a Kilbarchan handloom weaver.

Four days in Paisley saw us cemetery searching, entertaining relatives to afternoon tea and extracting copies of old photos from them, and museum visiting (the small Johnstone Local History Museum was incorporated in a recent supermarket (Morrisons) development and very nice it is too). Three separate visits to the Paisley Local History Library resulted in enough research to keep me happy organising it all when we get home.

A long drive south saw us arrive at Appleby-in-Westmorland, a very pretty little village and we found overnight accommodation at The Limes B&B (prop. Mrs Orange!) a short distance out of town. Next morning an hour or so driving saw us arrive in York and a very enjoyable visit to the National Rail Museum (free entry). Again, we had an overnight B&B for Peter to return in the morning for more technical viewing and for me to browse the lovely shops of York.

Must say we have met some lovely people on our travels – all have been interested in our travels and especially about Australia. One nice lady who had been to Australia told us “Well, we enjoyed your country, so please enjoy ours!”

In the afternoon more driving southwards and we are now in the Youth Hostel at Hunstanton on the north coast of Norfolk – and what do you eat at an English seaside? A fish & chips supper, of course! On the subject of Youth Hostels, we have been surprised at how expensive it is to stay in them these days. Our very basic room with bunks and a cracked window at Hunstanton Youth Hostel cost 40 pounds plus 5 pounds each for a rather lacklustre breakfast. Three-star B&Bs average 55-60 pounds and for this you get a very comfortable big bed (which you don’t have to make yourself), your own spotless ensuite, TV, and a deliciously huge and well-cooked breakfast. No contest really!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

To England

Flew to Manchester and arrived late afternoon in cloudy, drizzly weather, picked up our luggage, passed through customs and immigration in record time and collected our hire car. Expecting a Ford Focus, we were surprised to get a Mercedes! Don’t all faint – it is a small silver wedge-nosed diesel slightly smaller than my Peugeot. We had booked into a small 2-star hotel for 3 nights, however on arrival were told “Oh sorry – we’re full, but we have another hotel nearby where you can stay”. Proceeded to it to find not a 2-star but, we’d say, a minus 2-star. In other words, a dump. It was late, so we stayed the night and left next day. As we were heading to the Nelson area, we booked into one of the cottages at Pendle Inn in Barley. Beautiful peaceful countryside lushly green right near Pendle Hill (witches!) and villages nearby where Peter’s maternal family lived in past years.

Do you want to know about our first exciting day in England? Well we spent our first morning in a Monumental Mason’s showroom organising a headstone for Peter’s grandparents’ grave in Nelson, and then visiting the site in Nelson cemetery. Moved on to St.John’s churchyard to try to find Joseph Henry Leyland’s gravesite and became the centre of attention ourselves when a group of schoolchildren with their teachers on community work clearing weeds, discovered we were Australians. The teachers were more than ready to indulge in a long chat whilst the kids quickly took advantage and downed tools! Once they learnt who we were searching for, the kids spread out and within a few minutes had located the grave for us. It was a really nice interlude, though, and we promised to write to the school commending their work.

Anyhow – the two days following were just lovely. The weather had improved, and let me tell you that there is nothing more beautiful than small English villages set in idyllic countryside in early summer. Roadside verges were pretty with buttercups, Queen Anne's Lace, occasional bright red poppies and drifts of marguerite daisies. When we visited Skipton it was abuzz with market day activities and everyone (it seemed) was there.

As we had discovered Leyland relatives last year, we drove to Darlington to at last meet them. Anne is Peter’s second cousin and they kindly asked us to stay overnight. We had a lovely time talking about family and gaining new information to add to our research. In the morning Anne and her husband Graham drove us around other areas in Wensleydale where Leylands had lived. We shouted them lunch at the ancient Rose & Crown Inn in Bainbridge (built 1445!). After affectionate farewells later in the afternoon, we continued our journey north to Scotland.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Copenhagen, Denmark

We arrived at St.Peterburg airport and while waiting discovered two other Australians who had also come over by Trans-Siberian train – but with another company. I think they had a difficult journey, as food was not included and they had to either take their own (packet soup/noodles) or buy from food-sellers on railway platforms as the food available on the train was not recommended! They didn’t seem to have as many stops and tours as we did either.

A two hour flight brought us to Denmark and we arrived late afternoon at a very nice small hotel – the Savoy (art deco architecture) – quite near the centre of Copenhagen. Weather had been gorgeous in Russia and flying south we expected continued warm weather. Not so! Copenhagen weather was changeable to say the least – blue sky and sunshine/dark clouds/cold winds/showers repeated throughout the two days. It didn’t stop our sightseeing though and the first morning saw us on board a double-decker coach for a “Grand Copenhagen tour” which was a good way to find your bearings in a new city. Outside Amalienborg Palace we watched the changing of the guards in the drizzly rain. We had a full coach load of assorted nationalities, but again discovered we were the only Aussies when the guide talked about the Royal family and the marriage of the Crown Prince to Mary Donaldson from Tasmania. “Any Australians in the group?” she asked and of course Peter had to own up. Much laughter and smiles from all and we then struck up a conversation with an American couple who later showed us a lovely old restaurant (Nytorv built in 1798) which served excellent meals. We ended up having lunch with them, and later dessert and wonderful hot chocolate at another café. We spent a bit of time (and money) buying a few souvenirs and little t-shirts for the grandsons, and eventually made out way back to our hotel.

This morning (Sunday), church bells rang out, and after breakfast we attended a service at a nearby church. We could not understand a word, but enjoyed listening to the Word spoken in Danish, and were welcomed to take communion also. A very nice choir sang beautifully, but I would estimate there were only about 40 worshippers.

Next off to the Danish National Museum for several hours looking at the fascinating Danish pre-history and Viking exhibits. Many other exhibits were on other floors and a full day could easily be spent there. We continued walking in the city centre and decided a “Hop on/hop off” canal boat ride would be a good way to go. At one of the stops (Nyhavn) we had Danish hotdogs for lunch – very yummy. After several hours we disembarked at a different stop and almost got lost walking back. Footsore and late in the afternoon we came to the same restaurant where we had had lunch yesterday, and decided to have an early dinner there today. (I wonder if gt.grandfather might have had a farewell drink there before he left for Australia in 1860!) For dinner we both had the same dish advertised on the menu as ‘traditional Danish’ - roast pork with red cabbage, baby potatoes, gravy and a side serve of salad. It was absolutely delicious. We added an apple cake with cream dessert, and walked back to our hotel very well satisified.

Our two days in Copenhagen really isn’t enough and I shall be sorry to leave tomorrow for England. The lovely old Danish buildings are a delight to the eye, but the modern glass buildings near the harbour not so appealing to us. The new opera house – built by the wealthy Maersk family looks to be outstanding. All we have seen and everyone we’ve met here have been so lovely and as most Danish speak English, it has been easy for us to communicate.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Last Days in Russia

We had a morning free in Moscow before our train left for St. Petersburg at 4.30pm, so decided to try our skills on the Moscow Metro and travel to Gorky Park (an amusement park which is mentioned in Martin Cruz Smith’s great thriller novel “Gorky Park”). We got instructions from the hotel concierge for directions to the nearest Metro station about 10 minutes’ walk, and then descended down the longest escalator ever to the trains. The lines were colour-coded, but should we board a left-bound or right-bound train? Our knowledge of Russian Cyrillic is non-existent, but a local woman kindly pointed out the right train for us. About 20 minutes and five stations on, we alighted and on reaching ground level, found that Gorky Park was about another 20 minute walk. It is quite a large park with gardens, shady trees and lots of amusements for both children and adults. Instead of pony rides, there were reindeer rides! Being early in the week, it wasn’t crowded and we enjoyed walking around and then sitting and ‘people-watching’ before an uneventful return journey to our hotel.

Our way to St. Petersburg was by a very fast train taking only 4¼ hours to travel 712 kilometres. We reached speeds of over 200kms per hour. Our hotel here is the Ibis and considerably down-market in comparison to Moscow’s Renaissance 5 star that the Zarengold agents had booked us in for our last night of Trans-Siberian tour. Still, the small room and basic facilities has one advantage – free wireless internet connection! We’ve made the most of using it for email and Skype-ing family.

Our first day of sightseeing was a half-day city tour and as we were the only ones, we had our own driver and English-speaking guide. Chauffeured in a new Renault Megane Extreme (nice car!) through the heavy traffic, we were taken to all the major sites and, like Moscow, St Petersburg is a truly amazing city. Gorgeous architecture, brilliantly decorated and painted, parks with shady birch and larch trees and, at the moment, lilac trees in full and perfumed bloom. Eventually we came to the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great, with its beautifully restored Cathedral housing the last resting places of most of the Tsars through the ages. It also has a small chapel where the remains of the last of the Romanovs (Tsar Nicholas II and family) finally rest after being exhumed at Yekaterinburg. We had a late lunch before returning to our hotel for a siesta.

Today – our last day in Russia and we couldn’t have had a more gorgeous day for visiting the Hermitage Museum. It is an absolutely astonishing place – architecture and interiors are jaw-dropping, and the collections of treasures also kept the jaw well-dropped! Every room we entered had me saying again and again “Oohhh, wowwww!” We had our English-speaking guide from yesterday and she was great at avoiding queues and guiding us to the best of the treasures on display. Even so, we only saw a minute part of the whole complex of buildings that make up the Hermitage. Art works included two Leonardo DaVinci paintings, and numerous old Masters – Renoir, Botticelli, Titian, Michaelangelo and Rembrandt (25!!) amongst thousands of others, also fabulous marble statues, tapestries, lacework and fabrics (some dating from the 14th century), crystal, mosaic floors and also incredible pin-point mosaic ‘paintings’, Etruscan pottery, Egyptian antiquities, etc. etc. When Catherine the Great went shopping, she didn’t just buy one artwork, she bought whole collections and then built another sumptuous building to house them all. We have never seen anything like it. We had a late lunch at the Hermitage café, and reluctantly left to join a canal and river cruise through the city. It was a lovely day and we saw the beautiful buildings at their best and heard the stories about them as we cruised along. Before returning to our hotel we visited a gift/souvenir store and purchased our souvenirs of a wonderful trip to an intriguing and beautiful country.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

From Lake Baikal to Moscow

Since my last posting, we have certainly travelled far. After leaving our picnic spot by Lake Baikal, we travelled to Irkutsk for a day’s city and surrounds tour and an overnight stay in an hotel. We were taken to a Dacha to have lunch with a family in their summer home. They cooked for about 20 of us and made us very welcome. Delicious soup, salad, pork, followed by little choux pastry shells (as we would have for cream puffs), into which you spoon home-made jam or some of their fragrant local honey. Absolutely lovely. We have been very impressed with the food through this trip, it has been very well cooked and presented, even the depressing sounding Cabbage Soup was so nice, I wanted the recipe.
We next went to a wooden house museum with houses, farm buildings and small chapels of various sorts through the ages – some had been moved and re-erected on the site and were hundreds of years old. Very strongly built with logs (larch – which is very hard and durable) and some windows were of mica (before glass was available).

We had a quick stop at a fish market with smoked fish for sale, but there were also some stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs and I bought 2 soft brushes for the grandsons and a few other small souvenirs.

Overnight stop was in an hotel and we had a large spacious room but best of all we were able to connect to the internet and spoke to Rohan (and our dog, Jessie) via Skype, and managed eventually to transfer these notes to the blog. By the time we had got connected, it was late evening and so we missed Claire, but phoned her next morning.

Cashmere – Just realised that I missed mentioning the excursion to the Cashmere factory in Ulaan Baator. The goats in this cold region grow a very soft, fine fur in Autumn to help insulate their coat throughout the harsh winter. In Spring this is combed out by the people and processed at various factories in Mongolia. We visited the Gojo factory and saw the raw product in the various processes through to the finished garment. I was impressed with the various styles and ranges of items – all very stylish and even more impressed with the prices. They were incredibly cheap. I bought a lovely pale green wrap pure cashmere cardigan for the equivalent of $80 Australian. I would be lucky to pay four times as much at home.

The train continued across Siberia, and we were entertained by talks about Siberian life and lessons in speaking Russian. Also vodka and caviar tastings! By now we had got to know quite well the original 12 English speaking passengers and were beginning to know the additional 10 who joined us at Irkutsk (they had flown from England to Moscow and then on to Irkutsk to join the train). Visits to each others’ cabins and comparisons were great fun and we do have a very happy bunch. (The remaining 250+ passengers were German – and we always knew when it was mealtime without checking our watches, by the steady stream of Germans marching by our cabin to the restaurant cars five minutes before the scheduled time!)

Novosibirsk was reached late afternoon and we were welcomed with a traditional offering of bread and salt and a performance of folk dancing. We had a quick 2 hour city tour arranged for us, but the train fanatics (6) had discovered a model train museum nearby and petitioned Hans, the tour director, to go there instead. One very puzzled Russian guide was appointed for them and was much relieved when an English-speaking guide turned up also. The rest of the group were ferried around the typical Russian city by coach.

That evening back on the train, an impromptu vodka-drinking party was arranged in carriage 12 for the English speaking group. Much bonding with jokes and laughter over a variety of vodkas and everyone rolled back to their cabins very merry and very late.

This morning – another talk on Russian life and the sad story of the murder of the Romanovs in Yekateringburg in 1918. In the afternoon we arrived in the city and began our city tour. The house amongst tall trees where the murders occurred was demolished in 1977 prior to this it had been a Museum of Atheism. When the bodies were discovered and identified, a massive cathedral was built on the site (Cathedral of the Blood). Extravagantly decorated with side rooms devoted to photos of the Romanovs, it has a steady stream of visitors reverently filing through. Outside on the wide steps and terraces surrounding the cathedral were many brides and grooms posing for photographers. All had been married in a civil ceremony elsewhere but came to this grand edifice to record the event.

Leaving Yekateringburg in early evening, as we passed through the Ural Mountains (not very high at all), we officially travelled from Siberia to European Russia – to cheers and toasts from the Europeans and bemused reaction by us.

Next day we arrived at Kazan, the old Tatar capital on the banks of the massively wide Volga River. This city has a Kremlin (Kremlin means ‘fort’) and is one of the many other Russian cities with a Kremlin. Kazan has a European feel to it with more substantial buildings and a tidier and better kept city centre. On the schedule was an hour long boat ride on the river, but as we walked down to the river-side misty rain began, the sky darkened and the river which looked more like an inland sea, turned very choppy. Nevertheless we had our boat ride – all 270 of us on a pleasure boat huddled inside while the rain lashed at the windows and visibility practically nil! By the time we returned the sky had cleared somewhat (as it would!), and a light drizzle remained.

Our last night on the train was tinged with sadness as most of us would be either flying home from Moscow or going on our separate ways for the remainder of our holidays. We all lingered over dinner talking about our trip and how much we had enjoyed it.

On Sunday 6 June at 11.40am we arrived in Moscow, said our farewells to the train staff who had looked after us so well, and piled into coaches for a city tour of Moscow. First stop – the Kremlin, of course, and the collection of historic buildings and churches within. Gorgeous blue sky weather showed off this quite lovely area. The Tsars lived at the Kremlin and we visited one beautiful, ancient little church where they worshipped. Other buildings within the complex were more recent (only a hundred or so years old), and now housed various government departments. Lined up and displayed against one building were hundreds of cannons captured from Napoleon’s army in 1812.

After lunch and a little more city touring, we arrived at our hotel – the Renaissance hotel (built for the 1980 Olympics but modernised extensively in the past 2 years). We have a nice spacious room on the ninth floor with big comfortable beds and all mod.cons. It seems huge after our little cabin on the train with narrow beds. We had a few hours to settle in and then a farewell dinner for all our fellow passengers on the Zarengold journey.

Following dinner we were taken on an evening tour of the city and as it is still so light at this time of the year, it didn’t darken until about 9.30 and then it was a long twilight. Moscow is surprisingly beautiful; we expected more basic box-like buildings, but it is just so lovely with ‘pretty buildings’ (our guide’s expression) everywhere. We travelled on the Metro underground built some 50 or so years ago to view the interiors of underground stations surely the most lovely – marbled and frescoed. Eventually we came up and walked to the massively wide Red Square and the absolutely beautiful (bizarrely so), St Basil’s Cathedral. It was just stunning, flood light on the painted, twisted ‘onion’ domes and backlit by very dark clouds. To me it was the absolute pinnacle of visiting Moscow and to walk through the middle of Red Square and around the Cathedral in the late evening was quite an experience.

The many well kept parks and gardens in Moscow compliment the beautiful old buildings. Some in the city centre were being repaired and were covered on the front wall with a mesh printed with a depiction of the actual building. This hid the scaffolding and repair work, and at first glance just looked like a natural part of the surrounding buildings - a very nice idea.

The churches and cathedrals were jaw-dropping. Religion might have been banned in the Soviet era, but there has been a resurgence since and massive amounts of money have been poured into restoration and the building of new churches. Older ones could be quite dark but still extravagantly painted and decorated, whilst newer churches (the massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was built only in the past 20 years) are light and bright – still extraordinarily decorated obviously at vast expense.

This morning we had a daylight tour around Moscow, again to Red Square and St.Basil’s, but at the weather was overcast and drizzling, not quite as romantic as it was at night. With rain threatening, we were happy to visit the famous GUM 19th century shopping arcade. Much bigger than I expected, it is now getting to house many up-market shops. Great to browse but it would make a dint in your wallet to do any serious shopping. Lunchtime saw us giving fond farewells to the remaining members of our English-speaking group (the others had left for the airport just after breakfast), and making our way back to the hotel for our second night here.

Next stop – St. Petersburg.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Seven Days’ Worth

Well, this is the first chance we’ve had to add to the blog. Temporarily off the train in a hotel so taking advantage of our hotel in Irkutsk in Siberia. Here goes:

Visa problems finally sorted out on the Monday/Tuesday, so on Tuesday afternoon we finally left for our trip. We had a very short few hours in Beijing before joining the Zarengold (Tsar’s Gold) group. There are about 170 Germans and a small group of 12 English speakers. An interesting collection we are! Two Finns, 2 Chinese Canadians, 2 Americans (New Yorkers), 2 English, 1 Dane, 1 older American gentleman, and we 2 Australians!

We began our trip from Beijing in the evening of our arrival in China travelling to the Mongolian border overnight and once through border formalities in Erlian, we visited a huge dinosaur ‘cemetery’. The area surrounding it is marked with enormous full-sized replicas of many different dinosaurs placed quite widely on the plains both sides of the road. There must have been well over a hundred placed randomly and with pre-historic trees dotted around the effect was excellent. While we were bussed around, our luggage was transferred to the Zarengold train. In the evening, at the railway station we were treated to a performance by two young men gorgeously dressed playing Mongolian fiddles and throat singing.  It was an incredible sound they produced and the music ethereal – so much a part of the countryside. The Gobi Desert is not like the Sahara – more like a vast dry plain with very sparse vegetation. The capital, Ulaan Baatar, was interesting - it has much development and building although some of the massive buildings are left unfinished due to the global financial crisis.

It was the final day of the school year and graduating students were bussed around the city to the high lookout places for celebrations. All were dressed up in suits and good clothes with a small bunch of bells pinned to their lapel signifying the ‘last bell’ of their school days. Much laughter and smiles and photo-taking. I was amused to see even here the habit of cheeky schoolboys posing with two fingers held up behind their friend’s head.

After a visit to a Temple, and a late afternoon show of musicians, singers and contortionists (arriving 10 minutes late because of a traffic jam!), four of us travelled to the countryside to spend the night in a Mongolian ger (or yurt). An astonishing beautiful place with rock formations and such peace and quiet! Dinner was served about 9pm and it was still reasonably light – a long twilight! Our ger was warm from a very efficient little stove – so much so that at 11pm, we were gasping and opening the door to let out some of the heat. The fabric of the ger was two layers of felt, one of plastic, then another layer of felt all covered with canvas and bound around the diameter with thick straps. The top of the ger was anchored down with ropes attached to large rocks. The ger was simply but comfortably furnished with three single beds (softer than the train’s), a small chest, a little table complete with a candle for light. Slept very well and woke early with light coming through the round opening in the centre of the roof. The scenery was absolutely stunning with wide open places with high rock formations surrounded the ger camp. The silence was absolute and the blue sky and fresh breeze restored the senses.

The rest of the tour group arrived around lunchtime and we all ate together in a large round dining room. Mutton cooked in a large pot in its own juices was served – tasted slightly fatty but with a different taste – supposedly from the natural herbs that the sheep had eaten.

In the afternoon we were treated to a mini Naadam festival with archery, horse & camel riding. Also a race with young children as jockeys on the small, tough Mongolian ponies. They raced furiously about 3 kilometres back to where we were and we were surprised at just how young the kids were. One, I’m sure, would only have been 4 years old.

During the bus trip back to Ulaan Bataar we stopped to visit a traditional home of a nomadic family. A young couple with a daughter about 3 and a baby. The ger was spotlessly and very neatly kept. We were served a snack of milky tea, dried kurd and a form of Mongolian soft biscuit. It was the family’s summer ger so didn’t have power for a washing machine, etc. which they have at their winter place where electricity is available. They did have a solar panel which powered a small TV and lighting but otherwise a small central wood stove provided heat for cooking. Furniture was traditional and painted with brightly coloured flower designs. Only 2 beds so children slept on bedding on the floor. As we left, the father arrived home – not on a pony but on a motorbike - to farewell us. At the rear of the ger was parked an old model Mercedes car! Nevertheless it would be a hard life, I think. Some nomads pack up the ger and move with the seasons, but this family only moved in summer and winter.

Said a regretful goodbye to our Mongolian guide and boarded the train again after a restaurant dinner and folk music/dance show. Very early next morning we reached the Mongolian/Russian border where the Russian formalities took several hours. Eventually we were allowed to proceed and in the afternoon pulled into the station at Ulaan Ude in Siberia. We had a short city tour with a local guide and a walk around the historic ‘tea-market’ area. Architecture has begun to take on the typical Russian style – unpainted wooden houses with brightly painted window shutters. Older Soviet industrial buildings were mostly dilapidated and abandoned – hundreds of them!

Lake Baikal

Arrived about 6pm and our first walk around was at Port Baikal – a moderate size village right on the lake. A cruise on the lake for an hour in lovely sunny weather but with a bitterly cold wind. The train then moved on around the lake to a position at 110km for the barbecue/picnic dinner outside. A beautiful spot with a small beach to the lake. However any thoughts of a swim vanished with the sight of icebergs floating around. A nice hot day but the ice still hadn’t melted even by the last day of Spring. A few hardy souls braved the freezing water including Anna (the Finnish lady) from our English speaking group. She didn’t stay in long though! Walking back around to the other side of the train we were able to stroll though the small village and were invited in to see her home by an older Russian lady. She looked about 70 but her daughter said she was 84. Neither mother nor daughter could speak English but with lots of smiles and sign language, we communicated. Another English couple and we two were invited to share a glass of vodka followed by a piece of tomato or cucumber. We managed it! Then a few photos and a promise to send copies to them. It was just a lovely experience. The house basic but warmly heated, certainly no mod-cons., only a small TV in the corner.

We made it back to the barbecue to find we were the last and only a small serving each remained (the meat was delicious!), but our meeting with the Russian women was well worth the smaller plate of food!

A piano-accordionist played and sang Russian music and later played some German songs for the German contingent to their delight. Some partied, some walked around the area, some sat and looked at the changing patterns on the lake and river and enjoyed the overwhelming peace and beauty. It was a most enjoyable experience and we loved it.
Walked back through the carriages to ours (carriage 5), and was surprised at the different quality of accommodation in some of them. There are 3 dining cars; two of which are quite dark and sombre in décor, but again we struck lucky and ours is a light and bright cream colour and quite lovely. We really seemed to have got an excellent cabin as well – better than most. Even the pricier Bolshoi class we sneaked a look at, didn’t really seem as nice as ours however they do have their own bathroom and toilet. We have to walk 20 steps to the end of the corridor for our shower/toilet. Not a problem at all.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Beginning - eventually!

Well, the last thing we thought we'd be doing on the second day of our Chinese/Mongolian/Russian tour would be sitting in a cinema at Northland watching "Robin Hood"!

Discovered on checking in at the airport on Sunday afternoon that the company arranging our visas had blundered by getting our Chinese visas too early (in February) and they expired the day BEFORE our flight. Result - two very annoyed would-be passengers forced to stay another 2 days in order to apply for current visas. Arghhh. Just as well our travel agents were Jetset Ivanhoe (aka Pauline Cove, my sister) and she and b.i.l. Andrew pulled out all stops to fix the situation. I'm sure we all have a few more grey hairs as a result.

We are now in Singapore waiting for our flight to Beijing in several hours. We'll arrive early morning and will catch the Chinese train to take us to the Mongolian border late afternoon the same day. Missed 2 days of sightseeing around Beijing and the Great Wall, but we visited China in 2002 so although disappointed at missing the start of the tour, we have seen the sights before.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Huon is here enjoying a visit to his grandparents.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

East Gippsland Hols

Four grey, rainy days at Bemm River was quite enough, thank you! We decided to upstakes and so came back to Lakes Entrance. Weather improved dramatically immediately!

Bemm River - very quiet, but very lovely with much native vegetation and tall trees surrounding the inlet. Very much a fishing village with not a lot otherwise. Had a meal at the pub one night and the only other business seemed to be a bait shop cum emergency food shop. Spent several days just reading and stitching waiting for the rain to stop. At night television was limited - reception bad, and strangely channels 9 and 7 were from Sth.Australia/Northern Territory and Queensland. Had advertisements from Alice Springs, Katherine, etc. Very odd.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

This blog is to keep family and friends informed when we are on the move - an online diary, if you like.