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.