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Central Asia Part One: Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway

Tajikistan  Pamir Highway Fortress Dushanbe 7

I was ready for a change. Getting to Tajikistan was a nice change of pace after practically living in Moscow for 3 weeks, and having spent 3 months in Russia. Different atmosphere, different culture. Much less developed, but with friendly people and beautiful scenery. It’s the land of naan bread and cucumber & tomato salad, headscarves, traditional culture, and the famous Pamir Highway, a route carved out through dramatic mountains leading from Tajikistan to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

I spent five days in Dushanbe, a comparatively underdeveloped but nice capital with just one real hostel that was recently established. There, all the travellers gathered in the common room and swapped stories and tips, which I appreciated, having just arrived.

There’s a strong “trail” in the region, meaning that people you meet in one city you’re likely to meet in another. There are comparatively few travellers in the region, but also few backpacker-style hostels, so everyone winds up at the same places. I often walked around the city with other travellers, ate food, including a vegetarian national dish called Qurutob, and learned more about the local culture.

Since Tajikistan, and all the other “stans” are Muslim countries, you see a wide variety of headscarves, and the traditional Tajik dress of the women, which consists of a colourful patterned gown worn over (usually) matching trousers (pictured). Almost all the women had long, long hair, since apparently it’s bad luck for a women to cut her hair. One of my best friends is known for her really long hair, but she’d be just another girl in Tajikistan!

Unlike those of the rest of the ‘stans, the Tajik language is actually related to Farsi. The other languages in the region are Turkic. In Dushanbe I met a number of people who were studying Farsi there because the Iranian visa is so difficult to get. Tajik culture also shares similarities to neighbouring Afghanistan, and to Iran.

Tajikistan  Pamir Highway Close to Dushanbe 5

The most-travelled section of the Pamir Highway, by backpackers anyway, leads from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, to the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, mostly following the M41. The scenery changes along the way, from green hills (pictured) to dramatically steep cliffs surrounding the river that runs along the Tajik/Afghan border, vast, flat desert, and multicoloured mountains nearing the Kyrgyz border. My tour took the slow route, with many stops and an overnight at beautiful Karakol lake. The first day was the green hills, ending with a home stay/guesthouse with delicious food. My two travel companions were a Russian women who loved mountains, and a Spanish guy living and working in Belgium. None of us knew each other beforehand, we just connected through the internet to share the cost of the tour. We got along fine, though we did have some very opinionated political debates. Luckily we had a very comfortable Land Cruiser for the tour, and since there were only three of us there was plenty of space to spread out.

Tajikistan  Traditional Pamir House 3

Most of the homestays we slept in were traditional Pamiri houses, the design of which incorporates Islamic and Zoroastrian elements. A skylight (pictured) represents all the natural elements, with fire being the highest, touched by the sun. There are 5 pillars in the room itself that represent the five members of Ali’s family in Islam. Knowing what the architecture represents makes sleeping under the skylight a very interesting experience. The Pamir people are mostly Ismaili, a very relaxed branch of Islam, but before that there was Zoroastrian, still a very important part of the culture.

The homestays were family-run, and by family-run I mean by the entire family. Many generations, children running around, and some of the friendliest, most welcoming people in the world. Since we were on a tour, our guide did all the translation necessary, and took us for walks around some of the villages. Often we were followed by curious children, which was more annoying to me than cute, though luckily the children at the homestays were used to foreigners and were much less impressed by our foreign-ness.

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Other sites along the Pamir Highway were Zoroastrian shrines, characterised by the presence of Ibex horns and other important symbols of purity. I wish I’d had more time to learn about Zoroastrianism and see more of the shrines. These predate Islam, conjuring images of sacred fire rituals, and make for great photography! We also got to stop at the museum of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani, who was a Sufi / Ismaili mystic, and whose house museum was a great exhibit of Pamiri culture, with traditional house elements, textiles and households objects. He was also an astronomer, and outside the museum is a stone solar calendar.

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For part of the Pamir Highway, we followed the river that divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Valley. The above picture is of a bridge that connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This river, at some parts only a few metres wide, is an arbitrary border that cut in half the Pamiri people, so the Afghans on the other side are not the same culturally as their compatriots from Kabul or other parts of Afghanistan. What you can see is the difference in development on either side of the river: power lines, running water and mostly paved (if not in great condition) roads on the Tajik side, and almost nothing on the Afghan but mud huts and gravel/dirt roads. Power mostly comes from portable batteries and generators.

On the Tajik side the infrastructure isn’t that great. Sometimes that means that there’s only electricity in the evening from a generator or solar panels, and that you wouldn’t want to drink the water, but if you’re coming from the Afghan side, being in Tajikistan is like 5-star luxury. Squat toilets are common, but if you’ve been travelling long enough you just get used to them and are quite happy to see a sit-down toilet whenever you get back to the city.

Tajikistan  Murghab to Karakul 10

Gradually the population changed. As we got closer to the Kyrgyz border, we stayed in places where the population was mostly ethnically Kyrgyz, to the point where our guide said that if they needed to visit a doctor, they’d cross the border into Kyrgyzstan rather than go to the capital of Tajikistan… because they don’t even speak Tajik in these towns. The borders in Central Asia are some of the most messed-up you can find, almost arbitrarily drawn to divide cultures and keep people fighting each other inside of uniting. There are a number of enclaves around, e.g. a small Uzbek enclave inside neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Go look at a map and you’ll see what I mean.

Murghab, a dusty town over halfway through our trip, was almost entirely Kyrgyz, and was also where the majority of the Pamir tour guides were from. When we were there, our guide was stopped and greeted by many of the people on the street, and while we stayed in our homestay he was visiting his family. Unfortunately, my companions at this point were sick from the day before, and then our poor guide got sick as well that night. That day, and the next, were lazy and uneventful because of that.

After Murghab, we crossed over the highest mountain pass, at 4655 metres (pictured above), which is high, but not the highest I’ve been (that’s somewhere around 6,000 metres in Bolivia). Above 3,000 metres is when I get sick from the altitude, and that was about 3-4 days into the trip. After I finally acclimatised, being at around 4,000 at Karakol was the same as 3,000.

Tajikistan  Karakul 25

Our last stop before hitting the border was Karakol, meaning “black lake”. Very creative name, to go along with the equally creative names of “white lake”, “fish lake” and “smelly lake” that we’d already passed. The town of Karakol was very small and flat, with the mountains in the distance and a bright turquoise lake. We spent two nights here, a nice change of pace from relocating every evening. The second day, we walked around for hours in the fierce wind and took pictures, chased donkeys, and otherwise enjoyed the freedom of having nothing to do for the day. Various bones were scattered around the shore, along with some rusted car parts that I thoroughly enjoyed photographing. I also took a long walk alone and came back refreshed.

Finally, we took off for the Kyrgyz border, which was actually over another mountain pass. It’s here that we noticed the biggest concentration of cyclists, those crazy people who physically tax themselves cycling up muddy slopes of mountains in the bright hot sun, and then the icy cold altitude over 3,000, all while carrying kilos of personal items and gear on their bicycles. I have a lot of admiration for them, and absolutely no jealousy. The motorcyclists, well, I could see myself doing that someday.

As soon as we left the Tajik side, the scenery changed again, to an incredible combination of red clay, multicoloured mountains, and white snow that looked like icing on cake. Once in Kyrgyzstan, everything changed to rolling green hills and red clay with the high mountains in the distant background, before flattening out once we got into Osh, our final destination.

The Ibex says goodbye to Tajikistan, and welcome to Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan  Karakul to the Kyrgyz Border 2

The In-Transit Report: Sports of the World

The Olympics, February 2014:

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Going to the Winter Olympics has been on my bucket list since I can remember; as a kid, watching all the events on TV every four years was a highlight, and once I realised how possible attending really was, I committed and put my money where my mouth was. I bought tickets a year before the games started, when they were first released. I normally don’t follow winter sports, but I think what excites me about the Olympics is that it’s a time when the countries of the world can (in theory) set aside their differences in the spirit of friendly competition. Since I love travel, the international aspect was particularly appealing. (pictured is the Bobsleigh/Luge track)

I’d heard from a lot of friends and family about the various issues and controversies surrounding the games before I even got to Russia. I’ve watched the Olympics for years, and the only issue I remember hearing about was the amount of unsold seats in London, but of course this wasn’t anything like that. Regardless of the various truths behind the headlines, though, the point of the Olympics is the athletes, not the politics of the countries, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing politics. One thing mentioned that I will discuss was how unprepared Sochi was. The truth is, it wasn’t as bad as the media would have you think. Yes, there were a number of unfinished hotels and other buildings. Lots of places where they hadn’t filled in the grass, hadn’t put the finishing touches on stuff. But honestly, it didn’t matter. No one I talked to had major problems. 

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The infrastructure and transportation was stellar, the volunteers were friendly, excited to be there, and helpful, and the general vibe was amazing. Once I got to the games, it was all about the athletes, and that was a breath of fresh air. I had a wonderful time at 12 different events, with politics on the backseat. The setting itself was beautiful in the mountains, and weirdly warm at the coast. Taking various gondolas to get around between venues in the Mountain Cluster was scenic, although a bit nerve-wracking for someone like me who’s not a fan of heights.

There were mostly Russians at the games, with something like 70-80% of tickets going to Russians. Many were completely decked out in Sochi2014 tracksuits, jackets, shoes, hats, etc. Foreigners were clustered into certain parts of the stadiums, since we bought our tickets through authorised agents that are different per country. Even so, the Russians loved to cheer for everyone, but especially Russians and ex-Soviet nationals. There was always raucous cheering when a Ukrainian, Kazakh or Belorussian athlete came on, for instance.

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Most of the events I went to were snowboarding, the most exciting being Women’s Halfpipe. I stood in the cold snow for more than 9 hours, watching all the qualifying runs, quarter and semi finals, and then the final. It was one of the longest events I went to, but it was worth the time and money!

I wound standing next to a group of Americans who were there supporting two different athletes, and a couple Australians cheering for their star athlete, Torah Bright. They let me stand in front at the barrier for the final (pictured to the left), so I held the Australian flag and cheered Torah while they held up their inflatable kangaroo in the background. The Russian kids standing near us joined our friendly group and actually started the “USA! USA!” cheer, which was pretty hilarious. We all took turns holding each others’ places while we ran to the toilet between runs.

In the end, both American families had winners (Kaitlyn Farrington was the surprise winner, and the favourite for gold, Kelly Clark, got bronze). Torah wound up with a silver after a solid run. My whole group were ecstatic, and I got to see the athletes well from my great vantage point! My feet recovered on the train ride back to my hostel. An exhilarating start to my 10 days at the Olympics, and still my favourite event of the entire run.

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The rest of my 10-odd days were spent running back and forth between the Mountain Cluster, where all of the outdoor events were, and the Coastal Cluster, where the Olympic Park was. Inside the Park were the venues that held indoor events like Speed Skating, Short Track, and Figure Skating (which was of course way too expensive to even think about buying tickets for). Instead, I watched the Figure Skating final on a huge TV that was set up at one of the train stations, which had a huge crowding standing around craning their necks to watch a Russian girl skate her way to a gold medal. Those live TVs were a great addition to the stations and other places, letting us get a glimpse at the events we couldn’t afford to see otherwise!

I did wind up getting tickets for a few Speed Skating events (pictured to the left), which the Dutch dominated, and also Short Track, known for its crashes since it’s a race of four skaters side by side. I’m not sure I would go to Speed Skating in the future – it’s not the most exciting thing to watch live when you can only see the athletes closely when they pass your column. However, watching a Dutch women break the Olympic record was pretty cool, and feeding off the excitement was great. The Dutch are a sea of Orange, very easy to identify and congratulate anywhere you see them.

The other event I loved was Snowboard Cross, which is like Short Track on snowboards. 4-6 snowboarders race down a track until the last group. It winds up with a lot of collisions and falls, and many of the expected winners wiped out early on and didn’t even make semi-finals. I remember watching the Olympics one year, on TV, where a snowboarder (Lindsey Jacobellis) who was very far ahead did a trick, wiped out, and watched the gold medal slip away as another girl shot past her. Hilarious.

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The other big part of being at the Olympics was the partying. The entire Olympic Park was a big party, and most of the countries had houses set up throughout, complete with restaurants and bars. The best of these was the Swiss House, which was open to everyone, unlike the invite-only American and Canadian houses (boo!). I met up with a Couchsurfer and after watching a few medals ceremonies (pictured, left) we wound up having dinner at the Swiss house, then got free passes for the party upstairs, which was ironically full of Canadians who were there watching an Ice Hockey match on the Swiss House’s TVs. I don’t know if there were even Swiss people at the Swiss House!

Another night, I met up with some more Couchsurfers and went out to a restaurant in town, where we met a group of Ukrainians and shared beer and vodka. One of the guys eventually got up and sang a song after being pressured by his friends – this guy seriously sounded like Ukrainian Pavarotti, with a fantastic tenor voice that silenced the room! It was a highlight of the event, that we had a group of Russians, Ukrainians, an American, a Slovenian, an Italian, and probably another few nationalities. We all got along well, and this was around the start of the Ukrainian/Russian situation. No one cared about that, it was all about being there for the games. In the end, Ukrainian Pavarotti and his friends gave out copies of his motivation book, and some free Mandarins. It was quite a special night.

FIFA World Cup, June/July 2014:

Spain v netherlands group b 2014 fifa world cup brazil2I normally don’t watch a lot of sports on TV, but traveling during the World Cup was actually a highlight of my time in Central Asia. There’s something particularly enjoyable about cheering on one country or another as opposed to various teams in one country, and I tend to cheer for the countries I’ve either been to, or ones where I have good friends. Of course, that’s almost every country playing in the World Cup.

So the first thing about watching the games while traveling is that, obviously, it’s called football, not soccer, and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong. I mean, a sport where you kick a ball around with your feet should naturally be called FOOTball. And a sport where you carry a ball in your arms is… American?

I had just gone through the Pamir Highway ending in Osh when I saw my first game, which was Spain versus the Netherlands. I’d spent the last two weeks with a Spanish traveler, and we met and then met again a Dutch guy who was traveling along the Pamirs as well. In Osh, we decided to find a place to watch the game, and wound up at a place where locals went to watch the game, and more importantly bet on it. So there we were, a Spainiard, a Dutch, and an American, and another random American we’d picked up from the hostel, in a crowd of Kyrgyz watching this game. In the end, I decided to support Holland because I remembered how well their speed skaters did at the Olympics, and because there’s a chance I might wind up there for University.

For the next month I watched every game I could, in hostels and hotels, random pubs with locals, and with a variety of travellers from many countries, some playing in the games we watched. I watched the USA vs. Belgium game in Uzbekistan, with a Belgian guy who was on my tour of Turkmenistan. I was supporting Belgium, because the USA doesn’t even call the sport by the right name 😛 Staying up to watch the game start at 1am wasn’t that bad with company.

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Sports is also a very easy topic of conversation. When you meet someone new in a hostel or on the road, it’s a safe bet that they know something about football, so it’s the perfect icebreaker. Even being an American wasn’t so bad. After all, we had Tim Howard, who put up great resistance against Belgium. You’re Dutch? Hey, you guys have been doing great. German? You too! From Spain? Sorry to hear you didn’t make it out of the group stage… okay, so maybe it’s not the safest topic for ALL nationalities.

In the end, Holland finally lost a game, and so my loyalty switched to Germany, who was my second favourite. They easily won against Brasil — we’ll just forget about that painful game. Thankfully there weren’t any Brasilian travellers to hang their heads in shame. Germany won the whole thing after a fantastic game against Argentina, with Gotze’s goal in the extra half sealing the deal. 

Russia Part Six: More Moscow and Kazan

I never quite finished talking about Russia. Considering I spent three months there, that’s not too surprising. Russia is huge, dynamic, diverse, and provides plenty of interesting topics of conversation!

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After a brief visit back to the states to see family and friends, I returned to Moscow and prepared to travel to Central Asia. While back in Moscow, I had the benefit of being there for Victory Day, which is perhaps the biggest holiday in Russia. On May 9th, it celebrates the success of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany in World War II. Basically, Moscow turned into a big party, starting with a parade of tanks and trucks through the centre, then celebrations through every major neighbourhood. Girls and boys in Soviet style outfits pulled pedestrians over to dance to the music of the period, sidewalk cafes were packed, and decorations spread all over the place, with placards giving information about various cities and their struggles against the invading army. Volgograd, the Hero City, was mentioned often.

In the US we have Memorial Day, but our celebrations focus on simply having a day off of work, not uniting to celebrate military dominance or the contributions of our war dead. It’s a very different vibe, and not always in a positive way. While for me it was strange for a celebration of a war to be so festive, after the staggering losses suffered by the Soviet Union, maybe it made sense at the time to focus on victory and how that unites the whole country.

Russia definitely has a lot of Soviet nostalgia, and even though there aren’t as many statues of Lenin as there used to be, there are remnants all over the place. I walked around one day with a girl I’d met through Couchsurfing, and went through a sculpture park full of Soviet memories. In the outskirts of the city (and often its centre) are the characteristic big buildings from the era, and the hammer and sickle is prevalent in the metro stations. Who wants to tear down a reminder of a system that theoretically worked so well? So many people still have fond memories of life in the Soviet Union; it’s just us, “here in the West” who thought it was nothing but horror and starvation, and expect that all Russians feel the same. Of course, there are plenty of people who take a more critical view, but as big as Russia is, there’s room for different opinions. Either way, it was a very interesting time to be in Moscow.

Moscow  Worker at Vysokopetrovsky Monastery

With all the extra time I spent in Moscow, I had the chance to see more of its quieter, lesser known attractions. I wound up Couchsurfing for a week with a really cool girl outside the city, so that week was spent just like a local: relaxing, socialising, and occasionally heading into the city to take care of my Uzbek visa application and see other sights.

One of these places was Vysokopetrovsky, an old Monastery near Pushkin Square. It’s not shiny and restored like many other places in Moscow are, but has a really nice atmosphere and the authenticity of crumbling bricks and uneven sidewalks. After pretty much overdosing on the glitz and glam of Red Square and the hundreds of other Russian Orthodox churches all over the country, this was incredibly refreshing. I watched the same monk scuttle from one end to the other throughout the half hour or so I was there, with very few other tourists poking their heads through the gate.

Another stop I made was to Kolomenskoye, a large park to the south of the city with a collection of churches, and Siberian wood buildings that were relocated to this former royal estate during Soviet times. It’s kind of an open-air museum with a number of lovely restored buildings from various time periods, but full of normal people walking, running and cycling along the river.

After finally picking up my Uzbek visa from the Consulate, I relaxed by the river with a celebratory kvas and enjoyed the absolutely perfect weather. This itself was a victory: the Uzbek visa being in my hands meant that I could finally book a ticket to Central Asia and begin this important part of my trip.

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Museum Day and Night crept up, resulting in two great trips for me. One was the Soviet Cosmonaut Museum, which I went to with Anastasia, a Russian girl I’d met in Sochi and hung out with a number of times in Moscow. The museum itself was really cool, and made me wish even more that I was an astronaut. The rocket monument outside is classically Soviet, and made of the same materials as rockets. We laughed at the ridiculously Soviet statue inside, too, and got to see two famous dogs who went to space: Strelka and Belka, stuffed and looking quite creepy. Afterwards we walked through another massive park with huge, ugly buildings dedicated each to the Soviet States. Gloriously hideous.

The other museum was the recently opened Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a mammoth construction that’s actually quite impressive. I met up with Maria, a friend of Anastasia’s who I’d met in Sochi and again in Moscow, at 11 at night to get in for free and join a tour with her, her mother and friend. The visit started with a 4D presentation, complete with rocking, shaking chairs and bursts of mist that complement the 3D story of Jewish history. The presentation was in Russian, with English subtitles, and very succinct and interesting. The accuracy of the exhibits was very good, and it didn’t seem to downplay any anti-Semitism in the USSR.

The rest of the museum is, well, huge and detailed, with interactive displays, a Holocaust memorial, library, and packed wall-to-wall with people that night. Apparently it’s normally incredibly expensive to get into, so I was happy to deal with the crowds in return for free entrance.

Kazan  Temple of All Religions 3

My last few weeks in Moscow were also spent in cafes, planning and plotting for Central Asia, but my last few days in Russia were actually spent in Kazan, a city in the south that’s the centre of the Republic of Tatarstan. Another semi-autonomous republic of Russia, this area is home to ethnic Tatars, who are Muslim, and the city is known for being a place where Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully. Another refreshing change from Moscow’s orthodox churches, this was also a nice segue into Central Asia’s Islamic culture and history.

Kazan was a surprisingly modern, bright city, having been recently renovated in preparation for a number of upcoming sporting events, including the 2018 World Cup. The Kremlin is one of the nicest I’ve seen, and home to a new but huge and beautiful mosque. Across the river there’s also a building in construction: the Temple of All Religions, a huge masterpiece with domes representing a number of different religions – see picture. Can you count all the religions? There’s a Buddha statue in the front as well.

From Kazan, I flew back to Moscow, spent one long night in the airport, and flew into Dushanbe, Tajikistan the next day. My Russian chapter has been closed… for now. I don’t think it’ll be too long before I wind up back again!

Russia Part Five: Literary Adventures

One of the main reasons I went to Russia was my love of Russian literature. Anyone who knows me knows how much I adore anything by Leo Tolstoy, and of course other writers like Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. So, I wanted to dedicate an entire post to the literary sights I enjoyed the most in Russia. There are monuments to Russian authors and poets all over the place, particularly in Moscow I noticed, but the best spots are where they converted an author’s old flat into a museum.

Pictures are all taken with my iPhone and not my DSLR.

Dostoevsky:

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The first place in Russia I visited was Saint Petersburg, and visited the Dostoevsky House Museum there. The first part of it was a museum exhibit with a narrative of the author’s life, and various objects to illustrate. Some where Dostoevsky’s, but some may have been added as examples from the time period.

The flat itself was pretty small, starting with a hat of his covered with glass. I actually really enjoy seeing small things that (theoretically) belonged to authors – it’s a little personal, and makes you feel like a giddy fan who got to sneak into your favourite star’s house.

Each room had a stack of laminated cards with some information, and luckily one of those was in English. It described the life of the author and his family while he lived there. This is where he lived before he died, though before he had moved around quite a lot.

My favourite part of all of these museums is the writing desk, and the bookshelves next to it. To see where a great author penned their work is really something special, if only especially nerdy! I’m not sure what works he actually wrote here, but I’d like to believe the desk wasn’t usually this neat and tidy…

Gogol:

I’d read Dead Souls a few years back, so in Moscow I checked out the Gogol Museum. Frankly, it was disappointing. The space was overwhelmed by some weird audiovisual installations that didn’t really add anything to the experience, particularly for someone who doesn’t understand a lot of Russian. 

There were some things from his life, though, and of course the writing desk was there, albeit not set up in a very natural way. There was also a statue outside, sporting Gogol’s distinctive hairstyle.

Bulgakov:

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This was my second favourite of all the museums. There were actually a few parts. First, a museum in a different part of his building, with an exhibit about his life and work, which also sported a cafe and a theatre nearby. Russia loves Bulgakov, whose famous work, Master and Margarita, definitely demands a reread at some point. There are places all over Moscow that play tribute to his work.

IMG 1838The staircase leading up to the flat is a museum in itself; there’s drawings of all kinds with imagery from the book, particularly featuring the infamously snarky, vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth! You just have to read the book. The main part of the museum is his flat, which also features installations, but ones that give the whole place a Master and Margarita vibe.

The flat itself was crowded with people visiting, which was nice to see. It was a great place to linger in for a while, and the installations and artwork really contributed to the experience. There was even a permanent resident in the flat… a black cat.

Tolstoy:

IMG 1886The ultimate experience for me was visiting Leo Tolstoy’s estate and gravesite in Yasnaya Polyana, a village around 3-4 hours south of Moscow. I decided to stay two nights at the one hotel there, and also take a few classes in Russian, so it wound up being a longer trip, and, naturally, a pilgrimage. 

The estate sits on a wide section of land, with a few gardens and ponds built it. I went in March, so the pond was still mostly frozen and the ground muddy and brown, but it was still all I could have wanted. After a day of Russian lessons (my poor brain!), I went the next morning with my Russian teacher to the site when it first opened. She took me through the museum in one of the houses, explaining at length his biography and experiences (in English!), and it was really nice to only be two people in the whole museum. That is, until a tour of Russian kids came, but the employees simply closed the doors behind us and we managed to stay ahead.

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Next she took me through the main house, where he actually lived and worked with his family. There were two rooms that really meant a lot to me: the one where he wrote War & Peace, and the one where he wrote Anna Karenina. Something about being in that space was magical. The whole place had a simple, cozy feel to it, much like the simplistic ideals that Tolstoy was trying to follow towards the end of his life. He believed in being kind to his fellow people, generous and supportive of the peasants, and not coveting wealth. Though these ideals caused problems between him and his family members, they send a powerful message through much of his later work.

The last stop was the most important one… Tolstoy’s grave. There was a story he and his brother shared when they were kids, about a magical green stick that held the secret of the universe and would bring peace to the world. Apparently it could be found buried at the edge of a ravine. A metaphor that remained with him for life, Tolstoy was in the end buried at the edge of the woods, overlooking a ravine, in a simple grave covered by earth and sticks. When I visited in March everything was brown with a little late snow still lingering, but the grave was laid with simple cut flowers.

The next morning I returned, this time on my own, and had a peaceful moment at Tolstoy’s grave. I stood and pondered for some time, watching the way the sunlight came through the trees at intervals and lit up his grave, and listening to nothing but the rustling of the wind threading through the leafless branches.

Russia Part Four: Ulan Ude, Lake Baikal, and the Transsiberian 2nd leg to Nizhny Novgorod

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Once you’re inside its borders, Russia becomes like a whole other world, made up of different ethnicities and cultures comprising their own semi-autonomous Republics.

The Buryat Republic, my next destination in late March, is one of these, and is the centre of Russian buddhism. It borders Mongolia (whose capital of Ulan Baator is a 7-8 hour train ride away) and shares many cultural similarities. I spent a few days in Ulan Ude, the biggest city, and ventured out to the east side of Lake Baikal from there.

Ulan Ude is a big city with a balance of Buryats and Russians, and is known for having a giant statue of Lenin’s head, and the nearby buddhist monastery, Ivolginskiy Datsan. It also doesn’t take long to find some beautiful examples of Siberia’s famous wooden architecture (pictured), spread throughout a number of places in the city, still very much in use. 

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I spent a day and a night in a town called Ust Barguzin, on the east side of the lake halfway up. The drive out there was long and not entirely paved, but the area had a nice, remote feel to it. The guy who ran the homestay was really nice and accommodating to me and his other guests, a group of Poles who had been going from one part of Baikal to the other.

At that time of year (mid-late March) the lake was completely frozen over, letting cars and even trucks drive from one side to the other. However, it wasn’t cold at all, so I spent a warm day driving around to see various parts of the lake with the Poles, a view of the Holy Nose peninsula in the background. The Poles had been out ice fishing, so for dinner we had fresh fish and lots of vodka.

Our host also treated us to the quintessential Russian Banya, or sauna. Sitting around in extreme heat and then getting whacked with a bunch of leaves (white birch, oak or eucalyptus usually) isn’t really my forte, but hey, when in Rome. How the hell Russians drink vodka in the Banya, I don’t want to know. Apparently I can’t even handle 65 celcius / 150 fahrenheit for more than 15 minutes, much less while drinking vodka. Apparently it can get as hot as around 90 c  / 195 f, which just sounds like instant death to me.

I had also wanted to see the Barguzin valley, which looks close by on a map but really isn’t. It would’ve cost too much money though, at least for one person, so I’ll just have to save it for when I’m back in the area and can find a group to take the tour with to this very remote area.

I spent a day as well at Ivolginskiy Datsan, which was a beautiful Buddhist monastery set at the edge of a quiet village not too far from Ulan Ude. I walked around and contemplated, listened to the sound of birds and wind, paid my respects to the Buddha, and succeeded in getting around with my basic Russian.

Lake Baikal 50

I met another American girl in the hostel in Ulan Ude, along with an Italian girl, and together we went out to a different, closer, village on the edge of the lake, called Gremyachinsk. This wound up being a great adventure, from getting out there, to tromping through the slushy areas en route to the icey lake, and then playing around a giant pile of ice and snow out on the ice (wall of blue ice pictured). A couple young Russian kids took pictures with us and used their few English sentences before giggling and running off. We wandered back to the edge of town and marvelled at the beauty of the slabs of ice, its frighteningly long cracks, and the various textures of the surface (see picture).

Ulan Ude  Gremyachinsk Village 14

We stopped for snacks on the beach, and got inviting to join a BBQ with a group of older Russian ladies. Despite our lack of Russian (I had the most knowledge of Russian, which is pretty laughable), we made friends and were force-fed, poured way too much vodka, and had a great time. The ladies were convinced I was going to freeze to death despite my insistence that I was fine, so in the end one of the ladies gave me her knit cap and wouldn’t let me refuse it. Absolutely adorable.

Finally, we figured out where to pick up the bus back to Ulan Ude, managed to get tickets despite a number of language errors on my part, and walked around the village looking for coffee in the hour or so we had to kill before the bus.

The next day, the other American girl and I went onwards to Irkutsk, a bigger city on the other side of the lake that’s a more common base to see Lake Baikal from. Lindsey and I bonded at the hostel because we’re both nerds, and it’s been a long time since I met someone with as many common interests as we had. That was really nice, so we had plenty of fodder for conversation while watching the landscape. 

The main reason I wanted to stop at Irkutsk before continuing on was to make sure I could catch a daytime train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk – this was rumoured to be the most scenic part of the trans-siberian. It didn’t disappoint.

After a fun day and change in Irkutsk, I got on the Rossiya 1, which is the classic “transsiberian” train that goes all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok and vice versa. This journey was slightly longer than the last one: 69 hours from Irkutsk to Nizhny Novgorod, a big Russian city only a few (7-8) hours from Moscow.

I got a 2nd class seat again, opting for the nicer ride, and wound up cabin-mates with two 20-something guys who were also going to Nizhny. 

IMG 2073It was refreshing to have the same cabin mates the whole time, and between my Russian and their bit of English, we got to know each other a fair amount.

This cabin was more comfortable than the last one, so I parked myself in a seat next to a window, drank a ton of tea, and read the first few Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books, having polished off Harry Potter in Ulan Ude. The time went quickly this time, helped along with shared beers and attempts at political conversation while lacking substantial vocabulary.

Nizhny Novgorod 10

I spent only a couple days in Nizhny Novgorod before I was due back in Moscow to fly to the States, but it was a nice town to have a stop in. The first half of the day, it was sunny and bright, so I walked all around the Kremlin and checked out the various churches and buildings, but later on, while I was back at the hostel, it started snowing.

I took my camera out and took some shots in the blizzard, which was exactly what I was in the mood for. I’d missed the epic cold and snow of Siberian winter, so this was a happy occasion. Inside the Kremlin I strolled through the tanks and guns on display, the snow sticking to the naked trees.

I walked to the embankment and looked down, but where the promenade met the Volga river, the fog was so dense you couldn’t see anything beyond the edge. It was like being on the edge of the world, and it was absolutely beautiful.

Russia Part Three: Moscow, Vladivostok & the 1st leg of the Trans-Siberian

Moscow  Sochi Skating Rink at Red Square 7

There’s a place on earth where you can stand in one place, turn 360 degrees, and every single thing you see is epic. This place is Red Square, Moscow (and Russia’s) penultimate tourist spot, where every single building in sight is a masterpiece. Even in the beginning of March it was crowded with tourists both foreign and Russian, and because of the Olympics there was a makeshift skating rink and stores with walls sporting the Sochi theme of Russian textiles. Red Square is a patch of pavement next to the walls of the Kremlin, an elevated, walled area containing cathedrals and museums. On another side of Red Square is the world famous St. Basil’s Cathedral (shown, with the Sochi rink), an insanely decorative Russian orthodox church whose onion domes and bright colour scheme conjure thoughts of cake toppers. In any case, Red Square’s hype lives up to itself.

Moscow Kremlin  Dormition Cathedral 5I wound up spending almost two weeks in Moscow, taking the time to slow down and just chill out while I figured out what to do next. I’d walked all over the city and made a map in my head, helped along by my iPhone, before I realised my hostel had a free map. With everything focused on Red Square, I could pick different areas to walk around each day, even getting away from the centre here and there.I’d come from St. Petersburg and other parts of Russia with the expectation that Moscow would be a big, drab city with a few nice areas, but I was pleasantly surprised.

There are a lot of nice areas, filled with beautiful old buildings, with lots and lots of monuments, museums, churches (like Dormition Cathedral inside the Kremlin, shown in 2nd picture) and various small parks. Outside the city centre it is more Soviet and grey, but that’s most of Russia anyway.

I met up again with two Russian girls I’d met in Sochi during the Olympics, and got to spend some time with them. That was really awesome and made my time in Moscow even better. We went to Lermontov’s estate outside of Moscow with some of their friends, something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do with my limited Russian before then!

Women’s Day rolled around while I was in town as well. I went out for dinner with a girl I met from Couchsurfing, at a nice, obscure restaurant a bit outside the touristy area. I walked back to my hostel through Red Square, and somewhere in the middle got caught by two guys who were going up to random women… to give them flowers. So they gave me flowers, wished me a happy Women’s Day, and then walked away. How nice!

I always brace myself for guys asking for my phone number, or trying to catch me in conversation, but these guys were simply handing out flowers. Lovely, lovely Moscow.

I did a lot in Moscow, and will write some more specific stuff in an entry dedicated to literary stuff, but due to scheduling a flight home to visit my mom for the holiday, I actually flew out to Vladivostok in order to take the trans-siberian from the east back to Moscow in the west.

Vladivostok  Svetlanskaya Street 5Vladivostok is a pretty small port city, where you can catch ferries to Japan, China and South Korea. It was refreshing to feel like I was back in Asia: I went nuts when I found a Japanese vending machine, and stocked up on Japanese and Korean instant noodles for the upcoming 3 day train ride out.

There wasn’t really that much to see in Vladivostok, aside from the occasional Soviet monument (pictured, under the city’s famous attraction, a bridge), a scattering of war memorials and paraphernalia around the edges of the water, and the touristy but cute promenade on the sea. I lost a day to being sick with a cold, but a full day in the city was perfect.

Next, I spend almost 3 days on a train, a total of 61 hours. It wound up being two nights in 2nd class, most of it I was actually alone for. When I did have company, it was a mother and small daughter, both of whom were sick and also didn’t speak any English. Go figure!

My mission for this segment of the trip was to read Harry Potter. And I did, 5.5 books out of 7. It’s the most relaxing thing to just lay around, sleep and eat, and have no other obligations than the ones you make to yourself, and mine were just reading. I spend my time doing just that, drinking at least 15 cups of tea a day, enjoying my Asian noodles, and occasionally sitting in the dining car with more tea (or overpriced food) for a change of scenery while following the adventures of the boy wizard and his motley crew of companions and nemeses.

Russia Part Two: Volgograd

Volgograd  Square of the Fallen Soldiers 2

After the Olympics (which I will write about later), I made a stop in Volgograd, a city southwest of Moscow with a tragic and complex history. This city, one of the biggest on the Volga river, was formerly known as Stalingrad. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to brush up on your World War II history.

Stalingrad was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was invaded by the Nazis from August 1942 to February 1943, and the loss of this battle marked a major turning point in the war. Ignoring the lessons of the past, much of this battle was waged by the Nazis in winter, when temperatures could be as low as -30 celsius (-22 f) with fierce wind, constricting mobility and resources. Hitler also vastly underestimated Soviet resistance, resources and reinforcements, and demanded that Paulus’s 6th Army hold the city at all costs.

Although initially successful, the logistically impaired, undersupplied Germans were unable to resist Soviet counterattacks in the dead of winter, and Paulus requested to be allowed to surrender. Hitler refused, instead promoting him to Field Marshal, implying that since no Field Marshal had ever surrendered, nor would Paulus. However, the battle ended with a surrender and Soviet victory in February 1943, with staggering casualties on both sides.

With all of this in mind, I stepped off a night train in late February 2014. It was about -20 (celcius) with a heavy wind, and I walked around for a while in the wind trying, unsuccessfully, to find a hostel. Finally, I succeeded, and happily relaxed in the warmth, particularly appreciative that I have the option of shelter, and reflecting on the irony of my first hours in Volgograd.

I’ve read a lot about the history of Stalingrad, mostly from an academic perspective, and so have approached this place with a particular interest and a desire to see it from a more human, more personal perspective.

On a recent flight I watched a Russian film about the battle (Stalingrad, released early 2013), and found the plot strangely familiar. Apparently, part of the plotline was based on Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a fictional book about the losses of various soldiers and families in Stalingrad. That book also happens to be inspired by War and Peace, one of my favourite books. The movie wasn’t the best, but since I watched it after my visit to Volgograd, it was interesting to watch, being able to see some of the places where I’d walked, and the memorials I’ve seen.

Volgograd  Mamayev Kurgan 26

Volgograd was named a “Hero City” of Russia, and its dizzying array of monuments and plaques, memorials and historical sites speak to the grandeur of Russian victory. But the size of the monuments, including Mamayev Kurgan’s impressive 91 meter tall statue, also conveys the extend of the losses. This statue, The Motherland Calls (pictured), stands atop Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city that was the site of fierce fighting due to its strategical importance.

The statue is around the same height as the State of Liberty, and is thoroughly vertigo-inspiring to stand under. Her face, twisted in rage, and those of the other statues that populate the hill, convey various themes such as strength, camaraderie, and grief.

 

Volgograd  Flour Mill Ruins 8

Almost everything standing was destroyed in the battle, and thus all but a few of the buildings are newer Soviet structures. There are a few remnants, though, including the ruins of a flour mill, which stand next to the Panoramic Museum that details the battle. When you walk to the top of the museum, a panoramic painting depicts what the battle would have looked like from where you are standing. The museum is also holds an array of artefacts, including famed sniper Zaytsev’s rifle. Snipers were used to inflict further casualties, including Zaytsev, who is commonly portrayed as a hero in books and films about the battle. 

Everywhere you go in this city, there are more memorials, making a walk through like a history lesson. It’s open to debate if this is a celebrate of victory, or a city not letting go of its past. Though meeting people and talking about it, I’ve heard about both the pride of the Soviet triumph, and the desire to let the past be the past. It’s a complex history to reflect on, especially for someone who lives here.

Either way, I’ve never been to a place where I so often am reminded of its history. Coming here in winter was completely appropriate for me. To walk through Mamayev Kurgan and see everything in bloom would contradict the tragedy of war. To feel the chill is to be reminded of how lucky we are to have shelter, hot food and drink, and the choice of how to live our lives, not the prospect of a certain and painful death because of the mistakes of our leaders.

Russia Part One: Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg Hermitage 15

Saint Petersburg has been written about in Russian literature for hundreds of years, photographed and sung about for ages. In classic Russian literature, it’s seen as the city of culture and balls, of the arts and intellectuals, an escape from the hum-drum of life in Moscow. Characters of all kinds have walked along Nevskiy Prospect, and of course I got to do the same. Saint Petersburg was my introduction to Russia, and, accordingly, I loved it. There’s no lack of things to see and do, countless museums and old, opulent buildings in pastel colours to offset the grey of the late winter weather and melting snow on the ground.

I’ve tried hard not to have preconceptions about anywhere I’ve gone, but at times it’s difficult; after being told how Russians are very rude, I was prepared for that to be true. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice people were to me; in some cases they were nicer than people in a lot of ‘nice’ countries. However, I’ve also been lucky to meet exceptional people. Through Couchsurfing, I made a number of new people who introduced me to Russian culture, and other cultures as well: an ethnic Russian born and raised in Uzbekistan now living and working in Russia, a number of Petersburgers from Siberia and the Urals, and a recently transplanted trilingual half-Russian girl who was raised in the middle east and now teaches English, of all things. So maybe I hadn’t met many “average” Russians in town.

The first thing I learned about Russia is that it’s not really one giant country. It’s a patchwork quilt of cultures and tribes tied together by a border, with many areas being their own Republics, ethnic groups dominating some towns and cities, and of course sometimes involving contested borders and conflicts, as in the North Caucasus.

Elements of all of these cultures thread through Russia, from architecture like the famous Onion church domes which many theorise are Islam-inspired, to foods of various other regions, such as kefir, which is originally from the north Caucasus. I’m certainly not the first to think of the quilt analogy. In fact, the signature background pattern of the Sochi 2014 Olympics is a collection of textile patterns pulled from the many regions of Russia.

Nevskiy Prospect is a long, long walk, leading through a series of impressive buildings that culminates in Palace Square and its primary site, the Hermitage. This was the first site to really blow me away. The Hermitage (first picture) is the city’s most famous museum. The building itself is incredible: a massive work of art taking up blocks on the edge of a river and dominating the square. The main building is the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian monarchs. 

IMG 1485

The rooms themselves are magnificent. On top of that, the collections of furniture, implements and paintings of various time periods is simply astounding. The level of opulence in this place is unmatched. And of course I could imagine scenes from Russian literature played out in all of the rooms, although I’m sure the families in those books weren’t quite as rich as the royal family.

The picture I’ve included (taken with my iPhone) from the Hermitage is simply a sitting room. Simply a gold trimmed, lavishly decorated sitting room.  Simply… ridiculous. And yet I wouldn’t mind having one in my house. It’s so flamboyant it’s almost a parody of itself, as seems to be the case with much of old Russian architecture, including the colourful onion-domed churches that are notoriously omnipresent on postcards from Russia. Even if they are a bit like decadent cake toppers, they’re absolutely amazing pieces of architecture.

The bottom of the museum is fairly plain, architecturally speaking. I went down to find the exhibits on Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are pretty high on my interests list. Having been part of the Soviet Union, they’re well represented in Russian museums. Gradually I’m learning more about the history and culture of these particular regions.

Another great museum recommended to me for the history of Russian cultures was the Ethnological Museum, situated right next to the Russian History Museum. Clearly, people have mixed them up in the past, as the cashier reiterated the name of the museum to make sure I was in the right place.

This was an incredibly comprehensive museum, covering the history of the peoples of regions ranging from the Far East, Siberia, the Urals, Northern Russia, European Russia, the North Caucasus, and also covering the peoples of post-Soviet states, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, and even Ukraine, Belarus. It also had an interesting section on the history of Russian Jews, covering even the Jews of Central Asia! Unfortunately there weren’t always English captions; still, I got the idea, and the detailed displays were well done.

Saint Petersburg  Singer House Bookstore 2

Another highlight on Nevskiy Prospect was the Singer Building (pictured), a beautifully unique building made for the sewing machine company of that name. It was originally intended to be a skyscraper, but the ordinance at the time limited the height, so instead the dome was added to simulate a skyscraper without violating the rules.

The building holds different businesses, but is best known for housing Dom Knigi, a wonderfully huge bookstore you can get lost in for hours. Dom Knigi (literally “House of Books”) has other locations, but they don’t match the atmosphere of the Singer Building. I looked for some books on learning Russian, but they’re simply too huge to lug around in my small backpack. I contented myself with browsing instead, and then had a meal at the upstairs Singer Cafe for sunset, overlooking the Prospect and the massive Kazan Cathedral across the street.

Saint Petersburg  Church of Spilled Blood Interior 15

Postcard-perfect Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood is just a few blocks away from Dom Knigi, and along with Moscow’s St. Basil’s, it’s the quintessential Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

This church is probably one of the most visited tourist spots in Russia, and the inside is even more astoundingly decorated than the outside. Gold prevails in the details everywhere, accenting the paintings that cover the cathedral wall-to-ceiling. But there are some more “subtle” details that I really enjoyed, like the carved marble pictured here.

Opinions on churches can vary widely from person to person. Many say the money would be better spent on the people (which I definitely agree with), but others see it as an artistic dedication to faith. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the details and passion put into these churches, and many others I’ve been to around the world, is quite a testament to the dedication of the faithful. Whether or not they are economically ethical is a question that has to be put aside momentarily to appreciate their character.

IMG 1841On the topic of opulence, the Metro stations all throughout Saint Petersburg (and Moscow) are gorgeous. When I think of Philadelphia’s subway, it’s pretty much a sewer in comparison to Russia.. though that isn’t hard to say about Philadelphia.

After World War II, the Soviet Union put a lot of money into making these beautiful metro stations, and while many people think about all the money that didn’t go to the people themselves, others enjoyed the feeling of wealth that walking through the metro brought from then on. The stations are truly beautiful, with large open halls and arches, chandeliers and a variety of mosaics, many matching the station names and themes. The one pictured (an iPhone snapshot) is from Moscow, though I forget the name of the station.

I will definitely return to Saint Petersburg in the future. There is still so much to see and do, and it would be lovely to see in the summer.

Northern Europe Part Three: Norway & Estonia

Stavanger  Lysefjord 43

In Norway I had more relatives to visit: my stepmom’s good friend moved there years ago, so I had an open invitation in Stavanger! I stayed with Karen and her husband for a few days and enjoyed her amazing cooking, lots of conversations about what my dad and stepmom were like when they were my age (haha), and other more or less funny topics ranging from American politics to WWII history and scuba diving. We went to the movies the first evening I got there, and saw the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which ironically involved the character travelling to at least a few places I want to go. It was very appropriate.

Stavanger is a beautiful little town on the west coast of Norway, with some lovely old buildings in town, and impressive fjords nearby. In the first picture, if you look closely, you’ll see a small rectangular ledge that juts out. It’s just to the right of the vertical middle, in the sunlight. That small ledge is actually a huge tourist spot, called Preikestolen or Pulpit Rock in english. The view from up there is incredible, though in the middle of winter and with my fear of heights, I quite enjoyed seeing the fjord from the water below.

Norwegian Southwest Coast 1

I took a scenic bus ride up the coast, winding through the edges of fjords and over the ocean (2nd picture) via a ferry or two. That’s one of the nice things about countries with beautiful landscapes: it’s completely fine to spend bus rides just staring out the window.

I wound up in Norway’s second largest city, Bergen (which really isn’t much of a city at less than 300,000 residents). It’s a lovely town with a UNESCO World Heritage listed site called Bryggen (3rd picture). This small, cheerful section of buildings is pretty much the oldest part of Bergen, which has been (along with Stavanger) a major trading city for hundreds of years, dealing mostly in fish. Bryggen’s old buildings are made of wood, and are visibly leaning, though they still house shops and restaurants. There’s nothing like having your afternoon coffee in an old wooden building that’s slightly off-kilter. Apparently there’s a trading company that’s been in business there for 300 years. Which is older than the USA. Just… think about that for a minute.

Bergen 59

That’s one of my favourite things about travel – being reminded how far back history really goes. My concept of ‘old’ is quite, well, older than it was before. After seeing so many natural wonders above and below the water, ancient and modern temples and ruins, iron age bog bodies and preserved communist leaders, viking ships and cannons from the 1700’s, etc, the USA really is just a teenager in the world; maybe even a tween. I really appreciate Scandinavia’s progressive values, civil rights, and general approach to everything, not to mention their quirks. Like fish salad in metal tubes (think toothpaste, but for your lunch), and the dichotomy of the relaxed national attitude versus the innovative heavy metal scene. I could definitely live in either Denmark or Norway, and want to visit Sweden at some point!

Anyway, after a nice couple days in Bergen, I hopped on a train inland toward Oslo. This train ride, known as the Bergen Railway, is considered one of the world’s most beautiful train rides. And it was definitely beautiful, though there are pros and cons to traveling in winter. In this case, the pro was that it was much cheaper to do than normal. The con was that I only had sunlight for the first part of it.

Still, it was quite a treat to speed through the mountains, watching the tiny villages that were completely buried in snow glide past the window while sipping hot chocolate and listening to music. And still have the seat next to me empty, for plenty of extra sprawl space. The stations each announced the altitude, because apparently this is the world’s highest altitude train ride. After Peru and Bolivia, though, anything under 3,000 meters isn’t worth batting an eyelash at, and the high point here is only around 1,000 meters. Overall, the scenery was gorgeous, and now I want to come back in summer to do it in both seasons and compare. Any excuse to come back to this country will do, and add to the above all the scuba diving I didn’t get a chance to do yet… I’ll be back.

I honestly didn’t do very much when I got to Oslo, because in Bergen I had started to get sick, and so I spent the first few days in Oslo getting acquainted with Karen’s daughter’s couch. Although we’d never met, Karen offered me Anne Brit’s couch, which I gratefully accepted. After being a terrible, sick guest for the first few days, we finally got to get to know each other and spent a few days walking around the city, drinking good beer, eating good food, and laughing about our crazy parents. It was, yet again, like being home with friends and family. She’s even a good cook like her mom. We walked around the Opera House (which was nice, but not like Sydney’s) and the Astrup Fearnley Museum, which is a museum of incredible bizarre and entertaining modern art. I had the right company for it, though, which is what makes modern art museums a fun experience and not one where I stare at some strange piece and wonder what I’m doing there. Oslo is a nice city, but it doesn’t have nearly the charm for me that Copenhagen did, though I would love to go back and visit more of the museums I didn’t have the time for when I was sacked out on Anne Brit’s couch.

On one of my last days in Norway, I took a short detour down to another small city called Fredrikstad, in order to visit someone I’d met back in Australia, from my dive course. Knut had been taking the same dive class, along with his son and daughter, and the two of us had a really nice dive together at the end of that trip. We kept in contact, and once I knew how close to Oslo he was, I got in touch. I took the train down and met up with him and his girlfriend, Christine. We drove around and they showed me the town and Fredrikstad Fortress. After a stop for coffee in the ambiance of a fortress cafe, Christine cooked a delicious vegetarian dinner for us in her very adorable purple apartment. Another great day with friends in Norway!

Tallinn Old Town 2

With the Olympics getting closer, I had a short amount of time left to get to Saint Petersburg before my flight down to Sochi. Despite the perceived time crunch, I still had time for one more stop: Tallinn, Estonia (pictured). This is a town I’d wanted to see for a while, after seeing in and reading up on it during the time I was saving money and would sit at UPenn’s bookstore cafe with a stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks, researching for hours.

One day while researching the Baltics, I was texting my best friend, Laura. At that time, she was visiting a relative in Helsinki, Finland, and had actually taken a quick ferry ride across to Tallinn, where she was messaging me from. Just as I was reading about Estonia. Talk about good timing. Anyway, she recommended it highly, and everyone I talked to agreed that one or two days was fine to see the old city. Even though I try to stick to the ‘enough time to immerse’ theory, Tallinn was perfectly situated to work as a short stopover en route to Saint Petersburg overland.

So I found myself on a plane to Tallinn, and booked into a cozy hostel inside the old city walls. Luckily, everyone was right, and two full days was enough to wander all over the city, getting to know its cobblestone alleyways and squares very well, explore both sides of the walls, and climb to the highest spot for a nice view of the snow-capped rooftops. It’s full of restaurants and pubs, souvenir shops of course, and beautiful churches and towers, and the nicest thing is that everything fits together. The old town is not a place where old and modern buildings stand next to each other (not that that’s a bad thing), but where it probably looks nearly the same as it did years ago, and it’s still completely functional. If anyone wants to take a vacation to a fairy tale land (ignoring the parked cars), than Tallinn is the place to be! Absolutely charming.

After this perfect stopover, I took a bus up to Saint Petersburg, where I went through the nerve-wracking experience of crossing the border into Russia. I normally don’t worry during border crossings, but the fact that the Olympics was the core around which my entire trip outline thus far was built meant that this crossing was one I especially didn’t want to have complications.

Luckily, everything went completely smoothly, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief after we continued on. My first introduction to Russia was the tall, straight trees in the snow, and the passing houses in vastly different styles. And then, there was Saint Petersburg… another entry in itself.

Northern Europe Part Two: Germany

Hamburg Promonade 8

My next stop, in Hamburg, Germany, was like a holiday from my travels. My stepmother’s cousin and her partner live there, and they invited me to stay with them for a few days. Well, I was well-fed and shown ALL the sights of Hamburg in that few days! Between Ingrid’s wonderful cooking and Rolf’s love of west coast USA, we had wonderful food and conversations every day, even with the language barrier!

Hamburg is one of Germany’s biggest cities, and claims to have the highest number of bridges in the world. Actually, I tried to do some research on this and found a lot of forums with people arguing over this question! Hamburg has around 2300 (more than Venica and Amsterdam), while tons of arguments for Pittsburgh only mentioned 446! I’m convinced that the answer is Hamburg, naturally.

Besides that, it’s a lovely city with lovely bridges, cool architecture and a nice vibe to it. Ingrid and Rolf took me on a boat tour through many of the city’s canals, and drove me to lots of other great spots, including the beautiful St. Michael’s Church, and a small little alley that’s home to some of the oldest buildings that survived the bombing in World War II. I never could have found that without them. I think I’ve seen the city inside and out! I think very fondly of my time with them, and will definitely visit again, given the chance!

Koln 74

After Hamburg I went down to Cologne for a few days to visit some friends I’d made in Peru & Ecuador, which was really nice. These were two of the five I’d stayed with in Vilcabamba for around two weeks, so visiting them was like taking another holiday. Another home away from home. Cologne’s a beautiful city in itself, with the famous Cologne Cathedral a highlight of Gothic architecture (see picture). It’s one of the tallest cathedrals in Europe, most of which you can climb through a narrow spiral tower. I tried not to let fear of heights get to me, and made it up to the top for a few minutes with my friends before I was ready to go back down.

Cologne also has its own kind of beer, like any respectable German city would, so my friends took me to the best place in town, where we had a few drinks and some snacks. They’re also vegetarian, and understand the difficulties of eating vegetarian in many parts of the world! The rest of the time we just strolled around, visiting various spots and popping into a bookstore for a bit.

After years of people telling me how much I would love it, I FINALLY made it to Berlin. For me, Berlin holds a lot of interests, including World War II history, alternative culture, and the Berlin Wall and the city’s divided history. First off, Berlin is basically a city of neighbourhoods, all different from one another. I could probably write a whole entry on each one I visited, but I won’t make anyone sit through that.

Berlin  Topography of Terror 14

The first few days I stayed at a hostel, and explored the middle district, with its concentrated collection of WWII history sites. I have a complicated interest in this war. As a Jew and someone interested in military history, I have two minds when visiting museums and monuments, and oftentimes I have to switch one side off to really appreciate the other.

What struck me about the various museums and sites I visited was their simplicity. Their design and surroundings weren’t overwrought; instead, they let history speak for itself, and created an environment that provoked a reflective mood.

The museum on the site of many SS and Gestapo buildings, called the Topography of Terror (pictured), was one of those sites. It’s in a unique spot: a museum and memorial set next to a large preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, with unearthed sections of the gestapo prison right next to it. The museum isn’t an apologist for what happened; rather it is stark and factual, omitting nothing, forgiving nothing. It is overwhelmingly dark, just like the grey gravel and concrete paths that wind through the expansive area it takes up.

This is what I found interesting, and what is true for the other sites: Germany does not defend its actions in WWII, nor does it downplay them or distract from them. I have been to memorials and museums in countries that do. They do not honour their former SS; they still prosecute them. Every German I know probably knows more about this part of history than anyone else, and knows which side of the war they were on. The national attitude about history is much different here than it is in, say, Japan.

There were also some small but inspiring places, namely the Museum of the Resistance, which highlighted those of the population who tried to topple the National Socialists, even before the Holocaust, and the people that saved Jews and others. A special section highlighted the members of the army and civilian population involved in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler, which unfortunately left him unharmed. The museum is in a building overlooking the courtyard where the main plotters were quickly executed the night the attempt failed, and a simple monument, a male holding a sword, stands guard in the snow.

Another major site is the Memorial to the Jews, a holocaust memorial consisting of rectangular pillars of varying size, forming a large field. When you wander through, you quickly find yourself in over your head, on rough terrain. Very symbolic. Below this field of pillars is a museum, which is an amazing concise and powerful account of the holocaust, with striking portraits of the people who died during it. In one room you can sit and listen to short biographies, spoken first in German and then in English. Most are missing information, but at least their memory is kept alive. Very powerful exhibit.

Nearby to the holocaust memorial, almost an afterthought but quite a pleasant surprise, is a small memorial to the LGBT people killed during the holocaust. Further up, a small pool with a flower in the middle, dedicated to the Roma killed. And I’m sure there are many, many others I didn’t have the time to see. There is also the parking lot over the bunker where Hitler committed suicide during the last days of the war. This site is marked only by a sign; I think it’s very appropriate to mark this spot with something so unceremonious; his is not a legacy that should be honoured. It was a little strange to watch the walking tours go by, though.

Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery 11I’ll end on a positive note, I promise! But before I do, I’ll talk about my visit to the East Side Gallery. This “gallery” is actually the longest remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall, covered in beautiful street art, and now an unfortunately amount of pointless graffiti. The iconic “Mortal Kiss” is desecrated; a real shame.

The wall is also in danger, considering that part of it was torn down already for retail space. It’s an important part of history and I hope to see it better preserved. Walking along it, you can see a wonderful harmony of different styles, all with similar expressions of a desire for peace and reconciliation. I wish my understanding of this part of history was better, but at the very least I have an overall understanding now, coupled with a sense of what it looked and felt like.

Another walk in this area was along Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly Stalinallee, in former East Berlin. The architectural style is markedly different. The wide streets and simple, somewhat dreary off-white buildings are something I’ve gotten used to now that I’m in Russia, but you can feel, even without being told, that you’re not in west Berlin any more!

Berlin  ChurchThe side of Berlin that I want to go back and explore the most is the alternative side. I was lucky enough to Couchsurf with a German girl who also happened to be a metalhead! Right off the bat, we had music in common. She also loves Scandinavia and the Nordics, so we talked about wanting to go (or go back) to various countries in the north. And, best of all, she took me to a bar where they play only metal, with a viking theme. I could practically live there. I’d love to go back to Berlin and just spend a few weeks or months getting to know every neighbourhood in depth, make some friends, and generally get a feel for the while city. It has a lot to offer.Aside from the more depressing parts of Berlin’s history, there’s a lot of beauty in the city. The opulent old buildings, which I assume are restored and not original, decorate the streets and squares.

The impressive Museum Island is home to, well, museums, and also a beautiful church. Speaking of museums, one of the best I went to was the main history museum, a massive building with a massive array of exhibits set inside a beautiful interior. I chose to explore the sections on history before the war: even I’d had enough of WWII history. It was great to see Germany’s rich history and heritage, learn a little more about how its borders have changed over hundreds of years. There were samples of household items and other objects, as well as paintings, and one of my favourites was a small section of modern home furnishings at the beginning of the 1900’s… which looked very similar to something made in the 60’s and 70’s. Hmmm.

While I only had a few days, I filled them up with a fraction of what there is to see and do in Berlin. I was sad to leave, but happy to go to Norway!