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Tuesday
Aug232005

Siberia

Last night was the final on the train for awhile. I get to shower soon!

In the afternoon yesterday we played the trans-Siberian olympics. Our team was myself, John, Troy, Jodie and Niamh. The first round was trivial pursuit, which we narrowly lost. I am no good at trivia, I tell myself that they ask the wrong questions. I did get ambergris though (whale vomit used in perfume). The next round was leap-frog down the train, which John and Jodie won for us (they beat Luke and Angela). The third round was matryoshka doll unpacking and repacking, I took that round because I said I was used to fiddly dissections fast, and we won that over Kate. The fourth round was most crazy hairstyle, we managed to stick a dozen plastic forks, a few matryoshka dolls and a watch in Niamh's hair to beat Monica. The fifth round was gargling happy birthday, which Troy won over Sinead. The final round was Russian trivia, which was excellent for us, as it was bits about history, tsars, 1812, stories about statues etc, just the things that I like to note down.

As the afternoon wore on we passed through still more heavily industrial Siberian towns and more verdant taiga. A few more stops. It is noticeable that the Russians wear less and less clothes as the trip goes on (they treat the railway in the way we treat a beach weekend).

The lady next door (celebrating her 40th) came and bothered us drunk again. Well, I don't mind, although it is odd since she doesn't even speak English, but it was a bit much and everyone evacuated and I was trapped with her. She was quite forward, it became really uncomfortable until John rescued me. We all had a celebratory vodka for getting rid of her.

This morning we are getting off the train. We have come 5185km from Moscow to Irkutsk.

 

A brief history of the trans-Siberian

The railway was initiated by Alexander III in 1891. It consists of the western Siberian track (built from 1892-96 from Moscow to Novosibirsk), the central Siberian track (built in 1893-98 to Irkutsk, with three 1km bridges through the mountains and valleys), and the Circumbaikal track. The Circumbaikal track was the hardest to build, from 1901-04 for the short track around Lake Baikal with its steep cliffs. It required 33 tunnels and 100 bridges, and two icebreakers to carry the trains across the Lake while the Circumbaikal was being built. From here, the track becomes the Transbaikal track (built in 1895-1900) to Ulan Ude. Once we get here, we split off on the 2080km trans-Mongolian track (built in bits and pieces, finished in 1956), while the trans-Manchurian and trans-Siberian tracks also split off. The first train to make the trans-Siberian trip was in 1900 (which used the ice-breakers to cross Lake Baikal) or 1916 for a train-only journey. Our trip from Moscow to Beijing will be a total of 7857km. From Prague to Moscow, Luke and I are travelling about 10 000km by train.

Monday
Aug222005

Siberia

Day four on the train. Day two we passed through the Ural mountains, officially crossing from Europe to Asia. We got to hop off twice for twenty minutes, where I ran around saying 'be-ez me-asa, niet me-asa", trying to find vegetarian food. I had a pastry with egg, potato and coriander.

Second stop had only dried fish.

One the second night we had our Chapka party. We all dressed up in bad Russian hats we had bought, and drank huge amounts of vodka. All the Russians on the train started laughing at us, especially when we filled the corridor for a photo, or went to the restaurant cart.

We kept on teasing Luke for calling the Urals one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world (we didn't even notice crossing them) and for talking about the grand Volga. Managed to get away from drunk Russian firemen with some difficulty.

Woke up on day three to the da-de da-dut of the train. Spent almost the entire day semi-asleep in bed, just dreaming.

We passed through Omsk, the closest I will ever get to Kazakhstan, and also the place where Dostoevsky was exiled.

Small party, the Russian lady in the cabin next door had her 40th birthday party and wanted everyone to join in. Even the provinista's crammed into the small cabin.

Day four. Deep into Siberia now. May not be able to sleep without the motion and clicking tomorrow night. More steppe. More taiga.

Sunday
Aug212005

On the trans-Siberian railroad...

I woke up yesterday morning at 10am, so dehydrated that desiccated is a better description. I skipped the Saturday souvenir market to write emails and buy bread, cheese and vodka for the trans-Siberian railway.

On the railroad. In my sleeper cabin is Angela (a paramedic from Canberra), John and Luke. I lay on my bed perfectly relaxed, listening to the click of the railroad and feeling the gentle swaying. Afer dinner we broke out the vodka and had a party in the cabin - Karen and the Irish girls joined usLuke and John posed for photos for us, and we all had lots of fun.

A good night's sleep, and no need to wake up and do anything. I basked in a warm glow for a few hours, and meandered around the train. I have days with nothing much to do, and no guilt for not doing even those few activities that are available. Haven't even read much yet.



Saturday
Aug202005

Disco bowling in Moscow

What a day! In the morning we visited the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin (so archetypically Russian that it is known as The Kremlin) was founded by Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is an enormous complex surrounded by 2.25km of walls (not the original 1360s white limestone walls but Ivan the Great's 1475 walls), with dozens of churches, cathedrals, museums, and major political buildings inside, spanning all eras of Russian history.

The highlights (for me) were a pile of 800 cannons captured from Napoleon in 1812 at Borodino, the golden domed Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, the Archangel Cathedral, with exquisite 1500's paintings and the tombs of all tsars from 1320-1690 (except Boris Godvnor), the tsars cannon (called the peaceful cannon, it has never been fired but was wheeled out to scare the Mongols in the 1200s with its 1m diameter), and Ivan the Great's bell tower. Next to the bell tower is Tsar-kolokol, a 202 tonne bell (the largest in the world) cast for Empress Anna Ivanovna (the one Luke likes) in 1730. Just after it was finished the workshop caught fire and the bell was doused with water, cracking it. I touched the 70 tonne piece that fell off for luck.

The Annunciation Cathedral was interesting because it had a porch built onto it for Ivan the Terrible to sit in, because he wasn't allowed to enter after he defied the Church to take a fourth wife.

When Napoleon took the Kremlin in 1812 he planted explosives in all the buildings before he evacuated, luckily Cossacks rode in and cut the fuses, so most buildings are original.

We also saw the amazing Armoury, with the staggering treasures accumulated by the tsars. Too many to mention, but my favourites were the tsar's Faberge eggs, the chalice of Yuri Longarm, a chain mail suit made up of 120 000 rings, each engraved with "God is with us", and the many ambassadors gifts. The silverware from 14th century England is important, because it is unique, as Oliver Cromwell melted down al the British silverware to mint coins after he executed the British kings and turned Britain into a republic (incidentally, this incident caused a cessation in trade between Russia and England, as the tsars did not approve of republics). I saw the Olympic dinner set, 120 pieces given from Napoleon to Alexander at Tilsbet in the 1807 peace treaty. One quirky item was a triple goblet, given to people as a practical joke. If they tried to drink it fast, they it spilt over themself and everyone laughed. If they knew the trick and sipped the interconnected chalices slowly everyone applauded.

Another quirky item was the double throne of Peter and Ivan, crowned as kings together as boys. Peter had a secret booth installed in the throne for an advisor to tell him what to say, giving him the reputation of being wise at age 10. Although, it was not in the end a false reputation, as Peter became Peter the Great, the wisest tsar, a skilled bootmaker, craftsman and shipwright in addition to being the first tsar to lead the army, conquering new territory and founding St Petersburg.

 After lunch Luke, John and I caught the metro to Kolomenskoye. It is world heritage listed, but most buildings were under repair, so it wasn't too impressive. We went to a cafe for coffee, beers and vodka and chatted about US politics. We met the Irish girls for dinner (borscht) and went bowling, which included half a dozen beers and a fair few vodka shots. Bowling was disco style too, which was very exciting. The Russian couple next to us accidently bowled a ball into our alley, and to make up for it Dimitri and Olya bought us a bottle of champagne, a flask of vodka, and four pizzas. Olya started bowling all of our shots (only gutter balls, she was wasted), and Monica started ballroom dancing with Dimitri. When Monica passed out I carried her to her room with Niamh and held a bucket for her to throw up in.



Friday
Aug192005

The Moscow Metro

Today Karen told me an amusing urban legend. Stalin was meeting with the city planners trying to fix the transportation issues. The metro system was excellent for getting in or out of Moscow, but took a long time to go from one outer spot to another. The city planners racked their brains, and couldn't fix the problem. Finally Stalin stood up, put his coffee cup down on the map, and said it was a problem for tomorrow. The next day they came back, lifted the coffee cup off the map and saw that it made a brown circle line around the city centre. The city planners applauded Stalin and built the brown circle line.



Thursday
Aug182005

The seedy side of Piter

Last night before catching the train to Moscow, we went on a walking tour of Piter run by Nochlezhka (Night Shelter). They are an NGO that looks after the homeless in Piter. Homelessness is a huge problem in Russia, with 10% of the population affected, including 54 000 in Piter alone. The big problem is because all Russians have a passport, but the passport needs to have a registration stamp with your current address in it. If you don't have this stamp you can't get a job, you can't get medical treatment, and you are not allowed to leave the city you are in. What a stupid system! The people that need the help can't get it. They end up sorting through garbage for something to eat and bottles to recycle. Our guide said she was touched when she saw someone sitting on the garbage reading a book she had found in it.

We pretty much just walked around Nevsky (and a few of the more dodgy areas just to the north), but it was interesting to hear a few new facts about Piter. For example, the bridge with four horses and four naked men holding them is locally called "18 ball bridge"... counts... 16 for the statues, when we asked why 18, she said it is because there is always a policeman standing on the bridge.

The Catherine the Great square is strictly divided down the middle, with one side being the popular gay hangout, and the other being the old Russian chess champion side. We went to an old alternative theatre where they show Japanese movies from the 50's (apparently it is the only place in Piter which always smells like hash), and a local theatre that is the lesbian culture centre - interestingly the lesbian symbol in Piter in a double headed axe for some reason. We saw a Roma doing an act with a crocodile, and we passed by two pubs, one which has New Years Eve every night, and one which has a wedding every night.

We saw Paul I's castle, which he had painted peach because it was the colour of his lover's gloves. Paul I was murdered like every tsar except Alexander I (who drank himself to death).

In the bad neighbourhood we saw the common flats, where multiple families live in the same flat. Our guide told us that to divide the electricity bill, the single toilet in the flat can have a dozen light bulbs with a dozen switches, so each family uses their own light bulb. 15% of people in Piter still live in these common flats. Also, our guide read out the local graffiti, which is always things like "I love you". There is almost never mean graffiti in Russia.

Finally, we saw the small sparrow statues, down in the canal. The small gray birds flitter down around the canals. This statue is just by the law school, which is all boys and they are surrounded by a moat and wear all gray. There is a nursery rhyme which goes (when translated) "little gray bird where are you going, I'm going to the canal to have a vodka, two vodka, three vodka". Every child sings it.

Moscow

Overnight train to Moscow, how exotic! The largest city in Europe with 13 million people, but unlike Piter it has a wholly Russian feel to it. It was founded in the 1500's by Yuri Longarm who defeated the Tartars. It was made great by Ivan the Terrible, who founded the Kremlin and built St Basils. In 1703 the capital of Russia was moved to Piter, but the city still remained the hub of Russia, which has only increased since the Soviets moved the capital back.

We saw the seven sisters, huge neo-gothic skyscrapers built because Stalin feared that New York looked more powerful than Moscow. Lucky for him he had the guy who designed the Empire State Building in the Gulags, so he pulled him out of the labour camp and had him build the seven sisters.

We caught the metro through the city. Like Piter the stations were magnificent, with a variety and quality of decoration equal to that in the Hermitage and the best cathedrals. The stations were deep (they were built with bomb shelters in mind) but not as deep as Piter's. The metro network is the largest in the world, with 120 stations and 9 million users per day. I love a good public transport system. We caught a ferry along the Moscow River and saw the gold tipped onion domes of the Church of Christ our Saviour (built after 1812, destroyed by the Soviets and recently rebuilt to the original plans), as well as many small but exquisite Russian orthodox churches. We passed a 70m towering statue of Peter the Great. At least they call it Peter the Great, but actually it was commissioned by Santiago in the States as a statue of Christopher Colombus. They paid in advance for French architects to make me, but were horrified to see the result and turned it down. The architects tried selling it, but eventually they changed the face to pretend it was Peter the Great (still wearing old Spanish clothes) and gave it to Moscow. The residents of Moscow hate it so much there are attempts to blow it up every year, so it is under 24 hour surveillance. Walked around the Kremlin (all 70 acres of it), a massive red fortress wall containing many churches and political buildings, and saw Red Square and the amazing St Basil's church (with the most colourful patterns of onion domes). Saw the outside of the Mauleseum where Lenin's embalmed body is kept, and the building where the CHEKA (later to become KGB) was set up. Tried to find Noveskya, but failed.

Wednesday
Aug172005

Leningrad

Yesterday I saw a side of Piter that I haven't seen before - Leningrad. We did a walking tour with Peter's (an alternative tour guide style, it involves using public transport and walking a lot), who was excellent. During WWII (or as the Russian's call it, the Great Patriotic War), 28 million Russians died, more than all the other countries put together. Apart from Stalingrad, no city suffered as Leningrad did.

Leading up to the German invasion was the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact and the division of Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence". This allowed the Germans to take Poland, and the Russians to take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They also took a 200km strip of land from Finland in the Winter War (which lasted three months and killed 70 000 Finns and 200 000 Russians) to protect the northern approach to Leningrad. Because of this mutual pact, Stalin ordered there to be no aggression to the Germans when Hitler built up his forces on the Polish border. Germans did fly-overs across the border, and Stalin ordered the anti-aircraft guns not to fire. This put off the war for a few months, until, on the 22nd of June, 1941, the Germans flew over and dropped bombs. The Russians were so afraid of Stalin that even then they didn't fire the anti-aircraft guns, and for three days (until news reached Stalin in Moscow and he gave new orders) the Russian army sat and did nothing during the bombing, with tens of thousands killed in days. The line broken, the Russians had to retreat back, ceding hundreds of kilometres, such that by the 8th of September the Germans had reached Leningrad. They never meant to cause a siege, as Hitler planned on simply running over the city and removing it from the face of the earth (as the birthplace of communism), but general Zhukov was flown in, and through enormous sacrifice of life they managed to build a barrier to stop the Germans. Still, the Germans blocked off the southern route, and the Finns joined them and retook the land ceded in the Winter War, blocking off the northern route. Leningrad was then encircled, with the Baltic sea to the west, and Lake Ladoga to the east. The siege lasted for 900 days (until the 27th of Jan, 1944), during which over a million people were killed, which, with the evacuation of refugees, brought the population down from 3.3 million to 800 000.

We caught a tram to the southern defence line of Leningrad, which is in the outer suburbs. Trams are very cool in Piter, since they were made to railway gauge, which makes them unique. Therefore no one makes trams that work on them, so the old 1960's trams are still used. The tram network is the largest in the world. Down south we saw the intact "pill boxes" small reinforced concrete bunkers, which made up the line of defence with trenches linking up units. We also saw the "dragon teeth" - pyramid shaped concrete slabs, tank trenches (3m x 5m trenches), and "hedgehogs" (like giant caltrops made from railway lines) to stop the progression of tanks. Much of this is left along the front, so we walked along the line, looking at the old defences.

For the first 500 days of the siege, Leningrad was completely cut off. There was no firewood (so all the fireplaces were boarded up to prevent loss of heat, even now they are almost all boarded up), very little food (100g of bread was the daily ration), and no petrol or electricity to run transport. What the survivors remember the most is the silence of Leningrad during the siege, with no traffic on the street. People were too exhausted to do anything other then walk up the road to get filthy water from the canals (all water supplies were destroyed in the first wave of bombs). The first winter ('41/'42) was the third coldest winter on record, and people froze to death in their sleep without firewood. The only way limited supplies got into the city was via the "Road of Life" - when Lake Ladoga froze solid trucks could drive across the ice (always risky while the Germans were bombing the ice down), and when it was liquid boats could make the dangerous journey. The freezing/thawing times were the worst, Leningrad had to survive by itself. After a year and a half, a pincer movement succeeded, and the Russians retook a land-route so more supplies made it into the city.

We saw a KB85 tank (the heavy Russian tanks), and Peter told us about the T34, which has a fast highly mobile tank with a quick turret rotation speed, such that Russians used to drive through German lines, then turn around and fire before the Germans could, allowing them to win Kirsk, the largest tank battle in history.

We walked along the Alley of 900 days, lined with 900 birch trees, then visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, seeing a short film made up of silent black and white images caught during the siege. Very powerful, very solemn. Going on in the background was a metronome, the ticking of which was played on the only Leningrad radio station except when alarms were called or news was being broadcast. The metronome was meant to be like a heart-beat, and they speed it up during air raids. It is a very powerful symbol to the Leningrad survivors, since they listened to it religiously for 900 days. The radio station is still going even today, playing only the metronome.

We also walked around some of the Siege of Leningrad cemeteries, although many many more bodies are unburied. Even now 100-1000 bodies are found every year, and only a month ago a fully functional Soviet tank was pulled up from the river.

 

Back to Piter

While we were in the southern suburbs, Luke and I had lunch in a local bakery (mmm...). Peter joined us, and we discussed modern Russian politics (which I really should know more of than I do). We then visited the tallest Lenin statue in the world (9m) and saw the candy-cane style Chesma church, with its pink and white strips. So pretty you could eat it all up. We then caught the metro to the Haymarket, visited the flat where Dostoevsky lived while he wrote Crime and Punishment, then we walked to where Raskolnikov was meant to live, and followed his pathway down to Kokushkin most, looking out over the canal where he so often contemplated suicide, and through the streets to the pawn-brokers flat. This book meant so much to me when I read it, that it was very moving to be able to walk through the same streets myself, imagine Raskolnikov's emotions.

We had Georgian for dinner with the group, which was excellent. Including lots of beer and vodka toasts. I became quite lively, and possibly gave Luke and John shoulder rides down Nevsky Prospket. I woke up grumpy this morning, with a chipped tooth (? beer glass?)

 

Today

After a slow start, Luke and I spent the day wandered around the Hermitage. The beautiful Winter Palace of the Tsars, now filled with the largest art collection in the world. The tsars (especially Catherine the Great) bought up much artwork, then the Soviets pooled artwork pillaged from all over the USSR, finally, when the conquered Berlin, they took all the German artwork (including those pillaged from all over Europe by the Nazis). It is staggering. What I really enjoy more than the art is the actual rooms of the Hermitage itself, each with its own theme and with ornate ceilings and frescos. We saw all the original Classical Greek and Roman sculptures, 5000 year old Egyptian mummies, 500 000 year old paleolithic art, and ancient Russian culture. Excellent. For lunch Luke had cookies and cream icecream (the best he had ever had) and a hot chocolate, which was so thick he had to use a spoon (he said it was basically hot chocolate moose) and also the best he had ever had. For trying to be healthy I had the worst mushroom quiche I have ever had. I just bought Puskin's Tales of Belkin for the trans-Siberian.

Tuesday
Aug162005

St Petersburg

"Velcome to rrRussia", as the girls we shared the overnight sleeper bunker with said to us with a big grin, as we pulled into Moscow station.

Ah, back in lovely Piter! Last time I was here was with Jodie, during the white nights, and we wandered around the streets of Piter looking at the most magnificent of churches and the St Peter and Paul Fortress, a day looking at the treasures of the Hermitage, we spent a night watching the Kirov ballet perform Swan Lake at the Marinsky theatre. My favourite of cities, one I thought I would never see again, and now here I am!

As always, when reaching civilisation, we caught the subway. The Piter subway is the deepest in the world, because it is built on a swamp at sea level, so they needed to dig down into a clay layer to form waterproof tunnels. The stations look like museums, with ornate marble and statues, each with its own theme. The lady next to us in the metro has a mouth full of gold teeth, which is something you don't see every day. Hoping out, we were hit by a neon Fosters sign, which made Luke laugh.

Dropping off our backpacks at the comfy Soviet-era hotel we are staying at (and pausing for a nice long shower) we caught the metro back into the centre, and walked along Nevsky Prospket, the centre of Piter. We saw the many churches of every denomination, including Kazan which is done in a magnificent neo-classical style. I had seen it last time, but this time I could appreciate that it started in 1801, and was finished during the Napoleonic wars, so Kutuzov and Barclay are buried there, and have large statues out the front. The main players in War and Peace are surrounding me in Europe by their actions, in Europe events two hundred years ago seem so recent because you walk past the same church Napoleon liked, you see the column that Alexander the First erected when he "defeated" Napoleon. The 47.5m column is in between the magnificent Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Winter Palace, now the Hermitage, which was used by the tsars between 1762 and 1917 when they were all killed in the revolution) and the General Staff building (built in 1819 for use by the army, and topped with a Chariot of Victory for the Napoleonic wars). This most magnificent of squares has a special place in my heart, it truly is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

We walked up to the Niva, and stood on the bridge, watching the river flow past, then walked to St Isaac's cathedral. St Isaac's is one of the largest domed buildings in the world. When the Russians built it in 1818, the tsars had to build a new railway in order to cart in the 120 tonne blocks of granite from Finland (you can do that if you are a tsar). It is magnificent, the dome is covered in 100kg of gold leaf, letting it glimmer in the sun as a beacon from anywhere in Piter. We walked along the colonnade around the capola for a bird's-eye view of the city, with its strange blend of heavy industry, deep history and extravagant culture. We walked past the gold-spired Admirality too.

 We strolled along the canals of Piter, and along Anichkov most (a bridge), which was built in 1840. Interestingly there are statues of rearing horses on each corner, and on the South-West corner the horses penis is shaped like a face. Two tales explain this - one is that it is shaped like Napoleon, the other is that it is in the image of the sculptor’s unfaithful wife's lover. We visited the Church on Spilled Blood (so named because it is built in the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1883), the most glorious church built in Russian Orthodox style, with colourful domes and ornate work. It really is indescribable. I bought a 5 Kopeck coin that was minted in 1812, and imagined that it was used by those rebuilding after the sack of Moscow. Mmm... I love my Russian history, and nothing makes history more personal than being able to hold it in your hand and pretend that you were there.

After wandering around we meet up with our group for this part of the trip, with whom we pretty much only stay and catch the train with, giving us lots of free time to explore. The trip leader's name is Karen. We went out for dinner, and drank beer in an underground cavern that you wouldn't have spotted as a pub. Lots of fun.



Sunday
Aug142005

Latvia!

A bus trip to Latvia, because the train from Vilnius to Riga runs through Belarus, and they are a bit paranoid about foreigners. There was the most annoying American tourist on the bus seat behind me, he started making comments about "blacks not trying to integrate into white society" etc etc, so I started to argue with him and pummelled him on racism, lack of welfare, reduced rights for homosexuals. I don't think he really expected it and keep on saying things like "well... I can see that you have a point, but I don't think it would actually work", which I loved because I could use Scandinavian examples to demonstrate that it would. I disliked him (he was a really racist Texan military supplier in Iraq, a self proclaimed "fundamentalist conservative Christian) so I kept calm and used a debating style to crush him. Some of the people around started to laugh at him.

Yes, it is mean, but anytime someone tries to tell me that "blacks are criminal by nature", that "homosexual marriage degrades the holy tradition", "you can't trust Muslims unless they are afraid of you" or uses "y'all", then not disagreeing is tacitly agreeing. I don't see why only ignorant bigots should be outspoken. On gay marriage he actually changed his position, first he agreed that they should have the full rights of a married couple, as long as they didn't call it marriage (a big jump for a Republican Texan). I then asked why shouldn't they call it marriage, and he said that it destroyed the holiness of marriage. He was surprised to find out that Christians didn't actually invent marriage, so it should at least be considered to be a multi-religion event, and grudgingly accepted my argument that once the State was allowed to marry atheists without any religious personage involved, marriage stopped being a purely "holy" event. Luke stopped feeling sorry for him later on in the trip, when he stopped talking to me and started to badger the poor girl next to him into letting him sleep at her house that night. It was disgusting to listen.

In Riga now. Hop off the bus, and try to organise transport to St Petersburg. Hmm... all the buses booked until the 24th of August? Oh dear. But it was okay - the trains had spare first class seats for tonight, so a day and a half to look around, then off to Petie. Accommodation was harder - I have heard that it is tough in Riga, but I was still surprised that every single place in the Lonely Planet was booked out. We went to the information office, and she said (with a shocked look on her face) "you want accommodation in Riga". Luke and I fell in love with her as she rang up every place around, finding us a hotel room in a town close to Riga, and then (even better) two beds in Riga itself, even if it was above a stripclub.

That settled, we wandered around the streets of Riga, the usual routine in a new city. Riga is full of churches, giving it a beautiful skyline of spires, and the most gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings with elaborate design. One of the cute little surprises was the number of cats - we saw three kitten chase each other in and out of grates leading into the basement. So cute. At nightfall, Riga really came alive, but I found it rather unattractive. There were strip clubs everywhere (and we were constantly hassled to visit), and while sitting drinking in a bar we watched a group of girls pretend to have a hen's night, visiting each pub and asking tourists if they would give the bride 5 Lats ($10) for a kiss, to "help pay for the wedding". Would have been endearing if it wasn't a scam. Walking back to the hostel, the sky was the most magnificent swirl of black and the deepest blue you have ever seen.

Last night this crazy guy walked into the dorm and slept on someone else's bed. They weren't happy about it. He snored really badly.

Today we kept on investigating the city. We saw the 14th century Powder Tower, which still has Russian cannonballs embedded in it. We visited the House of Blackheads (the guild of unmarried merchants), originally built in 1344 but ripped down by the Soviets and rebuilt in 2000. We saw the Dome Cathedral, with the forth largest organ in the world, and the small and rather unimpressive Riga castle. St Peter's Cathedral was nice, built in 1209 it has a excellent viewing tower that we went up to look down on the city (it is not as nice from the sky). The tower kept on burning down when it was built, in 1667 they rebuilt it, and threw a sheet of glass from the top. The number of pieces it landed in was the number of years it would last. It landed on a bale of straw and didn't break (this seems rather unlikely to me...), and the next year burnt down again. When it was rebuilt in 1973 they threw another sheet of glass down, moved the straw, and it broke into thousands of pieces.

We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which Luke really enjoyed (I thought it was good too). Quite a similar history to Lithuania, with Soviet-Nazi-Soviet occupation (until 1991). We saw the Freedom Monument which was illegal to visit during the occupation. While waiting for Luke I had lunch in a Turkish restaurant, served by bellydancers.

Oh, and Latvia has bankomats too.

Not long now until... Russia!



Friday
Aug122005

Lithuania

Ah, lovely Lithuania.

We trained through Eastern Poland and Western Lithuania. The countryside became less manicured and populated as we travelled east, we started to see lots of cranes, horse, geese, and (of course) cows. Quite a bucolic feel. At the border the passport control soldiers came on, and carefully looked at our passports before stamping them (well, mine at least, Luke has the advantage of a British passport, but personally I like my stamps), occasionally stroking his gun. Ugh, I hate having people with guns around me. People are crazy, I don't like them having the ability to instantly kill me if they choose. Quite unlike the Polish passport guard, who got bored halfway through our cabin, and forgot to check my passport at all (no Polish stamp).

Further into Lithuania we started to see some of the ex-soviet heavy industry, including the nuclear power plant sister to that in Chernobyl. A stop over in the middle of nowhere (well, the middle of Lithuania, I guess) then off the quirky Vilnius.

And quirky was the right word for it. It had its charm, with beautiful buildings and churches, but nothing like Prague, Krakow or Warsaw. The buildings were not restored to the same level, but it had a very festive atmosphere to it. Luke and I sat down and had a few beers and a pizza (Luke still hasn't managed to find anything other than chips or pizza to eat in Europe, my pizza was a "vegetable pizza", which unlike my one in Prague did not have cucumber on), then just people-watched. Luke was happy to note that the girls were even prettier than in Poland, which I could hardly dispute with their beautiful long legs. Cultural difference was interesting - we almost never saw two Lithuanian girls walking around together without holding hands. I think it is lovely, physical contact enhances friendship, and it is pleasant to walk around holding hands with friends, and sad that you can only do this with a partner in most cultures.

Our second day in Vilnius started with an exit of Lithuania, and a visit to the Independent Republic of Uzupias. In Vilnius, after they achieved independence finally from the Prussians, Russians, Germans and Russians (again), a small group of idealistic artists declared their suburb Uzupias (in the bend in the River Vilnele) to be an Independent Republic. They have their own passport control (but we didn't see them, maybe they couldn't be bothered that day, hey Poland didn't try hard either) and own constitution, and Luke and I loved it.

We criss-crossed the Republic several times, and had breakfast in its only restaurant (mmm... omlette). The Republic was full of crumbling old buildings, lovely statues (such as the Angel of Uzupias in the middle, and a mermaid in the small river that surrounds it) and paintings. Their constitution is engraved on metal plaques in French, English and Lithuanian. While reading the constitution Luke was hit by a van, but it was only a nudge.

 

This is their constitution:

1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.

2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.

3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.

4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.

5. Everyone has the right to be unique.

6. Everyone has the right to love.

7. Everyone has the right to not be loved, but not necessarily.

8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.

9. Everyone has the right to idle.

10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.

11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.

12. A dog has the right to be a dog.

13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.

14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.

15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.

16. Everyone has the right to be happy.

17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.

18. Everyone has the right to be silent.

19. Everyone has the right to have faith.

20. No one has the right to violence.

21 16. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.

22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.

23. Everyone has the right to understand.

24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.

25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.

26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.

27. Everyone shall remember their name.

28. Everyone may share what they possess.

29. No one may share what they do not possess.

30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.

31. Everyone may be independent.

32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.

33. Everyone has the right to cry.

34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.

35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.

36. Everyone has the right to be an individual.

37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.

38. Everyone has the right to not be afraid.

39. Do not defeat.

40. Do not fight back.

41. Do not surrender.

 

After leaving Uzupias to return to Vilnius, Luke and I visited the Museum to Genocide Victims, which is in the old KGB/NKVD headquarters. The Lithuanians never really had a good time since the downfall of the Lithuanian empire, with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1940 sealing their doom. The agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets allowed Stalin to invade Lithuania and rule it, killing or deporting 40 000 Lithuanians. When the Nazis broke the pact and invaded Lithuania, they were much worse, killing 300 000 in concentration camps (including wiping out the Jews) between 1941-44. The Soviet recapture heralded a wave of retribution killings for "collaborating" with the Nazis (and paranoid Stalin random killing), with 200 000 killed or deported to Siberia. This wave of terror was started by Iron Felix, and run by the KGB/NKVD where the museum now is. It was interesting to see a painting of Iron Felix, about whom I have read so much but never seen a picture, and to tour the old Soviet prisons. We saw the room of water torture, which has a small platform in the middle of the room surrounded by ice-cold water, where the prisoners had to balance on the platform for days, or stand/sleep in ice-cold water and freeze to death. There was also a padded room for prisoners that went insane after torture, and there were pictures of the Lithuanian partisans who resisted the Soviets. So sad to think that only in 1990 did Lithuania finally become independent.

Afterwards for some lighter viewing we visited the world's only statue to Frank Zappa. We walked around Katedros aikete (the Cathedral Square) and visited the Vilnius Cathedral. We looked for the stebuklas (miracle tile, if you spin around it your wishes come true), but couldn't find it. We walked through the Old Town, and looked at the old Baroque churches, and St Anne's church (in gothic style). It was nice, but I'm not quite sure why Napoleon picked that one to say he wished he could take it home in the palm of his hand. We walked up to Gedimino Tower, the only remaining tower of the High Castle of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and visited the Higher Castle Museum.

It was sad to see that Lithuania has no "bankomats", preferring to call them ATMs.

Come evening, we sat in the Old Town to drink some pear cider (very easy to drink, nice and smooth, a little bit sweet), then wandered off to view the Red Army vistory statues on the Green Bridge (the only Soviet statues that weren't pulled down, because everyone says they look nice). Another few ciders, and then a beer wagon rode past (a mobile bar with eight people cycling and drinking beer, one working the keg and drinking beer, and one steering and drinking beer. Must be tough on the cobblestones), so we took that as a sign and went to drink in Uzupias. We had beer glasses that held a litre each (just as well, nothing keep you warm like a few litres of beer), and looked at the menu. My favourites were "rings of Squids" which sounds like a bad sci-fi movie, but I choose some type of vegetable bake. We then ordered this little wooden tray which came out with six double shots of various liquors. As we were sitting in the only bar in Uzupias, which overhangs the river, a kyaker shot past. Vilnius is a very peculiar city indeed.