Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Russia: a journey and a puteshestvie

Ivan the Great belltower/ Колокольня Иван ВеликийImage by liilliil via Flickr

I'm loving the BBC series Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby. A journey across ten thousands miles of Russia that started in Murmansk and then follows Dimbleby to the other side of the country. It's being lauded as a landmark production, and the quality of the programming is without doubt. It's also great to see Russia and Russians up close in such detail. This is a country where the language needs a whole book (or maybe two) to list all the ways of saying 'to go', and where a real journey isn't just a journey but a, untranslatable, puteshestvie. You need to travel Russia to really see it and to really appreciate it.

My own travel in Russia has been limited - I've wanted to take the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian across the country but to date my train journeys have been much shorter. I lived in St Petersburg for a few months once and we often travelled to Moscow for weekends by train. Usually sharing benches or bunks with Russian military who wanted to do little more than drink the night away. Great for my Russian (and for my vodka drinking skills!) but the last time I took the trip I did it in a different style.

At least ten trains travel between Moscow and St Petersburg every night and they are almost always all full. The premium choice is train number 001/001 - the Red Arrow (Krasnaya strela, Красная стрела). We boarded this sleek train shortly before midnight at the the Leningradskii Station in Moscow. We were welcomed by a friendly provodnitsa with blankets, a breakfast boxand to take our drinks requests. A band plays us off as we leave the station, and we down vodka - this time in official Russian Railways glasses, not direct from the bottle of a drunken soldier next to me.

The train has everything you need - restaurant, bar, samovar for hot water. And if you're in one of the new deluxe cabins you even get a DVD and entertainment system. Or you can just settle back and enjoy the eight hour journey across European Russia to St Petersburg. Although don't miss all the excitement. The Russians enjoy journeys and the train is alive with drunkards playing cards and drinking vodka, families moving house, grandmas going back home from a visit to the capital, businessmen off for a day's work and then young people - here to have fun away from home. Just wander up and down the train to soak up the vibrancy, or settle down in the bar and let the vibrancy come to you.

You arrive next morning in St Petersburg - a truly beautiful city in a way Moscow never was and never could be. Be warned though: the Moskovskii station at St Petersburg has a chilly wind blowing through it's tall communist-design at the best of times, and in winter months leaving the warm and homely train will probably be a struggle.

You don't need to buy train tickets in advance. In fact the prices quoted on sites that sell tickets to westerners seem extortionate. If you turn up the day before and are either not too fixed on a certain train, or are buying the more expensive tickets, then you will be able to buy them direct from the station at Moscow or St Petersburg. You'll need some Russian (or to have written down what you want on paper) to get what you want and the staff aren't renowned for their politeness. But a bit of persistence and you'll get what you came for. You may also have visa problems - technically you need a stamp covering your entire stay and you won't get one on the train. Don't worry though - most visa agencies abroad, and many hotels in Russia, will sort this out for you.

These hassles aside, the real Russian travel experience begins at the station so join the locals on their puteshestvie.

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Monday, 19 May 2008

Indiana Jones in Iguazu

Devil's throat from the Brazilian side.Image via Wikipedia

I saw a trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie this afternoon and noticed that they're including scenes from the Iguazu Falls.

The Iguazu Falls are at the point where Argentina meets Brazil and Paraguay. They are much larger than Niagra Falls - when Eleanor Roosevelt saw them she reported said "Poor Niagra!" - and are apparently rivalled only by Victoria Falls at the Zimbabwe / Zambia border. But having been to both, I can honestly say that nothing quite compares to Iguazu.

The falls are split between the Brazilian and Argentines sides - possibly more impressive on the latter but better viewed from the former. I splashed out after three frugal weeks in Argentina and stayed at the Sheraton Iguazu - deep in the jungle of the national park in Argentina and with fantastic views of the falls. At night you have the sound of the jungle to one side and the echoing sound of the falls on the other.

The Brazilian side gives you the best view of the whole falls and the Argentine the best for exploring. Go across the border first thing to take in the views then come back to spend the rest of the day (and maybe the next day) exploring the Argentine national park.

What marks the Iguazu Falls out as more remarkable than Victoria Falls is quite how close you can get to the water. You can walk under, along, over and through the falls. At one point you can get a boat across the base of a falls to an island at the bottom of the cataract. At another point you can follow walkways across the rivers at the top of the falls to stand right at the edge in the middle of the gushing water.

Really impressive stuff.

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Lamu: a dhow trip from anywhere

View from window of Restaurant at Stone House Hotel in Lamu, Kenya, photo by Kevin Borland, July, 2001.Image via Wikipedia

This weekend the Times Travel section has a great article on Lamu, an island in the north of Kenya. The article looks at villas and self-catering locations you can rent in town but when I was there last October I stayed at the Lamu Palace hotel - a rambling old palace with large airy rooms, friendly owners and the fantastic view over the bay.

Lamu really is a place like no other. On the Swahili coast of Africa - like a less-touristy Zanzibar or a more evocative Mozambique Island. It's an old island and a traditional one There are no cars (apart from a police Land Rover and an ambulance) and your only options for getting around are by bike, donkey or to hail a passing dhow for a trip round the coast. You arrive by plane on a landstrip opposite Lamu and are met by a fleet of dhows ready to take you over to the island. Once there, the narrow streets (no need to design them for cars) wind through markets and past beautiful old villas and palaces. Little restaurants and shops, and the odd gallery, dot the town.

I visited in November, at the time of the Lamu Cultural Festival and probably one of the busier times of the year. There were about 20 people on my Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi, via Malindi! The festival meant that every spare public place had been turned into an outdoor art gallery or music venue. Daily dhow racing was followed by the donkey races, swimming through the harbour for the local children and ancient rituals performed by the local men.

I went to get away from it all and relax, soak up some sun, some culture and to see the festival. I'd recommend Lamu for anybody wanting any of these things.

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