Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rostov on Don

It was about 5pm when I got to downtown Rostov on Don after the 10 hour bus ride from Volgograd.
I had a 3am train to catch from Rostov to Kharkov ,Eastern Ukraine the next morning.This leaves me with more than 6 hours in the city.But i wasn't keen on walking around the city when it got dark.Asking for buses to get to the city, I wasn't looking to see any attraction in particular.Perhaps some food to last me the night.

Downtown rostov looks like just another city .Nice cafe , shops and neat sidewalks.Young people were walking to the parks for their dates.As night descended , I returned back to the train station , surfing the net and pricking myself to stay awake to catch my train.

Trains in Russia do not wait for passengers.They leave on time and I was not keen on missing another train!The militsa came around to scream at people lying on the benches."If you want to lie down and sleep , go to the hotels!"

Leaning on my backpack for support ,nodding off and jolting up ,checking my watch, I just couldn't wait to get to the Ukraine.

The bus ride from Volgograd to Rostov on Don

While bus rides might seem boring to many,this one deserved some special mention from me because I had my first freaky encounter on this bus.There is always plenty of space for first times isn't it!

After Marina and I parted ways at the bus station at Volgograd, I got on the bus,relieved that I was finally on my way to Rostov.I didn't sleep much at the train station the night before and needed some rest.The trip will take almost 10hours which means that I had an hour or 2 to still go to downtown Rostov to check it out.

In bus trips like these, there are normally 2 bus drivers.There was a 40+year old driver and a  50+year old driver.It was a 40person bus.The bus departed from Volgograd and I was the only passenger on it.It was totally weird.For the next 2 hours , the bus drove into smaller villages to pick up passengers but no one got on.

the 50+ year old bus driver came up to me and chatted.He was curious to find out where I was from and what I was doing alone.Was I married?What am I going to do in Rostov.And the question of sex came up.I wasn't fluent in speaking Russian and he knew that I only took classes for about 6-7 months.I pretended not to understand what he was saying once that question came up and thinking that I was clueless , he went on to explain what sex was....,"When a man love a woman...." and went on to put his hand on my thigh.He started giving suggestions as to what I could do in Rostov.Join them at a hotel.

Pushing his hand away , a series of pissed off looks and "нет" (no) ensued.He returned back to the front of the bus to join his fellow driver and talk about this asian girl sitting in the middle of the bus.( Guide books always tell you to sit in front.Well, if you have bus drivers like this , make sure you sit somewhere in the middle where there is a good buffer from harrassment.)

I looked out of the bus.Road and grass plains.I was in the middle of nowhere.I could have been raped and thrown out on the grass plains of southern Russia.Of course that is just my wild imagination.Bus drivers will not risk that.Jobs are hard to come by and they will lose their job if they do something stupid.
Harrassment is just a small thing which I've started to learn how to handle.But it was disgusting that he was in his 50ties and he was making such suggestions to a person he knew that was only 23. What a pedophile!

Another hour of driving into villages to pick up passengers and the bus started filling up.An hour or 2 before reaching Volgograd, the bus was completely packed with people.

By 4pm, I reached Rostov on Don.Scurrying out of the bus , i hurried towards the train station and got my luggage stored at the luggage storage and found a bus to bring me downtown to check out the city when it was still bright.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Alma and Maxim  put me on the 4pm marshrutka from Elista to Volgograd.The marshrutka driver told me that I was not going to make it to Volgograd by 9pm.I had a train going from the train station at 917pm to Rostov on Don.If i miss my train , i'm screwed big time.

Guess what , ,i missed my train but got a more interesting experience instead.I arrived at the city at 920pm.The train had already left.I told the marshrutka driver about my train .He and another passenger started making phonecalls to their friends to ask about the next train out to Rostov.He told me that the next transport out of Volgograd to Rostov was by bus.He dropped me off at the bus station and wished me well.

Here goes.The next bus leaves at 6am the next morning.I bought my ticket.
It is 930pm.Now what?
It was pitch dark outside.I could see the train station from the bus station.But it was separated by a canal.The bus station closes at 11pm.What in the world am I going to do?How do i get to the train station without being mugged?

 Standing at the entrance of the bus station , I saw a young couple walking towards the bus station and I asked them for directions to the train station.Apparently they were going to the train station too.The girl told me to wait for them and she went in to buy her bus ticket.

So it turns out that the girl is from Astrakhan,Marina She had missed her bus back home and needed to buy a ticket for the next bus (departing the next morning ).The boy,Tioma, is from Cheboksary and was waiting for his cruise adventure down the Volga river the next morning.So 3 lost souls found themselves some company.

They brought me to the train station and told me to leave my bags with their's.Let the babushki(grandmothers) guard them.The babushki are waiting for their trains too.So my luggage was lying around with theirs guarded by the babushki for free.It's amazing how much i trusted them.I then left with the 2 russians to have a walk near the Volgograd train station at 10pm at night.

We sat at the park talking about ourselves,thinking about how strange a way it was that we all met.Must have been fate.

After the little walk around, we went back to the train station and slept on the benches.Tioma was a little bored and wanted to know more about Singapore.I happen to have 2 books with photos of Singapore (intended to give them to my friends in Ukraine ) and I let him flip through them,along with the Russian Newsweek magazines that was in my backpack.As I went on typing in my laptop in russian , he leaned over and started correcting my Russian grammar!

Tioma and I had spoken a little about Cheboksary earlier.He never imagined that a girl from so far away would have been to his city and I told him about my experience there.He was astounded by the number of cities in Russia I have visited.Astonished after I said да to every city that he mentioned.And his mouth dropped when I said yes to Cheboksary as well.

My impression of Cheboksary was that of a city with modern and new buildings.He agreed that the city is indeed very modern with the new buildings but it is an old city with it's own unique language,Chuvash (similar to Turkish ).He even let me listent to a song on his mp3 player.

The night at the Volgograd station allowed me to explore the station as well.They have very very nice and clean bathrooms which nobody uses because you have to pay to use them.Western style.Very clean and modern.And they have fantastic hot showers as well.

Sleeping at the station was not exactly very comfortable.Every seat had seat handles and I was too big to squeeze in between the handles to lie straight down.Marina was petite and was able to squeeze between the seat handles and lie down comfortably.

The next morning, we bade Tioma goodbye and left for the bus station where Marina and I had buses departing for our various destinations.

She gave me a mirror she bought from Saint Petersburg as a souvenir and I gave her a bookmark from Singapore.To remember this night in Volgograd.Great company ,great experience.
I'm glad they were my angels in the time of crisis.

I just wish that i had taken down their email addresses.Will be nice to contact them again.
If you readers recognise the 2 russians in my photos, do let them know and get them to drop me an email.Will love to talk to them again.

I don't know what made me trust these 2 russian kids so much.My instincts just told me that they were trustable.And im glad I trusted them and enjoyed their company at the station that night. :)

Volgograd Photos

Elista _ Kalmykia Republic

Many tourists coming to Russia will never imagine that buddhist republics exist here.Afterall, majority of the population in Russia are orthodox christians.

I brought up the idea of checking out Elista (Chess city) of Russia to a friend whom I met in Moscow,Alma.(Alma means apple in the Kalmyk language!)I met Alma during Kickboxing class in Pleshka ( academy where I did my university study exchange in 2009).She is from Elista and she invited me to stay with her during my time in Elista.

After my studies in Petrozavodsk in May 2010, I took a train down to Moscow to catch a bus from Moscow to Elista , on route to the Ukraine where I will be spending 12 days.

It was a 20+hour bus ride from Moscow.Alma had arranged the bus tickets for me with the bus driver.Most of the people on the bus were asian looking.Yes!Asian looking Russians.I felt just at home.Blending into the crowd,except that I was in very shabby backpacker clothes and carrying a huge backpack.

Alma and her brother Maxim greeted me at the bus station and brought me to their very nice apartment in the city center.Her father is the head of the village which rears the best cows.Very impressive indeeed.I wished that I got to see the village too!

Elista indeed does have some impressive attractions.

The golden temple is known to be the biggest temple in Europe.It is a procedure for Buddhists to walk one round around the temple spinning the drums.spin each small drum 3 times and spin the big drums once.Leave a bronze and silve kopek(russian coins) near the drums for blessings.There was a delegation from Saint Petersburg visiting the temple as well.A Kalmyk man was leading them and came up to talk to us when he heard Alma speaking to me in english.He is a lawyer from Saint Petersburg and was showing his delegation from Saint Petersburg the temple.A woman in his delegation has even been to Singapore and she told me about how impressed she was with my country.She spoke about the conference which she attended there and Orchard Road.He even asked the monks to stop and take a photo with me.Priceless!

My gracious hosts later brought me to the famed Chess city.It was 6pm and Chess city was extremely quiet and there was few people in sight.A modern building and many new houses built around it.They were all new,but eeriely empty.These houses are used to house chess players when they come to Elista for chess competitions.A relatively new establishment.This is the brainchild of the currently Kalymkia president who is a huge fan of chess.Kalmykia has churned out some chess prodigies and the students from the city are known to be extremely intelligent as well.Whether this will attract tourists, remains to be seen.But at the point of time when i was there, it was empty, silent and looked like a waste of money....

Alma and her brother brought me out for Shaslik at Elista's best Shaslik eatery that night (barbecued meat-caucasus).It was then i found out that Buddhist people in Russia eat beef but do not eat pork.It seems quite contradictory to the dietary habits of buddhists in Singapore.They invited their cousin, a doctor in Kalmykia along.A charming young man, i hope he earns a decent salary in Elista working as a doctor ( even though i know that doctors are severally underpaid in Russia ).I got to try the famed Kalmyk tea.A tea brewed with horse milk and butter.The tea at this eatery reminded me alot of mushroom soup.It was really unique and good.But it was hard to call it tea for it was so rich.The meal was fantastic and to top it off ,my hosts refused to let me pay the bill.Such graciousness!
 The one attraction that is extremely interesting in Elista is the national museum.Paintings of local Kalmyk artists were featured and there was an exhibition on buddhism as well.The museum has even put up some exhibits of a traveller who had traced the route of Ghengis Khan on a horse.Can you imagine a man riding a horse across different countries these days? Well, that actually happened.Those crazy foreigners!

Elista has some interesting statues showcasing the sufferings of war.Wagons which was used to send the Kalmyks to Siberia during the Stalin regime.There is also has a small russian church at the russian district.The ethnic russians belong to the minority group in Kalmykia.

The problem for tourism in Elista is that the different attractions are pretty far apart in the city and is so much easier to see only if you have a car.My hosts were driving me around to see the best of Elista!

Just before I left Elista,they brought me to a Kalmyk resturant the next day where their ethnic food was cooked.Mutton soup.It was similar to what we had in Singapore.I remember the meals fixed by Alma's granny.A really cheerful lady ,always smiling and in a good mood since her grandchildren are back home.The borshiki (you tiao equivalent ) , the plov, Kalmyk tea and mantis.

It felt like home.And it was fantastic being around warm and friendly people who want to show you the best of their city.

I bought a huge book of Kalmyk fairy tales.It is in Russian and very nicely illustrated.It has been 1 year since i had the book.I've only read 1 page!I swear that i'll get started on reading a chapter this weekend!

I left Elista happy .Happy to meet Alma again,happy to find out that Elista is indeed one of Russia's jewels and such an amazing city!

Murmansk Magic

I took a trip up to Murmansk in April 2010.It was a weekend trip from Petrozavodsk where I was studying Russian at for 2 months.Murmansk is located in the extreme north western tip of Russia.

While , many have described Murmansk as a dreary city, I saw a side of Murmansk which was really interesting and made new friends too :)

Read about it here.

Petrozavodsk _ Karelia Republic

Capital of the Karelia Republic , I spent 2 fantastic months in Petrozavodsk from March - April 2010 studying Russian.Although it is a small city, it appealed to me.Perhaps because i have been a city slicker for way too long and needed a break from it.Petrozavodsk has become my favourite city in Russia because of the amazing times I had there.

From my fantastic host family , wonderful teachers , people who I befriended there , dog sledding, snowmobiling , the arts and everything in between. :)

Read about the whole experience here :)

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Moscow Never Sleeps

The city i called home for 5 months in spring 2009.It was love upon arrival.A sense of attachment to the city.I met some amazing people here.
Buddies who were ever so proactive , their enthusiasm caught on
People at kickboxing class who went the extra mile to help me improve and became my friends
Stangers who gave me gifts when they found out i was from Singapore
Several students from Plekhanov who were so warm and friendly

But most importantly ,after travelling to so many countries , it was the time in Moscow that made me realize that deep down inside...

It was actually Singapore that was truly home.

Russian Republic : Cheboksary

Another city which looks like it was built from scratch.As we were walking around the city.A friendly dedushka came to talk to us.He volunteered to bring us around the city and along the way bragged about his riches and daughter.Whether it was the truth he was saying , we will not dispute it.But his actions touched me.

Not only did he spend his morning showing us around the city aka we did not get lost , he even discouraged Galya from smoking.A complete stranger!Isn't that sweet!He even made recommendations to us to try the locally made ice cream!

He even took us back to the bus station , helped us with buying the bus tickets and even waited for the bus to leave , waving goodbye to us.

Russian hospitality :)

Our train ride back to Moscow was from Yoshka Ola.Luck ran into us again .The whole Russian Wrestling national team was in the same train compartment as us.It isn't everyday where you get to see that !

Russian Republic :Yoshka Ola

Capital of Mari El

A city which looks like it was built from scratch.
Galya , Sebastian and I took a bus here after spending a day wandering around Kazan.( Yes , i did return to Kazan :)
We managed to get a CS host in this city.Anna.Who was so amazing to cook us dinner and let us sleep on her couch/bed.Her daughter Topolina is cute but speaks russian like a bullet train.

Wandered around the streets of Yoshka Ola til the early hours of the morning.A regular city with nothing much to shout about.

But what was memorable was Anna and her amazing family .

We were going to do a day trip to Cheboksary the next day.But will have to return to yoshka Ola to take the train back to Moscow.
Anna and Topolina came to the train station later with a lemon pie and bid us goodbye.They even came onto the train to look for us.

Grateful ..we were to her.

Golden Ring City : Sergiev Posad

After the first trip to Spetersburg in March , the next destination was a golden ring city. Sergiev Posad.With Therese ,Sebastian and the Bulgarians (Galya,Anna & Yordan) , we took an Electrichka to this small city.

Get round trip student tickets at the local electrichka train station.

Although , snow does make churches look magical ,it was cold and there was snow droplets all over the photos.Stepping out of the train station , the blue domes of the church came into view.Just walk in the direction of the church and you will be enjoying the russian wooden houses and come to a viewing point.

This church is of particular importance for the body of saint sergiev lie there , waiting to be kissed by the millions of worshippers who flood over to see him. Most of the cathedrals are closed to the public.

Our only complaint was that there was only one salesgirl at the souvenir shop with a few helpers in the shop standing around idle.The icons here are cheap!Buy something here!

The Toy Museum is a short distance away show casing old toys from all around the world collected by rich russians.It would have been more interesting if all the toys were old russian toys.

And keep the train tickets.You will need them to exit the train station on the way back!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg -
is what will come to every russian's mind when asked about the most beautiful city in Russia.Modernized western city.
I came to this city twice with 2 different groups of people.

Trip 1
The first trip was a little upseting due to  me losing my camera on the 1st day at 9am in the morning and the behaviour of some people.
On the bright side , i met up with Elena.One of the international counselors i met at Camp Molly Lauman in 2007.Although we weren't close during camp , we grew much closer during my time in Russia.And the best times i had were the long nights and dinners when she joined us after work.Elena was born in Kamchatka, but moved to Saint Petersburg due to the instability of the Kamchatka region when she was younger.

Galya left us for the first 2 days because she was invited to a dacha near saint petersburg.By the 3rd day , my tolerance level was completely breached , i took off during the day on my own when the rest of the group went to the Hermitage.I needed a break from the sarcastic comments that I had been hearing the whole trip.From the city center , i walked towards Smolney Cathedral and later to Alexandra Nevsky Gardens.The area wasn't well connected by metro and the thought of taking a bus strangely didn't cross my mind.I did get lost.And there were a few people who were so kind to help me find my bearings again.A babushka who tried giving me directions ( in russian ..not much help).She was genuinely concerned and wanted to get me on the right track but physical conditions did prevent her from doing so.And a few kids , who walked me out of the maze of small streets to the main street.

Selma came by on the last day on her way to Finland to visit a friend.And i escaped to join her and walked around exploring the city.
We were
1.followed by security because she was snapping away at factories with her dslr camera
2.found New Holland under construction yet still printed on the tourist map as an attraction
3.found the prettiest golden church
4. saw a submarine which was actually a museum open to the public
5.Found really good and cheap piroski (savoury pastries)

There is a russian saying that if you left something behind , you are bound to come back to the city again.Well , i did.I left my camera behind to pickpockets.

Trip 2
My second trip to Saint Petersburg was a blast.Zhenya made a sudden decision to join me and Elena in Spb!Zhenya is from Kharkiv, Ukraine and was also an international counselor at Camp Molly Lauman too.I loved hanging out with her back then!She was arriving in SPB a day before me.

Galya and I went with 4 guys from Moscow to Spb.4 guys who got drunk during the train ride to Spb and ended up sleeping alot in Spb.Hilarious it was.

Although i was revisiting a few of the spb tourist sights again ,walking around with the girls were amazing.Checked out Yelagin.A green park.Would have been nice to cycle around here in summer.Walking was a little painful.The guys were either sleeping or on a tour bus going around spb.

During summer ,SPB enjoys the white nights when the sky only gets dark around midnight the bridges along the river in Spb will open up for the ships to pass through.So cars will have to make a detour if they want to be at the other side.

Petergoff, is another tourist attraction which is a highlight.There was a tour group from Singapore nearby.The singaporean accent was ringing from far :)

We ended up drinking quite a bit in the afternoon after lunch on the last day when we found out that beer was cheap at the restaurant that we were in.Elena invited me over to her house for a quick meal again.Unfortunately , the beer and wine didn't go too well in my stomach at all.The food was amazing though.

Saint Petersburg.Either you love it or you hate it.My love hate relationship with the city continues.But perhaps it won't be that memorable , especially after Elena leaves russia for work purposes in March 2010.Visiting Saint Petersburg won't be half as fun as before. Or perhaps it will be :)

As i think about my experiences in Spb , i recall a conversation with Nate , a dutch exchange student .He was right.It is really the people who make a city or life more interesting.But then again , it is also people who can destroy the fun.Culture influences people's behaviour.Or perhaps the other way round.
chicken and egg issue.

Victory Day - 9th May

День Победы

Celebrated by russia and the former soviet states. The celebrations start in the morning with a parade at Red square, followed by protests along Tveskaya ulitsa in the afternoon and end off with fireworks around the city at 9pm at various locations in Moscow.

The best place to catch the fireworks will be at Sparrow hills.Right next to Moscow State University.But getting there is a problem as the militsa closed off many paths leading to the area.So people were taking short cuts by climbing up a hill.Therese and I joined in the climb and was helped up by a few russian teenagers at the top.Boys that we didn't know , held out their hands to pull us all up. Russian men , they were all taught to be gentlemanly.

Golden Ring City : Suzdal

After Victory Day on 9th May , We decided that Suzdal was still on the books , but spending some time in vladimir will be out.

We left the obshezhiteye at 6am in the morning.to catch the 7am bus.
At the bus station , the time of departure was listed as 740am.But on our ticket ,it said 7am.Well, the bus left at 7am sharp.so the 740am timing was misleading.

Buses do pass by Vladimir on the way to Suzdal.It took approx 5-6 hours before arriving in Suzdal.Beautiful village with too many churches.Nothing in particular that was really fancy but there were just so Many!
Wonderful handicrafts here.If wooden bookmarks are your ideal souvenir, this will be the place to buy them because they are pretty non existant , ugly and expensive in Moscow.

there was hardly any cafes in sight.And 1 atm in the whole village

The bus ride back was a horror.The bus directly back to Moscow was full.So we ended up going to Vladimir and pray that there will be a bus from there.Arriving in vladimir , buying the ticket came to a problem.The bus ticket seller didn't say nyet or da.( signalling a no or yes) but went on about something else which Therese and I didn't understand.A russian in her 40ties was supposedly going to Moscow too.She told us to wait and tried to explain the issue but none of us understood either.

Well, lady luck shone on us ,a girl in her 20ties came up to help and explained to us the situation in english.Bus to Moscow is late so the ticket seller doesn't know if the bus will even come.So we should wait.If the bus comes, we can buy a ticket.If it doesn't , the train station is next to the bus station.The train tickets are more expensive.

The bus did come eventually and we got our ticket , but when we walked out and saw the bus....our jaws dropped.That was the same bus that left Suzdal full.People alighted from that bus and went their separate ways.....
Why can't the bus ticket seller in Suzdal just put people taking the Suzdal - Vladimir route on one bus instead of the Suzdal - Vladimir - Moscow bus?

Night traffic was bad and we ended up in Moscow at 12am.Long day it was.
But the prettiest village it definately was.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Maslenitsa - Pancake Week

Also know as Pancake week is celebrated in Feburary this year!
A celebration to welcome the end of winter.
Restaurants will have special menus serving vegetarian dishes and blini dishes.
Unfortunately, i won't be experiencing the excitement this year, but here are some photos of the festivity held in a forest 45 mins walk through a forest from a train station 1 hour away from Moscow.

Snippets of Maslenitsa celebrations can be found in the movie "The Barber of Siberia"

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Siberia 11th Stop : Nizhy Novgorod

Nizhy Novogorod aka Gorky

Though the group of us loved travelling.The 3 weeks of nomadic life was taking a toll on us and the thought of being back in Moscow was indeed appealing.I was looking forward to a weekend of lazing in bed instead of sleeping on trains with no showers and carrying heavy backpacks.

Though tired , we went ahead with our plan to check out the city.When lonely planet says take Bus 1 to the city center , it means just take Bus 1.
We couldn't find a bus 1 at the nearest bus stop , so we assumed that information given was outdated.Turns out that we overlooked the fact that there was another bus stop around the corner.

We decided to just hop onto a bus and just hope that it brings just a few stops closer to the city centre.Throughout the trip , we have been hoping onto buses, taking trips to nowhere to have a view of the city center and a little of the neighbourhoods.This time ,unfortunately got onto a bus take took us a tad too far into the neighbourhoods.Minor hiccup, but we had plenty of time to kill anyway.

the Kremlin was an absolute letdown.Having being wowed by so many kremlins along our journey , this one was boring.Nothing spectacular about the architecture.But there was something that caught our interest.A group of young russian men in the army taking photos with military tanks and displays in the krelim.Therese and I tagged along like excited schoolgirls trying to take a good photos of all of them.Something cool to add to our photo collections.They apparently understood why these 2 girls were hanging around nearby taking photos.Especially after they stayed in their pose while we made haste to take photos of them too.

There was a pretty unusual baroque church in N.Novgorod which looked like a lollipop,Stroganov Church.To many , it looked just like St Basil in Moscow or the Church of Spilt blood in SPetersburg.But this was different.Instead of the swirls ,it was fish scales.

The city center was similar to Kazan, european pedestrainized shopping areas.There was a flea market selling soviet badges and stamps etc.People watching along the main street of Nizhy was a pleasure, so was the Austrian Apple strudel that came with it.The Russians have a different sense of dressing.A mix between european and asian , which you can't quite place a definition on.Bright colours are a hit in summer times and the high heels are there to stay.But as we moved away from the two main cities of russia , loud colours on clothings were a common sight.Though different , but most of the time , we cringed.

As we head back to get onto the last train back to Moscow , it struck all of us that classes start again the next day at 9am.3 hours after we reach the train station in Moscow.

Tatarstan 10th Stop : Kazan


Capital of the Tartarstan republic,nicknamed "Muslim Disneyland of Russia" by Edwin's Professor in SPetersburg.This republic is filthy rich, with legends of gold and jewels hidden in the waters.( If interested in the legends of Kazan, i do have a short fairytale book in english which i'm happy to lend )

After sitting a few 4-8 hour bus/marshutka rides over sometimes not so pleasent potholes rocky grounds and a heavy backpack, Selma started suffering from strained back .Unfortunately for us , there wasn't a direct bus going from the train station to the hotel that we managed to book.Hotel Fatimah.We weren't able to find any hostels in Kazan.

And this hotel was the cheapest as listed in Lonely Planet.For a room for 3, 1800roubles per night .that'll be 30sgd per person.Like all hotels , registrations needed to be done and as we fidgeted in our seats waiting to get our passports back , the security guard came up to us and started telling us the various places to go on a map.Room was decent.Toilet however is communal along the corridor but fantastic conditions.(Edwin however had a disastrous experience the weekend he was there _ rejected from the hotel without any help given)

Wandered along the streets , and checked out the Night view of the Krelim.Breathtaking and photos do the view no justice.

We checked out the Krelim the next day.It is sweet to have both a church and a mosque within the same compound.The museum in the mosque is definately worth checking out.Malaysia appears to be a well known country in that area.I chatted with a salesgirl at the souvenir shop.Very basic broken russian.She didn't know where singapore was.But understood when i said Malaysia's neighbour.She knew Malaysia and got excited when i mentioned the country.

I did end up buying a souvenir from her shop,perhaps paying a high price for it.She kept thanking me and gave me a bracelet and a magnet as a gift in return.Although i seriously didn't need that souvenir , that 200 roubles spent is now hanging in my room ,at a spot that i will see whenever i wake up in the morning.

The market was our next stop.Therese went ahead to the jewellery shops in there , looking for some stone necklaces which she tested by biting them.( i've never seen anyone do it like her ).Nothing out of the ordinary except Selma not feeling comfortable seeing dead pigs being chopped up.

If you have been to a completely new place , stepped out of the train and as you walk around , a feeling of familiarity overwhelms you .Then , that was Kazan for me.A city i really liked and a city i knew i was going to go back to again.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Siberia 9th Stop : Omsk


On our homebound journey back to Moscow , Omsk was the next stop.We were able to get a couchsurfing host,Tanya in this city!Our very first CS experience.

Her friend( Let's call her A) picked us up from the station and brought us back to Tanya's apartment where Dima ,a temporary flatmate insisted that we sit down and have some tea.We were pretty anxious to just head to the city thinking that we didn't have much time .but they were insistent on us sitting down for awhile and drink chai ( a striking similarity among many older russians we've met.ie.dejurneya)

A is a beautician,had some problems with love and spoke only russian.We did have problems understanding her, but she was still really nice to walk us through the city.

We met Tanya and her son that night.That was when interesting conversations started , about her life , russia and travelling.
Her son AT , although intimidated to have 3 females as guests ,still stayed up late and refused to go to sleep because he insisted that he won't get to see us anymore tomorrow.He skipped school the next day , to say goodbye to us and play computer games,and show us some of his drawings.Very cute....

Visiting a nearby market was on our agenda.what was really annoying at these markets is that
1.they don't give plastic bags
2.If they did , they were so thin, it tears within 10 minutes

And they were quite a few stores selling better quality plastic bags.These were the same plastic bags we will get free of charge with purchases when we go shopping in Singapore( Takashimaya etc).And we were suppose to pay for them here.A higher price was charged if the plastic bag had a brand on it.If you don't bring your own bag, you don't really have a choice but to buy a plastic bag to avoid the risk of your stuff falling all over the place on the way back.

Before we left , Dima came up to me and asked me to write a few words for him in chinese.I ended up giving him my russian-chinese phrasebook that i bought in Ulan Ude.A very kind man that i won't forget either.
It was amazing that not only did our host arrange for someone to meet us and bring us around the city, she also prepared dinner for us , gave us a place to stay and shower and even gave us parting gifts!

It made me look forward to another CS experience!

Siberia 8th Stop : Back to Ulan Ude

Ulan Ude
The ride back to Ulan Ude was bearable.The same hotel took us back in.Just a day or 2 left to check out the city.Woke up bright and early to head to the temple to watch the buddhist service.Having lived in singapore and going to temples all the time when on vacation to China...temples were not exactly the most interesting thing to me.But the temples here....are different.I was told that it is similar to tibetan buddhism.Met some thais at the temple.They made their way over to check out the Buddhism scene in russia.

The service ....was....condusive for sleeping.The chanting ,smell and warmth in there with the early morning stint saw a few of us nodding off into slumberland.I found water from Arshan being sold here!Can you believe it...enterprising monks.
On the temple grounds, i was firstly mistaken to be a Russian ,secondly ,mistaken to be a person who had a religion.But they sure did seem surprised to find a singaporean here..in the middle of siberia.

Selma got tired of temples after that early morning call,so Therese and I headed off to see the Big Golden Buddha at the top of a hill which gave a good viewing point of Ulan Ude.There were plenty of trees with ribbons tied on the branches.A tranquil feeling up there.But still..a temple and a buddha with an ang mo monk.Yes.I'm not used to seeing buddhist monks who are white.

We caught sight of some celebrations as we walked around the city.It was a day where teens do community service and go around picking up rubbish.some kids from the uniform group put up a performance at one of the city squares.At the same time , a wedding photoshoot was in the background.That came out in the news that night.It's cool to know that I was at that very spot at that very time when they were filming it for the news.

dinner was at a chinese restaurant in a quiet dodgy area, which served NO RICE.And a mantou that tasted like rock.Can you believe it?If i hadn't known what man tou tasted like , i would have eaten it believing that it was that hard.And that was Selma's and Therese's birthday treat for me.Sweet.Except for eating chinese food....without the rice part.

checked out the Ethnographic Musuem the next day.A short taxi ride away.There is a bus going to Museum but we weren't sure which one to take and where to stop.The bus stops at the main road and you'll have to walk about 600m in before you see the museum.Tons of wooden houses and churhes with amazingly small doors.Were people that short in the past?Some yurts in there serving poezis/mantis ( da long baos )There was a zoo within the compunds as well.Very painful sight of hungry tigers either lying on the grounds looking sedated/dead or bears jumping and licking the cages to beg people for food.And people were not feeding them fish.They were feeding them sweets and crackers.

There was a temple along the way back to the city centre of Ulan Ude which we walked to.Took us nearly half an hour to 45 minutes.There were tons of flags tied to huge wooden poles , all wishes that the locals made tied to them.Here i met a woman in her 40ties, drunk and asking for money.and saying something about her husband leaving her.I had to scramble away for fear of being hurt.The first drunk woman i have met in Siberia.

Siberia 7th Stop : Goryarchinsk

a village we never planned to visit and never realized existed until 20 minutes before we arrived.

Gremyachinsk was the intended destination.Lonely Planet had dedicated 4 lines to this pretty little village.In the marshutka , all the russians discouraged us to go to Gremyachinsk and told us to go further north along the shores of lake baikal.Where its more beautiful and the people are much nicer.

A lady of the bus,turned around and offered to help us find accomodation if we agreed to go to her village just 20 minutes away from Gremyachinsk.We didn't know what the village was before we arrived.but for some reason,all 3 of us trusted this russian lady.We had pretty much nothing to lose,especially since we were in a bus in the middle of pretty much we don't know where.

Ola is her name.She brought us to her house to meet her family.It was not a fancy house from the outside but definately a decent looking one.And when we walked in,there was a huge plasma tv in the living room.Siberia, you amaze me once again.

We thought that she was planning to host us in her house after her mom offered us food.It was a really good spread with soup cheese,sausage and bread.And to my horror , i found out here how shitty my chinese language actually is.To think that 红茶 is called red tea.Don't they call it red pearl bubble milk tea?But 红茶is actually black tea.It's so ridiculous.Why can't they just call it 黑茶 if it's black tea.The cultural aspect of the chinese language,always a mystery even to the chinese people.

But no,she brought us somewhere else.A sanatorium.We later found out that this village was called Goryarchinsk and Lonley Planet has dedicated 3 lines in their 791 page book to it.A sanatorium is a place where the old, the ill come to rest.Normally situated near lakes and villages for people to escape the pressures of city life.I think some pensioners get government benefits to go to places like these.

Ola helped us with negotiating prices at the administrative office , settled all the paperwork for us and even translated the required information slowly to us.Never once did we ask her for help, she offered her time , her energy and even resources to make sure that we were alright and happy.

The weather was amazing when we arrived, no snow, cooling weather.Half an hour after we settled down in the room , it started snowing.What once was green grass became white.We spent our time here watching tv and recuperating from the long road trips we had.Somehow we got sucked into the resting phrase after walks along the baikal shores.The sanatorium was near the baikal shores .A quiet stretch of beach with a puppy tagging along with us and hoping to get a bite of anything that we have in our pockets that was edible.Selma and Therese surprised me with a easter cake , some balloons and a card on my birthday.And i left some lighted candles on the frozen waters of baikal:)

Meals were interesting here.we had to dine in a hall at specific timings.Dinner on the first day was interesting.Firstly, a good looking dyedushka was arranged to sit at our table and he had the privilege of speaking to 3 of us, young foreign girls.The sudden snow showers had wiped out the electricity for a while and cooking took a longer time.THe first meal was great.THere was some meatballs, mash potatoes and some healthy food.Kasha for breakfast.But we came to realize that that was about it that people here get to eat.People had to eat meatballs for breakfast too.The biggest regret was not joining the babushki and dedushki for disco night.

An old babushka approached us on the last day , before boarding the bus.She was an english teacher, with plenty of golden teeth and she spoke really slowly.Pretty impressive ....especially since, THIS IS SIBERIA.it's in a village ,that tourists hardly come to and this babushka is probably in her 80ties!

Siberia 6th Stop : Ulan Ude

Ulan Ude , buryati republic.
A complete change in scenery , a complete change in landscape.
We arrived in Ulan Ude much earlier than planned having forgone the Circumbaikal train trip and visiting Lisviyanka due to unforseen circumstances ( according to the Baikal Map, travelling would be a pain and with unpredictable schedules , Therese and I thought it will be the best to forgo it and spend more time in Ulan Ude , hopefully doing some tours around the area and exploring the Buryati Region more )

Had a LONG 10 hours? mashutka ride from Arshan to Ulan Ude, and it ended off with the mashutka driver being extremely surprised to find out that I was from Singapore.Quite a few people on this side of Russia know the existance of Singapore but perhaps very rarely do they meet a Singaporean!Even if they do, they can't tell us apart from the locals.(The trick is in our accented English!We have a really flat tone)Most of the people in the city are asian looking and I didn't have much of a problem fitting in , except for the clothes ,shoes ,camera and huge backpack part which basically already screams TOURIST!And my two fellow travellers who were blonde and fair ( for once , they really stuck out from the crowd )also in their tourist gear also attracted quite some attention from some locals :)

grabbed some food at a funky westernized cafe near the drop off point ( near lenin's big head ), we met a danish couple.The gentleman was the danish ambassador to Moscow and guess what!Their son went for an exchange programme in SMU, and after that experience , went on to set up a tee shirt printing company in Shanghai!THey were amazed at why I will ditch the amazing school system in Singapore and come over to Russia ( all in the name of adventure ).Yes.Despite some problems with the wireless connections in SMU,I appreciate having wireless internet on campus.the variety of food in school,the million and one special interest groups( hello?wine appreciation club?gourmet club?is there going to be a spa and massage club soon?We City Slickers need that with such a fast paced lifestyle)the amazing technologies that SMU has and The Singapore Government pumping in so much money into education, giving me so much resources in my course of studies.THe learning curve is steep,but pressure is intense and the expectations are high.

7pm at night , sky is dark = status : no accomodation still.Check with 1 hotel ( Too expensive ) and the lady at the counter was so kind to give us recommendations to another hotel with possibly a cheaper rate.It was still expensive but that suffice for 1 night.
the next day , we headed down to a tour agency to enquire about possible tours around the area and cheaper accomodation.The owner of the agency recommended us a hotel that he claims will not cost more than 400roubles per person per night( SGD20-Euro10).
And recommended us not to take any tours with them!can you imagine an owner of a tour agency telling us that?Reason : tourist low peak season.camels or horses do not come out to play because it is still cold in April.Costs will be high.And we students cannot quite afford it.He recommended us heading to the destinations on our own and gave us advice and directions:)I have met so many tour agencies who are all out to sign people up for tour packages but this is really the first experience where the tour agency owner told us not to join any tours and even helping us with directions!

Checked in the hotel he recommended.600roubles a night as the paper at the counter stated.they refuse to go any lower.Foreigners , we have to play their game....
Went around exploring the city.Modernized city centre, similar to the siberian cities that we have visited.Alot of Asian Russians.The market was amazing.There was a bakery selling Soft white bread with filling!Finally, something that taste familiar!I didn't like the brown bread sold everywhere here and the loafs of white bread were a little dry for my liking

We didn't stay for long to explore the whole of Ulan Ude as we were proceeding to a village along eastern baikal and will have to head back to Ulan Ude to catch a train for our homebound journey ( funny how ..Moscow becomes home )