Archive for the ‘East of Europe’ Category


1st November 2010 by Helen

It’s been interesting (to me at least) to see how some of the cities we have seen have differed and reflected their countries.  This is just one of my ramblings of comparison.  We’ve not set out to visit cities, in fact, in a Land Rover Defender set up for overlanding and camping, cities have been more of an inconveniences.  Nonetheless, they have provided some interesting (I think) comparisons.  If you don’t agree, please ignore what follows.

Almaty is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, since the creation and development of the of Astana.  Yet Almaty is still a huge draw for many visitors.  It still retains the feel of being the capital, is a modern and bustling city, with rich and poor alike.  Like most Western cities little of the rural lives of the country are reflected here.  Perhaps the only reminders that Almaty is in Kazakhstan come in the frequent power cuts and daily water cuts throghout much of the city.  Whatever outsiders think of the long term rule of the president there is no doubt that many people, young and old, are very supportive of him and the way he has brought Kazakhstan through the difficulties of separation from the USSR and into the modern world.

Ulaanbaatar was sprawling and very cosmopolitan, in complete contrast to the rest of the country.  Although some people were living in gers, mainly on the outskirts of the city, Mongolian culture and history did not predominate.  It could have been any Westernised city anywhere.  A plethora of Irish pubs suggest a large ex-pat community, and indeed many Western faces could be seen in the city, far more than mere tourism would suggest.  Perhaps more than the other cities we have seen, here we saw the extremes of poverty and wealth that often charactrise cities around the world.

In Russian cities it would be impossible to forget which country you are in.  They all have at least a Lenin Street, or a Lenin Square, and a statue of Lenin.  However, of all the Russian cities we visited it was Vladivostok that stood out as the most individual.  The importance of the Naval history in this port city was everywhere, from the museum WWII submarine, to the countless statues of naval heroes and lists of honoured naval serving men.  Water dominates this city, the sea is visible from almost everywhere.  Yet here too, the old history of the country is clearly evident in the traditional wooden houses still in occupation in the sprawling suburbs.  The docks, the railway station and the bus station nestle side by side, overlooked by the statue of Lenin.  And it’s here that the Trans Siberian railway ends, having taken all but a week to travel from the capital city of Moscow.  Despite this tourism is not pandered to and it’s hard to find somewhere even to buy a postcard.

2010 11 01 - 6 - signposts in anchorage (4) - Copy

It's a long way home from downtown Anchorage

2010 11 01 - 10 - cook monument in anchorage - views across the bay (9)

Captain Cook's view across the bay - the one he never saw because he never actually landed here!!

Anchorage has been another contrast.  Today we walked ‘downtown’, following a walking tour suggested in the Frommer’s guidebook. Downtown is very touristy, much like central London, bristling with ‘souvenir & craft’, ‘craft & Native art’, and ‘Native art & souvenir’ shops.  Whilst we both enjoy Native art, the commercialism manages to cheapen it and we were disappointed.   Tourism is evident elsewhere too, in the supermarkets and other stores, with Alaska hats, books on Native history, Alaskan wildlife and scenery.  With the white topped mountains looming over the city, and it reported that wild animals frequently stray into the city, they can perhaps be forgiven for the unabashed promotion of the glories of this the 49th US State.  Statues to Captain Cook, looking out over the magnificent bay, and Eisenhower, along with some of the public art such as the bronze Blue Whale and the Tlingit totem poles, are a welcome change from the more touristy representations of Alaska.  Anchorage is a young city, beginning, according to the guidebook, as a tent camp for the workers building the Alaska Railroad in 1915.  Hardly surprising then, that to us the architecture of the city gives it a kind of dated 60’s feel – big modern buildings in the often characterless style of the 60’s.  A few traditional wooden buildings have been preserved but they are few in number.  But it’s clean, tidy and well maintained.  And easy to navigate, laid out as it is in the traditional American grid system.  Anchorage even postdates the time when Alaska was bought from Russia in 1868 for 2 cents an acre, although I’m sure $7.2 million seemed like a lot of money at the time.  The Russians have kicked themselves ever since the Klondike gold rush, and the discovery of other minerals and oil!

Ah well, wonder what the next city will bring?

23 into 4 will go

26th October 2010 by Helen

Well fed and set up for the day with both an English breakfast of porridge and a Russian breakfast of blini (pancakes) we set off for the airport at 9.30 am, allowing for the lengthy journey to the airport.  Our plane lifted off from Vladivostok airport on time at 1.00 pm and we landed on time in Anchorage at 5.00 pm.  In the intervening four hours we had spent 2 hours on our first flight to Incheon airport in South Korea, 5 hours at Incheon, 9 hours on the next flight to Seattle, 3½ hours at Seattle airport, and finally another 3½ hours on our third flight of the day, landing at Alaska airport.  23 into 4 will go.

Today’s travels have been a study in contrasts.  Believing we needed to be there two hours before our flight, and knowing the bus would take longer than we had available to cover the distance, we opted for a taxi.  The driver asked us which part of the airport we wanted: with the two buildings standing ten yards apart it probably wouldn’t have made much difference if we had got it wrong!  We entered the small building where a dozen or so people were milling about, noticed the souvenir shop and a coffee shop and stopped beside the sign advertising wrapping of luggage for 230 roubles per item.  At around £5.00 this seemed good value to secure our rucksacks, making sure the straps and suchlike couldn’t catch on other people’s luggage, and a better option than the roll of gaffer tape we had brought for that purpose.  We’d tried to buy cling film in the last few days but realised we had not seen any on sale since leaving Europe.

Duly wrapped, we lugged our bags through the small opening in the wall next to the baggage wrapping service, took three paces and passed through customs, then a further half dozen paces and queued briefly at one of the two check-in desks, where we were delayed while someone interpreted our English language e-ticket and concern over the fact that our baggage is only ‘checked’ to Seattle.  Another half dozen paces and we had piled our coats, hand luggage and boots on the electronic security checker, with our feet clad in little slipper shaped plastic bags, before being given the all clear to get re-booted and up the steps immediately behind security.  With plenty of seats, a small and barely stocked duty free selling nothing more than the basic cigarettes, perfume and alcohol, and a even smaller booth selling bottled drinks and sweets, the wait was comfortable and short, before we all piled back down the same set of stairs, through the rear of the security checking area and straight out the back door of the terminal to see a two small Vladivostok Air planes and a long single decker bus in front of us.

Everyone else was piling on the bus and we dutifully followed.  Shame we weren’t getting on one of the planes nearest the terminal.  The bus was designed as standing room only and was crowded with barely room to move.  Once everyone was on board, the driver closed the doors and the bus pulled forward 40 feet, stopped and the doors opened.  A titter of laughter rippled through the bus.  We had just crossed in front of the nose of the plane nearest the terminal.  It’s probably the ‘Procedure’!  In the biting wind we crowded round the bottom of the steps rising into the plane and had our tickets checked.

Throughout our two hours on Vladivostok Air the staff were courteous and polite and the service was efficient and friendly.  We were given sweets to suck as we took off and landed to help with the adjustment in air pressure.  On such a short flight we were quickly served our meal, catering to both Russian and Korean tastes.  I ate Paul’s raw fish.

Alighting at Incheon airport in Seoul was an experience in contrasts.  Miles of corridors and moving pavements.  In this land of leading electronic technology it was hardly surprising to see their skills used to decorate the walls.  However the electronic information point failed, not in its efficiency but in our ability to correctly decipher what it was trying to tell us.  However in this country that also prides itself on its service we soon found a friendly human who pointed us in the right direction.  Once we had located our tickets for the next two stages of our journey we had time to take in the rows and aisles and aisles of expensive looking shops selling expensive looking designer names.  No Primark here.  It reminded us of Heathrow, but cleaner, brighter, more efficient and friendlier.  And then we took a coffee and a rest in one of the many lounges spread around the terminal.

Our flight with South Korean Air was the longest of the day.  We were given dinner soon after being seated, each time being given a choice between a Western dish and a Korean dish.  To complete my brief Korean experience I chose the latter each time but the breakfast of rice porridge was not a good one.  All the time we were able to watch a film or documentaries on the screens embedded in the back of the seat in front before the lights were turned low and we were encouraged to sleep.  Sitting virtually upright we privately joked it was just like another cab sleep.

They say it always rains in Seattle and so it was we landed in Seattle in the rain.  Our first steps into and sight of America, Seattle airport provided another study in contrasts.  This had to be the full visitor works as our next flight is an internal American flight.  There were signs everywhere indicating that our ordeal was for the protection of America.  Worrying that our stopover time was comparatively short made no difference to the long queue at passport control. Each person in the queue was being seen individually.  When we were near the front I heard one worried looking woman being asked how long she was staying, who she was visiting, who she was travelling with, and then, for some reason, if she was married.  It sounded as if she was being grilled and the tone sounded demanding and accusatory.  A guard periodically came along the front of the row and checked our passports and immigration cards, asking how long we were staying. 

When we finally got to the front of the queue Paul went first to the next available counter.  I was called to another counter a matter of seconds later.  I handed the woman officer my immigration card, given out during the previous flight, and she asked for my customs declaration.  I said it was with my husband.  She barely concealed her irritation as she yelled across to her colleague and said “Andrews, I’m sending another one down to you”, and indicated with a movement of her head that I should go to the other counter.  Paul had already had his irises scanned and his fingerprints taken.  He stood while mine were taken too.  Andrews quizzed us on how long we planned to stay, he looked at the visas in our passports and asked how long we had been travelling, where we had been and where we had got the money from.   His apparent interest in us thinly disguised information gathering followed by the stereotypical “have a nice day” that he managed to underlay with a complete lack of sincerity.  We looked at the card he had stapled into our passports.  We have until April 26th to leave the country.  Right now that feels like six months too long.

And so we went on to claim our baggage and find our next flight.  Seattle airport has neither the homeliness of Vladivostok nor the clean efficiency of Incheon.   It lacks the clean lines and design of Incheon.  The lady in the baggage handling area observed us approach and made sure we found the right carousel.  Apart from that service was efficient enough but was somehow more dutiful and missed the point.  We had to work out for ourselves that our South Korean Air tickets had been transferred to Alaskan Air. When we asked for confirmation that our tickets were for Alaskan Air we were just told which gate to go to.  We were chastised at security for not taking our laptops out of their bag and putting each one in a separate tray, despite there having been no obvious signs telling us this is what we had to do.  Paul failed to resist quipping that every airport does it different and we’d not had to do that before.  No-one responded.  Unlike at Vladivostok, there were no neat little plastic slippers for our shoeless feet here.  We were left to assume what to do next and I walked through the electronic gate and stopped.  The ‘guard’ gave a flick of his head to indicate I’d passed and to reclaim my coats and shoes.  No-one smiled.  Heaven help the first time traveller.

Our first experience of America has not been impressive and if it wasn’t for our belief that the experience of meeting the real people in any country is nothing like the experience of passing through customs I think I’d have turned right back round there and then.

With friendly stewards and stewardesses Alaskan Air began to repair our first impressions.  Alaska airport was clean, spacious and customer friendly, with interesting traditional exhibits, art and stuffed animals, and plenty of easy to find information of relevance to tourists, and so it was we stopped to take a breath, drink a coffee and munch on a sandwich before finding a room for the night.

Roast Dinner !!! (and roasted pine nuts)

24th October 2010 by Helen

Sunday 24th October – Today we had a Sunday Roast Dinner. 

We had roast chicken, roast potatoes, caulflower, brocolli, carrots, Yorkshire pudding and gravy.  Sounds like a boring opening to a blog?  Maybe.  Please just humour me as this is the first roast dinner we’ve had since leaving the UK!  The result of one of the advantages of staying in a backpackers hostel that includes use of a kitchen in which to cook your own food.  And Paul was desperate for a break from one-pot meals.  He didn’t have to do the washing up though!

The range of vegetables across Central Asia has been limited mainly to onions and white cabbage, tomatoes and cucumber (OK, so they’re not vegetables but if you don’t count them there’s often very little left to choose from.  Occasionally we have found a few potatoes, the occasional carrot, even more occasionally some red and green peppers.  And, of course, here in Rusia there is also the beetroot, otherwise there would be no traditional borsch!!

The large vegetable market in Vladivostok city centre was a veritable treasure trove of delight, where we also managed to get cauliflower and brocolli (although there was only one stall selling the latter).  We hoped we had bought swede too but that turned out to be turnip!!  It was the right shape and size but with the outer blackened with soil it was not so easy to be sure.  We could have chosen too from Chinese Leaves and some very puny looking celery.  And with the season to be witchety, plenty of gourds too.

Again across Central Asia, meat is nearly always sold from freezers.  The exceptions have been on finding a meat market, such as the one we visited in Tsetserleg, where they hack lumps off the carcass in front of you.  No fancy cuts here.  Meat is often described as ‘meat’.  If you ask whether it is pork or beef, the answer is ‘meat’.  It makes little difference what animal it came from, it still contains arteries and gristle and is cooked with added fat.  Once again the cities bring some differences and we managed to find a small supermarket with a chiller and some fresh chickens.

The term supermarket needs clarifying for UK readers at least.  Imagine a corner shop, the size of the downstairs of a two up two down terraced house.  Double it.  Selling produce, that makes for a shop large enough to be called a supermarket.  They sell pretty much just as full a range of food and household products as any larger supermarket in the UK, which doesn’t include CD’s, TV’s, furniture, banking, clothes, but will include toiletries and occasionally small items of clothing such as socks and tights.  You can’t get lost in it.  You can find what you need without having to walk for miles.  There is enough choice to choose without feeling bamboozled.  Reminds me of the 1960’s, although even then the supermarkets were six times the size of most of the ones we have seen across Central Asia.  And you know what, I think I’m getting old cos I prefer it this way.

The other advantage of the kitchen in the hostel is that I have been able to roast the pine nuts Dzenya gave us just as we were leaving Khilok. 

For all the years I spent growing up in the cemetery gatehouse, collecting pine cones for Christmas decorations, I never before extracted the nuts from the cones and ate them.  For all the years I spent buying pine nuts in little plastic bags in oversized supermarkets I never thought about where they came from.  Like all nuts (physical and metaphoric), getting to the kernal is a labour intensive operation.  I looked it up on the internet, the gist of which was ‘there isn’t an easy way and should be seen as a means of passing otherwise unoccupied hours’.  By my own methods I found splitting the shell with the point of a short bladed, heavy handled, kitchen knife on a wooden chopping board, fairly effective.  Means the nut tends to come out in two halves and reminded me a bit of picking winkles as a child – time consuming and not a means to growing fat but comes with a delicious sense of achievement.  Alternatively use a rolling pin or bottom of a glass jar to apply just enough pressure to crack the shell without smashing the delicate little nut inside.  Then remove and eat.  Noisy and takes practice and nuts liable to fly all over the kitchen in the process of learning how to do it effectively.  Finally found putting them in a casserole dish lid and covering them with a sheet of newspaper before bashing them with the bottom of a coffee jar the best way.  A bit more messy than the knife but slightly quicker.

With an available oven I took the opportunity to pre-roast the nuts this week, producing another challenge.  The Mexican website said to pre-heat the oven to 325 (325 what??  Centigrade or Farenheight!!).  The Russian oven is electric but numbered like a UK gas oven (1-9).  Paul suggested 325 was probably a hot oven so I set it to 8.  The website said roast for 10 minutes and then check every minute (by splitting open the nut and looking at the colour of the kernal) to see if they are done.  Then check every minute until just cooked.  Overcooking is extremely easy.  On ‘electric mark 8’ the nuts began exploding after 2 minutes.  Think the 325 might have been in Farenheit after all.  Maybe I should have thought that as Mexico is next to America and America uses Farenheit they might too?  Who knows?  Anyway, the other option is the microwave for one minute.  Still have to roll them with the rolling pin or smash them with the coffee jar but they do taste much creamier.