Naturally I would wait until we were in one of the most popular cities in the world to hit the wall with backpacking. I think it may have started on the 3km walk to our hostel with more than 20kg on my back. Probably right after finding that the French camouflage their subway entrances and hide the street signs making it near on impossible to navigate. Not that I have anything against France and their blatant discrimination towards non-EU members (your student ID means nothing in this country unless you were also born in the chosen land) it was just my time to have a melt down. Backpacking is really great most of the time. There is no going to work in the morning, I hardly ever need to wash dishes and I get to learn a new language about once a week. It isnt all crepes and river cruises though and I feel strongly that I lost the plot for the following reasons.
1. Communal bathrooms: can you please wait until after I have brushed my teeth to sit in front of the only basin and shave your head? 2. Australians: in every hostel, in every city. 3. Early morning trains: I particularly like when we have to leave so early we miss our complimentary breakfast at the hostel and I get to be both tired and hungry. 4. Locking up: everything, everytime you leave, because you cannot trust the other 10 people you just shared a room with last night. 5. Paying full-price in France: what good is my not so legitimate student card if they wont let me into the Louvre for free? 6. Other Tourists: I know they have just as much right to be there but can we please administer some sort of IQ test before people are allowed entrance to a country. 7. Slow walking people: congratulations on making it to the top of the escalator, of course now would be a great time to stop and check your cell phone/watch/small ugly dog, I will just wait patiently on the moving stairs. 8. People trying to sell me things: especially the Vietnamese women who would actually rush you with a shoulder pole and two baskets hoping to drop it on your neck and collect a few bucks for a photo. Admittedly the shoe-shine boy that chased us for four blocks had perseverance. 9. Washing and drying my clothes: aside from trying to find something to wear while you wash every item in your bag, trying to find somewhere to hang your soaking items in the cramped confines of a 12 bed dorm is somewhat challenging. 10. Money: when your card suddenly declines on the way to the Eiffel Tower on your last night in Paris and then your bank blocks your internet access because your security question is case sensitive... and your husband decides that this will be a good time to laugh and take photos of you.
As luck would have it I cheered up whilst at the top of the aforementioned tower some hours later and ended up with mostly fond memories of Paris.
Our time in Berilin started with the traditional tourist hotspots and ended with graffiti and squatters. After taking in the enormity of the PLUS Berlin, a converted school house that can now house some 750 visitors to the city, we ventured out for €3 kebabs and cheap beer. Berlin has amazing street food with Turkish being a local favourite. We were also quite partial to the homemade burgers from Burgermeister, a joint run out of what used to be a public toilet underneath the subway line in Friedrichshain. Still with one of the Australians from Vodkatrain in tow, we walked from the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag and visited the Holocaust Memorial in the centre city. After the Hermitage in St Petersburg we decided to give traditional museums a break for the time being and set out for The Story of Berlin instead. This is a multimedia exhibit where you can walk through the history of the city from the Prussian Empire to Hitler's Nazi Germany and modern day Berlin. It was a much easier and more enjoyable way of getting to grips with the most important events and we finished with a tour of a Cold War Bunker which could have protected around 3000 citizens for 14 days following a nuclear event. Unfortunately the science behind this 14 day stand down period is completely wrong and most likely everyone who made it to the bunker would have died down there. The guide seemed to particularly enjoy describing all the ways in which disease would have spread, stampedes would have injured those getting in and how they could lock down half the bunker if things got out of hand and let 50% of the inhabitants die of starvation. Gripping stuff. That night the hostel provided a pub crawl which took us to some of Berlin's less touristy bars, one of which hosts continuous games of around the world table tennis in the middle of the pub. We were somewhat worse for wear the following day but met plenty of other travellers - mostly Australian of course, and had a great night. We dragged ourselves out of bed the next morning for the alternative walking tour of the street art and squatting communities in the area. We saw some amazing graffiti and incredible wall murals while learning about the different artists. There was also an informative lesson on the rights of squatters and how some communities had come to live in abandoned buildings. The East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall was also quite cool with individual artists being invited to contribute to different sections and school kids scribbling their names all over it. We made it back to the hostel exhausted after walking for more than three hours and enjoyed schnitzel and hot chips for dinner. Six hour train to Amsterdam in the morning.
The train from Irkutsk to Moscow chugs along for more than four days through the Russian countryside and we were going a little crazy by the time we finally arrived. Three bottles of vodka and countless games of cards were all we had to stay amused during the long days. Snow lined the streets and well dressed women with stilettos and stoney faces marched past us as we exited the station in Moscow. We checked into Godzillas hostel at five am and caught up on the Winter Games while we waited for the city to wake up. Nothing opens early in Russia and everyone stays up late so it was eight before we could find some food. After meeting our latest honchos (two typically beautiful Russian Uni students) we set out for the Kremlin, the Armoury and Red Square. We spent a good deal of time at the Armoury checking out the Tsars' sweet rides - giant gold covered carriages and sleighs. It turns out Catherine the Great and Anna I were both fond of toy boys and opulent transport. St Basil's Cathedral and The Church of Christ the Saviour were pretty incredible but the 98 metre high monument to Peter the Great sitting on the edge of the frozen Moscow river was insane. The best bit is many locals think it looks too much like Columbus and actually hate it. Uncle Lenin's mausoleum was also on the agenda but we had to wait a couple of days before he was seeing visitors. On our last night our honchos led us with all our gear up a snow covered hill to the lookout over the city. Some of us were a little dark by the time we made it to the top but the view was worth it. You can see all seven of Stalin's skyscrapers including the university which was lit up like a bad-ass Soviet Christmas Tree.
We took an overnight express to St Petersburg and woke up to sleet and the strangest hostel I've ever been to. The permanent residents sleep on the floor in the lounge and breakfast required a fight to the death to get milk for your cornflakes - great location though. The city was built on a wasteland by Peter the Great when he decided to move the capital there in 1703 and every second building is either a palace, castle or museum. Our last honcho was a Russian, German and English interpreter with amazing knowledge of the city and Russian history. It was always going to be a museum tour with the Hermitage and also the Russian museum but both were pretty up there on the epic art scale - just a little Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Picasso and Van Gogh. The Winter Palace was worth the visit by itself with dozens of palace rooms still done up as the Romanovs had them. We went to one amazing restaurant after another with Italian, French and Japanese being the local favourites. The bars also didn't disappoint as we got to know some of the Russian brews and enjoyed a little more vodka. On our second day Vladimir took us to see a 100 year old Russian ice breaker. The place was in upheaval with cleaning and touch ups as we found that Princess Anne was due to tour the boat. Too many good memories to list - will definitely be back here again. Unfortunately this was also the end of Vodkatrain and we parted ways with two of the three Aussies we had been travelling with. Kiah, who is far more attached, is now following us to Berlin and Amsterdam.
The journey to Irkutsk involved two nights on a train, a border crossing with more serious looking Russians than a Bond film and accidentally sleeping in until we literally rolled up to the platform. Luckily we were incredibly well organised and rolled out of our bunks and into five layers of thermals in record time. The temperature was hovering around the -25 degree mark and Tolya and Dimitri, our two Russian honchos had us on a bus and heading out of town before we had time to wake up. Giving the city a miss for the time being, we drove through the Siberian countryside for an hour as the sun came up over Lake Baikal. Holding about 1/5 of the world's fresh water supply and almost completely iced over, this impressive piece of water is over 600km long and home to the sleepy village of Lystvyanka. Naturally we wanted to walk on it straight away. After getting better acquainted with the chalet and a cold which rivaled even Ulaanbaatar, we skated into town after our blonde, fur covered guides. The lake ice was thick enough to wander out on and we had some fun smashing huge slabs of it - just because we could. This was followed by a casual stroll (while we all slowly froze to death) up to a look out at the top of the local ski field to see where the river meets the lake. The rest of the day was whiled away catching up on valuable Facebook time and learning Russian card games. At night things got a little weird. Traditional Russian sauna or banya involves sitting in a room at over 90 degrees for as long as you can handle before running outside and rolling around in the snow at -30 degrees. This was all well and good until our honcho produced the birch branches and spent the next hour hitting us with them - to release the toxins of course. Our second day was full of big plans starting with trying our hand at dog sledding. We rocked up to a random house up the hill and with no formal instruction were given coveralls and led out the back. We were confronted with around 40 barking dogs, three sleds and some rather bored looking locals. Not to worry, we were there to live the Siberian dream. Teams of six dogs were harnessed up to the sleds and we were shown how to push the brake down with our foot. That was it. A guy sat down on the front of the sled, yelled something unintelligible, and we were off. Four of us made it around a 10 minute circuit through the woods while one young lady was tossed from the sled by her team whilst trying to corner. Very good fun. We followed this with a lesson in forging from the local blacksmith who helped us smash some metal into shape and carve awesome runes into it. I probably would have enjoyed the experience more had I any feeling in my toes or hands. Of course, more birch whipping and hot steam followed in the evening to sort out those chilled limbs. Back to Irkutsk for some sightseeing and grocery shopping before the 4.5 day march to Moscow. The scenery looks the same the whole way but not a bad way to travel.
After our first day and night on the Vodkatrain, with a lengthy stop at the Chinese-Mongolian border to get our passports stamped and change the bogies on the train, we chugged into Ulaanbaatar. With our three Australian tour buddies in tow, Mongolia greeted us with freezing cold temperatures and insane traffic jams but we loved it straight away. Our honcho for this leg of the trip was Odka (just like the drink) and she enthusiastically laid out the plan for our four day stint in the land of horses and fermented milk products. She took us to a Mongolian BBQ for dinner following a cultural show involving throat singing, folk dancing and of course a contortionist. One of the Australian boys was quite taken with the latter. The following morning we were collected from our hotel and driven out to Terelji National Park to enjoy two nights in a traditional style Ger Camp in -38 degree weather. On the roadside halfway out we stopped to get up close and personal with some rather large birds of prey before continuing on to our accommodation. The huts were small, three bed abodes with a coal burning fire in the middle and doors made for hobbits (I have an egg on my head to prove it). The difference in temperature between inside and out was about 60 degrees at some points and a lovely Mongolian woman came in three times a night to stoke the fire to keep us baking. On the first day we were given the option of riding wild Mongolian horses on the proviso that they could find the horses first. They did, and eventually from over the hill came trotting a local horseman with six ponies in tow. We sized up the 'horses' and then the boys and had serious doubts about whether the SPCA would approve of us riding the poor creatures. Unable to voice our concerns, we were instead ushered onto the fluffy beasts and set out on our epic journey across the plains. The boys were allowed some control over the docile animals whilst Kiah and I had our reins bundled up and were towed the whole way. I'm not sure if this was a sign of chivalry or blatant sexism but I was happy not to have to steer. Chinggis Khaan led 100 000 soldiers on horseback when his empire spread across the world - somehow we had expected something a little more hard core than the little walk we took down to the road and back. Never the less we had an awesome time and returned feeling like we were a little more at home in the frozen mountains. The following day was pretty special as it was Mongolian New Year and huge family celebrations were going on throughout the park. We were taken first to the Ger of a lovely old woman with 9 children and 25 grandchildren and fed things that I would rather not think about in any detail ever again. It is incredibly rude to turn anything down so we reluctantly downed milk vodka, fermented horse's milk and ate strange crispy things made from curd. This is probably why they drink so much vodka - to get rid of the taste. The company was great though and when we moved onto the next home we were greeted by a local legend of sorts. An 'elephant' ranked pro wrestler, now 70 years old, had put on an amazing spread of alcohol and traditional snacks for us. The honchos (we had joined with another group of five for the day), our drivers and ourselves had many drinks whilst he told us stories about Mongolian culture and how to be a great wrestler. We learnt the correct way to handle a snuff bottle and enjoyed plenty of Chinggis (the vodka not the man) along the way. On the way back into town we had to stop by the pharmacy and load up on the prescription only meds they sell over the counter for our myriad of cold and flu symptoms but it had definitely been worth it. I think the most important thing we have taken away from the last few days is that when in doubt one must ask, what would Chinggis do?
Rachael and Jeremy