Watford Travel Blog

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Russia/Latvia                                                             Words: 12,858


          “The bureaucracy is a circle from which one cannot escape.” Who ever said Karl Marx did not really have a vision of the future?  And of all of his writings; this appears to be the one Russians have held onto most fervently. Guides say that travelling independently to Russia is hard work and for anyone who has ever applied for a visa, they will know it predominantly consists of the paper variety. After ruling out a side trip to the Ukraine (and more crucially Chernobyl, therefore not getting to test whether that background radiation really has no side effects) I ended up shooting myself in the foot from the very beginning due to my appalling vision. Somehow I succeeded in booking myself a flight that came back too late, an additional flight, rooms in two hostels and due to my inability to see a decimal point, 14 beds in one hostel in Riga. So having hammered my credit card, thereby offsetting the savings of a 99p flight and successfully buying most of Riga for a couple of nights, I faced the dilemma of salvaging as much as I could by either persuading 13 friends that Riga is somewhere they have always wanted to go or pimping out the dorm to the local nightlife for a tidy profit. Sadly I succeeded only in persuading Judas (sorry Dan but its your real name and the reason why you fear small change. Those silver 5p and 10p coins stir up bad memories for some reason) to join me on this intrepid little adventure, but I did sell back some of the beds (seemingly to odd bearded Eastern European ice hockey fans). One quick thing to mention on the admin side.  It is far cheaper to get to Russia by flying into a Baltic country (not Estonia) and taking the Latvian coach company Ecolines to Moscow or St Petersburg than it is to fly directly. On top of this, Riga itself is not a bad city, but do not under any circumstances buy rail tickets in advance. I will get to why not, but just trust me its not that hard to book them over there, even if you cant speak Russian. Just use the trademark grunt, point and awful pronunciation. The locals will think you are retarded, but you will get the tickets. So having roped one poor sucker into 15 hour coach journeys we proceeded to the simple task of visa booking. I use simple in the same manner that Stephen Hawking would use when explaining to you the theories of quantum physics. He may get it, but I just smile and nod.

          To get into Russia you must have a letter of invitation from a company inside the country, an authorisation in Russian stamped by the local supreme bureaucrat, a form that you must fill in and return at least 3 times (there is nothing actually wrong with your originals, they just want to test how badly you want to get into the country. Twice means you just dont have what it takes) and a greater reservoir of patience than a cricket fan. Because of exams I delegated this frustration (I mean rewarding enterprise) to Judas and listened intently to his pained updates on how they wanted him to confirm his name, then send payment details, then send a new form, then they wanted a photocopy, then they couldn’t find the original payment details and finally if we sent them together we would get a letter and a fluffy bear for persistence. Having finally ascertained that we were no fair weather tourists, we received the documentation with barely enough time to get a visa, which meant paying for the £100 one day one. Always start prepping for Russian incompetence at least 4 weeks before you intend to fly. This is where we discovered the embassy in Notting Hill is open for a phenomenal 3 hours a day to which there are no appointments, you must queue and you will enjoy it (after all we are British). We arrived just before 9am to a queue that contained about 100 people. Piece of cake you would think, but if you think that, you have never travelled anywhere with me. For I am known to have the luck of the Irish, but only after succeeding by the skin of my teeth and surviving the torture of the Irish circa 1750. It was now that the heavens decided to open, absolutely drenching me and forcing me to abandon my long tirade against umbrellas (Should be banned for people under 5’8” otherwise shorter people, I.e. oompa loompas, will always stick the prongs in tall peoples eyes and it feels like a more mundane version of the corridor with spinning metal wheels in the show Knightmare). Having chatted with the assortment of strange people around us, including one guy who had queued for three consecutive days, I was impressed with the evident fervour of these hard working 3 hour a day bureaucrats in moving the queue at one person per ten minutes. Now imagine the queues at Alton Towers for that river rapid ride moving about 50 times slower and you have an idea.  So almost 3 hours later and ten metres down the road we came to the gate, with only about 50 people jumping the queue on the dubious distinction that they speak Russian (It was not the last time I wished I wasnt so typically English with languages). This gate was one of those revolving things that let through three people at a time, but I cunningly worked out that if you put someone right inside, the Russians would actually let in 4 by accident as they obviously underestimate our resourcefulness. Smugly confident with my work (and anyone who knows me is well aware of how annoying my smugness can be) we placed the old Irishman inside the gate as it was last orders at the embassy and we were fourth and fifth in the queue (typically skin of teeth). The burly Russian Mafioso security guard started the gate spinning and Judas just squeaked in, but I failed to get in. Stranded in the gate like a fly in a beer I was thankfully saved by Judas’ ability to persuade those courageously overworked individuals that the hobo in the gate was actually his travelling companion, though from the looks of my passport photo, the Russians should have thought I was a local. Getting same day visas means returning to the embassy (shudder) at 4pm, but because I had revision to do (and because I couldn’t be arsed) Judas was left with the task of returning after a long stint at the pub to collect in the one hour window (for which the bureaucrats are probably paid treble overtime) and mumble with the old men who claimed it was better in their day. Oh and one more point. Do not trust the smiley man who patrols the queue offering fast visa service across the road; for I could not see his building and suspect he may be on the happy tablets.

          Having negotiated the most frustrating experience on my travels, besides finding a train in Cuba or even harder, some food that wasnt a ham and cheese sandwich with no cheese, we eventually came to the day of departure. Setting off in my neo immigrante clothing (A phrase coined by Judas and the Ginger Wizard to describe my eastern European immigrant look complete with shaven head, alcoholism and manky sailor-off-the-boat beard) I made a quick dash into central to pick up some essays and having negotiated the M25s latest attempts to prevent my quest to expose myself to every foreign country, we finally made it to Stanstead and Ryanair or the plastic plane as I like to call it. I mean they are shitter than Easyjet and even shitter than Iberian and they tried to kill me in a tropical storm over Havana. I have slept on the side of motorways in a ditch by Paris, on the streets of Rome, on the speaker in Kerrang club, standing up on a tube, but I defy anyone to sleep in that goddamn plane. And to further annoy me I could not find any cheese sandwiches at the airport. The omens were bad and then I was sat next to fidgetus maximus, the evidently scared of flying Latvian. Having quaffed two cans of Heineken in the first 2 minutes he was then moving like a break dancer strapped to an electric eel. Plastic seats and elastic Latvians made for an interesting flight and the first thing we were greeted with in Latvia was a giant cuddly beaver (which Judas informed me was for the world ice hockey championships which he later persuaded me to attend. I just thought they were odd). The first thing you notice on the taxi ride from the airport is how so many houses are slat wooden, which is pretty cool and reminded me oddly of New Orleans. The Daugava River is also spectacular with a wide bridge vista like when Massachusetts Avenue crosses the Charles in Boston. Having narrowed my hostels down from 14 beds to one we eventually settled on Fun Friendly Franks, which is highly recommended (not just for the free bottle of Zelta beer you get on arrival). They organise trips to have a day with the Latvian bobsleigh team, firing AK47s and other Soviet weaponry in an underground bunker and a trip of shotgun and vodka in the woods. Did not have time to try these as Latvia was only a stopgap but I imagine they would be entertaining. The Baltic Times ran a feature on the Soviet Bunker and it looked good, though the Brits are the majority of customers and awful with guns by all accounts.  The hostel goes clubbing every night at midnight, which is useful as Riga is a 24 hour city. Oh the hostel was also winner of hostel of the year on

          Arriving at nine at night and being English, our first port of call was a bar and what better place to start than the Skyline.  26th floor of some hotel (dont know the name but you cant miss it as the next highest building is about 8 floors. Absolutely fantastic bar, which we went to 5 times in 2 days; panoramic view of the whole city, including from the toilets and almost devoid of pond scum (till a stag do from Bolton wandered in on the last day). Going there at sunset is a must, cocktails are 2.95 and its a 1:1 exchange rate and have anything from the Black Balsam list, though the blackcurrant hot one is the best. The beer here is not as good as Zelta. Oh Black Balsam is a spirit that looks like tar, and is only brewed in Latvia though I have a bottle if anyone wants to try it. Got chatting with some Canuck about the ice hockey (judging by the fact this hotel seemed to be the base for most teams; he may well have been a player, but cant say I recognise any by face. On the way up to the bar you will pass a monument guarded by a soldier 24 hours a day and it is a memorial to the war dead. The locals joke that it used to act as a travel agency under the Soviets, for if you laid a wreath there you got a one way ticket to Siberia. Part of me couldn’t help rather guiltily thinking thats much easier than dealing with the embassy in London. It was also in this bar that we found the old dude using one of the myriad escort agencies in Riga. Old crusty man walks into a bar with a tall attractive blonde; you think he has money normally. But here it is much simpler and was only confirmed when she was asking him if he had children etc. This would later be confirmed as the abiding Latvian view of our country. On the first night we also sampled local cuisine and never bothered again, as it’s a Germanic meaty affair and passable, but nothing exceptional. Having staggered out of the Skyline at about 1am we decided to try and find a blues bar, but after the ‘soon to be inevitable’ failure to find these ethereal bars, we were lured into a Mexican restaurant playing the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and open till 7am, where they close for an eternal 2 hours before reopening. I have yet to see the point of closing for 2 hours, but perhaps it is so the bar owner and the bureaucrat at the embassy can time share a 24 hour a day job in the old Soviet method of fairness.

          We awoke for day one of the Russian adventure. I use awoke loosely, as we had been woken up about 5 times in the early morning by people wandering in. Perils of a 14 person dorm and it was then where I wished I had kept all the beds I had previously booked. Riga is a small city and doesn’t have loads to do in the day. We began with one of my usual ‘lets walk the whole city’ treks and headed off to a suburb to try to find some ice hockey tickets. After about an hour of wandering, we returned failures, but then found out the ticket office was actually in the city centre. We got some tickets for the monster games that were Switzerland v Belarus and Ukraine v Slovakia. I cant work out whether I bought tickets for both games due to an instinctive need for sport or because the ticket booth girl was impossibly fit, but having acquired them we set off into town. We had lunch in Hessburger, which Judas insisted upon calling HamBurGer with the emphasis on the capitals, which is like a Latvian McDonalds but did have a better map than the Thomas Cook guide. My advice for you is never buy a Thomas Cook travel guide. Unless you like knowing nothing about a country, having maps that will lead you to nowhere and patronising idiotic travel advice that makes this piece look like Shakespeare then they are best avoided. Time Out are still streets ahead of any other guides, with Lonely Planet the only one who can touch them. We wandered around the old town into the obligatory church and up the cathedral tower which is pretty cool. The lift even comes with the prerequisite old man lift attendant who was installed with the building and has lost the use of all limbs barring his right arm and the basic motor functions of a smile. The only museum of note is the Occupation Museum, which is really well done. Its odd seeing the Nazis hailed as heroes by a local populace because they were less oppressive to the local community than the Soviets, with the exception of the Jewish community who were all executed. Stalin, upon reclaiming the city, exiled a vast number of children and citizens to the Gulag and Latvia lost about a third of its population to the twin horrors.  So, to this end, they are still very grateful to Churchill for his support after their annexation. It was also informative of how the Swedish government turned fleeing Latvians over to the Soviet authorities rather than providing protection and a timely reminder of the need for liberals to stand up in the face of human rights abuse. If you head to Riga, you should head to this museum, if just to better understand the torments that Latvians have experienced in the last 70 years or so.

          Following the morning cultural acclimatisation, we stopped off in Double Coffee (a Latvian Starbucks) with the most eclectic food and drink selections. Try the Blackberry ice coffee. Having reached the ice hockey arena and negotiated the overly frisky security, it was time to take a seat with the green bibbed weirdoes and the bastards with the loud clanky things you always hear on ice hockey on TV. And they really do play those odd organ tunes you here on NHL. The atmosphere is unbelievable in these games, even when no-one important in playing. Being part Swiss, I had my allegiance and because I supported them, they naturally lost (A quick send out to the Spanish. Some people will know what I am talking about). But still all was not lost. If Ukraine won, the Swiss would go through to the quarters. Determined to support my newly adopted Ukrainian brethren I took up my seat and was promptly surrounded by about 80 burly Slovakians. After mild deliberation I decided that I’d always really liked the Slovakians and it was wrong to support a country that wears yellow. This time I was behind a team that won 8-0 and avoided a beating. I felt especially sorry for the Swiss guys who had stayed on and one guy even stayed to the end in the Slovakian area, with his head slowly sinking into his chest. Should have guessed something was up when the Ukrainians opened up cheering for the Slovaks. I have to say that ice hockey is an awesome sport live and although as a former rugby player and an avid Spurs fan I prefer rugby and football, ice hockey is better than both of them live, unless you like watching the equivalent of ants passing a malteser. With day one sucked up by the ice hockey, it was back to the skyline to celebrate with my new found Slovakian nationality.

          Day two began with the realisation that we had exhausted all Riga had to offer and that we had an overnight night bus to St Petersburg looming like a long haul vehicle in your rear view mirror. Buoyed by the fact that train fare is effectively 50p for an hours journey (something British Rail should maybe adopt), we sauntered down to Yelgava (the nearest big town and also the setting of RAF Yelgava, that my friend Darren used to always manage on Sensible World of Soccer). There is a trail of famous things to see in the Thomas Cook directory. It is awful and this book was really trying my patience. The town is not really worth visiting unless you are bored or have a love of furniture, but we skipped that museum. Yelgava Palace on the small river that runs through the town is quite striking even if it is pink and now converted into the local Information Technology campus. The town succeeded in occupying about 3 hours of our time before we headed back to Riga. One thing of note are the monster trains. They are huge and you feel very small next to them, but on a positive note they are reliable, roomy and incredibly cheap. There was even a one legged man playing with a dog (and legitimately playing, unlike the guy in Istanbul, I thought was throwing a stick for a dog to chase and then realised he was throwing a stick at the dog to get it to leave, before booting it) and one legged men would come back to haunt us later in the holiday. Always amusing how foreshadowing often comes into play on holidays. Having returned from the not so exciting Yelgava, we stopped off in Chico Chicken where I decided to experiment with Latvian. Dva whatever it was liutka to which I got “you want two?” Evidently my neo immigrante look was fooling no-one and I decided to abandon linguistic experiments for the rest of the holiday and we headed off to Jumala, which is an EU blue flagged beach on the Baltic.

          The town is a nice little wooden building infused place. On the way down on the train we passed through wooded areas where, as I was reliably informed, Tick Born Encephalitis was prevalent (a nasty little insect that bites you and attacks your motor neurone system, according to Thomas Cook), but we skipped these areas despite making numerous jokes referring to the countryside. Having arrived, we wandered down to the beach, where we encountered plenty of Czech ice hockey fans and set off for the Lebanese restaurant the guide recommends. Wandering into a partially deserted building, we were accosted by the owner for not bringing supplies and obviously my neo-immigrante looks had got us confused for builders. Abandoning another great idea of Thomas Cook, we headed to the house of, I think, Janis Rainis, but we ended up having a guided tour from an expert about a person we had really never heard of. It sounded quite awkward when she asked why we had come and how much we knew of him and our answer was a mumbled erm because the book said to come. It was quite amusing, as the woman obviously thought we were idiots, but the house is not bad. Though the guided tour is not needed, because it consists of classic lines such as “this is the bedroom” which most people could probably grasp for themselves. Following this incident we popped into an extravagant restaurant to order a coke (they loved us too) and read a local guide for the English. Always good to see the locals interpretation of us, as the guide was full of strip clubs and escort agencies and advice such as dont piss on the streets, get into drunken fights and remember you are an ambassador to your country.  I imagined their view was about right and if you stripped the niceties, amounted to “my god, we would really rather not have you loutish Brits anywhere near our country, but because we can sell you anything for extravagant prices that you could get back home if your conscience would allow you, we can at least boost our economy.” On the way back to Riga we also encountered problems, where our ticket was apparently invalid and we were thrown off in the middle of the same woods we had mocked earlier and imagining an onset of ticks, rather like the marine’s stand in Aliens, we meandered down to the beach until we could escape again with a bit of help from the man who seemed to run a casino out of a railway station. One last part of Riga for Judas’ special benefit has to be an incident with the toilets and trains. He hates change and so gave me his to go buy the tickets.  He left himself with only a note and headed to the toilet. I didn’t have enough so had to pay with a note, gaining excess change and he was accosted by the toilet woman for 0.05 Lats when he only had a twenty, so ended up with change from both me and her. Made my day, if not his.

          That evening we embarked upon our first Ecolines journey to St Petersburg of 13 hours. I was prepared for the discomfort, but nothing could have prepared me for Rush Hour 2 in Latvian. The most amusing part was that one guy dubbed all the characters in the film and was evidently struggling with breath on the bantering parts.  On a positive note Chris Tucker was much improved without his strangled cat on helium voice. Before the border we had one odd moment when the coach stopped so that some random guys could put a new bumper in the hold. I would consider this odd continental behaviour if I hadnt once witnessed an Italian bus driver crash into a car in front of a policeman and then spend half an hour arguing it wasnt him. Around 3am we rolled into customs and this would be where I issue a warning about taking the cheap backdoor route into Russia. Russian customs officials almost never see British passports, as most people fly straight in and subsequently they thought our passports were fake. Not speaking the language, we were aided by a few of our fellow busketeers and most crucially by our bus tour guide. She managed to persuade the burly Russian military guard that we were really tourists and not some hideously under equipped spies and after a mere forty minutes, we managed to pass through and inherit our position as most hated bus passengers.  Especially after I stood on the foot of the Russian Magnum PI look-alike. I have to confess, it is pretty intimidating having your passport seized and being yelled at by Russian police and between this and the embassy we were fearful of what we would encounter amongst locals in the former Soviet state.

          Day 3 and the first day in St Petersburg was uneventful on the whole. After one of my trademark walks of about 3km between stations, we arrived at the International Hostel near Moscow Station, which was not bad and the only one whos showers worked. It also meant a glorious 3km walk into town down Nevskiy Prospect. We went down to the Hermitage and due to my expert planning; we missed the entire ground floor.  The gallery is fantastic, even if the audio tour tried to convince me that Claude Lorrain does not just paint the same painting over and over again. I mean go to the National and if you can find one that does not have sea or a plain in the middle representing open space, one side (usually the right) filled with objects, the other side with one object halfway up the canvass and in the middle a ship or tree depending on whether it is sea or a plain, then you have a better eye than me or youre a good liar. Still it had some good Salvatore Rosas and he is the king of painting. Had to employ the Monet system of standing twice the distance from a normal painting (never fails to make impressionists paintings better), but when you leave ignore the food wagon round the corner. Way too expensive. Talking about leaving, due once again to my exceptional linguistic skills, I followed directions through the ladies cloakroom by accident and into some sort of staff square until I was politely informed of my idiocy. It was also interesting to see lots of military on their day off trawling through the Hermitage. So much for Soviet stereotypes. Following the Hermitage we wandered over to the statue of the bronze horseman on the square of the October uprising which was not bad and then went to St Isaac’s cathedral. This cathedral is well worth a visit, but be careful ascending the tower, as the ceiling is low and I brained myself on an iron girder knocking me senseless and almost over the side of the railings. Would have been an odd way to go. Mind you I am not adverse to running into things, as I fractured my skull running into the ceiling of UCL history department’s toilets and they left my blood stain on the ceiling for a year. Views are great from the top. On an aside, the inside of Russian churches begin to look the same after a while.  This is mainly because they are practically the same, as the artists follow a specific code of design, but the exteriors are still exceptional with their onion domes.

          We followed up this initial wandering with dinner at the literary café, which is nice, but the food is so-so and you pay for the history rather than the food. I did manage to persuade Judas that he really wanted to see an opera however and having never been to one myself we headed over to the Mariinsky (previously the Kirov in Soviet times). Working on the principle they must start at half seven, as in London; we got there at ten past and tried to buy tickets from people who couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand. We bought tickets eventually for the cheap seats, to see whatever we had paid for and were wondering why we were being rushed (at one point they ushered us to the front of the queue and I vainly tried to explain that I didn’t want to push in) till a glance down at the tickets stated a 7pm start time. Running up the stairs, we were ushered in a friendly manner into the gods to see act 2 starting, as opera acts seem to be shorter than the standard three act theatre. It is not necessary to purchase more expensive seats than the cheapest, as you have total freedom to sit anywhere in the gods, the view is great and the subtitles are at eye level. Finally realising we were to see Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, I settled in anticipating hatred, but came out loving it. Opera is to musicals what foreign films are to Hollywood productions and so easily absorbed. Was a really good end to the night and the white nights were mesmerising as its odd to exit somewhere at half eleven at night into blinding sunlight, but the light lasts till about 1am.

          Day 4 opened up with a trip to the Russian Museum, which is pretty good and includes only artwork by Russian painters (well technically Soviet as there are a number of Ukrainian artists who paint the Dnepr). Became an awkward museum visit however, when in bending to collect some change I had dropped, I tore my trousers from groin to knee, which to those who know me is a common occurrence.  It is a perennial source of embarrassment when you are walking around a gallery and the paintings are not the only thing on display. I did consider going back and changing, but by now I am used to it and if people are staring at my groin there is nothing much I can do anyway. Exiting the museum, it began to pour down again and Russia has the oddest weather. It can be blistering hot, pelting rain, moderate, foggy and then sunny inside about 4 hours, but it always keeps you on your toes. Headed to the Church of the Spilled Blood, which is basically a carbon copy of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I am not sure how the architect won this open invitational design competition by copying an existing building. Could you imagine an architect winning a competition for a new tourist structure in Edinburgh by sending in a photo of the London Eye, but anyway whichever one you see first will be spectacular and the other will feel like a rip off. Went down to the Mars Field after the cathedral which was interesting and then went on a long walk in the rain to the fortress on the northern side of the river.

          The fortress was plagued by the archetypal eastern European scaffolding. We even ran a mini competition to see which scaffolding was the best, but in the end Pavlovsk won because it had become a builders worksite with moderate things of interest. Had a wander around the cathedral which contained the tombs of most of the tsars after Peter I founded the city, including the graves of the last Tsarist family. The city museum is also worth a visit, with its coverage of the three year siege under the Nazis and the fact that citizens had to resort to boiling leather to eat and eating the stuffing from cushions. Casualties were atrocious and the Russians suffered tremendously during the war, with Hitler and Stalin both issuing decrees that the locals must fight to the last man, resulting in Stalingrad costing more casualties in one city than the entire allied casualty list for the whole war. The prisons were shut for refurbishment, which is quite amusing given the wests opinions of Putin, but the Space Museum is not bad.  Though I would only go if you speak Russian, love space or feel a burning necessity to eek all possible gain out of any expenditure. On an aside, it is next to impossible to cross Russian roads. It is not that Russian drivers are particularly bad, but that roads are very wide and there are almost no crossings.  This became even more profound in Moscow. Imagine the Arc de Triumph if you have been and you have the average for these cities. Beware of crossing the bridges in the rain as well as you will end up with one side wet, one dry and one ear will feel like a Herring has been spitting in it all the way across. The naval museum is another example of a good place if you speak Russian, but the only parts in English are in the last two rooms, which I imagine is a reward for staring at vast amounts of wood and models. The door is also difficult to open. I failed, Judas failed and we had just concluded it was closed when a ten year old Russian kid walked up and opened it with ease. That was a little much for the ego to take or perhaps he was just abnormally strong. Following a day of mixed touristy excursions, we ate in a Georgian restaurant part way up Nevskiy Prospect on the way back, which was pretty good and would have to do work to find out the name. Small restaurant but the food was good, mainly stews of some kind and you realise the difference in funding when eating out, as you are dressed like a tramp (well a westerner travelling) and the locals are suited and evidently from the middle classes. We ended the evening in a bar that would become our favourite, but whose staff would grow to hate us (which is ominously similar to a bar in Watford that shall remain nameless). The bar was called Che and was near Moscow Station. Now I was expecting a Commie hangout, as any bar with this name would be in Notting Hill etc, but it was a really classy bar with great drinks (especially their Kir Royal) and had live bands playing in front of a cinema screen. The first night they had Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch and Pulp Fiction, while the band were an urban Jazz group, with Russian musicians and a sassy funky singer from Brooklyn. They played their own stuff and dodgy lyrics from the bassist, about taking a tricycle to a club aside; they were pretty good and even had to improvise when the microphone broke down. I was loving the place until we had to ask for a second drink from table service. Judas did a seeming impression of koom-bi-ah as the universal symbol for menu and we were brought the bill, which we then paid but wanted more drinks.  The waitress became more flustered, she had to call for the head waitress and from that moment our presence was less welcome and no-one wanted to serve the odd Englishmen with a penchant for campfire song movements. To jump in time a bit, we came back the next night and my illusions of class were dispelled by the film being Welcome to the Jungle with The Rock and the band were playing covers of such classics as Kung Fu Fighting, but it was still a strange place and well worth a visit, even if the barmaids refused to serve us. Just meant we only had to pay for one drink despite staying for two hours. Always amusing to give the impression you are too stupid to get a hint, especially if it works to your advantage.

          Day five is a day I like to christen four weddings and a funeral, but will get to that.  I persuaded Judas that we must travel to Peterhof by hydrofoil over the water, as opposed to by train after he had persuaded me to postpone going for a day (which proved remarkably prescient of him). The journey proved money well spent due to the thick blanketing fog that obscured absolutely everything. Judas claimed it spoilt the trip, while I like to maintain that it gave an authentic experience of a naval battle in misty weather and afforded me 40 minutes of sleep. On the way back we were blessed with clearer skies and it is definitely the better and more interesting way to reach the palace, with the hydrofoils departing from in front of the Hermitage. Both of them go there despite the absence of signs. My unbridled luck of the Irish returned, because delaying the trip by a day meant we arrived when the palace was having its summer opening and the turning on of the elaborate fountain system which is quite impressive. They had women in school uniforms twirling umbrellas, a full fireworks display and a banger that exploded next to my face because I was kneeling reading a sign. This was followed by some odd camp Russian dancers in graduation gowns, but overall it was at least an interesting spectacle. If you get to the palace dont head west unless you find long walks in identikit forests exciting, but east along the coast is a good walk and they had a strange marching band for the tourists near one of the smaller palaces. The palace itself is spectacular inside, but you have to wear these specially prepared slippers and naturally being size 13 it took ages to find one that vaguely fitted. Though it did mean you skated around the palace as opposed to walking. I believe I stated I think I have the hang of this as I fell on the floor.  Rather like my ice skating ability, which is effectively another one bites the dust on ice. Big guys are not blessed with great poise. When leaving the palace from the south gardens for the front in order to see the cathedral, be aware that without good Russian you will have to pay again to re-enter the place where your boat departs, which is annoying. The cathedral itself is so-so, but as we wandered in, an orthodox priest came the other way swinging a ball of incense which I thought was weird but continued anyway. We opened the doors to the main part of the cathedral and through it comes a coffin carried by six guys and we had just stumbled into the middle of a funeral, which left us feeling awkward. Inside the cathedral was the plinth the coffin was just lifted off and surrounding it were grieving relatives and we beat a hasty retreat in time to see the coffin and family leave in the back of a minivan. A surreal experience, having never been to a funeral before and we felt guilty for intruding into a families private grief, but it became amusing when we got back outside the naval museum. We disembarked right into the middle of a wedding where they seem to walk down to the edge of the water and pose for photos. Judas then makes a joke about the aforementioned film, before three more married couples troupe down to the waterfront like a conveyer belt of custom made weddings, all posing for the same photos with identikit music, but some had larger entourages than others. Yet the day would continue to get more and more surreal.

          We followed up this amusing aside with a visit to the Kunstkammer, which is well worth a stop. The anthropological artifacts on the lower levels are interesting, but on the second floor is Peter I’s collection of scientific artifacts that resemble the body works exhibition they had in east London a few years ago, but instead of being plasticised these are authentic. Determined to bring science to Russia and educate the masses against superstitions due to genetic deformity, it includes a two headed calf, multiple fetuses that have been born with genetic defects such as Cyclops disease, brain tumours, no legs and a multitude of other examples. Although moderately queasy, it is compelling viewing and if you take the time to read the exhibit descriptions it is very informative. This was followed up by a trip to the zoological museum that spawned a very drunken game of ‘what weapons would you need to take each animal’ and ‘what kind of physical condition you would need to be in’. They have a phenomenal collection of stuffed animals, including rare mammoths that make for an interesting hours excursion regardless of any gamesmanship. Having left the zoological museum I decided we should pop into a tea room for a quick tea. Two and a half hours later we emerged. What I had read in the guide book as a room with good tea, turned out to be as close to an authentic Chinese tea house as you will get in the west. After a brief misunderstanding about shoes (you have to remove them to enter the room), we were escorted into a small room with many of those wicker screens to compartmentalise the gathering and cushions on the floor. It also holds a large selection of literature if you can read Russian, but our guide talked us through the menu of an infinite number of teas, from which I selected a strong green one (pretending I had some idea of what I was doing) and was then presented with a thermos of hot water about the length of my lower leg and about sixteen pieces of crockery. The routine is meticulous, with a sniff, pouring of hot water to allow the leaves to expand, a twist, transfer, strain, stir, transfer, twist and finally into the cups.  If you think this is tiring, you should try it when the cups are the size of thimbles. If this seems time consuming, it was, but made you appreciate the effort, as I think it was more for ritualistic purposes and contemplation, than for any actual practical benefit. It took a substantial amount of time to finish the tea and even longer to realise you dont signal for the bill, as it’s considered rude for the staff to lock eye contact, but that you just walk out and pay at the door. What they thought of such obviously confused foreigners I shall never know, but the laughter as we left spoke volumes. Having eaten significantly into our night, we decided that the famed pastry shops may be a risk, but steeling ourselves for another hour lost, the staff spoke fluent English and we had ordered and eaten inside two minutes. Both these places were north of the university, on the same island as the Naval Museum and the area is moderately rough, in a Holloway Road kind of way. After trying and failing to find another bar, with themed rooms modelled around the Karma Sutra and a torture chamber, we headed back to Che for the aforementioned greeting as warm as a Siberian ice box.

          Day 6 began with a frantic dash across town, with the aim of catching the morning train to Novgorod (a former capital of Russia and somehow twinned with my shitty little home town of Watford. A town thats claim to fame is that it is at the crossroads of the M25 and M1 and the major Birmingham rail line. Any place which is predominantly famed for the myriad ways you can escape from it must have been a natural place to twin with the city that contains the original Kremlin). My famed timing and a weakness for a Kir Royal or three too many the night before meant we succeeded in missing the train by an hour and were left stranded with no day plan. So upon consulting the wondrous Time Out, we opted for a day trip to Tsarkoe Selo and Pavlovsk. The kiosk is to the right and outside of the station to spare anybody the twenty minutes of searching we undertook and those train tickets that had seemed so cheap beforehand once again proved their worth when we were met with a familiar Russian shrug of lack of recognition and had to stump up full fare. Train ride was uneventful and arriving in Tsarkoe Selo (though the station is a mild variation of the name) it took us a while to realise that the minivans with numbers on them were the authentic busses to the palace. They are perfectly safe despite the initial look of one of those weird taxis that always hang outside clubs late at night, crossed with that small bus you always took for school sports events. Plus they were yellow. Drivers will wait until they are full before departing and in order to save money by walking back, I sketched a quick map with turnings marked by such profound directional objects as tree or scaffolding. The palace itself is entered through the mid gardens and it was here that the one legged man came back to haunt us. As we entered, he was chasing unsuspecting American tourists with his fearful cry of “Guidebook, just 5 dollars”. These Americans were nimble pros however and shuttled out of the park before he could reach them, to which end he fixed his raucous cry upon us and after briefly thinking of reasoning with him that we had no dollars, we opted to bolt for the house, with him chasing us on his crutches. We managed to lose him only by diving through a group of Americans who evidently offered greater potential profit than a man in neo immigrante clothing. Having ascertained that the palace was guided tour only and having been to Peterhof the day before, we decided to just wander the grounds. It’s a nice park on the whole, though we were subjected to the Russian navy doing training ground exercises in a rowing boat and you can’t reach the middle island in May.

          Having left Tsarkoe Selo I convinced Judas I could guide us the 4km to Pavlovsk without a map and promptly stumbled upon our first problem. A Russian old lady with an exposed manhole cover. After a little gesticulating we realised that someone had removed the planks and thrown them down the ditch leaving this manhole cover exposed, presumably to trap the local elderly. So we gathered up the planks and nailed them back down, which enabled me to enact another smug moment while the old lady showered us with praise.  Well as I didn’t understand a word, thats what I took it for. Having performed our holidayly Samaritans act, that once included packing an old French womans shopping and aiding an Italian tramp with his males piedes we proceeded onwards to... The exact same station we had started at. So much for my sketch map.  I evidently just have innate homing instincts for places I dont want to go to, which is the only way to describe clubbing in destiny. Having undertaken a correctional 50 minute walk down the east side of the tracks heading south, if anybody else is too tight to pay for a bus, we came to Pavlovsk. Its Russias premier parkland and is worth a visit even though the palace was covered in scaffolding (winning our coveted scaffolding award) and you had to wear the gliding slippers again. Only this time the plastic shoes had elastic, like a shower cap on your feet and the staff are obsessed with their cloakroom. You will be scolded like an errant schoolboy and sent there at least twice for objects you would consider normal baggage or clothing.  There is a great circular grouping of statues of the muses in the park and they seem to have mini opera performances in the bath houses. Now a word of warning. If it has rained substantially and you climb the hill near the lake (youll know which one if you go), dont consider it a good idea to climb down it. I believe I said to Judas it looked climbable, started walking and then issued the immortal “be careful its a little slipaiiaiaiaiiah”, as I somersaulted and half laughing/half ‘Arnie sound effects when he falls down the hill in Conan’ slid down, eventually sliding down on my stomach clawing at the mud as Judas watches me speed off ahead. Having watched my ‘graceful descent’, he slid down on his hands. Having entertained those people on the hill (who I think were considering the same idea until I went tumbling) and the people on the bridge, they then stopped to see what the idiot English would do next. Well, caked in mud and about to go to the Vlad’s favourite restaurant, we went down the bank to the lake and narrowly avoiding falling in.  Here we cleaned hands and other appendages in the former tsar’s lake, but it was not until 10 minutes later and much amusement for the locals that we could clean the mud off clothes and bags in a puddle in the forest near the squirrel feeders. Ah one other thing.  We managed for the first and last time at Pavlovsk to pay the locals reduced rates rather than tourist prices and it was then I knew that Judas had also perfected the hobo wanderer look. Putin’s favourite restaurant is just opposite the park entrance and is accurately described by Time Out as a traditional Russian log cabin on steroids. Judging by the waiting staff and the quality of food I can see why Vlad loves the place and both the lamprey and the bear are well worth trying. Even if eating bear while a childrens entertainer was parading around in a bear outfit outside did make me wonder if being cooked up as a main was the punishment for making rich Russian’s kids cry. On the way back we managed to join a Russian commuter train replete with the usual suspects on the English equivalent. So packed you can barely breath, annoying kids and the mandatory drunk who mumbles incoherently and threatens you for glancing at his Heineken. There was even the usual exodus of all bar three people at the Clapham/Harrow junction halfway out. Wasnt too bad after that, as we were left with the archetypal suburban teenage pregnancy and the parents quite clearly wasted on bottled beer beating their children. Just like home. St Petersburg overall is an awesome place and the people, outside of tube ticket vendors and customs officials, (and when are they ever friendly,  with a particular shout out to the baton twirling Frenchman who for laughs searched my entire bag contents including my toothpaste for drugs) were incredibly friendly even in the face of ignorant Brits. Police oppression is not as bad as assumed either. A drunk busker was ranting in the centre of Nevskiy Prospect and the police approached, calmly asked him to stand down and move away.  Though to balance that, I did read that they shot an immigrant kid in the face while we there from the Moscow Times. (On a personal note they seem more cultured than your average police force and are a far cry from the Caribinieri who I have seen truncheon a guy on a station in Bologna. Ok, he was menacing people and had tried to throw himself in front of our train, but when a random Italian questioned him they beat him as well. They also once took my passport and quizzed me as to whether it was mine, just because I had slept on the streets of Rome for the night and they are a constant nuisance that I believe are only paid to chat up women and keep their red stripes straight).

          Upon returning to St Petersburg we were then subjected to our very own Jack Bauer 24 hour period where nothing went right and it was mainly due to our, by this point, deeply loved train tickets. Having been instructed to go from booth 28 to 25 to 37 etc we finally stumbled upon a woman Judas could argue with heatedly, neither understanding the other, until a woman of dual language appeared. She explained both points.  The situation was resolved in 20 seconds and it was another telling point against those who see one language as a bad thing. Trust me.  Less conflicts. I may have said the situation was resolved, but what really happened was that we had to go out to the far suburbs to an international rail station (ala Waterloo, but much further out) to see English international ticket vendors who could fix us up. Having shot across town, after eventually finding an open underground station, clock ticking, we got to the station and had to wait 40 minutes while the couple in front argued seemingly about whether the stamp on their passport had been aligned correctly or something equally banal. Then came our turn and I suddenly realised we were not registered in the country and subsequently illegal immigrants. Upon entering Russia you must register your hard fought visa within 3 days, but our hostel could not do that, because we were leaving for Moscow in 4 (they can stamp it instantly there because it is the capital. Have to love bureaucracy) and it went over a weekend, when they were shut. So we are standing at a booth, whose operators are searching a passport database on which we dont exist, without any linguistic skills to explain ourselves and a train leaving in about an hour and a half from across the city and our bags were still in the hostel lock up. While I slowly feared the worst (kind of like when I ran out of water cycling across France and almost had to drink from a river, when I was held at machine gun point by Yugoslav armed police for possession of a knife and 7 cameras, when I was almost thrown off a train in Belgrade with no money, no means to get money and having not eaten for 2 days and finally when our car tyre blew in the middle of nowhere in Cuba), as these things often happen to me, we were saved skin of the teeth like, by these train people’s seeming incompetence or because we existed on some database they had access to, but we had not consented to. This was no time to quibble about civil liberties however (and the main problem with Vlad is there never is a time) and after a blistering sprint, almost getting on the suburban rail to god knows where (saved by a small old Russian guy who informed us of our poor Cyrillic alphabet reading, but added to the growing list of incredibly helpful locals), we grabbed our bags and boarded the train for a night trip to Moscow with about ten minutes to spare. Skin of the teeth as always. We were joined by some middle aged Russian woman and some young teenage Russian with questionable music taste (Not drum and base German questionable, but bad and Russian music is pretty good if their MTV in Moscow is to be trusted). Having been castigated by the guard because I had stolen everyones pillows we settled in for the Russian capital. I say settled in, but I then received a phone call that woke everyone up and having already stolen all their pillows I remained even less popular and drifted off dreaming of the supposed gas attacks on rail carriages. But like many Russian stereotypes this one was thankfully dispelled.

          Day 7 started with our arrival into Lenin Station and a trek up to our hostel, taking in such wondrous sites as a dodgy flea market and a dead cat left to putrefy in the middle of a street. Instantly I felt Moscow would be the New York to St Petersburgs Boston. Larger, uglier but with more zip though unlike the aforementioned analogy Moscow has less to do than St Petersburg. Having hiked 2km with our bags, climbed to the top of this ten floor building and sat in the lobby until it opened, we wandered in to confirm our booking to be met with the welcoming Hahaha and “what makes you think this is the Asia Hostel?” We had picked up a brochure for a map from the St Petersburg hostel as they are twinned, but the map they carried was for another company, but just being labelled hostel I was unaware of this. Feeling about as effective as the putrefying cat, I asked where it was then, to be informed, as you can guess, that it was the exact opposite side of a city with 10 million inhabitants. After another gruelling trek south, we asked a local taxi driver where it was and to my surprise he pointed it out to us rather than offering to drive us for the measly sum of the GDP of Thailand. By now our Jack Bauer 24 hours was coming to a close, but it still had time to foist us with a shower that only had cold water and at maximum output was about the same as that dribble that always leaks from taps that dont turn off properly. It meant showers became a ritual rather than a quick morning wash and it probably would have been less frustrating and quicker to either use the local swimming pool or fill the bath with mineral enriched bottled water. Russian mineral water is so refreshing and added to with boosting minerals, that tap water in the UK tastes like chlorinated swimming pool water for a few days after you get back. Heading into the centre of town we aimed for the Bolshoy to finally see a ballet only to be met by the worlds largest scaffolding site, informed that it was closed and scuppered to the point where I will now have to return to the city again (Cunning tourist planning). The day was not quite finished, as the Lenin Mausoleum was shut and we were left with a moderate Mexican restaurant for lunch. Then with the requisite three bips we emerged from our 24 hours of hell to enter St Basil’s Cathedral (the carbon copy, even though it was the original, of the Church of Spilled Blood in St Petersburg). Its not bad but they do have a cunning Venus fly trap of a gift shop in here. You must continue circling and the stairs are really steep into a gift shop and even steeper out the other side. For youngsters such as ourselves this was less of a problem, but I feel older people are not permitted to leave via the lift until they buy at least one expensive artifact and those that refuse will have their valuables confiscated and sold when they die of starvation.

          We figured a Kremlin tour was our next stop, though it is worth pointing out that if you want to walk across the Red Square without being whistled or clicked by Soviet soldiers, then you need to go when the Lenin Mausoleum is closed, because on days it is open, it is roped off and heavily guarded. Some old woman volunteered to get us into the armoury like some Russian Coyote, but it might well be worth taking the offer if not too expensive, because if you get there too late you lose out on the tickets, as they have a limited number and you may be stuck behind your archetypal American frat boy, but then again we may just have been unlucky. Dont however bother with the guides offering a trip round Lenins Mausoleum and beware of the old women who stand near the communist protestor (there is one official one allowed back every day), over a zodiac sign and smack people in the back of the head if they walk too close as Judas found to his cost and my enjoyment. If you opt for the Kremlin audio tour be aware that for the rest of your life you will be haunted by the continued words of “if you would like to step up to the wall opposite the altar”. (The best line has to be from the Edinburgh royal residence tour, of “this chair is made of bog wood, thats wood that comes from a bog”. Hmm informative) Also if you are attached to the back of an extravagant Japanese tour group you may experience the arranged random bursting into song of five black garbed monks, which is amusing and sinister at the same time. The Kremlin is not at all oppressive, though the bell tower was covered in, you guessed it, scaffolding, but dont even try to cross the road towards Putin’s residence for the guards will whistle you. By this point I was starting to flag, it was raining and I informed Judas I was a dead man walking. Just to round off the day I smacked my head for the second time in the holiday, this time on an underpass. We trekked back to the hostel, watched some Russian MTV and Judas tried the local bar, but came back saying it wasnt worth the trip.

          Day 8 opened up with a three strikes and your out head hit as I wandered into a plant pot hanging from a bottled water vendor’s roof. We headed down to the Red Square again, went hunting for cash in GUM (Russias largest department store, but really more like a Harlequin Centre of smaller shops masquerading as one place) and then went to the Lenin Mausoleum. Dont be fooled by the long queue, it moves fast and do not joke, talk or show any other signs of disrespect while wandering through. Guards will click you if you do, or if you walk too slow, or approach the glass too closely, but it is odd seeing such a famous man so well preserved and so thoroughly short. It has a very sleeping beauty tint to it and Im sure the communist protestor outside would like to put that to the test. It is definitely worth visiting, especially if Putin carries out his plan to bury Lenin in St Petersburg (that he actually asked for) rather than having him displayed in Red Square (as Stalin willed). It was also interesting reading the Moscow times, where the Russians thought Lordi beat their man in the Eurovision song contest due to a western conspiracy of anti-Russian paranoia. Now I subscribe more to the Baltic Times assertion that there is great paranoia on both sides, without adding the Latvian paranoia that neither can be trusted. Also the feeling that Russia can’t be incorporated into the EU is misplaced, because there was definitely a very European feel to the regions I travelled through and Russia is the country I have liked the most since I travelled to the States. Also I have to mention that Watford managed to make the back pages for qualifying for the Premiership. Can never go far enough away to escape this town. After leaving the Mausoleum it is worth watching the superbly executed changing of the guard, but dont try to cross the road to get to the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. You will by necessity have to use the subway. This gallery is well put together, though you will become statue saturated due to their immense collection, but again they have a Rosa (true sign of a great gallery).  They still have too much early renaissance religious art. The audio tour is also well worth it, although like many audio tours they always have numbers on lots of paintings you have limited interest in and none on the better works of art. Again, upon leaving, I wandered into the female staff changing rooms due to being sent there by one member of staff. Joke on their behalf or sheer incompetence I know not, but I am sure there are now notices around Russian galleries with my face and public health warnings. Upon leaving this, we headed down towards the island with the big St Peter statue. I was dying to see this giant statue celebrating the man who loathed this city and moved the capital to St Petersburg and apparently scares children due to it being larger than the statue of liberty without her plinth (Mind you he was 6’7” in the early 18th century and must have towered over everyone). First we stopped at the Cathedral of Christ, which was a massive cathedral built at great expense by this same architect (he is apparently now building a Lenin themed theme park. Should be interesting) and despite being hated by locals, it is actually a phenomenally impressive building and if you keep heading down through stairs and passageways (anywhere it looks like you are not supposed to go), you will come across a gallery of paintings by this priest who is infinitely more talented than any painter in the Tate modern and yet he is a complete unknown. Well worth a visit and then you can cross the bridge at the south side, past the chocolate factory down to the St Peter. Unfortunately it is under 24 hour surveillance and you can’t get too close, because some radicals had tried to blow it up and ironically would probably have been given the keys to the city. It is disappointingly not that monstrous and we actually liked it. Abandoning our disappointment at the riverside, we headed down to the Tretyakov Gallery, where we were promptly cut off by whirring sirens and a huge tinted windowed black limousine parade that was far more intimidating than Peter’s statue. Having made the mistake of trying to enter the Tretyakov through the celebratory entrance (I mean, did they not know who I am!?), we were redirected to the entrance marked pleb and headed into a place well worth visiting for classic Russian art. Probably slightly more impressive than the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, in the same way that the National is better than the Tate. Not content with burning searing images of overexposure to art onto my retina, we decided that a trip down to the New Tretyakov would enable us to see if the Russians have discovered the rare ability to make good modern art ala Georgia OKeefe or whether they subscribed to the random lines and coloured blocks theory of paintings that could be constructed by a 3 year old (most of the Tate modern). I once considered entering a paving stone painted green, to represent the slow urbanising of our fertile planet, the loss of innocence and community to the urban monster and how natural resources and man made products have overtaken our consumption of nature’s gifts for the Turner prize, to conclude that shit art with a pretentious tagline that means nothing but sounds profound is not hard to do and it certainly is not clever.  To top it off I would crack it in half and right innocence across it with the little French accent for maximum pretension.  I am sure Turner would turn in his grave at what they pass off for his prize, in the same way that Homer would punch the Philadelphia artist who wrote random words in blue (to represent the love and peace of the Trojans) and red (to represent the anger and fire of the Greeks) on a white canvass. Turning great works of art into artistic pieces that a monkey would be embarrassed to draw is sick and just because European galleries are afraid of missing out on a great movement like when they rejected the impressionists and Americans bought all these great European works of art, does not mean they have to buy and display any piece of crap that comes their way. Luckily the New Tretyakov is somewhere in between, with the temporary exhibition of French masters on the ground floor and a large display of Soviet paintings conforming to the style the state dictated was art. The underground arts movement is mainly in the Tretyakov. If you skip one art gallery, skip this one, though it is next to Gorky Park and behind it is a Sculpture Park, but sensing Judas would kill me if I dragged us to more art and with his vampiric fear of sunlight kicking in, we headed for food. We tried to eat at a Georgian restaurant named Tiflis, but they laughed at our lack of a reservation (though it is worth a visit as the favourite restaurant of Russias foreign minister) so we headed off to Noahs Ark (a superb Armenian restaurant that you must try, but believe the waiter when he says the cheeses are salty). If you find it via a guidebook you may think you have missed it, as there is an imposing building with a bodyguard that looks like a government building, but its just the façade and the bouncer is just a doorman. We were then subjected to spending part of the evening trying to find out where our bus went from with no luck, but if you do travel Ecolines just head to the station on the ticket and it does go from just outside and gets there twenty minutes before departure, despite the lack of signs and the obvious disinterest of the old man hanging out the window.

          Day 9 began with a boat trip down the Moscow River, which is really worthwhile if only to catch some sun (or shade in Judas’ case). One unforeseen benefit is my upcoming appearance in a strange bearded orthodox priest’s video footage of Moscow. With his own film crew he was wandering up and down, so if any of you get hold of some Orthodox Russian recruitment tapes with me in them, will gladly pay for a copy. Also of note, if you look carefully at Gorky Park as you float by, there appears to be a ski ramp into the middle of nowhere. Now if anyone can tell me what this apparent suicide device is, I would be grateful. Upon reaching the other end there is a floating boat restaurant, which is interesting, but nowhere near as cool as the gym in a boat in St Petersburg. If I ever go there to teach English, I want to become a member so I can use cycle machines while staring out of the hull of an old battleship. Novodevichy Convent and the surrounding graveyard (burial place for great Russians including Chekhov and Khruschev) are well worth visiting, especially as we did not pay for the latter, but if you get the map of burial sites, be aware that it is pretty crap and almost impossible to find any of the graves it points out. One thing to note is why are parks always full of chronically insane people? There is always at least one in every park. Do they enter this way or do they get trapped here for ages and slowly but surely it turns them into some nuisance making park monster? Having left the monastery and wandered by the White House where Yeltsin stood on the tanks, we went to a Ukrainian restaurant called Shinook, which has to be seen to be believed, replete with its own mini farm that operates through the window while you are eating. They do rather cruelly tether the animals up so that each diner is guaranteed a view of a farm animal and having completed this meal we steeled ourselves for the night bus from hell complete with dubbed film. Having made the trip to the station and carrying too many useless roubles I went in search of a tramp to donate them to (was about £14) and you can never find one when you want one, so we were forced to keep them and would luckily find a travel agent in Riga that would change up shrapnel. Our night bus was packed with the usual bunch of misfits including an American who had seemingly travelled to every part of the world and the film was Bridget Jones of all things, but they only dubbed the male parts, so it was some weird dual language experience. I was stuck between an enormously fat Latvian lady who refused to allow me to put my seat back, even in the space that was nowhere near her. So ignoring her, I then had my knee crushed by the Latvian man in front of me moving his chair back, so I left my knee in his back, which only led to him putting the other seat, he wasnt in, back into my other knee in the middle of the night that saw me wake up with a scream. Meanwhile Judas had three times walked into the roof of the bus attempting to negotiate the slop bucket that was allegedly our toilet. Customs again took 40 minutes to verify we were English, when you would have expected they would just want us out and after a significant argument with the fat Latvian we disembarked for customs checks. To my slightly veiled delight the fat Latvian and her friend were accosted for smuggling in illegal prescription drugs from Russia, but sadly were allowed back on the bus after confiscation. Finally getting some sleep, I missed what would have been a highlight of the bus trip when the fat Latvian, after failing to persuade me to abandon my seat, moved to the back and lay across the seats.  Then according to Judas, the bus stopped suddenly and she fell into the gap, but due to her immense girth she was wedged into the gap and couldn’t get free for some time. Having hit his head three times, Judas was then punched in the face by me by accident, while feeding my arm through my coat sleeve.

          Day 10 was not overly eventful until we got back to London. We just took a wander out to the bridge over the Daugava which is a good walk, revisited our favourite places such as Hessburger, Double Coffee and the Skyline which we colonised in a short time, like we have Bodegas, Baltic and the Porterhouse. We wandered around the central park and into the church we had often seen from the Skyline (mainly because a typical heavy 10 minute Latvian downpour occurred as we walked past and it seemed like a good place for some shelter). Having negotiated the various stag parties from Liverpool gathered at the airport, we took the plastic plane home for one final odyssey. Having failed to persuade anyone that giving us a lift at midnight from Stansted was in their best interests, we missed the midnight train and had to pay for the half twelve train into Liverpool Street. As this train takes a long time, we missed the last Euston train and had to take a night bus to Trafalgar Square for the Harrow night bus. The first driver decided he wanted to stop for 20 minutes and there was an odd drunken Irish man who kept running in front of every bus while moving to see its number. This is a journey I have taken many times drunk after clubbing and after even the Euston ghost train has left or when I lived in Belsize Park and Turnpike Lane, but even by night bus standards this was packed with oddballs. Firstly the driver was insane (and I am not talking about his driving) and next to us for most of the journey was a Rasta with a cardboard box, McDonald’s bag and other assortments, who halfway through the bus journey started scraping chewing gum off the floor to keep. Then he decided that there may be stuff in the bin he could salvage and took it apart to scrape out the insides diligently while passengers politely climbed over him. This was slightly odd behaviour, but there was a strange guy who kept staring at me, tapping his feet and pushing the bell to stop the bus every few seconds, so that the bus driver had to stop the bus and complain that he would kick us all off if this man did not stop. With minimal sleep this was getting more surreal, until the odd foot tapper started smoking a joint.  The bus driver stopped again and accused him of smoking. He threw it on the floor and denied it, the bus driver said he would not move until he left and hit the alarm that started blaring out in Sudbury “This bus is under attack, dial 999.” With this argument kicking off and the bus screaming, I would found out the next day that my sister’s boyfriend had been wandering by and heard this strange bus alarm system. Eventually after the mad man left we got off at Harrow on the Hill, could not find a taxi rank, got accosted by an oddball wondering where we had been and wandered down to Harrow and Wealdstone to finally get a taxi back to Garston and end this thoroughly enjoyable exodus. Russia is a must visit for anyone who loves travelling, while Riga would be great to visit for a weekend with friends. Just make sure you keep up those great British traditions they see in all us travellers.


James Sharratt

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photo by: skippyed