Sunday, September 30, 2012

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

We arrived in Irkutsk at 4am and shared a cab with another girl to our hostel. Well, after a two hour drive into the middle of nowhere, we arrived, but what I thought was a 24 hour hostel was not. We rang the bell for about a half hour, so we trekked down the hill to the water. Lake Baikal is the largest fresh water lake in the world, larger than the great lakes and Lake Champlain. Well when we first saw it, I was amazed on how large it was, hell, I even thought it had a horizon! I later discovered that there were clouds in front of the mountains on the other side... But it was definitely reminiscent of Vermont. After two more times hiking up and down the hill with our packs (I barely had 11kilos so I can hardly complain) we finally entered the hostel around 1030-11. The woman at the door apologized since the bell was broken, even though she was up when we arrived. We took an immediate nap, showered, and organized ourselves for the day. We planned a banyan bath session later in the evening and headed to town.

Sunny and bright, it was a booming little town on a Saturday afternoon. Market stalls with fish, smoked fish, and fish eggs were all yelling out when we walked past. Souvenir stands had jewelry, magnets, and stuffed animal baby seals, as lake Baikal is known for their seals. When we went to the Information stall, I asked about the seals, to which they replied that the seals were more north on an island in the middle of the lake. Disappointed, we headed towards the end of the street. We saw some more, large mountains, some with snow on them! After exploring all we could, we bought some food (including a bottle of vodka and doughnuts filled with caramel) and headed back up for our banyan experience.

Hot and steamy are the two words to describe it. We got to have the birch branches as well, for massage, even though it required you to hit the other person with them. Let me just say don't go in with someone you're angry with or who is angry at you because it could go downhill fast. There was a chess table inside and we actually over stayed our time since we were trying to finish our game (we both had our kings and 1 bishop on the same colored square). After feeling rejuvenated, we got changed, ate some dinner, and headed to the other common room for drinking and chatting with the other guests. Australians, françois, a German, and a spainard were those who accompanied us. We talked about where we were all going and coming from, which places were better than others, which places you had to see. It was fun and exciting but with half the group leaving early in the morning, they mostly retired to bed, except on of the Australians who decided to go on a beer run with Tom and I. After barely finding beer, we headed back talked some more and went to bed. The next morning I was covered in bites. Maybe an allergic reaction? I said to Tom. Watch it be bedbugs. So looking at the bed (again) I discovered this time a plethora of insects in an out of my bed. Freaking out I ran out of the room, took our bags and told the woman running the place. Tom showed her the bed (which grossed us both out) and we got relocated to a private room. Needless to say, Tom saw, firsthand, how I am allergic to these nasty little bugs. They replaced the mattress the next dayand our friend slept in that room the next night, but told her the next day as to not causeca rukus. This Eco hostel has a name to live up too, and I know that no one will want to have bed bugs there. If you have never seen bed bug bites take a look at these pictures. Mind you, these were taken after the swelling, about 3-4 days after being bitten.

So anyways, the next day was a sad, dreary day. It looked like rain for most of the time, but Tom and I hiked along to the port of listvaynka, up the hill, and then up a ski lift to the top of the mountain to the view point. Let me tell you it wa worth the 100 rubles up. Even though it was cloudy, it was beautiful. We found a shorter path down and made it back into town in a much shorter time. I bought some lake Baikal playing cards that had seals, plants and scenes from the area as the pack Tom bought started at card 6 (I now beileve I have lost these cards).

The next day was uneventful, we bought ourselves a smoke fish, and made food for the trip. But it was the day we left that made things more interesting.

We bought our bus tickets in advance, which everyone thought was odd, but we had a luxury bus instead of riding in the small public mini buses. Paying 70 rubles total, we thought we had a steal of a deal compared to 100 if we tool the mini. But we got dropped off at the bus station, not the rail. So trying to explain train (I definitely said choo choo), having a drunk tell us it was a 10 minute walk (would have been over an hour) and asking 3 women, we finally got on the tram and made our way over. When we got on the train, our companion only spoke Russian so we introduced ourselves, chatted a bit with other riders and fell asleep.

Train number 4- Moscow to Irkutsk

The first night was exciting! A new train, a new experience! We had 2nd class tickets for the entire trip so we had a small room with 4 beds, and a small table and a window. There is also a storage container below the bottom bed to put our packs in and storage above the door in the roof kinda (see pictures). There was only 3 of us during this round, which was quite nice. Our roommate, Steph, is. Londoner who was on month holiday. She knew her first destination, but didn't know when she would leave Russia, only she had a return ticket fr Beijing. She worked for the NGO Save the Children, and had been to India many times. I told her about being adopted and going to India as she works for those types of children. We had a great three days with her; we shared food, vodka, beers, and toilet paper.

Well it's all fun and games until you realized all you have seen for three days is vast nothingness, some small broken down villages, and trees. With a few days getting off the train at the platforms, but only inhaling coal air, you start to get cabin fever. Or realizing it's easier to sleep whenever, with no true concept of time or day.

Would I do it again? Probably, but I would do things differently, including what I packed. Here are my first three tips on traveling on the trans-mongolian/Siberian/ whatever train.

1. Bring a roll of toilet paper (or two):
These toilets are absobloodylutely DISGUSTING. They don't care you spent an extra few dollars for second class, so don't expect too much, including toilet paper or soap to be in there. Our second train was newer and nicer, but when they ran out of tp, they didn't replace it. I had some for this leg of the journey thankfully. But anyways, buy it, take it from your hotel before or steal it from 1st class, because when you have to number 2 on the number 4, well, don't say I didn't warn ya.

2. Bring some hot chocolate:
You get all the hot boiling water you want. Drinking coffee and tea is nice, but on those cold nights on the train, a mug of hot chocolate is what makes the night. Hell, make it a grown up one and add some vodka if you want, but bring it. Who cares if you think you're too old for it because you're not, nor ever will be. When Steph (40) made a steaming mug of hot chocolate, needless to say, Tom and I were eyeing it with jealousy.

3. Bring a mug, thermos, or for the coffee lovers, a French press coffee mug:
Again all the hot water you want. Mugs act as cups or bowls, an the hot ones have covers so you can store stuff. I am still regretting not taking the one Mom offered me before going into the airport. And for you coffee addicts, bring a French press one. Sure it might cost more, but when you are looking for a good cup of Joe, don't expect it from Siberia. Nescafe and instant coffee is what they have here. So bring some ground coffee and your mugs and be the envy of your carriage mates. Tom has an insulate hydro flask bottle which keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold for 24+ hours. It's been a lifesaver.

Moseying around Moscow

We arrived in Russia and made our way to the train; after trying to exchange money (no they do not take Czech kronas) and having a manly looking woman in a fur coat asking if we wanted a taxi ride. Luckily, with Tom's Polish background, he can understand Russian, but understanding their cyrillic language is another. Knowing some letters or language of Russia is essential if you want to visit. The subway signa are ALL in Cyrillic so don't expect any English favors, at least in Moscow. After getting off the subway and walking for 40 minutes, we found the hostel- a 10 minute walk in reality. We made our way in, got settled and explored the red square. It was actually very pretty at night. Everything was lit up, with red stars everywhere. Moscow isn't the nicest city in Russia, even people we traveled with said that St. Petersburg is much nicer and a bit more friendlier. But with a one night stay there, we managed. For dinner, we looked at a 1000 places it seemed, all with sushi, which o oddly did not want. I wanted warm, comfort food. We found a cafeteria which was half off dice they were closing for the night which was nice. Good, kinda, but it filled the void in our stomachs.

We didn't go out, as we were unsure as to where to go and didn't want to end up in a bad group, so we headed back to the hostel and fell asleep. The next day we headed back to red square to see the it in daylight to kill time before our 10pm trip. After buying groceries and me freaking out about my debit card, we did our last minute interneting before our 3 day trip on the train.

When we go to the train station, no one was helpful, we couldn't read anything and their were 5 of us lost and confused. Tom went to see if he could get help, which he finally did after asking someone in line. The Italian guys who found us also found out a well right as Tom came back. I had my thoughts on the situation (which ended up true) but was ignored but whatever, right now I'm headed to Beijing so things worked out.

So we got on our train and with a total of 5 people in our carriage ( us, the 2 Italians and a Londoner) we headed out to Irkutsk!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meeting family from the old country(ies)

Day two in Praha

After walking up at noon, it was cold, rainy and windy. "how it was when we met in England." we decided. Today was the day I was meeting up with Milos Neuman, my father's grandfather's brother's grandson or cousin Hahah Milos lives in Prague with his wife and they have a daughter and a son, who are both older than me.

I met him in the central square where he was looking for me in a group of students. I walked up behind him and said his name, he laugh an showed me the picture I had sent him so he could identify me. I laughed as well and we started to walk. We went through the city again, bu this time I got to learn about the history of the city which was really amazing! We went to the top of the town hall, the building with the astronomical clock, and we got to see a 360 view of the city. When I get to a computer one of these days I'll upload all the pictures. We then went across the bridge again and we waited at a pub that used to be horse stalls, for his wife. We each had a large pilsner and warmed up. He brought with him an old fily album, so i got to see pictures of my dads family. It was really amazing and special. After, we started walking to the castle but it was rainin again so we waited at another bar where hee sometimes plays music. This time I had coffee to wake up fr the cold, dreary day. When the rain slowed, we headed up the hill. Most of the castle was closed and it started raining again so we rushed down the other side to a restaurant where his son was waiting. I had beef goulash and another beer. After, we went to the bar where he sometime plays music because he thought some music was playing, but it was just a practice so we had one more beer an headed back home as it was late and he had to work the next day. Ales, his son, walked me back to Corey and Thea's where we had a slow night and fell asleep early.

The next day Tom and his nephew came to Prague and I met up with them. We left the day after to Bavaria to see his family.

After a 4 hour train ride, we arrived and got a taxi to his cousins house. Welcomed with open arms and delish food, we filled ourselves, and then went out to the city of regensburg. We had some drinks, and went home after the horrible service at one club.

The next day we went hiking on Grosse Osser, a large but not to large peak in the Bavarian region. We were six total; Tom, his nephew (Greg), his cousin(M) and wife and his cousins sister ( so cousin as well) Veronica, and myself. Mind you I am not using names as I cannot write them properly and don't want to be rude an eff their names up. So while we started the hike, Tom and M's wife saw some mushrooms on the side of the trail. After discovering that these were good, we had ourselves a mushroom picking time during the climb up and down. M found one that was huge, I'm gonna say like 1-2lbs. Veronica and I are around the same age as me and we hit it off. She doesn't speak Polish either, so we would practice some German and English. We reached the top and had some food and drinks; the beer garden is one of the highest in Germany.

The next day we went to Spatiel ( I think) beer garden and had some delicious schnitzel! Nom nom! I have pictures (well Tom does), an I'll hopefully get them up before we reach Australia (again I'm writing on my iPod). But I know everyone is more excited about learning an hearing about Russia and Mongolia. So let's go!

End of Greece, Praha pt 1

The name of that seaweed like item in the salad was wild rock fennel by the way.

The last few days Of Greece were calm and perfect, a nice vacation from traveling. On Chios we went to the beach early and found a remote spot which was dirty but beautiful; surrounded by cliffs and caves. We also visited a small Greek village which is known for their architectural designs of small roads and bridges between buildings; they also have their walls decorated with black and white designs. It was very beautiful.

The return back to Athens was much different from the trip there, however still by ferry. I was on the deck, so no TVs, no luxury seats, and no heat. But it was wonderful! Which se of you might think is hard to believe, during a cold wet night, but I got to hang put with a dog! Her name was peanut and her owner had a seat inside. Unable to bring her in, he was tying her up to a table and asked me to look after her. He was around my age, and I guess I looked harmless and trustworthy. I was concerned he was goin to leave her with me, but he pulled out food and water for her in nice dishes so I knew he loved her. I snoozed on and off, cuddled with the dog a little, and read. He ce back halfway through the trip, asking if I needed anything, which I didn't. Some people might find it weird that I looked after his dog for free, but I got to hang out with a cute dog for 8 hours! It made my trip!

When I arrived back to Athens, I found his sisters apartment with ease. After sleeping for a while, I went out and explored the tourist section, found some ouzo and gypsy pants and went back. His sister Vinia and I went out that night, having some good and not so good cocktails, and gyros and wine. It was a fun girls night for both of us and she and I are very much alike. It was also nice to see her dog ginger again.

Leaving early the next morning, I made it to the airport on time and successfully. Once arriving in Prague, I got to the metro station to meet up with my friend Thea, whom I wad staying with and had met in England. Unable to find her for about an hour, I was about to go find a taxi when Corey showed up! Corey and Thea are dating and are working as English teachers in Prague.

Corey and I bought food for lunch and after we ate, we went for a walk around town. It was a very warm day, so seeing everything was very nice! We walked along the King Charles bridge, by the john Lennon wall and the locks of love section of town. After feeling a bit tired, we headed back and met up with Thea at the apartment. She and I went to the store to buy food for dinner and we made some salads with chicken, avocado, blue cheese, and a balsamic dressing. It was nice to have some real food. We went out late to a dark, dank bar which was really cool, as there were tunnels and bars deep inside, an old bomb shelter I think. After I almost fell asleep in my beer, we headed home and passed out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It's all Greek to me! Pt 2

Living on the water, on the port, is a blessing and a curse. For one, I got to wake up to a beautiful view and was close to everything! Bad thing was that it was loud! All the time! Moto bikes have loud exhausts, meaning you could hear th miles away plus under you window. Also there were clubs right below, and with people not starting to go out til 1am, the party lasted all night. I was usually exhausted from the day's adventures that I usually had no problem sleeping but no one cares about that. What you probably want to know is what I did during those adventures.

Day 1 on Chios (he-ose)
We arrived on the island at 4 am so we promptly found my room for the next few days, Giannis went home and I fell asleep. We began our day around 1130 by walking around the city. The city called Chios as well, which is a large port city on the eastern side of the island. We saw the large, beautiful church, the center square/park, the mainly pedestrian only shopping street and his father's office. His dad is an optometrist and must be one of the few on the island as he helped me get the room. I literally met him for 5 minutes and that was it. After walkig around, grabbing some lunch which included a Greek salad ( tomatoes, onions, olives, feta, cukes) and mosaka, which is similar to a meat lasagna but with eggplant and fluffy béchamel cream on top. it was much heavier than I expected, or needed in the hot Grecian weather. After eating, we went back to our separate places to get ready for the beach. He said his friend Peter (which is his English name, I forgot what it was in Greek) would be joining us. He also said he was slow with times. We decided to leave at 4 for the black pebble beach, the nicest beach on Chios, even though there is no sand. Excited, I got changed quickly, and was surprisingly ready ny 4:05. I waited in my room until 420 and then headed down, thinking he had his car waiting outside. Another 30 minutes later they finally showed up. I wish they knew what Patty 4 time was as I would have known then to be ready an hour later. But we made it out to the beach and it was gorgeous. We only had about 30-45 minutes of swim time as the beach was shaded by the large rocks surrounding the area. But it was fine. I asked about sharks and couldn't get a straight answer but when Giannis said no one has been attacked, that's all I needed.

After swimming we went back to town, around 830 where we split up again to get ready for dinner, they said pick up around 10. I was barely ready this time when they knocked at 1030, but we headed out to Lansgard ( I will have to double check that name, but it's more north). By the time we got there, the restaurant we wanted to go to wa closed, but the other good one was opened so we sat, ordered ouzo, and feasted. Grilled octopus, fried squid, Greek salad (with capers and arugula this time! Yumm!), grilled cheese, bread, fries, potato choquettes( like breaded mashed potatoes) and tzaziki sauce. If there is more I can't tell you now as my journal is currently stowed away. We feasted and they gave us orange cream little ice cream sticks which were perfect to finish the meal. We went out briefly, with me seeing and yelling at a cockroach, but we went to bed early (3ish).

Day 2

Day two started the same way as day one, sleeping in late, and walking aroun the city to find me some pants. Unfortunately since the summer season wa ending, a lot of their cute summer pants were put away until next year. I knew I could find some in Athens, but we went on an adventure anyways, going to a nearby tourist trap to look for some. To no avail, we left empty handed so we heeded to his house for lunch. His mom made fried meatballs, a mosaka like dish ( which honestly tasted and look almost liked meat lasanga) and a Greek salad again. Hers had home pickled capers and wild sea fennel I think it is called, which reminded me of well seaweed, but crunchy. Either way it was delicious.

Afterwards we drove out to cave olympi which is the deepest point on Chios. The cave was originally used to dump dead animals, but when they discovered them on the beach below, they discovered the cave. It is still a growing cave, meanin that the lower regions are getting deeper and stalactites and mites are growin as well. Then we went to the beach late again and as we were trying to leave, a dog started following us, even when we switched directions, move ahead quickly, and whatever. I of course wanted to play with the dog, but giannis said that then I would want to take it home. Which I did. By the end, there were three dogs and we lefts without them :(

I'll post day 3 and Prague soon, but I thought you would enjoy at least one post!

Monday, September 10, 2012

It's all Greek to me! pt 1

Sorry for the delay on the post. My iPod could not host this site, so I was unable to post. Luckily, my friends have a computer that I am able to use. So let's start from the beginning.

I arrived to Athens on the 5th, 9 hours after driving up to Montreal with my mom. It was a direct flight which was nice on a big plane. Exhausted and tired, I found Giannis (John) pretty easily after the flight at the airport. After catching a train to his sister's apartment, where we met her cute puppy Ginger, a maltese. After dropping my stuff off, we ended up walking around the city. We went to Ermou, Kolonaki and Monastiraki. Monastiraki is the tourist trap location, with flea markets, bargain prices and silly souvenirs. We were going to go to the Parthenon/Akropolis, but it had closed at 3 and it was 2:45, not nearly enough time for us to reach the top and enjoy our time there. So we went to the Akropolis Museum, where the original parts of the Parthenon are, but since I was so tired, I ended up almost falling asleep.  We decided it was best to head back and I could take a nap and be ready for the evening. After getting some food, we headed up towards the university section of Athens, to see what the night life was like. If we had arrived an hour earlier, we would have heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers play, but we arrived when everyone was leaving the show. Being as it was, the streets were filled with people, as were the bars. unable to decide on which loud, smokey bar to go to, we decided to buy some beers and drink them at home. Well unfortunately, the trains all stopped at 15 past midnight. We were trying to leave at 12:20. So we decided to walk part way and then get a taxi home, to decrease the price. After walking around for 30-40 minutes, beers gone or mostly gone, (it's legal to drink in public), we finally got a taxi home and promptly went asleep.

The next day, we woke up late as I was still jet lagged, and got ready to go to the Akropolis. And yes, I know I am spelling it with a K as that is how the Greek spell it. We ended up taking the back root up, and after the long-ish hike (I wore my comfy shoes, Giannis did not) we finally arrived. And well, the views are amazing, but the structures themselves are ok. They are trying to put it back together, using marble and original pieces still on site. Mind you, most of the buildings have been scattered (mainly the British Museum). Giannis told me it has only been within the last 2 centuries that the Parthenon has been destroyed, and it was actually blown up. It was where the Greeks kept their ammunition and gun powder and one night a Turkish man came and blew it up! So if you ever go or if you ever see a piece and it has a round fragment missing, it was actually from cannon balls. After hiking down and taking a bus into the city, we met up with Giannis' friend Nikos. We sat down at a cafe and had some drinks. I had a Freddo, which is an iced cappachino, which was quite nice. Dad keeps telling me that the Greeks don't have good coffee, but obviously that has changed in the last 40 years.

We headed back early, as we were catching a ferry to Chios at 9 in the evening. Now when I think of ferries, I think of small, dirty ships that carry cars and people; they are relatively small, and not more than 2 stories. Well, I almost shat myself when I saw this one. It was a cruise ship sized ship, 3 levels for cars with the bottom floor being for cargo trucks, 2 floors of airplane seats, and the top floor was the deck. Now we had airplane seats, which are nice, leather seats in 2 rows of 3. There were a few TVs, but the shows were in Greek and Turkish, so I couldn't understand them, but Giannis had his computer so we watched a movie. From there, it was trying to sleep that was the problem. I am usually pretty good at falling asleep on planes, but with not tray table, I couldn't fold over like I normally do, so falling asleep was a challenge. Needless to say, I didn't sleep very well.

We arrived at the Chios (pronounced He-ose) at 4 in the morning. Giannis got a snack, while I just wanted to sleep, we found my room (which was right on the port), Giannis went home and I fell asleep.   7 hours later I woke and we started on my second part of Greece, which I will describe more later, along with pictures. Giannis parents got the room for me, as their house was "messy" and the room I was to stay in was"unfit" for a guest. Which was untrue, but they were kind enough to get me a room with the view of the port, a full sized bed, and a restroom. So it was perfect. But I must go. We're going  out, Vinia (Giannis' sister).

Alright must love! Joya