Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Trans Siberian Adventure: End of the Line, Everybody Off!


We arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 6:48 AM on Friday, June 16, after 24 hours on the train. The morning was death with bird songs. How I dragged myself out of bed and managed to brush my teeth at 5 AM I’ll never know – probably just on automatic pilot after years of experience. Anyway, we all made it somehow, with packed bags and stripped beds. Fortunately, our bus was nearby and I settled into my seat wishing for another hour or so of travel so I could resume my dreams of Greek carriage attendants and Wesson Oil.
The gods must have heard my entreaties, as I had a nice nap on the way to our first destination, a sort of national park area where we could view the lushness of the Yenisei River area from atop one of its viewing sites. We’d gotten off the train so early I hadn’t had time to finish my ablutions, so had to use the facilities at the park, which consisted of, oh joy, a squatting toilet. I’d managed to avoid these lovely modern conveniences so far, but I guess my time had come. I won’t scare you with tales of the facility’s use, but suffice it to say it ain’t too easy on 73-year-old knees.
We then toured the Lenin Museum and the War Memorial (for the Great Patriotic War, which is what Russians call World War II). We climbed a short incline to a chapel on top of a hill overlooking the city and were then given one hour for lunch in the middle of the city, on our own. We found a wonderful Thai restaurant two minutes’ walk from the bus and had a great lunch. We all wished we’d had more time to enjoy and appreciate the food and service, but one must make do with what one has. I managed to scarf down the spring rolls along with duck and veggies in the allotted time.

Back to the train and another hot, hot, hot carriage. We all relaxed until dinnertime, reading and napping and finding our way to the bar car for our evening repast. I chose the Old Moscow Salad this time, as I needed something light. My accompaniment was a lovely semi-fruity Spanish white wine. I thought it was inadequately chilled, but declined to comment to our bar car attendant, Irina. When one is riding the rails across Siberia in the comfort of a nicely-appointed bar car, it is the height of tackiness to complain that one’s wine is not adequately chilled. Or so I reasoned. A refreshing caramel ice cream for dessert mellowed me out just right.

We repaired to our cozy den of iniquity and found it full of vodka drinkers eager and ready to replicate the previous night’s festivities. We didn’t get as far this night, but I had no trouble falling asleep later in the evening.
Saturday morning, June 17, I was up and about at 8 o’clock, refreshing and handi-wiping and dousing myself with washroom water (NOT fit to drink!). It had now been two nights without a shower and even my handi-wipes seemed inadequate to cover all that ripeness. I could hardly wait for tonight’s shower. But first, we had to tour Irkutsk and then bus down to Lake Baikal.

I had learned that breakfast was available on the train from 9 AM, and was determined to get to the bar car in time for a reasonable early-morning repast. Which I did. Tony joined me and we ordered the menu item shown as “scrambled eggs.” It turned out the eggs were actually fried, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less if they were pounded into dust; I just wanted a normal breakfast. It was great: 2 eggs each, tomatoes, onions, bread (no toast) and Sprite (no juice). Aaaahhh!

About 15 minutes later Dean wandered in and ordered the same thing and the attendant told him they were out of eggs. No one else had come in since our arrival, but they were out of eggs. Strange. But Attendant Olga wanted to be helpful and to please her customers, so she recommended another menu item which was in stock: macaroni and cheese. And that’s what Dean had. For breakfast.

We exited the Trans-Siberian Express for the final time in Irkutsk at 11:31 AM on Saturday, June 17. Our train trip, but not our journey, was over. We’d come more than 5200 kilometers (around 3600 miles) from Moscow on the rails. What an adventure! There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as we thanked our Provodnitsa and our bar car attendants; I even gave each of them one of the Budapest souvenir shot glasses I’d brought along for just that purpose. I doubt I’ll ever do anything like that trip again and I was still savoring every moment as I lugged my suitcase to the bus for our city tour of Irkutsk.
The far-eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk only became important after 1760, when it connected to the road leading from Moscow to Siberia. From then on it was an important point of transfer for imported Chinese products.

We exited the bus in the center of the city, near another of the ubiquitous churches, then walked down by the riverbank to Irkutsk’s old Main Gate. After brief visits to the House of Decembrists, the Polish church (natch!) and the Kirov Room, we were dropped off at an amazing entertainment venue in the city proper, sort of an outdoor shopping mall, with restaurants, souvenir chops, pubs, etc. Once again, we only had about one hour to eat lunch and shop, not nearly enough time to do it all.
Anyway, Dean, Tony and I found a nice terrace restaurant called AHTPEKOT in Russian (Antrekot in English, Entrecote in French) and I had some grenkiye and a lamb kebab with potatoes, accompanied by a nice rum punch. I had to eat and run to the shops to see what I could find, after which we reconnected with the bus for the 60 kilometer drive to Lisztvjanka, at the conjunction of the Irkut River and Lake Baikal.

Along the way we stopped at an old reconstructed wooden village called The Watchtower, where we were allotted 90 minutes to wander around. 90 minutes! 90 minutes to check out some old log cabin buildings and a couple of yurts. 90 minutes we could have spent lazily and productively shopping for souvenirs and gifts in Irkutsk. The travel agency would hear about this.

Finally, after an interminable 90 minutes, it was off to our final destination, the hotel Majak and its wonderful, magnificent showers. After two showerless days, we needed them. Lisztvjanká is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but all we really wanted at the time was a shower. Our travel itinerary indicated our accommodations were to be “self-contained double-bed chalets.” What we got was a regular hotel room on the fifth floor of a large pink and yellow structure that dominated the small town’s lakefront. Strange.
Lake Baikal, Siberia, is the world's deepest freshwater lake and holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. The lake and surrounding mountainous area is a unique ecosystem and in 1996 was proclaimed a World Heritage site. The water, of excellent quality and with a high oxygen content and a low mineral content, is transparent or clear to approximately 40 meters. The Earth's only freshwater seal species, the Nerpa, or Baikal seal, is found here

Anyway, I finally got my shower, standing under the cleansing and cooling spray until the hot water ran out. Aaaahhh! Clean again. Refreshed, the three of us walked down the lakefront street looking for an interesting restaurant for dinner. Nope, nothing there. We returned to the hotel and found a corner table in the main dining room. Where there was a wedding reception in progress, complete with loudspeaker music, live singer, cheering guests, dancers and inveterate smokers, whose only terrace access was behind our table. The non-stop lines of smokers coming and going and opening the door next to our table to let in all that cold night air was a refreshing change from the warm, cozy bar car on our train. (You do recognize sarcasm when you read it, right?)

I opted for the seafood pasta and a beer or three. Our waiter didn’t speak English, and the menu was only in Russian, but lo and behold, the wonders of modern technology triumphed again. The waiter had a phone with an app that actually translated scanned text from several languages, so we were each able to order what was on the menu after it was translated into English. Will wonders never cease.

We left the wedding revelers to their revels and ascended to the 7th floor terrace bar for a nightcap. It was a touch windy on the terrace, so we went inside where we were able to somehow order some cheese stix and a plates of blinies. The bartender understood Jamesons readily enough. It was a good evening and we retired fairly early.

The next morning we faced our final full day in Siberia. We started out at 9 AM and finished our scheduled activities by around 1:30 PM, after which we were free until our final group dinner that night.

We set off from the hotel in two mini-buses, the easier to navigate the narrow roads in the area. First stop was the Lake Baikal Museum, which taught us, once again, more than we wanted or needed to know about the area. But we did get to see a couple of the famous Nerpa, the Lake Baikal seals that inhabit the area, the only freshwater seals in the world. The two we saw looked so happy as they swam back and forth in their cramped tank in the museum. (More sarcasm, guys).

Onward and upward – literally. Next stop was a chairlift at a nearby winter ski area, which we took to the top of the hill/mountain. That may be the first time I’ve ever been on a chair lift without skis on my feet. Got to the top, all of 1100 meters above sea level. (Just for comparison, my house in New Mexico was 2400 meters above sea level). The views of the lake were spectacular, and we were honored to share them with a horde of Japanese tourists who climbed all over every scenic rock to have their pictures taken. (The sarcasm continues). Then, of course, we had to get down the mountain. No one told me I’d have to walk all that way down a mountain, probably 2-3 kilometers. At least it was downhill; I’d never have even started the uphill climb.

Finally, our last formal activity of the day was a fast boat ride on Lake Baikal. Cool. We clambered into two lake boats and off we went. A brief stop at Shaman Rock to check out the clear water, actually have a drink of the lake and to drop a coin or two and make a wish on the mythical shaman who inhabited the area. Then it was over to a far bank for a brief hike up the hill from the shore. I opted to remain by the shore, as did several others. One of our party and our Russian guide even stripped down and dipped in the lake. I tested the water and decided it was way too cold for my tender bod. We returned to our berth at the hotel dock around 1:15 PM and were released for the rest of the day. Next scheduled event was our last night farewell party in the hotel’s restaurant at 8 PM that night.

I immediately took off down the lakefront promenade, searching for souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. And damn if I didn’t find almost everything I wanted. (Sorry, Tony and Morgan, no Harley Lisztvjanka shirts and no University of Lisztvjanka shirts. I did see an Irkutsk State University sweatshirt on a passing local, but she ran off quickly when I tried to buy it for you.). I had a nourishing lunch of lamb kebab grilled over open coals and a Kozel beer at a small terrace restaurant on the shore, watching the bathers on this quiet Sunday afternoon.

On my way back to the hotel, I decided to take in the show at the Nerpinarium, the blue-Quonset-hut shaped building along the way. It lasted about an hour and was a fun time for all attendees, including lots of kids. The seals did all their tricks and chowed down on all their fish tidbits for doing those tricks. Well, I enjoyed it!

An afternoon nap was in order, followed by another shower and visit to one of the hotel’s bars prior to our dinner. The last night party was a resounding success. The 20 or so group members who attended managed to put away four bottles of vodka along with numerous beers and wines. The noise level appreciated accordingly and, although our meals were staggered and served in surprising time frames, eventually everyone got their food. I had a beautifully-cooked steak with veggies, accompanied by something called cowberries. We never did figure out what they were, but they tasted good so what the heck. The steak was served with a meat cleaver instead of a steak knife, and, Boy, did I have fun with that!

And thus endeth our final full day in Siberia.

Up on Monday, June 19, around 6:30 for a final packing and breakfast before our 9:30 departure for the Irkutsk airport. I was so dehydrated from the previous night’s excesses that I drank down 2 bottles of water and 4 glasses of juice; I could feel my system absorbing it as fast as I could pour it down my gullet.
And away we went! Along the way we stopped to see an old Lake Baikal icebreaker ship called the Angara (name of one of the rivers that flows into the area), and then on to the airport. Cleared Security and checked in for our six-hour flight to Moscow, then a brief layover and another 2 ½ hour flight to Budapest, arriving at 7:30 that evening.

And my years of luck and good fortune with flights all over the world finally came to a crashing halt in, of all places, the Irkutsk, Siberia, airport. By the time I got to the check-in counter, all the aisle seats had been taken and I was relegated to a middle seat. For six hours. On an Aeroflot plane, known for their narrow, uncomfortable seats. I was sure my seatmates would be two overweight, sweaty, onion-reeking tourists – or maybe Russian gymnasts, as I’d had on a previous flight. I could hardly wait.

We boarded the plane and took off on time. I survived my middle-seat ordeal. Luckily, my seatmates were an older Russian professor and a young Russian iphone addict, and they were both content to read or sleep or otherwise not bother me or anyone else. Whew! We made it to Moscow without incident, where we said goodbye to Dean, who was staying over to visit a friend. A brief stint in The Irish Bar with several Caffreys and some lovely blintzes with red caviar, and I hiked down to our boarding gate and our flight home.

Naturally, the Hungarian Passport Control booths were overworked when we arrived, as at least two other flights had arrived at the same time, full of Asian tourists. Took me nearly an hour to clear Passport Control. I caught the airport bus and then metro to Kalvin Ter and dragged my suitcase to my building. I was home.

I unpacked quickly, slugged down a gallon of cold water, took a bracing shower and threw myself into bed. Didn’t even bother to set the alarm. I was off schedule for the first time in nearly two weeks. It was great.

And so it was over, a long-time dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia. An amazing adventure. I’ll need time to reflect on everything and consider the pluses (many) and minuses (very few) of the journey, but for now, here are the most obvious comments I can think of:


The Trip went so fast! I know we hurried and scurried from one sight to another, but we spent at least 60 hours on the train and you’d think that would slow time down. But no, time just seemed to fly by. Amazing.

All of our tours were thorough, but seemed rushed at the time. And we saw everything on our schedule.

Zita gave tours in Hungarian, but there were local Russian guides who spoke English at each stop, so we were able to get the main points of the commentaries. Zita also performed above and beyond the call, as she explained many things in English, too, but it was by no means a bi-lingual tour.

We covered around 5200 km (about 3600 m) on the train.

All of our hotels were new and modern and comfortable, with good restaurants and bars and GREAT showers!

We did not encounter a single danger that was noted in our guide book or was told to me by Russian friends. Not a single one! No problems whatsoever. Of course, Dean and I did wear money belts most of the time, but still, no compartment-attempted break-ins, no pickpockets, no hustlers, no offers of drugged drinks in bars, no dangers at all!

For whatever the reason, we only spent two nights (the first two) with an extra person in our compartment. The third night we had been moved to another carriage, so there were just the three of us from then on.

I never found out what Cowberries are.

And so, until my next great adventure – Samarkand? Sri Lanka? - that’s it from your favorite world traveler.

Hasta la Vista, Baby!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ridin' the Rails: Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk


As we pulled out of the Yekaterinburg station, it dawned on me that we were really, truly, finally, amazingly on the actual Trans-Siberian Railway, an express train across Russia. A long-time dream come true and a major Bucket List item about to be checked off. How cool is that!

The Trans-Siberian Experience: Finally!

After The Kazan Deviation, which was actually worth the side trip, we were finally traveling on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. And to mark our unique travel experience, we even got an upgrade in our compartment, with newer and better beds, chemical toilets, great air conditioning and a real Trans-Siberian restaurant/bar car, that looked just as it should.

We unpacked as much as we needed to and settled in for the long 24-hour train ride. Dean had to put in some work time on his computer; he does editing for several Taiwanese businessmen and always had new requests coming in for his English skills. In fact, during this trip, he had to spend quite a bit of time working, which was actually OK as we were on the train so much of the time and it could have been boring otherwise.

Tony also decided to spend some time with the other group members, while I headed off to see what our Pectopah (Restaurant) car looked like. Well, you know all those photos you’ve seen of what the carriages on the TSR look like? That’s exactly what this one looked like! It was old-fashioned beauty, tasseled curtains on the windows, dark wood tables and sidings, patterned fabric on the seats and backs with gold-colored trim, lots of brass fixtures, a small bar area, a kitchen, metal highlights and a transparent plastic ceiling. It was like walking into the 19th Century. I felt immediately at home.
And there in the bar car, at one of the booths, were Zsuzsa and Zoli, two of our fellow travelers, at 9 o’clock in the morning, quaffing a beer and eating peanuts and Lay’s potato chips. How continental! Naturally, I joined them for a morning beer, something I hadn’t done in a while. Our waitress Tatiana came by and showed me the dinner menu; dinner was included in the price of our upgraded carriage and compartment, so I ordered straightaway and told her we’d be back around 6 or 7 PM for our evening meal. Tatiana smiled mightily at me with her mouth full of gold teeth; she was a tall, large woman with a ready smile and seemed excited to have people who appeared to be fun riding her car. Of course, people who drink beer at 9 AM are usually bound to be fun (unless they’re hard-core dipsomaniacs).

We chatted for a while and drank our beers and munched our snacks. All during this journey, time seemed to stop whenever we needed it to, so having a beer at 9 AM didn’t seem out of the ordinary, nor did breakfast at midnight. And the time was flying by. I finally excused myself and returned to our carriage for some book time and maybe a little nap, as it was nearly noon! Even though we were now in the upgraded carriage, it was nearly empty save for a few other travelers; I guess the upgraded comfort also came with an upgraded price.

We whiled away the afternoon with books and window-staring and chatting with our neighbors. I decided to return to the bar car around 5 PM or so, leaving Dean and Tony to pop down when they were ready for dinner. The car was empty when I went in, so I sat by a window and ordered an afternoon beer and some crisps.

As I sat in that ornate bar car, sipping my Russian beer and staring out the window at the lush Siberian countryside rushing past, it was only natural that the first line of the old Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, should pop into my head.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for…” and the final word just sort of slipped in there; instead of “nowhere,” it turned out to be “Irkutsk,” our final train stop.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk…”

And the rest just naturally followed. I wrote it out on a napkin in the bar car of the Trans-Siberian Express, rolling through Siberia on a lazy summer evening. So here you go, a special treat, sung to the tune of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler:


A Ballad of the Trans-Siberian Express
or
THE CHESS MASTER



On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk,
I met up with a Russian, he’d had a lot to drink.
But he pulled out his chessboard and set up all the pieces,
And said, “Amerikanski, we play chess!” then he gave me a big wink.

Well, I hadn’t played in years, but I remembered how the men move,
What they’re called and where they went, so I moved a pawn real nice.
Then quicker than my eye could see he had me in a Fool’s Mate,
He said, “Amerikanski, you no good,” I give you some advice.

(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back


He said every Russian knows the way to win a chess match,
To win it every time is to attack, attack, attack.
Get your Knights out quickly with your Queen right there behind them,
Keep on moving forward and don’t give any slack.

Then the Russian he grew weary as he finished off his vodka,
He slapped me on my back and then kissed me on both cheeks.
He said, “Good night my newest friend, we are Tovarisch to the end!”
Then he gave a big gigantic sigh and slumped down in his seat.

And as he lay there passed out with his face turned toward the window,
Just a’snorin’ and a’twitchin’ in his own dream-filled sleep,
I looked at that damn chess board, with my King so neatly captured
And I vowed that now and evermore I’d never again be beat.


(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back.



My Muse smiled prettily at me as I scribbled the last line and then she ordered her own glass of white wine and headed for the next carriage up the line, probably looking for the next great Russian novelist to inspire.

Tony and Dean finally showed up and we had dinner (I had the roast pork and pasta, surprisingly good for preparation on a train). We toasted each other and our adventure to the wee hours. A few more group members showed up for more toasts and the night quickly blurred into a soft hazy glow as we sped through the semi-darkness of a Siberian white night.

We made a couple of long stops during which we could get off the train and stretch our legs and so Dean and Tony could smoke. Since such stops were few and rather far between, both addicts were cut off from their drug of choice for long hours at a time, so they took the opportunity to suck down that good old cigarette smoke whenever they could. No smoking was allowed on the trains, but sometimes a receptive Provodnitsa could be sweet-talked (I dare not say ‘bribed’) into letting the guys puff away between cars, where the rushing wind took the smoke away. No hard-core American rules for the Russians, no, sirree!
One late-night stop was at Omsk, and I also alighted to breathe in the night air and to be able to say I had touched down in Omsk, Siberia. What a great way to travel.

After a good night’s sleep in our upgraded, air-conditioned compartment, we arose early and had a leisurely morning before arriving in Novosibirsk at 9:34 AM local time on Wednesday, June 14. As usual by now, we packed up our gear and hustled ourselves and our suitcases off the train and onto our waiting tour bus.
Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, is the capital of the Siberian region and also the largest city in Siberia, an industrial, scientific, cultural and educational center. Our first stop was the memorial to the man who oversaw the construction of the railroad bridge we’d just crossed over the River Ob. Next we did Lenin Square and the Opera House, after which we did the Museum of Siberia, where we learned much more than we ever wanted or needed to know about life in that cold, cold region in ancient times.

Finally, we found our hotel, the Azimut Sibir, and the eagerly-anticipated showers. Sigh! The times in between showers were not especially onerous, but we did manage to sweat quite a bit on our day tours and even in the carriages, so feeling that cool water cascade down our hot, smelly, sweaty bods was always a treat.

The night’s entertainment on offer for the group was the opera Spartacus, performed, naturally enough, at the opera house. I had found what looked like a great restaurant in our travel guide, Expeditsiya, a place specializing in game. Tony opted to have dinner elsewhere and to rest up, but would meet us after dinner. Dean decided to join me, so we took a taxi (always amazingly cheap in the hinterlands) to the restaurant. It was a smallish place, decorated in hunting décor, apparatus, furs and other big game accessories. Drinks came first and I decided to splurge on an appetizer of “pee wee pies” and a mains of the Wild Fowl Mix, a large platter containing tasting dishes of young horse meat, reindeer, reindeer tongue, elk and wild duck, with a side of steak fries. Yum. I could hardly wait.
The platter, when it arrived, was presented beautifully, but its arrival had to be seen to be believed. Instead of our waitress bring it out, a young male waiter arrived dressed in a camo hat and ghillie suit, carrying the meat tray. One of the most unique and creative meal deliveries ever. I also polished off a bottle of lovely red Spanish wine along with the meal. I dug in and managed to finish about 75% of the meats offered. I asked for a doggie bag to take back to the hotel and keep in the fridge for a late-night snack or breakfast. I waddled out of there, fully sated and happy. Dean also seemed pleased with his meat choice and beers, so dinner could be counted a success.

We returned to the hotel and picked up Tony, after which we caught a taxi to find the Jazz Club Truba; turned out it was an easily walkable few blocks from the hotel. Naturally, when we got there, we found they were having a private party and were closed to the general public. We were not amused. But we found a small German bar across the street and had a beer or two there, after which we decided to walk back to the hotel, maybe 10-15 minutes away. Easy-peezy.

Fortunately, Thursday, June 15, was a late start, so we could sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before starting off on our tour for the day. I used the time to walk to Lenin Ploschad (Square) after a nice Continental breakfast. The morning was hot already, but with a nice breeze in the shade of the sidewalk’s trees. I looked for souvenirs but couldn’t find any likely shops, so headed back to the hotel around noon. Our tour that day would include the well-known Akademik Town, a huge complex of buildings and laboratories and scientific centers devoted to the study and advance of the sciences – naturally. We wandered through the complex with a local guide, a Hungarian who had come there to study 54 years ago and never left. We then checked out the market, which I’d hoped would give me a chance at some souvenirs for friends and family, but it was mainly food and discount standard clothing. We had a photo op of the city and then hit the Railway Museum, which was really interesting. Lots of old trains in immaculate condition, painted and restored and kept shining. Most of them were from the heyday of the Trans- Siberian Express and had seen service all throughout Siberia for many years. A fun side trip.

We boarded our train for Krasnoyarsk, our next stop, around 7 PM, just in time for cocktails and dinner. Our compartment was back among the hoi polloi, although the carriage was better air conditioned this time. Plus, the train still boasted a bar car to keep us occupied. As we pulled out of the station, at least one large, rough-looking Russian guy from each compartment in our carriage stood looking out of the windows in the hallway. Hmmm, tough crew. But our Provodnitsa this time was a part-Greek beauty, long black hair and olive skin, a real sweetie. Finally got lucky – she spoke English.

This time our compartments had locks on them which required the Provodnitsa’s key to lock and unlock. So, when we left for, say, dinner, we had to ask the Provodnitsa to lock our compartment and when we returned we had to ask her to unlock it. Cumbersome, but presumably safer than any other method of securing the compartment. But at least the air conditioning worked reasonably well this time, since there were no windows in the carriage.

We all had dinner in our compartment, even though there was a bar car. I chose a chicken burrito from a platform kiosk while Tony made up sandwiches for himself and Dean: salami, cheese, onions, bread and a few other things. A cozy atmosphere of food and drink.

And then it was time for a party. We hadn’t really had one yet on this journey, as most of our group kept to themselves and chose not to patronize the bar car. This night would be different.

I wandered into the bar car after dinner, and found several of my group already there, including Zsuzsa (another Zsuzsa), a 40s statuesque Hungarian woman who was, shall we say, spectacularly well-endowed. Zsuzsa, Zita and Sandor had taken a booth across from me, while in another booth behind them was a single large Russian male (Damn, are they all such big guys?), eating what looked like red caviar out of a plastic container and occasionally sipping something in a white teacup. We didn’t pay him too much attention, as he was minding his own business – for a while, anyway.
Tony and Judit, a retired Hungarian judge, joined me in my booth, across from the others. At some point, as the liquor flowed and the atmosphere loosened, someone brought Maxim, our large Russian caviar-eating bear, into the conversation (Zita also spoke Russian, and Zsusa just a touch). Maxim then decided to share his goodies with us, so passed around his container of red caviar. It seemed he actually owned a caviar farm so could get all he wanted. Some of us took advantage and scarfed down the really good caviar; Zita estimate his little container probably held around $300 of red caviar. Dean had joined us by now and even he was impressed, although he had never formerly been a big caviar eater. Maxim also shared the contents of his teacup with us – which was definitely not tea! So we were mixing beer and vodka and caviar and the party was escalating. Maxim’s smile grew wider and wider, revealing his very own set of gold teeth. Flashy, that was our Maxim.

When Maxim stood to pass his caviar and vodka around, he also joined Zsuzsa in her side of the booth. Zsuzsa, an earthy Hungarian woman, was showing quite a bit of cleavage that night – and she had quite a bit to show. Somehow, Maxim’s arm found itself around Zsuzsa’s shoulder. She responded in a playful and innocently flirtatious way by exclaiming over her bounty, lifting them for all to admire and loudly proclaiming, “Oh my GAAAHHD!” The party was well under way.

More beer, more caviar (the real Russian stuff, not that cheap import), more vodka, more hugging and squeezing of Zsuzsa by Maxim, more “Oh my GAAAHHD!” in a loud party voice by Zsusa, and we were off and running. Despite his size, it only took Maxim about another 20 minutes of eating and squeezing and attempted fondling and vodka to reach the terminal stage. The last we saw of him, he was passed out in the carriage’s foyer, where the entry doors were located. It was definitely a memorable gathering.

I seem to recall eventually finding my compartment and remembering it was a good thing that one of my roomies had asked our Provodnitsa to unlock the door, as I doubt I could have done even that. I dove headlong into the arms of Morpheus.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Adventure Continues: Trans Siberian Part Deux


So there we were on the first leg of our TSR trip across Russia. Dean and Tony got to our compartment within a couple of minutes after I stored my suitcase under the lower bench, and were both equally surprised to find we had a companion for the night. They managed to get squared away as our new bunkmate, Katarina, sat and stared at her shoes. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a conversational gabfest.

Why did we have an extra roomie when we were part of a group? Well, sports fans, the TSR is really just a regular train and anyone can and does ride it. And if a single bunk is needed in a compartment with three people, then in she goes. And everyone just has to get along. For example, Katya wanted the small window in our compartment closed, all the better to trap the heat inside. We wanted it open, to air out the place. It was three guys vs. one middle-aged Russian woman, so we won, at least until the compartment cooled off, then we let her close the window.
The train pulled out of the station precisely at 8:40 PM and we were on our way. Except, well, maybe we weren’t quite on our TSR voyage yet. It seems that the standard, traditional, guide-book Trans-Siberian Railway goes from Moscow down to Perm and then on to Yekaterinburg, and does not go anywhere near Kazan. We were taking a slight detour; I semi-officially dubbed it The Kazan Deviation (sounds like a chess strategy, right?). The travel agency decided we should see this spectacular small city, and so we shall. We’d pick up the regular TSR route upon leaving Yekaterinburg Tuesday morning.

Anyway, when we all seemed to have gotten our stuff in place, Katya asked us to leave the compartment so she could prepare for bed. She was in her top right bunk when we came back in, settled in for the night and not about to attempt any cross-cultural approaches. Ah, well, better than a fat Russian alcoholic suffering from uncontrollable flatulence.
Our carriage was typical for this type of train. There were nine compartments holding four beds each, with a toilet/washroom at each end of the car. The Provodnitsa also had a small bedroom of her own at one end of the car, along with a small kitchen area with sink. And that was it. To use the bottom benches for sitting and talking, etc., you had to roll up the mattresses and stash them on the top bunks, which meant those using the top bunks couldn’t use their bunks until the bottom bunkers got ready for bed. Whew!

The railroad supplied two sheets and a pillowcase, plus a blanket, for each traveler. When ready, we could and did and had to make up our own beds (as well as strip them down in the morning). Mom always told me there’d be days like this, but it was the US Army that taught me how to make up a tight bunk. Tony and Dean made their beds, after which I made mine. I tucked the blanket in and bounced a 5-euro coin on it. Boing! My old Drill Instructor would have been proud of me.

Since this leg of the journey was a fairly short one (only 13 hours!), there was no restaurant car attached to our train, nor was there a Snack Cart Dolly coming around with drinks and crisps and ramen that we could make with the hot water from our samovar. So we were on our own. Which was OK, as I had a few of those sport bars and snack bars of my own, and could stand to lose a few pounds here and there. I snacked and washed it down with some of the bottled water I’d brought on board (that was the one thing everyone needed plenty of – water!).

Pretty much everyone in our compartment decided to call it an early night. We opened the small window to the outside, but Katya, tough Russian woman that she is, was more used to the heat than we were and asked if she could close the window. We weren’t thrilled, and decided to leave the window open until the car cooled down. Katarina had her face turned to the wall, so we all stripped down to our shorts and climbed into our narrow bunks, lying on our sides, and listened to the clackety-clack rhythm of the train wheels as we drifted off to our first Trans-Siberian sleep.

Up and at ’em at 6:30 in the morning! Of course, first light was around 4:30 AM, so I felt like I had slept in. No one else seemed to be roaming around, so I abluted without interruption, always a welcome experience on a train. A healthy breakfast of sport bar and water and I was ready to face the day. My compartment mates finally slithered out of their bunks around 8 AM, which gave them just enough time to wash up and brush teeth and dress and unmake their beds before we arrived at Kazan Station at 9:25 AM. On these older trains, with the dump-it-all-on-the-tracks toilets, the washrooms are always locked 20 minutes before arriving at the station and 20 minutes after leaving the station, so one must time one’s washroom rituals accordingly. The Provodnitsa is not happy if a straggler insists on using the toilet within their locked-up times.
This was our first venture from train to city, and it set the tone of things to come. From the train we dragged our suitcases and backpacks out of the majestic Kazan Railway Station (so many of Russia’s official buildings are imposing and grandiloquent), right to the bus for our tour of the city. Hotel check-in would come later in the day. This was also my first time outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg, so I was eager to see how people lived elsewhere.

Kazan, founded in 1005 by the Bulgarian Turks, is Tatarstan's capital and Russia's seventh most populous city, one of the oldest settlements in the country. One half of the population of Kazan is Russian, the other half Tatar. On our way to the Kazan Kremlin, we stopped for a photo op at a statue of Young Lenin, erected in honor of his activist student days in the city. Someone commented that he looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, but personally I didn’t see the resemblance; I thought he looked more like James Cagney.

Next it was on to the Kazan Kremlin, which originally served as a fortress and which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The Kremlin sits majestically on the hill towering over the Kazanka River, guarded by the Worker of the World statue of a worker bound in barbed wire. The Russian flair for the dramatic. We checked out the churches (there are always churches!) and the QOL Sharif mosque, co-existing side-by-side, and wandered the old Tatar pathways and bazaars and wooden buildings still standing.
Finally, a chance to check in to our hotel, the Ibis Kazan Centre, mere steps from Sharif Kamal's Apartment Museum and the Kazan State Theater of Young Spectators, neither of which I saw. First things first: Shower Time! Dean and I arm-wrestled for first go, but I was tired from the trip and he beat me to the ground, even though I used both arms and even tried to bite one of his knuckles. Just to get even, I tore all the pages about Kazan out of his guide book while he was showering; that’ll teach him! I had my turn under the warm and then cool spray, luxuriating in the feel of the water. Apparently, my self-imposed preparation for the trip of a shower every other day still did not prepare me for the reality of train travel. Life is tough.

Anyway, we picked up Tony and off we went to Baumana ulitsa, the main pedestrian shopping street, just two blocks from our hotel. A quick stroll and reccy convinced us our best lunch bet was at Twin Peaks, the restaurant side of the Russian chain of Coyote Ugly bars. We commandeered a terrace table, the better to watch the pedestrians stroll by, and settled in for lunch. Our cute waitress managed to take our orders, and our minds off of what we had ordered, long enough for her to bring our food in a very strange way.

Dean got his burger first, then five minutes later, after he’d finished it, his fries arrived. Tony’s grilled veggies made it after Dean’s burger, but his salad didn’t show up for another ten minutes. At least my veal shashlik barbecue was on time. The important things did arrive first, however: beer and grenkiye! I was first introduced to this most fantastic of all Russian beer snacks in St. Petersburg some years ago. It’s Russian black bread, cut into finger-length square logs and fried in oil along with rough-chopped garlic, which adheres to the bread. OMG! I could exist on grenkiye and beer all night – and often have.
But the afternoon was pleasant and sunny, with a nice breeze off the river, and we were able to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. It was Saturday, so the street was busy with shoppers and families wandering up and down, having ice cream cones, watching the buskers and posing with the giant cat statue.

The cat is Kazan’s totemic animal. They were recognized officially when, in 1745, Empress Elisabeth put out a call for the “finest cats of Kazan,” to help catch mice in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg which was, at that time, a palace. Later, under the rule of Catherine the Great, the cats were nicknamed the “Winter Palace cats.” And I did the tourist bit and also posed with the cat statue, which I had named Felix. Catherine would have knighted me for my attempts to foster American-Russian harmony.
After shopping and eating and drinking, we all agreed a brief nap was in order, so repaired to the hotel for same. The evening’s entertainment was supposed to be a jazz club mentioned on the internet, but when we got there around 9 PM we found out the show didn’t start until 11 PM, so we hurried back to Coyote Ugly so Tony could see what a really crass, tacky, American-style Russian bar looked like. And it was all of that and more.

The entry exam was interesting. A large Russian man frisked us all thoroughly, finding and checking my camera and lip protector, Dean’s hair gel and Tony’s tube of Preparation H. Things can get embarrassing when going to the Coyote Ugly experience.
The large, second-floor bar was dark and moodily-lit, with girls dancing on the bar and overpriced drinks and music so loud the bass made my shorts vibrate. Tony lasted for one drink, then went outside to smoke. Dean and I stayed for one more beer, but even we’d had enough by that time. When the staff started gathering customers for races up and down the open, where guys grabbed their crotches and girls their breasts while running, then had to down a shot of vodka at the other end, we knew we were in Mordor and we headed out the door.

We stopped at a local Irish pub for some sanity and late-night snacks/dinner, so managed to calm down and slide through the remainder of the night. I think we got back to the hotel around 1 AM, just in time for some sack time before heading out again in the morning.

Our bus tour this day took us around the city before ending up on Sviyazhsk Island - and no, I can’t pronounce it either. We popped over to the other side of the river, where we stopped at the Dragon Wedding Bowl (see photo). Apparently, this is a very popular spot for nuptials, although somewhat strange; the main building is shaped like a large bowl, and there are big statues of dragons around the outside. Ah, well, to each his/her own, I guess.
We continued on to the Church of All Religions, another madman’s fantasy out in the suburbs. Apparently, the builder wanted to found a place where all religions could come worship and were welcome. It’s a colorful place, with doors and windows and turrets representative of most of the world’s major religions. Unfortunately, before he could finish it, there was a fire in which he was killed. The building still stands, unfinished, but still waiting for all those religions to come together in peace and harmony. The rest of the world is still waiting for that also.
And finally, our tour of Sviyazhsk Island. The island, at the confluence of the Volga and Sviyaga Rivers, was originally the stronghold of Orthodox Christianity. The fort was built by Czar Ivan the Terrible over a period of four weeks using hundreds of miles of local hardwood. The original fortified city was built elsewhere, then marked, disassembled, loaded on ships and sailed down the Volga to Sviyazhsk Island, where it was re-assembled within the record time of 24 days. (Got that out of the guidebook)

In past times, the island also served as a penal colony (gulag), retaliatory establishment (prison), a collective farm and later an asylum. Attempts to revive it as an artist colony are ongoing.

We headed back to our hotel around 5:30 PM, where we had stored our bags before leaving in the morning. We had time for dinner which, for me, was a Cinnabon (really!) and a Blue Lagoon tropical cocktail, desperately needed. Temps were in the high 70s (around 25 C) and that sun was hot. We relaxed at a terrace eatery on Baumana u. and watched the Sunday strollers, including lots of police, both men and women. Really pretty female cops, if I do say so myself – as did Tony and Dean. And they wore those non-threatening baseball caps, now so popular in Budapest.

Our trip was moving right along, and it was time to catch our train again. We got to the station around 6:45 PM and went through our carriage check-in procedure with a new Provodnitsa. I was first in the car and it was like entering a sauna. The carriage had been sitting out in the hot sun all day, closed up, windows and doors shut and I felt like tearing off my clothes and dousing myself with our bottled water, just to bring my body temperature down. Holy Perspiration, Batman! Jeez! I stored my suitcase under the bench and dropped my backpack on the small table and ran down the hallway to the exit door, knocking down several of our group members entering the car. Air, give me air!

I remained outside until the conductor waved his lantern, then hopped aboard as we were pulling out of the station. Still gasping for air, I entered our compartment, to find that this time there were no windows in the compartments and only two in the hallway to open for fresh, cooling air. It seems these cars, as old as they are, also had air circulation systems, sort of like a precursor to air conditioning, to keep the carriage cool. Of course, in cars as old as ours, this system doesn’t work so well and the cars stay hot until around, oh, 3 o’clock in the morning, when you’ve already soaked your sheets with sweat. And with, once again, no restaurant/bar car in which to sit and have a cold beer or four, our choices of cool places were nonexistent. And guess what? We had another roommate!

This time it was a young-ish Russian engineer named Pavel (nickname: Pasha). He was in his 30s, well over six feet tall and interested in meeting foreigners – as are many Russians we encountered along the way. We traded information in our stumbling ways, he with his 27 words of English and we with our 19 Russian words – but somehow we got along just fine. A tumbler of vodka does tend to break the ice – so to speak.

We spent the next couple of hours trying to cool down and not succeeding to any great extent. But slowly, slowly, staying very still and toughing it out, we began to feel better. Dean broke out one of his pre-fixed spaghetti meals and added hot water from the samovar and we feasted in our tin cups. We made up our beds around 9 PM or so and decided we’d catch some Zs, when four young Hungarian men in our group decided a vodka party was in order. And it was, keeping us talking and laughing for several hours. By then I couldn’t feel the heat any longer, much less my toes, so we all stumbled off to bed.

It was at this stage that my Muse came to visit, urging me to compose a short poem to honor our Provodnitsa Olga. She was very nice to us all, bringing us our sheets and making sure we had washroom access even if it was a touch under the 20-minute marks before entering and after leaving the stations. I even gave her one of the Budapest shot glasses as a souvenir. She was thrilled. So, here’s to you, Olga:

O Little Provodnitsa

O Little Provodnitsa,
What is it that heats ya?
Is there a man who beats ya,
Or one who always cheats ya?

O Little Provodnitsa
Be sure he ne’er unseats ya.
It’s better if he meets ya,
Than if he always Tweets ya,


Hey! I never said I was TS Eliot! You get what you pay for, which in this case is NADA! Besides, YOU try to find something to rhyme with Provodnitsa. So there!

Once again, dawn came early. Remember, it was the season of the White Nights, when there are something like nearly 20 hours of daylight each day. So it was up and off to the washroom before the chickens came out of their coops and we pulled into a station.

We rolled into our next stop around 8:30 in the morning of Monday, June 12, although I’d been up and about since 6:30 – and awake since 5 AM. That sun was bright. I had hoped some breakfast pierogi would be available from the platform food sellers, but the promised mass of eager babushkas with their homemade rolls were nowhere to be seen. Where were the vaunted Cossack hordes with their wonderful fragrant breads and meat pies? Where were the sharp-eyed drink pushers? Where the early-rising fish-head merchants? Nowhere, that’s where. Nothing. No one. Sigh. Another power sport bar and water for breakfast. Yum.

We finally hit Yekaterinburg around 10:30 AM and immediately transferred to our tour bus. We said goodbye to Pasha as he went off on his engineering business. We were off for the site of the churches that were raised on the “sacred” ground where the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra and their five children, were murdered after the 1918 revolution.

Yekaterinburg is the capital of the Ural region, straddling the border between Europe and Asia, which is commemorated by an obelisk that we would visit later in the day. Yekaterinburg is the fourth most populous city in Russia after Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. The city was founded in 1723 by the order of Peter the Great and was named after Peter the Great’s wife.

There was a light rain coming down as we arrived at the church, but not enough to stop our intrepid group. We toured the church and viewed the display dedicated to every aspect of the Romanovs’ life and death – all in Russian, of course. As in all Russian churches, women must cover their heads and legs, and men must uncover their head but cover their legs. I was in shorts, so I was given the choice of missing the church tour or of wearing a wraparound skirt while going through the church. I chose the skirt, just to be sure I wouldn’t miss anything important. Only for you, Nicholas.
Afterwards, we drove to the site of the obelisk that marks the dividing line between Europe and Asia and, of course, had our photos taken with a foot in each continent. Gotta do the tourist thing. Zita informed us we were now in the Ural Mountains. At the site were also lots of trees decorated with ribbons, each one indicating a wish. We also stopped at a site of one of Stalin’s gulags, a prison camp that is now the site of mass graves of the prisoners murdered there, some 20,000 or so. Walls in the area contain the names of as many of the murdered prisoners as could be found. A sobering experience.
Our bus parked near the main square in Yekaterinburg and we were given one entire hour to shop for food for the next leg of our train journey, which would be the longest yet. I chose to visit a nearby pub and have some great local beer and snacks. Also had a nice chat with Ilya the bartender. Due to time constraints, however, I never did get to see the QWERTY monument or Ganina Yama, the site where the bodies of the Romanovs were dumped after they were slaughtered. Maybe next time.

We finally got to the hotel across from the train station, the Marins Park, a Russian chain. We cleaned up and met in the hotel bar/restaurant. I’d found a jazz club or two to choose from, but it was still raining and Dean and Tony didn’t want to risk getting wet, so we stayed in the hotel bar and drank beer and ate dinner and chatted with the wait staff. A quiet night but a nice one, although I still think we should have tried the jazz club. Maybe next time. We called it a night before midnight.

Once again I was up with the sun. I checked out the 24-hour McDonald’s next to the hotel, but the menu was all in Russian, which I couldn’t decipher at that time of the morning, so I slumped back to the hotel room to wait for our departure. Around 6:30 or so, we hiked over to the train station from our hotel, a walk of at least five minutes, for our early-morning departure and our 24-hour train ride, the longest leg yet. But at least this time we’d be on the real Trans-Siberian Railway train.

We found our car and compartment, and also found another compartment-mate, a Russian woman whose ticket indicated she had the same bed as Tony. Hmmm. Zita was informed and checked with our new Provodnitsa who conferred with another of her comrades and they discovered a startling thing: the tickets of the three of us – myself, Dean and Tony – indicated we would be in a compartment in Carriage Number 4 instead of Number 5, where we were at that time, with our group. This was the first time we’d been separated from the rest of the group. We had no idea why this happened but, as it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise.

We moved our stuff and found out that Carriage 4 was an upgrade! O frabjous day! It was a better, newer carriage. Newer benches and bunks; in this carriage, the bench backrests contained the mattresses and folded down to become our beds. The washrooms had chemical toilets, which meant they didn’t have to be locked during our time in the stations. And best of all – the air conditioner worked really well, so it was cool and pleasant. And we didn’t even have a fourth roomie. Things were looking up.

Thank you, O god of the Provodnitsas. On the longest leg of our trip, we would get to spend the 24 hours in much better comfort and without a fourth person in our compartment. Plus – wonder of wonders – we were now back on the regular TSR line and our train had a bar/restaurant car! Jeez, does it get any better than that?!

(Yes, it did! The hotel had thoughtfully packed each of us a box breakfast. How about that?)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trans-Siberian Railway: The Adventure Begins.


“I Hear That Train a’comin….”

“…a’comin ‘round the bend….”

Well, Dear and Faithful Readers, it’s back on the train for me for yet another spectacular adventure. I’ve been waiting years to tackle this one and my time has finally come. It was time to check off one of the last major items on my Bucket List. My initial researches over the years did not turn up answers to the questions I had about this trip, so I kept putting it off. Finally, to make a long story even longer, I found a travel agency in Budapest that offered exactly what I was looking for, so I snapped it up and made my reservations in December 2016 for the journey in June 2017.

FIRST CONSIDERATIONS

Yes, it’s one of my final Life’s Desire items: a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR), Moscow to Irkutsk, with stops at Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and ending up at Lake Baikal. I started my paperwork early and in January printed out the Russian Visa Request form; I’d fill it out and take it back to the travel agent in April 2017, to start the next round of paperwork for my visa. As I worked on the form, I noted that one of the items was to “List all of the countries you visited in the past ten years, with dates of visit.” It took me an hour or two, but I finally compiled my list and printed it out; it was two pages long – 48 countries. Wait till the Russian visa authorities get a load of that!

I also mentioned the trip to a Canadian friend of mine living in Budapest with his Taiwanese Diplomatic partner; she couldn’t take the time to go on the trip, but he was eager and signed up in January. I’d be traveling with a companion, one of the few times. And then one day I was in our local English-language bookstore and chanced to mention the trip to the Hungarian owner of the store, another old acquaintance of mine (his store used to carry one of my books), and he also signed up for the trip. I should get a finder’s fee!

The package deal arranged by the travel agency included the agency getting my visa, flights from Budapest to Moscow and back from Irkutsk, the 12-day train trip, six hotel nights along the way and a full-time guide with the group. I thought the price was a real bargain: only around $1500 US for all that. Such a deal! In short, everything except food and drinks. Of course, since it’s a Hungarian tour agency, the local tours and all instructions will be in Hungarian. There will be a maximum of 25 group members, but with my Hungarian friend coming along, I would be set if I needed anything translated. Actually, all I really needed to be able to understand was what time to be back at the train and where our hotels were; everything else we could figure out on our own with the aid of guide books.

So, after winter and early-spring long weekend trips to Palermo, Sicily (Italy) and Tbilisi, Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe), in mid-April 2017 I hastened back down to the travel agency and turned in all my paperwork, including my passport. I was told it would take about 10 days to two weeks to get my visa, after which all should be in order and I could start packing for the journey. I was READY!

So --- why the Trans-Siberian Railway? Well, several reasons:

1. It is, after all, THE famous Trans-Siberian railway route, which crosses Russia and Siberia, meanwhile stopping at many of the most beautiful and important cities along the way. Initially, I thought about going all the way to Vladivostok, but decided Irkutsk was far enough. Anyway, the route from Moscow's Kazansky Station spans two continents, 16 major rivers, six federal states and almost a hundred cities. Total distance from Moscow to Irkutsk is 5200 kilometers, or 3300 miles. Even today the bridges across the Amur, Yenisei and Ob rivers are unique – they are the largest river bridges on the Asian continent. In total there are 485 bridges. It is the backbone of the Russian rail network and the connection between the Asian and European railway networks. It's the most travelled railway in the world, as much of Russia's oil is transported along it. There are a lot of trains on this route; between Moscow and Irkutsk we could expect to meet another train about every 10 minutes.

2. The route itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. In addition, the trip includes a final stop at Lake Baikal, Asia's largest freshwater lake, with its crystal-clear waters. It is one of the world's oldest and deepest lakes and is surrounded by magnificent mountains.

3. The package tour I’d be taking is specially tailored for people who particularly enjoy adventurous travels, i.e., mingling with locals and indigenous people of every stripe, and also immersing oneself in the local ambiance. Plus, this trip had been on my Bucket List for many years, and it was time at long last to take the plunge.


PRE-TRIP PREPARATION

This trip wouldn’t be like any of my other long-term travels. For one, I would be on a train most of the time; I’d have six nights on the train, alternating with six nights in local hotels. For another, I’d be traveling with people I know, something I rarely did. Also, I’d be a member of a tour group, subject to local tours and schedules which might not fit my personal wants and needs. So, there were obvious (and not so obvious) things I needed to do to get ready.

First of all, RESEARCH! Gotta plan ahead and see what was coming down the road at me. I checked out several online travel sites, like Wikipedia Voyage, Lonely Planet and some blogs written by other travelers to find out what to expect, tips on what to pack, possible security concerns, etc. Got a lot of good ideas and information and, naturally, tended to overpack and over-worry about things. Of course, the reality was somewhat different from the advice from others.

Some of the security concerns were pickpockets in the cities, strangers at bars offering drugged drinks to travelers, train compartments entered at night after spraying knockout gas through keyholes (!), Gypsies (especially children, taught to swarm travelers and reach into clothing for money, etc), and nasty little bugs (real bugs) that could easily lay a traveler low with strange and exotic diseases.

(NB: I have no idea where these people and books got this information, but the Russia I traveled had none of these dangers, really, none at all. So much for overactive security concerns.)

Next, I’d have to prepare for a long train journey. I would spend every other night, about six nights in total, on the train, where there was no shower, so I’d miss showering every day, as we clean Americans are used to. Therefore, beginning early May (about a month before our departure date), I started taking my showers every other day, to get my body and mind ready for the every-other-day breaks in my hygiene routine while on the train. On my non-shower days I used the handi-wipes I’d be using on the train; a novel experience.

To prepare for socializing with the Russians I expected to meet on the train and in the cities where we would stop, also starting in early May I began to drink a pint of vodka every day. I had to be in shape for all that great socializing to come and to uphold the party superiority of Americans. In addition, since my access to good food would be limited while on the train, I began preparing myself by eating trail mix, power bars and lots of pierogis every other day or so.

I also began practicing my Survival Russian again, so as not to appear just a tourist. Knowing how to say ‘Na Zdorovye’ (Cheers!) was a Must; I practiced every day in front of a mirror. Also, ordering at least four beers at a time would be required in various pubs in which I planned to stop (‘chitteree pivo, pazhalsta’). And, of course, asking for my all-time favorite Russian beer snack, grenkiye, would also be helpful. Counting to ten would be a plus (adin, dva, ---- syest). I figured this time I could pass on knowing how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

Each month when my pension checks arrived I bought Russian rubles to take with me. I wasn’t sure how frequently I’d be able to find an ATM, or if my debit and credit cards would even work in the wilds of Siberia, so just in case, I’d be prepared. Besides, there were supposed to be lots of local food vendors on the platforms when the trains stopped at the various cities and towns along the route, and I’d want to buy some hot local food to try, the purchase of which was, naturally, cash (rubles) only.

Long before we were to leave for Moscow to begin our adventure, I started stocking up on trip accessories. I picked up a small portable chess set (for those long Siberian nights on the train), some playing cards (I could teach the Russians how to play Poker or Old Maid), small bars of soap and a roll of toilet paper (just in case – one never knows). I also found some inexpensive souvenirs of Hungary for the locals I’d meet: fridge magnets and shot glasses inscribed with ‘Budapest.’ A water bottle and easy-to-clean mug for tea and other easy-to-make meals along the way, such as ramen; every carriage has a 24-hour samovar with free hot water (!), so it is advisable to have one’s own food along to avoid spending too much money in the dining car or on the snack trolleys (if they even exist).

PACKING

I could, of course, follow the advice in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and take only a towel. Such a minimalist approach would, however, leave me woefully deficient in all the things I had to have – really, just had to have! – so I’d approach my task the old-fashioned way. I would lay out everything I wanted to take or thought I’d need, then cut it in half. Piece of pie.

First and foremost would come my train clothes, which was actually the easy part. Roomy and comfortable clothing would be needed for all the time we spent on the train. I had just the things: an old pair of sweat pants and my University of Hong Kong sweat shirt. By the end of the journey they’d probably stand up by themselves, but they’d serve their purpose admirably. A pair of flip-flops would suffice while ambling around the train and visiting the bathrooms in the middle of the night.

I planned on taking a medium-sized backpack along with one medium-sized suitcase, which would suffice for everything else: Cargo pants, soft hiking shoes, socks, a few long- and short-sleeved shirts, travel vest, light jacket and sweater, et voila! Easy as cake.

About a week before our departure date, we were advised to attend a meeting at the travel agency, the better to get more details on our trip. I presumed we’d find out about specific schedules and times, local tours, meet our guide and the other group members and get to ask questions we had stored up. We also received a pre-meeting email containing critical information, such as:

“Customers can carry 1 piece of luggage (max 23 kg. = 50.71 pounds) and 1 hand luggage (max 10 kg. = 22.05 pounds) for free. We would like to ask our customers to take as light luggage as they can, because at the railway stations the luggage must be carried by the passengers.

“The accommodation is for 4 persons in each compartment. These are regular trains, not tourist specials, and they are used by local residents as well. Please take care of your valuables and luggage. Close the cabin door for night and don’t leave it unguarded. Don’t forget your personal documents and money to take everywhere (passport as well). Please note: there’s no safe on the train. On the train you can find only toilet with only handwashing abilities. Can be useful to take: toilet paper, small towel etc.
The railway company supplies sheet and blanket for every customer during the nights.
Two possibilities for meals: Use the dining car if it’s attached to the train, or self-service as our tour guide always warn the customers at the last available shop/market to buy food and drink. Don’t forget to take cutlery. At the hotels we ensure breakfast.

“In Moscow traffic jams are usual things, so the program beginnings can change.

“Russia’s official currency is the Ruble (RUB). Credit cards are mostly accepted. You can take RUB from bank automats. You can change your EUR or USD to RUB at the hotels, exchange offices (airport, streets).

“In some of the Russian churches and cathedrals men must wear long trousers, women must wear head scarves, long trousers or skirt and must cover their shoulders.

“Useful items: sport shoes, warm clothes and windcheater, sometimes raincoat. On the train for sleeping, comfortable clothing recommended.

“Tap water is not suitable for drinking, but you can buy bottled water nearly everywhere. Health care in Russia is like in Europe. (Oooo, that’s not good!). At restaurants the TIP is 5-10%.

“We wish you a nice trip,
1000 Út Travel Agency”


PRE-DEPARTURE MEETING

Many of the final total of 21people in our group gathered at the travel agency at 6 PM on June 1 for our pre-trip briefing. Naturally, it was all in Hungarian, of which I understood about 12 words, but our Travel Rep, Gergő, kindly took notes for us of the most important items. Turned out the presentation was just generally about where we’d be going, tips on what to pack, train protocol, changing money, day tours, etc. Really, not much we didn’t already know. We also met our tour guide, Zita, a Hungarian woman of substance, being quite a bit wider than she was tall. But she was a real sweetheart and helped us out immeasurably during the trip; she also spoke Russian and English, and was obviously well-versed in handling tour groups, which was all we really cared about anyway.

The following day, Gergő also sent us non-Hungarian speakers the entire detailed itinerary, including flight information, train arrival times, hotel names, etc. So now we have pretty much everything we need in the way of information about our trip. Just a few final days of packing and re-arranging and taking some stuff out of my suitcase and putting more stuff in and charging my electronics and it’s almost, just about, nearly, pretty close to a GO!

And Finally: DER TAG!


Days 1and 2: Thursday, June 8 and Friday, June 9. Moscow.

Members of the tour group staggered into Liszt Ferenc Aiport just outside of Budapest separately and in small bands. We all seemed to be present as of 11:00 AM in Terminal 2A. Our guide, Zita Bakos, a large, friendly Hungarian woman, was waiting with all of our documents (plane tickets, passports – I hadn’t seen mine in a couple of months! - visas, etc.) on the Departure level. We were instructed previously that we were each allowed one suitcase with a maximum weight of 23 kilograms per person, and with a width and length adding up to a maximum of 158 centimeters. We were also allowed one carry-on piece of hand luggage, weighing no more than 10 kg and with a width and length adding up to a maximum of 115 cm. Whew!

Check-in went smoothly and we left Budapest close to our scheduled departure time of 12:55 PM on Aeroflot Airlines, an old-time Russian carrier, whose planes seem to specialize in very narrow and uncomfortable seats. We arrived in Moscow around 4:25 PM, with no stopovers en route. Before deplaning, we were each given a Registration Data Sheet, to be filled in by the hotels and collected when we left Russia.

Upon clearing Passport Control, we were herded onto a local bus for our transfer to the Hotel Izmailovo Delta for one night. Delta is one of several hotels in this complex – yep, you guessed it – the other hotels are named Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Dean and I were booked to share a room on the 28th floor. The complex is next to the Izmailovo Kremlin, an amazing example of Disneyland Architecture in Moscow, which I hoped to visit the following day. Due to the Moscow traffic congestion, it took us nearly two hours to get to our hotel from Sheremetyevo airport. We were allowed 45 minutes to clean up and then our guide Zita gathered her flock together for the 20-minute metro ride to Red Square. I’d forgotten how beautiful many of the Moscow metro stations are, virtually art galleries in their own right. It was nice to make their acquaintance again.
And, of course, Red Square at night must be seen to be believed. BTW, as noted in a previous blog in 2004, Red Square is so named due to the color of the bricks used in the buildings, not because of its Communist leanings. Anyway, all lit up at night, it is a truly beautiful sight. The city was preparing for the upcoming festivities on Russia Day, June 12, and lights were strung and music was played and there was a general air of excitement in the air. St. Basil’s church was brightly lighted and glowed in the square. We walked the area for some time, taking night pictures and oohing and aahing every few feet. An excellent start.

We made it back to the hotel around midnight, still not having had any dinner (this would be a recurring scene on many nights, due to hurried tours and rushing from hotel to train to bus). Canadian Dean and Hungarian Tony and I hit the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant for some beer and snacks, then decided dinner was in order. Beer, a shot of vodka (had to start our trip properly!) and, for me, the kofte bowl of meat and veggies; it was hot and tasty and wonderful. The hotel obviously knew how to cater to travelers, judging by the many other tour groups in evidence. We got to bed around 1:30 in the morning. An auspicious beginning.


“De TRAIN, BOSS, De TRAIN!”
I was up early the morning of Friday, June 9. Performed my daily ablutions then walked around the Izmailovo Kremlin next door to the hotel, an amazing construction that looked surprisingly like Disneyland. It was a beautiful Moscow morning, cool and sunny. I had my photo taken outside the Kremlin with a local Russian girl dressed in period costume, then met Dean for breakfast. Afterwards, we had time for Dean to check out the local Kremlin also, then a touch after 10 AM we checked out of the hotel and boarded our bus for the day tour of Moscow.

We saw the Novodevichy Convent (from across the small lake, as visitors were not admitted when we were there) and the Lomonosov University, checked out the view of New Moscow, then headed for Red Square again and a tour of the real Kremlin, the one from which all of Russia is governed. Mr. Putin was away at the time, so we didn’t get to say Hi and ask him to sign our programs, but the tour went off well nevertheless. It was certainly not what I expected. I thought the Kremlin, behind those red walls, would be like the buildings and architecture on Red Square, but such wasn’t the case. There were a lot of large, imposing buildings, some modern and some from the 19th Century, and there were also a lot of churches. Really. Must have been six or seven churches inside the Kremlin. I never expected that and after streaming through a few of them, decided once I’d seen one church I’d seen most of them, so generally passed on future wanders through many of the churches on our tour (and there really were a lot!).
We saw the giant cannon that had never been fired and the 200-ton bell that had cracked in a fire and had a large piece broken out of it. We visited the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and finally exited the Kremlin late in the afternoon. Our final stop was to be at Old Arbat street, where I had shopped in 2004 and which had changed dramatically since then; now it should be called New Arbat street. So we had a brief chance for some shopping and then headed for the Kazansky Station around 8 PM and the first leg of our Trans-Siberian Railway journey.

Well, sort of. Read on.

When we found our track, we then learned that our carriage, Number 10, was waaay down at the end of the train, about a quarter of a mile walk or so – at least it felt like that, dragging my suitcase and with a full backpack on my back. Anyway, we got to our car and had our tickets and passports scrutinized by our Provodnitsa (female Carriage Attendant). I hefted my suitcase up onto the train and turned the corner into our carriage to look for our compartment.

First impressions: DAMN, but it was hot in that car! All the windows were closed to keep out fresh air and sweat immediately broke out all over my chubby little body. Jeez, where’s the air conditioner? Where’s the fan?

Second impression: Hmm, in order to impress us and to have us experience what it must have been like to ride the Russian rails in the 19th Century, the Russian Railway people had kindly resurrected one of the original Trans-Siberian Railway cars from around 1886. OK, it was clean, but it was old! Tiny compartments – OK, I knew they would be small, but, as in so many cases, the reality far exceeded the expectations. Four “bunks” in each compartment, narrow padded benches. Mattresses and pillows were rolled up and stored on the upper bunks for later use during the night. The bottom benches lifted up to reveal storage compartments underneath for suitcases. The only way to enter the compartment was to turn and go in sideways. Oh, and I forgot to mention: there was a middle-aged Russian woman sitting in our compartment.
I gave her my best memorized Russian: Dobry Den (good day). Vy govorite po-angliski? (Do you speak English?). Her response: Nyet. Apparently, she was to be our compartment-mate for the next night’s travel, including sleep time. This should be fun.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Other Georgia

Having spent my teenage years in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, I always wanted to see what the “Other Georgia” was like, the one in Eastern Europe. It was once again time to expand my horizons, so I decided to visit in very early spring; it would probably still be somewhat chilly in the city, but I was also hoping for some sunshine. Once again, my Expedia search revealed good deals, so I chose a cheap flight to get me there and a touch more expensive one to return. I would take LOT Airlines from Budapest at 1 PM on Thursday, March 30, with an 8½ hour layover in Warsaw (yes, you read that correctly – an eight-and-one-half-hour layover in Warsaw); then I’d leave Warsaw at 10:30 PM the same night and arrive in Tbilisi at 4 AM the following morning, March 31. That was the best deal LOT Airlines had to offer, so what the heck.

Of course, there was no chance at all of a local bus to downtown Tbilisi at that hour, so I arranged for the hotel pick to me up at the airport for a minor charge. Just one concern with this flight, which I realized after I had already booked it: my hotel room booking did not include the morning I arrived, i.e., my room was booked to begin March 31 and check-in didn’t start until 2 PM that day, which meant I wouldn’t have a room for 10 hours after I arrived. I supposed I could nap in the lobby, but that was tacky, so I wrote to the hotel of my predicament, requesting my booking include the night/morning of my arrival.

Well the hotel was amazingly helpful. No problem at all. Not only did they arrange to have a car pick me up at the airport (for 35 GEL, or about $12 US), but they also set me up with a room for the night/morning I was to arrive, for only about $40 US. Piece of cake. It’s always nice to find such cooperative hotels.

And the surprises just kept on coming. When I told several friends about my upcoming trip, it turned out that my young Brazilian friend Raphael had also booked a European trip which would put him in Tbilisi the same weekend as I was there. Cool – I’d have a friend with whom to visit the bars. Then my Canadian friend Dean chimed in with his vote to come along; he could stay with a friend in the area so would save on a hotel.

And – as if that wasn’t enough, when our Russian friend Daria found out about our travels, she mentioned how much she had always wanted to visit Tbilisi and, since at least two of us would be there for a long weekend, she decided to book her trip for the same time. Damn! From always traveling alone to having several friends along. And a real international group: Brazil, Canada and Russia. Excellent. And Daria even speaks the language of the area, so could smooth over any rough spots for us all.

My flights came off as anticipated – fortunately, as such is not always the case. But flying a red-eye special means there are few if any other planes going and coming, so no other flight traffic. Anyway, I spent my Warsaw layover reading and having dinner and napping, then a 3-hour-plus flight to Tbilisi and there I was, at 4:45 in the dark morning, staggering out of Passport Control and looking for my hotel pickup. Who, of course, since my flight was late, was nowhere to be seen. Well, Scheisse!

I hustled over to the Information Desk, amazingly open at that hour, and told them my tale of woe. They asked for the hotel’s phone number and I reached for my shoulder bag to get it and…..no shoulder bag! Oh, Double Scheisse! I’d left it on the plane! With my glasses and my meds and my Kindle. I raced over to the LOT Desk, which was also, amazingly, open at that hour, and told my new tale of woe to the young lady there. Sweat was pouring off my forehead. She immediately called down to the people working on/near the plane and they said they’d found my bag and would bring it to the LOT desk within 30 minutes. Whew! Saved again by Lady Luck. I wonder how much longer she’ll put up with me?

Anyway, I got my bag back and took a regular taxi to the hotel; the charge was only 50 Lari, just a small increase in my original price. The airport is only about 12 km SE from the city center and, as my hotel was in the southeastern part of the city, it only took around 15 minutes to get there. I was able to check in quickly and easily and, without even unpacking (a first for me), I tumbled into bed by 6 AM for a few more hours sleep.

My compatriots were all arriving at different times and even different days. Dean would be in later that afternoon, around 5 o’clock, and his local friend Leo, with whom he’d be staying, had arranged for the three of us to meet at The Breadhouse Restaurant, right on the Mtkvari River, just below where the sulfur baths are located, at Friday around 7:30 PM; an easy walk for me as my hotel was just across the river from the restaurant. Raphael and Daria would fly into Kutaisi (about 180 km from Tbilisi) the following day, Saturday, arriving around 5 AM, and would then have to take a bus into Tbilisi, about three hours away. They would get to Tbilisi sometime before noon on Saturday. We arranged to meet them for lunch at one PM at the famous Clock Tower, next to the Marionette Theater on the edge of Old Town. (NB: The world-famous marionette troop was out of the country, so I wouldn’t get to see them this visit. Damn!)

Anyway, for my first day in Tbilisi I was on my own. I had found a good introductory walking tour on the Internet so decided to strike out and see the city. I was up and about by 9 AM, breakfasted and dressed and ready to hit the trail. I was a beautiful early spring day, temp around 18C/65F. Just before crossing the bridge near my hotel, I checked out the Metekhi Church on a high cliff and its accompanying statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali.
I walked much of the tour, omitting only the climb up to the Narikala Fortress, a trek much too steep and long for my tired old legs. But I saw the famous sulfur baths, the waterfall behind the baths, the Peace Bridge (really interesting), the Old Town and the Clock Tower. I saw the various famous churches (Sioni and Anchiskhati). I found Freedom Square and the Tourist Information center, where I got some information about sights and other things to do.
I went back to Erekle Street and had lunch at the KGB restaurant (“KGB: Still Watching You”). A local Argo beer, some lovely lamb shashlik, accompanied by rice and veggies.
Afterwards, I strolled over to the aerial tramway to take me up to the fortress, but there was a long after-lunch line, so, after a brief nap, I headed up to see the Sameba Cathedral, behind my hotel. It wasn’t far, but it was steep, so I was sweating again when I finally got to the top of the hill. It was worth the climb, however, a beautiful old “wedding cake” style cathedral in soft-tan stone. I turned around and walked downhill (Whew!) and back across the river for a cooling beer at Machakhela restaurant and bar, overlooking the River Mtkvari. I met Dean and Leo at the Breadhouse around 8 PM, but it was fully reserved, so we came back to the area of the baths and found another classy place, attached to the baths, called Gorgasali. Leo ordered for us all, a selection of favorite Georgian dishes, along with the house red wine.
Well, it was simply amazing. In a life filled with travels and samples of wonderful foods around the world, I must say Georgian food ranks well up there among the top five types of food ever. We had shashlik (veal, lamb and chicken), mushrooms covered with cheese, veggies, hachapuri almuri (?), kinkhali and stuffed artichokes. One sip of the red wine – the House red wine, mind you – and I was ready to move to Tbilisi. Best red wine I have ever had anywhere, anywhen, anyhow. Wow! We even had a band and Georgian dancers to liven up the evening.

It was all amazing, but the real treat was the kinkhali. Previous internet research revealed one is not supposed to eat more than five kinkhali at a sitting, so Leo ordered us three each; they’re sort of like dumpling, filled with beef. Eating kinkhali is not like what you're used to doing with dumplings, however. First of all, you use only your hands. (There's a real reason for this: cutting the large dumpling would spill the juice and ruin the taste.) Locals will begin by seasoning the dumplings with pepper. Then grab the dumpling from the top "handle", turn it upside down and take a small bite out of the side to slurp up the juice (Georgians call this the “soup”). Don't let any juice fall on your plate, or the Georgians watching you will start chuckling, and you'll get your chin messy.

Then, still holding the kinkhali upside down, eat around the top. Once you finish the dumpling, you place the remaining twisted top on your plate— in Georgia it's considered an extreme mark of poverty in finances and taste to eat the doughy top. (Plus it helps keep count of how many kinkhali have been consumed). It's also nice to look with pride upon all your tops once, with practice, you get into the double digits with these delicious dumplings. Washed down with that astonishing Georgian red wine, it was a feast fit for kings.

We waddled out of there without even thinking about dessert. I took a taxi back to my hotel, but wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I visited the nearby Sky Bar for a caipiroska and a nighttime view of the city. And damn glad I did, too, as it was worth the time. It had been a great day; perfect weather, new city, incredible food and drink, friendly people, beautiful architecture and sights. I was a very happy camper.
Saturday dawned cloudy and blustery, although the sun did come out later. The temperature hovered around 12C/53F most of the day. The previous night I had arranged to meet Dean at the flea market around 10 AM, to do some shopping for local goodies for family and friends. I left my hotel and flagged down a taxi. The driver was a middle-aged Georgian who spoke no English or other languages than Georgian and Russian. I told him I wanted to go to the Dry Bridge Flea Market. He gave me back a blank look. OK, I was ready for that. I whipped out my Tourinform city map of Tbilisi and showed him where it was, less than ten minutes away. Another blank look. I then mentioned the name of the park next to the flea market area; more blank looks. Sigh. How hard could it be for a native Georgian to find a major bridge in his own city? Apparently, damn near impossible. He exited the taxi and conversed with a nearby buddy, then got back in and away we went. He was obviously still not 100% certain where we were going, but he was giving it the old college try. I kept repeating “market” and “Dry Bridge” and pointing to the place on the map, but nothing. I could see him pondering as he drove.

Suddenly his eyes flew open wide. I could have sworn I also saw a tiny light bulb flash on over his head. He looked back at me (taking his eyes off the traffic) and said, “Antiquo!” YES! The Antique Market! We had a common word. I responded with “Da, da,” nodding my head furiously. His smile rivaled the sunshine (of which there wasn’t any yet). He was a happy taxi driver. We found the flea market, visible to anyone from 100 meters away, on the major street leading to the Dry Bridge and I paid him and got out to see what I could find. I arrived early, but Dean didn’t make it until 11, which was the time he thought we’d agreed upon. We wandered through the flea market for a while, picked up a few gifts and then headed out for our meeting with our compatriots, about a 10-15-minute walk. We got there around 12:45 or so, took more clock tower photos and decided to see if we could find a nearby café for snacks.
Immediately next to the Clock Tower is the Hangar Bar, a cozy little Irish sports pub owned by Rebecca, originally from Virginia and now living part-time in Ireland and Tbilisi. She greeted us with a big smile and recommended her craft beers (very good!) and hamburgers (per Raphael later, also very good). Dean was very happy in Tbilisi as the Georgian government has not yet outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, so he could stay at our table and smoke cigarettes without going outside. At least the Hangar Bar was well-ventilated.

Anyway, we chatted and watched some rugby (Rebecca is a huge fan) and had a few more beers and some really tasty homemade nacho chips with salsa (just like I used to get in New Mexico) and the time slipped by and then it was after 3 PM and still no Raphael and Daria. No phone calls or Facebook either; I don’t have an iphone and Dean had switched to a local sim card, so nothing was incoming. Dean and I decided they’d get in touch with us eventually, so we took off and headed for the aerial tramway to take us up to the Narikala Fortress across the river.
We got lucky – no waiting line. We shuffled right in, no problem, and were whisked away over the river and up the nearby mountain to the fortress. It was a brief but nice stay. We checked out the statue of Kartlis Deda, or Mother Georgia, a gigantic metallic statue of a woman holding a sword. From certain angles she also looks somewhat hermaphroditic, with the sword she is holding looking more like a dangling phallus. Interesting. A brief walk around the ruined fortress and a short stop at a mountain-top juice bar for refreshments and view-admiring and we took the aerial tramway gondola back to the other side of the river. We could have walked down the 7,349 steps to the bottom of the cliff, but decided, “nah,” not for us.
We checked out the bar streets – Erekle and Shardeni, took a few photos, just relaxing along the way. It was getting to be dinner time, so we stopped in at the Stelzen Haus for some Weiss beer and dinner of meat for me and hachapuri for Dean – his first. Dean had left a message somewhere in the cloud for Raphael and Daria to meet us at the Hangar Bar at 9 PM, and by Georgia, they showed up! We had more of that great craft beer and some food, listened to a local guitar-player/singer and generally caught up.
Turned out Daria’s Air BnB renter drove all the way from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, about three hours away, where their WizzAir flight landed them at 5 AM that morning, to pick her up. He then proceeded to turn Tour Guide on them and, while driving back to Tbilisi, stopped at all the interesting sights along the way, finally getting to Tbilisi around 4 PM. Nice of him to do it and they did get to see a lot more of the country, but we were a touch worried about them, so glad it was all OK.
We walked back down the bar streets to the main bar area near Meidan Square and found a place called BlackBerry, which was furnished in high-backed, soft, red-velvet chairs and large heavy tables and had dark red flocking on the walls. Looked like a French bordello. But they made a mean caipirinha and had some good chacha on hand, the Georgian fruit brandy, so we sipped and relaxed into the night.

Sunday morning Dean had some work to catch up on and Raphael and Daria had signed on for a local three-hour walking tour of the city and environs, so it was definitely time for my thermal bath and hammam visit.

Tbilisi was founded as a city during the 5th century CE, at the epicenter of the Old Silk Road. The name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word "Tpili", meaning warm. The name Tbili or Tbilisi ("warm location") therefore was given to the city because of the area's numerous sulfuric hot springs, which are still heavily exploited in the public baths. It was here I was headed at 10 AM on a rainy Sunday. The bath area is just across the river from where I was staying and I was able to find the Gulos Baths pretty easily, although they are unmarked. Gulos is one of the most highly recommended of the five or six baths in the area.

A first-class bath in Tbilisi starts with a long soak in a very hot tub in your own private room, followed by a rigorous massage on a slab of marble. For interested parties, this is performed with the client au naturel. The masseur (or masseuse; it was just my luck to get a middle-aged bearded masseur in swimming trunks) then uses a coarse woolen mitten to remove layers of old, dirty skin off the body. Next, he rubs a soothing coat of satiny suds into the exfoliated skin and then pours buckets of hot water over the body to rinse it.

As a point of information for an appreciate audience, two of Tbilisi’s most renowned bathers were Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and the French writer Alexandre Dumas, who praised the baths as “luxurious,” and described a bathing ritual not unlike that of today. Why, I could have been in the very bath that Dumas frequented! How about that?!

One bath tradition that has all but disappeared is the “bride check.” It used to be common for potential brides to be met at the baths by a prospective mother-in-law and aunt-in-law who, under the cover of the steamy baths, would examine the girl’s body for defects. It was all very hush-hush and isn’t done any longer. Apparently, young people today have other ways of achieving their goals, like using the Internet.

Anyway, my soak and scrub were as good as always in the hammam I’ve visited around the world. Except for the masseuse, of course. The only better one I ever had was in Moscow, when a lovely young Russian woman barely out of her teens, was able to…..well, that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, my Tbilisi experience in the baths was nearly everything I enjoy from these visits. The hot tub soak was in water so hot I could barely stand it, and resulted in rivers of sweat running off me. And my Master Masseur scrubbed me down to the point that there was no dead skin left on me at all – I was all shiny and pink and new. And it only cost me 40 lari (around $13US/15 euro). Great!

I made my way back to the hotel for a much-needed nap, then around 2 PM roused myself to get out again. I did some last-day shopping at the local bazaars and went looking for lunch at the Machakhela restaurant. And whom should I run into in front of the restaurant but Raphael and Daria, just finishing their Tbilisi walking tour. Great timing, so we all had lunch together. Daria bought us a round of chacha to warm her down, as they’d been outdoors all morning in the 8C/43F rainy, cloudy, windy weather. I drank my chacha, but gave them my Cheshire Cat smile; after my bath, I would be warm for at least a week.
Everyone was hungry, so we each ordered enough food for all of us to share. I had the Taster Plate of nine Georgian goodies, including chicken, lamb, beef, and other tasty dishes. Raphael ordered some kinkhali and a meat hachapuri, and Daria had veggies and salad stuff. We all shared each other’s dishes, dipping into the various plates. And generally slurping up all the food at hand. Accompanied by a bottle of that amazing Georgian red wine, it settled us all down nicely.

I walked back to the Hanger pub where we were all to meet Dean and his friends Leo and his wife Amy for another great dinner. Raphael and Daria returned to their respective accommodations to clean up and maybe take a short nap. I killed the time at the pub with some tea and a brownie, still relaxing from the gigantic lunch. Leo and his wife Amy and Dean all arrived around 7 PM, but Raphael and Daria didn’t make it until 8 PM, when we all trooped next door to the Gabriadzhe Restaurant, next to the clock tower and marionette theater. Luckily for Mr. Wallet, we’d eaten our lunch rather late, so just didn’t have room for too much more food. We did manage a few appetizers and I had some very nice Ukrainian borsch, but that was about it for all of us. It was still a nice evening with old friends and new ones and the atmosphere was congenial and warm. I look forward to re-visiting Tbilisi someday in the not-too-distant future.

Tbilisi is a vibrant city, full of energy and life. Lots of noise and traffic and voices and buzz. The people seem rather intimidating at first, especially the men, large (very large!) and serious-looking and somber – kind of like the older Hungarians. But the young people are always out and about at the pubs and restaurants and clubs, having a great time and loving their city.

We said goodbye to Leo and Amy, who had to leave early as they had to get up early for work; they’re both teachers in a local English-language school. We weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet, so we wandered back down the bar street until we found the Drunk Owl bar, a little hole-in-the-wall, smoke-filled place full of music and young people and chacha and beer and that great Tbilisi buzz. A couple of drinks later I hit my wall and headed back to my hotel for the night. I also had a fairly early (for me, anyway) morning call for my taxi to the airport. My three companions were staying over and taking a road trip through the Georgia countryside, so I’d see them in a week or so back in Budapest. A very good first-time visit to a happy new city; I’ll be back.

And so, Monday, April 3, it was time to go. I’d made arrangements for a taxi to the airport, got there, checked in after a brief wait and we took off on time. This leg I was flying Aeroflot, the Russian airline; I’d fly to Moscow where I’d have a three-hour wait, then back to Budapest, arriving around 7:30 at night. The Tbilisi-to-Moscow flight was OK. Once at Shermetyevo airport I followed the signs at from my arrival at Gate 20 in Terminal D to my departure Gate 58, as posted, in Terminal F. It was a 25-minute walk at normal speed. I was once again leaving from the farthest gate in the airport. A person walking at standard speed can usually walk one mile in 15 minutes. I’ll let you do the math.

So, along the way I found the Irish Bar Moscow at the airport around Gate 47, just a short ten-minute walk from my departure gate, and settled on a barstool for a couple of pints of Harp ($10 USD each), a beef burrito, a tortilla with ham and cheese and lots of water. The final bill was 2070 rubles, or $37 USD. I had last been to this little bar in 2004 when visiting friends in Moscow, and I still have the polo shirt. Great ambiance. Gotta love those airport bars. Anyway, I was strolling toward my gate, shopping and browsing the shops, when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that my flight had been changed to Gate 34. Gate 34?! That’s 10-15 minutes back the way I came! Friggin’ Aeroflot.

I hustled back to Gate 34 and waited and waited and finally the flight was called. I got to share the plane with a Russian sports team of some sort, men and women, very large men who took up two seats each. We lifted off and 3 ½ hours later I was in Budapest. Clearing all those Russian athletes through passport control took forever, and a journey that usually takes me one hour from arrival to my front door took nearly two hours this time. Sigh.

So, home again. Spent the first couple of days unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning my flat, downloading and labeling my photos and writing this blog. Hope you enjoy it. Next up: June 8-19, 12 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway. A major Bucket List item checkoff. Rest up for a Monster Blog! Until then, have a great spring and….try some Georgian wine!