A Travellerspoint blog

August 2017

Chapter 23 - Riga to Berlin

By Neil

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Riga Rocks!

In the time it took us to get half way from the plane from Moscow to the baggage carousel in Riga Airport, Latvia, Nik had connected to the Wi-fi, and downloaded all of the email we had been unable to access for the last couple of days.

In Russia, you have to go through the Russian run server that requires you to fill out a form, have a Russian phone number and give important details like the colour of toilet paper you use before you can access Wi-fi in any public places. It had been a little frustrating over the last month…

We were back in civilisation.

“For one of the first or second times on the Big Trip”, said Nikki, “I’m in a place where I feel like I could really could live!” as we walked around Riga.

Riga Street Scene, Latvia.

But where were we?

Map of Europe showing Russia and the tiny Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (north of the red-and-orange-striped Belarus).

"Riga feels really European, even Scandinavian”, I said to the receptionist in the hotel in Riga. She positively beamed.

“I’m so pleased you think it feels European”, she said, “and not Russian. We have put a lot of effort into making it this way”.

“Why?” I asked.

“We were under Soviet rule for over 80 years and, whilst Russia is just over the border, we don’t feel that we are Russian. We feel that we are European.”

“Are you scared of Russian?”, I asked.

“We’re a country of 2 million people and although we’re a member of the European Union, have the Euro, and are a member of NATO, we’re still concerned the Russians will walk over the border. The eastern half of the population is Russian, almost 50%. That’s why every single Latvian soldier is on the border with Russia”.

And in light of Russia’s arguments in favour of the annexation of Eastern Ukraine, being the population was predominantly Russian, the fears seem well-founded. We found it amazing that this 20 something year old woman was so crystal clear in her thoughts, and so willing to share them. Her views, however, were not unique.


Riga, Latvia.

In light of our foodie adventures during our short stay in Latvia, we have to start with the markets. They were a close stroll to our hotel and the centre of the old town. And the produce was absolutely astounding! There were four halls the size of aircraft hangars crammed with local produce, including an amazing array of cured meats, olives, fish, cheese, bread, mushroom and berries. We arrived right in the middle of the berry season and the smell of the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries wafted through the streets as we walked past the stalls. It was mouth-watering!

The aircraft-hangar like buildings are the Riga Central Market

And I have never seen such a selection of honeys for sale. Probably 40 different varieties! (Nik says I need to just visit the Giant Bee in Queensland but I think she is pulling my leg!)

And the fruit and veg was just too good!

Riga Central Market, Latvia

And for me, the meat and seafood selection was not huge, but there was fabulous, and enormous salmon, and beautiful herring.

Look at the size of that salmon!

Riga Old Town itself is very pretty. Small. Friendly. And really artistic. The souvenirs in some of the places we have visited in Eastern Europe have looked a little like someone has let in a mad man with a fretsaw, all wooden kitsch and terrifying Christmas-eske decorations. In Riga, a lot of the art had a modern Scandinavian feel, with beautiful woods, pottery and textiles. There were collectives where you could see and buy the works of local artisans and the bars and restaurants had some amazing fits outs and art.

There was also some more traditional glass art, some of which was quite different from anything else we have seen. We saw, and bought, some of this beautiful glass made by a Latvian artist called “Elfu”. And Nikki’s mum is the lucky winner of trying to get it home in one piece, thanks Jan!

An example of the Glass Art from the Elfu Fabrika, Latvia.

Then there was the great food; modern, inventive and varied. It really was a treat after the more limited options to the East!

How about that for a soup? Beetroot soup and a Splitpea soup with goats cheese

And finally there was the bitters. Black Riga bitters are a local delicacy, a digestive liquor made from an array of herbs and berries. It is an acquired taste that is for certain, but over a plate of cheese, who could say no….

Beautiful lunch with Duck for me and Polenta with a mushroom sauce for Nikki with the rather interesting Blackcurrant Balzam….

Here are some more photos of Riga to whet your appetite….

Riga Street Scenes…

In the afternoon, Nik went to the Latvian Occupation Museum by herself as I wanted to get blogs loaded up. Out of the many memorials of the events of WWII, this is one that Nik said she found most moving, particularly as there we had little knowledge of the impact of the German and Soviet occupation of Latvia (or Estonia and Lithuania) before this trip. Latvia was occupied for over 50 years and during this time the proportion of ethnic Latvians dropped from 75% to 52% of the population. Many Latvian citizens were deported to Soviet Gulags, from where as little as 1% of some villages ever returned.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius is not quite as pretty as Riga, but certainly had its own charms. For example, look at the menu:


How could I possibly resist “Rustic beaver meat stew with Champignons and tomatoes”?

Beaver stew, Vilnius, Lithuania.

We stayed in an old monastery where Nikki was convinced there was an unhappy ghost (or ghosts of past church sins perhaps….) and she slept badly. I slept like a log.

Before Vilnius the best meal that I had had on the trip was a ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon juice) in Valparaiso, Chile. Yep, in month 1! However, in Stikliai restaurant in Vilnius I had some pickled Herring that was just fantastic; beautifully flavoured with salt and oil with the perfect texture. The onion, paprika and mayonnaise sauce was exquisitely prepared, and the baked potato was perfect. Wow. A new favourite!

Nikki says hers is still the Moqueces in Salvador, Brazil. A beautiful ”coconut limey heaven” is a direct Nikki quote, and will be pretty hard to beat!

Best meal of the trip for Neil so far; Herring in Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius also had an interesting artistic vibe, mainly jewellery. Nikki actually saw a piece of jewellery that she liked, which is a pretty rare occasion - so Happy Birthday Nikki!

We only had one afternoon in Vilnius and so took to the streets after lunch to look around, but the weather had other ideas and it started to bucket down, in a very, very persistent manner. So we took refuge in the closest building, and you’ll never guess, it was a gin and whisky bar… Some Italian gin and Swedish Single Malt Whisky jumped out at us to warm us up and, well, we had to buy it.

“So mate”, I said to the bloke behind the bar. “Have you seen signs of global warming?”.

“Bloody Oath, Cobber”, he (perhaps not) said. “It used to be that it would get down to minus 30 centigrade for at least 2 weeks a year, now it only drops to minus 20 C”.

“What the? I can’t image minus 30 C”, I said. Then I asked, because I am me, and this is what I do….

“What’s your view of Lithuanian independence and how do you feel about the Russians?” So not a hard-hitting or controversial question to ask an innocent bar keeper on a rainy afternoon then. Nik just rolled her eyes.

“Independence is good, as is being a member of the European Union and having the Euro as the currency. As for being a member of NATO, the Russians keep a large army in Belarus and in their Russian protectorate on the coast to our south. They regularly hold exercises close to our border and if they came over the border would NATO come to our aid? I don’t know. We hope so, but….”.

An amazing fact about the fight for independence by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that Nik and I had previously missed, was the symbolic protest, “the Baltic Way” which occurred in August 1989. Some 2 million people from these countries joined hands forming an unbroken chain from the capital of Estonia, Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania (approximately 600km!) to protest for their independence. It took another 6 years for Russian armed forces to leave….

Russia will shortly be carrying out the “Zapad” exercise with 100,000 troops and the “First Guards Tank Army” in Belarus (the first time the First Guards Tank Army has been used since the Second World War). Again, history for the people in these countries on Russia’s Western fringe is all too recent and their Eastern neighbour clearly weighs on the minds of the people.

Warsaw, Poland

Then, hoorah!!!! Our last bus ride for a long time! From Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland. It was only 12 hours but we were clearly out of practice from South America, as it was pretty tiring. Although, can I just say that it was the poshest bus we have been on for the whole trip! Seat back screens with a better selection of movies than any airline I have travelled with and really good wi-fi for the whole trip! Fabulous!

The Soviets, surprisingly, did a really good job of rebuilding Warsaw after the Second World War. With almost the entire city completely demolished, it is amazing how well the re-construction has kept it’s olde worlde charm. We had some challenges in the train station, and couldn’t for the life of us buy a Eurail ticket to get us to Germany. Fortunately, our friendly hostel staff managed to help us get a ticket to Berlin, where hopefully my German skills would facilitate a better outcome for our onward journey!

We spent a day wandering through Warsaw, visiting the former site of the Jewish ghetto (now a park with a small memorial) and the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. This was an incredibly detailed museum about Jewish history and did not just focus on the Holocaust, giving important insight to Jewish culture in Europe. However, the imagery and information regarding the Warsaw ghetto and holocaust was appropriately unforgettable. Which is the whole point.

As you know, I have always said that bars are great places to get the viewpoint of every type of person on every type of issue:

The Russian Studies Graduate from America gave his view that Russia will, in some way, annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine but will stop there.

A Polish woman gave her view that, whilst life was better since the departure of the soviets, there were still not enough good jobs.

And a Belgian bloke living in America gave his view that Europe is being overrun by Muslims who do not have the same values as Europeans.

As Nikki has said on a few occasions, one tends to mix with people who have the same views. Those people become friends, and it is easy to only mix with and hear from people that have the same or similar point of view as oneself.

Coming back the Voltairean quote of the 1700’s, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, I vociferously, but respectfully, put an alternative viewpoint to the Belgian gentleman, including telling the story about the goat. For those of you that have heard it, I apologise. For others, let me go off on a tangent……

The Australian Goat Story:

I was developing a wind farm in the Australian outback. Desert country. Bloody tough (but stunningly beautiful) country. 270mm of rain per year. On average. Regular droughts. You measure the livestock capability of land using a term called “carrying capacity”. Good land in Victoria in Australia, or the UK, or say Washington State in the US, could carry say 2 sheep per acre of land. This country in the outback has a carrying capacity of 0.08 sheep per acre, or 12 acres per sheep. So you need big farms. Say 100,000 acres. Then you can run 7,000 or so sheep and with the value from the lambs and wool, you can make a living.

I was talking with one of the farmers about goats. He said that 25 years ago, they had no value. They ate everything and bred like, well, goats. The best thing to do was shoot them. And the sheep fences didn’t keep them out, they just wondered onto the land. In Australia, they are called feral goats.

Now let me go off on a(nother) tangent…..

About 30 years ago 2 Lebanese brothers immigrated to Melbourne. After a couple of years someone said to them “Hey mate, you got any goats?”. (Goats, by the way, are the most widely eaten meat in the world. The Hindu’s don’t eat beef (if any meat at all). Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork).

Some Goats

So the Lebanese bloke said “Dunno. Let me have a look”.

Sure enough, he found that feral goats were available for very low cost so he opened up an abattoir to kill, skin, and butcher the goats. Most of the goat meat went for export. Much of it to the USA.

About 4 years ago, the value of a goat to the Outback farmer was about $35 dollars a goat. To collect and transport the goats to the abattoir cost about $5 per goat. Not much money unless you’re collecting several thousand goats per year! Which they were….

So, immigrants helped create a multi-million dollar industry from an Australian pest! The Lebanese-Australian brothers’ abattoir is now processing 10,000 goats a week and employing about 500 people! And significantly increased the income for outback farmers! Happy days! (Well, unless you’re a goat….).

Oh, and about 2 years ago Australia signed Free Trade Agreements with China and South Korea, and expanded the Free Trade Agreement with Japan. Since then the price the Outback farmer is getting for a goat has gone from $35/goat to $70/goat. By the way, in the same period, the price per kilo of cattle has gone from about $2.50/kilo to about $5.50/kilogram.

Long story short, I have seen the amazing contribution that refugees and migrants have bought to our (and other) countries and there are plenty more stories out there to show it. Although, only the best stories have goats.


Berlin, Germany

This was the first time for Nikki and I in Germany.

“What?!”, I hear you cry. “But you worked in Germany!”.

No, I didn’t. I worked in a country called West Germany. Yes. When I worked in Frankfurt, there was still a Wall in Berlin. Then again, it was a third of a century ago.

Neither Nikki or I had been to Berlin and German efficacy was shown during the purchase of our Eurail passes. We were loaded up with tickets and passes before we knew it! It is a certainly a country where you can “feel the efficiency”, everything was just easier.

In Berlin we went to the standard tourist sites of the Reichstag:

Neil (the one wearing the fabulous hat) and Nikki mucking up another selfie in front of the Reichstag.

Brandenburg Gate:


By the way, I saw this fascinating plaque in front of the Brandenburg gate:

From a speech given by US President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12th 1987

The site of Hitler’s Bunker:

Yep. That’s it. The carpark to the left of where I was standing. That’s where Hitler’s bunker was before they filled with concrete and parked cars on it. Highly appropriate outcome.

The Soviet memorial:

Soviet memorial in Berlin

Very striking was the memorial to the Berlin Wall, including an original section of the wall, left intact.

Looking out onto the Berlin Wall overlooking a model of the city and where the wall ran (in the foreground)

This section, located at Bernauer Strasse, has been left as a memorial. There are photos of what the area looked like when the wall was in place and a memorial to those that died trying to cross the wall. I loved this graffiti on the wall:

‘We’ve never had to build a wall to keep our people in”…..

It is a stark reminder of the Iron Curtain (Churchill’s phrase that he first used in 1945) that fell across Europe after the second World War.

And then the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 Stelae (concrete slabs) varying from 0.3 metres high to 4.7 metres high.

A lot more graphically detailed than the other memorials we had seen so far, the one in Berlin, while striking, felt distant. It almost felt like the content was so difficult, that the concept was to just objectively put it all out there and let people make their own of it. Perhaps that is the best way, I am unsure. However, these places are very personal and neither of us would have wanted the job of representing this event in a single memorial.

The powerhouse that is Germany

Firstly, Germans are bloody nice people and we’ve been lucky to meet quite a few of them during our trip.

In a previous blog I wrote about the economic behemoth that is California, the world’s 7th largest economy. Germany is the world’s 4th largest economy. Yes, it has twice the number of people as California but still, a US$3.5 trillion economy is nothing to sneeze at.

America has a few skeletons in its closet, but one of its greatest actual and moral achievements of which it should be most proud is the Marshall Plan. This plan, developed by George Marshall in 1947/48 was to invest US$130 billion (in 2016 figures) into devastated Europe. Marshall stated to the graduating class of Harvard in 1947 that “its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”.

It was, quite simply, a superb plan. Mix the plan with the German work ethic, their desire to do things not just right but superbly, the fabulous approach to workplace relations (where union leaders are on the boards of companies), and the Mittelstand (the thousands of small (less than 1,000 employees) companies, often based in small towns in Germany, that produce a wide range of products that are the best in the world; from pencils to shoes to beer packaging equipment to equipment to shot/ sand blast metals prior to painting/ galvanising), and you have a world leading formula.

Plus, this leader.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, 2005 – present

Chancellor Merkel is arguably the most powerful, influential leader in the world today. The Chancellor leads the world in many areas including Free Trade, Climate Change, Industrial Might, Leadership of the European Union, and, very importantly, Humanitarian efforts.

It was in the middle of what was called the European refugee crisis in 2015 that Germany opened its doors to a million refugees from, primarily, Syria. My views are that there is obviously the Humanitarian side of this. There is also, the economically smart side of it too.

It’s well known that, on average, as education for women increases, the birth rate per woman decreases. So therefore, if a country wants to maintain its growth rate when the birth rate per woman is decreasing, immigration is the answer.

Percent of Western German mothers having 1, 2 and 3 or more children by educational attainment

number of children

one child 22(Compulsorty Education) 30 (Intermediary Ed) 31 (Highest Ed)
two children 39 (Compulsory Education) 48 (Intermediary Ed) 48 (Highest Ed)
three or more children 39 (Compulsory Education) 22 (Intermediary Ed) 21 (Highest Ed)

Expected population numbers in Germany with differing immigration scenarios.

In addition, a country needs workers to support the increasing numbers of old people.


My name might not be Einstein but Chancellor Merkel looks to be pretty smart to me whereas Japan looks to be on the edge of a demographic cliff…….

Also, as shown with the Goat Story, immigration leads to increased economic opportunities.


The Holocaust, Nazis and Soviet Occupation

In Chapter 5 of this blog, having visited the superb Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos (the Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago, Chile, I wrote:

“How a country deals with its past atrocities is a measure of its level of civilisation”.

The systematic, planned murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War was, is, shocking, abhorrent, unbelievable.

Auschwitz Liberation Day – 27th January 1945

The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the Occupation Museum in Riga, and many, many others, all work towards the recognition of the past atrocities and educating todays population that we must never, never, forget.

We must, as people of the world, be constantly aware that genocide is a heartbeat away. One would have thought after the Holocaust that humankind would have learnt and there would have been no more genocide. Tragically, this is not true. Systematic murder has been a regular occurrence in the 72 years since the end of the Second World War. It’s estimated that between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the murder of around 50 million people including:

- Cambodia – Khymer Rouge – 1.5 to 3 million people – 1975 to 1979
- Rwanda – 1 million people – 1994
- Russia (30 million people murdered in the Gulags),
- China (Unknown millions murdered in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution)

We must, as citizens of the world, be aware of the Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html), and work constantly to ensure that our own countries abide by the Declaration and pressure other countries to abide by it too.

This trip has educated us more than we could have possibly imagined about events that we were, in the main, only vaguely aware of or were already a part of ‘history’. But this history continues to play out around us in global politics and conflicts today. I think we are both thinking about the ways in which can play our own small part in improving this….


Posted by capetocape2017 12:33 Archived in Latvia Tagged germany poland russia holocaust latvia lithuania Comments (1)

Chapter 22 - Vegemite and Vodka (Suzdal and Siberia)

By Neil

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Suzdal, Russia

“So the story was, she dressed up a baby doll and pretended it was her child”, said Natalia, our guide in Suzdal.

Euxodia Lupokhina, the first wife of Peter the Great, was sent to the Intercession Convent because Peter deemed the marriage unhappy. It turns out that both this excuse and outcome were pretty common for wives of the time. Anyway it was unclear as to how may children Euxodia had (and by whom) due to this rumor about the baby doll.

The Intercession Convent and the Kamenka River, Suzdal, about 200 km’s east of Moscow

“They thought the story was not true until, during the Soviet era, they were looking into some old coffins and found one had a baby doll in it”.

Having been exiled Tsarita Euxodia had an affair with a bloke called Stepan (turns out being exiled was not all that bad). He ended up being quartered (um, well, at least not for her). Er, ouch!

Peter the Great had 14 children to his two wives; Euxodia (3) and Catherine (11). 11 of the children died before the age of 4. Bloody Hell!

One of his children to Catherine became Empress Elizabeth, another married but died at the age of 20 from a post birth infection after she gave birth to the future Tsar Peter.

Peter’s only son who lived to adulthood, Alexei got into a bit of a disagreement with Peter. Oh My Lord! I’ve just read how Peter had him killed! Suffice to say, it was really, really nasty! It kind of made quartering look nice ….

Suzdal, however, is an idyllic Russian town, located 240 km east of Moscow.

Now there’s a thing. It gets bloody cold in winter. And the big church gets really cold. So they build a big church for summer and a small church in winter….. Makes sense to me…

The fields are green, the flowers bloom, the stream is clear and there are beautiful churches.

The Cathedral of the Nativity in the Kremlin, Suzdal

Nearby Vladimir was the capital of Russia for almost 160 years, long before Moscow was a glint in anyone's eye, and these towns form a part of the Golden Circle of towns and cities around Moscow, which preserve early history of the Orthodox Church in Russia and are renowned as 'open air museums' due to the extraordinary number of unique monuments of Russian architecture dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, including churches, kremlins, monasteries and cathedrals. Suzdal' fortunes dipped when the efforts of the local commerce tried to influence the building of the Trans-Siberian railway through Suzdal in 1864 failed (losing out to Vladimir) and it faded into a beautiful relic of of former times.

The 1590’s built Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour has a bell ringer who has definitely had quite a bit of coffee before he starts his hourly gig of playing a dozen by himself bells for over 10 minutes.

Just add coffee….

Founded in the 14th century to protect Suzdal’s northern entrance, the Saviour Monastery of Saint Euthymius was one of the mightiest monasteries of the time, partly due to the patronage of Ivan the Terrible.

The monks quarters, however, reflect some of the darker aspects of Russia’s past, becoming over the years, a delinquent boys home, a prison, and a part of the Gulag system. It is now a museum.

Suzdal really is very pretty. Particularly at sunset:

An old wooden church.


And then in the daylight.


With wooden houses:


And log restaurants:


It really was extraordinarily pretty.


Vladimir, up the road, was made Russia’s capital in 1157 by the fabulously named Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky after he’d had a stint in the Holy Land on a Crusade. He started the Assumption Cathedral in 1158 and it is the oldest continually used church in Russia. It is also the model for many of the other churches of the time, including those in the Kremlin in Moscow.

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow.

However, my favourite in Vladimir (pronounced Vladeemer, like redeemer) is this place...

The Cathedral of St Dmitry, Vladimir

Not because it was built between 1193 and 1197. And not because it is on of the only surviving churches of its time with ornate limestone carvings covering both biblical and mythological beings. But because, well, the Russkies like their cognomina, e.g. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great (Not impressed with that. Maybe they should have gone for ‘Catherine the Fabbo’ or ‘Catherine the Shpeshalist’ or something), and the bloke who started off this Cathedral was called ‘Vsevolod the Big Nest’ because he was very fecund. He had 14 kids! Definitely going to start calling Nikki’s dad ‘Johnonnonski the Big Nest’ now.

Vladimir (the town, not the person), was the capital before….

The Greatest (Most Brutal?) Horsemen of all time.

Whilst Vsev was building his Big Nest in the late 1100’s, probably the greatest horsemen of all time, The Mongols, were starting what was to become the second largest empire of all time, the Mongol Empire.


Genghis Khan got really close to Vladimir/ Suzdal in 1227, but Genghis’ grandson, Batu Khaan, finished the job in 1237.

Batu Khaan – 1207 to 1255

Russia was part of the Mongol Empire for 250 years until 1480.


A Bloke went for a ride on a horse

In the last chapter of this Blog, I mentioned that a bloke called Karl Bushby went for a walk. From Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina to Uelen in the Russian Far East. Across the Bering Strait.

This bloke, however, went for a ride.


Of course, it wasn’t a ride around a field. It was a big ride and his book was my first literary partner on the Cape to Cape trip.


Tim Cope, from down the road in Warragul in Victoria, Australia, decided to go on a bit of a trip.


From 2004 to 2007 Tim Cope rode his horses 10,000 km’s from Mongolia to Hungary. Why? Because he wanted to understand the relationship between man and horse and the life of the Mongol nomads.

He found that the Mongols were unbelievable horsemen. I don’t know one end of a horse from the other, but Tim’s description of:

- how the mongol’s rode,
- the materials they put on the horses backs to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- how they treated those materials to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- How they managed to find enough water and feed...

...is just fantastic. However, to try to understand just how far it is from the town of Vladimir to Mongolia, I couldn’t walk, I definitely couldn’t ride a horse (can you imagine? Just getting on I’d end up facing the wrong way….), so the only option left was for us to take longest train ride in the world – the Trans-Siberian. The Lonely Planet has a beautiful description that the Trans-Siberian ‘makes all other train rides seem like once around the block with Thomas the Tank Engine’.


The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian is 9,829 km’s and runs from Moscow to Vladivostock

Map of the Trans-Siberian railway.

We were only going to do a hop, skip, and a jump on it; from Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow to Irkutsk (4 time zones away) next to Lake Baikal, 4,205 km east of Moscow. 43 hours on the train. Nice.

We got on the train at 3am on the first day. It was a nice train. A cabin for 4 shared only by the 2 of us. Clean. With a little table. An electrical point. Clean sheets. And a window.

Trans-Siberian railway cabin window. And Breakfast.

There was a restaurant car with a menu.

The Trans-Siberian railway restaurant car menu.

There were trees out of the window. Quite a lot of trees actually.

View from the Trans-Siberian window

There were cards to pass the time. And Nik had bought a bottle of vodka.

43 hours on the Trans-Siberian is a long time

There were more cards. And Nik had vegemite.

Vegemite and Vodka.

Then it was night time.

Then it was morning.

Then there was vegemite and gherkins and a weird Russian mushroom spread on a brick of brown bread.

Then more of the same at lunch due to the restaurant car being closed.

Then there were more trees.

Trees and a storm..

Then there was a house.

A house…

Then there were more cards. But there was no more wine. Only Vodka.

Then I looked at the map.

“Crikey”, I said to Nikki. “We’re going to have to go really fast to get to Irkutsk by 6 am tomorrow morning”.

That’s when we discovered that the trip was not 43 hours as expected, it was 70 hours. Oops.

So then it was night time. So more gherkins and vegemite and then bed.

Then it was morning time.

This time with no gherkins or brown bread (we only bought enough for 43 hours not 70) and so we resorted to pot noodle and chips (there still being no open restaurant car).

Then the cards commenced again. Gin Rummy. First to 10,000 points. But there was no vodka or wine. By the way, if you ever get the chance to buy Yukon Gin, don’t. But it was all we had. It was so rough we needed something to mix it with. There was only Sprite. And no ice. Gin and Sprite. Hmmm….. But after the first couple of mugs, it seemed ok.

Cards. Gin Rummy. And Yukon Gin. And Sprite….

The Trans-Siberian, by the way, although it travels 9 time zones, remains on Moscow time for the whole journey. Including the dining car. Which is a bit weird.

After a few attempts, on our final night on the Trans-Siberian we found the restaurant open. Hoorah! We got a beer. With a German Bloke and a Russian-German-Armenian-Macedonian bloke.

Then, after 2 days with only pot-noodles, they kicked us out again so they could serve the kids!

However then we, and all of the other starving tourists, came back to the restaurant car at 8.30 pm and wouldn't go away until they fed us. And gave us another beer.

And wine.

Then the guitar came out.


Everyone sang along to the Boxer. Lei La Lei! is international. The Russians took the guitar and poured the vodka.

That is real vodka and real fear…..

Everyone started singing.

Everyone including the Russians joining in…

Then there was more vodka and singing.

Everything suddenly got blurry.

Then we were kicked out of the bar but a couple of people came back to the cabin with more vodka.
Nik woke up sitting up in bed at 5.30 am with the light on. She had not been able to lie down. I had passed out. The Providnista, the carriage attendant woke us up at 6 to say Irkutsk was approaching.

Unfortunately, I had died during the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…..

Sometimes I wake up a little dusty in the morning. This was not dusty. That Vodka is bad stuff…..


Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

We were taken by bus to a hotel lobby in Irkutsk where I slept for a couple of hours waiting for the transfer to the ferry. Nik even managed to get back onto solid food.

Then we took the ferry out to Bolshie Koty, a tiny hamlet on Lake Baikal.

Maps showing the location of Lake Baikal and also Bolshie Koty (at the bottom close to Listvyanka).

Lake Baikal is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It is 636 km’s long. It is up to 1,637 metres deep. It contains 20% of the worlds fresh water. It is incredibly clean. And it freezes in winter.

Lake Baikal freezes in winter

In summer, the ice melts and it is very, very beautiful. There are current attempts to build a walking path around the entire lake that will be over 2000kms in length when completed. Both days we walked out along the track for spectacular views of the lake.

Stunning views from the lookout north of Bolshie Koty over Lake Baikal.

The view over Bolshie Koty from the lookout.

View from our hotel towards Lake Baikal

Traditional wooden Russian architecture in Bolshie Koty.

Views taken from our walk along the Great Baikal Trail.

It was, however, really difficult to imagine that, in winter the whole lake is frozen.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the Trans-Siberian was pushed beyond Lake Baikal. The area around the south of the lake was very difficult to build and involved 33 tunnels. Until it was built they put passengers into an Ice Breaker to get across the lake. In the very cold winter of 1903/ 1904, tracks were laid across Lake Baikal and the carriages were drawn by horses across the ice…..


Eastern Siberian Road repairs:

Lake Baikal is in Eastern Siberia. The winter is really hard on the roads and this was true in Bolshie Koty too. The roads had dips in them. The local people had been very thoughtful and put sheets of old roofing material into the dips. The building material had broken up a bit. Then a car went down the road. There was a bit of dust.

The tricky thing was that the old roofing material was Asbestos sheeting……


What is the Russian word for Mesothelioma?


End of an odyssey

Luggage transport - Bolshie Koty style

With that we headed back to Irkutsk and got on the flight to, inevitably, Moscow and then on to Riga in Latvia.
Russia had been amazing. We had experienced and learnt a lot. We had met some great people.
If you get the chance go…..


Posted by capetocape2017 08:50 Archived in Russia Tagged lake railway trans-siberian baikal suzdal boshie koty Comments (0)

Chapter 21 - St Petersburg, Moscow, and Russian Power

By Neil and Nikki

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That’s not a clock, THIS is a clock! – St. Petersburg.

No, it’s not a peacock. Well it is a peacock, but it’s a clock too.

The Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

Built by a Brit in 1791, it took some time to assemble it. Swiss clocks have a cuckoo. But the Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg does this.

The Peacock Clock showing the time……

The Hermitage is housed in four buildings, including the Winter Palace, which is quite simply the most ridiculously opulent, grand, outrageous palace I’ve ever seen. The Winter Palace was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 but first lived in by Catherine the Great and then occupied by the Tsars and their families until the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.


The Hermitage is a collection of art works started by Catherine the Great, which now has over three million items which rotate on display through 360 rooms in the Hermitage.

The Winter Palace which houses part of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.


Nik and I had taken the little hop of a flight from Anadyr in the Russian Far East to St Petersburg (as with all things in Russia, via Moscow).

A map of the flight from Anadyr to Moscow in the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka province, Russian Far East.

Flying 6,826 km and crossing 9 time zones, it not only took a while, it also took some time to get the body clock corrected. 6,400 km’s is the radius of the earth, just to give a sense of scale.

Also, just to add a little spice, the flight went above the Arctic Circle to 70 degrees latitude and we could see the Arctic ice pack. So technically we crossed the magic circle, but not really…

Arctic pack ice visible on the flight from Anadyr to Moscow.

More about the history of St Petersburg later, but suffice to say it was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. And, called the Venice of the North, it’s famed beauty is not exaggerated.

Canals in St Petersburg

It’s iconic buildings, including the Winter Palace and Church of the Spilled Blood, literally make you stop in your tracks as you stroll around this walkable and friendly city.

The Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

We started with being shown to our great apartment right in the “Golden Triangle” of the city; cornered by the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage and the Moyka Canal. The following day we did a walking tour with our host, which was both informative about the history of St. Petersburg, but also her experiences of living through the tumultuous history of the breakdown of the USSR. We then had 2 days to simply soak it all in and enjoy the architectural eye-candy that is SP!

‘The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood’ that was built after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on the site in 1881.

The 7000sq meters of mosaics on the inside of the Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg.

The view across Palace Square to the Winter Palace through the arch in the General Staff Building. Catherine the Great lived in a much smaller building on this side of the arch, watching the completion of her new palace with this very view.

Global Colossus! Russia? No, I’m writing about that other world colossus, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They were massive a hundred years ago and we’ve been seeing their machines everywhere (an entire storefront of 100’s of them in Berlin). In 1903, they built an amazingly elaborate store in St Petersburg, although they were forced to abandon it with the revolution 15 years later. Note the writing in red letters on a gold background. It says, “Company Singer”. Kind of proud that our Russian did at least get good enough to be able to translate words that are shared with English!

The Singer Building in St. Petersburg, now a bookstore and café.

Our pre-conceptions of Russia were somewhat clouded by our experiences getting the visas (see chapter 20 of the blog) and we were expecting (unfairly) officiousness and unhelpfulness (and bad food!)

However, this was far from our experience! St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were full of friendly faces (and plenty of English speaking – which helped with our very limited Russian). And the food? I discovered a new food heaven called herring, which I have now gone on to eat in every city we have visited in the last 2 weeks! Our first night in SP I made my first foray into herring heaven with Forshmak (minced salted herring and eggs) and Nik reacquainted herself with a long held fondness for Vareniki (or Peirogi/Pelmini depending on your origin). And we both discovered a newfound and unexpected taste for flavoured vodka, in this case a savoury horseradish vodka, served chilled and then sipped with our dinner. Locally produced, we spent the rest of our time in Russia trying to find a similar vodka experience, to no avail. Trust me there was lots of vodka, just not of the same unique taste, not matter how much we tried….

Forshmak (minced herring and egg) washed down with Vodka infused with Horseradish at Yat Restaurant, St Petersburg.

Vareniki with potatoes and mushroom and traditional Russian beetroot salad.


Onto Moscow.

Britain has Big Ben. Australia has the Sydney Opera House, France has the Eiffel Tower, and Russia has St Basil’s Cathedral:

Neil and Nik at St Basils Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

St Basil’s Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to celebrate overcoming the Tartars in Kazan. It was completed in 1561. An interesting fact that our guide in Moscow was keen to point out was that Ivan’s moniker ‘Terrible’ is a mistranslation, and in fact is more accurately translated as ‘Powerful’, which was what was needed to defeat the Tartars. She also hastily pointed out that he was still “not a very nice man”.

And then, of course, the Kremlin. The entire complex below is the Moscow Kremlin, which includes the red fortress structure, 5 churches, a theatre, and a number of palaces, as well as the building inhabited by the Russian president.

The Kremlin, Moscow. Actually, it is a misnomer. “Kremlin” in Russian means Fortress, so in Russia there are lots of Kremlins…

And a twisty tower.

Twisty Tower, Moscow. Yes. Really.

And, very importantly, The Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

I never really understood before coming to Russia, how big it’s role was in the Second World War, or “The Great Patriotic War” as it is called there. Russia lost an unbelievable 27 million people during the war.

The Great Patriotic War Museum, Moscow.

Stalin was seriously miffed when, having signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler, Hitler nonetheless launched ‘Operation Barossa’ in June 1941. With 4 million troops, 104 Infantry divisions, 19 Panzer and 15 motorised infantry divisions and 2770 aircraft (65% of the Luftwaffe). By December 1941 the Nazis were 30 km’s from Moscow.

The battle front was enormous.


But whilst the battles with the Nazis around Moscow, the Ukraine, the Baltic States were bloody, it was the 872 day Leningrad Blockade (as St Petersburg was called in 1941), that was perhaps the toughest fight.

The aftermath of the siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) – 1941 to 1944

About a million-people died from the 150,000 shells, from starvation and disease. People ate pets, rats, and birds to survive. At one point the ration was 175 grams of sawdust laden bread per day.

There is, in my view, no question that without the Herculean efforts of the Russians during the War, necessitating so many Nazi troops and armaments being sent to, as the Nazis called it, the Eastern Front, that the outcome of the war could, and probably would, have been very different.

Russia also fought the war on fronts in the Far East with Japan as well.

The Victory room in the Museum is absolutely appropriate.

The Victory Room with plaques for each of the 16 theatres of war and the names of each of the 12,000 heroes of the war.


Now, onto the political vibe, man, from the Russian part of the trip. Plus, of course, going off on a tangent or two!

Communism. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it?

You know. We all work for the common good. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as Karl Marx wrote in 1875. It all sounds like a nice idea. As Nik said, having read some of the writings of Che Guevara, “the concept is good, but the implementation that let’s it down (oh, and the dictators…)”.

Communism in Russia lasted from 1917 to 1989 – 72 years. Communism lasted in China from 1949 to 1979 – 30 years. In Cuba from 1959 to 2016 – 57 years. And it’s still going in North Korea. Or is that the Kim Jong Un dictatorship? By the way I was grooving down the other day to the latest hits “My Country is the Best” and “Song of Hwasong Artillery” (Hwasong is the name of North Korea’s latest missile, by the way) from that North Korean Girl Band called the Moranbong Band.

North Korean Girl Band, “The Moranbong Band”

Great stuff. (The “B” side on the first song also has the catchy title of “Kim Jong Un hasn’t murdered me. Well, today at least..”.)

Please, please, please google “Moranbong Band – Song of the Hwasong Artillery – You Tube”. It is, quite simply, gold. Fabulous. Horrible. Scary. Disturbing…..

But seriously, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China is estimated to have killed 55 to 60 million in the 1960’s and 1970’s (say 6% of the population), Russia is estimated to have killed 30 million in the Gulag’s, and 15 million due to the collectivisation in the 1930’s (say 15% of the population). As I said in earlier blogs, the education, equality, and health in communist countries is excellent, but the downsides are, in my view, not worth it.

So, in Russia, in 1989 – 1991, it all turned to custard.

The fall, and fall, and fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It was this bloke who was the initial spark that lit the fire:

Lech Walesa – Born 1943 – Chairperson of Solidarity 1980 to 1990, President of Poland – 1990 to 1995

In the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland in August 1980, he led the Solidarity Trade Union movement. Instead of the tanks rolling in, as they had done in Hungary in 1956, General Jaruzelski, the leader of Poland, let it slide.

However, the kindling for starting the fire had started in the 1960’s and 70’s. Leonid Brezhnev had become the General Secretary in 1964. Repression increased, but so had the number of dissidents, and in 1972, the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, introduced forced emigration and imprisonment in “psychiatric institutions”.

The Soviet economy at this point had become moribund. Why? This beautiful cartoon sums it up.


The leaders of the Soviet Union and those on the Politburo had become fat cats.

Brezhnev became ill and was rarely seen after 1979. The kindling was as big as a house.

Soviet Union ready to burn in 1985.

Then these two old codgers were rolled out as General Secretaries (head honcho’s) of the USSR after Brezhnev’s death in 1982:

Yuri Andropov – Leader of the USSR from 12th November 1982 until his death on 9th February 1984

Konstantin Chernenko – USSR leader from 13th February 1984 until his death on 10th March 1985

Between them they lasted just over two years. The scene was set.

Add, at this point, add Gorbachev and Glasnost (Openness) and Perestroika (Restructuring) and the wood started to burn:


- 1987 – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the nuclear arms reduction treaty
- 1989 – Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Advice to all politicians, world leaders, military leaders, please read the stories about the British Afghanistan invasions of the 1838-1842 and 1878 to 1880. Leave Afghanistan alone. It always has, and always will, end in tears. And failure. And massive loss of life).
- 1989 – The fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fall of the Berlin Wall - 1989

- 1990 – The reunification of Germany
- And on 18th August 1991 – the Communist Old Guard attempted a coup. They sent the tanks to the Russian Parliament. Boris Yeltsin went out to the tank drivers and convinced them to switch sides.

18th August 1991 – Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank after standing up to the Communist Old Guard’s attempted Coup.

With that, the Soviet Union was dead.


Economic Impact on the Russian Economy and People of the 1991 collapse.

“I was on the streets in 1991 but Yeltsin broke the industries in the country. People turned to drink. I know engineers who were reduced to begging drunks on the street”, one of our guides in Russia reminisced. (Now steady….. I know I’m an engineer and like the odd tipple, but…..).

I thought I’d take a bit of a look.


This is the graph showing the Russian GDP from 1991 to 2006. As you can see, there was massive drop from 1991 to 1999 of around 60%. Since then there has been a steady increase. Today the Russian Economy is at around US$ 1.3 trillion or, to put it another way, the same size as Australia’s. Compared to US$18 trillion for the USA, $16 trillion for the European Union, and $12 trillion for China. This reduction obviously had a massive, and painful effect on the Russian people.

The collapse was not a smooth process. Ask the people of Cuba, whose “money teat” ran dry in 1991 causing a 60% reduction in the Cuban economy almost overnight and led to the Cuban people losing, on average, a third of their body weight from 1991 to 1994. Yes, a third of their bodyweight!

In particular in the 1990’s there was the rise of the Russian Oligarchs, and also the mafia. The number of Mercedes, Lexus, etc I have seen in Russia is 10 times what I have seen anywhere else in the world. At the Kremlin, there was even an AU$1 million Maybach.

Boris likes a drink!

Whilst there is little question that Boris Yeltsin had a significant, and beneficial it can be argued, effect on the Russia, it was also known that he was fond of a drink or two. One of my enduring memories of Yeltsin is this one (they’d obviously had a couple before they came out to give a conference)

Boris Yeltsin tapping his watch to indicate to a very hung over looking Bill Clinton that it was time to end their press conference. Presumably so that could have a little tipple. Boris was later found wandering the Whitehouse lawn in his underwear in the middle of the night “Because he wanted a pizza”.

In late 1996, Yeltsin underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery, and then sank from view. It was then that this bloke emerged.

Vladimir Putin – President of the Russian Federation

Taking over as President in 1999. Putin, in general, has been a power for good in Russia. But now it’s time for a couple of lessons in Geogrpahy…..

Geography lesson #1

Here is a map of Russia’s access to the Sea of Finland (and hence the North Sea and the Atlantic) in 1700. Swedish territory is marked in orange, Russian in green. Note Russian access is blocked by the Swedish Empire.


One of the things Peter the Great worked out when choosing the site of his new capital was that access to the sea was crucial. You’ll notice from the map above that Sweden controlled Russia’s access to the sea in 1700. Then there was the war of Sweden (1700 to 1721). Peter the Great put paid to that and grabbed some seaside land for his new beach pad, the soon to be St Petersburg.

Off on a tangent:……….

Peter the Great was very tall…..

Did I mention that Peter the Great was 6 feet 8 inches tall? Or 204 cm? The average height in 1700 was 160 cm tall (or 5 feet 2 inches). Here’s Peter the Great.

Tsar Peter the Great – 1672 -1725

Now, so you’re the Tsar of Russia, right? You want to go to Europe to have a sticky beak at what they’re doing. Shipbuilding. Military. Society. Etc. So, you decide to travel incognito. So, people don’t know who you are. So the average height of people in 1700 was 160 cm (5 feet 2 inches). Can you just imagine Peter travelling incognito?


“Bloody Hell Beryl! Did you see that 6 feet 8 inch bloke walking by?”

“No not at all Arthur. He was wearing a hat”….

So, go with me here. Now imagine Peter the Great was American. And Black. And played basketball. Well, there is an American Basketball player called Anthony Carmelo who is 6 feet 8 inches tall. He is married to the rather fabulously named “La La”. She is 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). So, a full 2.5 inches taller than people in 1700. And she could be wearing heels in this photo. This’ll give you some sense of the “travelling incognito” scenario….

American Basketball Player Anthony Carmelo (height 204 cm or 6 feet 8 inches) with his wife La La (Height 166 cm or 5 feet 5 inches).

Anyway, back to the story……

Geography lesson #2

Here is another map. This time showing the extent of the Ottoman empire before the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774 (when Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia) and after. Before Russia has no access to the Black Sea and after, it does, via the Crimean Peninsula. This is really important to Russia because, without the Crimean Peninsula, Russia doesn’t have a warm water port and access/ influence over it’s southern neighbours


Despite the Crimean war (1854 to 1856), the Crimean Peninsula remained effectively under Russian control.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine granted Russia a 25-year lease on the Naval bases on the Crimean Peninsula.

Then in around 2004, the Ukrainian government started saying that they would not extend the agreement.

Background and comment on the sanctions against Russia:

So, you’re next to river with lots of Salmon coming up to spawn and next to you is a 900 kg Grizzly Bear. You’d leased the river to the Bear. But you say to the grizzly that you’re not going to extend the lease.

Not commenting on the right or wrong, just saying. The bear should not steal the river. And, very importantly, should not “Annex” it. The Europeans, and the world get very toey about countries that “Annex” other countries. Or parts of countries.


Now onto, in my view a much clearer situation. The “but there’s a lot of Russian’s in the Ukraine, so we should Annex it, or part of it” is just rubbish and should be called out as such. Talking with a Russian guide in Moscow, the comments were “the Ukrainians are just crazy and there are a lot of Russians that live there, at least in the east of the country, and Putin is standing up for Russia”.

To quote Albert Einstein, “if you want to know the future, look at the past”. Did I mention that Putin is from St Petersburg and really admires Catherine the Great? Hmmmm…..

In 2014, Russia agreed in the Minsk Agreement to play nicely. That didn’t work. In 2015, there was Minsk 2. That didn’t work. There were sanctions. Putin’s approval rating soared higher. Yesterday the USA said they’d increase sanctions against Russia. Once again, cartoonists have summed it up nicely.

Cartoon about Russia’s view on the sanctions against it for the downing of MH17 and the support for separatists in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Bear is hungry. Despite the cartoon above, the sanctions are, at a minimum, making Russia think a bit harder. Watch this space……. And look to history. Russians play a long game…….


Posted by capetocape2017 08:34 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow hermitage museum petersburg st putin sanctions yeltsin Comments (1)

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