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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 15 - Central America - Guatemala

By Neil and Nikki

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Onto Guatemala....

Having started in Panama and travelled on to Nicaragua via Costa Rica, it was time to head to Guatemala, via El Salvador and Honduras. We had heard that the Easter week celebrations in Antigua were the best in Central and Latin America. We had to go take a look….


We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala at 7 pm on Easter Saturday. Wow! Antigua is amazing.

Antigua, Guatemala with one of three surrounding volcano’s towering over it.

Antigua was the capital city of Guatemala for 233 years, until 1776 when Guatemala City was given this honor. This change occurred when Antigua was all but wiped off the map due to a natural disaster.

Somewhat surprisingly was not one of the many volcanoes that destroyed the city, but rather an earthquake. The earthquake struck in 1773, leveling the city to such an extent that it took centuries for it to recover. There are still many ruins in the city which have not been repaired or removed from this event! The only original part of the renovated convent we stayed in that remained after the earthquake was this wall:

Looking at the wall of the convent where we were staying. This wall was all that survived of the 1773 earthquake

Antigua – Easter Week – Semana Santa.

Although we arrived right at the tail end of the week, Antigua for Semana Santa is something quite special.

The religious fervour of the groups carrying Easter floats through the streets, and the floats themselves, was moving.

Float of Christ being taken down from the Cross.

The Devotees swinging baskets of scented smoke through the streets.

Resurrected Christ.

The Devotees ahead of the Float.

Following each of the floats was a band that consisted of french horns, trumpets, tubas, trombones, clarinets and drums (snare and bass). The music depended on which part of Easter the float depicted. A sad dirge for the crucifixion, a jolly ditty for the resurrection....

The band that followed each float.

However, the unique part of the Antiguan Semana Santa celebration, is the street “carpets”.


They are made from different coloured sand and sawdust and placed on the streets as an offering in order for the numerous processions to walk over. There are literally hundreds of these that are laid down for the Semana Santa. And they were artistically stunning:




And then, within minutes they are destroyed and swept up into trucks following the processions!

The parade walking over the “carpet”.

The workmen cleaning up the “carpet”

It has to be said that, whilst the religious fervour of the crowd for the resurrection was moving, the actual image of Jesus on the float was a little, er, like Jesus had just popped out of a birthday cake and said “surprise!”, which, I suppose, in a way, he did……



Antigua Town

Antigua is a beautiful colonial town, in a stunning setting at an elevation of 1,500 metres meaning the days are about 25C and the nights are 13 C. Great when you’ve just come from sea level where it had been bloody hot and humid. And Antigua has great food. Our favourite was probably “La Luna de Miel” (The moon of honey), where, rather appropriately for Nikki and I they had a signpost with our starting point of Ushuaia on it, and our finishing point of Cape Horn…..

8,006 km’s from Ushuaia, at the bottom of South America, and 12,670 km’s to Cape Horn.

In the background is the biggest avocado tree we’ve ever seen.

Then again, me being a meat head, the steak at Frida’s Mexican Restaurant was stunning….Nikki had the best guacamole and nachos of the trip there as well!

The placemat at Fridas restaurant, Antigua.

Photo showing some of the food from Antigua.

Antigua is visually stunning…

No fast food, no dogs, and no hand guns !


My Sons, Alex and Michael

As some of you know, Guatemala is particularly interesting for me because Alex and Michael are one quarter Guatemalan. Their maternal grandmother was from Guatemala. Just like the book “A Hundred Years of Solitude” by Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a history of a town in northern Columbia, the story of my sons’ Guatemalan heritage is a reflection of the history of Central America, with all of its divergent parts, including guerrilla’s, the CIA, an El Salvadorean president, and coffee.

Alex, Michael and me in Buenos Aires in January 2017


Lake Atitlan:

84,000 years ago a bloody great volcano went bang. The caldera is 12 km’s by 5 km’s and is about 4 hours from Antigua (Actually only a 100 km’s. Yes the roads are a bit basic). The 340 metre deep caldera filled with water and formed Lake Atitlan. Other volcano’s formed until you end of with one of the most stunning visual settings in the world.

Looking out over Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

After our fill of Easter in Antigua, we decided to spend a few days relaxing on the lake. We spent our first night in San Pedro la Laguna.

View of Lake Atitlan from our hotel in San Pedro la Laguna.

Sunset Photo from San Pedro la Laguna

Lake Atitlan from our hotel in San Pedro la Laguna.

Our plan was then to travel to the other towns around the lake by water taxi, and spend 2 nights in Tzununa. However, our first stop was San Juan, a centre for many Mayan artisans, including painters and weavers. On arriving into town, the tuk tuk by chance dropped us off outside the studio of Diego Isaias Hernandez Mendez’s and, well, there was a painting. Nik and I have said a couple of years ago that, whilst we weren’t going to carry around things for a year, if we saw stuff that we just went “Yes, I want that”, then we’d buy it and ship it back. Also, I’ve seen art in the past and loved it, and not bought it, and regretted it. As soon as I saw this, I loved it. It's not to everyone's taste (Nikki said it's going straight to the pool room), but there you go. And it’s my birthday present from Nikki. Thanks!

My painting with the artist, Diego Isaias.


It’s been posted from Mexico. I hope I get to see it again..

Guatemalan textiles

For you “Textile-Holics” out there, it’s over to Nikki:

Lake Atitlan is particularly renowned for weaving and textiles. Each of the villages around the lake have their own techniques, patterns and production. San Juan is particularly noted for its weaving cooperatives where local women come to dye, spin, weave and sell their produce. After rummaging in the Antiguan markets to familiarise myself with the different regions and techniques, I spent a happy couple of hours under a pile of fabric and weaving at Casa Flor Ixcaco, a weaving cooperative for the women in San Juan. The amount of weaving produced in the town is quite astounding, and the great thing about CFI is that each piece identifies the artist who made it and details around the processes and materials used. The fabric is 100% cotton, all locally grown. The cotton is hand dyed using local plants and natural materials, such as eucalyptus, mint, beetroot and various flowers. Many Guatemalan woman wear traditional clothing, which means that it is not produced solely for tourists, although there are beautiful modern designs as well as traditional to chose from.”

Swatches of cloth on the wall of our hotel in Antigua.



We then got on a boat around the lake to La Lguma de Tzununa, a hotel perched up on the hill with this view.


It was a magical view. A magical smokey view. The level of deforestation around the lake was significant, which was not surprising when most of the cooking was done over a wood stove….

However, in all our time on Lake Atitlan was just the relaxing break we needed before our push north....


This Bloke is on a bit of a walk.

So there’s this bloke called Paul Salopek. He thought it would be good to follow the path of humans movement from its’ cradle, thought to be Ethiopia, through to Tierra del Fuego. He called his trek “Out of Eden” and he started in January 2013 and is expecting to finsh in 2020. At present he is walking through Kyrgyzstan.


In Australia, there is, in south western New South Wales, Lake Mungo. In 1969, Jim Bowler found the remains of what became known as Mungo Woman. Mungo Woman’s age was tested to be about 20,000 years old. In 1974, Mungo Man was found and his age was estimated to be 50,0000 years old.

Lake Mungo, New South Wales, Australia, and Mungo Man

It’s believed that human kind did not manage to start “colonising” the Americas until they go across the Bering Strait from Russia during the Last Glacial Event, about 21,000 years ago. They then spread down through to Tierra del Fuego. This could explain why the Mayan ruins are comparatively young when compared with Egypt and India. Talking of Mayan ruins, we went to see one of the best, Tikal in Guatemala.



Tikal, in northern Guatemala, is one of the most significant Mayan sites yet discovered and is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Construction by the Mayan people started around 800 BC and continued up until about 900 AD. The ruins, the size of them, their antiquity is amazing.

Looking out on the central square in Tikal.

We went for the sunrise tour leaving at 3 am. It was worth it for the light, the lack of crowds, and the serenity.

Dawn over Tikal.

Tikal is the only Mayan ruins that are in a rainforest.

Showing the sacrifice stones…. Human Sacrifice that is…



The complex was abandoned in about 900 AD. Why? Well, the theory is that the beautiful Mayans ran out raw materials. Tikal is one of the only major Mayan ruins still located the middle of a rainforest setting. Most have been substantially cleared. The area was also rainforest before the Mayans started building Tikal. To get to the limestone for building material, the Mayans needed to clear the rainforest. To make the limestone mortar, the mayans needed fire. To cook, they needed wood. A bit of a theme? Yes. By the time the complex was home to 100,000 people, it ran out of wood and was abandoned. It wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government sent out an expedition led by Modesto Mendez and Ambrosio Tut to take another look.

By the way, the temples were for astrological observations, not sacrifice. That was done on the rocks down on the ground…..


To Belize and Mexico:

The trip from Flores, the very nice town that is the jumping off point to Tikal, to Chetumal, Mexico, is via another British colonial vestige, Belize. They are part of the Commonwealth and didn’t gain independence from Britain until 1981. It was very weird to get to the border and, for the first time in 16 weeks be asked to speak English again. But only for 5 hours and then it was onto Mexico. The Lonely Planet guide to Central America includes the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, so I will too. But the next blog is going to be from our one week trip to Cuba…..


Posted by capetocape2017 08:21 Archived in Guatemala Tagged lake santa semana atitlan tikal antigua Comments (0)

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