The regular sounds of rolling and of clickety-clack heading towards the railway station at 3:30am shattered the otherwise still and peaceful residential streets of Wimbledon. But this was no train – the first one of the day would not be heard for another hour or two – this was the sound of my suitcase as I wheeled it along the concrete footpath of a street parallel to the railway tracks. I was making such a racket I felt I almost deserved to be a target of projectiles or abuse lobbed from the upstairs front windows of the terraced houses I was passing right in front of, but I was successfully able to make it to the bus stops outside the station without incident.
It was only when the night bus going into Central London sailed past without stopping that my plan to get to Stansted Airport for a pre 7am flight went awry. Fortunately I was able to take a black cab waiting at Wimbledon Station across town to Liverpool Street Station to then connect with the express train to the airport, which gave me more than enough time to mull over the fact that I had just spent a lot more money getting to Stansted than I had on the actual flight to Copenhagen. Though I was only just beginning the first chapter of living my dream of travelling until my Australian savings ran out and I was forced to look for a job in the UK, at this rate my hard-earned stash of Pacific Pesos would perish by sometime next Tuesday.
For the sake of some originality I had promised myself I was not going to make any puerile statements about “wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen” when I got there. But when this phrase is displayed in flashy pink neon even before leaving the baggage claim at Copenhagen Airport, then someone in Denmark’s principal city only have themselves to blame for not allowing this over-used cliché to die a natural death.
Though if there’s one general characteristic about Scandinavian people that I appreciate in my so-far limited experience, it’s that they tend to be pretty honest and direct when communicating with others. What I didn’t realise, right after taking an S-Tog train from the airport to Copenhagen’s central station, is how much honest self-evaluation is required to set foot in their communal spaces. I hadn’t even left the train station before I had to press a button inside a lift labelled ‘i fart’ for it to take me down where I wanted to go. Maybe it was merely a warning for others to watch out for my ‘bot-bot bugle’ but, even so, I think I have a little bit of knowledge of my personal hygiene failings without having to publicly announce them to random people of Denmark before I can get anywhere. Maybe there’d be a ‘i have bad breath’ button to push before I could first speak to someone, or an ‘i have BO’ button after I’d generated a sweat from walking around in the bright sunshine for a while. Maybe it was a good thing my savings were going to run out so fast, so I’d be forced to leave while I was still able to keep some awareness of my noxious fumes to myself.
I needn’t have worried, as in spite of my odours the people of Copenhagen had done their best to make me feel welcome. Many of the shop windows in the middle of the city were liberally decorated with Australian flags, most arranged across a Danish flag in a clear display of cross-national friendliness. I was chuffed, until I realised they were decorations remaining up after the royal wedding of Aussie lass Mary Donaldson to Fredrik, Crown Prince of Denmark three months earlier.
With that in mind I headed to the royal palaces (Amalienborg Plads) to complain to Princess Mary that I never received an invitation to the wedding. After all we're both from Hobart, she went to my dad's high school, we both have a same degree from the University of Tasmania, we both moved to Sydney to work after we graduated and we've both been to the Slip Inn where she met Frederik during the Sydney Olympics. Just how much closer do you have to be to get an invite? In any case she was not around to receive me, with the next Olympic Games just starting in Athens it seems she was on royal duty down there.
After walking further along the harbour to Copenhagen’s most famous tourist site, the statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (where ‘little’ doesn’t fully reflect the statue’s surprisingly small proportions – ‘microscopic’ is perhaps a tad more accurate), I found myself in a frustrating dilemma. I’ve found that power walking John Howard style around an unfamiliar city all day with no real plan of where I’m going is the most enjoyable way for me to explore and get a feel for it, and I fully intended to do the same here. But I also noticed some aches in both shins developing over the last couple of days and they had gotten progressively worse through my morning in Copenhagen, making walking a very slow and painful way to get around. Doggedly, or perhaps overly stubbornly, I tried to continue with what I enjoy best, though it was proving to be no fun at all. Every ten to fifteen minutes I had to sit on a bench or in a park until my shins hurt less, and then hobble slowly to the next available rest stop. Crossing intersections became a huge gamble, as my snail’s pace across the bike lanes along every street put me at great risk of being mown down by steady streams of bicycles, all ridden at brisk speed and in an uncompromising manner by utterly gorgeous Danish girls. Thankfully my shins felt fine from the next day onwards, but it was still an unwelcome picture of what it must feel like to be old, and that put me in a pretty bleak mood. I really pity the poor people that have to be around me when I become an old codger.
Frustrated, tired and sore, I cut the time I would have spent walking around by an hour or two and returned to Central Station to pick up my suitcase that I had left in storage for the day. Setting out to find the pre-tour accommodation Contiki uses somewhere in the sticks, I found their instructions on how to get there by public transport were hardly comprehensive. When I noticed on the address of the hostel that its locality was called Hvidovre and that there was an S-Tog station with the same name only a couple of stops away from Central on Line B, I disregarded the instructions to take a different train line and decided to follow my judgment – which very rarely lets me down. Well, it seemed to this time. The street I was looking for could not be found on the local area map on display at Hvidovre station, so I then started looking for a taxi that could get me the rest of the way. There didn’t seem to be any waiting around the station, and over the next ten minutes only one or two drove past, each without stopping. I was just beginning to think I should sit down and decide on a better strategy when a nice teenage girl walking along further down the road managed to flag a taxi down for me, pointed me out to the driver and continued on her way before I even had the chance to get near enough to thank her. Perhaps she’d already been informed that ‘i fart’ and didn’t want to cop a whiff.
The taxi driver took a moment to consider the address of the hostel. Then he very politely apologised that he only knew the general area it should be in, but knew for certain that it wasn’t close and would cost me around 100 Danish Kroner (A$20). Given all that I had already spent today it seemed a pretty small sum to part with, especially if it was finally going to get me straight to where I needed to go. We travelled for a quite a way outside of built-up areas until the houses started to mingle with tracts of forest, and then without too much trouble the taxi driver found the hostel – or rather, the old army barracks that looked somewhat recently converted into a hostel. There was no way I could have ever found it by myself using the given instructions, and after starting to meet some of my new tour mates it turned out I was far from the only one who found getting here a bit difficult.
Soon after followed dinner and the pre-tour meeting to get introduced to the Contiki crew of Matt, Garreth and Dave who would be the tour manager, driver and cook through the Scandinavian half of the trip (the latter preferred to go by the nickname of ‘Hippy’, though we also re-named him ‘Samwise Gamgee’ due to his clear resemblance to Sean Astin from the Lord of the Rings movies). It must be said at this point that I really wasn’t certain that doing another Contiki tour was a good idea, and when sitting through the pre-tour meeting I really wondered if I’d made a massive mistake. I’d already done three Contiki tours over the previous four years, and, while it had been a great way to help me find my feet in Europe, made New Zealand a lot more fun than travelling solo and was an intriguing way to see Australia through the eyes of a large group of foreigners, I felt I had graduated from the forty-five people aged 18-35 crammed onto a bus all day (of which half are hung-over) style of travel, and I had been ready for something a little more adventurous and independent. In fact, in the many months of putting together my 2004 travel wish list I had actively ignored Contiki as an option for Scandinavia and Russia, and was intent to see the region any other way possible. But when it came down to the crunch it was by far the cheapest way to cover so much of Scandinavia over a couple of weeks, and also promised a hassle-free way to obtain a Russian tourist visa (not at all an easy thing to get when travelling independently). So, despite all my intentions to the contrary, some months earlier I had signed up for Contiki tour number four. Though it must be said that I was soon to find out that the 46 strong group for the Scandinavian part of the tour were, overall, the most enjoyable bunch of people I’d had on all my Contiki trips. The average age was a bit older than my previous ones, and I wasn’t at all sorry in the end for choosing to do it this way. Later on Russia was to be a slightly different story as the percentage of Aussie bogans had amped up, no doubt lured by the prospect of cheap vodka, and that was more than enough to ensure the bright idea of saddling up for a fifth Contiki tour would never enter my head.
With the pain in my shins gone for good and newly met people to go sight-seeing with, today I was much more easily able to appreciate the charms of Copenhagen. Two free beers probably didn’t make it any more difficult either. Other than breathing there’s probably not a whole lot else you can do around here for nothing, so a visit to the old Carlsberg Brewery Museum has to be Scandinavia’s best value attraction – even if for some the route through the museum is just the mandatory path to get to the bar at the end. I actually thought it was quite interesting, especially the displays of all the old bottles. Throughout the early decades of the 1900’s the symbol of the swastika was quite a prominent part on many of the Carlsberg labels, which I found more than a little odd. But apparently before the Nazis turned it into a logo synonymous for war and hatred, the swastika was recognised universally over centuries as a symbol for prosperity and good luck. Not surprisingly after the 1930’s it quickly disappeared from the Carlsberg labels, I guess a swastika and by-line of “Carlsberg – probably the best Nazi beer in the world” just wouldn’t have been good for business, even during the period of Nazi occupation in Denmark.
Starting from the canal at Nyhavn, a very picturesque row of brightly coloured eighteenth century townhouses turned restaurants, a group of us then took a boat trip to see the city from the water.
Then after that we climbed the narrow staircase winding around the outside of the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke in Christianshavn – a pretty hair-raising experience on a windy day like today – to take in the view of the city and around to the gargantuan new bridge, artificial island and tunnel across the Øresund Strait that links Denmark and Sweden by road and rail for the first time.
From the church it was just a hop, skip and a jump to Christiania, the thirty year old hippy squat self-declared as a free city. It may have been a serious political statement to make back in the 1970’s, but given Scandinavia’s liberalism it seemed like there wasn’t really anything for the squatters and hangers-on of Christiania to rebel against in 2004. The streets here just looked like any other grungy inner city neighbourhood found in any number of cities, except by the volume of people like us coming for a sticky-beak this one was fairly booming from the passing tourist trade. One can only guess that wasn’t the original intention, but it is funny how this commune of peace, love and soft drugs has firmly become part of the global consumerist machine the original hippies may have been trying so hard to retreat from.
One other interesting thing of note was the proliferation of copper statues throughout the centre of the city, which over time had oxidised and turned green. End result: Copenhagen is home to more green men than any other place this side of Area 54. Now that’s something they won’t tell you in the guidebooks.
Our first day travelling in the coach introduced us to the traditional Contiki day song we would hear every morning. I was convinced it was going to be something Scandinavian pop based, of which there could be any number of unforgettable choices: One of Swedish Abba’s ‘timeless’ dance hits from the 70’s, something big and disco from the early 80’s like Norwegian A-ha’s Take on Me, or, even better, some of my school era rock favourites from Sweden’s Roxette. Even one of a smattering of stay-in-your-head-for-days-on-end-until-you-want-to-shoot-yourself singles from the 90’s from the likes of Denmark’s Aqua would suffice. So it came as quite a surprise when Matt played us A Thousand Miles Away by the Hoodoo Gurus. Not that I was complaining about the Australian cultural imperialism, the Gurus are one of my favourite bands and I had twice been to see them play in Sydney in the previous six months.
Matt also unveiled the wake-up song which was to be played every time Garreth had to stop the coach for a break on the many travelling days, and for that he chose one of New Zealand’s striking exports from the 90’s, Supergroove’s Can’t Get Enough. Given we copped that at full blast about three times a day for much of the next three weeks, I can tell you that pretty quickly you can get more than enough.
With those preliminaries taken care of, we left Denmark by ferry from the city of Helsingor, the castle of which was the setting for Hamlet, and very soon landed in Helsingborg in Sweden. From there it was a pretty uneventful drive for the rest of the day through flat pine forests to our campsite of rather cute little red wooden cabins on the outskirts of Stockholm.
Despite the drizzle that had set in since the previous evening, Stockholm was a spectacular place to walk around. Most of the middle of the day was spent happily wandering the rambling laneways of Stockholm’s Old Town, Gamla Stan, and around onto some of the other small islands the middle of the city has been built on. I can say with certainty this is one of the most stunning cities in Europe I’ve visited so far.
In the afternoon we headed to the fascinating Vasa Museum which houses, in special conditions to preserve it, the perfectly intact warship that sank in Stockholm Harbour minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. For 333 years the Vasa remained at the bottom of the harbour until it was carefully excavated in a huge exercise carried out between 1957 and1961, and after another thirty years of restoration was finally ready to be displayed in its own purpose-built museum. In the dark of the exhibition space the giant ship was a ghoulish sight – so much so that I could easily have believed it was the pirate ship in the secret cave portrayed in the classic 1980’s kid’s movie The Goonies. And what a co-incidence that our cook Hippy’s look-alike, actor Sean Astin, also starred in that film in his younger days.
During the day Caroline and I had already been to the Ice Gallery in Gamla Stan (which after paying the entrance fee we were disappointed to find it was a lot smaller than we were expecting, and seemed mostly to be an advertisement for an Ice Hotel in the far north of Sweden), but a definite Stockholm highlight came when we all met up at 8pm at the Nordic Sea Hotel to have a drink in their Ice Bar. After donning the provided coats and gloves we then entered into the -5°C bar area where everything from the walls to the tables – and even the glasses we drank flavoured Absolut vodka from – was ice. The drink itself may not have been cheap but it was certainly an unusual place to enjoy it, and I made sure I got my money’s worth by eating the glass after I was done.
We continued on with a few more drinks, bought at more economical prices from a supermarket, back at the campsite. After a few days together our group was starting to gel quite nicely, kicking back with a few of the local beer brands: Puiko (‘It tastes as good on the way down as it will on the way back up’) and FAT (‘Every guy cracks a FAT’) to name but two.
More pine forests and glimpses of small lakes beckoned as we tracked westwards across Sweden, though once into Norway the landscape opened to include more farms, with their neat little square wooden homesteads and almost compulsory red barns looking quite picturesque.
Though the border between the two countries was essentially non-existent we had now left the European Union, a fact I well remember from a newspaper article a couple of years ago when the new Euro currency coins were first introduced. With each of the major coins bearing a map of the EU member states (including those countries who have as yet not agreed to replace their individual currencies with the Euro, like the UK, Denmark and Sweden), the article noted just how different Scandinavia looks on the coins without Norway’s presence: Finland, also without Russia’s bulk to the east, resembles a scrotum, while Sweden looks like a rather droopy appendage. No-one in Sweden is cracking a FAT there.
Our campsite was set amongst woods about an hour’s drive outside the Norwegian capital, and our first task was to forage for firewood to make a campfire. With that done the group split into our four Viking clans organised during the day’s drive and embarked on the Viking Games.
My clan did poorly, never coming close to winning any of the Hammer Throw, Apple Bob, Dry Weet-Bix Boat Race or Tug of War events. Had Gravy Spilling been one we would have definitely won that, as when on clean-up duty after dinner it was my job to tip out the leftover gravy from a huge saucepan, managing to completely cover one of my arms (and my watch) in the process.
When the victorious clan returned to camp to claim their prize of six bottles of Russian champagne, they found the treasure chest bare. Some mischievous trolls had already taken off with the loot and hidden them in the woods, and there began a game of hide and seek to find the ultimately revolting bubbly.
Our first stop in Oslo was at the Holmenkollen ski jump. I skipped pretty quickly through the boring ski museum at the base of the tower, and made for the top which, with the whole jump already perched at the top of a high hill, affords a great view of the city and its fjord on a fine day. But today was not a fine day, the rain-bearing clouds hung so low that not even the landing zone and grandstand area at the base of the jump were visible from the top.
Next was the Vigeland Sculpture Park, a vast expanse of parkland interspersed with bronze and stone sculptures of people clutching to each other in seething, writhing collations of naked humanity. These works by the twentieth century artist Gustav Vigeland are probably supposed to have some deep philosophical significance on life and the human condition, but as the drizzle became a shower which in turn became a downpour, many of the figures just looked to be clambering beneath each other in a vain attempt to keep dry.
We tried to shelter underneath the trees, but that really wasn’t overly successful – perhaps we’d have been better off joining the scrum. A group of individual bronze statues lined a long bridge and, despite the rain and cold, the male effigies could look justifiably proud. There was no shrinkage or impersonations of Sweden on the Euro coins going on there.
It was still pelting down when we were dropped in the middle of the city, though after timing our runs under the awnings of the shops along Karl Johan’s Gate and then sheltering in the main train station for a good while, the rain finally stopped and one or two pockets of blue revealed themselves amidst the otherwise murky grey sky. And though it was still mid-August, little flashes of yellow could already be seen in the leaves of the trees across the fjord, a clear reminder that summer is a pretty short, sharp affair in these parts.
A few of us wandered around the old ramparts of the Akershus fortress by the harbour, watching as the cruise ship the Queen Elizabeth II docked directly in front of us, and then continued along the waterfront. While Stockholm’s city centre was easily the most beautiful of the Scandinavian capitals, it dawned on me pretty quickly that the centre of Oslo was the dullest. While it certainly didn’t lack a striking natural setting, spread out as it was along the hilly shores of the Oslofjord, the urban development within it was substantially twentieth century and thus lacked much of the quaint charm apparent in long established and historically important cities elsewhere. The prime example is the City Hall, by far the most notable landmark along the waterfront and venue of the annual awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Opened in 1950 to celebrate the city’s 900th anniversary, it’s a squat, monolithic square of dark brick with two ugly square clock towers behind, that sits brooding and ominous amongst an otherwise attractive area of ferry piers and open public space.
Of more classical appeal was the nineteenth century Royal Palace, set to one side of a public park at the top of a hill a couple of blocks from the water. What was most noticeable was the complete lack of perimeter walls, fences or gates preventing someone from approaching the front door – or any other part of the exterior of the palace for that matter. It was nice to see the royal residence regarded as being part of the community rather than a secure compound isolated from it, though it was a pity that the same rule didn’t apply at the nearby US embassy, where the public footpath outside the existing boundary fence had been re-claimed with concrete barricades and barbed wire. I realise what happened almost three years ago in New York was a big deal, and that US embassies in capitals like Nairobi have also been targets for bombings in the recent past, but Rest of the World to Washington: We’re not all out to get you. I reckon it’s a bit of an over-reaction if you’re scared witless of even the good people of Norway launching an act of terror at an American diplomatic post.
Not that Oslo is completely free from violent crime, there does seem to be a line in art theft going. Only three days after this, two paintings worth millions were taken from the Edvard Munch Museum in a daylight armed robbery – one of which being one of the artist’s four famous versions of “The Scream”. And this only a decade after the best known version was stolen from Oslo’s National Art Museum. So if you’re not into art then I reckon Oslo is a pretty safe place. Though for the record I think the US embassy here deserves to be blown up. Not that I’m advocating any terrorist attack against the US of any kind, just that the 1960’s four storey concrete box the embassy occupied was another leading example of depressing, arse-ugly twentieth century architectural blunders best removed from the face of the earth.
We all re-grouped in the afternoon to head across the fjord to the Bygdøy peninsula. The Viking Ship Museum situated there was crammed with old relics – mostly, as it turned out, day-trippers from the QE2 clogging up the place. Once we waited for them to trundle off we were able to check out the three ninth century burial ships recovered from the bottom of the Oslofjord – and the treasure left in them to accompany the dead – at leisure. Then there was time to visit the Kon-Tiki Museum, which, when I found out it housed a modern replica of a balsawood raft that some people think may have carried settlers from South America to Polynesia but no-one’s really all that sure, didn’t seem interesting to me at all (far less, I hope, than the artefact from this on-line ‘Contiki Museum’ of sorts you’re now reading). So I saved some Kroner and took off on my own for a bit, walking through Bygdøy’s upscale, but still quite unpretentious, residential area instead, which I enjoyed a lot.
After grabbing a makeshift dinner from a supermarket back in the city and eating across from the Akershus fortress (getting crapped on by seagulls in the process), we drove back to camp where the day’s rain had wreaked havoc with Hippy’s kitchen tent, necessitating some emergency clean-up procedures, and also made for a very slippery game of soccer in the Viking Games field.
Not far to the north of Oslo was Lillehammer, host city of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Though the Olympic party moved on ten years ago some of the venues are still being put to good use, with the ski jump above the city in operation for training even in the summer. I’d never before seen anyone ski-jumping in real life, so it was very cool to watch from different vantage points along the stairway right beside the ski jump as a succession of jumpers got some out of season practice. And wow, are they ever moving at a fair clip by the time they take off from the bottom of the ramp.
Our second Olympic venue also involved a need for speed, only this time we had the option of a more involved spectator experience. Four at a time we clambered into a wheel bob, a modified bobsled with wheels and a roll cage, while a professional pilot rocketed us down the 1,710m Olympic bobsled course at up to 100km/h to cross the finish line in times ranging between 63 and 64 seconds. As I was the tallest in my group of Matt, Michelle and Susan, I was at the very back of the wheelbob and I didn’t have much of a clue about each of the upcoming corners until we were already pulling the G’s in them. This was exhilarating. And about the only other thing I can vividly remember of this minute in time was my head’s rather elastic attachment to the rest of my restrained body, as my helmet banged from side to side on the metal lattice roll cage at an alarmingly constant frequency. This was not so exhilarating. But hooning down a bobsled track was hardly something I would have an opportunity to do again, and I was very glad to have given it a burl.
While on the topic of the Olympics and Norway, I couldn’t help but notice that due to some kind of scandal their female beach volleyball players competing in the current summer games in Athens had made the front page of all the local newspapers. Not being able to read the articles I had to use my imagination as to what this outrage was, and I was really scratching my head as to how a sport that leverages sex appeal to the hilt could cause such a ruckus in this rather liberal part of the world. The best I could come up with was that the skimpy two piece outfits just weren’t skimpy enough for Norwegian public’s liking, and they wanted to see even more flashes of sandy cracks between the serves and spikes. In fact, it was a more mundane concern about advertising that had contravened the International Olympic Committee’s regulations. But, because this is beach volleyball, there has to be a sexual flavour to the issue, and the female Norwegian players had caused such a stir for wearing a sponsor’s contraceptive patches on their backs. The patches obviously worked, as despite scoring on numerous occasions they were still unable to conceive a medal.
We continued in a northerly direction towards Norway’s rugged coastline. Past Dombås we headed through a spectacular gorge with cascading waterfalls and little patches of snow dusted across the top of the hillsides. Our accommodation, Camping Trollstigen, lay outside the town of Åndalsnes, tucked away in the middle of the Isterdalen valley, where the lowering cloud teased us with ever-changing glimpses of sections of the mountains and waterfalls all around us.
It was a glorious location, and the campground’s cluster of timber buildings were no less charming than their surroundings, with grass growing on the rooves in the typical local fashion. Having the turf on top must be good insulation, and evidently no heavier than any other roofing material. But with all the extra weight of snow that must sit on it for many months of the year I’m kind of surprised the buildings don’t collapse.
The local photographer they dub ‘Hollywood’ soon came to take our Scandi group photo by the campground’s barbecue/picnic shelter, and, perhaps as a way to demonstrate the sturdiness of the afore-mentioned construction method, arranged all the guys (seventeen in total) to assemble on the top of the shelter’s own grass roof, while the girls remained at ground level. The resulting photo proves we didn’t fall through to the picnic tables, but we did seem to be swaying a hell of a lot. Or, perhaps we were still just a little unsteady on our feet from the rigours of the bobsled earlier in the day.
With the girls occupying the main cabins and the couples snagging the large, comfortable guest house across the road, there were no more grassed rooves to shelter us other guys. We were allotted a couple of large permanent tents set up a little further out in the campground, though getting my twenty-odd kilo suitcase across the wet and muddy field was not doing the suitcase any favours whatsoever (the case would eventually fall apart a few weeks later in Belarus, but that’s a whole other anecdote that I’ll get to in due course). At this point I really regretted leaving my backpack behind in London after dutifully following Contiki’s clear instructions that suitcases were required and backpacks were unsuitable. Why the trip documentation states this (and it had also done so on each previous Contiki tour I had taken) I can’t exactly work out, and a considerable percentage of other members on all of my tours had either not seen this stipulation or chose to ignore it without facing any problems. For the outdoorsy nature of the Scandinavia trip a suitcase is completely impractical.
The tents themselves would have been comfortable enough, with power chords running across the floors to power lights inside, except for the fact that the tents had recently been flooded and parts of the floors were still a couple of centimetres deep in water. And you know what they say, kids: electricity and water just don’t mix. Fortunately, the only sparks that flew in the campground were of the emotional kind, as Jerome met one of the local ladies down in the back paddock. Though she didn’t speak any English, he soon nicknamed her Betsy, and, though their contact was only fleeting, she was soon prepared to leave her friends and follow him as far as she could. There was no telling how the relationship could have flourished given more time, but, being a cow, she was not able to get any further than the fence we climbed over.
A local relief driver took Garreth’s normal seat and steered us along Trollstigen – the Troll’s Path – a narrow road climbing from the campground at the base of the valley up to the top via a series of hairpin turns and bridges, and across the 320 metre Stigfossen waterfall.
Once at the top the low-lying cloud covered much of the surrounding landscape, with rock cairns and little houses that could have been inhabited by trolls the only things discernable outside the bus as we journeyed to Geirangerfjord.
Geirangerfjord is supposed to be one of the more spectacular fjords in the region, though the overcast conditions covered much of the expansiveness of the panorama, and once at the base of the fjord the waters turned a choppy grey.
Still, the cruise on the fjord was enjoyable, taking in the sheer mountainside cliffs and the dotted remains of the old farms desperately clinging to the tops of them. At one point the boat docked at an otherwise quiet corner of the fjord to unload some passengers and their dogs to go hiking, much to the surprise of a woman swimming sheepishly in the shallows. When it became clear that the boat wasn’t leaving the dock as quickly as she hoped, staying in the cold water until it departed must have been an unrealistic option. So as she gave up and stepped out of the fjord onto the shore to where she had left her towel, a couple of hundred people saw why she had been a little shy. She was being a nudey rudey. And having a bad hair day.
Leaving the wild bits behind, we made north to the rather modern and orderly city of Trondheim by the middle of the day. Overlooked by a small fort, the wooden buildings of the city made it particularly susceptible to a series of devastating fires over the centuries – with the wide orderliness of the streets a seventeenth century attempt to prevent future fires – and the predominately modern buildings became a more functional replacement of the wooden ones.
After the requisite poke around the fort and medieval cathedral where the Norwegian monarchs are still coronated, the city turned into quite a lively place to spend a Sunday night. From a pizza buffet dinner to ten pin bowling and then on to a pub, we quite happily stayed out and about until the pub shut at 2:30am – though after spending around NOK120 (A$30) for two pints of beer, I can say that Trondheim is not the place for a cheap night out on the turps.
After four Contiki tours I’ve had one of their golden rules drummed into me more than sufficiently: If you’re not on the coach on time, then you get left behind. Funny, though, when the two people holding us up are the tour manager and the cook, both feeling a little rough after the night before, that things aren’t quite so strict and we stayed put outside the hostel until they were able to join us.
Not all that far out of Trondheim we stopped at Hell, which, putting aside all my pre-conceptions, was actually a rather pleasant little place without a whiff of sulphur. Not to mention how well appointed it was for such small village, with a railway station, regional airport and shopping centre all conveniently located. But, then again, if the station and airport were there only to transport people in to spend all eternity in the shopping centre, then, on my part at least, there’d be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Though the next time someone says to you they’ll do something when hell freezes over, take that as at least a 50-50 chance – up this way Hell must freeze over for at least a good six months of the year.
After a long drive through the mid-section of the country, the day finished in the familiar pattern of unloading our gear into campsite cabins, eating dinner, making a campfire and playing a soccer match – though the numbers participating in the latter were bolstered by a few blow-in kids who’d come past on their bikes and decided to stick around for a while.
This morning was our chance to get up close to Svartisen Glacier, Norway’s second largest. After a boat journey across a fjord we set out for the glacier on foot, though for a while I doubted its existence, as I could not see any ice or snow sitting on the rocky hills that surrounded us. After walking alongside a stream that fed into the fjord, we climbed up to the edge of an L shaped lake that in turn flowed into the stream. After skirting this for quite some time, the evidence of the glacier became more apparent, with small chunks of ice floating around the edges of the lake. Eventually, we climbed a ridge and the glacier revealed itself in a valley in all its icy glory, ending abruptly at the far end of the lake and becoming more imposing the closer we got to it. Despite the ominous cracking sounds that occasionally thundered from the glacier’s jagged blue edge, we were unfortunately not able to witness a dramatic collapse of a sizeable chunk breaking off and casting itself away into the lake.
In the afternoon, after being held up for an hour due to an overturned truck on the road ahead, we were treated to another extraordinary landscape as we went north from Mo i Rana and approached the Arctic Circle. I’d had it in mind that, other than some man-made markers akin to crossing the equator or the Tropics of Capricorn or Cancer, there’d be no clear environmental delineation that we were venturing beyond 66° 33’ north, but I appeared to be very wrong. Not far from the said visitor centre, the previously constant road-side landscape of densely forested hills, rivers, lines of small square wooden cottages and regular small supermarkets that had marked our entire progression up the Norwegian coast thus far, suddenly gave way to stark, inhospitable open land that lacked almost any vegetation, littered as far as the eye could see in every direction with rocks and small boulders, some of which had piled into cairns of various heights. It felt eerie, desolate and like the very end of the Earth. Considering we were not much more than halfway up the Norwegian coast, I couldn’t even imagine how much more barren the terrain could become by the time we got to Hammerfest, though I was really looking forward to finding out.
To leave the campsite by 7:30am is normally the last way I would want to start a morning, but, as I was first awoken by bright daylight streaming into the cabin at 3:30am, my body was tricked into thinking it and had got a sleep in and that it was more like 10am or 11am. I’d be so much more productive spending my summers in this part of the world – though the dark and frigid winters would be absolute torture.
After re-tracing our way back up to the Arctic Circle visitor centre, where I was again shocked at the sudden change of landscape even though this time I was specifically looking out for it, we pressed on further north inside the Arctic Circle. I was even more shocked that the dry desert-like scene soon just as swiftly gave way to the same forest, rivers and red, white and yellow houses and frequent small supermarkets as typified everywhere else further south. The day progressed passing through more of this same scenery, broken only by a vehicular ferry trip across a fjord so vast and spectacular that I could only equate its proportions to putting Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain/Lake St Clair and New Zealand’s Milford Sound together side by side.
In the middle of the afternoon we had a short stop in Narvik, a busy year round ice-free port of some strategic importance for both the Germans and the Allies in the Second World War. It also became of some strategic importance to me. Yesterday’s walk up to Svartisen Glacier had ripped apart one of the two pairs of shoes I had brought from Australia, and, as much as I was enjoying taking a leaf out of Jerry Seinfeld’s fashion book by wearing my surviving pair of sneakers with jeans, Narvik was the only sizeable city until Helsinki where I could look for a replacement pair of more jean friendly shoes. In what little time I had it was easy to spot a city shopping centre, and once inside made straight for its shoe shop. Predictably everything was beyond the price tag I was looking for but I kept looking anyway, hoping to find something wearable at bargain basement prices. With the time ticking away I was about to give up when I spotted a line of shoes on sale without boxes outside the front door. They weren’t exactly the kind of style I would have chosen if I’d had all day, but at a little under NOK200 (A$45) they were about as cheap as I was going to get. Hurriedly, and with no real idea of the European size system, I picked off a left and a right shoe sitting beside each other that looked about my size and tried them on. They fitted well enough, so it was a done deal. I quickly took them off, purchased them and set off for the coach for our imminent departure.
While on the bus about an hour and a half north of Narvik I switched back from my sneakers to the new ones, and noticed something odd. When my feet were together the toes of the shoes were not quite even. Taking them off and giving them a closer inspection I found I had just bought one shoe that was European size 43 and one that was size 45. Whoops.
Late in the day we finally arrived at our campsite in Ramfjord, where a fearless bunch (certainly not including me) braved the nippy waters of the fjord to say they had swum high above the Arctic Circle. I was happy enough using the creek behind our rather spacious cabins just to keep some beer cold.
Hippy happily knocked up a tasty main course of reindeer meat, or ‘Rudolph Stroganoff’ as he had proudly promised over recent days. And as it finally got dark late in the evening, the pink sky turned the mountains all around us to a range of amazing colours as we relaxed over a couple of drinks. Despite my odd sized clown shoes, life was good.
We left Ramfjord at 6:30am but, again, given how high the sun was already in the sky, my body clock thought this was perfectly reasonable. It was another long, long day spent on the coach, and it wasn’t until the afternoon that the fjords and forests gave way to herds of reindeer roaming the barren tundra.
On a bluff just at the edge of Hammerfest, the northernmost town in the world, we got to our next campsite late in the day. The majority of people then elected to climb back on the coach for the late night excursion to the visitor centre at Nordkapp, the northernmost point of Europe, but, given that we were a couple of months too late to see the midnight sun there, to me NOK600 was a ridiculous amount of money to pay just for the novelty of being able to drink grog on the coach on the way there and back.
As it turned out those of us who stayed behind had a fun night anyway. Huddled in one of the wooden cabins playing cards as strong winds buffeted the bluff gave us a sufficient ‘we ventured to a remote frontier’ sentiment that we didn’t need to go all the way to Nordkapp to attain. Finding we were sharing the campsite with a bunch of rough looking fishermen on a break from trawling the North Sea plus their rather deviant children only added to this. I even caught some glimpses of Aurora Borealis. No, that's not the Latin name for Scabies, I am of course referring to the northern lights. At about midnight it had become as dark as it was going to get, the stars were visible in much of the black sky, though a ribbon of orange right across the western horizon remained as a legacy of the long daylight of this time of year. Directly overhead, clusters of deep green rapidly flashed on and off in random patterns, never for long in any one place but constant enough across our field of vision for us to be treated to a continual show. You can keep your excessive fireworks displays (Sydney: I’m thinking about your always hyped New Years extravaganza, and Perth: Your massive Australia Day Skyshow I saw last year), this was so much more breathtaking than any man made fireworks I’ve ever seen. A few of us stood outside with our necks craned upwards for as long as our limbs would allow in the freezing, whistling wind, taking in this majestic natural phenomenon in awed silence. Winter may be the best time to see the northern lights at their most colourful and intense, but I was still utterly blown away by the green illuminations in the sky that I was seeing now. If ever there was a single defining moment that made my trip to Scandinavia, it was this.
With the Nordkappers returning at 3:30am (and the cloudy conditions there not enabling them to see any of the northern lights, ha!), the day started late with a leisurely brunch. I very much appreciated a lazy day I could spend pretty aimlessly, scheduled as it was smack bang in between some long, long days cooped up in the coach to get this far north, and a couple more yet to come to take us right the way down the length of Finland to eventually end up in Helsinki.
While there was an optional trip to try deep sea fishing in a boat off the coast, I was more inclined stay on land and unhurriedly explore Hammerfest with Luke. Walking down from the exposed headland towards town, I was very surprised to find the location of the campsite had misrepresented the feel of Hammerfest proper. It soon became very apparent that this was no ramshackle frontier town, despite what last night had certainly felt like. It was its very own modern large town, equipped with every convenience a large town could need, made up of neatly kept wooden houses astride orderly long streets, nestled between stark, rocky hills and around a sheltered bay. There was absolutely nothing here, at the very top of the European continent, which differentiated Hammerfest from any other town in Norway. It almost made last night’s ‘end of the world’ experience all the more remarkable.
From Hammerfest there was almost only one direction the coach could possibly head, and that was south. Far from being the mountainous country I imagined it to be, Finland welcomed us with a gently rolling carpet of dense pine forests and lakes. Not to mention postcards of people without clothing reclining in saunas.
In keeping with our arrival in Lapland, the home of Father Christmas/Santa Claus, we had a special Christmas dinner at our campsite and exchanged the Secret Santa gifts with each other we had previously bought. Trolls were a recurring theme, I received a troll shot glass, but probably the most popular motif was that of the noble moose. Luke in particular seemed thrilled with his Moose ears hat, almost never taking it off before we got Helsinki. He may have even slept with them on, but I’m not sure.
For the fifteen of us going on to Russia, this was our night for our pre-tour meeting. While this mostly involved Matt ensuring the visas in our passport had been issued with correct dates, he was also clear in pointing out how much more unpredictable, unsafe and less tourist-friendly it would be compared to Scandinavia, and that really had me excited about the next adventure to come.
With the beer at the bar of this campsite far more affordable than anywhere we’d encountered previously, tonight became the biggest party night of the entire trip thus far. We were also joined by some locals who wandered in too, perhaps elves from Santa’s workshop who had clocked off for the night. I guess they were still able to relax for a few more months until the gift sourcing deadlines appeared on the horizon.
In the wee small hours one of our new friends was ready to leave on his bicycle, though he lacked the co-ordination needed to stay on and get pedalling. After I managed to give him a push start he was then merrily on his way, weaving carelessly down the lonely highway in very high spirits and on into the dark night. I dare say the chances of being done for drink-cycling out here are somewhere between Buckley’s and none. I’m only assuming this because Santa himself must drink an absolute skinful of what’s been left out for him by people all over while he’s out delivering presents on Christmas Eve, and you never ever hear of him being caught for drink-sleighing as he nears his own chimney in the early hours of Christmas morning now do you?
Strategically straddling the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi was Santa’s Official Village™. Quite exactly who has the authority to bestow this lofty title here is beyond me, especially when I thought it was more correctly situated at the North Pole. Though for those fans of all modern Christmas customs this blue ribbon officialdom was certainly enough to create an air of joyous youthful expectation as we arrived. Not even the slight delay of watching some stupid goose running a lap around the coach with his jeans around his ankles on arrival (the particular task allotted to me during the Best Friend coach game played on our way to Hammerfest) could dampen their enthusiasm. But to the overly cynical like myself (sometimes referred to as ‘grown-ups’), Santa’s Official Village™ was just a byword for tacky tourist trap. It offered about two minutes worth of diversions - though those two minutes could rise to four if you take into account my extra little performance. There were the children’s sucking up letters full of hope for totally ace presents that had arrived by the sackful in Santa’s Official Post Office™, genuine tree decorations and other yuletide tat lining the shelves of a number of competing Santa's Official Souvenir Stores™, not to mention the small outside enclosure of Santa’s Official Reindeer™ (looking more like what went into Hippy's Rudolph Stroganoff than the magical reindeer of the airborne variety). Then Santa's Office™ itself, a sort of throne room, where you could have a personal chat about your wishes to Jolly Old St Nick™ and have an elf photographer immortalise the moment for all time for the bargain price of €18 per print. Can you tell I was Underwhelmed™?
Now you may recall me mentioning earlier that my Scandi group was overall the best of my numerous Contiki groups. There was, however, one fairly big exception to this generalisation. For the sake of internet anonymity let’s just call him Grant*. I know it’s impossible for Contiki or their travel agents to vet who joins a tour group, but for the rest of us that had parted with a substantial sum of hard-earned cash to take this trip it would probably have been easier if he was not amongst us. Grant was a bloke in his mid-30’s who was still living at home with his parents, and most worryingly of all, this was his first ever trip away on his own without them. Mentally there seemed a kangaroo or two loose in the top paddock, and he lacked some essential social skills generally required within a large group environment. He made a number of the girls uncomfortable with his rather creepy comments – but then at least they avoided having to share a room with him, something I had to endure more often than not. Generally he’d fall asleep drunk and fully clothed, lying on his back on the bottom half of the bed with his feet, still fully laced in his boots, firmly planted on the floor. In the morning, after we'd all risen and packed up and just before we were all due to leave, one of us would have to return to the cabin or room and shake Grant awake. This was a thankless task. On rousing him he’d stand bolt upright with a crazed animal look in his eyes and, for the first few awful seconds until he fully became aware of his surroundings, I'd always wonder if my days on this Earth were to come to a sudden halt.
I could continue on and on in this vein, mentioning that he wore a sinister looking trench coat throughout the whole of Scandinavia, or that he boasted how his primary reason for visiting Moscow was so that he could buy weapons, though slagging him off too much gets me away from my intended point. I mention him specifically now only because he was not on the coach when we were leaving the campsite for Santa’s Official Village™. He had got chatting to some of the local elves at the campsite bar the previous night and then proceeded to leave with them, and none of us had been at risk of getting battered by him on waking him up this morning as he had still not made it back to his room.
With no sign of Grant at Santa’s™ either, the coach was abuzz with possibilities as to what had happened to him. He could certainly have a picked an easier stopover to go AWOL, as today we were travelling all day to an out of the way campsite off the most direct route between Rovaniemi and Helsinki. And if he was unable to rejoin the group by the time we made it to Helsinki the next day he was really stuffed: the precise dates on our Russian entry visas, not to mention the other logistical difficulties of getting to and crossing the Finland-Russia border on his own, meant his tour would be over. Despite the fact that some of the group’s wishes to Santa may have been that Grant not bother them ever again, throughout the day it became clear the overwhelming concern was that nothing serious had befallen him. Considering how difficult it was to travel with him I thought this was very gracious, and to me re-enforced how pleasant this group really was.
After three out of the last four days cooped up for long periods in the coach it was a welcome relief to disembark at our lakeside campsite and play some volleyball in the last of the twilight. Later we were unsuccessful in our attempts to crank up the sauna in a wooden hut by the lake, and instead spent the evening by the water looking across to the booming flashes of artillery fire and illuminated flares from what we could only guess were some military exercises happening nearby.
As it turns out, this sky show also heralded the arrival of a taxi through the woods returning our AWOL soldier. Grant excitedly recounted his adventurous day of waking up late on the couch of his new Rovaniemi friends, the tour of the town they took him on when it was clear we'd already continued heading south, and then the three trains it took to catch up to us. A few minutes later there were mutterings from others that, now we all knew he was safe and well, maybe he could conveniently leave himself behind again sometime soon.
* Because that was, after all, his name.
Finland's capital beckoned, though not before the morning’s journey was spent filling out the obligatory Contiki feedback forms. Just a note to Contiki (mentioned to them in their questionnaire but repeated here just for good measure): A tour manager who points out how many extra unofficial tasks he did, of which he gave the not-so-strenuous example of playing music in the coach, and therefore by his estimation there is no reason why he, the driver or the cook should not get anything less than ‘excellent’ patently does not deserve that highest rating. And that’s not even taking into account that Matt brushed off all responsibility when it came to addressing the difficulties posed throughout by our loony companion Grant. Not that he was deserving of a bad mark overall, but this self-congratulation left a definite sour taste in my mouth.
Once in Helsinki I was soon able to determine that, whereas the biggest industry in the rest of Finland is forestry, in the capital it's Russian and Soviet era souvenirs. Judging by the amount of hats, posters and other knick-knacks spirited out, or perhaps reproduced from, the other side of the border, Helsinki's tourist industry around the impressive Senator Square has for the past few decades probably been profiting quite nicely from the aura of their former Communist neighbours. But with the iron curtain in tatters I shunned the opportunity to buy up here – I was now only a day away from being able to buy my marushka dolls, Soviet style hip flasks, military badges, reproductions of old propaganda posters and other trinkets from the real place of origin. And no, I don’t mean Taiwan.
In preparation for what was to come, Helsinki was the place to purchase large quantities of bottled water (still no drinking or brushing of teeth recommended with the tap water in Russia), and my last chance to say goodbye to the quirkily named Finnish grocery items that had entertained me so much in recent days. Farewell, Fanny custard. So long, Megapussi potato chips. I wish you’d both sponsor women’s Olympic beach volleyball teams just to see what an uproar that could cause.
There was much more to farewell too, as this was the very last night of the Scandinavian trip. Tomorrow, 31 companions and our 3 crew would be setting sail on the 'Love Boat' back to Stockholm en route to Copenhagen. Today, a similar number of folks on a new coach, with a new driver Ricky and tour manager Aaron had made the same journey in reverse, to embark with the remainder of us into Russia. Evidently their bonding night on the 'Love Boat' out of Stockholm had been a big one, as on meeting them at our Helsinki hostel in the late afternoon very few came out to dinner with us, and even fewer stayed out after that.
And so we celebrated the end of some pretty unique experiences in Scandinavia – riding a bobsled down an Olympic course, witnessing the northern lights, visiting the real Santa™ – in about the most homogenous way possible: From the inside of an Irish pub.
Now I'm in a nightclub in Helsinki, and they're playing La Vida Loca once again.
And I can't believe I'm dancing to this crap, but I'm a chance here.
And every f**king city sounds the same.
Every F**king City by Paul Kelly.
Before my first tour of Europe in 2000 I'd got really excited about the idea of crossing land borders, having my passport stamped and then eagerly taking in the landscapes and surroundings of a whole new country. I was someone who couldn't even leave my own state without flying or taking an overnight ferry, so even crossing between the relatively few other Australian states and territories by road was a pretty big deal. The reality was the advent of the European Union had largely brought an end to the border control checkpoints on the continent. Our coach was never stopped, my passport was perused by no authorities other than those in the United Kingdom, and the exciting new country we'd just entered swiftly into by motorway looked exactly like the previous side of the man-made boundary.
To my joy, the border between Finland and Russia offered a clear demarcation. It took just under an hour (apparently very efficient) to disembark the coach, change some money into Russian Roubles, walk into one side of the customs building, have our Russian visas checked and an EU exit stamp put in our passports by the Finnish border guards, continue to the next booth manned by the Russians, have our Russian visas examined more closely, entry and departure cards inserted, more stamps, and then walk out the door of the other side of the building into Russian territory. And once back on the coach the difference from Finland was marked immediately. The well maintained highway had become narrower and bumpier and rubbish was strewn along road-side ditches. At regular intervals old babushkas, scarves tied around their heads, sat by the roadside with vegetables or big pots of soup or coffee. At times I had to pinch myself that I really was in Russia.
Our first rest stop for new driver Ricky, at a town called Vyborg 40km inside the border, solidified the sensation that I had just stepped out of my travel comfort zone. There was next to no time to really look around Vyborg, but from what I could see it was a tired looking town, with mangy dogs and slightly shabby people sitting listlessly and silently outside the decaying railway station. They regarded us with glares somewhere between quiet resignation and complete contempt and, while I have easily become accustomed to being treated with indifference as a tourist in already overcrowded European centres like Paris or Florence, this was the first time I could ever recall getting the impression from a whole town that my presence was somehow a pain in their rear end. I found that negative scrutiny a little uncomfortable but still fascinating at the same time – there was such a cold intensity to their eyes that telegraphed an unspoken message that life in this part of the world is still a harsh struggle. And I would get accustomed to seeing this in just about everyone I came across in the country over the next week.
The suburbs of St Petersburg, when we first came upon them late in the afternoon (and continued navigating through them over the coming days), were also absorbing. Many stolid municipal buildings stood on major streets, some still with hammer and sickle shaped outlines clearly visible on the concrete frontages from where the Communist Party symbols had been rather hurriedly removed in the early 1990’s. Outside the more impressive ones small squares contained statues of uniformed men, presumably members of the Communist Party hierarchy. Sometimes the statues were of Vladimir Lenin himself, the leader of the Soviet revolution and the man for whom the city was re-named Leningrad between his death in 1924 and the fall of Communism in 1991.
Forbidding looking industrial zones, some long since deserted, still remained – the most impressive to catch my eye was a vast heating works with steam escaping from the scores of pipes twisting around and through its cheerless grey outbuildings, whose task it was to keep the mains water from freezing over in the colder months. Crumbling apartment buildings flanked long straight avenues, where dilapidated trams ran along tracks in the medians choked by the overgrown grass and weeds. A fire engine that looked like it had entered service in the 1950’s snaked its way through the crawling traffic with its sirens blaring. In comparison, on one day I saw an ambulance that was more modern, though it did happen to resemble the station wagon from the Ghostbusters movie.
Our hotel did not disappoint either, a gigantic concrete monolith with numerous old cars and trucks left abandoned in the front car park – a significant number of which had been stripped of parts or torched. Even the hotel’s name, the Leningradsky Youth Palace, evoked Soviet era vibes of St Petersburg’s more recent history.
Even the most dullard of travellers would avoid being separated from their passports for days at a time, but on arrival at the hotel this was exactly what was expected of us. I was wary to say the least, but we were instructed this is just the way things are done in Russia. Whilst the passports were supposed to be taken to a local police station for “safekeeping” for the duration we were in each city, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of Cold War style security checks could be done on us, or worse, planting of false evidence that would implicate us in some kind of spy operation, quickly leading to our arrests, a show trial and a nice long stretch in a prison gulag out east in the desolate steppes of Siberia.
We weren’t to keep our hotel room keys either – not that the locks seemed all that secure even if we could. Unless we were in our rooms these were the property of the elderly women stationed on each floor of the hotel, dubbed ‘Nyet Nyet Ladies’ by our new tour manager Aaron due to their practice of responding to hotel guests only with a dismissive ‘Nyet’ (‘No’ in Russian). This left practically all day for the ‘Nyet Nyet Ladies’ to rifle through our rooms while we were gone if they wanted, subsidising their hotel wages with whatever commodities they could pilfer from unsuspecting foreign tourists, or worse, planting false evidence that would implicate us in some kind of spy operation, quickly leading to our arrests, a show trial and a nice long stretch in a prison gulag out east in the desolate steppes of Siberia. Wow, I really shouldn’t have read those Tom Clancy novels back in the day.
Our first evening in St Petersburg was spent getting orientated with the city centre under the direction of Anna, our local guide. Through previous experience with this tour itinerary, Contiki have found that the Scandinavia-Russia and Russia-only tribes have each had their earlier separate times of bonding and don’t tend to merge together too well from this point on. This was certainly true of our particular trip now too, despite the none-too-subtle attempts to get us to hit it off before dinner by breaking out the ‘Polar Bears’, a hastily mixed concoction of vodka and champagne, on three separate occasions when the coach stopped to disgorge us out onto the footpaths of some vantage points on the River Neva.
It must be said a number of my new companions had already tried to exaggerate their own bonding. While waiting to cross the border from Finland into Russia some of the Australians had bragged how they were all from the Tasmanian city of Burnie and were all related through inbreeding. Little did they know I was the real deal, albeit not from the North-West Coast, and they clearly were not related to me and my long and illustrious family heritage of Tasmanian inbreeding. It didn’t take much interrogation on my part to prove it was all a front, as they couldn’t even tell me the name of Burnie and nearby Devonport’s daily newspaper. It soon transpired they were the much more common variety of Aussie bogans, mostly from Sydney and Melbourne, and they had only met since joining their part of tour in recent days in Copenhagen.
Dinner was in a small restaurant by the river called Mumu, rather unhappily named for a nineteenth century story by Ivan Turgenev where the title character, a cute little dog, has a brick tied to its neck before being thrown into the water to drown. It started the death trend of many of Anna’s stories, as I particularly remember her anecdote about the elephants in the city zoo during the Soviet era. Apparently one winter the zoo didn’t have enough money to feed them, so they plied them with vodka instead. The pachyderms survived the winter, but went on to die of alcoholism. Such happy bedtime tales.
On returning to the hotel we found it was equipped with leisure facilities I’ve never seen in another hotel, including a go-kart track and a bowling alley. Sadly it didn’t seem to be anyone’s job to man the go-kart track and it remained dark and empty for our whole three night stay, and tonight we were limited to the giant pool and snooker hall to unwind until late.
I don’t think I would have ever chosen cauliflower in mushroom sauce for breakfast if I had a choice, but this was what was set out for us in the dining room by the gruff hotel kitchen staff. And, to my surprise, it was actually a pretty tasty way to start the day. The hotel’s dinner in the evening was also a combination previously unknown to my tastebuds – baked fish topped with melted cheese – which wasn’t at all inedible either. Not to mention the sliced tomato and cucumber salad which I quite happily ate, which was fortunate as it was offered for at least one meal a day every day for the next week and a half.
We headed in to the city centre on a stunningly sunny morning, driving past countless children in their best clothes walking to their first day of school for the academic year, each one clutching a small posy of flowers which I guess were gifts for their new teachers. The little crawlers.
Whereas the suburbs were exactly what I expected Russia to look like, the centre was, by and large, nothing like it. Despite the revolutions of the first half of the 20th century and almost 900 days of siege by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944 during World War II, the heart of Peter the Great’s new capital that he founded in the early 18th century has survived as a succession of classical and baroque palaces and other fine buildings that makes it the equal of any grand city of Europe. Though the sight of people with chained brown bears trying to make some money from visitors taking photos came as a bit of a shock as well.
We started at the island of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Peter the Great’s very first building in the city. The cathedral within it became a rather swanky burial place for him and the Tsars and Tsarinas that followed in the Romanov lineage – that is until the Bolsheviks led by Lenin rallied the peasants to revolt and ended the Russian Monarchy in 1917. From that point on those of the royal family that managed to escape lived in exile in countries such as Greece, Italy and France, and someone had thoughtfully put photos of their descendants on a wall of the cathedral so that people would not forget who the royal family were. They started out looking Russian enough, but through the generations became more and more of Mediterranean appearance, until the last photo, a rather candid looking portrait if I may say, of an aging tanned southern Italian man with sunglasses, a camera around his neck and a disarming smile as if the photographer had taken him by complete surprise while he was on holiday. He looked no more entitled to claim the Russian throne than I do.
From there it was on down the city’s main street, Nevskiy Prospekt, to the massive sweeping semi-circle of Kazan Cathedral. A principal Russian Orthodox church for most of its two hundred years, it was for sixty years remodelled by the Communists into a Museum of Atheism. I realise this must have been intended as a massive slap in the face to the religious establishment – and probably taken as such – but with so many fine church and cathedral buildings in St Petersburg surviving the Soviet era now again able to function as per their original purpose (and, on that assumption, the churches of rest of the country too), it really makes me wonder if the Communists were all that serious about completely stamping out religion. I mean to say, wouldn’t demolishing the churches and replacing them with some more trademark examples of ugly concrete buildings useful for the workings of the Party have been a better way to attempt to completely align the hearts and minds of the people solely to the Soviet State? (I was later to find out that this approach was actually employed, notably around Red Square in Moscow and most particularly on the orders of Joseph Stalin in the middle decades of the 20th century, though replicas had recently been reconstructed to return some sites back to their pre Communist appearance). And besides, what on earth do you exhibit in a museum that is dedicated to the belief of nothing at all? Forgive me my theological bias, but if such a museum did have artefacts or esteemed writings or essays on show that sought to prove that the source of all religion is empty, and these presumably attracted, convinced or encouraged a band of followers with similar beliefs, would these objects or essays not become venerated icons of an empty religion of its own?
With that philosophical proposition straining my cranium, I was bound to come away from the next church with a much less weighty, even childlike, observation. That just happened to be the nearby Church on Spilled Blood, built in the same style as the more famous St Basil’s Cathedral on the edge of Red Square in Moscow in the late nineteenth century on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The colourful onion shaped domes look like totally ace soft-serve ice-creams, with vanilla, blueberry and pistachio mixed together – with a couple of the domes even coming with nuts on top.
The afternoon was whiled away in the largest and most opulent edifice in the city centre, the Winter Palace, now home to the Hermitage art museum. Unfortunately for culture vultures great art museums are completely wasted on me – Botticelli may as well be a bottle of wine and Renoir a stinky cheese for all I know. I can browse somewhat appreciatively at the paintings or sculptures in the first couple of galleries without really knowing what I’m looking at, but then pretty quickly my eyes glaze over and I start to wonder if there’s some kind of wager between museum curators as to how many different variations of Madonna and Child they can possibly put on display in one location. I perked up a bit when we entered the da Vinci room, hoping to see exhibits of some of his designs of his ingenious contraptions proposed for military and domestic purposes. Alas, of a room filled with heaps of paintings by other artists the size of dining tables, the room gets its name solely because of two tiny and fairly bland paintings by da Vinci not much bigger than postage stamps.
There was even more culture to embrace come evening when we attended the ballet Giselle at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the oldest Russian national theatre. Our large group was split up and seated in small groups high up at the back of the theatre in individual balconies. It was a sumptuous building with all the trimmings of a palace, though there were signs of occasional wear and tear – slightly frayed curtains, worn carpets in parts – that to me simply added to the amazing atmosphere. With the lights on low it would have made for a perfect haunted house. And if it weren’t for the Nyet Nyet Ladies on duty at the back on each level to look at my ticket and point me in the right direction back to my balcony, I’d have almost certainly got lost trying to find my way back after ducking out to take a leak.
I deliberately didn’t look at the program so that I could try and work out the story of Giselle for myself. As the performance unfolded I imagined it was about a beautiful young girl called Giselle sitting in an enchanted theatre who quickly popped out to go the toilet. A group of evil spirits disguised as Nyet Nyet Ladies misdirected her as she tried to get back to her seat until she becomes hopelessly and maddeningly lost. Long after the production is over and the theatre is empty, the evil spirits return to torment her and then finally offer her as a virgin sacrifice, whereupon she too becomes a ghostly Nyet Nyet lady lurking forever in the theatre.
At intermission I was so confused I gave up and looked at the program. If you think my interpretation is weird, boy, that’s not even half as peculiar as the proper storyline. It dragged on a bit too, and after two late nights in a row I was battling to stay awake throughout much of the second act. It’s a horrible stereotype for a bloke to fall asleep at the ballet, and while I don’t think I actually did, for a while there my eyelids definitely felt like two ton weights.
Even amidst the fog rolling in off the edge of the Baltic, the finery of the various palaces, gardens, fountains and golden statues of Peterhof were a jarring contrast to the dreary south-western suburbs in which we were caught in traffic to get there. But after already getting my fill of all the other fine buildings in St Petersburg and only getting a limited part of the morning allocated in Peterhof, I really wasn’t able to have the same appreciation of the sprawling complex I might have had under other circumstances.
Once back in the suburbs of the city we stopped at Ploschad Pobedy, Victory Square, a huge traffic roundabout and post-war concrete monument dedicated to the “heroic defenders” – the residents of the city during the Nazi siege from 1941 to 1944, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 of whom died of starvation, disease or exposure to the harsh winters during that time. At street level Ploschad Pobedy was currently undergoing some major landscaping renovations, and with all the perimeter fencing and piles of paving stones in the process of being ripped up or laid back down it rather fittingly gave the square the appearance of still being under siege itself.
Underneath there was a museum and hall of remembrance, though we were unable to get down there as only an hour and a half before our arrival some workmen on the site had hit some water pipes which flooded the below-street levels.
But even without visiting these exhibitions, the square’s central theme gave me sufficient food for thought. I still can’t help but wonder just how different history would be if Hitler did not renege on his initial alliance with the USSR as early as 1941. Surely the creation of a gaping new war front for an already widely deployed German force as they attempted to invade of the Soviet Union was the major tactical folly that eventually resulted in Hitler’s downfall? Though the war’s end in turn led to the USSR spreading Communism throughout much of Eastern Europe and the advent of the Cold War with the West in the proceeding decades, the alternative outcomes of a Nazi victory in the UK and further afield in Europe and Africa just don’t bear contemplating.
Moving on again to less cerebral matters, once back in the city centre a few of us decided a visit to the Vodka Museum was in order. Though for whatever reason we soon found this too was closed, so instead settled on the nearby Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Here there were exhibits on the peoples and customs of different far-flung regions of the world in past centuries, though these galleries were largely just a transit zone for people heading directly to the museum’s most famous area: Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities. Apparently ol’ Pete had a thing for anatomy back in his day, and the museum continues to hold the collections of teeth he reportedly pulled out of people’s mouths himself, as well as all manner of human and animal deformities. The displays of such things as a human foetus with a Cyclops style single eye, one with a brain on the outside of its skull and various others missing various limbs – not to mention the whole skeleton of a two-headed calf – were intriguing to say the least. It was probably no more gruesome than the contents of any present day university’s medical department, though for those of us that studied less biological disciplines, it is about the biggest freak show we could ever hope to see. It was way more diverting to me than all those stuffy paintings owned by Peter’s family hanging up in the Hermitage. And then there was the stuffed Echidna, no doubt an animal of huge curiosity to Russians in the 19th Century, but something so common to me that I barely take note of it on the front of the Australian five cent coin. But it was a gentle reminder to me that, in terms of native fauna, Australia itself still is a bit of a freak show to the rest of the world.
From there Caroline, Rebecca and I were off to a tourist market just off Nevskiy Prospekt to pick up some souvenirs. In our pre-Russia meeting in Finland our Scandinavian tour manager Matt had said it was easy to haggle over the prices in Russia, and that for buying souvenirs in hard currency other than Roubles the Euro had completely replaced reliance on the US dollar, telling those who had brought US dollars that they should convert these into Euros before we left Finland. In another slight black mark for his self proclaimed ‘excellent’ standard of leadership, he was completely wrong on both counts. When initiating our first make-your-first-offer-half-of-what-you-want-to-pay game that I believe is played with much theatrics and good humour in Asia and the Middle East, the stall holders here reacted with fear. While some small discounts could be had for multiple items, it seemed as if whoever they were working for (the Russian Mafia, presumably) would react angrily if they didn’t shift the merchandise onto foreign tourists for a good enough price. I certainly didn’t want to cause any problems, so I dropped this bargaining tactic very quickly. And contrary to Matt’s second tip, the prices for all souvenirs at each stall were listed in both Euros and US dollars, with the price the same amount in each currency. Considering that US$1 was presently trading about 20% weaker than €1 in the currency markets, not only were US dollars still just as acceptable as hard currency in Russia today as in past decades, bringing them rather than Euros would have seen our spending money stretch just that little bit further.
There were further shopping opportunities for those inclined as we hopped back onto the coach, where Ricky took us out to Dodgy Serge’s warehouse in a rather seedy looking port area of the city. We were whisked into the once-new though recently neglected warehouse through a dark side entrance, and climbed a flight of stairs to a large and poorly lit Pirate themed bar named the Seaman’s Club. I don’t exactly know how Dodgy Serge fitted into Contiki’s list of approved retailers, but it seemed he may have been romantically involved with our local guide Anna, and this relationship allowed him to make some extra cash shifting cheap bootleg CDs and other goods from his warehouse to a captive bunch of Contiki travellers, some of whom, it must be said, seemed like their principal reason for coming to Russia in the first place was to stock up on €3 bottles of vodka. Although I didn’t even look at buying anything I didn’t regard it as a complete waste of time, as it turned out to be an interesting glimpse at the post-Communist Russian economy in action. It was far more interesting to me than the arranged visit to the Fabergé egg shop the day before, at any rate.
With most of the group checking out the merchandise in an adjacent room, the rest of us had ample time to kill in the bar area. Excluding our group the only others in the bar were a couple of Filipino fishermen on shore leave drinking at one of the tables, with an equal number of local working girls playing their role, draping themselves all over the seamen. Apparently the ‘other’ work rooms for later on were upstairs. Perhaps that is what puts the ‘Dodgy’ in Dodgy Serge.
We were back at the hotel only long enough to eat dinner before heading out again. Tonight’s entertainment was to be a folklore show, though it was touch and go whether we’d make it on time. With all our to-ing and fro-ing across the city in the coach throughout the day we had spent a significant amount of time stuck in gridlocked traffic, and the roads were no clearer in the evening. The frustrated drivers of St Petersburg were trying every short cut possible, from mounting the footpaths to attempting to drive the wrong way down long already clogged one way streets. It looked to me like that was only making the general congestion worse, although our driver Rick tried his own little trick which seemed to work with some success. Swinging the coach across the length of the pedestrian only Dvortsovaya Ploshchad behind the Winter Palace he swears he saved 45 minutes, and in the event of being pulled up by the police he casually mentioned slipping a them €50 note would have been enough to convince them to let us continue on our way.
We were on time for the show, along with its included “all-you-can-drink” champanski. Considering the endless refills miraculously disappeared after everyone got their very first glass I can only assume that the direct translation of “all-you-can-drink for tourists” in Russian is “all-you-can-drink-just-as-long-as-all-you-can-drink-is-one-glass”. I wasn’t at all bothered by the lack of advertised cheap and sickly sweet bubbly, especially as the folklore show itself was brilliant. Although, unlike the ballet, it was mostly in English and targeted solely at visitors – so it was undoubtedly a bit kitsch to anyone local – the bright costumes, Cossack dancing and traditional music were entertaining even for an uncultured yobbo like me.
After extracting ourselves from the St Petersburg traffic jams to get onto the open road in the late morning, our tour manager Aaron told us we would be touring the Kremlin in the late afternoon. Considering we were still a day away from Moscow, I found this news a bit muddling. It turns out ‘kremlin’ translates directly as ‘fortress’ and the small city of Novgorod contains one of the best preserved walled fortresses in Russia, standing on one bank of the Volkhov River. The site itself dates back a thousand years, with the current red brick walls originating in the fifteenth century. Inside the complex traditionally there had been a great number of churches of which a handful have survived. It’s obviously still a place of great significance for some religious orders, as we walked past a group of Nuns making their way to one of the churches. Interestingly, even they had the same scary hard edged glint to their eyes.
Outside the Kremlin, a sandy beach had been constructed by the water’s edge complete with brightly coloured permanent umbrellas. In theory it would be a fun and happy place in summer but on a cold and grey day like today with increasing drizzle about, even the beach looked miserable. Maybe the Nuns had been holding out hopes for a nice sunny day to sunbathe on the sand, and that’s why they now looked so glum.
We unloaded our gear at a relatively small hotel some distance outside the centre of town, and with some down time available before our group crammed into the tiny but still grandly appointed ballroom that doubled as the dining room for our evening meal, Rebecca, Donella and I braved the drizzle to explore a little around the neighbourhood.
Despite its huge importance in Russian times previously, it seems like Novgorod has been on the slide over the last two hundred years or so. The streets were in a bad state of disrepair, the historic buildings were crumbling and there seemed to be little signs of life anywhere. When Rebecca turned around just in time to see a woman crossing an intersection a couple of blocks behind us have her bag snatched by a boy or man running past, we decided it was probably smart to double back towards the hotel. Just before we got there a man standing on a corner made to confront us and forcefully said in English that he “must talk” to us. It may well have been an innocent exchange on his part without any intent of malice, but it made us quicken our steps even more until we were safely back inside the hotel.
After having had a very late night in the Bowling Bar of the hotel in St Petersburg the night before, soon after dinner I headed upstairs to the small room I was sharing with Glenn and Grant to catch up on some sleep. There was a TV in our room, so I turned it on in order to see what cultural things or news I could learn while getting ready for bed. Over the previous two days or so we learned that there had been some acts of terrorism going on in Moscow, but hadn’t been told any of the details. It was only after returning to the UK some two weeks later, in preparation of continuing my travels in Spain and Portugal, that I was able to look up various news websites and learn that two Russian domestic flights departing Moscow on 24th August had been blown up within minutes of each other by female suicide bombers, killing all passengers and crew of both flights. A week later, during our time in St Petersburg, another female suicide bomber had allegedly walked into Rizhskaya Metro station in Moscow, panicked when she saw police checking bags, and detonated the bomb she was carrying outside the station, killing ten people and injuring fifty-one. One report I read, from either the BBC or CNN, gruesomely reported that the suspected bomber’s head had been found on the roof of the Metro station.
Now, as I flicked through the channels of the TV in my room, all stations were simultaneously running footage, most of it very hurriedly edited, of something very horrific. It didn’t look like plane crashes or a Metro station – with the academic look to the buildings and number of crying children in frame it looked more like a school. I couldn’t understand the commentary or read the Cyrillic headlines, so I had no idea of what had happened, where or when it happened, nor who it happened to. It could have been Moscow, across the other side of this vast country or even right here in Novgorod for all I knew, but if all the channels were running with it, it must have been a very recent, if not live, event. There were scenes of heavily armed military personnel running to the buildings, gunfire and plumes of smoke, grief-stricken women outside and body after blood-stained body being loaded into fleets of ambulances. Not knowing any of the specifics and trying to put some of the pieces together myself made it all very, very scary.
Thinking my parents were potentially worried about my well-being – even more so as my new cheap pre-paid UK mobile phone wasn’t working in Russia like it had been in Scandinavia – I used Rebecca’s phone to text them that, other than not knowing what on earth was going on, I was fine and the tour was still progressing as scheduled. Soon Dad sent a text back to say there had been a siege at a school in a town called Beslan, near the border with Georgia, and hundreds of people had died. This was about all I would know of the specifics of the event for almost two weeks, though in a few days time the public ramifications following the siege would leave a lasting impression on me of my visit to the Russian capital.
Unlike a lot of people, including some Australians, who seemed to be scared to leave home for far-off destinations or attend big events in the wake of the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001, the Bali bombings of 2002, etc, I’d always maintained that terrorism (or the rumours or threats thereof) would not put me off travelling. I justified it to myself by saying that statistically I stand a far greater chance being killed in a car accident going about my usual life than by a grave act of terror. Not that I’d ever head to a war zone and deliberately court danger, it’s just that I felt I wasn’t going to be conned into putting my life dreams on hold based on the minuscule chance of being caught in an event like the commuter train bombings in Madrid in March, a city I would be heading to a few days after finishing this tour. Now, for the first time, I felt confronted with the first test of my resolve. There was no knowing if Moscow was a safe place to be over the coming days, and considering I knew nothing of the local language or potential dangers to watch out for, I at least felt a lot safer travelling as part of a large and organised group.
We were on the road for most of the day and the passing scenery was almost engrossing enough to distract me from weightier issues. Mostly the highway was lined with open fields and small, old looking wooden cottages – some with walls leaning at precarious angles – with flaking paint, tin rooves and small stove chimneys. But there were also plenty of characterless apartment blocks from the Soviet era, and slightly further in the distance, occasional concrete domes of what I could only assume were nuclear power plants.
In sections the highway to Moscow was a dual carriageway, but more commonly it was two lanes, and the traffic in both directions created a de-facto third lane down the middle for either direction to overtake. This relied on the slower traffic in both directions driving hard up against the shoulder on each side, while those overtaking sped along the centre line of the road engaged in a dangerous game of Chicken with others heading towards them trying to overtake in the other direction. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Russians also stand a far great chance of dying in a car accident than by terrorism.
Service stations seem like they’re pretty dangerous places to be as well. Ricky pulled over to rest and refuel at a petrol station where private security guards dressed in camouflage gear and carrying machine guns stood around the pumps. Aaron said Contiki staff nicknamed this petrol station “Caged Animal Services”, and after one of the security staff took clear objections to us kicking a football around the side of the buildings as a way of passing the time, I headed out the back to see how it got its name. Amidst the small enclosures containing birds and rabbits, there was also a fox and a bear in their own cages. I wondered if the bear would ever be released from the cage to act as backup security in case men with machine guns weren’t a big enough deterrent.
Further towards Moscow the police pulled us up on the pretence that Ricky had been speeding. He later explained to us that he hadn’t, but that any vehicle with European Union number plates and a non-Russian driver was ripe pickings to subsidise police wages. The end result was an on-the-spot ‘fine’ of €10, a slight discount on the US$20 appropriated by the police when we were pulled up again five days later, on our very last day in Russia just before we crossed into Belarus.
Following an unsuccessful attempt to stop at Tchaikovsky’s last home during the 1890’s in a leafy town outside Moscow (it may well have been a nice house, though it was impossible to tell with all the scaffolding), on arriving in the capital our local guide Galina boarded the coach and helped us to get our bearings with some of the central landmarks of this empirical city. She was a former schoolteacher, probably in her 50’s, and, unlike the younger Anna in St Petersburg who had come across to me as a bit ditzy, overwhelmingly critical of the Communist regime of her youth while brightly enthusiastic that things were better now without really going into any details, over the coming days Galina shared many personal experiences of her life in the USSR with us, and she openly admitted she was a little more circumspect as to which period was better. While thankful for a day to day life with less fear, paranoia and distrust in Russia since the early 1990’s, she was also openly concerned that the unadulterated rush for money and materialism was causing a brand new raft of social problems that really hadn’t existed before then.
To me, the divide between rich and poor was already much easier to spot in Moscow than elsewhere. Amongst the usual array of clapped-out Ladas spewing dark smoke there were a significant number of flashy European cars, especially late model Mercedes-Benzs and BMWs, mostly black paint and with tinted windows. Well dressed women with big, brash handbags and other accessories stood around talking into mobile phones considerably more advanced than mine. And with Moscow rapidly becoming one of the most expensive cities in the world in major economic surveys, it seems those people that had not had the opportunities or the nous to take advantage of the rapid launch of the free market are finding it harder and harder to attain a better standard of living.
An example during the period of Soviet dissolution that Galina gave concerned her own apartment building. One day a note from the local branch of the Communist Party was pinned to the notice board in the foyer, a regular enough occurrence, though this one instructed all the residents of the building to meet at a given date and time to be given a piece of paper. Keeping in mind that the Soviet State controlled absolutely everything, the residents dutifully followed the official instructions as they were always required to do, and at the appointed time received the paper without further explanation. A couple of days later another notice appeared on the board advising the residents to meet again, whereupon each piece of paper could be handed over for two bottles of vodka. Once again, following these instructions, they handed the pieces of paper back and were quite happy with the free gifts given in exchange. Sometime later, after the residents were becoming more used to the ways in which a capitalist economy operated, they realised that each piece of paper had been a share in the ownership of their apartments – and that these were now held by people formerly within, or sufficiently connected to, the Communist Party who had worked out how to take advantage of the rapid transformation to the capitalist system.
Galina explained that today was City Day, a public holiday in Moscow, but that all festivities had been cancelled and the city was on a high security alert in the wake of recent events. Access to Red Square and the Kremlin were closed to the general public, though I wasn’t sure whether this was because of the public holiday or because of the heightened security status, but either way, guards with hats as oversized as their guns enforced the closure.
It was still possible for our pre-arranged group photo to be taken at the Moskva River entrance to Red Square, with a side-wall and tower of the Kremlin and the ice-cream domes of St Basil’s Cathedral as the immediate backdrop.
Below St Basil’s sat the great hulking mass of the Rossiya Hotel. A 1960’s celebration of everything concrete, Galina explained the hotel’s central location and over 3,000 rooms made it a favourite place for foreigners to stay during the Cold War, and through the use of bugs and other surveillance equipment, an easy place for the KGB to keep tabs on what exactly those foreigners were up to during their visit. Though it must be said that the KGB were also pretty effective at spying on their own people too. Galina mentioned she did not miss her annual interview/interrogation by them to ensure she was teaching the correct things to her students, and that she was tracked in other ways from time to time just like every other citizen. If I thought travelling to Russia was a big trip into the unknown now, I can’t even imagine how much more thrilling and frightening it must have been to come here before the fall of Communism.
From there we followed the river to the towering statue of Peter the Great. An odd compilation of sailing ships piled on top of each other at a height of almost one hundred metres in the middle of the river, an over-sized Peter I stands at the helm of the highest tall ship of all. Unveiled in 1997 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Russian Navy, the monument was not well received by the public. For a start, Moscow’s location a long way from the sea hardly endowed it with a history full of naval influence. Not to mention that Peter the Great detested Moscow – he had, after all, uprooted the capital from here to the city that still carries his name that he had built from scratch on the Baltic Sea. Most obviously, there’s the criticism that the statue is just plain ugly and totally out of character with its immediate surroundings, and on that basis at least I can form an opinion of my own, and I’m inclined to agree.
The artist of the sculpture may be a local with close connections to the then mayor of Moscow, but rumours exist that it was actually intended for the US five years earlier on the 500th anniversary of America’s European discovery by Christopher Columbus. Allegedly, when the project sponsors in the US were unhappy with the end result, the artist simply replaced Christopher Columbus’ head with a new one of Peter the Great’s and, hey presto, the artist can afford to eat again after all. Even discounting those rumours, by the sounds of it Chechen rebels with a penchant for setting off bombs in the Russian capital’s Metro system may get more sympathy for their separatist cause in the eyes of Moscow civilians if they set one off at the base of this monument – instead of targeting the civilians themselves.
As it happens, there is already a precedent when it comes to flattening riverside landmarks. The nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour had taken 44 years to be fully finished inside and out, and had been standing complete for only 48 years before in 1931 one of Stalin’s senior comrades gave the order to dynamite it. The plan was to build a shrine to Socialism called the Palace of the Soviets, however the project ran into problems with funding and also flooding from the river, and the site was in time developed, rather fittingly considering the flooding issue, into the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool. The pool was then demolished in 1994 for the classic golden onion domes of the cathedral to return to the skyline by 2000, a swift reconstruction largely financed by the public.
But when it comes to dominating monuments in Moscow, no-one can get close to Stalin and his seven colossal skyscrapers. Intended to rival the great American skyscrapers of the 1930’s, Stalin orchestrated the construction of these enormous Gothic buildings dotted around the city between 1947 and 1953 as a propaganda tool to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet Union, both to its citizens and to foreigners. The intention being that no matter where a person was in the city, they would be able to see at least one of the skyscrapers somewhere on the skyline. No-one could possibly argue they’re not impressive structures, though their foreboding size and illuminated red stars atop tall spires each give them a particularly menacing look. They’d be the perfect Gotham City headquarters for one of Batman’s arch enemies, or a forbidding setting for any evil government or corporation in a post apocalyptic movie for that matter. While a couple do actually house government departments, others are currently in use as hotels and residential buildings.
We came to the very largest of the towers in the Sparrow Hills, perched above the outside edge of a tight loop of the Moskva, currently functioning as the main building of the Moscow State University. From here is Moscow’s most popular viewpoint back down over a large park to the river, behind that the Kremlin, and, at long intervals, the six other Stalin towers punctuating the skyline. A large number of newly married couples were getting their wedding photos taken here, with the brides in their fine white dresses and the grooms all in full military uniform. And you could tell when a small number of the brides almost smiled for the camera that this was undoubtedly the happiest day of their lives.
One of the more noticeable things about the Russian half of this trip was that, despite the recent events of which we still knew almost nothing, our tour manager Aaron never officially addressed us as a group to discuss how the tour would proceed or what potential alternatives there were for those concerned about their safety. Perhaps largely as a result of this, there was talk amongst our group that a few people were considering not leaving the hotel during the next few days. Galina had picked up on this vibe pretty quickly, and I overheard her mention to Aaron at some point that this approach was no guarantee of safety either. According to her, the hotel we were staying at was a very well known landmark, and if foreign tourists were ever going to be a terrorist target then it would be one of the first places sought out.
When we were dropped off at the hotel in the evening I could understand what Galina meant. Apart from the Rossiya Hotel adjacent to Red Square there could not be too many more prominent hotels in the whole city. It was a cluster of four largely identical thirty storey towers, each named Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, built for the 1980 Olympics. Our rooms were quite nice too, nowhere near as threadbare as those in St Petersburg and Novgorod.
Not that terrorism was the only risk to life and limb encountered here. Later in the evening after finding the bar at the bottom of our tower had no beer, a large group of us headed next door to an adjacent tower. As well as the amber nectar, this bar also came complete with a small group of dodgy looking Eastern European men sitting at the bar by the beer taps, taking no shortage of notice of our predominately female group. After one or two quiet rounds I was ready to call it a night, but just before I left those remaining from the group ordered another round, which were duly poured from behind the bar and handed back via the bar flys. One of the girls who had gone to get the drinks later said she had noticed the dodgy guys had delayed the handover to her slightly, and assumed they were just being obnoxious and thought nothing more of it. But when she woke up the next morning feeling dopey and unable to remember anything beyond that particular point in time, the only conclusion she could come to was that they had slipped something into her drink. Thank goodness she hadn’t been left alone at all, as there’s no telling what may have happened.
In keeping with the fact that our rooms were a bit more flash here than our hotels in St Petersburg and Novgorod – not to mention our next one in Yartsevo, but more on that in due course – so was the included breakfast. It may have been stodgy, and the Cyrillic signs made it difficult to know if the off-white goop in the large jugs were yoghurt or mayonnaise, but the range of breakfast and non-breakfast food on offer was simply amazing. After filling up on a greasy Russian interpretation of fish and chips for my most important meal of the day (though I did branch out the next day with pizza and chips), I was ready to explore more of Moscow.
Ricky dropped us off in the middle of the city where we again met up with Galina. We were about to embark on a relatively short tour of some of the most noteworthy examples of Soviet propaganda artworks that adorn the platforms of the inner city Metro stations, though before we descended into the subterranean depths Galina had some words of warning. First, that the security presence at all Metro stations had been stepped up and we should expect bag searches inside the stations before being allowed to go down the escalators to platform level. Second, it didn’t really matter if we carried our daypacks on our fronts as a deterrent to pickpockets, as they could be armed with electric prods. Once fired at someone’s arms or shoulders, the victim would be unable to move and the bag could easily be whisked away. I really grew to respect Galina’s openness and ability to communicate a little about what life is really like in this city, but when it came to potential risks, she didn’t half know how to put the fear of God into everybody.
As it turned out, Glenn was the only person I was aware of that had his bag searched that day, and fortunately we did have any buzzing encounters with pickpockets. The only attention we attracted were from the occasional old babushkas whose standard approach went along the lines of punching us in the shoulder, opening their fists to show wrinkly and dirty palms expectant for money whilst mumbling or yelling something about what a pack of miserable arseholes we young foreigners were. Their exact words are purely a guess of course, though I think it’s a pretty fair assumption they weren’t inviting us to their place for a spot of tea and biscuits and a friendly chat.
I thought Sydney’s oldest underground railway stations St James and Museum had tons of character, not to mention the historical charm of some of London’s older Tube stations. But they have nothing on Moscow’s ‘Palaces of the People’. Stalin may well be a hated despot who badly mistreated millions of his own people, but he sure knew how to orchestrate a large scale underground rail system – with not-so-subtle reminders to Moscow citizens that the Soviet Union was the most superior empire in the world, of course. I wonder if there is still some level of pride instilled in the millions of commuters each day when they pass through these grand public edifices, or whether the obvious reminders of the old days are a bit of an embarrassment or best left forgotten.
The Metro fare system was certainly ingeniously simple and worthy of honour. No zones, no time based tariffs, just a 10 rouble (A$0.65) fare for a one way ticket from anywhere on the network to anywhere else, including unlimited changes. This meant an hour or two hopping from station to station in this huge city-wide gallery without ever returning to street level cost a fraction of many other museums.
Amongst the stations we admired were Ploschad Revolutsii, which we would become most acquainted with due to its central location near Red Square and because one of its lines ran directly to our hotel. Here the scores of bronze statues of soldiers and workers hidden in recesses along the dimly lit platforms made for a particularly eerie encounter each time we waited for a train.
From Ploschad Revolutsii we rode west to the end of the dark blue line to Park Pobedy (Victory Park), touted as the deepest underground station in the world, to see large reliefs celebrating victory in two fierce wars fought in this territory: Against Napoleon in 1812 and the Nazis in 1945 in the Great Patriotic War – otherwise known as the Second World War to the rest of us.
After back-tracking and then changing onto the circle line, we soon found ourselves staring up at the ornate ceilings and chandeliers of Komsolskaya, while at the end of one of the platforms a bust of Lenin was presented beneath a gilt arch showcasing a large hammer and sickle motif.
Our last station was Novoslobodskaya, most notable for its various examples of stained glass and a tiled mosaic celebrating peace for the whole world, which in this case was also reckoned as coming after the Second World War. After finishing our exploration here we emerged back up into the daylight and walked along to the nearby Central Armed Forces Museum.
If the Metro portrayed the great Soviet ideal of military and cultural superiority, the Armed Forces Museum contained the instruments of war that were used to make it all happen – right from the earliest days of the USSR in 1918 until the early 1990’s. Amongst all the memorabilia in the halls inside, the most prized exhibit was the tattered and faded flag of the Soviet Union hoisted by victorious troops on the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. But it was out the back that most got my attention – a crammed collection of tanks, missile launchers, helicopters and MiG jet fighters. Not that everything in the museum was a relic of the glory days, as out the front was a rather sombre memorial to the personnel of the nuclear submarine Kursk, which exploded in an accident during exercises in the Arctic Ocean in August 2000 killing all on board.
We were then let loose in Moscow for the first time at leisure, and I naturally fell into a group made up of all the Scandi veterans (minus Grant. Enough said). With Red Square still closed we instead wandered around some of the other grand edifices in the city centre, including the Bolshoi Theatre. Not far away was the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of the KGB (since renamed to the FSB). The yellow-orange brick exterior didn’t appear to look as imposing as I would have imagined for the secret police and intelligence agency – to my mind one of Stalin’s towers would have made for a more apt setting – and some multi-coloured street decorations fanned out around the tidy, well kept garden out the front of the building softened its appearance even more.
From there we turned down to the river and hopped on board a cruise boat that meandered down the Moskva in no great hurry. It took quite a bit longer to ride around to the White House than we expected, and we had to hurry back to the appointed meeting place to head out to our early evening’s entertainment: The Bolshoi Moscow State Circus.
The purpose built 3,000 seat auditorium near the Sparrow Hills was much more impressive than the portable big-tops I usually associate with a circus. The issue of animal rights was not so advanced though, and while over my lifetime the travelling circuses of Australia have had to become more and more centred on human acrobatics as the keeping of animals has become more restricted, we were able to watch a full range of acts by bears, lions, tigers and monkeys here, to the point that it upset the sensitivities of more than a handful of our group.
I was more upset by the clowns. It didn’t seem to matter how much happy face makeup they had on, their half-hearted antics just couldn’t touch my funny bone. There’s got to be a layer of humour as a tonic for life’s struggles somewhere in this country, but it’s certainly not readily apparent to this outsider. Or perhaps that’s just the job that vodka was designed to fill.
Although the performance was all in Russian, in a nice touch of inclusiveness one act was conducted partly in English and German as well, though I thought it was the lamest act of the whole show. A man roamed through different sections of the audience holding different objects, while the woman in the ring attempted to guess what they were. Occasionally she’d get the first guess wrong, calling out camera when he had a mobile phone for instance, but she was almost always right on the money. This may have been impressive a long time ago, but with the technology easily available to surreptitiously feed her with the answers it all fell a bit flat. About the only impressive feature of the routine was how seamlessly both the man and the woman were able to flit between the three languages.
After the show we were returning to our hotel by Metro for the first time. Aaron had already provided each of us with a photocopied map of the network with the station names only in Roman characters, and we at least knew the hotel was on the dark blue line at Izmailovsky Park. Though after our tour with Galina in the morning we already knew these photocopies were next to useless – though the Metro was very well signposted it was all done so in Cyrillic, and we’d have been far better off with Cyrillic maps so we could at least match the station names. Fortunately for us a stop called Izmailovskaya was the station immediately after Izmailovsky Park, and with their almost identical names in Cyrillic as well it was pretty easy to match these as Измайловская and Измайловский Парк respectively.
(Actually, as an aside, simple words in Cyrillic were not always so impossible to comprehend, despite immediate appearances. ‘Photo’, for example, was фото. More importantly, for me of small bladder at least, ‘toilet’ was туалет. It was actually Polish that I found to be the most indecipherable language of this trip.)
But, beyond working out the Cyrillic characters of our eventual destination, there was a more immediate challenge first. To get to the circus from the middle of the city, we had earlier taken the red line to Universitet station, and we were thus now hoping to find a train heading back in the opposite direction to eventually change to the dark blue line at Arbatskaya. Our tour manager Aaron seemed no more decisive than the rest of us when it came to picking the right platform. Again, somewhat fortuitously, on our way to the circus the station before Universitet (Vorobyovy Gory) had been particularly distinctive, built as it was on the lower deck of a road bridge crossing the Moskva River, and the glass windows along the platforms had given us a momentarily startling view of the outside world in the midst of an otherwise dark journey underground. When the first station on our return journey looked like every other underground station we knew we’d gone the wrong way, so we exited the carriage here and transferred to the opposite platform. After boarding a train going the other direction, and crossing the river two stops later, we made it Arbatskaya, changed lines and eventually returned to street level at Izmailovsky Park without any further detours.
The glut of tourist coaches parked in the area immediately surrounding the Kremlin suggested it was open and our pre-arranged tour for the whole morning with Galina could go ahead. Much like the Kremlin in Novgorod, Moscow’s had been a religious site since at least the 1300’s, though it’s the political influences that I immediately associate with it whenever I hear the name. Despite the relatively recent dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ongoing troubles with separatists of various ethnic groups wishing to splinter off from what remains of the Russian Federation, I hardly had to remind myself that I was stepping into a nerve centre which still continues to exercise control over a huge chunk of the world map.
From a distance, fine palaces and a cluster of golden onion domes could be seen sticking up from behind the Kremlin’s high red brick walls.
Once inside I had expected to see more or less orderly rows of low rise government or military buildings from recent eras, so I was rather surprised to find most of the churches and other buildings dated back hundreds of years and had somehow survived Stalin’s thirst for drastic renovations in the mid 1900’s. Behind them were the administrative buildings I was expecting, though only a couple represented the worst in 20th century boxy styling. The presidential offices occupied a rather bright looking palace, facing out onto a courtyard showcasing the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, both of which we could walk up to. Despite the presence of perhaps half a dozen military guards between us and the palace, I was surprised that visitors were actually allowed so close to the President’s inner sanctum at all. The palace’s rooftop flag was at half mast as a sign of mourning for the current tragedies (though, just to mention again, it wasn’t as if we actually knew much about what any of these tragedies were at this point), and my mind boggled at what potential military reprisals might have currently been hatched up only a stone’s throw from where I stood.
One of the few buildings we were actually allowed inside was the Armoury Palace, and that had my mind boggling in an entirely different way. It was stocked to the gills with some of the possessions of the Tsars – elaborate horse-drawn carriages, lavish costumes and, most astonishing of all, all the shiny ceremonial jewellery. I don’t know why, but fancy stuff that royal people actually used to parade around in always seems infinitely more interesting to me than looking at paintings they may have once owned now hanging in a gallery, though I did decline to pay the hefty extra charge to visit the State Diamond Fund within the Armoury.
The rest of the day was again free to spend however we chose, and the highest priority on my list was only as far away as the other side of the Kremlin wall. Red Square had re-opened for the first time since our arrival in the city, and after two days of waiting it was immensely satisfying to finally be able to traipse through it. It was a more a very long, narrow rectangle than a square per se, and the Red of its name was apparently derived neither from the colour of Communism nor the red exteriors of the Kremlin wall and State History Museum that bound this rectangle on two sides. But it was a grand plaza, every bit the city centrepiece I expected it to be. Painted line markings along the cobblestones hinted at the square’s part-time life as a processional space for military might, and it seems there had been an amazing recent restoration job to the entrance gates at the State History Museum end of the square after the Stalin era demolition allowed tanks easier access for demonstrations.
The only disappointment was to find out that Lenin’s Mausoleum, the granite tomb tucked to the side of Red Square underneath the Kremlin wall that displayed the first Soviet leader’s body, was still closed. I was mildly interested in checking the mausoleum out, after all it’s not every day you can peer at the body of a man who has been dead for eighty years. I was just as fascinated to find out that some years after his death Stalin had himself been a victim of some Soviet era reshuffling here. For a bloke who detested religion so much, he didn’t half try to make a deity out of Lenin, or indeed himself, and perhaps his crowning achievement came on his death in 1953 when he was laid out on public display beside Lenin in this crypt. Though the public adoration for Stalin wasn’t to last (it seems that killing hundreds of thousands of your own population in order keep your power base intact doesn’t augur well for long term adulation), and in 1961 his body was evicted from Lenin’s tomb and buried outside.
About the only place where you can see Lenin and Stalin in physical proximity now are as statues, situated across the other side of the river in an open reserve near Gorky Park, and after a meandering stroll that is where a small group of us ended up. The entrance fee was a very reasonable 50 roubles (A$3.30), though those with particular budget constraints or of a devious nature may find they can get a 100% discount by chancing upon a section of the perimeter wire fence not quite fixed to the ground and crawling under it. Not that you ever read that here.
Amongst a range of Soviet statues and busts ripped from their foundations and initially dumped here over a decade ago, Lenin was the most numerous character. But with the proliferation of his statues that we had already seen still intact in their original positions in St Petersburg and Moscow, these were not novel sights. Effigies to Stalin by and large met a far less sympathetic fate, and the nose-less example standing here is supposedly about the only remaining intact statue in all of Russia.
Our group sought to regather in dribs and drabs at the nominated place outside the Resurrection Gate by Red Square, before we would all move on together for a final Moscow dinner at a small restaurant on Arbatskaya. Just as we had started to congregate, a man entered our spot and started making an impassioned impromptu speech directed at any and all people within earshot. When Galina arrived to meet us she quickly shuffled us a little distance away to wait for the last of our group to arrive, explaining that the man was denouncing the government, the police would no doubt soon come to arrest him and it was better if we weren’t close by in case we were inadvertently suspected of encouraging or supporting him. It was a solid reminder that while the free market had well and truly arrived in this part of the world, free speech was still a little way off.
Over dinner Galina made a very nice speech thanking us for our interest in her country, and that she was hopeful of being able to travel herself in the future to see and understand more about the countries that we came from. She then finished off by thanking us again for going out, riding on the Metro and seeing the city when she knew of some local residents who were too scared to leave their homes at all. Yikes, now she tells us.
On the way back to the hotel I decided to stop with Rebecca, Angela, Mark and Glenn to take in the vista of Red Square by night. Unfortunately it had again closed, and we were limited to viewing the spot-lit domes of St Basil’s through the archway of the Resurrection Gate. Even that was a bit difficult as a large group of elderly French tourists had occupied the best vantage point. We were patiently waiting for them to move on so we could get a better look ourselves, but then a police car pulled up behind us and a policeman got out and in English yelled out to us all to “disperse”. At least there was no attempt to try a scam Galina had previously warned the police can pull, where they demand to see a tourist’s passport – knowing full well it’s been taken by the hotel – and thereby attempt to effect an unofficial arrest, expecting to receive a bribe in exchange for the foreigner’s immediate release.
A little disappointed that we were leaving Moscow without seeing Red Square after dark, we dispersed into the Ploschad Revolutsii station and bought tickets to ride the Metro back to the hotel. With tickets purchased we walked through the turnstiles and stepped onto the top of the descending escalator just as a man staggered unsteadily up the adjacent ascending one, with his hands clutched to his body somewhere around his torso underneath a blood-stained white shirt. Not quite knowing whether to avoid trouble by turning around and trying to race up the escalator we were on, we froze and were unsurprisingly very nervous as we reached the platform level (well, all of us except for Glenn, who had had a lot to drink during dinner and was in the midst of a giggly drunk phase). There seemed to be no sign of a commotion and the other people already waiting on our side of the platform didn’t look at all alarmed, and after a couple of very nervous minutes sticking quite close to each other we hopped on a train without incident.
Though we hadn’t been off the train at Izmailovsky Park very long when we had another confrontation. Rebecca and I had got off the train first and we were walking down the platform towards the escalators when to our left a young guy, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, started shouting and made a beeline for us. I managed to grab Rebecca’s right hand and swing her behind and to the right side of me just as he got close. Fending him off with my left arm I managed to mutter ‘Nyet’ as angrily as I possibly could and then immediately tapped my pockets to make sure I could still feel the outline of my wallet. With all OK on that front, we quickened our steps to Olympic walking pace and strode up the escalators without ever giving a backward glance. Immediately on walking out the glass doors of the station onto the street another group of young people heading into the station starting yelling at us as well – perhaps they just happened to be Olympic standard walking judges disqualifying us for not having one heel on the ground at all times – and then we practically ran the remaining distance to the hotel. Leaving Moscow without seeing Red Square at night didn’t seem like so much of a big deal anymore. Getting out of the city without injury was all I could really ask for.
Lenin’s tomb was supposedly open in the morning, and once my alarm went off early I had the choice of either getting up and heading back to Red Square or having a good sleep in before our midday departure. I’m not good at getting out of bed at the best of times, and in light of last night’s experience on the Metro I was even more inclined to be lazy. And when it came to viewing a stiff, unmoving elderly man’s body with thinning hair and yellowing fingers behind a glass screen, I quickly came to the realisation that I had already seen Brian Henderson reading the Sydney Channel Nine evening news on TV every now and then over the last two years of his career before he retired at the end of 2002, so it really wasn’t such a novelty after all. At that, I happily rolled over and stayed in bed until 11am.
At midday we were back on the coach and, after a slight detour to pick up the few people that had ventured in to the city centre to see Lenin’s body, we were due to head west. The traffic situation started out as bad as St Petersburg’s, and then only proceeded to get worse. The pickup time by which we were due to be near the Kremlin came and went, and we still weren’t really moving. At one point, thinking he had seen a sign for a Metro station, Aaron got out of the coach to try and at least get to the others himself without being ridiculously late, though he was mistaken and after 15 minutes or so climbed back onboard almost exactly at the same place where he had left us. About the only vehicles that were moving at all in our direction pushed through the gaps with lights flashing and sirens blaring. At first it was a few police cars, but then more and more frequently they were joined by buses, loaded full of men decked out in blue uniforms (more police?) and khaki (the army?). The closer our coach inched towards the centre of the city, the more we hit roads that were partly closed off, and the packed buses comparatively whizzed by us down the closed-off lanes.
Eventually, after a couple of hours generally at a standstill, we neared the Kremlin and it seemed like this was as close to Red Square as Ricky was ever going to get. Thousands upon thousands of men in the blue uniforms had formed a human chain around this central district, aided by a number of German Shepherds and their handlers. Whatever the hell was going on the officials seemed desperate enough to put everyone they could possibly find on duty, as a significant proportion of those forming the ring were no older than kids – some of them were still rosy cheeked and didn’t even look old enough to shave. Youthful or not, as the coach crawled around the perimeter of this human formation, they looked up at us with unflinching icy cold stares.
Somehow, hours after the planned pickup time and not exactly near the allotted pickup place, our waiting tour members spotted the coach and sprinted across to us. Once onboard they excitedly recounted their own story, of which seeing Lenin’s corpse had been the most uninteresting part. Over the next hours they had been marshalled from one place to another by police as the area around Red Square became increasingly cordoned off. Someone had told them there was some kind of mass demonstration planned, and while attempting to stay as close to the pickup point as possible they found themselves being ordered further and further away from it. With our complement now complete Ricky tried to extricate the coach from the gridlock and find an exit route, and we found ourselves by the river at the bottom of St Basil’s Cathedral looking up the sloping embankment and into the very edge of Red Square. I will never in my life forget the fleeting glimpse I caught of perhaps a few thousand troops lined up in formation in the square itself, and never in my life have I ever wanted to get out of a city more. Not even Launceston comes close (and even the pretend Tasmanians of the group might possibly agree with me on that one).
Eventually Ricky found the open road leading west out of Moscow, and we proceeded to a planned stop at the battlefields of Borodino. On this very day in 1812 Napoleon’s invading French forces fought a fierce and bloody battle against the defending Russians, later inspiring Tchaikovsky to pen the famous 1812 Overture. The home side suffered more casualties and lost the day, but had the advantage of bringing in fresh troops much more quickly and eventually repelled the French in Moscow. The same ground also saw action in October 1941 when the Soviets were again defending their capital, this time from the Nazis. The battlefield is strewn with monuments, but as it had started to rain heavily there was not much point in going for a walk. And it was not possible to stay inside the café or museum either, as it was now 5pm and their opening hours indicated they were in the process of closing. But regardless of these inconveniences, my motivation to wander around a historical battlefield was not really all that high – not knowing what skirmishes may currently be transpiring in Red Square at this very instant kind of had an impact on my perspective.
So on we continued to a place called Yartsevo, and a lonely hotel for truck drivers along a deserted stretch of highway where we would stop for the night. This was, without a shadow of a doubt, the dodgiest hovel I have ever laid my head. Seedy looking murals dominated the walls. The room assigned to Glenn and I at the back of the hotel was tiny, with two single beds and a small TV taking up almost all the space. A small window provided a view of the semi-trailers lined up in the parking area, the room reeked of cigarette smoke so strong I couldn’t bear it and I didn’t want to even turn down the bed covers for fear of what I might find. I’ve never considered myself a high maintenance hotel guest before, but this room was simply uninhabitable. Fortunately I soon found out that Angela and Rebecca’s room was a palace by comparison, almost a small flat with separate rooms, a spare double bed and no hint of a cigarette smoke odour. Rebecca made it clear she would feel safer having a guy close by, so I moved in to her spare section of the flat and we were both able to sleep easier.
On account of our extensive delay in Moscow and the inability to get food in Borodino, none of us had had any lunch, so before dinner was ready I bought a couple of cans of Pringles from the bar on the ground floor of the hotel and started ploughing into them. The TV in the bar was on, showing footage of over 100,000 protestors congregating in Red Square. From what little I was now picking up from various sources about the hostage crisis in Beslan in the preceding days, it seemed like the government had taken a decision to send in special security forces to blast out the hostage takers (an approach used with mixed success in a similar situation in a Moscow theatre in October 2002), though in this instance it also may have cost the lives of many of the hostages. Based on that I assumed the public demonstration was organised to denounce the government’s heavy handed tactics, and from the look of the telecast it seemed to be a peaceful and sorrowful rally rather than one of anger and violent clashes between protestors and police. I was later to learn the demonstration was actually orchestrated by the government as an attempt to bolster public support for the government against all the recent acts of terror in the country, so in hindsight it seems there was no real risk of getting caught up in the middle of anything nasty. That didn’t make it any less unnerving to be there in the moment though.
Dodgy Michael (no relation to Dodgy Serge of St Petersburg fame, though he was involved in some of the same lines of work) had caught wind that a Contiki group was in town and he pulled up outside the hotel in his black Mercedes sedan, opening the boot to reveal a treasure trove of potential souvenirs. There was nothing else to do before dinner, so I had a browse. While I gave the black market vodka another miss (metho, anyone?), I couldn’t resist the temptation of a red T-shirt inspired by the Soviet national sports uniforms of old, emblazoned with a yellow hammer and sickle and the white letters CCCP (USSR in Cyrillic) across the chest.
The hotel dining room included a stage, and we had been forewarned that the dinner entertainment could either be a choir of local schoolchildren, an old stripper, or both. As it turned out we got neither and had to make do with our own onstage entertainment, which with cheap beer from the bar made it an enjoyable night in. And it certainly felt a whole lot safer than being upstairs alone in the rooms.
Meanwhile, Grant was more occupied with the couple of local working ladies hanging around the bar. Now I don’t want to cast unfair dispersions on their occupations, but let’s just say that if he was trying to pull the same kind of stunt as he did on our first night in Finland he’d be waking up to a pretty hefty bill in the morning.
It seemed like we’d barely left the truckie hotel in our dust when the coach pulled off the highway and into the industrial city of Smolensk. A young, expressionless local lady boarded the coach and read directly from a book in an unexcited monotone voice about the history of the city’s hilltop Cathedral of the Assumption we were about to see. Unfortunately I couldn’t take in any of what she said as I was having massive flashbacks to the Channel 7 sketch comedy show Fast Forward that ran on Australian TV from 1989-1992, when Marg Downey regularly played a vaguely eastern European, deadpan SBS presenter burdensomely describing the upcoming viewing highlights on the Australian public multicultural network (“…and at 8pm we continue the very popular and action packed Bulgarian documentary series 101 Ways to Cook Cabbage. Wild horses could not drag me away from watching that one, and I’m sure you’re just as excited as I am”).
Once we made it up to the Cathedral its present 17th century structure looked very sturdy, which is a lot more than can be said for the dodgy 21st century wooden scaffolding set up inside the cathedral – it was the scaffolding that looked in dire need of restoration work, not the church itself. It also appeared our visit had interrupted some kind of service going on inside, and also provoked an angry reaction from some old babushkas begging outside on the front steps, so it really didn’t seem like our stop here was beneficial to anyone except for our guide ‘Marg’ – but then she seemed hardly thrilled to be here either and we (via the tour payment to Contiki) were even paying her.
I would have much preferred the half hour or so to walk around in the city centre itself, where there appeared to be a central market area and a large aircraft manufacturing plant, though the immediately intriguing sight was of a busy street filled with traffic and steam billowing out from vents in the gutters. I would at least have gained a better appreciation of what a standard provincial Russian city feels like, rather than just looking out at it from behind a passing coach window.
With ‘Marg’ dropped off back in the centre of Smolensk with her payment from Aaron in hand, we headed back out to the highway and to the first of two Second World War memorials with almost identical names. The first was a simple and quite understated series of Polish monuments at the Katyn War Cemetery, marking the site in the Katyn Forest where over four thousand Polish officers were taken out of Soviet Prisoner of War camps in 1940, slain and then buried in mass graves.
Not so far away, although we crossed the border from Russia to Belarus in between, was the second, the location of the Khatyn massacre in March 1943. Here it was the Nazis who were the evildoers, rounding up all the villagers of Khatyn, killing almost all of them and then completely razing the village. The monuments here were very touching, with graves to each individual family, concrete chimneys denoting the site of each house and a heartbreaking statue of one of the few survivors – an emaciated adult man carrying the body of his dead son in his arms. The grounds were exceptionally well kept up, with a small army of women in headscarves bent over sweeping the grass clippings of the expansive tidy lawns by hand with tiny straw brushes. The designers had done a very effective job of encouraging mournful reflection, though the amount of money spent to develop it was conspicuously more than that expended by the Polish in the Katyn Forest.
As awful as it plainly was, Khatyn was only one of something like 5,000 settlements in Belarus completely obliterated by the Nazis in similar fashion, and it’s fair to assume that not many of those would have such thoughtful and sensitively constructed memorials. In fact, there are those that would go so far to say that while Belarus was still part of the USSR a lot of effort was made to highlight the atrocities perpetrated in Khatyn to cause confusion with, and ultimately deflect international attention and scrutiny away from, the Soviet Union’s own acts of bastardry a few years earlier at nearby Katyn.
With that depressing thought in mind we rolled into Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in the midst of a miserable grey and rainy afternoon. The inclement weather put paid to much of our planned initiation of the city, though what we did see was predominantly unremarkable – and I mean that in the most remarkable kind of way. I had the preconception that Minsk would be an astoundingly grim, cheerless and depressing relic of the post-World War II period or, at the very least, a more populous replica of Smolensk. But it looked modern with well maintained infrastructure and apartment blocks, and near our hotel there were a host of strikingly designed modern public buildings set in extensive parklands around a meandering river or lake. Even our hotel itself was a cut above all the accommodation provided in Russia. We were told that Belarus’ transition to a free market was taking a gradual approach, with 70% of the economy still currently government controlled, and that as a result it had avoided some of the extremes of wealth that was causing the social problems Russia was facing, and the average standard of living for people was higher here than in its empirical power to the east. There’s no way of telling if that proposition is really true or not, but in the very short time we had in the Belarus capital, I can at the very least say it didn’t appear to be a complete fallacy.
With nowhere enroute to get lunch tomorrow before leaving Belarus for Poland, we changed over our remaining Russian roubles into Belarusian roubles and bought some supplies in a small supermarket. With the exchange rate of approximately 1,000 roubles to each Australian dollar I was surprised to see some of the small notes given in change at the supermarket tills came in dominations as low as 5 and 10 roubles. At values of one Australian cent and half a cent respectively it’s no wonder those particular notes looked about as close to Monopoly money in quality as I have ever seen real currency look.
I started the day with a big problem. After a couple of days struggling with the zip of my bulging suitcase, this morning the zip came away completely. After pooling my few hundred remaining Belarusian roubles with the leftovers from some kind people that hadn’t stretched as far as buying another drink at the hotel bar last night, I dashed out to try and find something I could use for a quick repair job while everyone else was still at breakfast. The supermarket where we had brought our lunch for today was not yet open, but at a nearby bus stop I was able to find a small kiosk. Looking at the range of articles for sale behind the glass counter I quickly found a large green roll of what appeared to be duct/electrical tape, which in the circumstances would be an ideal solution. I pointed to it and the lady in the booth turned and rummaged around at the back. She handed me one of the exact same colour, though it only had about a third of a roll compared to the display model. I also immediately realised it was only masking tape, which lacked much of the strength I was hoping for. But it was the best that I was going to get and so I hurried back to the hotel, and promptly used the whole roll wrapping the tape around the suitcase as a slapdash attempt to keep my clothes from spilling out all over the place.
With my case at least holding together long enough to get loaded onto the coach on time, we set off and spent the whole morning passing through flat fields largely planted with vegetables. At lunch time we reached Brest Fortress, ate our make-shift lunches and then had about half an hour to look around. It wasn’t nearly enough time, as the nineteenth century fortress occupied an area of 4 km² (making it the Russian Empire’s largest), and I barely managed to see anything inside the complex after stopping by some rather sinister looking black Soviet era steam trains on display in rail yards outside the perimeter of the fortress.
The one thing I saw too much of was the public toilet block. The noticeable pong once in the general area was an off-putting warning, and I considered piking out and finding a bush. I summoned the courage to venture inside, and it was immediately apparent the Asian style ‘squatty-potty’ hadn’t seen any cleaning in a long, long time. I completed my mission, if only to boast I had survived the nastiest latrines I have so far ever come across in my travels.
I’d never noticed before, but on the inside back pages of my Australian passport the lines designed to write my address, foreign address and emergency contact details are not merely lines – they are in fact made up of tiny words of the national anthem. It seems a random observation to make at this point, but it’s amazing what you can find to amuse yourself while stuck sitting on the coach waiting to cross a border. There was a reason why we didn’t get nearly enough time in Brest, and that was because we still had to make it through the toughest border crossing of the trip from Belarus into Poland. Poland’s recent membership to the European Union had not made crossing the border out of former Soviet territory any easier, and Aaron forewarned us that Contiki’s slowest time of the year so far for a tour group had been around eighteen hours. Before we came to a halt he asked us all to make a guess to the nearest five minutes of how long it take to be processed, with the nearest guess winning a small prize. I’d gone for a fairly conservative estimate of seven hours and fifteen minutes, and we had passed our entry time from Finland into Russia of just under an hour with no movement whatsoever.
After a time a Belarusian customs official sought to speak to Aaron in Russian, and with the help of a small chain of translators – the official to some random elderly lady in Russian, the lady to one of our South African members Mark in German, and finally Mark to Aaron in English – it was established my worst fear for the day had been realised: We had been ordered off the coach to unload all our baggage and would have to walk through the customs building with our luggage ready for inspection. In the event of having to open my sorry looking suitcase I had nothing with which to close it back up again, though fortunately for me the inspectors were all middle aged women, and as I walked past them wheeling my barely contained possessions along behind me I gave them the nicest, most apologetic smile I could muster. They looked me, down at my case and then back at me with a look of bemusement almost bordering on sympathy, and I was able to pass through and sit down on the floor of the large waiting room without having my belongings searched.
Eventually we were all allowed back outside and were able to load all our gear onto the coach again. The green tape was certainly loosening, but it had done a sufficient job that my case was re-packed into the cargo area without my scruds leaving a grotty Hansel and Gretel style trail between the customs area of two countries. After a few more formalities on the Polish side, including a few false starts when Ricky and Aaron mistakenly thought we had been given the all-clear, we ultimately set off within Poland a mere two hours and thirty five minutes after pulling up at the border post.
We had been told to look forward to our hotel, as it would be the highest standard hotel of the whole trip. And, despite the seedy looking row of ramshackle peep shows and sex shops directly across the road, the ultra modern four star high-rise was exactly that. The roast dinner made my tastebuds do somersaults, which seems a pathetic thing to say after only ten days of stodgy food – I mean, it was hardly like we had been starved for a month while roughing it out in the wilderness. But the meat was moist and tender and without cheese, the baked potatoes were dry and crisp, it was a joy to eat vegetables other than tomato and cucumber (both technically fruit I realise, but you get my drift), and when it came to dessert the chocolate mousse was so rich I couldn’t even finish it.
With happy stomachs we spent the rest of the night outside our hotel for the first time since Helsinki, heading out to a disco with a tramcar restaurant, a live band and then a DJ running a retro 70’s night. Fun was had by all.
We started the day in what was the largest Jewish ghetto of the Second World War, a tiny pocket of the city where the Jews that then made roughly 30% of Warsaw’s population were driven into and contained by the occupying Nazis from 1940 to 1943. Other than a concrete Ghetto Heroes Monument there was absolutely nothing to signify the misery of what went on in this now quiet and peaceful area dominated by residential buildings dating from the 1970’s and 1980’s. But then that’s not surprising, considering Warsaw suffered some of the fiercest urban destruction that the war saw.
(Sorry, an awful play on words I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.)
After Hitler’s order in 1943 to transport the ghetto survivors to the death camps and level the whole district, the following year the citizens of Warsaw launched a final bitter uprising against their occupiers. The Nazis retained control, and as extra punishment levelled almost the whole city. Not that anyone could tell now when wandering through the Old Town, as the cobbled alleys and brightly coloured townhouses look as if they’ve stood uninterrupted for centuries. But for the photos of the area from 1944-5 set temporarily over the windows of the buildings in the main square – the centrepiece of an exhibition commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – I’d never have believed this whole area had been rubble not so long ago. I’m always amazed by the charm and living history of the various styles of Old Town centres in European towns and cities, but to wander through a meticulous reconstruction based on old plans and architectural drawings of how the area used to look before the Nazis reduced it to piles of rubble makes it perhaps the most amazing one I’ve visited.
By necessity, the rest of the city was rebuilt more hurriedly and with more practicality in mind. Though with Poland, like much of Eastern Europe, falling under Communist rule in the decades following the USSR’s defeat of the Nazis at this end of the continent, Stalin also bestowed upon Warsaw another one his special 1950’s architectural legacies. From exactly the same mould as his cluster of Moscow skyscrapers, the Palace of Culture and Science remains Poland’s tallest building, and Rebecca and I headed to the 30th storey terrace for a view over the rest of the twentieth century concrete edifices of the capital.
No doubt there are more reconstructed wonders in Warsaw to hold a visitor’s attention, though I spent the afternoon trying to find a replacement for my own ruin – my suitcase. It was going to be a tough ask to find a new one as big as my bulging existing one, and in a department store I found as large a case as I was ever possibly going to. After wheeling my purchase back to the hotel, I made sure all my possessions were able to fit into it without me having to leave anything behind. Fortunately they did, though there was definitely no room to squeeze in a souvenir football sized chunk of the Berlin Wall from our next destination.
This evening’s meal was not included at the hotel, and by chance just about everyone from our group ended up at a nearby steakhouse. We occupied almost every table, both outside and in, which provided for much merriment all around when the restaurant’s live music act, a middle-aged Scottish duo largely playing an acoustic set of gentle folk songs, launched into the 1970’s hit Living Next Door to Alice. Much to the initial surprise of the band, from almost every table in the restaurant there came the impromptu, enthusiastic response at the appropriate times in the chorus from the expletive laced re-release that was very popular in Australia in the mid 1990’s. Happily, the steakhouse’s food was as good as the entertainment, and once it became too cold for those of us sitting outside, we moved inside to join the rest of the group to enjoy an after drink or two while the band continued to play. Eventually, the restaurant was closing and their time was up, so with an encore rendition of Living Next Door to Alice a wildly popular way to sign off, I contently retired to the hotel having enjoyed probably the most laid back and unexpectedly fun evening of the whole trip.
While still in Poland we witnessed the bumpy narrow highway had led to a small bingle between a car and semi-trailer, before the smoother autobahn opened up to whisk us across to the German capital.
My knowledge of the Second World War from my school days had largely been concerned with Australia’s involvement in Western Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and eventually the defence of Australia itself from the Japanese invasion in the Pacific. But after having just learnt a little more about the war in Eastern Europe while we had passed through Russia, Belarus and Poland, I was really excited about visiting Berlin, the end place of WWII in Europe after Hitler’s maniacal plans for European domination had finally been crushed and he was surrounded by opposing forces on all sides. Not to mention that Berlin subsequently became one of the focal points of the Cold War after the city was carved up and divided even into the second decade of my own lifetime by the various victorious WWII armies.
From the espionage books I had read in my childhood, and from whatever else I had picked up like a sponge in my formative years, I had come to the self-formed conclusion that the border created in 1945 to separate the new countries of East and West Germany had cut Berlin in half, with the Berlin Wall forming the physical border between the two post-war Germanys within the city limits. It wasn’t until later, probably not long before the Wall fell when I was eleven years old, that I must have looked at an atlas long enough to learn that the location was even more complicated than that. Berlin at the time was deep within East Germany, with the small pocket of French, British and American controlled sectors of West Berlin a virtual tiny island surrounded by Soviet controlled territory. With West Germany more or less operating independently from its Allied conquerors from 1949, the Soviets firmly held onto their grip of East Germany, and the ongoing ideological disparities and distrust between the Allies and the Soviets that created the Cold War made Berlin a fascinating bottleneck of military and political tensions.
It made sense that the Berlin Wall – or at least what remains of it along the East Side Gallery – would be our first on our agenda on arrival in the late afternoon.
It’s amazing that a temporary structure that only really existed for twenty six of Berlin’s eight hundred or so years of concurrent habitation can remain the enduring symbol of the city. And with the exception of the limited stretches still standing, the Wall has already been dismantled for fifteen years, over half as long as the period it ever stood for in the first place. I wonder whether in a hundred years time, when there is no-one alive who actually remembers Berlin as a divided city, whether it will still hold that same aura of intrigue or whether its importance will slowly fade for both visitors and Berliners. I also wonder for how long people will be able to buy alleged pieces of the Wall as souvenirs, though considering the piece I later bought packaged in a small plastic container set in a postcard only set me back about €2 at a souvenir shop near the Brandenburg Gate, I dare say the infinite resources of home-made, quick dry concrete with a fast lick of paint on one side before being broken up into tiny pieces will still continue to be flogged off to eager tourists long after the last real remnants of the Wall have become nothing but dust.
After a casual dinner in separate groups around the popular entertainment district on the Kurfürstendamm in what was West Berlin, where the jagged skeleton of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was the only reminder of the bombings of the relatively recent past, we settled into our accommodation at the Generator Hostel. Berlin has a reputation for being one of the liveliest European cities at night, but we didn’t even have to leave the hostel bar to find a happening place. With Ricky enjoying a non-driving day tomorrow he got beyond plastered, and Grant freaked out two German teenage girls with his not-so-smooth social skills (and whom, it must be said, later revealed the sum of their combined ages together was probably about the same as his. Legally allowing 16 year olds into bars in Germany could create all kinds of moral dilemmas). With all the fun going on I barely noticed that when the bar closed it was already 3am, and I was not going to get anywhere near enough sleep before another full day tomorrow.
Our morning was spent on a walking tour of the former East Berlin led by the entertaining and enthusiastic Henry, a young Englishman studying here. We started right in the shadow of the towering Fernsehturm, a 1960’s super construction to demonstrate the superiority of the East over the West. Soviet inspired architecture of that decade had evolved considerably since Stalin’s menacing skyscrapers of the 1950’s, as by the 60’s it was space age television towers complete with revolving restaurants that were de rigueur.
From Marx-Engels Forum, a Soviet constructed park in the 1980’s to honour the two German philosophers credited with the foundations of Communism in the mid nineteenth century, we crossed the River Spree to Museum Island. Just across the street from the Berliner Dom, Old Museum building, New Museum building (only 29 years newer than the old one) and various galleries was the site of the former Stadtschloss. The palace had been a focal point of the city until it was badly damaged by Allied bombing in the Second World War, and the East Germans demolished it completely in 1950. Over later decades they built their own Palast der Republik, a hideous 1970’s pile of concrete and reflective glass totally out of keeping with the classic stone and column structures around it. Fortunately it seems this particular ugly Communist legacy’s days in Berlin are numbered, with plans afoot to demolish it and construct a replica of the original Stadtschloss. By chance I happened to see a model of the previous structure in an office window while wandering around later in the day, and it was exponentially more graceful. If Berlin can do a reproduction of the palace anywhere near as good as Warsaw did with their entire Old Town, then Museum Island will one day again be an architecturally delightful pocket of the city.
Henry led us down the major thoroughfare of Unter den Linden, where we had the happy co-incidence of bumping into Jerome from the Scandinavian part of the tour, who was enjoying his own additional Contiki itinerary through Eastern Europe. Brandenburg Gate seemed an obvious landmark to continue along to, though before we got there Henry directed us down a perpendicular street into an area clustered with official government buildings. One of these he pointed out was currently the Federal Ministry of Health, but during the Nazi era it housed the so-called Ministry of Propaganda.
Rounding a corner into a quiet street called Gertrud-Kolmar Strasse, Henry stopped in the middle of a small parking area surrounded by blocks of 1980’s flats and announced that we were now standing roughly on top of whatever remained of the Führerbunker. This was where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lived in the last months of their lives before, completely surrounded by enemies rapidly taking Berlin on all sides, they committed suicide at the end of April 1945. Henry could have been making all this up, but to give some credence to his commentary while we were there a TV crew also happened to be present at the site filming an elderly man.
According to Henry various attempts were made to blow the bunker up in ensuing years, and once the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall in the immediate vicinity, the area remained disused until the current residential flats were constructed in the late 1980’s. The apartments are about the most unassuming and anonymous of developments possible for such an infamous location, and that attempt at obscurity appeared to be completely deliberate. There were no signs, information panels or any other indications of the site’s history whatsoever, as apparently it has been long feared that the car park would become a shrine and rallying point for neo-Nazis.
Once the crew were finished filming, Henry eagerly went over to the elderly man to ask what was going on. The man replied that he was being interviewed for a French documentary and then introduced himself as one of Hitler’s guards in the bunker who had been one of the last people to leave the complex alive in the very last days of the war. This seemed just too unbelievable to possibly be true. I mean to say, for me to visit the unpublicised location of Hitler’s bunker is a cool enough story, but randomly coming face to face with one of his own staff who had actually been there at the very end? Come on, just what are the chances?
To my surprise Henry seemed to need no more convincing, and the man pointed around the car park to mark out the precise location and dimensions of the quite tiny bunker and explained the official story of what happened to the bodies of Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family was true, discounting the conspiracy theories that Hitler had survived the war. He also showed us some photos from the period of the war displayed in a personal photo album he was holding. The photos were a good likeness to him, and at the very least it was all a good story, so I made sure I snagged a quick photo of the man of my own, keeping in mind to use it for a bit of research later. And bugger me if he wasn’t telling the truth. According to other photos I soon found on the internet, we had indeed just met Rochus Misch, whose official duty between 1940 and 1945 was as a telephone operator, courier and bodyguard for Adolf Hitler, and who escaped from the bunker only hours before it was seized by Soviet troops, before he was captured and interned in Soviet labour camps for nine years.
Our walking tour in the former East Berlin was rounded off by finishing at the most famous of the border crossings to the western sector: Checkpoint Charlie. From there we were let loose, with Glenn, Rebecca and I drifting off to a small remaining section of the Berlin Wall which during the war was the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters, and now hosted a permanent exhibition called the Topography of Terror which displayed some rather confronting and unsettling photos of the Nazi era. Long after we left the exhibition one particular photo remained etched in our minds – three men kneeling by the side of a ditch with gun barrels each pressed to the backs of their heads by three army men standing behind them just about to squeeze the trigger.
Further indelible reminders of the war were never far away, most notably bullet holes peppering the facades of sandstone buildings we passed by on our ramblings. I was feeling a little numb while pondering the atrocities humans have inflicted on each other in recent history. And when we happened to walk by the Russian embassy, a sea of flowers piled outside the front gates and spilling into the street, a sign of mourning for what had only just transpired in Beslan a week or so earlier, it provided a sudden reminder that such atrocities are not just consigned to history. Encouraging an end to all forms of conflict is a nice enough utopian concept to sing songs or dream about, but as long as more than one human is on the face of the earth I can’t for a second believe that our inherent selfishness won’t always lead to some form of oppression.
A pleasant afternoon was definitely needed to lift my solemn spirits. A surprise find of a €3 buffet lunch of unlimited soup and cold meats along with some good beer helped, as did a wander to the restored Reichstag, the bombed out shell of a building where the Soviets hoisted their flag in victory in 1945 (the very same flag we had seen on display in Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum), and where the German federal Parliament has returned to sit in recently after the re-unification of East and West Germany in 1990.
The rest of the afternoon disappeared before we had much of a chance to see anything of the enormous Tiergarten, and it turned into a bit of a mad scramble to make it back to the hostel on time for dinner.
Henry was back on duty again to lead us on a pub crawl in the evening. We started out at a place called the Beach Bar, a fibro shack and open area complete with sand to make the ‘beach’ set up in what was no-man’s land between East and West Berlin. Second was a tiny little bar at street level our group could barely fit in, but going down a narrow staircase revealed a slightly musty smell as if we were in someone’s back shed and an old style nine-pin bowling alley. I enjoyed the atmosphere of this place a lot.
The third venue was a non-descript nightclub whose only attraction to me was that they played the Foo Fighters more than dance/techno music. The final one, a series of small and intimate rooms decked out with retro red wallpaper, looked nice but was so packed I was part of a sizeable group who piked out, brought a late-night kebab from a corner vendor and navigated the trams back to the hostel. It was a very enjoyable night, made all the more agreeable with the realisation that this was very possibly the last night I’d ever have to share a room with Grant.
For the first time we had a few spare seats on the coach and the extra space was much appreciated as most of us tried to get as much sleep as possible. Um, I mean to say we really missed those who had chosen to finish the tour in Berlin.
Cancelled ferry crossings between Rostock in Germany and Gedser in Denmark meant those that were running were all fully booked, and Ricky was required to make a sweeping detour to the west and then north in order to make a shorter but less helpful ferry trip. We still made it back to Copenhagen in time to split up for farewell dinners of our choice (kudos to Cushla for spotting a superb Mongolian barbecue place), and we regrouped later in a pub before then kicking on at the same old barracks-turned-hostel the Russia-only section had assembled at some two and a half weeks before, and those of us that did Scandinavia as well had set out from an entire month ago. It was the usual end of Contiki farewell, with drinks, lots of laughs, photos and heartfelt goodbyes (and, admittedly, some not so heartfelt). Grant even pulled out the famous trench-coat for one last time.
I had stayed up until 4am, when a taxi arrived to take Kelly – our first Copenhagen departure – to the airport, so after a late rise and final packing there wasn’t really a whole lot more to do until my evening flight. A group of us headed into the city to experience the ‘joys’ of shopping – which meant I just minded the bags.
I was completely exhausted after a mammoth trip which will always stay in my memory. And my savings were still looking OK too, despite the steely blonde chick working for EasyJet at Copenhagen Airport extracting an extra DKK 240 (A$50) out of me for excess baggage. After a couple of days back in London to relax and get some washing done, I’d be able to head off to Madrid for three weeks in Spain and Portugal safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t need to start scurrying around for a job just yet. The adventure continues!