Monday, January 22, 2007

Catch up

Snow in London!

Mike, his girlfriend Colleen, and me

Dad, me, Sue & Norm

Sue, Norm, Dad and Jess

Mikey, Colleen & Mum

A cute little house built on a teeny weeny bridge somewhere in the north

Me & Mum up at Hard Knott Pass
Me & Dad

"Paw! Go gits me some of those Grandma Wild's Misshaped Biscuits! I gots cravings from birthin your baby!"

Me & Mum at Haworth Church

Looking down Haworth's main drag

Those crazy Swedes

The thickest 'hot chocolate' EVER! Mmmm

Water struggling to break free (it's all frozen by the right hand side of the pic, in case you can't see)

The frozen lake at Tsarskoe Selo where I ALMOST DIED! (Ignore the fact that you can see someone standing on it with no probs in the photo...)

The Tsarksoe Selo bathhouse - I'm standing on the treacherous frozen lake to take this picture - you can see how I didn't know where I was, since the steps lead directly down to the water

I cunningly take my own photo in the mirrors of Tsaksoe's Great Hall

The picture room - wonder how they came up with the name...

The famous amber room - photography not allowed, so I had to be sneaky. The walls are covered with panels of real amber - the room glows. It was stripped in the course of WWII - I think by the Russians on their retreat to the siege of Leningrad, but not sure. The original amber panels went missing in any case, and photos after the wall just show a shell. The Germans paid for its complete restoration not so long ago.

The Great Hall

The palace facade

The Tsarskoe Selo gates

If you answer one more question correctly, you could win this beautiful Christmas tree which the lovely Lenin is pointing out to you now

Night view of the Church on the Blood along ? canal

Okay, when I left you I think I was on the verge of leaving Moscow, so we've got a lot of ground to cover. Can't really be stuffed now either, but the longer I leave it, the more synopsisy the end result will be, so let's roll up those metaphorical sleeves and record the highs and lows of the past week and a half.
Right, so the leaving of Moscow went all very smoothly. The train ride was great - me and three Russian businessmen, one of which made me stand in the corridor while he got changed for bed - pansy! And then when he opened the door for me to come back in, all the blankets fell off him anyway - thank god he was wearing underwear (but not much else). The beds were pretty comfortable, I must say. I managed to ingeniously trap my sheet in the hinge by folding it up to access storage space underneath with the sheet still on it. Don't do that. Regrettably, I had to tear the sheet to get the thing out (hope no employees of Russian rail are reading this...) If you're ever likely to make the trip, do go for the bottom bunk - as mentioned, it lifts up, so you can chuck your stuff underneath and sleep with perfect peace of mind (and the help of a sleeping pill, if you're me).
Got to St P bright and early, and caved and took a taxi to the hostel. I had fixed in my mind, without any knowledge of local economic conditions or the distances involved, that I would pay 500 rubles for a taxi (hmmm, that must be around $28 I think). The first guy wanted 1000 rubles - no chance there! So kept walking and the second said 500 straight off. Probably could have bargained him down, but since 500 was my magic number (no, not like that) didn't bother. And by 'taxi', of course, I mean a random guy with a car. He was old though, and I survived... I have heard that Russians take attempts to buckle up as insidious insults to their driving abilities, and indeed both taxi drivers in St P both verbally and physically warned me off putting my belt on (mild swipes at my hand, in case the 'physically' aspect is intriguing you), which wouldn't have actually prevented me putting my belt on - but the fact that, in both cases, there was actually nowhere to buckle the belt in to was quite an effective deterrent. Anyway the hostel let me check in 4 hours ahead of time - joys of travelling in winter, so it was a quick shower and then out to explore the streets of St P on a glorious sunny winter's day.
On the first day, I just wandered about all morning, taking in The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, Palace Square, St Isaac's (from the outside), the Bronze Horseman, walking along the waterfront and across the bridges, etc. St P is very beautiful, and the Neva is great - I repeat my assertion that a city needs a significant body of water to really shine. That's one of the flaws of Moscow - the Moskva seems to delight in sneakily popping up all over the show, but it never really makes an impression - and it's not made much of in town planning terms either - try wandering the banks of the Moskva for a fun excursion...
In the afternoon, I went on to Hare Island (can't remember its Russian name, sorry), which is taken up by the Sts Peter and Paul Fortress. Wandered about here, went in the cathedral which houses the tombs of the post-Petrine tsars, including the relocated remains of Nicholas II and his family - in a roped-off little chapel, so couldn't really get a good gander unfortunately. Also went in a museum of the history of St P, from pre-foundation to (supposedly) 1918. It actually seemed to abruptly stop with the outbreak of WWI - maybe a room was closed for refurbishment or somesuch. This was moderately interesting...

Towards the end of the first day, I did something to my foot. I can't remember doing anything out of the ordinary, but I managed to hurt it quite badly, so that there was a continual dull ache interspersed with moments where it felt like the bones had gone out of place and it was hugely painful. A week and a half later, you'll be happy to learn that only the aching remains, so here's to a full recovery. In any case, it made further tramping about the city an unattractive prospect, so after hanging around and getting some night-time shots of the city, I retired for a lame night in at the hostel.

The next day was slated for the Hermitage, as you know. The palace itself is gorgeous and would be worth paying to see, and then of course there's all the magnificent works of art. It is huge huge huge - I stayed for 7 hours and although I think I saw all the rooms, there were definitely times where I pretty much marched right through without paying a lot of attention. One painting I do have to mention, don't remember who it was by, but it was so cool. Around the edge were conventional hunting scenes, and then in the middle the hunter and his dogs got tried by an animal court and then sentenced - the dogs to hanging, and the man to being spit-roasted. I think it was called 'The Animals' Revenge' or something along those lines. Definitely one for our vegetarian friends - will post a photo in good time. That's another thing - the Hermitage allows photography, god bless it. By the way, the pre-booked internet ticket was a waste of time, in winter at least. I couldn't even find where I was meant to go to exchange my internet 'voucher' for a real ticket, so just wound up at one of the normal cash desks, which were devoid of lines. However, you got photo privileges included in the price of the ticket, so I think it wound up about the same price as buying a ticket and a photo permit on the spot. I only actually got asked whether I had a photo permit on two occasions where they caught me flashing (why own a winter coat if you're not going to use it?) so you could probably get away without buying a permit anyway.

On my last day in St P, naturally I left the city behind and went to another town - Pushkin, which, as far as I could see, had nothing to recommend it other than (presumably) cheap living close to Petersburg and the royal palace of Tsarskoe Selo, which was of course, what took me there. Getting there was a bit of a mission - the only info I had was 'take a bus from metro station x' which didn't turn out to be of much use when I arrived at metro x and couldn't figure out which bus to take. However, in one of those heart-warming moments where you realise that, stony faced bastards as they may look in public, Russians can actually be nice, I enlisted the help of the locals. First up were the lovely pair who sold me a bottle of water from their kiosk. We got chatting, they wanted to know where I was from, and then the young one asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, it was all "such a pretty girl and no boyfriend?!" which immediately made them my friends for life, so I asked them if they knew the bus I needed. They called over a bus driver who was lounging outside his bus nearby, and he launched into some rapid Russian which I clearly couldn't understand, so he took me in hand and walked me over to where I needed to be (after quickly moving his bus out of the way). Bless! Then on the way to St P, a garrulous old man sat down with me and insisted on talking to me the entire way, despite the fact that most of his best efforts met with an 'I don't understand' from this end. I did, however, manage to glean that he spent two hours in minus 30 degree water - why was a mystery to me, but I recently read an article saying that this was a Russian Orthodox epiphany tradition, so perhaps he was gearing up for that, and that he was an engineer who built one of the car dealerships we drove past. (This was a Tiana moment, with the guy going "it's here. No wait, here. No, this one. No, this one. Yeah, this one...")

I made it to Tsarskoe Selo eventually and entered the park, which is so huge that I had to ask someone which direction to go for the (also huge) palace. The palace is really lovely - a long blue and white facade, and a stunning interior. It didn't take very long to traipse through. Probably would have been better with a guide to spice up the (very pretty) interiors - didn't see any audio guides on offer, though. For some reason it seemed full of school groups, despite being the weekend. Afterwards I walked around the grounds for a couple of hours - lots of little buildings, bridges, rivers etc. I walked down the steps of the bathhouse and walked backwards for a little way to take a photo. Suddenly, I was horrified to observe a guy near me drilling holes in the ice. Yes, I was standing on a frozen lake! I was absolutely terrified and got off as quick as my little legs would take me. I wouldn't have thought it would be cold enough at all for a lake to freeze that solidly! People were walking all over the frozen lake, but you couldn't have paid me to get back on - they should have signs to warn people that they're taking their lives into their hands - could have been a real 'Little Woman' moment for your faithful correspondent... After some time, my foot was too sore to continue, but it took probably another half an hour to find a bus stop to go home. ('Home') There's nothing worse than that particular misery of being stuck somewhere when you want to leave. But eventually, I was back to St P, to spend the rest of the day holed up in a coffee shop with Kazuo Ishigoru (not in person).

That brings us up to Monday, the day of my exodus from Russia. It took probably about 9 hours to make the trip to Manchester, including milling about at the airport. I was a tad worried that I would get in trouble for not registering my presence in St P with the Russian authorities, but luckily nothing came of that. Even better, my 28.6 kg suitcase (luggage allowance - 20 kgs) slipped past the check-in girl without a word. Result! Had a brief stop in Stockholm - some quite good aerial views of Finland and Sweden, could really see the raggedy coastlines and not much snow there either - and then it was touch down in Manchester, with my parents waiting for me.

Spent the next week being unbelievably spoilt by my parents. Yes, I'm a cosmopolitan globe trotter (stop laughing, everyone), but it's still nice to let Meh & Peh look after you at times. Lovely to see my grandparents as well. The drawbacks of travelling in winter are, of course, things being shut, as we discovered at Haworth and at Wordsworth's cottage in the Lake District. But never mind... We also had a fun excursion up into the mountains in Cumbria, through very steep, windy and narrow roads. We were at the top of a pass checking out a Roman fort when it started to (at various stages on our descent) snow, sleet, and hail. Dad & I were cool, but my Mum's a wuss and she went to pieces in the back seat. But never fear, as the more astute among you will have realised, we got down from Hard Knott pass with no loss of life or limb and thus I'm here to tell the tale today.

On Friday, we caught the train from Lancaster to London. It was pretty crowded, because on Thursday storms and high winds had prevented the trains from running, so we were lucky the weather was a bit better for us. My parents went to a hotel and I'm crashing at my sister's place again, sweet. They went out to see Spamalot on Friday night - there were no tickets, of course, for the unexpected Gwan, so I stayed in and tried to (for the second time) come to grips with the plot of Donnie Darko (well, that, and just stare at Jake Gyllenhaal looking very young and cute). On Saturday, we all went out to Westminster Abbey (my second time there). Once again, the tour with a verger is highly recommended. Try to get the Asian (British Asian - Indian or Pakistani, I don't know) guy if you can, he's fabulous! True showman and a little bit camp, we love it. Plus he used to live in Howick, so there you go. In the evening, we went to Covent Garden to have dinner with beloved family friends, and we all had a briliant time catching up - love you guys!

Yesterday was my parents' last day in the UK. It was up far too bright and early after the drinking of the night before - tired, although not hungover - and out to the British Museum (also a repeat visit for moi). A few hours was enough for our attention spans, if not enough to take in everything, and then after a coffee break there was just time to chill a little bit before my parents had to go off to the airport. A bit sad to see them go, but it's good that I got to see them unexpectedly.

Today I chilled with a DVD and went for a walk for a couple of hours round Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park (so close to my sis' place, excellent). I was encircled by some very cute squirrels (lucky they weren't armed) - obviously they've lost their fear of people, they kept running right up and 'begging'. When I (finaly) walked off, one of them even chased me. So going back with some squirrely treats. No squirrel jokes, please, Prague people!

And now we're all up to date. I've sent out my CV to a library-specialist recruitment agency and for a vacancy at Oxford, so we'll see if anything comes of that, fingers crossed. Will let you all know in due time. Probably won't be up to many exciting things though - no money!


  1. tee hee,

    like that time with the Jackson 5 song.... wait...its coming up, here... no wait its here.... now... no, its now.....




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