A Travellerspoint blog

Xi'an and the Terracotta Army.

(more pictures have been put up on the last Beijing blog)

The reason for including Xi'an in our travel plans was so we could include what the Chinese refer to as the 8th Wonder of the World, The Terracotta Army.

We left Beijing almost reluctantly, it's not a place I could see myself living, but we spent the longest period of time there out of anywhere so far. I think we had become settled after the travel so far and we allowed ourselves a few days to relax. We took a taxi to the train station, luckily leaving enough time as the roads in typical Beijing fashion were gridlocked. Once arriving at the station we located our platform and walked to our train, through the windows we could see all the sleeper compartments which looked quite alright, but we did not pay for a sleeper. We eventually got to our carriage, it was packed! There were people already sitting in our seats, but luckily they did move. There was also so much luggage initially that we couldn't keep ours anywhere but the walkway and had to keep lugging it onto our laps when people needed to get by! Great we have 13 hours of this!

Gradually people started to leave the carriage picking up deals on the sleeper cabins which were empty or not full, allowing us to put our bags in the storage areas and get a little more leg room. I can't say it was the most pleasant trip I have encountered, and I only managed about 30 minutes sleep, but I expect it could have been worse, luckily the people around us were ok and kept themselves to themselves.

Arriving at Xi'an we were accosted by people trying to offer us lifts, but we went straight to the bus stop to head to the hostel. With minor difficulty we found our hostel and decided to get a private room to get some good sleep without snoring and the luxury of a private toilet and shower. 

The following day we headed off to explore the city and in particular the Bell Tower and the Drum tower. Both were interesting, they are two separate towers that are located close to one another emerging from the smartly built up areas of Xi'an. So they say the Bells were rang at dawn to see in the new day, an the drums were struck at dusk to exit the passing day, now they are only used during special occasions.

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(the bell tower)

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(the drum tower)

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Xi'an is a walled city, or at least its epicentre is. The city sprawls much further that the ancient wall but most of the interest to a visitor is inside. The wall surrounding the inner city  center is 8.5km long so we decided to go up and take a look. Once up there we found that you could hire bikes to ride about the wall for only the equivalent of a couple of pound. So with our new modes of transport we set off to ride the wall. There are areas which are very smooth and some were a bit more of a challenge, but apart from stopping for photos and photos that Chinese people wanted of us, we conquered the wall, riding the whole thing and descended from it with tired legs. 

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(taken with smiths camera with his little tripod he bought in Beijing)

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(taken using the tripod)

You cant come to Xi'an and not visit the Terracotta Army, so we did just that. Paying for a guided tour at our hostel, the following day we were picked up for the tour by our crazy Chinese tour guide Jaja, or as she called herself Lady Jaja! Unfortunately for me I was sitting right by her, an after initially struggling to pick up some of the things she said in her broken English, so she decided to test to see if I had been listening in front of the coach! A great source of amusement for everyone, and I tried to shift the blame to some of the other tourists, who I could tell were as clueless as me! This set the tone for the style of the tour, were I was regularly pulled out to help with questions and even a demonstration, which sounds more bizarre that it was. The Terracotta Army is located in three sites, all enclosed by their individual museum buildings. Some are still being excavated, and are not as impressive as the last colossal airplane hanger of a building which houses the ones that are produce those world famous pictures of those regimented terracotta warriors.  The collection of terracotta sculptures are depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China which he ordered the construction as he believed after his death he would rule one way or another back on earth and wanted to make sure he had a army to protect him. They date from the 3rd century BC. It's an incredibly impressive collection of individually sculpted figures, and naively due to the scale of them I had always beloved them to be small, but they are not, the Emperor had asked them to be constructed larger than his own Army so they would be even stronger. 

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(the kneeling lucky archer)

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An interesting fact about the army is that the first one found has been nicknamed 'the lucky archer'. This is mainly due to the fact that he was the most intact warrior they have ever found, and he still has some of his original colour, as they were all once upon a time painted. During the tour, we even met the farmer who discovered the army in 1974, he was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as he signed books for tourists. Lady Jaja pulled me forward and made me shake his hand. A little while later there was another gift shop with a man claiming to be the farmer who found the army too. I'm not sure who to believe! During the tour Lady Jaja gave Kailey a little Terracotta warrior as a present, and on the coach she gave me a 'the lucky archer' for my help during her tour. A few days later she knocked on our hostel room door and gave Smith a Terracotta horse so he didn't feel left out which was very kind.

One of the days we went along to the Small Goose Pagoda, and had a look round the gardens that surround it, and in the evening headed out to the Big Goose Pagoda to watch the water fountain and light show which they hold every evening. It turned out to be very good, and it was bustling with people. Everything was lit up, and it made for some good photo opportunities!

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(small goose pagoda)

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We had a good night out during our time in Xi'an with a British guy and two Americans all teaching english as a foreign language. They taught us a Chinese dice game that people play at the bars, as well as getting some street food with them, arguably having the best Chinese  dumplings I have ever had.

For those of you who have been reading my blog, you may recall the section during the Great Wall tour explaining about the Silk Factory in Beijing, and their Poopoo pillow. We were treated to one of these in our private room in Xi'an. If you were thinking of investing, don't, they are quite literally crap!

 Next stop Shanghai!!!

Posted by Christian25 23:47 Archived in China Tagged asia_china_travel_xi'an Comments (0)

Beijing and beyond (the third and last installment)

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(Now with all the photos!!!)

The Beijing Zoo is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, due to the fact that I have never seen a Panda before, and I have always been a fan of bears. Beijing zoo is huge, I wouldn't say it was the nicest zoo I have ever visited, there appears to be new investment, so some animals have modern and well designed habitats, while others seem to be rather cramped by U.K. standards. Arguably it was another black and White animal that was the most entertaining at the zoo. The Penguins put on a great impromptu display, playfully swimming around and seemed very content, which I enjoyed. In the aquarium, the highlight, apart from catching the end of an impressive dolphin display was the Beluga whales. These huge white mammals are very playful, maybe three times bigger than a dolphin, and looking like a cross between that and a whale. They appear to have a constant smile on their face which adds to their charm and character, and one carried on playing with it's foam toys most of the time we watched it!

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One of the most important of the zoo inhabitants we saved for last. The Panda. They were very cute, and although not the most active, fascinating to watch wrestling with their bamboo, particularly the youngsters!

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The next day we went to Lama temple (Yonghe Temple) which is situated at the end of our road and was just about visible over the high wall closing it off. The temple is primarily used by Tibetan Buddhists, and is considered one of their most important religious sites. We had been recommended that it was well worth a visit, as it's home to the largest standing Budda in the world made out of a solid piece sandalwood. The temple is very much a working temple with Buddhists praying and lighting incense sticks, which gave the place a very sensory experience. 

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The Temple of Heaven was another Ming Dynasty creation, there is an important balance in Chinese culture between opposites, this is reflected in the Feng Shui culture and the famous chinese YingYang (or Ying & Yang). The Temple of Heaven, was a place to pray for good harvests. It was built in a way that echoed the idea in ancient and still modern Chinese culture, that the square represents Earth, and the Circle represents Heaven. The temple is unique from the others we have seen in Beijing as it's circular, set in a large walled square. To represent the Chinese beliefs. In the grounds of the Temple of Heaven Chinese people played cards, bat and ball games, played instruments and a group of people wrote Chinese characters with massive sponge calligraphy brushes in water on the black paving slabs that take you up to the temple which was great to watch.

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The last few days were spent relaxing and we only ventured out to see the Summer Palace in the north of the city. We actually didn't make it, turning up at the old summer palace which is now a ruin, after the English and France destroyed it during the Second Opium War in 1860 in revenge for the torture and deaths of some British envoys, a Times journalist and their group of British and Indian Troopers by the Royal Prince. When it was ordered to be destroyed the troops looted the palace, and these actions are still criticised today!

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The next stop on the trip is to Xi'an which is home to the Terracotta Army, which should be interesting! However, the 13 hour train ride without a bed doesn't fill me with as much enthusiasm!    

Posted by Christian25 23:01 Archived in China Tagged travel_china_beijing_travelling Comments (0)

Beijing and Beyond (the second installment)

The first chapter of an Asian adventure!

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We decided that we would pay for a guided tour of the Great Wall, in particular the Badaling section. We managed to sort one out via the hostel which also included a tour of the Ming tomb, lunch and a visit to two Chinese factory shops that explained and sold traditional exports of the country.

Setting off early in the morning, embarrassingly our earliest start so far in China, we were picked up by the mini bus, greeted by our guide Mavis (which was her English name). On the bus was other Asian tourists, most from Hong Kong and the others from Taiwan and then a couple from Switzerland. Mavis did the majority if the explanation about the wall on the bus so we could be left to explore and experience the wall how we chose fit. One point she made to us and the Swiss couple was that we were going to be a major minority of westerners at the wall. In fact she suggested that due to the time of the year, off season there would be extremely few westerners. This is surprisingly the case even at the peak of the season, that western tourists are massively out numbered by Chinese and other Asians making a visit to there most famous landmark. She warned us that some of the people visiting may have only have seen a westerner in Hollywood films and never in the flesh, so not to be worried if they stare or even take pictures, which we laughed off!

We arrived after an interesting drive through the Chinese countryside to a massive coach park, Mavis sorted out our tickets to the cable cars to get to the top of the hills which the wall is located on. The wall in places has over a 60 degree incline, and cuts across the hillside not fazed by the undulating terrain. I'll be honest I'm not the greatest fan of heights, so the cable car although fun, did fill me with some apprehension, but it was ok. Once up on the hill side, apart from the poor visibility as a thin mist hung over the vista, the vastness of the wall can be fully comprehended. This only being a section of the wall, there is four sections that are separate in the Beijing area alone.

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Apart from the visibility not being as good as we may have hoped the views were still amazing and the wall was as spectacular as I had imagined. It was as packed as Mavis has warned, and if this was out of season, we had chosen the best time to visit! We were treated to some excellent photography shots, hustling with the other visitors for prime locations. We also experienced a fame that might be our only ever experience of any kind of stardom, people waving at us, taking pictures, smiling and practicing English. At one point we asked a Asian man carrying a large camera if he minded taking a picture of the three if us. As soon as we got ourselves into position a photo shoot entailed which resulted in other Asians, I assume mainly Chinese, people from small towns and villages, snapping pictures of us on everything from phones to huge lensed cameras. It was a strange experience, and as I said to the others, 'we are currently standing on one of the Seven Wonders of the World and people are just as in awe of us'. This nearly went to my head, but I managed to keep a lid on it! 

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The descent off the hillside in the slightly dodgy cable car was almost a little sad after the heights of the Wall and the new found celebrity status, but it just helped to enforce the feeling if how lucky we are to be experiencing such a fantastic trip. Once in a lifetime!

 Back on the coach we headed off to The Jade  Gallery and lunch. The Gallery is still producing items in the precious stone, from large carvings to delicate earrings. The guide was very enthusiastic in telling us that the material holds it's value better than gold or silver. It's also a massively traditional material to the Chinese and many if the carvings in jade have different meanings and relationships in Feng Shui. Ultimately the idea of the visit is with the intention of getting the tourists to purchase some jade, the prices would have ended the travelling there and then, but it was an interesting place. 

Lunch was served and we were a little puzzled, knives and forks on the table, even a spoon for the real simpleton. The Chinese food was noticeably more western and then the bombshell... Chips! It then dawned on us what Mavis had meant earlier on the bus, that there was a specific area of Beijing which westerners tend to eat more western food! That went a long way to explain why we had been eating our food at restaurants serving grilled locust amongst other things, and the bemused stares we received from the Chinese people eating their food. So we had been having dinner in the hardcore restaurants, eating the 'real' Chinese food, which filled us with a collective pride in our blinded bravery! 

After dinner we set off in the mini bus across more rural China, to visit the Ming tomb. There are 13 tombs in an area about 30 miles north of the city of Beijing. The most impressive and most visited is the one of the third Ming emperor Yongle, who is responsible for most if the famous Ming buildings and temples, in particular the Forbidden City! Mavis explained a great deal of the ancient wisdom that is still left over to this day, such as the Feng Shui and superstitions that the Chinese believed when building their palaces and tombs, as well as other buildings. For example there is a step you have to cross in every doorway, this was believed to keep evil spirits from entering. She told us that women should cross the step with their right foot and men with their left. There were also certain areas where people would leave money at the tomb as an offering in return for good luck, which we all thought we could do with. 

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There was a doorway at the tomb which was called the Spirit Way, which the body of the Emperor would have been taken through when he was going to be buried, symbolically  to take him over to the afterlife. A mortal human should not cross the door in the direction to his tomb, but rather go round it, but once returning, you most pass through the door. Mavis taught us the routine that must be done when coming through the Spirit Way. First you need to brush yourself down to clean off any bad spirits that might have latched themselves onto you, you must cross the doorway in the correct manner, men leading with their left foot, women with there right. You have to recite in Chinese, 'I'm coming back' and once through the Spirit Way, not turn back to look, and hold hands with your family members. I'm unsure if this ritual has become more of a tourist experience to help sell the ancient Chinese wisdom, but we thought it's best to give ourselves all the luck we can get, and it was a nice experience. 

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(The Spirit Way)

Our last stop of the day was the Beijing Silk Museum, which much like the Jade gallery had an alternate ploy, to make you buy high quality silk. The introduction wad interesting, we learnt the life cycle of the silk worm, and how everything it produces is used, from eating the worm itself, to it's excrement being used in Chinese medicine. They made a pillow, which the guide at the silk museum had great joy explaining was called the 'poopoo pillow', which doesn't need much of an introduction but it's suppose to be good for your neck amongst other things. Needless to say we are not walking round donning the latest silk fashions, but it was a good experience, and arguably our best day out so far! 

Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment, coming soon!

Posted by Christian25 02:50 Archived in China Tagged travel_china_beijing_travelling Comments (2)

Beijing and beyond!

The first chapter of an Asian adventure!

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(Beijing from Jingshen Park)

Touching down at Beijing airport at silly O'clock in the morning after a seven hour flight, we walked out into the fresh China morning with the task of getting ourselves to our hostel. We had decided that the best option was a taxi, just to save the hassle which we didn't need due to how tired we were. After a bit of bartering we managed to get a taxi at a good price and headed off along the relatively quiet Beijing highway with our taxi driver weaving in and out of traffic. The buildings around Beijing are clean and modern, and most we saw along the highway were tall. Some had large signs advertising  their company, others had large tv screens or lights. Few looked like they were housing, as it all appeared very commercial. Quite a stark contrast to the run down flat blocks on the outskirts of Moscow.

After turning off the highway we entered what looked like 'real' China, but with some gift shops littered here and there along the street. Down the side roads houses of multiple shapes and sizes encroached onto one another. The street at this time, 6:30 (or so) in the morning was only inhabited by road sweepers and the odd Chinese person going about their own business. Our taxi driver, pointed at what looked like a temple and said something enthusiastically in Chinese, which I questioned to no avail until I realised it was Lama Temple, which was suppose to be close to where we were staying. The taxi driver continued for a short distance, pulled over and pointed out to a side street we had just passed on the opposite side of the road 'Beixin Hutong', this was our stop.

Wondering down the street felt like we were out of our depth, it was very quiet due to the time apart from the odd cyclist who zoomed past and rang their bell at us, the road being so narrow only one car could fit down it, and there were no pavements, the doors of houses and small businesses just opened out onto the street. After being lost in the back end of 'real' China for a little while, we plucked up the courage to ask two Chinese men cooking some suspect meat in a horrendously dirty pot outside a grubby looking shop, we showed them the name of the hostel written down and the pointed us in the direction, after a bit more time we eventually found the hostel, after checking in we headed straight for bed and wrote off the day.

When we eventually woke up we headed out to look for some food and to see if we could catch the Man Utd v's Liverpool game. After a few beers at the bar watching the football, we headed off to grab some food walking back down a road we had passed earlier which was full of restaurants. We choose the busiest with the most Chinese people inside and set about perusing the menu, avoiding the grilled locusts and the terrapin soup, we ordered some food that was a little more basic, but still adventurous. It proved to be very tasty apart from the odd chicken, or maybe it was a pork dish we had which I choose not to think too much about what it was!?

The following day we got up late again still suffering from the traveling, we decided to head down to Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City. From looking at the map it appeared to be a long but easily doable walk. As it turned out, it's quite a massive trek. On our way after walking up a hunger, but enjoying the sights and sounds of Beijing, we decide to stop at a restaurant for sone food. While looking at the menu the waiter suggested we try the famous Peking Duck. We were not disappointed, it was hand carved in front of us and you rap it in thin pancakes much like the U.K. but the quality of the duck was far superior! After the food we made it to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen square, we walked into the entrance of the Forbidden City but changed our mind about paying to see inside the Palace Museum due to how late we had left it, rather deciding to come back the following day when we would have more time to have a proper look.

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(Peking Duck)

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The following day, still cursed by our fatigue, we got up late and got a taxi back down to the Forbidden City and Palace Museum. The place was much larger than we had appreciated. Built over 14 years from 1404 to 1420 by the Ming Dynasty and also occupied by the Qing Dynasty, it consists of 980 building, of which we visited just a few, many are not open to the public. The place is truly remarkable and inspiring, and was a great experience, after walking the length of the Palace Museum we went and scaled the man made hill in Jingshen Park. The Hill was made at the north of the Forbidden City by the spoil left from the moats dug out around it. The hill in the park has 5 pavillions built on it offering fantastic views of the Beijing an back across the Forbidden city. It helps to put into prospect the vastness of Beijing and how huge the capital of china really is.

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(The top Pavillion in Jingshen Park from the Palace Museum)

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(views of Beijing and across the forbidden city from Jingshen Park)

The following day, still feeling lethargic, we ventured out later in the day to go have a look around the famous Pearl Market. Maybe named due to the fact the building was built on the grounds of an actual pearl Market now it's home to a massive three floored Market selling everything from electricals, clothing, tourist trinkets and fancy toiletries, many of it being 'knock-offs', but of a good quality. The place is a Mecca for the savvy shopper who is keen to have a good barter. Or even like myself, someone who was just keen to have a look, while having handbags and various silk scarves shoved into my face. It doesn't sound like it, but it was an amusing experience with the good natured Chinese sellers. Eventually I was being silly with the sellers pointing at my own underwear or shoes when offered pants or high heeled shoes. I'm not a hundred percent sure they understood, but the seemed to find it funny too!

The next instalment I will inform you of visiting one if the 7 wonders of the world, seeing Pandas and various other shinanagens!

Posted by Christian25 20:35 Archived in China Tagged travel_china_asia_traveling Comments (3)

Moscow Shinanagens

The final days of Russia, before we Moscow!

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Setting off from our hostel at 12:30am we walked to the the train station. The walk in all honesty was a little disconcerting, the usual hustle and bustle of the noisy St. Petersburg streets was replaced by a eirey quiet. It was a Sunday night, or rather a Monday morning, which may well have added to the lack of people about at that time. However, using the wheels on our backpacks to drag them along, particularly over areas that were cobbled, reverberated off the surrounding buildings. The very few people that were out were either drunk, or appeared to have an alternate motive. However, I may just have been worrying unnecessarily. 

The station wasn't far and once there we looked for the board to see our train time and platform. With everything in Russian cyrillic, it's more of a matter of matching the symbols of our ticket to those corresponding on the departures. Once we had located the platform we set off passed the Russian guards, or maybe police or even army, they all look very similar, back out into the night to find our train. The air lingering over the platforms had a smell like a coal burning train chugging out it's smoke, and I wouldn't rule that out, but once we arrived out our correct platform there hundreds of people waiting outside the train chain smoking cigarettes which potentially could have been leading to the smell. Although this is a country were you can still smoke inside, it was pleasing to know that people were obviously forbidden to smoke on the train, and a mist of cigarette smoke hung over the platform. Finding the platform has been ok, but locating our carriage and beds in the train was a little more confusing as we only a computer print off for conformation for the three of us. We arrived at our carriage 20 mins early only to be told, what we roughly translated as, 'you need to have actual tickets' a bit of a panic started, as we had no idea where to get them from. Smith said 'the train wont leave without us!' which I think I might have worried him by sternly informing him 'it definitely will leave without us!'

The panic was resolved, ironically receiving sound advice for the location of the ticket office from a man that had just demanded money off us, as well as an old lady with no teeth and later while left guarding the bags he walked passed me feeling the walls up and hugging a vending machine, only in Russia!

We had to run for the train in the end, but we made it. I'm not sure what I expected the train to be like, but I wasn't horrified by what I saw so that was a relief! To each section of the areas which you could sleep, there was 6 beds, it was better not to think to much about who had slept there before, and apart from the stale smell of cigarettes chipping away at your sinuses I fell asleep quite quickly, only waking a few times before arriving in Moscow. 

Moscow is technically our last stop in Europe before the Asian leg of the tour, the weather forecast is, and has been poor, but it's a nice hostel, one if the best rated in Russia. 

The first day of sight seeing we headed down to Moscow's Red Square, which has many of the cities most iconic/ famous buildings located on it, particularly St. Basils Cathedral with its onion domes. The weather was wet and didn't aide the photography, we also appear to be in Moscow while something major is going on. However, in true Russian style nobody seems to have a clue what's going on! The whole if the Red Square while we have been here has slowly being filled up with high scaffolding towers and large areas are cordoned off with no real explanation form anyone we have asked.

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(We went in one of the most expensive shopping centers I have encountered, if you have some loose change you could even buy a Porsche)

The people that we have met at the hostel feel like what I had expected from this trip, lots of nationalities getting on and mixing with one common goal, as well as a similar direction. In the evening we were informed that different groups of people where heading out for drinks, after a short wait in the common room people's plans started to be shared and in the end a group of 10 of us were arranging a night out together after very little prior exchange. We headed out in our group that sounded like the opening to an elaborate joke! 3 English (us), 2 Scots, a Kiwi, an American, a half Argentinian/Russian, a Parisian and a Parisian Italian. We went to a bar which the two girls from Paris had been to a previous night, which due to it being a Tuesday. Evening wasn't as busy as they had experienced before, but we decided to make the party. After a peruse of the menu we were quickly told that when in Russia, do as the Russians do and drink vodka, and although I'm not a huge fan, I wasn't going to experience Russia without trying their famous tipple. That said I didn't expect us to consume 3 bottles between us, amongst other shots and some champagne which, we were regularly informed by the French girls was an appalling example. The bar soon went from quiet to raucous in a matter of moments and we preceded to reinforce international relations over a common goal. 

The night took it's toll, many souls were left deflated and lifeless the following day, unfortunately Kailey took the brunt, and spend the day in bed poorly, as well a one of the French girls. Me and Smith eventually took a wonder out with Karl the American, who had acquired a posh umbrella from the previous night and headed for the Red Square. We managed a look round the fantastic St. Basils Cathedral, which is a maze of small thickly walled corridors and little rooms with religious icons and carvings. It was a welcome change from some of the churches and cathedrals we have visited previously which tend to share a generic theme of high ceilings throughout, and built in a manor that makes the building shaped like a cross, this is obviously not possible due to the shape of the building, and it's gigot patterned onion domes. There was also a Russian male choir singing, and their voices hauntingly followed you around the Cathedrals narrow undulating passageways. 

The following day we had planned to see the Kremlin, however, in typical Russian style, it was closed off due to what appeared to be some military activity, which we were restricted from seeing by heavily armed guards. There was no explanation on the ticket offices, although there may well have been, but it wasn't apparent as it's all in cyrillic. This was a particular disappointment as we did not have another opportunity to view the Kremlin before we leave! We did however go in Lenin's Mausoleum, where we had to leave all bags and any items we could take photos with at a cloakroom and be quickly ushered around a fairly modern looking stepped pyramid building which contains the embalmed body of Lenin. It was a bizarre place and was heavily guarded by the military. There was little to say about it apart from how strange it felt that his body had become a tourist attraction, and that we seem compelled as humans to be obsessed with the subject of death and morbid things, Lenin himself has said that he wished for no fuss to be made after his death and wish to be buried with his mother in a modest grave.

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(Lenin's Mausoleum)

Its strange to think that we have been on the road for a month now and our European leg of the trip is over, but I'm very much looking forward to visiting Asia and in particular our next stop China!

Posted by Christian25 06:18 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow_travel_russia_travelling Comments (0)

St. Petersburg

The totally unique St. Petersburg

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St. Petersburg is the biggest city we have visited so far on our trip, luckily though our unique hostel, in is run down shell of an apartment is located centrally, enough so that it has allowed us the opportunity to walk to the places of interest in the city. Thus also allowing us to avoid another run in with the fantastic and ornate yet petrifying subway system. Or even a ride on the trolly buses which are completely new to me and I think the rest of the group too (for those who are not aware, it's a regular bus, but run by electric, via wires suspended above the road much like a tram).
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The main museums, palaces and churches of St. Petersburg are located within walking distance of each other, and from our hostel it's about a 30 to 40 min walk to this area. On our first day the focus of our attentions was the world famous Hermitage Museum. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and contains over 3 million artefacts, of which, only a third are on display at one time. The museum is one of the more expensive tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, but by a stroke of luck we had chose to visit on the first Thursday of the month which happens to be a free entry day. The hermitage is made up of 6 buildings, one of which is the Winter Palace, which is the former residence of Russian emperors. The building itself is massive and has an impressively large square in front of it which only accentuates it's grandeur. The artists work which are contained in the building is that of the most famous in the world. To name a few is almost an injustice to those I can't!

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Many of the artist exhibited I have looked at in depth during my studies of art at different levels of my schooling, but a special exhibition being held at the hermitage was of one of my favourite artists Antony Gormley. He is a British artist who is most famous in the U.K. arguably for his 'Angel of the North' which is located Gateshead, England. I was excited that someone I have studied at such depth, who is still alive and working today had a special exhibition of his work on in the most famous art gallery in the world. Especially as the work contained in the Hermitage is generally, if not solely that of artists that have long since died. It's a mark of how prestigious his work now is on a world stage that he should be granted a room to himself for a temporary instalment. His work focuses around his own body and the casts he takes of it, which he uses to create his statues primarily out if iron. This group of statues, were being paralleled to famous marble statues from all over ancient European civilisations. When viewed close up the works were just blocks of iron jumbled together, but viewed from a distance they offered a different angle at looking at the human form, almost a pixellated view of a person, it was very impressive.

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The following day we went and visited the fort of St Peter and Paul, which was built by Peter the Great, due to the main tourist season being over, areas where being repaired, but it was interesting to look around and to also get up close to the cathedral in the grounds, The Peter and Paul Cathedral. This is quite a landmark across St. Petersburg due to it very tall golden spire.

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(Russia can be a bit bizarre at times!)

Another point of interest in St. Petersburg is The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (also known as the Church of the Resurrection). It is is built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in his memory, by his son Alexander III. the work started in 1883, but it wasn't completed until 1907. The building has several individual onion domes, some brightly coloured and some golden. The onion domes are quite a common sight on Russian architecture, but these were particularly impressive!

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We also took a look around the museum of the defence and siege of Leningrad. It's not a huge museum and is relatively tucked away. Unfortunately the vast majority of the exhibits are in Russian, with very little explanation in English, but there was enough information offered to get an idea of the efforts that the people of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) went to during the second world war. Hitler wanted to capture Leningrad due to it's location on the Baltic sea to help with the Nazi navel fleet. The city was under siege for 900 days, during which it revived constant bombardment. The museum also focused on the people who were living in the city, particularly artists who documented the events in paintings and drawings, which offers a universal picture of the horrors the experienced. One if hitlers tactics was to starve the city of resources and supplies. Many civilians died due to malnutrition and the harsh winters experienced in this area of the world. It was a truly fascinating place, and a period of history which I naively new little about!

The next leg of our journey will be taking us to Moscow, we will be travelling there via a sleeper train. I have heard many horror stories about sleeper trains from all over the world, I'm just hoping it's not too shabby and we can actually get some rest!

Posted by Christian25 08:52 Archived in Russia Tagged st.petersburg_russia_travel Comments (0)

Helsinki and beyond!

The Russians are calling!

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The first day in Helsinki we decided to go for and explore using our travel cards which we purchased from the hostel lobby. Smith had suggested that we looked into going to see a Ice Hockey game, so we set off for the arena where it's played in Helsinki, once arriving though the impressive arena was completely closed. We were getting the hang of the tram system so hopped back on one and headed for central. Once deeper into Helsinki we got to a square with the large white cathedral perched on top of probably the highest point of Helsinki. We couldn't have chosen a better day to see it, the weather was hot and there was some event taking place on the steps that led to the cathedral. At the time we were unaware to the nature of the event taking place, as it turned out it was for a children's charity in which people had knitted hundreds of patterned squares which would later be auctioned off. It set an impressive picture in the cathedrals square of all the multicoloured pieces of knit-work laid out over a set of easily 40 or more steps, with the elegant White cathedral behind with a blue sky backdrop. The cathedral was originally built like many buildings in Finland in a Neo-classical style by the Russians after the Finish War. The cathedral was a tribute to Grand Duke, Nicholas I, the Tsar of Russia. It was called St. Nicholas' Church until Finish independence in 1917. Later in the day we arrange our tickets between Helsinki and St. Petersburg the only bit of travel be hadn't arrange until Beijing before we left the U.K. Which fingers crossed will be ok, Russia after all being the biggest pain to sort out our visas for!

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The following day we took a trip to Suomenlinna island and fortress. As I described in my previous blog this place is a world heritage site due to it's military and maritime history and many years of rule under three separate sovereign states (Swedish, Russian and Finn). It's building work therefore shares influence from all of these cultures and it's dry docks on the island are still in use. There are a mix of housing, small offices and a library on the island which is a 10 minute boat ride from the mainland. It's been under civilian administration only since the early seventies and even still has a naval marine academy on it. We luckily joined a guided tour that was in English which was great in helping us understand the history of the island. 

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The weather unfortunately turned drizzly and stoped us from doing a great deal of sightseeing! We decided on our last day to go to Helsinki zoo, on arrival to our pleasure we found out the entry was free as the season had finished! Due to the weather being quite cool all of the animals were out and about. We had also arranged in the evening to go see an Ice Hockey game on tuesday evening which was exciting, I wasn't a hundred percent certain on the rules but the atmosphere was great and the home team which we were supporting, HIJK came back from two points behind to win!

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(the cheerleaders proved distracting as they danced about in the seating area when play stopped during the game!)
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We set off for Russia at 10am on the Wednesday, and after a pain free three and a half hour train ride, which included passport control, and the use of the first visa that was sorted in the U.K. The subway in St. Petersburg is very unique, building finished apparently in the 50's and it looks like it's stayed that way, it is very ornate, decorated with gold light fittings and marble flooring. The carriages of the train are dark and poorly painted but hold a certain charm and character, as well as filling you with a slight fear to keep you on your toes, even more so when you realise that the subway is one of the deepest in the world!

St. Petersburg is an amazing place but very unique, where most cities juggle a mix of old and new, where you can see different influences and periods in history in the architecture. St. Petersburg offers all but nothing in modern architecture, but a history lesson in buildings in neo-classical/baroque styles. After only a little while of searching we located the hostel which to our initial horror seemed to be in a building of very bad disrepair. A very old cage lift that was out of action, which regardless of our heavy bags didn't upset us too much due to it's condition! The stone staircase with tiled landings are uneven and the woodwork of the huge single glazed windows is rotten and stripped of paint. This we have come to realise is just the Russian ethos, like many of the buildings, the attitude seems to be only fix it when it's broken, which is also adopted with Their mechanics too!

its really starting to feel like we are experiencing something completly different from what we are used to, there is thousands of museums in St. Petersburg and there is lots to see of the history and culture, but I'll save that for the next blog!

Posted by Christian25 07:42 Archived in Finland Tagged travel finland russia Comments (0)

Final days of Stockholm and the road to Helsinki.

Leaving Stockholm

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Stockholm is a great city that merges the old and the new, like most cities, however, due to it being built across an archipelago, certain islands remain full of it's old charm and other offer new architecture and high rise buildings creeping up into the skyline. On our last few days we spent in Stockholm we fitted in quite a lot considering we took a strangle hold of our budgeting after our lapse!

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On the Tuesday evening we went round to see Patrick and Iris at their apartment. Iris had cooked us dinner and we were also joined by Christian, which was nice as we had had little time to catch up when we saw him working at the bar at the weekend. The food was delicious, I think Iris was a little worried about our reactions, but I think our second helpings reassured her! She had even gone to the trouble of making a cake for afters, I had teased her at the weekend about how much I liked carrot cake when she had suggested she might make one! So I think she was worried to see my reaction. I was very impressed, and I think that view was shared round the table as the cake was virtually demolished! After the food we sat about making jokes, listening to music and discussing travel plans. I hope they might read this blog as I would like to make clear what fantastic hosts they have been while visiting Stockholm, Christian very much included in that too and also the Swedish guide we had in Oslo, Amanda! You have done Sweden proud!

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(Patrik & Iris live in a cool suburb)

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For our last few days sightseeing we had a wonder round areas of Stockholm we hadn't yet visited, or if we had it was at night and under the influence, so I didn't have my beer compass switched on! We decide we would do one of the paid museums that we had been avoiding in order to save money! The whole time we were there I was keen to see the Vasa museum which Patrik had recommended, which contains an old ship which sank in 1628. It doesn't sound the most interesting place, but we were all very impressed! The boat was huge and covered in ornate carvings with a double gun deck! The ship was ordered to be built by King Gustav II Adolf, and he wanted it to be the jewel of his navel fleet. However, his over zealous demands of the ships specifications and the lack of knowledge of building double decked gun ships by his navy led to the Vasa being built with a hull that was too narrow for it's enormous size an weight, especially when carrying it's guns, which led to it sinking on it's maiden voyage! Interestingly in a stroke of luck, not for the 12 or so people who unfortunately lost their lives, it sunk still in the archipelago, where the waters are less salty. This  allowed the ships hull and the main bulk of the ships contents to be preserved, particularly the wood work which on most shipwrecks is destroyed by a type of worm that eats away at it. 

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(This was exhibit was showing the natural source of the colouring they used to paint the statues and carvings on the Vasa)

The museum was had lots if interesting exhibits based around the vasa, as well as some of the many items salvaged including some if it's victims. The museum had interesting told the stories of the individuals from looking at their bones, personal items found on or around them and from rough records from the disaster itself. I would recommend the museum as a must see to people visiting Stockholm!

The last day in Stockholm was spent milling around in the sun in different parks due to the fact that we had to leave our hostel at 11am, however, due to a lack of forethought when me and smith booked our travel, our flight to Helsinki was not until 6:40am the following morning! After a very uncomfortable 10 hour wait at the airport resenting Smith and Kailey for managing some admittedly poor sleep we boarded the plain were I fell asleep instantly! That 45 mins was my fist bit of sleep in 24 hours after a very busy day. Therefore my initial outlook of Helsinki was tainted by this growing feeling of frustration inside of me. Even once arriving at Helsinki's main square, to find none of the transport info in English. This of course is not their fault and is a very British reaction to a situation, but being tired, hungry and lost made it difficult to remain calm and deal with the situation. We eventually sorted things out and got to the hostel, which through tired eyes and the fact that we arrived at about 10:30am but couldn't have our rooms til 4pm, was close to tipping me over the edge! After a nap on the common room sofa, a venture out to get some food, I was starring to feel more human. In the time of waiting we looked at what Helsinki had to offer and after getting our rooms, having a shower another little sleep I was full of beans and looking forward to this next leg of the journey! That sounds like a rant, but i thought I'd be honest of my first impressions of the place seen through very groggy eyes. 

Helsinki already seems to have a vibe of Russia, even the people look slightly more of a Russian decent. I think that it's a logical step on the direction we are taking to visit Helsinki to help us prepare for our exploration of Russia, which deep down I feel might be a challenge! The hostel is situated at the back of the Olympic stadium which was suppose to host the Olympics in 1940, but was cancelled due to WWII, it was later held here
in 1952. The stadium is now used for big concerts and is the home of Finland's national football team. The area is very sporting as literally a stones throw from the entrance of the hostel is another impressive stadium and training ground for Helsinki's biggest football team HJK. There are are over 80 museums in Helsinki so I expect we will find something of interest as well as a zoo, which for me is always a must, due to my love of the natural world and animals. Another place if interest is Suomenlinna fortress on an island just off Helsinki, which is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. After the initial tiredness and frustration I'm looking forward to exploring the place described as the worlds northernmost urban area with a population greater than 1 million.

Posted by Christian25 09:10 Archived in Finland Tagged travel_sweden_finland Comments (3)

Exploring Stockholm

Meeting old and new friends

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Stockholm is the largest of the cities we have visited so far, although it's still not overcrowded and appears very clean. On the Saturday we had arranges to meet up with an old friend if mine who had kindly agreed to show us around the city! After meeting Patrik and his girlfriend Iris at the subway we travelled a few stops and got off to see a large park in the city that apparently during the summer is full if people having BBQs and swimming in the water there. After a short bus ride we headed for another part of town where Patrik wanted to show us a great view of the city. After walking up some steep slopes and some sets of stairs we arrived at the highest point of Stockholm! We were being treated to a very sunny day, where everyone in Stockholm seemed to have been tricked, and where now carrying their jackets and jumpers. This meant the view was crystal clear and allowed us to take some impressive photos of the vista across the city and the river in front.

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After descending the hill we walked to where we could pick up a boat to get across to one of the other islands Stockholm is spread across. Here is where Stockholm's  zoo is located which is called Skansen. The zoo is set out like an old swedish village, with old traditional single story houses with roofs that are insulated by having grass growing on them. the majority of the animals in the zoo were native to Sweden. They had a large area where people were dressed up going about their business in costumes that appeared hundreds of years old. There were even people showing examples of traditional trades such as glass blowing and pottery.

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(an example of the grass roofed buildings)

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(I did not have the heart to tell him i'd seen his stuffed cousin!!!)

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After the zoo we went to grab a bite to eat and then onto a bar at the end of the road where our first hostel was situated. After the food and a few beers we were feeling a bit more ready to go out for the evening after the tiring day. First stop was the Viking bar, where the staff are dressed in old clothing and the place serves traditional Swedish food and drink. Patrik suggested that we shared a pottery jug of mead (an old drink made using honey, which tastes like a sweet pale ale). 

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There is lots of nightlife in sweden and due to the fact that we have bought travel cards that allows us 7 days of travel and the subway runs 24 hours during the weekend Patrik said we should move onto another side if town to see another friend of his and mine who works in a busy bar. It was nice to see Christian again, and he was very kind in getting us beers and sone fancy snacks all at a cheap price! 

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This is where the evening begins to get a little hazy, but after more drinking we went back to the hostel for some tea and coffee before calling it a night!

The following morning was a struggle, as we had to get ourselves packed up to move to our new hostel in a different part if town. After arriving we had to wait to get checked in but as we were all tired from the previous nights shinanagens we just chilled a park and got some food. We had been asked by Patrik and Iris if we wanted to go to the cinema which we all agreed would be nice! We went to see 'The Help' which was about racial division during 60's America. It sounded like quite an intense film to watch as we were all feeling a little delicate, but we all really enjoyed it!

We have plans to see Patrik and Iris again on Tuesday, when we are going round theirs for some food, and Christian should be attending too. Other than that I expect we will explore Stockholm ourselves and maybe find some museums of interest.

(there will be some more cultural pictures in the next blog i promise!)

Posted by Christian25 03:19 Archived in Sweden Tagged stockholm_travel_sweden Comments (0)

Gothenburg to Stockholm

The last leg of the Swedish adventure!

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Gothenburg has been a good stop on the early stages of this travel. Although the weather has been relatively poor I have enjoyed it very much! It's a nice city with a bohemian vibe to it, this maybe due to the fact that is a university city, many of which seem to be art and design related. The back streets are full of little cafes and boutique shops that unfortunately can only offer me window shopping opportunities. It's the sort of city that appeals to me though, good looking well dressed people mingling in the hubbub of the different scenes, meeting in record shops to have poetry readings. Not that I attended a poetry meeting, and for all I know it would have been in Swedish, but the concept excites me! 

We had a look around Sjofartmuseet, which despite its name is not as comical as it sounds. It is Gothenburg's maritime museum, which I had suggested as an option if the weather was poor after accidentally finding it on google maps at the top of the road we were staying on. Surprisingly it was a fascinating place, and made me realise how much the port has influenced the growth of Gothenburg and it's society and culture! There was a simulator allowing you to experience driving a boat in and around Gothenburgs port unfortunately it didn't take us long to run it aground and set off the emergency alarms. However, the second attempt was more successful once we realised we were initially on the hardest level and sailings a Stena Line ferry in extreme weather conditions!

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(This reminded me of my dogs at home!)

We have done plenty of walking already, once we eventually come home at this rate will need a walking holiday to detox! On one our walks I got myself excited standing outside the stadium of IFK Goteborg, and asked a steward if I could walk onto the side of the pitch for a photo which he was kind enough to allow! Smith and Kailey didn't share my enthusiasm but generously humoured me. 

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The journey to Stockholm started late yesterday morning, our train leaving Gothenburg at 12pm. It was about a 5 hour train ride but was surprisingly pleasant, despite being told twice that we were sitting in someone's seat. Luckily a nice Swedish lady took pity on us resolving the situation both times by saying that they could sit with her, due most likely to my disheveled appearance sporting particularly long facial hair, which isn't usually my thing! I'm in two minds to continue to let it grow for a bit, that's the whole point of traveling to do something different or adverse from your normal practices at home,  I think its also because I didn't realise I had the potential to grow a beard so this is a first for me!

Enough about my beard!

Much like the trip from Oslo to Gothenburg, the scenery on the train was great, I assume due to the fact that we were crossing through the middle if Sweden there was not so much of a diverse range of landscapes or lakes and rivers, but I still found the scenery interesting! Once arriving in Stockholm we decided the Hostel which we are staying at for 2 days before moving to another for the last 4 days of our Swedish leg was within walking distance! It didn't take too long to get there and it feels like we are living in luxury due to the fact that it was the only hostel available this Friday and Saturday so we are paying for a 6 person private room!

Maybe this new found luxury had gone to our heads as we decided to go out and have a meal. We found a nice Italian Restaurant and went crazy having a starter and a main!!! It's made me realise how much of a snob I am when it comes to food and how only after a week away I'm missing quality food! I think though as we go on, if we can treat ourselves every now and then it will be beneficial to morale, well in my case anyway! I had a delicious lasagne after we had shared a large bowl of salad and some ciabatta bread.

Stockholm seems like a very bustling city and definitely the busiest of the places we have been to so far, I'm looking forward to exploring the place that they call the Venice of northern Europe. Apparently situated on or over 12 islands. Today we are going to meet up with another Swedish friend of mine called Patrik who I met several years ago on holiday, Patrik and his girlfriend have kindly offered to show us about Stockholm which will be nice!

Posted by Christian25 02:07 Archived in Sweden Tagged stockholm_travel_sweden_traveli Comments (2)

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