The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Babushkas to Baba Ganoush

After receiving a heroes welcome by travelers and hostel owners in Irkutsk and waving goodbye to our fellow ice warriors it was time to board the Trans-Siberian and chug our way to Europe. Four days (86 hours) sitting on a train is as long as it sounds, not helped by the monotony of the landscape – 5185 km of flat white plains sprinkled with birch trees. But as we passed through the nothingness and blizzards of Siberia we weren't completely void of entertainment. Babushka (Granny) Victoria was our cabin mate for the entire journey. A small owl like lady with a sprinkling of gold teeth that managed to boss us around non stop, despite a complete language barrier; 'don't lay your head at that end of the bed', 'you must put your bed away now', 'get me some tea', 'wash my mugs', 'take your shoes off' and 'put more warm clothes on'. Tiring at times, by the end we were quite fond of our adopted Babushka, especially since we showed her the map of our trip and she beamed her gold teeth and gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up. Other Russians came and went from the cabin, a glamorous lady, a stocky mountain man type and a young guy from the far East who had already been married 3 times and seemed determined to get us drunk. Each left with what we suspected was an earful of wisdom from Victoria after some heated discussions and occassional 'yes Babushka, no Babushka'.

Stepping off the train in Moscow was an exciting moment as we re-entered Europe after 14 months away. Unfortunately the crossing of the Ural's didn't yet bring balmier weather. Only after 2 days of wandering around in -8 degrees did we start to realize why the streets of Moscow are suspiciously empty. Rush hour seemed to be the only time people were forced to go outside, but even then bundles of furs, huge collars and high heels darted between heated underpasses, bars and gaudy metro stations faster than the animals they're wearing. But this eerie lack of people could not detract from the gold domed historical splendour of the city. The highlight, by a long way, was the exhibit of the Tsars' treasure in the Kremlin. Where else in the world can you see 1,000 year old battle helmets alongside priceless sleighs for princess' that were designed to be pulled by dwarves? The opulence of Russia's past did not fail to entertain.

If there's one conclusion we took from our Trans-Siberian experience it was that Russia is vast, more vast and full of nothingness than you can really comprehend. The saying 'you cannot understand Russia, you can just believe in her' suddenly made perfect sense as we questioned how on earth those in the far East of the country could feel at all related to those in the West. But somehow they do. A mutual love of vodka, cold meats, kebabs and a constant battle with the elements seems to unite these people more than most nations in Europe. The fact that Russian's are so fiercely Russian is an extremely attractive quality. They are not trying to be America, or China, or Europe, but do their own thing in a refreshingly no bullshit way.

After a quick 2 days in Moscow we rode the 26 hour train to the Ukraine. Snow gradually melted, the landscape turned brown and everything looked a bit more depressing. From the train, the Ukraine looked like a country that has battled hard for independence and then not quite known what to do with it. On pulling into the graffiti ridden, run down and grey suburbs of the black sea resort Odessa, I was slightly concerned about where on earth I had made my little sis come to visit us. But Odessa is not like the Ukraine we witnessed from our train. The mafia run this place and consequently its wealthy and glamorous, but with plenty of seedy roughness around the edges. From watching Madam Butterfly at the beautifully ornate Opera House to the sexy cave girl dancing with seals at the dolphinarium to stocky women with beards chopping up carcasses at the huge food market, Odessa was an ecelctic joy.

Yet however good the Ukrainian's are at cold beers, meats and mafia fueled luxury living, they quickly proved to be completely useless when it comes to a ferry service. We planned to hop down to Istanbul across the Black Sea on the regular ferry service that boasted all your meals as well as discotheque and cabaret lounge. Instead, 12 hours of sitting on the dock was followed by 48 hours of going at a miserable 4 knots meaning Luce missed 2 flights and we got into Istanbul seasick, cold and a bit miserable. But that's all behind us now and its time to look onwards and upwards. Nick's Dad and Hils met us off the boat and the last 2 days have been filled with feasting and buying bike parts in bazaars, in a city we will definitely one day return to. All in all its been perfect preparation for the 2,300 mile bike ride ahead. Tomorrow we will set off on our loaded tandem across the Golden Horn and cycle across Europe through at least 9 countries. It's a long awaited moment. Carlos is fully loaded and every mile covered is one closer to home.

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