Well, a major milestone reached. We have completed the Trans Mongolian train journey. Okay, we didn't start from Beijing but what the heck. It's further from Hong Kong and we did pick up the train from Datong (so we missed one stop, big deal). But first...
We got up at sparrow's fart, had breakfast and checked out by eight. At the receptionists suggestion, we had allowed 40 minutes for the taxi journey. It's not far to the train station, but rush hour traffic can sometimes be a problem she advised. Accordingly we had booked the taxi at eight for a 9.30 am train departure. Needless to say, the trip took eleven minutes so we were there in plennnnnnty of time.
The train journey itself was uneventful (you'll be surprised to hear). No first class this time, however. We were in a compartment of six on soft seats. It was all very strange, none of the other four travellers said a word on the entire trip (except to answer direct questions from yours truly, such as "do you know which station we arrive at?" (there are nine train stations in Moscow!).
We did have lunch provided in the form of a lunch box. Interestingly (worryingly?) I was the only one to partake. After tasting the fish paste on the crackers I can sort of understand why. Anyway, I woke up next morning without any ill effects so it can't have been too bad. Must have just smelt off!
We got to Moscow on time and thought we'd be brave and take the Metro to the hotel. Brave only insofar as we had baggage to lug behind us. You may note that we have not posted a photo of the train station we arrived at (a first on this trip) as we did not surface from the station. We transferred directly from the station to the Metro.
Now, I'm not sure if we didn't know where we were going to, or if I didn't know where we were starting from (it can be quite challenging reading a very small map entirely in Cyrillic, even if I did have new glasses) but we got hopelessly lost. We surfaced to try and determine our location and get back on track. The old GPS wasn't as successful as before so we had to try the old fashioned way - ask someone for directions!
Our first target was a mobile phone seller, manning a stall outside the station. He waved us down the street and seemed to know where we should be going. After 100 meters I tried our second target. This was a couple snogging on a street corner (I kid you not). Managing to attract his attention, they broke off their embrace. Luckily she could speak English and proceeded to look up our hotel on his smart phone. No good she said, you're miles from where you should be. These station names in Cyrillic all look very confusing!
Katherine has still not recovered fully and was starting to wilt under both the hot afternoon sun (before the late afternoon thunderstorm!) and having to drag her suitcase behind her. Accordingly, I suggested we get a taxi the rest of the way (see, I can be thoughtful and considerate of others occasionally!).
After a bout of haggling, we agreed a price for the taxi and took off. When we got to our destination the taxi driver missed the spot and had to drive around the block. Second time around he found the address but not the "hotel". He stopped, asked for directions, drove on and pulled up in front of an alley way. Assuring us we had reached the correct destination, we got out.
We wandered down the alley and asked if anyone knew the "hotel". Someone gestured us back out onto the street and muttered "two doors down". Now, I should mention that the entire block was undergoing renovations/a face lift (check out the photos) . Surprise, surprise, another building site. Everything was shrouded in dark mesh making it difficult to see but even so, two doors down was a nondescript blank door with about five buzzers on it, none of them marked and absolutely no signage for the Venezia Hotel.
I pressed all the buzzers in turn until someone let us in. We entered what turned out to be the stairwell of an apartment block. Deciding not to bother dragging the bags all the way up, I left Katherine at the bottom with the bags while I checked all the floors looking for the "hotel". Having no luck I returned to the bottom where we had a quick discussion on how to progress. In the middle of this, another tenant entered the building.
I quickly asked him if he knew the hotel and gave him the paper with the address. He shook his head and directed us back outside. Pointing down the street he indicated we should go back the way we had come. To cut a long story short, he took us back to the alley and asked them (the same people we had asked) where the hotel was. Again, they said two doors down. But that's where I live he replied. There eventuated what appeared to be a heated discussion until our guide shrugged and took us back to "two doors down". Along the way I gave him the phone number of the "hotel" which he proceeded to ring.
It turned out the "hotel" was actually on the second floor of the building (with no signage anywhere). It was a converted apartment with four rooms converted into bedrooms. The rooms were cramped with bad lighting. There was nowhere to put the bags and you couldn't even open the wardrobe it was so close to the bed! On top of that, the landlady, while pleasant enough, had absolutely no English. All up it was a disaster. The only (and I mean ONLY) good thing going for it was it's location. Just behind the Bolshoi, ten minutes walk from Red Square and 100 meters from a Metro station.
The other issue with Moscow was the weather. Every day was +30c with thunderstorms thrown in for good measure. When you're on the go all day, sweating profusely, dodging downpours and going from 32c outside to freezing conditions inside (every museum had the air con set to very cold) it starts to take it's toll. On top of that, Katherine isn't yet back to 100% so it's safe to say that we struggled a bit in Moscow.
It's also the only time we haven't been able to secure the next sector train tickets we wanted. We had originally planned to head to St Petersburg on Friday, 28th, but all suitable tickets were sold out. Apparently it is quite common during summer for the residents of Moscow to head en mass to St Petersburg for the weekend. As a result we had to extend our stay in Moscow by a day and travel down on the Saturday. Even that's not ideal as the only seats available were on a late afternoon departure arriving late evening. Needless to say we changed hotels.
Given the hassles with trying to book tickets, accommodation etc, and the fact that our Russian visas were nearing expiry, and the fact that the travel agent we found had a little old dear that could speak English, we took the unprecedented step of booking the next sector also! Apologies for the overly long sentence but I'm getting tired (read bored) with this blog. It's too long already.
Seriously though, the last seven weeks have positively flown by. And we've experienced no real difficulties or problems along the way. It may have taken a while to find hotels, book train tickets and argue with taxi drivers but overall it's been fun (with a question mark over Moscow). I should also point out that we did plenty of sight seeing in Moscow. We saw Lenin's tomb, St Basil's, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts together with a plethora of other churches and museums. Just that it has been very tiring and we'll be happy to head off on the next leg of the journey.
That said, I'll finish here. Next update will be from St Petersburg. Until then, take care and have fun. We will.
Brian & Katherine