Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tales from Kazakhstan

After a nearly sleepless night we arrived very early in the morning in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. We decided to walk to our hotel, even though it was over 5 kilometers away. Nothing like a little early morning excercise! After about a week in hostels and thanks to a booking.com special deal, we treated ourselves to the fancy Sweet Home Hotel. Once again coffee, breakfast, and a shower was the recipe to give us enough energy to go out and explore the city for a while. Atyrau is a city spread across both sides of the Ural River, therefore officially dividing the city between the Asian and European continents. The central square and the area along the river are both worth visiting and we even discovered a living compound called "American Village". It seems that employees of the oil companies operating around Atyrau are living there. All that wandering around in the heat really got to us after a while and we decided to have an afternoon rest before dinner and a night time walk in the city. After the sun goes down, the city really comes to life and we enjoyed taking in the festive atmosphere along the river. In Kazakhstan the people speak Russian very well and communication wasn't a problem at all.






The next day we had quite the adventure. We were scheduled to leave Atyrau shortly after 3 PM for Urgench Uzbekistan. In fact, that connection was our whole reason for stopping in Atyrau. So you can imagine pur panic when the woman at the information desk told us that our train had already departed. It turns out that the time of departure was not local time, but Astana time. Why in the world you write departure times that are anything but local time is just plain ridiculous to me. Nonetheless, we had a giant problem on our hands, as this particular train is only going once every 3-4 days. So when a taxi driver offered to speed off with us to catch the train at it's next stop 150 km away we took the risk. Thankfully this story has a happy ending - we caught the train!! That 35€ taxi drive was worth every last cent to get us on that train and keep our plans on track. And we even have another exciting story to tell ;) This train journey was our longest of the trip at 26 hours, so we decided to take 2nd class instead of 3rd and for the last 10 hours of the trip we had our train compartment to ourselves.

We had heard all sorts of horror stories about the Uzbek border crossing. That they look through all of your camera pictures, make you completely unpack your bags and other such nonsense. In our experience the only horror was that both border crossings combined took almost 7 hours from 10 PM to 5 AM and left us completely exhausted. Thankfully we didn't have anything to do the next day except ride the train. As soon as we reached the first real town in Uzbekistan things got crazy in the train. As our neighbour put it - it turned into a bazaar! Food and drinks of every kind, toys, clothes, household items, toilet paper, money exchange - you name it, it was probably available in this train. In Uzbekistan the currency situation is such, that you get over 3x the official rate on the black market and prices are also set according to the black market rate. While changing money on the black market is officially illegal, but on the train it is safe enough and everywhere else we were able to exchange in the guest houses. The bazaar quieted down as we got closer to Urgench and shortly after 6 PM, more than a day after our journey had.begun, we departed the train and the Uzbekistan chapter of the adventure officially began.

When 6700 = 1€

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tales from Russia

I wrote these words on the train from Atyrau, Kazakhstan to Urgench, Uzbekistan and I am finally taking the time and reliable  internet connection to catch up on some travel tales. We are having the time of our life and are very excited for what the rest of the journey holds.

Voronezh

From Kiev we took an overnight bus to Voronezh. After a late-night border crossing I manages to sleep a very hours, but was still quite tired and disoriented by the time we got to Voronezh. There are not many hostel options in Voronezh, but we stayed at "Podsolnuk", a short walk from the city center. In the end we had a positive experience there with friendly owners and clean facilities, but let me just say that my first impression was a bit of a shock. Just imagine walking into a room of half a dozen 30-something Russian men sitting around in their underwear. Anyhow, the situation improved by evening and since we were only there to shower and sleep, it served our purposes perfectly. And for 6€ per night I'm not going to complain. Our first day in Voronezh was rather exhausting because of an over-eager hostel guest whose offer to "quickly show us the way to the center" turned into dragging us around to all his favorite spots in the city for several hours while talking absolutely non-stop. Now, normally I'm up for an adventure, but having neither eaten nnot drunk and having barely slept,we soon began contemplating how to politely get rid of him. We, thank goodness, eventually did and enjoyed a nice lunch and lots of hydration in the outside seating area of a cafe in the city center. After a few more hours of walking around we found a spot in the shade along the river and dozed for a while before heading bback to the hostel to freshen up and find somewhere to have dinner nearby. I slept like a baby that night on my wobbly dorm-room bunk and woke up the next day refreshed and ready to explore. We had lunch at the Voronezh-famous BARak O'MAMA cafe and found the Gorky Sanatorium just outside the city. I think the sanatorium is a good insider tip for anyone visiting Voronezh. Just to visit the facilities if you're not staying there is free and they have a beach as well as a nice wooded area where one can go walking. While our time in Voronezh was certainly nice, we much more enjoyed our next destination...



The famous BARak OMAMA cafe

View from our hostel balcony


Volgograd

As I mentioned in my previous post, the overnight train to Volgograd definitely exceeded our Russian-train expectations. That's not to say we weren't still rather sleepy when we arrived at our hostel, but a shower and a coffee was the perfect remedy to shake off our sleepiness. Our hostel in Volgograd, Scotch Hostel, is the place to stay in Volgograd. Clean, spacious, plenty of toilets and showers, curtains, a lamp, and an outlet on every bed, helpful staff, nice common areas - really, any backpaxker's dream ;) The "Motherland Calls" statue, taking a speed boat across the Volga to an island where we could swim and sunbath, and a delicious dinner at "Steak House" were the highlights of the trip. Even if they did forget my meal and then bring the compensation desserts, which were with ice cream, when I had barely begun to eat my food. Makes for a good story at least! The rest of Volgograd I think is better shown with pictures.


No Russian city is complete without Lenin Square

Motherland Calls Statue

The Hall of Heros



Stalingrad Battle Museum

Flour Mill destroyed in the battle



Astrakhan

Our journey on from Volgograd took place on an express train. It was a nice change of pace to have seats instead of beds and to travel by day instead of by night. By late evening we were in Astrkhan and made it to our hostel, only to have the owner admit that he had forgotten our booking and therefore accidentally overbooked the hostel. We ended up with a sweet upgrade at a hotel owned by his friend. We woke up early enough to head to the central station and figure out our best route from Astrkhan to Aksarajskaya where our train to Kazahstan would depart from at almost 10 PM that night. After that we checked out the Kremlin in Astrakhan, but honestly it was much to hot and sunny to do anything much else except retreat to our air conditioned hotel. Now, let me tell you, this journey to Atyrau, Kazakhstan was quite the adventure! We were quite early in Aksarajskaya, so we checked out the tiny train station and confirmed the arrival time of our train. Suddenly a young man came towards us and started asking all sorts of questions about where we're from and where we're traveling. His conversation was generally friendly, but then he started saying he was from some federal security service and wanted to see our passports. Honestly, we didn't believe him because he wasn't in uniform and didn't persist when we were sceptical and didn't get our passports out and basically just walked away from him.  Finally we decided to sit down in a roadside cafe across from the station. The owner is an extremely kind hearted man, who offered us watermelon and plums for free and explained with pride how his refrigerator works with the help of a modified air conditioning unit and that his Soviet car from 1952 still runs. His face lit up when he told us that he named the cafe after his daughter. By the time we left and he wished us success,happiness and all the best, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a friend.  Well, what would you know, back at the entrance to the train (where they also did passport control for the Russian side of the border) there was our secret service friend along with the border guards and police. Yep, that's right, this plane-clothed officer who had approached us earlier really was part of some sort of Russian secret service. Actually, as soon as the border guard behind the window saw our passports, she asked the other border guard if this special officer was around. He took our passports to have a look after we had gotten our exit stamps and had a lot of questions about my travels. I think he realized thar we were harmless travellers. Maybe it was a completely random encounter with this officer, but it felt a bit like the Russians are keeping tabs on us. Or maybe I've just got too big of an imagination ;) As we entered the train and found our spots, literally EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that train was staring at us. It was almost only men and all Tajiks and Uzbeks, coming back home from working in Russia. After some initial scepticism from both sides, we ended up having a really nice time chatting and laughing and getting to know one another. They gave us apples and also offered us tea, but I was by that point avoiding liquids in order to avoid the toilet, which Mario confirmed was just as disgusting as I feared. Mario stayed awake later talking with them all, but I could barely keep my eyes open. In fact, I was the only one who stayed in the bed during he Kazakhstan passport control. Thankfully they took pity on this sleepy tourist and didn't make me get out of the bed and stand up. With the border crossings behind us, the train rolled on through the night and the Russia chapter of our journey came to a close.
Astrakhan Kremlin






Friday, July 29, 2016

Welcome to a new era of Russian platzkart

As our overnight train to Volgograd approached the station we observed that it looked rather new. "Looks like a nice train - just for us!" I joked. Thankfully, I was right - it turned out to be a Platzkart trip like I've never had before.

The first thing I noticed when we entered was that it didn't stink. Most Russian trains have that special stench, but in this train the smell was completely neutral. As the train started to pull away from the station I realized that an air conditioner had been turned on. I could hardly believe it! It usually goes without saying that any 3rd class ride in the summer time will be a hot and sweaty one - not this tine! At the ends of the wagon there was not one, but two toilets equipped with toilet paper, seat covers, paper towels, and an air freshener spray. I kid you not!

Not bad Russia, not bad at all!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Week in Ukraine

Yesterday we marched around Voronezh in the scorching heat, but enjoyed our day in the city none the less. More on that later! For now, impressions from my week in Ukraine.

Tuesday evening I arrived late, so we didn't do much except take a short walk and hang out at home. We were cat -sitting one of the strangest cats I have ever met and she took no time to get to know me by climbing right up on top of my head. Wednesday we had a full day walking around the city,visiting the America House, and meeting friends at a pub for live music before heading to the train station for our overnight train to Kharkov.

Extremely tired, but in good spirits we spent Thursday enjoying Kharkov, including riding several rides at Gorky Park. In the evening I went to meet my church friends a bit outside of the city for a fun evening of catching up after three years apart. Friday the weather wasn't great, but we made the most of our second day in Kharkov. It seems that in both Kharkov and Kiev scores of trendy, cute cafes and restaurants are popping up. Nastia especially enjoyed "Fresh Line", a subway-style sandwhich shop and "Франзуа" a bakery which advertiseres itself as a "French bakery with a Ukrainian soul". I can recommend the black&white croissants and bakery sandwiches.







After a cosy ride on the express train back to Kiev, sipping tea, eating German chocolates, and watching a movie, we were glad to sleep in our beds at home again. Saturday we had a quieter morning, but were full speed ahead from the evening on. We decided to have a "fancy evening", which consisted of dinner at a sushi restaurant and then a beautiful classical music concert  at the breath-taking cathedral "Костел". Tickets start at only 50 hryvnia and there is some sort of performance almost every evening.




Sunday I went to church in the morning before heading out to the village to visit Nastia's great grandmother for her 88th birthday. Even though we nearly fell asleep in the marshutka back to Kiev, we spent the evening in downtown Kiev soaking up the weekend city vibes.




On Monday we treated ourselves to manicures (for a discounted price since Nastia is the master of coupons) before picking Mario up from the bus station and heading out to the countryside for a shashlik party.  The 8 of us sat around speaking a mixture of Russian, English, and Spanish. It's so much more meaningful to visit a place and really connect with the people and be invited into their homes. We couldn't party too long though, since we had a busy last day in Kiev planned for Tuesday. We managed to fit in everything we had planned for Tuesday and even grab a quick last dinner at Puzata Xata before catching the bus to our next adventure in Russia.






To be honest I don't have any huge statement about the Ukraine I saw this week. Despite everything going on in the country, it's still, at the end of the day, the same Ukraine I fell in love with 5 years ago and I'm always glad to be back for a visit!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July in 13 Pictures

The absolutely wonderful ''all things Russian'' blogger Katherine over at ''8 Months in Ukraine'' recently shared 13 pictures that have defined her July thusfar, ending the post with the question, ''Meanwhile, what thirteen things have defined your July so far?''. 

So without further ado...

#1. Both band and choir have been keeping me busy.  Last Saturday alone the band played for two weddings and children's bible week.

#2. The European soccer championships had everyone excited.  And while Germany lost in the semi-finals against France, a good time was had by all.
#3. Collecting visas and booking tickets and accommodations for our trip.  A word of advice - if you want the Uzbek or Tajik embassies to process and send you back your visa, you're going to need to call them and be bothersome before they get anything done. 

#4. I've been down in Stockdorf with my host kiddo several days this month, taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some precious time with my little minion.  I love seeing her learn new things and become more and more independent.  On the 4th of July we baked a cake and she proudly proclaimed to everyone that it was ''America day''.

#5. Finally got in for a trim.  Probably shouldn't have told the hairdresser that the last time I got it cut was February ;)
#6. Got a spiffy new backpack for the summer travels
#7. In addition to packing my backpack, I've been packing up quite a bit of the apartment, as I'll be subletting it during our month of traveling. 

#8. I took the time to hop over to the cute little town of Esslingen for a day.
 
#9. I just love having fresh-baked cakes around the house for afternoon coffee or breakfast time.
#10. Fully taking advantage of all the summer time fresh things to eat.  As I am writing this I am eating a bowl of grapes for lunch. 
#11. Even though we have two full weeks of teacher time before the school year begins, I wanted to get some planning done ahead of time as well.

#12. I recently was gifted some Amazon gift cards, so I've been using them to order some small things for the apartment that I've been meaning to buy for a while. 

#13. Despite all that there is to do, I've been trying to spend as much time in nature as possible.  Thankfully, I live about 200 meters from the entrance to a beautiful forest area.

I couldn't be happier with my decision to take a considerable amount of time off before beginning my new teaching job in the fall.  So far my July has been exactly what I needed. And in just one week the real adventures begin!!!