Following on from that remarkably unpithy update from Scandinavia, we carried on to start on places that don't require you rummaging around for saleable organs, but are a bit more concerned about why in the name you're there. By this, I'm trying to say, we went to Russia. I'd been about 6 years ago, but was on an a voluntary workcamp where everyone spoke French, and I only nearly got robbed on the last day in Moscow. This was a bit more of a challenge- trains across Siberia on The Trans-Mongolian, where you have to deal with the less than amenable service industry, and maybe even learn a bit of the language. Thoughts...
* We gave the world tartan, and the world used this to decorate big synthetic bags used for smuggling God knows what in. You see thems at border searches the world over, but Tyumen was a new level. It must have something to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie's escape- they know to check the tartan nowadays.
* Bus from Tyumen to Tobolsk- a lot of burly coppers rush on at a particularly obscure stop, shouting blue murder, manhandle and handcuff the boy sitting right next to me. No idea what he'd done, but I was visibly shaken by this- it would have been standard Renton fare for a case of mistaken identity (or just a polis not knowing his left from his right) to strike, and me to get a somewhat undeserved kicking.
* It was grand to see Max Churikov from the aforementioned workcamp again, in Moscow. Nae gags, cheers for your hospitality if you see this, Max.
* It was also grand to get one over a giggling, non-negotiating child of a taxi driver in the dead of night on a dual carriageway in Tyumen. We told him to stick his 500R up his jacksie, and were vindicated when we found a boy charging half that. The youngster goat the fingers immediately (once we were a safe distance away).
* Hermitage in St Petersburg: 3.5 hours queueing, 1.5 hours perusal.
* Watching Claire's fear factor rise from the moment Valery and Luda, our hosts in Khurzhi, Lake Baikal suggested we go for banya at 11pm. It reached its peak with half an hour to go as we sat round the fire and Luda put an arm round her, singing My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean; Claire really thought she was going to be assaulted by more than just birch twigs.
* Fair play to the local down-and-out in Krasnoyarsk, who used the city's local talent contest as an opportunity to get out her (his?) face on cleaning products. The high-nrg dancing to the young Celine Dion impersonators' tones created quite an impression; I've never been to a concert before where more than half the crowd was facing away from the stage, snapping away on their cameras at something far more entertaining than the entertainment.
* Fair play to our Tuvan friend Mingy on the train to Irkutsk- I think he had every part of the pig up on the table for his and our delectation. Once the aircon stopped and the butcher's smell really kicked in, I had no choice but to put my foot down... so I spinelessly suggested we clear the table and play cards, true to form.
* My uncanny ability to attract the attention and empathy of elderly winos isn't failing me yet. In one day in Tobolsk, I had one old boy (Anatoly, his name was) chatting to me in Russian about Sir Walter Scott (I got the proper nouns); the bone carving master Minsalim (an ageing David Crosby impersonator) getting me (us) photographed with himself and sundry objects from his workshop (a gramophone??!); and the icing on the cake, as we waited for a bus to get us out of this particular frontier town, was the fella at the bus station, who looked like he'd had his face panned in with some form of cudgel roughly 40 years ago, who asked every person in the waiting room for money, except myself, who he invited to join him in what can only be described as a 'soul shake'. I'm well on the way to begging myself, and challenging scruffy bastards' self-esteem in this way.
DISCLAIMER: I've decided to keep this brief because I'm determined not to ram the project down people's throats (I'm sure Max Gogarty sounded the death knell for a lot of travel writing, but due to boredom and jealousy I've always hated looking at other people's holiday snaps). All ye're getting is one photo a day to show Andy Capp's family how he's getting on, and an occasional summary from myself to capture anything that's not told in the picture's 1000 words. Claire's got a much wordier version in the links for anyone that needs further information for, I dunno, legal reasons.
The first leg of the tour covered Norway, Sweden and Finland. Effectively, it was just a means to get to Russia for the start of the Trans-Siberian, but inevitably turned out to be a bit more than that. The memories I'll take away from this that might have some relevance are:
* (yawn) ...it's not a myth, Norway's expensive.
* It's not a myth, Sweden's expensive (even in Kvikkjokk (don't worry, that's what most folk say), it's 5.50 a pint).
* It's not a myth, North Sea Ferries are f*cking extortionate, and make Oslo prices seem deceptively light on the wallet. Roll on China.
* We stayed in a partially converted mental hospital in Dalagarda, a suburb of Gothenburg. It was clear something was going on from the obsessive-compulsive level of cleanliness in the halls (a touch One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), and the elderly werewolf impersonator hanging around the bus stop as we headed into town. They do entertain the troops with proper Euro minigolf though, and obviously it was nice to take this aff the phone and into reality.
* We stayed in a partially converted Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, a suburb of St Petersburg. It was clear something was going on from the obsessive-compulsive level of cleanliness in the halls (a touch One Day In September), and the elderly list of stadium record holders going back to the 1952 games outside the dormitory. They do entertain the troops with proper Euro athletics though, and obviously it was nice to take this aff the TV and into reality. (This is true, by the way, an old block of changing rooms are now a youth hostel).
* Oslo: most expensive accommodation yet, and it connected with the full boona of Esther Rantzen-bother fodder. Broken window? Check. Prozzas outside? Check. Dealers outside? Check. Junkies outside? Spec so. Ensuite? Aye, if a flight of stairs between you and the bog counts. Aircon? Dinny be daft. Just waiting for the carbon monoxide story to hit the papers, or possibly my lungs. The coincidence that the street round the corner was called 'Kirkegaten' was not lost on us. No place like home.
* People from the far north of Sweden, who have grown up rurally and now work as testing contractors for Standard Life, are remarkably (frustratingly?!) able people. Fair play to ye, Mr Iverstrand, for allowing us not to have to lift a finger over the three days up there- I felt the pain of ace fly fishers Chris and Gary (who could now make their own production of Deliverance with the same amount of 'we don't belong here' trauma) when he caught a trout with his first toss of the spinner, fag in mouth, while chucking more wood on the fire with his left foot and whittling a handicraft with his right. At least I didn't catch any fish myself- that would have ruined the analogy.
* All's well in the Scandinavian world of rock- we had a confirmation of a wooden church burned down by "punkers" near Bergen, and watched some kind of Hell's Angels/American Graffiti convention entertain a Glasgow lasses' hen night in Gothenburg. They had to be from Glasgow(see when they started charging for kisses? I felt almost embarrassed for them). All distinctly weird.
* Taxi driver from Boden to Kvikkjokk was called Leila, and she had us oan wir knees. Every time she sat on the shoulder of a logwagon in front, and eventually edged past, I could hear Clapton's unmistakable riff belting through my ears. 400 quid that journey cost, all because the train was a bit late, so Swedish railways footed the bill. Another good reason to get the trains to run on time...
* Turku in the south of Finland is to be European Capital of Culture in 2011; after two days there, I now greet this news with the same "wtf?" we uttered when Glasgow and Liverpool were granted the accolade themselves. I can show the dignitaries where to get a Thai massage though.
* Finally, these are the most sarcastic rivets I've ever seen. Weld-done, whoever was responsible.