A Travellerspoint blog

Rogaining world champs and big Russian cities

Alol', St Petersburg and Moscow

overcast 20 °C
View L & S Finland to Australia overland trip on LS overland's travel map.

It's 7am on Saturday morning and the sun is beaming in the big window of the corner apartment we have rented for the duration of our three day stay in Moscow. Up here on the 7th floor we are largely above the noisiness of the Moscow inner city streets. Our view out the window is of the rusty brown rooftop of the adjacent apartment building and we catch glimpses of every day Russian life every now and again, through the windows of the many surrounding buildings.

Cosmonautics
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Gargarin shuttle_resize_20130821_221516

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Cosmonauts_resize_20130821_221519

We arrived in Russia nine days ago, travelling on a bus that had been specially arranged by the organisers of the World rogaining championships. From Riga, the bus took most of the day on bumpy Latvian roads to take us to the rogaine venue in the Russian forest, close to the town of Sebez in the very south western corner of Russia. The border crossing involved a series of stops in a queue of cars -the trucks had a queue of their own, which seemed to be moving much faster. First the bus driver needed to show papers for his vehicle exiting Latvia, then we all needed to show passports to Latvian officials to obtain an exit stamp, and then we were provided with entry-to-Russia documents for completion. Following this, the bus waited in a queue that infrequently proceeded forward past a boom gate booth when a green light was displayed. This seemed to be where vehicle papers were checked again. After not moving much at all for half an hour, suddenly our bus was allowed to jump ahead of six cars and pass through, to the next checkpoint where we unloaded all our gear and took it with us in to a building for the entry-to-Russia passport control. Here our visas and documents were checked and stamped, and theoretically our bags would have been x-rayed but the machine wasn't working. Once the bus itself had finished being searched we loaded it up again, hopped back on and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as we were now officially in Russia.

The world rogaining championships is a 24 hour long competion where teams of between two and four people navigate their way through the forest, choosing their route to visit checkpoints worth different point scores. Maps are provided a couple of hours before the midday start, so that teams can spend time measuring up the distances between checkpoints and working out where they think their route should go in order for them to collect the greatest points score over the 24 hours. Although every team receives the same map, there are different age and gender categories within the competition, with classes ranging from the Open category (age 21 to 40) up to Ultra veterans (age 65 plus).

The competition forest was quite complex with many small knolls and hills, at times entirely surrounded by marsh. My team mate Zara and I planned our route to take in the best value points per kilometer that we could see on the map. If there were tracks nearby we used them, but between some checkpoints we had to go fully cross country through the forest and marsh. In some parts our route took us across the grassy fields of abandoned farms, or past small clusters of inhabited houses, but generally the area felt quite remote, and a bit like time had stood still for a long time. Overall we came 52nd, and 7th Open women's team, beaten by four Russian womens teams and two from Estonia. Our route was the most efficient, as we travelled fewer kilometers than many teams, but it was also a slow route on account of the amount of cross country legs we did. We learned lots from the experience:). The social team of Lachlan, Emily and Duncan had their own set of experiences too, becoming confused in a marsh labyrinth and not finding any checkpoints for three hours. It was tough out there!

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Tired rogainers_resize_20130821_221159

That was all a week ago now, and we've left behind the mud and mosquitoes of the marshes, for the glitz and glamour of the big Russian cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. St Petersburg was almost too awesome, with its extensive ornate architecture. Enormous cathedrals and palaces greeted every turn of the head and it was hard to regard the city as a genuine place that common people live. The streets were busy with people and in our travel clothes we contrasted greatly with the local crowds, who all seemed to be well dressed, even if some of them were Russian tourists. St Petersburg is comprised of a series of islands as the city is situated on low lying land. We took a canal tour by boat, which was a good way of seeing a lot without walking the pavement and feeling out of place next to all the fashionably dressed Russian tourists. The guide told us that there are only 20-30 sunny days per year in St Petersburg, so we had more than our share.

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St Petersburg barges_resize_20130821_221526


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Russian geol survey_resize_20130821_221524

Here in Moscow we have a better chance of fitting in, although our footwear will always give us away as locals don't go around wearing hiking sandles or running shoes on the street:). There is a different feel in Moscow compared to St Petersburg. Athough there is still the air of a mighty city, the footpaths are full of university students rather than the well heeled. Riding the metro system is a fun thing to do. The satisfaction of interpreting the metro map is part of it, as stations at the same geographic locality have different names depending on which line you are arriving on. The other part is the spectacular artistry in the station architecture, such as mosaics in the roofs and bronze statues in the hall walkways.

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Subway_resize_20130821_221343

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or art gallery_resize_20130821_221340

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or bomb shelter_resize_20130821_221345

Today we are off to visit the Kremlin, which might occupy several hours. Our favourite big name site so far is probably Gorky Park, which had a lovely relaxed atmosphere when we went there on our first evening in Moscow...locals were out riding, or learning to ride bikes and roller blades, or walking and talking, and you were even allowed to sit on the grass.

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Red square tourists_resize_20130821_221521

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Bell and tourists_resize_20130821_221511

Tomorrow night we start our journey out of Russia, to Astana in Kazakhstan. This will be a sixty hour train trip, with the four of us (Zara left us in St Petersburg, to head home to Australia) in a small cupe together! You'll hear about it in the next email no doubt:).

Big thanks to everyone sending news from home, I do like to know what is happening back there and how you all are, it's much appreciated. Take care all,

Xox
Susanne

Posted by LS overland 03:45 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Russia to Kazakhstan, and spending time on the steppe‏

Eastern Kazakhstan

overcast 22 °C
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We've been in Kazakhstan for nearly a week now, arriving last Wednesday on the train from Moscow. We left Moscow late in the evening on the Monday, and the train ride took two and a half days, with the four of us (friends Emily & Duncan from Darwin, and Lachlan and myself) in a kupe together. The kupe was a small compartment with four bench style beds (two upper and two lower on each wall) and a small table below the window. The two lower benches lifted open so that luggage could be stored under the seat, and there was some more storage space above the door, in an alcove accessible from the upper bunks. There was a toilet cubicle at each end of the carriage, and at one end we could get hot water from an old fashioned boiler with a small fire lit in it. We brought a lot of food on the train with us, from Moscow, but it was also fun to hop out at the platforms where we stopped, to see what was being peddled. Usually as the train pulled in to a town, babushkas would appear carrying buckets of berries, handfuls of dried fish or bags of windfall apples, and young men with sack-trucks of used banana boxes full of chocolates and souveniers would scurry up on to the platform, ducking their way under the stationary trains on the adjacent tracks.

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4 bed sleeper_resize_20130821_221337

The scenery along the way felt rather depressing, with most buildings along the railway line being surrounded by weeds and looking vacated or at the very least, unloved. When we went through small towns, we saw muddy tracks between droopy wooden houses, untidy wood stacks (as opposed to the beautifully neat ones we saw in Estonia), gardens that looked scarily overgrown, and particularly in bigger towns there was a lot of rubbish in vacant areas along side the train tracks. Outside of the towns, everwhere seemed low lying and marshy, with hardly a sign of agricultural production anywhere. About a day and a half after leaving Moscow, the landscape became hillier and more open, with some fields of sunflowers, as we crossed the southern end of the Ural mountain range. At the two day mark we crossed in to Kazakhstan and by the morning of the third day the landscape had a different feel, with grassy plains and space everywhere.

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Kazak steppe_resize_20130821_221205

Our train trip ended in Astana, which is Kazakhstan's 'new' capital city. The old capital is Almaty, which is in the very south, near the border with Kyrgystan, and we will pass through there later in our travels. After dealing with the bustle of pedestraians on Moscow's streets and subways, Astana's footpaths felt very empty, both in the older part of town where there was a traditional soviet style street scape and in the new developing suburbs, where amazingly sculptured high-rise buildings and department stores reach in to the sky. Astana is hosting the 2017 world Expo, and it is out to impress - there was a real air of Dubai's architecture in the new city centre. The highlight of Astana (for Lachlan, anyway) was a peculiar phenomen regarding the traffic lights - they stopped every afternoon after lunch, and intersections turned in to mayhem, with traffic jams and constant horn honking. A policeman would then appear and start directing the traffic - and I guess eventually the traffic lights would come back on again but we never saw that bit.

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Astana instant city_resize_20130821_221138

From Astana, we travelled south to Karaganda, which is a city about half the size of Adelaide (or six times the size of Darwin) in a mining area of Kazakhstan, in the heartland of the steppe. Here the country side is flat and almost treeless, and peering to the horizon through through the hazy air you can see conical piles of mine waste and tall chimneys puffing smoke. Karaganda was really a stop over for us, as we continued on a side trip to a much smaller town named Karkaraly (or Karkaralinsk or Qarqaraly, depending on which map you are looking at) which is adjacent to the Karkaraly mountains. At Karkaraly, above the town on the south side there are pine trees growing twisted and gnarly on slopes of granite pancake rocks which are shaped into amazing conical knolls. To the north, the steppe rolls away in to the distance, dotted with an incredible diversity of flowers in shades of purple, pink, yellow and white. Cows and horses graze the slopes around the town, roaming as they please.

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Kazak hilltop_resize_20130821_221142

We spent three nights camping, packing up our tent each day and leaving our rucksacks in the forest so we could wander and explore. The weather was thundery and a bit wet at times, but the rocks were sculptured and eroded fantastically, providing dry spaces in the rock overhangs which made perfect lunch spots and places to shelter from the rain. We collected water from creeks running down the rocky hills or from one of the pumps in the town, after Lachlan worked out how simply they operated (just push the handle down and wedge it there with a bit of wood, tied to the pump for that purpose). In the town the dirt roads between the houses were puddly, like in the rural Russian towns we saw from the train window, but the houses were of solid stone, gardens were not so overgrown, and wood stacks were neat again. We were in Karkaraly over the weekend and we saw many people busy doing things in their yards or to their roofs. On the Sunday there were also a lot of people in the forest, including families, picking mushrooms into plastic shopping bags.

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Mushroom pickers_resize_20130821_221330

Travelling in Kazakhstan has been hard work, because there seems to be no tourist information available in towns and it is not clear where to get a map (if one exists). When we have access to Wifi, we can look up accommodation options but generally there is no on-line booking system - we would need to ring the hotel to make a reservation, and we may not be be able to communicate with the receptionist on the other end of the line. That said, we have met an incredible number of helpful people, who have approached us as we struggle with our ticket purchases, offering their help to translate or make enquiries for us. Thanks to the phrase book and Bert's little yellow Russian dictionary, we have managed through a variety of situations where no-one has spoken English. For effort in being understood, the prize so far goes to the woman in the Hotel Sozvezdie here in Karaganda, who wanted so hard to explain our dinner options that she imitated a chicken:)

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Kazak local_resize_20130821_221328

Kazakhstan has a lot of flat space, with just a fringe of mountains to the south-east, thanks to the Altay mountains dropping in from Russia and several smaller ranges that poke in to the country from neighboring China and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan's development relies on its mining and oil resources. Russian is widely spoken in cities and used in signage and labeling. Exposure to English language comes via western music and some television, and for some people, as a university subject. Conditions of roads are variable, with some so pot-holed that 40 kph was maximum bus speed. Food is delightful, with many affordable options from street vendors. Deep fried oval shaped pockets of bread dough containing grated or mashed potato are a favourite!

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Kazak local2_resize_20130821_221146

From here in Karanganda, we are heading to far eastern Kazakhstan (and hills), where we will take part in a three day orienteering event at Tainty, outside of Ust-Kamenogorsk (also called Oskemen).

Best wishes and much love to everyone,
Susanne

Posted by LS overland 02:50 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek

sunny 32 °C

We are in country number six, Kyrgyzstan. The time zone is plus two hours from Moscow, making us four hours behind Australian eastern Standard time. Kyrystan is not as well off as Kazakhstan. The hostel owner here in Bishkek tells us that Kyrgyzstan has little to export except nature, water and some gold. The country exchanges water for gas with Uzbekistan, but every winter the price of Uzbek gas goes up. The average Kyrgyzstan wage is about $200 US per month. This helps to put the cost of our upcoming 13 day tour with the CBT (community based tourism) company in to perspective- we are paying around four months worth of wages each and there are four of us...is that truly over a year's wage we are paying...wow!?

Posted by LS overland 02:20 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

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