Ala-kul to Altyn Arashan (4 days, 3 nights hike)

Krygyzstan turned it up for us on this trek!

From the first few hours into this tramp we knew we were in for something special. We had done a bit of research on hiking before coming to Krygyzstan, with every traveller we had met in central asia telling us we had to have a go at trekking whilst we were here. In the end this 4 day hike won. The gorgeous valleys filled with idyllic meadows with grazing horses, glaciers, high-altitude Ala-kol lake, rivers, blizzards, and one near death experience made this the most amazing trek I’d ever been on. Not to mention the hot springs at Altyn Arashan to soak our tired legs at the end of day 3!

I’d never done much tramping in my life, with my first (and only) ever overnight trip being to Te Rereatukahia Hut in the Kaimai Ranges last year (which was awesome BTW if you are looking for a tramp to do in NZ), anyway, never to let inexperience and fitness get in the way of an adventure- we were going to do this 4 day tramp. We hired a tent, sleeping bags, and a gas cooker from ECOTREK company in Karakol town (our base town), and bought coffee/tea bags, oats, prunes/dried apricots, instant noodles, and 250g each of snickers and mars bars- now we were set.

Day One

We took a mashrutka (shared minibus) from the centre of Karakol town and were dropped off at the end of a road and told this was our stop.

Glacial waters raging

The day of the trek was easy and pretty chill with absolutely gorgeous weather, we walked up a 4 wheel drive track for 16km alongside a raging Karakol river, passing majestic horse filled meadows.

We stopped for lunch in a meadow listening to Nesian Mystic on our speakers as we ate some pastries we picked up that morning in town and Chris even managed to squeeze in a mid-afternoon siesta.

Chris pre siesta

After rousing Chris, we headed further up the road crossing the river and finally hitting the off-road track through bush.

I found a walking stick, despite making me look like someone who treks all the time sadly it did not make the walking easier

At 4pm we arrived at a nice clearing in an alpine meadow- campsite numero uno!

Camp spot for tonight!
GOOORRRRRMMEEEEEYYYYY

We played some cards, read our books, and tucked into the first of many instant noodles meals.

Day Two

The next day we started early, we walked up a steep incline and past a yurt camp where we bought a bottle of juice to reward ourselves. We found a gorgeous spot by a stream for breakfast- porridge, coffee, juice, and prunes. Gourmet!

We headed up and up the mountain after that, over an hour of climbing up along the river.

Stopped for a break to enjoy the view, and pose for a photo!
Chris doing his yoga on a rock

We arrived at the fabled Ala-Kul alpine lake by lunch time, and had about 10 minutes to eat our packet soup heated over our gas cooker before it started snowing/railing. The frozen lake was beautiful and massive (we couldn’t fit the whole thing in any of our photos), but when we started to snow harder we knew we had to get a move on so we wouldn’t get stuck there.

We had to walk out of the “crater” to reach a the top of the pass which would lead us to our next camp spot. Unfortunately once we hit the top of the pass the weather turned into a blizzard, the sky became very dark, the mountain top next to us was covered in cloud that was thundering and lightning was striking nearby. To make matters worse the path that people normally take down the pass into the other valley was non-existent, covered in snow and had disappeared. We couldn’t stay at the top with the terrible weather, the only way down was to try and scale the very steep, snowcovered “ridge”. So in our runners, shorts, and raincoats, with socks on our hands we climbed down backwards hitting our shoes into the snow then our hands into the holes we had made to grip on for what felt like dear life. After about 15 meters of this the ridge became less vertical and we figured our best bet was to slide the rest of the approx 200meters to safe ground on our bums. So thats what we did. Afterwards Chris said he had a fun time on the ridge and it was the highlight of the trip- I sadly developed an ice burn all over my bottom which would continue to burn, wept, graze up and then unheal again for the next week. If I was to do it again- I would probably wear pants.

Said ridge- the shot doesn’t really do the height or incline justice, just know I really did fear for my life.
Chris had a great time

It continued to snow and I was pretty miserable as we walked the last 2 km to the spot we planned to set up camp. We jumped straight inside the tent, ate noodles made in luke-warm water and the rest of our little chocolate bars we brought with us as the weather raged outside.

Day 3

The third day was quite leisurely compared to the previous day, we left our camp around 9am (after porridge and coffee) and walked down along this valley to Altyn Arashan, some rain, a very small town with about 6 guesthouses all boasting their own natural hot spring. By the time we made it in the afternoon we were completely soaked from the rain and pain the $5NZD for an hour in a private hot spring at a guest house to improve our spirits and wait out the weather.

Altyn Arashan

We made camp just out of town, gorged on some biscuits we had bought from a guesthouse, and later found these amazing river side pubic hot springs in the evening.

Dinner was of course, noodles again.

Day 4

Sick of being rained on and injured by this trek we woke up early, packed up the camp, and headed off on 15 km hike along the dirt/rock covered road along the river to escape back to civilisation.

I almost made it out without another injury, then I slipped on the road and landed on my leg- it later turned into a big graze which ran down my shin. We needed to get out of here, I was one more slip away from needing a Westpac helicopter rescue and lift out.

Eventually we hit the road! Happy day! In reflection it was an amazing trek, 4 days of hiking, alpine lakes, cooking on a little gas cooker surviving on noodles and porridge was a great experience, probably the highlight of our time in Kyrgyzstan- but as soon as we got out all I was thinking about was a shower and a beer.

We did it!

The Pamir Highway

Without a doubt travelling along the Pamir Highway has been one of the highlights of this trip from me. It was the ultimate road trip from Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan over 7 days in a 4 wheel drive with views you wouldn’t believe.

The highway cuts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan border and then into the infamous Wakhan Valley, flanked by the Pamir Mountains on one side, and the Hindu Kush on the other.

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Heres a map of our route from Dushanbe to Osh

The Prep

Before leaving on our trip (organised through the company VisitAlay) we were lucky to have our friend Christian from Germany who we had met when we were in Turkmenistan join us! It was great for the extra company and also meant the cost of the tour (which you pay for by the car) was now reduced by a third (yes!!!).

We were told by the company to bring water and snacks for the next 7 days (breakfast and dinner would be provided by the guesthouses we would stay in, and lunch could be picked up along the road). See below for what we took:

The beans and noodles were brought incase no vegetarian food for me was found, luckily they went uneaten on our trip. Surprisingly the alcohol also went undrunk!
28 litres of water together for Chris and I!

Day One

We set out with Christian and our driver Nabi in his white 4-wheel drive the next day from our hostel in Dushanbe. Just a note- We had a pretty cool hostel in Dushanbe with a cool view, below is a picture of Chris’ evil-looking silhouette in our room (he’s definitely planning something terribly evil here).

It did not take long until we started to see some of the beautiful vistas we were told to expect…

Before long we stopped at an archaeological site in Hulbuk. Destroyed by the Gengis Khan and his crew, the remnants of this fortified palace have been undergoing excavation since 1951 and recently they have started reconstruction of the palace walls and even a minaret. The real highlight of this stop was the very enthusiastic curator insists on showing us around the museum, letting us hold thousands year old artifacts and showing us the best way to pose for photos with them, feeding us fresh apricots from the trees on the grounds, giving us flowers, and letting me hold the keys to the palace and unlock all the gates and doors (I felt very lucky).

Then an hour or two later- we made it to the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, which as you can see from the map above we would drive along for the next few days alongside the Panj River which was the divider between the two countries.

If you look under the “A” Afghanistan you can see a little NZ flag, clearly we are not the first kiwi travellers here!

We stayed the night in Kalaikhum village in a guesthouse right on the river.

Day Two

The next day we were off again. The road continues along the Afghan border with beautiful views and widens up in the Vanj valley with mountain views along the river, ending that day in Khorog City.

Funny story our friend Christian went off walking when we got here, taking pictures of the Afghan side of the river at the “river beach” he was apprehended by the local military and taken away for a few hours for questioning. He managed to sweet talk his way out of it, apparently he bonded with his captors by lifting weights and doing pull ups. In the end all he got was a slap on the wrist, a ride back to the guest house, and a cold dinner.

Issy, Chris, and Christian under the Tajikistan flag
Chris riding a goat, it was very tame.

Day Three

We visited two Fortresses the next day- one was sitting on the river, and the other a 12th century Yamchun Fortress rising from a platform of natural rock quite high up in the valley, walking to the edge of the fort and you had an amazing view of the Wakhan valley.

Chris doing “the worm” at the first fortress
The second fortress
Taking off, I decided to fly the rest of the way getting a little sick of the boys at this point

Further up the hillside are located the hot springs of Bibi Fatima with its crystal waters rich in minerals. We were told people travel from miles around to go to this “hot spring hospital”. I was expecting pools smelling of sulfur and outdoors like a small Hanmer Springs, however I was surprised to find these beautiful natural pool with green and white mineral formations. Gentle cascades of hot water spilled into the pool and there was no sulfur smell. Men and women are separated into completely different areas/pools, and you must go in naked.

So naked it was! When I went in there were some local women, and a mother with two children. One of the young woman was trying to climb into a little cave and grab some stones…

I took this sneaky photo of the spring, you can see the little cave on the right side

I later learned that this wasn’t your ordinary hot spring, Bibi Fatima springs is the place to go to boost fertility, and to double down after your soak you should go to pray for pregnancy. No wonder that young lady was trying so hard to grab some of the stones.

Day Four

This was taken out the front of our guesthouse that we stayed in

We followed the river Pamir all the way to Kargush checkpoint with the chance to admire the Big Pamir of Afghanistan with nomadic Afghan Kyrgyz caravans. At the Kargush pass we did a 3 hour trek to Panorama Ridge at 4800 meters altitude with stunning mountain scenery of Great Pamir on Afghan border on the top of pass.

Afterwards we took a little side trip to see some more alpine lakes and the boys enjoyed a plate full of fish and onions each from one of the lakes. It was a smelly car ride after lunch.

Day Five

Day 5 was pretty chill, we had a bit of a sleep in and then the boys went for a half hour ride on yaks around a field haha.

Next we headed to Karakul lake with the highest pass Akbaital (4655 m) in Tajikistan.

Chris was not 100% at this altitude
Karakul lake

Day Six

After breakfast we headed to the border crossing to cross into Kyrgyzstan, and headed up to the Lenin Peak Base Camp in the mountains.

We found a sheep called Christian at the border crossing

Once at the base of Lenin peak mountain we walked from our Yurt camp up to explored the mountain area by going up to Traveler’s pass at 4130 meters, it started snowing then hailing then snowing but then it stopped and Chris jumped straight into the snow.

Made it to Lenin peak base camp!!!

Day Seven

Driving to OSH! We were done! It was an amazing week, and we have soooooooooo many photos, wow! 10/10 definitely recommend this trip, it was the ultimate road trip!

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

-Issy’s Book Club

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“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, prejudice, and tradition.

I enjoyed the multi-generation storytelling that Min Jin Lee uses to tell this story (in a similar way to Wild Swans) of an immigrant korean family displaced by war to Japan in the 20th century as they try to make enough to live whilst providing opportunity for their children hoping that they will have a better life.

It is a well told and engaging (though warning: it’s pretty sad most of the way through) novel, the historical context of this book was also interesting and prompted me to read more about Koreans living in Japan in the 20th Century, as well as having to google and watch some youtube videos on what Panchinko is!

Educated by Tara Westover

-Issy’s Book Club

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This book is the definition of a page turner. I have not read many autobiographical books in my life, most often favoring a fiction book, however I find myself leaning more and more into these memoir type novels. Educated shocked me.

Tara Westover’s book is a distressing & discomforting exposure of her upbringing in a Mormon fundamentalist family with a mentally ill, paranoid father. They grew up separated from modern society, Tara not stepping foot into a class room until she was 17 years old as well as struggling to align the doctrine she grew up with with a less conservative society.

I think education is really just a process of self-discovery—of developing a sense of self and what you think. I think of [it] as this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” – Tara Westover

Chris and I both read this book and really enjoyed it. It made me reflect on the privileged upbringing that I had and feel a bit guilty about taking my education for granted at times.


The Lost City of Z by David Grann

-Issy’s book club

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An adventure story that grabs your attention and will scare you from ever venturing into the Amazon. The novel is full of suspense and intrigue and lots of historical detail to keep you interested. You won’t want to put it down.

In 1925, Percy Harrison Fawcett, armed with information only he had unearthed, accompanied by his son, his son’s best friend, headed off into the Amazonian wilderness in search of a large, ancient, fabled city, the City of Z (The Amazon’s El Dorado) and disappeared forever. Like many before him the author of this book becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Fawcett and goes in search of the City of Z.

Part historical novel, part biography, part adventure journalism (is that a thing?) this book will ignite a sense of adventure in you!

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

-Issy’s Book Club

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Hello everybody! I have A LOT of free time to read now that we are travelling, with my Kindle getting fuller and fuller each week I thought I would take the time to write a short review about book that I loved, those page turners (and not bother with those I didn’t). I remember when I was working I was always on the lookout for interesting new books, the Whitcoulls top 100 lists can be a little uninspiring, so maybe this can inspire you to try out one of these books- you can tell me what you think too!

When I started reading Wild Swans I was hooked. It’s addictive- it makes you forget about eating and drinking whilst you’re reading it as you get lost in the story, reading quickly to find out what happens next, and when you’re not reading you’re thinking when you might be able to sneak away to get a few chapters in.

It’s a captivating historical novel told as a memoir spanning three generations of strong chinese women in a family- the author’s grandmother, mother, and then autobiographical of her life. These women live during the 20th century China before the Chinese communist party took rule under the boxer rebellion, during its establishment, and life under Mao and the cultural revolution up til the 1989 Tiananmen square incident.

“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.” 

The book was first published in 1991 and was the top grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In saying that, I had never heard of it before and reading the book whilst travelling through China, it shocked me and had a major impact in how I experience our time in the country.

Wild Swans is the best book I’ve read this year so far!

Uzbekistan

After crossing the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan- we were in! No visa required, no US dollars to appease the border controllers- too easy!

Uzbekistan is another Central Asian nation and former Soviet republic like Turkmenistan. It has a population of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom live in rural areas rather than in the cities and islam is the clear majority religion. The dress code here is conservative in a sense that shorts and mini skirts would definitely stand out, but jeans and uncovered hair is A-OK. It’s known for its mosques, mausoleums and other sites linked to the Silk Road. On our tour we would go to four areas- Khiva, Bhukara, Samarkant, and Tashkent (very very briefly Tashkent- more on that later).

Khiva

Khiva was an absolute pleasure to visit although we got off to a rocky start having arrived to the city straight from the border with no Uzbekistan currency and all the banks having closed. Our hotel (organised through our tour) let us put some chips and beers on to our room- the next we found out the packet of chips (imagine a very plain normal sized packet of ETA upper cut chips) cost $10 USD- we were sad, but of course paid our debts vowing never to buy chips from a hotel again!

This was taken after eating the “never to be mentioned again” chips. Chris’ face says it all- Issy is about to win- again! We must have played hundreds of games of Whists on this trip.

Khiva is a town that is famous for its long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between two large deserts along the silk road. The name “Khiva” apparently came from when a man travelling through the desert fell from dehydration and exhaustion into the sand and his knife pieced through the ground and out sprouted water. He had discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!”- roughly translated to sweet water. (sadly the water in Khiva is now not safe to drink so we were buying our water in Uzbekistan)

We spent a day in Khiva explore the sights- minarets (I learnt these were big cylindrical structures usually part of a mosque), mosques, fancy palaces, and workshops. My favourite spot was the concubine house- where the ruler at the time kept his wives (up to 4 fabulous wives usually from important families) and his concubines (his girlfriends). It sounds like this house was something straight out of The Bachelor TV show- many ladies compete for the affections of the one guy, whilst bullying, gossiping, backstabbing (or even poisoning) where common affairs between the girls.

A friendly local (you could pay 50 cents for a photo with him)
A fruiting mulberry tree appeared!

A fruiting mulberry tree! These were everywhere, and provided shade and a tasty snack! They also the leaf of choice for silkworms whose cocoon unravels into silk. The silk that was so amazing and so prized it had the great road running from China to Venice named after it (hint: the silk road).

Don’t worry I’m still as cute as ever

Khiva’s food speciality that we tried were dumplings! They told us egg dumplings and spinach dumplings were worth the try. I think this is the first vegetarian speciality we were recommended so naturally…

We had a very fancy cup-shaped tomato salad as well

Bukhara

A man, his donkey, and Chris

A short 30 minute flight later we were in Bukhara. Bukhara was one of the major trading cities along the Silk Road, we stayed in “the old city” which was an area of about 1.5km squared of preserved old buildings, roads, parks, and my favourite… minarets.

One of the initiatives taken by the Uzbekistan government is that merchants of certain crafts can sell their wears more or less tax free, and set up inside and around famous city monuments. It was quite surprising to enter these beautiful mosques, old caravan accommodations, and Islam schools to find stores set up all around selling everything from silk cloths, clothes, metal works and jewelry, and even old soviet antiques.

It was HOT in Buhkara and I became obsessed with soft serve ice cream- I had to have at least 1 (or 2) a day to survive. We were lucky that they had one soft serve machine every 50 meters in the old city- clearly this is a common ailment in Buhkara- so I can report that I made it.

Hats and soft serve ice cream were a necessary to survive here

We went to a cultural show before dinner one night which turned out to be national regional dances of Uzbekistan interperst with small fashion shows. The dancing was really impressive and interesting- the fashion show was not quite as engaging. Still we love a good show!

We decided that the most famous monument of Buhkara looks like a pepper grinder, what do you think?
Do you see it now?

Samarkand

We took the train to Samarkand. Samarkand is ancient, we were told it was founded originally in 6-8th century BC. It has been conquered by Genghis Khan and his crew, Alexander the Great, the persians, turks etc. Unlike Khiva and Buhkara the ancient sights were spread far throughout the city, and also unlike the previous cities- I got sick (don’t ask).

Chris told me they went to lots of cool places, here are the photos:

There’s grass on the onion domed roof of this mausuleum from birds pooing on it, they have to clear it away a couple of times a year otherwise the tiles get damaged
Apparently uzbek government spent an exuberant amount of money to restore the inside of this mausoleum with more than 10 kg’s of gold left to decorate this room

Then he went to the Registan. The registan square was the heart of the ancient Samarkand where locals would gather to here the latest proclamations, what was in the news, and public executions. The complex is made up of three big buildings.

A very nice ceiling

Chris dragged me out for a night viewing of the Registan- it was lovely all lit up!

Tashkent

Well. We took the train to Tashkent and had planned to stay and explore the city for a day or two, unfortunately not everything goes to plan. We had to fly last minute to Tajikistan (the next country) for visa reasons, so we spent a very pleasent evening have drinks with some people we had met on our trip, a very brief swim in the hotel pool (it was freezing, how is that possible when its so hot during the day??), and then at 7am the next day we took our taxi to the airport. So we have no idea what Tashkent is like, someone will have to go and let us know!!

Stay tuned for the next country- visa dramas, beautiful vistas, new friendships, and russian dance music…

This post is mostly for Nana who kicked my butt about getting another post up 🙂

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia bordered by the Caspian Sea and largely covered by the desert. It’s known for historical ruins including those at the old cities of Nisa and Merv, which were major stops along the ancient trade route the Silk Road. Ashgabat, the capital, was rebuilt in Soviet style in the mid-20th century during its time in the USSR, and is filled with impressive monuments honoring their first president Saparmurat Niyazov.

We arrived in Turkmenistan at Ashgabat international airport at 2am in the morning- we had to complete our visa payments ($99 USD in cash each) and paperwork on arrival. The airport itself was huge, modern, and is (we were informed by our guide later) the largest bird-shaped airport in the world. I didn’t get a good photo but here is one I took from the internet- can you see the bird?

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To travel through Turkmenistan Chris looked at many blogs to see how we might be able to do it ourselves, in the end it did not seem possible to get a visa (Turkmenistan has one of the most strict visa policies among Central Asian countries) or to travel easily at all so we booked a tour through Advantour. We (us and two others) were met by our guide who took us back to our hotel- The Alk Aytyn hotel. The hotel is golden rust coloured in a soivet style suggesting its hayday may have been in the USSR, the interior suggested the same. We spent our day of arrival chilling out in our room and later even did a gym session (this would come to haunt me).

Our first “official” day of the tour started at 5am on a bus headed to the airport again- no we had not been deported- we were headed to Mary and Merv.

Mary and Merv

Although they sound like your kind old next door neighbours, Mary and Merv are actually old cities of Turkmenistan!

Merv (40 km from Mary) is one of the most ancient territories of Central Asia that introduced irrigation system among the first. It led to the formation of one of the largest cities of ancient world – Merv (Margush, Margiana, Mary). The origin of Merv is shrouded in mysteries. One fact is known for sure, though – the first written references to this city were found in Avestian chronicles of approximately the 8-6th centuries B.C. The chroniclers widely used bright epithets naming it “a soul of a king, a mother of Khurasan cities, and, the city that helds the Universe. Omar Khayyam, As – Samani, Imamaddin-Isphakhani and other great thinkers of the Middle Ages lived there. The site is filled with ancient sites, of the buildings most of them had undergone some restoration to make them look more like the original building.

Outside of a restored mausoleum of one of the ancient sultans
Standing on the old walls of the city of Merv
We accidently wore matching shirts today
This is a library and observatory in Mary

Ashgabat

Ashgabat is the capital of Turkemenistan, and our second day consisted of a tour around the city. The town began as a soviet outpost and gradually grew into the city it is today. There seem to be two parts to the city, normal suburbs and then a new part of the city which seems to be empty.

The normal part of the city was pretty unremarkable, but after going to the monuments in the new part, we started to get a feel for some of the more obscure aspects of the country. The gas money has gone into creating a huge amount of opulent ‘public’ buildings. Such as the wedding palace, the independence monument, and a giant rocket shaped thermometer which commemorates the hottest day in Turkmenistan 57 degrees. These are accessible by 6 lane highways. It just so happens that no-one ever drives on these, well often the only vehicle on the road when we were on the highway was our bus.

Davarsar gas crater

The ancient pagan tribes of turkmenistan used to worship 4 elements. Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire. The soviet union was an atheistic state, but during their occupation they managed to unwittingly turn the Karakom desert into a massive monument to these forces.

4 hours of driving on some quickly deteriorating roads took us into the middle of Turkmenistan, about 100km from the last village in the middle of the desert. We found three huge holes in the ground- one filled with water, one filled with sufurous bubbling mud, and one filled with gas fuelled fire.

We camped by the large Davazar gas crater (the fire crater), and at night we were able to see the darkness of the desert lit up by the flaming “gates of Hell” as its known to the locals. Dinner was quite fittingly cooked over right over the fire that night- chargrilled meats and veges with some local style bread and interesting conversation with new international friends.

The next day we were on the road through the desert, visiting one last ancient city then thrown over the border into Uzbekistan.

a fun video of our time in turkmenistan

St Petersburg (trans-siberian)

We arrived in St Petersburg at the end of May. This was our final stop on our 28 day trans-Siberian/Russian adventure. Our train arrived at 4am and we quickly arrived to our hostel and went to sleep. The thing that surprised us when we arrived was that it was already light outside at 4am, we would later find out that we arrived during the season of “white nights” in St Petersburg- it never gets completely dark, and it only starts to darken at night at around 9pm. It is very confusing, especially for people (us) who had changed time zones 4 times in the last 24 days!

We thought we would book ourselves into a 10 bed room at the hostel at a “party” hostel, obviously it was cheap, but having only spoken to each other for the last 24 days we were looking to socialize. The Cuba hostel was in a great location to all the major sites in the heart of the city. The room was social in the afternoons, and at night the 9 boys in the room created a loud symphony of snoring (Chris was a real team player here!).

It was chilly, pink nose season here

We explored some the major sites. A lot of these we saw on a free walking tour with a local guide through the city-checking out the river, statues, monuments, and museums along the way.

This is Peter the Great making a boat, one of his many trades, apparently he had several, including being a dentist!

St Petersburg is named after the Tsar Peter the Great who fought a war against Sweden to capture this area of land and the city, giving Russia access to the Baltic sea via the gulf of Finland and the ability to develop a ferocious navy. Back in the day (17th century) Russia had a “serf” population who were basically peasents who belonged to a noble family, like slaves with a bit more autonomy. These serfs were conscripted by Peter to come to his new conquered land and to build him an european city from the swapland. The conditions were terrible and tens of thousands of these people died during the construction- they call St Petersburg the city built on bones.

Peter the Great on a big horse on a big rock
We did not pack for things to be this cold!

The sight we most enjoyed was the Hermitage museum which we explored over two days (a few hours at a time) guided by a very handy English audioguide. The Hermitage was probably the most impressive museum/art gallery either of us have been to with the most impressive paintings, and at least one painting of every famous artist you have ever heard of. We were very interested to find out a lot of the painting were seized from German private collection at the end of WWII.

Posing by the hermitage photobombed by the wind

We were also lucky enough to be here during the 316th birthday of St Petersburg city. We were told by locals to expect something big, we were not disappointed. At midnight the drawbridges over the river lifted upwards to 90 degree angles to create screens that were filled with projected images of St Petersburg, followed by dances on cables in full LED suits flipping and swinging down the bridge/screen. Next came the man in the white suit playing electric violin as men in LED suits on water powered jet packs flew over the river with fire exploding out of their flame throwers, then of course the fireworks. It was pretty spectacular.

For those worried that we may not have been able to satisfy our new kebab addiction we picked up in Moscow- fear not! We found a little restaurant by our hostel called Pita’s which did delicious falafel and meat filled kebabs (visited twice).

Our last day we went to Peterhof, the former summer palace for the royal russian family.

The Grand Cascade (pictured above) forms the centrepiece of Peterhof. The three waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues had even the most nonchalant tourists wide-eyed with amazement. Centre to all of it stands a golden statue of Samson ripping the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great North War over the Gulf of Finland. 

Russia was awesome, but after 28 days we were ready to leave to try something completely different. We are heading to central asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) to do explore the old silk road territory, previously held soviet states, deserts, dictator run countries, yurts and nomads. Let’s do some intrepid travelling!

Moscow (Trans-siberian)

You truely Moscow to Moscow!

Moscow is the financial and political center of Russia and the countries formerly comprising the Soviet Union. It has a population of around 13 million, one-tenth of all Russian citizens live in the Moscow metropolitan area. Moscow is the second most populous city in Europe, after Istanbul. We explored Moscow on a walking tour and solo as well during our time. We found the food was significantly more expensive here than it had been so far in Russia, luckily we discovered a kebab shop not far from our hostel which was so delicious we went back several times and I left a tripadvisor review! So TASTY!

These kebabs were the highlight of our Russian cuisine experience~
It did not take long until we bumped into Stalin on the street
Chris enjoyed the look of one of the seven sisters (the building in the background, not a lady- I have googled this to make sure)
Absolutely loving exploring the kremlin!
We decided Moscow is the most beautiful at night

One of the highlights was going to a show- we watched Anna Karenina the musical. We opted for the cheapest seats because we are on a budget and didnt think we would understand much of it because it was all in Russian. We were lucky to find that the level of the theatre we were on was only half full and we got a perfect centre stage view for the equivalent of $10 NZD (we were very smug). The musical stage set was very hightech and the cast and costumes were amazing! We ended up having a really good time!

The second highlight was doing a tour of an old soviet underground bunker that was used during the cold war by Russian generals called bunker 42. The facility (located 65 meters underground) operated as an emergency Command Post Headquarters and long-range aviation communications. The Bunker 42 was fully equipped with everything needed for a nuclear attack: air recycling system, diesel generators, stocks of food, fuel, artesian wells to provide clean drinking water. Up to 3000 people could live and work there for 90 days without assistance from the outside world.

I got to follow the nuclear launch sequence, enter the number, turn the key, and press the big red button. Then watch on the screen as my nuclear weapon destroyed a large (?american) city into a mushroom cloud. Chris was concerned about the amount of smiling he saw during this.
At the underground bar and restaurant

Our final train would take us overnight to St Petersburg, our last stop in Russia…