Khiva – last man standing

The Amyru Darya river delta takes the edge off the harshness of the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts that sandwich Khiva, the last intact Silk Road town. Agriculture is possible and since it is now officially spring any field not yet washed with a fuzz of green is rapidly acquiring precision furrows. Grumpy old men and their hyper-focused bandy legged wives provide most of the action while grandchildren resolutely shirk their responsibilities: Sulky teenage girls stare off into the distance, longing for a better present, a different future; younger brothers, kick balls or each other, neither use nor ornament.


The sheer romantic impact of the vast adobe mud walls, here since the 5th century, is marred somewhat by a pervasive and alarming smell of gas (A Turkmenistani engineer staying at my B & B explains the rather ad hoc appropriation of domestic gas from the over ground main line encircling the town (seen in the photo); his wife and I open our windows before we go to sleep). The rich remnants of 600 years of Islamic architecture are solid evidence of Khiva’s significance well into the 19th century.


Layers of history at the in-town necropolis.

Except that Khiva is not quite what it seems: We are seeing the fruits of the rigorous Soviet renovation that shored up the buildings while divesting the nearly 100 (each) of mosques and medressas of their religious roles.



Some 10th century columns are still standing, the others are renovations. We can tell because the older columns were soaked in chicken shit for 5 years to smooth the wood. The Russians didn’t bother.


The inevitable middle schoolers


And awkward bridal party.

Still, the citizens adapted and even though the Soviets are long gone the call to prayer remains anemic.

But Khiva has its eye on the future as well as the past. A quick sortie outside the East Gate (in search of crackers, my single line of defense against the ubiquitous fatty food) reveals a bomb site.


The East gate with gas line


The future is being planned outside the walls


Madame and daughter of the cracker shop.

More iconic views of Khiva, first from my hotel roof








The Sacred well medressa.


‘Three coins in the fountain’ is a different proposition when all the currency is in notes.


The museums are always vaguely disappointing



Inquiries to the millenial-behind-the-desk reveals big plans for the future – a new bazaar! (the current one is a mere shadow of its Silk Road self although when I hear a Russian guide tell his group “Don’t buy anything it’s all made in China” it feels like plus ça change); more hotels! (land can’t be bought and sold inside the old city, only inherited, and most inhabitants it seems are content with their cows and sheep, at least for now); a fast train! (2 hours instead of 18 from Tashkent is coming this year already). Khiva clearly has theme park aspirations.


Hotel Zukhro’s milenial at the desk (the heir apparent) is only 14 but already has well formed social opinions. He will go to Korea to study English at university, while his sister will stay confined to the house. At breakfast I learn she has other plans.


These book stands are still made on site. The master, Hasan Bey, can trace his ancestry through 18 generations. He shows me how they’re carved from a single piece of wood and insists I take a video of how they can be opened (nine ways).


Plus ça change indeed.


Hearts and minds folks.

I swear though, Uzbekis are the chat masters of the universe! No sooner are they all sat down than  favorite stories are brought out to rapt attention and just the right quota of encouraging questions. A long train journey is the perfect crucible and this one is my last overnight of the trip from Khiva to Samarkand (the worst possible, I failed to notice we only stop briefly and at the ungodly hour of 2:45am – it will be impossible to sleep soundly).

My compartment mates  – a nice young cardiologist who is a dead ringer for a young Barack Obama, and an enormous old guy with a full set of gold teeth who prays enthusiastically as soon as he sits down but then puts away his hat and pretensions for the duration) and the inevitable shy Tajik on the top bunk are soon frustrated by our lack of shared words (Google translate [and the internet] gives up half an hour after departure as usual, just when the cardiologist has used it to announce ‘I am Mexican’ to everyone’s confusion).

IMG_3998 2

Barack Obama


My fat friend saved our bacon with dinner (so to speak) but refuses to open his mouth for the photo op so his magnificent dental work goes unreported.


The redoubtable Russell. Goldman Sachs class of 2020.

We are saved by the appearance of ‘Russell’ the milenial (of course) a student of finance at Singapore University with aspirations to a distinguished career at Goldman Sachs. He speaks impeccable English. As soon as news of a bona fide translator spreads, the compartment floods with inquiring minds. It is standing room only and I am forced to become an expert on both Western Europe and the Americas. We segue from economics to politics to soccer (briefly) and on to medical horror stories. Poor Russell is run ragged for 6 hours with a brief break for dinner (hard boiled eggs from the Tajik, bread and delicious sausage from fatty, tea from Barack Obama, cookies supplied by me) before we all collapse with exhaustion. I get up quietly at 2:30 and at 2:40 fatty lumbers up from his bunk opposite and insists on carrying my luggage the 20 feet to the carriage door. He has put on his hat so he can bless my travels.


Uzbeki humor


Paka Shymkent, Salaam Tashkent

I have made the sensible decision to reduce my stay In Turkestan to only night, but visa considerations mean I now have to be in Shymkent (of which Lonely Planet opines ‘there is little here to interest the tourist’ – an almost criminal exaggeration) for three. The customary amble on day one is pleasant enough –  I stumble on the Museum of Soviet Repression which explains handily why Soviet history is so hard to find and why when I cheerily ask the waitress whether our GT conversation will be ‘Russkiy o Kazakh’ she puts her head down to hiss ‘Russkiy’ in my ear, but by 6pm and despite the balmy weather I have exhausted all options and retreat to my Airbnb to binge watch McMafia.

We get the message at the Museum of Soviet Repression


A monument to the 145,000 Southern Kakahs who died in the Second World War. Not mentioned: a significant number of others defected to the Germans.


Spring is trying hard to arrive in Shymkent


Sheer desperation on day 2 forces me into a tortuous 2 hour bus ride to Sayram in an effort to locate the area’s only Silk Road ruin that survived the Soviets, presumably because they too walked right past it. Still Shymkent serves its purpose,  I finish McMafia and am raring to get on the road again.

The 30 foot Silk Road minaret that the Soviets missed. According to LP one can ‘climb to the top to get a view of the mountains’. Omitted: on your hands and knees.


Downtown action in Sayram, ignored by the Soviets for all the right reasons.


The transition from Shymkent to Tashkent involves an international border awash in internet hysteria – the Kazakhs will scrutinize my passport for the correct number of stamps (I’m one short thanks to my lackadaisical military friend on the train from Russia) and documentation of registration (don’t have it, aim to play the dementia card) while the Uzbeks will comb my luggage for anything they deem offensive (they are apparently easily offended). Visions of internment in no-man’s land disturb my sleep, however the day starts off well: The NYP (nice young people) who have rented me the apartment convey me to the gladiator circus where the 2 hour shared taxi rides to the border are transacted and negotiate me a coveted front seat for the local price ($3). The road to the border is a swish 6 lane highway. We arrive tout de suite.

A straight shot to the border


Uzbekistan is a resolutely credit card and ATM free zone, and its currency (som) is closed so I will need to carry my whole 3 week Uzbeki budget as well as a buffer for entering Kyrgistan in the boondocks, in cash. I can’t top up dollars in Shymkent but the NYP reveal an ‘unofficial’ option for changing Kazakh Tenge to som at the border. I land up on the highway median where Macbeth’s witches with gold teeth huddle into the wind. Calculators are whipped out. Cash is stuffed into grocery bags (my hastily acquired Tenge will transform into about 1,800,000, the largest note is 10,000). Simultaneously, duplicate forms are being filled out in Russian declaring all cash, assets and strangely, medication (antibiotic, antidiarrheal and ibuprofen). Huddled into the wind myself, It is all very disorienting and ripe for a scam. Later, when I realize I am $20 short I console myself with the thought that they could have given me plain paper and in the moment I wouldn’t have noticed.

As calculated, in light of the massive bundles of who-knows-what being energetically ‘imported’ in both directions, the border officials have bigger fish to fry than me. They are in no mood to engage in GT conversations to confirm I am demented, and my reading material, luggage and medications are of no interest. Sadly, once safely in Uzbekistan I must tackle the gladiators on my own. My taxi driver is so irate I am only willing to pay 1½ times the going rate ($3) for the hour ride to Tashkent he refuses to take me further than the Metro station and I am reduced to collaring a random pedestrian to phone my B & B for directions. They send their 12 year old son who manfully shoulders my roly bag. All in all a very successful day.

Salaam Tashkent

 Jahongir B & B is in the old town, an area so residential that the predominant nocturnal noise is the sheep the neighbors evidently keep in their courtyard.


Jahongir B & B. There are definitely sheep behind one of those walls.


Another $25 bargain, especially now I’ve wheedled an extra pillow.

Mine hosts are an extremely traditional Uzbek family – all females headscarved even indoors (daughters up to their elbows in laundry or scrubbing the stairs) and no evidence of dad except for his singlets drying on the washing line. But mom is speaks fluent English and is eager to explain the new president’s goals to open Uzbekistan to the world (visa reform! ATMs! Credit cards! Faster internet! Massive ugly building projects!) while simultaneously trying to justify why her daughters will be just as well off getting married as going to university. Beneath the polished sweetness a spine of steel.


Muhammed and his sister Alazira. He wants to play for Real Madrid, and practices daily in the lane. She wants to be a doctor and only ever leaves the compound to go to school.

But LP is so wrong about Tashkent, its civic architecture is astounding! I emerge from the Metro to a city center in which glorious pre-Revolutionary and Soviet buildings have been deployed in extensive parkland packed to the gills with flowering trees.

The previous president’s vanity project with my photo-taking friends. Old folks don’t do selfies.


Pre-revolutionary home of one of the Romanovs.


Another glorious opera theatre


The story behind the negotiations behind this plaque would be worth hearing.


A Soviet favorite


Don’t expect a warm welcome at the Uzbekistan Hotel.


There has to be a Lada


The Russian second hand book market. Samizdat is out. Test prep and text books are in. Russian schools are still the pathway to higher education. Striver Uzbeks grit their teeth and suck it up.


No takers for the Soviet memorabilia still for sale.


On the run-up to Nowruz there is little traffic only decorous families wallowing in the opportunity to be out eating ice-cream in their winter clothes (it is 70° today, it will be 115°C in the summer).

Bad art for (almost) everyone.


Not overwhelmed with customers today


If only the megalomaniac previous president hadn’t cut down all the plane trees in Republic Square we could have checked out the chess players too. In the absence of shade they have taken themselves elsewhere.


Republic Square. At a time when it wasn’t cool a (luckily anonymous) dissident castrated the horse to protest cutting down the trees.


He cut them down so we could all see his building behind.

The chess players have moved elsewhere.


A 5-hour stroll takes it all in and then another execrable dinner of fatty shashlik and an inadvertent mayonnaise salad in the restaurant across the road. Uzbeki cuisine begins to take its toll. Off to Khiva on the night train tomorrow.

A raw, raw day on the Western Steppes

The overnight train from Almaty draws into Turkestan just after dawn, frightening the birds hoping for an early start on the sheets of standing water left behind by the snow.


The animals are out too – compact woolly cows toughened up from the winter, burly brown and black steppe sheep and the inevitable hairy, neurotic goats. Their shepherds will catch up with them later on horseback, or less ideally, on donkeys. The sky is leaden and the wind is damp. There will be no sun today.


Crows’ nests. It is exactly as dank as it looks.

Hotel Edem, the best budget option in town (there are no non-budget options) is unfortunately already living up to its mixed reputation, but as usual there is a NYL at the desk prepared to bond over my passport: ‘Wait, you’re the same age as my MOTHER!’ her GT tells me. She hustles me off for breakfast, checking in to make sure I’m eating enough protein. No tourists in the bustling dining room, and the notorious nightclub seems to be located outdoors; surely no all-night disco in March?


One of the many design flaws at Hotel Edem. The gate is padlocked. Getting onto the entrance stairs involves sidling around the banister.


In this case the design flaw is not, as you may think, that there is no way to keep the water within the shower, it is that concreting over the drain means it has no place to go once it is on the floor.


But I have scored famous room 215!  – the farthest room from the notorious all night disco. Of course I have to pay for the privilege ($30).

In a rare flash of prescience I have given myself only one day in Turkestan, so a car and driver are needed post haste. NYL will find me one. It will be twice what I’d pay if I go out on the streets and negotiate myself, but I’m willing to forego the extra $10. In short order I am introduced to Roma, my driver to be, another hulking Uzbek. Roma has selected ‘business casual’ for our excursion and I am so transfixed by his natty blazer and sparkling shoes, I neglect due diligence on his car, which I will regret later. I myself am swaddled in many of the clothes left after mailing my Siberian wardrobe back home, somewhat prematurely it seems.

Our destination is an hour and a half out of town through the relentless steppe, scarred here and there by dry river beds – the snow just melted, will they ever run full? A couple of villages, a tiny town. Texas on steroids.

Though Irkutsk too stood at a trade route crossroads between west and east, Sauran is my first official Silk Road site,  its crumbling city walls pierce the flatness like a mirage.


It is so flat any topography is due to ruined walls and buildings.

One of very few surviving ancient ruins in Kazakhstan, Sauran was built in the 12th century, developed strong diplomatic and trading ties with China, survived Genghis Khan and eventually become capital of the White Horde, only to be abandoned when the nearest river abandoned it a couple of centuries later. The walls encircle a huge mound of rubble more than a kilometer in diameter.


The virgin ruins weep exquisitely decorated pottery fragments .

Only one house has been excavated.


I amble round, completely alone except for birds and a shepherd on a pony more than a kilometer away. I am studiously ignored.


The shepherd is also circumnavigating the walls.


The brickwork melts into the landscape.

After nearly 2 hours I spot Roma fastidiously picking his way over the debris and agree reluctantly to call it a day.

We have achieved Sauran via the main road west out of Turkestan, a well-maintained four lane divided highway crawling with police presumably to protect the flocks meandering from side to side, or the shepherds who like to share their lunch on the median, since there is little traffic. Motorists warn each other with complicated hand signals and Roma responds by slowing to a crawl. But wait, why he is actually leaping out of the car, surely we can’t have been nailed? In a manner of speaking: one of the four mismatched wheels has a serious flat. Fortunately he has a spare. Less fortunately nothing else.


Roma’s tool box does not bode well for actually changing this flat tire

Fortunately again many of the sporadic cars stop to offer assistance. Less fortunately, most also lack the necessary combo of jack and appropriate wrench. A car passes every 3 minutes or so, about one in three stops, and we hit the jackpot when the lucky number of stops is seven. The wind has come straight from Siberia and Roma has had to remove his best jacket. I can huddle in the car, at least until the wheel change is imminent.


Our Sir Galahad is deeply skeptical of the whole endeavor.

When we are on our way I firmly turn the heat up and the Uzbeki pop songs off.

Next up the most famous monument in Kazakhstan, the mausoleum of Kozha Yasaui, still an important Sufi mystic.  Designed and built on a visionary scale by Tamurlane, he died in 1405 before he could complete it. There are no tourists today, only a couple of Sufi groups making furtive pilgrimages (their Sufism is controversial). They are pleased when I leave them alone.


The Yasaui mausoleum: Figure on left for scale.


The unfinished front.


The back.


The tile above the door is much more free-form than I expected.

I finish the day with a whistle-stop tour of the Turkestan museum. A fine display of pre-history artefacts from 10,000 BC but interestingly, the whole Russian and Soviet era is completely elided. Outside, for the first time in Kazakhstan, the call to prayer.


The guide loses interest in me at the 12th century so I can surreptitiously snap this ‘Turkestan of the Future – mock up’ despite the stern no photos warning.

Dinner at the best restaurant in town (Hotel Edem where else?) is shashlik advertised as beef, but from its texture, patently horse.  The disco sputters into life at 11, but pulls the plug at 11:15. I sleep like a log and Roma comes the next morning to drive me to the bus station, more appropriately dressed as a car mechanic and with a sheepish grin.


Baden-Baden or Bruges? For a sedate weekend in Central Asia, try Almaty

Like Yangon, Almaty has had the rug pulled from under its feet: the seat of political power has been diverted to an unpopular mausoleum of unfortunate modernist architecture several hundred miles away, leaving only the physical relics behind. But unlike Yangon, which responded by descending into feral chaos, Almaty doesn’t seem to mind one bit. It has exhaled slowly, repurposed its Soviet-era bureaucratic behemoths, helpfully pedestrianized its resplendently wide boulevards (recall Stalin’s paranoia about the insurgencies plotted down narrow lanes) and settled into a sedate middle age.


Plenty of Soviet era behemoths, all gently decaying


Moday: Only one car parked outside the mayor’s office (formerly seat of national government).


Monday evening rush hour: not many takers for the Metro


The Kazakh State Circus features in many books on ‘important’ Soviet Architecture.

On this balmy weekend where the prevailing color is nonetheless still monochrome, serene ‘passeggiatas con gelato’ are in progress, and in the piazzas the serious children are playing sedately. It is no place for disaffected youth, so there aren’t any. The millenials are pleasant and unfailingly helpful. Their English is excellent and they are planning to go to Europe for further studies (no-one is interested in the USA).


Sedate passeggiatas down the pedestrianized boulevards.

Three of my goals for this weekend in Almaty (long showers, laundry, eat vegetables) are handily achieved thanks to my nifty little Soviet era apartment, courtesy of Airbnb. Fantastically located in the middle of downtown it is decrepit enough the developers should be circling; but since every road has 3 names – its Soviet name, its current name, and what people actually call it – it has probably simply slipped through the cracks. So its pensioner tenants, who are within a 5 minute walk of anywhere worth being, are left in peace.


Dinner in my Soviet era kitchen: Rosti with salad and mushrooms. Note the bread, but she was right, I didn’t need an egg.

I amble around, shop for Tashkent tomatoes at the farmer’s market, take in the ballet and a museum or two, eat a gelato and am restored.

Pig and cow feature prominently in the farmer’s market, but horse isn’t similarly advertised.


Just so you don’t think its chicken.


Another ambitious opera theatre.


Everyone was still awake in Act 2, so unlikely to be Sleeping Beauty (as advertised).

And just as well because task 4 is picking up my visa from the Iranian Embassy. Since I have in my hand a document from the Iranian government indicating that at my convenience I will be persona grata for a period not exceeding 20 days, this should be a formality. I have set aside the whole of Monday in case it is not.

A tragicomedy in two acts: Act 1.

Cast: Me; A security guard; Two gents; A secretary; Dr. Jekyll; Mr. Hyde; A Bank Cashier; 8 Uber drivers.
Scene 1: It is early on a dank morning in a ramshackle subdivision about 40 minutes from the center of Almaty, identified from Google maps as the location of the Iranian embassy. The curtain rises on a vast compound that covers a whole block. The walls are at least twelve feet high. Somewhat surprisingly, only one door is not padlocked. The buzzer is not wired up. After much banging the door opens.

Me: I’ve come to pick up my visa

Security guard: Unintelligible

Me: (proffers Google translate which says ‘I’ve come to pick up my visa’).

SG: Unintelligible, mimics not having glasses.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

SG: Shakes head.

Me: Where is it then?

SG: Unintelligible.

Me: Well can you call someone to help me because I’m not understanding you at all.

SG: Points to the basement of what appears to be a deserted building in the middle of the compound.

Scene 2: The only room occupied is on the 2nd floor – two gents with jihadi beards and their Central Asian secretary.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

Gents: No, it moved 10 years ago. We’re (they exchange glances) a Chinese oil company.

Secretary: Looks surprised. (The secretary retrieves a sheet of typed directions to the actual Iranian embassy).

Secretary: Would you like an Uber?

(Aside:  Every second car in Almaty is a taxi and Almaty Uber is the cheapest in the world. Over the next few hours I will take 8 Uber rides for a total outlay of $14).

Uber driver #1: Iranian embassy?

Scene 3: 30 minutes later. It is still dank but this subdivision is marginally less ramshackle, as is the compound. This gate is wide open and astonishingly there are no metal detectors (even the malls in Almaty have metal detectors). At the end of the empty, appallingly decorated room is a wall of bullet proof glass. The gun slit to peer through is inconveniently located at upper chest height.

Me: (through gun slit) Hello, I’ve come to pick up my visa.

Dr. Jekyll:  Passport.

Me: (proffers passport and Iranian Government letter).

Dr. J. : No

Me: What no? I have the letter.

Dr. J: Yes, and we have the visa (pulls down a ledger, and there I am inscribed within ).

Me: So what’s the problem?

Dr. J: No application form. We need online application form.

Me: What do you mean? I don’t have that form, you have it. Did you approve the visa?

Dr. J: No, Tehran.

Me: So Tehran has it.

Dr. J: Your tour organizer made mistake.

Me: What mistake? Tehran approved it.

Dr. J: Go back and fill in again online.

Me: You want me to go home and fill in the online application form again?

Dr. J: Yes.

Me: And then come back?

Dr. J: Yes. Then you pay 360 Euros and we give you visa today.

(I contemplate bursting into tears, but a strategic retreat seems wiser, given we are at a yes)

Uber driver #2: The name (of my apartment) is not Nazerbaev 112, it is Furmanov 112.

2 hour interlude. Via email my internet dude tour organizer offers his best suggestion: ‘do anything they ask’.  But I am unable to complete the online visa application. Finally the Iranian government confesses its website is down for maintenance. I screenshot the message and, preparing for battle, gird my laptop in a plastic grocery bag.

Uber driver #3: Iranian embassy?

Scene 4: 40 minutes later, the same room. A few unhappy Kazakhs are lounging on the ugly, plastic-covered sofas. On the other side of the gun slit sits Mr. Hyde.

Me: I just need to tell you I couldn’t fill…

Mr. Hyde: Yes, yes, obviously anyone should realize if you already submitted a successful application you can’t submit another one.

Me: (Bites lip). OK. So what then?

Mr. H:  Go to the State bank of Pakistan and pay 180 euros. Visa is ready after 5 business days.

Uber driver #4: State Bank of Pakistan?

Scene 5: 30 minutes later in a strip mall, the State Bank of Pakistan.

Pakistani Bank cashier: 180 Euros is 71,475 Tenge.

Me: Can I pay with a card?


Me: Do you have a Bankomat (ATM)?

PBC: No.

Uber driver #5: Bankomat?

15 minutes later

Uber driver #6: State Bank of Pakistan?

20 minutes later

Uber driver #7: Iranian Embassy?

Scene 6: 30 minutes later. The same room. The Kazakhs have left. Through the gun slit Dr. J. is back. He looks sullen, even after lunch.

Me: Here’s the receipt. For 180 Euros.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: (opens laptop and indicates calendar) I’m coming back on April 12th. I will pick up my visa then.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: Will you write me something to say that will be OK?

Dr. J: No.

Uber Driver #8: The name is not Nazerbaev 112, its Furmanov 112.

It has taken over 8 hours.


The Iranian embassy, Almaty

I have 2 gin and tonics with dinner at the Korean restaurant round the corner.


Gin and tonic number 1

Act 2 will be performed on April 12th.

Farewell Taiga!

I finally get my Pasternak moment on the 057 Irkutsk to (somewhere unpronounceable but way past Rostock on Don) when Lara parks herself opposite on bunk #11. Larissa is a dumpy, chunky babushka, but she is not grumpy! Not at all! In fact she’s so good-natured and charming that within 20 minutes she has us all wrapped round her little finger. Her week’s supply of food is deposited in the prodenitsa’s own fridge and the prodenitsa herself has cheerfully provided us both with real china plates and proper cutlery so Larissa can load them up with a delicious selection of home-made salads for our lunch.


Larissa will be on the train for a week. Fortunately she has brought food for a month

A few hours later and even the fierce Tajiks on the top bunks are happily showing us photos of their grape harvests. In a final coup de main on our morning constitutional she even has the train driver getting down from his compartment for a photo-op.


The most good-natured train driver in Russia

The sun is still sparkling on the taiga and our Google Translates remark simultaneously that it feels like spring. It is a lovely, if short, 30 hour train ride and we part, appropriately, with a heartfelt bear hug (she and the Tajiks head on to Rostock).


The bright blue skies make all the difference. Massive stands of trees try unsuccessfully to break the wind.


Spring is on its way to Novosibirsk too, so the grey film on the hard packed snow and ice that covers the sidewalks is beginning to melt treacherously. I am focusing on keeping my footing when it occurs to me the reason the air feels so balmy on my legs is that I’ve neglected to put my snow pants on top of my long underwear. Fortunately, Novosibirskians are far too polite to indicate they’ve noticed. My goal is some prep for Kazakhstan tomorrow: Scene, a bank. Cast: Me via Google Translate; A bank clerk.

Me: Is it possible to change Rubles into Tenge?

ABC: No. Do you have dollars?

Me: Oh! Is it possible to change Dollars into Tenge?

ABC: No.


A night at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet to see Peer Gynt, in this modern iteration an  odd combination of both opera and ballet.  I would have preferred the piano and the chorus on stage and the dancers in the orchestra pit. But the acoustics were absolutely sensational, the best I’ve ever heard.  Caviar and champagne helps too.


Hello Steppes!

All bets are off! The last stage of this marathon train expedition, a 48 hour, two night trip, will not be on one of the Russian Railways marvels I now so smugly consider myself expert in. The 369 from Novosibirsk to Tashkent stopping in Almaty Kazakhstan, is a decrepit Uzbekhi Railways imitation. Truth be told, it isn’t an imitation at all, but a slightly unhinged parallel universe.


Novosibirsk Railway Station. The palm trees are obscuring a grand piano. The pianist is playing Rachmaninoff.

Clue number one: most of the train is composed of open bunk ‘plazkart’ carriages to accommodate a full cohort of ‘importers’ laden down with plenty of who knows what (whatever it is they come by from time to time trying to sell it).  The single ‘kupe’ carriage of elite 4 berth compartments has an oriental rug, but is half empty.


All of the action is at the rear of the train which is packed full of ‘importers’. The sniffer dogs are very interested.

Clue number two: all the prodenistas are men, and none are prepared to deploy air freshener in the bathrooms or vacuum between our feet. No-one has a clipboard. After the border and when they have acquired enough who knows what from the ‘importers’ they let a subset sleep in the kupe carriage, though not, fortunately, in our compartment.


Our prodenista sports elaborate dental work and what looks like a military band uniform. He insists I take a picture of him with this dried-up pomegranate. Meanwhile his junior associate (glimpsed partially) cackles “No photos! No photos!” hysterically from the side. Neither of them prioritize cleaning the bathrooms.


The samovar is coal fired.


But bunk #9 will be cozy under the Uzbekhi railway blanket. Just as well since all the lights and heating fused on the second night.

Clue number three: there is no little elf with free dinners (how we laughed but how we miss him now) only a hulking great Uzbeki who tries to strong arm us into buying greasy plov on a 3 hour rotation. Ludmilla (Luda, this trip’s bunk #11) keeps up a whispered commentary on everything she disapproves of (it is constant) and manages to whisper him away but I make the mistake of saying ‘patom’ (‘later’) so he puts me and his rapidly congealing bowls on a half hour rotation. Google Translate is not effective in Uzbeki.


Plov extortion. Out of self defense I tried to figure out when it might be fresh and ordered then. I was wrong.

At just before 6am I am engaged in the daily ritual of calculating how long I can put off going to the bathroom when all lights come on and three different breeds of sniffer dogs expertly nose their way down the carriage, followed by 5 members of the Red Army Ensemble who align themselves beside my bunk. ‘Passport’ they chorus. They are so transfixed with last year’s Burmese visa they take the passport away, presumably to show the tenors. An hour or so later a trio with slightly better vocabulary demand my full itinerary in detail (they are visibly disappointed it won’t include Burma). I omit Iran and substitute Istanbul as an imaginary final leg but It doesn’t help. Finally, and after another hour, a well-scrubbed millennial with perfect English (of course) presents me with my passport, inexplicably freezing cold, ‘I’m so sorry’ he says unexpectedly. ‘It’s quite all right’ I tell him. Of course, we’re stopped, so the bathroom is locked.

But all is not done. The Kazakh half of the equation awaits. Its single military representative, while decidedly spottier and much less spruced up than the RAE has several more lights on. He immediately spots my proffered UK passport lacks the Russian exit visa (the dilemma – my Iranian visa, which I’m going to pick up in Almaty, will go in my UK passport, so I need my Kazakh visa there also, but my Russian visa is in my US passport). I surrender my US passport reluctantly (I have not yet made it to the bathroom). ‘Two passports?’ he asks. ‘Yes’ I concede. He immediately stamps the appropriate one. ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan’ he says with a grin.

By the time it gets light we are into the steppe. The horizon is flat in all directions and will stay that way until nightfall, 12 hours away. We stop at one tiny town and see only a handful of isolated villages, all beside the tracks. Their houses feel braced into the landscape.


An unusual blast of color.

There are no full size trees. Only the wind has sliced and etched huge swirls in the snow, which, caked with ice, glisten in the sun.


I had thought the landscape would be scarred with Soviet mines, but it is not. It is pristine; harsh and majestic.


The graveyard at the end of the world

I idly follow some snowmobile tracks as they meander out of a village and beside the railway for over an hour. Along with the electricity poles they end up at a single farmstead. There are no other tracks or electricity poles as far as the eye can see.


The electricity poles stop here.

Outside the farmstead a young boy without gloves is hauling a steel milk can on a sled. He stops to wave at the train, which passes this way three times a week.


Unusually at dawn a far house-light.

Irkutsk Siberia, bitcoin capital of the world

An Irkutsk joke:

“I’ve heard you have bears and wolves walking the streets in Irkutsk”

“Don’t be ridiculous, we don’t have streets in Irkutsk”


Babur, the  mascot of Irkutsk, combines the worst elements of bears and wolves.

Under leaden skies, more snow, and a damp, biting wind Irkutsk definitely isn’t a contender. Not only are the sidewalks not at all free of snow or ice, but underneath they seem to be made of polished granite. Plus, the frozen grey slush seems to mask unsurfaced roads.  I rebuff the usual phalanx of aggressive taxi drivers hogging the front of the station in favor of a 40 minute ride on the ancient tram at 5mph (25 cents). Not for nothing has Irkutsk been described as a ‘boom or bust’ gold town. This particular bust cycle must have been really protracted.

The Matreshka hotel, evidently built during some earlier, fleeting boom, aspires to the ‘Neo-Soviet’ pre-IKEA style of charmless interior décor. But we must look beyond décor to cleanliness (5 stars) millennials-at-the-desk (A+ particularly after one hauls my roly bag up three flights of stairs) and breakfast (over and above – a la carte homemade yogurt supplementing a lavish buffet). A piping hot shower (note for later, a real bath tub) and a change of clothes and I am willing to give Irkutsk a second chance.


The Neo-Soviet pre-IKEA dining room at the Matreshka.


Note to self: there is little point reserving a ‘queen sized bed’ for extra room if it is actually two twins shoved together, with a twin duvet.

At 2pm and courtesy of Katarina, that NYL from Moscow, I am handed off to her friend in Irkutsk. Over the next couple of days Anastasia (Masters in International Relations, Human Rights Watch alumna, social entrepreneur) will walk me off my feet in the service of upending these so facile stereotypes. Can all Russians actually be sweethearts? I’m certainly batting 100% up to now.


Anastasia is an Irkutsk and Baikal booster

In the first place, we are not in fact in a bust cycle. Indeedy not, thanks to, of all things, Bitcoin. It turns out that various international shady characters have ridden into town and taken advantage of fantastically low electricity prices to install massive numbers of Bitcoin servers in rented apartments, making unlikely Irkutsk the Bitcoin capital of the world.

In the second place, despite its resolute location in Asia, Irkutsk is more appropriately known as the Paris (rather than the Dodge City) of Siberia (more plausible when the snow stops sufficiently for the elegant pre-revolution architecture over this side of the river to reveal itself in the gloaming).


Irkutsk can strut its stuff once the snow stops

LvVaLzJTTgSSAHeyXOUGpA_thumb_4442Even the Stalinist buildings aren’t bad. Unknown Warrior duty is no fun at -25°C.

In the third place, the Matreshka hotel is not simply a clean if unfortunately decorated $40 find on, but an exceptionally dangerous place tourists, especially of my age, should avoid. It all seems related in some way to its proximity to the market and the bus-stop outside, which evidently is frequented solely by pick-pockets (if this is the case they are expertly disguised as babushkas). When I ask the millenial-at-the-desk whether I can safely make the 6 minute walk to the restaurant up the street for dinner she is not amused. “It may look dangerous but it isn’t” she says. ”In any case there’s a police car parked outside”. She’s right and it will be there tomorrow too, still empty. I cunningly disguise myself as a pickpocket babushka and make it there and back uneventfully.


The notorious Hotel Matreshka. Taken from in front of the police car.

I’ve just finished washing my malodorous train clothes in the bathtub and am settling in with the New Yorker when I get an anxious text from Anastasia wondering whether I need an armed escort.

Another upended stereotype: I’ve yet to see a Russian drink; when I ordered beer with my dinner the waitress had to run to the grocery store across the road. Everyone else was drinking herbal tea.


The fish is listed as ‘Omul’ – a Lake Baikal specialty. However Omul is protected, so this is in fact another kind (Peyul) that looks and tastes completely different. It is the same price whether listed as Omul or Peyul. Thanks to Anastasia for the insider info, but who knows what all that’s about.

Day 2, Baikal

Everything has changed. The clouds have blown out, the skies are bright blue and here in the Paris of Siberia the sun is sparkling on the sidewalks. Even the roads are now clearly asphalted. It will be a perfect day for the 12 hour trip Anastasia has organized to lake Baikal. First order of business – getting there – is itself a challenge involving a complex sequence of marshrutkas (mini-van buses): Neither where they stop nor when they go is obvious, even to a native Russian speaker who lives in town.

First off, the grandly titled ‘ethnographic museum’ which truth be told is the main reason I am in Irkutsk at all. Various ancient Siberian taiga villages and stockades relocated to a different taiga in service of a hydroelectric dam, and, as hoped, just like Old Sturbridge Village, although the live re-enactments at OSV are better (here the roles of the peasants are played by disconcertingly looming papier maché models). I insist on spending hours inspecting everything, but Anastasia is able to tell me all about it, hence a good time is had by all.


Absolute bliss: Old Sturbridge Village in Siberia



Probably not many live re-enactment volunteers given the houses mostly aren’t heated.


Ancient hunting blind: a nice cozy place to hole up while waiting for the bears and wolves.

Apparently if we ran out of water tomorrow Lake Baikal could keep the entire planet supplied for the next 40 years. It is not surprising then that it has a 2000km shoreline (of which I hope to see only a fraction, Anastasia is very energetic). Tomorrow she plans to ski across to the other side. It will take 6 hours, much out of sight of either bank, all sounding and looking like a really poor idea.


Shamanist prayer flags on the shore of Baikal. Ostensibly from the Buyan indigenous people, but more likely from cross-country skiers.

Fortunately today it is only -20°C so we can take a long (long) walk on the ice and then circle back to buy smoked fish at the village market and take it into one of the cafés to eat. The notion of bringing one’s own food to a café is somewhat counter-intuitive, and Anastasia warns me we will need to buy something, which turns out to be a couple of pitas to wrap the fish in. But we even drink our own thermos of tea, while the family beside us tucks into their own full 3 course meal.


One of these is actual Omul, the fishermen themselves are less inhibited about the prohibition.


Pita and actual Omul for lunch.

At about 4pm, having taken each other’s measure, we can finally start on politics. I am interested why Putin enjoys between 80% (Anastasia’s figure) and 90% (Katarina’s) support. He has made internal improvements (like shutting down the paper mill that was polluting Lake Baikal), but not enough and he is getting tired. People are restless but afraid of chaos when he steps down. Navalny, his only viable opponent, is a consummate politician who espouses eliminating hush-money subsidies to states (like Chechnya); this may restore equity (the money is funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians, and even the Chechens themselves are fed up) but is a risky path. International politics are not on the radar screen, even for this International Relations expert. She is interested in whether there is a link between Trump and Putin. I offer that more than half the USA is praying for one, and that it surely involves kompromat based on shady financing of his business deals. But Putin is surely too clever to have his fingerprints on anything. She thinks his acceptance of the most recent sanctions show he’s hanging his inner circle out to dry. As he reaches the end of his career he is seeking to establish his legacy. and he wants it acknowledged that it is he who saved Russia. They need to realize the price he has paid for greasing their wheels.


The local history museum, a bridge too far.

At 6pm I decline the final museum and insist on declaring victory. Although I rarely actually feel cold, being out in it all day is exhausting. At the hotel I am so tired I settle for a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water for dinner; I can’t even make it into the corridor to get hot water for tea.

Into the belly of the beast from the east

This year’s long post about trains.

Weighed down with 5 days-worth of food I never eat at home (cups-of-soup, pot noodles, instant coffee) I am bright and early for the 13:50 Moscow to Chitra train #70, making about 100 stops over the 5 day trip to Irkutsk in far eastern Siberia. Of the many trains on the Transsiberian route, foreigners prefer the more lavish #3 and #4, but I expect the older Chitra to be more solid, plus it arrives in Irkutsk at the more godly hour of 10:00 am on Friday, rather than the middle of the night.


It is not quite clear why Lonely Planet advises getting to the station 2 hours in advance in order to identify the train.


A mere smattering of those 100 stops. The engine is changed every night.


Train 70 Moscow to Chita

I easily identify carriage 8 (it is between 9 and 7, unlike the UK trains) and then my compartment midway between the samovar and the toilets (bunk #13).


Chill Lonely Planet, this isn’t rocket science.

But wait! In contrast to the undertaking by Russian Railways that ladies will be put together, bunks 11, 12 and 14 are already occupied by gents, at least one of whom has evidently never seen the inside of a shower he trusts.  I am outraged and corner the prodenitsa (aide for our carriage) who is assiduously mopping the toilet floor. “It was my understanding” google translate begins in a passive aggressive tour de force “that were it possible for ladies to be together in a compartment, it would be so. And it does in fact appear to be possible”. Indeed it does. The carriage is not full and other ladies are in compartments alone. The prodenitsa observes me narrowly. She has seen it all before. She hopes that these statements are not an attempt to impugn the honor of these fine Russian gentlemen. Regrettably, at this point no changes can be made, so she also hopes that nonetheless a comfortable and satisfying journey can be achieved to (her eyes narrow even more) Irkutsk. She is not swayed by my final desperate plea that they are smelly.

At this point a choice must be made. The trip from Moscow to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia will take 3 full days and two half days on either end (4 nights). I have been waiting for it for literally 50 years. There won’t be a do-over (even if I repeat it there will never be another first time).  So I need to get over it and get on with it.

Dimitry, Pyotor and even potentially Vasily-the-unshowered turn out to be sweethearts, just as the prodenitsa has optimistically advertised.

D is a millennial whose single passion is helicopters. Fortunately he is training to be a helicopter pilot. By the end of day 1 he has shown me every single picture on his computer, all of which are of helicopters, plus some videos of him as a pilot. The linguistic effort exhausts him and he sleeps in until 10 on day 2. Fortunately also, his phone is dead, so he has to spend the trip studying for his exams rather than watching videos.

P is a quintessential dad whose kids are set to surpass his wildest dreams (one is an architect and the other at Moscow University). He works for Gazprom but not in the Moscow office (this is significant to the other 2 who nod sagely). I presume that if he was an oligarch he would fly to Irkutsk, which takes about 3 hours. (Update: we later learn he makes this same trip from Kalliningrad on the Baltic to Siberia once a year to visit his mother. Once he disembarks at Irkutsk he has a further 6 hour train trip north followed by a 3 hour bus ride into the taiga. All in all the round trip will take a month. He does it by train because he is afraid to fly).


Dmitry fueling up for another bout of helicopter splaining. Pyotor taking advantage of the minute and a half of cell phone service available for the next 100 miles.

V – the – unshowered (and also it will turn out, the snorer) is more of an enigma. He has the bunk above mine and therefore during the day should share mine as a seat. But V doesn’t like to sit next to me or look me in the eye and so he alternates between squeezing in with the other 2 on the opposite side (which subtly exasperates them) or standing in the corridor. At dinner (pot noodles for me, pasta for P, and for D two competing 3 course meals from his divorced parents) D and V get into an intense discussion later described to me as about ‘political history’ during which D is too well-mannered to roll his eyes. After dinner V ascends to his bunk and falls asleep at 8pm. (Update: V has warmed up this morning and unbidden scurries through the carriage to identify the cleanest toilet for me. They are both clean. The prodenitsa’s obsession with mopping and dusting far outweigh her intransigence with seat assignments).


Vasily  prefers to stand in the corridor rather than sit next to me.

Within a few hours the three of us (P, D and me) have settled on an effective way to get the most out of our combined 300 word vocabulary (there is usually no cell service or internet en route so GT is sidelined). I ask a question and then rephrase it a couple of times. They confer among themselves for a consensus answer which P delivers (D has more words but often gets hold of the wrong end of the stick). If it is a question they are particularly interested in (about 1 in 5) someone will bring out a napkin for a more thorough written response. We adopt a calming rhythm of ignoring each other until meal times and settle in for a nice discussion (and D’s pictures) in the evening. By the end of day 1 we have covered the cost of health care, universities and income tax and admired D’s college transcripts. I am hopeful we will move onto politics tonight since they have shown surreptitious interest in my book on Stalin. After the first night all the compartments are filled up, but few seem as convivial as ours. Moreover, in contrast to the hysterical admonitions of Lonely Planet, we leave our electronics lying around and not only do we not lock ourselves in at night, we leave the compartment door ajar, which is just as well since it is hotter than hell and everyone is in T shirts or pajamas.


Bunk #13 all set up for the night. The pillowcase from home is my best hack: I can stuff my parka inside thereby defending myself from the Russian Railways ‘pillow’.

The built up environs of Moscow drop off after about 3 hours and now, nearly 24 hours later, all we see through the dense gusting snow are isolated villages burrowing into the drifts. The village houses are mostly well kept but only some have smoke coming from their chimneys. Between them the larch forest is still interspersed with fields and from time to time we see ski tracks and even occasionally, resolute skiers. About every hour there is a small, quiet town. It is bliss.

During day 2 we pass over the Urals (rather disappointing as mountains – they achieved their full potential several millennia ago). They too are dotted with cozy villages nestled into the snow. Notably fewer of them are inhabited.


Not how I’d imagined the Urals (before it really started snowing).

On day 3 we cross the wasteland that is the desolate marsh of Western Siberia. Within the bog many trees are stunted and dead, like a first world war battle site and it appears fully devoid of humans or their habitation: There are no roads and we pass only two villages all day, only a few railroad workers’ cottages, glimpsed through the blizzard, huddle dispiritedly alongside the train tracks.


A rare sign of life in Western Siberia.

When I tell D & P this intense snowstorm is being called ‘the beast from the east’  V, from his top bunk, observes that it is in fact ‘the beast from the west’. My rush to impute nationalist motives is corrected by D, ever the didact, who points out the actual direction of the wind.

The blizzard outside may be raging but carriage 8 has settled into a bustling rhythm that demands careful attention. First of all is the matter of time. Carriage 8 like all Russian trains en route adheres to Moscow time, which is a full 5 hours different from where we will end up in the east, promoting an existentialist dilemma where at any given moment the clock at the end of the carriage bears no relationship to either our phones or laptops (further complicated by the fact that cell phone service can only optimistically be called intermittent and we have had internet only once in 3 days) or, more significantly, our biological clocks. Not only do we sleep in until ungodly hours but the little elf who runs the restaurant can deliver meals he calls ‘dinner’ at times no sane person would want to eat. (We each get one free meal. D and V, who are getting off midway in Omsk had their ‘dinner’ at what they thought was 3pm on day 2. P, the Transsiberian expert, who is  getting off with me at Irkutsk has decreed we will have ours on day 4 when the arrival of ‘dinner’ may coincide with our biological breakfast, or something).


Only the blazing sunlight provides a clue that in fact it might not be 4:49 in the morning. The heat in the carriage has been turned down for the night.

We stop about three times a day for long enough to buy food from the babushkas who man dank kiosks or more disconcertingly flash their merchandise from where it is pinned inside their coats. Hard boiled eggs are 25 cents, train-proof bread that never tastes good or but never goes bad 50 cents, and questionable salami a dollar.


If we want to eat tomorrow we must brave the kiosks tonight.

.On one occasion I buy some smoked fish. Inside, enveloped in fetid heat, it starts to smell after only 10 minutes. They implore me to eat it quickly, but even so P is forced to spray the compartment with pungent deodorant in self-defense.


Making no friends with this evening’s menu choice.

The carriage is looked after by two prodenistas. It should be pointed out that their job is to look after Russian Railways hardware, not its passengers. To this end Nadzheda toils all morning (Moscow time), which means she turns up randomly by day and night, poking her vacuum between our feet and insisting we lean this way and that so she can polish behind our backs and clean the windows When we stop she scurries outside to chip the ice from the undercarriage. It has not escaped our notice that Nadzheda pays most loving attention to the bathroom nearest her little compartment, which is always sparkling clean and well supplied with toilet paper. Tamara works at night (Moscow time) when our opportunities to despoil Railway property are minimized, so she can concentrate on her specialties of paperwork and Sudoku. Three hours after carriage 8 has been cleaned to within an inch of its life a man with a clip board comes round to inquire after our satisfaction. Since the surveys must be accompanied by a Russian ID (supplied reluctantly by D and P) he is not interested in my opinion. Remarkably, their comments will be published on the Russian Railways website, as I discovered once accidentally. V on the top bunk keeps resolutely mum.


All hands on deck, or rather under the deck.


Carriage 8 before Nadzheda has vaccumed the corridor and straightened the runner.

According to Lonely Planet, Transsiberian trains #3 & #4 will provide a non-stop party experience, but in carriage 8 on the 1950’s Chitra express the subtle etiquette is much more decorous. Lower bunks get the window seat near the table, but when the others indicate an intention to eat by rustling in their food bags it is considered polite to shift out of the way and leave the compartment. It is not polite to comment on food, unless invited (exception – smoked fish as mentioned, and my pot noodles which invited discreet scorn but then an avalanche of invitations to salami and cheese). Cookies are left on the table for communal use and should be pressed on others whenever eye contact is made. Tea is drunk 8 times a day.


Russian railways help out with the tea drinking requirement by providing mugs.


And a samovar

D & V depart at Omsk on day 3 (V thaws completely and kisses my hand). Unfortunately this unexpected outpouring of emotion causes him to forget his passport unleashing a tsunami of bureacracy in the service of dropping it off at the next station (Ob, population 10, six hours away). V & D are replaced by a deaf woman and at midnight (actual time) a sulky millennial who is welded to his iphone. We accommodate and the conversations begin again.

I am reluctant to disembark. After all there are still three more days before Chita, not to mention Vladivostok.

And the gold medal goes to …..

Three days later and Moscow leads the pack of cities to aspire to live in: It is a walking city. The pavements are flat and free of snow, ice and litter. (Those that are not are being assiduously attacked – on a Sunday – by many unusually goal oriented teams of workers). They are so wide, bike lanes, dogs and kids are all kept effectively distant. Pedestrians wait for the green light and in return drivers do not pretend to accelerate as soon as one steps into the street. All major highways have regular underground passages which are clean and well lit. People use them, and above, the traffic flows smoothly.

Public transport is everywhere: on each of the 10 or so Metro lines trains run every minute, so need never be packed. Trams are sleek and buses (the domain of babushkas) are spruce. Neighborhoods are chock a block with enticing apartments of every persuasion from fin-de-siècle to brutalist concrete, all cozily supplied with grocery stores, bakeries etc. The grocery stores and bakeries look just like home, and there is a coffee shop on nearly every corner.


A random view from my hotel window at rush hour on Monday morning

On my four hour amble I  pass more than 30 theaters or concert halls all bustling with matinee audiences (the many churches are bustling too, clearly where babushkas go when they get off the bus).


A church on every corner. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Best of all the people are largely above and beyond friendly, although any attempt at random street smiling is met with frank alarm. (However, the combination of my TJ Maxx parka [fake fur hood] and LL Bean windproof pants clearly signals me as a homeless person, so I am always soundly rebuffed by the more extravagant fur coats swirling around in the cold [the TJ Maxx fur coats are less discriminating]). But it is millennials who are the best bet for directions and a chat; they have been very well brought up and can be relied on to be both accurate and charming. The irony has been wrung out of them somewhere.


Outside the Tchaikovsky concert hall. People were actually swinging when I went to take the picture.

Saturday evening saw ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District’ at the Helikon theatre, the Shostakovitch opera which, thanks to this production, seems unlikely to shed its controversial reputation any time soon. From the Charles Renee Mackintosh-style metal chairs swathed in plastic the substantial chorus had to continually lug around the rather too small stage, to the startlingly realistic simulated sex initiated during every orchestral interlude, the director clearly had a lot on his/her mind. Moscow was having none of it. The first bout of SS saw a frantic scurrying to the door (on inspection a surprisingly young demographic) and by the time the chairs were hauled into their final iteration as a lake the audience was well and truly depleted. Fortunately management had was prepared – slipping conservatory students into vacant seats rather like at the Oscars.

Unfortunately the students were a limited commodity. At the curtain what was left of the audience resolutely kept to its seats and the director noticeably didn’t take a bow. After, the conservatory students demanded my evaluation. Google translate settled us on tyazhelaya ruka (heavy handed). But the orchestra and cast had been superb.


Before or after the performance? I don’t remember

Not to worry, what I have always imagined as the bona fide Soviet persona is alive and well in my hotel restaurant. The hotel itself is fabulous. It is steps from a central Metro and new enough to be wonderfully appointed but not too new that the architecture is silly. Best of all it is only $60 a night. Worn out from my walk I decide to give its highly recommended restaurant a try for dinner.

Cast of characters: Me; A waitress. Setting, the empty restaurant.

Me: Can I have the rosti please? And would it be possible to have it with an egg?

AW: Why?

Me: Well when I make rosti at home I usually have it with eggs.

AW: How many eggs? 2? 3?

Me: One would be fine.

AW You’ll have to pay extra (takes a few steps away then back). The rosti comes with mushrooms AND a salad, you don’t need an egg.

Me: Never mind then

AW: Do you want some bread?

Me: Maybe just a little

AW: You don’t need bread either.

Me: OK….

Me: I think I’ll have a glass of white wine. Is this Russian wine good?

AW: You should drink French wine.

Me: No I think I’d like to try the Russian wine actually.

AW: The French wine is better.

(The Russian wine turns out to be fine)….

AW: Dessert?

Me: Yes can I have the apple crumble? but can I have vanilla ice cream instead of the sorbet? I don’t like raspberry sorbet.

AW: That won’t be possible.

Me: OK then I won’t have it. I’ll have an éclair instead.

AW: With vanilla ice-cream?


The annoying Tretyakov gallery where all the Russians who emulate other artists show their work. For a 5 point bonus identify who is being copied here (answers may be used more than once).


By the shores of Gitchee Gumee?


This one however was fab. Look at the light coming from behind the trees.

Disclaimer: I actually went to the wrong museum. There is a whole other Tretyakov with Contemporary art, which is what I was really after. Curse you Google maps!


But the museum of Decorative Art was a winner. Lenin with your cake anyone?