2012 April. Europe, Vietnam

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A day disappears just like that getting from Johannesburg to Frankfurt.  I get a Sunday afternoon fast train to Karlsruhe, I’m almost out on my feet. I celebrate getting on that train without my lifelong navigator, Robyn by having a large Becks beer just before the train pulls into Karlsruhe. Half an hour later I am in Gerd and Troudl’s home eating a delicious lasagna at their dining table, the familiar surroundings finally allowing me to relax.
I wake early although those European beds are so soft and comfortable that I could have easily slept till midday. Cheese, meats, fresh bread I will go to ruin if I stay here too long. Troudl does not listen to me and offers another irrisistable warm bread roll. We cycle into town. Stefan came around last night at nine pm to offer me one of three bikes, he is a gem just like his parents. I shall use the bike in a bid to fight off the German hospitality. After riding around town and investigating the big project of putting the tram system under ground we head back and prepare to go kayaking. This is supposed to be my quiet time but someone forgot to tell Gerd. It’s all action and we are soon taking a double and single kayak from the rack at their kayak club rooms and sliding them into the Rhine backwater. It is sunny and as quiet as can be on a Monday afternoon. We paddle one klm to a picnic area and spread out more rolls, meat, gherkins and tomatoes. I wonder what they are doing at home, at work. No I don’t,  I don’t think about that for one minute and tuck into another roll.
Well I had best get into bed I don’t know what my host has planned for tomorrow but for sure it won’t be sitting in the Karlsruhe library !

I get out of Germany whilst the weather is still sparkling, leave before I’m upstaged by my retired friends who’ve tested me with three rigorous days of exercise. Kayaking, a 50 Klm bike ride along the Rhein and the third leg, a 12 Kim walk through the Black Forest with the promise of lunch. I was left wondering if I was being tested for conscription into the German army ? The sun shone every day and the calls from Ireland were coming fast and furiously, come now we are having our three-day summer.
You don’t go to Ireland for the weather so I took my time. You go to Ireland for the pubs, the Craic and the forty shades of grey. I have lost count of the number of hill tops IO havent seen. I am told out there was a magnificent view last week. “Can you hear the waves over there, that is one of the best views in Ireland.” is still my favourite. I was lucky not to fall over the cliff edge in the foggy pea soup surrounding me.
Moville is a good gun shot distance across the water from Derry and a quiet town unless you stumble into Benny’s bar and the loud inquisitive patrons. The later we got into the night, the louder they spoke and it wasn’t helping me understand them. In fact I probably understood more in Germany ! The Guinness was as good as you will ever get and my Irish improved by the glass. The days of heavy drinking finished in Australia a long time ago but not here. The place really didn’t get going till around 11pm, it makes for a long day as a publican. Every second person was going to Australia or knew someone already there. Guess what, they are all living in StKilda, surprise, surprise. Few bring any money home preferring to spend it on Guinness in another country !
We headed down to Galway for the weekend for a judo competition. Robyn and I had been there twice before staying along the coast at Clifden. This was to be a different take on Galway, watching young lads and a few girls throw each other around a university sports hall from 10am on Saturday morning. A few excitable parents bellowing kill, kill, kill only an hour after consuming their breakfast. It was nerve-racking and continued all day. Young David finally got to fight at 2pm and I almost missed his bout whilst getting a questionable egg sandwich. He did alright for his first fight and pleased his coach. After four fights in total he was spent and we couldn’t fill the bugger up, even on Subway sanwiches.
Driving around the countryside I am amazed by the large number of cluster homes which were built during the Irish boom still sitting vacant in obscure places. it appears that they were giving out building permits like confetti with little regard to the fact that it was miles to any services or shops. They will still be empty in twenty years. There is still a healthy number of pubs and we occasionally stopped to sample their products. We also ate well, young David and I ate 100 mussels between us. My plate had 49 and David’s 51, I swear, and sweet little things they were too.
Diane’s husband, Benny is a real bugger. We called into see one his sisters, Benny is one of eighteen, yes eighteen. They were all separate births none of this twins business. Anyway Lilly I was told was a little deaf, just nod said Benny. We went in and Benny went with Lilly to the kitchen, Jeff is a little thick said Benny, just nod he advised. so there were the two of us nodding and sipping tea. When it all got too much for Benny he started to rock then he started cackling. Was he always like this? I asked.  “Aye, he was a wee bastard that one.” Lilly replied with a beaming face. Benny was taken aback. I will never trust him again. His mother is to celebrate her 100th birthday later this year, they will take over the town for the weekend, the town will be lucky to recover, the publican will be able to retire.
Back to Moville, today we headed to Belfast and checked out the Titanic exhibition which opened on Saturday, they have spent plenty and it is very impressive. The afternoon was a train down to Dublin courtesy of the Irish government. My uncle and I rode on the back of his free travel pension card and simply upgraded to 1st class. We bought smoked salmon and Chilean red wine with the savings for the trip back to Dublin. Splendid. Dublin too has its share of construction skeletons, it seems that they simply ran out of money, owed to much to finish and bolted. Looks much like Beirut aftyer bombing?


Why do I love the Irish ? they call this the Dyson…..

Dublin was a great chance to catch up with my uncle and his adult children. The last time I had seen Lucy Robyn and I had taken her to ballet classes. This time around she took me to The old Schoolhouse pub down the canal from my uncle’s place for a couple of pints of Guinness !


My cousin Lucy took me to the “Schoolhouse” for a few beers.

England and Ireland had a blast of extremely cold weather which took away any chance of me seriously considering EVER spending a summer there. I was frozen to the bone for a whole day then it was just bloody cold. I know, I should have been there last week, yeah, yeah. It didn’t perturb me too much really as you don’t come to this part of the world for weather.
The warmth at arriving at a pub on dark in slanting rain with two friends met in Egypt for a couple of warming pints is a different world for me. The fact that Sinead drank whiskey with hot water, honey and lemon slice spiked with cloves made it even weirder. Smelt like cough medicine but warmed your hands as well as your inners.


Sinead and Declan in Dublin


The terrific Bretzel bakery across the road from my uncle Graham in Dublin.

My uncle is a great chef and I always look forward to his food. Duck and roasted veggies one night, a three-day in the making cassoulet with about six or seven meats and piles of beans made it all the more outrageous when he announced that he was considering becoming a vegetarian. Wow, I thought, his children are anxiously awaiting his next visit the farmers market where he has an almost brotherly relationship with a couple of enthusiastic butchers. Butchers who pride themselves in Graham’s ability to eat almost anything red. One had a bet that he would eat a lark. Would you eat a lark Graham ? Of course not replied Graham. That’s a shame I bet someone you would. As you can tell his road to vegetarian intake is going to be rocky and his wife Barb looked on nervously. My final night there was simple food he announced, we ate three varieties of pizza, one of onions stewed for three hours into a sweet jam, another of salmon and wilting basil leaves and the final one of shredded duck with hoisin sauce drizzled over. We finished with an apple ice cream so flavoursome you could taste the green skins with every spoonful. All meals came with various quantities of wine and good chat. I was sad to leave.
Well if Dublin was cold but a glimpse of bright light, you couldn’t call it sunshine, Paris was that flat, bleak, blurred skyline which sets it apart from almost anywhere else. I met with Sally here and we plan to wander through Europe together for the rest of the trip. We have wandered the streets for two-day now getting lost, eating regularly, too regularly and simply enjoying the Parisian life.


Napoleon’s commanding tomb. Paris

We stumbled on the Les Invalides, an old hospital and the tomb of Napoleon, it is a massive gold domed building demanding your time from a distance. We went in to find the interior as demanding and overbearing of your attention as the outside. Napoleon’s tomb is a massive slab of highly polished brown stone surrounded by images of his conquests both at war and later as emperor of France. It’s hard to believe that one man had such an impact. I stagger out into the street wondering what feeble impact I can have on the world, don’t answer that.

The next day more wanderings and some time in the Rodin garden, a beautiful sculpture garden close to the Seine and the Invalides. I have had enough culture for a while and head back to the hotel and an afternoon nap, well sod you lot, I’m on holidays and you are officially allowed nanna naps on holidays. Drowsily I wander out to dinner and hungry from sleeping ? Eat far too much and the cycle continues….


Sally giving her all in Roden’s garden.

Easter Sunday morning and with a quickening heartbeat we head off early to Gare Du Nord for a pickup to the start of the 110th Paris Roubaix, the most famous one-day bike race in the world. 280 klms with 50 klms off it on old Roman cobblestone roads. There are three small vans of us, predominately Aussies. Unfortunately they are a charmless lot and I can only be happy that it is only for one day. We hang about in the freezing cold beside a Chateau in the town of Compiegne. The riders file up onto the rostrum to sign in and a breathless commentator spits out a saliva filled interpretation of their name to roars from the waiting crowd. What must be going through their heads before the start ? Such a soul-destroying race with your insides jiggling about on rough roads for six hours. The only one who doesn’t feel the pain would be the evential winner.
Back in the van we race to a section of the cobbles to watch these gladiators come towards us in a cloud of dust appearing almost in slow motion. They are gone as quickly as they appeared all wearing the same facial grimace of pain, their bodies chattering as one with their bikes. Another bend (optimum viewing as they slow for the corners) in a remote farm area, the first of this years agricultural crop just breaking the ground and being trampled by the hoards of excited spectators. The riders are slowly splitting into smaller groups an early breakaway has set the pace for the day, a pace that many new to this event are finding too hard to maintain or their bike simply breaks under the strain of the cobbles. Who thought this up ?


The modern-day gladiators of the one day classic  Paris Roubaix

Tom Boonen, a Belgium and three-time winner, finally makes a break from the others. He knows from his previous victories what is required and puts a couple of minutes between himself and all others. By now we have somehow weaved our way through a town bursting at the seams with spectators intent on one thing and that is squeezing inside the century old velodrome at Roubaix. A big screen shows Boonen, head down on his bike as he powers towards the velodrome. Weirdly, no sickly, they have cobblestoned the narrow road into the stadium just to ensure it is 100% pain to the end.


Tom Boonan enters the Roubaix velodrome on his way to winning the Paris Roubaix

The surrounding roar puts your hair on end as Boonen bursts into the velodrome for the two laps to finish. I take a couple of photos but the crowd are going wild and you just want to soak it all in. He slumps into the arms of his team coach and is the only one to stay within the arena. Sadly all other competitors are whisked from the stadium on completing their laps to nurse their weary bodies in the team buses parked in nearby streets.
I trudge back to our van ecstatic at what I have experienced, the charmless lot have broken into a weak smile but the quicker I am dropped at Gare De Lille for a train back to Paris the better. One hour and a nice taxi driver has me back in Villa Montparnasse, my official residence whenever I’m in Paris !
Off to Beaune today to catch up with my sister, Diane. She and her husband Ross have been eating their way across Europe and I have been called in to support their appetite. Together we will eat all of the food in France.
If I have to eat another duck or swallow another mouthful of red wine, I shall scream silently with a full mouth…


Ross, Diane and Sally tucking in… I wasn’t far behind.

You wouldn’t recognise me if you walked past me in the street. I cast a much larger shadow than the guy who stepped off a bike in South Africa a couple of weeks ago. Gone are the buns of steel, the missing paunch, the chisel chin. Firstly the Guinness (yes, we’ve been blaming the Irish for plenty over the years, why not the grog) the mountains of floury potatoes, then there were the Parisian pastries, the squadron of ducks all deceased, the four course lunches for the rotund, the chickens that truly come with their own passport from Bresse, massaged with a litre of goose fat before being deep-frying.
I blame my sister for one, she egged me on ( food again you’ll note) to a life of rolling like a beached whale long into the night. She wasn’t alone, there was my uncle and his hungry children, Declan and Sinead, Diane and Benny ( what hope there, they own a pub”) fort Guinness, The French economy as a whole, The Burgundy tourist bureau in Beaune which I personally pulled out of a recession.
I dream of a bowl of muesli dressed with a dollop of yoghurt but no, breakfast is a baguette, a croissant and often a brioche all forced down with a litre of thick coffee. To the uninitiated, these three products when taken as a whole have the effect of guaranteeing you need not visit the little room for two days and only then with eyes crossed. The one benefit is that I rarely feel cold anymore, the Eskimos were the first to really come to grips with fat, body fat and it’s heat storage potential. They are so fat that their idea of a good night out with the girls is to rub noses, at the moment I wouldn’t be able to get that close. I’m not cold though.


Sally and I amongst the vines in Beaune working off the kgs.

Today I escaped my sister and her challenge to eat you body weight on a daily basis. A train back to Paris and now an overnight train gets me to Berlin. The Germans will fix the last two weeks, discipline is what I need and tomorrow morning I am enrolling in whatever is needed to return that chisel chin and tight stomach. I shall say no to anything with butter in it. I am on a mission, I am marching East. Ross joked this morning as he waved me farewell from Beaune station that I would enjoy the luxury of cabbage in Poland and Russia. I now see any food as excessive to my needs and will simply take on water and let my body slowly consume the damage of the last few weeks. I was weak and will have to pay for my inability to say no…….   This is not something a good haircut will get rid of.


The little walking man of Berlin

Germany has not let me down, if you want restraint they know how to dish it out. The shops are full of the stuff. I have walked the equivalent of a mini marathon each day since arriving here and limited my food intake to bread and water with the occasional, ha hum, wheat beer thrown in. The overnight train experience of sleeping in a sardine can between Paris and Berlin is still with me, I still am unable to lift my head from my chest in case I whack it on something. We had a toilet and shower, two minutes sitting on the loo looking at the shower convinced me that I would never be extracted from the shower. Not even with those jaws of life would have extracted me. So I admired the shower from afar and waited till we checked in at http://www.circus-berlin.de/ a very funky Berlin style hotel and at €90 a steal for this expensive city.


I remember it as a student city but was still not ready for the onslaught of a whole city of residents between the age of seventeen and twenty-seven. It’s as if they have said ‘ right, you’ve had your thirtieth birthday, now bugger off to suburbia or Poland, make way for the young and restless. This youthful city is ours. This old man sneaks out to visit the gold domes and buildings once controlled by an upstart house painter from Austria that decided he wanted to rule the world. So far I have avoided those in charge of purging the city of anyone lacking in youthful vitality. Baa humbug.


Our rather animated, Royal family look alike guide in Berlin.

I went on a walking tour of Berlin, many of the sights I had seen before at an age when I fitted into the Berlin demographic. The guide was a pommy who looked remarkably like one of the royal family complete with cowlick and an accent that sounded like he had a god given right to rule. He was funny and informative in equal doses. You had to be funny how else do you explain the devastation that has rained on this city throughout history. The tolerance in this city today, a far cry from the acceptance of others throughout the second World War. He stood us on a grubby unpaved car park near the city centre and told us that below this spot was Hitler’s bunker. A piece of land and history that they wish to avoid glorifying. It wasn’t until the nineteen seventies that they decided to get rid of the bunker. What do you do with this piece of land without making it a shrine to neo nazis or worshippers of Hitler and his types. The tour moved on, a palace here, an island of museums, a strategic lunch where the guide’s hand did not appear to extract euro for lunch, etc. It was a good free tour and had to be as the guides depend on your tip to stay alive, he made plenty. Come back tomorrow when we get deep down into the period of the Third Reich he shouted after me, no thanks I thought heading off for a strong drink. It is all quite harrowing.


Another day another city. An hour down the tracks is Leipzig, where do they get all this crappy weather from and why do they all look so miserable. I think the answer might be one and the same. A beautiful hotel, The Steigenberger, how I managed to get this one I don’t know and felt like dipping my head and sheepishly asking for the tradesman’s entrance. I will be the only person to pull a wheelie bag from the station to this hotel since it opened last year, you can bet on that. We revelled in a bit of luxury for a couple of days wandering about to the masses of arcades from a time when this was a trading market city, celebrating Bach and his famous St Thomas church.


I wonder if they caught this on the closed circuit security monitor ?

The highlight though was a quick and secretive excursion through the Stasi headquarters from a dark time in German history. Just image that one in six point five (that’s important) people were on the secret police’s payroll. Eventually the public got their goat up and marched on the entrance in December 1989. They would have had a lump in their throats not knowing if they would be tolerated or shot without question. Many others had been shot previously. When they got away without being shot 100,000 turned up the following week and the rest is history. Whilst the secret police were looking for my file I slipped back to the Bahn and headed for Prague via Dresden and three hours of following the Elbe river pretty much the whole way.
We followed an unfamiliar path into Prague’s old town and had been here a few hours before anything seemed familiar. Robyn and I had stayed on the high side of town and the railway station has a whiz-bang mall these days. The other change is the masses of tourists here, everyone tells me it is normal traffic but It is a sea of people from every corner of the earth and the newfound rich Chinese are the ones with the dollars. I have always wanted to sit back in one of those gold horse-drawn carriages in any of the world’s top cities and sit like a smug bastard up the back. well the Chinese are in those carriages today, before them I have seen Japanese, Americans and oil rich Middle Easterners. When will I get my turn or do I have to turn on a giant tantrum ?


The centre of Prague and tourist overload.

I had a horrid moment this morning when I spotted the area where I had stayed with Robyn some fifteen plus years ago, I turned wanting to point it out and she wasn’t there. I felt miserable for hours and immersed myself in another free city tour to be entertained. I have fallen for these tour since Berlin, one-third factual information, one-third story telling and one-third audience participation. The guides work hard and get paid accordingly or should be if you give them their worth.


Our guide in Prague giving his all.

Went to the Belarus Embassy this morning for a transit visa for the train to Moscow. “You are unlucky today for transit visas, come back, maybe tomorrow.” We are running out of time to get this visa and if not successful tomorrow will probably have to fly from Warsaw to Moscow. What I really want is to be holed up in old Eastern railway carriage with three other cabbage eaters for 26 hours whilst swigging on a cheap gut-wrenching vodka.

Most of you will think Jeff, commercial builder but those closer will think Jeff, the romantic ? When planning this trip I was keen to catch a few overnight trains between countries to avoid airports and because I simply love the thought of leaving one city as the lights fade and waking in a new one ready to start another day. That is the romantic side but it has a weak point.
We have caught trains to catch-up with my sister in Beaune near Dijon, then returned to Paris before an overnight train onwards to Berlin arriving at seven am. The midnight change in Mannheim Germany was a sleeper car but really limited actual sleep. We arrived feeling like blah. However we sightsee all day and then sleep like babies, the world is a good place after all.
So where is this leading? I had dreamed before leaving home of catching the Warsaw to Moscow train, a long trip of around twenty-four hours through lonely Russian countryside. Not the great journey from Beijing to Moscow, The Transiberian, but a pretty good substitute. But there is a flaw, we need to travel through a relatively new country to me and one that has no Embassies in the Southern Hemisphere, Belarus.
There is a Belarus Embassy in Prague, Czech and I thought this was a good chance to wrap up the visa thing for my train journey to Moscow, still with me? Thursday morning we went to the Embassy out-of-town as Belarus is a fledgling country. The taxi could get me there in fifteen minutes however I was told that I was unlucky by the girl talking to me through the fence, today the visa department is closed, come back tomorrow and you can get a visa. I trudged off to get a bus and train back to the real Prague and it’s throng of tourists wearing ‘Czech me out t-shirts. ‘ But happy, tomorrow I would get my visa and celebrated by buying my rail ticket for the journey something I had been nervous about prior to speaking to the Belarusian, is that really what they are called ?
So, Friday morning bright and early I am in a taxi heading to the Belarus Embassy. This will be all wrapped up shortly and I can get on with seeing Prague, a great city. I walk into a room full of people all clutching diplomatic papers and the officious woman of yesterday is dishing out her share of disappointment to every one of them. Mine was to be told that the form ingeniously filled out in Russian and Belarusian was unsatisfactory for I understood neither. From under the desk she drew an English version and told me to fill it out. I scraped the freshly stuck photo from the old form and repositioned it on the English form whilst filling in my life story. Back at the counter I get the news about the cost and the fact the visa money must be banked in the closest town, some four Klms away. I have all day she says but we close at midday for two hours. It is eleven and I find myself with the help of a business man who draws me a map, on a real life episode of race around the world.
I run from the Embassy up the street leap onto a departing bus panting like a, well, panting like a middle-aged tourist. I just miss a tram up the hill and stride out the two Klms only to be passed by a tram as I reach the top. The bank is found and a queue ticket taken, yes banks everywhere hate the people they serve. Can I see your passports says the teller, I start to boil as the reason I am here is to get the visa and in the meantime a tyrant in the embassy has our said passports. She settles for my Victorian drivers licence and then has me sign three pages of documents for a cash transaction. I flee the bank like a robber and wait meekly with the local girls heading home after shopping for a tram. Down the hill, into another bus then two hundred metre sprint from the bus stop.
Sally is waiting, I am red in the face, the back of my shirt is wet with sweat and my jumper is now tied around my waist. But it is ten to mid-day. With not a glimmer of recognition the tyrant lifts her head and says come back for the visa on Monday. I melt, I will be in Krakow on Monday. Her stony facade melts a little and she agrees to come in on Saturday morning at eleven. We leave but our day is ruined and we still don’t have the transit visas. You see I don’t want to even visit Belarus and after my dealing, NEVER even wanted to visit Belarus but I must pass through the country, probably in the dead of night whilst asleep on the train, hence the frustration.
Saturday morning and there is a big anti government protest planed for the city. We head out to our second home by taxi, in fact we know the way there better than the various drivers by now. We stand at the security phone on the gate and wait till exactly eleven o’clock . “Hello I am here about my transit visa… is anyone there?”  Nothing. I wait five more minutes then another five. A group of casually dressed men are working in the main garden of the Embassy. Sally speaks to them, I speak to them, he knows I am an Australian, yes the woman is inside, I will get her. She arrives with our passports, no word as to why she ignored my calls and hands them to me, showing me the transit visa and more papers which need to be filled out prior to reaching the border of Belarus. I leave with mixed emotions, glad that I live in a country relatively free of this dictatorship manner. Sad for the people who deal with this type of daily rule changing on a daily basis. I have contacted the elderly business man who helped us with the map, he is fantastic. He tells me that it is easier for him to do business in South Korea than in his adjoining countries, how sad is that.
Back in Prague the protest at an incompetent government almost has me pulling on a gas mask and locking arms with the downtrodden but in a few hours I have an overnight train to catch to Krakow. Yep, Prague station at eight pm and a proud conductor informs me that the carriages are thirty years old straight from the communist era. We rattle along for eleven hours arriving at Krakow station at seven o’clock I have slept for three or four hours and feel like I have been on an all night drinking bender. Now for a day at the concentration camps.


The girl back to the crowd swaying with the music.

The last week has been interesting and the further East I travel the bleaker local life becomes. My romance for Eastern bloc trains is on the wane however there is a certain element of excitement at spilling from a rail carriage usually very early in the morning into a foreign city with sleep still in your eyes. I haven’t been to a European Union railway station that didn’t look like a bomb had just gone off. Building workers were pulling Krakow station apart with scant regard for public safety, I felt like I was actually working there, so close did we go to the works. We bustled our way through the human remnants of Saturday night and those that make a living from showing you where the door out of the station is, then put their hand out for Zlote.
We stumble about looking for the hotel expecting it to be a shabby communist place run by the family Andel, wrong. Next to the station and across the road from those grubby facades is Andel, an Austrian chain hotel of gleaming aluminium and three hours at the breakfast bar type places I rarely luck in on. We settle in like a part owners. But not for long as we have a 9am bus to Auschwitz from the foyer.


A haunting day wandering around the concentration camp at Krakow.

An hour from Krakow is the first of three concentration camps in the area and a harrowing day for anyone who goes there. One and a half million people died here and it is palpable in the air. The sign as you enter ” work sets you free” is a cruel joke played on the prisoners. I will not go on, only to say I still find it hard to understand how this really happened on such a large-scale over such a long time. It is my second visit here, I don’t know what drew me back, it is civilization at its worst. Hopefully we have all learnt from it. It’s a very quiet, somber drive back to Krakow and we hole up for the night in our squeaky clean, über trendy room.


The concentration camp latrines, humans become numbers…

The next morning I blitz the breakfast room and the staff take stock of the path of destruction I have left. A morning walk of the old moat, a beautiful tree filled path wrapping around the old city. That afternoon we take a three-hour train to Warsaw, why would you go to Warsaw I hear you say and stepping out of the train I am wondering that too. Sardine like, we squeeze onto a local bus for our short ride to the hotel where we immediately hide whilst the afternoon traffic and aggressive commuter peak hour takes over until daylight fades. They’re gone so we wander about trying to get our bearings and end up in a Greek restaurant where I enjoy calamari but struggle with the potato dominated moussaka. Potato base, two pieces of eggplant shaped out of potato and a potato mousse-like topping do not make a moussaka. There has not been a Greek in this kitchen since Poland was last invaded.
We get an earful of invasions from Ella the tour guide the following morning as we walk around the rebuilt city. Let’s just say there is not much of Warsaw that was still upright at the end of the last world war. How UNESCO can certify a city as a world heritage site which has not one original structure is beyond belief ?  Then again the Polish workmen have rebuilt the city with the same shoddiness they have brought to England, Australia and America. It does look extremely medieval. The rest of our time in Warsaw is wandering the gardens which all point like fingers towards the massive building site which is Warsaw. They have carved up the city to install a new underground loop ripping the last Euros from the E.U. The dominant structure in Warsaw is the Palace of culture and science, a great Soviet name for a “gift” from the Russians. “Dis is our souvenir from Stalin” spits a non convinced Ella.


The parks of Warsaw are full of expressionless statues.

The afternoon is enjoyed in the garden across the road from the long distance station. Like all good travellers I forage for train food and fill my pack with crisps, chocolate, cheap biscuits and water. All of the necessities and all the food groups your mother said would ruin you. The train pulls in at 3pm and we will be on board till lunch time tomorrow. The train leaves without fanfare and we are soon racing through the twilight towards Russia but first there is Belarus. My passport is snatched from my hand with the same level of manners shown by the Embassy official in Prague. He leaves with my passport, never a good feeling in the middle of nowhere and returns half an hour later, it’s been stamped.


Equipment to lift whole trains to convert wheel sets to Russian gauge.

The train stops inside a railway workshop at 11pm where the train is lifted clean off the ground by a series of massive jacks and the wheels changed to Russian gauge, slightly wider I’m told ( any train buffs out there? ) This event is only half as exciting as a team of gypsy women who rip open my unlocked door to offer me……cold beer. euros, roubles, zlotys ? They take zloty and are gone almost as quickly as they arrived. I open the bottles using the steps of the bed ladder and cover everything in a fine spray of beer before sitting back to enjoy watching the train having its shoes changed. Then it’s back to that jolting rhythm that almost has you asleep but not quite. The Belarus don’t return to wave me good-bye to their fine country, nor does any Russian show an interest in me arriving in their country.
The sun rises to show a countryside covered in forests of birch trees and sad-looking country houses. This scene is quickly replaced by forests of apartment buildings in clogged satellite cities ringing Moscow. The style is purely based on the economics of cost with scant regard for aesthetics. Function first, second and third. You want style, go live somewhere else.
The outskirts of the city seem to go on forever and I am falling asleep again when the train finally pulls into Belorussky station and a city bursting with 11.5 million people. Six million use the underground every day. Best put on my shoulder guards and shin pads this may get dirty.
Looking forward to a few days in Moscow and its take on twenty-first century life.


Moscow’s underground the true centre of Russian daily life.

Just when I thought I was getting on top of Europe’s underground rail systems I find myself in the big daddy of them all. The Moscow Metro is one of a kind, yeah, yeah, I’ve got a map but hell I might as well be in Japan when trying to decipher the names. I stumble about especially when it comes to stations where there are three stations spread over various levels all with different names. Seven times I have tried to head to a station called BblxoA, I now know this to be ‘exit’. I need help and it usually comes in the shape of a young person, I carefully choose a decidedly geeky looking boy or girl. I am either spot on and they drag me through a series of escalators or they turn and pulling their headphones out of their ears babble in a language I guess is Russian.
Saturday was forecast to be in the mid twenties, we have been fortunate here and have had tee-shirt weather since arriving. On that basis we decide to head to Tolstoy’s country estate about two hundred klms south of the capital in a place called Tula. There was once a weekend express train directly to the property however interest in Tolstoy has been on the wane since the free market arrived here in Russia. Instead I was up at 5.30am to be on the 7am local train to Tula. Three and a half hours on a piece of thin leather stretched over a very hard piece of wood pretending to be a seat.


Commuters wander over train lines between platforms 

I gave us an hour to go two stops on two different underground lines, buy a ticket to Tula and find the correct platform. Sounded like enough time but we were wheezing and  panting at the clunkiness of the system. There’s also the unrecognisable Russian alphabet which does my head. We only had time to buy a packet of border-line ‘use by date’ biscuits and some water before the train took off. The train was a veritable marketplace with standing room only after two stops and the comfort of having two others squeezing you for every inch of the seat. Surely not for three hours I thought….Wrong. I know every odour that escapes from the Russians after this train trip, in fact there is a real market here for deodorant, you entrepreneurs out there.
So there we are squeezed up and barely able to breathe when the travelling salespeople start rolling through the carriage. Six pairs of socks for 100 rouble (A$3.30) an absolute bargain in any country. The local women stretch and finger the woollen socks before pulling dirty crumbled 100 rouble notes from their purses. Once they have the socks there faces beam with that universally smug “I’ve just snagged a bargain” look. Others sold cooking implements, fly-wire on elastic used to cover rarely opened windows on those rare hot Russian summer days. Another sold the Russian equivalent of Women’s Weekly, same gossip different language. The local dress sense here is also questionable, let’s just call it bold and brassy. In a population of eleven odd million people you don’t have long to get your message across to the other sex. If you have it or even arguably have had it in the past, show it off, flaunt it baby. Squeezed up, thrust out or hitched up to a questionable level it is a style? the Russians have become renowned for the world over. We rattle and roll as one for three and a bit hours till the train finally brings it all to an end. It is like leaving the grand final on the last Saturday in September as we trudge shoulder to shoulder down the railway platform and out into the town of Tula.
I hunt around for an auto teller and a hotel is always a good place to start. I get my money and try to speak to reception for directions to Tolstoy’s house. Hotel’s are regularly a chance for a smattering of English, Niet, not a bloody word and the whole town is in on this joke. A taxi and the words Yasnaya Polyana get me 15 klms to the old estate. It is a perfect day as we walk towards the gate of this famous estate where Tolstoy wrote War and Piece before realising we had not eaten anything really nutritious since the biscuits? Into a log cabin type place with lace windows and an elderly couple of women complaining about their husbands. I try to order in English but they stop me quickly and bring out their trump card the young Elaina. We got on, she understood my elbow wagging chicken dance to mean eggs and this arrived as three baked eggs and mushrooms in a little tin fry pan. International relationships are now at an all time high. She even made me a cappuccino that was drinkable.”Americano” she said wobbling her head and scoffing like she made them all the time.


Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house near Tula.

For two dollars fifty I got my ticket to wander the estate. A huge parcel of land and hardly a soul here it is such a change from the dirty hustle and bustle of Moscow. The estate has a person in every room ensuring nothing is stolen and no photos are taken, oh, and to ensure you put on these weird overshoes, the same ones I became friends with in Morocco when visiting the ancient Mosques. A real recipe for going A over T when descending the old wooden stairs. The house is just as it was when he left one night at the age of eighty, sick of his wife’s badgering and headed to the nearby station. He died at the station about a week later but refused to see her to the end. His desk, bedroom and library are all completely intact. I know little of his life but it told a very strong story of a man who although privileged, tried hard to understand others.


Photograph taken without the guardians taking me out and shooting me at dawn.

The estate was the real standout for me. Orchards as far as the eye could see, some newly planted to replace the fruit trees of Tolstoy’s era. Massive pastures which had once had serfs cutting the corn and tilling the ground for potatoes. The birch forests shimmering in the strong blue sky. Deep inside the forest it was dark, gloomy and unwelcoming yet I watch a couple push a pram loaded with their baby between the tightly planted birch. And then the brides came like the first migrating birds of spring. One white princess after another, dresses hitched high to avoid the slushy ground underfoot and with a small battalion of photographers and well wishes.


The most popular place to have your wedding photos taken in Moscow.                                    The forest at Tolstoy’s house

This was obviously a prized place to be photographed, my quiet world was gate crashed and I moved on to Tolstoy’s grave. It is a very simple plot at the head of a ravine with branches from freshly cut fronds shaped into a coffin on top of the ground on an island of grass in the forest. The patch had presence, you could almost cut it, there was no-one else there at all.


Tolstoy’s grave, sobering in its simplicity. 

Back to the main path out of the estate and the blurring sound of car horns could be heard out in the car park. The morning arrival had given me a head start on the huge number of weddings it was not the same place. There were also no taxis unless I wanted to grab a taxi decorated in streamers and with two gold rings on the roof. I walked to the main road and grabbed a minibus with twenty others inside back to Tula. With a stroke of luck I managed to grab a long haul mini bus to return me to Moscow. All good except for the lack of suspension and a stretch of concrete freeway with inbuilt speed traps. Is the road really that bad or was that simply the effect of those freezing cold winters that the roads are all holes ? Moscow was as it was when I left, dusty and noisy and I was good for not much more than bed, it had been a long day in the country, slept like a baby.
The hustle and bustle of a tough city with brusque people can wait till tomorrow.
Nothing like a tough town to make you yearn for home.


Lenin, Sally and Stalin

The troops were building (I’ve always wanted to write that) in Moscow. May day and all the troops were out to impress the world and scare the locals, which believe me, would take some doing. The various soldiers had been milling near Red Square for days in, fact each day it became harder to get around.There was a lot of that funny walk where they swing their legs high at the same time trying to punch themselves in the mouth with high flung arm movements. Between Hitler’s goose step and Stalin’s funny walk they left little opportunity for the other nations, all the best steps had been taken.


Think I just pulled a hamstring,  Sir….

Anyway it was time to leave Moscow whilst the warm weather continued. Overall Moscow helped me understand why the immigrating Russians are so abrupt and brutal in the manners. In Moscow I was continually aghast at the rudeness and lack of any type of courtesy shown to others. Occasionally an older person may show some care or consideration but otherwise elbows out and look after number one. A tough place and I have seen it with the sun out and no numbing Siberian wind blowing you off your feet.
A couple of flights and I’m in Singapore and one hour away from boarding to Hanoi when it is pointed out to me that I do not possess a letter of invitation to Vietnam. So although I know from a previous visit twenty years ago that you can pick up a visa at the arrival area. No invitation means no go, I stood in the departure lounge watching my flight taxi off without me. Without boring you, I can tell you that money changed hands in a small office in Singapore and two hours later this same man returned with a visa to get me to Vietnam.


Vietnam embassy Singapore. Slippery palms were greased for a fast visa.

I went back to lost property at the airport as I had no time to grab my bag when I was refused permission to board, found the bag, bought another ticket and slumped into a transit hotel for ten hours. Fresh as a daisy the next morning we boarded a Singapore Airline plane at twice the price of our previous Vietnam airlines tickets. I was keen to get value by asking for wine and beer at 10am however the best I managed was a chocolate ice-cream cone after the meal.
I remembered the hazy smog of Hanoi the minute I had left the arrival lounge. And the dong, the local currency. I am still trying to work out why I had a thick wad of notes that gave my hand cramp but only enough to pay the taxi driver. I started to cast my eye to the city’s horizon, it looked like a dust bowl but on leaving the taxi I am now sure it is exhaust from a billion two-stroke motorbikes. They were there before but today they share the road with many more cars and far few bicycles.


Caged birds chirp happily amongst the pollution of Hanoi.

I went down to the ornamental lake in the old town and did a lap to kick start my memory. The ANZ bank was still there and the trees gasping for air on the water’s edge were there too but the pollution from the traffic was horrid. A slow lunch and a wander through the lane ways found me back at my hotel. I looked in the mirror my eyes were red raw and not one drink, I swear. The sharp blare of the motor bikes, a rooster crowing at 6pm out on a nearby roof gives the impression of a city that still has some country attitude. It is life lived with little regard or care as to who looks on, at nearly 90 million people you simply live and let live.
Asian cities are at their best early in the morning and late into the evening. I had a fantastic evening meal and a special hour sitting on a street corner on a tiny plastic seat Knees up around my ears drinking 333 beers near my hotel. Early the next morning women squatted whilst chopping up chickens and assorted other meats on the pavement with housewives grabbing tonight’s ingredients and scurrying off home. Later the pavement would be washed down and even later that evening a street cleaner would systematically sweep the day’s business away.


Everything happens in the street in Vietnam butchering chicken in the early morning.

But I had yet more planes to catch. Only an hour South by plane to the coastal town of Da Nang and my final few days of freedom before returning to Melbourne and all things mundane. I was drinking a freshly squeezed juice in a rough coconut shell and signing my life away by mid afternoon. From there it has been tough decisions like will we swim in the ocean, square pool or shaded lagoon.


Da Nang, warm nights, cold beer and delicious fresh food.

Well if you are freezing and rugged up at home with a sniffle let me tell you the sea is warm, the pool is a bit too hot but the lagoon like the three bears famously said, is just right. So if you are looking for me I will be at the lagoon and after that maybe another massage, it’s tough this travel caper.