Eric Lindsay's Blog August 2010

Sunday 1 August 2010

Cyber Security

I think cyber security is an ridiculous idea. Therefore, I think the right idiotic Minister for Communications Senator Stephen Conroy's idea of censoring the internet is stupid. Since Conroy is a Labor machine politician, he can not be expected to have a good grasp of technology. However you don't get position in politics without being smart. So Conroy is basically stuffing around with the internet to score political points with the religious right. Despite being an atheist, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is going right along with this.

Some people have expressed forthright views about cyber security. In particular, use the criminal justice system when a crime is committed, rather than attempting ineffective and readily bypassed censoring. These views do not accord with the expressed views of the government (nor the opposition). I wonder what the Labor government is going to do if they piss off too many geeks? As a former geek, taking the government off the internet for a day or so every now and then sounds like a good start to me.

Social Club AGM

The Carlyle Gardens Social Club had their quarterly general meeting this afternoon, and their annual general meeting. Even Jean attended this time, to see who volunteered for the new committee. While we were there, I introduced Geoff and Margaret to Krys, who sort of volunteered to join the Carlton Theatre group.

The social club also put on their Sunday barbecue, which I think was labelled bangers and mash, but was sausage and chips and vegetables, with a cheese cake and ice cream dessert after. We were entertained by Marion a singer during the evening. She sure had stamina.

A Decade Apart

The iMac G3 of Summer 2000 was a successful extension of earlier models. The all in one computer sported a 15 inch (13.8 inch viewable) cathode ray tube display with 1024 x 768 resolution. The Motorola G3 CPU was clocked at a maximum of 500 MHz, and had 64KB of Level 1 cache, 512KB of Level 2 cache. Main memory was 64MB or 128MB. It had an ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card with 8MB of memory. Hard drives started at 7GB and went to 30GB. There was an optional Airport 802.11b WiFi card, and an integrated 56k modem. It had either a CD or DVD reader, but no writer. The 381 x 381 x 435 mm case weighed nearly 35 pounds.

The Apple iPad of 2010 is a portable computer with a 9.1 inch 1024 x 768 pixel touch display. The ARM processor is clocked up to 1 GHz. Memory is 256 MB, and it has from 16 to 64 GB of Flash solid state drive.

Monday 2 August 2010

Messy Day

I can not help but notice that Jean has already got her entire bag packed, closed, and even got me to help her weigh it (17 kg). Meanwhile my empty bag huddles beneath a pile of stuff flung in its general direction. Most of the flung items are not the right ones for the trip. This is not good.

Jean took her car off early in the morning to get insurance repairs. She was back by taxi well before I expected. Unfortunately the expected phone call to collect the car never came. She phoned the panel beaters a bit after 4:30 p.m. They had all gone home, as that was when they closed. She is not impressed.

Dwayne arrived in the afternoon and set about installing additional security lights for us. Our regular security company had advised me Dwayne would be working in the area, and organised for him to visit. So we now have automatic lights front and back, which is a nice supplement to the cameras.

ePub ebook Sources

Apart from a small range of ePub books, ePubBooks have a lot of background news about ebook readers, ebook publishers, and similar, especially in their ebook blog. It was here I learnt about the new ePub logo.

The electronic reading system of tomorrow will be the web browser. An ePub ebook and a web site are basically identical in their fundamentals, as Jon Noring points out. It is all basically XHTML and CSS, with some fussy XML. This being so, adapting a web browser (via extensions) to read an ePub is a better approach than writing an ePub reader from scratch. ePubRead for Firefox is just one example. Someone will develop a Safari extension to read ePub before long.

Or if you are happy writing valid web pages, convert your existing XHTML into an ePub using eCub from Dr Julian Smart.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

eBook Pricing

I note that Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney-General, has written to Apple regarding the anti-competitive effects of agency pricing and most favoured seller clauses in the Apple iBookStore deal with book publishers. The letter explains what I understood the situation to be.

I further note Michael McCollum's SF bookshop now makes books available via Amazon. Selling via Amazon led to a major price increase for his ebooks, due to their most favoured customer clause.

Ready to Go

I think the thing I am most distant from is ready to go. It turned out that the car was not ready for us to collect, as the repairs were not complete. Jean organised that we would collect it upon our return flight. That should work just fine.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

To Brisbane

I slept badly, as usual before a trip. It did not help that I was cold, which is almost unheard of in Townsville. We were up long before the six o'clock alarm. Since most of the food was missing, I had a sparse breakfast of one weetbix. It was cold, by our standards, below 18C. I had to wear a jacket. The taxi arrived at seven, and had the usual minor problems finding the address.

We only need a mildly early taxi for getting to Townsville airport this morning, so that means we can have breakfast and take out the garbage. We have an 8:45 a.m. flight from Townsville to Brisbane on Virgin Blue, arriving in Brisbane at 10:15 a.m.

Townsville airport was not as busy as at an earlier hour, however the four flights before us were all filled with construction and mine workers in safety colours heading for Mt Isa or Mt Dore or another of the mines. As well as being a garrison town, Townsville is also a dormitory suburb for the mines.

Our Virgin DJ366 737-700 to Brisbane was large, and mostly full. We were lucky and had an empty seat in our row. We were off at 8:45 on schedule, and into Brisbane prior to our 10:25 schedule.

At Brisbane we have to collect our (limited) luggage, and carry it to the International Terminal. It seems like the best way to handle that is via the AirTrain service. Luckily we have a fair bit of time for transit in the Brisbane Airport. I need to remember that I want a copy of The Australia, since that includes the Literary Supplement on the first Wednesday of the month.


The easiest and cheapest way to get from the domestic to the international terminal is to use the Sky Train for the single stop. Even at $5 it beats anything else.

The Securawrap people were at the Brisbane airport wrapping bags. Cost $20 for the two, but may be a good idea. Luggage strips getting caught in a conveyor belt can make a nasty end to a bag. Plus theft is the security aspect. We did this, just like Jean did on her South American trip.

We had a fair few hours at Brisbane airport before our flight to Singapore. Sat in a reasonably comfortable area of Brisbane International until the ticket area opened for our Singapore airlines flight. Business class meant a short queue. Jean asked about seats together (rather than both on an aisle). The airline managed to do this over the next few hours. We headed for the business lounge to relax before the flight. Power connections and free WiFi, as well as welcome snacks and drinks. Not much snacking, as business class typically means you get well fed.

New Camera

But that was not enough for me. After Jean checked duty free, I also went off and looked at cameras. The Panasonic Lumix TZ10 GPS enabled small 12 times ultra zoom camera has been getting good reviews for its lens, and other features. I have been seeking a digital camera with GPS since around 1999. However the few in existence have been very expensive. Now that so many photo storage systems can handle GPS I wanted to start using it from more cameras than just my iPhone. I bought it, at a better price than at JB HiFi and close to the Retravision sale price (with Jean's car at the panel beater we could not shop earlier).

To Singapore

Brisbane to Singapore (Changi) in business class on Singapore Airlines SQ236 (an Airbus A330-300) departing 2:45 p.m. on an 8 hour 5 minute flight. We are scheduled to arrive in Singapore at 8:50 p.m. The Singapore airline flight SQ236 from Brisbane to Singapore was on an Airbus 300-330. Not as large as I expected. We had excellent service in business class. About a seven hour flight, much of it getting across Queensland and the Northern Territory. We have a couple of hours at the Changi airport before continuing at nearly midnight.


We reached Singapore around eight in the evening. Immigration formalities were quick, and our luggage was already booked through. We took a walk through Terminal Three. That was almost long enough to be real exercise. We were not scheduled to leave until almost midnight, so eventually we got tired of walking. We did encounter some other members of the TransSiberian Railways tour group within the airport.

In the business lounge we did some serious looking at power points. There were even some universal ones. We did manage to charge some camera stuff. Not that you can't charge iPhones and iPads on the flight. Business class as a European socket at each seat. I believe they even have this in economy, which is very handy. Probably the most useful thing we did was use their shower facilities. After a full day of travel, and a late checkin to our hotel, that was most welcome.

We were in the air on SQ602 to Incheon in South Korea around midnight.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Fly to Seoul

Singapore to Seoul (Korea) in business class on Singapore Airlines SQ602 (an Airbus A330-300) departing 11:55 p.m. on an 6 hour 25 minute flight. We are scheduled to arrive at Incheon, near Seoul at 7:20 a.m. Thursday 5 August. Our Singapore to Incheon Korea flight was SQ602. This was something over six hours. The fold flat seat in business was not actually fold flat, but it worked better than I expected. I may have even manage a few hours of sleep. Less than I need, but far better than I expected.

After passing through immigration, collecting our luggage, and going through Customs, we meet our tour leaders and the others in our group at the Arrivals area. They say to have your name tag visible. We arrived at Incheon near Seoul around 7:30 a.m. This airport was another gigantic new one. We seemed to walk forever. Immigration was efficient, once our line reached it. Baggage worked well. Customs a breeze (not that we ever carry anything for them to question). We milled around at arrivals, gradually accruing the other members of our tour party.

Sandra and Neville Wallis, founders and managing directors of Travelrite International Tours will be leading this Trans Siberian Railways Vladivostok to Moscow tour.

Our tour leaders, Neville and Sandra Walliss, directed us to the private coach that is at the Incheon airport to collect us and take us to the Sheraton Hotel at Incheon. We may have time for a breakfast at the hotel at our own expense, before meeting in the lobby at 9 a.m. That seems a bit of an ambitious schedule. However we can not get into our hotel rooms until 3 p.m.

Our bus took us to the Sheraton hotel. Despite being in Incheon, it seemed to take about an hour to reach it. I kept falling asleep, especially as the mist seemed to hide most views of spectacular new buildings along the way. We were just going there to drop off our luggage in the hotel lobby.

Very hot and humid. It seemed to me that many of the tourists were starting to wilt. I certainly was.

Tour of Seoul

The private couch took us on a guided sightseeing tour. We visited the World Heritage listed (in 1997) Changdeokgung Palace at 99 Yulgong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, and its large traditional gardens set in 45 hectares of park. The tour is about an hour and a half on a 2.2 kilometre trail. Sometime known as East Palace (東闕, Donggwol). The literal meaning seems to be (昌德宮) Palace of Prospering Virtue. Built in 1405 by King Taejong as a secondary palace to nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace (established 1395). The palace was burned down during the time of the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592. Angry citizens set fire to the palace when it was evacuated during the time of invasion. Thanks to King Gwanghaegun, the palace was later restored in 1609. Changdeokgung was the principal palace for many of the Joseon Dynasty kings, and is the best preserved among the five remaining royal Joseon palaces. I wanted to see the ondol, the heating system. Traditionally, Korean houses were heated by generating heat under their floors, and there is an example here.

Next was a guided tour of the six kilometre Cheonggyecheon Stream. This former road covering a river through the middle of Seoul was restored to a stream over a three year period. It opened on 1 October 2005 at a cost of 370 billion Won. There are over twenty bridges spanning the stream. What a pity Sydney does not try something that audacious! The buses had parking issues. Camera problem my fault, but it meant I was far behind the group walking down the creek.

Visit department store and market for lunch. The place was fairly upmarket, but not knowing the language made identifying some items difficult. Salmon salad for Jean and pizza for me, although it took us a while to decide what to eat. Wander a lot. Back to hotel, a one hour drive. Lunch is at our own expense.

Korea Overnight

Overnight at the Sheraton Hotel, Incheon, 6-9 Songdo-Dong, Yeonsu-GuIncheon, 406-840. Phone: (82)(32) 835 1000. Incheon is near Seoul, South Korea. Wireless internet access seems to be around $20 a day, despite at one point being described as complimentary. This five star hotel is described as being the first non-smoking hotel in Korea.

Incheon is essentially a brand new city. Amazing sight from the Sheraton. The crane index was high. We could see five from our bedroom window. On one bus drive seventeen cranes were visible on the skyline. Next door almost is the vacant lot that will become highest building in South Korea, 310 metres. The existing building next door is sufficiently impressive.

Collapse in the room for a while.

Jean's hiking shoe falls apart. Glue from the very helpful concierge. Spend ages removing glue from my skin afterwards. Shoes seem to be ... less than satisfactory.

Room service dinner for one, a hamburger, and I had scraps. Saw my weight on scale in the bathroom (which I imagine are used more for checking the weight of luggage). Decided I really did not need a dinner. Dinner was at our own expense.

The night view from our room is wonderful, seeing an entire new city being brought to life around us. However I needed to get some sleep early, so I planned to do that at nine and was not very much later to bed.

Friday 6 August 2010

Leaving Incheon

This was a busy day. Bags outside the room at 5:30 a.m. The buffet breakfast at the Sheraton hotel starts at 5:45 a.m. In theory. However rather than a very plain Continental breakfast as I found in the menu, we were actually offered a very full American breakfast. So I rushed to eat more than I originally planned. The bus was scheduled at 6:15 a.m.

I returned to our room, collected my bags. In the lobby, I discovered the Business Centre had free WiFi, so I rushed to download email and news feeds to my iPad.

We were driving to Incheon airport on the buses at 6:20 a.m. The airport was a bit crowded and confusing to me, however it was reasonably well signposted. We were all collected in departure lounge 18 in plenty of time for our 8:05 boarding on Korean Air KE985 from Seoul to Vladivostok. We were all down the back of the bus. We were in row 48 of 49 for the two hour plus flight.

To Vladivostok

We advanced our time zone two hours, for a 1:15 p.m. arrival. When we set down there was a delay in getting out. Seem the Russians scan each passenger for body temperature. Not that bad an idea, if some of the epidemics are emerging. I was looking for a loo. Never did spot one.

Go through the usual immigration, collect our luggage, go through customs, and meet Neville and Sandra in the arrivals area. The GW Travel ground staff will probably also meet us at the airport. Russian immigration desks were in a tiny section of the terminal, so many of us were really feeling the heat. Processing was slow. Seemed like the folks in the cubicles had to retype the data on our entry cards on what may have been green screen terminals. The queue we were in was so slow I thought we must encounter a hulking monolith ready to argue with anyone. Instead it was a petit Russian lady in an imposing uniform, who went straight to work entering information.

We were after two when we emerged in the baggage area. We were just about last out, due to a poor choice of queue. There were only about four bags still on the baggage conveyor. Then they got an XRay, but the sniffer dogs did not seem to care much.


Arrive at Vladivostok airport, where you will be met and transferred to the centrally located four-star Hotel Hyundai 29, Semenovskaya St., Vladivostok, Russia, 690091 Telephone: +7(4232) 40-22-33. It sounds like there are a number of museums and points of interest nearby. Our tour leaders will advise about the welcome dinner when we arrive at the hotel. Cabin numbers will be assigned at one of these briefings.

We were met by Olga and Tatyana. We had Olga on our bus. She did a great job of describing the scenes we made the hour long drive to the traffic madness of Vladivostok (Владивосток) We drove along a highway created for when US President Ford was visiting. Still in good condition. It also seems the city will get new infrastructure, including a new airport. This is for an Asia Pacific international conference to be held in 2012 on Ruskii Island, the largest island in the beautiful harbour. There are also three more five star hotels to be built around the city. The city seems hilly, like a Russian version of San Francisco. There is a lot of commerce with China, which has cheaper goods. The Chinese come for the gambling.

I do not think I would try to be a pedestrian in Владивосток. Everything else has right of way, even at pedestrian crossings. To make it more interesting, second hand right drive cars from Japan are cheaper. So drivers on the right hand side of the road are using right hand drive vehicles. It looked like murder!

Overnight Vladivostok

We were staying at the Hotel Hyundia, newest in town. It has wonderful views of the harbour and you still see some Soviet era warships. Unfortunately the weather is hot, 30 degrees, and the humidity close to 100%. The lobby smells of cigarette smoke, and there was an ash tray in the bathroom. The mini bar in the room even had cigarettes for sale.

I changed US$100 into Russian roubles at the банк in the hotel lobby. Jean snatched the money. Sent me down to the lobby to get some for myself. The teller said bring me five roubles! They had no change. We had a ten rouble note and some singles. I took these with me when I returned to the bank. Then I thought perhaps changing US$200 would work. It did.

I had a little social chat with Tatyana and Olga. They both seem great people to have as tour leaders.

At six we met in the lobby for our bus trip to the welcome dinner at the Versailes Restaurant on the third floor in the oldest hotel in town. It was not far from our hotel, but the one way streets in this hilly city made progress interesting.

The restaurant was most interesting, in a wonderful room. We were plied with drinks, met some of the other GW Travel train staff, and our travelling doctor Elaine. We sat with Bruce and Margaret Scott during the meal, and they were most interesting company. We did not return to the hotel until after nine. I don't think we managed to get all the lights and power points working until the morning.

Our tour manager is Tatyana Kolesnikova, a native of Irkutsk. She is assisted in Владивосток by Evgenya.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Vladivostok Morning

A late start for the day. Luggage outside the door at 9 a.m. It will be delivered to our train cabins. We do need to have our special Golden Eagle luggage tag on the luggage. However we have until 10:45 a.m. before we meet in the lobby for our bus tour. Sounds like plenty of time for breakfast.

I did not sleep well after I awoke just after three. Somewhere music was playing, probably an overlooked alarm radio in another room. The bed also had some peculiar lumps I had to struggle to avoid. I did get some more fitful sleep before I got up closer to seven. We had to put our bags outside the rooms at eight and soon after went down to breakfast in the Rendezvous Restaurant.

Walk to the waterfront of Vladivostok (Владивосток) to see the nuclear wessels, as Ensign Checkov said in Star Trek. The very thought of being allowed to be wandering around the former Russian Pacific fleet city of Владивосток is simply amazing. Being able to freely take photographs (albeit mostly of monuments) was even more amazing. Dodging the traffic while attempting to cross streets was likewise amazing. Владивосток seems to have the highest ratio of cars for it's population. Mostly Japanese, and mostly driver controls on the rig (traffic travels on the right) but it seems these cars are too popular to ban. Back to the Hotel Hyundai via another set of streets for breakfast, again with Bruce and Margaret, before our bus tour with Julia.


Today we spend the morning in Владивосток. This once closed Russian port now offers visitors an exciting opportunity to unravel its mysteries as we explore its principal military attractions including a tour of a restored submarine.

We commenced with a drive past former amusement park sites made from a former cemetery, following a period when cathedrals were destroyed. Past the medical university. We went through Pigeon Valley, named after the carrier pigeons the military once used. We reached the Eagles Nest, highest point in town. As well as splendid views, it seemed a popular spot for weddings. Indeed, weddings were popular at every tourist spot we visited. From the viewpoint I could see in the far distance the coal fired power station that powers the area. It is slated to be eventually converted to gas.

There is a monument to the priests who devised the Cyrillic alphabet, brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius. There are a whole bunch of languages written with the Cyrillic alphabet (derived from the Greek alphabet around the 9th Century), including Bulgarian, Chechen (reluctantly), Kurdish, Macedonian, Mongolian, Russian, Serbian (officially), Tatar, Ukrainian, and at least fifty others. The alphabet achieved its current westernised letter form in 1708 during the reign of Peter the Great. Four letters were eliminated from the alphabet in a 1917/18 reform, bringing the number of letters down to 33. There are 11 vowels, 20 consonants and 2 letters which do not have a sound (instead they make the word harder or softer). Also hand written Russian looks different to printed Russian. Interestingly, six of the italic letters look rather unlike the upright form, with four looking more like the Latin a, u, n and m.

They are building a impressive bridge across to Ruski Island for their Asia Pacific international conference in 2012. We were able to take photos from several viewpoints around Golden Horn Bay.

We visited several chapels with golden roof, one near the submarine S56 museum and memorial to lost sailors. Four section of the submarine are empty of equipment but full of exhibits, while three are restored to their wartime state. Sure was cramped. Good idea to show us that before we reached the train. The area also had the St Andrews chapel, this being the patron saint of sailors. It was also interesting to see nearby a rather dilapidated tall building that was once the headquarters of the Soviet First Pacific Fleet.

Julia then guided us to another lookout, one of many with earth ramparts and a variety of underground heavy guns. This is one of many buried fortresses. The Russians are making sure their beautiful harbour and its city is protected from invasion by sea.

One more thing seemed to be the thing Julia said most, as she added something to her tour.

There was an included lunch at a city restaurant.

Trans Siberian Railway

We commence a 15 day Trans Siberian Express journey west across Russia, from Vladivostok to Moscow by luxury private train on the Golden Eagle. This U.K. Russian joint venture private train was launched on 26 April 2007 with considerable press coverage.

The train was running late, which tends to explain Julia's reluctance to deliver us to the station on time. It must have been closer to five than to four, or as per my original notes, two! We left Владивосток at least 45 minutes late, and probably even later. But we have 9288 km to travel by train.

We met Katrina, one of our car attendants, at the door of the carriage as she helped us board. Our bags were already in our cabin, occupying most of the available floor space.

Unpacking jigsaw was the next item. There actually was a heap of small spaces in the cabin, but we did not yet know the best way of using them. A wide and deep but not very high open space above the door, and spreading into the ceiling space above the corridor. A two level wardrobe, with hanging space for a half dozen or more clothes hangers. Another cupboard above that, albeit hard to reach without the ladder. After a bit of shuffling of my clothes, I declared a temporary truce with the unpacking, put my bag outside for stowing, and retired to the bar to leave Jean a clear field for her unpacking.

Beaches were visible as we glided away from Владивосток. I was surprised at the number of swimmers, as I remain unconvinced by reports of the water temperature. We passed Ussuriysk 9177 km around 7:10 p.m.

Bar car door seemed stubborn. I needed guidance from Tatyana, due to my reluctance to push hard on the lock to one of the interconnecting doors.

John and ?

Jean long ago learnt to pronounce Cyrillic letters. I tried to learn a little Russian. Learnt how to say спасибо, pronounced spa-siba, which means thank you. That seemed a useful starting phrase.

Dinner with Neville and Sandra, our tour organisers. Amongst other things, we discussed iPad and how to get more eBooks. In our carriage, three out of the four couples were carrying an Apple iPad for their notes.

Grazing country, but I saw few cattle. Getting to the upper bunk was excessive exercise, but helped by the ladder. The train attendants arrange the seats as beds when you go to dinner.

More unpacking. I must admit I was sufficiently tired by the time I left the bar car that despite the train rocking, I fell asleep fairly quickly. No worse than at home at least.

Sunday 8 August 2010


We pass directly north of Seoul, Darwin and Osaka as the most easterly point of our mammoth journey is reached. Khabarovsk or Хабаровск (8521 km) was where we had our first tour for the rail journey. We were scheduled to arrive at 4:40 a.m. But were actually there only a little after 7 a.m. Breakfast was early, also at seven.

We gathered on the platform at 8:45 a.m. to meet our town guide, Natalia, from the travel company Intour Khabarovsk, who operate from the Hotel Intourist. Our bus covered many areas of this town of almost 600,000 people. The population has decreased somewhat, although there are still many schools. Amongst others, Stalin ousted the Chinese population, but I gather many Chinese are back as merchants. We passed the Railway University, involved with the maintenance of the Trans Siberian Railway. There were also residential and medical areas mostly built around WWII. Being close to the Chinese border, around 30km away, the city was a fortress town. Like many Russian cities, there was an impressive war memorial, but I gather the city itself was never attacked. I note it also had a vodka водка factory.

We saw lot of most elaborate and impressive Russian Orthodox Churches. Our Saviour Transfiguration Cathedral, which had a seminary next door. It seemed the idea here is women wear a head scarf, while men take off their hats as a gesture of respect. The idea that women wear skirts or dresses seems not to be enforced any longer. No photos from inside the cathedral.

Red Square became Lenin Square again, and is the second largest square in Russia, after Red Square in Moscow. The square has a statue of Lenin that is unusual in that he is not hailing a taxi. I believe there may be only one other such statue.

We visited the Intourist Hotel to use their good quality toilet. I have never been in an Intourist Hotel. It did have the inevitable tourist shop.

A hundred metres distant was the small but good museum which had a great range of historical material on the indigenous inhabitants. There was also a wealth on local wildlife. Our guide Natalia was able to talk at length on any (perhaps all) of the exhibits. She cover beliefs such as shamanism, and what this meant to the natives. She gave examples of their sacrifice of a bear, raised from a cub for this purpose. I had not appreciated how close to the surface shamanism was in these regions. Natalia was a great guide.

We also briefly viewed the Comsomal ( spelling) Square cathedral before returning to the train so we could depart before midday.

On Board Golden Eagle

We crossed the Amur River. The 2.6 mm bridge then goes through three kilometres of steams and swamps. This 1998 construction of a combined rail and road bridge is the longest bridge on the Trans Siberian Railway. Previously cars had to use a ferry. I took a bunch of photographs, but avoiding the bridge girders in the way was hard when taking photos. Nearby is the small town of Priamurskaya or Приамурская (8512 km) on the border of the Jewish Autonomous Region.

I spend some time in the bar talking with various people, including our doctor, and US and Canadian railway enthusiasts.

Lunch started with a seafood salad. The next dish was considerably more adventurous with sliced lard garnished with what appeared to be capsicum but was actually chilli. The idea was have a hunk of lard, follow up with chilli vodka, then a bite of a tiny bread loaf, and some borsch soup. It was tastier than I expect, but I overdid the chilli vodka (Jean did not like it).

We passed through smaller towns, many of which we were not even able to spot. Birobidzan (8351 km) is Capital of the Jewish region, and was founded in 1928. I did not spot it, but the station sign is in Hebrew as well as Russian.

Embolden by the lunchtime chilli vodka, I tried some more regular Rusian vodka during the afternoon, after advice from Andre the bartender. It was very smooth, best served cold, and had a real but subtle flavour. While I doubt it would become my favourite, it was interesting. The vodka on the train seemed far superior to anything I recall tasting in Australia.

We had an Irkutak guitarist, Alexander Saga, during the afternoon in the bar car prior to dinner. He was very good but also fairly brief in his tune-up. The concert was at six, with a good attendance. He started with The Gypsies, and then did a range of original and old works. Alexander played well, despite the movement of the train, and interference from the noise from the tracks.

We passed by Arkhara (Архара) while awaiting dinner. Dinner was at 7:30. We sat at a table with Michael and Deidre, who turned out to be in the cabin next to us. Like us, they were using an Apple iPad for entertainment and to record their trip. I must send Deidre details of setting up an older Macintosh for Time Machine backup.

We had been running the local train time at Moscow +7 hours. Just past Obluche or Облучье (8198 km) (actually at 8184 km) we change to Moscow +6 hours, so we put our clocks back an hour before we retired for the night rather than doing it before dinner.

We were expecting a stop at Belogorsk after 10 p.m. It was too late to get any photographs, but the train was examined and water and waste tanks pumped while we were pulled up.

Monday 9 August 2010

On Board Golden Eagle

I was awake around 3:30 a.m. when I realised the train was at a standstill. Got back to sleep eventually, only to be jolted thoroughly awake after six by a cramp in my calf. By then it was daylight anyhow.

Our carriage attendant brought Jean a cup of tea, and even more packets of the the nice wafer biscuits and chocolates that accompany them.

We went for a walk through the train. It seemed carriage eight was not Silver class, but the staff service car. That is the only smoking area on the train, or so I gather. There were about four Gold class carriages, each with five passenger compartments. Each car has two attendants, to provide a 24 hour service.

In the Bar car, people were reading the most recent photocopies of news gathered by an aggregating service.

We had breakfast at eight. The rows of tables are a bit of a squeeze and some tables are in the bar to cope with the whole 60 passengers.

Amazar, Magocha and Chemyshevsk

Our journey today follows the Shilka and Amur rivers, close to the Chinese border. Enjoy Russia at its most beautiful and remote, as the landscape unfolds outside your window. Or you may like to attend one of the absorbing lectures or Russian language lessons. There are three short stops of around 20 minutes at Amazar, Magocha and Chemyshevsk.

We have a scheduled stop in Yerofey Pavlovich (7119 km) or in Russian Ерофей Павлович at 9:54 to 10:15 for 21 minutes. The city was named for explorer Yerofei Pavlovich Khabarov. The area is inhospitable, with frost from October to nearly April. In January the average temperature is -37C.

We are running late, so our stop will be even shorter than expect. I took a bunch of photos after we clambered down to the ground. I hurried forward in an attempt to get photos of the locomotive. However the sun was at the back of the train, so conditions were not great for photographs. Saw our first armed uniformed person during the trip, although the weapon was a holstered pistol.

The first Russian lesson covered the 33 letters of the Russian alphabet. Plus a variety of words illustrating each letter. I took notes and recorded the talk with my iPhone.

After the traumatic experience of language lessons, I had to return to the bar for a soothing beer. You can see out both sides of the bar car, so checking for passing trains is easier. As well as two line rail works, and separated bridges, there were some wonderful wide shunting areas, with eight or so tracks. There is a lot of freight moving along the line. It also appeared that there was an all weather road along much the same track. This was in addition to what seemed to be service tracks, some deeply rutted. We also often followed the edge of a river, which at times provided beautiful views. The rounded hills and different trees showed how the area was changing as the kilometres unwound.

Lunch started at 1:30 p.m. with some very nice creamy bean soup, fish with cheese sauce, potatoes and snow peas, or a cabbage schnitzel for the vegetarians, and ended with a fruit salad. We sat with one of the US railway enthusiasts, who seemed to have ridden a substantial number of the more interesting railway systems of the world.

The weather had changed from fine and sunny to wet and miserable. We passed some gangs of fettlers, looking absolutely miserable around smoking fires by the track. We stopped for a while around 3 p.m. at the ugly 1910 railway settlement of Mogocha (6909 km) or Могоча in the Bolshoy Amazar River Valley. The permafrost freezes the top ten centimetres of ground in winter, when temperatures drop to -60C below zero.

At this rate I shall need to find my warm gear. Turned out some cabin must have had a hitch, because our bags were out in the vestibule, rather than in a spare cabin. I grabbed my warm clothes from mine. We later found this was in preparation for the crossing into Mongolia, for which we need to detach two carriages, including the staff carriage.

At the bar, I wrote up trip notes until Alexander Saga was almost ready to present his evening guitar concert. I bought his two recordings for US$10 each, for my collection. Once again he did a splendid concert. It might be familiarity, but I really enjoyed his guitar version of Gershwin's Swan River.

We dined with our train doctor and her wonderful mother at eight. Even the grilled aubergine and tomato topped with cream cheese entrée was large. I had the pan fried beef fillet and vegetables main dish and could not manage to eat it all. Then a very solid fruit cake was served for dessert, and that totally overwhelmed me. There was a birthday in our group, and the train chefs cooked a birthday cake with candles.

I sat talking with our doctor and her mother after Jean left, then we moved to the bar car to continue partying. As we needed to set our time back an hour, we had extra time to continue with the party. Once again a fine pianist was at the party, playing mostly classical works. This include some pieces of considerable complexity. Towards midnight one of our group, Val, who has a classic trained voice, sang some pieces.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

On Board Golden Eagle

While I awoke once during the night, I got a good night of sleep. Glancing through the window revealed a landscape shrouded in mist. I had my shower while Jean organised to have her tea delivered. We have a wait before our breakfast at eight.

We sat with Bill and Rebecca, from Brisbane. I did not eat much, just scrambled egg and bacon. Russian bacon so far has been very salty. We had asked for pancakes, but they never arrived. Since we eat too much on board, we did not chase them.

We spent some time at breakfast parked at a railway facility while water supplies and waste were attended to. Outside the area, there was a large cemetery near the railway line. I put on my warmer clothes when we returns to our cabin. There seems to be continuous mist outside, and it is much cooler than the start of our visit to Russia. I fear photographs through the train windows will not show much.

We passed through a large township with an enormous timber yard, and low wooden buildings that looked in better repair than many we had sighted along the track previously. Another settlement an hour later, just after ten. The roads her were dirt, and muddy, with puddles, so they must be having rain. Some house had small garden plots that seemed full of cabbages.

The last of Alexander Saga's guitar concerts takes place this morning at eleven in the bar. This time he started with some flamenco style. This was followed by a medley of music from popular Russian movies from the 1960s to 1980s. Last were some of his own compositions, and a special farewell sing wish us well. I took a short movie of music that is on his CDs (which I had bought previously). During the concert we passed though one of the towns to which the Octoberists had been banished.

The concert may have placated the weather gods. The mist lifted, and we were in fine weather again. I may be able to change back to shorts if the warming trend continues.

Ulan Ude

The train is scheduled to stop at Ulan-Ude,capital of the Buryat Republic, just prior to midday. The stop was intended to be for 90 minutes. I fear we will arrive late however. After the concert, Anna announced we were running two hours late. So they will move lunch back to one o'clock, so we can get a feed before wandering the platform at Ulan-Ude.

Lunch offers a cheese and chicken salad with chicken pate or a green salad with marinated mushrooms. This is followed by a Russian bouillon with pirozhki pastry. I do not like mushrooms. Tatyana had found that during a casual conversation, and Anna gave me a piece of paper that said я не ем грибы.

In the afternoon at 3:30 we have a second Russian lesson, this time in the bar car. I dread the examination of how well we manage to (mis)pronounce our first list of words. This time the lesson is in the bar. We are promised we will learn a Russian song. Whether it was a student drinking song was not revealed until the lesson. It was a silly love song, with several repeats of lines we could sort of sing.

At 4:30 there was a presentation of a BBC historical movie on Genghis Khan in the restaurant car, since that can be turned into a cinema. The projector screen was still a little low for everyone to see, so several people ended up standing at the back.

Dinner was a vegetable salad with grilled shrimp, followed by chicken Kiev or a traditional potato cake babushka with wild mushroom soup. Although scheduled for 7 p.m., after we arrived, we actually ate dinner prior to arrival. The actual time of everything depends upon progress of the Russian border authorities and how the train meets schedules.

Leaving Russia

We were scheduled to arrive in Naushki just after six, and commence our border crossing. We were very late, and rescheduled dinner. Russian authorities process our passports and white forms. We simply need to wait for them in our compartments. After collection and return of passports we were able to take a walk on the platform. Although photography of the border crossing procedures is not allowed, we could take photos of the train and the very clean station buildings.

We departed Naushki for Sukhe Baata around 9:45 p.m. As Mongolia does not use summer time, we had to set out clocks back an hour for the morning. The short border stretch saw us reaching Mongolia a little after 10:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. by Mongolian time. Again the border authorities collected our passports and papers. We got them back just before midnight.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Ulaan Baatar Mongolia

Today our journey takes us into Mongolia and we visit the capital, Ulaan Baatar. We arrived at Ulan Baatar in Mongolia right on time at 6:30 a.m. It had already been light for an hour or so, on a beautiful fine day. We stripped most of the things out of our bags due to warnings about the prevalence of pick pockets in Ulan Baatar, leaving our passports and wallets and all except a few dollars in the cabin safe.

We have breakfast at 7:30, for an 8:30 start on our tour of the city. We were greeted by young people attempting to sell us paintings and drawings of a city and life we had never seen.

The GW Travel Director Marina Linke greeted us at the bus. Our guide was Vicky, who spoke excellent English with an American accent. I asked if she had learnt in the USA. She blamed watching USA cartoons when young. Traffic in Ulaan Baatar was crowded and chaotic. The city was built for a half million, and the population was a million. Most of the population are Buddhist, but there is now a 10% Christian minority, and about 8% Muslim. There is a Muslim mosque, and another being built.The number of cars was impressive, and Vicky said another 200,000 appeared each year! Like Russia, there are no restrictions on whether cars are. Left or right hand steering, so despite driving on the right, most cars have right hand steering. There seems as little regard for traffic rules or pedestrian crossing as there is for steering wheel locations.

Passed the central monument to the legendary ruler, Genghis Khan. We visited the Buddhist Monastery Gandan (Gandantegchinlen Khiid), which grew to nine datsans or institutes, with 5000 monks, before being partially destroyed and repurposed by the Communist government in 1938. The monastery was moved from Ulaan Baatar by the 5th Bogd Jebzundamba way back in 1838. In 1990 the Gandan monastery was able to Stargell rebuilding. It now has ten datsans or temples and 900 monks. The area includes the Buddhist University of Mongolia, established in 1970, which offers four year Bachelor's Degrees including majors in Buddhist Philosophy and Chanting. Also offered are Tibetan, Sanskrit And English language majors, as well as Traditional Medicine and Astrology. Some of the temples seemed to be called the temple of space, and another the temple of time.

The most impressive item for me was the giant standing Buddha in a large temple. I paid the $5 fee for taking photographs (our guide said it was official), and tried to get a good image in the relatively poor light.

The painting and drawing and coin selling folks from the train managed to beat us to the Temple, despite us travelling by bus. It seemed there was someone with a cell phone directing operations of the sellers. They certainly were persistent.

Pickpockets were also prevalent around the temple. The sunglasses are a bit of a giveaway on the spotter when inside a temple building. They seemed to be running two blockers, and at least one dip, however I did not see the passer. A couple of our folks had zippers partially undone on bags or purses, and one of our male tourists had a wallet partially out of his pocket before spotting the attempt. It is particularly silly for authorities or businesses not to crack done on pickpockets in tourist areas. Being pre-warned, most of us had left passports, wallets, credit cards and most of our money in our cabin safe. So not only would the pickpockets not get much, but we were also not going to be buying souvenirs. I was only carrying $40 for the day.

We visited the Natural History Museum around ten o'clock. Although covering a wide range of natal history, the most impressive part was the hall of dinosaurs. Many of these were discover in and around the Gobi desert. Facing us at the entry was a five metre tall Tarbosaurus bataar, with a notation Maleev 1955. This had the typical tiny front claws you expected in a predator dinosaur. However when you saw the Deinocheirus front limbs and claws mounted on a wall, you could understand just how impressive a dinosaur could be. These had a 2.6 metre forelimb, with 32 cm claws. These forelimbs were found in 1965 at Nemegt Basu.

The Museum of Mongolian National History was our next stop, just before eleven o'clock. Vicki did an excellent job explaining the various historical relicts of tribes and groups in the area over the centuries. She also explained an extensive display of the national costumes of various ethnic groups.

Shukhe Baatar Square was a few minutes away, once you managed to dodge the cars to cross the street. This was impressive. It is a very large square, with an imposing statue, with many new and old building surrounding the square but failing to dominate it. The government building faces it, and has it's own set of statues and sculptures. There at the square we faced the return of the souvenir sellers who first met us at the train.

Drove to Terelj National Park, about an hour and a half away. We stopped near the entrance to look at a shamanist prayer rock pile. This was surmounted by a bright pole, intended to act as an antenna to god things happening. Vicki suggested we each walk around it three times, carrying three small stones. You throw a stone on the rock pile, and make a wish as you walk around. There were three art shop gir here, as well as someone with a trained hawk.

The scenery is rolling hills, and some nice granite outcrops. It looked really wonderful country, although I suspect during winter my view would be very different. We made our way through these along a bumpy road. There were a large number of house and ger, which seemed to be available for hire by visitors. There were signs like "Welcome to Guru Travel", and "Mirage Tourist Camp". Many signs were in Russian, although English was not uncommon.

We had lunch in Terelj Park, at a Gir restaurant at Terelj Lodge. There were gir huts available for hire to visitors. Ger (Yurt) restaurant. A Ger is a traditional tent dwelling, used by approximately a third of this nomadic nation.

This lunch was planned around 1:30 p.m. but we were running about 40 minutes late. The restaurant had a wonderful view of the surrounding park and mountains. It seemed they also hired mountain bikes and horses for those feeling adventurous. We started with a green salad topped with what may have been goat cheese, then went to mushroom soup. I skipped the main course, of a unknown schnitzel, which may have been vegetarian (Jean let me have a taste). There was a dense cake afterward, which may have been made using condensed milk. Plenty of wine, with glasses refilled whenever they looked to be dropping in level.

In the rest of the afternoon we viewed scenery of Mongolia. At the restaurant area there were horses tied to a line. A couple of horses were asleep on their feet, heads resting on each others shoulders. Visit a nomad ger which was conveniently on hand, together with the huckster selling jewellery and other trinkets. He had a fine collection of old military swords and bayonets, which must have dated back much the the past century.

We could not stop the bus where the two hump camels were, which is a pity as I did want to add a two hump camel to my photo collection. We did stop where a herd of cattle were wandering along, as there were a bunch of yaks in the same area.

I asked about the small coal fired power station near the National Park. We had followed high voltage transmission lines out from the city. Soon afterwards we passed a major town entirely for workers in the coal mines and a larger power station. Mongolia basically gets all it's power from coal fired power stations. There was also a rather large antenna farm, with two large antennas and multiple smaller ones.

Our bus made the bumpy return to the city and arrived around 5:30 p.m. This was for some shopping time in downtown Ulan Baatar, where pickpockets also played their trade. The large department store our guide Vicky recommended had watchful attendants, so pickpockets were not as much of a risk.

Jean was tired, and not really wanting to look through a store, no matter how nice. We caught the escalators up, partly to see what was on each floor. On the top floor was a nice looking bookshop with lockers for your bag. It also had free WiFi. So did the little food court that was on the same floor. So we sat in uncrowded food court and download a bunch of news and email.

Dinner in a ger restaurant was next. The number of courses was staggering. Each time I thought they had brought the main, I discover it was another entree. The main course was boiled mutton, complete with a rock. They put the rocks in the meat to cook it from both the inside and outside. Luckily they warned us not to eat the rocks, giving rise to much comment about boiled galah recipes and stone soup. The mutton I had was fall apart soft, and rather nice. However another at the table had tough mutton they could not eat.

The performance of Mongolian folk music was simply astounding. A four piece orchestra in traditional garb playing on traditional horsehair stringed instruments, including the horse head fiddle. The female singer did some traditional singing, showing an astonishing vocal range, as did the male singers in the group. This first piece sounded atonal to my ears, being too used to the scale used by European music. The players did a piece that depict horses, and you could really hear that was what the music was about. There were several other pieces of Mongolian music, often on the theme of horses, almost certainly selected or converted to be appealing to Western ears. The musicians were said to be members of the Mongolian orchestra. They had a CD of their music available, with the title The Magic Fiddle. Mungun Ayurzana was born in Umnugobi South in 1982. He has taught music at the Mongolian University of Culture and Arts since graduating in 2005.

The final act was by a young female contortionist of astonishing suppleness and strength. I do not know how a human body can get such a range of movement. I tried to film this performance, since I am unlikely to see anything like it again. As she passed by our table afterwards I did notice the joints in her hands looked stressed, almost arthritic, whether from training or a result of being naturally double jointed.

We were certainly well feed and well entertained when we boarded our train just before nine for the long overnight ride back to the border.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Ulan Ude

I was awake far to early, and after failing to get to sleep again, had an early morning shower. At that time, hot water did not reach me before I had complete my shower. At least that woke me up.

We arrived at Sukhe Bator around 6:30 a.m. The Mongolian authorities came in board and collected our passports and other forms. We had all this returned in plenty of time to head off for breakfast at eight. Not being partial to UHT milk with cereal, I had scrambled eggs and bacon again. I was not happy with the menu for lunch, and decided to skip lunch (I may visit the restaurant and have a glass of wine while Jean has lunch).

We set off from Sukhe Bator around 8:30 a.m. The Russian authorities boarded at Dozorny, the actual border, and collected our documents. The Russian officials rode the train with us as far as the main border control town of Naushki. We had our passports back by around ten or so. We remain at Naushki station until after one o'clock. Several carriages have to be reattached to our train. We also swap the diesel used in Mongolia for our regular electric locomotive.

After lunch there is a Russian lesson in the bar at 3:15 p.m.

Just before five we stop at Shuluty for 15 minutes, where we got off for our bus tour. Jean was not feeling well, and stayed behind on the train.

Our guide was a young woman named Anya, who translated very well. Visit the Village of Old Believers (Torbogatai) about a twenty minute drive away. One of the women showed us a traditional style home, consisting of a summer house and a winter house. These were built to suit the extreme difference in climate from summer to winter. These had the coloured shutters and window surrounds we had seen elsewhere. The blue symbolises the sky and hope, and drives away bad spirits because they think it is the sky. Anya also said blue paint is cheap in Russia. I liked the use of bottle tops for decoration. They also had an extremely functional looking vegetable garden.

The priest in the village showed us their new church. This had an impressive monument in stone, of a book. They also had bells, a gift from the surviving child of someone who had promised to find a way to provide the church with the bells. The Old Believers did not agree with the Orthodox view of the Holy Trinity, counting only Father and Son, so their genuflect was with two fingers rather than three. Catherine the Great exiled them to Siberia. Later the Communists also suppressed religion and removed churches, so the believers had a tough time. We are not allowed to photograph inside the church, but it had impressive iconography. They also had collected what they could of the old books, despite many being lost or destroyed by the previous authorities.

The church and community spontaneously built and stocked a heritage museum showing artefacts of their old way of life and their old farm implements. This was an impressive if somewhat jumbled collection. The matriarch of the group explained each section of the museum.

We went upstairs to a mezzanine area for a dinner which includes traditional foods. Plus a generous supply of wine and vodka. The vodka водка not near a nice as that stocked by our train. Neville poured me a copious supply, which helped ensure I slept well that evening.

The villagers performed folk music. Then they enlisted two of our group to demonstrate a play of a wedding performance. They played along very well, with much laughter and applause from all.

One warning, the toilet and sanitation facilities in this obviously poor (except in spirit) community were primitive, by contemporary Western standards. We were all carrying hand sanitizer and tissues for just this sort of situation, as it is not uncommon.

We finally had to depart to drive the hour to Ulan-Ude with a tour of the city and a stop in the Central Square. It was still light enough to attempt to take a photo of the gigantic head of Lenin in the square. At least he was not hailing a taxi.

The train departed Ulan-Ude around 9:50 p.m. For once there is no time change.

I went along to the bar where a bunch of us, including the doctor, sat talking until after just midnight. Doubtless that also contributed to the good night sleep.

Friday 13 August 2010

Lake Baikal

Few natural sights can surpass the beauty and grandeur of Lake Baikal. For five hours we wind our way through tunnels along cliff hugging tracks above the lake with a vista of snow capped peaks along the far shore. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and holds 20% of the world’s freshwater. Also known as the ‘Pearl of Siberia’ it is home to a unique breed of freshwater seal and over fifty species of fish including omul which we will be serving in the dining car for some of our meals.

Apart from awakening briefly around five, I slept through until it was time for breakfast at eight. We were going along the old rail line right beside Lake Baikal. The regular track now bypasses this old slow single rail line, no longer used except by tourists. We basically have Lake Baikal on our right hand side, within throwing distance, for hour after hour of travel.

Alas, the weather was against us, with overcast and light showers, getting heavier it seemed whenever I tried to take a photo. I think the folks who intend to ride outside on the engine catwalk in this weather are insane. Even some of the train enthusiasts declined this opportunity.

Weather permitting, we stop in the late morning at Polovina half way station, a scenic lakeside spot. One of Baikal’s picturesque and secluded bays to enjoy a delicious BBQ including freshly smoked fish prepared by our own chefs. For the brave hearted, there is even time for a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters. One of our crazy tourists did managed to immerse himself in the lake, despite the bitter cold. It was a wonder he did not suffer hyperthermia.

We had a walk in the rain for about 50 minutes at Polovina (half way) station, around the half way point as we skirted the Lake Baikal. Since the only place to leave the train here was at carriage one, we had a fair hike just to reach the exit point.

Polovina was a small railway township of wooden buildings, many with the typical vegetable gardens you see around rural Russia. There was even a small store, with colourful Russian products in packets in the window. I took photos across a small river at the other side of the village, and could see a nice bridge across the river.

I also walked back to the bridge along the length of the train. There was an old locomotive parked near our carriage, and I wanted photos of that. By the time I crossed the bridge the wind up the valley was fierce, and I could hardly feel the camera controls. I did photograph the village, but probably had too much spray and rain on my camera lens. Time to give up and return to the warmth of the train.

I was pretty pleased with how well the new GoreTex jacket worked. Nice and warm, no sign of water entry, and the folding hood was handy. The folds over the pockets kept water out when I was putting the camera away. It is pretty unusual for us to even need a jacket except when we travel, so we can not test them at home.

We were off again from Polovina before midday.

The slow moving train came to a sudden stop. I later learned a tree had fallen across the track. The crew had to cut it up with a hatchet before we could continue.

In the afternoon we visit Listvyanka, a small Baikal settlement nestling at the base of the surrounding hills. We cross Lake Baikal by ferry to Listvyanka for our tour.

During lunch we decided we would not take the afternoon boat trip on Babushka, to view an open air wooden building museum and have an outdoor barbecue for dinner. We skipped the entire series of events in favour of staying warm on the train.

As it happened, the travellers returned by about five o'clock. The attempt to get the barbecue supplies across the lake had led to the boat taking water. The train crew had to turn back. Doing an outside barbecue under those atrocious conditions was not the best idea. So the dinner was moved back on board the train.

Dinner aboard the train. It was the barbecue supplies, and tasted just fine.

I went to the bar after dinner. Arkady was playing the piano. It was a fair bit later that Val and Joan started singing.

Saturday 14 August 2010


We were parked at Slyudinianka Слюдянка overnight, and were still there when I awoke in the morning. The station building looked a lot like a low castle, all in stone. There were also a lot of passengers waiting on the station. There seemed to be a lot of trains going through this area. We saw another passenger train with sleeping cars.

We departed for Irkutsk at 8:30 when we were partway through breakfast. Luckily we got to eat alone, as neither of us wanted to talk in the morning.

The country here has rolling hills and looks green and lush, with decent sized trees. There seems a lot of small villages, and we seemed to pass one every few minutes.

We arrive in Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, and our visit today takes in the most significant sites and museums in this fascinating city, including an exploration of the classic wooden architecture that has given many of this region’s buildings such a distinctive and unique appearance. Sites include the Gagarin Embankment, the Alexander III monuments and the icebreaker Angara.

At Irkutsk Иркутск we boarded buses. Our guide was Lydia, assisted by Claudia. We had the usual entertaining attempt to get the radio communications system working, for certain values of working. I actually usually have good luck with this. Our previous guide Tatyana was at the station, so I wished her well attending to the sad loss of her mother.

We walked around the park surrounding the Alexander III monument of 1908, commemorating the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway, with the statue looking east, to the new lands of Siberia. This area provided good views of the river, and much of the town. In the same area was the museum, and a large yellow aristocratic house in the neo-classical style. This was near the Gagarin embankment. It was here I learned to spell ice cream мороженое.

Next we visited the Intourist Hotel, where the more optimist of us tried to get an Internet connection. The business centre on the second floor had three computers available, with connections six roubles a minute. Having Russian keyboards added some excitement to attempts to put in passwords with punctuation. I gather it eventually worked for some people.

I had to go to the hotel reception for a WiFi connection. 500 roubles for 50 MB! Ouch! The password section of the connection worked. The disconnect did not. Plus we had little time. I set email and news feeds downloading. Got about 2400 news items, which should entertain me for a while. Jean managed to access her Gmail, but I wish we had thought of doing that earlier, as we had to rush to the bus.

Lydia told us the regional population was around 2.5 million. The population density is around 3.5 people people per square kilometre, but most development is along the Trans Siberian Railway line. The climate here to the west is so favourable that they even grow fruits.

We visited the Icebreaker Angara Ангара once part of the train ferry for the Trans Siberian trains across Lake Baikal. It looked battered, and I imagine the restoration is being done by volunteers.

The city of Irkutsk is old, founded in 1661. The city was once mostly wooded buildings, but fear of fires means wood can not longer be used near the historic city centre. We did get taken to see a variety of older wooden homes and even mansions, basically very fancy log cabins. These were often restored and used for things like tourist information centres.

We viewed the Church of the Saviour, and the nearby Church of the Epiphany. Naturally I also took photos of the coal fired power station.

Another Eighteen Century square, which if I understood correctly also has markets at times.

Lunch in a fancy city restaurant, with excellent Russian food. The meal concluded with a Bombe Siberia, an ice cream cake. They had attractive grounds, but by then it was 2:40 p.m. And we needed to get away.

Local market visit. We had about an hour in a market about the size of Sydney's Paddy's Markets or Melbourne's Victoria Markets. Jean and I could make little use of the numerous fresh food items. We went up to the second and third floors of the second set of buildings, and wandered around the electronics and craft shops. We even found the toilets (not in the best of shape). Getting back down was more exciting, as all the escalators led up. We had to locate the stairs (on a Russian map) to exit the place. However we reach the bus with a few minutes to spare before our 4:45 p.m. departure.

In the afternoon we visit the Decembrist House museum which is dedicated to the memory of the exiled aristocrats who were forced to flee to this remote outpost after the failed revolution of 1825. We may enjoy a private concert before returning to our waiting train for dinner.

Decemberist Prince Volkonsky's mansion and a private concert

On board train around seven for our departure from Irkutsk.

Dinner at eight.

Sunday 15 August 2010


It is a dull rainswept day, and I have a cold. We are riding the train the entire day. After breakfast, at which we could sit alone, I decided to try to avoid fellow passengers. So I missed the ten o'clock Russian lesson.

I got off the train at Ilanskaya Иланская where we had a 28 minute stop starting around 10:40 a.m. Yes, we were actually a few minutes ahead of schedule. Took some photos of the station through the drizzle, but did not want to stay out in the cold for long. Our long suffering attendants faithfully stand on the platform outside our carriage at the doors, and farewell us when we leave and greet us when we return.

There was another passenger train alongside us in the station for a while. It did not look as comfortable. Our guides tell us that Russians traditionally paid very little for train transport in Russia, and now will not pay to do so.

There was what appeared to be a military train which also passed us, heading west. It had about thirty large drab coloured eight wheeled vehicles on carriages. While they looked to have a possible rotating cupola, there did not seem any sort of gun mount. They looked a bit like something engineers might use in rough county.

Marina will be doing a talk about life in Russia today and during Soviet days. That is in the restaurant at 11:15 a.m. I am trying to persuade Jean to attend and report back.

At noon, there is another talk, by Bob Wurth. This is about his new book from the ABC about Willie's photographs from all over Asia.

Our wonderful train pianist, Anatoly Deriev, will present a Russian Music Potpourri in the bar car at four. Anatoly begged for an early night in the bar, as we have an early morning stop in his home town. Anatoly often played until after midnight, especially if someone was there singing along.

We crossed the Yenisey River, which divides Siberian into Eastern and Western parts, just before arriving at Krasnoyarsk Красноярск.

There is another short stop at Красноярск station around 4:45 p.m. Again we could take photographs, but not go very far from the train. The further west we go, the more little food shops seem to appear on train platforms. Each of these seems to have at least beer, if not vodka.

There was an 80 minute documentary by Marcel Theroux in the restaurant car around 5:30. Oligart — the Great Russian Art Boom.

We started dinner with what the crew seemed to think was a proper Russian entree. Red caviar on pancakes, with a shot of vodka on the side. Actually not too bad.

I knew tomorrow was the last day to have laundry done, so I handed a bag to one of our attendants after dinner.

Monday 16 August 2010


We arrived in Novosibirsk, literally new city, around 5 a.m. Luckily we had plenty of time for breakfast before setting out on our buses. We had a long walk to the buses, as the train was parked at a siding, rather than at the main station.

Natalie was our guide, first telling us how to pronounce Novosibirsk. Although it was formed 117 years ago, in 1893, it is the third larger Russian city, after Moscow and St Petersburg, with one and a half million people. The city has six theatres, two of them drama theatres, and we were going to visit the opera theatre.

We stopped to view the river, and the rail bridge across it. A massive single span of the old bridge had been moved to the park as a monument. The was also a long road bridge a fair distance from the rail bridge.

We drove past several individual institutes of the Russian Academy of Science on our way to the science city of Akademgorodok, population a quarter million. There are said to be 47 such institutes in the area, many with attached museums. We went to the Mineralogical Museum.

Olga guided us through the displays at the Mineralogical Museum. This reminded me so much of old style museums in Sydney from when I was a child. The glass and wood display cases with wonderful examples of minerals, carefully explained in terms I did not understand. Olga actually did explain several of the exhibits in detail. As a member of the Museum staff, she is not actually an interpreter, but English is a hobby of hers. She managed several jokes along the way. We could try to pick up a chunk of NiFe meteor than must have weighed 50 kg. They had various exhibits on diamond, as Siberia produces diamond. They had wonderful displays of quartz, mica (both black and transparent) and jade, including the rare blue jade. There were several minerals so far found only in Siberia.

Railway rolling stock museum of trains, locomotives and railway snow plows has 200 exhibits, and was opened in the year 2000. The weather turned against us here, with light rain making the outdoor museum a bit cold and damp. They had a wonderful range of locomotives. They also had some old carriages, such as a medical carriage from WWII. They also had partially restored carriages such as were used by the family of the Tsar. These included a toilet and shower, heating stoves at each end of the carriage and so on. We did not have time to visit the ethnical section, which included at least six different styles of snow plough.

Our lunch was at an old Soviet style building, site of the former Restaurant of the Scientists. This is said to be the best in town, and is where Vladimir Putin ate when here. The interior is simply amazing, and even includes an indoor basketball court.

We returned to the train just prior to it departing at four.

There was a movie in the restaurant car about Chaliapin, the Enchanter, Memoirs of a Great Russian Bass.

Russian class just after six in the bar car. I was still suffering with my cold, and did not attend the movie or the lesson.

We had a short stop in Barabinsk just before dinner time.

Tuesday 17 August 2010


Up at around 6:30 for a 7:30 breakfast. We are on the train until the afternoon. Anna has organised a movie documentary about Nicholas II and his family Russia's Last Tsar in the restaurant car at 10:30. This is followed by the Russian class in the bar car. I believe the test is ordering a drink from the bar, and making conversation with the bartender.

Lunch inboard is early, at 12:30. This lunch proved gigantic, with a Russian meat broth as a starter, and salmon with a chilli sauce for main. I should have skipped dessert.

Founded in 1723 by Peter the Great, Yekaterinburg is the third largest Russian city and the capital of the Urals. The cultural and architectural influences of European and Asian civilisations come together in this fascinating and cosmopolitan landscape. Our city tour takes us to the poignant site where the Romanov, Nicholas II of Russia was executed with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Now a church dedicated to their memory, this site provides us with a powerful insight into the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. We cross the Europe/Asia divide after we leave Yekaterinburg.

We stop at Yekaterinburg around 1:30 p.m. for a bus tour of the Romanov church starting at two o'clock. The weather on the way was wet, with grey skies and increasing rain. Anna warned us maximum temperature of 16C and to bring an umbrella. I was still suffering from a cold, and decided not to go, as did Jean. However by 2:45 p.m. the weather had started clearing up. We had sunbeams piercing into the cabin, and it warmed up so much I felt uncomfortable. Knowing I never asked for tea or coffee, our cabin attendant brought me some grapes when she brought tea for Jean.

The attendees at the tour say the church was impressive, but no more so than several others during the trip. They had the chance to stand astride the boundary between Europe and Asia. A group photo was taken of this site. There was also a tour of yet another railway museum. I should mention that every railway station of any size seems to have at least one large locomotive on display somewhere near it.

The group from the tour returned around five. I went to the bar and chatted with some of them.

The train departs just before seven, and we have dinner a half hour later.

Tonight we set our clocks back two hours, as we will be on Moscow time for the rest of the trip.

This made it easier to stay up in the bar talking with our pianist Anatoly and others until around 1 a.m. Our train doctor recommended gin and tonic to prevent the cramps I had been getting in my calf some mornings. I gather the tonic is the active ingredient, but who am I to change what a doctor prescribes?

Wednesday 18 August 2010


We spend our last full day on board the Golden Eagle today. Dawn was early, as we had changed the clocks two hours backwards to Moscow time. We were up in plenty of time for our 7:30 a.m. breakfast, before our 8:31 a.m. arrival in Kazan.

We arrive at the picturesque and historic city of Kazan. Situated on the River Volga, Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan. Here we have the opportunity to see for ourselves its rich tapestry of history and culture. One of the highlights of this city tour is our exploration of the Kremlin Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the walls of this ancient citadel we will explore its stunning mosque and magnificent onion-domed cathedral. We also visit the Kul Sharif Mosque, and enjoy a short concert.

At nine we depart on a city tour. Kazan Kremlin Kul Sharif mosque Cruise on the Volga River Lunch in a local restaurant Free time in the downtown Zazan area Short concert of music from the repertory of Chaliapin, famous Russian bass singer.

Lunch at a local restaurant, followed by free time in downtown Kazan, and a cruise on the Volga River.

Settle all accounts for laundry, bar and souvenir. We had our farewell dinner on the train this evening.

Thursday 19 August 2010


After travelling over an amazing 10,600km along this epic route to the end of the Trans-Siberian line, we arrive in Moscow to disembark. We will be met at Kazanskaya Station by our buses at 11:30 a.m. The train station, unlike the airports, is relatively central. When they have a really fast train to St Petersburg, that will be the way to travel between those two cities.

Our city tour of Moscow Москва principally takes us to the sights of Moscow, such as Red Square, an iconic symbol of Russia’s former military and political might. The observation platform at the Moscow University, and Church of Christ the Redeemer. There is a guided tour of Novodevitchy Convent and cemetery. Bus tour was good but can not hear the tour guide outside bus.

We have a lunch at our own expense during the tour.

We transfer to our hotel, the fantastic centrally located, Hotel Metropol a fantastic art Noveau-style luxury hotel that was first opened in 1901. It is opposite the Bolshoi Ballet and is a three-minute walk to Red Square. We arrive at the Hotel Metropol at 4:30 p.m.

Our tour guides will recommend some local restaurants for dinner at your own expense. Meet at the lobby at 7 p.m. if you prefer to go with the group.

Friday 20 August 2010


This morning we tour an eclectic mix of fascinating architecture, such as the ornate St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square with its magnificent onion-domed spires. Saw the Kremlin in the rain Churches Drab and cluttered interior Left tour We see the grandeur of The Kremlin and the sombre and evocative site of Lenin’s tomb. In the Kremlin we visit the museum, where we see the Russian collection of Farbegé eggs.

We have a guided tour of Red Square before returning to the Hotel Metropol at 2 p.m.

The afternoon will be free, and you will need to organise a late lunch at your own expense.

We will be able to vote in the Federal elections at the Australian Embassy in Moscow between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The Embassy is at 10A/2 Podkolokolny Pereulok, Moscow phone: 956 6070, not far from the hotel. Embassy staff will pre-prepare voting papers for the tour group, if advised of the electorate details. Jean and I had earlier checked whether postal votes would work, and given the deadlines, could not see how to manage it.

Our tour guides will recommend some local restaurants for dinner at your own expense. Meet at the lobby at 7 p.m. if you prefer to go with the group to dinner at your own expense. We went to the underground shopping complex in the square, and bought some pizza or something similar. I have a receipt for 188 roubles, so it must have been something cheap.

No Carbon Tax

A page one banner headline interview in The Australian with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the day prior to the federal Election. I don't rule out the possibility of legislating a carbon pollution reduction scheme, a market-based mechanism. I rule out a carbon tax. It turned out that the Prime Minister lied.

Saturday 21 August 2010


A full buffet breakfast is available in the Metropol Restaurant from 7 a.m. Meet in the lobby at 8:45 a.m. for our day tour.

We travel to Zagorsk, originally known as Sergiyev Posad, closest of the Golden Ring cities to Moscow. The smaller town was the former religious capital of Russia, and has beautiful restored architecture. It is also known for wooden carvings of toys and matryoska dolls.

We also visit the Troitse-Sergiyeva (Trinity) Lavra, one of the greatest Russian monestaries, established by St Sergius of Radonezh.

Lunch is at your own expense, and there will be time to explore the city. We return to the Hotel Metropol at 4 p.m.

After breakfast we skipped the bus tour. Jean was not sounding at all well, and had little energy. I was toured out, and did not want to see another golden onion domed church.

I walked to the river, by a very convoluted course, taking photographs all the time. This let me take different angles on St Basil cathedral, in good sunlight. As well as Red Square being nearly deserted, there were viewpoints at the bridge across the Moscow River, so I could photograph the fortress walls and domed churches of the Kremlin. Overall the walk took me around two and a half hours. I hope that I got some wonderful photographs, as the views were great.

Jean got a 24 hour WiFi ticket while I was away, so even if she was mostly confined to the room, she could do something on her Netbook.

Jean and I went walking around Moscow about midday. Jean wanted to see the Bolshoi theatre, but her map disputed where I thought it was. We walked a giant path around several blocks. We did find an interesting look upmarket department store. This had an extensive upmarket food hall in the basement, much like the sort I remember David Jones or Myers having decade ago.

Pizza was enough for lunch for me, however we had it at the underground food court in the middle of the square outside Red Square. The staff are obviously used to visitors who can not speak Russian. 65 roubles, for something. That sounds like pizza.

Celebratory dinner at the Metropol Hotel was a giant Ceasar salad, followed by a rather ordinary chicken dinner. Perhaps chicken is something special in Russia. The wine was excellent, and poured very freely. It was interesting to talk with more than two others in the group at a time. GW Travel had sent along their name badges for some of us. Neville also distributed a CD of photos of the train trip. Plus the group photo at the Asia Europe boundary.

Afterwards some of our group went for a walk to Red Square.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Leaving Moscow

Jean let me use her 24 hour WiFi access, so I collected email and news feeds early in the morning. Guess I will read them on the plane or at the Moscow airport.

We have an early departure. Leave your luggage outside your door by 6:30 a.m. We had breakfast at 6:30 a.m. ready for a 7:15 departure. However Sandra says just check your luggage reached the bus at that time. Which I did, and again onto the bus, when I went down earlier than Jean for just that purpose. Meet in the hotel lobby at 7:15 a.m. to board the coach to the airport.

We are headed for the closer northern airport, about 30 minutes form Moscow. Luckily traffic on Sunday is very light on the way to Sheremetyevo Moscow Airport, and we were settled in gate lounge twelve by around 8:30. We are taking Aeroflot 841 for the short flight to St Petersburg at 10:10 a.m. for the seventy five minute flight to St Petersburg. We arrive at 11:30 a.m.

To my considerable surprise, checking and efficient security screening took a fairly trivial amount of time. The terminal is newly renovated and comfortable. Plus it has free WiFi. So I indulged myself in mall and news downloads, instead of writing notes. The Aeroflot flight was in a new and comfortably equipped Airbus A320-200, which had roomy seats (for economy). They even managed to serve up a small sandwich during the hour flight.

St Petersburg

St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, was made the capital of Russia in 1712 and is perhaps the most spectacular city in Russia. It is known for its canals and intact centre of 18th-century buildings. On arrival we have a sightseeing tour of the city.

The St Petersburg airport was a new looking three level design, although we did have to bus the short distance across the tarmac from the plane. We were out and headed for the tour bus fairly quickly.

Our guide was Alla (no H), who had guided groups for Neville and Sandra on previous visits. She was a former economics graduate, who like many qualified Russians, got into tourism during the initial change to a capitalist society. Alla was excellent, never at a loss for descriptions and background material. Also along and helping were Lidmilla, and Thomas, our bus driver. Given how narrow some of the St Petersburg streets (or lanes really) are, Thomas certainly earned his keep.

We drove to Peterhoff, a pretty town surrounded by dacha and their little plots of vegetables. We also passed the Putin Palace, an unofficial name for the Presidential Palace. There was also the obligatory power station not very distant from the town.

We were to look at the amazing Grand Summer palace of Peter the First (Peter the Great), first of the Romanov rulers of Russia. He was crowned at age 10. It appears Peter was something of a sadist, turning his hand to dentistry and surgery. As a result, his courtiers rarely admitted to being ill!

Before we could enter the grounds, we had to run the gauntlet of a host of souvenir shops. I am not sure how many gazebos, as the highest numbered one I saw was over a hundred.

The grounds are memorable for the fountains all over the extensive gardens that run down to the Baltic Sea. These myriad fountains are all gravity fed from a river many kilometre away. When you add most of the ornamental fountains and their associated statues are golden, the effect is spectacular in an ornate and overstated way. Jean and I took a lengthy walk through the grounds down to the sea.

Most of the others were having lunch in a restaurant in the grounds. We have free time and lunch at our own expense in the Palace grounds. Since Jean and I had various snacks with us, we made do with these, rather than eat even more than we wanted.

Rain was threatening, so whenever the sun broke through the clouds, we tried to take advantage of it for photographs.

I went for more of a walk though the grounds, rather than shuffle through the palace with a vast crowd of tourists. However as we had left our bags in the bus, I did not have my phone with me, for telling what time to meet the tour. That was a mistake on my part.

I exited the grounds a half hour early, located the bus, and then checked the market stalls. Jean had been seeking an aviator helmet and googles for her steam punk costume for Worldcon. We had seen a possible helmet and sunglass rig, which I determined was 1200 roubles. I found a stall that had the genuine leather aviator helmets (which these days seem a collectors item) available for 2800 roubles. So I intercepted Jean as she left the grounds, and showed her the things. This resulted in me being sent back to the bus to bring back some more money. Luckily the vendor was very happy to accept US dollars, at a perfectly reasonable exchange rate. We could have managed roubles, but would have had little left for meals.

We were unfortunately last back to the bus thanks to this (I had contacted our tour leader to explain what we were doing). However we left just after four, so the delay was minimal.

We had a nice drive into St Petersburg, with the reduced Sunday traffic making things much better for sightseeing. Lots more photographs, but only through bus windows. The final step was negotiating a bunch of narrow alleys to our fancy hotel, overlooking one of the canals. Around 5:30 p.m. we went to our hotel, the fabulous five star Kempinski Hotel, Moika 22. It even has free Wi-Fi. The hotel is housed in a St Petersburg mansion, designed by Basil von Witte in 1853. The classical façade of the building has been faithfully retained, while the interior has been entirely reconstructed and decorated with antiques of the period. it has views of the Hermitage and is two minutes walk from Nevsky Prospect.

Bell boys appeared, loaded our luggage from the bus. We collected our room cards in the lobby from the attentive staff, handed over our passports for recording, and were soon in our eighth floor room via an elevator with glass walls. The luggage arrived soon after. This room had a wonderful view of the city. It was a little short in luggage space, but what there was sufficed. It did have a writing desk and chair, a very comfortable lounge chair, and a small sofa. In addition, the renovation had placed additional power points just where we needed them, at waist level behind bed lamps and by the desk. No bending over to seek a place to plug in gadgets. Best of all, free WiFi in all rooms.

We had to supply our dinner at our own expense, so we wandered alongside the canal, looking in each cafe we found. At the main cross street we found a Russian style tourist cafe that was not playing a TV loud. This was about as far as we wanted to walk after a long day. We were delighted to find their menus catered to tourists, with a short English translation of the dishes, so we ate there, despite the prices. We had a couple of different dishes of Russian dumplings (we had eaten similar on the train). Jean's dish had the larger dumplings in a broth, whereas mine had lots of very small dumplings with sour cream. We washed it down with Russian beer. It was more than we could eat, and cost 1430 roubles (around $50).

Monday 23 August 2010

St Petersburg

Beau Rivage Restaurant for a buffet breakfast, available from 7 a.m. Meet in the hotel lobby at 8:45 a.m. for the guided coach tour.

When we attended our first breakfast at the hotel I was stunned by the number of staff ready to assist us. There must have been a half dozen staff for a buffet breakfast. Fresh squeezed juices being done. Order your eggs any way you like. They had continental and hot buffet items, plus full European style breakfast. I managed to get some fresh cooked salmon with my eggs and bacon. I wish I could do justice to the sort of spread they put on. I did not spot the Tsar buffet, which seems heavy on caviar and champagne. I did spot the unopened bottles of champagne.

This morning we travel to Pushkin, and visit the Alexander Palace, once home to Nicholas II, the last Tsar. We also visit nearby Catherine Palace, and see the reconstructed Amber Room.

We were off in the bus again after nine, this time bound for Pushkin. The usual extensive commentary as we left St Petersburg. We passed the teetotaller church, with one dome shaped like a vodka bottle, and the other like a champagne bottle. We passed yet another Lenin monument, in front of a pre war building untended for the city government, plus one of several monuments to Russian forces in WWII. It was in this area that the Nazi German advance was finally stopped.

We stopped to look through the Alexander Palace. You can not carry a bag or even an umbrella, although that seemed to depend somewhat on who was on the door. You need to put paper booties over your shoes. Plus there are no photographs allowed inside. So as a result, I seem to have forgotten what was there. Some mildly fancy and rather large rooms.

Pushkin seems a pleasant township, and site of the summer palace of Catherine the First, who was the second wife of Peter the First (he stuck his first wife in a nunnery). The extensive palace had been badly damaged by the Nazi occupation, with wanton destruction while they used the building. Plus many items were looted. However the Russians restored it, as an amazing tourist drawcard.

There is a lot of walking involved in reaching the palace entrance (little parking space). However when you see the palace it looks amazing, with all the gold glittering everywhere you look. There was an equally amazingly slow moving queue, while rain continued to threaten. A small band entertained people waiting in the queue. They even managed Advance Australia Fair. We were rather poor in response with our singing of Kalinka. The palace had been badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, so almost everything inside had been restored. An amazing piece of work.

The crowds inside the palace were as bad as we feared, despite the heavy restrictions on how many entered. A series of rooms have been restored, all gold gilt and carvings, veneer floors, paintings on ceilings,and some recovered paintings. The effect is stunning, in a totally overwhelming way. At one point you can look back through a series of hallways through perhaps five or six golden rooms. The largest room was utterly excessive, even for a ballroom. Alas, photographs are unlikely to handle the view, as clouds reduced the available light through the large windows below what was needed. Even if we were allowed to use flash, they could not illuminate such large rooms.

The room we we not even allowed to photograph was the restored amber room, decorated using amber. That was a really interesting approach to see. The methods originally used were unknown, so those restoring the room had to make up their own techniques.

Several of our group had to sit out the tour, as they could not cope with the crowds, or the slow progress on stairways. I was having a lot of trouble with my leg (standing still does that) and I do not know how Jean managed the tour. It was interesting to see this monument to excess, but now I am palaced out.

We were later than expected returning to the bus. It was raining, and the crowds made it difficult to collect all our party. However we did reach where the bus could collect us around 12:45 p.m.

We planned to stop for free time and lunch at our own expense on the way back to St Petersburg.

I think the original plan was a lunch near where we were but instead we drove back to St Petersburg. We stopped at a large square surround by tourist places, which had the advantage that the bus could park. Jean and I took our leave of the tour here, and walked back to the hotel. Not having a map was a bit of an obstacle, but we only had to locate one main street, and follow it to the canal our hotel overlooked. It was a bit further than I expected, and took about a half hour to walk. I should have grabbed a city map before leaving the hotel.

We had a city sightseeing tour scheduled in the afternoon. Visit Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest building in St Petersburg. It was built to defend against the Sweeds. Most of the Russian tsars from Peter the Great are buried there, on this island at a bend in the river. However Jean and I did not think we could cope with the walking there, although the bus tour of the city to get there sounded attractive.

They also had a boat tour of Neva River and canals of St Petersburg, to see the city from the water. This also sounded attractive, but impractical for us. I probably should have asked the location, and walked there to meet the tour before they departed.

The tourists returned to the Kempinski Hotel at 5:30 p.m. Our tour leaders will recommend local restaurants for dinner at our own expense. Meet in the lobby of the hotel if you wish to dine with the group. Jean was way past any walking by then, and contemplating the room service menu. However we knew from comments Paul had made that the meals were enough for three. So I wandered off to the main street, and brought back a Subway. A Russian Subway.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

St Petersburg

Beau Rivage Restaurant will have a full buffet breakfast available from 7 a.m. Fabulous buffet breakfast at the hotel Kempinski. Meet in the lobby at 9 a.m. for our walking tour of St Petersburg.

We have a walking tour of the Hermitage Art Gallery, the winter palace of the tsars. Now it is a great art gallery and museum.Getting to the tour entry point involved a longish walk from our hotel, around the buildings of the Hermitage, to the tour group entrance. Some of our group do not walk all that well, and were struggling before we even reached the entrance.

The Hermitage opens early for tour groups, and at 10:30 for the general public. Our guide was given a sequence of rooms to cover, as she tried to get us through at least five internally connected building in an overview walk. The entry rooms of the old palace are all marble, and we soon encountered a room decorated with malachite (pieced together), plus the usual gold trim around the ceiling. We actually saw several exhibits of tables and even pseudo paintings done as a mosaic of tiny fragments of semi precious materials, so small I could not see the individual fragments in one case.

The third floor seems mostly devoted to the French Impressionists, with Monet and others all in an extensive collection. An art lover could spend a week here and still not have time for a good look at each exhibit.

It was interesting to note some paintings were protected by museum grade anti-reflective glass. I was told this was usually fitted by other museums who had borrowed paintings for an exhibition.

There was a gallery of hundreds of paintings, from life, of Russian military figures. These were arranged much like icons in a church. These paintings had been rescued by soldiers when fire threatened them. They were the first item the soldiers concentrated on, as they represented national heros.

Saint George hall was so named because he was the patron saint of the Romanovs. Official receptions were held in that space. The gilt mouldings in the ceiling are repeated in parquetry on the floor, to spectacular effect. However the entire building is typical museum palace spectacular, as well as being overwhelming in size.

We saw both an early and a late Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci. The first showed a skilled draftsman, and careful painter. The second was an incredible leap in technical quality, with wonderful composition, and lifelike landscape seen through windows in the background.

With no air conditioning, and enormous crowds, Jean and I had to seek an exit just after midday. We had walked through five buildings, and innumerable rooms. On the way we went through the Picasso exhibit. I was very pleased to see a pencil sketch from his early days that was held out as an example of economy of line to me perhaps four decades ago.

I was pleased my sense of direction held as we made our way to the general exit, which I hoped overlooked a large square. This let us take a shortcut leading straight to our hotel. I also took some photos of Jean with the hotel and the Hermitage in the background, just to prove we were there. The lack of available light (and ban on flash) means my photos inside the museum are unlikely to work.

On the way back to the hotel we came upon a pair of toilet buses. Someone had fitted two buses with a row of toilet cubicles, and was charging the standard 15 roubles fee for entry.

We are free to organise lunch at your own expense. The afternoon is free. We basically skipped lunch, eating whatever leftovers snacks we had on hand. After a big breakfast, and with the prospect of a large dinner, it seemed sensible.

I took a walk around several of the blocks near the hotel. There were a heap of place for tourists to eat. A fair bunch of brand name up market stores. Plus relatively few souvenir shops. The were also many stores whose stock I could not identify at all. It was an interesting place to walk. I did see a fair few bookshops.

We had our final celebratory dinner at seven, in the hotel breakfast bar. Their nice eighth floor restaurant has space for only about twenty people. That was fun, and we got away around nine. The problem then was I awoke at midnight. I may have managed a few hours sleep before four, but it was not enough.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Leave St Petersburg

Leave luggage outside the door by 5 a.m. A continental breakfast will be available in the Tearoom from 5 a.m. Meet in the lobby at 5:30 a.m. for the coach to the airport.

Breakfast at five! Not what I wanted at that hour. We actually reached the room well before five, and the staff were already set up for us to have a quick continental breakfast. The usual superb service.

The hotel collected our bags from the rooms, and loaded them on our bus by 5:20. Alla came along, as did Thomas, our usual driver. We were driving through the beautiful, traffic free streets of St Petersburg by five thirty. The various monuments look cleaner in the floodlights that seem to surround each landmark.

Porters awaited us at the airport, and soon had the bags loaded. The airport offered free WiFi, at least in the checkin area. I could update my news reading, but it seemed WiFi did not work for several other people.

Check in at St Petersburg was a little more convoluted. They seem to operate in batch mode, with each flight separated from the previous one. So we could not queue until the seven o'clock flight was handled. The same batch mod operated at security. They would not let us through to the lounge until the previous flight had been handled.

Security scanner at the airport looked like a transporter from StarTrek. However it did not seem to work that way. On the other hand, they did not worry at all about us having water bottles in the mesh pockets of our packs.

In the departure lounge was a smoking booth. Well, around the corner, down the stairs actually. It looked about big enough for two people to stand in it and asphyxiate themselves. We actually soon saw it in use.

We depart St Petersburg airport at 8 a.m. on Rossiya Russian Airlines FV0185. This arrives at Domodedova, Moscow at 9:15 a.m. We have a fair few hours at the airport.

Eventually a bus arrived, and we were able to board our Россия Rossiya A319-100 on time for the flight to Moscow at at eight. We will have a lot of time in Moscow airport as the overseas flight is mid afternoon.

Leave Moscow

It appears that the Domodedova, Moscow terminal is not actually air conditioned. We wandered a lot, as we had many hours to kill between collecting our luggage and actually being able to book it through to the international flight a little after midday. Neville had tried to speed up things, but his influence can only spread so far. Finally we were able to get rid of our luggage, three hours prior to our flight. Russian customs and security were very efficient for business class travellers.

We settled ourselves in the business lounge, where I had a little bit too much wine. At least the WiFi worked here. Plus I could mostly charge my iPad. The political news for Australia looks bad. A hung parliament, and still no sign the politicians see economic probity as something some of us demand. We had a pleasant time in the business lounge, waiting to board our older Singapore Airlines Boeing for the flight to Singapore. A bunch of our fellow tourists were also travelling in business class, and were here.

To Singapore

Moscow (Domodedova) International to Singapore (Changi) in business class on Singapore Airlines SQ61 (a Boeing 777-300ER) departing 3:20 p.m. on an 10 hour 25 minute flight. We are scheduled to arrive in Singapore at 5:45 a.m. Thursday 26 August.

We had a very nice dinner in the business class on Singapore Airlines. Alas, it was at around 4:45 p.m. which was a little early for me. I am hoping to manage a few hours sleep much later, and then stay awake until we reach Brisbane. I hope for a decent night of sleep then, to synchronise myself with Australian time somewhat faster.

Geyser Peak Winery Chardonnay 2007 from Alexander Valley in California was wonderful. It went very well with the smoked salmon with dill apple fennel salad. I changed to the Chateau Lacombe-Noailliac 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend to go with the main course. Panfried beef fillet with Rosemary jus and garlic scented vegetables and potatoes. Although the red improved with drunkenness, it did not outshine the chardonnay.

The very nice Singapore Airlines hostesses followed up the meal with a chocolate. Perfect. By six, Jean had already deployed the lay flat bed and was settling down for the evening. Let me see, two small glasses of wine in the business lounge, small champagne on boarding the plane, and again on takeoff, two glasses of wine with dinner. You would think I could manage some sleep.

Thursday 26 August 2010

To Brisbane

We sat around the SilverKris lounge at Singapore airlines until it was time to go to the departure gate. We had free WiFi at the business lounge, so we were entertained. There were still a handful of our fellow tourists, but many for Sydney and Melbourne had earlier flights than we did.

Singapore to Brisbane in business class on Singapore Airlines SQ245 (an Airbus A330-300) departing 9:55 a.m. on an 7 hour 35 minute flight. We are scheduled to arrive in Brisbane at 7:30 p.m. Pretty much reached Brisbane at the correct time, after a fairly relaxing flight. The seats were not as comfortable as the beds on the previous leg. The service was however just as good.

We had the Express cards for customs and immigration, and there were very few delays.

At Brisbane airport I discovered that I could not connect my iPhone to Telstra. No Service is the message. No phone calls for me. No indication of what has gone wrong this time.

We overnight at the Brisbane airport Novotel. Caught a $15 taxi from the airport. Went to the Woolworths next door to get far too many snacks for dinner and breakfast. Collapsed pretty soon after the flight.

Friday 27 August 2010


We took the Novotel hotel shuttle to the airport, for only $5 each. It is experimental, but runs five to nine, morning and evening, on a 20 minute cycle. We have an 8:45 a.m. flight on Virgin Blue DJ367 from Brisbane to Townsville, arriving at 10:50 a.m. There were electrical problems with the 737-200 plane, but eventually everything reset itself, and we took off a little late.

No problems in Townsville, but enough people got in front of us that we had to await the second wave of taxis. Premier Panels had Jean's car repaired, so Jean was soon driving that home. We stopped to get milk and a few supplies for Jean's mostly empty fridge.


We collected an immense pile of mail from the mail box. A whole bag of it. Plus Duncan had more mail for us. I had a chat with Ray as I was walking back with the mail. He has a resident's meeting scheduled fairly soon, and kindly filled in some background of events while I was away.

Then it was read and process as much of the mail as I could handle for a fair while. Luckily flyers and similar could often be thrown out into the recycling very quickly.

Happy Hour

I wandered over to Crickets Bar just before six, to find out what had been happening in the village while we were away. Krys and Ed had enjoyed staying at my apartment at the Whitsunday Terraces at Airlie Beach. Even bought me a red wine or two, so they must have liked it. Caught up with several other people.

Saturday 28 August 2010


Laundry was first on our list. I started a load around six thirty. Which meant hanging them out just before eight. We still got away on our quest to partly restock the fridge not long after eight. I bought my usual four newspapers at Willows. I also noticed Target was open earlier than I expected. Although I had noticed something I wanted in the Target flyers yesterday, whatever it was eluded me today.

I noticed a DVD vending machine at Willows. Red Room DVD rentals seem to be a new outfit, offering DVDs at $2.95 for 24 hours. You can rent up to three, after a credit card swipe. The major problem I see is that I do not go to a shopping centre at 24 hour intervals, so getting (or returning) a DVD requires a special trip. In contrast, a download evaporates automatically, I have up to a month to start watching it, and 48 hours in which to complete watching it.

We had been too late home on Friday to get eggs at the Egg Shed, but managed to get two dozen eggs just after nine.

The next load of laundry went out around ten, and a third load before midday. Luckily there was no rain, despite the cloud. It does look depressing however. Plus it is cold. Well, cold by the standards of the tropics. I am wearing my airline socks.

Late in the evening, when we were on the off-peak download time, I started multiple downloads operating. One was the update to Pages, which should allow it to produce ePub.

eBook Reader

OfficeWorks are advertising a 2GB Stash W850 ebook reader for $127, as part of their Fathers Day specials. 190 grams (including the battery) and 18.5 x 12cm in size, with a 12.7cm 800 x 480 TFT but very dim display, which also has a bad viewing angle, which means poor readability except when perpendicular to the eye. Memory can expand to 16GB via SD/SDHC. Displays PDF, DOC, HTML, FB2, EPUB and TXT, it also plays MP3 and video. Actual formats are eBook: ASCII, UNICODE TXT, LRC, PDB, PDF, HTML, FB2, EPUB, WTXT. Music: MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC, WAV, OGG. Image: JPEG, BMP, GIF. Video: RM, AVI, RMVB, 3GP, FLV, MP4, DAT, VOB, MPG, MPEG, MKV, MOV. Comes with power pack, earphones and USB cable. Rechargeable battery, but only around seven hour battery life. It does not support any DRM system.

One review indicated only PDF and Text work. Books have a reference number, not a title. I suspect the review failed to operate this cheap reader correctly. The Stash manual is available online.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Jet Lag

Jet lag caught up with me. Could not sleep last night, so after getting to bed after midnight, and tossing around sleeplessly, I was up again around 3 a.m.

I did a few sign up sheets for Jean's fan table at Aussiecon 4, using the rudimentary tables in TextEdit for the design. I basically do not do things for printing on paper. It is always so long between using Rich Text that I forget how to do things like that.

The rain started in the evening, and continued to fall.

iPad Data via Telstra 3G

I finally got around to doing a recharge of my Apple iPad pre-paid data, using a Telstra Pre-Paid pack I had bought from T-Life prior to leaving for Russia. No luck. Telstra say they can not identify my mobile number. I looked at a variety of Telstra web pages (each increasingly unlikely) for a solution or some other way in. The Telstra iPad pre-paid terms and conditions do not preclude late recharge (although then there is no roll over of credit).

I finally recalled I had thoroughly disabled the phone data while overseas, and had probably done the same on the iPad. Not only had I put Settings into Flight Mode, I had also gone into Cellular Data, and switched Cellular Data Off, and Data Roaming Off. This was just in case Telstra were allowing roaming at high prices.

Once I switched them on, and turned off WiFi (so Safari was forced to attempt to use Telstra 3G), I could connect with via 3G despite not having any paid for 3G credits left. I entered my pre-paid voucher number, and was back on air very soon. That was a relief.

Monday 30 August 2010


Got to bed well after midnight. I was still on Moscow time. Sleepy in the afternoon, but not at night. So I continued reading until I was sleepy again. This time I did not wake up until well after seven, several hours later than is normal for me. However I may finally be back on Australian time now.

Could not concentrate on anything at all. The day was basically a total waste. The only thing I studied was how to make an induction loop for T switch hearing aids. However I need to do a survey of whether there is any demand, even before I can put forward any proposals. I finally gave up and read another David Weber eBook (or two).

Another night in which I slept really badly. Awake at 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, etc.

Tuesday 31 August 2010


Drove Jean's car to Willows a little after eight. Stuffed around in BigW for ages until I decided the strange exercise package was their under $10 chin up bar gadget. Bought one. Don't ask how long it took to assemble it.

Bought The Australian newspaper and a receipt book for Jean. She promptly located a mostly empty receipt book when I returned in triumph with this item. I did manage to get a fruit toast for breakfast however, so the morning was not a total loss.

Went to the restaurant for lunch. Bunch of people I knew there. Bob was in hospital, having plumbing in his leg replaced. I knew that operation must have been due soon. The restaurant had roast lamb, so that certainly was not a waste. I also told reception our next holiday dates.

Eric Lindsay's Blog August 2010