Omsk (2)

After a… warm night’s sleep, we awoke to our second day of Omsk.

After Yet More Food, we hit the town for another walk, through another part of town. This was also the time when the girls found out that they had been properly eaten alive by the midges of Omsk, their legs peppered with bites. Ouch! Such are the joys of a city sitting next to a nice river…

During our exploration of Omsk I managed to get everyone to enter a bookstore, where I then completed one of my quests: buying a chess book in Russian! It’s called “1000 приключений на шахматной доске“. I haven’t read it yet. But I will!

Apart from that, the walk through town was pleasant. We cheered on one 50-year old man who was running in the local marathon. We I stared at an ad for… I suppose clothing, but this model has taken “-70%” a bit literal ;-).

"70% of all clothes off"?

OK I’ll get the church out of the way rightaway… our hosts lit a candle here for our safe journey onwards (which worked, suggesting god exists). Interestingly for especially the Dutch readers, this was (obviously) done at the icon of a familiar face: Saint Nicholas – patron saint not only of speculaas, amandelstaven and pepernoten, but also of travellers. Bless him.

Church, another one

Whether there are more trolley buses or Lenin statues in Russia is a close contest. Which of the two Diana prefers is not.

Lenin statue, another one, with Portuguese neo-communist.

Our hosts enjoying themselves:

Hosts, arm of host

The only half-decent shot I got of the Pushkin Library, from a minibus through the dirty back window:

Pushkin Library

Of course, one finds these typical apartment blocks everywhere in Russia – so also here:

The Soviets were here

Finally, despite the obvious technical flaws I still like this photo, call it ‘putting the Oms in Omsk’ or something :).

Om, Oms, Omsk

We were then sent on our way, a simple process that involved a Russian sit-down ritual (ignoring the stressed westerners that were wanting to get to the train), a couple of neighbours with cars and a nerves-of-steel attitude towards making it on time to a station, food given to us to take along, and a prolonged and curious goodbye at the station (of course we made it in time, these candles aren’t burnt for St Nicholas for nothing).

And so, we were on our way, again, this time for an even longer train leg; Omsk to Irkutsk in an afternoon-night-all day-night leg for a total of approximately 44 hours and 2046 km.

A Taste of Russia – Omsk (1)

Omsk… finally!

With apologies for the delay in posting… think of it as an equivalent to our really long train ride ;)!

In case anyone was wondering if I would give some impressions about what life on board the train was like – yes, I will, but I will put all of these in one post, for easier comparison. And I don’t want to give away too much now, so I will wait with that post until after Mongolia.

Right now, we are arriving in Omsk, and to briefly give at least some impression of what it was like on the train: we drank three bottles of cheap Russian champagne the night before we arrived, and I was very hung over. OK that’s enough impression, on to… Omsk!

Where we would be staying with, well… friends of family of friends, or family of friends of family… something like that. Anyway, we were not going to stay in a hostel, instead we would be staying with natives. To appease them and their heathen gods, we (I, really) had been carrying two large tins of Walker’s Real Scottish Shortbread, in the shape of a London double-decker, since we bought them at Stansted airport. Don’t laugh.

Just to get it out of the way, the weather was bloody hot for the entire two days we were there. And as a result, we did not get all that much sleep at night (Diana and Ted were not helped by a self-deflating air mattress, as a result of which they ended up on the floor by morning, and I similarly wasn’t helped by a, how shall I put it, basically V-shaped sofa, as a result of which I, in turn, kept rolling into the valley, no matter what position I tried to sleep in. But I’m not complaining, just stating facts.

OK, enough of introduction

Anyway, on to the major two things about this part of the trip: (1) the city of Omsk, which I thought was pretty OK, and (2) the incredible hospitality of the people that hosted us :)!

I don’t have photos of the hospitality; it is best summed up by the amount of food that we got stuffed with during our stay there. I might forget some things but we had: home-made pancakes with clotted cream and home-made jam (this jar of jam would later travel with us all the way into China); home-made pelmeni with pork and (IIRC) fish fillings; home-made kvass; a 12-kilo watermelon (regional specialty, you see them being sold everywhere); and a three-course dinner at the aforementioned Dutch (errrr) restaurant where we had… just about everything on the menu, including fish, borscht, more pelmeni, vareniki, chocolate cake…

Aside from that, we were also taken around Omsk on foot (-always good, walking through a city; you get the best possible feel for it. Walking is like taking the train, well, a bit.), on three separate occasions – this helped to burn some of the calories we ingested. During the first of these, I was dying from my hangover doing my daily beauty sleep, so I missed that :( (in short, Ted went in search for his roots, sort of).

Then, in the evening, we did a second walk, this time with me present. As I said, I quite like Omsk; here are some impressions.

And before I know it, that’s a big post. I’ll put the second part of Omsk in my next post, that also will allow more space for photos.

All aboard… for the longest train leg yet

Leaving Nizhny Novgorod we were extra excited – not only were we going to Amazing Omsk… well we were not THAT excited about Omsk, no offence – but we were also starting our first (of two) night-day-night train rides. The city distance tool tells me that these cities are 1837 km apart. Quite a trip!

For the first time, we would not be woken up really early to be thrown off the train, and for the first time, we would see the sun set whilst on a train.

Most importantly, we would witness the best thing about train journeys: watching the landscape roll by, and watching it change, slowly, with each passing kilometer. And this journey, there would be more passing kilometers than any of us had ever seen pass :)!

Without further comment I think the best thing is to just show the impressions that I managed to capture (difficult enough…) in a little slideshow.

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Dutch, Dutch, Dutch…

I realise that I have a lot of ideas for ‘thematic’ posts about our TranSib trip. So many that I can’t wait with writing and publishing them only after I’ve done all the posts about the trip itself, chronologically. So I will have to ‘uncover’ photos of places I haven’t written about yet. Oh well, c’est la vie.

One thing that struck me during our trip is that I kept bumping into random Dutch stuff.

In Russia (1)

The Netherlands are not exactly reknowned for their fine cuisine. In Europe, you will therefore only find a Dutch restaurant…well, hardly even in The Netherlands itself, and also not in a 2000-mile radius around Holland.

However, just outside that 2000-mile sanitary zone lies Omsk, and people there have no clue about how Dutch ‘cuisine’ is viewed in Europe. So, they open a Dutch restaurant not just without batting an eye – they actually go overboard to advertise it and make it look as Dutch as they can.

Which, with not a single Dutch dish on the menu (…wait a minute, maybe they DO know how terrible Dutch food is!) and with waitresses dressed like Germans, is… not that much really. But they do have Delft blue tiles on the walls with windmills on them.

Delft blue tiles on the walls...

And a painting of Amsterdam...

But not a single Dutch dish despite all the windmills!

No shame in shouting about it either

In Russia (2)

Not in Moscow or St P, not in a busy youth hostel, not in the touristic TranSib train, but in our chalet at Lake Bajkal in Listvyanka, we found two Dutch magazines, one I knew: Men’s Health, the summer special of some years back. Apparently the main articles were about getting your body into shape for the beach – and about how, if that paid off, you could make the best of your ‘summer overflowing with sex’.

The other magazine was called Jan, if I remember correctly, and seemed to be aimed at women. It also contained articles about sex, and dated from around the same time as the Men’s Health. It seemed to me that they were left at the same time by both sides of a frisky couple, who must have gotten inspired by the content. That night, I was glad I was not sleeping in the double bed.

Lekker lekker :p

In Russia (3)

Even more obscure was the finding in Ulan Ude, where, betwixt only Russian books in a cupboard, there was one foreign title – Amsterdam, by one ‘Paul C. Pet’. However, I could not be arsed to do more than taking a photo two photos, as it was quite buried.

Ugly flash photo of Russian books in cupboard

But look at that blue book...

In Mongolia

This wasn’t so weird, because Ulaan Bataar is fairly cosmopolitan. Still, finding a Dutch cafe that serves apple cake and La Trappe beer (and full English breakfast – also the Mongolians do not trust Dutch food that much it seems), and having photos of Amsterdam on the wall, does make you wonder. After that, it being 8 AM and yourself being starving, you stop thinking. You order the espresso, the full English, and the apple cake, and you enjoy.

Don't judge a menu by its cover

Dutch library in UB :)

The inescapable photos of A'dam

No Belgian, yet Dutch beer (it was La Trappe, no less)

In China

While in Beijing, we stopped one morning to have late breakfast, kinda brunch really. The large rice dumpling I had was to die for. Then I spotted a rather unexpected bottle on the drinks shelves – advocaat, a very Dutch… drink, I suppose you should call it, made with brandy and eggs. Normally you’d either pour it over ice cream, or spoon it, straight, from a small glass. I asked if I could get a glass of it, but it wasn’t on the menu. So why was it there?

The lady behind the counter showed me: one of their specialty coffees required, amongst other things, advocaat. So they kept an entire bottle of it, for no other reason than that someone might, once, ask for that specialty coffee. I did not. I also decided it would not be worth trying to explain her I wanted a small glass, and a spoon, and haggle for a price.

I just took a photo of the bottle, without thinking about how long that bottle must have been, or still would be, there.

Untouched, also by me

(I have no idea how to end this blog entry, as it was not meant to have a story. So I’ll end on the advice of Herman Finkers, Dutch comedian, about writing poems: “The last line is the easiest. You just stop writing, and it’s there.”)

The real start… and even more heat

We’d done so much so far, that it’s difficult to realise that only now, we would start the ‘real trip’, ie the Transsiberia train (which ‘technically/officially’ starts in Moscow)!

Ze Train…

We made our way to the station feeling a mix of excitement, apprehension… and sore eyes and throats (because of the smog, see previous posts, lol). After all, this was going to be a night train, third class, in Russia. Moreover, earlier the day we had seen the St P equivalent of a Gay Pride Parade: hordes of drunk men dressed as sailors parading down the streets, singing songs :D (click here for the Moscow version, which looks pretty much identical). These were all going to go back to Moscow in our train, as cheap as possible… we felt our butt cheeks contract.

Well, to make a long worry short: we were pleasantly surprised. Third class was filled with, shock horror, normal people! Yes, there were elderly, couples with young children, a young Chinese couple on their way back to China

- the first of many many people we would meet that were doing the most amazing trips; they had been travelling from China through Thailand, then back up to Russia, to Moscow. Now they were going back non-stop to Beijing, third class, to save money :).

in short, nobody was even slightly weird or annoying or drunk. Well, except us :S.

Nizhny Novgorod

After not even a bad night’s sleep, but way too short, we were unleashed onto Nizhny Novgorod, a city we picked for… reasons that we had forgotten about since we picked NN :-/. Apparently it was more authentic than Yekaterinburg that we spurned. We left our luggage in the station luggage storage (another pleasant surprise, since we had no hostel in NN to stay in we didn’t fancy walking around in the heat with all our stuff) made our way into some residential area of town because someone (my name shall remain unmentioned) picked the wrong bus, then made our way back to the station, and finally picked the right minibus to end up close to the city centre. The good thing about arriving so bloody early is that you actually have time to lose and you’re still bloody early!

Still smoggy when we arrived, but it cleared later

We bought breakfast in a supermarket, ate on top of the park next to the river, and started exploring town. The first thing we explored was the Kremlin – like in Moscow a large area, surrounded by a wall, built for defense ages ago. The one in NN contained a church and, much to our delight, a small open air exhibition of various warstuffs, where we could climb onto! Not that we were happy to do that, of course not…

Doing a Russian pose on a sub

We also explored the wall of the Kremlin, that we were allowed to visit after paying a certain amount of money – how much was decided on the spot by the woman behind the counter, based upon (1) the fact that we were not from the city, (2) that we were (well we all claimed to be) students, (3) our age, (4) the day of the week, (5) the relative humidity, (6) the square root of our combined heights but mostly (7) that we were eager to get in and therefore (8) were unlikely to argue with her.

Halfway around the wall we were stopped by a door that was firmly locked. We briefly – very briefly – thought about asking the lady behind the counter for a partial refund, but quickly decided we were unlikely to get one, so we made our way back and out into NN proper. By that time, it was already getting warm-ish.

10am, 33 degrees

That Rock ‘n Roll attitude, at 10 am, in a café

By this time it was coffee break time so we… proceeded to ravage the fanciest café in town! How? Well…

We quickly found this posh café close to the Kremlin which promised wireless internet – good for our netbook and iPhones. Upon getting in, we asked (tried to ask) how much a Coca Cola cost. That’s when it started to go wrong for the café, as they proceeded to actually serve us four Cokes – that they then splattered all over the floor because the waitress tripped. Before we had a chance to change our order into what we REALLY wanted – Coke, coffee and tea – they had the next four Cokes out. As Coke was actually the cheapest thing on the menu, we decided to leave it at that and just use the free wireless thank you very much.

Things got worse for the restaurant when we discovered they had really clean and luxurious toilets; a few of us decided we needed to, er, ‘unload’, while a few others thought that the heat had made such a mess of their feet that these needed a thorough wash. I leave the state of their toilets after our respective visits up to you to imagine.

We added a final insult to their injury when, after paying the bill, we also decided that the prices were high enough that we need not tip them and we picked even the last Kopek from the tray with our change. All staff stared at us when we left – such rude personnel, would you believe it?

The café did get their revenge, sort of, when we forgot our water bottle on the table  – despite returning after a minute, the table had been wiped pristine clear with not a sign there had ever been a bottle. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

A closed museum, an open museum, no more museums

After putting the entire neighbourhood to work, we eventually found the birth house of Maxim Gorky.  Then it was easy to find the Gorky museum that was closed on Thursdays. We were there on a Thursday.

Finally found it! Gorky's place of birth

We then found a museum that was open: the Most Overstaffed Museum in the World. Hundreds of middle-aged ladies crawling around in rooms filled with paintings, switching on the light before any visitor (that would be either one of us four, or one of the two Russian visitors) came into the room, and flicking the light off again when the visitor had left.

How much preservation this was doing to the paintings when the temperature in the museum was so far off the scale of the thermometers that the alcohol nearly was spewing out of the top, god only knows. Meanwhile, Rows of ladies were watching us walk through the corridors. Scores more ladies watched us, and talked about us amongst themselves in Russian, as we ascended the stairs. So many ladies occupied the cloakroom to attend to our three bags, we had to push our way through to get our bags back.

When we left, they all came outside and a hundred ladies waved us good-bye, wiping the occasional tear from the corner of their eye. It was touching. Oh and the paintings weren’t too bad either, a good cross-section of periods from icons through to the early 20th century. (THIS was my favorite painting, by the way).

An eerie nap

After briefly failing to find more museums and a bath, we decided to find a nice, quiet place for a power nap. We walked a short bit into a park and lay ourselves down. We were awoken, one by one, by some drunk Russian bloke gibbering incomprehensibly. Being quite freaked out, we ignored him for a bit, and after that didn’t work – he kept on talking – we packed up and left. Ted told us he’d been going on about how we should be careful, of course he would never do anything to us, but others, you know… Well, to us he was still just a drunk who wanted money. plus we realised just how bloody deep we’d been sleeping and we, indeed, may have been robbed.

We slowly made our way back to the station – breaking the trip temperature record once officially (see photo)

7pm... 39 degrees :O!

and once unofficially along the way (when we were stood still in a traffic jam in a minibus without aircon, it must have been at least 45 degrees – we followed the Russians out of the bus and walked the last bit).

The rest of NN was fairly uneventful, we found fast food, and sat in the station waiting for our next night train, and Diana and Ted played ping pong. Nothing special. Then the train arrived.

Di and Ted doing what everyone does in Russian railway stations at 9pm

Not all stitches are bad

A recent new pet trick I developed in my photography is merging of lots of photos into one. I don’t really know how to call it; Mass Merging or SuperStitching or something like that hahaha…

Through trial and error :( I now have developed a routine where I can quickly take fairly large sets of photos that I want to put together. It involves:

  1. roughly setting the zoom (focal length) of the lens to get rid of wide-angle distortion yet get enough coverage of the whole scene
  2. quickly scan the scene through the viewfinder to see how many photos I need and in what layout (single row in landscape or portrait orientation, or multiple rows)
  3. measure the exposure across the scene with a fixed aperture, then choose a nice middle one
  4. set aperture and exposure manually
  5. quickly take a lot of photos of the whole scene, making sure there’s plenty of overlap

Not having enough overlap is definitely the mistake I made (make?) most often and it’s bad for at least two reasons. Firstly, Photoshop needs overlap to align the photos when merging them and second, lenses tend to distort most at the edges; merging photos at the edges leads to ha-ha-funny but ho-ho-ugly artefacts along the stitch line.

Anyway… I’ve lost all non-photo geek readers (i.e. everyone) by now so I’ll just show what the end result can be. This is joined from a 3×3 grid of photos at 40mm focal length. The really-hi-res original is nearly 7000 by nearly 8000 pixels for 52 MP – I’ll save you that one. Click on the image below to see the reduced 3500 by 4000 image though (which is still smaller than a normal photo from my camera, so not that impressive).

Well -I- think this is cool :p!

the Hermitage, revisited

As I said, the first post, written from a youth hostel in Moscow after less than 6 hours of sleep on a half-assed computer, did not do justice to our time in St P. I therefore promised (did I really?) to write a bit more later.

I also realised that I have a lot of photos that fit neatly into little themes in sets of between say 5 and 25 photos. To break the routine of ‘next day, next day, morning, next day, afternoon’ writing I will put up these little sets in between the chronological diary that I’m putting up.

As you guessed, this is the first instalment. There’s not much writing to do for this one. The Hermitage was an amazing building – I said that, I guess – and one of the things I took quite a few photos of while inside were the chandeliers. So I thought I’d put together a little set of chandelier photos.

(Remember you can click on the photos in the gallery to see the large image!)