Friday, May 06, 2005

Steph Travels 2005 - London, Paris, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Moscow, Beijing, Xian and Shanghai

Part One - 7/4/05

Hi everyone,

Hello from London! I have to kick off my first update by sharing the details of a fabulous new restaurant in Sydney. On the night before I flew out of Sydney I was fortunate enough to have dinner at 'Rise' in Darlinghurst. This place has been touted as the next Tetsuyas and to be honest it's pretty damn good - not in the same league as Tetsuyas but definitely worth a try.

So, now to London. I arrived very early in the morning on Thursday 31 March and was greeted with your typical English weather, overcast, grey and bleak. To counter my jet lag I ventured off to see a wonderful exhibit at the Michael Hobbin Gallery - a collection of photographs from the most recent U2 world tour by Anton Corbijn then gave the credit card a work out along Kings Road.

On Friday my sister, Sheridan and I took the Eurostar to Paris. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I still get a buzz each time I visit, the gold statues, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the bridges over the Seine etc. It's a city that you must see on foot and enjoy the wonderful Parisian cafes. One in particular has to be mentioned, La Fumoir (across the road from The Louvre). We enjoyed a three course lunch in their library room with a cocktail for only 25 Euros - bargain! We returned to London on Sunday after staying 2 nights at the gorgeous boutique Hotel Bourg-Tibourg in the Marais district.

Monday morning I met up with an Australian friend Michelle at the Tate Britain museum. They are currently showing a exhibit of Turner, Whistler and Monet works - very good, particularly for lovers of Monet's work. Then I took myself off to Marylebone High Street where there is a wonderful place called The Providores that serves eggs with vegemite soldiers - great when you are suffering vegemite withdrawal! On Tuesday I visited the National Portrait Gallery where they are showing a an exhibit at Lee Miller's work and also a collection of photos of Frida Kahlo. Tuesday night Michelle and I enjoyed the new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, 'Woman in White'. This will no doubt make it to Sydney and I can highly recommend it - however there were moments when I was expecting to hear the songs from Phantom of the Opera as the music was very similiar.

On Wednesday I enjoyed lunch with my sister in the financial district at a place called Coq d'Argent which has a fabulous outdoor area with gardens on the rooftop. Another friend from Sydney, Cher arrived (after travelling to Ireland) and we had a fantastic meal on Wednesday night at 'Nahm' in Belgravia with Michelle. For you foodies, Nahm is the restaurant of David Thompson, formerly of Sailors Thai (The Rocks). Nahm is the first thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. Today we visited Fortnum & Masons to enjoy high tea and then tonight (and my last night in London) a wonderful group of Australian friends (Cher, Anine, Jane, Alison and Sheridan) and I are having dinner at Pengelly's in Knightsbridge. This is the hottest new restaurant in London and is getting rave reviews for chef Ian Pengelly.

Tomorrow, Friday 8 March is the Pope's funeral in Rome which bumped Prince Charles blessing ceremony to Camilla to Saturday. There are heaps of 'royal wedding' memorabilia in the shops with the incorrect date printed on it! So, I am off to Helsinki, Finland with Michelle and Cher to begin a tour through Russia. The weather reports are suggesting that it will be a chilly 5 degrees - lucky I packed the thermals!

We are planning to visit a unique place called the Artic Ice Bar in Helsinki. This is a bar made entirely from ice, the walls, the glasses etc. Apparently you are provided with huge thermal coats to wear before entering the bar and they only allow 12 people at a time in the bar area. I'll be enjoying a few vodka shots!

Love to you all,


Part Two - 11/4/05

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your emails and well wishes.

It wouldn't be a good travel report without a drama of some description and I've got an absolute winner for you! On Friday 8 April, Michelle, Cher and I flew to Helsinki, Finland from London. Great flight, watched some of the Pope's funeral on the way and was gearing up for a big night at the Artic Bar.

On arrival at our hotel (Radisson SAS Seaside which by the way is sensational - best rooms I have ever stayed in and the most comfortable beds) our tour director, Ulf, did a routine check of everyone's passports to determine we were all on track to enter Russia. Some of you may know I had been joking about having 2 Russian visas in my passports and being a little concerned that this would draw unnecessary attention to me by the russian border police.

Well, I had every reason to be worried. Ulf mentioned that having two visas to Russia was exceptionally rare and one appeared to have been cancelled by the embassy in Australia. At that split second I wasn't too worried as I had visions of negotiating my entry into Russia at the border. WRONG! Turned out that the embassy had cancelled my first visa for the dates I required (this is written in Russian across the visa) and issued another for later in April (when I extended my stay in Moscow). This meant that I would not be able to enter Russia with the tour group the next day.

So, I and two other Australians from Perth (who were actually told they did not require visas for Russia by their travel agent) waved goodbye to the tour group on Saturday morning. We had to arrange new passport photos and decided to try our luck at the Russian embassy on Saturday (even though it was closed). We staked out the embassy for any signs of life and managed to catch a gentleman by jumping up and down and waving madly at him. He wandered over and we explained our situation to him of which he was very understanding. Then, hedisappearedd inside to make a phone call and returned with the bad news, the Consulate Manager would not issue visas outside of opening hours - of course he wouldn' we had to wait until Monday morning.

So to pass the time we decided to make the most of Helsinki and visit Suomenlinna island which is an old sea fortress and now home to 900 inhabitants and a naval base. Then we caught a bus to Pourvoo a medieval town outside of Helsinki full of painted wooden houses and cobbled streets. Last night we enjoyed a few drinks in the hotel bar (pear cidar is exceptional and only 5% alcohol) and spoke with some german businessmen who had just arrived from Russia and thought it was the most disgusting, dirty, backwards country they had ever visited - and strongly advised us not to go there!

So, this morning we returned to the russian embassy where we joined the queue at 8.30am. When the embassy opened we had to fill in a ridiculous amount of paperwork, I had to explain why I had 2 russian visas already and now wanted a third and then pay an outrageous amount in Euros to make it all happen! So, 3 hours later we had our visas and are catching a train to St Petersburg to meet the group tonight.

What an experience! Despite all of these dramas we have enjoyed Helsinki and I can definitely recommend it.

So, if I actually make it into Russia this afternoon I will be elated.


Part Three - 16/4/05

Hello from Russia,

I never thought I'd get to type this, but it finally happened. After securing my third russian visa in Helsinki, my new Aussie friends and I headed over to the main train station to begin our journey to St Petersburg. As you can imagine we were really excited - having spent a few extra days in Helsinki knowing that our tour group was already in St Petersburg was difficult but we had fun anyway. If I could have chosen to spend those extra days anywhere I'm glad it was Helsinki as it is a gorgeous city.

At the train station, there some some fantastic looking sleek trains on each platform (kind of like a futuristic Eurostar) and then we arrived at our platform. The Russian train was bellowing out diesel fumes, looked like it came out of the 1920's and would fall apart if it moved an inch. Of course, what do you do in these situations - you laugh! We climbed on board and dragged our luggage to the compartment. No rooms for bags, just 2 beds (half of the size of a regular single) on either side of a table with plastic flowers. The speakers were booming with Russian pop music and we knew we were in for an adventure. Thjourneyey was 6 hours and we stopped at the border for passport control several times, with each passport official wearing a more elaborate uniform and speaking less and less english. As we had already been through so much obtaining our visas we did not want to annoy Russian officials, so were completely silent and just kept repeating thank you in Russian until they left us alone.

Arriving in St Petersburg, we were met by a driver at 10.30pm who took us for a scenic drive through St Petersburg. It was absolutely breathtaking - the majestic buildings, the colourful churches, the wide streets and so many people still out enjoying the night. The drama of Helsinki disappeareded....I met some of the tour group that night for a celebratory drink and we discussed all the wonderful sights we would see the next day.

The following morning we walked down to the Baltic Sea that is still iced over and the locals were out walking their dogs and fishing on the ice. We took a bus over to the Church of Spilled Blood which is where Alexander II was murdered. They have kept the concrete and guard rails from the location he was killed and built this church as a memorial to him. It has the most spectacular colourful domes outside and inside it is full of gold mosaics. It is so over the top that it is hard to describe. Next stop, St Issacs Cathedral that is not as flashy from the front but inside it has the capacity for 10,000 people, 112 solid granite columns and 400 bronze statues. The tacky side of it was the shops within the Church - selling watches and paintings that had nothing to do with the Church itself and the Babushkas (grand mothers) that approach you for money.

The absolute showcase in St Petersburg is the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace. This has the most impressive collection of art I have ever seen with rooms devoted to Matisse, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gauguin, Monet and Picasso. Each room, and there are hundreds, is so beautiful with ornate ceilings, gold, rich colours and such high ceilings. It was like each room was trying to out do the next. You could easily spend a few days here. The exterior is stunning too with a huge square, archway with statues and beautiful colours.

I had to endure another train journey to Moscow (same train, different destination) and this was an overnight sleeper. If I never see another train.....

Moscow is a massive and imposing city that never sleeps - the roads, traffic and pedestrians make Sydney look like a walk in the park. The Metro comes every minute, so you are never waiting however it is near impossible to read the signage so you can count on getting off to early of off too late. There is saying we have come up with to describe the Metro - 'charge'. People charge in before you can get out and you can get swept along by a sea of russians that really don't care which direction you are heading in.

Red Square is the main attraction, with St Basils Church, The Kremlin, Lenin's Tomb, State Historical Museum and then for something completely different a shopping centre full of exclusive boutiques. There are more casinos in Moscow than Las Vegas and on every corner there is a McDonalds. It's such a bizarre city. Not far from here is a bronze statue approx. 50 metres tall that is in honour of Peter the Great. To bhonestxt it looked like the entrance to the Pirate Ship ride at the Easter Show.

We visited the Kremlin to see the Churches and the State Armory represents the wealth accumulated by the Russian princes and tsars over many centuries. It houses the coronation dress of Catherine the Great, the ambassador gifts, crown jewels, carriages and a beautiful collection of Faberge eggs. At the Kremlin there are roads that the public cannot walk on and guards with whistles that monitor this. We only set them off a few times and it got to be very funny - it wasn't intentional but you would be lining up photos and take a step back and off goes the whistle.

The Moscow State Circus has to been seen to be believed. The show started with lasers and strobe lights and the loudest techno music I have ever heard. There were plenty of puzzled looks as we thought we were in the wrong theatre. Then the dancers come out - it was like a variety show. Clowns, some animals and acrobats. Some of it was entertaining and some just defies logic. At the intermission you can walk around and have you photo taken with baby lions, panthers, alligators, camels, dogs etc.

We took a day trip to Zagorsk on the golden ring which was fascinating. Their imonasteryry here with many churches that contain frescos dating back to 1642 that have never been restored and look amazing.

I have another 3 days in Moscow before heading to China - what an adventure.

Russia is so difficult to describe - you have to see this country to believe it. It is absolutely fascinating.

Until my next installment.


Part Four - 22/4/05

Hello from Beijing,

Thanks for your emails and well wishes.

Let me take a step back and finish off my remarkable journey through Russia. We left the tour group in Moscow and had an extra 3 nights to do our own thing. This was bound to be a challenge in a country where the saying is 'it is not possible'. Russia has come a long way in many respects but customer service is not at the top of their list....

The food in Russia has been extraordinary - dishes you would imagine be served at dinner come out at breakfast and vice versa - beetroot soup leaves alot to be desired but my absolute favourites are blinys and pelmenis. Blinys are thin crepe pancakes served with sour cream, dill and salmon caviar (or a variety of other things like honey) and pelmenis are dumplings filled with meat/ game or fish and served with sour cream. I tried almost everything on offer but these two were my absolute favourites.

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow is full of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Renior and Monet. If you are wondering how the Russians have acquired so much art it is officially referred to as 'public donations'. Across the road is a beautiful church known as Christ the Savour Cathedral which is a massive white building with about 8 gold domes and a huge external garden and public walkway. A new bridge was recently constructed with ornate iron sides that joins the church with the other side of the river and which led us to a russian chocolate factory. This was an experience. We didn't know what it was at first but we saw all of these people come out of this little shop on the side of the factory with blocks of chocolate - so we imagined that it was a factory shop. Sure enough, we tried almost every type of chocolate they had and purchased a variety of bars that are very similiar to Aero bars.

The best restaurant we ate at was 1, Red Square inside the State Historical Museum. The menus were presented as huge books and it took about 20 mins to read through each dish and the origin provided underneath. I enjoyed a bowl of pelmenis and a Pushkin beefsteak and of course everything is washed down with vodka.

One of the more fascinating experiences we had was breakfast in the hotel with an english gentleman who had arrived to meet his 'future bride'. I asked a million questions of course and this was my first introduction to the russian bride trade that is alive and thriving.

We treated ourselves to tickets to see the ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre - how utterly unbelievable. The atmosphere, the theatre (full of gold, red velvet and a royal box), the performance (one of the most impressive ballets I have ever seen) - it was everything I ever imagined and more.

Now to China...after flying from Moscow back to Helsinki and onto Beijing, we were exhausted. Then a young Chinese man (Kevin) appeared at the airport to collect us and take us to the hotel. The customer service, standards and experience have beimpeccableble. Beijing is getting ready to host the 2008 Olympic Games and they are well on their way. This city is clean, modern and very efficient. Kevin is a local guide who makes his living taking western tourists around to all the sights and providing excellent commentary in english along the way. Not wanting to lose Kevin we employed him (so cheap I am embarrassedsed to type how much we paid him) the next day to take us to the Summer Palace and the beautiful man made Kunming Lake and 19 arch bridge, Beijing Zoo to see the pandas and Lama Temple which houses the extraordinary Maitreya Buddha which is 24 m high and carved from a single trunk of white sandlewood. Kevin takes care of everything, purchasing tickets, waving down taxis, conversing in Mandarin etc - he is a godsend and all the western tourists we have met have employed their own Kevin as it makes life just so easy. Last night we were dazzled by a performance of the Shaolin Monks on the legend of Kung Fu at Red Theatre. Breaking wood and iron bars with their heads and balancing on spears was hard to watch but very impressive.

Today we were treated to a tour of the prestigious Beijing University by a professor we met in Russia (who has also lived in Australia). Beijing University is very beautiful with a tranquil lake and blossom trees, lots of greenery, traditional buildings and then a good mix of typical University buildings (grey blocks of concrete). After the tour we were treated to lunch at a local restaurant where we sampled a variety of the spiciest dishes I have ever eaten, a plate of chillis that had chickpiecesces buried inside, a beef dish that was swimming in chilli sauce and a tofu dish that they prepare at the table - it was so good.

Tonight the tour begins with Intrepid - so we will meet the group & take in the main tourist sights of Beijing over the next few days- Tiannamin Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and The Great Wall - can't wait!

Until my next installment,


Part Five - 4/5/05

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your emails and well wishes - I'm back in Sydney after a fantastic journey through China. What a great country, the food, people, sights and shopping.

In Beijing we met up with our Intrepid tour group and were pleasantly surprised with the small group and characters on board. On the first day of the tour we headed out of Beijing to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. There are a handful of sections open to the public and this is probably the least crowded area. Least crowded???? In China,
least crowded is code for 150 tour buses as opposed to 300 tour buses. Puts things into Mutianyu, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) you are approx 540m above sea level. The most amusing aspect of this visit was seeing the impressive structure of the Great Wall that just goes on and on as far as the eye can see and then being asked if you would like to take the cable car, chair lift or tobaggan. I had to ask whether it was possible to could walk down but the recommendation was to take the cable car up to the top.

The Temple of Heaven is another impressive place to visit in Beijing. They have this fabulous stone called the Centre of the Universe where everyone stands to have their picture taken and a groovy round structure where you can talk into one part of the round wall and a friend over 20 metres away can hear you perfectly. The grounds are
so tranquil and it is common for the local people to gather for tai chi, ballroom dancing, fan dancing and singing. I think one of the most beautiful things about China is that the people are noembarrassedssed to belt out a tune as they walk through the parks and they attract other people along the way until you have a choir like situation happening. Then a couple of musicians appear and before
you know it a fully fledged concert is happening. This was a daily occurrence and I was captivated each time.

Tiannamen Square, Chairman Mao's tomb and the Forbidden City take up a huge area of the city. It is not uncommon for people to queue each day to pay their respects to Mao or watch the flags being raised. It is packed every day and there are military everywhere, not scary military like in Russia, but young men that are very proud to march around in their uniforms and then more than happy to stop and pose for photos. It is hilarious. Walking through the Forbidden City is like deja vu - every 100m or so you are asking yourself haven't I just walked through here? It is so big, the temples are enormous and then towards the end you reach the extensive quarters of the concubines (rumoured to be 3000 or so at a time) and these beautiful
Chinese gardens.

A highlight in Beijing was taking a Hutong tour via rickshaw. The Hutongs are the older parts of Beijing, single story dwellings where electricity and running water are only recent additions. The streets are narrow, hence the need for a rickshaw and it is like a rabbit warren, one wrong turn and I'd still be trying to find my way out. This was a fascinating experience and a small group of us were invited into a local woman's home for tea. She didn't speak english but we had a translator so asked many questions about her upbringing, the Cutural Revolution and what is happening to China today, and in particular the Olympic Games in 2008.

From Beijing we caught an overnight train to Xian. Now, after 2 train journeys in Russia I would have been happy never to see a train again, but I must say the Chinese trains are very clean and efficient with lovely staff. There are 4 to a sleeper cabin and the entire group got split up in different cabins and carriges, except Cher, myself & 2 English women from the tour. We decided to assign our cabin as party central and it didn't stop..........all night. When most of our tour piked after midnight, we found some Polish revellers who were looking for a good time and shared their cherry vodka and honey liqueur. Then they bought out the polish sausage...needless to say we arrived in Xian a little worse for wear but what a fantastic train journey.

Xian is famous for the Terracotta Warriors. In 1974 some peasants were digging a well and discovered the head of a warrior. This led to the discovery of over 6000 terracotta warriors (originally painted in elaborate colours). The museum is very impressive, you watch an IMAX like movie to begin with that explains the legend behind the terracotta warriors - King Zheng, ruler of Qin in 246 BC had his people construct a tomb and the warriors were built to protect him. There are 3 museums that house the warriors, horses and carriges. It is overwhelming and they are continually uncovering more and more warriors.

Xian also has a very famous dumpling restaurant where you enjoy a banquet of 20 dumplings, each with a different filling. The food overall in China has been impeccable. You can enjoy an absolute feast including beer, wine etc and the bill would never be more than $10 Australian per person. The absolute highlight as far a food goes was peking duck, there are restaurants devoted to it and they churn them out on trolleys at an unbelievable rate. If you like hot & spicy food then China is your place, they serve wonderful dishes of chilli tofu, chicken and beef that can burn your insides but nothing that a cold beer can't fix. Then there are the noodles, which are considered snacks in China but are most definitely a meal. You can enjoy a massive bowl of noodles for $1 Australian with chicken, beef or vegetables.

Although China does not condone religion there are many temples. In Xian the Great Wild Goose Pegoda is a buddhist temple and I was priviledged to join an offerceremonymony complete wincenseence and candles with a local girl showing me the ropes. In Shanghai the Jade Buddha Temple is so peaceful and you can participate in a traditional tea ceremony which is extraordinary. They have a tea for everything,
name your issue and within a minute a specially developed team will be presented to you.

Shanghai is a bizarre city. On side of the Huangpu River is old colonial architecture with banks and hotels whilst the other looks like it should be in space. It is futuristic, the buildings are interesting shapes and it is known as the Pudong. What a clash of architecture. Whilst Shanghai is the most modern of the 3 cities we visited, there are many aspects that prevent it from being a truly
international city - the toilets (unless you visit a museum or hotel it's the local way and bring your own toilet paper) and the lack of english spoken ( I was surprised by this as everything I had read about Shanghai indicated that it is a global city). There are areas devoted to the expat community - the French Concession which is a beautiful tree lined area with not many highrises and all the mod cons you require, but I wasn't visiting China to hang out with expats (OK, I was visiting one and she introduced us to some wonderful restaurants and markets). Another fascinating aspect is the markets, name your brand and prepare to bargain. It is possible to walk away with knock offs of just about anything, clothes, shoes, bags, watches, golf clubs etc. I love negotiating a bargain and in total we must have spent about 3 days at different markets enjoying the mass crowds and doing deals.

We also did a cruise out to the mouth of the Yangzste River which was interesting. The traffic on the river was unbelievable, the barges, container ships, ferrys etc. It never stopped, just like the traffic on the roads, bikes, motorbikes, cars, electric buses etc. Shanghai never sleeps. It canoverwhelmingming but if you give yourself enough time to explore everything this city has to offer it is magnificent. I have never seen so many high rise buildings in one place and the
current construction rate is one 30 storey building every 2 weeks. If I go back in 3-5 years I'm sure it will be dramatically different.

So, I'm back home now after this awesome holiday and can't wait to
catch up with you all.




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