At halfway through my stint in South Africa, it seems that time is simultaneously standing still and moving forward at an alarming rate. It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote my last blog post, but perhaps it was yesterday. Time is relative.
It’s been a week of turnover and change. All the volunteers I started with bar one, who is currently in Botswana, have left and three new ones (two fresh faced newbies and a returner) have moved into the staff house. Rusty, the future Cycle Mashatu Manager, has also returned and I’ve been picking his brains about the most convenient formatting for the booking chart. Thus, it has been a rather hectic feeling week and it is nice finally sit down and relax, reply to correspondence, and maybe later, I will sneak in a nap.
On Monday I was contacted as a potential candidate for a fascinating sounding consultancy job (so sue me, researching tech is cool). Hence, Wednesday saw me escaping the pack (who are adorable and make excellent hot water bottles), to sit a preliminary skype interview. Apparently, the South African horse safari offices provide a unique background. However, I suspect the Shuttles Office was still a better choice than the alternative backdrop of dusty saddles and a free roaming parrot in search of toes to peck. Fortunately, hats hanging on walls or no, I met requirements and am through to the next stage (queue TV presenter voiceover).
I also sat an online test, this time in the presence of demon parrot. Whiskey, it turns out, is an excellent motivator as there is nothing like a parrot creeping closer and closer to encourage one to work at double time. Fortunately, I have yet to be attacked by him; more because I am very good at running away than any particular fondness for me on his part. For those foolish enough to try and befriend him, he is viscous, as the scratches Rusty is currently supporting go to show.
In other news, office life continues as per normal with the occasional benefit of joining a ride. My big projects at the moment are collating the data on agent bookings and producing revenue charts for Saddlebag Shuttles. This is in addition to being tech support, a role that ranges from providing the all-important Wi-Fi by plugging the router in, to prettying up Excel spreadsheets.
I also saw my first scorpion. Far more adorable than spiders, but I think I prefer to admire them from a distance, or may be through a computer screen. Two of them made an appearance at last night’s staff house braai (a better version of barbeque). Leoni, a freelance guide that occasionally works for Horizon, gave us a great talk about how tail thickness and pincer size are good indicators of sting nastiness. It is safe to say that the tapping out of my shoes each morning has increased in fervour.
One of the new volunteers is also an Eleanor of uncertain spelling which has prompted much confusion, especially when we talk about ourselves in third person. No doubt this will continue to annoy us, and everyone in the surrounding vicinity, so perhaps a battle of the nicknames shall have to be carried out (I’m vetoing “Marcus’s Sister” in advance). Until such time as appropriate names are decided on however, I will be known as Elanor 1 and look forward to Tuesday evening when Elanor 1 and Eleanor 2 (of uncertain spelling) will be hosting together. Oh, what fun we shall have *grins evilly*.
After a blissfully peaceful start to the week, I made the well-known, but eternally foolish, mistake of thinking to myself “I’m finally getting the hang of this”. Hence, it was only natural that my carefully colour-coded, neatly filed plans were thrown for a loop on Wednesday morning.
“So Elanor, are you happy to run Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days?” (By which I mean you are are running Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days).
WHAT!!!! Nope. Definitely not. Expect wildfires and stranded guests. Wait, how does managing a transfer company result in wildfires? I don’t know but it does.
Ah, the endless entertainment the voices in my head can provide.
Oh, wait. Wasn’t I supposed to be responding?
After the buffering symbol disappeared from over my head, I manage to stutter out something along the lines of okay but don’t blame me if I burn it to the ground.
This may seem like something of an overreaction, so let me clarify. Saddlebag Shuttles is an affiliate company to Horizon Horseback that books and runs transfers, normally for guests, at different lodges in the surrounding area and to and from O.R. Tambo Airport. It is run and managed by Rachel, whom I frankly aspire to be as awesome as. From her gloriously formatted spreadsheets to her embroidered blouses and the way that no matter how busy she is, she just floats around as cool as a cucumber, I have a huge amount of respect for her. Hence, attempting to even partially fill some of her role for a few days was an intimidating prospect.
One high intensity training session and a lot more jokes about fires (seriously you trust me with this???!!!) later and I was ready to go.
Needless to say, no fires were started in the course of my managerial stint. However, I am not sure my sanity has been left intact. From tasks I had no idea how to complete (I’m looking at you, car maintenance enquiries) to still being given Cycle Mashatu (back to being two words) and Horizon Horseback tasks to complete, saying the past few days have been a tad overwhelming would be an understatement. Heaped on top of this is the pressure of trying to find a job half a world away (if anyone needs a physics graduate, message me).
I am endeavouring to call it a learning experience and will no doubt regard it calmly once I’ve had a few days to recover from the icy cold shock of the deep end, but for now forgive my whining.
Besides, it hasn’t been all bad, I’ve finished the first stage of my pet project—developing a legible booking chart for Cycle Mashatu (#Excel #myonetruelove). There’s nothing like conditional formatting an entire spreadsheet to cheer oneself up in the morning. Now I just need to fill in a test month and circulate it amongst those who will be using the chart to garner a usability report.
I’ve also got to go out on a few more rides (we won’t talk about the disaster of me on Kalamazoo during polocrosse) which has been a lot of fun and good break from the office stress. I particularly enjoyed last night’s sundowners where all the rides, including the campers, met up (admittedly by accident, but shhh). It was a really lively crowd with lots of cross-group conversations and interactions happening and an activity I will definitely be suggesting happens more often in the future.
It’s been a busy week and I have lots to ramble about. Last Sunday was my first time hosting guests for the evening meal. Personally, I would consider it a roaring success—I only smashed one bowl and that was in the kitchen, not in front of guests, so it barely counts. Clearly I need to have my fingers upgraded to asbestos. Fortunately, most of the guests were part of one large group so they mostly entertained themselves and any uncertainty I had about what to do, quickly faded.
After a peaceful day of office work on Monday—the itinerary brochures are now in their final stages of proofreading and I have another spreadsheet to add to the collection—I volunteered to host guests again on Tuesday. I confess to having an ulterior rather than altruistic motive when I did this. A motive suspiciously shaped like Dr Phil Calcot’s awesome Starlight Safari. Hence, Tuesday morning saw me checking in with Rachel: “Hosting=Stars?”. With an affirmative and something about rhinos (but whatever because STARS) I happily left Rachel’s office and spent the day researching bike shows.
About four thirty I was pulled from my personal contemplation of whether the Ard Rock Enduro Festival would be a suitable place to showcase CycleMashatu (Yes, it is one word—I had to correct five brochures). “Elanor, are you ready to go?” What? Go where? Ooooh yeah. That thing about being the guide and official sundowner server while the guests were seeing rhinos. Welp, suppose I better do that.
SO TOTALLY WORTH IT! Thank you so much Rachel for arranging for me to tag along as the Horizon Horseback guide. We went to Ant’s Nest, a nearby lodge, and saw all the rhinos being fed. Between pouring G&Ts and opening Savannahs, I gawked over the sheer size of the rhinos, something that photos never really show, and admired a really pretty eland that was loitering around. It was fascinating to learn about the precautions taking against poaching, from a 24-hour guard to inserting a dye and toxin into the rhinos’ horns.
With a careful application of logic, I planned our departure time from Ant’s Nest. It was perfectly balanced for maximum rhino viewing and a prompt arrival at the dinner table to minimise the inevitable lateness to the Starlight Safari. I had time for people to change and even a generous additional ten minutes for the expected unexpected delay. This planning naturally meant that all my plans went awry. The steep nature of the road into Ant’s Nest meant we had to exit by a different road, or the minibus would do a First UniBus and breakdown halfway up the hill. This meant exiting by a different gate. A gate that required buzzing through before it could be opened. Thus, a lack of people picking up phones and poor signal left us sitting at the gate for over twenty minutes and I watched my carefully allotted minutes inexorably tick away.
Arriving back at Horizon at the same time that dinner was supposed to start, we scarfed down the quickest three course dinner on record, forwent amarula, and speed walked up to the western games field (“big rock” is definitely a valid navigation aid). Fortunately, we arrived on (Horizon) time. As Phil put it, “it’s Horizon, I expect you to be late”.
Once everyone was safely tucked up in blankets and sitting comfortably, Phil proceeded to walk us through our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, describing the vast distances that stretch out beyond our little blue dot. The southern skies, free of light pollution, never fail to steal my breath each time I look up. Painted with millions of stars, there is something truly indescribable about the sight.
From Jupiter and Saturn, we journeyed onwards to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbour star (shut up Proxima Centauri, red dwarfs don’t count). We discovered Antares in the Scorpio constellation (please go supernova in my lifetime) and marvelled at the vast arch of the Milky Way. Phil’s ability to hold numbers in his head was extraordinary as he reeled off greater and greater distances until we had admired the dust lanes and looked towards the centre of the galaxy. Breaking free of the galaxy’s confines, we spied Omega Centauri, a globular cluster, and the Magellanic Clouds, distant dwarf galaxies.
I have no doubt that I will be boring people by pointing out constellations for a long time to come. On a personal note, Phil told us of his faith, something I found extremely special as so often faith and science are mistaken as mutually exclusive entities, and it is always refreshing to meet another Christian scientist, especially physicists and especially when the opportunity to fangirl over the cosmological constant arises.
Wednesday dawned bright and way too early as my body decided five o’clock is a reasonable time to wake up. However, it did mean that by the time I emerged from the staff room, I had a peaceful half hour to watch the sun rise and the mist slowly clear from the lake. Escaping the office, I met the morning ride at Morgan’s Rock for a bush breakfast. This late brunch and lunch substitute (my main reason for going) is a campfire cooked full English and is always a fun surprise for guests and a tasty bit of variety for everyone else. An afternoon ride left me fully booked for the day and ready for a solid night’s sleep.
This week has held a large amount of veterinary interest. One of the horses, Major, has an ulcer in his eye and has been receiving drops of various medicines every half hour for twelve hours every day. Fortunately, this is paying off as the blood vessels are slowly but steadily growing towards the ulcer, whereupon the blood supply will help it heal. Thursday had the added interest of watching a couple of the jack russells be castrated. This was a fascinating if a slightly surreal experience as I doubt dogs are castrated on mounting blocks in dusty yards anywhere else in the world.
Our big group of guests wrapped up their visit with a game of polocrosse on Friday. This is a game I’m fairly certain was invented when someone wanted to play polo but only had lacrosse sticks. As always, it bought out everyone’s competitive spirit with lots of cheering and jeering. I particularly enjoyed watching some of the excellent horsemanship on display as the ball was cantered from one end of the pitch to the other.
Other than an ongoing issue with the Wi-Fi and checking in a new group of guests, yesterday passed quietly and I finally finished typing up the Botswana guest questionnaires (does silly dance of celebration).
Today I went to church. This was a lovely close to the week with a ministry that has left me with a lot to think about. It was also the first church where I’ve spent half the service with a dog on my lap, something I am most definitely not complaining about and hope will be a repeat experience.
Having been in South Africa for just over a week now, I can certainly say that is has been an eventful introduction to volunteer life at Horizon Horseback. It certainly wasn’t a smooth start, my appearance at the lodge was a complete surprise to all the other volunteers. In fact, I think the only people who knew I was arriving was Laura, my boss in the office, and Shane, her husband, who manages everything horse related.
Last Saturday saw me starting work properly. Horizon Horseback recently acquired Cycle Mashatu, an operator that offers cycling safaris in Botswana. And by cycling safaris, I mean cycling around a big five game reserve on your bike looking at elephants and other game, not cycling between game reserves but staying in the safety of a game vehicle within the reserve. Fun. Terrifying but fun. A bit like a rollercoaster. I think I prefer the idea of horses, which go a lot faster when it comes to running away. However, that may just be my Slytherin sense of self-preservation kicking in. Currently most cycle rides are populated with South Africans and it’s Laura’s goal is to branch out onto the international market so my first task was finding cycling and adventure holiday companies that may be interested in selling our tours.
This was surprisingly challenging as most companies turned out to be operators who design and sell their own tours. However, as I got into the swing of things and thought of more and more synonyms for cycling, adventure and holiday it gradually became easier and I was able to hand over a list of companies ready to be contacted. All the looking at holidays and travel destinations has fuelled my wanderlust tenfold though and I doubt I will ever finish my bucket list now… That tall ship holiday across the Atlantic followed by travelling the entirety of South America sounds like and excellent idea. Perhaps I should start my own travel company like so many of the operators I have been reading about?
A power outage and consequent loss of Wi-Fi saw me writing up guest questionnaires into an Excel spreadsheet, something I continue to do between other tasks. I felt quite smug with my formatting of a pivot table to give guides’ average scores and drop down lists until I saw the spreadsheet Laura has put together for Shwe To Go, a group of local women who make placemats and bowl covers out of fabric covered bottle tops. A spreadsheet that I will eventually be teaching the use of. Thank God for physics degrees and years of analysing lab results in Excel.
Sunday had a minor incident in the form of someone crashing a small four-person helicopter into the lake in front of the lodge. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured and the hippo, while rather upset about the large metal beast in his lake, stayed out of the way while it was removed. It also had the silver lining that I got to replace one of the back-up guides and go out on a ride because everyone was so wiped out from the adrenaline rush. I rode the delightful Cobalt who is an absolute gem.
After that excitement, Monday was nice and peaceful with a surprise trip into Vaalwater where I was supposed to be teaching Emmie how to use the Shwe To Go spreadsheet but instead sat working on Laura’s iPad in the bank due to a misbehaving laptop (the best laid plans and all that). This wasn’t so bad as it gave me the chance to write the rest of my job description and a to do list of all the things I could potentially do to help Laura, from polishing Cycle Mashatu’s online presence, to making a Google form version of the guest questionnaire (I’ll admit this one is mostly just self-serving in the long run; I’m still only halfway through the Botswanan questionnaires, let alone the South African ones).
Tuesday morning saw a distinct lack of horses turn up for breakfast, for once with a valid excuse: the birth of a new (adorable) foal, by a new to the herd mare, Two Delta, (talk about two for the price of one). He’s yet to be named but current volunteer favourites are Potter, Bovril and B-52. I look forward to watching him grow (he’ll be huge if the length of his legs is anything to go by) and may try to take him home in my suitcase if he continues to snuffle my hair so adorably.
The rest of the week has been rather quiet. My main task at the moment is picture hunting and compiling brochures that describe the different accommodations and itineraries that Cycle Mashatu can offer. This is rather enjoyable to my exacting mind and I have been putting Microsoft Publisher through its paces to produce brochures that make even Shalimpo, one of our more “rustic” lodges, look like five-star luxury. Left a bit, right a bit. Let’s proofread for the n-teenth time. Did anyone say INTJ personality type? Otherwise, I’m working through my to do list and fielding tasks as fast as Laura thinks of them.
Rhino’s cooking continues to be as amazing as I remember (including his cookies) and I am volunteering with tacking up horses in the yard in the mornings in the vague hope that it counteracts some of the calories. Perhaps I shall have to take up cycling? I certainly want a bit of off-road cycling practise in case I end up going to look around Cycle Mashatu—those lions are going to be left in the dust.
Just under a year ago, I returned from St Petersburg. A year studying in Singapore and months of travelling had undoubtedly changed me. For starters, I had a tan, which was something of a first, but more importantly I had matured. Aged might be a be a better description—I’m fairly certain solo travelling halfway across the globe is to blame for some of my fine lines—but matured sounds far more graceful and elegant and so shall be my word of choice. Having never been a wild child of flighting fancy, I do not know how obvious my transformation was to those around me. However, I could feel the change in my bones, the way I had finally settled into my skin and was no longer unsure of myself.
During the past I year, I have faced challenges that have made me doubt that self-assurance but ultimately, I have come out stronger—and with a degree in physics—from them. Until a month ago I had planned to join the Royal Navy as a Hydrography and Meteorological Officer. This had been my intention for a little over two years but a series of events within the Bristol University Royal Naval Unit led me to the conclusion that to do so would be a mistake. Unsurprisingly, changing your career plan of two years just before graduating can leave one in something of a muddle.
I found myself looking at long lists of Careers That Would Suit X Personality Type and despairing over ever finding something that appealed, only the list of definitely not career choices seemed to get any longer. I knew that meteorology and project management interested me, as did oceanography but finding a job that didn’t require a PhD seemed impossible. I still don’t know where I will end up, so will just have to see how my applications go and keep searching until I find something.
There is one tiny spanner in the works of this grand plan.
You see, when I was still convinced I would be joining the Navy, I signed up to two months volunteering at a horse ranch in South Africa. I worked on the theory that if I passed the interview board I would have months to kill before finding out if my application was successful and if I failed… well two months away from everything would probably be welcome.
I am aware that there is a reasonable argument for cancelling my two months away. After all, how can one job hunt when they’re in the wrong hemisphere? However, given that I am writing this in Heathrow Terminal Three, it is pretty apparent that I am not about to back out. My reasons for this are threefold:
It is absolutely not in my nature to renege on a commitment or promise.
I have wanted to volunteer at Horizon Horseback ever since I first visited six years ago.
I had already bought the flights.
Will it make job hunting harder? Yes. And will I potentially lose out on a job because I will not be able to conduct a face to face interview? Yes. (Although, given I live in Guernsey, it is unlikely I could have attended many face to face interviews in the UK anyway.) However, this will be an amazing experience in which I will no doubt mature further and gain valuable experience and memories (and won’t that sound good on my CV).
Therefore, dear reader, let me tell you a little about Horizon Horseback and how I came to know about it.
Someone once told me that wherever you are, you’ll always find an islander. Hence, in true Guernsey fashion, my mother and I first heard about Horizon from the brother of one of the owners, who is originally from Guernsey. It is a horse ranch that offers horseback safaris out into the South African bush and it was to be a once in a lifetime trip. So naturally, we were back a year later with my brother in tow. We’re not the only ones who keep going back either, Horizon is a place that continuously pulls guests back, many year after year. The whole ranch is seemingly shrouded in a sense of peace and tranquillity that is more powerful than any drug. The community of guides and volunteers are like an ever-changing family that one is welcomed into for the duration of one’s stay.
From watching the herd of 80 odd horses run across the dam in time for the afternoon ride, to riding across a plain filled with zebra, a sense of something magical infuses every moment. The occasional surprise second breakfast or sipping a G&T whilst watching the sun set can never be forgotten and certainly never captured in photos or words. How could I resist going back? This time will be different of course. I will be working. However, I do not believe that this will detract from my experiences of Horizon in any way. It will be different, but change is not a bad thing and this one will merely reflect the changes in me. I’ve grown up. I enjoy the newfound independence of adulthood and the responsibility it brings. I look forward to the responsibility of working in the office and hosting guests, of being a part of the team that makes Horizon so special for so many people.
Sadly all good things must come to an end and for me my adventures came to an end in St Petersburg. I think it has taken me so long to write up this post due to a weird kind of denial. If I don’t write about the end it can’t have happened. Right? However, it would be unfair to just disappear into the mists without a wave goodbye and a final tale.
Thus we find myself standing on the pavement having just disembarked from what was was the most luxurious commuter train I have ever had the pleasure of riding. Orienting myself, I begin the hike to my final hostel, Polosaty, which really deserves more of a mention than most hostels since it had a different breakfast every morning and did the laundry for free every evening not to mention being wonderfully decorated in bright colours.
My first foray into St Petersburg took me along Nevsky Prospekt to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood because with a name like that, how could I not go? The church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881 by political nihilists. To me though, it was a beautiful building with delightful domes and complementary colours. Personally I would say it averages on a level with St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I prefered its exterior, but the fantastically colourful mosaics were a little too imposing for me and I prefered the quieter, soothing corridors of St Basil’s.
Continuing to the end of Nevsky Prospekt after sushi and sangria by the canal, I visited yet another the cathedral, this one by the less imposing name of St Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s appearance on the other hand, was far more intimidating with sharp corners and towering columns. The interior, normally open as a museum, was equally grand and to my mind the most stunning pieces were the artfully decorated upper reaches of the walls and ceiling.
After a jaunt through the Alexsandrovskiy Gardens to see the bronze horseman I turned my head home, pausing for a moderately awful coffee at a place called the coffee bookshop (with a name like that I couldn’t give it a miss, even if all the books were in Russian).
The evening saw me pairing up with another hostel guest to go out for drinks. On the advice of the hostel staff we headed to Ulitsa Belinskogo, a road with plenty of watering holes to choose from. We ended up in a cocktail bar that had the most mouthwatering of old fashioneds I have ever had the pleasure to drink. From there we strolled through the streets and parks of St Petersburg, admiring the city by night. It is extraordinary how different a place looks with sodium and neon in the place of sunlight.
Rising in time for porridge, I braved the trolleys to get to the Hermitage at the opposite end of Nevsky Prospekt. This was a lot less intimidating than I thought it was going to be. I just found the person in a hi vis vest and handed over my 40 rubles in absolute silence. On a side note, clearly I have the Russian expressionlessness and dress code down pat as people kept asking me for help in Russian, not figuring me for a tourist. It definitely needs a little more work however, as it would seem my five foot one of pure glower is not powerful enough and I am still “approachable”.
The Hermitage was what I expected it to be, a museum with lots of artwork in it. I had been assured it was different to most museums and that I wouldn’t be bored. This was only half true. Aside from its sheer size it was the same as the vast majority of art museums I have visited. What lessened my boredom fractionally was the fantastic architecture and decor of the museum, which was quite stunning.
Having rested my feet for a bit at the hostel, I dress up and with much excitement caught an Uber to the Mariinsky Theatre. I have expressed my love of The Ballet before so you can understand there was no way I was going to miss a trip to watch Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in Russia. To do so would be heathen. With the Bolshoi in Moscow on it summer break, I had been forced to wait until St Petersburg. Fortunately the wait was most definitely worth it. The performance was impressive, although I was not expecting the less used, more traditional ending in which the prince breaks the spell, enabling him to marry Odette.
The biggest drawback was that I had to share the theatre with other people, many of whom had merely come for the kudos points they would earn. People were continuously chatting, on their phones (including taking photos and videos) and being generally disruptive. This lack of respect for the dancers was horrifying and even more shocking was the vast exodus that occurred even though the curtain call had barely started. The constant grind of absent respect-since I’ve no doubt this was a regular occurance-had definitely taken a toll on the quality of the performance, but honestly who can blame the cast when faced with such a disrespectful rabble every night?
My holiday drew to a close the next day with a trip to the gardens of the Summer Palace, made cheaper by the wonders of a student discount. I wasn’t prepared to spend the extra to see the interior of the palace-there is only so much gold moulding a person can see before they get bored-but the gardens were well worth the visit. The numerous fountains and waterways were captivating and I wandered aimlessly through the gardens, stumbling across them now and again until I found a good spot to perch and alternate between people watching and reading my book until I caught the hydrofoil home.
Thus this adventure of mine has come an end and reality returns once more. From here I have one more year of university and then will have to face the real world, and won’t that be an adventure in itself?
There is a silence that is unique to cathedrals. It pervades the stones and muffles the chatter of tourists. Even the echoing harmonies of a men’s choir fail to fully pierce the blanket of peace, instead they only enhance it. The towering ceilings stretch high above the painstakingly decorated chapels and the connecting tunnels wind amongst them, creating an intricate maze.
This slice of silence in the middle of Moscow was St Basil’s Cathedral and well worth the steep entry price. It was a place of truly marvellous architecture, saturated with the feeling of spiritual presence. With the Red Square closed and some stadium inhabiting most of it, my first tantalizing glimpse was of the tallest dome alone. As I walked closer, I had to crane my head to take in all of it, squinting against the morning sunlight and jostling against various other tourists all trying to get a photo from the best angle. The interior was simply gorgeous and by far my favourite when compared to the other cathedrals I visited. The aforementioned men’s choir’s voices wound through the entire cathedral in a beautiful touch that completed the atmosphere.
With Lenin’s Mausoleum seemingly inaccessible, I headed around the corner and spent two hours queuing for tickets into the Kremlin. The actual access ticket that allowed one to see the cathedrals took only fifteen minute to get however, I really want to look around the Armoury museum and the queue for this was much longer due to limited tickets and because the two ticket booths seemed to alternate breaks such that only one of them was open at a time. With the vast crowds of tourists packing their interiors, the cathedrals, which are the main sights of the Kremlin, became a very unappealing spot to linger. Unfortunately, this meant I spent the same amount of time looking around the Kremlin as I did queuing for it, even including my look around the Armoury with its fantastic collections. Most notable were a number of historical gowns which had the most ridiculously tiny waists.
The next day, I decided to pick up a few gifts and continue my hunt for a nice furry hat. Hence I ventured once more into the beautiful metro stations of Moscow. I emerged next to the Izmailovsky Market. This was a strange world of plyboard facades creating the illusion of a fairytale castle with empty stalls crowded below. I expect that come the weekend these stalls would be crowded with furry hats and matryoshka dolls however, now most were silent and empty shells. Fortunately I was able to pick up my gifts and found a suitably fluffy hat for myself so I was able walk along the touristy Arbat Street on the other side of the city centre without diving into every other souvenir shop.
From Arbat I strolled down to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, passing through a sort of mini renaissance fair on my way. An incredibly imposing building on the Moskva River, I elected not to enter the cathedral, deciding that I had seen enough overly crowded cathedral interiors at least for a few days. Instead I crossed the river and wandered through the scenic Gorky Park, eventually stopping to rest my feet and read next to a pond.
The next day I visited the planetarium, which turned out to be rather disappointing. Despite having an English version of their website, the only English within the museum was a couple of exhibit labels such as “sextant” and “telescope”. It was only by trial and error with a lot of pointing at a Russian program that I managed to book a ticket to see Incoming! a short film about asteroids and comets within the solar system.
With my plans to browse the museum scuppered by the lack of English, I amused myself with the cafe’s WiFi until I could make my way up to the large star hall and trade in my driver’s licence for an English audio set. The full showing consisted of two parts, The Sky Above Us and Incoming!. Both were very good and almost made up for the disappointment of not being able to read anything in the museum.
My final day in Moscow I opted for some retail therapy and visited a couple of second hand stores and fabric shops as well as the GUM department store off Red Square . This was a nice way to just chill and relax, although I did shed a couple of tears over the £8 Louboutins that were just too small and some gorgeous organza that was £95 per metre.
While I took little to no interest in the football world cup, I cannot deny that its recent presence in Russia has been of significant advantage to me with a clear and present effort to make each of the host cities welcoming to non-russian speaking visitors. In Kazan this was apparent in the pop up tourist information tents around the old city and the handy “Nightlife of Kazan” booklets at my hostel. The latter were particularly good, suggesting sights to see and various eateries in addition to live music venues and a few vouchers.
With only a day to explore the city and having caught up on my sleep with an early night, I got and early start, wandering up Bauman Street to the Kazan Kremlin. Coming to see the beautiful Qolşärif Mosque was my main reason for stopping in Kazan and having caught a glimpse of it from the taxi the day prior, I was buzzing with anticipation as I wound through the old buildings of the Kremlin to see it. The cyan roofs stretching toward the sky atop glistening white towers did not fail to impress and stole my breath as I craned my head back to admire them.
By comparison and given the lack of English signage (the World Cup accessibility boost fell short at translations in museums) the rest of the Kazan Kremlin paled. This is not to say it was not good, the view over the Reka Kazanka was spectacular and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral were suitably elegant, it is just that the Qolşärif Mosque is the type of building whose elegance and architecture are so magnificent that it takes several days for the memory to fade and before most other buildings can compare.
Having finished my exploration of the Kazan Kremlin and resisted the urge to get a horse and cart ride around the city, I found myself heading to the Soviet Life Museum. This turned out to be a bit disappointing as all the English was outside and once one got into the museum there were hardly any Russian descriptions and no English ones. Overall the Museum also had the air of a jumble sale from forty or fifty years ago rather than that of a museum.
Unfortunately, with the departure time of my train to Moscow drawing closer, I had to finishing my sightseeing of Kazan at this point and grab dinner before walking to the train station. This final leg of my Trans Siberian journey-I shall not count my commuter train to St Petersburg-was the shortest, and does not merit its own post as very little can be said about sleeping soundly on a train for eight hours. The train itself was very smart and new. Indeed both third class carriages I have stayed in have been rather nice and a whole lot better than I had been led to believe. That or as a student backbacker, I just have very low standards and am easy to please.
I struggle to keep my eyes open as I slouch in the waiting area. While it isn’t so late as to be early, days of travelling and rising early have convinced my circadian rhythm that anything much beyond 10 o’clock is unacceptable so that as we begin to board at 11:40, I am hard pressed not to full asleep standing up. This did have its advantages because, as we finally crept from the station, I was able to quickly fall asleep and not get jerked awake by the train.
My first day on the train passed quietly and I was finally able to finish my book. This was both good and bad because on the one hand plot progression and story arc conclusion but on the other hand I now have to wait for the next book to come out, which will undoubtedly be in a few years time. Since then I have been working my way through the first few books of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series which, while different from the writing styles to which I normally isolate myself, has so far proved itself to be an enjoyable read. The only real disturbances to this blissful peace and quiet was the videos the small boy opposite me was watching and a very odd Chinese lady who was almost continuously leaning across me to charge or check her phone.
The second day trickled through the sand timer of life in much the same way as the first. I was awoken at six thirty and then again at seven by the Chinese lady kneeling on the edge of my bed and leaning over me to plug her 77% charged phone in and later check on it. I also had a small audience eating my lunch as everyone wanted to know what the mayo was and we spent five minutes trying to explain it to the Chinese woman. After that, the young lass in the bunk above mine seemed to pick up the courage (with some encouragement from Mum) to practice her English with me and I spent a large slice of the afternoon trying to remember what sort of vocabulary secondary school languages teach and asking relevant questions such as “what is your favourite subject” and “do you have any hobbies”. This was pretty fun and with Google Translate murdering our respective languages, we just about manage to cover any vocabulary holes.
The third and final day of this leg crawled by as it always does when one is anxious about not missing their stop. A large contributor to this was also that the clock kept going back an hour until we eventually reached Moscow time, three extra hours in total. As well as chatting to a few of my fellow passengers, I had a portrait drawn by a gentleman at one end of the carriage. Considering I struggled to write smoothly on the train, I was most pleased with the finished piece. Although, baring in mind I barely recognise myself these days, especially without glasses, I have no idea if it actually looks like me.
Arriving in Kazan, I bit the bullet and agreed to the ridiculously overpriced taxi, deciding one and a half hours walking was too far even for me. I suspect the extortionate rate was further compounded by leftover football fever from the World Cup since Kazan did host one of the stadiums.
Several days in Irkutsk saw me doing embarrassingly little. With the end of travels looming on the horizon and the exitement of horse riding in Mongolia over, I was not feeling in the most adventurous of moods. The fact that I had an extremely good book that stole away hours of my time the moment I ventured into its digital pages was an additional diversion.
After a good night’s sleep-my hostel had delightfully comfortable beds-I set out into the city, following the tourist walking route. The hostel desk had a stack of city maps with the route printed on them but when I reached a road on the route, I discovered a green line had been painted to mark the route. Hence I was easily able to wander the city and see each of the 30 sights the line snaked passed, reading the plaques that marked them. Had I been in more of a sightseeing mood I may have also entered some of the museums or churches but as it was, I was content with stretching my legs and seeing a little of the city. The plaques were a tad dry, being of the factual nature but I still enjoyed reading them and discovering the history of Irkutsk, it was interesting to see just how many of them had been damaged in a huge fire that took place in 1879.
At this point I would like to insert an aside to extol the virtues of having a walking route fully marked out on the road in addition to the more traditional “here is a map with a line drawn on it” method or the occasional “signposted when we remember” approach. For starters, tourist maps are notoriously terrible as they have an unfortunate tendency to forget the existence of many roads. Furthermore, they cannot be used if there is even the slightest hint of rain and in both the case of map and signpost, one inevitably ends up feeling lost due to a lack of suitable signage giving directions or road names. On a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to walk without having to stop and consult my map every minutes. All in all I think more places should adopt this sightseeing approach though perhaps they could include amusing anecdotes and local lore in addition to who built what and when.
Accompanied the next day by looming clouds and a steady rain, I caught the bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. For a drive that takes between one and two hours I was happy to discover it cost a mere £1.60 each way. Before I eventually gave up at peering through the continuously steamy windows-somewhere between here and Singapore, condensaton switched back to forming on the inside of windows-I was surprise by how quickly the city ended and we returned to the countryside.
Lake Baikal is the largest lake in the world, containing some fifth of the world’s fresh water, and it certainly gave that impression as I stood on the shore and strained to see the other side. With the low cloud cover, this was not initially impossible but after I had warmed up with some borscht and coffee in a quaintly maritime themed cafe, the clouds had cleared enough for me to make out the faint smudge of land. This was only possible because Lake Baikal’s true size lies in its length of 636 kilometres while its maximum width is only 79 kilometres. Due to my short stay in Irkutsk, I had decided not to visit the more scenic section of the lake around Olkhon Island because of the time constraints involved and given the grey weather I think this was indeed the best option as I doubt hiking around would have been that enjoyable and scenery is only good if you can see it. Instead, I nosed around the small market for a bit and sat on the shoreline enjoying the sound of waves as I delved back into the pages of my book.
My finally day in Irkutsk was spent lazing around the hostel and buying some food for the next leg of my trip along to Kazan. I settled on porridge sachets for breakfasts, instant noodles for dinners and then some bread and cucumber with salami to make sandwiches at lunchtime.