Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

YEREVAN!



No, it’s not a Hungarian war cry. It’s the name of the capital city of Armenia. South of Georgia, West of Azerbaijan, East of Turkey and North of Iran - tiny little Armenia. The former Soviet Republic of Armenia is next to fall to the Lukatch Travel Mania (my 70th country!). Like Georgia, Armenia lies in the mountainous Caucasus region between Asia and Europe. It’s also famous for being the site of Mount Ararat, landing place of Noah’s Ark. After my excursion to Tbilisi, Georgia, this past April, how could I pass up Armenia?

Since Yerevan is in Eastern Europe, I couldn’t find a direct flight from Budapest and had to connect through Moscow, as I did when I went to Tbilisi. I left Budapest around 8:30 the evening of Thursday, August 24, changing planes in Moscow and arriving in Yerevan just before six o’clock in the morning of Friday, August 25. I’d made arrangements with my hotel, The Hotel Tufenkian (gotta love that name!) to have their driver pick me up at the airport.

He was there when I exited Passport Control and whisked me off to the hotel. The Tufenkian is located at the southeastern end of Republic Square, just next to a large park in which the local flea market is located: Vernissage. Check-in time was 3 PM, so I was a touch early. I had originally thought I’d store my bag and sightsee until check-in time, but I was sleepy and sweaty and decided I’d take the half-room rate and catch a couple of hours sleep and a shower instead. So I did and, feeling refreshed, had the hotel’s buffet breakfast around 9 AM and then walked out into the bright early-morning sunshine of Yerevan, Armenia.

From the Wikipedia Voyage website:

“The capital city of the Republic of Armenia, Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the 8th century BC, when the fortress of Erebuni was built by King Argishti I. Its population is around three million people, and it lies less than 200 km south of Tbilisi, Georgia

“Yerevan is often pegged as the ‘Pink City’ because of the color of the stones used to build much of the city center, which is a compact area known as Kentron. This area, amongst others, has been greatly developed over the past decade, resulting in more restaurants, cafés, shops and hotels. Central Yerevan is a large circular area; the east half of the circle is enclosed by a green belt and the west half by a main thoroughfare. Republic Square is in the southeastern part of Yerevan.

“Armenia’s capital city is fast becoming a major tourist destination thanks to its numerous landmarks, extensive nightlife, great museums and lovely parks.”


Full of energy for the coming day, I headed out to my first stop: the local post office. Along the way I bought some postcards and then stamps, since I knew the post office wouldn’t be open on the weekend. Next, also probably closed on the weekend, I set off to find the University of Yerevan’s student store, to see if they had any t-shirts that would fit my daughter Morgan. Sorry, Morgan, a gimlet-eyed security guard informed me that there was no student store and no t-shirts. Better luck in Bruges next month.

After those two mandatory stops, it was off to explore a little bit of central Yerevan. The city is very walkable and not too hilly, so I enjoyed my stroll immensely. There are several very large and open squares offering inner-city vistas, but without any shade and, since the temps were in the high 80s (31 C) I felt like that proverbial egg frying on the pavement. Anyway, along about lunchtime I came upon a Georgian restaurant called, naturally enough, the Khinkali Gardens, so I stopped and had some….guess what? Yep, khinkali.
Along with a local Kilikija beer, it hit just the right spot. My waiter was from Lebanon originally and was pleased to have a conversation with a visiting American; leaving me with the admonition never to trust any Georgians, lunch was a bright spot.

I had booked one of Yerevan’s free walking tours, to start around 5 PM, so, what with the heat and my still sleep-deprived body, I figured a siesta would serve me well; plus my room was nicely air-conditioned. So, I headed back to the hotel Tufenkian for some afternoon delight (Hey! A mid-day nap and shower in air-conditioned comfort is usually the best afternoon delight I can expect at my age).

The hotel Tufenkian is one of those nice heritage hotels that seem to be springing up all over Europe. The outside facade of an old landmark building is preserved and the inner area is gutted and completely renovated to make a new, beautiful hotel. Tufenkian is just that. The inside is beautifully redone and is modern clean, bright and welcoming. And their staff are amazing, all English-speaking, helpful, friendly and eager to please. I often find this to be the case in Eastern Europe, which is why I am always excited to visit countries in this area.

So, the sun was lower in the sky when I set out to meet my walking tour at 5 PM in front of the National History Museum on Republic Square, a three-minute walk from my hotel. The tour was conducted by a local named Vako; there were about 15 people in the group tour and we headed off to inspect Yerevan. Vako conducted the tour in English and he was very informative and fun, but, in order to fit in all the things he wanted to show his groups in the 2 ½-to-3 hours scheduled for the tour, he had to move the group at a good clip between sights. Unfortunately, my poor old legs didn’t relate well to his clip, and I only made about half the tour, preferring to amble along by myself, stopping whenever and wherever.
I eventually ended up at the Dargett Microbrewery, a large restaurant on the northwest edge of the main city’s circle. They had a large outdoor terrace, but, since it was air-conditioned inside, I chose to sit at the bar. They must have had 20 locally brewed microbeers on tap and, as a nice touch I’ve found generally common to microbreweries, they also had several tasters, which offered five 0.1L samples of several of their beers.
I chose my tasters carefully: Belle du Jour (a blond ale); Coney Island (American pale ale); Metamorphosis (Vienna lager); Vertigo (India pale ale); and 1984 (an oatmeal stout). They were all fresh and yummy, but I finally decided on a glass of the Vienna lager (it turned out a full glass, which I thought would be a pint, was actually 0.33L!). To offset the high alcohol content of the beers (from 5.5% and up), I had a Tarte Flambe, advertised as an Alsatian French artisanal flatbread, topped with spicy sausage (not very), roasted red peppers (small) and a white sauce. It was actually an “Armenian pizza” and it was satisfying without being particularly tasty.
I was nicely buzzed after my stay at Dargett and strolled back toward the hotel to take off a little of the fuzziness. I stopped at Republic Square to watch the Dancing Fountains for a while, which consisted of water fountains and sprays timed to accompany loud mostly-classical music. The square was packed, as this was obviously one of the major nightly attractions in Yerevan, a city lovely in its sights, but not widely-known for its divertissements. Nonetheless, the show was entertaining and melodic and the enthusiasm of the crowd was catching. My vision became much less blurred after taking in all of the dancing fountains and music of which I was capable at the time and I wandered the hundred meters back to my hotel for a nightcap.

The hotel dining room was still open at 10 PM and I decided I needed a luscious dessert: chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center. As a special dish, it required 20 minutes to prepare, but I was content to wait with my world-renowned Armenian cognac.
I presume most of the people reading this account of my visit to Yerevan are as unknowledgeable of Armenia as I was and so would not know that Armenian cognac is considered by many connoisseurs of same to be among the finest, if not the finest, cognacs in the world. Even Winston Churchill preferred it as his go-to nightcap. The hotel had a rather large list of local cognacs and my waiter guided me to the Akhtamer 10-year-old bottle. Well, it was aphrodisia. Nectar. It was the sun setting over a warm Mediterranean sea. It was the touch of a young woman’s lips promising a night of abandon. It was, in a word, in-frigging-credible! I wondered at the time how much of this amazing drink I could take home with me to Budapest. I hoped it was a lot.

So I savored my world-famous cognac and enjoyed my chocolate cake with molten interior at leisure and decided Armenia was a pretty good place to be.

Saturday, August 26. VERNISSAGE! Billed as one of the major attractions in Yerevan, this extensive flea market truly comes alive on the weekends. I love wandering the flea markets, souks, bazaars, swap meets, etc., everywhere I go in the world, looking for wondrous and strange and exotic items to give as gifts to family and friends and, of course, to keep for myself. Yerevan’s Vernissage is located in a park right across the street from my hotel, one of the primary reasons I chose this hotel. Guide books said this market is worth several hours of browsing and haggling and finding just the right gift for that someone who never knew s/he needed it. I was ready!

While there were merchants already set up by 9 AM, things didn’t really get heated until after 10 AM. I had a leisurely breakfast, sauntered across the street and began my search at the top of one row of tables, intending to go up and down until I could spend no more. Turned out three hours was just about right, what with the many vendors, the hot, hot sun and the need for a cold, cold beer. Got several Xmas presents for the family and a few others for special people, and I was ready for lunch. I dropped my goodies off at the hotel and walked over to Abovyan Street to a restaurant I’d found on the net called Vostan. It was known for its lamb, so naturally I tried some lamb kebabs and veggies. Very nice, but not world-class. But at least it was air-conditioned! And for the first half of my meal I was their only customer.

After a shower and brief catnap, I set out to find the Cascades, Yerevan’s major tiered fountain monument, higher than the Empire State building. I walked and walked and couldn’t find the damn thing! And it is huge! (Ed Note: My internet-printed Google map must have been creased funny, as it turned out I took the wrong street, just one street to the left of where I should have been, but there are so many trees in the area I couldn’t see where I needed to go. Not a problem, I’d try again tomorrow via taxi).
Then it was time for a Saturday pub crawl. I taxied over to the 007 Pub on Pushkin Street. It’s touted on Trip Advisor as a “Must See” pub in Yerevan, so, of course, I figured I “Must See” it. Well, as seems to be the case too often, I got there too early for the main action. It was just me and the bartender and one waitress. At least Varkez (sp?) was friendly and spoke English, so we had a nice chat while I tried some of the local beer, Kilikija. I asked him if Sean Connery had ever been there and he told me, “No, but George Clooney was here last year.” Okay, a poor substitute, but what the heck, one must make do with what one has.
I polished off a couple of 6% alcohol beers and a chicken shawarma snack (actually, just a chicken burrito). Varkez gave me a complimentary shot: half vodka and half apple juice, with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. Yum.

Next it was the Liberty Pub, a short stroll away, which I needed to clear my head. This place, also a cellar pub, at least had some people in it, loud and boisterous and young. And it was also rather buggy. I tried one of the local bottled beers this time, Aleksandrapol. After pouring it into a glass, I noticed it had no bubbles at all, it was completely flat. The bottle’s expiration date was two weeks previously. I worried it until I couldn’t drink any more, then left to find a more congenial place that took better care of their wares.

This was the second night I tried to find the Iceberg Karaoke pub and for the second night I was unsuccessful. Don’t know where they hide the damn things, but they sure fooled me. Another brief stop at the Dancing Fountains (one can only take so much spouting colored water and classical music) and I headed once again to the sanctuary of my hotel for a late night baklava and cognac. Armenian cognac is truly marvelous; if you can find any in liquor stores near you, be sure and get some.
After my buffet breakfast Sunday morning, I taxied up to Victory Park on top of a tall hill on the north side of the city circle. It’s a large park, commemorating various military victories and complete with a statue of Mother Armenia. The statue looks suspiciously like that in Tbilisi of Mother Georgia, but who am I to judge? Lots of trees and shrubbery and even a childrens’ amusement park scattered throughout the park, but the park itself needs some TLC; for a national monument, it could be better maintained. I did enjoy the variou
s war machines in the park, however, like a Mig 15 and battle tanks. Defend Yerevan!

After a nice stroll through the park, I took the underpass across the road in search of the Cascades. I came out on top of a wide lookout area; I looked down but couldn’t see any cascades, and my lookout perch just sort of ended, outflung into space. But there were steps, so I followed them down, down, along a side road, over wooden planking and finally emerged at the very tip top of the Cascades! Mirabile dictu! This was a much nicer tiered series of steps and platforms, some with sculptures. It was all supposed to have water flowing and spouting down its length, but not the day I was there. Guess it was too hot.

Fortunately, inside the Cascades were an elevator (lift for my English friends) and a series of escalators to the bottom. The trip down was also dotted with various works of art, sculptures, etc, to give the riders something to look at. Finally at the bottom, I emerged out into a divided park complete with even more sculptures, one of which was the famous Smoking Woman. This black-stone marvel was a large woman lying on her stomach and smoking a cigarette. Now we know what the national pastime of Armenia is.
I was hot and thirsty by then and, as the divided park was lined on both sides by small cafes and restaurants, I decided it was time for a break from my morning’s labors. I am unable to tell you the name of the café I chose as it was always written in Armenian and even when it appeared to be in English was undecipherable. Something like “Returnius.” Anyway, the young waiter was pleasant and spoke English and was kind enough to bring me an entire pitcher of lemonade, which was about half-filled with ice. Definitely made me a happy camper. Along with an apple strudel with a small scoop of ice cream, it was the perfect mid-morning treat.
After the seemingly-long walk back to the hotel and a stop once again at the flea market, I decided lunch in an air-conditioned setting would be just the thing. My hotel’s menu was a good one and I chose the Mante and some meat Boereg. Mante is tiny little boat-shaped pastas, filled with meat and then browned. Very nice. Boereg is pastry shells also filled with meat and crisped. Accompanied by a nice house white wine, it hit the spot.

A rest in my air-con room and a shower finished off the afternoon, and then it was time for dinner. I had passed a place on Tumanyan street called The Black Bull, and noticed its menu was filled with good-looking steaks, so for my last night in Yerevan I deemed one was in order. I walked back up Abovyan street and found The Black Bull not too crowded. It was somewhat windy out, so I settled inside in a fairly cool dining room which also boasted a piano player. Exploring the menu, I decided on the flank steak. Rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation of my chosen treat, I ordered it from the waitress who then told me – ready for this? – sitting down? – you know what’s coming, right? – “Sorry, we don’t have that tonight.”

Aaarrgghh!!! It IS me after all! Everywhere I go! The restaurant gods must have it in for me, as this happens to me all the damn time – or so it seems. Is there a warning on a special secret Internet site for restaurants that tells them to disappoint me whenever I travel and order something I really want? So I sighed and refrained from smacking the waitress on her head with my menu and ordered the Chuck Tender which, I must admit, was quite large and tender and very tasty. But that’s not the point, is it? I had a side of veggies (I’m so good!) and white wine, but passed on dessert. An evening stroll around the squares completed my time in Yerevan and I decided to turn in early.

I checked out of the Tufenkian Hotel Monday late morning and had the hotel’s driver return me to the airport. I was ready for a fairly easy flight to Moscow and then another to Budapest. I couldn’t hear Murphy laughing hysterically in the background.

Just when you (and I!) thought I’d successfully completed yet another fulfilling weekend adventure, it turns out I spoke too soon and my story was not nearly over. Read on.

EPILOGUE

When I checked in at the Yerevan Aeroflot desk for my return flight to Budapest through Moscow, I specifically requested an aisle seat as close to the front of the plane as possible. I knew I only had a little over one hour to make my connecting flight in Moscow and I also knew that the standard Gate at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow for the flight to Budapest was Gate 58 – the very last Gate in Terminal F, so far from where we entered the airport that it was almost in Poland. I’d have to scurry and run and dodge and weave and hustle my bustle to make my connection. It was a long damn way.

In fact, signs posted at the gate where we entered the airport (Gate 1) announced it was a 25-minute walk to Gate 58. I suppose if I was the young OJ Simpson I could have made it in less time, but for my older legs and easily-out-of-breath lungs it was definitely a challenge. I’d made this connection in the past and let me tell you, without at least a two-hour window it was a close-run thing.

Anyway, the Aeroflot guy checked me in and gave me seat 11F – a window seat. I guessed all the aisle seats were filled, but at least I was near the front of the plane, able to hop out fairly quickly for a fast getaway. And of course it was a full flight and every seat in front of and next to me was filled, but OK, I was still near the front of the plane. And by the way, my second-leg boarding pass did, in fact, indicate my connecting gate in Moscow was Gate 58.

And so, with the smiles and laughter of Yerevan Passport Control’s happiest officer ringing in my ears, I cleared Security and cruised Duty Free to pick up one or two last items I just had to have.

So. The plane arrived in Moscow and parked on the tarmac. I thought we were at a docking bay in the terminal, but it turned out we had to board a bus for the journey. I scooted out of my window seat nearly as soon as the plane stopped and my seatmates rose and got out of the way. We all had to get to our connecting flights in a hurry, so we were all poised in our three-point sprinter’s stance, ready for the front door to open so we could run and jump and leap and hustle through the airport.

And we waited. And waited. No front door opening. What’s the problem? And we waited. Nothing. And then a passenger in front of me pointed to the rear of the plane to indicate they were disembarking through the rear door! I swear at that point I did hear Murphy’s laughter kick up a notch. Scheisse! Of course, it took twice as long to exit the plane that way, and the clock was ticking, but we made it and hustled again through a light rain onto an overcrowded airport bus, where running Muscovites pushed and shoved their way in front of me to get crammed onto the bus. Russian men are not the most well-mannered in the world. But at least I was on the bus, smashed against the crowd in front of me and the exit door behind me.

OK, so, on the bus, like a herd of cattle. When we reached the terminal we disembarked on my side of the bus, so when the doors opened I was popped out like a champagne cork. Backwards, of course. I whirled around and took off for my flight through the terminal(s). Without boring you as to my journey, I arrived at my gate (they’d switched it to Gate 50, so I didn’t have quite as far to go) at 5:20 for my 6 PM flight, just in time to catch the initial boarding call. Whew. Gasping and heaving and with sweat pouring off me, I handed my crumpled and sweat-stained boarding pass to the attendant and staggered onto the plane to find my seat: 26A, another window seat! At least this time the flight was almost empty and there was no one else in my row, so I had it all to myself. Not too bad.

An easy 2 ½-hour flight to Budapest, an easy disembarkation, a fairly quick clearance through Passport Control, but a longish wait for our bags to start down the conveyor belt. I did hear a faint chuckle from Murphy somewhere in the background, but ignored it; what could go wrong now?

I soon found out, as bag after bag dropped out onto the belt and none of them were mine. Finally, the last bag came out and the shutter came down and I still didn’t have my bag. Well, Double Scheisse! I found the Aeroflot desk and entered my information with the clerk so the airline could track down my bag and hopefully deliver it to me within a day or so. Nervous sweat and exhaustion were the order of the night, but I finally exited the airport to catch the new direct-to-Kalvin-Ter airport bus. There were quite a few people waiting for that bus, but I figured I had arrived in between buses, so no problem.

When I checked the Next Arrival sign, however, it was gaily repeating the message, “Bus 200E and Bus 100E do not service this platform due to road closures by police.”

Hah?! What was this? When I asked one of the BKV operators on site what was going on, he spat out the word, “Putin!” Turned out Mr. Putin was still in the area, which meant no vehicular traffic whatsoever into or out of the airport until he left. Roads closed by police. No buses, no mini-buses, no taxis, no private cars, no bicycles, no old ladies in wheelchairs….nothing with wheels was coming into or going out of the airport. Man, the Transportations gods really had it in for me that night!

OK, so I had to wait about 45 minutes until Mr. Putin’s plane left and I could finally see traffic moving in and out of the airport again, taxis and cars, etc. Finally, along came the Number 100 Airport Bus and I hopped aboard and rode it to Kalvin Ter, just a three-minute walk from my flat. Home! With nothing to unpack, I showered and hit the sheets.

The next morning my alarm went off at 7 AM and 15 minutes later all the power went off in my building. Did I do something to offend everyone? Incredible. Now I couldn’t work on my computer, iron any clothes, do laundry, watch TV, go shopping (as the elevator wouldn’t work and I’m on the fifth floor!), etc. So I settled in and read a book. Around noon the power came back on and I could finally use my PC. I checked my email and then made an online reservation for the coming weekend at a local ruin pub for myself and two old friends who would be visiting from the states. I also wrote my doctor to set up a brunch for the coming weekend, as it was time to have my prescriptions renewed; we met every couple of months for that and to catch up on each other’s life. Always a fun time.

Around 1 PM I got a call from Aeroflot that they’d deliver my suitcase between 3 and 7 PM; no problem, I’d be home. Checking my email again, I had one from my old friend Monica saying her husband had caught bronchitis and they’d gone back to the states and wouldn’t be visiting Budapest after all. Well, Scheisse, would nothing go right? So I cancelled my dinner reservation.

As I was ready to exit Yahoo Mail, another message came in from my doctor. This was a real doozy! She’d been visiting her son in Denmark and had fallen and broken her hip! She’d had an operation the previous weekend and was now in a Danish hospital, but she was supposed to return to Hungary the following weekend. She would then take up residence in a recuperation facility 80 kilometers from Budapest for several weeks. I knew it was bad for her, but, since we all almost always consider our own situation in light of what happens to others, I wondered how I’d be able to get my meds renewed. As of this writing, I still haven’t figured it out. Don’t know what happens if I can’t get my meds, several of which run out in two weeks, but it can’t be good.

And so, Dear Reader, I sit here typing my blog and wondering what the near future holds for me. There just couldn’t be any more crummy things lying in wait for me --- could there? I’ve been good, really I have. I help old girl scouts across the street and I always tip the bartender. I have another trip scheduled for the end of September and could only hope I’d be able to get my meds before I ran out and that nothing else went wrong.

So I’ve decided to get back in bed and pull the covers up over my head and just cower there until the black cloud that has hovered over my life for the past few days goes away. Until then, think good thoughts for me. Hasta la Vista, Babies!

Oh, yes, I did get my suitcase back!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

That Little Island Keeps Calling Me


Yes, it’s back to Sardinia once again. I can’t seem to stay away from this magical isle that continues to call to me. This time I decided to visit the capital of the island, Cagliari, in the far south. In addition to the large city, there’s also a major beach, Poetto, plus lots of wonderful restaurants, shopping, pubs, wine bars, etc. And by sheer chance or luck, I’ll be staying right in the middle of all the action, on Via Sardegna, right next to major shopping and the Marina, in the midst of restaurants and wine bars and sightseeing. And the airport bus drops me off just a five-minute walk from my hotel. Incredible!

So, up at the crack of dawn on Thursday, June 13, to get to the airport by 7:30 AM. A one-hour flight to Prague (!) then two hours to Cagliari, arriving around 2:30 in the afternoon. A quick confab with the airport Tourinfo desk revealed that there are now NO BUSES from or to the Cagliari airport. None. Nada. It’s either a taxi or the local train, 20 euros for the former and around 1.5 euros for the latter. No contest, right? Well, no contest if the next train is due inside of 20 minutes, which is their supposed general frequency. Of course, the Tourinform lady kindly informed me that, as it was now 3 PM, the next train would come through at 4:30 PM. 90 minutes. 90 minutes to wait in the airport when I could be walking the streets of old Cagliari or sitting at an outside table sipping an Aperol spritz. No thanks, Tourinform lady. I choose the 20-euro taxi.
It was a speedy 15-minute trip to my hotel. I checked in and found my room was already wonderfully air-conditioned; I almost stayed in there, as it was nearly 90 F (32C) outside, but decided to pursue that tall, cold drink that kept calling me. It was now around 4 PM and I’d forgotten that most of the restaurants and shops were closed in Italy between 2 PM and 8 PM. Sigh. So it was a quickie snack of fried calamari and an Ichnusa beer until dinnertime.

I did my reconnoiter stroll around the neighborhood, checking out the travel agencies for a possible day cruise on the Med, finding the Segway shop for a possible tour of the city and checking the bus schedules at the main terminal across the street for buses to the beach. I’d have to wait for my spritz.

I enjoyed my room’s aircon splendor for a while and took a shower in possibly the world’s smallest shower enclosure; just barely enough room for me to adjust the water pressure and heat level and to soap my upper body; not a chance I’d get to wash my feet.
Around 7 PM I headed up to the Piazza Yenne, turned left and found the Old Square Irish Pub, open and waiting for me. I chose their fish and chips for dinner along with a couple of very nice local beers. An after-dinner stroll took me around more of the old town. The streets were still hot from the sun, but the cooling offshore breeze managed to drop the temp at least 2 degrees. The streets were crowded with people looking to escape the heat, sitting at curbside tables and drinking their spritzers. I joined them to watch the parade of evening revelers.

It seems the fashion statement of the summer for young Sardinian girls included heavy eye shadow, dark red lipstick and skimpy costumes. In fact, the primary article of clothing on display was the very shortest of short-shorts, so short, in fact, that they could only be counted short enough if there were a pair of cute little buttock cheeks peeking out of the bottom of the shorts. Too bad all of my pics of this lovely tradition were blurred; the girls were just strolling too quickly.

Friday July 14. After a quick basic Continental breakfast at the hotel, it was off to make some plans and reserve some dates. First up was the travel agency, where I booked a full-day sailing cruise for Tuesday, July 18. I would meet the boat at the Marina Piccolo (Little Marina) from where we’d set off around the bay for a day of sailing, swimming and eating. Sounded good. Also signed up for the next-day Segway tour of Cagliari’s Old Town. I’d never been on one of these two-wheelers before, and thought it was about time to broaden my horizons. Hey! I’ve driven a quad-four dune buggy off-roader across the Tunisian sands; how tough could a Segway on city streets be?

And then it was time for my first visit to the beaches at Poetto, a miles-long beach area just east of the city, easily accessible by bus. I bought my tickets and bussed out to the first of the private beach areas, Il Lido, comprised of a long, two-story building, umbrellas, restaurants, etc. Everything for the beach-goer who really doesn’t want to leave home. Entry charge was 12 euro (!), and everything else was extra. I knew I wouldn’t be back to this expensive beach anytime soon, but decided to make the most of it for the day. I sunned, swam, surfed, lunched, sipped and walked the beach. It was crowded with school kids and water polo teams and other sorts of group-inspired activities, but I managed to dodge and weave my way around them all. It was my first day out and I didn’t want to burn, so I only stayed for around 3-4 hours before heading back to my air-conditioned hotel room and a nice shower.
Out at 7 PM for drinks on my hotel terrace, then a stroll over to Cogas, a local restaurant I’d heard about on Trip Advisor. Well, it was wonderful! I was hungry and managed an appetizer plus first and second courses plus dessert, quite a bit more than my usual dinner. But it was so good! I just couldn’t stop. Starters were olives stuffed with meat then lightly breaded and fried, accompanied by a light Sardinian wine. Spaghetti with mullet roe (dried fish eggs) came next, followed by a main course of “Mutton Stew,” which was actually just heavenly-tender mutton that fell off the bone. It was a culinary orgasm with each course. And, naturally, I had to have my seadas for dessert, that wonderful pecorino-cheese-filled pastry topped with honey. Washed down with a mirto, I was in hog heaven. An auspicious beginning to my week-long stay.

Saturday was my Segway tour day. A light breakfast at the hotel, then over to the Segway shop to meet my group and to practice using the two-wheeled Segway motorized contraption. After a brief, two-minute introduction to the machine and to how it works (“To go forward, lean forward; to go backward, lean back; to turn to either side, move the handles to either side”), we were allowed – required – to take some practice time in the street. There were two teenagers, a young Irish couple and myself in our group. Only one person in our group managed to hit a building during practice; I won’t embarrass him by naming names. And then, armed with our new-found knowledge of the laws of motion physics, and topped with a rather uncool helmet, we leaned forward and were off to see the city.
The entire tour lasted about 2.5 hours, and took us uphill and downhill and all around Cagliari. We stopped several times and dismounted to check out specific views and buildings and even for a brief refreshment and bathroom break, but otherwise we remained standing on our Segways throughout. We had to lean waaay forward to get up the steep hills and then had to lean waaay back to get down those same hills. Challenging, so much so that while we were moving we had to pay so much attention to guiding and steering our Segways that we really didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy the passing views. But it was still fun and there were no serious injuries .

Lunch was risotto with seafood at one of the ubiquitous streetside restaurants, followed by, naturally, seadas. I needed a shower and nap in my air-conditioned hotel room. As I was preparing to go out in the evening to search out a perfect dinner venue, I realized that Italians/Sardinians must spend most of their lives considering the meal they just enjoyed and planning the next meal they would enjoy. So, their lives revolve around food. If I lived here, I’d be auditioning for the job of Fat Man in the circus within a month. Time to tone it down a touch.

I found the Donegal Irish pub, noted on Trip Advisor, but it was shut down, so it was back to the Old Square Irish pub for drinks and another great starter, pecorino arreste – fried pecorina cheese on that amazing Sardinian thin ‘bread,’ Carasau. Tonight I wanted mussels, so hied myself off to the Osteria Tabarchina, near my hotel (everything was near my hotel) and ordered my bowl of 50 or so goodies, fresh from the Med that very day. I eat my mussels the way I learned in Brussels, using one empty shell to pick the mussels out of the rest of the shells. No forks or slurping the mussels down like oysters for this traveler! Accompanied by another tasty local wine, veggies and limoncello, everything was just perfect.

As I have noted during previous visits to Sardinia, there really isn’t much in the way of Sardinian nightlife, e.g., music, bars, karaoke, dancing, etc. Mostly just going out to eat very late (most diners showed up around 10 PM for a two-hour dinner) and drinking wine and talking with friends around the table. I did my after-dinner stroll along the marina waterfront and turned in early.
Sunday was another beach day, only this time I decided to ride the bus waaay past Il Lido and see what other areas of Poetto were worth exploring. I stuck on the bus as people kept getting off at nearly every stop, supposedly for their own special beach areas. Pretty soon, there were only two passengers left and I decided it was time to follow the other person’s lead when she got off. So I did. And I found I had made it all the way to Beer Beach, about halfway up the entire length of the Poetto beach peninsula. More umbrellas and lounge chairs, a good-sized restaurant/snack bar, beach volleyball courts, etc. Looked like a nice place to while away the day, so I stayed to while.

I relaxed on one of the lounges, which only cost me 7 euro at this far-away beach venue. The sun was hot and the breeze was strong and all was right with the world. Lunchtime came and I enjoyed some fresh octopus salad and an Ichnusa beer. The beach was still not crowded, even on this weekend day, but the wind had picked up so I decided to call it an early day around 2 PM or so. My air-conditioned room beckoned and I heeded its call.
Out and about again around 6 PM, I had my now-standard Aperol spritz on my hotel’s terrace, having made friends with the bartender so as to get the maximum amount of ice in my drink. Dinner this night would be at Inu, a restaurant owned by friends of my Budapest Sardinian Wine Bar’s owners Nico and Mauro. It was just another short walk away and I arrived around 7 PM, as this was one of the earlier-opening places in town. I hadn’t realized it before, but Inu only offers wine, cheese and meat tasting menus as its fare. Not a strand of spaghetti in the place. But it was a welcome change from the heavier foods in town.

I opted for the three-cheese and three-meat tasting plate, along with another of those great Sardinian wines. And, of course, when I ordered a ricotta for dessert, the waiter told me, “Oh, we don’t have that.” I seem to be getting inured to life’s many disappointments that I find in my travels. But onward and upward. I was able to smother my dessert loss at Osteria Tabarchina with some seadas and mirto, so the evening wasn’t a total loss.

I decided Monday would be a day of exploring those areas of Cagliari I had missed. So I revisited some places to better appreciate them, like the Elephant Tower and the shopping area along Via Garibaldi. I peeked in at the University, but couldn’t find a student store, so sorry, Morgan, no Cagliari University t-shirt. Come lunchtime, I visited both of the highly-recommended pizza places and, of course, both were shut up tightly. Sigh. Anyway, I finally found one of the other good pizza places on a side street and indulged in a sausage, pepper and aubergine pizza. Very nice. More shopping, shower and nap rounded out the afternoon.
I really needed to have a lighter dinner that night, so I strolled down the Via Roma arcade fronting the marina and found a little sushi place, just what the nutritionist ordered. Spicy tuna and shrimp, spicy salmon, veg and shrimp tempura and a finishing lemon sorbet. Perfect. I spent some time ogling the yachts in the marina – one of them was so big it even had a helicopter on its aft deck! – and checking more side streets to see if I’d missed anything.

Tuesday was Cruise Day! I was up early and had breakfast at the hotel, then taxied over to the Marina Piccolo (Small Marina), as I wasn’t sure which bus stop to exit and where to go afterwards. Anyway, my driver found the docking area I was told to go to (Area D) and I settled in around 8:30 to await the arrival of my crew and other cruisers for our scheduled 9:30 AM sailing time.

And waited and waited and waited. No one showed up. No activity at Berth D. Nothing, Nada. No one. 9:45 and I was desperate. I noticed another boat just around from Berth D was getting ready to leave, so I hurried over and asked them if they knew anything about my boat, travel agency, company, cruise; anything at all. Nope, never heard of them. But – will wonders never cease, they invited me to join them on their day cruise, as they had lots of room and figured they could settle things later with my agency. Saved! I scurried on board and settled in for the day.

We cruised around the lower Sardinia bay, sometimes under motor power, sometimes under sail power. A nice, easy relaxing day. Did some swimming and had a nice lunch of cold meats and cheeses, took in the sun, smelled the ocean breeze and just chilled out. A nice break.

We got back to the marina around 4:30. I asked Carlo where the nearest bus stop was so I could get back to town and he offered to take me in his jeep. A good end to a good day. When I stopped by the travel agency to tell them their boat never showed up, they kindly informed me that the boat I had been asked to join was, in fact, the boat I should have been on in the first place! Even the Boat’s leader didn’t know that! There were obvious mixups in the berth number and I never even had the name of the boat, but somehow I got lucky and it all worked out for the best.

I had a shower and cleanup and my daily Aperol spritz at my hotel, and had a nice chat with a young Danish couple on holiday. Then I took the long two-meter hike to the Ristorante Italia, just across the street from my hotel, for dinner. It was another splurge night. I started with half a dozen Sardinian oysters, three from Tortoli and three from Sant Angelo, accompanied by a white wine. My waiter preferred the Sant Angelo oysters, as did the two gents at the table next to me, but my personal preference was for the Tortoli oysters. Then the Mains, some nice beef slices along with a side of veggies, some nice red wine and finished up with my fave seadas. My waiter also introduced me to a new after-dinner wine, Vernaccia, which was so good I brought a bottle home with me. I staggered back across the street and hit the sack around 11.
And so, my final full day in Cagliari. I thought it fitting it be a beach day, so I bussed back to Beer Beach, anticipating a nice long lie in the sun along with some swimming in the tranquil Mediterranean Sea. It was not to be. The Scirocco wind out of North Africa came whipping across the beach, blowing sand into everything. The sea was also choppy from the winds and full of bottom weeds and other sea-stuff. Not a good day for sunbathing. I lasted a couple of hours, but finally decided to call it quits. I showered early and did some last-minute shopping and sightseeing

Around 7:30 or so I headed out for my final meal in Cagliari, which turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment, after so many great repasts. The Danish couple I’d met recommended trying the escargot in tomato sauce at So Cudimbo restaurant, so I figured, why not? I got a table easily enough, but when I ordered the escargot, guess what the waiter told me? Go ahead, GUESS! Yep: “Oh sorry, we don’t have those tonight.”

Grrr. I was very disappointed and was on the verge of leaving when he suddenly brightened up and said, “Wait, wait here, sir and I will go to our other restaurant and see if they have some,” and off he scampered. He was back within five minutes with a covered plate of the allegedly delicious delicacies, and I was happy again. But not for long. These local Sardinian escargot were hidden in tiny shells, slathered in tomato sauce, and apparently there were no escargot forks tiny enough to get into the shells so I had to use a toothpick to pry the little guys out. And they were little! And not particularly tasty; I guess one needs garlic butter for that. So, not a great start to dinner. But the waiter was so pleased he’d been able to fill my order that I just couldn’t express my disappointment, so I smiled all the way through the dish. It also turned out that about 25% of the shells didn’t even contain anything at all! I’ll never listen to Danes again!

My Mains at least made up for the starter. I had porchetto, the great suckling pig dish of the island, soft and tender on the inside and crispy, crackly skin on the outside. Yummy. Some Cannonau red wine was the perfect complement. I decided not to chance another disappointment with dessert, so paid my bill and went off to Ristorante Italia for some seadas and vernaccia wine. Much better.
Thursday morning it was time to go. I paid my remaining hotel bill (I’d charged all those Aperol spritzers on my room) and hiked the five minutes to the main train station. I hoped there wouldn’t be a 90-minute wait today! I was in luck this time; I managed to find the right track just minutes before the train left, and made it to the airport, the first stop for all of the trains, in about 9 minutes. I was first in line at the KLM check-in counter – for all the good it did me. Turned out their system was down and they had to do everything by hand. Not a long line of happy travelers that day. Anyway, we only got off one hour late, which was no big deal to me as I had a nearly six-hour layover in Amsterdam anyway; just one less hour to kill.

I did some more airport shopping and was delighted to discover my departure gate was only a three-minute walk from the main concourse; usually I have to walk half a mile when departing from Schiphol Airport. So it was around 4 PM or so when I decided to find a stool at the main U-shaped bar of the Grand Palace Bar and Restaurant in the airport. I had a lovely local beer and snacks and passed the time talking to David from York, England, who lived in Switzerland. My one beer stretched to two then three, then finally dinner seemed in order, some very well-prepared Indian satay chicken. Another chat with a newly-arrived duo at the bar earned me another Chaney beer, which I really didn’t need by that time, but when a free beer is offered who am I to refuse?

I finally staggered away from the bar and found my gate around 7:30, to await a 9:30 departure. I must admit I spent most of the time checking for holes in my eyelids, but we took off only 30 minutes late and got back to Budapest at 11:30 PM. I caught the brand-new Express bus service from the airport to Kalvin Ter, my neighborhood, just 25 minutes, and was unpacked and asleep by 12:30 in the morning.

Another trip successfully taken. No more immediate travel plans, but watch this space for my next jaunt, probably not for a few months. Happy Summer and Autumn to everyone.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Trans Siberian Adventure: End of the Line, Everybody Off!


We arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 6:48 AM on Friday, June 16, after 24 hours on the train. The morning was death with bird songs. How I dragged myself out of bed and managed to brush my teeth at 5 AM I’ll never know – probably just on automatic pilot after years of experience. Anyway, we all made it somehow, with packed bags and stripped beds. Fortunately, our bus was nearby and I settled into my seat wishing for another hour or so of travel so I could resume my dreams of Greek carriage attendants and Wesson Oil.
The gods must have heard my entreaties, as I had a nice nap on the way to our first destination, a sort of national park area where we could view the lushness of the Yenisei River area from atop one of its viewing sites. We’d gotten off the train so early I hadn’t had time to finish my ablutions, so had to use the facilities at the park, which consisted of, oh joy, a squatting toilet. I’d managed to avoid these lovely modern conveniences so far, but I guess my time had come. I won’t scare you with tales of the facility’s use, but suffice it to say it ain’t too easy on 73-year-old knees.
We then toured the Lenin Museum and the War Memorial (for the Great Patriotic War, which is what Russians call World War II). We climbed a short incline to a chapel on top of a hill overlooking the city and were then given one hour for lunch in the middle of the city, on our own. We found a wonderful Thai restaurant two minutes’ walk from the bus and had a great lunch. We all wished we’d had more time to enjoy and appreciate the food and service, but one must make do with what one has. I managed to scarf down the spring rolls along with duck and veggies in the allotted time.

Back to the train and another hot, hot, hot carriage. We all relaxed until dinnertime, reading and napping and finding our way to the bar car for our evening repast. I chose the Old Moscow Salad this time, as I needed something light. My accompaniment was a lovely semi-fruity Spanish white wine. I thought it was inadequately chilled, but declined to comment to our bar car attendant, Irina. When one is riding the rails across Siberia in the comfort of a nicely-appointed bar car, it is the height of tackiness to complain that one’s wine is not adequately chilled. Or so I reasoned. A refreshing caramel ice cream for dessert mellowed me out just right.

We repaired to our cozy den of iniquity and found it full of vodka drinkers eager and ready to replicate the previous night’s festivities. We didn’t get as far this night, but I had no trouble falling asleep later in the evening.
Saturday morning, June 17, I was up and about at 8 o’clock, refreshing and handi-wiping and dousing myself with washroom water (NOT fit to drink!). It had now been two nights without a shower and even my handi-wipes seemed inadequate to cover all that ripeness. I could hardly wait for tonight’s shower. But first, we had to tour Irkutsk and then bus down to Lake Baikal.

I had learned that breakfast was available on the train from 9 AM, and was determined to get to the bar car in time for a reasonable early-morning repast. Which I did. Tony joined me and we ordered the menu item shown as “scrambled eggs.” It turned out the eggs were actually fried, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less if they were pounded into dust; I just wanted a normal breakfast. It was great: 2 eggs each, tomatoes, onions, bread (no toast) and Sprite (no juice). Aaaahhh!

About 15 minutes later Dean wandered in and ordered the same thing and the attendant told him they were out of eggs. No one else had come in since our arrival, but they were out of eggs. Strange. But Attendant Olga wanted to be helpful and to please her customers, so she recommended another menu item which was in stock: macaroni and cheese. And that’s what Dean had. For breakfast.

We exited the Trans-Siberian Express for the final time in Irkutsk at 11:31 AM on Saturday, June 17. Our train trip, but not our journey, was over. We’d come more than 5200 kilometers (around 3600 miles) from Moscow on the rails. What an adventure! There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as we thanked our Provodnitsa and our bar car attendants; I even gave each of them one of the Budapest souvenir shot glasses I’d brought along for just that purpose. I doubt I’ll ever do anything like that trip again and I was still savoring every moment as I lugged my suitcase to the bus for our city tour of Irkutsk.
The far-eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk only became important after 1760, when it connected to the road leading from Moscow to Siberia. From then on it was an important point of transfer for imported Chinese products.

We exited the bus in the center of the city, near another of the ubiquitous churches, then walked down by the riverbank to Irkutsk’s old Main Gate. After brief visits to the House of Decembrists, the Polish church (natch!) and the Kirov Room, we were dropped off at an amazing entertainment venue in the city proper, sort of an outdoor shopping mall, with restaurants, souvenir chops, pubs, etc. Once again, we only had about one hour to eat lunch and shop, not nearly enough time to do it all.
Anyway, Dean, Tony and I found a nice terrace restaurant called AHTPEKOT in Russian (Antrekot in English, Entrecote in French) and I had some grenkiye and a lamb kebab with potatoes, accompanied by a nice rum punch. I had to eat and run to the shops to see what I could find, after which we reconnected with the bus for the 60 kilometer drive to Lisztvjanka, at the conjunction of the Irkut River and Lake Baikal.

Along the way we stopped at an old reconstructed wooden village called The Watchtower, where we were allotted 90 minutes to wander around. 90 minutes! 90 minutes to check out some old log cabin buildings and a couple of yurts. 90 minutes we could have spent lazily and productively shopping for souvenirs and gifts in Irkutsk. The travel agency would hear about this.

Finally, after an interminable 90 minutes, it was off to our final destination, the hotel Majak and its wonderful, magnificent showers. After two showerless days, we needed them. Lisztvjanká is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but all we really wanted at the time was a shower. Our travel itinerary indicated our accommodations were to be “self-contained double-bed chalets.” What we got was a regular hotel room on the fifth floor of a large pink and yellow structure that dominated the small town’s lakefront. Strange.
Lake Baikal, Siberia, is the world's deepest freshwater lake and holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. The lake and surrounding mountainous area is a unique ecosystem and in 1996 was proclaimed a World Heritage site. The water, of excellent quality and with a high oxygen content and a low mineral content, is transparent or clear to approximately 40 meters. The Earth's only freshwater seal species, the Nerpa, or Baikal seal, is found here

Anyway, I finally got my shower, standing under the cleansing and cooling spray until the hot water ran out. Aaaahhh! Clean again. Refreshed, the three of us walked down the lakefront street looking for an interesting restaurant for dinner. Nope, nothing there. We returned to the hotel and found a corner table in the main dining room. Where there was a wedding reception in progress, complete with loudspeaker music, live singer, cheering guests, dancers and inveterate smokers, whose only terrace access was behind our table. The non-stop lines of smokers coming and going and opening the door next to our table to let in all that cold night air was a refreshing change from the warm, cozy bar car on our train. (You do recognize sarcasm when you read it, right?)

I opted for the seafood pasta and a beer or three. Our waiter didn’t speak English, and the menu was only in Russian, but lo and behold, the wonders of modern technology triumphed again. The waiter had a phone with an app that actually translated scanned text from several languages, so we were each able to order what was on the menu after it was translated into English. Will wonders never cease.

We left the wedding revelers to their revels and ascended to the 7th floor terrace bar for a nightcap. It was a touch windy on the terrace, so we went inside where we were able to somehow order some cheese stix and a plates of blinies. The bartender understood Jamesons readily enough. It was a good evening and we retired fairly early.

The next morning we faced our final full day in Siberia. We started out at 9 AM and finished our scheduled activities by around 1:30 PM, after which we were free until our final group dinner that night.

We set off from the hotel in two mini-buses, the easier to navigate the narrow roads in the area. First stop was the Lake Baikal Museum, which taught us, once again, more than we wanted or needed to know about the area. But we did get to see a couple of the famous Nerpa, the Lake Baikal seals that inhabit the area, the only freshwater seals in the world. The two we saw looked so happy as they swam back and forth in their cramped tank in the museum. (More sarcasm, guys).

Onward and upward – literally. Next stop was a chairlift at a nearby winter ski area, which we took to the top of the hill/mountain. That may be the first time I’ve ever been on a chair lift without skis on my feet. Got to the top, all of 1100 meters above sea level. (Just for comparison, my house in New Mexico was 2400 meters above sea level). The views of the lake were spectacular, and we were honored to share them with a horde of Japanese tourists who climbed all over every scenic rock to have their pictures taken. (The sarcasm continues). Then, of course, we had to get down the mountain. No one told me I’d have to walk all that way down a mountain, probably 2-3 kilometers. At least it was downhill; I’d never have even started the uphill climb.

Finally, our last formal activity of the day was a fast boat ride on Lake Baikal. Cool. We clambered into two lake boats and off we went. A brief stop at Shaman Rock to check out the clear water, actually have a drink of the lake and to drop a coin or two and make a wish on the mythical shaman who inhabited the area. Then it was over to a far bank for a brief hike up the hill from the shore. I opted to remain by the shore, as did several others. One of our party and our Russian guide even stripped down and dipped in the lake. I tested the water and decided it was way too cold for my tender bod. We returned to our berth at the hotel dock around 1:15 PM and were released for the rest of the day. Next scheduled event was our last night farewell party in the hotel’s restaurant at 8 PM that night.

I immediately took off down the lakefront promenade, searching for souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. And damn if I didn’t find almost everything I wanted. (Sorry, Tony and Morgan, no Harley Lisztvjanka shirts and no University of Lisztvjanka shirts. I did see an Irkutsk State University sweatshirt on a passing local, but she ran off quickly when I tried to buy it for you.). I had a nourishing lunch of lamb kebab grilled over open coals and a Kozel beer at a small terrace restaurant on the shore, watching the bathers on this quiet Sunday afternoon.

On my way back to the hotel, I decided to take in the show at the Nerpinarium, the blue-Quonset-hut shaped building along the way. It lasted about an hour and was a fun time for all attendees, including lots of kids. The seals did all their tricks and chowed down on all their fish tidbits for doing those tricks. Well, I enjoyed it!

An afternoon nap was in order, followed by another shower and visit to one of the hotel’s bars prior to our dinner. The last night party was a resounding success. The 20 or so group members who attended managed to put away four bottles of vodka along with numerous beers and wines. The noise level appreciated accordingly and, although our meals were staggered and served in surprising time frames, eventually everyone got their food. I had a beautifully-cooked steak with veggies, accompanied by something called cowberries. We never did figure out what they were, but they tasted good so what the heck. The steak was served with a meat cleaver instead of a steak knife, and, Boy, did I have fun with that!

And thus endeth our final full day in Siberia.

Up on Monday, June 19, around 6:30 for a final packing and breakfast before our 9:30 departure for the Irkutsk airport. I was so dehydrated from the previous night’s excesses that I drank down 2 bottles of water and 4 glasses of juice; I could feel my system absorbing it as fast as I could pour it down my gullet.
And away we went! Along the way we stopped to see an old Lake Baikal icebreaker ship called the Angara (name of one of the rivers that flows into the area), and then on to the airport. Cleared Security and checked in for our six-hour flight to Moscow, then a brief layover and another 2 ½ hour flight to Budapest, arriving at 7:30 that evening.

And my years of luck and good fortune with flights all over the world finally came to a crashing halt in, of all places, the Irkutsk, Siberia, airport. By the time I got to the check-in counter, all the aisle seats had been taken and I was relegated to a middle seat. For six hours. On an Aeroflot plane, known for their narrow, uncomfortable seats. I was sure my seatmates would be two overweight, sweaty, onion-reeking tourists – or maybe Russian gymnasts, as I’d had on a previous flight. I could hardly wait.

We boarded the plane and took off on time. I survived my middle-seat ordeal. Luckily, my seatmates were an older Russian professor and a young Russian iphone addict, and they were both content to read or sleep or otherwise not bother me or anyone else. Whew! We made it to Moscow without incident, where we said goodbye to Dean, who was staying over to visit a friend. A brief stint in The Irish Bar with several Caffreys and some lovely blintzes with red caviar, and I hiked down to our boarding gate and our flight home.

Naturally, the Hungarian Passport Control booths were overworked when we arrived, as at least two other flights had arrived at the same time, full of Asian tourists. Took me nearly an hour to clear Passport Control. I caught the airport bus and then metro to Kalvin Ter and dragged my suitcase to my building. I was home.

I unpacked quickly, slugged down a gallon of cold water, took a bracing shower and threw myself into bed. Didn’t even bother to set the alarm. I was off schedule for the first time in nearly two weeks. It was great.

And so it was over, a long-time dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia. An amazing adventure. I’ll need time to reflect on everything and consider the pluses (many) and minuses (very few) of the journey, but for now, here are the most obvious comments I can think of:


The Trip went so fast! I know we hurried and scurried from one sight to another, but we spent at least 60 hours on the train and you’d think that would slow time down. But no, time just seemed to fly by. Amazing.

All of our tours were thorough, but seemed rushed at the time. And we saw everything on our schedule.

Zita gave tours in Hungarian, but there were local Russian guides who spoke English at each stop, so we were able to get the main points of the commentaries. Zita also performed above and beyond the call, as she explained many things in English, too, but it was by no means a bi-lingual tour.

We covered around 5200 km (about 3600 m) on the train.

All of our hotels were new and modern and comfortable, with good restaurants and bars and GREAT showers!

We did not encounter a single danger that was noted in our guide book or was told to me by Russian friends. Not a single one! No problems whatsoever. Of course, Dean and I did wear money belts most of the time, but still, no compartment-attempted break-ins, no pickpockets, no hustlers, no offers of drugged drinks in bars, no dangers at all!

For whatever the reason, we only spent two nights (the first two) with an extra person in our compartment. The third night we had been moved to another carriage, so there were just the three of us from then on.

I never found out what Cowberries are.

And so, until my next great adventure – Samarkand? Sri Lanka? - that’s it from your favorite world traveler.

Hasta la Vista, Baby!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ridin' the Rails: Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk


As we pulled out of the Yekaterinburg station, it dawned on me that we were really, truly, finally, amazingly on the actual Trans-Siberian Railway, an express train across Russia. A long-time dream come true and a major Bucket List item about to be checked off. How cool is that!

The Trans-Siberian Experience: Finally!

After The Kazan Deviation, which was actually worth the side trip, we were finally traveling on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. And to mark our unique travel experience, we even got an upgrade in our compartment, with newer and better beds, chemical toilets, great air conditioning and a real Trans-Siberian restaurant/bar car, that looked just as it should.

We unpacked as much as we needed to and settled in for the long 24-hour train ride. Dean had to put in some work time on his computer; he does editing for several Taiwanese businessmen and always had new requests coming in for his English skills. In fact, during this trip, he had to spend quite a bit of time working, which was actually OK as we were on the train so much of the time and it could have been boring otherwise.

We did have one rather interesting occurrence as we waited for our train to leave the station at Yekaterinburg. I looked out our compartment’s window and saw our guide Zita talking with two official-looking people, while another of our group, Zsuzsa, stood nearby. The two officials left with Zsuzsa and Zita came back on board. As she passed our compartment, I asked her if everything was OK. She told me that the two officials were agents from Interpol and had tracked Zsuzsa down due to an unexplained discrepancy in her passport(s).

It turned out that several months prior to our trip, Zsuzsa had reported her passport lost and had received a new one from the Hungarian state. Soon thereafter, she found her original passport and, instead of destroying it or stashing it away under her unmentionables, she used it when applying for her Russian visa. A big no-no! Luckily, she had both passports with her and was able to straighten out her situation satisfactorily. The Interpol agents brought her back to us in Novosibirsk. Whew! A close call!

Tony also decided to spend some time with the other group members, while I headed off to see what our Pectopah (Restaurant) car looked like. Well, you know all those photos you’ve seen of what the carriages on the TSR look like? That’s exactly what this one looked like! It was old-fashioned beauty, tasseled curtains on the windows, dark wood tables and sidings, patterned fabric on the seats and backs with gold-colored trim, lots of brass fixtures, a small bar area, a kitchen, metal highlights and a transparent plastic ceiling. It was like walking into the 19th Century. I felt immediately at home.
And there in the bar car, at one of the booths, were Zsuzsa and Zoli, two of our fellow travelers, at 9 o’clock in the morning, quaffing a beer and eating peanuts and Lay’s potato chips. How continental! Naturally, I joined them for a morning beer, something I hadn’t done in a while. Our waitress Tatiana came by and showed me the dinner menu; dinner was included in the price of our upgraded carriage and compartment, so I ordered straightaway and told her we’d be back around 6 or 7 PM for our evening meal. Tatiana smiled mightily at me with her mouth full of gold teeth; she was a tall, large woman with a ready smile and seemed excited to have people who appeared to be fun riding her car. Of course, people who drink beer at 9 AM are usually bound to be fun (unless they’re hard-core dipsomaniacs).

We chatted for a while and drank our beers and munched our snacks. All during this journey, time seemed to stop whenever we needed it to, so having a beer at 9 AM didn’t seem out of the ordinary, nor did breakfast at midnight. And the time was flying by. I finally excused myself and returned to our carriage for some book time and maybe a little nap, as it was nearly noon! Even though we were now in the upgraded carriage, it was nearly empty save for a few other travelers; I guess the upgraded comfort also came with an upgraded price.

We whiled away the afternoon with books and window-staring and chatting with our neighbors. I decided to return to the bar car around 5 PM or so, leaving Dean and Tony to pop down when they were ready for dinner. The car was empty when I went in, so I sat by a window and ordered an afternoon beer and some crisps.

As I sat in that ornate bar car, sipping my Russian beer and staring out the window at the lush Siberian countryside rushing past, it was only natural that the first line of the old Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, should pop into my head.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for…” and the final word just sort of slipped in there; instead of “nowhere,” it turned out to be “Irkutsk,” our final train stop.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk…”

And the rest just naturally followed. I wrote it out on a napkin in the bar car of the Trans-Siberian Express, rolling through Siberia on a lazy summer evening. So here you go, a special treat, sung to the tune of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler:


A Ballad of the Trans-Siberian Express
or
THE CHESS MASTER



On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk,
I met up with a Russian, he’d had a lot to drink.
But he pulled out his chessboard and set up all the pieces,
And said, “Amerikanski, we play chess!” then he gave me a big wink.

Well, I hadn’t played in years, but I remembered how the men move,
What they’re called and where they went, so I moved a pawn real nice.
Then quicker than my eye could see he had me in a Fool’s Mate,
He said, “Amerikanski, you no good,” I give you some advice.

(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back


He said every Russian knows the way to win a chess match,
To win it every time is to attack, attack, attack.
Get your Knights out quickly with your Queen right there behind them,
Keep on moving forward and don’t give any slack.

Then the Russian he grew weary as he finished off his vodka,
He slapped me on my back and then kissed me on both cheeks.
He said, “Good night my newest friend, we are Tovarisch to the end!”
Then he gave a big gigantic sigh and slumped down in his seat.

And as he lay there passed out with his face turned toward the window,
Just a’snorin’ and a’twitchin’ in his own dream-filled sleep,
I looked at that damn chess board, with my King so neatly captured
And I vowed that now and evermore I’d never again be beat.


(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back.



My Muse smiled prettily at me as I scribbled the last line and then she ordered her own glass of white wine and headed for the next carriage up the line, probably looking for the next great Russian novelist to inspire.

Tony and Dean finally showed up and we had dinner (I had the roast pork and pasta, surprisingly good for preparation on a train). We toasted each other and our adventure to the wee hours. A few more group members showed up for more toasts and the night quickly blurred into a soft hazy glow as we sped through the semi-darkness of a Siberian white night.

We made a couple of long stops during which we could get off the train and stretch our legs and so Dean and Tony could smoke. Since such stops were few and rather far between, both addicts were cut off from their drug of choice for long hours at a time, so they took the opportunity to suck down that good old cigarette smoke whenever they could. No smoking was allowed on the trains, but sometimes a receptive Provodnitsa could be sweet-talked (I dare not say ‘bribed’) into letting the guys puff away between cars, where the rushing wind took the smoke away. No hard-core American rules for the Russians, no, sirree!
One late-night stop was at Omsk, and I also alighted to breathe in the night air and to be able to say I had touched down in Omsk, Siberia. What a great way to travel.

After a good night’s sleep in our upgraded, air-conditioned compartment, we arose early and had a leisurely morning before arriving in Novosibirsk at 9:34 AM local time on Wednesday, June 14. As usual by now, we packed up our gear and hustled ourselves and our suitcases off the train and onto our waiting tour bus.
Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, is the capital of the Siberian region and also the largest city in Siberia, an industrial, scientific, cultural and educational center. Our first stop was the memorial to the man who oversaw the construction of the railroad bridge we’d just crossed over the River Ob. Next we did Lenin Square and the Opera House, after which we did the Museum of Siberia, where we learned much more than we ever wanted or needed to know about life in that cold, cold region in ancient times.

Finally, we found our hotel, the Azimut Sibir, and the eagerly-anticipated showers. Sigh! The times in between showers were not especially onerous, but we did manage to sweat quite a bit on our day tours and even in the carriages, so feeling that cool water cascade down our hot, smelly, sweaty bods was always a treat.

The night’s entertainment on offer for the group was the opera Spartacus, performed, naturally enough, at the opera house. I had found what looked like a great restaurant in our travel guide, Expeditsiya, a place specializing in game. Tony opted to have dinner elsewhere and to rest up, but would meet us after dinner. Dean decided to join me, so we took a taxi (always amazingly cheap in the hinterlands) to the restaurant. It was a smallish place, decorated in hunting décor, apparatus, furs and other big game accessories. Drinks came first and I decided to splurge on an appetizer of “pee wee pies” and a mains of the Wild Fowl Mix, a large platter containing tasting dishes of young horse meat, reindeer, reindeer tongue, elk and wild duck, with a side of steak fries. Yum. I could hardly wait.
The platter, when it arrived, was presented beautifully, but its arrival had to be seen to be believed. Instead of our waitress bringing it out, a young male waiter arrived dressed in a camo hat and ghillie suit, carrying the meat tray. One of the most unique and creative meal deliveries ever. I also polished off a bottle of lovely red Spanish wine along with the meal. I dug in and managed to finish about 75% of the meats offered. I asked for a doggie bag to take back to the hotel and keep in the fridge for a late-night snack or breakfast. I waddled out of there, fully sated and happy. Dean also seemed pleased with his meat choice and beers, so dinner could be counted a success.

We returned to the hotel and picked up Tony, after which we caught a taxi to find the Jazz Club Truba; turned out it was an easily walkable few blocks from the hotel. Naturally, when we got there, we found they were having a private party and were closed to the general public. We were not amused. But we found a small German bar across the street and had a beer or two there, after which we decided to walk back to the hotel, maybe 10-15 minutes away. Easy-peezy.

Fortunately, Thursday, June 15, was a late start, so we could sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before starting off on our tour for the day. I used the time to walk to Lenin Ploschad (Square) after a nice Continental breakfast. The morning was hot already, but with a nice breeze in the shade of the sidewalk’s trees. I looked for souvenirs but couldn’t find any likely shops, so headed back to the hotel around noon. Our tour that day would include the well-known Akademik Town, a huge complex of buildings and laboratories and scientific centers devoted to the study and advance of the sciences – naturally. We wandered through the complex with a local guide, a Hungarian who had come there to study 54 years ago and never left. We then checked out the market, which I’d hoped would give me a chance at some souvenirs for friends and family, but it was mainly food and discount standard clothing. We had a photo op of the city and then hit the Railway Museum, which was really interesting. Lots of old trains in immaculate condition, painted and restored and kept shining. Most of them were from the heyday of the Trans- Siberian Express and had seen service all throughout Siberia for many years. A fun side trip.

We boarded our train for Krasnoyarsk, our next stop, around 7 PM, just in time for cocktails and dinner. Our compartment was back among the hoi polloi, although the carriage was better air conditioned this time. Plus, the train still boasted a bar car to keep us occupied. As we pulled out of the station, at least one large, rough-looking Russian guy from each compartment in our carriage stood looking out of the windows in the hallway. Hmmm, tough crew. But our Provodnitsa this time was a part-Greek beauty, long black hair and olive skin, a real sweetie. Finally got lucky – she spoke English.

This time our compartments had locks on them which required the Provodnitsa’s key to lock and unlock. So, when we left for, say, dinner, we had to ask the Provodnitsa to lock our compartment and when we returned we had to ask her to unlock it. Cumbersome, but presumably safer than any other method of securing the compartment. But at least the air conditioning worked reasonably well this time, since there were no windows in the carriage.

We all had dinner in our compartment, even though there was a bar car. I chose a chicken burrito from a platform kiosk while Tony made up sandwiches for himself and Dean: salami, cheese, onions, bread and a few other things. A cozy atmosphere of food and drink.

And then it was time for a party. We hadn’t really had one yet on this journey, as most of our group kept to themselves and chose not to patronize the bar car. This night would be different.

I wandered into the bar car after dinner, and found several of my group already there, including Zsuzsa (another Zsuzsa), a 40s statuesque Hungarian woman who was, shall we say, spectacularly well-endowed. Zsuzsa, Zita and Sandor had taken a booth across from me, while in another booth behind them was a single large Russian male (Damn, are they all such big guys?), eating what looked like red caviar out of a plastic container and occasionally sipping something in a white teacup. We didn’t pay him too much attention, as he was minding his own business – for a while, anyway.
Tony and Judit, a retired Hungarian judge, joined me in my booth, across from the others. At some point, as the liquor flowed and the atmosphere loosened, someone brought Maxim, our large Russian caviar-eating bear, into the conversation (Zita also spoke Russian, and Zsusa just a touch). Maxim then decided to share his goodies with us, so passed around his container of red caviar. It seemed he actually owned a caviar farm so could get all he wanted. Some of us took advantage and scarfed down the really good caviar; Zita estimate his little container probably held around $300 of red caviar. Dean had joined us by now and even he was impressed, although he had never formerly been a big caviar eater. Maxim also shared the contents of his teacup with us – which was definitely not tea! So we were mixing beer and vodka and caviar and the party was escalating. Maxim’s smile grew wider and wider, revealing his very own set of gold teeth. Flashy, that was our Maxim.

When Maxim stood to pass his caviar and vodka around, he also joined Zsuzsa in her side of the booth. Zsuzsa, an earthy Hungarian woman, was showing quite a bit of cleavage that night – and she had quite a bit to show. Somehow, Maxim’s arm found itself around Zsuzsa’s shoulder. She responded in a playful and innocently flirtatious way by exclaiming over her bounty, lifting them for all to admire and loudly proclaiming, “Oh my GAAAHHD!” The party was well under way.

More beer, more caviar (the real Russian stuff, not that cheap import), more vodka, more hugging and squeezing of Zsuzsa by Maxim, more “Oh my GAAAHHD!” in a loud party voice by Zsusa, and we were off and running. Despite his size, it only took Maxim about another 20 minutes of eating and squeezing and attempted fondling and vodka to reach the terminal stage. The last we saw of him, he was passed out in the carriage’s foyer, where the entry doors were located. It was definitely a memorable gathering.

I seem to recall eventually finding my compartment and remembering it was a good thing that one of my roomies had asked our Provodnitsa to unlock the door, as I doubt I could have done even that. I dove headlong into the arms of Morpheus.