Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The time machine

As soon as I arrived in Russia I was overwhelmed with all I could see around me. The buildings, the landscape, the language, the fashion -- OH, the fashion! -- there was so much to take in. By the time we all met up we had two hours to buy train tickets, take a quick look at the Red Square, and get all our things for our overnight train ride to Veronezh (pronounced Ver-oh-niche).

With my senses still at full alert I took in a lot more than I otherwise would have as we entered the train. It was easy to tell from the outside, the train was not up to par as the ones I've been on in Europe. Inside was dimly lit with dark walls and Persian runner rugs in the narrow halls. I heard the words "spasibo" and "pazhaluysta" passed around from the mouth of one person to another like a game of hot potato.

The room, also dimly lit, was small and cramped and had a rug which coordinated with the one in the hall. The walls were covered in a dark red fabric and the window, which we quickly opened due to the lack of air circulation, was dressed with glittery champagne colored drapes. The blankets provided looked like quilted table cloths. All told, the train screamed "RUSSIA" and couldn't have been better if I had come up with the design myself.

By 11pm we were all in bed as the train rocked back and forth on the tracks. With the window open we could hear every squeak and turn the train made. 30 minutes later the train started jerking to a halt. The breaks were squealing- the sound was nearly deafening, we were still rocking back and forth, and with the occasional jolt from the train slowing we were lucky we didn't fall out of our beds.

That's when it happened. The voice. A strong, abrupt, commanding female voice over the loud speaker saying something in Russian in a tone that made my blood run cold. The heat, the cramped room, the fabric walls, the Persian rug on the floor, the rocking back and forth, the jerking, the voice... it was all too much. All I could think was, "HOLY COW, WWII!". And as blasphemous as it may sound, the vision of Jews in gray jumpsuits lined up on the platform of the train station where we had just stopped came to mind.

No, there really was no better way to say "Welcome to Russia, Claire!" than that.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Country of contrast

When traveling somewhere I usually have a basic idea of what the surroundings will look like along with the way of life, whether it be a 3rd world country or a westernized local. There may be some culture shock involved, depending on where I go, but that's taken into account. Likewise, I knew Russia would be quite the experience, but I never realized that it would be unlike any country I've ever visited.

The effects of communism are ever present. Moscow is a spectacular city with some of the most beautiful architecture I've seen yet. The metro stations are works of art. The streets are spotless, the gardens are well groomed and even the guards are periodically checked (clothes adjusted, hat set straight, face wiped clean) to ensure perfection. But 5 feet outside of the city center is an entirely different world.

The world outside of Moscow city center is one filled with row after row of tall gray dilapidated buildings, 20 year old cars on the brinks of death, potholes the size of Montana and unkempt yards. Granted, not all of Russia is as extreme as the picture I'm painting, but a large portion of what we saw is exactly how I described.

No matter where we were, every person we passed on the street (and there are MILLIONS) walked by straight faced. I made it a game to smile at them to see who would smile back; all I got in return were odd looks. But the moment a conversation started it was easy to see that they are the warmest, sweetest people who'll give you the shirt off their back and leave you with a hug and well wishes.
I'm so glad I was able to see both extremes, and that all my time wasn't spent in "tourist Russia" - Moscow- which is the Russia the former communist leaders wanted the world to see. And in doing so, it was easy to see past the rough exterior, which was presented, into the heart of Russia, which is warm and inviting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An escalator can never break, it only becomes stairs.

As soon as I unpacked from my Norway trip I was re-packing for my Russian adventure. I barely had a moment to catch my breath. That is, until I arrived in Moscow and had plenty of time to breathe as I waited and waited and waited on the extremely long escalators that lead down to the metro.

So, for your vewing pleasure I present to you one such escalator (although for the sake of your sanity, I chose one of the SMALLER ones to share).

Editor's note: Due to the angle of the shot, it's difficult to see how steep the descent actually is. Just take my word for it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

City of Rain

It rains 2/3rds of the year in Bergen, and the time we were there was included in that fraction. Although, thankfully for us, the rains only came in the morning and evening, leaving the entire day sunny and dry. And although I've said it a hundred times before about a hundred other locations I've visited, please humor me yet again when I say, "man I'd love to live there!" If only there were 2 of me, or better yet, if only I were making millions and could afford to buy a house in multiple countries... .

Bergen is a fishing port and, like Seattle, has a (much smaller) equivalently of Pike's Place Fish market. It's something the city is well renowned for. And although I detest the smell of anything fish-like, going there was something we both agreed we had to do. It was there that Kim had her fish and chips and I had my very first... and last... reindeer burger. The taste wasn't bad, although it was extremely meaty, but after the initial first bites I couldn't stop thinking that I was eating a reindeer. The animal which carted around the Santa Claus of my childhood. The animal I heard prancing on my rooftop as I laid in bed on Christmas Eve. And, heaven forbid, it could have been Rudolph himself that I ate, thus destroying all hopes of Santa's safe arrival for Christmases to come.

But Christmas or no Christmas, what was done was done and although I had to pass on the last few bites of the burger to Kim, both of us had enough sustenance to sustain us for the next few hours of exploration before dinner. The city is beautiful from every angle, up high, down low, from the east, from the west, and from the water... we know because we checked.

If only I was wealthy enough... it sure would be on my list of locations for a vacation home.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We were sailing along...

It was a bitter sweet day, leaving Balestrand. Our hearts were torn, leaving a place we had taken a liking to so quickly and feeling as though there was more to explore since we had only spent two evenings there. But we also knew Norway had more to offer and we were itching to check it out. In order to do so, we spent the entire day traveling.

The first part of our day was by bus up windy streets on the mountainsides. It was on the bus when we met Hank, our hilarious Taiwanese travel buddy who kept us entertained the remainder of our day. He was fun, overly bubbly/animated, and the things that came out of his mouth would keep us laughing for hours.

The second part of our day was on a lazy boat ride, basking in the warm sunlight as water sprayed our faces from the waves that crashed against the boat. We sailed right up to a waterfall, exited the boat, and were allowed to play on the giant rock in front of the fall. It was something, we were told, that the captain didn't normally do. We had our doubts, but it was nice of them to make us think our travel group was extra special.

We were dropped off in Askvoll to wait for the boat that would take us the last leg of our trip. It happened to be one of the locations we had thought about staying one night. And how we were glad we didn't! It was a village of about 50 people, with one grocery store, one gas station and one restaurant which displayed a pamphlet full of false advertising stating: "Looking for excitement in your life? Visit Askvoll!" Whoever was contracted to write the pamphlet clearly needs to get out more.

An hour after our stay in Askvoll a high speed boat pulled up to take us on the last leg of our trip into Bergen. We pulled up to a number of ports along the way to pick people up and drop them off at various locations, some of which seemed quite remote. One of which was Rysjedalvika, a village that the agent at the tourist information desk in Oslo stated while going through our itinerary, "and I won't even try to pronounce that one." Confused, I asked "wait, where are you from?" To which he responded, with an extremely embarrassed look on his face, "from here."

By 10pm our day of travel ended. Pulling up to Bergen from the water was incredible, and the best way to end the beautiful journey.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Glacier: [gley-sher] –n. A huge mass of ice slowly flowing over a land mass, formed from compacted snow

There comes a time in everyone's life where they are presented with an opportunity they would have never considered taking before. Maybe it's never crossed their mind, or they have never had a desire. But once the opportunity is tangible, either all previous stipulations disappear or they're left wondering why they've never thought about it before. In the past few years this, in a nutshell, describes my life.
I've started creating a list of all the things I never knew I wanted to do but have done anyway... since moving to Europe. One of the coolest (not only literally) items on that list occurred in Norway. Not having definitive plans of where we would stay, we had an extra floating day to decide (on a whim) to do with as we pleased. And we decided to stay in Balestrand. In doing so we stumbled upon what turned out to be the highlight of our trip... which would never have happened if all had gone as planned from day one.

Looking over the route of our trip, we noticed that there was a boat that goes right up to a glacier. Upon further research, we found out that the trip only leaves in the morning from Balestrand, and we had arrived at 6pm. It was then we decided to stay one extra day. When checking in we asked to stay a second day, and mentioned the the boat trip. The owner of the hotel took it a step further when she spoke of a 12 hour trip to not only go near the glacier, but to walk upon it. Kim and I both looked at each other and without saying a word both agreed that the idea was golden.

The day was spectacular. We had a 4 hour bus ride up to the glacier, which in any other circumstance would have felt extreme, but didn't bother us for the prospects of what lied ahead. The excitement only surmounted when we put on our gear, which included crampons (spikes for our shoes), an ice pick, body harness, gloves and rope. And thankfully the weather was perfect, because we had nothing more than sweatshirts to keep us warm, due to not knowing glacier walking would be a part of our plans.

The whole experience was incredible. We hiked up one side of the glacier, had lunch on the top while overlooking the phenomenal views, and hiked down the other. All in all we had spent 3.5 hours hiking, although it didn't even feel half that long. It's something I'll remember for a lifetime, and never stop to wonder why I had never thought of it before.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

cruising the fjords

In all the 29 years of my life I had never traveled to a location without knowing where I would sleep that night. But there are always firsts of everything, and this was no exception. The next stop on our itinerary after Flam was to go to Balestrand. We scoured the internet the night before for hotel rooms and hostels in Balestrand, but they were all booked. However right before leaving Flam we had a brief email exchange with the very last hotel we found and they stated they had a room for us. Relieved that we wouldn't have to pay an astronomical fee, or sleep at the station, we were actually able to enjoy our boat trip through the fjords.
And talk about incredible. We were in a luxury high speed boat that whipped the hair into our faces, but even that couldn't distract from the incredible scenery. The views from the water were indescribably beautiful,... so I won't even bother trying.

By the time we made it to Balestrand there was a car waiting from the hotel to pick up our suitcases, providing a great welcome to a great village. The village itself is situated right on the fjord with mountains in the background. Many artists have found their inspiration there and it's not hard to understand why. I could have walked around for days absorbing the sites if I had the time.

Like Flam, Balestrand is another small village, but not half as commercialized. We only saw one other person as we walked along the fjord. There were very few people at the reastaurant we ate in, which is one of three in the entire area. And there were a handful of people who participated in a prayer service that was being held at St. Olaf's church. The Anglican church was built for an English woman who had moved to Norway and consequently fell in love with a Norwegian. Today services are still held in English by rotating English preachers.

The whole day was extremely relaxing, and as one man we met had said, "it truly is one of the most peaceful places I've ever been."