Friday, 30 January 2009

Like a stranger in Mockвa

Here are some fun facts about Russia, mostly derived from my time in well-known capital city Moscow.

1. Russians don't speak other languages, but seem to believe that if they speak to you loudly and slowly enough in Russian, you'll somehow understand them.

I mean, really.

2. Moscow's city centre was a UNESCO world heritage site until the 1960s, but then it got disqualified.

It is amazing it took as long as it did. Back in yon days of Stalin, he had the main cathedral demolished so as to make way for a huge palace of communism that would have a 100ft high statue of Lenin on top. This obviously doesn't exist - you'd have seen a picture or summat - nope, it was deemed physically impossible by basically everybody, so being a prosaic type Stalin built an outdoor swimming pool instead. That stuck around for some 50 years, before Yeltzin decided to shell out something like $800m to demolish the by now very popular public swimming pool and replace it with an EXACT REPLICA of the original cathedral. That is how Moscow 'works'.

3. Russians do not believe winter to be an inappropriate time for the consumption of icecream.

It is big business.

4. Any Moscow guidebooks more than a week old are basically useless.

On an instructive but technically fruitless search for some internet cafes and bars recommended in my TWO guidebooks, I discovered they'd all have been replaced by garish new clothes shops. This was a particular shame, as one internet cafe, The Phlegmatic Dog, got voted best in the world by some Yahoo survey or other. Probably because of the name. It has been turned into a Burberry store or something, which just goes to show that in this uncertain age, even a Yahoo poll can't protect you. The only buildings not in constant flux are those in the Kremlin and the crumbling relics of the post-Medieval/pre-Soviet days. These will probably fall down eventually anyway, as Moscow's limited remaining number of nice buildings are the subject of an epic wrangle-athon between federal and local governments, both attempting to suggest that it is the others' responsibility to fix. Sigh.

5. Moscow is missing about three centuries.

Sort of following on from the above point: if St Petersburg entirely embodies the Tsarist glory years to the extent that in places you'd barely realise the Soviet era had happened, Moscow has the aforementioned crumbling ruins of that era, lots and lots and lots of concrete 20th centurey awfulness, and - in the Kremlin at least - a bunch of churches that feel kind of alien, they're so epically old. Musty, mystic, beautiful Orthodox places, full of centuries' old icons and frescoes of unfathomable Biblical scenes, they feel ancient and mystic in a way Western churches don't.

6. As with most of our ribbing of American pronunciations, the British assumption that it's proncounced Mos-co rather than Mos-cow is based solely on the belief that we are British ergo we are correct.

If you say either pronunciation to an actual denizen of Moscow they will look at you with a mix of anger and pity. If you say Mockвa (that's 'Moskva') they will look at you with a mix of anger and pity but at least understand what you are saying, though they might pretend they don't.

7. Yes, you really can see Lenin's corpse.
It's all a bit odd. There's a well-seasoned conspiracy theory as says it's just a wax figure... certainly he looks kinda waxy, but I'd argue that a) whatever embalming process might be required to make a 92 years dead Marxist icon (sans brain - it was scooped out for study, underwent 40 years of analysis to find out what made him so awesome... they didn't find owt) not look like some sort of horrible puddle of leftover takeaway probably does SOMETHING pretty unusual to the texture of flesh, and that b) what with Communism not really being with us these days, the exact merits of continuing to fool the dwindling (and non-paying) crowds into believing a waxwork is the real deal are pretty questionable, whereas I can more imagine Putin and co's line of thought being "well, we've got this dead Lenin here, might as well make use of him". I dunno, the actual tomb he's in is very atmospheric, a sort of dark marble pyramid, but the body... I dunno, it looks like him, but the fact is Lenin ended in 1921, you don't really feel you're in his presence, real body or no, he's a simulacrim.

8. The Russian Metro is AWESOME
Not the free newspaper, of course. I wouldn't want to pass any comment on the free newspaper. Nope, the undergound system in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow is frickin' incredible - it's, like, a mile minimum between stops, trains come every two minutes and blitz forward at an insane pace, and the stations are all made out of granite and marble, meaning that they never need to be shut down for maintainance due to their epic durability.

9. Russian food = meh
After the increasingly weird stuff we ate in the Baltics, I was maybe expecting the Russians to take things even further - animated dill dumplings the size of three carthorses, dunked in a river of quivering lard. Nah. They're into pancakes. And not in a good way.

10. Continued oppression fail on my behalf
Haven't been stopped by the police once. Feel brutally rejected. Saw an American tourist posing for a photo with two cops the other day. THEY WERE SMILING. FFS.

Bonus fact (can't be having an 11 point list): middle-aged women are employed exceptionally well here. At the Hermitage every single room had one sitting balefully in a chair making sure you didn't wreck shit up; they man all the Metro kiosks; every carriage on the Trans-Sib comes with one. I sort of wonder what they do before reaching middle-age. Maybe they wait, hopefully.

If you're still with me dear reader, I'll give a quick summary of how things stand now, as I'm not going to do a whole blog about the first train journey I took, given there's a four day one just around the corner. The journey was okay. Met a couple of brothers from Sheffield by the names of Louis and Joe, who are actually on exactly the same tour itinerary as me. They're kind of hippies and a fair bit younger than me but they're nice guys and it's definitely very much appreciated having a couple of drinking buddies/people to experience the insane cold/deal with the inevitably arse-clenching culture shock of China with. I guess I'll be with them for the next two weeks or so. The highlight of our piffling 25 hour train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg (from whence I am writing this) was getting involved in some sort of vodka drinking bout in the restaurant car with a very strange man called Andrey. He spoke to us vigorously and incomphrehensibly for a good 15 minutes, completely unphased by our lack of Russian, before suddenly coming out with "ah, English? WHAT YOU SAY 'BOUT MY MOTHER?" It was pretty amazing, we were naturally laughing at him, but deliberately or not, the only line of English he appeared to know was a mercilessly terse distillation of British humour. He did get borderline threatening when we decided to go to bed - me and Joe were so pissed we continued to find it hilarious, but Louis (who'd abstained from the bulk of the vodka) was a little concerned he might, y'know, knife us or something. But it doesn't really matter, as we never saw him again and all lived happily ever after.

PS Apropos of nothing, but I've been watching a bit of BBC World since staying in hotels for the 'tour' part of this trip, and there's one amazing advert for South Africa that is possibly the most horribly bathetic thing ever. Some really posh chef or something is going on about how she loves the food in South Africa, and then po-facedly drops in a plug for her new recipe book: "it's called A Taste Of Freedom. It's a biography of Nelson Mandela, but with recipes". I mean. Wow. But hilarious, of course.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Westerner in goes to Russia and doesn't get oppressed fail

Oh deary me, so if one is to believe in chaos theory, tempting fate, and that film where Aston Kucher travels between dimensions or something, it is entirely possible that the complete torpedoing of the UK economy was caused by a blog I wrote some four months ago about how Blighty's financial collapse didn't really affect me. Ho-hum, probably not going to Japan now, might have to do something irresponsible in SE Asia.

Unsuprisingly, rather than our quite friendly-sounding 'the credit crunch', the Russians opt for the rather grimmer 'the crisis' to describe economic affairs - I was actually wondering if I'd missed a war or something, until I finally cottoned on what our tour-guide was talking about.

Anyway, Russia. Obviously it and the rest of the world have had their ups and downs, but I'm honestly not having a gun pushed to my head by a burly chap called Boris when I say that if anything it could stand to be, I dunno, maybe 15 to 20 per cent more evil? After all the bureaucratic blah getting my visa, it was just scanned by a weary-looking guy in army fatigues who then wordlessly waved me on - compared to the browbeatings you get on a trip to the US it was pretty goddam piffling. Even Cyrillic - surely the ultimate evil of the empire - isn't really that bad when you get used to it, just a fairly simple code. In fact when I did my first conversion, the 'passport control' sign at the border, and realised that it changed to the Western alphabet the Russian phrase is 'passport kontrol', I had a brief fantasy that maybe Russian was just English in Cyrillic. Um, it really, really isn't, but it was a lovely if particularly brainless thought while it lasted.

So yeah, a bit disorientating, and maybe it's residual Cold War paranoia but one really does get the impression the locals think you're a total idiot if you don't speak Russian and fully grasp Cyrillic, but it's been fun, albeit not particulary drunken. The latter is probably down to not really having much in the way of a posse: I can't quite work out how many people are staying in my hostel - sometimes it seems to be nobody, sometimes a filth-encursted but genial old Russian, ocasional glimpses have been caught of some super-haughty French girls. One thing IS for sure - my 12 bed dorm is occupied only by me, which is kind of a good thing, as another person might object to the measures I've had to take to get it to room temperature. The Russian approach to central heating appears to be that if it's cold outside one should make it proportionally hot inside - with all the windows open and a cooling fan on, the raging inferno of the radiators was just about combatted.

Wow, that was exciting, I just described central heating to you.

Anyway, St Petersburg. It's good; as I daresay you're all WELL AWARE, Peter The Great built it to be his 'window on Europe', ie a complete rip off of the best bist of Austrian, German, Italian, French and British cities, in order to show said nationalities that the Russians were just as damn cultured as everybody else. This he did by building it in the the middle of an inhospitable swamp, atop the corpses of sundry POWs and serfs, bound in servitude under a feudal system everyone else considered to be, like, totally barbaric. Screw the serfs, though: pretty much every building going in the town centre looks impossibly grand, no matter how banal its actual purpose - the city centre branch of Zara is housed in a sort of green glass palace that makes me feel a bit self-like just looking at it.

The sheer extent of the grandeur is actually a bit of a shocker: I knew what the St Petersburg of yore looked like, but given it got more or less totalled in the seige of Leningrad, I guess I'd expected there would have been more Soviet-style concrete monstrousities erected by way of replacement. In fact the rebuilding has been 'nuff sympathetic to the original Tsarist look of the city, which is kind of a surprise... The Hermitage in particular slightly messed with my understand of what exactly Stalin and chums were up to - it's an almost unfeasibly magnificent building, chock full of priceless art and artefacts, almost none of it Russian or former USSR, essentially all acquired with money based on the blood of them there peasants, but the it seemed the Reds seemed fairly cheery about hanging onto it all and showing off its general awesomness to the now liberated people. Essentially St Petersburg's splendour is a testament to why the Revolution happened, but rather than turning it into a shitty concrete hell, or, I dunno, flogging the art, the regime sort of shrugged and said 'yeah, but it's really nice'. Gross over-simplification, obviously, but if you can't be rhetorical in a blog then where?

So this could get very long, but to in a nutshell spent a day in The Hermitage actually OD-ing on art (after spending three hours wandering around one of the floors, I suddenly realised I'd only seen half of it and genuinely hyperventilated for about five seconds) and can confirm it lives up to its reputation. Yesterday I went on a walking tour conducted by a super-enthusiatic young lady called Katya, which was also a hoot - she basically loves everything about St Petersburg more or less unquestioningly, so got a good mix of pornographically amazing buildings now used to store, I dunno, biros, and the more crumbling, rotting side of the city which most tourists miss as it basically got the mother of all facelifts a few years ago in celebration of its 300th anniversary.

Favourite bit was a huge public courtyard in the centre of an apartment block; over the years a loose and mostly organisiation free series of locals, vistors and toruists have been covering its surfaces - floor, walls, a kids' playground - in tiny mosaic tiles, adhering to clay outlines laid down by somebody or other. It's really impressive, all the more so considering the actual buildings are in pretty shoddy condition - as if they're dead and some sort of beautiful calcification has crept in from below... wonder what it'd take to do the same thing in the UK? It's a lovely concept, I think.

Right, getting my first Russian sleeper train in a couple of hours, suppose you could maybe argue it was the beginning of the Trans-Siberian... need to go back to the hostel to see if they've finally processed the documents that proved I was in Moscow... if they haven't I might be seeing how that 10 to 15 per cent works out.

Presumably if you're for any reason still reading now you might actually be enjoying this, so I'll leave you with three observations, you masochistic twat.

There is almost no graffitti in the city, due to it being punishable by, I dunno, a stern beating. Thus quite striking was one wall covered in spray stencilled images... it was all musicians - Sinatra, Bowie, Morrissey, White Stripes, etc etc - except slap band in the centre of all of them was a latter day Bill Murray. ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE.

I saw an old man taking a bearcub for a walk today.

And finally: yesterday I had cold cabbage pie, and felt I should mark the occasion, as it's probably the most peasant thing I'll ever be arsed to do.


Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Frankie is a very bad man

It would be lovely if any of you as know Mark Powell would care to ask him what the Latvian capital city Riga is like; if he offers any answer beyond "yeah, well, whatever, there's this hostel with a bar, LOL, fail, etc..." then he's a bad man telling lies.

In fairness to him, battling through the waves of nausea in order to actually get up and do something was as brutal a series of (late) mornings as I've ever put myself through, mostly because our temporary dwelling, the Old Town Hostel, is possessed of a bar, a bar that empirical evidence suggests is staffed approximately 2/3 of the time by a chronically irresponsible waster answering to the name of Frankie.

Disentangling what exactly happened is a bit long in the telling, but let's just say for starters that the stated bar shutting time of midnight was a complete lie, and that putting an out of control alcoholic in charge of serving me, Powell and a bunch of Australians was not a good idea. If you think you've got the impression already then here is a good time to break off reading the inevitably long-winded exposition; should you be foaming at the mouth to know THE TRUTH then bear with me while I first inflict a description upon the blameless city of Riga.

It's a bit weird with the Baltics- they're all about the same size as each other, got independence from Russia around the same time, 2m of its combined citizens formed a human chain to grumble about the USSR back in the 80s, nobody smiles, the driving is incomprehensible, the English great, the food pervertedly stodgy. That said, the three capital cities are vastly different, with Riga's chief quirks being its gargantuan churches, soaring high into the sky, and the profligate sex industry that seethes fragrantly below.

Obviously vis a vis the sex industry I mentioned a woman getting the Wrong End Of The Stick (oo-er etc etc) in Vilnius, but that was kind of a weird misunderstanding; here the old town streets are essentially a pungent warren of titty bars. Walking back from our meal on the first night was genuinely quite an ordeal, the number of hustlers we had hassling us. Being nice-ish, young-ish men, we naturally shuffled passed them in as furtive and Latvian a looking a way as possible, though did stop to guffaw in mild shock when one man called out "hairy pussy, smelly pussy" by way of inducement. That's a quote from Dusk Til Dawn, non? In which case it's a reference to a strip joint that turns out to be full of homicidal vampires. And if it's not, I'm not sure calling the staff's gynaecological hygiene into question was the way to lure us in. Again, there is the slight worry that the Brits do not have the reputation around these parts that they might.

Anyway, the city is pretty cool if you can ignore all that, I'm not going to bore you too long, but wandering up St Peter's Cathedral's insanely tall spire was particularly excellent (apparently when it was initially finished in 1667 the workmen tossed a pane of glass off the top, the superstition of the time being that the number of pieces it shattered into would be the number of years the spire stood; the pane landed in some hay and didn't break, and the spire burned down the next year) as was a daytrip to Sigulda, a snow entrenched little town fairly accurately described as 'like paradise' in Lonely Planet - highlight was probably getting a hilariously kitsch cable car over a massive ravine, out of date Christmas lights blazing, horrible Latvian drinking music oompah-oompahing from a CD player operated by the marvellously po-faced old lady attendant.

Naturally Mark joined me in neither of these activities, and herein lies the telling of the latest bout of drunkenness as extreme sport. As with many a tale of this sort, it begins with the words 'so we met these Australian guys', but clichés are there for a reason, and if Anthony Mudge is a cliché then I don't want to be original. He's basically Frank from Shameless except somehow he's managed to drunkenly haul himself around most of the world, mixing 75% incoherent drunkenness to 25% poetic clarity, and inevitably has stories ranging from boogieing with Mongolian strippers to punching a guy from Gloucester's lights out after two years of increasingly bizarre provocation.

Anyway, so it's our second night there and we go out to dinner at pointlessly-punningly named restaurant John Lemon with a motley crew: Anthony, his somewhat quieter friend Matt, Greg, a more sober Autralian guy (and all round top geeza) we semi-accumulated in Lithuania, and Monika. Monika was an unusual character, an alleged Lithuanian who allegedly studied fashion in Lithuania (she had rubbish dress sense) and was allegedly working as a hairdresser in Milan (she had rubbish hair) and had sort of insinuated herself onto our hostel table while we were planning dinner. She remained po-faced, taciturn and essentially entirely emotionless throughout the entire time she had rooted herself at our table, and despite rebuffing our various attempts at small talk, she assented when we asked if she's like to come to dinner with us. What with us having to sit on two tables to fit in, we hadn't really had a chance to get much of an impression of her until Anthony leant over midway through and said words to the effect of "she's fucking crazy". Turns out she allegedly had no money apart from an alleged €100 note, which allegedly nobody in Riga would change for her, had claimed to be both 17 and 22, had allegedly come to Riga from Vilnius to get a cheap flight to Milan, and was not in fact staying at our hostel or, indeed, anywhere. Net result being, backpacker politeness and the relative cheapness of Latvia (despite it being the only country I've where been to where the local unit of currency is worth more than the pound one for one) meant we paid for this strange and suspicious woman's entire night.

Aaaanyway, so we went onto another bar and Anthony began to regale us with the tale of two female staff members at the low rent hotel in Tallinn he and Matt had stayed in and subsequently gotten it on with a couple of nights ago. Much to Anthony's utter shock, said staff members promptly walked into the very bar we were in. There then followed a half hour or so where everybody conversed politely, while me and Mark waited nervously for whatever seismic thing was going to happen to happen, distracted only by some hilariously camp white power guys in the corner.

We repaired to the hostel and soon enough stuff started to get a bit weird: the one girl from the Tallinn hostel, Anneka, went on about how she was married, sort of flirted with everyone, eventually dragged Matt off for sex; Annette, the other one, kind of semi-refused to engage anyone in conversation, but started pawing Anthony frantically, at one point mistaking Mark for him in the darkened basement and taking a lunge at his greasy manhood before put straight; Greg sat in the corner and sulked; Monika engaged me in a card game allegedly called Stupid, which made so little sense that I was reasonably certain she'd just made it up - it seemed to have almost no competitive element, and though we relatively speaking improved at it, we could never in five hours of playing work out whose turn it was without asking her. The weird thing is, she was terrible at it, and the reason we stuck with it can bet attributed to the combination of the shallow euphoria of winning something regardless of whether you understand it, and Frankie the bartender, who sometime around 4am started imploring us to do shots, many of which came from him for free, every round of which he partook.

I buggered off about half an hour later, but from what I understand, at about 7am Mark tried to go to bed, discovered he could no longer use his legs, and somehow hauled himself up three flights of very narrow spiral stairs using hitherto unsuspected reserves of upper body strength; the much cheered up Greg, meanwhile, snuck the impassive Monika into his deserted dorm room and treated himself to the obligatory snog and fumble, through he gave up after she responded with the urgent passion of a deceased vegetable.

I was up by noon and bumped into her as she blankly wandered out of the dorm, apparently unconcerned by the fact she'd a) cheated on an alleged boyfriend, and b) allegedly missed her alleged flight. She said she was going to go along and see if there were any more Riga to Milan flights that day (errr...) and if not, maybe she would go back home to Lithuania. Written down that probably all sounds utterly tedious, but we'd still give anything to find out what was going on there: I'm guessing she was either genuinely mental, but in a very, very selective way, or she was like, a retard trying to live out her lifelong dream of being a con artist.

Anyway, not to bore you with too much more: the next night we went to Hospitalis, a demented Soviet kitsch theme restaurant where you sat in gynaecological chairs and had your order taken by very angry monobrowed nurses - Anthony managed to make his nurse even angrier by ordering a stream of Manhattans in lieu of food. By the time we got to the hostel bar, Mark and Greg were on their last legs, Matt had already left, Anthony couldn't stand, sit or breathe straight, and the crowd was narrowing down to an already wasted Frankie, who - in total contravention of pretty much everything - let everyone smoke inside, a German guy called Thomas who'd missed out on the previous night's drinking and was determined to recreate it single-handed, and Martins, who was, I dunno, Dutch or something, and spend half an hour telling me about something he'd read on the internet with excruciating earnestness.

Not wanting to be left with just Thomas, Martins, and Frankie I retired kind of early, coming down the next morning to a scene of utter destruction: apparently it had ended with just Thomas and Frankie drinking, with Frankie attempting to bribe Thomas to go away so that, er, he could stop drinking himself. There were electrical cables ripped up and everything. I'd recommend you visit the Old Town Hostel and say hi to Frankie, except if they haven't fired him by now they're massive, massive idiots.

Oh yeah, and if you didn't get the idea before: Mark completely outdid himself by only emerging from the hostel for dinner, never so much as once getting a peek at Riga in the daylight. Normally I find such antics a bit grating, but this was so extreme I kind of admire it.
Anyway, that was a very long blog about drinking, wasn't it? Partly because now de-Powelled and ensconced in Russia I have thus far not been living quite so la vida loca, but personally I can kind of just about handle that, much as I miss the cartoonish twat.

PS no spellcheck on Russian blogger, it would appear. CENSORSHIP!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Lukowski and Powell: failed sex-tourists

So it's about 4/5am at a random club in Lithuania's capital city of Vilnius, and I'm in conversation with a girl I believe named Egle about, y'know, stuff in general (conspicuously avoiding Mark's conversational companion, a heavily-built chap with forthright opinions on the perceived ills of the Muslims and Jews - ethnic/religious groups I would suspect he would have a job of a time getting firsthand experience of in 21st century Vilnius), and she offers to show us around town later in the week, but cautions me "you cannot pay me for sex". Which rather took me aback, the next 15 minutes or so being an exciting mix of shock and a hint of anger that she'd said it, a splash of shame that she might have assumed that's what I was after because that was the reputation of Brits abroad, and a large dollop of paranoia that I might have a sex-tourist type vibe. I don't think I was coming on to her... I mean, DO you come on to a prostitute? Or is that sort of defeating the point? TROUBLING.

Said conversation in said Lithuanian club was the culmination of a drinking binge sparked by the fact we'd spent the entire day on buses, travelling across the dour post-Soviet snowscapes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania... none of them were like Bulgaria, which had a haunted Communist tomb feel to in in a lot of places, but it's still sort of a surprise that in three countries with a relatively cosmopolitan reputation there's such an inherent architectural grimness. Though what I expected I dunno, it's not like post-collapse of the USSR they were going to replace all the foreboding buildings with fluffy palaces, but y'know, they could have given them a lick of paint or something.

Vilnius is pretty cool, though; due to my Mum's slightly histrionic description of a recentish holiday, I'd kind of steeled myself to expect Dickensian gloom and angry mobs. As it is, the menfolk do have a slightly lynchy look to them, but I think that's mostly due to the fact you'd probably be laughed at if you didn't wear black bomber jacket and beanie, for such seems to be the national uniform. Town centre is all historical, like, and a lot less run-down feeling than Tallinn's, with a few enjoyable quirks like the world's only Frank Zappa statue, erected solely because the Lithuanian Zappa fanclub are - by all accounts - spectacularly enthusiastic. As my main wander around town happened in daylight hours, Mark obviously didn't accompany me, and I ended up on the top of Gedimas Hill on my own. This is basically where Lithuania was founded 1,000 or so years ago, biggish, snow and ice encrusted hill in the middle of the city with a fort on top and a stunning view. I was the only person there, and it was kind of surreal, that this place means a lot to the people of the city (Lithuanians are a super-patriotic bunch, largely due to the fact they were quite hard about 700 years ago), but that nobody would really go here as it's kind of impractical, there's nothing to do.

Main wholesome activity thrust of this portion of the trip was a day excursion to Trakai, a place we were predominately interested in because it was the home of the Karaites, a spectacularly obscure Arab-Judeo sect who came from Syria several centuries ago. They have their own customs, own culture and own (now endangered) language and adhere to some sort of mental interpretation of Torah. I don't know what we really expected to see (somebody in some sort of fruity robe sacrificing something, probably), but as it turns out what one actually ends up with is a couple of restaurants selling traditional Karaite cuisine, which as it turns out basically a fairly unspectacular varient on the Cornish pastie. It was hardly a disaster, mind, as Trakai is fairly awesome, largely on the grounds of the fact it's a) the most delightfully backwoods-looking Eastern European town you'd care to imagine without actively giving yourself the fear (varyingly dilapidated wooden shacks under several feet of snow, no people on the streets but a terrifyingly high number of police vehicles out and about), except b) at the end of it is a massive frozen lake with a super-beautiful fairytale-type castle in the middle of it. Up close, and said fairytale was a little dark thanks to the surly babooshkas in every room who glared at you until you left, but walk over the frozen lake is pretty spiffy (erm, assuming the prospect of walking on ice is inherently exciting to you, it's much like any other walk otherwise).

Other activities have involved eating Lithuanian traditional cuisine - favourites being zeppelins, potato dumplings about the size of a baby's head, couldn't move for about an hour after, but felt pretty good about it; never again is the national bar snack of choice, deep fried strips of black bread with garlic dip - imagine chips and fried bread having a child, then multiply that child's calories a thousandfold, then give yourself a heart attack for good measure, and you're sort of there. Finishing the plate was an act of pure macho idiocy.

And of course a quick round up of Mark's antics. When, on the first night, we ended up in our second karaoke bar of the trip (didn't sing this time, alas), Mark had got tiddly enough to do his absurd man of the people thing, and was passionately if unconvincingly launching into a rant about the Western cultural oppression that meant Lithuanians were karaoking to English-language songs rather than their own tongue. Cue every single song for the rest of the night being in Lithuanian.

His most epic moment I was sadly absent for, as stumbling violently pissed out of Play -Lithuania's numero uno indie bar, they played 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes' by Modest Mouse, woo! - I walked on too far ahead and got separated from him, which I do feel kind of guilty for. He decided to get a taxi home, and basically walked half of the way back to the hostel in order to go to a cash machine, then walked back to the club to get them to call him a cab, decided it'd be rude not to order a beer, dropped his beer and broke the glass, ordered another beer, got in his cab but allowed a local guy to jump in as well, the cab went to the guy's house, Mark got the fear that the guy and the cabbie were going to rob him, so took off, this time eventually wending his way home some two hours after me. Or at least, that's what he said happened, though I suspect you probably wouldn't make something like that up.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Back to the Baltics

Hello all

It's me going on about being abroad again. Once more I literally have nothing better to do than blog while waiting for Powell to faff; the new factor this time around is the mode of his faffing... as Diana once said to Martin Bashir, "there were three of us in this marriage", and while I'm pleased to report myself and Powell have never slept together as man and wife, I'm not sure I can say the same about him and his bloody iPhone - yesterday morning he spent 30 minutes reading aloud the web comments on a Richard Littlejohn article. I actually walked out of the room so he'd stop, but I'm not really convinced he did.

Tallinn's bountiful free WiFi truly is a dangerous thing - there was a Japanese guy in our hostel whose sole purpose for coming to the Estonian capital appeared to be to put in 24 hour shifts sitting in the common area following the stock market on his laptop.

All that accepted, Powell's antics have been less irksome than usual thus far, primarily because we've been to Tallinn before (twice in Mark's case), and with the added social bonus of my friends Adam and Ruth being in town at the same time, we haven't actually been arsed to do any tourism whatsoever. Indeed we always had the stated intent of doing nothing more than sleeping and drinking for our two nights there. Both have been achieved in abundance (Mark actually managed to spend more time in Tallinn asleep than awake), though even his efforts were upstaged by our dorm-mate, a middle aged German man who went to bed at about 5pm on Monday and didn't arise 'til 11am the next day.

Not going to overly dwell on Tallinn again - I'm sure you have all committed my previous blog to memory - but a few new things this time, foremost among them the discovery of DM, a bar themed entirely around the music, art and general, y'know, vibe of Depeche Mode. It's, um... I dunno, it could have been a lot crasser, it just seems faintly baffling: we were the only customers in there at about 1am (there seems to be a strict 'never give ground' policy on the notion a bar in Tallinn might shut early, no matter how desolate) and the barman had the look of a man who'd probably punch Dave Gahan's lights out should he or any member of the band responsible for this purgatory have the temerity to wander in. The thing is, the music policy isn't just 'Depeche Mode only'; it's actually just their four concert films, thus further narrowing down an already pretty limited music palette. I can confirm from an hour's exposure that missing out on the Songs Of Faith And Devotion tour is not something I'll hold as a regret in life.

Looking for somewhere to kill an hour before meeting Adam and Ruth for dinner, Mark suggested a place with the glorious description "there's a good bar around here. Yeah, I can't remember what it's called. Or where it is. Or what it looks like. Actually I dunno if it is any good". We found what he claimed was it, a nothing if not memorable Austrian-style beerhall, named something like 'Austrian Beerhall'. Again, like a lot of things in Tallinn, it wasn't half as awful as logic would suggest, though even two one litre steins of beer couldn't dull the pain of the incessantly jaunty barrage of accordion music. Also notable for the fact the male staff all looked like criminals of varying degrees of hardness, but had been rather cruelly spooned into lederhosen (they were about as nonchalant about it as physically possible, i.e. not very), while the female staff were so pyrotechnically beautiful* we were both freaking out a bit... I sort of wanted to take a photo just to prove they existed, though I realise this could be taken the wrong way. And was probably intended in a wrongish way, if I'm brutally honest.

We'd gone back post-dinner (mostly to show the girls to Adam and Ruth), but when that shut at the unseasonable hour of about 11.30pm, we sort of mooched around town looking for something to do. Adam wanted to go to a strip joint, Mark to the terrible night club we went to last time... we ended up in an Irish bar, which one always thinks of as the ultimate tourist fail, but actually it was full of locals doing karaoke, which is the ultimate tourist win. My, Mark and Adam's rendition of Bloodhound Gang's 'The Bad Touch' (yes, I know, we're deservedly going to burn in hell) went down almost freakishly well with the crowd (there was DANCING), but the greatest pleasure of the night was actually hearing the Estonian music; arguably I was drunk and deluded, but all the indigenous songs sounded like great lost college rock anthems, was impressive, we sang along in their conveniently phonetic language with less irony than you might expect. Also impressive: Estonians do not take karaoke very seriously, which can always be a thorny issue when men of our vocal 'talents' exercise their lungs abroad; but the one girl who did take it seriously had a really awesome voice, like ethereal and shimmery in a Julee Cruise style, which you NEVER get in karaoke anywhere and is, in hindsight, the main problem with all karaoke everywhere.

More productive return visit than we thought, then, and we shall be back for a wee bit next week... stay tuned loyal readers for an account of Lithuanian hijinks. And believe me, those jinks have been HIGH.

* Obviously YOU, my lady readers, would put them to shame, etc etc etc.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

I am going for a short walk

I can say that in 24 hours time I'll probably have walked through a swamp in Walthamstow with a bunch of people dressed as wetland animals then gone to the pub after and will have said goodbye to a lot of people and I bet none of the fuckers cry. TWO MONTHS WITHOUT ME. TWO MONTHS. They'll be crying by the end.

I can say that in one week's time I'll have returned to Tallinn, got drunk in all the places I got drunk in last time (notably the Hellhunt, by far the classiest bar in the world to have a crap painting of a naked chick stradding a wolf as its logo), gone to Lithuana, got drunk in Vilnius, gone to see the last surviving members of an obscure Arab-Judeo religion, and will - in exactly one week's time - be drinking with Mark in the pub attached to our hostel in Riga.

I can say that in exactly two week's time I'll be in St Petersburg, will have an opinion on The Hermitage, and will hopefully be drinking somewhere with someone, and will most certainly have felt sorry for myself at least three times.

I can say that in a month I will have gone to Beijing and left Beijing, and will probably be in a place called Xian that I have no mental picture of at all.

I dunno, I suppose that's the reason people get nervous and excited and a bit weirded out about going travelling, I can say all that stuff but it doesn't really MEAN anything to me yet.


Tuesday, 6 January 2009

So yuh, I went to Iceland

Because I am single, unemployed and living at home with my parents, I've probably squandered more time than is really useful on the retrospective ponderance of Iceland's exact appeal. Not that our short-notice conceived tie-in with the collapse of their economy trip was anything less than marvellous; it's just thinking about it (and having been politely asked by a bunch of Icelanders) I wonder what it is that makes the country - or Reykjavik - a place that people/middle class Brits of my sort of age unquestioningly see as a good thing... I found it quite hard to formulate an answer: yeah I like the bands, and yeah, I like fruity natural phenomena, but there's no way I'd say my principle reasons for wanting to go were the off chance I might be in the same pub as the guy with one eye from Sigur Rós with the prospect of a top notch geyser the next morning.

Nah, all that counts for something, but I'm sure it must for a large part be an issue of exclusivity - it's an isolated place with cool bars, it's pretty pricey, there's possibly the thought that maybe there's something they're not letting on to us about the reasons why there it keeps throwing up so many awesome musicians... and I guess Reykjavik is that weirdest of things, that is to say European new world; it's a hi tech, sophisticated town that's part of the West, but it simply wasn't there in any meaningful form 100 years ago, and neither was the lifestyle that goes on with it - it's the otherness of Europe combined with the otherness of the New World combined with the general mystery of Scandinavia. Or maybe I'm talking shit and people just really do dig those geysers. Anyway, here are some observations. Cherish them. Cherish them close and never let go.

1. Their New Year's Eve is better than our New Year's Eve
Basically, every household in Reykjavik (and I'm fairly sure the country) fires massive fireworks into the sky from about 11.40pm to 12.10am. It's impossible to really capture the sensation in photograph or film, but it's kind of like being trapped in the world's awesomest natural disaster. All of us tried to dazedly explain the crapness of British firework demonstrations to our hosts, who were under the impression we must never have seen fireworks before. While it's a shame ours aren't like that, I suspect if they were we'd either be exterminated by chavs, poisoned by the volume of fumes, or be at the mercy of obscenely wealthy firework cartels. But yeah, go along, there is literally zero way you will be disappointed. Unless you dislike fireworks. That might be a problem.

2. These are not your Tom Dick or Harry fireworks

Oh no. They are only put on sale for four days a year in government-controlled buildings with their own bouncers (they have a uniform, it's a bit Crystal Maze). The reason being they don't want shipping to get confused. The reason shipping might get confused is that for some delightfully insane reason, you can just buy actual ship flares and let them off. They are fucking cool, though after breathing in just a dab of the fumes I was concerned I might have lost the use of a lung.

3. A baby puffin is called a puffling

Which is adorable. And is also the name I will bestow on my firstborn daughter. We were hoping to hang out with some actual puffins, but they're not around at the moment, sadly. When asked where they were, the lady we were quizzing said words to the effect of 'just hanging out in the sea, not doing much'. One evening we contented ourselves by drunkenly persuading a restaurant to let us play with their stuffed puffin. You can see KT flirting with it here. Furthermore a puffin watching expedition to ANGLESEA has been planned.

4. Icelanders are good people. Probably better than you.

Well not YOU, obviously. But, y'know... Er, basically this is what would have happened if we hadn't tapped up some random Icelanders by way of mutual friends. 1. We would not have seen Iceland's number one reggae band (they have to import their singer from Sweden). 2. We would not have seen the most unlikely bill of bands EVER (more of which later). 3. Our New Year's Eve would have consisted of us wandering around the deserted streets of Reykjavik in a very cold fashion, with no alcohol, and no prospect of alcohol until the bars opened at 2am, watching the fireworks go off in the residential part of town, i.e. a great distance away. As it was, Icelandic neo-classical wunderkind Ólafur Arnalds gave us the lowdown on the town's giggery (thrill to an except of his music below, complete with authentic Icelandic TV show), while Andy's acquaintance, the delightful Kristrún Mjöll Frostadóttir (left), invited us to her aunt's house for New Years awesomeness.

5. It is hard to gauge how serious this whole 'economic meltdown' malarkey is

At the insistence of the lovely Ms McDermott, we decided to indulge in some misery tourism and toddle along to a demonstration against, um, I dunno, money or lack thereof. It had a sort of village fete air, only without the nice cakes. We clapped and booed at the appropriate junctures, but it didn't really offer the vicarious adrenaline rush we'd been desperately craving, and as you can see from the picture to the right, it was hideously under attended. Apparently initial demonstrations had attracted as much as 7,000 people (which is a lot for Reykjavik), but I suppose they'd got bored when they realised staging a protest against your own highly relative poverty is probably not really going to achieve much. Kristum said she thought the whole thing had rather peaked with the initial waves of redundancies in the finance sector, and that now most grumbling was from a mix of idiots who'd taken out too much credit and patriots outraged that it no longer cost stinking Brits half their life savings to look at a pint.

6. It is still quite expensive
Like, £3.50 to £4 for a pint, £30 for a litre of schnapps (here modelled by the lovely Laura McDermott, later to be dropped by Andrew '83rd most influential person at Edinburgh' Field), while major tourist things like the Blue Lagoon have their price set against the Euro, so are actually probably more expensive than they would have been six months ago. But I suppose it's basically the price of London now; the fact is we drank an utterly obscene amount, especially young Andy, who claims to have attained "the worst hangover of my life" as a result of NYE, and also claimed he'd never previously vomited the morning after a night out, something not necessarily born out by the three times he did so on the trip. It will be interesting to see how ATP treats him. But the reduced prices did make it survivable - at the weekend Icelanders genuinely don't go clubbing 'til 3am, then boogie their ethereal tits off in cool little cafes that arbitrarily declare themselves clubs at whatever point they so choose. We hung out a moderate amount in the Damon Albarn part-owned Kaffibarinn, almost purely because of said part-ownership, but they did play good music, and we were led to believe it's very exclusive and hard to get into so like, go us. Here is a tip for how to get into a club that gets so busy it generally only lets in celebrities and the beautiful people: go along at about 2.30am. Completely fools them all.

7. There is more to Iceland than Reykjavik and its surrounds

We went to the Westmann Islands and were - at least for the second of our nights there - the only tourists present. They're a little chain most notable for the fact the main island got twatted by a volcano in 1973, burying most of it under ash and lava. This didn't really put the inhabitants off, and the town is pretty much back to normal, aside from the excavation site where they're digging to find out what a 1973 homestead looked like (a measure of their enthusiasm for this project is that they've thus far unearthed the corner of one house). Oh yeah, and the new volcano. Which is awesome: aside from the fact climbing it was probably as close to yomping about a lunar landscape as any of us are going to get (actually I could see Andy somehow wangling it - 'dammit, this shuttle mission needs ARTISTS!'), it also has vents that blast up hot air courtesy of the raging force of nature that will one day probably kill all those suckaz on the island. Adorable. Also the Volcano Cafe in the town does a mean-bordering-on-sadistic White Russian.

8. There is not that much more to Iceland than Reykjavik and its surrounds

Well not in winter. Our hostel roommates on the first night were a trio of enterprising young Germans who informed us they were off for a 200km hike through the middle of the country. Initially we were genuinely humbled at the puniness of our ambitions. At the same time I was a bit curious as to how they were going to do this hike, as I'd read the inland was basically inaccessible at this time of year, plus hiking when there are only 3-4 hours of murky light to go by seems kind of dicey. The Germans informed us it was okay: they had seen the route on Google Earth. Were they regulars at this type of thing? No. But they had - they solemnly informed us - all been in the Scouts. Now, I'm fairly sure the German Scouts is probably at least comparable to the SBS, but I was still a little skeptical. The next day we saw them and asked what had happened to the hike. They answered in puzzled irritation that nobody would drive them to the start of the trail "because they said it was too dangerous and that the only way we could come back was by rescue helicopter". It wasn't clear whether they didn't believe the grizzled Icelandic veterans who'd turned them down for a lift, or if they were simply happy to take their chances. The next day we saw them again. Even their revised trip had been deemed too dangerous. They were looking a bit crestfallen truth be told. We never saw them again... a little part of me hopes they found the icy death they clearly craved.

9. Electric light up tombstones are PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE

We saw a couple of light-up cemetaries... from a distance they look about the most genuinely vulgar thing ever, but up close they're a lot less gaudy for some reason or other, think it's to do with the unicolour and the fact they don't, y'know, flash or play songs. I want one. And I don't mind if it flashes or plays songs.

10. It really shouldn't work
It is genuinely baffling to me how a society so small manages to be entirely functional. There's only 118,000 people in Reykjavik, but the fact they have a full compliment of doctors, TV people, barstaff, people in grocery stores, politicians, a large number of unemployed bankers, not to mention TRANSLATORS, which must occupy shitloads of people... it just seems profoundly unlikely, like something completely fundamental has been missed out, like, I assume there's no military, but there must be something else missing, surely? Hmm. And yet not only does it function in very civilised fashion, but it also throws up this inordinate number of bands. I find it hard to explain, but I will conclude by highlighting one of said bands, who we saw at a dementedly eclectic concert that ran the gamut from good (Mr Arnalds) to 'oh god, how could this happen in this country?' (Iceland's premier rap outfit. I can't remember their name. I don't want to). However, the real discovery was Ultra Mega Techno Bandið Stefan. I believe I shall let their beautiful music speak for itself.

PS. Oh yeah, so we're thinking of going back this summer or next, it sounds like such an entirely different place - puffins! horses! midnight sun! accessible glaciers! - that we'd be FOOLS not to. FOOLS, I say. Join us, if you dare.