We’ve Moved!

We've Moved

We’ve Moved

This blog has now moved to http://www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.

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Hump Day Inspiration….

VT-A-BIRD-WITHOUT-WINGS

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We’re back!

Mongolian Drive Through

Mongolian Drive-Through

We’ve been AWOL from this part of town for a while and are excited to be back. In this blog we’d like to inspire your sense of adventure and share with you all the things that you’d like to know about travelling in the regions that Vodkatrain’s journeys run through.

We’ve got big plans for what we’d like to share, but I’d like to throw it out to you and get your comments on anything that you would like us to cover as well.

Ideally it would be great if anyone with some constructive ideas for us could please leave a little comment on this post. If that’s not your bag then please feel free to email us.

In the meantime we’ll be busy beavering away putting together info to inspire and inform and we look forward to getting that out to you soon.

P.S. I hope you like this pic of a Mongolian drive-through as much as I do. I’ve been looking for an excuse to share it for ages!

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Featured journey: The Nomadistan

(This blog has now moved to www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.)

Have you ever wondered why Columbus discovered America while he was commissioned to find a reliable supply route of spices from India? Apparently, so it has been claimed, he used an astrological map created by the famous Fergana-born (today’s Uzbekistan) scientist Ahmad Al-Fargoniy which came to being in the 9th century and was completely accurate but Columbus mixed up the top and the bottom of the map and therefore went in the opposite direction.

Did Columbus discover America following the Uzbek map?

These are lands of fascinating stories and legends, even more intriguing the less western people know about them, Central Asia offers a rewarding travel experience embracing history, spiced up with genuine oriental hospitality and leaving you to contemplate just how far-reaching this area’s influence has been on transforming the world.

In this entry we are featuring the Nomadistan journey with Vodkatrain that takes you across 4 countries into the heart of Central Asia to ancient Bukhara and Samarkand across the steppes of Kazakstan and into the western China – home to the unique Uyghur minority before finishing in the amazing imperial city of Beijing.

–MOSCOW–

“The Third Rome – Moscow is now the capital of the Orthodox World”

Start your journey in the magnificent city of Moscow where the speed of life can be compared to that of the expensive cars flashing by over the Kameny (Stone) bridge. The medieval, never-fading beauty of St Basil Cathedral reminds of the times of Ivan the Terrible and the decisive years of Russian history when the small slavic state was being centralised and started to turn into a new empire that would replace the fallen Byzantine one… Moscow proclaimed itself the third Rome and by emphasising its growing importance and responsibility took over the leadership of the Orthodox Church in the Christian world. Although the original Silk Road never stretched as far as Moscow, its ties with Byzantine Empire created the links between the states and thus oriental goods having travelled from China along the Silk Road also reached Russia. The main purpose of the Silk Road was as a network of trade routes connecting East and West and has created an extraordinary journey for curious travellers.

Train at Kazansky station

It is always good to know that you are boarding the right train!

From the city of Moscow and across the south-west of Russia into Kazakstan on a three-day journey to Tashkent – the Uzbekistan capital. The adventure begins when you need to take the train in Moscow which leaves from one of the THREE train stations located on the same square. Moscow is truly a transport hub and to facilitate in figuring the train stations out they are called after the direction in which trains depart. So the train bound to Tashkent leaves from Kazansky train station and as you can imagine – the city of Kazan is located on this line. However it still doesn’t help us with the train to Tashkent 😉

Thankfully you don’t need to worry about the right train station as your Honcho will take you there and help you board the right train!

Uzbek girl

Uzbek girl

As you get on the train, make an effort to become friends with your carriage attendants. It is always fascinating to try to find out their story, how many children they have and how long they have been doing this job for. Since most of the attendants are men, female travellers need to come up with a fake (if there is no real) family story  – to minimise the temptation of them making you their second wife and also for the enjoyment of conversation as Central Asian people love hearing about foreign people’s families even if they are only imaginary.

Border crossings are the essential part of the overland travel and on The Nomadistan journey it is a part of the fun as well. The first train journey takes you  across Kazakstan. First you will cross the Russian-Kazak border with non-smiling officials on both sides. But indeed – border crossing is nothing to laugh about! 🙂

Then the Kazak-Uzbek border which, due to the elaborate map making process during the Soviet times is only a few kilometers from Tashkent.

Central Asia

Borders were “drawn” by Stalin and now Tashkent is only 1 hour away from the border

Filling in the declaration forms is also part of the deal. Pay attention when you do that! They may seem difficult but in fact the rules are quite common across the board. As you enter Uzbekistan list your valuables like camera, phone and laptop. Declare the cash but no more that three thousand USD. And most importantly, when you leave the country ensure to declare less dollars than you declared on the way in otherwise the Uzbek officials will think you had engaged in some illegal high paid job while going through their country. All the forms are normally asked to be filled in twice – one for the officials and one for you to present on the way out of the country. A sample Uzbek declaration form can be downloaded from here.

—TASHKENT–

Finally after the ordeal of getting the visa, spending three days on the train and crossing two borders you are in Tashkent! Settlement appeared here more than 2000 years ago however the look of Tashkent is quite modern mainly due to the massive earthquake that happened here in 1966 and destroyed the great deal of the city’s old quarters.

Three connected cranes – symbol of Uzbekistan

Compared with other world capitals, Tashkent doesn’t quite stand out. Nevertheless, the main square with its Victory park, eternal flame, fountains, spotless boulevard and flashy government buildings is quite pleasant especially on a sunny day. The most prominent relic that is kept in Tashkent these days is one of the 5 Qurans remaining from the 7th century. If you wish to learn more about the Quran and the history of the blood stain still visible on it, check the article here.

Pilav

Hearty bowl of pilav is the best introduction to Central Asia

There are a few museums in the city that are worthy a visit but for the taste of Central Asia go to the “Pilav Centre” which is great for the hearty bowl of flavourful rice with meat and vegetables – staple food in this part of the world. Prices are low in Uzbekistan which makes it a great place to try all sorts of local varieties. Tashkent is the most expensive city of the country but even there you can have a feast at the local chaykhana and it will cost you a maximum of 10 US dollars!

–SAMARKAND–

After a short stay in Tashkent we make our way to the station where we board the train for  a few hours journey to Samarkand. It is a truly amazing city and the architectural ensemble of Registan Square is just mind-blowing.

From the minaret

From the minaret on Registan Square

Negotiate the fee with the square guard and climb the minaret of the madrasa to the left of the square. This 5 dollars will be worth spending as the view from the top of the minaret is breath-taking. It goes without saying that you need to be careful climbing up and we don’t guarantee that it will still be open during the time of your visit. Ask your Honcho to help you if you decide to give it a try!

Registan Square

The monumental beauty of Registan Square

Samarkand has once been a capital of the vast Timurid Empire which stretched across Central Asia from the Black Sea in the west to China in the east. The glory of the 15th century capital can still be seen today – intricate tiles of mausoleums at Shah-i-Sinda and spacious dome of Bibi Khanum Mosque, perfection of Registan Square especially in the light of the rising sun. With the conquer of Persia, and the following assimilation of Turkic and Persian cultures it was a golden age of Persian language, literature, art and architecture leaving magnificent examples of persian influence in Central Asia.

–BUKHARA–

Uzbek merchant

Around the ‘hauz’ – happy merchant having a break

The journey continues by train to Bukhara – the jewel of the Silk Road and with not doubt the most atmospheric city on this journey. Bukhara is full of historic buildings but there is nothing better than just wander around the old center getting lost in the maze of narrow streets in the Old City.

“Suzanne” embroidered table cloth – famous craft in Bukhara

When you get tired of your walk, sit and chill out at the Lyabi Hauz – beautiful ensemble of edifices created in the 16-17th centuries around the pond (hauz). The madrassas around the pond and the trading domes are occupied by craftsmen offering unique Uzbek souvenirs including Suzanne embroideries that a specific to this area.

Bukhara is easy to navigate thanks to its small size and you can pretty much walk the whole Old City in a day. The Ark fortress requires a bit of time to visit thoroughly and British travellers will be surprised to hear a tragic story about their countrymen who were executed here back in the 19th century during the Great Game. The Kalian Minaret is beautiful although it is also known as the Tower of Death as for centuries criminals were executed by being pushed of the top of it.

Bukhara

Ancient Bukhara with its blue domes, sand brick buildings and Kalian minaret

Changing the topic to a more pleasant one, should your time permits, treat yourself to the Turkish Bath – hammam which is located right after you exit the trading domes heading towards the Ark. You need to make an appointment few hours in advance as the place is very popular. After an hour in a pleasantly warm sauna with a relaxing massage – you will feel that life can hardly get any better. For the excellent dining experience with the view over the Bukhara sand brick domes, visit Minzifa Cafe which features both Uzbek and European cuisine.

–KAZAKSTAN–

Back on the train for an overnight journey to Tashkent where we take the second glimpse of this city in the middle of Central Asia. The same day we depart by train to Almaty. Having crossed Kazakstan by train we are now making the second entry into this emerging new oil powerhouse. Therefore a double entry Kazak visa is required for the Nomadistan journey.

Almaty

The “apple” capital with Tian Shan Mountains as its backdrop

With the Kazak new capital Astana starting with the same letter as Almaty, it makes it a prefect trivia question. Although Almaty is no longer capital of the country (since 1997) it remains the largest and the busiest city in Kazakstan.

“Alma” means apple translated from the Turkic language – the family of languages that Kazak belongs to as well.  Recommended reading before visiting the country is “In search of Kazakhstan” by Christopher Robbins who discovers many facets of the country being intrigued by the hypothesis that apples originate from Kazakstan. No need to say that watching “Borat” is unnecessary before the visit.

–CHINA– With your batteries charged we board the train again and our next destination is Urumqi – capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region of China.

Uyghur man

Uyghur man at the market

Urumqi hit the headlines of newspapers in 2009 when it became the centre of separatists riots. As a return measure Chinese government cut the whole region off from international telephone access and Internet for the few months putting the region into sleep mode and causing small businesses to search for alternative sources of income.

Urumqi is a big industrial city with the majority of population being Han chinese. During the times of the Silk Road, it was a seat of the local authorities that collected taxes from the bypassing caravans.

Urumqi has wonderful museum which is worth a visit and there are some great things on display narrating the diversity of the minority groups living in the region.

The Uyghur ethnicity is of Turkic origin and most of them practice Islam and Sufism. Uyghur culture has distinguish features and their art, musical instruments, medicine and literature have been known and respected for centuries with some of the relics now being found in the history museums around the globe. Uyghur dance accompanied by the local musical instruments is particularly beautiful. The complicated sequence of hand moves and skilful following the music is just enchanting!

This video features the Uyghur dance.

From Urumqi we get onboard the Silk Road Railway with the train taking us through the high plateau of the Chinese North and then south bypassing ancient Chan’an – the Silk Road terminus and our journey will end in Beijing where everyone can enjoy the activities of their taste – thankfully in the city of this size and so much history there is no lack of things to do!

Imperial Beijing

Imperial Beijing!

 

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The city that never sleeps: St Petersburg during white nights

(This blog has now moved to www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.)

In the previous post our Honcho has given a few great options for things to do during the white nights in St Petersburg. In today’s entry we have listed a few more events and festivals that might pick your fancy during your visit to the Venice of the North.

Well planned and beautifully built, St Petersburg strikes with its elegancy

May 23 – July 24 – Arts Festival “The Stars of White Nights”

St Petersburg is fantastic during white nights! The city has the vibe that makes you do things you would never do at home. For instance – seeing the ballet! Throughout the year but particularly in the summer St Petersburg attracts people from all over the world and invites to witness the best ballet performances in the season. “The Stars of White Nights” arts festival hits the city on May, 23d and ballet, opera and music performances are staged almost nightly until July, 24th. Directed by Valery Gergiev, performances received a deserved acclaim for being almost unnaturally perfect. Whether it is the classical “Swan Lake”, “Giselle”, “Spartacus”, “Romeo and Juliet” or a more contemporary production of guest directors and their troupes, you are going to get the first good impression of what the ballet is!

Have a glimpse at the most famous part of the “Swan Lake” and enjoy the original when you are in St Pete!

For obvious reasons (quality of the performances, atmosphere of the theatre plus of course it doesn’t get dark ;)) it is extremely popular to see the ballet during the summer nights and therefore it is often quite hard to get affordable tickets on the day. Nevertheless why not try and visit theatre’s website to check the program and book yourself a ticket for one of the great shows!

Festival’s hosting venue is Mariinsky Theatre; it was built in 1860 and named after Empresses Maria, wife of Alexander the Second. This theatre has become known outside the country as “Kirov Theatre” during the Soviet times when its troupe occasionally travelled abroad with its unrivalled ballets. “Kirov Theatre” has become a metaphor for the best ballet theatre. To find out more about tickets and performances’ times, please check theatre’s web site.

Facade of Mariinsky Theatre – festival hosting venue

Theatre’s interior is famous for its magnificence

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Quite conveniently the theatre also neighbours the Irish pub – call in if the World Cup’s on or simply to have a portion of a different type of culture and discuss the latest exhibition of contemporary art  ;).

19 June 2011 “The Scarlet Sails” – end of school year celebration

Imagine you just finished school… 11 years of maths, physics and homework is over! Wouldn’t you want to celebrate?! The Russian school graduates are not that different from the ones in your country. On par with the size of Russia is the scale of this celebration, which marks the end of the school year. It is called “The Scarlet Sails” and is highly popular for spectacular fireworks and a massive show set up on Palace Square. Don’t miss out if you are in St Petersburg on the 19th of June!  A grandma’s tip: be prepared for the crowds and watch your belongings if taking part in the celebrations – better lock the important stuff in the hostel’s safe!

End of school year is worth celebrating!

16-17 July 2011 Jazz festival

Midsumma heat is cooled down on the beach near the Peter and Paul Fortress and is a great time to chill out accompanied by the soft sounds of soul and jazz during the international jazz festival.


Join the locals as they join the stars of jazz on the Peter and Paul fortress beach

Quite an impressive line up of local and international jazzmen will make it for a great day out. Grab your Honcho, visit a grocery for some snack and beer and enjoy!

Information on artists and full program is available in Russian only from this web site: http://petrojazz.ru/

All summer is good for…

a boat trip down rivers and canals of St Petersburg. There are two types of such trips. One is going on a ship along the big Neva and the other one is travelling along small rivers and canals. The second option is more romantic and it’s not so cold to be on the open boat.

Bridges through the “boat’s eyes”

Drawbridges of St Petersburg are a free open-air performance. The fascinating mightiness of the bridges when they rise at night to let the river traffic go through is just overwhelming. It is definitely worth staying up to see this! This beautiful feature of St Petersburg has to be taken into consideration though if you need to drive to the airport from the other side of the city. Bridges timetable can be found here.

Have you found what else you can do in St Petersburg that is worth telling our future travellers? Share your expereince, leave a comment!

Vodkatrain online Travellers Feedback form is available now! We would be grateful for your comments, feedback, ideas and suggestions, as it is the best way for us to make sure our clients keep getting the experience of their lifetime! Thank you in advance!

Some photos for this post were used from this source.

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Trans Mongolian Rally: the fun along the way

(This blog has now moved to www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.)

It has been great to have two groups travelling side by side on the Budgeting Bolshevik that departed Moscow on April, 25th.

Thank you everyone for participating in our Trans Mongolian quest and sending through some really awesome pictures! It has been fun to look at them so it must have been fantastic to experience that for yourself!

Look at this fancy bottle of vodka! To find the most expensive one was the first road post on the way to winning the quest. So, did you have a chance to try any vodka on the Vodkatrain?

Price tag of 2000$ for a bottle of vodka will sober you up!

The groups did great fitting 20 people between 4 bunks and well done with getting your message through to the people behind the camera!

20 people between 4 bunks! That’s a record!

Three day adventure on the train must have been an experience! Finding a cute provodnitsa on a local train must have been a challenge – the Mao team did a great job!

The Mao group with the very cute provodnitsa!

When the adventurous travellers finally put their foot on the ground they discovered it was actually quite cold! Taking a swim in Lake Baikal in the beginning of May was the next part of the quest and here is the evidence:

Although the ice on the lake has just melted it didn’t stop the fearless travellers to get in!

Paris of Siberia, Irkutsk was hiding a building that could be found between the Tzar and the Cosmonaut… Sounds not easy, but guess what – they found it! Attention, you are being recorded!

Irkutsk Library is located near the Alexander III monument on Gagarin boulevard!

Apparently the last riddle was easy to crack. The big stone turtle is forever still in the Mongolian National Park and our Maos are gracefully sitting in front of it.

Have you ever wondered where this Turtle is heading??

Having ticked off all the boxes the Mao team has become a deserved winner of our Trans Mongolian Rally.

Thank you everyone who travelled with Vodkatrain on this memorable departure and good luck with your further travels!

Mao watches will remind the Bolsheviks of their Trans Mongolian adventure

And congratulations to the Mao team who went an extra mile with finding places, taking pictures (having fun meanwhile ;)) and sharing them with us! The performance of Chinese Acrobats has become your reward and we hope your enjoyed it!

The Mao team will go to enjoy the Acrobats performance as their reward for winning the Trans Mongolian quest!

If you have a travel blog about your trip and would like to share it with us, please send the link to 18to35@vodkatrain.com or post it on Facebook. Cheers!

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White Nights in St Petersburg: our Honcho’s advice on best seasonal events and festivals

(This blog has now moved to www.vodkatrain.com/blog. Please visit us there for all the posts on this site, plus the most recent inspiration and information about the regions we travel to.)

St Petersburg is known as Russia’s northern capital, the abundance of its rivers and canals got it a title “Venice of the North” and the ratio of museums, galleries and international events per capita makes it a deserved cultural centre of the country.

All of these combines and blossoms particularly during the months of May and June when the city is charmed and taken by the wonderful natural and cultural phenomenon of White Nights.

St Petersburg panorama and the Palace bridge

At Vodkatrain we keep things fresh and love to get Honchos’ local knowledge to keep our travellers in the loop with what’s hot! In the next few entries our St Petersburg Honchos will be sharing what their home town gets up to during the White Nights. Get your paper and pen ready as Katya has an extensive list of events that will keep you busy!

Katya Golovina, St Petersburg Honcho

Katya in the black night

“Hi, my name is Katya and I love my city. St Petersburg is inspiring any time of the year but during the White Nights it is particularly charming. Below are some events that happen during this period and if you can take part in any of those, you will have a great time!”

The first event is for the fish lovers. It normally happens in the middle of June and this year will be the 9th time that the festival is held in St Petersburg. It is called “The Smelt Festival”. This fish comes to Neva-river for spawning. There will be songs and dances, fishing and sailing contests, releasing young salmons to the gulf (to preserve the population), tasting snacks and fried fish. Also traditional folk games and a chance to catch the fish with your hands in a big pool – just like primitive humans did! The holiday is held at exposition complex “LenExpo”, near Finnish gulf.

May – June  – garden landscape festival in Mikhailovsky garden. This garden is right by the Church on Spilt Blood and behind the Russian museum. The beautifully trimmed gardens are aesthetic pleasure to the eyes and a peaceful place to rest after the day full of sightseeing. More info on the festival can be found here.

2010 Imperial Gardens festival was devoted to France. This year Italian culture will cherished.

1st of May – start of fountains in Peterhof. This wonderful Summer Palace of the Russian Emperors famous for its gardens and fountains had been almost levelled to the ground during the Second World War. After many years of restoration it got back to its former glory. Peterhof is best to visit on a hot summer day to take in its elegancy, mingle with the St Pete’s crowd and get wet on the “Water Road” specially designed by Peter the Great to make fun of the snobbish nobles (Peter had an interesting sense of humour ;))

Magnificent fountains in Peterhof have woken up from the winter on the 1st of May

Night of 21-22nd of May – Museum night. Many of museums are open for the whole night and free of charge. If you are a fan of the infamous American movie, this might be the best chance to experience the night in the museum – one obstacle though, it will not be dark during White Nights!

27th of May – St Petersburg’s day! Meaning carnival, concerts, jazz festival and performances of street theatres come here from all over the world.

On this day we celebrate the “birth” of the city. According to the legend on this day Peter the Great laid down the Peter and Paul’s Fortress, which became the first brick and stone building of the new city. Usually this celebration is accompanied with a series of carnivals that take place in the city along with its suburbs (Peterhof). In the evening one can watch music performances at the Palace square and Spit of Vasilievsky Island and then enjoy magnificent firework over the fort.

Wonderful fireworks above Peter and Paul Fortress

Then in summer we usually have a stage of Yachting World Cup here, just between two beautiful bridges: Palace and Troitsky. This is known as “The Sails of White Nights” and features slim and sensitive yachts Santer 760 and prominent sportsmen from all over the world. It is such an impressive view: Hermitage, Peter and Paul fortress and graceful yachts with  full sails running on water ( also , the fleet-race – when all yacths start at the same time – is awesome!)

Catching the wind opposite the Spit of Vasilievsky Island

Another great water contest that had been held in Saint-Peterburg for several years is Formula-1 on water. Sharp-nosed boats make rounds in Neva’s aquatorium with speed of 200 km/h  – that’s impressive!

As about bridges, that’s a really gorgeous view. In May and June you can always admire it ‘coz nights are almost as light as days in Petersburg. The wings of raised Palace bridge were once used as screens for displaying cartoons (on the St Petersburg Day, 27th May). And at night street artists usually gather on a quay near the bridge: so if you hear drum beat and see the light of fire don’t hesitate to spend some time in warm company.

Meet our St Petersburg Honchos on Facebook and check out where YOU will be going on your Vodkatrain departure! More White Nights events in the next entry.

Nevsky prospekt during White Nights

As it doesn’t get dark during white nights, the view of St Pete’s drawing bridges is particularly amazing

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