Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DAY 42 – 27 July 2014; Tallinn to Riga

The Hotel Viimsi Spa has many pools, saunas and treatment centres. Many rooms are occupied by those coming to the seaside Spa for treatment. The Spa is also used by short term visitors to the city for experiencing the numerous treatments on offer. I rued the fact that we did not have enough time to enjoy at least what was on offer along with reservation of the room. It was time to leave for the next country, the 9th in the itinerary.
Breakfast consisted mainly of melons and cold cuts. The check out formality was restricted to collecting the invoice; payment was done upon check in. The taxi driver who had taken us to the Old City last evening had given me directions of how to get out of Tallinn and take the road to Parnu. With that under my belt and brilliantly sign posted instructions I did not find it difficult at all to get to the highway. It being a Sunday the roads were virtually empty and driving was easy. The border town of Ikla, on the Estonian side, was only 200 kms from Tallinn. There were no border checks as we were moving from one Schengen State to another. The roads on the Latvian side seemed a bit broken down and we thought that would last till Riga. But, fortunately, within about 25 kms the condition improved and we motored along smoothly till we reached the outskirts of Riga. I did not have Navigation equipment and therefore, stopped at a shopping complex to ask for directions. With that I moved some more into the city. Lal and I witnessed a miraculous sight as we were driving through Bergi – that of a statue of Our Lady with The Child being raised out of a box, as if for us to be blessed! The next instructor was very helpful and piloted us to what he felt was the street on which the hotel was located. He could not speak English but was vigorous with his arms and feet! I tried a departmental store where the young girl asked me to get Google Maps if I wanted to find the hotel! Then I hired a taxi to pilot us to the Hotel. The driver certainly overcharged but did get me to the hotel without any further hiccups.

The Maritim Park Hotel was extremely busy at the time of check in. tourist groups seemed to patronise the hotel quite well. The rate of Euro 70 for a double room is what I paid, inclusive of breakfast. The lady completing the formalities said that she was upgrading to a larger room! The room on the 6th floor gave me a good view of the car park from where I could keep a lookout for the car. After keeping luggage in the room we headed to the restaurant; the buffet was closed and hence, we went in for the a la carte. We ordered Salmon and Club sandwiches with fries. The large portions were difficult to finish. After getting through that we decided on a short rest before venturing out to the Old City, which seemed not too far from the hotel.
We tried to get a taxi to the Old City, in vain. So we decided to foot it, a walk of 2 kms across the
Daugava River. En route we enjoyed views of the verdant greens, the Railway History Museum and the National Library. Three major bridges span the River into the Old city – the Dzelzceja tilts, which is a railway bridge, the Akmens tilts, over which we walked and the modern Vansu tilts. Immediately on getting off the Akmens tilts we saw the Museum of the occupation of Latvia, the beautiful Blackheads House (the guild of merchants-to-be) and the St. Peter’s church (the oldest church in Riga). There are innumerable restaurants and café bars, most of them looked extremely well patronised. The smell of Latvian food and the froth of Lacplesis beer played havoc with the senses. We walked through to the Doms Square and the rest of the Old City. The area around the Old City was built between 1860 and 1910 and resembled the Western European cities of Paris, Berlin and Rome. This provided the backdrop for many Russian films. The Triangula Bastion is a modern building that is built on the fragments of the old fortification that protected Riga from warships. A short walk away from the Doms Square is the Three Brothers building, which is among the oldest living quarter in Riga.

The Daugava River is among the longest in Europe spanning Russia to Latvia. It has a crucial hydroelectric project across it. The River is majestic in Riga. After a visit to the Anglican Church on the embankment of the River we took a small stroll along the river. We had little else on our mind to do. Therefore, we got interested in the boat ride advertised on one of the landing sites beside the river. There was almost a half hour to go for the announced time. We decided to get in and sample some local beer. While ordering the beer I met Suraj Bhatia, who hailed from Mumbai and is married to a Latvian and is a proud parent of Christina and Adrian. He is in the construction business in many European cities and is actively involved in the BSE too, which takes him to India quite often. The boat ride did not have a commentary but did give us a good view of the city, both old and new, while affording the opportunity to interact with Suraj and his family and a mathematics professor and his wife from Zurich.
We walked back to the hotel after the one hour boat ride through a few parks and residential areas. Dinner was in the hotel restaurant comprising of beers and steaks. Sleep caught up only after I had completed the documentation and accounts for the day.

DAY 41 – 26 July 2014; Helsinki to Tallinn

The reporting time for boarding the Ferry to Tallinn was given as 6.30 am. It was just a ten minute drive from the apartment to the Ferry Terminal of Tallink, the operator through who I had purchased the ticket. Viewing the glorious sunrise over the Gulf of Finland was another luxury I was entitled to from the balcony of the apartment. With the ‘music’ of the seagulls and the imperious movement of ducks in the water the sunrise was perfectly magical. I was ready before 6 am with bags packed and in the car. With salami, cheese and bread left over from the previous day I made a few sandwiches, trusting that they would become handy during the journey of the day.

I gave a call to Shaji Kafoor, to who Lal and I are immensely beholden, along with Anu Jacob, to tell him that we are ready. Observing the Ramadan fast in places like Helsinki is more than doubly difficult, for the sun sets after 11 pm and rises before 4 am; during the month of June, I was told that the ‘night’ is just a couple of hours. Anu told us that he hangs black curtains in the bedroom windows to mimic night! The contribution of these two wonderful chaps in making our stay in Helsinki memorable cannot be overstated. Shaji arrived in time to pilot us to the Ferry Terminal; while the terminal is literally a stone’s throw away from the balcony of the apartment it took us about 10 minutes to reach the point where we had to take leave of Shaji. It is getting to know characters like Shaji and Anu that make the journey rich and experiential.

The boarding procedure was smooth. At the entrance to the terminal it was clearly indicated that I
have to drive in lanes 5 to 11 to get to the ferry I was booked for. Passenger cars were not very many at that point in time. Marshalls are positioned at various points along the long drive to the ferry. The check in itself is a simple procedure. I handed in the booking docket and the passports at the counter while seated in the car. The pleasant girl generated a pass for the car and two boarding passes for its passengers in the blink of an eye. Shortly thereafter we parted with the car pass and strategically positioned Marshalls directed us into the cavernous underbelly of the ferry. Huge freighters were directed to park at the entry level of the ferry and I drove two levels up and parked where I was asked to. The Marshall at the stop point told us to refrain from taking video of the ferry. Lal and I exited with cameras and mobiles and walked a couple of levels up to the seating area.

The idea was to experience the deck, which was on the 9th floor of the ferry! Since the deck wasn’t yet open we decided to explore other options. After exploring the many options, including the special enclosure for kids (!), where the theme was food and fun, we located two chairs and a table from where we could experience the ferry the best. We still had more than a half hour to go for the scheduled departure of 7.30 am. We got down to exploiting the WiFi network! Once that was underway we took turns to have breakfast in one of the restaurants of the ferry. With Apple Juice, Coffee, Omlette, Sausages, Smoked salmon on bread, raw vegetables and bacon the meal was worth every cent of the 15 Euros we paid per head. The meal wound up with a large helping of raspberry cake! In the meanwhile, the cruise began. There were the customary welcome and safety addresses in various languages. The bars got busy and passengers started tucking into food they had either brought with them or sourced from the many food points in the ferry. The ferry operator also tried to liven up matters by organising a few games. I took a short nap and later discovered that the deck was opened. It was a superb experience on the deck. However, it was not possible to spend more time on the exposed part of the deck as it was windy and cold. The views from there, particularly at the time of nearing Tallinn and docking, were magnificent.

As the ferry was being docked instructions came over the public address system that drivers should not turn on ignition of the vehicles unless instructed due to possibility of suffocation from monoxide inhalation. After docking we waited for about 40 minutes to drive the car out. However, as it was at the time of parking, the disembarkation process and procedure was smooth too. While waiting to be waved out of the ferry I contacted the Hotel, Viimsi Spa, to get directions on how to reach there. The lady on the phone gave me clear instructions I found easy to follow while on the road. It was easy to make out that the city centre was close to the ferry terminal. We drove out of the city of Tallinn and reached Viimsi within 15 minutes. Just at the start of Viimsi was located the Hotel. The check in procedure did take an unusually long time since it was the time for check outs as well. Officially the check in time was notified in the booking document as 3 pm. We were a few hours ahead of that, having reached the Hotel by 10.30 am. The receptionist finally agreed to give us two family rooms immediately, if that was acceptable to us. We agreed and completed the check in. The rooms were comfortable, but by no means was it worth the Euros 87 that we shelled out for each!

The sun was hot and merciless. It was only 28 C, but the intensity of heat was almost unbearable. After waiting for a half hour to take a bus to tour the Old City of Tallinn we abandoned the foray in exchange for a few hours rest in the room. By 3 pm we were rested enough and the sun had become more engaging by then. Lal and I went to the hotel restaurant and had, what turned out later, a sparse meal; when we ordered we expected rather large portions. After the meal we requested the Manager of the hotel to paste the green sticker on Estonia. He was mighty pleased about the hour; more so when Lal gave him a few CDs and brochures on Kerala Tourism. Later we engaged a taxi to the Old City. On the way the driver pointed out major landmarks such as the large arched concert centre, the place where the sailing events were held during the Olympics hosted by the Soviet Union in 1980, the large parks that fringed the city centre, etc. He drove us up to a vantage point of the Old City and suggested a few walking routes.

The next few hours went by without an effort. I had a good map and an issue of the Baltic Guide to
indicate the must see sights in the Old City. But we did tour much more than that. The Kohtu, Patkul and Kiriku Platforms afford the best views of the Old City apart from the viewing platform of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is a steep spiral stairway of 140 steps. The impressive towers of the Niguliste and the St. Olaf’s Churches look just an arms length away. The red tiled roofs with white edges are characteristic of houses in the Old City. The Hermann Tower of the 15th century, with the Estonian Flag atop it, signifies freedom and independence to the Estonians. The Toompea Castle is the centre of the Estonian Government and houses its Parliament. It is just behind the impressive Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral. The Old City of Tallinn Is divided into the lower and upper parts; the upper part (the Toompea) was inhabited by the nobility and the lower part by the hanseatic traders. The Fat Margaret is the most important fortification tower in Tallinn. The massive tower and fortress was constructed to protect Tallinn from invasions by sea. After a few hours of leisurely stroll we landed up in the Raekoja Plats or the Town Hall Square. The Square dates back to the 1400s and is considered the best preserved of all medieval town hall squares in Northern Europe. The Old City of Tallinn was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1997. In one of the traditional Hanseatic restaurants we were fortunate to witness a medieval dance and music performance. The Town Hall Square itself was getting decked up for music and fun with a stage having been set up and instruments and gear being positioned for performances later in the evening.

By the time we had explored the City square we were thirsty and hungry. The Baltic Guide had recommended the Beer Garden for its wide variety of beers and excellent food. Though it did take us some time, further elaborating the hunger and thirst, we reached the excellently furnished and comfy restaurant. Just as we made ourselves comfortable a smiling Monica landed up at the table with food and wine menus. While going through the menu I remarked that she should give us a couple of litres of beer free for the effort we had taken to walk to the restaurant. She laughed and vanished, leaving us to decipher the menu. In a few minutes she arrived with two one litre mugs of A Le Coq Premium!! Lal and I were too stunned to react. I did not feel like telling the effervescent Monica that the order had been misunderstood. Lal did and she stared laughing more! When we ordered the food we ensured that it was done seriously; Lal ordered a Ceaser Salad with smoked salmon and I another with shredded lamb. We enjoyed the food and beer over a long conversation on cinema and the industry. Once the A Le Coq was nearing completion we told Monica to let us sample a couple of local favourites. She first brought us Lehe pruulikoda, an ale, and then the Hopster Esimene Vasikas. Both were distinctly different from the lager. Once the bill was settled Monica got us a taxi to head back to the Hotel.

Alexander, who was at the wheel of the taxi, was an interesting conversationalist. He told us about the Euro 300 he makes a week which he is satisfied with. Though his two years in London fetched him more money he was unhappy that he was away from his family and not enjoying life. He took Sundays off to spend time with his mother, wife and 15 year old son, who he hopes to put through college. The day had been long but thoroughly enjoyable. We reached the hotel by 11 pm and hit the sack straight away.

DAY 40 – 25 July 2014; In Helsinki

It was a significant day for members of the Record Drive Team. Lal’s film Vikramadityan was being globally released on this day. Lal, naturally, was tense and anxious. So were all of us – he had done quite a bit of post production work during the drive. Reputations and finance were crucially intertwined in the project. I woke up early and went to the living room to begin the day’s work. I found Anu sleeping on the sofa; he had agreed to sleep over in the guest house so that he could take us around the city during the day. He had taken a day off from work to do that. I got through the backlog of the blog posts and went back to bed. By the time I came around again Lal and Anu were up and about. Anu had even made a few sandwiches of salami and cheese and boiled a few eggs too.
Reactions to the film started coming in as we were about to leave for a walk around the Central Market. The first half of the film was accepted by the first show audience. Lal was sure that the audience would love the second half that contained the juice and substance of the film.
The Central Market is a happening place. The fresh fruits, vegetables and local handicrafts on display make it a favorite with the tourists and locals alike. I was quite taken in by the fresh strawberries, cherries, blueberries, plums, peaches and raspberries that were on sale. The sales persons, mostly young girls, repeatedly request you to sample the display. And if you did not buy they t were not offended. The strawberries were so juicy I asked a young girl where they were cultivated. Prompt came the response, “Everywhere”! The covered market is another attraction on the waterfront. The market was established in 1888, as it says on the building. It has many cafes and foods on sale for a different clientele.

From there Anu, Lal and I decided to take a cruise that promised to show us the important sights of Helsinki. We were not disappointed. The Euro 22 per head trip was indeed worth the money. The informative commentary in three languages added lustre to the sightseeing trip. It is said that King Gustav I of Sweden, while travelling in the Gulf of Finland in 1550, wished to set up a city in Helsinki because he was enchanted by the natural beauty of the place and wanted an alternative trading post to Tallinn. Over a few years people from places like Porvoo were resettled in Helsinki and the city grew. Later Alexander I made Russia the capital of Finland Dutchy within the Russian protectorate in the 18th century. The Soumenlinna is a fortress built on many islands. It is a popular tourist site and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides this group of islands there are many with private beaches and residences. These island and properties are approached by speed boats and yachts. Small floating jetties and a simple gate serve to protect privacy. They are among the most sought after and pricey properties in the whole of Europe. The Helsinki Zoo on the Korkeasaari Island is considered the northern most Zoo in Europe with animals from different parts of the world. The Degero Canal is operated in its narrowest part by the use of traffic signals. The Casino Beach Hotel on Koulesari Island looked busy. People here do whatever they can to be out in the Sun. The Cruise vessel, during the 90 minute tour, operated a well stocked café; beer was the hot favourite though.

Once the cruise was over we roamed around to visit the Presidential Residence. As luck would have it the change of guard happened just then – mid noon. The guards come marching down the street accompanied by a marching orchestra. The marching steps are not as spectacular as in some other countries. The highlight was the music played by the orchestra after the change of guard was effected. It was now time for some lunch. We chose one of the many canopied cafes. A lot of local cuisine was available. Mixed vegetables, potatoes, mayonnaise sauce and meat/fish is the staple. A local variety of fish, Vendace, seemed to be the most popular. Since the feet could not carry us much further we got back to the apartment and took some rest.

By the time I got up from the nap Lal told me that Anu had left for Porvoo, where he stayed. He had promised to come back in the night with his wife and daughter. Shaji arranged a get together in the apartment of a few Malayalee friends. It was a wonderful time to exchange views and understand Finland from their view point. Of those who had come three were already Finnish citizens. Dentistry and Engineering were the professions that attracted people from Kerala. We were touched by their gesture of presenting mementoes to us. Later they signed the Campaign Poster and assisted in affixing the green sticker on Finland.

Shaji suggested that we get a good Navigator so that the transit through European cities would be hassle free. We did check out on a few, but the cost was too much to bear for the rest of the journey. Finland is expensive due to the high tax regime. However, the citizens and residents get paid back in terms of social security, health, education and public hygiene. People are peace loving but greatly influenced by environmental and safety issues. Socially required behaviour is inculcated in children by parents and teachers from a very young age. We visited Shaji’s house to meet up with his wife and bubbly son, Rayan.

It was twilight at 10 pm. I moved the luggage into the car and decided to get it ready for the early morning departure to the ferry point. As I was completing that, Anu came with his wife and daughter, Alphonsa. Shaji had sent pasta with them for us. I had a good meal while interacting with Anu’s wife, who too was working as a nurse in Porvoo. It was nearing midnight when we said our goodbyes. The mid-point of the journey had been reached. 40 of the 80 days are over.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

DAY 39 – 24 July 2014; St. Petersburg to Helsinki

With Binoy piloting I soon hit M10 to Helsinki. At the start of the Freeway I took leave of Binoy to continue his studies. The speed limit varied between 90 and 120 kmph with excellent road conditions. At Vyborg I tanked up so that I could avoid fuelling in Finland. We also had breakfast of hotdogs and coffee. While at the fuel station I saw a desk where the Alliance representative was selling insurance for vehicles going to Finland. I approached the desk and was told that insurance is available only to Russian registered vehicles; others have to get the insurance after crossing over to Finland.

Pretty soon thereafter we reached the Russian border at Torfyanovka. It was under 200kms from St. Petersburg. The first delay at the border occurred in the Customs station. The officer asked for previously stamped Customs documents, which we did not have. I explained that I was not given any at the entry point. He vanished with my passport for an hour. He came back with his Supervisor, a lady, who immediately authorised the filling up of the document form. She was extremely courteous. Thereafter, we moved to the Immigration queue and Lal got his passport stamped without much delay. The lady staff at the counter saw the mistake made by the Russian Embassy in Delhi in the visa and detained me till such time the matter was resolved by another Officer. Altogether we lost close to 2 hours at the Russian border. We knew, however, that we would gain an hour on crossing over to Finland! The Finnish border control at Vaalimaan was a breeze. No questions asked and English being freely used we had no problem in explaining our mission. The passport was stamped and the vehicle document accepted within 15 minutes. I asked if I could get insurance for the car at the border. An Officer guided me to the Customs office, from where I secured a two month insurance that covered the Schengen States, UK and Ireland. It cost Euro 180, but was facilitated easily.

The relief of exiting Russia and the fact that now we had access to the next 19 countries made us hungry. We went into a gas station and ordered lunch – Lal ordered a fish dish and I a Pork Steak. After paying for that and the coffees the pleasant lady at the counter directed us to the salad counter. If we had known that the salad came along with the meal we would have ordered something light. However, despite large helpings from the salad bar I mustered enough appetite and will power to finish the meal, which was a large steak with fries and boiled greens. At the gas station we also got a SIM Card that promised to be pan-Europe.

Anu Jacob had got in touch with us promising hospitality in Helsinki over Fb. In fact, it is he who had suggested that we drive to Helsinki from St. Petersburg instead of doing a double ferry from Talinn. He arranged with his friend Shaji to find us accommodation in Helsinki. Anu works in Porvoo, Finland as a nurse. He moved there with his wife, working as a nurse too, and young son a couple of years ago. He met us at the exit to Porvoo on the way to Helsinki and piloted us to the city, which was 55 kms away. The drive into Helsinki gave us a good city tour and the serviced apartment Shaji had sourced for us was magical. It overlooked the Cruise bay and gave us a panoramic view of the busy market centre. The apartment belonged to the Company that Shaji works for and is seldom given out except to very valuable guests of the Company. The area houses mostly diplomatic missions, including the US and many European countries.

One of the first things on the Helsinki agenda was to book the ferry to Talinn. Shaji drove us to the booking th. The ferry cost Euro 124 and we were asked to report by 6.30 am. The duration of the trip to Talinn would be 2 hours, we were told. Shaji then dropped us off to take a leisurely walk on the waterfront and the embankment. Anu got us each an ice cream and we explored the area on foot. The Finnish, as I found the Russians, are outdoor freaks. They do not let go of any chance to soak in the Sun. A company called Skybreakers offered bunjee experience from a crane. I was enthralled by a young brave heart who took up the challenge. There was music and food everywhere and people were only outdoors walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, cycling and what have you.
centre and confirmed the 7.30 am ferry on 26

Shaji later drove us to a provision store where we picked up ‘Black Bread’, a Finnish speciality, eggs, cheese, salami and fruits for breakfast. Shaji, full name Saji Kafoor, brought us tortillas, pulav and mutton curry for dinner. Shaji could not join us for he was on Ramadan fast. I spent quite some time on the balcony of the apartment before bed, watching Nature play out her magic on the city as the Sun went down and twilight descended after 9 pm.

DAY 38 – 23 July 2014; In St. Petersburg

Binoy was our guide for the day; he would show us around as much as time permitted. He was experienced in this since he took visitors from India around the sights of St Petersburg as a means to support his stay in the city as a student. As the day progressed he proved that he was good at it.
The first to be visited was the War Memorial that occupies a prominent location in the city. The memorial pays tribute to the valiant soldiers and citizens that withstood a 900 day siege of the city by the Germans during WWII. The centrepiece of the memorial is a poignant sculpture of wounded sons and citizens. The angst is vivid in all the reliefs of the memorial and the tribute exceptional.

The Pushkin place or the Catherine Palace was next. The Palace itself is in a sprawling complex.
It was a bit early for visit inside the Palace. Therefore, I admired the beautiful statues and the elaborately decorated walls of the Palace. A band of musicians in period costumes entertained the crowd in return for donations. The statue of the celebrated architect, Rastrelli, occupied a prominent place on the premises. On the way to the Petergof is Putin’s Palace. Surprising for us was the complete absence of police personnel. We parked the car at the gate of the palace for photos and were not disturbed or asked to go away till we had finished. The flag on the mast indicated that the Palace was occupied at the time of our visit there. What a difference from the experience in India!

Petergof or the Garden of Peter had steep entrance fee of RUB 500. But it is worth every cent. The excellently maintained gardens, lawns, statues and fountains over many levels, at times, mock the Versailles Palace. From the centre of the Palace, which is a Museum, the cascading fountains and canals provide a symmetrical display that is the feature of the Grand Palace and the Gradens. When I was driving to the Petergof the Peter and Paul Church was strikingly visible. We decided to visit it after the Garden. The facade of the Church in striking contrast of Brown, Green and Gold is a masterpiece. The Orthodox place of worship has a spiral stairway of 143 steps that takes one to the roof of the church from where one can get a birds eye view of the area.

The Hermitage is arguably the finest centre of art and culture is St. Petersburg’s most famous building. The Winter Palace physically dominates the Palace Square, which continued to be the residence of the monarchs for over 100 years from Catherine the Great in late 18th century to Alexander II in 1881. The rich display of art and history is worth more than a visit. To do justice the visit must be planned over at least three days. The admission fee of RUB 400 per head with additional charge of RUB 200 for still cameras is pretty steep. However, the magnificence on display is worth more than that. Photography is prohibited in many places inside the Halls, but visitors use mobile phones at will. The magnificent stairways, gilded ceiling, elaborate period furniture, costumes and ceremonial dress of the times, sculptures mostly in marble, huge tapestries and paintings depicting themes of society and war, jars and items of storage, bathtubs, coins and gifts were some of the things that we could fleetingly admire. While waiting to buy tickets to the Museum we had seen many people exiting the building with a look of exhaustion on their faces. Walking around the complex through countless rooms and miles of floor area I knew why they looked so. In less than two hours we were in a worse state. Before exiting the building we had a cup of coffee and a slice of cake to get back expended energy.

The Peter & Paul fortress was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 on a small island on the Neva delta. The fortress served as a garrison as well as a high security jail. The list of inmates of the jail includes the founder’s son, Alexei, Dostoyevesky, Gorky and Tolstoy! The impressive Cathedral that stands in the centre of the fortress is the burial place of all Russian rulers from Peter the Greta to Alexander III. The Cathedral was also the first one to be built in stone and is curious in design for an Russian Orthodox Church. Other buildings in the fortress include the City Museum and the Mint. When we were exiting the fortress the landing of a large helicopter caused a lot of excitement among visitors and stirred up a dust storm I got exposed to frontally! The scanty beach around the fortress is also patronised by earnest sunbathers.

The Kazan Church or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan is a magnificent structure on Nevsky Prospekt. It is supposed to have been built in gratitude to the victory over Kazan and is probably the most venerated icon in the whole of Russia. It is not so elaborate as some of the other Russian Orthodox Churches in Russia but is a very solemn place of worship.  So is the Cathedral of St Catherine, the Catholic Church.

The Church of the Spilled Blood is one of the main sights of the city and is in the Nevsky Prospekt. The Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and is dedicated to his memory. The Church was getting closed for cleaning when we visited it. However, we did get some time to say a few prayers and offer thanks for the opportunity given to travel to the Church from India. The interior of the Church is much less elaborate than the Russian Orthodox Churches. The Nevsky Prospekt was planned by Peter the Great as the beginning of the road to Novgorod to Moscow and is the main street and thoroughfare in St Petersburg. The majority of the city’s shopping and nightlife are located here. A brief walk on the main street was the right way to sign off for the full day in St Petersburg.

Dinner was once again scheduled in the Jai Hind restaurant. Damu, the co-founder of the restaurant, hails from Tamil Nadu and is a Doctor by profession. He was at hand to guide us through the orders for the meal. I had a few beers and decided on porotta and chicken curry. When we were having dinner a few Malayalee students, friends of Binoy, landed up to meet Lal and us. They told Baiju that the drive to Helsinki could be completed in under 4 hours. I asked them if they had done it themselves to which they replied in the negative. It was hearsay information. I advised them that when such information is given out it should be authentic; the distance to Helsinki from St Petersburg is over 350 kms and involves completing formalities on the Russian and Finnish borders. 

DAY 37 – 22 July 2014; Moscow to St. Petersburg

There was so much to see and do in Moscow and little time. But the two days were used to the hilt. That also meant that documentation suffered a great deal. I was behind on blog posts. So I started that immediately after I woke up and was in the middle of one when Mr Cherian Eapen dropped in to see me in the room. He had come with the intention of sharing a breakfast table. He was surprised when I told him that I had completed my unvarying routine in the restaurant over the past three mornings – 3 cups of coffee starting at 7.30 am with omelette, sausage, cold cuts, crepes and cake.

As decided the previous day we got off to a 10 am start from the hotel. Rajhu had deputed his driver,
Rattan, to pilot us to the beginning of the M10 highway to St. Petersburg. Rattan, a Nepali resident  in Delhi, has been with Rajhu in Moscow for the past 5 years. He is ‘go to man’ for Rajhu. Rattan helped me exchange the left over RMB, SOM and some USD to Roubles to last us out for the rest of our stay in Russia. After getting the log sheet attested by Mr Eapen we said our farewells to Rajhu, Dattan and Sujith. These Guardian Angels looked after us in many ways and made our stay absolutely comfortable. This has been a feature of the journey. We have met excellent souls who have extended all support and assistance, much more than we asked and many times more than we expected.

I was told that the 700 plus kms to St Petersburg could be covered in under 7 hours. The 10 am start, I figured, would get us into the city by 5 pm, so that we would be able to do a bit of sightseeing in the evening. That plan went wrong. The huge traffic hold up, repair to roads and stoppages en route for fuelling, lunch and tea took us to the outskirts of the city by 8.30 pm. The road condition on M10 was quite good. Even though it was essentially a two lane road, the third middle lane was very efficiently used for overtaking and turning. The discipline on the road is seen to be believed. The fact is that undisciplined driving would mean a sure accident. The speed is varyingly limited to 110 and 90 kmph but even multiple axle trucks ply faster than the permitted speed. Police use radar detection at regular intervals; we did see a few drivers being pulled to the side for necessary action.

100 kms short of St Petersburg I got in touch with Sunil Warriar, the contact provided by Dattan. Sunil was to have made arrangements for our stay and sightseeing in the city. He gave me elaborate direction to reach the World War memorial, where he would join us. I reached the rendezvous point without any hassle. It was 8.30 pm and the sun was nowhere near the point where it was about to set. The heat was intense and rays too bright for comfort. Sunil and Binoy, a medical student, met us as appointed and piloted us through the large city to what turned out to be the parking lot. Driving into the city did not give me an indication of grandeur as I felt in Moscow. Of course, the city looked better organised with wide straight roads and busy traffic. Both the cities are well served by public transportation such as trolley busses, trams and Metro. The parking lot was some distance away from the serviced apartment Sunil had sourced for us. Binoy carted our luggage in his car to the apartment, which was almost next door to the Indian Consulate and a stone’s throw away from Jai Hind, an Indian restaurant.

Over dinner at the Indian restaurant we got to know Sunil and Binoy better. Sunil, from Trichur in Kerala, has been resident in Russia since 1992 doing a variety of jobs, including working in the Indian Consulate. He is presently on his own. His wife teaches in the International School, where his son is a student. Both were away on vacation to Kerala. Binoy has a year to complete his graduate medical course. He, like many of his course mates, works part time, particularly during vacations, to supplement his financial support. He intends to return to Kerala to practise. The conversation also veered around to what we could do the next day. Sunil and Binoy chalked out a route plan to optimise the available time.

Dinner at Jai Hind consisted of Dosas and Biriyani. Russian beer was at hand to accompany the meal. The food was very tasty and so was the gulab jamun. The young girl who waited on us in the restaurant is a student too; she hailed from Rajahmundry. Most students work part time, though not legally, and mostly in restaurants. We left the hotel after a photo session – one of the lady guests in the hotel, a Malayalee who was visiting the city with her husband on official duty from the Mazagaon Docks, also joined the session.

When we left the hotel close to 11 pm it was still not dark; there was yet no need for street lights. I was experiencing a white night. Sleep came easily after I washed clothes and hung them out to dry.

Friday, July 25, 2014

DAY 36 – 21 July 2014; In Moscow

I was ready after breakfast with the blog posts updated and rest of clothes washed. Dattan had requested a couple of his friends to assist us with a guide so that we would be able to get by without wasting time for interpretation and asking for directions to the various places of interest. Finally Rajhu agreed to provide one of his staff who was conversant in English. Unfortunately, Lena could not be contacted as she was at her driving lessons. Instead, Rajhu asked Jana to accompany me to a visit of the Moscow Metro stations, which are called “underground palaces of Moscow” for its architecture. They have become popular sights for visitors to the city. The old, pre-war stations symbolise the industrialisation of Russia whereas the post-war ones were made to symbolise victory and pride of the nation. The first metro line was the Sokolnicheskaya, built in 1935. Most of them have a theme and are grand. The escalators in some of them are so vertical that a small jerk can knock one horizontal, as it almost happened to me during the visit. The 12 lines crisscrossing from south to north and east to west, along with the circular line, provide seamless connectivity for commuters and tourists. Work is on to further increase the network of the Metro.

Prior to leaving for the Metro visit I gave Jana a list of stations I wanted to go to. I had picked them up from readings before the journey. Though Jana was not conversant with English she understood what I wanted to do, with inputs from Rajhu. She made an itinerary almost instantaneously and we went on our way. One by one we visited "Majakovskaya", which is considered one of the most beautiful stations, the "Revolution Square", "Kropotkinskaya", "Komsomolskaya", "Novoslobodskaya", etc that are considered the most interesting architectural monuments of 1930-1950. Some of them are also protected by the state as valuable cultural objects. The underground complexes are decorated by statues, monuments and art such as paintings, mosaics, and stained-glass windows. The idea was to give every station an individual shape and appearance.
In between the Metro station visits Lena joined us and communication became more two way in nature. They   provided valuable insights into modern day Russian life, their outlook to various aspects of Russian polity, economy and culture. I considered it important to understand Russia from their standpoint for they stand for what Russia will be in the future. Both of them took good care of me and ensured that I did not miss out on any of the important places of interest. It is they who decided on visiting the Old Arbatskaya, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the VDNKh, the Moscow River embankment, etc. The fact that they face harsh winter conditions for nearly 7 months of the year the Muscovites enjoy a great deal of the sun. They do whatever they need to do to soak in every bit of the sun they can. I found it amusing to see people of all ages, in many stages of dress and undress, exposing themselves to catch every sun ray the day threw at them.

The Old Arbatskaya is a kilometre long pedestrian walkway in the historical part of Moscow. It is arguably one of the oldest surviving streets of Russia since it existed from the 15th century. It was home to craftsmen in the early days. By the 18th century it was regarded as prime residential property for the nobles.  Today the street and its surroundings a considered a desirable place to live. Because of the many historic buildings, and the numerous artists who have lived and worked in the street, the Arbat is also an important tourist attraction. Walking the long road one encounters history, be it the Pushkin monument, the Theatre or the Artisans Home. The long winding road is also home to the Foreign Office located in one of the Seven Sisters, the identical buildings built to confuse potential political desecrators. It was steaming hot while negotiating the many sights of the Old Arbatskaya. Ice creams were one solution. I followed that up with Strawberry filled Crepes for lunch in the company of Jana and Lena.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was meant in concept to be gratitude for the divine intervention in saving Russia from the onslaught of Napoleon in 1812.  The design concept and site changed many times till it emerged from the covers in 1860. It is considered the tallest Orthodox Christian Church in the world. The original church, built in the 19th century, was destroyed during the Communist rule. It was reconstructed in the last decade of the 20th century. The gilded giant domes can be seen from miles away. From the footbridge across the Moscow River, called the Patriarshy Bridge, one can enjoy lovely views of the Kremlin, the giant memorial to Peter the Great, the Red October chocolate factory and the Central House of Artisans. After a worshipful walk in the Cathedral and the crypt I enjoyed a glass of Kvass, a local drink made of dried grapes, bread and sugar.
VDNKH is a Russian acronym which translates to Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy. The Exhibition is said to have been established in 1935 to showcase the developments of the Soviet Union. The statues and themes represent these. Each region of the Union is represented in Pavilions and so are the developments. Over a period of time the centre expanded with added themes and development of elaborate parks and fountains. For instance, the Space Pavilion, the Atomic Pavilion, Engineering Pavilion, etc were added between 1954 and 1980. The centre hosted many professional and international gatherings during the Soviet times. The most memorable feature of the exhibition is the giant statue of the Worker and His Woman featuring a couple holding the Hammer and Sickle, which exemplified the Communist movement. The huge exhibition centre is bigger than Monaco and houses more than 400 buildings.

The fountains are luxurious and mostly gilded in gold. Particularly eye catching are the “Friendship of Nations” and “Golden Spike” fountains. Brilliantly clear rainbows add lustre to the fountains. The exhibition now also houses a giant Ferris Wheel, which gives a panoramic view of Moscow, and a roller coaster.

Rajhu had invited us to dinner along with Dattan Nair. By the time I got back I was told that Lal and Baiju were in the company of Sunny Chacko and were unlikely to be with us for dinner. Since I had to drive the next morning I regretfully limited intake of the excellent Kremlin Vodka. Thereafter it was dinner in the Japanese dinner. Dattan and Rajhu Nair ordered and I got ready to experience my first Shushi meal. I was apprehensive about tasting raw fish. And I was in for a most pleasant experience. The chef produced salmon, shrimps and fish portions. The wasabi paste and vinegar laced sauce were perfect ‘partners’ to the Sushi rolls. Rajhu made me savour rare caviar too. A generous helping of Tiramisu was the perfect foil to the meal.

In consultation with Dattan and Rajhu it was decided that we would leave for St. Petersburg only by 10 am so as to beat the traffic.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

DAY 35 – 20 July 2014; In Moscow

The idea of driving through to Moscow and resting the night here was one of the most sensible decisions in the journey thus far. It gave me a long night in bed and was rested well to devour a huge Continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The room we had checked into last night was small, though comfortable. The room lacked air-conditioning, but was great to dry the clothes quickly! Crepes were fast becoming a staple item on the meal plate. I have it with sugar/milkmaid, a variety of jams/freshly cut fruits or just plain and they taste yummy, whichever way it is had. The restaurant also served excellent coffee.

By 11 am Dattan Nair picked us up from the hotel. We had a few free hours before getting back to the hotel for a lunch organised by AMMA, All Moscow Malayalee Association. Duttan first took us to the Red Square and Kremlin. Being a holiday it did take him some time to find a slot to park the car. As we were walking to the Kremlin Duttan told us about EP Menon who, in 1962, walked all the way from Delhi to Moscow. Duttan had met him for a function in Bangalore, where he is settled. It is said that the Russian Premier, Nikita Krushchev, had offered Mr Menon a private airplane to get to Moscow, instead of wearing out his footwear! Such legends and enterprising spirit help to place one’s initiative in proper perspective, rather than be carried away by the importance of the journey.

Russia is the largest country in the world covering an eighth of the Plant’s inhabited area and is the ninth most populous country with about 150 million. It straddles the entire Northern Asia and much of Eastern Europe, thereby originally spanning eleven time zones and incorporating a variety of environment and landscape. Orthodox Christianity was adopted by the nation from the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century. The prominent influence prior to that was that of the Slavs. Thus, the Russian culture was a synthesis of the Slav and the Byzantine influences. By the 18th century the Russian Empire, that outlasted the Mongol invasion, stretched from Poland to North Alaska, becoming the third largest empire in the history of mankind. The USSR was the world’s first constitutionally constituted Socialist State which also piloted some of the path breaking technological advancements of the 20th century. The USSR was dissolved in 1991 and went through a large convolution economically and politically. In the past decade it recovered gloriously on both fronts. Its extensive mineral and energy resources helped correct the course.

The capital city of Moscow, situated on the banks of the Moscow River, is the centre of all political, economic, cultural and scientific activity. It is reputed to have the largest billionaire residents in the world and is the second most expensive city after Tokyo. It is the seat of power of the Government of Russia, the Kremlin. The Kremlin is a medieval city fortress which serves as the residence of the President of Russia. His presence there is marked with the hoisted National Flag. People were everywhere. We reached the Red Square through the GUM Mall, which is reputed to be the first shopping mall of the ancient city where traders used to aggregate to barter their goods. The first part of it was built in 1812. Today it is a magnificent modern shopping mall with galleries and something to do for every visitor. It is also famous as a cultural centre hosting art and photo exhibitions. Duttan induced us to try an ice cream, which he said is unique to the area. The young lady at the counter seemed perplexed when we were discussing the flavours that one would like to have. She dismissively mentioned that only chocolate flavour was available!

I forgot that I had an ice cream cone in hand when I came out of one of the exits to the Red Square. It isth century; the irregular triangle of the encasement spans nearly 70 acres with the walls ranging in height from 5 to 19 metres depending on the topography.
awe inspiring. Being where one had only read about and seen in photographs truly keep one's mouth open longer than required! So was the case with the St. Basil’s Cathedral, which symbolises Russia and Moscow. The Cathedral, now a museum, was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the conquest of Kazan. The structure was so magnificent that the Tzar ordered architects to be blinded so that they would not replicate the beauty! The huge queue to visit the Lenin Mausoleum deterred us from venturing anywhere near for shortage of time. We spent enough time in the Square trying to soak in the atmosphere and imagine the goings on there over centuries. There are many churches in the complex such as the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Church of the deposition of the robe, Cathedral of the Assumption, Cathedral of the Archangel, etc. The churches have rich display of Icons. The famous Spasskaya tower is another attraction. Just outside the wall is a small square with metallic plates fixed to signify what is considered to be the Centre of Russia; something akin to the Zero Mile in Nagpur. The change of guard is another visitor’s favourite. The Bolshoi Theatre, the most famous in Moscow, is close to the Kremlin, and focuses on works of classical composers such as Mozart, Wagner, etc. The Kremlin walls with 18 towers were built by Italian Masters in the 15

It was difficult to leave the historic square. But the lunch engagement with the Malayalee fraternity in Darbars was less than an hour away. By the time we reached the restaurant many of them had already arrived. The food and the conversation went on for more than two hours. Rajhu Nair – the owner of the restaurants - and his team, in the meanwhile, helped to move to a better room in the hotel. The Malayalees present at the lunch was a reinforcement of the spirit, enterprise and hard work of the community. Many of them have been there for decades and will continue there despite the love for their cities of birth. For instance, Cherian Eapen, who reached Russia in 1977, is the pioneer who introduced computer mainframes into Russia and participated in many significant technology transfers that helped the Soviet Republic. Ayurveda is popular with residents and visitors to the city. I met a few practitioners and sales people engaged in making it popular and sought after.

After some rest Dattan took us to the Moscow State University from where one can have a panoramic view
of Moscow. The place was teeming with bikers, who converge to the area in the evenings to display their machines and exchange notes. Some of them were seen freewheeling within the city! The Victory Monument is a must visit in Moscow. It was built to commemorate the victory over Germany in the Second World War, during when Russia lost over 20 million people. It is a magnificent park with fountains, promenades, huge statues, memorials and museums. Later Dattan to us to the Patrice Lubumba University where students from over 140 nationalities have come together to study. In the company of Sunny Chacko, who operates a flourishing garment business in Moscow, and George, who came to Moscow as a student at the age of 18 and is a computer professional, we enjoyed the rest of the evening in a Lebanese restaurant. The Vodka and the excellent kebabs were enhanced by the beautiful Russian belly dancers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

DAY 34 – 19 July 2014; Samara to Moscow

It was bright, though not sunny, at 4.45 am when I came down from the room with the luggage! Geniya and Bek were already in the car, revving it up and making some last minute checks before the long drive. As I was cleaning the windshield Bek conveyed using his translator software that they would guide us out of Samara on to the highway and that we could be on our own after that. It was good news and bad – good, for we could be faster to our destination than we have been in the past few days; bad, because Geniya and Bek felt that we were complaining about them to Ali. Anyway, in a few minutes we were out of Samara city on the highway to Moscow. The sign board said 1068 kms to Moscow and Google Maps indicated over 14 hours to get there. I tested the Navigation software installed on my Android Phone and found it inactive. So much for being on our own! We kept looking out for directions to Mockba and M5. That was good enough and we never lost our way. The first couple of hours we had Geniya tailing us despite the higher speed. In fact he was with us at the first fuelling point and breakfast – we had bulls eye and ham with bread. Thereafter, we kept steadily losing him in the heavy traffic. By the time we stopped for lunch at about 2 pm Geniya was not in sight at all. I got the lady at the restaurant to speak to Geniya and discovered that he was about two hours behind us.

Lunch was a huge affair. We had stopped at a nondescript Café. There was hardly anyone there. The lady, who seemed to be in charge, was chatting with a guy, who later turned out to be the Chef. The Menu had bright pictures along with Russian descriptions along side. The pictures helped us choose what we wanted but the lady suggested we like something else. In the end we left the choice to her for otherwise the order process would take the whole day! First she brought a plate of deliciously pan fried eggplant, straight from the fire. Aqua was needed to soothe the burning path the first helping took down the gullet. By the time we were through half the portion came a plate of chicken roast. It was too tasty to let it remain in the plate. There was hardly any place left to fit in the humongous pieces of Beef Steak that were dramatically brought to our table. The lady, by now, had taken a fancy to us, posing for photos and even getting some neighbours and the Chef to come over and chat. We took the steak in slowly and washed it down with a cup of coffee.
Cameras are placed at important junctions with adequate warning. The most important precaution is to ensure that the zebra crossings are free of pedestrians. That is considered the most heinous act of traffic violation. Besides, villages have speed limits of 60 kmph, which is also sacrosanct. Traffic police were quite visible all along the route, many of them handling radar equipment. Besides all this, I found it amusing that dummy police patrol vehicles, using cardboard cut outs, are placed at turnings and other strategic places with a view to deter speeding drivers. After a while one gets used to the restrictions. We drove responsibly fast to reach within 90 kms of Moscow by 8 pm.
Since the Navigation software decided not to cooperate with us I had few options left to get to Hotel Sputnik, where we were to stay. One of the options was to hire a taxi from a suitable location to pilot us to the hotel and the second was to seek assistance from Dattan Nair, who was coordinating our programme in Moscow. The second option I considered first on the advice of Ali since he said that taxis would not be available to be hired from the roadside, except within the city. Dattan is the contact introduced by Alex Alexander in Almaty. He immediately swung into action when told of the requirement. First he directed me to remain on the highway till I reached the Ring Road. Next he arranged with Suresh, a Malayalee, to come to the beginning of the Ring Road and pilot us to the hotel. I moved cautiously for another 50 kms before being told by Suresh to get to a fuel station and let him know our coordinates. Fortunately I found a large BP fuel station with a coffee shop and turned into it. Luck was when a couple of English speaking Russians offered to help. They conveyed our location to Suresh, who told us that he would fetch us from there. While waiting for him we had a cup of coffee and caught up on social networking.

Suresh arrived in an hour and we were once again on our way. And in the next half hour we were in the hotel. It was close to 11 pm. When we turned into the parking lot we found Geniya and Bek strolling around!! We had succeeded in making them move fast! Suresh spoke to the Indian restaurant in the hotel and arranged for drinks and dinner, despite it nearing closing time. We quickly checked in and reached Durbars restaurant on the 1th floor of the hotel. The magnificent sights of the lit up city almost diverted us from the pangs of hunger and thirst. Well, almost. Roy, the Supervisor and Amber, a smart young waiter, kept us plied with short eats and Vodka in adequately large measure. We took in the Vodka in batches of double larges. I lost count after the first two rounds. The lamb and everything else – forget what was placed before us, except the refills of Vodka – was delicious (that, I remember). The restaurant, and three others in the hotel, is operated by Raju Nair, who had arrived Moscow nearly two decades ago. He apparently had given instructions that the food and drinks would be on the house! Can’t say that I slept on a guilty conscience.

DAY 33 – 18 July 2014; Miass to Samara

Sleep was difficult with events of the previous day playing snakes and ladders in the mind. Rationalising that the money may have been destined for someone else to put it to better use provided, at best, only temporary relief. I even kept asking Mother Mary, whose pictures were in the recess that housed the envelope in the bag, how SHE let such a drastic thing happen.

The non-availability of an attached bathroom and a WC severely affected the 3 Ss; S..t, Shave and Shampoo. The Inn that we were in had huge parking for trucks and private vehicles. It is a secure area and parking is charged with the room. Before we started out at 5.15 am we had a light meal from the Café attached to the Inn. I had Crepes and Coffee. The road ahead was meant to be tough with crossing the Ural Mountains. In the end it did not seem such a big deal. But the decision to stay in Miass certainly was the right one for taking the mountain road in the night would have been risky. Besides the road condition banditry is an added risk. However, in the morning both the risks are minimised and we did the crossing quite easily. The number of accidents involving trucks on the route is large. And we found evidence of that. On the way Geniya stopped at a souvenir shop from where we picked up some knick knacks.
Geniya decided to take the route via Samara instead of Ufa to reduce travel through the Urals and also use better roads. The landscape in Russia upto Samara was spectacularly unspectacular. The land was flat after the mountains, some stretches had pine and other coniferous tress and the road stretched long and straight as far as the eye could see.

A few hundred kms short of Samara we found a few people posing for photographs beneath a sign borad that, naturally, was in Russian. Almost every village had such sign boards and sometimes with the date when the village was established and hence, did not pay much attention when we passed the current one. It is only when Baiju noticed a fuel station showing time that was 2 hours behind and the mobile phones picked up the revised time we realised that we had crossed over from Asia into Europe! Thus, on the 33rd day of the journey we got into the second Continent and after travelling nearly 13,000 kms.

This day we lost patience with the tactics of Geniya on the road. The self imposed speed restrictions, which saw even run down LADAs overtaking us on the highway, severely tested us. Spending extra time on the road meant that recovery time was low. Each day was becoming a physically draining experience. We brought this to the notice of Ali, who instructed Geniya to get us a SIM to be used with the Navigation software so that Geniya’s services could be disposed off. Later, however, we decided that Geniya would come with us to Moscow but as an escort and not as a pilot. He was finding it difficult to get a hotel booking in Samara. Finally with the assistance from Ali’s office we found accommodation in Holiday Inn in Samara.

The lady at the reception of the hotel spoke good English and that helped us clarify what we could do in the few hours that we remained in Samara. After evaluating options I decided on a walk by the Bay area. Samara is a beautiful city situated at the confluence of the Volga and the Samara Rivers. The waters are intensively used for cruises, freight transportation and water sports. The beach has many activities including beach volleyball, basketball, sand art and sun bathing. The embankment is ringed by cafes, eateries and clubs. I walked around quite a bit soaking in the carnival atmosphere, it being a Friday evening. I walked around and discovered a theatre with the statue of Pinocchio at the entrance, a Catholic Church and many other quaint buildings and churches. Samara is a leading industrial centre and is among the top ten cities in Russia. In the past it was known for its wheat production and trading. In modern times the economy has diversified into aerospace industry, construction equipment, chocolates and Vodka. It is also a major transportation hub providing cost effective access to the Urals, Siberia and Central Asia. It has an efficient network of roads, trams, rail links, airport and waterways.

I spoke to Ali about the plans for the next day. The distance from Samara to Moscow is about 1100 kms. I had decided to take it in two days – the first covering about 800 kms with the balance to be done on the second day. Ali suggested that we leave early the next day and drive through to Moscow, however late, so that we could get better rest in bed. He also mentioned that we would find it tougher to get into Moscow on Sunday rather than on Saturday night. It sounded reasonable. I discussed with Lal and Baiju and came to the conclusion that we would leave at 5 am and be done with the long drive in one stretch. They had looked forward to a heavy Continental breakfast the next day. That had to be forgone. Before hitting the sack we had dinner of rabbit meat, beef, tiger prawns and pancakes with ice cream in the hotel restaurant. 

DAY 32 – 17 July 2014; Kostanay to Miass

There are days you wish were not part of your life. But they are also the days that make you more mortal
and vulnerable. 17 July 2014 was one of those days. The day started off on the wrong foot. I had settled with Geniya, or so I thought, over dinner last night that we would leave after breakfast at 8 am. Even after we had finished our breakfast and loaded luggage into the car there was no sight of Geniya and Bek. I called their room to hear sleepy voices. A little while later they came down for breakfast; once they were done we got into the car. Then they went missing. I got the hotel reception to speak to them on their mobile and was told that they have gone to a garage to repair the car! I could have kicked the embedded stones from the paving outside the hotel and not felt the pain. It was frustrating. They had not told me about the repair, or so I thought. Later Ali told me that Geniya, in his inimitable language that did not signify the right meaning, had asked us to rest in the morning a little while longer for him to repair the car. I recalled then that he had said something about extra sleep over dinner the previous night. Lal, Baiju and I thought that he was offering the services of Bek to drive our car when we took rest in it on the way to Ufa. We had politely declined the offer too. Well, we had to wait a few hours before the repair was completed and we were on our way at 11.30 am to the Russian border of Troitsk, 170 kms away.

That was not all. As we were waiting for Geniya to report back to the hotel after the repair to the car I thought of getting USD changed to Roubles. I also wanted to dispose off the remaining Kazakh Tenge by converting that to the Russian currency. The foreign exchange for our travel was a mix of currency notes and travel cards. The currency was RMB, USD, Euro and Pound Sterling. I had distributed the currency amongst the three in envelopes with the name of the person and the currency in it written on the face of the envelopes. After China it was USD, Euro and Pounds with us. I carried my envelope containing USD 3100, 690 Euro and 500 GBP in a recess of my office bag that I lugged around all the time for it contained my passport and other valuable documents. On this day when I looked for the envelope it was nowhere to be found! I searched all over in the car and in all my baggage. It was not there. I could not believe that I had either misplaced the envelope or that it was lifted from my bag. I thought I remembered handling the envelope in Almaty when I wanted to change USD to Kazakh currency. Nearly INR 300,000 had been lost through negligence. Most importantly, we all know how the difficulty we had in raising funds for the journey; and here, I had let down the team by being negligent. We are short of funds but the hospitality of friends and well wishers were keeping our heads above water. This loss was a huge blow. I calculated that what the money that I lost was meant for our sustenance for 3 weeks! I called up a friend and requested for a loan that would be repaid once we get back to Cochin. It was immediately arranged and the full blown crisis was temporarily doused. Never having misplaced or lost money in the past this was galling and terribly painful. More than the sense of personal loss it was the pain of letting the team down. The way Lal and Baiju handled it I was able to get over the loss without feeling more miserable.

We reached the Kazakhstan border in Troitsk and had to wait for a while in a long queue of passenger cars and commercial vehicles. While waiting there Geniya arranged for exchanging USD and Tenge into Roubles and for the Russian insurance that cost R 1400. We also met a group of 3 Brits who were on a London – Russia – London drive. Their car, a rundown and rusty Vauxhall, with broken springs and bashed in doors made us feel a totally professional team. The exit through Kazakhstan was a lengthier process than the entry. After that was done – it took us over an hour – we drove to the Russian border and expected to get that completed in quick time to drive another 600 kms to Ufa. But that is when the next bomb exploded.
The stern immigration lady official, speaking only Russian, naturally, got into a fit and started making a lot of noise. Geniya gently told me that she had discovered some mistake in my visa! I was livid. I thought that she was looking at the old attached passport and trying to relate the number in that to the one on the visa. Lal and Baiju had proper visa, she told Geniya. However, all three of us were asked to stand by and await orders from someone above regarding my entry into Russia on a faulty visa. And I kept praying to HIM. The dark day was getting darker; quite literally too, for it started raining heavily. After a couple of hours we were cleared. The superior officer had accepted that the mistake was done by the Russian Embassy in Delhi – the visa showed my Passport Number as L3199080 when the correct Number is L1399080! It was certainly divine intervention and firm action by Ali and Geniya.

By the time we left the border post the rain had become heavy. We went about 40 kms and did a U-turn back towards Troitsk. We were certain that Geniya had lost his way – he would not accept that. Later we took a route through Troitsk city, filled fuel and got on to the road to Ufa. It was not clear that we would not be able to make it to Ufa for the Urals were not that friendly for night travel. Geniya located a small Inn in Miass, at the foothills of the Urals. The accommodation was sparse, but we were persuaded by Geniya and Ali to rest there since the Inn had secure parking. Ali also advised us to leave by 5 am so that we could reach the next destination in time. By the time we settled into our beds after dinner it was close to midnight.

It was a day that proved that the best planning can go awry for the silliest of reasons – it was a day to forget. A day, we all hoped, would never again happen during the journey.

Friday, July 18, 2014

DAY 31 – 16 July 2014; Asthana to Kostanay

When I was in Almaty Ali connected me to the Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan – Ashok Kumar Sharma. It turned out that we are batch mates, with plenty to recall from the days in the Administrative Academy in Mussoorie. Ashok told me that I should drop into his house when I arrived into Astana. The early morning arrival spiked the plan. I gave him a call in the morning and he requested me to drop in at the Embassy after 9.30 am. Well that was also not to be since Geniya and Bek got ready early and suggested that we should get on the road earlier than planned. The late night, rather early morning, arrival into the hotel meant that much less rest. More bothersome was the gnawing hunger. I could not wait till the time we had decided to meet for breakfast. It was very cold outside and a couple of forays to the car to load my luggage and clean up the windshield and headlights made me hungrier. By 7 am I was already on the second cup of coffee. Pancakes, cakes, bread, boiled eggs, salami and sausage were quickly feasted on. We were ready to leave the beautiful city of Astana, which we did not get any time to explore, before 9 am. Within a short distance of leaving the hotel a traffic policeman waved down both the cars. He told us to clean the number plates. The journey through rain filled ditches and dusty roads the previous night had made the cars almost unrecognizable. Geniya and I used wet wipes to do what the policeman wanted. Further up, at a police check post, we were waved down again. When we told the policeman, who identified himself as the Captain of the Traffic Police, that we are from India he mentioned Mithun Chakraborthy and asked us to get on. However, Geniya and Bek had some prolonged paperwork to get done before we hit the highway.

Kazakhstan is a huge country and is one of the two landlocked countries that span Asia and Europe. It is also the world’s largest landlocked country by size, which is larger than Western Europe. The terrain of the country includes flatlands, snow capped mountains, steppes, rock canyons and deserts. However, with a density of population of 6 per square kilometer vast areas lie unoccupied and bare. The total population of Kazakhstan is less than 18 million. The capital of the country was shifted from Almaty to Astana in 1997. The essentially nomadic country is home to as many as 130 ethnicities. The major religion is Islam (70%) with Christians occupying 26% of the religious space. While the national language is Kazakh, Russian occupies equal status in matters administrative and official. The country came under the sway of Chengiz Khan in the 13th century and under the Soviets in late 19th century. It gained independence in 1991 and has been a unitary republic since then with Nursultan Nurabayev as President. The country is rich in mineral and fossil fuels. Its balanced foreign policy has seen substantial inflows of foreign investment over the past years.

We had a 700 km drive across vast open flatlands and an unchanging landscape. We took the Atbashar, Ecil route piloted by Geniya. By 2.15 we stopped for lunch from where our destination was another 300 kms away. Geniya detected some problem with the car and decided to set that right before moving on further. The wait was more than 2 hours. Geniya left Bek in our company to help us order some lunch. When we asked Bek what the problem with the car is he turned on his translator and came up with, “The problem is with Candles”, which we figured out could be lights. Hence, Lal Jose mimed and made Bek understand the difference between candles and bulbs! For lunch I had a lamb soup – it had a humongous piece of lamb, almost as big as the bowl. The soup was served with home made bread. I used the rest of the time to write up the blog posts. When I went out later to get some stuff from the car I found a large group of huge Russians around the car trying to figure out the route. When they saw me they wanted pictures to be taken and questions to be answered. The former I did without any hassle but the latter was a bother for they spoke Russian and were sloshed on Vodka! A couple of them gave me bear hugs which I feared would not end for they found it tough to untangle after the hug, maybe the effect of the Vodka.

The small garage that Geniya had taken the car to seemed to have attended to the problem capably but it was Bek who managed to get most of the stuff done. It is when Bek was attending to the problem that we realised what he meant by Candles – they were spark plugs. The joke was once again on us! The drive from Ecil to Kostanay was smooth and trouble free. We got into Kostanay by 8.30 pm; the sun was blindingly hot! It did take us some time to locate the hotel where Ali had made bookings. But when we got there we were greeted by Mariya at the reception with flawless English.

We had a large Family Room to ourselves, which comprised of two bedrooms. Once we had put our luggage in there it was time to polish off the Vivita Vodka that we had been carrying with us since Naryn. With fruit juices it went down smoothly to make us happy and relaxed. At 10.30 pm Bek called to say that the car should be taken for a wash. Baiju graciously took on the responsibility and I continued to get certain logistics arrangements in place for the rest of the journey. By 11 pm Lal and I went down to the restaurant and were told that we could have only Salads for dinner. We ordered beef, chicken and fish salads with a large quantity of local vodka. We were joined by Geniya and Bek later. The young waiter, who too spoke excellent English, accommodated our request for two more salads despite the kitchen being closed. He was in line for a large tip.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...