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Saturday, 23 July 2016

4. Sundowners - Grand Trans Siberian Railway

WEll we won't be doing this one, nice though it sounds. $12,050.00! Good God, that's almost a year of rent! It sounds so amazing, and I would love it so much, I have copied this from the Sundowners Overland website Actually, I would love to do it, do this tour, it'd be the most amazing unforgettable journey ever but champagne tastes on a beer budget doesn't work I'm afraid. Alas, that has always been my trouble. (I'm sure an evil fairy waved her magic wand over me at birth and cursed me with expensive taste and no money!)

Countries visited: Japan, Russia & Mongolia
Departing: Tokyo, Japan - 30 days

The original and classic Great Rail Journey. From the Pacific Coast to the nation’s capital you cross the world's biggest country and largest landmass aboard the world's longest railway, spanning 7 time zones & almost 10,000 kilometres, from the Far East to Europe. From Japan’s temples and the Great Buddha at Nara, across the Sea of Japan to the once top-secret port of Vladivostok. Through the spectacular scenery of eastern Siberia, to magnificent Lake Baikal and the historic Siberian town of Irkutsk. Crossing massive bridges over huge rivers, through forests and across plains, aboard the train you experience Russia as few travellers ever can.


Day 1: Arrive Tokyo An exhilarating city at the start of your adventure and this afternoon you will join your Tour Leader and fellow travellers to learn about the journey ahead of you and perhaps to sample your first foray into Japanese cuisine.

Day 2: Tokyo and depart to Takayama We take in a highlights tour of Tokyo, a modern city of awe inspiring skyscrapers, an impressive modern metro system and limitless technology. We also visit our first shrine before boarding our shinkansen which will whisk us to Nagoya and from there an express train through breathtaking mountain scenery to the tranquility of Takayama or ‘Little Kyoto’. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo take the time to relax in this town of wooden houses and have the opportunity to stay in a traditional ryokan where samurai would have stayed. We wander the streets and the lattice bayed windows entice us in to sample some sake or view the wooden and Japanese handicrafts traditional of the region. You will perhaps catch a glimpse of one of the many colourful festival floats that are paraded through the streets in spring and autumn.

Days 3: Takayama to Kanazawa We visit the Hida Heritage Folk Village full of hand thatched farmhouses and take a step back in time before boarding our train to Kanazawa. In Kanazawa we visit Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, once the outer garden of the city’s castle and marvel at the horticultural creativity which renders the garden beautiful in all seasons.

Days 4-5: Kyoto and day trip to Nara In the morning we travel to Kyoto - where one of Japan’s oldest capitals unlocks her treasures of the Golden Temple, the Geisha district of Gion and Kiyomizudera temple set on a hillside overlooking the city. The possibilities are endless and there is never enough time to explore everything. We also journey to Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan to Todaiji Temple, reputedly the largest wooden building in the world housing the Great Buddha. We have time to explore the surrounding deer filled park before returning to Kyoto.

Day 6: Kyoto and ferry to Vladivostok After a memorable journey through magnificent Japan we transfer to the terminal and board our ferry to Russia.

Day 7: Across the Sea of Japan We mingle amongst the guests on board this ferry to Russia, often businessmen travelling between the neighbouring countries and we start to adjust to the change in culture and language allowing time to contemplate what we have already seen and wonder what is still in store on this adventure.

Day 8: Arrive Vladivostok Once a top-secret naval base of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was sealed off from the outside world. Now its doors are open for business and the city is booming as Russia's gateway to the Far East. For 100 years this has been the legendary eastern terminus of the Trans Siberian Railway, its historic railway station recently restored to its former grandeur.

Day 9: Vladivostok and depart to Ulan Ude Discover the city and port before climbing aboard the Trans Siberian Railway ready for an incredible journey.

Days 10-11: Trans Siberian Railway We settle into life on board, getting to know our travelling companions. Relax in the comfortable four-berth compartment that is home for the three days and nights it takes to cross eastern Siberia to the Buryat city of Ulan Ude.

Day 12: Arrive Ulan Ude Welcome to Buryatiya, centre of Russia’s Buddhist community. Reminiscent of old Siberia, Ulan Ude is located in the middle of the vast Siberian steppes, on the 5640th kilometer of the Trans-Siberian railway. It is a very unusual and charming city. The local open air ethnographic museum tells an interesting story about the life and traditions of the native Siberians (Buryat and Evenks) as well as the colonisers (Cossacks and Old-believers).

Day 13: On board the Trans Mongolian Railway Onwards we travel, enjoying the company of our fellow passengers and a picnic in our cabin. The train arrives at Naushki, the Russian border town where formalities are completed, and then continue across no-man's land to Sukhbaatar where Mongolian officials board the train before we journey on to Ulaanbaatar.

Days 14-17: Ulaanbaatar and Mongolian Steppe After breakfast we visit the Zaisan Memorial from which the entire city is visible. Also to the country’s largest remaining monastery, Gandan Hiid where you can mingle with Buddhist monks. In the afternoon we travel out across the grasslands through the countryside where we spend 2 nights in a traditional Mongolian nomad tent or ger set amongst spectacular rock formations and wild rolling hills in the breathtaking Terelj National Park. Among nomadic families and their grazing livestock we can explore nearby valleys or just relax and enjoy the area. We return to Ulaanbaatar and visit the National Museum before joining the train north to Siberia.

Day 18: Aboard the Trans Mongolian Railway Continuing towards Russia, leaving Mongolia at Sukhe Bator and travelling beyond the Russian border town and then west along the southern shore of the world's deepest freshwater lake — Baikal.

Days 19-21: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (Siberia) Almost in the centre of Asia, Irkutsk — 18th century churches, bright painted shutters and log houses decorated with wooden lacework. Modern administrative blocks and soaring bridges reach out across the Angara River in this beautiful town known as the "Paris of Siberia". On our walking tour you will discover the city’s wonderful historic sights. We also enjoy two nights at Lake Baikal and stay in the village of Listvyanka with its traditional houses and beautiful wooden church and nearby Limnological Museum. To gain an insight into the traditional lives of Siberian people we also visit the Museum of Wooden Architecture. We return to Irkutsk and board the train for an evening departure to Kazan.

Days 22-23: Aboard the Trans Siberian Railway We join the Trans Siberian Railway and travel via Novosibirsk, Omsk and Ekaterinburg booming over the steel bridges spanning Siberia's nerve system of 5,000 rivers. Through the Ural Mountains and onto Kazan.

Day 24: Afternoon arrival into Kazan Welcome to Kazan! The Capital of the Tatarstan Republic and the Muslim capital of Russia.

Day 25: Kazan Spend the day exploring the fascinating city of Kazan and its UNESCO World Heritage Listed Kremlin, before we hop back on the train bound for Moscow.

Days 26-27: Moscow We arrive into the capital at daybreak. Moscow will amaze you, its palaces and public buildings restored to their former glory. The echoing vastness of Red Square, the splendid twirled cupolas of St. Basil's across the cobblestones, and the Kremlin itself — that fabled palace-fort of gilded domes where we marvel at the exquisite collection of royal treasures in the stunning Armoury Chamber. We ride the palatial underground rail system, adorned with chandeliers, mosaics and baroque bas-relief and perhaps a river cruise or a magical evening at one of Moscow's great theatres or State Circus.

Day 28: Moscow to St. Petersburg Today we farewell Moscow and travel to the former capital of Imperial Russia. Home of the Tsars and one of the most beautiful cities in the world — St. Petersburg.

Day 29: St. Petersburg It is the city on the water, the "Venice of the North", standing resplendent on the delta of the Neva River. St Isaac's Cathedral, richly filled palaces and museums, wide boulevards and canals. The gilded halls of the Hermitage Museum hung with the works of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and many other great masters, and beyond the city lie the incomparable summer palaces of the tsars at Petrodvorets. Yet for all this, St. Petersburg remains one of Europe's best kept secrets.

Day 30: Depart St. Petersburg The last day has arrived too soon. The adventure is complete, the legendary rail journey that started many days ago has taken you across Asia, through lands and cultures literally worlds apart.

Group Size 
15 maximum, plus Tour Leader. 

Hotels - 12 nights (twin share) 
Mongolian Ger - 2 night (shared) 
Siberian Guesthouse - 2 nights (twin share) 
Trains - 10 nights (4 berth) 
Ferry - 2 nights (shared) 
Ryokan - 1 night (traditional Japanese Inn dating from the Edo period (1603-1868)) 

28 in total. Breakfasts (19), lunches (4), dinners (6)

Travel by 
Train: Comfortable 4 berth sleepers
There are 6 rail sectors on this journey 
- Vladivostok to Ulan Ude (3 nights) 
- Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar (1 night) 
- Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (2 nights)
- Irkutsk to Kazan (3 nights) 
- Kazan to Moscow (1 nights) 
- Moscow to St. Petersburg (day train) 
Other: For ‘Scheduled Sightseeing’ we generally use a small minibus, and for ‘City Exploring’ we use local taxis, public transport, underground metro and go on foot. 

2 Berth Rail (Optional) 
Available for a supplementary price only when two people book and travel together. Available on all rail sectors between Vladivostok and Moscow. 

Scheduled Sightseeing is part of the itinerary and includes all transport, entrance fees and English speaking local guide. This journey enjoys a greater number of included sights than others. 

Tokyo: City tour

Takayama: Hida Folk Village

Kanazawa: Kenrokuen Garden

Nara: Todaiji
Kyoto: Kinkakuji, Sanjusangendo, Kiyomizudera, walk of Gion

Vladivostok: City tour and museums

Ulan Ude: City Tour including Ivolginsk Datsun

Ulaanbaatar: Zaisan Memorial, National History Museum, Gandan Hiid Monastery, Terelj National Park

Irkutsk (Siberia): Walking tour of city, Museum of Wooden Architecture, Limnological Museum, Lake Baikal

St.Petersburg: City tour, Palace Square, Hermitage Museum

Moscow: City tour, St.Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Kremlin, Armoury Chamber

City Exploring is further sightseeing outside the itinerary guideline but with the Group Leader

Required for Japan (depends on nationality), Mongolia & Russia. Sundowners Overland will provide all required invitation letters and full visa support including detailed visa guidelines.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

3. Ballet

Whatever else I may do or see on this journey, one thing I really cannot miss is the Ballet - the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kirov, the latter being at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. As a small child, I learnt ballet (and later, Irish Dancing and Ballroom Dancing) and my best friend and I lived in a sort of dream world where we would grow up to be famous ballerinas, we'd practice dance at each other's houses on a Saturday afternoon and looking back we were living in fantasyland. A good place to be for very few children and youngsters of today have the innocent world of fantasy like we did.

I had a book called, "The How and Why Wonder Book of Ballet" by Lee Wyndham with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. (Copyright 1961 by Wonder Books, Inc.) It had 48 pages and was approx 11" x 8 1/4". I remember there were a lot of coloured illustrations and some black and white ones. It was this book where I first learnt about Nijinski and his marvellous jumps.

The book depicted the history of ballet - did you know the word "ballet" comes from the Italian ballare - to dance?

I've just read the Bolshoi theatre shows around 3-4 different operas and 2-3 ballets each year, so I will have to time my train journey with the ballet if possible.

I've always loved the ballet and was fortunate enough to see Nureyev and Fonteyn dance Swan Lake. Russian ballet and its dancers are famous and I am putting some ballet videos on this blog, not in a post but either in the side bar scroll down. The vids are short excerpts of my favourites.

Today's quote: Dancers are made, not born ~ Mikhail Baryshnikov

2. Currency and Exchange Rates

Latest Exchange Rates: 1 Australian Dollar = 47.457 Russian Rouble.

This graph shows the exchange rate for the previous 120 days -

(Looking at that, I'd say we would have had more bang for our buck back in May)!

Looking at this site, The Money Converter, it tells me the latest exchange rate for the Australian dollar is AUD$1 = 47.457 Russian Rouble.

I have no idea if that's a good rate or not, but it will be interesting to see how our Australian dollar compares six months down the track and when the time comes for me to travel (to Russia). I remember when I went to Viet Nam in 2012, the Aussie dollar was high - it was on a parity with the US dollar, and the dong was 21,000 dong to one dollar Australian. Pretty good seeing as how in the LP travel guide of a few years before that, the rate was 16,500 dong = AUD$1. Those heady days of 2012 have gone and the Aussie dollar is 16,700 VND.

I found it easy to get used to the Japanese currency, the yen was easy to understand, the coins and notes easily identifiable, so no confusion there. Did you know I was a Millionaire several times over back in 2011? Yep, I certainly was - $125 bought you a little over one million kip (LAK) and we joked how we were millionaires. Well we were, there is nothing that says your millions must be in dollars! Ah, those were the days. Of course you couldn't do anything with the money any where else outside Laos, being an inconvertible currency you were rather stuck with it. Same applied to the Vietnamese dong. I travelled up through Viet Nam then flew into China from Hanoi to Xian, only to find I was stuck with thousands of dong - the Chinese banks wouldn't change it, but I was fortunate that a couple staying at the same hostel were crossing into Viet Nam in two days and needed to get rid of their Chinese money, so we worked out the going rate and swapped.

Above: Russian Banknotes

Will have to have a hunt around for their coins, from what I have seen so far, there are kopecks and rubles, and so many kopecks make so many rubles. Unless I got that wrong. Mm. better go do some checking now. Don't go away, now ......back soon.

The ruble is subdivided into 100 kopeks (sometimes written as kopecks or copecks; Russian: копе́йка, kopeyka; plural: копе́йки, kopeyki)

This is probably the best photo I could find of the coins - in fact there weren't that many around. OH there were umpteen pictures of coins but not all were today's ones.

This is a good graph, easy to read and understand, you can calculate at your finger tips. No more having to work out well if one dollar is x rubles and ten dollars is xy rubles, then 250 dollars would be ... and then waste time trying to work it out.

Monday, 18 July 2016

1. Planning the Trip

My last trip was two glorious weeks travelling around Japan last month and I am ready to begin my next one. I was going to break my golden rule of travel and return to Japan, but suddenly from somewhere I thought, wouldn't it be great to travel across Russia by train?

This trip will be a long time in the planning, but that doesn't matter because the kitty is empty and will take time to refill. A journey like this will take more work than my previous holidays, this one will involve much detailed precision planning due to the type of trip - the Trans Siberian Railway! Rattling along by train across China, to places one only hears about on travel shows, or see written on maps - where people wear funny clothes and sleep in round, white tents, or ride camels and race across the Gobi desert or wear big fur hats in a snowy white world and say “Na Zdorovie”!

Just from my foray into the world of Trans Siberia websites, there are many and varied ways to do this. The easiest way would be to do a tour (normally I do not do tours, I book everything myself and plan everything myself, I like to travel independently, I can stay as long or as short as I like and choose the places to visit). But ... this one would, I think, be better executed as a group tour. I wouldn't want to get stranded in Outer Mongolia all on my lonesome or get lost in the middle of Russia on my pat malone! Getting lost in Japan or France is one thing, but getting lost way, way far away, thousands of miles away could put a damper on things a bit. But, and here's another but, the tours are not cheap, some costing thousands and thousands of dollars. For someone who doesn't even own a house, spending thousands of dollars riding a rain for two weeks - I can hear the family now, "You want to do what"? "You want your head read"!

There are cheaper options and these are what I will be exploring while I'm saving. But there, this is really only the first day and I have a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

I will probably post some useful website in the side bar at some time or other. As they say in Russian - До следующего поста (Do sleduyushchego posta)

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