Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for July 04

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

1st-16th July Mongolia
Ulaan Baatar
 - Click to enlargeAfter Beijing, Ulaan Baatar seemed small, very low level and chilly! We arrived on a rainy afternoon, not really knowing what to expect to find there. We picked our way through the mud and puddles as we left the station, and took a taxi to Nassan’s Guest House. When we got there Nassan was not at home. But Ulaan Baatar is full of guest houses, usually converted rooms in grotty-looking blocks of flats, so the taxi driver took us to another place. We had a look but it was terrible! Not having eaten anything all day (it was now 5pm) we decided to give up for a while and get some food. We sat down in a restaurant we had picked at random, and got a good, warming meal, before braving the rain once again and walking back to Nassan’s.

We stayed at Nassan’s for a whole week, sleeping in a small dormitory with up to three other people. Although basic, it was comfortable enough. On the day after we arrived the sun came out, and it got hot. We really enjoyed the clean air in Mongolia; a country with an area greater than six times that of the United Kingdom, and a population of only 2.4 million people. Surrounding the relatively peaceful capital city was the pale green grassland steppe which stretched on with no walls, fences or other boundaries until it reached the clear blue sky on the horizon. The most widely eaten meat in Mongolia is mutton, and in Ulaan Baatar the smell of mutton replaces the petrol and diesel fumes that pollute most capital cities. We particularly enjoyed the mutton dumplings in our favourite restaurant, where even the “beefsteak” was made of mutton!

During the week we spent staying at Nassan’s Guest House, we devoted most of our time and energy to our Russian visa applications. The Russian embassy in Ulaan Baatar opens its doors to foreign applicants at 2pm, and closes them again at 3pm. On our first visit, we arrived at about ten past two, obtained application forms, and waited in a queue for an hour before being told that they were now closed and to come back tomorrow. Other people in that queue were there for their third or fourth time trying to apply for visas. We were told that the office seems to do everything possible to make it difficult to apply, and that the majority of personal visa applications were unsuccessful. The list of documents which you must include with your application includes a letter of invitation to Russia, which must come from an officially registered Russian company, travel insurance from a Russian company which is on the official list, and a mysterious document called a “tourist voucher”. We left, application forms in hand and went in search of someone who could help us. We found a tour company which arranges tours to Russia and the manager, Tseden, said he could help us. However, two visits to the embassy later, we still didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so we decided to try again. In the end we found a Russian company, called Legend, who would make the application for us, for a fee, of course. And finally, nearly a week after arriving in Ulaan Baatar, our application was accepted. The cost of the visas alone (not including the expensive hotel we had had to book in order to obtain the “tourist voucher”) was US$452!

While all of this was going on, we did manage to do a few things in Ulaan Baatar that were more interesting. While I went for a scout around to find a guest house which had space during the Naadam Festival (more later!), Nick and the children visited the Natural History museum to see the enormous dinosaur skeletons on display there, which were unearthed in the 1970s in the Gobi Desert. I found some interesting places to stay, some of them in Ulaan Baatar’s ger district, which is basically a shanty town of traditional Mongolian felt houses, surrounding the concrete part of the city. In the end I booked a room at Idre’s hostel, some way out of the town centre, but friendly and comfortable.

On another day we went for a walk to visit the city’s monastery, Gandantegchinlen Khiid. It was beautiful and far more impressive than we had been expecting. Inside there was an enormous standing golden Buddha, which took up the entire central part of the four storey high building. Around the walls inside were thousands of tiny Buddhas which, we speculated, had been placed in the temple by individuals and families. There was incense burning and bells tinkling, and the inside of the temple was cool and calm.

Another museum worth the effort was the Mongolian National History museum, which was well laid out with information in English throughout. The lifestyle of the traditional nomadic Mongolian people has not changed much for hundreds of years, and some of the traditional costumes on display were remarkably similar to the clothes people wear today. We were particularly interested to find out about the various occupations of Mongolian territory, by Turkey, China and the USSR, and the development, during Ghengis Khan’s reign, of the great Mongolian Empire – the largest area of land ever controlled by a single administration in the history of the world.

7th-10th July Mongolia
Terelj National Park
A homestay ger - Click to enlargeWith our passports safely deposited at the Russian embassy, we set off to spend a couple of days in the country. Idre arranged a homestay for us in Terelj National Park, 80km from Ulaan Baatar. We transferred all our things from Nassan’s to Idre’s and caught a busy public bus to Terelj. The family met us from the bus with a warm welcome. There were horses to take us the 3km or so to the family’s home, a ger. It was hot in the sunshine, and Nick could not make his horse keep up with the others, so in the end he decided to walk, but Tom, Esther and I really enjoyed the ride – a bonus for us! The horses were lively and relatively responsive. Tom rode with a young guy and they kept trotting off ahead. Esther and I went more slowly, although we also trotted at times, urging the horse along with the word “Cho! Cho!”. The children and I had practically settled into our little ger by the time Nick arrived. Our little round house, made of felt and canvas on a wooden frame, contained three beds, two armchairs (which we turned into a bed for Esther), a metal fire box/stove and a couple of other pieces of furniture. It was warm and cosy and very colourful, everything painted orange with bright designs, a bit like a traditional English gypsy caravan or canal narrowboat. Of course there are many similarities between a gypsy’s lifestyle and that of a nomadic Mongolian family, who might pack up their home, load everything onto ox carts and move to better grazing land four or more times per year.

The setting was superb. Terelj is a mountain steppe area and the little community was in a lovely green valley surrounded by green hills with rocky peaks. The occasional vehicle came up or down the valley but in general people got around on horseback. We spent two whole days and three nights in this beautiful peaceful place. The children loved it. There were other children to play with, grass to run around on, discoveries to be made of dens in the rocks, mysterious copses or wildlife, like the spider egg cases that Tom found under a rock. Meals were brought to us in our ger; mutton dumplings and thick broths, and we could sit in our doorway and watch eagles wheel and swoop to catch their prey.

On our first day there, Tom, Esther and I went horse riding. Nick left us to it and went for a walk, having decided that he had had enough of horses. We rode to a temple which was brand new, and then round behind the mountains to ‘turtle rock’. At the end of the ride one of the boys who had gone with us as guides took Esther on his horse. I let Tom go ahead (he was riding pretty well and is very enthusiastic). I hung back until they were safely home, and then spurred my horse into action for a 100m sprint! It was fantastic! High above, and unseen by us, Nick was watching us ride along the valley through his binoculars.

The next day we set off in the morning to go for a walk. It was raining and cool so we needed to do something active. We did not do very well in our aim to find a circular route, but we enjoyed exploring. We saw eagles and small rodents, like prairie dogs, as well as countless beautiful displays of wild flowers. By the time we returned to the ger we were all tired and hungry, and rather damp. The wife had gone to Ulaan Bataar, so it was up to the husband (who we nicknamed Vodka Man) to provide us with food! Lunch was alright, but dinner took a long time coming and , we suspect, was cooked by the kids. In between, though, we were treated to a traditional performance of Mongolian Throat Singing, a phenomenon we had not been aware of before. We had heard the singer, a friend of the family, singing the day before, and had asked him to show us how this very special sort of singing is done. He put on a good show. We sat huddled in the ger with our cups of tea and he sang several songs to us in the traditional Mongolian style. Before each song he introduced the theme in Mongolian, and our host family did their best to interpret, although this was quite amusing! Throat singing is a tradition that involves making a deep base note, while, at the same time, singing a melody in such a way that it sounds exactly as if the singer is playing some kind of rustic flute. It would be hard to believe such a sound was possible without experiencing it first hand. We were fascinated and impressed. It was nice because he was really proud of his talent, and all those watching, the family, some friends and us were appreciative, even the teenagers!

The following morning we left our ger early to take the hour-and-a-half walk back to the road to catch the bus back to Ulaan Baatar. We had really enjoyed our relaxed stay in Terelj National Park, and were quite sad to leave the countryside behind.

10th July Mongolia
Mongolian State Circus
We managed to buy tickets for the Mongolian State Circus Special Performance, taking place during Naadam.

The show began with a performance of traditional music by an orchestra of stringed instruments.

Then we saw acrobats on camels. Most of the acrobatics actually took place on the floor, using the camels as props, but a pair also performed on a cart towed by a camel. Then a troop of tumblers somersaulted over the camels from a springboard.

After the camels had finished there followed several other acts of heart-stopping acrobatics and contortions. A group of twenty or so girls, aged between about 5 and 12, did a haunting dance which included contortionism and gymnastics.

A troop of male acrobats, including one little boy (about 8 to 10) did a breathtaking routine, flying and somersaulting from one to the other, until they made a tower of five people.

Another man did an act where he built a teetering tower of some six poles, one on top of the other, and then balanced on the top on one hand.

Then the clowns came on. The purpose of their act was to remove the floor covering to make way for the horses which would be on next. However, their act included some audience participation. First a smallish boy was picked from the crowd, and then an older one. There seemed to be a pattern developing, and we were not very surprised when Tom was next to be picked. The act was funny, the clowns blew whistles to organise the kids into a comedy routine of a game of ‘leapfrog’.

Then came the horses. Wild-eyed and long maned, they cantered around the ring while their riders leapt on and off and did stunts on their backs. They were such beautiful and powerful animals and, although they were obviously fearful of the ringmaster’s whip, it was exciting to see them move, so close up.

Then it was all over. Esther burst into tears, which was not really the effect we had hoped for, but she cheered up, of course, and we made our way back to Idre’s Guest House, chattering noisily about all we had seen.

11th-12th July Mongolia
Naadam Festival
Mongolian wrestlers at the Naadam - Click to enlargeWe were lucky enough to be in Mongolia while the Mongolians were celebrating their biggest annual event, Naadam. The festival is based around the celebration of the “Three Manly Sports”, wrestling, archery and horse racing. In Ulaan Baatar it is a big deal! We booked to join a tour for the two days.

Day 1
The group met at a café in the morning for breakfast. From there we went to the stadium. The first game we saw being played was the ankle bone shooting game (billed, confusingly, as “uncle bone shooting” in the programme!). This game, we speculated, probably had its origins with nomad shepherds whiling away the hours in their gers on winter nights. A flattened piece of bone is fired from a smooth wooden shoot by a flick of the fingers, and flies about five metres through the air, aimed at an arrangement of sheep’s ankle bones. The players and spectators take the competition very seriously. After watching for half an hour or so we went, with our guide, to take our positions to watch the opening ceremony of the games in the stadium. The place was packed and it was very hot. The ceremony was elaborate with gymnasts, dancers, singers, including one riding a camel, shows of horsemanship and, most importantly, a large brass band playing dramatic, solemn music, while the nine flags of Ghengis Khan were paraded around the stadium and placed in their holders at the front of the stadium near the president’s seat. The president himself made a speech and the games began.

We watched the first few rounds of the wrestling competition. The wrestlers, wearing big boots, underpants, and vests that exposed their chests and torsos, entered the arena and performed a kind of dance, holding their arms spread like the wings of a bird of prey, and stepping slowly, swaying from side to side. The object of the wrestling was to be the first to get your opponent to fall. As their were no weight divisions, though, the first few rounds were over very quickly, and it was easy to predict who was going to win each time: the big guy!

In the afternoon we went to watch the archery, in a different stadium. Nick was particularly interested, being something of an archer himself. We were impressed by the traditional costumes worn by the competitors and the amazing composite bows they used, made of layered horn, bark and wood. The arrows were made from willow branches and vulture feathers, and had blunt ends for the purposes of the competition. The targets were colourful blocks placed on the ground at a distance of 75 metres for men and 60 metres for female competitors. Beyond the targets were the judges, who indicated the quality of the shot with shouts and waves to the archers.

After a short wander around the many stalls of souvenirs, the bus took us back into the city.

Day 2
The day began early and we headed straight for the finishing line of the horse race, by bus from the café in Ulaan Baatar. The horse racing is not held on a horse track but out on the open steppe about twenty km from the city. It was quite cool when we arrived at about 8.30am. There were many spectators and people were on foot or on horseback. There was a group of gers from which you could buy breakfasy (Mongolian style!) and ‘airag’, fermented mare’s milk, Mongolia’s favourite alcoholic drink. We bought neither!

We took up positions near the finishing line and waited. We had a long wait, as it was about an hour and a half before anything happened at all. Each year at the Naadam Festival, some 400 horses race 30km across hilly steppe terrain for large cash prizes. The unbelievable thing about the race is the age of the jockeys. As there is no rule about age, and obviously the lighter in weight the better, the jockeys are all children, aged from as young as five. Many ride bareback and many have only a very basic rope bridle with which to keep control of their horse. Despite being interesting and quite unique, the horse race is not really much of a spectator sport. Waiting on the finish line, all we saw was the results! Exhausted horses staggering over the finish line, their hair plastered to them with sweat. The child winner looked tired but jubilant. The others just looked tired. Then the crowd headed off to see the winner. It is considered good luck to touch the winning horse, and other finishers too. People were scraping the sweat from the horses with pieces of wood and dripping it over themselves! Yeugh!

The bus was to take us to the stadium, back in Ulaan Baatar, for more wrestling and archery, but we decided to stop in town for a couple of hours, and get a taxi there later for the final rounds and the closing ceremony in the evening. We went, with our American friend Alan, and our guide, Miastuyen, to the Khan Brau Brewery for a beer, and then back to the hostel for a rest before meeting up again at 6 o clock.

We arrived at the stadium in time to watch the last two rounds of the wrestling. The tension was high, as was the temperature in the packed stadium. The wrestlers spent ages locked together, staring at each other and deciding on their first move. The crowd waited on the edge of their seats, passing airag and dumplings among themselves. Then, a moment of excitement! The wrestlers were wrestling! But nothing came of it until, after about 40 minutes of repeating this routine, one went down. The other pair of semi-finalists were still in full swing, and went on for about twenty minutes more before one fell. There was a break for the finalists to regain their strength, during which prizes were presented to the fastest twelve kids from the horse race. Through Alan’s super-powerful binoculars, we could see the president of Mongolia handing each of them a rucksack full of goodies.

Then the two remaining wrestlers, brothers-in-law, we were told, battled it out. Although Mongolian wrestling involves a lot of ritual psyching each other out, standing nearly motionless and staring, the final was tense and exciting. There were a few tussles, and finally it was all over. The winning wrestler performed the elegant victory dance around the nine flags of Ghengis Khan, and the closing ceremony began.

At the end of the ceremony we followed the crowd to the VIP stand to catch a final glimpse of the president as he left. For the crowd, it was a patriotic moment. For us, it was quite a relief to be on our way back to Idre’s, but, as we left the stadium, we felt privileged to have been able to witness this traditional Mongolian festival in all its glory.

17th July Russia
Into Siberia
Back onto the Trans-Siberian - Click to enlargeWe picked up our passports, visas, letters of invitation, tourist vouchers and train tickets from the Legend office, and, at long last, we were on our way. The journey from Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk took about 24 hours, with a six hour period being spent crossing the Russian border. The weather at the border was extremely hot, and the Russian officials made us close all the windows in the carriage. It was late at night and incredibly uncomfortable. They spent most of their time and energy harassing the Mongolians on the train, and made several people empty the entire contents of their compartments into the corridor. It was frustrating, sticky and slow, but eventually we got through.

During the morning we stopped a couple of times for a few minutes. Lots of people get off during these breaks, but we are so nervous about the train going off without us that we generally stay on board. Once, though, I bought some fresh garden strawberries from an old lady, without going very far from the door of the carriage!

We pulled into Irkutsk at about 2.30pm, and Sonya was there to meet us at the station. Sonya is a friend of Kirsten, who we met on the Great Wall of China, and it was with Sonya that we were going to stay while in Irkutsk. However we were not expecting Sonya to meet us at the station, as we were to spend our first night in Irkutsk at the expensive hotel we had had to pay for in order to get Legend to arrange our visas for us. Sonya had come because she had bad news, which meant that we could not stay at Kirsten’s apartment after all. She was very friendly and helpful, though and, after helping us to get to our hotel, she gave us the number of another friend, Rick, who might be able to help.

The following morning we gave Rick a ring and arranged to stay at his flat for a few nights. Rick lives in a flat owned by his family and lets rooms out, usually to students. For us, it was a great place to stay.

17th-24th July Russia
Trubetskoy house - Click to enlargeSonya showed us the sights of Irkutsk. It is a pretty, old-fashioned town with many wooden buildings that date back to the 19th century. Irkutsk grew from a remote village into the main city of Eastern Siberia, built up by settlers, having previously been exiled to Siberia. There are colourful churches, statues and parks, as well as two large and fast-flowing rivers. The huge Angar river, the only river to issue from Lake Baikal, flows through the middle of Irkutsk.

Intrigued by the romantic imagery surrounding revolutionaries who were exiled to Siberia in Tsarist days, we took ourselves off to see one of the Decembrist houses, now museums. It took us a while to find the house we were looking for, but when we did we were pleased we had made the effort. Trubetskoy house was only a very small museum, the house built by a member of the Decembrist movement against serfdom, exiled to Siberia in 1825. The Decembrist movement is so called because it had its main uprising in December 1824 in, St Petersburg. The house contained photographs and sketches to do with the lives of the men in exile, and those of their wives who followed them to Siberia, as well as original furnishings. We were given a guided tour with an English speaking guide.

The biggest problem we encountered in Russia was obtaining information about how to get anywhere or do anything. It seemed that the Russians, living as they do in a world of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, were far too used to being told that things can’t be done. Nick and Tom went on a fact-finding mission, hoping to be able to buy tickets for a hydrofoil to Bolshie Koty, on the shore of Lake Baikal. They eventually found a tour office of sorts where they got some advice, but then they had to get a taxi to the port, where they waited for over an hour in a queue to buy boat tickets. They still couldn’t get tickets for the day we wanted to go. People we spoke to were generally quite negative about our chances of finding somewhere to stay there as well, although, in the event, it turned out to be very easy!

21st-23rd July Russia
Lake Baikal
 - Click to enlargeDay trip to Listvyanka
To fill in time on the day before we were leaving for Bolshie Koty, we made the day trip to Listvyanka, also on the lake. It was raining! We took a hard-to-find bus from the centre of Irkustsk.

The drive to Listvyanka was pretty, through miles and miles of conifer forest with odd glimpses of Lake Baikal through the trees. There was mist over the lake which gave it a mysterious air.

The sky was very grey when we arrived. We went into a lakeside restaurant to get some fish to eat. The meal was delicious; a fresh fish bake made with omul, a lake fish a bit like trout in flavour, which only exists in Baikal. We gazed out of the window across the water.

Lake Baikal holds an incredible 20% of the world’s fresh water; more than all of the American Great Lakes put together. Many of the creatures that live in the water, including the tasty omul, and the Baikal seal, only live there and have no close relations anywhere else. It was an amazing place to be. With that in mind we went for a walk a couple of kilometres along the lake shore, following a nature trail.

Bolshie Koty
Although it had initially seemed complicated and uncertain, when we actually got started our trip to Bolshie Koty turned out to be easy, and a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of days. In fact, when we realised just how beautiful the lake is, and how helpful the people there were, we began to wish we had gone for it earlier and tried to get to Olkhon Island, further up the lake on the north-west shore, and supposedly very remote and beautiful.

Our boat tickets, it turned out, were for a super-duper hydrofoil which took an hour and a half to get to Bolshie Koty. The village was small, not served by any road, but linked by a rough farm track (in summer) to Listvyanka. The sky was clear blue and so was the lake, and the only sounds were the buzzings and chirpings of insects and birds. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The lady at the museum spoke no English, but was helpful when we showed her our little note in Russian, written by someone in Irkutsk, and especially helpful when we agreed to pay the entrance fee and visit the museum! It was a bizarre collection. Large fish in jars, stuffed animals including a huge eagle, a brown bear and a snake, and an old-fashioned diving helmet. After ten minutes or so, the babushka (a Russian word for an old lady, literally meaning ‘grandmother’) hurried us off to see where we were to stay.

Up the grassy slope beside the museum and through a gate we walked to the door of wooden house. I think the people there were her daughter and son-in-law. They had a wooden chalet built in their garden, with four beds and a beautiful view over the lake. It was really lovely. Also lovely was the banya, a Russian style sauna, which they stoked up for us after dinner. With our tummies full of fresh lake fish and herby potatoes we sat and soaked in steam and heat, looking out across the beautiful, peaceful lake through the little window.

In the morning, after breakfast, we took ourselves off for a walk along the shore of Lake Baikal. The day was beautiful, the air was fresh and clean and the calm, still water of the lake glistened, wonderfully clear. We were walking along the hillside rising from the water and, as we looked down into the lake, we could see clearly through to the stones at the bottom. Later the babushka lady told us that the drinking water here is pure lake water, taken from a depth of forty metres. The path was wooded and shady, but the sky was clear and the sun was strong. We returned to the house for lunch, and then took our books back to the lake shore to let the children play on the beach until the hydrofoil was ready to take us back to Irkutsk. Bolshie Koty had been a beautiful place to spend a couple of days. Our last chance to escape to wild countryside as our trip draws to an end.

24th-27th July Russia
Trans-Siberia to Moscow
Keeping busy on the journey - Click to enlargeOur final train, Irkutsk to Moscow, left at 4.20pm on Saturday 24th July, and took three days to convey us the 5185km that was to be our longest overland trek.

We spent the morning preparing for the journey. Nick and I went into town on the bus, leaving Esther and Tom with Sonya. We bought a variety of entertainments for the children, anticipating that they would be bored during the journey, and went to the supermarket to stock up on noodles, snacks, fruit and sweets. Back at the flat we cooked and ate a decent meal and packed a last few things into our rucksacks before waving goodbye to Sonia and Rick as we left, by taxi, for the station.

The train journey itself was actually relatively uneventful, all three days of it. We put our watches back an hour each morning, and another hour on arrival in Moscow. Illustrating just how enormous Russia is, we passed through five time zones while we were on that train.

In the event, no-one got particularly bored, although the children didn’t meet such suitable playmates this time, and our carriage was full of Russians rather than tourists like ourselves. We rationed the little presents we had bought for them so that, even on day three, we still had something new to offer.

We ate in the restaurant car once. The meal was nice and it was great to sit at a table eating a “proper” meal while the Siberian forest slipped by the window, but mostly we ate in our compartment, supplementing our snacks with food bought from babushkas on the platform when we stopped.

Getting off the train to buy provisions always felt very daring! Our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) would tell us how many minutes there were until the train would move off again, but we were never quite sure how she knew! Still, none of us ever managed to get left behind, although Tom panicked terribly whenever I got off the train on my own.

The children played, we read or played cards, we ate snacks, we made up a Trans-Siberian song to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, and we kept track of our progress in the Lonely Planet book (which was pretty accurate this time, with regard to the journey and route). Then, at about 4.30pm local time on the 27th, we pulled heavily into Moscow railway station, and set off to find somewhere to stay, for the last time!

27th-30th July Russia
St Basil's Cathedral through the Resurrection Arch - Click to enlargeIt felt a bit strange, as we walked along the platform with our rucksacks on, to realise that we had finally arrived at our end point. I can’t say that we really felt elated or excited to be there. It was just hot, and we were (paradoxically, as on-train life had been so lazy) tired from the journey. And, too, we felt as daunted as ever by the prospect of trekking around a big, busy city, trying to find somewhere affordable to stay. It was quite a trek, too. We used the metro, walked quite a way, Esther fell over and hurt her knee, and then we found that the place we were looking for no longer existed. Then we walked a bit more, and then took a taxi to the Traveller’s Guest House, where we stayed. We could not believe the prices. For really basic accommodation in three beds in a dorm, with a shared toilet and bathroom, we paid 42 pounds per night!! That’s a whole day’s budget! It was not even particularly nice, or friendly either. The other travellers there were nice though, and we enjoyed meeting and chatting with them throughout our two-night stay there. And it was a nice change to sleep in beds that were not swaying from side to side!

We had two full days to spend in Moscow before flying to France. We made a few decisions fairly quickly: 1) We decided to avoid paying for accommodation on our third night by going to the airport early and sleeping there for the night leading up to our flight, and 2) We decided not to visit the Kremlin. Although this would be a ‘must-do’ on the lists of many visitors to Moscow, we decided that we could manage without that particular guided tour, interesting as it may have been. However, when we went to Red Square on the 28th we saw the buildings of the Kremlin and their compound from the outside.

We did visit St Basil’s Cathedral, the building most often seen as a symbol of the city, and of Russian architecture. It was a mildly emotional moment when we first glimpsed the cathedral, with its profusion of colourful cupolas, framed by Red Square’s Resurrection Gate. Standing in front of that building in Red Square was the symbolic moment we had all been waiting for: our official Journey’s End! However, it was strangely peaceful in the busy square. We took some photos and went to see the cathedral from the inside. It was an interesting building with many winding passages, vaulted ceilings and interesting artwork.

The 29th of July was our last day. We spent it visiting Gorky Park. This park is like a fairgound mixed in with an ornamental garden. There were also many exotic animals there, like lions, monkeys, bears and a huge boa constrictor. People paid to have their photograph taken with these creatures. They all looked well cared for, but it was a bit bizarre!

Fittingly, we had our final minor crisis during that day, too. I suddenly realised, having checked out of the hostel several hours before, that I had left my money belt under my pillow. Terrible thoughts flashed through my head. Here we are, having made it all the way round the world and, without any money, we might not even be able to fly (departure tax and all considered), and we could be stuck in expensive Moscow until the dreaded HSBC could be persuaded to come to our aid. Aaargh!! We hurried back to the hostel at breakneck speed, just as, almost poetically, the clear blue sky became a thunderstorm above our heads! Luckily most of the rain fell while we were on the metro. We hurried through the puddles, anxiously snapping at each other as we went. The missing article was easy to locate, being, as it was, still under the pillow of what had been my bed. They had already re-let the bed, though. It just goes to show the standard of hygiene you get in Moscow for £42 per night. They could not possibly have changed the sheets without finding it!

We took the metro, and then a stuffy local bus, to the airport, and arrived at about 11pm, for an 8.35am flight. The night was OK. The children, accustomed as they now are to travel, got a fair amount of sleep, lying on seats in the check-in area, and Nick and I got some rest too. At 6.30 we checked in our bags and headed for the appropriate gate.

As our Aeroflot plane left the ground, headed for Prague, where we would change to Air France for Charles de Gaulle, our journey of a lifetime was all over, and our re-adjustment back to ‘real life’ about to begin.

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