Our longest train journey of our whole trip across Russia was set to be from Perm to Krasnoyarsk and a whopping 46 hours. We cut this short by 1.5 hours by boarding at Kungur. Still such a long time on the train was going to be a little challenging. We prepared well buying a large variety of food to cover the 6 meals we would need whilst on the train. There is a small shop on board and the opportunity to get off and buy food when the train stops but after looking at the timetable, we realised most of these stops would be in the middle of the night. It’s likely that only smokers get off at 2am to satisfy their habits.

Our train was on time and a slightly newer one than the previous 2 trains. Instead of brown the beds were blue which made for a slighlty nicer colour scheme. The train was pretty lively and all along one side was a group of young girls who spent most of the afternoon playing games and passing notes along the train. Our bay was just us and two of the girls so we both sat by the window until sunset. The views were better than before as the train made its way along a river valley. Once the sun went down we made our beds and settled down to watch a film.

Thankfully the group of school girls left the train at Yekaterinberg and we got alot of new neighbours. Opposite us a young couple with a 10 month old baby moved in. And to the other side an American man and a Russian lady. All of them were very friendly and we soon discovered (with the help of google translate), that the couple were going to Kazakhstan to see his family. Our American neighbour had missed his original train and sadly only been able to make it onto a third class carriage on our train; probably not how he wanted his first Russian train journey to go. Before bed Matthias chatted to the American-Russian couple who thought he was in his early twenties.

The next morning Matthias woke up early and discovered that it’s possible to charge electrical items next to the Provodnistas office. With the phone fully charged he returned to his seat and found Zoë was finally awake at 10am (sleeping with earplugs is the way forward). Breakfast was some surprisingly yummy instant porridge with pieces of dried apple and cherry and more tea. Then we got comfy for the rest of the day on the train and a lot more passing trees. Our neighbours all left at Omsk and were replaced by three Russian men. For the first time we were a little less easy, but once we got out our lunch and shared some of our food things were more relaxed. We are sure the vodka and whiskey they were sipping continually was helping too. We had expected people drinking on the trains but surprisingly these men were always sipping secretly while one of the others kept watch. Maybe the recent changes to alcohol laws and the classification of beer as an alcoholic beverage (only in 2011!) have made drinking less acceptable. Come to think of it even people drinking on the streets always concealed their alcohol in brown paper bags. Despite this Russia still has a large problem with alcohol abuse, especially in young men. Matthias earned a few shots of Vodka by fixing Viktor the construction workers new tablet and as a bonus we got a chocopie (a Russian Tunnock’s teacake).

The hours dragged on through the night but we both made it to the morning having had enough rest. Finally, it was the day we were going to get off the train and away from our latest train mates. The men weren’t too bad really but Viktor’s music and the sweaty man smell was starting to get a bit much. We were really looking forward to getting off the train and out into the fresh air. Our train pulled into Krasnoyarsk on time and we said goodbye to the Russian men. As we walked along to the end of our carriage we noticed that during the night they had added another carriage. This carriage was a little different with bars on the windows and windows that opened. It was full of people peering out of the windows. We are pretty sure our train had been pulling along a prison on rails. We definitely didn’t read about that in the guidebooks.

 Our train to Siberia 

Checking out late from our guesthouse we set off back to Vladimir from Szudal. After waiting for 20 minutes at the wrong bus stop we opted to walk the 2km to the bus station. Our bus to Vladimir was just as old as the one there and unfortunately we had seats over the wheel arch which were pretty uncomfortable. Back in Vladimir, we had a couple of hours to kill before our train. We made the most of these by going for dinner in a Pelmeni restaurant. Pelmeni are pasta stuffed with a variety of fillings, very similar to tortellini. We tried a dish of both meat and salmon pelmeni and also tried some Khinkali (Georgian tortellini). It was a very yummy meal and prepared us well for the train ride ahead.

We boarded our next train at 8:30pm and would arrive into Perm at 3:30pm local time (2 hours ahead of Moscow time) the following day. The train was almost identical to the first with brown coloured beds and we were travelling 3rd class again. The carriage was pretty hot and unlike our first train this one had electronic boards to display the time and temperature inside the train; this read 24 degrees when we boarded. Our neighbours for the journey consisted of 3 Russian ladies and one empty bed. They all seemed friendly enough, but like the rest of the train they were all resting or sleeping. We made our beds and hoped for a nice quiet night. The train was full but did quieten down after around 10pm. The ride wasn’t quite as smooth as the first and unfortunately two snoring fat men kept Zoë awake for a while. At least now we have learnt to keep the ear plugs somewhere handy.

A couple of the billions of birch trees along the railway line

We woke up around 6:30am with the sunrise, as the blinds were not down. While everyone else seemed to still be asleep we prepared our breakfast. We had brought a variety of pastries with us and a large supply of tea bags. Each carriage has a water boiler at the end and hot water is free of charge. We later saw someone bringing the wood to keep our water boiler going. It’s certainly worth bringing a mug on board with you. We both have our hydaways which are collapsible silicon bottles that are great for both hot and cold drinks.

One of the water boilers on the train

From early morning until 3:30pm is a long time to look out of a train window. Having read and heard about the transiberian we were hoping for some nice scenery and views of the Russian countryside. With any journey across Russia inevitably you spend half of the time on the train asleep. We hadn’t quite expected 8 hours of passing by tree after tree after tree. In fact on this journey trees and train stations were pretty much all that we saw. Our lunch was a trial run for the other meals we would eat on the trains. We tried some instant meals which either consist of noodles or instant potato mash. They weren’t too bad but we knew we would be craving some real food after a few instant meals. Finally our journey came to an end and we arrived in Perm, the city named after the word ‘Permian’ meaning far away.  We definitley agree, it’s a long way away. 

The Golden Ring

The golden circle around Moscow is an area containing cities of ancient importance and cities that helped define Russia today. Many of the transiberian trains stop at Vladimir, a city which stood against the Turkish invaders but eventually fell. Many tourists visit Vladimir, Szudal and Nizny Novogorod on day trips from Moscow, but we decided to spend a little more time seeing at least two of these cities.

After a full day dealing with the phone saga and cancelling our original train (easy to do for a small fee) we finally arrived at the Moscow Kurskaya train station to buy some new tickets. There are slow, express and really fast trains to Vladimir, but since the express journey only takes 2.5 hours we opted for this. Safely on board the train, we noticed that yet again, everyone was sleeping on public transport. We arrived into Vladimir around 9pm and walked to our hostel. The walk was a little scary in the dark, but thankfully it was just along the main road which had street lights. The entrance to our hostel was a little more dubious as it seemed to be a semi-derelict building. Think of the worst Scottish close you have seen but with bare brickwork and crumbling walls and you will have some idea. Inside the hostel we were warmly greeted by the owner, who despite not speaking any English was able to check us in and show us around. Hostel Chocolate is a chocolate themed hostel with chocolate bed sheets and artwork all over. Thankfully the bathroom suite did not follow the trend but instead the shower looked a bit like a spaceship capsule.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover Vladimir style (aka our hostel entrance)

The next morning we got up to explore Vladimir, but were tempted to a coffee by our host before we left. Vladimir is a fairly large city but the old interesting centre is very compact. Somehow we managed to find the back entrance along an alleyway of ramshackle houses before we reached the first church. The main sites in Vladimir are clustered around two squares with a lovely walkway and sculptures between them. Our visit coincided with the first day of the Russian school year known as Knowledge day. Following three months of summer holidays, Russian school children dress up with bows in their hair and carry flowers for their teachers. Many seemed to go to school for just part of the day and the rest of the day was spent having fun and visiting the local sites. It created a very buzzy atmosphere while we walked about the town.

In terms of sites, Vladimir has a few to offer especially if you would like to visit churches. We opted for a few less churches and visited the famous Golden Gate first. The Golden gate was the site of a huge battle for Vladimir against the Turks and is still a strong part of the Russian identity. Today it holds a museum on the history of the gate including a video which we happily watched in English! The rest of the museum holds weapons from the 12th to 20th centuries but unfortunately none of them have English descriptions.

The Golden Gate

Our next stop was the old water tower and the museum of Vladimir, which mainly encompasses life of peasants and townspeople from the 20th century. We enjoyed looking at the photographs and exhibits but it’s only a small museum. On our way back towards the hostel we also visited the cathedral. Vladimir’s cathedral was used as a model for the assumption cathedral in the Kremlin of Moscow. It looks very similar from the outside but inside most of the paintings appear much older than the restored ones in Moscow.

We collected our bags from the hostel and made our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Szudal. The buses run every half hour and it costs just 95 rubles for the 45 minute journey. The bus took us through a very open landscape which was largely argicultural and we realised just how far some people in Russia must walk to get the bus. Our bus kept stopping in the middle of nowhere to let people off and we had to search the horizon to see the nearest village which was perhaps 3-5km away. Interestingly the bus station at Szudal is also around 2km away from the centre, but the bus continues for an extra fee of 17 rubles per person and drops you off in the town centre. We made it mid afternoon and then only had to work out how to cross the river and reach our guesthouse. We crossed the river and walked across most of the town before reaching Viktoria guesthouse. We had to call the owner to check in, but he helpfully gave us a map of the town with the main sites marked. All we needed now was some food from the local corner shop. The corner shops sell a huge variety of long life produce along with some dairy, sausages and a small selection of fruit and vegetables. When buying food in these small shops, our lack of Russian is starting to become a little frustrating for both us and the shopkeeper. We resolved to learn a little more so that we could order more easily.

The next morning we planned to visit the Kremlin, museum of wooden architecture and a Monastery. Quite a lot to cram into a day but thankfully Szudal is pretty small and all these attractions are within walking distance of eachother. It was a lovely sunny day so we set off in shorts and sandals to make the most of it. Our first stop at the Kremlin was probably the most interesting as it contains a musuem housed in an old palace and the church of the nativity. The church dates from the 11th century and was originally built from white stone before later being restored with red bricks and painted. The museum contains archeological finds from the area and the jordan canopy. The Jordan canopy is a kind of altar that was constructed on the frozen river for epiphany (6th January). A large service was held on the river ice and the preist dipped a crucifix through a cross shaped hole into the river to bless it’s waters. This is the only canopy of it’s kind to survive and is housed in its own dome shaped room. The rest of the museum contained religious art, jewellery and artefacts from the church and local town. It was a big musuem and the only bit that we didn’t enjoy was the room full of icons (probably because we have seen so many and they are all starting to look the same).

The builings inside the Szudal Kremlin

The church ofnthe Nativity

A Russian orthodox iconostasis

The only surviving canopy of Jordan

Just across the river is the museum of wooden architecture, which was founded during Soviet times. It contains around 15 wooden buildings which were moved here partly for preservation but mainly to create a tourist attraction and put Szudal on the map. Only a few of the buildings are open, including one church and several different peasant houses. For us it was interesting to compare how sparsely decorated and uncosy Russian houses were compared to the ones we saw in Romania. There were a few English descriptions about the layout of the houses with the main room (izba) being the only heated room of the house. It was interesting to see but probably not quite enough to justify the 300 ruble entrance fee. On the way back to town we passed two large wedding processions in fancy cars and a limo and started wondering what a Russian wedding is like, since the bride and groom always seem to be on an extended photo shoot. It turns out the photo shoot around the town is standard and can last several hours. Probably a hard task in a town as small as Szudal.

A typical peasants house

Two lovely wooden windmills

Our walk to the monastery led us past a lady milking her cow and then the Gvostiny Dvor or shopping arcade with its market. Today the arcade houses fairly boring shops and the market sells souvenirs, slippers and homegrown produce. We picked up an ice cream and continued up the main street to the monastery of spaso euphymius. This is the largest and best maintained monastery in Szudal (there are 3 more) and houses 10 museums. We decided to go in and find out what was inside since all the signs were in Russian. Inside the huge fortress like walls is a large courtyard, a couple of churches, a medicinal garden and the old houses for the monks. We visited two of the museums and were disappointed to find very little English and heaps of religious treasures. It was good to see inside the monastery complex but not worth visiting the museums. There’s even another museum of icons here :-(. Back at the guesthouse we made our spaghetti and meatballs and packed for our next train journey.

The best part of the monastery

Fancy a trip to Rothenburg anyone?

The Russian capital

After sleeping surprisingly well on our first overnight train, we arrived in Moscow mid-morning. We happened to go in the same direction as our train companions and so they helped us buy two 3 day metro passes in the station. It was only three stops to our hostel, but that already gave us a good idea about the amazing Moscow metro system. It is very efficient and there are so many staff! Every station has at least two security people who scan big bags and at the bottom of every escalator is a person watching people via security cameras. Trains are long and run three minutes apart at the most! So you definitely don’t need to worry if you miss one train or it is too full. Despite the fact that 9 million people use it every day, we never had any trouble or long waits even during rush hour.

We chose hostel ‘Hostelberry’ as our base for the four days in the Russian capital thanks to its reviews and the fact it was only 200m from a metro station with a 13 minute ride to the centre. It was a good choice despite the fact that there was only a microwave and a kettle available for cooking meals.

After our early check-in we jumped on the metro to the centre. It was a sunny Sunday and we intended to make the most of it. After a wander around Bolshoi theater square towards the kremlin we found Red square. The red square was entirely occupied by the tattoo arena, a sandy horse arena and a little fair so we missed out on the full impression of its vast size. We had managed to get some tickets to one of the music shows and were very excited about it. We skipped St. Basils cathedral due to the high volume or tour groups and decided to head on to Moscva river. The bridges provide a great view over the kremlin and allowed us to admire its size at least from one angle. 

Red square with GUM shopping mall and the horse arena

Matthias, Ted and a Kremlin

Our next destination was the famous Gorky park. Our train companions had also recommended the museum park on the other side of the road because of it’s sculptures, which turned out to be a good tip. It is roughly half the size of Gorky but the outdoor sculptures are nice and worth seeing, even if a lot of them are depictions of Lenin. We could not understand though why they had built a horrible square concrete builiding in the center of it to display modern art. At the tip of an island in the river stands the imposing and impressive monument of Peter the Great; immortalising his victory against the Swedish 1812.

The largest fountain in Gorky Park

A small statue of Peter the Great (certainly not rubbing it in the Swedes faces)

Thanks to the good weather Gorky park was full of people and there was an awful lot to do and see. Zumba classes, speed dating or flashmob dances are only a few examples of activities. There were even free ping pong tables and an astro turf arena where we watched people playing dodgeball. Food was available from dozens of stalls but we intended to make the most of our hostel kitchen to at least help our travel budget a little. We spent hours in the park and loved it. The best show we saw was a group of roller skaters jumping over hurdles and slaloming around cones a well as doing other tricks.

High jump on roller skates

On the way back we enjoyed another perk of the hostel: the supermarket adjacent to the metro station was our first Russian shopping experience and it took us quite a while to translate enough to know we were buying the right things. Who knew that Russia had so many different types of porridge.

We started our first full day by heading to Izmaylovo. This part of the outskirts has a fantasy kremlin surrounded by lots of stalls selling souvenirs and all sorts of other stuff. It also holds regular flea markets. We got there on a Monday morning and were almost the only tourists there. Okay, there were only less than 50 visitors in total and the market was pretty much deserted. Zoë had been there a few years ago and remembered it as a Russian bazar, crowded and busy. Evidently some of the bigger buildings were being done up and repaired but it seemed like the hole place was way past its hayday. The inner courtyard of the kremlin was the busiest area. It contained a few cafes, art shops, a wedding agency and a few museums. Half the reasons why we went there was the museum of vodka history. There we learnt how the Russians seemed to love and hate vodka. Over time it got banned, restricted and liberated at least three times over the last 400 years. Before they could produce glass cheaply and in sufficient quantities, the spirit got served in pubs (without food) in 12 liter buckets!

Izmalovo Kremlin/Prison for Russian wares

A deserted market alley

Russian witches evidently climb out of trees

Back in the center we stopped to see the old KGB headquarters named Llubjanka (from the outside) and the adjacent shopping center with it’s own miniature train ride inside. Matthias even took the chance to go on a real spaceship inside Hamleys.  We then went slightly upmarket and browsed through the GUM shopping mall next to the Red Square. It is similar to the KaDeWe in Berlin or Harrods in London. What it lacks in height (three floors) it makes up in length: two of the three arcades seemed to us about 400 meters long!

A fountain full of melons in the upmarket GUM shopping mall

This was followed by about an hour of trying to get everything we needed to post Matthias’ broken phone back to Germany. Later this evening we discovered in a DHL office (hidden away in a Holiday Inn) that it would cost us over 9200 Rubles (£120) to post it insured! Therefore we took the step to get it repaired here and save us a lot of money and trouble (or so we thought).

Our next day was entirely dedicated to the Kremlin and it’s museums. We had decided to do the whole lot apart from Ivans’ bell tower. Visits to the armoury and the diamond fund are arranged in timed sessions of 1.5 and 1 hour each respectively. Audio guides are available for free at the entrances. Access to these two museums is through a separate entrance and does not require a ticket to the kremlin complex. Inside the armoury consists of nine sections. A big section is dedicated to religous art like icons, incense burners, gilded books and other items used during services. The decoration was impressively detailed and very intricate. The exhibits represented the pinnacle of craftsmanship from different areas and time periods. Another section displayed diplomatic presents to the Tsar from foreign rulers or other visitors; each a masterpiece of their own country and style. Judging by the number of them the Tsars must have been very busy recieving visitors all the time. There were also sections about imperial carriages, dresses and thrones. We were very glad that the audio tour only talked about a fraction of the items on show and we still spent longer in the museum than our slot was long. Otherwise we could have easily spent most of the day in there.

After a short snack break it was time to see the diamonds. Locked away behind heavy doors (which are only opened one at a time to let people in or out) lay a dazzling array of diamonds in all shapes and sizes both raw and cut and polished. We were most amazed by the detailed and fancy jewelery with diamonds (white as well as coloured ones) combines with saphires, rubies and other gem stones. Sadly, photography is stricly forbidden inside the vault. The Russian regalia were strikingly beautiful and covered with thousands of diamonds. On top of the scepter sat, encased in gold, the famous Orlov diamond (one of the biggest diamonds in the world).

Last but not least on our kremlin tour was the fortress itself with it’s five churches. Since it is still used for parts of the government and it seemed like there was an official Iranian delegation visiting we were only allowed into less than half the area. Two of the churches were also closed but the other three were fully sufficient. Unlike the basilica in St. Petersburg these ones were painted. Some of the paintwork looked fairly new whereas some others looked hundreds of years old. The churches were all very nice but started to recognise the same paintings over and over again. Russian people seemed to have strong preferences to certain saints and paint them in the same way again and again. The only stand out feature was the high number of coffins in the cathedral of the archangel. They contained Tsars and Tsarevitshes (princes) and covered most of the space.

Spasskaya tower

St Ivans Cathedral

The bell that broke before it rang

Before our music show we headed back to the hostel for dinner and to take the phone to a repair place. It seemed like we would get it back within two hours but had to leave it for a day because the ‘good copy’ display did not work.

Soon after arriving on red square again we forgot our worries and watched an amazing show by some acrobatic riders in the horse arena before walking to our seats for the tattoo. The show seemed sold out and was awesome. St. Basils cathedral provided a beautiful background even though a lot less grand than Edinburgh castle. During the following two and a half hour show we watched and listened to about 20 bands. Nine of them were Russian and others came from Turkey, Austria, Armenia and Azerbaijaan to name but a few. Our favourites and most anticipated acts came from the celtic massed pipe and drums (including a group of highland dancers) and the top secret drum corp from Switzerland. Some of the perfomances were brilliant but overall it would have probably been better to give each band more time rather than cram as many bands in as possible. Overall we had a great time and the best evening so far. Even the weather was on our side.

A jazzy St Basils cathedral

The top secret drum corp

The finale and all the bands of the Spasskaya military tatoo 2017

We had decided that on our last day we would take up one of the tips we got on our first train and go and see the VDNHa park. This is a huge area of parks and pavillions built between 1935 and 1937 to show off achivements of the USSR.Each republic has its own pavillion for exchibitions and representations and there are museums about mechanical, electrical and aeronautical engineering. Other buildings covered agriculture and social culture. It even includes a farm and horse riding school with stables. Overall the park is at least 1.5 km long and half of that wide. Unfortunately it was all under renovation and most of the big pavillions were closed and/or covered in scaffolding. There were still plenty of people around though and it was worth coming to see something different. We recommend waiting until all the works are completed so it actually feels like a park again rather than a building site.

The fountain of the people in VDNHa park

On our way back we spent some time visiting some more of the highly decorated metro stations. Almost all of them were clad with marble and were decorated with stained glass windows, mosaics on walls or ceilings or statues.

Fantastic mosaics underground

Oh look who it is…. Lenin is everywhere!

Back at the hostel we went to pick up the repaired phone and treated ourselves to a super yummy Chinese dinner. We got a shock later when we discovered that in the process of repairing the front glass they managed to break the back one. In addition the SIM card and SD card slot seemed to be broken…

The next morning we meant to get on a train at 9.30am but instead we ended up in the phone workshop to complain. By this point we had lost all trust in the repair guy, but it was his responsibility to right the wrong or refund us the phone. After waiting for ‘the specialist’ to turn up to fix it he did it himself (therefore only a part-time specialist during certain hours!?) only to stop 10min later to proclaim we needed to wait for a courier to deliver the new glass panel. By then he had at least managed to get the card slots working again. This all happened without even a hint of any apology. Cutting a long story short we stayed in this place until about half three. Every time the device was put together either the camera would not work, the battery dropped from 40 to 4% after turning it off and back on or it would not turn on at all. We eventually got the money for the screen repair back. By the time we left we were so fed up with the whole affair that we didn’t mind the vibration not working and left in order to get our next train during daylight hours.

We needed a big KFC bucket at the station and lots of Pepsi to recover after not eating or drinking anything since breakfast. Being righteously knackered, we would have fallen asleep instantly had the train been longer than two and a half hours.

In the end we still keep Moscow in the good books; we just won’t trust them to repair anything (especially not an Armenian) ever again.

PS: Well done if you made it this far. Now we have a special tip for you. If your phone requires a SIM card adapter and you have to take the card out DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put the tray back in the slot with just the adapter but without the SIM. It will get stuck and you won’t be able to get it out without damaging the contacts.

Our first experience of Russian trains

Our plan for Russia was always to take the world famous Transsiberian railway from West to East. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that this train doesn’t really exist. Instead there are three main routes (Transsiberian, Transmongolian and Transmanchurian) and a huge number of trains ranging from the prestigous red arrow to the very slow local trains. When most people say the Transiberian, they are talking about the luxurious red arrow train which takes 6 days to make it from Moscow to Vladivostok non-stop. It looks very fancy but is probably pretty boring and for us a little pointless since we actually want to get off the train and see some more of Russia. With this in mind, we decided to travel the Transmongolian route using a variety of trains and making various stops. Now it would be lovely if interrail existed in Russia, but sadly it does not. Demand can be quite high on the routes across Russia so that allows for two choices; prebook all the trains, or leave enough flexibility in your travel plans in case you can’t get tickets. The first is by far the more difficult on principal but due to visa constraints it’s actually the most practical. We had only applied for the standard 30 day tourist visa so that allowed us a month to get from Saint Petersburg to Mongolia.

Our plan slowly evolved with the help of a Transiberian railway book and plenty of googling. We decided to make stops in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Perm, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (Lake Baikal) and Ulan-Ude. That meant a 28 day journey and booking 6 trains (our last journey would be by bus). There are several ways to book train tickets. By far the easiest of these is to pay someone else to do it for you. Several agencies make a fortune booking trains and save tourists time, hassle and brain power. We originally thought this was the best way until we discovered that the official Russian Railways website has an English version. The one disadvantage over an agency is that tickets can only be booked 60 days in advance as this is when the timetables are released. The agencies cleverly get around this booking tickets which are ‘subject to change’ if the timetable or price changes. For the perk of someone else doing the leg work for you, you will be charged a healthy mark up of 40-60%, i.e. if you book it yourself you can pay half price vs the agency price. We were up for the challenge.

With this decision we needed to decide which trains to take (using the agency website) and then when they were released for sale it was easy to pick the train out and buy our tickets. The russian rail system can be pretty confusing when you consider there are three classes of travel and that train numbers, train types, meals and seats are all described with the cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately uncle google is quite good at translating and there are a few sources with explanations of common symbols on the internet. The other thing to throw into the mix is that the rail system runs on Moscow time but the local time can vary by up to 6 hours. Trying not to book trains that arrive and depart stations in the middle of the night can be quite confusing due to this.

Our first dilema was which class to travel. From what we read first class is luxury with two beds per berth with plenty of privacy and a high level of service often including meals. Second class is a slight downgrade with 4 beds (2 upper and 2 lower) per berth and meal options. Third class is an open car with beds arranged in bays of 6’s (3 upper and 3 lower) without dividing walls. Overall the beds become harder the lower the class and extras like air conditioning are omitted. Based on this we thought the best compromise would be to stick to second class on our long/overnight journeys and third class when we only spent a few hours on the train. Unfortunately when the booking window opened we were in Eastern Europe without a good internet connection so had to wait a little while to book our tickets. This sadly meant higher prices on some of the legs of our journey. In the end we gambled a bit and booked all of our journeys third class. All in, our bookings for trains from Saint Petersburg to Ulan-ude cost us £177 per person. Now we just had to wait and see if our planning was as good as we hoped it was.

The top bunk complete with mattress and pillow roll

So… our first night train came along and we apprehensively made our way to the train station. We didn’t know what to expect but we did know before we got on any train we needed to exchange our boarding passes for real tickets at the ticket office. Once we found the ticket office this was easy. After a fairly long wait at the train station we finally had a platform number and a train to board. The train in Saint Petersburg was ready to board 45 minutes early. Our tickets were checked by the carriage attendant or Provodnista (yes there’s one for every carriage) and then we had to find our beds for the night. We had booked an upper and lower bed due to the advantage of being able to store our bags underneath the lower bunk and keep them secure by sleeping on top.

The train was fairly dimly lit and had brown beds pretty much everywhere. We found our places easily and by watching other people figured out that we had been supplied with clean bed sheets, a mattress, a pillow and a blanket each. So we made our beds ready for a good nights sleep (we hoped). We chatted with the couple opposite us for a while, mainly about Russia and Moscow. They described the train attendents as ‘little Tsars’ who told everyone what to do and when. Funnily enough this is very true. They check tickets, collect tickets, turn off lights, tidy, collect bed sheets and control the tea and a small shop. It’s well worth being on the right side of them, rather than rudely awaken for not listening. Apparently giving the little Tsars tips makes them a bit nicer.

And in the morning what was the verdict?

Matthias happy to be on the train

We had both slept fairly well for most of the night. The beds were a little harder than we would have liked especially when lying on your side. The most annoying thing was the numerous mosquitoes buzzing around and biting your face while you slept. But other than that the train was fairly quiet and smooth through the night. The toilets on the train were passable but a bit whiffy. It took a little to work out how to flush the toilet and how to get water from the tap, but they worked. We didnt fancy showering using the sink and a towel like one man did, but each to their own. We had survived a night on the train and we now weren’t too worried about what was to come. We still expect a challenge or two thanks to the language and the length of time on trains but we are more optimistic that our plan might just work. 

Russias most European city

Our biggest travelling adventure started fairly unconspicously. After over a week of rest at Matthias’ parents of washing, packing bags sorting stuff out as well as welcoming a puppy into the family we found ourselves on a plane to Russia. We were both nervous and excited since it was not just us going to Russia but also hopefully around most of Asia. We had booked flights with Aeroflot to St. Petersburg via Moscow and were very happy with the experience and the quality of the service provided. The only downside was that we landed at 11pm and had to get a taxi to our hotel. Some fellow travellers told us to use the taxi stall located next to the luggage reclaim. The process was very easy and straight foward: book a taxi at the stall, pay, recieve a reciept with the number plate of the car and the destination written in cyrillic and then walk outside to the taxi rank and hand the driver said ticket.

Grand facade of the Hermitage

Checking in was the first true test of our pretty much non-existent Russian skills but we managed to get through it and find our room. Upon unpacking Matthias discovered his phone screen had cracked during the walk up the stairs in his pocket (the phone was only three weeks old and nothing else in the pocket) and didn’t react to touches. Little did we know at this point that this would be the bane of the following week…

After a good but short nights sleep and our first Russian breakfast (buckwheat, sausages and cottage cheese anyone?), we bought multi journey passes for the excellent metro system and went into the centre. Saint Petersburg is a grand city with big buildings; lots of them with fancy fascades, and many churches and monuments. The weather was very Scottish and so we decided to spend the day in the Hermitage museum. It is spread out over five buildings and located right on the edge of Neva river. The entrance fee of 700 Rubles (9£ or €10) also allowed us to visit the museum in the huge general staff building opposite the Hermitage and two other museums on the same day (a pretty much impossible feat). 

The clock controlled peacock automanton

The museum consists of over 20 different exhibitions covering art from almost every European country as well as all of central and northern Asia over the last 2000 years. It was by far the biggest and most impressive museum either of us had been to to date. It is simply impossible to properly appreciate all the paintings, sculptures and artefacts and go around the entire show in one day. We soon resorted to being most impressed by the beautifully painted and decorated rooms rather than looking at yet another 10 paintings of Russian tsars or generals. One of the things that impressed us most was the peakock clock. It is a bit automaton of a peacock on a tree with other birds around it in a big gold and glass cage. The clock itself is rather small and hidden in a mushroom at the feet of the golden bird in the center. When set in motion, the peacock spreads its feathers, calls and twists its head. The owl in the cage rotates its head while the bells around her chime a melody. Apparently the mechanism is still in working condition and triggered about four times a month to keep it that way.

Some of the grand interieur of the Hermitage

The only exhibitions we could not get into: the gold room and the treassury, require special tickets and can be visited only on guided tours which go between 11am and 2pm.

We were so lost in awe that we forgot about time and turned up at our couchsurfing host over half an hour late. Olga and her two sons were lovely and very welcoming and we spent the evening chatting and playing. Matthias also instantly became the new best friend of their tomcat Omu.

In the morning we equipped ourselves with a Russian sim card before heading out to Peterhof. The best way to get there is by getting the metro the ‘Moscovskaya’ and then change either into a minibus/line taxi (70 Rubles one way) which drops you of right outside the main gate of the upper gardens. The second option is getting a hydrofoil (boat) from the city center which takes an hour and a half and sets you back 800 Rubles.

Impressive fountains and cascade staircase with the palace

The main attraction in Peterhof are the gardens with the fountains. The upper garden has four fountains and is free whereas the lower garden with all the amazing water displays costs 700 Rubles to get in. We opted only to visit the museum about the fountains and omit paying for the palace and other (art) exhibitions. The most impressive display is a big set of water stairs just next to the palace with plenty of golden statues releasing fountains and spraying water everywhere. This is also pretty much in the middle of the lower gardens. Overall the park is 1 square kilometer and was built by Peter the Great with miles of paths to wander and countless fountains to discover. There are fountains called chessboard, sun, lion and many more.

The sun fountain

There even was a trick fountain with a water spraying tree and flowers. Very interestingly the whole show runs without a single pump. All fountains are fed by gravity and water pressure. We spent over two hours walking around before arriving back at the palace to see the fountain master museum just as it began to rain. The museum was a disappointment as it was tiny and all in Russian so we left Peterhof soon after.

Basilica on the blood with street market

Back in the city we went to visit the basilica of the spilt blood. It was built on the very same spot where tsar Nikolai was killed by a bomb in 1891. Unfortunately we arrived 15 minutes too late so we had to come back the next day. After a typical Russian dinner in a Tepemok  (cantine), we met up with our host in a roof top bar. It was a nice plan but sadly it was still raining so we had to stay inside. Although we did get to try a traditional drink made from birch sap which was colourless and sweet.

Part of the south face of the Kathrine palace

On our last day in St. Petersburg we had to go and see the world famous amber room (or at least the remake of it) located in Catherine palace in Pushkin. After a metro and a half an hour bus ride we arrived at the palace park thanks to the very helpful conductor. We had a pleasant walk but found some paths closed due to the reburbishment of the Alexander palace. Catherine palace opens for indivuals from 12 to 6pm but groups can get in earlier. If you want to see the palace you have to buy a ticket for the park (120 rubels) before entering or pay for it together with the palace. The park opens way before the palace but we went straight for the queue for individuals. There is a limit on how many people can see the palace at the same time so people have to wait outside until others leave. To our great annoyance and frustration there were two big tourist groups in the queue and people joined in everywhere having positioned a ’place holder’ while wandering round the park. None of the six guards cared about the groups at the wrong entrance and people were very rude, pushing in and trying to jump the queue. After paying 1000 rubles each and depositing our bag pack we were allowed in.

Tourist crowds in the grand ball room

The interior was very grand and impressive especially the great ball room with its golden decoration, mirrors and huge painted ceiling. We learned from an English guide that only a third of said painting survived WWII and it took a woman 35 years to repaint the rest and combine new and old. The result seemed totally worth it. The route was a bit confusing and we had to shuffle through all the small rooms stuck between groups.

Once we reached the famous amber room we were quite impressed by the craftsmanship.

The amber covered three of the four walls from top to bottom. It had some amber mirror and picture frames but the rest of the decoration was simple (no small intricate inlays or details). The other rooms were decorated fairly similarly and each had its own stove/heating. On the way out there was a small exhibition about the damage during the war, the operation to rescue as many of the 55,000 items from the two palaces and the following restorations. Basically the Soviets started repairing the damage in 1944 only two months after pushing the Nazis out of Pushkin. It was intriguing to see how much effort it took to turn the remaining walls of the shot and burned builings with half the roofs missing back to glory. Some black and white photos showed very lavishly equipped rooms that never got restored and it was clear to us how much had been lost during the war and that what we saw was nowhere near its former glory.

Vista over Neva river towards the fortress

Back in the city we went straight to the basilica of the spilt blood and this time we got in. We were blown away by the mosaics that covered the entire interior of the church. Many of them where gilded and the all depicted saints or other icons as it is typical for Russian orthodox churches. The bit of road on which the tsar was killed was now a holy place and covered by a roof on green marble columns.

Splendid mosaics inside the basilika

Our admiration waned a little when we discovered that the mosaics were actually made of glass and had all been replaced/restored in the early 2000s together with the onion domes. It was still very much worth visiting and it is clear why it features on every tourist itinery of the city.

All that we now had left to see was the north side of the river with the Peter and Paul fortress. It is a vast fortification that now houses many temporary and permanent exhibitions. We were not in a museum mood and the cold wind urged us on. After warming up in a cafe and dinner we spent some more time trying to sort out the issue with the broken phone before returning back to our host for one last chat and picking up our backs before heading to the train station to catch our sleeper train to Moscow.

We will tell you more about the Russian railway in our next post.


Just a short drive from the Salzkammergut region, is the festival city of Salzburg, which appears to be surrounded by far too many castles to count. After a scenic 50km, we arrived at the Leopold Schloss hotel where we were meeting a friend of Matthias’ for lunch. It was good to catch up with Ian after a few years of not seeing each other and the lunch was very yummy too. We parted with a dinner date planned for the next evening so could catch up with his wife Inge too.

Our campsite by Leopold Schloss Hotel

We walked from the castle hotel towards the old town with just one obstacle in our way. Hohensalzburg is a castle perched on a hill high above the old town and with fantastic views across the entire valley. The walk up to the castle is a bit steep, but well worth it for the views. We opted to see the entire castle including audio guide and the two museums. Tickets also include a funicular railway ride down to the old town. The castle began as a small fort but was slowly expanded by subsequent prince archbishops to it’s current palatial size. We wandered through the bastion and courtyards before we reached the museum. The two museums are seen in tandem if you buy a full ticket or you can opt for the budget ticket and leave out the state rooms. The first museum is mainly about the castle and military conquests of the regiment who were based here. The state rooms were probably the most impressive part of the castle containing some beautifully painted and gilded wooden panels. Whatever you choose to do, the castle’s story over time is interesting especially in relation to the lives of the people of Salzburg. The audio guide tour is a little short and takes you through only a handful of rooms but it’s worth it to get the views from the tower and also visit the Salzburger Stier (Salzburg bull). The bull is actually a muscial instrument of sorts which was used to wake up the citizens and also tell them it was time for bed. Later it was used to play world reknowned composer’s music such as Mozart, who was actually born in Salzburg.

A view of Hohensalzburg from the Mirabelle Schloss

A small part of Hohensalzburg castle

The Salzburger Stier

Castle-d out for the day, we took the funicular down into the beautiful old town and wandered the streets with their souvenir shops, Mozart chocolates and beautiful architecture. Salzburg is definitely a relaxing city to walk about as all of the old town is traffic free; just watch out for the horse carriages. Across the river is the Mirabelle Schloss with it’s fantastic gardens. Here we came across a summer concert from Youth Brass 2000, who strangely enough come from the Midlands. Despite the hoards of tourists we still enjoyed finding our way through the alleys of the old town. Later we returned round the castle hill and along a canal to Trevor. Our free parking spot for the day was great and we even had a lakeside view for dinner before we moved to a slightly more secluded spot, although we hadn’t reckoned on the amount of traffic that moved through the Salzburg suburbs each morning and evening.

Austrian coloured flowers in the Mirabelle gardens

Early the next morning we drove to Hellbrunn Schloss south of Salzburg. Hellbrunn was a fun palace of the Archbishops of Salzburg and is surrounded by a large park and forest. Today the park is open to the public and is a great place to spend a sunny day. The castle itself is relatively small but what most people come here to see is the famous trick fountains. We bought our tickets and eagerly went on the next available tour. The tours are guided since all of the fountains are still controlled by hand. The tour begins at the feasting table complete with a central wine cooling basin. Our guide encouraged people to take a seat at the table and then told us a little about the archbishop who had the fountains constructed. She explained in both English and German that there were a few surprises in store for us and a few rules for those sitting at the table:

  • Two hands on the table
  • Stay seated
  • Keep smiling

And then, she switched on the first set of fountains. Needless to say, all but one person sitting at the table were now drenched, not onlu by the central hole in each seat, but also from a line of fountains behind the chairs. And for all those who were safe and dry, our guide back-tracked to turn the fountain back on.

The beginning of our tour

Aside from the table there were multiple grottos with booby trapped doorways or fountains in the ceiling. The most fun grotto had a central golden crown representing power which rose and fell with the water jet representing time. Even better were the jets of water in the floor and doorways on the way out. Our guide waited till we were all outside and ‘safe’ before switching on the outdoor fountains, where deer trophies showered everyone with water from their noses and antlers. Probably the most impressive part was the theatre with over 80 moving figures powered by water and of course with surprise water jets at the end. So much fun!

Ted staying dry but still enjoying the fountains

Deer fountains just when you think you are safe

The fantastic showpiece

After the fountains we visited the castle which is a little more like a museum then a true castle. A few of the rooms have original decoration with frescoes painted by an Italian artist but the rest contains a few important objects which the audio guide describes. They even have a unicorn in one of the rooms. We had a couple more hours to walk around the gardens and Salzburg town before we met for dinner. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side and to avoid the heavy downpours we had to shelter in a cafe for most of the afternoon; at least one advantage of forgetting our rain jackets. By dinner time the rain had stopped and we met up with Ian and Inge. Somehow we stumbled upon a great Polish restuarant and satisfied out pierogi cravings. It was a lovely evening spent with friends.

The next morning the rain continued and although we had planned to drive slowly back to Germany, neither of us wanted to spend rainy days hanging about in Trevor. So we packed up and drove all the way back to Matthias’ home town of Renningen to surprise the his parents. 


Of course we didn’t a let a blocked road stop us from getting to our target and thankfully the diversion was only around 25 kilometer. On our map the Sölkpass is not recommended for caravans and we soon found out why. The tarmac is quite narrow in places and goes up some steep sections. This was the first time Trevor reached his limits. At first it was only the inside of tight hairpin bends where we had to change down into first gear but soon the road became too steep even on the straight sections. It was good that there was nobody behind us as we slowly made our way to the top at 20km/h. The surrounding mountains of the Schladminger Tauern were very impressive and tempted us to go hiking but with Zoë’s slightly injured knee we couldn’t do it without risking more serious problems. The view was best along the road up or down, the actual pass failed to impress and so our stop there was rather short. It had however a map of walks in the area and we spotted a rather flat and short walk from St. Nikolai to a waterfall.

Zoë and a suspicious Swiss brown

The village of St. Nikolai is small and quite nice, but has got only one small shop and a couple of restaurants. It is set beautifully at the bottom of two valleys which makes it a great basecamp for hiking the mountains around it. After parking our rolling hotel we walked up along the smaller of the two rivers which meet there into a lovely u-valley. This shape it typical for any valley created and shaped by a glacier and is common throughout the alps. An educational path about water has been set up along the river and the signs told us about local flora and fauna. Thanks to the vast amounts of rain we could not see any of the wildlife supposedly to be found in the water but it was still interesting.

Roughly 1 hour of casual hiking later we reached the waterfall at the end of the valley. Here was also the end of the broad and easy paths and the beginning of more serious hiking. We were impressed watching the water come down about 300m over countless cascades of different sizes. At this point the rainfall was advantageous even though it meant there were lots of small streams flooding the paths and trails. In the meadows was also a big herd of cows and 20 draught horses grazing around a hut which seemed to be used for forestry and hunting but only offered drinks, no cake or food so we had to make up for it by an impromtu lunch in Trevor upon our return.

The two and a half hour walk turned out to be as much as Zoes’ knee could cope with and so we had so sadly wave goodbye to the mountains but agreed that we would come back to this lovely area in the future.

Our drive out of the valley was uneventful but we met a few groups of workers clearing away the remnants of fallen trees and mudslides.

Our next stop was in the quaint town of Bad Aussee in the Salzkammergut region. It was pretty and had a colourful park but since we arrived on a Sunday afternoon only a couple of cafés were open. Sunday however, meant free parking everywhere. After an obligatory coffee and cake stop we ventured along the river and through the park. It was also surrounded by some big and rocky mountains and offered lakes and caves in the region. We were determined to wildcamp again in order to make the most of the scenery and to bring our budget back on track. The first area/lake we tried turned out to be privately owned. A sign at the carpark asked visitors to contact the owner for permission before arrvial (no, there was no sign along the 5km of road leading there). We found another sign informing us about a legal row between the council and the owner, who blocks the rightful access to the lake on foot and charges at least €25 entrance fee/fine and loose dogs which have attacked people in the past.

Coldest swimming spot yet in lake Altaus

Our next attempt was the Altausee. Since the village had a campsite (without a great view and not cheap) and lots of tourist accomodation, overnight parking/camping was not allowed. At least parking was free and so we decided to stay for dinner and go for a dip in the lake. There is a free public swimming spot with beach volleyball field and a playground next to the boat pier. The shore starts off very shallow and muddy with lots of reed but a pier provided an easy way around this. Since it was a mountain lake we expected it to be chilly but it turned out to be even worse; especially when you swim behind somebody who stirrs up the deeper water which was really cold. It was a free wash but we soon found ourselves trying to float as high as possible in the water in order to stay in the warmer water. According to some of the locals we managed to find the coldest lake in the area…

In the end we stayed back in Bad Aussee on a carpark next to the river. It wasn’t great or particularly pretty but free. Surprisingly none of the carparks had any signs about overnight parking/camping and what isn’t explicitly forbidden is allowed :).

Best sunset yet

The next stop the following day was Bad Ischl; a spa town and gateway to mountains and lakes of the region thanks to its convenient location. It is very pretty and there is even a royal villa of the Austrian emperors as well as parks and a massive spa and wellness resort. We didn’t need any spa treatments and decided to leave out the royal villa and go to the castle in Salzburg instead. On our way around the town center we found some nice crafty shops and a fancy pastry and cake shop. It wasn’t cheap and also very crowded thanks to the rainy weather so we opted for takeaway and spent the rest of the afternoon in Trevor planning the next few days. Bad Ischl also offers free camping between 7pm and 7am every night next to the villa. Fresh water and electricity have to be paid for but toilets are available for free at the swimming pool next door.

Ted the liontamer

After an early awakening we drove to Strobl at the famous lake Wolfgang. Strobl is a small but quiet village without any special facilities. Since we love cycling and we had not sat on any type of bike for three months we decided that the beautiful landscape was best explored at a slow pace and on two wheels. We hired two rather heavy trekking bikes for the day and, after picking up a free map from the tourist office, set off along the road and lake shore. To make the most of the days rental and see as much of the area as possible we opted for the four lake tour around the Wolfgang-, Fushl-, Mond- and Attersee . 

Ted ready for the big ride

The sign posting was fairly good most of the time and the paths pretty good but they kept disappearing and ending on roads without any warning. All lakes were deep turquois coloured and with very clear water. We were surprised by the number of campsites around lake Wolfgang; there must have been about 12 of them. Most of them had their own beach and lake access but they were fully booked, which is quite understandable considering the natural beauty. We carried a packed lunch with the plan of a lakeside picnic which turned out to be rather difficult to do. All of the 10km of shore along the Mondsee was either inaccessible or fenced in and private. Some plots blocked 50 meters of shore but were only 5m wide. In our opinion this is totally wrong: privatizing all of the lake access if you can’t privatize the lake. Disappointed we had no choice but to try our luck at the Attersee. At first things continued in the same way as on the other lake but eventually we found a road layby with benches and a great view waiting for us.

Attersee was chilly but came with a pretty view

Strengthened and refuelled we set off again. After another 8km we left the lake and turned our wheels homewards. The valley leading back to Bad Ischl was a long but thankfully only shallow climb through dense forest and along a river. A curvy and bendy descent and some flat kilometers later we arrived at our last nights campsite with sore bottoms thanks to the wide saddles and very upright riding position. Even though it felt like we were almost there we still had 15km to go which turned out to a lot hillier than the route profile showed. It didn’t help that we had no more shade or protection from the beating sun. By the time we arrived in Strobl again we were totally knackered from the heat, uncomfortable bikes and the hard exercise. After a recovery break we treated us to a big ice coffee in the local bakery before jumping into the lake. Or so we hoped… It turned out that the only section of shore free and open to the public was so shallow that even though we walked in about 100m the water still didn’t reach our waists. It was very refreshing though and we managed to get rid of all the sweat to cool down again.

Finally it’s time to cool down

After getting up early we favoured a relaxing day and this time we took the car to circumnavigate the Attersee and go swimming. Thanks to its very clear water with drinking water quality it is a hotspot for divers and we saw plenty of people unloading scuba gear by the side of the road. We would have done that too but Zoë wouldn’t have any of it until Matthias’ ear was fine and fully recovered from the last diving. Soon we encountered the same problem as the day before: a lot of the lakeside was private and most of the open spaces had tight parking restrictions or no parking at all. We still managed to find two places with free parking and swimming: one next to the road in the morning and a big field with playground, café and more in Unterach where we spent the afternoon. After an ice cream and dinner we headed back to our free car park again for the last time before leaving the area the next day.

A few days in Urlaubdorf

We crossed out of Slovenia and into Austria via the Loiblpass, a fairly low mountain pass which Trevor managed easily. The first place to stop was Klagenfurt, a lovely germanic town with very importantly a tourist information office. To be honest we had very little idea what we were going to do as we travelled through Austria or exactly which way we would go except for North and perhaps towards Salzburg. The tourist info confirmed our suspicions that Austria is basically a country full of mountains. This is great for walking, but makes it pretty hard to decide which range of mountains to spend some time in. Thankfully looking up campsites solved this dilema for us and we ended up in Mühlen.

Scary fairytales in the woods

Mühlen, known as the Urlaubdorf (holiday village) is a small village on the edge of the Zirbitz-grebenzen mountains. We pulled up at the campsite which was unfortunately full to the brim. Luckily the owner made space for us on a pitch/car park just outside the campsite. That sorted we spent the afternoon deciding where to walk the next day and swimming in the lake. We had been lured into eating in the restaurant on site that night since they were cooking roast pork with dumplings and cabbage for just €9 per person. We sat down to dinnner just as the thunderstorm descended and had to make a quick move inside to stay dry. Our meal was fantastic and definitely set us up for our walk the next morning. We planned to rise early to beat the heat and hopefully get up to the hut on the Zirbitz mountain and potentially even the summit.

King Ted on the panorama throne

The next morning we woke up to children playing only to discover that our alarm had not gone off and it was already 9am instead of the 6:30am we had planned to rise. As it turns out Matthias had somehow managed to set the alarm for weekends only. That said it was an miserable cloudy morning with the rain just stopping. We changed our plans a little and went on a circular walk of the local villages. The highlight of this was the motion sensors and childrens’ fairytales in the woods. The least enjoyable bit was a guard dog coming at us barking, snarling and jumping but thankfully we survived that and the heat. With a fairly short walk behind us we spent the afternoon relaxing and booking our trains for the transmongolian railway.

Collecting cats at the hut (the evil one isn’t keen on photos)

Next morning we woke at 6:30am (yes the alarm worked!) and set off up to the Zirbitz. The way up was a little boring as we were on tarmac for a couple of km but it improved when we wandered into the woods. We reached the hut at the half way point around 10am and it was already getting hot. The hut was beautiful and surrounded by holidays homes with great views of the valley. We had a well deserved coffee before deciding our goal for the day was going to be a panorama view point rather than the Zirbitz summit. Surprisingly we planned to be back at the hut some time after 11:30am when they started serving Germknödel (large dumplings filled with plum jam and served with custard). We had a lovely walk up to the viewpoint where we admired the view before returning to our treat at the hut.

What a beautiful view!

On the way back from the hut to the campsite the sun beat down on us and we pretty much melted, especially on the last stretch along the tarmac. Back at camp, we were relieved and very glad we hadn’t gone up to the summit. The lake was calling us and we quickly cooled off. Our long walk had worked up and appetite that Zoë in particular couldn’t ignore, so we went for pizza :-). Taking advantage of the fact we were still parked on the campsite, we had showers before driving on for the night. We planned to wild camp for a couple of nights and easily found a car park in the town of Neustadt. One thing we weren’t prepared for was the warning sirens to sound just as we were tucked up in bed. We had heard some strange things before like speakers all round town in Slovakia but loud sirens sounding was scary. We later learnt that the sirens were nationwide in Austria and are used as a warning system. Despite the rain and huge thunderstorm we stayed dry and warm in Trevor.

The incredible forces of nature…

The next morning we set off to get over some more of the alps. Unfortunately the storm from the night before had definitely made its mark. The first thing we saw was a field covered in silt and with wood and wooden planks heaped along the bottom of it. We could see just how high the water had risen but didn’t know quite why there was so much wood. Further up stream we passed a very empty timber yard and some areas where the road had been flooded. The fire service were everywhere surveying damage and helping people. They had also been forced to close our road so we turned around and took a diversion. With the radio on we soon heard that the area of Oberwölzbach had been declared a disaster zone and more than 200 people had been forced to evacuate their homes with still more marooned on an island by the flood. We felt we had had a lucky escape at the bottom of our valley. 

Bled and Bohinj

The alps were a major obstacle on our way back home and since we could not go around we had to go over them. Our first point of contact were the Julian Alps with the famous lakes Bled and Bohinj. Lake Bled and the village of the same name are located only just off the motorway less than one hour north of Lubjana. The village Bled is super touristy and seems to consist only of hotels, eateries and tour companies. Every visitor of the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park comes through this place. As you might expect this means that it has lost its charm. It has a nice promenade and park and a small but steep hill on one end from which Bled castle guards the village, lake and enjoys a grand frontrow seat for the alpine panorama. As soon as we arrived we hit the tourist info to increase our leaflet collection and try ‘Kremsnita’, the local cake speciality. We had this combination of pastry, cream and custard before in other coutries but it was supposedly invented in Bled.

Ted on the edge of lake Bled

We parked Trevor at a small carpark at the edge of town and went scouting. One of the tour companies offered really exciting underground kayaking in a cave but since the next available spaces were six days away we couldn’t do it. The promenade was lovely and we discovered we had come at a good time: the Bled Okarina festival was on with all sorts of music shows and a street food market along the lake. The views up to the castle and the surrounding mountains were awesome and picturesque with the greeny-turquoise lake in the foreground. We gave the castle a miss after looking at the brochure and seeing that half of it was converted into modern function rooms and they still asked for €10 entry. It was a really hot day and the water nice and cool but we didn’t really fancy paying for it in the public baths. Sun bathing and swimming in other places was threatened with a minimum 200€ fine which was just ridiculous. We discovered though that there was a stretch of shore outside the village was free to swim with no ‘no swimming’ signs. Happy with our find, we walked back to get our swimming gear. Back at our rolling home we were in for a shock: we had a parking ticket over 80€ for leaving Trevor in a no parking zone. This half of the car park was reserved for employees and parents of the adjacent kindergarten. Strangely enough they managed to give us the ticket in German, but only write the parking restrictions in Slovenian. We were absolutely furious about this and the fact there were no contact details of the traffic police office. It took us two hours to track them down and get in touch with the issuing person. Matthias had quite an argument with him and managed to get the fine reduced to a warning. During this time we managed one good deed by saving another tourist from parking fines. This lucky escape called for some celebrations so we went for a swim followed by a yummy stoneoven pizza in a lovely pizzaria next to the icehockey stadium. For the night we decided to be daring and make use of the free parking between 8pm and 8am.

Having slept like logs we got woken up by a car pulling up next to us and somebody knocking on the window. The traffic warden had come back to tell us that camping there was strictly forbidden and there was motorhome parking only a few hundred meters away. We knew about this but refused to pay 10€ for 24h with two portaloos as the only facilities. After some discussion we managed to escape another fine by pointing out that there were no signs to tell us about the ‘no camping’. At this point we were really frustrated and annoyed with Bled and ready to leave the country there and then.

Being woken up earlier than planned wasn’t all bad as we had planned walking about one hour to a gorge. We only made it half way before we started sweating buckets again thanks to the strong sun and high humidity. Once we arrived at the entrance of the gorge we were rewarded by a picturesque scene of a thick layer of fog hanging above the river. Finally we got a chance to cool down.

Early morning mist

The gorge was beautiful and impressive even though the river was a bit low due to the recent heat wave. In the last and wider part of the gorge was a strech where people and constructed hundred of ‘stoamandl’ (towers of rocks and stones). Children were playing around and working on new ones and the whole scene was shrouded in thin fog which gave it a pretty mystical appearance.

Stone stacks in the mist


The exit hut was built next to a bridge over Slovenias highest waterfall – a whole 16 meters! Facing at least an hour long walk back we didn’t hang around for long. Thankfully parts of it lead through a forest which made it bearable.

The waterfall

Matthias managed to convice Zoë to give lake Bohinj a chance. It was another glacial lake some 30km from Bled. It was supposedly less touristy and more for adventure seekers as well as active tourists. On the downside Zoë found stories about serious parking problems and dubious rules and fines. Therefore we went straight to the tourist info upon arrival and discovered that there was a big field with free parking just outside the village. Lake Bohinj is slightly bigger and much nicer than Bled. It is surrounded by high and impressive mountains. There are definitely lots of day visitors from Bled but we saw only one hotel and two restaurants. Swimming was free and no signs threatening us with fines. All activities were also cheaper then around lake Bled. After cooling down and drying on the beach we fancied some boating. Soon we found ourself in a canoe paddling up the crystal clear lake. Since swimming was free, every suitable spot of coast was taken; some people had even got there by boat. We were further impressed by children and teenagers jumping off what looked like a 10-15m high cliff. Without trying very hard we ended up at the other end of the lake in just under an hour. Since there was no shade we needed to cool down after all this rowing workout so we beached at a shady spot and went in. On our way back along the coast we also accidentaly discovered the FKK (nudist) bathing zone! Exactly two hours after we set off we were back at the boat rental shed.

Calm lake Bohinj and mountains

In order to beat the looming mass exodus of day visitors we wasted no time returning to Bled. That evening there was a concert in the park by a Japanese drumming group called Gocoo. 16 musicians used 40 drums, a digeridoo and other instruments to create an amazing and brilliant show. The group was on their 20th anniversery tour and their repetoir ranged from slow dances with a dragon to fast and furious rythyms that left no listener unaffected. Towards the end of the two hour show (without breaks!) everybody was either dancing or clapping along. After the second encore they were quite rightly rewarded with standing ovations.

One of the least blurry photos we managed to take of the fast action

The lead man playing his digeridoo

One of the monster costumes

Having exhausted the budget friendly activities (hiking wasn’t an option in up to 35 degrees), we decided to move on the following day. In order to avoid any more parking trouble and to complete our challenge of travelling through Slovenia without paying for accomodation, we drove half an hour back to Tržič to a free motorhome carpark next to the outdoor swimming pool.

The next morning we managed our first lie in in about a week before setting off on our escape away from the heat and across the alps.