Thursday, July 10, 2008

Back in Blighty

I left Russia for the Baltic states. I travelled through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All sharing the scars of a past of occupation and oppression. First by the Russian Tsars, then by the Nazis and then the Soviets. Tallinn is a beautiful chocolate box of a city and felt quite Scandinavian. All three cities suffer from large Russian populations who are not interested in integrating with the Baltic society. The Kremlin even encourages the Russian minorities not to integrate. Latvia has the largest Russian minority and has the biggest problem. The Baltic capitals also suffer from modern Western tourism, especially stag dos. There are strip clubs in each of them. Riga has the highest proportion of strip clubs a fact that made a local MEP complain to his Liverpudlian counterpart for spoiling his city. I travelled from St Petersburg, and between the Baltic States by Eurolines.

I continued into Poland which has suffered its fair share of occupation and oppression. It was a day long train journey from Vilnius to Warsaw costing 60Lt. We arived in Poland and then hit returning holiday makers who swarmed on the train. We were joined in our carriage with some very friendly Polish students who taught us some Polish. Although they did say that as I was from England I should be able to speak some Polish already. Warsaw was flattened during the Second World War and then suffered from Soviet building. Following the Second World War the old town was rebuilt and is UNESCO listed.

I caught an overnight train from Warsaw to Cologne. The train was six hours late. Unfortunately to make up time the train did not go via Koln. I got off the train with a German and a Pole who both wanted to go to Koln. It was raining. The Pole turned to the German and said in English, "English weather". It seems rain is indelliby associated with England. I had pre-booked a bus from Brussels to London but I missed the connection. I caught another train to Brussels and spent a night in a wet and dismal Brussels.

My welcome to Britain was not overwhelming.
"How long have you been out of the country?"
"Two years"
"Where have you come from today?"
"OK go through"
The immigration official said this in the most boring monotonous tone imaginable. It seems my bounding off of the Eurolines bus into the arms of Blighty was not a feeling reciprocated by the authorities. The immigration and customs checks by the French and British took a combined two hours. Other than that the eight hour (scheduled to be seven hour) trip from Brussels to London was pretty uneventful as we glided under the Channel in the Eurostar. I arrived at Victoria Coach Station in rush hour and made my way across town on the tube (nearly squeezing a wide eyed women into a wall with my backpack) to Liverpool Street before catching a train home. It was good to hear the Essex accent in all its glory on the train home. My parents were surprised to see me. I made a point of misleading them as to when I would be home so that I could surprise them and have since been surprising friends and family. I don't believe I'll get as good an opportunity to see the look of surprise on people's faces when I walk through the door.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Russia VI - Moscow and St Petersburg

My time in Russia ended with its most famous cities Moscow and St Petersburg. I had a superb time travelling across the country. The Trans-Siberian trip was an ambition of mine for some time. I was really glad I had the opportunity to stop in cities across Russia to get a taster for the country. Moscow and St Petersburg are on a different scale to other Russian cities. There are lots of great sights to see. As I travelled across the country I was warned that the closer to Europe the less friendly Russians became. I did not find this to be the case. The people of Moscow and St Petersburg were just as friendly and helpful as any other big city.
My arrival in St Petersburg was the end of my journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I had travelled all the way from Ulan Ude in Siberia by train. There is no one train called the Trans-Siberian Express, rather the rail line itself is known as the Trans-Siberian. It had always been an ambition of mine to travel along the Trans-Siberian. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see Russia from the train. It satisfied my romantic notions of travelling. While there is a certain cache to travelling directly from Moscow to Beijing by train for five days, I was glad to have the time and money to get off the train to see more of Russia. Travelling by train in Russia is an excellent way to meet local people. If you travel on the direct trains without getting off to say Irkutsk, Ulan Bator, or Beijing you'll often find lots of westerners in the carriages with you. Whereas travelling from East to West and making stops you will travel mainly with Russians. Travelling with the Russians highlighted how friendly and generous they are. From Moscow I caught an overnight train to St Petersburg. It was on the night of the Euro 2008 semi-final between Russia and Spain. One of the guys on the train was hanging out of a window with a TV aerial trying to get a good picture. The train from Moscow to St Petersburg cost 2311 Roubles, I bought the ticket at Hotel Irkutsk in Irkutsk. I was on train 004 the newest train I had travelled on in Russia. The train journey from Kazan to Moscow was another overnight train. We bought the ticket the day before from the Kazan ticket office for 2575 Roubles. I managed to drop a full bottle of beer on the floor as soon as we walked into our Kupe. The smell of beer stayed with us through the night.

I arrived in Moscow without great expectations, they were reserved for St Petersburg. I was mightily impressed by the centre of Moscow. There are lots of historic buildings that have been tastefully preserved. Undoubtedly the highlight is Red Square. While Red Square is tiny in comparison to Tiannamen Square it is far more atmospheric. St Basil's Cathedral sits at one end while the high walls of the Kremlin dominate the other side. I went to see Lenin's pickled body and completed the hat trick of dead communist leaders, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and Lenin. It is quite obvious that Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is heavily based on Lenin's. It was a much more tasteful affair than China. There was no pushing and shoving, although there were still guards shushing the crowds. Another great highlight of my stay in Moscow are the metro stations. I spent the best part of a day touring the various stations with their different architecture styles. I stayed at Novo Hostel, a great little hostel that was more like a home stay. 700 Roubles a night. A common story I was told on the traveller grapevine was militiamen targeting tourists for their papers. I fortunately did not have a problem. However, Hemmo did. He was stopped by a militiaman. Hemmo produced a photocopy of his passport and his registration card. The militiaman accepted the photocopies but he also said that he needed to see Hemmo's train ticket to prove that he had arrived within 72 hours. Hemmo stood his ground and refused to go and would not pay a bribe to the police station, and eventually the militiaman gave in and left him alone. I had also heard stories about violence in Moscow. Moscow did not feel anymore dangerous than any other Western city. Leningradsky train station was the most unpleasant part of Moscow. that I came across Outside lots of dodgy guys were hanging around with various wounds and injuries. There was a heavy police presence. Once inside the station it was perfectly safe but I did not fancy hanging around outside for any length of time.

St Petersburg is a beautiful city. I was in town for the White Nights. In the middle of summer it doesn't get truly dark at night. The Russians use this as a great excuse to party in the streets. I was watching the nightly water fountain and light show when three Hummer limousines pulled up full of Russian women in wedding dresses. I'm not sure why they were all in wedding dresses but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. St Petersburg is known as the Venice of the north. Canals criss cross the city. At night you have to be careful that you don't get stranded on one of the islands when the bridges are raised in the early hours to let ships pass. St Petersburg has lots of wonderful old buildings. Peter and Paul Fortress has great views from the battlements that overlook the city from the opposite side of the river. Outside of the city Peterhof Palace is spectacular with huge golden cascading water fountains. The Hermitage is famed as one of the best museums in the world. It is an impressive building. I was a bit disappointed. It felt to me more like a gallery than a museum. There are lots of nice things to look at but they become a bit monotonous. I really liked the rooms that had furniture and artifacts. Even if most of the rooms are galleries they are still quite something. I stayed at Nevsky Hostel, which has a great location close to the Hermitage. It was 750 Roubles for a bed in an 8 bed dorm. The staff were very friendly and helpful.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Russia V - Russia 3 Holland 1

I arrived in Kazan the day of the Euro 2008 Quarter-Final between Holland and Russia. I was travelling with a Dutch guy and we were intent on watching the game. We very nearly missed the train to Kazan from Yekaterinburg, beginning the journey in carriage that resembled a sauna.

I arrived in Yekaterinburg just after Russia had qualified for the knockout stages of Euro 2008. In the morning there were still a few people driving around with flags hanging out of their cars. In Kazan on the day of the Quarter final there appeared to be little interest in the match. As kick-off drew near we headed out into the city in orange t-shirts from a charity shop. If you walked around in orange t-shirts on the day of an England/Holland match in the UK I think you would stand out. Russian men have such a lack of fashion sense that two men walking down the street in bright orange t-shirts draws no attention. We struggled to find a bar with atmosphere to watch the game, until we stumbled upon a small bar which was packed. We were given pride of place in front of the TV. When the locals discovered I was English there were many apologies for knocking England out in the qualifying. They gave a hearty rendition of the Russian national anthem (click here to watch). The match began and Russia dominated. While I was wearing a Dutch shirt my sympathies were with the Russians. When they went up 1-0 the place erupted. The Dutch drew level at the very end of normal time and Hemmo jumped up and down screaming for joy. Luckily no one clouted him. In extra-time the Russians took control and scored twice to win 3-1 (click here to see the Russians celebrate the third goal). Immediately after the final whistle crowds of people poured on to the streets. Cars raced up and down the streets with flags hanging out of the windows and people were on top of buildings celebrating (click here to watch a video of their celebrations). One of the guys in the bar wanted to swap t-shirts with Hemmo and went off happily in the dodgy orange t-shirt. Needless to say Hemmo was none to pleased about the result.

The journey to Kazan from Yekatertinburg should have been straightforward. We arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. We kept an eye on the departure board and went to our platform. The strange thing was there was a different train there and when it pulled off no-one was left on the platform. I thought this was a bit strange and had a wander over to the other platforms. I discovered our train had had its platform changed. I ran back to Hemmo, we grabbed our bags and ran across the station. We managed to jump on just in time. It was a hot and humid afternoon and we had already begun to sweat. To save some money we had decided to do this leg of the journey in Plastkartny, third class, the equivalent of hard-sleeper in China. I bought the ticket from Hotel Irkutsk and it only cost 1000 Roubles. In Plastkartny there are about sixty beds crammed into a carriage. The carriages have air-conditioning but this works on an air pressure system when the train is moving. The train had been sitting there a while, fuill of people in the sun. We struggled into our carriage already dripping with sweat only to be confronted by a sauna. Plastkartny is a bit of a squeeze and not quite as comfortable as hard-sleeper in China. However, it is not that bad. I found Kupe a much more comfortable way to travel for long distance. I was amazed to see in our carriage a boy wearing a Tottenham shirt. I tried to inform him of what a good team he wa supporting but it seemed to him it was simply a t-shirt. It was the first time I had seen any local wearing a Tottenham shirt in all of my travels. I had my photograph taken with him but I think this only served to confuse the kid more. A guy in our block of beds was an aircraft engineer who spoke English. We chatted with him for a bit and Hemmo did his survey. Hemmo had been conducting a survey on his travels. He asked people which three countries have the most attractive opposite sex, and you could not mention your own. Russia was figuring highly amongst male travellers simply for the way the women dress. Russian women are certainly very glamorous though this just crosses into the scantily clad prostitute look, or as an American girl described it 'trailor park trash'. Hemmo's survey was always a good ice breaker with people.

Kazan felt quite different to any other Russian city I visited. The influence of central asia can be seen quite strongly here. Kazan is the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan. While there have been calls for independence from Russia it is still part of the Russian Federation. Kazan has a beautiful Kremlin, in the centre of which is the large Mosque in Russia (as you can see in the above picture). The Kremlin was declared a World Heritage site in 2000 when the city celebrated its Millennium. It feels multi-cultural and cosmopolitan. It is also obvious that in recent years a great deal of money has been spent beautifying the city and restoring old buildings. The hot summer weather stayed with us in Kazan and we were able to go and sit on the beach on the banks of the Volga river with the Kremlin in the distance. We stayed at Hotel Volga which is very close to the Railway Station. The receptionist was the spitting image of Deirdre from Coronation Street. Kazan is not that big and it is very easy to walk to the centre of the city or to the Kremlin from there. A twin room cost 2000 Roubles a night and a buffet breakfast was included, which I abused to the best of my abilities.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Russia IV - Russki Vodka

After returning to Irktusk from Olkhon Island I had a three day two night train journey to Yekaterinburg. For the first half of the journey I shared my Kupe cabin with a young Russian guy. After going through the getting to know you section of my phrasebook conversation stalled. I worked on my journal and read my book whilst the Russian stared at the floor for a couple of hours, after which he went to sleep for twenty hours. At Novosibirsk the youth departed and I was joined by a Russian Army Major, called Andreas, who could not speak a word of English. He immediately pulled out a small bottle of vodka. We started on the getting to know you phrases but communication was a bit tricky. He did want to make sure I was Christian and I decided it was best not to get into too tricky a religious debate with a Russian Army Major who could not speak English and had served in Chechnya. We did get along well and being polite I did not refuse the large glasses of vodka that he offered me and expected me to down in one. We finished the first bottle of vodka and headed for the restaurant car to buy another bottle. Along the way we came across members of his unit. We got back to our Kupe and started on the bigger bottle of vodka. Two of the members of his unit came to join us and the two of them could speak a bit of English. One of them was teetotal (the first Russian teetotaler I had come across). Some bread, mustard and salami was produced. I then cannot remember what happened next. All I know is that I woke up with a stinging head. I was covered in broken biscuits. I did not have my glasses, my watch or my phrasebook. Andreas helpfully sprayed some aftershave into my eyes and I went off to the toilet. I returned to the Kupe and found my watch was in my pocket and my glasses and phrasebook were hidden on the floor. The Providnista (Russian train attendant) for my carriage who reminded me of my Nan and seemed to be particularly kindly had a look in our Kupe. She took one look at the state of the Kupe and then looked at me to which my answer was, "Russki Vodka". She gave me a knowing look and a tut tut shake of her head. I get the impression that a large part of the Providnista job is looking after the paralytic Russian male. Russians do not drink until they are drunk but until they are unconscious. Andreas seemed to be in a worse state than me. He had offered me a glass of beer which I declined. He drank the beer and went back to sleep. The rest of the journey to Yekaterinburg seemed to take an absolute age.
Yekaterinburg sits on the continental border between Europe and Asia. It is a pleasant place to take a break from the train. It feels and looks like you imagine a Russian city. However, much like Irkutsk lots of historic buildings survived the Soviet bulldozers. The Yekaterinburg metro feels like a time capsule. A great part of the stay was
Yekaterinburg hostel. It had only been opened a month and the guy running it was very friendly and helpful. It felt more like a homestay as the hostel is run by a family. They cooked me dinner and had lots of food in the fridge for me and Hemmo to use. The only problem I did have when I first arrived was getting in. The hostel was as ever in a non-descript Soviet tower block. The directions from the metro to get there were excellent, however, I did not have instructions of how to get in. I sat on the steps for an hour until someone came out who was involved with the hostel.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Russia III - Bont Dwems Bont

One of the reasons I am excited to be in Russia is that I associate it with the danger and excitement of James Bond. I am no James Bond, I am more Dan Cruickshank, though not as loud and hopefully not as annoying. My Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook is one of the more lighthearted ones I have come across. They have a section of James Bond phrases, including "Your plans for world domination are sadly mistaken", the Russians find these particularly funny. While Russians generally don't speak English you often come across people who do speak English well. These people are also very intelligent. In China and South East Asia intelligent people do not necessarily know a great deal about countries outside of their own. However, the Russians I have come into contact with seem to be very well informed. On the train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk I was in Kupe with one other Russian guy, Sergei, he did not look the most intelligent guy. We got chatting, he spoke a bit of English and he turned out to be very well informed. We even got into a somewhat confused discussion on literature as I was reading 'The Quiet American'. Sergei, like any Russian worth his salt, shared his lunch with me, kebabs. In Ulan Ude I was in the back of a bus and the guy sitting next to me spoke English. We talked about the weather and he knew about the Gulf Stream, not something you would expect someone to be aware of in the middle of Siberia.

I hopped on the Trans-Siberian train to Irkutsk and skirted along Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, and the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, holding a fifth of the world's total fresh water. The Lake's water is so pure that you can drink it. The sheer scale of the Lake is apparent as the train trundles by although it would seem more accurate to call it an inland sea rather than a lake. I went to stay on Olkhon Island. The island is large enough to have its own lakes. The main settlement Khuzhir is a very small town of only a few hundred people. It is full of wooden buildings and has a rundown charm. Cows wander the muddy streets eating rubbish while motorbikes with sidecars zoom passed. Hemmo (the dutch guy I met in Irkutsk) caught a minibus to Khuzhir from Irkutsk. It took 7 hours and cost 500 Roubles. We had to wait our turn to get on the ferry to the island. There is a public bus that goes to Khuzhir from Irkutsk which leaves earlier but gets priority to board the ferry. The ferry boarding is every man for himself. The crew get off and stand infront of cars to stop them moving while others force their way on. Once all the cars are off the ferry the captain raises the gang plank and in a very Cold War sounding announcement gives the waiting queue of vehicles instructions. In the midst of Winter when Lake Baikal is frozen over (something I find difficult to believe after seeing it in all it's glory in the Summer) it is quicker to drive to Olkhon Island because you can just drive over the frozen Lake. Khuzhir is renowned for Nikita's Guesthouse. A holiday village of wooden huts and yurts. While I was there it was very busy as it was a Russian holiday. There is a feel of a family holiday camp which some people won't particularly enjoy, but there are lots of backpackers and travellers. The food is excellent and plentiful. There are no showers in Khuzhir so to have a wash you can either go in the Lake which is icy cold otherwise the traditional way to wash is in a Banya, a Russian sauna where you pour buckets of cold water and hot water over yourself while being beaten with birch branches. One of the days we did a trip to the North Cape of Olkhon Island. The island is a lot bigger than you imagine, being bigger than Singapore. One of the great parts of the trip was the vehicle we were in, a very cool looking old Russian jeep. Nikita's Guesthouse charged 750 Roubles for a bed in a twin room including three meals a day. The day trip to the north of the island cost 400 Roubles.

I had heard mixed reports about Irkutsk. A lot of stories involved violence amongst Russian males. I did not see anything to corroborate those stories. Irkutsk does have rundown Soviet buildings and the intimidating housing blocks with alleyways and squares. However, it also has charming wooden buildings and lots of old Grand buildings. In its heyday it was known as the Paris of Siberia. There are trams trundling down the streets and I found the locals to be helpful and friendly. While my grasp of Russian was near to non-existent I did discover I knew more Russian than I realised. I went to Subway and found one of the staff spoke English. I was ordering with another member of staff who didn't speak English and was wondering out loud what mayonnaise was in Russian, the one who spoke English answered mayonnaise. I also discovered in an internet cafe that printer is simply printar in Russian. While I was in Irkutsk I stayed at Admiral Hostel which is a newly opened hostel I found on Hostelworld. It was a nice little place. The only problem is that there are only staff there in the morning so if you turn up without having pre-booked you will have to hope that the staff are there or a guest is in. Admiral Hostel cost 500 Roubles a night, in a 6 bed dorm, with a full kitchen, and the use of the washing machine was 200 Roubles.

I made a bit of a mistake with my onward train booking in Irkusk. I went to the train station and bought a ticket to Yekaterinburg for 8000 Roubles. I didn't have a problem buying the ticket and the price was again slighty more than quoted to me by
Svezhy Veter Travel Agency. I was in Kupe. Hemmo bought a ticket to Yekaterinburg leaving twenty minutes after mine and arriving three hours later than mine for only 5000 Roubles. He bought his ticket at Hotel Irkutsk who have an English speaking train ticket ofice. The woman there told him about the cheaper train. I am in train 009 and he is train 069. When I came back from Olkhon Island I went there to book train tickets on from Yekaterinburg. Hotel Irkutsk charge 150 Rouble commission. The 009 train is the Baikal train and is considered the best train on the Trans-Siberian railway. From the outside it stands out with its very bright blue and white paint book. Inside the carriages are very new and very well serviced. The providnistas (Russian train attendants) were excellent in my carriage, friendly and helpful (even though they did not speak English). In my carriage was a plate of biscuits, a bottle of water and some fruit juice.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Russia II - Cultural Differences

Whilst I am still technically in Asia, there is a definite cultural change. From the train I could see local people sunbathing on the shores of Lake Baikal, a sight I have not seen since leaving Australia. In China and South East Asia a common sight is people clad head to toe with only their eyes showing. It can be blisteringly hot but people will be wearing balaclavas and gloves. It is a strange sight for western eyes, especially those of an Englishman, because when the sun has got his hat on and the thermometer creeps to mildly hot then everyone disrobes. The reason that Asians cover themselves up is that to have a tan is an indication of poverty. To have a tan in Asia is an indication that you work in the fields. The rich stay inside and have icy white skin. To be pale is a sign of high status.

On a bus in Vietnam from Quang Ngai to Danong I was chatting to a local. He was saying how attractive pale women were. I told him that in England people crave dark skin. He found this amazing. I told him how people will dye their skin darker or go to tanning salons and he found it unbelievable. Mr Trinh Ngoc The (my guide in Ha Tien) said that Mekong Delta women were very beautiful because of their white skin (he said this was due to drinking coconut milk). In 'Another Quiet American' Brett Dakin states that Westerners have a high status in Laos partly because of their white skin. I bought Nivea suncream in Malaysia. On the bottle it said 'non-darkening' a selling point you are unlikely to see on a bottle in the West. If you look at moisturisers in shops the majority are not simply moisturisers but bleach your skin white as well. A complete contrast to moisturisers that add a 'healthy' tan to the skin in the West.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Russia I - Who said Russians don't smile?

One of the things that I have been told countless times by fellow travellers is that Russians don't smile. I arrived at an obscure Russian border crossing on the Mongolia border on a bus from Ulan Bator. The Russian immigration lady gave my passport and me a steely eyed stare for a good while. She then rang someone and then finally asked me a question. I smiled and said I don't understand but offered my phrasebook as assistance. She started laughing, not what I was expecting. She then yelled across the other side of the room to see if any of the officials over there spoke English, none of them did but they all thought it was very funny. A thin ill looking immigration official wandered into her booth and had a good chuckle aswell. Eventually a woman appeared who could act as interpeter. They wanted to know how I got to Mongolia. When I told them I got there from China I then had to explain how I got to China. Once I worked my way back to Singapore they were satisfied. I then had to take my bags over to a plinth for customs. An Asian guy appeared and asked me to open my bag, or rather signalled to open my bag. On top was my Trans-Siberian Handbook (Bryn Thomas). The official had a look at the map and the pictures. He gave me back my book and waved me on. He didn't bother with the other much larger backpack. I had been given a Customs Declaration form but it was in cyrillic so I couldn't fill it in and they didn't care. The only trouble I did face at customs was my bus 'forgetting' me and driving off. I am pretty sure they didn't forget and simply didn't want to hang around. Either way the Russians were again very helpful and called the bus back. They found this very funny aswell. If you do get the bus from Ulan Bator to Ulan Ude you can change US Dollars or Euros on the border for a good rate.
Back on the bus a woman suddenly appeared who spoke English. She was amazed by my travelling alone and not speaking the language. My answer as being English to where I was from seemed to satisfy alot of other questions she had about me. She offered a homestay at her place, "not for free of course but cheaper than a hotel". I had already arranged a homestay through Natalia Myasnikova (+7 9025 648278, who I found on the internet. I was staying for 1,000 Rubles a night including breakfast with Tatianna an old Russian lady who didn't speak a word of English but is very nice. Russia is unfortunately expensive, or at least on par with other Western countries, and isn't really setup for budget travellers. If I had not found a homestay through Natalia then I would have skipped Ulan Ude because it would have been too expensive to stay here.
Tatianna had her 11 year old grandson Bulat to stay. Bulat spoke excellent English and took me out to Lenin Square and to find somewhere to eat. I'm not sure as an eleven year old I would have been a good tour guide but Bulat made an excellent effort. Ulan Ude's claim to fame is having the largest Lenin head in the world. It is very big. The square is dominated by Lenin and people roller blading, skateboarding and BMX biking. I wonder what Lenin would have made of it. I have been impressed by Ulan Ude. It is a pleasant small town. There is a friendly atmosphere and people seem to be having a good time, possibly helped by the big blue skies and the hot temperatures. The drive into town on the bus passed through lots of rolling hills and plains with communities of wooden houses. In Ulan Ude lots of wooden homes still survive. There is a recently renovated high street which is quite pleasant. I got buses to visit the two main attractions (other than the head). On both the drivers charged me the local price and took me to the right places. I visited Datsun Buddhist Monastery a pretty spot out of town. I also went to the Outdoor Museum which was setup in 1973 to preserve old buildings. They have transported wooden houses, churches, and native yurts, aswell as sone circles to the museum. I even bought my train ticket to Irkutsk from the train station without a problem. Although I did write it all down in Cyrillic first. While I was waiting in the queue people asked me to save their places (or at least that is what I thought), which is fine until more than one person asks and then they both return. When they did return they then discovered I didn't speak Russian but they both turned out to be helpful with my ticket purchase. I mentioned that Russia is expensive and not a good place for a budget traveller. I have tried to save money by buying tickets as I go rather than going through a Russian agency. Funnily enough it seems the ticket I purchased today has cost me a few more dollars more than it would have done if I had gone through Svezhy Veter Travel Agency