Through Snow and Fog, from Munich to Prague

26/12/14 Another Travel Day

Waking up the next morning, the first thing I saw was the snow covered ground. Even though we had not had a white Christmas, our boxing day decided it needed to be white. We had to get up and ready to be able to eat breakfast and then check out by 10:00 a.m., which is the common check out time at most hostels and hotels. Our train was scheduled for 12:44, so we decided to head straight to the train station because there was not time to do anything before our travel to the next city started. (I think I said that our last train left at 12:44 too but was late. I was wrong, although that one was late; it actually was scheduled to leave at 2:06. That is why that by the time we got to Munich, the daylight had gone and we did not have time to do much of anything).

This train ride would not be another easy one hour train; it would be six hours long, which meant we needed entertainment and snacks. Kenzy and Ali wanted to buy a deck of cards because none of us had thought to bring them for the trains that we would be taking from city to city. Unfortunately the only playing cards we could find in Munich cost 5 or 6 euros, which was more than they should cost anywhere, so we decided not to buy them there. Instead, Kenzy and I bought more candied nuts, which we proceeded to start eating before we boarded the train.

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(One of the very few pictures of the day, but this is of the slushy snow as we made our way out of Munich)

Over the six hours we spent our time napping for a short while and playing many games that did not require cards. The games included the type where you choose a category such as books, movie titles, song titles, or something else that you can think of many of that subject. Someone starts and whatever letter the title they said ends with, you have think of a title that starts with that letter. You also cannot reuse the same titles and the word “the” does not count in titles. We played this game first with song titles and later book and movie titles.

Another game we played Kenzy said was a German game she learned from her grandmother, although I cannot remember the name in German. We played it in English of course. As many people as you want can play, but each need some way to write information down. Usually this is written on paper, but we used our phones because we did not have paper to write on. There are six categories that are as follows: city, country, river, name, job, animal. One person goes through the alphabet as quickly or as slowly as they want in their head so others cannot hear what letter they are on at any given time. Eventually someone else needs to tell the person going through the alphabet to stop. That person tells everyone the letter they stopped on. At this point someone with a timer starts the clock for a minute and a half and everyone must try to think of something in each of these categories starting with the mentioned letter during that time. After the time is up, a score keeper must write down each person’s name to keep score on a piece of paper. If you get a correct answer in a category that no one else gets, you get twenty points. If someone else picked a different thing for that category and both answers are possibilities, you each get ten points. If you both picked the same thing in that category that is correct, you get five points. If you could not think of anything you get zero points for that category. For example, if “E” was chosen, I could write something like this:

City: Edinburg

Country: Ecuador

River: Euphrates

Name: Eleanor

Job: Entertainer

Animal: Eel

If someone else chose Edinburg for their city too, we would both get five points. If only I chose Edinburg for the city that starts with E, then I get ten points, but someone else could get ten points too if they chose a different city. If nobody else could think of a city that started with E, then I would get twenty points.

The river category is the hardest letter because rivers are not as commonly known as any of the other categories. It is interesting to play though because you can learn something you did not think of from the people around you.

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(In a restaurant we would later eat at)

Eventually we got to Prague and had to find our way to yet another hostel. There had been a slight booking problem, so we were only staying in this hostel for one night and then moving to another hostel the next day. Each time we go to a new city, we go to the information counter at the train station and ask them to point us in the direction of our hostel (what transportation would be the best to use and so on). Ali had led the way in the German cities because her German was the best, but now we were in an Eastern European city. Some of the words in Czech were similar enough to Russian that Kenzy and I could guess what they meant, which meant that some people probably spoke Russian if they did not speak English, but Prague is a very touristy city, so we didn’t encounter much of a problem using English.

The metro part of our journey to the hostel was pretty straight forward, but after we exited the metro station and found the tram station we were supposed to use, we did not know which direction we were supposed to go in. We saw a hotel nearby and went inside to ask them for directions. Hotels are very useful for travelers, even those who are not guests at any given one. The receptionists are usually very accommodating and willing to help and hotels either already have the information you need because they host tourists all of the time, or they can look it up for you. The inside of this hotel was done in a more old-fashioned style that was very pleasing to the eye. I remember that there were also some very tempting-looking cookies sitting on a table probably to welcome guests, which we were obviously not invited to enjoy because we were not guests staying at the hotel. The receptionist was very accommodating and pointed us in the correct direction – which was either direction; it just depended on whether we wanted to walk uphill or downhill with all of our luggage in tow. We chose to walk down hill, but when we got off at the top of the hill, there were multiple streets upon which the hill went down, so we found another hotel from which to ask assistance, again.

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(On the way down the hill to the hostel)

When we finally were headed in the correct direction down the hill, we didn’t realize how far up the hill we had come just to walk down the hill. It took us at least fifteen minutes to walk from the area that the tram had dropped us off to find the hostel. The only good part about this walk was noticing the restaurants on the way down the hill, and the view when there was a break in the buildings. Nearing the end of our walk, Kenzy and Ali kept questioning whether or not we had missed the hostel. I had pulled the map up on my GPS back at the train station (a trick I found out back in Kazan’, if the map was already loaded on wifi and you walk away from the wifi and don’t try to fiddle with the map too much, you can still see directions, your location, and your destination’s location), but I knew that a couple times my map had mislead me, yet I still wanted to walk further down the hill to see if we would find the hostel. We did find it pretty quickly after this; it was just getting into the hostel that turned out to be a problem. Most hostels have the front door open for customers, but because this this desk only had a receptionist at it during a few hours of the day, the door remained locked unless someone pressed a button from the inside to allow you to enter. The man on the other end of the speaker who allowed us to enter did not seem to understand that once we entered we could not hear him on the speaker that was outside. Either this or he still wanted to talk to us to let us know that our keys were in a drop box near the desk since no one was at the desk at this time to inform us of this.

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(Also on the way down the hill)

When we got to our room, we met two very nice Indian girls who would be our roommates for the night. We were a little confused at first because we thought the hostel had given one of us and one of the Indian girls a number for the same bed. In fact it turned out that two of us had been booked in one room and one of us in another. There was an extra bed in the 5 bedroom dorm because another friend was supposed to have traveled with the Indian girls, but could not come at the last minute. It shouldn’t really have mattered because it was only for one night, but it was a little disorienting that we had been booked in separate rooms because, although there is a disclaimer that says this can happen if the hostel is booked too full, I have never experienced this happening.

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(Pasta doesn’t make for great pictures, but it was really good)

In the end we all ended up sleeping in the same room because of the girls’ friend who left the extra bed. After we dropped our stuff off, we decided it was time to grab dinner and then head to bed. Because the Czech Republic is in the European Union, some places will accept Euros, but the country has its own currency that most places prefer you to use, so we had to find a place that was willing to accept Euros since we had not yet withdrawn crowns. This place ended up being an Italian place that we had spotted on our way down the hill. We all ordered different pasta dishes, and in the end, a Czech beer. For some reason Czech beers are something that are recommended for people to try, and they are very good, but I guess it is one of the lesser known beer countries unless you live in Europe (maybe now they are becoming more well-known). Dinner over, we went back to the hostel and got ready for bed.

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From Nuremberg to Munich

23/12/14

In previous posts I apologize, I say I am sorry I could not post, I was sick or there was no internet. I know, oh but I know that you don’t read this, so why do I bother. I write my day down on paper and I see that you are busy and you do not read it. I was told I should write a blog. We will read it, they said, and yet, nothing. I am not offended or hurt, who wants to read the unedited ramblings of a young woman on her travels? Stories told on paper are different, are harder, so now, I write for myself. If these letters on paper bore you, you took too long, now they are for me.

On Tuesday we woke up early enough to make sure all of our belongings were packed up and could still have time for breakfast. Ali and I had been half joking about taking some of the bread with us for the train. I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to bother, but Ali took a couple of pieces and wrapped them in napkins then slyly slipped them into her bag.

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(Entering the castle grounds)

After placing our luggage safely in the storage room, we proceeded to explore the castle that our hostel was a part of, but the part that we had not yet ventured into. We could only see the outside of it without paying, but, although castles can be really interesting, we decided not to pay to enter it. Perhaps there would be other opportunities for seeing more magnificent castles or areas. I have been in so many tour groups and on so many guided tours at this point that I tend to shy away from them unless they come highly recommended. Some guided tours can be really good, or the place the guided tours take you can be very interesting, but I didn’t think that in a castle such as this that it would be interesting enough to be worth my money.

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(The edge of our castle building from another area of the castle)

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(The castle had some interesting buildings inside the grounds, I think that middle one was a well)

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(The castle had a good view… of rooftops)

We had talked about taking our luggage down the hill with us after exploring the castle, even though we had a little bit of time to kill, so that we wouldn’t have to climb back up the hill. In the end we decided to climb back up the hill, which I was glad about because my luggage becomes very heavy after carrying it for some time, especially since I have Ali’s laptop in addition to my own in my backpack are resting on my shoulders.

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(More pictures of the castle)

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(The castle had a tower. At night a Christmas tree would light up in front of the already illuminated tower).

Instead of going straight back to the Christmas markets where we had spent the last few days, we spent some time wandering in some streets that did not have the markets. Since I still wasn’t feeling particularly well, I was not thrilled by the extra walking, but it was nice to see something other than the market fronts and shiny lights.

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(Double headed eagles, so common in Russia and Germany)

During our wanderings we happened upon a bakery of sorts. Our quest for peppermint had still not been completed but we found candy canes in this bakery. Unfortunately when I tried one, they turned out to be cherry flavored instead of peppermint. So, the quest continued.

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(Leaving the castle grounds)

Around lunch time we headed back to the market to buy something to eat before we headed up the hill to get our luggage so we could catch our train. This was the first train we would get on where we would use our Eurail passes which looked like useless pieces of paper that actually cost about $500 each. We weren’t sure exactly how they would work because people online suggested different methods in terms of their use, but our plan was basically to get on the train, pull out the pass when it was needed and write in the correct information.

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(Looking back at the castle)

Walking from the hostel on the top of a hill down to the train station was probably a 20 minute walk, which was not fun with all of my luggage and not feeling well on top of that. On the way to the train station, Kenzy and I bought some candied nuts again to eat on the train, Ali doesn’t like nuts, but she was happy with her bread. From all of the selections of candied nuts in the Christmas Market, I had only tried the vanilla almonds, but I liked them enough that I figured I did not need to try another kind.

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(A pretty side street spotted on the way down the hill)

This train ride was only supposed to take an hour leaving at 12:45 and arriving at two-ish because it was a high speed train. However it ran at least 40 minutes late so we arrived later than we had planned to. It did not spoil our travel plans that we arrived later than intended because our plan in each city has been to just take each day as it comes. We are traveling for over a month and two of us already experienced being under the weather on this trip, so it is better to take it slowly and enjoy as much as we can within reason. It would really ruin our plans, however, if one of us became too sick to leave their bed.

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(I probably forgot to mention we visited another church. It was large and beautiful of course).

When we arrived at the train station in Munich, it took us a while to find out where to go because of the different information desks for different purposes. When we finally found out, it was at least an hour later. We took two trams to get to our hostel. The actual trip from the train station to our hostel did not take an excessive amount of time because trams move rather quickly from place to place, but it seemed like forever because we were all carrying our luggage.

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(What can I say, I really like the high ceilings)

When we got to the area of the hostel, it was not hard to find because it was a huge building with international flags painted in circles on the front of it. The outside of the hostel was very nicely painted and the reception area did not seem too bad either. However, when we got to the halls that the rooms were located off of, it was not as well presented, but it was clean enough and we could sleep there, which is what counts.

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(Stained glass and the high ceilings. This church was interesting because inside it had small posters that told how the church was almost completely destroyed during World War II, but members continued to go to services even when it was in ruins and over time the church was slowly rebuilt, but regardless, members still went. That’s faith).

After checking in and finding that they had the most ridiculous system to unlock the door. It took us at least fifteen minutes to unlock the door, by which time Kenzy had already headed back down to the front desk to ask for another demonstration on how to unlock the door. I had unlocked the door accidentally after fiddling with it for a while.

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(Christmas decorations in the church)

When we finally got inside, we had a room with four beds, so because our group is only three people we wondered if they would room another random person with us.

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(I tried to take a picture of the front of the church, but it was too tall).

For the rest of the day (because it was pretty late by this time) we planned sort of what we would do the following days we were there. We also ran to a grocery store we had seen on our way to the hostel because we were in the city around the time of a major holiday and didn’t know when stores would be open.

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(Time to move on to the next city)

Other than that, the day was drawing to a close and Christmas was almost upon us. No other person showed up to take the empty bed that night, but we still had a few nights ahead of us.

A Train and a Pizza Parlor Game

05/11/14 

(The image is one of the only pictures I took that day, and I took it from the train).

On Thursday morning we got up at 6 a.m. to be ready by the time the taxi was scheduled to arrive at 6:30. I had hoped that we would be able to get our stuff together rather quickly and then eat some breakfast, but we ended up having to wait until we boarded the train to eat. The train ride was 5 to 6 hours from Yaroslavl’ to Kovrov, and the first leg of the journey was very enjoyable. Unfortunately as the train carried on along the countryside, it was required to pick up more passengers. At one of the stops, a whole group of Middle-Eastern men boarded the train. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were noisy and rambunctious and carried too much luggage with them. There is a weight limit of 33 kilos per person on passenger trains and they seemed to have a lot more. I am speaking of at least 20 men who each had this amount of luggage, they seemed to swarm in and take over the train. One of them thought it would be okay to throw one of his bags on top of my stuff, but even though I was flustered by the sudden influx of people I managed to tell him in Russian that that was not okay with me. I knew my friend and I would be departing the train sooner than they were and I didn’t want to have to dig my bag out. I also think that it is just inconsiderate to think it is okay to put your stuff on top of someone else’s without asking. What if they have something fragile in there?

The conductor did not like them very much either. He yelled at them quite a bit about how they were only allowed to have 33 kilos of luggage and how theirs looked like a lot more. He continued to yell at them as they spoke in their native tongue, telling them to speak only in Russian because it was rude to speak in a different language and he told them that their language was too noisy and not nice to listen too.

On long trips I cannot stay awake on transportation, so I slept most of the time even though it hurt my neck, but at least it helped the time pass. As we drew closer to our station, the same conductor who had been yelling at them men earlier was very kind to us and gave us updates on how soon we would arrive at our station. The cadence of his speech was very awkward and very hard for me to understand but I managed. I was glad to get off of the train and away from all of the noise.

All I had eaten so far was a piece of bread with poppy seeds (which prompted a conversation about Christina and me not being able to pass a drug test, which in turn gave into joking around about poppy seeds being a gateway drug to opium. I tripped over my words and the gateway drug to opium became a gateway drug to oatmeal. We go hard on oatmeal…), so when we got off of the train, we decided to look for a place to eat. We knew Kovrov was small, and initially we had planned to spend the day there walking around and seeing what a small Russian city was like. Unfortunately we did not factor our bags into the equation. We had to carry them around everywhere we went.

As we started our walk towards the street that ran straight outside of the train station, Christina’s wallet fell out of her pocket. Luckily she was able to pick it up and put it back in her pocket, but I thought for a moment that maybe she should move it if it fell out once because it might fall out again. Unfortunately I didn’t say anything. We continued to walk down the street and as we came to the end of the block and decided to turn around because we were not seeing anything more promising than what we had already seen, Christina realized her wallet had fallen out of her pocket again. We quickly retraced our steps again to see if it had been left on the ground (although I realized then that we didn’t check the corner we had just been standing on) but we didn’t find it. Christina started to become more and more agitated, which I understand, but I couldn’t deal with it because I hadn’t eaten. I asked her what was in the wallet, and after realizing that it was about 1500 rubles and her driver’s license, I agreed that it was unfortunate but that we needed to move on.

We went to a pizza place to eat because Christina said she still had other money. It was interesting to eat in Kovrov because it seemed as though they didn’t often run into people who speak English. We ordered a pizza to split (smaller than the regular size found in the United States). None of their pizzas looked normal exactly, but it was good to me since I was hungry. It is also hard to go wrong with pizza. We ordered cocktails with our pizza as sort of a comfort drink to Christina for losing her wallet (I think she was more upset about losing the actual wallet than the stuff inside it, but in general it not fun to lose things, especially personal items).

I remember part of the way through the meal she got a phone call from an unknown number and we both agreed that she shouldn’t answer it because how could someone get her Russian phone number? Since she didn’t pick up, they texted her a few minutes later, but her phone can’t read Cyrillic leaving the message to just be a bunch of boxes on the screen. I told her to forward the message to me to see if my phone could read it, and it could. Someone had been very kind and written to her in Russian that they found documents with the name Christina on them. She immediately called the number back, but the person didn’t answer. On the second try, a male voice answered, but Christina had trouble understanding him so she handed the phone to me. It was very hard to understand him because there was a lot of background noise and a woman talking too, but I got across where we were and what we were near and it was decided that they would meet near the train station. After hanging up, we waited for a bit to see if the man would call back when he got near the station, but eventually I sent Christina outside because I didn’t want her to miss this opportunity.

In the mean time I waited. I finished my portion of the pizza, but I felt like I couldn’t just sit there, so I ordered another drink which I made sure to drink very slowly. Christina returned probably after about 20 minutes with a huge smile on her face. All of the money and her license were still in the wallet. We looked in her wallet and speculated how the man had gotten her number, but the only thing I could find was a business card that had the numbers of program coordinators for our program back in St. Petersburg. He would have had to call one of those numbers first before being able to get Christina’s.

Christina ordered another drink in celebration instead of consolation this time. As we sat there, I found out that the man who had brought Christina her wallet was actually a young man. I thought it would have been an old couple, but it turns out that Russian’s are just nice people. Not that I thought they weren’t before, but they have helped us every step of the way on this journey.

Christina ordered a salad to conclude our meal, and we enjoyed seeing how long we could stay at the restaurant. The waiters and waitresses did not seem to become irritated with us, probably because we kept ordering new things. In the end the bill was smaller than a meal for two without drinks would be in St. Petersburg. When we decided it was finally time to leave the restaurant, I only had a 5000 ruble note, which is a really frustrating piece of money to have. It is sort of like a $100 bill; no one wants to accept it and no one wants to give you change for it. I decided to pay with it to see what would happen and have Christina pay me back later. The bill was less than 100 rubles for the two of us, but the change I got back was all in 100 ruble notes. There are two possibilities for the reasons behind this. Either the waiter just wanted to give me a hard time, or the restaurant genuinely did not have bigger notes, which I somehow don’t believe.

For the rest of the time in Kovrov we sat in the train station waiting.

The train ride to Vladimir was very short; it took only about 30 minutes. Before we left, we had looked up what transportation would take us from the train station to the hostel so we thought we were ready. As we sat at the bus stop outside the station in the cold watching bus after bus go by with the time, Christina started getting frustrated again. In the end we decided it would be good if she went back inside and looked up the transportation again. It turned out that a bus that had already passed us multiple times was the one we needed to take and we had been waiting for the wrong number the whole time, but at least we figured it out before the public transportation stopped running for the night.

To add a dark alley to a long day, it turned out the hostel was located in a small building in between apartment buildings, on a poorly lit side road. But, again, we made it safely and that is what matters.

A New Journey (02/11/14)

My new journey was spent in the company of my friend Christina. We left the hotel in Moscow at about 5:30 p.m. because our train was supposed to leave at 7:05 p.m. We knew we would have extra time to wait at the train station when we got there, but it was good that we did because we spent at least 15 minutes trying to figure out where our platform was and what we were supposed to do with our electronic tickets. We were lucky the workers at the train station were so willing to help us out, but as it was, we had to ask multiple people what to do and where to go since the directions were all in Russian and we didn’t always understand everything they were trying to tell us. In the end it worked out, and we knew we were on the right train because the train left at exactly 7:05 p.m. Russian trains are never late.

This train ride was only a few hours, so we arrived in Yaroslavl’ (our first destination) at 10:21 p.m. We had looked up options for transportation online prior to making the journey. Yaroslavl’ public transportation is supposed to stop running at 10:00 p.m., so we decided our best option was to take a taxi. Usually at train stations or airports in Russia, there are men standing around outside asking if anyone needs a taxi ride. It was no different in Yaroslavl’, but when we gave the address for the hostel we had made reservations at, none of the taxi drivers seemed to know where it was. This was very odd to me because it is a taxi-driver’s job to know where hostels and hotels are, or at least to have a gps to find it, but I guess this is Russia. Eventually one man did show up who seemed to know where our hostel was located, and he took as straight there.

The hostel seemed very nice and well put-together, but there seemed to be a few discrepancies. Usually at hostels they provide towels to accompany the sheets, but here they only gave us a small hand towel. When I went to the bathroom, I saw no hint of a shower, so I wondered if they hadn’t given us real towels because they had no showers. Later Christina found that I hadn’t been observant enough and that half of the stalls in the bathroom were bigger and did indeed have showers in them; we just didn’t get towels to go with the showers.

The second problem for me was the beds. As I mentioned in my last post, I had thrown my back out that morning. The beds at the hostel were a thin mattress place on top of wire. My back did not like it, but eventually I was able to fall asleep despite this and one other inconvenience. My friend and I stayed in a 10 bed, gender neutral room because it was the only room left open when we booked it. On this first night there was a man already sleeping in the corner. Throughout the whole night, he snored and coughed very loudly. I kept wondering why his coughing didn’t wake him up, but it definitely woke the rest of us up. Another guy who stayed in the same room, on a bed near me got mad at the guy in the middle of the night. He said these in Russian so I didn’t understand them completely, but he kept making comments to the man about why he was there, and how rude he was being. I understand that one cannot control themselves if they snore, or if they are sick and have a cough, but I also think that one should not stay in a hostel in close proximity with other people if they are sick and risk infecting other people.

Since Yaroslavl’ is not as large of a city as St. Petersburg or Moscow, it seems that every other person in our hostel except Christina and I, were Russian. I didn’t mind it, I had a good time practicing my Russian with the staff, and the other people in the hostel basically ignored us.

Thankfully, our first full day in Yaroslavl’ held a much more rewarding experience than a room with a coughing and snoring man.