Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Silk road – UzbekistanKazakhstan – , Moscow, Russia August, 2013
After breakfast our new little group of 3 plus Dima our intrepid leader drove to Ugam Chatkal National Park not far from Tashkent.  We took a tram up to the top of the trail and walked for almost 6 hours through beautiful fields, up and down rocky paths and over some very difficult trails.  We stopped for lunch partway through the day by a lovely river where we soaked our feet and had bread, cheese, hot tea and snickers bars for energy.  We finally (!!) arrived back at the hotel near the tram where we took showers and relaxed a bit before enjoying a delicious dinner overlooking the meadow.  I had lamb and pork kebabs, beet/carrot/cabbage/potato salad and some very juicy watermelon slices for dessert.  We drove back to Tashkent where we had to leave one of our travelers as her visa had the wrong date for entering Kazakhstan.  She had to fly back to Kyrgyzstan and meet us later in Samara, Russia…We had to get two visas for this part of the trip, i.e. Kazakhstan and Russian, both of which were very expensive.

We boarded the train to Kazakhstan very late and slept the night on the train.  The next afternoon they served us some delicious plov (rice pilaf with carrots) and I had taken some biscuits and cheese from the hotel in Tashkent which served nicely for dinner.  The scenery was rather boring which made for a long trip… Arrived in Amalsk, Kazakhstan late in the evening and transferred to a homestay, a large home with several bedrooms let out to travelers.  I took a hot shower and slept pretty well although it was veryyy hot.

In the morning our “hostess” served us hard cooked eggs and fruit and a guide came by and took us to the ship museum where we saw photos of how the Aral sea use to be when it was filled with water and fish.  Walked to the square – rather small as it is a very small little town and then to the market where fresh bread, fruits, vegetables, etc. were sold.  We picked up a melon for tomorrow when we would go to the Aral Sea.  In the evening our “hostess” prepared a traditional stew.  She cooked some meat until tender, made some fresh pasta sheets and cooked some onions and potatoes.  Everything was layered up on a platter and we ate outside where it was cooler.

In the morning after an early breakfast of delicious pancakes filled with homemade apricot jam we left with a guide to the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea was once a lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world it has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by the Soviet irrigation projects.  The region’s once prosperous fishing industry had been essentially destroyed and the Aral Sea region became heavily polluted.  In 2005 a dam project was completed and, as a result, the water level in the lake has risen, salinity has dropped and fish have started to appear again – all great news.

When we arrived at what is left of the sea we waded in a bit and the water was quite warm and the area was very beautiful.  We sat on an old, overturned boat and ate our fresh melon which was delicious.  Afterwards, we walked over to where some fishing boats were tied up and it looked like they had caught a few fish after all.  They had put out their nets the night before and were gathering in their catch.  One of the fishermen offered to take us for a boat ride and it was delightful.  On our drive back we stopped at some old rusted abandoned ships left when the sea had dried up and took some pictures of camels resting underneath the boats in the shade.  Our “hostess” cooked a nice “farewell” fresh fish dinner for us that night with lots of potatoes – simple but quite tasty.

At 9 p.m. we took the overnight train to Samara, Russia.  In the morning we bought some warm fried potato pies and hard cooked eggs for breakfast.  The scenery changed a bit becoming more lush as we neared Russia.  We had a 40 minute stop and got off the train to stretch our legs and to buy some chicken pies for dinner and about 11 p.m. we arrived in Samara and settled in to our hotel.
Samara is a leading industrial center in the Volga region and known for the production of aerospace launch vehicles.

In the morning we were ALL together again for breakfast.  We took a lovely two hour ferry ride along the Volga River which is the longest river in Europe and across to the village of Shiryaevo where a guide met us.  We toured some deep caves and then visited the Repin Museum where the famous Russian artist Ilya Repin lived for two years and created some very famous paintings, one of which (“Barge Haulers on the Volga”) I saw later in the Russian museum in St. Petersburg!!!  Some of the reproductions of his paintings are in the museum.  As it was his 100th birthday celebration there was a wonderful show outside the museum with Russian performers singing, playing Russian musical instruments and dancing traditional dances in costume.   It started to rain so we found a little restaurant nearby and shared some delicious plov (what else!!!), and cucumber, tomato salad until the rain stopped.  We had planned to take a walk but it was too muddy so we took the fast boat back to the “mainland”. 

The weather turned sunny again and we strolled along the sandy beach along the river and back to the hotel.  Later we walked to a cozy brewery for dinner…

In the morning I walked down to the Volga river before breakfast.  About 10:30 we walked to the Stalin Bunker built during WWII for Stalin and his “men” seventeen floors down with oxygen, water and food at the ready if Hitler were to attack Moscow.  A guide explained that it was built in nine months by a team of 800 engineers and 2900 workers but, interestingly enough, was never used.  We wandered around the old city taking pictures of old houses, interesting doors, people, etc. and then had lunch at a cute little restaurant.  Dima and I shared a potato/herring/beet salad and cheese pancakes which I am getting addicted to!!!  I stopped by the beautiful Iversky Women’s Monastery founded in 1850 but there was no one available to give me a tour.  Overnight train to Moscow!!!

We arrived in the morning and took the metro to the hotel.  The metro stations are really beautiful and so convenient to use.  We stayed at the Cosmos Hotel which was really enormous and fairly centrally located.  As we hadn’t had breakfast as yet Dima took us to an adorable café near the exhibition center and I had Greek salad and some delicious cheese filled pancakes. 

We took the metro to the Red Square where we met our guide and she took us through several churches and cathedrals within the Kremlin.  We walked to the Kutafya tower, up the ramp and through the Kremlin walls beneath the Trinity Gate Tower.  We started in the church of the Twelve Apostles with its five domes and wonderful collection of icons, on to the Assumption Cathedral with five golden helmet domes, the burial place of most of the Russian Orthodox churches.  Inside is a tent-roofed wooden throne made in 1551 for Ivan the Terrible.  Nearby is the Ivan the Terrible Bell Tower, the Kremlin’s tallest structure and a Moscow landmark visible from 30 km away.  Beside the bell tower is the Tsar Bell, the world’s biggest bell.  Sadly, this 202 ton giant never rang.  North of the bell tower is the Tsar Cannon, cast in 1586 for Fyodor I, whose portrait is on the barrel.  It was never shot.  On to the Archangel Cathedral dedicated to Archangel Michael, guardian of Moscow’s princes where Ivan the Terrible and his sons are buried.   Finally, the Annunication Cathedral containing the celebrated icons of master painter Theophanes the Greek.  Afterwards we spent about two hours in the fascinating Armoury with it opulent collection of treasures accumulated over centuries by the Russian state and Church.  There were renowned eggs made from precious metals and jewels by Faberge, royal regalia containing the joint coronation throne of boy tsars Peter the Great and his half-brother, Ivan V, coaches and dresses and crowns worn by Elizabeth and Catherine the great, etc. There was so much to see it was exhausting!!!  Dima met us afterwards and we walked to a “typical” cafeteria where the locals ate dinner.  I chose spinach pancake/kasha/cabbage and cucumber salad and an almond paste cornet (mandelhornchen) which I remember loving when I lived in Germany.  We wandered the walking street before returning to the hotel…

In the morning we visited Lenin’s tomb in Red Square.   Lenin died in 1924 and pathologist Abrikosov had embalmed the body soon after Lenin’s death and he was first placed in a wooden coffin.  However, in 1929 it was determined possible to preserve the body much longer than usual and the next year a new Mausoleum of marble and granite was completed to house the newly embalmed Lenin.  More than 10 million people visited Lenin’s tomb between 1924 and 1972.  Afterwards we walked into the enormous GUM shopping mall with its beautiful glass dome, filled with cafes, restaurants and shops selling fashionable brand names.  On to St. Basil’s Cathedral built from 1555 – 61 and shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky.  Inside is a labyrinth of narrow vaulted corridors and walls covered with breathtaking murals.

With the afternoon free, I walked across the Moscow river to the Tretyakov gallery considered the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world.  It is filled with paintings, portraits of famous Russians, sculptures and drawings.  Lunch around the corner at a little outdoor café of crepes filled with cheese and an espresso before strolling along the river to Gorky Park.  The park has lots of interesting outdoor sculptures and is a pleasant place to sit and relax.

Later in the early evening we all met at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guards and then set off for dinner.  Dima chose a cozy restaurant for us where we dined in the cellar and there were some great minstrels playing as we shared potato pancakes, pickled mushrooms, several salads.  One of the travelers picked up the tab for all which was a really nice gesture for our last night together – how time does fly!

After breakfast I transferred to my new hotel Maxima Panorma and walked DIRECTLY into the hotel from the metro – so veryy convenient.  Next I visited the Novodevichy convent and cemetery founded in 1524 as a haven for wayward wives, sisters and daughters.  Peter the great deposed his half-sister Sofia and confined her to this convent for life along with his first wife!!!   There are several interesting buildings inside the convent walls, the oldest and most dominant of which is the white Smolensk Cathedral filled with beautiful frescoes and icons from the time of Boris Godunov.  Adjacent to the convent the Novedvichy Cemetery is among Moscow’s most prestigious resting places – a veritable “who’s who” of Russian politics and culture.  It is beautifully laid out and quite pleasant to wander among the tombstones.

I had planned to visit the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum but was told there were only replicas of fine art inside.  So, I visited the Museum of Private Collections next door instead and there was a fabulous exhibition of 19 and 20th century European art.  I was determined to have lunch (even though it would be a late one!!) at the elegant Café Pushkin (www.cafe-pushkin.ru) set in a lovely 19th century building with a different atmosphere on each floor, including a richly decorated library.  I “dined” downstairs by the window and had the most delicious (and most expensive!) slightly warm cheese stuffed pancakes yet, this time served with hot fruit – yum!!!  I wandered on down the lovely little tree-lined Tverskoy street and stepped into Nedalny Vostok Restaurant which I had heard was excellent.  It looked wonderful so I decided to come back later for dinner.

Although the famous Bolshoi theatre, a landmark of Moscow and Russia, was closed for the season I wanted to see it anyway so walked down Tverskaya Street, one of the main shopping streets in Moscow to have a look. I did return to Nedalny Vostok which was a cozy wood lined “café” with fresh fish, fruits and vegetables on display as well as an open kitchen.  There were three stations serving different cuisines, i.e. Japanese, Chinese and Fusion.  The Australian chef was not there so I tried to explain that I was a chef from California and just wanted to try a few dishes.  They were soo very nice.  They sat me down at a nice table, gave me a menu and then brought me first a crab salad, followed by delicious crunchy spicy shrimp with crisp noodles and finally a perfectly cooked filet of fresh fish with an olive, tomato and red onion sauce.  When I tried to pay they said it was complimentary and thanks for coming!!!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune – a perfect ending to my stay in Moscow as that was my very last night…

In the morning I walked around my new neighborhood before having a wonderful breakfast at the hotel.  I took along some croissants and cheese for my train ride to St. Petersburg and easily found my way to the train station, thanks to the wonderful directions given to me by Dima.  I took the express train which only took 4 hours, had a lovely window seat and thoroughly enjoyed travelling through villages, seeing the lovely countryside and watching the Russian people going through their daily lives...  

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