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St Petersburg is awesome

At the moment we are on a really fast train like a Shinkansen from Japan. We are going 220km/hr right now! The world is whizzing by and it can make the outside a bit blurry.

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For the last five days we stayed at a girl called Irene’s apartment in St Petersburg. It was the best place yet cause it was awesome. It had fun things to do inside like she left craft things for us and at the bottom was a playground.

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There were lots of things we did like water parks, zoos and models of the whole entire Russia. At the model place which was like a big huge map of Russia there were models that were very detailed – you could even see things like people doing CPR and chopping wood and running away from bears.

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You cold even see bunks and things like that inside a submarine.

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You could even listen to stories about it. There were even horse races and horse and cart races. There were buttons we could press and the races would start. We went to the model place with our new friends and a cousin – their names are Natalia (the mum), Dobrinya (3 year old son), Ilia (13 year old son who left yesterday to visit his grandparents in Vladivostok – which is on the other side of Russia and it took him 10 hours to fly there), Marsha (20 yrs old – she is studying fashion designing), Vyacheslav (he’s the dad and he’s an osteopath – he works on people bones and muscles like my baba) and also Phillipe who was their cousin on holidays from Siberia – a place called Khabarovsk.

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It was fun, especially at the water park with them. The water park had lots of slides – like eight or so and a water playground and fountains and pools and rapids and row boats and lots of things. It was an indoor water park – I even saw a helicopter through the glass roof from the top waiting area for the best water slide. The sixth best was the yellow slide in the little kids area – there was two of them next to each other. The fifth best was the green one in the little kids play area and the orange one was the fourth best water slide. The third was the blue one in the little kids play area because you went up on the side when you were turning. There were some covered and not covered parts. The second best was the green one for big people – you just went straight down – it was a huge drop – we had to pretend I was 10 years old to go on this one but I was tall enough. The best slide was the dark green slide – some bits you went straight down then straight up and straight down and straight up – it was awesome.

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Something terrible happened to Emilio and i today – we were stuck in a lift – you can read about it in Emilio’s blog.

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Kalika

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Fun St Petersburg

At he Hermitage there was lots of art and sculptures. It was built by Catherine the great or she got others to make it and she got lots of artists to help. It is the oldest museum in the world I think. In the war it got bombed lots of times by Hitler, he wanted to flatten St. Petersburg, but especially the Hermitage, lucky he didn’t. He was the ruler of Germany at the time and wanted to expand his land. He killed himself cause everyone else wanted to kill him at the end of the war. He didn’t sound like a very nice man.

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The Russian food is much more like Australian food or the food we have at home. I kind of like it more than Chinese or Mongolian food. My favourite food in Russia is jacket potatoes with little bits of meat and butter. My favourite sweet food here are the meringues and jelly that we found at a nice bakery.

This is where we stayed at Irene’s apartment – she was awesome to let us stay there. She’s from SERVAS.

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The subway in St. Petersburg was so deep and the escalators were so long – we timed the escalators it took 2min and 48 sec to get to the top or the bottom. Mummy estimated that the length of the escalators were between 100 and 110m long.

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When we were in St Petersburg we talked to our class from our school on Skype – that was really fun and we want to do that more often.

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In the summer gardens there were lots of fountains. Kalika got told off by one of the people who were watching cause she was trying to balance on the edge of the fountain. There were also lots of statues but most of them were of men. There was also a palace in the corner where Catherine the great came to for her holidays – but it wasn’t very far from the winter palace so I don’t know why they bothered moving.

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Yasi

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Tobes’ Long Blog about St Petersburg

This blog entry is going to be about 5-10 pages in my journal!!! It’s about Swan lake, the water park, the Hermitage etc. I hope you enjoy the entry!!!

OUR NEW FRIENDS
On the 24th of July we went around the city with some new friends. Natalia is the woman who met us at the beginning when we arrived at Irene’s apartment to give us the keys cause Irene was in Moscow. She even had hot blini (pancakes) ready for us – she’s so kind. She invited us to go out with her and her family for a few days. Her family was her husband Vyacheslav, her daughter who’s 20, Marsha, her son Ilia who’s 13, her son Dobrinya who’s 3 years old and also their cousin, Filippe who’s 9 years old. Filippe and I loved chasing each other on the streets when we were walking to the places we went. He was on holidays from a place far in Siberia.

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MODEL OF RUSSIA

We went to a model of Russia, we were fascinated by the detail of the 3D models. I liked the model of the Ural Mountains, it was awesome how it looked like giant stairs all the way to the top.

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I liked the model subway trains in St. Petersburg. It is the absolute deepest subway in the world, about 100m deep.

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I also liked the model for St. Petersburg airport.

I am not sure which city it was but they even had a jail and they had prisoners. They also had buttons you could press to activate certain areas of the model. At the prison the prisoners walked around the basketball court. Some of the prisoner were even digging a tunnel to escape. There are so many things I could tell you about but there is not enough room or time to write them all down.

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ST. PETERSBURG ZOOPARK
We also went to the St. Petersburg zoo that day. It was cool to see polar bears.

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There weren’t any elephants cause they wouldn’t survive in the winter. Some of the cages were so bad that some of the animals were at the door searching for a way to get out. Zoos in Singapore and Melbourne have much more open enclosures.

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I liked to see the big cats – they looked so viscous. One of the big cats I liked seeing was the jaguar.

I had never seen one in person before, only in pictures. I also liked seeing the horses that were running around the arena. One pony was on a lunge running in circles, another good looking white horse was giving rides to children and another dark horse was walking in circles with a trainer on its back.

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For dinner that day we went to a vegetarian restaurant with lasagne! We had lasagne for dinner and shared some cake for dessert. Kalika, Zoi, Emilio and I went with baba after dessert to a jumping castle for 10 minutes before rushing to the metro.

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It was awesome – most of the other kids had socks on so had to climb a ladder to the top of a slide or else they would slip – but I on the other hand had no socks on so I would scramble up the side where the ladder was next to. All the kids were doing small jumps and slides but I was doing massive jumps and crashing down. On the last jump Kalika told me to push her so I gave her a push as she jumped at the same time. She went crashing down as she hit the bottom, another boy came down and somehow did a cartwheel and almost hit Kalika on her back with his feet. Once they were out of the way I did a massive jump and flew almost to the middle of the slide. I did another jump with a front flip, landed on my shoulder then went crashing down. After the jumping castle we went to see Swan Lake the ballet. The next few pages will be about that.

SWAN LAKE
On the way to Swan lake we almost got lost getting there – we passed the street the theatre was on and had to ask people directions of how to get there.

 

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The set up for Swan lake was amazing. The stage was very well set out and the dancers could leap really high. Some of them could even leap high, clap their feet together and land perfectly. The prince’s 21st birthday was interesting. I had never seen a crossbow before and was fascinated by what it was, but I’m still not sure how to use it. He got it as a present for his birthday.

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Where we were sitting was on the third floor – there was a bunch of Chinese people with us, but after intermission they either went home or to sit somewhere else. I liked the fact that you had to know the story to follow the ballet and know what they were doing. We only knew the first two acts cause when we were reading it we ran out of WiFi. I found it interesting that after intermission we had to just wait and see what was going to happen cause we weren’t sure of the story. I found it fun to try and work out what was happening. I thought it was weird how when the girls were spinning around the boys had to try and stop them at a certain point. I really liked the fact that the evil sorcerer was beaten in the end. This was my first real ballet performance. Mum and baba say it’s a very famous ballet and the music was by Russian man called Tchaikovsky. Mum and baba kept us waiting for the musicians to finish before we left because my aunty Catherine says that it is important to wait for the musicians to finish their music in appreciation.

WATER PARK
Our friends in St. Petersburg took us to a water park on 25th of July. It was amazing! It had row boats, wave pools and water slides. One of the best was really really steep. About a 60-70 degree angle drop. Another fun water slide was one you went on with a tube and I had the best time on that water slide. The water jets shoot you through parts of the slide that go uphill. Some of the water is forced ahead of you so you have water in your face at the same time. There was even a water playground for little kids and some older kids.

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Me and a couple of boys were having water gun fights. I kept trying to spray people that went on the little water slide. The whole water park is all inside.

It is open every day of the year and I’m sure they get lots of visitors every day. There are even saunas and spas. There is a canal with a current running along most of it and there’s an awesome pirate ship which is where all the water slides start. Everyone gets a magnetic wrist band to go in. This wrist band is like a ticket to get in and opens your special locker. Most of the kids under nine had to have floaties on because pools and swimming aren’t really common in Russia. For lunch we had delicious jacket potatoes and showed our friends photos of our house and family.

THE HERMITAGE

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On July 23 we were not too keen on going to the Hermitage because we thought it was going to be a boring old museum. Then mummy told us the story about how in World War Two St Petersburg was gong to be bombed/flattened/destroyed by Hitler the ruler of Germany.

A quote that we read on the internet was:

“…2. The Fuehrer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.

4. It is proposed to tightly encircle the city and by shelling from artillery of all calibres and constant aerial bombing to raze it to the ground…” (Hitler on 29 September 1941)

Because of this the massive art collection in the hermitage and winter palace needed to be protected so lots of artwork and over a million people were sent to Yekaterinburg to be kept safe. Not everything could be moved so bigger things were put in underground cellars. They couldn’t even get all the artwork in cellars so some of it had to be restored after the bombing finished. I even heard the the workers on the first day of packing worked for 24 hrs with only 1/2 hour rest. The next day hundreds of people turned up to help out so the first 10+ workers could have a rest. The bombing lasted a month and a day and artists camped up on the roof to see when the planes were coming then they would tell the people downstairs. I loved seeing all the artwork – it was amazing. The malachite room was epic. There was a green malachite vase about 30cm in diameter and 60cm tall.

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I think Santa would have loved the sleigh in the Hermitage – it had a dragon carved onto it.

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I thought the Hermitage was really good – we only saw a fraction of what we could have but that was enough for the day. We had an ice-cream at the end.

Two times in St. Petersburg we went to a cake shop. Mum and baba said it was pretty expensive but they were actually really really good. You could trust the quality. I was glad we went back a second time despite the cost. We just got takeaway cause it is even more expensive when you sit down. The first time I had a chocolate cupcake with melted cold chocolate inside and the second time I got a tiramisu cup. Baba said it was the best tiramisu he ever tasted – even better than in Italy where they come from.

IRENE
Last night very late we finally met the woman who’s apartment we are staying in. She gave the girls friendship bracelets. She gave Emilio a moveable numbers board and me a keying. She even gave us a replica of an old famous Russian doll and a bag on wheels to put all out food in.

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It felt like we knew her forever but we only had known her for less than 12 hours. She had very good English but a strong accent. Irene is very friendly and cuddly.
She even helped us get to our train at 6am!!! I would love to see her again.

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By Tobes

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I got stuck in a lift…….

I was stuck in a lift with Kalika for about 20 mins but it seemed much longer than that. We got on at the 7th floor where Irene’s apartment is. We pressed one so that we could go down to the playground. I did jumping all the way down to fourth floor but then there was a loud smash sound and we stopped. We stayed near floor four. We yelled really really loudly for baba and mama. We were pretty scared. Mama and baba were still upstairs cause they were getting ready for us to go out and we were going to wait for them at the playground. A lady talked to us from the microphone in the lift and we said ‘no Rusky, only English’ and she kept on talking. Se called a special lift operator and he came to save us but he took a long time. The others found what floor we were on by our sounds and then they could hear we here near the fourth floor. Mum sang songs with us and played games like guessing what colour our undies were cause she didn’t want us to be sad. We played copying the knocks on the door. We were so happy to get out and gave everyone a big hug. The man who saved us said we shouldn’t jump in lifts. Well we always jump in our friend Mel’s lift – she is on the 14th floor in Melbourne and near the museum. But her lift is new so I think we can jump on that one but not on anymore Russian ones. We don’t want that to happen again.

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Dobrinya is cute. I played with him lots.

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We always played on iPods in the train cause that’s what he is allowed to do so I did it too. But I’m not always allowed to play on iPods. I played alphabet and looking at photos and Dobrinya showed me his killing the baddies game. At his house we played a game called pianos and big Lego which is much easier for little kids.

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His mum even gave us presents and I got a craft toy and a t shirt. He had lots of games – it was like we were in an awesome awesome house.

With Dobrinya and his family, we went to the zoo and there was lots of fun animals like polar bears – they were not fully white – they were cream. They would be fully fine in the winter cause they have lots of fur and like ice in water.

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There were lots of museums and beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg – and every time baba walked past one he said ‘oh my golly that is gorgeous – imagine building that’ I think he would be puffed out.

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St Petersburg is named after Tom’s dad Peter or Bergs which is Xander and Edan’s dad.

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There was a really old man called ‘Peter the Great’ – he must’ve liked churches or palaces. He’s dead now.

Irine was such a nice girl – she even gave us a present each – I got a numbers game – baba knows how to play it and he is going to teach me how. We stayed in her apartment for so many days.

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Emilio

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I really loved St Petersburg

We stayed with Irene in her apartment in St Petersburg – she’s a beautiful girl and was lovely. She gave us an awesome doll that is a an old Russian doll. I like platting her hair.

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I like Natalia and I love the toys at her house. I played with her son Dobrinya and Emilio and Kalika. We had lots of cake and stuff there and these little balls like meringues – like little ones.

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We walked and walked lots in St. Petersburg on lots of roads and gardens – my legs were really tired but we got an ice cream and a chocolate croissant so that gave me lots of energy. On our walk we saw some churches, palaces and princess’ gardens and dogs and lots of people getting married and people dressed up in old clothes. We we even walked past a beach with cold water.

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At the zoo my favourite animals were the cheaters, tigers and horses. I really love horses but its funny to have them in zoos because the aren’t supposed to be in a zoo, they are supposed to be in the mountains and stuff.

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By Zoi

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More Yekaterinburg stories…….

In Ekaterinburg we went to the border of Asia and Luba told us a fairy story about a lizard with gold. We stayed in Valentina’s apartment – it was so nice, there was a playground outside- we had pasta for dinner.

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Zoi

 

On out visit to the Asia – Europe border Luba told us many stories which were very interesting.
One was a true story about ten students who were in the forest in the winter lots of years ago. One of them got sick and went back to the city so that left nine. The students died but they have never found out why – they were found away from their tent and were not in their warm clothes so they must have got really scared to leave their tent so quickly. When the doctors looked at them they didn’t see any cuts or scratches but inside their tummy organs were all jumbled up. It has been a big mystery and is still not solved.

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Kalika

In Ekaterinburg we stayed at an apartment owned by Valentina.

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On the first day she took us to a butterfly park which was completely in a building. There were emus, birds, turtles and goats, even pigs and they lived totally inside a building. It was a bit sad for some of them because they were in small cages. We could feed the animals.

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In the mall we saw lots of people doing chin ups and gymnastics – they looked strong.

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I went to the Asia and Europe border in the Ural Mountains with a lady called Luba. It was raining when we went to the border but we still stood on two continents at once.

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Luba told us a fairy story about a lady living in the forest. She owned lots of special stones and jewels. People often came up the mountain to find the jewels but she turned into a lizard with a gold crown when they did. One day there was a man who came into the forest to find the lady to ask for some jewels but she turned into a lizard and the man caught her but no one had ever caught her before so she gave him some jewels for his fiancée. She told him to never tell anyone about her and to never think about her. However the man didn’t end up getting married because he couldn’t stop thinking about the lady in the forest. He kept trying to go back to look for her but he could never find her. One day he kept wandering in the bush and was never found again. He went a bit mad. Not a very happy ending.
Yas

One funny thing that happened when we were in Yekaterinburg was that we planned to meet Valentina outside the big church with the gold roof not knowing that there were lots of churches with gold roofs! Poor possum had to run across town cause we were at the wrong one. This is a picture of the church of the blood with some blood from a tsar in its foundations. Women had to cover their heads to enter!

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On our last day in Yekaterinburg we had a tour to the Asia-Europe border with a wonderful woman called Luba who runs an excellent guide business called ‘Yekaterinburg for you’ – you can look it up on Facebook if ever visiting. She had an amazing wealth of knowledge about the local area of Russia and also broader history etc. We just bombarded her with questions to start with – though she also was wonderful at keeping the children amused and telling them fairy tales and other interesting and bizarre (which the kids love) mysteries. We brushed up on our knowledge of Lenin & Stalin and intrigued at the heroism of one and the distancing from the latter. Also interesting to hear how Russian towns changed names so often and that Volgograd was called Stalingrad till 1991 but then changed back to its ‘river name’ and was pretty much the last place to honour Stalin with his name.
Of course the tsar history pre revolution is enthralling though we needed another few days with Luba to really get our heads around that apart from Peter and Catherine the Great since Yekaterinburg was named after Catherine and we were going to St. Petersburg next. This next photo is of an amazing building in the city that was built because in the gold rush they had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it – it is now one of the many residences of Putin.

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Despite the rain we all enjoyed being in two continents at once and also playing intercontinental frisbee!

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There’s a special love heart on the border as there are so many people who have their wedding photos there. We love any excuse to grose the kids out!

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We got to go to the closest border 17kms away and then another forest border about 40kms away – we found that one a bit eerie cause the stories Luba had just told us about the political prisoners sent to Siberia in chains were still fresh in our minds. The prisoners used to have to walk in chains across Russia to Siberia – obviously many not making it cause it is such a long way and doing it in chains and bad weather would be incredibly difficult.

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Anyway – when they got to this border many of them would break down and cry knowing that they would most likely never see Europe again. Tragic!

Baba Miliking

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Images & stories of Yekaterinburg

Love the idea of locks with your love’s name on the main bridges – there wasn’t much room on this bridge In Yekaterinburg – on the edge of Asia.

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The children just loved the statutes of Yekaterinburg – any possible climbing opportunity will be taken.

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We were told that nearly all Russian towns have a Lenin street but you won’t find many or even any streets named after Stalin as when he died his enormous atrocities came to light and his memory was basically shunned. Most cities also have a Lenin monument – here’s also a photo of a Stalin look alike posing for photos with tourists.

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CUCUMBERS

Cucumbers

After my last lengthy scribble, a short slapping together of words…

It is an experience to travel with kids… I don’t know what I thought might ‘go down’, but I am increasingly prepared for the different age group reactions to any new moment.
The big kids initial moods and approach can make or break Christos and I and how we remember a place.They experience everything at such a different level to the little kids and you can’t just let it flow and sit and ‘be’, they want reasons, plans, and justifications at times. They are ready to argue for or against a plan. Prodding and awakening their imaginations allows them to absorb history or the wonder of a given place. We haven’t pushed history or museums much at all, but on occasion a story of the harsh history of a place can really fascinate them. The little three kids on the other hand; give them an open space, give them a closed space, give them no space and they’ll make happiness and laughter and stories and occasionally tears…

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To another topic, equally important…
How many cucumbers are needed to keep the Miliking kids happy?
When I lived in the village in India I learnt a little trick with cucumbers… Have you ever had a cucumber that has that furry, tongue stick out, frothy feel in the mouth? This is my tip for you… Cut one end/tip off the cucumber trying not to cut down so low as to get to the seeded area. Rub the cut end/tip of the cucumber in a circular motion around the cut area of the rest of the cucumber, flat surface to flat surface. If this is a furry/frothy cucumber froth and bubbles will develop around the cut edge. Wipe this off and enjoy a crisp refreshing cucumber. We have needed this little tip a few times with cucumbers of varying quality. Anyhow, the point is, our trusty pocket knife is in constant use peeling cucumbers for consumption wholus bolus. We got into the habit of peeling them in China because of lack of clean water for washing them….

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Nowadays ten cucumbers are consumed within the blink of an eye! I always think ‘enough’ when we gather cucumbers at a stall. When we start munching I invariably think ‘not enough’!
Mama Miliking

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SWAN LAKE

We couldn’t justifiably come to this amazing city of St Petersburg and not try to see a real Russian ballet so we found some cheap tickets at the Conservatory theatre across the road from the famous Marinsky theatre which had an opera on for about 6x the price of the ballet. This is what the kids thought:

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We went to the live ballet tonight. Everything was live. The orchestra was live, they did some pretty amazing things. We thought the show was finished two times because mummy only downloaded two acts of the story, so we started to walk out to the toilets after act 2, and then again after act 3. I liked to dance in the breaks. I want to go to a ballet school like those dancers did.
The girl that was the main dancer and swan was as pretty as a princess, just as beautiful as our aunty Sally on her wedding day.

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I really loved the dancing and the story was about a prince’s birthday and the queen told him that she would get him married off but he didn’t want to so he went to the forest at night time. He met some girls that were beautiful swans during the daytime. The most beautiful swan was the one he fell in love with. At the end the girl didn’t want to get married because she would only exist at night time so she threw his flowers away. He went to visit the swans again and got to see her at night as a real girl and that was the end – i loved the story and the dancing and I couldn’t stop dancing in the breaks. I was thinking that I want to join a ballet school so I can be in a story like that.
Kalika

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We went to the ballet – the boys did work on their six packs and the girls were pretty.
The prince didn’t want to get married but his mum wanted him to get married. Lots of girls were in white dresses and he was swinging them around to check them out but he said ‘no – i dont want to marry any’. The girl that he loves is under a sorcerer’s spell and she was a swan. They danced very well on the stage on their tippy toes.
Emilio

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We went to see see the ‘Swan Lake’ ballet – on my uncle George’s birthday. The story was about a young prince who had just turned 21 and had a big celebration for his birthday. His mum gave him a crossbow for a present, like a bow and arrow. His mum told him it was time she found him a girl to marry but he didn’t like the sound of that. So he ran out into forest and saw a beautiful girl who was a swan in the daytime. I loved how you had to know the story to follow it very well because there was no speaking. I want to do more ballet when I get home. I loved the celebration of the prince’s 21st most of all.
Yas

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I really liked the ballet and was fascinated how the boys could do such amazing things and could lift the girls even higher than themselves. I really liked the story and all the acts and found them a bit weird by the things that they do – because the dancing tells the story. I like the last act of the story best because it was a good ending and good dances. One thing that I found funny is that we thought it had finished but then there were some more acts – baba thought it was three acts but there were actually four. We saw it all though – and they gave the lead girl flowers at the end.
Tobes

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I liked the white dresses on the ballerinas and all of the ballerinas were pretty. I Liked the black tutu as well. My favourite part was when the swans were in the forest and I liked the blue dresses as well – that was at the prince’s party. It was a late night for us and on the way home I was tired and fell asleep in baba’s arms and he carried me all the way home on the walking and the train – it took nearly an hour.
Zoi

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RUSSIAN TRAINS

 

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17th July 2013
It’s 10.18 pm local time wherever we are in Russia – actually I’m not too sure where the change of time zone is so it might be 9.18pm – either way it is bright daylight and there seems there are many hours before the sun sets.

We are in a ‘platzkart’ train carriage in between Omsk and Ekaterinburg. Not sure what ‘platzkart’ means but probably ‘common cart’, or ‘open cart’ or something like that. This is a 3rd class train and the first one we’ve been on. Our train ticket budget has nearly wound up and we have only booked to Odessa in the Ukraine, thus we need to save some of our dosh. Anyway – it’s quite communal and interesting. The beds are meant to be harder but there’s not much difference really. The only difference to second class ‘kupe’ is that here there are no doors containing the set of four beds and this means they put an extra two beds down the ‘corridor’ side of the train. Here are some pictures.

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And I must say the tables are bigger also so the three little kids had hours of fun playing Lego – I just love Lego for the hours of peace it gives.

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We were allowed to buy only 5 tickets so we have 4 in one compartment and one upper bunk across the walkway where Toby is sleeping now. Under him is a gorgeous old man with a thinnish moustache – very particular with how he makes his bed with the sheets and how he rotates between lying down trying to sleep and then rolls up his mat, pulls the middle of the bed up to make a table and has a cup of tea with one wafer biscuit all in perfect harmony with his innecel wisdom. The people in the next side compartment thought it was just hilarious when our five all put on headphones and watched Mamma Mia (yes again!) on the computer thanks to our amazing purchase of a five port adapter at JB Hifi before we left Oz.

It has worked a treat when dinner is over and there is still 5 hours of daylight or when you are getting an 11 pm train and need to sit in a train station and wait. It’s quite a little community in here – everyone tries to chat and catch up on where we’re going and why our kids aren’t in school etc but language is so difficult to impart any great details.
Speaking of community – our neighbours on the other side have just turned on their music quite loudly – not the best when all my kids bar Toby are asleep and Toby just struggles when it’s so light – he is loving reading on his kindle and we just have to let go of trying to get him to sleep earlier when we have no control over the darkness of the carriage or any of the many other variants. We do need to get to sleep though cause our train arrives at 3.02am local time at Ekaterinburg – the border between Europe and Asia. Wish us luck – I better catch some shut eye and I have so much more to write about trains later……..

21st July 2013
(Gorgeous sister in law – Carolyn’s birthday – very funny – Sandy just tried to call her and got a gruff Russian man on the phone – forgetting to put +61 before the number – LOL!)

As I sit here with my feet up, Sandy on the other lower bunk reading ‘War and Peace’ on her phone and thinking about a siesta, kids above chilling out for a couple of hours of the afternoon with a movie, the wheels of the train go round and round and progressively get closer to St Petersburg – and the scenery outside is…….surprise surprise – lots of green thick woods with some purple and yellow weeds along the tracks, a blanket of green against the frame of a crystal blue sky.

Pretty much ever since we left Eastern Siberia outside the triple glazed train window is this moving picture of green thick woods – no wonder Russia is called the lungs of Europe – so much forest. Also no wonder that almost every country home is made of wood – and decorated quite ornately with some groovy chiselling skills.

They kind of look like they wouldn’t be that warm in winter though apparently with the mortar wood heaters they have it is toasty – it would have to be when the average temperature for most of the country is about -20C. Sandy has been totally fascinated and freaked out about how different the seasons would be and a winter Russian visit is definitely on the cards but just yesterday she said that she would be fascinated in another life to spend a year in Russia to experience all the seasons. Mmmmmmm! Not too sure about that, though I could be talked into it this life if it was St Petersburg so I could be a regular at the ballet and opera! It’s funny cause I know I’m going to just love St Petersburg and we haven’t even got there yet – not till 8.30am tomorrow morning. (Sandy says ‘Check your expectations’).

Anyway – back to train travel…….
The carriages are quite comfortable and surprisingly clean- each time you get on you’re given some fresh linen in a plastic bag and you roll out a bed mat like a futon to put onto the bed – though its nice during the day to just sit on the mat without the linen to keep it fresh for the night. There is normally one attendant per carriage and they are generally very friendly and intrigued with the family travels. Only one of them knew a smattering of English and I was intrigued with her life as she lives in Vladivostok and goes on the train for 7 days across the country and then 7 days back and then has a few days off – this is her life – she was always there – except at night when I guess she went to a sleep compartment and someone else took over. I wish I had more language to enquire into her family and how does that all work, or if she has any family at all. They kind of take a bit of pride in their cabins – they clean them a few times a day by sweeping and mopping the floors in each compartment (interesting as we all try to lift our feet) and keep the toilets quite clean. It often feels like we enter their circle of trust and they are there to look after us. It’s very comforting.

A word of advice when booking trains in Russia – much cheaper (well about 10-20% anyway) to buy the tickets personally at the train station though make sure you have some written Russian notes about what you want to do and also buy as far in advance as possible cause it fills up quickly – especially in July when most Russians are on holidays and train travel is such a big part of the psyche!
I was at the very ornate train station in Omsk

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(which is definitely the busiest we’ve been to) waiting in a line with about ten people in front of me. I was equipped with my Russian cheat sheet that said we wanted to buy 5 tickets instead of 7 as our youngest children sleep together with us and also equipped with the exact train code and number we wanted and even the seats. I was in line for an hour and was next to be served – when two people came in front of me – apparently their spots were being saved! They were a bit musclier than I and definitely knew more Russian so I had to just be happy with swearing at them in English and giving them greasy looks.

When your job is stuck in a chair indoors, serving people who have been in line for ages and sounding a bit irate – I guess the energy might rub off on you. The lady that served me was such a grump! She insisted on seeing all 7 passports, said that despite Emilio and Zoi being small enough to sleep with us they were over five so need their own ticket and because Toby and Yasi were just over 10 yrs old they needed to pay full price. Who really cares? Well, she did apparently, as if I was trying to rip off her own family! If that wasn’t enough there were no ‘platzkart’ 3rd class tickets left so we had to go 2nd class but also because there were seven of us we could only have 3 each in two neighbouring compartments and one top bunk in a third compartment. As if we would make one of the kids sleep alone with 3 strangers! The fact that I told her everyone else we have bought from let us buy 5 tickets didn’t matter to her – she was going to stick to protocol and wasn’t going to budge! Oh also to add to my blood pressure she wouldn’t accept credit cards so I had to buy the tickets since they were printed up and I had to cross the hall to the ATM to get about $1000 from ATMs that only let you get about $150 per transaction – when I got back to the line I could feel the vibes from everyone else that was waiting behind me. Thanks a lot little Miss Grumpy from behind window 11 at Omsk train station – have a wonderful day!

Next bit of advise is be prepared – normally when I have travelled in the past I just love getting to a place and not having any accommodation booked and seeing what happens. This obviously doesn’t work so well with kids especially when we are travelling with a heavy pack each and then some extras and a bag of food and a bag of water……..when we got to Omsk we only had about 30 hours there and didn’t have enough wifi in the previous week to look at options so we thought we would just go to a hotel near the train station. Well – that is easier said than done in an industrial, university city that hasn’t heard the word ‘tourist friendly’ at all. We originally picked Omsk as a stop cause we were going to have a sojourn in Kazahkstan and it was close to the border – but the lonely planet that we flicked through in Irkutsk said ‘Not very exciting – wouldn’t do a detour to come here’. We already had our tickets so we thought it would be fun to explore for a day anyway.

Initially we tried to stay at the station resting rooms though they only rent rooms for 6 or 12 hours – the lady was lovely and told me i could get a trolleybus for 3 stops and there was a hotel there – While Sandy and the kids waited at the station I went out and walked the way she said to go – no hotel – not even any building that looked like a hotel- absolutely no one spoke a word of English, not even the ‘Greek travel service’ spoke any English or Greek for that matter, and the lady at the bakery almost quivered in fear that I didn’t speak much Russian as she handed over some yummy refined carbohydrates. So I retreated back to the station with my tail between my legs and only some cinnamon buns to show for my hour or so away.

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What to do? – Sleeping on the station floor was a regular thing I did in my 20s though I don’t think we could’ve sold that to the kids without a mini riot. After touching base with Sandy and the kids and picking up some fresh smilely Kalika energy we went back to the station resting rooms’ woman and I think my humbleness and Kalika’s smile won her. She gave us a room for 24 hours – we didn’t even need to leave the station – just walk up 3 flights of stairs!

Other lesson is buy or book early – Sandy bought our Omsk – Ekaterinburg tickets while we were waiting in Irkutsk and even though the lady was niceish and sold us 5x3rd class tickets, the train we wanted was booked so she just put us on the next train arriving at 3am and didn’t mention this to Sandy until she handed over the tickets! OMG was my first reaction, not possible was my next and then – oh well what other option do we have when we didn’t have time to spend 3 hours per day for a month on the Internet before we left so that all would be booked and easy.
Surprisingly it worked well – it was a good community feel in the carriage, it was only for 12 hours and we only and to shake one of them to wake up. Also really lucky that our lovely SERVAS host – Valentina was nice enough to come and pick us up at that hour of the morning and take us to her apartment before she had to go to her other home and get ready for work! Such a lovely and friendly woman. And we really enjoyed Ekaterinburg though I’ll leave that for the kids’ blogs. So nice to have our own space and we even cooked a meal for ourselves – pasta with veggie sauce – everyone was very excited. The kids had their first bath since Australia, so nice to luxuriate. Thanks Valentina.

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For those of you who don’t know what SERVAS is it’s basically an organisation that started after World War Two to promote cultural understanding and world peace. It was written up at the same time as the Bretton Woods Agreement that carved up Europe. Servas consists of a group of hosts and travellers from all over the world. If you’re a SERVAS traveller then you can contact hosts to see if they are available and stay with them for at least two nights and basically share their world and share some of yours. Valentina was our first SERVAS host on this trip though we are going to another host in St Petersburg tomorrow and then another in Moscow. Yes it does save some money in accommodation though that’s not really the point – it is just wonderful to experience a city or place from a local perspective. It’s quite enchanting.
Just looked out the window again – more green woods.
By Baba Christos