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Kazan

Kazan is gorgeous, even in winter when it’s fairly empty. Moscow and St Petesburg are big, international cities, so they’ve got tourists and crowds even now in the way-off season. Kazan, not so much. Once again, the chorus rang, ‘it’s so nice here in the summer, why are you here NOW?’

Still no regrets. The frozen Volga river is a thing to behold. You roll across it as you come into Kazan’s central station, and it was mid-morning when I arrived so I could see snow-covered everything. There were people out there straight up walking on it. (I don’t know what they were doing particularly, maybe ice fishing?)

I found the right tram and got off at the right stop despite them only announcing about every 3rd one. Then my fantastic host Maria let me take a shower while she made me breakfast. (Everyone is making me breakfast! Delicious, delicious, hot breakfast. It’s amazing! I freaking love breakfast! This country is INTO it.)

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kazan in winter. I managed to see the Kremlin, where the mosque and the cathedral sit happily next to each other, and the Soviet Lifestyle museum within a few hours, then sat in a cafe with a pot of tea and a massive piece of poppyseed cake wondering what I’d do for two more days.

The Soviet Lifestyle museum is a private collection I’d really been looking forward to seeing because you’re allowed to play with about 50% of the stuff in there. There’s clothes and hats you can try on and lots of toys and old books and magazines and things to look through and tinker with. It’s basically a bunch of cool old stuff, which wouldn’t be nearly as remarkable if you weren’t able to interact with it. It was a fun way to spend an hour. Definitely one of the times I wish I’d had someone with me for more goofing off potential.

The first night, I bought some snacks and wine in the quietest, most awkward grocery store I’ve ever been in. this was my usual adventures in foreign grocery shopping where I just pick up a bunch of stuff that looks like it might be good and hope it all goes together. Unfortunately, because I can’t read Russian, I didn’t realise I’d picked semi-sweet red wine (boooo) so I failed there. Maria and I drank it anyway, after she impressively used a stiletto heel to open it, having lost her corkscrew. I promised to make dinner on my last night and buy actual good wine to go with it. She promised to take me to two Russian craft beer bars in town the next night. Hooray!

The second day I walked around the Tartar quarter for a bit before seeking out a Tartar food restaurant Maria had recommended for lunch. It’s mostly different sorts of pies and meat. I had some triangular meat pies with clear broth and a sweet rice, cheese and fruit pie, which was all right, a bit greasy. I later tried the national Tartar dessert, Chak Chak, which reminded me of a giant rice-krispie treat.

Before I met Maria for dinner and beer, I went to the Soviet Arcade museum. They have a branch on St Petersburg and Moscow as well, but I saved it for Kazan, which was good because I had nothing else to do. No one was in there so they turned on all the machines for me, and I tried most of them but got a bit hooked on the pinball and another one where you fling spinning rods at patterns to knock them out. Again, a good way to spend an hour, but would have been more fun with a buddy to play some of the two-player games.

After killing some more time out of the cold gandering around a less-awkward grocery store, I began my foray into Russian craft beer. Being very into my strong porters and imperial stouts, I didn’t waste time and went straight for the strong stuff. I haven’t had much vodka in Russia (more on which later), but I have had many beers over 10% abv!

Maria seems to know everyone in Kazan, including the guy who owned the first bar we were in, and he gave me some personal recommendations. I even took a bottle of triple IPA away to drink on Christmas, continuing my tradition of drinking some kind of super strong fancy beer every December 25th. We met a guy there with his English language group who wanted to got to the other craft bar we were headed to as well, so he joined us. His name was Sasha and he was a medical student trying to improve his English in order to improve his medical studies.

More very strong stuff in the next bar, which was the polar opposite of the first in terms of style, but had equally amazing beer. I also had some smoked cheese bar snacks and was allowed to choose the music from the big record collection. (When trying to explain to me that this bar had records and a record player, when he couldn’t think of the word ‘vinyl’, Sasha described records as ‘big black CDs’. Soetimes working across languages provides some excellent descriptions.) So I got to listen to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday while sipping some 13% Russian deliciousness.

Maria told me about how Kazan is quite a tolerant place being half Russian half Tartar. Everyone pretty much gets along. Her parents celebrate Muslim holidays with their friends, despite not being Muslim, and she said that kind of thing is pretty normal. Lots of international students come to university in Kazan because it’s easier for people of all different cultures to get along here than it is in Moscow or St Petersburg (as well as being less expensive).

The next night when I made dinner and bought decent wine, we talked about how Russia is never what Westerners expect or are told to expect. I was saying how I was shocked I’d had more wine and beer and barely any vodka after having read everywhere that wine in Russia is terrible and everyone will be trying to get you to drink their vodka. the reality is, most Russians I’ve met don’t like or drink vodka, and prefer wine or beer. Maria showed me this awesome website called Bears and Vodka, which expands on these subjects and I can’t believe I never found on my own.

I had to get up at 4am to catch my train to Yekaterinburg so we couldn’t stay up and continue solving the world’s differences. Maria was good enough to wake up at 4.30 and call me a taxi to the station so I wouldn’t have to work it out in Russian. Just another amazing display of Couchsurfing hospitality.

Check out the full Kazan flickr album

The outline

So I have now had at least half my brain in plan mode constantly since Sunday and I am making all sorts of lists and decisions and whathaveyou.

I’ve said I decided to do all of this traveling AGES ago, and I did. But The Weekend That Kicked My Ass (as I’m calling it) is when it really clicked. You know how you can tell yourself you believe something or you’ve decided something or whatever – and you can tell yourself a million times – but there’s all the times you tell yourself and the time it’s FOR REAL? I don’t know if that’s how other people’s brains work, but it’s how mine does. Sometimes it’s the moment you put money to something. Sometimes it’s the moment you realise you give so few fucks about something that you weren’t even thinking about it anymore til someone asked you. And sometimes it’s just a switch flipped in your brain and you just KNOW.

And now that I know, I have buckled down and made a proper outline of where I want to go and for how long. First I decided time – 3 months, or approximately 13 weeks because it’s easier to break things down that way.

Here, roughly, are my 13 weeks:

1 – UK and Western Europe
2 – Russia
3 – Russia
4 – Russia/Mongolia
5 – Mongolia
6 – Mongolia/China
7 – China
8 – China/Vietnam
9 – Vietnam
10 – Vietnam
11 – Cambodia
12 – Thailand
13 – Malaysia/Singapore

I’ve hacked off the original plan of continuing on through Australia, and that’s mostly because I want more time to explore Southeast Asia. I’d rather take my time in these places than rush through for the hell of hitting countries or train journeys.

I might do some shifting around the Mongolia and China weeks because I’d actually like to spend a fair bit of time in Mongolia. All these places are so big it’s hard to decide without finding out a little more first. But this is also for the purposes of starting to sketch out a visa timeline. Figuring out when I need to apply is one of my top priorities at the moment, and I can’t do that without knowing roughly how long I want to be in places.

I LOVE super planning mode. It gives my brain something to idle on. Plus I have all sorts of grand ideas for a massive calendar wall of post-its so I can do this whole thing visually. It’s also a really great excuse to go sit in the pub with a notebook and a sneaky pint after work and do some figuring. Beer and lists: two of life’s great pleasures.

Whatup, America?

Visiting the US is always a different kind of holiday. It’s about seeing as many people as possible and eating as many of the things I miss as I can. So I have spent most of this week stuffing myself and drinking a lot with various friends and family members.

The quality of my posts (and my photography) is probably suffering, but I think that’s ok. I don’t get to see family and friend-family often enough.

I’ll get a little deeper later, but for now, here’s a wee photo rundown.

Being a touristy-tourist in Helsinki

View from the rocks on Suomenlinna.

View from the rocks on Suomenlinna.

My first day in Helsinki consisted of a lot of wandering around the city centre, seeing lovely things and dodging the sun. We then got on a ferry to Suomenlinna island (which is part of the regular transport network so included on my two day ticket (!)), had a picnic, and then sat on the rocks and stuck our feet in the Baltic sea and soaked up the sun while eating fresh Finnish raspberries. Then I had beer brewed on the island and went back to Carolina’s apartment and crashed for some happy, happy holiday sleep. It was a damn fine way to start a vacation.

The second day, I decided that the city bus tour Johanna had suggested was a pretty good plan. I’ve never done a bus tour of any city before, so I thought I ought to experience one. This wasn’t the usual hop-on-hop-off city tour either, this was a pricier 2-hour cruise in an air-conditioned coach with commentary in all sorts of languages and the clientele you’d expect on such an offering. I usually like to experience a city on foot and just discover things, and you can’t really do that on any kind of bus, particularly a big fancy one. However, it was hot and we’d spent the previous day walking for quite a while, so it turned out to be a really good way to get an overview of the city while relaxing and not sweating.

I know full well that for a lot of people, this kind of tour is what travel is. It’s the only way some folks will see cities, and then they’ll go back to their hotels and probably pay too much for everything they eat and drink and not catch little details like the carvings in the Pohjola Insurance building or try lots of crazy different Finnish candy from a salmiakki kiosk. And you know, I guess that’s ok. Not everyone sees the world the same way. Not everyone wants to get into the cracks. They’re still seeing a new place and learning about it. And I think it’s worthwhile for me to see the more touristy side of travel sometimes, even if only to better relate to how other people like to get around.

So I enjoyed the tour. It made two stops at two places I really wanted to see (the Sibelius monument and the Temppeliaukion kirkko), and for the rest of the time, it took a nice leisurely drive all over town with pretty varied commentary on not just the buildings and sights, but also the culture and history and social structure of Helsinki and Finland. They covered how healthcare and school works and what sorts of living arrangements people have, and there was a good sprinkle of anecdotal detail, like how Finnish UN troops have even been known to build saunas when posted in the desert because the Finnish LOVE their saunas.

There was also, of course, a bit of marketing for the tour company tossed in. And the English track was read by what sounded like a very polite older British gentleman. They were definitely playing to their core audience. Some of the phrasing and light humour was pretty amusing at times, mostly because I knew I was NOT the type of person it was aimed at.

Overall, it was a nice way to get out of the abnormal Nordic heatwave and do some leisure learning. Carolina came with me and she said even she learned some things she didn’t know about a place she’s lived all her life. And later in the day, after a trip up the Olympic Stadium tower, I did my more usual tour of the beers (and whisky!) of Finland with the help of Johanna and her work friends Maria and Esko, who steered me to all sorts of very good places, nearly got locked in a legendary Finnish rock club, and taught me a useful yet slightly ridiculous Finnish expression to use after an excellent meal. (Stay tuned, I will get it in writing.)

Eating and drinking
Restaurant Suomenlinnan Panimo
Juttutupa
Feltbay Bar
Teerenpeli
Ravintola Ilves
Bryggeri

On the kindle
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ben Folds and the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Manchester

Me and Ben Folds.

With Ben Folds outside the 9:30 Club in Washington DC, summer 2002 Ben Folds Live tour.

First, some back story: I discovered Ben Folds Five in middle school, and my love for them is as vast as the sea of time between now and then. A girl called Jen (who was super into Britpop and was listening to Oasis and Blur long before anyone else I knew, so was therefore the coolest person ever to my middle-school self) let me borrow Whatever And Ever Amen one day and I was hooked.

I saw them live twice before they split, and I’ve seen Ben live on his own more times than I can recall. In 2012, when Ben Folds Five announced they were getting back together after 13 years AND TOURING it was like someone telling me I’d won a small jackpot. I got to see my favourite band playing together again, in Glasgow of all places, and it was even better than I wanted it to be.

I will never, ever turn down a chance to see Ben live, so when I heard he was back over here playing with a full orchestra, I jumped at the chance. It was a great excuse to see a new city, and perhaps fitting it should be Manchester, the home of so much of my original BF5 hookup’s most-loved music.

This was also my first ever time seeing an orchestra in a proper music hall, which was super exciting and made me feel all fancy. (I even wore a dress.) Classical music isn’t really something I know much about, so Ben’s piano concerto was a good way in. It’s a very different thing from his usual fare, but the piece had such personality. And around that, he played a really good variety of his songs with full orchestra backing, ‘Steven’s Last Night in Town’ being the ultimate highlight. Between the melodica and all the layers of vocal harmony on the original track, there’s a lot to work with there. It spread impressively over the crazy wide range of instruments in an orchestra and was such a treat. I kind of wanted it to last forever.

Being a Ben Folds show, it couldn’t possibly go without some audience participation – three-part harmony for ‘Not the Same’ and the whole hall yelling ‘fuck’ at top volume multiple times, while also periodically dissolving into laughter, during ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’. And improv, of course! We were treated to a dramatic, soundtrack/score to the Bridgewater Hall’s fire procedures. (‘I’ve always really wanted to yell ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded hall.’) He taught every section of the (properly solid and badass) orchestra what he wanted them to play on the spot, and then had two people from the audience do the voice-overs. Totally brilliant.

Apart from the gig, I had an absolutely brilliant time in Manchester. I couldn’t have asked for a better two days. The weather was almost criminally perfect, which made the city look fantastic and have a completely chilled out English summer vibe. It also meant I got to do all my eating and drinking outside, and plenty of wandering about.

My first stop was the Museum of Science and Industry, which I was excited to see, but because it was so nice out, I ended up buzzing off after about an hour and a half because I couldn’t bear to waste the weather. I did learn an awful lot about gas-powered energy and sewage and sanitation through the ages, and I love stuff like that. If the weather had been bad, I’d have loved to look around much longer – the place is ENORMOUS. And I would have paid for the Collider exhibition, which looked pretty exciting.

I wandered towards all the beer gardens along the water I’d seen on my walk in from the train station. The Pixies were also playing that night in Castlefield (what a choice of gigs to have!) so there were lots of people about for that, and I listened the soundcheck as I sat outside having a pint and watching the boats come through lock 92 on the Bridgewater canal. (I totally want to take a canal boat holiday now. Watching people with their dogs and their cups of tea leisurely waiting for their boats to raise or lower in the lock convinced me it is probably an ideal way to spend a week.)

After the start of my day drinking, I walked along the canal and the river out to Salford Quays so I could check into my hotel and change for the night. I also had a wander around MediaCityUK while listening to Radcliffe and Maconie on 6Music, which is my usual afternoon work listening fodder. Total nerdy thrill knowing they were broadcasting right there.

I made my way back into town and had a pint at Cask, which I’d spotted earlier in the morning. It reminded me of Starbar in Edinburgh (one of my favourites) with more great real ale choices and an even better jukebox, if that’s even possible. I wish they’d done food, but as they didn’t, I went to a Mexican place, Lucha Libre, that had cracking fish tacos and a decent margarita. (But totally disappointing guacamole. Tex-mex joints take note, you live and die by your guacamole. You can’t afford to screw that business up.)

Then after the gig, on local recommendation, I went for a pint at The Britons Protection, which had loads of great beer and a big beer garden out back, which they didn’t boot anyone out of at 10pm as they usually do in Edinburgh. Score! I sat on my own for a while but the Pixies gig must have let out just after Ben, because a whole load of folk filled the place in and I ended up sharing a table with some guys who, upon hearing they’d chosen the Pixies over Ben, were totally torn up about the fact that they’d missed Ben Folds with an orchestra (I was equally bummed that I couldn’t see the Pixies). Usually, when I say ‘Ben Folds’, I get a lot of blank looks, but I was delightfully shocked that these guys were fans. We had more beer and there was good talk about music and Manchester and travel and life. It was such a perfect end to the day.

More great beer and food the next day, including breakfast with my friend Kate at the awesomely named North Tea Power. I had a good wander around all the indie and vintage shops in the Northern Quarter. Affleck’s endless caverns of music posters, pins, tshirts, and hair dye would have made my teenage self weep with joy, and I actually didn’t let myself enter any record shops for fear I would not be able to keep my ‘no buying stuff’ will-power in check. I had another al fresco pint and an extremely tasty hanging kebab at The Oast House before heading back to Edinburgh on the train.

I’m not the best at being social and outgoing, particularly when I’m on my own, but when I told my friend Jen (different Jen from middle school, of course) I was going to Manchester for this gig, she said the best thing about the city was the people, and she was right. Mancunians are absolutely lovely and friendly. They’ve got great chat and they love, love, love their music. They made it much easier than usual for me to come out of my shell, which is what I need more of in life. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back for a gig, or even just a pub crawl.

Gig
Ben Folds with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, 10 July 2014, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Eating and drinking
Warehouse Cafe at MOSI
Dukes 92
Cask
Lucha Libre
The Britons Protection
North Tea Power
The Oast House

Sleeping
Premier Inn Salford Quays

On the kindle
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

In the headphones
tUnE-yArDs
The Stone Roses
Foster the People