St Petersburg by train from Helsinki

The train from Helsinki, Finland to St Petersburg, Russia has a high chance of saving money if travelling to the latter from Western Europe. It also provides contrasts in how the region could have developed differently had the border between the two frontier states formed differently under several dictators conflicting whims.

First impressions

Disembarking at Finlandyia train station at the north end of town gives quite an evocative arrival point with the glorious sounding Lenin square giving way to the arsenal and then a long bridge walk over the expanse of the Neva river. The Aurora Cruiser ship, which fired the action shot of the 1917 revolution, is on your right crossing the bridge, all of which provides a good historical and visual representation of St Petersburg within the first ten minutes.

After 12 minutes walk things change rapidly with the FSB building a reminder of Vladimir Putin’s power base and rise to power. This was nicely illustrated for me with a rable of pustular, uniformed trainees having a snowball fight while their Brezhnev-era boss quizzed me where I was going (on the way back I barged shoulders with a sweaty t-shirt clad drunk. In -5C). This is pretty much it for the contemporary and spooky though, carry on walking southwest and comparisons with Venice start to accumulate.

Venice of the North and Paris of the East are two lazy monikers attached to St Petersburg, though I’m more minded to pair it with Vienna. Canals, frozen solid in February, are everywhere, true, but so are palaces and seats of power of the late Tsars. The Hermitage museum, a three-hours-required combination of global art and history leading up to the 1917 revolution seems like a relic of a past empire, evocation it shares with Vienna. The Admiralty building, golden mast rising from the centre, strikes a similar mental image of naval influential times gone by.

As the Habsburgs influence waned and the Austrian-Hungarian empire started to give way to the twentieth century, it seems a similar exercise was under way in St Petersburg under the equally as dramatic trigger of the 1917 revolution. It’s been reasonably well noted that contemporary Russians didn’t seem to know what to do with the anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising, but seems happy enough with the prior 19th century opulence. Either way, a trip to Russia would seem to involve 19th century grandeur in St Petersburg to go with Moscow’s glorious 20th Century Brutalism.

Why train not plane?

The trip was partially a miles run and partially the legacy of a twice-botched lads’ weekend to Moscow, a destination victim to indecision and misunderstanding. It’s been a long time since I last went north, so this made sense as an alternative. What I failed to factor in was how few flights go to the Tsarist capital from London. There are eight flights daily from London to Moscow and only one, seriously busy, to St Petersburg, already illustrating quite how little business activity goes on here.

Helsinki on the other hand has quite a lot more flights per day, despite being the same size and having a similar location in all but one crucial respect: being in the EU. The distance and this linkage to other states make it a very decent miles run and also a very good stop-over to the Far East. Indeed, you see a lot of Asians on work and vacation passing through, though Finnair don’t seem to be on the scale of the Middle Eastern connector hubs of Emirates, Qatar and Etihad just yet.

Having always preferred rail travel though, a fast rail connection to the city centre provides both a quick dinner eaten off the bonnet of a tractor and the rail connection to Russia, a rare Russo-EU venture in the Allegro train for a three hour journey. This was on the whole an easy journey, though with a hard border quite interesting and many things to be processed. An armed customs check precipitated multiple head counts and cupboard scours while passengers were confined to seats for visa checks.

All in all, this was probably less effort than either the passport checks in an airport, or the equivalent on the Eurostar – though it seemed quite traumatic for some Russian passengers who were given quite an interrogation. You wouldn’t want to make a border this complicated: we underestimate quite how easy intra-EU travel is and it’s hard to not to draw the conclusion that Helsinki and Finland’s better connectivity to the world has helped it speed forward in the last 100 years.

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Shared Parental Leave: An opportunity for a Latin American family moon

When I first started writing this blog, almost three years ago and 80 postings more naive, the focus was fairly simple in that it would be a wide range of potential locations for travelling either solo, with friends but mainly with my wife, Becky.

It’s now less than ten weeks until there will be a third, male child with us and any future travel has become considerably more complicated. I do remember a sage piece of advice from a friend years back who mentioned “He’s coming into your life, not the other way round” plus the relatively recent new provision of Shared Parental Leave, which opens the possibilitiy of a longer break away, in Latin America, just to get used to things.

Advantages and limitations of Shared Parental Leave (SPL)

On the face of it, SPL is a fairly simple concept, albeit with some potential showstoppers. While previously a time period of somewhere between nine months and a year went to the child’s mother, 37 weeks can now be shared in periods of as small as a week, also, crucially, allowing some of those weeks to be at the same time.

The biggest caveat as far as I can see is how much of it is paid. This depends, naturally, on your employers. In this case, Becky’s offered a very short period while mine was much longer. A truly efficient solution would suggest Becky got back to work fairly promptly and I took over nappy duties, but that’s not very creative.

A family moon is a far more inventive way to utilise this time using four or five overlapping weeks, an idea burgled from this Evening Standard piece. Invariably, this raises a further avalanche of questions I would normally have started to line up as excuses not to do it, had a slightly drunken colleague not bragged that he “spent six weeks in a tent in the South Pacific with a two month old”. Everyone is doing it, clearly.

How to use it

Of the places we’ve been to in the last few years, Latin America was probably the least tapped and the area we’d most like to explore. Zika, crime generally and myriad tropical malaise generally does tend to rule out most of the Central America so we’ve circled on the southern cone of Argentina, Chile and highly underrated and highly chilled Uruguay.

Unexpected juvenile illness or injury generally comes to mind straight away while planning to take a month away. While I’m reasonably confident of being able to bone up on enough Latin American Spanish to be able to deal with hospital and doctor enquiries, it does mentally lead to a series of other questions such as what medication to take? What food to take? And what stacks of other equipment to take?

Questions to answer

While I’ve started to consider logistical matters, there’s still a bit to process there as well. Planes seem to be, weirdly, easier for long haul trips with bassinets as opposed to short haul flights with infants on laps. How easy is it to do a set of three hour flights with a wriggly baby? How many of them are you willing to do? On our previous trip to Argentina overnight buses were an option, that does seem to be ruled out.

Accommodation, however, seems to be a slightly tougher nut to crack. What had never occurred to me in the past were vast amounts of the hotels or ‘alternative accommodation’ we’d preferred in the past were adults only. An Airbnb seems a great solution to this and luckily Santiago, Chile seems very well set up for this with small apartments rife in what anecdotes have told me is an easy place to semi-live. The giant rooms of Hotel Moreno, basement jazz club and wine bar and baby sitter service also seems a good solution in Buenos Aires.

Uruguayans and Argentinians proclivity for dinner towards midnight, surely is incompatible with a four or five month old. I’m starting to think lunch is the better time to eat properly while away. What to do with the evenings I’m yet to find an answer to. I’m also not sure that the more or less constant diet of Malbec and Sirloin I last had in Argentina will be infant friendly. What will be?

A final thing to consider is what to do. The highlights of last trip were playing polo, cycle tours between wineries and waterfalls, notably Iguaçu falls. Only the latter I think is really repeatable with a collapsible push chair. What is unquestionably true, is Montevideo, Buenos Aires and, I’m sure, Santiago are wonderful places to walk around for a more sedate time. And what better for something that looks like it could involve a bit of work?

Header photo credit: Wiki Commons

Visiting the Middle East: A follow-up to Iran

I wrote an essay a few weeks back on pros and cons of visiting Iran, a piece that prompted more thought, discussion and traffic than I expected during the time it rapidly dated. Having just indulged on a short sunshine break to nearby Oman and to cover a range of foreign policy events since then, I thought it would be worth revisiting the points.

Taking it easy in Oman. Physically and politically

A long weekend of sun combined with expose to an enigmatic culture were the main reasons for visiting Muscat in November and on these modest goals it was a definite success. You could do the same in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, though with all it’s far too easy to slip into plastic fantastic consumerism and forget there’s a whole different way of life to explore.

Muscat avoids this, intentionally, with a seafront, The Corniche, free of skyscrapers and with several mosques, a low-hassle souk and several palaces and museums to explore. The anecdote stands that the sultans in nearby countries spent oil profits on consumerism and westernisation, Oman spent on infrastructure which provided a better bridge with the past. It’s immediately obvious.

A daytime view from our room.

I’d always associated Oman with fish though I’m not sure why it has this reputation when all other states with access to the Arabian Gulf, theoretically, have the same access. Unusually, this lived up to its reputation at Turkish House where a huge red snapper, lobster and prawns were barbecued with Arabic bread and Turkish style mezze. It’s casual, which seems to be a far better way of seeing what a country is like than formal dining. Similar offerings can be found at Blue Marlin and The Grand Fish Market.

Rounding the picture for the long weekend is some sort of accommodation and it seems hotels with beach access in resort style is most expedient, though it does come at a slight cost. Crowne Plaza, the opulent Chedi, The Shangri-La we stayed at and The Intercontinental all offer this at roughly similar rates and we found it fine to relax at. The inconvenience is it costs to get out of this and actually see anything: taxis are expensive, buses rare and hotel transport sporadic. It’s quite easy to slip into the trap of forgetting where you are and only accepting the sunshine as point of difference.

Revisiting the Middle East

Of course, this sort of cultural and social circumvention is much harder in Iran. I came to the conclusion there were just too many inconveniences to do a trip and the social situation made British tourists in effect unwelcome. Three months on with protests on the the streets and a clampdown on civil liberties this seems a prudent decision. After researching the origins of the protest, I’m still not clear whether discontent ended up being focussed against the moderate government, or against the theocracy. More likely, it was against both with an economic and social drive. Either way, disturbance based on discontent doesn’t encourage visits – at least in the near term.

I have the feeling the state will manage this down, or at least satisfies immediate demands with increased public spending, and Iran will end up with an even more demagogic state, not more liberal. I’ve adopted a couple of proxies to assess progress, namely the release of British-Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zagahri-Ratcliffe, progress towards re-patching a nuclear deal and, more societal, women’s attire, which was progressing to more freedom for the wearer before the end of 2017. It seems an effective proxy. My gut feel is it’s going to get worse before it gets better and a visit is more of a long term aspiration.

Finding Tutti Fruti in the Vanilla

Another thought I’d allowed to percolate over the last few months was the effect of the proportion of overseas populations in Qatar and The UAE, a thought invigorated through a transfer through Doha airport and a search for alternative destinations in the region. Around 90% residents are foreign in Dubai and Doha, the opposite of the big middle eastern powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran. It makes a visit easy, especially given the big middle eastern airlines encourage stop overs. I’d like to take in the Museum of Islamic Art, the souk in Dubai and another crack at the Dubai 7s in the future.

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With that 90% ex-pat population, it no doubt makes it easy to believe you’re subject to the same rules as back home, an illusion emphatically debunked with a series of British visitors or residents recently jailed or charged. This may be slightly unlucky, though this sounds disrespectful and, coming off the back of an slightly sodden brunch, incongruous with an Islamic country. Although in Egypt, this too presents a vignette of behaviour unacceptable at home punished harder in Arabia. While there are obvious Sharia-incompliant offences, it seems these more subtle cultural differences are easier traps to fall into.

I retrospectively came to the conclusion the non-rugby parts of our visit to Dubai in late 2016 were a success for seeing things more from an Asian point of view. The metro system connecting all along the main Sheikh Zayad highway was cheap, and seemingly not used by westerners and saved a lot on long range taxi journeys. Getting this to Ravis and Haji Sahab ensured you saw things from all points of view, the latter doing some of the best Pakistani food I’d had for a while in an operation focussed on immigrant construction workers. This practice of seeking out the non-western in more open states seems to be a strategy that works.

(Both picture credits Wiki Commons)

Schedule for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

World Rugby recently issued the schedule for RWC 2019, for which I wrote a short piece intending to speculate on a visit. This turned into an online discussion with friends from at least three continents starting to draw up schedules and hardwiring plans. My favourite Scottish Kiwi mate even has a day-by-day plan already committed to the Internet, which inspired me to do something similar with a north to south journey built around a block of time in Tokyo.

Starting in Hokkaido

I’ve written plenty about Hokkaido lately in a recent post, a dated piece and a stack of correspondence about a similar recent article in The Guardian, so it’s opportune that England’s opener against Tonga is one of two games in Sapporo. The game is on the evening of Sunday 22 September, which probably equates to arrival the day before and attempting to take in other games in pubs in what isn’t a rugby town.

Without stopping off in Tokyo, I expect this will be my first stop and a direct flight to from Hong Kong might be the easiest route. A visit to the Sapporo beer factory for lamb barbecue and the crab noodles in a great fish market in Hakkodate provide sustenance. A new Bullet Train could complete the journey to Tokyo or, depending on scheduling, the flat rate JPY 10,000 JAL airfare for non-Japanese could be handy.

Base in Tokyo

The nationality of Mark Pearson is somewhat contested. Slovenian wife, educated in London himself, resident in multiple countries and with two children born in the UK, there have been serious rumours circulating our favourite Canadian actually has American tendencies. Attending the USA v England game in Kobe on 26 September, probably on a one night return from Tokyo, therefore appeals.

Failing that, there’s a USA game in Kumagaya near Tokyo which would work well, 9 October, especially to watch a RWC game on a ground I’ve played on. Tokyo would have the benefit of reprising a 2004 rendition of New York, New York as well. This technical duet with my of transatlantic pal was dominated by a hate-filled, threat-laden rant that shocked the room and even to this day puts his audience on edge while dealing with any contentious conversation matter.

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Trip to the south

New Zealand will be the favourites and it’s likely the greatest number of my friends there will be Kiwi, so an All Blacks game is a must. The game against a currently unconfirmed qualifier in Oita, Kyushu looks the most intriguing for 2 October. Mainly because I’ve never been there and a game outside Tokyo is certain to have better ticket availability.

The southern parts of Kyushu are also warmer, so I’d also use this opportunity for black sand beaches and sand baths, pictured, with the possibility of a ferry trip to part of the tropical island chain heading toward Taiwan. It’s only this far south where it will be beach weather in October. Getting from Tokyo to here is probably a fine use of the JR pass, with Tokyo to the Kyushu gateway a comfortable four and a half hour ride.

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From then, it’s probably Tokyo for as long as I can realistically stay in the country and/or away from work. This will probably be a young family sort of thing, so I’m thinking an AirB&B will form part of the solution though this seems almost as expensive as a night in a mid-range tatami-mat-floor Inn.

On some level, though, I’m also hoping budget will require spending a night in an Internet cafe – the cheapest accommodation I can think of in the dry. It’s the only way to properly respect my gobby half back team mate who shrieked this at a bunch of fresh faced Japanese students, shortly before crashing out on one of the busiest pavements in the metropolis.

Sand bath image licence Wiki Commons

Karaoke image courtesy of Blake Walker

How safe is Iran and how easy is it to visit?

It was a surprising discovery that the Persian restaurants on my local high street are actually Iranian and with some optimistic reports of tourism in the country I began to look into a visit to this enigmatic and off-the-beaten-track middle east state. It seemed I couldn’t really progress this without a comprehensive analysis of how safe it was though – and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s probably a couple of years away given progress continues to be made on some geopolitical, societal and procedural roadblocks.

The relevant Government foreign office website is normally the first port of call for assessing overseas risk and a first look of the UK’s online government advice doesn’t make great reading. It quotes no-go areas on borders with Afghanistan and Iraq and warns a terror attack is “very likely” in the rest of the country, especially in the capital Tehran where the bulk of the tourist sites are mosques and religious sites (this modern one caught my eye, something non-traditional you don’t associate with my pre-conceived images of the middle east). The UK’s terror alert has frequently been as high as it can go, however, and it’s permanently that high in France so you could argue Iran is safer. For instance, I had no qualms about staying in Marseille recently, though there have been three suspected terrorist incidents there before and after.

What this facet in isolation doesn’t take into consideration though is the risk of other violent situations or unintentional illegality created in a culturally opposed state. The FCO pages go on to detail limitations or outright bans on homosexuality, women’s dress, women travelling without a husband, women’s magazines, alcohol, pork products, having a Jewish background, having an Israeli passport stamp and no doubt any other facet of Islamic culture we don’t see in the west. I personally could live without all of these for the duration of a short visit (perhaps not the latest issue of Vogue) – but that’s suddenly sent a message that huge swathes of the west are unwelcome, including a large amount of the people I’d want to travel with.

I was reminded of a couple of newspaper articles while researching the above points that make you wonder what direction liberalism is headed. As in a number of countries, headscarves and the form around them are a yardstick for authoritarianism more widely in the country and these two articles from 2015 and 2017 would seem to represent some movement to egalitarianism, especially considering a tilt the other way in countries such as Turkey and Malaysia. Current premier Hassan Rouhani is definitely more of a moderate than prior regimes and has overtly campaigned for women’s rights. This would represent a new cultural experience to witness first hand, though you do notice a mixture of influencers across these two articles. It’s not just the government at play.

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Another of Rouhani’s stated aims at election was reducing nuclear tension his immediate predecessor created, and that monitoring a nuclear bombing is a factor at all in visiting a country tells some story about the state of the world in general at the moment. The accepted norm of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Middle East has been through proxy wars in countries including Afghanistan and Yemen, though Trump logic now has Iran in his sights as primary aggressor. I’m pretty convinced US threats of military escalation in North Korea and Iran is largely to bolster key support in the US – so I’m not sure it’s a risk. But with the above point it’s something you’d want to see reduce not escalate while acknowledging aggression might not be Iranian.

Assuming you’ve got past the personal and the geopolitical risk of the area, there are considerable hoops to work through as well. The visa process is difficult and as an added complexity US, British and Canadian visitors need to be on an organised tour and accompanied through their visit. This fact I’ve seen pushed most hysterically by, typically, tour operators alongside expensive all inclusive deals and until I saw it recently crop up on the FCO pages I’d regarded as a technicality.

I don’t know how rigorously it’s applied, but knowing that the embassy for a visa, the tour company and the immigration line at an airport are all separate entities means there’s space to operate independently. It could be a solution to book day tours in places like Tehran and Shiraz so you’ve got a booking and a guide to refer to if questioned while “on a break from my tour”. From blog posts and comments I’ve read, it’s more easily flouted outside big cities, logically enough, so an independent detour to somewhere like Persipolis seems feasible.

Peresepolis panorama - Iran.
Peresepolis panorama – Iran.

Much more strictly enforced and highly visible, the recent arrest of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe demonstrates Iran doesn’t recognise dual nationality with Iran and another country. Her initial arrest was on an unspecified charge, but her use of a combination of British and Iranian passports was cited at the point of arrest. In itself, this is worrying but the Iranian Revolutionary Guards tagging of 16 years onto the sentence for miscellany, again unspecified, charges looks reminiscent of an act of paranoid dictatorship from Stalinist Soviet Union.

The Revolutionary Guards seem an unpredictable factor arbitrating disputes, potentially in any of the situations I’ve identified in this piece. The 1979 revolution in the country codified their role as defending the Islamic Republic system, whilst being non-political and with a mandate domestically and overseas. In my view this usually ends up with a force used to defend an authoritarian state, which the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case echoes. Relating this to the risk for the casual traveller: If unspecified charges are being thrown around, it does make it difficult to know what to look out for.

Looking after Pandas in Sichuan, China

Ghostwriting for Becky’s two weeks in Sichuan, China last year. This is for a Guardian travel writing competition. I feel the stipulated 100 words is nowhere near long enough…

Shovelling mountains of poo is a substantial time demand looking after Pandas in Sichuan, China. The activity does, however, provide opportunities for the playful, juvenile ones to try and join in, which they frequently manage. Reverting to type, my multicolour trainers attracted the eye of one lazy cub, who latched itself on my foot to be dragged around. Hilarious until they found more amusement poking their claws down the lace holes. Frontier Travel offer one or two weeks of conservation work near Chengdu, including board. It’s hard work, but you see every facet of panda behaviour first hand.

Planning for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Reminders have popped up on Faceboook from two years ago of the England World Cup and the regular media made coverage of a two year countdown in Japan – so seems enough stimuli to actually start planning for the 2019 event.

Tickets

The schedule is yet to be announced, with qualifying not finished, though the first game will be mid to late September with the final likely to be around Halloween weekend. Of dubious provenance, there has also been a ticketing website set up. Though this is only really at pre-registration levels at the moment, it makes sense to at least get some details down now.

I can recall low-tech methods for buying game tickets between 2002 and 2005, often including selecting a ticket via a terminal in a convenience store then paying in cash over the counter. Hopefully things have moved on, indeed I have seen CC bookings in for baseball games more recently, but it’s a nice demonstration of a cash-dominated society in what was once acountry of advanced digitalisation.

Games

There are a dozen locations already confirmed and in some cases almost been ready for use. Sapporo is a city built for events such as this with a covered stadium often a requirement for a snowy city and a big brewing history. Kumagaya offers a mini rugby city outside Tokyo and is the one location I can remember playing at, albeit one I suffered a broken collar bone at from a miscommunication with a Japanese playmaker.

The fan experience I’ve always found to be highly choreographed and enjoyable with any notions of alcoholism long since disregarded. The ultimate game accessory, beer attendants, has long been the norm. I partake at the baseball sometime in 2008 below. Colour schemes are all part of the routine, indeed getting my various Japanese shirts, flags and scarfs co-ordinated has long since been mentally planned.

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Transport

The crucial message from my post about the JR rail pass was that it was only really worth it if you took in two long-range (two hour plus) return journeys. In other words, if you base yourself somewhere and travel to two other places, it’s a good use of money buying one of the longer term passes.

What I also discovered recently is non-Japanese passport holders can get a JPY 10,000 flat rate for flights. If you only have one or two legs to travel between major cities, then it works out better in terms of cost. If money is no object, I found the speed of the bullet train is faster for point to point journeys under around 500 miles.

Accommodation

Again for the well heeled, the ultimate accommodation is the full service at a Japanese Inn, a Ryokan, with only a few rooms per establishment, meals served to your room, a stone bath and dressing gowns all part of the experience. My wife Becky deemed this the highlight of a two week Asia tour recently, Kyoto is the must-see tourist destination to do this from, based around games in the west of the country.

More expedient, Ryokans do go down to most budgets with the minshiku it’s more casual brother. For a late night drinking, the capsule hotel is another eponymous Japanese experience, from my friend’s experience, it does seem a male preserve. For really late and unplanned evenings out when the trains stop, an Internet cafe is a perfect crash pad with showers, melon soda and connectivity all softening the landing.

Exercise and decompression

Playing for Tokyo Gaijin RFC in Tokyo for two years pretty much kept me in Japan for a year longer than intended, with a bunch of English teachers and bar staff from all the major rugby nations and Canada proving an essential escape valve. A couple of weeks in Japan and an ad-hoc game would be perfect to round off the trip. As an esteemed former Gaijin skipper described the experience:

“We got up at the crack of dawn and travelled to the arse end of nowhere, the pitch is made of concrete, the warm up has been hopeless and the referee is crazy. I’ve played fifty games with some of you and it’s the first time I’ve met you others, but we need to make the most of it”

Good job the rest of the country is the land of convenience.