Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Seychelles: My honeymoon hell

The Seychelles: My honeymoon hell

Picture an idyllic island, full of couples. Now add a single man, Jeremy Atiyah. All he has on his pillow is an orchid. Sad? You bet

Published: 29 September 2001

Help! This is the Seychelles, and I'm surrounded by honeymooning couples. I've never seen so many newly-weds in one place before. All these tax-paying Euro citizens, stretched out quietly on deckchairs. It could be Frankfurt or Strasburg, except for the black kids playing barefoot soccer on the beach at sunset.

No chance of a single man scoring here, though. I'm the only unattached tourist in this whole country, other than a guy called Toby, who's got long hair and a goatee beard, and claims to be researching an article for You and Your Wedding.

"You mean that woman's magazine?" I say.
He looks at me strangely. "It's for people who are planning their honeymoons."
First I've heard of it. Anyway, tonight we are both staying at a hotel called the Archipel on the island of Praslin, and all we can see are rock-solid young couples in fashionable swimsuits. None of them has even brought children. That's because everyone is just married (except for Toby and I, who just never had kids).

While Toby is checking the facilities (Jacuzzi in bathroom? Orchid on pillow?), all I want to know is whether the Seychelles is a place where a single man might enjoy himself. What's winding me up is that every time I ask for a drink, the waiter asks if my lady is indisposed, or coming later.
"What lady?" I ask.

In fact I'm feeling right off honeymoons. Falling in love can seem so soppy. How about work and business, I want to say. Huh? How about money, then? Not that these islands are a place where you would invest your pension. The local currency is falling into a black hole. The Seychellois economy runs at the speed of a giant tortoise. The two main islands Mahe and Praslin, with their forested hills, look a bit like Hong Kong, circa 1800 (ie, with no people and no money).

So what am I doing here? It's not even as if I am lusting after anyone else's woman at the moment, except possibly for chocolate-coloured Patrizia, from Sicily, who is on her honeymoon with a Milanese banker called Andrea. Most of the people here seem to be Italians. These two look barely 25 years old.

"Patrizia's just married," Toby points out.
"I know, I know," I retort.
In fact we have observed that Patrizia changes her outfit at least three times a day. Honeymooners! You have to ask yourself – from beside the pool at sunset, over your gin and tonic – whether they are particularly happy people. None of them is talking to (let alone copping off with) anyone except for their own partner. As for the hotel, Toby needs to be reminded that he is supposed to be reviewing it for the readers of You and Your Wedding.

"My room is romantic," I inform him. "Walking along a hillside path, overlooking the moonlit sea, beside endlessly pink, flowering Mozanda trees, I tread on several large copulating snails per night..."
"You sound bitter."
"... then when I get inside my mosquito net, under the spotlights, brushing aside the scattered petals, I get the feeling that a scene from The Joy of Sex is about to be filmed..."

If anyone is bitter round here, it's Toby. He has got the bridal suite, supposedly for professional reasons, though he has no chance of test-driving the facilities, no matter how frequently he walks behind Anita's deckchair during the daylight hours. "But the scattered petals are a nice touch," he says.
"I'm sure."
In short, it doesn't take us long to get bored with places such as this. Which is one good thing about our schedule: it keeps whisking us off to new islands.

But the next morning, from the moment we arrive on sunny Cousine in a private helicopter, I start getting depressed again. It's the same story. This place is going to be too good for me. The whole island of Cousine is being reconverted to the original island habitat, and contains just one extremely luxurious hotel with only four rooms. A five-night stay here – for you and your angel – will cost several thousand pounds.

We meet a South African called Peter, who runs the conservation project.
"We got rid of the foreign species, such as rats and rabbits, in order to re-introduce the original endemic species," he tells us. He is friends with skinks and lesser noddies, and likes Cousine because he can't handle the urban maelstrom of Praslin (population: 6,000).

Lizards are walking over our sandals, and pretty birds called Fairy Terns are flying around our heads. Peter shouts: "I'd take one of those as a wife." It turns out that each Fairy Tern, like a honeymooning Italian, is glued to its partner.

"Yep. There's no music here, no diving, noactivities. Just people doing nothing. It's a place to get out of the fast lane for a while."
"Why are you looking so pissed off?" Toby asks me, later, as we set off on a walk around the island, to inspect the four villas, each with its own huge private garden and private stretch of wild beach. Doves are cooing ostentatiously in the branches. My problem is that I have just conceived a crippling urge to get into the fastest of all fast lanes, in order to marry a trophy wife and bring her to Cousine for a honeymoon.

"But we don't have honeymoon specials here," interrupts Peter, needlessly. "It's a honeymoon for everyone by the time they leave."

Later, I'm relieved to hear that not everyone likes this place. Some customers have said there were too many Fairy Terns. One guy complained of constant bonking on the part of the resident giant tortoises (I don't think he liked the idea of being outclassed by 200-year-old reptiles).

This may be the desert island of your dreams, but the rooms do have CNN and international direct dialling and modems for hooking up your laptop. That's for when you feel the tug of the fast lane.
But Peter is oblivious to all that. He's more interested in a particularly large millipede dropping that he has just found on the step. Oh! And there's a magpie robin, one of the 10 rarest birds in the world. We watch as it attempts to peck the ground, only to be scared away by the threat of a tiny lizard.

So the week goes on. We jump from island to island, looking for paradisiacal happiness. Toby interviews people who have just sworn each other eternal love, and takes notes on their experiences. What else are we supposed to do?

One of the only high moments comes a few days later, after we bump into blonde Larissa and bald Dmitri from Moscow. Oh my God. Larissa has got the best body I have ever seen, while Dmitri, whose neck is very red, has got one of the worst.

"No questions," says Dmitri, thuggishly, pushing Toby out of the way, when asked if the Seychelles is living up to its reputation as the dream honeymoon destination. "We come private trip."

Toby isn't interested in Russian adulterers though, because at that moment a real, live wedding couple are walking up from the beach, sweating and panting in a frock coat and white dress respectively. Their names are Antonio and Maria. Frangipani petals seem to have been scattered over the bride's tresses.

"We're from Bologna," puffs Maria, after Toby has offered them his insincerest congratulations. "No, we don't mind answering questions. We wanted to get married here because... well...". Speechless, they both turn and gesture towards the turquoise sea.
"Because what?"
"Because... e molto romantica," she pants.

Toby is writing all this down, as though he's got the scoop of the century. Oh yes, I say? What's the big deal then? Maria takes a deep breath, before suggesting that we only need see a beach called Anse Lazio on the northern shore of Praslin to find out. I suspect she likes it because its name sounds like a region of Italy.

But off we go, the next morning, in search of the truth. On the map, Anse Lazio doesn't look far, so we hire bikes. But the bikes have sea-salt-encrusted chains, and no gears. The road gets hilly, and we are unfit. Finally there, we are both on the verge of heat-stroke.

"Seems to be lunchtime," I grumble. All the continental honeymooners, who have driven here in expensive rented jeeps, are now packing a beach-side café, eating grilled fish, drinking Coca-Cola and staring into each others' eyes.

We, meanwhile, sit ourselves down on the sand under a casuarina tree, squinting at a number of attractive women bouncing in and out of the surf, which is an electric blue. For some reason, we are both wearing trousers, shirts and uncomfortable hats, while everyone else is in a swimsuit.

"Nice beach," says Toby, biting on a ham sandwich and brushing an ant out of his hair.
"Not bad," I say, looking round the perfectly framed bay. Crabs on high alert are scuttling past my feet. But I have not failed to notice that for every woman in the water, there is exactly one Milanese banker on the beach, sitting beside an empty towel. I'm sorry ­ I now have to say ­ but Anse Lazio really isn't going to do it for me.

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: solo travellers can get to the Seychelles on Air Seychelles or British Airways, with fares for around £600 through discount agents. Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Elite Vacations (020-8864 9818), which can tailor-make any package to the Seychelles. Prices start from £758 per person, based on two sharing, for five nights at the small, family-owned hotel of Lazare Picault. This includes flights, transfers and accommodation but no meals. The same holiday on Cousine Island starts at £3,147 per person, full-board.

A trip called "Millionaire's Salad" comprises one night on Anonyme, half board, followed by three nights on Alphonse, three nights on Denis and five nights on Fregate, all full board. Apart from the Mahe-Alphonse-Mahe flights, all the rest of the island transfers are by helicopter. Price including flights and transfers, starts from £7,352 per person.

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Russia: Yo heave ho on the Volga

Russia: Yo heave ho on the Volga

What can a man do when his love is unrequited? Take a boat down the Volga. After all, what is a Russian river for but escaping heartache?

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 28 August 2001

It was fleeting summertime by the Volga river, and I was in love with Maria. I was also in Kostroma. It was hard to believe that I had spent a whole week in this old Tsarist town, traipsing overgrown pavements, perspiring under giant skies. And wasn't all this grass growing at a preternatural rate? Perhaps speed was in the nature of Russian herbage, given the certainty that frosts would kill it all within weeks.

The whole of Kostroma, with its ancient, off-colour trading arcades, seemed to have exploded in undergrowth. There beside the brown waters of the Volga, I expected to find horses being saddled up for journeys into Tartary.

Instead, here was Maria, pale and serious. "Of course, I am not planning to spend the rest of my life in this dull little place," she told me. Nor, apparently, was she impressed by the fact that the dynasty of the Romanov Tsars had originated here.

Later she pointed at a low concrete wall overlooking the river. "This is where we usually sit," she sighed. And we sat. There was nothing else to do. So what now? Where could this possibly lead, beyond days, and more days, waking up in an old hotel room with peeling wallpaper, while receptionists downstairs knitted socks and waitresses in the breakfast hall looked affronted when asked to bring coffee? I was in Kostroma. I was in love. But right now I could only hold my head in my hands, listening to thunder and incessant rain, beside a dank skyline of unkempt trees and storm-stained tower blocks.

Maria, too, was losing heart. When I called her the next morning, she gave me several plausible reasons why we could not meet that day. "The Ipatevsky monastery?" she yawned. "Isn't that your kind of thing? Can't you go by yourself? The frescoes are startling." I imagined her hands dropping effortlessly at her side. Her eyes would close in a sceptical smile. She was the most startling thing in Kostroma. Other than suicide. In other words, I only had one choice: to get on to that river, and out of this town, fast.

What was a Russian river for, after all, if not for escaping hopeless loves?

According to Chekhov, the Volga put gloom into people's souls. "Whoever is born on the Volga carries her image through life," added Trotsky. Perhaps, then, the Volga would continue to lash me with images of the beautiful, unobtainable Maria, no matter how far down its length I travelled. I hoped so.

Every day, one saw the boats drifting past, southbound for Astrakhan and Rostov, or northbound for Moscow. And at Kostroma's dilapidated boat station, one afternoon, I found a vessel for Kazan.
"You do whatever you want," said Maria with a fixed smile, her lashes glittering in the sun. "Yes, I'll do whatever I want," I replied, handing my fare to a drunken sailor, securing for myself a private cabin, with a sink and a window. After all: what more than this (I now asked myself) could a man want from life? I would travel to the south, down Europe's longest river. I would submerge my emotional heart within that of Russia itself. Turgenev or Pushkin would have done the same. Probably.

Only later, on deck – after I had watched Maria, clutching her skirts, disappear in a shimmer of gold up the bank and into the trees – did I realise that the atmosphere on the Yakov Sverdlov might be stretching my penance a little too far. Turning round, I got the feeling that I had blundered into a Soviet sanatorium.

Here we were, floating away from the station with a sinister, disembodied voice crackling from the bridge. A mournful silence was about to descend. Just a few old men and women with sandals on their feet and mushrooms of silver hair on their heads were shuffling about. One minute we were in farmland scattered with shacks and rickety wooden houses; the next we would be in forest-choked wilderness stretching to distant green horizons.

Only the safety instructions, pinned to a wall below deck, featuring a man with tousled hair and a stiff upturned collar like a romantic poet, looked interesting. Otherwise, there was nothing to do, except pace the narrow decks, or gloomy corridors occupied by cleaners in turquoise aprons and peroxided hair.

Even the bar was closed, which shocked me. At dinner a polite waitress asked if I wanted tea or coffee with my meal. It was as though we were here to escape, not into drunkenness, but from it. "Please," I begged. "Give me vodka."

So I ate and drank alone, while oil-smooth waters fanned out in silence behind us. The white cupolas of a lonely monastery came gliding by. A tiny rowing boat passed in front. I saw those sandy banks turn golden in the evening sunlight.

Were we, or were we not, sailing through the ruins of a dead empire? From time to time, empty factories came in and out of view, surrounded by cranes rusted into immobility. And yet here on board, pedantic old rules still operated. One announcement spluttered at 8am, telling us to get up. Then came another at 11pm, when the sky was still streaked with polar light, telling us to go to bed.

One morning, from a wooden chair on deck, I tried asking a man in a tracksuit and plastic sandals if he had done this trip before. "Seventeen times," he mumbled, as the boat pulled into one of the locks built along the river. Huge machinery began towering up around us, including weed-clogged ladders and slabs of concrete so mighty that only Soviet Man could have built them. On shore, men stood beside motorcycles with sidecars of Second World War vintage. One old woman in a headscarf with a sickle over one shoulder was walking along the towpath. She was so close she could have stepped on to the boat. "Morning," she said. The old man beside me suddenly sprang into life. "What's the name of this place?" he burst out from his deck chair. "It's been a pleasure!" we all called out, when the lock doors finally opened and the boat began to inch forward.

Kazan, a few hours later, was quietly frying in the sun when the Yakov Sverdlov arrived. I seemed to be the only passenger disembarking. The sultriness of Kostroma, here, had been replaced by a desert heat. I no longer knew where I was. Could a city, 500 miles east of Moscow, be considered a part of Europe? But perhaps it was. Grand 19th-century buildings, with towers and slate roofs, stood on street corners. At night, young people began walking the streets, listening to live music and drinking beer – but the Russian winter would smother even these slight pleasures in a few weeks' time.

Five more days on a boat, or two on a train: that was the choice I faced when considering the next leg of my journey down the river, to Volgograd. Thinking back to the sanatorium, I chose the train.

On board, the next day, I promptly found myself in a compartment with a huge, blond, military man, who was only 23 years old, but wore a loaded gun in a halter strapped round his shoulders.

"Don't worry, I'm an off-duty body-guard," he told me. He was from Ulyanovsk, of all places, now renamed Simbirsk: Lenin's home town, a few more stops down the river. He had been in special forces in the Russian army. "How can I help you?" he kept asking. "You want the window open? You need tea?"

But when the window stuck in its frame, and when the movement of the train had slowed to a gentle bounce, his blond features sagged grey with anxiety. "You see, I was born in Lenin's home town," he kept sighing. "And what can I do about that?" It was as if he were talking about a wayward uncle who had taken to crime. Lenin, for him, was still slightly bigger than Russia. And now, whether Lenin stayed in Red Square, or got buried, or suffered anything else, was a great worry and a responsibility.
No matter. The next day, a family from Dagestan moved in. There was dad (friendly), his 17-year-old daughter Fareeda (attractive) and 15-year-old son Tamerlane (smart). There was also a swarthy man from Azerbaijan who had fallen in love with Fareeda, and who later explained to me how he felt about her. "What do you reckon about that empty compartment down there?" he asked.
"Are you crazy?"

Everyone, it transpired, had spent the previous eight months working in the frozen oilfields of northern Siberia, and now wanted to enjoy a hot summer in the Caucasus. "My sister has set fire to him," Tamerlane explained, as if in sympathy for the Azerbaijani's condition.

We sat around for hours, drinking tea. People kept buying me pieces of cake. We picnicked on strawberries. Tamerlane gave me old Soviet coins in exchange for English ones. Fareeda spent three hours making up her eyelashes and looking dark and beautiful. This was the Russian south.

Rolling across the steppe into Volgograd at dusk, I glimpsed the gigantic statue of Mother Russia from the train, marking the point of the German surrender at Stalingrad on 31 January 1943. We seemed to have entered another, stranger, world. I disembarked under a hot night sky and soon found myself in a magnificent hotel room, a Stalinist palace, with parquet flooring, a ceiling 6m high, and a balcony overlooking the city's central square.

But the strangest thing was to have the place completely to myself. Walking the corridors I met no one. All I could hear from the square, far below, were outbreaks of funereal music. Events unspeakably terrible had once happened in this city. Now it felt as though the Soviet regime lived on; as if this whole hotel ­ or maybe this whole city ­ was no more than a ghost. One could only suppose that my journey down the Volga was coming to some kind of meaningful conclusion.

To Astrakhan there remained another 24 hours, by boat. From deck, on that last day, I would see wide sandbanks and cliffs of loamy soil crumbling into the water. In this heat, it would not have surprised me to see water buffalo breaking the surface. Surely I was coming to the end of Europe now? So it seemed. Astrakhan, to judge by its name and proximity to the Caucasus, promised oriental costumes and a mêlée of peoples and tongues. And on my first night in town, I could almost believe it, to judge by the people carousing, late, by the shores of the Volga. A Middle-Eastern spin had entered the pop music. The local mobsters sat over shashlik and tea under trellises.

From my room, I called Maria in Kostroma, to tell her that I had reached the end of the Volga. "You mean you are still in Russia?" She sounded very far away.
"Of course."
"What have you been doing?"
I told her how I had come 2,000 miles along the river that protected Muscovy, that nourished and inspired the nation, that saved it from fascism...

"I'm glad you are enjoying it," interrupted Maria, with the voice of one who did not intend to be so easily defined. And suddenly, on that hot night, a presentiment of Russian winter came blowing through my heart.

Sunday, May 13, 2001

Nafplio: Where the Greeks go to get away from us all

Nafplio: Where the Greeks go to get away from us all

Jeremy Atiyah follows discerning Athenians to escape the hordes in the ancient and elegant port of Nafplio

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 13 May 2001

With its faded mansions and balconies covered in flowers, Nafplio (also written Nauplion) is one of the most beautiful towns in mainland Greece: well-to-do Athenians, who come here for weekend breaks, say it themselves. Without the traffic of the capital or the islands' barbarian tourist hordes, this compact, historic port on the north-eastern side of the Peloponnesian peninsula is a classy place to sample Greece in a hurry.

Why go?
Just three hours from Athens by train, bus or car, Nafplio can feasibly be reached within a day from the UK. It is not a beach resort (though it has one small beach, and the beach resorts of Tolo and Kastraki are easily accessible as day trips), which accounts for the relatively up-market nature of the tourists who fill its waterside cafés and shady restaurants.
As the first capital of Greece, for a short time after independence from the Ottomans in the 1820s, it was the seat not only of the parliament but also of the first king of Greece, and it is still dotted with forts, churches and converted mosques. And just a few miles out of town are such stunning sites as ancient Mycenae, and the still-used outdoor ancient theatre of Epidavros. For much of the year day trips by boat are available to islands including Spetses and Idhra.

Why now?
The period before the height of summer ­ when the wild flowers are still blooming on the hillsides but before the waiters have become impossibly tetchy ­ is ideal. June is particularly good ­ the fabulous ancient theatre productions of Epidavros have commenced, and the weather is sunny, but not yet stiflingly hot.

The Mission
Apart from sitting in cafés under giant plane trees and admiring the views over lunch, or walking around the seafront below the cliffs, the delight of Nafplio is that there is little to do.
What you can do, however, is visit the magnificent fortresses of the town. According to Nikos Kazantzakis, in his book Travels in Greece, the Greek fortress "reminds us of that fortified point that we never want to surrender, the last refuge of conscience, self-respect and courage". With this in mind, first catch a boat to the offshore islet in the harbour, from which the Bourtzi fort rises. And then, before sunset, make the epic climb up the 900-odd steps to the top of the Palamidhi Fortress, which commands views for miles over the bay on one side, and the mountains of Arcadia on the other.
Finally, as a morning outing, visit the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae, with its famous lion-gate, where Clytemnestra slew her husband Agamemnon on his return from Troy. The site, on a high bluff overlooking miles of beautiful fruit orchards, is one of the most striking in Greece. You can get here by catching the 10am bus out from Nafplio (which drops you at the car park directly opposite the entrance to the site), heading back at 1pm.

Remember this
In the summer you must not miss the sensational outdoor performances at the Epidavros theatre, less than an hour from town. Despite being 2,400 years old, the theatre provides near-perfect acoustics for the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, which are performed on Friday and Saturday nights from June to the end of August. You may not know your Agamemnon from your Oedipus, but the atmosphere is unbeatable. Theatre trips are available from agencies in Nafplio.

Where to stay
Numerous hotels fill the streets of the town, nearly all of the characterful family run variety (as opposed to the corporate monstrosities). Prices are not low by Greek standards, but neither are they outrageous considering the quality on offer. Excellent places to stay include the King Othon, at 2 Farmakopoulou (tel: 0752 27585), where comfortable rooms in a grand little setting cost about £40 per night for a double, and the gorgeous Hotel Byron, at 2 Platonos (tel: 0752 22351, email:, which has views and a delightful terrace, and where a double is about £35 per night. I paid £20 a night for a single room at the clean but undistinguished Hotel Acropol, 9 Vas Olgas (tel: 0752 27796).
The cheapest accommodation is available from a group of pensions called Acronafplia, based at 6 Ayiou Spyridhonos (tel: 0752 24481), where some rooms cost just £12.

What to buy
The usual kitsch. Statues of Greek gods, replica ancient urns, replica icons and CDs featuring "best-loved" Greek traditional songs.

Eating out
As you walk the streets of this town, they seem at times to be one continuous mass of tavernas and bars with outdoor seating, especially around the central square, Platia Syndagmatos, and the main street, Staikopoulo. But given the fact that the majority of the tourists in Nafplio are Athenians, the food is a cut above the moussaka-and-chips of the standard Greek holiday resort. There are distinct areas: for a trendier and more sophisticated ambience, try any of the cafés on the seafront street Bouboulinas.
Inland, the tavernas are cheaper and more rustic: try Mikra on Vas Olgas next to the Hotel Acropol, where the stuffed peppers and fried calamares are excellent, or Byzantio, on 15 Vas Alexandrou, billing itself as a Serbian taverna. The only place I could find without an English menu (a sure sign of quality) was Epi Skinis, at 19 Amalias, where an excellent meal in a thespian atmosphere cost me £5.

Getting about
In town you need only to walk. For exploring the countryside round Nafplio, you can either rent a car (there is a competitive car-rental market in the town), or you can rely on local trains, or the easy-to-find buses. Mycenae and Epidavros are about an hour away.

Getting there
Prices for the flight between the UK and Athens vary according to season. I paid £101 for a ticket from Luton with easyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000, www. Several airlines operate scheduled flights between the UK and Athens, including British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Olympic Airways (tel: 020-7409 3400). Although these do not attempt to challenge easyJet on price, they can usually offer better availability. Charter flights also operate into Athens from all the major UK airports. Off-season occasionally produces fares of less than £100; in peak season (mid-July to the end of August), you are unlikely to pay much less than £200.
For transport from Athens to Nafplio, you can take the very comfortable and scenic train ride from the Stathmos Peloponnissou. There are just two direct departures daily, it takes three hours and, at £3 a ticket, is an absurd bargain. Buses (also taking three hours) depart from the Kifissou terminal in Athens (bus 51 from Omonia).

Further information
I took the Rough Guide to Greece, the longest-standing guide of that series. The local tourist office in town at 25 March St (tel: 0752 24444) is reasonably helpful. In the UK, Greece has an official tourist office at 4 Conduit St, London W1R 0DJ (tel: 020-7734 5997).

Saturday, May 12, 2001

Visas from Russia with luck

Visas from Russia with luck

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 12 May 2001

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback? Stopping off, maybe, at some of those more obscure places that nobody ever seems to go to?

Good idea. Apart, that is, from the fact that you'll need a tourist visa. Which is where the obstacles begin to arise. Because before you risk spending all that money on your ticket, you'll have to find an organisation (a hotel, say, or a tour operator) inside the country that can sponsor your presence there. And to get this so-called "visa-support", you'll need to book and pay for your accommodation ­ for every night ­ in advance.

To get that tourist visa you'll now need to take the evidence of your confirmed bookings to the Consulate in Notting Hill, west London, and probably stand in a long queue (unless you can get there by 9am sharp, on a day which isn't a Wednesday or a holiday in Russia).

By which time, that last-minute flight will probably have sold out long ago. And anyway, you'll still have another five days to wait before you can collect your visa. Well, either that, or pay some exorbitant amount, upwards of £100, to have it issued on the same day.

So you'll probably go to Istanbul instead, and Russia will lose another tourist.
How do you get round the rules? Can you travel independently in Russia without sticking to a pre-planned itinerary, and if so, how?

I recently went to some lengths to find out if it could be done (experiencing nearly three months of Siberian winter in the process), and am pleased to report that independent travel in Russia is ­ just about ­ beginning to take off.

Whichever way you plan to go, you'll still need to get your "visa support", and to take this to your local Russian consulate. But the good news is that this visa support is getting easier to obtain. Evidence of confirmed bookings is not required. I found a Moscow travel agency over the internet offering visa support for $70 (less than £50), which I paid by credit card. This agency obtained official approval from the relevant government ministry, and telexed it to the Russian Consulate in London. To my amazement, I was promptly issued with a three-month visa valid for the entire country.

The key was to have applied for a "business" visa. Tourist visas require evidence of prior bookings. Business visas (which can last up to a year) do not.

What you will want to know is whether this is illegal. Is pretending to be a businessman or woman a crime in Russia? Are you liable to be fined or arrested upon entry into the country? According to people like Neil McGowan, a Moscow resident and founder of specialist tour company The Russia Experience, these business visas are indeed of dubious legality.

"The agencies tell the ministry that they have taken care of your accommodation and travel for the duration of your stay, which they have not," he told me. "I've known people chucked out for using fake paperwork, though normally the application is blocked at the visa-issue stage. The comeback is more serious for the issuing company than for the recipient."

But according to an organisation called Visa to Russia (020 7229 1412), based in London, which specialises in issuing visa-support to travellers (for large fees), the Russians themselves don't know if it is illegal or not.

The important thing, the company explained, is that you can be construed as a potential businessman or woman. That is to say, in travelling through the country (even as a tourist), you are effectively, if unwittingly, scouring Russia for business opportunities. Other companies issuing "visa support" from inside Russia told me that the limit of their responsibility was to be liable for any trouble that the travellers (whom they had sponsored) might cause while in the country.

In my case, at no time during the visa application process or during my stay, did anyone ask me the nature of my "business" in Russia. While there I bought my own train tickets, booked my own flights, turned up unannounced at hotels, even rented a flat ­ in short, I did all the things that travellers or tourists might do in any normal country in the world.

Which is not to say Russia is or will be a "normal" country for tourism any time soon. Travellers in most out-of-the-way cities are still rarer than rhododendrons. In many ways it is hard to think of a less tourist-friendly country: for towns other than Moscow and St Petersburg (which are easy to visit on packages), I found guidebooks were inadequate, local information was impossible to come by and very little English was spoken. Hotels could be of abysmal value, flight schedules were sparse, and the food in restaurants across much of the country was revolting.

But set these off against the thrill of being among the first to travel independently in the world's largest and least-explored country, and you will find they are pretty minor inconveniences.

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. Travelling independently, "visa support" is required from an organisation inside Russia. Jeremy Atiyah used the Maria Agency (maritour@ based in Moscow. He paid US$70 for "support" for a three-month double-entry business visa. After your visa support has been sent from Russia to the Consulate in London, you can apply in person at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and £30 is required for five-day processing.

Monday, March 26, 2001

Iran: Beyond the cotton fields and unruly goats

Iran: Beyond the cotton fields and unruly goats

Jeremy Atiyah takes a taxi along the river Euphrates in Syria to the Iraq border

Published: 26 March 2001

How do you find a cab driver willing to take you down the Euphrates? Easy. Go to the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. Hang around next to the wall-map entitled "Antiquités de Syrie". Pay attention to the drawing of the Valley of the Euphrates marked in bold black ink with diagrams of Hittite lions and Roman temples. Then wait to be ambushed by a globular hotel attendant called Abdu.

It worked for me, anyway. "I'm a taxi driver on my days off," was Abdu's gambit. "I've got an icebox in my car." He could recite the names of the sites along the river with such confidence that I accepted without hesitation his proposal to drive me to the Iraqi border for $200 (£140).

Setting off the next morning, Abdu was irrepressible. "Great to get out among the real Bedouin again," he kept exclaiming. "No tourists here!" In an hour we had exchanged the travel agents and lingerie shops of Aleppo for flat desert with houses the colour of dirt and a sun so hot that even the dry mud gleamed. The only things around were sheep and melons. "There you are," said Abdu as we drove past a great crowd of parked scooters and bundled up sheep. "Good people, simple people."
But when we stopped, he soon began calling them cheats and con artists. "And you call these melons ripe!" he was huffing. I suggested that they had raised their prices for the benefit of the foreigner. "My friend," Abdu explained disdainfully, "I am the one they want to cheat. I come from the city, it is plain for all to see."

As the sun climbed we came to the chalky, turquoise waters of Lake Assad, where the Arab citadel of Qalaa'at Al-Jabba sits alone on an outcrop. "You go up," urged Abdu. "I'll mind the car." And he insisted on staying below under a shady vine drinking ice-cold water while I dutifully picked about the hot stones by myself.

There was to be a lot more of that. The next stop, rearing up in the middle of a bare desert, was Rasafah, the ruins of a summer palace once belonging to the Omayyad caliph Hisham. Abdu made a big issue of dropping me at one end of the site, declaring his intention to pick me up later at the other end. "How long do you want? Three hours? Four hours?"

After I had negotiated Abdu down to one hour, I watched him drive off with sudden enthusiasm to a remote tent in the desert, for what I later understood to be some rest and relaxation with the Bedouin girls: leaving me, a speck of living flesh, to survive the white-hot stones of Rasafah alone. When I emerged, frazzled, an hour later, I noticed a small white Peugeot rolling up. A tourist got out. "Hello, I'm Jeremy," I said dourly. An unsmiling man in dark glasses walked forward and shook my hand. "I'm French," he said, and walked off.

Abdu eventually reappeared, and on we drove: on past the irrigated cotton fields, the dead dogs, the unruly goats, the dust clouds, the men sitting in shadows, the brown children splashing in brown canals. And past all the Bedouin hitch-hikers.

The rules concerning hitch-hikers are as follows. If it's a man, accelerate past with annoyance. If a woman, screech to a halt and reverse at great speed to pick her up. "We're from the city," Abdu would boast into the rear-view mirror, gesturing between himself and the foreigner. And the women would laugh coyly as they rearranged their veils.

Later, at the site of the ancient fortress of Halabiyya, built by Queen Zenobia, who once ruled Palmyra, we stopped for tea with a Bedouin family right on the river front, with the sun disappearing behind craggy hills to the west. Women squatted about, wringing out clothes, kneading dough and brewing tea, while Abdu lounged regally on a mat, making pronouncements about cars and money and big-city affairs. It transpired afterwards that he had been discussing ­ for purely academic purposes ­ the price for a Bedouin girl's hand in marriage: $4,000.

Away from the family, Halabiyya was a sinister place. Boulders with long angular shadows leered down on the river front; two fortified walls climbed up in giant steps to a desolate citadel at the top of the hill. I was scrabbling my way up the rocky slope when what should I behold down below but a white Peugeot. I scrabbled faster. The shy Frenchman, having caught sight of our car, drove off at speed.

At dusk we finally arrived at Deir es Zur. Minuscule donkeys trotted past in fast motion, some disguised as huge panniers of mint on legs, others loaded with large ladies in purple cotton, riding side-saddle. When we arrived at the very dark little town centre, there seemed to be only one hotel and one restaurant, both of which the Frenchman had already bagged.

The next morning it was on to the Iraqi frontier. We forked away from the irrigated area, and found ourselves in a featureless desert. But there, on a cliff-top, overlooking the river, was the vast site of Doura Europus, now guarded by one gloomy Bedouin with a motor-scooter and a shotgun. As Abdu noted with piteous contempt, the ancient shotgun looked as though it had been discarded by Lawrence of Arabia.

Behind me was crumbling desert; before me, 90ft below, were blue sparkly waters, green islands, sand banks, wheeling birds and grasses rippling in the breeze. Only one noise could have distracted me from the beautiful Euphrates at that moment: the whirr of an approaching white Peugeot. When I heard it, I nodded to Abdu. It was time to get moving again. Next stop: the Iraqi border.

Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Winter's tale

Winter's tale

It's cold enough to make your eyes water - and then freeze the teardrops on your face. So what made Jeremy Atiyah swap a London flat for an apartment in Siberia?

Jeremy Atiyah
The Guardian,            Tuesday 13 March 2001

Twenty people have so far frozen to death," the BBC World reporter was explaining, in a cloud of white steam, "and hospitals in Irkutsk, Siberia, are performing 60 amputations a week on frostbite victims." That was in January, and I only took notice because, funnily enough, I was just off there myself - to Siberia, that is - for some peace and quiet to write a book. What was more, I had chosen the little town of Irkutsk on the grounds that nothing from the real world could possibly disturb me out there. And now here it was, two days before my departure, in the news.

I wasn't going to Siberia to get a tan. But writing a book in a cosy flat when it was cold outside was one thing. Writing a book in a cosy flat when it was -45C and people were dying of frostbite outside was quite another. Not that I was going to change my plans. Cold snap or not, I had picked Irkutsk because of its remoteness. Even Moscow was five time zones and 5,000km away. The nearest major city was Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. I wanted to live in a place that was too insignificant for anyone even to care whether it counted as Europe or Asia.
Or so I tried to reassure myself, boarding my Tupolev in Moscow, bound for one of the coldest places on earth. In fact, I was dressed in an outfit that might have saved Scott of the Antarctic. But disembarking five hours later, I discovered that the temperature had risen to -30. In my long johns, ski-trousers, down jacket and rabbit-skin hat, I found this rather comfortable. Only the instantaneous freezing of the moisture in my nostrils and on my eyelashes was unpleasant (it is a feeling I have since grown used to).
Off I drove over impacted snow, passing men with their ear-flaps pulled down, in search of my very own Siberian apartment. I had already arranged this by email, through someone I met on holiday ("Is it heated?" I remember asking, anxiously. "Of course it is," had come the terse reply). To live here for a year would cost the same as to rent out my flat in London for a month.
Furthermore, all Russian apartment blocks are communally heated: no one worries here about gas bills. They do worry that the heating might break down when the temperature is -40.
I confess that my block, when I got there, did not look much like my block back home. To open the outer door, force was needed to break ice on the hinges. Up a dark and stinking stairwell, I found old ladies peering fearfully from doorways. Unseen dogs barked. My flat turned out to have a solid steel door with eight locks on it, which, I am assured, is very fortunate for me.
Apartments right across the former Soviet Union tend to share certain endearing features such as cosy kitchens and crockery labelled "Made in the GDR". But the best aspect of my new flat, I soon found, were the radiators, which blasted heat into every room 24 hours a day (and would continue to do so for seven or eight months of the year). By now, I had seen enough television pictures of people in the Yakutia and Primorsky regions, to the north and east of Irkutsk, shivering in flats with cold radiators.
Admittedly, the insides of my windows were coated with ice-sheets so thick that I could see nothing out of them at all. I recall celebrating my arrival by quietly opening a bottle of something called Russian champagne, which then exploded all over the walls and ceiling, leaving barely a thimbleful in the bottom of the bottle.
Out in the streets, though, I found a certain pleasure in the extreme cold. Every passer-by wore a vast hat and went about enveloped in a personal cloud of steam. Exotic tapestries of frost hung from trees, walls and balconies. As for the Siberian pavement ice, I fancied that it had a mineral permanence to it: when chipped with pickaxes, it had the appearance of marble, millions of years old.
Siberian children, too, I was soon pleased to see, got their kicks from sliding on ice and attacking each other with snowballs. In the centre of town, I found an ice-chute: the children (alongside their elegant mothers in long fur coats with waists and pleats and Duchess of Windsor hats) spent their Saturdays hurtling down it on their bums with their feet in the air.
A fortnight after my arrival, we were informed on the news about the imminent invasion of more outlandish temperatures. Minus 40 and below loomed. "Have you heard?" people kept asking me, in excitement. "Are you ready for it?" Now when I went to market I found women with their faces wrapped to the eyeballs, standing behind piles of congealed fish, bent and frozen stiff. Ice-cream was sold in unpackaged, naked blobs. For a few days we went around with hats and collars covered in hoar frost.
In these bitterest days, I heard no word in the tram-stations or the bus-stops, just the sound of crunching snow and silence. For a Siberian to admit to feeling cold is as difficult as for an Italian man to admit that he is no good with women. "What?" they would shout. "If you're cold, drink more vodka!"
But we all knew that Irkutsk, unlike Vladivostok, was not suffering from energy shortages. "If our flats are warm and we can make ourselves cups of tea," one woman said, "what do we have to worry about?"
Some people did worry. In the local theatre, I heard of a troupe having to practise their dance movements in giant felt boots. Buses drove about in pairs, in readiness for the extreme likelihood of one of them breaking down during the day. Schools closed. But one teacher told me she liked the cold: "It keeps the delinquents off the streets."
Otherwise, suffering went on in silence. Walking home through the town centre one night with the temperature at -38, I came across a cluster of old women attempting to sell sunflower seeds from little paper cups. They had built a fire from cardboard boxes, which had attracted a few squabbling down-and-outs. Some of these people could not have had a life expectancy of more than a few hours.
But stories of alcoholics found frozen to death on public benches arouse little sympathy in Russia. Daily survival here in wintertime is joyless. If the peace and quiet that I came to find in Siberia was turning out (for a few winos) to be the quiet of the grave, it was hard to find people who cared. I remember wandering home that same evening in my down jacket and ski trousers, admiring the glitter of the snow under brilliant stars.
And now? Here we are already well into March. Daytime temperatures sometimes reach zero degrees and the ice on my windows is gone. Outside, long fur coats are being replaced by short ones. The pavement snow is slowly turning grey and reverting to stones and grit, and I'm still sitting here writing my book. For those who have made it, another Siberian winter seems to be almost over.

Sunday, March 11, 2001

St Petersburg: Russia's imperial city that time forgot

St Petersburg: Russia's imperial city that time forgot

Jeremy Atiyah explores St Petersburg and discovers that little has changed there since the days of the empire

Published: 11 March 2001

St Petersburg is stuck in the past. Eighty-four years after it ceased to be the capital of the Russian empire, it seems unchanged from the city of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas II. Russia's window on Europe? The show-off, showcase city? The palatial capital to rival Versailles? It is still all of those things. Great news for the tourist - if not for a resident.

Why go?
Even better news is that for the reasonably affluent, St Petersburg is as easy to visit as ever. Continued visa restrictions means day-trippers, backpackers and coach-loads of foreign teenagers are kept at bay. So, if you make it, you will not be forced to share (with millions) your views over frozen canals to neo-classical facades redolent of Pushkin and Eugene Onegin, or to glorious old military barracks, with bile-yellow stucco and white columns, suggesting handsome uniformed officers in one mood and Dostoevsky's nightmare vision in another.

Why now?
As a city of architectural and cultural riches the seasons need not impinge on your trip. That said, winter - when vistas of snow and ice lend character to your photos - is a popular time to visit. Another is the 20 days following 21 June, known locally as the "white nights", when St Petersburg scarcely sees darkness thanks to its northerly latitude, and its residents lose themselves in 24-hour bacchanalian celebrations for days on end.

The mission
To go to Dvortsovaya Square. It is hard to imagine a more historic space in Russia. For here it was, on 25 October 1917, that the "storming" of the Winter Palace by Lenin's Bolsheviks took place (in fact, almost no opposition was encountered). Little, if anything, has changed since then: Alexander's column still towers over all, and the baroque palace continues to dominate the north-west side.
Inside the old palace is the Hermitage Museum. Based on Catherine the Great's private collection, it is one of the great art institutions of the world, and a reason in itself to visit St Petersburg. Even if you don't like paintings, you can appreciate the palace's interior.

Then go to the Russia Museum - somewhat more manageable than the Hermitage - which is confined to the work of locals and probably contains the finest collection of Russian art in the world.

Remember this
Traditionally, all tourists to Russia go to the ballet, and although some will argue that performance standards have dropped, the Mariinsky Theatre (in Soviet times known as the Kirov) still offers a fabulous venue. Unfortunately, tickets for foreigners are no longer outrageously cheap: you'll spend £35 on a half-decent seat. Book a couple of days in advance, or preferably before you leave home. Serious enthusiasts might try Travel for the Arts (tel: 020-7483 4466;

Where to stay
There are various options, from five-star luxury to cosy private home-stays.
Starting at the top, the historic Grand Hotel Europe on Mikhailovskaya ul (tel: 00 7 812 329 6000; has entertained guests including Rasputin and Bill Clinton and is the place to stay if money is no problem.

A few hundred metres down the road - and at the other end of the scale - is the dilapidated but not dirty Oktabrskaya Filial at Ligovsky Prospect 10 (tel: 00 7 812 277 6330). The Filial is, in fact, attached to the slightly more expensive (but good value) Oktabrskaya Hotel.

Ost-West Kontaktservice (tel: 00 7 812 279 7045) can arrange b&b "home stays" in private apartments with local families from about £20 per night: a highly recommended option. A British operator, such as The Russia Experience (tel: 020-8566 8846;, can also set up home-stay accommodation in St Petersburg.

What to buy
Pirated music CDs and computer software - at your own risk; matryoshka dolls; floral-patterned babushka scarves; and loads of cheap vodka.

Eating out
It has to be said that Russia, in general, is not a place you visit for the food. You face a choice between extreme luxury in top hotels, or cheap snack bars serving greasy chicken Kiev for under a dollar. The only sure way of dining well is to stay full board with a family, where you will be overwhelmed by the excellence of local cooking; above all zakuski, small snacks such as salted fish, gherkins, cold meats, salads and caviar, can be washed down with chilled vodka.

But if you insist on going out, options include the Idiot Café at nab Reki Moyki 82 (tel: 315 1675), which serves vegetarian dishes (unusual in Russia), and the dingy but atmospheric Georgian restaurant Tbilisi at Sytninskaya ul 10 (tel: 232 9391), with a menu including khachipuri (cheese-flavoured bread) and tsatsivi (cold chicken in walnut sauce). One of the best-known restaurants is 1913 god at Vosnesenskiy pr 13 (tel: 315 5148), which is not cheap but does serve excellent traditional dishes such as potato pancakes and cabbage soup.

Winter Garden in the Astoria Hotel, Bolshaya Morskaya ul 39 (tel: 210 5906) is very old world and elegant as you would expect from a restaurant in a five-star hotel. The food's not bad either.

Getting about
The St Petersburg metro, like that of Moscow, is one of the most efficient things in Russia. You rarely wait more than three minutes for a train. Buy jettons for single journeys (or multi-ride passes) in the stations. All rides cost a flat-rate equivalent to a few pence. Taxis have become cheaper and safer in recent years. A taxi, in Russia, means any passing vehicle. Stick a thumb out, and one will stop for you. They do not run on meters, but then neither do so-called licensed cabs; make sure you agree a price in advance.

Getting there
Flights from the UK to St Petersburg cost somewhere between £200 and £300. British Airways (tel: 0845 7733377) flies direct. Austrian Airlines (tel: 0845 601 0948), specialises in convenient connections to Russia and often offers the cheapest fares. If you are on a very tight budget, fly with the low-cost airline Buzz ( to Helsinki, and then take an overnight train to St Petersburg. The return train fare is about £70 and it takes about seven hours. For a specialist operator, try Interchange (tel: 020-8681 3612). Three nights start from £441 per person, including return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation, based on two sharing.

Further information
There is no such thing as a friendly Russian tourist board offering information for free. But useful reading includes The Rough Guide to St Petersburg (£9.99).

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are advised to leave visa formalities to them. If travelling independently, you will need to buy something called "visa support" from an organisation inside Russia first; many hotels can do this for you, as well as travel companies. After they have telexed the "visa support" to the embassy in London, you can apply to the Russian Consulate, 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS (tel: 020-7229 8027). Two photos, a completed application form and a further £30 is required for five-day processing.

Jeremy Atiyah stayed as a guest of the Grand Hotel Europe, and flew to St Petersburg as a guest of Austrian Airlines.

Sunday, February 4, 2001

Jeremy Atiyah on a winter break in Siberia

Jeremy Atiyah on a winter break in Siberia

Published: 04 February 2001

This might seem eccentric, but I'm taking a winter break in Siberia. Seriously. I was here last autumn and asked myself then: why pussyfoot around? Just as Arabia is best experienced when the sun is sizzling your brains, so the only sensible time to do Siberia (I reckoned) was in the depths of winter when your ears were liable to shatter into splinters if you lost your hat.

That's why I'm here now, sitting and reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in an apartment that doesn't need curtains because the windows are opaque with ice. Am I nurturing an obsessive desire for extra ladles of porridge or fishbone soup, or grams of bread if I am lucky? Not at all. Because as I keep saying: Siberia these days is more of a winter resort than a gulag.

Take Irkutsk, for example. All these funny, crooked wooden houses encrusted with deep snow and ice sparkling in the sun. Steam rising. Every single person in the whole city wearing furs. I don't mind the temperature dropping to minus xC, if it allows me to see groups of young men wearing Rod Stewart-style wigs which are, in fact, hats; not to mention armies of stunning women dressed up like the friends of the Duchess of Windsor.

All right, the cold creates some inconvenience. The front door of my block freezes on its hinges so that the colder it is, the more force I need to open it. Step out, and my nostrils and eyelashes then freeze equally solid. I also need to watch out for the open manholes in the pavements, which sometimes disappear under piles of snow. This morning, near my home, I noted footsteps leading to one of these holes, then vanishing. Another wino bites the dust.

The only other drawback of severe cold is that Siberians tend not to talk if they can help it. I can understand this. To open your mouth, is to undo a layer. Some walk with fags in their mouths, apparently as a means of generating extra warmth, and the local trams are foggy with their wordless breath.

But this needn't bother a tourist. I walk around town, exclaiming aloud over weird snow and ice formations: one great pile of frost, for example, sits three metres thick, like a shaggy beard hanging from a wall-vent; and the rubble of months of impacted snow, when ripped up with the help of pick-axes, resembles marble shot through with rich seams of soot. I liken my interest in these phenomena to the interest of desert-dwellers, arriving in England for the first time, in wet-stained paving stones and puddles.

So there you have it. At the end of the day, you can sit in a cafe that looks like Catherine the Great's bedroom. Siberia is not one big gulag any more. In the middle of Irkutsk, a giant slide has even been built out of ice-bricks, for no conceivable reason other than fun. Last Sunday I watched the massed ranks of citizenry hurtling down here, ten abreast: toddlers in fur hats the size of sheep, sliding with their feet in the air, followed by elegant ladies in heels and long coats with waists and pleats, going down standing up, only to be sent flying at the last moment by some out-of-control babushka on a plastic tray.

Everyone was laughing. And this was Siberia. In mid-winter.

Saturday, February 3, 2001

The complete guide to The Trans-Siberian Railway

The complete guide to The Trans-Siberian Railway

It's not glamorous, the food is appalling and you'll probably have to share a bathroom. And if that isn't enough to put you off, there's a tangle of complications to be negotiated before you've even sorted out the necessary visas. But that's all part of the charm of the world's longest unbroken train journey, says Jeremy Atiyah - it's an experience you'll never forget

Published: 03 February 2001

Why can't i find a train called "the Trans-Siberian Express" in my railway timetable? Because there isn't one. There is only a railway, loosely called the Trans-Siberian, which has lots of different trains running along it. Some of these make short hops from one Siberian town to the next, some go straight through from Moscow to Vladivostok. There is even one which starts in Berlin and terminates in Novosibirsk, bypassing Moscow altogether. A branch line goes from Siberia through Mongolia to Beijing, while yet another goes via Chinese Manchuria to Beijing (a few years back, one more line opened up allowing passengers to travel between Moscow and China via Almaty in Central Asian Kazakhstan, though there this line carries no straight-through service).

Some purists argue that the true and authentic Trans-Siberian railway is the wholly Russian line running from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. They say that the original purpose of the railway was precisely to link these two cities, as indeed it first did in 1904. They prefer to describe trains which go via Mongolia or Manchuria to Beijing as "Trans-Mongolian" and "Trans-Manchurian" respectively.

But let us not get bogged down in semantics. The fact is that, these days, the majority of Trans-Siberian trips do not involve a visit to Vladivostok, but begin or end at the Chinese capital Beijing and end or begin in Moscow.

Is it the longest train journey in the world? Of the several different routes that run right across Siberia, the longest of them all is indeed the longest unbroken train ride in the world. This is the Moscow to Vladivostok train, the Rossia, which departs on alternate days from both ends of the line throughout the year. To cover its 9,289km (5,773 miles), it is scheduled to take 153 hours and 49 minutes, which works out at about six and a half days and 60km/h (38mph). Of the two weekly trains that run in both directions between Moscow and Beijing - one Russian train via Manchuria and one Chinese train via Mongolia - the longer one covers 9,001km, via Manchuria, and takes a mere 148 hours and 57 minutes.

(Delays, by the way, are surprisingly infrequent on the Trans-Siberian railway. You may arrive a couple of hours late, but after six days is this bad? Tracks are seldom, if ever, blocked by the Siberian snow and frost).

Can I travel by rail all the way from the UK? You certainly can, though the London-Moscow leg of the journey, which only takes two days, is far more expensive than Moscow-Vladivostok or Beijing. Tickets are available from Rail Europe (08705 848848, for between £300 and £400 one way, depending on the route. To pick up a Moscow train, the fastest way is to get to Cologne, which is less than six hours from Waterloo via Brussels. Note that you will also need a transit visa for Belarus if you take this option. The overall rail time from London to Vladivostok or Beijing, without stopovers, will be between eight and nine days.

For those interested in very long train rides, incidentally, it is worth noting that the world's longest train journey including changes, is probably from Faro (on the southwest tip of Portugal), to Saigon in southern Vietnam - via Siberia, of course. Assuming your connections work out all right, it should take between two and three weeks to cover the 20,000-odd km.

Doesn't it get boring after the first few hours/days? Well, the scenery isn't as variable as it might be. In winter, it's birch trees and snow; in summer it's birch trees and sodden grass. But that is only a quarter of it. The main joy is the sensation of having slipped into a parallel universe where all sense of time disappears (an effect of entering a new time-zone every 20 hours or so). For a week of your life, all your worries and responsibilities will disappear, to be replaced by vodka parties, chess matches and profound ruminations on life. As for watching heaped-up ice-rubble glow blue on the surface of a frozen lake hundreds of miles long, or waking up before dawn to catch long-skirted Russian soldiers running through thigh-deep snow to commence the border inspection - well, these are certainly not the sort of thing you do every day.

Are there luxury trains for tourists? No, thank God. That'll be the Venice-Simplon Orient Express you're thinking of. The trains that cross Siberia are designed for local traffic and your travel companions will largely comprise Russians too poor to fly, plus the odd Kiwi backpacker, slouching around in tracksuits and slippers rather than in dinner suits. Furthermore, the food in Russian restaurant cars is reassuringly appalling. And in the second-class compartments, two toilets will be shared between as many as 40 people. Taking a shower, of course, will be completely out of the question (except in Chinese deluxe-class; see below).

Having said that, I should add that conditions are by no means bad. Carriages are warm, even in the depths of the Siberian winter. Clean bedding is provided for everybody in second class and above. Compartments contain not more than four beds, and people without reservations are not allowed to enter the carriages. The toilets are kept clean by the carriage attendant. A samovar of boiling water is available in every carriage for drinking and washing at all times. And edible, even tasty, food can be purchased from freelance grocers at station platforms along the way.

For plenty of people, then, second class on a Trans-Siberian train will be fine. The difference between first and second class, in fact, often doesn't seem worth paying for. The one upgrade that might strike some as worthwhile is to a special deluxe class which exists on the Chinese train only, running between Beijing and Moscow via Mongolia - this is the only class in any train on the Trans-Sib which allows passengers to take a shower.

If nothing else, is the train a cheap way of getting to China? In the unlikely event that you are travelling between Moscow and Beijing only, the answer is yes. A one-way train ticket (about £200, if you buy it in the station) will be cheaper than the equivalent flight.

But if you're starting from Britain, you would have to be mad to take the train merely as a means of saving money. Flying to China is cheap, after all: low-season return flights from the UK to China are often available for less than £400 through discount agents. Air Tickets Direct (0870 8761199, is currently quoting £343 while Bridge the World (020-7911 0900, proposes a one-way ticket for £276.

The only people for whom the train might conceivably work out cheaper are those who need to travel just one way - such as those going home to Australia. But even in this case, don't forget that the actual train ticket from Moscow to Beijing will only form one component of your trip. One much larger expense will be the cost of getting to/from Moscow before/after your train journey. As mentioned, the one-way train fare between London and Moscow is getting on for £400. Even one-way flights between the UK and Moscow are unlikely to cost less than about £150. If you are fortunate, you'll currently get a Finnair ticket via Helsinki for £151 from Norvista (020-7409 7334; Otherwise, there's Aeroflot (020-7491 1764), direct, at £218.10.

Another significant cost will be your visas: a set of Russian, Chinese and Mongolian visas currently costs a minimum of £85, even assuming that you do all the running around yourself. On top of all that, you will have to add in the cost of a night in Moscow.

In other words you'll be lucky to have any change from £500 to get from London to Beijing, one way only. And this does not take into account the cost of food and drink for the six days that it takes you (though this needn't be much: the price of food bought from platform vendors is almost negligible). But what you have to tell yourself is that as a means of seeing both Moscow and Beijing, and having a great holiday of 11 or 12 days, the basic Trans-Siberian experience - at about £1,000 including the flight out and the flight home - is a bargain.

How do i get visas? Russia is the only tricky one. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. If travelling independently, you'll need to buy something called "visa support" from an organisation inside Russia first. Many hotels can do this for you, as well as travel companies such as Maria Agency based in Moscow (e-mail - you'll need to pay by credit card for the service, an amount up to around US$70/£45). After the company has telexed the "visa support" to the embassy in London, you can apply to the Russian consulate at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and a further £30 is required for five-day processing.

For Chinese and Mongolian visas, the procedure is much simpler - but again, get your operator to do it if you have one.

Can i get decent photographs from the train? In theory, yes. The snag is that you probably won't be able to open any of the windows and if you find one that will open the carriage attendant will shout at you if you try opening it. What's more, the exterior of the windows is usually extremely grimy. But here are a couple of tips: first, borrow a rag from the carriage attendant to clean your own compartment window while it stops at one of the first stations (you'll need to be tall to do this). Second, walk right through to the back of the train, from where you can get great pictures down the track along which you have passed.

Can I get off the train along the way? Two or three times a day the trains stop for about 20 minutes, giving you time for a leisurely amble round a Siberian train station. But if you actually want to get off and spend the night somewhere, then you will need to decide in advance where and when you are going to do it. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because there is, as yet, no such thing as a Trans-Siberian rail-pass, allowing you to get on or off wherever you feel like it. There are only point-to-point tickets, issued with reservations for particular trains on particular dates. In other words, you need a new and separate ticket for each leg of your journey. And note that tickets for repeated short journeys become much more expensive than one straight-through ticket.

The second reason is that to obtain a standard Russian tourist visa, you'll need to specify in advance where you are going to be on each night of your trip. This usually requires having already booked (and paid for) your accommodation and tickets when you apply.

Is that as horribly complex as it sounds? Frankly, yes, which is one very good reason - especially if you are a first-timer in Russia - for putting the whole thing into the hands of a tour operator from the very outset. An affordable, experienced agency such as the Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; can book all your connections and find you affordable accommodation in all those obscure Russian towns that you had never heard of until you read its brochure.

The Russia Experience also has ways of booking tickets cheaper than buying them independently (it does the basic Moscow to Beijing, including visas, accommodation in Moscow and airport transfers for £330). You may dislike the inflexibility of travelling on a pre-arranged itinerary, but when you get off your plane in Moscow and the temperature is 20 below, and you are surrounded by thuggish taxi drivers, you will be glad someone is waiting with your name on a piece of paper. Other specialists include Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711;; Intourist (020-7538 8600, and Gateway to Russia (07050 803 160;

Can I use the Trans-Siberian railway as a means of getting to Japan? In the old Soviet days before tourists were allowed to cross the border between the USSR and China, Japan used to be the main destination of tourists travelling across Siberia. Trains pulled into the ferry terminal of Nakhodka, the civilian port close to Vladivostok, scheduled in time to meet the boats bound for Yokohama and thence Tokyo.

But these days, unfortunately, ferry services are much curtailed, and they no longer dove-tail with train arrivals. Only in the summer time are there some occasional sailings linking Vladivostok with Niigata and Fushiki; the journey takes nearly two days and it is very likely to cost upwards of US$400 (£280). These services are operated by the Far Eastern Shipping Company (15 Aleutskaya Street, Vladivostok, 007 4232 497403).

Where can find out more? One essential companion is the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable (£9.50). The best specialist guidebook is the brand-new fifth edition of the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, published next Monday by Trailblazer (01428 607571,, £12.99. The Lonely Planet Guide to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (£16.99) has a useful section on the Trans-Siberian railway. Slightly dated, but still readable perspectives on the journey are to be found in Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride (Picador, £6.99) and Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar (Penguin, £7.99). For a melancholy overview of Siberia in general, see Colin Thubron's latest book, the superb In Siberia (Penguin, £7.99).

Sunday, January 28, 2001

Jeremy Atiyah on a babble of Judaism and Christianity

Jeremy Atiyah on a babble of Judaism and Christianity

Our history is reduced to a laser- and pyrotechnic-enhanced babble of Judaism and Christianity

Published: 28 January 2001

Our history is reduced to a laser- and pyrotechnic-enhanced babble of Judaism and Christianity
I've never been a fan of theme parks. Aren't there enough real places in the world, not to need to invent new ones? In fact I'd probably rather join a tour of, say, a defunct nuclear power station in Ukraine than go to Disneyland, on the grounds that it would be less artificial. There'd be less danger of running into giant mice with mutated ears.

At least a place such as Chernobyl might offer the potential of changing your life; of inspiring you to go out and do some good in the world afterwards. (To the credit of Disneyland, I have never heard it claimed that Mickey Mouse has made the world a better, nobler, more beautiful or more meaningful place.)

But as of now, I've decided that Disneyland is a great benefactor to this world. Thank God for Goofy, I say, and thank God for bringing this beacon of good taste, of reality, responsibility and meaning, into our children's lives. For the sake of their souls, I now want them to spend as much time as possible being sick on scary roller-coasters.

Why? Well, to save them from the latest theme park opening in Orlando, Florida, in a week's time. It's to be called - wait for it - the Holy Land Experience.

Sorry, but this has to take the biscuit as the biggest chunder-inducing exercise in the history of tourism. No roller-coaster can touch it. I haven't been there (nor am I planning a visit), but I am going to pontificate anyway: after all, pontification is what this park is going to be about.

Visitors, I am told, will be able to enter a replica of Jesus's tomb, climb the stairs of a copy of Herod's Temple and travel down a re-creation of Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa. Presumably they'll be able to queue for tickets and stop off for refreshments of Coca-you-know-what whenever they need to, as well, before buying souvenir T-shirts in the gift shop.

Apparently the Jews of Florida are already outraged by this latest attraction, since its owner, they claim, is a man who may have an interest in converting Jews to Christianity.

And without getting technical, I think I can see their point. By all accounts the park reduces thousands of years of human thought and experience into a laser-and pyrotechnic-enhanced babble of Judaism and Christianity (You know the kind of thing: "Moses. Jesus. The greatest story ever told ... Say, we could get all those biblical guys in!".)

The mere thought of overweight kids puffing down a fake Via Dolorosa having "shaloms" said to them by women in "biblical era" robes is almost turning me into a religious fanatic as well, in order to be outraged by it.

As far as I am aware there is only one Holy Land in the world, and funnily enough it's not in America. It's in a part of the world that those Coke-guzzling, burger-gobbling folk may never have heard of, but let's call it the eastern Mediterranean, and what's more it is currently being fought over by competing groups of unfortunate people whose livelihoods are at stake.

If you want to go on a holiday to learn something about the meaning of life, I suggest that there is where you should go.

Otherwise by all means go to Disney. But do yourself a favour. Just don't go to a theme park called the Holy Land Experience.