Epilogue: Passion for People and Food for the Soul

I boarded my flight at Honolulu airport and settled down for the final leg of my around the world journey: the flight back to Sydney. The flight from Hawaii to Australia isn’t too bad, at least in terms of jet lag. I left Honolulu early on Friday morning, and arrived in Sydney late Saturday afternoon, but crossing the International Date Line hadn’t really affected my body clock too much. It was roughly a 10 hour flight, so it had just felt like a very long day on a plane.

When I stepped out into the arrivals hall at Sydney airport, I was greeted by… well, nobody. Dane, who I had last seen in Berlin, was supposed to be picking me up, but when I connected to the free airport wifi I discovered that he was on his way, but stuck in traffic. It was almost laughable, that I had had so many people around the world greeting me in so many foreign cities, yet when I actually came home there was nobody there. My parents were out of town and wouldn’t be back until the New Year, and in reality this post-Christmas period was pretty busy for most people, so I understood why no one could make it. I just wandered out into the warm Sydney evening, taking a big whiff of that big city Australian air. After gallivanting around the world, sleeping on floors and couches and spare beds for the better part of the year, with a new adventure around every corner, I was finally home.

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I still call Australia home.

***

It’s been two years since I arrived back in Sydney after that nine month tour of backpacking across the world. I’m a little appalled at myself that I fell so far behind in the blogging, and that it took me this long to finish writing about it, but I’m also pretty impressed with myself that I managed to stick it out and write it until the very end. A lot of people have asked me “How do you remember everything that happened?” My answer is that, aside from having a very good memory, I figured it was only the most memorable things that would make the best stories, and I wasn’t at an age where my memory is going to be regularly failing on me. “But even the conversations? Word for word?” Most people wouldn’t be able to recount a conversation verbatim the very next day after having it, let alone two years later, so I obviously took a few creative liberties in constructing some of the dialogue, although all of it was as accurate as possible.

After reflecting on all these stories and all these adventures that I had during my travels, I want to take a moment to reflect on the idea of travelling itself. I remember sitting down on the pier near Darling Harbour in Sydney with Rathana, in January before I departed on my trip, when he was making a short trip back from Bangkok.
“It might be tough at times, but it’s going to be amazing for you,” he’d said to me as we gazed out over the water. “You’ll learn so much about yourself. A trip like that… it’s gonna change you. And if it doesn’t, well… you’re doing it wrong!” he said with a laugh. As someone who had travelled the world over already as part of his job, I was inclined to take Rathana’s advice to heart. I would learn, I would grow, but I don’t think I was really prepared for how much travelling would actually change me.

***

I’d carried those words with me through most of my first few months, wondering if I was getting that life changing experience that this was all supposedly about. Fast forward to the last weekend of my first time in Berlin, were I was curled up in the outdoor garden at Berghain with Ralf, his arms wrapped around me in the cool evening air as we watched the stars twinkle above us.
“I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.” Ralf just ran his fingers through my hair and smiled.
“It will change you,” he said, as though it was a matter of fact. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He paused and reconsidered his words with a chuckle. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”

***

Many more months later, I would have a similar conversation with Vincenzo in New Orleans, sitting on the balcony of his French Quarter flat and basking in the muggy, humid air, with Princess scurrying around our heels, craving our attention.
“It’s true, travelling can be tough. You learn a lot about yourself and put up with a lot of stuff you never thought you ever could. But sometimes, after being away so long, going home can actually be the hardest part.” There was a solemnness in his voice, one that told me his advice was definitely coming from direct experience.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, you see it with Americans all the time, so I assume with Australians too… when people have travelled, they’ve seen the world. Experienced a different culture. Opened themselves up to what’s out there, even if it’s just a little bit. To go home to people stuck in their ways and their views, who’ve never left their hometown and probably never will… it can be isolating. The more you know, the more you challenge yourself, and the more you can doubt yourself. Those people who are stuck in their ways, they’ll be so sure of themselves… but that’s all they’ve ever known.”
I sat there and took it all in, soaking up the sage advice like a sponge. “I just want it all to mean something, you know?” Once again, I couldn’t shake the fear that I would return home from my life after nine months on the road to find that nothing had changed.
“Maybe you won’t notice it now, because every day you’re in a new situation, but when you go home… you’ll notice it. You’ll change. But what I’m saying is, it might be a little difficult to adjust. Not because you’re settling back into your old life, because- well, how could you? You won’t be the same person. You’ll be changed.”

At the time I had leered at Vincenzo skeptically, willing to believe that he believed what he was saying, but not quite sure if it would apply to me. Looking back, I wish I’d taken notes or recorded his words verbatim, because they had been gospel: a prophecy of what was to come.

***

Coming home was hard, and settling in was difficult. I met up with Georgia and Jesse again, and it was great to see all my old friends. We caught up for drinks and due to my lack of jet lag, we even hit the town and went out to Oxford St.
“What’s the best thing about being home?” everyone had asked me, and without hesitation I had told them how excited I was to sleep in my old bed again. So you can imagine the mixture of confusion, amusement and depression when I woke up the following morning on my couch, having passed out as soon as I’d arrived home. I was supposed to have changed, I’d thought to myself, beating myself up about how easily I had slipped into my old partying habits of yesteryear. But the changes presented themselves gradually. I had more to say in conversations, and I was able to better consider other peoples perspectives, and be more mindful of their cultures. But eventually even I got tired of hearing myself saying “Oh that reminds me of when I was in…” and casually dropping exotic place names in the middle of discussions, so I can imagine how over it the people around me must have been. It was like taking a fish from the ocean and placing it in the tiny fish bowl where it was born. It was satisfied, and it could live, but there was always a yearning for more once you knew there was more out there. It was the travel bug amplified tenfold, enraged by the fact it had been stuffed into a jar with only a few air holes to breathe. Yet the feeling would eventually pass, and you could wallow in the isolation, or you could use it as motivation to ready yourself for another trip.

So no-one was really that surprised when I announced that I was leaving again, heading back to Berlin on a working holiday visa after only four months in Sydney. Though in that time I had fed the travel bug and fuelled the wanderlust by paying it forward and hosting Couchsurfers in my own home. I hosted people from Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and Poland, and all of them brought with them the same passion for exploring the world that I had had in my own journey. For all the perceived isolation that you might experience when you return from travelling, it was always worth it for all the amazing people that you meet along the way.

***

When it really comes down to it, it is the people that you meet on your travels that make or break the journey, and I honestly couldn’t imagine my life being the same without the friends I had made along the way. I unfortunately fell out of touch with some of the people that I stayed with, but in the past two years I have managed to see many of them, even if it was for a brief beer as they passed through Sydney, and it always made me smile, reminding me that despite all the exploring we do, the world is a pretty small place after all.

I ended up seeing my New York sister Melissa much sooner than I had anticipated, after she flew back to Sydney to (unsuccessfully) patch things up with her long distance boyfriend. David, who I had briefly met in LA, ended up staying with me when he broke up with Danny and their holiday plans fell through, and he ended up spontaneously rebooking some flights to Sydney. Matt, the charming gentleman from Ireland, had also flown to Australia for a holiday, spending a few weeks here with me in Sydney. Then it was back to Berlin, where I stayed with Ralf for several weeks while I found my feet and searched for an apartment. Donatella was off galavanting somewhere else in Europe, and Nina and Simon had since moved to Brazil, but I had a blast living it up in the international hub of Europe, satisfying those cravings to meet new and exciting people. I’d caught up with Rathana there again, due to his constant travelling for work, and even travelled back to Amsterdam for my second pride parade on the canals in as many years, where Joris and Thjis graciously opened their home to me again, and I was welcomed back like an old friend amongst their friendship circle. I was also visited by Kathi, who flew up from Vienna with her new girlfriend for a week in Berlin, and I myself took a short holiday over to London where I caught up with John and Richard and reminisced about the time four of us had consumed 10 bottles of wine, and also took a day trip down to Brighton to catch up with Laura and laugh about our crazy adventures in Cambodia. After arriving home from my time in Berlin, Umer from Switzerland arrived just in time for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, bringing with him a bunch of amazing friends, with whom I had such a great time in my own city, as we all helped to make the world a smaller yet undeniably friendlier place.

Even more recently I caught up with Alyson, my other American friend from the Trans-Siberian Railway, who had quit her demanding job and packed up her life to go travelling, something I could not applaud her enough for doing, and I’ve caught up with Thjis for a beer when he was in town only a week or so ago. And in a few days I am heading back to the US to see Ashleigh and Nick (who is now my brother-in-law) in Hawaii, Jake and the whole WeHo crew in LA, Todd in San Francisco and Vincenzo in New Orleans.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that the people are what made my journey so unforgettable and amazing. Because even when you go home, and you’re living out your daily routine while the Great Wall of China or Christ the Redeemer are thousands of miles away, it’s the people that you are still able to maintain a connection with. Those new friendships that you forge and cherish, those are what really change you. As a sociology major, I’ve always maintained that people were my passion, and it’s especially true when it comes to travelling. You could stay in a fancy hotel and see all the popular tourist attractions and take some amazing photographs, but to me, that’s still not really travelling. For some people it’s enough, but for me, nothing will ever beat the experience of meeting the locals in any given city, and the lifelong friendships that you can forge with seemingly random people from every corner of the globe.

***

I started this blog as a project to keep me busy, so that I didn’t feel like I would come home with nothing to show from a year of travelling around the world. I couldn’t have been more wrong in those fears and assumptions. Travelling has changed me so much as a person, and I am quite content with the person that I have become. I quickly fell behind in updating the blog, but I’d like to believe that that happened because I was so busy enjoying life, living in the moment, and experiencing every sensation in its fullest that I barely had time to write it down. When real life came back into the picture, I suddenly had a whole bunch of other priorities and projects to work on, but I refused to leave the story unfinished or untold.

Maybe when I am old and grey, and my memory does actually start to fail me, I will be able to revisit these pages and relive the journey, but that won’t be for a long time (I hope). So for now, I’d like to thank you, the readers of my blog, for taking this journey with me, and experiencing vicariously all the wonders in the world I was so fortunate enough to come across. Hopefully I have inspired some of you to plan and undergo your own journeys, because in my honest opinion, there is no better food for the soul than travel.

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The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

Snoozers and Losers: A Rant on Snoring

At this point in my journey, I feel it’s appropriate to take a break from the linear narrative and focus on some of the smaller details. Actually, one detail in particular – something that not even the thickest of guide books can adequately prepare you for, yet something that almost every traveller will encounter at some point in their journey. This detail is the dreaded and infamous act of snoring.

I have a long and troubled history with this bizarre bodily function, with the cruel twist being that I don’t snore, and never have. I’ve shared rooms and beds with enough people to know this. I’ve also shared beds with boyfriends who have snored. I don’t mean heavy breathing, or that kind of muffled wheezing that people make when they have a blocked nose. Real snoring is loud and consistent, and doesn’t just show up some nights and disappear on others. For me it can be a deal breaker in relationships – how am I supposed to sleep with you if I’m unlikely to ever have a good nights sleep again? To be sure, there are varying degrees of severity. Sometimes it’s a solution as simple as a pair of ear plugs. Other times its a little more dire and requires moving to another room – generally not an option in the middle of the night when you’re in a hostel. But there are some people who snore so badly that no amount of soft foam wedged into your ears is going to help, and in some cases even a dividing wall can’t cut out the vibrations rattling from their distorted windpipes.

***

During my time in South-East Asia, I miraculously avoided this problem. Either I was extremely lucky that I never shared a dorm room with someone who snored, or I drank so many 50c beers every single night that I passed out too hard to notice – which is the only real foolproof way I’ve discovered to overcome a snoring roommate. Though that was all about to change once I reached China and began the Trans-Siberian tour. In Beijing I’d had the luck of being placed in my own room, so I’d asked Tim what the situation had been like with the rest of the group. “I’m in a room with Don,” he’d told me. “Which is fine, except he snores pretty bad.”
“Really? Ah man, that really sucks.”
“Yeah. Like, last night I’d already gone to bed, and he came back late from some sightseeing or something… When he went to bed, his snoring actually woke me up.” There’s a common tactic of trying to fall asleep before the snorer in order to not be kept awake – the fact that Don’s snoring was loud enough to rouse people from their own slumber filled me with grave concern.

The following nights had been on the train to Ulaanbaatar, and the night in the hotel in which I’d shared a room with Tim. He’d also shared a cabin with Don on the train, so I quickly suggested that we should share one of the double rooms, and I’m sure Tim was grateful for a solid nights rest. It wasn’t until the ger camp when I became due to experience it for myself, when the three guys who weren’t one half of a couple were all put into one ger together – that’s Don, Tim and myself. And boy, Tim had not been exaggerating – Don snored. It was almost funny, like some kind of awful joke, but that sentiment faded extremely quickly when I realised we were actually supposed to sleep with the racket going on in the next bed. Luckily I had been prescribed some sleeping pills before I left Sydney, for a blocked ear that may have caused discomfort during my flights. Yet even washed down with vodka and wine on the night we had a party in the gers, sleep still didn’t come so easily.

***

It was a similar story at Lake Baikal as well. I would never have expected my best nights sleep to be had on the Trans-Siberian trains, while having to drink and medicate myself to sleep at each of our stops. Tim had been sharing a room with him ever since the ger camp, including all of the trains – I felt so bad for him, though not bad enough to offer to trade places, since I’d had my own share of restless nights with Don’s snoring. When we got to Moscow, however, there was a rush and a scurry as our group was divided into two rooms – a larger dorm for nine of our people, and a smaller room for the other four. I’d secured a bed in the larger room, but when I looked back out into the lobby I saw Tim standing amongst the chaos, a lost, slightly dejected look on his face. And I instantly knew why – the larger room was full, and Don had claimed a bed in the other one.

So I stepped out and offered Tim my bed. He seemed genuinely shocked, but I didn’t have to offer twice. He was extremely grateful as he moved his stuff in, while I dropped my bag off into the smaller room. After four nights on from Irkutsk to Moscow, I was concerned Tim might not make it through the next day without a decent night of sleep. If you can cast your thoughts back to my blogs about Moscow, you’ll remember I lamented about having a terrible nights sleep. This is the reason why. Between the room that became ridiculously humid during the nights and the snoring that rattled the bunk beneath me, I think I managed maybe a couple of hours sleep each night, at the very most.

Come St Petersburg, I was once again in a dorm with Don. Now it may be a little more clear as to why I did my best to keep with the Russians when it came to our evenings of drinking – a solid sleep with a resulting hangover, in my experience, is infinitely better than a frustrated and sleepless night of tossing and turning. But on my last evening in St Petersburg, I had decided it would be better to have a decent nights sleep and a clear head in the morning, to make sure I didn’t miss my train to Finland. I went to bed at a decent hour – unfortunately, Don had beaten me there. He was in one of the bunks underneath me, and I swear sometimes I felt the vibrations through the bed frame. That’s how bad it was. It was a noise that almost didn’t sound like snoring – every so often it mutated to a strangled gurgling that actually made me feel a little bit sick. I never thought I’d ever use the word ‘disgusting’ to describe the sound of a snore, but it honestly made me feel ill. I laid in my bed, desperate to fall asleep, but it was literally impossible with such a commotion going on below me. Sometimes it would stop, and the partial relief came with the simultaneous concern that maybe he’d actually stopped breathing. But it wasn’t long before there was a huge, sucking snort and the horrendous snoring would continue. Some people get woken up by their own snoring, and then they roll over or move into a position with better airflow into their nose or oesophagus or whatever – not Don, he just powered on through. I wondered if there was actually anyone else asleep in the dorm. No one seemed to be tossing and turning as furiously as I was – maybe they were all drunk and passed out.

I managed to doze off a few times, into a very light sleep, but I was always wrenched back into the unfortunate reality of Don and his snoring. It was a shame, because Don was a nice enough guy, but I think I really came to resent him by the end of the trip, purely because he had, however unintentionally, robbed me of far too many nights of sleep while he had been happily snoring away in his own slumber.

***

It happened again in Stockholm. There was someone – and I never figured out who it was – who snored and made the most vile gargling noises that a decent sleep was next to impossible. I didn’t have much energy to do a lot of sightseeing when I was in Stockholm, and it was partly, if not mostly, the fault of whoever kept me awake with that racket they called breathing. And I don’t think it’s something mild that people should just deal with – I honestly think that that persons snoring was a serious negative impact on my time in Stockholm, because the lack of sleep just really threw me out for the entire day.

I’m not the first person to suggest that people who snore shouldn’t be allowed to sleep in dorms, or they should be allocated special ‘snoring rooms’. Even though I say I develop strong negative feelings towards snorers, there’s nothing personal in the request. But I think for a snorer to sleep in a shared dorm is incredibly unfair on everyone else. It’s almost selfish – you get to enjoy a nice long sleep while simultaneously robbing everyone else around you of the same luxury. Why should you get to sleep when you’re the reason the rest of us suffer from lack of sleep the following day? There’s no way you can come so far in life without having to share a room with someone – someone is bound to have told you about it, especially if your snoring is that bad. In that case, I really think you should either search for a medical solution to what is actually a very real problem, or do not stay in dorms where you’re going to be a serious nuisance to others. I don’t mean to sound like a bitch, but it’s the honest truth, and I dare you to find me a traveller who hasn’t had similar thoughts about a snorer they’ve encountered in a dorm on their travels.

And it may sound harsh, or like an overreaction, but unless you were there and experienced the Hell that I slept through, or rather didn’t sleep through, then maybe you’ll just never understand.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

Something In The Water

Our first night in St Petersburg was a Sunday night. However, given that the city’s birthday was technically on the Monday, we figured out that it was a kind of long weekend holiday, which meant that not as many people would have to work the next day, which meant that we finally might be able to have the night of partying that I’d had a hankering for since the moment we arrived in Moscow. After we’d arrived back from the Hermitage and taken our well needed showers, I did a little bit of research into the gay scene in St Petersburg. From what I could gather, there were two major nightclubs: Central Station and Blue Oyster. They were in close proximity with each other, and both of them were a reasonable walking distance from the hostel. I put the idea to Tim to see if he was keen, and he assured me he was on board. So after we’d had a few drinks with the whole group at one of the pubs in the street adjacent to our hostel, Tim and I set off for the gay bars, arms linked with a tipsy Kaylah who was to play our token fag hag for the evening.

***

I hadn’t been to a gay bar since I’d watched amateur drag queens over a margarita in a cocktail bar in Siem Reap, so I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the gay rights movement in Russia had taken multiple, crippling blows over the last year. I’m not even entirely sure if being gay is technically illegal or not, but there are now anti-propaganda laws that prohibit the promotion of a ‘homosexual lifestyle’, and there is supposedly a general hostility and climate of hate towards gay people. Tim had said that he’d heard it was a lot less conservative in the major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, so I wasn’t too scared. But at the same time, we were advised to keep our wits about us and try to not get into too much trouble.

We had been aiming to go to Central Station – apparently the bigger of the two clubs – but I’d only had one day to get to know the layout of the city, and I experienced a few navigational issues that took us a block or two too far in the wrong direction.
“Well,” I’d said as I studied the GPS map on my iPhone, “if we turn down here and double back then we should arrive at the other one, Blue Oyster.”
“Do you know which ones better?” asked Kaylah.
“Um… No, not really?” I’d focused on locations and dates and times in my research, but had only skimmed through a handful of reviews, none of which seemed to distinguish one club from the other.
“Well it’s only a quarter to eleven… Why don’t we just start off going to… ah, Blue Oyster?”
“Yeah, Blue Oyster is the one that’s closer,” I said, pulling out my phone again to consult the map.
“Yeah, I know. Its right here.” I looked up, and Tim was pointing to a small neon sign that read the name of the club, but would have been pretty easy to miss. Especially for someone who walks around with their eyes glued to their phone.

“Oh! Okay then, well… In we go, I guess?” We walked up to the security guard who was standing in front of the door, and made a motion that we were interested in going inside. The guard looked confused.
“Gay bar,” he said very shortly, almost under his breath. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Uh, sorry?”
“Gay bar. This is gay bar.” It was mine and Tim’s turn to exchange confused looks – I mean, I was wearing a pretty homoerotic Tom of Finland t-shirt. We weren’t exactly subtle, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Err, yeah? That’s the point?” I’d replied, not sure if he was taking the piss out of us – unlikely, from what I’d experienced with most Russians senses of humour – or if it was just a precautionary warning that he gave everyone. As he shrugged and stepped aside, I felt as though we were actually doing something slightly risky or dangerous. As far as I knew, it wasn’t unheard of for police to raid gay bars, but the risk added an element of thrill unlike any other gay bar I’d been too – and I’ve been to quite a few gay bars. We stepped through the small doorway and into the darkness within.

The bar wasn’t completely empty, but it was very far from full. There was a bar in front of us, and a dance floor dimly lit with hues of deep red stretched to our right, occupied by only a few people. I shrugged, and assured Kaylah that it would probably get busier as it got later. Exactly how much busier, none of us could say, but that was part of the beauty of exploring the unknown bars of a new city. We started at the bar, where there was a two-for-one special on all drinks before midnight. All drinks, including cocktails. Soon we were standing at a high table and I had two Long Island Ice Teas in front of me, and part of me already thought that even if nothing else happened that night, it would still be a success. The three of us stood around talking, or more accurately shouting, due to the loud music, but the scene around us inevitably led to some curious questions by Kaylah, and all of us talking about our views and experiences of homosexuality. I like to think that I’m a complex and interesting person, and that being gay is only a mere facet of my personality, but in a lot of ways I still feel like my sexuality is a quite a large and undeniable part of who I am. So it always feels great to talk about it with new friends, allowing me to share more about myself and the way I perceive myself. And of course, for better or for worse, alcohol always makes conversations a lot more heartfelt and meaningful, and the three of us had quite a deep and personal discussion.

While that was going on, the club had slowly started to fill up with people, mostly guys but with a few women here and there. It wasn’t packed, but the club itself wasn’t too big – half the dance floor was comprised of wide, podium-like steps that gave the illusion of more space with the different elevations, but it was tiny in comparison to the bars in Sydney or Bangkok. But I liked it – it was a little more personal, and there were also a few upper balcony levels, although they were always full with what seemed to be packs of regulars, smoking their cigarettes and gazing down on the crowd below. At some point after our deep conversations had reached a closure, there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The rather nondescript house music that had been pumping away was replaced with instantly recognisable pop hits – the kind the fills a gay dance floor in ten seconds flat. The Long Islands were kicking in, and before long we were bopping away on the dance floor with the locals as though they were our new best friends.

There were also a few drag numbers – some hilariously performed in Russian, during which Tim, Kaylah and myself were the only ones not singing along – but the inspiration for most of the costumes and dance routines undeniably came from Lady Gaga. Almost every single one of her chart topping hits were played at some point during the night – Alejandro made two appearances, and there even a well-rehearsed drag performance to Telephone – and each and every time the crowd went wild. Having somewhat of an affinity myself with Mother Monster, I thought it was amazing. I have a crystal clear memory of ripping my t-shirt off to join a couple of other shirtless dancers on the podium steps, while Tim just sighed and rolled his eyes and Kaylah watched on in hysterics.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke, but I was still having such an awesome time, and there was even a handful of decent looking guys in the room. I was approached by a tall handsome guy named Nikolay, although I freaked out a little bit when he spoke to me and I discovered he had braces.
“Oh my God! Tim, all these Russian boys are so young!” I remember saying at one point as we passed each other in club.
“I know! How do you think I feel?” Tim was 26, and while most of the Russians looked like big, strong men, I couldn’t find a single one over the age of 22. It was kind of creepy how they obliterated my average accuracy when it came to age guessing. Nikolay turned out to be 19, I had found out when I’d decided to give him a second chance and have a chat with him. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together that evening, though we used our mouths for things other than talking. It turns out that braces, despite their visibility, can be surprisingly inconspicuous to the touch.

***

“Hey, where’s Tim?” I’d found found Kaylah by herself at one of the tables, after returning from a semi-scandalous rendezvous with Nikolay.
“There you are!” It wasn’t easy to lose someone in a club this small, but I must have managed somehow. “Tim is over there,” she said as she pointed across the dance floor, where Tim was locking lips with his own Russian boy.
“Ah, I see,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea. He just said to me, ‘I’m going to go make out with someone,” and he did it.” We both laughed, and I made a mental note to applaud Tim later.
“Well, I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is after 4.” I’d noticed the crowd on the dance floor starting to wear a little thin, and I myself was starting to get a little tired. We let Tim enjoy his spoils of war for a little longer, and I said one last goodbye to Nikolay before we stumbled out of the club.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed when we stepped outside. “It’s alright light!” It wasn’t exactly daylight, but the darkness of night had very much been replaced by twilight of dawn. In fact, it was so similar to the dusk from which we’d entered the Blue Oyster that it would have been easy to believe that the sun had never set at all while we had been inside the club.
“The White Nights, they’re called,” Tim had said as we’d staggered through the streets. We stopped on one of St Petersburg’s numerous bridges to take some photos of the picturesque scenery, and then headed home – swinging past a McDonalds that had closed only 15 minutes before we’d got there, much to the disappointment of Kaylah and Tim. Instead, we went to the 24 convenience store on our hostels street.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

“Don’t forget to get some water if you need some,” Tim had reminded us.
“Oh yeah, you can’t drink the tap water here!” said Kaylah. Earlier that day, Vladimir had told us that the pipes that carry the cities water supply were so old and contaminated that they contained traces of bacteria that make you quite sick, essentially rendering the tap water toxic. After having drinkable tap water for the first time in months in Moscow, it almost seemed like a cruel joke that we’d come even further west to find out it was once again undrinkable.
“Yep,” I said with a smile, as I picked up the biggest bottle I could find, chuckling to myself as I remembered the nights events. “There really is something in the water in St Petersburg.”