Visiting the USSR in 1980

We’ve just arrived in Irkusk, Siberia, after 3 days on the Trans-Siberian train. I’ve written a bit about the trip so far, and Greg has taken heaps of photos and videos, and we’ll post some soon. But while we find our legs again and get used to the floor staying still and not rocking from side to side, here’s a post from Greg’s mum & dad, Fay and Ron, about a trip they did to Russia in 1980.

Memories of Russia 1980

Judy emailed us, wondering if we would like to reminisce on our trip to Russia in 1980, comparing it to their trip 2013.

So here goes.
We were in the UK to visit the relations, and had arranged a trip through Europe, called Russia, Poland and the Northern Capitals, cost $1,220 each, included dinner and breakfast along the way.

In July 1980 we left London for Harwich and embarked on the D.F.D.S. SEAWAYS for Esbjerg in Denmark, day two and three Copenhagen, and day four embarked on a ferry to Sweden, reaching the capital Stockholm in time for dinner. Day five spent sightseeing in Stockholm. Later that day we were driven to Norrtalje for the overnight crossing to Finland. Sightseeing in Helsinki our sixth day where we toured the bustling capital.

Then eastward to Russia:

First have to explain the times, we were arriving in Russia just before the 1980 Russian Olympics, several nations had banned athletes from attending the Olympics due to Russia invading Afghanistan. Australia did not send a full team to the games. Americans did not send a team.
We arrived at the border of Russia to overbearing custom people, there was only 18 of us in the coach (which could hold 44) many had cancelled because of the Russian situation.
They kept us in customs for four hours, went through everyone’s personal luggage, I had heated curlers, they took them apart, all books were searched through methodically. Small dogs were let loose in the coach; rods were put through the bodywork. Later they let us go.
Next Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, where we were taken by coach sightseeing and then to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a cemetery for 500,000 people. These people died during the siege of Leningrad, by the German army during World War 11. We walked down past this vast cemetery, to the monument where we found many Russians stood crying. A heart stopping moment to see such sorrow thirty six years after the siege ended.
In the evening we were taken to a performance of ballet at the spectacular Kirov Theatre.

Day nine we were driven to Novgorod where we first learnt you could only shop in Berioska shops, special shops for tourists. Shops in Russia at that time were not good; we see many queues outside premises, which to us did not have much displayed.
Hotels were unique as well. On every floor there were security, a lift in the Novgorod hotel could not be installed because the area left for it was not correct shape. Also food, we were served chicken which was so tough you couldn’t eat it. And we were served with caviar one time, which was a memorable moment.
In Novgorod we see young children led along holding on to a long rope, we see older children guarding the tomb of the unknown warrior, which apparently they performed this duty every day.
We learnt about another custom, brides on their wedding day they came to the memorial to honour the dead.
In the streets woman swept the roads with birch twig brooms, they were older woman and wore aprons and scarves.
In Russia there was not much traffic, mostly looked like government cars, few private. People did not speak to you; one place a man spoke in English but quickly moved away when security came into view. Not a happy country.

We continued on to Moscow where we did the usual sightseeing Red Square, huge queue for Lenin Mausoleum, we did not go in. The Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries and the amazing Pavilion of Scientific Achievement.
The special thing we did in Moscow was to visit the Moscow State Circus in their permanent home, I would say circuses do not come at the top of my list to go and see, but, the Moscow State Circus, what can you say, it was amazing, never seen anything like since.

The journey through Russia continues past huge housing estates, high rise, ugly places, no landscaping.
We see paddocks were people lined up in a long row were cutting corn with scythes.
Saw woman washing clothes in creeks.
We stopped to get diesel on our way to Minsk, 150 litres the cost two cartons of cigarettes, the driver had them under his seat.
During our long travels through Russia we came across many block houses with armed guards.

So you can see how 1980 behind the iron curtain was different compared to 2013.
When we were leaving Russia we had to give roubles we had back.

Into Warsaw Poland, we learnt quickly how they all hated the Russian people.
Still behind that Wall, taken to a hotel in East Germany, built by the Swiss and run by them, the best hotel we had been in.

Taken around to see the wall, Brandenburg Gate and the gigantic Soviet memorial.
Next day out of Russian hands through Check Point Charlie, with more security checks underneath the coach they used mirrors. Into West Berlin, like another world entirely, shops packed with goods, and happy people.

Day nineteen moved on from Amsterdam to London.

Midnight Sun – Tromso

Picture taken of Tromso from our hotel room at about quarter past midnight. The sun is still up but hidden behind mountains

Picture taken of Tromso from our hotel room at about quarter past midnight. The sun is still up but hidden behind mountains

Eating Rudolph -  Reindeer steaks

Eating Rudolph – Reindeer steaks

We spent last night in at the Scandic Hotel in Tromso, our first night in a hotel on this trip.  It gave us a chance to hang wet washing all over our very own bathroom and walk around in bare feet without worrying about them getting cold and wet, and only unpack a couple of small clothes bags rather than half a ton of camping gear. Such a difference from last year in Portugal and Spain, where we spent every night but one in hotels or the very occasional auberge. The hotel is a few kms out of the town centre, close to the airport. It has a great view of the fjord, and looks across to ‘the mainland’ and the mountains beyond. Most of Tromso is on an island, including the town centre, the airport and the university. It connects to the mainland via a very impressive bridge.

We went out for dinner last night, to Aunegarden. It’s a cafe/restaurant in a beautiful old wooden building that spent most of its long life as a butcher’s shop. There are lots of rooms and little nooks and crannies. We were taken along hallways past a couple of other rooms that were set up for dining, to a room with 4 or 5 tables and a lot of large old photos of downtown Tromso that were probably taken early last century. The menu had lots of choices, but we were really only there for one thing … the reindeer. Anyone reading this with young children, please don’t tell them we ate one of Santa’s helpers!. It was a fillet of reindeer, served with mashed potato, red cabbage and lingonberry sauce and it was delicious! Lean, tender and not too ‘gamey’. The meal cost as much as the hotel room, but we both really enjoyed it. Best (and only) restaurant meal we’ve had in Norway.

But then! We walked around the main streets of Tromso for a while – lots of lovely old wooden buildings and interesting things to look at … got back to the car and found a parking ticket on the windscreen. For $150. Damn. I had paid for parking and mis-read the instructions. I thought it was free after 9pm, but actually the rate is reduced overnight. So I paid until 9pm, and we got the ticket at 9.30. Annoying, expensive and a good lesson to read instructions properly even if they are in another language. The worst thing about it is that the only way to pay is to do a bank transfer. I spent ages trawling the internet last night trying to find out if I could pay online with a credit card, but couldn’t find anywhere to do so. I have found out which bank is on the bank transfer details and we’ll go to the Tromso branch today and hopefully I’ll be able to make an over the counter payment.

On the bright side, we stayed up late enough to see the sun at midnight … well actually it was on the other side of the mountains, but it was definitely still there, shining.

Out and about in Oslo

Yesterday, our second full day in Oslo, we decided to see a few more things on the ‘What to do in Olso’ lists. We drove into the city because Greg had purchased a wireless broadband modem and it hadn’t been registered properly when he bought it, so he took it back to Netcom shop for them to sort out. We found parking on the street surprisingly inexpensive, ranging from $1.60/hour to $4.00/hour depending on where we wanted to park, and we found empty spaces with no trouble. We didn’t venture into any parking stations, so I’m not sure how much they cost.

First tourist stop of the day was the Viking Ship Museum on Bydgoy Peninsula, which is also home to several other museums and 2 beaches. Every major Scandinavian city we’ve visited has a Viking museum, so we thought we’d better go and see one. This one was excellent with just enough (and not too much) to see, and we were surprised that the entry fee was just $12. The museum has 3 Viking ships, which were all pulled ashore and  used as burial tombs for people of high rank. They were all buried at least 1000 years ago, and then unearthed in the late 19th-early 20th century. In addition to the ships, a lot of Viking artifacts, tools, implements, 3 sleds and a carriage were unearthed from one ship which contained the remains of 2 women, one of whom was thought to be a queen, the other thought to be her maid.The Vikings believed that the dead needed to take things with them to the afterlife and provided everything they could think of, including horses and other animals. I did wonder if the maid had been dead or alive when she was buried with her mistress. You can read more about the ships and their contents here. As most of you would have guessed by now, we’re not great museum-goers, but this one was really good and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone visiting Oslo.

Next stop was Vigeland Park, a very large green space near the city centre that showcases the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. There are over 200 granite and bronze sculptures depicting people at all stages of life, doing and feeling a wide range of activities and emotions. We sat under a row of trees and ate lunch and did some people-watching. There seem to be a lot more (mostly) women out and about with babies & toddlers in pushers here than we see at home. I guess it’s a combination of good weather and a generous paid parenting scheme.

And so on to our last touristy thing for the day, up to the hills just above central Oslo to see the beautiful old timber Holmenkollen Hotel and the terrifyingly high Holmenkollen Ski Jump, where the annual World Ski Jump Championships are held in March. The Ski Jump is also used as a concert venue.

Dinner last night was what our Lonely Planet guide tells us is Norway’s national dish -  Grandiosa, a brand of frozen pizza. I think they were only partly joking. Those things are stacked up high in every supermarket we’ve visited. We bought one, but when we went to heat it up, of course it wasn’t as big as the box, so I nipped down to the Kiwi supermarket on the ground floor of this apartment building and bought another one. They tasted fine, although it’s a long time since I’ve had a frozen pizza at home.

Viking Ship, this ship was thought to be a ceremonial ship for calm waters

Viking Ship, this ship was thought to be a ceremonial ship for calm waters

This Viking ship was a strongly built serious ocean going craft

This Viking ship was a strongly built serious ocean going craft, the boards are riveted to the hull with iron rivets.

Just some of the many bronze sculptures

Just some of the many bronze sculptures

Lots of tourists at the stone sculptures

Lots of tourists at the stone sculptures

Norway's food of choice Grandiosa Frozen Pizza

Norway’s food of choice Grandiosa Frozen Pizza

Wandering around Oslo

We got brave and caught a bus into the city centre this morning. In every country we’ve ever visited, we have managed to navigate our way around the train or subway system without too much trouble, but have been wary of catching buses because we don’t know where we’ll end up. However the apartment we’re staying in is not close to a train station, and the bus is right outside the front door. Buying tickets was a bit tricky – they are available from newsagents, convenience stores and automatic ticket machines for a lower price than on the bus, but we tried 2 supermarkets and a service station near the apartment and none of them sell bus tickets, so we had to buy them from the bus driver.

For $10.


On the way home we got them from a newsagent near the bus stop in town and paid $6 each.

We did some sightseeing and got some stuff done – exchanging $USD for Norwegian Krone, bought a mobile broadband modem so we can access the interwebz while we’re travelling around Norway. We visited the very modern Oslo Opera House, which is made of marble and glass, and has a very impressive timber ‘Wave Wall’ inside that provides access to the upper levels of the building. Great views of the city from the roof, which is apparently a favourite sunbaking spot on warm days. We didn’t see anyone sunbaking there today, but as we saw plenty of people out and about in the sun yesterday,  the Opera House roof may have been standing-room only.

We walked up the main shopping mall and dropped into a Subway for some lunch. $20 for a foot-long roll with a drink and a biscuit. We shared, and I noticed other couples doing the same. We haven’t been sticking to our 5:2 diet where we eat just 500 – 600 calories for 2 days of the week, but we seem to just be eating less than usual anyway. I guess our bathroom scales will tell us the truth when we get home.

I had read about Litteraturhuset, the House of Literature, and it sounded like an interesting place to visit, so we walked along the side of the Royal Palace park to reach it. Not quite what I’d expected, it has a large outdoor cafe with a small bookshop inside, and apparently literature-related talks, workshops and debates are held there. Lovely old building, though, and on the way there we did find Norli, a large bookshop with a good range of English-language books and I even found a couple of cookbooks by Aussie celebrity chefs – David Thompson’s Thai Street Food and Christine Manfield’s Tasting India. Jo Nesbo’s latest book Police is prominently featured in all bookshops at the moment – hardcover Norwegian language version costs the equivalent of almost AUD$80 …. and most places have it ‘on special’ for $70.

We walked through the Royal Palace Park and went past the Royal Palace on our way back towards the city centre. The palace is undergoing renovation and the surrounding area looks like a building site. There were quite a few beggars around the shopping centres and in the shopping mall. More than we have seen in other major Scandinavian cities.

Our last stop today was Nor Brothers supermarket at Storgata 34. Our Lonely Planet guide recommended it as a good place to get reasonably priced groceries and good quality fruit and veg. And it was! Excellent bananas for $1.40 per kg, fresh bread for $2 per loaf (the cheapest we’ve seen elsewhere starts at $4),  a whole room full of different rices and lots of interesting imported food. We bought a few things and plan to go back on our way out of Oslo. We realised as we were leaving that there was a whole 2nd floor that we had missed! So we have to go back.

The bus trip back to the apartment was easy and it dropped us right outside the front door to the apartment block.

We have a new mission – to find Norwegian hand-knitted sweaters in a Fretex (Salvos) shop. We’ll let you know how we go.

The Roof of the Oslo Opera House with the skyline of Oslo in the background

The Roof of the Oslo Opera House with the skyline of Oslo in the background

 Timber Walls at the opera house

Timber Walls at the opera house

 The Glass walls of the Opera House. The glass has no other supports, it has glass beams at right angles to give strength

The Glass walls of the Opera House. The glass has no other supports, it has glass beams at right angles to give strength
Jo Nesbo's latest book on sale in Oslo, but don't worry its on special, normally A$80, but now a steeply discounted A$70

Jo Nesbo’s latest book on sale in Oslo, but don’t worry its on special, normally A$80, but now a steeply discounted A$70



Norwegians in Oslo in the Royal Palace park, getting their gear off and getting some sun. Its summer, its 22C, summer might be over tomorrow!

Norwegians in Oslo in the Royal Palace park, getting their gear off and getting some sun. Its summer, its 22C, summer might be over tomorrow!


North to Oslo

We woke up in our tent with a bit of a cloudy day, but the cloud soon lifted and we had a another warm day. We drove back to the Freeway from our forest camp (we were only camped about 4km from it) and headed north. We needed to get more supplies in cheap Sweden before we got to expensive Norway. We stopped at a holiday town of Stromstad, just south of the border with Norway. In the nice town of Stromstad we found other people doing the same as us, stocking up before Norway. There was a large supermarket with camper vans and other travellers parked outside, buying cheap Swedish food inside.

After getting another few more days food (we have about 8 days), and petrol, we then drove north, and crossed the Norwegian border. At the border there was customs. We had 19 cans of cheap Swedish beer, and 2 cans of cheap Swedish meatballs, did that count as something we should declare? Luckily we didn’t have to answer the question as no-one on Sunday was manning the customs booth.

We paid our first of many Norwegian road tolls. 23Kr (about $4) at the border, and then about 3 more of another 23Kr-30Kr that will be charged automagically on our credit card at some future date. We got to Oslo and headed for our third airbnb accommodation.

This airbnb did not go as well as the previous two. The complication with Airbnb is you have to meet someone to get a key. In this case the owner was on holidays and we had to meet someone else to get the key. The someone else was in the middle of the city, and our experience of Oslo is it is very hard to go straight between two points. Oslo is a city of cul-de-sacs. Our mobile phone was sending SMSs but somehow not receiving them. The person we were picking the key up from was not totally sure where the apartment was. Anyway, all the running around took 4 hours. We eventually got into our very nice but sparsely furnished apartment at 6:30pm.

As for Norwegian prices? Well it cost $A2 to go to the toilet at Oslo Central Station. A good way of comparing countries costs is to compare the cost of fast food. The Big Mac index is used to compare living costs worldwide. A Big Mac meal in Australia costs about $A8, in Oslo it costs $A16. Fuel costs $A2.70 a litre.

Judy using the internet

Judy using the internet

Loading up supplies in cheap Sweden before reaching expensive Norway

Loading up supplies in cheap Sweden before reaching expensive Norway