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.

Out and About in Helsinki

We are staying in Espoo, home of Nokia and the second-largest city in Finland. It’s actually just an extension of Helsinki. We are staying in another Airbnb apartment and you can have a little look at it here. Nice 1 bedroom apartment on the 3rd floor of a 4-storey apartment building, bus outside the door, shops and railway station about 10 minutes walk away. We’re here for 5 nights and will put the car and ourselves on the ferry back to Stockholm on Saturday night.

We decided to go into the city and have a look around today. It was overcast this morning but the forecast was for a fine day with temps in the low 20s. That’s double the maximum temperatures we had while we were within the Arctic Circle!

So … even though there’s a bus outside the door, we walked up to the nearest railway station and dithered around for a while working out where we were headed and how much it would cost. As Espoo is in Zone 3 of the local train network it was going to cost us 4.5 euros each. So we thought it might be cheaper on the bus and headed to the nearest bus stop where we boarded a bus and paid …. 4.5 euros each. Okay, so now we have all that worked out. We’re going to Tallin, in Estonia, tomorrow for the day and we wanted to check where the ferry leaves. The ferry terminal just happens to be near an open air market that I wanted to visit, so that was all rather good planning, or luck.

The market stalls are all selling berries, currants, cherries, peas and new potatoes at the moment so we bought some little new potatoes and peas still in their pod for dinner and strawberries and raspberries as well. I was interested to see that fruit and vegetables are sold by volume here, so I bought a litre each of peas, potatoes and strawberries, and the raspberries were already in a punnet. There were also a lot of stalls selling cooked food, with little tables and chairs set up. We went to a seafood stall close to the water where Greg had whitebait, fried potatoes, vegetables and salad, and I had prawns, fried potatoes etc. All freshly cooked, all delicious.

We wandered around to the ferry terminal and collected our tickets to Tallin, then did a modified walking tour of the main points of interest in Helsinki – the Lutheran Cathedral, the National Library which is currently closed for renovation, Pohoisesplanadi – Helsinki’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee and the highlight of our walk -  Temppeliaukio Kirrko (The Church of the Rock),  a 1960s church hewn into solid rock. A really simple but magnificent space, with a glass and copper dome and a beautiful organ. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos, but if you click on the link above there are some good photos with the Wikipedia article.

We caught a train back to the apartment, partly so that we could experience the full gamut of Helsinki public transport, but also because we couldn’t work out where the heck to catch the bus back out to the suburbs!


Buying fruit at the market

Buying fruit at the market

More market stalls in Helsinki

More market stalls in Helsinki

Its not a disease! The common name for Street food vans everywhere but Australia

Its not a disease! The common name for Street food vans everywhere but Australia




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!



Note to self: In Sweden, they are just called ‘meatballs’. Asking for ‘Swedish meatballs’ in Sweden is grossly overstating the obvious.

Today, being a Sunday, we did what many other Swedish people do on this day of rest and went to worship at the Altar of the Flatpack and pay homage to the great god of consumerism at the biggest Ikea in the world. And it really is HUGE! 3 storeys full of stuff. The entire display area is arranged in concentric circles which spiral downwards from the 3rd floor, accessible via ramps, steps and escalators. There is a large dining area on the top floor, plus 2 smaller cafes, a food hall and a fast food bar. There are a couple of ‘I live in 25 sq metres or less’ displays. I thought there would be more, but then realised that while those displays are fascinating for us Aussies who live in much larger spaces, to the Swedes it’s real life and they don’t need Ikea displays to tell them how to do it.

We got there early, just after it opened at 10am. The carpark was fairly empty and there were some people inside the store, but that was nothing compared to the mass of people there when we left at 3pm. Huge queues at the checkouts and heavy parcel pick-ups, heaps of people just wandering around the displays, full cafes and dining room. Despite the much larger scale and there being more of everything in both quantity and range – I counted at least 6 different high chairs – it felt familar as we are used to navigating our way around the Adelaide store. We started at the top, on the 3rd floor and wandered around the displays for a while, then fortified ourselves at the cafe on the 2nd floor with pancakes (Greg) and coffee and a cinnamon roll (me). There were a couple of things that we wanted to buy, but we left them until the end of our visit, so we didn’t have to carry them with us.

We broke the Ikea experience up by visiting a few other shops nearby – an electronics shop, a couple of specialist sports shops (golf & horseriding) and a big supermarket which offered customers a handheld scanner to use as they placed items in their shopping trolley. Not many people used them, but as the queues for the ordinary checkouts were so long, it would have saved a lot of time not having to wait in line.

We went back to Ikea for lunch and to do our shopping and the whole place was full of people browsing, eating and shopping. We bought cushions to use as pillows when we camp, plastic containers, a wire colander that we’ll turn into a toasting rack to go over our little woodburning fire and a neat little folding table. I’m sure when we’re camping there will be photos of it all. We dropped into the Food Hall on the way out for a few supplies, then headed back to our apartment on the subway.