Mountains and Hills, Buses and Trains – Part 1

On Monday, I took the Tranzalpine train across New Zealand’s Southern Alps, from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again. Doing so took me across the flat Canterbury plains (shaped like a wedge rising imperceptibly but substantially towards the mountains), through the “high country” where merino sheep graze in summer and Alpine tussocks abound, and through vistas of craggy snow-capped peaks (though less snow capped than usual for this time of year). The views between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass were glorious! The train has a viewing car with no windows that I spent some time in despite the cold. The wind from the speed of the train at times brought tears to my eyes, but much of the time I spent out there was exhilarating.

From Arthur’s Pass, we then went through one of the longest tunnels in the world and emerged in a completely different landscape, and on a different tectonic plate. The mountains were covered in different trees on the western half, and shrouded in clouds and rain. Unfortunately I couldn’t really see much of anything due to poor visibility.

I had about thirty minutes in Greymouth, enough time to get some postcards and a pounamu (greenstone, or jade) pendant and to get thoroughly damp walking from the station into the town doing so.

The return was similar in terms of weather. It got dark before we arrived back at Christchurch so some of the viewing was sadly cut short.

I did enjoy seeing the difference between the east and west of the mountains, but if I had had less time in Christchurch, I think I would just have booked from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass. All the way to Greymouth and back does make for a long day. Not that I could tell because of the western clouds and rain in the west, but it also seems that the more dramatic scenery is on the east.

Also, since it is low season, there was plenty of room on the train, window seats to spare. I had booked from the US because I had been worried I wouldn’t get a seat (and therefore payed a premium as anyone without a New Zealand IP address does) but I would have been fine booking here. I am glad I had the security of knowing I had my booking, however, as I would have been dreadfully disappointed not to go. There was some breathtaking scenery!

Made It to Moscow

On Monday, I headed to Moscow. I had used the same British travel agency (Real Russia) who had done my visa sponsorship and booked my Trans-Siberian tickets. Highly recommended!

For this leg of the trip, I had an e-ticket, so I didn’t need to exchange it for a paper ticket as I had my Trans-Sib ones. Yay, one incomprehensible interaction avoided! (Although in all fairness, so many more people speak English in St Petersburg and Moscow than elsewhere in the country.)

I had booked the high-speed Sapsan so as to avoid another overnight train. Apparently the engine is made by Siemens – I kept seeing ads on tv for Russian Railways talking about their working with Siemens and another company I can’t remember. Anyway, the Sapsan to me (not being terribly interested in trains) looks like other high speed European trains inside and out. But for those of you who are train nuts, here’s a picture


I will mention that I am proud of myself for being able to put my backpackers backpack on the overhead shelf without help. I’m a big believer in not packing more than you can carry/manage yourself provided you are young and healthy and not moving somewhere, but it’s not easy to practice what you preach when you’re traveling for months at a time and you have the wimpy upper body strength that I have.

I took the metro to the stop the hotel had listed, found a map outside it, and figured out where I was going. I walked along, realizing with delight that the red building to one side was probably the Kremlin, that really was a brief glimpse of St Basil’s, and the historic center of Moscow is much prettier than I’d have thought, with a number of neo-classical buildings. I’d been expecting something, well, something Soviet, I guess, massive and without frills.

My hotel was only a 10 or 15 minute walk away from the metro, and they were able to give me a room on the top floor. I could see the Kremlin and what I later realized was one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters buildings from my room:



I’ll put in a quick plug for my hotel, the City Center Courtyard Marriott. It was in many ways the nicest Courtyard I have ever stayed at (despite being a business hotel, and despite my great fondness for my Courtyard in Irkutsk) and the location is amazing. I’m just glad I booked it with points, as I think it might have been over $500 a night if you include the breakfast I got for free because of my status. Moscow really is the most expensive city I’ve stayed in – I spent more on food and museums than anticipated, even compared to Tokyo.