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Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.

 

Trainride Of A Lifetime Aboard Copper Canyon Railway

Whenever you buy an economy class ticket, you’re gambling that what you give up in luxury will be compensated for by the people you meet on your journey. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, a segundo class ticket is a hands-down winner.

The segundo train offers the same breathtaking views of the Copper Canyon as the South Orient Express because it runs on the same tracks. But the best part is that a ticket costs about $10.

The train itself reminds me of something out of an old western: a creaky, painted wood-and-sheet metal carriage, wooden seats, open doors at either end and a tiny concession to luxury in the form of some tattered curtains.

Although a Texan named Tim and I were the only foreigners aboard at the onset at Los Mochis, by the time we got to Divisadero there were four Australians, two Canadians, two Germans and a bewildered-looking group of Americans who had clearly taken the wrong train.

But gradually, as we stopped in tiny towns along the way, the car filled with the stuff that a Mexican train ride is all about: a shabbily dressed, silken-voiced guitar player pleasantly serenaded the passengers with the sounds of Indian folk music. Poker games were running at both ends of the carriage, but when one of the dealers smiled (revealing a gold front tooth with a club design carved into it), I decided to sit this one out.

The station platforms swarm with crowds of locals, to whom the train is an economic lifeline, hawking home-made burritos, tacos and other less identifiable offerings, while livestock being loaded and unloaded contribute to the general confusion.

Spectacular Scenery
Many of the passengers are Mexicans, just getting from point A to point B. But when the train rolls around that first mountain curve just north of El Fuerte and the scenery starts revealing itself, everyone on board rushes over to the right side of the train and watches in fascination.

Train buffs, always looking for an opportunity to see other sections of the train while it twists around hairpin turns, are a tad miffed at being so close, yet so far, from their view. As the train rockets around the bends, it enters and leaves tunnels so frequently it seems as if a rambunctious child is standing at the carriage’s light switch and turning it on and off. Sticking your head out of the window is a daunting task.

At Divisadero, where the primera train makes a 15-minute stop, the segundo takes advantage of its more proletarian scheduling to sit at the highest point of the canyon along the route for up to an hour. At 8,669 feet above sea level, Divisadero is the main overlook into the canyon, and the Copper Canyon Natural Park. The view is, in a word, spectacular.

Skip the Souvenirs
I had been warned by every guidebook not to buy the chatchkas that are being peddled by the Tarahumara Indians who mill about the station, and judging by the sales I saw, everyone else had read the same books.

It’s hard to take an interest in crafts while looking out over the ruggedly beautiful canyon. To the left, it seems as if some cataclysmic cruise ship had plowed its way through solid mountain walls, beyond which lies rocky terrain that dips and rolls as far as the eye can see.

Mellow Evening
On the move again, as the early evening set in, this rattle-filled train seemed to take us back in time; the evening light and the sounds of the tracks entering the car through the open windows made me think of riding the Orient Express. A beautiful family of Mennonites boarded, and sat as inconspicuously as one can dressed in traditional 19th-century attire.

The poker games had consolidated; there was some drinking but the group was maintaining its friendliness to the point that I sat down with them to watch a couple of hands. As if to demonstrate how badly I can judge a poker game, I noticed that the man with the gold tooth was hemorrhaging money.

Throughout the carriage, people were interacting with the familiarity of a group that has just gone through something together. The passengers on the segundo were talking among themselves, sharing a bottle of Presidente brandy or some chips, or starting a game of dominoes on the seats. And to tourist and local alike, it was obvious that what we had just seen was close to magical.

If You Go To Prague…

If you do decide to go to Prague, there are a few things to keep in mind. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.

Visa
Americans, Brits and other European citizens need no visa, just a valid passport. The Czech currency is the Koruna (Kcs); US$1 = Kcs33.50, 1 German mark = Kcs18. Tourist information: Prague Information Service tel +4202 187, Old Town Square.

Costs

For an overnighter, this flight for four people worked out cheaper than taking the train!.

Plane rental:

US$107 per hour wet. Landing fee: US$18.50 Approach Fee: US$9. Handling & Assistance: US$17 Parking: US$4.50 Airport Tax: $14.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Atlantic (tel +42 02 2481 1084, Na Porici 9) where singles or doubles are US$107 or US$125 per night with breakfast.

Contact

Prague Airport is on +4202 2011-1111; Mr Sovak at +4202 2011-4383. Munich Flight Information is at +49 89 9780-350/1/2, fax 970 1424. Munich WX-Brief is at +49 89 1593 8135/6. Munich Flyers is at +49 89 6427-0761.

Closing Your Flight Plan

VFR Flight plans are automatically closed by Prague tower on your arrival at Prague airport, so there’s no need to telephone anyone. But on the return to Germany you must remember to close your flight plan by calling Munich Flight Information.

Charts

Jeppesen (www.jeppesen.com) VFR/GPS Chart Germany ED-5 covers south-eastern Germany, western Czech Republic and the entire area near Prague’s Ruzyna Airport; Chart ED-6 covers Munich and Augsburg. Buy VFR charts in Munich at Geo Buch, Rosental 6 (tel 089 265-030).

Where Are The Nooklear Wessles?

I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a ” Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t ” very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (” Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The ” fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

” Hi!” I said, with a smile, ” May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, ” Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, ” Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

” What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

” He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, ” You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

In The Steam: A Russian Banya

There’s a level of clean that can be attained, Russians say, only through the rigorous action of a ritual Russian banya. A combination of dry sauna, steam bath, massage and plunges into ice-cold water, the banya is a weekly event that is as much a part of Russian life as, say, bowling in Bedrock.

And in Russian, the word banya has come to mean far more than its dictionary definition, which is bathhouse.

Preparation begins at home, where thermos flasks are filled to their cork-plugged brims with a specially brewed tea. These teas are peculiar to the banya: a cunning mixture of jams, fruits, spices, tea and heaps of sugar. Armed with this brew, the bather heads for the baths (picking up a couple of beers or some vodka along the way is not unheard-of either).

People usually go to the banya on the same day each week, forming a close circle with others there on the same day. The closest equivalent in the West would probably be your workout buddies.

These circles are as communistic as Lenin could have ever hoped. Bricklayers and airplane pilots, laborers and professors and traffic cops and teachers find common ground amid the steam.

After a “warm-up” in the dry sauna (the word’s the same in Russian, pronounced SA-oo-na), you’re ready for the parilka – the dreaded steam room.

The parilka will have a furnace in which rocks are heating. Onto these, bathers throw water, usually with a dash or two of eucalyptus or other scented oil. When the room’s got a good head of steam going, the bathers grab bundles of dried birch leaves (vennik), dip them in hot water and, well, beat each other with them. This beating (which isn’t violent, and feels a lot better than it sounds) is said to rid your body of toxins.

As one might suspect, all that steam makes the air even hotter, but bathers continue to throw water on until visibility is nil and the room is unbearably hot, at which point everyone runs out coughing.

As if the relatively cold air outside the parilka weren’t enough of a shock to one’s system, the next step is a plunge into the icy cold waters of the bassein, whose health benefits I’ve yet to work out (they’re probably incredibly important).

After the plunge, it’s out to the locker rooms wrapped up in sheets, where events of the world are discussed over the tea (or whatever). Then the process begins again. Sessions can go on for two or three hours.

Every Russian town has a public banya; larger towns and cities have several. Baths are segregated by sex.

Foreigners are very welcome. If you go, you’re likely to be viewed as an honored guest, asked hundreds of questions about where you’re from, chided for being wary of the procedures (such as spending a half-day stark naked with a bunch of sweaty strangers) and, finally, treated to rigorous massage and beating.

Oh, and one more thing. Alcohol affects you faster in a banya, so if you do partake (you’ll no doubt be invited as a gesture of friendship and goodwill), be careful and do it slowly.

Even in Russia, it’s considered bad form to lose your lunch in a steam room.

Orlando Gets A Hostel

Sun-bronzed guests lounge by the pool. Others mingle by the lake, some splashing by in pedal-boats. The fountain gurgles. But as new guests check in, the document that desk clerks ask for is not a passport.

It’s a hostel card.

This is Hostelling International’s latest experiment: the HI Orlando Resort.

For the past several years, Hostelling International has been quietly working on its image, trying to make its product – budget accommodation with a socially and environmentally conscious twist – more accessible to people over age 26.

HI’s surveys of hostelers around the country showed a great need for a second Orlando-area hostel, and it took the plunge earlier this year. Similar market research resulted in additional hostels in cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

Heavy Competition
“The challenge here,” says Beth Barrett, general manager of the new hostel, “is to try to insinuate the hostelling experience into the center of the glitziest, most neon-filled tourist strip in the entire country.” The Orlando area has one of the highest concentrations of hotel rooms in the United States.

By taking on all the glitz and the inexpensive motels that line Route 192, about five miles south of the Disney theme parks, Barrett faces a somewhat unfamiliar dilemma: Some motels here offer double rooms at less than the cost for two to stay in the dorms.

HI is hoping the difference of a few dollars won’t be enough to make guests stray, even at the thought of more privacy. The idea here is to bring people together – in the common areas, the kitchen, the TV room – to share experiences and travel tips. And that intimacy is the first thing to go in traditional motels, where guests lock their doors and turn on the tube.

Knowing What To Expect
“Hostelers seek out hostels for a lot of reasons,” says Toby Pyle of HI’s public relations office in Washington. “Camaraderie and interaction with other travelers comes before price.” Indeed, hostelers have flocked here, and seem to agree with Pyle.

“For two of us it cost $36,” said Glen Richards of Snells Beach, New Zealand. “We saw a place down the road that had a double room for about $30, but at the hostel we knew exactly what we were getting into.”

That certainty – knowing that hostels will provide services like directions, help with trip planning, onward reservations, cooking facilities and helpful staff – is one of the things that has kept hostel stays so popular all over the world. The guest book here shows visitors from as close as New Jersey and as far away as Germany, England, Australia and New Zealand.

But it’s not just the feel-good idea of hostels that’s drawing the visitors: The hostel offers many of the same perks as motels on its two acres of property, such as the pool, lake access and volleyball and barbecue areas. Jet ski rentals are available next door. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and the whole place is accessible 24 hours a day.

Former Motel
The hostel was, in fact, a motel that HI took over earlier this year. The project, which is estimated to have cost Hostelling International $1.5 million, is in the final phase of a $100,000 renovation. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies will take place in December, though the hostel is already open for business.

While many of the rooms have been converted to dormitory-style accommodation, with four wooden bunk beds per room, others are still standard motel-style rooms with one or two queen-size beds, some with kitchenettes.

Private transportation services shuttle guests between the hostel and the area’s attractions – Disney and other theme parks in the area such as Sea World, Wet & Wild and Universal Studios Orlando. The same transport options are available at the area’s motels at similar prices.

Real Central Florida
The difference here, aside from the pool and prime lakefront location, is probably in the staff and activities. “Some people come here, spend four days at Disney and go home,” says Barrett. “That’s great, but they haven’t seen Orlando.”

Hostel staffers help to coordinate day trips in the area, working closely with the existing HI Orlando Hostel downtown, so guests can see some of the real Orlando and Central Florida: places like the Morse Museum of American Art, the Central Florida Zoological Park and the Orlando Science Center.

“We just hope that people will stay here a bit longer and see what the area has to offer,” says Barrett. “There’s a whole lot of interesting things near here that haven’t been touched by theme parks.”

Kindly, Fussy Bangaman (And Other Russian English)

Creative English is a worldwide phenomenon; Japanese tee-shirts or Indian shop signs written in it have been the subject of articles ad-nauseum.

But there’s a charm to the English spoken in Russia that must be mentioned. Often times – especially with names that go on forever – it’s simply a holdover from the USSR days: the ” Leningrad Order of Lenin Metropolitan Subway System Named After V I Lenin” springs to mind.

Sometimes it’s the Russian compunction when speaking the English to pepper the sentences with the articles so missing in the Russian: ” Tomorrow I am going to the Moscow” said one friend, whom we all dubbed ” The Daniel’.

But Russian English is its best when trying to be showy, especially in advertising. ” Two crumpled eggs served from the frying,” is how one menu (which gave a translator credit to a ” Dr of Philology’) temptingly described an omelette.

Pizza Pronto holds that it has a ” Comfortably and cozy atmosphere! Real hospitality of the personal!E’

Restaurant Austeria’s ad claims it’s ” probably the oldest resturant in the city and becouse of it “Austeria” suggesting you the traditional Russian cooking. Big choice at drinks and foods, not higt pricesure making “Austeria” a wonderfull places for lunch and dinner’

‘Bank MANATEP St Petersburg’, weE’re told, ” Invites to collaborate artificial personos and offers a wide range of banking services.’

Safety instructions are usually good for a laugh; the ” Rules of the Lift” in the lifts of the Pribaltiskaya Hotel warn that ” the cabin arriving at the floor produces both the light and sound signals; the light signal indicates further direction of the cabin but the direction of the cabin cannot be changed by pushing the buttons.’

Runner up for best Russian English appeared in the ” English’-language magazine St Petersburg Today. This is the introductory paragraph under the headline ” Our Advice” – not one word has been omitted:

“How is it possible then to know in which direction the numbers increase? Turn left of the building Number 20 and go straight. There is your building Number 40. Accordingly, if you are standing on the opposite side of the street, right side to the building, the beginning of the street is behind your back.”

But the winner in town is this sign, in the window of Pivnoy Klub, a small beer bar in Central St Pete, which promises the following:

“Only here country primitive kitchen all in the nature fire welcome to kindly fussy Bangaman.”

I collect these things, so if you find any more of these in your travels, please send them in to me.

I’m always on the lookout for the few new fussy Bangamans.

London…On The Cheap

Americans staggered by British price especially after the dollar’s summer plunge, may find it hard to associate the word “cheap” with a vacation here.

“It’s more expensive than Norway here,” said shell-shocked Chicago resident Tom Day. “Gas is almost $7 a gallon!”

Americans find they’re charged extra for things that are free in the States – such as packs of ketchup and vinegar, or toast, rather than bread, with breakfast – adding insult to injury.

But London on the cheap is possible, and you don’t have to be a college student to find it. In fact, it’s easy. The more flexible your time, the cheaper it gets.

A good starting place is at the airport: From Heathrow, the Paddington Express costs £21 and takes 15 minutes to get you to Paddington Station. Just follow the signs that say “Underground.” (From Gatwick, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station.)

Fall is a great time to go for several reason not the least of which is increased availability of airline seats. Every summer, millions of backpackers and other visitors swoop into the city on the Thame where the tourist industry is lying in wait like a bear trap. Waiting until fall lets you beat the crowds and gives you a better chance of finding cheap lodging.

Accommodations
Time Out: London (Penguin), Western Europe: On A Shoestring (Lonely Planet) and Let’s Go: Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press) are three of the most valuable reference guides for cheap accommodation. Consult them before leaving the States – the cheaper the place, the more imperative reservations are. Most hotels will take a U.S. traveler’s check or a credit card as deposit for a room.

If you show up without a guidebook (or a clue), take the tube to Earl’s Court station – in the center of “Little Australia” or “Aussieland” – and you’ll come across a slew of rock-bottom crash pads (if breakfast is included in one of them it’s likely to feature Vegemite, a black, noxious goo made from yeast extract and eaten for breakfast by many Australians).

Follow anyone with an Aussie accent to the nearest backpacker, where, if you’re of the it’s-just-a-place-to-crash school of hotel selection, you can get away with spending as little as $25 per person per night.

You may also be accosted by any number of cheap-digs hawker who may or may not have a real room. Be careful, and don’t pay anyone anything until you’ve seen the room and gotten the key.

Many of the cheaper standard hotels in and around the center can be had for around $60 double. In the inexpensive hotel bathrooms are usually not inside your room but shared by those staying on your floor. That said, they’re usually spotlessly clean, and almost every room contains a wash basin and towels.

England’s famous bed-and-breakfast which are usually located outside the center, are far cheaper than a hotel, but be careful when looking at prices. They usually list a price per person, not per room. “En suite” means the bathroom is in the room and usually costs $15 to $30 extra.

Changing Money
A great option is cash from ATM which allow you to get cash from your Visa or MasterCard, as well as from bank accounts on the Plus or Cirrus network. Exchange rates on these transactions are generally much better than those for cash, and Lloyd’s and Midland bank machines tend to be connected to many U.S. networks.

In the center, money changers can be found everywhere, and rates are very competitive. Shop carefully; commissions can run high (some charge minimums of £3), while the more disreputable operations will lure customers in by posting rates at which they sell, as opposed to buy, other currencies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Traveler’s checks will often get a slightly better rate than bank notes. If you’re changing more than $1,000 of either at one time you can – and absolutely should – negotiate for a better rate. Rates in the airports and train stations are generally worse than those in town, so change just enough to get away from there.

Getting Around
Immediately invest £13 ($20) in a one-week transit Travelcard, which covers buses and the tube (but not night buses) in transport zones 1 and 2, which include almost everywhere you’ll head in the city (except Heathrow airport, which is an extra one-time fare). One-day Travelcards cost £2.70 ($4.25), and either is a great saving, as a ride on the tube starts at about £1.

Taxis have a fantastically complex fare system, which can be summarized as a minimum of £1.20 ($1.90), with a fare that zooms up at a jolly clip depending on time of day, traffic, distance and other seemingly arbitrary factors. But you’ll get what you pay for: London cabbies are perhaps the best in the world, having to prove they know the fastest way to get to every single street in the city before they get their license. They’ll also talk your ear off if you let them. Tipping is expected; 10 percent is plenty.

Getting out of London is cheapest on buses (coaches). A round-trip ticket to Leed for example, can cost £15 ($24) on a National Express coach (telephone 071-730 0202) and up to £50 ($79) by train. Another option is a sort of formalized hitchhiking service provided by the National Lift Center, which brings together drivers and passengers. Call the center at 091-222 0090 with details of where you want to go; the staff will try to match you with a driver, with whom you’ll share or pay the cost of gas.

Pub Clubs & Restaurants
Time Out magazine is the frankly-written weekly London happenings bible, which offers the most current and complete listings of pubs and clubs for all taste in addition to shopping bargains of the week; film, dance, music and comedy club reviews and listings; and a helpful “Student London” section. It’s available at newsstands everywhere for £1.50 ($2.40).

Choosing a pub is a tricky matter in London’s center, but a basic rule is the farther from a tube station it i the cheaper the prices and the more interesting the clientele. While Londoners rant incessantly about the price of a pint, the going rate this summer is about £1.60 or around $2.50.

London offers a fantastic array of inexpensive food option and some of the best Indian food on the planet (averaging $5.50 an entree). Other cheap eats include the ubiquitous fish and chips (about $4.75); Japanese (about $8); pizza by the slice (about $1.60); Thai (from about $11 per person); and vegetarian (including the phenomenal stuff at Food For Thought, where light lunches for two can be under $8, including soft drinks). Avoid anyplace calling itself a steak house.

Another cheapie is the “jacket potato,” or potato skin on sale at stands and in restaurants. Fast, filling and deliciou these stuffed things start at about $2.35. (See the box for more on food.)

Theater Tickets
These day good and cheap West End theater tickets are awfully hard to come by, and if the price is under $15, you’re probably sitting behind a column.

Same-day tickets can be had, however; your best bet is the Leicester Square Half-Price Ticket Booth in the clock tower building in Leicester Square. It sells half-price tickets to many shows on the day of the performance; service charge is £1.50 (about $2.35) per ticket.

Museums
Admission is free to the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery. A great deal on 13 others (including the Barbican Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum and Victoria and Albert) is the £10 ($15.80) White Card, available at Tourist Information Centers and the museums themselves. The more you see, the more you save – average admission to each museum runs £3.70 ($5.80).

Doing London cheaply is an art, and the longer you stay, the better you’ll get at it. Time Out and the above guidebooks are but a start. The real fun is finding that fantastic Thai place, discovering “pie and mash,” and feasting on London’s budget cornucopia.

DINING ON THE CHEAP

Here are 10 cheap dining ideas for travelers to London:

Food For Thought

Vegetarian staples with good stew curries and excellent broccoli quiche in a tiny space just off Covent Garden. Very popular. Too bad about all the styrofoam these “environmentalists” use for take-out orders. Average $4 for main course $2.50 for salads. No alcohol. 31 Neal St., phone 071-836 9072.

Wagamama

Japanese health food in a very stylish and funky noodle house-cum-trend spot. Average meals run $8 per person. Wine ranges from $10 to $15 a bottle, sake $3 for a large tokkuri. Streatham Street at Bloomsbury Street, phone 071-323 9223.

The Stockpot

Several branches haven’t diminished the great value of the Italian and Italian-influenced food served here. You can have a full meal (without wine) for $8, and house wine is under $10 a bottle. 6 Basil St. (071-589 8627); 18 Old Compton Court (071-287 1066); 273 King’s Road (071-823 3175); and 50 James St. (071-486 1086).

William Price

This small cafe in Neal’s Yard serves up basic sandwiches and bagels and English breakfasts all day. It also features some very nice cake scones and pastries. Average breakfast is under $5, sandwiches up to $3.75; no alcohol. 7 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-379 1025.

Neal’s Yard Bakery Coop

Right next to William Price, this spot sells amazing breads and cakes and serves pizzas and snacks to eat in the lovely upstairs dining room. The costliest item is just over $3. 6 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-826 5199.

Mandeer

If you take “all you can eat” to be a personal challenge, head to this vegetarian Indian restaurant for a set lunch buffet for a mere $5.50. House wines at $12; 10 percent service charge. 21 Hanway St., phone 071-323 0660.

Diwana Bhel Poori House

Similar to Mandeer, only slightly more expensive. No alcohol, but you can BYOB. 121 Drummond St., phone 071-387 5556.

Upper Street Fish Shop

Good fish and chips in a bistro setting; traditional (deep-fried) cod and chips for about $10; fish can also be grilled or poached. BYOB. 324 Upper St., Islington, phone 071-359 1401.

Fish & Chips Stands

Any number of places sell generally superb examples of this British standby. Dousing the chips in vinegar will make you seem like a local. Average price throughout the city is $4.75.

Pie & Mash Places

These are also scattered about the city, with classic meals of mushed-up English things inside pastry. They’re definitely a London tradition, and can range from “what’s that”” to heavenly. $3 to $4.50.

IF YOU GO …

For budget accommodations in London, try these organizations and services:

The Youth Hostel Association produces a booklet listing all hostels in England and Wales. Write to the group at Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen’s Hill, St. Albans ALO 2DY England.

The London Tourist Board and Convention Center publishes “London Accommodation for Budget Traveller” available by writing to the British Tourist Authority, Thames Tower, Black’s Road, London W6 9EL. It contains listings arranged by area for flat-sit B&Bs and small hotels.

London Accommodation Guides publishes a similar listing arranged by price. Information: 071-865 9000.

The British Hotel Reservation Center at Heathrow books B&Bs and hostels. call 081-564 8801 (Terminals 1,2 and 3); 081-564 8211 (Terminal 4).

 

London Homestead Services offers B&Bs just outside the center but convenient to public transportation, from 14 and up per person a night, with a minimum stay of three nights. 081-949 4455.

Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.