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The stone path led high up into the hills where on the peak there stood an old church. From the foot we could hear the beating drums, rhythmic and ominous, luring us onward. Even our hearts seemed to take on that beat, pounding faster and faster as we started up the hill closer to the noise.
“It’s like the orcs at the gates of Helm’s Deep,” Gaurav said.
You know you’ve found true love when someone can apply a Lord of the Rings analogy to almost any sort of adventure.
People were coming down, drenched in reds and purples, soaked to the skin in wine.
The Haro Wine Festival had begun.
In fact, it had been going on since the night before when revelers gathered in the quaint square around Haro’s central gazebo to drink and wait out the night. At the crack of dawn many pilgrims had already wound their way through the Cliffs de Bilibio for the highlight of the festival: the Wine Battle.
The chapel in the cliffs is known as Hermitage of San Felices de Bilibio and, as early as the 6th century, people have been making pilgrimages to the site where Haro’s patron saint, San Felices, was laid to rest. The history behind how the Wine Battle came to be an annual event is something of a mystery, but one theory posits that baptisms held at the chapel at one point stopped involving water and were instead done with wine. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. I’d insert something here about Jesus turning water into wine and how all that ties in, but I’ll leave making the connection up to you.
The night before, Gaurav and I stocked up on wine we purchased at a local shop. This was sold in 1-litre soda bottles at a cheap price because it was deemed not good enough to drink—though we, and everyone else involved in the wine fight, did drink it anyway on the day of the battle. This we carried in bags up the mountain, along with water guns we’d also bought the day before.
We were soon to discover that our flimsy plastic guns would be no match for what awaited us on that mountaintop.
It began before we were even close to reaching the summit. If we had thought the Wine Battle was a joking matter, we were wrong. In fact, the ones who took it most seriously were the older Haro residents—usually crusty looking Spanish men who would cackle with glee whenever they hit a newcomer square in the face with a spray of wine.
They were stationed along the pathway up, fertilizer tanks full of wine by their sides, dousing anyone and everyone. This was treated seriously. Like a job. You weren’t allowed to reach the peak until your white shirt had turned to purple.
Then there were the ones carrying plastic tanks of wine on their shoulders. With eagle eyes (perhaps wine goggles give you better eyesight?) they’d pick out the weak ones, or the ones with white spots left on their t-shirts and sneak up behind to dump the contents of the tank over their heads.
You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a wine shower.
Still, Gaurav and I did our best to give back as good as we got, firing wine until our pistols were empty and we had to stop to refuel.
The real fray was at the foot of the chapel. A throbbing, jumping, mass of purple chaos.
Oh yes, that’s where we wanted to be.
And in the midst? A band. Complete with tuba, trumpet, drums and other varied instruments. You would think wine would be bad for instruments, right? Despite the high level of revelry and overall drunkenness—mostly due to second-hand drinking after getting doused in the face one too many times—people were still weirdly respectful of these valiant heroes playing their instruments in the melee. No one fired directly at their instruments, though the men themselves weren’t given the same space.
The two of us ventured inward and were immediately pulled and pushed into the mass, the energy consuming us with a rapidity we never saw coming.
We danced. We sang. We drank. Strangers passed bottles of wine for drinking, threw arms around one another, and bellowed out refrains to popular local songs. All around us wine fell from the sky like rain. It was a strange moment of community.
And when we descended hours later, our skin turned purple, our hair smelling of wine, our fingertips tingling with the adrenaline that still coursed through us, we knew something magical had happened on that mountaintop. Something that would probably never bear repeating. Something that was once-in-a-lifetime.
Something that could happen only in Spain.
If Russia is on your travel bucketlist you’re probably keen to begin mapping out your journey to this incredible country! We’ve already written up posts to help you book your Trans-Siberian railway journey, as well as what to expect once you’re on the train, but…
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We’ve written out a step-by-step guide with everything you need to know to plan and book your ticket for the Trans-Siberian, but what happens once you’ve completed your booking? You may be wondering what it’s like riding the train across Russia and what to expect once you’re onboard. So below we’re going to answer all your burning questions—from whether you can get wi-fi, to what sort of carriage facilities you’ll have, and more. Let’s dig in to life on the Trans-Siberian railway!
We’re going tackle the most important stuff first (ha!): is there Wi-Fi on the Trans-Siberian rail? Nope! In this age of constant connectivity this might be hard to accept, but the trains on the Trans-Siberian railway have yet to add Wi-Fi as an amenity for travellers. If you buy a local SIM when you arrive in Russia (we’ll explain how to do this in our next article) you will find 3G connection at some stations and towns during your journey. Be aware that the connectivity is slow and in general not great, but this turned out to be one of our favourite things about the Trans-Siberian train. It’s so rare these days to have the chance to declutter your mind and disconnect completely, and this train journey kind of forced us to do just that. And in the end we were so glad for it!
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian who wants to take the Trans-Siberian you’ll have to do a fair amount of planning beforehand. The dining car offers only a few vegetarian options (potatoes, borsch, oatmeal, eggs) but we weren’t sure if any of these choices were vegan because everything tasted as if it were cooked in butter. This doesn’t mean making the journey has to be difficult though!
Years of travelling as a vegan and a vegetarian has made us all too aware of how much more we need to plan when taking certain trips. We knew beforehand that we’d have access to a samovar 24/7, so we came prepared with a suitcase full of vegan and vegetarian food that we could make with just hot water.
Here’s a grocery list of food we brought with us from the UK:
- Instant noodles
- Instant pasta
- Instant oatmeal packets (enough for each of us to eat one a day for breakfast)
- Vegan granola bars (we like the vegan options from Ella, but you can also make your own using amazing recipes like this one: pumpkin seed & almond granola bars).
- Sweet treats, because there’s something about train travel that makes you want to indulge. We bought vegan fudge and vegan chocolate bars from Doisy & Dam.
Tip: When you board the train ask your carriage attendant for a coffee mug right away. These are the iconic Trans-Siberian railway mugs you’ve probably seen in photos. Your attendant should give you one with a small spoon included. You’re free to use these throughout your journey but not allowed to keep them. We found them useful for making tea, coffee and oatmeal. To save space we also recommend buying one set of cup noodles and the rest of your food in packets. We ate our cup noodles on the first day and washed and reused the cups for the rest of our meals.
Here’s a grocery list of items we purchased in Moscow before boarding the train:
- A loaf of bread
- A small packet of cheese
- One bag of oranges and apples (we actually recommend buying apples instead as oranges go bad a lot faster)
- Instant coffee
- Small, non-dairy milk substitute carton
- One bottle of red wine
- 2 large bottles of water
Tip: Throughout the train journey you’ll be stopping quite a lot and most stations have small shops that sell basic snacks like crisps, instant meals, water, and beer. However, we never saw vegetarian instant meals anywhere and the crisps were often fish or meat flavoured, so it’s best to play it safe and come prepared if you have the same diet requirements that we do.
The Dining Car
As mentioned above, you’ll find very few vegetarian options in the dining car, but if you’re a meat eater you might enjoy the occasional break from instant noodles by buying a meal here. We talk about this some in our Trans-Siberian vlog, but you shouldn’t expect great things from a meal in the dining car. The food is okay (it basically looks and tastes like it was made in the small kitchen of a train), and prices are adequate. You can pay anything from 150₽ for a plate of fried potatoes, to 250₽ for an omelette. Black coffee is 150₽, a cabbage-stuffed bun is 100₽, and so on. Also, something to note is that condiments never come included with whatever you order. So, if you’d like ketchup with your fries or milk with your coffee you’ll have to pay an extra 10₽.
You are not allowed to bring alcohol on the Trans-Siberian rail, but as long as you’re discreet about it carrying it shouldn’t be a problem. We packed a bottle of wine in our suitcase and bought the occasional can of beer (which we’d hide in our pocket) at station stops. We were always careful not to let our carriage attendant, Pavel, see us drinking, so we can’t really say what would happen if he caught us with alcohol in our cabin, but it’s good to be aware of the rules and try to be respectful of them while still enjoying yourself—so no getting rowdy and tipsy on the train, guys!
You can buy wine and beer in the dining car, and it’s a pretty fun experience to watch the sunset while sharing a cold Russian beer. We recommend doing this at least once as views from the dining car can be a little different from what you’ll get in your cabin!
1st Class Carriage
So, what amenities can you expect when you board a 1st class carriage on the Trans-Siberian? You’ll get a private cabin with two berths. These convert from seats to beds at night and you’ll get a sheet, a flannel blanket, a coverlet, and two fluffy pillows included. You’ll also receive a packet with slippers and a toothbrush, two hand towels, and a container with tea and chocolate for the journey.
At the end of your carriage you’ll find two basic bathrooms. There’s a toilet and a sink and they’re always stocked with paper towels and toilet paper. You will have access to a shower, at the cost of 150₽, so you may not want to shower every day but it’s still great to have the option. We didn’t know there’d be shower facilities before boarding, so we came prepared with wet wipes and our own washcloths. The trains seem to be modernizing and adding new perks all the time, which is awesome!
As mentioned in our previous blog post, our 1st class carriage came with a small kitchen area with a microwave, sink, and cold water dispenser. We have heard mixed reports about this, some people haven’t had these facilities, while others have. We can’t emphasise enough the need to go prepared for not having access to these options. Some trains are newer than others and offer more facilities, so you may get all this or you may not!
The carriage attendant will be one of the most memorable parts of the journey and you should know what to expect from them. Provodnik is the term for a male carriage attendant, and provodnitsa is a female carriage attendant. You’ll meet your attendant from the moment you board the train. They’ll be waiting, fully uniformed, at the door to the train to check your ticket and passport, and direct you to your cabin. This will be a common sight throughout your trip as at every stop it’s part of their job to stand at the door and greet boarding passengers.
Your provodnik/provodnitsa is responsible for keeping the carriage clean and providing you with items you need. They’ll come by with ice-cream and other basic food items for sale, vacuum out your cabin once a day, keep the carriage and bathrooms clean and tidy, along with other small tasks. Tipping your attendant is proper etiquette, so make sure you set aside 500₽-600₽ for that. The slang for tipping is ‘na chai’ which literally means ‘for tea’. You can choose to do this at the start or end of your journey. Some people recommend tipping at the start so you’re guaranteed good service, but we gave our provodnik his na chai on our last evening on the train. One thing you shouldn’t do is leave it until the morning you disembark. The reason for this is that your main carriage attendant may be off somewhere else the morning of your arrival (this is what happened to us), so it’s better to be safe and tip the evening before.
Russian is the language of the Trans-Siberian railway, and we mean this literally. It’s more than likely you’ll end up with a carriage attendant who can’t speak a word of English. Our provodnik spoke very little and our interactions with other attendants and the dining car staff showed us that it’s more common to meet people who speak only Russian. This can make it a cooler experience because you start picking up Russian as you go along, and it also doesn’t feel like the Trans-Siberian caters so much to tourists as to make the experience inauthentic.
Gaurav and I also realized how spoiled we’ve become when it comes to language. Because almost everywhere we travel these days people speak at least some English, we’ve developed the expectation that this will always be the case, which isn’t healthy. The language barrier was something we actually really loved about Russia. It forced us to step out of our shells and find creative ways to communicate. This is something you should also be prepared for when travelling on the Trans-Siberian!
Hopefully you now know a bit more about what to expect when you board the Trans-Siberian railway. If there’s a topic we haven’t covered here, or you’d like to know more about one of these pointers, leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d be happy to answer your questions!
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Climbing Snowdon was never a must-do activity for us when we moved to the UK three years ago, and we definitely never considered climbing Snowdon in the winter! Over the past few years, Wales has become a go-to destination for us; we love how it’s so close, and yet feels like traveling to a completely different country (and technically it is). There’s also something about Wales that inspires us to get outside and explore, and this year we decided to start out 2019 with a particularly memorable experience: climbing Mt. Snowdon.
If Snowdon is on your bucket-list for this year, we’ve got a few tips to help you make it the optimal experience.
What you should know about climbing in the winter
Snowdon is a pretty popular mountain so if you’re keen to avoid crowds wintertime is the best time to climb it. The train that runs up to the summit is closed during this time of year, and fewer people are willing to brave the cold in order to reach the top. You’ll still get absolutely stunning scenery though, so in our eyes it’s definitely worth doing!
That being said, weather is quite tricky in the winter. It can get extremely cold in Wales and the weather tends to be temperamental—as in, from one hour to the next it can change very suddenly. Case in point, we failed on our first attempt to ascend the mountain due to the weather. It was simply too cold, rainy, and windy to risk trying to get to the top, so we ended up turning around. However, the very next day we got sunny weather for the entire climb, so it can really vary from day to day, hour to hour. Check the daily forecasts to see which days are the best to climb, and don’t be embarrassed about turning around if the weather takes a turn for the worst.
What you should know about preparing for the climb
We didn’t feel that you need to be incredibly fit or an experienced hiker to climb Snowdon. We saw all types of people (and dogs) making the climb and it can be done as long as you’re safe and careful. If you’re planning to climb in winter we’d recommend investing in a decent pair of hiking boots with no-slip treads as the rocks can get wet and icy and it’s a bit treacherous at parts.
Layers are also key in the winter. It never hurts to have an extra layer to keep you warm—you can always take stuff off if need be, but you can’t wear what you don’t bring! Wear clothing that will wick away moisture. Wool is a great option for a winter trek. While it might sound weird, you actually will sweat, even in really cold weather, and it can be dangerous if your clothes don’t dry quickly enough or keep the moisture off your skin. Opt for wool on the inside and waterproofs on the outside. We learned this lesson the hard way!
What you should know about the length of the trek
Locals told us that it would take 4 hours to ascend and descend Snowdon, but we think this only applies to people who have done it before. For first-timers we recommend setting aside 5-6 hours to do the trek. The reason being that you’ll most likely be stopping to take photos along the way, pausing to rest, or simply climbing more slowly because the trail is new to you.
Of course, in winter this means that you need to make the most of your daylight hours and embark on the hike by 10am if you want to be back down before it begins to get dark. The first hour of the trek is quite straightforward and easy, you’ll be walking a wide path that slowly rises, so you can even start the hike early in the morning when it’s still dark out. We saw people starting out at 7am before the sun was up (we ourselves started the hike at 8am). This is also another great way to avoid crowds as not many people are climbing at that hour.
Remember to carry energy bars, sandwiches, or other snacks as well as water. The nearest food is the café at the foot of the trails, and you’ll definitely need food and water during your 5-hour trek!
What you need to know about the trails
There are several paths up Snowdon, and you can select your option depending on how difficult you’d like your climb to be.
Llanberis Path – This one is the easiest, but also the longest. It meanders at a steady rise all the way up to the peak and is smooth enough you can bike it if you dare.
Miner’s Path – This is the path we took up both days and is pretty easy going for the first half but can be tricky on the second part (this will be where you’ll need no-slip boots). Recommended if you’re looking for a challenge but are still new to hiking.
Pyg Path – This was by far the hardest path we attempted and you need to be extra careful with this one. It involves more rocky climbing than gentle slopes and the pathway isn’t always clear so it’s easy to get lost.
For maps and info you can stop in at the YHA at the foot of Snowdon where some of the major paths begin.
What you need to know about getting there
There is parking at the base where the paths begin, but this fills up fast so you need to arrive quite early (around 7am) to get a spot. In the summer we heard that by 7am it’s full already, so be sure to adjust accordingly. All-day parking is £10 here.
If the parking lot is full, you do have the option of parking on the shoulder of the road. There’s several free parking areas along the road, but this will add about an hour to your trek as you’ll have to hike from your car up to the paths and back.
A third option is to use the Snowdon Sherpa. This is a bus that serves as a form of transportation around the foot of Snowdon. You can buy a day pass for £5, or a single-use pass for £2. Check the website for updates though, as the Snowdon Sherpa doesn’t run on some holidays.
That’s it! Hopefully this will help you plan your winter trek up Snowdon. Let us know how it goes!
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