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Soaking up Siberia - Beer

They always had Baltika somewhere there.
Wherever I travel I try to drink mostly local beers. There's nothing like a pint of tasty never-heard-before ale from a local brewery that you're unlikely to find ever again in your home country. I can't even remember (for a reason...) how many different Altbiers I had during some days spent in Düsseldorf, Germany. Then, aside from the micro brewery snobbery there's lager. Despite its notorious reputation of having no taste and even less character, I've always liked lager. It's a perfect drink for thirst, for Finnish sauna, and in my taste darker and richer beers don't always suit that well for tropical conditions, so I tend to grab a locally brewed lager in e.g. South-East Asia even if the taste is like 'sex in a canoe'. Darker, richer beers suit better to autumn and winter time on northern latitudes. What I never do, however, is buy a Heineken, Carlsberg or Fosters or equivalent generic multinational lager. Well, theoretically I could buy one in Holland, Denmark or Australia, because it would be 'local' there, but I tend to fancy some brand I've never had before. So, bulk lager has its place, but the rule of thumb is that craft beer comes first.

My father told me that Russian beer used to be notoriously bad during the Soviet Union times. After the Glasnost and fall of the Union the brewery culture and the demand for quality beers has risen to a new level. I don't know if this was true, but during our week in Russia on the Trans-Siberian rail we quickly picked up the daily habit of buying couple of cold bottles of Baltika 7. I'm not sure why we always chose number seven, probably my father again had this impression it was 'the best' of the Baltika line. Now that I did some research, I found out that there is also other interesting varieties of beer in the series. Only one number up, and it would have been wheat ale. Well, what did Baltika 7 taste like? It was this familiar generic pale lager.  Like any equivalent easy-drink bulk lager, it is good served cold, but not much of a character. The same goes with Sibirskaya Korona, the brand with which we ceremoniously toasted in Moscow before leaving for Siberia.

Mongolia has huge problems with alcoholism within their population; the Russian vodka drinking culture introduced by the communist regime did nothing good for the public health. It still is a common sight to bump into a drunk Mongol in the broad daylight downtown Ulan Bator. However, nowadays the local brewery business has risen and more and more people have changed vodka to beer, which has actually improved the public health. Indeed, Mongolia managed to surprise us with their neat beers. We tried at least Gem draft and Chinggis, which had notable character compared to easy international lagers. Especially Gem was really good. Ulan Bator bathed in the hot sun during our visit, so the best choice for refreshing drink was always a cold pint of Mongolian brewed beer. Many things were left undone by us during our short visit, but I'd go back only for the beer!

Chinese hotel room necessities. And a gas mask.
Like everywhere else, we enjoyed local beers also during the last part of the trip, in China. Again, no big taste bud exploding experiences there with their Tsingtao, Yanjing and several other pale and simple brews we had, but it was always decent to say the least, especially every once in a while during walking in hot smoggy Beijing. The price range was huge: A pint in one restaurant could cost sevenfold compared to another, totally similar establishment.

However the most interesting Chinese beer incidence during this trip wasn't the richness or other quality aspect of the beer. It was the origins: Once we had crossed the Chinese border, after the bogie change, our new cabin mates happily carried a load of Harbin beer for themselves and us from the railway station grocery shop. What made the beer so special was that the city of Harbin, where they brew it, is the twin town of Rovaniemi, Finland, where our cabin mates come from. Ganbei!

Previous chapters of Soaking up Siberia:
- Tea and Coffee
- Kvass
- Vodka (and Wine)


HR Giger Tourism II - The Bar

Shopping Center Milieu
Since we weren't able to visit the Giger Bar at Gruyères back in 2002, because the bar was under construction, I made sure we'd route our next Switzerland trip two years later via the city of Chur. It's the artist's birth town, and one of the country's oldest.

I'm not exactly sure any more what I expected of a Giger Bar. Maybe an ancient black castle or cathedral. Or some underground caverns, where HR Giger's sickest sinister artistic ideas would fit like a biomechanical tentacle in an eye socket. The greater our surprise was when we pulled over the parking area ...of a futuristic shopping center!

Ok... so this is a mall or an industrial park or something made of giant plastic cubes or  something... well, it kinda has some kind of a space station looks, somehow, but not quite what I imagined a Giger Bar to look like. Once inside the actual establishment it was more like it, very Gigerish interieur with Harkonnen chairs, biomechanical details - even the floor plates looked like they were part of an Alien space ship.

Giger Mirror
The next surprise was actually the clientele. One could imagine that a genuine Giger Bar would be crowded with freaks, goths, metal heads, artists, xenomorphs and other rejects. You know, black leather, tattoos and piercings, frowning sulky faces, a Charles Manson lookalike mad DJ playing dark music. Granted, we paid our visit during the afternoon hours, so no wonder there was no freakshow of a customer base present in the almost empty bar. The few customers were just some regular white collar salarymen, probably work mates having a beer before going home. I mean, they didn't look like they had deliberately come to the Giger Bar - they looked like they had gone to have an after work pint at the nearest pub which just happened to be a Giger Bar.

Happy Tourist
Nothing wrong with that, of course. It's not like me and my wife would have fitted into the alleged freak scene much  better. But hell, we travelled thousands of kilometres for the sole purpose of having a pint in a Giger Bar! I actually told that to the barmaid, who seemed genuinely surprised why anyone would do that. But she rewarded my fanboyhood by giving me some freebies from the bar, matchbooks and photos. I also bought The Mystery of San Gottardo book as a souvenir for myself. I was expecting a weird place to visit, and weird it definitely was, in a slightly different way, but undoubtedly worthy.


Penn & Teller - It's What's for Dinner

At a restaurant in German city of Aachen I noticed familiar names on the menu. The item number 451 was called Jubi-Pennteller. I'm talking, of course, about Penn Jillette and Teller, entertainers famous for magic and tv shows like Bullshit! What on Earth have my favourite magicians, sceptics and bullshit revealers to do with German cuisine?

I already knew that Teller is German for plate and it didn't take too long to find out that Penner or Pennbruder means bum (as in scrounger, tramp or hobo). Thus, ein Pennteller would be maybe something like hobo plate, and the prefix Jubi, which probably derives from das Jubiläum, tells it is more fe(a)stive than just an 'ordinary' hobo plate. And what would be more feastive for your regular bum than some Puttes (local version of hash browns), cured pork, bratwurst, mashed potato, bratwurst and sauerkraut (we're in Germany after all)? Probably Penn & Teller themselves would agree that this is no bullshit!


Weird Europe - How to Find Unusual Attractions

Frightened tourists on an Edinburgh ghost tour.
When I'm traveling, I usually try to find if there's something unusual or exceptional to do or to see in the area. Sometimes even the most common touristy places have totally 'something different' to offer. For example, I never fancied the idea of going to Spanish Costa del sol, which has practically been covered with concrete over the last five decades and which annually sees way more tourists than local people. Of course, there are the wonderful caves of Nerja and the magnificent Alhambra castle in the area, which despite their being perfect school-book examples of tourist traps, are truly mystical and awe-inspiring must-see destinations for anyone. Then again, I dug some more and found out about El camino del rey, the infamous scariest footpath in the world. It's just around the corner in the Sunny Coast, but when I was there the first time I had no idea of the place. The second visit, after some research, resulted to one of the daunting trips I've ever made. Read more about it here.

Lurgrotte Semriach (Austria) gone phallic.
But how to find those different places? How to find the path less travelled? Most tourists don't have the opportunity to spend months and months drifting around, finding the coolest places and the secret beaches that no one has ever heard of. Usually it's the one or two week dash to the destination, some hanging around there, then back home and to the rat race. You can be lucky and find that awesome waterfall or that spectacular food selling street vendor, but it never hurts to do your homework before you even start packing. Usually I start by Googling if there are caves near the destination. Caves are cool (yes, literally too). I mentioned the Nerja caves above, but I've visited also couple of others. Sailed on an underwater river in Belgium. Become awestruck by the Naida caves on an Indian island (video link). Another must-Google for me are ossuaries. I've seen only few of the many European ones and they're fascinating. I'll definitely visit any if there's one nearby my destination.

So Google is your friend. But how did travellers find those coolest places before internet? Believe me or not, but there are these things called books! I ran into a wonderfully named guide, Weird Europe (by Kristan Lawson & Anneli Rufus), which is already quite old, my copy being 1999 edition. But it promises bizarre, macabre and just plain weird sights to its reader, including sewer tours, two-headed animals, pictures drawn by dead people and underground cities. It's just a book for me, and despite its age, most of the attractions are still there. Well, the Beatles Museum in Cologne has moved, but the caves, crypts and tombs seldom wander away from their present location. With this book I found about this awesome hedge maze next to a three-country-borderstone, got reminded of certain church chamber that has walls decorated with human bones (video link) and discovered an underground river in Belgium (who would have thought that there are such a many caves in Belgium). Many of the places I have already visited, and I happen to know few attractions that should be mentioned in the book that aren't there, but one thing is sure: I'll never leave for a European country any more without checking Weird Europe contents and index first.