Sunday, 29 June 2008

Onward to Russia

Within minutes of boarding the overnight bus to Tallinn, a bus highly reminiscent of the musky, brown horrors my school used to cart us to do sports in, we realised that getting to sleep was going to be nigh on impossible.

After being woken from various shallow dreams by incredible pains in my unnaturally contorted body I decided to sit up and attempt primitive conversation in order to pass the time. Soon enough we approached the Russian border and prepared ourselves for the first of many exchanges with steely eyed guards who didn't take kindly to our types.

After showing our passports and boarding cards for the first time we waited around 20 minutes to be allowed to remove all our bags from the bus, walk through another checkpoint (our bags, were of course, at no point inspected) and then get back on the bus again.

We then crossed over an epic, fenced bridge with an enormous, gothic looking monastery looming over it only to find ourselves at yet another checkpoint. This one simply involved the bus driver making a series of grunting noises at an overweight man smoking a filterless cigarette whilst wearing a mixture of old bits of uniform and his clothes from home. The gate was lifted, the bus hissed on and finally: we were in Russia.

From St Petersburg

We arrived at St Petersburg Baltic Station at around 6:30 in the morning, a distinctly Russian looking blend of grey functionality and grand Tsarist columns, and took the Metro to our hostel on Nevsky Propekt.

We quickly made a series of realisations:

1. The Tsars had it coming to them

The degree of opulence that invades your vision at every possible turn is frankly stultifying. The entirety of Nevsky Propekt is an almost pornographic display of wealth. Every building is mind blowing in its design, any single one of them would be the defining centrepiece of almost any city (or country) in the world.

When you see how awesome St Petersburg looks and compare that to how poor the living conditions for peasants at the turn of the 20th century were you can see that it was only a matter of time before people spoke up.

From St Petersburg

2. Russians love roller-blading

Not the regular kind either, we're talking full on Tampax advert attire: lycra pants, helmet, wrist protectors and neon t-shirt. I have never seen so many people on roller blades in my life.

3. Russian women are really hot

Whilst most Russian men look like a cross between a bear and a bag of mashed potatoes. The disparity between genders here is crazy. Almost every chick you see would be, much like the buildings here, the best looking in any British city. The constant bombardment of incredible women was almost too much, which probably explains why one of the showers in the hostel delivered only cold water.

4. There is probably more Sushi in Russia than in Japan

The following places are awesome:

Valhall - a restaurant serving meat on viking shield 'platters' with proper coffee for 50roubles
Teremok - a Russian fast food joint serving borscht, pancakes and various types of buckwheat porridge.
Place we didn't bother to remember the name of - for 300 roubles (less than 8 quid) you are given a 1 hour key card to an all you can eat buffet featuring a range of pastas, salads, meats, pizza, pies, espresso, soft drinks - alcoholic drinks costing extra. Beer and wine are included in the price however as Russians do not consider them to be alcoholic (seriously).

Everywhere else in all of Russia is a sushi bar now.

We spent the next four days seeing what is possibly the most incredible looking city on the Earth. It is a real shame that more people don't come here and that more people don't realise quite how much St Petersburg has to offer. The Hermitage alone holds such a large quantity of great works of art that the process of cataloguing them all still isn't entirely complete. One room had every wall covered in paintings by Picasso the next was filled with Matisse. Downstairs was filled with Roman statues and pottery, Egyptian sarcophagi and classical paintings from Rembrandt to Leonardo. The place is sick.

Due to our inability to get in contact with the Russians, coupled with George's one day illness from hell, we didn't get a chance to train any sambo. We made do by rigging up our portable chin up bar and blast straps as well as using the resistance bands and some chairs (for tricep dips) to set up a training ground.

From St Petersburg

We used the chin up bar not only for chin ups but also as a bar bell (in conjunction with the bands) and as an anchor for the blast straps (for suspended push ups).

Considering how immobile and massive the majority of guys over at are its somewhat ironic that the shit they sell is so useful for travelling around the world with.

Next post: Our time in Moscow

Saturday, 28 June 2008

3D Treening, Tallinn

From Estonia
Our second day in Tallinn was almost entirely dedicated to training. The anticipation of getting to visit a BJJ club in a foreign country was overwhelming. Because it was a nice day we decided to warm up by climbing the ramparts of the Old Town and in doing so ended up visiting the most impressive looking church in the whole city.

The walk from the Old Town to the gym took a good 45 minutes down what must be the longest street in Estonia. Once we arrived we realised that it was well worth the walk. We got there a little early and had a chance to look around the facilities before the guys arrived and were blown away. The place was by far the biggest, in terms of mat space, that I've ever trained in. There was a side section, in addition to the main space, with a selection of bar and kettle-bells as well as a climbing frame with chin up/ dipping bars clipped into it. There was also a rather audacious glass fronted office, overlooking the mats, on a higher mezzanine floor.

Our host, Daniel was really welcoming and immediately apologised for the fact that the main instructor was training with the Straight Blast guys in Ireland all summer. As such, the training session was more or less entirely dedicated to sparring. This was fine by us.

From Estonia

The range of size, strength and technique levels on display was awesome. Just when you'd gotten used to rolling with an awesome open guard player a really strong athletic wrestler would come in and do their best to keep you on your back. Although most of the guys claimed to be white belts the overall level was pretty high, we later learned that they basically never grade at 3D. This may well be a reflection of the fact that there is only one tournament a year in Estonia and as such the need for belts is somewhat diminished. The lack of belts also added to the laid-back feel of the place, there didn't appear to be any nastiness or ego on display at all and everyone seemed to enjoy helping each other out.

I particularly enjoyed going up against one opponent with a very similair top game to my own, it really gave me a chance to work on my submission defense and in doing so, discover other ways to chain submissions and transitions whilst avoiding common counters.

From Estonia

It was a shame when the entrance of a gaggle of skirt wearing, aikido losers marked the end of our session, but seeing those guys come in and start a series of drills mainly involving bowing and punching themselves made for a good ab workout for us, so why complain?

I would like to personally thank everyone at 3DTreening for making us feel so welcome and helping us to improve our games; in particular Martin (hopefully we'll get to train together next time I'm in Estonia) and Daniel (thanks for driving us back man, we probably would have missed our bus to St Petersburg were it not for you!).

If any of you ever find yourselves in England you are more than welcome at Pedro's in Bristol.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

And so it begins

The scene at Stanstead airport at 1am is deeply unsettling. The mass of crumpled bodies in makeshift blankets amongst the eerie tranquility of closed shops and check-in counters is like something out of a zombie film. This is how The Manly Odyssey began. With a few hours to kill George, Magnus and myself set up camp in front of a coffee shop and waited for check-in to open at 4:45am. Our Destination: Tallinn, Estonia.

I managed to fall asleep on the plane and woke up with my copy of New Scientist stuck to my face with drool... high brow. As we touched down the intercom cracked in, "Hello and welcome to Estonia, where today the weather is not so great." No shit. The torrential downpour that greeted us was like something out of a 'Nam film. We quickly filed into the nearest taxi and got to our hostel for some sleep.

Upon waking we decided to have a look around and grab some food at a supermarket. We saw a pretty nuts looking orthodox Russian church just sort of dumped amongst the outskirts of the ferry port. Later on , after seeing the munificent offerings on display in the Old Town we realised why this one had been largely ignored. The Old Town is like a Disney Land for medieval church enthusiasts, albeit one that is punctuated with a series of strip clubs, bordellos and restaurants.

With a day to kill and nowhere to train, it turns out that the 24th is a national holiday here, we were delighted to find a 24Kilo kettlebell just lying around the hostel kitchen on our return from the supermarket. Before we could even get our shopping into the fridge the urge to bust out a set of swings became too much. We took on 5 sets of 5(per arm) and decided that since we'd warmed up we might as well try and get some form of a work out in.

Using my trusty resistance bands we cracked out:
5x10 on push ups (medium band).
5x12 military presses (medium band with broomstick).
6x10 concentration curls (doubled up super-mini with broomstick).

Whilst the work out wasn't fantastic it was still a relief to see we could put something together with our limited resources; something we'll need to do on our 6 day train journey from Russia to Mongolia.

After getting some food down us we went for a look around the Old Town again and found a well equipped playground just outside the city walls. We stretched our gymnastic imaginations by doing some dips, chin ups and -in George's case- muscle ups into hand stands. Freakish bastard.

We kept wandering through winding streets and courtyards until we realised that, even though it was still light, it was 1 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't really given any consideration to how far north we'd gone. I'm not sure it actually got dark at any point, what a mind fuck.

Today we'll get a chance to roll with the guys at 3DTreening, we'll let you know how it went once we get to St Petersburg.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Final steps in preparation

Organising a trip for multiple individuals across six countries (and two Special Administrative Regions) can be a total pain in the ass. Trawling through Chinese timetables and dealing with the Visa section of the Russian Consulate can be an arduous, albeit necessary, process. There is however one aspect of the planning that has been a complete joy: dealing with the International grappling community.

I have sent emails out to BJJ clubs in Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul and have heard back within a matter of hours from all of them. Everyone has been super accommodating and eager to help.

This is a phenomenon not limited to BJJ either. I have never in my life attended a Sambo training session, in fact I plain suck at leg locks. I know the difference between a knee bar and a toe hold but that's about the extent of my knowledge. Furthermore, I'm not American let alone a member of the American Sambo Association, yet this didn't seem to bother Steve Koepfer (the head of the ASA) one bit. He went out of his way to provide me with contact details for an ASA affiliate club, which will hopefully teach us the ropes once we get to St Petersburg, once again within hours of me sending him an email.

Although we're going to some pretty far away places with radically different cultures to our own it seems that the common language of grappling is not so different throughout the world. I think that the respect and friendship gained from sparring all out with some one is a hugely positive aspect of combat sports and these values are an unequivocal part of being a worthwhile human being, something which transcends cultural boundaries.

Here's a massive thanks to everyone that has helped so far, I'm really looking forward to training with you all.