Hello!

It has now been seven weeks since I left Lyon and I certainly have a lot to report! Blog updates have been stymied by a) a rather dire internet situation and b) being far too busy doing exciting things with my life (you choose which is more important). This blog only brings me to the end of my time in Russia at the end of May, so I am still five weeks behind, but as in 2013 I shall diligently soldier on and catch up eventually!

Without further ado, here’s the start of what I’ve been up to…

Mannheim

I left Lyon on May 18th to head to Mannheim, Germany, where I spent three days visiting my friend Sevil who I hadn’t seen since we were on exchange together in 2013. I was really going to see her, and there wasn’t exactly a lot to do in Mannheim. Nonetheless, it was great to catch up and I also had a really good experience couchsurfing with two students, Marie-Sophie and Ria,  who made an admirable effort to entertain me despite it being exam season. They even graciously included me in a burger night with a group of their friends, which was lovely, even though I only understood about 1% of the conversation (auf Deutsch)..

Sevil and I also visited the nearby town of Heidelberg, where she had gone to uni, which is much more-well known for its picturesque Baroque old town. The ‘mature’ tourist groups were already taking over en masse, so I would not recommend a visit in the height of the summer season.

Unfortunately, Mannheim’s enduring legacy was a broken wheel on my suitcase which I had no choice but to drag around with me for the next month.

Tallinn

Mannheim was really just a stepping stone, and from there I headed to Tallinn, Estonia, where the real adventure began. Despite some confusion about when exactly the other was arriving, my NZ friend Michelle and I ended up at the baggage claim within 10 minutes of each other, just before midnight. Needless to say that was rather a late night as we had just a few things to catch up on…

The next day started off with a walking tour of the old town, which took us through the main points of interest and gave us a brief overview of Estonia’s history – basically continual invasion by Russia, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, before finally becoming truly independent after the fall of the USSR. We spent that afternoon roaming round the old town, which was not huge, so we had a pretty good feel for the place and all its nooks and crannies. That evening was the Infamous Duck Incident, which most of you will have seen on facebook. To cut a long story short, there were lots of bird sculptures (which we decided to call ducks, even though they clearly weren’t) around the old town, blocking off pedestrian streets. Obviously, this was a photo opportunity waiting to happen – and I did patiently wait, thinking that around 9pm on an empty street would be an opportune, inconspicuous moment. WRONG. Unfortunately for me, two young Estonians in an SUV chose that moment to come round the corner and do a three-point turn. Imagine their delight to find two young lasses larking about on a photo shoot. They drove right up behind me and just sat there, eventually flicking their lights on when I continued ignoring them. Michelle meanwhile was having a meltdown as this photo sequence shows. They eventually lost interest in our lack of reaction, yelled a ‘compliment’ out the window, and left.

The next day we headed out to the obligatory Soviet TV tower. This one was actually pretty cool as Tallinn is right on the Baltic, so we could see right along the coast and over the sea though sadly not quite to Finland, much as we squinted. The playground also provided excellent entertainment.

That afternoon we explored the Rotermann Quarter, a very modern precinct that had a very Wellington waterfront/Auckland viaduct type vibe to it (despite not being on the water).

Our final day started with a trip to the Kumu musem, a national collection of Estonian art. We then wandered through Kadriorg Park, and ended up at the beach, where there were surprisingly quite a few locals out sunbathing. I went for a paddle which was not quite as numbing as I expected. We then headed to the Hotel Virius where there is a guided tour of what was formerly the KGB station on the ‘non-existent’ top floor of the hotel. It was interesting, but not quite what we were expecting – it was rated very highly on tripadvisor and we thought it was going to be a museum taking up the whole floor; instead we were shown a few small rooms and it was mainly a guided talk. At €10 this was also expensive for Tallinn, and we were further solicited for tips at the end. It was a good thing to do but not quite worth the build up.

The bus ride

In the interests of economy, and a bit of excitement, we were getting an overnight bus into Russia – a luxurious coach with leather seats, individual tv screens, and free coffee machine drinks all for a mere €15. I didn’t make the most of any of this stuff, as the idea was to sleep – but of course I couldn’t relax until we’d crossed the border. This didn’t happen till around 2am, and took nearly an hour and a half! First of all we had to exit Estonia, where a border agent boarded the bus, checked all of our passports against our faces, then disappeared with them all, before returning with an exit stamp. We then drove forward for a few minutes, stopped again, and had a Russian check our passport. Then we rolled forward again, had yet another passport check, and then had to get off to actually go through customs -a rather nerve racking wait, not helped by the fact that everyone else on the bus was Russian. Nonetheless, we made it through, got back on the bus, had – you guessed it – one more passport check, and were at last in the clear! By this point of course the sun had come up, so I didn’t sleep then either (I think I would have been too wired anyway).

St Petersburg

We arrived in St Petersburg at 5:30am and headed for our hotel, where we paid for a room so we could sleep for a couple of hours before heading out to seize the day. This actually worked surprisingly well. We set off at 11am with our eyes on one prize for the day: The Hermitage. More on that later.

The Russian experience got off to an interesting start as the seemingly simple instructions from the hotel receptionist on how to get to the closest metro stop had us walking through some kind of military compound?? It was all closed off with big iron fences and people in military uniform guarding the gates, yet there was a side pedestrian gate that was open with regular people nonchalantly walking through. Welcome to Russia! We nonetheless made it to the metro, successfully bought tickets, and were on our way. It turns out the St Petersburg metro is incredibly deep – 130m below the surface! I couldn’t get any photos that did it justice, but the escalators just kept going and going. Anyway, we managed to survive the line change and get off at the right stop, where we wandered round rather aimlessly for a while until we figured out the correct direction to go in. During this time, we became aware that we were being followed…by a guy we had eyed up earlier on the metro! He was clearly following us as we were changing direction a lot. We stayed cool and kept heading towards the museum. Eventually, he came up to Michelle and mumbled something in Russian as he shoved something into her hand – his number scribbled on a receipt – then scarpered! We couldn’t believe it. Our Russian experience was definitely off to a good start.

THE HERMITAGE is basically the main reason I wanted to come to Russia – arguably the largest museum in the world, housed in not one but five imperial palaces. There was surprisingly no line, and we headed straight in, to a very important first stop at the cafe. Who should end up in the cafe queue behind us but a lovely retired couple from Nelson! It was all weirdly serendipitous. We had lunch together and they told us about their trip, on the Transsiberian Railway from Beijing. They had got off and on a couple of times, and had an excellent time sharing a cabin with four young Russians. They were genuinely interested in hearing about what we were up to and it was quite sad saying goodbye! From there we spent a solid five hours at the museum, punctuated with an afternoon tea break, and still barely finished the second floor, which spanned the full five buildings. The buildings themselves were certainly not to be outdone by the art they housed.

That evening we met up with our Contiki group, and headed out on our first activity – a canal cruise. This came with a free drink – either vodka, ‘champanski’ or OJ, so we naturally felt we had to go with the vodka, it being our first night in Russia and all. Unfortunately, it was warm, served in flimsy plastic cups and the MOST DISGUSTING VODKA EVER. It burned, badly. Nonetheless, the trip was duly christened. Despite the bad start, the cruise was quite cool to explore some of St Petersburg’s canals, and get some good vistas from the Neva river. Unfortunately it was at an awkward dusk time, so neither light nor dark, which wasn’t ideal for photos.

The next morning we had a bus tour through central St Petersburg, with a few stops for group photos, before heading out to Peterhof. About an hour and a half out of the city, on the Baltic coast, Peterhof is the ‘Versailles of Russia’ built by Tsar Peter I. We had a few hours to explore the gardens and have lunch, which was really not enough (and the lunch was rather disappointing). We did finally get the icecream-in-a-cone we had been looking for the whole time we were in Tallinn, so that was good.

We then headed back into town where we had a couple of hours of free time, and Michelle and I headed off with our new friends Ed (from New Jersey) and Darren (from Perth) to St Isaac’s Cathedral, which we had seen that morning. We climbed the dome for fantastic views over the city. However, the cathedral itself was incredible as well – and apart from the lack of pews, it was really not obvious that it was an orthodox church – it was mainly decorated in marble and paintings that looked very ‘Western, for want of a better term.

From there I had wanted to see the spot where Rasputin was shot, which was only a couple of blocks away. However, while we were walking there the heavens opened with TORRENTIAL rain that did not abate. We sought refuge at a local cafe,where despite a severe language barrier we managed to successfully order and pay for food with the world’s most patient waitress. It was actually really cool to have done something ‘authentic’ like that. Thankfully the rain had subsided by the time we had to rejoin the group.

That evening most of the group went to a cultural evening, which significantly exceeded my expectations. Although it was purely for tourist groups, it was nonetheless an impressive display of Russian singing, dancing and music, in part due to the sheer number of people involved – my memory’s a little hazy, but for sure 30, possibly upwards of 40 as well. Ed, Sosa and Dean from our group got called up on stage and performed admirably.

The next morning started to a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, specifically to the cathedral, where all of the Romanov tsars are buried. This includes the family of Tsar Nicolas II, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1917. We also heard a quintet sing which, while touristy, was again very impressive.

From there it was back to the Hermitage, where the group had a guided tour. Michelle and I ditched the group to make the most of our time to try and see as much as we could. This turned into a great palaver as the 19th-20th century art had moved to a different building. It was only across the square, but by the time I found my way out of the main Hermitage complex, and through the labyrinthine new building that had only recently started to be converted into a museum I had to race over there, I did not have a lot of time to see the artwork. It was exhausting, but I made it! Unfortunately I didn’t really have time to stop and appreciate the paintings – as this was a lot of stuff I had studied or even written about in my honours dissertation – but I was very glad to have made the effort.

From there it was back to the hotel to prepare for probably the most anticipated night of the trip: group dinner and a ballet performance. Unfortunately, both were disappointing. The ballet had really been hyped up, and was very expensive, but when we got there it turned out to be yet another performance for tourist groups. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the theatre was half empty, and it was clear even to me – knowing nothing about ballet – that some of the execution, especially in terms of synchronisation of the dancers was lacking finesse. It did have a full orchestra which was excellent, especially as it was Swan Lake so I knew the music, but it was not better than a performance from the RNZB at home. That evening St Petersburg was partying for its 313th birthday. We were all too shattered to check out the celebrations properly, but we did get some great night views of the river while waiting for non-existent fireworks:

Our final day in St Petersburg started with  visit to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilt Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. This church was incredible, both inside and out. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

After the church came another Weird Russia Experience, in which I got a chicken salad for lunch…only it wasn’t chicken salad. If anyone knows what this is, please let me know! I later asked our Russian guide Anna and she didn’t know what it was called in English but she said it’s a vegetable that’s usually popular in Asian, especially Korean cuisine. It was so bizarre – it just didn’t taste like anything, and had a very weird spongy texture. It didn’t taste BAD, but just the unknown made me rather uneasy.

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WHAT IS THIS

Lastly, we headed to the Siege of Leningrad memorial, where we learnt about the 900 days during WWII where St Petersburg was surrounded and totally cut of by Nazi troops. This was really interesting to learn about, and especially ask Anna about her experiences under communism, the situation today etc. Unfortunately we were limited for time as there was so much we wanted to ask her!

Novgorod

From the Siege memorial we were onto the bus and drove for a couple of hours to Novgorod. This was really just a stop on our way to Moscow, but it was an interesting place in its own right – a 1000+ year old city, with one of the first Kremlins (=fortresses) of Russia. We had a walking tour around the town, and after dinner headed to the local ~party boat~, where we met some Russians learning English who were cool to talk to. I headed home with a group at 1am, and we were the first to leave. Most of the group headed down into the club section and didn’t emerge until the wee hours of the morning.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending how you look at it, the next day was spent entirely on the bus, with a 9 hour or so drive to Moscow. This provided ample sleeping opporunity for those feeling a little worse for wear. However, we did also watch Anastacia – rather apt – and had a couple of other activities going on. The highlight, in terms of most memorable thing to come from the trip, was that a random truck stop we pulled into had a bear in a cage????? We all felt bad looking, but it was pretty fascinating – not quite the same as the Malayan sunbears at Wellington zoo. We also stopped in a town called Klin and saw a house Tchaikovsky lived in.

Moscow

Our first day in Moscow started with a tour of the city, and a visit to the Statue park, a really nice park which also happened to be full of statues – a lot requisitioned from around the city, including the last remaining full statue of Stalin.

From there we headed for a guided tour of the Kremlin, where Putin was in according to the flag on the roof. We saw the Tsar Cannon, the largest cannon in the world, yet never fired – and the Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world…you guessed it…also never rung. Cathedral Square surrounded by 5 churches was particularly impressive, and we went inside a few of them though no photos were allowed inside.

From there we explored Red Square, unfortunately full of fencing setting up for some event, and St Basil’s Cathedral. Our guide had told us that it was totally different to the Church on Spilled Blood, but we were still totally stunned by what it was like inside. It was almost more of a fortress, made of brick, and separated into lots of small individual chapels, with little windows, nooks and crannies and outdoor balconies everywhere. Very unusual. Next we visited the Armoury museum, which essentially houses the crown jewels of imperial Russia. The main attraction are the iconic Fabergé eggs, but there was also a lot of silverware, armour, costumes and chariots. Again, no photos inside.

That evening Michelle and I had an amazing dinner at the Bolshoi theatre restaurant. We couldn’t believe a) how swanky it was, b) that they let us eat there (we were sitting outside, but I felt extremely uncomfortable walking through to the toilets), and c) how reasonable the prices were! Russia, like Estonia, was on the whole pretty cheap, though still difficult to wrap my head round prices in roubles. While the Bolshoi was definitely ton the expensive end for Russia, it just seemed so cheap for what they could have charged given the calibre of the place and the clientele (not including us). Michelle got pelmeni (beef dumplings) for 800 roubles – about €11 or NZ$17, and I got Borscht (beetroot soup) for 400RUB/€5.5/NZ$8.

After dinner we freshened up at the hotel, then headed back into town for the big event of the evening – drinks on the rooftop bar of the Ritz Carlton, overlooking the Kremlin and Red Square. After ubering from our hotel for a grand total of NZ$1, we attempted to inconspicuously arrive in dribs and drabs – needless to say, we didn’t fool anyone. However, we were legit paying customers, and Russian prices did NOT apply. My Moscow mule was 1100RUB – about €15/NZ$24 – which was expensive, but again, I thought not too bad given where we were and what they could have asked for. And it was not an occasion to do things by halves!

The next morning started off with a tour of the metro system which, while not as deep as St Petersburg, was full of ornate stations. Unfortunately, they are eventually all going to be stripped down as they are all rather heavy on the ol’ communist propaganda.

From there we headed back to Red Square to visit Lenin’s mausoleum. This is exactly what it sounds like – Vladimir Lenin, lying in state for all to see, 92 years after he died. It was quite a surreal experience – to be honest I was quite happy with the disconnect with what I was seeing, and tried not to stare too hard. I mainly looked at his face, but a few others in the group commented that he looked quite short, and also that his fingernails were…starting to show signs of wear.

To continue the Exciting Russian Stories segment, lunch in an otherwise unassuming pelmeni/pie type cafe took an unexpected turn when we struck the CUTEST/FRIENDLIEST SERVER EVER. He was the only one who spoke English, so had the pleasure of dealing with three of us while quite a queue of unimpressed Russians formed for his colleague. It started with a bit of awkward laughing with Michelle over fruit juice confusion, escalated with me giving him a (requested) English lesson on all the names of the pie fillings, and culminated in him telling Melissa we were the best customers he’d had all day. We were pretty beside ourselves by the time the poor guy had to come and bring us our food. Nonetheless, the feeling was clearly mutual as further contact has been established! And that is all I will say on the matter…

After lunch we headed to the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was entirely rebuilt in the late 90s after having been destroyed on Stalin’s orders. It was ginormous, with a full second church one storey down that was just as elaborate as the top part. Once again, no photos unfortunately. It was also very strict on entry, and one of the guys from our group got denied for wearing shorts. Michelle and I in our classy church-scarf attire were fine on the other hand.

After the church I headed to the Pushkin museum with Melissa, where we again focused on the 19th/20th C building, this time at a much more leisurely pace! Again I saw a fair few works I had written about or at least studied, and even managed to scrape together some form of an informative commentary for Melissa. From there I finally got round to doing some souvenir shopping (choosing Russian dolls = not a relaxing activity), before getting dinner with Michelle and Ed – this time it was shashlik, a sort of deconstructed barbecued meat kebab which was delicious and again very cheap! We then had final drinks with our tour group before they headed off at 6am for a full day’s drive to Belarus.

To make the most of our final day in Moscow we had a leisurely sleep in, and then a very thrifty day riding round on the metro to visit the most impressive stations we’d tracked down on google. Yes, it was a steal at 40RUB/€.55/NZ$.87 for a day’s entertainment, but it was legitimately the best way we wanted to spend our time. From there we headed to the airport with the world’s craziest taxi driver, and it was time to say ‘dasvidaniya’.

 

Et voilà! The lowdown on Estonia and Russia, which brings me up to the 1st of June. I still have Lithuania, Latvia and England to write about to close the travel chapter, let alone getting started on what I’m up to currently. Things are in full swing at summer camp in Switzerland; everything’s going really well but truly free time is a luxury! As usual, I will persevere and get the blog up to date eventually.

A plus…whenever that may be,

Catherine

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