|Thursday, June 21st, day 353 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, at 6:05 AM (local time in Istanbul, Turkey), we went airborne on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight 1610, from Istanbul to Amsterdam. The three hour and forty five minute flight touched down at 8:50 AM (local time in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (Amsterdam is one hour behind Istanbul.)
Royal Dutch Airline flight 903 left Amsterdam at 9:45 AM (local time) and arrived in Moscow, Russia at 3:05 PM (local time in Moscow, Russia), 3 hours and twenty minutes later. (Moscow is two hours ahead of Amsterdam.)
Getting through Russian customs and immigration wasn’t nearly as tough as we thought it would be. All we had to do was wait for a very serious looking immigration officer to stamp our visa. No problem. It helped that we got our visas in order back in South Africa. After getting some Russian rubles (Rr) out of an ATM (we didn’t think there were going to be any ATMs in Russia) at the airport (the exchange rate is 29.3 Russian rubles to $1.00 US dollar), we took a deep breath, put our head down and ploughed through the gypsy taxi drivers that congregate outside the airport entrance. If at all possible, avoid using gypsy taxi drivers in Russia. At a minimum they will over charge you – at a maximum they will drive you to the outskirts of town, rob you blind, shoot you in the head and leave you for dead.
We found a minibus that had a diagram of the Moscow subway system (the Metro) on its door. We knew we wanted to get to the Metro so we jumped on board, even though the driver couldn’t speak a word of English. Twenty rubles later we were at Rechnoi Vokzai Metro Station. We worked our way to Prospect Mira Station, went back above ground, asked directions about five times, and finally found our way to The Travelers Guest House (TGH). A double room is 1,247 Rr (or $43.00 US) a night (with a 10% International Youth Hostel members discount applied – we are members.) Under normal circumstances this would be way overpriced for a room of this quality (it wasn’t that great), but this is Russia. Up is down, black is white and everything is a shade of obscure.
After a nap, we walked around the vicinity of the youth hostel. Close by, next to a McDonald’s, we found the 1980 Olympic Stadium. Walking around it we found it in a sad state. Neglected and falling apart, this stadium is a far cry from what we saw of its 2000 counterpart in Sydney. It’s amazing to think how much things have changed since the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games. The Soviet Union no longer exists and an athletic and world super-power has been replaced by a depressed decaying shell of its former self. As we walked around the stadium we couldn’t help but think that the state of its condition provides a metaphor for the country it belongs to. Can something that was once filled with so much prestige rebuild itself after so much decay, this time in a form more conducive to the ideals it originally espoused to uphold?
Friday, June 22nd, day 354 of our travels we braved the cold, rainy weather and set out to find the office of the host that issued our invitations. You are required to register your visas with your host within 72 hours of arriving in the country. We aren’t sure what would happen if you don’t do it, but we didn’t want to find out. It cost $10.00 US (each) to register our visas.
Later we set out to explore some of Moscow. Moscow is a tough place to travel independently. There just isn’t many independent travelers here. All you can do is put your game face on and get after it. Trying to blend in and not drawing attention to yourself helps. Also try to learn some of the Russian alphabet. All the signs are in Russian and nobody speaks a word of English.
One thing that got easier after the first few times was using The Metro. We got a map of the Metro that included both the English and Russian spellings of the separate lines. By going by just the first few letters of the Russian words (you will never get the entire word) we were able to get around pretty effectively. There is also a color coded system for all the separate lines, the trains arrive about every 2-3 minutes and it only costs 5 rubles for one ride, no matter how far you go. The Metro itself is amazing and the architecture of a few stations are incredible. The massive, deep tunnels are filled with marble columns, bronze statues, chandeliers and beautiful mosaics. Built in the 1950s it also was constructed to double as a bomb shelter. Eventually we navigated The Metro to the area of The Kremlin.
The Kremlin has symbolized the mystery and power of Russia since the 15th century. We left our preconceived notions behind and set out to see first hand what it was all about. We made our entrance via Kutufya and Troitskaya Bashyna Towers. Soon we were at Cathedral’s Square, surrounded by The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, The Cathedral of the Archangel, The Assumption Cathedral, The Annunciation Cathedral and The Church of the Deposition of the Virgin’s Robe.
Nearby we also found the largest bell in the world (The Czar Bell) and the largest cannon in the world (The Czar Cannon). The cannon has never been fired and the bell has never been rung.
Then we worked our way to The Armory Palace, which is an amazing museum filled with rare treasures, including royal carriages, jewel encrusted thrones, crowns, gowns, armor, and a collection of Faberge eggs. How come the Easter Bunny never left us one of these?
Outside the Kremlin walls we found Alexander Garden Park (a great place to hang out and have a beer – which everyone seems to do at any hour of the day), The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, of course, Red Square.
You would think that the name “Red” Square would have something to do with the communists, but actually the name is derived from the Russian word for beautiful. It is an amazing place. You find yourself surrounded by The National Historical Museum, the massive GUM shopping complex, the Northern Kremlin wall, St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Tomb. Rushing into our minds were all those black and white images of the military parades, with demi-gods like Stalin, perched atop Lenin’s Tomb, overlooking the propaganda based spectacle devoted to portraying a sense of military might. How different it looks in reality. The menacing images we were indoctrinated to fear are replaced by a tranquil place of beauty. Instead of people devoted to our ultimate destruction we find peaceful, if somewhat placid, friendly hosts.
Saturday, June 23rd, day 355, we went to see the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior and The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. In between the church and the museum we were drawn to a crowd watching an apartment building burn to the ground.
The Pushkin Collection was very impressive, including works by Matisse, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir and Monet. Look for the piece by Monet that portrays the view into a riverside tower through a purple mist at dawn – amazing!
Later we made our way back to The Kremlin – Red Square area. Some carnival gymnasts were flying in the sky above the crowds and we joined everyone who was hanging out drinking beer. We felt like we were within the pulse of Moscow.
Sunday, June 24th, day 356, we again returned to the Red Square. This time we got inside The National Museum and St. Basil’s Cathedral. We also waited, for what seemed like forever, to get inside Lenin’s Tomb. When it was finally our turn to enter we were turned away because we had cameras in our bags. We went to drop off our bags at a nearby cloak room and returned to the line only to find the Tomb had closed and it wouldn’t open again until Tuesday, after we’ve left Moscow. Bummer – denied! Oh well, there’s always the next time we go to Russia. By the way, who is buried in Lenin’s Tomb? Ha, ha right? Well actually that might be a good question? It’s a long guarded mystery whether it is actually Lenin’s body inside or a wax copy.
Monday, June 25th day 357 of our travels, we found ourselves aboard a train bound for St. Petersburg at 12:06 AM. (Talk about getting an early start!)
Compared to the train ride we experienced from Jaipur to Bombay, in India, this train ride seemed like The Orient Express. Actually, it was a second class sleeper and wasn’t half bad. We shared our compartment with a nice Russian couple. The train arrived in St. Petersburg at 8:30 AM. From the train station we walked to HI St. Petersburg Hostel. They were fully booked. Next we tried The Puppet House Hostel (it is located in a building which houses a puppet theatre). They had a double room for 1,247 Rr a night. (Man, is accommodation expensive in Russia!)
After a nap we went to view a screening of the American film Don’s Plum, as part of The White Nights Film Festival. We thought that the film would be in English. Well, actually it was but a man’s deep, monotone voice in Russian was dubbed over the English words so you could only pick up about 25% of what they were saying. It was still pretty cool to go, just because of the twilight zone atmosphere. The theatre was definitely old school, with ornate sculptures, large windows and velvet covered seats. They had a raffle before the movie where they gave out bags of cookies. During the movie a drunk man caused a huge scene by puking and then passing out. They had to temporarily stop the movie to get him medical attention and removed from the theatre.
Later, we did some internet and then walked around the streets of St. Petersburg. Being midnight, and still light out, we saw first hand where the term White Nights comes from.
Tuesday, June 26th, day 358, we sent out Issue 20 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure Newsletter and then spent most of the day exploring the city.
Tuesday night Lisa went to see a concert pianist play as part of The White Nights Festival. Joel took a nap – pussy boy.
Wednesday, June 27th, day 359, we dropped off some laundry for washing (we couldn't find a place anywhere that allowed you to do it yourself -- maybe that is just something they don't do here) and then set out to explore some of St. Petersburg. Walking the streets of The City of White Nights you might run into the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, or St. Issac's Cathedral, or Alexander's Column and countless other architectural pieces of eye candy.
Wednesday night we went to a performance by a choir group as part of the White Nights Festival. They were excellent.
Thursday, June 28th, day 360 was a relaxing day just hanging out in St. Petersburg. We like this city so much we have decided to put it on The Around The World Top Ten List for Best Cities in The World. Thursday night Lisa went to a brass quartet concert as part of the White Nights Festival.
Friday, June 29th, day 361 we sent in some photos, via the web, to a travel photography competition. We each sent in two photos in the category of transportation. We'll let you know if we win the grand prize, which is an around the world airline ticket for two. Who knows, maybe we will be going around again?
Saturday, June 30th, day 362 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure was a very interesting day. We checked out of The Puppet House Hostel. Actually they kicked us out. Our room had been reserved by someone else and they had no other rooms available, not even dorm beds. The only other two hostels we know about in the entire city were also fully booked. St. Petersburg fills up fast in the summer, especially during White Nights.
Luckily, we ran into a couple, a guy from the States and a girl from South Africa, who told us about an apartment that was available. We rented the one bedroom flat, from a guy named Sergei, at $260.00 for 7 nights. It's nothing special but it will work as a place to rest our weary bones after a hard day of exploring St. Petersburg. We couldn't get into the apartment until 11:00 PM Saturday night, so we stored our backpacks at the hostel, strapped up our day packs and set out for further exploration of the city.
We started off the day by using The Dvortsovy Bridge to cross the Neva River, ending up on Vasilevsky Island. More than one wedding party used this beautiful day and The Streika, jutting out into the water, to throw roses in the river, drink champagne and break the glasses. It must be a tradition. Right across from The Streika is the old Russian Stock Exchange, which is now The National Naval History Museum. We went in for a tour -- very impressive.
Next we strolled west along the northern bank of the Neva, passing by St. Petersburg University, The Academy of Art and two sphinxes Alexander The Great brought from Egypt. After a stop for lunch at The Golden Arches, we worked our way across Birzhevoy Bridge to the Petrograd side of St. Petersburg. Once we crossed the bridge, the first thing we noticed was a huge group of people working their way into Petrovskiy Stadium. Many of the people in the crowd were dressed in blue and were waving blue flags with Russian letters. It turns out they were proudly displaying the colors of St. Petersburg's football team and everyone was going to a football match. We thought, why don't we try to get in. This could be interesting. What an understatement!
As we became absorbed by the huge, disorderly crowd, we began to notice that most of the people around us were young Russian men, many with shaved heads, void of shirts and covered in tattoos. (Not that we have anything against shaved heads, or going without a shirt or having tattoos -- we're just trying to set the scene here.) Soon the crowd pushed us up to a security check point. Armed soldiers in full riot gear were physically searching every entrant from head to toe, in addition to checking tickets. Since we didn't have a ticket and couldn't see any way of getting one we put our heads down and ploughed our way out of the crowd. We were just about to give up on our attempt to enter when a scalper approached us. He spoke excellent English (which is always a bad sign -- English speaking touts are more likely to rip you off) and offered us two tickets for 800 Rr. We had no idea what the tickets were actually supposed to go for, if the tickets he was offering were good seats, or if they were actually real tickets for that matter. As we tried to dicker him down, he continued his sales pitch and motioned us to get away from the hundreds of police and soldiers standing guard over the proceedings. (Scalping must be illegal in Russia too.) We finally got him down to 400 Rr for two tickets, which was still a rip off, in more ways than one -- the tickets actually were supposed to cost 40 Rr each and the seats he gave us literally put us in the eye of a storm.
After fighting our way back to the security checkpoint, we were padded down from head to toe and our bags were emptied and searched. Anyone trying to get through with anything heavy (which could be thrown at opposing fans), booze, bombs, flares, firecrackers, even lighters (we guess so they couldn't light things on fire) were confiscated and thrown into a huge, and ever growing, pile of contraband. It turned out that this checkpoint was just one of four that we had to go through. More physical searches of our bodies and bags and more passing through metal detectors. Remember, this entire time we are literally sandwiched between thousands of drunk young Russian skin heads. Adding to our anxiety were the stares and glares we got from the security forces as we passed through the checkpoints. When it became apparent that we couldn't understand the orders they were barking at us in Russian -- probably "Raise your arms over your head!", or "Open that bag!" -- they would kind of stare at us with slanted eyes like they were saying "What the hell are you doing here?"
Soon we found ourselves pushed and smashed into what was supposed to pass for our seating section. It was literally a pen or jail, surrounded by wire fences and hundreds of soldiers in riot gear. There were metal planks, which served as seats, that is if everyone wasn't ripping them out of their screws so they could throw them over the fence at the opposing fans. Plus because everyone was so smashed together, there was no way we were going to try to sit down -- it would be too easy to get trampled. To make matters worse, the tickets that jerk pawned off on us were in the section for the fans of the visiting from Moscow. Situated in one corner of the huge stadium, literally surrounded by a sea of opposing Blue, the two or three thousand skin heads, who had suddenly become our allies, adorned in Moscow Red, seemed small and vulnerable matched against forty thousand testosterone driven skin heads who wanted nothing more than to climb over the wire fences and the riot police to beat the shit out of every one of us. Many of the Blues tried to get over, only to be beaten back by riot police with hard rubber mallets and clear plastic shields. When they couldn't get over the fence the took out their aggression by throwing anything they could get their hands on. Sharp metal belt buckles, glass bottles, and even as we said, the very seats they were supposed to sit on came flying through the air directly at us. More than once we had to duck, not to get hit.
Suddenly everything was put on hold, as a deafening roar greeted the players as the ran onto the field. Flares, burning flags of the opposing team and smoke bombs went flying out into the hundreds of riot police that surrounded the field. The police were trained to run and grab the flaming object and throw it in tin cans that were strategically placed all around the perimeter. Seems that they were expecting this kind of behavior.
Thirty minutes into the match Moscow scored a goal and all hell broke lose. Somehow a Blue skinhead got over the fence into the Moscow section and everyone started beating him. Then the riot police charged the crowd and started beating everyone with their rubber mallets. This was all happening within 20 feet of us! On one side the crowd was trying to get away from the police and their weapons of pain and on the other side the boys who were looking for a fight were trying to push their way into the fray. It turned really ugly when some of the crowd started fighting back against the police. At this point we had enough. It was time to bolt! Lisa grabbed Joel around the waist and Joel just ploughed his way through the crowd to the gate. Guess what? The police weren't going to let anyone out! The exit was blocked with a large metal gate. We guess they wanted to contain the dangerous elements around us, but we had to get out of here! We yelled at the guards through the gates -- "Out, Out, Let Us Out!", while motioning violently with our hands, literally pleading with them. After looking us up from head to toe and determining that we were definitely out of our element, they let us squeeze through.
Gasping for breath and feeling our hearts pounding hard in our chests, we worked our way out of the stadium, past a group of Reds, heads covered with blood, being thrown into the back of a SWAT mobile. Man, is this nuts! All this over a football game.
Well, we made it out without a scratch, thank goodness. You know the strange thing? As we were walking away from the stadium we heard the crowd roar (St. Petersburg must have scored) and we both said that we kind of wished that we were back inside. (If we knew were weren't going to get hurt that is.) The energy, although misguided and nonproductive, was incredibly powerful and strangely intoxicating. So much pent up passionate aggression just waiting to explode. It was definitely intense.
Well, that was interesting. It was time to move onto Peter and Paul's Fortress. We walked through the entire fortress, using the upper catwalk along the riverside -- awesome views! After exiting the fortress we continued along the Neva, passing a retired ship of war, The Avrora. The Avrora fired the first shot of the Russian Revolution (it was a blank). Soon we were using Sampsonnievsky Bridge to cross to the Vyborg Side of St. Petersburg and we continued our walking tour by heading east and then south back across the Neva, on Liteyny Bridge, to the main portion of the city. Another 30 minutes walking and we were back at the cyber cafe next to The Puppet House Hostel. We still had a couple of hours to kill before we could get into the apartment so we went to work on the web site. You don't think this journal appears by magic do you?
Sunday, July 1st, day 363 of our journey, Lisa went to a jazz concert in a nearby park for an hour and then both of us took the Metro to Alexander Monastery. Just outside is the monastery is a graveyard where Fyodor Dostoevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment, one of the books on Joel’s portion of our Around The World Reading Lists, is buried. See how everything is tied together?
Sunday night we cooked a pasta dinner in the apartment and chilled out while watching American movies, dubbed over in Russian, on television.
Monday, July 2nd, day 364 of our travels, was a pretty mellow day. Joel was holed up in the apartment with a bum foot. You could call it a blister, but basically the entire bottom of his right foot is ripped off. (We took a picture of it to show you, but you don’t get to see it. Find out why below.) Lisa walked around the city a little and hit a grocery store for our pasta dinner, but that was about it.
Tuesday, July 3rd, day 365 (our one year anniversary since we set off on our adventure), started off well. The plan was to “max it out” in typical Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure style as we checked out The Summer Garden and then The Hermitage. The Hermitage is simply amazing. The building itself is incredible and the collection of art and rare treasures is one of the best in the world. We were in a great mood as we snapped a picture for the front page of the web-site in the square in front of the Winter Palace next to Alexander’s Column, with “Digi” (our digital camera). Sadly though, that would be the last time we ever saw Digi.
We were hungry after half of a day of exploring, so it was off to the golden arches. McDonald’s was packed! So much so, that we decided to leave. On the way out two young Russian boys were holding everyone up between the two doors exiting the restaurant. Everyone got sandwiched inside and people where pushing and shoving. When we finally got out and walked about 20 feet, Lisa yelled “Joel, your pack is totally open – and Digi is gone!” We ran back to McDonald’s, looked all through the restaurant and even tried to ask a few employees for help, but they couldn’t speak a word of English. After walking around the block a few times, we gave up and went back to the apartment in disgust.
We figure the two Russian boys who held us up in the exit-way were in on it. They, along with a couple other of their cohorts, probably saw us take a picture and put Digi in the top of Joel’s pack back at Alexander’s Column. Then they followed us to McDonald’s, two of them purposely stalled us in the exit-way and the others opened Joel’s pack and grabbed Digi from behind. Joel mistook someone opening his pack and stealing the camera for just pushing and shoving and it was that easy – they got away Scott-free. Little bastards! They’re lucky Joel just didn’t happen to look back at the exact moment they were in his pack or someone would have gotten the shit beaten out of them. Joel even has a little padlock on the zipper of his pack, but he got in the bad habit of not using it. You just don’t expect someone to open your backpack, in broad daylight, in a public place, without you yourself, seeing, hearing, or even feeling it.
It is a bummer. Unless we can replace it we can’t get anymore images of our travels up on the site and $500.00 isn’t something we can really afford right now. Oh well. At least they didn’t get “MB” (money belt). We had gotten into the bad habit of carrying MB in Joel’s backpack instead of around his waist against his skin. If they would have gotten that we would have really been screwed. MB holds all our cash, credit cards, airline tickets, etc.)
Isn’t it ironic that it was almost one year ago today, days 2 and 3 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, that we got ripped off in New York City and Atlantic City (twice within 24 hours!). This makes three cameras we have had stolen on this trip. The weekend of July 4th is just bad for us we guess. (As long as it doesn’t happen for at least another year.)
We are trying to put the most positive spin on this as we can. We still have three full days in St. Petersburg and although we have the slight remnants of a bad taste in our mouths, we are leaving The City of White Nights on our Around The World Top Ten List for Best Cities. We are just going to add it to The Top Ten Places To Get Ripped Off!
Wednesday, July 4th,a year and a day since we started this wild ride, we went for a boat ride around “The Venice of the North” – St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful sunny day and it was a nice, pleasant ride through canals and waterways surrounded by amazing architecture.
Thursday, July 5th, day 367, we woke up without any hot water. Every summer, for one month, the hot water is shut off in all of St. Petersburg so maintenance work can be done on the ancient pipes. After a cold, yet exhilarating shower (and it’s not like we haven't taken a cold shower on this trip), we toured the inside of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, which is covered from floor to ceiling with amazing mosaics. Then we worked our way over to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. We climbed to the walkway around its upper dome for awesome views of St. Petersburg and then were dazzled by the exuberant excess of its interior.
After some more walking, and a Metro ride, it was back to the apartment for a (cold) shower, another pasta dinner, another America movie (dubbed over in Russian of course) and some Russian vodka.
Friday, July 6th, day 368 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure, was our last full day in Russia. Joel decided to spend it just hanging out and chilling. Sometimes it's cool just to hang out and read a good book.
Lisa decided to spend it by going to Peterhof and The Hermitage (one more time). She first took a hydrofoil to Peterhof, the Summer Palace of Peter the Great. The boat cost a pricey 300 rubles each way but it’s fast, easy, and drops you off right at the palace’s water front dock. From there it’s a 10 minute stroll past fountains, fountains, and more fountains on your way up to the Grand Palace. Peter the Great designed the entire complex and the water theme is very dominant. There are over 100 fountains, in addition to hundreds of gilt statues.
Then came a tour of the palace which has been renovated after being almost completely destroyed during World War II. It’s an amazing little summer place with a fantastic view out to the Gulf of Finland.
After the hydrofoil dropped Lisa off directly in front of the Hermitage, it was time for her to take a second tour. Why not -- with a international student card entry is free, not 300 rubles, which is the going rate for foreign tourists. (For those of you who think we are too old to be using fake student cards -- you can just keep that to yourself.) She found Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, before going up one flight and seeing, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Goughan, Rodin, Sissley. Room after room was full of these artists’ works. Simply an amazing collection in an amazing building. As our guide book tells us, Catherine the Great worked hard at amassing a great collection of art for only her and the mice to see!
Saturday, July 7th, after a Metro and bus ride to the airport, we boarded Royal Dutch Airlines flight 1396 and rose into the sky at 4:45 PM. Goodbye Russia, hello The Netherlands!
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