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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Admiralty, St. Petersburg, Russia
TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23

Admiralty, St. Petersburg, Russia, August 24, 2003


August 24-29.  SAINT PETERSBURG We arrived in St. Petersburg at seven in the morning.  Our hostel was on the Petrograd side of the city, opposite where we had arrived, so we had to grab the subway across the city.  The address seemed straight forward but after a good several long blocks of searching we couldn't find building number 14.  We we were facing number 13 on the other side of the road but there was number 14 in sight.  I waited at a bus stop with our bags while Rob went out in search of our hostel.  He returned about 15 minutes later and said he found our hostel but it was back near the subway station.  Russian street numbers aren't as logical as we were used to back home.  And, to make it more complicated more than one place had the number 14.  Our hostel was on the backside of some large commercial building and the whole thing was number 14.  From the outside it wasn't anything to get excited about with a dirt road and bland building facade.  But the interior had been redone and was a pleasant surprise.  Even more of a surprise was the pleasant guy at the counter that checked us in.   We explored every option of payment and decided we would get more cash since they gave a horrible exchange rate for dollars and on top of that added a service fee to a credit card payment.  He took us on our word that we would pay later in the day and gave us our key.

The room was what you might expect from a "sport" hostel.  It was a closet sized room with linoleum floor, bunk beds, a desk, closet, small bathroom.  We didn't have a window room but our cubbyhole got light from the next room via a large window at the very top of the ceiling that bridged the gap between the two rooms over the bathroom.  The ceiling was high so that we couldn't see in their room and visa versa, unless we both wanted to stand naked on our tip toes on the top bunks.  It doesn't sound like a great set up but it somehow worked pretty well.  It was completely clean and well put together and we even had a small TV and phone. The beds even had something close to a mattress pad on them.

Once cleaned up we walked from our hostel across the two bridges connecting our island with the central Nevsky Prospekt area.  From the bridges we could see great views of SS Peter and Paul Fortress that stood on our island (to the left) and the glorious Winter Palace on the opposite bank.  There was a brief period of sun and I remembered why I thought St. Petersburg was such a beautiful city.  It seemed opportune that we visited St. Pete's at the end of our trip because it is one of Russia's highlights but it didn't take long to realize that it had become a terribly tourist jaded city, a sentiment that was probably at an all time high considering it was fielding more tourists than ever this year for the city's 300th anniversary.

We wanted desperately to enjoy our visit to St. Petersburg as a means of rescuing our, until then, fairly bad time in Russia.  It was too much to expect and we knew it. The weather conspired against us as well to just add to the gloom.  Since Shanghai we had seen more rain than sun and that does begin to tear at the seams of two people from California.  We were also nearing the six month mark in our journey so we wondered if we were getting too worn down to appreciate our time in Russia but again and again our feelings were echoed by other travelers from different countries that we had met.  Of course there were people who were enjoying themselves but the trick seemed to be not to stay too long (less than two weeks) and perhaps opt for a guided tour (and I am not a big fan of tour bus travel).  In any event we were nearing the end and that alone began to make us feel better.  

Having seen the Hermitage and the SS Peter and Paul fortress on my last visit to Russia I refused to patronize the over priced tourist attractions a second time.  The inflated prices now being charged to foreigners is too much and in compensation they often don't have anything available in foreign languages so the experience is less valuable as well.  In any event, the fortress was interesting but not really worthy of a second visit.  The Hermitage, on the other hand, could be explored for weeks and not exhausted.  Still it was pretty much loot from other countries and while it was an impressive collection, second only to the Louvre in Paris, and a must see for Rob, I wasn't really up to the task of beating past the hordes of tourists.  We did venture to the Russian museum and took an expedited tour.  They didn't sell a guide in English, we found out after dealing with two unreasonably rude women at the book shops (even the smallest bit of pride should surely prevent people from acting with such unprovoked distain for complete strangers?!).  After the outstanding exhibit we had already seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow there wasn't too much the Russian Museum added for us.  Some of the paintings were repeated in both museums and regardless of which one had the original I only really needed to see a single rendition.  My greatest wish would have been to see the Chagall exhibit but it seems to be on perpetual world tour and probably hasn't been back in the Russian Museum since before my previous trip, five years earlier.  There were a few Kandinsky's but a disappointment after the great Kandinsky exhibit we had seen in Tokyo last year.   Perhaps it would just be better to go back to San Francisco (where the Chagall exhibit was presently being shown and seen by my own sister!) and wait for Chagall and the Bolshoi to just come to me.  I would pay nearly the same ticket prices, get better English explanations, and not have to deal with people that apparently hated my guts.

Walking around the city was perhaps the best way to enjoy the St. Peterburg's scenic beauty and generally required limited interaction with people.  Most of the time the weather was over cast, if it wasn't pouring rain, but we did have a most of one day with sun and some other brief pockets of sunlight that made it possible to stroll the streets along the canals and take in the visual delights of Saint Petersburg's grand architecture.  It is an ice cream colored collection of buildings that seem somewhat out of place for the city's cold climate but the consistency of the pink, blue, green and yellow pastel buildings across the city and their ornate white trim are lovely in the sunlight and even soften the gray on the darker days.  The position of the candy house like Church of the Resurrection (a.k.a Church of the Spilt Blood) is magical along the Canal Griboedoya.  Looking from the main street of Nevsky Prospekt up the canal and seeing the whimsical onion domes in a myriad of blues, white, and gold colors and the excessively detailed facade is spectacular.  Visitors always debate which is more impressive, St. Basil's in Moscow or the Church of the Resurrection, both designed by the same architects, but they are really so different there is no need to compare. Each is impressive in its own way and the differences represent the very different personalities of the two cities. 

One afternoon we walked along the canals to take in the griffon and lion flanked bridges, ending at the Marinsky Theater.  (It isn't as grand as the Bolshoi on the outside but the interior makes up for it.)  In the park across from the theater we witnessed a team of militia rigorously shake down two men sitting idly on a bench.  They weren't well dressed but didn't strike us as homeless.  Still, the militia were patting them up and down and rifling through their pockets.  It must have been their bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  (Where were the militia when the numerous drunks stumbled through the streets letting their glass bottles crash into the sidewalk or gangs were pick pocketing people in the subway?)  Several other militia were nearby with their vehicle and looked much too restless for our liking.  Rob had seen several foreigners, mostly the less white looking people, get harassed by the militia in Moscow and were helplessly turning over all of their paperwork for inspection.  We picked up our pace and moved swiftly past the theater and around the corner.  It felt like two militia were walking after us for about a 100 meters or so but after we turned the corner we didn't see them any more.  It was enough to put a damper on our walk so we just made a direct line back to Nevsky Prospekt where hoards of other tourists made us feel less like sitting ducks.

On our first morning in St. Petersburg we stumbled across a nice and not too expensive coffee shop that we frequented many times to rest and escape the sporadic downpour.  The restaurants were expensive so we took Karen's suggestion for dinner and tried the buffet at the Stroganoff Yard, next to the old palace of the Stroganoff family after whom the famous dish was named.  It wasn't a bad deal but was naturally heavy on the mayo salads and lots of beef.  We tired of it after a couple of nights and resorted to McDonald's or hot dog vendors. Mc Donald's was always packed but mostly reliable and the no drinking sign on the wall meant there wasn't as much alcohol breath around.   Except for the still partly frozen chicken sandwich that I received on one occasion I can't say I had any complaints.

Having officially completed one of the Trans Siberian routes we thought it was necessary to check out St. Pete's Railway Museum.  It was a bargain and worth the time we spent exploring the various model trains and bridges and other railway paraphernalia.  Rob also visited the SS Peter and Paul Fortress and Hermitage while I spent time working on the journal.  He also made a trip to see the large museum of stuffed animals and reckoned that the huge stuffed Mammoth was one of the best sites he had seen in Russia.   The complete collection included a stuffed specimen of nearly every animal.  It was one of those unexpected bizarre attractions that he happened upon because the museum was free.  It always pays to try something the guidebook hasn't raved about.

After three nights in our hostel we had to move to the overpriced Sovetskaya Hotel, one of our required bookings that came with our visa.  It was a Spartan relic of the 60's and not much had changed since.  The lobby area looked spruced up a bit but was a rather uninspired motif of blue and white linoleum and plastic  (the colors of St. Petersburg and Russia's porcelain as we were repeatedly told when we saw anything blue and white - not like the Chinese didn't have the blue and white concept going first!).  Our room had two separate beds circa 1960's and of course the sheets didn't cover the mattresses.  The TV was a manual knob style set that got very few channels and the bathroom spouted brown tinted water.  At night we were greeted with a rotating array of colored neon lights that reflected into our window.  The only good feature was a decent view out towards St. Isaac's Cathedral.  It was a monolithic complex that was packed mostly with German tour groups.  They billed their bar downstairs as a German Democratic bar, whatever that would mean in terms of a bar.  And, breakfast was the largest collection of food that you wouldn't want to eat that I had ever seen.  We got all of this for about $100 per night! The rudeness and bad service were thrown in for free....    

Nevsky Prospekt was where we spent the most time during our visit,. Most of the best sites were just off this main drag and the canals wove their way back and forth underneath the street.  It was lively and full of tourists.  The old department stores of Gostny Dvor and GUM were still in tact but were being usurped by more modern installations.  When we entered GUM I didn't recognize it as the upscale collection of stores that it appeared to be five years ago.  It was looking fairly run down while next door a spiffy mall was full of high end cosmetic shops, designer clothing, and jewelry.  When we entered the new mall the guard at the entrance followed us for a while.  We must have looked suspect with out our body guards in attendance.  We observed one woman stroll around with her thugs trailing behind her and all of this was necessary so she could buy a Gucci handbag.

I had decided I wanted to take one of the canal cruises during our visit since it seemed like a good way to explore the city from another angle without inviting much trouble.  We found a small boat that was due to leave any minute for a nice sunset ride but that minute got longer and longer.  A frustrated English woman with her elderly father were getting more and more agitated since she had been on the boat much longer and the line they fed her was that the boat would leave when they got four more people.  They had since secured many more than four more people and boat wasn't budging.  Meanwhile the sun was setting.  When we joined her in prodding them to get things underway we observed a fat tick of a man whisper to the driver and then he came around to collect our money.  We were far too jaded and suspicious at this point and we told him that we'd pay once they got the boat going.  It seemed all too likely that they would take our money and then keep us waiting even longer.  In the end we just up and left.  The fat man just gave us an arrogant wave of his had as we walked past.    

I had taken two days off to work on my journal during our stay in St. Pete's - Tuesday and Thursday and I was actually quite relieved to take refuge in the hostel and hotel. While the maid was vacuuming the hostel I ventured out to find some lunch nearby.  A snack stand near the subway looked promising but when I entered there was no one at the counter.  A girl sat reading a book by the door but when I looked at her she just went back to reading again.  I was pretty sure that she was the waitress and made a rude comment under my breath as I walked out.  After a good 15 minutes of searching I finally settled on a cafe but as I ate my piroshigi and sipped my coffee a table of women across the room just glared at me with stone faces.  When I walked back to the hostel I saw the girl at the snack stand helping other people.  The whole experience just made me glad to go back in the room. 

It was very much the same sort of day when I stayed at the hotel too.  Just when I was feeling a bit adventurous I went out to get a snack and was met with such rudeness that I just retreated to the hotel room again.  It was all such an unrewarding experience that I was beginning to count the time we had left in Russia.  After being hotel bound all day Rob and I went to the German Democratic Bar in our hotel for a farewell drink to Russia.  It felt good to be nearly gone and we were even prepared to have a shot of vodka.  The bar menu was extensive but oddly enough only the most expensive vodka and the most expensive beer were available that night.  We hissed under our breath and just ordered sodas.  Perhaps they really were running low on stock but the feeling of constantly being ripped off made us very suspicious.

The tension of being in Russia was having such a wearing effect.  It reached a peak when we left Moscow and our anger towards Russia was making us angry at each other.  We didn't appear to be the only people suffering from the sour taste this country was leaving in our mouths.  As we walked down the hallway of our hotel we heard a Russian couple yelling at each other through their hotel room door.  Not particularly odd but a few meters further we heard a German couple yelling through their door.  When we reached the breakfast room the French couple that sat down at the next table were going at each other as well.  Maybe it was an odd coincidence but I chose to believe that it was inflicted by Russia!

On our last morning we sat in our regular cafe and struck up a conversation with a British couple at the next table.  They were in a large tour group but in only seven days seven people in their group had been robbed. We reflected on how fortunate we had been since Jeremy had told us he normally had an attempted pick pocket whenever he stayed in St. Petersburg six days.   The couple really recommended the canal cruise so we decide we would give it another try.  We had thought we might visit the palace of Peter the Great but when we waited at the bus station that morning the bus just never came and it was a disappointment.  It was our last day so we decide to make the most of it. 

The boat we found for our cruise was an older model with a protruding bow with most of the seats along the sides of the boat and few rows in the stern.  It filled up with people fairly quickly and set off on its way down the canal and past the Church of the Blood.  A mother had sat next to us with her six year old son and he wasn't the happiest cruise goer.  He turned and squirmed to get a better look but the seat in the boat weren't well designed for little passengers.  His mother had little patients with him and kept her back turn most of the time.  The weather got worse as our cruise continued and the sky got darker.  The view from the canal was nice and it was a relaxing way to experience our final hours of St. Petersburg.  It began to sprinkle a little and umbrellas shot up.  The mother in front of me kept hers up for a good while after the rain stopped which obscured a large part of my view.  I finally tapped her on the shoulder to ask her to put it down but she took me for her son and snapped back at me before I could even speak a word.  Startled, I just motioned to her umbrella and she whipped her head back and brought down the umbrella.  I am not sure who was more surprised, me for having been snapped at or her for turning around to see that I wasn't her son.  In any event I did the little guy a favor because his mother didn't include him under her umbrella and with her back turned practically poked him in eyes with her umbrella spokes several times.  The boat wound around the larger canals but was too big to take the smaller routes and with the weather getting colder we were both ready to disembark when the boat returned to the dock.

Mildly satisfied with our last "hurrah" in St. Petersburg we made a direct line towards the subway to get back to our hotel.  Our train left in about an hour and a half so we didn't have much time to waste.  The sidewalks had gotten more crowded since it was entering commute time and the thought of taking the subway during rush hour made me feel uneasy.  We were carrying most of our valuables since we didn't trust them to the hotel so with our backpacks clutched to our chests we moved quickly down the ramp to the subway entrance.  As we approached the swinging doors a fat man next to me tried to cut me off but I squeezed past him.  After I made it through the doors two men tried to leave the subway through the entrance.  This blocked Rob on the other side.  At first I thought they were trying to close the subway entrance and was worried that we would be separated but then it just looked like they were just a couple of degenerate drunks, a frequent sight in Russia.  I tugged at one to get him to let Rob past and after a couple of minutes they finally backed off and Rob got through. It wasn't until we were half way down the escalator that Rob realized that his wallet was missing.  While the two fat "drunks" were blocking the door there were two other fat men on Rob's side trying to push their way through. As they did this one of them unzipped his pocked and took his wallet.  They got very little for all their trouble, especially considering that we were carrying a laptop and cameras.  There was a hand full of rubles, two twenties that were too old for the banks in Russia to accept, a credit card and an ATM card.  The credit card was the worry. 

We guarded ourselves well for the rest of our subway ride and even walked from the transfer point to avoid another crowded train (the most common place for a being robbed).  Rushing our way back to the hotel we arrived out of breath.  While Rob went to see if the hotel would let us use a phone I changed some money to get us a cab.  We had less than an hour until our train left.  I started to feel the tears swell up in my face and hoped it would solicit a bit more sympathy but my red eyes yielded little results from anyone except the baggage woman who sincerely looked sorry when I had to explain that I didn't have her baggage tokens anymore because we had been robbed.  In retrospect there wasn't much to be upset about since the loss had been minimal but the stress of coping with it all within the space of a hour when we were already chomping at the bit to leave was enough to put me near the breaking point.  It was like running to leave a place that you didn't want to be in and having the door swing and hit you in the backside - HARD.  Fortunately the hotel let us use their business center to call our banks and we were able to head off to our train without worrying if the fat foursome were charging their way to heaven on our credit card.  

Now that had successfully been able to call our banks and we had our bags we were faced with the unexpected task of finding a cab!  Every day we had left the hotel a queue of cabs tried to give us a ride but now that we needed one to catch our train in a half hour there were none in sight.  I scurried back into the hotel to get the information desk to call us a cab.  They were indignant at the request and were slow to get to it and by the time she had the cab company on the phone I heard Rob yelling for me.  He had flagged down a gypsy cab, i.e. hitchhiking.  I didn't feel all that great about hopping into a strangers car, as common as it is in Russia, after our pickpocket fiasco.  But, Rob had managed to get a single guy in an old but neatly kept car who seemed plenty eager to get us to our train in time.  With a six dollar incentive he broke numerous traffic laws to get us through the traffic and at the station in no more than five minutes flat.  We now had plenty of time to make our train but that didn't slow us down.  We were the first people on the platform and parked ourselves outside the appropriate carriage.  Within a few minutes the carriage attendant opened the door and with a smile let us board the train.  Was this for real?  She opened the carriage early, willingly, and with a smile?  We proceeded with cautious optimism.  Perhaps this wasn't a Russian train.  As we settled in a young woman joined us.  She and I chatted while Rob dashed to the station to grab some food.  She was a Lithuanian woman who had just spent her first two weeks in Russia on business and was plenty ready to leave as well.  We asked if the carriage attendant was Russian and she said that she was Lithuanian and the train was as well. It was like a heavy weight had been lifted.  A heavy set Russian-looking fellow opened the cabin door and gave us a disappointed look.  We returned with a blank look of our own as we eyed the two liter bottles of beer he had wedged under his armpits.  He turned to speak to the carriage attendant and then moved cabins.  Things were just getting better and better.

It felt so good to be saying good bye to all of the snotty cashiers, snippy subway attendants, staggering drunks, greedy vendors, insolent ticket sellers, sleazy militia, booze breath at 8am, and wretched thieves.  In the course of our time in Russia the genuinely friendly people had been few and far between.  We had been extraordinarily lucky with our cabin mates on trains and are eternally grateful to the few people that took the time to go out of their way to actually help us.  We are even grateful for the ones that at least saw fit to not hate us upon sight!  We won't feel inspired to come back to Russia anytime soon.  From the time we were ripped off for our visas to the time we were robbed right before we left there were a whole host of other times when we felt totally taken by the Russian experience - totally overpriced hotels, ridiculous foreigner pricing for sights, unreasonable ticket prices for trains, laughable prices from souvenir vendors, and more.  And, good bye to resounding "Nyet, Nyet, Nyet"! 

We have been told that another side to the Russian experience exists and that once you penetrate that crusty exterior the Russian people are very hospitable.  I had that experience when I visited Russia several years earlier with a host family in St. Pete's.  Our host family in Moscow was during this trip was also very pleasant as well but sadly these experiences are limited and the percentage of people you come into contact with on a daily basis don't leave this impression.  To be fair, this is not behavior that is exclusively for foreigners and cultural differences are part of the travel experience but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if it was worth all of the trouble and in this case we lean, quite heavily, towards "No".

As the train started to get going we had an even greater feeling of ease and relief.  If only the Russian border check went smoothly we were home free.  We were prepared for the worst with bribe money set aside.  Since we were toting a laptop, shortwave radio, and a set of walkie talkies there were a few things they could hassle us about if they were so inclined.  The train rolled along and it was into the earlier hours of the morning that we stopped at the border.  The immigration check went fine. That was one down since we hadn't been registered for most of our stay in Moscow.  A while later a man opened the door and said something to the women traveling with us. She responded and he  moved on.  We still waited with trepidation for the customs people.  Eventually the train began to move again. Surprised we asked our cabin mate what had happened to the customs and she said the man who had come by earlier was customs.  He just asked if we had anything to declare and she just answered for all of us.  It was done!  We were out of Russia!  Throughout the night we had a border check into Latvia, back out of Latvia and into Lithuania which allowed for almost no sleep.  We were too elated to even care.  We were already in love with Lithuania!