Trip Start Jun 05, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hello again from St. Petersburg.  Mahbod left today after two weeks with me in Russia and I myself have only a week and a half left on this trip.  It's crazy, the time has passed by very quickly.  When I last wrote we were leaving for Moscow later that day.  We came back Thursday morning, so most of this blog will be about Moscow.  Overall, I liked Moscow and the trip there a lot and came back with a much more favorable impression of Moscow than from my other visit there (7 years ago).  Still, I do like St. Pete more.

The overnight train experience ended better than it started.  We were staying in "kupe" class which means each cabin in our wagon had two bunk beds.  Once we got on the train and entered our cabin, the elderly lady who was already in our cabin started complaining instantly.  She was very unhappy that the cabin was so cramped despite the amount of money she had paid (she also was very unhappy with the seat covers, curtains, and everything else about the train).  She kept complaining to me (explaining that she wasn't blaming me, but rather just thinking aloud) and saying she would say something to the conductor, even though she said it wasn't his fault either.  Anyway, she did complain, got moved to another, presumably empty, cabin and Mahbod and I got the cabin to ourselves.  But for the first half hour, I don't think she ever stopped complaining.

After getting in to Moscow Sunday morning, we dropped our bags off at our hostel (Godzilla Hostel, OK place, not great) where we had our own double and then walked to Red Square.  We waited in line for an hour in order to see Lenin's embalmed body, but it was well worth it.  The whole process is really interesting.  As you enter the mausoleum, you go through a series of hallways and at each turn there is a guard standing solemnly making sure you don't break any of the rules and pointing you in the right direction.  If you talk at all, they give a loud "Shhh!"  Lenin looked quite good for being dead for more than 80 years and it's definitely a surreal experience to see him.  Of course, there are rumors that it's not really him lying there, but he looked real enough to me.

We decided to have our first Russian McDonald's experience (every McDonald's I've seen here is packed with people but somehow the Russians manage not to put on the extra pounds that Americans do) of this trip right outside Red Square afterwards and then went to wait in line for Kremlin tickets.  We walked around the Kremlin area and saw the various churches, tsar bell, tsar cannon, etc. and also went in to the Armory, which has various precious items from the days of the tsars, including some Faberge eggs.  Lots of gold, lots of things that are worth tons of money.  There's also a nice park inside the Kremlin where we walked around a bit.  The restaurant we went to that night (Shesh-Besh) was interesting too -- Azerbaijani food.  Cool decor and they had this thing where if you order a liter of wine, you can potentially get it for free with rolling some dice.  We had to roll a 5 and a 6 and were given three tries -- obviously the odds were heavily against us, but we felt lucky -- unfortunately it didn't pan out.

The next day we started off by going to Red Square (you can't bring a camera with you to visit Lenin's tomb so we weren't able to get any pictures of the rest of Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral the first day) and hanging out there for a bit.  St. Basil's and the rest of the square is really incredible (especially given its history) and I could just stand there and look around all day.  Then we went to Arbat St. which at this point is really just for tourists (tons of souvenir shops), but still a fun place to walk around and sit in an outside cafe.  We had some entertaining musicians right in front of the cafe (where we ordered dried fish and dried calamari to go along with our beers) where we were sitting (and some even more entertaining drunks who tried to sing along with them).

We then walked over to the huge Church of the Savior, which is fairly new (Stalin had the original destroyed in the 30s, it served as the world's largest swimming pool for a while, and was just rebuilt in the 90s).  Not too far from that you can see the (also huge) Peter the Great statue.  It's funny because Peter was the tsar who moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg 300 years ago and now Moscow has this huge statue of him (many Muscovites are not too happy with this statue).  Coming back to Red Square, it started raining, so we went into GUM, which at this point is a huge shopping mall with many nice stores.  The building itself is beautiful, both inside and out, and is located right on Red Square.  We walked back along some really nice streets, including Tverskaya, where the amount of money that Muscovites have is really evident.  I'd heard that Moscow has more Mercedes than any other city in the world and that Moscow now has more millionaires than New York and I saw nothing there to dispel those stories.

On Tuesday, we took a 1.5 hour train ride to Sergiev Posad, the Golden Ring town closest to Moscow.  The most important monastery in Russia and the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy are found here.  It was an incredible place, and although fairly crowded, it was crowded not so much with regular tourists but rather with religious people coming to pray.  We watched some of a service that was taking place as well.

The next day, back in Moscow, we went first to Novodevichy Convent, which was quieter than the monastery in Sergiev Posad, but in some ways similar.  We then walked through a park and climbed up to the top of the Sparrow Hills, where there is a great viewpoint of the rest of the city.  We sat at a cafe right on top and enjoyed the view for a while (the cafe was right next to a ski jump -- I'd never been that close to one before, they really do look scary).  Moscow State University is close by so we walked there afterwards.  The main building which houses the university is one of Stalin's Seven Sisters skyscrapers and was enormous.  The subway station nearby sits on the bottom of a bridge and was really incredible.  The walls are glass so you can see the river and the city as you're waiting for the subway.  Overall, the subway stations in Moscow are beautiful (as are many in St. Petersburg as well) and works of art.  It's amazing that in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the subways come incredibly often (don't think I've waited more than 5 minutes for any one, usually around 2-3 minutes), are really clean and generally nice places architecturally, and are much easier to figure out, use, and get around.  New York could really learn a lot from them.

Anyway, later that night, we took the train back to St. Pete (4 people in our cabin unfortunately) and spent Thursday walking around St. Petersburg a bit more, showing Mahbod some areas he hadn't seen yet.  One bar that we went to that night was actually really interesting.  It was called Ice Bar and the whole inside (it's not very big) is made of ice -- not just the actual bar itself (as I've seen in Vegas and Atlantic City) but also the tables, chairs, etc.  They keep the whole place at -5 degrees Celsius and give you fur coats to wear while you're in there.  It's hard to stay in there much more than half an hour, as it's cold even with the fur coats.  On Friday we went to Krestovsky Island, rented some bikes and rode around (also riding to nearby Yelagin and Kamenny Islands), going through some parks and going along the water.  The bike rental place wanted 6,000 rubles for a deposit for each bike, which we didn't have.  They said they could hold on to our passports and cell phones instead, but we were reluctant to give them our passports.  We ended up compromising on both of our driver's licenses, my cellphone and 2,500 rubles.  This was a much easier bike ride than I had experienced on Olkhon Island since it was mostly all flat.  We then walked around a small amusement park that was on Krestovsky Island.

OK, I'm going to attach a bunch of pictures here too so take a look.
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