Moscow and Saint Petersburg

Trip Start Jun 21, 2011
Trip End Aug 06, 2011

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Flag of Russia  , Central Russia,
Thursday, July 14, 2011

The capital of Russia was both awesome and awful for me. On the one hand, you had the iconic sights surrounding Red Square: the Kremlin, Lenin's Mausoleum, St. Basil’s Cathedral and countless others. But on the other, you had my terrible accommodation arrangements, incompetent service and inadequate facilities at an overinflated price coupled with the incredible expense of visiting one of the priciest cities in the world.

Getting off the train in Moscow at six in the morning I had said my heartfelt goodbye to crazy Yuri who had looked out for me for the past three days. And I wanted nothing more than to find my accommodation, take a shower, then a nap. None of this was going to be easy.

The taxi driver charged about 30 dollars to drive me an obscenely short distance and then he had a very difficult time locating the hostel I had booked a room for two nights in. During this period I did take note of rather drab Moscow’s more Westernized ways. Places like McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks were starting to appear for the first time. We circled for what seemed like ages and he finally just kind of shrugged his shoulders and I got out of the taxi exasperated.

I knew I was in the right neighborhood so it was only a matter of deciphering the Russian signs for me to find the hostel. In Russia, they do not use the Roman alphabet; everything is in the Cyrillic alphabet. This can be rather vexing, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. Some words are almost recognizable but most are not. A good example would be my full name written in Cyrillic in my Russian Visa as such:

XAMAKEP           ϭPETT                    AЛЛEH

 My guidebook had translations, so with a bit of patience I was able to determine what street I was on and make my way from there. It was all fairly easy, if a bit eerie, navigating the quiet early morning streets of Moscow.  Eventually I found the building I needed to, there were no signs whatsoever, and I punched in the code to the door given to me through my internet reservation. I was pretty surprised when the door popped open and I climbed up several flights of stairs. The experience reminded me a bit of the Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk. If only it could have been run as well.

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by a young, plump Russian woman who spoke some English, but not much.

'Hi, I’m Brett and I booked a single room for the next two nights in your hostel.’

She gave me a confused look and said, ‘You who?’

I told her my full name and showed her my reservation I had printed from the internet.

She looked at it for a minute and then shook her head. ‘I have no information for this.’ She then shuffled off into the kitchen to check her computer.

I looked around and wasn’t all that impressed. Compared to the Baikaler this place was lacking. It was also a three bedroom apartment with bunk beds in it, but it was clear that it wasn’t up to Masha’s standards. I wasn’t worried though, because I had booked my own room, which according to the internet would be in a different location nearby.

The plump woman emerged from the kitchen and said, ‘There is mistake. Not my mistake. We have room tomorrow, not tonight. You sleep here.’ She motioned to an empty room with bunk beds in it.

‘Fine, I’ll pay the dorm rate and I need to take a shower.’

The bathroom was cramped and not very clean, but I was able to take my first shower in three days so I was grateful for anything I could get. I took a brief rest on my bunk before heading out for an amazing day of iconic sights.

The walk from my hostel to Red Square was probably about 45 minutes. Tverskaya Street with its classic architecture was my path and it was dotted with statues of people like Alexander Pushkin and various other Russian luminaries making it a sight on its own.  However, once I arrived near the Kremlin it was obvious these were only appetizers.

Red Square is the sort of place that everyone can imagine, but will probably not quite get right. The Square itself is a fairly unremarkable expansive cobblestone space, and surprisingly not all that big. That said, the surrounding structures are as remarkable as you could ever ask for. On one side you have the Kremlin, the Russian government incarnate; another side has the State History Museum, a building that is a tourist attraction in itself not even counting the museum; and on yet another side you have St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most iconic and unique buildings in the world; lastly you have Lenin’s Mausoleum on the right side center near the Kremlin.

I started my photo tour with the State History Museum on the northern side of the Square. It’s a gorgeous classic building, but once getting around it I was absolutely drawn to the multi-colored spectacle that is St. Basil’s Cathedral on the opposite end of the square.  Up close, I’m inclined to call it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world; it certainly ranks high on my list. The biggest competition that springs to mind right away is the Taj Mahal, and what’s interesting about that is how radically different the two buildings are from one another.  Beauty comes in many forms.

Disappointingly, Lenin’s Mausoleum was closed for the day so I headed off to the Kremlin to buy a ticket to poke around inside. The Kremlin is a really multi-faceted place. It’s sort of like The Capitol Building, the White House and the Pentagon all rolled into one. Despite all of this active ‘governing’ tourists are allowed in throughout the day, but it’s a busy affair and much line waiting can be looked forward to.

After all the rigmarole I strolled into the heart of Russian government and made my way straight to one of its greatest exhibits, the Armoury. I’m a huge fan of medieval history and an even bigger fan of medieval fantasy, so when I walked into the Kremlin’s Armoury I was in for quite the treat with countless suits of armor, daggers, long swords, broad swords, two-handed swords, sabers, maces, you name it, all on bright shiny display. I probably could have stayed there the whole day but eventually I tore myself away and went back outside and down to the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square.

Kremlin, in Russian, means fortress. And that is pretty much what the Kremlin is I guess, though once inside it reminds me more of a modern military base with enormous brightly colored walls. It has that sort of ‘city within a city’ feel.  While inside you are carefully monitored by the countless uniformed Russian soldiers making sure you stay within the ‘tourist areas’.

One of those tourist areas was Cathedral Square. As you could probably guess it’s an incredible square filled with cathedrals. It’s a bit like walking through a town made up entirely of stunningly beautiful, centuries old churches. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I could go into further detail, but it’s just too much so I’m going to hope the camera does it all some justice.

Just outside the walls of the Kremlin is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Represented by an ‘eternal flame’ and the actual remains of an unknown soldier who died during World War II. Standing guard are two mannequin-like young soldiers in dress uniform.  I was lucky enough to see them perform the changing of the guard and managed to film them in all their goose-stepping glory.

Exhausted, I returned to my crappy hostel in the late afternoon and was told some ‘good news’.

‘We move you to your room now. We fix the problem.’

At first I was quite pleased, and then I was taken to the room. It was just another three bedroom apartment, with one of the rooms being mine. Not really so much of a problem, but eventually I found that the promised Wi-Fi didn’t work, the plumbing in the shared bathroom was a mess and the kitchen looked like the morning after a frat party.  As much as I bragged about the ‘hostel experience’ in the Baikaler, this was a stark reminder of why I eventually shied away from them. They can really be hit or miss.

Day two in Moscow found me looking at another Communist corpse. A few years ago in Vietnam, I had the great privilege of being able to view Ho Chi Minh’s dead bod. This was Vladimir Lenin, though, the man who started it all, and the truth is, the experience was almost identical. I’m guessing the Vietnamese just pretty much copied down the ‘Embalmed Communist Leader Rulebook’. (They definitely copied the technique for preserving the body.) At any rate, I shuffled through the long line to view Lenin’s remains. Along the way we passed several of the former Soviet leaders who are all buried just behind Lenin’s Mausoleum. Each of them has a stone bust showing their serious faces, and yes, mustachioed Josef Stalin is there. Unbelievably, there were six roses on his grave, three pink and three red. I’m certain they were placed there by ‘officials’. I’d like to think nobody else would do it.

As I entered the Mausoleum I had the misfortune of being surrounded by a large tourist group of Chinese people. It’s absolutely amazing how many Chinese people you see while traveling these days. This particular group was quite noisy and pushy.  I was delighted when they were loudly shushed by a stern faced Russian soldier in dress uniform. This quieted them immediately and we shuffled on through the ‘U’ shaped walkway in identical manner to what I had experienced in Vietnam a few years before.

In the center of the room, the father of Soviet Communism was on display. Much like Ho Chi Minh, he looked very waxy and unnatural in his dated suit, like a mannequin in a glass coffin – in short, pretty creepy. Only one of the trifecta remains for me now, Mao Ze Dong in China, if I ever make the effort.

I did little sightseeing the rest of the day as I needed to work on this blog, and so I did. With no internet in my hostel, I was forced to find a place outside with WI-FI, it wasn’t too difficult, but the prices in Moscow are eye-popping.  I mean a seven to ten US dollar cup of coffee seems to be almost the norm.

Later on in the day I booked a train ticket for St. Petersburg leaving late the following day. I was so relieved when the woman at the train station could speak English. She was very helpful and we were working together on the best time for me to depart Moscow and arrive in St. Petersburg.

‘I really don’t want to arrive too early in St. Petersburg.’

‘No problem, I have one leaves at 2:20 in morning and you will arrive two o’clock the next day.’ She then hesitated. ‘No, this is no good. This is slow train. Trip is only 8 hours with fast train. You will not like 12 hours on Russian train.’

I smiled and said, ‘I’ve just come from Vladivostok by train.’

She looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘How you like Russian train?’

‘I loved it.’

‘OK, 12 hours no problem for you.’

Moscow had one more brilliant sight in store for me on my last day there. The Diamond Fund is located right next to where the Armoury is inside the Kremlin. I bought a ticket and was not disappointed when presented with the Russian government’s great treasure trove of jewels and precious metals.

The two showcase rooms I viewed, after going through heavy security, were like nothing I had ever seen before. The dark rooms have various numbered and well lit showcases which show some of the most incredible sets of precious metals, gems and jewelry imaginable: gold, platinum, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and thousands upon thousands of diamonds. 

Just a brief list of some of the things I gaped at: a solid block of platinum with the English words ‘Made in the USSR’ engraved on the side next to the Sickle and Hammer along with 99.7%; an incredible platinum tiara with a gigantic yellow diamond at its center; the Grand Imperial Crown made up of 5000 diamonds and 75 pearls; one of the largest sapphires in the world; and the breathtakingly huge Olav diamond located at the tip of The State Sceptre.

The list could go on and on, and apparently there are only two other collections that come even close to The Diamond Fund with those distinguished collections being the crown treasure in England and the former Shah’s treasure trove in Iran. I’m not a greedy person by nature, but I did find myself thinking about how nearly any single piece from that enormous collection could change my life forever.

Uneventful is the best way I can describe the overnight train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg. There was a young Russian couple in my compartment and they spoke no English at all from what I could gather. I didn’t bother much with introductions because I knew the trip would be over soon enough. Twelve hours on a train, it almost felt too short!

The city of St. Petersburg is often described as Russia’s European city. It’s only about 300 years old, and Peter the Great built it with the express intent of dragging Russians, kicking and screaming, into the ‘civilized’ world of Europe. For me, I couldn’t help but contrast Moscow’s drabness with St. Petersburg’s style. It just felt like the whole historical city was one giant tourist attraction; there is just so much to see to the point of being overwhelming.

I started it off in the right way though by hopping on a canal cruise in the late afternoon. It was a perfect introduction to overwhelming St. Pete, slowly chugging through the canals and getting a bit of an introduction by the English speaking tour guide on the various sights.

‘And off to the left you see the Peter and Paul Fortress. This was one of the first buildings in St. Petersburg and the spire for its cathedral is still the tallest structure in the city.’

‘On the right here you can see the Summer Palace. It looks a little small, maybe? But it was the very first palace built for Peter.’

The tour was only an hour, but we had seen so much my head was spinning a bit. The great thing was, I knew where and what I wanted to go and see now.

Art has never really been a major interest for me. I enjoy hitting the occasional gallery when I travel, but I really have very little knowledge when it comes to art. But just because you don’t know a lot about something, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. And I would challenge anyone to go to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and not find some piece that didn’t stir the soul a bit.  

The Hermitage is St. Petersburg’s main draw, and that’s really saying something when you consider the entire city’s innumerable sights. Taking into account the scope and size of the collection it’s easy to see why. I have never seen a more impressive collection of art.

When I arrived an hour before opening I saw a few hundred people lined up waiting to get tickets. The bulk of the Hermitage is within the actual Winter Palace, home to many a former Tsar with Catherine the Great being one of the main contributors to build up its tremendous collection.  Stepping into the queue, which took about an hour and half, I finally made my way inside the gorgeous building.

Being a lone traveler has many advantages and disadvantages. Wandering aimlessly through the endless art filled rooms and corridors of the Hermitage, it was definitely an advantage.  The place was packed with tour groups and the layout is very maze like. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I heard people looking for someone they had lost. Not a problem when you’re on your own, though. I most certainly got lost in there, for about 4 hours as a matter of fact, but it’s all good when nobody is looking for you.

From mummies to samurais the Hermitage really does seem to have it all. I spent half a day in there and really only scratched the surface, paintings, sculptures and pictures from all over Europe, Arabia, Asia, Africa, everywhere really. And the palace itself is just incredible to behold. Shortly after entering you will find yourself walking up the Jordan staircase with a breathtaking mural on the ceiling. Overwhelming is a word I keep using to describe St. Petersburg and its sights; the Hermitage is a microcosm of this.

I was pretty worn out after all my art ogling and was tempted to go back to my room just to rest my feet. While walking outside, however, the weather turned a bit and it started to rain pretty hard. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was nearby and I was dying to go inside since spotting it the day before on the canals cruise. 

For all the art on display in the Hermitage, there was one form of it that I didn’t recall seeing (though I certainly could have missed it) and that was mosaics. The interior of the beautiful church (the exterior was modeled after St. Basil’s in Moscow) is covered with thousands upon thousands of those tiny little stones making up the mosaics. Upon entering it is just astounding how big and high up they go. I can remember being very impressed by some old mosaics in Cyprus a number of years ago, but this was on a totally different scale. 
For all of St. Petersburg’s overwhelming greatness, there is a big downside. Just like Moscow, it’s damn expensive.  After Moscow’s bad accommodation I was staying in a hotel and two nights was about all I wanted to fork out the big bucks for. So as beautiful and intriguing as St. Pete was, it was time to say goodbye to Mother Russia and head to more economical Eastern Europe.

Estonia is next…

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