Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Russia III: St. Petersburg

After days of lazy cruising, it was a shock to hear the intercom wake us up at 6 in the AM so that we could eat another bland breakfast before heading to our "exclusive" tour of the Hermitage. Judging by the size and makeup of the line outside the Hermitage, the exclusivity was characterized as excluding any and all non-tourists who had no interest in seeing the museum anyway. The Hermitage, which is housed in 5 separate old buildings, the main one being the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, is impressive beyond description. It has a larger collexion than the Louvre (according to them at least), and more gallery space. It features all of the big names of Europe, from the 15th century on. Pictured below is the main view of the Winter Palace, though you actually enter it from the other side:

We then walked around looking at monuments and stuff. We had a $10, 5-course lunch at the fabled Tinkoff Brewery (fabled because Chris Hall once brought a 6-pack of Tinkoff from Bevmo on a summer house-boating trip, and it was consumed with pleasure by all), and we stopped at the "Bronze Horseman" monument presented by Catherine in memory of Peter the Great:

Russia is, above all things, a strange place. Not only did we see people walking their pet bear cubs on the city streets (honest to God), but we also saw this:

What, you say, a tall ship? That's not so strange. Every self-respecting port city in the US has a tall ship. But wait - this is no tall ship at all! It's a combination fancy restaurant (the most expensive in the city) and fancy gym, designed to look like a tall ship! Why? Who cares?

Like Venice, St. Petersburg is built on water and swamp. As such, it has a bunch of canals. And you can take boat tours, at cost. The bridges you pass under are so low that if you're standing up, you can get killed. The same imbecilic woman on our tour had to be shouted at at least 10 times because she was trying to photograph something behind the ship just as death was looming up from in front. Naturally I did not take part in the shouting. Here's a red boat and some buildings:

The obvious place to close this series on my adventures is with what the Russians refer to as the 8th Wonder of the World. First came the Pyramids at Giza, the great Colossus, and the elegant Hanging Gardens of Babylon, unfortunately lost forever to the sands of time (except the pyramids). But luckily, the Russians contributed, what, to their mind, is at least as impressive as all of those (possibly all of those put together): the AMBER ROOM.

Like most things in Russia, the amber room was far from all it was cracked up to be. It is a room about the size of the living room at 20 Ellery, and its defining feature is that instead of wall paper, the walls are covered in little bits of amber. But the problem is, it's not a big enough room, and amber isn't cool or expensive enough (the restorations after WWII, when the Nazis ganked the original amber, cost a piddling $9 million in today's dollars) to admit a comparison to the Great Pyramids.

Luckily, instead of taking "Delta" back to the US, we took a legitimate airline, Lufthansa. Frankfurt's airport has gotta be one of the biggest in the world. It took a bus and train combination 30 minutes of constant movement to get us from our landing gate to our flight to SFO. 21 hours after leaving St. Petersburg, I stepped off the the 747, back in these United States, and more appreciative than ever of the freedom and bounty that this great country provides us with every day.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Russia II: Cruising on the Volga

As many of you know, I was confused as to how a boat might proceed from Moscow to St. Petersburg in a timely way, because no rivers really connect the two cities. Luckily, Peter the Great realized this to be a problem, and he began what ended up being a massive construction project to dig a canal from the Moscow River to the Volga. By the 1930s, the last of 18 locks was installed to make the route highly navigable. The locks are filthy cesspools that breed mosquitoes, so one must make sure to close one's cabin windows before bed every night.

Unsurprisingly, the damming of the Volga created some reservoirs. Judging by the number of "sunken churches" and other sunken things, the Soviets specifically targeted only interesting and beautiful towns (as most of the route is completely void of humanity). Here's the most famous sunken church, which we saw on our first full day of cruising:

Our first stop along the way was in the town of Uglich. Uglich has 35 churches for its small population, but, as I discovered, only one of them (the one the tourguides take you to) would avoid being condemned as unsafe in a more civilized country. Pictured below is my Russian "friend" (it was not easy to communicate with her, but she represented the best of a bad situation) Ekatajarina in front of the second-best kept church in all of Uglich

Uglich has 40% unemployment, which might help explain why many of the overgrown dirt-lots were populated, at 10am, with middle aged men drinking vodka straight out of the bottle. "Kate," as we were encouraged to call her, did not think this particularly remarkable.

We next stopped in "Yaroslavl," where we saw more churches and stuff. 'Nuff said. Day 3 was spent "cruising," so I sat, alternately reading and rocking back and forth in my chair mumbling to myself, to pass the time. (NB: I almost lost it at the end of the trip when someone said that they hadn't had any time for reading on the entire trip, but then I decided that would not be a productive thing to do).

The most interesting stop on our cruise was an island whose name I don't remember. It is famous for its wooden churches. Pictured below is the Summer Church (too cold to use in the winter, too big to heat I guess), which was originally built without the use in construction of a single nail:

Here's another view, along with some of my boatmates. The dude in the foreground is so old he still uses a film camera.

Next day we went to Mandrogi. Oh Mandrogi. How to even describe it. Perhaps the best thing to do is for you to Google this place for a few minutes. Most telling is that all of the signs, from the Vodka Museum to the Moose Farm, are written only in English. We did have mediocre Russian barbecue though - and it smelled fantastic.

During the cruising portion of the trip, I read The Brothers Karamazzov (highly recommended), Thomas Pynchon's "V" (only recommended for those who practice flagellation), and Mark Twain's "Roughing It," which is classic. But honestly, I can't really read for more than 10 hours a day - so how did I spend the other empty hours of the day? I slept. I was in bed for like 16 hours a day basically.

Next, perhaps after my backpacking trip, you can look forward to Russia III: St. Petersburg, the final entry in this trilogy.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Russia I: Moscow

We arrived in Moscow at 10:30am. The flight brought us over green hills dotted with enormous and beautiful mansions - the summer homes of the new Russian super-upper-class. Because the ship, which was our floating hotel for the whole trip, was not open until 3pm, the completely unprepared "Intrav" tour guides brought us to a "MegaMall." For 3 hours. Its most interesting feature was a supermarket that was, quite literally, easily the size of the largest Walmart I have ever been in. Criminally, I did not photograph the beer aisle (actually, there were two beer aisles). It was not only as long as the eye can see, but beer was shelved to at least 30 feet above the floor. Capitalism has brought with it many choices for Russians in terms of food, but, unfortunately, they still have almost no selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.

For the next few days, we were led around by the hand by tourguides to see the various tourist attractions that Moscow has to offer. Some of the more infirm members of our group would go back to the ship after a busy morning of riding the bus. Here I am with my grandmother (both the oldest and most sprightly of all the passengers besides myself) in famous Red Square. St. Basil's Cathedral, built with all those colors back in the 16th century, is visible behind:

We saw a bunch of churches, none of which really piqued my interest more than St. Basil's. Lots of onion domes, lots of not-very-shiny gold on those domes, etc. They call all the churches "cathedrals," even though none is very large. I couldn't quite figure out how the hierarchy works in the Russian Orthodox Church, but I didn't try very hard.

The tour guides brought us to "Gym" (pronounced 'goom'), which used to be the only shopping center in all of Moscow. Now, it's the most expensive shopping center in Moscow, which, trust me, is saying a lot. I hear that Let's Go has declared Moscow to be the most expensive city in the world, and I believe it to be true. Our guides said that, in the center of the city, apartment space sells for as little as $30,000 per square meter. Check out this display in a store window in Gym (the speech bubble does NOT explain the dog...)

Evidence of capitalism's influence was available all along the main streets in Moscow, where in addition to McDonald's, we saw a TGI Friday's, with "TGI Friday's" spelled out phonetically in Cyrillic (I apologize for the blurriness)

"Pectopah" is pronounced "Restoran" - this will make sense to anyone who knows Greek, but it mystified most of the people on our tour. The most confused rectified the situation by falling asleep on the bus, and making as little attempt as possible to learn anything about the language.

By far the most notable thing about Moscow, and the note on which I will close this post, is the subway. It was built in the '20s and '30s as a testament to the awesomeness of the regime, and it is really something else. My pictures don't really capture how beautiful, clean, and elegant each station is - and each station is different in some interesting way. Lots of sculptures, original paintings, floor designs, etc. And between 6am and 8pm, the train on the main circle line comes at least every 40 seconds. Guaranteed.

Tomorrow you can look forward to "Russia II: Cruising on the Volga"!

Back From the Dead

Hello gentle readers, I am returned from Russia. I will be posting several short descriptions with pictures for anyone interested (in chronological order). I decided not to overwhelm anyone by writing all of my posts at once. Please let me know if anything of note happened while I was out of touch.