Around the world in 125 days
Russia has a lot to see and is rich in history. Even though it had been a communist place, Moscow appears to be doing quite well. There are modern shopping malls and wide boulevards, not to mention many fancy cars. However, in the countryside, you would definitely notice they are not doing as well as Western countries. Some of the highways are in pretty bad shape and consisted of only two lanes. At the rest-stops, you tend to find outhouses, not the modern facilities you find in Canada. The tour director said a lot of Russians, particularly girls, actually would like to leave the country. There are many websites for this kind of thing with their profiles and pictures. Russia definitely has its share of beautiful girls, especially those hanging out in the hotel lobby in Moscow. Whenever I went down to the lobby by myself some of them would try to pick me up.
Soon after we entered Russia, a policeman stopped us. The driver went down and talked to him. Then we saw the driver rush back to the bus and he asked if anyone had a pack of cigarettes. It turned out he was able to get off whatever he was 'charged' by offering the cop a pack of cigarettes. Subsequently, we were stopped two more times and each time, we were able to 'go free' by offering some cash. No wonder many Russians want to be policemen. (That kind of reminded me about a joke I heard somewhere about Mexican policemen. Apparently, in Mexico's police academy, the first lesson the cadets learn is how to be corrupt.) As for exchanging money, our tour director told us, don't bother to go banks. He said we could get rubles from some guys standing in front of a restaurant that we were going to stop for lunch. Sure enough, there was a bunch of guys there holding stacks of Russian rubles wanting to exchange money. So we all exchanged money with these men. I still had no idea whether if it was legal or not. In many countries this kind of 'black-market' stuff would be punished.
After arriving Moscow, we checked into a big hotel, then we joined a "Moscow by night" tour. It took us to see Moscow's 'White House' and then up a small hill to see a panoramic night view of all Moscow. Then we drank champagne. I guess to make the tour classy. This Russian White House here is not a Presidential residence like the one in Washington DC. Rather it is a government Parliament building that houses the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. And it was on TV back in October 1993 when some military loyal to Boris Yeltsin smashed into the building and got rid of the Congress that had voted to remove Yeltsin from the presidency. I remember at that time tank artillery made several big holes in the building's walls. The building was completely repaired when we saw it that night.
Next morning, our bus took us to visit the famous Red Square and Saint Basil's Cathedral located at the end of the square. In the Square, street vendors were everywhere, selling t-shirts, fur hats, postcards, and Russian 'Great Patriotic War' (Second World War) medals, etc. Estrella bought a black mink fur lady's hat from them which should match her dark mink fur coat nicely. She also bought a 'Hardrock Cafe Moscow' T shirt there. At one side of the Square is a mausoleum where they keep the body of Lenin, and on the other side is the famous GUM department store which sells all kinds of luxurious goods. I found it rather ironic that Lenin, a leader of communism, and GUM, which might be seen as a capitalist symbol, would face off against each other like that. We visited GUM briefly but did not go into the mausoleum because there was not enough time, due to a long line of people waiting to go in. The Kremlin's wall forms one edge of Red Square.
Along the Kremlin wall is the Tomb of the Russian Unknown Soldier. It is a Russian tradition, that after a couple gets married the wedding party brings flowers to the Tomb and pays respect. So we saw many wedding parties all nicely dressed going there, offering flowers and taking pictures. That afternoon, we joined a tour to visit the Kremlin itself. The Kremlin is the residence of the Russian president. This fortress was totally closed to foreign visitors until Khrushchev came along.
You probably have heard from Americans that state and church should be separate. Not in Russia. In fact, the Kremlin is full of Russian Orthodox churches. It is even more bizarre if you consider that communism is atheist and against religion. Anyway the churches here are gorgeous with their classic gold onion domes that are so different from churches you find elsewhere. In the heart of the Kremlin is the Cathedral Square, surrounded by three cathedrals and several buildings. The biggest cathedral is known as the Cathedral of Dormition where all the Tsars (Russian emperors) were crowned in the old days.
In one part of Kremlin compound, they display some huge cannon, probably the biggest I have ever seen, and also a massive broken bell claimed to be the largest in the world.
Moscow skyscrapers consist of a lot of wedding-cake buildings and monuments. Right in front of our hotel is a 10-story monument in the shape of a rocket sitting on top of a curved structure, to commemorate the Soviet space program. Another interesting monument we saw is the one built for Peter the Great, which shows him standing on a ship with a tall mast and sails flying above him. The other kind of buildings you find in Moscow are the so-called Wedding Cake buildings, built around 40s and 50s, so called because they look like the shape of wedding cakes. In fact they are similar in style to the Empire State building in New York City. Stalin was so impressed by this style that he ordered seven of these look-alike Gothic skyscrapers to be built to show the world that Moscow is grand and prosperous. They house hotels, universities, apartments, and government ministries and they are scattered throughout the city. Collectively, they are called "Stalin's Wedding Cakes" or "Seven sisters of Moscow".
One evening, I saw a summer children's fair-ground set up in the park in front of our hotel and a lot of families were enjoying riding go-carts and Ferris wheel etc. I decided to go out myself to join them. I even rented a scooter and rode around the park for 15 minutes. People were all friendly and nobody really paid any attention to me. To me, while on the road, to be able to join the locals and share their joy in doing something that they do as part of their daily life, and to mingle with average folks not connected to tourism, is an experience that I also cherish, besides seeing all the monuments etc.
Later that night, we signed up for a trip to see the famous Moscow circus. It was a combination of jugglers, animals and clowns. The part we enjoyed most were the animal shows. They have trained bears to ride bicycles and even motorcycles. They also played music. Since they were all dressed up like human and doing all these human-like things, they did not look animals at all. For a while, I thought the animals were just some strange looking human being. Pretty weird. One group of bears were performing as a band banging away their drums and gongs etc. One bear was strumming his guitar furiously but he would stop once in a while and would not do anything until the trainer went over and knocked at his elbow. Everyone got a big laugh out of it. Of course, a lot of people would be upset about this kind of performance and call it 'animal abuse'. Well, in the West and in China, there are circuses that have no animals at all. All they have are human beings performing amazing acrobatics which look extremely painful to me and should really be classified as 'human abuse'. Yet nobody says much on that. The other famous night entertainment that is interesting would be the Bolshoi ballet performed at the Bolshoi theater. But getting a ticket to it was definitely out of the question.
On the last day before we left Moscow, the tour guide took us to see their beautiful subway. The stations were quite impressive, decorated with fancy carvings and chandeliers. In Moscow, we had a nice Russian lady as our local tour guide and she often waved her colorful umbrella to lead us around. Walking around with a open umbrella inside an underground subway certainly made her look weird.
On our way from Moscow to St. Petersburg, we spent one night at the ancient city of Novgorod. Then next morning we went for a local tour. Saw their historic St. Sophia cathedral, built in 1040, and their own kremlin. 'Kremlin' is simply a Russian word for 'castle'. This kremlin was in the old days in some serious battles, and withstood many sieges. The local guide was a young lady who spoke just a little bit too softly and we had a hard time hearing what she was saying. Then it occurred to me we could use our walkie-talkie to help. Basically we gave her one of our walkie-talkies and asked her to press the button whenever she talked. With that, we could easily hear what she said even when we were 30 feet away. We did not need to stick next to her any more. Worked pretty good, I must say.
Actually, earlier while in Prague, we saw this technology being used by a Japanese tour group. That was not surprising since Japanese tend to be gadget-happy. Of course they used professional equipment. The people in the group were all wearing light head phones and scattered around their tour guide who would talk to her mike, pointing out various points of interest. Everyone would be able to hear clearly what she said. Wonder why this idea has not caught on with other tour companies.
St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great to serve as the capital of the Russian Empire, located at the delta of the Neva River at the edge of the Baltic Sea, which provides access to the rest of Europe. The name of this city was also changed a number of times, from St. Petersburg to Petrograd, to Leningrad and then back to St. Petersburg, after communism failed. Between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is hard to say which I like better. Each has something unique to offer. St. Petersburg is of course the home of the magnificent Hermitage, one of the three top art galleries in the world. The other two are the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. The city is also a bit like Venice, with many canals everywhere. Very often you will see canals running parallel to major roads. We signed up for a river cruise along the river Neva. It turned out to be very entertaining because the cruise also included a song and dance performance, plus wine and drinks. As a bonus, we were able to see the fantastic Winter Palace and Hermitage museum directly from the river.
Then next day, we spent a day touring the Hermitage site, which also contains the beautiful Winter Palace. We were not disappointed. There were many paintings from famous painters such as Michaelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, da Vinci, Gauguin, etc. Besides paintings, there are an assortment of Fabergé jewelery and gold collection. Catherine the Great started the famed collection in 1764 and it became public property after the revolution. Unfortunately, the collection was neglected by the Communists or damaged during WW2. Some of the famous paintings were even sold by Stalin and ended up in the National Art Gallery in Washington DC. Still, among the top three galleries, I would say the Hermitage is the best, followed by the Louvre, then the Prado. As they say, one day just barely touches the surface of this great art gallery.
Besides the artefacts inside, the buildings and Square outside are also as grand as you can get. The most unforgettable is Palace Square. In the middle of this square is the majestic Alexander Column, made of red granite and believed to the tallest in the world. Maybe Russians would call it Sasha Column I suppose, because in the Russian, the nickname for Alexander is Sasha. The column weighs over 600 tons with a statue of an angel holding a tall cross, standing on top. It was built by Emperor Alexander I to celebrate a victory over Napoleon so the angel was apparently designed to look like the emperor. But of course, you could not see the angel's face since it is way high up there. At the base of the column, there are some nice steps perfect for sitting down and relax. Our group was supposed to gather there, so it was very nice to be able to sit down, absorbing the panoramic view of this truly amazing Square, and admiring the grandiose baroque and neoclassical buildings surrounding the Square. The day we were there, it was nice and warm with blue sky above. So to me, it was definitely a magical moment.
During our visit inside Hermitage, our group were led by a lady guide who wanted us to stay close to her so that we could hear what she said. Also the place was really crowded and packed so you could easily get separated from the group. The concern was, once separated, you would have a very hard time finding your own group again. In fact even finding your way out could be a problem, since the place is so big. So we all tried our best to stay close to her and hear what she said. A side effect of this intent listening and staring at her face for a couple of hours, was, at the end of the visit, I seemed to remember more about her face than the famous artefacts in the museum. Not good. Maybe not in this case, but sometimes you may be better off to split from the group and do your own looking around.
Estrella always disagreed with me and said that it would be impolite to do so and besides you had already paid for their service. For her, she would stick to a guide thru thick and thin, good or bad. Although Estrella gets upset at me whenever I do it, in my opinion, it is totally justifiable to ignore the guide or split off to be on your own, if you had a bad guide who cut corners or did not bring you to see what you came to see, after you traveling such long distances to get there first place. But of course, one definitely should not do it if there is a real danger of being lost or, worse, missing a group departure going to another city.
While on the subject of tour guide, I remember one time we went with a group to see a beautiful garden somewhere in China. Our tour guide stopped in front of a big piece of rock and talked in great length about the significance and story related to that rock. At the end of the talk, he almost implied this was the most important piece in the whole garden. As the same time, another guide with a different group was giving a talk at great length to his group and also more or less saying the other rock was the most significant. The two pretty much finished the talking at the same time and we left at the same. Our guide never said a word about the other rock and the guide also never said a word about our piece of rock. Now it really make you wonder if the guide simply point to any rock for the sake of telling a story. Clearly one of these two tours were missing something, or they were just playing with us.
We also went to see the beautiful Summer Palace used by Peter the Great. It is also known as Peterhof and located twenty kilometres outside St. Petersburg. We were able to find a local bus to take us there. When we arrived, there was a small group of costumed musicians performing traditional music to welcome visitors. There were a lot of visitors waiting to go in. Luckily we did not have to wait very long.
Ever since I saw a travel video about this Summer Palace, I always wanted to see it. I was very impressed by the layout of the beautiful palace ground, particularly this sixteen meter high slope or bluff called the Grand Cascade. It has a series of beautiful fountains in the middle and two grand stairs on both side. What struck me the most were the series of life-size golden statues that adorn the staircase. It was just breath-taking, to me anyway. On top of the Cascade is the Grand Palace. Below the fountain is a short canal that leads straight to the Gulf of Finland. So it was rather convenient that the emperor could park his ship next to his palace and could go out for a cruise anytime he liked. This is also probably the only royal palace in the world that you could visit by boat if you like. The Grand Palace had some richly decorated rooms like other typical European palaces. Estrella and I kept saying to each other it must be really nice to be an Emperor.
Another tour in St. Petersburg took us to visit the Aurora cruiser warship. It is famous in recent Russian history. In 1917 on November, 7th (October 25th, old style Russian) she fired a historic blank shot, which signalled the storming of the Winter Palace and the beginning of the Soviet Revolution. The other famous landmark we saw is a church with a rather unusual name and exterior. The Church of the Saviour of Spilled Blood is an Orthodox church situated right next to a canal. The exterior wall is pinkish, and the church is highly decorated with multiple onion domes. It is not exactly pretty but you will not forget it if you ever see it.
On our so-called leisure day, we went to downtown St. Petersburg. We checked out one of their downtown department stores. The décor was rather plain. When we got tired of walking, we stopped and enjoyed a can of soft drink while sitting outside a fast food place. When all of a sudden, a bag lady approached our table and inquired if she could have Estrella's partially left-over soft drink. She looked like a gypsy to me. I guessed she must be a desperately poor and thirsty lady that she was willing to finish somebody else's drink.
For this trip to downtown, the tour bus only provided one-way transportation from our hotel. The deal was we would have to make our own arrangement getting back to the hotel. So after visiting downtown, we hailed a taxi to go back. When we first arrived at our hotel, I had used my GPS to lock in our hotel location so during the ride back, I took our GPS out to check the direction that the taxi heading to see if it was the right direction and also the distance. It worked pretty good. Although there were anxious moments when the taxi was heading not exactly directly to the hotel or in some instances even away from it. But these were all only temporary as the taxi had to wind thru all the traffic and road redirections. After all, it was not a plane. Although, the GPS did not work all the time for us, in this instance, it was handy to be able to tell we were getting closer and closer to our destination rather than just wondering.
In St. Petersburg, I witnessed a very weird thing. I happened to notice that, based on my compass, the sun seemed to be setting in the East. Either my compass was wrong or the sun was wrong. I double checked with another tour member (Noor). Her compass was also pointing East, the direction the sun was setting. St. Petersburg is certainly the most Northern city we visited in this trip, but that could not explain this strange phenomenon. All I could say is there must be some huge magnetic field near by.
St. Petersburg, like other Russian cities, has numerous churches, monuments, and bridges. The morning before we left St. Petersburg, we had some free time so we were able to check out some of these places. We checked out St Isaac's Cathedral which has a classic golden dome and some imposing columns. It is truly impressive even from a distance. The church was dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia who happened to be a patron saint of Peter the Great. We also visited the Peter and Paul Fortress. During the revolution, a lot of Tsarist officials were locked up here as a 'protection' from angry mobs.
© Dave Cheng 2000