Saturday, October 22, 2011

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, the Seattle of the Baltic!  Yet, even the rain couldn’t tarnish the pleasure of being in this beautiful city.  I had two and a half days there, not nearly enough time.  It was the end of the Intrepid tour, which had started three weeks earlier in Beijing.  Amongst the joy of seeing the sights was also sadness as we parted ways and headed off into different directions.  

We arrived in St. Petersburg on the overnight train from Moscow and immediately took the subway to the M Hotel.  It was still early in the morning and our rooms wouldn’t be ready for hours, so we stashed our luggage at the hotel and headed out to see the city.  Like Moscow, our hotel was in a prime spot, just a block off Nevsky Prospekt, the fashionable street of St. Petersburg.  After stopping for coffee, our group soon parted in different directions.   A number went to the Hermitage, but since the lines were long and the weather forecast was calling for heavier rain on Saturday, Ana, Judy and I headed off to see the city.  Our first stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg, like Moscow, is filled with beautiful churches).  We decided not to tour the Cathedral itself, but brought a pass that allowed us to climb up the dome of the church where we were promised incredible views of the city, which was well worth the couple hundred steps we had to climb.  After making a couple rounds of the dome, we headed down and walked across the Dvotsoyy Most and the Brzhevoy Most (the names of bridges) to the Peter and Paul’s Fortress.  Not wanting to waste time eating, we brought sausages from a street vender and ate as we walked around the banks of the Neva River.
Russian Pay Toilets: Ana waits to make a deposit

The Peter and Paul Fortress sits across the river from the Winter Palace.  This was sit of St. Petersburg’s beginning, a massive fortress designed to protect the city from those pesky Swedes.  Later, the Czars used the fortress as a prison for political prisoners.  (Dostoyevsky did time here.)  Also inside the walls of the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where most of the Czars starting with Peter the Great are buried (the earlier Czars are buried in the Kremlin).  I wondered what the prisoners at the fortress thought about being held where the Czars are buried and came to the conclusion that it was probably a source of hope to know that the guy in charge of your demise will one day be dead!  Before touring the fortress, the three of us had some business to do and for the first time in my life, I found myself paying a dozen or so rubles for the privilege of using what amounted to a “porta-john.” 

We toured the fortress, walking around the walls and looking at a collection of canons across the ages, from those that had been used to fend off the Swedes, to the ones used in the Napoleonic wars, and finally those used during the life-and-death battle with Hitler’s troops.  Afterwards, we headed to the Cathedral, where Ana paid homage with her namesake, Anastasia, the daughter of Nicholas II.  Unlike the other Czars, who are all buried in a private crypt,  Anastasia and her family along with a few commoners like their servants and physician, are all buried in one massive grave in an alcove off the main sanctuary.  When the Bolsheviks killed the Czar and company in Yekaterinburg, they buried everyone together in the hopes that no one could tell whose bones belong to whom.  In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, the Russian government dug up the bones and buried them (along with issuing an apology) in the cathedral where their remains now reside along with the bones of their ancestors.  Even a few descendants are buried here, for if you’re closely related to the Czar family you can be buried here.  The most recent burial was American guy who lived in Miami and whose body in death is now in the cathedral.

After the fortress, we crossed the long “Troslskly Most” over the Neva River and wound our way through parks on our way to the hotel.  We passed the Church of the Split Blood, which I thought was a reference to Jesus’ blood and it is, but only partly, as the church was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  This beautiful church, which was actually built as a museum, was completed only a decade before the Russian Revolution and has served mostly as a warehouse.  In the late 1990s, it was refurnished and open to the public for the first time since 1917.     

Yulia had invited any of us who wanted too, to go to a park that was outside of St. Petersburg.  None of us really knew what we were in for (including her).  We took the subway to a train station, where we got tickets and then purchased dinner to eat on the train (it was about a 45 minute run).  Diner was pastries filled with meat, washed down by a bottle of beer.  We got off at an out-of-the-way stop and are met by a man who led us (and a mother and daughter who was joining us) on a path through the woods to a place where we rent bicycles.   Although I wasn’t thinking we’d be riding bicycles, I was glad to be out in the country and it turns out that Pavlovsk Park is a neat place to ride.  Our guide lead us back and forth the park, telling us the history of this place and how Catherine the Great’s granddaughter tried to copy English parks, but also put in things like “created ruins” to give it a touch of what she saw in Italy.  We rode till dark, continuing on even after it started raining.  Afterwards, we boarded the train back to St. Petersburg.

Ana, Judy, Leo and I had reserved our second day in St. Petersburg for the Hermitage, one of the world’s top art collections.  But before we could go, I had to arrange travel to Tallinn, Estonia, where I had arranged to fly to Edinburgh, Scotland.  The flight from Tallinn was over five hundred dollars cheaper than what I could get out of St. Petersburg, and since it also allowed me to see another country, I decided to take it.  I had hoped to take a train, but they were no longer running, so I booked a bus and had the hotel print out my ticket.  Ana got our tickets to the Hermitage and also had the hotel to print them out.  Once we were done, we headed off to the museum.

The Hermitage is a wonderful museum, filled with an amazing art collection that seems to stop around the time the Great War began (which meant there were a large number of Impressionism paintings). The Czars, the richest monarchs in Europe, managed to collect all this art while they ruled over the poorest nation on the continent.  Wandering around in the former home of the Czars, I kept thinking, “It’s no wonder the Russians revolted.”  We spent over six hours touring the Hermitage and didn’t see it all.  Also, the amount of art was so immense that after a while I had to force myself to concentrate.  In addition to the art, the rooms are also well furnished and lighted by incredible chandeliers. 

Although most of the Hermitage is taken up with its vast permanent collection, there were two special exhibits that drew my attention.  The first was a collection of tobacco related art, titled “Since Tobacco You Love So Much…”  The exhibit included decorated smoking pipes, tobacco and snuff boxes and some advertising art.  The next special collection was massive.  Annie Leibovitz:A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 took up four rooms within the museum and consisted of over 200 photographs.  Leibovitz has photographed notable people all around the world including all our recent Presidents.  In the first room of the exhibit, I was shocked to turn around and look at the far corner and to see a large photograph of the Oval Office with President George W. Bush and his “henchmen and women” (Vice President Cheney,  Powell, Secretary of State Rice, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, etc) all gathered around his desk.  But that photo didn’t shock me.  There were other photographs of Clinton and Obama and other notable leaders in the exhibit.  What was shocking was the photo across from it. The Bush photograph was next to the corner.  Ninety degrees away was another photograph, one that immediately drew my attention.  “That can’t be…” I thought as I quickly walked across the room to check it out.  Sure enough, opposite of the photograph of Bush and Company was one of Michael Moore and his cameramen.   “There’s a curator here,” I said to Ana and Judy, “with a sense of humor.”  Although most visitors viewing the exhibit probably didn’t catch the irony, the photographs of Bush and Moore were positioned so that they each gazed at the other, their worst nightmare.  

We stayed in the Hermitage until they closed, taking on a short break to eat a bite in one of the museum’s cafes. 

This evening was our last night together as a group.  Yulia arranged for dinner reservations at Hachapurnaya.  We met at the hotel, everyone dressed in their finest (some had packed really nice clothes and several of the younger women had heels.  Others, like me, were left to wear what was clean (of course, I’d forgotten the memo about packing heels).  We met at the hotel and walked a kilometer or so to Hachapurnaya where we had a wonderful time despite some of the worst service I’ve ever experienced in my life (or at least since eating in the dining car on the Trans-Siberia).  The food was great (I had some kind of lamb dish and there was an English translation in the menu), but we were served in shifts.  Those who received their plates first had long finished eating before the last shift was served.  Furthermore, checking out was also done in shifts.  The waitress presented checks to a couple of us and then came and picked up our check and money and returned fifteen minutes later with the change, at which time she picked up the checks and money from a couple more patrons…  It was slow and tedious, but we laughed as we shared stories of our journey.  Our party had kind of split into two groups, partly by age, but we’d had a lot of fun together and it was sad to know that we would be soon going separate directions.
After dinner, we had a couple of hours to kill before our last “official” tour event.  At midnight, we were meeting a local guide for a boat tour of the canals and river.  With time on our hands, as we wandered back to the hotel, Ana, Judy, Yulia, Terry and I stopped by a local bar that had dancing music.  It was a surreal scene.  There was one incredible dancer (Don Juan’s Jr.)  who seemed to be with two women (and at one time he was in a both with both women licking his ears).  But something wasn’t quite right for in another corner of the bar was a guy who eyes were throwing jealous darts at Don Juan and his harem.  At another point, it appeared that Don Juan and this guy had something going on as did the two women.  They were an interesting foursome and it was amazing that they could dance so well while being so intoxicated.  After one dance, one of the girls tripped and fell and we wondered if she was really hurt, but if she was she wasn’t feeling any pain.  In addition to us and the foursome, there was one table with perhaps a dozen people sitting, talking and drinking.   The DJ seemed to delight in changing styles of music, with no rhyme or rhythm to his madness.   We stayed long enough for Ana to dance to Lady Gaga, and then headed back to the hotel. 

At midnight, we met Irina, a local tour guide who’d arranged the canal tour.  She led us to a canal where a boat was waiting.  We boarded and began winding the way through the city to the river as we listened to Tchaikovsky on the boat’s CD player.  At night (or early in the morning), St. Petersburg closes down as the draw bridges open, allowing ships access for to the inner harbor.  The bridges are open for four hours.  Two hours are set aside for ships to sail into the city and two hours for ships sailing out into the Baltic.   The opening of the drawbridges has become party time and our boat joined dozens of other boats on the river waiting the opening of the bridges.  Irina brought out wine glasses and bottles of champagne and we joined the hoards of folks in other boats toasting the bridges as they rose.  It was beautiful with the lights reflecting off the water.  Afterwards, we cruised back to the canal near the hotel.

After such a late night, Sunday morning came too early.  Terry had an early fight and so we both went down to breakfast where folks slowly came in, all groggy.   Yulia had special gifts for us all.  Mine was a photo of Pushkin, the celebrated Russian writer, with a note about how she’s looking forward to reading my book (I was the one in the group always writing).    After breakfast, I packed up and said goodbye to Terry and then to Judy and Ana (they each had another day in St. Petersburg).  They headed off to the see the Czar’s Summer Palace.  After doing a little shopping, I caught the subway to the Baltic Train Station, where I was to meet the bus for Tallinn.  I allowed myself two hours, which was way too long as I had no problems on the subway and was at the station in fifteen minutes.  Although the sky was still gray, it wasn’t raining and so I purchased lunch for a local vendor who had a small kitchen in a trailer.   Waiting behind me were two police officers.  Leaving with my food, I smiled and nodded and they returned the gesture. 

I ate on a park bench out in front of the station, where I fed half of my lunch to birds.  I wasn’t as hungry as I had thought and I found myself amused at the way the pigeons and wrens fought over the crumbs.  The pigeons had to peck at each piece, which allowed them to share the crumbs with one another.  The wrens, on the other hand, fought to get a whole piece into their mouth and then flew off by themselves to devour the bread.  After a few minutes of my game, I noticed that the birds were not quite as attentive and then realized that on the other side of the small park was another guy is also feeding the birds, who are now trying to determine where their allegiance lies.  Since I’m running out of bread, it’s not me.

About this time, three young men who were obvious not ethnically Russian sat down on the other end of my park bench.  I don’t think much about it, sitting there with my lunch and backpack, until I saw the two police officers I’d seen earlier heading fast in my direction.  Leo had warned us, based on the experience of his friends, that St. Petersburg’s police could be corrupt, especially when dealing with those of darker skin.  Leo was careful to leave his passport with the hotel and only carry copies, so that the police wouldn’t take it and demand a bribe for it to be returned.  I had a copy of my passport and Russian visa in my wallet and my passport was in my money belt.  I wondered what I should do if they asked me for my passport, but they ignored me and asked the three guys for their papers.  The officers weren’t smiling as they’d been when I saw them at the food vendors.  They examined each set of papers and finally, without ever smiling, handed them back and they turned and walked away.  They never asked me for my papers, nor did they acknowledge that I was just a few feet away.  I wondered wonder if they might have been harder on them if I hadn’t been present.   Although it was obvious to the officers that I wasn’t Russian, I pondered if they picked out these three men (who spoke Russian) because of their color.  A few minutes later, the bus pulled up in front of the train station.  I checked my bag and boarded the bus and found my assigned seat (on the last row) and rode toward the Estonia border. 

Earlier that morning, at breakfast, I’d said goodbye to those who had been my friends for the past three weeks.  Yulia was waiting to lead another Intrepid tour that was meeting later that evening and would head by train back to Moscow and then on into Eastern Europe.  There would be one familiar face on this trip as Xialin, who’s on a six month around-the-world trip, had already signed up for the Eastern European tour.  Ana was spending a couple extra nights in St. Petersburg, before heading to Europe to meet her sister.  She had another two months to travel and her immediate plans included obtaining a new passport when she was in London.  Judy would be heading back to Australia through Tokyo where she had five days to see the capital of Japan.  Terry had three more weeks to travel and was flying to Manchester and would spend the rest of his time in England.  Jo was heading back to work in Australia.  Ben and Daniel were flying back to Chicago and work.  And Leo, who was the closest to home as he lives in Denmark, had to be at his office in Copenhagen on Monday morning.  Hopefully his laundry could wait.    As for me, I still had another month to travel…  Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Moscow (and the overnight train to St. Petersburg)

Jeff, Ana & Judy in front of Peter the Great Statue
 Moscow is magical.  Our hotel (Melody) was in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from the red brick walls of the Kremlin.  On our last night in the city, Ana, Judy and I head out one last time to Red Square, located next to the north walls of the Kremlin.  Prior to visiting Moscow, I’d thought Red Square had something to do with communism.  After all, the Soviets were referred to as “Reds.”  I was surprised to learn the name Red Square predated the Communist revolution by a few centuries.  The term came from the red cobblestones used as payment for the city’s market.  Equally surprising was the number of churches within the Kremlin, but then this was the place where the Czars lived and worshiped, at least until Peter moved the capital to the city that now bears his name.  That last night in the city was especially magical.  It’s been raining and lights reflected off the puddles. To our left, the giant GUM department store was outlined in lights.  To our right were the walls of the Kremlin, with towers rising into the darkness.  At the end of the square was Saint Basil’s Cathedral, its multi-colored onion domes bright against the dark sky.  We’d toured Saint Basil’s the day before and was surprised to find that it wasn’t one big church building, with a large sanctuary as we might expect in the West, but a number of small chapels, each under dome and each commemorating a victory by Ivan the Terrible’s army in the Kazan campaign.  We walked around the Square, much of which was partitioned off as workers were assembling grand stands in preparation for a giant military marching competition that was coming up in a few weeks.   Afterwards, we rushed back to our hotel and picked up our backpacks and journeyed through the subway to the station where we caught the overnight train to St. Petersburg.

We’d fallen in love with Moscow the first day in the city.  Ana, Judy and I broke away from the rest of the group who seemed to be overly interested in eating and then shopping in GUM’s.  Instead, we headed to the Gulag Museum, which told the history of Stalin’s treatment of his enemies in the depths of Siberia.  Afterwards, we caught the subway over to the Pushkin Art Museum.  For some reason we decided to check out the Western European and American art collection.  There was a fine collection of European Art, but for the life of me I don’t know why they’d attached “American art” to the name as their American collection was skimpy—mostly consisting of a small collection of Rockwell Kent’s paintings, but I’d never even heard of him.  There were no Western Artists like Russell or Wyatt or Remington, no art from the Hudson River School, and no Warhols.  There wasn’t even a Grandma Moses or one of those paintings by Edward Hopper that create such a lonely feeling.  Judy insisted there was a Norman Rockwell painting, but I didn’t see it. 

At Sculpture Park: Gulag Monument
We came out of the art museum at 6 PM and headed across the street to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of the most impressive churches in the well-church city of Moscow.  Stalin had the church destroyed for a revolutionary monument which was never built.  Instead, a swimming pool occupied the site.  If any good had come out of World War Two, in which Russia suffered greatly, it was that it thwarted Stalin’s plans to tear down even more churches as St. Basil’s was on the destruction list.  In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, the church was rebuilt.  I wanted to go inside, but the doors closed at 6 PM, so we decided to head across the river and head down to Gorky Park.  Along the way, we admired the large statue of Peter the Great standing in front of a ship.  Why they have such a statue like this in Moscow which is a long ways from the sea, as well as having such a major statue of the man who moved the government out of Moscow to his own city on the Baltic Sea is a mystery to me.  Next stop was a sculpture park that’s located along the Moskva River, just north of Gorky Park.  We wound through this rather odd collection.  There were modern sculptures, but the park’s claim to fame was it being a place where old Soviet statues went to die.  There had to be at least 25 Lenin statues, as well as statues for Stalin and other Soviet leaders.  There were a number of large stainless steel “hammers and sickles,” all mixed in with mildly obscene modern statues of grossly proportioned humans. 

Gorky Park was next.  We entered the gates, pausing long enough for Judy to have her picture taken by the entrance, as we joked about being spies.   But even spies have to eat and we were getting hungry.  We quickly moved through the park, forgoing the sausage stands (we’d had a sandwich on the run for lunch) and then a restaurant that seemed a little classy for our dress.  We then stumbled upon a wonderful café with tables outside and sat, attempting to figure out what we could have for dinner.  The waitress’ English was better than our Russian, but still we didn’t get all that we thought we we’d ordered, but it was filling and good and by then light was fading and we started walking back across the park and the city.  We missed the subway entrance and ended up walking all the way back to our hotel, stopping along the way at a street filled with outdoor entertainment and cool (and overpriced) shops. 

 The Melody Hotel provides a nice breakfast buffet.  The next morning we feast as a group and then all head out to see Lenin, whose body is on display in a special mausoleum next to the Kremlin.  We’re there early, before they open and stand in the drizzling rain watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I know everyone makes a big deal about how life-like Lenin looks, just as they say folks in caskets look life-like, but they don’t.  They’re dead and look it.  We slowly walk by Lenin’s body, lying as it has for nearly seven decades, in a three piece dark suit.  Afterwards, Judy, Ana and I head over to GUM for some coffee, and then we toured Saint Basils and checedk out the Bolshoi Theater.  We had evening tickets for the ballet “Giselle,” and since the main theater is closed for renovations, the summer productions are being featured next door in another venue. It was a good thing we did this because when it came time to get to the theater, we were running late and due to construction and a foreign language, things are not as clear as I would have liked.  

That afternoon, our group meets up with another “Yulia” for a tour of the Kremlin.   Yulia, the tour guide (like Yulia our group leader), is another attractive Russian woman.  Moscow seems to be filled with such women.  Yulia leads us inside the walls of the Kremlin, telling us about the construction.   Inside, she points to various government buildings as well as the world’s largest canon (which has never been fired) and the world’s largest bell (that has never been rung).  Next, we tour several of the churches, one of which is the final resting place for a bunch of Czars.  The architecture is amazing.  The highlight of the tour is the Armory.  It used to be a real armory for the military but is now an incredible museum.  Much of the Czar’s royal trappings, such as the wedding dress of Catherine the Great (who added on a few pounds over the years) are kept in this building on display.  One of the more amazing collections is the Czar’s royal coaches.  Compared to some of these horse drawn carriages, a Rolls Royce would look like the mode of transportation for a pauper.  Yulia is a very knowledgeable guide and we’re shocked to learn that she’s just past her exam to lead tours in the Kremlin and we’re only her second group.  

The tour was supposed to take just a couple of hours, but we stay longer than planned in the Armory.  Yulia had great stories that kept us engaged.  By the time we leave it’s after 6 PM.  Ana, Judy and I had planned on heading back to the hotel and cleaning up before the ballet, but there isn’t enough time.  A number of others in our group had seen Swan Lake the evening before and assure us that we’d be fine the way we’re dressed.  As I am normally dressed in a suit for the ballet or symphony, I felt a little out of place wearing shorts, but since there was no time I forged ahead.  We stopped and purchased a hot dog as we made our way to the theater.  Coming around the corner of the building, we are greeted by Terry.  He attended the ballet the evening before and came to make sure we knew how to get into the building with the construction all around, a nice gesture.

Once we find our seats, I’m glad we’re sitting on the back row as I feel more than a little under dressed.  The production of the ballet is wonderful, but this being my first time seeing Giselle, I am not happy at the subtle meaning that I gleam from the story.  In Act 2, after Giselle’s death, we watch the spirits of the dead lure the woodsman to his death.  In Act 1, he was the one who truly loved Giselle.  The prince, who couldn’t promise a long-term relationship to a commoner like Giselle and had to dress as a commoner to seduce her, but in Act 2, he is saved from the deathly spirits by Giselle herself.  It just doesn’t seem right, but maybe that’s life.   

After the ballet, we head back toward the hotel, taking the subway.  As it cost the same where you take it for one stop or twenty (provided you don’t leave the subway), we decide to tour the city’s underground and check out the neat subway stations under the center of the city.  Each station in the older part of the subway (those built between the 1930s and early 1950s have unique architecture.   On some walls, there are stain glass.  Others have glass mosaics or frescos or carved plaques depicting the revolution and the Soviet’s achievements.  It is late when we finally make it back to the hotel.

At breakfast on our third day in Moscow, Judy bows out, saying she was tired and needed to rest.  She had a blister on one of her feet and didn’t feel up for more running around, so Ana and I head out into the city.  Our first stop is the Museum of Contemporary Russian History (formerly the Museum of the Revolution).  There are only a few people there, but this museum, along with the Armory, are the two must-see places I recommend in Moscow.  The museum is well done as it traces the development of modern Russia, from the era of the Czars through the Revolution and the Soviet era to the reemerged Russian Federation.  

After the museum, Ana and I head to the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall with the hopes of finding an evening classical music performance.  There are none and August doesn’t seem to be the month for classical music in Moscow (but that’s okay because if there had been a concert, we’d missed Red Square at night).  So instead, we opt for a lovely lunch on the sidewalk (but under an awning as it were raining) at the Tchaikovsky Café.  Afterwards, we walk down to the river, taking streets we’ve not yet explored and then walked in the rain along the riverbank across from the Kremlin to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the massive church that we’d tried to visit a few days earlier.  This time, they’re open but because we’re in shorts, we’re not allowed in!  So we head to the Pushkin Museum of Art and spend the rest of the afternoon there, leaving as they are closing the doors.  Again, I’m amazed at how much religious art there is in Russia, a country that was been officially “atheistic” for most of the past century.  The Pushkin also has a remarkable collection of “life-sized copies” of sculpture from around the world such as Michelangelo ’s David.  We spend several hours looking at the various collections and then walk back to the hotel where we meet up with Judy for dinner.  After dinner, we take our final stroll across Red Square and return to the hotel at 11 PM to meet up with everyone and to pick up our luggage.  Our days in Moscow were all wonderful, but the last one had been incredible. 
  Yulia, our tour leader in St Petersburg
 With the group all together, we navigated the subways to the correct train station (there are numerous train stations in Moscow) for the overnight train to St. Petersburg.  It’s well after midnight when we board the train.  Most everyone crashes, but I decide to first check out the lounge/restaurant car.  It’s stylish and, upon hearing my report, Ana and Judy decide they’ll join me for breakfast.  Early the next morning (as the train is to arrive in St. Petersburg a little after 8 AM, we head down to the dinner.  It had been open (as a bar) until 4 AM and reopened for breakfast at 6 AM.   We’re the only customers, but the service is good and the menu even has an English description in small letters under the Russian.  I have crepes which are delicious.  We eat quickly as we speed toward our final destination for the trip.   As we disembark in St. Petersburg, I am a little melancholy as I realize that not only is the trip with these fellow travelers is coming to an end, but that my solo journey across Europe and Asia was almost over.  This is the last of my long train rides.  I’d come from Singapore, a half a world away, on train.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Kungur and the train to Moscow (August 7 & 8, 2011)

Kungur, Russia
It was a trading town, on the old road between Moscow and Peking, our guide told us as she led around Kungur.  This was a place where spices and tea were exchanged for goods from the Orient.  Leather goods and textiles were also made a traded here.  The town was quite prosperous in its day and still has a nice warm feel to it today.  Older buildings with arched windows were markets, we’re told.   About half the buildings have this architectural feature, although few of them are used for their original purposes.  We pass an older brick building with arched windows.  Laid into the brick, between the windows is the Star of David.  I find it odd that such a building would have survived Stalin’s reign of terror and ask our guide about the stars.  “They are for decoration,” she says.  “What?” I ask.  “They are a religious symbol.”  “No, they were just decorative,” she insists.  I shake my head and think, “yeah, right, everyone in this country known for its pogroms wanted to identify with the Jews.”  In the back of the pack, Daniel, whose is Jewish, quips, “My Great-Grandfather came from this country and he would be pissed.”
Notice the Star of Davids in the brick
Teapot Monument
Later, I have a chance to talk one-on-one with our guide.  I don’t think she was trying to dismiss the Jewish influence.  Instead, I think she was just uninformed.   In a conversation on the train with Yulia, our tour leader, she asked several of us what we thought of Stalin.  She is surprised that we all saw him as a monster.  Yet, I’m equally surprised when she tells us that many in Russia like him, noting the achievements achieved under his leadership.  She downplayed the purges and seems shocked when I place him within an unholy trinity that includes Hitler and Pol Pot.  I was shocked at her views and wondered if Stalin was really seen in favorable terms, but shortly afterwards find her view that Russians tend to look favorably on Stalin confirmed by Ian Frasier in Travels in Siberia who discovered that Stalin as a “monstrosity” has been “soften to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale” and that his popularity among Russians is rising (431-432).   Most nations have leaders they must hold in tension, those of whom they’re proud and ashamed.  Andrew Jackson certainly was a influential American President and did many positive things, but his removal of the Cherokees and other Southeast Native Americans sounds a lot like Stalin (and the Czars before him) using Siberia as a place to exile enemies. 

Tikhvinskaya Church

Kungur is in the middle of the Urals Highlands (to call these mountains is a stretch) about 1500 kilometers from Moscow.  We arrived mid-day on a Sunday morning and are met by our guide, a bubbling blonde school teacher.  She takes us to our hotel where we’re met by one of the most unwelcoming receptionists I’ve ever encountered.  Maybe she was just having a bad day.  But the hotel is nice and we’re allowed a few minutes to settle in and clean up, before heading out for lunch at a local restaurant.  Then we begin our walking tour in which we’re told about the town and in which she points out ancient markets and various statues.  

Along our tour, we stop at an overlook of the river valley.  It’s a beautiful city, sliced in half by the  Kunguraka River.  The steeples of a half-dozen Orthodox Churches can be seen glistering in the sunlight.  Many were closed during the Communist years; most but not all have reopened.   One of the older churches near the hotel is now a theater.   We drop into the Tikhvinskaya Church, for a quick tour.  It’s the tallest and finest building in town with numerous onion domes.   I ask about the tower and am told that for 50 rubles, we can climb it.  Ana and I both want to climb, so our guide gets the key and climbs the tower with us.  We spend some time looking around the city and take photos of the city and the bells.   I ask our guide if I might take her photo of her standing in front of the bells with her scarf and hair blowing in the wind.  She immediately poses and I snap a few glamor shots. 

Our guide modelling in the church's belfry

Lenin and Old Water Tower next to tracks

In Frazier’s book, Travels in Siberia, he discusses Russian women.  One of the Russians he talks to during his journeys jokes that next to oil, Russia’s most valuable export is its women, a lamentable truth for one of the problems in Russia is the trafficking in women.  Frazier acknowledges that during the Cold War, the image many in the West had of Russian women was that of overweight sour-faced woman (like the train attendant we had between Ulan Bator and Ulan Ude), but this was not what he discovered.  He blamed this misconception on the fact that during the Cold War we saw little about Russia except for the wives of some of the Soviet leaders who often looked as sour-faced as their husbands (the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev broke that stereotype).  Like Frazier, I would admit that one of the pleasant surprises of Russia is their women.  Well dressed women in heels seemed to be everywhere.  Yulia, our group leader, and all the women tour guides were attractive as well as a number of our the train attendants (with one notable exception).   Another exception was the stone-faced woman at the hotel desk in Kungur, but her problem wasn't with her looks but attitude. A smile would have done a lot for her, but it might have cracked her face.  

Our last stop is at a local establishment where they bottle the town’s famous lemonade.  We all try a bottle of which I drink only a few swallows.  Carbonated lemonade just seems strange.   One of the surprises in Russia is that they like everything carbonated.   Even buying water, you have to be careful or you’ll get frizzy water.  After our walk around the town is over, we hire a couple of cabs and head to ice caves located just outside of town.  Getting there, we have to wait an hour for our tour, so I take a walk by myself along the Sylva River and listen to Carl Hiassen’s book, Nature Girl on my ipod.  Then the time comes, we pull on all our clothes and head into the cave, that have a two major sets of doors designed to keep the cold inside..  The caves are cold, but there isn’t much ice except in the opening chamber.  But it’s pretty.  

Olga and her daughter, our Russian hosts
teaching us pastry making
After touring the cave, we walk to the apartment of a local family who has prepared us dinner.  The family has two cute blonde-headed kids, a girl and a boy, who met us on the street and led us to their home.  They run up the stairs and as we come into the apartment, they present us with bread and salt, a traditional sign of greeting.   We are introduced to their parents, Sergey and Olga.  While their parents prepare the table for our dinner, the boy shows me his room and toys.  Ana and the girl play with her dolls, dressing them and fixing their hair.  The kids are so cute.  The girl and her mother have their hair braided.  We’re all called to the table where we help prepare pastries.  Vatrushki is a cottage cheese pastry and shangui is one containing mashed potatoes.    We have a hardy meal that includes a salad made of beets , potatoes and mayonnaise .  Ironically, it’s like a similar salad I had last year in Costa Rica, and they even called it “Russian Salad.”  I was surprised to learn it was an authentic dish, the only notable difference was that the Russians add herring to the mix.  After the hard meal, the family walks us down to the bus stop where we catch the bus back to the city center and our hotel.  The day’s light is fading, but still go for a walk around the riverbank and across it to check out a distant church whose orthodox crosses upon its onion domes glow in the low light. 

 We had the next morning free.  After breakfast at the hotel, I head back to the Tikhvinskaya Church for their morning service.  There are only a few people there and, in Orthodox tradition, we all stand.  Most of the congregation that morning was older women, but in front of me is another man, about my age, who seems as clueless as I am when it comes to crossing oneself during the prayers.  Much of the service consists of alternating chanting from the balcony (done by a man and a woman) and from behind the icons (done by a priest).   Everything except for a few readings is sung, without any accompaniment by musical instruments.  I don’t understand much of what’s happening, but it is beautiful.   At one point in the service, a man comes in and starts to speak to me in Russian.  He smells of alcohol and seems distraught.   I shrug my shoulders and whisper that I don’t speak Russian, only English.  He leaves me and goes and lights a candle in one of the corners and stands there for a few minutes.  Then, as he’s leaving he comes back to me and in perfect English says, “I’m sorry, my father died this morning.”  I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d pray for him, which I did.  He then left the service.   

At one point, the priest opens the door through the icons and prepares communion.  I was not sure if I should take communion or not, if offered.  A few people went over to receive the bread, but most did not, so I remained where I was at.  Then, a woman who’d been helping out with things brought me the bread and offered it to me.  I wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant, but I decided that communion is at best a mystery and the polite thing to do was to accept and be gracious.  After all, the Lord’s Supper is a mystery and I am not sure I if any of us is really sure what goes on during the meal.   In For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann,  an American Russian Orthodox priest, the author questions the debate over the Lord’s Supper in the West between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and even between some Protestants).  Schmemann reminds us that the meal is a symbol and a mystery.  I read Schmemann’s book  nearly two decades ago, but the wisdom of his argument has remained with me, so I accepted the bread from the woman who showed me hospitality, and prayed for her and for the congregation that welcomed me at the table. 

waiting for the train

Afterwards communion, a family who’d come into the service right before communion (a man and woman with an infant that looked to be maybe 6 or 9 months old), took the child to the priest and it looked like he gave the child a piece of bread soaked in the wine.  Then there were prayers said over the child and each parent lighted a candle, then left.  After some more chanting in Russia, the service ended.  It was nearly 11 AM and I ran back down the hill to the hotel and checked out. 

The group was met by a minibus which took us to a market to buy food (none of us wanted to try the diner on the train again) and then on to the station.  The train we were catching was late by about an hour and we loitered around waiting.  This wasn’t really a Trans-Siberian train as it only ran on the TransSiberian line from Kungur to Moscow.  The train originated in the north of Siberia, not in the east.  We were in Car #12, which I would have assumed would be toward the end of the train, but the cars were inverted and number 12 was the second car behind the engine.  This was only a two minute stop and our car was a good 50 meters beyond the end of the platform, which meant we had to run on uneven ground and quickly haul ourselves onto the train.   The train was stopped for more than two minutes! 

The ride on to Moscow was uneventful.  We passed Perm, a large city to the north of Kungur, where Paul Theroux (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) on stopped along his most recent  Trans-Siberian trip to check out a city many of the 19th Century Russian authors traveled through on their way to a Siberian exile.    Here, at Perm, there is a huge freight yard.  Although Perm is industrial, I was shocked at the rural nature and the large forest that exists in western Russia.  At Balyezino, we have a long stop as we change engines.  I wake up early in the morning during a disturbing dream about a friend having a blotched surgery.  I slip out of bed and out of the compartment and look for the kilometer markers, hoping to see the Volga River.  But we’d passed it during the night.   While everyone sleeps in the compartment, I use to the time to write in my journal, reflecting on returning back to my regular life once the summer is over.  Later in the morning, after breakfast, we take the last long stop of the trip in Vladmir.  I go out on the platform and walk around.  No longer are there women selling food and beer along the platform as they’d been through much of the trip.  We’re in Europe now where people dressed business-like and all seem to be in a hurry as they take the train to Moscow or another destination. 

A couple hours after Vladmir, we arrive in Moscow.  Yulia leads us through the station and onto the subway.  The inner part of Moscow’s subway (that which was build between the 30s and 50s) are works of art and we marvel at the beauty of the underground stations.  Police are everywhere, but then even Moscow has had their subways attacked.   We check into the hotel, clean up, and then head out on the city.