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.


  1. My comments are always the same: Very, very cool.


  2. Wow. A post full of action. I want to visit that museum...but more so that late night canal trip is now being added to my~things~to~do list.. That looks absolutely beautiful!
    Iam actually surprised you ended up back at home in one times your trip sounds a bit precarious;)
    And too much fun!

  3. what neat textures you chose to bring out in this one...really makes i tcome alive...don juan jr...the pigeons...neat stuff...

  4. Meeting and making friends on a journey like this is such a pleasure. I can feel the sadness of saying goodbye again just reading about it. Thanks, bud. Glad you had such a wonderful, memorable experience.

  5. The very name calls up exotica, makes me think of Napolean's Russian debacle for one, and the Cossacks. I don't know why the latter

  6. My comments are always the same too; I think it is wonderful that you were able to have all these experiences!! And very nice of you to share them with us.

  7. What a fine trip. I've never been to Russia, though the language was my minor in college. My teachers had come out when the Whites lost and so my Russia is an old Russia of white clouds towering over vast distances and broad rivers and steaming samovars of tea and graceful patronymics. Of Little Mother and Little Father.

    When I was looking for places to travel, Intourist kept everyone on a short leash and everything was designed to milk the visitor of foreign exchange. My wife went in the last year before the Soviet system collapsed, when it was still folk dancers at the collective farm, little girls with bouquets of flowers and obligatory visits to the tractor factory. I didn't go with her, but she had a fine time anyway.

    I still think about going to Russia, but I would get out of the cities as quickly as I could.

    Some people would travel to see the new Russia. I would go to look for the one that once had been.