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St. Petersburg, Pass II

You may wonder why I didn't just add this section back in my first St. Petersburg chapter.  I thought about it but decided this way makes more sense. Updating the last section would appeal to my engineer's sense of order and organization, but my storytellers instinct says to tell it the way I lived it.

I ended up back in St. Petersburg and Moscow for a couple of reasons.  When I was trying to figure out where to go after Russia, I was faced with a couple of equally appealing choices and had a terrible time deciding between them.  There were a lot of factors, but on one side of the balance sheet was the fact that I felt like I'd shortchanged both Moscow and St. Petersburg.  While I don't pretend to really know any of the places that I visit, I have a certain level of familiarity with each place I like to achieve before I move on.  I didn't get there with either Moscow or St. Petersburg, and it bothered me.  A bunch of other factors came into play, and in the end I decided to backtrack to both cities, and then fly out of Moscow on the last day of my visa.

An interesting thing has happened to my sense of time over this trip.  A typical American vacation plan might be to visit Russia.  The intrepid traveler may get as much as three weeks in which to fly halfway around the world, de-jetlag, figure out how to get around, see the country, fly back to where you started, de-jetlag again and go back to work.  A really extreme vacationer might have as much as 4-5 weeks, but this is rare.  The funny thing now is that when I was sitting in Murmansk after making the decision, I started looking hard at the calendar.  It really seemed like I was crowding myself, since I only had two weeks to see two cities that were both only a couple hundred miles away which I was already familiar with, and which I'd already spent a few weeks exploring.

One might think that with time and experience you could see a place more efficiently and in less time, but the exact opposite happed to me.  Now I never really feel like I've been to a city unless I hang out there for a few weeks, wander the streets at random, eat at the cafes enough to find a favorite where the staff knows me, do a bit of work either in my hotel or a cafe, see a few sites, try to interact with a few people, look in the stores, and just absorb the atmosphere.  I'm not happy until I don't feel blatantly like a tourist anymore.  I never quite feel like a local, but I like to make it to some middle ground.

I might also add the other side of the coin.  You may recall I was intimidated and disoriented in Moscow.  Looking back on the trip, I've found that I'm actually that way in nearly every country, even Australia.  It takes me a week or two to get my bearings and feel like I fit into a place.  There are people that can switch gears from one culture to another instantly, but I'm not one of them. This means that in all of my previous vacations, I've never gotten out of my initial disorientation period.  I'm experiencing things a different way now that would be impossible for me with ordinary short holidays.

The Hermitage

One of the main reasons for coming back to St. Petersburg was to see the Hermitage.  You saw my rather weak explanation of why I weaseled out on it the first time, and I really wanted to see it; especially since Maria would never forgive me if I didn't.  I spent my first day back in the city there.  I'll have to say that the Hermitage is the best art museum I've ever seen.  I liked it better than the Louvre in Paris or any of the other dozen or so art museums I've seen around the world.  It's not my favorite museum overall since I tend to like science and technology or history museums better (my favorite was the Leonardo Da Vinci museum in Italy), but it is my favorite art museum.  This isn't strictly an art museum since it has a lot of non-art displays, but the majority of it is art, and that's what it's most famous for.

The Hermitage is what I would call your One Stop Shopping Art Museum. The breadth in the displays is amazing.  Want to see an Egyptian mummy, sarcophagus, hieroglyphics, pottery or other artifacts... got em.  The Egyptian section rivals the best museum in Cairo.  How about an equally old skeleton of a European man and horse, or maybe some 10,000 year old petroglyphs... They're here.  Need artifacts in every age from Paleolithic to the Bronze age, found em. Giant Malachite urns, gold, tapestry, bronze, woodwork, Roman statues, mosaics... them too.  How about Italian, French, Venetian, German, Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern art... check.  Watercolors, impressionist, cubist, baroque, oils, sculpture, portraits, landscapes, abstracts, porcelain, woodwork, armor... you get the picture.

The place is huge and well worth visiting, particularly if you're an art lover.  Since I'm more of the ignorant savage variety of art appreciator, I frequently find art museums to be pretty dull.  I only have three categories for art: Stuff I like, Stuff I Don't Like and Stuff I like enough to put on my wall (if I had a wall, that is).  My highly educated way of categorizing things is to look at them and decide.  I found an awful lot things in the two good categories, and the breadth of the collection kept me from getting bored and going into Museum Coma.

My only real quibble with this place is their selection criteria.  Due to space constraints, only about 10% of the collection is on display at any time, so someone had to choose what's up there from a vast set of choices.  What they ended up with is way too much religious art.  I ended up having to wander through room after room after room of religious art to get to the good stuff.  I would have preferred to see some of the other good stuff that's no doubt stored in a warehouse somewhere.

The building itself is a palace, and was the home of the Czars from Peter the Great until the end of the Czarist period (1917 - about the end of WWI).  It was originally started under the direction of Peter the Great, who founded St. Petersburg.  The interior was redone in the Classical style under the direction of Catherine the Great and her successors.  I've been in a lot of palaces in my day, and aesthetically this one is one of my favorites.  They somehow managed to make it elegant and opulent without going over the fine line into gaudy.  Most of the other Russian palaces I saw were on the gaudy side.

The palace had some things of particular interest to me based on my background.  They had some of the nicest wood floors and ceilings I've seen anywhere.  If you were there you probably would have been amused to find a room with a bunch of people staring at the paintings, while I was crawling around on the floor looking at the woodwork.

I took a few photos in the Hermitage, but one thing I've learned over the years is that great art nearly always makes lousy photos.  This is true even when it's photographed under ideal conditions for an art book, and especially true when photographed under uneven light with a handheld digital camera without flash, and displayed on a web page.  I have some photos in the photo gallery, but be forewarned that they're a pale shadow of the original.  A really good painting can reach out and grab you by the throat, but a photo of the same thing is generally ho-hum at best.  Sculpture generally fares even worse.  The especially frustrating thing is that some of my favorites made the worst photos.  Frequently my favorites are very subtle.  I know subtlety isn't my strong suit, but I can at least recognize it when I see it.  Very subtle paintings of which I saw several I liked make exceedingly bad photos.  To add insult to injury, my very favorites were in a section where they didn't allow photography at all.

Hidden Treasures and Lessons Learned... Maybe

The Hermitage has one display that was quite interesting and which made a huge controversy when it was unveiled in 1995.  The paintings themselves were mostly ho-hum, but the history is interesting.  The display is called Hidden Treasures Revealed and it consists entirely of art that the Red Army picked up while they were exacting their revenge on the Germans at the end of WWII. Some of it consists of things taken from Germans, which they in turn stole from countries they overran during the war.  The whole thing created a controversy about ownership that's apparently still going on today.  It makes for an interesting philosophical question.  One could easily argue that nearly every important work of art that's more than a few hundred years old was probably stolen at some time during its history, and maybe many times.  They will also have been bought and sold many times by very wealthy people, many of whom got the money through immoral means; which in my book means they stole it too.  So you get to today, the question becomes "who owns it?" In most cases, there's no clear family member that should have any rights to it.  There may or may not have been any number of museums or legitimate owners during the interim, but no matter which claim you look at you could probably trace it back just a little ways and get to an illegitimate link.  You could reasonably make quite a few competing claims, all of which would have some moral legitimacy.  So who wins?  In the case of these paintings, the answer seems to be "whoever has it", but it's still an interesting question.

While I was in Murmansk, President Putin returned some paintings to Germany as part of a good will gesture during a recent state visit.  He also addressed the German Parliament, making him the first Russian since the start of the Cold War to do so (he addressed them in German no less).  This was interesting because he did it in a city where he worked as a KGB officer earlier in his career. Russia is integrating itself into the West on all fronts, economic, cultural and military.  There's even some talk of Russia joining NATO, which is just about the ultimate irony, since NATO was created specifically to counter the Russian threat.  Life's funny that way.

There's a lesson to be learned from this I think.  If there were ever two populations anywhere in the world with plenty of reason to hate each other, it's the Russians and the Germans.  Within recent memory, they had a fight to the death with no quarter given on either side and nearly unimaginable levels of brutality on both sides for the second time.  The war was responsible for a staggering death toll on both sides, and Germany wound up split for 40 years over it.  Russia has lots of reason to hate Germans for their conduct during the war, and Germans have lots of reason to hate Russians for their conduct since the war.  Now you can see the old hatreds starting to dissolve away in only 1-2 generations.  I was unable to find a single Russian that seemed to feel any animosity toward Germans.  The Russians and Germans are starting to see a lot of common ground and common history.  If the Russians and Germans can patch up their animosity, why can't the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland who have much less real basis for their hatred (minor differences in religious interpretation)?  Why not the Israelis and the Palestinians?  Other than minor differences in skin color and religion, they have more in common than they have differences.  Vietnam and America are back on friendly terms, so why not North and South Korea? I like to think that we're approaching an era where not every relationship in the world is one created by force during the most recent war, and old hatreds can be put to rest like civilized people.  One can only hope.

Travel Tip You probably noticed I ran out of these colorful little travel tips back in Australia somewhere.  Well fear not.  Most of these come as a result of me doing something stupid and trying to figure out how to avoid that in the future.  On that basis, it's very likely I'll keep coming up with new ones as I go along.

I've been trying to use public transportation, even in places where I'm language challenged, or where a taxi would be cheap and easy, because it seems like a more genuine experience.  This usually involves Metros, which are relatively easy and busses which are less easy.  I've been using Metros for a while, and just recently started really learning how to use busses. Here are a few tips I figured out along the way.

  • Always carry a compass.  Way back in the beginning, you'll remember I mentioned how useful they are for finding which way to go on a street.  Well the same thing applies to Metros.  Most of the time you'll have some kind of map that gives you an idea of where you want to go.  At the station, the challenge becomes finding the line you want and then getting on it going the right direction.  Most (but not all) Metro lines go in a direction at least somewhat related to the direction that it shows on a map. So if you need to go South on a particular line, the line may or may not run North-South, but you can bet that if it does run North-South, you don't want to go North.  Don't depend on it absolutely, but it makes a good verification of what you find from the sign, or can help you guess which sign to examine in detail faster.
  • Carry a pen and mark up your map.  Any time you figure out some bit of useful info about the local system, write it down.  It's easy to say "yeah, yeah... got it", and then forget it later on.  For example, my map of the St. Petersburg Metro has red, yellow, blue and green lines.  The signs in the station number them 1-4.  I've spent five minutes figuring out that line 4 is the blue line at least four times, where if I'd written it down the first time then I could have had the info at my fingertips.
  • Identify lines and directions with pattern matching.  Even if you can't read the local language, you can match up the patterns on the map with patterns on the signs.  Here are a few tips to make that easier:
    • Count words: The name of a stop will generally be one or two words, and it's fairly easy for your eyeball to match up the number of words in an entry and skip the ones with the wrong number of words.

    • Look at the size of the words:  If you're looking for something with a ten letter word followed by a five letter word, skip past anything that doesn't match the right length. You have to be careful with this one though, because some of the words are frequently abbreviated on the map but not on signs or vice-versa.  It helps to have some idea of what the common words are for "street" or "avenue", but this isn't essential.
    • Try for single words first: You're really trying to correlate one piece of information on the map with a piece of information on a sign.  It makes sense to try to find something easy rather than something hard.  For example, most of the time you identify a line and direction by looking for the end stop. If the line you want has a two word name for the last stop, one of which could be abbreviated, look at the second to last stop.  If that's a single word, or shorter, or easier to recognize look for that instead.
    • Don't try to match up the whole word, particularly in places with different alphabets.  If some of the characters match letters you're familiar with, look for them first.  For example, you might notice that the third, fifth and last letters are recognizable.  Your eye will be much better at finding the letters that look like the ones you read.
    • If you're unsure and want to take a timeout, it's usually easier to get off sooner and figure out where you're at than going past your destination and backtracking.  If you get off sooner, you can just jump back on the same train.  Backtracking may just involve walking across the platform and catching the other train, but you can't count on it.  Frequently two different lines share the same platform so people making the most common transfer can walk across quickly.
    • Don't be afraid to ask for help.  Even us men are capable of that, and you don't even really need to speak the language. I've frequently received help from Russians by simply pointing where I want to go on a map.  They can usually point you to the proper train going the right direction, and count off how many stops to wait.  Most trains have a map, so you can point at the station you want and make an inquiring gesture with your eyes and someone will tell you how many stops to go.  If someone gives you complicated directions you can't completely follow, don't worry.  Just follow the ones you can, and then ask again.
    • Look at your map in bad lighting before you head off, and if you can't read it then take a magnifying glass or something. My biggest problem has been my inability to read my map while down in the station.  Probably a sign that I am indeed getting older and need stronger glasses :(

Russian Museum

While the Hermitage does have quite a bit of Russian art, it gets buried in the middle of everything else so the Hermitage ends up with the impression of being Everything but Russian.  The Russian museum is the opposite end of the spectrum.  It exists just to showcase Russian art.  I went there somewhat unenthusiastically one day, and came away very surprised.  In fact, I'm tempted to make this my favorite art museum.  It's a bit of a tossup between the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, but I'd rate both above other art museums I've been to.  I found quite a number of works of art in here that I'd happily put on my wall, and I'll have to rate this is a must see.  If you only have one day to visit St. Petersburg, you should re-examine your travel priorities, but if you can't do that then I'd still say the Hermitage is the top of the list, and the Russian Museum should be number two.

I have some photos from here as well, but the same disclaimers apply.

Back to Moscow

After a week in St. Petersburg, I decided it was time to return to Moscow. I'm writing this particular paragraph on the train about 100 miles south of St. Petersburg.  As usual, getting my ticket for myself and the bike involved a lot of being ignorant and stubborn, but both are second nature to me.  The ticket agents had a tough time with it, but when the rubber hit the road I just bought a ticket, and then wheeled up to the train with the bike.  The conductor sent me to the baggage car with it, and the problem was solved no muss no fuss.  120 Rubles (4 USD) paid for the baggage, and life was good.

It's now almost 3 months since I arrived, and we're approaching late fall/early winter.  Temperatures in St. Petersburg and Moscow are in the 0-15C (30-60 F) range.  We have sporadic rain showers almost every day, but most don't last more than 5-10 minutes.  It feels a bit warmer than the temperature would imply.  I've been wearing my jacket, but not the fleece underneath and been quite comfortable.

Looking out the window, I'm enjoying the scenery along this part of the track quite a bit.  The colors are quite beautiful, and I'm up in the air about what time of year I'd recommend a visit.  If you're cycling, I definitely pushed my luck on the seasons, but got to see better scenery than I would have earlier in the year.  If I wasn't cycling, I would say this might be a good time time to visit.  Earlier in the year has warmer weather, but in some places like St. Petersburg it also has mozzies that could carry off a small cow.  I got eaten half to death during the first part of the cycling trip, so anytime before September you definitely need to both carry AND use industrial strength bug repellant.  The air is cold and crisp at this time of year, but definitely not cold enough to be much of a problem.  All in all, even though I didn't manage to ride as far north as I wanted to, I'm very happy with the season I arbitrarily ended up with.

Moscow, Pass II

It's funny what a few months in country will do for your perspective.  Moscow doesn't seem the least bit intimidating to me now, and finding a cafe or whatever else I need isn't all that tough.  Of course, I don't need anything all that difficult to procure, but it's quite a change from my first pass.

Vladimir, Tatiana and Timothy extended the Russian hospitality I mentioned earlier, so I've been hanging out at their apartment for a few days as I write this and I'll stay here until I fly out.  I'm still working on my history section (I'm up to WWI).

So far, I only have one funny story.  Yesterday, I decided to be a good little tourist and go tour the Kremlin.  There was a tour at 1:00, so I got directions on how to get there, Vladimir oriented me on how to get to the Metro, and I was off.

I should mention the Russian Metros.  The Moscow and St. Petersburg metros are without doubt the best I've ever seen anywhere in the world.  They're clean, safe, comfortable and fast.  I've never stood on a platform for more than 3 minutes, and reputedly nobody ever waits more than 3 minutes.  Most stations even have a timer that shows how long it's been since the last train left.  The trains almost never stop between stations, and they go everywhere.  Add what looks like a substantial network of surface busses of all types, and the public transportation system for these two cities seems very good to me.  The Moscow metro handles up to 9 million people per day, which is more than New York and London combined.  Moscow is about 10% bigger than New York City, so that seems like an accomplishment to me.  Some of the stations are considered works of art themselves.  The first few stations were made during Stalin's reign, and he wanted to show them off.  I have a few photos in the photo gallery.  Some of the stations also seem like they're halfway to the center of the earth because they were designed to double as bomb shelters.  This was abandoned when they figured you can't get deep enough to avoid a nuke.

OK, back to the story.  I signed up for a Kremlin tour that met at a pizza parlor within a few blocks of the Kremlin that I readily identified on a map.  I headed down there, and ended up getting off by one block, and arrived at the rendezvous place too late.  This means that I will be going back to the Kremlin for the FIFTH time in a couple of days to try it again.  It wasn't the end of the world since I got to wander around randomly in downtown Moscow which was on my agenda anyway.  I just think it's funny that I'm so pathetic about seeing the Kremlin.  It has to be some kind of commie plot or something.

The Cycle Club's Last Stand

The last Sunday before I left, the Moscow Cycle Club had it's last gathering of the season.  This took place in a small clearing in the woods about 30 km outside of the center of Moscow.  Vladimir and I met up with the rest of the folks that rode with us (Tatiana and Timothy wimped out), and rode on out there. Cycling in 0 C (32 F) weather isn't the end of the world, but it's not exactly ideal either.  If I had to ride in very cold temperature very much I'd need to invest in some better clothing.  What I have is adequate down to that temperature, but any lower and I'd be in trouble.

The gathering had around 250 cycling enthusiasts, and taking my bike there was like taking road kill to a buzzard's convention.  Everybody loved the bike. It was just like being back in Vietnam.  About half a dozen people took a crack at riding it, thus proving it isn't all that hard.  A few more wanted to but they were too short and I didn't feel like shortening up the boom.  After that, we all rode back home and considered it a very good day all around.  It was really nice seeing old friends again, and I met a few new ones at the gathering.  I even got interviewed by a guy for their newsletter.  He sent me a copy of the article, but my Russian isn't any better than it was before so I may have to ask Vladimir to translate it.

Finally!! The Kremlin

At long last, I managed to actually take the Kremlin tour on my fifth try.  The tour was something worth doing, although most of it was pretty dull.  There were a bunch of cathedrals and other religious buildings that I naturally found to be somewhat dull.  The only really interesting part was a discussion about icons.  Russian icons are religious paintings of a particular and uniquely Russian style.  The icons are named from the same source as computer icons, namely the Greek word for "image".  Most icons that people are likely to see is a single painting of an easily recognizable style.  When you get into a Russian Orthodox church though, you can see that the icons were designed to show a story to a mostly illiterate congregation.  The preacher would explain the icons meaning, and there are a whole set of more or less standardized icons set around the church in a particular sequence and in particular positions to show the story and lessons of the Bible.

There is also a set of museums in the Kremlin, but I found them pretty dull even by museum standards and didn't get much out of it.  The Russian government offices, which were the Soviet offices ten years ago are all there in the Kremlin, but we couldn't get into them, and even if we could all we would have seen is a bunch of politicians.

Final Thoughts on Russia

During my last visit to the Kremlin, I found the image that makes the perfect icon for Russia.  If you stand in the center of Red Square facing south, you can see images symbolizing everything I found fascinating about the place.  In front of you is St. Basil's Cathedral, symbolizing the big effects of religion on Russian history and politics.  Look to the right and you see the Kremlin, symbolizing the Soviet Era and all that it stands for.  Look down and you'll see the stones the Russian military ran over for 40 years showing their military might, which they're trying to resurrect as we speak.  Look to the left, and you see a very expensive and exclusive shopping mall symbolizing the New Russia.  Being within site of the Kremlin, this mall perfectly symbolizes the changes since Peristroika.  The mall was built largely with public funds extracted from the population using various unscrupulous means.  It's filled to the brim with expensive Western goods that the average Russian that paid for the mall through taxpayer dollars can't afford.  The goods are purchased by the new rich class that came with the new market economy, and by the usual band of crooked government employees and foreigners.

However, stand still and you'll see Russians going to and fro around you with definite purpose in their steps.  People are out getting things done, going to work, building businesses, expanding the prosperity and doing all the things that one would hope for a rapidly developing economy.  The worst excesses of the privatization binge that followed Peristroika seems to be over, and most of the super-rich that hugely benefited from that privatization now seem to be working to actively build a real functioning economy.  The average person on the street is now free to pursue their dreams and try to make them reality.  A large number are succeeding, and I get the distinct impression that Russia will be a power to contend with again, and it won't be all that long either.

All in all, I found Russia quite fascinating.  I won't even pretend to have seen more than a tiny fraction of it or to understand it.  That would take some time, but I would definitely recommend a visit.

On the practical side, Russia is quite easy to visit and cheap for Westerners as long as you stay within the major cities and take some care in choosing where to go and stay.  If you get out into the rural areas and small towns it still isn't particularly difficult, but it's not as easy as some other places.  The winters are very cold so unless you're a huge winter sports fan, pick a warmer time of year to visit.  As always, my advice is to pick a place, stop dreaming and start doing.

Dos Vadanya