It's been ages since I've updated my personal travel diary, let alone this blog. So I'm just going to type out some highlights that come to mind of Moscow, St Petersburg and the end of our Vodkatrain tour.
*The capital of Russia, Moscow is written as "Mockba" in Cyrillic, the often confusing Russian script. "C" is pronounced as "S"; the backwards "N" is an "I" sound; "P" is pronounced as "R", and "F" is a circle with a line through it. And that's just for starters. It made for some fun though - Moscow has a chain of street hotdog vendors called "Stardogs", which, written in Cyrillic, looks like "Crapdogs". Mmm, make mine a super-size crapdog, please!
*Our Moscow hotel was a fabulous dump, featuring all the worst parts of 1970s Soviet decor. The wallpaper in our room gave the impression someone had thrown up all over it - which was a coincidence because I personally woke up sometime early one morning and had to race to the bathroom to vomit. (There was a dodgy foodcourt lasagne incident). I should have just aimed at the walls and given the place a bit of a spruce-up.
*Nevertheless, Moscow is an intriguing city: the country's business and financial hub; a haven for gamblers, alcoholics, smokers and basically hedonists of any kind; a glamour capital despite some women wearing some dodgy-arse clothes (my theory is 70 years of Soviet rule took away their innate fashion sense, and they're still working on getting back up to speed - horizontal stripe tops with vertical-stripe pants, anyone?); and an architectural and historical feast (Red Square and the beautiful St Basil's Cathedral for a start). I think many people prefer St Petersburg (and there are many reasons why that's valid), but I believe Moscow has its own peculiar charms.
DISCLAIMER: We were only in Moscow for two-and-a-bit days, and really stuck to the city centre. Therefore I didn't see much of the outer suburbs or anything much of the supposed mafia activity and rampant poverty. I'm not saying it isn't there; I just didn't see it.
*The goose-stepping soldiers and missile-carrying tanks may be gone, but Red Square is still awe-inspiring. We got there at 8:30am Friday morning, before any crowds, and it was grand to take in the virtually-empty space, with the Kremlin and Lenin Memorial on one side, beautiful market buildings (now filled with labels such as Dior and Vuitton) on the other, and St Basil's Cathedral the crowning glory. The cathedral inside is unlike the cavernous interiors of Catholic or Protestant churches - instead its a series of winding passages and small chambers, with the occasional high-ceilinged room full of iconostasis. We discovered a key difference between Western Christianity and the Russian Orthodox branch is the use of icons, or religious paintings. Western churches tend to have more sculptures and statues, whereas Orthodox churches contain 99% icons. The walls are full of the buggers - and the Madonna and Child is the most popular subject.
*We visited the Kremlin, which wasn't hugely worth the $15 it cost to get in, but we did shell out another $30 to see the Armoury Chamber, which was totally worth it (like, dude). The Armoury houses priceless items from Russia's tsarist past - going back in some cases to the 1200s, when Russia was overrun by Genghis Khan and his maurauding Mongols (interesting fact - Ivan the Terrible, famous Russian tsar, is regarded as something of a hero in Russia because it was under his rule in the 1500s that the Mongols were finally forced back). We saw opulent dresses belonging to empresses past - my favourites were those of Catherine the Great herself. Both her wedding dress (with its tear-inducing 17-inch waist) and her coronation gown are on show. Carriages belonging to Catherine, including one made for her by a spurned lover as a farewell gift are on display, resplendent with gold leaf and rich interiors. Thrones and crown jewels belonging to tsars are amazingly detailed; and gifts given to the Russian tsars by other European potentates are eye-popping in their lavishness. (One example: the Armoury contains a collection of silver cups, dishes and other items made in England in the 1500s and early 1600s. They're believed to be the only examples left, as the ones in England itself were all melted down during Oliver Cromwell's time to pay his soldiers!) We also saw six Faberge eggs, including the famous one containing a minuture Trans-Siberian train, valued at around 12 million US dollars. The cheapest one on show was 7 million! All in all, the Armoury was fabulous.
*Moscow also celebrated its 859th birthday on the Saturday we were there, the 2nd of September. You wouldn't think 859 was an important date, but Moscovites party like it;s 1999, no matter how old their city is. The celebrations in the city centre were awesome - the concert behind Red Square was a bit mystifying for those of us unable to understand the language, but we made up for it with a bit of impromptu Cossack dancing and plenty of "Hey!"s during the folk songs. It was followed by a laser light show set to famous bits of classical music I recognise but couldn't name, and then a fireworks extravaganza. So while I may have missed Brisbane's Riverfire event (coincedentally the same night, just a few hours earlier), I did get my fireworks fix.
*Moscow's underground system! My goodness! It's honestly palatial, and beautiful, and everything you don't expect from a rapid mass transit system. Ornate chandeliers drop from high ceilings, mosaics line the walls and roof cavities of some stations, and statues celebrating the Communist era (left there obviously to remind everyone of how bloody weird it all was) feature at the top of escalators in others. I would suggest it's a must see if you're ever in town. Just pay your 50c for a ticket and cruise around the lines for a few hours.
*Moscow was a bit weird for me health-wise - I've already mentioned the vomiting incident, but that was followed on the Saturday by some terrible stomach cramping. Our Moscow honcho Anastasia helped me get some syrup medicine, which must have worked eventually, as I woke up in St Petersburg feeling much better. Which brings me to:
*We would have loved a sleep after the Moscow birthday party, but it wasn't to be. Instead we hopped on our overnight train to St Petersburg, the former capital and now cultural centre of Russia. We couldn't check into our stalag-like hostel straight away, so cut to us walking around St Petersburg a bit dazed and smelling Sunday morning, looking for somewhere to eat breakfast. The interesting thing about both Moscow and St Petersburg is that stores and restaurants open late and close late. I personally think that's fantastic - I'd love to be able to go shoe shopping at 9:30pm. However it does make finding a crepe and an orange juice at 9:30am a bit more difficult!
*Our hostel in St Petersburg seriously was like a jail - a renovated factory, with no windows in half the rooms, and dreary concrete-grey chipboard walls. We had an ensuite, but I had to remind Greg not to drop the soap in the shower. However it was clean, had a TV, and was relatively close to the action. It also had a mystifying gambling machine in the foyer, which I took great delight ploughing about 3 5-ruble coins into (about 25c each) for absolutely zero return.
*St Petersburg is stunning, and its history amazing. It was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, one of Russia's most beloved tsars. He apparently hated Moscow due to some childhood trauma (surely witnessing massacres in the Kremlin isn't that bad), and wanted to build his own vision of a more European and cosmopolitan capital city. The result is a city reclaimed from marshland, and built around rivers and a few man-made canals. It used to flood a fair bit before they built a big dyke out in the Gulf of Finland, but it kept being rebuilt, bigger and better than before. It became the capital, and was greatly expanded by Catherine the Great and other rulers. Many famous writers including Pushkin and Dostoyevsky wrote about St Petersburg - Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment probably the most famous example. Lenin began his putsch in St Petersburg on the 25 October 1917, when a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora was fired over the Winter Palace, signalling the start of the October Revolution, which led to the formation of the Bolshevik government. The city was renamed Petrograd briefly after the First World War (they wanted to distance themselves from the German "burg"), then rebadged again after Lenin's death in 1924. The capital was moved back to Moscow, but Leningrad then became infamous during the Second World War as the site of an 900-day siege from 1941 to 1944, when the German Army cut off the city's supplies, forcing residents left behind to live off a slice of bread a day, and whatever else they could scrounge. Wallpaper was eaten, leather was boiled down to jelly, and many resorted to cannibalism. Over one million civilians and Red Army soldiers died; and I believe most residents today have relatives or ancestors who died in or lived through the siege. The city became St Petersburg again in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, however the airport is still known as Leningrad Airport.
*We visited one of the city's most famous sites, and one of the world's most important museums, the Hermitage. The museum is spread over numerous buildings including the Winter Palace, but even they don't have the space to display the 3 million items the Hermitage has in its collection. You could spend days and days just traipsing around seeing everything that is on show - we spent a mere four hours. However that did mean we saw some wonderful staterooms and personal apartments of the tsars, and some fabulous artwork s, including a couple of da Vinci's (both of them of the Madonna and Child). An impulse buy of a gorgeous painting by an artist I had hitherto not heard of (Wassily Kandinsky) led to us going in search of the Hermitage's collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. We discovered a stunning array of Matisse, Renoir, Monet, Gaugain, Cezanne, van Gogh and Picasso. Many of these had very sketchy details about how they'd come into the Hermitage's possession - simple markers reading "Acquired in 1947". We later discovered our theory that they'd been raided from Germany after WWII was spot on - apparently Germany wants many of the paintings back!
*St Petersburg has hundreds of museums, but honestly? The Hermitage kinda sums it all up, so we spent the rest of our sight-seeing time at the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, the initial foundation point of the city and later a prison; the Peterhof, summer gardens and residences of the tsars, complete with fountains galore; Peter the Great's cabin, a charming 50m2 log cabin built by the tsar himself, because he apparently had simple tastes in residences; and the afore-mentioned Aurora ship.
*One of the highlights was no doubt a wonderful restaurant called "The Chateau", introduced to us by our St Petersburg honcho Marsha. Set in a temporary tent just for the summer season, the Chateau featured groovy white-and-beige lounge chairs and funky jazz and latin pop groups performing background music. And the food! So delicious and reasonable in price we returned on the final night of our tour. The five of us toasted our 3 weeks in China, Mongolia and Russia, and exhanged emails and phone numbers. Phil, Andrew and Karen are exceptionally cool people - we were blessed to have them on our tour, instead of a group of drunken screaming 19-year-olds. ;)
*Wednesday night saw us pack up, check out of the prison hostel, and wait for the midnight bus to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. We had a bit of an adventure when our ordered taxi failed to show. Apparently they just forget, it's very common. The receptionist just shrugged when we tried to explain how in Australia or Britain or America there'd be hell to pay if somebody just "forgot". Anyway, we managed to flag down a casual taxi - basically a random driver. Due to low wages in Russia, many drivers in big cities will act as taxis if you flag down. They pull over if they want to and you negotiate a price. It's very common and apparently safe. Our guy was Oleg, who agreed to take us to the bus station. He wanted 500 rubles (about $25) but accepted our 300 ($15), which was the last Russian money we had. To be honest, we could have gone cheaper, or gotten the Metro for about 50c, but it was late, and we were leaving the country. We got there safely - Oleg even gave us his phone number should we need him again, and asked some other people in the bus queue to make sure we got on. What a friendly Russian!
And so we are now in Tallinn, and there are muchos praises to be sung about this beautiful town. But that will have to wait, dear readers, as I am hogging the free internet at our hostel.
I hope everyone is safe - the death of Steve Irwin this week came as a shock to me, and it was followed today by news of Peter Brock dying in a car rally accident.
P.S. I have been trying to vote in the Queensland state election, but the gods really aren't smiling on me with this one. Hopefully I'll work something out as while I type this the polling booths are being set up!