Wednesday, 17 December 2014

St Petersburg

Following our overnight train to St Petersburg – our final experience on a Russian train, for now! we arrived in the morning and made our way to our apartment. Time enough for a full day's sightseeing!

Finally - a train photo. Not really representative though, since this train was a flasher one than most, like the one from Kazan to Moscow.

We deliberately left Moscow a day earlier than we might have otherwise, to have longer in St Petersburg. This meant we arrived on a Thursday, which, being the first Thursday of the month, meant free entry to the Hermitage!! Yussss! So that is where we made our way.

the Winter Palace

and nearby building

It was an elegant and tasteful introduction to St Petersburg. The building itself is beautiful, so as we looked at the exhibits within the Winter Palace we also took note of the lovely interior. Some of the rooms were, in fact, entitled “Palace Interiors”. John reckons it may be the most beautiful palace we've seen, beating Schonbrunn and Versailles; although the rooms were still decorated lavishly and opulently, they seemed to always be cohesive, and not over the top, limiting themselves to three main colours in general.

As for the exhibits themselves, we saw a bunch of Russian art, which I love, as well as French art. All the different artworks from the art galleries we've visited recently are blending together in my mind, though, so I can't remember exactly what there was. I do know there were also more museum-type exhibitions, with artifacts from Central and East Asia, Tibet and Siberia. We found the Siberian section the most interesting. It included a stuffed chief's head and a completely mummified body – those were pretty grim. Death doesn't do the body any favours. There was also a big cart, a huge felt tapestry with pictures of guys with awesome moustaches and clothes – lots of items that wouldn't normally stand the test of time (in this case thousands of years), but thanks to the permafrost in different areas of Siberia they have been preserved for our viewing pleasure today.

The other main reason we allowed an extra day in St Petersburg was so we could attend a Russian ballet. Following our visit to the Hermitage, we walked to the Marinsky Theatre II – apparently a very new building, only opened in 2013. It was definitely flash enough! There we beheld a myriad of elegantly dressed fellow audience members, matching their surroundings, while we dressed up as best we could in our travel clothes, complete with mud-stained boots.

 before the show


More importantly, we also got to see Swan Lake, in three acts. It was so beautiful – the dancing was exquisite, so graceful it brought tears to my eyes near the start – and I always love the outfits they wear. I feel you get a two-in-one deal at a ballet: an orchestral concert, plus ballet dancing thrown into it. I gave John a basic overview of the plot, from what I could remember, and unintentionally spoiled the ending a bit, saying how all Russian narratives, be they ballets or novels, seem to be tragedies. I seemed to remember a big long death scene at the end. And then the prince ripped one of the evil magician's wings off, whereupon the villain died, and the prince and princess were reunited in a happy ending! I was so shocked. But I'll never say no to a happy ending!

taking their well-earned applause

Speaking of happiness, we also paid an extravagant price for two pieces of Russian layer cake during one of the breaks. So worth it! As Brian Regan would say: delectable!

Much of the rest of our sightseeing in the city involved wandering round and looking at, or inside, things. I suppose that pretty much encapsulates all sightseeing, really. Here are some of the objects we saw.
  • The Admiralty

  • and this picture in the "Admiralty" metro stop - one of many in the metro stations

  • Decembrists' Square with the Bronze Horseman – iconic symbol of the city

  • This triumphal arch

  •  St Isaac's Cathedral. Massive! Opulent!

  • Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. This church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881. There was a special structure inside marking the very spot. The church itself was so beautiful, with nearly every internal inch covered with large mosaics – but in a pattern, so it wasn't too overwhelming.

     another insane altarpiece

     one of the mosaics

    The paintings filled every inch.

  • Kazan Cathedral. This still operates as a place of worship, rather than the other churches we visited in St Petersburg, which have been converted into museums. On the plus side, having it as a still functioning church means you get free entry. On the minus side, you're not allowed to take pictures inside. So we have no photos inside Kazan Cathedral, but it lived up to the standard of the others, we thought – tasteful, if not quite as opulent. It seems that tastefulness is a feature throughout St Petersburg.

     not snowing


  • Alexander Nevsky monastery. We walked for a long way down Nevsy Prospekt, the main street, to arrive at this monastery. It was also a proper experience in the Russian winter, as it was snowing the whole time. It was great, apart from when the wind blew the snow into our faces as we walked. Still, like I said, it was great! And it meant the monastery, when we reached it, had a decent covering of snow, and the sky was light and pink with snow clouds even though the sun had long set, and it just had an awesome feeling to it. The snow setting on our camera didn't work very well, though, giving us decidedly sub-par photos, so you'll have to take our word for it.

  • Peter and Paul fortress, with cathedral

     the entrance to the fortress

     the cathedral - very pointy

    John fist-bumps a statue in the fortress

  • Here is also a picture of the lack of the cruiser Aurora. We went to the place it was meant to be – we expected it would be bobbing around merrily on the water, and our guidebook had opening hours for it, but when we got there, all that greeted us was a partially frozen body of water and some large buoys.
No Aurora! Must be sleeping.

A more successful outing was the one that involved an Indian restaurant for lunch/dinner. John got a medium-hot curry dish (i.e. WAY too hot for me) and I got the mildest possible butter chicken (i.e. safe, predictable and perfect). The food was really good – possibly the best Indian I've ever had.

And now back to sightseeing. We got a further taste of the art on display in St Petersburg by visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace (not the same as the nearby Mikhailovsky Castle. Confusing). Again, like the Hermitage, some of the wonder of this place was in viewing the lavish rooms, decorated with beautiful gold leaf and paintings made to look like 3D sculpture. Many groups of schoolkids seemed to have chosen that same day to come and appreciate the wonder of Mikhailovsky Palace as well, but we didn't let that put us off. Have I mentioned that I love Russian art? This was reconfirmed here. There were the artfully imagined biblical scenes, beautiful sunsets, moody forests, a fantastical underwater scene and, one of my favourites, a huge sea with a drowning ship.

We finished off our time in the city, and our OE proper, with a visit to the Museum of Political History. It had been done in quite a flash, modern way, rather than long blocks of text with photos, like in some of the other museums we've visited, but it was also the most confusing museum we've visited. Confusing to know where the different rooms were, and which order to do them in, and sometimes what order to view the exhibits inside. I think I came away with a better understanding of how the revolution happened, though, and a clearer picture of life under Stalin's rule, with the incessant propaganda, as well as the ideological bases of those involved. Once again, it made me grateful to not have lived there and then.

I thought St Petersburg was great. I also thought Moscow was great. The architecture was amazing, the Christmas decorations lifted everything up a notch, and it just seemed right to be preparing for Christmas in the snow. St Petersburg was easier to manage, being much less spread out than Moscow, and it also left me with a sense of style and elegance. It was the perfect end to our trip.

St Petersburg, you were grand.

Yet end it must, and end it has. And so has my part of the blog post. John now offers some final thoughts on our trip.

I'm meant to come up with a grand closing statement, a final paragraph, some sort of meaningful, poignant reminiscence or wistful nostalgic phrase that ties the whole thing together into some cohesive and coherent whole. (It's a tough job, but someone's got to have the last say, right?) Here goes: Six months or so ago (I forget exactly how long – since May some time) I guess I expected that
a. we'd have more spare time.
b. we'd learn more about ourselves and our place in the world.
We've definitely not had very much spare time (sitting around on the train notwithstanding). I'm not sure about b. The world has become a much smaller place; visiting famous places is like having only seen movie stars on a small distorted TV plugged into a VCR with dirty heads – then when you see the same movie in HD you realise that those perfect (if blurry) movie stars have wrinkles, and are human after all. Oh the humanity. This would be an appropriate time for a literary quote ('cause you know I'm just pretentious like that).

“Not all who wander are lost.”
- J.R.R. Tolkein.

Now that our wandering is over for the time being (and thanks to the magic of GPS we were only lost a few times) my overriding feeling is that NZ is a great place to come from, in spite of our insularity, and it's a great place to go back to once you've seen some amazing and interesting parts of God's green earth (although we're sitting in Shanghai airport as I'm typing this, and I have to say, I do wonder what it's like through the smog haze out the windows. Perhaps next time).

Thursday, 11 December 2014


Capital City #20

Travelling on the trains can be nice, but when you've been on the road (or is that on the rails?) for a few days, one feels like having a shower. Thankfully the place we were staying at had one of those – it was a really nice apartment, with more than enough of everything we needed.

After cleaning ourselves up a bit we went into town. Red Square.

Red square isn't actually red, and isn't actually a square. It does have all these nice features though:

Lenin's Mausoleum

St Basil's

There was this fairground type thing.

There was also this well type of place where people were throwing coins in, which we didn't photograph.

Russian money is strange, especially the coins. The coins go from 10 roubles at the upper end to 10 kopeks at the lower end of things. 10 kopeks are worth one tenth of a rouble, which is worth around 2.5 NZ cents. At first I would spot the 10 kopek coins and pick them up; there are quite a few of them just lying around on the footpaths, left there because they're not worth the time and energy to pick up. Once I realised this I started to just leave them there too. Anyway, back to the story.

Anna and I aren't the type of people to go literally throwing money away down some fountain or well, like it's some karmic vending machine dishing our health/wealth/love. Here we made an exception. On the steps around the well there were various coins that people had thrown and missed with (it's hard to throw with a bulky jacket and gloves on) so we picked up a couple of missed coins, and tried getting them in the well in the middle. They're worth so little that I do wonder why they actually still have the kopeks.

We went to church too; great to sing some songs that we knew, even if they are Christmas carols in the non-December part of the year.

The next day we went to the Kremlin. Not the Kazan one, the Moscow one.

The Czar cannon.

The Czar bell. The Czar seems to like large things.

It started snowing while we were there.

Gilt onion domes scattered all over the place.

Then we went to another church. Probably my favourite one so far.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

No pictures allowed inside, since it's still a working church. It wasn't garish or overly sumptuous inside; even though it was ornate and there were icons all over the place it was cohesive.

The next morning we went to try and find a market that was recommended as having good tourist shopping. We went to the place where I thought it was on the map and found this:

Some sort of winter wonderland.

It's like a theme park with a Russian flavour and as far as I could see, no rides. Plenty of interesting looking buildings though:

After wandering around this place for a while (and belatedly seeing a no-photos sign) we finally found the market. It was mostly deserted, and the few people still there were all bundled up warmly. Not exactly the Mecca of tourist shopping, but sufficient. I bought a fur hat.

After this we went to VDNK – Всероссийский выставочный центр – which translates to Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy in English (thanks Wikipedia!). Basically a bunch of monuments and stuff. We saw this thing though:

Noble space engineers and scientists strive for a socialist future.

Me, with the space obelisk, sporting my new hat.

It's a little incongruous inside. There's a theme park type place that blares western pop music, and a long wide avenue leading up to triumphalist architectural monstrosities; there's an ice skating track type area, a replica Vostok rocket, and one of the Soviet space shuttles that never went past the testing stage. Possibly the most incongruous part was walking past all these Communist structures, and then hearing a song come on that sounded like it was by Casting Crowns. Turns out it was, called “The Well”.





The Buran Shuttle!

Moscow is an interesting place, it's really rather large, and the metro is ridiculously confusing, perhaps more so than Berlin. While I enjoyed our time there, I was happy to leave – and happier when we got two breakfasts on the train to St Petersburg.

Anna interjects: I really liked Moscow! It was so pretty, and I felt like we got a proper, if short, Russian winter experience with the below zero degree temperatures. It was great to be there in the build-up to Christmas, with all the sparkly decorations and festive atmosphere. I also loved the Tretyakov Gallery, which we visited on our last day there. Russian art is beautiful.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


This post could end up like an itinerary – one place after another, so I'll fill it with enough anecdotes to make it interesting.

The route itself that we're taking (here's the itinerary part):
  • Vladivostok
  • Irkutsk
  • Krasnoyarsk
  • Kazan
  • Moscow

Also, this is going to be rather disjointed, with little glimpses of what we did, rather than necessarily a broad coherent narrative sweep of events. 

The trans-Siberian journey

Much of the train journey so far has been sleeping. You get a bed, and a pack of sheets and pillowcase that you use to make your own bed. They're not the most comfortable, but the train rocks in a random chaos of motion, which has a lulling effect, especially at night.

The trains themselves are really rather long, with multiple carriages, mostly fully occupied. We were travelling in second class, which means that there are 4 people to a room, with five or six rooms per carriage, a samovar at one end, and a toilet at either end of the carriage. We were forbidden to use the toilet half an hour before or after the train was scheduled to stop at stations. I could never figure out which stop we were up to, or what the time was, so I just chanced it and only got told off once.

In Vladivostok we shopped for supplies for the journey - mostly noodles and packet soups for lunch and dinner, but also UHT milk and cereal for breakfast, and bottled water.

Apart from the time spent sleeping and eating on the train, the other half is spent talking to people, or sometimes being talked to by people.

I've been invited into the cabin of some Uzbeks, who offered me beer, bread and fish, and we had a bit of a conversation. They were very friendly. I've found that I recognize a bunch of words, but not necessarily their meaning. Anna has been bearing the load of the conversations – our first few roommates said maybe a few sentences to us, and then left us alone. Next we had the Uzbeks, who hung around with us for a while. After this, we've had a dude who just kept talking, telling me half a dozen times that I should learn Russian, then left and came back drunk a few hours later with a couple of beers. He might have offered me one, but we couldn't tell if he actually was, so we didn't want to assume. He began to snore shortly after this, then half an hour later rolled out of bed onto the floor. Thankfully he was on the bottom bunk.

He fell out of bed that night too, after talking to us for another couple of hours and drinking both of the beers... We were glad when he left. This is also the night Anna decided to start sleeping in the top bunk, and was glad to have done so.

It's been snowing on and off ever since we boarded the train, and it looks bitterly cold outside. Every time the train stops for an extended stop the provodnik(a) walks around the carriage knocking things on the undercarriage trying to dislodge the snow and ice. This morning on the inside of the triple glazing a thick layer of ice had formed where the condensation had dripped down the window and onto the cold windowsill. Inside, though, it's a balmy 20 degrees (this particular train has a display of the time, and the current inside temperature), little kids run up and down the hallway, and everyone wanders around in t-shirt and slippers.

Right now we're sitting opposite a couple of guys who are more patient – Anna's looking up words on her Kindle, which makes the conversation actually work somewhat. It's hard to explain things like “Why are you Baptists?” or what you think of Vladimir Putin when you've got a limited vocabulary. Things seem to be working alright though. I'm understanding a surprising amount of the conversation, which is nice.

One of the guys has left, and another joined us; this one was a soldier in East Germany, he appears to be slightly drunk, and he keeps showing us pictures of a big fish that he caught somewhere in Siberia. It definitely is a big fish, but the wonder of it starts to wear off after the third or fourth time being shown it.

Later that evening we had to switch trains, with our shortest stopover period yet - 25 minutes. We were a bit anxious, but one of our friendly cabinmates said he would help us find the next train. We got all ready and stood by the door as the train pulled up at the station. We detrained, and our friend went to the train right beside ours and asked someone if that was the one to Kazan - and it turns out it was! So we were able to climb aboard without any fuss.

Now we're on a really old one that has a ridiculous heating problem. It's far too hot – everyone is walking around without shirts on. Perhaps something's broken. We seem to be in a carriage that's almost completely full of unwashed men in various states of dress. Anna didn't like it, and slept on the top bunk again. Anyway, one of our cabinmates looked completely out of it draped on the upper bunk, immobile and softly snoring. The other guy decided to show us videos of bears that came around the place where he works in the forest. They're rather large creatures, so I'm not surprised he wanted to show them off, but we were trying to get to sleep. Ah well.

The next morning we were joined by some other dude from another cabin who was just visiting the guy we were sharing with. Such a dodgy-looking dude, he began to ask us questions. Anna feigned ignorance of what he was asking, I told him a bunch of times that I couldn't understand, and then started to make up answers to what the questions sounded like, but of course I could only answer in English. It took him a surprisingly long time to leave us alone. And one of neighbours drank some of our water in the middle of the night, which was already in short supply, so we're not too happy with this particular leg of the journey.

The stops en route


We started in Vladivostok, and had a couple of hours to shop for supplies and see some of the sites.

The first of many Orthodox church buildings.

Lenin showing off his best dance moves.

A submarine.


Arriving in Irkutsk we were immediately glad for the preparations we'd made for the cold. In Bishkek we stocked up on Chinese brands of jackets and boots and woollen socks. I also got some long-johns that said that they're XXXXL, but they fit me quite well. Either they're kids' sizes, or women’s, or they're meant to be ridiculously tight. I'm not sure. Thus armoured we've been able to stay warm enough to ward off hypothermia.

Another Orthodox church. O for Orange, Orthodox, Owesome, and Oxford comma.

The mythical animal on the Irkutsk shield.

I aspire one day to be as manly and rugged as this statue.

We went to Irkutsk to visit lake Baikal, the biggest freshwater lake in the world, containing 20% or so of the world's supply of liquid fresh water. Irkutsk isn't actually on the lake, so we took a bus to Listvyanka.

Perhaps we shouldn't have.

Listvyanka was mostly empty. Half the shops were closed. We could see the lake, which roiled and swelled like the ocean, a steel grey hypothermic menace. A nice day for a stroll around the lake. We managed about a hundred and fifty metres, stopping when we could in the few shops that were open, until we considered the icy glare of the shop attendants to be worse than the icy knife of the wind. We found a cafe that wasn't full of Asians who looked at us politely as if we were a rare species of bird, and sat in the warmth eating surprisingly delicious food while watching some of the movie Seventeen Again dubbed in Russian until the next bus out was due to leave. We later found out the temperature was -13ish, and since the wind speed was around 30kph, that makes the windchill at somewhere around -23. We were glad we went, but since we were concentrating on keeping warm, and since visibility was horrendous we took no photos.


From Irkutsk we went to Krasnoyarsk. The reason for going to Krasnoyarsk was that there's this nature reserve nearby that has a bunch of interesting looking rocks, and because it might be nice to go for a walk in the snow. We found a bus that we thought would take us in the right direction, but it took us about three quarters of the way there, and then turned around to come back. A website helpfully told us that there was a bus that takes you directly to the car park of the reserve, but unhelpfully didn't tell us which bus that was or where to catch it from. It probably worked out for the best though, since the sun would have been setting while we were still in the national park.

The train station at Krasnoyarsk.


From Krasnoyarsk we went to Kazan. One of our friends from the previous train helped us find the connecting train, since it can be confusing. Kazan is the capital of Tartarstan, and isn't actually one of the stops in the normal version of the trans-Siberian, but we thought it'd be interesting. We arrived in the morning (thankful that we were able to get away from our frankly creepy cabinmate) and hit the town. The main interesting thing in Kazan is the Kremlin (no, not that Kremlin, Kazan has its own).

The mosque is such a pretty colour.

The river was frozen, and there were people icefishing out in the middle.

We were only there for the day, and so had to head back to the train for our connection to Moscow.

The trains in Russia have different levels of salubriousness. The one going to Kazan was probably the worst one we've been on. It was rather old, and probably should have had a major refit years ago. The one to Moscow however was probably the best. The different trains are numbered by their level of niceness, with a larger number meaning it's probably worse. The train to Kazan was #377. The train to Moscow was #1. We had our beds already made. We had a little box of breakfast goods for the next morning. We had lights that all worked all the time. We had an extra toilet to go around, and a little plastic bag with toothbrush, shoehorn, toothpaste, shoe-cleaning wipes, and probably other things too.

This post is probably the most disjointed of the lot, since I wrote it over a few days as things were happening. The chronology is probably out of whack, but it fits the experience. On the train the days blend into each other, the rocking motion of the carriages, like a rickety pendulum, hypnotizes you, making your slim grasp on time slip further. The hours clatter by, and you're unsure whether or not you've crossed over one timezone or two. I think overall it was a great experience. My Russian has improved rather a lot, from a negligible amount, to enough to understand roughly what Anna is talking about with the other cabinmates, although I think I've had enough with the suggestions that I need to learn Russian, or that we should have some little kids running around by now if we've been married this long.