Friday, January 9, 2015

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 11- Belorusskiy (Moscow)

My last and final day in Russia:
 It took about 30 minutes to get to Belorusskiy, the train station where the aeroexpress is located.  
Although by this time the word Bblxoa was easily recognized I appreciated the English words. 

I only had to wait 15 minutes for the aeroexpress, and 35 minutes later I was at the Sheremetyevo airport. 

It was hard to believe I was leaving.  I spent months wondering if I should go, worried about my safety while there but it only took moments to realize how ridiculous my fear was, totally based on hype.  It is upsetting to think that I even thought about not going.  My travels would have been far from complete without Russia.  (Yes, there are dangerous places in Russia but in a country almost twice the size of the US they are fairly easy to avoid.)  The layers of history, architecture, perseverance, art, and culture which make up Russia is something that needs to be experienced.  Russia is simply amazing.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 10- Potatoes versus the Hermitage (St Petersburg)

It snowed more than usual last night so they brought out the sidewalk plows.

Today is my last day in St Petersburg.  My goal was to visit the Hermitage.  The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.  Catherine the Great founded the museum in 1764. There are over 3,000,000 items on display from all over the world, filling six buildings on the Palace Embankment (including the Winter Palace, once the residence of the Imperial family).

Everyone else had the same intentions that I did.  I stood in line for a little while, thinking that it was too cold and the line was too long.  I lost my interest and decided to leave.  I didn't have very much time left and I just didn't want to spend it standing in line for a bunch of art that compares to art that I have seen elsewhere.   

I chose potatoes and vodka over the Hermitage, and I haven't looked back.  

I played it safe and got to the Moskovskiy train station an hour early.
Mockba or bust. 

This is one of those times that knowing Russian seems dire.  

The Sapsan looks a lot more futuristic than the Nevksy Express that I arrived on, but it is just thirty minutes faster.  It is a lot nicer however. 

The Sapsan can travel 250km per hour, much faster than my camera's auto focus.

Upon my arrival to Mockba I discovered that the entrance to the metro is not close to the exit.  I wandered for a little bit but decided to ask a police officer with probably the most important word I learned besides spahseebah (thank you) and pahzhahlstah (please).  "Gdyet metro?" (where is the metro?).  
The man in this 50s looked at me, saying nothing, but gestured for me to follow him.  We walked around the block and I realized the entrance to the metro was right next to the entrance to the Leningradskiy station.  I saw the metro sign but he kept leading and I kept following.  He turned around periodically to make sure I was still there.  He not only walked me down the stairs but through the entrance to the metro where the turnstiles are located, finally stopping to open his arms wide which a proud smile, saying "please...", showing me the way with his arms.  
I love Russia.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 9- Sennaya Ploshchad and Vasilevskiy (St Petersburg)

Merry Orthodox Christmas!
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th; based on the Gregorian calendar, not the Julian calendar which aligns with December 25th.  
Orthodoxy and Russia have been intertwined since 988, when the Grand Prince Vladimir adopted the religion.
Nicholas market (shown above) was constructed in the late 1700s, and one hundred years later was the location of the unofficial labor exchange.
It is currently closed for remodeling.  I didn't fit under the barrier but my camera did.

The day started and ended in Sennaya Ploshchad, the neighborhood where the famous Mariinskiy theatre is located.  I had tickets to see Swan Lake and I wanted to make sure I knew how to get there.

St Nicholas' cathedral came to be known as Sailor's church because of the sailors and sea type officials that it was built for in the mid 18th century.  
I went inside and found that much of the church was roped off with signs posted that read, "no tourist area", etc.  Russians were lifting the rope and going under.  I actually did this too before I read the sign and realized that I was on the wrong side of the rope.  Luckily I can blend in a little, unlike the Asian family who, guidebooks in hand, lifted the rope to enter.

I didn't know what to expect on Orthodox Christmas.  Government offices and more were closed for days because of New Years, I imagined that it would be similar for Christmas, but I ended up being totally wrong.  Everything was open.
I found a lovely little cafe which allowed me to cross out an item on my list of pescetarian Russian cuisine I wanted to try before leaving Russia.  I went with a lox and cream cheese blini.  Lox and cream cheese blinis were not specifically on my list, I really just wanted to try blinis outside of hotel blinis. It was so good (not just in comparison to floor blinis).

The Mariinskiy theatre was built in 1860 by the same architect that designed the Bolshoi.
Russian ballet goes back to the 1700s, when Jean-Baptiste Lande, a famous French dancer, founded a ballet school for children of palace employees. Over the years it accumulated many famous dancers to teach, and produced many famous dancers as well, such as Matilda Kshesinskaya (who's house I almost got ran over in front of the day before). 

As I continued on after accomplishing my first mission of finding the theatre, I saw, and was drawn to, the dome of St Isaac's cathedral glowing in the sunlight.  

Just two days ago I was walking around the dome, and 816 square meters of religious ceiling paintings.

Back on track, I crossed over from Sennaya Ploschad to Vasilevskiy island and I saw another glowing church in the distance, and had to get a closer look.  (I never realized that there was a purpose to gilded domes besides ostentation but I can see the moth/light analogy applying to gold churches.)

I was the only non Russian tourist here, for sure.  I paced around nervously, wondering if anyone would be offended if I snapped a shot, but I was getting suspicious looks from others so I decided I should just leave.  So I left, and then I came back moments later deciding to go ahead and take the picture.  
But I lost my nerve. I paced around a bit more, trying to blend in.  Left-right-up-down-bow twice-kiss my thumb (dang it, I think that last move is a Latin American thing)-picture.

These 32 m high lighthouses used to guide ships through the popular port of St Petersburg but are now a bit of an eyesore.  They are only lit a few times a year.  

I found a place that had Kulebiaka!  It was one of the few Russian dishes that I could eat, and it just so happened to be very difficult to find.  Thank God for the Vodka Room.
Not surprisingly my meal came with a hors d'oeurvre and a shot of vodka.
I cannot think of another country where alcohol is included in the price of the meal.  

Kulebiaka is a pastry puff filled with fish and cream.  It was really good.

For some reason people dressed in animal costumes are recruited to pass out fliers to passersby.  
If you have an animal costume, you've got the job.

I realized that I was running rather late and unfortunately I had planned on heading to the hotel before the ballet so I had to rush home and then rush back out.  I would have made it on time but I tried a different route and got a little lost.  Luckily with a few 'gdyet Mariinskiys?' and the help of nice Russians I was back on track.  

When I got to the box where my seat was located there was no handle on the door, an employee had to come over with a portable handle to open the box.  
I was in the back row, level with the seats in front of me.  It was not the best view.  
After a few plies, releves, and sautes, and after numerous phone messages, the guy next to me got up to leave.  Before he left he said to me "please, take my seat. I insist".  Okay, not exactly.  Really he said something in Russian and gestured to his seat and I assumed that I was to sit there,especially since the box was so crowded I needed to get up anyway to allow him past.
As it turned out the guy never came back and I spend the rest of the Swan Lake production in a better seat (trying to ignore, whom I assumed to be, the seat owners super irritated girlfriend).

Swan Lake at Mariinskiy theatre in St Petersburg was my first ballet experience.  
I thought ballets were just choreographed dances.  I had no idea there was a story involved.  
Swan Lake, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is about a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer.  

“Dancing is creating a sculpture that is visible only for a moment.” -Ozan

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I can't believe I am in Russia- Day 8- Petrogradskaya (St Petersburg)

Sunshine!  Lovely broken sunshine on the Mikhailovsky Palace (now filled with Russian art, and unexplored by me).  

My goal for today was to tour Petrogradskaya, where St Petersburg began in the early 1700s, and so I walked.  
I would like to point out that I, not once, have taken public transportation.  Every single place I have been to (and will go to) has been on foot.  The metros are not as pretty or as efficient as Moscow, and I just figured why not walk.  

This pine log cabin belonged to Peter the Great; he lived here for 6 years while St Petersburg (his pet project) was being constructed.  

Right around the corner is Kshesinskaya Mansion, designed for the prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya.  She lived in the mansion, that was designed specifically for her, from 1904 to 1917, until it was commandeered by the communist government during the Russian Revolution.  She moved to Paris in 1920 and married a grand duke (and the father of her son).  
Now the building contains the museum of Russian Political History; the most artistic museum that I have ever seen.  

I wasn't sure about spending time at the political history museum, but I decided that there would be no better place to learn more about Russian history.  
Communist memorabilia is a testament to the power of mind control (not unique to Russian history) and it is fascinating.  

Part of the museum (one part of one floor) pays tribute to the owner of the mansion, Kshesinskaya.  I can only imagine what her famous parties were like.  
She knew how to have a good time; she had an affair with a tsar before she married the duke.  The affair led her to write her controversial memoirs, Dancing in St Petersburg, which is on my list of Russian books to read.  

Isn't it interesting how different ballerina's bodies appeared (prima ballerinas at that) in comparison to now?

This was the moment when my Russian trip almost came to a quick end, and by happenstance the instant that I realized that trams were still functional.  

Take two:  
Behind me is Kshesinskaya's balcony, where the communist party (the Bolsheviks) addressed the crowds after taking over her house.

Peter and Paul Fortress is just a few minutes away.  
This man is not waiting for his wife to surprise her on their 50th anniversary, he is warming up in the broken sun after taking a dip in the Neva, as a member of the local "walruses" swimming club.  

I was very cautious about stepping out onto the frozen Neva knowing that the ice was thin enough for swimming.  I thought about having the ice give way, and wondered what kind of walrus I would make.

I was disappointed that I missed the swim, but also surprised that people were swimming so late since I thought they did their animal mimicry in the early morning.  

It felt very futuristic when the police hovercraft appeared out of nowhere.  They were not happy that this gentleman was strolling around on the ice, when he ran I happy with my cautious decision to not walk too far out on the ice.  I don't know if it is illegal but I can't imagine why else the pursuit began.

I didn't realize that walruses swim at all hours.  
It is surprising who will take their clothes off next...

I think that the word "swimming" should be in quotation marks in walrus "swimming" club.  It is really more of a dip, and was a little disappointing.  But who am I to talk?  I only went in the water in my imagination, fully clothed.

I then entered the Peter and Paul Fortress.  It is free to walk in, but everything else costs money.
The Cathedral and SS Peter and Paul was designed in 1712, and completed in 1733.  It is the resting place of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and many other Romanov tsars, and their family.  

Since we are all thinking it I am just going to come right out and say it, this picture is awesome.

The Trubetskoy Bastion is a famous Russian prison located within the Peter and Paul Fortress.
It's first political prisoner was Peter the Great's son, accused of treason by his own father.  He was tortured and almost beat to death (maybe he accidentally referred to his father as Peter).  
This is just one account of thousands.  One of the most famous people to he held here was Fyodor Dostoevesky, in 1849 (before he was sent off to the Gulags in Siberia).  The bastion has been a museum since 1924.  Outside of each cell is information about the various people who inhabited the prison.

The ghost of Russian past.

As part of their prisoner punishment program (PPP), all convicts were required to wear platform shoes and dance to Tequila Vodka.   

There was almost a fifty year period when not one picture was taken inside the museum.  This rare picture was taken before the walls were restored to their original state.  

This is a picture of the fortress (the tall steeple is the cathedral) taken from the Trinity bridge that crosses over the Neva.  I saw brave souls walking out onto the ice and I considered turning around to tempt fate, going out further onto the ice.  
But I make a better chicken than a walrus.

This was my first Russian meal.  I started to panic a little bit because I realized that I was running out of time and I hadn't been eating much of anything, let alone Russian cuisine.  I was uncomfortable with the idea of going to a restaurant and having the employees not speak English and not have an English menu and then ordering something meat filled.  Since St Petersburg had more restaurants with English menus I decided this was my best shot (speaking of shots...).  
I went to a place called the Soviet Cafe.  There was very little on the menu that did not have meat, and the few things that I wanted they were out of, so I went with fish soup (not my first choice!) and "new" potatoes.  My soup came first and I found it delicious (not because I was starving).  However the bread left nothing to be desired.  

Then my potatoes came.  They were so good.  And I got a side of sour cream.  It was perfect.  When the waitress returned I asked her what I was supposed to do with the transparent liquid next to the potatoes.  She looked at me inquisitively and told me I was supposed to drink it.  It was vodka.  Then she went to clear my fish bowl and asked me if I was going to drink the other vodka. Apparently every order came with vodka!  (Look at the fish soup picture again, I didn't even notice.)  The vodkas were paired with the food.  I enjoyed the soup vodka but the potato vodka was unpalatable.  
I knew that Russians like vodka but had no idea that they were complimentary with meals!