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08/02 Finland -- Turku to Helsinki

Today, rather then ride the 110 miles on route, we all drove to Helsinki. We left at 7:45 after breakfast and hopped on E18, a direct, high-speed highway.

The weather was cool and overcast. It really looked like rain.

We arrived in Helsinki about 10:30. We went to the info-center, then parked our car in a safe place at our TK&A-reserved hotel. We then walked to the Market Square area to catch a city-tour bus.

The Market Square is an interesting place. It is right next to the South Harbor. It is a large outdoor produce market combined with scores of arts and crafts booths. Did we buy anything? What do you think? ? ? ?

The tour of the city in the city transit bus took us by all of the highlighted sights of the city. There are many attractive buildings, lots of interesting statues and a several unusually different cathedrals -- each spectacularly beautiful in it's own way. There are also many parks in Helsinki. It seems to be, like Stockholm, a very livable city.

After the bus ride, we took a 15 minute ferry ride over to the Suomenlinna, a fortress built by the Swedes in the 1700's to protect the harbor. The Suomenlinna covers six islands. It was taken over by the Russians when they took Finland from Sweden in the early 1900's. They upgraded the big guns on the islands to modern artillery type.

Now it's a mix of residential homes, restaurants, craftsmen and public space. We noticed that it is a very popular recreational and after-work destination.

Back to our night's lodging, the Grand Marina Hotel -- a 3 or 4 star facility -- really nice. Surprisingly high quality lodging for this Odyssey-on-the-cheap trip.

We had a room at the end of the hall with clerestery windows with remote, electrically operated shades. The bathroom was big enough to have a self-contained shower that was big enough for two. (Most of our lodging in Europe have had bathrooms down the hall with a shower that is integrated into the entire room, a room that is just large enough for one person to stand between the toilet and the sink. The shower head sticks out from the wall above the tiny standing space. On the upside though, each of these little, fully tiled rooms is equipped with a squeegee so the water can be pushed from the general floor area into the center drain.)

We picked up our Russian visas for our trip to St. Petersburg tomorrow. Our train leaves at 6:30 a.m. -- be there at 6. Move out of the room in the morning. The gear truck will close tonight at 9 and not open again until Saturday, August 5, when it will be open for two hours in the morning -- however we won't get back from Russia until that night, therefore, we have to have everything organized tonight for the trip to Russia, the last day in Helsinki, and the flight to Berlin.

We'll have to get up by 4:30 to get packed, have breakfast and get to the train station. Set the alarm -- get a wake up call -- and go- to sleep.

Love to all, David and Lisa

08/03 Helsinki, Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia

We were awakened by the nicest wake-up call we've ever had in a hotel. First the TV screen lit up, then light classical music came on at very low volume, then the phone "honked" five or six times at very low volume. This same cycle happened every few minutes, only at slightly increased volume each time. Several times, after the phone "honked," Lisa picked up the receiver -- of course it was dead -- to turn off the cycle, but to no avail. Finally the honking and the music got so loud I had to figure out how to shut it of. I read the TV screen. Duhhh. All I had to do was to touch any number on the remote. Finally, 15 minutes after our requested wake-up time, we received a call from a live person just verifying that we had received the automatic call. How civilized! How classy!! How nice!!!

Breakfast at 5 with the other 70+ Odyssey riders who were headed for Russia, taxi over to the train station, then gather together behind our joint, group, ticket to get seats on the train. That, getting a seat, was a challenge because the group had assigned seats in scattered locations on two different car. Fortunately, Peter and Alan (both from Canada) had the group tickets and helped us all land in one of the assigned seats.

The train was a Finnish train, the "Helsinki-Saint Petersburg." It was electric, as are all the trains that we have seen outside the US so far. And it had nice cars with comfortable, lounge-type seats and footrests. Very civilized.

We found a forward-facing seat -- very important for Lisa's continued good health -- that qualified for our group. The train pulled out at 6:30, right on time, for the six hour trip. The train headed North for about an hour, then turned East.

Lisa immediately went to sleep. I read a bit, did some e-mail, and later, took a nap too.

As we traveled across Finland, we passed through miles and miles of rolling, forested lands with some cleared, pasture land. The weather was clear and warm in Helsinki. As we moved East into Russia, the sky started filling with large, puffy cumulus clouds. Most of the time the sun shown hot and bright from behind the clouds.

About 9 o'clock the Finish border control agents went through the car. They checked our visa's, stamped our passports, and gave them back.

About 9:10 we came to Vainikkala, the last station in Finland. It was a very large freight yard in the midst of forestland. The yard was filled with mostly tanker cars and cars loaded with logs. (By the way, most logs in this part of the world are from 3 to 12 inches in diameter.)

We were on the outside track of the yard. The only things unusual were, it was an overlong stop, we were told we must have our passport and visa in hand if we wanted to get off, and that there was a continuous, aluminum fence along one side of the train.

We finally got going, then passed into Russia -- uneventful except that armed, stern looking visa and passport-control agents passed through the car. They TOOK our visas and passports. I asked when we would get them back. He said "wait a minute," and moved on.

Next, a customs control official came through. He asked for our customs declaration document. We had none. He asked about our luggage. We said only clothes. He shook his head and moved on.

At the first station in Russia, the train sat for a long time. I saw several armed, uniformed men strolling up and down the train platform. (Almost everyone outside the train was in a military-looking uniform.) No one was allowed to leave the train. We were told not to leave our seats until we received our passport and visa back.

After about 30 minutes we got our passports and visas back. The train finally got going again in another 10.

We passed through more forested land, a little flatter than in Finland. For exercise, I walked toward the front of the train. Most doors between the cars were electric-hydraulic -- push a button and the door opens to let you out, push another button and the door opens to let you into the next car. Well, I got to a door with a handle on it. (Apparently it was the engine compartment.) A military-looking man suddenly appeared and tersely directed me away from that door.

I walked to the back of the train. (Lotsa cars.) As I gazed out the back and watched miles and miles of straight track roll out behind us, I was taken back to the train rides in Dr. Zhivago.

As we zipped through western Russia on our nonstop run to St. Petersburg, we passed through a small village. Except for the names with strange letters, the sprinkling of wood houses with metal roofs could have been from many places in the world.

As I wandered back, I stopped in the dining car to get a snack for Lisa and I. A piece of deli pizza, a donut, a cup cake, a soda and a cup of coffee cost me $12 American. I guess that's not outrageous for train prices. (I think I took a beating on the exchange rate though.)

At 13:30 (1:30) Russian time, we arrived in St. Petersburg. We passed through a big, green park with people walking everywhere. We passed through suburbs that looked like many other places in Europe. And we passed through industrial areas that looked like any other track-side industrial area -- dirty. Then we pulled alongside a Russian train. It looked like something from WW II era.

We loaded on busses and went out to fight the traffic -- and traffic there was. Lots of cars, vans and trucks.

The Hotel Moscow is a splendid hotel. It's rated ***+ for the hotel and **** for the rooms. It is HUGE! There are 5 floors, each with more than 150 rooms. The rate is only $56 per room for two people.

We quickly had our first experience being taking advantage of. We decided to take a city tour. Since the cost was for a tour guide a van and a driver, we chose a van that takes six to eight people, and we partnered with only four others so we wouldn't be crowded. When the time came for the tour, we were squeezed into an old, 11 passenger minibus with no windows along with 5 additional people.

Oh well. . . . Our tourgroup was made up of Rich and Jane (a fun couple from Portland), Sean (a radar technician who specializes in the F16 jet's systems) and Cheryl, (a retired kindergarten teacher from Florida) and five others.

We toured the center-city area. We say many, many old public buildings that "used to be" something or other and now were museums of one kind or another. Even many of the old cathedrals are now museums.

Speaking of cathedrals, there are many, beautiful and unique cathedrals in St. Petersburg. Most of them Orthodox, many of them no longer used for worship.

We wondered why most of the buildings were 3 to 5 stories, It's because, back in the time of Peter the Great, no building could be higher than the Summer Palace. My next question was, with St. Petersburg is in the midst of forest land, why are there no wooden buildings. It's because, in earlier times, buildings were of wood, but they would always be destroyed by fire -- ergo, stone and block buildings, most of them dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

We learned that St. Petersburg is built on the delta of the Neva river where it dumps into the Baltic Sea. It's a city with 45 islands, 65 canals and some 300 bridges.

Driving around, it was always a pleasant surprise to come upon a waterway or a square or a park, but we found it to be rather drab and dreary. This, I think, is largely due to all of the buildings being both massive and stocky, and mostly drab and dirty. To be fair though, many of the old historic buildings-turned-museums were either baby blue with busy, white trim or were light, brick red with busy, white trim.

The tour ended at 6:45. We were all both hungry and tired so we agreed to go out for a quick bite to eat. Someplace close and fast, we said.

We walked down the Nevsky, the main drag of St. Petersburg, to find a restaurant. (It's funny how hard it is to find a restaurant when you don't know what word says restaurant in the native language.)

Anyway, after walking a few blocks, and asking a few Russians who were friendly but who neither spoke nor understood a word of English, we found a building with two umbrella tables in front and two papers hanging by the door that looked like menus. We said, "This must be a restaurant."

We went in. It was. And it looked pretty nice -- small, basic, but nice. Being hungry and in a hurry, we said, "This is it!" It was about 7:45.

We had to wait a few minutes for menus with English translations, and when we got them, they were 12 pages long. We couldn't believe the choices. Incredible!

All but Cheryl wanted to eat something Russian, so the rest of us picked some pretty unusual-sounding dishes. We ordered, then sat there talking and finding out more about each other.

In about an hour, they served the caviar for Richard and Lisa (hey, we're in Russia...). After awhile they brought Sean's salad. A little later they brought baked eggplant for Lisa and I and soup for Cheryl -- but nothing for Jane.

We noticed that a man was playing a keyboard and singing American songs -- and he kept repeating one of the songs.

After clearing all those dishes away, the Chief Chef brought Richard's shrimp and lobster plate. What a presentation! This was a large plate with two large lobster lying in a bed of escargot, fish, and crayfish, surrounded by lettuce with sliced bananas, sliced pickles, sliced carrots, sliced grapes, and sliced radishes. And the coup-de-grate was five skewers of baked shrimp sticking up out of the center.

We joked and took pictures of it.

Jane still had not received anything.

Suddenly, a showgirl in a skimpy silvery costume sprang out onto the dining room floor and proceeded with a wild and sexy dance. We were getting a floor show that we didn't expect! It was funny and kind of strange, because it didn't at all connect with the kind f "elevator music" we had been serenaded with all evening.

After the dance, the Chief Chef presented Lisa's and my "4 Rare Fish" plates, each covered with silver warmers -- which he removed in grand and sweeping gestures. Our plates, too, were each a masterpiece of presentation. (By the way, "rare" in this case apparently meant "unusual" because the fish was cooked.)

Still nothing for Jane.

Suddenly, out jumps the showgirl again. She had changed outfits and was at it again. We were kidding Sean and Jane that the dancer had something to do with their late food.

When she finished, Sean's main dish and Cheryl's dessert plate of Russian pancakes with wild berries were served.

Still nothing for Jane.

Finally, after one more dance by the showgirl, all of Jane's dinner order was served at once.

And the showgirl changed outfits again for two more floor shows while we ate.

When we finally finished, it was after 11 -- and it was still very light out. We walked back to the hotel, joked about our "quick dinner" that took over three hours and each vowed to sleep in tomorrow.

Love to all, David and Lisa

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