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08/04 St. Petersburg, Russia

Yike!! Did we ever get bitten up last night! We're on the 4th floor and we left the window open last night to get some fresh air. We got a lot of fresh air -- we also got a lot of mosquitoes. Lisa and I both woke up with swollen eyes. I had a swollen arm and many itchy spots.

Notwithstanding that, we had a great day!

After breakfast, we walked across the street to the Aleksandr Nevsky Orthodox Monastery. This monastery dates back to the early-1700's. We went to the 10 o'clock service in the cathedral.

The service was fascinating! It was much like Greek Orthodox services we have seen, except everything said here is sung. The acoustics were so good that the five-member choir singing the responses sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was in the building.

We noticed several things that were new and unusual to us. One is, people come and go, and there are no seats -- everyone stands through the two hour service. Well, "stand" isn't quite right. Actually, everyone taking part in the service was constantly going through a ritual. They would cross themselves, then either bend over and touch the floor or go down on there knees and touch the floor with their forehead.

And they did not do these rituals in any kind of rhythm. Everyone seemed to be on their own timing. The only thing consistent was that everyone did the ritual OFTEN. We were wishing someone could have explained both the service and all the various special places in the church.

After the service, we went back to the subway station (it was adjacent to our hotel) and took the subway across town to the station closest to The Fortress of Peter and Paul.

The subway station was really interesting. First thing, we were charged a premium by the ticket clerk. The advertised price for a ride is 3 Rubles but she insisted that we pay 10 R for two. That's not unusual, though. We found that every place that has an admission has a substantially higher rate for foreigners.

Then we got on the escallator down to the tracks. They are WAY DOWN DEEP! We heard that they double as bomb shelters.

When we got to the bottom, it was just a hall with intermittant closed doors that looked like elevator doors. No signs, just closed, elevator doors. At a few of the doors there were people lingering. We approached one, a young lady, to see if she could help us. She did NOT speak or understand English, but with sign language and a subway map, we communicated and came to understand that we should get on the train when one of these doors opened, go two stops and get off. (I knew we had to transfer, but I would broach that question in the new station.)

She was right. The elevator doors opened and there was a train there. We got on. The train went thru what seemed like a very tight tunnel bored through rock. There was nothing inside the train that indicated what train you were on, what direction you were going or what station you were approaching or were at, so we just trusted and got off at the second stop.

I knew we had to transfer to a different train. Since the only other platform we could see was for a train that went back where we came from, we chose to try going down a level. We found a different set of tracks. We couldn't tell which direction we should go, so we approached a young man and asked for his help. It turned out, he DID speak English, and he directed us to the right train.

We had two places we wanted to visit in the area of the Metro station -- the Fortress of Peter and Paul, and the Museum of Russian Political History. Since the sun was out but black clouds were on the Eastern horizon, we chose to make the outdoor visit first.

The Fortress of Peter and Paul was built by Peter the Great in 1703 to defend from attack by Sweden. It was originally the town of St. Petersburg. It was laid out by Peter the Great and is considered the historical center of St. Petersburg.

It is so called because in the center of the fortress is the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The cathedral is named after the Saints Peter and Paul, not after Peter the Great.

At the fortress, we found several primary examples of poor signing, marketing and advertising. Every place we went in the fortress, there was an entrance fee. And each time we reached one of those entrances, the "babushka" lady attendents would sharply reprimand us for coming so close without a ticket. She would point to a sign that listed the price and that tickets must be purchased at the "boat house." Of course, there were no such signs when you entered the fortress, nor were there signs so you could find the boat house. It seems that every place we tried to get in took a ticket that "must be purchased at the boat house" -- the jail, the Engineers House, the walkway on the fortification overlooking the river, even the WC (bathrom) was a cost and needed a ticket. We never could find the boathouse, so we gave up and just enjoyed walking around the town itself without going into any buildings.

From there we walked to the Museum of Russian Political History. That was really interesting, especially the history since Lenin.

Speaking of Lenin, we were in the room that was his office and stood on the balcony where he gave his speeches to the proletariate before the 1917 Russian Revolution. (Of course there was an entrance fee -- 3 times higher for foreigners -- but at least the bathroom was free.)

From there we decided to walk through the neighborhoods to dinner. We walked for a little more than an hour. We saw all kinds of living conditions -- all pretty poor. We saw some people going into some of the buildings -- all looked like middle class office worker-types.

The buildings were more 3 to 5-story masonry type. All were suffering from major deferred maintenance. All looked to be fairly old, like late 1800's perhaps. All were wall to wall with the next building. All were pretty drab colors. The resultant look was rather dismal and depressing.

We found the restaurant we were looking for. The Kafe Hutotok (Xytopok) was hidden away in one of the neighborhoods. It was a real find, though. Well worth the search. In a cozy, warm, Russian atmosphere, we ate two salads, two large bowls of hot Borscht (beet) soup with meat, some dark (Russian) bread, a large serving of of meat dumplings, a large serving of cherry dumplings and a beer, all for only 112 Rubles -- about $4.50 American. Unbelievable! We couldn't have had better or tastier food for five times as much money.

The weather smiled on us all day too. When we got up and went down for breakfast it was overcast. When we walked to the cathedral the sun was shining. While we were in the cathedral it rained a little. When we came out and walked to the subway, the sun was shining again.

Though the sky was threatening, the clear weather held through our visit to the fortress and our walk to the museum. Just as we entered the museum, it started raining. When we came out, the sun was shining again.

It was clear and sunny for the hour or so that we walked through local neighborhoods to get to the kafe. After we sat down to eat, it poured the likes of which we haven't seen for a long, long time. Water was gushing off the roofs. By the time we finished eating it had cleared again.

The half hour walk back to our hotel was clear, and as we got to the hotel it started raining again.

We noted that we carried our umbrellas with us all day; we walked most of the time; it rained at least four times during the day; and we never had to open our umbrellas. Did we have a good day, or what?

Love to all, David and Lisa

Impressions of Russia

St. Petersburg is, in many ways, different from any place we've visited. Some random thoughts/comments:

* Russia is probably the most UN-visitor friendly of any place we've visited. Very few signs in English or any other language. (Of course there's no reason they should speak English, It's just that we've become accustomed to English being an almost universal language.) Very few people speak any amount of English -- even in visitor-oriented places like hotels, banks, transit facilities, stores, restaurants, etc. The prices are always shown as the base price for Russians, and then a much higher price for foreigners.

For example, the entry price for one museum was 30 Rubles (about $1.20) for Russians and 250 Rubles (about $10) for Foreigners. Another example is, Vera, our Russian friend, negotiated a taxi for us from around the train station to our hotel for 25 Rubles (about $1). The hotel's taxi service to the train station was $12 (about 300 Rubles).

* Russia is also un-user friendly for locals. They often don't have good directional signing, even in Russian.

For example, on the Metro, the stops are not labeled! We had to count stops on a map, then count the stops that the train made to know where to get off.

Another example is the lack of street signs. Russians seem to "just know how to get there" when they want to go somewhere, because maps and signs are confusing, wrong or nonexistent.

* Many of the Russian people seem sad -- especially the older ones. Hard to get a smile out of them.

* We spent some time with Erin, an American woman who has spent 10 years in Moscow. (She's a friend of Rich and Jane.) She told us that when all the changes were happening in the early '90s, many of the people were optimistic and generally upbeat. But things just aren't working out for a lot of people, and the "mood" of the people has changed -- people are more somber. Her opinion is that if Poutin (sp? Sorry, we don't see newspapers often!) doesn't bring the local economy around, the country is ripe for another revolution.

She thinks that, except for the crooks and gangsters, the people of Russia were not ready for capitalism -- so it has not been good for them.

* Erin also told us that if something bad happens (e.g., robbery), the Russian people would never consider going to the police, because chances are they're in cahoots with the bad guys. (The police are generally undereducated, terribly underpaid, and most are on the take.)

*There is a synagogue in St. Petersburg, and while Jews can worship without "official" harassment, there is a lot of bigotry.

*We noticed that all the buildings looked terribly run down. They looked like what we would consider slums in the US.

We found out that the buildings are all owned by the State (the Russian central government) which pays someone to maintain them. But, apparently the State doesn't have enough money to improve them. However, if a tenant wants something fixed, they have to come through with an extra payment to the maintenance man. That seems to be a way of life in Russia.

We found also that rents are State subsidized so they are very low. In fact, if someone can't afford to pay rent, they don't have to. (Therefore, although there is a lot of poverty and many panhandlers, there are no "street people.")

We also noticed well-dressed people walking into many of these decrepit-looking apartment buildings. It seems that, because the building and grounds are maintained by the State, they get run-down. But the insides of these buildings actually are quite nice, because people who live there fix them up.

* We learned that throughout the Cold War, Soviet propaganda made a clear distinction between the American government and the American people. So Russians have been brought up to believe that the US government is bad, but the American people are good. This attitude was largely fostered back in the '60s, when all the antiwar protests were happening. The Soviet message was: "See, even the American people think their government is wrong."

* Unemployment is only 1% in Russia. But much of the work is make-work at a very minimal rate of pay.

What kind of jobs are they?

Many of the jobs are held by "babuska" ladies who sit on straight-backed chairs monitoring the visitors in every room of every museum and public building.

* Incidently, Russia takes the prize (so far) for having the roughest toilet paper in the world. It's kinda like poor quality brown paper bag material -- but rougher.

* When we got off the train back in Helsinki, we both breathed a sigh of relief and generally felt a sense of well-being and relaxation. It was funny, because we hadn't even realized we were particularly tense in Russia, but I guess we were. Many other people said the same thing happened to them.

Well, that's what's comig to mind today. We'l add if we think of anything else!

Love to all,
David and Lisa

08/05 St. Petersburg, Russia to Helsinki, Finland

These were our last hours in Russia. As planned, we met Richard and Jane at breakfast. Two friends of theirs -- Erin, an American who has been in Moscow teaching English for the past ten years, and Vera, who has lived in St. Petersburg all of her life -- were meeting us there to take us through the Hermitage.

Sean (from Baltimore) and Dickie (from Indiana) joined us for the day. We followed Vera onto a trolley. She negotiated something with a security officer on the trolley and we rode to the end of the line -- but it was the wrong trolley. So we hopped onto another one.

The first trolley was called an "offda" because it didn't connect with the overhead power lines. It was gas powered. The second trolley WAS electric and used the overhead lines. I didn't get the name, though. It looked like it was out of a WW II movie.

By the way, Russia calls WW II The Great Patriotic War. During that war, Hitler planned total demolition of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad.) The German troops surrounded and laid siege on the city starting on September 8, 1941. The blockade lasted until January 7, 1944 -- about 900 days and nights. During that time, 800,000 residents died of starvation. The fall and winter of 1941 were the worst because no secret supply lines had been set up yet. In December of 1941 alone, fifty-three thousand civilians died of starvation.

We arrived at the Hermitage about 10:30. There was a big line to purchase the 250-Rubles-each tickets for foreigners. Vera disappeared into the crowd and reappeared with eight tickets for 600 Rubles (total).

We chose to see the early Russian exhibits -- which, incidentally were all in restored rooms. Oh, I should mention that the "Hermitage" is housed in several old buildings. The one we were in is the "Summer Castle" of Peter the Great. It's both the oldest and the largest of the Hermitage buildings. Most of the rooms we went through were restored and furnished in the glitter and glamour of the 1700's of Peter the Great. Quite spectacular!

We walked from there over to the St. Isaac's Cathedral, one of the largest and most prominent gold-domed cathedrals in St. Petersburg. Of course there was an entry fee -- 6 Rubles for Russians, 30 Rubles for Foreigners. Vera talked to the "babuska" lady at the entrance and got us all in for 100 Rubles. (Vera was good to have around.)

We climbed the 261 steps to the base of the dome and looked out on the city.

As we walked around the base, marveling at the views, Erin stepped into a large hole and fell flat on her face. Fortunately she only bruised her ankle and picked up some dirt in her wrist.

From there, we walked over to the statue of Peter the Great. He is on a rearing horse that is trampling out the rattlesnake of oppression. Very dramatic!

Then Vera took us to a local cafe. She helped us all order off the Russian menu. Lisa and I each had a bowl of traditional Russian cold vegetable soup, Lisa had a dish of what looked like pickled herring but turned to be some kind of egg salad and ham in a cream sauce, and we shared a hot dish of fried fish and french fries. It was a pretty nondescript meal.

Dickie and Lisa and I had to get back to our hotel to pick up our baggage and get over to the train station for the 4:48 train to Helsinki. Vera went to the street and negotiated a cab for us -- 25 Rubles for the trip back to the hotel. To know how good this was, you need to know that the set rate in the hotel for the same trip is $12 American -- that's 300 Rubles! It was sure good to know a Russian in St. Petersburg!!!

We took the Metro to the train station. On the way we heard that 5 of our group had had their pockets picked in the last 1 1/2 days. Wow!

Tom (SF area) explained how they got him. He got on a crowded bus and, holding his camera in one hand he grabbed the overhead bar with the other. Suddenly two men were crowding him so tight from each side that he literally could not move. A third then moved in and lifted his wallet from the front pocket of his jeans.

We were VERY WARY while riding the subway over to the train station. We arrived safely, however.

We got on our train, went through the same rigamarole with the uniformed and armed Russion Passport Control agents (she didn't think my passport photo with short hair looked enough like my long-haired current personna . . . but she finally let me go -- I probably looked too stupid and innocent to be a spy), the uniformed Finnish Passport Control agents and the casually dressed Customs agent.

We arrived in Helsinki about 9:15 local time with no further ado. Since it was still very light, and it was balmy (meaning warm and slightly humid, but not uncomfortable), we decided to walk back to the hotel -- and we're glad we did. We saw a part of the downtown that we hadn't seen before.

It was a warm, Saturday evening and there were LOTS AND LOTS of people sitting outside at the many sidewalk cafes. We decided we would come back to this area tomorrow.

We checked back into the Grand Marina Hotel. Our room was a little different and even nicer than the room we had before -- and we have most of two days here. How nice!

Love to all, David and Lisa

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