Russia. Whatsthatabout? It managed to be every cliche thats ever been thrown at it, and more.
We had to come to terms with a country that wasn't quite so offay with the 'tourism' thing, which became apparent in the St Petersburg airport which is like a dour primary school shrouded in thick accents which were unfortunately not speaking English. When we asked where an ATM was they seemed deeply shocked.
Our first evening in St Petersburg plunged us straight into the atmosphere of a Dostoevsky novel. The woman at our hostel spoke no English, we walked up a incredibly sinister stairway to our garret, and shared our 8 bed dorm with an old Russian woman who was counting the money in her wallet and who had a snore like the sound of men dying.
With the cold and the neverending evening it felt like we were very close to the North pole - in fact we were in line with Greenland. St Petersburg is a very nice city - beautiful 4 storey 18th century tenements, the outrageous church of spilt of blood, the canals and rivers (with people fishing on the rivers), the long evenings and the crisp
weather. Every second man was walking the streets with a beer and sometimes in the morning...
Dress sense was fairly weird. Men in black shoes, blue jeans and a big black leather jacket ("the thug") and women in stilettos (even in museums and public toilets) with cleavage showing and the inevitable leopard skin print ("the hussie"). Although it was a stunningly town, there was something about St Petersburg which encouraged... angst. One example was starting in an internet cafe only to read the last persons email which was left on the screen probably because their session had timed out. It read like what Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights might write in an email to his recently estranged girlfriend... very emotional and depressing!!!
This was normal. As Lonely Planet emplains, in Russia, overt signs of happiness (smiling, laughing, etc) are considered symptoms of idiocy and to be avoided. Which was difficult sometimes.
We had a beautiful Sunday sunbathing by the river with the locals (the white skin hurts my eyes!) and stumbled upon a fair. A Russian fair, we discovered, consists of queues. Queues for toilets, fried and disgusting herrings, and beer.
Our cultural experiences were similarly surreal.
Church of Spilled blood
Built on the site of Alexander II's assasination and used as a potato warehouse in Soviet times.
Watching David Lynch's new film in an old theatre straight out of Twin Peaks and seeing a Swedish male choir in a Lutheran church. Again not trying to smile.
We spent two days at the Hermitage - a huge collection of art in a massive palace... Stunning Matisse, truckloads of Rembrandt... just check out the photos.
One beautiful train journey through scary birch forest later we arrived in Europes biggest city Moscow, which was all about the Soviet experience.
Stalin was upset that Moscow was falling behind in the skyscraper department compared to New York and commissioned several glorious gothic communist buildings. Naturally we saw the body of Lenin in his mausoleum. And in Gorky park we saw a very large fountain with music accompanying the movements of the water. Also a weird city.
After a day in which we visited the outer suburbs to surround ourselves in Soviet tower blocks, we experienced the other side of Moscow - it has more billionaires than any other city. After nearly being run over by one of the many black mercedes benz that have no regard for road rules, we visited a 16th C Russian Orthodox monastery,
Pancakes with red caviar, bolied egg and sourcream.
down a couple of blocks and found ourselves in a mall with Jean Paul Gaultier shops and the such.
I tried to learn as much Cyrillic as possible because the locals speak very little English, and fair enough. Even this wasn't much help on the Moscow underground system. This is famous for being one of the most beautiful in the world. It is also punctual and extensive. However it has almost no signs, not in English, not in Russian. So, we had to count the stops. This works extremely well, as long as you're going in the right direction, which on our last day we weren't.
Our plan had been to have a Sunday picnic in Moscows nicest park by the river. We headed off in the wrong direction, ended up in a very awful park which we thought must be the one, and tried desparatly to find a nice spot by the river (which was ten miles away) to eat our picnic. One conversation with a local in broken Russian finally put us in the right direction.
We knew we'd found the right park when we saw the thousands of locals streaming out of the
underground station. Our last day in Moscow in the park was the perfect example of the surreal and beautiful Russia at its best. A perfect warm May day amongst ten thousand Moscowvites, a picnic under hundreds of trees all in blossom, a couple of medieval churches, men with beer in tow and women in stilettos.
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