|This newest page is an effort to reminisce on my trip to Russia in June of 2002. I decided to include my e-mail correspondence that I made to friends and family from the various internet cafes I visited throughout the country. I hope you enjoy the trip through memory lane.|
Vladivostok, June 3, 2002:
Well, I have made it to Vladivostok safe and sound and wanted to take a moment to e-mail you before I leave tomorrow on the train. Moscow has been a great place to visit so far. It has actually exceeded my expectations. I walked through Red Square and around the Kremlin yesterday and got to see St. Basil's Cathedral, too. Incredible! I will go on a tour of the inside of the Kremlin when I get back and see the cathedrals, parliament, and other amazing buildings that lie inside. I will also see Lenin and Stalin's tombs. The weather has been outstanding. In the 80's and clear. Moscow is very clean and spacious. Many of the boulevards are up to 10 lanes wide and the sidewalks are huge. It gives what could be considered a crowded city some breathing room. The subway is easy to navigate, too. I stayed with a Russian grandmother who already had a Swiss guy named Freddy there, too. She hardly speaks a word of English. That has been the real challenge. In the first 24 hours of my stay in Russia, I have had more difficulty with the language barrier than I did the entire three weeks combined in Nepal. I guess I was warned, but the reality of it has been a struggle at times. I'm studying my Russian-English Dictionary very carefully.
Once I spent the day in Moscow, I had to quickly vault to the airport again to get to Vladivostok. The plane flight was 8 hours and it was actually a very nice flight. I sat next to a Russian guy who is a fish trader. His name was Igor Smirnov. Is that a perfect Russian name, or what? He bought me two beers and shared stories of his business. He was very pleased to tell me that his company now has 70 vessels in the Baltic and Pacific.
Now that I am in Vladivostok, I am staying in a very nice hotel for only $25. However, I really don't have much of a desire to walk around tonight since the city is rather underwhelming. It is crowded, dirty, polluted, and very boring. My body clock is also a little off, too, so I will probably go to bed early. I have the whole day tomorrow to spend in Vladivostok, but I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. Overall, it has been a good experience so far. I manage to get what and where I need despite the language barrier and the people have been very hospitable. I haven't really witnessed the cliché that nobody smiles in Russia. Everyone seems fairly amiable. It will be interesting to see who I meet on the train. I hope there are some Europeans who speak English at the very least. Otherwise, it could be a long trip. I still won't mind relaxing and just slowing down my normally rapid pace of life. As for Americans, I met two on the plane to Moscow, but they are the only sightings at this point. They were coming to adopt a baby. Otherwise, I am a very unusual entity around here. I don't know why that is since Russia has so much to see.
Well, I think I'm going to close now. I wanted to let you know that all is well and that everything is on schedule. I leave tomorrow afternoon on the Tran-Siberian Railway and will head to Irkutsk first and then on to Moscow. I look forward to getting back there since I just got to catch a glimpse of the magnificence ahead. Take care and I will try to contact you in Irkutsk in about 4 days.
Siberia; June 7, 2002:
Hello everyone, I arrived in Irkutsk, Siberia yesterday and wanted to take a moment to catch you up on things. It has been quite an experience so far, so if you'd like, feel free to take a lengthy journey below to learn what observations I have made. It might be quite long, but I want to capture my thoughts at least for those most interested and for myself as a sort of journal. Here we go:
Dave's Top Observations About Russia:
I guess that turned out
to be my "Top 12" observations. I hope it gave you a picture of what
Russian Siberia is like. I have made some grim comments about it, but I
have actually been surprised how much it is what I expected. I haven't
said "Wow!" a lot since it appears that my picture of Russia before I came
here has proven to be quite accurate.
June 14, 2002:
I wanted to catch up with you and let you know what is going on in Russia after two weeks of my trip. I have been in Moscow for four days now after taking the second leg of my Trans-Siberian Railway trip from Irkutsk, Siberia. The second leg went even better than the first. More people spoke English, including one of the people in the restaurant car, an Australian couple, and a woman from Finland who just completed nine months of teaching English in Mongolia. The train was newer, the service was better, and everything went very smoothly. Once again, first class travel paid off. I had a cabin to myself and had two train custodians in my car who would break their neck to make sure I was comfortable. It was simply great.
Since this is actually my second time in Moscow since my trip began, I wound up staying in the same place as before. I am doing a "home stay" which is quite common in Europe and Russia. I am staying in an apartment of a Russian grandmother. She earns extra money by hosting travelers. There are also a couple Swiss women staying there, too. The grandmother doesn't speak a word of English, but she is a great hostess. She is very doting and makes sure I have everything I need. She has a grandson who speaks excellent English who I can call to get advice as needed. She also does laundry and knocks on my door when the bathroom is free for me to use. A couple days ago, I had trouble finding a place to do e-mail, so she walked me to the place since she and her grandson couldn't give me clear directions. Not bad service for $15.00 a night!
I really like Moscow. It's huge, but it's very, very clean and it is very easy to get around. After seeing an endless string of crumbling cities across Siberia, it has been very refreshing to see such a prosperous place. The buildings are often very old, but they are all in good condition. The mayor of Moscow is famous (sometimes notorious) for taking measures to make the city more cosmopolitan, exciting, and friendly to tourism. Many Siberians frown upon Moscow and label it as the big, ugly, modern, boring capital, but I have to say it is a pleasant change.
At the moment, I am in a very new and upscale mall across from the Kremlin. It is simply beautiful. I am sitting in an "Internet Salon" that is absolutely cool. There are more than 100 PC's here, all with flat panel screens and fast connections. This is just awesome!
I am killing time before my overnight train trip to St. Petersburg that leaves at 11:30 pm. I've run out of things to do at this point, so I'm going to take the time to write an even longer e-mail than before. Hold on tight, cuz I have a lot to report.
Before you travel to a far away place, you often ask yourself, "What will be different?" or "What will amaze or impress me?" Since I have arrived, I certainly have noticed so many different things, but I have caught myself being amazed by what is similar, too. They are often little things, but they are enough to make me feel like I'm not so far away from home after all and that all people are basically the same. That statement could make it sound boring, but instead, it feels reassuring. Here are a few things that I have found to be similar:
Those are just a few of the similarities I have seen in Russia. There are also a lot of other interesting things to mention that I have seen, observed, or experienced. Here they are:
Many of you have heard about the long lines people had to wait in during the era of the Soviet Union. Those days seem to be over. There are shops, markets, and department stores everywhere stocked to the brim with every item any American would ever shop for. Nonetheless, there are still "lines" for things just like in the U.S., but they have a funny style to them. Russian lines aren't exactly lines like we know them. They are more like a football huddle or a rugby scrum. If you go to a ticket counter or an ATM, everybody "behind" you in line stands right next to you waiting their turn. I have not gotten used to it at all. First of all, I like to have some elbow room when I'm making a transaction, second of all, I like a little privacy, too. Thirdly, is this some scam to cut in front of me? And lastly, how the heck can anyone tell who is next in line? Somehow, it seems that their collective unconscious senses who is next. Otherwise, I don't know the secret to their system, but it seems to actually wind up working.
As I mentioned earlier, people love parades, and Russians are no exception. I was lucky enough to be in Moscow during the Russian independence holiday. I believe it is in celebration of the nationalization of Russia after the Soviet Union broke up. There is a very huge street that runs by where I am staying that leads all the way to Red Square and the Kremlin. It seems to be the main drag where the big parades occur in the city. As I was walking through this area, people started lining up in the middle of the street. All traffic had been blocked off to accommodate the event. As I stood there with everyone else, suddenly swarms of participants in the parade started coming my way. The parade consisted only of groups of people from all regions and ethnic groups of Russia. There weren't dorky floats or out of tune high school bands. It was similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. One person carried a sign in front of their group that announced where they were from. Following him or her were 20 or more people from that area wearing their traditional clothing, carrying their flag, and all of them singing their local folk songs and performing their traditional dances. It was so cool! The clothes they wore were incredible. The crowd cheered loudly for every new group that came along. You could see groups that looked like Eskimos, probably from Northern Siberia, you saw people of Armenian and Mongolian descent from southern portions of Russia, and then you saw tons of different groups from all areas of "Russia Proper." It was really a humbling display of unity and support of the diverse people in this country. I was deeply touched and impressed. I am not a parade fan, but this one was one of the most uplifting, joyful parades I have ever seen.
One of the most profound experiences I have had has been to visit Red Square. It was the number one place I wanted to visit when planning this trip. In fact, I have been there several times since it makes such an impression on me. Red Square is a huge cobble-stoned area that sits right next to the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in the center of Moscow. It is also the home of the tombs of Lenin, Stalin, and several other revolutionary figures. The history here is mind-boggling.
Red Square symbolizes how I remember the Soviet Union during the Cold War as I was growing up. I still remember seeing Leonid Brezhnev sitting above Lenin's Tomb overseeing the intimidating military parades. Soldiers, tanks, and trucks carrying cruise missiles would trudge by, sending the Western world a dark message that the Soviet Union was our enemy. It still chills me today. Now, I have actually walked on those same cobblestones, I have viewed Lenin's preserved body in it's cavernous display case (very eerie), and walked by Stalin's grave directly below the Kremlin wall (how can anyone be so evil?). Just around the corner, you can watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This kind of stuff just blows me away.
Overall, it feels like Russia is re-inventing itself. It is trying to shed its Soviet skin and burst out into the world with its own national identity. Leningrad and Stalingrad have been renamed back to St. Petersburg and Volgograd, there is talk of burying Lenin once and for all, Cathedrals and other religious institutions are being revived (and rebuilt) after living through the atheistic age of Communism, and capitalism is taking hold more than ever.
There are still intriguing links to the past that may or may not disappear. Nearly every city or town in Russia still has a statue of Lenin in a square somewhere. There is a Karl Marx Boulevard in many places, too. You still see the Hammer and Sickle occasionally on government buildings or stamped on souvenirs. I even saw a pro-communist rally near Red Square where people were holding signs up with pictures of Lenin and Stalin on them. Though they seem like useless relics of the past, I would almost hate to see them go, since that has what has made Russia so interesting to me. I wish I could have visited it when it was still Communist so that I could see the differences.
Well, this has been a really long e-mail and that's just a drop in the bucket. I could go on about the bad side of Russia, i.e. alcoholism, poverty, crime, the loss of close to 50 million people during the 20th century from war and purges, and other "minor" details, but I think I must stop now. For the next week I will be in St. Petersburg which is supposed to be an amazing place.
Each new place I go to, I walk in as a trembling boy, not knowing where to go and what to do. It can be quite nerve-racking. But each time I leave, I walk away confident, having learned my way through a new experience or culture. I guess it's time to go to St. Petersburg and become that trembling boy again. Wish me luck and please feel free to e-mail me as much as you'd like since it is very comforting to hear from home. Take care and I hope you are all doing well.
Petersburg, June 20, 2003
Hello everyone, Greetings from St. Petersburg. I have been here for about five days now and have experienced absolute sensory overload. I keep delaying sending an e-mail because there is so much to talk about and so little time to write, but then I keep seeing more and more amazing things. It only makes it harder to summarize what I've done. At this point, I'm just going to send this message off the way it is since tomorrow is my last day in this incredible city. St. Petersburg is an amazing place, and, in fact, I would recommend that all of you put it high on your list to visit above many other places in the world.
From Moscow, I took an all-night train for about 7.5 hours to St. Petersburg. This time, I had to share the cabin with someone else, but everything worked out great since he was about my age, could speak English, and was a really cool guy. He had even been to Las Vegas before, of all places. We only slept a few hours and then arrived in the morning at the main rail station. I was picked up and brought to my place to stay... another home stay in the outskirts of St. Petersburg in one of those huge Soviet-style apartment buildings. My hostess is named Tonia. She is a widow (the third widow I have stayed with in Russia) with two grown kids. Her place is extremely nice and is also the best place I've stayed in during the entire trip. She knows English quite well and is very funny. Four nights ago, Tonia invited her son and two of her best friends (husband and wife who are both doctors and could speak some English) to her apartment. Apparently, it was some celebration in the city that pays tribute to medicine and health. You celebrate by drinking lots of alcohol. I was really tired that night and was laying around in my room as they all sat in the kitchen. Tonia came to my room and said, "Come, drink with us!" ... in that very direct Russian way I have become familiar with. When I came into the kitchen, there was a huge bottle of vodka and shot glasses on the table. Tonia said to me, "Drink with us and you sleep like bear." Well, four shots and a glass of champagne later (in about 45 minutes), I was rather enjoying myself... and yes, I did eventually "sleep like bear."
Russians in St. Petersburg are very inclined to celebrate at this time of year, especially in June, since this is the time of the famous "White Nights." The city is so far north, that it barely gets dark ever for about a month. I have been here five days and have not seen darkness yet. I was even up to 1:30 am the other night and it was still light out. Many stay up late, light fireworks, drink (yeah, I know, shocker), and bask in the joy of having daylight for so long, especially after a cold, dark winter that lasts over six months. At around midnight two nights ago, I walked to the waterfront very near where I am staying. I sat on a granite wall and looked out over the Gulf of Finland and watched teenagers swim in the ice cold water. It was one of the most peaceful moments of the trip.
I would say the two primary goals for St. Petersburg are now complete. I have visited the Hermitage Museum, and yesterday, Peterhof. Both are simply astounding. The Hermitage is the former Winter Palace of the tsars (along with some other connecting buildings). It is considered to be the largest or second largest museum in the world, rivaling only the Louvre in Paris. Peterhof is an amazing palace, too, located about 30 minutes away from the city and originally built by Peter the Great in the 1700's. The gravity-powered fountains are spectacular. Both places are the essence of power, opulence, corruption, and magnificence from the days of the Russian empire. The Hermitage is two sites in one visit. It is first the former residence of the tsars, and secondly the state museum. It is very similar to the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris if you have visited that. You get to see the incredible gold-lined decor, the thrones and carriages, the grand halls, and all the pomp and circumstance any monarchy has ever displayed. You then also get one of the greatest art collections in the world. Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc. are all here.. Even though there are so many amazing works of art here, I get stuck on the magnificence of the painted ceilings. I sit in a chair and just stare upwards for several minutes, admiring the beautiful colors and patterns.
The former tsars were a number of things; unfathomably wealthy, corrupt, powerful, oppressive, and in many cases, evil and crazy. But at the same time, they seemed to understand their role in history. They knew that they could create things that lasted forever. They understood the impact they were trying to make on this earth... and what a job they did. The tsars were especially interested in St. Petersburg becoming a world power, as much militarily, as culturally. They hired the best architects and artists in the world, many from Italy, Germany, and France, to help them create the vision they had in mind... to create a city that is now an international treasure. When you walk the streets and pass by the canals, you cannot help but think of Venice. The buildings look Italian and French, the canals, of course, resemble Venice, but I have to say, St. Petersburg has some advantages over Venice. It is first, newer and cleaner. It is also not as hot, and I'll even go out on a limb here, and say that the people are much more friendly here. I rarely, if ever say these next words, but "I am truly enchanted with St. Petersburg." It captures a unique feel of the Western world, but still loudly proclaims that it is Russian. Peter the Great, the founder of the city in the early 1700's touted this city as the "Window on the West." He intended it to be a mix of what is great in Europe, but would still apply a Russian flair. Peter the Great, Empress Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great held the biggest vision for the city. St. Petersburg did not "become" a great city, it was "made" to be a great city. It even has a notorious description as having been "built on bones." These tsars undertook amazing engineering feats by building huge canals throughout the city and creating some of the most elaborate architecture you'll ever see, but many serfs and other subjects of the empire died building this vision. I have difficulties reconciling several feelings I get when I visit a place like this. You can apply these feelings to many places... the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Versailles, the Egyptian Pyramids, and others. At the same time, you both revel in the magnificence of what man has created and then cringe at the horrifying oppression of the leaders who were able to accomplish these feats. How do you make peace with that? If our world was just, would these treasures exist? I'm not really sure, but it would be a shame if they didn't. Do you see the dichotomy? Anyway, that is a philosophical discussion that you may not or may not be interested in.
So, what else can I say? I have visited several other sites while I've been here; The Russian Museum, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, the Admiralty, Peter and Paul's Fortress, Nevsky Prospekt, and on and on. There seems to be palaces, parks, gardens, and cathedrals everywhere. It is also interesting to see the contrasts of this city. My guide book made a very insightful observation that I agree with. You enter the city of Leningrad and then make your way to the center of the city which then becomes St. Petersburg. What this means is that in the outskirts of the city, where most of the people live, there are scores of huge apartment buildings all over the place. I can't speak any more gently, but they are simply ugly and remind you of the Communist era. Buildings that are less than 30 years old look shabby and run down. Cement and bland stone dominate the landscape. It is still the case that the actual homes inside the buildings are quite nice, but it can look pretty grim in any typical Russian neighborhood. You can take a short walk to a subway, travel to the city center, and then come up to the surface and see St. Petersburg. It's like a different world.
Well, I think that's about all I will report at this point. Tomorrow night, I leave St. Petersburg to fly to Copenhagen. My vacation will pretty much be over by then. I can't believe that it is almost finished. After my trek in Nepal, I was ready to come home. I had gone through the ringer and wanted to get back to the first world. After visiting Russia, I don't want it to end. I could actually picture myself living here, believe it or not. Maybe Intel will expand more into Russia (they are starting to already) and I could land a job here. It feels like this country is about to burst onto the economic scene like Southeast Asia did several years ago. I only hope it will. The people need opportunity. I know that it is a "typical American attitude" to say that, but when you see people stuck with their small pensions trying to make ends meet, jobs at a premium, and multi-generational families living in one small apartment, you want to see that opportunity come their way.
In closing, I want to come back to Russia soon and hope that all of you consider coming here yourself some day. I have met wonderful people here and know that I am always welcome to return. This vacation has been a wild success and I appreciate the e-mails I have gotten from many of you. Please don't stop until I get back, though! My Inbox has been a little quiet lately, so please send me a note. I return Thursday, June 27th and look forward to talking with all of you then.
Copyright © 2002 Dave Molinari. All rights reserved.