Tsartske Selo Restaurant in Kiev
I am writing this on the plane to Moscow. The plane ride is halfway through and it is nighttime now but I am not tired, and I am not particularly comfortable, and the talkative Russian man sitting in front of me has his seat back pretty far. I kind of dozed off for a bit soon after the flight began, but now I am not sleepy. They did serve drinks on this plane, even though I thought they said they did not serve alcohol. Also, the public service announcement said that we are not to use electronic devices. I am using this tablet in “plane” sight of the stewardesses. I don’t have a good seat. I am sitting next to a man who may be a flight marshal or a pilot or something. We hav not talked to each other, which I suppose is a good thing. I am inspired by a recent blog or post I read by someone from the Times. I think it was about using electronic devices on the plane. He said that it annoys the hell out of him if some random person whom he happens to be sitting next to strikes up a conversation, so the benefit of these devices is that it gives us something to do. It should be construed as no more anti-social than reading a book. It is interesting; I feel kind of like I am in the Soviet Union or in Communist East Germany or something, for each time a stewardess, especially a male one, wanders pointlessly down the aisle, I need to rapidly touch the power key in order to fully dim this tablet. it’s not just internet-connected electronic devices and it is not just that they cannot be used on takeoff and landing and turbulence and taxiing, but at all times. I really feel like I am a spy, using a tablet when it is forbidden. It is good that my vacation starts tomorrow. I am fortunate to have gotten an early afternoon flight; it means I know I will have plenty of time to pack knapsack-related things the following day. I woke up at 7 AM, put my stuff in the knapsack except for a few chargers, and I charged some devices. I took my cell phone charger and three USB cords, one for Kindle, one for smartphone and Blackberry, and one for my tablet. The Offline Google Drive docs should make it helpful to be able to constantly look at my notes while I am in car and all that stuff. I just got through watching Bugsy, and I watched it from start to finish, without fidgeting, without budging- it’s interesting; when you have no internet it is more likely you will just focus on whatever recreational activity you are to do. So, five hours until I get to Moscow. Two hours later a quick flight to Kiev, which is an hour behind Moscow (the latter is 8 hours ahead of EST and the former is seven). The truth is, when I was in the airport I just realized I may have to worry about not having a visa for the one day I am in Russia in order to transfer to Kiev, but it apparently is not necessary. My bag weighed about 40 pounds, which is beneath the fifty pound amount. I bought a new scale because it seemed as if my old one no longer worked and it does not use ordinary batteries. I just weighed the suitcase on the scale and it was good. I packed a lot of stuff but the suitcase wheels quite well so I am glad I did. And I suppose I have ten more pounds of souvenirs which to buy, or else I will get rid of some stuff at the various cities. Also, this time instead of making video journal entries, I brought along my old keyboard and am using that. It is funny- I was about to throw it away and also to unpair the Bluetooth but now it is useful to me. I really dig this old keyboard, a lot more than the new one which, despite being sturdy and having a carrying case, is simply too small for my fingers and I plan to do a lot of writing on this trip.
Independence Square in Kiev
I am writing this from my 12th floor nice free Wi-Fi equipped already-paid-for hotel room at the Rus Hotel Ukraine in central Kiev. Today was a good one and it is not necessarily over yet. The one issue is that this hotel room does not seem to be air conditioned, and I did put it on high. I’ve tried fiddling with it a bit and it may be time to contact the folks downstairs. The flight to Moscow was OK and the transfer was painless. It was obvious that I did not in fact require a visa for being in Russia for only two hours. The flight to Kiev was a large jet, but they did not have any of those annoying TV screens. I should not say they are stupid, because I watched two movies on the flight to Moscow: Bugsy and 10,000 BC. I liked the concept and idea of the latter film because it is about a subject that interests me: human prehistory; how they behaved and how they were and how smart they were and whether they communicated with language even before the advent of writing. From a lot of their early art it seems they are bright and talented, and a huge chunk of are we have found from 20 to 40 thousand years ago have been Venus figurines, regardless of the specific Neolithic culture, it seems as if all Europeans thought that if they portray a woman with exaggerated birth-related organs they would somehow make it so that they are in some way more fruitful. In other words, everyone back then was religious. And in this movie too it was like that; they referred to things which did not fit their limited knowledge as demons, and they gave a lot of respect to some old woman who they feel is some sort of prophet or seer. My suspicion is that the reason certain people back then acquired the status of seer is because they happened to have been lucky a few times, and people attributed it to supernatural ability, even though it was just luck; some people will be more right by chance than others. I thought the movie was a bit off in terms of the facts in it. I think the horse may have been domesticated by then, but I don’t think different races saw each other back then. I believe it was not until colonization, which only transpired during the historical period that races became aware of each other’s existence. But I could be wrong. It could be that different cultures did in fact meet each other even though they did not write about it. Anyway, by the time I arrived in the Kiev airport I saw there was a huge line and lots of people were taking certain form cards. I saw that there was a very short line by the non-visa holders’ line so I were there, and they stamped my passport and I did not need the form, so I was good to go. I got my luggage fairly quickly, so that is good. I then saw a guy with the name of Olga, and initially I thought that was me, because the name of the Ukraine travel agent is Olga, but I decided to keep looking at signs to see if I would find my own name. And I sure did. Alex is the driver’s name. He drove me to near the Caves Monastery and I met my guide Maria. She speaks good English and like many Ukrainians, she is not married. She told me that the reason the Ukrainian population has shrunk the most out of all European countries is because of nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, not due to people not having children. Now I understand why such a religious country (Ukraine is the most religious of all former Soviet countries) actually has a decreasing population, which is uncommon in religious societies.
The Caves Monastery had amazing, vivid frescoes, but it bothered me that you were not allowed to take pictures indoors unless you paid for it. The truth is I prefer that to being simply disallowed to do it. It is just that the price was too high. I got nice shots, I hope, of outdoors, though. The Caves Monasteries were mostly destroyed but one church from the 11th century remains and that was the one with the frescoes which was the first one we saw. It is the Gate Church of the Trinity. I learned at this church what an iconostasis is. Then we went to a museum which was a bit lame; it showed images of how Kiev looked during olden times, as opposed to showing lots of good artifacts. There were a couple of interesting ones made of rope, however. And there was one pillar featuring ancient Slavic writing which I liked. We then went to the Refectory Church where actual monks are still practicing. A lot them had long beards and long hair. We ventured into the Lower Caves, where the actual monastery was and still functions. There I saw catacombs. As per the instructions of the guidebook and of Maria and the guide who joined us whom she translated for, I bought a long candle for two dollars and it was annoying holding it because I kept worrying that it would burn me like a Havdalah candle, and when I angled it I would get nervous I was dripping wax all over these mummies from the 12th century. One guy you could actually see his hands. And I think this one dead doctor guy had his ear exposed, but recently it has been covered. I was not a big fan of this lower monastery. People there, as I expected visitors to Ukraine would be like, were very religious, moving their arms around and resembling orthodox boys in yeshiva, but instead of directing intent toward Yahweh or his father El or his wife Ashera or to his contemporary Moloch, they direct it towards Jesus.
We had lunch at Tsartske Selo, which the Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet guide recommend because they have good Ukrainian food such as borscht and rabbit and is good for tourists. We went to see a couple of photogenic monuments including a statue which is taller than the one in NY of liberty, known as the Motherland Monument, or tin-tits. I saw a large colorful clock in the grass which actually works, and was created for the Euro 2012 thing which just ended. We also saw the Museum of Micro-miniatures, where each exhibit is featured in a microscope so it is pretty cool, especially where his design is smaller than a human hair. I am not quite sure how this man creates these things. We passed by the Hotel Salute, which the guide book said has a seventies psychedelic feel to it and it is shaped like a large grenade. Then we went to see the outside of the House of Chimeras and the president’s building. It was extremely sunny so impossible to get a good photo of it. Stupidly I neglected to bring along sunglasses. I should have learned a lesson after vacationing so much in the past decade – when it is sunny in places where there are not hundreds of skyscrapers in every acre, shade is just a rarity. The guide obliged to take photos of me whenever I asked.
Then we went to see the Saint Sophia Cathedral, which is the bulbous one with gold domes which is Kiev’s architectural hallmark. A lot of the frescoes in that building were from the 11th century, and a lot of them have faded, so 200 years ago people tried to paint over a lot of them, or to paint sections which have been faded. It is interesting to distinguish between relatively new and old paintings of Christian figures. This building, much like the Trinity Church at the Caves Lavra Monastery, had a beautiful iconostasis, which is a large gold divider full on iconography. One thing I was curious of was whether there were any 11th century frescoes which had calendar dates on them, but I did not see any. So now I am dead tired and may not even go out to neither eat nor get a free glass of sparkling wine, a coupon by the hotel. Tomorrow I wake up early to go to Chernobyl. How exciting! I wish my parents would’ve taken me to Chernobyl when I was a little boy.
Abandoned kindergarten in the Ghost Town of Chernobyl
I was very jetlagged yesterday so nearly fell asleep on the floor while writing trip notes. I wound up passing out on my bed and waking up at 11, after most restaurants close. I did, however, walk to a nearby restaurant which just happened to be the number three restaurant in Kiev according to Trip Advisor, which is something very serendipitous. Because part of what gets me off when I go on vacation is doing things rated highly by TripAdvisor. It was called Under Wonder, I think. Then I fell asleep listening to a Richard Wolff podcast about how job insecurity is a problem in this generation and was not a problem in prior ones. I woke up by a phone call- it was the hotel service. It was an automated call. I put the Hotel Rus phone number and my room number on my Google Calendar just in case people want to call me. I went for breakfast upstairs which was free and quite good.
I met the driver to Chernobyl and he spoke Ukrainian and not any English. He drove about 2 hour or 1:30 hours to the Chernobyl checkpoint and we waited there for about a half hour before I met my guide Helen. We first went to a couple of monuments. One of them had various signs of street names, and the final two were Chernobyl and Prypiat, the two cities most destroyed during the explosion and the two which I’d see. Each sign on the back had a black background and the name, crossed out in red. The guide snapped some pictures of me looking solemn and pointing to them. Then we went to a place where she showed me the layout of the city before and also showed me the extent of the damage. She said that while Belarus geographically experienced the most radiation, Ukraine had the largest number of casualties. Two men died from the explosion. 28 firemen died of cancer months after. I asked her why they did not wear radiation suits and she said that knowledge of how to protect you from radiation was just not well-known then, especially in the Soviet Union which was very cut off from world events, including the atomic bombs dropped in Japan. She gave me a mask and had me read and sign a form essentially saying that I will not pilfer any remnants lying around since they are likely highly contaminated with radiation, even 26 years later. I did not wear the mask, though, but I will take it home as a souvenir. She carried with her a Geiger counter, which counts the amount of radiation in the air. It is measured not in Roentgen but in Sieverts. The firemen experienced about 40 Sieverts but 3 microsieverts is considered dangerous. The firemen experienced 120 million microsieverts. She told me that certain areas would show 40 microsieverts but no matter where she and I went, the counter never beeped enough to indicate that we should leave from wherever we were. After seeing some monuments we drove past the four reactors. The third one was stopped a decade ago, and it was the fourth one which exploded. I took a photo of the water cooler, which is the one which is the familiar image of a nuclear reactor. The actual reactors themselves did not look too different from any other kind of power plant. We were not allowed to go inside and to take pictures of the uranium and all that kind of stuff. Like the one in the opening credits to The Simpsons is but a Cooling Tower. I always thought that hyperboloid shape was itself where the uranium was made.
The highlight of the trip, though, was looking at the two ghost-towns of Chernobyl and Prypiat. The guide took photos of me in almost every room. It was raining and kept on raining until after we had lunch, but despite the rain likely ruining my shoes and the discomfort of walking with my pants which were so low that I kept walking on them, the rain was not that much of a problem because most of the good shots were taken inside these abandoned buildings, i.e. they had roofs. The first place was an abandoned kindergarten in the town of Chernobyl. I saw and photographed broken glass, toilets, beds, scattered books for kids dated 1983, and a doll on a bunk bed. I asked her if I could take any of these as souvenirs, and she cautioned me not to. She said that was the reason I signed that form at the plant’s entrance; these things are very contaminated, likely carrying dozens of microsieverts, so if I were to have taken them I’d have been in big trouble. In Pripyat we saw an abandoned, destroyed movie theater, with film splayed all over the floor amidst the broken shards of glass, a supermarket where the signs for the different foods are still there, and a hotel with a gym, pool, and boxing ring. The pool may have been the coolest thing to see. People sprayed graffiti there and I photographed those as well. One man made a peace sign on the wall in the hotel. We had lunch and it was quite good; this time the borscht was red. I did not particularly like the blini, however. Before we left, at two checkpoints, one before the zone turned from 10 km to 30 km and one before the exclusion zone ended, I had to check myself for radiation. To do this required putting my hands and head in a booth contraption. The tour guide assured me that I was not contaminated. I decided to tip her 175 hryvnia and my driver 100, which is a total of about 35 dollars, so not so bad. I suppose I will tip Maria and my driver as well.
Tonight I walked to Arena, which was near the PinchukArtCentre which happens to be closed on Mondays, so I will ask if I can dine there tomorrow evening before being driven to the train station. She gave me my rail ticket so that is good. Tomorrow morning I want to check out the Andrew’s Descent and look for souvenirs, maybe to check out a few churches along that way. Then in the afternoon there is an itinerary planned for me, and hopefully it will include, as I was told, the synagogue in Kiev and also the Babi-Yar monument nearby. Also I want to ask her if before I leave she can take me to the post office and I can put stamps on and mail postcards. I went into a casino but decided not to go there because it was in the five-star Premiere Palace Hotel, did not have any video poker or slot machines, I was not properly dressed for it, I was carrying a camera, and it was a 1000$ minimum. So after I am done I will go to the Arena night club, which is in a circle where I had dinner tonight. They had Wi-Fi there which was quite fast, so it was there I downloaded all the podcasts. The password was quite simple; I noticed Wi-Fi was available, but it was secure, so I asked the waitress if she could give me the passport. In this city people do not hound me for money and I’ve not yet encountered a single tout irritating me with a “where are you from” question. It seems that the only citizens who behave that way are minority ones, such as in Peru, Tanzania, Thailand, and Turkey. Here it is mostly white people and they do not seem to notice me as a potential target, so that is good.
One frustrating thing about walking around Kiev is that it is not obvious what the street names are, so it’s difficult to use my smartphone’s GPS, and many street corners, despite having lots of cars, do not have walk/don’t walk pedestrian crossing ability, so I often had to ambulate around and around until I could finally find a way to cross the street. And the sidewalks are often narrow and the city is pretty crowded. And often cars kind of go onto sidewalks, so that is annoying. The PinchukArtCentre and Arena circle and night club are a third of a mile from my hotel but it took me an hour to find them.
View from Andrew’s Church
I am writing this entry from quite an unusual place- the train from Kiev to Minsk. Yesterday I woke up late; obviously the alarm phone call did not work at all. What I should have done was to use alarm systems in both my smartphone and this tablet, but I suppose I figured the phone call would work. In this case it failed to work. I believe I fell asleep at 3AM listening to a TechStuff HowStuffWorks podcast about supercomputers; what they are and how they differ from ordinary computers and how they have been getting faster over the years, who are the good makers of them, and so forth. One thing which irritates me is that my clothes in the suitcase are beginning to acquire a mildew odor, especially my Diesel sneakers which I just bought a couple of months ago. Not only are the shoes mildewy, they are now dirty and off-color. I hoped that when I bought them they’d remain clean, but now they are a dirty, smelly pair of sneakers and I will likely wear mostly those sneakers for the next 11 days. The culprit is the rainy, muddy grounds of those old abandoned cities around Chernobyl. I should have worn a long sleeved shirt and a pair of hiking boots to walk over all the mud and shattered glass and all the other debris which was all around the place, but I did not pack my hiking boots. I should have, since there would have been ample room for them in the suitcase and I still have ten pounds or so to spare.
I asked the lobby to hail me a taxi, and they told me it would be 150 hryvnia, or about 20 dollars. That sounded high, so I considered walking to Andrew’s Descent, but given how late I’d woken up, I decided to just go by taxi. I was absolutely unconvinced that I’d successfully navigate myself to there. He drove me to the top of Andrew’s Descent (Andriyivsky Uzviz) whereupon lay St. Andrew’s Church which is spectacular looking, especially on the outside. That is where I decided to buy souvenirs, as the Lonely Planet guide and TripAdvisor suggest. I realized I did not have ample cash, but the first seller of souvenirs pointed me to an ATM. I decided not to buy Matryoshka dolls from him, instead opting to walk down the Descent; to descend Andrew’s Descent. Along the way I indeed bought a Matryoshka doll with seven or so dolls inside it. In retrospect I am having second thoughts over whether it was a good gift, but I suppose I can buy other souvenirs from some or all of the three other cities. But the souvenir I bought for myself for only 150 hryvnia was an army colonel’s peaked hat with the Soviet Union insignia on it. When I arrived at the bottom, there did not seem to be any funicular to take you to the top, so I still have no idea what the hell a funicular is. In any case, I walked up the descent and it was not so bad, since the whole thing is only a few blocks, of people selling souvenirs. Other ones included jewelry and lots of plates similar to the one I bought at the Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul last year.
When I got to the top of the Descent I asked some people to take photos of me by St. Andrew’s Church. That was built by Rastrielli, the 18th century architect who did the Winter Palace. I suppose the dude likes blue buildings, as do I. Then I went inside and took a photo or two there. The woman told me to stop using flash so I stopped. The highlight of the church, in addition to just its outside appearance, was its location and the panoramic views it offered. I asked one lady armed with a good professional looking camera if she could photograph me with the view and she knew to a greater extent of what she was doing than most other people, most of whom are so amazingly sucky at taking pictures of people that I think they all must be a little bit retarded. it’s like; no one knows how to use the zoom lens because I guess most people are more familiar with using a point and shoot or smartphone camera, which does not have a lens. One thing I am realizing, however, is that people whom I ask to take a photo of me do not expect to use an LCD screen but rather know to look in the eyepiece. I wonder if that is an indication that people are now relying less on the LCD because it is pointless in the way it eats up battery life, despite being cool. It could be that point and shoot cameras are becoming less popular, so the only known way most folks have for taking pictures is via their smartphones or even their iPad tablets. So when someone like me asks them to take a photo with a camera such as mine, they view it a separate entity from the cameras of which they know, and just use the eyepiece. Still, however, usually they are very poor picture-takers.
When I got back, my keycard failed to work, and the maid told me I should speak with reception. I did, and she told me checkout time was noon, and it was 12:02. I told her I plan to check out at 1, since that was the time I was supposed to meet with the driver and guide. I wrote a postcard and had lunch of cabbage varenyky among other things which tasted very good, and then I checked out. Fortunately I did no owe any money; it seems as if all was in fact paid for, which is good; if the whole Ukraine thing cost 1300 bucks and that included hotel, train and guidance, that is the best deal of any of the three countries.
I went to the outdoor folk museum, Pyrohiv, in the afternoon. One annoying thing about that place was that many homes were now souvenir shops, and a number of times I felt guilty for not buying anything. I am under the impression that the tour guides work in league with these souvenir vendors and use hard selling to convince me to purchase something in order to support their poor economy. This was my experience just last year in Turkey, where before and after each and every tour we went to a souvenir shop. In last year’s case it was rugs and leather, and both time I bit, purchasing a very expensive rug and buttery smooth jacket. This time it was worse in the sense that the souvenirs were interspersed with the exhibit. The Pyrohiv Folk Museum, which is TripAdvisor’s second most popular thing to do, just behind Monastery Caves and in fact ahead of Andrew’s Descent, St. Andrew’s Church and St. Sophia Church. They transplanted homes where people lived for the past 300 years to these several acres. The cool thing about the museum was that we were able to go inside a lot of the houses. They were pre-electricity and pre-modern stoves. Each section of the museum was dedicated to a different region of Ukraine. My favorite part was the region commemorating the south of the country, where Odessa is, because they little huts (or hata, as my tour guide told me they were called) were painted fluorescent blue. Another touristy thing was that there were a couple of players of stringed and percussion Ukrainian instruments and my tour guide told me to pause and listen to them and then to consider buying the CD. Jeez, haven”t Ukrainians heard about Spotify? There were lots of windmills there which obviously made for good photo-taking opportunities. One thing I learned was what a pripetshik is. David tried to tell me what it was when I played the Yiddish tune Oyfn Pripetshik for him, but I did not understand it until I saw one it in one of the village huts in the open museum. It is a flat part of the bottom of a stove. So while the stove was cooking overnight, some members of the family would sleep on blankets atop the back of the stove, the pripetshik, to keep warm in the night.
At one point during our visit to the museum it began to rain, a little sun shower, so I buried my camera under my shirt. I am not sure what happens to my camera when moisture hits the lens. Also, once or twice I tried to take off the lens cap only to find out it was not on it, so I suppose I smudged it. I suppose I can learn about how to use the lens cleaner which I did bring along.
In the afternoon we visited Babi-Yar. That means old ravine, so it is a natural ravine. I got a few pictures of the natural concavity of the place – you can see how the ground curves due to the tree’s shadows. It’s chilling that 100,000 Jews were killed there. There were a few survivors, one of which fooled the Nazis into believing she was dead and then climbing up through the dirt and escaping.
We went to the post office to buy three stamps and to mail the three postcards. We also stopped in front of a Shalom Aleichem monument; I suppose he is Ukrainian. Then we went to a store so I could exchange a 200 hryvnia bill and I gave Maria 150 of them. I never got a chance to tip the driver from two days ago because I had a different one today. As is typical, the first one was named Alex and today’s was named Alexei. Both smoked, as did my driver to Chernobyl yesterday. I finally found and got into the PinchukArtCentre which had nice exhibits including three generations of nude women. it’s interesting to see how the breasts sag with age and the pubic hair grays and coarsens. It reminded me of the Chelsea galleries where I occasionally go to with different Meetups. One artist had an exhibit I just saw last month, Anish Kapoor. I wonder if that person is related to Kelly Kapoor from the TV show The Orifice. The bathroom had colorful rainbow lighting so it was pretty cool. I had dinner, exhausting my remaining UAH currency on the restaurant on the roof, the Sky Art Cafe. I stopped in front of the Brodsky synagogue and also went inside but it looked like an ordinary synagogue. It seemed as if there were Chabadniks in front of there; men with beards and kippot. They were smoking. Also a family in front of the synagogue was from the US, one of the couples from midtown Manhattan. Alexei picked me up and took me to the train station; there is only one of them in Kiev which has transportation to other cities such as the ones in other European countries.
I figured out which track my train was on and boarded it. It upset me that there were three other folks in my compartment. I figured it was a woman and her husband and their son. But it turned out that she did not know the younger guy, and the older guy was just helping her out and would not be joining us in the compartment. The lady turned out to be a cardiologist who spoke fine English, and offered to move her knapsack so my large suitcase could fit under the table and I would not have to put it on my bed. The compartments are very small on these trains. I guess it will be so on my next two trains. First class and second and third are all the same size, and each train has about ten compartments. In first there are two beds, in third no doors and six chairs, and in second class, where I dormed overnight with the two Ukrainians who did not know each other, there are four beds and a door and the ability to turn off the light. But they are very small. Even the bed is narrow; I found it difficult to figure out where to put my arm, for instance. But I slept fine, and they did not mind that my tablet may”ve been emitting light. They were very quiet and wanted to sleep immediately. I could not find my flip-flops so the lesson I learned is to anticipate what I will need for a train ride and include those things in my knapsack along with its usual contents. They also have plugs there so theoretically I could charge my devices. But it was too cramped and my stuff was a bit too disorganized. As soon as we hit the Belarus border a man came in looking stern like he was from the KGB making sure I filled out the part A of the immigration form we each got as soon as we boarded, and he knocked rudely on the door as soon as we reached the border, obviously not concerned he’d wake us up. He checked the visa in my passport against some electronic database via a keyboard computer he wore around his shoulder. It was not a pleasant experience. I felt like I should talk to the embassy. I learned what an embassy is; it is a place in foreign countries where they represent anyone from the US. So if I experienced something bad in Belarus, I could let the embassy know and they would I guess inform the Belarusians about that and it would not be good because then they would not look good as a tourist destination.
Babushkas in Derevno
I arrived in Minsk and when I woke up, the guy I thought was the woman’s son was no longer there. Apparently the train made a few other stops in Belarus. Fortunately they gave us breakfast. I think it was meat and potatoes, so that hit the spot to some extent. In order to use toilet facilities I used my leather expensive loafers because I could not find my thongs. I just brought my stuff into the toilet which resembled an airplane’s toilet. In the morning after I ate I asked the cardiologist if it’d be OK if I change into pants, and instead of merely looking the other way or simply not caring, she left the compartment. I should say that the compartment is determined in addition to the particular bed. So I was initially scared that I’d need to sleep on the top bunk, which you need to use a built in ladder to clamber up to, but it turns out that my compartment number 29 had a predetermined place, and fortunately it was on the bottom left quarter of the second class room. We arrived in Minsk and I met my guide, who is Jewish, and the driver who is also Jewish, also a smoker, and speaks fine Hebrew. Our first stop was the ATM at the station, where I took out 4 million roubles. The richest man in the world has nearly a quadrillion roubles, which is 120 billion dollars. That’s right; a dollar is 8000 roubles, not 3000 like the book said. So in the span of less than a year the currency of this country has risen by a factor of 2.7. It is pretty remarkable.
We went to the Minotel Express office which had on one of its shelves a floppy disk container (it says it works with MS-DOS!) container so it scared me a bit. I thought it was the hotel lobby but fortunately was wrong. I paid 285 dollars for three nights at the Yubileinaya Hotel. We could not check in, so I had to remain unclean. At least on the train, while the cardiologist was out of the room, I put on pants. It was good that I did- walking through cemeteries with lots of marshes, where it rains on and off regardless of how clear the sky looks and regardless of the weather report on the Weatherbug app of my smartphone which says it will be sunny in the city in which I reside. We went for brunch at a place called Golden Coffee. They had free Wi-Fi there and their password was, unsurprisingly, ‘goldencoffee’. I told the waitress that she has poor security to opt for a password like that. And as I connected to the net for the first time for 24 hours, give or take, I welcomed a torrent of emails and other internet communications and also snapped a few photos to Instagram.
After lunch we embarked on day 1 of 3 of my genealogy quest. Our first stop was Stolpce. There my guide had in her Netbook open to the web site, which I am sure I have seen a number of times, where it shows all the graves which are known in Stolpce. It includes three Machteys but none of them are familiar to me. But one name was familiar to me: Getzl Siegelowicz. While we were having brunch I rattled off a couple of surnames of family members and cities where they lived. She told me that had she known this info she’d have organized our itinerary a bit differently. It was fun going through the various gravestones in Stolpce looking for Getzl but spending an hour there I just could not find him. Such a low percentage of these gravestones had legible Hebrew writing on them. My guide told me that tomorrow she’ll bring along a a magnifying glass but I don’t think that’d be of any assistance because the writing is just too difficult to see. This is a cemetery that my travel agent Irina Dorn and her husband Yuri, who has lived in Ohio for a number of years worked on restoring, so among cemeteries it is considered one of the ones in better shape. Still, it was good to walk through it and to walk through the current town as well as the old shtetl’s location.
I told the guide I wanted to see Lyakovichi (shtetl, current city, city sign, current residents’ old houses, new houses, cemetery, synagogues, and monument) and she told me they’d not planned on going there but both were armed with sufficient knowledge of GPS and maps, and the driver and the guide had enough confidence to talk with people, that they did manage to fit in Lyakovichi. I saw a Lenin statue in Stolpce and we had a late lunch there. Then we went to Timkovichi where I could not discern any names on any of the gravestones. Then we went to Lyakovichi and then to Derevno. At each of these places I took a photo of me with the street sign and me with the memorial. Surprisingly there was even a cemetery at Derevno, but there was only a single stone which I could read Hebrew letters. So in each cemetery, in Stolpce, Lyakovichi, Timkovichi, and Derevno, I saw no familiar names on any gravestones.
In Derevno, we chatted with a couple of 80 year old babushkas, and they looked like they’d look so cute in a photo with me so I asked Katya if she could ask them if they could get in a photo with me and I offered to pay them lots of roubles. They agreed for free. But the second lady we saw, Leta, whose house we visited, started crying when she saw I was about to take a photo of her because she thought she looked too dirty. She had three teeth and her hands had just been in mud because I guess she farms. Katya told me she is not even on Facebook, which is hard to fathom. She may even have an AOL email address, or perhaps she sends mail using this ancient thing called mail. She was a teenager when the Nazis came to deport and kill all the Jews. The truth is my interest lies in people who left before WWI, not people who perished
in the holocaust.
Then we went back home and I bought a cheap Wi-Fi connection- 8000 BR for ten hours, which is a dime an hour. But the connection is slow and annoyingly intermittent. Tomorrow is day 2 and maybe I will save some notes on an Evernote or something so we can be a bit more prepared. Also it seems like it will rain again so I will wear those pants which I only wear on vacation, the ones which are good for wearing in muddy climates.
Town of Babruisk
In my hotel, as soon as I put my stuff down and went to the bathroom, I received a phone call. I thought it might be the front desk telling me I forgot my passport, or maybe the tour guide telling me there was something she had to tell me about how much more money I owed her, but it turned out it was a woman calling asking me ‘sex? Massage?” so I hung up the phone. I learned that this Hotel Yubileinaya has both a casino and a strip club, the latter called Vegas. I was considering walking into the casino and seeing if they had video poker, but the lady at the front desk said she did not think so, and if I wanted to know, maybe I should go into it to find out. It is open 24/7. I decided against it, instead wishing to focus on maybe uploading some photos to Instagram which I snapped but did not yet upload due to so rarely having internet connection, as well as synchronizing Evernotes and downloading some podcasts. The internet here it both slow and intermittent, but that is what you get, I suppose, when you pay so little for it. This morning I woke up by my phone alarm but unfortunately the smartphone had barely charged. I figure that it charges more when you are not using power to play podcasts, or maybe even to have a Wi-Fi connection. The way it works here is that the Betelnet Wi-Fi connection is free, but as soon as I access any web site, there are credentials necessary to input based on a card the hotel receptionist gave me when I plunked down a buck or so. It is for ten hours, meaning that when I shut of Wi-Fi I explicitly log out from the web site.
I had breakfast, and the way they do it here is you need to present some guard in front of the lunchroom with one of three breakfast vouchers, so now I have two left. Breakfast was quite good, but they were quite lacking in the napkins department. That was how I felt when I went to a famous Shanghai restaurant: the Chinese culture apparently does not use napkins; perhaps they have a gift for not making a mess, or they lick their fingers clean, or they don’t mind being sticky, dirty, and malodorous. I felt like, if some Belarusian tried to argue that it is their country’s tradition to not use napkins, I would say that just because something is tradition and has been done for so many years that does not mean it makes logical or ethical sense.
I met up with Katya and Ilya the driver and they first took me to some local places in Minsk where there were traces of the Jews who lived here from the 16th century in the Lithuanian Empire, through to the Russian Empire, up until the Russian Revolution or the Holocaust. We saw the Moly Trostenets extermination camp, the only one in Russia, at least the only large one. Ilya said they killed the most people of any camp, aside from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek. It is not as famous as either of those three or even as Belsen, Belzec, Sobibor, or Chelmno. I think Russia tried to keep is a secret. It was one of the earlier ones, started prior to the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the final solution implementation by mass extermination through gas was decided upon. Much like the one at Babi-Yar which I saw in Ukraine, this one had lots of ditches. Babi-Yar means old ravine, so it is a natural ravine, but the one at this camp was dug. I ported along my yarmulke which I wore for a couple of photos and also my Lenin hat for a photo or two. My guide’s ancestors mostly died in Maly Trostenets.
We then went to exchange money, where I exchanged over a million BR for 145$ which covers the price of the train ticket to Moscow in a couple of days. I also owe them another 50$ for acquiescing to take me to Lyakovichi yesterday, but that I can give to them in BR. Add in the tip I should give to them, and I am thinking that I likely will have to make another ATM withdrawal. We then went to a souvenir shop where I bought four postcards. These postcards have no insignia for a stamp, nor do they have horizontal lines on the right indicating the place where I am supposed to write down an address, and I already wrote two, so tomorrow I will ask Katya if they are able to be mailed despite not having lines or a square. I also bought a souvenir; a green cup and saucer. The person at the store slowly packed them inside a box, which means I can port it inside my suitcase as opposed to carry-on. One good thing about being taken around this foreign country with a native speaker is that she can make sure I am saying or doing the right thing. It is amazing having a translator.We had lunch at Pomodoro and they had no Wi-Fi there, but then went to other holocaust and Minsk ghetto memorials.
I went to see the apartment where Lee Harvey Oswald lived prior to blowing away JFK (what else do I have to say? Sally Ride?). There was no information which indicated that was where he lived, and there were not hordes of tourists all pointing to it. We made reservations for Talaka, the highest rated restaurant according to TripAdvisor, and then were off to Babruysk. The whole time on the drive it rained, and while we were there, occasionally it drizzled and occasionally rained. My personal tour guide in this large city was a woman named Maya, a woman with no children who has been married four times. Her hair was dyed maroon red. All of her husbands had left her because she is too intellectually active, and the people who live around here prefer someone more dumb and pre-feminist. She took me around to lots of areas of Babruysk, beginning with the Chabad house. I met the rabbi and took a few photos with the children in the kindergarten. He spoke Hebrew so that was how we communicated. Then she showed me how all of these houses were of Jewish architecture, which I learned today has its own unique style.
While we were having coffee some guy came around to us taunting us, the guy speaking English with a Borat accent, and Katya told me he is drunk, and this city has lots of people like that. We then went to a memorial which was above a mass grave where 10,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in 1942 in the Babruysk ghetto. She told me that 72 of her relatives were murdered there, which is quite touching and remarkable too. The highlight of today’s trip, in addition to making good with and charming the Chabad rabbi and the Jewish tour guide, was the cemetery. It had a mixture of Jews and Non-Jews, and they were all spectacular. A lot of the non-Jewish ones had engraved portraits of the person before he or she was a corpse. We saw the grave of some Jewish man or woman named Soloway or Solovay, so maybe I will investigate it when I return home. Yet I believe the Mankowitzes came from Bobr, where I head for tomorrow.
National Library of Belarus
Today was another good day. My shoes and pants got soaking wet, however, and they are not drying so I suppose I will need to wear these wet shoes on the train and for the rest of the trip. Maybe I”ll ask Katya tomorrow if I can buy a cheap pair of new shoes. Actually, I do have one pair of loafers and sandals, and in Russia I do not plan on doing anything involving walking in mud. My room in this Hotel Yubileinaya has large windows which open out and there are no screen doors so I put the pants and sneakers there on the ledge. The weather in this country has been terrible. Intermittent rain, and when it rains, it often does so very hard. Yesterday when we were in the car driving to the Talaka restaurant, there were very large puddles. They do not drain the streets properly. The one saving grace is that it means I do not need to worry about carrying sunblock and getting sunburnt. I still carry sunglasses, because the rain is intermittent and thus it is sunny 20 per cent of the time. And Minsk is not New York where there are skyscrapers everywhere which shield me from the sun. The buildings in this country are all short so sun is not blocked. The temperature is low, which is also a good thing. It has been about 62 degrees and tonight I was quite chilly in a t-shirt.
Today the first stop was the national library of the country, which is a rhombicuboctahedron, meaning similar to Rubik’s Snake. There is a very good animated gif which shows how a cube becomes one on the shape’s Wikipedia page. We had to give our cameras but Katya told me it would likely be ok if I surreptitiously took photos with my Bionic. What I did was set the flash to off and also silenced that stupid shutter sound. I snapped a lot of photos, but none in the best part of the library, which was the museum, where they had lots of old books and incunabula. One thing I noticed was that commas were not found in the 15th century and only made it into the grammar a century after that. There were books talking about the famous, rich Radziwill family, whose heirs still are around today. There were photos of the building of the library along with a photo of Lukashenko. He looks like Hitler; maybe a mustache like that turns people into dictators. Then we walked around the building. There are eight sides, due to the eight corners of a cube. It is interesting to circle around a building’s floor because the expectation is that there will be only four sides since we are so used to things being a grid of four sides. Then we went to the top where we had coffee and also to the observation deck, which was the ultimate in irony; there was non-transparent glass preventing you from truly getting the panorama you expect. Katya told me it is typical; the building is for show to other people, but functionally it is useless to the people; they cannot even see out of its observation deck. At night I went to see it lit up, and it’s got tons of light bulbs on it so its pattern is constantly changing. Because I am not armed with a good external flash for my Nikon D90, even at a high ISO and the maximum aperture size, often shutter times were nearly a second, meaning jitteriness, but also, which is cool and made me wish I’d brought along a tripod so I could do a timed shot without jitteriness, you see lots of patterns at once, which is quite cool. Because if the patterns change every few hundredths of second, then a one second exposure shows 200 or so different patterns. it’s like it coalesces something moving in time to a single still image.
To get to the library at night I took the Metro. The whole time I was nervous I’d be robbed or in some way molested but the whole thing went well. I am proud for figuring out where to find the initial subway platform, how to go about purchasing two tokens, how and at which station to transfer, and which of the two platforms (one train going one way, one going the other way) to get on. I saw a family on the platform and asked her where the library was by showing her a Google Maps image of it, which fortunately has it written in Russian as well, and she told me which side to wait for the train on. After I walked away I heard her little daughter counting to ten in English, obviously realizing I spoke it
I wanted to go to a casino, there being three of them on the way from the hotel to the subway, but decided to not because I had too much online work to do, meaning things to tweet, photos to share via Instagram, and writing trip notes. I’ve been adhering to a meme on Instagram which is to take a photo of Lenin at various places and to make a different pun on his name, confusing it with John Lennon.
After we went to the library we went to three shtetls. The final one was Smolevichi, the penultimate one was Barysaw, where we also had an early dinner, us being the only customers at the place called Praim Taim Barysaw, but they still managed to screw up our order twice. They had Wi-Fi there, which was good. They did similar to my hotel lobby- issued a card with the password. It seems to be a temporary one. But the first shtetl where we went, the one where fortunately Ilya gave me an umbrella because it kept raining on and off but still water got inside my socks and shoes and totally spoiled my feet for the remainder of the day, was Bobr. Despite being named for a beaver the way the larger town of Babruysk is, the latter has 200,000 but the former only 1000 people. I spent an hour in this grave, and urinated when I was sure the guide was nowhere nearby so she’d not see me. At the cemetery in Smilovich (one of the nicer ones, at least the Christian parts) I urinated twice because the beer I had at Praim Taim made me have to go. But at Bobr most gravestones had no surnames. But I did find a single Eliezer ben Shemuel who died in 1891, and I am 50% sure it is Eleazer Mankowitz. It may be something I will bring up with family members on that side. Maybe I will add the grave to his photo on Geni, the one with me in it, and see if anyone tells me it’s not him. It was fun trouncing through these cemeteries.
I am writing on the train to Moscow right now. Fortunately there is only one person in my cabin, which, if last ride is of any indication, it means there likely will not be anyone else. It is a man, but it seems like he is relatively tame. He seems to speak a bit of English to boot. This time I packed in my suitcase my camera, a charger, my adapter, my pajamas, my sandals, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste. I cannot wait until I can use the bathroom to change into the shorts and t-shirt because it is very hot. It seems as if the custom is to leave the door ajar and not to do anything until a light goes off and we are able to use the bathroom. This time the two folks, the guide Katya and Ilya walked me all the way to the station, Ilya wheeled my bag, and helped me also to get into not only the right gate, but to the right train. And they boarded it to assist me with my luggage; Ilya put my suitcase under my bed. My bed is in the same position; the lower left bed. It is number 25 and to Belarus it was bed 29. It was better boarding the compartment because I was the first guy in it. Ilya and Katya and the ticket lady told me there’d be no security border guides coming in to rudely ask me to show a visa. I read in the book that many people only get a visa for Belarus and then are able to enter Russia without any problems, so I suppose this is similar to that. It is still light outside even though the time is nearly 10pm. That is something I noticed about Belarus, which is this country gets dark late and light early. I tipped them pretty much all of the Belarusian Roubles I had left, which was 145,000 of them. I gave the whole was of what amounts to about 140 dollars to Katya and told her to give 40 per cent of it to Ilya, and they both seemed pleased. After saying goodbye, had they been upset by the amount of money I gave they would have said their goodbyes and left, but this time they actually waved to me goodbye to my compartment window, which implies being pleased. I used my credit card for the last meal we had but pretty much the entire trip to Belarus was paid for by my first and only ATM transaction of 4 million BR. I think in total I spent 4 and a half, meaning a respectable amount. I bought the Belarusian vodka suggested by the Lonely Planet guide, Minskaya. When we were in the supermarket and when we walked around the souvenir booths outside of and inside of the Mir Castle. Someone posted on Facebook that it is the 20th anniversary of Achva Israel. I posted a non-smiley face comment asking women my age why they are so into the double barreled or hyphenated surnames. I recall meeting the boss’s son and confronting him about his usage of deodorant, reading Poems about Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia, where they discussed the Enuma Elish and Marduk, stuff that I actually already learned about when we discussed the Sumerians in my freshman history class and of snapping photos with my pre-digital camera of the TV which was playing the Olympics and of writing a diary entry while waiting for my dad in the airport; either there or on the plane. Tomorrow my dad turns 60 and I recall sending him a letter when he turned 40.
I am quite pleased with my experience in Belarus. I had a very good driver, and very helpful and assistive guide. At times I thought maybe she was getting angry at me because I was so inappropriate and unusual, but I think she preferred it to a boring client. I contacted Irina to ask her to clarify what she meant by a 10% tip, since I worried that would be 150$ (10% of the fee for the entire trip, not including hotels or the rail transport) and even showed that to Katya who said she also did not understand it, so I just went with my gut, which was to empty out all but 20000 BR, meaning a couple of bucks. it’s good I saved that because I bought some wafers and coffee on the train.
I woke up and my clock said 5 AM, which surprised me, because we were not supposed to arrive until 6:45. But I saw lots of buildings and wondered if we’d just arrived quite early. But then I realized Russia is an hour ahead of Belarus, or 8 hours ahead of NY Time. So I had to stop writing and get all my things together. So far no one has stolen anything from me on a train, and there is one left. I got lucky that there was only one other person in my compartment; it’s as if I paid for a first class one, which I think would’ve been a 100 bucks more money. The one thing which upsets me is I lost, for the second time (but this time, permanently) the battery cover to my keyboard. I was thinking this keyboard would be retired, but I like it so much more than the new one, except for the lack of a G key and the absence of a left arrow one. It frustrated me that there were no outlets in the compartment because all my batteries were low. One thing I”ve not used is my Kindle device, because it seems not to work anymore. So I packed a few useless items.
Today we went to Mir. We saw the cemetery, which was the wildest one yet. There were thorns and bees and grass taller than me, and only one recognizable Matzevah gravestone. We also saw the old yeshiva Beis Midrash and synagogues and I photographed myself in front of them with a yarmulke. We went also to a museum where some guy essentially found all these old items owned by Jews, including Hebrew and Yiddish texts, and now he displays them. He also sells them, so I don’t know how ethical it is for him to be selling all these things which a century ago belonged to the Jews who left there before WWII. In front of his museum, or at least in front of nearby houses, were parked in the front yards cool cars which looked like they were from the fifties. In Mir, Babryusk and Derevno were very charming little houses, many of which I do not believe were destroyed during World War II. What sucks is that I have no schedule for tomorrow so I don’t know what I am going to do on Sunday July 22. I’d love to rest and do a laundry but want to take advantage of the fact that it is Sunday and there’s so much to tour. The Mir Castle was amazing looking but we did not go inside.
Prior to Mir we toured the Patriotic War Museum, which, despite Katya’s knowledge and guidance of it and despite that the book recommended it, it kind of bored me because I have little knowledge of the Belarusian anti-Nazi partisan movement. But it was cool to see photos of partisans hung with signs around their necks. Also saw some Nazi paraphernalia. We ate lunch at Byblos and dinner at My English Granny, which was quite a charming-looking place. I ate hare there. I thought it was drenched in cheese but it was some non-cheese sauce.
We also went to October Square and I photographed the Presidential Administrative Building, the KGB Headquarters, and the Belarusian House of Government. One cool thing and chilling thing about this city is there is a prison prominently residing in the city’s center, as a warning to all citizens that they better be law-abiding. All and all the Belarusian part of my trip was quite pleasing. It felt good to have these two young people serve me for four days. I really enjoyed seeing all these old shtetls. Those sorts of things just do it for me, I guess.
Lenin Statue in Minsk
I arrived to see a dude holding up a sign with my name and he drove me to this current hotel, the Ohotnik. It seemed at least the hotel’s region of Moscow is very quiet. I rested for a bit and asked if they could do laundry. It turns out the entire batch cost me nearly 100 dollars which is upsetting because the value of the clothes is arguably less. Perhaps I should have asked first and only given half my stuff. It is typical of this city so far and likely the same is true in Leningrad, which is that prices are not low as in Belarus or Ukraine, especially the former. The one exception seems to be souvenirs. Metro tokens are also I think about a dollar, which is 40% of NY prices. But what I found to be satisfyingly inexpensive is a hat souvenir. I”ve fallen in love with the peaked cap which I bought in Kiev for about 10 dollars and found the other kind of typical Russian hat, the fur one, an ushanka, for 13 dollars. I thought it’d be at least 100 dollars; I suppose it is imitation wool, but it does the job in terms of taking photos of me. I really like the flat-top hat, though. It is the kind that Hitler wore, albeit without a swastika on it. It is also the kind police officers and army men of the current countries of Ukraine and Belarus wear. I think it looks so dashing. I wonder why this type of hat is not worn in America. It seems to be distinctly European. I plan to do a Wikipedia search on it. Thankfully both of these souvenirs which I really dig are cheap.
One brilliant system of so far each of the three countries is that instead of crossing the street, on half the street corners, especially ones where the lanes are wide, to get to the other side requires you to walk down some steps then emerge from the other side. This solves the problem of car traffic competing with walkers and also it is good for the country’s economy since they always sell stuff down there. The ones in Moscow seem to have very good stuff. Including matryoshka dolls which are far better than the ones I saw in Kiev. Today I spent some time with the receptionist in the lobby and she referred me to a metro map, which is similar to a subway map; it is standardized. An American woman who was also in the lobby told me it is good to download the pdf so I don’t need to take the physical map. I was on my own; Dasha from the Express to Russia did not get back to me. I feel a bit gypped; I only get two days of guidance in Moscow and it is senseless that I was offered nothing for today. I hope the hotel prices have been included in the itinerary because I don’t think five days is worth 3000 dollars; 600 per day seems high, especially considering we likely will not be doing a lot of driving and presumably the sights are not too pricey. Nevertheless I fended for myself pretty successfully. It started off ok; despite having a minimal charge on my cell phone I snapped photos of the Google Maps and that was helpful. I managed to take the right train.
My first destination was a kosher restaurant called Chagall, but the GPS told me where to find Chagall an exhibit. I then walked to the Pushkin Art Center, which is similar to the Met, and had to wait on line. That’s actually a nice thing about it; it prevents crowding. Unlike at the Met there is no suggested donation; it costs 400 roubles which is 13 dollars. It was worth it; it is a great museum. Its focus is on sculpture. In the first room there are renaissance sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David. It must be 20 feet tall, and its penis is about 9 inches, meaning if he were normal size it’d be very small. They had Greek sculptures as well; I think some renaissance painters copied what they did. They also had lots of stuff from before the renaissance, meaning late medieval and even some medieval paintings. One thing I was so happy to see was a medieval sculpture of some sort from the 11th century, and it actually used a Roman numeral date. My suspicion is that when the calendar turned 1000, that’s when they started dating things; since they thought it was cool that a millennium had passed since Jesus. I always thought the earliest usage of Roman Numerals to show dates was in the 13th century. They also had a collection, I think the Fayoum collection, of turn-of-the-era paintings from Egypt, and similar to the ones I saw at that Jackie Kennedy museum a couple of months ago. One guy looked very modern. They all have enlarged eyes. There were a few interesting religious ones featuring the devil, and some from the 16th century where there were people who looked like jesters or jokers. They made me check in my bag which had a camera and there were security guards all around so I did not attempt to use my smartphone to snap a photo, even though its flash and shutter sound were off. I just didn’t have the guts. I wonder if there are any other Michelangelo’s Statues of David in the world. There were also lots of cuneiform tablets. My legs were sore but when I was really interested in the painting, e.g. the stuff from before the year 1400, it did not bother me as much. Since Chagall was not where I was I just found another restaurant on the way, an Uzbek one called Tajj Mahal. No one was there but I had mutton, so it was good. To communicate with the waitress, saying that I wanted a Band-Aid for my foot since I wore sandals and walked for about a mile, I used Google Translate app. It was a very elegant looking restaurant and you used an iPad to place your order, which is very high-tech and I really dug it.
After, I went to The Russian Dance Theater Show which I reserved from the hotel. They had a large ad in the back of the map so that’s why I chose it. She said the Bolshoi Theater was very expensive and four hours long, and this one was geared towards tourists, so I did it. It turned out it was similar to the Night Spectacular show I saw in the Old City of Jerusalem where they have that laser light show which illustrates the history of the land. This was similar; they did folk ballet dances pretty well and had a multimedia component and also they wore lots of nice costumes. It’s funny because the folks sitting next to me were Israeli, so it ties into the fact that the show reminded me of Israel. And in front of us were Lebanese people speaking Arabic, and at one point the Israeli man sitting next to me (a guy who, for some reason, never clapped) said in Hebrew “we are neighbors”. I kept smiling and ostentatiously zooming in on photos of Hebrew lettering on tombstones to see if he’d confront me, but nothing happened. I really liked the dance and the music, so maybe I will look for Russian Dance concerts in Manhattan. It is like bar mitzvah dances but has more of a Christian, Slavic feel. There is something very manly about a Slavic man, which is something Jamie-Lee Curtis mentioned in A Fish Called Wanda when John Cleese pretended to be Russian, how she was turned on. And the peaked cap is a great accessory to that. The subway here is very well-laid out; Every train links with every other and there is never a need to go outside and walk to another train station. They arrive predictably every three or four minutes. The train lines are color coded and numbered from 1 to 10, unlike the illogical way it is done in NYC where random letters and numbers are used. One train line circles around the city, which is pretty cool. I guess if your city is square, it makes sense, but maybe NYC has too many rivers and Manhattan too oblong for that. What I like about it is that trains go one way on one side, and the other way on the other side, as opposed to the system of having express trains go on the opposite line. The one place NYC does this is 34th St. It is good for tourists because if we take the train the wrong way, we can easily just get off and get on the train across the platform.
Lenin and Stalin at the Fallen Monument Park
Today was the first day of the two day planned itinerary. At breakfast was an Asian waitress, someone I saw yesterday at the reception. My guide told me that Asians who live in Russia are usually from the Stans, most ordinarily Uzbekistan. That is something I did not know; Asians exist not only in the Far East, but west of Mongolia. I always thought Mongolia was the extent of their eastern-ness but now I learned that the ethnicities of those who live in the Stans are Asian. And most are Muslim. I asked my guide if any of the Stan countries are worthy of being toured.
My guide today, an older Jewish woman who is a mother of two kids as well as a wife and who coincidentally is Jewish, even opened the car door for me. And I think she has been the most competent photographer so far, but going through my photos it seems as if none of them are skilled enough to make sure I am in the center, none of them seem to tell me to move forward or to the left or right or anything like that. I have about 1000 photos now, 300 or so of which as raw, and the others ordinary jpegs. This means there will be less post-processing so I can hurry up and upload photos to sharing web sites. Posting occasionally on Instagram is a good reminder to people that I am on an interesting vacation, but none of those photos are quality ones. Today is my dad’s birthday and as I emailed him exactly at midnight in Russia I also did so at 8am, meaning I was the first to email him on his American birthday. I tried calling him by following the directions of the receptionist but could not get through, so I emailed him that he can call me but he did not write me back yet. When I found out the Putin recently turned 60, being born in 1952, I told my guide
today is my dad’s 60th birthday and we toasted to it at lunch.
Today we went on a panoramic tour where we saw good views of the Kremlin Administration building and our first non-panoramic destination was Fallen Monument Park, where there are sculptures of famous Russians such as many of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Einstein, and others. I took great photos there. Then we visited the Novodevichy Cemetery where is buried Khrushchev, Yeltsin, Raisa Gorbachev, Gogol, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and some of Stalin’s descendants.
We had lunch at Botanica, which was recommended by the eBook. Similar to the previous guide Katya, this one asked if there are any things I wanted to do in addition to what was planned in the itinerary, so I rattled off some stuff from my notes and like Katya she paid attention to them. Also I told her where I want to eat and she planned on driving me there (actually, the male driver; as in most situations, the female is a guide and male is a driver) and also called to make reservations, to see if the place is open, and all that stuff. In the afternoon we drove to the Kremlin, and on the way she found out that in the ballet theater next door to the Bolshoi, which had no performance tonight, was Sleeping Beauty. She told me she has a colleague who is a scalper and she asked me if I wanted to. Prior to waiting on the line at the Kremlin gate we met him and paid him for the orchestra ticket. Actually, the guide paid and she trusted I’d pay her back 3600 roubles, or about 115 dollars.
I learned that the Kremlin is essentially a walled area, and the walls and the Kremlin was built in the 15th century. It is small. It contains churches, the presidential administrative building, and some other stuff. Red Square is outside of the Kremlin but adjacent to it. It is there where St. Basil’s Church and Lenin’s Mausoleum are at, both of which are on the agenda for tomorrow. Another thing in the Kremlin was the Diamond Fund Exhibition of the Kremlin’s jewels, including a crown full of diamonds such as the Orlov Diamond which was worn by Romanov tsars from Catherine to Nicholas II. Most of the glass cases were not impressive to me, especially given that the Museum of Natural History in New York has a similar thing and that place is essentially free but in this case it cost money not covered by the tour. And they disallowed bringing in smartphones, let alone cameras. Also very nice in this glass case number nine was a diamond scepter.
Outside the Presidential Administrative building was the largest cannon ever built and the largest bell ever built. The latter never rang and the former never shot. The bell has a crack 8 feet high and the bell is 3 or 4 million pounds. The highlight of the Kremlin was Cathedral Square, a triplet of cathedrals; Annunciation, Dormition, and Archangel, which had sometimes vivid 16th century frescoes all over the place like a man with tattoos covering his whole body, and the final cathedral had 75 tombs and coffins of different Rurik and Romanov dynasty Russian rulers. The Dormition was my favorite. Each dome on the interior usually contains an icon. The largest dome usually is of Jesus. I could have spent all day in there looking at the walls and ceilings. In one of them I managed to sneak a smartphone picture shot but I got caught in the other two. My guide assisted me in this effort by telling me when the watchwoman was coming. After the Kremlin I walked to where I was to see the ballet and spent two hours in the park in front of the Bolshoi just resting, using Wi-Fi when it was available, and processing and deleting photos. The ballet was nicely done, in terms of the scenery, but it bored me in the beginning. I only recognized one of Tchaikovsky’s tunes from Sleeping Beauty. I thought it was about a black horse. But then towards the end of the show I recognized two more, and also realized that to enjoy ballet you have to pay attention to the synchronicity between movement and music. Once I started doing that I began to enjoy it more.
Then I walked a mile to the Cafe Pushkin, the most exclusive restaurant in Moscow, but it had some affordable items and I got away with only tipping like 6 dollars, as my meal was about 46. I saw two Bentleys, one nice new Ferrari, and one new Rolls, so there were important people there, just as the book said. The quality of appetizer, non-alcoholic beverages, and especially the main course were wonderful.
St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow Red Square
I’m writing this on my final train trip, from Moscow to St. Petersburg. There are three other people this time. This time they are all males and each speaks English. In fact, one of them is an American, a guy who works for Vanguard in Philadelphia. I remarked that sounds like an impressive job but he said it’s not as impressive as it sounds and the people do not get paid what they get in the finance industry companies in New York. He is here on a volunteer trip, to chaperone a bunch of high school students who are at a summer camp in Russia or something. He looks familiar, and also he appears to be Jewish. The other two guys are Russian. One of them looks like my stepfather, and for some reason he is not here right now. I wonder where he is right now? it’s not like there are a lot of places to go to on this train. Theoretically he could be in the bathroom for all this time but what exactly would he do there? And I know he’s not in there since I just went inside and the bald tall man who was playing a game on his feature phone was not inside. I found out from the fourth dude that he was likely in a different train number. There are sixteen trains. Each ticket has a train number, and by that it means the entire train, a car number, of which this particular one is 14, and compartment number, which is a bit misleading since the third number refers to the bed in the compartment. I got lucky. So far I have been on the bottom bunk each time. And this time I am as well. So the chances of that happening are one in eight so it is lucky. Regarding the fourth gentleman, he is about my age, and is a medical engineer. And he speaks perfect English. As I told him when he remarked with false modesty how he is not a very good speaker, I”ve only encountered a single error on his part, which is that in reference to the notion that lung cancer may be caused by having bad air, it is discussable. I told him the correct word is debatable. But this man keeps talking to me and to the Vanguard guy from Philly. Right now I am writing so am trying to ignore him but the guy is being polite. While he was outside of the room asking the stewardess of the train whether he can have a glass in order so he can give me a glass of his beer in addition to a cucumber which his wife grew and macaroni salad which his wife made, in addition to a bread roll which I refused because I had just brushed my teeth. I did accept the beer, though. It is called Edelweiss. I mentioned that is a pun, trying to explain that Edelweiss is flower but here the weiss means white, i.e. a light beer, but I don’t think either he or the the other guy understood the pun or that I was attempting to make one, but rather commented more about how it is a light beer and stuff. I wonder if that is how people perceive my Instagram posts, my tweets, my puns about the vacation and my Lenin meme; not as if I am trying to be funny, but as if I am making a sincere comment about something. Maybe they just do not understand mean and that is why I”ve had minimal response to my social communications. I find that a bit upsetting. Before I go to bed when I am in my hotel, I spend some time posting to the social web and am always so proud of the humor which I produce, quite sure that no one else in the world has done it. Kind of like how I feel so good when it is obvious that I am the only person in the world who wears one of those furry Russian hats with a hammer and sickle insignia on it which Nikolai Volkoff wore to the Kremlin in summer. It was not hot at all; the quality of the fur and wool is so poor that it does not keep me warm.
Today I went with Leah (I learned today the guide’s name) to a few souvenir shops and saw a furry hat and a peaked cap each priced about ten times what I paid for them, so it is either that they are simply trying to rip off tourists, or because the expensive ones are real and the cheap ones which I purchased are fake. Just as it made me feel good when Katya told me I was probably one of only about 100 Americans in Belarus when I was there; it makes me feel rare and special and in some way like a famous person. Ordinarily when someone is a foreigner the country’s citizens may view the person as somewhat of an annoyance, the type of person who takes a long time on line when attempting to buy water without gas because he or she cannot explain in the foreign language that he doesn”t want any damn gas. But I think as an American, especially one in a country where they are so uncommon, it is not like that. Nor is it a novelty; it is like someone who comes from a place which represents success, freedom, the envy of the world, has chosen to come to their shitty country, they hold an American like me in high regard, as a special kind of person. It could be that is only in my head, though. The medical engineer is still talking now to the volunteer even while the guy who looks like James Carville is apparently attempting to sleep on the top bunk above him. I bet the Philly dude wants to ask him to get the hell off but he is too polite. I think it’s got nothing to do with politeness, I just think he does not have the balls to tell him to get off, because it is 1:15AM. They are talking about Georgia, which is interesting because this is where I ate lunch today. He is talking about how the Caucasus Mountains make it so the climate is great so they have the best wine in the world. Now they are talking about what are his remaining plans for his trip, which is always a boring conversation, and even more boring if you are not partaking in it. Today I packed my stuff and was about to check out before getting into the van, but I found out they paid for another day for me. That made me relieved because less of a rush, but it upsets me because I paid for two hotels for July 25. So I put my suitcase back in my room.
We went first to Lenin’s Mausoleum. There was a line, but Lena waited on it and allowed me to observe the eternal flame and the changing of the guards which happens once an hour. Before entering the mausoleum I gave her my hat, smartphone, and camera, so this way I’d get in earlier, without the guards needing to observe the contents of my pockets. There were a couple of guards. They kept shushing us, but the shushing was likely directed towards the July Umbrella crowd, which is how I refer to middle aged hand-holding Japanese or Chinese tourist groups who always use umbrellas even if there is no rain. The guards also told us how to posture ourselves. The mostly Asians who were touring it bowed but I didn’t. Maybe it was out of respect for communism which influenced their country. It was cool to see but not much to it. I toured the GUM Department Store, a huge mall filled with mostly high classed shops like Gucci, and they also had an Apple store, which was ironic because all these communists were buried across the square but this mall is the bastion of capitalism. Also on the side of the mausoleum was the Kremlin wall, where there are buried Brezhnev, Stalin himself, and Yuri Gagarin. I didn’t see Gagarin, though; no guide was with me and it would’ve been too time consuming to try and parse every Cyrillic grave.
St. Basil’s Cathedral obviously offered good photo taking spots, and I also went inside and paid extra to be able to photograph the interior. I think I went to every room but am not positive. My legs were sore due I think to still being ill so I just could not endure so much standing in one place. Walking is more tolerable than standing; I wonder if standing offers any exercise benefits. The interior I thought was not as impressive as the cathedrals inside the Kremlin walls but at least I could use a camera. I asked one woman to photograph me but she thought I wanted to take a photo of her so she posed, apparently not minding too much. But her mom
figured out my gestures.
After touring the parts of Red Square we went to the Tretyakov Gallery which is mostly a portrait gallery, featuring exclusively Russian artists from the 1700′s on. I have not heard of any of them. I thought I’d heard of Ivanov but realized that is an exceedingly common name, as it literally means Johnson. The art reminded me of the National Portrait Gallery in London, because so much of the art were paintings of people. The most impressive ones had studies, which mean paintings of a certain part of it, and not all were finished. There were some which were huge and colorful, and like at St Basil’s by paying some extra dough I was authorized to take photos. I took many and plan to Google them when I return. Some were of Catherine the Great. One was of Ivan the Terrible killing his son then regretting it. There were a few of some famous Russian writers such as Tolstoy.
We then took a Metro Tour, which was on the itinerary but I did not think much of it; essentially this is a tour just by hopping on the metro and going to some stations which have worthwhile to see mosaics and architecture and sculptures. The highlight was one of them where there were mosaics across the platform’s entire ceiling spanning Russian History up until their defeat of Germany after WWII.
Then we had lunch at a Georgian restaurant called Genatsvale and it was good and some of the music I really dug. One thing I like about being in Russia is the ability to have cuisine from the Stans, which for the most part is not possible in NYC, as far as I know. After lunch we went to the Arbat Street to buy souvenirs and I photographed lots of US food and store brand names in Cyrillic such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Subway, Dunkin Donuts and Wendy’s. I bought my dad a Faberge egg which is red for ruby like his birthstone and for my coworker a keychain with Russia on it, so it was a success. The egg is decorative so I think my stepmother will like it.
I went to the Torture Museum which I liked but wish had more English, and wished the movie was in English. They played this reel of movie images cycling between execution scenes, such as Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn. I don’t see why death penalty is considered torture. One movie is of some government official of some place killing a dude by turning a strangler machine to break his neck. It is called a garrote and it takes place in Fascist Franco’s Spain. The prisoner is the Nazi Zoeller from Inglorious Basterds. It looks torturous but is likely quick.
I snapped a few photos with my phone but the guy came downstairs because I suppose they have video cameras there. When I left he allowed me to photograph manacles, but he insisted that he be the one to snap the pic. They had stuff down there such as anal pear (which I recently tweeted should be the method of punishment of the Aurora machine gunner James Holmes), the rack, chastity belts, lots of nooses, and an electric chair. I said goodbye to Lena and tipped her 1500 roubles. I am not sure that was sufficient because she did not walk me to the Torture Museum but she said thank you and seemed sincere. I had dinner at a place called 5 o clock cafe where fortunately my food took an hour so had a lot of time to fiddle with free Wi-Fi.
Last tour of Moscow I went to the Sanduny Baths, which had lots of wealthy looking people there (a Bentley was parked outside) and they also offered food and drinks. People would sit in towels and eat. The sauna itself felt like 140 degrees and it was difficult to breathe. It felt 10 degrees hotter than the one in Turkey, and on the way out, when I was approaching the source of the heat, it was 150 degrees. I wish I’d brought my thermometer to verify that. I am glad I conquered my fear of it. Then when I got outside I dipped into a freezing tub of water and it felt good. I was supposed to do it over and over but had enough and the time to meet the driver was approaching.
Just bought a Snickers bar for nearly two dollars. I did not have a real dinner, only an ice cream cone and can of coke. I am being frugal because I feel like I”ve been spending a lot of money. The train arrived and a dude drove me to the hotel where I left my luggage and changed, and met my new and final guide, who is so far my least favorite because she seems to be all about making sure we abide by the schedule, and also she seems to push me towards souvenir shops. In today’s case that was acceptable, since I got something a purple Faberge egg, postcards, and a new peaked cap which is gray with a red ribbon. It was twice the price of the green one but I want to maximize the number of costumes I wear in photos. It is tight, because it is the only size they had. And the driver and the salesman said it is supposed to be tight, but when I took it off it appeared like someone added a crease to my forehead with a sharp metal object. It felt like someone wrapped a guitar G string around my head. So I”ll bring it along and will wear in photos, and maybe that will be the one I wear to work. I now have lots of souvenirs, especially hats, none of which is appropriate for ordinary American wear.
I like the way St. Petersburg is laid out. The main street which goes horizontally in the middle of the city, Prospect Ave., is one of the most famous streets in the world, and the most famous one in Russia. it’s got lots of old buildings and palaces, and crosses a number of canals. My hotel, Nevsky Contour, is conveniently located in the middle of Prospect St. which is good, but the Wi-Fi here does not work. They told me the SSID is Contour88 but it shows up on neither my Bionic nor my Tab. There is one which
works only on the smartphone, but only enough to send a single email. Along the avenue were a couple of Wi-Fi hotspots but they were unreliable. I don’t think I”ll be taking the metro much here, if at all, due to the proximity of so much stuff to Prospect Ave and the ability to navigate around thanks to that. But I think it
is a very large city. It could be that it is square, unlike Manhattan which is rectangular.
The hotel I am at does not have A/C, just a fan. I”ve not used one of those since Holiday Bungalow or Camp Hatikvah. But I am using it now because it is warm and there is no AC. The cover fell off so it’s not covered, and I recall back when I was a kid all of us were all about stopping fans with our hands.
Today was mostly about panoramic tour; we did not go inside much. This part of the tour upsets me because they do not guide me the whole time. My tour today ended
at 1. It was supposed to end at 1:30 but Anna insisted it end at 1 because we started at 9. That in and of itself makes me feel like not tipping her. That and the fact that I feel I’ve been spending enough money and am sick of using the ATM and paying that persistent foreign ATM fee. We went to see the outside of the Winter Palace in the Hermitage, which was built for Elizabeth I, Peter the Great‘s daughter, and it’s got thousands of doors and windows, hundreds of rooms, and is a priceless turquoise institution.
We went to the Peter and Paul Fortress which was the cornerstone of the city built in 1703 and recently commemorated its tricentennial, where some Romanov dynasty heirs were present. All four children and the wife of the last Romanov tsar Nicholas II were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 but the Romanovs alive today have ancestors who were dukes, i.e. Brothers and sisters of tsars. In the fortress was a church in which are buried lots of tsars. It is cool for me to photograph graves of famous people, I am just into that. I think by this point, by going to three cemeteries and churches, I”ve seen most of Russia’s tsars and premieres. They had a few family tree diagrams which I wanted to research on Wikipedia but there’s no good internet in here. Maybe take it outside and use a Wi-Fi somewhere along the Prospect. A couple of the graves, one of tsar and his wife, are made of rare stone, one red and one blue.
Then we went to buy souvenirs and then to the hotel. Later I walked along the Prospect by myself and took a few photos with the zoom lens, and then went for a cruise in
a Boat Tour down the Neva River, going under lots of bridges. They were low, so if you stood up you’d get knocked into the water. I didn”t listen to the Russian guide nor even follow along in an English guide given to both me and the Italians sitting next to me; I was all about the pictures. It is a beautiful city. Then I walked to the end of the Prospect to find an amazing United Buddy Bears exhibit of 222 bears, one representing each country in the world. I did not see Israel’s but they were arranged alphabetically, at least the Cyrillic alphabet. They were amazingly done, presumably done by an artist who lives in each country. Each bear’s design had something to do with the county in which the bear was painted. I went to a publoc bathroom nearby and it was a paid one; 50 roubles at that, which is over a dollar. To use the toilet! Also, I went to the Kazan Cathedral and went inside. Some Christian dude told me not to take photos, or to use flash, or something bossy like that. He was a tourist,
not an official of the church museum.
State Hermitage Winter Palace
Today I was picked up and taken to the State Heritage Museum and Winter Palace, the top Lonely Planet activity of Eastern Europe. It is bigger than Buckingham Palace and is turquoise. Each room is very large and elaborately decorated. And each one has stuff in it, essentially art and ancient objects. Each room has a theme. Anna took me to about 40 rooms so we saw maybe 5% of the Heritage and only a small portion of the Winter Palace part of it. The Winter Palace is the turquoise one and various Heritage buildings connect to it. We got in immediately despite there being a line because we had tickets. I’m feeling better, except for a runny nose, lots of sniffling, and sometimes I cough phlegm, reminiscent of my illnesses as a first year yeshiva student in Israel. The first day I began to feel unwell was when I saw that open air museum in Pyrohiv, it being difficult to walk due to soreness and quite unpleasant standing in one place. Could it be due to the fact that the prior day I visited Chernobyl? I wonder. Maybe I have some kind of cancer, although what? I cannot think of anything in testicular.
The walking and standing did not bother me much today, and we were in the Heritage for a while. Its contents are comparable to the Met but they have much more as it is a bigger space. And you are allowed to take photos, even flash ones unless there is a sign, as there was by a mummy, which makes it superior to the Met. It is also superior because the room and building architecture itself is worth looking at. This was a palace, so made for Romanov royalty, and it contains a throne and stuff. It also has two Leonardo da Vinci paintings Madonna Litta and Benois Madonna, and the artist only has 14 in the world. it’s got two paintings by Raphael Sanzio, The Holy Family and Madonna and Child. We looked at a Goya and three Velazquezes but didn”t spend time in the Dutch rooms looking and Rembrandts and Reubenses. One of the Rembrandts, the last he ever painted, is one of the centerpieces of the Hermitage. The museum also has the largest vase in the world, which weighs over a million pounds. And it’s got a clock made of bronze which is reminiscent of the automatons featured in that film Hugo 3D.
After I ate at Stolle where I had meat pies and dumplings and the food was quite good. Anna told me likely tomorrow there will be another guide since she has a medical emergency so tomorrow she’ll likely go to the hospital. So I tipped her 20 bucks or so, in that there will likely be another guide. I went then to the St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I realized when I read about the place in Lonely Planet that climbing 300 steps of the Colonnade is recommended to get great panoramic shots of Leningrad, and I did not do that. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the interior of it and we were allowed to use our flash cameras. It is the most lavish, colorful, sumptuous, elegant religious institution. On the outside it resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow but on the inside it is so enjoyably beautiful to stare it.
Then I went to the Retro Automobile Museum which I remembered being mentioned either in Lonely Planet or on TripAdvisor, and it is a dingy building which has maybe 50 cars, many of which were manufactured in the Soviet Union, I think. I did not really enjoy myself there.
Then I went to change, on the way passing the amazing church to look at, The Church of the Spilled Blood, TripAdvisor marks it higher than St. Isaacs. Anna told me if I visit St. Isaacs it will seem superfluous to visit Church of Spilled Blood. The outside of it is amazing, second only in beauty to St. Basils. I went to Burger King where the people serving were just ordinary Russians, as opposed to being Russian version of minorities in NYC, Asians from the Stans. I have a feeling in Russia it’s not as stigmatizing to work at McDonalds or Burger King. They had a speedy Wi-Fi there so maybe I will go there tomorrow just to take advantage of it. At this point not even my smartphone gets the hotel ZyXEL connection, not even intermittently.
After BK and changing into more appropriate attire, I went to the Mikhaylovsky Theatre to watch the three act ballet Don Quixote. It was more of luxurious place than the one I went to in Moscow, and the quality and difficulty were higher. It has lots of music which sounded like it was influenced by Spanish music, as one would expect. I paid more attention to the types of moves the men and women did. Also I focused on the synchronicity. None of the music is familiar to me but the orchestra was flawless and the acoustics were great. My orchestra seat cost even less than the one in Moscow, which is good. It was packed with people. We got a ticket for me in a similar fashion to the way I got a ballet ticket in Moscow; she called someone and I went to pick it up and pay cash. One thing about this ballet – someone slipped. That must have been embarrassing. But they got a great applause.
After I went to check what time the Vodka Room opens, and I plan on eating there tomorrow night. Part of the dining experience is a guided visit to their vodka museum, which has now 200 different types of vodkas and each guest is allowed to taste three. I asked if there is any way I can taste six and she said yes, just a few hundred more roubles.
I went to Peterhof Palace today, which was built starting in 1712 for Peter I, Peter the Great. The interior was, if possible, more lavish than the Winter Palace. First thing in the morning I walked to the cafe next door and no one was there. I saw some woman sitting in one of the outdoor chairs yesterday so I did the same. There was a mild internet connection so I was able to play a few games of Words and able to synch my notes. Then I went to the most decent spot for Wi-Fi connection, sitting on one of the steps outside my hotel room. The woman today told me she’d call tech support that’d try and fix the internet today but it still does not show up as a Wi-Fi zone; the net ID Contour88 just does not appear. I saw her walk into a room which is presumably the internet server room and maybe she rebooted it but nothing has fixed the issue.
Peterhof is in one of Leningrad’s suburbs, about 25 miles away. One interesting thing I saw on the way was a very modern architecturally structured building, which looks like it could have been built by IM Pei; it is called Baltic Pearl, and I believe it is apartments.
At Peterhof I quickly grabbed a bite and waited for my new guide, whose name is also Anna, got my ticket. The prior Anna had to go to the hospital or something. Peterhof had each room sumptuously decorated with things like vases, furniture, clocks, silk wallpaper, carved wooden walls, and so on. They disallowed us to use cameras, and as soon as I surreptitiously whipped out my smartphone in order to take a silent photo in that way, the lady saw me. Anna told me that if the staff sees me photograph something, even with a phone, they may take it out on her, so I stopped. The place is divided into a female half and a male half and each are decorated according to the gender. One of my favorite rooms was one of the first we saw, which is some sort of ballroom, which is colored mint with red trimming, and photos of the royal family in the 18th century. Anna told me the mansion / palace was indeed bombed during the 850 plus day Siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany from 1941-1944, but most of it has been reconstructed. I asked her how anyone knew how to build things in those old styles, and she told me that master craftsmen of these old classical, romantic, and baroque genres indeed exist. You would not know looking at the walls and stuff that any reconstruction happening. Yet it is still going on, meaning for over 70 years. We had to wear special slippers provided by the museum. I guess they don’t want folks trailing in dog poop.
One of my favorite rooms in the palace I think was called the Chinese Lobby, and it was a smaller room, meaning the decorations and furniture stood out more. There is also one room which covers every inch of the wall with old portraits. Peterhof is not as much of an art museum as Hermitage but in terms of the building itself, if you really want to look at the inside and the outside of a palace, it is in the same ballpark as Winter Palace, but I think a bit smaller. It is yellow, as opposed to turquoise. There were a lot of people, but that did not matter much in the inside, as photos were forbidden.
Around the Peterhof were beaches, and we took good shots. I was inspired by the photo-taking of two young gals who leaned over the rail, swung her arm out, and so on. I have been often aping the photograph-posing positions of other people. I did it regarding a fountain also. In addition to a building, Peterhof has an exquisite garden with lots of different fountains; each named something else based on what it looks like. So in the Pyramid Fountain, I aped a guy who was photographed apparently trying to hold up the pyramid.
After Peterhof I was driven to the metro and began to rely on that. It is not as useful because Nevsky Prospekt traverses much of the three miles of the city, cut exactly horizontally down the middle. But I am glad that I learned a bit about how the subway works here. Similar to Moscow in terms of it having numbered trains each with a different color, kind of like NYC but there’s no concept of express vs. Local. And there are fewer trains and stops. It is easy when you reach a junction of more than one train to find the train to which you will be transferring, because it is all a color-coded system.
I went to the Alexander Nevsky cemetery and saw the graves of famous men and women of the arts in Russia, including Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They had a handy chart nearby which lists all souls in Cyrillic ABC order and showed you exactly where the grave is. It’s called the Necropolis of Masters of the Arts; famous Russian artists and musicians are buried there.
I am about to go to the Vodka Room, and to celebrate my birthday which is tomorrow I plan to do two degustations of vodka tasting, meaning shots of six different type of vodkas. They have over 200; the Lonely Planet guide says they have 140. Tomorrow morning I am on my own and want to go up the colonnade at the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, visit the Church of Spilled Blood, and see if there as any museum which shows Russian state history. I want to get an amber necklace or bracelet as a souvenir. I also need to mail my postcards and to ask if there is any bit of bureaucracy I must do as part of the visa process; the Lonely Planet guide insisted there is a form to fill out which must be returned to the immigration control officers in the airport, but as of now I do not possess such a form.
Today I am writing on my birthday and I just got back from the Vodka Room Museum where I IM’d and text messaged some people. I am chomping on my third Snickers Bar of the week, so I will owe my hotel 7 or 8 dollars in USD. That is not a problem, because at the Vodka Room I do not believe I received all the food which I ordered, and they allowed me to pay by credit card, so at this moment now, before the morning when I am about to leave, I own about 2000 roubles, which is like 70 dollars. I
will give 1000 to the driver, which still leaves me with somewhat of a surplus. I did go finally to the Vodka Room on today, my 36th birthday, and am now a bit tipsy.
Today I woke up on the late side, at 10AM, but fortunately they were not scheduled to meet me until the afternoon. I myself went to the Ethnography Museum which allowed photography of things such as dioramas of villagers from various other places such as presumably the Stans. The Museum’s centerpiece was a Hall of Oddities, established by Peter I the Great himself (this was the first museum in St. Petersburg). It features conjoined twin fetuses, abnormalities in the skull such as a fetus with a brain but missing head, Cyclopes, and other stuff. The staff there insisted no photos and they were pretty adamant and watchful so I did not even dare to attempt to snap one with my smartphone. But the guide said she’ll send me some.
Right next to that museum is one next door, the Museum of Zoology. I liked it better than the one of Natural History. Flash photography was permitted. The highlight was a very large mammoth; they have an entire section dedicated to mammoths. They also had pretty displays of insects such as butterflies and beetles, allowing me to make one final Lenin pun. I saw there a zoobr. The parrots’ cage was also pretty. Many of the animals were stuffed. One thing this museum lacked, when compared to the AMNH in NYC, is dioramas of the animals” habitats. I liked the layout; they just packed lots of animals together so it was a real feast for the eyes.
Then I clambered to the top of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral and counted 263 steps. It is mostly a spiral staircase, with the final 50 or so steps straight up to the top part. We technically are not on the tippity top of the church but we are close to it. I just got a colonnade ticket which is cheaper. The views from there are very panoramic. One person I asked to photograph me seemed pretty competent. A lot of the ones I asked in the museums were not competent, though. I did not have time to visit the interior of the Church of the Savior of Saved Blood, so I plan to post some photos of it to Pinterest.
One thing I like about this city is the bus public transportation system. The buses cost 23 roubles and you just pay in coins, and can even pay in bills and immediately get your change. No token system, which is good for tourists. You board the back of the bus and a lady comes to collect fare and gives you a receipt. I took only
one train because most of them go to where I did not need to go. You do not see the train when it arrives- for some reason it is hidden behind a column with doors
which open when the train arrives.
United Buddy Bears exhibit
I have about 1900 photos, about 700 of which are raw. Add to that 250 or so from my phone and it means it will be a nightmare post-processing experience, but at least this time I did not triplicate photos like I did last year and in 2009, which means the jpgs and raws will be distinguishable. I chose to shoot in raw only if there was potential for high dynamic range of exposure, or when the photo looked like it’d look good after being passed through Photomatix, e.g. Colorful ones. So I hope it won”t be as bad as last year. I just took a snapshot of my two flash cards and realize how critical they are. it’s kind of ironic that in this cloud connected time I still rely so heavily on physical media, but it’s obvious as to why; because they contain important raw data and it’s not practical for the shots to be instantaneously saved to the cloud. One backup system would”ve been to have brought along a flash reader and use an internet cafe to store the up-to 12 gigs somewhere, maybe Drive offers that type of storage, or maybe divide into a few gigs in Drive, a few on Dropbox, and so forth. But already I”m in the mode of keeping watch on physical things such as my wallet, passport, smartphone, tablet, and souvenirs, so if I am to be already vigilant that would extend to the camera and the two flash cards nearly completely filled. Onto the plane I will take the camera, keyboard, tablet, and two flash cards.
The dude Sasha picks me up in two hours so I”ll go outside to get an internet connection at the next door cafe and play my turn in Words and post some more stuff to Instagram. I better ask the receptionist to give me some form which I need to show to some immigration officers in the airport. I suppose there they will also look at my visa, which has not happened yet since I arrived here from Belarus.
At the Vodka Room I had a museum guide who showed me the history of Russian Vodka through the years, from before the time of Peter I up until modern times. I saw photos of Nixon and Khrushchev drinking together, Gorby, Yeltsin and Putin, along with a bar that has the largest collection of vodkas, 240 to be exact. But it’s not like in the tasting you choose from all of those, but at the restaurant you can choose them. I did enjoy the pine nuts one which was the second 50 ml shot in my degustation. Even though I paid for 2 degustations, each was identical in terms of the vodka they supplied me to taste. There were also three snacks, a rye cracker
of herring, pig lard, and small dill pickle.
Natasha took me in the afternoon to Pushkin town, which is the same as the town of Tsarskoye Selo, which means tsar’s village. It was similar to Peterhof in terms of there being a magnificent castle. This one looked on the outside like the Winter Palace, the same turquoise, but inside they let us take pictures. There were dining rooms which I liked a lot, one painted mint green and one painted red. There were also impressive delft stoves. The most glorious room, in which cameras were forbidden, was the Amber room, which is decorated along every wall with different shades of amber, some rare. That is where I bought an amber necklace. I told the lady that it feels like plastic, but she told me amber is not a stone; it is tree gum sap resin so it should not feel like a stone. On the outside, the Catherine’s Palace and Gardens had lots of nice views of the river, fountains, and sculptures and statues. The past three days seem to be blending into each other in my mind, especially Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace. Towards the end my guide took me into a room with very good acoustics and I listened to a choir and it sounded magnificent. They sold CD’s afterwards but I explained to my guide that the acoustics would just not sound as good if I play it on my home stereo so there’s no point. I videotaped them with my camera, the second video I took on the trip. The first was of the lady talking about the history of vodka in that museum.
All in all this has been my favorite trip ever. It paid to use private tour guides. It made stress essentially absent, and I do not have to worry about lugging a heavy suitcase. The cost of it all, including souvenirs and food and flight and transportation and hotels and guidance was about 10,000$. I”m glad I utilized Facebook and Instagram to occasionally post some photos to remind people where I was but wish I had more feedback as opposed to the inevitable empty, easy birthday wishes unleashed on me over the past day.
Winter Palace Interior