Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ending with the Russian Capitals

Folks, it's over. I've finished my journey and am back home again, and you probably guessed I've been a little busy and so my last update is coming several weeks after the end of my trip. But better late than never, I always say. The last couple of weeks in Russia were less of a wild adventure - I crossed into the European part of the country, and things definitely got more developed. People were just a bit blonder and the food options were a bit more varied (try Georgian food if you get a chance), and best of all I got restocked with clean clothes that did NOT include my torn up hiking pants.

I spent a few days in the Golden Ring area not far from Moscow. This is a bunch of small towns that were originally the seat of the leaders of Russia, before Russia was a country. Now the towns are known for their historic quaintness and their wealth of colorful, onion-domed churches and monasteries, of which I saw more than I can count in Vladimir, Suzdal and Sergiev Posad. I sampled medovukha, the local specialty brew made from honey, and wandered through the gorgeous countryside.

Moscow was not what I would call a particularly charming city, but it wasn't as bad as some other communist capitals. The highlight for me was the stunning St. Basil's Cathedral, a Disney-esque explosion of multi-colored onion domes, plopped right at one end of Red Square, which also features dead Lenin (a disturbing and waxy sight - see him while you can, as they are considering burying him in a few years) and the graves of Stalin and many others of his cohorts, and borders the biggest and swankiest mall in the city on one side and the Kremlin on the other. After repeated warnings about the police and the scams they like to pull on tourists, we were impressed by how many of them were around but they did leave us alone.

We stopped in Novgorod on the way up north, mainly the site of more churches, including the one that started the onion-dome trend way back when.

Two overnight trains in a row and a round trip hydrofoil ride took us to the island of Kizhi, in the far north of Russia, where the second (and sometimes first) language is Finnish. Perhaps the finest wooden church in Russia is located there, and although I was a bit "churched out" and didn't expect to be very impressed, I must admit, it was breathtaking. Returning to the nearby city of Petrozavodsk for our train, we decided we had to try the local "tex-mex" restaurant out of sheer curiosity. Aside from surprisingly good food, they had a hilarious English menu including such gems as "The United States is famous for the skills to cook fast... Attention! Fast food can lead to unexpected death! Bon appetit!!". Between our scantily clad waitress and the offensive and definitely un-PC place-mats featuring crack dealers in Tijuana, we laughed all the way through dinner.

And of course the one-time capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, was the most charming city I saw in the country. This is not entirely surprising, as Peter the Great, its founder, went to Europe and attempted to bring back European customs and ideas to Russia, basing the design of his city on them. So it's not quite such broad avenues and boxy buildings as the other Russian cities are. There is an amazing food scene - we came to think sushi was actually more Russian than borsch - and of course the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov), where I talked D. into sitting through both an opera and a ballet. We spent the better part of the day at the Hermitage, a place I had always heard about when reading about and visiting other countries, because I had often seen the reference: "this piece is now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg." So it was a treat to finally see where all those works and artifacts had been collected. We also spent a day wandering the gardens of Petrodvorets, which houses a palace and several smaller buildings formerly used by the Russian royalty.

St. Petersburg was a city where I could have enjoyed spending a full week or more, with a wealth of museums, from famous to obscure (they have one with a collection of two-headed fetuses and children's arms and heads tied up with lace and preserved in jars, and another in which they have whole woolly mammoths that they dug out of the Siberian ice, and yet another we didn't visit that houses Rasputin's reputedly mammoth penis), plenty of cultural activities, and excellent food options. Plus the metros in St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were built to double as bomb shelters, so they have the deepest escalators I've ever seen! Although people were not friendly, and we got a ticket on the first day for bringing our luggage onto the metro without paying extra, it was a fun and very charming city to visit.

And that about wraps it up. Russia far exceeded expectations, and although I was nervous about visiting it, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it now that I've been there, though learning the language would be infinitely helpful if you are going to the eastern part of the country. You'll be hearing from me once more when I get my photos online, which might be a while, but the travel stories are going to be quite a lot calmer from now on, as I buckle down to my studies Thanks for tuning in, and I hope I've inspired some of you to go out and see someplace you've never been before.

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Adventure map for 2009...