As everyone knows Russia is one massive country, which means there is a lot to see and therefore a lot to write about. The Russian section of our travel was something we had planned and looked forward to before we had even left Australia, as we had to organise our visa and train travel for specific dates. This meant we had plenty of time to think about it, and get worried about all the evils of big bad Russia. In the end some of the things we worried most about, dodgy people, crime and getting lost, didn’t prove to be an issue. But some of the other things we hadn’t considered did make the country one of our least favourite on our journey so far. In particular the quality and price of food and accommodation left a lot to be desired, plus we found it hard to meet people, as they all seemed rather closed. Although this last point maybe due more to a communication problem, as English is not big here compared to any other country we have travelled. These issues weren’t quite as bad in Moscow and St Petersburg, which is what we will concentrate on for the first part of the Russia blog, but they did start to rear their ugly head.
As we arrived in St Petersburg on an overnight train from Latvia, we were pretty tired when we pulled up about 7am. We had got some sleep, but it was quite broken due to the jolting of the train mixed in with the border crossing. The border wasn’t too bad and was only an hour or so wait on either side, but at about 2am it is not the most fun. When we arrived we quickly witnessed the unhelpful and unorganised nature of Russia, which seemed to stick with us for the entire journey, when trying to buy tokens for the Metro (after eventually finding the entry for it). At first the automated token machine broke down, so we had to wait in a queue that was massive. Upon reaching the front we discovered they could not give change for the big Rouble notes we had just got from the ATM, so had to go back and buy something from a shop to have change. Then as we waited in the queue another line opened up, there was no order whatsoever as people pushed and shoved to get into the new queue. All probably normal things in everyday Russian life, but for us without a lot of sleep and not understanding the language it was all a little unsettling.
Pelmeni – Russian Dumplings, done right they are delicious
After those initial worries we managed to find our hotel without too many problems, with all the Metro stops here having Latin text along with the Cyrillic (which we later found wasn’t the case in Moscow). After a bit of a walk around the local area we eventually found a pizza place that had pictures in their menu so that we could order food. We went for a salad and pasta, deciding when we finished that maybe we should have stuck with pizza as that was what they must do best. After having a few more meals in Russia we decided maybe it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference, as the food standards here were pretty average and yet rather pricey. In saying that we did have some of our best Russian meals in St Petersburg. In particular there was a mono-cuisine place near our hotel called Pelmeni, which is named after the Russian style dumpling they specialise in. They did a range of dumplings from various countries, all well-made and tasty. We also went to Zoom Café and a central Asian place that specialised in Shishalik that were both quite nice, but still far from standout on our travels as a whole.
Palace Square, St Petersburg. With Alexanders Column
St Petersburg in general is one quite spectacular city and for all the places we went in Russia was probably worth the trouble we went to to secure a visa and travel there the most. It is very European in its architecture and easily competes with any of the other great old cities we have been to, like Vienna, Budapest or Krakow. There are spectacular churches and palaces, but even just the normal streets around the central Nevsky Prospect area are all amazing. Built on canals there are lots of wide areas for viewing the long streets of architecture and with the Neva River you get a good view of the cityscape from either side. Of note were the Church on the Saviour of Spilled Blood (similar to St Basils in Moscow), Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peters Basilica in Rome (Vatican City) and St Isaacs’s cathedral which gives a great panorama view of the city from its tower. Add to this Palace Square, with the Winter Palace, Alexander’s Column and the General Staff Buildings and you have some real special buildings to view all in quite a small area. There are so much more too.
Matisse’s “Music” at the Hermitage
The added benefit of the Winter Palace is that is part of the home of one of the greatest museum collections in the world, the Hermitage. Being part of the palace that both Peter and Catherine the Great (whose collections started the hermitage) spent their winters there are rooms in the palace that warrant a visit on their own. Add on top of this an absolutely amazing array of some of the world’s best art and you can see why they say people can spend months here and still not see everything. Highlights for us were the State Rooms (the epitome of opulence), ancient Greek statues (including one by Michael Angelo), ancient art from around the world, but above all the enormous array of famous paintings by artists who are household names. Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael and Da Vinci were only some of the huge collection that was just brilliant to see.
St Basils Cathedral – understandably one of Russia’s most recognised landmarks
Moving from the beauty of St Petersburg we then headed to the behemoth of a city that is Moscow. Again it was an overnight train so we were a bit wiped on arrival. Our hostel here took us an hour or so to find, as it was un-signposted and was actually in an apartment block. They must have just converted and apartment into the hostel and our guess is they don’t want the government to know that is the case. Maybe the most budget hostel we have ever stayed in as was very dirty and small, but for Russia the price was good and the location was awesome. We were only a few minutes’ walk from Red Square which is the central point of the city and where a lot of the tourist attractions are located. On our second day we headed out for a free walking tour and got to get a good little bit of basic history and also orientate ourselves with the Red Square area that includes St Basils Cathedral, GUM Department Store, Lenin’s Mausoleum, The Kremlin and the Natural History Museum. In particular St Basils is one cool church. We didn’t make it inside, but from outside it is just one special building and is obvious why it is one of the most famous landmarks of Russia.
Some of the churches in the Kremlin
After the tour we picked out a few other spots to go, with the Kremlin being the other must see locale. It was a bit of a queue to get tickets, but once inside it was well worth a look, although a bit different than we had expected. When you hear about the Kremlin on the news you think of it like the parliament of Russia, something like the Beehive in NZ or Parliament House in Australia. But it is so much more than that. Being the heart of old Moscow for 100s of years it is where the Tsars and aristocracy lived, within the protection of gated walls. This being the case it is actually full with old churches that, surprisingly, managed to survive the scourge of communism. The churches aren’t the flashest we have seen from the outside, but inside they are all quite well preserved. This meant we were able to get a good idea of Russian Orthodox religion and the make-up of the churches which was quite interesting and a bit different to other Christian churches we have seen.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
Being such massive cities it is hard to feel that we did either St Petersburg or Moscow proud in the 4 days we spent in each, but we did get a bit of a feeling for them. St Petersburg definitely has a bit more of an old time European feel to it, while Moscow is more what we thought Russian to be. In particular the disparity between poor and rich was super evident here, with Mercs and Volvos cruising around with tinted window and drivers, sharing the road with rusty old Ladas. Even in the restaurants we ate there was a bit of this, although in the areas we were there was nothing that a poor, or even a working class Russian, would entertain eating at. Some places were just ridiculous for the quality compared to price. Unfortunately it was well outside our budget to mix with the upper class side of things, but with the general cold feeling we got from people, who knows if we would want to. After doing the big cities, it was now time for us to hit the trains and head into deep dark Siberia. After these initial experiences we were a little worried, but also excited to get away from cities, as that had been all we had seen for the last couple of months and were definitely getting a bit sick of them. Maybe this was also part of the reason we had such negative feelings about Russia, and although I don’t think we will be back, it would be interesting to spend longer in both St P and Moscow to give them another chance.