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Michael’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 11 Jun 2006

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

MapEntry 37 - St. Petersburg & Novgorod (2nd June - 5th June)

Also, It is my birthday in an hour, polish time, and now in Australia, thanks for all that have sent messages, phone still recieves message too, just have trouble sending them with only half the alphabet to play with... Go socceroos. What a birthday I have lined up... watching socceroos and going to a Chopin recital... how un-Michael of me...

Here we go...Russia

Almost immediately it became obvious that we made the right choice in doing a tour of Russia rather than hiring a car and chancing it on our own. We stopped at a supermarket just prior to the Finland-Russian border to stock up on supplies, namely everybody grabbed a 6-pack of 1.5Lt water. Apparently the chemicals iin the Russian water are enough to make you pretty sick if you're not used to it - Cheyrnobl or something (kidding).

We moved on and almost immediately after leaving the supermarket we saw lines of trucks starting to line up to cross the border. It has been known to take up to a week to get clearance, and until recently the side of the road used to look like rubbish tip. Truckies literally living inside their cabins and throwing their trash out the windows.

The actual crossing of the border took us about an hour and a half, but Contik groups have taken up to 5 hours in the past. All military, police and government employed people on tour listed their occupations as teachers and unemployed were students just to have less questions asked. The majority of the time was spent organising the insurance for the coach which has to be arranged at the border. God only knows what it does or doesn't cover, but you have to have it before the vehicle is inspected and allowed to pass.

The weather was nice enough when we got into Russia, a little cold, but sunny anyway. We drove into St. Petersburg, mainly dozing in and out of consciousness, bar one exciting toilet break.

Within 10 minutes of reaching the city we were going the wrong way and pulled a u-turn in the coach. Firstly, the Contiki coach stands out on any road in the world, but throw it in Russia where car panels and bonnets are optional extras, it becomes very obvious. Drivers clean the bus exterior every day if necessary whilst on tour are instructed to leave the bus dirty to aid in blending in! Well, we stood out enough to be pulled over by the cops, and Paul our driver stepped out, and within 5 minutes had talked the Russian cops down from a €500 'fine' to a €10 'bribe'.

We stayed at the Palace of Youth Hotel. I'm gonna have to give a brief background here though - sorry, will try and keep it short, but everything about this country is incredibly fascinating, and given only 2% of visitors ever come back here, I dunno if I'll ever get a chance to do this trip again, so be prepared for info overload. Back in the communist days of Russia from 1919-91, the government went through some turbulent times (Lenin, Troitsky, Stalin, Molotov - as in cocktail - and Kruchev come to mind) and paranoia was wide spread. No-one was allowed to do anything out of the ordinary, shit, no-one was allowed in or out of the country, hence the term the Iron Curtain being used for so many years. To keep people 'happy' and more importantly to be aware of people's movements, huge hotels were built with all attractions housed within so you could take your family on holiday and never leave the building! Bars, restaurants, pool halls, mini-cinemas, bowling alley, night clubs, shooting range and a go-kart track. Safe to say we were actually a little excited about arriving, but we quickly figured out that Jacquie our Scandi tour manager had talked it up a little too much. The shooting gallery is like the sort at at a dodgy carnival, and the go-kart track looked like it was designed for 6-year olds... with down syndrome. But the pool tables were cool, and the bowling alley was nice, even if a liitle old. And the bars came in handy at the equivalent of $2.50AUD for a pint.

Straight away we headed out for the tour of St. Petersburg with our local guide Anna. We met our dodgy black market man who Joey our tour manager thoughtfully purchased a couple bottles of Vodka and a few cases of Champanski for us to drink, and get the two tour groups to mingle.

First stop, and thus first Champanski (and 2nd thru 4th) was made at the foot of the statue of Nicholas I, one of the former Russian szars. On the corner of the square was the Astoria Hotel, the hotel Hitler used when he was in St. Petersburg, and also the one he booked 3 weeks in advance for his victory celebration for conquering St. Petersburg... Only they never did conquer it, so the celebration never occurred. It is also not so well known as the hotel Clint took a piss in.

Most impressive though was St. Isaac's Cathedral on the north side of the square. It was a huge building, with pillars around supporting the roof, each pillar made of granite and weighing 120 tonne. Plus the dome of the Cathedral was covered in gilded gold. It was our first real look at just how much money there was (and again is now) in this old town.

The second stop, and our first introduction to polar bears (vodka and champanski) was at the point of the Vasilneyevskiy Island on the river Neva. St. Petersburg was formerly swamp land and is now a city situated on 43 islands, each connected by bridges, many of which are isolated between 1am and 5am when the bridges areraised to allow ships to pass through. The main attractions here were the Rostal Columns, looking across the Neva to The Hermitage Palace (man that place has a story) and more free drinks!

We headed back to the hotel, driving past other sites, feeling much more liquored up. Back at the hotel we made the most of the free pre-drinks and drank cheap Russian beer till the early hours of the morning, Clint having his biggest night to date, including a little pre-sleep, self-induced spew in attempt to feel better in the morning. At least we we really able to mingle with the rest of the other tour group.

The following morning, there were plenty of sorry and sick faces as we headed out to Peterhof Palace, the summer palace of Peter the Great.

Damn... This place is incredible. It was an hour and 20 minutes out of the city, and our guide was talking most of the way while people fought the urge to fall asleep after just a few hours sleep. It was then I decided to plan my Russian drinking to ensure I didn't miss any of the important and interesting information. The palace has an upper and lower garden, 100ha and 700ha in size respectively. The gardens are full of fountains, which actually use water from the Neva river, funneled directly into the fountains, then from the fountains into the Baltic Sea.

Afterwards we went into a practicing Russian orthodox church. There was actually a bunch of christenings going on in the church while we were there, so that was pretty cool. The walls and roof were incredibly well decorated with paintings and gold leaf.

Next stop was without exception the highlight of the day - The Stalingrad Memorial. In the centre of the memorial is a towering pillar, and at the base is broken ring signifying the end of the 900 day siege. You can actually walk under the ring, and on the inside of the ring there are a bunch of eternal flames, speakers playing a symphony composed during the siege. Underground there was a museum dedicated to the siege.

Quick (rough) History:
During WWII the German army tried to take Stalingrad (now St. Petersburg). For 900 days they essentially had the city surrounded, with no supplies getting into the city, and no gas, electricity or water. Temperatures in winter were the coldest on record and dropped to -50 degrees Celsius, and people were rationed just 125 grams of bread every day. After 900 days the siege ended.

Afterwards we headed into the city for some free time. We went to a restaurant for a nice pasta meal, for a reasonable price, but it took an hour and half from the time we were seated till we got our food.

Afterwards we walked around the city and took in the sights of the town including the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and the Church of Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

Afterwards we took a trip to a Folklore show.

After a long day, most of us were fighting sleep in our chairs, watching traditional dancing and music. That all changed when one of the girls came off the stage, walked ten rows back, then dragged me onto the stage. I had no choice but to keep the show going and joined in the folk dancing. Two other girls then went down, and dragged up 2 more guys, one of them another Contiki bloke. Given there were probably 500 people in the theatre, we were lucky to get two on stage... At least everyone stayed awake the rest of the show. At the 20 minute intermission, we were given free champanski, vodka and caviar! Three wines and three champanski in 20 minutes made the second half much more interesting! The only disappointing part was that they never really did the traditional dance where the guys squat and kick their legs out in front of them.

Afterwards we went and had a dinner at a restaurant called MuMu, home of beef stroganov, which was infact named after a Mr. Stroganov who first cooked - at least that's how the story goes. The Stroganov family were rich, and had their own palace in St. Petersburg prior to Nationalism.

The following morning Clint and I bought a case of vodka at just €3.5 a bottle. It should get us through the tour, and even part of our trip after the tour ends.

Our first stop for the day was at the Aurora cruiser, which is parked in the Neva River. The cruiser survived a number of war time battles, and was the ship that fired a blank from its primary cannon to signify the time that all of the raids were to occur as Bolshevik revolution started.

From there we went to the Faberge shop. Faberge is the name of the man who created the most incredible ornaments for the Romanov royal family. The most well known are the 52 Faberge Eggs that he made for the royal one Easter. The highlight though had to be the free vodka that they were supplying at 10am, but you had to pay for soft drinks - straight vodka it is.

For lunch we stopped at Maccas, to continue the streak of eating Maccas once (and no more where possible) in every country I visit.

Then came one of the more interesting parts of my St. Petersburg experience. I tried to buy a mobile phone to replace my broken Nokia. I found a new Nokia for just $90AUD outright, but it was locked to Russian sim cards only. It was an experience trying to talk technical with someone who spoke very little English.

From our lunch break and free time we headed to The Hermitage. This is apparently the biggest art gallery in the world, with 6 times as many pieces as The Lurve. Inside were works of art by Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, but we were one turtle short as I didn't site any works by Donetello! More impressive though was the fact that you got to walk around inside the palaces. The art collection was started by Catherine the Great who slept with over 300 men, and perhaps even a horse. As Catherine's art collection grew larger and larger, new palaces were constructed to house the art work. Between the 5 palaces there are over 500 rooms of art works. More impressive than the artwork were the palaces themselves. The rooms we huge, with incredibly beautiful decorations. One of the highlights was going into Catherine's former bedroom and finding she had mirrors hung on the ceiling! As with all good things, no photos were allowed inside the palaces, so you'll have to trust me.

After dinner we all got dressed up and headed off to see the Traichovsky ballet, Swan Lake.

Despite my distinct lack of enjoyment at watching men wearing tights prance around on stage, the show was actually really good. The first act dragged on for a bit, lasting almost an hour, but also has the most famous scene of the entire ballet. So much of the music score was so familiar, I had no idea it was from Swan Lake. Unfortunately we watched the 'Hollywood' or 'Happily Ever After' version, not the original Russian, everybody dies, version.

We got to drinking after the ballet back at the hotel. After deciphering the costs for the pool tables Clint & I rented a table for an hour, with Renee and Claire. We were swamped with a bunch of local youth hanging around, which ensued we were all very cautious of the where-abouts of our belongings. After the hour was up, we wandered downstairs to the bowling alley for a 2am game of bowling. The four of us played along with Kara and Joey, our tour manager. Joey annihilated everyone, bowling four strikes in a row at one stage. After the game, I had a few more beers with Kara, then headed to bed.

On our last morning in St. Petersburg we went to Hare's Island with the Peter & Paul Fortress and Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of the Romanov family, including the family members assassinated at the beginning of the communist uprising.

From there we had a couple hours to kill in the city. After grabbing some lunch, Subway, I headed for the Taleon Casino, despite the numerous warnings from Anna our St. Petersburg tour guide, mainly referring to the Mafia connections of most casinos. Walking up to the casino I could see why. There were so many Mercs, Ferraris, Jags and Beamers with totally blacked out windows. I walked past the front door, which looked like a hotel, and probably was, there was very little signage to signify one way or another.

To go with the cars, there were a few people entering in new looking crisp suits. As I walked past, one of the thug looking blokes standing out the front (there were probably 8 of them, big blokes in street clothes standing around smoking) broke away and followed me down the street. I got to the corner and saw he was still following, so I crossed into the middle of the road, where the canal separates the two directions of traffic. I walked back past the casino, and my follower made it to the corner, paused and then headed back to the casino entrance, this time on the opposite side of the road to me. This time I took Kenny's advice, and decided to fold, not knowing there'd be so many more opportunities to gamble in Moscow!

We officially said goodbye to St. Petersburg and headed off to Novgorod. Our three hour trip took longer than 5 hours, due to rain, traffic and terrible roads - there were potholes everywhere.

On arrival we had a city tour of Novgorod, taking in Russia's oldest kremlin. Kremlin is actually the Russian term for a citadel, or fortress. We also saw Russia's oldest church, built in 1050, with roof covered in gilded silver, and a WWII memorial.

The hotel was much nicer, despite being on the 5th floor, and the elevator being broken, but it didn't have any bars, or any other means of entertaining us, so we had an early night to get ready for Moscow the following day.

Moscow next....