the rest of st petersburg

here’s a rundown of what else i’ve been up over the last week here in st petersburg:

Smolny Cathedral

walking down the street that natasha’s house is on, we all of a sudden spotted this dope castle-looking thing way down the street. we walked over there and it turned out to be a cathedral called Smolny. this is yet another buildng designed by rostrelli. unfortunately, the bottom half of the cathedral was under reconstruction, but here’s a photo of the top of it.

st petersburg just has a never ending supply of fancy buildings. here’s anther random building we saw.. i dont even know if it is an important building or not!


as i mentioned before, russians are really big on parks and there are tons of different parks all over the city. the parks are constantly filled w/ families taking strolls, kids playing, babushkas hanging out on benches. one of the best parks here is the Summer Gardens. when peter the great founded this city, he built himself a little cabin on this spot and the gardens surrounding the cabin eventually became a public park. in the center of the park is a large statue of a famous russian author, and radiating from it are sandy trails that crisscross their way through the park. after the park, we went by the Mars field where there is an eternal flame burning in memory of soldiers who have died.


along the river there are several different pairs of sphinxes around the city. each pair has a different style to them. one of the pairs that i found particularly cool looking was this one pair where their faces where half normal and half skulls. realy eerie.. even in broad daylight.

blockade museum

the most horrible event in this city’s history was the seige of leningrad during WWII. for almost 3 whole years, the germans had the city surrounded and there was virtually no way to bring supplies and/or food into the city. it was an insane time, and people were literally dropping dead in the streets from hunger. rations given to people became less and less throughout the blockade, until one point where each person was only given a small piece of bread per day. this was a tiny piece of bread weighing only 125 grams… and a large part of it was made from sawdust instead of flour. people were so desperate that they would cook and eat the leather in their belts. they would scrape off the glue behind their wallpaper and eat it. it’s absolutely insane for me to think that such a thing could go on for such a long time, and even crazier for me to think that my dad was there and lived through it as a child. there’s a museum showing the history of the blockade and we went to go see it. lots of really hardcore stuff in there including photos from the time, memorabilia, and other stuff.

canal tour

a popular activity for tourists to do here is to take a tour of the many canals here. you hop on a boat and it takes you around the city for about an hour while pointing out some of the famous sites. it’s a pretty neat way of seeing the city and it’s cool to look up at the sites from below. the water level in the canals was particularly high the day we took the tour, and each time we passed under a bridge, everyone would duck down cause they were worried about smacking their head!

st.petersburg’s smallest toursit attraction

there’s this tiny statue of a little bird that you can see if you look over the edge of one of the canals. people try to drop coins on its head.

mariinsky theater

natasha gave us tickets to the ballet as a gift. they were tickets to go see Swan Lake at the mariinsky theater, the most famous theater in st petersburg. the theater is beautiful from both the outside and inside, and part of the appeal of seeing the ballet here is just the building itself. the ballet was really cool, and it was cool to do a cultural activity while being here. we havent really seen that many cultural performances on our trip yet. during the show, lots of people would keep taking flash photos of the ballet, even though this was totally against the rules, and other people would then hiss and yell at them. that didnt seem to stop anyone though.

the bridges again

one night we went out to go see the bridges be raised again. this time, we went to the most impressive bridge, the palace bridge which is right in front of the hermitage. watching this bridge be raised is really popular, and soon there was a huge crowd that had gathered w/ everyone waiting in anticipation. finally the bridge went up and everyone started taking photos like crazy. such a spectacular sight! after the bridge went up, we walked to some of the other bridges, and then walked *hella* far to get back home. we’ve done soooo much walking while we’ve been here. probably more walking that we’ve done almost anywhere else. i feel like we practically spend all of our free time wandering about, and this is quite a large city!

canals on our way home


st petersburg is supposed to have lots of really fun and diverse nightlife. it has tons of nightclubs and has a very vibrant music scene. we werent able to go out anywhere last wekeend since we were waking up early each morning, but this weekend we decided to check out a concert that we had seen advertised all over the city. there’s this event called stereleto (means stereo summer in russian) here, that has been having concerts here every weekend featuring electronic groups like gus gus, chicks on speed, etc. this weekend the featured band was telepopmusik. the name of the band sounded familiar, although i didnt think i had ever heard of their stuff before.

we headed out to the show which was on an island rather far from natasha’s house. we finally got there around 12:30. there were several other bands playing too. they had an outdoor stage set up and an indoor area as well. eventually telepopmusik went on and they were really really good. they have a female singer who sings over their mellow tracks and a guy singing on their more upbeat stuff. the music was great and the crowd seemed to be really into it. the singer said this was one of her favorite concerts this summer! it turned out that i actually *had* heard one of their songs before, i just didnt know it was them. it’s actually played back home in some ?car? commercial where its a chick singing quietly saying “another day… just breathe.. another day.. just believe”. click here for video. one weird thing about the show is that they played their set, and for their encore, they played two of the songs that they had already played.. again! and then, for their second encore, they once again played their hit single making it *3* times they played that song. of course, they changed it up each time and played it differently, but it was still funny. watchig the concert was so cool though. really great music, and all of this set outdoors in a foresty area with the sky slowly getting lighter and lighter beacsue of the white nights. such a perfect background for the show!

after the show, we tried out another russian favorite pasttime: being stuck on the wrong side of town! during the night, all the bridges are raised, and if you happen to be on the wrong side, there’s virtually no way of you getting back until they come back down. the only way would be to take a taxi ride in this huge loop around the whole perimiter of the city, but this would cost like 40 bucks. so we walked as far as we could on foot. eventually, once the bridges had gone down, we found an unofficial taxi and got a ride home.. at 5:30am!


after around 10 days here in st petersburg, it was time to leave. we had gotten quite used to staying over at natasha’s house, and it was sad to say goodbye.

natasha, me, and vitalia


odds and ends from russia…


despite anything you may have heard, russian food is actually pretty good. we’ve been eating lots of it recently, and though some of it hasnt been extremely exciting (due to dining at mostly cheap eateries), we’ve usually liked what we’ve gotten. the traditional way of eating here is to eat your food in several courses. usually there will be the first course of cold and hot appetizers which usually will have a *ton* of different things. then you get soup. then the main course. then desert. of course, we cant really afford to be ordering a ton of courses for every meal, so we usually havent been getting the full experience. still we’ve made sure to try some soups here and there, some various appetizers, etc.

two soups that we’ve gotten a bunch of times now are mushroom soup and borsch which is a red soup made out of beets. you add a ton of sour cream to them both before eating. i’v always like the mushroom soup, but while growing up i couldnt stand the beet soup. in fact, most of the kids in my family have never liked the stuff. surprisingly though, as i’ve grown up, i’ve really taken a liking to it. the soups that i’ve eaten here are fairly similar to the ones my mom fed me while growing up, but my mom’s soups seem to taste better than the ones i’ve had here. actually, for most of the food that i’ve had both at home and here, usualy the food here hasnt tasted as good as my mom’s.

for the appetizer portion of the meal, salads are really popular. but not salads like back home, these are usually a bunch of vegetables mashed together w/ a bunch of sour cream or mayo or something… more like a potato-salad type of thing. smoked salmon is really popular. there’s these things called pelmeny which are dumplings, kind of similar to raviolis. they can be eaten w/ horseradish or w/ sour cream and are really really good. another russian food that’s really popular here is bliny. these are really similar to crepes, and can be eaten in a million different ways whether stuffing them with meat or cottage cheese or putting jam on them.

one of the biggest problems i have w/ russian food is their obsession w/ dill. they *love* the stuff. they put it on almost everything from soups to fish to meat to pasta… everything!! and i really dont like dill. yet i find it on almost everything i eat. sometimes i’m lucky enough to be able to scrape it off, but often i have to just choke it down. ew! let’s see… what else… oh, people *love* ice cream here. from ice cream parlors, to cafes, to little vendors on the corners, to the markets… ice cream is sold everywhere. everywhere you look there are people scarfing down ice cream cones. heh, actually, this just might be the only thing they like more than dill!! one interesting thing i’ve noticed here is that people love sparkling water. it’s everywhere. sometimes you actually cant even find regular flat water cause it’s all carbonated. it’s funny, last time i came to russia, i *hated* the carbonated water, but i now i’m totally into it. alcohol here is really cheap. and you can drink outside which is nice. no such thing as last call here either! you can buy bottles of vodka for next to nothing and beer is priced quite nicely too!

fast food has gotten abig following here. there are kfcs, pizzahuts, and mcdonalds everywhere. actually, we went into mcdonalds this one day (purely for research purposes of course, not that we wanted any!), and as per mcdonalds policy.. everyone was smiling! it was sooo weird. afte being here in russia for a couple weeks and being used to customer service w/ a glare, i totally felt like i was in the twilight zone or something seeing everyone smiling so much and constantly saying thank you and please.

people here also really like to picnic. you see people in all of the parks chilling on the grass, eating sanwchiches etc, drinking beer. it’s really cool, and caryn and i had a few picnics ourselves. i think people back home should start doing this kind of thing more. we have so many parks too! one funny thing is that people here also use the parks to work on their tan. you see all sorts of people, all ages (and sizes!) laying in the grass with hardly any clothes on. back home, this would only really be acceptable on the beach… i really couldnt see this kind of thing happening in a city park!


the transportation situation in st petersburg is awesome. they have a great metro system that is really quick, efficient, and easy to navigate (only 5 different lines that cross each other just one time). on top of that, there are a ton of busese and trolleys. but even better are these things called route taxis. they are basically huge vans that drive along an established route. you hop on where ever you like, and then when you wanna get off, you just yell out and the driver stops. you dont need to be at a bus stop or anythig, they’ll stop anywhere. these are super convenient and frequent. all of this transport is super cheap! the metro or buses are like 30 cents a ride. route taxis are 50 cents. after being used to paying $3 for a ride on the tokyo metro, this was a nice change!! the other way to get around town is by taking a regular taxi… or an unofficial taxi. this is basically hitchhiking, but you pay for it. you just stand on the roade and stick your arm out. any old random car will pull over and you negotiate a price and get a ride.


the prices here in russia really surprise me. soetimes stuff is crazy cheap. other times it’s crazy expensive. it’s so hard to tell whether this is really a cheap country or not. hotels for instantce are really expensive compared to a lot of places we’ve been. the book lists most budget hotels at like 20 to 25$. but almost every place we’ve gone to has had their prices raised usually *double* by whats in the book!! if you buy groceries, food can be really cheap. also, small cafes are cheap too… but once you start going to real restaurants, prices take a huge leap upward. also, some prices here vary depending on if you are a foreigner or a local. museums, theaters, and other things can cost 10 or 20 times as much if you dont live here. for instance, we were buying tickets for the ballet. the price was 500 roubles for the really good seats(17$)… but then it turns out that the foreigner price was 2900 roubles!! almost a hundred bucks! quite a difference.


i’ve already mentioned a bit about the difficulties of queueing in russia. first off, usually when you go to place with a bunch of ticket windows, there’s often a mob around each window. it’s hard to tell where each line startes or ends. most people will walk up to the line and start asking everyone as to who the last person in line is. then apparently, you can stay in as many lines as you want. so, you get in a line. you tell the person in front of you that you are behind them. then you go to the next line, and tell that person that you are behind them as well. and so on, and so on. so, you can be simultaneously waiting in like 5 or 6 lines. this makes it nearly impossible to tell which line is the shortest since there might be any number of people in that line that just arent there at the moment. all of this i had no clue about until just yesterday.


russian girls love to dress up. i think it’s practically a law or something. any time of day, any place, every girl you see will be wearing high heels, fancy clothing, and makeup. basically, outfits and stuff that back home are reserved for a night out, here would be used for grocery shopping or lounging in the park. as far as i’ve seen there are *no* girls that wear tennis shoes. the funny thing is though, guys here aren’t held up to these same standards. in fact, they seem to wear whatever the hell they please. so often you’ll see a woman walking down the street, completely decked out in an evening gown, heels, earrings, makeup, the works… and next to her, her boyfriend is wearing dirty jeans and a flannel or t-shirt. so odd!

white nights

i’ve already mentioned the white nights a bunch of times, but i just cant get over how crazy it all is. it really is such a head trip. on one hand, i really like it, but on the flip side, i can see how it would slowly drive someone crazy. it’s *always* daytime. walk outside at noon and it’s daytime. walk outside at 5pm and it’s daytime. walk outside at 11:30pm… still daytime. this cant be healthy for you body. i’m constantly confused as to what time it could be. i’m tired when i shouldnt be and awake when i shouldnt be. so weird! i’m so glad i got to see this phenomenon though!!


this city was basically built on a swamp. because of that, there are insane amounts of mosquitos. and these guys are evil. i think they *enjoy* stinging people in the face, cause everynight all i can hear is them buzzing around my head. we put on mosquito spray, but that only keeps them away for an hour tops. then they’re back. they’re vicious i tell ya. i end up having to wake up at night every hour or two to reapply deet. i almost wonder if these bastards are attracted to bugspray. maybe if they smell it, they know a meal is near if they just wait long enough!

hot water

during the summer, st petersburg turns off the hot water. they do it section by section, but i think pretty much every part of the city will have its hot water turned off at one time or another for a few weeks to a month! most people in the city dont own hot water heaters (luckily, natasha does) so people have to take *freezing* cold showers for a whole month!


i’ve been hella practicing my russian while i’ve been here. it’s great! actually, i’ve worried a lot about my russian skills getting worse and worse over time. my accent isnt as good as it could be, but mainly, my speech just isnt fluid at all. i have trouble finding the words i need, et etc. i understand everything perfectly, but speaking it is a bit rough. well, luckily, i’ve been getting tons of practice these last few weeks, and my speech has been improving (i think). i’ve been speaking to natasha at home, and also with various waiters, taxi drivers, etc while out and about. language is a really weird thing. after being here for a bit, i almost start thinking in russian.. in fact, sometimes i do think in russian, and i often find myself counting change in russian instead of english. it’s still a struggle for me to say things that are really complex, and i’m a bit shy using my russian (especially on the typically angry/unfriendly customer service people), but for the most part i’m really glad to be trying out my skills. when i get home, i’m totally going to make it a point to speak russian more. i wonder how long i would have to stay here till i had no more issues with my speech? 2 months maybe?

reading on the other hand is another story. i can read perfectly… but SLOW! really really slow. so slow, that it would be basically pointles for me to read an actual book. i actually read a magazine on the train and was able to finish the whole thing, but it definitely took me a while. when caryn and i go out to restaurants, it takes me ages to read the menu to her and usually the waiter has stopped by our table like 3 times to try to take our order by the time i’ve gotten through it all. i am *so* lucky though to be able to read russian though. i really dont know how anyone would get around here without knowing how to read it. there are pretty much no signs in english here. very few russian menus. it also seems like very few people here speak english. i’ve talked to others who have said that they’ve really had a hard time finding things or understanding things here.

one thing that i find funny is that i have no idea what russian expressions are. so when i hear them, they always catch me offguard. one thing that always surprises me is that when you want to get the attention of a waitress or female cashier, you say “dyevushka” which basically means “girl”. could you imagine a waitresses reaction in america if you yelled out “hey girly”??


one thing that i find really interesresting is all these feelings of nostalgia that are brought out by being here. eating russian foods, seeing all the birch trees, speaking the language, etc etc. so many different things, both large and small, all ring a bell in my head and in my heart. it’s really an odd feeling since in so many ways, i’m *so* completely american. i’ve lived in the states for my whole life except for the first three years, my education is american, my friends are american, i surround myself w/ american culture etc etc. yet, there is still some part of me, some very large core part that is very russian. during your childhood, sure you get influenced by school and some friends, but really, most of your influence at that crucial age is from your parents. my parents had me read russian books, they told russian jokes, they fed me russian food, and in a lot of ways raised me with russian values. it’s strange.. in so many ways i look at all the people around me, all of my american friends who mean the world to me, and in a lot of ways i feel somehow fundamentally different from them. yet of course, i’m also very different than people who are completely russian too. and, something i find really funny and a bit bizarre is that my nostalgia… the russian things here that trigger feelings about my childhood etc.. that nostalgia is all for home… aka america! so weird. you would expect russian people who leave russia, to see russian things abroad and be reminded of russia.. instead here, i am *in russia*.. and seeing *russian* things, makes me think of my childhood in america. random!


photos from ulan-ude and irkutsk

click here for all of my photos from Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk

here are some of them:

biggest lenin head ever in ulan-ude

church in ulan-ude

church in ulan-ude

wooden houses, ulan-ude

wooden houses, ulan-ude

wooden houses, ulan-ude

church, irkutsk

fuzzy plants, irkutsk

nice sunny day. are we really in siberia?

church, irkutsk

ornate door of a church in irkutsk

our picnic at baikal eating smoked Omul

lake baikal

angry cows take over the road


red tape

you’ll be pleased to hear that there is no shortage of red tape here in russia. despite the fact that communism has come and gone, the country still has enough bureaucracy, red tape, and difficulties to drive a person insane.

Let’s start with just getting in the country. lots of countries let you just grab a visa at the border and come right in. for other countries, you need to go to the embassy, fill out some paperwork, and then you come in. not so in russia. to get a visa, you have to have an invitation from someone inside the country. why? i’m assuming this is some legacy from the communist days when they were afraid of undesirable characters infiltrating the country. maybe, if you could prove that you knew someone living in Russia, they wouldn’t suspect you of coming in to cause trouble. well, now times have changed. you can get this “invitation» from any company if you pay them 30$ or so. so basically, this invitation really is meaningless. it doesn’t prove anything whatsoever except that you paid someone money. I guess now it’s just an extra way for these companies to make cash.

once you finally get this invitation, you can go to the embassy and apply for a visa. the form you have to fill out to apply is insane. you have to put down the last 3 jobs you worked at and their addresses and phone numbers. you have to put down which schools you went to and their addresses and numbers. your last 2 home addresses. which countries you’ve been to in the last year. etc etc and so on. out of the 30 some odd countries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a application form as complicated as this one. even Syria, other than asking for religion and Israeli stamps, was ten times as short and easy as this one. eventually, once you fill out the application, you drop it off, and hopefully after 2 weeks, you find out hat you are now accepted to come to the country… but only during the 30 days specified on your visa. if you stay even an hour over, you will… *not be allowed to leave Russia ever*. yes. they will literally hold you at the border and not let you leave. I’ve heard of people trying for *weeks* to leave Russia on an expired visa, and even then only being allowed to go because of some connections and a loophole.

ok. great! you have your visa! you have a passport! your problems are over right? wrong. once you enter the country, officials need to be able to track you and know where you are at all times. so that they can do this, you need to register your visa in *every city you go to* if you stay in the city more than 3 days. if you get caught having an unregistered visa, you can get in big trouble. so basically, you have to waste time doing this registration in every single town you visit. ugh. from everything we’ve read, there’s two ways of registering. the hotel you stay at, is technically required by law to register you, or you can go down to the town’s PVU (passport Visa something something) office. luckily, for the most part, our hotels have registered us without too many hassles. well, all of them except one that refused to do it. they said that apparently their hotel “doesn’t have the right» to register people. honestly, that sounds like a bullshit excuse to me. the law says all hotels are *required* to register their guests. but.. whatever.

well, of course, we ended up running into difficulties. after spending two days in a hostel here in st petes, we moved to my relatives house. well, since she isn’t a hotel, she cant register us!! so now what? I guess we have to go to the PVU. so, we go across town and go to the pvu. upon entering, the security guy stops me and asks me what I want. I tell him I need to be registered. he then says that to get registered, I need to get registered through the company that sent me my invitation. but, i say, that company is in moscow… hours away!! he looks at me and asks “well, i really have no idea what you would want from us.”. great. so, he tells us to go to some other address. upon arriving, that address turns out to be just an apartment building. either i heard the address wrong, or he gave me the wrong address. ugh. now what. the one place where we need to register, allegedly says it wont register us, even though all the guidebooks, websites, etc etc all say that you need to go to the PVU. *sigh*.

we decided to ask at the us embassy. we get there and are gruffly told that they are on a lunch break and to wait. an hour later, we return. i talk to the lady who says that, well, basically I’m screwed. she says the only person that can register me is either that company in moscow, or a hotel. apparently, if you come here to stay w/ relatives, you need a different kind of visa. so, i cant really get registered by my relative, i can only get registered at a hotel. ugh. she confirms that pvu, apparently doesn’t register people, despite the fact that everywhere it says that it should. so now what? she says our choices are either, a)go directly to moscow immediately to have the inviting company register us, or b) try to get by without registering. she says if we decide not to register, once we come to the border we will face one of 4 scenarios: 1)no one notices since we were registered for the first two days in st petes. 2)they notice, but after we beg and plead they let it slide. 3)they take the official fine of 1000 roubles (40 bucks) each. 4) they try to take an unofficial fine (bribe) or any amount they decide to ask for. so basically, we are screwed. she says that one option might be to get registered at a hotel that we aren’t actually staying at for a small fee.

so, defeated, we leave. we decide to call the inviting company in moscow, who tell us that they have an agency here. good news!!! we go down to the agency, only to find out that they’ll register us, but only if we pay them 20$ each. such bullshit. seriously, it’s like every step of the way, we have to deal w/ crap or pay money.


the next day, we decide that we should try to figure out our onward plans. we go down to the main train station to buy tickets from moscow to Prague. you aren’t allowed to just go up to the window and buy tickets. you have to first figure out exactly what you need on a computer system (price, date, train number, etc) and then walk up to the window w/ that info. this computer system is a total mess, and not only that, but is unable to actually give prices for international train journeys. so, we get in line for the window. after waiting in a long line, i ask the lady how much tickets are to prague. she says she has no clue. no “I’m sorry”. no helpful info. just i don’t know. uh, great. thanks. so i ask her where i could find out. she says she doesn’t know, maybe i should try the next building. so we go to the next building and wait in line again. we finally get to the front and ask to buy tickets to prague. we get told that they cant sell us those tickets. instead we have to go to another place across town. this starts turning into a never-ending saga.

at the station across town, we start waiting in yet another long line. there are only two cashiers, and one of them has a sign saying that her window is closed. when we are close to the front, 2 guys come up and stand in front of us.

me: umm, what are you doing?
him (in an irritated voice): I’m standing in line. i was here before.
me: before what? you weren’t here!
him: listen, i was here earlier and now I’m back. this is my spot.

and with that he just turns his back to me. fucking hell. a bit later, the guys jus randomly leave. now, this chick who had been sitting in a chair across the room walks up and stands in line in front of us.

me: hey, the end of the line is back there
her: this is my spot. i was here before.
me: you cant just do that. if you’re waiting in line, you have to be waiting in line. you cant just be sitting over there!!
her: sitting!! what the hell are you talking about sitting! this is my spot. I AM HERE!

unfuckingbelievable. but really, what is there to do? i can’t just shove people aside. at this point, I’m basically fuming. this is like the millionth line I’ve been in, and it’s getting longer by the second. then, some guy walks up and starts buying a ticket at the next window. what?! wasn’t she closed?! well, then she turns around here closed sign. apparently, she was on a break, that was supposed to end half an hour ago according to the sign, but she just hadn’t bothered to turn it around. so, i switch course and get behind the guy. the woman behind me gets behind me too. as the guy is finishing, i notice some other chick walk up to his right. i just *knew* she was gonna try to line jump, and i wasn’t gonna have it. as soon as the first customer finished speaking, i started my request, before the line jumper had a chance. well, she wasn’t able to cut in front of me, but she cut in front of the lady behind me anyways:

lady behind me(LBM): umm, what are you doing? i was here.
line jumper(LJ):oh, i work downstairs. employees get to go to the front of the cue.
LBM: but that’s not fair! I’ve been waiting!!
LJ: sorry. that’s the policy. i get to cut.
LBM: fine then, how do you know i don’t work downstairs. lets say i work downstairs too!
LJ: well, you don’t have a badge!
LBM: well, fine, lets see your badge then.
LJ:(fumbles in purse).. ohh… umm.. i forgot it. errr. but still. i assure you i work here!

sheeez. lines here are utter chaos. after that, we still have to go back downstairs, and stand in yet another window to buy our tix from st petersburg to moscow. finally… after almost an entire day spent in line, we now have tickets to moscow, and tickets out of Russia. feeling relieved, and tired, we head out.


but it’s not over yet! the train to prague goes through Belarus. another country with strict Russia-like rules. we cant cross their country in a train without purchasing a transit visa. online it says that to get one, you need to pay 35$ and they have it ready in an hour. before heading down to the Belarus embassy in st petes, i call them to check their address. apparently, their own website has an address that was out of date over a year ago. when i call they tell me that it takes *5* days to get a transit visa.. and.. get this… *$100*. WHAT?!! or, if we would like it rushed, we can get it back the following day for $180. what the hell!!! how can they charge 180$.. for NOTHING! we’re not even going to their country. we’re just gonna be on a train coming through. not only that, but how can the Belarus embassy in both the US and the UK charge 35$ for transit visas, while this one charges 100? what, is it to difficult for them to file the paperwork?

as a last resort, i try to call the Belarus embassy in moscow. out of two phone numbers, one doesn’t work, and the other is answered by someone who says that they are the wrong department and gives me two new numbers. i call the two new ones. nobody answers one, and the guy at the other number just tells me to call the first one. after trying a ton of times i call him back and say that no one is answering at that first number. he says that this is not his problem and to just keep trying. arrrrgghh. I’m so sick of this crap!! so in the end, i give up. there’s no way i want to pay 360$ extra to get this stupid transit visa. for that cost i may as well have flown.

so, we opt for plan B. plan B is to take a bus that goes from moscow, to Latvia, and then to Lithuania, and on to Poland, etc etc. this skirts around Belarus. we head to the bus company. i ask how much a bus ticket is from moscow to Riga. she doesn’t know. she can only sell tickets leaving from st petes. to get the moscow tix we need to go to another office… across town of course. great. on my way out, just for fun, i decide to walk up to the airline agent to find out flight prices. she is talking on her mobile. just chatting away and ignoring me, despite that according to her timetable, this isn’t one of the 5 scheduled breaks everyday. i wait. and wait. and wait. finally she gets off the phone. no apology. no “excuse me for being on the phone”. instead, she just glares at me. she gives me this look that says “listen. if you were lying on the street dying, i would rather kick you in the nuts than to help you up. so why the fuck would you think i would want to help you now??!”. after the glare, she just says “WHAT?”. nice, eh? so, i ask her how much a flight is from moscow to prague. she, after a long sigh, says they don’t sell those tickets, and keeps glaring. i then ask, “well, what kind of tickets do you sell?” it turns out that she cant sell any tickets not leaving from this city. all through this, she continues the glare.

and that was it. i just snapped. honestly, i cant take it anymore. i cant take the lines. the constantly being shuffled around. the angry looks. the absolute unhelpfulness. i just cant. I’ve tried. I’ve tried a lot. but, this is just too much. the last three days have just been a nightmare of red tape and other crap. i cant be bothered to try anymore. i don’t care about going to moscow anymore. i just want to GO.. AWAY. so, i turned around, walked back to the bus counter, and bought a ticket from here to Latvia. screw going to moscow. it’s really not worth the trouble. nothing is worth it. so, we’re now leaving Russia on the 17th. several days early before my visa runs out. despite all the incredible sites everywhere, despite the incredible kindness of my dad’s friends and relatives… I’m ready to be on my way. i already saw what i mainly wanted to see which was st petes and the transsiberian. I’m just too tired of fighting the daily battles to bother with anything else.


museums and palaces

st petersburg isnt just famous for its canals and the outside of its buildings. it’s also really famous for having some incredible museums. on our second and third day in the city, we went to the russian museum and the hermitage. the hermitage is one of the most famous museums in the world. it has so much art (3 *million* pieces), that not all of it can even be displayed at once. the museum is made up of 4 buildings, some of them w/ 3 stories. it’s practically a maze of artwork. there’s art from so many different countries and time periods… absolutely impossible to see it all. we just tried to check out the “highlights” mentioned in the book, but didnt have enough time for even just that!!

the most impressive thing about the hermitage though, is not just the art that’s inside it, but the building itself. the building is an old palace that used to be used by the tsars. you walk through it and it’s impossible not to be in total awe of the splendor around you. every room is decorated differently. marble everywhere, huge slabs of shiny green malachite, shimmering chandeliers, huge vases, and fancy doorways. the floors and ceilings in each room are decorated in a different motif and color scheme. each room you walk into is more impressive than the last. really, it’s possible to walk through the place and not even bother paying attention to the actual art.

even the doorhandles are crazy

wooden floors

mosaic floors

the russian museum, although maybe not as spectacular as the hermitage, is also impressive. it’s also decorated rather fancily inside, and has a huge amount of art. during our first visit to the russian museum, we rushed through as fast as we could to see as much as possible. it turned out that we missed seeing the special temporary exhibit they had on chagall. so, a few days later, my dad’s friend boris, took us back there and showed us the exhibit. he knew a ton about chagall and spent time explaining the artist’s life to us, and showing us a lot of the thoughts behind his works. also, a couple days later, he took us back to the hermitage as well. he showed us around the ancient greek, roman, and egyptian section. even just this one tiny section of the museum was huge and packed full of stuff. luckily, boris spent a lot of time explaining to us how the work was done and taught us a lot about the history behind it all. we were *so* lucky to have him there with us. if he hadnt been there, it weould have just been a huge jumble of pottery and statues, and we would have just glanced at it all, completely not knowing anyting. i swear, you get so much more out of a museum if you go w/ a knowledgable person! so, in the end, we went oto both the russian museum and the hermitage *twice* and yet still didnt get to see even close to all the stuff each has to offer. art overload!

on one of our days in st petersburg, we decided to take a day trip to petrodvoretz. this is a palace outside of town where peter the great (founder of st petersburg) used to live. *wow*. this place was so impressive. the palace was huge, and was designed by rostrelli, a very famous architect who designed a lot of the famous buildings of st petrersburg. the building itself was beautiful both inside and out, and also had huge gardens surrounding it. the gardens are really famous for having tons and tons of fountains. there are fountains in all different shapes and sizes. also, there are some “trick” fountains too that spray people randomly when they arent aware. there’s also some fountains for the little kids to run around in as well. the grounds are huge and you can spend a ton of time just wandering about and enjoying the place.

you can see out to the bay of finland from here



the first two nights in st petersburg, we stayed at a hostel. in some ways this hostel was pretty cool: great location, really clean, super comfy beds, free breakfast. but in other ways, the hostel had issues: it was pricey (25$ a bed!), internet wasn’t working, phone wasnt working, laundry was ridiculously expensive, no hot water, and i overheard the girl who worked there talking on the phone saying how all of us were driving her crazy and she wished we would just leave. nice, huh? but anyways, all negatives aside, it was really fun to stay at a hostel for a bit. sleeping w/ a bunch of strangers in the same room may not always be the greatest thing, but it definitely pushes you to get to know everybody. we met some cool people from the UK, canada, and norway. it was fun to have people to chat w/ over breakfast etc and also i went out w/ all of them one night to watch the raising of the bridges.

watching the raising of the bridges is a big deal here. since the city was built on a swamp, it actually consists of over 100 islands, separated by canals, and to get across them, there are *539* bridges. yes, thats right, 539 of them. every night, the city becomes a bit of an obstacle course, when some of the bridges are raised for a few hours at a time in order to let cargo ships through. there’s something a bit impressive about seeing a large structure capable of holding up trucks and cars all of a sudden changing shape. it’s even more impressive, when that structure is *huge*… basically a stretch of road 8 lanes across, and it all of a sudden is vertical instead of horizontal. some things in life are just a fact and never change. roads are *always* horizontal, and sometimes they are slightly at an angle, but they never go vertical… it’s just an eerie sight! so, during the nights, lots or tourists and residents of the city often come out to watch the bridges be raised. this especially is a popular activity during the white nights when it’s still light out at 2am when the bridges are raised.

so, we went out one night to go see the bridges. well, large amounts of alcohol were consumed (you are allowed to drink on the streets in russia). several beers, swigs of wine, and sips of vodka later, we almost missed the moment that the bridges were raised. in fact, they were already halfway up when i noticed. unfortunately, we, thinking we were oh so clever, decided to sit on the bank between two of the bridges so we could see not one but two bridges be raised. but the outcome of this was that we were not close to one nor the other, so the whole thingh was less than spectacular. caryn and i are gonna try again in a couple of days.

view across the neva river at *2am*

as wonderful as it was to have people to hang out with etc, we terminated our stay at the hostel when we found out some great news. my dad had gotten in touch w/ his cousin who lives here and she offered us to crash at her place. after paying 50$ a night for two dorm beds, this came as quite a relief. so we packed our packs, and set out to Natasha’s house.

wow. i can hardly believe what a warm greeting we’ve receieved from her. she has been so unbelievably nice. she’s letting us stay at her house. she’s cooked us breakfast every single morning… and not just a simple quick breakfast either. every breakfast is practically a 4 course meal with various bliny, fried eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, different breads, herring, etc etc. the food just doesnt stop until we’re so full (and it’s all really good!). besides that, she’s packed us snacks and lunches when we’ve gone out for the day. she’s washed clothes for us. she makes our bed for us at night. i almost feel bad having so much done for us and yet she absolutely refuses to let us help clean or do anyting. keep in mind, that other than when i was still 3 years old and living in russia, i have only met her one time!! on top of it all, she’s constantly super cheerful and always so nice! really a wonderful person! i guess i’m really lucky that my dad has such great relatives!

it definitely helps to have connections here! but, our luck doesnt stop there. my dad also told us to go meet one of his closest friends who lives here. we visited boris, and he also made us dinner even though we came over fairly late at night. we talked for a while, and it was fun learning about this guy who was such a good friend of my father’s. for instanmce, we noticed some little books laying around on the table… books that looked the same as ones we had seen in my aunt’s apartment. it turns out that boris, in his spare times, writes and illustrates little books that he later gives out to people. he ended up giving us a few of these little books and explaining a little about them. it turns out that he actually hasnt had this hobby for too long… in the past, he was actually more into wood carving. so, he takes us to his room and shows us some of the carving he does. great stuff! all of a sudden i remembered that some of the little statues my parents have in their room are in the same style. turns out that they were a gift from boris. it was really cool to finally meet the person who has been the source of all these cool things… well, i actually have met him one time before for a few hours, but i just never knew that he was the one who’s made all this stuff.

well, that’s not all that i discovered during that meal. i finally may have discovered the reason for my constant tardiness. i’m always late!! i really cant for the life of me get anywhere on time. turns out… my dad has a reputation of being late as well! i never knew that. so that’s where i get it from!! heh. well, so, besides being a woodcarver and making books, boris also knows a lot about st petersburg. well, ok, he actually knows a lot about pretty much everything, but especially he knows a lot about st petersburg. after dinner, we went out for a walk and he showed us all sorts of interesting stuff about the neighborhood that he lived in. stuff that we would never have found out on our own… hell, stuff that probably everyone else that lives there doesnt even know. this man has almost ecyclopedic knowledge of everything there is to know about his city, and he could tell us about the architectural style of almost every building we saw, when it was built, and the history behind it. it was really a very interesting walk!

boris also knows an insane amount of information about art, and a few days later, he met us at the russian museum to show us around the chagall exhibit that was there. i dont know much about chagall. ok, lets face it, i know practically nothing about chagall. during the span of 2 hours though, i learned a ton about the artist, his life, his motivations, etc. boris was able to walk up to practically any painting and explain the symbolism behind it, and talk about what caused chagall to make such a work. it seriously just doesnt cease to amaze me how much this man knows about everything! to top everything off, he even bought us a book on chagall to take home! so nice!!

so, yeah, basically in the last few days, we’ve totally been spoiled. i cant believe how much these people have done for us and how lucky we are to have met them. russians are supposed to be legendary for their hospitality, and i have always noticed that russians are willing to go way above the call of duty to help out friends and family. if you have a russian who is a close friend, they’re usually ready to do pretty much anything for you. their loyalty knows no bounds. it’s pretty amazing just how tight the bonds that russians form are.

it’s interesting, when i asked this guy we met what he thinks of russians, he said he’s heard that “if you dont know them, they can be real [insert expletive here], but if you get to know one, they’ll be the best friend you could ever have”. up until this trip, i’ve always only really known of the second half of this statement as true. i’ve always thought of russians as incredibly giving, kind, and friendly people. after coming here though, my faith was a bit shaken to be honest. i could definitely see the opposite end of the spectrum. the people i had always thought of as generous and nice, would not even smile or say hello to me. well, it’s been wonderful to finally see the good side again. to see that people here can be kinder than anyone can believe. i guess it really is just a cultural thing that sometimes the good part shows, while other times it’s completely hidden…


St. Petersburg

the last several days have been spent in st petersburg. wow. this is such an incredibly beautiful city. definitely one of the most beautiful in the world. here you can pick pretty much any street in the city and almost every building you see will be great. even buildings that are “ordinary” and not famous in the least are still usually grandiose and amazing. walking through town, it’s one incredible sight after another. you could probably just wander through the streets aimlessly and never tire of the new sights you’ll bump into. the city is just bursting w/ museums, palaces, elaborate churches, statues, and monuments. on top of that, the city has something like a hundred canals that wind their way through town and are criss-crossed by cool bridges of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

trying to figure out how to tackle such a place was rather difficult. looking through lonely planet, i started highlighting places that i wanted to see in town, and i neded up with pretty much everything being highlighted. there was just too much to see here and we didnt know where to begin. luckily, there is lots of time to see stuff. we’re spending about a week here, and the days are long… really long. it’s white nights here and it doesnt get completely dark… ever. after crossing timezones nonstop for the last week, all of this is getting to be pretty disorienting. the sun doesnt start going down until after 11pm here, and even in the middle of the “night” at 2 in the morning, it’s not fully dark, and instead the sky is the color that it would usually be right after the sun sets. because of this, i can never really tell what time it is and it often feels way earlier than it really is. i’ll think it’s 6pm or so, and it’ll turn out that it’s half past 10. all of this works to our advantage though since we can wander around the city and look at stuff till really late. also, everyone in town seems to be up till all hours of the night and the city really seems alive even after midnight.

this photo was taken after 11pm. see how light it is?

so, the first day in town, we did this walking tour that we found in the book. it took us to see some of the highlights in the middle of town. we started off by walking through this huge double arch to go see the palace square. the square has the very ornate winter palace on one end, the Tirumphal arch on the other w/ a huge column in the middle. the winter palace is home to the hermitage museum but we decided to leave that for another day. after taking some time to walk along a few of the cities canals, we ended up at the church on spilled blood. this is one of the most colorful and cool looking churches in the city. it has the colorful onion domes like st basils in moscow but some of these domes also have spirals and others have jagged edges giving it an even more interesting effect. since that first day, i think we’ve ended up walking past this church at least once every day that we’ve been here in st petersburg. even though we’ve seen it a bunch of times now, it’s still really cool to look at each time.

Triumphal arch

Alexander column and winter palace through the arch

one of the many canals

Church on spilled blood

Church on spilled blood

we finished off the walking tour by taking in some more bridges and canals, seeing the Kazan cathedral, and then ended up at the Bankovsky bridge, a small but really cool looking bridge w/ two gryphons on either end. after the walking tour, since we were close by, we walked to this small monument to the seige of leningrad. during WWII, this city was under seige by the germans for *3 years*. i’ll probably post more about the siege later, but the monument was this sign left over from the seige saying “citizens!! during heavy shelling, this side of the street is the more dangerous one.” it’s pretty insane to think that people had to fear for their lives just by walking down the street.

Kazan cathedral

Bankovsky bridge

sign on nevsky prosekt