Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Russia, Latvia, Estonia and Finland

Similar to the previous post on here...and the one about New York...this post is going to be terribly written and disjointed. I just have to publish it before I forget to altogether.

It has already been 4 months since I got back from Russia...


Moscow 6 nights
Vladimir-Suzdal 1 night
Overnight train to St Petersburg
6 nights St Petersburg (meet up with Ian Mike)
2 nights Helsinki
2 nights Tallinn
4 nights Riga

Following is a collection of ramblings I wrote while away.

Russia Part 1 
I’m writing this from the top bunk of our sleeper train cabin. Emma and I have the top two bunks and two Russians, with no English, have the bottom 2.  
We are on the way to St Petersburg from Vladimir, a train trip which will take from 6pm until 9am tomorrow. 
It is now 8:30pm and it is still light outside, we can see the sky turning pink over the beautiful countryside. I really didn’t realize Russia would be so green. 
(Other smashed pre-conceptions about Russia: 
  • That I wouldn’t feel safe 
  • That the food would be unilaterally revolting 
  • That Moscow would be only grey, boring, soviet style buildings. Hello, Stalin built some pretty incredible things #moscowmetro #sevensisters and many imperialist Russian buildings have been restored.) 
We have now been in Russia one week.  
Apart from a terrible start, which saw us arrive one day later than planned, the trip has gone well 
We arrived in Moscow, as I said, a day late, so that when we got to our hotel at 11am, they could not, in all good conscience, deny us access to the room we had actually paid for the night before. So after a long, long journey to Russia, we were so happy to collapse onto our beds at the Mercure Arbat. The hotel was actually really amazing. A great location next to Smolensky Metro station (and right near a Paul Patisserie!)Quiet as anything, super helpful staff, clean, big rooms and free wi-fiApart from our final hotel in Riga, this hotel will prove to be the best. (We actually got a great deal on it because it had recently opened, accommodation is expensive in Moscow, we couldn’t have afforded this hotel normally). 
That day we arrived, we went for a walk down the old Arbat St, then got onto one of those hop on hop off tour buses to freeze ourselves on a trip around half of Moscow. Only half, because it was the Moscow Day weekend, so a lot of the downtown area was cordoned off. 
In the evening we took to the Metro system, to get a look at the many beautiful metro stations –by the end I was falling asleep on the trains like a common drunk, because of my jetlag. It was good that Emma had forced me out though, because otherwise my jetlag would have lasted much longer than I did. 
Close to our hotel were a lot of the chains I love – terrible I know, but I am all for globalization. Paul, Le Pain Quotidien and Pink Berry! But I can proudly say there was also a McDonalds and I did not partake, not even when I was sitting in there watching someone else eat (I won’t name names, just in case. I’m no KGB). 
Of our whole trip, I think Moscow was my favourite – maybe because it was so different to anywhere else I have ever been. 
On our second day in Moscow we walked along the route we had taken the previous day, down to the walls of the Kremlin and up to Red Square. It was unfortunate that the week following Moscow Day was something about “Military Music week” so that all of Red Square was filled with those stands of seats – completely ruining my photo opportunities! 
We went to St Basil’s anyway, and took photos very up close – then we went inside and had a look around. The inside of the church is just as crazy as the outside. Like many of the Orthodox Churches (I was to discover), the insides are covered like crazy with Frescoes – all up the walls and across the ceiling. They also have whole walls of fancy icons. 
As we walked up a tight, spiral staircase, surrounded by the stone brick walls, we heard the haunting sound of orthodox men’s singing – and in the main room of the cathedral, (which was actually quite a small room), there was a quartet of men singing. 
Gum, the shopping mall right next to Red Square was nice and a bit QVB. The stores are all too expensive for me, except for Accessorize, where I bought a blinging, Euro-Trash purse to help me fit in. (Which I still didn’t, being about 2 feet shorter than everyone else, non-ultra-feminina, and having short hair…like a MAN).  
 The other shopping area is Tverskaya St – but it actually didn’t really have a lot of ambience nor many good shops. EXCEPT for Yeliseevsky grocery store, which really puts the Harrods food hall to shame. An amazingly decadently beautiful food shop, with a sister shop in St Petersburg. 
Unfortunately for Emma the ballet season had not yet started in Moscow, and for some reason we didn’t do a guided tour of the Bolshoi either. Instead, we went into the ground floor and stood around a bit pretending to ask about tickets, so we could listen to some kind of amazing rehearsal going on. I count it as “Hearing an orchestra play at the Bolshoi”.  
We spent a full morning, could have been more, exploring the Kremlin – I did not realize it was so full of churches. Did not realize my antipathy to churches.  I mean, they are amazingly beautiful, but I did not have the awe that Emma did. I prefer strolling unfamiliar streets to wandering around in my 204th church (I reiterate, they are amazingly beautiful). 
The Kremlin also housed the Diamond Fund – which has apparently more jewels in it than the Tower of London. It also had the museum where you could see all the old clothes that the Tsars and royal family wore, their carriages (amazingly intricate) and Faberge eggs! I was so excited about seeing the real Faberge eggs of the Imperial family.  
Moscow is also the home to one of the few Russian books that I could honestly read properly (apart from Boris Akunin books, which I read over and over again). Anyway, Moscow is the home to Master and Margarita – Apartment 20 number 45Sadovaya St, is the apartment where the Devil stays when he visits Moscow. It wasn’t open, but I got my picture with some bronze statues of the characters, saw the scribbled drawings in the stairwell, and was suitably tickled pink by the black cat hanging around. 
Now – the food. In Moscow we ate a good variety of food and it wasn’t gross like we might have imagined. On the one hand we were disappointed we didn’t know any locals in Russia, but on the other, the good thing about that is, that then you just eat what you like and don’t have to eat weird ‘specialties’ if you don’t want to. Some of the things we ate included;  
My My (Pronounced Moo Moo), a canteen style restaurant where we had Borscht – and I had something else gross, like a casserole but revolting. 
Pushkin restaurant – A bit too touristy. My pelmeni were nice, but my entrée was basically fat circles. 
An Armenian restaurant in Kitai Gorod, which was delicious but expensive – and which we got quite lost trying to find. I thought Kitai Gorod would be a bit ‘French Concession’ – but it wasn’t. I think it might become nicer as time goes on. Moscow is changing so fast. 
Patisserie – apart from Paul, the cakes I tried were very disappointing. 
Pancakes – YUM! Salmon pancakes! Should be everywhere! Pancakes also came with jam. 
PinkBerry – NOT Russian, but then, we can’t get in Australia, so I had to get some. 
Pies – pies filled with cabbage, or meat, or apple, or fish, or mushrooms. Russians know how to do pastry.  The pies were delicious.
After 6 days in Moscow we got up at the crack of dawn to get the train to Vladimir, a small town three hours on the fast train away.  Luckily in Vladimir we could leave our suitcases in the left luggage, and take only a daypack on with us to Suzdal. We crossed the street and somehow figured out how to get on a local bus to Suzdal (my normal, fight for a seat, worry I have to give it up for someone later ensued).  
In Suzdal there were churches and flowers everywhere. I really didn’t realize Russia would be so green and fertile. There were also lots of birds and dogs (not wild ones), and a couple of Monasteries we wandered around. 
The Kremlin in Suzdal had a beautiful cathedral, and you could have your dinner there. As a dumpling lover, I opted for the Pelmeni – and Emma followed suit. Unfortunately it was massively revolting. Dumplings in soup, all covered with sour cream.  
We were staying in some kind of ‘holiday resort’ – with a room close to the reception which was very noisy. I had my first altercation in Russia, but did not come off well. I would not recommend this place. 
Suzdal was also the place where we saw a sunbaking man with his thing out. (Note, no one else was sunbaking anywhere). 
At the end of our trip in Suzdal, we had to walk half an hour to the bus station and get a bus back to Vladimir. When we did, we walked around looking at their  churches and views across the country side (yes, green!). There were also lots of brides. 
Then we went to the local supermarket to buy supplies to take on the overnight train with us.  
It’s funny how you think something might be difficult or hard because you don’t know the language – and even though no one spoke any English – we still worked it out. I guess the trick is to at least know the alphabet, but I’m sure that if we didn’t stuff could still get done.  
At the Vladimir train station we were looking really confused, until this helpful lady, no English, grabbed a couple walking past and told them to take us out to the train ( I Assume). We soon figured out why we couldn’t find our platform. The platform our train was arriving on actually went BETWEEN the platforms, so we had to jump down and cross the rail tracks and stand in between the platforms. It was a bit like Harry Potter where they have that platform something something and a half (OK, I don’t know too much about Harry Potter, that might not be true).  
Some time went past, then I logged the next bit:
Russia Part 2 
I don’t know who first came up with the idea of Russia – Emma or I. I suspect it was me, though, because I am sure Emma would prefer to go somewhere much more exotic. To me, Russia was very exotic. I didn’t really know anyone who had gone there outside of an organized tour, and I personally hadn’t been anywhere in Eastern Europe. 
I had an interest in Soviet times, communism,20thcentury history. I loved the books of BorisAkunin(particularly theErastFandorinseries). The only thing that worried me was personal safety, and the idea that perhaps the food would not be very nice. 
Nevertheless, the idea was born, andEmmaand I started planning, and our trip was made gospel – maybe 12 months in advance. This gave me plenty of time to get out nearly allthe relevantbooks I could from my local library, leading up to the trip. No, not travel guides – which I did get out, but didn’t really read. Instead I got out every book I could about life in 20thcentury Russia – by people who had visited, people who had lived, people who had escaped (one of myfavouriteswasVanoraBennet’s, The Taste of Dreams). I got very interested in Perestroika and Glasnost, and the feelings of people in soviet countries around that time – I read as much as I could bySlavenkaDrakulic. 
I also got out a few books on the language – but this never took, and I ended up being able to say precious few words. My language highlight was having a man ramble at Russian in me, and I could hear the word “Forty”, which was really all I wanted to know. 
The only information I learned about Imperial Russia is that I gleaned from infotainment through reading every single one of theErastFandorinseries. 
I didn’t really know the history or that much about the landmarks. If I had, maybe I would have sooner realized that 2012 was the200 yearanniversary of Napoleon’s first campaign, and other ‘interesting’ facts like this. 
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I guess I am up to St Petersburg… 
Did you know that St Petersburg is built on all little canals, like Venice? I mean, I haven’t been to Venice, but I assume this is what it is like – it is beautiful! 
We arrived on the overnight train into St Petersburg, and walked a little while to our hotel. Along canals, and over cute little bridges, past the Church on Spilled Blood, it was all so picturesque. 
Our hotel had a little roof terrace with the perfect view of the Church, as well as a restaurant where you could sit and stare at it. I don’t think anyone else knew about this restaurant – otherwise it would have been full.  

Now I don't have a lot of time, so I am going to have to put in a brain dump, so I remember these things and might expand on them later... (unlikely, still never posted about 2011 month in Paris. And there were so many things I could have written. I am SUCH an idiot)
St Petersburg – canals’, roof terrace, Summer Gardens,Botanika (yummy vegetarian restaurant), Church on Spilled Blood (inside is choc a bloc with mosaics), Isaacs Cathedral, Fortress, Prison, that nice café with the millefeuille,Stolle (best pies in world), meeting up with my friend Ian Mike,Peterhofand the crazy business, Hydrofoil people thinking I was a child, Stroganoff and nausea,Mikhailovskyballet with greyhounds,$2 pancakes delivered to room,Restaurant in bottom ofyeliseevskystore, share abruleethree ways.Ian Mike and I doing a rush job on the Hermitage. 
Monument to the siege of Leningrad = veryverymoving, tear jerking. 
Political history museum =v.v.v.interesting. Personally, to me, both of these were better than the Hermitage, because I found it more interesting. 
  • Ulla’s apartment inEira– fancy 
  • Walk along the coast – delicious sugar bun 
  • Beautiful flat with single room, very Scandinavian 
  • Buffet breakfast atFazer– amazing cake, all you can eat delicious breakfast. Is this the most delicious breakfast out of anywhere? 
  • Fantastic design things everywhere, Design city 2012. Shopping is amazing 
  • Sushi- as night fell, I left to go bring home sushi for dinner - but unfortunately I got lost - still I found lots of nice little shops on the way, and Helsinki was beautiful. 
Ferry to Estonia 
  • sausagefest (where were the women)
  • hugeboat (how are there this many people who want to cross the channel?)
  • alcoholics (cheap liquor on cruise)
  • pokieson the boat (disappointing) 
  • beautifultown 
  • walkingtour by local girl - very informative. Recommend free walking tours everywhere you go now. 
  • peoplethat walk away at end of walking tour without tipping are super rude though.
  • Giant pancakes - delicious
  • Vegetarian restaurant - surprisingly delicious cauliflower soup. Had twice.
  • Nicest woman in world atBoccarestaurant – CrèmeBruleedelicious 
  • Their chinese version not so nice actually. And expensive. Europe can’t do Asian food. 
  • Tallinn is amazingly cute, but a bit too touristy. 
Bus torigavery luxurious, soft seats, recline, lazy boy style, with movies andinterent. Made the 4.5 hours fly by. 
Ear plugs = awesome 
Hotel room huge and gabled with beautiful view (Hotel Neiburgs)
Breakfast buffet is luxurious 
Can use spa and sauna - and did (on my own).
Went toSiguldaand surrounding towns by train and walking. Nature.
Pancakes were also big there 
Saw a dead body on the side of the rail tracks. 
Sauna – one and a half hours, in and out ofbothsaunaand steam bath. 
TgiFridays - probably shouldn't have
Walkingtour with hippy who was patronising.
Food tour of markets, but it was raining so we ate the food in pub. Sardines, cheese, hemp butter. Had an interesting talk with the tour guide, but he really isn't a very good guide. Rushing us about, not explaining anything. Not really a tour - just went to the shops where he bought things, and he didn't tell us anything. He looked a bit like Jesus.

Beautiful parks in Riga-between the old town and the river - green, green green  

Psycho Notes that I wrote to myself on trip: 
Other things that make me feel guilty – I have read like 6 books on this trip so far, but I haven’t properly written this blog post. Why amIspending all my time reading, when I could spend some of it creating something of my own? Not that what I create is any good or has any artistic value – but I do appreciate it myself later on. 
The other thing is – why on earth do I spend so much time looking at stupid news and opinion pieces online? Why do I read so muchxojane? Why do I waste so much time on Facebook? 
And then, when I am at home – why do I spend so much time watching stupid reruns? How did I watch the entire cannon of Dawson’s creek during the winter of 2012?(Not that it wasn’t good, but come on!) 
Why am I wasting all this time, and then saying “oh, I didn’t have time to learn Russian” or “I have no time to practice the guitar” or “I haven’t had time to finish my developer lessons”…?? 
Why am I prioritizing these idiot things over doing something productive? 
Does it relax me?Well,…I never feel relaxed, so I don’t see how that can be true. 
I am slowly trying to wean myself off stupid things. E.g. I haven’t visited forums in over 2 months. has also been cut out. is not offering anything, so that should be next. 
But the big one should be Facebook – I need to restrict myself to around 10 minutes per day I think. 
Thank God I never got into Twitter.