Saturday, August 25, 2012

Russia - Part 2: St. Petersburg

This is the second of three blog entries describing my trip to Russia with Cliff and Andrey in the summer of 2010.  Picking up from the first post, we had just arrived in St. Petersburg from Moscow.  One of the first things that struck me in St Petersburg, not unlike Moscow, was the subways.  In particular, though, it was the depth of the subways.  As you entered the station and approached the elevator, it seemed to dive down into infinity.  Really, I'm not exaggerating.  These were long, deep, subway entrances.  The overall St. Petersburg subway system is in fact the deepest in the world. This is because St. Petersburg is essentially built on a swamp, and you have to get deep to real solid ground.  One station is 105 meters deep.  This combined with the frequency of trains meant that one or two trains would come and go while you were on the way down the escalator.

After arriving we made our way to the flat owned by friends of Andrey's.   They had lived there several years, but had also moved to Germany since.  They kept their flat in St. Petersburg to have a place to stay when going back.  It was located ideally - just a few stops on the subway to get to the city center, and a short walk to the ocean.  Similar to Andrey's mother-in-law's place, this building also had a typical communistic feel - no frills.  Inside the flat was actually quite charming - and looked as if the decor and amenities had not changed for 25 years.

The radio on the wall was originally from Soviet times - it would get one channel.

One evening we walked down to the sea and along the water for dinner.  Sadly, what was once a seaside cafe with a nice view is no longer close to the coast - a new ship port is being built, along with a bout 75 acres of land where there used to be sea.    I think the cafe has probably taken a hit.  We were almost the only ones there, despite the offering of live music:

St. Petersburg was particularly exciting and topical for both Cliff and I because at the time we were both reading historical accounts of the city.  Cliff was reading about the Russian Revolution, much of which initiated and took place around St. Petersburg in 1917.    Many of the landmarks played a part in this history.  I was reading a biography about Peter the Great, the great Tsar who founded St. Petersburg.  As an aside, I can highly recommend this book, "Peter the Great", by Robert K. Massie.  It is long, but exciting and captivating, and one feels they really become acquainted intimately with the Tsar from childhood on (Massie won the Pulitzer prize for the book).  So many of the monuments, buildings and general city layout were of particular interest to us.  And there was a lot to see.  We started off taking in some sights around the city center, churches and the like.

From here we took a stroll down the famous Nevskiy Prospect, the most touristy street in St. Petersburg, lined with shops and with access to several sights.  To our surprise, as we were walking down the street, we actually witnessed a kid try to rob an older man.  The man was wearing a "fanny pack", and the kid (young adult) walked up, unbuckled it from behind, and tried to run with it.  The man had quick reflexes, and after a brief tug-of-war, the kid gave up and simply let go and walked away calmly, blending back into the crowd.  As we continued walking we remarked there was a police officer on the corner not 30 meters away.

We continued walking, a bit in disbelief that it was so easy to do that and just walk away.  Cliff and Andrey walked ahead of me by a few meters, and just as we were passing an ice cream stand with several people in line, a man quickly stepped right in front of me.  So quickly and close to me that I actually ran into him at the pace I was walking, and had to put up my arms to brace myself and push him away.  At this, he shoved me back, right into somebody else who was now immediately behind me.  Suddenly, I was in the middle of about five or six guys, I think, all shouting and shoving.  It was literally like being in a mosh pit at a concert.  I thought I had inadvertently walked into a gang fight or something, and was bouncing around just trying not to get hurt.  This all happened in about 5 seconds, at which time somebody put two arms around my waist and physically extracted me from the mayhem.  It was Andrey.   He said something like "Alex, be careful!", and at the same time I swung my camera bag around to my front and looked inside.

"My camera's gone!!" I shouted to Cliff an Andrey.
"He went that way, he went that way!!" shouted two men in thick Russian accents, standing there, who must have been part of the scuffle.    I took a 360 degree view of my surroundings and could not see anybody clearly making off with a camera.  But somehow my instinct said that it was going in the exact opposite direction as the men were pointing.  I told Cliff and Andrey to go in the direction they were pointing, and I turned around and walked opposite.  As I started to take off in this direction one of the men grabbed my shoulders and said "No!  That way!  That way!" pointing me again in the other direction.  I had to push him away to continue in the same direction.  After maybe 20 meters I for some reason focused on one guy, a relatively small guy in relation to all the other men around, walking, but at a brisk and determined pace down the street.  And he had a large scarf tucked in the elbow of one arm.  I ran to catch up with him, then slowed to his pace aside him.  He did not look at me, but straight ahead.  In my mind I thought "There is a chance that is my camera wrapped in that scarf.  But there is also a good chance it is not.  Can I ask him?  Can I just try to take it?"   For lack of a plan, and with things happening quickly, for some reason I said, in a sort of friendly and high-pitched voice, "Hey, uh, did you see a camera around here?" And I think as I was saying this I realized it was stupid and useless, especially since he probably did not speak English, and so at the same time I lunged at him and grabbed the scarf from his arm.  Within a second I knew, in fact, that it was my camera (A large DSLR).  And I now had it.  And the scarf.  But he managed to hang on to the scarf.  And so now here we were, about exactly where the fanny-pack incident went down, and here is a another tug-of-war, with a scarf.  Only after about 2 seconds I realized I didn't care at all about the scarf, I had my camera.  I dropped the scarf, looked at the guy, and in a another moment of brilliance could only say, "That's my camera, asshole!"  At which point we both just froze, for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only another 2 seconds, him looking dumbfounded, me dazed with adrenaline.  And then he started cursing/shouting at me in Russian.  And so I decided I should probably walk away quickly at this point.  I found Cliff and Andrey again, who were of course surprised I had my camera again, and we walked around downtown St. Petersburg for a while recapping what happened as I came off the adrenaline high. 

Andrey later said that there was a chance that these guys probably had a deal with the police officers standing around there to look the other way - probably as long as there was no violence or something.  Clearly, they had picked me out some time before based on my camera bag - I thought it was actually relatively safe - it looks more like a messenger bag than a camera bag, but these guys know their stuff.   I hadn't shot a photo in maybe 45 minutes, so I think unlikely they spotted the actual camera, but possible.  I was, not surprisingly, super-paranoid the rest of the trip about my camera/bag.  I had actually even had it buckled closed when the guy went in and wrestled out the camera.

The next day we were about halfway through our trip and all needed some time alone - I headed over to check out a military history museum, and then set out to find Okkervil River.  You may know Okkervil river as a band from Austin, Texas.  But there is also an actual river, and it's in St. Petersburg. So being a big fan (of the band), I thought maybe it'll be an adventure to find it.   The band is actually named after a short story of the same name, party set near the river, by Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya, whom Andrey was familiar with.  Okkervil river is located off one of the extended subway lines, well off the beaten path for tourists.  As you see, it's more of a dirty creek than a river.

While I was there in the less-tourist-traveled parts of St. Petersburg I came across a manhole, still with the old CCCP designation.

With our last two days in St. Petersburg we took in Peterhof, Peter the Great's famous palace of fountains up the coast, and of course, the Hermitage, both magnificent, and featuring prominently in our books.  All in all a beautiful city, that couldn't be diminished in my mind by the attempted robbery.

Fountains at Peterhof

The crew.  I think Andrey is looking hard to discourage more camera-stealing.

On the walk back to the flat

Next:  Part 3,  back to Moscow, and a visit to Moscow State University,

Monday, May 28, 2012

Russia  - Part 1: Moscow

It's been over 18 months since I took a trip to Russia with Andrey and Cliff, but better late than never to post about it.  There were so many stories and photos I think it just seemed to daunting to give the proper treatment on the blog.  But the longer I wait the less I remember, so best to get it down in writing.

I had been talking to Andrey for years about visiting Russia with him, but without really making any plans.  Cliff and I had a good time taking the Trabi to Krakow the year before, and with him having a baby on the way and a move to the US coming up, there was sufficient urgency for the three of us to plan a trip.  Getting visas was relatively easy since Andrey new some travel agent connections and had relatives that could formally invite us if need be.

We flew into Moscow, where Andrey lived several years, including during his graduate studies, and where Andrey's mother-in-law lives.  Andrey told us before she lived in one of the nicer neighborhoods, so it was a bit surprising that the entire neighborhood was comprised of buildings reminiscent of communist-style "Plattenbau" housing, and looked similar to many other parts of Moscow.  With easy transit access and relatively central location, I suppose it was actually pretty premium. 

It turns out that Andrey's mother-in-law has been living in this apartment for a long time - well before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  And in communist times, it actually housed her family and well as others together.    Some of the decor/furniture/appliances from the time were still there.

Since she didn't speak any English, and we didn't speak any Russian, it was a bit awkward to communicate upon first meeting - mostly smiles and hand signs before asking Andrey to translate - but her energy and high-spiritedness did away with it soon. The ice really broke when she invited us into the kitchen the first night for a round of vodka shots.
"Putinka" vodka - named after Putin

One of the great things about staying here was that Andrey communicated that we'd like to try to real traditional Russian recipes, and so we were fortunate enough to have a couple traditional meals. 

The first day after we arrived we decided that one of the first things we had to do, of course, was head down to Red Square.  The day started off smokey.  You may remember that in 2010 smoke form large wildfires around Moscow covered the city in a dense, dangerous, smog.  We arrived just as they were dying down and the public health threat was minimal, but the presence of smoke was still evident when the wind blew from the right direction.  Some people were still wearing masks, and one night with the window left open the stench woke me up.  But this was only really evident on our first and second day, and after that the weather on our trip was for the most part quite beautiful and comfortable. 

"Red Square"

Doing our best to look like American tourists - it bit me in the ass later

fly and St. Basil's

One of the most surprising and impressive things about our trip were the subways, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg.   The stations in Moscow are incredibly grandiose, with beautiful marble in places, lots of adornments, majestic entryways. 

I learned that the Moscow subway carries the second most people per year in the world, after Tokyo.  About as much and London and Paris.....combined.  Also, the trains were incredibly frequent.  We never had to wait more than a couple minutes.  We spent a fair amount of time on the subway system getting around to various locations.  This was a common sight for me:

One of the new things Cliff and I tried while out on the town in the heat was the local vendors outside the Metro stations selling cold Kvass (KBAC), which is a cold, fermented drink made from bread.  It's like 1% alcohol. It basically tastes like drinking bread, or yeast.

Andrey and Cliff partake of the Kvass

After taking in some of the essential sites, we decided to head to St. Petersburg, so we could make it back in time to chill in Moscow a few more days before heading home.    On a map of Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg appear pretty close to one another, which is of deceiving, because Russia is friggin huge.    It's actually like 700km between them, which is like Paris to Prague.  We decided to take an overnight train, party for the convenience of making the most of our time, partly for the experience. 

Cliff chillin in our cabin
Our pretty train ticket, and the classy tea cup that we were served complimentary tea in.

The three of us got our own cabin on the train.  I have to say, it was probably the most comfortable train ride I've had.   I actually slept pretty well, and when I woke up, we were just outside of St. Petersburg.  Arriving in the St. Petersburg train station was one of the most dramatic impressions I had of the trip.  Loud, patriotic orchestral music filled the large main hall of the station, and a gigantic train map-mural in a style that must be at least 50 years old was an imposing sight covering one wall.  The whole scene really left an impression of power.

Next post:  Russia - Part 2: St. Petersburg.