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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Russia

I wish we had more time in Russia. After so much trouble getting our visa, it’s too bad we couldn’t see more of the country. But we had family and friends to meet in Italy, so we couldn’t dawdle in this country. Still, we saw several influential cities and some really neat sights. And the train ride through Siberia wasn’t awful either. Here’s what we thought of the largest country in the world.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Seeing the Red Square in Moscow.
  2. Seeing downtown St. Petersburg.
  3. Seeing the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.

Brad:

  1. Riding the Trans-Mongolian Express. Seeing the scenery fly by was a surprisingly fun experience.
  2. The Winter Palace and Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Its size is unfathomable, and there was a huge collection of great paintings and stunningly ornate rooms.
  3. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is exactly what you think of when you think of Russia. The building is in immaculate condition, and we saw it near sunset when its colors are brightest.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Finding our hostel in St. Petersburg. (They gave us really bad directions.)
  2. All the bureaucratic silliness with our visas and registering. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the visitor registration rules, so we ended up not doing it at all. Luckily, we didn’t have any problems leaving the country.
  3. Spending money so quickly. It’s going to be hard to stay under budget in Europe.

Brad:

  1. Russians were unhelpful and somewhat unfriendly. They weren’t rude, just somewhat cold.
  2. Finding our hostels in St. Petersburg and Moscow were difficult. The directions weren’t written very well, and streets weren’t consistently signed.
  3. Getting a visa for Russia in the first place was a huge pain in the ass. There’s a lot of conflicting information on the Internet and the costs are very high for Americans. We weren’t sure we’d even be granted access to Russia when we entered Mongolia. (Fortunately we were, because we would’ve had to take an expensive flight out of the country.) I’d like to put a plug in for Everbrite’s Russian information site, since her information helped us get into the country.

Best meal?

Nikki: Believe it or not, I’d say it was a dinner we made! Just BBQ chicken and potatoes, but it was really good.

Brad: We grilled up chicken with BBQ marinade and boiled little potatoes in our hostel one evening. It was simple, but delicious.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Whatever I got at a food court in Moscow. It looked like a pizza, but it had a (bad) meat crust.

Brad: The instant noodle dinners on the train got old after a while.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: David from Spain was quite entertaining.

Brad: I’m having a hard time remembering that night, but I think I enjoyed talking with David in St. Petersburg.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: We didn’t have any major disasters!

Brad: The vodka and 2 liters of 9% beer didn’t go over great. I wasn’t feeling very well that night. 

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Soul Kitchen Hostel in St. Petersburg was awesome! Clean, good facilities, convenient location, and great atmosphere. It was one of the best places we’ve stayed.

Brad: The Soul Kitchen in St. Petersburg was really nice.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The hostel in Novgorod. Our room was clean and new, but the rest of the building was decrepit and there wasn’t a kitchen.

Brad: The “hostel” in Novgorod had decent rooms, but it lacked both soul and a kitchen.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Spending a few hours in Gorky Park. It was a really nice park to relax in.

Brad: I enjoyed hanging out in Moscow’s Gorky Park waiting for our night train to depart. There was a fountain show to music, a good hot dog stand, and a crazy-good rollerblader.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: The huge escalators and ancient train cars in the Metro subway system.

Brad: In Novgorod and St. Petersburg, sunset was around 10:45PM, and dusk ended around midnight. It’s very strange looking out the window after 11 at night, the sun’s only setting, and people are still walking through the streets like it’s only 7 at night.

Favorite Soviet arcade machine?

Nikki: The snake game where you have to eat the bunnies, but not the carrots.

Brad: I liked the “Soviet Boi” game. This site has information on how the game works, and you can even play it online!

Statistics for Russia

  • Days in the country: 10
  • Places we stayed: 3
  • Rainy days: 1
  • Blog posts: 3
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 4
  • Photos taken: 610
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 167, 27% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 3
  • Hours traveling overland: 112
  • Overnights on trains: 5
  • Distance covered on train: 6,649km (4,132mi)
  • UNO wins: Brad 44, Nikki 35
  • Best Tetris score: 50,698 (113 lines)*
  • Hours of daylight in St. Petersburg: 20
  • Time zone changes: 6

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 15
  • Days on the road: 325
  • Places we stayed: 138
  • Rainy days: 57
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 33
  • Photos taken: 13,701
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,313, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 27
  • Hours traveling overland: 763
  • Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 21
  • Time zone changes: 16

* Tetris & Dr. Mario on ZSNES

Novgorod and St. Petersburg

We took an overnight train (just one night–it seemed so short!) to the historical city of Novgorod. During the medieval times, it was an important capital and the source of the distinctive Russian architecture and art. Today its kremlin is in good shape and the area is listed as a World Heritage Site. Since we didn’t have enough time to stop in Irktusk or Vladimir, I was glad we could at least see something outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Novgorod has about ??the same population as Madison, so it was very relaxed and peaceful.

Next we went to our final destination in Russia: St. Petersburg. I didn’t know this before I saw it, but all of St. Petersburg is gorgeous. In fact, the entire city center is a World Heritage Site because of its architectural and historical significance. It was built in less than twenty years under the rule of Peter the Great and is known as the “Venice of the North” because of its numerous canals and bridges. (Although it seems like almost every city we go to is known as either “the Venice of ___” or “the Paris of ___.”) And, of course, when you throw in the revolutions that took place there as well, you can see that it’s a very interesting and important place.

This was also the furthest north we’ve ever been. St. Petersburg’s latitude is nearly 60 degrees north, about the same as Seward, Alaska. In the summer, the days there are really long. It was difficult for us to keep track of time, because at 11:00 PM it was still light outside. Probably because of this, the city seemed very busy and crowded at all hours of the day. I heard somewhere that during the “White Nights” in June, they don’t even have to turn the streetlights on.

During our visit, we saw the Peter and Paul Cathedral, Peter and Paul Fortress (where many political prisoners, including Dostoevsky and Trotsky,??were held), Kazan Cathedral,??Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated), and the Winter Palace. Inside the Winter Palace is the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Its collection spans from prehistoric times all the way up to the early 20th century. We spent an entire day wandering around and we didn’t even see everything on display.

Even though St. Petersburg is known as the beer capital of Russia, we tried some Russian vodka there. It doesn’t taste any different than other vodkas, but they say it has to be stored in the freezer and served ice cold. Everyone drinks out of shot glasses, and before you drink someone gives a toast. After you drink, you have to eat a small, salted pickle. These seem to be very strict rules. There’s a Russian joke that a man from Finland goes to visit Russia. When he comes home, his friends ask him how it was. He answers, “It was fine, but the Russians talk and eat too much.”

I can’t believe we were never planning on coming to Russia, because I loved it! All the hassle and expense of getting our visas was definitely worth it. Pretty much everything about Russia was interesting to me. It’s too bad that we could only spend about two weeks in the world’s largest country, but we couldn’t linger because we had to meet up with my family in Italy!

Moscow

Our first night in Moscow, we went out for a walk and ended up wandering right into the Red Square. I was more or less overcome with glee and couldn’t stop giggling the entire time. Actually seeing the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and St. Basil’s in real life was just incredible. St. Basil’s was actually much smaller than I thought it would be, but it looks like something in Disneyland. We visited Lenin, but we couldn’t tell if it was actually his body or not. This was the first Communist leader we saw, as we didn’t call upon Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao.

The next day we visited the Armory in the Kremlin. I was actually more impressed with the architecture of the building than the collection of artifacts. The best part was the diamond collection, which includes the royal collection, unique historical??jewelry, and huge hunks of uncut diamond, gold, and platinum nuggets. Some of my favorite pieces included a tiara with a thirteen carat pink diamond; a brooch in the shape of a rose??bouquet??made of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds; and the Grand Imperial Crown itself. The crown was made in 1762 and is made of 5,000 diamonds, 75 pearls, and a 398 carat spinel. Needless to say, it was the most sparkly headpiece I’ve ever seen. Brad didn’t visit the diamond collection, because it costs about $15 extra, but I thought it was well worth it.

The Moscow subway system is a Soviet marvel and a tourist attraction in itself, so we spent a whole afternoon riding around and looking at different stations. Many of them have stately granite pillars and mosaics of Communist propaganda. They’re also very deep underground, so we rode up some of the longest escalators I’ve ever seen. The??escalators??move pretty quickly, but it still takes several minutes before you reach the top. The trains themselves are ancient and incredibly loud. However, Russia seems to run by the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the trains do still work perfectly fine.

One of our final excursions was a trip out to the Museum of Soviet??Arcade??Machines. They have over twenty arcade machines that still work. I think they all involved either hunting, warfare, or sports. They were pretty simple and cheesy, but we had a great time.

Overall, I really liked Moscow and I wish we could have spent more time there. Russians have a bed reputation with travelers, but I didn’t think people were especially rude. It does feel weird to not be in Asia anymore. Now we actually fit in and people keep talking to us in Russian and expecting us to understand what they’re saying. Sometimes it’s nice to blend in, but sometimes it’s nice when everyone just assumes you have no idea what’s going on.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway

It might seem strange, but I was really looking forward to our five day train ride through Russia ever since that dinner with Ben in Ipoh. (We never did make it to Taiwan, though.) The idea of going by rail through Siberia and crossing from the East to the West appealed to my romantic, nostalgic imagination of what travel should be. Plus I’ve really grown fond of trains during this trip. They really are the best mode of transportation. And, more than anything else, it just felt right. Brad and I were very excited about Africa, but it never fit into our plans very well. I can’t believe we had been planning on covering all of Asia and Africa overland in six months. In retrospect, it was the most absurd idea we’ve ever had. I don’t even think it’s possible. At dinner that night in Malaysia, it just clicked in my brain that the Trans-Mongolian was perfect. Africa will be another trip.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Siberia surprised me. Actually, it reminded me of northern Wisconsin. Most of it was forest, with many birch and pine trees. There were also many purple wildflowers in bloom all over the place. We went along the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake and a World Heritage Site. It holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. I was also surprised by how many people we saw in Siberia. Maybe it was because we were coming from Mongolia, but it seemed like there were people everywhere. There were even a couple of huge cities with busy highways and skyscrapers out there.

The train itself was modern and nice. I’d say it wasn’t quite as nice as the train we took from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, though. At the beginning of our trip, we had two Mongolians as cabinmates. They didn’t speak much English, but I’m assuming it was a grandmother with her teenage grandson. At one point, the boy took out his grandma’s passport to show us that she had gone to America. We asked where in America and she answered, “Washington! Washington!” with a huge smile. As Brad mentioned in his country recap, they shared their delicious dumplings with us when the customs agents wouldn’t let them take homemade food across the border.

The grandma and grandson disembarked on the second day and we never got new cabinmates. It was nice to have our own cabin, of course, but I also would have liked to meet new people. The train was mostly empty, actually, so there wasn’t a whole lot of socializing in general. We spent our time reading, talking, looking out the window, eating, listening to music, watching movies, and playing Uno, SimCity and Tetris. I enjoyed the train ride overall, but a shower would have been nice. We were looking pretty swampy by the time we arrived in Moscow.

I’m glad we took the train. We weren’t exactly like??freight-hopping??hobos??or the
Boxcar Children, but it was still old-fashioned enough to satisfy my sentimental side.??If you’re thinking about taking it, here are Brad’s tips and things to bring: More »