Russia, back on the schedule!
Originally Russia was part of the itinerary TK&A published for Odyssey 2000. Since then, they have withdrawn Russia as a country the group is going to visit. No concrete reason was given, just that it is too difficult to get 250 + people into, therefore, it is cut. The “contract” TK&A had us sign prior to leaving gave them the right to withdraw any country due to “political reasons”. Guess that includes Russia. (?)
Many riders are very upset about this exclusion. Tim has calmed the group telling them they will “do their best” to get us into Russia, even if it means giving us an extra day to explore it on our own.
In London, Denise and a few other riders decided to take matters into their own hands. They visited the Russian Embassy to see exactly what it requires to obtain a visa and what we need to do. We were told the longer we wait, the more expensive it is.
Tim’s plan to let us buy visas in Helsinki would be very expensive, in the neighborhood of $500. For a 1 or 2 day trip, that is ridiculous! Most people will not want to do that.
Instead, Denise passed out a sign up sheet to see how many would be interested in an organized 3 day tour of St. Petersburg. The response was an over-whelming “maybe”, depending on the cost. Based on that, Denise went ahead and got the details for us.
She was told that a group of 40 people would be the best number. We could fit comfortably into a tour bus and also not swamp the embassy with too many requests for visas. So that is the plan.
I was one of the “maybes” on her list. After learning the facts and the risks and with Larry’s encouragement, I decided to go for it. I will probably never get another chance to go to Russia and certainly not for the small cost now, being that I’m so close. So I accepted the opportunity and asked to be included on the tour.
We will not know if we can go for sure until the Visas are approved. Denise will be visiting the Russian Embassy in Oslo, Norway this coming week. Hopefully they will be able to get the job done.
There are so many rules associated with the trip. As a matter of interest, I will share what we are doing.
Going “Off Route” to Russia Takes Organization from a Rider (not the leader)
July 19, 2000
After Denise went to so much trouble to organize the trip, TK&A finally came through with a Russia Option. For an additional fee, riders can go into Russia on a 1, 2 or 3 day tour. The price is less than what Denise’s trip cost, but it also doesn’t include as much. All the people who couldn’t fit on Denise’s trip signed up for it. There will be about 80 people going on the TK&A trip.
Personally I think it stinks that we have to spend money above and beyond the expense we have already paid for the trip. TK&A advertised we were going to Russia. Nothing was ever said about it being an “additional charge” to go. There is even a T-Shirt with Russia on it. So much for professional representation. I dare say TK&A will be receiving a lot of bills for the expense they were supposed to provide.
August 3, 2000
It was a long train ride. We sat 6 to a compartment, at first there were 5 Odyssey riders then 2 hours into the ride a 6th person, a real Russian joined us. Al the Alien sat comfortably up in the luggage rack.
We stopped twice for customs. A bunch of customs officers got on, collected our passports in foot high piles. They then went through the train, compartment by compartment making us all get out while they searched the compartment. Al sat quietly up above and was not noticed by the female officer. They went away for awhile than came back returned our passports and visas stamped. The train stopped and they all got off.
From the train it was obvious when we crossed the border into Russia. The beautiful, well kept Finnish homes disappeared and were replaced by unkempt dwellings suffering from differed maintenance. From whole country looks poor. The terrain is similar to Finland’s flattish land with tall evergreen trees. Much of the forest has been burnt, but not cleaned out. Even that looks poor. There were a few lovely settings by water and rivers. I could see men out fishing.
The highlight of the ride was our discussion with Andrei, the young Russian. He was just returning from a seasonal job in Finland were he had been picking strawberries and raspberries. He was a very handsome young man, in his early 20′s I would guess. He was educated, intelligent and spoke remarkably good English.
We talked about his country and the changes it is going through. He said all males have to serve in the military, unless they are in school or pay a doctor to write a note that they are too sick to serve. Once we got into Russia the money changers came down the hallway. They took your money and gave rubles. They worked off a cart that looked like a coffee cart. It was very strange. Rubles were worth about 26.20 to the U.S. dollar. I exchanged my Finnish Marks for Rubles, I felt rich!
Our hotel is supposed to be a first class tourist hotel. From the outside at night it looked very good, but this morning in the sunshine it didn’t look so good. The room was 1970 vintage and had not been updated since then. The bathroom plumbing and workmanship was very poor. Nothing fit properly, there were huge gaps in the wall where the pipes went through Construction here does not give the impression of pride in craftsmen ship. Or at least the newer buildings.
Our view out the window was of a huge complex that was meant to be part of the hotel, but was never finished. Our guide said it had been abandoned 8 or 9 years ago. It gave off very spooky effect, imagine a convention type hotel sitting abandoned for a decade, it was a mess.
My first night in Russia was not to be one of peaceful rest. I couldn’t get to sleep and was tortured all night by buzzing and biting of the mosquitoes we had inadvertently let into our room. Upon arrival our hotel room was hot and stuffy. I immediately opened the windows, casually remarking that there were no screens.
My first concern was one of security, since we were on the 2nd floor, that was really the 4th floor (in the US), I looked to be sure there was not a balcony that someone could walk across and climb in the window. It was a long way down and unless some one was like Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible” and could scale a cliff wall, we were pretty safe. That is safe from robbers, rapists and thieves, but not from the lousy mosquitoes!
The first time I flipped the light switch back on to swat a mosquito, I noticed dozens of dead mosquito carcasses squashed into the wallpaper. Yes, it was disgusting! I added a few more, closed the window and tried to go back to sleep.
I couldn’t sleep. I hated the room, the ghostlike vacant hotel rooms across the way, the ugly bathroom, the scratchy sheets and the little, lead pillow that wouldn’t let me poof it up. It was hot there were more mosquitoes and the only way I could protect myself from them was to cover up with the thick wool, filled duvet.
Sleep was not in my future, I kept switching the light on trying see the little bastards so I could send more of them “to the wall” but they were hard to find. I worried at first about waking Anita but then remembered how she can sleep on demand. Years in medical school left her with this ability. In all my ranting, banging, switching on and off the light, she never once stirred!
In the early morning hours I finally fell asleep from exhaustion. By then the mosquitoes must have drowned in my blood because I was covered with bites and they were nowhere to be found. Anita woke looking refreshed and lovely. I looked like I’d been out drinking all night, my eyes were puffy and creased and I was really tired.
Sleeping until the last possible minute, I woke with barely enough time to shower and get down to breakfast before we boarded the bus for the all day tour. I was glad to have everything planned out for me this day. I didn’t want to have to do much thinking.
The first stop on the tour was at a bridge over the Neva River. The waterfront views were excellent, we could see the Winter Palace and it’s West Wing, which is also known as the Hermitage. It was a beautiful day, just perfect for taking a few pictures. We were allowed a few minutes to stroll around and check out the navigation beacons, known as the Rostral Columns.
We were approached by a multitude of street vendors, I felt like I was in Morocco! The vendors are very aggressive. From our first photo stop until the last, we were exposed to them, selling everything postcards, army hats, books, scarves, stacking dolls, stamp books, coins, etc.
Capitalism has arrived.
They quote all prices here in US dollars, but only accept rubles in stores. On the street they want the US dollar and almost insist on it. Things are rather cheap, or at least after Scandinavia they seem that way.
The Hermitage is huge beyond imagination. We spent 2 and a half hours on tour there and barely touched the place. It is a combination of Paris’s Louvre and Versailles! The inside is maintained but outside has a feeling that the brooms in Russia are in short supply. Even the grass is not tended too.
If one wants to photograph or video the arts, you must buy a permit. Even with the permit you are not allowed to use the flash. Each room has an “angry women” who enforces the rules. I must admit, I didn’t buy a permit, but I did snap a few pictures, even a couple with flash, by accident. Guess I was risking a trip to Siberia!
The collection of art is amazing. I have read the collection of objects numbers 2,6 million pieces. Most are not even displayed. The ones that are displayed are not in a rather casual manner. For instance the French impressionist display was in a room with florescent lights. Of course most of the artwork is so magnificent in it’s own right, it would stand out no matter how it is displayed.
That evening we were dropped off at the hotel with 35 minutes left before we were picked up to go to the ballet. I didn’t need much time to brush my teeth and jump into my “little black dress” accessorized with my delicate bike sandals. I was a true Odyssey fashion plate tonight! The ballet house is most ornamented. The seats are wooden chairs decorated in blue velvet. Gold relief surrounds the theater from top to bottom. The ceiling is painted with angels encircling a fabulous crystal chandelier. The curtain is made of a very ornate blue velvet with silver embroidery. If you ask me, I would Napoleon’s sister decorated this place!
It was my very first time at the ballet and the show was extraordinary. I can’t tell you the name of it, because it was in Russian! The plot was very clear, some guy was engaged to a lovely girl, but falls in love with a dancing nymph (a fairylike ballerina), he leaves his finance to chase the nymph, but a witch gets jealous and casts a spell on the nymph, she dies and the guy dies of a broken heart. The finance finds another guy. End of story.
Of course I am making light of a very serious show, that was so beautiful and graceful. I truly did enjoy it, but not as much as some guy in the front of the theater. He amused us all by standing up and shouting “bravo” every 5 seconds after the show was over. He must have shouted “bravo” 40 times. I wonder if he was the nymph dancer’s daddy? Or, never mind, I won’t go there…
The main busy street in St. Petersburg is called Nevskij Prospect. Reading about this street my expectation was to see a street similar to the Avenue des Champ Elysses in Paris or Los Ramblas in Barcelona. It was not. It was filled with historic centuries buildings and tons of people, but strangely absent were the scores of sidewalk cafes, retail shops and laughter. The street was under going major renovation in preparation for it’s tri-centennial in a few years. Walking down this busy street required all my attention, I didn’t want to accidentally fall into one of the many huge gaps, some as deep as I am tall. Accident prevention in Russia is a mere red ribbon, separating me from bruises and broken bones. In the US, this street would be the origination site for lawsuits.
In the subway the attendants were not helpful in the least. They didn’t speak English and they didn’t want us wasting their time. When we finally realized it was a one price ride to where ever, we knew she was just asking how many tokens. I told her and she pitched them into the tray. No charm school lost on this lady!
The men in the subway were a different story. The subway was very crowded. As common practice all over the world, persons standing still, stand to the right, while persons moving do so on the left. Dr. Anita quickly decided to move down the escalator, leaving me behind, then just as quickly she stopped and tucked back in the “stand still” lane. I went to follow her, but realized she changed her mind.
In the mean time two gentlemen thought I needed to get in the walking lane. They were so polite and would not move until I got in front of them At first I tried to explain to them I changed my mind, not knowing Russian I wasn’t very successful in expressing myself. I gave in and got in the lane in front of them only moving up a few people to were Anita stood. We found on several occasions men willing to help offer direction.
We made directional matters worst because we had in English tourist map as opposed to a Russian one. It took awhile to figure out why everyone looked so perplexed. They couldn’t read our map!
We ended up eating at a sidewalk cafe and later having a drink inside the bar. The piano player was very good, so we stayed for quite awhile. When it was time to go, we thought we would walk back to the hotel, since the distance wasn’t that far, but it was 2 a.m. When we walked out onto the street, it was very, very dark. At first I thought there had been a power failure, then I realized there were no street lights. All of a sudden walking to hotel didn’t seem like a very good idea.
We three piled into a cab. On the way home I noticed the bridges were up, then I remembered something the tour guide had told us. At 2 a.m. until 5 a.m. they open the bridges for the big ships to pass through. Since our hotel was on the other side we had to drive forever to go around to a bridge that was not up. The tour guide told us that is was a common excuse to use when one came home very early in the morning. “Sorry honey, the bridges were all up, I had to wait.”
I saw a clever T-shirt. The front had the “golden arches” imprinted with “McLenin” the back side said, “The parties over!” with a hammer and sickle on it! Very cute, but a poor quality cloth.
The Russians have a great sense of humor and they enjoy laughing at themselves. Our tour guide was full of wonderful Russian insight and sayings. She was able to help me understand the people in a more personal way. She said in Russia a pessimist is the one who goes around complaining about how bad everything is. The optimist comes along and says, “oh, no things are going to get very worse!”
My personal favorite saying was the one regarding things being relative. It goes like this, “if you have 3 hairs on your head it’s not enough, if you have three hairs in your bowl of soup it’s too much!”
All my life I have heard the messages that the Russians are communists and are our enemy. Enemies are bad, hate and fear the Russians. Now I go to Russia, experience the country, it’s history and the people. I realize the people are not the government the people have just tolerated and lived through the government. They are not to be judged via the politics of the time, no more than I as an American should be judged by American politics.
I feel empathy for the Russian people. They have a lot of catching up to do. The country’s infrastructure has failed the people and they will be paying for that failure for a long time.
Day 2 in St. Petersburg: Capitalism is alive and well in Russia. We found this to be true when we were storing our stuff in a locker at the train station. Down in this dreary basement location were the normal rows of temporary lockers to help out over burdened travelers. Anita and I proudly located them on the day we had to leave.
While Anita set our own personal combination, I watched the local merchants do business from adjacent lockers. These merchants seemed to be the “middle men” for the street salesmen and booth salesmen. Their little cubicle lockers were stuffed with all sorts of items from socks to band aids. When we returned that evening the same folks were there dispensing items to the “end” sellers. There was even a lady trying to sell wind chimes to the locker people, obviously a “factory rep.”
Russian citizens do not pay taxes. On the surface that might seem good, but after looking at the decaying of a great city, it is obvious there is no free lunch. The Russians say, “If you find free cheese, it is in a mousetrap!” St. Petersburg is supposed to be the “jewel” of Russia, this jewel, is rotting from the decay of differed maintenance, it won’t last forever if something doesn’t change.
The buses, trains and trolley cars all have that military, “no nonsense” look. Besides being drab and dull they are not in good condition. The intersections where the trolley car tracks cross are downright dangerous. The road is broken into various levels, with huge pot holes. Considering the drivers are not pedestrian friendly at all it makes crossing the street a real adventure.
In our travels, Anita and I discovered a common interest in open air markets. We happened to find one and wandered on in. Thinking we were “blending” with the locals we browsed the different kiosks, looking at the goods. Fresh produce was in great competition, judging by the multitude of booths present. The many vendors tried to out position themselves with the competition, by polishing the bright red tomatoes, deep purple eggplant and other fruit until it glistened in the sun. I was impressed at how nice they made it look, with so little space and the lack of resources as in power and water.
In the same area next to the outside vendors was a building that housed the “meat department”. This area had a huge staff of butchers and clerks servicing customers. It was almost like the “Safeway” back home, that is with a few exceptions. First you could see the whole animal carcass from which the butcher was cutting. There was no refrigeration, no plastic trays with plastic wrap and no grocery carts. This market was a everyday affair for these folks.
Anita and I talked about the tons of market photos we have taken all over the world. They are all very much alike, yet different where ever we go. We both grabbed for our cameras to record this Russian market experience. We were once again tourists with pointing cameras! So goes our cover!
The Russians as a rule do not like to have their picture taken. I usually try to ask permission prior to snapping, but now when I was asking I got a very distinct “no!” Then they turn their head. I believe many were not proud of what they were doing and in some instances how they were dressed. We conspired to snap a shot of the contrasting cigarette sellers (the older women) and the lovely young girls giving free samples of cigarettes on the side walk. Anita took her camera out and the women immediately turned around to avoid her, but I was on the other side and got the shot. Success! I probably won’t use the photo, but it was good practice for my paparazzi future, should I decide to go that way!
Odyssey riders went in two separate groups to St. Petersburg. My group was the original group that didn’t trust that TK&A would come through with the ‘Russian” option. The main difference was we had a guided bus tour. As it turned out the guided tour protected us. Four folks on the other tour were out touring on their own and were robbed. One lost her passport, it was taken from her backpack. Two lost their wallets to pick pockets and the third lost his entire backpack with camera, etc. Considering 120 of us were in Russia for less than 48 hours, that is a very high statistic!
Of course we all stick out like sore thumbs. We do not look like the locals. ever. I toured with the bus one day, then the second day we just explored on our own. I loved and needed both days. Actually another week in a nicer hotel would have been ok with me too. But as it stands, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to see a small part of Russia. We boarded the train for the return trip to Helsinki after rescuing our stuff from the locker and purchasing a few “drinks” for the road. I was happy to learn our return train was a Finnish train. There is a world of difference between the two and I was ready to relax.
Al the Alien and I had several tense moments when the Russian border guards came on the train checking passports. They walked down the aisle, collecting the documents. A female guard looked up at the rack where Al was sitting. She poked her partner and they both laughed. I think they didn’t think Al was real. They just walked on, continuing their job. Whew!
The next tense moment came when the Finnish Customs officials boarded, looking for taxable goods and contraband. They walked the aisles quizzing people if they had anything to declare. Occasionally, they would point out a parcel and ask who it belonged to. Then the owner would claim it and have to open it for the officials. When this procedure got to Al, the guard pointed at him. At first he smiled, then he consulted with the other official, once again, they thought Al was nothing but a toy. Whew! We made it, we smuggled Al in and out of Russia without a passport or a Visa. Al, you are amazing. Nice going guy!
Dr. Rod (aka Wolfman) was told by the Russian Immigration guards that they were going to shave him, so they could tell if it was really him under that beard. Then the third guard said, “No, I have tweezers here, we will just pull the hair out, one by one!” Everyone roared with laughter. It didn’t happen though, Rod the wolfman still has is hair. Sorry Mom Lynda, he’s not going to cut it….yet. Don’t worry, we still have China to get into!