Russia (Россия)

*this page does not cover Moscow. For that, please refer to the Moscow specific page

  • Capital: Moscow

  • Population: 145 million

  • Language: Russian (official) but many, many others in the different republics (i.e. Tatar, Bashkir, Buryat, etc)

  • Location: 11 time zones across Europe and Asia

  • Currency: Russian Ruble

 

Posts

(Click on the Pictures to Navigate)

HOBO ADVICE

HOBO ADVICE

KAZAN / КАЗАНЬ

KAZAN / КАЗАНЬ

LAKE BAIKAL / БАЙКАЛ

LAKE BAIKAL / БАЙКАЛ

MY TRIP

MY TRIP

SUZDAL /СУЗДАЛЬ

SUZDAL /СУЗДАЛЬ

ST.PETERSBURG/САНКТ-ПЕТЕРБУРГ

ST.PETERSBURG/САНКТ-ПЕТЕРБУРГ

MOSCOW (separate page)

MOSCOW (separate page)

AWESOME SOVIET JUNK

AWESOME SOVIET JUNK

ARKHYZ / АРКХЫЗ

ARKHYZ / АРКХЫЗ

SAMARA

SAMARA

RUSSIAN TRAINS

RUSSIAN TRAINS

VLADIMIR /   ВЛАДИМИР

VLADIMIR / ВЛАДИМИР

Stories

A RUSSIAN WINTER ROADTRIP

A RUSSIAN WINTER ROADTRIP

STRANGE DAY ON THE SLOPES

STRANGE DAY ON THE SLOPES

PASSPORT CONTROL HORRORS

PASSPORT CONTROL HORRORS

Photo Albums

KAZAN PHOTO ALBUM

KAZAN PHOTO ALBUM

BAIKAL REGION PHOTOS

BAIKAL REGION PHOTOS

RUSSIAN WINTERS

RUSSIAN WINTERS

SUZDAL PHOTOS

SUZDAL PHOTOS

Hobo Advice

If you do come here, enjoy Moscow and Petersburg, but do not spend your whole time in those two cities. I know I say this with every country, but here I mean it most of all. And the people in Moscow, Petersburg and pretty much anywhere in the country can agree. They're great cities, but they aren't real Russia. As a single country, Russia has so much within it. There are landscapes that range from the flat, endless Eurasian steppe to mountains that dwarf the Alps and the Rockies. There are cities in frozen, arctic lands and there is a semi-tropical coastline along the Black Sea. It stretches across 11 time zones and has a surface area greater than Pluto. See as much as you can.

Go see the small cities and towns and absorb the culture and take a Russian train to get there (they go pretty much everywhere and are significantly cheaper than in North America and Europe). See the Caucasus regions and feel like you've entered a different country. Visit the Golden Ring towns and dive into ancient Russian history, and travel out east into the wild nature of Siberia. Most of all, get to know the people there. I've made some of the best friends of my life during my Russia stay and it has truly enhanced my experience here for the better.

Overall Impressions

  • The country is MASSIVE
  • Moscow and St. Petersburg are very different from the rest of the country
  • Culture, landscape and climate vary greatly depending on what part of the country you are in
  • There is a strong sense of true friendship, as opposed to acquaintances
  • Winter lasts from the beginning of October until the end of April in most parts of the country
  • Everything is kept very warm inside during the winter
  • Many people make their own honey
  • As for stereotypes, it's been two years and I still havn't seen a bear
  • Birch trees are everywhere in the country
  • Many things (towns, roads, buildings) are named after writers, primarily Pushkin
  • Politics are rarely discussed
  • Many people, especially those is small towns, will go out of their way to help you as much as possible
  • Shoes are not worn in houses

My Trips

Having spent nearly two years living in the country, plus additional trips prior, I have been to many places within the country. When most people visit Russia, they usually just go to Moscow and/or St. Petersburg, which is understandable since they are Europe's largest and fourth largest cities (respectively) and have a great cultural history. But here, I hope to point out that there is so much more to do here. It is the world's largest country by far, has some of the world's tallest mountains and longest rivers, and, believe it or not, is one of the most diverse countries on planet earth. Yes, there are over 100 officially recognized languages among the republics that make this country, and even more ethnic groups that have their own specific culture and history. I'll do my best to share what I've experienced, but please bare with me because this will take a while.

Russian Trains

In all their glory and chaos

Every direction, left, right, up, and down, there are people. Over fifty of us in one train car alone. Some are old, others young. There are families, solo travelers, groups of friends, a squad of soldiers, and an old man with his dog. Along the walls can be seen two levels of small, fold-out beds, the lower close to the floor while the upper, just below the ceiling. Through the middle of the wagon runs a narrow walkway, just big enough for one at a time. At either end is a bathroom. Windows line the sides, but only a few of them open, making it a bit difficult to air out the various scents of humanity. Adjusting my pillow, I laid down flat on my back, just able to fit without falling out, and gazed out the window. All around me, some people chatted among one another, others snacked, while several had already gone to sleep. We were headed south, going from the Russian cities Kazan to Samara, and there were sixteen hours left to go.

It was my second such ride within a week, the first being from Moscow to Kazan, and like the first time, it seemed as if I was the only foreigner in the 3rd class, open compartment. It was no place of luxury, as comfort and space were minimal. I knew, by the next morning, I would probably be a bit sleep deprived and my back was going to be sore. That was exactly what happened previously, and this time the conditions were exactly the same. I knew this going into it, and still willingly made the choice to travel by train without any hesitation.

It's hard to explain why, but despite the discomforts, there's something wonderful about going across the world's largest country by train. Even before I began, I was drawn to this romanticized idea of riding the rails through overgrown birch forests and along wild untamed rivers. Just roughing it with a few dozen other random people, from a culture on the other side of the world for this one brief moment gave be a certain sense of excitement that was unique in unto itself. And the fact that this was just something routine for the rest of my fellow travelers only added to the feeling. It added to the whole humanity aspect of it and served as a stark reminder of just how unbelievably big the country is.

I wondered (maybe just because I'm weird), who these people were and where they were heading to. Could they be moving to start a new life? Maybe visiting relatives or close friends? Whatever the reason, I just found it so interesting how each person seemed to have their own routine and method. Some sat together and drank tea, others liquor, while about half just kept to themselves and settled into a book or movie on their phone/laptop. And somehow it all worked. The atmosphere was uniformly relaxed and no one seemed (at least visibly) to be bothered by the many hours ahead. Likewise, no one complained whenever the train stopped for a while. It was just all part of the journey that all of them had done before and will do again.

Train in the rain!

Train in the rain!

More train and more rain!

More train and more rain!

I would be lying if I didn't say this whole thing was an ordeal. It absolutely was. 30 hours in the span of a few days in a small space surrounded by tons of others is by no means a luxury. But, that said, I cannot stress enough how it's all worth it. I got to see so much of the earth I, in no other way, could have, and I got to do it by myself as a foreigner (tourists don't seem to go to Samara). And yes, there are many people who have done this for the whole seven day Trans-Siberian route (maybe even some of you reading this have). I can only imagine that you too had a unique, yet incredibly substantial experience, probably even far greater than mine. It was not the easiest thing in the world, nor was all of it pleasurable, but given the opportunity, I'd travel this way every time.

Kazan

July 2017

You know how in almost every family, there is that one member that's a bit different (in a good way) and really stands out as unique and fascinating? Well, if Russia was a family, Kazan would be that member. It took me two years to visit it since I first started living in Russia, and now I ask myself, "What the hell was I waiting for?" There's just so much depth to the city's character that my singular five-day visit is not nearly enough. That said, here are some of the highlight from the overall trip.

Kazan Kremlin

Pretty much everyone has heard of the one in Moscow, but as it turns out, many Russian cities have Kremlins. The word, in Russian, simply means fortress or stronghold, so pretty much any older city in the country has one. I initially made the trek to see Kazan's after a thirteen hour night train from Moscow, no sleep, and multiple cups of coffee. I was in a bit of a loopy, disoriented state, due to my physical circumstances, until I finally reached to destination and instantly jolted by a new rush of awareness and energy.

As said, I have seen and been in Moscow's Kremlin before and didn't really think any other could come close to it. But this one absolutely did. The magnificent structure stood atop a hill, overlooking the river to one side and city to the other. The walls were a white colored stone, lined with towers and grand wooden archways. Stoic, powerful, and intimidating, it was easy to see how this was a force to be reckoned with back in the day. But then I walked in (for free!) and the whole feeling of the place suddenly changed. The strong, daunting exterior was now replaced by colorful gardens, artistic and ornate buildings, and calm, pleasant, stone walkways. Orthodox Christian churches stood side by side next to mosques and lush green trees lined every path.

Two particular structures caught my eye. The first being the giant mosque in the center (pictured above) with the white walls and blue domes. The other was a bit different. It was older, a bit more ominous looking, and had a slight lean to it. In fact, it made such an impression on me that I decided to do a little research on it and found out that it actually has a whole mythology surrounding it. If you enjoy such tales, please read the story of Söyembikä Tower involving a particularly terrible Ivan and a Tatar princess.

To read the full harrowing tale, click on the link to the side:

 

Central Bazaar/Market

It is fairly common to find open-air flea markets in the center of Russian cities. I always enjoyed this, because if both gave me the chance to practice my Russian (by haggling prices with locals), and let me buy old Soviet memorabilia to use as Christmas gifts for my friends. And for nearly two years, I thought nothing would top the overall greatness of Moscow's Izmailovsky Market... until I came to Kazan.

As I first approached it, it just seemed a few babushkas had set up some stands in an alleyway to sell clothes and food, but as I walked further in, it soon opened into a huge catacomb of mini shops and stands containing everything from fresh fruit to local baked good to sunglasses, socks, and flipflops, to wooden furniture. There was even one guy selling his own personal paintings alongside handmade frames. And that was just what i saw in the first couple minutes.

Feeling a bit like a hairy, uncoordinated Indiana Jones on an adventure, I wandered through the maze of shops and stands, repeatedly going indoors and out, all the while feeling like I'd been transported back to Russia in the early 1990s (the Yeltsin years). There were little to no electronics, souvenirs or tourists.* Just local people, making a living by selling local food and everyday goods to whoever happened to need them. No one was trying to hawk the customers, there was little to no shouting (a first for such places in my experiences), and the baker who sold me bread even gave me two free apricots. As I enjoy free things, I was delighted.

Soviet Lifestyle Museum

Before I get into the story, I need to let you know that this nearly never happened. It was my last full day in Kazan before a 16 hour, scoliosis-inducing train ride to Samara and I was showing the city around to friends I had met in Moscow. We were on a fairly calm walk through the Kremlin when, for no apparent reason, Mother nature decided to be a jerk and began mercilessly throwing down sheets of rain, soaking us and flooding the streets. We needed shelter and we needed it fast. We ran down the street, with at first nothing catching our eye. But then, suddenly, we noticed this big red star on a house-like building with a sign jutting out that read Музей Социалистического Быта (Socialist Lifestyle Meseum/Soviet Lifestyle Museum). And although I'm not the biggest enthusiast about museums, this would suffice for our current situation. Who knows, I thought, maybe this could be a bit different after all.

Turns out it was different. Very different, but in the most awesome way imaginable. Right upon entering, it became clear that it was not the place to move from one exhibition to another, viewing an endless amount of large scale displays. Nor were there any curators, audio guides, or grandiose artifacts to be found anywhere. There was, instead, space that consisted of an upstairs and downstairs room that were both lined wall to wall with seemingly everything that was ever made for regular people during Soviet times. And I mean everything. There were hats, milk containers, bars of chocolate, cigarettes, movie posters, newspaper clippings, political cartoons, buttons, pins, athletic sneakers, arcade games, Lenin paraphernalia and pretty much anything else that could be involved in daily life.

sm.jpg
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Meanwhile, as I walked from a Lenin poster to a display case of 1980's Russian punk t-shirts, I began to hear some music, similar to that of 70s and 80s hair bands in the US. I looked up, and sure enough, music videos of Russian hair bands (presumably from the same time frame) played on a small TV hanging on the front wall. And even though the music was just as bad as the western bands of the same genre, I couldn't help but happily laugh and watch. It wasn't because I liked the music, but because this was this side of Soviet life that you never hear or think about. It is always presented as cold, serious and oppressive, which makes it easy to forget that they too had goofy musicians with ridiculous haircuts that enjoyed using lasers way too much.

As this was all going on, the owner of the museum just chilled by the entrance, next to his collection of signed guitars from Russian and Soviet bands (which he called 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame'). After checking out the guitars (including several from the Russian punk-rock band Leningrad) which were all dedicated to the owner himself, it soon became clear to me that this whole display was comprised of random things that he personally owned and collected while growing up in the Soviet Union (by the looks of it, mostly from the 80s), and never bothered to throw any of out. And I couldn't be happier he didn't because with this collection of the random, everyday junk used by Soviet citizens he presented such a clearer image to the past than any museum or monument possibly could have. This was the commoner's historical exhibition to a communist country. It can't really get much more fitting than that.

Riverscape

One of the reasons that made this city so unbelievably picturesque was its location at the intersection of the Volga and Kazan rivers. And me, being somewhat of an odd individual, was incredibly excited about this and purpously altered my trip to see more of it, which I can honestly say, has been absolutely worth it. Approaching it for the first time, I had this fear in the back of my mind that it might either be dirty or worse, crowded with those terrible tourist cruise boats that plague other river like the Danube and even the Neva in Petersburg. Thankfully, and maybe it was just because I got lucky with the timing, but the waters were so calm tranquil and extensive, surrounded by their gentle rolling hills and lush, green valleys. It was easy to forget that a major city lay nearby, as it's presence was easily dwarfed by this natural landmark.

Plus, on a personal level, this was exactly what I needed after two years in an enormous city like Moscow, and was pretty much the best spot imaginable to test out my new camera (see 'Kazan' in photos section), and served as the backdrop to probably the most 'Russia' picture I've ever taken. I made sure to go running alongside it every morning and occasionally returned later on in the day for an additional walk or just a sit down. Definitely going to miss this, but I'll get to see in again in Samara.

Baumana Street at Night

Throughout my two years in Russia, I have heard many things, but one thing I've never been told about was the nightlife in Kazan. Therefore, when I decided to take a night walk through the city, it was surprised by something as I approached the main street. There were people. There was music. And best of all, of course, there were a lot of people playing a lot of music. There were all different genres and styles to the point where a brass group played (SONG) next to an electric guitarist playing an Imagine Dragons cover. And it was one after the other all the way until the road met the Kremlin. Also, there's one last thing I forgot to mention. This was a Wednesday. It wasn't even the weekend yet, so I can only imagine how it gets on a Friday. Oh well, I guess that means I'll be returning at some point.

Samara

July 2017

As I've said several times on this site, Russians often make sure to tell me that Moscow and Petersburg aren't real Russia, and while I've noticed this in several of the cities I've been too, like Irkutsk and Vladimir, this was the starkest difference. It almost feels like I've stepped back into an old Soviet industrial city that's somewhat overgrown by forest, which makes it pretty interesting after Moscow and Kazan. The first being a fully modern capital with 13+ million people, then the second a smaller, picturesque cultural city, and now an older, industrial city by the riverside, but with a truly authentic feel.

At first, upon my arrival to the train station, the city seemed a little off putting. Much of the surrounding area was pretty run down, and there seemed to be a lack of anything to do other than live and work there (i.e. no restaurants, cafes, entertainment, or bars). But as I got to exploring later on in the day, I realized that the city actually has tons of character. It was just substantially different than anything I'd come across so far. It was a city for residents, not visitors, and this gave me insights into regular Russian life that Moscow and Petersburg never could have. I spent almost the entirety of my three days here walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood just to see what I could see, and it was all so fascinating, in an odd way.

Also, as a little side note, this was the first time in Russia that I've came across a city with an actual beach. And I don't count the shore in Pertersburg along the Neva as a beach. Here there was sand that stretched for several miles along the bank of the Volga, pretty much as far as the eye could see. Towels and umbrellas were set up, and everywhere people could be seen doing things like sunbathing and playing volleyball. Although I'm not much of a beach person, this did come as a pleasant surprise to me. 

Lake Baikal (Байкал)

June-July 2012

If you are going to Russia, make absolutely sure that you see Lake Baikal. When I say there is nothing at all like it in the world, I am not using hyperbole. I'm being quite serious. On statistics alone, the Siberian lake is the largest freshwater lake in the world, holding 20% of it in the world, and is the only known place to have freshwater seals. But that information just scratches the surface on how special of a place this is. I'll now try to do my best to describe my experience, but sometimes words can do it justice.

Lake Baikal has a special importance to me because it was my very first solo backpacking trip back in the summer of 2012. I was still a college student at the time, looking for some type of summer work or internship related to the outdoors when I stumbled across a volunteer program based out of Irkutsk, Russia called Большая Байкалская Тропа (Great Baikal Trail). In summary, it was an organization that had you camp out in tents on the shore of Baikal for a few weeks while you helped construct an environmentally friendly hiking trail. I already had a fascination with Russia at this point, taking several classes in the Russian Department in my university, had just received a Mellon research grant, and basically just thought this whole idea was awesome, so I decided to go all in and apply to be a volunteer.

First arrival on shore

First arrival on shore

Like an ocean!

Like an ocean!

I had a few ideas of what it would all be like prior to arriving, but when I ultimately got to that remote location on the shores of this gigantic Siberian lake, I was in absolute awe. I cannot think of any other way to put it, but the lake, to me, seemed like an ocean. The water was clear and blue like glass reflecting a cloudless sky and the surrounding area was full of mountains and covered in every shade of green imaginable. Aside from the nearby park ranger, Dima, who lived about five kilometers (just over three miles) away, the whole area was relatively untouched by modern civilization. There was no electricity, no running water, no wifi, no buildings and no roads. There was just the land, the lake, and our mini portable tents for sleeping. We cooked all of our food from a campfire that we made and got our drinking water from the lake (which turned out to be clean and safe enough for human consumption).

Rural village

Rural village

Amazing wandering weirdos

Amazing wandering weirdos

In total, I spent just over two weeks working the land with a pickaxe and shovel alongside some of the most interesting people I've ever met. Surprise surprise, apparently the lure of lake Baikal was able to collect a group of eight odd wanderers from diverse backgrounds, all looking for the next bizarre and exciting adventure. On our days off, we hiked to rural villages, inaccessible by roads, used Dima's banya (similar to a sauna but involves you hitting each other with birch branches), and even attempted to take a swim in the lake, which being only 5C degrees (38F) still haunts me to this day.

The point I am trying to make here is that this whole place is not just unique to Russia, but unique to the entire planet. There is literally nothing else like it anywhere, and nothing can mimic the experience of actually going there. As for me, I know I'll remember this experience for the rest of my life, and given the chance, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Vladimir (Владимир)

June 2016 and April 2017

Russia is huge. It takes seven full days to cross the country by train and about eleven hours plus an expensive ticket to fly from one end to the other. All of this can be quite a pain if you happen to be cash strapped and short on time while traveling through the country. But if you are such a person, do not fret. Let me introduce you to the Golden Ring.

Surrounding Moscow, there happens to be a ring of ancient cities (look at a map, it is quite literally in the shape of a circle) which include Tula, Tver, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Ryazan to name a few. I mention this because each of these are only about three hours by a $10 train ticket and can give you a feeling of the "Real Russia" beyond Moscow and Petersburg. And although I haven't gotten to visit all of them, I have seen one in both the summer and winter: Vladimir.

Named after the 9th century prince, Vladimir of Kiev, this city of about 300,000 people sits on top of a hill overlooking a river and valleys. And, to me with regards to both times I went, this was a perfect getaway from the business of Moscow. It was deceiving at first though. Vladimir is built like a big city, spread out as far as the eye can see, with large sidewalks and six lane roads, but there's something it's missing: people. My first evening there I stayed in a hostel on the outskirts of the town and I remember walking down a long wide city street with buildings and trees on either side. It was all the appearance of a big city, but on the sidewalk, there was only me. It felt a bit odd, but I liked it. It made me feel like I was this explorer who stumbled upon a ghost town, and in its own way, was calming and relaxing. It was just there for me to take in at my own pace without the hordes of businessmen rushing off to work or a choir of car horns from angry motorists.

Earlier that morning, Anne (see Awesome People section) had just left a Moscow hostel backed with screaming 18 year old boys, trying to prove themselves to the world, and a middle aged man whose relentless snoring caused sleep apnea not only for himself, but for everyone in the building. Here, we got to walk in silence, at our own pace, and enjoy the little odd buildings and appreciate the open landscape.

That said, there wasn't a shortage of things to do. Aside from the historical sites, there are tons of nice little places to go, including what may have been the best Turkish restaurant I've ever gone to. Unfortunately though, I completely forgot how to pronounce the name and therefore am unable to recommend it. It also had tons of nice little shops, which included possibly the best pryanik/пряник (Russian gingerbread) and medovuka/медовуха (honey wine) I've ever had. And there are tons of interesting places to go out at night near the city center, so it's never hard to find something happening.

Prince Vladimir Statue

Prince Vladimir Statue

Best of all though, has to be the view from the Prince Vladimir statue overlooking the river. It is situated on the edge of a hill overlooking a valley, and from it, the views are beyond words. Rolling green (or white in the winter) slopes with small, quaint historic houses roll down to the city's outdoor train station. Beyond that, lies a vast open valley with a mighty, blue, winding river, surrounded by green trees and an array of plant life. A single road travels off into the distance, and if you look close enough, you can just make out a couple tiny villages on the horizon. So, it is pretty much everything you won't find in Moscow or Petersburg, but in the best way possible.

Suzdal ( Суздаль)

June 2016

Greatest Russia picture ever

Greatest Russia picture ever

During my first visit to Vladimir, the weather was warm and sunny, and I had ample free to on my side (second time I unfortunately had to get back on Monday for work), so I decided to take the opportunity to visit the small, nearby historic town of Suzdal. Plus my dad was visiting at the time and he was hoping to see as many places as possible, so we agreed this would be a good, easy one to get to.

After a 30 minute bus ride, we made it to the station on the edge of town and began walking towards the center. Two things struck me right away. First, there were so many old, small wooden houses. It was quiet and cozy enough to make Vladimir seem like Moscow (which was exactly what I was needing at the time). And the second was just how many churches. Everywhere I looked and in every direction, there seemed to be an old, onion-domed Russian Orthodox church. Each one a different size and color (although each was bright and vibrant). It was odd but interesting. The town didn't seem particularly religious, and, actually, neither did the churches. There were no priests out and about, and no one out of the street was praying or acting differently than in any other small town. Yet, there seemed to be more churches than people. Instead, it seemed much more like a historical site than anything else, which I guess makes sense, since Suzal was, at one point, the center for the Russian church.

Anyway, it was a really pleasant picturesque place to walk about, and sort of made me feel like I was stepping back into time. And I don't mean Soviet-era back in time. I'm talking like Russian Empire back in time. Everything was built as if it were the 18th or 19th century, many people wore traditional clothes (see picture above), and plenty of babushkas had wooden stands out on the street to sell food or clothes. So yeah, it was a nice little escape from city life.

Arkhyz (Архыз)/Russian Caucasus

January 2016

If you have read my stories' section, you already know that I drove 19 hours down to the Russian Caucasus from Moscow with my friend Anya in January of 2016. And while the journey was a bit crazy, the destination was absolutely worth it. Most of our time was spent in and around a small village called Arkhyz that rested in a valley between the mountains and was so small you could easily look across the entire village, end to end, in one view.

One thing people often fail to realize is just how diverse of a country Russia actually is. If you only visit Moscow and St. Petersburg, it will seem like everyone is just Russian, but venture further out, and you'll see that this is not the case. And nowhere is this more apparent than the Caucasus. Within these mountains, there are many different groups of people, each with their own culture, food, traditions, lifestyle, and in many cases, language. Yes. most people I spoke to said they had to learn Russian as a second language and do not speak it when they are home with their families. And they were all incredibly welcoming, almost to the level of Georgians (read the Georgia section and you'll see just how big of a compliment this is). Everyone I met, from the baristas at the mini cafes to the babushka who sold me wool socks to my ski instructor Ramazan, did everything they possibly could to make me feel welcome.

This niceness, however, was just an added bonus on top of the real reason Anya and I came: the nature. I had already seen some of the Caucasus the previous summer, but now it was the winter and the Russian mountains are the biggest in all of Europe. I was determined to take it all in, and luckily for me, a Russian trekking group led by a seasoned, rugged middle aged mountain man named Oleg (soon to be in awesome people section) just so happened to be staying at the same lodge as Anya and I. Needless to say, we decided to join in on one of their expeditions during our second day of the stay.

I was told they were going on a 2-3 kilometer trek in the woods, so when we started, I was expecting a lice little day out. I didn't have snow pants because, like an idiot, I had forgotten to pack them, but since it'll be a quick adventure, I thought I would be fine in jeans. I was wrong. Terribly wrong. And it was not a 2-3 kilometer trek (I think I misheard initially), it turned out to be closer to 10. And the further we went, the worse outside conditions got. The calm, overcast sky began to churn and spout a mixture of rain, snow and sleet. Before I knew it, I was soaked to the bone and shaking like California during an earthquake. (This will soon be in the 'Stories' section). But thankfully though, I managed to survive it and actually began to develop a bond with the group as a whole. And when it was all through, they invited us come visit the nearby planetary observatory (3rd biggest in the world) with them the following day. We agreed without any hesitation

There was no way we could have planned it, but for the remainder of the trip, we ended up tagging along with the group, making friends with several of the members including the trek leader, Oleg.

(MORE TO COME)

St. Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург)

March 2016, June 2017

After a train ride from Moscow, we were greeted by the stunning architecture and terrible weather of St. Petersburg (unfortunately it is often rainy and cold). Doug, as he did throughout the trip, immediately started comparing everything to New York. Tristan, on the other hand, was busier trying to take in the whole experience, although stopping periodically to laugh at Doug for being a caricature of every American stereotype imaginable. Needless to say, we were an interesting trio, and did as much as we could to explore as much of the city as we could.

Our first day there, we decided to walk everywhere, defying nature's instance otherwise (conditions progressively got worse as the day went on). Personally, I was pretty impressed by what I say, but unlike Doug, I will not compare it to New York, but compared to Moscow, there are a few stark differences. Moscow dates back to the 11th century, but Petersburg was constructed only in 1703, and then was rebuilt almost entirely from the rubble after being nearly destroyed during the Second World War. In short, Everything was significantly newer, and more European as well. Peter the Great (Пётер I) commissioned the city with the idea of it being the window to Europe, and to this day, it still seems to act accordingly. The architecture looked more European. The canals were reminiscent of Amsterdam of Venice, and the people all dressed in Western Style. For example, unlike Moscow and the rest of Russia, there were no women in headscarves and no men in ushankas (the classic Russian hat), except for Doug who bought one at the market and insisted on wearing it everywhere. And many more things were written in English as well.

Nightlife

Although Moscow's nightlife is nothing to scoff at, I do have to hand this one to St. Petersburg. After just a simple walk along Nevsky Prospekt (The city's main road) at night, this becomes apparent, as you'll see everything from casual dive bars, nice places for dinner and drinks, and even European style clubs. The city itself is a little more open in this way, making it easier for one to go out and enjoy themself whereas in Moscow you'll usually have to wait until the weekend, which makes sense, I guess, since Petersburg is more for visitors while Moscow is more for employment and living.

On a personal account, I had the pleasure of joining Doug and Tristan on a 'casual' night out... that lasted until about 5:30 in the morning. While it would be interesting to get into detail, I'll let those stories stay in Petersburg.

Museum

Since it was my friends' first time in Russia, we decided to see some of the famous sites as well, and we decided to start with Russia's largest art museum, The Hermitage. At first, the building, a former palace, was itself a pretty impressive sight. It was large and grandiose, painted blue and white, standing behind a large open square. Upon entering, Tristan suggested we go to the Italian and French section, while Doug, naturally, began comparing everything it to the MET and other New York art museums... We went with Tristan's idea.

I kind of feel bad saying this as a person who is both interested in art and history, but as we walked through massive portrait gallery after massive portrait gallery, I began to get a little bored. Yes, I understand how difficult is must have been for these artists to create such intricate depictions of other human beings, but I was in the mood for something exciting. I wanted to be pulled in with wonder and fascination, but images of European nobility standing in glorious poses wasn't quite doing it for me. Luckily though, I saw another room on the map that did sound more appealing: Ancient Art and Artifacts (with exhibitions from Central Asia and the Caucasus). I made an executive decision: we were going there next, and right away, I noticed the change. Here, there were pagan animal statues with interesting, bizarre faces, burian masks, clothing from over 3000 years ago and medieval armor. This is what I wanted, and this was my kind of exhibit.

Leningrad Memorial Graveyard

On a serious note, there was one site we knew we should see while we were there: the Leningrad Memorial Graveyard from the Second World War. In the 900 days of the siege, almost 2 million people were killed until the Soviet Army repelled the attack, and now being a resident of the country, I thought I should pay homage to what had happened only two generations ago.

It was a somber setting upon arrival. There was a long stone path walkway with fields on either side, that were still partly covered in snow, all leading to a large monument and an eternal flame that has continually been kept burning for decades. Quietly, we all walked towards the monument, expecting the graveyard to be just behind it... then it hit me. The fields, to either side of the walkway were marked with years (1941, 1942, 1943). They were the graves. So many people had died in such a short period of time, it was impossible to give any sort of individual burial, so each section of grass was a mass grave.

That very second may have been the most sobering moment of my entire life, realizing I was in the middle of the final resting place for more people than all Americans who have died in all wars combined. All around me were those who suffered through one of the worst atrocities in human history, something so horrific I honestly can't even fathom. Even Doug was unusually silent.

Weather

So as not to end on a depressing note, I'll revert to the last thing everybody talks about: the weather. Throughout most of the year, the weather in St. Petersburg is pretty bad. Even as I write this now in the end of April, the main river running through the city, the Neva, is still partially frozen. However, if you have the chance to go in June or July, it's a completely different story. Since the city is so far north, there is barely any darkness (about 22 hours of sunlight), which is pretty incredible, especially when everything is in bloom. And as a result, the city throws a White Nights festival, which leads me to...

White Nights

This is midnight

This is midnight

I returned to Petersburg the following year in June and what I saw then was incredible. It seemed as if it were an entirely different city than it had been in march. Green trees now lined pretty much every city street and the rain and wind, although still present, were significantly more mild and subdued. But the greatest part of all, however, was the sunlight. Keep in mind, I basically didn't see it at all during my March visit. June completely made up for that. It literally never got fully dark, which was pretty amazing. At around midnight, it would start to become dusky, but the sun was not below the horizon long enough for a full darkness.

Doug (left, in hat), Tristan (right)

Doug (left, in hat), Tristan (right)