Saturday, March 15, 2014

Russia Trip: Wrapup and Table of Contents

I am back home, and recovering from jet lag. I wanted to wrap up my blogging about my amazing trip to Russia in two ways:
1) Here's a Table of Contents, listing all my posts in order, which is an easier way to access them than the most-recent-at-the-top way they appear in the blog. I have also added a link at the bottom of each post to the next post in the series, to make it easier to just read them in order.
2) Here are more photos that I had trouble inserting into blog posts while in Russia. I was taking photos with my iPhone, syncing them to the cloud using Google+, and then inserting photos into blog posts from my iPad. For reasons I still do not understand, not all photos were visible from my iPad, which was frustrating. I had brought along a separate device that was intended to solve this problem (it provides a local wifi network and memory keys can plug into it), but the software for it didn't seem to work with my iPad either.
In each city I visited, I saw these pipes snaking around,
along and over streets. They are gas lines,
which often tend to run above ground instead of being buried.
It lends a Brazil-like atmosphere.

Canada Olympic House (COH) at Olympic Park.
This is where the famous Molson beer fridge is located
- the one that opens only with a Canadian passport.
Unfortunately COH was open only to accredited athletes
and their families, so I could not get in!

There were swarms of volunteers everywhere, and they were very friendly!

The bear mascot sat down in an empty seat beside me at one game.

This is one of the funniest things I saw at the Games.

Once I had a photo with the bear, I had to try to complete my mascot collection,
so when the Snow Leopard came near, I grabbed a photo.
Sadly, I did not see the Rabbit at all during the Games.

 The competing countries' flags were displayed each game
on the top of the Bolshoi Ice Dome, with the scores added after each game.
This is after the Canada-US semi-final.

As close as I will get to riding a bobsled.

The Canadian Elvises entertained at every game
at the Bolshoi Ice Dome, and they were a row ahead of me
at the men's gold medal game.


 Tributes to cosmonauts outside the Cosmonaut Museum

 Approaching Red Square

 The Bolshoi Theatre

 A piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Sakharov Museum

 Statue on the platform at the Revolution Square (Плошадь Революций) Metro station. There were dozens of these lining the platform.

Sign above metro station platform, indicating which stops can be reached
by the trains arriving at each side of the platform.
The metro system maps in the trains had station names
transliterated in Roman characters, but these signs,
and all the directional signage to various exits from the station,
were only in Cyrillic.

St Petersburg:
                            Dosteovsky Museum, just a few blocks from my hotel.

 The tend to transliterate without translating isn't limited to English words;
this says "Rive Gauche" (french for Left Bank), a trendy store.

 The circus.

            I kept seeing stores called "____ World" in Russian. This one is Art World.

 Butterfly World

                                                        Apartments World

 Flavour World (A liquor store)

                                                  World of Leather and Fur

 I'm not sure whether to translate this as
"Rose of the World" or "Rose of Peace".

 Bag World

 Fruit World

                                                      The New Mariinsky Theatre

 The New (left) and Old (right) Mariinsky Theatres

I love the logo on this truck. 
The lettering on the truck says Хлебтранс, 
which translates to "BreadTrans". 
The slices in the loaf/van roof are the nice touch.

 The old Mariinsky Theatre.

                                The cruiser Aurora, whose firing of a blank round
                                     signalled the start of the 1917 revolution.

                      At the СКА/ЦСКА playoff game; free T shirts for everyone!

                                                              The SKA arena

                      Frozen canals (these were all thawed by the end of my trip).

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Russia Day 23: Last Day in St Petersburg, The Hermitage and more

Woke up at around 4:30, good practice for tomorrow when I'll need to be up a bit earlier than that to get ready to head to the airport. Read a bit until the restaurant downstairs opened for breakfast at 6:30.

I headed out to the Hermitage when it opened up for the day. It's a massive museum and I didn't expect to really see it all. What I did see was pretty great. I saw most of the Palace Rooms, which were spectacularly built and decorated halls, including some impressive wooden floors. In one room the wooden floor pattern mopstly matched the design of the gilded ceiling. And I saw a lot of great paintings, including a lot of Matisse, Picasso, Monet,, Gaugain, Pissaro and my favourites: a few of Van Gogh's paintings.

From the Hermitage I walked to the nearby Cat Republic Cafe, where I had a light lunch, and then went in to the adjoining room (entering through a wardrobe) to play with about 20 cats. The cats were all very friendly, and included a few unusual looking ones. They were pretty lazy for the most part, but it was nice to get a cat fix after a few weeks away from my kitties.

Back to the metro, and then on my walk back to my hotel, I stopped at the Dostoevsky museum, set in the apartment where the author lived with his family, and where he died. The English audioguide was extremely informative (actually, it went on and on a little much at each of the 20-odd locations), and I learned a bunch about his life, and saw how his apartment was set up.

Rested up before dinner. Today was a light walking day, only about 5km, not including whatever I covered within the Hermitage as I walked through dozens of rooms for a few hours.

Here are some questions to things I've been asked:
Q: Are Russian women as beautiful as they say?
A: Well, like at home, people here come in all shapes & sizes, but on the whole I would say Russian women are quite a bit more gorgeous than average.

Q: How much did my Russian lessons help; can I speak to people or are there a lot of regional accents?
A: The Russian lessons helped a lot. Being able to read Cyrillic, even if I don't understand the meaning of every word I can read, makes it much, much easier to navigate, especially in Moscow where most of the signage in the metro was only in Russian. I can say enough to manage at stores and restaurants (all that drilling on numbers has helped a lot; I can bargain in Russian at markets). But I am very very far from being fluent, and I often get completely lost when others speak to me, especially if the context hasn't prepared me to expect what they might say next. I think most people appreciate that I have made an effort to learn some Russian, and they're nicer to me because of that.
At the same time, they must be immediately recognizing my foreign accent as I mispronounce words, because when they can speak English, they often quickly switch to English when responding to me.

Q: Does everyone there look sad all the time, since they are being repressed and surveilled?
A: Nope. People here look and act like people anywhere. They laugh, they kiss, they joke around. It's true that there is little to no eye contact on the metro, as I had heard, and in the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg there's no interaction with strangers (that was an anomaly during the Olympic party in Sochi!). But people here are just people, and I see no signs that they are suffering from living in a repressive state. I do believe that their government is undemocratic and dictatorial, and lying to them about much of what is going on in the world, but that doesn't seem to have any impact on their ability to enjoy life day to day. I know that the rest of the country is not as well off as what I see in Moscow and St Petersburg (perhaps the richest places in the country).

Other differences I've noticed:
  • Women often walk arm in arm down the streets. I have not figured out the protocol for who grabs whose arm (age? the side closer to the car traffic?). And when a bunch of them say goodnight as they head off in different directions at a subway station, there's a frenzy of kissing each other in all combinations.
  • There's a lot of smoking here! Google tells me that about 40% of Russians smoke (60% of men and about 22% of women). That's about double the rate in Canada, and it's one of the reasons why Russian life expectancy is about 10 years shorter than ours.
  • Racially, things are much more homogeneous here; almost everyone is pasty white. It feels weird.
  • There are flower shops everywhere, like we have Tim Hortons or Starbucks on every corner. And I don't think they all sprang up just for International Women's Day.
  • I've seen some beggars on the streets and in metro stations. It's been almost always old women, often holding/praying to an icon. I saw one young pregnant woman begging
  • In each metro station, there are either 3 or 4 escalators, and as I mentioned earlier, they are very long escalators. I timed a few rides today, and they were between 2-3 minutes each. That's why people turn around and ride backwards so they can chat with their friend or make out with their partner; you're on the thing for a while! The middle one or two of these three or four escalators are almost always turned off. There is a woman (almost always a woman) in a tiny booth at the bottom of escalators, and I have been trying to understand what she does. Some times she has a video display showing escalators so I guess she is monitoring them. She could perhaps turn on another one at busy times, but often there is a line of 30-40 people waiting to get on, while another escalator sits idle. Another example of very suboptimal crowd management. 
  • I've seen an interesting variety of subway platform and interchange experiences. At most interchange stations there is a long walk to switch lines, like at Spadina station in Toronto. The two lines have nearby stations and they just built a pathway between them.  At some it's just a short stairway (like Bloor/Yonge). At one station I used, they had cleverly arranged one direction from each of the intersecting lines to share a platform, so for half of the transfers between those lines you just crossed the platform to await your next train. Pretty cool. At a few stations there are doors built into the platform itself, that open only when the train has stopped in the station. I guess that eliminates jumpers. 
I'm heading home tomorrow. It's been a fantastic trip and it seems to have gone by so fast, but I'm ready to go home (and start planning the next trip!).

I'll post some more photos when I get home, and set up a little table of contents post to make it easier to gather all the posts from the trip in one place, instead of having to scroll back to the start.

Last post of trip:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Russia Day 22: A Little Shopping and a Climbing Gym

It's Monday, which means many of the museums and galleries are closed. That's good timing for me, as my left knee is quite sore, and I need a day with less walking to see if it gets a little better. So today was a quieter day, including catching up on recent blog posts, reading and relaxing.

I had been thinking about hitting the flea market at Udelnaya, but after reading some online reviews, it wasn't clear how much would be going on there on a weekday, and whether it was worth a lot of walking to find out. Instead I headed over to Gostinny Dvor, a large shopping centre on Nevsky Prospekt. I had heard there were some good souvenir shops there, with reasonable prices, and that's what I found. I'm staying vague about what I bought, as some of it will be gifts for family and friends, but I was happy with what I found. Now to see if I can fit it all in my suitcases! The one thing I have not bought is old Soviet-era souvenirs. Most of what I've seen are pins, badges, military uniforms, knives and cigarette lighters, and none of those things appeal to me at all.

After the shopping, I took the metro to one of the climbing gyms in town. I've been meaning to check out a gym here all trip, but I keep forgetting to do it in the midst of everything else I'm doing. It wasn't hard to find this gym or its entrance (maybe I'm making progress on the entrance thing?). I had to press a button to unlock the door, and then found myself in a very dark stairway; I had to wait for my eyes to adjust before I could see anything!

Sign leading to entrance of the Tramontan Climbing Centre 

 Bouldering area

Top-rope/lead area: 9 top ropes. The lead anchors were spaced about 3 feet apart,
closer together than I'm used to seeing.

The gym is one of three that call themselves the largest climbing gym in St Petersburg. They all seem to be about 10,000 square feet, so I guess they're all telling the truth. There was a good-sized bouldering area, along with a smaller roped area with 9 top ropes in place and lead draws on the walls. It's a Walltopia-built gym, and the roped area was all heavily-featured construction (i.e. the wall had lots of permanent features built into it, rather than being a smooth blank canvas for routesetters to work with).

I have been collecting a set of photos that I call World World - the common use of the Russian word Mир ("Mir", meaning both "world" and "peace") in business names. I see it everywhere, and a few days ago starting taking photos of each business I saw using the word. But I'm still having trouble getting at all my photos on my iPhone from this blog, so that feature may need to wait until I get home.

Next post:

Russia Day 21: St Petersburg. Ballet and Circus

OK, we're at Sunday March 9th, and by the time I got up had breakfast and showered, it was pretty much time to head back to the Mariinsky Theatre for another early show: the Carmen Suite one act ballet. This one was at the new theatre, the Mariinsky 2. The original Mariinsky Theatre (known from 1935 to 1990 as the Kirov, a name probably still more familiar to us) dates from 1860. It's currently celebrating its 231st season of performances (no, I can't make that math work out either...). The new theatre is right next door, just across a canal from the old one. I had wanted to see both theatres, so I booked a performance at each.

Today's performance, starting at 11:30am, was the Carmen Suite ballet. When I got my programme I found out that there was a second piece as well after the short one-act Carmen Suite, which I had not noticed when I booked my ticket. My programme was confused about what the second piece would be; on the title page it called it Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a ballet in two scenes, while inside it described Le Carnaval, a pantomime ballet in one act. I compared programmes with the man next to me, who had the Russian version, and it named Le Carnaval (Лэ Карнабал), so mine was a misprint.

This time I arrived at the theatre in plenty of time, found the cloakroom and my seat. It's a beautuful theatre, with 6 tiers of seating, some with a column of single seats lining the balcony overlooking the floor.

The Carmen Suite was outstanding: great music, great dancing, and overall excellent presentation. I recognized a few of the tunes; remember, everything I know about opera and ballet, I learned from either Bugs Bunny cartoons or Jeopardy! It was distracting though to see some of the performers moving about backstage. The set was a semi-circular wall (half of a bullring, for some scenes), and from my seat I could see backstage movement behind the wall. And there were spectators two levels higher than I, so the performers and stage manager should have been more careful about where they went.

After the interval was Le Carnaval, which was kind of fun, but not quite as excellent as the first piece. I retrieved my coat and backpack after a long wait in a mostly organized huge mob of people (crowd management really isn't a fine art here), and headed out. I found a Georgian restaurant on my way back to the metro station, and stopped for a late lunch. I headed on towards my next show: the circus. On my way there was supposed to be a neat shop called Retro, where I expected to find some interesting Soviet-era items to browse, but I was unable to find the shop at the address listed in my book. I'm not sure if it's closed, or if it was hidden somewhere in a back lane way, as places often are here.

As a result, I arrived at the circus pretty early, about an hour before the show. I wandered the neighbourhood a bit, enjoying the views from the adjacent canal. It was warmer today, and all the ice in the canals has melted!

Entered the circus and checked my coat. The crowd was mostly parents with young kids, though there were some child-free adults as well (I wasn't the only one!). They were selling all manner of sweets for the kids, including candy floss, and the place had a slight smell of animals. I knew there were tigers involved in the show, but wasn't sure what other animals I might see.

The curtain to the seating area opened up a half hour before the start of the show, and I found my way to my hard wooden seat. I was in the 7th row, with a great view of the ring.

The show was a mix of acrobatics, juggling, clown acts and animal acts. There were 5 large white dogs that jumped and rolled and stood on their hind legs, and a few bears that did somersaults and rode/drive scooters, bicycles, motorcycles and trucks (I figured most of these were remote-controlled while the bear just stood in place). The highlight of the show was the tiger show in the second act. There were 8 gorgeous tigers, and they stood on their hind legs, rolled, jumped through flaming hoops, and roared on command. It was quite impressive, though I kept wondering if the animals are treated well (probably not).

(Still having trouble getting photos from my iPhone into the blog, though the process was working well a few days ago; will come back and insert some photos when I can.)

Next post:

Russia Day 20: St Petersburg. Cold, rainy, windy day.

Today was the first day of really crappy weather I had had all trip; it was cold, windy and rainy. It had rained in Sochi one or two days, but it was much warmer there, not windy, and I had my umbrella with me!

I decided to explore the Peter & Paul fortress, the seed from which the city of St Petersburg grew. It's on a small island north of the downtown area. I took the metro to a sort of nearby station, and had a long walk past the cruiser Aurora, famous for firing a blank shot that launched the 1917 revolution. I had been thinking of going aboard for a tour of the boat, but the bad weather discouraged that idea (and I've done several other boat tours before, which tend to be pretty similar.

So I walked on to Peter & Paul fortress. I grabbed a snack from one of the vendor kiosks inside and explored the grounds, going in for a look at the mint & a da Vinci exhibit with a lot of recreations of contraptions he came up with.

Back to hotel for a rest, and then headed out to the Mariinsky theatre, It was further from a metro station than the other places I've been to, which made for a longer walk on a sore knee. It took me about 50 minutes to get there, including traveling one stop on the metro. I arrived at the theatre with only a few minutes to spare, and in my haste to find my seat I did not spot the cloakroom, so I committed the faux pas of bringing my winter jacket into the theatre with me. No one said anything, but I felt self-conscious about it. And I was also pretty sweaty after hurrying at the end of my walk, slightly overdressed in my warm winter coat, and of course the theatre was overheated. The seats were very cramped and packed closely together. Other than that, it is a beautiful old theatre. The atmosphere was not at all stuffy. While some people were all dressed up for theatre, others were very casual. Once I stopped sweating, I felt comfortable in my jeans and button-up casual shirt.

I had neglected to do my homework before the show; though I had read a bit about it months ago when I booked the ticket, I came in not remembering much about the story. I was seeing Nabucco: an opera in Italian, with Russian surtitles above the stage. I understood exactly one word of the Italian singing ("Si!"), and maybe a quarter of the Russian surtitles, including the occasional complete sentence. I sort of caught the gist of the story, and at the interval I found a programme in English that explained it in detail, which made it only slightly more comprehensible. The symphony was outstanding, the operatic singing was fine (I didn't expect to like it, but it was OK). I was surprised at a few amateurish notes in the staging: a stagehand dashing across the stage after the rise of the curtain for Act 2, some parts of the set swinging around after being lowered into place, and other backstage noise clearly audible at times. Perhaps it's a tribute to the acoustics that I could hear the pages of the musical scores being turned in the orchestra pit from my seat up in the first circle. Apart from that, the theatre was impressive, and overall it was a great experience

Another long walk home and to bed, exhausted as usual!

These ramp tracks are on every stairway in the metro. 
I had seen them in Moscow and Sochi as well.
They appear to be intended for use by those in wheelchairs,
though the incline is so steep I can't imagine
anyone navigating them successfully alone,
and even with someone pushing/holding a wheelchair,
I think it would be difficult. I have not seen anyone in a wheelchair use them.

Russia Day 19: St Petersburg, Grand Maket and Playoff game!

Awoke at 4am with some stomach distress, which went away with some fluids, antacids and getting vertical for a while. Got back to sleep, and was up again around 9:30, but not feeling full of energy. Sent some laundry in to be cleaned (just as expensive here as in Moscow, but I need some more clean clothes!), and had breakfast.

My left knee is feeling sore, so I decided that today won't be a major walking day. I thought about a couple things to do: taking the hop on/hop off city bus tour that drives around all the major sights, and visiting the Grand Maket: a large model representing all of Russia. There might be time for both before grabbing dinner and getting to the hockey game. By the time I was ready to head out it was lunch time, so I had a nice bowl of spaghetti at an Italian restaurant down the street, and then walked on to Nevsky Prospekt, to the bus stop for the tour bus. For some reason it didn't come when the online schedule said it would. Maybe it's not running in the winter, and they haven't updated the web site? Maybe it was running very late due to bad traffic? For whatever reason, after waiting about 10 extra minutes, I gave up and headed to the nearby subway station, and went to the Grand Maket museum. I got the audio guide (in English, after initially getting a Russian one by mistake), and started exploring the massive model.

 The Peter and Paul Fortress model

 This thing is massive, covering about 800 sq m or about 8,000 sq feet.

Apparently there are over 200,000 little tiny people in the model, along with countless cars, busses, trucks and trains, all driving back and forth, and many other interactive features that you can activate with a button, like cranes and helicopters. While not at all to scale, it tries to generally represent all of Russia, including recognizable features from a few major cities. The overhead lights dim every several minutes, so you can see the model at night, with all the lights illuminates. It was pretty wondrous.

I found a cafe on my way back to the metro, and had chebureki for dinner. These were similar to a calzone, with some questionable meat and onions inside. I'm glad I tried them, but am not a huge fan.

I quickly noticed today that most women are carrying flowers with them. Tomorrow is International Women's Day, and in Russia that is one of the most important holidays. At first I thought perhaps these women were getting flowers for their mothers, but as the day went on and I saw more and more of them, I thought perhaps every woman got flowers at work (since it's Friday and the holiday falls on the weekend this year). 

After dinner I got back on the metro to go to the hockey game. And here's another observation about the metro: the escalators are so long that when two people ride together, one of them generally turns around and rides backwards, so they can talk on the way. Or make out.

The SKA team's rink is a lot newer, larger and nicer than the one where I saw CSKA play in Moscow. And the food is a lot better; I would have been better off eating at the game, but based on my previous experiences in Sochi and Moscow, I assumed the food would be crappy there. I bought a nice SKA hat at a souvenir stand, and then found my way to my seat: firth row up at the blue line. Every seat in the lower bowl (and some in the upper bowl) had a blue SKA Tshirt draped over it, along with a pair of inflatable noisemakers that you bang together as you cheer. There was a special cheering section (for the home team this time), with a drum, huge flags, and all the people in it chanting and swaying/jumping in unison all through the game. The crowd was very noisy, and it really felt like a playoff game. I recognized at least two of the SKA players: Ilya Kovalchuk and former Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky.

 The cheering section, right behind the net.

SKA appeared to be wearing their third jersey,
with "Leningrad" (the former name of St Petersburg)
in place of the usual "CKA" over a red star.
I found it kind of strange that the front of the jersey had Cyrillic writing,
while the names on the back were all in English/Roman lettering.

(I have more photos on my iPhone, but for some reason they have not synced across Google+/iCloud to be accessible for this blog from my iPAD. I may need to fix that up from my laptop when I get home...)