Irkutsk to St. Petersburg, Russia
May 31, 2005
|If you want to experience a whole other dimension, come to Russia because there is no other place on earth like this one. Let's just start off with our three day train ride. They usually put the foreign guests in their own train section, so that gives everyone a "false" sense of security. On the first day Melissa and I enter the train and just go to our compartment, but the folks after us get bumped by three big guys coming out of one of the compartments. It is just seconds before they realize they are missing money and credit cards out of their money belts. Yep these guys were so slick they could remove money from around your waist. They were gone before you knew it. Luckily they didn't get anyone's passports.
So after that great start we settle in for the four days on the train. We do some reading, drinking, card playing, sleeping, eating and wait patiently for the much awaited 20 to 25 minute stops at certain stations. Everyone jumps off the train to get some much needed moving around with fresh air.
We have a "character" on our train that occasionally comes by with food and drink to sell. His name is Igor and I think this was his first train job. He is shy at first, but he befriends our tour guide and develops a crush on Melissa. On this train trip, our roommates are different. We have Will, the tour guide, and Gillian from Canberra. So now Igor decides to start showing up more often and trying to learn english. By the end of the trip he would just come into our compartment and stay and visit. I don't think he was selling anything at the end. No problem since the Russian way is not to reward performance. You get paid the same whether you work hard or do nothing. You could just imagine how many people have decided to take the "do nothing" approach. Whenever you ask for anything (with the exception of Igor) you automatically get a "no". The customer is not right here, you're actually bothering them to even ask.
On one of our 23 minute stops, we all jumped out to find this group of people from the local town with what appeared to be several priests chanting around this picture. Of course no one speaks English, so were not really sure which saint this is. Well, it turns out the Russian Orthodox Church made the last Tsar (Nicholas) a saint, so it was a picture of him. They spent the whole 23 minutes bowing, praying, chanting and kissing this picture until it was time for us to jump back on the train. Well, it appears "The Picture" was coming with us. "The Picture" appeared to have booked its own bed two rooms down from ours. There was a Russian Major from the army in that compartment that we had befriended. He was not happy about "The Picture" being in his room because now he couldn't drink alcohol.
On the last day of the trip our tour guide was talking to "the guy" who had accompanied "The Picture". No one could figure out if he was a holy priest in plain clothes or a security guard. Will asks him where "The Picture" was going and "the guy" points to the location on Will's map. He also points to the area where the strippers and prostititues can be found, with a big thumbs up, wink wink. We were hoping "the guy" was just a security guard, but you know this is Russia.
We ended the four day train ride with Igor singing the "wedding march" to Melissa and asking her to take him to America. Here is where the fun begins. We are now in Moscow. It is one of the most beautiful and cleanest cities I've seen. It seems back in the 60's they built a hotel for all foreign visitors right next to Red Square. I was hoping the microphones and cameras had been removed, just kidding. Needless to say the rooms were well worn, but the location was superb. St. Basil's, which sits on one end of Red Square, looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, but it is so outstanding looking!!! It was obvious that Red Square had been cleaned up quite nicely to get ready for the May 9th celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. The place was immaculate!!
The following morning we had a city tour of Moscow and that evening we got tickets to see the ballet at the Bolshoi theater. Dad you would have loved it, we're talking tutu and tights all the way!!! Right outside our hotel there was this pregnant woman and a small army of her children that were obviously refugees and were asking for money. One of her small sons who couldn't have been more than seven would get out there early in the morning and play his accordian for money. I just couldn't help myself, one morning early as I was walking past I decided to drop my loose change in his large bag, as I bent over all I could see was a US quarter and a 9mm handgun. Perfect, there is security every where with metal detectors and armed guards checking all your identification whenever you enter a building. This 7 year old kid is sitting next to them all day.
While we were in Moscow the temperature "was the hottest" in their recorded history for this time of year. My luck since the hotel was made to keep in the heat. They had some kind of a California power outage, of course unbeknowest to us until we got caught in the back of the elevator with about six large Russian men. We could hear one of the guys speaking in Russian on the speaker box to some unidentified woman who was laughing. I could feel a small panic rising in my nervous system when the big boys started sweating profusely. Luckily we weren't trapped long, but the power outage stopped the metro and all the computer systems in town for the day.
We ended our last night in Moscow by boarding our final train ride on the TransSiberian for a quick 8 hour sleep before arriving in St. Petersburg. We spent that morning touring St. Petersburg which was built 302 years ago by Peter the Great. We decided on our last night together we would go to an "authentic" Russian restaurant. The majority of the folks decided to walk, but four of us took a cab. In Russia you just don't flag a cab over, very dangerous. So we had the hotel arrange a reputable one (whatever that means) for us with a fixed price. You actually pay the hotel so there is no funny business. Off we went and drove around for about 20 minutes when we realized the taxi driver was lost. Now he was pissed, so he called up the hotel and yelled something Russian at the hotel clerk. He handed the phone to Mark in the front seat and she told him it would cost us an additional 100 rubles or he would just throw us out there. Even though it was his fault we had to pay. We finally find the place and he wants another 50 rubles, we tell him no and get out. The walkers had been there for about 15 to 20 minutes already.
It was a great restaurant with good food and music. We were there for hours and when we left it was raining so we had to ask for three taxis again. As we are standing out in the front of the restaurant, this obviously very drunk medium size Russian comes out and goes straight for Melissa. He wants to talk to her but gets about an inch from her face before I strongarm my way in and let him know in no uncertain terms he's not getting near her. Mark slides in gracefully and throws her over his shoulder, luckily he is the biggest of all the guys. The Russian guy is actually okay once he finds out I'm her mother and she is "supposedly" married to one of the guys in the group. He goes back inside and within a few minutes he comes out with about 5 large Russians to smoke. These guys are all in the middle forties, they're not kids. He very politely comes over and wants me to know he is not drinking and driving, he's called "his driver". I'm starting to figure out this restaurant is "really authentic". His slick looking fairly sober buddy comes over, he's Croatian, and informs me they have a "business" relationship. He tells me very nicely that in Croatia "you know after the war with the Serbs", things are different. He just drinks and drives whenever he likes. If he gets stopped, he informs them who he is and reminds them they could loose their job for bothering him. Their driver shows up, he's obviously a really large "security" kind of looking guy. We tell our new Croatian friend we'll be seeing him in a couple of months, just kidding. We safely get in our cab and the trip takes about five minutes and costs 200 rubles. Just reminds us how much we got ripped off the first ride.
We ended our last day by spending a great deal of time in the Winter Palace (Hermitage Museum) before walking outside to find this huge festival and parade right in front of the palace. It appears we timed our vacation just right and ended up celebrating with the locals the 302 birthday of the City of St. Petersburg. The parade was great. The costumes and floats were homemade, but the electricity and excitement in the area was like being in Rio during Carnival.
We are off now to Berlin to start on three week adventure in Germany.