Friday, December 18, 2009

Better than nothing, I suppose...

Three days left in Russia. THREE DAYS. Holy Crap.

If I weren't so busy trying to get everything in order right now, I'd take this time to stop and reflect on all the memories from this semester, good and bad, and maybe on what I've learned as a result of living in a foreign country for the last four months.

Unfortunately, I have seven more pages to write about the Mongol Invasions, plus a hell of a lot of packing left to do. This introspective walk down Memory Road (or Memorii Prospekt) will have to be postponed for a later date.

Also, for some reason, I decided not to take a cab home last night, and instead walked all the way from Nevsky Prospekt down to Frunzenskaya, by way of Sennaya Ploshchad and Moskovskii Prospekt. I did this despite the temperature being close to 0 degrees (Fahrenheit), and also despite the rather heavily-falling hindsight, this seems a tad foolish. BUT I SAVED MONEY. And that is what counts.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Apologies, Past and Future:

Hey again, everyone.

I know, I know...I've been more than remiss in posting, AGAIN. The thing is, I'm currently trapped in the middle of that hellish time of year known as finals week, and right now, I'm looking at a minimum of 3 essays, 2 finals, and 2 presentations, all of which are either scheduled or due at some point in the next THREE DAYS.

Suffice it to say, I will be pulling a couple of all-nighters, that's for damn sure.

This is still no excuse for me neglecting to keep all of you (well, those of you who still bother reading this, at any rate) updated on what I've been up soon as I am through with the rest of my "Hell Week", you have my deepest assurances that I will resume posting, and at greater frequency than I've previously been doing.

This is assuming that I don't choose to drown myself in the canal rather than finish this frigging essay for Civilization, I hate finals.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Moscow Concluded

So, I believe I left off with my visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, yes? Well, shortly after that, I made what may have been the most stupid decision that I've made in all of Russia....that's right, I ate the shashlik. It was from a cheap kiosk next to the metro station, I was hungry, and it smelled REALLY good. Little did I know what sorts of agonies it would inflict on my digestive tract less than 24 hours later.

A Cheap, Delicious Mistake of Epic Proportions

Of course, I was not aware of this until much the time, it was tasty and affordable, which are my top criteria when it comes to food.

Anyway, getting back to my narrative...the next morning, I went with some friends to the Izmailovsky market located behind the hotel. I have never seen a more insane hodge-podge of stuff in my life. There were vendors selling just about everything...i saw mammoth ivory, tasers, chess sets, nesting dolls, wolf skins, icons, daggers, old Soviet medals, and even a guy who looked to be selling Kalashnikovs. (And NO, Mom, I didn't buy one.....although you'll probably have enough of a heart attack over what I did buy, hahaha)

Random souvenir-buying aside, the market was a very interesting place...later, I had lunch at the Moscow Hard Rock Cafe (not exactly my choice, but my friends wanted to go, so whatever). We took some silly photos with the monument to Alexander and Natalia Pushkin, and then Hillary and I made tracks for Kazansky Voksal (Kazan Station) to await our train.

Oh, except for one little problem: we didn't actually have our tickets yet (I'd purchased them online).

Yep, the one thing that we absolutely needed to get on the train, we did not have.

Fortunately, there was an E-ticket registration booth in the station, and the lady working there was EXTREMELY helpful...she managed to figure out what we were trying to do, despite ou mangled Russian, and after several minutes of searching through the station database, she found a way to print out our tickets, allowing us to embark on the Train Ride From Hell.

(The events of that train ride are in no way her fault, however, and I am still eternally grateful to her for being willing to put up with our shitty, shitty Russian and taking the time to check for our tickets despite my lack of a proper receipt)

This concludes Moscow....tomorrow, I will begin writing about Kazan.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More Moscow

So, time to wrap up Moscow, if I can. The second day we spent here can be divided into two halves: the first, which I spent in the Kremlin with the rest of the group, and the second, where I went off on my own to do a little exploring.

Our Kremlin tour that morning was pretty cool...the weather was significantly less frigid than the prior evening. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had actually been able to get any sleep the night before. As such, I was in a bit of a mood when we started our tour, and it didn't really dissipate until much later in the day. Which is a shame, because there was some awesome stuff to see in the Kremlin, including Empress Elizabeth's ridiculous carriages, some of the more famous Faberge eggs, and Peter the Great's coronation throne. Oh, and this thing:

This thing is the so-called Tsar Cannon, built by Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich, son of Ivan the Terrible. At the time, it was the largest artillerypiece in the world, and still has the largest caliber for any cannon in history. According to our tour guide, when Boris Yeltsin came to power, he looked out the window of his office and saw the cannon was aimed directly at his window. Twenty minutes later, Yeltsin had moved to a new office.

After a lot of cathedral touring, during which I saw the tombs of some of the most illustrious rulers of Old Muscovy, including Dmitrii Donskoi and Tsar Alexei, everyone split up and went their separate ways...which, to be perfectly honest, I can't say particularly bothered me. There's nothing that's been more annoying in Russia for me than having to go through tours with some of my fellow students, many of whom couldn't give a damn about Russian history.

Anyway, I decided that with my free afternoon, I was going to go visit the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which had been demolished in the 1930's on the orders of Josef Stalin. In its place, after deciding that his 'Palace of the Soviets' was physically unbuildable, he built......wait for it......a giant swimming pool. (sigh)

...As you can see, this thing is both gorgeous and absolutely GIGANTIC. Once you get past the Kremlin, it absolutely dominates the skyline of central Moscow from all directions. It's lovely enough on the outside, but on the inside, the beauty and elegance are magnified by a factor of 10.....upon stepping inside, I honestly felt that I had somehow entered a purer, more spiritual place, as cliched as that may sound. The beauty was unquestionable, but not excessively so, and the decoration didn't constantly clamor for your attention like it does in other places, such as Westminster Abbey. Alas, as a working Orthodox cathedral, photography of the interior is strictly forbidden.

Tomorrow, I PROMISE that I will finish up with Moscow and then move on to more interesting crap. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Travel Week Continued

Er. Sorry again. It's been a busy week; I was up rather late last night studying for my ethnic studies test today, and thus never got around to posting last night.

So, where was I? Oh yes, Moscow. Well, after our bus tour finally wrapped up, I went back to my hotel room and just CRASHED...I feel bad for not trying to go see some of the local sites during the afternoon, but I was so worn out that I just wanted to get in a quick nap to offset my lack of sleep during the train ride. Around 4:30 - 5pm, I finally got up and decided to grab dinner with my friends Hillary and Claire. We didn't feel like spending the money to catch a metro ride into downtown Moscow, at least not on the first night, particularly considering how expensive Moscow prices can be. Instead, we decided to walk around the Ismailovsky district and see what sort of restaurants we could find there.

Oh, take a quick look up at the picture at the top of the page, by the way. (It's me and my friend Tom in front of St. Basil's Cathedral) Weather looks pretty decent, right? Maybe a little windy, but definitely dry. Now take a look at the picture below, which was taken less than six hours later.

Looks pretty damn cold, eh? Turns out that during the time that I spent napping in the hotel room, a mini-blizzard rolled into town and dropped close to four inches of snow on Moscow. Most of that fell during the time that the three of us were desperately looking for a restaurant in Ismailovsky...turns out, aside from wildly overpriced sushi joints, there isn't all that much to eat there. After half an hour of aimless wandering, we were getting a touch desperate (and starving)...guess where we finally ended up eating?


Yep, we went to Mickey D's. And it was glorious. Afterwards, we hit up a local produktii for some snacks and beers, and spent the rest of the bitterly cold evening in the nice warm hotel room, watching Indiana Jones dubbed into Russian. Good times.

Assuming I get back from the hockey game early enough, I'll post some more tomorrow....oh, did I forget to mention that? Well, I managed to get hockey tickets for the game tomorrow evening between CKA and Dynamo Riga (CKA is the St. Petersburg club which was formerly owned by the Red Army). Should be fun; I'll take LOTS of pictures, haha.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Summarizing Travel Week...if I can

I really wish I'd had some sort of reliable internet access over travel week, because then I would have been able to summarize each day individually...instead, I'm stuck trying to summarize the entire ten days, lazy bastard that I am. I'll try my best not to fall into the temptingly-easy pattern of bullet-pointing everything I did, so in this post, I will just stick to what I did in Moscow for the first three days. In the next one, I'll talk about Kazan, and so on from there.


We took an overnight train from St. Petersburg's Moskovskii Station...of all the trains I rode on during travel week, this was probably the only one that I can say I actually enjoyed at all. We were in a four-person room on a sleeper car, and for once, I wasn't stuck with one of the numerous crazies or assholes (of which our program seems to have a near-unlimited supply). I also got to watch the movie "The Big Lebowski" for the first time, which was a further plus.

The next morning, around 6-7 am, we arrived, whereupon we headed straight for the hotel for breakfast...and only breakfast. Since we were running a little behind schedule, we didn't even have time to put our luggage in our rooms, but instead had to file back on the bus for a city tour. We drove around for a while, while our guide did his best to hold everyone's attention with interesting facts and anecdotes about Muscovite history and geography. Unfortunately, most of us were dog-tired from the late ride (a substantial number were also hungover), and so only two or three of us were awake to listen to our guide's awesomely corny jokes.

When we finally arrived at St. Basil's, we were given approximately 45 minutes to rush around Red Square and take photos...hardly enough time to properly do justice to one of the most history-rich locations in the entire Russian Federation. Still, I did manage to get some awesome shots of the cathedral, the kremlin towers, and the State History Museum (plus G.U.M., the largest shopping mall in Russia), before we were whisked back aboard the bus to continue our city tour.

The next stop was Novodevichy Convent, an old religious complex housing, among other things, the graves of numerous important Russians, as well as the lake which is said to have inspired Tchaikovsky while he composed Swan Lake. There were also some bronze duck statues donated by then-First Lady Barbara Bush, for some obscure reason that I've already forgotten. It's a very pretty setting, despite the cold and cloudy day, and I'll post pictures of it very soon...definitely a great place to take a relaxing walk on a fall afternoon.

After that, we drove around Moscow for a while longer, passing such varied sights as the Olympic ski jump, Sparrow Hill, Moscow State University, the White House (former house of Russia's parliament, and current office of Vladimir Putin), the Arbat district, the Bolshoi Theater, and the deceptively nonthreatening Lyubyanka, former headquarters of the KGB....

Man, is it already 3 am??? Crud, I'm supposed to wake up early to go to the Hermitage tomorrow morning.......aaaargggh, why do I DO this to myself? (Mom, don't answer that)

Okay, I'll just post this now and resume where I left off tomorrow evening. Night, everyone!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Feverish Rantings from Tatarstan!!!!

[Warning: The following post may at times lapse into mild profanity and/or excessively graphic details regarding the effects of Russian cuisine on Brian's digestive tract. Those of you with weak constitutions may wish to cease reading at this point. You have been warned.]

I am going to discuss the three days that I've just spent in Moscow in a later post, when I am in a less-hostile state of mind. Right now, I'll stick to a brief account of my journey to Kazan.

The train I took from Moscow to Kazan (the capital of the semi-autonomous Republic of Tatarstan) was a third-class cabin, meaning that I got to spend a lot of time in close proximity to a lot of my fellow passengers. Fourteen-hours' worth, to be exact. The train was reasonably comfortable...for the first half-hour, at least. After that, my memory kind of fades into one long, horrific blur of stomach-retching agony.

That's right, I spent my first journey along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in my own private gastrointestinal hell. From 8:30 until roughly 11:00, I was either puking up my guts, shitting out my own intestines or some combination thereof. It didn't help that there was only one bathroom on the car for some 40 people, nor that my command of the Russian language grows significantly worse when I'm doubled over in torment on a toilet seat in a wildly-lurching train car.

Oh yeah, and the bathroom "facilities" on this car? 'Primitive' is about the politest adjective I can bestow upon them. The bathroom itself was about the size of my bedroom closet, complete with a stunted dwarf of a toilet and a metal sink that took me almost twenty minutes to figure out. All this took place with an irate babushka hammering her fist on the door and demanding that I finish up and get out (or something to that effect).

That was probably the worst of it, but I spent a decent chunk of the rest of the night hopping out of my bunk and dashing for the toilet as well...when I actually managed to sleep, I kept having weird dreams where I was in the middle of the Odessa Stairs sequence from Eisenstein's movie Battleship Potemkin, with a deuce of a lot of Cossacks trying to kill me. Goddamnit, Russia.

[By the way, I'd like to express my thanks here to the middle-aged Russian woman on the train who was so kind as to let me switch bunks with her...originally, I was to have a top bunk, but she decided to save me the trouble of having to constantly clamber in and out all night long...seriously, words cannot adequately express my gratitude to her for that.]

When we finally arrived in Kazan this morning, I was feeling better...until I stepped off the train, whereupon I had to sprint to the station's toilets (which cost money)....God, that was the saddest excuse for a toilet I've ever seen in my life. It was basically a porcelain hole in the floor that one had to carefully squat over and pray that they don't fall in. Naturally, I ended up doing exactly that.

We finally got to the hotel, where the staff was extremely friendly and accomodating, and I have proceeded to spend my entire first day in Tatarstan crapping like there was no tomorrow.

Aside from that, our hotel is quite pleasant (if on the cheap side), and is actually located directly across the street from the Kazan Kremlin, a gorgeous medieval fortress overlooking the Volga River. Maybe tomorrow, I will actually be able to leave the building for a little and get to see I hope, anyway.

The moral of this story? Don't eat shashlik (kebabs) from a late-night kiosk in Moscow, no matter how hungry you are or how good the might smell.

I swear, this country is trying to kill me....