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....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Soviet Russia...

Well, I had my first run-in with the Russian police (militsiya) yesterday...I was walking into the Mayakovskaya metro station, on my way home for dinner, when a Russian militsiya officer stepped in front of me and asked to see my documentation. I handed over my spravka and explained to him that I was a student at St. Petersburg State University. He nodded, but told me to follow him to the militsiya office in the station. Figuring it's best not to piss off an officer, I complied. When we got there, he told me to have a seat in what basically amounted to a holding cell (because they didn't have anywhere else for me to sit) and asked me if I was carrying narcotics. I responded that I did not, to which he raised a skeptical eyebrow and ordered me to empty my pockets. Feeling a little ridiculous, I did as I was told. The officer proceeded to thoroughly go through everything I had with me, while attempting to make small talk at the same time ("Where you from? Philadelphia? That's nice. Do you like Russia?" and so on). After he finished reviewing all my stuff, he then frisked me, just to make ABSOLUTELY sure I was not carrying narcotics, and then let me go, reminding me to carry my passport with me at all times. So basically, I was profiled by the Russian police as a possible narcotics trafficker....goddamn it, Russia.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Travel Week

A brief update for everyone regarding my travel plans for the next week and a half:

Unfortunately, it looks like I will not be going to Perm and the Urals after all...according to my research, there are no connecting trains from Perm to Kazan during this period, and as much as I would love to see the Urals, I don't want to be stranded there for an entire week either.

Instead, after spending three or four days in Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod, I will be taking the train back to Moscow and spending the remainder of my vacation visiting some of the surrounding areas, such as the cities of Yaroslavl, Vladimir, and Suzdal, and possibly the battlefield of Borodino. My friend Hillary and I even managed to find a really cheap hostel not too far from Red Square (seriously, what are the odds?), so I've got a pretty decent alternative, all things considered. It's still a shame that I won't get to see the Perm-36 gulag or the Kungur ice cave, but as they say, shit happens, and you've got to roll with the punches when it does.

Regardless of what else may happen, I promise you that I am going to photograph the living HELL out of Moscow and the other places that I visit.

Swan Lake: A Photo Essay

The world-famous Mariinsky Theater (formerly known as the Kirov)

Panel featuring the Imperial Double Eagle in the the atrium of the Mariinsky

Ceiling fresco in the atrium

Original character sketches for Odile (the Black Swan) and the Princess-Regent

Character sketch for the evil wizard Rothbart

Interior of the Mariinsky

Act One curtain call, with Odette, Prince Siegfried and a legion of Swan Maidens

Act Two curtain call: Odile takes her bow
(the same dancer plays both Odette and Odile)

Odile and Siegfried, with assorted members of the Kirov in the background

Act Three curtain call....damn, that's a lot of Swan Maidens

The conductor of the flawless pit orchestra takes his much-deserved bow

Diana Vishneva, Prima Ballerina of the Kirov troupe
(She's the dancer who played Odette and Odile)