Russia Travelogue

Jackson He
August 2014

Repin Arts Academy, St Petersburg. We didn't realize the significance of this building until we were back in the US.

Russia has a very special place in the hearts of two generations of Chinese, as evident in our own families. Agnes and her parents graduated from Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, which evolved from the Institute of Russian Language. My mom studied Russian in college. Furthermore, my uncle studied sculpture in Repin Arts Academy for four years. And Beijing, where Agnes and I spent our formative years, is dotted with buildings of Soviet design. During our days in Beijing, the relationship between China and Russia had deteriorated to such a low point that they were fighting on and off along the border, and the Soviet Union was portrayed as China’s biggest enemy, even above the imperialistic United States, by the propaganda machine of the Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless, Russia always held an allure to the Chinese like no other country—Russian music and literature, very popular in China, afforded the Chinese the space to imagine and romanticize a land and a culture that is exotic, remote, and ultimately different, at a time when China was virtually isolated…

While we had high interest in Russia, we also had apprehensions about going there. So far, most countries we’d been to use the Latin alphabet, and we know a little Spanish, French, and a little less German. The only country we’d been to that doesn’t use Latin alphabet is Greece, but through my science education I had learned most Greek letters, and the rest were easily picked up before the trip. We had no prior experience with Cyrillic alphabet, however, let alone the Russian language.

In 2007 Agnes and kids got to the China/Russia border, but did not cross it.

Another thing that concerned us was safety. On the Internet and from friends, we heard of unpleasant stories of tourists in Russia, from pickpockets to robberies to blatant corruption (a friend of mine was told that he had to get a train ticket from a scalper, yet when he got it the ticket had his name printed on it).

For these reasons we decided to join a guided tour. Oddly, this we’d done only once before, in China of all places. It was a study tour of Chinese ecology and culture, led by a friend and colleague of Agnes’s. This time, however, we signed up for a regular tour. One benefit of joining this tour was that the tour company would help us get the Russian visa, including providing the required invitation letter. But the amount of information they asked for in the visa application form was horrendous. Agnes did the forms for the family, and she vowed to never go through the process again.

The tour we joined was named “Treasures of Two Capitals”. It starts off in Moscow, the current capital, and ends in St Petersburg, the imperial capital.

Saturday 7/12, Arrival

Road signs in Moscow, for theaters. Even though we were not driving, we couldn't figure much out of them.

It was the end of a long day when I arrived at our hotel in Moscow, gaining an extra 4 hours on the flight from Beijing. Stepping out of the car that picked me up from the airport, I was tired, sleepy and disoriented. Before I was able to react to a scream, I was embraced by someone from behind. It was Yiran, who recognized me through the hotel’s lobby door. And before I was able to gather all my luggage, Luran and Agnes came out too, and the family was reunited in this foreign city, after two weeks’ separation.

Having arrived earlier, mom and kids had ventured out once already. So Luran took charge of navigation, and the family toured around the center of Moscow on foot, trying to spell the words we saw as we went. The kids knew Cyrillic better, and Yiran was the first to figure out “стоп” and “кофе Хауз”. But unfortunately most words were not such simple transliterations, or cognates, of English, and our progress tapered off very quickly after recognizing the words for restaurant, bank and chocolate (the café mom and kids went for lunch was called Шоколадица).

The sky was blue, and the air was clean and cool. In Beijing, just a day before, with the daytime high around 35°C (95°F), I was feeling icky at the sight of the lovers cuddling in the local park; here in Moscow the high was only 24°C (75°F), with relatively low humidity, and the lovers’ embraces felt particularly heart-warming. We walked through a narrow park in the middle of Nikitsky Blvd, which led us to the pedestrian street of Arbat.

Off Arbat St, taken after 10 PM.
It was quite late in the night, after 10 pm, but the sky was still well lit, and people showed up in droves. Other than the shops and restaurants, there were street artists doing portraits, performing on musical instruments, and giving variety shows. And from time to time, we saw armed police walking or driving by.

Food was expensive, compared to the US. The clear soup I had in a basement café, with a few strings of buckwheat noodles on the bottom and a few thin slices of mushroom on the top, was 270 rubles (about $9). I had to ask for some bread, which, as it turned out, was not free. The four slices cost 70 rubles. The café had an English menu, and one young woman working there could speak some English. There was a colorfully painted piano, on which someone eventually came over to play a melancholy tune. We left without waiting for it to end.

Sunday 7/13, Moscow

Inside St Basil's Cathedral.
This was the day for our bus tour of Moscow. Our tour guide Alexei met us in the hotel lobby, while many other guests of the hotel were likewise gathered by their tour guides. One piece of fancy equipment each of us got was a one-way radio receiver. Alexei could use his transmitter to talk to us, without raising his voice, and without requiring us to always turn our ears towards his direction. After some driving around, our first stop was the Red Square, where the most eye-catching sight was not the Kremlin, but the prettily decked up St Basil’s Cathedral (see a picture of the exterior of the Cathedral later). It was so colorful that the kids said it’s like going to Disneyland. Its onion domes reminded me of swirly ice-cream cones with colorful toppings. Inside the cathedral, the art decoration on the walls appeared primeval and down-to-earth. Lots of the items on exhibition were religious icons.

A small corner in Gum (pronounced "Goom").

Because some in the group wanted to go to bathroom, Alexei took us to the Gum, a large and fancy shopping mall directly across the Red Square from the Kremlin, with hundreds of upscale shops laid out in a three-dimensional grid, interspersed with wide covered atriums laden with floral displays, where bathroom was free, and everything else expensive. At the request of our tour group, we visited Lenin’s tomb. The line was long, and there was no photography inside (and because of the language barrier, we were told through hand gesture that we couldn’t even take pictures while we were queuing outside). The body of Lenin, under the dim light, looked waxy, to the degree that we were sure a wax replicate could be more life-like. Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum and buried outside, with a bunch of other important people unknown to us.

Novodevichy Convent was not on our agenda, but somehow we stopped by there instead of Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This was not an unhappy exchange, except for the fact that we were not let into the Convent; we didn’t even get to visit the famed Novodevichy Cemetery, where many famous people, including Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin, were interred. Instead, all we were able to do was drive around the Convent, and take pictures of it from across the duck pond.

Moscow State University (240m high), inaugurated in 1953. Insert: Beijing Telegraph Building (73m high), inaugurated in 1958.

From Sparrow Hills, where big white letters spells out Love in Russian (pictured later), we were given a few minutes to take pictures of the Moscow skyline—but there was not much to be seen. Unless you count the vast tracts of landmass decorated with a few high-rises on the left and an Olympic Stadium on the right. But nearby, the monumental main building of the Moscow State University reminded us the Soviet style buildings in Beijing, only this building was much bigger, taller, and more awe-inspiring.

The group was treated to lunch at a local restaurant, courtesy of our tour company. There were two main dishes listed on the menu for us, but the chicken dish was only for people who indicated ahead of time that they could not eat beef, such as for religious reasons. So we all had beef stroganoff. Sans the mushrooms that we tend to associate with the dish. Or any other vegetable.

In the afternoon we visited the Tretyakov Picture Gallery, which gives an excellent overview of the history of Russian painting. One of the paintings impressed us deeply. It was a moon-lit scene of a dark night, wherein one could clearly distinguish the water and some land features, even though everything was nearly completely black. We could have either paid some money for the right to take pictures of the artwork, or bought a brochure of the artwork collection with about the same amount of money; we did neither.

I happened to put on Facebook a screenshot of Google Maps showing the surrounding area of our hotel, and our piano teacher Ms. Arrieta realized that we were very close to Moscow Conservatory, and encouraged us to pay it a visit. It was in fact only one minute’s walk away from our hotel, but Google Maps told us it was six and led us to the back side of it, where there was no entrance, no sign, and the street was eerily quiet and desolate. Fortunately a policeman nearby spoke English and was able to direct us to the front of it, on the street we came from. I recognized the statute of Tchaikovsky, as it was featured on the cover of the vinyl record of the winners of Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. We were pleasantly surprised by a young lady sitting near the front of the conservatory, who spoke good English, graduated from the school (we couldn’t ascertain if this was a recent event), and told us that the school was closed for the summer and consequently the performance season was over. She also explained to us that the big letters on the front of the main building spelt “Great Hall”, and gave us the names of the other halls along the street: the White Hall, the Small Hall, and the Rachmaninoff Hall further down the street. An unmarked entrance at the Rachmaninoff Hall led to a courtyard, which felt like the dorm section of the conservatory, with piano and horn music leaking out of some rooms, painting a high-colored contrast to the graffiti on the wall…

Walking to the Red Square in the evening was surprisingly rewarding. We came to the same spot as we did in the morning, but instead of a 30 minutes’ ride on the coach bus, this time it took us fifteen minutes’ walk. Being able to connect the dots and review the places with our newly found orientation was satisfying. The setting sun gave a coat of glory to the St Basil’s Cathedral. And on the way, we enjoyed the peaceful evening surrounded by local people, shops, statutes, and waterworks.

Hotel WiFi at the Courtyard Marriott was only free in the lobby; it was fortunate that our stay in Moscow was not long. Breakfast was included in the hotel price, and the selection as well as quality was great, but the reception dinner, held at the same place, lacked choices and flavor.

Monday 7/14, Kremlin

We visited Kremlin (the fortress) in the morning—by this I mean we went inside the walls. But we were not allowed into the administrative buildings. This was so very different from tours in Washington, DC, where one could visit the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court.

Most of the time there we were in the “Cathedral Square”, and particularly, in the two cathedrals which were open to the public. Being a graduate of theology, Alexei, our tour guide, was very knowledgeable about the saints, icons, and the history of Russian church and state, which were much intertwined. We also spent a little time in the garden, and visited the Armory, which, its name notwithstanding, also had on display Imperial Russia’s carriages and sleighs, as well as wedding dresses.

A collage of Moscow subway art.

After the Kremlin tour, we spent some time in the famed Moscow subway. We took a total of 4 stops in 3 trains, visiting 4 stations of different characteristics. One of the stations had overhead mosaics depicting many airplanes flying in the sky—the subway system was used as air-raid shelters during WWII, and these mosaics might have been constructed to commemorate that. Another station had many groups of statutes proclaiming the power of Soviet Union, with a few groups pointing to or looking towards a statute of Stalin that used to stand there. In the other two stations, one had mosaics depicting great historic Russians figures, either of the Soviet era or before, and the other had stain glass pictures of Socialistic propaganda. The next day, while in St Petersburg, we got news that a subway train in Moscow derailed, with many casualties.

We had lunch in the train station. The sushi restaurant did not serve any other Japanese food, unlike its counterparts in the States. So I became the only one who stayed to eat there. The rest of the family went to eat downstairs, which happened to be a TGI Fridays. The sushi was OK, with nothing spectacular other than the price. The place didn’t take American Express, although other types of credit card were accepted. When the server realized that the credit card I gave him couldn’t be processed, he eventually got help from another server, a women who was slightly more senior in age and experience, and who spoke English fluently.

Scene from our train.

Because it took so long to get the guest check and to pay for the meal, I got to our rendezvous place a little behind schedule. But our luggage arrived even later: in fact it was so late that Alexei asked those people who got their luggage first to go to the train without delay. The way our luggage showed up was amazing: there was no cart or anything. Instead, a group of young men brought them in, one in each hand. It was a good thing that all of the luggage had wheels..

The train to St Petersburg was fast and smooth. We stopped for only three stations in between, for nominally 1-2 minutes each, but at times the stops felt to be much longer. The rural scene was verdure, tranquil, and often of apparent disrepair and poverty. We passed by at least one medium sized town with high-rise, matchbox like apartment buildings, but most other inhabited areas were small towns and villages. In other places along the way, a lot of trees could be seen, both deciduous and coniferous.

Statute of Nicolas I, on St Isaac's Plaza, near Angleterre Hotel.

Right before our arrival in St Petersburg it started to rain. A guide came to meet us on the platform, which was covered. He introduced himself as Konstantin. We walked with him to the end of the platform, where we left our luggage for the porters. It’s rather strange and unsettling to leave luggage somewhere only to be picked up later by some strangers, but we had done that previously in the hotel that morning. Then we had to walk out of the train station, treading some ten minutes in the rain to a waiting tour bus, with no rain-gear.

In the Angleterre Hotel we got two rooms which were separated by a large distance. And my room key didn’t work. So I had to wait for Agnes, who was waiting in the lobby to inquire about places to eat from a concierge who was apparently on call. Later, when she asked for the key to be fixed, on the way back from a sandwich place, the key cards were fixed in a way that neither key could open our door! When we had the keys remade yet again, a front-desk woman (most likely a manager on duty) kindly went up to our room with us and showed us the proper way to use the key cards—you can’t be fast, you can’t be slow, you have to swipe it with a good flow (my words, not hers).

Tuesday 7/15, St Petersburg

The breakfast in the Angleterre Hotel was spectacular, so full of good choices that we didn’t realize we could have eggs cooked to order until the third day.

St Isaac's Cathedral.

A coach bus took us sightseeing, as in Moscow. The buildings in St Petersburg were in general grander and fancier than those in Moscow, with marked French influence. Unlike Moscow, here rivers and canals were everywhere, crisscrossing the city. Yet unlike Venice, the roads and bridges were wide and full of traffic, and traffic on the water was next to nil. We did see a water-taxi stop, though.

Two main attractions for our first full day in St Petersburg were St Isaac’s Cathedral and Peter and Paul’s Fortress. It turned out the former was diagonally across the street from our hotel, while the latter was less than 2 miles (3 km) away, off the opposite bank of the Neva River. One of the interesting happenings was the discovery of three pickpockets in the Peter and Paul Fortress by Konstantin, who warned us through the one-way radios. Another attraction we stopped for was the Church of the Spilled Blood, which was erected on the site where the great reformist Tsar Alexander II was murdered by two anarchists.

In the evening we strolled around the city center of St Petersburg, passing by Hermitage which we were to visit the next day. By chance we ran into this pizza place by the Admiralty, where the tuna pizza was quite good and inexpensive. And the Russian word for tuna was a cognate of the English word, easily spied by us without consulting a dictionary or other people.

Wednesday 7/16, Hermitage

Our tickets to Hermitage were for entrance after 11:40 am. Therefore the morning was mostly free. Agnes and I went out for a stroll, enjoying the clean air newly rinsed by the thunderstorm overnight. We walked to the banks of Bolshaya Neva again, and took some pictures of the Hermitage from the magnificent Palace Square. While we would come again later that day, the group would be arriving on the tour bus, and there would not be time for pictures outside of the building any more. The children had a lazy morning in the hotel.

Hermitage is the old Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars. The palace was spectacular. However, we were not overwhelmed by the art collection, having been to the Met, the Louvre, and the British Museum. There were layers of people in front of the couple of Da Vinci paintings, and our guide warned us of pickpockets there. According to Wikipedia, the so-called “Tauride Venus” is actually a Greek original instead of a Roman copy, but it was left alone in the corner of a largely empty room—before I asked for it, our guide did not consider it worthwhile to take us to the room.

For a very late lunch we ran into this “dining room” in the semi-basement level of our hotel (but only accessible from the street). It’s a cafeteria type of establishment, to our surprise, and the food was tasty, inexpensive and authentically Russian. The four of us spent only five or six hundred rubles for a very good meal.

In the evening we the adults visited the SUNY Russian Institute, where a few friends and colleagues of Agnes’s were teaching for the summer. Inside a plain-looking courtyard, the Institute is located in a palace of old times, where the building is grand, and decoration is fancy, with one of the classrooms boasting brass candelabras with angelic figurines.

We had dinner in Schastye, the corner restaurant right under our hotel. Agnes ordered trout. I wanted a different fish, and of the two other choices, flounder was not available, so I chose pike. After some 10 minutes, it was found that pike was not available either. Then I desired to know what vegetable came with the trout. That seemed to be a difficult question, so our server asked a female server to come help out. While she got our question rather quickly, the answer was not at hand. After several minutes, she came back with the answer: “young coocumber.” We understood her perfectly and my order was changed to the trout dish.

We hurried back to the hotel when the wind picked up and it threatened to rain (Yiran’s comment: Debris! Debris in the air! Sand in mouth! :( ). And eventually it did rain, but only briefly. The next morning, after a brief period of low clouds, the sun came out again.

Thursday 7/17, Peterhof

We visited Peterhof Palace in the morning. This palace was somewhat outside of the city, and on the way we were going in parallel to a trolley line. The trolleys were old, varied, and very frequent, more than one per minute most of the time, with some of them not occupied by more than a handful of people. It was like all of a sudden we were transported back to the Soviet Russia.

The Palace was magnificent, both in the interior and the exterior, including the gardens. Much of the flooring was delicately inlaid wood parquets, so we had to put on plastic overshoes. The design of Peterhof was somewhat similar to other European palaces, such as the Versailles or the Royal Palace of Madrid, but it seemed to have more shining gold gilding. And on the grounds there were more waterworks than Versailles, with a couple of them being “trick fountains”. Many people, especially the younger set, courageously took delight in being “caught” by the trick fountains. When the water jets did go off, the scene was rumbustiously joyous. Our guide also took us “behind the scenes”. Right under the palace, behind the gold gilded and water-jet producing statues, we went inside a grotto and saw the water pipes that supplied all the water to the waterworks.

Coming back from Peterhof our driver took a different route, and for the first time we drove on a superhighway. And on this road we saw the familiar red octagonal stop signs, marked with the English word STOP.

We had a late lunch at the “dining room” again, because of the upcoming farewell dinner. It surprised us that the menu changed. Instead of chicken, the main choice was a meat of different kind, possibly pork. While we didn’t find out what it was, it was good.

The farewell dinner was nice but paled in comparison to the breakfast in the same hotel. Our tour guide Konstantin tried in vain to have our group eat together in nearby tables.

Friday 7/18, Departure

Much of the inside of Hermitage is gilded.

The next morning, we got up bright and early to catch our flight to Moscow. This time waiting for us, and a bunch of other people, was a van. The driver did not speak English. Actually that was just our conjecture. He didn’t speak at all.

The St Petersburg Pulkovo Airport was small, but with great ambitions. It had some 10 gates or so, but numbered from 91 upwards. There was no jet-bridge for us. There was a jet-bridge when we landed in Moscow, but after going through it to get to the terminal building, we had to take a couple of flights of stairs, and come out of the building from under the jet-bridge, where a bus took us to a different part of the terminal building. Russia is like a work in progress. Slow progress.


"Love" on Sparrow Hill. Moscow's high-rise buildings can be seen on the left.

Now that we have been to Russia, it is tempting to contemplate what we could do in a second visit. We would not need to be in a tour group anymore, hopefully. But then we’d have to make more preparation. Assuming that we wouldn’t make the effort to learn the Russian language properly, a paper tour-book with place names in Russian, and with a small collection of commonly used travel phrases would be very helpful (in other western languages at least we know how to ask “where is…”, for example). A phone with local data service (instead of the atrociously expensive roaming service) would be nice to have. So would an offline GPS, for places where data signal does not reach. Driving in Russia might be difficult, but taking public transportation should be doable.

Of course Agnes said that we would never go to Russia again, when she was filling out the excruciatingly detailed visa application forms. But then, she also said “never again” after giving birth to our first child. So never does not have to mean never.