Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



So here we are with my news from Russia, it's bloody cold! There is more to say though.

Having embarked on another train from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk I was sharing the compartment with Brian, an Australian and Sylvia and Antje a couple of German girls. That's probably the best I could say for any of them. Brian was pretty inoffensive, but if he was a colour it would probably be light grey, a shame really as he has taken to writing comedic travelogues which are apparently selling reasonably well in Oz and he is doing a promotional tour of the UK about now. His book as there is only one so far "Rule No. 5 No Sex On the Bus" is at times mildly amusing (which I read from the copy he travels with), at least more so than Brian seemed. By the way you can get the book at Amazon or wherever, apparently. This brings me to the girls I was to be spending the time cooped up with. Antje was much more tolerable than Sylvia which wasn't difficult, easiest way to describe them was unfortunately stereotypically German. So, needless to say it was a fun packed two evenings with a day in between before getting to Irkutsk, which is for those of you who don't know in Eastern Siberia (in the rather chilly bit).

So what possible reason would an allegedly sane person have to go to Eastern Siberia at the onset of Winter apart from simply to break up the journey towards Europe. To start with Irkutsk itself is a rarity in Russia, namely somewhere that still has a lot of its old buildings (not big things so much, like churches which they all have, but houses and the like). This gives one an opportunity to see much more easily how people have lived than the grey concrete monoliths that houses most of the Russian population these days. Many of the old houses are made of wood and can be quite exquisitely carved with scrolling and lace like eaves etc. This gives the town quite a laid back feel and makes a walk around it enjoyable, despite the oppressive biting weather.

Another good reason is to see Lake Baikal "The Pearl of Siberia" one of the seven underwater wonders of the world (for your reference if you care the others are: The Australian Great Barrier Reef, The Belize Barrier Reef, The Deep Sea Vents, The Northern Red Sea, The Galapagos Islands and Palau - Micronesia). Baikal is one of those places that has a lot of numbers and superlatives associated with it because it is unique in many respects. It is 636km long, and is the worlds deepest lake at over a mile deep, 1,637metres to be precise. It was previously much deeper there are seven kilometres of sediment at the bottom of the thing! That means it was once eight and a half kilometres deep (five miles) that is bloody deep. It is also the worlds oldest lake at about twenty-five million years old give or take a couple of years (almost all the rest are about twenty-thousand years old which makes this one pretty ancient). It holds about twenty percent of the worlds fresh water. Some over funded statistician apparently worked out that if all the rest of the worlds water disappeared and there was no more rainfall, lake Baikal would still hold enough water to keep the world going for another forty years - what a useful thing to know. Another useful bit of information is that apparently one could quite easily empty all the North American Great Lakes into the thing. How or why one goes about doing this is beyond me. It is home to around two thousand plant and animal species of which between seventy and eighty percent can be found nowhere else. Included in the tally of these unique specimens is the Nerpa, the worlds only fresh water seals and the golomyanka fish, a blob of pinkish fat with a backbone that lives at the extreme pressures between a thousand and fifteen hundred metres depth (one hundred to hundred and fifty atmospheres), and when brought to the surface dissolves into an oily spot. Unfortunately I was not to see either as I was out of season for the Nerpas (although I have no idea where they hide over winter) and the golomyanka is a bit to deep down to see.

I was planning on doing a dive in the lake, despite the oppressive cold. Curiously the lake is actually several degrees warmer than the air above it, but at minus three outside and only plus six in the water it is still bloody cold. I had been in contact with a dive centre that said all should be okay for some diving in the lake. Then I met the people and although all had seemed fine by e-mail the goal posts moved as though Pickfords were trying to set a new record. They decided that they could not trust me that I have ever been diving as I only have my temporary cards with me, the fact that I haven't been home for a while, so picked up the permanent cards held no sway. After some brief and ultimately circular discussion they decided to hike the previously very expensive cost of diving from forty odd dollars to one hundred and twenty a dive (you have to be having a bloody giraffe mate). As the main dive bloke didn't speak English he said we'd need an interpreter as well - a lot of bloody use he'd be underwater. So, looks like the whole thing got screwed worse than a gay MP on Clapham common. Will these (ex) commies never bloody learn. By the way the ex stands for excruciatingly bloody stupid moron thinking they are operating correctly in a free market but actually more entrenched in their stupid ideology than a Mafia informant in a Brooklyn Bridge pylon. Needless to say I wasn't impressed and decided that they were taking more piss than a geriatric nurse with a urine fetish. I did manage to have a wander around some of the lake shore which is very picturesque and one can see the Sayan mountains about forty kilometres away along the far shore.

From Irkutsk I got back on the train towards Europe, this being a seventy-eight hour journey covering over five thousand two hundred kilometres. I was enchanted to see the German girls from my previous train journey on the platform, ready to board the same train as me, thankfully in a different car as well as compartment. I got on and found that much to my delight I was the only occupant of my compartment, good stuff. After making myself at home and generally using the whole four berth compartment, I went to sleep only to be woken a couple of hours later. After removing my security provisions from the door I opened it to see a middle aged woman standing outside looking at me expectantly. I had heard that prostitutes roam the trains looking for business and thought that was what I had here and to be honest a rather poor specimen at that, especially considering the number of gorgeous Russian women I have seen (which really surprised me). I then noticed that this whore had a lot of baggage with her and reassessed the situation, realising that she had obviously just boarded the train and was to be sharing the compartment with me as soon as I got out the way, which I duly did. I gathered in all my belongings from her side and tried to rectify any wrongs I had thus far committed (returned the bed linen she was entitled to etc.) whilst trying to explain to her in my extremely basic Russian that I was under the misconception that I was to have the compartment to myself all the way to Moscow, a dream I had been rudely awoken from. We then tried to have some conversation, which involved a lot of imagination and a lot of referring to my pocket Russian dictionary I had wisely procured. Things were looking promising at one point when she said "Sprechen Sie Deutsch" as I can just about manage with my knowledge German although it is rustier than a Russian balcony. The only problem was that the only bit of German she could remember was the aforementioned question about whether or not I could speak German, not much bloody use really considering. Still we managed and it was good for me to get a bit more understanding of Russian, my reading and spoken Russian improved quite substantially over the next couple of days we were to be room-mates. Her English didn't even start though, although she did manage to remember one more word of German, warum? - why? Quite appropriate really given the circumstances.

Rayisa as I found out her name was seemed to have decided that I was incapable of feeding myself over the next days and made a point of feeding me three meals a day until she got off in Sverdlovsk (or Ekaterinburg depending on the age of the sign/map). My slowly improving Russian and the food were pleasant side effects of having this surrogate mother. The bit I didn't like and where I thought she was taking things too far was to always quiz me about where I had been when I went away for a wander. When I went off for a couple of hours to chat with Garet a Dutch Australian bloke who I had previously met on the UB - Irkutsk train and was three carriages along from mine I came back to face the Spanish inquisition (actually Spanish would have been much easier as I can to that language tolerably well). She was convinced I had been in the restaurant car for the duration and was looking insulted, I explained to her that I had been talking with an Australian friend a few carriages down. She then needed to know how long we had known each other and when I said since the UB - Irkutsk run, she pointed out to me that he wasn't a friend as I had said using the Russian word "druug" but was some other word which she showed me in my dictionary, the translation of which was friend, same as druug. Bloody hell was she pedantic and rather intolerant of my admittedly basic Russian. A funny bit was when Garet came by to borrow a book, she then asked me a question which I took to be "What is the book about", I said that one was about travel and the other an espionage novel. She told me I shouldn't speak about such things in Russia it isn't free like England. Strange I thought considering I was talking about a novel. I realised I should check that we hadn't got crossed wires, it turned out she had asked what Garet's job was when I had told her he was travelling for the purposes of Espionage, funny what can happen with only a very basic command of the language. I then managed to explain to her that he was actually a retired conference organiser, I think she thought I was just covering for him now and gave me a knowing look.

Rayisa left in Sverdlovsk, a nice woman but I don't that kind of invasiveness from my own mother, let alone someone who has decided to adopt me for the duration of a train ride. She was replaced by Ivan (I think that's what his name was), he also didn't speak English, but he actually could speak German, what's more it was worse than mine which meant that we could communicate easily enough and I actually looked good. Once we had done with pleasantries we basically kept to ourselves though. In Perm though we were joined by Ivan's friend and colleague (who's name I think was Igor), and Igor actually spoke a little English, things were looking up. Then Ivan produced the booze (getting better all the time). We had Balsam, a strange but potent drink, beer and food as it is generally considered in Russia that only alcoholics drink without eating, these guys were much more fun than Rayisa and Ivan remembered more German as he got drunker which made everything much easier. After a pleasant nights sleep we arrived in Moscow the following afternoon about two hours late, but not bad considering we had just crossed an entire continent. I made a point of drinking a beer as we crossed the marker that divides Asia from Europe and went into the Urals which are supposed to be a mountain range, but the Peak District is hillier.

The views from the train were not very changeable however. Mostly it was either steppe (rolling plains) or Taiga (can't see the woods for the trees). The snow added to the appeal of much of the countryside, although most of the towns are bleak to say the least. The buildings generally being of that drab grey concrete block style. It makes one wonder what the situation is getting hold of an architect in Russia, one can picture a meeting of town planners who have decided to build a new apartment block. After heated discussion they decide to call in Oleg the architect because he did such a great job last time. So Oleg turns up, they tell him what they need and they are looking for something special from him. He mulls it over for some time then comes back to describe his vision. "What I'm thinking is imposing, with clean lines, utilitarian yet attractive, something that will blend and also make a statement juxtaposing with the environment and the pre-existing architecture it will be amongst. Basically Comrades what I need is two hundred tonnes of concrete and I will build you a grey box with a few windows that'll make all the other towns green with envy." Rapturous applause of this bold architectural statement and barely sufficient funding follows, rust marks are added to the exterior of the building for a bit of colour.

When I got off the train in Moscow, I saw the girls again and found out that we were all heading to the same place to stay, wonderful.

Moscow has been much better than many people led me to believe it would be, although it has been very cold.

On my first full day I went first thing to Red Square and the Kremlin, passing St. Basil' in the process, thus covering the major sights in one fell swoop. The Kremlin which is not cheap to look around, even though I paid half price with my blag student card was very nice. Mostly it involved looking around a number of churches with some interesting frescoes and exhibits as well as having the typical cupolas. The Duma or government building is understandably off limits and the palace is where the President now lives, and for some reason the security didn't accept that I was there to have a quick cognac and a chinwag with Vlad. They claimed he was at some APEC conference in Shanghai, which I took just to be a silly excuse. Anyway, quite possibly the most interesting bit in the Kremlin is the Armouries exhibits, where the old imperial goodies are on show. This includes the carriages, icons, bibles, orbs, sceptres, crowns, clothes, thrones, ambassadorial gifts, armaments and the like. Needless to say, the amount of opulence on show was striking with robes covered with thousands of pearls, the apparently the worlds most expensive bible, as the cover has over two and a half thousand precious stones set in it. This exhibit was the bit that gave most feeling of the previous occupants.

St. Basil's which is probably the most definitive symbol of Russia was unfortunately partially shrouded in scaffolding. One could however appreciate most of the building with its colourful cupolas. I was surprised that it wasn't bigger, but despite its modest size it has a real presence. I also took the opportunity to visit the Moscow History Museum which would have been much more interesting if it had more English signs, but it had a lot of stuff that continued on from the armouries exhibits. Most striking was a death mask in gold and silver of Czar Peter I. 

The following day I woke up to find it had snowed overnight (it really is bloody cold here) which gave a different look to things. Red square and St. Basils both looked much nicer. I headed over to Gorky Park, which has to be one of the most depressing parks I have been to simply because it has lots of amusements and stalls all staffed but no customers, so it has a ghost town type of feel to it. One of the more sombre exhibits is the Buran Space Shuttle which since the demise of the Soviet Union and its space program is now something for kids to play on in the park. Over the road from Gorky park is something else that epitomises the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Sculpture Park. This is where a number of the particularly communist statues were put as they were thought inappropriate in their previous locations. They include all the communist leaders, several Lenin’s, some Socialist realism and a very big Dzerzhinsky (founder of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB). The Stalin statue, as well as being defaced a bit is flanked by a number of ghoulish faces to symbolise the victims of his gruesome purges. Mostly the sculptures are interesting and some (particularly the more modern ones) are aesthetically pleasing as well . Unfortunately this is all spoiled by a hulking great horrendous statue that Mr. Yuri Luzhkov, the current mayor of Moscow commissioned. It is a massive statue of Peter the great on the prow of a boat, commanding the seas etc. Apparently after this monstrosity was unveiled the local art critics objected to it so strongly that they tried to blow the thing up (although I don't sanction violence in this case it is entirely understandable), now there is a twenty-four hour guard to protect the thing from the critics.

That evening I went off to do something a bit cultural, namely I went to the Bolshoi theatre to see the Bolshoi Ballet performing Minkus' La Bayadere. I had managed to get a seat at cover price from the box office which was a bit of a coup. I had no idea how good the seats would be as the woman at the ticket office just gave me one, without any consultation. When I got to the theatre that evening there were considerable crowds pouring into the place and through a process of waving my ticket at staff I was directed to a private restaurant at the back of the theatre, a provodnitsa opened a wardrobe for me to hang my coat and I was directed to my box with very good views of the stage, very nice. Amongst the other half dozen people sharing the box with me was a Japanese woman (wife of a businessman) who has been in Moscow for two years and sees the Ballet every week which is her only respite from the drudgery that is Moscow to her. She told me I was extremely lucky as the cast we were to have was excellent with Andrey Uvarov as Solor, Maria Aleksandrova as Gamzatty and Nadezhda Grachyova as Nickiya being the leads to look out for. As the ballet got underway I really enjoyed it and although the story is hardly revolutionary the performances were exquisite and the whole thing was rather enchanting. I actually got rather carried away with the whole thing and the theatre itself is also very nice. For those of you who don't know the story of La Bayadere it is quite simple. It is set in India, Solor the hunter and Nickiya the Bayadere are very much in love but the Brahmin also loves Nickiya. The king decides Solor is to marry his daughter Gamzatty, the jealous Brahmin points out that Solor loves Nickiya, the king decides to kill her. Gamzatty overhears this tries to pay Nickiya out, but she isn't having any of it. So, at the engagement feast Gamzatty sets up a snake that bites Nickiya, as she is dying the Brahmin offers to save her life but only if she will love him, she refuses and dies. Then Solor is inconsolable and slowly loses his mind before following Nickiya off into the world of dreams. This takes about three and a half hours to tell but somehow doesn't drag. This is one of the classic "holy ballets", first being performed in 1877 and T.P. Karsavin who apparently knows a fair amount bout ballet commented "there is probably no international competition which a pas de deux or variation from Bayadere is not included". So there we have it, a good evening a good capacity crowd and a good ballet although perhaps a bit too much applause slowing down the performance a little. For more information on either the theatre or the ballet check out the following link http://www.bolshoi.ru

Next day I went to see Lenin, he has been dead since January 21 1924, so understandably there wasn't going to be a lot of conversation. After a reasonably short time queuing up I went to his mausoleum which involves subdued lighting, black stone walls and guards. It was actually quite surreal walking down towards the main chamber as one goes through several turns and at the end of each corridor is a guard stood at attention, but due to the highly polished walls and the fact that there was an almost identical guard just a couple of feet back round the corner it almost feels like one is in a Russian house of macabre mirrors. Lenin himself is not looking bad considering the fact he has been dead for nearly eighty years. Ultimately he looked much like the other stuffed communists (Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong) under the strange orange light, dead and a bit artificial looking. Now though I have the full set of embalmed commies having seen the other guys when I was in Vietnam and China respectively. There has been talk for some time of burying Lenin next to his mum, which is what he wanted all along. So, if you want to see the author on subjects such as "Political agitation and its restriction by the economists", "Political exposures and training in revolutionary activity", "The working class as vanguard fighter for democracy", "I am the eggman, I am the Walrus", "All we are saying is give peace a chance". The last two were corroborative efforts.

After seeing Lenin I went off to the Armed Forces Museum. Not the number one tourist attraction it could be. Most of the exhibits are not too exciting with a very limited number of English signs, but there is something rather unique there, that had English writing actually on it. On May day 1960 the Russians shot down American pilot Gary Power's in his U2 spy plane, something that made the cold war a bit chillier at the time, and now in a corner of the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow one can have a rummage through the wreckage including the ejector seat from the captured pilot who cocked things up, first by failing to hit the self destruct button before he ejected and then by failing to inject himself with the cyanide he had, how inconsiderate. Another fun thing to see is the yard out back where they have on display all those bits they used to love to parade through Red Square: tanks, big guns, armoured personnel carriers, aircraft, mobile rocket launchers, inter continental ballistic missiles (I hope without warheads etc. still in them). It is kind of striking to see these things that were shown as being the pride of the nation gathering dirt and bird shit at the back of the museum for all and sundry to wander round and clamber over. Amongst the exhibits is a Su-27, probably the best thing to come out of Soviet Russia sat there gathering dust.

Feeling that I had done enough in Moscow I made my way to the train station where I was to attempt to buy a ticket to St. Petersburg for the following day. The first woman I dealt with at the ticket office was trying to be very helpful, despite lying about the fact that she could speak German, something she clearly couldn't. We reached an impasse and I couldn't work out what was going on, when she sent me off. Some time later after considerable to-ing and fro-ing, with the assistance of David a Cameroonian bloke studying in Russia I got to a ticket booth that was prepared to sell me a ticket to St. Petersburg, but only for the day after next and for a ridiculous time, still that was all that was available. I found out the next day why they wouldn't sell me a ticket for that day, it was because trains weren't running, for the first time in a bloody long time the service between Moscow and St. Petes was suspended in order to remove the Tsar's Finger. This is the name given to a kink in the line and not something that was dropped by a leper king. If you want to know more check out go to the BBC News web site http://news.bbc.co.uk and stick tsar's finger in the search.

Whilst I was wandering around near Red square on my last day in Moscow I came across a service being held outside the Resurrection Gate and Chapel of the Iverian Virgin. There were a number of priests doing there thing, a choir and one priest in the middle with a particularly good beard who seemed to be the centre of attention to a large extent. At first I was wondering if it was simply a form of status symbol to have a better beard than the other priests, but apparently this wasn’t the case. It was actually Patriarch Alexei, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, their Pope if you like. The singing was all very tuneful and the crowd joined in with a number of the hymns, one of the priests actually started conducting the crowd. It was all rather nice and at the end of the thing I realised that they were going to get Alexei through the crowds into his waiting car so I positioned myself as in the way as possible to get a look at the man and gave him a nice cheesy smile as he shuffled past me. For his part he didn’t even acknowledge me, if only he knew he had been in the presence of greatness.

One of the great things about Moscow is its Metro which has some fabulous great stations with chandeliers, sculptures, stained glass, marble etc. Each has a different theme so apart from being very efficient and covering the town very well, it is aesthetically pleasing to boot. It is a bit confusing at times though as each line that goes through the same station has a different station name, so when looking to go from one line to another it is good to know in advance the various station names of the same place, if that makes sense. The waiting time for the trains is rarely more than three minutes and it is extremely cheap about 12p for any length journey. All in all the system is extremely good the only downside being the propensity the locals have to push and shove.

Another good thing about Moscow surprisingly is the quality and availability of shawarma, the middle eastern kebab type thing. This was a boon to me as Moscow is not a cheap place and also shawarma is very nice.
From Moscow I got my train to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, formerly Sankt Pieter Burkh). On the train I met a nice Frenchman (honestly, he really was pleasant) and we chatted for a bit, went in search of the restaurant car to find beers together, found out there was no restaurant car but found a Provodnik who had beers to sell and generally whiled away the first hours like that before getting a couple of hours sleep before arriving in St. Petes at the ridiculous hour of four thirty in the morning. He was met by friends and I read for a while until the metro opened at quarter to six (St. Pete also has a good metro though not quite as extensive or impressive as Moscow’s. I got to the hostel where I was staying (which is right next door to the gaol) and had a much needed further sleep before having a look around town a bit.

St. Petersburg is actually a very good looking town with wide roads, canals, churches, nice old buildings and palaces and the Neva river running through it. As a result it has a more pleasant atmosphere than Moscow or many other cities I have been to. It is however rather cold. I spent my first day just wandering around, getting a feel for the place and surprised at how walkable the city centre is. It only took an hour or so to walk from one side of town to the other. I also went by the Mariinsky theatre to get a ticket to see Manon performed by the Kirov. Whilst I was studying the playbill outside the theatre, some thief decided to go through my bag, which was on my back at the time. I noticed this and challenged him, to which he tried to tell me he was only trying to find out the time. I explained what I thought of him in words rarely exceeding four letters that he clearly understood and I threatened him so that he went away. This is my first brush so far with an attempted theft from my person in almost two years on this trip and to be honest the thief was crap, the best he would have got from that pocket (which I had forgotten to lock) was a Russian-English dictionary, but I don’t think he needed it as he clearly understood what I was saying to him.

So the next day I walked along Nevsky Prospect, which is the main drag in the town centre. It is the place for taking in many of the sights and still has a number of the original aristocratic buildings and palaces along its sides. There are also a couple of fabulous churches, the Kazansky cathedral is a huge colonnaded structure set in an arc stretching towards the road and the St. Isaac’s cathedral is an impressive and elaborate church with a big colonnaded rotunda that one can climb up to for fabulous views of the city, despite the overcast weather. After seeing some of this stuff I got to the Winter Palace, which was the residence for most of the Czars since Peter I built the first bit. It was continually expanded to cope with the ever expanding art collection and now the thing is bloody large with literally thousands of rooms and many thousands of paintings. It is generally known as the Hermitage which is the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the Large Hermitage combined. I spent an entire afternoon going moderately quickly around the rooms and did not even see half of them. The range of masters on show is impressive with Van Duyck, Rueben, Goya, Velasquez, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Raphael, to name just a few and many other masters represented. The works include sculpture, paintings, ceramics, tapestries, clocks and most other classical media. Despite the thing being so immense as it is, they can apparently only display about ten percent of the works due to a lack of space. The collection was bolstered in size by the seizure of paintings from the Bourgeoisie after the revolution and also by seizures from Germany during and after the war. After spending several hours wandering around this formidable collection one feels a little artistically overloaded. In addition to the works on display there is also the splendour of the palace one is in to look out for with beautiful marble staircases, mosaics and the like. All in all a visual feast.

After a little break I headed towards the Mariinsky theatre to see the ballet. The Mariinsky is the home of ballet in Russia and has reverted to its pre-revolution name (during Soviet times it was known as the Kirov theatre), although the company has kept the Kirov name. The woman at the ticket office was not being particularly helpful, for two main reasons I could fathom. The first was that I wasn’t supposed to be able to buy tickets from that window until the next day (I played the but I don’t know about these things I’m just a tourist). The second reason she for behaving like that, was because she could. I managed to get one of the few remaining tickets for a seat in the centre of the stalls. She would not give me a student discount though because I wasn’t studying in St. Petersburg, bloody racist. If you are interested in the theatre, the ballet I saw or the players that took part, go to the following link http://www.mariinsky.spb.ru/eng/ballet/spects/manon.html it has details on the dancers as well as a synopsis. Needless to say like most ballets it is a romantic tragedy. The libretto, direction and choreography was by Sir Kenneth Macmillan and was first performed in 1974 at the Royal Ballet. It has a much fuller cast and story than which made it more dramatic and engaging in one respect, but in my opinion didn’t leave enough scope for the prancing and dancing that one really wants to see. It was more fun, but not as elegant. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it as I did, but I think in future I should stick to the more classical ballets.

Next day I went to see the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first proper building to be erected in St. Petersburg. It was built by Peter the Great to hold back the attacking Swedes, but by the time it was finished Big Pete had properly vanquished them. The fortress itself is marginally interesting, but there are several museums contained within it, mostly relating the history of the fortress and of St. Petersburg. One that seems slightly out of place is the Museum of Astronautics and Rocket Technology. This was more interesting than it initially promised because there was a guide showing a couple of guys around and this was all then being translated into English by some other guy. I joined there little group as the guide explained the history of the Soviet/Russian space program and even interspersed little amusing anecdotes from time to time. One could tell that he really enjoyed his subject which made his spiel all the more interesting.

The following day I went back to the Peter and Paul fortress to see the cathedral in the centre which was closed on my previous visit. It is a very nice big church and not as overflowing with icons as most of the Russian churches I had seen to date. This is also where the Romanovs were all buried from Peter the Great onwards, and where Nicholas II and his family were re-interred. I then headed just up the road to the Museum of Political History. This is not as boring as it first sounds, but has several exhibits and the building it is in, is in itself worth a look as it is an Art Nouveau palace that previously belonged to Matilda Kshensinskaya, a famous ballet dancer and one-time lover of Nicholas II. She was evicted by the Bolsheviks after the first 1917 revolution and Lenin’s office and the adjoining balcony where he sometimes addressed the crowds are all part of the tour. Amongst the exhibits are some fabulous displays of Soviet Kitsch, including plates, sculptures, posters, vases and other very amusing artefacts. As for the political part of the museum, it is now more concerned with the history of reforms in Russia and goes back to the feeble efforts of Czar Alexander I and through the liberation of the serfs by Alexander II and so on. An interesting exhibit is part of the one concerning the demise of the Soviet Union, which it blames in no small part on the decade long war they were fighting and losing in Afghanistan which destabilised the military and there-fore the government and assisted in the demise of the Soviet union as a whole [America be warned].

I then went to the Cruiser Aurora, which is a remnant of the Russo-Japanese war. It was this ship that from a downstream mooring on the night of 25th October 1917, its crew fired a blank round from the forward gun, demoralising the Winter Palace’s defenders and marking the start of the October Revolution. Now it is just a museum and has some moderately interesting exhibits about the Russian navy.

Having taken a couple of days break from the artier side of things I headed back to the Hermitage to try and see some more of the exhibits on show. I also booked myself on a tour of the Golden Rooms where there is an impressive display of Scythian and Greek gold as well as a selection of diplomatic gifts. As I was the only non-Russian speaker I got my own guide around the exhibits, a very knowledgeable lady who helped make it all more interesting. The exhibits themselves which date back as far as the seventh century BCE were splendid and some of the intricate filigree work was phenomenal, particularly when one considers that these artisans did not have magnifying glasses etc. Amongst the diplomatic gifts were some from Persia, India (under Persian rule), Ottoman Turkey, Central Asia and China. They were all very elaborate, being a means of showing off the wealth and skills. After seeing this exhibit, I went and had a look around the parts of the Winter Palace that are not being used as galleries but show how the Imperial court lived. It was all appropriately palatial, with thrones and other furniture that showed the opulence within which the court resided. It was though rather tasteful considering and only particularly ostentatious on occasion. I then went to have a look around the remainder of the galleries taking in Pissaro, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Gaugin and many others. Once again by the end I found I had reached my artistic limit for the day and went away to take things easy. Back at the hostel where I was staying I was taking it easy in the TV room when I got into a little small talk with a couple of young guys Vova and Vladik from Tomsk in Siberia. They had come with their school on a week long holiday to St. Petersburg. Then some of their peers turned up until I was surrounded by twenty or so fifteen year olds and a couple of their teachers. At one point Ksenya showed me how much red pen there was from her teachers corrections, all over her English homework. I had a look and much to her and the other kids delight was able to point out that in some cases she had not been wrong where she had been corrected and in others both her and her teacher had got it wrong. We actually had quite fun conversations and they treated me like a star, asking for photos to be taken with me and having me write in their books and give them my autograph (their words not mine). Vova was tasked with getting me a Cappuccino and then made sure no-one got too out of line. Considering their age etc. and the fact that I was the first native English speaker all but one had met they had surprisingly good English.

First thing in the morning I headed off to the Russian Museum, which holds a large collection of artworks by Russians, as opposed to the Hermitage which has an absolutely immense collection almost none of which are by Russians. This museum is mostly housed within the former Mikhailovsky Palace, which is a very nice place and was built for Grand Duke Mikhail (brother to Czars Alexander I and Nicholas I) as a gift from his dad, Czar Pavel I because he wasn’t going to get a chance on the throne, very nice of him. The palace itself is interesting but the main draw is the paintings which date from as early as the seventeenth to as late as the latter twentieth century. The older stuff is generally not too engaging being of the religious icon style. It was not until the nineteenth century that things got a bit more realist. Probably Russia’s most prolific and popular painter, Repin has several rooms and many of his paintings are interesting not only artistically, but also to the historical insight they give. Kramskoy, Surikov, Levitan and Kuindzhi are well represented and Aivazovsky’s Crimea seascapes are very engaging.

From the Russian museum I went to the Museum of zoology. This is another large museum, this one though is filled with stuffed fauna. I think that animals are better viewed alive than dead, in a zoo if need be but preferably in the wild so why did I go to somewhere with literally thousands of victims of an overzealous taxidermist. There was really only one reason and that was to see the worlds only stuffed mammoth, with the original skin on it. This forty-five thousand year old extinct animal apparently fell down a hole in the ice and then died in the hole it had fallen into and froze in the permafrost only to be thawed out in 1900. All apart from the lower trunk and some of the hair is intact and the mammoth is in the pose in which it was found, which is sitting on its hind quarters with his front legs raised and resting on raised mounds. It almost looks as though it were reclining in an armchair. I paid scant attention to the other exhibits although they seemed to be extensive and well displayed.

Lastly I went to see the Our lady of Vladimir Church and also the Dostoevsky museum. The church does not stand out well against the rich architecture that can be found around St. Petersburg and the Dostoevsky museum appeared to be closed for refurbishment.

Once again that pretty much brings you up to date with what I have been up to until now.

I have enjoyed my time in Russia, despite the cold and the people have generally been pleasant and helpful when necessary and usually very hospitable when one gets to know them a little. I must say though that I do not agree with their racist double pricing policies at tourist sites which has only been made marginally more tolerable for the fact that I have a bogus student card which gives me reduction on most entrances (and free entry to the Hermitage, excellent). It is strange though that a country as desperately in need of foreign currency as Russia does all it can to dissuade tourists from its ridiculous visa application procedures, needing to register with hotels etc. and its double pricing structure. In the end it makes somewhere that could be cheap, quite expensive. I have also been unfortunate to get here at a time when many of the museums and other sites are being renovated. I don’t know if that is because it is low season or because they have finally got hold of the necessary money.

Tomorrow I am leaving for Helsinki, Finland where I do not know what the public internet resources are like and then just a few days later I will be in Stockholm where I also don’t know. From Stockholm I am flying via Paris (where I am meeting up with my father) to Cuba for a fortnight, where the internet resources are supposed to be few and far between. After a fortnight I will be returning to Stockholm to resume the planned travels towards home. So, it may be some time before I am able to write or reply to mails, so please bare with me, I will do my best.



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