It has been a long wish of both my wife and me to visit Russia if only once in our lives. up until now we never got the chance, but two of our best friends came up with the idea and we straight away went along.
So we went to Russia. Moscow, the golden ring and St. Petersburg. All this from august 31 till september 13 2003.
Here's what happened:
Sunday aug 31.
We had a great start. Inge and I were unable to sit next to each other in the plane. Inge is pretty scared of flying so I called out a supervisor, and another one, and they were finally able to squeeze us in together. As a note, we were on travel with a group of 20 people, that all had the same code in the computer, so it is still beyond me why it took so much effort to change a couple of seats.
We landed in Moscow on schedule, and actually passed customs pretty quick. It took us less than an hour to get outside of the airport. Immediately one of the group went missing. Groupleader and guide went looking for him. We waited an hour and a half in the bus.
The missing person was not found, so we went to the hotel, where this missing person was waiting for us. He did not like the airport, so he took a taxi to the hotel...Because of this we were in the hotel a little after 6. We took a quick, short orientation walk, and 10 of us had Ukrainian food.
Staff actually tried to be helpful in this restaurant !
Monday sep. 1
In the afternoon the entire group went to the "new virgins monestary" in some suburb of Moscow. The monestary and the nearby graveyard were nice though.
The whole group took a walk along the red square (actually it is "nice square", the translation is wrong !). The four of us tried to get into the Kremlin. After standing in line for the tickets, and standing in line for security we were sent away. It took us a few moments to realize that is was not allowed to bring backpacks into the Kremlin. The guards were pointing us away in a specific direction, so we actually found the cloak room that was hidden below the stairs. Ofcourse the cloak room was not free of charge...
The kremlin itself is quite nice, unfortunatly the guard have not yet had their customer friendlynes training...
Inge and I seperated from the group because we wanted some peace and quiet. Moscow must be the noisiest city I have ever been to, and we almost couldn't handle it anymore. We sat on a bench in a park for half an hour, waiting for things to quiet down. They just didn't.
So, as we became more and more agrivated it began to rain. Not just rain, nope, buckets of the stuff were thrown down. We walked through the rain without rain clothes, umbrellas or whatever. We ate at the same restaurant as yesterday were we were greeted like long lost relatives. I like the Ukrainian people !
As a sidenote, some of the group went to the Russian circus tonight. Besides not getting anything to eat, the had a ball.
Tuesday sep. 2
The four of us tried to get into the mausoleum. I could not stand it anymore. We were sent away (because of backpacks), we were sent away again (because of camera), we were sent away (because we sat on the side of the road), so I decided to go away for good. It was than and there I knew: Moscow is the worst city in the world. I do not ever want to set one more foot in that hellhole ever again ! Inge actually got into the mausoleum, she was sh-ed at, she was pointed at, all in all she was mentally abused in there ! Yuck ! Communism did not die in Moscow.
||The whole group took a "guided" tour in the moscow subway.
In the afternoon Inge and I took the subway out of the city to some park on the outskirts of Moscow, and we just listened to what is reasonably quiet in Moscow.
We met the rest of the group in the side-centre of Moscow. 20 People wanting to eat, 2 English menus and 1 b*tch that did not want to serve us at all...
Everybody was whacked and went to the hotel because there were further plans for that evening. I went into the subway and had a spin around.
At 9 Moscow by night. Dumbass idea to do that on the last evening of our stay in Moscow, because we saw quite a few things we did not know about...
Wednesday sep. 3
Inge has been up coughing all night. Jippie (not !)
We were in the bus by 9.15 and out of the hellhole by 11.30 ! Traffic, like most other things in this place is sh*t.
We drove to Vladimir were the entire group ambushed the same restaurant so Inge and I walked on to find a supermarket or something like that. We had way too much time in this city.
Along the way the groupleader had heard something about a church that lies in the midle of nowhere. We thought the driver had understood us, apparently he did not. We were dropped of at the wrong church. A few of us had a walk around. We saw the church we were supposed to have gone to, but it was to far to reach by foot. So we had a quiet stroll through the meadows.
The evening stop was Suzdal. A town consisting mainly of churches, monestarys and kremlins. It was good tradition in the old days for rich people to have their own church in this town, whether they lived here, or not.
The hotel in Suzdal was pityful ! Inge has dust allergies (amongst other things), so she immediately started coughing, sneezing and crying her eyes out. It seems they have never even heard of a vacuum cleaner, worse : They never heard of cleaning at all. Some of singles in the group were bunked in a 2 person bed, the couples were placed in rooms with seperate beds. I ambushed the reception whom (ofcourse) did not understand me because they only speak Russian, and tourists are supposed to be treated like crap. Finally I just grabbed another key from the board. They understood at last. We had to change rooms 3 times to find the one with the least amount of dus. I had to clean the floors myself with a shoebrush to get rid of the worst amount of dust.The mattresses were non existing. they were springs covered by an old blanket. The entire wing of the hotel we were stashed had a smell on it of old and never maintained. The bathroom should be worth a whole seperate story. I do not want to know what lived there...
Funny thing though, while wondering around the hotel we stumbled upon the other wing were the Japanes tourists were sleeping: Absolutely fabulous rooms with light and clean floors... So thats our punishment for going cheaply...
The entire group spread out on a search for food. But this is September, so everybody is closed. We found eachother wondering the streets, and ran into the local discotheque / bar / nightclub / hangout. They actually served us good food at an extreme low price. It took them 2 hours, but for $120 (19 people !!) I am not complaining (much ;D )
We took a "low-flying" taxi back to the hotel because we wondered of the beaten path just a bit too much.
Thursday sep. 4
Inge has again been up coughing all night...
We stayed in bed till 10.30 and only got up because breakfast was till 11.00
The four of us wondered the town all day. Suzdal is a pretty nice town, but a whole day is too much.
16 Of us had dinner in a "monestary" that doubles as tourist trap.
Friday sep. 5
We had a horrible busdrive. It seems Russians do not know what asphalt is, so they call any dirtroad a highway...And because the driver insisted on going at least 80 kilometers an hour you can imagine we were not completely happy.
We stopped at a monestary where there was no food during lunch time. We finally figured out the stall in front of the monestary sold chocolate bars, so that was lunch.
We went on to a town called Jaroslavl. Had a walk with the group through the rain to find the ferry to a nearby monestary. It took the group leader 50 minutes to figure out what boat to take. Staff was unfriendly, unwilling to help and (ofcourse) only speaks Russian. Only with the help of some innocent bystanders we got on the boat at all. The boat trip would have been nice if it had not rained... Now it turned out to be a cold drive along the Volga river because boats are without heating in this part of the world... I hate to think about winter time on this ship...
To top the day we had an extremely luxurious dinner in some maffia joint where the live music actually knew 5 English words and 6 English songs. Good food, good prices, decent music. We had fun that evening.
Saturday sep. 6
Today Rostov-veliky (Rostov the great) is on the agenda. The first time we actually ran out of time in a monestary ! There is so much to see and do in there we needed more than the two hours we had gotten.
This is where we invented a new game "stress the guardians". In russia you must buy a special ticket to be able to take pictures, and you must buy an even more special ticket to videofilm. With this ticket ofcourse you are not allowed to take pictures inside. And since staff is generaly rude we decided to take revenge: Walk in with as many people as possible with their cameras hanging out in the open. Now wait for the "lady" to tell you you can not take pictures. Since nobody speaks Russian and they ofcourse do not speak anything else, act as if you don't understand. She will start pulling cameras (they all do for some odd reason). Act as if you understand. Now run to as many possible corners / rooms as you can so the guard will completely loose oversight. Take as many pictures as you want. If you see the guard running towards somebody, take a picture of that. After 5 minutes of running and screaming the guards will fall apart and walk away ! Great fun game ! Great fun revenge !
Seriously though, if you are ever cought wandering in the area, take all the time you can get ! Visit the museums that are inside the monestary, you have already paid for them, and they are worth the visit !
We returned to Moscow for one night. This was the evening of Moscow's 856's birthday, so we tried to steer clear of the festivities. We had Georgian for dinner, and tried to score a Mc.Flurry for dessert... Unfortunately we could not locate a McD nearby so we decided to go to the area of the red square to a McD we saw earlier that week.
Like I said, it was Moscow's birthday... about 2 million people were running up and down the streets of the center ! I have never seen so many people together in my life. And since so many people all try to get home, they closed down the most obvious subway entrances ! To cut a long story short, we managed to squeeze into the line, and after a while we managed to get into the metro and back to the hotel. Never had a McFlurry that evening...
sunday sep. 7
Sergijev Possad. The most touristic monestary we came by. Entrance fee was free, but we were refused entrance into the cathedral, we stood in line for a church that closed before us, a big part of the grounds was offlimits, in short: bleugh !
We walked out in disgust, had lunch somewhere and had a walk around town. We stumbled upon a healing water well, only known to locals. It was great ! People let us taste the "holy water", we were blessed multiple times, in short: super !
The bus drove onto the next stop where Tsjachkoivsy (? the composer) was born. I did not enter the museum, I had a stroll around the house blocks opposite the museum. People are poor over here !
That evening we stayed in a town called Tver. Way out of the city center, but there was a bus connection to the center... Although bus is a big word. Mini van for 12 people would be more to the point. We were able to squeeze in 18 people. We had a blast until the bus' engine caught fire ! And ofcourse the guy driving the bus did not have a clue about "stop", "fire", "help" or any other non Russian words we tried. Ahwell, we got out safely...
We had dinner in some bar and only half of the group was brave enough to take the "bus" back again.
monday sep. 8
We drove almost all day. Noteworthy: the road was so bad we rammed into a ditch running straight across the road, thus killing one of the inside windows of the bus. Upon arriving in our hotel the tires gave in: flat tire. One unhappy busdriver that day !
tuesday sep. 9
We took public transport to a monestary way outside of Novogorod. We managed to find the busstop to get on the bus, to our fortune the driver even understood what we wanted. Upon arriving at the stop for the monestary he refused to leave the busstop with us still in the bus ! Great guy ! He could have taken us all the way back to town just like that.
The monestary was not worth the visit, but next door we stumbled upon an open air museum. Now this was great !
The museum has taken wooden buildings from all around the area and rebuilt them here for us to enjoy ! Unfortunately the catering of the park was on vacation but we had emergency food along.
The rest of the day was spent hoping to find something to do in Novogorod. Believe, there is nothing. Nothing whatsoever.
Dinner was horror all by itself. We were with 4. By the time the first one had finished the complete dinner, the second one got his starters. It was as if they only had one set of plates or so...Inge was last on the list, and only after me getting very angry she had her meat. Which she spat out immediately because the meat was raw ! We left in disgust with banging doors. Unfortunately the only thing left for inge to eat was microwaved pizza in some stand along the street. Ofcourse she got sick from that !
wednesday sep. 10
Along the way to St. Petersburg we had a stop at an old so called typical Russian house. With souvenir shop, and beds that had not been slept on for at least a decade or so. All in all it was kinda fun to see the inside of one of those wooden houses once.
In St. Petersburg we knew we were not in the first choice hotel. The one they put us in should have been better... Imagine, a 5 story hotel with 90 rooms, a lobby the size of a busdrivers compartment, and 21 people waiting for their room keys... Now also imagine no elevators and no porters and guests at 60+. Please understand we were non happy people over there.
I wanted to go to and stay in bed, but we had made plans for dinner, so I got up, took some more advil, and went along. It took 35 minutes for the public transport bus to come along and another 30 minutes to get into the city center...
We had a walk around and dinner with the group. After that I stood on the busstop for another 45 minutes to get home, and went to bed as soon as I could.
thursday sep. 11
We had an unbelievable breakfast. One half sandwich, coffee or tea and a sponge. That was it. And no, it was not possible to get more or anything else. The original hotel should have had a breakfast buffet, so we started the day off on the wrong foot. The bus took another 40 minutes of waiting and 40 minutes drive (moring traffic), so we were not the happiest group running along St. Petersburg. We took a group walk along the city along the battleship Aurora, and Peter the great's house to the stronghold in the city center. There we split up, and went our ways.
10 of us took a boat trip along the canals. A great way to see a great city. St. Petersburg is a marvelous city. It is called venice of the north and usually compared with Amsterdam but for me it is more like Paris with canals. I have never been to Venice but fellow travelers who have tought me Venice has small canals. St. Pete has huge big roadways and canals. It is possible to take enough distance to any of the houses to take a picture. Unlike Amsterdam houses along the canals vary from big to huge and ofcourse around every corner is another Russian orthodox church to be found. I like St. Petes !
We had a walk that was supposed to last for 3 hours, and took us 1 to a monestary on the outskirts of the city. Bad luck: it was being redone, and stood in (don't know word: wooden stairs and stuff to climb on so you can reach the higher sides of a building to paint or clean it, not just ladders, but the works.). The four of us had dinner in some creapy restaurant in a basement. They had live music, we were their special guests but ofcourse nobody understood a word we said. Ahwell, we were fed, we had our drinks and the music was not too loud...
Because of the waiting for the bus we weren't in the hotel until midnight, which is not really a safe time to be out on the streets in the area where our hotel was situated...
friday sep. 12
Breakfast was horror again. The groupleader actually ransacked the kitchen and stole us some more bread !
We tried to walk to the nearest subway station instead of taking the bus again. It turned out to be a 35 minute walk through an unlit citypark. Not really advisable for the evening. Upon entering of the subway I almost was arrested for taking a picture of some statue on the wall. The guy that tried to stop me did not speak a word outside of his own country except onehundred which I suppose was the amount of money I had to pay him. It turns out it is forbidden to take pictures in St. Petersburg metro, unlike Moscow metro where they couldn't care less. I deleted the picture I took from my digicam and the guy was satisfied. We visited a farmersmarket where local farmers (local from St. Petersburg ??!! yeah right !!) sell their goods. Except for the meat that was just lying around without any form of cooling it looked neat !.
Here we split up. Inge and our other 2 partners went to the Hermitage museum, I went on alone. I took the underground, took a few photos, and ended up at a monestary I wanted to visit. Just outside this monestay was an open air church service with some pretty high people there, so entire blocks were sealed off. I stood and watched for a bit, and had a look inside the monestary. Because of the open air ceremony the cathedral was open. This one is usully closed to the general public, so I was lucky. On the way out of the monestary I stumbled upon the church big shots returing inside. They carried some sort of box everybody was reaching to touch, so I did too. I am unsure if I am now blessed or just plain stupid...
I took the underground to the other side of town and walked back to the center. Took me well over 3 hours ! Inge was going to the ballet that evening with more people of the group, so I met up with the other two not going to the ballet. We ate in the same restaurant as yesterday. Only today no live music, smaller portions, and staff that does not attempt to understand you. there's Russia for you in a nutshell. One day it is a blast, next day there is something completely wrong.
Inge got to the hotel way past midnight. She had a blast at Swans lake.
Last day. Shall I explain breakfast once again ? half a lice of bread, a sponge and coffee or tea. Once. Period.
Yesterday the tourleader had a brilliant idea. On our way to the airport we could as well visit Catharine the greats winterpalace. The original agent we used simply refused so another agent was hired. But because the original agent had already been paid we had to pay for this excursion. We were made to believe that if only one did not want to go the entire group would suffer, so we went along. Besides that the tourleader told us we could walk by the lines. Allrighty. Everybody but one wanted to go along. That one just stayed in the bus, and did not enter the palace with us...
We stood in line for 10 minutes outside the gates. I looked through the gates and the entire field was filled with people. Upon entering the terrain our guide (not the groupleader !) told us this would be half an hours wait. She was unable to explain why we did not just walk by the lines like promised.
I'll cut a longer story short here. We had 3 hours to visit the palace. After 2 hours and 10 minutes standing in line we found out there was yet another line inside the palace for the cloak room. We refused to enter the palace and walked straight to the bus... Talk about a wasted morning !
We were delivered to the airport 2 1/2 hours ahead of departure time. The groupleader went back with the bus, and we were kicked out of the building. We were not allowed to come into the building more than 2 hours early. So there we stood. In the midle of nowwhere, with nothing to do and no place to go on an empty airport. Half an hour later the airport was crammed with people, and it took us half an hour to get past security to get to the check in...
Lets summon it up:
Russia sucks ! It has not adapted to modern standards. Some (mostly hotel-) things try, but they fail in their attempts mostly because of their own staff.
Russia could as well not have had perestrojka and glasnost. The people don't deserve it, or just did not understand a thing that happened.
Russian people that work, suck ! They refuse to speak anything else but russian, and don't even try to understand anything else. The usual hand and foot conversation is useles, staff turns its back on you.
Russia is completely not equiped to handle foreigners. It is not their fault their alphabet is not the most used in the world, but I would at least in the big tourist areas expect some non-cyrilic characters on a menu. I mean, it is impossible to order at McDonalds !
Roads in russia are extremely bad. It looks like there has been no maintainance since 1918.
Agreements are easily done before money is paid. After payment is made agreements do not seem to stand anymore.
Tourists seem good for one thing, and for one thing only. Make money. Make much money. Do not allow them in anywhere unless they pay, and after they pay, make them pay some more for something else. I understand I have to pay 10 times as much money as a native to enter (for example) the Kremlin (I make ten times as much money !), but do they really need to charge extra extra for photos and a cloakroom ?
Not in any place in the country where we able to drink tap water. How's that for a civilized country ?
Russian people on the street are kind. They will try their best to help you. Even if they speak nothing else than Russian they will do their best.
Russia is dead cheap on the streets, 5 course dinner for under $10,- is cheap.