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Today is our flight to Russia. We had the hostel call us a cab. We got this mumbling old guy. The ride cost only about 35Zl (about 12 bucks). At the airport, we were checked in by a very unfriendly LOT guy. He just kept staring at us, not inviting us to step up to the counter, until we asked if he was waiting on our bags. At the security we were likely the only people not to set off alarm due to watches, cell phones or forgotten change. We got an $8 cup of cappuccino. We are both aisle seats, with Leslie sitting in front of me. A Russian lady is sitting next to me. Arrival into Saint Petersburg was bumpy but the document check was much more uneventful than I had imagined. I expected the passport officer to investigate our planned itinerary, but the passport lady spent less than 10 seconds glancing over the visas. We filled out the custom forms but nobody collected them - hopefully this won't be a problem when we try to leave the country. From the airport we took a cab. I think we got seriously ripped off but we were in mood to be haggling. LP says the taxi should be 600, but we paid 1500. Our cab was stuck in between bunch of other cars and it was quite humorous watching the other cars shuffle to let us leave. It reminded me of that parking lot puzzle game. We are staying in Hotel Dostoevsky. The hotel is nice, but the receptionist speaks only limited English. This seems to be the norm here. This is quite scary since St. P and Moscow are the two cities where people speak English the most (supposedly). But the greatest news is, we got our train tickets!
One interesting aspect of traveling in Russia is something called a registration card. This is a relic from the past that was meant to assure that Soviet citizens didn't stray to places they had no business going to. In fact, an internal passport was required for citizens to travel within the country. The Soviet Union is gone, but the registration did not go away. All tourists are required to register with 72 hours after arrival. The registration must be done at every city visited, although there are some exceptions. You can find more info about the visa registration process at WayToRussia.net.
We handed our registration card and passports during checkin but the registration card did not get stamped. When we asked about it, we were told the process is now done digitally. The hotel wraps around and indoor mall, and occupies 5th to 7th floors. We are on 6th, overlooking the central courtyard. Outside the hotel is a big cathedral with golden domes. This Vladimirsky Cathedral was turned into an underwear factory during the Soviet times. Nearby is also the Vladimirsky metro stop. Our room is 6664. We started off by having snacks (zakusky) in the mall food court. I had "german" salad which reminded me of Slovak "vlašký šalát". Leslie had a cucumber dill combo. We also had croissants with chicken paste. Later we went for a walk. We started off the evening by strolling through the city. We were both quite hungry so walked on the Nevskyi Prospect until we found a great spot: Uzbek Cafe. It had an outdoor terrace. There we had Borsch, which we shared. I ordered some spicy Georgian beef. Leslie got mutton. My dinner came with rice while Leslie's came in a bowl of broth. We also had beer - she had Siberian Crown and I had some Armenian one. Leslie did not want to go sightseeing at first but after the beer she got really excited. We walked down to the "spilled blood" cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This cathedral is absolutely amazing. But even crazier was that it did not get dark at all. We got back way after midnight and it was still dusk-like. In fact, the sky turned slightly orange only around midnight. These are the White Nights...
The Vladimirsky Cathedral outside our hotel and our room.
We got the train tickets! And the view out the window.
Famous Horse Tamers on the Anichkov Bridge and our meal at the Uzbek restaurant
This is the city of many rivers and the largest cathedral in the city.
Tourists on a horsedrawn carriage
Before the beautiful Church of Resurrection (or Spilled Blood).
Close ups of the amazing architecture
Later we went to the aptly named Coffee House.
It's 12:30 and it's still light out!
Today we slept until 11. We had a big day in front of us! First we ate blinny from a street vendor by our hotel. Mine got attacked by pigeons. We took metro to Chernisheskaya from where we walked along the Neva river to the Smolny Cathedral. This is where Lenin planned the 1918 revolution. It was not open to public. We next walked across to the Plaza Lenina, home to a giant statue of Lenin. From there we went to Aurora and had beer and a Coke in a cafe across the street. The ship was also closed to public - it was being repainted. Next we headed to the Peter and Paul fortress. Just outside was one of few open, grassy areas in Saint Petersburg. It was well utilized by sunbathers on this sunny afternoon. The fortress doesn't look very intimidating - the walls are not very tall. In the middle is the cathedral with a ridculously tall golden spire. It is in fact over 400 feet tall making it the tallest building in the whole city. We witnessed the bells playing - or possibly a recording since none of the bells seemed to move. There was also a bulldozer moving some plastic barricades. From the fortress we went to the Strelka, the tip of the Vasilievsky Island. There we found a restarant recommended by LP (Resotran) but it was really fancy and they did not want our shorts/t-shirt kind in there. I thought The Lonely Planet catered to the budget travels, but perhaps times have changed.
So, still without dinner, we proceeded to the St. Isaac gold-domed cathedral on Dekabristov Platz. The centerpiece of the square is the famous statue of Peter the Great. Next we headed towards the bluish Nikolsky Cathedral hoping for food but only finding bums. We returned after few sketchy encounters with various lowlifes. This cathedral is outside the main tourist route and it shows. My legs were pretty much gone by the end of the day. It was after 9 when we returned to Dostoyevsky. Still without dinner, we look at the hotel restaurant as our last chance. However, the restaurant had some group activity going on since the waitress told us, in very poor english, that she couldn't seat just the two of us. We were directed to the bar, but it had only few people drinking and didn't feel very inviting. Instead we went to Shinok, a restaurant recommended at the front desk. It was Ukrainian with waiters dressed in folk clothing - white shirts and baggy red pants. It was underground and was made to look like a wine cellar. The food was incredible! I had mushroom soup, while Leslie had borsch with bread baked over the bowl. My main course was chicken with bacon and mushrooms, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and a side of potatoes. The taste was extremely rich - kind of like Stroganoff. This was probably the best meal I had on the entire trip. Leslie had some meat in a pot. It was also good but it didn't share the rich and exquisite taste of my plate. It reminded me of something I would make at home without thinking much about how the ingredients fit together. We also had beer and fruit tea and made it home after midnight.
Here are few random things I have noticed during the day. First, majority of tourists are Russian. Maybe this is due to the strict visa requirements. There are tour operators advertising all over, but all ads are in russian. There are very few souvenir shops - I am sure I saw more matryoshky in Prague than in St. P. Also, Russians come in few distinct types. There are the mean looking Putin skinnies, chubby bears, the tall and thin supermodel girls. People wear very fashionable stuff but the mode is different from the one in the US. People seem to love zippers and big sunglasses. They also like various attachments and belts. There are not many bums around in the tourist section, maybe they were driven out by cops. It is acceptable to walk with a beer bottle in hand. St. P seems quite safe, nothing like Warsaw. Maybe the fact that it stays bright all night means that criminals went on a vacation. Finding a cheap restaurant takes forever a actually getting the meal takes even longer. Waitresses don't come around, or not much. You need to go inside or flag a waitress down to get served.
The river Neva
Towers of the Smolny Cathedral
At the Smolny Convent.
Lenin at the Plaza Lenina. This statue was badly damaged on April 1st, 2009, when vandals blew a hole through Lenin's rear. Later we saw this ad, which is a play on words. It means "be yourself", with "be" being the name of the beer.
Aurora, the ship that signaled the start of the Russian revolution by firing its cannon. It was closed.
Gazprom, the Russian gas company whose dispute with Ukraine resulted in halt of natural gas shipment to much of Europe in the coming winter.
Peter and Paul fortress, the oldest fortification in the city. Near is one of few open grassy areas - popular with sunbathers.
Inside to the side of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
It has a 405 foot tall bell tower, which among other things, acts as a lightning rod.
Behind the fortress, looking towards the Hermitage.
We then headed towards Strelka and it's famous Rostral Columns with the male figures representing the major rivers of Russia.
A bus toilet (or a toilet bus?)!! We did not venture inside. Also St. Isaac's Cathedral.
The Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the greatest ruler of Russia (1682 to 1696). Also Monument to Nicholas I.
St. Petersburg is full of scenes like this. That's why it's often called Venice of the North.
The gold-domed Nikolsky Cathedral
Some locals taking a dip in the river
Today we had breakfast at the hotel. It was free and consisted of various meats (including salmon and sardines!), rolls, pancakes and deserts. We then checked out and left bags at the reception. We walked to Gostinyy dvor, where there was a store with cute fluffy animals including a pancake sheep. We made it down to Hermitage which is supposedly free on the first Thursday of the month (today). The line was horrendous. We thus walked to the cathedral and paid our 600 + 50 rubles to get in. The inside was really pretty - and very different from the catholic cathedrals of Prague. This was the first Orthodox church I have ever visited. The clouds cleared out a bit. We got our bags at 2:50 pm and walked to the station. It has a gaint pillar with a star. At the station we snacked on mushroom pizza and an English salad. The train has a red star on the engine and is quite humangous - there are probably 14 cars. We are in the 7th. Just as we were getting ready to board, another lady wanted to get into car 8, but the door was already locked. In order to get the attention of the conductor to come open the door, she banged on the train window. Either she banged too hard or the window was damaged, but the window shattered, throwing glass all over. The train tickets are checked on the outside, before the person is permitted to enter. The train is quite fancy. There are two columns with 2 seats each and the sections face each other. But the elegant interior is topped by the fact that there are waitresses inside! The food looks delicious and of restaurant quality. This is definitely not your airline coach type of service. Too bad we were on a budget, as the food looked very tempting. Of course, they also offer sandwiches and drinks. The seats are roomy and the ride was smooth. We spent the ride by watching scenery and snacking on chips from Slovakia. And me getting stabbed in a neck with a pen.
Monument to Catherine the Great, where I picked up some sour icecream
There is a "Sabvei" even on Nevsky Prospect.
Alexander Column on Palace Square, the tallest single-piece granite column in the world
Line of folks lining up to see the Winter Palace and my best attempt to look Russian. Russians are not too keen to smile!
The nearby Atlantis statues
Gypsy kids playing by the Cathedral on Spilled Blood
Inside of the cathedral, with a beautiful chandelier
A legless guy contemplating crossing the busy Nevsky Prospect. Don't do it, man!
Moskovskyi Vokzal, the station for trains to Moscow. Stations here are named after the location they serve.
And we are on our way to Moscow...