The Lithuanian Youth Hostel in Vilnius is a popular departure and return point for people traveling in Russia. When I left the U.S. I didn't expect to visit Russia. I had looked into it and decided the cost and hassle wasn't worth it. However several of the people staying in the Hostel had already been to Russia and had reassuring things to say about it.
Also at the Hostel I learned that there was a visa service in the Vilnius train station that did fast, comparatively cheap work; approximately $65 for a visa to Russia if you gave them four days, $105 if you need your visa the next day. You can't get into Russia without a visa, and you can't get a visa without a written invitation from a person or business in Russia, plus reservations at a hotel. Your hotel name and address will be on your visa, which you are required to have with you at all times. The Visa service took care of the invitation and reservation, but I wasn't staying at the hotel they put on the Visa paperwork. Actually, I don't think the hotel existed, it was just a name they used. If the police in Russia stop you and check your papers they may quiz you on where you are staying, or they may call the hotel you are supposed to be staying in. If you are not staying in this hotel, or they find out the hotel doesn't exist, then they've caught you violating Russian law. When I write "you" of course I really mean "me"; if I had been stopped by the police I would have been busted. I was a little nervous about this, but the people at the Hostel told me they never had a problem they couldn't bribe there way out of.
There were several people who had just returned from Russia at the Hostel and they knew the bribing etiquette. Vodka or a Russian language Playboy are best for border crossings; when they ask you to empty your luggage you set the bottle or magazine off to one side and leave it out when repacking your bag. Police have the right to stop you and check your papers, if they find something wrong (they usually will) it will cost you 100 roubles (about $3.50). The police will just come right out and ask for the cash. It's nice to know these things in advance. One guest at the Hostel said the police were shaking him down on some pretext when he was short of cash; less than 50 roubles. The police were so insulted by this amount they let him go without taking a bribe. The rules and amounts of bribes often change, so before going to Russia I advise staying at the Lithuanian Youth Hostel and getting the updates.
For the record, I don't like to pay bribes. However if taking the high moral ground means going to jail and/or having my stuff confiscated, I'll pay the bribe. But I want to know how the bribe is offered and how much to offer; if I have to pay a bribe I want to follow accepted procedures and avoid overpaying. When people start over bribing it raises the prices for everyone. I resolved to always have at least 100 roubles on me, which was the expected bribe for most simple police problems. Given a choice between a bottle of vodka or a Russian Playboy to resolve problems with customs, I opted for the Playboy since it's easier to carry. While unsuccessfully looking for a Russian guide book I found a Russian language Playboy in Vilnius, and I was able to purchase some roubles at the exchange office before getting on the train. I was ready to go.
My only stop in Russia was St Petersburg. I got there on an overnight sleeper car from Vilnius. I shared my second class sleeper with a Russian Navy Captain, a very quiet family man who's wife and kids were in another sleeper, and a Lithuanian lounge singer. The Navy Captain spoke some English and was polite but not very outgoing . Having read about Americans who were arrested for carrying commercial GPS units in Russia, I decided not to introduce myself as a retired officer who had managed the GPS satellite test program. The Lithuanian was more outgoing and interesting. After drinking his supper in the lounge car he came back feeling quite sociable and pleased to meet an American and have an opportunity to practice his English. As a lounge singer he went back and forth between St Petersburg and Lithuania singing wherever he could get a job. He wanted to visit and work in the U.S., but couldn't get a visa. This was the first of several times I heard the ironic problem the citizens of former communists countries faced--under the old system they were welcomed in the U.S. as political refugees if they could get there, but leaving their country was difficult. Now many of them are free to leave their countries, but the U.S. and most of the other western countries make it very difficult to get in. I realize there are lots of reasons for (and against) the present system, but I can imagine the frustration of these people--before they couldn't leave the east, now they can't enter the west.
The Lithuanian lounge singer spoke Russian as well as English and Lithuanian, which was useful when we passed through Customs and Passport Control. Two of the three officials we had to deal with were women, and the lounge singer was a shameless flirt who had these women giggling too hard to hassle anyone in our sleeper. The last official was a man who insisted on checking my luggage. He didn't know my luggage was in a space under the Captain's bunk, forcing us to wake him up from a sound sleep to get at my bag. The Custom's officer clearly had not wanted to disturb the Captain and made his check quick and superficial. I would have made it across the border without the assistance of an English/Russian speaking lounge singer or the Navy Captain, but the circumstances made the trip easier and more entertaining.
After the passport and customs check, I got a few hours sleep before we reached St Petersburg. After getting up I learned that restrooms on the train are locked up well before reaching the city. I learned this at an uncomfortable time. Here's an unpleasant but useful tip if you ever travel by rail in Russia--use the train restrooms well before the train arrives at the station. The train restrooms are locked before the train enters a populated area. If you think about it you can probably deduce why. Use the train restroom while you can. The restroom on the train was unpleasant, but it was much better than the restroom in the St Petersburg train station. The station restroom was the filthiest I've ever seen, and I've seen some bad ones. Adding insult to nausea, I had to pay to use a restroom that was so disgusting I didn't want to set my luggage on the floor. Guess what else I didn't want to set down.
More useful info: St Petersburg is several hundred miles north of Vilnius and less than one hundred miles east, but there is a two hour time zone difference. In fact there is a two hour time change as soon as you cross the border from Russia into any of the Baltic countries. That's because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want to be on European time, and as far removed from everything Russian as circumstances will permit. When crossing these borders, remember to reset you watch.
This was my first time in a country that uses a Cyrillic alphabet, which made getting around a little more challenging. I didn't have major problems, but since I was unfamiliar with the writing it took a while to figure out how to use the subway. After a couple of false starts I made it to the station near the St Petersburg Youth Hostel, where I got a dorm bed for $17 a night. It was a bit run down but adequate, though not nearly as much fun as the Hostel in Vilnius. Seventeen dollars is expensive for a dorm bed, but the Hostel had English speaking staff that were very helpful, was in a convenient location, and felt reasonably secure. I had no reason to believe a cheap hotel in St Petersburg would not be secure, but this Hostel had been recommended to me by people who had stayed in it. I didn't have a recommendation for a cheap hotel, and didn't want to take chances.
One curious thing about St Petersburg that I think is common to most Russian cities; they have a centralized hot water system. That means you don't have a water heater in your building; the city has a huge water heater and pipes the hot water to you. I learned about this because shortly after I checked into the Hostel, the city shut down its hot water system for maintenance. While this is not my field of engineering, I suspect this is a ridiculously inefficient method of providing hot water.
I arrived in St Petersburg without much information; I hadn't been able to find a guide book covering the city. Tanya from Tennessee, an interesting backpacker I met in Vilnius, had torn a few pages out of her Let's Go Europe guide for me, but I wanted more info. Finding it took most of my first afternoon. Retail stores in St Petersburg do not pay much attention to storefront marketing. In fact, they seem determined to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. I walked back and forth in front of the address of St Petersburg's largest bookstore several times before seeing its' name over the door of the building--in dark gray letters against a dark gray/brown background. The windows were all shuttered and it looked like any other nondescript building from the outside. It also didn't have the English language guidebook I was looking for. After a few more hours of searching I finally found a Lonely Planet St Petersburg at the British Book Store.
The main tourist drag in St Petersburg is Nevsky prospekt. It is a wide boulevard, well lit and safe, with lots of expensive hotels and bars. However during the day it had lots of Gypsy kids who were professional beggars. They were shameless, persistent, annoying and embarrassing. They only went after tourists. I was told the Russians would not tolerate their antics. They will walk beside you, rubbing your arm and clutching your sleeve, or get in front of you with their hand held out. I tried pulling my arm up away from a little kid who had grabbed my jacket sleeve and found myself walking across a street with a Gypsy kid swinging from my raised arm. Like I said, they are persistent. If you don't keep moving they will wrap their arms and legs around your leg and refuse to let go. I tried ignoring one girl who did this and she started kissing my kneecap, in daylight in front of lots of people walking along this busy street. When I offered her some money she took it and insisted on more. She knew she had won. Of course once I got rid of her I had to get out of the area before word got around that there was a soft touch on Nevsky. Before I got far another one caught up with me and started walking beside me, rubbing my arm and holding out his hand. I had given away all my change and wasn't giving away any bills, so I ignored him. After following me several blocks he gave up, said "kiss my ass" in English, and went away. It was the only time I heard one of those kids talk.
I know I am supposed to be sympathetic and take pity on these kids, but they looked as well fed and well clothed as any other St Petersburg kids. The only dirt on them was put there intentionally for effect. Also the fact that they were clearly trained professionals put me off; I don't like supporting professional beggars.
The Gypsy kids were only out during the day. At night Russian kids would come out and beg. They were just as persistent as the Gypsy's, but not as shameless--no clutching legs and kissing knees. They also didn't look needy, I think they just didn't have anything better to do.
There were some legitimate beggars. Inflation since the collapse of the Soviet Union had reduced the pensions of the old people to practically nothing, leaving many of them dependent on family and handouts to survive. There were a lot of old men and women wearing worn out clothes standing against the walls of pedestrian underpasses with cups held out. With them were men of varying ages missing limbs or in wheelchairs, often wearing faded uniform shirts or jackets. I had heard that the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya had crippled a lot of soldiers. Disabled vets in Russia have it as hard as the old people. I asked a Russian guide who worked with the Hostel and he confirmed that these people were legitimately in need. They weren't aggressive beggars like the kids, they did not approach anyone or ask for help. If you put a few roubles in their cup they would quietly say thank you and that was it. When I gave to the other beggars I felt conned, when I gave to these I felt I had given a little money to someone who was truly in need.
On a more positive note, many people in St Petersburg are bright, personable and competent small business people. While souvenir shopping outside of Ressurection church I haggled with two college students who were running a stand selling scarves. They spoke English and had a charming sales banter. I was most impressed when I tried to convert a proposed price, 340 roubles, to dollars. One of them gave me the answer right away, doing the conversion in her head. I was also trying to do the conversion in my head, but she was faster. That is embarrassing--I got 770 on the math portion of my SAT, I have a degree in math and two in engineering, and I have cowed telemarketers and realtors by quickly calculating in my head the costs or savings of their sales pitches. And now I let a woman half my age beat me in a simple math problem. She explained that at the exchange rate at the time, 28 roubles to a dollar, every 100 roubles were worth approximately $3.50, so 340 roubles would be 3 X $3.50 plus approximately $1.50 for the 40 roubles, or $12.00. The exact conversion for 340 roubles was $12.14, but her answer was close enough. She knew basic rules of math well enough to quickly do calculations in her head. I remembered her after I got back to the U.S. and had pay a $49 dollar bill. I gave the cashier three twenties, and she had to use a calculator to figure out my change. That is depressing.
When I was in a bar in Paris I talked with a Russian/American college student (she was from a family of Russian emigrants who lived in St Petersburg until she was 13, then her family moved to the U.S.) who explained why the average Russian is much better in math than the average American. In the Soviet Union when a child was disruptive or doing poorly in school the child's parents were notified. If the problems continued the parents were called in to explain why their child wasn't doing better. I didn't find out what happened if problems continued; I gathered a third call was rarely necessary. Counseling the parents usually resulted in the child taking his or her behavior and studies seriously. The attitude in the Soviet Union was that if the child was failing, then the parents were failing. The Soviet Union did many things wrong, but it did an excellent job of educating its' people. One of the great tragedies of modern Russia is that there are many skilled, educated people stuck in a country where they can't use their talents.
In the U.S. if children are doing poorly in schools, people, especially politicians, will blame teachers, schools, television, rap music, society in general, other politicians--anything and everything but the parents. When have you ever heard a politician publicly state that parents are responsible for how well their children do in school? At the beginning of the twentieth century the United States had the most literate population in the world. At the end of the century we were bringing up the rear in educational rankings of the rich nations. That is going to catch up with us someday.
Allow me a little math tirade as well. Some people will argue that if they know how to use a calculator there is no need for them to learn math. I disagree. The difference between knowing math and knowing how to use a calculator is comparable to the difference between reading a book and watching television. The former requires far more mental involvement and results in greater comprehension than the latter. People need to understand math. Otherwise those sales pitches from telemarketers and other shady characters might sound like a good deal. Con artists love the mathematically ignorant.
Well, I warned in the intro that I'm prone to go off on tangents. I went from whining about beggars to ranting about ignorance. Let's see if I can tell a quick story and stay on track:
This is my "Bag Day" story. On the first of July I stopped by Money Honey Saloon, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. It was late afternoon with a pretty good crowd. I was on the first floor, but there was also a upstairs bar that was supposed to be popular. While hanging out downstairs I noticed customers leaving the upstairs in great numbers. Two large men in black suits were positioned on either side of the upstairs entrance/exit, looking very serious. After everyone had left the upstairs bar these two men moved forward and closed off part of the downstairs bar, the part with the restrooms. I indicated I needed to go to the restroom and they indicated I should take care of my business outside. I then noticed that more men in black had taken up stations at the entrance to the downstairs bar, accompanied by four St Petersburg policemen wearing body armor. They weren't wearing discrete under-the-shirt bulletproof vests, they were wearing very heavy, visible flack jackets. By now people were also leaving the downstairs bar, and I decided to join them. Walking back to the hostel I noticed a lot of policemen wearing body armor taking up positions outside of businesses.
I mentioned this to Brian, a backpacker staying in the Hostel who had spent several months in Russia. He said he had noticed the men in black and police in body armor as well. He also noticed men with black leather bags traveling with the men in black, who he assumed were bodyguards. Towards the end of the day the men with bags were looking pleased with themselves. He speculated that it being the first of the month we had witnessed collection day for the mob, which he referred to as Bag Day. I suspect that the bar I was in was being cleared of customers while the collection agent worked with the management to determine the payment for the past month. Having this happen very visibly, and with police protection, is interesting and a little unsettling. Of course the collection day explanation is only speculation. There may be a perfectly innocent explanation of the activities we witnessed. Any ideas?
Here are the pictures, and a couple of accompanying stories. St Petersburg has cracked sidewalks and streets, crumbling buildings and tap water that is a health hazard (no kidding, in addition to the pollution there is a parasite called Giardia lamblia, and it is really unpleasant). It is a beautiful city in spite of these little things. Here are the Trinity Church, St Nicholas Cathedral, Church of the Resurrection of Christ, and St Isaac's Cathedral.
St Isaac's is fabulous on the inside, with lots of marble, gilt, ornamentation, paintings, and huge columns of lapis lazuli and malachite. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed, so you'll have to go see for yourself. However I did take some pictures from the top of the cathedral.
Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, on Peter and Paul Fortress island, has a fun story associated with the spire. In the eighteenth century Czar Peter the Great wanted the church renovated so it would look its' best for visiting dignitaries. Somehow all the renovations were complete days before the visit except the cross on top. At the time they didn't have big mechanical cherry pickers, so the only way the engineers could put the cross in place was by building scaffolding around the exterior, which would take weeks. Czar Peter wasn't too happy about this and wanted another solution. That's when a peasant volunteered to put the cross in place. He didn't ask for payment; peasants didn't do that. He climbed up the inside of the cathedral to the base of the spire, then climbed out with the cross and a few tools strapped to his back, and a piece of rope. Using the rope and his bare feet he climbed up the spire lumberjack style, put the cross in place while precariously clinging on, and climbed back down. Having the cathedral ready was important to Peter, and he and his court stood outside and watched the entire operation, cheering when the job was finished. When the peasant came out of the church and kneeled before the Czar, Peter took of his cloak and gave it to the peasant, gave him a bag of coins (a fortune in those days), granted him his freedom (peasants were effectively slaves), gave him a chalice and ordered the imperial eagle be tattooed on his neck. Then Peter decreed that whenever this peasant, who could now be identified by the tattoo on his neck, went into a bar with the chalice, he would get the chalice filled for free as many times as he wanted with his drink of choice. If anyone challenged him he would point to the eagle on his neck and the bartender had better get in line.
I don't know if the story is true, and if it is true I don't know how long the peasant survived his good fortune. Russian's drink a lot even when the drink isn't free. True or not, gestures in St Petersburg now include tapping one's neck with one's fingers, as if drawing attention to an eagle tattoo. It is kind of a generic gesture for drinking and is often accompanied with some other gesture to mean let's drink, he's been drinking, something like that. The morning after I heard this story I went to a kiosk near the Hostel for bottled water. The small group outside the kiosk were there for their morning beer. Russians really do drink a lot. The lady in the kiosk was surprised when I asked for voda instead of piva or vodka. Then a rough and scruffy looking old man tapped me on the shoulder, said something in Russian in a gravelly voice, tapped his neck and pointed down the street with a big grin on his face. Since I knew the significance of the neck tapping, I knew he was suggesting I go with him for a real drink. I laughed and declined in English. He didn't understand the words but got the message and didn't hold it against me. I am certain that if I'd started drinking with this old man at ten in the morning that day and the next would have been a total blank.
Well that's the story and them some. Here's the cathedral. Next to the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is a deliberately insulting statue of Czar Peter. It was supposed to honor Peter, but the sculptor had other ideas. After it was delivered the mayor of St Petersburg either wasn't smart enough to recognize the insult or was too embarrassed by the public money he'd spent to acknowledge it.
Now for random shots around St Petersburg. Here's the Sphinx Monument (I think it was a status thing for European cities to have something from ancient Egypt on display), the General Staff building across from the Hermitage, Alexander's column in front of the Hermitage, the Griffin Bridge over one of St Petersburg's canals, and a fountain in front of the Admiralty.
The Hermitage was begun in 1754 and was an imperial palace until 1917. In 1917 there was a change of government. It displays some of the wealth of imperial Russia, which was quite amazing. It's remarkable what you can accomplish with over 100 million peasants breaking their backs for you. The first picture is the Winter Palace, which contains most of the collection, followed by a Renoir, a Picasso, and a Rodin.
For those of you not up on minerals, lapis lazuli and malachite are semi-precious stones normally used in jewelry. The columns and giant vases here are not solid lapis and malachite, but are made by gluing thin pieces of stone on top of another material. They economized a little; nonetheless I've never seen such an extravagant use of these stones.
Here are a few more interior shots, including a really nice desk. I wonder if it would work as a computer desk.
Finally, a few Greek and Roman statues--Hygea, goddess of health (note the snake); Eros playing with his bow; Jupiter from the first century A.D.; a Roman copy of a fifth century B.C. Aphrodite; and a slightly tilted picture of the room of sculptures. They can't all be gems.
One other museum I had to see was the Museum of Natural History. This is the museum that has the 45,000 year old mammoth found frozen in the Siberian tundra. Other than what the wolves had eaten, it was intact. Finding the museum was easy, but finding the ticket office to the museum was a challenge. I finally noticed a small window off to the side of the building that people would stop by. I took a closer look and saw nothing that indicated it was a ticket office; it looked like a partially shuttered window to a dark room. But after watching a couple buy tickets I walked up to the window and put my money on the sill. A small old hand slowly reached out from the darkness and dragged the money back. It sort of looked like one of those gag boxes where you put a coin on top and a plastic hand comes out and grabs it. Then the hand slowly reappeared and slid a ticket out towards the edge of the sill. I took the ticket and went to the museum. Had I not been patient and determined I would not have figured out how to buy the entrance ticket. Russia has a lot to learn about marketing and customer service.
The museum had many exhibits in addition to the mammoth, including a room with the entire skeletons of every whale I know of and a few I don't. Here is a killer whale under a small part of a blue whale.
To give a sense of scale, here is a complete mammoth fossil. Now if you're a stone age man, you go to sleep in a field, and wake up seeing something that looks like the second picture, then you know you are having a bad day.
Finally, my 45,000 old mammoth, displayed as it was found in the ice. Isn't she cute?
Near the end of my stay in St Petersburg I took a boat trip to Peter the Great's Petrogof Palace. There was an extra charge to enter the palace, and I figured it couldn't match the Hermitage anyway, so I just toured the grounds. It's best known for its' fountains and parks.
Here is a view of the palace grounds with the Gulf of Finland in the background. Also some water color artists I snuck a picture of. A picture of painters painting pictures. I like it.
This costumed couple would look for dumb tourists and pose for pictures for twenty roubles, about seventy cents. Being a dumb tourist I went for it. Besides, she was a pretty lady and I hadn't had any luck with Russian women. There was one English speaking woman on Nevsky prospekt that I had tried to talk to, but then a Gypsy kid wrapped herself around my leg and started kissing my kneecap. Ever try impress a woman while a beggar is kissing your knee? It just doesn't work. Anyway this was as romantic as it got for me in St Petersburg, and it cost me seventy cents a shot.
That's it for my Russian travels. I liked the people; it is sad seeing good people stuck in a system that is holding them back. Many of the Russians I met were intelligent, educated, and had a combination of people skills, enthusiasm, discipline and ambition that would allow them to live successful lives in many places. From what I've observed and read, Russia isn't one of these places. Russia is a country full of human potential that is going to waste.
All I visited was St Petersburg, which is a beautiful city, but hardly representative of all of Russia. What I saw was intriguing. To experience any country properly, but especially to experience Russia, you need to learn as much about the culture and language as possible. Then you need to stay a long while to make the effort worthwhile. Perhaps I'll go back and see more some day.
I left late in the morning on the sixth of July in a pouring rain on a bus that was thirty minutes late, meaning thirty minutes standing in the pouring rain. On the map St Petersburg and Tallin look like they are about 170 miles apart. I don't know how many miles it is on the slow, narrow, bumpy roads, but it took nine hours. Traveling cheap is an experience.