Moscow, Part 3 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 15 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This post covers sites we visited in Moscow over the course of three days. These sites are all within walking distance of the Red Square area.

(For links to other parts of our Russia Trip Report, see the bottom of this post!)

Our visit in the cold February weather continued!

Kremlin and the Armory

On our second full day in Moscow, we went to the Kremlin and the Armory, which was quite the adventure. There were several different options for Kremlin tickets, and we were having a very difficult time discerning the differences. So, we just kind of winged it.

Our first stop was the Armory. It was kind of crowded … with middle school children on field trips! Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside the Armory, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it is really amazing and stunning! Although I will say that the artifact descriptions were a bit lacking, so I do wish we had had a guide for the Armory to point out some of the more key exhibits.

Outside the Armory at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Near the Armory in Moscow Russia

I had to snap a photo of this sign that was on the back of the toilet stall door in the ladies room at the Armory (I don’t think that’s actually breaking the “No photography rule, right?). I had remembered seeing a sign like this posted on some news outlet when everybody was complaining about the Sochi Olympics. What is the lavatory pan? Do they mean the toilet?

Funny signs in Russia when traveling. Do not drop toilet paper in toilet

Just outside the Armory, there were some great views of the Kremlin walls and the river that runs along it.

Kremlin walls and River in Moscow Kremlin walls and River in Moscow

 

Kremlin Grounds

After the Armory, we continued our tour of the Kremlin grounds. We walked towards the “Cathedrals” area. On our way there, we passed several government buildings. Unfortunately I don’t know what the actual buildings are. (Again, signage was lacking and we didn’t have a guide!)

The Kremlin in Moscow Russia The Kremlin Grounds in Moscow Russia Buildings on the Kremlin grounds while touring

I’m not sure why, but the guard in the below photograph started to get a bit annoyed apparently, let out a whistle, and shooed us away. We promptly complied and started pointing our cameras elsewhere!

Touring the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia Cannons on the Kremlin grounds Large broken bell on Kremlin

 

The Cathedrals Area of the Kremlin

After walking past the government buildings, we entered the “Cathedrals” area, which, as the name implies, consists of several cathedrals all grouped together. There was no photography permitted inside the cathedrals, but they were all very ornate!

Cathedrals area of Kremlin Outside the cathedrals at the Kremlin Cathedral door at Kremlin in Moscow Cathedral Onion Domes in Moscow Cathedrals area at Kremlin in Moscow Grounds of Cathedrals area at Kremlin Grounds of Cathedrals area at Kremlin in Moscow

 

Pedestrian-Friendly Streets in Moscow

I was pleasantly surprised by how pedestrian-friendly it was in Moscow. In fact, there were several lovely streets to walk along.

Just outside of Red Square is a street called Nikolskaya Street. Our guide explained had only recently been converted to pedestrian-only.

Walking along Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, Russia Side Street off Nikolskaya Street in Moscow Nikolskaya Street in Moscow

Another lovely pedestrian-friendly street that is a little further away from Red Square was called Kuznetskiy Most. There were a lot of high end shops around that street, as well as just some more basic restaurants and coffee shops. Ken and I went back to this area the next night for dinner.

Kuznetskiy Most street in Moscow Kuznetskiy Most street in Moscow

 

Supermarket in Gum

Another place we went to a few times was a kind of supermarket in Gum (Pronounced Goom – the large shopping mall in Red Square). Our tour guide introduced us to the market during our tour, giving us an overview of some traditional Russian foods, vodkas, and snacks. We went back a couple of times for snacks and desserts! Unfortunately I’m not sure what the name of this actual store was (and it’s kind of hard to tell from Googling it as well), but it takes up a large portion of Gum, so it’s hard to miss!

Supermarket inside Gum mall in Moscow Desserts at Supermarket inside Gum mall in Moscow

Dried fish, which is commonly eaten when drinking vodka in Russia.

Canned Dried Fish for Drinking with Vodka

And that was it for our touring around the Red Square area in Moscow! The next post will cover sites more on the outskirts of Moscow.


Moscow Driving Tour (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 16 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

(For links to other parts of our Russia Trip Report, see the bottom of this post!)

On our last full day in Moscow, Ken and I arranged for a private driving tour of sites that are more on the “outskirts” of Moscow and more easily accessible by driving. Outskirts might not be the right word.  It was still definitely Moscow, but it was not near the city center or Red Square areas.  We didn’t realize that the tour included a guide and a separate driver, which was really fantastic. The driver would drop us off at a site, the guide would walk us around, and then we would pick up the driver later on.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Our first stop on the driving tour was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church is famous in Moscow, but it more recently claimed notoriety as the location where the band Pussy Riot was arrested after an impromptu performance inside the church.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow Russia

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Cameras were not permitted inside the church, so our guide held them while we went inside. Not that we would have tried it, but the guide implored us not to “sneak” any photos with our phones or anything. He explained that the guards are very, ahem, “on edge” and may assume anything, such as a sneaky photograph, is a protest in support of Pussy Riot.

The inside was very ornate and there were a few different levels to tour. It is a functioning church, so there were people inside actively praying, lighting candles, etc.

After Ken and I toured the inside, we met back up with our guide. He walked us behind the church to give more history, and also pointed out other Moscow sites.

(Side Story: So, Ken had been really warm in the car, so he had taken off his jacket. Seriously, Russians keep their indoor spaces, including vehicles, WAY too warm, even considering the cold winter air outside! When we got out of the car, we thought we were just going straight from the car to the inside of the church, and then meeting with the car afterwards, so Ken left his coat in the car. The guide had absolutely panicked as he noticed Ken was not wearing a coat, saying we were going to do a little bit of outdoor walking after the church. But, the driver had already pulled away. So here’s Ken with no jacket at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In Russia. In February.)

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We walked to the back of the church, which afforded some different views of the Cathedral.

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Then, our guide had us walk across a small pedestrian bridge behind the church. There’s Ken again with no coat. Locals were looking at him like he was certifiable.

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Views from the bridge were lovely!

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The guide pointed out this statue of St. Peter. He noted that Moscow locals HATE this statue. They think it is ugly and gaudy. Plus, he pointed out that Muscovites don’t really like St. Peter, since he diverted so many resources from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

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The bridge was filled with these “love locks.” I had heard of the tradition before, where two people in love will come to the bridge and put a lock on the bridge, and then throw the key into the river below.

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We met up with our driver again and went on our way to the next stop.

New Maiden’s Convent

Our second stop was the New Maiden’s Convent.

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The New Maiden’s convent was a convent in the 16th century and has a very storied history. In 1812, Napoleon tried to blow up the convent. In the late 1800s, the monastery became a home for orphaned girls. According to our guide, the girls were commonly raped while here.

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The monastery was also used to imprison Sophia Alexeyevna, the sister of Peter the Great, who feared she would try to wrest power from him. At the base of the tower were she was imprisoned, people still leave her notes and messages.

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Our guide pointed out that the New Maiden’s Convent is a UNESCO heritage site, but it appears to be falling into disrepair, perhaps illustrating that UNESCO funds are not being spent appropriately. He mentioned that UNESCO may threaten to end their funding if repairs are not made.

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Behind the convent was another small pedestrian bridge, which was also covered with love locks!

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Sparrow Hills

Our driver then took us to our next stop, which was an area called Sparrow Hills. It provides a high overlook for the entire city of Moscow. The stadium in the center of the photograph was the 1980 Olympic stadium.

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Huge smokestacks are seen all throughout Moscow, and provide heat to all the buildings in the city. Our guide explained that it is practically impossible to control the heat in your own home or building in Russia, that it is all controlled from these plants. We noticed that EVERYWHERE we went, including places like our hotels, the buildings were exceptionally warm. Our guide said that if you want to make it cooler, you have to open a window

Smokestacks in Moscow - View from Sparrow Hills

A closeup of the 1980 Olympic stadium. If you look in the center of the photograph, you should see a fake orange and yellow “flame” signifying where the Olympic Flame once burned

View of 1980 Olympic Flame - Olympic Stadium Moscow

The Sparrow Hills area is home to the Moscow State University. These styles of buildings are called “Stalin’s skyscrapers” as he apparently loved building taller structures throughout Moscow

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In the center of this photograph taken from Sparrow Hills, you can see the gold “onion domes” of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where we had just visited two stops prior!

View of Moscow from Sparrow Hills

Victory Park

After Sparrow Hills, we drove to Victory Park, a huge World War II memorial in Moscow.

Victory Park in Moscow

The main attraction at Victory Park is this obelisk statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. The obelisk is 1418 meters high, which is 10cm for every day of the war.

Obelisk Statue of Nike at Victory Park in Moscow

At the base of the obelisk is a statue of St. George slaying a dragon

St. George statue in Victory Park

In the summer, these slabs are fountains. The fountains actually run red water, signifying the blood of soldiers who died in the war.

Fountains during Winter at Victory Park in Moscow

We walked further down the park, past the fountains.

Victory Park in Moscow Victory Park in Moscow

Just to the side of Victory Park is St. George’s church. The church purports to have a bone from St. George’s body.

St. George’s Church Near Victory Park in Moscow

Apologies for the terrible picture, but it’s more here for the story. After we left Victory Park, our driver got pulled over by the police! We were a little nervous sitting in the back of the car, but I managed to snap this picture. She was let off with a warning for making a right turn on red. Our guide explained that corruption used to be more common among Russian police officers, but that dashboard cameras are actually preventing a lot of corruption these days, because officers don’t want to get caught trying to take a bribe!

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Arbat Street

After Victory Park (and our driver getting pulled over!) we arrived at our last stop, Arbat Street.

Arbat Street in Moscow

Arbat Street was a trendy area, popular with local artists. Arbat Street was also home to Pushkin, who is described as “Russia’s Shakespeare”

Sign about Pushkin on Arbat Street in Moscow

I really couldn’t help but chuckle at all the American restaurants on Arbat Street, complete with a Johnny Rockets that had a Statue of Liberty in front!

Johnny Rockets on Arbat Street in Moscow Wendy’s on Arbat Street in Moscow Dunkin Donuts on Arbat Street in Moscow

There was even a Shake Shack, Cinnabon, and Auntie Anne’s. Crazy.

Shake Shack in Moscow Cinnabon in Moscow

A famous Russian musician named Viktor Tsoi used to perform along Arbat Street. He was killed in an accident in 1992, but this wall along Arbat Street remains a tribute to him. People commonly leave lit cigarettes as a tribute.

Tribute to Viktor Tsoi on Arbat Street Victor Tsoi tribute wall

And with that, our driving tour of Moscow was done! Our driver and guide dropped us back off at our hotel.

A fun points and miles story ended our day. On the recommendation on the guide, we went out later that evening for dinner at a place called Moo Moo. The guide recommended it because it was good, inexpensive Russian food, served cafeteria style, which meant we could just point to what we wanted instead of worrying about deciphering menus!

We walked to Moo Moo from our hotel later that evening. Like the guide mentioned, it was tasty and inexpensive. Ken had gotten up from the table to get a second serving. A woman and her husband were about to sit at a table right next to us, and she started saying something to me in Russian (because everybody seemed to think we were Russian!) and then started to take Ken’s chair. In English, obviously, I started stammering, thinking she wouldn’t understand me, saying like, “Oh. wait! That’s my husband’s chair.”

Then, in perfect English, she was like, “Ohh! I’m so sorry! Then continued a quick chat, like “Where are you from, what brings you to Russia, etc.” We told her we had seen some Olympic events in Sochi and were visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg too and chatted for a bit about the Olympics.

Then she said, “Where are you staying while in Moscow?” And I said, the Park Hyatt.

She paused, and then said in a very surprised voice, “And you eat HERE at Moo Moo?!?!” I guess she assumed we were very wealthy considering that a “cheap” night at the Park Hyatt can be in the $600 range, and couldn’t figure out why we were eating dinner at a budget cafeteria-style Russian food place.

I didn’t want to go into the long explanation of the fact that the hotel was free thanks to points!

Anyway, it’s always nice to encounter such friendly people when traveling!

 

Russia Trip Report Links:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Clubhouse, Washington Dulles Airport 

Part 3: Turkish Airlines Business Class: Washington Dulles to Istanbul (IAD-IST)

Part 4: Istanbul Airport, the Turkish Airlines Lounge Fail, TAV Hotel, and Flight to Sochi

Part 5: Our Crazy Sochi Accommodations Story

Part 6 Women’s Halfpipe and First Day in Sochi

Part 7: Luge

Part 8: Olympic Park (covering two days)

Part 9: Speed Skating and Ski Jumping

Part 10: Sochi – The Ugly

Part 11: Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow (Hotel Review)

Part 12: Moscow by Night: Our first evening

Part 12: Moscow Part 2 (Sites near Red Square)

Part 13: Moscow Part 3 (More sites near Red Square)

W St Petersburg Hotel Review (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 17 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

(For links to other parts of our Russia Trip Report, see the bottom of this post!)

After our time in Moscow, it was time for the next leg of our trip, St. Petersburg. We took the high speed train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and unfortunately we had a very bad experience at the Moscow train station when somebody tried to steal our luggage (I’ll tell the full story in the next post in this trip report series).

But first, I wanted to review our hotel!  We stayed at the W St. Petersburg. With the exception of one or two customer service issues, we had a fantastic stay. The hotel is centrally located and within walking distance of many of St. Petersburg’s famous sites. The room was a decent size by European standards, and it had an amazing bathroom.

The W St. Petersburg was 12,000 SPG points per night. We used 36,000 points for our three nights there, making our stay entirely free. And since I’m SPG Gold, we even had free WiFi! (Typically there is a charge at the W). We had earned most of the points needed from the SPG Amex Personal card, which Ken had signed up for several months before the trip.

They were very efficient in getting us our visa support letters (required for Americans when applying for a Russian tourist visa) prior to our departure!  They responded less than a day after our request.

The Room

We stayed in the “Wonderful Room” – King Size Bed.

W St. Petersburg - Hotel Review - Wonderful room with King Size bed W St. Petersburg - Hotel Review - Wonderful room

There was a large desk, which was fantastic as a landing zone for all our stuff, like cameras, chargers, etc. The desk also had table-height electrical outlets, both on the desk and to the right of the desk on the wall.

Desk at W St. Petersburg - Wonderful Room Desk and Chair at W St. Petersburg

Besides the desk chair, the only other “sitting” furniture available was this trendy looking piece, which actually was pretty comfy.

Chair in Wonderful Room | W St. Petersburg Review

The bed was plush and amazing. Great for stretching out after long days of touring!

Bed | W St. Petersburg Review Bed | W St. Petersburg Review

It is worth pointing out that the nightstand on the left was comically tiny, but it was better than nothing!

Bed in Wonderful Room | W St. Petersburg Review

There was a flat panel TV, probably about 32 inches, in the corner of the room.

TV | | W St. Petersburg Review

It was on that TV that we watched news coverage of the events starting to unfold in Ukraine. We started to get worried calls and messages from family and friends about the violence. We just said, “We are SO far away from the Ukraine right now, probably close to 700 miles! There’s no need to worry!” And naively, we said, “Anyway, that’s the Ukraine, what does it have to do with Russia besides being relatively nearby?”

My oh my, that fell apart fast and obviously we learned pretty quickly how what was happening in the Ukraine was, in fact, related to all things Russia!

Bathroom

The bathroom was on the left, right after you walked into the hotel room.

View looking down hallway from hotel room door Bathroom in Wonderful Room | W St. Petersburg Review Bathroom at W St. Petersburg

The shower was spacious and had great water pressure. There was no bathtub, but that’s not a complaint. (Even though I had baths in the fantastic tub at the Park Hyatt in Moscow!)

There was a rain shower head, plus a separate handheld sprayer if you needed it.

Shower at W St. Petersburg | Wonderful Room Shower at W St. Petersburg | Wonderful Room

The shower had a glass door, which I’m always appreciate. I’m not a huge fan of the recent trends of only having like a “half” glass door for showers, much like what we saw during our stay at the Andaz in New York.

Shower at W St. Petersburg

There were two plush robes available, and the sink had plenty of countertop space.

Sink and countertop at W St. Petersburg

Also a big plus was the separate toilet stall in the bathroom.

Water closet

Entrance and Lobby

The W was on a quiet side street, and the entrance was very unassuming. (See the white “W” about halfway up the photo? That was the entrance.)

Entrance to W St Petersburg | Hotel Review Entrance doors to hotel

There were umbrellas just inside the entrance, available to guests on rainy days. (Which there are many in Russia in winter!)

Umbrellas available for guests

The lobby was really beautiful, and had plenty of seating areas.

Lobby at W St. Petersburg | Hotel Review Lobby at W St. Petersburg | Hotel Review Lobby at W St. Petersburg | Hotel Review

There was also a fireplace that Ken and I sat around to warm up after our tour excursions.

Fireplace in lobby at the W Hotel

There was a bar in the lobby, but we never tried it.

Bar in Lobby

The check-in area was minimalist, and there was a seating area directly to the right of it.

Check-in area at W St. Petersburg Seating area in Lobby

It was a great stay. There were a few customer service issues to point out:

1) The W St. Petersburg apparently has a fantastic rooftop terrace that provides great views of the city. Well, it was locked each time we tried to go up there. When we asked the front desk if an employee could just let us up there quickly to snap a few photos, we were pretty rudely told no. It’s fine that we couldn’t go up, I figured it didn’t hurt to ask, but they were really rude about it.

2) We had a very difficult time getting a taxi from the St. Petersburg train station to the W hotel. Each driver wanted to charge us about five times the amount that it would really cost (the hotel’s website had a very helpful section estimating what a taxi should cost from various waypoints, like the train station). We called the hotel, and they actually dispatched a taxi for us, pre-negotiating the price. So that was VERY helpful.

When it was time to take a taxi to the airport on the last day of our trip, we wanted to make sure that the hotel staff negotiated the price of the taxi before we got in. Well, for whatever reason, the doormen were nowhere to be found. So, we went to the front desk to ask if they could get us a taxi and verify the price to the airport. The lady (the same one who was rude about the rooftop terrace), told us to just go outside and hail a cab. We tried to explain the problem we had at the train station a few days earlier, and she just said, “No, it shouldn’t cost more than 1500 rubles to get to the airport.” We were like, “Yeah, we know what it SHOULD cost, but that won’t stop a taxi driver from trying to rip us off.” Then she sighed loudly and angrily walked toward the front door to get us a taxi.

 

Anyway, those two small incidents didn’t affect our enjoyment too much (I’d still stay there again and recommend it to anybody going to St. Petersburg), but I just thought I’d point out that there are some elements of their customer service that could be improved.

Bottom line? The W is a great option if your travels take you to St. Petersburg!


The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on our way to St. Petersburg, Russia

This entry is part 18 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

Our trip to St. Petersburg began here, at the Leningradsky Train Station in Moscow. It is the location of our worst experience of the entire trip. Something that has never happened to me during any of my other travels. Someone tried to steal my bags.

**Salty language warning in this post**

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In which I scare the bejeezus out of the man trying to rob us

We took a taxi from our Moscow hotel to the train station. When we got out of the taxi, there were men standing around wearing matching jackets and carrying luggage carts. We didn’t have much luggage so we could manage on our own, but we realized they might be helpful for directing us to our train. They seemed a bit pushy, but nothing out of the ordinary. There were tons of police officers around (not sure if that was normal or whether they had an increased presence because of the threats in Russia during the Olympics), so I figured if the baggage guys weren’t legit, the police would be scurrying them away, like we had seen in Sochi.  The guy that pulled our bags looked at our train tickets and started walking with us to the train platform.

We transited security x-rays to get into the train station, and then we waited on the platform. We tried to tip the guy for carrying our luggage, but he just kept talking to us in Russian, not accepting the tip, and just continued to hang around us. We exchanged as many niceties as we could given the language barrier. This included pantomimes for hockey and me saying “Ovechkin good America” many times. I always figure they love to know how popular their athletes are in other countries.

The guy started to give me the creeps. Not to sound gross, but it looked like he had recently peed his pants. Or something … else … in that general vicinity.  So I told Ken that we should take our luggage off his cart, so we did. Then I tried to tip him again (about the equivalent of $5). He just kept standing around.

When the train arrived, he spoke a perfectly clear English phrase.  “One Thousand Rubles.” Yep, he told us he wanted 1000 rubles, which was the equivalent of nearly $25.

I said no, and started to walk away. I kept holding the existing ~$5 tip amount in my hand high above my head, so people around could see that we were trying to tip him a reasonable amount of money. For perspective, our nearly 20 minute taxi ride to the train station had only been about $12).

This creep started shouting that he wanted 1000 rubles. I’ve been through situations like this before when traveling where ripoff artists like this are trying to get you to cave in and just pay them more money to leave you alone. I’m used to it, and there are a few tactics I use when something like this does happen.

Ignoring is usually the tactic I prefer. So I turned my back to him and continued to ignore him. There was a large crowd of people around waiting to board the train, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about safety or anything. In the meantime, I kept holding up the reasonable tip amount in my hand, hoping he’d get bored with causing such a scene and just take the money and leave.

Well, then he decided to start kicking my luggage.

Whatever. No skin off my nose. I didn’t have anything fragile in my bag, so he could kick my suitcase all day long if he wanted. We just continued to stand in the crowd to board the train.  We got the attention of the train attendant checking tickets, thinking maybe she could call security on her radio, but she didn’t care that this asshole was kicking my suitcase.

I still had my back to the creep, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him kick my suitcase one more time and then PUSH MY HUSBAND.

I went into crazy person mode.

I turned around and looked right at his fucking face.

He seemed confused by the eye contact.  Then he looked down and then reached for the handle of my suitcase and tried to yank it out of my hand, but luckily I had a good grip on it.

“Holy shit, somebody is literally trying to rob me,” I thought to myself in about a millisecond of time.

I screamed.

Well, screaming is a bit of an understatement.

I let out a most blood-curdling, ear-piercing scream that went on for as long as my breath let me.

The entire train station went completely and totally silent. The huge crowd that had been beginning to board the train just stopped everything they were doing.  You could hear a pin drop when my scream was done.

The creep looked at me in absolutely stunned silence. But he was still in front of me, and I wanted him OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE.

So I stomped my foot and then let out another scream. So loud that it felt like something ripped far in the back of my throat. I screamed for probably another five seconds.

He had noticeably jumped when I stomped my foot, and when my second scream was done, he  turned around and started to scurry away through the crowd.

But I was still SO FURIOUS, even though he was starting to leave. I was furious that this huge crowd of people around us were doing nothing to help, including the train attendants checking tickets. That police officers manning the x-ray conveyors just 200 feet away didn’t come to see what the commotion was.  I was MAD.

So I turned my body to the left and took a few steps so I could look at the back of his head as he scrambled through the crowds down the train platform.  When I spotted him, I started pointing to him in the distance and screaming again. My throat was hurting so badly, but I didn’t care.

As I was letting out that third scream, he started running so fast, like he was in fear for his life from this crazy American woman.

That was it, I was satisfied with the response. No more screaming necessary.  He was gone.

We pushed through the crowd and boarded the train, afraid the guy might come back with some of his other luggage carrying buddies or something. After finding our seats, we tried to calm down, but it was hard. Adrenaline was pumping, and we were so irritated that nobody stepped in to help us. I have seen probably close to a dozen incidents during my years commuting by DC metro when something unfortunate was about to happen, and all sorts of bystanders step in to help. Like a fight breaking out or somebody getting harassed.  Folks always step in to help.  When I lived in Egypt and somebody started harassing me more aggressively than usual, folks always stepped in to help. When I was trying to figure out the Tokyo subway system, folks stepped in to help. I am used to people helping. Nobody helped us on that Moscow train platform.  I learned a big cultural lesson that day.

Ken was so mad about the whole thing, and I tried to explain to him that these types of things happen, and that I wasn’t going to let it bother me. That I have had to use that same scream before in my travels, and that I knew it was very effective. I told Ken that when I saw the guy push him, I just went nuts.

Ken told me that the guy never pushed him. I was confused. Ken said that at one point, the creep was kicking my bag and lost his balance and kind of fell in Ken’s direction, but the guy never pushed Ken at all. I started to wonder if I overreacted, since that pushing was what precipitated my screams, but I don’t think so. He certainly was not a good guy either way.

In retrospect, after we returned from Russia and I thought more about the incident, I’m not sure if he was actually trying to “steal” my bags when he tried to grab the luggage handle from my hand.  Instead, I think he may have just tried to hold my bags for “ransom” until I gave him the money he wanted. That doesn’t make it much better, but just a different perspective.  I think he really wanted that 1000 rubles more than he wanted my luggage.

But fuck that guy.  I hope he thinks twice now before he tries to rip off another tourist.


Train Ride Woes

Our train ride was annoying.  Typically we enjoy traveling by train, but the train had assigned seats, and we were at like one of those sets of four seats that face each other with a table in between.  So we were face-to-face with a 50-ish year old woman and (presumably) her mother.  The 50-ish year old woman blared music through her headphones like a teenager the entire trip.  There was a couple in the row next to us that made out and groped each other the entire time. I asked the attendant if we could switch seats, but she said it was a full train. It was not a pleasant five hours.

But, after the adrenaline stopped pumping and we had some snacks (available for purchase), we managed to read for a bit and take a short nap.

Unfortunately I was so distracted that I didn’t remember  to take photos of the train. I did, however, manage to capture a few views from the train.

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Despite our complaints about seat neighbors, it really was a nice and clean train. Also very fast.  There is a slower and cheaper train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we took the high speed one.  The bathrooms were immaculate, and there was even a food “cart” service, like you’d get on an airplane.

 

Taxi Ripoff Woes

When we arrived in St. Petersburg, we were anxious to get to the hotel so that we could stretch out and relax in a quiet environment.  We were staying at The W St. Petersburg, and their website stated that a taxi from the train station should cost about 300-500 Rubles.  After we exited the train station, we found a taxi driver and asked him how much it would be to the W St. Petersburg.  3000 Rubles.  Umm, no.  We can understand a slight ripoff for tourists, but 6 times the cost?  No thanks.

After we turned that driver down, another one approached us and said he would take us to the hotel for 1500 Rubles.  Okay, now we’re down to three times the price.

Ken and I were both in VERY foul moods after the events of the day, and this was making things worse.  I feel like if this was the “only” annoying thing to happen to us that day, we might have just gone with the tourist ripoff price of 1500 Rubles. Sometimes it’s the price of being a foreigner. But, we were being stubborn.  We waited around, seeing if any other taxi drivers would approach us with a reasonable price after everybody we asked directly wanted the same 2500-3000 Rubles range.

I called the hotel.  The receptionist was in complete disbelief that taxi drivers were trying to charge us 3000 Rubles for the taxi drive.  She said, “No, 500 Rubles at MOST!  Maybe their English is poor?”

Nope, these guys understand just fine what they’re asking.

So, she dispatched a taxi for us.  Ken and I waited in a coffee shop across the street.  Then she called back with a description of the taxi that would be picking us up.  It took us a while to find the taxi, because it was so crowded around the train station.  We ended up walking to a hotel about a half block away and waiting there for the taxi.  It was a less crowded location for him to find us.

 

Please don’t wreck the taxi

The driver picked us up … and proceeded to play iPad solitaire or something as he was driving through the busy streets.  I thought I was going to lose my damn mind. I kept picturing him getting into an accident while playing solitaire. Great, that would be the cherry on top of this craptastic day.

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Again, it’s one of those minor situations you expect when traveling in a place with different customs, but the cumulative effect of the events that day was trying my patience.  Seeing that driver playing solitaire made me want to bang my head on the window.  Hard.

I’m happy to report that, despite the driver’s solitaire addiction, there were no accidents.

 

I surrender, I surrender

I had never been so relieved to get to a hotel.

After the day we were having, I wanted to stay locked up in the room for fear that something else would go wrong.  I was even eyeing up the room service and in-hotel restaurant menus, just so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I wanted to eat, go to sleep, and have a fresh start the next day.

Alas, Ken convinced me we should at least go out to eat, especially considering the hotel meal prices were outrageous. After relaxing for a while at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to eat dinner, and stopped a pastry shop on the way back for some desserts.  Nothing went wrong.  Disaster averted.  Whew!

So, spoiler alert! The rest of our time in St. Petersburg was lovely!  That day was the only bad day of our trip. (Well, as long as you don’t count the Sochi accommodations saga).  And if you have just one bad day on a two week trip that takes you 6000 miles away, I’d still call that a win!

Like Ken always says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes for a good story later.”


 

St. Petersburg Touring, Part 1 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 19 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

 

For our time in St. Petersburg, we hired a private guide for a two-day tour. Sites in St. Petersburg seemed incredibly spaced apart, and even though we had some sticker shock at the price of private tours, it ended up being a fantastic way to see the city and maximize our time (meaning no getting lost!). Plus, our tour guide was literally the BEST TOUR GUIDE that I’ve ever had. Ever. In any country. Of all times. Message me if you’re looking for private tour guides in St. Petersburg, and I’ll provide you the information!

Our tour started with some picturesque stops along the very frozen Neva River! The Neva River is the river that flows throughout St. Petersburg and also creates stunning canals, earning St. Petersburg the nickname “Venice of the North.”

 

Along the Neva River in St. Petersburg

Frozen Neva River in St. Petersburg

Across the River, we could see St. Isaac’s Cathedral:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, as seen from across the Neva River

As well as the Hermitage, a HUGE art museum that we visited the next day.

Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, as seen from across the Neva River

Our guide told us of a local legend about this huge ball at the bottom of the ramp that leads to the Neva River. If you push it into the river, you’ll have amazing luck and love for the rest of your life. Apparently it’s customary for newlyweds to come here and try to push the ball and then drink some champagne

Along the Neva River

Ken tried to push the ball, but didn’t have any luck pushing into the river. Thank goodness, because that really does sound like something you could get arrested for. 🙂

Ken tries to push huge stone ball into Neva River Path leading to river bank

We also saw this old lighthouse nearby.

Old lighthouse on Neva River

One of the stranger things that our guide pointed out was this green building (partially pictured). Our guide told us that this museum had an exhibit of malformed dead babies. So there’s that. Apparently it has been there for several centuries. I’m hoping there was something lost in translation and that it is more of a medical research facility than an actual museum? I’m not sure, and to be frank, I’m afraid to Google it!

Strange museum in St. Petersburg

By the way, our guide pointed out that buildings in St. Petersburg are so “colorful” because the weather is so gray and drab for much of the year!

 

St. Peter and Paul Fortress

We got back in the guide’s van and then drove to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. We had actually been able to see it from our stop with the giant ball!

St. Peter and Paul Fortress from across the Neva River Outside the St. Peter and Paul Fortress Outside the St. Peter and Paul Fortress

Inside the church, our guide showed us a lineage charge of Russian Czars before showing us the tombs where many of them were buried.

Lineage charge in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress Inside St. Peter and Paul Fortress

Here are the tombs of, among others, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

Tombs of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in St. Peter and Paul Fortess

Then we walked around the grounds of the fortress for a while.

Grounds of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia Grounds of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia Grounds of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia

 

Catherine Palace

Afterwards, the guide took us on the 40 minute drive to Catherine Palace, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Catherine Palace was stunning. It served as the Winter Palace for Russian royalty.

Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg

Outside Catherine Palace Outside Catherine Palace, as seen in winter

The grounds were stunning, but many of the statues on display are covered by those metal boxes to protect them in winter.

Grounds of St. Catherine Palace

We probably spent 3–4 hours inside Catherine Palace. Our guide gave us such amazing and detailed information for each room.

Inside Catherine Palace Inside Catherine Palace Inside Catherine Palace Inside Catherine Palace

One of the most stunning rooms was the ballroom. The ballroom contained wooden carvings all along the perimeter of the room, which are covered with gold leaf. The floors were made of wood from Russian forests.

Ballroom at Catherine Palace Ballroom at Catherine Palace Wooden floors in ballroom at Catherine Palace Ballroom at Catherine Palace Ballroom at Catherine Palace

We continued and moved on through other rooms in Catherine Palace.

At some point, a Russian Tsar visited Holland and was inspired by their blue and white pottery. So he commissioned stoves and fireplaces to be made of this pottery throughout the palace

Blue and white dutch pottery in Catherine Palace

And here is a room that would have served as a kind of h’orderves room before people would enter the ballroom.

Small dining room before ballroom

Clocks were numerous and intricate throughout palaces in St. Petersburg.

Clocks in Catherine Palace

Now is a good time to point out that Catherine Palace was intentionally destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Here’s a painting of Catherine Palace after the Siege of Leningrad.

Painting of Catherine Palace after the Siege of Leningrad

Many of the artifacts inside the Palace were salvaged prior to the attacks, but many were destroyed, including much of the physical structure. Many of the rooms in my pictures have actually been fully restored since World War II. There are still, sadly, many rooms that have not been completely restored, like these:

Un-restored rooms in Catherine Palace Un-restored rooms in Catherine Palace Un-restored rooms in Catherine Palace

But, there were only a few. The remaining rooms we saw had been fully restored.

Ceiling with portraits in Catherine Palace Rooms in Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia Rooms in Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia Rooms in Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia Rooms in Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia

Apparently there are other buildings on the grounds of Catherine Palace that you can visit, but they are closed in the winter. Oh well, just an excuse to have to go back to St. Petersburg again! Summer Scandanavian cruise anybody?

 

Pavlovsk Palace

After Catherine Palace, our guide drove about 10 minutes to Pavlovsk Palace, a residence built by Paul II of Russia.

Outside Pavlovsk Palace inside St. Petersburg Outside Pavlovsk Palace inside St. Petersburg

It was smaller than Catherine Palace, but we still walked around for quite a bit.

Like Catherine Palace, Pavlovsk Palace was also destryoed by the Germans during World War II. Many of the rooms have been restored or are still under restoration

Photograph of destroyed Pavlovsk Palace after World War II Inside Pavlovsk Palace View of Palace grounds from inside Library inside Pavlovsk Palace Library inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace Inside Pavlovsk Palace

Afterwards, we walked around the grounds of the palace, which were stunning!

Grounds of Pavlovsk Palace Grounds of Pavlovsk Palace Grounds of Pavlovsk Palace

The rear of the palace has paintings that make it look like it views the inside. I did a double take!

Rear of Pavlovsk Palace Rear of Pavlovsk Palace

That was it for our first full day of touring in St. Petersburg. We had been on our feet almost the entire day, and were looking forward to resting our legs at the hotel for the rest of the evening. We did an evening walk around the hotel, but didn’t even take our cameras with us, we were so spent! We’d be up early the next morning for another full day!