St. Petersburg Touring, Part 2 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 20 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

The second full day of our private tour was just as busy as our first!

Our started our day by taking us to a local bakery-type place called Stolle. They sold mostly savory type pies. It was a good light breakfast to start the day. We also walked around the area and took in the sights of St. Petersburg’s famed canals.

Canals in St. Petersburg

Stolle bakery in St. Petersburg Russia Canals in St. Petersburg Russia

By the way, can you tell there is some slight sunlight shining on the buildings? Well, it was the first sunshine we had seen since leaving Sochi a week earlier. Within a few hours, it was overcast again!

Canals in St. Petersburg Ken and I on canal bridge in St. Petersburg Russia

Our guide called one location the “Seven Bridges” lookout point. Standing at one particular point, you can see seven canal bridges.

009-storyboard

 

St. Nicholas Cathedral in St. Petersburg

After checking out the canals, we went to St. Nicholas Cathedral (also pictured with the golden tower in the photograph above.) Photography was not permitted inside the cathedral, so we just snapped a few photos of the outside and its grounds. But the inside was very ornate!

St. Nicholas Cathedral in St. Petersburg Russia St. Nicholas Cathedral in St. Petersburg Russia

 

Along Nevsky Prospect

Following St. Nicholas Cathedral, we walked along the main St. Petersburg thoroughfare called Nevsky Prospect. Along Nevsky Prospect we stopped here, the Kazan Cathedral. (Again, photographs were not permitted inside)

Kazan Cathedral Kazan Cathedral Kazan Cathedral Kazan Cathedral

Nevsky Prospect was lined with ornate buildings and spectacular views of canals and cathedrals.

Along Nevsky Prospect Along Nevsky Prospect Along Nevsky Prospect Along Nevsky Prospect

And of course, we spotted American restaurants like Carl’s Jr. along some side streets.

Side streets from Nevsky Prospect

It’s worth noting that while walking along Nevsky Prospect, our guide told us to hold our cameras tighter and to be aware of our surroundings. I’m guessing it might be an area of higher pickpocketing activity. However, it certainly didn’t seem like a shady area or anything.

We stopped by a cafe/chocolaterie type place called Eliseyev Emporium for some desserts and hot chocolate.

Food cases inside Eliseyev Emporium Beautiful food displays in Eliseyev Emporium Inside Eliseyev Emporium Chocolate dessert Creamy hot chocolate

The cafe also had a very elaborate window display.

Window display at Eliseyev Emporium

We continued our walk along St. Petersburg streets, on our way to the famous Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

We walked past the Russian State Museum:

Outside the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg Outside the Russian State Museum Outside the Russian State Museum

And I just loved how colorful things were along St. Petersburg streets.

Walking along streets in St. Petersburg Walking along streets in St. Petersburg Walking along streets in St. Petersburg

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

When we arrived at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, we were blown away by how beautiful it was. In Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is SO iconic. It’s recognizeable worldwide. But to be honest, it was plain in comparison to Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

By the way, that’s quite the mouthful. So I’m just going to refer to it as “the church” in this section.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood along the canal Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood along the canal

Inside, it was even more amazing. But first, a funny sign at the entrance to the church:

No chewing gum or ice cream | sign outside church of our savior on spilled blood

So everything other than chewing gum and ice cream are okay?

The inside was simply indescribably beautiful. And, it was one of the few churches we visited in Russia that permitted photography.

Views inside Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Views inside Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Views inside Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Views inside Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The walls were covered with mosaic art.

Don’t know what I mean? Look more closely at these images on the wall. They are comprised of tiny stones! Can you imagine how long that must have taken??

Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Mosaic walls inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the site of what is known as the first terrorist attack in history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated when a bomb was detonated next to his carriage. The church was subsequently built on that site to commemorate him.

Inside the church, a canopy marks the precise spot of his assasination.

Canopy inside Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood Sign describing assasination of Tsar Alexander II

The Hermitage Museum

Following our stop at the church, we went to the Hermitage, which currently serves as an enormous art museum in St. Petersburg. Previously it served as the Summer Palace for russian Tsars. (The previous day we had visited Catherine Palace, which had served as the Winter Palace.)

The Hermitage has a distinct green color, even among the colorful buildings in St. Petersburg.

Outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia Outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia Outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia

Inside, it definitely had a palatial look.

Stairs Inside the Hermitage Ornate walls Inside the Hermitage Inside the Hermitage Grand staircase Inside the Hermitage

And our guide, who so clearly loved art and art history, made the tour so interesting for us. She could hardly contain her excitement when walking into different rooms and explaining the art on the walls. It really made the museum experience even more amazing.

Hermitage Museum Visit in St. Petersburg Russia | Hermitage Review Hermitage Museum Visit Hermitage Museum Visit Hermitage Museum Visit

This room in particular was so amazing. It served as a ballroom when the Hermitage was a palace.

Ballroom at the Hermitage Ballroom at the Hermitage Ballroom at the Hermitage Ballroom at the Hermitage

It was difficult to capture it in a single image, but the gold leaf design on the ceiling actually mirrors the wood design on the floor in the ballroom!

Ballroom at the Hermitage Ballroom at the Hermitage

In another room, there was this very elaborate peacock clock inside the Hermitage. Once a week (and not the day we were there), the clock-keeper goes into the case and winds the clock.

Peacock clock at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg

Amazingly, there was some tour group that had paid extra to see the clock get wound, so we just stood around and watched it. It was a really fascinating process. I never thought I’d say that watching a clock get wound was fascinating!

Peacock clock at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg - Getting wound Peacock clock at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg Peacock clock at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg

There was an additional wing at the Hermitage that was under restoration that contained some impressionist and cubist pieces. So the halls they were displayed in weren’t nearly as ornate

Impressionist and Cubist pieces at the Hermitage Impressionist and Cubist pieces at the Hermitage

There was an incredible antiquities exhibit at the Hermitage that contained artifacts from the Altai mountains region. The artifacts are from cultures that lived in the 4th and 5th centuries BC! Here was an incredible chariot from that era on display.

Altai chariot on display in Hermitage

I’ll just let some remaining pictures of the Hermitage do the talking here:

Art inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia Art inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia Art inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia Art inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

After the Hermitage (we spent like FOUR HOURS in there, and probably could’ve spent more time if our tour wasn’t wrapping up. Oh, and if our legs weren’t killing us from standing all day).

We were starving, and couldn’t tolerate having to decipher any Russian menus, so embarrasedly, we went to a Pizza Hut that was nearby. Don’t judge! We had Russian food as a late dinner later that evening, including red caviar:

Russian red caviar

Ken also was coming down with a pretty nasty cold. Luckily we only had one day left in our trip! We found a pharmacy (and a super helpful pharmacist!) and Ken got some good cold meds and sore throat sprays. It worked “much better than the meds you buy over the counter in the US,” he said.

At dinner that night, our waitress asked us where we were from (although she mistook us for Russian! Just like everybody else in Russia seemed to do!) We told her, and that it was our last full day in Russia, and that we had been the Moscow and Sochi for the Olympics. She got SO excited when we told her we went to the Olympics.

She asked us what we thought, and we said it was so fantastic. She nearly started crying tears of joy. “Really??!!,” she said. We were like, yep! She said how happy that made her. That she couldn’t tell based on all the different news reports, she thought it might have been terrible for visitors.

For some reason, that memory just really sticks with me from our trip. Just how happy that girl was to know we enjoyed our time in Russia. It was heartwarming!


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!


 

 

Moscow, Part 2 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 14 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!)

We hired a private guide for a four hour walking tour of Red Square and the surrounding areas. She picked us up at our hotel, and we started walking to Red Square, just like the previous night!

As we walked towards Red Square, the guide stopped and pointed out the Bolshoi Ballet building. (We had considered seeing a performance while we were in Moscow, but there was only one showing during our time there, so it didn’t work out).

And just across the street from the Bolshoi was this statue of Karl Marx.

 

t

 

Moscow Subway

The guide provided a brief overview of the Moscow subway system. When we were researching what to visit while we were in Moscow, we found that the Moscow Subway System ranked highly over and over again on travel-related review sites like TripAdvisor. The subway station was pretty amazing and included things like statues and marble walls!

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

Ken started to use his video camera, and the guide look absolutely panicked. She started stammering, “Please, photos are okay, no video!” Ken had already wandered a few feet away videoing, so I ran up to him and told him to put the video camera away.

After the subway stop, we mentioned to our guide that we wanted to get some bottled water. She walked us to a small cafe that we would’ve never found otherwise. And we were so glad because that cafe served as our breakfast location for our remaining days in Moscow!

t

 

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow

Next on the tour was viewing a changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is located just outside the Kremlin walls and happens once per hour, on the hour.

t

 

t

 

t

 

Just as a side note, the red walls along this path are known as the Kremlin Walls. Just on the other side of the building is the Kremlin, which contains several government buildings as well as many cathedrals.

We visited the cathedrals the next morning on our own (more on that in a subsequent post).

 

t

 

t

Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

Next, we walked to Red Square. We had visited Red Square the night before, but it was nice to see it in the daylight! I love that you can see St. Basil’s cathedral peeking out as you walk up the hill to the Red Square area.

t

 

Just outside of Red Square is what the tour guide explained to us as the “center of the city.” Folks will frequently toss coins into the circle.

t

 

Lenin’s tomb is in Red Square as well. Ken and I both opted out of going inside. Something about seeing an embalmed body that has been on display for 90 years just didn’t quite appeal to us. But here it is from the outside!

t

 

t

 

We captured some photographs of St. Basil’s cathedral in the daylight.

t

 

t

 

t

 

Inside St. Basil’s Cathedral

The tour did not include the inside of St. Basil’s Cathedral, so we went there on our own on our last morning in Moscow. (Lots of photos! I may have gone a bit overboard).

t

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

t

 

I should point out that St. Basil’s cathedral was not temperature controlled, so, considering it was winter, it was very chilly inside. The employees who monitor each room huddled around space heaters!

 

t

 

And here was a view of Red Square from a window inside St. Basil’s cathedral.

 

t

 

We had already seen so much in Moscow, but there was even more to see!


Moscow, Day 1 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 13 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

In the previous trip report post, I mentioned we slept for about, oh, six hours after our arrival in Moscow. We had only slept for about two hours the night before thanks to the late night Olympic events in Sochi, followed by our 3:45AM taxi to Sochi’s airport for our flight to Moscow, so we were exhausted when we arrived.**

After we woke up, it was time to give ourselves a brief tour of the city. Thankfully, the Ararat Park Hyatt is just a very brief walk to Red Square. Armed with some directions provided by the hotel front desk staff, we navigated our way through Moscow’s underground pedestrian walkways to get to Red Square.

There was a kind of “entrance” gate to Red Square. The next morning, a guide we hired explained that this gate is a replica. Stalin had torn down the original to make the path wider for the parades he loved so much.

As you entered Red Square, you could see Gum (pronounced Goom), a famous Moscow shopping mall, on the left, the Kremlin walls on the right, and St. Basil’s Cathedral straight ahead.

I tend to get kind of emotional when I see such famous sites up close and in person. I literally cried at the Taj Mahal. So, I was pretty overwhelmed at the historical sites before my very eyes.

We walked closer to St. Basil’s Cathedral and interspersed photo snapping with utterances of “Wow!” over and over again.

It was pretty cold, and we decided to walk around Gum for a while to warm up. It was quite beautiful inside.

Of course, Olympics decor abounded.

On our walk back to the hotel, we used the same underground pedestrian walkways that we had used earlier. Ken didn’t realize how low the center part of the ceiling was and managed to smack his forehead, hard, on the lower crossbeam thing. I was having flashbacks to the Spain ankle sprain / fainting incident.. After a few moments of Ken gripping his head and Russians walking by and being all WTF, we established that there were no serious injuries, and we were able to laugh about it. We decided to memorialize the moment with a photograph of the too-low Moscow pedestrian ceilings. Future travelers, take note!

 

We grabbed some dinner and headed back to our hotel. We had a private tour arranged for the next morning, we just relaxed the rest of the evening.

**Unlike other international trips, we never fully acclimated to the time change in Russia. For the first five days, in Sochi, we weren’t going to bed until nearly 3:00AM because the Olympic events went so late. On the remaining six days, we had a somewhat easier time, but considering it was still pitch black dark at 9:30AM, it was still messing with our circadian rythyms! By the time our jet lag was over, it was time to return home to the United States.


 

Sochi Day 2 – Luge

This entry is part 8 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

After our first night of sleep in Sochi, we were feeling so much more refreshed. In fact, since we didn’t get to sleep until nearly 2AM the night before thanks to how late the Women’s Halfpipe went, we slept in until about 11AM on our second day in Sochi! I’m sure persistent jetlag wasn’t helping matters either!

We had tickets for the Luge Team Relay competition on this evening. After we showered and got ready for the day, we had some lunch at the ship’s buffet. Then we headed to the Olympic Park area. We stopped by a mini convenience store type of place and purchased some snacks and drinks to keep in our cabin for the rest of our stay in Sochi. We found this interesting snack! Red Caviar flavored Lays potato chips! Yum?

We meandered around the area for a bit, but we didn’t actually go into Olympic Park, because somehow the day was escaping us, and fast! I guess sleeping until 11AM will do that to two weary travelers!

It was 60 degrees in the coastal area of Sochi that day. Back in DC, the entire city was shut down due snow. We didn’t even need our coats walking around the coast.

We headed back to the ship and got our cold weather gear together which we would definitely need for the mountains though!

Like the day before, we took the train to the Krasnaya Polyana train station, which served as the primary transportation hub for all of the mountain events. The trains were free of charge during the Olympics, and they looked brand new.

The only problem was that they were SO slow, especially going up the mountain. I had read online that there was a certain section that was only one track, so trains had to stop and wait for the trains going in the other direction to pass. It was nearly a one hour train ride from Olympic Park to Krasnaya Polyana.

So, I forgot to mention this in my post about the previous day, when we took the same train to go the Women’s Halfpipe competition. So, I’ll tell the story here, but it happened on our first day in Sochi, not our second.

Much of the train seats are groups of six. Three seats that face another three seats. Ken and I sat in a grouping that had three other Russian kids, probably college aged. We heard them speaking Russian to one another. Then out of the blue, this happened:

Russian College Kid: Excuse me, are you Christian?
Me: (Thinking to myself) Oh my goodness, this is never a good topic, NEVER a good topic. There is no winning answer.
Ken (while I’m thinking): Um, sure.
Russian College Kid: What kind?
Me: (Thinking to myself) What does that even MEAN? Oh my god, we’re so dead. I don’t even know what religions are acceptable here in Russia. When I traveled around other parts of the world, they could freakin stone or behead you if you were the “wrong” religion.
Ken: Lutheran. I went to a Lutheran school.
Me: (Thinking to myself) LUTHERANS. Oh god, what do Russians think of Germans these days? Do they hate them? Would they hate Lutherans because they’re associated with Germans? I’m going to throw up.  Should I chime in that I went to Catholic school?
Russian college Kid: What kind of Lutheran? More conservative or liberal?
Me: (This guy knows there are different sects of Lutherans. What the hell?  Why don’t you stop being so damn judgmental Melissa!)
Ken: Oh, the more conservative one.
Me: (Nervously) But we don’t go to church or anything. (Maybe this will help ease things over).
Russian College Kid: We (points to him and his friends) are Baptists. Do you know Baptist?
Ken: Yes, we know Baptist
Me: (Russia knows about BAPTISTS? That isn’t limited to the southern USA? Am I in some alternate dimension?)

The Russian College Kid then proceeds to pull up video footage of some church choir singing, presumably taking place at a Baptist church. I watch, and he looks at me as if I should start to sing along.

Me: (Wait, are we being witnessed to by Russian Baptists on a train? Is this real life?)

I have not been in such an awkward situation in a really long time. Shortly after that conversation, there was a train stop, and some seats opened behind the group of six we were sitting in. Ken and I politely said we were going to move back there to be able to stretch out. And with that, we said so long to the Russian Baptist College kids.

Now, in retrospect, my brain probably dramatically overreacted to that conversation. But it was my own fault for not learning more about religion and faith in Russia before we traveled there. Maybe then I would have not been so panicked. Ken was not panicked at all, so I’m glad he just handled the situation.  I will say that I did my homework when I got back to the USA, and on average, only 0.06% of Russians (about 90,000) identify themselves as Baptists, compared to the more than 23 million members in the USA.

[End story that should have been added to my Day 1 Sochi post].

After we arrived at the Krasnaya Polyana transportation hub, we walked around for a while before making our way to the gondola that would take us to the Luge venue.

Standing on the train platform at Krasnaya Polyana with the amazing Sochi mountains in the distance.

We walked to this building, which was a kind of ski-resort type building, and served as the location for the gondola departures as well.

We were standing around outside of the building taking some photos, and a volunteer asked us if we needed help. Then he asked us if we had any Olympic pins to trade. Unfortunately Ken and I were just learning about the whole pin trading thing, so we told him we didn’t. But we had a lovely conversation. He was so excited to be a volunteer for the Olympics in his home country and he said he loved being able to meet so many new people. We told him that we had been having a great time in Russia, and just how beautiful we thought it was. It’s hard to explain, but it was just a nice, but brief, conversation. He seemed so proud and happy that we were having a good time.

Once we got in the building, I wanted to find a restroom. I found this room, which I assumed was a ladies room. When I walked in, it was filled with men.

Oops.

Ken went into that bathroom, and I found a door around the corner that had the exact same icon on it. I walked in. It had women in it. Whew! I still can’t figure out why the icons were the same. I speculated that maybe they were unisex bathrooms, and that there just happened to be all men in the first one I walked into. But Ken said there were urinals in that bathroom. There were no urinals in the bathroom I located around the corner.

Mystery bathroom icon: Unsolved.

After our adventurous bathroom break, we were ready to stand in line for the Gondola that would take us to luge.

Ken and I weren’t quite prepared for how fast these things continued to move as we boarded them. We were practically knocked over!

Ken in the gondola!

We got some fantastic views of the Luge venue as our cablecar/gondola approached.

I was amazed by how close we could get to the luge track.

I was also fascinated by the video cameras and all the angles, and kept thinking to myself, “So that’s how they get that shot on TV!”

The most amazing thing, I thought, about luge was just how fast the athletes travel. I mean, I knew it was fast, but I don’t think I really appreciated it until I saw it in person. The lugers would pass us on the track in a fraction of a second.

And perhaps most amazingly, you could actually “feel” them coming down the track before you ever actually saw them. There would be a vibration in the air and on the track. Then before you know it, blink, and they were gone. We had our camera on burst mode to capture some really fast shots.

After standing in one section for a while, we walked around to different sections. This was the Luge Team Relay, which was a new competition for 2014. The team member would hit this paddle near the end of the track, signaling that the other team member, at the top of the track, should start.

Then they’d zoom by!

And of course, there were stretchers every so often, a stark reminder of how dangerous this sport could be.

When the competition finished, the track was quickly covered by volunteers that pulled down shades. Presumably this is to keep the track from melting during the daylight hours.

We took the gondola back to Krasnaya Polyana, and then took the train back to Olympic Park (instead of the bus like the night before). The train going down the mountain was much faster than the train going up!

We got back to our ship, had a very late dinner again, and plopped ourselves into bed. We were spent!