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Brian’s Travel Diary

Monday, 19 Mar 2007

Location: Moscow & St. Pete, Russia

MapSt. Patty's day in Moscow! Aside from the obvious - drinking beer- I watched the Ireland - Pakistan cricket game with some new friends that Ireland miraculously won in an incredible upset. It was a fantastic St. Patrick's day present for the Irish, but sadly it was marred by the murder of the Pakistan cricket coach the next day (most likely for losing such a winnable match to the Irish).

On a brighter note, the Moscow subway has some beautifully ornate subway stations with sculptures, marble columns and stained glass making just riding the trains a bit of a tourist attraction. Moscow is a big city and taking the subway helps, but I still walked about 15km a day. After complete inactivity on the train from Irkutsk walking around Moscow for hours at a time was painful, but the sites made it all worth it, especially at Victory Park - a WWII memorial - and all to see at Red Square. I must look a little Russian because I was never stopped by any of the police in Red Square (where I was almost every day). People walking in front of me or right next to me would be stopped but the police would let me slide by. It probably helped that I avoided them as much as possible too.

I also met my friend Boris to get the insiders tour of Moscow as well as some free internet time at the EY Moscow office, and most importantly the best meal I have had yet. I don't have the luxury of knowing what Moscow was like in 1990, but you can tell the city has come a long way and appears very rich. You can find anything you want in Moscow, which seems to pride itself on European fashion designers.

After a few days in Moscow I took an overnight train to St. Petersburg in third class, which might as well be a refugee camp on wheels. There are no cabins just a bunch of very short beds. I was lucky enough to have the top bunk but my feet hung over into the isle which people had to duck on their way to the toilet. Hey, it was cheap.

St. Petersburg is very different from all other Russian cities. Peter the Great started the city during a period of ideological unrest in Russia between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Basically, Europe was going through an enlightenment while Russia was staying the dark ages and the Slavophiles wanted to stay isolated from Europe, while Peter the Great (and all the other Westernizers) wanted to open up trade and explore Europe. So Peter, in all his greatness, created the city of St. Petersburg for a safe harbor of western thought free from Moscow persecution as well as an actual harbor for trade ships to Europe. So, after a bunch of wars with Sweden the Russians got control of the bay and the port and arguably the economic power that put them on the map. So in that sense Peter really was great. He also tried to bring Europe's enlightenment to St. Petersburg by opening up Russia's first museum, which contained 'monsters' like conjoined twins and deformed fetuses that he got from his buddy in the Netherlands. It sounds incredibly morbid to walk around a museum looking at jarred deformed human fetuses (which can be seen even today), but if you understand that Peter's goal was to show his people that they weren't bewitched or possessed by the devil, but that sometimes in life these things just happened you can see it's really for educational purposes.

One of the best, and less morbid museums was the Hermitage art museum complete with works from Rembrant, Van Gogh, Picasso and even a couple of da Vincis. Because Peter went to the Netherlands so frequently to get educated in just about every profession from shipbuilding to medical surgery he brought back many paintings from Europe. Walking through the Hermitage there was a copious amount of Flemish art which was big on still life views of the food markets from the 17th and 18th centuries. They have an uncanny resemblance to pictures of the food markets I have taken in the last 2 months while traveling through China and Tibet. I guess if you think about it the closest thing we have to time travel is exploring developing countries, because its probably the closest thing we have to looking back in time at our own developed countries. And, by the same point, I guess developing nations get to look into the future.

There is a lot of culture in both cities that, sadly, I didn't have enough time, or money, to experience like ballets, operas and orchestra concerts. St. Petersburg, despite its smog, is a very enlightened city with very beautiful European architecture. I would like to get back there some day.

I had planned to go to Estonia, but it's easier to catch a train to Riga, Latvia so I am going there instead. Fourteen hours overnight from St. Pete.