Red = Mostly Cycle Green=Train
Note: At the moment, I'm sitting here in the middle of the woods next to my tent, a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle on September 22. It's been about 10 days since the terrorist attack on New York. I'm still pretty rattled by the whole event, and don't really feel all that much like writing. However, it's time to write and to not write would be letting the bastards win. So I'm going to continue with my writing over the next few days. I'll also talk specifically about the events in New York when I get to the part of my trip where they occurred.
The first time I wanted to visit Russia was in 1990. The Iron Curtin had just collapsed, and the former Soviet Union was open to travelers for the first time. My brother Steve and I thought it would be a cool idea to get a couple bikes and go tour the old USSR. I ultimately decided to go another route, and while I don't regret that choice, I always regretted missing Russia. So, while I was in Vietnam, I started thinking about hitting it. I found a good tour on the Internet, so it was off to Russia for me. I guess I should also fess up that I like shock value, and I just couldn't resist the temptation to make everyone that thought I was half crazy going to Vietnam think I'd gone over the edge.
You can learn some facts from Lonely
Planet, CIA FactBook,
Encarta. Russia is the
largest country in the world (Russia, Canada, U.S.)
and the third most populous (China, India,
Russia) Oops. A reader pointed out that I got the population
wrong. The U.S. is actually 3rd. Russia is has about 1/3 the population of the U.S.
It's about double the size of the U.S. and it spans 11 time zones. That size is a bit deceptive though,
since about half of the country is pretty much uninhabitable.
In recent history Russia has bounced back and forth from being our best friend to our worst enemy like a yoyo about every 50 years or so. At the moment, they're our friends but in a tense sort of way. This is the country we played a 45 year game of nuclear armed chicken with, and finally won... sort of. You might call this stop two on my Cold War Tour.
Russia is a fascinating place. I spent three months here, and only saw a tiny fraction of European Russia, and never got within a thousand miles of Asian Russia. I don't claim to have really seen Russia, as that would be even more absurd than riding from D.C. to Philadelphia and saying I'd seen the U.S. It's a paradoxical place: sometimes stereotypical and sometimes surprising. Winston Churchill called it "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". He may have overstated the case, but it's still a pretty mysterious place.
Russia reminds me of the old Timex commercials who's catch-line was "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking". That defines an awful lot of Russian history. I knew they took a pounding in WWII, but I had no idea how bad of a pounding they took at several points in it's past. When I got to Moscow, I sent out my usual email to my notification list about where I was. One of my father's oldest friends Doug, sent an email saying "Hope the St. Petersburg trip is a success. You will be traveling over the ghost of millions of Russians that saved the world from Hitler!". He is absolutely correct. Most Americans don't have the vaguest idea of how much of a beating Russia took in WWII, how much of the Third Reich they chewed up in the process, and how many Allied lives that saved. The Soviets obviously didn't do this for our benefit, but we did benefit from it. To put it in perspective, I'll point out that Russia lost 30% more people in the fight over the single city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) than the combined losses of both the British and the Americans for the entire war in all theatres (European and Pacific). All told, the Russians lost over 27 million people, or 40 times the combined losses of the U.S. and Britain, or roughly the entire current population of California. I was overwhelmed by the idea of Vietnam losing 10% of it's population in the American War until I found out the Soviet Union lost around 25% in WWII. In addition, nearly all of their heavy industry, and a very large part of their food production was destroyed in the process, and the demographic dislocation made it even worse than a blanket loss of 25%. To add to their miseries, they lost a huge portion of their infrastructure in the process, including farm land, heavy industry and every other category you can imagine. The West owes them a debt that most people aren't aware of.
In the last century Russia/Soviet Union went from being a complete backwater pastoral agricultural society to the world's second superpower and back to something close to a third world country that's hugely dependant on foreign aid. The West spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting the Cold War against these guys, and now gives them billions of dollars every year in foreign aid. The CIA armed and trained the Terrorists Pretending To Be Muslims responsible for the attacks in the United States in September, and sent them off to do their worst against the Russians in Afghanistan. Now the U.S. will be using old Soviet airbases with the Russian's help and blessing to go back and fight the same groups. The U.S. spent most of the 80s financing Muslim groups in Afghanistan who were fighting to escape the control of Moscow. Then we spent the 90s financing Russia in their war against Muslim groups in Chechnya who were fighting to escape the control of Moscow. Yes, life doesn't get much stranger than the dance between Russia and the West in recent history.
Currency is the Russia Ruble (RR), and there are about 30 RR per USD. Travel is very inexpensive. Costs are comparable to Vietnam. The best restaurant meal I've had cost about 4 USD, although it wasn't the most expensive. Most meals cost less than 3 USD. In big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg prices in restaurants go up substantially, but it's not all that hard to avoid these places. Hotels are about 20 USD per night for deluxe room with shower and bathroom. If you work at it, you can find lodging for 5-10 USD per night. A three hour train ride from Novgorod to St. Petersburg cost 1.40 USD for myself and the bike, but that was with Vladimir helping me. A 500 km (300 mile) train ride I worked out myself cost 25 USD for myself and the bike in a sleeper car.
Russia has the distinction of making the most worthless coin I've encountered anywhere in the world. They make coins down to 1 kopek. There are 100 kopeks per ruble so it would take 30 of these coins to make a penny.
In the narrative, I'll mention St. Petersburg, Leningrad and Petrograd. They're all the same city. It's just been renamed several times.
My Russian visa was the most expensive and troublesome visa to obtain that I've had yet, although this is mostly because I waited until the last minute to get it. There are seven kinds of visas available in Russia, only one of which (business visa) really met my needs. I had to pay 150 USD for an "invitation" from a registered Russian company, and then another 75 USD to get the actual visa in Sydney. These would have been substantially less if I had done it a month or two sooner. I don't really have any room to complain because American visas are a hundred times harder to get, particularly for Russians and the people that work at the American embassy in Moscow are reputed to be the least sensitive people in the known universe. Russians have to go through an interview process, and the visa can be denied for completely arbitrary reasons. So on that basis, I'd say I deserve what I get.
On this particular trip, I took an entirely different kind of tour. A local Russian amateur cycling club does a ride periodically from Moscow to St. Petersburg called the Two Capitals of Russia. Moscow is the ancient and current capital of Russia. St. Petersburg was the czarist capital for 150 years starting around the time of the American Revolution. This was a family oriented club ride, so the ride consists of three Russian families, an English couple and myself. Other than the tour, I didn't really know where I planned to go in Russia, or after I left. My plans were bouncing around like a yoyo for a few weeks before I learned enough about the place to find something that caught my interest, and even then the weather where I was thinking of going was problematic (note to self... need to start chasing summer more aggressively). Fortunately, I hardly ever know where I'm going so it was off to Moscow for me.
One thing I never quite realized is that the vast majority of Russia is pretty far north, about even with Canada. St. Petersburg is about even with Anchorage, Alaska.
Moscow intimidated me! When trying to think of how to describe my reaction to Moscow, I tried to come up with a good manly sounding word, but unfortunately all of them are inaccurate. It intimidated me, and that's all there is to it. I didn't even realize that was the reaction until later reflection. While I was there for the first week, I was toying with words like disoriented, confused or unsettled, but when it gets right down to it, they don't really fit.
My Russian host Vladimir met me at the airport, showed me into the city and got me ensconced in a reasonably priced hotel for which I'm eternally grateful. He also showed me how to use the Metro (which is fabulous), and took me to Red Square (only to find my camera battery was dead). However, when he wasn't nursemaiding me around the city, I didn't get out of the hotel much, and when I did, I didn't see as much as I would have liked. I found getting around to be kind of difficult, plus I was way behind on work so I had a ready made excuse to hole up in the hotel. So the end result is that I only spent a few days out of my week there wandering around the city, and that's nowhere near enough time to get a really good appraisal. Moscow needs at least a couple weeks.
I didn't have any real expectations for what I would see in Moscow, so it's tough to say I was surprised or not surprised. Most of the intimidation I talked about was just a matter of not being able to navigate around. The Russian language is actually somewhat related to English, but they diverged quite a while ago. Both are derived from ancient Greek. The Cyrillic alphabet has about a dozen or so characters that look like English letters but sound different, and another dozen or so that are completely different. For example I'd get on the Metro and endeavor to count stops to where I knew I needed to go. However, if I lost count or wound up in a station that I couldn't tell if it was right or wrong, I had a devilish time trying to figure out where I was. I ultimately figured out how to do it, and it's not as hard as it sounds but I had a tough time the first few tries.
The last real non-English speaking city I hit without assistance was Hanoi, and it was much easier. It was easier partly because the Vietnamese alphabet looks almost identical to the English one, so you can sort of read the names and make sense of them. Hanoi is also only about 1/10 the size of Moscow, and there was no need for a metro as I could walk or cycle just about anywhere I wanted to go. The last thing about Hanoi that made it easy is that I stood out like a sore thumb, and every time I twitched or wiggled, someone would come up trying to sell me something. A lot of the time, they spoke English, so it wasn't that hard to get oriented. It was very easy to stumble on people who spoke English in Vietnam. While I finally figured out that quite a few Russians speak English, it's hard to find them because I look just like a Russian and people don't expect to need to talk to me in English.
The other thing about Moscow that was tough is it's a bit harder to identify business types. The architecture of Moscow is somewhat closed. Most buildings don't seem to have much glass on them, so if you can't read it's a bit tough to identify something like a restaurant. After I was here a while, I managed to learn the symbol for "Cafe", and the like, but the first week I had trouble just finding somewhere to eat.
So having rambled on forever, I will give my impressions of Moscow. Just be aware that they aren't as complete as one would like them to be, so you might want to downgrade the value of the observations to "first impressions".
At the airport, I was still caught in the stereotypical mindset of expecting border crossing trouble of some kind or other, but such trouble didn't materialize. I always expect trouble at any communist or former communist country, but I usually don't find it.
It turns out that there are other airlines that will take my bike without disassembling and boxing it up, and the two that I took from Sydney are good examples. In fact, I think all airlines will do it. I got to ship my bike without boxing it up, and they only broke one thing. I got a valuable lesson in life about what to remove next time, but I like this whole not boxing it up idea.
I had the usual 20 minute wait to get through passport control that I've had at every airport, and by the time I got to the luggage carousel my bike was laying on the ground and the panniers were sitting on the belt. I put it all together, and headed for customs. They didn't even ask to see inside my panniers and didn't even look at the form I so carefully filled out. They just stared at the bike like everyone else, and waved me through.
Vladimir met me at the airport, and then we went exploring a bit. He has a preference for country roads, and I indicated that I did too, so we took one. He didn't know exactly where he was going, but that was no problem. We ultimately got to a spot by the Moscow River where a bunch of people were swimming, and he suggested we go in for a swim. That idea appealed to me, so we went for a swim for about an hour, and then jumped onto a train into Central Moscow. He then managed to find the hotel without too much trouble, although I would have never made it. Other than the fact that the air in Moscow was pretty bad, particularly on the expressway, cycling in Moscow wasn't bad. It was pretty hectic and crowded, but no worse than any Western city, and certainly less hectic than Saigon. That's not to say I was more comfortable there than in Saigon. Even though Saigon is pretty bonzai, I feel much more comfortable cycling there, partly because there are lots fewer big cars, and partly because I did it for months.
On the third day, Vladimir took me to Red Square, where I proved beyond doubt that I'm the worst tourist photographer that ever lived. That first time, my camera battery was dead. I'm a bit bummed with my camera, since the battery is already showing signs of wearing out after only 2,000 shots. So, I went back again. The second trip didn't net any very good photos, just because the sun was the wrong angle and I got very sloppy with my photography. I went back a third time, and the whole square was closed down for something or other, so no good photos that day either. So at the end of the day, I didn't get any decent photos of Red Square, although this one of the Kremlin isn't too terrible. Take a close look. If you're an American, you spent well over a trillion dollars defeating the Soviets that occupied this building, mostly by engaging them in a high stakes game of nuclear armed chicken that their economy couldn't sustain and waiting for their economy to collapse. Now the same guys in the same building are a pretty close ally. Life's funny that way.
There are a couple of interesting things about Red Square and the Kremlin:
This photo shows St. Basil's Cathedral. It's arguably one of the most recognizable symbols in Russia, although it's now being renovated. It's located at the south end of Red Square, so at the time that I took the above photo of the Kremlin, it was immediately to my left. At the end of construction, Ivan the Terrible had the architects blinded because he was afraid that they would build a more beautiful cathedral somewhere else.
As you travel through Russia, it becomes obvious that religion has played a huge part in their history. Most of the influence came from the Russian Orthodox church, and a lot of the conflict with neighbors turned out as usual to be battles between different religions. In most cases here, the "different" means different branches of Christianity, all of which seem indistinguishable to me but which even today can breath fire into the hearts of men to wipe out the heathens. Russian churches do have an architecture that I've never seen anywhere else. While some of the stylish elements are similar to that found in other places, most of it is uniquely Russian and follows a style that evolved through the years first in wood, and then in brick and stone. While in general, I'm not much of a fan of churches, I have to admit that St. Basils is quite beautiful, even in it's current state, although you'll see one later in St. Petersburg that I think looks better.
I should confess that I didn't play tourist very well in Moscow. I didn't even take the tour of the Kremlin while I was there. I don't have any particular reason why, but I didn't.
One annoying thing that I first ran into in Moscow, and again in about half the hotels I've stayed in is people call me on the phone to see if I happen to want a prostitute. I've had prostitutes offered to me using just about every method I ever thought of on this trip, but I have to confess I never thought of this one. It happens any time I'm in a hotel room with a phone that I don't have plugged into my computer, and it's extremely annoying.
So having missed all the tourist places, I did spend a couple of days just wandering around the city. I can tell you the one overriding impression that Moscow left me with. Moscow and every other Soviet city I've seen is full of the infamous Soviet Style Apartment Blocks, and I hate them. I mean no disrespect for my Russian friends, but I particularly dislike this style of housing. A typical apartment building is anywhere from 5 to 20 floors and made out of concrete or cinder block. Most are unpainted, or were last painted during the Eisenhower administration. An apartment block consists of anywhere from 5 to 500 of these things in big blocks that just seem to go on forever. This is an example of a better looking apartment block in St. Petersburg. I've seen a lot that look worse than this one, but none that really look any better.
This same style of housing extends through every Russian city I've seen, even the small and medium size towns. I've also heard it extends to most places that had extensive Soviet control, such as the Czech Republic. It was a part of what communism was all about. The communists firmly believed everyone should be equal... as long as you define "everyone" to mean "everyone but party officials". During the Soviet era they always had special housing, special cars, access to goods and lots of other perks. For the most part they still do. I'll talk more about this later.
Next - Cycling Moscow to St. Petersburg