Russian food has been a mixed bag. On the whole, it's good but bland. Spices seem to be pretty much unheard of, but they have a lot of foods that are quite good and generally wholesome.
Russians don't eat out a lot, primarily because most of them can't afford it. There is a huge difference in cost between eating a restaurant meal and eating at home, so eating out is a major extravagance. According to LP, less than 1% of Russians eat more than one restaurant meal per year. This statistic seems a bit extreme to me, but I don't have any evidence saying otherwise. This means that restaurants are generally aimed at foreigners, the rich class, or government employees (same thing as the rich class).
For the first part of my trip, I ate with the cycle club. Nearly all the food we had was cooked over a campfire in big enough quantities for twelve people. Once you make the requirement that your meal has to be cooked in a single pot, or two at the most, that limits the cuisine a bit. I generally found the food cooked in this fashion to be somewhere between pretty good and excellent, with the possible exception of the meals I cooked. We went through quite a bit of food in this fashion, and some of the quantities were surprising to me. The most surprising is that between 12 people we consumed 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of granulated sugar per day.
For breakfast, we generally had some kind of Kasha, which is the Russian word for any kind of cooked grain. Most of the time it was Oatmeal (porridge) which any westerner would recognize. It was generally cooked over the fire with a bit of milk, butter and sugar mixed in during cooking (OK, a lot of butter and sugar). The Russians have a saying: "It's impossible to spoil good Kasha by adding too much butter".
We had a few other kinds of Kasha. The most interesting one is called Millet in English. It's a yellow grain that tastes vaguely like Tapioca, which was very good. I also had a rice based Kasha pretty frequently that's quite good.
Another very common type of Kasha that's eaten frequently for breakfast and dinner is Buckwheat. I always thought this was just a silly made-up name for a cartoon character, but it turns out there really is such a thing. It's a bit hard to describe. The best I can do is it looks and tastes to me like a cross between rice and couscous. It's not terrible, but I wouldn't choose it over any other alternative.
As you know by now, I usually eat nearly all my meals in restaurants or at street vendors. So when I tell you about Vietnamese or Australian food, I generally mean restaurant food. In Russia, for various reasons I ate a lot fewer restaurant meals than I usually do, so the information I have is a bit spottier than in some of the other places I've been. This happened for a number of reasons. First off, I spent a couple weeks riding from Moscow to St. Petersburg with the group, and then another week staying with a family in St. Petersburg, so there's a solid month of just eating what the Russians eat. After St. Petersburg, I got stuck on a work project in a town that just didn't have much in the way of restaurants for a month. Besides that, I did more solo camping than I've done before so that left me eating food cooked by little old me. All in all, the number of restaurant meals was therefore about 1/4 of what I would normally expect for a 3 month visit. So my observations on food here are more along the lines of the food that average Russians eat, and not so much restaurant food.
So having said all that, I will now give my impression of Russian Restaurant Cuisine. It's occasionally quite good, but generally mediocre at best. I had a couple of excellent meals in places that Vladimir found through completely random searching; a few particularly bad ones, and a whole bunch that were adequate but nothing to get excited about. That's really all I have to say about Russian restaurants.
For the most part, Russians seem to be completely unaware of the concept of spices, but they're completely up to speed on herbs. I pulled out my cayenne pepper on one of the nights I cooked to liven up the pasta a bit. It was not a big hit. Out of 9 Russians, two really liked it, and the rest uniformly hated it. I shudder to think what they would do if I'd used my normal amount instead of half. On the other side of the coin, every adult Russian I met can easily identify a dozen fresh herbs, and all kinds of mushrooms. We didn't happen to hit the mushroom season this year, but Vladimir or others would go out into the woods most days and pull up something that looked like weeds to me, and toss it into the tea. Viola... instant herb tea. I have to say when done right, this was one of my favorite things. Occasionally, one of them would get some herbs or leaves I didn't particularly like, but most of the time it was very good.
While I'm on the subject of tea, it's hugely popular here. It's orders of magnitude more popular than coffee, and most Russians seem to like to have some with every meal. When we were cycling, every meal had one pot cooking whatever we were going to eat, and the other pot cooked tea. Most of the time, the tea was Lipton Yellow Label, which I've grown quite fond of. For the most part, tea is served after the meal and Russians don't seem to drink while eating. I didn't particularly like this style, as I like to wash my food down, but that's the way it's done. If you go into a cafe and you want some coffee now you have to spend a minute convincing the staff that you really want it now, and not at the end of the meal.
For the most part, cafes serve tea using tea bags but every Russian house I was in kept a teapot with a bunch of tea leaves soaking all the time. This made a concentrated tea mixture, and the tea was made by pouring a little bit of this concentrated mix into a cup, and adding boiling water. I suspect this makes the tea go a lot farther, and it requires less grinding and processing of the tea so it's possible it tastes better.
For the most part, I turned into a tea drinker in Russia, and mostly gave up on the coffee. This is in part because coffee in Russia is generally so bad it makes me nostalgic for the instant coffee I had in the Outback. I finally found some good coffee shops in St. Petersburg and Moscow so things were a bit less bleak towards the end of the trip. If you order espresso, you get something with about the same strength as an ordinary cup of Starbucks coffee.
Russians have a few different kinds of bread, most of it hand made in local bakeries. The most popular kind is a very dark brown and dense bread with a slight rye flavor. I've always hated rye bread and didn't particularly care for this when I first arrived, but after a month or so I quit noticing the rye taste and got to like it. The bread frequently doesn't even have it, but there's no way to tell if it does or not by looking. You can also get white bread, but it's not as common. Most markets have another 5-10 varieties of bread, from something that looks sort of like a loaf of French Bread without the hard crust, to small baguettes and a few other types. I never saw anything like a bagel. I had several types of bread that would be categorized as sweet, but never ran into anything sour. Most loaves of bread are smaller than their American counterparts, say about 1/2-2/3 the size. This makes the pieces smaller as well. When you order bread in a Cafe, a "slice" is actually a slice cut in half, so you need to order 2 to get one real slice. On the other hand most of the bread is more dense than American bread, so two "slices" with your eggs in the morning is plenty. Russians seldom put butter on bread, apparently saving it for the kasha.
Russians have lots of cakes and pastries, and I'd have to say they are generally quite good. Every store has about a dozen types of biscuits (cookies to you yanks). Nearly every small town seems to have a bakery that makes them, as they're obviously hand made and packaged. The funny thing is if you go into a store and buy a kilogram of biscuits, you get one kilogram. This frequently means the shopkeeper has to tear one of the biscuits in half and throw the rest back in the bag. Bigger cities also have a bunch of factory made biscuits that aren't generally quite as good as the locally made ones, but come in more varieties.
Pastries cover the range from sweet dessert like things to more bread-like. I frequently see things on street vendors stalls that look a lot like a turnover. Inside it could have anything from jam to cabbage to meat, and there's no way to tell except by buying one and taking your chances. Of course, you could ask if you spoke the language. I generally just took my chances.
The best pastry I had in Russia is called "Bird's Milk Cake". The name comes from an old Russian saying "you have everything but bird's milk". I first had it at Vladimir's house, and again in St. Petersburg and it's very good.
A common stereotype of Russians is that they eat a lot of cabbage. I had cabbage more than I ordinarily would, but not alarmingly so. The best salad I had on the trip was a simple affair made of finely chopped cabbage mixed with crab meat and some sauce (probably mayonnaise). Tatiana made this a couple of times during the camping phase and I quite liked it. It's like a cross between crab salad and coleslaw.
Russians eat quite a bit of mayonnaise. For example, if I go to a cafe in the middle of the day and order "eggs", I'm most likely to get a few boiled eggs cut in half, and a huge dollop of mayo. The mayonnaise is sweeter than it typically is in the U.S. and somewhat creamier.
They also have some rather odd accessories. For example, a very common side dish that frequently comes with either meat or eggs is cold peas. I have to say, I won't miss this one. Cold corn is also quite common. There's also a common fermented cabbage sort of operation sort of like coleslaw that shows up quite frequently.
Russians have several types of soup that are quite good. I didn't really get the names of most of them, since I order through random selection mostly. Borsch is probably the most well known outside of Russia. This is a soup made from beets and cabbage, with a fair amount of water in it. It is usually served with about a tablespoon of sour cream dropped in the middle (good idea, try it), and it's quite good. I encountered a lot of other soups made from various kinds of fresh vegetables with occasional small pieces of meat. Most were the water based soup, and I didn't encounter any kind of creamy soup in my travels although I'm sure it exists.
The best restaurant food I had in Russia was Caucasian food. This means food originating in the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This region has received a lot of attention lately because of Chechnya, which is located near there. The now independent state of Georgia is also there. I obviously didn't travel there since it was considered unsafe even before the current conflict, but the food has spread throughout Russia.
Twice during the tour I went and toured monasteries located on islands. The one above is on an island on Seliger Lake, and I also went to one on Valaam Island, just northeast of St. Petersburg. There are a few interesting things about these places. One is that the monks that populated them were tough and persistent beyond belief (or maybe stubborn is a better word). For example, the one on Valaam was in an area that was highly contested between Sweden and Russia in the 17th-18th centuries. The Swedes completely destroyed the monastery and killed whoever they could get their hands on more than 80 times. The monks just kept coming back and rebuilding over and over.
The other interesting thing is that during the Soviet era and particularly during the Lenin/Stalin timeframe, the monasteries were used as prisons for political prisoners (anyone who disagreed with the regime, or happened to belong to the wrong ethnic group, or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or managed to survive German POW camps or... the list goes on and on). The monasteries were typically built on islands or other isolated places, and a lot of them had substantial defenses because the inhabitants got tired of being pounded by their religious rivals all the time (usually for political reasons). Heavily defended buildings are relatively easy to reverse so that they keep insiders in, instead of outsiders out. The communists were making a serious effort to stamp out religion anyway, so allowing monasteries to remain open was out of the question and I suspect the evil men running the regime probably got a perverse pride from reversing the roles of the monasteries.
You may wonder why the communists tried to wipe out religion. As far as I can tell, religion is usually either used as a tool of the ruling elite to help control the population, or it's looked at as a competitor for power. If you're trying to figure out which category the U.S. is in, ask yourself how many times you've heard the term "God bless America", in which context it's being used, and what action it is being used to encourage. The ruling elites of the Soviet era took the other tack. Communism used a completely bogus ideology as the "moral basis" for their rule. It's so patently hogwash I'm quite amazed that people swallowed it, but lots of them did. The communists didn't want competing ideologies, and religion represents a competing ideology. Religious institutions are also frequently the place where other groups competing for power gather. For example, most of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. in the early 50s was centered around black churches in the South. The churches not only presented an ideology to oppose the prevalent racism and sexism, but also served as a focal point for different groups to organize their opposition. Since the communists had their own ideology, and no intentions of sharing power in any way, they tried to get rid of religion to eliminate the competition.
I asked Vladimir if the Soviet years were successful at reducing the overall level of religion in Russia. Nearly every population has some percentage that fervently believes in some religion, another part that gives it lip service, another part that's indifferent, and another part that actively opposes it. He thought that the campaign was successful at reducing the number of people in the first and second categories. It remains to be seen if this will be permanent or not. Religion is pretty free and open in Russia now, and a lot of the churches are packed from time to time, but the numbers are obviously nothing like they were before the revolution. It will be interesting to see what happens in a generation or two.
There's an unwritten law that all people that write about traveling in Russia must mention the banya, so I guess I'll get on with it. Banya is Russian for "bathhouse" and it's an interesting experience. It's kind of a cross between sauna, cleanup area and social event. Two key things separate this from a Finnish style sauna. First, the banya has slightly lower temperatures and higher humidity than a sauna. Second, the participants beat each other with birch branches. That sounds a bit more extreme than it is, but let me back up to the beginning.
The banya is an old tradition going back hundreds of years. The Swedes made fun of the Russians when they first saw the banya concept, but then copied it so it's not as wacky as it sounds. Here's how it works. Banyas are segregated by gender. Larger ones will have one area for women and another for men. Smaller ones may have different genders on alternate days. In the case of the one above, it's a tiny little cabin and that's rented out to whoever happens to come along and it's up to them to schedule it. We went here at Seliger Lake for a few hours while the women sat around camp and had dinner, and then we traded places.
The first thing you do is strip down and go into what amounts to the same thing as a sauna you'd encounter in the U.S. or Europe, except they are typically hotter. They're also generally a bit taller so you can have a bigger temperature gradient between the coolest areas of the room and the hottest. You start out in the dry sauna first (the Russian word is the same as the English word but pronounced slightly differently... but of course it's a Finnish word in the first place). This is in the temperature range of around 100 C (212 F). Next you go to the steam room. In a large banya this will be a separate room, and in a small one like this you just add steam to the room you're in. The steam is created by pouring water and Eucalyptus oil on hot rocks, just like a sauna in the U.S.
Where things get interesting is after you've been in there long enough to build up a good sweat, you take birch branches which have been soaking in hot water and beat each other. It's not quite a beating like it sounds. The most important part of this operation is blowing the hot air across the body, so part of the "beating" consists of sort of fanning the branches close to the body, and part of it consists of actually smacking the body. It feels better than it sounds, and the person operating the branches builds up a serious sweat as well.
After five to ten minutes in the steam, you go out to cool off. In a large banya, you cool off by jumping in a pool of cold water. In a small one, you have to content yourself with pouring water over your head from a bucket. This also feels much better than it sounds.
Once that's done, you sit around and chat with your friends while drinking tea and eating biscuits for a while, and then repeat the process. Some Russians will go at the same time each week and build up a circle of friends that all meet together each week.
As we were cruising along a back road north of Seliger Lake, we came upon this graveyard for German soldiers killed during WWII. There was another much bigger and nicer one a few miles farther up. During the Soviet era, the communist government prohibited any kind of "proper" burial for the Germans killed here. I'm guessing this was based on the "they got what they deserved" theory, which is a bit hard to argue with. After peristroika, this restriction was relaxed and some German groups are now paying local laborers to go find mass graves like this one and at least mark them, or sometimes to dig up the bones and bury them in new cemeteries. In this particular case, the wooden signs you can see right about the middle of the picture say something like "9 German Soldiers". This particular area seems to have had a few hundred.
I'd have to say I think this is a good idea. It obviously doesn't make any difference for the dead, but paying the respects to them helps generate some closure for the whole ugly mess. Russia and Germany are once again on friendly terms as they should be, and any step that reduces old animosities is a good thing in my book.
Russians are famous for Vodka, and somewhat stereotyped for having a lot of alcoholics. Unfortunately, the stereotype is at least partly true. Russians consume an astonishing 14 liters of pure alcohol per adult per year. It takes two liters (a liter is about a quart) of Vodka or Whiskey to make 1 liter of pure alcohol. This means that the average adult Russian consumes a liter of vodka every two weeks. Since the vast majority of the people I met are like people everywhere and only drink in moderation, this means that the alcoholics are consuming quantities I can hardly imagine. The consumption rate is more than triple the rate of western nations.
I interacted with more drunks or obvious alcoholics in a single day in Russia than I have in the rest of the trip combined. I decided this guy could represent all of the Russian alcoholics I interacted with. He was kind of funny. It turned out to be completely impossible to convince him that I don't speak Russian. He was just dead set that I should go have a drink with him, and kept rambling on at me in Russian forever. Even when Vladimir explained to him in Russian that I don't speak Russian, he kept at it.
During my trip, I went into some kind of store every few days. I saw lots of stores that didn't have any fresh fruit or vegetables of any kind, I never saw a single one that didn't have at least four different brands of Vodka.
It's also very common to see people drinking beer walking down the street or while riding in the metro. I've also seen quite a few people take a shot or two of Vodka with their meal. This wouldn't be all that unusual, except I'm talking about breakfast and the Metro ride to get there at 9:00.
Most people don't know that one of one of the first real changes Gorbachov tried to institute in the days before Glasnost and Peristroika burned themselves onto the world consciousness was an anti-alcoholism campaign. It accomplished about the same thing as prohibition did in the U.S. It didn't change the consumption rate significantly, but created entirely new classes of organized crime to generate the alcohol to fill the demand, economically devastated some grape growing regions that were already crunched, and dropped alcohol revenue for the government through the floor thus prompting a financial crisis. The funniest part of this is that it exactly repeated what the last Czar did at the start of WWI, and Khrushchev tried again in the 50s.
Lest you want to pick on the Russians too much, you should note that alcohol and tobacco are the two most harmful drugs known everywhere in the world. Either one by themselves kill hundreds of times more people and cause thousands of times more personal and economic damage than all illegal drugs combined. Despite this, both are sanctioned, subsidized and/or taxed by nearly every government in the world. It makes the U.S. "war on drugs" seem all that much sillier when you consider that the most damaging drugs known can be bought at the corner store with nothing more than a few bucks and a driver's license.
The next town along the route was Novgorod. It had a couple of interesting things. The best was this statue built in 1862 to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Russia. Now as with all old anniversaries, the date of the "founding" of Russia is a bit ambiguous, and what you would call "Russia" has changed definition from time to time. For example, do you reset the clock back to zero at the end of the Soviet Union? "Russia" didn't exist as a country during the Soviet era, but you could make a good case that the USSR was just a renamed Russia plus a bunch of satellites they grabbed by force. It was essentially Russian to the core. How about when nearly all of Russia was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century? If you do want to say that some form of Russia existed continuously since it's founding, the size of the country increases and decreases over time as well. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was big enough to contain the United States, China and India with room to spare. As you can see, all of these questions challenge any real claim of ancient anniversaries. Of course, anniversaries don't really mean anything except as a matter of national pride anyway, so one arbitrary date is pretty much as good as any other.
Novgorod means "New City", but it was here before the 9th century and it's founding by Varangian Norsemen is generally considered to be the beginning of the Russian state. For 600 years it was an independent and thriving community, ruled by a quasi-democratic council of princes that could be hired and fired by the general population. It managed to escape the invasions by the Mongols who got caught in the swamps surrounding it, but that seems to have been the end of it's luck. It was attacked and annexed to Moscow by Ivan the III. Ivan the Terrible burned most of it down and killed around 60,000 people. The founding of St. Petersburg finished it off as a trading center, and then the Nazis destroyed everything they could find. The Nazis cut up the monument above and had plans to ship it back to Germany, but they got run off by the Red Army before they finished the job. The status shows figures of most of the significant people in Russian history for the last thousand years. If the U.S. manages to hang on for another 800 years, we can make one of these too.
Novgorod is considered an important part of Russian history, and the rebuilding of it's kremlin was one of the first priorities after WWII. It's seems like a quiet tourist town now, although it's population is high enough that there must be something going on outside of the tourist areas. This shot from one of it's towers shows what a typical kremlin looked like.
After Novgorod, we went to see a few palaces. I'm always conflicted about large churches and palaces. On the one hand, it's impressive to see what people can accomplish when a lot of them work together in concert, particularly when it was a long time ago when we tend to think people were somewhat primitive. On the other hand, I know that every large church or palace is a concrete expression of exploitation of a lot of people by a small ruling class. You can bet that people starved to death to allow the rulers to gather the resources together to live in splendor as they obviously did. In many cases, such as with all of St. Petersburg, the rulers weren't quite content to starve the people to death and worked them to death instead. On the other hand, good rulers during history have stabilized regions, encouraged trade, put down small scale conflicts and done lots of other good things. They don't do it for the benefit of the population, but the population does frequently benefit from the stability. Bad rulers reverse the trend. Frequently, even though the rulers are exploiting the people they're ruling, they are raising the standard of living for everyone by becoming a serious nation-state, and sometimes reducing the chance of aggression from outside. So if 1,000 people die to build a palace and other niceties for the ruling class, but that prevents an incursion by a foreign power that would cost 10,000 lives do you call that a positive result? These are the questions that occupy my mind when I'm idling about. No matter how you look at it though, I'm always disturbed by the palaces. I can admire their aesthetic beauty (if they have any... some are big, expensive and ugly), while deploring the conditions that people lived in to make them, while appreciating that the net effect might have been positive at least some of the time.
So having said that, I ended up seeing several palaces as I went around. Most have been damaged by time and war, and a lot of them have been restored. During WWII, the Nazis tried to steal or destroy every single thing of value or beauty they found. In some cases they succeeded and in some cases they didn't. Some of those that I saw have been beautifully restored, and some only partially.
The first palace I saw was built by Catherine the Great. It was interesting only because of Catherine's history and some of the peripheral things I learned while there. The most interesting was about the Romanovs, who were the last of the Russian Czars. As was common in Europe at the time, rulers formed alliances with other powers through marriage. The rulers also thought of themselves as a big cut above the normal people, and even the lesser nobility so a prince or princess destined for the throne was quite unlikely to want to marry anyone but another person of equal stature. For these reasons, the Romanovs nearly always married foreign royalty; mostly French or German. This continued on for some time, to where the last Romanov Czar was less than 1/100 Russian.
Now Catherine the Great (Ekaterina) is widely considered to be one of the best rulers of all time, and is hands down one of the Russian people's most cherished rulers. The funny thing is that she was 100% German. She married a Romanov, learned Russian, embraced the Orthodox church and moved right in. Six months into her husbands reign, she had him deposed in a palace coup and he was murdered shortly afterward. The coup was orchestrated by one of her lovers. It's said that she had more lovers than the average peasant had hot meals in his lifetime. Her reign was marked by the usual war and land grabs, which she was mostly successful at. (Note: "The Great" is generally short for "The successful at taking land from others by force").
The Grand Cascade is one of the biggest fountain structures in the world with 64 fountains and 142 jets. It was built to commemorate Peter the Great's "historic victories in the Northern War" against Sweden. Sweden seems like a kind of quiet, timid and unobtrusive place today, but in the 18th century they were one of the great European Powers, controlling all of what is now Finland, and a big chunk of what is now Russia. I mentioned the Swedish raiders of Valaam Island briefly above. That particular stretch of Russia was a contested area that went back and forth from Russian to Swedish hands several times. The "Northern War" was where Peter's army finally trashed the Swedes once and for all, and not only took the Kola peninsula from them, but also made them give up control of what became Finland as a sort of buffer zone. You could argue that the Swedes never really recovered from that blow, but on the other hand they may be much better off being out of the superpower game.
Sasha The Bentster
This particular palace and fountain structure was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis and was rebuilt soon after.
Peterhoff is where we said goodbye to most of the tour group. I went along with Vladimir and Tatiana to stay with an old family friend, and her friends invited me to stay for another week.
Just before the rest of the crew bailed, I cranked the boom length on my bike down as short as it would go, and added some padding to the seat so everyone could try it. Sasha was the best rider of the lot.
St. Petersburg was originally built under grueling conditions at the direction of Peter the Great as his "window to the west". Up to that time, most Russian history is mostly about conflicts and interactions going East. St. Petersburg was intended to forge closer ties both economically and culturally with Europe. At the time, it was Russia's only seaport that lead to the rest of continental Europe, the city was designed primarily by European architects, and the structure and administration of the city took on a decidedly European character.
I liked St. Petersburg immediately. As with most places, it's hard to explain why I like one place and dislike another place. Sometimes I can't even explain it to myself. Sometimes it's just random luck... maybe which part of the city I see first, or which inhabitants I happen to bump into, which cafe I try first or whatever. Sometimes it's some definable quality that I can describe. Sometimes it defies all reason and logic. For example, I loved Saigon and Bangkok with no objective good reason whatsoever, other than the fact that I loved them. St. Petersburg was something like that. I'm writing this at the end of the journey with some more perspective, and I'll expand on it some more later; but suffice it to say that the first few days I really liked St. Petersburg and I still do. I'll steal a phrase from Lonely Planet: "Moscow intimidates... St. Petersburg charms."
Tatiana and Marina both liked the bent. Vladimir didn't.
Vladimir, Tatiana and Timothy stayed around for a couple of days after we arrived, and showed me around a bit. We were staying with an old university friend of Tatiana's family. Just the father Vladimir and the daughter Marina were there. The rest of the family was away.
Marina was the most enthusiastic of my new recumbent converts. She rode the bike just about every day that I stayed with them. She's studying mathematics and music at University. Her father Vladimir is a mathematician by training, and is now an expert on GIS by trade. GIS is an acronym for Global Information System. It's not any single system, but a set of tools used to gather data from disparate sources into a coherent piece, and use statistical techniques to try to answer the questions that policy makers need to answer. The questions range can cover the gamut from such things as "What is the ideal amount of a particular crop for a region?" to "What is the the ideal or maximum population density for a city given our current infrastructure?". GIS uses statistical techniques to combine information from many sources such as map data, climatological data, river flows and the like to try to objectively answer questions that have a lot of variables. I didn't know squat about it so Vladimir loaned me a book to look through to give me an overview.
We went to the Museum of Ethnography which was somewhat disturbing. This museum was the city's first museum and was founded by Peter himself. The Ethnography part of the name indicates that it covers peoples outside of Russia, so it has displays for everything from Innuits (Eskimos) to Africans, to Japanese to you name it. That part of the display was pretty well done and non controversial.
The disturbing part was Peter's collection of freaks. Peter collected all kinds from two headed cows to Siamese twin and other defective fetuses. I don't think there's anything ethically wrong with looking at them, and you might even be able to make a weak case for some educational value, but they were disturbing nonetheless. Something about looking at them just didn't seem right, but I went and gawked just like all the other tourists. Everyone I talked to had either the same reaction or they just outright hated it. I took a few photos, but don't really want to put them on the web page. If you just have to to see them, write to me and I'll email them.
After Vladimir's family left, I was frightfully behind on work again. I hadn't done any for the two weeks before St. Petersburg, and I hadn't exactly had my nose to the grindstone in Sydney either, so I had to settle down and do a few day's work, as well as figure out where to go next. Now I should qualify that "figure out" part. I already knew where I was going, but hadn't quite convinced myself it was a good idea. To add insult to injury, I knew where I was going, and I also knew I would eventually convince myself it was a good idea (or at least that I was compelled to do it), but I still had to think about it for a few days. In the end, I made the decision and got on with it, but my exit from St. Petersburg was a little strange.
A week after I arrived in St. Petersburg, I needed to move out of Vladimir's family apartment because the rest of the family was coming back. I knew by then where I was going, but hadn't decided on the timeframe. I was heading north where it was likely to get cold, and I was already pushing my luck with winter coming on so that said it was time to leave. On the other hand, I really needed to work for a week or two and I didn't feel like I'd seen enough of St. Petersburg. On the other hand though, I felt like I hadn't had a good solid ride in months. I only rode once in the 3 weeks I spent in Sydney, and we had been riding pretty short distances in the Moscow to St. Petersburg run, so it had been two months since I had a big day.
As it turned out, fate sort of made the decision for me (at least if you call bad navigation "fate"). On the day I needed to move out of the apartment, I decided to move to a hotel about 2 km away and stay for another week or two. I loaded up the old Strange Machine, and headed off to perform the relatively simple navigational task required. Once outside though, the bike started talking to me. It was a glorious day for riding, the sun was out, my legs felt great pedaling, and I started getting itchy feet. The bike was sweet talking me with thoughts of the open road. To add to that, I almost immediately got completely lost. So much for the simple navigational task. Of course, I should mention that I get lost at home all the time, and that's in a place where I can both talk and read, so it isn't all that surprising that I would get lost in St. Petersburg.
While searching for the street for the hotel, I stumbled on the sign for the highway that lead out of town towards my next goal. I scratched my head a couple of times, and decided that fate had spoken. So off I went.
The next stretch was really my first experience with Russian drivers on real roads. Russian drivers on the whole seem to be about as bicycle friendly as the US except for one glaring deficiency. I didn't encounter this until after I left St. Petersburg, but once I got on a main road I ran into this phenomena about four or five times a day. Russian drivers that are overtaking another car could care less if a bicycle is occupying the lane they want to use. I had to be vigilant not only for people in my own lane, but for people going the other way as well. If a driver wanted to pass a slow car that was immediately to my left, they would just pull out directly in front of me and assume that I would bonzai off the road. They didn't seem to care how practical that was, so several times per day I had to decide if I wanted to go splat across a windshield, share a single lane and a shoulder with a driver going the other direction at high speed, or go clear off onto the dirt. I generally chose the sensible course. That was the only glaring bit of cycle unfriendliness I found in Russia. If you drop that behavior from the equation, they would rate about the same as American drivers.
The place I was headed for is Murmansk, which I read about it Lonely Planet. It's the biggest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. Basically, it boils down to the question "How can you be within 1000 miles of the Arctic Circle and not go?". The answer for me is that I couldn't. Now the problem was that I was heading north for the Arctic Circle in September on a bicycle. This is generally considered inadvisable. I happened to run into several people that did rides from Murmansk, but they didn't do them in September. No matter though... I just figured if it got too cold I'd wimp out and take the train.
Ira, Jana, Yana and Luda
Since I now knew how to camp, I was planning to do more camping as I went along this time and gradually increase my self sufficiency. I'm not planning to get fanatic about it, but I was prepared to just not worry about hotels. If one happens to be at the right place I'll stay in it, and if not I camp. The first night out, I was planning to camp just to shake any bugs out of my camping system and see how the whole thing worked out. If I got rally ambitious, I figured I'd actually fire up the camp stove I'd been dragging around for 1000 km without ever lighting it even once.
That plan went along fine until I ran into this bunch when I stopped to have a small snack before riding for the last hour. They apparently don't see an American on a big orange bicycle every day, so they started asking questions about my trip. There were a few language difficulties, but we managed to communicate pretty well. Once I explained the whole tent concept to them though, there was just no getting around going out to their dacha and spending the night.
I should explain the whole dacha thing. During the last century, Russia went through a huge demographic shift from mostly rural to mostly city dwellers. A lot of Russians still hold onto a country house, or dacha and they use these to get away from the city. A lot of them also grow small gardens at the dacha, and eat or sell the food. Since peristroika, costs for food have gone up substantially, so for them a garden isn't just a hobby as it would be for most Americans, but a good cost effective way to grow food to either eat or sell on the open market. The dachas are generally fairly old houses, frequently without running water. People go out there on the weekend or holidays to get away from city life. This family fed me dinner and breakfast, and then I headed off northward.
About a week later I had a somewhat enlightening experience, although I don't know how useful it will be. Like most enlightening experiences, it consists of an event slapping me in the face with something I already know. A few days outside of St. Petersburg, I cranked my distance back up to the 200 km I should be doing. However, two months of getting fat and lazy took their toll, and I was pretty much wiped out at the end of the day, and still burned out the next day. Guess I should roll the distances back up a little more gradually. After a very short day where I stopped before noon to rest, I moved on the next day still feeling burned out. Time went on, and the kms rolled by but I was still feeling burned out. I was watching my cycle computer for the distance to the next town where I wanted to stop and the kms just started going slower and slower as my energy level went down and down. I kept getting more and more discouraged, and then started watching the roadside mile markers. There were markers all along the road that I suspected were km markers, but I wasn't sure. I had previously had trouble with my cycle computer, and I suspected that it was malfunctioning so I spent a half hour comparing it to the markers and trying to figure out which was which, and just how far was that danged town anyway? I knew from a road distance sign about what time I would get to the town, but the data from the road signs and the cycle computer were not matching up and that was making me mad, and my speed kept dropping, and I just kept feeling more and more burned out.
Now you know the situation. I was rolling along feeling burned out, not sure how far the danged town was, not knowing if my cycle computer was telling the truth or a lie. The speed part of the cycle computer said I was doing OK, but the kms weren't racking up like they should. Then, I happened to look more carefully at the computer display, and noticed that it was on the total distance setting instead of the trip distance setting. The trip distance uses a scale where there are 2 digits after the decimal and the total distance uses a setting that only has one digit. Normally these are impossible to confuse, but I happened to be at a place where they looked about the same. So the reason the kms weren't clicking up as fast as I thought they should is that I had to go 10 km to get the danged thing to read as if I'd gone 1 km. Now here's where it gets interesting. As soon as I found that glitch, I cranked over to the real scale and it made sense. I immediately got a burst of energy, felt much better kicked my speed up, and verified that I was in fact on track to get to the town right on time. Checking the cycle computer against the mileposts showed it was working correctly, and I was about where I thought I should be.
Now the enlightening part of this whole thing is that when I got the burst of energy, nothing had changed but my attitude. I was on the same bike on the same road going the same speed and heading for the same destination that was the same distance and time from where I presently was as I thought it was before. The only thing crippling my performance was the fact that I let the old FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) factor set my attitude, and my physical performance tied to it much closer than it should. There's almost certainly a lesson to be learned here. Maybe I'll remember it.
Next - Petrozavodsk