Category Archives: Travel

Pskov

Playing around in some ruins.

In our 2nd to last weekend in Petersburg, a big group of us headed four hours south to the ancient city of Pskov. Pskov’s pretty rad — the city just turned 1007 years old, it’s the place where Nicholas II abdicated, and it has plenty of ruins, monasteries, and picturesque churches to romp around in.

However, in spite of its rich history and culture, I think the brightest memory I have of Pskov was when we all decided to jump from a 10-ft high wall into a river. It was absurdly hot when we reached the city, and we were already grumpy after touring around in the Kremlin. We happened to come across a group of pleasantly tossed Russians jumping off a wall into the river. After enviously looking at them for a bit, our director handed his things to a student and ran over. And, after much deliberation, we all ended up following suit.

It was rather shallow.

The walk up to the edge was this rickety metal plank, and I happened to make the mistake of looking down and realized that I was relatively high up. But the drunk Russians were goading me, and I wasn’t about to wuss out in front of a ton of Russian men, so I jumped. Looking back, it was probably not the best decision, since it was a dirty river and it was shallow (with sharp rocks at the bottom!) , but hell, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In a symbolic, mushy sort of way, jumping into that dirty brown river encapsulated my time in Russia — spontaneous, scary, probably bad for my health but ultimately, very rewarding.

My friend and I right after our jump

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Crossing the bogether into Ukraine

Apologies again for not writing about Ukraine sooner. The new kids have come in for the summer semester, and I’ve been sort of helping out — I bought a grand total of seven phones/sim cards for various people. And it’s also white nights, so what would I be doing inside anyway?

At 3 AM we crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border/bogether. We catch this little gem on the back of our immigration cards. To put it nicely, we lost our shit laughing.

I would have to say that I felt the most at ease and at home in Ukraine, because Ukraine was basically like Russia, except nicer, cleaner, and friendlier. I’m not trying to talk Russia down (like I have been doing throughout my entire blog), but the people are more helpful to the lost and cowardly foreigner than Russia has or will ever be. Case in point, when we arrived in Lviv (or Lvov, or Lwow, or Lemberg), we immediately became disoriented and couldn’t find our way to one cafe. A man walked past us, noticed that we were terribly lost, and walked 10 minutes out of his way to show us where the cafe was. Would this happen in Russia? Or even in America?

I have this theory that Russians aren’t actually all that unfriendly. Most of them just don’t understand anything besides their own language. I’ve noticed that the better my Russian has become, all the nicer Russians seem to appear. And if you think about it, Americans are pretty rotten towards foreigners who don’t speak English very well. We simply can’t be bothered to explain something slowly to someone. Again, just my 2 kopecks.

At the Lychakiv Cemetary

Ukraine welcomed us with open arms and showered us with low-grade, crude energy drinks. We putzed around in some famous crypts — notable people buried there include Nestor the Chronicler, Yury Longarms, and good old Stolypin. We also did a bunch of other stuff. But as Ukraine was the last stop on our memorable trip, it has a fond place in my heart. It’s an understatement to say that I had a great time, and I’ve never been so lucky to travel with some of the best people on this side of the world.

With two out of the four members of our traveling group gone, my friend and I made our way back to Moscow en route to St. Petersburg. Belarus (still a dictatorship!) has this inane rule where if you are traveling through the country, you have to buy an in-transit visa for an abominable fee. It was worth our while to go back to Moscow, since we thought we would be able to see Lenin. Last time we were in Moscow, Lenin was under reconstruction — they make him pretty every couple of years or so. So this time around, like children going to a candy store, we gleefully walked down Tverskaya to Red Square in order to see Lenin’s body. And then, like children realizing that the candy store has been demolished, we found out that we wouldn’t be able to see Lenin’s body because of День России (Russia Day). 2nd time in Moscow, 2nd time we’ve been disappointed. We’re going back to Moscow (and to Vladimir, too), and if I don’t see Lenin’s body, then I guess it is just not meant to be.

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Poland — Warsaw and Krakow

Oh, Poland. The land of people with misguided but good intentions and beautiful (beautiful!) men. Our first stop was in Warsaw, and from the way that my Polish friends completely talked it down, I was expecting a city full of Soviet concrete apartment complexes, grey skies, and smothering smog. But when we actually arrived into the city at the crack of dawn, I was pleasantly surprised — Warsaw is just another big city, and a rather pretty one at that. There are much uglier cities out there (Detroit, anyone?).

Old Town Warsaw

Unfortunately, when we landed in Warsaw, we realized that we weren’t really able to communicate with anyone. Up until then, we had gotten by with Russian or English in the Baltics. And in St. Petersburg, while my Russian is still pretty piss poor, at least I can understand a purple-haired* babushka when asking for directions. But Polish, to the Russian acclimated ear, sounds like that Charlie Brown teacher, albeit a little less jarring and womp-womp sounding.

Chopin's heart is lying somewhere in this pillar. Creepily awesome.

Two distinct memories i have of Warsaw are the Warsaw Uprising Museum and Marc, the man from the Netherlands traveling around Eastern Europe on a moped. I use the word moped very, very loosely. From the picture he showed us, it looked like a bicycle circa 1970 with a battery haphazardly rigged to it. To each his own. The Warsaw Uprising Museum was, again, depressing but enlightening. One of the downsides about learning history is that you become desensitized statistics. Oh, a million people died in this genocide, a hundred thousand people died in that battle, etc. People fade into numbers, and numbers are quickly forgotten. The reason why I mention this is because the museum had this morbidly graphic temporary exhibit on Katyn — they recreated the forest, complete with dirt grounds and an earthy smell. And as you’re walking through the exhibit, a gunshot goes off every 30 seconds. To be cliche, they were quite successful in bringing the history to life.

That night we decided to share stories with Marc, the Moped man from the Netherlands, over a bottle of vodka. To put it gently, it was cheap vodka. To put it honestly, it was crude rubbing alcohol. Nevertheless, the vodka flowed, tongues became loose, and interesting stories were told, although to be quite honest, I don’t quite remember everything we talked about.

The next morning, bleary-eyed with rotting stomachs, we left for Krakow at 6 am. No one should ever be awake at 6 am.

A pillow fight!! In the center.

Krakow, from my brief impression, is like that fun college buddy that you like to only go out to parties and bars with. Krakow is a city I could get close with, but only after a couple of drinks. A place that I could awkwardly and soberly mingle with during the day, maybe share a couple of laughs, but a place that is infinitely better at night time. Drinking buddy personifications aside, I also enjoyed Krakow, although a bit less than Warsaw. Tourists roved around in droves, widely swinging their arms as they walked with expensive cameras dangling from their necks. I really dislike tourists.

While we were in Krakow, we went to Auschwitz, which made the Katyn exhibit look cheerful and lively in comparison. It also very appropriately rained while we were there.

Auschwitz

All in all, I miss Poland and I want to go back. Our time there was well spent but far too short.

A pope vending machine. It sold pope coins. If you wanted to know, the exchange rate is $2 to the pope coin.

*There is a good majority of Eastern European grandmothers that sport light purple or blue hair colors. Why? I honestly don’t know and I can’t even begin to hypothesize.

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The Baltics: Really Adorable

My apologies for the somewhat prolonged hiatus. I have just returned to St. Petersburg from Moscow, the last stop on our trip. In order to avoid the obscenely long blog post, I’m going to break up my documentation of the Eastern Eurotrip into three parts: the Baltic countries, Poland, and Ukraine. So first up — the Baltics!

Having just finished the spring semester, my friends and I respectively dropped our grammar books, jumped on a bus, and headed over to Tallinn, Estonia. After living in a big Russian city for four months, we were immediately thrown off by the friendliness and the cleanliness that we encountered in all the Baltic countries. Our group took advantage of the fact that each city was particularly walkable. With a bottle of cheap beer in one hand, a bottle of even cheaper vodka in the other, and low-grade energy drinks (with names like Revo, Jaguar, Tiger, and Generic Energy drink, you can’t lose!) bulging out of our pockets and bags, we set off to explore the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Tallinn, Estonia. In front of the tallest waterfall in the Baltics...which is only 8 meters tall. Can someone say underwhelming?

Some of the more memorable sights in each country were the Museum of Occupation in Riga and the KGB museum in Lithuania. Slightly depressing, to say in the least. I can’t even begin to describe how unbelievably creepy it was to be in a former KGB prison. However, in my humble opinion, Riga and Vilnius didn’t present themselves as martyred and cowed cities. Instead, they presented their Soviet history in an eerily calm manner. “Yes, the USSR did some terrible things, but that’s behind us…so let’s move on.”

Riga, Latvia

Even though we were only in each city for two days, the impression that I got was that unlike most Post-Soviet things, the Baltics did not crumble, but instead, have emerged from the Soviet yoke. And while they still face economic and social hardship, things are looking positive. Hell, even the Lat (Latvian currency) is doing better than the dollar, and that’s after just having emerged from some crazy debt. That’s something to be said.

Overall, each Baltic city was charming in its own way. From the adorable Estonian language (pood means store) to the cobble-stoned Old Towns to the extraordinarily friendly inhabitants, our time in the Baltics was a particularly enjoyable one. Add obscene amounts of alcohol on top of that, and you can sort of imagine what our 6 days were like.

One of the few things that I noted with distaste was the ex-pat community living in Estonia. The people who ran our hostel in Estonia were Australians who had been living there for two years or so. Yet, they had absolutely no grasp of the language and had no intention of learning it either. It was my understanding that ex-pats leave their country in order to, I don’t know, experience something new. But instead, they just crowded together and created a new little Australia/US and didn’t bother to actually live in the country that they were currently working in. Perhaps I am being too harsh. Or perhaps I am still somewhat bitter, because they conned us out of $20. Losing 20 bucks, unfortunately, was not the worst thing that happened to us, since we got stopped by the police in Ukraine. But that’s another story for later.

More pictures

The most violent seat belt safety sign ever. If you don't wear your seatbelt, not only will your head explode, but the guy sitting in front of you will also explode. bloodily.

A view of Tallinn from the top of some ancient wall

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