From Russia with Love: #5 Must Never Miss Museums in St Petersburg

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood big kid in class and I want to take my time sharing about my experience traveling there solo. I will be posting up a few short write ups about specific incidences and my thoughts about them and my understanding of the culture and the people. Post #5 Must Never Miss Museums in St Petersburg

I visited the Hermitage and Winter Palace TWICE, because it was ginormous and had a ton of things to see. Also, students get in for free (my NUS card was the best thing I ever invested in) so why not?

Hermitage museum and the General Staff's Building
Winter Palace and the General Staff Building
General Staff's Building
The General Staff building houses tons of paintings from Monet to Van Gogh to Picasso.

Opposite the Hermitage and Winter Palace was the General Staff Building which was home to many stunning paintings including some by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Munch. I waved my student card once again and got to go in for free. So. Much. Win. The building itself was a maze and the signs weren’t very helpful. I had to go through room after room after room of uninteresting stuff (like old soldier’s outfits, dining tables with ridiculous silverware, more dresses and coins) before I got to these beauties.

Another museum I checked out was Erarta, a contemporary art museum that showcases Russian painters from all over Russia. Getting to the museum was a little bit of a headache because the closest metro station was under renovation, which meant that I had to get on a trolleybus. I got on knowing which direction I had to head to but that was it. Silly me forgot to check for the name of the stop on Google which meant that I couldn’t tell the ticket lady where I was heading. I had taken a few screenshots of the instructions to get to the museum (curtesy of Erarta’s website), which I showed her, but she just stared at me blankly. Before spiralling into a mini panic attack, a random stranger asked if I spoke English. I said yes and he proceeded to translate everything I said to the confused ticket lady. Everyone on the trolleybus began chipping in on the conversation that was happening. After sorting all that out, I found a seat and tried to stop myself from laughing at the awkwardness of the situation. Before he got off the bus, I gave him a very grateful nod and mouthed “Thank you”. Then,  an old lady spoke to him and he turned to me to say “She’ll walk you to the museum.” Even the young boy sitting next to me said “You going to Erarta? I’ll show you where to go.” Which they both did. The old Russian lady even walked me to the entrance of the museum.

At Erarta, I fell in love. This place had art literature that accompanied some of the paintings which really helped me understand a lot more about the art work and the artists’ intentions. I also watched a physical theatre performance in Erarta called Ketzal.  I have previously watched and understood and even enjoyed other shows of this genre but this was a whole new level of artsy fartsy. It had to do with a myth about a bird with a snake head.

Dance bird, DANCE!
You mean this?

Instead, there were a bunch of bald people in nothing but their underwear jumping and wriggling about.

The closing scene
No I will not be posting pictures of naked people on this blog. You can click on the link for that.

All in all, I think Russia has been a whirlwind experience. It was eye opening, friendly, intimidating, scary, confusing and great. I really hope to return to this place one day, armed with a better comprehension of the Russian language.

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From Russia with Love: #4 Strolling about in St Petersburg

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood big kid in class and I want to take my time sharing about my experience traveling there solo. I will be posting up a few short write ups about specific incidences and my thoughts about them and my understanding of the culture and the people. Post #4: Strolling about in St Petersburg.

I took the sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg and it was different from the previous one I had taken from Prague to Poland. I had reserved a bed in a wagon (as it’s called in Russia) filled with at least 50 other people. Thank you ear plug inventors. I’m debating if I should get an eye mask too, but I don’t want to look like a posh yuppity yup, if you know what I mean.

I arrived way too early and sat in the station for a couple of hours typing up a few posts while waiting for the sun to rise. I’ve become really good at finding places that will allow you to just sit there for hours having only ordered a cup of coffee. When it was time to move my butt, I headed for Apple Hostel, where I would spend my next 5 days. This was the first time in a long time that I had spent more than two and a half days in one place and it was such a treat to be able to take my time. I walked through countless parks on my first day out, enjoyed getting lost again, went into restaurants without prior research, it was great.

I enjoyed eating out as well because it was so much more affordable compared to Moscow. I had dumplings in Pelmenya, borsche and fancy dessert at Taste to Eat, veal with rice and more cake at the Market Place, and burgers and ice cream at Burger King, beef straganoff and brynzas in Brynza (where the alarm went off the moment we finished lunch) just to name a few. I ate, no I feasted like a queen. It was amazing.

I visited a few cathedrals as well. The two that really stood out to me were Kazan Cathedral and the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (great name). I loved Kazan Cathedral although I’m ashamed to say I didn’t take any pictures of it. In my defence, more than half of it was under renovation so the pictures would have been 70% scaffolding and 30% sky. It struck me how such a modern and urban city like St Petersburg had an Orthodox church right in its heart. The place was busy too. No, it wasn’t filled with tourists, but with locals, old and young. It was such a peaceful place too, completely silent, the sort of silence that feels like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket. Not too far away, the cathedral called the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, was definitely a tourist attraction. I took pictures of this one because it was so beautiful but didn’t go in because I had to pay (I’d rather eat than look at the interiors of cathedrals, priorities, am I right?)

The one cathedral I did pay to go in was the first ever cathedral built in Saint Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, in the Peter and Paul fortress, where Saint Petersburg was founded. I was, like the other buildings made for kings and queens, dripping in gold.

On my last night there, I decided to take one last stroll around the city, in all the bright lights. The view from the bridges were beautiful.

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I also stumbled across a group of fire breathers and fire throwers and fire tossers. Anything you could possibly do with fire without dying, they did. I told myself  I’d stay for 15 minutes and ended up staying for over an hour. I love watching performers who have fun performing. It was a very supportive community too, the fire people. It was a great end to my stay there.

From Russia with Love: #3 Learning about the world from the Red Square

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood big kid in class and I want to take my time sharing about my experience traveling there solo. I will be posting up a few short write ups about specific incidences and my thoughts about them and my understanding of the culture and the people. Post #3: Learning about the world from the Red Square.

I attended the 8th International Military Tattoo held in the Red Square. It wasn’t that I was incredibly interested in fairly priced entertainment with guns and uniforms, it was that I really really really wanted to see the beautiful buildings lit up at night. And boy am I glad I did.

I arrived late and was greeted by the loud blast of a cannon followed by the crackling of fireworks. I walked past groups of uniformed people, some in the Russian army, others getting ready to march out to show off what they’ve got. I noticed the large presence of the police and the Russian army. Heck, the guy who checked my ticket was from the army. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it.But then again, it was a military event. Who knows.

I found my seat and was presently surprised at the turn out – the square was packed, especially the cheap seats! I loved the festivity that was in the air. the Russians were the first to perform and it was a whirlwind of dancers, the marching band, electric guitars and a lot more fireworks. If there’s one thing I learned about Russia, it is that less is not more, more is so much more. What I saw was definitely over the top and it dazzled me giddy.

I watched the troop from Pakistan spin with their swords to a traditional snake-charming-like tune within the structured frame of military-marching-band beats. I teared up when the Italians performed “Con Te Partiro”, so beautifully sung by this guy with lungs the size of a whale. The Chinese approached this whole thing with a clean and minimalist take, that really caught me off-guard. About half way through, the women began a jaw-dropping gun spinning routine only achieved by immaculate timing while the men sang in aca-freaking-pella. The Brits decided to send a bunch of kids, most of which would not be allowed in a PG13 movie, who wow-ed the audience with their adorable-ness. The cheeky touch at the end, with the two boys holding the flag and waving at the audience, really got the crowd going. The Scotts, on the other hand, had individuals from three generations at the front, marching to the same beat, something I found incredibly inspiring.

As I watched each country display their identities and celebrate them, I couldn’t help but wonder about Malaysia. Were we to be invited to perform, what would we show off the world? What would our identity be? Do we have a collective identity that we are all proud to call ours? I reflected on my days in school and whenever we had a “Malaysian” event, we would always watch three separate performances, never one coherent one that told one coherent story.

Sitting there in the Red Square, in the cold, in the bright spot light of another country, I couldn’t help but to feel very disappointed, and dare I say it, sad at how little my country has grown.

Fireworks

From Russia with Love: #2 Eating Moscow with a side of Nicole

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood big kid in class and I want to take my time to share about my solo travel experience there. I will be posting up a few short write ups about specific incidences and my thoughts about them and my understanding of the culture and the people. So here goes post #2: Feed me Russia!

After arriving in Vagabond Hostel (probably the cosiest hostel I’ve stayed at with the best showers), I decided to take a walk to the Red Square before finding some food to devour. The air was cool and as it was a Friday evening, the streets were filled with beautiful and tall Russians. Like, very tall. I’ve never felt so aware of my stunted growth before this.

Moscow’s bright lights made night look similar to day. Nothing about the night felt scary or dangerous, contrary to popular belief. The walk was lovely. I explored the grounds outside the Red Square and got a glimpse of St Basil lit up at night. I also walked through Alexander’s Garden and strolled past the Memorial for Unknown Soldiers. The night was beautiful and I had to stop myself from crying because it all seemed so surreal yet undoubtedly real. “I am actually here!!!”, I kept saying to myself with my inside voice, yet smiling like a goon on the outside.

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Mari Vanna

I headed to Mari Vanna for dinner, which, according to Trip Advisor, served really good home-cooked Russian cuisine. The entrance to the restaurant was rather obscure and the door didn’t seem to budge when I tried to open it. It was abruptly opened from the other side and there stood an angry looking young woman and a grumpy looking old man. I mumbled something about a table for 1 and she led me through another door into the cosy restaurant. “Here”, she said and I sat down obediently as she walked away without a trace of friendliness. “Maybe I did make a mistake”, I thought to myself.

I sat there for a while, with no menu at hand, noticing all the stylish people sitting around me. It was as though I was surrounded by models from the latest European Vogue, with just the most beautiful, chic and elegant people. (Damn my tired and acne ridden face, crappy hoodie and worn out sport shoes.) Then another waiter came over with an English menu with translations that were worded a little strange but mostly understandable. What I found interesting were the similarities between Central European and Russian cuisines. They both love meat and dumplings and drink a ton of kompot, which is a fruity drink that’s super tasty.

When the waiter came around (this time a cheerful guy, not the scary young woman) I asked him about certain items on the menu that didn’t have translations. He tried his best to explain things to me, bringing out stuff from the kitchen to show me and whipping out his phone to Wiki some items. It was an interesting interaction. I ended up ordering a salmon dish with a glass of kompot and cake to finish. By the end of the meal, I was stuffed and really happy.

My-My

The next day, I made a little effort to put some makeup on and dress a little better before I heading out for a free walking tour. For lunch, I went to MyMy (pronounced Moo Moo) as recommended by the guide. I didn’t know that it was a self-service chain restaurant so ordering was a little difficult. I ended up asking the girls in the queue behind me for help and they were nothing short of kind and tried to be as helpful as they could.

I settled for soup, cake and a drink called kvas, something the girls referred to as a non-alcoholic Russian beer (it tasted like sparkling honey water to me). As I was paying, the cashier noticed that I had not taken croutons for my soup. She quickly rectified this by producing a small saucer with croutons out of thin air and set it on my tray. “This, good in soup”, she said without the of a smile. “Speciba”, I replied with a giant grin.

Cafe Receptor

On my last day in Moscow, I wandered the streets with no plans and found myself in Cafe Receptor. I was greeted by super friendly staff and led to a table surrounded by hipster artwork and wooden panelled walls. The menu was filled with asian food like Korean soups and bimbimbap, Indian curries, Japanese sushi and a whole selection of teas to pick from.

While eating, I decided to learn a few phrases in Russian from a site I found and spent the next half an hour learning how to ask for the bill. “MOzhno chek, poZHAlusta?”, I repeated in my head a million times so that when I was done, I beamed at the waiter and said “Chek?” He, of course, looked at me like I was out of my mind. After repeating myself a few times, another waitress came over and now, even the lady at the next table was looking at me. “Bill please” I finally said, feeling well embarrassed at this point.

After paying, I went up to the waitress to ask her how it was pronounced. “Shot”, she replied. HOW ON EARTH IS “CHEK” PRONOUNCED AS “SHOT”?

I decided that the author of “Learn Useful Russian Phrases” was useless and walked out into the breezy afternoon.

From Russia with Love: #1 My first few hours in Moscow

I spent a week in Russia and I fell in love with the country and its people. They remind me of the misunderstood awkward kid in class who just needs a friend. I decided to take my time sharing about my experience traveling solo in Moscow and St Petersburg. I will be posting up a few short write ups throughout this week about specific incidences, my thoughts about them and my understanding of the Russian culture and people. So, without further adieu, here goes post #1: My first few hours in Moscow, Russia.

When I decided to travel, Russia was on the top of my list, next to Iceland. The thought of visiting the Kremlin and the Red Square and that place with all the domes just reminded me of every spy movie I’ve ever watched. It was exciting. Of course, being a tiny Asian girl, many people warned me about the big, scary and rude, Russians. Some even told me to give it a miss because God knows what would happen to me in a foreign land where people do not speak English. This only made me more determined than ever to visit the country because I possess a very strong rebellious streak.

BAWSE
A little sidetracked but this was too funny not to share. This guy was on my flight from Brussels to Moscow.

Upon landing in Moscow, it felt like I was about to have an adventure of a lifetime. I was so excited. And then I hit the queue for passport control. I use the word queue rather loosely here. It was more like a herd of people unsure of where they should go (because no one did what the signs told them to do and no help was given by the airport staff, just a lot of stern looks and exasperated comments). It was a game of push and shove, something I had lost touch with ever since I was introduced to the art of queuing in Britain. Those folks aren’t patient but they’d rather complain whilst standing in line, unlike the rest of the world. Being a miniature version of a grown woman, I had to ask taller people what was happening in front because I simply couldn’t see. Seriously, I couldn’t.

It took me all of two hours to get through the mess, which was where I met a pregnant lady who was standing for more than an hour by the time we spoke. After that, I picked up my bag and exited the safety net of the arrival lounge into the large and busy airport. Having spent the last few weeks in smaller cities, the number of people who walked past me and sometimes straight into me (because I’m short) was a little overwhelming. I made a beeline for the information centre and the lady there had no clue what I was trying to say. “AEROEXPRESS”, I said with as much clarity as I could muster and she stared back at me like I was crazy. I decided to just handover my printed out directions and she understood it right away. “Straight and left”, she said. Straight and left I went.

The only problem was that all the signs for it seem to have disappeared after a certain point and the Aeroexpress was no where to be found. I asked another person at a desk and this time, he pointed to a tiny corner that was supposed to lead to the Aeroexpress. The little pathway was crowded and it was all very confusing. Everyone seemed to be looking for the Aeroexpress and had been told to head to this little corner in the airport but the lady working there was turning people away without giving them an alternative route. Sweaty and confused, I asked a couple next to me if they were looking for the same thing and they said yes. The husband then asked me to follow them and we began running for it. Me, with a giant pack, running through a crowded airport.

Yup.

And then I lost them. As soon as we exited the airport, I lost them. Great Nic. Just great. I was trying to suss out who was most likely to be able to help me when a random lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me to follow her to the illusive Aeroexpress. This time, there was no running. We walked silently to the ticket machines where I thanked her profusely.

It took me minutes to get a ticket and get on the train that would take me to the metro station. The metro station at Domodedvo looked like it came out from movies in the 60s or 70s, with the longest escalator leading to the underground.

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Again at the station, I had to ask a stranger which platform I needed to get on and she pointed me in the right direction and gave me a motherly nudge as if to say “Your ride is here, get a move on honey!”. The metro ride was hot and stuffy as all underground subways seem to be. It took me another 20 minutes to find the hostel and when I did, it felt like I had reached an oasis of calm.

Number of times I needed help: 5

Number of times helped by a random stranger: 5

So, the trip might have turned out a little more chaotic than I expected..

heh.