jn82’s Epic Adventure

Day 109 [18 May 09] – Moscow

Posted in Moscow by jn82 on May 18, 2009

After waking up late and having lunch, we headed to the Kremlin just past noon. It is really very difficult to communicate in English to anyone in Russia, and even simple tasks like buying entry tickets can raise lots of confusion when there are tickets to many different exhibits.

Today was a day of epic fail photography wise, when my camera was deemed “too big” to be brought through the walls of the Kremlin and had to be left with the bag at the left luggage area outside. Of course you can imagine my irritation at seeing other tourists wielding similar cameras, and some with even longer lenses, inside the walls of the Kremlin! I guess these guys were luckier than me, or were part of tour groups which might have bypassed certain security areas.

Entry to the Kremlin via the Trinity tower.

Monument outside.

Behind the walls, the Kremlin is really one of the most visually interesting places I have been to. It is actually a pretty small area, and the central area is where the cathedrals and museums are located. Entry to the palaces at the sides is not permitted. There are 6 churches/cathedrals in the centre, and all of them have different onion shaped domes of the shiniest silver and/or gold. The interior of these cathedrals is extremely small and narrow, as these were only utilised by the important people of the day and not the general public. Although I did not get any pictures, luckily my travel mate did take a few of me with my serious communist Russian pose.

The Assumption Cathedral.

Ivan the Great Bell-Tower, the Assumption Belfry and the Filaret Annex.

The Archangel’s Cathedral.

As I was taking a picture with the Tsar bell below, this old Russian woman came and stood beside me and posed for her friend’s camera. I am not sure if she saw me, but I am guessing no. I tried to be funny and inched towards her as I thought it would be a very funny picture as we would seem to be posing for the camera together. However her friend motioned for her to move away from me, and she probably I was getting closer to pick her friend’s pocket or something.

The Tsar Bell.

Pretty disappointed not to be able to take any pictures, but at least I did get a few in the end. Might go back tomorrow if we really have nothing to do and try my luck again.

For the rest of the afternoon, we took a walk to Old Arbat Street nearby to hunt for souveniers.This street has the reputation for being Moscow’s most touristy street, so what better place could we go to to get ripped off? It is somewhat akin to shopping for a digital camera at Lucky Plaza. Here, almost every single shop sells the same cheap factory made Matryoshka dolls, in addition to souvenier tshirts and communist badged memobilia such as lighters, cigarette cases and barets.

Soviet brutalist architecture still visible along Old Arbat street.

I really like the next picture for so many reasons. It would have been not so long ago in the U.S.S.R. that displaying a billboard of a semi-naked women would have probably got you interrogated by the KGB. Add to that a Starbucks outlet serving its fancy designer coffee, the personification for everything American, capaitalist and frivolous unnecessarily excessive (I cannot think of the word for this at the moment). How the times have really changed.

Oh, how Lenin and Stalin would be rolling over in their graves now.

I ended the day making a few thousand ruble withdrawal from a Citibank ATM near the hostel, and dinner at good ol’ McDonalds.  The Americans are invading.

Today’s pictures here. Not many due to the idiot guard at the Kremlin.


Day 108 [17 May 09] – Moscow

Posted in Moscow by jn82 on May 17, 2009

We took the Russian railways operated “Tolstoi” overnight sleeper train from Helsinki to Moscow’s Leningradsky station. With the rail pass, we were able to get 40€ off the 150€ first class twin sleeper price per person, which is quite a fortuitous discount as I thought the Eurail pass could not be used on this route. Luckily I asked when making the reservations a few days ago, and it turns out that the 40€ discount is for the portion of the trip that the train covers in Finland before crossing the Russian boarder. After this particular sleeper trip, we have travelled in all classes of European overnight sleeper cabins, from the four and six bed couchettes to the two bed first class cabin now.

Tolstoi carriage.

Inside the first class twin cabin.

The interior of the cabin is not extremely spacious as I expected, but it was sufficient for the 13 hour ride. We met a very nice Russian man in the cabin beside ours named Sergey whom we had a chat with before and during the train ride, and he was even nice enough to drive us to the hostel once we got into Moscow.

Sergey’s son had bought a Nokia E75 from Helsinki a few days ago, as Sergey had promised his son a new mobile phone. However once back in Moscow, his son discovered that the phone had only the Finnish, Swedish and English languages programmed inside, and they could not get Nokia Moscow to program Russian into the phone as it was “contraband” (Russia does not have the Nokia E75 yet). Being the good father he is, Sergey went all the way to Helsinki from Moscow on the overnight sleeper the night before, and within ten minutes in the Helsinki Nokia store, got Russian programmed into the phone. Fast forward to a few hours later during the passport checks at the border, the Russian customs officials tried to convince Sergey that he had to pay custons duty on the mobile phone that he has gone to Helsinki to fix for his son, as Sergey was a frequent traveller and the law required anyone who travelled more than twice a month to pay customs duty on newly purchased personal goods. The customs officials quoted a particular statute and the date it was inacted, and produced a poorly photocopied version of the statute. Sergey happened to have a CD-ROM copy of all Russian legislature on his laptop (I have no idea why), and he could not find the supposed statute anywhere. Smelling a big fat rat, he refused to pay any money to the customs officials, and they were arguing about it all for about 20 minutes until the train was scheduled to leave the station. At the time the train was scheduled to depart, the customs officials just said everything was in order, and hopped off the train. What an amazing first hand view just minutes after crossing into Russia of what we had only previously heard, of about how the state employed locals are paid so poorly that they have to resort to such means to bolster their income.

About an hour or two after crossing the border, we went to bed, and woke up the next morning just outside of Moscow city.

Moscow Leningradsky railway station.

After Sergey dropped us off at the hostel, we had to wait about two hours or so before we could check in and head out for some sightseeing. After a relatively well priced lunch of soup, meat, rice and a pint of Russian beer for around 260 rubles (S$13), we took a walk to the Red Square.

The weather was quite cold and cloudy today, so the entire scene at the Red Square was not very vibrant. I have always wanted to see the Kremlin and in particular St. Basil’s Cathedral up close, and I must say the feeling of “WOW!” when you first see the colourful onion shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral has been one of the highlights of the trip (how cliche). However, it is not as big as you would expect.

The iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square.

There are too many tourists in the Red Square, as is my usual complaint in most of the big cities or major tourist attractions. However the tourists here are not your usual American or Western European mom and pop, but what I assume are tourists former the Soviet states, such as Belerus, Kazakhstan, or some other -stan. There are also quite a lot of police patrolling the square, and I made it a game of trying to avoid as many as possible so they could have no excuse to come and check my passport, find a “mistake”, and ask me to pay a “fine”.

We did not plan our itinirary for Moscow very well, so did it on the spot and decided to head to the National Historical Museum first. Big mistake, it was the most boring museum in the world (okay maybe I am exagerrating a bit here), but I was not really interested in all the exhibits which ranged from the stone age through to the bronze age all the way till the Napoleonic wars and the start of socialism in Russia.

The National Historical Museum.

The next place we went into was St. Basil’s Cathedral. Inside, it is really not like your usual cathedral with one or two large central naves. The entire walking route inside just brings one around small corridors and rooms below the large domes. The cathedral is really much more impressive from the outside than it is on the inside. Do not bother paying the extra 160 rubles (S$7.50) above the entry fee for a “photo pass” to take pictures inside the cathedral as it is just not worth it. Ditto for the National Historical Museum as well.

The interior walls and exhibits of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Once we were done inside, we headed back out and walked around Red Square. In the middle of the square is Lenin’s mausoleum, which has pretty limited opening hours, so we will only be back here on Tuesday to look at the supposed embalmed corpse of the man with the perfect communist brain.

Lenin’s Mausoleum.

Directly facing Lenin’s mausoleum stands the GUM department store (main department store), a mammoth complex with a facade of 242m housing hundreds of shops which has been around since the end of the 19th century. While this place has been a mall for a good part of its history, there is something very strange about the vast levels of capitalism that is represented through brands such as Levis, Hermes and Lacoste situated directly opposide the resting place of Valdimir Lenin and the Kremlin.

Inside GUM Department Store.

Very ironic?

Imagine a rectangle, with Lenin’s mausoleum and the imposing Kremlin on one long side, and the GUM department store on the other. Now imagine St. Basil’s Cathedral and the National Historical Museum on either of the short sides of the said rectangle. This is the layout of Red Square. You have:

1. The government and communism represented by the Kremlin and Lenin’s mausoleum

2. Religion represented by St. Basil’s Cathdreal

3. Capitalism, modernism and the free economy represented by GUM department store and

4. History, represented by the National History Museum.

Amazing. No one could have planned this any better.

I leave you now with one more picture of the amazing St. Basil’s Cathedral.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, from the courtyard.

Went back to the same place as we had lunch for dinner, and spent around 410 rubles (S$18) on much more food this time. Still cheap. The hostel we are at is a real slum, and I do not feel like talking about it for so many reasons.

Today’s pictures here.

Day 107 [16 May 09] – Helsinki

Posted in Helsinki by jn82 on May 16, 2009

I had the whole morning and some of the afternoon to kill before catching the train to Moscow today, so we headed to Suomenlinna, what is supposedly the greatest sea fortress in the Baltic. Located only a short 10 minute ferry ride away from the Helsinki ferry port area, Suomenlinna is easily accessible to tourists and is said to be one of Finland’s most popular tourist attractions and must see sights. It even boasts of a UNESCO World Heritage listing as an example of the European military architecture of its time. The fortress has served as a base for the armies of Sweden, Russia and Finland.

Getting there was easy (and cheap, 3.80€ return ferry) enough, and we just followed the main trail marked out on the map and caught the major sites. There is not actually much to do on the island except walk around, and the only shops are small cafes or souvenier shops.

Suomenlinna Church.

The Great Courtyard and the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd.

The dry dock.

After walking for around just over 1km, we got to the more military area of the island at the sand banks and guns of Kustaanmeikka.

Around Kustaanmiekka.

In the next few pictures, you can see the canons mounted among the grass and facing into the sea. There are also many canon mounds and bunkers under the grass for storage of military equipment and other stuff.


The King’s Gate.

We headed back to the mainland around 2pm, and had a fish lunch at the markets facing the sea. The salmon I had was probably a bit more expensive than an average meal I could have got elsewhere, but it looked and tasted very good so was okay for €10.50.

Salmon and potatoes.

Off to catch the train to Moscow now!

Today’s pictures here.

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Day 106 [15 May 09] – Tallinn

Posted in Tallinn by jn82 on May 15, 2009

Got up extremely early this morning at 6.45am so as to catch the 8am hydrofoil to Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia located 80km and a one and a half hour ride away over the sea. The return trip cost 32.50€ for a day cruise, which was a reasonable price.

Linda Line Express’ “Merlin” hydrofoil.

As this was only a day trip, and a very short on at that, we only had just under five hours to spend in the city (3pm return hydrofoil cost 13€ less than the 5pm one). Based on that, we decided to do a hurried walking route around the old city, and take in as much as possible. The old city is located around a 10 minute walking distance from the hydrofoil dock, so it is pretty convenient to get there.

The initial walk was just down a Lai, straight street from the entrance to the old city at one of the city wall gates (Great coastal gate and Fat Margaret’s tower) to the centre of the old city, the town hall.

Great Coastal Gate and Fat margaret’s Tower.

Old buildings along Lai.

Upon reaching the centre of the old city, I was amazed at the number of tourists there. In particular, they all seemed to fit into the “50-80 year old American in a large tour group” demographic, i.e. there were a lot of old and older people in large large groups all over the place. It was terrible!

Holy Spirit Church in the town hall square.

Row of pastel coloured shop fronts.

Restaurents in the square.

Hoping to avoid the crowd and continuing with the walk, we headed towards the hilly portion of the old city, Toompea. In the middle of Toompea is where one of the landmarks of Tallinn is situated, the dome shaped Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. While I had seen some Russian influence on the cathedral in Helsinki yesterday, this one was a much better example.

The landmark Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea.

The not very impressive Toompea Castle.

Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin.

On Toompea, there are four look out/observation points: two along Toom-Kooli which face into downtown Tallinn and are totally useless because they are blocked by the trees, and another two which face into the old city below, which are pretty good. At the look out point somewhere toward the end of Rahukohtu, you can get a bird’s eye view of the entire lower part of the old city.

View of the old city below from the observation area towards the end of Rahukohtu.

Making our way back towards the town hall square for lunch, we walk past a couple of other Soviet style architecture mammoth buildings. It is quite weird to see these huge buildings painted in various pastel shades.

Green building.

Orange building.

Along Piiskopi. I actually saw a 1920s artist drawn post card of this exact scene.

Selling art along the city walls.

Had lunch in the town hall square at one of the tourist traps. Usually I would spend much less money on a meal, but I had lots of Estonian kroon because I accidentally changed too much money at a rip-off currency exchange place. I really HATE these damned currency exchange places, but in such a place where you only need a small amount of the local currency for a day trip, you do not have much choice. Still, you should walk around and shop for the best deal because they do differ very significantly, but I was surprisingly extremely lazy and literally paid the price for it. But I digress. My entire lunch that cost 261 kroon (S$34) consisted a Borscht soup, Estonian herring with potatoes and a latte.


Estonian herring. Tasted exactly like Danish, Norwegian and Swedish herring if you ask me.

After lunch, we walked around for a bit around the town hall square again, and had a look at town hall pharmacy, one of the oldest pharmacies in the world that has had a pharmacy on the site operating since 1422. Nothing really amazing.

This way to the pharmacy.

Town Hall Pharmacy.

After this, I went into a shop within the pharmacy complex that sold all sorts of Russian communist era stuff such as pins, medals, helmets and toys. It was a really cool place, and I spend 8€ on three small pins. Two of which were commie-ish pins: One with a picture of Lenin and some (farm?) machinery in the background, and another with Lenin again with the hammer and sickle symbol of the U.S.S.R.

No time to spare after this, and we rushed off to the hydrofoil dock and got there around 2.45pm. Although we arrived with 15 minutes to spare, there was a really slow queue to check in. We were actually the second last group of people to check in for the ride at 3.10pm, and were fearing the whole time that the hydrofoil would leave without us. Thankfully I think the staff realised their own incompetance and held the hydrofoil till everyone that had tickets for the 3pm ride had checked in.

It was a good day trip today, and I think Tallinn can be summed up on one short phrase: TOO MANY TOURISTS!!!

Will be around Helsinki tomorrow, and then catching the overnight sleeper train to Moscow.

Today’s pictures here.

Day 105 [14 May 09] – Helsinki

Posted in Helsinki by jn82 on May 14, 2009

The ferry got to Helsinki around 10am this morning. The overnight ride was not fantastic, and I woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night probably because the ship hit something or hit the brakes a little too hard. Once on shore, we made our way to the hostel which was around 1.5km away, dropped our bags, and then headed out to the city.

Unsure of where really to go, we went around the kauppatori (market square) and up to Senate Square to see Uspenski Cathedral on Katajanokka island. It was the first glimpse of Russian architecture I have seen so far, which is appropriate given Helsinki’s proximity to St. Petersburg.

Uspenski Cathedral.

The landmark Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral).

Market area.

Oldest building in Helsinki.

Once we were done with walking around this partof the city, we took a bus to the Sibelius Monument. According to Wikipedia:  “The world-famous composer Jean Sibelius’ monument was designed by sculptress Eila Hiltunen and unveiled in 1967. It is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Helsinki as nearly every guided tourist tour is brought to Sibelius Park to marvel at this unique work of art resembling organ pipes, welded together from 600 pipes and weighing over 24 metric tons.”

I think it is pretty overrated as it was just a piece of metal in a park.

Sibelius Monument.

Had a pretty long day to tired to type a lot.

Today’s pictures here.