Hayden was not overly impressed with the decadance of Catherine's Palace
Actually, what impressed Hayden the most in St Petersburg was this shop-front,which he found fascinating.
Hayden was not overly impressed with the decadance of Catherine's Palace
Actually, what impressed Hayden the most in St Petersburg was this shop-front,which he found fascinating.
We just rolled up to a stop for thirty minutes and a ten year old boy ran up to our carriage and showed us an empty water bottle and gestured to us to throw down our empty bottles. After a day and a half on the train we had a few, then he lifted up his shirt and rubbed his belly. No child should ever have to be hungry. We threw him all our food left, which consisted of a bunch of chocolate and chips and an apple and an orange. He stuffed them all in straight away, blew kisses and gave us thumbs up, then danced around a bit.
So... what has happened in the last two days? Leaving Itkursk for the trans-Mongolian is a rough trip, with all the bends and bridges and tunnels. Descending from the rift there is a lot of downhill rail, which we took at breakneck speed during the night. I kept on having falling dreams (such as a lift cable snapping) due to the sensation, but by and large it was pleasant.
The train stations we passed through had the usual Russian announcements given loudspeaker military style, but for some reason they also kept on playing a tune like an ice-cream van, vaguely similar to "we wish you a merry Christmas". Combined with the obscure clicks, whistles and grinding of addition and subtraction of carriages, it made for a sleepless night.
No problem, because today was the most boring of the trip. We didn't even travel much, because we had a five hour wait at the Russian customs, followed by a 20 minute ride past an electric fence, two tanks and a machine gun tower, then a three hour wait at Mongolian customs. This was made tough by the rule of no toilets being open while the train is stopped.
Karen was left behind on the platform for ten minutes, but managed to get back, which was very funny. She told us about the history of Mongolia, starting with Chingis, then to the breakdown of the Mongolian empire, Chinese rule, Soviet rule, and the current democratically elected Communist government.
I spent almost the entire day in bed. Just thinking, and reading Pushkin's Talkes of Belkin and other prose writing.
As we rolled through Mongolia we came to green verdant pastures, filled with horses and gers (40% of Mongolians are still nomadic) until a storm rolled in and I watched lightning and listened to the thunder roll over the Mongolian steppe. Sunset was magnificent.
Our arrival in Irkutsk. We had a brief tour of the town, which is filled with old Siberian style buildings. It has a lot of Universities and Museums, being the cultural and educational centre of eastern Siberia. We then drove to Listvianka by the shores of Lake Baikal. We passed through more beautiful taiga (which means "green sea"), and were told about the local wildlife. The local name for brown bear means "tsar of the taiga", but what I found most amusing was that the local name for the wolf means "doctor of the taiga", because they kill the sick and injured. Siberia means "sleeping earth" in the local tartar language.
Lake Baikal is a rift lake caused by the pulling apart of the Eurasian plate 26 million years ago. It is the world deepest lake, being 9km down to bedrock, although there are kilometres of sediment such that the deepest point is 1.6km down. This is deep enough that it holds 20% of the world's water, as much as all the great lakes of North America combined, even though it is much smaller in surface area, being 640km by 100km.
In the evening of our first day in Listvianka we had dinner at Rita's house (John, Luke and I are staying in a homestay), delicious mushrooms.
Our second day in Listvianka was simply glorious. The taiga couldn't have been greener, nor the water or sky bluer. Barely a cloud in the sky, and mid-twenties temperatures. It felt like a tropical island rather than Siberia. In the morning we went to the Baikal Ecological Museum, which was quite interesting. Lake Baikal has every odd weather. Because of the depth of the lake, the 12 degree surface water has to cool to 3.6 degrees and sink to the bottom, and the entire 1.6km of water cycle in this way, before the surface can freeze. This means that the lake doesn't freeze until the end of January, nearly at the end of Winter. The same occurs in thawing, which occurs in mid-May, towards the end of Spring. This creates a very powerful microclimate.
Lake Baikal also has fascinating ecology. There are 3500 species, of which 80% are endemic. The Golomyanka, also called the oil fish, is a twenty centimetre gray scaleless fish, made up of 30-35% oil (enriched with vitamin A). It is unique in the ability to live at the bottom of the lake during the day, and rises to the surface at night, a change of 160 atmospheres each direction, enough to crush steel. It gives birth to 2000 live young at a time (the female normally dies in the process), and its biomass is twice that of any other fish in the lake.
The water of Lake Baikal is exceptionally pure, about the same as distilled water in mineral content (my hair was so soft after washing in it). It is so clean because of nine endemic sponges and a one millimetre crab called the epischurn. This tiny crab fills the lake, and strips down all organic matter. If any body is left in the lake for three days only bones are left (after two weeks the bones are gone because the hypotonic water dissolves the salts). Someone asked the lady if you could put the crabs into polluted water elsewhere to clean it up. She answered, "Niet, they do not want to go anywhere, they like it here".
I also saw Nerpas at the Museum. Nerpas are the smallest seal in the world, and the only fresh water seal, endemic to Lake Baikal. They give birth in Spring (when the lake is frozen) and make a snow cubby for their young, keeping the breathing holes open with their large claws. There are 80 000 to 120 000 in the lake. Two years ago a mother and pup were injured in a fishing accident, the museum took them in and cared for them, they now live there. The pup was gorgeous, swimming up and down to see us, until the mother slowly swam in, so fat she looked spherical (it was just because she pulled herself into her body for warmth, when she swam she elongated), and chastised the pup for seeking attention. We watched the mother scratch the pup's belly, to her obvious enjoyment. It was so cute.
I bought a small statue of the Spirit of Baikal made from the local rock (it is only found here). I rarely buy souvenirs, but if you put vodka on the belly of the spirit and make a wish it comes true, and if you leave it at home when you travel you will return, so it seemed only prudent ;)
In the afternoon we went on a cruise on the lake, and soaked up the warm Siberian sun. It could have easily have been around the Greek islands. Afterwards we had a traditional Russian banya. We all went into a sauna, waited until we could take no more heat, then whipped each other with wet birch leaves, before running out and jumping into the icy waters of Lake Baikal. Legend has it that dipping your hands in the water gives you an extra year of life, your feet an extra five years, and jumping in like we did an extra twenty five years. It certainly removed the last vestiges of grime from the trans-Siberian.
That night after dinner everyone went up to the hill to watch sunset over the Lake.
Today we drove back to Itkutsk. We went past Shaman rock. The legend (Shamanism is still very strong in Siberia) is that Baikal's daughter, Angara (the only river to run out of the lake) tried to run off with her love and Baikal threw a stone to stop her, which is Shaman's rock. They used to leave criminals on this rock overnight to test their guilt - if they survived they were innocent (they always died). Also the same to test wives to see if they were unfaithful.
Just outside Irkutsk we visited the wooden architectural museum, with wooden buildings from all over Siberia from different times. It was really quite interesting. The buildings are different from Russia in that the windows are tiny and high up (so that snow drifts don't blow in during winter). The doorways are quite short so you have to bow to enter the room - in front of the entrance is an icon, so entering involves bowing to the icon.
In Irkutsk I wandered around the city, looking at the old wooden buildings. Irkutsk was built in 1652 as a Cossack garrison to control the Buryats. After the Decembrists uprising (mid 1800s if I remember correctly), the rebels were exiled here, but allowed to take their money, so it became quite a rich city. It was the centre of the White Russians from 1917 until they were defeated in 1920. I walked up Karl Marx street and saw statues of Marx and Lenin, before hopping on the trans-Mongolian train.
Last night was the final on the train for awhile. I get to shower soon!
In the afternoon yesterday we played the trans-Siberian olympics. Our team was myself, John, Troy, Jodie and Niamh. The first round was trivial pursuit, which we narrowly lost. I am no good at trivia, I tell myself that they ask the wrong questions. I did get ambergris though (whale vomit used in perfume). The next round was leap-frog down the train, which John and Jodie won for us (they beat Luke and Angela). The third round was matryoshka doll unpacking and repacking, I took that round because I said I was used to fiddly dissections fast, and we won that over Kate. The fourth round was most crazy hairstyle, we managed to stick a dozen plastic forks, a few matryoshka dolls and a watch in Niamh's hair to beat Monica. The fifth round was gargling happy birthday, which Troy won over Sinead. The final round was Russian trivia, which was excellent for us, as it was bits about history, tsars, 1812, stories about statues etc, just the things that I like to note down.
As the afternoon wore on we passed through still more heavily industrial Siberian towns and more verdant taiga. A few more stops. It is noticeable that the Russians wear less and less clothes as the trip goes on (they treat the railway in the way we treat a beach weekend).
The lady next door (celebrating her 40th) came and bothered us drunk again. Well, I don't mind, although it is odd since she doesn't even speak English, but it was a bit much and everyone evacuated and I was trapped with her. She was quite forward, it became really uncomfortable until John rescued me. We all had a celebratory vodka for getting rid of her.
This morning we are getting off the train. We have come 5185km from Moscow to Irkutsk.
A brief history of the trans-Siberian
The railway was initiated by Alexander III in 1891. It consists of the western Siberian track (built from 1892-96 from Moscow to Novosibirsk), the central Siberian track (built in 1893-98 to Irkutsk, with three 1km bridges through the mountains and valleys), and the Circumbaikal track. The Circumbaikal track was the hardest to build, from 1901-04 for the short track around Lake Baikal with its steep cliffs. It required 33 tunnels and 100 bridges, and two icebreakers to carry the trains across the Lake while the Circumbaikal was being built. From here, the track becomes the Transbaikal track (built in 1895-1900) to Ulan Ude. Once we get here, we split off on the 2080km trans-Mongolian track (built in bits and pieces, finished in 1956), while the trans-Manchurian and trans-Siberian tracks also split off. The first train to make the trans-Siberian trip was in 1900 (which used the ice-breakers to cross Lake Baikal) or 1916 for a train-only journey. Our trip from Moscow to Beijing will be a total of 7857km. From Prague to Moscow, Luke and I are travelling about 10 000km by train.
Day four on the train. Day two we passed through the Ural mountains, officially crossing from Europe to Asia. We got to hop off twice for twenty minutes, where I ran around saying 'be-ez me-asa, niet me-asa", trying to find vegetarian food. I had a pastry with egg, potato and coriander.
Second stop had only dried fish.
One the second night we had our Chapka party. We all dressed up in bad Russian hats we had bought, and drank huge amounts of vodka. All the Russians on the train started laughing at us, especially when we filled the corridor for a photo, or went to the restaurant cart.
We kept on teasing Luke for calling the Urals one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world (we didn't even notice crossing them) and for talking about the grand Volga. Managed to get away from drunk Russian firemen with some difficulty.
Woke up on day three to the da-de da-dut of the train. Spent almost the entire day semi-asleep in bed, just dreaming.
We passed through Omsk, the closest I will ever get to Kazakhstan, and also the place where Dostoevsky was exiled.
Small party, the Russian lady in the cabin next door had her 40th birthday party and wanted everyone to join in. Even the provinista's crammed into the small cabin.
Day four. Deep into Siberia now. May not be able to sleep without the motion and clicking tomorrow night. More steppe. More taiga.
I woke up yesterday morning at 10am, so dehydrated that desiccated is a better description. I skipped the Saturday souvenir market to write emails and buy bread, cheese and vodka for the trans-Siberian railway.
On the railroad. In my sleeper cabin is Angela (a paramedic from Canberra), John and Luke. I lay on my bed perfectly relaxed, listening to the click of the railroad and feeling the gentle swaying. Afer dinner we broke out the vodka and had a party in the cabin - Karen and the Irish girls joined usLuke and John posed for photos for us, and we all had lots of fun.
A good night's sleep, and no need to wake up and do anything. I basked in a warm glow for a few hours, and meandered around the train. I have days with nothing much to do, and no guilt for not doing even those few activities that are available. Haven't even read much yet.
What a day! In the morning we visited the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin (so archetypically Russian that it is known as The Kremlin) was founded by Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is an enormous complex surrounded by 2.25km of walls (not the original 1360s white limestone walls but Ivan the Great's 1475 walls), with dozens of churches, cathedrals, museums, and major political buildings inside, spanning all eras of Russian history.
The highlights (for me) were a pile of 800 cannons captured from Napoleon in 1812 at Borodino, the golden domed Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles, the Archangel Cathedral, with exquisite 1500's paintings and the tombs of all tsars from 1320-1690 (except Boris Godvnor), the tsars cannon (called the peaceful cannon, it has never been fired but was wheeled out to scare the Mongols in the 1200s with its 1m diameter), and Ivan the Great's bell tower. Next to the bell tower is Tsar-kolokol, a 202 tonne bell (the largest in the world) cast for Empress Anna Ivanovna (the one Luke likes) in 1730. Just after it was finished the workshop caught fire and the bell was doused with water, cracking it. I touched the 70 tonne piece that fell off for luck.
The Annunciation Cathedral was interesting because it had a porch built onto it for Ivan the Terrible to sit in, because he wasn't allowed to enter after he defied the Church to take a fourth wife.
When Napoleon took the Kremlin in 1812 he planted explosives in all the buildings before he evacuated, luckily Cossacks rode in and cut the fuses, so most buildings are original.
We also saw the amazing Armoury, with the staggering treasures accumulated by the tsars. Too many to mention, but my favourites were the tsar's Faberge eggs, the chalice of Yuri Longarm, a chain mail suit made up of 120 000 rings, each engraved with "God is with us", and the many ambassadors gifts. The silverware from 14th century England is important, because it is unique, as Oliver Cromwell melted down al the British silverware to mint coins after he executed the British kings and turned Britain into a republic (incidentally, this incident caused a cessation in trade between Russia and England, as the tsars did not approve of republics). I saw the Olympic dinner set, 120 pieces given from Napoleon to Alexander at Tilsbet in the 1807 peace treaty. One quirky item was a triple goblet, given to people as a practical joke. If they tried to drink it fast, they it spilt over themself and everyone laughed. If they knew the trick and sipped the interconnected chalices slowly everyone applauded.
Another quirky item was the double throne of Peter and Ivan, crowned as kings together as boys. Peter had a secret booth installed in the throne for an advisor to tell him what to say, giving him the reputation of being wise at age 10. Although, it was not in the end a false reputation, as Peter became Peter the Great, the wisest tsar, a skilled bootmaker, craftsman and shipwright in addition to being the first tsar to lead the army, conquering new territory and founding St Petersburg.
After lunch Luke, John and I caught the metro to Kolomenskoye. It is world heritage listed, but most buildings were under repair, so it wasn't too impressive. We went to a cafe for coffee, beers and vodka and chatted about US politics. We met the Irish girls for dinner (borscht) and went bowling, which included half a dozen beers and a fair few vodka shots. Bowling was disco style too, which was very exciting. The Russian couple next to us accidently bowled a ball into our alley, and to make up for it Dimitri and Olya bought us a bottle of champagne, a flask of vodka, and four pizzas. Olya started bowling all of our shots (only gutter balls, she was wasted), and Monica started ballroom dancing with Dimitri. When Monica passed out I carried her to her room with Niamh and held a bucket for her to throw up in.
Today Karen told me an amusing urban legend. Stalin was meeting with the city planners trying to fix the transportation issues. The metro system was excellent for getting in or out of Moscow, but took a long time to go from one outer spot to another. The city planners racked their brains, and couldn't fix the problem. Finally Stalin stood up, put his coffee cup down on the map, and said it was a problem for tomorrow. The next day they came back, lifted the coffee cup off the map and saw that it made a brown circle line around the city centre. The city planners applauded Stalin and built the brown circle line.
Last night before catching the train to Moscow, we went on a walking tour of Piter run by Nochlezhka (Night Shelter). They are an NGO that looks after the homeless in Piter. Homelessness is a huge problem in Russia, with 10% of the population affected, including 54 000 in Piter alone. The big problem is because all Russians have a passport, but the passport needs to have a registration stamp with your current address in it. If you don't have this stamp you can't get a job, you can't get medical treatment, and you are not allowed to leave the city you are in. What a stupid system! The people that need the help can't get it. They end up sorting through garbage for something to eat and bottles to recycle. Our guide said she was touched when she saw someone sitting on the garbage reading a book she had found in it.
We pretty much just walked around Nevsky (and a few of the more dodgy areas just to the north), but it was interesting to hear a few new facts about Piter. For example, the bridge with four horses and four naked men holding them is locally called "18 ball bridge"... counts... 16 for the statues, when we asked why 18, she said it is because there is always a policeman standing on the bridge.
The Catherine the Great square is strictly divided down the middle, with one side being the popular gay hangout, and the other being the old Russian chess champion side. We went to an old alternative theatre where they show Japanese movies from the 50's (apparently it is the only place in Piter which always smells like hash), and a local theatre that is the lesbian culture centre - interestingly the lesbian symbol in Piter in a double headed axe for some reason. We saw a Roma doing an act with a crocodile, and we passed by two pubs, one which has New Years Eve every night, and one which has a wedding every night.
We saw Paul I's castle, which he had painted peach because it was the colour of his lover's gloves. Paul I was murdered like every tsar except Alexander I (who drank himself to death).
In the bad neighbourhood we saw the common flats, where multiple families live in the same flat. Our guide told us that to divide the electricity bill, the single toilet in the flat can have a dozen light bulbs with a dozen switches, so each family uses their own light bulb. 15% of people in Piter still live in these common flats. Also, our guide read out the local graffiti, which is always things like "I love you". There is almost never mean graffiti in Russia.
Finally, we saw the small sparrow statues, down in the canal. The small gray birds flitter down around the canals. This statue is just by the law school, which is all boys and they are surrounded by a moat and wear all gray. There is a nursery rhyme which goes (when translated) "little gray bird where are you going, I'm going to the canal to have a vodka, two vodka, three vodka". Every child sings it.
Overnight train to Moscow, how exotic! The largest city in Europe with 13 million people, but unlike Piter it has a wholly Russian feel to it. It was founded in the 1500's by Yuri Longarm who defeated the Tartars. It was made great by Ivan the Terrible, who founded the Kremlin and built St Basils. In 1703 the capital of Russia was moved to Piter, but the city still remained the hub of Russia, which has only increased since the Soviets moved the capital back.
We saw the seven sisters, huge neo-gothic skyscrapers built because Stalin feared that New York looked more powerful than Moscow. Lucky for him he had the guy who designed the Empire State Building in the Gulags, so he pulled him out of the labour camp and had him build the seven sisters.
We caught the metro through the city. Like Piter the stations were magnificent, with a variety and quality of decoration equal to that in the Hermitage and the best cathedrals. The stations were deep (they were built with bomb shelters in mind) but not as deep as Piter's. The metro network is the largest in the world, with 120 stations and 9 million users per day. I love a good public transport system. We caught a ferry along the Moscow River and saw the gold tipped onion domes of the Church of Christ our Saviour (built after 1812, destroyed by the Soviets and recently rebuilt to the original plans), as well as many small but exquisite Russian orthodox churches. We passed a 70m towering statue of Peter the Great. At least they call it Peter the Great, but actually it was commissioned by Santiago in the States as a statue of Christopher Colombus. They paid in advance for French architects to make me, but were horrified to see the result and turned it down. The architects tried selling it, but eventually they changed the face to pretend it was Peter the Great (still wearing old Spanish clothes) and gave it to Moscow. The residents of Moscow hate it so much there are attempts to blow it up every year, so it is under 24 hour surveillance. Walked around the Kremlin (all 70 acres of it), a massive red fortress wall containing many churches and political buildings, and saw Red Square and the amazing St Basil's church (with the most colourful patterns of onion domes). Saw the outside of the Mauleseum where Lenin's embalmed body is kept, and the building where the CHEKA (later to become KGB) was set up. Tried to find Noveskya, but failed.
Yesterday I saw a side of Piter that I haven't seen before - Leningrad. We did a walking tour with Peter's (an alternative tour guide style, it involves using public transport and walking a lot), who was excellent. During WWII (or as the Russian's call it, the Great Patriotic War), 28 million Russians died, more than all the other countries put together. Apart from Stalingrad, no city suffered as Leningrad did.
Leading up to the German invasion was the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact and the division of Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence". This allowed the Germans to take Poland, and the Russians to take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They also took a 200km strip of land from Finland in the Winter War (which lasted three months and killed 70 000 Finns and 200 000 Russians) to protect the northern approach to Leningrad. Because of this mutual pact, Stalin ordered there to be no aggression to the Germans when Hitler built up his forces on the Polish border. Germans did fly-overs across the border, and Stalin ordered the anti-aircraft guns not to fire. This put off the war for a few months, until, on the 22nd of June, 1941, the Germans flew over and dropped bombs. The Russians were so afraid of Stalin that even then they didn't fire the anti-aircraft guns, and for three days (until news reached Stalin in Moscow and he gave new orders) the Russian army sat and did nothing during the bombing, with tens of thousands killed in days. The line broken, the Russians had to retreat back, ceding hundreds of kilometres, such that by the 8th of September the Germans had reached Leningrad. They never meant to cause a siege, as Hitler planned on simply running over the city and removing it from the face of the earth (as the birthplace of communism), but general Zhukov was flown in, and through enormous sacrifice of life they managed to build a barrier to stop the Germans. Still, the Germans blocked off the southern route, and the Finns joined them and retook the land ceded in the Winter War, blocking off the northern route. Leningrad was then encircled, with the Baltic sea to the west, and Lake Ladoga to the east. The siege lasted for 900 days (until the 27th of Jan, 1944), during which over a million people were killed, which, with the evacuation of refugees, brought the population down from 3.3 million to 800 000.
We caught a tram to the southern defence line of Leningrad, which is in the outer suburbs. Trams are very cool in Piter, since they were made to railway gauge, which makes them unique. Therefore no one makes trams that work on them, so the old 1960's trams are still used. The tram network is the largest in the world. Down south we saw the intact "pill boxes" small reinforced concrete bunkers, which made up the line of defence with trenches linking up units. We also saw the "dragon teeth" - pyramid shaped concrete slabs, tank trenches (3m x 5m trenches), and "hedgehogs" (like giant caltrops made from railway lines) to stop the progression of tanks. Much of this is left along the front, so we walked along the line, looking at the old defences.
For the first 500 days of the siege, Leningrad was completely cut off. There was no firewood (so all the fireplaces were boarded up to prevent loss of heat, even now they are almost all boarded up), very little food (100g of bread was the daily ration), and no petrol or electricity to run transport. What the survivors remember the most is the silence of Leningrad during the siege, with no traffic on the street. People were too exhausted to do anything other then walk up the road to get filthy water from the canals (all water supplies were destroyed in the first wave of bombs). The first winter ('41/'42) was the third coldest winter on record, and people froze to death in their sleep without firewood. The only way limited supplies got into the city was via the "Road of Life" - when Lake Ladoga froze solid trucks could drive across the ice (always risky while the Germans were bombing the ice down), and when it was liquid boats could make the dangerous journey. The freezing/thawing times were the worst, Leningrad had to survive by itself. After a year and a half, a pincer movement succeeded, and the Russians retook a land-route so more supplies made it into the city.
We saw a KB85 tank (the heavy Russian tanks), and Peter told us about the T34, which has a fast highly mobile tank with a quick turret rotation speed, such that Russians used to drive through German lines, then turn around and fire before the Germans could, allowing them to win Kirsk, the largest tank battle in history.
We walked along the Alley of 900 days, lined with 900 birch trees, then visited the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, seeing a short film made up of silent black and white images caught during the siege. Very powerful, very solemn. Going on in the background was a metronome, the ticking of which was played on the only Leningrad radio station except when alarms were called or news was being broadcast. The metronome was meant to be like a heart-beat, and they speed it up during air raids. It is a very powerful symbol to the Leningrad survivors, since they listened to it religiously for 900 days. The radio station is still going even today, playing only the metronome.
We also walked around some of the Siege of Leningrad cemeteries, although many many more bodies are unburied. Even now 100-1000 bodies are found every year, and only a month ago a fully functional Soviet tank was pulled up from the river.
Back to Piter
While we were in the southern suburbs, Luke and I had lunch in a local bakery (mmm...). Peter joined us, and we discussed modern Russian politics (which I really should know more of than I do). We then visited the tallest Lenin statue in the world (9m) and saw the candy-cane style Chesma church, with its pink and white strips. So pretty you could eat it all up. We then caught the metro to the Haymarket, visited the flat where Dostoevsky lived while he wrote Crime and Punishment, then we walked to where Raskolnikov was meant to live, and followed his pathway down to Kokushkin most, looking out over the canal where he so often contemplated suicide, and through the streets to the pawn-brokers flat. This book meant so much to me when I read it, that it was very moving to be able to walk through the same streets myself, imagine Raskolnikov's emotions.
We had Georgian for dinner with the group, which was excellent. Including lots of beer and vodka toasts. I became quite lively, and possibly gave Luke and John shoulder rides down Nevsky Prospket. I woke up grumpy this morning, with a chipped tooth (? beer glass?)
After a slow start, Luke and I spent the day wandered around the Hermitage. The beautiful Winter Palace of the Tsars, now filled with the largest art collection in the world. The tsars (especially Catherine the Great) bought up much artwork, then the Soviets pooled artwork pillaged from all over the USSR, finally, when the conquered Berlin, they took all the German artwork (including those pillaged from all over Europe by the Nazis). It is staggering. What I really enjoy more than the art is the actual rooms of the Hermitage itself, each with its own theme and with ornate ceilings and frescos. We saw all the original Classical Greek and Roman sculptures, 5000 year old Egyptian mummies, 500 000 year old paleolithic art, and ancient Russian culture. Excellent. For lunch Luke had cookies and cream icecream (the best he had ever had) and a hot chocolate, which was so thick he had to use a spoon (he said it was basically hot chocolate moose) and also the best he had ever had. For trying to be healthy I had the worst mushroom quiche I have ever had. I just bought Puskin's Tales of Belkin for the trans-Siberian.