Archive for April, 2018

Special Events – Planned and Suprises

Sunday, April 29th, 2018

We have made it to the half way point of our epic trip and I thought it would be nice to re-cap the things that stand out the most, both good and bad.

Russia, Trans-Siberian Railroad test of endurance – Lets just sum it up like this; Six days, one hot meal, no shower and toilets that only worked half the time…

Krasnoyarsk platform April 7

platform vendor in Mariinsk selling Russian chicken – cold and tough

Helsinki, Traditional Finnish Sauna – Carl was the one that wanted to go to the sauna, I was a bit reluctant. I am not real confident in my body image these days and coupled with the pump that I have to wear all the time I wasn’t real excited about it. But it turned out fine and the dip in the Bay of Finland was actually exhilarating.

arriving in Helsinki from Saint Petersburg April 16

Loyly sauna Helsinki April 19 (in the lounge, between time in the sauna and the sea)

Tallinn, Restaurant Tchaikovsky – I purchased Carl a gift certificate for RT as a Christmas gift last year. I looked up dining locations in Tallinn and RT came up at the top of every list. We made a reservation for Saturday night April 21 at 6:00. It was one of the most memorable meals we have ever shared together. A thank you to Katarina for your subtle humor and expert knowledge of the good food and drink you served us.

scallop and cod course at Restaurant Tchaikovsky Tallinn April 21

Riga, Dome Hotel Spa Access – It completely slipped by me that the spa access to the Hammam and the Sauna was included in our room rate, and it could not have come at a better time. The weather in Riga, lets just say, it sucked! Cold and rainy almost the entire time we were there. So, we booked the Hammam on Thursday and the Sauna on Friday at 4:00 for two hours each stay. I am hard pressed to say which one I liked the most. Both came with an entire suite, showers, dressing areas, toilets and lounging areas that were entirely ours for two hours.

Dome Hotel sauna Riga April 27 (fully robed version)

St Petersburg Pickpockets

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Okay, so here’s how the pickpocket attempt went down in St. Petersburg. We were walking on the sidewalk along Nevsky Prospekt heading back to our hotel on Saturday afternoon. We were in the midst of a crowd bottled up at the Anichkov Bridge crossing. Two men with fistfuls of flyers on either side hemmed me in and started shoving flyers at everyone around them, including a baby in a stroller next to me. Of course this seemed strange since the flyer shovers are always located at the business they’re promoting, not ambling along the street. Anyway while those two kept me pinned in between them, their accomplice bumped aggressively into me from behind. As he pushed past me, I blurted out ‘what the fuck, man’ and he snarled something in Russian, probably not very complimentary. I immediately knew what had happened and mentioned it to Kathy, who was walking a few feet ahead of me. We stopped and I checked all my pockets and backpack. Nothing missing. I attribute this to my Bluffworks travel pants. Both my wallet and passport were zipped up in ‘hidden’ pockets. If I’d have had regular pants on that day, I’m sure my wallet would have been gone. So big shout out to Bluffworks for saving us from a really bad day. My other impression of that event was that the perps seemed pretty amateurish. Their frantic handling of the flyers was definitely out of place and a sure sign that something wasn’t quite right. I sensed it right away though it probably wouldn’t have made a difference without my travel pants. Being targeted and attacked like that is pretty disconcerting but underscores how important it is to secure valuables and be aware of surroundings at all times.  Afterwards Kathy read something in Lonely Planet warning about pickpockets on Nevsky Prospekt, very appropriate. One further note, this has been the only negative thing that’s happened to us on this trip but a good reminder to always be on guard.

Moscow Day Three

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

(Carl here) since Kathy posted some thoughts on St Petersburg I figured I need to catch up a bit on our time in Russia while we’re drinking our coffee in Helsinki. Next post will include the pickpocket attempt in St Petersburg.

We had nice weather for our last day in Moscow.  Cold (mid 40s F) but sunny with a little wind.  We had breakfast at our hotel and headed to Red Square to visit St Basil’s. We queued up for tickets (500 rubles each) at the gate around 10:45. The guard opened the gate promptly at 11:00 with bells in the square ringing in the hour. The automated ticket machine was broken (surprise) so we got tickets at the window. The church interior is a warren of narrow passageways and dark chapels (which may actually be individual churches) with some icons and architectural detail displays. There was a group of four men singing a capella in one of the chapels to plug their CD. The singing was impressive, especially the bass resonating throughout the chamber, and my favorite part of the visit. The displays (descriptions in Russian and English) about the Fools for Christ (yurodstvo) were interesting – people who apparently undertook all kinds of ‘foolish’ actions in the name of Christ. I imagine their lives were pretty miserable and that means of escape provided some relief (and derision from others). All told I thought the exterior was much more interesting than the interior (skipping the interior wouldn’t be a great loss).

We ate lunch at Dolmama Armenian restaurant which we found nearby in Google Maps. The entrance is back off the street behind an Armenian church so a bit tricky to find. The restaurant facade is nondescript and the inside is nicely decorated. We ordered a couple of appetizers and mains from the English version of the menu. However what showed up was not quite what we ordered (or so we thought). They were close but the English descriptions may have been mistranslated or our waitress may have misunderstood. For instance one dish was supposed to be eggplant stuffed with ground beef and rice but we got a whole baked eggplant simply dressed with oil. The best dish we had was pancakes (crepes) filled with ground meat and spices, served with sour cream. The Armenian wine wasn’t bad (but the price was – around $12 a glass). Altogether lunch was around $60. Though a bit pricey for what we received my main complaint is that we didn’t seem to get what we ordered. Oh well.

appetizers were the best course at Dolmama

We had heard that Arbat Street was a good place to (s)troll for souvenirs so we did. It was disappointing, with the usual complement of shops, guys shoving flyers at you, and folks dressed up as historical figures, movie characters, large animals (think King Julian from Madagascar), etc.

along Arbat Street

The rest of the day was spent playing metro tourist, ie, visiting some of the more interesting metro stations on the various lines. The design and detail in some of the stations was impressive but our favorite was Revolution station with statues to communist soldiers, workers, kids, pets, etc.

good luck to rub dog nose at Revolution station


the easy to understand Moscow metro system (not)

We spent that evening preparing for our midnight train ride to St Petersburg, doing laundry, packing, organizing – the fun part of travel. Do svidaniya Moscow.

on the Red Arrow

St. Petersburg

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

I had no expectations of St Petersburg, Russia other than my lifelong desire to visit the Hermitage. After only four short days I can honestly say that I was in no way ready to leave. We had taken the historic Red Arrow train at midnight from Leningradskaya Station in Moscow and arrived at 0800, a little sleep deprived but ready to explore our new surroundings. We walked to our hotel, arriving about 0820 and were shown world class hospitality from the staff at the Crown Plaza Ligovsky. Not only did they make a room available to us at that early hour, but an upgraded room. We unpacked and enjoyed the Nespresso coffee, the view and the comfort of our surroundings.

disembarking from the Red Arrow in St Petersburg

Out to Nevsky Prospect and we’re St Petersburgers, enjoying the crowds of young people and the first class dining, shopping and architectural delights of that beautiful city. Every restaurant we walked into was like a jewel for us discover with excellently prepared food. Reasonable prices for everything made us want to eat and drink too much.

Hermitage grand staircase

We visited the Hermitage on our second full day in St Petersburg and were not disappointed. For me it wasn’t the art treasures but the Winter Palace itself. I had read endlessly over several decades about the beauty of the palace and it lived up to my imagination. Afterwards, Carl left me to go and visit his one true love, Impressionist Art which was housed across the square. All his favorites were there, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne…

That evening we went to Mama Na Dache and dined for several hours in their elegant relaxed restaurant (our second visit).

Our last night we attended the Swan Lake ballet at the Hermitage Theater, it was excellent. Afterwards we walked home, down Nevsky Prospect one more time, but I hope it won’t be the last.

pre-ballet dinner at L Bric in St Petersburg

Moscow Day Two

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Started off with the Bolshoi Theater tour. Interesting and got to watch a bit of the technical and musical rehearsal for an upcoming Verdi opera – Un Ballo in Maschera. Getting in for the tour is somewhat of a hassle. Tours are given three times weekly – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – at 11:10 in Russian and 11:15 in English. Tickets are limited to 20 for each tour and only available on the day of the tour. If you want to get in you need to queue up at door #12 by around 10:00 at the latest. We got there at 9:30 and there were two Russian women ahead of us. However there are separate lines for the Russian and English tours so we were actually first for English. Door #12 has instructions in English on the right and Russian on the left. I assumed the line for the English tour would be on the right so we parked ourselves there. While waiting we met a Dutch family who were touring Russia with their sons (the trip was a graduation present for their youngest son). It was pretty cold standing on the Bolshoi portico (around 40 degrees F) so the conversation with Fritz, Caroline, Robert, and Bas was most welcome to pass the time. After a few minutes a man came through the door and informed us that we were lined up on the wrong side (go figure) so we switched with the Russian crowd. As more people showed up, the queues started to get a bit disorderly with Russian merging into English and vice versa (be prepared to guard your place if you try this). We got our wrist bands and were allowed entrance to buy our tickets (1300 rubles each) at 11:00 (after the Russian crowd). It was worth the wait and cost (some folks didn’t make the cut). Our guide, Martina, was very knowledgeable and had lots of anecdotes to share with us, like the fact the white room had been hit by a bomb in 1941 (the front was only 20 miles from Moscow), hastily repaired, and the walls quickly whitewashed hence the name. However she seemed to get a little upset when a woman from Israel on our tour asked about Rudolf Nureyev. I’m not sure if Martina thought the question was about Nureyev himself or the controversial ballet about his life but didn’t really answer.

in front of the Bolshoi


in the white room at the Bolshoi


technical rehearsal for Un Ballo in Maschera

We were a bit rushed between the Bolshoi and our scheduled Kremlin tour so we opted for lunch at GUM – salad, pizza, and lasagna. Nothing special but not bad. We wanted to get something to eat at Stolovaya No 57 (the Soviet style workers’ cafeteria in GUM) but there was a line and we couldn’t wait.

quick lunch with a view at GUM

After lunch we had reservations for the Kremlin Armory at 14:30 (there are 4 entry times daily that allow visitors around 1-1/2 hours inside). On the way to the Kremlin we caught the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Entry to the Kremlin was also challenging. The security guard wouldn’t let me in with my backpack so I had to hike back to the cloak room (about 5 minutes walk) to check it. It was after 14:30 when I got back and everyone else in our cohort was already in but the guard still let us in. Once inside I wasn’t allowed to enter the actual museum until I checked my jacket (fortunately that cloakroom was right there). The armory is amazing but overwhelming. Our initial impression was awe but that quickly glazed over with the sheer amount of priceless stuff – gold plates, silver table pieces, jewel-encrusted crowns and icon frames, coronation robes, imperial carriages, etc. The actual weapons and arms in the armory were a bit more digestible. We probably should have done more homework to focus on a few things but it was impressive.

gold and silver, silver and gold, ad nauseum.

We headed over to St Basil’s afterwards but it was too late to enter for the day. We’ll try tomorrow.

in front of St Basil’s

We were tired so we visited a supermarket for a picnic dinner of charcuterie, bread, and beer and settled in for a quiet and relaxing evening.

First Full Day in Moscow

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Our first day in Moscow was a good day. Fairly warm (getting up to about 60 degrees F) with clear skies, perfect for sightseeing. We thoroughly enjoyed our food tour with Maria from Bridge to Moscow. She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and super friendly. She took us to Danilovsky indoor market to start where we sampled cheeses, dried meats, and smoked fish. We settled down for a beer and smoked omul from Lake Baikal with bread. It was lightly smoked, almost like sushi, and delicious. But two pieces between the three of us was enough. There are sit down eateries where you can get cooked food as well as all kinds of fresh and processed food products. Great place to pick up a picnic lunch or sit down and eat.

omul and beer at Danilovsky market

Short metro ride and walk to a Ukrainian restaurant, Taras Bulba (near Tsvetnoy Bulvar metro). The place was pretty cool, located in an old building, decorated in traditional Ukrainian style with a central fireplace, whitewashed walls with floral patterns painted on. The staff were dressed in typical clothing. The food was delicious. We had borscht and solyanka soup, herring in fur coats (layered beet-carrot-potato-herring-mayonnaise salad), salad Olivier, dumplings (pelmeni and verenyky), and lard to go along with our vodka (surprisingly good). We signed the visitor book and took a few pictures with the staff. They sent us off with a sack of pierogies.

Ukrainian food with Maria at Taras Bulba


Cossacks at Taras Bulba


hats on with Julia at Taras Bulba restaurant

Next stop was a Georgian restaurant, Dshandshali. We had mineral water, mixed pureed spreads (spinach, beet), eggplant stuffed with ground walnut, imeruli khachapuri cheese bread, shaslik (grilled ground lamb sausages). Great food (khachapuri was our favorite) but we were getting pretty full and couldn’t eat it all.

Georgian vegetable pates and eggplant rolls at Dshandshali

Last stop was GUM department store on Red Square for tea at Stolovaya No. 57 along with sweets from the first floor grocery store. What a cool place – a throwback Soviet workers’ cafeteria – with a view down the length of GUM. Parted with Maria here after 7 hours of food and conversation, including orientation to the Moscow metro system. We talked about family, culture, politics, history. The time we spent with Maria was truly informative and entertaining. It reinforced that travel helps us understand the larger world we inhabit. Or as Mark Twain said: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime’. Bolshoi Theater tour and Kremlin Armory museum tomorrow.

tea with Maria at Stolovaya in GUM


Moscow finally!

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Yesterday marked a milestone – we got off the Trans Siberian Railway for the first time in 7 days, except for a few short descents onto the platforms when we’d stop for 20 minutes or so to stretch our legs and forage for supplies. Yesterday evening we had a long hot shower (not a wipe-y bath), ate a real meal (not ramen, not chicken jerky, not canned tuna salad, not cold scrawny chicken legs, not unidentified yeasty cakes, not dough stuffed with who-knows-what, but Burger Heroes hamburgers with cold draft dark beers – Cheeseburgers in Paradise), slept in a real bed (not separate fold down berths that were just a tad too small), and enjoyed an en suite bathroom (not two small shared bathrooms at the end of the car with tiny sinks and toilets that screeched when flushed when they were working). Yesterday was a big day that makes us appreciate some of the things we take for granted.

Our life had been confined to a 6×7 foot compartment since last Tuesday in Vladivostok. It was quite the experience but a major relief to disembark. More to come on the trip but wanted to get this out since it’s been a while since we posted anything. We walked around Red Square last night after dinner and we’re looking forward to a food tour today, visiting the Kremlin Armory Museum, Bolshoi tour, and a couple of other sights tomorrow and Thursday. Then on to St. Petersburg for a few days there.

walking around Moscow last night


please let me out


on the platform somewhere in Siberia with our train (Rossiya #1) behind Kathy

Metro Bus Taxi Ferry Day

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Yesterday we got up early and caught the metro from Seoul Station to the Express Bus Terminal. That took about 45 minutes with no problems.

on the #4 metro line with all our stuff

We got to the bus station early enough to grab some breakfast for the ride. Our bus left right on time at 8:00. The seats were extremely roomy and comfortable. If you’re thinking about riding the bus in South Korea, book it – you won’t be disappointed.

our snazzy Hyundai bus in Seoul


not like the greyhound bus I remember riding from Key West to Gainesville for UF

We stopped for 15 minutes at a rest stop along the way, not far from Pyeongchang (Olympics).  We got to Donghae a little early but we were about 3 miles from the ferry terminal so we took a taxi (about $6). Though we generally try to use public transportation and walk as much as possible, taxi was a good call because we were lugging all our stuff.

The ferry terminal was an interesting place, a bit shabby. Once we figured out the protocol we queued up. We appeared to be the only folks who weren’t either Asian or Russian boarding the ferry. And we had the least amount of luggage.  There were Russians who pr0bably should have boarded through the cargo ramp along with the tractors and vehicles being loaded on.  They were hauling tires, ladders, appliances, busting-at-the-seams industrial strength shopping bags, etc.  It was an amazing feat considering they were chasing kids around the whole time.  But I’m sure it was worthwhile.

queued up at the ferry check in counter

loading Hyundai tractors onto our ferry

We had vouchers for dormitory style bunk sleeping (well it sounded like a good idea when we booked the trip because we wanted the full experience).  We were issued our bunks when we checked in.  I had no idea what I was given but glad to get an actual ticket instead of just a voucher.  We boarded through a not-so-thorough security check and hauled our luggage up the ramp where we were shown our bunks – in different rooms.  Not a good start.  The rooms were about 140 degrees and stuffy with people jockeying to get to their bunks and bags flying around but at least the bunks had privacy curtains.

Kathy was assigned #23 (I was #31)

cell block 2301

We dropped our bags in our respective bunks and headed off to explore the ship.  That took about 5 minutes since it wasn’t very big and there wasn’t really much to see anyway.  At the desk we mentioned that we’d like to be nearer to each other and they told us to come back at 2:00 after they completed loading and they’d see what they could do. We promptly reported back to the desk and they had 3 other bunks available but not any nearer each other.  However they offered us a choice of 3 upgrades – all individual cabins.  Without much hesitation we chose the top of the line ‘junior suite’ with 2 twin beds and a bathroom (with shower and towels).  I’m prone to motion sickness so we figured we’d be more comfortable in the suite.  So we chickened out and gave up our steerage berths.  The dorm bunks themselves are probably comfortable enough but the activity would have made any meaningful sleep impossible (reminiscent of our capsule hotel experience in Tokyo).  Dinner that night was instant ramen and wasabi crabs (the boat provides unlimited hot and cold drinking water so everyone makes instant noodles, conveniently for sale in the ship store).

making do with noodles and crackers

Since everyone eats ramen on the boat, everyone also dumps their leftover ramen liquid and bits over the side before throwing away the container.  So if you’re on a deck below the one they’re throwing from you could be in trouble.  You definitely want to stay away from the rail on the lower decks or you could be wearing ramen (reminds me of some good old hippy music – ‘if you’re going to vladivostok, be sure to wear some ramen in your hair’ or something like that).  Also if you’re staying in one of the downwind cabins (like we were) you’re subject to attack by flying ramen at any time.

Vladivostok harbor through our ramen-spattered window

We slept pretty well that night though the beds’ mattress/spring combination was way more spring than mattress.  It was a bit rough when we got far enough out to sea but we didn’t have any problems (ie, I didn’t get sick). Breakfast was a choice of ramen or the hard-boiled eggs we brought along from Seoul.  We chose the latter.  Kathy picked up some rolls from the restaurant.  All that and our instant coffee and we were fine.

breakfast in our cabin

We spent the rest of the morning getting ready to disembark (rearranging our bags) and sporadically walking around the deck (it was cold, foggy, and misting).  We weren’t scheduled to disembark in Vladivostok until around 2:30 pm so we watched My Cousin Vinny (we had watched The Big Lebowski the night before).  Having our own cabin was definitely worthwhile as we were able to get organized and just spend the time as we wanted.

Disembarking wasn’t bad.  There weren’t really many passengers so it didn’t take long.  Straight through customs and passport check and we were on our own.  We got some rubles from the ATM at the station, got oriented with Google maps and headed to our hotel. It was about a 15 minute walk, pretty much uphill the whole way but easy to find despite the cold, nasty weather (at least it wasn’t raining).

We checked into the Azimut not knowing what to expect.  Some of the online reviews were absolutely horrible but we found a modern, clean, attractive hotel with a friendly and helpful staff (speaking good English).  We figured the reviews were from a previous or different hotel, certainly not the one we’re at now.  This Azimut is first rate and we’d definitely recommend it, especially if you need access to the ferry port or the trans Sib rail station (right next to the ferry terminal).  We ate at the hotel that evening.

reward dinner of beef stroganoff and a splayed and grilled half chicken

After lunch/dinner we headed to the train station to recon and confirm our trip the next day.  We had a bit of a scare when the hotel clerk said the train leaves at 5:10 am (we were scheduled to depart at 12:10 pm Moscow time and there’s a 7 hour time difference).  We planned to use the day of the train departure to have a leisurely buffet breakfast at the hotel and get ready for the trip (grocery shopping, packing, etc).  So we were very relieved when the train station attendant confirmed that the train departed Vladivostok at 7:10 pm (btw no one at the station seems to speak any English).  The hotel clerk later caught up to me to tell me the actual departure time after she realized her mistake.  She was very apologetic and sweet.

We got our train tickets and headed to the grocery store across the street.  The store was small, dark, and cramped.  We felt we were being watched the whole time we were browsing the shelves.  We were just scouting out what we’d need for the trip with plans to pick everything up the next day.  The store was pretty well stocked.  We just bought some crackers and Russian beer to try later.  We won’t get much for the train since food will be available along the way so we haven’t finalized our food strategy.  Tomorrow we’ll have a little time to do some sightseeing but our main focus is getting on the train with the right supplies and settling in for our 6 days’ ride.  I’m pretty sure we won’t have any internet connectivity along the way so this will probably be the last post for a week or so.  Good bye from Vladivostok!

standing with Lenin in Vladivostok


view from our hotel window – frozen Sea of Japan