Monday, 21 July 2014

Russia 2014

The idea was to meet-up with a bunch of Mobile home enthusiasts and head to Russia. The mission was to travel from St. Petersburg to Murmansk with a number of stops along the way. We had 4 weeks to travel the combined distance of over 2,500 kms (this stretch is around 1,600km but we had quite a few side stops adding more than 1,000 km extra, but what the heck) We were to have a loose itinerary, getting together each evening when nothing extra for the day was planned. With pooled resources we hired a guide and two security officers and all met-up in Helsinki. 

Helsinki is beautiful but very expensive. We had a slice of bread with a few pieces of chicken and salad toppings for lunch - the water was free - the bill came to 15,80 Euro which in Canadian dollars would be about $21.00. Ouch. It was delicious, thank goodness.

After several days soaking up the sun in Helsinki we all headed, convoy style across the Finland/Russian boarder and headed to our first stop Vyborg


Vyborg is a bit hilly

Ladies selling garlic at the bus stop in Vyborg

Hundreds of Matryoshka dolls at the market in Vyborg

Same market. It had a bit of everything, from kitsch to tomatoes.

The next stop was Saint Petersburg.

Smolny Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral - a stunning example of mosaic art.

Every piece of space is created by mosaic.

My favourite place in Saint Petersburg was the Hermitage museum.

Canova's Cupid and Psyche

Da Vinci's Benois Madonna

Here's Rembrandt's Danaë. I add this to show how many people where in this museum. As much as I love going to art museums, and I do, the crowd in this museum was just suffocating.

I'm going to switch modes here and talk about a few different topics. 

Russia was not our most favourite country. It is a very run-down, dirty, grey, corrupt, cold, and unfriendly land. The worst part of the trip were the roads. They were almost impassable at times.

This is not a one-way street. Cars drive where ever they can to avoid the potholes. If you look in the distance, they are doing the same thing. It is a sort of dance. Somehow, everyone makes it through without killing each other but it is very taxing.

Then you have the major and ONLY highway that goes from St. Petersburg to Murmansk partially repaired. You know the clunking your tires make as you drive into one of these patches and then out again? Well, this went on for more than 30 kms.
Notice in which lane that truck is driving? OURS! He and everyone else does this. If there is a stretch that is easier to drive but happens to be in front of oncoming traffic, no problem. They swerve back into their lane just in time. F%ck!
The highway was under construction for most of the 1,600 kms between St. Petersburg and Murmansk. The Russians handle the concept of highway construction a bit differently. You don't have lanes closed to construction. Nooooo. You drive right through the construction and the men and trucks and bulldozers...

This is the entrance to the city Murmansk.
Enough with the roads but I think you get the idea.

In Russia they don't tear down old buildings. They leave the ruins and build next to them:

Which brings me to housing. The people in the West and North West of Russia are very poor by our standards in Germany. The housing is basic and is not well kept. This is the norm not the exception.

Now a closer look

Below is a fairly nice house but if you notice the chimneys, well, they probably won't ever be repaired. 

I stopped taking pictures of the houses because they looked the same no matter where we went. I don't think I saw one yard where the grass was mowed or where flowers where planted to add a bit of life to the structures. It was so grey. Here is a view of Murmansk:

It is just so lifeless and notice the ruins?

There were some very picturesque scenes like this:

But, notice in the foreground the gas pipes? These are often found above ground because of the extreme cold in winter but it does take away from the pure nature of the country. 

What is kept well and renovated as needed are the churches and cloisters. They are beautiful. Here is a cloister on the island of Walaam.

At the entrance

Behind the cloister - I found this everywhere - if the fasçade of a building was well kept then you could be certain that at the back, it would be run down.

Almost everywhere that is, but, not here on the island of Kizhi!!

Stunning structures all over and all very lovely.

The only places that were colourful where the cemeteries. The graves are adorned with plastic flowers.

I always imagined that when one crossed over the Arctic Circle that there would be something significant in structure to mark this passage. Here is the marker in Russia:

And, here is the marker in Sweden:

That's it. I don't know what I was expecting but I was expecting something a bit grander.

There was very little traffic as we travelled back into 'civilization', meaning as we came back through Norway, Finland and Sweden on the way home; except for these fellas:

Reindeer are everywhere.

My favourite spot was Stockholm, Sweden:

Getting ready for the changing of the guard.

Overall impressions of Russia:
Russia is a country with a chaotic infrastructure; sometimes you can see that there really is no infrastructure at all. It is a filthy land. The people are grey and mostly unfriendly, at least to foreigners. Corruption is rampant and you are constantly under watch, again, perhaps only the tourists. We were followed by the secret police, not so secretly; who carried their high zoom cameras. There were always two of them, men, and they would follow us for a few days passing us off to the next two after a few hundred kilometres further into the country.

In general, the people are very poor. A teacher can expect to be paid the equivalent of about $300.00 a month. Retirement is set at 50 for women and 55 for men but the pension is so low that they cannot survive on the amount they get. The burden is spread across the families of the elderly.

The cost of housing is high in terms of what the average person makes. Therefore, there are many communal living situations. An apartment may have 4 or 5 families living together sharing one kitchen and one bathroom. Each family would have their own room.

Buildings are usually not renovated. They are built and once they fall apart they're left to decay. Another structure is often built right next to the ruin.

Many houses don't have indoor plumbing. You often see water pumps along the street. Those houses have outhouses which, often, are in the front of the house???

Russia is a very military land. Everywhere one is reminded of a war fought, a battle, something conquered... North of Murmansk are large towns built just for military personnel. There are check-points all over Russia, especially as you come close to a larger town or city. The checkpoints look just like a boarder crossing complete with military and police holding machine guns. If you're stopped then you have to produce all of your personal documents. If you lack one that is asked for, you will be detained. It is very freaky for someone like me who grew-up in Canada. Even after having lived in Europe now for close to 17 years, I have never seen anything so intimidating. Don't even get me started on what happens at the actual boarder crossings!! Let's just say, they don't leave one centimetre unturned.

The grocery stores in the larger cities and towns are well stocked but in smaller towns they are very basic. Vodka is huge!! In the supermarkets, no matter how small, one sees a great variety of bottles, all very reasonably priced.

We were told that a major staple is bread. I found that so hard to believe because the bread is just horrible. Fresh bread has the consistency of stale 3 day old white bread. It was the same all over, from the South of Russia to the North, stale!

Many countries have their specialties or what I call 'ticks'. For the French in France it's baguettes, for Germans it's maybe sauerkraut or schnitzel. For Russians it's dill. They put dill on almost everything, all of the time, everywhere: salad, soup, main course. You cannot get away from dill. The only place we found a meal without dill was in Murmansk at McDonalds. It was the best meal in our whole time in Russia. We were not a fan of the food. None of us came away from a meal saying "wow, that was delicious!".

Last but not least, the roads. Well, I need not say more. You saw the pictures for yourself.

The three things that Russia had going for it, from my perspective, were gas prices (1/2 of what they are in Germany, yeah), vodka, and service. Anything to do with service and they excel. They aren't necessarily friendly about serving a meal, for instance, but they are efficient. We had our laundry done twice on that long journey through Russia and both times everything went off without a hitch; fast, inexpensive and well done.

I was glad and thankful for having the opportunity to visit a country that, only a short time ago, was inaccessible to westerners. Glad and thankful aside, I will never ever go back. It is definitely off of my bucket-list.