Since this trip is winding down, here are some observations about Russia, and traveling here. There is so much here, perhaps I need two of these “things”.
First, I should have studied the Cyrillic alphabet a bit more before coming. My Swiss friend, Michael, said he took ten Russian language classes back home in Zürich to prepare. The downside however, is that upon hearing him, they think he is completely fluent, and talk so fast that he cannot understand them anyway.
Second, always have your hotel business card, or destination written in Russian, just in case.
Third, make sure your tour operator knows where you are the entire trip.
And never, never assume that cabbies know where they are going. Yesterday (Thursday), mine took me to the wrong station, causing me to miss my scheduled train. I then paid another cabbie 1500 RU to get to the correct station. I arrived in Peter rather late, 9pm, still light, but not many cabs around since I must have been one of the last trains to arrive from Moscow. So, another 2000 RU, making it a total of about 5000 RU yesterday, or about $150 USD just for cabs.
The lesson is not so much about getting led astray. It is about having lots of Rubles in your pocket, and a few bottles of water. My mouth got very dry as we raced through downtown Moscow traffic trying to make my scheduled train. Parts of the city look quite Soviet!
Cabbies everywhere behave the same way. They have rules of their own. They all reek of cigarettes. They hang out together outside of transportation hubs until some “tourist” comes along. It is the same the world over! Oh, and they have many female cabbies here, called “cabbie-bushkas”, not really.
People still ask me where I am from. I have taken to joking with them now, or ask them where they think I am from. Of course, still great shock when I answer with California, San Francisco, USA, or America. They think TOKYO!!!!
Despite language issues, most Russians (mostly the younger ones) are friendly, and at least try to help. The lesson for you: Back home, always stop and help someone with a map in their hands! I have been doing this for the last few years, and I know it is greatly appreciated!!!!
Breakfast at most hotels is a strange collection of food, meant I am guessing to appeal to all travelers. This morning, we had the usual juice, coffee, tea, and toast. They also served two types of eggs, hard-boiled Russian, and sunny side up California. They also had a spread of salami, cheese, yogurt, and various cereals. And with every meal here, a plate of tomatoes with no taste, and cucumbers with a little bit of taste. I go for the cereal and yogurt with diluted coffee.
The coffee requires some work. I usually just add some extra hot water to make it palatable. Or I just use my Starbucks instant coffee packets, which have been great on this trip. Plus the young Russians really like anything from the US or the Starbucks name.
Hark! I know why the “kevorka” was needed for Cosmo Kramer on the Seinfeld episode where George was joining the Russian Orthodox Church! On a scale of ten, Kramer did not stink as bad as most Russians. He had to create a stink to scare away the nun who was having an affair with him.
The revelation is this: Russian men almost everywhere stink of BO, yes body odor!!!! No wonder Kramer was so appealing to the young nun. I was in the Hermitage most of the morning and realized the BO was everywhere. Then I took a 90 minute cruise on the Neva River. Same, perhaps only worse, since they were allowed to smoke on the boat.
Moving on to other subjects, the Russian people must behave poorly at traffic signals. They have military personnel at each crosswalk to make sure pedestrians abide by the lights and signals.
We finally know why the chicken crossed the road, right? So, why does the Russian go to Egypt or Turkey? Because no visa is required.
Speaking of wearing a uniform, they LOVE wearing camouflage here. Did I say LOVE!!!! Whether it is the guy removing snow from the sidewalks of the hotel, or just some guys out for an evening of revelry, they love camouflage, in all colors, especially Russian blue. And it goes well with a sport coat, I see.
So, since Irkutsk, I notice that Russian women wear lots of nylon stockings, particularly the black colors. Could it be the cold weather, or is it a fashion statement? I will try to find out from my guide. If they are going to wear a mini skirt, what is the point of bad hose? I found out why! It is the dress code in most offices! Glory be to the people who make nylon hose, they are still making a fortune in Russia. (See that Mike?)
Lots of cruise ship people here in Peter. The Neva River connects to the Black Sea via the Gulf of Finland. Why did they end up in MY little café? They said the cruise lines are really careful with disease, practically sterilizing them each time they re-board!!! Sounds like fun.
I would not worry too much about Putin. By the time he leaves office, the mortality rate for men will be down to about 30 years of age. This, due to both excessive smoking and drinking. The Russian women are not far behind. Was it Rome that decayed from within? So, too this seemingly forward thinking country.
The warm weather has brought everyone out of hiding. The beaches are just packed with sun bathers. The parks are full of families and people just enjoying the warmth. Too hot for me, as it reached about 45 degrees C today. But good for drinking cold beer or champagne. And it is legal to walk around with open alcohol.
As I have moved westward, more Russians speak English. And I have encountered more travelers who speak English as well. The eastern side, Siberia, and the Pacific coast are really not big for tourism yet, I have discovered. Most people are rather surprised when I tell them I started in Vladivostok.
My Swiss friend is still in Moscow. He has experienced a few scams, both in night clubs as well as with an unscrupulous tour guide. I offered him mine, but he had already secured her services when we last discussed it a few days ago. And he nearly had a train issue as well.
Here is a revelation: Perhaps traveling alone, this far from home, can present a problem, if one gets ill or injured. The Aussie group had one of their group encounter an eye problem, a detached retina they think. Fortunately, they received help from Intrepid, their tour operator, and the Australian Embassy somewhere out in Siberia.
The lesson: always buy the travel insurance. Repeat, always buy the travel insurance. As I get older, I realize that it is going to happen to me or someone I know. Just be prepared.
They have some strange habits here, besides lack of a shower. The men seemed to have perfected the Bermuda shorts look with the sport coat. Of course, these guys are among those who shower daily, for the most part. It was also bad on the trains, when the stench of BO was combined with cheap cigarettes.
Who makes a pie out of salmon? The Russkies, that’s who. They make a pie out of anything, including cabbage, meat, veggies, onion, and just plain bread dough. No wonder they are all so pleasantly plump!!!
It does not get dark here. It looks like about 7pm back home, on a constant basis. I wonder if they have sleep issues like the Eskimos in Alaska, and the people in Maine? It results in a significant increase in mental health disorders and alcoholism, if you did not already know.
Note on old Russian ladies traveling together. They are loud and obnoxious, much like old German or Spanish female travelers. Why? Never mind, now I know why the husbands (if there are any) stayed home!!! I am beginning to appreciate America more and more on this trip!
For you single guys, Russia has some advantageous numbers for you. My guide said there are three eligible women for each guy. And she said most guys have inadequacy issues! Imagine that? I told her it was about the same in the Bay Area where I live.
My guide said she was working for clients who were attending Putin’s economic conference here in Peter. It must have been good money for her and other guides who speak multiple languages. The two fancy hotels were quite busy as I walked by that morning.
I have done quite a bit of walking. But the streets are old, and a mix of cobblestone, old brick, and something else of total chaos and disproportion. But rain cooled things down immensely. Thank you to the rain gods!
I could get accustomed to the sidewalk café culture, people watching, and slow dining. We should take more time back home for a leisurely dinner. I told my guide that we are always in a hurry, for one reason or another. Why?
I asked my guide about the gay lesbian issue. She insists there are very few! I said they have taken over San Francisco and other cities in the U.S. She also thought most were very unhappy people, if I am reading between the lines accurately.
So, there you have my take on Russian sub culture and habits. It has been an interesting three weeks here. Would I recommend that you visit? I will answer that in a few weeks, after I get home and have a better perspective!