Friday, August 8, 2008

RU - St Petersburg, Pushkin

The day began with a dreary start: rain was hurtling down from the sky and clouds spelled “doom” from above. Well OK, so it was just a light-gray and an Irishman might only call it a light rain; but it was still not quite the start we were hoping for with a day planned for the outdoors.

After breakfast, we caught the Metro out toward its terminus, then a bus to Pushkin, and then a marshrutka to Catherine Palace. I have a feeling we complicated things a bit more than we had to, as the station we took the Metro to was not the station my guidebook recommended, which means that I don’t think we should have had to take the bus, but ahh well I wasn’t leading the way. I’ll let the natives take the helm, even though I’ve since become well aware that navigation may not be their best asset.

The queue to enter Catherine Palace was about 20 or 30 minutes long, which wasn’t particularly shabby. Inside, I can certainly admit that it was impressive. I’ve now been in palaces belonging to the Habsburgs, the Catholic Church, and a whole slew of European dynasties… even a Japanese dynasty; and I can say that this palace could very well be among the top. When it comes to covering rooms with precious metal, I am not easily impressed; but some of these rooms managed to impress me.

The highlight of the palace is a room called the Amber Room. Why is it called the Amber Room? Because the walls are adorned with amber. Lots and lots of amber. Now when I was reading in my guidebook about this room, it kind of insinuated that while impressive, it’s not quite as impressive as it’s hyped up to be. Personally, when I saw it, I was certainly impressed… it was so much more beautiful than all the photos make it appear to be. Photos on postcards and souvenir booklets back in the palace gift shops made the room seem like a hodge-podge of browns, oranges, and reds; but in-person, the room was truly a beautiful blend of ambers. The detail on some of the pieces was remarkable. It really is a must-see.

At the end of the tour, we exiting into a room which had a couple coffee vending machines. Anastasia and Svitlana combed through their change and came up short – a particular predicament since the machine wasn’t accepting paper money. I gave them all of my coins, but they came up two rubles short. Assuming I have my math correct at this late hour, then at about 23 rubles per dollar: they were about 8.5 cents short.

They asked at the various gift shop counters if they could exchange a paper bill for coins, but the clerks were demanding a 4 ruble commission. Yeah, that’s the lingering Soviet mentality for you, making itself felt in the new capitalist world. We tried putting bills into other machines, but of the two remaining machines: one was off and the other also wouldn’t accept them. We tried asking passing people to exchange, but none would have any part of it.

Back when Anastasia dropped her phone into the canal, we stood there a good 15 minutes just staring at it. I was ready to call it quits and concede its doom, even though it was clearly visible just 3 meters away. However, the girls were determined to get that phone back, and they did. This quest for coffee was the exact same situation: I grew quickly bored of it all and just couldn’t comprehend how they could spend about 15 minutes trying to get 2 more rubles to get a tiny cup of vending machine coffee.

I wandered off to make yet another tour about the gift shops, just to stare at the shiny gemstones once again. I’d say about another 5 minutes, I returned and voila: they had their coffee. I’m not sure how they did it, but they succeeded. Looking at the size of that tiny cup, I couldn’t help but laugh inside at how desperate that craving must have surely been.

Exiting into the gardens, the rain was just beginning to come to an end, though the clouds were still graying the sky quite thoroughly. We walked toward the lake and up to a café, where Svitlana began tossing some bread to the pigeons. Next thing I knew, this was turning into a feast for the birds. I seriously think those birds were imbibing more food than many of the world’s children.

Anastasia soon joined in, and soon both girls had a flock of pigeons all around them. I had visions of the both of them, 40 years from now, sitting on a park bench tossing bird seed to the pigeons…. Ahh, the “pigeon lady” that one can always find in every park. I must admit it was amusing, though, especially when they started holding the food out in their hand, which caused the pigeons to fly up and land on their hands, on their arms, and in Anastasia’s case: the white pigeon really seemed to like trying to land on her head.

Some passers-by stopped to take pictures of the girls, and a little girl dressed in pink also began tossing little pieces of bread to the birds. After grabbing a bit of chow for myself (sausages!), I tossed my own piece of bread not to the pigeons; but to the ducks. Everyone likes them mallards – they’re much better than pigeons. Plus, my ducks had… DUCKLINGS!!! They were awesome ducklings, too. I could only get one to be brave enough to eat right out of my hand, though, and it only worked twice. Each time the mother seemed to express her disapproval. There was another female adult nearby which would periodically bite at the ducklings in an attempt to get to the food – also drawing mama’s wrath.

The walk continued around the lake, and by the time we finished the circuit: blue sky had begun to be the dominant hue. It ultimately became a lovely day for a stroll around the extensive gardens, though the back side was unfortunately closed for reconstruction work.

Toward the end of our time in Pushkin, Anastasia got a message on her phone that Russia had declared war on Georgia. I’ve been keeping tabs on Russian-American relations since well before I ever left the USA, so that means I’ve been trying to follow the situation in South Ossetia (sort-of a part of Georgia) for several months now. Well, tensions flared when Georgia moved their military into South Ossetia to suppress the rebels; and Russia immediately moved in to support the rebels. War was only confined to South Ossetia, but it was still war.

Returning to St. Petersburg, we again split ways and I went solo to the other side of the river. Getting off the Metro station, I was hoping to head toward the botanical gardens. However, it took me three tries before I finally got myself on the right street. Here is where I need to define “lost”, since earlier I said that this is among the easiest cities to navigate. “Lost” means you have no idea where you are, have no idea where you’re going, have no idea how to get back to where you were, and are at a complete loss of any options other than to continue aimlessly on. I don’t get lost; I just temporarily travel along less-efficient paths.

It was Russia’s lack of easy-to-see streetnames which caused me to go the wrong way; and it was actually St. Petersburg’s easy-to-navigate layout which helped me realize each time that I was not on the correct path. I knew I was supposed to reach a canal bridge not far from the Metro station, so when my first two tries didn’t lead me to any bridge; I’d turn back and try again. The Metro station lets you off at a 6-point intersection with all directions looking the exact same, so it took a bit of trial and error.

The botanical gardens were closed, so I walked along the perimeter to try and espy any reason why I should try and get there tomorrow morning. From the fence, none of it seemed too mind-blowing. Perhaps the interior was a lot better, I do not know; but I’ll happy think it isn’t just so I don’t feel like I missed anything. I made my way back to the rivers and followed a path more akin to what I wanted to do that night I ended up being really late with meeting Svitlana.

My route took me by a large mosque, then to the fortress (though it was closed by this time), then back to our side of the river, to the eternal flame, and then I went and sat down at a riverfront café for an hour to watch the world go by. Our rendezvous time was 1am at the front of the Hemitage – right at the big tower on the main plaza. This time around, I was right on time – actually a bit early. We got back together and, for the second time, watched the bridges open up.

This time we watched the first from afar, since we saw that one a couple nights earlier. Our focal point was on the second bridge, and when that opened: we watched the third go, too. The barges came flowing through, and one of them was particularly interesting as it had a whole bunch of massive cylinders with pointed ends. The cylinders almost looked like stubby silos, but the pointed ends looked like missile points. I really have no idea what they were, but it did make me ponder something… with the outbreak of war earlier in the day, I wondered if any of these ships may now be carrying cargo specifically geared toward the war effort? I could be seeing things moving along the river which may have never before been seen by an American citizen’s eyes… once again, memories of the Cold War came flashing back, and it just felt neat to be able to see this infrastructure in action.

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