Simon Poultney - stories from his trip
to Russia in October 2003
In September 2003 Simon went to Lithuania for a four-month Study Abroad Program at the Lithuanian Christian College in Klaepedia on the Baltic coast. The program was organized through his university - Trinity Western - and was mostly for the cultural experience and not a language issue. Part of the experience included some trips in the local countries and an extended one to Moscow and St Petersburg.
These writings were taken from e-mails that Simon sent to us. They are unedited and represent Simon's unique style of writing in detailing his personal experiences during this journey - enjoy ! To see some more photographs of his trip click here.
I am home, well back from Russia that is, and boy I am glad to
be back. The past 10 days have been some of the most hectic and stressful times
in my life, visiting Russia with a large group is now not my idea of a fall
break. Early last Saturday (October 25th) morning we left on a bus bound for
Riga, Latvia where we were to catch a train to Moscow. It was blowing snow
outside and was about minus 4, not too cold for me but many were complaining as
we loaded our stuff into the bus. Already I could see this was going to be
stressful, most guys had packed just our backpacks, but many of the girls were
bringing twice the stuff for a week in Russia than I brought to Lithuania. One
girl even had one of those huge, black, rolling monstrosities you know 4 foot
high and 2 foot wide. I joked right away about the fact that everyone was going
to know we were Americans now. The bus to Riga was pretty uneventful, we were
all excited to get off and get on the overnight train to Moscow. We had plenty
of space since one of the Hawaiian girls on our trip had come down with some
sort of virus (she's okay now) before we left and two other girls, one her
Hawaiian friend and the other a girl from California had opted to stay with her.
It was sad that they couldn't come but it later proved to be a blessing.
After a short delay at the Lith/Lativian border due to weather conditions we were on the train to Moscow. The cabs were similar to the Zimbabwe trains we took to Bulawayo, however one small difference, no ventilation was available as no windows would open, nor was there any sort of AC. I was in a room with Jurij and Edward our two Russian speaking male interns and my friend Dave from Chicago whom I've got to know since I've been in Lith. We enjoyed a few beers together to help us sleep but during the night it was so hot I hardly slept, it didn't help that I was excited, and that our night was interrupted by the Russian border crossing. Luckily we had the interns in our cab, otherwise I would have been clueless, Russians check everything if they find out you are American in any sense of the word. They storm in with flashlights, lift up seats and pillows, rifle through bags on a whim and just make you feel rather unpleasant about your whole arrival into their country. I expected a little bit of harassment, but not the extent which we received.
The next morning at around 8 we arrived in Moscow tired from the night on the train. I felt okay, I had had little sleep for the past two nights but my excitement kept me happy, Russia was a mysterious place ready for some exploration for my inquisitive mind. As we walked down the train slab, giant suitcases rolling along in the snow and loud, boisterous Americans commenting on everything I wished I was not with a large group, especially this one. Thanks to a few people in noisy ski jackets toting coffin sized luggage, we stuck out like sore thumbs, of course we were Americans. However I was dressed very European, I had bought a new black wool coat and scarf for the trip, at best I could pass for a Slavic Lithuanian, but I definitely looked British. And many of my friends, Brandon, Kevin and Mike especially, were very sensitive of themselves and as such came off as Europeans. But when we were in the big group there was one label for us, Dirty Capitalist Americans. I knew the week would be one of horror for me. I do well in Lithuania now; I'm often mistaken as someone from here even by natives and other tourists we encounter. On the streets and in stores I am invisible if I keep my mouth shut and mumble what little Lithuanian I know. I like that a lot, but I could see that the week in Russia spent with this crew would be close to a nightmare.
Once in the train station we used a series of underground tunnels to connect to the metro subway system. Moscow's underground is one of if not the most extensive in the world. We took an escalator down to the bottom tracks that was half a mile long. Immediately I was in awe of this creation, the metro system is so far underground that there are two to three levels in which the trains can run. The lower tracks are miles below surface. The trains are ridiculously cramped, we all had are luggage which annoyed everyone around us but luckily we only had one stop to bear before we could rise back to land. Once on the streets the cold hit us again, it was around -1 but many were complaining and we had to wait as additional jackets, hats and scarves were pulled from various levels inside stuffed suitcases, we had to trudge only a few city blocks to our hostel but the cold was already too much for many to bear. As you know I have a jack in the box type patience and this situation was winding me up at a furious rate. "It's Russia for God's sake" I said (or something to that extent), "I told you to dress warm". Once we got to our hostel we crowded into the small common room while we waited to get our rooms. The same articles that were pulled out at the metro we stuffed back into to luggage as people complained of the heat in the little room. I was glad when we got our rooms and were allowed to rest for two hours before our first excursion. During our break our passports were taken because all visitors to Russia are required to register in each city they are in.
At around twelve the group split up, Praise the Lord!, I chose the group with the least Californian girls in it which was also the group with my friends in it and the male interns. Our first goal was to change our money; we were given an addition 100USD stipend for the trip as Moscow is one of most expensive cities in the world. After some hassle doing that, money is hard to change for a good rate without passports the next step was getting some food. We took a metro to the Red Square and went to the shopping mall at the heart of the city. After looking around at the prices at the food court we chose to go in a small Russian cafe for our first substantial meal of the day. It was horrible, actually Russian food is horrible in general, greasy mystery meat, potatoes and pancakes slathered with sour cream is the main dish and I soon discovered that my culinary experience in Lithuania would not be found in the Motherland. But I was hungry and ate knowing that I would pay for my gastronomic sins later in gassy-tro-nomic output. After our lunch/ dinner we wondered around the streets for a bit, I was upset to find out that due to Chechen terrorists the Red Square was blocked off to the public along with the parts of the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb. That evening we were to go to the ballet. It was the story of Cassnova, a Russian favorite. The ballet wasn't that entertaining but the auditorium was marvelous to be in, Granny Rita would be beside herself if she could see the way this place was laid out. Giant gold balconies, huge chandeliers, beautiful ceilings and crushed velvet upholstery and drapes. I was upset that my camera was not allowed in the building, which is also a Russian standard which annoys me. I enjoyed the music and the chance to use my Japanese with the flocks of Japanese business men.
After the ballet we split up for a walk back to the hostel and picked up some beer and vodka for our celebration of the first night in Russia. I would have rather got some food, but Moscow has a surprising lack of restaurants and I ate a bag of chips for dinner. We had a wild night; I managed to have a healthy dose of vodka unlike some of my friends and enjoyed being a little buzzed up in our room on the twelfth floor overlooking the bad end of the city. I still couldn't believe I was in Russia! The next day we got up at ten, some a little more headsore than others and prepared for the rest of our time in Moscow.
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Our first stop the second day in Moscow was for food, we had
eaten a light breakfast but after the long walk to the Metro from the hostel and
the trip back to Moscowís main square most of us were ravenous again. We were on
the way to the Kremlin, which from what I thought was just one building but
later I discovered it was much more than that, itís a giant fortress with
parliament buildings and churches and armories etc. We stopped on the way for
Russia pancakes and pretzels on the street, my pretzel was so gross I fed it to
the little chickadee type birds and a one legged pigeon. Once inside the
Kremlin, after security checks and much price haggling with our crafty tour
guide we spent four hours walking its streets in the cold, pausing only to warm
up as we looked inside the various Churches inside the Kremlin. They were
beautiful places, but they were just museums, no longer places of worship. Some
even had gift shops and little babushkas which hawked their trinkets like the
moneychangers that boiled Jesusí blood. I could not feel God inside those
places. The rest of the Kremlin is very nice, exquisite architecture but it was
overcast so I took a very few pictures, the sun came out rarely in Russia so my
pictures are sparse. After the tour of the Kremlin we went to another museum and
wandered around some of the exhibits, itís just your typical place, but they had
a great Greek section with a replica of the David statue and also a collection
of National Geographic pictures by Russian photographers over the years. But by
then most of us were feverish with hunger so we didnít last too long. I knew I
was hungry but I also knew that there was no way in all of hell I was going to
eat Russian food again. So I broke a vow and went to McDonalds, itís been four
years since Iíve had a Big Mac, usually I just have fries. Russian McDís is the
craziest place in Russia. You line up to get your food for ten minutes (you have
to buy ketchup and straws!), get your tray of food and stand around it as
someone holds it so you can gobble it down. Sometimes there is a table free, but
you have to wait up to twenty minutes for one, or you just split up and join a
table of people. Very often I would sit with a Russian family just so I could
rest my legs and eat. Russian McDonalds is disgusting, but itís better than
Russian food. I ate there a total of nine times sometimes twice a day. We didnít
have time to eat much in Russia and we were usually in tourist trap areas so
McDís was the cheapest place costing around the same as Canada. Once I had some
pizza at an Italian restaurant but I spend around 15 Euros on it. Restaurants as
we know them, donít exist in Russia or else there expensive and sin. McDonalds
was my savior, Iíd never thought Iíd say that, but I hope I never eat there
After McDonalds we headed back to the hostel to have a quick rest and gather our bags. Our train to St. Petersburg left at 12:45am. It was a much nicer train than the one we had taken into Russia, mainly because of its cleanliness and ventilation, and we got to sleep thru the night without getting disturbed by border control.
Once we arrived in Petersburg we walked to our hostel, left our bags and had a bit of rest. My room wasnít ready yet so I slept in a bed sideways between Kevin and Brandon. At 11;30 the group split in half and we went with two guides for a walking tour of the city. It was bitter cold outside even for me and the wind was raging, chilling us all to the bone. My lips were as dry as dust, and three of my finger cuticles were bleeding. Nevertheless I enjoyed the five hour walking tour of St. Petersburg well almost, the city is an overload as it is, and we went everywhere. Peter and Paul fortress, the parliament buildings, the winter castle, the Church of Spilt Blood the list goes on, stopping for five minutes at dozens and dozens of places. It was too much to see and definitely too much to process. I would have like more to slow it down and see less. But thereís always next time. By the end of the tour it was 5:00, I had only eaten a hard bagel all day and had been out in the cold. Needless to say I was ravenous, and we went to a Russian cafť for dinner/lunch. That was a mistake, I ordered what I was told was soup (goulash) and a steak (meat loaf), it was disgusting but I ate, McDonalds beckoned but I would have to wait until tomorrow. After eating we all were expected at an Opera as part of the program. I donít know what happened during it because I was asleep. All I know is that the building was exquisite and it had comfortable seats. I zonked out cold, many of us did, waking up only between acts and for occasional high notes. I felt rather ashamed at my lack of interest in such a cultural experience but I could not suppress my pressing circadian rhythms after such a long day. After the 3 and half hour show it was close to 11 and again everyone was hungry as wolves. Despite our lack of energy we almost sprinted the 12 city blocks to Pizza Hut which closed five minutes before we arrived, our only option was to drag our feet back 4 blocks to McDís where we could grab a quick snack before its impending closure at 12.
The next morning Wednesday we woke up at 10:00 and had a good hostel breakfast. Toast and jam with tea, cereal and hardboiled eggs, by far the best hostel food weíve had. Our trip that day was museums, The Hermitage which is the worldís biggest collection of art pieces, built for Catherine the Great as a place of refuge. I can tell you more about its history upon my return. Before the Hermitage a select group went to the Abnormalities Museum, which is a collection of oddities collected by Peter I in an attempt to culture his people. The first exhibits we nothing special, just collections of Oriental culture, apparently their way of life was rather abnormal in the eyes of the Russians. But in the heart of the museum is where the sick stuff is. Thousands of deformed babies in jars, some with two heads, some with two faces on one head, some with teeth and tumors and God knows what else. If Iíd had Russian food in my stomach I would have been liable to vomit a little, the whole place smelled a bit like formaldehyde. There were also two headed calves and early drawings of autopsy patients. I bought a photo pass and I would have pictures but the Russians took away my camera before entering that specific room, you can only take photos in the still life mannequin phases. Next it was on to the Hermitage, the hugest place ever. Again it was an overload, but we spent around 5 hours in there, thereís too much to see let alone write to you about. I did enjoy the section on contemporary modern work. After the Hermitage we went to McDonalds again, I resented being there but was so hungry I didnít care. We had a good night after that just walking the streets and had an early night. In Russia you always need one of your major physical needs met, either you are tired and need sleep, or youíre hungry and need food, or youíre bursting and need a toilet (which you have to pay to get in and often they are just squatty potties) or youíre cold and need warmth or you can be experiencing any of the following simultaneously. So it was nice to have a relaxing night.
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The next day (Thursday) was our free day, finally a chance to
escape the annoying large group scenario we had faced most of the trip.
Petersburg is easy to get around, if youíre a tourist the only worthwhile place
to know is the main street, which encompasses most of the city is the connection
to everything, our hostel was just of the main square by the central train
station. Five of the guys and myself after a nice lie in, got up and went for a
walk, it was finally our chance to explore on our own, and it was the first time
we didnít have a Russian speaking intern with us. We were supposed to let the
interns have a break. Unfortunately Liga, one of our interns got stuck taking a
troop twelve girls around (including the three ditzy Californians) the city by
herself! Later she told us she spent half the day looking for toilets and the
other half trying to lose the girls whose shopping habits proved an awful
affliction. I did not envy her situation and asked her how in all of Godís green
acres she survived being the mother of 12 tourist Americans in Russia (that
would be my own personal Hell). As Iíve already said the city is ridiculously
easy to get around but the girls were too scared to go on there own! Brandon and
I felt so sorry we bought her a bottle of vodka later that night. But anyways
back to my day, we spent the day meandering around the streets taking it easy,
popping in and out of shops and spending as much time as we could sitting in
One of the stores we found was a weapon and hunting store. This place was every slack jawed Albertanís heaven. Besides all the taxidermy, the stuffed cougars, white tigers, grizzly bears and lynxís, huge butterfly knives, samurai swords, illegal assault rifles, Soviet AK47ís, Armalite AR-180 carbine gas operated semiautomatics and every handgun know to mankind littered the stores massive glass cases. The only drawback besides the guns hefty price tags was the fact that if you wanted to purchase ammo for your gun and go on a rampage to aid Liga in her quest of ridding the world of whiny American girls, you would have to go to another part of town to the Black Market and haggle with a gritty Russian man in his native tongue. Later on the night I wished I had bought something at least to end my miserable life (only jokes for narrative purposes, donít think Iím suicidal or a psychopath, I just have an imagination), we had to meet with the group again and head off for a Russian folk dancing night. It was held at an old manor built in the 1700ís, the place was again exquisite, large wrapping balconies and mezzanines, high ceilings, polished wood everywhere, really really fancy place. And despite my poor expectations the performance was actually entertaining, much more so than the ballet and the opera I had endure just days before. It started with the band introducing themselves, the leader came our and started to play this giant accordion, then he was brought a smaller one, and a smaller one, until he had on that was so small it was barely squeaking out a tune. Then he whipped out a huge saw stuffed it between his legs and played the straight edge with a cello bow! It was the most beautiful sound Iíve heard a saw make (after my summers at Spruceland I know saws), the wavering metal producing notes that seemed to oscillate throughout the entire auditorium. Next the folk dancers came on; big athletic guys threw small wasted women around and sort of break danced and backflipped there way around. Squats and kicks and cartwheels and splits, similar to Ukrainian dancing Iíve seen on TV clips. I was really a marvel to watch. During the intermission we got to gobble caviar biscuits and gulp champagne, I was hungry and thirsty (as always while in Russia) and enjoyed more than my fair share of both beverage and entrťe.
After the show we went out for food, it was late and again McDicks was the only place open for business, this time I discovered that chicken salad could be purchased for a nominal fee, till then the only thing we could read was the words Big Mac and McFeast, the only reason I discovered this is because I saw a girl get one before me. I had problems ordering it; I had to say cold vegetables before they understood I wanted ďsal-ladĒ, but no problems ravenously devouring it. That night I slept well because I knew the next day would be our last and weíd have to be a large group for travels.
I got up early on Friday and ate breakfast at the hostel, eggs and bread again, I made bread cereal with milk and sugar much to the dismay of some of the people around. I told them it was British and that they should shut-up or try it themselves, I wasnít that harsh but again narrative purposes come into play. After breakfast just me and Dave and Jurij (pronounced Yuri) went to a coffee shop and relaxed there for a few hours and did some reading. I then walked alone to the souvenir market to get some goodies, none which can be mentioned specifically as they will be delivered around Christmas time. I tried to stay away from the typical Russian mass produced stuff which weíve seen from Anthony and got a couple neat trinkets for a few rubles. By then it was close to our departure and I met up with some of the guys again for McDís again. We went back to the hostel grabbed our gear.
In Russia it is customary if you need a taxi to just flag down any random person and pay them a few rubles for a ride to your destination, itís usually a lot cheaper than a regular licensed taxi. This was a custom I did not partake in, ever, I just didnít trust it. The train back to Riga was at a different station and it was quite the walk, and also a long metro ride. So to save money and our shoulders, Vilma (our trip coordinator) flagged down a three ďtaxisĒ to take everyoneís luggage. I told her Iíd rather carry my backpack than have it disappear. But she assured me and everyone else that it would be alright because they we sending one the interns in each car. I still said my bag was staying on my back which it did I just had a weird feeling, I told everyone that and most of the guys with packs did the same. Anyways long story sort, we arrive at the station and Melissa (a girl from Minnesota) doesnít have her bag. The driver had slipped hers into the trunk, and Yuri the intern that was with the car wasnít around when the luggage was loaded, so didnít know what had to be unloaded. So some stinking Russian has a digital camera, a thousand dollars worth of clothes and souvenirs. Luckily her passport was on her and she could leave the country. However I was furious, because I had told Vilma that we had all spent thousands coming here and she could have sprung for licensed taxis. I mean her luggage was gone, her life was in that bag because unlike some of the girls she had a practical wardrobe with her in Lith which she had brought most of to Russia and now we had no way of getting it back, not even a license plate or even a taxi number or company to call. I guess I canít really blame Vilma, her trip was stressful organizing a bunch of kids, and she thinks different trying to save money when she can but still Melissa had lost all her stuff. I was just glad I kept my bag on because that was the car my stuff would have gone into.
We got on the train at 8:45 and made it back to Lith thru Latvia alive, which was good enough for me. Brandon and Kevin had eaten at a Russian cafť before we left and both got some weird stomach virus. Brandon was okay, heís a big Norwegian guy but Kevin paid a small visit to the dirty Infection ward of the Klaipeda hospital, we went to visit him and joked that heíd get more diseases if breathed through his mouth. But his stay was short after they gave him a big ass needle (not a big ass needle but a large needle in the ass) and a colonic he was out the next day. As for me I am fine, I survived it all without a scrape I did have dry lips for a week after, And I almost got skewered by a meter long falling icicle in St Pís. But God protected me. God Bless the Baltics. I survived a week Russia with a crew of 20 upper-middle-class Americans! How many can claim that!
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