A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Meandering around Riga


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My first - and only - full day in Riga was jam-packed and was spectacular.

I ventured out to explore some of the city after breakfast; my first goal was to locate the bus station where I'll be leaving for Rundale tomorrow. Thankfully the bus station was only about ten minutes away and quite easy to find. I next wandered over towards the national opera building. During the drive in from Tallinn, Philip and his mother mentioned that they were going to see "Madam Butterfly" at the opera tonight and I thought it sounded like a wonderful event to see. The box office didn't open until 11:00, so I spent the next hour or so walking around the nearby park area.

The park was very nice, with a lake in the middle of it; flowers were all over the place, adding some wonderful color to the park.

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After walking through the park I stumbled upon the monument to freedom, which is an impressive monument (far more so than the one in Tallinn!). There were two military guards slowing patrolling in front of the monument. After pacing back and forth several times they took up position on either side of it, with a fellow military guy off to the side monitoring them.

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I spent some more time wandering around the various parks near the city center before making my way over to Alberta iela, where there were quite a few buildings in the art nouveau style. These were some of the most impressive buildings in Riga. The town was basically rebuilt during the early 1900s, so there is little of the true old town left in the city; it does not have the medieval charm of Tallinn (the old city walls were town down in the 1860s, which I think detracted from the true old town feel). However, the art nouveau buildings were very neat to see and this particular street was lined with them. At one end of the street was the Irish embassy, housed in one of the stylish buildings.

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By this point it was time to head back to the opera box office and buy my ticket for tonight's performance. While waiting in line I ran into Philip and his mother, which was a pleasant surprise. We chatted for a few minutes while waiting in line; they were planning to take the free walking tour at noon as well, so we'd be seeing one another again shortly. I bought a ticket in the fifth row of the theater - for only EUR 18! I'd find out during the walking tour that the minimum wage in Latvia is around EUR 360 per month, with the average somewhere between EUR 600 and EUR 1,000 per month; with those salaries, it is understandable why the prices for the opera are so low (expensive by Latvian standards, cheap by mine).

The free walking tour of Riga kicked off at noon from the front of the St Nicholas church. I arrived early and took some pictures of the church, which was located less than a minute's walk from my hotel. I went in the first door of the church, but no further as they were charging admission; from what I could see of the inside, it wasn't worth the admission fee. As the group gathered for the tour, everyone from the trip from Tallinn showed up (except for Felix, the German).

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Our tour guide, Arturs, was one of the best guides that I've had on this tour. He provided a wealth of information at each one of our many stops and made the tour quite fun. Plus he was hot. Let's be honest: he was fucking hot. Yet another incredible blond Baltic guy with a killer smile. And yes, I pulled a "creeper move" and snapped a picture of him. Don't judge me. I make no apologies. Fun fact: he was also the guy who edited the free tourist map that we all received during our drive in from Tallinn.

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The walking tour didn't focus on the old town area, but on the "real" Riga that most tourists don't venture out to see. Arturs warned us that we were going into areas that may have more crime, primarily pick-pocketing. Thankfully we didn't encounter any of that. Our first stop was the local market, which was built out of five old zeppelin hangers from the First World War. There were sections for fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, fish, and other various goods. In one area we were told that some vendors were selling smuggled cigarettes from Russia.

We next made our way to an old Soviet-era building from the 1950s. It was intended as a hotel for farmers, who would be rewarded by getting to stay there, but upon completion, it was turned over to scientists; today it houses the scientific institute. It was very similar in style to buildings that I saw in both Moscow and Minsk.

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The group ventured towards the old Jewish ghetto from the 1940s, where we stopped to see an impressive church made out of wood, not stone. City laws at the time required that all buildings outside of the old town walls be built of wood so they could be burned down as a defense against attackers. We also visited the ruins of a synagogue, which was burned down with several hundred Jewish people inside. Arturs told us about the Jewish ghetto and how it was liquidated during the Holocaust: the Jews were not sent to a death camp, but rather executed in the forest nearby. There was a monument there as well to remember the efforts of Latvians to help protect the Jewish community during the Holocaust.

We headed off to the main train station for a quick break before starting to walk back to the old town area. En route we stopped to admire the beautiful Russian Orthodox church in the city.

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The tour ended at the freedom monument; the two and a half hours flew by and I found myself wishing that we could explore more of the city. I decided to grab lunch at a local restaurant called B Burgers that our guide from yesterday recommended. It was a tiny place with only a few people inside. I decided to go with a Latvian-style burger: burger with horseradish sauce, pickles, tomato. As a side I went with the soup, which was a cold beet soup (it was like a borscht). The food was quite good and very cheap - all of it, plus a drink, for only EUR 5.50!

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After lunch I explored the old town area on my own. There were several churches to see, along with some small squares and parks throughout the area. I had a pre-planned route for walking around the old town so I could see all of the top sights.

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The Three-Brothers
a trio of old style buildings in the heart of the old town

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Riga Castle
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House of the Blackheads
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I stopped by the hotel to change my clothes and prepare for the opera tonight. The show started at 19:00 and I'd made plans to meet for a pre-show drink with Philip and Aideen. I stopped by a local coffee shop to spend a few minutes reading and getting some caffeine for the evening. When we all met up outside the opera, we were all surprised to find the place nearly empty. We made our way up to the second floor bar and grabbed some drinks (they had champagne, I had red wine); we went out onto the balcony to enjoy our drinks and the amazing view of Riga.

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We spent the next hour or so chatting and drinking (I split a second glass of red wine with Aideen). We finally made our way to our respective seats and I was stunned by the interior of the theater itself.

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Madam Butterfly was spectacular! The woman playing the title role was from Japan wand was truly amazing. The rest of the cast was equally talented. The sets were from the 1920s, which gave the production and old-school feeling; they were large and elaborate and in typical Japanese style. During each of the two intermissions I met up with Philip and Aideen on the balcony; during the second intermission we grabbed a drink, though this break was far shorter than the first one. We had to rush to get back to our seats on time! After the show we all met up and walked back into the old town area, where our hotels were located. They are off to Vilnius, Lithuania tomorrow to attend a friend's wedding; I'm off to Rundale for the day tomorrow before heading to Vilnius myself on Friday.

Posted by Glichez 12:54 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Road Tripping in Estonia and Latvia


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Today was a very full day as I made my way from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia. There are several buses and trains that travel between the two cities, but I found a guided shuttle tour that makes several stops along the way; the entire tour lasts about 12 hours.

The morning was another gray and cloudy one, but there was no rain as I made my way back into the city center with my luggage. I was quite surprised by the number of people who were going on this tour; there were 16 of us in total and we were split into two groups of 8. Thankfully I ended up with the group of younger people (20s and 30s); thankfully the older crowd grouped up together. In my group was a couple from London (Tom and Jenny); a couple from the States, but who live in London (Albert and... I forget her name); a guy from Germany (Felix); and a mother and son from Dublin (I forget their names). Albert is from Seattle as well and he went to school at Duke, though he enjoyed NC and the South.

After a 2-hour drive, we made our first stop in the charming village of Viljandi, where we got to explore the ruins of an old castle. The ruins were nestled in a forest area with a river running behind it. It was really nice to get to explore the area. I was amazed that the ruins were sitting out in the open, no efforts to maintain their integrity, no barriers to prevent people from climbing all over them; this would hold true for all ruins in Estonia and Latvia that we saw.

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Our second stop was only about 40 minutes away in the town of Helme. We saw some more stone ruins here as well before making our way down to an old limestone cave. The "cave" was really just a large hallowed out area with another room next to it; there was a smaller tunnel that led deeper into the cave (one would have to crawl on all 4s to go through the tunnel). The cave used to extended far deeper, but large sections have collapsed.

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Our final stop in Estonia was at a bizarre museum in Valga that focused on the military of the Soviet era. On display were several uniforms, guns, and various adds and ends. It was a small museum and we walked through it in about ten minutes before heading outside, where there were several old military vehicles on display (army trucks, small tanks, a helicopter). Our guide mentioned that some people rent out the space for weddings, which surprised us all. The highlight of the museum was a recreation of a forest hideout that was used after the Second World War by the Estonians who fought against the Soviets. It was a wooden bunker buried underground with some bunk-beds, which the museum lets people rent out and stay overnight in!

We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch as well. I had a delicious roast duck with cabbage with a local beer; for dessert I had white chocolate creme brulee. By this point it was 15:30 and the food gave us all some much needed energy. After lunch we crossed the border into Latvia (the town of Valga is on the border).

Up first in Latvia was Sietiniezis, where we got to explore some spectacular limestone cliffs. We drove into the national park, which was very beautiful: trees and greenery surrounded us. We had to hike a bit into the park to reach the cliffs, avoiding the large puddles of water and patches of thick mud (the rain had come and go throughout the day, but somehow we were lucky enough to avoid the rain at each of our stops). The path led us up and down along the cliffs, which people had carved their names into. Another interesting feature of the cliffs are numerous small holes burrowed into them by bees: the bees burrow in, leave their nectar and then leave; often wasps come in and start living in the holes.

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Another 20 minute drive and we stopped in the town of Cesis. This town was very quiet and seemed almost abandoned as we didn't really see many people. There was a very nice manor house nestled in among some castle ruins. This castle, like the others, was destroyed and abandoned during the Great Northern War between Imperial Russia and Sweden in the early 1700s.

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The sixth and final stop was at the bobsled track in Sigulda. The track itself is a replica of the track that was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo; the track is still used and the Russian team even uses it for training. During the summer months, tourists can ride a sled on wheels; during the summer one can ride and actual bobsled. We went to the top level, where the men's teams start from, and then walked down on the track itself. It sounds silly, but we were all blown away by getting to see something like this up close - and especially getting to go out and walk on the track itself (and not the path running along the track).

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We finally reached the old town area of Riga just after 21:00 (right on time!). Thankfully my hotel was only a five minute walk away from our drop off point. The room I have is quite large, with a separate kitchen area and sleeping area. I dropped off my luggage and then headed back out to grab a quick bite to eat for dinner.

Posted by Glichez 12:00 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Tallinn in the Rain


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Today was the first crappy weather day of my trip, which is rather remarkable considering that I’ve been gone for 26 days now. The day was cloudy and overcast – my ideal weather. However, not the best weather for sightseeing.

My plan for today was to take two free walking tours around different parts of town, but that fell through when I noticed that they do not run on Mondays. Thankfully there was still the regular free city walking tour at noon, which left me with both the morning and afternoon to goof around. I thought to visit some of the museums in the city, but they are all closed on Mondays!

After breakfast I decided to walk around outside of the historic city center. I made my way to the Patarie, which is a former fortress on the coast that was then used as a prison until 2005. Now the building is abandoned. There is a pleasant walk along the coastline that goes right next to the prison and it was really interesting to get to see it so close. The old barbed wire fence was in disarray, graffiti was all over the walls and the windows were boarded up.

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As I was walking along the waterfront it began to rain, which put a damped on the sightseeing for the day. I made my way to the Linnahall building, which is another abandoned building. This one was built by the Soviets for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Olympics were in Moscow, right? …so why was this built for that event? Since Moscow is landlocked, several cities bid on hosting the sailing events and Tallinn won. This was built to showcase how impressive Soviet architecture was, primarily the concrete-style buildings.

It is an interesting complex, though quite an eyesore. There is a large square of sorts and several higher levels reached by stairs, all of which are outside. Plans have begun to take over the entire building, growing from between the cracks.

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My last stop before joining the walking tour was St. Olaf’s Church, which is the tallest building in Tallinn (city code forbids buildings to be any taller in order to preserve the old town feel). The tower was once the tallest building in the world – until the Eiffel Tower was built! The inside of the church was rather plain; I could have climbed the tower, but with the cruddy weather and my time restraint, I decided to pass.

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The free walking tour kicked off at noon and soon the rain began to pour down upon us. Surprisingly none of the people on the tour left early due to the weather! Our guide was fun and energetic, providing several interesting and funny stories about Tallinn and Estonia. Our first stop was to the Freedom Square where we were able to see the independence monument. Our guide explained that Estonians are rather ambivalent about the monument itself.

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We made our way into the upper town, where we saw some of the old fortifications of the city: old towers and city walls. Beneath the towers is a system of underground tunnels, which one can visit (just not on Monday).

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After trudging up a hill we saw the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church that was built when Estonia was ruled by Imperial Russia. Across the street from the church was the Estonia parliament building, where they were currently holding elections for the president!

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We made our way over to a viewing platform that provided some truly amazing views of the old town area of Tallinn. I tried to snap some selfies with my phone, but the lighting was too dark. Thankfully someone on the tour offered to take a photo for me.

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We moved on to another viewing platform, this one looking over the area that I had explored in the morning. We took the long stairs down the old city wall to reach the old town area once again. One the way down there were several quotes or sayings painted on the wall, one of which said “Games people play” and then “Ryan” in smaller letters next to it.

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Below we were shown a small monument to Boris Yeltsin in recognition of his assistance in Estonia independence during the early 1990s. It was an interesting monument made of metal with a surly-looking Yeltsin pictured (perhaps the artist was trying to make him look drunk!).

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Our final stop was at the town hall in the city center, which is in the middle of a large square surrounded by restaurants and shops.

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After the tour ended I found my way over to a small restaurant called Kompressor for lunch. This is a favorite among the locals, notably for its cheap prices and large portions. Kompressor specializes in filled pancakes and that is exactly what I ordered: a pancake with bacon and smoke cheese, along with an Estonian beer. The place was quite packed and I shared a large table with another person. The food was amazingly delicious and the portion was huge! All together the meal cost me less than EUR 7.

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By this time the rain had thankfully stopped and I spent some time wandering around the city. I walked back up to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral so I could go inside. There was no admission cost, but they did not permit picture taking. Inside it was quite ornate, with gold all over the place and several very nice paintings. There were a few people praying and lighting candles as well.

I had one other sight that I wanted to see: St Catherine’s walk, which is a walkway in an alley with several local shops along it and there were some stone arches over the walkway. It was small and rather nice to take a quick stroll down the street.

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At the end of the street I ran into a pleasant surprise: the old town city walls! There was an entrance a few meters away; I paid the EUR 3 entrance fee and made my way up to the walkway. It was cool getting to walk along the wooden walkway, looking through the arrow slits on one side and at the old town on the other side. This wasn’t something that I was aware of in the city and I was really happy to have found it.

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Finally, I decided to return to the hookah lounge that I visited my first night in Tallinn. I had finished “Ready Player One” last night and I wanted to start my next book, a history of the Crimean War. Interestingly enough, our guide on the walk today spoke briefly about the Crimean War as well: there is an area near the port that the city used to burn down when enemies would approach; during the Crimean War the city saw a French and British ship sailing by (en route to blockade St Petersburg) and they burned the area down. I spent the evening at the hookah lounge – and yes, I did get to see the hot guy working there again! :-)

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Fun tidbit: while watching TV at my hotel tonight I turned on a Russian network where they were playing the Mr Trololo song over some weird video. I feel that I’ve really experience some Soviet-style entertainment now…

Posted by Glichez 11:48 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Touring Estonia


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My plans for Tallinn and Estonia were shuffled around a bit late last week: I had booked a day tour to go outside Tallinn for 29 August, but no one else had signed up for the tour, so the company asked if I could change to the day before; happily I was able to switch my tour plans.

Today's day tour went to the coastal cliffs, the Soviet town of Paldiski, and much more! I walked back into the city center to meet up with the tour group for our departure at 10:00. The company had several tours running today and there was quite a crowd. Thankfully my tour group was small: just five of us (a couple from the Netherlands, two guys from the USA, and myself). We climbed into the shuttle van and headed off for our first stop: the Keila-Joa waterfall.

Our tour guide gave us a brief history of Estonia, during which the two Americans tried to make some funny or sarcastic remarks, along with asking some rather pointless questions. This was a trend that could continue throughout the entire tour; they fit the stereotypical image of "obnoxious American" and I was so embarrassed to be around them. Our guide was only 20-months old when the Soviet Union fell and thus she has no memories of Soviet times, yet the two idiot Americans kept asking her questions about her time in the USSR (despite her reminding them each time). Complete fools.

The Keila-Joa waterfall was... rather small, but it was in such a beautiful area, surrounded by forest. It was the second biggest waterfall in Estonia; the country is rather flat and thus they don't have many waterfalls. We took a stroll through the forest, along the small river and around to a large manor house nearby. According to our guide, during the time of the Russian Tsars, Nicholas I visited the manor house and it was there that the Tsarist anthem, God Save the Tsar, debuted.

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We got back into the bus and headed off to the coast. The cliffs were rather breathtaking and beautiful; they weren't very high, but the ruggedness of them was stunning. As we walked to the cliffs, I saw that there was simply a narrow gravel footpath that ran along the edge, no guardrails or anything to keep people from falling. Our guide jokingly reassured us that everything was perfectly safe... according to Eastern European standards!

The Americans walked out on a ledge that sloped down rather steeply; I could tell our guide was nervous because if they slipped, nothing would stop them from going over the edge. We made a short walk over to some stairs that led down to the base of the cliffs and the rocky beach below. We could then see all of the different rock layers that made up the cliffs.

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We made a stop in the former Soviet military town of Paldiski for lunch, which was at a small Russian tavern. During the Second World War, all but four buildings in the tour were bombed and destroyed; the tavern was one of those four buildings. I had some traditional Russian dumplings filled with meat, along with a beer for lunch; it was delicious and quite filling.

Our first stop after lunch was the ruins of the Padise monastery. It had been built centuries before and the monks who lived there were eventually murdered; after that it became a private residence, but it then burnt down and was never rebuilt, even during the Soviet era. Nowadays the ruins have had some repairs done and events, such as weddings, can be held there, though it is quite rustic. We got to climb around the ruins for a little bit and our guide led us to some stairs that descended into the former cellar. There were no lights, not even a window leading out, so the way down the spiral stairs eventually became pitch black and we couldn't see where we were going! It was both freaky and fun at the same time. We had only a few minutes to spend at the monastery before heading to our next stop, where we had an appointment with the jailer!

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The Murru prison quarry & lake was the highlight of the entire tour for me. It was an old prison built in 1939 and the prisoners were put to work excavating limestone in the quarry right next to it. Over the years the number of prisoners declined and the prison was eventually shuttered in 2013. After that it sat vacant and is abandoned. The old quarry has since filled with water and people now use it as a lake to go swimming. However, the authorities erected some gates to prevent locals from swimming in the lake for fear that they may get injured (our guide mentioned that people have died there); the people have found holes in the fence to get around the gates.

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our "jailer" unlocked the gates for us and we got to explore to exterior of the prison for a few minutes. There was an old guard tower that we climbed up and which afforded us a view into the prison complex. All of the buildings were slowly being taken over by nature. The guardhouse itself had caught fire and was in ruins. Across from the prison fence was a hill - the remains of the quarry.

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We made our way down to the lake, which was rather impressive. There were dozens of people there, relaxing, swimming, hanging out. The water had flooded and submerged numerous old buildings that were once part of the quarry complex. Swimmers would go out to one of the buildings, enter what used to be the third floor, which is how high the water level is now, and then they would climb to the roof of the building and dive into the water! Seeing the buildings submerged like that was somewhat beautiful.

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Our final stop of the day was at an old Soviet military cargo airplane, which was now in the hands of a private owner. It was built in the 1960s and eventually made its way to Tallinn in 1989; it was too big for Tallinn, so it was sold to the current owner. He is a model airplane enthusiast and he stores his model planes inside. Interestingly, during the Soviet era, the man was a model airplane sportsman and flew all over the USSR to compete in flying competitions. We were allowed to explore the entire airplane: enter the cockpit and play around with all of the buttons and switches, sit in the various seats, even climb a ladder to look out through the top of the airplane. We spent about 15 minutes at the plane before heading back to Tallinn.

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Everything that we saw today was very rustic and not really setup for tourism: no guardrails or warning signs, no ticket counters, etc. We just parked the bus nearby and explored on our own.

After spending some time relaxing back at my hotel, I headed out to see a late-night showing of "Suicide Squad" - thankfully shown in English with both Estonian and Russian subtitles. The movie opened the weekend I left on this trip and I'd been anxiously waiting to see it, but all of the countries I've visited thus far dub foreign films, rather than subtitle. The movie was quite good; I can't understand why it received such poor ratings. The movie ended shortly after 23:00 and I walked back through the city center to my hotel.

Posted by Glichez 07:55 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Travel Day from Hell


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The day got off to a decent start: I was up early to finish packing and have breakfast before meeting my driver for my airport transfer. The driver, Andre, was very nice and friendly; we chatted quite a bit on the way to the airport. He had spent several weeks in the State - at Myrtle Beach actually - for a study program; he regrets that he didn't have the time or money to do more traveling in the States while he was there. We talked about my trip and also about his travels throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. It was one of the best transfers that I've had on this trip.

Upon arriving at the Minsk airport (a rather small airport, but quite nice) I was alarmed to see that my scheduled flight was not on the list of departures! I was flying to Tallinn via Kiev; my flight to Kiev was due to leave at 11:20 and the departures board listed flights through 17:00, but my flight was not among them. I found an information desk to ask for help and they were equally stumped as the flight number showed up in their system as departing at 17:20; they suggested I locate the ticket office, which was in some rather remote corner of the airport. As I was walking over there I checked my flight booking on Orbitz.com and found that the times had indeed changed! I never received a notification from Ortbiz and was quite upset, but happily the change simply pushed the departure back a couple of hours (not to the 17:20 flight).

However, I was now faced with the prospect of spending a much longer time at the airport than originally planned. Rather than sitting around wasting time, I decided to work and be productive (and also to earn some money to help fund this crazy trip); I've been utilizing my travel days as work days: it lets me put the time sitting around waiting to good use! ...a perk that I am thankful to have with my current job (and one that I know I won't have when I start a new job in Chicago).

During the check in process I met two very nice Mormon missionaries, one was from Bellevue, WA and the other was from Texas. They had been in Russia for nearly two years, but ran into some major issues with their visa and had just been deported from the country! The process had been quite extensive and the Church had covered all of the legal bills with their fight to remain in Russia, but now they were on their way to Ukraine to finish out the last four months of their mission. In typical Mormon fashion, they were upbeat and happy despite everything that happened. It was really nice getting to chat with some Americans for a little while.

During check in they were unable to print my boarding pass for some unexplained reason; I waited at the ticket counter for about 15 minutes before they told me that I would have to sort it out once I arrived in Kiev! The flight to Kiev was uneventful and once we landed I headed straight for the international transfers desk. To my horror there was no one working at the counter and no customer service people around to assist me. I paced around for several minutes before locating someone; she paged someone to come and help. Several minutes went by before a guy came out to the desk; he sat there chatting on his cell phone for a little while before helping me - only to tell me that I had to wait for my airline's representative to come out! Several minutes later she finally arrived and was able to print my boarding pass without any problems.

I rushed through the security check and to the gate, where I had about 20 minutes to spare before boarding began. The flight to Tallinn was quick and painless; arrival at the airport was a breeze and I was soon waiting at the bus station for the bus to the city center. The bus was packed on the way into the city, but for EUR 2, it is the cheapest and easiest way to get into the city.

After arriving at my bus stop I walked for about 20 minutes to reach my hotel. The walk was rather pleasant and the temperature was cool, which I enjoyed. The hotel is right next to the train station (my window looks out over the train tracks) and is quite nice, though not as luxurious as my hotels in Minsk or Moscow. Being so close to the train station may sound unappealing, but the area around the train station is rather nice, with a park right across the street.

There was a map of the city in my room that listed out several restaurants and bars to visit, in typical tourist fashion. One of them caught my eye: Katusekohvik, which isa rooftop cafe that also has hookah right in the center of town. I changed clothes and headed into town and was stunned by the beauty of Tallinn. It is the most European-feeling cities that I have visited so far, with only town walls surrounding it. The streets are cobblestones and there are quaint little restaurants and cafes all over the place.

When I reached Katusekohvik, I made my way to the hookah lounge where I was helped by one of the most attractive men that I've ever met! He was a little shorter than me, blond, muscular and had a killer smile. He spoke excellent English and recommended a local beer to have with my dinner of Schnitzel. The meal was filling and the beer quite good.

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After I finished eating, I retired to a recliner chair next to a lamp to enjoy my hookah and read. I spent several hours there reading, finishing the evening having a cappuccino with my hookah. I finally left around 23:00 so I could return to my hotel and get some rest before returning to touring tomorrow.

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Sadly only the two pictures from my adventures today. I supposed I could have taken pictures of me being stressed at the airport... LOL

Posted by Glichez 13:05 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Realxing in Minsk


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For my last day in Minsk I decided to have a relaxing and easy-going day. I've decided to have one day like this every week or so in order to avoid travel burnout.

I slept in again this morning and had a relaxing breakfast. This morning I ate some chicken dish, though I can't really describe it better than that; it had some herbs on top and was about the size of a dumpling. Afterwards I relaxed in my hotel room and then went for a walk in the city. My focus today was to visit the Great Patriotic War Museum. This provided me with a nice walk through the city and along the riverfront parks again.

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This museum, focusing on the Soviet and Belarus struggle during World War II, was the first museum of its kind in the world - and it opened during the war itself! It was obviously much smaller at that time, but it has since been greatly expanded and it is one of the more interesting museums that I have visited. The museum covers several floors and chronicles the entire war. There are several artifacts from Nazi Germany and the USSR, including numerous tanks, guns, and other weapons that were used during the war. Uniforms, medals, and personal belongings of dozens of Soviet servicemen are also on display. One of my favorite weapons was an old flame thrower (see below).

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There are different exhibits about the various major battles that centered around Soviet cities (Leningrad, Stalingrad, Minsk, Kiev, etc). Most of the museums focuses on the successes of the Soviet forces that began after the Battle of Stalingrad; it ignores the near catastrophic first year and a half after Germany invaded Russia; there was one passing sentence that acknowledged this.

One of my favorite areas had several Soviet propaganda posters.

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The museum had a very moving section that focused on Nazi oppression and mass murder in Belarus; over 2 million people were kills in Belarus under the Nazi regime and the country was the site of the fourth-largest murder camp in Nazi Europe. There was a map detailing out the various cities in Belarus and the number of people killed from each city.

There was also an extensive section about the resistance fighters in Belarus, with models of their hideouts and mobile printing presses. It was very interesting to see many of these artifacts and to read about the personal stories associated with them. One that stands out was a 14-year-old resistance fighter who was killed in action. The museum culminated in the Victory Hall, which was quite impressive.

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I spent about 90 minutes exploring the museum before heading outside to meander around the park that surrounds it. I went to see the bomber airplane behind the museum and then walked down to the riverfront. I took a leisurely route around the park and headed back towards the city center to grab a quick bite to eat for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon was spent back at Coffeeberry, where I had a mocha and a delicious chocolate cake; I spent a long time reading "Ready Player One" and then getting some work done.

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Now I am back at my hotel, getting ready to pack up my suitcase: I'm off to Estonia tomorrow!

Posted by Glichez 11:33 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Castles of Belarus


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Today was one of the longer days I’ve had on the trip – or it at least felt that way!

I was up just before 7, which was quite early considering that I’ve been staying up until around 1am every night (mixture of working and binge watching Netflix). After having a decent breakfast (today’s food tasted far better than yesterday), I set off to the Hotel Belarus, where today’s day tour would depart from. The hotel was a 30-minute walk away, along the same path through the parks that I’d gone through yesterday.

Today’s day tour was to Mir and Nesvizh, where two castles were located (both castles are on the UNESCO World Heritage list). I had read about these castles online during the long months of planning this epic trip, but all of the guided tours that I had found were outside of my budget.

The bus left the hotel at 9; the tour I was conducted in Russian, so I listened to music and slept during the roughly 90-minute drive to the town of Mir. Mir is a tiny little hamlet in the countryside to the southwest of Minsk; the only claim to fame is Mir Castle, which was originally built in the 1500s. Apparently the castle was built by an aristocratic family, the Radziwell’s, in Poland-Lithuania so they could become titled nobility in the Holy Roman Empire (one of the requirements to gain the title was that one must have a castle made of stone).

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The castle was partially destroyed several times over the years, notably during the War of 1812 between France and Russia. This lead to various sections being rebuilt in different styles. It wasn’t until recently (within the past 10-15 years) that the castle was fully restored and open to tourism. Our guide, Tatiana, briefly walked us around the exterior; not understanding the Russian, I admired the castle and the surroundings. When we went inside the castle I was able to get an English audio guide, which was extremely helpful. I followed the Russian group as they were led through the castle.

Most of the rooms were quite spares and not ornately decorated; then again, this is a castle and not a palace. There were several sets of armor on display, including an interesting set with wings. The audio guide stated that these feathered wings worn on the armor would make a loud noise as the wearer rode his horse into battle; the noise was supposed to scare the enemies’ horses.

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After touring the castle for about 90 minutes it was time for a quick bathroom break. Due to some problem with the water supply, the entire village of Mir was currently without running water (the guide tried to explain in her broken English and some younger girls on the tour, who spoke excellent English, tried as well). We all boarded the bus and drove off to a rest stop in the forest, where we all dispersed to… return to nature, as it were.

When we were done we returned to Mir Castle for lunch, which was included with the tour. The restaurant was located inside the basement of the castle. I sat with a group of women from Belarus, none of whom spoke English, but it didn’t matter as we were all focused on eating. The first course was a bowl of borscht (I confess that I wouldn’t have recognized it had I not had some in Moscow). The main course was a breaded chicken (I can’t call it fried chicken), along with some potato wedges and cabbage. It was quite delicious and filling! After that we were served some tea and had dessert, which was a pastry with fruit in it. All told it was a very nice meal – far better than I had expected to get on a tour.

We had about an hour before the bus was due to leave for the next town, so I spent the time wandering around the castle and taking several photos. There were pigeons everywhere at the castle! The pond behind the castle had a small island on it that was covered with ducks.

We all boarded the bus at 14:00 to head for Nesvizh Castle. The town of Nesvizh was around 30 minutes away; once we arrived we made a brief stop at the local Catholic church. The church was currently under restoration as it was severely damaged during the Great Patriotic War. The inside walls were covered with paintings or religious scenes; the walls themselves were smooth, but the paintings made them appear ornate and decorative. We were able to go into the crypts beneath the church to see where several members of the Radziwell family are buried.

We made a short walk over the castle itself and this one looked more like a palace than a castle. During the walk I spoke some more with the two younger girls on the tour, who were both from Belarus and in university (one of them attends school in Canada and she spoke excellent English). They were both very surprised that an American would come visit Belarus!

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Once again I was given an audio guide for the castle and this guide was amazing! It was far more in-depth and informative about the castle. Nesvizh Castle was another Radziwell home and was far more ornate than Mir Castle. We were guided around the entire castle, getting to glimpse some amazing rooms. The castle was severely damaged by the Russian troops in 1812 and was used by the Germans as a hospital in the 1940s, after which it was used as a health care facility until it was recently restored.

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After the tour of the castle we spent a few minutes wandering around the gardens and forest next to the castle. The mosquitos were everywhere; I saw more mosquitos at the castle than I saw during my entire time in South America. Is Zika currently in Belarus…? LOL Among the statues and monuments in the garden was one for the dead soldiers in the Great Patriotic War, complete with an eternal flame.

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We made it back to Minsk around 20:00. After arriving back at my hotel I decided to return to the coffee shop that I went to last night, Coffeeberry. It’s a very calming and relaxing atmosphere. This time I snagged one of the window alcoves and spent some time reading before heading back to my hotel.

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Posted by Glichez 12:53 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Exploring Minsk


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I got a bit of a late start to the day today as I finally got to sleep in on this trip. I relaxed at the hotel during the morning, meandered down to breakfast around 9. The breakfast buffet was rather large, though some of the hot items were rather rubbery from sitting in a warming plate for so long. During breakfast the TV was playing music videos and I was surprised to see Ricky Martin - who knew he was still recording music?!

Before I left to explore the city I discovered a company that does day tours from Minsk - and they have one scheduled tomorrow that I've been hoping to be able to do! The tour operators that I'd found prior to leaving the States were all private tours and were charging between $175 and $200 for the tour; this new company is only $50! I quickly contacted them to see if I could join the tour; we exchanged a few emails and soon I was signed up.

I spent the day wandering around the city to see the various sights that I'd researched during my trip planning; the entire walk around the city took about four hours. My first stop was Lenin Square, which was a massive area full of flowers and fountains, all focused around a large statue of Lenin. The statue was in front of what appeared to be a government building with a military guard pacing in front of it. I went to to make sure that it was ok for me to take pictures of the statue and thankfully it was (I'd seen warnings that Belarus was quite strict about taking pictures of government or military buildings and installations).

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Right near the square was an interesting monument with a bell on top, along with several flags on display, among them that of the USA and Japan. Thankfully there was a sign in English that explained that the monument was in memory of both Chernobyl and the atomic bombs from World War II; in fact, soil from both Chernobyl and the New Mexico test site were placed at the site of the monument.

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I headed into the city center and walked along the river for about an hour to reach the Palace of Independence. The walk took me along a beautiful park and, on the other side of the road, I saw a very interesting sculpted mural that was Soviet-esque - right above a Kentucky Fried Chicken!

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The walk was very peaceful and relaxing; the weather was warm, but not nearly as hot as it was in Moscow (thankfully!). I came across the museum for the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which had some really cool statues and monuments around it. Flying above the museum was the flag of the USSR (I managed to catch the flag in some of the photos below). The museum was inside the park that ran along the river. Behind the museum was an old bomber airplane on display as well.

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When I reached the Palace of Independence I was somewhat disappointed because it was not terribly impressive. The square in front had a gigantic Belorussian flag on display; next to the palace was a more interesting building, though I'm not sure what the building was. I spent a few minutes there before retracting my steps back into the city center.

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This time I walked through the park to enjoy the serenity of the area. There were several small food vendors setup around the park, all selling corn on the cob! One area of the park had a large lake and a giant fountain on it. People were out kayaking on the lake as well.

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I wandered through the park for a considerable amount of time before making my way to the opera house. This was a large and ornately decorated building with several statues adoring it. In the front square was a fountain (Minsk has fountains all over the city!). I found myself wishing that I was able to go and see an opera there.

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As I was walking through the city I discovered yet another park with yet another fountain. This fountain had a sculpture on one side of it, which I found odd since most fountains place the sculpture. However, the jets on the fountain had been positioned in such a way as to shoot through a wreath that one of the female figures in the sculpture was holding.

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Up next was the Palace of the Republic and another large square. The building was rather beautiful, with columns and statues around the top. En route to the building I passed by the Circus of Belarus, which had one of the strangest statues that I've ever seen: clowns playing around with instruments.

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My final stop was the town hall, which had some very colorful coverings over the pillars in front of it. After walking around the small square near the town hall I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat for a very late lunch (by this time is was 15:00).

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I headed back to the hotel to relax for a little bit and then decided to go out for a coffee. There was a small coffee shop a block away from my hotel that I decided to try. I ordered a mocha and settled in to read for a little while. The place was very nice, with comfortable seating inside several window niches, along with a large outdoor seating area. I spent several hours there before finally coming back to the hotel for the night.

Posted by Glichez 11:36 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

Time to defect


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My last day in Moscow allowed for a few hours more of sightseeing and I made the most of the time.

I decided to revisit Lenin's Mausoleum this morning. For some reason I found myself drawn back to see his body again. This time I came prepared to find the graves of John Reed (author of "Ten Days that Changed the World") and Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space). John Reed's marker was written in Russian, despite the fact that the other American buried at the Kremlin is in English; thankfully I had looked up where to find him and it was quite easy. Reed's name is the second one down in the middle of the marker in the photos below. Yuri Gagarin's marker was along the actual Kremlin wall and was in an area blocked off, so I was not able to visit his grave.

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After seeing Lenin once again, I quickly wandered around Red Square and took some selfies while wearing my new Soviet military hat. Some people gave me funny looks, but I just ignored them. I look good in the hat and the pictures are amazing!

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The final bit of sightseeing was a visit to the State Historical Museum, which I had heard about yesterday. This museum was located in Red Square in the large, imposing red building that I'd taken several selfies in front of. The museum was massive, with a huge collection of items (I read that they have over 4million individual items in the museum!). The museum displayed artifacts chronologically, detailing out human development. It was rather interesting seeing the development of crude tools, side by side with one another. There were some amazing mummified bodies, including just a head.

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Another section had an impressive array of valuables from the Tsars. There were jewels, medal and awards, seals, trinkets, etc. They had the personal razor of Tsar Alexander I, the imperial seals of Catherine the Great, a wooden cup that Peter the Great made himself (see below), etc. There was a Chinese man walking around to each display case: he would stop, snap a photo and move on; he didn't stop to actually look at or admire any of the items on display. He went through the entire exhibit and took pictures of each and every case.

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I wandered to the upper floors of the museum, but the galleries there were all closed off. I know the announcement from the day before mentioned Napoleon's sword, but I could not locate it anywhere in the museum; sadly none of the staff spoke English or could help (though one would think the world "Napoleon" might be enough to indicate what I wanted).

I next wandered around the courtyard outside the Kremlin wall. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, young boys (10-12 years old) were practicing marching and guarding in the same manner as the professional guards (perhaps the Russian form of ROTC?). I also found the monument to Stalingrad among the World War II memorials.

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On the way back to my hotel I stumbled across a sign counting down to the World Cup being held in Russia in 2018.

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My airport transfer was leaving at 14:00 and I was really glad that I booked an early transfer as the traffic to get to the airport was quite bad. Even so, I made it to the airport with plenty of time, so I decided to grab a couple drinks and get some work done. The flight to Minsk was just over an hour long and was rather bumpy the entire way. Despite the short flight time we were still served a light meal! It was a sandwich of some sort, though I couldn't tell what meat was in it. It always amazes me that foreign airlines still provide all of the perks that American-based airlines skip.

The Minsk airport is very small and it took no time whatsoever to collect my bag and make it out to the arrival hall. Since I was flying from Moscow, I did not have to go through customs (apparently Russia and Belarus have a similar border like the EU member states). I met with my driver and we drove for about an hour into the city. I'd arrived right after a rain storm and the sunset was stunning. The clouds behind us were dark and hazy, with several very low-hanging clouds filling the sky.

My hotel is in the city center of Minsk and is one of the nicest hotels that I've ever stayed in! The room is a mini-suite, with high-end furnishings. Apparently my money can go quite a long way here in Belarus - and this isn't an expensive hotel!

Posted by Glichez 12:24 Archived in Belarus Comments (0)

From Russia with Love


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My final full day in Moscow and it was jam packed with sights to see... and hot as all hell. Plus I got a lot of sun. A lot.

After breakfast I headed out into the city, though not to Red Square. No, today's adventures would take me away from the tourist groups and into other parts of the city. Up first was the Novodevichy Convent, which required a quick metro ride to reach. The metro signs are all in Russian without any English, except for on the one metro map in each station (which is not always easy to find). The maps I had with me did not have the Russian spelling for the stop I needed, but thankfully I was able to sort it out after a few minutes. The metro stops are quite deep underground, I was reminded of the metro in Pyongyang; I can see how they would have been used as bomb shelters. There was a younger guy (maybe mid-20s) on the metro with a gigantic bouquet of red roses; I tried to subtly take a picture with my phone, but I couldn't quite get it. I was curious as to where he was going with such a huge bouquet so early in the morning.

After arriving at the destination stop, I once again ran into problems figuring out how to navigate my way around the city. There were no street signs to be seen and the map I had was sub-par for this part of town. I wandered around for a few minutes before finding my way. I first visited the graveyard of the Convet, which was quite large and had some truly amazing graves. There were several tour groups walking around as well; I tried to follow along to find the interesting graves.

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I walked around to the front of the Convent and found that not only was their an entry fee, but also a fee to take pictures. I was able to stand outside and take some pictures. I didn't have any rubles left (I'd spent the last of my cash on the metro), so I decided to skip going inside the Convent.

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I took the metro up one stop and got out so I could begin the real walking tour of the city. Up first was Gorky Park, a lovely space right along the Moscow River. There were oodles of flowers all around, along with several places to play a variety of sports.

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I continued my walk back towards the city center and my next stop was Monument Park, which was right across the street from Gorky Park. This was the inspiration for a scene from the James Bond film "GoldenEye" when he meets Janus in the park with the fallen statues. The park in Moscow wasn't as intimidating, but it did have a fantastic collection of artwork. Walking into the park, I saw several modern sculptures.

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Working my way farther into the park I found the true highlight: Soviet-era statues and busts. The two main subjects were Lenin and Stalin, though there were a few statues of Brezhnev as well. Clustered together were several statues of Lenin of varying sizes, along with several busts. There was even a strange cube-shaped sculpture that had Lenin incorporated into it. Along side all of these statues was a large crest of the USSR.

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I made my way over to the riverside area of the park and found the monument to Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great). He was a truly innovative tsar: he traveled to Amsterdam to learning shipbuilding from the masters and was instrumental in building the Russian navy. The monument thus incorporated boats in a major way. The monument was GIGANTIC: easily several stories tall. The base consisted of several large ships, stacked on top of one another, topped with a massive ship. On the ship was a huge statue of Peter himself. This entire monument was on the tip of an island in the Moscow River. It was amazing to get to see.

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I took a rambling route to my next destination. I crossed over the river to visit a nearby square, but en route I notices some ornate church spires to my right and decided to have a look. They appeared far closer than they were; it took me about 20 minutes to reach the church, walking around some smaller local streets (I saw no one else there with a camera or who looked like a tourist). The church was quite beautiful, but it was closed and so I could not go inside.

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I made my way back to the square, which was decorated for the upcoming festivities; the entire city has been decorated in similar fashion. There were several games for kids to play in the square, along with a large garden full of vibrant flowers. It was a smaller square, but it was nice to visit.

The final stop today was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which is a massive Russian Orthodox church on the bank of the Moscow River. The original church was demolished by the USSR government in the 1930s; it was only recently rebuilt by the city of Moscow. I was able to go inside the church (photographs not allowed); it was gigantic and ornately decorated. There were people all over praying and lighting candles. It was a really peaceful and inspiring place to visit.

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By this time I was rather exhausted from the heat; it was in the mid-80s and quite humid; I'd been out walking for about 4.5 hours by this point and needed to get inside somewhere to eat and cool off. I began to wander my way back towards Red Square in search of either an ATM or a place that accepted Visa (and that had a menu with pictures or in English). I reached Red Square without finding anything; there was a local restaurant that looked appealing, but their prices were outrageous. Finally, in desperation, I went to... McDonalds. BUT it was the McDonalds in Red Square. Lenin would roll over in his mausoleum if he knew that the ultimate symbol of American capitalism was so close to the Kremlin. The food really helped revive me (the chocolate shake especially...) and then I wandered around Red Square again.

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I ended up buying a couple souvenirs: two Soviet-style military hats (one for me, one for my nephew). The other souvenirs being sold were just junk; I liked several things, but they would just sit on a shelf collecting dust for years, so I didn't see any point in buying anything (though I did like a replica of a Faberge Egg, but not for $150!).

I spent the evening strolling around Red Square. It is beautiful and magical at night: lights blazing everywhere, the red stars glowing atop their towers. I walked down to the main gate of the Kremlin, around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and all through Red Square; I even walked out to one of the bridges over the Moscow River to get a truly spectacular view of the Kremlin complex at night. It was surreal and I was soaking in the experience of just being in Red Square; it still feels like a dream.

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One side note, until today I hadn't thought too much about Napoleon and when he took Moscow in 1812, which is quite surprising since I idolize the Emperor. However, I heard an announcement from a museum in Red Square that they have one of Napoleon's swords (I'm going tomorrow morning). After that I kept thinking of Napoleon when I would look at the Kremlin, thinking about what the city must have been like before it burned. Then I also thought a lot about Lenin and Stalin ruling the Soviet Union from the Kremlin complex. There's so much history wrapped up in one fortress!

I've also taken nearly 500 photos during my three days here in Moscow. Yeah. A bit overboard.

Posted by Glichez 12:35 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Inside the Kremlin


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A truly amazing day here in Moscow!

My plan was to arrive at the Kremlin when it opened at 10:00 so I could see the various museums and sights there. I ate a good breakfast at the hotel, though they have no sugar for the coffee; plenty of milk or creamer, but no sugar whatsoever. Strange.

As I was making my way to the entrance of the Kremlin, I noticed a large line queuing up near the barricade in Red Square that was closest to Lenin's Mausoleum. I walked up the line to see if I could overhear what the queue was for; I surmised that it must have been for entrance to the Mausoleum and decided to wait as well. I was quite ecstatic as I thought this area was closed off due to the approaching celebrations; this was one of the main sights I wanted to see here in Moscow.

I had to wait in line for about 25 minutes; eventually we were let in just after 10:00. There were metal detectors and guards glancing through people's bags, but it was a token effort. Then we were able to walk along the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, which is where many of those who took part in the Russian Revolution are buried. There are several people who were cremated and their ashes were buried in the wall of the Kremlin. The locations of these burials are marked by black name plaques along the Kremlin Wall.

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Several of the prominent Soviet leaders are buried in the ground alongside the Kremlin Wall, right behind Lenin's Mausoleum. Included among them are Andropov, Brezhnev, and Stalin!

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After strolling among the tombs, it was time for the main event: Lenin's Mausoleum! The building is done in red marble and is quite imposing; it is much smaller than the mausoleums of Mao Zedong or Kim Il-Sung, but still quite impressive.

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Inside it was quite dark and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness. We descended several flights of stairs, with guards at each landing; they kept pestering visitors to be silent while they were inside (sadly many of them just ignored the warnings). The room with the body was quite large, with only dim lighting on the body itself. It was eerie walking around and looking at Lenin: he's been dead for 92 years now and he looks as though he is asleep. They've done extensive work to preserve his body over the years and its quite amazing. There were some Asians ahead of me (I couldn't distinguish their nationality); they bowed three times at the foot of the coffin to show their respect for the dead. The entire visit lasted only a couple of minutes before we were rushed back outside and onto Red Square. It was a great treat to get to visit the Mausoleum, especially after the disappointment I felt yesterday!

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I then made my way over to the Kremlin entrance, but found that the ticket office was located in the gardens nearby. The ticket office was split into two sides: one selling tickets to the courtyard and churches, the other selling tickets for the Armory museum (which had the longer of the two lines). I stood in line for the Armory tickets for about 30 minutes before I was able to get my ticket. Some Italian douche cut the entire line and bought a ticket, despite everyone in line creating a fuss over it. I ran into him at the security check going into the Kremlin; he was trying to shove his way through and I blocked him.

I entered the Kremlin through the main entrance and was in awe of the many palaces that make up the Kremlin complex. There were also many, many tour groups entering the Kremlin, most of them either Japanese or Chinese (there were several groups from both countries). I hurried over to the Armory as my ticket allowed entrance in 20 minutes.

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The Armory is a museum that contains weapons, armor, and many trinkets from Russian history (such as ornate plates, cups, candelabras, ornaments, etc). There was one case that contained several jewels that were created by Carl Faberge. The Faberge Eggs on display included:
Moscow Kremlin
Trans-Siberian Railroad (complete with a miniature train),
Memory of Azov
Alexander Palace
Standard Yacht
Romanov Tercentenary

Pictures were not allowed in the Armory (or the other Kremlin museums); the images above are pulled from Google. Another treat was a porcelain dish set for sweets that was on display: the set was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon I for the wedding of his brother Jerome; later they were packed up and shipped to Tsar Alexander I as a gift after the Treaty of Tilsit. Each dish had its own unique painting of a figure on it.

The first floor was full of various robes, dresses, and other clothing that was worn by many of the Tsars and Tsarinas. The coronation dresses were outstanding, as were the dresses worn by Catherine II. Next were several imperial thrones, including the dual throne that Peter the Great used when he was co-Tsar with his brother at the start of his reign. The final room contained several carriages that the Tsarinas used, particularly those uses by Catherine II and Anna. They were huge and incredibly ornate. There was also a winter sledge on display, as well as an older carriage that was gift from England in the 1600s.

I was making my way to the exit when I came across the entrance to the Diamond Fund museum, which is inside the Armory; it was not well advertised and easily missed. I went up to buy a ticket, but was told that they were going to be taking their lunch break. I planned to walk around the Kremlin for the hour, but discovered that if I left the Armory, I would not be readmitted. I went back into the museum to walk around a bit and then read some comics on my phone while I waited.

The hour-long wait was worth it. The Diamond Fund consists of two small vaults, but they are quite impressive. In the first room are several display cases filled with loose jewels found from around Russia, including one with thousands of loose diamonds (there was even a map of Russia made up of the loose diamonds!). In the center of the room were a set of cases filled with raw precious metals; it was rather interesting to see them in their natural state. Several of them looked quite fluid; I could almost imagine them in their liquid state millions of years ago, flowing around the rocks and cooling/solidifying that way (ah, science!). There were three large solid gold (99.99%) bars in the cases as well; I was amazed at just how large the gold bars were. Next to them was a solid silver bar as well.

Along the other side of the room were cases filled with jewels: tiaras, earrings, broaches, etc; all of them were made with diamonds rubies, sapphires. The one piece that caught my eye was a large rose broach that was made up of 1,500 diamonds!

The second vault contained only five cases, but they were the crown jewels (literally!) of the museum. The first case contained jewels of the Russian Tsarinas. The highlight of this case was a massive red tourmaline (260.86 carats) that was shaped into a ripe strawberry; this was a gift from the king of Sweden to Catherine II. The second case contained more of the jewels, each one covered with diamonds.

Next came the crown jewels of Tsarist Russia! The crown, which was used for each coronation from Catherine II (1762) to Nicholas II (1896); it was made with 5,000 diamonds, 75 pearls, and topped with a large spinel (398.72 carats). To accompany this was the Imperial Orb and the State Scepter, which was topped with the Orlov Diamond (189.62 carats). The smaller crown for the Tsar's wives was also on display (it was covered with diamonds as well). The last two cases contained more jewels, including a Field Marshall's baton, several Imperial Orders (medals), Imperial chains, and broaches. My visit lasted around 30 minutes and it was well worth it; truly something that should not be missed.

I headed back out to the Kremlin complex and walked around the gigantic squares. The pedestrian pathways were clearly marked out, including crosswalks on the streets; if someone veered off from these, the guards would blow their whistles to get their attention. I went into several of the church museums that were open, including the one where the earlier tsars were buried; their coffins are all above ground and in stone.

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I visited both the Tsar Bell and Tsar Canon, each of which was gigantic!

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I noticed some small gardens across the square and walked around them for a few minutes before eventually heading out of the Kremlin. By this point I had spent over four hours at the Kremlin! It was time to go and visit St Basil's Cathedral.

Making my way over to the Cathedral was a major pain in the ass as Red Square was filled with tourists, many of them in groups. The large areas that were blocked off herded everyone into a confined area, which only made matters worse. I hate to say it, but I was not very impressed with the inside of the Cathedral; it is not nearly as interesting as the exterior. The building serves as a museum now and houses many religious items, many of which are very interesting and beautiful. However, there were only a few rooms that you could enter and they were mostly quite small.

After my visit to St Basil's Cathedral, I walked over to the metro station and took it for several stops to get to the cosmonaut museum.

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This part of Moscow was full of people, and most of them did not appear to be tourists. Street vendors lined the streets and there was even a small amusement park nearby (it resembled a state fair in size). The cosmonaut area was really neat: the centerpiece was a huge sculpture of a rocket taking off. Leading down the walkway away from it were several statues to commemorate the prominent people from the Soviet space exploration, including Yuri Gagarin. On either side of the rocket sculpture were massive murals: one with Lenin leading the people forward, the other with Gagarin leading the scientists.

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I did not go in the museum as it was jam packed with people. Instead I headed for a nearby square that had two large Soviet-era monuments. One was a large entry gate, similar in style to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Atop the gate were two workers celebrating, along with communist symbols.

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The second monument was a huge building with the hammer and sickle all over it, topped with a spire and a large red star. Directly in front of this building was a statue of Lenin (the first such statue I've seen in Moscow so far).

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After spending several minutes admiring the square and the sights, I headed back to the metro. On the way I grabbed an ice cream from a street vendor; ice cream is insanely popular here! After arriving back in the city center, I walked over to the infamous Lubyanka building, former headquarters of the KGB. This is where people would disappear to and get tortured or murdered.

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I walked back to Red Square along a very nice pedestrian walkway, with stores and restaurants on either side - including a Krispy Kreme. After reaching the Square, I decided to head back towards my hotel. En route, I stopped at a local restaurant for dinner. Dinner tonight was borscht and Russian beer. I truly didn't know what to expect of the borscht, but it was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was! It came with some bread and olive oil. It was a hearty and quite tasty dish. The beer was one of the best local beers I've had, with a good bold flavor.

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Now it's time to get some work done, rest and prepare for another full day of sightseeing tomorrow!

Posted by Glichez 10:47 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

To Russia I flew...


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It has been a very long and tiring two days!

Yesterday I got up around 07:00 to pack, have breakfast and shower before heading off to the airport. The line to check in was ridiculous: they had only two people helping the economy-class passengers, but one of them was devoted only to people traveling with young children. THREE other people were handling the VIP-class passengers, and when they didn't have people to check in (which was most of the time), they walked away! It took me over an hour to get through the line and there were only four people ahead of me. For reasons unknown to me, each one of these people took ages getting checked in and none of them were particularly large groups or had a lot of baggage; yet each one took 30 min or so to get checked in. Thankfully I was done in under five minutes and then I went through security and off to wait for boarding time.

I stopped in the Duty Free store to get a new backpack, this one with wheels. While I was waiting in line to check out, there was a couple next to me with five hand baskets overflowing with goods they were buying! My first thought was on how much money they were spending, but then I wondered where on earth they would be able to store all of that crap on the plane. I stopped and grabbed a coffee from Starbucks and sat down to wait (I'd arrived early since I wasn't sure how bad the Buenos Aires traffic would be during rush hour).

Boarding went smoothly; I had booked a window seat and to my delight there was no one sitting directly next to me (there was someone in the aisle seat though). The first flight was direct to London and lasted around 13.5 hours. I'd expected and hoped to get some sleep and I dozed for about an hour total throughout the flight. The movie select was quite poor, which surprised me on a British Airways flights as I've always had great experiences with them.

One thing that I've not mentioned before in my blog posts, primarily because it's dull and not really pertaining to the trip, is that I've been working remotely while I'm traveling. I've been making use of my flight times, layovers, airport waiting times, etc to get work done. Since I was (sadly) wide awake for this long flight, I got out my laptop and started working away - a good and productive use of the time just sitting in my seat!

London was a quick 3hr layover and then it was another 4hr flight to Moscow. During this entire time I just had the short rest on the long flight and I've no idea how I was still awake. The Russian passport control was very quick and smooth; I was expecting far worse given how exhaustive their visa applications are! I'd arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport; after exchanging some text messages he found me and we set off for the city.

The drive was about an hour long and we didn't really encounter much traffic. On the way the driver, Maxim, and I chatted quite a bit about Russia, the US election, my travels, etc. He was very friendly and pointed out several things that I should go and see while I'm in Moscow. When we arrived to my hotel (rather, the street near the hotel - the hotel is on a pedestrian-only road), we noticed the police about to tow away a vehicle that was parked illegally. As I watched, they wrapped the car up so the doors and trunk couldn't be opened; then they lowered a crane over the car and picked it up, easily carrying it over to the bed of the tow truck. It was crazy!

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I checked into my hotel, which is very nice! I'm quite happy with this hotel!

It was only 17:00 and I decided to head out to see Red Square. My first stop was the Bolshoi Theater, which is just around the corner from my hotel. It is an incredibly massive building and I was in awe of it.

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I then headed down towards the Kremlin and Red Square. The entry gate was swarming with tourists and once I got inside I saw that they were erecting some bleachers and platforms for an upcoming celebration for the founding of Moscow (Maxim had mentioned this to me). It was VERY exciting for me to finally be setting foot in Red Square - I'd dreamed of visiting Russia since I was a kid and now here I was standing in the heart of Mother Russia!!

The red brick walls of the Kremlin lined one entire side of the Square, with various towers at periodic intervals. Each tower was different and unique; only a few had the Soviet red start still on display. More prominently displayed around the Square was the imperial eagle from the Tsarist era. I liked the mixture of the symbols, embracing both periods of Russia's past.

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I made my way down to St Basil's Cathedral, which was even better than I had imagined. All of the onion-shaped domes were different and unique, in both color and texture: some were smooth, some pointed. The line to get into the Cathedral was rather long and I'd already planned to visit on another day, so I continued my walk around the Square.

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To my dismay I discovered that I could not reach Lenin's Mausoleum or the other graves along the Kremlin wall due to the construction of the bleachers! The area was fenced off with security around it. Granted, by this point the opening hours for the mausoleum were over and my plans were to visit on Tuesday morning when it opens up again; perhaps they'll open for visitors then - I'm going to at least try!

I decided to take a walk around the entirety of the Kremlin wall (the exterior - I go inside the Kremlin to tour tomorrow). They were working on repaving much of the sidewalk along one side of the Kremlin (along the river), but I was still able to get some fantastic views of the Kremlin itself. The red brick walls were so imposing, I could feel the power emanating from them. Peaking up from behind the walls were the various palaces that make up the Kremlin compound. There were two bridges over the river that I walked out to that afforded some truly amazing pictures.

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After circling the Kremlin I came to the front side where there are numerous memorials and monuments, most notably to the war of 1812 when the Russians 'defeated' the French, as well as the "Great Patriotic War" (World War Two).

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The tomb of the unknown soldier was rather impressive with a large eternal flame in the middle. By luck I arrived just minutes before they did the changing of the guard. The guards kick their legs up incredibly high when they march!

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I finally returned to Red Square and strolled around the GUM shopping mall. The mall is three floors and is just massive! I didn't explore all of the mall; I was hunting for a food court, but all I could find was a plethora of ice cream shops and drink stands. One drink stand used watermelons and was sitting right next to a large indoor fountain; the pool of the fountain was filled with their watermelons!

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By this time it was nearly 20:00 and I decided to head back to the hotel to do some laundry and get some sleep.

Posted by Glichez 12:20 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Buenos Aires and Uruguay


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AUGUST 17 – BUENOS AIRES

Today was my full day to see what Buenos Aires has to offer, and it was amazing! I was already impressed with city and the overall atmosphere – it felt like any other large city (ie. NYC), which I love. I planned to take the two free walking tours of the city today.

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The first walking tour began at 10:30 and focused on the Recoleta area of the city, which is the posher neighborhood. The guide we had was very friendly and explained everything in great detail. We started out near the opera house and the state supreme court, which was a massive and ornate building.

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We worked our way through the city, visiting several squares and seeing many old mansions that used to belong to the aristocracy (they are not either state-owned, used as embassies or hotels, etc). We even stopped by the memorial for the Falklands War!

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The Plaza San Martin, which is next to the Foreign Ministry, the Danish flag was on display everywhere with the Argentinian flag.

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We stopped for a quick coffee break before continuing further north into the city. The tour ended outside of the Recoleta Cemetery, but did not go inside. After the tour ended, I ventured into the Cemetery to find Evita Peron’s grave. She was buried in her family crypt (under her maiden name). There was a map at the entrance and it was very helpful in finding her grave. It was very simple: plaques on the sides of the crypt and flowers adoring the doors.

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I walked around the cemetery for a few minutes, admiring all of the amazing crypts and graves. One of the strange things that I noticed was that many of them had the coffins exposed inside the crypt/mausoleum! It was rather strange to see the coffin just sitting there.

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I next had to make my way south to the National Congress for the afternoon walking tour. I originally planned to take the subway there, but decided to walk and see more of the city. It was about a 30-minute walk and it was fun getting to see so much more of the city. This area wasn’t touristy whatsoever either. At one point I was waiting to cross the street and an elderly lady came up and ask for assistance crossing the street (well, she indicated that since she spoke no English and my Spanish is crap).

The afternoon tour was far more political than the morning tour and I learned quite a bit about the history of Argentina. Before we got started a protest made its way towards the National Congress, banging drums and setting off a lot of fireworks. The National Congress is another massive and ornate building, which was just amazing.

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We walked along the streets, learning about the country and what all of the various monuments meant. One stop along the 9 of July Avenue introduced us to Evita and Juan Peron. On the side of a building was a massive sign of Evita speaking into a microphone (there was a second one on the other side of the building).

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The tour ended in the Plaza de Mayo at the Casa Rosada (the Argentine equivalent of the White House). The square was packed with tourists. While we were finishing the tour, the guards came out to lower the gigantic flag for the night.

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Once the tour was over, I went back to my hotel. On the way I snapped a few pictures of the main Catholic Church in Buenos Aires (and the one that Pope Francis worked at prior to becoming Pope).

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After resting for a few minutes it was time for the final event for the day: dinner and a tango show! The shuttle picked me up around 20:00 and we drove less than 5 minutes to the restaurant – it was so close to my hotel that I could have walked there! Dinner was not quite ready as they were still doing a tango lesson for those who signed up for it.

We finally got to sit down in the dining room; it was a very pretty room and had an intimate feeling to it.

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I had a table all to myself and there was another solo traveler sitting next to me. The woman sitting next to me was named Jennifer; she is from Bermuda and lives in New York; she is deaf, but was excellent at reading lips (she also had a notepad for writing things down when she couldn’t read lips). It was a lot of fun getting to talk with her; she came down to Argentina to get some dental work done because it is much cheaper here than in the US.

Dinner was three courses: (1) three empanadas; (2) steak with potatoes; (3) chocolate mousse cake. Each table had its own bottle of red wine, along with water. And yes, I did drink the entire bottle… I paid for it, I was going to drink it! All of the food was quite good!

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Right before the show started another solo traveler asked if she could join us and I invitied her to sit at my table. Her name was Nienke and she was here from the Netherlands. She’s traveled the past several weeks with her boyfriend, but he went off to Rio for the Olympics and she decided to come to Buenos Aires.

The tango show was outstanding! There were three pairs of dancers, along with two signers. Even the live band was amazing. Each time the performers would dance I was in awe of their talent: they moved with such grace and fluidity – and quickness! They even played the tango that was used in the movie “True Lies” – though the tango they did last night was far better!

The show ended around midnight; Nienke and I decided to grab a drink before heading back to our respective hotels (luckily she was staying nearby as well). We walked up Florida Avenue (the shopping center) and found a nice little place. I ordered a local beer and she had a cocktail. We stayed there, drinking and chatting until the place closed around 1:30. After that I walked her back to her hotel and then, somehow, stumbled back to mine. Needless to say, I was quite drunk…

AUGUST 18 – URUGUAY

Despite going to bed so late last night, I was up around 6:30 this morning so I could catch the ferry over to Colonia in Uruguay (the 5th and final country in South America that I’m visiting on this trip!). It was a rough morning, but I made it to the ferry on time and managed to sleep during the hour-long ride.

Colonia is a small, quaint town and the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was in comparison to Buenos Aires! No traffic noises, just the peaceful sound of the waterfront. Argentina and Uruguay are separate by a river, the widest river in the world: looking out across the river you can’t see the other country, it looks like an ocean! On the Uruguay side all I could see of Argentina was the massive cloud of smog and pollution that hung in the air.

I spent some time walking around Colonia, seeing the few sights that the city has and just enjoying the riverfront area. I stopped to get an ice cream at one point since I’d not had breakfast this morning.

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The ferry back to Buenos Aires was at 16:00 and I finished my walking around the city by 13:00! I spent the next few hours sitting by the river, reading and relaxing. The ferry ride back to Buenos Aires was delayed by 30 minutes, though I couldn’t figure out why. During the wait I bought a sandwich to eat.

Nienke and I met up for dinner tonight; we went to a charming restaurant near our hotels. We split a small bottle of red wine; for dinner I had a local chicken dish, which was quite good. It was filled with cheese, peppers, and ham. We each had an after dinner coffee. It was a lot of fun getting to hang out and chat with Nienke again (it is always nice to make new friends!).

Now it is getting late and I need to get some sleep - I've got a long flight tomorrow... to RUSSIA!!

Posted by Glichez 14:52 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

What's new, Buenos Aires?


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What a long day it has been today!

I was up at 2:30 so I could catch my taxi to the airport at 3:00 for my flight at 5:00. The streets were deserted so early in the morning, which was nice, but it still took about 25 minutes to drive to the airport. I was surprised to see that it was quite busy and the line for check-in was long. I began to worry that I hadn't arrived early enough to get checked in. There were several early morning flights heading out of Asuncion and the line was moving at a glacial pace. The airport had several self check-in stations, but they were all out of order (of course!). After around 35 minutes or so the line began to move faster. The check-in process, as well as going through security and exit customs flew by after that.

I slept most of the way on the flight, though thankfully I woke up in time to get the breakfast muffin and some water. The muffin was lemon poppy-seed and was a good snack. After landing in Buenos Aires (to stay this time!), I made my way through customs and met with the driver I had arranged to transport me to my hotel. The drive into the city took us over an hour, mostly because of the intense rush hour traffic. On the way into the city center I was becoming more and more impressed with the city: I had expected something similar to Rio, but instead it resembled Santiago.

The hotel is... decent. I booked it because of the location as well as due to the review ratings it received (4.5 stars). It's a bit shabby, but it will do for three nights. Thankfully I was able to check in right away, despite arriving so early in the morning. I took some time to shower and freshen up before venturing out into the city for a little bit. I scouted out the meeting points for the two guided tours I've booked (they're less than 5min walk away) and then strolled around the Galerias Pacifico shopping center, which is half a block from my hotel.

I grabbed a quick lunch at the mall: three empanadas (chicken, beef, and caprese) which were delicious! While eating I watched some of the men's track and field events at the Olympics (I've been trying to watch as much of the Olympics as possible while I've been traveling). After eating I went to a few stores to check out the backpacks that they have. The backpack that I brought with me is not designed for traveling and so I thought I might get a new one. Sadly the majority of the ones I found were not large enough; the salespeople were very helpful and showed me numerous different items. The only one I found that would work is very nice and has wheels on it, but it is around $170 USD! The African tour company said not to bring bags with wheels, but since this one doubles as a backpack, I think it would be ok. I am still debating whether or not to buy the new bag...

At 14:00 I met up with the guide for my afternoon tour to the Tigre Delta. There was only one other person on the tour with us, a woman from Brazil. On the way we made a quick stop in a town to walk around for about 30 minutes. There was a nice cathedral, along with some old colonial buildings.

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We then continued to the Tigre Delta, which is where the Paraná River empties into the Río de la Plata River. We boarded a boat with several other tourists and set out for a ride around the Delta. The Delta is quite huge and consists of thousands of small islands, most of which have houses on them. We spent the time going around and seeing several of the islands. The weather was cool, but not cold enough to prevent us from having the windows opened. During the trip we were treated to a sweet snack and some coffee.

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The boat trip lasted just over an hour and then it was time to head back to Buenos Aires. I made it back to the hotel around 18:30 and soon headed out to Starbucks to relax and read. I felt the need to do something familiar and routine from back home; it helped relax me after the long two weeks that I've had (and I've still got 13 weeks left on the trip!). I started reading a new book, Ready Player One, which a bartender at the Flying Saucer, Carter, had recommended some time ago (I finished reading the history of the Iranian Revolution a couple days ago at one of the airports). On the way over to Starbucks I saw some street performers doing the tango; there was a crowd watching them and I stopped to watch them for a few minutes. It was rather fun to see them dancing around; I'll be seeing more of the tango tomorrow night!

Posted by Glichez 16:55 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Asuncion Adventures


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Today was my one and only day for sightseeing here in Paraguay - and it may have been a bit too long! LOL

The hotel had a decent breakfast buffet, but for some reason I was not terribly hungry this morning. I nibbled a bit before meeting my tour guide for the half-day tour of the city.

The guide met me at the hotel at 8:00 and we set off into the city. We had a driver with us as well and he drove us around the old town area for a bit, including along the newly completed waterfront road. The bay of Asuncion is small, but very pretty; the waterfront roadway was completed only a few years ago and is planned to extended further. My guide informed me that today was a holiday: the anniversary of the founding of Asuncion! He explained that this was why there were so many people out last night partying. Since it was a holiday, many places were closed.

After driving around some, we got out for a walk around the old town area. Our first stop was the Catholic church.

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They were holding a mass inside, so we weren't able to wander around very much, but I was able to see all of the highlights. There were some spectacular icons and the altar was done in silver. Outside of the church was a large square that was preparing for the day's celebrations. We saw a police escorting a truck to the square - and the truck was only carrying the statue of the city's patron saint, which the guide found ridiculous. As we walked around the square I was amazed at the number of police officers present, including many in riot and swat gear.

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We walked along the streets of Asuncion, which, I'm sad to say, were in terrible shape: major potholes everywhere, sidewalks torn up, garbage strewn everywhere. My guide said that the city had quite a problem with the garbage. Outside of one building was some interesting street art that wasn't related to the holiday.

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We next made our way to the new legislative building, which the government of Taiwan helped build with a donation of $20million! They donated this amount because Paraguay is one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan rather than mainland China. Directly across the street from the legislature was a shanty town.

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We tried to walk to the Palacio de López, one of the nicest buildings in the city, but found that all roads leading to it were barricaded off and lined with police. One of them explained that there was a protest planned for that day and they wanted to march to the Palacio de López, which the police were going to prevent. At one point a group of riot police came running up to the barricades to prepare. As we made our way back to the car we could see the protesters making their way down the street.

Back in the car, we headed down to the new town area. This town had clearly been better developed and invested in, but it still was quite run down. We drove around some of the affluent neighborhoods and one street was so torn up that we had to drive on the sidewalk to get around - and this was less than a block away from a HUGE mansion that one of the former dictators had lived in. Finally we made our way back to the hotel around noon. All in all it was a good and thorough tour of the city, touching on all of the highlights.

I spent some of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel before heading out for a quick bite to eat. Most every place was closed and I didn't fancy wandering around the city too much, so I grabbed some food at... Burger King. Don't judge me! Outside of the BK were several poor children begging for money; the BK had a guard at the door to make sure they didn't come inside. After ordering my food, which was an ordeal, I found that the garbage problem extended off of the streets and into restaurants as well: there was garbage all over the floor. They did have someone going around cleaning up, but there was so much for the poor guy to keep up with!

I came back to the hotel and planned to read by the pool and go swimming (the hotel has a rooftop pool!), but once I got to the roof I heard some commotion out on the street: there was a parade coming! I hurriedly went out to the street and watched as the parade went by.

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The parade was rather simple, but quite nice. There were little bands that beat out on their drums mostly. Groups of little girls marched with them, twirling batons. The parade was religious in nature and was part of the holiday celebrations. The end of the parade was made up of the clergy, with members of the military escorting a religious statue with them. The parade lasted about 20 minutes, after while I returned to the roof of the hotel to admire the view.

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While I might not have been able to see the Palacio de López up close, I was able to see it from the roof:

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I've got to make it an early evening though; my airport transfer is leaving the hotel at 3:00 for my flight to Buenos Aires at 5:00.

As I was writing the above I heard fireworks outside, so I ran back up to the roof and caught the tail end of a firework show that was down at the waterfront. There were several hotel staff members on the roof watching as well. It was fun getting to see the holiday festivities here today!

Posted by Glichez 15:26 Archived in Paraguay Comments (0)

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