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Russia

Too much Kaliningrad, not enough Königsberg


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I wish this city was more Königsberg and less Kaliningrad...

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I cannot say that Kaliningrad has been a highlight of the trip, but I cannot say that I regret my visit here. It has been an interesting city to visit, though a rather depressing one. Let me provide a brief history of Königsberg...

This city was formerly known as Königsberg, one of the central cities in Prussia; once Prussia became a kingdom in its own right and the capital was established in Berlin, the Hohenzollern kings still journeyed to Königsberg for their coronations in the cathedral here. The city was part of Prussia (and then Germany after 1870) for over two centuries... and then the Second World War happened.

Königsberg, like most German cities, was bombed repeatedly and the Red Army captured it in April 1945. Much of the city was in ruins and, once the war was over, Russia annexed Königsberg and the surrounding territory; Poland was thrust westward into lands that were formerly Prussian (in case you didn't know, present-day Poland comprises areas that were, indeed, historically Polish... and then lands that were historically Prussian; this was done at Stalin's behest so he could expand the border of the USSR further west... and the West did nothing to stop him).

With Königsberg now formally part of Russia, the city's name was changed to Kaliningrad, after some Soviet guy name Kalinin. The German population was forcibly removed by the Soviets and moved to Germany; the area was then repopulated by Russians and other Soviet subjects. The rebuilding of the city was done in the ghastly 1950s Soviet style (cement block housing).

With all that said, I journeyed to Kaliningrad in the hopes of seeing the old Königsberg side of the city. To my dismay, very little of that old city is left, the rest having being intentionally stamped out by the Soviets.

I headed out for a long 4-hour walk around the city, maps in hand and camera at the ready. The first stop of the day was just a short walk along the river from my hotel: the Königsberg Cathedral, which had been lovingly restored starting in 1992. The exterior of the building is very charming and in the classic German style that one associates with old Germany. I quite liked seeing and admiring the cathedral.

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When I arrived I waited at the ticket counter for quite a few minutes as the cashier kept talking (ad nauseam) with the two ladies in front of me. Eventually I was able to purchase a ticket for the museum on the upper floors. The museum encompassed three floors, the first area recounting the history of Königsberg/Kaliningrad, and then the remainder of the museum covering the Immanuel Kant, German philosopher who is buried at the cathedral. One of the final rooms had a strange display of foreign currency; all of the signage was in Russian (some was also in German, which helped as I could read some of that). There was currently from countries all around the world, both paper money and coins; they had an example of every type of modern coin from the US; I particularly enjoyed seeing the Iranian currency. Around the upper floors were some very nice stained glass windows and a lovely library.

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Making my way down to the main level, I bought a ticket to enter the church itself. The inside was quite nice, though only the organ was ornately decorated; the rest of the church was quite plain. The organ was exquisite though: gold trimmed, paintings and sculptures all around, topped by the Hohenzollern black eagle. They regularly perform organ concerts at the cathedral and I wish that I had been able to attend one. I spent some time walking around the interior of the church before finally heading out to explore the rest of the city.

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The cathedral was positioned on a small island, surrounded by a lovely park. I walked through the park and then headed north into the city itself. I was saddened by the obvious poverty that filled the city: endless Soviet-style brick housing structures, all looking quite run down; the sidewalks were in disarray; the buses were all ancient and looked ready to break down. Overall the city looked unkempt and uncared for. Granted, the city is probably (hopefully) spending money on other more important matters, but one could imagine what the city could look like had it either remained German or the German style been embraced. I found myself really hating what the Soviets had done to this city; it took them no time at all to wipe out centuries of history and culture. Walking around the streets proved to be quite a challenge as crosswalks were not placed in all intersections (I had to make a long back-track to find a crosswalk at one point, just to cross one street).

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I found several monuments and statues as I walked around the city, all of them having something to do with the Second World War (I could tell this only because they all had the dates "1941-1945" on them). There was a very impressive statue of some soldiers that I quite liked. One square had a nice fountain and was across from the opera, which was one of the few gorgeous buildings in the city.

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I made my way to the Victory Square, which is a large public area with a pillar commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. I was surprised that I did not see a statue of Lenin anywhere (apparently the statue of his was moved sometime after the collapse of the USSR). One side of the square had the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and on the other side sat the town hall.

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One thing atop the town hall building caught my eye as I was walking about: the rainbow flag was flying! I stood there and stared at it for several minutes, unable to comprehend how or why this was happening in Russia, a country that suppresses, ostracizes and discriminates against gay people. Three flags were flying on top of the building: the Russian flag, the Kaliningrad flag, and then the rainbow flag. In the upper left corner of the rainbow flag there was a small symbol that looked like a castle; I'm not sure what it means though. I've tried several Google searches to discover what the meaning behind the rainbow flag in Kaliningrad is, but I've not been able to find anything; it could be censored on my Internet searches though. I've noticed that many things related to the LGBT community are censored online, such as on Netflix. Netflix changes its offerings, depending on which country you are logging in from; here in Russia they do not offer any LGBT films - the category doesn't even exist and doing a search returns nothing (a search for "gay" returned one thing: Scream 2... no idea why).

**Correction** After uploading my photos, I can now clearly see that the flag is not the rainbow flag, but rather the flag of Kaliningrad Oblast (state). The flag has a large red band, a smaller yellow band, and a large blue band; seen from afar and with the sun shining into my eyes, I can easily see how I could confuse this flag for the pride flag.

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I grabbed a quick bite to eat for lunch and then continued on my self-guided tour of the city. My next stop was the old city walls right next to a very pretty lake. Most of the city walls were either destroyed during the war or demolished after, but there are sections that still remain. This particular section is one of the largest and best preserved: it had some of the walls, a tower fortification, and one of the old city gates.

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I turned south and started to head back in the general direction of my hotel. I took a leisurely stroll through another nearby park that had a stream running through it. At the start of the park was a nice water feature and fountain, but the water was filled with garbage that it detracted from the beauty of it. Along one side of the stream was a series of abandoned buildings which looked rather interesting sitting right next to the tree-lined park.

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I managed to find my way to a bunker museum, which was hidden away in a residential area (again, the Soviet-style block housing). The bunker was built by the Nazis near the end of the war as the Soviets were advancing on the city. Now the bunker serves as a museum, which I decide to go visit. I was surprised that the bunker wasn’t deeper underground. The bunker consisted of one long hallway and several small rooms on either side. Most of the rooms were quite small; many had dioramas depicting the city at various points during the siege in April 1945. A few rooms were made up to resemble how they looked when the Germans were living in them; the mannequins looked rather ridiculous. There was some signage in English outside some of the rooms, but the majority of everything was in Russian, so I just got to look around. The entire visit took me about 15 minutes.

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Finally, I made a brief stop outside of the Palace of Culture, a rather nice building that seems quite out of place in Kaliningrad. I'd intended to walk around another area of town, but as I got closer, I noticed that it appeared far more rundown and questionable in terms of safety, so I opted to skip that portion of my walking tour; the only things I missed were two smaller gates from the old city wall.

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I went out for a coffee at a small cafe near my hotel. I discovered that the area where my hotel is located is known as the "Fishermen's village" and is the only area with German-style buildings. They are two blocks of buildings, lined up long the river and right next to the cathedral. The waitress at the cafe spoke passable English, which was nice; she was very attentive and helpful. I had a cappuccino and, at her suggestion, a slice of chocolate and cherry cake. The cake was quite good, with cherry syrup drizzled over it. I sat enjoying my treat and read for a short bit before the sun set. As I was paying my bill, the waitress asked me where I was from; she was surprised to hear that I am from the States.

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I walked across the street to the local supermarket to grab some food for dinner. I went shopping there last night as well for dinner, grabbing a fresh sandwich from the deli. The sandwich was so good that I grabbed another one tonight for dinner, though now I'm not terrible hungry, so I plan to save it for lunch tomorrow.

Last night I was delighted to find that the store sold my favorite German beer: Löwenbräu!! This was the first beer I had at my first Oktoberfest in Munich in 2009. I sat alone in the Löwenbräu, but was soon joined by some Germans who I drank with throughout the afternoon. It was also at the Löwenbräu that I met the group of Italians the following night. I bought two large bottles of Löwenbräu and brought them back to my hotel; one I drank last night and the other I am enjoying as I write this blog update.

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Overall I think my time in Kaliningrad was pleasant, though I wish the city had more of the old Königsberg feel to it.

Posted by Glichez 11:43 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Heading back to Russia


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Today centered around traveling from Vilnius to Kaliningrad. I had booked a seat on a bus that left Vilnius at 10:00, so I was able to have a leisurely morning. It was raining throughout the morning, but it let up during the time I walked from my hotel to the bus station. There were quite a few people on the bus to Kaliningrad, which surprised me; I hadn't expected there to be that many people interested in making the journey.

When boarding the bus, the driver was surprised to see an American; he just stared at the cover of my passport for a few moments, before finally verifying my ID and ticket. The drive through Lithuania was smooth an uneventful; it was raining the entire drive today. We drove through some beautiful countryside. There was one TV in the bus and the driver put on some Russian movies, which I was unable to follow.

The border crossing proved to be the most interesting part of the day. Leaving Lithuania was a breeze, but entering Russia took some time. The guards searched every part of the bus, opening every compartment possible to search from contraband. When I presented my passport to the border guard, she seemed confused or concerned over something; she spoke no English, so I've no clue what was going on. She called two different people and I only understood three words: American, Moscow, and Belarus. Clearly the fact that I entered Russia through Moscow and then left greater Russia through Belarus was causing more confusion (similar to what I experienced when leaving Belarus). Since Russia and Belarus have no border controls between them, I only have the entry stamp from Russia and the exit stamp from Belarus. She eventually stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

We drove for another three hours before finally arriving in Kaliningrad; the bus trip took nearly seven hours! On the drive into the city I was saddened to see how Soviet-esque the city looked. Kaliningrad has historically been a Prussian and German city; Russian annexed the area after World War Two. I expected to see some charming German buildings, but instead I was treated to an endless sea of Soviet block-style housing with only one or two German buildings tucked away. Not only did the Soviets expel all of the German citizens after the war, but they clearly tried to erase the German heritage.

My first task upon arriving at the bus station was to buy my bus ticket to Gdansk for Tuesday. This was the one bus ticket that I wasn't able to buy in advance when I was planning the trip. None of the tellers spoke English, but luckily I had some screenshots on my phone from the bus website showing where I wanted to go and when (in Russian).

The walk from the bus station to the hotel took around 25 minutes. The hotel is right across the river from the German cathedral and is the nicest hotel I've stayed at. The room is huge, similar to an executive suite!

Posted by Glichez 08:25 Archived in Russia 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...


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

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)

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