Monthly Archives: November 2011

Saint Petersburg, I Love You

We arrived in Suzdal in the evening and briskly walked to the hostel.  The temperature had dropped quite a bit and ice was beginning to form on the streets.  Suzdal was an interesting change from Moscow.  Situated only 3.5 hours out of Moscow, Suzdal is known for its many, MANY churches.  A beautiful river runs through the town and was now freezing over.

Once we were at the hostel, the receptionist informed us that the accommodation was overbooked.  Around the corner we heard the stomping and running feet of what sounded like thousands of little children.  There was some sort of wedding and the entire congregation had booked the hostel…with their army of Asian children.

In front of us were two Americans who were visiting Suzdal from Moscow.  Both taught English in the city and were taking a short vacation.  Jeff and Crystal had made reservations but as the receptionist told us, there was no more room.  Jordan made a call to the owner to relay the situation.  Then it was arranged that the three of us, plus our two new American friends, were given a mattress and the living room.

A few hours later a huge group of about 6 girls came to the hostel with the same problem.  We decided to invite them into our room as well!  Ultimately, we were about 11 people sleeping in all different spaces on the floor.  It was like a slumber party and we had a great time.

We spent three relaxing days in Suzdal, with the temperature continually dropping, before we headed back to Moscow.  Russia requires holders of tourist VISAs to register in every city that they spend more than 7 days in.  We were told to register in Moscow and the process was easy but expensive.  We only handed our passports to the reception and payed the hostel about 20 dollars.

After we were registered we immediately got on a train to Saint Petersburg.  I had really been looking forward to this because I had heard numerous times that Saint Petersburg was the best.

AND OH IT WAS.

I had contacted a Couch Surfer in Saint Petersburg who was from England and lived with another Couch Surfer who was from Belarus.  Once we arrived we headed to their flat.  For me, this is always the exciting part in Couch Surfing because you never really know whom you are going to meet and what is going to happen.

It was about 7AM and still dark outside when we found the apartment.  We walked up the stairs and knocked on door number 18.  There was no answer.  I was preparing myself for the boys to joke about how the one time I find someone to host us it falls through.  I knocked again and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard footsteps and the door unlocking.

The door opened and there was Sam in only his boxer shorts.  I think we were a little taken aback because we all had on our winter gear and backpacks.  And honestly what would you think if a stranger you were staying with opened the door in his underwear?

“Hey guys,” Sam said sleepily.

He lead us into the apartment, taught us how to light the gas for the hot water, showed us his room where we could sleep, and excused himself to go back to bed before work.

The boys and I slept for a few hours and awoke to a sweet note from Sam explaining how to use his computer if we needed it, how to properly unlock the front door, and the time he would be returning so we could all hang out.

When Sam came back he cooked us all dinner and even set the table for us all to sit and eat together!  I could not remember the last time I sat with the boys and ate a real dinner.  It was lovely.

Sam is such a great guy.  He is not in the least bit shy and his energy and humor made it seem like we had all known each other for years instead of minutes.  He took us to his friend Nikola’s house where there was a piano.  Sam is a talented pianist and we discovered that we had studied several of the same pieces.  We took turns churning out Debussy’s Arabesques, Beethoven, and Chopin.  It was wonderful.  We left Nikola’s and ran for the drawbridge that was about to rise.  If we had missed it, we would have had to wait 2 hours for it to lower back over the canal.  Although it would not have been too bad since we would only have had more time to play music.

The next day Todd, Jordan, and I went out to explore Saint Petersburg.  Let me say, what an incredible city!  What an incredibly BEAUTIFUL city!  The canals and rivers are reminiscent of Venice, the buildings and monuments resemble those in Paris.  However, it was not only the European similarities that made Petersburg wonderful for me but (like always) even more so the people.  There was a friendliness that seemed more present than, for example, the people in Moscow.  Even though it was cold outside-you New Yorkers have no more excuses!-everyone had a smile and a very nice demeanor.

I spent most of the day walking through the maze-like palace of the Hermitage museum.  It was breathtaking stumbling upon Matisse’s Dance rising at about 10 feet.  I forget sometimes how important it is to acknowledge the beauty of visual art.  I forget how, when I do take the time to witness visual art, I unwillingly feel or think something unexpected.  I was lucky this time to see so many works that gave me elated emotions and thoughts.

I returned to our hosts apartment where a party was beginning.  A Mafia party.  Valentina (Sam’s AMAZING Couch Surfer roommate from Belarus) and Sam were hosting a Mafia party for the Couch Surfing community in Saint Petersburg.  For those of you unfamiliar, Mafia is a game where players are given roles such as mafia, peaceful citizen, constable, doctor, and witness.  The mafia players kill the peaceful citizens and the constable tries to put them in jail, etc.  Jordan totally ruled the game killing everyone off on the first round and then conquering the second round as a Mafia King.

In the meantime, I was playing music in the kitchen with Nikola and Todd.  As soon as Mafia was over, everyone came in and we had a fantastic jam.  Sam pulled out his clarinet, I pulled out the melodica, and we grabbed all the other instruments that were around. Ochi Chyornye lasted for about 10 minutes.  It was awesome.

A few hours later the party began to dissipate.  We were down to only a few and got ready for bed.  Jordan, Mathilde (another Couch Surfer), Todd, and I got into our sleeping places in Valentina’s room and Sam came in to say goodnight.

“Sing us a song to sleep!” Mathilde requested.

Without hesitation, Sam began to sing one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time.  It was such a simple but wonderful moment.  The original version of the song, One Hand on The Radio by Coope, Boyes and Simpson has a country swing but Sam (maybe it has something to do with his English blood) sang it like an old English sea song.  Absolutely amazing.

The next day we slept late and awaited Valentina.  She told us that she would be coming home early and would be available to take us around Saint Petersburg.  Valentina was initially quiet when we first arrived two days earlier but now we had time to get to know each other.  I learned that she has a VERY sharp wit  and hilarious humor that I loved.

“So, what is the typical Russian breakfast?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know.  I’m not typical.  And I’m not Russian.”

Then she smiled her beautiful smile and gave a look of, “Well, you did ask.”  I LOVED this about her.  Especially when she would do it to the boys.

Valentina took us to the Café du Monde of Saint Petersburg.  A small café where they served the Russian doughnut called, ponchiki.  Most tables are standing only and about 5 ponchiki are only $1.  Easy to say we ordered about 20.

Valentina then took us to an artist commune that held a coffee and teashop, squatting apartment, and several art galleries.  This area was called Pushkinskaya after the famous writer, Alexandr Pushkin.

(This reminds me of something Blackadder would say…)

Then we went to a small blues club that had a nice jazz duo performing.  Todd’s friend Illiya joined us a little bit later.  Todd had met Illiya on the street where he was performing on a hang drum.  This instrument is very unique and rare.  It was a complete stroke of luck that Todd saw him gigging on the street.  At the blues bar, Illiya jumped into the jam and played with the pianist from the duo.

I even got to play this incredible instrument!

This same night we said goodbye to all our new friends and prepared for another over night train back to Moscow.  It was a sad and prolonged farewell.

Like I said, I had heard numerous times that Petersburg was a lovely and beautiful city but little did I know that I would meet some of the most wonderful people there.  I am not sure of the whole reason for choosing Petersburg to be their home away from home but I think I can guess why.

So, again I find that no matter where we go we are presented with the COOLEST people!  I cannot tell you why it happens because I really am not sure myself.  I some times think that I mentally attract it.  As if I am constantly and unconsciously searching for these people.  I have to say though that I prefer not knowing WHY it happens and keeping my thoughts positive and knowing that it WILL happen.

Back in Moscow we connected with a new addition to our Trans-Siberian Bound group.  I’ll never know the reason why Sasha willingly chose to join 3 crazy Americans across Siberia but I’m soooo grateful she did.

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Trans-Siberian Hustle

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Long Train Runnin’

I woke up today on the train to witness a beautiful site.  The sun was beginning to rise over the snow-covered hills (Haha sounds familiar?)  The famous birch trees of Russia ran along the scene.  These trees are a classic representation of Russia, seen in all movies set here and in several novels and stories.  In our first three weeks in Russia we have traveled and visited Moscow –> Suzdal  –> Moscow  –> Saint Petersburg –> Moscow –> Omsk  –> Sheregesh  –> Novosibirsk  –> Irkutsk

Obviously there is a lot to cover but I guess it is always good to start from the beginning.

I flew from Roma to Kiev via Budapest to meet back up with my Trans-Siberian bound boys.  With luck from a beautiful Ukranian woman (I have to add that Ukraine is filled with the most BEAUTIFUL women in the world.  SERIOUSLY.  No matter who you are or what you think if you go to the Ukraine you will notice all of the incredibly gorgeous women who fill the streets) who befriended me in the customs line at my transfer airport in Budapest.  I followed her lead as she cut the entire immigration line almost causing a riot.  It was hilarious and embarrassing.

I walked off the plane to find my bearded fellows waiting for me.  I had been completely filled up emotionally, mentally, and with delicious Italian dishes at La Rocchetta and so I was ready for our intensive journey.  A big THANK YOU to Michelle Noon, Claudio Cesaretti, my mother, and Ken for that!

The boys had purchased tickets to Moscow leaving the next day.  We had one night in Kiev together and were so blessed to have incredible CouchSurfers, Alexandr, Yulia, and their friend Alex show us around.

The next day we boarded the train to Moscow.  There are 3 classes on Russian trains, 1st and 2nd class have their own compartments with doors, etc.  Our tickets, which are significantly cheaper, are for platskartPlakskart is a dorm-like train car that has no doors and six beds per section.  So you really have no choice who you will share your “space” with.  Of course we had heard and been told several times about Russian trains, platskart, and the activities that go on.  Ok, imagine that scene in Titanic when Kate Winslet’s character goes down to 3rd class where there is a big party going on with drinking and dancing.  Now replace the entire scene with rowdy and loud Russians, lots and LOTS of vodka, and on a train.

In all truth, platskart is not always a party haven but once we open our mouths and people hear English their curiosity is sparked.  Soon after that, it would be discovered that we were American.

“Amyereekanskee!”  was whispered all down the train car.

This has happened on every train we have been on.   It was a little weird at first but we soon realized that people are only genuinely curious as to why we are here and what we are doing.  We have been the superstars of every platskart trip with many Russians offering us food, conversation, and of course vodka.  I have to give a big shot out to Jordan because he has endured several friendly Russians who really like to share their vodka with him.

Our first train was certainly the craziest so far.  Our neighbors were two men who spoke fairly decent English and an old man who was quiet but attentive.  The two half-Ukranian half-Russian men talked ALL NIGHT LONG.  I should mention that this was a 14 hour train ride.  At 3PM where we were pulling out of the Kiev station and they had already fed Jordan 3 shots of vodka.  The men were so excited and exuberant and spoke of interesting things.  Such as the state of the world, the young generations making a better world, politics, technology, art, and books.  It was amazing and wonderful.  For what really seemed like two drunk and belligerent men they knew quite a lot about the world and current events.  This pleasantry did not necessarily last for the entire trip though.

It was only 9PM when they gave Jordan his 10th shot of vodka.  Luckily, for him and us, they provided pickles, cabbage, Russian fruit juice and as the man exclaimed,

“Jordan!  Do not worry.  We have…..a chicken!!!”

As he said this he moved his hands like he was holding a ball and gesturing the size of the whole roasted chicken.

The quiet old man who we finally learned to be Uncle Sergei became a part of the festivities, taking shots of vodka and even presenting some AMAZING dumplings he bought at one of the train stops.  Uncle Sergei was a man in his late forties who had one of the most intense lazy eyes I’ve ever seen as well as a half toothless smile.  However, even with his awkward appearance, Uncle Sergei was the nicest and most trustworthy of the bunch.

Around midnight, Uncle Sergei pulled out a plastic green bottle.  He poured three shots for Jordan, himself, and I.  We were curious to know about this mysterious liquid but we knew better than to smell it.  So we clinked our glasses (like they do here) and took the shots of what we learned was homemade raki.

The boarder guards came and inspected us deligently due to our loud friends.  We were nervous but everything went smoothly and we crossed the boarder into Russia.

In the dark morning hours we arrived in Moscow and said our goodbyes to our train mates.  Each one gave a hug goodbye and the quiet Uncle Sergei even gave me a kiss on the forehead.

As in many early mornings with my travel companions we did not exactly know where we were or where we were going.  Poor Jordan was swimming since the men on the train had woken him up before arriving into Moscow and convinced him to take more shots of vodka with them.  We decided to go inside the train station and recollect ourselves.

On our way to the entrance we could see the streets, buildings, and signs written in Russian Cyrillic.  It was a wonderful realization to know that after all the work and preparation we did we were finally in Russia.

Here comes our wonderful serendipity….Jordan found a hostel online and we decided to go there, rest up, and plan the rest of our time in Moscow.  When we arrived Todd saw a sign soliciting photographers.  In the end, they were both hired to film and photograph the hostel in Moscow and in Suzdal (a small town three hours east of Moscow.)  This resulted in a payment for them and 5 free nights, two in Moscow and three in Suzdal, for us all!  OUR LUCK!

After all was arranged we walked over to the Red Square.  This was truly an exciting moment.  The Kremlin that I have seen in numerous documentaries and videos was right before us.  Lenin’s tomb, the Safire stars, and cobblestones were all there in front of me.  So much history was played out in this space it was overwhelmingly nostalgic and powerful.

But even more powerful was our satisfaction and pride in getting there and making it all together.

Yes, we had made it and this was only the beginning…

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A Turkish Delight – Part II

From Izmir we had three hitches that took us to Pamukkale.  Through olive groves and rolling hills filled with fig and orange trees.  No power lines or billboards just complete rural beauty.  I finally felt like we were seeing the real Turkey.

We were not initially planning to go to Pamukkale but our drivers highly suggested it.  One of our rides didn’t speak any English but showered us with gifts.  They even gave each of us our own enormous ruby red pomegranate.

Pamukkale was absolutely stunning.  Pamukkale is a town that sits beneath natural hot springs and travertines that terrace on the side of a hill.  Pictures simply do it no justice.  Walking up the terraces to the ruins of an ancient Roman city you are required to take your shoes off.  The water gets warmer as you escalate up the hill.  People can swim for free in the limestone pools or can pay to go to the small spa that is at the top in the Roman ruins.  I felt very lucky to be in Pamukkale on this day because it was the first day with a good sun since the trip began.

We left Pamukkale in high spirits and headed for our next destination; ANKARA.  For some reason, this day was much more difficult hitchhiking.  Meaning it took longer to get rides and the rides we did get couldn’t take us very far.  By the time we made it to Afyon, two hours south of Ankara, it was dark.  It had been such a strenuous, long day and we were very tired and didn’t know what to do next.

These situations always bring up differences in opinion and debates.  Sometimes it can be difficult and in other cases agreeable.  Another positive dynamic in our group is that rarely things are taken personally.  If someone wants to do something that no one else wants to do then they do it.  Once four we were now two.  Jordan headed to meet a couchsurfer in Ankara while Todd and I planned our next move.

First things first, something to eat.  While we were enjoying our döners (Turkish kebab) we made a plan to go straight to Cappadocia (6 hour bus ride away).  We did not have internet access and most of the people we tried talking to did not speak English.  However, we were confident and are certainly used to these kinds of situations where you really do not know what to do next.  While I was trying to translate Turkish directions from the restaurant manager a young couple my age asked where we were trying to go.

“Well,” I looked at Todd. “I guess we are trying to go to the bus station.”

“Come sit down.”

We didn’t have anywhere else to be or go so we sat with them.  Santiego and Gülçin ordered us a tea and we started to get to know each other.  Santiego owned his own carpet cleaning business that took him and his wife, Gülçin, all over eastern Europe.  Sitting with them and chatting was a nice change of pace from our previous brainstorming and problem solving evening.  After another round of tea Santiego said matter-of-factly,

“Now we go.”

“Oh, where are you going?” I asked.

“We are taking you to bus station.”

I looked at Todd and realized this is what happens when you are open to things.  We could have acted rushed or concerned about finding the bus station and not sat down with Santiego and Gülçin.  Not only would we have missed out on a fast and easy way to the bus station but also not made these new and wonderful friends.

“I bought my wife car.  Mercedes,”  he said as he looked lovingly into Gülçin’s eyes.

They really were cute like this.  Giving each other loving glances and whenever Santiego referred to Gülçin he always did as his “wife.”

We walked up to the van that they had fully furnished for their travels.  A fold down TV, room for a bed, and incredible music system they blasted all the way to the station.  Once we got there we showered them with “thank yous.”

“We all go inside.”

Of course they weren’t just going to drop us off.  They were so kind that they took us to the window, spoke with the man, ordered our tickets, walked us to our gate, AND treated us to another tea.

“Now we go.”

We gave them hugs and again showered them with “thank yous” and they walked away hand in hand.

Todd and I looked at each other and were so excited and happy to have found these guides.  It seems to happen to us wherever we go.

An hour later we were on the bus to Aksaray.  Almost hitting the median and crashing and burning along the way.  The driver ran into one of those thin metal poles they put in the middle of the interstate just before a two foot high curb for the median came along.  We really were lucky he hit the pole and not the median…So I have lots of “thank yous” for that too.

We arrived in Aksaray at 4:30am with no idea where to go or what to do.  Luckily (again our luck), with our bus tickets came a shuttle bus ticket into town.  The driver didn’t speak any English but we were able to communicate that we didn’t have a hotel to go to and that we wanted a cafe.

All you really need after late nights of travel is a hot pastry, tea and/or coffee.  Our AMAZING driver took us to the bakery that made everything for the whole city.  From other bread shops to the pretzel vendors to the coffee shops everyone was there early in the morning getting their treats for the day.  This was the KING of all bakeries.  With a huge brick oven (the size of a yurt!) facing the street looking out all glass windows and doors.  They left the front of the bakery open because it was so hot in there.

This became our home for the next 3 hours.  Not only was everything fresh but it was very inexpensive as well.  Even though it was technically the driver who brought us to this heaven-like place I have to pay tribute to my aunt, Elise, who I believe has rubbed off some of her worldwide-best-bakery-finding magic on me.

It seems that after a month of living in a country one would get a phrase book.  No!  One would get a phrase book BEFORE going to another country so that they can practice and be prepared.  Well, that’s just not how I did it this time.  We finally bought a phrase book which was so helpful on our next hitchhiking ride and throughout the rest of the trip.

We walked out of town and made a sign for Nevşehir.  We thought we were in a good place to be picked up.  It was out of the city and the only direction was for Nevşehir.  During our waiting time, I noticed a wall across the street.  I mean a BIG wall.  With barbed wire and guard posts and guards with guns.

“I think that’s why no one is picking us up right away,” I said, pointing at the wall.

“Why?”

“Well, I think it’s the prison!”

Todd and I started cracking up.  Of course the place we picked to hitch was in view of what could easily be assumed as a prison.  This realization began a reel of bizarre events including chatty gypsies, a very equivocal old man, and an incident with our hitching ride….

We jumped in a car with a trustworthy looking man.  He didn’t speak any English but we had our new phrase book and it helped a lot!  We had typical conversation of where we were all from, what our jobs were, and some things about our families.

Now, we had done our research concerning hitchhiking as a woman in Turkey.  Things like how to conduct yourself, what certain signs meant, and basically the correct educate.  One story that stuck with us was about a girl who was hitchhiking alone in Turkey and her ride made a signal rubbing his two pointer fingers together side by side.  The girl made it clear that this symbol meant sex.  The rest of the story continued in a positive way where the girl asked to be dropped off and got out of the car with no problems.

Back to our ride….about 30 minutes down the road, with rolling golden hills on all sides of us, our driver began insinuating the question if Todd and I were together.  We didn’t quite understand until he made the sign with his fingers.  Rubbing them together wildly and pointing to Todd and then to me.  This was the first encounter of our entire hitchhiking adventure that this happened.  It was hilarious.  We laughed and laughed and immediately called Cem (our great friend from Istanbul) to help us translate and confirm that our driver was not asking for sex but asking if we had sex!  Cem put our minds at ease saying that our driver told him that we were special people and that we all are good friends.

He dropped us off at the dolmuş stop (Turkish bus/taxi) and we rode it into the town of Göreme where we were hit with the visual beauty of Cappadocia and the famous fairy chimneys.

The fairy chimneys are amazing natural phenomenons that have been around since the 6th century B.C. with several different societies inhabiting them.  Cappadocia includes several little towns that each have their own fairy chimneys and/or Roman ruins.

First thing we did when we arrived was find somewhere to sleep!  Once we were rested from our exhausting night (and day!) we went and arranged to rent a motorbike.  This was one of the best ideas and I have to say the greatest way to see Cappadocia.

Todd’s off road skills were incredible and we made it up to the top of a mountain that over looked the whole country side.

We also went down a dirt road that led to someone’s private farm.  There was a sign that said “Information” written in blue on a piece wood dangling from a nail.

“Welcome to my garden!”

A man approached us and told us to come and sit with him and have tea.  A German family walked by and he did the same greeting and showed them to the table.  There he gave us apple tea that was all natural and produced from his garden.  Then he gave us a tour picking tomatoes, grapes, and walnuts and having us eat them.  It was wonderful.

The next day we took the bike to Kaymaklı which is one of the Underground Cities around Cappadocia.  This place was amazing.  Only 10% of the city has been excavated.  Todd and I found a tunnel that led straight into darkness.  We obviously were not supposed to be down there but it was so curious…like Alice and the rabbit hole.  However, it got a bit creepy when we could not fit any more down the tunnel.

We decided to sleep outside this night because we had to be up early for the hot air balloon ride.  Wait what?!  Hot air balloon?!  Oh yea.  It was cheaper than we thought because it was the off-season but even if it had been more expensive we would have gone anyways.  It was truly the most amazing experience and worth every Turkish Lira.  So sleeping outside seemed to be the most logical since we would be saving money on a hostel. The night before the balloon we met some friends in the park where we were sleeping…

These were students at the University near by and they were having a party at the park.  They were the most welcoming and jovial bunch.  Giving us beer, raki, cucumbers, chicken, and a little bit of everything they had.  We had a great time talking with them and were so grateful for the fire they started because it was so cold!

Once they left I set up my sleeping bag on a picnic table and looked up at the stars.  There was an incredible moon out and it shown on the fairy chimneys in an eery but magical way.  I awoke just before 5am and rode the motorcycle wearing Todd’s sleeping bag.  It was SO COLD.  I was inside the sleeping bag and wrapped the front part around him.  When we arrived at the meeting point for the balloon guide, I popped out of the sleeping bag and his look of surprise was hilarious.

PHEW!  I know it is such a long tale but I feel like I had to get it out because it was honestly one of the most wonderful trips.  All the people we met and all the beautiful things we saw seemed like enough for a lifetime.  This was just one week!  We were completely elated the entire time.  My favorite part being the surprise of everything.  I had no idea all these great things would happen.

Thank you Turkey for being such an incredible adventure.

Now I’m in Moscow and have just come home from walking through the Red Square.  I cannot express enough the awe of seeing Russia.  Even with the introduction to capitalism, the history stands out strongly.

We finally made it.

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