Note From Jon


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Russia Recap: Day 6

Thursday April 24th

During the night, our fourth bunk was filled by a guy who got on at one of the intermediate stops (which explains why the conductor was so adamant that we not set any of our bags on that bunk back in Moscow). While it would have been fun to check out the first class Spalny Vagon, the goal of having a good quiet night’s sleep from Moscow to St. Petersburg was achieved. Well it was achieved to the extent that you can get a good night’s sleep while having to get up at 5am (something neither Kristin nor I excel at) in order to be off the train when it arrived at 5:30—they don’t seem to like you hanging around the train once it arrives, so I guess sleeping in isn’t much of an option.

We were immediately grateful for our choice of hotel, Hotel Oktiabrskaya, which is right off the square in front of the train station. The main hotel dominates the square nearly as much as the train station, but we stayed in the smaller (and cheaper) filial branch of the hotel on a different side of the square (and I definitely recommend that approach to anyone making a similar trip). As expected, we couldn’t check in at 5:30am, but there were no problems checking our bags in their luggage room (including Joe’s who didn’t have a reservation at the now full hotel).

Baggage stowed, we followed a recommendation Joe had for a breakfast buffet at Marius Pub, which did an admirable job of replacing the breakfasts we’d become accustomed to at the President Hotel. It probably helped that it was the restaurant attached to a hotel whose price may have rivaled what we paid at the President Hotel. We scanned the Lonely Planet over breakfast and I confirmed my suspicions that none of the places we planned to go in St. Petersburg opened before 10am, including all of the theatre kiosks where we hoped to get tickets to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. After having Gamlet sold out in Moscow I felt we needed to get those tickets as early as possible, but the Lonely Planet was adamant that in order to avoid the Hermitage lines you needed to be there an hour before it opened at 10:30. We had a conundrum but eventually chose to avoid the Hermitage lines and try our luck with ballet tickets in the afternoon.

Joe set off to find himself a hotel while we leisurely explored Nevsky Prospect and the canals to fill the hours before the Hermitage opened. We eventually settled in “line” (a group sitting around) out front of the museum. As we waited, a man walked up to us—directly to the two of us—and said he had two tickets to Swan Lake that night that he needed to get rid of and did we want them? Too good to be true? I was skeptical, having bought counterfeit tickets to a Jaguars/Ravens game years ago, and having read Lonely Planet’s section warning about ticket scalping. It described foreign theatre-goers being embarrassed as they were forced by zealous babushkas to pay the difference between the Russian price and the foreigner price when they were caught with Russian tickets. My skepticism grew when we mentioned that we were actually looking for three tickets (Joe planned to rejoin us that evening) and he said he had a colleague that he could swap tickets with to get us three together. I examined the two tickets he had and felt they were legitimate at least (and confirmed the date, time, and show etc.). He was asking 500 Rubles (~$25) per ticket which was between the prices I’d paid for Don Quixote and Eugene Onegin. Eventually, we decided it was worth the $25 for us to know we had the tickets and not have to spend any more time that day dealing with them. We agreed to buy them and he went to make the trade with his colleague.

Being April tourists may have hurt us at several locations, but nowhere did it help more than the Hermitage. The lines discussed in the book never really formed and we were able to enter the museum quickly (after our ballet scalper found us inside at the ticket window with our three tickets). We felt even better about buying the ballet tickets when it turned out Kristin saved nearly $20 on her admission to the Hermitage. Most places had discounted admissions for students (and Kristin took advantage of them with her GW card as a doctorate student), but the Hermitage had quite a discount indeed. Free. I paid about $20 (and it was still a bargain) and Kristin paid absolutely nothing. Best deal in Russia. Photos are allowed in the Hermitage... but not coats. Every theatre and museum had a complimentary (and tip-free) coat check, but this was the first time I was turned away at the entrance and forced to check my coat. Photos for coats was a fair tradeoff, and if I'd been made to walk around barefoot it'd have been worth it. Like the Moscow metro, photos are the only way to capture our three hour tour (sans shipwreck :-p) of the Hermitage. As you’ll see, it was as much about the art of the Hermitage as it was the art in the Hermitage:

Hardly satisfied that I’d spent all the time there that I wanted, I knew I would have to save a deeper exploration for a future trip. We had time for a short excursion before we needed to get back to the hotel to check-in/shower/get presentable for the ballet. Kristin had been hankering to climb something since we arrived in Russia and we’d finally found an opportunity, the colonnade of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I feared the view would cost nearly $16, but Kristin correctly surmised that the we could skip the $11 museum fee and go straight up the colonnade for $5. 262 mostly spiral stairs later, we had our view. St. Petersburg is compact enough that we could see nearly all of the main attractions from the top and get a good sense of the city layout.

Back at the hotel we met up with Joe so he could pick up his bags and learned we’d been wise to book our hotel in advance. Joe had spent all morning tracking down a room (ultimately ending up at an unmarked B&B up Nevsky Prospect). We planned to meet back up at Café Idiot for dinner before the ballet… but we never got there. Dinner and the theatre were a long walk back near St. Isaacs and we were running a bit late so we decided to take the metro. That was a bad idea. While less extensive than Moscow’s, St. Petersburg’s metro runs just as frequently is seems to be just as crowded per station. They also have the same problem if an escalator breaks down. And one did. We discovered this as we entered the large room at the top of the escalator. The usually empty room was overflowing with people, all funneling towards the two-by-two entrance to the escalator. Turning around wasn’t an option as the hallway poured people into the room behind us. The room couldn’t grow so as more and more people flowed in we just got cozier. The funnel soon felt more like an evil tube of cake icing with the back being squeezed and pushing us with more and more force towards the one narrow exit. I started to consider what might happen to us “icing” as we shot out of the tube and onto the top of an escalator. It wasn’t a pretty image, though perhaps not inappropriate if someone tumbled at the top. It was becoming increasingly difficult to stay standing (or to breathe) as each surge threatened to send us to the floor. It felt like only a matter of time before a squeeze from the back would come with enough force to topple those of us now in front. It was really starting to feel like that surge would be timed to coincide with our arrival at the top of the escalator. But we had to focus on standing, breathing and holding on to some bit of one another. Just before we reached the nozzle our grip on each other was broken. I watched one girl ahead of us get pinned to the metal railing leading to the escalator. It was all we could do to resist the surge just long enough to let her slide loose and get onto the escalator. Breathe. Stay standing. And then we were out. On the escalator. The pressure was instantly released and we were sliding safely away from the chaos. Mercifully, the escalator rode out horizontally for a good ways before descending, so in hindsight it was unlikely anyone would ever be the first domino to topple the whole set of us down to the bottom, but the danger of being trampled in that room was very real. We didn’t hear anything behind us so I can only assume that no disaster occurred but honestly I don’t know how.

As a result we missed out on Café Idiot and had to call Joe (kudos to Quad-band phones and AT&T for enabling them to communicate) to change our meeting to the theatre. No fast-food options presented themselves so Kristin and I found an Irish Pub next to the theatre and asked for whatever food they could have ready in ten minutes. Perhaps the Washington Redskins and William and Mary memorabilia above the bar was a good omen because in ten minutes we were splitting a delicious plate of that Irish speciality… Spaghetti Bolognaise. Still, we were cutting it close and the lights were flashing us to our seats when we arrived in the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. That wouldn’t have been a problem if there were ushers to help us to our seats. There weren’t. When our seat numbers were taken in the Orchestra we realized we needed to be up in the balcony. Except we couldn’t find the stairs. We ran in and out of the orchestra and the lobby and pretty much everywhere we could find before at last coming across the one stairwell off in the corner. Up we went. Out into the Mezzanine. Which weren’t where our seats we either. We could see the balcony we had to get to one level higher. It’s just that the stairs didn’t go there. We puzzled over the M.C. Escher-inspired staircase for a bit before deciding that stairs did go up there… we just couldn’t get to them from the Mezzanine. No, to go up you have to go down. Back at the bottom of the stairwell, there was a separate stairway that intertwined with the first, skipped the exit onto the Mezzanine and led finally to our seats… at the very back row of the entire theatre. That section was pretty much empty so we opted to sit down at the front as the ballet got underway after waiting for the frantic Americans to find their seats. Watching this ballet made me realize how much storyline there actually was in Don Quixote… and confirmed what I had suspected: I’m not a fan of ballet. Rather than complain about wanting a story I should really just go see a play (or at least an Opera)! Still it was a worthwhile experience, if only to discover this peculiar stairway design—which incidentally had those of us on the balcony descending to ground level and then halfway back up again to the Mezzanine where the refreshments and restrooms lived during intermission. Hopefully you didn’t down your liquid refreshments on the way back to the balcony and then realize you now needed to go back to the restroom. You’d never make it. Might as well just piss off the balcony. Anyway did I mention the stairway they had in this place?

After the show it was still light out, despite being past 10pm. As we took a sunset walk home past all of the day’s monuments, I realized it was the latest that it had ever stayed light where I was at. That record wouldn’t be broken by the next (longer) day because I’d be headed back on a train to Moscow by that time. But before then Kristin and I still had full tourist wishlists for Friday. Probably too full… As an early birthday present to Kristin (and yes, because I wouldn’t have been there without her) I figured her wishlist took priority. What? You think I made that up just because today happens to be Kristin’s birthday? I can neither confirm nor deny that. But I can wish Kristin a very merry birthday. Happy Birthday!

<-- Day 5 ---- Day 7 -->

1 comment:

Kristin said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes!! So a funny story that Jon forgot (or just did not include in the recap) was that while we were attempting to take a self-portrait by the Admiralty fountain (the one where I sprung a leak), suddenly we were getting soaked! What the heck?! Was someone spraying us with a water gun? Had the rain chased us from Moscow? Nope, turns out wind just changed and it was the water from the fountain. Haha, we got a laugh out of that.

Also, I just read an online synopsis of Swan Lake and it said it was four acts. Did I miss something?? If I remember correctly we only saw three...