Oct 072017
 

Another great night of sleep, and despite being go go go on this vacation, one thing I was managing to do pretty well was catch up on sleep. Now, that might be due to the tremendous amount of walking I was doing in general, but either way, it was actually feeling like a vacation!

My rate at the W included breakfast, so made a point to partake in that before heading out. I would rate it pretty middle of the road as far as hotel breakfast go, but there were plenty of choices including eggs and porridge cooked to order, so it was more than enough to get a start on the day.



After fueling up, it was time for a walk! I had highlighted some of the sights I wanted to try and see, so the plan was to head out and see how much I could do before I got absolutely exhausted from walking. First stop near the hotel was the Fountain of the Admiralty:

Plan was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and head east-southeast before heading back north and eventually crossing the Neva River. First major site was the Stroganov Palace, and yes, that’s the family that beef stroganoff was named for. Since I only had one full day I opted to walk around and see as many sites as I could from the outside, without spending the time in line for tickets and exploring the inside. Stroganov Palace:

a little further down Nevsky Prospekt was the Kazan Cathedral:

Statue of Field Marshall Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk:

At this point, the grey weather and walking was catching up with me, so I stopped at Starbucks for a large iced coffee and a sandwich. After resting up a bit, I continued the walk. Crossed Nevsky Prospekt, and passed the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

Very impressive up close, and swarming with tourists:

Best part about tourists? All sorts of souvenir stands. I was pretty disappointed they only had this shirt left in a small size, because I totally wanted to buy it:

I did, however, managed to find a whole bunch of awesome magnets:

From this point, back to Nevsky Prospekt to catch the metro up to Finlandsky Station and continue my walk on the north side of the Neva River.

Finlandsky Vokzal, you can see how dark and heavy the clouds got, but it never did rain.

Two reasons for coming to Finlandsky Vokzal. First was to see where it was so I knew where to go for my train the next day, and second reason was the giant statue of Lenin. Looks especially ominous against the clouds:

The fountains in front of the train station made a nice contrast. I love this shot with the bright reddish-orange brick, the dark greyish-blue sky, and the contrast of the bright coats the pedestrians are wearing.

Finally figured out where/how to cross the tributary of the river, and a great view of the Nakhimov Naval Academy with the cruiser Aurora docked in front:

Another shot downriver with the Aurora:

The Aurora was closed to tours today, but that didn’t stop the large groups of Asian tourists from milling about and taking pictures:

Close-up of the Aurora:

Bit more of a walk, and the Peter and Paul Fortress:

Kept walking…and walking…and eventually passed the Yubilyeni Sports Palace. Wait, is that an ad for a pre-season hockey game…tonight? Even better, a bit of googling, and it appeared absolutely free. Registeted on the website, and very quickly my free tickets were e-mailed to me! Score. I had planned on a relaxing evening after over 10 miles of walking during the day, but how could I pass that up!

Given the game was less than two hours away, I cut my walk a little short and took the metro back to the hotel to change clothes and rest up a little bit. Only had about 30 minutes to rest before I had to catch the metro right back to the arena for the game. It was open seating, and appeared 25% full at most:

Let’s get a little closer to the ice…now these are great seats!

Cheerleaders and dragon mascots:

Old Soviet National team memorabilia on display:

It was nearly 9pm at this point, so I opted to skip the third period and head out to get some food and drink before it got too late. On a recommendation from a friend, I headed to Craft Pub to have a bite. Keeping in the theme of the day, a delicious beef stroganoff and a few great beers to wash it down:

Unusual decor in the restaurant…what would the Singapore First Class lounge think of this?!

One final local imperial stout to close out the evening:

With that, more than 10 miles walked and a hockey game, I think I made a pretty amazing dent in seeing St. Petersburg given the extremely limited time I had there. Now, it was time to get to bed so I could enjoy my train ride the next day…and my final stop: Helsinki.

Oct 052017
 

Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.



I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!

Jul 312016
 

Upon arrival, I looked for the driver who had my name on a sign board, but couldn’t find him. Not knowing the taxi situation in Novosibirsk, coupled with the fact we were supposed to arrive just after midnight, I ordered the “business sedan transfer” offered on the S7 website when I booked. For 12 euros a driver was supposed to meet me, and take me to my hotel. Finally found him after 10 minutes (he was slightly late) and we were off through very dark roads to the city.

One thing that immediately struck me, was that for the third biggest city in Russia (according to some sources) and definitely the largest east of ย the Urals, it was dark. Very dark. There were a good number of buildings, but it just struck me as very very dark. Arrived at my hotel just after midnight, the Marriott Novosibirsk. They wanted a bit over $100 a night for the stay, but I got it for an absolute steal on points. This hotel is a fantastic value!

Check in was quick and polite with decent English spoken, but the weirdest part was the insistance that they had to photocopy every page of my passport for “local border region security services.” Definitely a new one – I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in Russia – but I didn’t really have any room to complain. Fortunately, this passport was filled with relatively boring stamps. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The hotel had reached out to me a few days before the stay to ask if there was anything they could do to make the stay extra special, so I mentioned I was coming back for the first time in over 25 years, and looked forward to seeing how the city had changed. Oh, and any upgrade they could give would be appreciated ๐Ÿ˜‰ I certainly didn’t expect this huge corner suite:

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Odd layout with bed on the middle of the room, with a mini wall separating it from the living room area:

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Huge shower cube:

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Plus a tub and double sink:

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To top it off, they had left some brownie bites, chocolates, macarons, tea service, and a bottle of wine for me, well done!

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Didn’t end up making it to bed until nearly 2:30 given the time change, but no problem. I slept in until nearly 11, and then grabbed tea in the lobby (included with the suite upgrade) before heading out for a walk around the city. First stop was right near the hotel, the Novosibirsk Opera House. It’s the largest Opera House in Russia (bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow) but unfortunately, there were no performances going on while I was there:

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The opera is located on the Lenin Square, which still has not been renamed, and has great statues:

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…including Lenin himself:

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Workers of the world, unite!

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I then headed down Krasnij Prospekt, or Red Avenue…surprisingly still quite a number of symbols and names from Soviet days remaining in Novosibirsk. Stopped at the Chapel of St Nicholas, which is said to sit at the geographic centre of the old Soviet Union:

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After walking another hour or so, I decided to stop for lunch when I came upon a place called “Pivofactory” – literally translated as beer factory. I had a seat and asked for a menu, and was told “nope, we only have the business lunch menu now.” Sure, why not…when in Novosibirsk…

I was asked if I wanted dark or light beer, and I went with the dark. First the schci (cold soup) came out with cilantro, radishes, potatoes, cabbage in broth along with a salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers, more radishes and vinegar along with the beer in a mini boot and a bag of bread. This was a ton of food!

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Basket of bread:

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…but wait, there’s more! Mystery steak (somewhat like salisbury steak) with a BBQ sauce and mixed vegetables…and a nicely garnished plate sprinkled with paprika: …I also asked to try the light beer, which they were happy to bring:

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Grand total for all that food plus the second beer? Just over US$7. What a bargain! Kept walking, and was surprised at an intersection to see another of my favourite Washingtonians…Alex Ovechkin, peering down from a billboard:

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You can see how wet the ground is. There were periodic sprinkles and downpours all afternoon, in between which there would be sunny skies. During one downpour I decided it was a good time to check out the metro system. Took a ride to the end of the line, and found out the KHL Sibir hockey rink wasn’t far away. Thanks to google maps I managed to figure out which bus would take me there, and piece of cake I was able to get on. I had no idea how the busses worked but it was a piece of cake. Each stop a lady would come around selling tickets, super easy!

According to the website the rink had a fan shop, so I did a walk around looking for it. First, came upon the team bus. Given the location of Novosibirsk, I can’t imagine they drive to too many games:

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After a bit of wandering, someone finally asked what I was looking for. Told him, and it turned out he was the team equipment manager. He brought me inside, and showed me around the rink. It was much smaller than I expected:

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The “team store” turned out to be a glass display case with a few pieces of merchandise in it, but I did manage to pick up a t-shirt and hat at least. Banner outside the rink – you can see it sits right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood – “Sibir Hockey Club – Novosibirsk State”

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Full view of the rink:

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Then, it was time to head back into the metro and ride a bit more. It wasn’t as fancy as the Moscow metro, but still really cool to see:

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There was a station called Gagarinskaya – after Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, so I had to get off and take a themed pic of the station. You can’t see it well in the picture, but it’s a lit up pic of Gargarin in the circle:

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Got off at the station near the Ob river, and walked out onto the bridge. Unfortunately, there was really no good place to take a picture, but this was the best I was able to do:

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After a bit more walking around, I was getting really warm (it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit and humid!) I headed back into the metro. Note the murals of Lenin still in the station:

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I guess that was fitting, since the station near the hotel was called Lenin Square:

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After a bit of a rest at the hotel (the hotel doesn’t have a lounge, but has this weird arrangement where half the lobby cafe/bar is set aside for breakfasts and happy hour for club room guests. They had several snacks, and the staff was quite pleased to see I was willing to eat local pickled fish and other local foods along with a couple of rather poor local beers.

Finally headed out for some dinner. Many years ago, when I studied near Novosibirsk in high school, there was a pelmeni eating contest sponsored by the local Young Pioneers chapter. Pelmeni are a dumpling that is common in the region, filled with diced mixed meats. Needless to say, given the fact I won the championship 25 years and there was a whole restaurant for pelmeni, I had to go there. On top of it, it was called Beerman and Pelmeni…how could I go wrong!

They had several different kinds on the menu, but I decided to go with the “pick any three” sampler. I have to say the beer menu was a bit of a let down, but the pelmeni were great. I had one that was mixed beef and lamb, the black ones are squid ink filled with calamari, and the final one I think was called the Novosibirsk with onions and lamb, it was delicious, but unfortunately I’ve lost a bit of my touch – wasn’t able to finish them all:

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After a good night’s sleep, headed down for breakfast in the lobby. Lots of fresh fruit, croissant and nutella, boiled eggs, local cheese, and pickled mushrooms with fish. Quite tasty!

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Unfortunately my visit to Novosibirsk could only be for two nights due to the change in plans. With one more night I would have loved to go out to the small town of Akademgorodok where I studied and see how things have changed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have recognized anything at all! All too soon it was time to head off to the airport, and begin the onward trip…