June 6 - June 18, 2006
Carolyn and I recently returned from a 12 day trip to Russia. She has been planning this trip for the past 3 or 4 years, but “we” finally got serious about 8 months ago. This was a Viking River Cruise and that means you stay on the boat, unpack once and repack only once. I am a very poor traveler and can’t stand the in and out of suitcase routine.
Considering that this involved over 17 hours of actual flying each way with indicated stops this amounts to an actual 10 day trip. Some of you may have already been there, done that so I shall not bore you all with minute-minute happenings, but simply share with you some of the sights, experiences, observations, and reflections for the trip.
Viking is a travel company located in Woodland Hills, CA – almost a neighbor. Carolyn used them in her trip to the Netherlands. Like most of these modern travel companies – very efficient, well organized and well run. They specialize in River Cruises with trips all over the world – wherever rivers exist – including the Amazon, Yangtze and, in this case, the Volga. And we were helped by our good friend, Nanci Wolfus, of Northridge Travel.
They have at least 4 of these large commonly seen river cruisers (about 200 passengers) running up and down the Volga on the Moscow to St. Petersburg run. 2 start at St. Pete and 2 from Moscow. There must have been a fleet of at least 15 such cruisers operating by the various companies. We were told that no more would be built and the current vessels must be maintained. Everything freezes in winter and all boats come out of the water. Thus, the cruising season is only 6 months (c.a. April to November). And no out-riggers.
The difference is that starting below you have 2 days in Moscow and 3 in St. Pete whereas the others start with 2 days in St. Pete and 3 in Moscow. We opted for the M-SP trip wanting to spend more time in St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during the war). When one is asked: “Why go to Russia?” The most common answer is one word – Hermitage (basically the old Winter Palace in St. Pete). That, along with the Summer Palace and Peterhof are quite a collection and, along with other very important historical sites and cathedrals, make the city a tourist’s gold mine – literally.
We started in San Diego at 0630 – flew United to Washington, Dulles – SAS to Copenhagen – SAS to Moscow – arriving there in mid-day. 9 time zone changes and 11 hour difference. Tired? Of course. But the travel guides say not to take a nap, but try to get into the local times ASAP. The rooms down in steerage where we stayed (not that bad, but the lower rental level) are small, but comfortable and lots of storage. They come in twice a day to clean up and turn down the covers in the evening. The windows open up, but that invites mosquitoes and one is always concerned about safety, but I don’t think that is much of an issue on these boats. They don’t serve food around the clock like on our large cruisers, but plenty of healthy food for the three meals and not too much of it. In the AM they have delicious smoked salmon which is the equal of our local lox. But, alas, no bagels. On the field trips they furnish a box lunch with a sandwich, fruit, water, and munchies. All water is bottled with constant replenishment in the rooms.
It is remarkable how few citizens speak English. To find an English speaker in town is a rarity. The important people on the boat speak well, the crew none, and the young girls in the dining rooms and maid service only a few words. But I guarantee you that the girls in the dining rooms will well remember the lady allergic to onions.
The traffic in Moscow and St. Petersburg make the Los Angeles freeways look like the Indy 500. The automobiles have completely overtaken the bicycles, sleds, troikas, etc but smog does not seem to be an issue. There are virtually no such things as parking structures and where they park is a mystery to me. And SUVs are only rarely seen.
The Russians give true meaning to the slogan: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” They simply keep the streets, parks, sidewalks, etc free of cigarette butts, Kodak wrappers (becoming a relic with the digital age), papers, you name it. The subways close from midnight to 4 AM – for cleaning.
Speaking of subways – both cities have excellent service and the stations are generally a thing of beauty. We were taken for a ride in the system (the Metro) and started at the newest station of the whole system. It is a thing of beauty with all the polished granite – even on the walls of the tubes – instead of the plain exposed concrete. And very little propaganda. The whole system was put in during the 30’s under the Stalin regime. We ended up at the oldest station in town and it is full of many statues referring to the “People” and that time, but only a couple of large murals devoted to their history. Again, everything clean and polished where indicated.
Rubles go at 26(+) to the dollar. They do not belong to the European common market (or whatever it is called) but recognize the Euro by calling them units (about $1.36).
The weather was very nice without excessive heat. Most of the time we either carried jackets or left them “home.” We had a couple of sprinkles and one rainy afternoon that curtailed our visit to the Summer Palace gardens. That was the day we left the umbrellas on the boat or on the bus. Out of the whole crowd there were only 2 or 3 persons wearing shorts – including the funny fellow from San Diego – related to the person who wore shorts in Milwaukee in the dead of winter.
The waters we crossed were generally calm and flat. On days with significant wind there was no problem since any swells in the various waterways. We must have gone through at least 14 locks being raised or lowered passing from the Moscow Canal to the Volga, through various lakes, and down to the level of the Finnish waterway at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea. It was interesting to see how the gates opened and closed – some side to side – and some flattening out.
There are many buoys and range markers marking the channels.
We had a tour of the bridge and the engine room. I think they said that they put about 1500 hours on the mains during the summer. That seems kind of low. I forgot to ask about the generators. The shafts (triple screw) are 220 mm (about 9 ½ “ in diameter). They use GPS, but I didn’t see the unit. The masts (radio, radar, lights, etc) fold down for low bridge clearance.
The boats have a sun deck (no pool), library, gift shop, a large meeting (and entertainment) room, two dining rooms, and a panorama bar (with early breakfast at 6 AM for us early risers). Lots of deck space for the walkers. I asked if there was boat drill – they laughed. There were four large life boats – I think two of them named Lusitania and Titanic. We had life preservers under our beds. If the boats did sink I don’t think they would make it to the bottom of most these waterways.
We passed through two (the two largest in Europe) fresh water lakes. The largest, leading to St. Pete is Lake Ladoga. I was only 8 -9 when the Russo-Finnish war took place, but I still recall pictures of the Finnish soldiers in their white uniforms and references to Lake Ladoga. With Ladoga completely frozen in winter it served as a road way of getting supplies to Leningrad during the Nazi’s 900 day siege of the city.
All electricity in Russia is 220 volts. If one is to use any of our appliances it means carrying a converter with you. These are simple straight two-pronged plugs that fit into their receptacles and accept our standard two bladed plugs. If you carry our three-pronged plugs bring a two blade adapter. One word of warning: their receptacles are frequently recessed in a round hole. If you get a 220-110 adapter that is not round it probably will not fit. At one of the local travel stores I got a small, inexpensive 2-prong adapter and it allows the larger 2-prongers to plug in.
In both cities there is tremendous construction going on – mainly large apartment/condo structures, often 12-15 stories high. In down-town San Diego one might see 6 construction cranes in the skyline, but there you may see 100 throughout the cities. Living quarters in these cities consist of mainly many, many of these large buildings. You do not see single family homes as we are accustomed to seeing. We are told that many of the older buildings do not have elevators. Newer buildings require elevators if more than 5 stories. Apparently lots of families have country homes (Dachas?) and commute on the trains. And many drive in contributing to the mess.
Most of our side tours in the two cities are handled by buses – usually comfortable Mercedes-Benz. The drivers handle them well and it is amazing how they avoid accidents in that traffic. For the boat we had 6 buses and a relatively good English- speaking guide in each. The buses were numbered 1-6 and each guide carried a numbered sign for his or her bus and the groups from each bus followed them as closely as possible. Whenever I stopped to film something they kept moving ahead and I was constantly trying to catch up with #3 (our bus number).
When entering a cathedral or room there were always other groups from your boat or other boats, lots of noise with all the guides talking and trying to hear your guide required putting one’s shoulder down and elbowing ahead to get as close as possible. This is true especially for us older, hard-of-hearing folks. What’s that you say?
There were people from all over the country on our boat – from many, many states. And there was a group of three couples from Israel. I met a retired Orthopedists who had also trained in the Northwestern program and we had lots to talk about – including both Fred Shapiro from CCH (Cook County Hosp) and JJ Fahey at St. Francis in Evanston. This fellow is retired and has a home in Ireland where he spend 6 months a year (as well as home in Prescott, AZ). Another retired MD, a vascular surgeon, who also lives in Prescott. I suspect the average age on this trip was around 75-80 with lots of old folks. But even they kept up with the guides better than I. And we met a couple who live in Avalon (i.e. Catalina Island) six months a year. Otherwise it is in Palm Desert. They have a small 25’ boat over on one of the small moorings. News? Rosie sold out the Fish Market last year. Prego’s Italian restaurant is closed and the Pancake House is moving into the spot. The repair barge was rebuilt but 3 stories high and unacceptable to the city. Potential law suit over who authorized what was settled by having the barge moved and giving the owner one of the large 70’ moorings in the front row. He promptly sold it for – are you ready? – 2.2 Million. “Normal” 40’ mooring s are going for up to 500K.
Aside from the two large cities we had stops at 4 other spots along the Volga – all featuring Cathedrals of different sizes and shapes and icons, icons, and more icons. These are religious paintings, usually on wood, and frequently covering every square inch of the inner walls. Those walls without icons are usually covered by frescoes. The icons are considered national treasures and cannot be exported (along with any antiques older than 100 yrs). My observation (conclusion? observation? comment?) is that in the history of the world many millions have been killed by greed or for political gain, but countless millions, if not billions, have been killed by a single word – religion. This must say something about the fragility of mankind. In addition, we know about the German/Nazi mentality but it is difficult to understand how they could have leveled so many of the magnificent structures found in this country. To have used these structures such as Peterhof for stables and then burning them down is hard to fathom. But, I guess, war is war. Fortunately, in preparation for their arrival, the Russians shipped many of the treasures to Siberia and buried in sand items such as the great chandeliers found in the various palaces.
It is beyond the scope of this writer (and time) to put in words what we saw. Many of the palaces, treasures, etc are familiar to everyone so I am going to try to put pictures with short commentaries in the form of a power-point presentation so that I can share this with you. That will take a little time which brings me to a little story about the trip.
In the months leading up to the trip I worked on getting the audio-visual gadgets ready. This involved several DV mini tapes for the cam-corder, an extra battery, a battery charger and extra memory sticks, battery and battery charger for the digital still camera. With an appropriate sized camera bag containing the 220 adapters as well I had it all ready to go. The bag was small enough to be packed into one of the carry-on bags we used. When we arrived at the ship I unpacked the camera bag and got the 220 adapters ready. And when I went to take my first picture – no still camera. I thought everything was packed in there, but, alas, no camera. Yes, you guessed it – the S---! Word. With nothing to do about it I simply planned to buy post-cards, catalogues, etc, scan the pictures when I get home and then use the scanned pictures as if they were on a memory stick.
After shooting some of the scenes on the video-camera I realized that the device was capable of taking single shots – each holding for 7 seconds for narration – but with not too great resolution. I knew the camera did not have a memory chip for this so now I’ll have to learn how to take the shots off the tapes. An editing course by the Best Buy Geek Squad is next on the list. But when we were well on our way back I looked in a side pocket of the camera bag where I thought the USB connector cord was. Opening the compartment – no cord – but there was the camera. Yes – another S---! Word. This aging process is too much.
Security? We were constantly warned about pick-pockets in both cities. Gypsies would appear at bus stops holding children with their hands out. Actual gangs of pick-pockets would assault people in the Metro and we heard several stories of actual thefts. I carried money in one of these bags inside the shirt slung from the neck. Carolyn used a belly bag tucked under her blouse. On the boat Viking held our passports and airline tickets. They confirmed everything for us and the passports were secure. They were occasionally needed in some money outlets to exchange dollars for rubles, but usually not needed. Lots of ATM machines in the major cities.
An interesting observation: we saw only three (3) black faces (i.e. African Americans) in all the time we were there. And the three were together on a tour of the Hermitage. And they talk about lots of “illegal immigrants” in Moscow – referring to people from the other independent republics. I told them to build a fence and call out the National Guard.
During cruising hours we had lectures (the Romanoffs, history of Russia, current politics, etc), movies (including “Rasputin”), folk dancing, crew “variety” show, passenger “variety” show, caviar and vodka tasting, etc, etc, etc. The land of White Nights – sun sets around 11 PM and rises around 4:30 AM. And never completely dark at night.
The furthest north we went was reported as Latitude 61 – about the same as Fairbanks, Alaska – so you can see why it gets cold there in the winter. And you know what George Santyana said about history repeating – too bad Hitler didn’t read about Napolean’s visit to the Motherland in 1812.
I could go on and on about the various Palaces, Cathedrals, Statues, buildings, etc we visited, but enough for now. I’ll save the pictures for another time. And hopefully get my videos edited. And, yes, we had a great time and definitely recommend such a trip if you haven’t been there yet. A word about the return trip – 3 hours by Lufthansa to Frankfurt, 9 hours by United to Chicago, and 4 ½ hours to San Diego – during which I watched 4 movies including King Kong, 8 Below, the picture with Mathew McConnery (sp???) and Sara Jessica Parker about breaking away from home and living with the parents (including Terry Bradshaw), and can’t remember the 4th. We were very tight in Frankfurt. They met about 6 of us at the gate, hustled us across the terminal and through security just making the next flight. We were given an hour and a half in Chicago, but there were head winds and we were a half hour late. Thus, in one hour we had to stand in line in the plane as it emptied (7 seats across) from row 41, clear Passport Control, pick up luggage at Carousel, clear Customs, drop off the luggage, fight our way to the head of the security check, go through the x-ray machine (with shoes off), reclaim our stuff and then make a mad dash (me in stocking feet) from Gate 8 to Gate 2 at the far end of the concourse with seconds to spare. The plane had already loaded and the door to the ramp was closed. But we already had our boarding passes and they let us on before closing the door and moving out. Still out of breath just thinking about it.