Sunday, December 31

Russia - an update

Garry and I have returned safe and sound having experienced Russia in the snow and spectacle of Christmas. The following nine posts capture our nine days on the road visiting St Petersburg, Pskov and Moscow. Highlights include ballet at the Hermitage, Christmas on a sleeper train and a tour of Star City, home of the Russian Space program. Click here to read the first post from St Petersburg and then follow the links from there.

Saturday, December 30

Circus of childhood dreams

Our last night in Moscow was spent at the Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar. I can only describe the experience as that of a childhood fantasy come to life. At times the evening felt like a scene from a Baz Luhrmann Moulin Rouge sound stage.

The circus inself is staged in a purpose-built circular auditorium. Outside sits a life-size statue of famous Russian clown, Yury Nikulin, inviting children to sit in an equally life-size bronze car. Our tour guide described him as Russia's most famous drunk. Inside we encountered a sea of young children being entertained by surreal sideshow encounters.

Throughout the main lobby clowns crafted balloon animals, candy floss vendors touted overflowing trays and an array of animal exhibits offered astounding photo opportunities. Children wandered by with large colourful balloons, shaped like mini-Macy parade floats. At one point I watched a tiger lounge on low podium while small childern were arranged around it for flash photography.

At first I thought the animal was mechanical, that is until the nearby trainer encouraged it to open wide thus enabling him to insert his head between the tiger's gaping jaw. Elsewhere, photo opportunities were being offered with Elephants, immaculate show poodles and a monkey dressed in red bowler hat and tuxedo.

The circus itself was an equally colourful spectacle, but lacked the slick production quality of organsations like Cirque du Soleil. However, there were moments when a circus of childhood dreams came to life. Highlights included Elephants balancing on rolling cylinders, bears dancing on their hind paws and a nimble woman swirling on cotton swathes high above the audience. I doubt we'll ever see another circus quite like it.

The art of Russia

Our final two days in Russia were spent exploring Moscow's many sights. Highlights included a late night wander across Red Square, a visit to Gorky Park and a photo session in the snow with neglected statues from the communist era. This last sight seemed to encapsulate much of what Moscow has become. The city's art, displayed in every conceivable corner, often reflected the its enduring history.

Red Square was magnificent. St Basil's cathedral at the southern end was everything I'd ever imagined it would be. Even Lenin's tomb seemed appropriately scaled and modeled for its location by the Kremlin wall. During our first visit, a evening event, GUM department store was festooned with lights, while every cobblestone glistened with melting snow. Sadly the overall effect of the Square's environs were somewhat spoiled by a large, gaudy temporary ice skating rink outside GUM.

Gorky Park was a bitter disappointment. I'd imagined it to be a Soviet version of Central Park, but instead was greeted with shabby fences, semi-derelict side shows and abandoned buildings. It somehow seemed appropriate that one of three surviving Buran space shuttles should be on display in such shabby reminder of the soulless Soviet era.

Opposite Gorky Park is the far more aesthetic Sculpture Park. Here, set amongst trees and rose gardens, were the fallen idols of the Soviet era. Sitting in the snow were statues of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet heroes. A particularly poignant area was that dedicated to the millions purged under Stalin's regime. Behind a defaced statue of Stalin sits a curving cage of broken heads, symbolising the lives lost.

Opposite the park, across the Moscow River, sits one of the Soviet era's most appalling art works. Here a 94.5 metre black statue of Peter the Great stands watch over a fork in the river. This makes it taller than the Statue of Liberty (excluding her pedestal). The statue is gaudy, ill-proportioned and towers over the surrounding neighbourhood. Designed by Zurab Tseretelli, the statue originally depicted Christopher Columbus and was offered to no less than five North American cities. All rejected it on the grounds of cost, size or aesthetics. In the end, the head of Columbus was changed to that of Peter the Great and the statue was presented to the city of Moscow.

By contrast, Moscow Metro stations are astonishing works of art. Each station is clad in marble, decorated with statues, mosaics, chandeliers and baroque trimmings. In the photo above are statues celebrating heroes of the revolution at Ploshchad Revolutisk station near Red Square. Unfortunately, the tasteful surroundings seem lost on local commuters who elbow their way into over-stuffed rail carriages, pushing aside young and old to secure a ride. I've seen more forgiving rugby scrums.

Our final cultural experience in Moscow was the circus. Without a doubt Russia does a circus like none other.

Friday, December 29

Boxing Day in Moscow

Our train from Pskov pulled into Moscow shortly after 6:00am on Boxing Day. It was still dark outside, however large, fluffy snow flakes were steadily falling. We'd missed our White Christmas by less than six hours. As we exited the train station we suddenly found ourselves in a scene reminiscent of a Cold War movie. People in long drab coats and fur hats were bustling down snow covered streets with large cases. Behind them were the faint silhouettes of a large Stalin Seven Sister's skyscraper and a Soviet-style Government building, while an aging train rattled across a nearby overpass.

Our hotel transfer took more than an hour. However, most of this time was taken up simply driving around the block as army personnel wouldn't let our bus drive up the front of our hotel. Our arrival in Moscow had coincided with the annual Children's Festival in Red Square. It seemed that many of the invited children were staying at our hotel. This former Soviet event involves transporting children from all corners of the nation to Moscow for a mass performance spectacle staged in front of the Kremlin. Today the event remains as elite as ever. However, children from Russia's most wealthy families have replaced those of local communist party leaders.

Buses sit waiting to transport thousands of children to Red Square.
Each driver is dressed as Santa.

Our hotel was part of a five-building complex built for the Summer Olympic Games in 1980. The interior has a distinstive 80s feel and as you exit the building, mosaic tiles capture the Olympic rings on the pavement. With more than 3000 rooms, this is considered Europe's largest hotel complex. It's also clear that the Soviets had gone to great lengths to create a Western-standard hotel. This venue was signficantly more Western than any of the typical "Soviet-style" hotels we'd used elsewhere.

After breakfast and a refreshing shower, our tour group set off for a walking tour of central Moscow. Sadly, Red Square was blocked off due to the Children's festivities. However we were able to see the walls of the Kremlin framed by snow and experience other inner city sights. My initial impression of Moscow was one of architectural choas. Buildings were in odd places. Styles clashed. One was left with a visual state of confusion.

After lunch inside the genuinely impressive GUM department store (which is really an indoor mall with a glass roof), we set off for an afternoon tour of the Kremlin. This was a real highlight. As we wandered through the internal couryards it was hard to comprehend that such a feat would have been impossible 20 years ago. Here I was inside the heart of the old Soviet Union.

The Kremlin offered one spectacle after another, starting with the Kutafya entrance tower. You reach this entrance by crossing a gently sloping, arched red brick ramp. Inside you're immediately confronted by a bland Soviet-era building, the State Kremlin Palace. To either side are more appropriately styled 17th Century yellow stone buildings, one of which Stalin had moved from its previous location outside the Kremlin walls.

Our tour lead us past the over-sized Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell. The cannon weighs 40 tonnes, has a bore of 89cms and was cast in 1586. The bell, the world's largest, weighs a staggering 202 tonnes. A large, 11 tonne chunk has broken away from the side of bell, the result of a casting accident.

We visited the Archangel Cathedral, the coronation place for Russia's Tsars. Here also are the tombs of Russian leaders from the 1320 to 1690, including Ivan the Terrible. As you'd expect, the Iconstatis wall was spectacular. We also toured the neighbouring Assumption Cathedral, topped with five enormous gold domes.

Our Kremlin tour ended was a visit to the Armoury. Here are displayed many of the nation's most stunning treasures. Once again we were confronted by the staggering wealth amassed by the Tsars. We saw gilded thrones, state carriages (more ornately carved than most European cathedrals), crowns encrusted with precious stones, Faberge eggs, silver thread embroidered coronation dresses and rooms stuffed with precious metal gifts offered by visiting ambassadors. It's clear that Europe's aristocracy was determined to out do each other in their efforts to impress the Tsars. I've never seen a building filled with so much ostentatious wealth.

We finished our tour of the Kremlim by wandering through the snow covered grounds of Alexandrovsky Garden, nestled beneath the Kremlin's towering walls. As darkness felt we watched the Kremlin begin to glow as powerful floodlights took hold. We felt we'd truly arrived in Russia. Another postcard moment.

The following day, Garry and I ventured out of Moscow and headed north to Star City , home of the Russian Space program.

Wednesday, December 27

Star City

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Twenty-five years ago, on April 12, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to venture into space. His successful launch stunned the Americans, resulting in Kennedy's decision to race for the moon. Today, Garry and I toured Zvezdny Gorodok, better known as Star City. It was here that Yuri and those who followed him first trained as cosmonauts.

Our tour centred around Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Centre (GCTC), a compact compound located within a highly restricted military facility north-east of Moscow. Russian comonauts continue to live and train here. The site consisted of two parts, the training facility itself, and a small residential area for the military and civilian personnel serving the centre, as well as the cosmonauts and their families.

Much like the Johnson Space Centre in Texas, the facilities are dated, having a distinct 60s look and feel. However, one can immediately see that Russian space milestones were acheived on a far smaller budget. While Johnson Space Centre sprawls for miles, GCTC's handful of buildings can be seen from a single vantage point, covering the land area of a large Walmart store.

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Access to Star City involves passing through no less than three military checks points, along roads cut through dense, snow-clad forest. The scene could have been taken directly from a Cold War spy film. The first entrance is marked by a full-sized Soviet jet fighter erected on large concrete pillar.

As Garry and I walked through the final gate into the main boulevard of GCTC, it was hard to believe where we were. Forty years ago this centre didn't officially exist. It never appeared on Soviet maps and unauthorised access would have guaranteed a lengthy Gulag vacation in Siberia.

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Nine of us toured the centre, taking a lesiurely four hours to explore three key buildings:

  • the MIR training centre containing a working replica of the space station itself
  • the neutral bouyancy Hydro Lab where cosmonauts practice space walks in a giant swimming pool
  • the TsF-18 Centrifuge room containing a 300 tonne rotating structure able to simulate the G-forces of spaceflight.

Our tour began with a visit to a full scale mock-up of MIR once used to train cosmonauts and troubleshoot station problems. Each station module sits in a massive cradle filling a long, sunlight-flooded hall. To one side sits the descent module from the first successful manned Soyuz spaceflight. (The first ended in tragedy when Vladimir Komarov was killed on re-entry after his capsule’s parachute failed).

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Our tour guide invited us inside the mock-up, fitted in an identical manner to its orbiting counterpart. I was stunned. At Johnson Space Centre, you’re invited to tour the Skylab mock-up but are unable to touch anything inside. At Star City we were invited to sit at the control panel and flick switches, examine the space toilet and open hidden drawers within the central dining table. We spent at least 45 minutes exploring every corner of MIR.

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The private quarters for each cosmonaut were quite an eye-opener. On each side of the main living quarters are small phone booth-size cubicles. Each has a small window and can be screened off with a small curtain. You can see Garry trying out the cubicle below. It's hard to imagine having this as your only private space for months on end.

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From the MIR building we made our way through the snow to the circular HydroLab, located at the far end of the GCTC complex. Inside this building resides a 23 metre diameter tank, 12 metres deep. When filled with water, cosmonauts use neutral buoyancy techniques to practice repairing International Space Station (ISS) facilities. Objects configured to be neutrally buoyant seem to "hover" underwater, thus simulating the effects of weightlessness.

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During our visit mock-ups of a Soyuz capsule and the Russian Zarya module were suspended above the water tank on a giant lifting platform. When in use, the entire platform is slowly lowered into the water below. Outside the HydroLab a series of alternative (and disused) modules sat forlornly in the snow.

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Perhaps the most fascinating building was one we never visited. Next to the HydroLab sits a derelict seven-storey brick building, the fa├žade crumbling and windows broken. We never did find out what purpose it had served. One can only summise that it once housed a now defunct Soviet space program like Buran or MIR-2.

Our final destination was the Centrifuge building, a building at the opposite end of the GCTC complex. Inside a enormous circular hall sits an equally enormous blue centrifuge - the world's largest such structure. Test subjects sit in a cabin on the end of an 18 metre arm and are rotated at speeds that generate forces of up to 30Gs. The main hall is awe inspiring, while the centrifuge itself looks like something from an 80s Science Fiction television drama.

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Our tour ended with lunch in an empty cafe, sitting in the midst of a nearby apartment complex. The venue was dated and run-down, reflecting the funding challenges that continue to plague the Russian space program. As we drove away, I felt a moment of sorrow. It was sad to witness the former glory of the Soviet space program quietly disintigrating in a bleak, isolated forest.

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Click here for more adventures in Moscow.

Pskov for Christmas

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For more than 1000 years, Pskov and the surrounding area has served as a border zone between Russia and the West. Constantly the subject of invasion, the area has amazed an arrary of fortifications and religious sights. Garry and I spent much of Christmas Day visting two of the region's most famous sights; The Holy Dormition Pskovo-Pechersky monastery and the nearby Izborsk Fortress.

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Pskov-Perchersky monastery is located 18km from the Estonian border. Built in the 15th Century, the entire site is surrounded by high fortress walls. Inside reside a series of religious buildings, including a church topped by five bright blue, glit-clad onion domes. During our visit the site was bathed in regular sunshine, making the distinctive domes magically glint and sparkle. After days of bleak weather, Christmas Day had dawned with blue skies, one of only two such days during our entire Russia tour.

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Izborsk was equally impressive. It's imposing walls tower more than six metres above the surrounding town, nestled on the edge of steep hillside. Inside sits the white-washed 14th Century Nikolcky cathedral. We had the entire site to ourselves for almost an hour.

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Our final hour of daylight in Pskov was spent preparing for an overnight sleeper train journey to Moscow. I ducked away from the group to visit Pskov's World War II memorial park. The park's memorial consists of a clutter of anti-aircraft gun barrels pointing skyward. In front sits an eternal flame. At the close of WWII only 15% of Pskov's buildings were standing and the population had fallen to less than 150 people. By comparison, the city today is home to more than 200,000 people.

The Germans first captured Pskov on July 9, 1941. It went on to become the key point of "Panther" defence line (the northern part of German's "East Rampart") before finally being liberated by the 128 infantry division of 42 Soviet Army on July 22, 1944. As watched the sun set on Christmas Day I struggled to comprehend the meaning of war. It seemed hard to imagine that the very town in which I stood had once been a battlefield, not once but dozens of times over the last 1000 years.

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Our next destination in Russia was Moscow. Read on.

Tuesday, December 26

Christmas Eve

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Pskov was covered in snow when we arrived. It was late and the sky was pitch black. We couldn't see anything as our tour bus drove us to our Soviet-style hotel. However, the town was revealed in all its glory the following day, Christmas Eve. Pskov is less than 50 kms from the Estonian border. It's been the vanguard of Russia for more than 1000 years. As a result, it's been to subject of invasion, dozens of times, most recently 1941 when the Nazi came to town.

Today, Pskov is home to more than 15 small, generally white-washed churches. Many are monuments to invasion and subsequent survival. They are the last of more than 200 churches that once stood on every street in the town. As a border town, when you're subject to constant invasion, you feel a need to thank God for every day of freedom you have.

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The town's skyline is dominated by the Krom, a medieval citadel, built on the banks of the the Velikaya river. Within its walls rises the 256-foot-tall Trinity Cathedral, founded in 1138 and rebuilt in the 1690s. The cathedral contains the tombs of saint princes Vsevolod (died in 1138) and Dovmont (died in 1299). You enter the cathedral by ascending 33 steps, one for each year Christ lived. Inside is an astonishing gilt, seven-level Iconstatis, dominating the far wall. Throughout Russia, most Iconstatis are five panels high. Nobody knows why Pskov has an extra two levels of panel.

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Outside the Krom's walls are the foundations of a further 12 churches. This is the site of a mini-UN for the surrounding district. During the middle ages, each surrounding district built its own church here, thus cementing peaceful diplomatic relations with its neighbours. Across the road from the spectacular Krom looms a drab Soviet-style government building complete with its own grand statue of Lenin. The constrast is stark, bringing home the tragedy of 70 years of Soviet rule.

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Christmas Eve was spent celebrating in style at our hotel. Our tour group was joined by a second group that had travelled from Moscow. Together we celebrated Christmas with a visit from Santa, team games, plenty of vodka and dancing until late. It would be fair to say that many in our group were nursing hefty hangovers on Christmas Day.

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Sunday, December 24

The train to Pskov

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We departed St Petersburg for Pskov by train at 6:00pm on December 23. Our train departed from Vitebsky station, an aging, slightly arcane building. The train itself was long - more than a dozen carriages or more. It was painted a dull, dusty, army green and looked like a set piece from a old Hollywood movie. The interior was surprising tidy, the fittings, smart and clean. Free, hot water was also available from a coal fired boiler at one end of the train.

The boiler itself closely monitored by a traditional Russian babushka. You find Babushkas everywhere in Russia. The word literally translates into English as old lady. These head scarf wearing women staff public toilets, monitor guests on each hotel floor and generally frown at any discretion or rule infringement, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Everyone in Russia fears the wrath of a Babushka. Once a civil army of volunters for maintaining social control in the Soviet Union, today they exist simply as low-paid workers struggling to survive on a state pension.

Train travel is a social event in Russia. Most cannot afford to fly and hence rail is the primary mode of long-distance travel. Locals typically gather in the carriage drinking vodka and sharing stories in an attempt to shorten lengthy rail journeys. Today's trip to Pskov covered about 300kms and was scheduled to take at least 5.5 hours. Within the first hour our tour group was holding sway over our carriage. Beer, wine, vodka and bar snacks were shared the length of the cabin as our own private train party got underway.

We were soon joined by young Russian soliders keen to practice their English. One young marine engineer student from Pskov took a shining to me and spent the remainder of our journey trying to convince me to join him and his friends for a Christmas of drinking and partying. In typical Russian style he slapped me on the back at regular intervals, offered gifts and shared his dwindling beer supply.

With all the fun on board our journey passed rapidly, the train arriving on schedule at Pskov soon after 10.30pm. We were now 400kms from St Petersburg, close to the border of Russia. Click here for more.

Postcards in the snow

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Our second full day in St Petersburg was spent exploring many of the city's more popular sights up close. We started our day with a vist to Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar's Village) , 25km south of the city. It was here that Catherine the Great built a long, narrow baroque Palace surrounded by peaceful woodlands.

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Our first glimpses of the palace was breath-taking. We approached from the park, turning a final corner, only to be greeted by a classic, duck-egg blue building sitting on low hilltop surrounded by clean, fresh white snow. The scene was a true postcard moment. Most unexpected and truly memorable. The palace interior was equally impressive. The Great Hall was mind-blowing. Imgaine a long, elegant ballroom filled with gilded wood carvings, large mirrors and floor to ceiling windows overlooking an expansive red-brick courtyard. Stunning.

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The restored Amber room

The palace also boasts an Amber Room, where the walls are clad in ornate Amber fittings. The room was plundered by the Nazis during World War II. The contents surviving the war but strangely disappearing in Kaliningrad in 1945. Two years ago the mystery was solved when historians discovered that the Amber Room's treasures had been caught in a fire after the Red Army has secured them. Those responsible had been so terrified of Stalin's reaction that they'd crafted an elaborate hoax to hide the truth.

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Much of the palace has been restored in recent times. During the war it was used by the Nazis as a command centre, given its proximity to the front line. As you enter the outskirts of the town a somber memorial marks the Russian defensive line, no-man's land and the opposing German front line. Throughout the building, black and white photos display the destruction wrought during Nazi occupation.

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From Tsarskoe Selo, we slowly returned to St Peterburg in crawling local traffic. Our next stop was St Isaac's Cathedral. While replenished with gold domes, the exterior is relatively plain. It's external walls are framed by massive red granite pillars, each weighing 120 tonnes. Some still bare the scars of artillery fire from the Second World War. While the exterior is low-key, the interior is something else. It's interior can only be described as obscenely lavish. Gold leaf, detailed mosaics and classical paintings adorne every available space.

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Garry and I also braved cold winds and climbed St Isaac's external, 43 metre high colonnade which circles the rim of the cathedral's main dome. From here we were granted an impressive view of the city skyline at sunset.

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Our final sight for the day was Peter and Paul Fortress. Founded in 1703, its the oldest building of significance in city. Within the fortress walls lies the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. As we drove through the fortress gates the cathedral's landmark needle-thin gold spire was just beginiing to glow under its many display spotlights. Once again, the interior stunned us. Here was another staggering baroque interior. It's also the final resting place of every Russian Tsar since Peter the Great (with the exception of two individuals).

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Garry and I were subsequently dropped at the Hermitage and left to wander for several hours before joining our group for an evening of ballet. We watched Swan Lake performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theatre, a private performing venue built by the Imperial Family in the 1780s. Another stunning memory as we experienced entertainment popular with the Tsar himself, in the very venue he'd once owned.

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Our last day in St Petersburg was December 23. We awoke to sunny, blue skies, the first for our Russian tour. We spent the morning touring the Museum of Political History, seeing relics from the Soviet era. A simple highlight for me was Yuri Gagarin's pilot's licence. Yuri was the first man in space.

Garry and I later spent the remainder of our day wandering the streets of St Petersburg, visiting sights we'd previously seen covered in snow, lit by dull, cloudy light. Each sight looked even more dazzling in bright sunshine. Before long it was time to head for the railway station.

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