There are only a few things in my life that I’ve seen that are completely mind blowing. If I were to make a list of Ember’s Wonders of the World, Xilitla, Mexico would be number one and Petrodvortes would be number two. 

Alex and I made the trek outside of the city on a whim. Mike had to leave early in the morning for a trip to Finland and mentioned in passing that there was a cool palace with some fountains that we could check out if we had time. I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular, heck, I wasn’t even expecting that we would actually make it to the palace (the directions seemed a bit confusing) but since we had time to kill and were looking for adventure, we threw the Lonely Planet guidebook in the backpack and jumped the metro.

My apprehensions about making it to Petrodvortes were soon pushed aside. We make a sign in Cyrillic that read, “Petrodvortes” and everything else was a piece of cake. Of course no one spoke English, but at least they could point us in the right direction. We caught a mini bus (yes another sketchy white van) and actually tried to argue with the driver about the price…according to the price listed in the guidebook, we were being overcharged. I suppose I will never know if I was taken advantage of for not being able to read Cyrillic.

Anyway, we made it to the palace with no problems and spent several hours wandering around the grounds, and taking pictures of the most perfect autumn afternoon. A Russian tradition is to walk through the forest and gather stacks giant golden leaves. They make hats from them, take pictures and throw them up in the air. The scenery was beautiful, but watching the children and parents running between the trees and playing in the leaves was even more so.
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Front view of the palace
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A church next to the palace
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There are hundreds of fountains behind the palace
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Perfect autumn day
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When in Russia...
 
 
I have so many thoughts about my time in Russia, I don't know where to begin. In a way, Russia was everything I expected and everything unexpected, also. We were fortunate enough to stay with Mike, a friend of Alex's from Seattle who has been working in Saint Petersburg for the past nine months. We learned so much about the history of the city and Russian Culture from Mike and had a personal translator to top everything off. 

If it weren't for Mike, the trip could have been real interesting. Virtually NO ONE in Russia speaks English, not even a word. The Cyrillic alphabet doesn't help Westerners either. Needless to say, I got really good at miming, so watch out for a game of charades when I get back to the U.S!

The one piece of advice I got before the Russia trip was to never EVER ride in a taxi. I was told that driving there is a zoo and riding in a taxi is a sure sentence to a near death experience. Needless to say, that was the first thing we did upon arrival. In order to enter the country without a visa, we were required to purchase a "city bus tour" aka "swerving in a sketchy white van through Saint Petersburg to be dropped off at the center" tour. It was a real welcoming gesture on the Russian's part.

Ironically, the Russian taxi system turned out to be one of my favorite parts about the country. If you stand on the side of the road and hold your hand out, literally the first car to pass will pull over. If they feel like giving you a lift, you settle on a price and are soon on your way, at what feels like an 80 MPH high speed chase toward your destination. We found this service to be extremely helpful en route to and from the bars each night.

Alex and I spent our first day visiting the Hermitage and seeing all the other major sites in the city. There are some truly spectacular and out of place looking buildings. For example, the church below. For some reason, I couldn't get over the fact that it looked like it belonged in a plastic amusement park, but I was seeing it as a real cathedral in real life.

As a whole, I would not consider Saint Petersburg a beautiful city. It has a very industrial feel with overcrowded streets, traffic in a constant state of disarray and practical looking cement style high rise, state-owned buildings. I couldn’t help but have communism lingering in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t hard to imagine what the city may have been like 20 years ago.

There are however, a few random and out of place gems in the city, that just make you scratch your head and ponder. For example, a subway stop with mosaic walls and chandeliers, mind blowing cathedrals built for each of the major churches (yes, I’m still wondering why a communist government would be so interested in building churches) and gorgeous women clad in fur coats, fur scarves, fur hats and high heels.

It wasn’t they type of city I would want to spend a day wandering the streets and taking it all in, but the culture and history definitely made Russia an interesting place that fascinated me. Despite their current “democratic” state, the government is still very corrupt. The police take bribes, elections are rigged and students pay teachers for grades.

It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago everyone had a closet full of the same outfits, each kitchen had the exact same appliances, there were only a few restaurants and multiple families shared a flat with each family in one bedroom. A Russian girl told me about a movie where the main character travels from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and wakes up in a foreign flat, but cant tell if it belongs to him or someone else, because everything looks the same. Totally believable.

Today, the city is more cultural and has become infused with western staples such as McDonalds, Subway and a variety of coffee shops. The transition process is continually moving forward, but a part of the society still clings to the nostalgic past. This is evident in a giant monument for Lenin topped with the communism star in the city center and the menial jobs that still exist, such as attendants at the bottom of the escalator in the metro and waiting at the top of staircases in public places.

During our three day visit I did see a few “hardened criminals” and begging babushkas, but was also entranced by a society rich in history and culture. I cant say that Russia is at the top of my list of places to return to, but it is definitely one in which I am intrigued by and am anxious to learn more about. 
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Church of the Savior on Blood
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Inside the Hermitage
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Russian Military
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View of St. Petersburg
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Mike, me & Alex
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Communism Star statue
 
 
My good friend, Alex, from high school is studying in Finland for the semester and a few months ago we decided to plan a trip to Russia. Not knowing anything about the country (other than the normal stereotypical stuff) we thought it would be a crazy adventure. I think we are both drawn to sketchy, corrupt and slightly dangerous places, so this definitely sounded like an amazing adventure.

As the departure date for our trip drew nearer, I began to question our rash decision to visit Russia. My image of the country was a tall, skinny man with pale skin, jet black slicked-back hair (and a matching goatee), clad in tight black leather pants, a leather jacket and army boots, standing on a rainy sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I guess you could call it the hardened criminal look, all I knew was that as the departure day grew nearer and said image continued to replay in my mind, I was afraid of Russia. On the night of our ferry departure, I'm busy envisioning the worst case scenario for our trip to the land of hardened criminals and begging babushkas, and Alex makes some comment about getting deported to a labor camp in Siberia. At least we were on the same page. 

If this stereotype image wasn't enough, all the laws Russia has regarding visas and loopholes you have to jump through to enter the country are enough to discourage any tourist. Regardless, we were drawn to this mysterious land and nothing could deter us from investigating the strange place.

On the day of the trip we had to make a two hour trek from Alex's town to Helsinki to catch our ferry. We decided any trip to a land as epic as Russia must have an equally epic start, so hitchhiking to Helsinki was really the only option.

Finland is an extremely safe country, however, Finns aren't very trusting people, and hitchhiking is virtually nonexistent in the country. Alex's Finnish friends advised us against the idea saying we would never get picked up, but we had to give it a try! I made a giant "Helsinki" sign on cardboard and we staked out a spot alongside the freeway entrance. Five minutes later, a black SUV pulled up on the sidewalk and stoped to pick us up. We were ecstatic!

As luck would have it, Harry, the man who picked us up turned out to be the ex-CEO of a company in Moscow. He was married to a Russian woman and had traveled and lived in Russia for many years. Even though he wasn't going directly to Helsinki, he was willing to go out of his way and drop us off at the ferry terminal! Talk about front door service, he had hitchhiked around France in his younger years, so I think he empathized with us.

Alex and I were so proud of our hitchhiking endeavor that we decided "Helsinki" would be our mascot for the whole Russia trip. Below are a few highlights of our adventures with Helsinki...
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Hitching our way to Helsinki...
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Of course we HAD to take Helsinki to the casino.
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Helsinki was a real hit in the nightclub!