Sunday, 8 June 2014

Russia, Belarus & Poland

So you know how I said some places you don't expect to be good turn out to be the best? 
That is Russia for me, let me share many a tale with you about my experience in this fantastic country...

We have to cross the European and Russian border this morning, so our tour manager Mike decides to prepare us on what to expect in good old Russia. Here's a list of things he told us to immediately make me question why I booked this tour:

• crossing the border can take anywhere between 1 hour to the record of 18 hours 
• when we approach the border we need to hide our valuables just in case the guards think iPods are "illegal"
• avoid talking to police because most of them are corrupt 
• phones and wifi may not work in the whole country 
• and that Russia is almost 30 years behind the rest of the world.

Sophie and I start to question why we're even going here and before we know it, we're crossing the border. 
We make it through in record time and no iPods are missing - I feel like this is a good omen! 
Our coach gets searched by a Russian guard and I've never heard the bus so quiet, but we are approved by Russian standards and make our way into st Petersburg! 

When we get to our hotel we are surprised to have wifi and a flushing toilet, however when we turn the tap on the water comes out brown :/ 
We have some classic chicken Kiev for dinner (a Russian specialty) and head to an Irish bar named Douglas to grab some beverages.
We actually had a really fun night!!

Day 2 -
This morning we have a guided tour around St Petersburg with the crazay fantastic Anna, a self proclaimed vodka-holic. 
She takes us to St Isaacs cathedral, one of the few buildings that wasn't destroyed during WW2

We drove around the Neva river and stopped to stroke a lions head for goodluck 

Everything seems to be goodluck to stroke in Europe...

We then had a bit of free time in which I consumed questionable coffee and a cinnamon scroll, before visiting one of my now favorite buildings in the world, the Hermitage 

An absolutely magnificent palace turned gallery/museum. If you were to spend one minute looking at everything inside here, it would take 5 years - mental! 

Mike tells us there's these ladies who sit on chairs and "NYIET" people if they do anything wrong like laugh or sneeze (Nyiet being no in Russian) so we make it a personal challenge to see how many nyiets we can get.

Not many nyiets in here personally but we heard so many stories about Catherine the great and the Romanovs, it was fantastic! 

After this we had some free time to explore a rainy st Petersburg, so we decide to go to the Kunstkamera museum (be careful pronouncing that one out loud). It's a really interesting place documenting the travel findings of a man whose name I can't remember (so many to remember!!) 
However what people really go to see is the section of deformed babies... Yes 

Apparently we weren't supposed to take photos in here and I get my first nyiet, winning! 

Anyway about this weird baby thing, basically when babies were born with deformations and passed away, this guy would suss them out and try and make society see that it was just deformations and they weren't monsters. 
However, call it what you want it still gave me the creeps.

From there we grab some tepemok Russian pancakes which are amazing and we meet up with the group to head  to dinner for a classic beef stroganoff meal and my first taste of champansky, which I've become quite fond of! 
Vodka....not so much 

We devour our stroganoff, potatoes and champansky and head off to see the ballet. We saw the classic Swan Lake in one of the oldest Russian theatres where many of Tchaikovskys productions came to life.

It's the first time I've ever seen the ballet and it was so beautiful, an experience I won't ever forget.

After a massive day I call it a night, and prepare for another huge day tomorrow.

Day 3 - 
Unfortunately sleep ins seem to be few and far between on this trip and were up bright and early to see the Peterhof gardens and palace where Anastacia was born. 

Sadly the weather has not looked upon us favourably today, so we all have to buy  $3 ponchos, and I can confidently say that a plastic bag would have done a better job at keeping me dry

But it's okay, a little rain never hurt anybody!
The gardens are just beautiful and we do a bit of exploring before seeing the fountains turn on at 11am with some awesome classical Russian music playing over the gardens 

But the highlight of the park? 


We ran back to our bus to get there in time and then got dropped off back in the heart of the city for a little more free time. We decided to take a look at the church of spilled blood, easily one of my most favorite buildings in the world 

The inside is decorated with BILLIONS of moisaics and is just incredible, photos don't do this place justice 

Afterwards I buy some classic Russian souvenirs including a furry hat and some babushka dolls (their real names are matrioshka dolls) 
Then we met the group at a gift shop in which we were served free unlimited vodka and champansky....this is where things in Russia get weird 

That's Anna, our crazay vodka lovin' guide!

By the time we leave, I exit with $160 worth of faberge eggs, I think feeding us cheap alcohol was probably the greatest marketing strategy in the world..
We stumble across some military in the street

Stupidly get photos with their truck, without realising they're inside watching us

(There's my drunken purchases)

And we promptly hop onto a boat to do a cruise around the Neva river. 
It's been raining for the past two days, but Russia kindly let's the sun out and we have an amazing cruise around the city... With more champanski 

I'm not really a heavy drinker, but you can't say no to Russians, or NYIET rather , so our next stop is at a folklore show and things get even more weird

We watch random Russian singing and dancing with very blurred vision 

Sally locates an orange that she tries to eat like an apple 

And we make friends with the Spanish woman sitting next to us

I think she was Spanish? 

Anyway, after a massive day of history and alcohol I'm just about poisoned, so we head back home and I pass on dinner to get a good nights sleep with my stuffed moose, Sven

Day 4 -
Slightly hungover today, or as Mike likes to call it "feeling a bit Pete Murray" (seen better days) we take our bags to the coach and see the Peter and Paul fortress where most of the Romanov family is buried

Easily another new favorite building 

We see their main resting place 

And a wonderful collection of photographs of the Romanovs 



With a very heavy heart we leave St Petersburg, but on the way out see the siege of Leningrad memorial, it's dedicated to the thousands of lives lost when st Petersburg was under seige. 
Citizens were rationed 125g of bread a day (and it wasn't even real bread as it had no wheat in it) and thousands of people died from malnutrition or turned to cannibalism. 
It's a very haunting museum but so interesting and important to learn about 

Afterwards we grab some Russian McDonald's for lunch 

And head to the small town of Novgorod which used to be the Capitol city of Russia. This is more or less a stop over town, so we do a short walking tour and happily embrace the warm weather! 

We have a few drinks on a pirate ship 

And call it an early night before our big day in Moscow!

Day 5 -
On the coach again we make our way into Moscow.
Now unfortunately I've had a bit of a shitty morning... I've had two bags fall on me, a terrible nights sleep and I've come to the realisation I've left my credit card aka my last source of money, in Novgorod. 
I very quickly have a massive cry on the bus then come to my senses and contact home to get the card cancelled. 
What's worse is that at our first service stop, we get a taste of the horrible side of Russia. And that is keeping animals in cages for entertainment. It's so awful I tear up even more seeing the animals pace backwards and forwards obviously losing their minds. 

I've made myself a promise to try and do something to help them when I get home - any suggestions on where to start would be welcome!

A shitty start to the day, but we land in Moscow and I put myself in a bubble for a bit to try and calm down. 

We meet our new Russian guide Galina who is incredibly enthusiastic about Moscow and takes us to a statue park where all of the political statues from communist and soviet times are kept

We salute Stalin 

And give Lenin a bit of a smooch 

But the highlight of my day is standing in red square, and gazing upon the incredible st Basil's cathedral 

The feeling is totally surreal, if you told 15 year old or even 18 year old me that I would be sitting here one day, I wouldn't believe you.
Such an amazing experience. 
We get some free time so we check out the inside, then head to the shops to grab some weird mashed potato thing.
I say it's weird but I bought it twice 

Galina takes us on a tour through the Kremlin

Shows us the worlds biggest cannon 

And takes us on a tour through the armoury where the royal jewels and carriages are kept. 
No photos allowed in here, but I got a few sneaky snaps! 

Amazing crowns 

Lush carriages 

And a few original faberge eggs made by Carl Faberge!

We grab a tasty Russian dinner and call it a night, such a massive day in Moscow.

Day 6 -
Our first stop this morning was on the Moscow metro. It sounds lame but at actually super interesting! No two stops are the same and every station is decorated with amazing paintings, stained glass, mosaics and more! 

Wish public transport was like this at home! Plus it only costs 30c to get a ticket, amazing.

Afterwards we head back to Red Square to see Lenins tomb, he's actually been embalmed and you can see him in a glass tomb, so creepy! There's guards standing in every corner of the room here so definitely no pictures, but we also see Stalins grave.

Afterwards we heard to another church, however they don't let me in because I have rips in my jeans - ridiculous.
We grab some smoothies on old Arbat street which take  40 minutes to make, also ridiculous, then meet our group at a history museum. 

We see some cool statues 

And take a look at the space section and learn all about Sputnik 

Friends reference anyone?!

We finish off our last night in Mockba at the Circus Aquamarine, where we got free ice cream and watched an amazing show of acrobats, ice skaters, classic Russian slapstick comedy and more!

The perfect way to finish off our stay in mother Russia! 

Oh, as we head to Belarus, Minsk tomorrow (another friends reference) we had to apply for a visa, so mike sent off our passports to get them approved. At the end of the show a kid rocks up on a skateboard with a huge plastic shopping bag filled with guess what? 
Our passports 

Day 7, 8, 9 & 10
The next few days are a big blur of Minsk and Warsaw, so here's a few dot points on how I ended my trip 

• tried pickle chips, crab chips and horse jerkey as we exited the Russian federation 

• obviously did not too much in Minsk 
However it was a really beautiful city and is quite modern. They have lots of cool traditions still in place as well

Oh and they're really proud of their ice hockey team

• we ride tanks in the town of Brest

Hehe, Brest 

• explore the beautiful town of Warsaw 

• see the Chopin statue and watch a Chopin recital by an amazing female pianist 

There's benches all through Warsaw that you can press a button and listen to his music 

• we have sweet and savoury dumpling like things that are a Polish specialty, and drink sangria the size of our heads 

• unfortunately get stuck in a horrendous rain storm which saturates us head to toe 

• see the Warsaw uprising museum which showed how Warsaw was practically demolished in WW2

And we said farewell to our contiki with a big night out in Warsaw! 

The past 2 months have been the most incredible, memorable, tiring and exhilarating of my life and I've met some of the most fantastic people that I will never forget. 
I got to backpack for 3 weeks with my best friend, spend time with my favorite Brit who I met on my last adventure and topped it all off with a wonderful group of people through Scandinavia and Russia. 

I've lost my credit card, spent all my pennies, missed a lot of sleep and have been put off travelling by coach for a short while, but I can't WAIT to do it all again soon. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my adventures and hope they've inspired you to back your bags and start travelling! 

"There is a kind of magicness about going far away and then coming back all changed" 
- Kate Wiggin