Monday, April 18, 2011

Russia Tour

 I must say that I think exchange students in other countries do not have it as good as us in Finland. Not only are all the other exchange students FANTASTIC but we get the opportunity to visit Russia.
My time here is going so fast. St. Petersburg Tour has already been and gone!
I woke up bright and early, at 4am to be exact on Thursday the 31st of March to drive to Joensuu in time to catch the train to Kouvola to meet the Rotary Bus before driving to St Petersburg!
The bus was running a bit late because the bus missed a stop and had to backtrack, so I spent the morning with Diego, Victor, Victoria and Ashleigh (oldies from my district) in Kouvola. Exchange students are loud and a lot of fun to be around. They understand what you are going though and you know as soon as you meet them that they are your friends. I get the impression that when exchange students get together it is always LOUD.
When I got on the bus I met most of the oldies from my district. The oldies have been in Finland for 8 months already and we the newbies have just arrived. They out number us 80ish to 23. The oldies are great and really welcomed us newbies into their fold.
It was a long trip but it didn’t matter because it was fun.
What wasn’t so enjoyable was getting through the boarder security. You can’t talk, you can’t dance and probably breathing is a bad idea too. Everywhere you look there are Russians glaring at you. The checkpoints are totally silent-even by Finnish standards.
Photos are forbidden anywhere close to the boarder, but the boarder is not so aesthetically pleasing, I don’t think the decorating on the Russian side has changed much since the 70’s. There are slanted mirrors above you so the ladies who check passports can see if you are short.
When my passport was being checked the woman spoke to me in Russian and passport in hand walked off and was gone for some minutes. Things like these do make you feel a bit nervous and I just stood there sweat beading up on my brow and looking nervously at the other exchangers.
It turned out ok, at least I hope so (I may now be apart of some conspiracy or blacklisted by the mafia) but I got my passport back and was allowed to enter the former Soviet Union.
I practiced Russian dancing with Karla (my oldie, who lives the nearest to me, in Joensuu) while we waited for our bus to be strip-searched. We did get some strange looks but it was not from the Russian so it was ok. (Russian dancing was soon to become a favourite past time of the Russia tour. I was not very good but every now and then I would dance Russian style-it is quite fun too)
There is a huge difference in the 100 meters surrounding the boarder. When you cross over the Finnish-Russian boarder the first thing you notice is that Russia is dirty. There is pollution stagnant in the air and the snow is darker then Finnish snow. As we entered the suburbs the houses are ostentatious, but many are abandoned and in ruins. When you look at them you can tell that they were once beautiful but now they are falling apart. Despite this in the block next door a new mansion is being erected.  
We had a quick stop at a small service station (the size of my bedroom) to get water. In St Petersburg it is extremely dangerous to drink tap water, people drink it with the intent of ending their lives. I had brought 5L from Lieksa with me but I went to the shop for the cultural experience. The first thing you notice is that everything is extremely cheep, and the second is the large amount of alcoholic beverages available.
We got to the Hotel (the Hotel Azimut), had dinner, got to know the oldies, were told stories of life in Mexico, and updated each other on how our exchanges are going. My roommate for the trip was Ashleigh an American from Upstate New York.
After a cold shower and a less then appetising breakfast, I was ready for my first proper day in Russia.
First on the schedule was the Hermitage, I had heard that it was the best Art Museum in the world. I was excited. But is not only an art gallery it is the Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars. The building was so amazing it was visually overwhelming. We toured the main rooms of the Palace. The collection is interspersed throughout the rooms. The art was fantastic but the interior of the building is what really stood out. Every inch was meticulously ornate. I don’t know if I took it all in to a level which would give it justice. The Hermitage is a place that you could live in for your entire life and every day notice something new, several things really. To see the art collection, looking at each piece for one minute, Monday to Friday, from 9 till 5 it would take over 14 years to see the whole thing.
We were shown the highlights which fit easily into tours route. For me the highlights were two Leonardo de Vinci paintings. When I looked at them all I could think was it is PERFECT. He applied paint perfectly and the colours melted into each other like smoke. I am glad high realism is not my personal artistic style because if it was I would never be able to achieve that level of perfection. The Madonna in one of the paintings had the same almost smile as the Mona Lisa. De Vinci’s attention to detail is phenomenal. I really can’t describe the paintings and my photos didn’t work out because of the glass. But anyway nothing can beat seeing the real thing. Basically I need to go back the Hermitage and see everything again and see what I didn’t have time too.
Also very high up on the highlight scale was seeing a Michelangelo sculpture. It was of a crouching man and was made as a bet between him and one of his artisans or friends. He was trying to prove that you could take a square block and turn it into the figure of a man. It is not polished or sanded. You can still see the marks where he chiselled the stone. So if de Vinci make you feel like you should give up now, the Michelangelo give you hope as it reminds you that these masters were people and things that are perfect can be made by normal people (fantastic artist but normal non the less)
Everywhere is Russia there are people selling those fluffy soviet style hats, and pretty well from the word go the exchange students started buying them and wore them for more or less the rest of the tour and perhaps longer.
We had lunch in a traditional Russian Restaurant which was basically under ground. It looked like the Russia I had seen in the movie Anastasia and imagined. With rich woods and colours, and a lot of navy blue (I don’t know why I associate Russia with Navy Blue, but perhaps because it is the colour of Anastasia’s dress on the front cover of the DVD) and other rich colours. Puppets dressed in the traditional costume decorated the restaurant. We had salad, beetroot soup borsk (I think it is called) and a chicken cheese omelette (but with no egg I think but to call it an omelette gives a  good visual picture of what it was) and a pancake with jam. I thought it all tasted good.
In the afternoon we headed off to the oldest museum in St Petersburg. The Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I don’t know if I would recommend it based on the tour I had. We powered though most of the anthropological exhibits and spent a long time in a room with pickled babies who had birth defects. A little bit upsetting, to say the least. I think the rest of the collection is interesting and it seemed like they had a lot of costumes and artefacts from tribal societies.
That night we went to visit Nikolai’s Palace to see a Russian Folk Show. It is said to be the best Folk show in St Petersburg and I do not doubt that for one second. It was FANTASTIC. The dancers had such energy and vibrancy. You could really see how rich Russian culture was.
After being do well behaved on the first night the tour organisers let us stay up an extra half hour on Friday.
Saturday was our second and last full day in St Petersburg. We spent the morning on a bus tour of the city stoping of at the most fancy church, a souvenir shop and the super famous horse statue. I am not normally the biggest fan of this type of tourism, but I think it worked well and I got the feel for the city.
In the afternoon we were left to our own devices to explore Nevski Prospekt to largest shopping area in St Petersburg. It was pretty confusing and we got lost over and over again. During this time we saw an Orthodox Russian Church. The whole thing was un-real, like it was a Disney movie or something.
We also visited a market. Amongst the market sellers you will find some of the nicest people, and they are all extremely well versed in foreign language. Russians find it hard to learn languages and many only speak Russian. If you imagine we find it hard to learn Russian it is the same for them but for every other language, so I was surprised to find people who could speak at least 4 in portable stores on the side of the road. I spoke German to one, English to many and I think they are probably versed in French as well (as this language was popular is Tsarist Russia). Victor told me that he told one of the Mexican girls in Spanish not to buy something because he had seen it cheaper, to which the market seller replied in Spanish that they would not find anything better elsewhere.
I had thought someone had told me it was ok to barter down the prices in Russia. So when Ashleigh tried to buy a badge from a man at the markets I began trying to get her a discount. Alas my efforts ended in an elderly Russian man yelling at me and me quickly running away, but now I know that discounts can only go so far, I would have been able to get Ashleigh a 50 rouble discount if I hadn’t tried to get an even bigger one. (But it didn’t matter because the next day we found vintage ones that looked better and were half the price)
On our last night we visit the Russian ballet to see a showing of Swan Lake. The dancers were extremely precise and the show was beautiful, but I felt that there was no emotion behind their moves and that made the performance a bit static. I was expecting the Russian ballet to be more rich and dynamic.  But having gone to the Russian Ballet is good card to play when bragging about life experience.
Bed time was extended until 1am on the last night and I realised how tired I was going to be at the end of the tour. I had been up late talking every-night. I don’t think I have quite recovered in the sleep department but I have plenty of time to sleep in Australia next year so I am not to worried.
We would exchange badges in the evenings/night and after this my blazer is looking a lot more colourful then when I got on the plane, and my business card collection is a lot larger.  It was really great to be with the other Exchange students. They are truly wonderful people. I will say it again but exchange broadens your worldview I now know people who I consider to be my friends living in places all over the world, and we have this common experience (not just the Russia tour but living in Finland-which is pretty special and unique) that we will remember forever.
The last day we began our journey back to Finland, stopping in Vyborg a former Finnish Village to spend the rest of our Roubles. It is apparently a hotspot for quality linin, but I didn’t know this until last week so I am sorry Mum but I didn’t get you anything. But I did get some super cute mittens, some cool fold out cups and a Lenin badge for my blazer.
The bus trip and our time getting through the boarder went a lot quicker then when we were coming into Russia. We had lunch in Finland and said our goodbyes to the exchangers on other buses there. It was sad to say good-bye because I live so far from all of them.  But seeing how fast my year is going I will be on Euro-tour with them before I know it.
Overall St Petersburg is an interesting city. The architecture is very European and the buildings are beautiful. The city is beautiful and it looks as if once it was very much loved and lots effort and money went into making it into a real jewel. But now the buildings are falling apart and if they are restored on the outside the inside is ruin. The pollution makes the city look grey and the buildings are dusty. The people look as if they have a really hard life. This is really sad because Russian culture is so vibrant and the city is so beautiful.
It was funny be in the places that I had seen in Anastasia, I was constantly seeing places that looked like the animation movie, which was really exciting. I hope I get to visit Russia again, some summer perhaps. Russian MacDonald’s is better then the Macca’s in Australia too. So I have many reasons to go back!

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