30 October 2009

Heavenly Helsinki

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The City

The capital of Finland, Helsinki is quaint, charming, clean and surprisingly “happening.” The public transportation since may be the best in the world and the people may be the kindest. A center of global design, it seems everything new and funky comes here first. From large boulevards to hidden winding lanes, sun-swept parks to deserted islands just a fifteen-minute ferry-ride away, Helsinki is the perfect city break destination, an excellent reintroduction to Europe following Russia or a brilliant addition to a Scandinavian adventure. Eat reindeer and lingonberries, explore ancient island forts and simply relax at a sidewalk cafe in this northern city.

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The Lay of the Land

The main avenues running through the city are Mannerheiminaukio (north to south) and Esplanadi (east to west). The train station is good orientation marker, as it is the city’s local transportation hub and splits the more urban southern half with the more residential northern half. Don’t forget to pick up a tourist transportation card, which covers all forms of transport - trams, buses, metro and even local ferries - for one, three or seven day. If you’re looking for traditional Finnish cuisine like reindeer, elk and lingonberries, try Lappi Restaurant (Annank 22) right in the heart of town. It’s cozy, a bit kitsch and just delicious.

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The Scene

dtm (Iso Roobertink 28) Short for don’t tell mama, dtm is the largest dance venue in Scandinavia. Catering to a young pop-tastic crowd, this is the place to move and groove to your favorite tunes alongside a mixed crowd.

Arctic Ice Bar (Entrance from restaurant Copacabana, Yliopistonkatu 5) Zip up your parka and slide on your ski boots as you slip into a meat-locker size den made entirely of ice. The cocktails are tasty but lets be honest - you’re really there to sip that cocktail in a smoewhat ridiculous environment complete with ice-block benches, ice walls, ice bar and even ice tables. Note the toughness of the bar tender, who isn’t wearing a parka. $15 gets you entry and one cocktail.

Ateljee Bar (On the top of the Torni Hotel, Kalevankatu 5) Sitting atop one of Helsinki’s tallest buildings, this bar offers classy cocktails, an open deck and 270-degree views of Helsinki. Excellent for wining and dining.
Shaker (Fredrikinkatu 65) If you want to drink like the Finns, head to Shaker and order a tray of fruit liqueur shots. The music is great and the cliental are just oozing cool.

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The Must-Sees and Must-Dos

Ride the 3T/3B Tram - They literally circle the entire city and the hop-on hop-off nature allowed with a tourist travel card means you can see and do nearly everything jus by riding along. Pick up the tram “guidebook” at the tourist office near the train station.

Suomenlina (Catch the ferry from Market Square. It leaves every 40 minutes to make the 15-minute journey to the island. Ferry fare is included in a tourist all-day transportation pass) Build by the Swedes to fend off the Russians, Suomenlina is now
a near playground of castle ruins, cannons, grassy knolls, and tiny beaches. It’s the perfect day out when the weather is right. Pack a picnic and stay all day.

Senate Square (Unioninkatu 29, Just east of the train station) One of many seemingly “central” squares in Helsinki, Senate Square is watched over by the enormous Tuomlokirkko (Dome Church). Just east and over a small bridge you’ll find Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, which is also worth a visit

Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Lutherink 3, a stop on the 3T/3B tram route) This “church in the rock” is literally carved into a rock. Just the roof is visible from outside and it looks as if a space ship has crashed right in the center of town. Gorgeous both inside and out.

Kiasma (Mannerheiminaukio 2) Helsinki’s addition to the growing contemporary art scene, Kiasma offers very new-age exhibits set in a fantastic presentation space. An absolute must.
Market Square (Market Square, just southeast of the train station) Another central square of sorts, this one offers an excellent outdoor and indoor market selling fantastic fresh food and wares at the best prices in town. Make sure to try the fresh rye bread. It will knock your socks off.


Kyle Taylor

29 October 2009

A Return To Civilization

Hong Kong Blogs 17

It has been just over a month since this big adventure began in Hong Kong. Now, having reached Eastern Europe, my mind is whirling by just how far I’ve traveled without leaving the ground. While we hopscotched southern China, I have journeyed from Shanghai to Helsinki entirely by rail, covering almost 4000 miles through Asia, Russia and Europe.

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The most fascinating part about it is just how different the starting point and current location are. China is Asia. Really really Asia. Mongolia is nomadic. Kind-of Asia, kind-of outer space. Russia is supposedly Asia and Europe but having started in Asia and now being in Europe, I can stay pretty convincingly that it is neither Asia nor Europe. It’s just - Russia. This fascinating, complicated, bizarre otherworldly nation that’s three times the size of the USA with less than half the population and no real consistency except for the Lenin statues that dot the nation and an iron will shared by the Russian people. It is an intensity and a grit that I found both intimidating and inspiring.

Helsinki - 20

Finally, pan to Europe. Scandinavia, in fact. After a month in China and Russia where bureaucracies are bloated and cities are only moderately developed I had forgotten about things like evenly paved sidewalks, clean public transportation and sandwiches (which I ate immediately upon arrival). I can’t even imagine what new dimension of “strange” the next six weeks in Eastern Europe (mostly former Soviet states) will bring. My eyes are open, my ears are wide and my stomach is grumbling. Bring it on!


Kyle Taylor

28 October 2009

The Trans-Siberian Railway. Or: Really Far Away

Mongolia - 005

The Big Picture

We are awakened by the older cabin matron who jolts our door open, points to her watch, shouts “passport control” and slams the door shut again. It’s seven thirty in the morning. They inspect our passports with excessive seriousness, then instruct us to “leave cabin.” The four of us get up, unsure of where we’re going. A small gymnastic woman enters our cabin and proceeds to do an uneven bars routine while looking in every nook and cranny for who knows what. Drugs? Money? People? The cabin matron then proceeds to vacuum the entire train with a dust buster. She motions to our feet and points up. We lift and she sweeps under our feet. She then motions to our feet and points down, as if we would have stayed in that formation permanently otherwise. We are shaken by an abrupt “push” forward as an engine is attached. We start moving ever so slowly forward. A fellow traveler appears to inform us of the party happening later in the evening. “Apparently there is actually a Russian on the train and he has invited all of us to a vodka party later.” Welcome to the Trans-Siberian Railway.

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The Details

The Trans-Siberian railway is the world’s longest train journey. Covering more than 5,000 miles across Siberia, the route - despite its fame - remains distant to most travelers; it just might be the namesake of the phrase “off the beaten path.” While the Russian route runs from Vladivostok to Moscow, two other lines begin in Beijing: The Trans-Manchurian runs through northern China and into Russia while the Trans-Mongolian takes travelers through the breathtaking scenery of Mongolia. This writer recommends the Trans-Mongolian starting in Beijing and traveling northwest to Moscow.

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The Journey

Because this adventure offers so many options, below is a recommended route and suggested length of time in different locations as well as hostel, restaurant and connection recommendations where necessary. This writer recommends booking all train tickets in advance. Probably the most well-known and widely trusted agent is Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk). Tickets can also be purchased en-route through hostels and travel agents. This is not advised during high season (May to August), as trains fill. Try departing early August to avoid huge crowds but still enjoy warmer weather.

Beijing (See the Beijing city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) This is where it all begins! Trains leave Tuesday and Sunday for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which is the next stop on this journey. Ideally, plan to spend 7 days in Beijing.
Ulaanbaatar (See the Mongolia adventure guide for details on hotels, restaurants and excursions) The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is mainly a jumping off point for excursions outside the city. Train services to Russia are more regular than the first leg of the trip. Ideally, you’ll want four to six weeks in Mongolia. Shorter stays of three to seven days still offer time to see part of the country.

Irkutsk - Nestled deep in Siberia, Irkutsk was once known as “the Paris of Russia.” While the city does retain a certain grit and charm, its main function now is as a gateway to Lake Baikal. Spend a day or two here arranging travel to the Lake as well as taking in a few sites.

Stay at Baikaler Hostel (www.baikaler.com, +7-3952-336-240) They offer dorms and homestays as well as assistance in arranging trips to Lake Baikal. Charming, English-speaking staff couldn’t be more helpful. $18 per person.

Eat at the Central Market. You can’t miss it. This sprawling labyrinth offers clothes, bric-a-brac, flowers and divine food. Pick up some fresh cheese (divine), deli meat, bread and cake (gorgeous) to eat back at the hostel. The food is beyond fresh and the best way to eat in Irkutsk.

See the magnificent Basilica just over the bridge, the multitude of churches, the Stalin bust, the Lenin statue, Trubetskoy house, the Art Museum and the Central market. Also, ride one of the classic trams. It is an experience.

Lake Baikal - The world’s largest freshwater lake, Baikal has enough drinkable H2O to quench the thirst of the entire planet for nearly forty years! It is remote, spectacular and beyond beautiful. Make sure to take a dip in the frigid waters. Russian folklore says a swim in the waters of Baikal will add 25 years to your life! There are three main ways to see the lake.

Day-trip - Most hostels offer a day-trip to the lake that usually includes a boat trip, a ride on the circum-rail that circles the lake and a stop in Lystvyanka - the closest lake town to Irkutsk.

Lystvyanka - situated 45 miles from Irkutsk, Lystvyanka is easily reachable by bus. While travel books claim Lystvyanka is now overrun by tourists, this writer found that claim ridiculous. Think tiny mountain lake town, only everything is in Russian. Plan to spend two days here.

Stay at Baikal Chalet Lystvyanka (From where the bus drops you, face the lake and walk left. Follow the lake to the seal show. Turn left into the valley down Gudina street and walk to number 75, travel@angara.ru, bookable on hostelworld.com) With private balconies that look out to the lake through the valley, Baikal Chalet is one of the few places in town offering affordable, lovely accommodation. Breakfast included, $30 per person.

Eat at one of the four cafes on the main road that runs along the lake. The yellow one has delicious pastries and the green one has enough options for at least three meals. Try the omel - a local fish.

See the lake from every angle. Ride the chairlift to the top of the highest peak for breathtaking views of dense forest, brilliant lake and snow-capped mountains. Take a cruise on the lake. Go scuba diving. Don’t forget to take a dip! 25 years!

Olkhon Island - a 6-hour drive from Irkutsk, Olkhon is the largest island within Baikal. Take a jeep tour to sandy beaches and enjoy the truly untouched naturally beauty before this place gets crowded. Plan to spend 5 days here, including two days for return transportation.

Stay, Eat and Do through the island’s best guesthouse – Nikita’s (Irkutsk Region, Olkhon area, Khuzhir, Kirpichnaya St., 8, http://www.olkhon.info/en/). Nikita’s is bookable online or through guesthouses in Irkutsk.

Yekaterinburg - It is a 51-hour train journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg. As the train chugs effortlessly through the thick Russian taiga forest, the cabins come to life in an all-out onslaught of tradition Russian vodka drinking. Come prepared and know that you have a comfortable break waiting for you in Yekaterinburg - home to former President Boris Yeltsin and sight of the gruesome murder of Russia’s last Tsar and his family - the Romanovs. Now a booming steel town, real Armani and fake McDonald’s (called McPeak, and a serious status symbol) line the streets of this bustling University town. Plan to spend one full day here.

Stay at Meeting Point Hostel (87 Malysheva, Apt. 73, Bookable on hostelworld.com) Just a short tram ride from the train
station, Meeting Point feels like going home to Mom and Dad for a few days. Hot water, family photos and a fully stocked kitchen make this place the perfect break from train life. The owner speaks perfect English and is wildly excited to help you make the most of Yekaterinburg. $18 per person.

Eat at Studio Cafe, where you can also make the most of the free wi-fi. McPeak - a lawsuit waiting to happen - also has a certain level of kitsch-factor. Hit the grocery store and cook in as well. The apartment hostel is just so warm and cozy!

See the Basilica and now memorial to the Romanov family, who were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks at the start of the communist revolution. Wander the river and pedestrian avenue as well. If you have time, check out the rotating photo exhibit at the Photography museum. For those who are so inclined, make sure to snap your own photo of the Lenin statue to add to your personal collection.

Moscow (See the Moscow city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) You’ve made it! Wear your badge with pride as you explore Russia’s mighty capital - where money talks. Ideally, spend 5 days here.

St. Petersburg (See the St. Petersburg city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) While not officially on the Trans-Siberian route, if you’ve come this far make sure you see Russia’s most beautiful city. Plan to spend a week here.

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The Life Of A Train-Goer

While life may maintain some sense of normalcy on the first leg of this journey, no doubt this will not continue. With time zones jumping by at lightning speed while the train stays on “Moscow Time,” you will most certainly lose all sense of time and space. Just go with it.

Food - Bring your own! While the food is decent on both the China and Mongolia legs, Russian food cars are nothing to write home about. Prices seem to change on every visit, portions are small and the darn stuff is expensive! While it is possible to buy food on train platforms at stops, quality isn’t much better and prices are still high, Essentials on your packing lists should include: Bottled water, vodka, mixers, nutella, bread, instant noodles, candy bars, fresh fruit, cheese and deli meats. Also, pack a sharp knife, two forks, two spoons, two cups and two bowls. Remember, you won’t be moving much, so hunger may be fleeting.

Drinking - Stories vary, but it is common for Russian travelers to arrive at your cabin door insisting that you join them for vodka either in the dining car or in their own cabin. It is considered extremely rude to refuse this invitation. The only workable way out seems to be mimicking illness. Otherwise, head out and drink up!

Sleeping - If you travel in a pair, book a top and bottom bed on the same side. This guarantees a place to lay down and seats for two at all times. As for when to sleep, just listen to your body. Time is truly of the essence on this adventure.

Cabin Crew - Trains are - 99% of the time - staffed by middle-aged women who hate their work and hate you more. Do all you can to butter them up. This can come in the form of chocolate, vodka or jewelry. Such bribes are crucial if you ever want to use the toilet, as they’re locked for nearly 50% of the journey.

Time - While Russia has eight different time zones, all trains run on Moscow time. That is, it may be 6pm in Irkutsk, but that’s 1pm in Moscow and your train might leave at 7pm, but that’s Moscow time - so midnight in Irkutsk. So while the local citizens have their clocks set to local time, all the train stations house enormous clocks displaying Moscow time. This provides hours of conversation on the train. It goes something like this: “What time is it here? Okay, it’s 5pm Yekaterinburg, which is three hours ahead of Irkutsk, which is one behind Beijing. Now, we leave at noon Moscow time on Wednesday - what day is it? - Tuesday, okay. So we leave at noon Moscow time on Wednesday which means it’s now 4am in Los Angeles on Monday and noon in London, so with the stars in the third quadrant of the Milky Way and our having just passed the sixty first parallel, I think it’s time for lunch!” Set your time to Moscow when you leave Mongolia and work out everything from there. If this sounds confusing that’s because it is.

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Bits and Bobs

As you cross the border from China to Mongolia, the train actually has all of its wheels changed from “Global Gauge” to “Russian Gauge.” The Russians did this to fend off invading trains during the Cold War. If you get off the train, plan to be off for several hours. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The “Duty Free” shop houses an impressive array of fake top-shelf liquor, from “Johnny Worker Song Red Square Whiskey” (Johnny Walker Red Label) to “Absolutely” vodka (Absolut).

Brush your teeth twice a day. This may sound obvious, but it keeps your body on some semblance of a schedule and keeps you clean.

Bring your own toilet paper. The train’s supply seems to disappear within minutes.

Let go. This is Siberia and it’s incredible!


Kyle Taylor

27 October 2009

Mongolia - Mars, Only On Earth

Oops - A bit delayed, but tips on traveling in Mongolia!

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The Country

At one time the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, controlled nearly all of modern day Asia and parts of Europe. Situated between Russia and China, Mongolia has - in recent history - been treated like a wedge separating two great powers. The capital Ulaanbaatar is a bizarre place, as a nation of nomadic people attempts to engage with the world on terms that don’t fit their own identity. The real Mongolia, however, is easily accessible through numerous guesthouses that double as travel agents. The world’s least densely populated nation is home to pristine lakes, majestic mountains, the Gobi dessert and an adorable breed of miniature horses both native and unique to Mongolia. Spend the night star gazing in the middle of nowhere before heading to bed in a traditional nomadic yurt. Wake up to breathtaking landscapes that can be explored by car, horse or even camel. Whoever came up with the phrase “off the beaten path” must have been in Mongolia. This is the place to completely disappear.

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The Lay of the Land

The capital Ulaanbaatar is situated in the eastern central part of the country. This is the best jump-off point to explore the country. The north offers lakes, rivers and mountains while the south is home to the mighty Gobi desert. The grasslands stretch east and west, with the far west offering the most remote and most beautiful countryside.

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The Quick & Easy

Mongolia is a one-stop shop kind-of country. That is, the right guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar will mean the perfect holiday, as most plan excursions to every corner of the country. The most interesting way to get to Mongolia is via the weekly 36-hour sleeper train from Beijing. If gorgeous countryside and fascinating border crossings don’t appeal to you, Ulaanbaatar also has an international airport. For all your travel needs, try:

UB Guesthouse (www.ubguest.com, ubguest@hotmail.com) Bobby and Kim are Mongolia’s travel gurus. Spend two days in the capital regrouping, making excursion plans and sleeping in one of their $18 per night double rooms that offers free breakfast and wifi internet access. Bobby will sit you down upon arrival and give you all your options based on how much time you’ve got:

Three Days - Stay with a local family in Terelj National Park two hours outside Ulaanbaatar ($65 including all meals and horseback riding)

One Week - Head south to Genghis Khan’s ancient capital and the Gobi desert.

Two Weeks - Add one week in the north taking in mountains, lakes and rivers.

One month - Extend south and north to ten days and add another ten going half-way west.

Six Weeks - See all of Mongolia in the grand loop. Go south to the Gobi, north to the mountains and deep west to the one of the most remote places on earth. This is a holiday you’ll never forget.

During your brief stay in the capital don’t miss:

The Culture Show - A divine showing of song, dance, throat singing and Mongolia’s National Symphony Orchestra, who give London’s Royal Symphony a run for their money. The best $9 you’ll ever spend.

The Natural History Museum - The most complete dinosaur fossils on earth are housed here. Don’t pay the “photo” fee, as you can’t snap shots of the dinosaurs anyway.

Eat at Mongol Shabu. Take a right outside the UB Guesthouse then turn left at the first street. The nondescript sign will be on your left about 50 feet up. Incredible Mongolian hotpot for about $5 a person.

Stock up on pastries as Helmut Sachers Kaffee (Baga Toiruu 14, Opposite Ulaanbaatar City Bank, (976)-70114-734) Brigitte Cummings, a German expat, offers the most divine collection of Berliners, cheesecakes and bread you’ve ever seen. She’ll also help you figure out how to count the local currency, which is no easy task.

Mongolia is a place to just go with the flow. Check in to UB Guesthouse and just go from there. Trust me, it will all work out.


Kyle Taylor

Shout Out To My Sister Friend

Taking a side-step from travel mode, I feel the need to give a huge shout-out to my first friend at American University turned rock star. My dearest friend Becca recently lost her partner to cancer. He was in his early 30s and if you need yet another reason why the United States needs a public option, his story is it. Unable to afford astronomical health care prices, a skin issue went undiagnosed. While he fought hard (as did Becca) the cancer infiltrated his body and took him from her - and us - just months ago.

Clark was a musician and before he passed away, he and Becca were able to "lay down" three tracks which were recently made available to me. I am now totally obsessed not just because I know and love them, not just because they tell such an amazing story, but because they are PHENOMENAL and I want everyone to hear their amazingness.

The first is called Kiss Your Face and you can hear it here.

The second is called Pop & Lock and you can hear it here.

The third is called Still Belong To You and you can hear it here.

Finally, you can read Becca's take on the songs as well as follow her journey of recovery. She's amazing.


Kyle Taylor

St Petersburg - Perfect

The City

St. Petersburg was built as Russia’s “window to the west” and it remains perhaps the most “European” part of this enormous nation. Tree-lined avenues, charming bridges, elegant architecture and a network of canals that rivals both Amsterdam and Venice make this the perfect walking city. Even under Soviet oppression St. Petersburg managed to keep a lightness and an air about it that other parts of the country simply could not manage. St. Petersburg is to Moscow what San Francisco is to New York. Culture and nightlife are explosive yet there’s a sense that people aren’t in nearly as big a hurry. Cruise down the river Neva to Peterhof - Russia’s Versailles. Wander room after room of the Hermitage - the world’s largest art collection. Sip champagne in a waterside cafe. Whatever you do, don’t rush. This is St. Petersburg - where life will never pass you by.

The Lay of the Land

St. Petersburg is situated along the River Neva. Nevskiy Prospect - the city’s main avenue - extends from the river to the train station and is lined with shops, churches, monuments and people. The Winter Palace, which houses the Hermitage, is just east of Nevskiy Prospect, squeezed gently between the river and Palace Square, where the Bolshevik Revolution came to fruition over ninety years ago. The canals spiral outward from the river and most canal-side streets intersect Nevskiy Prospect. Over the river is Peter and Paul Fortress as well as several other museums. Make Palace Square your point of reference and explore from there. Note - clubs, bars, restaurants and even sites are opening and closing constantly. In addition, due to high inflation prices increase without notice. Be advised - use the following information as a general guide only and verify prices online closer to your departure.

The Must-Sees and Must-Dos

The Hermitage (36 Nab Dvortsovaya, Metro Nevskiy) The world’s largest art collection at three million pieces. Clearly not all of them are on display at once. Beyond the art (which is exceptional) the architecture inside is absolutely mind-blowing. There
is a room made entirely of gold. Admission is free for all students and about $8 for adults. Plan to spend an entire day here.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Metro Nevskiy or Sennaya Ploschad) Capped by a dome made of 550 pounds of solid gold, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is monumental to say the least. Make sure to climb the 270 steps for spectacular views over the city. Entry $6
Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood (Metro Nevskiy) Very similar to St. Basil’s in Moscow, this gem is home to the world’s largest tile mosaic. Its canal-side location is also rather charming. Entry $5.

Peter & Paul Fortress (Metro Gorkovskaya) Where the city all began, the fortress is now the final resting place of Russia’s last Tsar and his family. One ticket allows admission to all sites inside. Don’t miss the Chapel of St. Catherine The Martyr, the Peter and Paul Cathedral and Trubetskoy Bastion (prison) where both Trotsky and Dostoevsky were held at one time. Entry $6

The Museum of Political History of Russia (Kuybysheva 2, Metro Gorkovskaya) Another exceptionally curated collection of artifacts tracing Russia’s darkest days, the museum visit includes a 120-page guide in English that gives descriptions of every item in the museum. Don’t miss Gorbachev’s letter of resignation, among other incredible relics. Entry $3

Dostoevsky House (5/2 Kuznechnyy, Metro Vladimirskaya) Where the man himself lived and wrote The Brother’s Karamozov. For anyone who has ever survived a Russian literature class, a visit here somehow makes it feel all worthwhile. Entry $3

Along Nevskiy (Metro Nevskiy) St. Petersburg’s major thoroughfare, the avenue is dotted with churches, monuments and history. Don’t miss the Admiralty and the Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great at end near the river, the Kazansky Cathedral and the statue of Catherine the Great.

The Ballet (Book tickets at Nevsky Souvenir, 3 Nevsky Prospect (on the corner where Nevsky Prospect ends at Admiralty), +7 (812) 312-68-02, www.nevskysouvenir.com) St. Petersburg is home to the world’s greatest ballet and you should absolutely indulge in a performance. The Mariinskiy Theater (1 Teatralnaya) is the nation’s most famous. As such, prices are a bit steep, ranging from $75 to over $200. Alternatively, the

Palace Theater (13 Italyanska, Metro Gostiny Dvor) offers a regular season of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. While this is supposedly “the tourist show,” watching the St. Petersburg Ballet Company and listening to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra felt pretty perfect. Tickets range from $30 to about $100.

The Eats

Like all of Russia, dining out is expensive, even at fast food kiosks on the street. Fortunately, the concept restaurant is alive and well in St. Petersburg, which means you’re not only getting food but an entire “experience.” Cafe culture is huge here, as is American-style country cookin’.


Teremok (60 Nevsky pr, Metro Nevsky) A “fast food” chain in St. Petersburg that’s not all that fast in a good way. Made to order blinis filled with pretty much anything you like, delicious soups and delectable deserts make this a great option. Meal for one around $8.

Yolki-Palki (88 Nevsky pr, Metro Mayakovskaya) Quite possibly “too Russian,” this “authentic eating experience” comes complete with stuffed roosters, staff in “authentic costumes” and buffet-style Russian grub. Not bad at all. Meal for one around $12.

Pyshki (25 Bolshaya Konyushennaya, Metro Nevsky) Stop in with the Russians for a quick hot, fresh donut...or maybe a dozen? At 25 cents each there is nothing more affordable. The 50-cent cup of coffee was also top-notch.
Not Russian

Khachapurnaya (154 Ligovsky pr, Metro Ligovsky) Quite possibly the most delicious meal this writer has ever eaten. Serving traditional Georgian food, this 5-table wonder will blow your mind with the hot, fresh, and overwhelmingly delicious meals on offer. There is no English menu but try khachipuri, kebab & the spicy soup. You won’t regret it. Meal for one around $15.

Trans-Force (88 Nevsky pr, Metro Mayakovskaya) Not just dinner, but an intergalactic voyage through time and space. Sit down behind your control panel, order food from a digital screen and take in the 270-degree 3D virtual space voyage. You’ll have to see it to fully understand. Meals for one around $10.

Cafe Zoom (22 Gorokhovaya, Metro Sennaya Ploschad) The coolest-looking menus this writer has ever seen. This place is almost always packed, so arrive before the dinner rush or be prepared to wait. Don’t worry, it’s worth it. Meal for one around $10.

Teplo (45 Bolsaya Morskaya, Metro Sennaya Ploschad, www.v-teple.ru) From the adorable wallpaper to freshly baked breads and deserts, Teplo’s soul food will be much appreciated on a cold Russian afternoon. Come for dinner and stay for coffee, cocktails and dessert. You really won’t want to leave. Dinner for one around $15.

The Nightlife

Despite its more relaxed vibe, the nightlife in St. Petersburg is absolutely on fire. Whether gay or straight, you’re guaranteed to be out dancing, drinking and jiving until the sun comes up.

Central Station (1/28 ulitsa Lomonosova, Metro Nevskiy Prospect) The place to be in St. Petersburg - especially on Friday and Saturday night. Multiple dance floors,3am drag shows and the most bizarre bathroom ever seen in a nightclub make Central Station a must on any visit to St. Petersburg. Free entry for students all night long. Cover ranges but is usually $10.

Liverpool (16 Mayakovskogo, Metro Pl. Vosstaniya) Easily the best pub in St. Petersburg. Just come to relax and drink a beer.

JFC Jazz Club (33 Ul. Shpalernaya, Metro Chernyshevskaya) The best jazz in Russia and an excellent lounge scene to go with it.

Marstall (5 Nab. kan. Griboedova, Metro Nevsky) St. Petersburg’s current reigning champion in the nightlife scene. The party doesn’t really get going until 3am and it rages on into the wee hours of the morning. Cover can be steep. Expect to pay at least $10.

The Escape

No trip to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to Peterhof. (Take the train from Baltiyskiy train station at Baltiyskaya Metro. From there, take almost any bus to Peterhof. Look for signs in the bus window. On the way back, take bus number 103 to the metro) Built by the Peters and expanded by Catherine as Russia’s very own Versailles, the scale, scope and majesty of this inspired Summer Palace make it a must-see. The palace is split into upper and lower gardens. While the upper gardens are free to wander and beautiful, the lower gardens are home to nearly 100 gold fountains shooting brilliantly into a canal that empties into the Gulf of Finland. Don’t miss the rock fountains. Supposedly, there is just one that makes the water shoot. Can you find it?

The Tips and Tricks

It’s difficult to get to The Hermitage and other main sites using the metro, as there are no stops nearby. Alternatively, catch almost any bus heading down Nevskiy Prospect and hop off near the river.

Lines at the Hermitage can often be hours long. Arrive before opening to ensure that you have a full day to explore. Also, note that a ticket is good only once. You cannot come in and out!

There is a hydrofoil that leaves from near The Hermitage to Peterhof in high season. While prices are steep compared to the train, it’s a great way to see the incredible buildings that line the waterfront.

26 October 2009

Russia Video Mash-Up 2009

A few of the wildest moments in Russia that fit into three nice themes: riding the train, eating the food and swimming in the frigid lake! It's all set to music by Becca pants and Clarkie-poo. Enjoy!


Kyle Taylor

22 October 2009

Authenticity Revisited

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On our final night in Russia we decided to go all out - dinner somewhere classically Russian followed by a night at the ballet. We ended up at the Palace Theater, deemed “the tourist theater” by our sales agent. “Fortunately,” I told her, “we’re tourists.”

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Our dinner plan was to dine at a “traditionally Russian restaurant where the waitresses where traditionally Russian outfits while serving traditionally Russian food.” This is all code for “touristy, kitsch, hilarious and over the top.” On our way there a man in a giant silver robot costume handed us a flyer for a new restaurant called “Trans Force.” It told us we could enjoy “delicious food while surrounded on all sides by a 3D space adventure.” The best the other place could do is “a plastic rainforest topped by a stuffed rooster.” We decided to pop our heads in to both and then decide.

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The “traditional” restaurant was exactly what we had envisioned - plastic trees, stuffed roosters and milk maid-laden waitresses serving up overpriced “traditional” food. Trans Force, however, seemed more of a life experience. We were seated at our “control pod” right in the middle of a 270-degree space odyssey that was soaring over St. Petersburg, Antarctica, Mars and Disneyland. The menus was displayed on our “control panel” and we ordered by clicking through pictures and selecting and favorites. After swiping our “warp speed” card the order was confirmed and twenty minutes later a man dressed as a Storm Trooper delivered my soup and Matt’s pasta to our table just as our space ship reached Shanghai, China. It was the most ridiculous eating experience I have ever had.

Afterward, we went to our “touristy” theater and watched the St. Petersburg Ballet Company and St, Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra perform the most incredible rendition of Swan Lake I have ever seen. It was an all-star Russian evening.

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The whole situation raises that same question of authenticity yet again. What was more authentic for dinner - an over-the-top fake Russian restaurant with fake plastic trees and fake stuffed roosters or a new-age, sci-fi, modern approach to eating (or just being awesome) complete with a virtual reality space odyssey? I’m going to have to say the latter. As for the ballet, I am indeed an authentic tourist so while it may not have been the Mariinskiy, I owned my identity and had a great time. Stick that in your authenticity pipe and smoke it. Even better - do it while soaring thousands of miles above the earth through astroid belts and newly invented planets.


Kyle Taylor

20 October 2009

San Fran To New York - Or So It Seems

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Just an hour in St. Petersburg and you’re immediately taken aback by the beauty, splendor and calm of this incredible city. Tree-lined avenues intersect with canals and bridges that are reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice. The architecture is beautiful. The air is fresh. The people are lovely! Toto, we’re not in Moscow anymore.

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Moscow is perhaps best described as the New York of Russia. It’s gritty. It’s tough. The only language people speak is the language of cold hard cash. That is, money talks. It gets you into clubs, guarantees a table and can even get you elected to the federal government. In short, it’s full-on all the time.

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In stark contrast, St. Petersburg is quaint, warm and charming. People move and groove to their own beat. No one is in a hurray. The metro is rarely crowded. Designer stores are either few and far between or better hidden than in Moscow. At times you wonder what - exactly - people do. It’s very much like San Franscisco (honestly, what do people do in San Francisco expect eat chowder in bread bowls and talk about how liberal they are?). The Tsars moved the capital here eons ago because of the city’s splendor and this became their showpiece.

The Russian Empire was the wealthiest empire/nation/state of all time. In fact, of any time. There was so much wealth, in fact, that they used to give it away like free snacks at Cosco as if to say, “yeah, I’m so rich I can chuck this coin at your face and it’s whatever.” That led to their using 250 pounds of pure gold to cap the dome of the city’s cathedral, covering an entire room of the palace - floor, walls, ceiling and furniture - in gold and building the world’s largest collection of art. The Hermitage hold over THREE MILLION pieces in it’s back pocket. Two words: Who knew? A few more words: No wonder people were pissed and started a revolution. Wouldn’t you want a piece of that?

I honestly had no idea. I read about the Tsars and the Tsarinas, I delved into the classic works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and I had taken countless classes on World War II, The Cold War and Soviet-US Relations but never had it occurred to me that the Empire itself was the grandest of them all.

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The beauty of St. Petersburg is that it has managed - through it all - to retain that splendor in a remarkably calming way. Palace Square - the site of numerous revolts, hangings and even the Bolshevik Revolution - now sits quiet, possibly preparing for its next big moment to shine.

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Even Peterhof - the Russian Versailles (only bigger and with more gold fountains) - is, as Eddie Izzard says best, “relaxed and groovy.” No doubt St. Petersburg lives up to it’s reputation as Russia’s “window to the west.” I’m just sorry we didn’t look back sooner.


Kyle Taylor

19 October 2009

It’s Number 57 But There Is No Sign On Purpose

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Matt and I arrived early for our overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The goal was to make our beds, get into our pajamas and be laying down before any other passengers arrived. Basically, we wanted to set the tone of the cabin to “sleep time” rather than “vodka time.” Having not shared a room with anyone the entire journey, I was a bit nervous. Having booked the two bottom bunks, I was a bit worried as well. A heavyset, drunk Russian man would be very difficult to hoist up above.

Our two “bunkmates” arrived at the same time. Both were typing furiously and both were visibly irritated by our very existence. Matt passed out before the train left, leaving me to entertain and coax our new “friends” into being quiet. I have to say it went pretty well. My top bunk buddy only gave me one death stare and Matt’s didn’t say a word. He just awkwardly stripped to his pasty-white briefs then stuck said briefs in my face while climbing the stairs to his bunk holding a bottle of vodka and copy of “In Touch” magazine.

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We arrived on time at 8am and headed immediately for our hostel (a short 5-minute walk away). “Number 57 Zhugovsko,” I told Matt. “Okay, eyes peeled.” Minutes later we arrived at number 57 Zhugovsko to find a door with buzzer, a man sleeping on the ground and an old woman taking gulps of beer out of a 2-liter size bottle. No signs. No instructions. Nothing. I pulled out the reservation form and scanned it for entry instructions. Nothing. We wandered up and down the street for a few moments, ducking into the alley to check behind the building (while you may think that sounds ridiculous, this is Russia. The more ridiculous the option the more likely it’s correct).

Having found nothing but a few old cars and a poster for the upcoming Beyonce concert, we turned to head back to the street. Who might you think we found waiting for us? Why, the drunk old woman, beer in-hand! She snatched my reservation from my hands and mimicked an offer to “help us.” I moved to grab it back and she pivoted around, blocking me with an outstretched jug of beer. After careful consideration she handed it back, raised her fingers in the air and said “Five dollars, I show you.” WHAT? Lady, we’re at the address. You 1. Have no more information than we do and 2. Are totally trashed.

I left Matt to deal with the “situation” and proceeded to call the listed phone numbers. The first was disconnected and the second had no answer. Fortunately, there was a third number hidden at the bottom of the page amidst the information about food that was for sale in the hostel. No explanation of how to get it but details on what food is sold. Excellent. This time someone picks up. “Hi. My name is Kyle Taylor and I’m here to check in at the hostel but there is no way to get in,” I explain. “Oh, hi there. Welcome to St. Petersburg. How are you finding the city?” Here we are, 8am, a drunk woman harassing us, making a call from my US cell phone to Russia for $2 a minute and the woman wants to know how I am finding St. Petersburg? “Um, yeah, it’s great. How do I get in? I can tell you more about it then, yeah?” She then proceeds to give me instructions: “Haha. Oh yes, sorry. Okay, all you do is press 4 then B then get the person at the desk to buzz you in then at the second door press 2, 6 and 8 at the same time and quickly push the door open. Go in past the first stairs and then up to the second floor. Well, it’s the third floor in American but we call it the second. Find flat 40 and that’s it, you’re there. Okay? Great. Bye then.” And she hangs up.

How I managed to remember all of that I have no idea, but we managed to get inside. My first comment was - naturally - “it’s a bit difficult to find the place” followed by an awkward laugh and smile. “Oh yeah, people tell us that,” he said. “But we like to keep secret so it is more safe. So we risk people not being able to find it so it’s safer for them.” Two thoughts on this: First, I feel as though I would have personally been much safer NOT wandering the streets and being harassed by our new friend morning beer lady. Second, does it matter if guests are “safer” if they can’t find the hostel to begin with?

Russia. Is. Hilarious.


Kyle Taylor

16 October 2009

Moscow - Undercover Capital

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The City

As you approach Red Square, a stream of contradictions swirls before your eyes. At one end stands the awe-inspiring St. Basil’s Cathedral, complete with multi-colored onion domes. The influence of the Russian Orthodox church ripples outward across Russia from here. Opposite the Cathedral stands the State History Museum - home to a slightly cleansed version of Russia’s last one hundred years. The deep-red Kremlin wall runs the length of the square from the Cathedral to the State History Museum. It stands as an enduring reminder of political power in Russia from Tsars to the Bolsheviks, Perestroika to new democracy. Lenin peers across the square from his tomb situated directly in the center of the square. In perhaps the biggest contradiction of them all, he lays facing the GUM - one of the world’s most exclusive shopping malls and home to only the best designers and labels. But the bottom line, however, is this: if you’ve got the cash, you can do whatever you want. This is Moscow. Where money talks and nothing else.

The Lay of the Land

Moscow is situated along both sides of the Moscow River, which contains several islands and inlets. Red Square is at the center of it all, and several ring roads circle outward from there. This is not a walkable city. Fortunately, the extensive (and gorgeous) metro can take you everywhere you’ll want to go. Most museums and sites are situated around Red Square and north toward Pushkinskaya Square. The Arbat - a major pedestrian thoroughfare and once the center of Soviet Union counterculture - stretches west from Kremlin. Hotels, restaurants and nightlife are all around you. After all, this is the largest city in Europe! Grab a free city map when you arrive and get acquainted. This place is huge.

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The Must-Sees and Must-Dos

A note on tourism in Moscow - with inflation at nearly 10%, prices are constantly changing. Rather than offer specifics for each site, simply expect to pay between $5 and $8 for most attractions. The Kremlin is Moscow’s priciest attraction at $10. While student discounts are available at every site, there seems to be no universal enforcement policy. That means some places will accept a foreign student ID, some places will accept an ISIC card and some places will only accept a Russian student ID. Finally, a note on opening times. They change all the time. Check with your accommodation upon arrival for an updated schedule. As a general rule, museums are closed on Mondays.

Red Square (Red Square, Metro Alexandrovsky Sad) Comprising St. Basil’s Cathedral, the GUM Shopping Mall, Lenin’s Tomb, Kazan Cathedral & The State History Museum, Red Square remains the epicenter of both Moscow and Russia. Take in each part of the “new Russia” by exploring the church, the politics and the consumer culture that now permeates the Moscow scene. A few tips:

Lenin’s Mausoleum is open from 10am to 1pm Tuesday to Sunday. Arrive early to snag a place in line. While passing through do not put your hands in your pockets and do not stop walking unless you want the Red Guard to have their way with you.
Make sure to stop by at night to see the buildings a-flitter in all their evening beauty. It is oddly magical.

The Kremlin (Red Square, Metro Alexandrovsky Sad) Straddling the entire southwest side of Red Square, the Kremlin has been the political epicenter of Russia for literally hundreds of years. Enter from the north side near the gardens just west of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Don’t miss The Armoury (separate ticket necessary), which is full of the Russian Empire’s most divine treasures. Groups are allowed in at 10am, noon, 2pm and 4pm for 90 minutes. Arrive early! English audio guides included at no extra charge.

The Gulag Museum (16 Petrovka, Metro Alexandrovsky Sad) Traces the horrific period of forced imprisonment that found millions of Russians doing hard labour in the world’s harshest climate - Siberia. Ex-inmates are commonly around and very eager to share their stories. Exhibits are in Russian only so brining an English guide is highly recommended.

The Contemporary History Museum (21 Tverskaya ul, Metro Pushkinskaya, www.sovr.ru) Traces the history of Russia from Tsar to Lenin to Stalin to Gorbachev to Putin! All exhibits are in both Russian and English. A very well-constructed and surprisingly honest depiction of Russia’s last several hundred years.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (15 ul Volkhonka, Metro Kropotkinskaya) A masterpiece. The gold-covered onion domes are mesmerizing and visible from all over the city. Stalin had the original smashed to the ground and used the marble to build his beautiful subway. Version 2.0 was built in just two years at a cost of nearly $400 million. Admission is free.

Tolstoy Literary Museum (11 ul Prechistenka, Metro Kropotkinskaya) A plethora of superlatives telling the tale of perhaps Russia’s greatest novelist. The English captions alone are worth the visit. That and the museum’s first edition of War and Peace.

The Vodka Museum (Metro Partizanskaya, look for the enormous “Moscow Disneyland” looking structure and walk toward it, www.vodkamuseum.ru) Beyond kitsch but a telling English-language tale (maybe say “good English-language description”?) of where Russia’s most popular drink comes from. Massive collection of mint quality vodka bottles as well as Smirnoff’s first distilling bottle. Free shots at the end make it very worthwhile.

Izmaylovo Market (Metro Partizanskaya. Exit, turn left and walk straight until you run into a building. Follow the building around to the right. Keep walking straight for about 5 minutes and you’ll hit the market) The place for Russian dolls, mini Kremlins and vintage pins and badges. Delicious Georgian kebab are sold here as well.
Cosmonautics Museum (Metro VDNKh) While the exhibition is in Russian only, the videos of experiments conducted in space, Yuri Gregarian’s first space suit, an enormous collection of space ships and life-size reconstruction of Mir make this a must-see. The soaring 150-foot statue that sits atop the building is rather impressive as well.
Sculpture Park (10 Krimsky val, Metro Tretyakovskaya) Piles of old Lenin and Stalin statues are situated awkwardly amongst modern art installations and a bizarre country cottage. Great views of the enormous Peter the Great Statue as well, which sits in the Moscow River.

Novodevichy Cemetary & Convent (Luzhnetsky poezd, Metro Sportivnaya) The oldest in Moscow and still operating. The cemetery is the burial ground of some of Russia’s most famous figures as well. Check the listing upon entry to find out whose tombs are open.

The Arbat (Metro Biblioteka Lenina) Once the hub of Moscow (and Russia’s) counterculture, the Arbat is the first place you’d have seen Levi’s jeans and heard the Rolling Stones during Perestroika. Now it’s a fairly kitsch pedestrian thoroughfare lined with restaurants, shops and street performers. Make sure you walk all the way to the end to catch a glimpse at the majestic 1950’s Art Nouveau buildings that used to adorn Moscow’s skyline.

Ride The Metro (The Metro!) Believe it or not, it’s a tourist attraction in and of itself! Gorgeous chandeliers, bronze statues and tile mosaics adorn the walls and ceilings of the world’s most beautiful public transportation system. Start at Komsomolskaya and make your way around to Prospekt Mira, Novoslobodskaya, Krasnopresnenskaya, Kievskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Teatralnaya & Mayakovskaya in that order.

Banya - It’s a traditional Russian sauna complete with ritual tree branch slapping. Exhilarating, exhausting and interesting all at the same time. Try Banya on Presnya (7 Stolyarny, Metro Ulitsa 1905 Goda) $25 admission.

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The Crash Pad

Moscow is now an international city and with that comes international hotels. Beyond the usual suspects - The Marriott, The Hyatt, W and so on - there are some hidden gems. But beware - accommodation is obscenely expensive. Expect to pay $350 a night at The Marriott. Some recommendations are below.

Hotel Metropol (1/4 Teatralny poezd, Metro Teatralnaya, www.metropol-moscow.ru) Quite possibly the most beautiful hotel in Russia. Tile mosaics, swirling staircases and 5-star luxury make this THE place to stay if money is no object. Rooms start at $500 a night.

Godzilla’s Hostel (6 Bolshoi Karetny, +7 (495) 699-4223, www.godzillashostel.com) Quite possibly the cleanest hostel this writer has ever seen. Offers both dorm and private accommodation, wireless internet, kitchens and a TV lounge with nightly movie screenings. Staff speaks excellent English. Dorms start at $25 a night while doubles run about $35 per person per night.

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The Eats

People go on and on about how terrible Russian food is, but this writer is going to disagree. Yes it’s expensive (absurdly expensive) and yes it’s hearty, but it’s soul food through and through and there is nothing wrong with that.


Moo-Moo (45/23 ul Arbat, Metro Smolenskaya) While it is a chain, this Russian buffet-style restaurant offers hot meals and decent prices. Just point to what you want. Oh, and try to snag the table under the giant plastic tree. It adds to the ambiance. Meals $5 and up.

Yolki-Palki (8/10 Neglinnaya, Metro Kuznetsky Most) “Traditional Russian food” served by people wearing “traditional Russian outfits.” The kitsch-factor is off the charts, but the food is good and the stuffed roosters everywhere really gives it a little something extra. Try the kvass - a slightly alcoholic traditional Russian drink. Meals run $8 and up.

Pelmeshka (3/4 Kuznetsky Most, Metro Teatralnaya) Cheap. Russian. Grub. It’s that simply. Try the delicious pelmeni. Meals $6 and up.

Not Russian

TaDaCe (Metro Biblioteka Lenina) Sushi, meat dishes and Moscow’s cheapest pasta bowl at $1.75. Sushi runs $6 and up for 6 rolls. Free wifi.

Starlite Diner (16 Bolshaya Sadovaya, Metro Mayakovskaya) For whatever reason, Russians are fascinated with American-style diners and this may be the crowning achievement. Typical diner fair that is surprisingly delicious. Burgers $10 and up. American-size Pepsi $4. Open 24 hours.

Bits and Bobs

Coffee Shops - They are everywhere! Russians seem to be obsessed. Stop in for a cafe latte and a delicious cake.

Supermarkets - Look for the word “Market” and you’re all set. Prices are much lower than in restaurants and the fresh cheese and deli meats are divine.

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The Nightlife

Two things define Moscow nightlife - money and looks. “Face control” is now infamous as bouncers decide who enters and who doesn’t based on their hotness. Beware: they’re not afraid to let you know they think you’re ugly. ALWAYS dress to impress and if possible, arrive in a car. Make sure you take a second mortgage on your house before you head out. Cocktails start at $10 and go sky high from there.

Karma Bar (3 Pushechnaya, Metro Kuznetsky Most) Chilled out, relaxed and a generally liberal, mixed scene. Perfect for that after hours cocktail.

Propaganda (7 Bolshoy Zlatoustinsky, Metro Lubyanka) Still considered to be the best club in Moscow (and arguably Russia) Propaganda is the epitome of glitterati. Wear your Sunday best. Propaganda is gay on Sundays and the party is absolutely incredible. Again, cover varies but shouldn’t be more than $10.

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The Tips and Tricks

The Cyrillic Alphabet - Russia uses the cyrillic alphabet. At first it will look unintelligible. Take a few hours before you leave to learn it, as it will make getting around much easier. Many words are pronounced similarly, so being able to say them means you’ll be able to understand where you are and what you’re doing.

Tourist Map and Book - The city has a free guidebook called “In Your Pocket.” In it you’ll find restaurants, clubs, sites and most importantly - maps! Pick one up seemingly anywhere.

Hours and Prices Change Constantly - This is true for restaurants, museums and sites. Inflation is just under 10%, which means costs are going up and up. Take all estimates here lightly and know you’ll probably have to add 10-20% upon arrival.

Photo Permits – Russian museums like to snag a little extra cash by charging you to take pictures. The price ranges from $1.50 on up to $5. Don’t buy this “feature” at museums, as most exhibits prohibit pictures anyway. In the Armoury and in the churches it is highly recommended.

Registration - You have to register your presence with the government for all stays over 3 business days and within three days of arriving in Russia. Don’t mess with the police and just do it. Most hotels and hostels offer a registration service for around $20. Just have it done for you. Also, carry your passport on you at all times.

15 October 2009

Grit (and then some)

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I couldn’t leave Moscow (or Russia in general, for that matter) without making mention to the most striking and impressive aspect of Russian society - the tough, gritty, “mess with me and I will break you” women. If there is one positive thing to be said about Communism, it is that it yields a culture of absolute equity between the sexes. Everyone goes to school, everyone is literate and everyone can shove you out of their way en route to the supermarket, the metro or just because they feel like. The different with women, however, is that they do all of these things while looking AMAZING.

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There is only one dress code - absolutely put together. While hairstyles range from the fabulous to the mullet-tastic, overcoats are always form-fitting, jeans are always painted on and high heels are always obscenely tall. This final piece is the most impressive part of the ensemble. I have never seen high heels like the high heels in Russia. At moments I found myself standing their frozen staring at this woman practically performing a circus act balanced on black pleather toothpick heels. So then, to all those ladies out there, I salute you! May your ankles stay strong and your calves permanently flexed.


Kyle Taylor

14 October 2009

The People’s Palace

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Back in the 1930s Stalin decided Moscow was in need of a metro system, so he demanded one be built (yes, it was that easy). Practically overnight, the underbelly of the city was turned into one of the world’s largest and most extensive metro systems in the world. So fast, in fact, that nothing worked at first. As the story goes, Stalin was riding the first train just days before the planned opening when it suddenly stopped just inches out of the station. The architect froze, thinking this was his time to go. Perhaps surprisingly, Stalin turned, put his arm on the man’s shoulder and said “no problem. Why don’t we work out the problems before opening it, yes?” Close call.

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It was finished in 1935 and to do this day remains an architectural marvel. It is as if the Soviet Union took all of its most beautiful art, culture and raw materials and stuck them 250 feet underground for safe-keeping. Gorgeous chandeliers, bronze statues and the world’s largest tile mosaic adorn station after station. It simply takes your breath away.

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You might at first find this a bit odd but think about it: what could be more “of the people” than a subway system and what could be more Communist then making the place most exemplary of the common man beautiful beyond reason? What’s even more incredible is the price - 50 cents to ride anywhere in Moscow! Compare that to the $9 value meal at McDonald’s, $10 entry fee to the Kremlin and $80-a-night hostel and you can see why we road the darn thing around for days. Cheap thrills I tell ya. Cheap thrills.

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Kyle Taylor

13 October 2009

This Land Is My Land, This Land Is McDonald’s Land...

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As you approach Red Square in Moscow your eyes are immediately drawn to St. Basil’s Cathedral (Annunciation Cathedral) at the southernmost end. The immaculate, brightly colored onion domes have a dreamlike fairy-tale quality to them. The power of the Russian Orthodox Church seems to radiate from here.

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To the right, the wall of the Kremlin runs parallel with the square, once housing the Tsar then Stalin (who showed his communism-ness by moving into a former Tsarist Palace - good one Joe. Good one) and now the seat of Russia’s “democracy.” Half-way down is the centerpiece of Red Square - Lenin’s Mausoleum. Six days a week, four hours a day people trudge through to take in the now wax-like visage of the father of the nation. Stalin had dreamed of being embalmed right next to him, but when word got out about the whole killing millions of Russians thing he was plopped out back alongside the other Supreme Leaders.

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This is where Red Square gets interesting. Opposite St. Basil’s and next to the Kremlin is the Museum of the State History of Russia, whose exhibits are about neither Russia or history. Finally, opposite the Kremlin (and Lenin himself) is the GUM. What is the GUM, you ask? The world’s most exclusive, most expensive, most fancy luxury shopping mall. Don’t even think about trying to get in if you’re not wearing alligator-skin shoes, a gold chain and - if you’re a woman - 6-inch high heels the width of a toothpick.

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Just off the square (but within site of Lenin) is the crowning achievement of new Russia: The world’s busiest McDonald’s, where $9 will get you a Big Mac, fried and a coke. If he hadn’t been embalmed for the last EIGHTY FIVE YEARS, Lenin would be rolling in his grave.

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Perhaps the most interesting element of former Communist states is how quickly political power is replaced by economic power. Those who once led the “Revolution” now lead big oil companies. The political elites become the business elites, state rationing stores are replaced by massive department stores and “poof,” democracy! How long might it be before Red Square becomes McDonald’s Square and the government sells the rights to the Cathedral to Disneyland?

As seems to be the most common question here in Russia - WHAT IS GOING ON?


Kyle Taylor