Saturday, August 26, 2006

Okay, I guess I should make one last detailed blog entry before heading off to the wilds of Central Russia. Obviously I made it back into Russia, safe and sound, with no major injuries or incidents. For once the person sitting next to me was very cool – a middle-aged Russian lady who taught literary in a high school in some smaller Russian city. I was impressed with myself – I managed to hold a rather long conversation with her about literature…in Russian! I didn’t think my language skills were that good, but I was able to make myself understood and I even when I didn’t know what to say, I could understand what she was saying to me. I had a similar experience later that day at the train station (though the conversation was decidedly less intellectual). Both convinced me that maybe I’m not completely screwed after all. I’ll at least be able to converse with the babushkas in Irkutsk, even if I have no idea what is happening in class.

When I was waiting in line at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, there were a couple of other Americans there as well. One of them was a guy who was trying frantically to get a visa to leave on Friday but was having trouble because the only blank page in his passport (and hence the other page on which the visa could be issued) was slightly damaged. The Russians being the sticklers that they are for such details wouldn’t issue him a visa unless he got a new passport. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see him again, considering he was just going to Russia as a tourist. As it happened though, he was able to get his visa and was on the same train and same car as me. The poor guy seemed completely overwhelmed by the trip and the rush to get to take it. He had no idea how to get to the hostel he was staying at or anything. Since I had to head to the Moscow station anyway to drop off my bags for the train later that evening, I took him with me and showed him around for about an hour. I had this image in my head of him wandering aimlessly about the city without a clue where he was going or how to ask how to get there – I had to help him. The situation made me wish that the code of hospitality was still working. People nowadays are so afraid of strangers and every little bad thing that could possibly happen. Yes, there are bad people out there – but there are also good people, and getting to know good local people while you’re traveling is the whole point in my book.

But I digress, as always. I got in touch with Charles (my neighbor at the dorm, with whom I had left my big bags) and went by to collect my things. After a bit of rearranging (and one last blini at “Nyam Nyam”), I worked out a why to handle all my baggage. In total I five bags – the big backpack, camera bag and rolling carryon that I left home with, and the little backpack and duffle bag that I managed to fill along the way. Somehow I made it to my bunk on the train, causes a number of odd looks and a few angry scowls. I even found a place for all of my things near my “platscard” (place) on the train.

I took the cheapo train to Moscow. It was only twenty dollars. I was only able to get one grungy picture of the car (I didn’t want to piss anyone off), but it tells a lot. I actually like traveling in the open car like that – you get to meet a lot of the locals that way (because the tourists usually shy away from the third class tickets for fear of being raped or pillaged by rowdy drunkards). The only downside is it’s a bit on the dirty end of the spectrum. And it’s a pain in the ass when you have as much luggage as I do. If I just had a backpack, I totally would have gone for the third class ticket to Irkutsk. But I’m playing it safe this time – there’s always next year.

I wasn’t able to check into the hostel into 1 pm, so I spent all morning roaming about. The place I’m staying is right on Old Arbat street – one of the main walking streets. On Saturdays (I don’t know about other days of the week), there’s a market that sells everything from tourist crap to fresh fruits and vegetables to underwear and socks. I did a bit of windowless window shopping and such. It was on this walk, as I was passing McDonalds, that I discovered something wonderful – a few of the Moscow McDonalds have free wireless!!! How wonderful. If only the ones in St. Petersburg had been the same. And there is a McDonald’s just across the street from me - another bonus of this hostel.

This hostel, by the way, is awesome. It’s almost identical to the Aboriginal, the place I stayed in Budapest – even down to the Ikea beds and high percentage of Brits and Aussies. I think I’m the only American here tonight. Not only is it really small and cozy (which I prefer to the big hostels), but it’s one of the cheaper ones in the city. And it’s right in the center of things. Not only are we on one of the main old streets but we’re only 5 minutes max from the nearest metro stop. So even when I had to go all the way to the outskirts of town this afternoon to pick up my train ticket to Irkutsk, it was no trouble at all. And there are a couple of guys here from Glasgow, complete with totally incomprehensible accents. I think they’re brothers or cousins or something – they both look like relatives of Mr. John McLean (the McDermott Scholar, not the Die Hard hero). They make me miss my Scottish and wannabe-Scottish friends. Erica just left yesterday for St. Andrews – she better give everyone a hug for me. Finding places like this is sort of like finding a needle in a haystack. But once you manage, it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s almost as cool as couchsurfing.

I’m trying to get in touch with Ben, one of my friends from class in St. Petersburg, who is staying in Moscow at the moment as well. Unfortunately, both of our SIM cards are for a company that doesn’t operate in Moscow, so it’s been a challenge. Hopefully we can meet up for lunch or something tomorrow before I head out. It’ll be my last chance to hear someone speak in fluent English for awhile, since I only know of two native speakers of my language in Irkutsk. This could be interesting.

Well, I need to get back to writing my paper for Elena. It’s horribly overdue. I feel bad about it. And I need to put together something for the SRAS people, who are using some of my Russia pictures for their website. And I need to write a McDermott blog entry with Chris. And do about a billion other things in the next twenty-four hours. So goodnight (I mean good morning), all, and I’ll see you on the flip side.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Semi-pointless post

I'm just posting a little note here to say I made it to Moscow, and will be leaving on the train to Irkutsk on Sunday night. I'll post something far more exciting to read later on - it's time for a nap.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The end-times

Well, maybe not. But I'm a bit bummed that today was my last day in Helsinki. I've had a good time, especially in the last few days.
Yesterday I made a rather serendipitous discovery. I had a craving for a turkey sandwich from Subway (I had seen Subway the day before). It's an dd thing to CRAVE, I know, but when these things happen all you can do is obey your stomach. I ended up missing the tram stop because I didn't know exactly where Subway was, so I had to walk about a quarter of a mile to get there. Thank goodness for that quarter-mile. On the way, I passed by this overgrown fench with an open gate that said "Botanical Garden and Natural History Museum." Hmmm - sounds interesting, I thought to myself. After my (delicious) sandwich, having no concrete plans for the afternoon, I wandered back to the little gate. I think in doing so I may have found my favorite place in Helsinki. I can only imagine what this place looks like when all the flowers are in bloom. Even now, with autumn just on the horizon, the gardens are gorgeous - green all around, with all sorts of neat little niches to sit and read or have a picnic. And the glasshouses were awesome. Frog just about flipped out when we walked into the Waterlily Room. My favorite was the African Violet room. All in all, we had a great time wandering about in this little hidden place. I didn't have time to go back today but I really wanted to - I have a feeling it's a good hunting ground for Ents.
Afterwards, being the good little Lutheran girl that I am, I decided to pay a visit to the National Cathedral. It's big and white and stands out pretty distinctly, especially when it's sunny like it was yesterday. They have a really cool organ too. I wish I had know the schedule beforehand - I apparently missed a recital by about an hour. That would have been really awesome.
Having successfully spent a day wandering about the city, I headed back to the hostel with a frozen pizza, the first in two and a half months, since we didn't have an oven at the dorm in St. Petes. It was fantastic - lots of greasy goodness. While I was waiting for my pizza to cook, there was another girl in the kitchen making dinner who was from New Zealand and about a third of the way through a round-the-world adventure by herself. Pretty awesome - I want to do that eventually. We talked to the girl at the front desk and she circled some streets on the map to go for good (and very cheap) local bars, and we had a great time hanging out, wandering to different places around the neighborhood. It was a lot more interesting than just going to the city center, where we would have paid five euros for a beer and been with a bunch of other foreigners. And we could walk home - a plus when the trams stop running at midnight.
This morning was even more relaxing than yesterday. I finally got to sleep in, since I didn't have to go to the Russian Embassy again, and there was no line for the shower when I finally did get out of bed. Woohoo! I feel so clean.
Then I went a rode the elevator up to the top of the Olympic Tower - you can see the whole city from there. At that point the weather was still great - nice and sunny and blue skies. A bit later it got really cloudy and they haven't gone away yet. It just enhances the dreary feeling I have at the moment. I wanted to rent a bike and go riding around in the parks this afternoon, but I didn't want to get caught in the rain, which would have begun right as I started pedaling if my luck hasn't changed. So I just came back and got everything packed and ready to go, so that I can have a nice relaxing evening before leaving for the train station early tomorrow morning. Sigh. Trains. It's a good thing I like them, because we got several days together this week.
If you want to get in touch with me in the coming months, I'll still have my skype account forwarded to my cell, so that's the best way. There is no guarantee that I'll have regular internet access in Irkutsk. I only know of one internet cafe there and they don't have wireless.
Wish me luck.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chillin in Hel(sinki)

Today was one of those really long days, where nothing particularly BAD happened, but I still find myself completely worn out by early evening. I did get a lot done today, even if I had to skip my nap. I woke up really early to take a shower before going to the embassy, only to find a line for the two female showers. At 7 in the morning. What the heck! Change of plans. I ended up just getting dressed and heading to the Russian Embassy a little early, so that I would be at the head of the line.
The Russian Embassy in Helsinki is quite a bit different from the one in Berlin. And, if I may say so, a much more plenty place to process a visa. For one thing, everyone there speaks English (if I had to speculate, I would guess that that is due to the extreme difficulty of learning Finnish, even compared to learning Russian). Also, it's a bit smaller and less busy. Instead of a massive, impressive-looking building taking up an entire city block, the embassy here is surrounded by an overgrown, English-style garden. And they only let a few people in at a time, so there isn't the same mass of screaming old ladies to deal with. Everyone lines up nice and neat in their respective lines - one for Russian citizens, one for those applying for visas, and one for those picking theirs up. It all worked very smoothly. I think I was only there for about 1 hour. Then I hot-tailed it over to the transport office to get a new tram card before mine expired. Afterwards, I FINALLY got my much-needed shower.
I really wanted to take a nap, but the hostel has "lock-out" time from noon til 4 pm for cleaning, so I had to change plans again. I decided to bite the bullet and make the purchases I needed to make for the upcoming train trips, with a little assistance from Mr. CitiCard. I found a little sleeping bag on sale, so I won't get scabies on the ride, and a some new locks to replace those that were lost on the flight to Amsterdam. And then there was H&M. I love it. I wish we had one in Texas. It is everywhere here. And so cheap. I didn't bring a whole lot of clothes with me, and they are all getting really threadbare. I had to get some shirts. It is getting a bit ridiculous to keep wearing these ones I brought. They're really gross.
The upside of the shopping excursion was that I got to visit the "largest shopping center in the Nordic countries." It was huge - like the galleria on crack. They even had a Mexican restaurant (it sucked). I saw two things that just cracked me up. 1). A store called "KKK Supermarket" - it's not like it sounds, just a regular food store. I don't think they're aware of the association. 2). A group of Muslim women vegging out in some massage chairs that were on display. I looked like an anachronism if I've ever seen one.
It was weird being in a place so much like home. I had shopping, especially for clothes, but sometimes it must be done. And it helps when everything is where you'd expect it to be. And unlike the cash-only Russian society, everything is on cards here. Most people even use the smart cards. Even the tourist tickets for the transportation system are smart cards! Maybe that's why they're so expensive...
Anyway, I need to get some sleep. No nap today and I have to wake up really early tomorrow to go collect my passport (with new visa) from the Russians. I foresee another really long day.

Monday, August 21, 2006


As all great adventures do, the weekend in Amsterdam began innocently enough. After the harrowing adventure of taking the Russian bus to Helsinki, I spent the night at the same hostel I was at the first time I was here – the one in the old Olympic Stadium. It’s a great place, mostly because it has free wireless internet (and when I’m connected to it, my IP address says that I am in a place called Espoo – isn’t that just the coolest name for a city EVER!?). I did however find one downside to staying in the Olympic Stadium this time. Apparently it is still used rather often to host sporting events. Whilst I slept on Wednesday night, Ireland and Finland were duking it out on the futbol field. Of course, I have no idea who was victorious, nor do I really care. But it was kind of interesting falling asleep to the sound of cheering fans and commentary (in English) for a game I couldn’t see (it was on the other side of the wall). I think it may have influenced my dreams that night, but I’m not going to go there. This entry will be interesting enough without throwing that into the mix.

Since I had been awake for nearly 36 hours (sleeping on a bus is hard, especially when a very talkative old Russian lady is sitting next to you and taking up half of your seat as well), it was no problem for me to get to bed at a decent hour that night. I fell asleep (as the game was reaching its climax, judging from the sounds) at about 10:30 – plenty early to get a good night’s sleep before jet-setting to Amsterdam. My flight was leaving rather early, and with the big hullabaloo that has surrounded international flights as of late, I decided that it would be wise to give myself extra time to get to the gate. I woke up at about 4:30 (how I managed that, I’m not quite sure – must have been the excitement) and was out the door by 5:00. There is a nice shuttle bus that runs to the airport every 20 minutes from 5 am to 2 am every day from a hotel down the street, so getting to the airport was really easy.

When I got there, I realized that I had been worried for nothing. In less than 10 minutes, I was checked in, through security and at my departure gate. It was the quickest check-in I’ve ever been through. 10 MINUTES!!! And that’s even including having to go through security twice, because bike locks are apparently dangerous items, so I had to go and check mine that was attached to my backpack. Of course, I’m not going to complain. It was awesome. I had plenty of time for an espresso and a muffin before the flight (which I wouldn’t have splurged for if I had known ahead of time that breakfast was going to be served on the flight – a mistake I did not repeat when I flew back). These are just more reasons why I really like FinnAir. It all started because they had student discounts, and things just kept getting better from there.

As the plane landed and we were taxiing to the gate, I tried to calculate how long it had been since I had seen Chris. I believe the last time was at our annual spring luncheon with everyone’s favorite benefactor, Mrs. McDermott. That would make it about five months since the last time we hung out. And it had been over three months since I’ve seen any of my friends at all (with the exception of John Keese, who I ran into randomly in Salzburg in May). Needless to say, I was extremely excited when I finally found Chris in the baggage claim area. His evening had been a bit more interesting than mine. Apparently the earliest train from Lausanne (where his lab is) to Geneva (the nearest airport) wasn’t early enough for his flight, so he spent the night sitting outside the Geneva airport. Luckily the guards were understanding and didn’t give him too much trouble about it. (I can only imagine how Lindsey’s 24 hours in the Warsaw airport must have been last week – probably not nearly as nice as Switzerland. Sorry – another digression).

It was at this point that I realized that I had forgotten to write down directions to the hostel that we may or may not have had a reservation for (another long story). So where do we go? Well, we hopped on the train to the central station, figuring that would be a good starting point for the search. We were right on. There are loads of hotel-booking places and tourist information spots surrounding the train station, and we were able to get our hands on a list of ALL the hostels (with addresses and phone numbers) in the center of Amsterdam. We decided that it would be best to try first the one we had intended to stay at all along – the Witte Tulp (White Tulip, in case your Dutch is a little rusty). Making a reservation here had proved to be impossible, mostly due to the complete incompetence of the staff. Fortunately though, they had room for us for three nights. It was a bit expensive but all accommodation is in Amsterdam, especially where we were.

On a side note, I love the houses that line the canals – they are really tall (several stories) and deep, but very narrow. And all the staircases seem to be the same – really, REALLY steep. It saves a lot of space. Of course, getting up these steps late in the evening can be an adventure all on its own.

After we made it up the stairs to the dorm room, we realized just how close we were to the center of things. I knew we were in the red-light district, but didn’t know that the hostel backed up to the alley behind the Old Church, which is one of the main stretches of red lights, if you know what I mean. If you stuck your head out the window, you could see several of the ladies working late into the evening. And you could always tell how late it was at night by the level of rowdiness on the street.

Of course, we didn’t spend all our time in the red-light district. There is a lot more to Amsterdam than just brothels and coffeeshops. Aafke (my Dutch friend from the dorm in St. Petersburg) would be proud. We spent a lot of time just exploring and going to different museums. We made it to the Rembrandt house (it was cool being there in the year of his 400th birthday) and saw a really cool exhibit on his printmaking. And of course, we had to go to the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. Much of the Rijksmuseum is under renovation, so they had a big exhibition of all their masterpieces up. Erica would have loved it, especially the Vermeer room. Oh wait, she’s already been there :-D.

We also went to a really cool museum that was just down the street from the hostel. Apparently a few hundred years ago it was illegal to practice Catholicism, but the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye if the place of worship in no way resembled a church from the outside. Therefore, there were a bunch of hidden churches throughout the city, one of which is still intact and has been restored to what it would have looked like then. It’s called Our Lord in the Attic and really worth the visit if you’re ever in Amsterdam.

We also felt it was necessarily to rent bicycles for at least one of the days. Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam – when you cross the street, that’s what you have to look out for more often than cars or trolleys. It was really nice being able to roam all over the city the way everyone else does. We rode over to the Vondelpark, and liked that part of town so much that we spent most of the day there. I love big parks like that – it’s so nice to just relax in the middle of the day, or have a picnic and people-watch all through the afternoon. It made me miss Zilker Park just a bit. Of course, the weather is much better here than in Texas right now (I hope the rain comes soon, guys). It only rained the last day that we were in Amsterdam – the rest of the stay was perfect weather.

And being there with a biologist, we had to go to the flower market. Chris bought a bunch of tulip bulbs (that mostly what they have at this time of year). I would have bought some too, but don’t really have room in my bags – I’ve got enough stuff already. And I definitely didn’t have room for any wooden shoes, another of Chris’ purchases. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to take home many souvenirs for people – for me, my pictures are my souvenirs. I have bought a patch for my camera bag for every country – it’s going to look awesome!

One thing that Chris and I agree on is that French fries with mayonnaise is one of the best things EVER! We had sooooo many. I don’t know what kind of oil they’re cooked in, or if that’s even the reason why they’re different, but they are sooooooo good. My favorite was the Mannekin Pis (yeah, you read that right, even if I didn’t spell it quite right) frites stand – conveniently located just a few blocks from home.

Overall, I think the trip was a great success. We got to hang out and have a good time, just relaxing and seeing the sites. I have to say that there isn’t much else in this world that can surprise me after some parts of the city, but I think that’s part of the charm. I hope that I can go back, soon and often. And know I have a friend there, so I have a great excuse.

Now that I’m back in Helsinki, I have to get down to business. I need to get my new Russian visa. I was going to do that today, but circumstances somewhat out of my control prevented that from happening. Apparently the consulate is only open from 9 til noon. I don’t get it – the world’s largest country and their consulate in a bordering nation is only open for three hours five days a week. That’s Russia though – not the biggest on tourism. I was able to talk to the lady at the train station into selling me a ticket to St. Petersburg without a visa. Logic eventually won her over – if I wait until Thursday when I finally have my visa in hand, the odds of there still being a seat on that particular train are pretty slim. And I have to be on that train – my train from St. Petersburg to Moscow leaves on Friday night at 11, and I can’t enter the country until Friday, so I must be on the 7.45 train from Helsinki. But I have my ticket in hand – now I just need my visa. Tomorrow. Then I’ll find a bicycle to rent and go on a little adventure of my own. Hehehe. I’m excited. Three whole days to explore at my own pace. Then onward. To Siberia. Crap. I’m insane.