From Vladivostok with Love – Part 4

All the Russian fans told me I should look out for the band because they would surely be staying in the same hotel as I did. So in the morning I did keep a look out at breakfast but nobody was there. I later found out that the poor guys must have left much much earlier than when I sat at breakfast at 9:30. They were going to Novosibirsk next and when I got to the airport myself the next day I saw that the flight to Novosibirsk left at 8:50. Uh… that means being at the airport before 7:30 surely. I suppose they left the hotel at 6:30 or something like that! So much for tour live. Since the Amon Amarth fan lady, just let me call her AA, promised to pick me up at 14:00, I wandered around some more, found a nice spot for a Vladivostok skyline picture and also found two more shopping centers, slowly finding out what looks like a shopping center and what not.

I confirmed already the day before that the Chinese and Koreans are coming for shopping. The rubel is apparently quite low these days, prices in Vladivostok are lower than in Korea for sure and apparently it’s even becoming attractive for Chinese mass tourism. AA also told me that the Koreans and Chinese don’t need Russian visas for Vladivostok and she does not need one either if she wanted to go there. It’s some special agreement for the Russian Far East as well as some areas in China close to the border. If they want to go to Moscow they need visas, but not for the Far East. Interesting, I didn’t know that.
I bought some souvenirs and then waited for AA at the hotel.
She was very punctual and then we drove off towards Russky island over the impressive two bridges.

At some point the asphalt road ends on Russky island and the adventure begins. We were not the only ones on the dirt path, it felt like a caravan at times. AA said this is nothing yet, in the summer there is traffic jam at these dirt paths!


There are several “parking” areas and we stopped at one with a beach and where a hiking trail starts to a scenic spot.


I was totally amazed by the amount of people there. Well, it was Sunday, but nevertheless. Much of the area is wooded, but was extremely dry and also dusty, it has been a super dry winter with not much snow even. There was actually a small bush fire a hundred meters away at one point. AA said the best time is in summer of course, when people go swimming at these beaches but also September and October, when the leaves change color.


We had a great walk and the last cliff looked really beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected adventure, that I never would have been able to do without a local and AA drove me all the way back to the hotel again. Very cool addition to an already great trip.
To say goodbye to the place, I went down to the shore once more and was in for another treat. There were several elderly men who were actually, one after the other, taking a swim in the ice cold ocean!!! Kyaaaaaaa. I was walking around in arctic gear, these guys, jump into the ocean! Air temperature was around zero Celsius and water temperature… well look at the floating ice! OMG!!!

It was my second time to Russia and both times I made nothing but good experiences. I thought also in St. Petersburg and Moscow that people were friendly, but I must give it to Vladivostok that people there were even more friendly than in the big cities. There was not one moment where I would have felt unsafe, despite the adventures in finding the concert venue. Okay, there was a shady “taxi driver” hanging around the hotel who kept on asking me if I need a ride every time I left the hotel. But even he never got rude or too close. There was less police and military around than in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is of course also less to see than in those two big cities, since after all Vladivostok is a mere 160 years old.
I wonder since when there are direct flights from Tokyo and how long they will keep those up. On the way to Vladivostok there were maybe 60 people on board, on the way back 40 people.
I can totally see myself going to Vladivostok again though if some band of interest decides to come all the way there for a gig. And even if there is no direct flight anymore, there will surely be some from Seoul 😉

From Vladivostok with Love – Part 3

On the Amorphis website it read that the Vladivostok venue was called San Remo, apparently a hotel. On the ticket I somehow bought online the venue read Submarine Club. Hm. I asked at my hotel lobby, and the guy did not speak English too well. For standard questions he could somehow answer in English, but not such non-standard stuff like whether the Submarine Club is maybe inside San Remo. He pointed vaguely into the right direction and I thought oh, heck, I’m gonna find it somehow and went looking. It said 19:00 on the paper. I was not sure whether that meant concert start or start of letting you into the hall and the hotel guy couldn’t tell me either because of lack of English. So I went looking for the venue at 17:30 and good that I did so. At a sign which read San Remo, I actually ran into the two guitarists of the band and quickly addressed them and told them I’d see them later, they greeted nicely back, then walked down the road. Good, so it had to be around here somewhere if the band members are close!
I ventured into a spooky alley and ended at a nightclub, all right, but it had another name, and the door was closed, nobody there. Some shifty looking dude wearing an indistinct hoody came out of a side door and I showed him my print out and asked where the venue is. No English really, he said, niet niet, and pointed up and right. Hm.


So I went up and right and landed on the roof of the San Remo building. It’s built kind of into a hill and you could easily walk onto the roof. some youngsters hung out there, but they didn’t look like heavy metal fans and were too young also. One kid walked into the roof access of whatever was beneath it and I thought, what the heck and followed him.

I ended in the seventh floor lobby of a super old style hotel way beyond its prime. Everything screamed seventies and that in Russian. At the reception I asked the lone lady present if she spoke English. A little. I showed her my paper and she was going, Hu? Never heard of it kind of “Hu”. She went into the office, asked someone, then came back. Go down and left. Hm.
I went down with the elevator to the first floor, nothing but a shady restaurant. Outside of the building to the left, closed doors, no metal fans. Damnit, it must be here somewhere, even the band members were around.


Under normal circumstances I never ever would have gone near such night clubs, shady hotels and run down buildings! Lol. But there I was wandering, feeling like in a Russian spy movie. I decided to walk around the complex and went up the hill again outside of the building. And there! In a corner, next to a bar, “Submarine”! Yeah!

And there were a few heavy metal looking dudes around! I approached them and felt safe, ladies and gentlemen. To “normal people” Russian dudes in leather, with long hair, beards, whatever chains dangling from their clothes look scary. But I felt right at home, lol.
I said “hi” and they immediately noticed I’m not Russian and there were actually three, four guys and girls who spoke English and immediately questions started, where the hell are you from? You came to Vladivostok for metal? Oh man! So cool! One girl had been to Europe several times, going to Amon Amarth gigs, so much appreciating I bothered to fly to Vladivostok. They were all super nice and friendly and we are all one big heavy metal family where it does not matter where you come from.
The girl who had been to Europe and I exchanged social media stuff and then she offered to drive me to Russky island the next day so that I see some more of her home town. What? Seriously? Yes, yes, no problem! Wow!
With the promise to pick me up at 14:00 the next day, we were finally allowed into the venue and since I had been early, I managed to get first row together with the other early birds.
While waiting we talked about metal of course, but also the weather for example. It’s been the warmest winter ever they said, usually in March the west side of the bay is still frozen solid and not only a little bit, zero degrees is so warm! Okay. It’s all a matter of perspective. One of the guys said, he hates winter. Uh! A Russian who hates winter! I asked another guy whether he can recommend a vodka brand to me. I wanted to buy one bottle at the airport duty free before I leave. Hm, he doesn’t drink vodka and has no clue about the stuff! There go your stereotypes! He doesn’t drink even a beer before a gig, he wants to be in full capacity of his senses to enjoy the music. Yep, same here!
One guy works for Mazda, another for Carl Zeiss, the Russky island lady and her husband are both programmers.
The gig was great, the band was in a good mood, the crowd was screaming and going nuts, not too many bands bother to fly all the way to Vladivostok, so the metal community is happy and grateful when they do come. It was a fantastic gig and I made a bunch of great friends 🙂

From Vladivostok with Love – Part 2

My driver from the Vladivostok airport into town drove like a berserker in a fat Mercedes. He spoke not a word of English but I said Germania and then he was raving about German cars, I believe 😉
First impression of the town was gray, cold, pre-fabricated high-rise buildings from the seventies.

My hotel was nice though, nothing special, but all the international standards available that a hotel is supposed to have. The room looked out over the western half of the bay and there was ice floating at the shore.


I ventured down to the shore and checked out the ice. Half the shore was a construction site, but people walked through the fences, taking a stroll, as if that was all very normal. The constructions sites were around two defunct buildings from the sixties maybe and made the impression on me as if they were permanent.
I had chosen my hotel strategically close to the venue of the concert and already found the place on that first stroll, or so I thought at the time, and was quite relaxed about that, eating dinner at the hotel’s restaurant before going to bed.

The first day of exploring: I walked down to the shore again, this time venturing further towards an amusement park by the yacht harbor. All the facilities looked very much seventies or eighties to me. From there I walked through town for about five hours with a short break for a late lunch and checked out most of the sights of the city.

The big cathedral at the central square was unfortunately closed do to repair. I counted 12 military ships in the harbor and their radar etc. masts looked like a collection of alien space ships to me.

Much like in Moscow and St. Petersburg the Second World War is quite present still in every day Russia. War memorials and eternal flames and an old submarine exhibit take you back seventy years. The submarine was interesting though, a museum part and then a “live” part where you have to squeeze through bulk heads.

Then I got a bit lost on the search for the mini funicular promised in a Vladivostok walking map I got at the WW2 submarine. I walked too far as it turned out, but stumbled across more tanks and war stuff in a park. Finally I found the funicular. It’s a two minute ride only up the hill which costs 14 rubles, which is some 30 yen. On top was a closed viewpoint but the sight over the city was okay from the side of the funicular also.

Apart from long distance trains the funicular is the only railway inside of Vladivostok, all public transport happens via buses. Those buses look old and they blast a lot of unfiltered exhaust into the air. I did everything on foot, which is okay though, since the downtown area is not that big after all. Nowadays Vladivostok has about 600,000 inhabitants. Funny thing was that I had difficulties recognizing shopping centers for what they were. Due to the cold they don’t have open inviting big entrances but there is a glass door somewhere, which leads into a foyer and then another glass door, all in the attempt to keep out the weather.
I luckily found one shopping center where I could buy some fast food lunch by pointing at pictures. Public rest rooms are also a rarity and shopping centers are your best bet for that. Then I walked back to the hotel past the Vladivostok railway station.

It is still a dream of mine to ride the trans Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok or the other way round one day. Without getting off in between it takes seven days. Well, let’s see! At least I was now on either end of the tracks 🙂 After a rest in the hotel I readied myself for heavy metal!

From Vladivostok with Love – Part 1

Vladivostok is surely not the most common and easiest to get to holiday destination, which is a shame actually. I thoroughly enjoyed my short journey there.

A few things about Vladivostok before the details of my trip. Vladivostok was a Chinese fishing village called Haishenwai, before the Russians seized it in 1860. China was weakened from the opium wars and didn’t oppose Russia seizing that frigid port to the north. The Russians renamed it Vladivostok and quickly developed the place to make it theirs for everyone around to see and brought people there. Nowadays more or less zero Asians are residents of Vladivostok, if in a way they partially claimed it back, but more about that later.
Even though Vladivostok is on the same latitude as Sapporo or the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean (!), winters are brutal and the ocean around it freezes. Vladivostok lies on a peninsula that sticks out into a large bay. There is ocean on three sides of the town, and, as mentioned much of the quiet bay freezes over in winter.
During Cold War times, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, since it was and is the one and only big harbor for whatever Russian naval military forces. I wonder what life was like in Vladivostok during these dark times.

The town saw a major development boost when the APEC summit was held there in 2012. They got the two big bridges connecting parts of the city and the city to the island of Russky in the south of Vladivostok. Before the bridges you had to drive around a big part of the inner bay and go by boat to Russky island or rather don’t go there at all. They also built a giant convention center and university on Russky island and a big aquarium.

So, why go to Vladivostok? People who know me know that it’s one of my passions to travel and to combine that if ever possible with going to gigs of heavy metal bands. It came to pass that one of my favorite bands, Amorphis from Finland, was going to Vladivostok. Ha! That sounds like an adventure worth undertaking 😉 Since after all, Vladivostok is just a two hour twenty minute plane ride from Tokyo. To get a Russian visa is the biggest hustle about going to Russia, but also that is manageable, if super inconvenient.

I must admit I was quite excited about the trip, not knowing at all how much remoteness to expect. I was not majorly encouraged by the tiny propeller plane of Aurora airlines, the Far East subsidiary of Aeroflot, at Narita airport either.

Though, thanks to okay weather, the flight was smoother than expected. I think about 80 people fit onto such a plane and there were maybe fifty or sixty heading for Vladivostok. Some Japanese adventurers, but mostly Russians. Arrived in Vladivostok though I was in for a surprise. The airport immigration was swamped with plane loads full of Chinese and Koreans. Uh? What to they want in Vladivostok? My first hunch was shopping and my hunch got verified later. I shall come back to that.
They let me into the country thanks to my visa no questions asked. I waited forever at the baggage claim until I came upon the idea to walk around because some suitcases fell of the band once in a while and yes, mine must have fallen too and I found it at the farthest, darkest corner of the baggage retrieval.


I had ordered a taxi via my hotel and they were supposed to pick me up with a sign stating the hotel name, but there were only tons of Korean signs and none in western writing. I happened to arrive though, luckily, on the international women’s day, which is even a national holiday in Russia, and people were giving all women who arrived tulips at the arrivals area. I went to the side and stood there waiting and got out my phone to call the hotel, as one of the young women who gave out flowers asked me if she could help in very good English. I explained and she whipped out her phone, called the hotel and ran through half the airport for me searching for my driver, apologizing that he must be stupid and that I have to wait. Wow, so friendly! She did ask though, what are you doing in Vladivostok, with the undertone of ‘why the hell have you come here’? Lol. I explained to her about the gig and she said she’ll check out the band! Lol. Then she found my driver and off I went towards Vladivostok which is about an hour drive away from the airport.

From Russia with Love – Part 5

Ballet and Heavy Metal
When you are in Moscow, in my humble opinion you have to go to see ballet. To me Russia is the capital for ballet. I hadn’t planned anything for it and was not expecting to be able to see ballet, but a short check in the internet revealed that the Bolshoi had tickets available for a never before heard of ballet called “The Bright Stream”. So what the heck, ballet is ballet and it’s at the Bolshoi, so I ordered tickets, which were not too expensive (by Japanese standards anyway), just about 8000 yen.
Unfortunately the thing happened not in the “real” Bolshoi theater, but next door to it in a smaller theater. The “real” Bolshoi was occupied with an opera, La Traviata.
The Bright Stream turned out to be a rather unknown ballet of some Russian composer from the 1930ties and is “comical”, telling the story of a woman in an agricultural commune who once learned ballet before she married an agricultural student. He doesn’t even know she was a ballet dancer once. When a ballerina friend of hers comes to town, her husband is flirting around with her but the ballerina and the wife plot to show him what a formidable wife he has and reveal that she is a ballet dancer in a grand finale. There is a nice side plot with the ballerinas husband, who pretends being a woman to fool some other member of the agricultural commune. This was the funniest elements with a big guy wearing women’s clothes and dancing like a ballerina.
IMG_1109
There was surely formidable dancing going on but the story and the costumes were a bit weird, evoking nostalgia for agricultural commune life, which surely wasn’t a walk in the park in the 1930ties. Well, it was interesting and I’ve been to the Bolshoi, seeing some real ballet.
IMG_1121IMG_1119

Then something that is more down my lane, heavy metal!
I had tried to get a ticket online for the Moscow Amorphis gig, but everything was in Russian and I had given up on that. So I simply went to the venue which apparently opened at 4 pm each day once I had arrived in Moscow. Amorphis is not a super big band and they usually play in venues of around 1000 people or less on their tours. The Moscow venue Volta is one like that. It’s at a subway station a bit away from the city center and turned out to be in an old factory. It was a bit spooky to walk around there, but I found the entrance all right and there was even someone there as internet promised and sold me a ticket 🙂
IMG_1348
Then came the day for the actual gig, on the last day of my stay in Russia.
Although everything was in Russian, I thought to have figured out the following. It said on the ticket start 19:00. I saw somewhere in the Internet something of 17:00 and interpreted that as doors open 17:00.
So I left the hotel at 17:00 and was there at 17:30 in front of closed doors. I was not the first one but only very few people were there. We waited and waited. I tried to ask the others waiting what’s going on, but no English. Sigh… it turned out we waited in the cold for a bloody 90 min until 19:00. Aaaaahhhhh… I was frozen solid by that time. 
Then they finally let us in through a cloak room and security, but I kept my coat, since I wanted to aim for the first row and was frozen solid… behind security another door to the venue, a closed door. They made us wait there for another thirty minutes, but at least it was warm. The people behind us were unfortunately quite pushy, squeezing us against the barricades, hmpf… I already thought maybe I give up on the first row under such circumstances. 
Then, finally door open and you had no choice but to run into the venue pushed from behind, thus, I made it into the first row, including an opportunity to hang the coat over the balustrade. 
Then more waiting. There was also a pre band and I got into a panic for a moment, when will this end and will there still be a subway running? I saw myself already stranded in the cold at night, speaking no Russian and not knowing how to get back to my hotel. So I tested again around me and hallelujah one guy spoke fairly good English and assured me the subway runs until 1 in the morning, we’ll be fine. 
Then we chatted a bit. Behind me was a big dude called Andrey who was pretty drunk and wanted to feed me whisky cola, lol. Then at 20:00 the gig started with an Italian pre band I never heard of before called Heretic’s Dream with a female vocal. They were nice but way too soft for my taste.
Then, finally at 21:00 it was Amorphis turn, uh. The crowd was quite normal, no surfing and only once there was a bit of a mosh pit behind us. Big Andrey kept squeezing me against the balustrade, but it was still okay. 
IMG_1365
I was happy I had kept my coat, since there was a monstrous queue at the end of the fabulous gig which I didn’t have to wait out and was thus back in the hotel at 23:30.
The gig was excellent and a great closure to a fascinating and challenging trip to huge Russia.

From Russia with Love – Part 4

World War II…
I am German, I live in Japan. Two nations which have (luckily) lost in the Second World War. The consequence of that though is that any kind of Victory Day celebrations have never been on my radar screen. There was a vague memory of the European part of the war ending some time in May buried in my mind, but since I’m in Japan for so long, the real end of the Second World War has become August for me when Japan capitulated after two atomic bombs. So when I planned this trip to Russia any V-day considerations were none existent. I grouped the trip around Japan’s Golden Week holidays and that Amorphis gig I wanted to catch. Also the first two days in St. Petersburg did not reveal any V-day indications. It was only when I stepped out of the Hermitage after an entire day there and tanks had appeared on the square before the Hermitage that V-day rolled massively into my line of thought.
IMG_0303
Next posters sprang up everywhere and the mysterious orange and black striped ribbon, which is coming from the ribbon of St. George, as you can read here.
IMG_0678
The state TV had then aplenty of Second World War themed stuff going on, and the news were full of it, too. V-day hampered my attempts to see the Red Square in Moscow. Military presence everywhere. Wow.
A smart man whom I had for a teacher in some process consultancy related seminars, told me the following (I don’t know his source for the information and of course it is a model that simplifies reality). Western European cultures and interestingly also the Chinese and Japanese cultures have the tendency to consider the past as not so super important, the present is soso important, but we are future oriented and the future is very important to us. In the Thai and Indian cultures the tendency is small past, small future, but big present. And in Russia it’s a big past, a soso present and a small future.
And yes, from my two weeks in Russia I can fully confirm that the past is an extremely important thing in Russia. Of course there are patriotic tendencies and politics to consider as well, but it does not all seem state induced, there seems to be a genuine interest in the topic.
There were tons of movies, new and old, on Russian TV where someone wore a Second World War or later a soviet uniform.
Nobody forces you to wear the orange black ribbon but many people do, well I’m not so sure about peer pressure here, of course. I seem to pass off as Russian when walking the street and a young man offered me a ribbon, which I kindly declined in English.
It was amazing to see the enormous presence of military in general and the Second World War in Russian life. Of course my impression is a bit deformed, since I arrived just in time for all the V-day stuff, but there are in general many more uniformed people in the cities than in any other country I’ve been to so far.
Here three pics from my “scared selfie” series that I took half for fun mostly in St. Petersburg where I “got close” to a lot of military equipment.
IMG_0324
IMG_0329
IMG_0542
In Moscow then, I had the ambition to see some of the actual parade, but the thankfully English speaking hotel staff said spontaneously upon my question, where is the best spot to see the parade: The TV.
She was right. On V-day, 9th of May, I switched on the TV in the morning and even from TV footage it was clear that no humble mortal would be getting anywhere near the parade. Only the dignitaries sat on the few seats of the makeshift stalls at the Red Square.
IMG_0921
I watched most of it on TV until I got bored and left to do some sightseeing. In the afternoon, after the parade was over, a second part of the festivities took place, common folk walked the streets in a procession down the main road to the Red Square and then dissipated. (the best thing in this pic is the pigeon ;-))
IMG_0982
Most of the people carried pictures of their ancestors who either fought in or lost their lives in the Second World War. I tried to join the procession but found myself thoroughly fenced off and I did not have the required papers (or bribes?) to be let through at some access points where people negotiated with guards for entrance. I am not sure if all of this was organized, I doubt it. It looked like most people participated in this procession because they wanted to. Stuff concluded with fireworks at the Kremlin. They happened at 22:00 and were short. I saw them on TV as well, since it was too bloody cold for my taste to venture out. Anyway, a day later the show was over, the Red Square was finally accessible and things returned to normal. It was interesting to see all this hustle about a day whose celebration I wasn’t even aware of.

From Russia with Love – Part 3

Part 3: History before World War II
There is aplenty.
Russia has a long and rich history and a lot of stuff is preserved in excellent condition. I have never seen such a flawless object as the church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. It is perfect. As simple as that. St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow is great too, but there you see repairs that have been done over time, whilst there is no sign of any such repair on the Savior church. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is bursting with beautiful old stuff, the State History Museum, the Armory of the Kremlin, the Pushkin museum in Moscow as well. The Kremlin and the Red Square are one amazing complex. The only thing comparable in size and grandeur I have seen so far is the Forbidden City of Beijing. Seeing all that glory leaves also a kind of a bad taste though, if the divide between rich and poor is so big today, then just how big has it been a few hundred years ago when the Tsars built their monsters of grandeur on the sweat, blood and tears of the common folk. That’s true everywhere of course, but it expressed itself very intensely to me in Russia. Kind of, no wonder the people revolted and killed of their nobility.
I was quite delighted that you can actually get into the Kremlin. After all it’s also a working institution in contrast to for example the Forbidden City. Of course there is security at every corner, but the armory is right next to the Kremlin grand palace where Mr. Putin might just be present. Many people prefer St. Petersburg over Moscow I heard, but I cannot say so. For me both cities were quite equal concerning the “wow” effect. Though admittedly, if there wasn’t the Kremlin and the Red Square, Moscow would loose to St. Petersburg.
Here my personal ankings of the major sites I saw in both cities.

St. Petersburg:
The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
IMG_0625IMG_0643
The Hermitage
IMG_0178IMG_0164IMG_0195
St. Isaacs
IMG_0057IMG_0063IMG_0083
Peter and Paul Fortress complex
IMG_0142IMG_0373IMG_0390
Menshikov palace
IMG_0565IMG_0572
Kazan cathedral
IMG_0615

Moscow:
Red Square
IMG_1331IMG_1328IMG_1332
The Kremlin (cathedral square)
IMG_0971IMG_0837IMG_0858
St. Basil’s cathedral
IMG_1338
The Kremlin armory
IMG_0796
State history museum
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
IMG_0753
GUM department store
IMG_1145 2IMG_1243
The Pushkin Museum of fine art
IMG_1295

From Russia with Love – Part 2

Part 2: Everyday life in Russia
No Russian? Basically you are screwed. I have hardly ever been in a country yet where they speak so little English. Amazingly you somehow get by also without speaking the language.
IMG_9941
One word in advance, I felt quite safe during my entire stay in Russia. There was not one hairy situation. Which, however might also be due to the horrendous amount of security everywhere. There must be millions of people employed in security jobs. Every department store, every subway station, every museum has metal detectors and security guards. You just gotta accept that and comply nicely with a smile and if you do you might even get a smile back and one guard at Kitay-Gorod subway station, my home base in Moscow, saying his only English words to me, “take care and good bye”. They are just people too and might look scary but if you are nice to them, they are mostly nice to you as well. There are also police men walking through town all the time. Blue uniforms, police, green = military. They are everywhere. The train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back was very important to put things into perspective. While downtown Moscow and St. Petersburg are shiny and pretty, offering one culture world heritage site after the next, the country side is so sad.
The ride takes four hours by bullet train and the almost completely flat landscape consists of four things, birch and fir trees, mud, villages, run down factories.
IMG_9964
Whatever the 143 million Russian eat, is it not growing between St. Petersburg and Moscow. I saw maybe ten potato fields and that’s it. I saw not a single cow, sheep, pig, not one animal during the whole 600 km between the two cities. The factories are all old and completely run down or in ruins.
IMG_0700
The houses in the muddy villages without asphalt streets, accessible only via mud roads, are more shacks than houses and most look old and cold. I wonder if they have decent plumbing and running water. They seem to have electricity. It is cold in this country for maybe eight or nine out of twelve months. While it was and exceptional 25 degrees on the day of my arrival, the weather was dismal temperature-wise during the remaining entire two weeks. It was never over ten degrees Celsius and it snowed twice in Moscow while I was there. I was super happy for having brought my winter coat. I really really needed it.
IMG_0713
I don’t know what the people living in these shacks between Moscow and St. Petersburg do for a living, it can’t be farming. In the big cities, outside of the old and shiny city centers are huge mostly old and ugly concrete blocks where the people live who work in the city and its factories. One thought lingered when I rode through the country side and that is, when I have to be poor I pray I’ll be poor in a country where it’s warm!
IMG_0706
Some praise though for the subway systems of St. Petersburg as well as Moscow. The trains are old but are frequent, I’ve seen no delays, they are safe and used by “normal” folk also at night. People are sleeping in the subway, which I always interpret as a good sign of safety, there are kids around. Even if everything is in Cyrillic, you can still somehow read it and figure out where to go. I didn’t get lost once in the subways. You can get to basically all the major attractions via the subway in both cities and I didn’t try out the buses.
IMG_9974
In supermarkets they have mostly European stuff that I am quite familiar with, they even have a lot of German branded products. Food is bread and potato based. I relied on food courts and fast food I must admit though, unable to order anything or read a menu in a restaurant, I needed food where I can point at.
To conclude, you get by without Russian, but it needs some patience and modesty on the traveler’s behalf and I don’t recommend Russia to inexperienced travelers. The supermarket staff is astonishingly friendly though and count the Rubels correctly out of your hand with a smile at the poor foreigner who has no clue. I wonder though what they will do next year with all the foreigners who will come for the soccer World Cup 😉

From Russia with Love – Part 1

To post a day by day report on my quite epic trip to Russia would fill too many “blog weeks” and would also be too much detail, therefore I’ll try a summary under the following headlines:

1) Why Russia? And how to get there
2) Everyday life in Russia
3) History before World War II
4) World War II …
5) Ballet and Heavy Metal

Part 1: Why Russia? And how to get there
Most the time I use Japan’s golden week for island explorations, but this year was different.
Why did I go to Russia? Two reasons. When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was a very scary thing and not for the life of me could I imagine to be traveling there one day. Then came Gorbachev and he is kind of a personal hero of mine, because it is my firm belief that if it was not for him, East and West Germany would not have been united. He initiated some kind of mild romanticism for Russia in me, and I even took some Russian courses at an adult education institute before I left my hometown to study in Munich. There was always that thought that one day, I want to stand on the Red Square in Moscow.
It took me a while to realize the promise, but now i did it.

I flew with Aeroflot from Tokyo direct to Moscow and my has it changed. Actually, I flew Aeroflot during my very first trip to Japan in 1993 (No, no, no, I’m not that old ;-)) via Moscow of course, because I was a poor student at the time and Aeroflot was the cheapest thing around.
It was a horror trip! LOL. I sat in an old Ilyushin machine, with half torn seats and nets above your head like in a bus instead of overhead compartments. The plane went from Munich to Moscow and then the same machine would go from Moscow to Tokyo. I got only one boarding pass for Munich to Moscow and when I wanted to re-board the plane to fly to Tokyo, the lady at the gate didn’t let me in. “You no boarding pass!” She sent me to some office at the other end of the airport and I ran there past scary army guys with kalashnikovs. At the service counter some fifty people were shouting at one lone unnerved lady wanting something from her. I managed to get through, in complete panic, since pressed for time, fearing the plane would leave without me, and begged her for a new boarding pass. She took my passport and the print out of the ticket and left the booth! I stone-cold panicked that moment, thinking I’d be stranded in Moscow without a passport. Heaven thank, the lady came back with some paper and my passport and told me that would allow me to get back onto the plane. I thanked her and ran back through the airport to my gate and hallelujah they let me on board just in time. The return journey through Moscow went smoother, but I was scared shitless on the flight back. Ever since I did not fly Aeroflot again.
Nowadays Aeroflot is a member of the Sky Team alliance for more than ten years already. They fly Airbus and Boeing and behave like any other airline.
When I checked in online the plane was packed. Hm, so many people are going to Moscow? So many people are bothering with the horrendous visa requirements?
A word on those later.

The miracle was solved when I got to Narita airport. The plane went to Paris via Moscow. It was packed due to start of golden week and tons of people going to Paris.
Arrived in Moscow, 80% of the travelers went to the international transfer lane and a few lone Russians and some Japanese and myself went to the “stay in Russia” lane 😉
The immigration officer lady was super friendly. I’ve never had such a friendly immigration officer anywhere. She thought I could speak Russian and when she found out I didn’t (I’ve forgotten everything from my half year Russian course as a teenager) she was going like, oh, but Regina is a Russian name. I told her it’s Latin and means queen and on the British coins it says Regina Elizabeth all the time. That was news to her ;-). Since everything was in order with my visa, she let me through, wishing me fun. What a difference to for example American immigration officers who treat you like a criminal. Next up was customs. Customs? Those were the least existing customs I’ve seen after an inter-continental flight. There were no customs, you just walks through and the customs officer is not even looking at you. There were four people in uniforms sitting in a corner chatting.
There was only one negative thing and that is that I’ve been screwed over big time at the money exchange. A bank lady in Japan told me that it’s better to bring USD to Russia rather than Yen. So I exchanged to USD at Narita and there was one single exchange booth before customs where I exchanged the dollar to Ruble for a horrible rate. After leaving customs, there were more booths with much better rates. Argh…

I suppose more research would have revealed that, but I’m not a big researcher when it comes to traveling. I book a flight, a hotel and see what happens. I researched more than usual for the Russia trip already anyway, for example how to get from Sheremetyevo airport to the city. Maybe more research would have revealed that you do not not not exchange money before customs, but after it. Anyway, lessons learned for if I should ever go back there. I am not in the habit of visiting a place twice without having a special reason, but I still have this fantasy of one day going by train to Vladivostok = doing the Trans Siberian railroad ride.
But at least I had researched that you do not use the “official” taxis if ever possible but better take the Aeroexpress train which goes to Bellorusia station. I even had bought a ticket online for that train and it’s well marked inside the airport and I could brush past all the “official” taxi guys.
But now a word about the visa. Even for a simple tourist visa you have to go through quite a painful process. The corner stones being your flight ticket, the longish and demanding visa application itself, for some countries, e.g. Germans, you have to have proof of a travel insurance and the worst thing is, you need to have an itinerary with your hotels on them on a special Russian format. If you go with a tour, I suppose they provide that for you, but I went on my own and what you do then is you email your hotel and ask them for the thing. My main hotel in Moscow directed me to a website with a link to the format and they let you list up to ten places and hotels. You then pay about 15 dollars for them to issue this paper. When you have all that you have to go in person to the Russian embassy and apply for the visa. In case of a tour you can let the travel agent do that for you, but if you go as a private person, you need to show up at the embassy twice, to apply and to get your passport back. When the story with the paper from the hotels came up, I was almost giving up on the adventure, but then pushed through with it.
So, and finally the second reason for why I wanted to go to Russia. I took the opportunity of my favorite metal band (Amorphis) playing in Moscow as an incentive to go 😉
I didn’t have a ticket yet though, since the homepage of the venue was all in Russian.
More about the gig and everything in between arrival and the gig (which was on the last day of my stay) in the next blog entries