After studying the Emancipation of the Serfs, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis back in my high school days, I was really looking forward to see a land that has oodles of history. And that’s exactly what I got in Russia, famous sights and a lesson in Russia’s past as well as some great memories along the way. Although the prospect of minus 10 temperatures everyday was a little off-putting when I thought about it, you easily put that aside and just immerse yourself in the Russian culture quickly learning how to say hello (Privet), thank you (Pasiba) and last but not least ‘Cheers to you’ (Nazdrovye).
Landing is St Petersburg (Leningrad back in the old days) is a surreal experience. I had mental pictures of its Soviet past with an Iron Curtain sheen, but there was none of that whatsoever. Just beautiful old buildings with long wide streets and snow-dusted parks with trees lining the pathway. It soon became apparent to me that Russia had moved on from its communist statues and beginning to look a lot like a normal European city. I found the people very friendly and despite the language barrier show saintly patience and a desire to learn more of where I’m from, and why a 6 foot tall Maori from New Zealand would ever envisage going to their country.
Christmas day was just a normal day for the Russians as they view the New Year as a much higher priority, and instead of Santa Claus in a big red suit, they have Father Frost in a big blue suit which although different is very easy to admire with a child-like wonder.
Our guide made the tour much less intimidating, teaching us their alphabet and certain catch phrases. You can’t help but laugh when you see well known American restaurant chains spelt in Cyrillic Russian letters like МАКДОНАЛДС (Macdonalds) and САБВЗЙ, it does make you realise just how different the language is let alone the culture.
Our journey down to Moscow saw us stop in a place called Pschov for 2 nights in the North Eastern country side below. This is where I really enjoyed the tour and witnessed true day to day Russian life. Here I played Russian Billiards, danced to Boney M’s “Ra ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine”, Ice Skated and participated in the ‘Banya’ experience where one works up a sweat in a sauna while being beaten with birch branches, and then has the choice of jumping into the frozen lake or roll in the snow. I chose to jump in the lake… 3 times… woo hoo! It was cool! Really ‘cool’!
Riding the sleeper train down to Moscow offered some good old bonding time with the group along with some interaction with the locals wanting to practice their English with us. We shared some jokes, stories and played a few old time favourite card games to pass the time.
Moscow’s sites, along with their subway, are delightful and bizarre at the same time. Seeing St Basils Cathedral in the Red Square gives one the realisation of actually having arrived in Russia as does seeing St Peter’s Square in Italy, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is another one of those life inspiring ‘wow’ moments that you rarely have these days. Seeing the suspended body of Lenin in the Mausoleum on the other hand made you ask the question ‘why?’.
Having these sites as a backdrop for a New Year’s celebration in the snow is something I’ll never forget and would want to experience again if ever given the opportunity to do so. All in all Russia surprised me and is a destination worth travelling to more than once as it has a diverse range of sites, people and history. Thank you once again On the go tours for another great experience.