Vodka & Caviar

Day 158 (15th of August, 2016) – Tel Aviv, Israel

In the morning, we met bright and early to head directly to where I had left off in the Old Town of Jerusalem. We were visiting the ‘Dome of the Rock’, the most significant mosque in the city. This structure was built on the Temple Mount (the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple) at the order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 AD. This location is considered Holy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Torah, Bible and Quran all recount Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son at this site. It is fascinating how much these three religions have in common, and yet how divided the three groups are today.

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In order to enter the mosque area, we had to cross over a bridge which was elevated above the Wailing Wall. So, I was able to get another glance from above. It’s very odd seeing two extremely sacred sites of contrasting religions places directly next to each other.

The girls in the group were warned that they had to dress very modestly. After being told by our guide that even ankles and wrists were too revealing, they had to layer up in keffiyehs.

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As soon as we entered, we were approached by three security guards having a smoke at the entrance. 

One of them motioned to the girl pictured above and yelled, “You’re not comfortable. You can’t walk like that for too long, come back another time.”

She protested, “But I’m not showing any skin! I feel perfectly comfortable.”

But he maintained his case, “That doesn’t look very comfortable, come back tomorrow.”

I thought I’d add in my two cents. “Surely she decides whether she’s comfortable, not you.”

This surprised him. He threw his half-smoked cigarette on the ground and approached me. The hostility caught me off guard.

“What did you just f***ing say to me? Who the f*ck do you think you are? Have some respect for this holy place, you disrespectful prick.”

I did not change a word of that. He legitimately yelled that at me. Quickly, the other security guards went to hold him back. I just continued walking into the mosque and ignored what was going on while my guide cleaned up the mess in Arabic.

The group had reached fifty metres into the compound by the time the security guard had run in to chase me down.

“You think you can f*cking talk like that in Allah’s house?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I resisted the temptation to have a go at him for being the one swearing loudly in the sacred space.

“No, I didn’t mean any disrespect, I just noticed that my friend was comfortable walking the way she was,” I said.

“Get the f*ck out. Leave now,” my guide awkwardly tried to calm him down before being pushed himself, and before I knew it I was being escorted out of the mosque.

I begged that the security guard only kicked me out and not my friends – I didn’t want to wreck their experience of the site. He assured me that I was the only one he was worried about.

The girl in question went up to the security guard and added a parting shot as I was walking out.

“No, actually, I don’t even want to be here. What sort of pathetic institution decides on behalf of women whether they are comfortable or not.”

“That was awesome,” I thought to myself.

By now I was giggling on the inside but I couldn’t show it. Our guide called out to us and told us that he would meet us at the exit with the rest of the group in forty-five minutes, so Elissa and I went off to explore on our own.

As I was leaving, I managed to get a few photos of the area.

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After taking a few, though, the security started trying to block my view. Here they are when they first noticed that I was taking pictures.

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On the outside we managed to find an area where we could get nice views of the mosque anyway.

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We wound our way through the narrow Jerusalem alleyways to the entrance of the Dome of the Rock where we planned to cross the façade of the mosque on the outside and reach the exit again.

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Unfortunately, this didn’t go as planned. After passing through all the same security checkpoints as we used to get into the mosque in the first place, we realised that we had no choice but to enter again. This was very awkward (and dangerous), so when we got to the entrance we tried to turn around and leave through the entrance. After being told that we weren’t allowed to do this, we approached the policemen and policewomen at the entrance. These guys were each armed with an assault rifle, pistol, tear gas, camelback, riot helmet and baton. They were extraordinarily friendly, but I couldn’t help but shiver at how much they just flailed their guns around like they were toys. They would lean on them on the walls to play on their phones, hang them off their side it was a backpack and sometimes seem to forget the lethality of the weapons in their possession.

After striking up small talk with the first police officer, I explained the situation of how we were ejected from the mosque because of clothing restrictions. They looked at Elissa who was still covered up, and asked why on Earth they would reject her.

After telling them the reason, they all laughed and said “it’ll be fun to walk you through the mosque to the exit to see his reaction anyway”.

I was confused – they seemed to be working against each other.

“We’re really sorry that you guys can’t come in. You should try coming back in a few hours when that man is off duty, he has a reputation of being overly strict. We have no control over what they say though – they’re administered by the Jordanian government, not Israel,” he explained.

Now I understood. The police escorted us back through the mosque to the exit. They were all giggling when they did it, and they even gave the security guard in question a sarcastically friendly wave as we passed him. He was fuming. After arriving at the exit, we chatted with the police about all the funny incidents they’d seen in their time until our group arrived to meet us.

On the way out of Old Jerusalem, we passed a few Bah Mitzvahs as they paraded down the streets.

 

Just outside of the old city wall is the Jerusalem Garden Tomb – an alternative location of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. We were introduced to a British guide who explained the reasons as to why many sceptics believe this to be the true Golgotha rather than the more widely accepted location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

‘Golgotha’, which is the name used in the Bible for the location of Jesus’ death, means ‘place of a skull’. The first argument in favour of this location is therefore the appearance of a skull in the rock on the hill. Unfortunately, it isn’t very clear these days because of erosion last year.

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Other supporting arguments include the site’s location outside of the city and on a busy street where people in the Roman times were able to walk past and watch the execution. Like it said in the Bible, just next to this site is a garden. Historians believe that it was owned by a wealthy man because of the presence of a wine press and the remnants of a small vineyard.

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This is consistent with the Gospels. After doing some more digging, archaeologists uncovered a tomb which some people believe to be the tomb of Jesus.

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The tomb is very small on the inside, but it was extraordinary standing in it and thinking of what could have occurred there.

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From the Garden Tomb, the group drove out of the city towards Bethlehem. Here, we would track the events of the Bible leading up to Jesus’ birth. First, we stopped at the location that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Three Wise Men.

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A church has been built on the site by the same architect as the one who designed the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives. The church is shaped like a tent to symbolise the nomadic journey of the Three Kings.

Down the hill from the church is the field where the men began tracking the star towards the location of Jesus’ birth.

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There is also a grotto located here where many pilgrims were praying.

About a twenty minute drive away is the town of Bethlehem itself.

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Bethlehem’s political situation is complicated since it is inside the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. Palestine, whilst not technically a country, is a non-member observer state in the UN. It claims the West Bank and Gaza Strip as being its territory. Obviously, these two areas are consistently fought over. Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have claimed the regions in the past. In that sense, I’m lucky that I was able to safely step foot in the West Bank.

The most famous site of this town is the Church of the Nativity. Unfortunately it was under restoration, but we could still go in and see the most important features.

The church is separated into Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic sections.

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During the renovation, only part of the original mosaic tiling from the year 400 AD can be seen.

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At the back of the church was the entrance to the manger where Jesus was born.

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When you descend down, you come across a mural.

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The place of Jesus’ birth is marked by a fourteen pointed star (representing the fourteen stations of the cross and the fourteen generations of Jesus Christ from Abraham to David, then from David to the Babylonian captivity and after that from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ).

Elsewhere in the cave is the place where the baby was put after the birth.

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The compound also contains the Church of St. Catherine, where Christmas Eve mass is live-streamed from each year.

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Buried deep in the church I spotted a picture of St. Damian (shout out to Dad).

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On the way out of the town, we stopped for one last look over Bethlehem.

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The graffiti artist Banksy has also left a number of his works in the area. This one was my favourite.

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An hour away was Tel Aviv. We only stopped for some wine tasting along the way, but before we knew it we were in the beachside economic hub of Israel.

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I stood here for some time looking at the waves. It reminded me of Cape Town and the Gold Coast in the way that the beach runs parallel to the city.

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We spent the afternoon and early evening exploring Old Jaffa, an ancient port dating back to the Bronze Age.

This has become a very trendy area of Tel Aviv, and I enjoyed spending an hour popping into galleries and cafés (until I realised that my budget couldn’t handle it… Tel Aviv is an expensive place).

We made a stop on the ‘wishing bridge’ where people would read their horoscopes.

I ate falafel on pita bread at a take-away place near the hotel and bought some porridge for the early wakeup the next morning.

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Unfortunately, I can’t go out tonight and discover why Lonely Planet rates this among the best cities for nightlife in the world. My flight is at 7:50am to Helsinki via Prague, and I have to be at the airport three to four hours before take off for another rigorous security check. I knew that I would need the full four hours, and so I booked a taxi for 3:20am.

Day 159 (16th of August, 2016) – Helsinki, Finland

After my two hours of sleep, I left my roommate a note to say goodbye and ventured off to the airport. I never would have imagined that leaving a country would be as arduous and restrictive as entering one, but sure enough it was the case in Israel. I went through the exact same line of questioning regarding my trip in Iran as when I had first arrived. The whole process took four hours. One and a half hours was spent on my hand luggage alone. My laptop was x-rayed four times at different angles, and every crevasse of my bag was thoroughly examined. They even unstitched part of a pocket on the inside of the bag, which was a shame.

My flight to Prague was delayed which put a lot of pressure on the already short time allocated for transit. My baggage was checked through to Helsinki, but the Israeli side wouldn’t give me a boarding pass for the second leg of the trip, so I had to re-check in at Prague. This was made difficult by the fact that I was in the line behind a family who somehow thought that they could convince check-in staff to un-cancel their flight to Croatia. After a while, and to the family’s open annoyance, I told them that I had to push in front because my flight was leaving. Lucky I did, because I only just made it.

Landing in Helsinki was a very pleasant experience. After the raucous round of applause to mark the landing which seems customary in these parts, the cold Finnish air blew threw the cabin. At 14 on a warm sunny day, I could tell that this was my kind of weather.

I caught the bus to the hotel (a 6 or au$8.80 standard bus ticket was my first introduction to Scandinavian living expenses), but the quality and cleanliness of the transport completely justified the price tag. Driving through central Helsinki was a fascinating experience. Twisting throughout the city are lines of trees and fields which make it seem like it will be a wonderland when I return in January for the winter.

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I checked into the hotel and made my way on the metro towards the central railway station.

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The central station was distinctly Northern European. Buskers were a sextet in suits rather than a pot-smoking guitarist as it would be in Australia.

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Walking out into the city, the welcome cool air filled my jacket.

The distinct Finnish trams dinged their bells as they clacked past.

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Looking around, I quickly realised how first world this country really is. Everyone was in Hugo Boss suits or snazzy looking pea coats, and the streets were the cleanest I have seen in many months (cleaner than Sydney, actually). I could tell: this is a society done right. I always predicted that I would feel this way about Scandinavia, and it was reaffirming to see it all in action. I could definitely live here.

For dinner, I decided to delay my first taste of reindeer meat until Aimee joins me here in winter. Instead, I indulged in a pizza which was twice as big as the plate it was on.

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I was in my element.

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I enjoyed just strolling the cobblestone streets and observing the people.

It seems like 90% of the people in Finland are blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Peoples’ skin is unbelievably white – probably because it never sees the sun.

Back at the hotel, I met my group at our first meeting. There are over fifty people in the contingent. We sat for an hour and discussed the upcoming trip in Russia. The guide expressed how Russia is the hardest destination for any tour guide to lead through. It is illegal to run tours in Russia as a foreigner, so he would take a back seat while we hired local guides. He emphasised how impoverished the vast majority of the Russian population is, and that it will be some of the more confronting inequality we’ve ever experienced. He said that things are completed in Russia through bribes and negotiation, unlike in Western countries. He also warned us of the ‘face control’ of Russians, whereby they ensure never to smile. Apparently this is because of the cultural attitude that life is difficult, and if you smile, you’re up to some tricks because you can’t possibly be enjoying the struggle of life. He also said that it stems from the anti-tourist sentiment amongst Russian people. It’ll be interesting to see if the guide’s generalisations end up proving to be true.

One of the stories he told us which I found particularly interesting was about the Russian mafia. Apparently, the prevalence of the mafia is quickly decreasing as they become more embedded in Russian business and government. We were told that on a few occasions while driving through Petersburg and Moscow, we will likely see all of the traffic lights suddenly flick to red. This is because people in powerful positions have remotes to control the traffic lights in front of them, and will disable all lights so that they can get priority. This, he said, is the mafia. Crazy stuff.

Having just come from a Topdeck tour with five people, the differences between the two companies were already emerging. People were drinking at the meeting, and we all went out to a nearby pub afterwards to mingle. The vibe I get off Contiki as opposed to Topdeck is that it is a much more ‘party’ tour. The average age is still mid to late 20’s, though.

We all booked in our optional activities for the coming week. I splurged by spending over 300, but I figured that since Russia has always been one of the top countries on my ‘to-do list’ that I may as well indulge in everything. Among the things I booked were good seats for a Russian ballet performance of Swan Lake at St Petersburg’s main theatre, the Moscow Aquamarine Circus, a folklore show and a Chopin Concert in Warsaw, Poland. I couldn’t be more excited. This is by far the most pumped up I’ve been to see a country so far on the trip.

Day 160 (17th of August, 2016) – St Petersburg, Russia

A brief breakfast was cut short by a need to move on to Russia while it was still early in the day. Despite the humongous size of the group, the discipline in terms of being on time is much better than that of the smaller group in Jordan and Israel.

We drove for two hours through the pine forests and vast wilderness of Finland.

Eventually we arrived at the Russian border. It was much grimmer than its Finnish alternative, but we passed through fairly quickly and before long we were on our way to St Petersburg.

The Russian Federation is the ninth largest country in the world by population at 144 million, but the largest country by landmass with a whopping 17,075,200 km2. The country covers 11 timezones and just about every type of biome there is from tundra to desert. One of the facts which surprised me when being introduced to Russia’s geography was that Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, contains roughly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater.

In a few hours time, the buildings on the outskirts of St Petersburg started appearing.

St Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city, but it is also one of its youngest having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. Peter was interested in shipbuilding and seafaring, so he designed St Petersburg to be Russia’s main seaport. He was also obsessed by Europe, particularly the countries of Germany, Holland and England. He therefore wanted to advance Russia into the modern age by Westernising its cities, and building St Petersburg was the first step towards that goal.

Our hotel is located just opposite the 1900 Russian protected cruiser Aurora and the N. G. Kuznetsov Naval Academy.

Aurora served during the Russo-Japanese War and miraculously survived Russia’s defeat at the Battle of Tsushima. Its most famous action, though, was the firing of a blank shot on 25 October 1927 in St Petersburg to signal the beginning of the assault on the Winter Palace which began the October Revolution. The October Revolution ultimately resulted in the ending of Tsarist autocracy and the beginning of Soviet Russia.

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After checking in, I decided to go for a walk around the nearby streets.

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By the time everyone had acclimatised to the new city, we were all ready to head out on our evening cruise around St Petersburg’s mostly manmade canals which connect the Baltic Sea to the city.

Just driving to where the boat was moored gave me my first taste of what was to come. This is a beautiful, beautiful city.

The boat was BYO, and as soon as we jumped on most people cracked open one of Russia’s two famous national drinks – vodka or shampanskoye.Many people had also bought Russia’s most iconic vodka known as ‘Beluga’. I didn’t indulge myself.

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My favourite feature of the bottle was the line on the back which said “BEST CONSUMED WITH CAVIAR”.

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The boat was incredibly low, and we were still warned that we would need to duck under each bridge due to the possibility of hooks hanging down from the underside.

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Many of the bridges had just two and a half metres of clearance.

Reaching the main river was a breathtaking site. The sun set the sky on fire, and the buildings were bathed in a golden glow.

I only wish that I had the good camera there to capture it.

It’s a big call, but I’d say that St Petersburg is the most beautiful European-style city I have ever seen. Ever. I have no idea why this isn’t more of a mainstream travel destination.

Day 161 (18th of August, 2016) – St Petersburg, Russia

Travel is very tiring (and exceedingly so when you’re a night owl like me), but I was nonetheless excited and energised to get out of the hotel and begin sightseeing. Due to government regulations we have to use a Russian touring bus, so we all boarded the borderline unroadworthy vehicle for the historical city centre.

One of the most prominent structures you notice when looking along the skyline is the St Isaac’s Cathedral. This is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. St Isaac of Dalmatia is significant for Russians because he is the patron saint of Peter the Great who was born on St Isaac’s feast day. The cathedral was ordered by Tsar Alexander I to be built by serfs in the early 1800s. The gilding process of the dome included the use of mercury, leading to the death of sixty of the slaves.

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We stopped in the appropriately named St Isaac’s Square to take pictures.

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I did my best to execute “Russian face control”.

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Just adjacent to me was the Hotel Astoria, a five star establishment which housed many famous (or infamous figures) from Rasputin to Putin. It was also said to be Adolf Hitler’s favourite hotel. In fact, he was so convinced that St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was known at the time) would fall quickly to his invasion that invitations to a victory banquet in the hotel’s Winter Garden were printed in advance.

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It quickly became evident why Tsar Peter I is known as “Peter the Great”. The roots of many of Russia’s modern day institutions can be linked back to his reign. Despite ruling from 1682 to 1721, the effects of his efforts to lead Russia into a cultural revolution still show today.

Lining the streets are artefacts which Peter brought to St Petersburg from across the world, included sphinxes from Egypt.

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Not far from the sphinx you could spot the pointed spire of the Peter and Paul’s Fortress. This is the original citadel of the city founded by Peter the Great. It has served many functions over time including being a prison, but today it is the resting place for many Romanovs. The House of Romanov was the second (and last) ruling dynasty in Russia, lasting from 1613 until 1917.

In classic Russian style, the interior was overwhelmingly grand.

Included amongst the graves here are those of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Anastasia Nikolaevna (the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II).

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Next on the to-do list was the Hermitage Museum. This is the second largest museum in the world to the Louvre and was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great. The collection includes over three million works including the largest collection of paintings on Earth.

You begin to notice the excessive use of gold, especially in the form of gilded bronze statues.

This chandelier alone weighed twenty tonnes. I felt weak knees just standing beneath it.

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The Winter Palace section of the Hermitage is undoubtedly the most beautiful. This is the bedroom chamber of one of the royals.

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Here is a mosaic displayed in the room next to it. The shards of glass which make it up seem microscopic.

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The chapel contained within the palace looked like a room fit for a ballet hall, not a church. I would love to be back here in winter, rugged up in the biting cold and retreating into this gold-plated heaven.

Exiting the building provided an even more stunning view than when we entered.

Situated behind the Hermitage is the Palace Square.

The horse-drawn carriages seemed plucked straight out of a fairy tale.

By the time I was walking through the square it was the afternoon and time for lunch. I went out of my way to find Tepemok, the Russian pancake chain which receives so much hype in this part of the world. There was one perched right in the heart of Nevsky Prospekt. I ordered a chicken caesar pancake as well as a banana and chocolate one.

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We returned to the hotel only briefly to spruce up for the evening’s restaurant and ballet performance. I decided to skip the restaurant and get some time on my own away from the group, so I decided to load up on food at the hotel. That didn’t go to plan, though.

The only food I have is some oats, but I don’t have a bowl to go with it. After a painful wait in the line at reception, I finally had the opportunity to ask the staff member to bring one to my room.

“No bring bowl,” she growled, rolling the r’s and l’s in a dense Russian accent.

“Could the restaurant bring me a bowl?” I pleaded.

“Nyet, restaurant no bring bowl,” she commanded, turning her back to me this time.

I decided to take a wander around the town for a sandwich instead.

In the evening I had a box seat booked at the Alexandrinsky Theatre to watch Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This was one of the reasons I was most looking forward to St Petersburg. I’m no fanatic of the art, but the thought of watching the most complex ballet at St Petersburg’s most famous theatre blew my mind.

The waiting halls were very luxurious (rightfully so considering the 80 ticket).

The hall itself was a marvel.

I was perched up in a little booth on the first floor.

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I even debated buying one of the handheld binoculars that I could hold to my eyes to pretend to know what I was watching, but I resisted and enjoyed it with my existing spectacles.

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I wasn’t able to take any pictures during the performance, but it really was stunning. It was divided into three acts of 45, 30 and 10 minutes. They became progressively more intense. Having known the story beforehand helped a lot in making me appreciate the art. The lead female dancer was by far the most impressive – I have never seen anybody so nimble spring across the floor. I couldn’t believe how her feet could handle the stress they were put under.

Just writing about it now has me appreciating what I saw much more than I did at the time. I would love to go and see another performance one day (although Swan Lake would surely be hard to beat).

The rest of the group continued out to a club for the night. The bridges connecting the city to our hotel all rose at 12:30am to let through the cruise ships and didn’t reopen until 5am. I’m glad I didn’t go out, because most of the others in the group didn’t end up back in their rooms until after those bridges closed at dawn.

Day 162 (19th of August, 2016) – Veliky Novgorod, Russia

I was one of the few people in the fifty-strong group who arose from a hangover-free slumber, and so I was able to continue on to the Peterhof Palace after dawn. This series of palaces and gardens was laid out in the early 1700s and is often referred to as the ‘Russian Versailles’ (its design was actually inspired by Peter the Great’s visit to the French Versailles).  This was Peter’s Summer Palace which he would use on his way coming from and going to Europe through the harbour at nearby Kronstadt.

As you approach the Grand Palace and the Lower Gardens, the exquisite and clean design of the site begins to assert itself.

The façade is stunning.

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The Palace itself is connected to the Lower Gardens by an intricate series of fountains and statues.

Surrounding the main Samson Fountain are gardens with impressive designs which can only be appreciated from above.

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I spent the next two hours strolling through the garden’s paths and getting lost between the rivers and trees.

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Every turn you made you were confronted with another postcard.

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As I walked towards the Baltic Sea, I appreciated the tranquility of the Monplaisir Palace and the surrounding waters.

At 11am, I wiggled my way through a crowd of Chinese tourists to witness a fountain show. I had my daily Chinese conversation with one of the groups from Beijing while we watched the display.

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I caught a quick snooze while driving back to the city centre where we were left alone for a few hours of free time. I headed directly towards the Kunstkamera. The Kunstkamera was the first museum in Russia and I had heard so much about it.

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Holding a collection of almost two million items, this museum is perhaps most famous for its collection of deformed babies. It’s probably at this point that you should stop reading if you’re squeamish or hold ethical problems with the study of foetuses.

Peter the Great opened the museum to house his personal collection of human and animal foetuses which he had seen in 1697 when visiting Frederick Ruysch and Levinus Vincent. Whenever Russians gave birth to a disabled child, they would often label it a monster and put its deformities down to supernatural intervention. Peter wanted to modernise Russia’s understanding of the world, and therefore made the collection public to educate the population.

The samples were extensive and were mostly bought from Russian families during Peter’s reign. It was weirdly fascinating observing the babies. If anything, I think it encouraged in me an appreciation that these beings are unique, but no less human. It also inspired in me an amazement at the complexity of the human growth process. I came out of the exhibition feeling lucky that nothing had gone wrong in my own development, but equally encouraged that those who aren’t as privileged have the fortune of now living in a world which understands their conditions.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition was seeing the skeleton of Siamese twins. It’s interesting to note exactly where they are conjoined.

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After the museum, I walked over the bridge back to Nevsky Prospekt and the Winter Palace for lunch.

I ate lunch at Shtolle (a famous Russian pie shop). The meat pie which I ate was cut from a much larger loaf. It wasn’t a pie in the Western sense. Instead, it was cold and the bread was very, very thick. It tasted considerably better than it sounds, though. I stayed in the café for some time to catch up on blog writing.

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The group met in the Palace Square in the late afternoon to continue our tour through the city. After many requests from people in the group, we were brought to one of St Petersburg’s best souvenir shops where people could pick up as many Matryoshka Dolls and Fabergé Eggs as they so desired. I was apparently the only one who hadn’t heard of what a Fabergé Egg was before the tour, but I learned that they are jewelled eggs originally created by Peter Carl Fabergé for the Russian Tsars.

The souvenir shop was one of the strangest experiences of my travels.

Upon entering, we were all handed both a shot of vodka and a shot of cherry liqueur.

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It was an interesting sales technique, and I spent the bulk of the hour in store working out how they makes their money. As the staff handed out more and more free vodka, liqueur and shampanskoye, the effect on peoples’ buying habits became obvious. Before long, people were spending in the hundreds of dollars for Russian gifts that they had apparently always wanted. One member of the group even lashed out AU$1100.

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I was hanging out with my new friend Josh and we decided to view the hour as a challenge. We would consume all the alcohol, coffee and canapés that we could handle (responsibly) and vow not to spend a dollar in the process.

Our first step was identifying money traps in store: getting so intoxicated that you drop a souvenir and have to pay for it, slipping on any of the multiple wet patches in the store and knocking over a stand of eggs, letting the alcohol affect your buying decisions, allowing the generosity of free samples to influence your ‘paying back reflex’, etc.

After identifying our obstacles, we set about on our challenge.

The room was a death trap.

Some of the Matryoshka Dolls were genuinely very impressive. The smallest part of this one was smaller than a grain of rice.

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Right as we thought we’d won the challenge, we heard something from the back of the room.

*POP… smash*

They duped someone. They had handed one of the members of our group a bottle of shampanskoye to crack open, and he’d predictably aimed the cork into one of the Fabergé Eggs. AU$100 lost, just like that. So that’s how they make their money.

Josh and I, on the other hand, made it through successfully. Thank God. Not a dollar exited our pockets.

From the souvenir shop, some of the group headed onto a Russian Folklore show at a nearby theatre. The entrance was similar to the ballet.

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The stage was very different, however.

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The show completely blew my expectations. It was full of high energy dancing and accapella singing. The very foreign nature of Russian traditional culture has fascinated me since reading Babushka’s Christmas in my childhood, and it was very exciting to see some of the best cultural practices on show. By the end of the show, the whole audience was clapping along and dancing.

Much of the group including myself ended the evening at the English pub around the corner from the hotel. It was a good night and I made a lot of new friends. In many ways, this tour has been a slow start for socialising compared to the other trips I’ve been on, but this evening was a good catalyst for meeting new people.

Day 163 (20th of August, 2016) – Veliky Novgorod, Russia

On the way out of the city in the morning, we stopped by the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

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This masterpiece sits like the crown jewel in the centre of Petersburg. It is named so because it was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was killed by a grenade and a bomb in his carriage in 1881. Built by his son as a memorial, this church is now one of the main tourist attractions of the city. What gives the the structure its striking blue and green colours is the embellished topaz and lazurite.

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Inside the church, not a spot on the wall isn’t a mosaic.

As we continued our exit from St Petersburg, we stopped at the Siege of Leningrad Memorial.

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The Siege of Leningrad (‘Leningrad’was St Petersburg’s name during Communist times) was a military blockade by Hitler’s army on the city. It lasted for 900 days, making it one of the longest sieges in history. The Soviets felt the full brunt, suffering 3,436,000 casualties. 1,042,000 civilians died during the siege – one in three of the town’s original population.

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Along with the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, this has been the museum which has left the deepest impression on me during this trip.

I sat for a very long time watching well preserved footage showing the desperation of the Leningrad citizens. People walking over dead bodies in the street, mass graves, the inhumanely slow movements of the people because of their lack of energy. The tears of the women and children as they were handed their 125g daily ration of bread, 50-60% of which was made of sawdust or wallpaper paste. Footage of people slowing to a stop and collapsing in the street, only to submit to freezing in the -30 cold.

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As I began to realise the grave situation of the people watching starvation appear before their eyes, I asked my guide what only seemed like the natural conclusion:

“Did anyone resort to cannibalism?”

Our guide nodded, and told us a story of a single mother who had lost the irreplaceable ration cards for her family, leaving them without food for the next month. Facing certain death, the children returned home the next day to a warm dinner prepared for them. Their infant brother was gone, and they all knew what had happened. They ate in silence and moved on with their lives, never daring to speak about it again. It sustained them for the next month.

I don’t think I’ll be eating as much over the next few days. It feels like too much of a privilege.

We embarked on the long journey to Veliky Novgorod, one of Russia’s most important historical cities.

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At its peak during the 14th century, it was the capital of the country (then called the Novgorod Republic) and one of Europe’s largest cities. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to just over 200,000 people. Novgorod first emerged as a powerhouse in the year 882 when Oleg of Novgorod conquered Kiev (now the capital of the Ukraine) and founded the state of Kievan Rus’.

After being razed by the German invasion in World War II, this city was quickly rebuilt by the government due to its historical importance.

Driving through the narrow streets made me realise how truly “Russian” this city is.

Most of the sights of the city are located within walking distance of the Novgorod Kremlin. ‘Kremlin’ means ‘citadel’, and Novgorod has a particularly iconic one finished in 1490.

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From it you can see Yaroslav’s Court, the princely compound named after prince Yaroslav the Wise.

We all gravitated towards the electronic music coming from the park nearby. I was very entertained to spot a group of 70 year old babushka’s all bopping to the deep house music while tasting vodka. It was an odd sight.

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I even saw this man walking his cat on a leash.

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We wound our way through the park’s paths only to stumble across some other historical sights.

Counted among the structures are St. Sophia Cathedral, St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Millennium of Russia monument.

After dinner at the hotel, we returned to the Kremlin area to go to a club which was on a pirate ship. This was the same ship during the day, which I hadn’t realised at the time would be the venue for the evening’s party:

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Day 164 (21st of August, 2016) – Moscow, Russia

I had an interesting drink at the breakfast buffet this morning.

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We were due to leave for the seven hour drive to Moscow at 8:15am but didn’t depart until around 9:40am. The pirate ship night club took one casualty who was running around paying fines to different departments of the hotel. Apparently he stumbled home in the early hours of the morning only to urinate and vomit throughout the complex.

I can see how he got carried away. A vodka mix here is typically 75% vodka, 25% mixer. And the most lethal bit is that they cost no more than AU$3. A few of the Australians have been challenging Russians to a drink-off, and the Aussies consistently lose. Drinking is Russia’s national sport.

I thought it was pretty funny myself. I think that you consent to these things delaying groups when you sign up to a group trip for 18 to 35 year olds. The rest of the bus wasn’t nearly as happy, though.

On a more serious note, the alcoholism statistics coming out of Russia are pretty scary. The country suffers 500,000 deaths per year directly related to alcohol, and the average Russian consumes 18L of spirits per year (more than double the 8L considered dangerous by the WHO).

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Unfortunately, the delay meant that the drive took far longer than seven hours due to peak hour traffic. We didn’t arrive until 7:30pm. The drive was only broken up by a brief lunch stop in a town called Klin where I had my first KFC since Xuzhou.

Checking in at the hotel in Moscow was a smooth process. The traffic in the city is abhorrent, and it was relieving to settle in for an easy dinner at the buffet before heading to bed.

Tomorrow is when we’ll really start exploring Russia’s economic and political hub. I’ve heard many stories of Moscow’s unforgiving chaos. I’m looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. I might even spot one of these in the wild:

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Until next time,
Xavier.

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