Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Leningrad (St. Petersburg)

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890712.10

Day 13

WHERE THE HELL IS THE PEPSI?!? This question was asked many times last night and today. Everyone is thirsty and the BS shop doesn’t have any Pepsi. All they have is booze and tonic water. Soon I will be too desperate to care. At this moment, we are headed for Petrodvorets.

I forgot Jason wasn’t with me that night. It scared the hell of me for a second, but then I got my bearings again. I fumbled around for the alarm (which was driving me crazy with its incessant beeping) and turned it off. I was about to lay back and to some mental discussion as to what the hell I was doing in a Communist country (good timing there eh?) when I remembered that Pete and Shaun had asked me to wake them up, as they didn’t have an alarm between us.

Pete and Shaun were in a room together. Think my prophecy of Derek and Pete taking a dislike for each other came true? At first I though so, but I was later informed that passports got mixed up and Derek ended up with Greg by accident. Although that was the beginning of a trend.

I knocked on the door five times with my hand, and twice with my head (I usually do this with my sister). A couple seconds later, a weary Shaun was staring at me, probably wondering what I was doing.

“Good morning, this is your seven o’clock alarm call!” I said cheerily. Shaun looked at me, then looked at Pete, then looked back at me.

“Thanks.” he said, closing the door. I was expecting something a bit wittier than that, but after all, he had just got up.

I was about to take a shower when I remembered the water. Our guides said it was safe so long as we keep our mouths closed and our eyes shut. No good for me. The next shower I would see was in Helsinki.

I took a look out the window, hoping to see a decent day. Boy, was I fooled. It was Moscow all over again. The only good thing to come out of the weather that day was the fact that it didn’t rain. At about eight, we all grouped down in the lobby for breakfast. We expected to have a restaurant in the hotel, but were surprised to find that there wasn’t one. Our breakfast was awaiting us at a small restaurant just at the other end of our rather lengthy driveway.

As usual, they had set off an area just for us, just as the other hotels had done (it made it easier to find a place to sit down and eat!). The cheese and salami were waiting. Then came the eggs (eggs and cheese combined) that was as usual, revolting. As a bit of a bonus, there were raisin buns. But few people ate them, mainly because of the way Lisa P described them..

“These aren’t raisin buns, they’re cockroach buns!” she shouted. Just what we needed to hear first thing in the morning.

After breakfast, we went directly to our buses. We had been warned of this and had brought down the stuff we were going to need. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same buses that we had the day before, the blue and white Italian special wasn’t there. Our trip that morning took us to Petrodvorets, more commonly known as the site of the Summer Palace. It’s not far from Leningrad, but it still takes a while to get there.

When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg (the first name of Leningrad) back in the early 1700’s, he wanted a palace he could go to so that he could get away from the city, yet still be able to over look things. He had his palace erected in Petrodvorets. It’s the smallest of all the palaces but it’s also one of the nicest in my opinion. There isn’t a lot of junk kicking around. Very simple, that’s the way I like ’em.

When we arrived, the guide on our bus (who was much shorter than me, pretty nonetheless) instructed us to follow her and make sure that we didn’t loose her. This was good advice considering the large parking lot was filled with fifty or more tour buses. Not only that, but the entire complex as a whole was gigantic, and packed with people.

A few minutes later, we were staring down the middle of the entire maze, looking right onto the Gulf of Finland. From where we were, I could see fountains, hundreds of them, all over the place. The palace grounds were studded with so many fountains that one would think that the ground would mud instead of soil.

The strange part about the fountains is that not one of them has a pump. All the fountains are powered by the pull of gravity (how’s that for a contradiction?). The entire area is on a slope (although you really can’t see it) and the falling motion is enough to propel the water to heights as great as fifty feet.

We then went down the staircase to the lower gardens, where all the fountains are. Our guide tried to explain something, but I didn’t hear her, I was too busy trying to keep us with all the people. It was then I saw why she wanted us to be careful. wall-to-wall tourists. We progressed down the walkway that ran on one side of the canal which also ran down the middle of the complex. When we got to the first bridge, our entire group flocked on for pictures. From the bridge, you can take a picture of the main palace from over the canal. The pictures that one takes from that position are almost identical to hundreds upon thousands of others, the bridge floor was worn where all the tourists had taken pictures.

Then we disappeared into the forest. Scattered amongst the clearings are small buildings, more fountains, and the odd palace. It didn’t take us long to find Peter the Great’s old pad. The Romanovs had an unusual sense of humour. Of all the 144 fountains in the courtyard, there were three that were actually booby traps. The amazing part were all the boobies who couldn’t stay away from them!

The first that we saw was one on the corner of Pete’s palace. It looks nothing more than a patch of small stones that were just scattered there. But along the edges are two rows of nozzles. Step on the wrong stones and you get soaked. There is a permanent wall of people around it laughing at other people dumb enough to get onto the patch.

Not far up from that one was the most impressive fountain I saw. Even up close (as close as you can get without getting wet) the Oak Tree Fountain looks like a real oak tree, though it’s made entirely of metal. To make such a tree today would probably put you into the millions of dollars (not to mention stiff upkeep rates).

In the same area as the Oak Tree Fountain was another of the booby trapped fountains. This was a larger version of the one we saw back at Pete’s palace, but it had the same effect. Step in the wrong place, and your socks get soggy (not to mention the rest of you). Just across the way was the last of the booby traps. But this one looked nothing like the previous two. This had a small circular deck with a post in the centre. On this post rested the roof, giving it the appearance of a merry-go-round minus the horses. I have no idea how this one worked (like I had an idea how the others worked!). If someone stands in the wrong place or too many people got on one side, there was a sudden rush of water from the edge of the roof. A wall of water all around the edge of the roof. If you tried to get out, you got wet. A couple from our group got on, and soon regretted that they had done so.

Our tour of the lower gardens continued. We saw a fountain which looked more like an oversized chess board tipped on its side, but I didn’t ask our guide about it. I decided not to bother. We also saw dueling turtles. Not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but two fountains that spat water (I think at each other, but I’m not sure, it wasn’t working at the time).

I wanted to take a picture, but a quick examination of my film stock showed me that I had only a roll and a half of film left. Until I got some more, I had to be careful what I took pictures of. Unfortunately, not many Soviet stores stock Fuji film (the only film I liked using at the time).

Soon, we were back at our bus, heading back for lunch. It took us some time to finally get everyone on, but soon we were on our way. Having two buses was a blast, I could easily bother Lisa V. She hated having her picture taken so all I had to do was point my camera at her when our bus pulled up next to theirs. After a while of just faking it, I did actually take one, but she ducked before the shutter opened.

Our bus made a quick side trip on the way back, to get a good look at a cathedral that was fairly close to the Summer Palace. It was in the traditional Russian Orthodox style, and not in any of the tour books. So everyone on our bus rushed off, took a picture, and then rushed back on.

Lunch was nothing out of the ordinary, aside from what we had to drink. We usually had two choices, one of which was often Pepsi. There was none here. Instead we had mineral water (that was the other usual) and what someone told me was Cabbage Beer. The mineral water in most places we had been was fairly good, but this stuff tasted like carbonated salt water. Despite my dislike of alcohol, I went for the beer. I had reached that point where I was too thirsty to care.

Following our lunch, it was back to touring. Another afternoon, another palace. But this time we didn’t have to leave Leningrad to find it. Although today it goes by the name of Hermitage, it used to be known as the Winter Palace. It’s one of the largest art museums in the world. Hell, the museum itself is art.

We had to go around the front of the palace and down a back alley to get to the Intourist entrance. It actually made quite a bit of sense to have an Intourist door separate from the conventional door, it would have taken us hours to get in had we gone in the front. As it was, the back door was much faster.

While we were outside, it gave us a very good look at one of the most famous sites in the Soviet Union. It’s called Victory Square for a good reason. On a cold November night in 1917, a small group of group of Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace, claiming control of what was then Russia. Although it has been over-glorified into a storm of soldiers engaged in a gigantic life and death battle for supremacy, the overthrow was tame and quick.

We finally got in after about a half hour wait. At first there really wasn’t much to see at all. It looked about as boring as the parliament buildings in Ottawa. But when we got to the top of the first set of stairs, hoo boy! Now that’s what I call a palace. I had never seen so much gold in all my life. I probably never will again. But it was impressive, noone could deny that!

Although the tour took most of the afternoon, it was a quick tour, and we didn’t even get to all the rooms. There were few areas that didn’t have art on them somewhere. Some rooms didn’t have a lot in them, but that was because the room itself was more impressive than the art that it contained. If I meet an alien one day who wants to see samples from all the great masters, even the not-so-great, I’ll refer him to the Hermitage. If you can’t find at least one painting of a particular artist in there, whoever it is never painted that well.

There are a few that I don’t remember seeing. Picasso for one. I think most of the artists in there didn’t do abstract. All the art in there is very much down to earth. Of course, I didn’t get to all the rooms, such as I have mentioned, so I could be wrong.

The tour was pleasant, even though I’m not a real art lover. I think that for the most part, everyone else in the group liked it too. The only that I know that none of us liked, the heat. It was unbearably hot in there that day, although it was cool outside. I found it maybe a bit puzzling that they let it get that warm. There were no fire sprinklers, no extinguishers. Combine that with all those oil paintings, oh brother, do you have a fire hazard! The value of all that artwork must be incalculable.

We finally ended our tour, but were advised to look around a bit more, if we wanted to. A small handful of us took a quick look in a couple rooms and then went outside to get some fresh air. We were outside for about a half hour before our bus drivers returned and we got back on. Then, of course, we headed back to the hotel.

The tour left us with a bit of time left before dinner. A few people took off to parts unknown. Some people returned to trading. The locals were always around. Jason, Kim and myself tracked down something to drink. When we were in Sochi, Jason had bought a couple bottles of concentrated orange flavouring. We poured this into cans of tonic water. The initial taste wasn’t bad, but the aftertaste was a killer. It certainly wasn’t Old South.

I stuck my nose into the bar next door, were I managed to find a real orange drink. I state drink, as it wasn’t juice of any kind, although it was much better than the orange flavoured tonic water. It got rid of the aftertaste, but we had to hang onto the bottles because the bartender wouldn’t let us pitch them in his garbage.

I quickly found Pete and Shaun, who were engrossed in some serious discussions with some traders. I stuck my nose in to see what he was up to. Pepsi shirts. Whoopee. But at least they looked good, there were some really bad looking t-shirts that we traded for at one point or another.

The three of us began to look around to see what else we could find. What we ran into were two of the most stunning Soviet women we had ever seen. Not a visible cavity or lost tooth, no lost hair. Perfect English to boot. They were offering lacquered boxes, among numerous other things. We were more interested in talking than anything else. I also suspected that they also did a few other services on the side that they didn’t normally advertise. Beautiful women in the Soviet Union seem to end up as prostitutes all too often.

Our dinner time soon rolled around. It was the final one for us. We still had a breakfast and lunch to go, but that was the last evening meal we had there. It was typical for dinner, as far as dinners went, except for our dessert. When we were in Sochi, Mr. Findlay received the gift of a watermelon from a little girl and her mother (I assume he did something for them) and he was just so nice as to share it with all 46 of us. The sucker was so big, it went around without any problem at all.

Following our dinner, we went over to the stairs in the front of our hotel for group picture time. I neglected to bring my camera though. It really didn’t matter, in all my shots I have at least one picture of each person on the trip. While we kept our places, people kept passing up their cameras for pictures. I thought of going up to get mine, but I decided against it. I could always get a reprint from someone else.

I could have gone though. We had to wait a long time before we could start while Greg and Derek got their cameras. Wonder why it took them so long? The maids caught them when they went up. What did they do? Five minutes after they had gotten into the room, everything except the beds had been turned on its side.

Just as the photo session ended, most of our group took off to parts unknown. The twenty or so of us left were informed that one last blast of cultural stuff was up. And it was mandatory that we go, no ifs, ands or buts about it. As there were only about twenty, we only needed one bus. But I did take my camera. I thought that it might prove to be interesting. Besides, I had high speed film in case there was a lack of light.

So the twenty of us filed on to our bus and disappeared into the depths on Leningrad. We crossed a few bridges over some canals, then over one on the Neva to the north side. A few minutes later, we found ourselves among dozens of other buses. At this point, we stopped as we had arrived at our destination.

The building didn’t look any different from the apartment buildings nearby, except for the ticket booth. We had to wait for a moment while Suzanna fixed something with the ticket agent, but then we went right in, through the very small lobby into the auditorium. Our seats were somewhere in the back, but the auditorium was small enough for us to be able to see quite well. When the lights went out, I was delighted that I had high speed film too. We were too far for a flash.

The show was put on by a troupe of dancers from Siberia. They were all from the Siberian area (of course) and traveled all over the Soviet Union, much like a circus show. That was what some of their show was like too. During the show, some of us made some interesting observations. For example, one of the dancers looked an awful lot like Greg. Those of us who noticed that then noted that the reason that he wasn’t with us was that he was dancing in the show. In all reality, he was probably at some dance hall.

I took a few pictures during the show (which turned out rather well too, I might add), but as I was still budgeting my film use, I kept it to a minimum. About fifteen minutes later, we were back at our hotel. As a reward for going to the show, we were given a later curfew, though I doubt any of us used it.

We were soon trading again with the locals. I made a deal with the kid the night before for him to bring more pins. He did, and I traded off the rest of my bubble gum. All the pins I had traded for had prices stamped on the back, and after some quick conversions, I found that I had saved about $10. If the kid had been a few years older, I doubt I would have been so lucky.

Shaun was going insane. It was probably the last time we would get to trade and he was determined to get his hands on as much military gear as he could. He was involved with the navy back in Canada, so his focus was on his Soviet counterparts. We was moving from trader to trader at such a speed I think the traders probably thought that Shaun was taking speed.

Somewhere around eleven (I think, it was still very bright out) I retired to my room, for my last sleep in the Soviet Union. As I was listening to my Walkman, I noticed something rather odd. My Walkman has a nasty habit of buzzing when a radio (turned on of course) is nearby. It buzzed near my pillow, a chair and a section in the wall. I was tempted to find out why, but instead of shredding something, I just assumed I was being bugged and mumbled for a half hour.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

The Summer Palace was mind boggling with all those fountains (some of which were booby trapped). The Winter Palace (now formally known as the Hermitage) was even more impressive and very, very elaborate. Not to mention very, very warm.Tonight, some of us saw a really interesting dance troupe. It was more interesting that I originally thought it would be. Too bad not everyone came.

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