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Russia-Russia-Russia

semi-overcast 5 °C

Well as most of you have heard, Russia has been quite the experience. Even before we set out we had to apply to get our visas which was 3 days into Seoul, line ups out of the door and once we fought to the window to apply for them, we had to pay 20 USD more then what was posted on the sign in front of us, and wait a week longer then they told us as well.

Nevertheless we set out for St Petersburg and after a 9 hour comfortable flight we touched down in St. Petersburg. It was late by this time and we wanted to simply get to the hostel so we could enjoy the following day (given we were only here for 24 hours). We got out of the airport and all was dark. There was 'cabs' that comprised of individuals who offered us rides and then one taxi driver that could speak English well enough to understand that we were not able to pay so much to get into town. Rather he explained that we needed to get on a bus that would get us to the subway. This bus needless to say was worth a picture, but I am sure that this would have had us killed for sure. This bus was as old as the cold war and was lit by two lights, one at the back and one in the driver’s cage. We journeyed for about one hour before we got off and went into the subway, where by now we simply wanted to get out of the cold.

The subway was also a treat because we needed to identify Russian characters and pair them up with our English directions. This ended up working and we were off. Once we got off we were basically downtown on the main street. Michael with his ability to read a map headed off for a walk, but this eventually worried Monique as the city lights started to become darker and the random people sitting outside on the sidewalk began to increase. We did however find our way and this meant that since we were still on Korean time, we would be up at the crack of dawn and off to see this historic city.

After a free breakfast at the grand hotel (same franchise as our hostel boo ya!) we set out into the cold (5 – 8 degrees) on a quiet Sunday morning. We walked down the main street to see the classic Russian architecture and headed to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage where St Petersburg’s Museum is located. We spent a fair time looking around at all off the cumulated artwork and then headed back along the main road in the opposite directions to St. Isaac Cathedral and the city park.

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Michael strutting his stuff in Russia
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Just some of the beautiful architecture in Saint Petersburg
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Filled with presents (or bombs?)
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The river near the Nevsky prospects
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The Winter Palace
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A room in the winter palace commemorating all the war generals.
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The picture doesn’t show it, but the design on the roof and the floor are the exact same.
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The Winter Palace
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The arches outside the Winter Palace

Shortly after we already needed to head back towards our hostel and get to the airport. On the way back we spent some time looking at the Kazan Cathedral and the Statue of Alexander The Great. The flight was short and we were once again in a foreign city later at night looking for our hostel, which was harder to find then the first one.

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We don’t know who this is, But it is the spot where Michael got bit by a dog
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Beautiful Park
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Little old lady pushing a baby.
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Statue of Alexander the Great
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Kazan Cathedral

After meeting a very helpful couple who spent 20 minutes getting us to the right place we finally were able to unpack for a couple days and really see some main sights. The following day we went down to the city centre where the Kremlin. This is a preservation of many different architectural masterpieces within its walls. Today this includes governmental buildings, cathedrals that all were built during dramatically different times in the history of Religion in Russia, the Armory which is the vault of many of the collected and donated artifacts, and finally the gardens. The entire site was breathtaking, and very unique. The evolution of this site astounded us, which resulted in us returning the following day to pick up where we left off the previous day. Outside of these events we went to several great Russian restaurants (despite the cost of living) and on our last day in Moscow we saw Lenin’s tomb.

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Governmental building near the Kremlin
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The biggest canon in the world
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One of the many cathedrals
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Horses on the way to the Red Square
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Museum in the Red Square
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Department Store in the Red Square
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Lenin’s Tomb
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St Basil's Cathedral
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Inside St Basil's Cathedral
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Image of Red Square from inside the Cathedral
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Fountains outside the Red Square
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Entrance

That night we spent in a cramped plane on our way to Moscow to transfer to Ulaanbaatar. The day started out nice because we arrived at Irkutsk airport at sunrise, despite having been up for 24 hours at this point. And this is where things started to turn on us. First of all, the airport was a barn, no joke. Then we needed to wait for our connection flight for 7 hours which also was not fun, but we did try to sleep with our belonging at our sides. Then after a little while Michael noticed that flights after ours were appearing on the board; but not ours. So Michael went to ask about it, and when he found out that it was cancelled and was not to resume until November, he began to worry how he was going to tell Monique without her breaking out into tears. However faced with a problem we began to work out solutions, and converted all the US we had and began to weigh our options. We knew about the train and went across town to see if there was a train we could take, and booked a ticket that evening, thinking once we were at the boarder we could explain what had happened, given that our visa was now expiring. This gave us some free time, and so we decided to find an internet café (rare) and call our embassy. This was nice, until the helpful person on the line said in a calm voice that “if you show up at the boarder you will be put in jail for approximately 10 days until an international court can see you, and deport you”. Now Michael had more explaining to do to Monique… Our only option was to get to Moscow (or potentially Irkutsk – yes there was two international governors here) to apply for a 3 day extension and then get the HELL OUT. The problem now was that there were no flights to Moscow, one flight to Beijing that we were not allowed to get on because it was at 12:05 (!!) and the office of immigration was closed until 9 the next day. With nothing we could do but avoid the police we found the only hotel that would take a credit card at a fair cost of $200USD and had dinner and tried to get some sleep before the storm.

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A deceptive image about how beautiful we thought Irkutsk was going to be.
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The baggage carousel at the high class Irkutsk Airport

The next day you can bet we were there at 9 and we found the saint of an immigration woman who would eventually help us. Despite this positive note, there was a fair share of setbacks. First off we couldn’t understand her, but luckily she spoke French so we were on our way. We explained what happened and we told her about the 3 day extension, and after she debated with her collogues for a bit, she convinced them that it would be ok to issue a new visa to us!! This was not exactly ligit as we were about to find out, but basically she persuaded the immigration folk, and a friend of hers at the labour immigration office to allow us to get a employment visa. So we first had to get to this office, which was in a hard to get to part of town for the Mongolian citizens to use. Here we were allowed to cut ahead of a lot of the lines and begin the process. This is obviously a jazzed up version of the true hell we had to go through, but eventually we persuaded the visa lady as well to issue the visa; upon payment of 300 rubles (12 USD). No problem!! Except we needed to find a single bank in the whole city which proved to be very difficult. Before we found it we must have gone to at least twenty banks, and even had two people on the street turned their back to us when we asked for directions. Nevertheless we did find the bank, but after going to through several teller lines, we inferred (after being yelled at in Russian) that there were two government accounts. So Michael ran for 45 minutes across town with a Russian note to ask the immigration office which account we needed. Finally after returning Michael saw Monique sitting on the curb of the bank after she had been kicked out for a break. Once it opened and we paid the money, we ran to the immigration office to only discover that it too was closed from 1 to 1:45. 2 O’clock, 2:30, 2:40 they finally came back, a hour late and processed the visa.

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The now beautiful immigration building that gave us our ticket to freedom
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Above are the only two pictures we took after knowing we had freedom (visas), not sure why but some have described this as the Paris of Russia, we beg to disagree.

For the sake of keeping this positive, we won’t tell you how changing over travelers cheques went, but we were able to trade in a portion of our previously purchased train ticket, and booked our exit from Russia, via the trans-Siberian which we originally wanted to do from mid way anyway!

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Lake Baikal from our train
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Our beautiful chariot that was taking us away from hell.
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We boarded the train and spent 36 hours rolling towards Mongolia. Since the whole train experience was new to us, we came fairly unprepared. However a lovely Mongolian grandmother and her very cute granddaughter who was sharing our berth was able to offer some food to us. We aren’t talking some snacks; she pulled out 6 meters of sausage and some fresh baked bread and fed us quite the meal. That night as we were rounding the beautiful Lake Baikal – the world’s deepest fresh water lake, we met some other backpackers and spent the night talking, drinking vodka and playing cards.

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Our fellow backpacker friends.

The following day we spent 11 hours at the border crossing, which was a bit nerve racking as well, because we hadn’t registered (a process where you pay the hotel to prove your stay) our passports enough times given we had an unexpected extension. However we were sent out of Russia, despite the fact that the immigration officers spent 10 minutes checking our berth while the other backpackers looked on.

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The Russian border where we spent about 11 hours before being allowed to leave Russia.
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Mongolia in the distance
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Mongolian Border
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Officially in Mongolia

Once we were in Mongolia the landscape changed dramatically as we rolled along for another day towards the (present) capital city, Ulaanbaatar. This was a bitter sweet experience, however in the end we were able to see a part of Russia and Mongolia that we would have missed, in both contexts.

Posted by koreaeh 03.11.2008 03:20 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking

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