Jonathan Brun

Russia part II – Catherine the great palace, Moscow, Irkutsk, Listvyanka

The Catherine the Great palace lies 1 hour outside of St. Petersburg and was truly stupendous. The original castle was completely destroyed during the second world war and the famous Amber room was stolen by the visiting Nazis. Over the past 60 years, 29 of 55 palace rooms have been restored to their former glory, including the amber room which was just opened and is as amazing as I had imagined. Three different architecture is found throughout the building, neo-classical, empire and traditional Russian style.

We then took an overnight train to Moscow, our first russian train. It was much more luxurious than we anticipated – clean sheets, TVs, hot water, if only Lenin knew! In fact, our first stop in Moscow was to see the man himself, who now rests less than 500 meters from a McDonald’s. The old patron, Lenin, is unfortunately the worse for wear, growing more and more translucent, there is even talk of removing him from his mausoleum.

After visiting the main sites in Moscow – Kremlin, Museums, Churches; we bought our “real” train tickets, 3rd class on the Irkutsk Express – three and half days. Life on the train was lively and all aboard were more than friendly. They happily gave us more salted fish than we could chew along with gallons of beer to wash it down. Since the Russian government has raised taxes on Vodka, many comrades have turned to beer, which is not really considered alcohol in the motherland.

On the train, we met families, soldiers, grandmas and children. All of whom offered us their food and hospitality. Jon, the father of a cute young girl, even insisted we visit his brother in Irkutsk, he gave us salty fish and said we had an amazing aura. Sadly, we could not take him up on his offer, maybe next time.

At Novosibirsk, the Ulan Ude Tai Kwon Doe team got on the train after placing second at the Siberian Open. Their conquest of our car culminated in the renaming of the train to the Karate express.

We came to Lake Baikal to rest and visit the oldest, deepest lake tin the world. In the small village of Listvyanka we set out to find rooms for a night or two. This proved harder than expected, the town seemed to have more dogs than people and even less signs for hotels. After crossing a group of Australian tourists, we were informed of the Russian word for rooms, which we now realised, was plastered on every other home. We rang at one door clearly marked Rooms for Rent, to be politely told, “Hello, Go home!”. Luckily the hostess changed her mind and let us in.

During our visit,  we climbed up to a run-down soviet hotel called, you guessed it, Lake Baikal. The place has certainly seen better days, not that long ago, the rooms were likely full of powerful soviet politicians. Today, it still retains its 1950s Shining charm, superb view over the lake and surprisingly delicious food.

After our stint on the great lake, it was back to Irkutsk where my girlfriend and I headed south to Mongolia and my brother continued to the majestic, or is it magical, city of Vladivostok.

Published on March 18, 2010

St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia is big, really big. My brother, girlfriend and I recently to travelled from west to east on the Trans-Siberian railway. Our trip began in St. Petersburg, a very European city, built on the marshes of the North sea by slave labour. The city was once the capital or Russia and French was spoken at all the royal courts. Today, no one speaks anything but Russian.

The Hermitage Museum is the city’s main attraction; one of the largest museums in the world, it offers truly stupendous works of art. In my opinion, The Hermitage is the most impressive museum I have ever seen, the density of priceless art is unparalleled. The building itself is a work of, sometimes overly excessive, art – it was the former palace of the Tsar. While the art is amazing, it is also a testament to the excesses of the Russian royalty who amassed amazing collections while their people starved in the cold winter.

Reaching the St. Petersburg metro, dug deep underground to avoid the numerous canals, requires an impressive five-minute escalator ride to reach. Once arrived, the beauty of the stations is astounding. The Soviets built gorgeous metro stations with chandeliers, marble walls and vaulted ceilings.

After you see their metro, it is clear our public spaces have been done on the cheap. Too often in capitalist societies we only look at the financial costs and forget the emotional impact beautiful spaces can have. The few public venues we accord money to – museums and concert halls are the haunts of the rich while our basic metros, bus stations and streets are used by all citizens. In a democratic society we should provide beauty democratically. A system that transports millions of people everyday should be built to not only transport the body, but also the mind and the heart.

Russian Photos here

Published on November 29, 2009

Getting a Russian Visa in Paris

This was by far, the hardest Visa I ever got. We got our Visas on French passports, though these requirments apply to all EU passports. Real embassy website here (beware of fakes).

Items required:

Once you have all these items, you should be ok.

Good luck.

Published on September 21, 2009