Finding Nemo

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Wonderland of Sankt Petersburg

Night Train
The rails had taken me from Tibet to Beijing to Ulaanbaatar to Moscow, a journey of nearly 6000 miles. I had loved every minute of it. But the ride on the iron horse was now nearly over. After this last trip, I would be at the end of the tracks.

Russian train stewardess
I sat in the Moscow train station, around 11pm at night, waiting with the crowd for the overnight train to arrive. There were sleepy-eyed men like myself, wearing their Adidas jumpsuits over wife-beater T's. Yet, there were also well-dressed men in suits with perfectly made-up wives in tight dresses and heels. All this, for an overnight train.

This was Russia: a mix of the old and new. We Westerners used to dress up when we traveled, didn't we? It was nice to see in a nostalgic way. I examined the holes in my sleeveless shirt, and stroked my unshaven beard. Yep. I was not among the well-dressed.

I clambered aboard and found my 1st class sleeper. Only 2 bunks in the entire compartment and a private bathroom! Toilet paper! Fresh soaps! Blankets without any strange smells!! Wowwwww. Yes, I may be a hobo. But even hobos enjoy Luxury.

And so, snuggled in my bunk, I drifted off to that comforting deep white noise that can only be found on a train. Pamela Anderson appeared, but not the young version. It was old, weird, Pamela Anderson from her roast on Comedy Central. Her plastic boobs were askew like drunken eyeballs, and her face make-up began to melt. Layer, after layer, after layer ... and then....

The train lurched, waking me. We were there. What did the Pamela Anderson nightmare mean? I jostled in with the pack and fell outside, squinting in the early morning sun.

I had stumbled into a Wonderland.

The glorious cathedral Nikolo- something something
There is one city on Earth where it's very clear a woman was in charge. Bright pink and powder blue buildings line the broad avenues. Lush gardens brimming with roses spill over rivers and sprout from parks. In the center of it all is the teal-green mothership: the ridiculously extravagant winter palace, where every room explodes with the bright colors of a child's crayon set. Yet nothing tops the singular Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. (Gruesome name, mind-blowing church.) By far the most spectacular place of worship I have ever seen, anywhere in the world.

St Pete: Pretty in Pink
Welcome to beautiful Sankt Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great, but pimped out by Catherine the ... also ... Great. This quite amazing Tsaritsa reigned during Russia's golden age, when the Empire sprawled over 1/6 of the Earth's land mass.

It is not just the gorgeous Italian Baroque and Rococo palaces and Renaissance churches that make St Petersburg feel so candy-sweet. Its also all the wonderful little details. The pretty canals, the endless bridges capped with golden statues of lions and horses, the parks bursting with flowers and fountains, the hidden little fairies along the river. Clean broad boulevards flanked by beautiful art deco buildings, all leading to a ridiculous over-the-top palace that rivals the Emerald City of Oz.

In the late summer of August, the temperature is perfect. Of course, locals are quick to point out that it can drop to -40 deg C in the winter. I tried to imagine my face frozen and everything covered in snow, sipping a brown-bagged bottle of vodka to stay warm. Then I realized I was sweating in the summer heat. And needed a beer to cool off.

It was a Summer Saturday in a major city in Russia. Which meant that streams of wedding parties were parading around the city, piling up for photos at every major site. In other words, every time I hit a Lonely Planet highlight and whipped out my camera, I had 15 beautiful Russian bridesmaids in the background. It made for really really tough sledding, but someone's got to do it.

A very shiny Russian groom

How did Charlie Brown get invited to a Russian wedding?
Its not a real Russian city without a girl in animal print and red heels checking out her selfies

It's absolutely not a real Russian city without "sexy pose" in Adidas sneakers on a giant gold griffin

The subways were built below the swampland that existed before the city. Waaaaay below.
You can sense the ginormous Winter Palace before you even get to it. All roads in the city tend to take you there, as it sits in a the middle of a giant wheel. You enter the main sprawling plaza, fountains spouting, and then ... there it is. All 1/4 mile of it. Teal-green, white trim, anointed with hundreds of copper Greek-god styled statues, it is Rastrelli's masterpiece.

It goes on and on and on and on and
The inside is silly. The comparison with the Forbidden City in Beijing, say, could not be more stark. The Forbidden City is imposing, majestic, and ... empty. Gutted. Which to me at least, made it series of sad buildings where it takes a bit of imagination to see its former glory. The Winter Palace is completely Stuffed with Awesome. The interior is decked out in such dazzling colors that you walk from room to room with a quiet sense of awe and a stupid slack-jawed smile.

Gold room, red room, throne rooms, malachite room, endless priceless paintings and sculptures, fresco rooms, peacock clock, Egyptian treasures (you can't be an empire in Europe without going to Egypt and plundering a few giant half-naked pharaohs and at least one obelisk.) The palace has a total of 1500 rooms. My sweet cabana house I live in now has 6 rooms and it's almost too much. What the hell do you do with the other 1494 rooms? Oh yeah .... you fill them with the endless treasure of the Russian empire.

Grand staircase near the entrance sets the tone. A tone of "holy crap this place is mental"

AWESOME malachite room. Ensconced in green stone and gold leaf. My personal favorite.

Malachite room intricate gold-leafed ceiling

The Boudoir. This is nothing compared to my boudoir. (Can someone tell me what a boudoir is?)

The Gold Room. Very disappointed. Not filled with gold coins that I could swim in like Scrooge McDuck.

The Blue Room

The Armorial Hall. The gold and windows and light... perfect. I lingered here for a long time.

I wanted to sit in it soooo bad... you have no idea. And then command my forces to invade Germany.

This is a floor mosaic in the Hermitage, the living suites next to the palace. They are seriously pimped

The Military Gallery. Painted in place. Some poor schmuck painted at the top of a ladder for weeks.

The "12-column room" was impressive. It actually has 24 columns. Russians are humble people.

Really enjoyed these early 19th century paintings of Joan of Arc by German painter Stilke

Joan at the moment of truth (1843, Stilke)
There is much much more to Санкт-Петербу́рг (Sankt Petersburg), such as the comically deep subways (they had to be lower than the surrounding swamp), the gorgeous Mariinsky Theater, the gritty fun nightlife, and on it goes, so stay tuned my wanderlusting friends ...