Friday, September 30, 2011

Where is this Mosque?

You would be forgiven for thinking it is in Tehran or Tashkent, but in fact this handsome building is in St. Petersburg downtown near Gorkovskaya Metro station. You might also think it is probably a fairly recent addition to the city, the result of migration of Muslims from the "stans" of the former Sovier Union or elsewhere, but in reality it has stood since 1913, before the Russian Revolution diminished the role of religion in public life.

Since its founding St. Petersburg has been a cosmopolitan city, and this heritage is reflected in many beautiful places of worship. Most are Russian Orhtodox, but they include a Jewish synagogue built in 1869, a Buddhist temple built in 1913, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches.

There is so much to see in Petersburg that you probably won't have time to visit more than a fraction of it, but it is nice to know it's there.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pictures from Siberia

Last night I invited some friends over to see a selection of pictures from Siberia and elsewhere in Russia, of which the above shot of a Bactrian camel near Listvianka was one.( Only two or three people fell asleep.) Unfortunately I knew nothing about this camel, but since he appeared to be tethered in fields surrounding a wooden architecture museum I suspected he might be a tourist attraction.

I was impressed, since he was the first camel of his type I had ever seen outside a zoo. I was also interested in some of the questions people asked about the trip, such as whether we got to wander around on our own very much. I had to admit we did not, surveillance was almost as tight as it had been in Soviet days. I don't know whether this is a feature of Friendship Force tours generally, or simply of such tours in Russia. Russia does still restrict travel by foreigners, by forcing them to say where they will be staying during the period of their visas, and then having their visas registered in each city they visit. However, within cities travelling around on your own is no longer a problem.

In case of the particular circumstances of my visit to Siberia, the ability to wander around alone would not have been a big benefit. I was staying in a very comfortable house in a suburb of Irkutsk that was itself within a gated community. I did wander around some, but the only place to go was into fields or, if you wanted a very long hike, past a great number of other comfortable houses down to the gate house near the highway.

Distances in Russia and especially in Siberia are very great, so wandering around alone is not something many people would be comfortable doing, I suspect. And while very good travel experiences can come from such excursions, in travel as in life there are always trade-offs. The chance to get to know some Russians and to be a guest in their homes seemed to justify the small price of a certain arount of restriction.

I am often surprised by the misconceptions people, including myself, have of certain regions and countries. That is one of the great joys of travel, the ability to peel back at least one or two layers of the onion that constitutes other countries and cultures. On this trip I was very pleasantly surprised by Siberia, and also astounded by the extent of the icy mountain ranges I could see from the window of the plane as we flew over Greenland en route from Moscow to Washington DC.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bronze Horseman

This statue of Peter the Great, unveiled in 1782, is one of the most famous monuments in St. Petersburg. Located near St. Isaac's Cathedral, it inspired Alexander Pushkin, Russia's mnost beloved poet, to write his famous poem in 1833, just four years before his own death in a duel.
"And thus he mused:From here, indeed,
Shall we strike terror in the Swede;
And here a city, by our labour
Founded, shall gall our haughty neighbor."
In the poem, the writer imagines himself being pursued down St. Petersburg's streets by a horrifing statue of the Czar come back to life on his horse.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jet Blue Deals Today

It's a short term offer closing at 6 tonight, but Jet Blue airways is offering some good deals on travel between the U.S. and sun destinations. For instance, Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau for $39 each way, Boston to Bermuda for $89 each way. Travel must be on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but the offers last until mid December with the exception of two dates in late Nvoember for U.S. Thanksgiving.
Check out

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Celebrating the End of School

I mentioned in a previous post the ceremony of Last Bell for the end of school in Eastern Siberia. The shot above is of some girls in Irkutsk wearing the colourful costumes they don for this event. Except for the red sashes and the lenfth of their skirts, I was reminded of the traditonal costumes of black and lace worn by Bretons in France.

There was, particularly before the 1917 Revolution, a strong French influence in Russia. Many members of the upper class spoke French (or English or German) better than Russian. Could the costume have actually originated in France? An interesting speculation.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Nightmares from the USSR

Yes, that is the actual name of a tour of Kazakhstan organized by Kazakh Tours (,) a company operating from the Netherlands that runs many itineraries in the far-away country that sound absolutely fascinating. On the Nightmares tour you visit not just two labour camps that once formed part of the Soviet gulag system, but also the remains of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and some other attractions. Except for the price (1000 euros for six days,) sign me up.
When I returned from Siberia earlier this summer, the question I was asked most often was whether I had an opportunity to visit any of the gulag camps, and my answer was no. I think it probably takes an outsider to understand the somewhat morbid appeal of places like this to the Western tourist. (Consider all the Nazi concentration camps and Holocaust memorials that now draw droves of tourists.)
Kazakh Tours also offers a number of other interesting glimpses of this little-known but very large country, the ninth largest in the world. Kazakhstan still retains close ties with Russia and has had the same ruler since independence in 1991. About a decade ago the capital of the country was moved from Almaty in the south east of the country near the border of China, to Astansa on the northern steppes not far from western Siberia. Astana has received mixed reviews, but it sounds very intriguing for its monumental modern architecture if nothing else.
If you have ever watched a Russian space mission on television, you may not have realized it was actually taking place at the space centre in Kazakhstan. Unlike many of the other "stans," Kazakhstan is relatively rich because of its oil and mineral wealth.
Now that this part of the world is opening up to tourism, it is good that a company like Kazakh Tours is developing options to see it. While independent travel in the region is possible, it sounds as if it would be pretty difficult without a lot of patience and a good command of Russian.

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