Returning Home, Thinking of St Petersburg

I am finally back — for good — in Singapore. The past week has been semi-surreal, navigating these familiar yet somewhat distant sights, marveling at new bus services that were never there before, feeling a little depressed at how shallow some of my countrymen can be (with regards to the ugly extent to which they would procure Hello Kitty toys).

Despite being “on the road” for a month and a half (if you count our East/West Coast blitz-tripping in the States), I’ve been rejuvenated by our adventures. Alan and I fought minimally (haha!), and I’m so thankful for the many things and people we saw on this somewhat unusual Trans-Siberian ‘adventure’. (I hesitate to use the word “adventure” ‘cos the Trans-Siberian is an integral, daily part of many Russians’ routines.)

I suppose that’s one of the hardest things about returning home. The last week has been an exercise in patience and trying to live graciously and gratefully. I’m trying to push aside how expensive it is to shop for groceries (compared to FroGro, back in Philly) or how crowded the MRT is. Simple things like thanking the cleaning lady at the hawker center requires courage because I keep second-guessing myself (“What if my Chinese sucks and she doesn’t understand me?”, “What if I come across like a condescending little princess?”). Anyhow, it will take some time for me to re-embrace this country I’ve grown up in, and truly love it, warts and all.

This period of limbo makes it the perfect time to share my travel stories, starting with St Petersburg.

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Peter the Great despised his native architecture and customs, preferring to look towards West Europe for inspiration. Today, the city still lives up to its reputation as the “Venice of the North,” with its extensive waterways and canals (which you can easily book a tour for). The Neva River flows through most of these, and separates the islands (for St Petersburg is made out of a cluster of them).

It was here in St Petersburg — our first point of contact with the great Motherland that is Russia — that we realized several things:

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  • Russian ladies are probably the hottest in the world and there’s nothing I can ever do (short of major plastic surgery) to look remotely like them
  • The latest movies and gadgets are promoted aggressively and consumed here, even faster than some American states and Singapore
  • Growing up with American dominance at the forefront of our minds, it’s easy to forget that Russia is a world power and not some backward country lost in the 17th century / years of Communism

Entering The Hermitage, also known as The Winter Palace, will reinforce that last point.

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While the palace has served tsars and their families for centuries, it was Tsarina Catherine the Great who founded the museum side of it. The Hermitage has been opened to the public since 1852 and you won’t believe how much amazing art (thank you ARTH 102, one of the most useful classes ever!) the Russian monarchies kept and stored.

A little aside about Catherine the Great, whose presence in the city continues to be felt even today. She must be one of the original feminist icons! The tsarina presided over the Golden Age and Russia’s Enlightenment period, with museums flourishing under her rule. She also established the first state-financed higher education for women in Europe. You go, girlfriend.

A statue of Kate and her “acquaintances”:

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Back to the Hermitage. There is an entire room dedicated to the Dutch painter Rubens, as well as numerous halls housing large bodies of Renaissance art. In order to fund Russia’s much needed industrialization for the Five Year Plan, the Soviet government ordered the Hermitage directors to prepare a list of works for sale. What we see in these halls today is two-thirds of what the palace once held.

Thankfully, somebody put an eventual stop to the sale of these national treasures. Even better: no one stooped low enough to market off bits and pieces of the Jordan Staircase. If you were an imperial guest in the era of the tsars, these stairs would be the first thing to greet you. (A noticeable pattern during my holidays: I’d start fantasizing about being the tsarina if I were walking around in Russia, or the Empress Dowager in Beijing… Basically delusions of time travel + fantasies of control = not a good characteristic to have while prepping for the harsh realities of the working world.)

It was pretty cool to be walking in the same rooms that kings and queens once did. Does anybody remember the grand dancing hall in the 1997 movie Anastasia? That scene where the ghosts lodged in Anya’s memory start floating down from the window is probably the most memorable one in the entire film for me.

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In the movie, the Jordan Staircase leads straight to the Armorial Hall (which sounds like it ought to be storing guns and swords, but is/was really a grand reception area). In real life, there’s a bunch of rooms you pass through from the staircase first. And though hordes of Chinese tourists swarmed the hall when I got there (Alan and I tried to stay one step ahead of these massive groups, much like how one runs away from Zergs or zombies), I could still imagine the glitz and glamour the real Anastasia Romanov must have come so close with so often in her tragic, brief life.

Armorial Hall, real life, after waiting 11 minutes for noisy Chinese tourists to file out:

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The rest of the museum was a joy as well: beautiful floor mosaics of St George slaying the dragon, a gorgeous peacock clock (an automaton that puts to shame the stuff we’ve seen at the Harry Potter museum, considering that it was made in the 1700s), incandescent chandeliers… Some cosplayers go down to the Hermitage museum to take their photographs — what a perfect backdrop.

We also headed down to the breathtaking (and quite a mouthful-to-pronounce) Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood.

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Built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, the church has served various purposes as a monument (its intended mission), morgue (during WW2’s Siege of Leningrad) and vegetable warehouse (after the war).

The canopy over the actual site where the tsar was killed below. Also, it can be quite depressing to be a tourist in Russia; after a while one realizes that many “attractions” have attained such status because of some form of bloodshed or another. The Peter and Paul Fortress, for example, lures those who want to stand in the same place as the Romanovs’ final resting place. Anyway:

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During the church’s latter two incarnations, Russians ignored the amazing mosaics that cover all 7,500 square metres of the interior. Not paintings! Mosaics! We bought an audioguide (BTW we save money using the Belkin Rockstar Multi Headphone Splitter — also good for shared couple experiences while travelling long-haul) and I couldn’t believe these were painstakingly put together, tile by tile.

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A close-up of the tiles:

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As you can see, we were afflicted with grey skies for most of our stay in St Petersburg. So when the sun came out on our last day, we took a detour along Nevsky Prospekt (the main artery of the city) and went back to the church to get one of our few couple photos. It’s pretty, but we hadn’t visited St Basil’s in Moscow at that point — though I think Spilled Blood’s interior beats St Basil’s, hands down.

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I found myself wearing out my then-new and trusty Tom’s — what a comfortable pair of walking shoes — on Nevsky Prospekt. Most of the things on the tourist circuit are on or situated somewhere along this main thoroughfare, as well as other sights one might not be looking out for. The pastel pink building (in the late Baroque style) below is the Stroganovsky Palace (of Beef Stroganoff fame, but wealthy merchants).

20130526-IMG_3684Less fancy and decidedly more sombre: this sign at Nevsky 14, warning civilians that the north side of the streets were more susceptible to damage/danger during shelling.

20130526-IMG_3676The Siege of Leningrad (confusingly enough, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd for a time too) lasted 872 days, with heartbreaking estimates of 1.1 – 4.5 million people dead — many of them through slow starvation. In this photo, you can make out the iconic triangular dome of the Singer headquarters (yes, the sewing machine company).

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The building today. So much history within these walls. It started out life as the country’s first modern office building (fireproof floors! steel girders!), survived the war, and continues to house offices and a popular-looking Cafe Singer.

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Besides putting our feet to good use, we also went on a canal tour. I took 10 billion photos of various St Petersburg buildings but when I had to start editing them, I was like… #struggles. Since I was too trigger-happy during the first week of our holiday, my memories of the canal cruise are rather forgettable, though looking back at the Hermitage further out on the Neva was nice.

Okay, this post is expanding more rapidly than an alien baby in a human body.

Next post: Peterhof (the Russian Versailles), my #1 snack in the country, the sleep-depriving White Nights and our semi-successful attempt at high-brow art! Oh, and a quick guide to St Petersburg for anyone heading that direction. I need to get these posts out before I forget my experiences. Thank goodness I remembered to write in my diary regularly this time round.

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