architecture · no recipe · St Petersburg

Official St Petersburg or Along Bolshaya Morskaya

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Back in June I walked to and along one of the most ‘official’ streets of St Petersburg – Bolshaya Morskaya which literally means Big Naval or Big Maritime. It runs all the way from the Palace Square for more than a kilometer and it used to be so posh and oh so rich back in the old days.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

We’ll start from the Neva embankment, at the strangest place in the city with the authentic stone pavement from leftover from the 18th century. The Neva embankment here is considered to be the face of St Petersburg, at least its official facade – or else front-door, paradny Petersburg.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

The best viewpoint to admire the front-door St Petersburg is from the water. Or you can enjoy the view across the Neva river: stone embankments, famous skyline and boats. In summer the river gets pretty busy which adds to the overall brouhaha of the city.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

And yet, you can take your time, stop for a while and observe.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

The stone embankments of St Petersburg deserve a separate post, they are a real masterpiece. Although my fellow citizens (me included) prefer to avoid them on especially hot days. Reason? Well, other fellow citizens persistently use them as public WCs…

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Same as the courtyards, unfortunately. But if you quickly make your photo and dash outside, there’s no harm. We’ve moved away from the river now, joining the Bolshaya Morskaya Street. My eyes immediately set upon these two Art Nouveau buildings standing side-by-side:

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

The story of this very spot (Bolshaya Morskaya 22) seems to go back to the very early days of the city when – allegedly – a Greek captain would settle here and thus establish a seaman community. They say he was even one of the first inhabitants of St Petersburg in general! This place later changed hands, styles and purpose. After serving as a house of St Petersburg head policemen, the central telephone station got its new facade in 1905:

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

It is still occupied by the main telecommunications company. Next to it is yet another well-known building (Bolshaya Morskaya 24) which also retains its original purpose throughout the years:

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

This is the Faberge house built in 1899-1900. Previously this place belonged to a bell master, then to a goldsmith and later to a jeweler but also to a bookseller who would have Alexander Pushkin among his clients.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

However, its most celebrated owner was Karl Faberge who purchased this building and got it revamped in Art Nouveau for his shop, workshops and apartments. The different surface styles of the same red granite from Gangut make it stand out of the crowd: it’s massive, it’s polished, it’s expensive! And then you sneak into the courtyard…

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

As is usually the case with the Art Nouveau buildings, their backyards are sometimes even more architecturally curious than the front face. The staircase windows follow the movement of the steps while the entrance to the courtyard is adorned with tiles:

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

And once more – here’s the facade of Bolshaya Morskaya 35, which used to belong to the ‘Russia’ Insurance Company. Look at the elaborate majolica created after Nikolai Roerich’s drawings. The original frieze didn’t survive but was restored in 2009. You can hardly see it, it’s so high up but it’s wonderfully fairy-tale-ish!

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

And here’s what you’ll find behind its face:

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Super-rusty style

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Moving further along Bolshaya Morskaya, past St Isaac Cathedral, you get to the Nabokov fanily’s house (Bolshaya Morskaya 47):

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

His family lived here and Vladimir spent his childhood behind all these lavish decorations. Still have to visit his museum there – not that I’m any fan of his, but rather to see the interior.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Moving off Bolshaya Morskaya to the Moyka River Embankment (leaving one of my ex-work places looking like Hermitage behind), you’ll come across the New Holland island, one of the city’s artificial islands, which is under reconstruction now. Not sure what will eventually become of it but they say it will be some artsy space plus hotels and shops. This is what you do with an unused 18th century naval port 🙂

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

A ship-like building along the Moyka Embankment grabs your attention by these, well, dangerous balconies and the rhythmic waves of bay windows.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

And it’s actually known in the city as the House with Bay Windows. It was built by one of the masters of the ‘brick-style‘ quite popular at the end of the 19th century, with the Gothic elements which make it into some sort of a brick castle.

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

Right next to it is the architect’s own mansion, again in the brick style which preceded the Art Nouveau in St Petersburg. It was actually constructed earlier than the previous building and still carries the emblem devised by the same architect who set up the St Petersburg architectural society (look under the balcony).

Bolshaya Morskaya, St Petersburg

And here I had to stop and walk back: we were to listen to some choral music in the St Isaac Cathedral later that day. More Art Nouveau stories coming for sure sometime soon.

This post goes to the St Petersburg series.

G.
architecture · no recipe · St Petersburg

Vasilyevsky Island, Island of Men

Vasilyevsky Island

Vasilyevsky Island in St Petersburg is an island of men – with its long list of man-architects, with its connection to so many historic man-figures and with just men living and working there. Although you won’t see any on my photos, you will have to believe me, I met mostly men on Vasilyevsky Island!

Vasilyevsky Island

Last year I did just a bit of walking on the island (aka V.O., Vasilyevsky Ostrov), visiting one of its museums. But this year the island turned out to be indeed a new discovery for me. After studying on the southern edge of V.O. for four (!) years I somehow got so fed up with the terrible traffic situation (aggravated by the fact I was not particularly enjoying what I was standing in traffic jams for) that I almost deleted this district from my (architectural) walks.

Vasilyevsky Island

I tried to defy this by walking for three hours one evening – and covering just about 1/3 of the city’s biggest island. The sun was not present much that evening and there was the imminent rain menace in the air but who would it ever stop in St Petersburg? This also added to the overall atmosphere:

Vasilyevsky Island

It was nice finally walking on the island without being in a hurry although I did try to hurry myself up from time to time when it was obvious I was wandering off a bit too much. I used my Art Nouveau ‘map’ with the most interesting items on it only as a general plan for my trip as it was almost impossible sometimes not to get lured by those curious things hidden somewhere behind the island’s official ‘face’:

Vasilyevsky Island

I investigated into the V.O. ‘s Southern part starting from some of the most authentic (and somewhat deserted) 18th century corners to the East:

Vasilyevsky Island

With the original pavement though a bit carried away by the time:

Vasilyevsky Island

Did you know that all those straight streets on V.O. used to be canals? You see, Peter the Great wanted to have his own Venice of the North here and so – obviously – a prolific Italian architect Domenico Trezzini designed the plan of the island with canals. But they say that the city major Menshikov was too greedy and under his command the canals got way too narrow.

Vasilyevsky Island

They got later filled with earth thus becoming streets. They are called ‘lines’ and are numbered: actually, each side of the line is numbered separately. Moreover, lines with even numbers in their names have houses with odd numbers and vice versa! But the island has more weird stories to tell. Especially its backyards like this one with the remnants of the USSR used as shields to block windows:

Vasilyevsky Island

This tiny house resembles a face:

Vasilyevsky Island

Oh those rough views one find behind the facades in St Petersburg!

Vasilyevsky Island
But let us not forget about men! One of the most notable Art-Nouveau facades of the island is this red one on the Makarova Embankment – and it belonged to duke Stenbock-Fermor and was built by a man-architect of course:

Vasilyevsky Island

To add to the long list of men of the Vasilyevsky Island, here is the pharmacy, lab, factory and the residential building of Pel on the 7th line of V.O. (picture taken back in June 2015). Pel used to be the official provider of medications for the Royal court. They say that some of his inventions are used even nowadays (the pharmacy is open too)!

Vasilyevsky Island

Although the most attractive urban legend connected to his name is about the Griffon Tower located in the courtyard (unfortunately, the access is blocked – too many curious people!). Pel was believed to be an alchemist and to keep his griffons in the tower… Meanwhile, let’s continue our list of men (by the way, the island’s name comes from some Vasily, though there’s no 100% sure version as to who this Vasily was).

Vasilyevsky Island

This laconic building belonged to a general-major and was built during the late period of Art-Nouveau also known as ‘rational modern’. Artists (men?) would have their studios in the attic… Somewhat in the same line (but on different lines of the V.O.) are these ‘hygienic’ modernist buildings facing each other:

Vasilyevsky Island

I can’t say that I like this late Art-Nouveau period, it doesn’t give off any warmth of ‘home’:

Vasilyevsky Island

Even this Nordic-style Art-Nouveau building has a much colder appearance than its counterparts somewhere on Petrogradsky island:

Vasilyevsky Island

I really like these shapes growing one on top of the other – or rather sprouting one from another!

Vasilyevsky Island

this one too:

Vasilyevsky Island

And this one is just the ultimate monument to the utter rationalism:

Vasilyevsky Island

some gloomy castle-like house:

Vasilyevsky Island
and how about this weird helm-looking tower:

Vasilyevsky Island

or the attempt at bringing some life to the tiles:

Vasilyevsky Island

sometimes the backyards are indeed much more interesting, with all the weird architectonics and variations on the facade decoration:

Vasilyevsky Island
and then there’s just a WALL:

Vasilyevsky Island

or this very confusing and I would say alarming wall:

Vasilyevsky Island

and a very elaborately structured and decorated wall:

Vasilyevsky Island

was it just weather or even this bright facade is also a little bit cold?

Vasilyevsky Island
and here’s some curiously and seriously Sovieticized facade:
Vasilyevsky Island

More yellow – but in a much more attractive style:

Vasilyevsky Island

I liked this mansion a lot – one of the earliest examples of Art Nouveau in the city and already with all those characteristic details:

Vasilyevsky Island

Of course belonging to a man who would deliver freight from Finland to Russia. His mansion / bureau should be very beautiful inside.

Vasilyevsky Island

Yet another mansion is now occupied by the Medical Department of the State University. Doesn’t it look so strange with this wooden top?

Vasilyevsky Island

Again, it should be quite a sight inside too. When I got to this mansion on the 21st line it started to rain and the light was going away bit by bit but I stubbornly continued my voyage. Walking to and fro from one line’s end to the other, I finally came up to the embankment of the river Neva, there where the ships and the factories are:

Vasilyevsky Island
I told myself this would be the last destination as it was also getting cold. And there it was, the majestically horrendous constructivist tower, all alone and forgotten there at the Southern end of the Island:

Vasilyevsky Island

so very industrial from all sides:

Vasilyevsky Island

This is the water tower of the Krasny Gvozdilschik factory which would make wire and nails.

Vasilyevsky Island

‘Protected by the state’ as most of the constructivist heritage of the city.

Vasilyevsky Island

And then by miracle I caught a marshrutka (shared taxi; its driver was a man) which took me home across the illuminated city. And I still have 2/3rds of the Vasilyevsky Island to explore!

This post goes to the St Petersburg series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg · travel

Kronstadt, its Fort and Koporye Fortress

Kronstadt and Koporye

This summer was rich not only on Russian cities along the Trans-Siberian railroad. We also visited several places around St Petersburg. One day we went to the North-West of the city, visiting Kronstadt, Koporye Fortress and the Fort – all in one day.

Kronstadt and Koporye

Kronstadt (Krone meaning crown in German) is the main port of St Petersburg which used to be a closed military city during the Soviet times. As so many parts of the city it is located on an island called Kotlin – but in this case you do feel that you’re on an island from where you can see both sides of the Gulf of Finland. It is there to defend St Petersburg from the Baltic sea – the role which it played particularly successfully during the Siege of Leningrad.

Kronstadt and Koporye

With all its fortifications, military ships (it is the base of the Baltic Fleet) and monuments dedicated to various episodes of the Russian naval history, Kronstadt remains a little bit too military for me. There’s this atmosphere in the city as if ordinary people are not the main characters there and notwithstanding all the tourists it seems as if the daily life of the island still retains that something of a closed city.

Kronstadt and Koporye

And since it was a closed military town up until 1996, Kronstadt is now immersed in quite a decadent state. Those Stalinist era buildings which would normally look pretty ok somewhere on the ‘mainland’ St Petersburg, are preserved here worse than what was built much earlier. And here’s some local constructivism in a very poor state:

Kronstadt and Koporye

The Naval cathedral of Saint Nicholas is one of the main sights of the fortified city on the island. It has been recently renovated and looks impressively grand. It was built 100 years ago and since then served not only as a church but also as a cinema, a concert hall and a museum. All of which are not the worst functions that the Soviets could confer to an ex-cathedral.

Kronstadt and Koporye

The fence around the cathedral:

Kronstadt and Koporye

I remember visiting Kronstadt about 15 years ago and how miserably it all looked. I only recall that my attitude towards this city was ‘for boys only’ as I am not interested in all those military ships and constructions. The Cathedral back then looked awful.

Kronstadt and Koporye

But now it shines, attracts so many tourists and yet there’s a certain feeling of being in a church there.

Kronstadt and Koporye
Although the presence of security guards all over the place instead of the usual babushkas makes you keep in mind the cost of the renovation.

Kronstadt and Koporye

The pseudo-Byzantine and at the same time pseudo-Russian style makes you think of all those surviving churches built in the early 20th century in an attempt to conjure up the spirit of the good ol’ Russia. Looking at the mosaics you also recall the Saviour on the Spilled Blood church in the center of St Petersburg.

Kronstadt and Koporye

This cast-iron pavement has its history. It was created in the 1860s to repeat the success of the New York and Boston pavements which impressed the Kronstadt steamboat factory manager so much. The current pavement is not original as it had to be recast as mines during the Second World War.

Kronstadt and Koporye

Leaving the city we went to one of the Forts of Kronstadt that you can reach without having to swim to it. There are many fishermen around and those who come to roast some shashlyk or even sunbathe. What a pacifist destiny for the fort!

Kronstadt and Koporye

The rough landscape of the fort reminds you of the long military history of these places:

Kronstadt and Koporye

Inside the fort looks suspiciously clean which might be due to it serving as a set for some movie or a game, probably:

Kronstadt and Koporye

Outside it looks like… late Soviet architecture, although these thingies were built much earlier!

Kronstadt and Koporye

We had our lunch in the field, observing the clouds moving across the sky with such a speed we thought it would rain any minute – but never did. As many fields around St Petersburg, these places are gradually turning back into their wild state as the collective agricultural production lost its sense with the fall of the Soviet empire.

Kronstadt and Koporye

When we came to the Koporye Fortress, a Medieval marvel of the St Petersburg region. Thanks to very few attempts at renovating it since its foundation in the 13th century (!) we can almost travel back in time. However, the same fact led to its quite ruinous state and although they take money to enter it, there seems to be very little renovation going on yet.

Kronstadt and Koporye

Inside the fortress:

Kronstadt and Koporye

The entrance is – as it should be – via a stone bridge with a lifting mechanism. Reminded me of the fortresses I visited a year ago in Provence.

Kronstadt and Koporye

Being surrounded by all those mostly 19th and 20th century buildings in St Petersburg, to see this Medieval stronghold which witnessed sacks and attacks by Swedes, White Army and Nazis, is to say the least quite surprising. I mean, you always think of St Petersburg as something much younger than that! The Leningrad region keeps it secrets well – but also eagerly reveal them to you if you dare travel a bit further off the center 🙂

This post goes to the St Petersburg and Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg · travel

Repino on Gulf of Finland

Repino

Let’s celebrate summer and my blog’s 5th birthday by looking back at our trip to Repino on the Gulf of Finland. This small town to the North of St Petersburg is mostly famous for its celebrated inhabitant, Russian painter Ilya Repin. In this house called Penaty (the Penates) he lived up until his death in 1930:

Repino

The town itself – or rather a fisherman’s village – used to be called by its Finnish name Kuokkala (from koukku – fish hook which characterized its main industry pretty accurate) until 1948. For what I know it might have been renamed after another famous inhabitant, the writer Korney Chukovsky, but he was not in favor at all. I read about his life in his house in Kuokkala (jokingly referred to as Chukokkala) and all those well-known poets, writers, painters and singers who visited him there. Chukovsky would in his turn visit Repin in his curious house. To do this, he had to first cross the park:

Repino

Of course the house has been rebuilt and renewed several times since its construction in 1906 as all which was left after the Second World War was its basement. Kuokkala was not lucky enough to remain intact.

Repino

We went inside what is now the museum of Ilya Repin to see the interiors (here I should admit that they really put in a lot of effort to recreate its atmosphere) and found two floors of cozy rooms with lots of light and hand-made objects. It feels like a dacha and yet this was the painter’s home for many years. I particularly liked his study:

Repino

and the verandah looks pretty too – there’s so much light in there!

Repino
One of the stars of the house is this dining table which the guests could spin to access the dish they wanted. The Repin family was particularly proud not to be attended by any servants in their house – and so they would instruct all their guests on how to be self-sufficient 🙂

Repino

Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum and I didn’t manage to take any of all those cozy things on the second floor. Anyway, Repin’s house and the surrounding park with the painter’s grave are worth visiting. They have that very special aura around them which surprisingly survived or at least got very painstakingly recreated after all these years. I would compare it to the house-museum of Vasily Surikov in Krasnoyarsk, another Russian painter, his friend and contemporary.

Repino

No, this is not Baikal. This is Gulf of Finland, the closest you can get to the sea within the borders of St Petersburg. From Repin’s Penates you just cross the road and you see the sea. The Soviet times did not pass for nothing here: there are numerous health resorts all along the beach. And then the new times also transformed the town, introducing all those expensive and oddly looking dacha. But people still have their beach to walk – and you can walk and walk and walk…

Repino

It might be cold and very shallow but this is our sea 🙂

Repino
This is the Baltic sea as seen from this side, the St Petersburg side (I also happen to see its ‘other’ side in the Kaliningrad region). We had our lunch on the sandy and windy beach and then made a long stroll along the shore talking with my Mother. Love those moments!

Repino

Oh, goodbye summer.

 

This post goes to the St Petersburg and Travel series.

G.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 10 and Last: 7 Time Zones Back and Roundup

Flight and Moscow

Flying 7 time zones back or 8 hours 30 minutes all across Russia has been the longest flight I’ve ever taken. I flew back to Moscow and Moscow time. One of the thoughts I’ve noted during my stay in Vladivostok was this: “I realized I like railway stations. They always show Moscow time there :D”. And although I didn’t make it all the way to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian, I took a train from Vladivostok to its airport, thus symbolically making my way back to where we started from the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Flight and Moscow

My flight was early in the morning and yet I arrived in Moscow at 10.45 am of the same day! My 8 and a half hours of flight were eaten up by flying 7 time zones back. So I had my breakfast-lunch and dinner and arrived just on time for a second breakfast in Moscow 🙂 By the way, I ordered vegetarian option and by that they meant black bread instead of white bread, no butter, meat and… no bulochka either, what a shame! But it was ok, especially when you realize you’ve been only eating, listening to music (there was a certain David Gilmour playing in my earphones) and watching movies (three!) for 8 h 30 min. It’s a pity the photos I took were mostly of the clouds as we were flying way too high to make even those Novosibirsk-Moscow flight photos.

Flight and Moscow

In Moscow later that same very long (rubber-like) day I decided to go to the city center and visit the place where Mikhail Bulgakov lived. In the state that I was in (not really making head or tail of anything) I was lured into another museum in the same courtyard where Bulgakov actually never ever lived cause that was where the house managers would work.

Flight and Moscow
After realizing I listened to an excursion in the wrong Bulgakov’s museum 🙂 I went for a walk and first visited the nearby Patriarshiye Prudy (Patriarch Ponds) where the first episodes of the Master and Margarita novel take place.

Flight and Moscow

Walking along Spiridonovka Street I came across these gates which look like some Lord of the Rings paraphernalia. And yet they would conduct some international negotiations here in this building as it belongs to the Foreign Affairs ministry since 1929:

Flight and Moscow

Further ahead – some cozy 16th century corners of Moscow:

Flight and Moscow

They were not really very strict with their lines back then, were they:

Flight and Moscow

I walked up to the Kuznetsky Most (Smith’s Bridge which is not there anymore but the name remains) and then we finished off my long rubber day with some delicious Greek food. The last train of my trip took me overnight to St Petersburg with a coach full of kids going to see the Northern capital and the summer storm behind the windows. And again it felt so weird to be travelling alone on the train!

I want to say a sincere thank you to my courageous companion. It was your first time in Russia, first time on a Russian train and yet I admire you (and I’ve told you that several times :). Katerinaki dear, you’ve made this trip, seriously! I couldn’t have possibly done the same on my own and I’m glad I could make those 6865 km with you by my side. You added to the trip that wonderful touch that only a friend can have. Thank you for sharing it all with me!

***

With this post I would like to end my Trans-Siberian Trip series. Ten posts for ten stages and thousands of kilometers. A round trip across the most interesting place on Earth – my own country.

Trans-Siberian Railroad Trip Roundup

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 1: Moscow Old and New

walking round Moscow before setting off to Siberia

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 2: Samara on Volga River

moving South and East to the wide and long Volga

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 3: Zlatoust, Taganay Park and the Urals

beautiful nature of the Ural mountains

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 4: Siberia Begins with Tyumen

first stop in Siberia in the oil & gas capital of Russia

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 5: Russian Trains and Bored in Omsk

How To: Russian Trains

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 6: Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Park

going deeper into Siberia

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 7: Majestic Baikal and Irkutsk

the day we saw the beauty

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 8: Breathing in Steppes in Ulan-Ude

and the biggest Lenin’s head in the world

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 9: Vladivostok and Russky Island

with that very different nature

This trip has been a very enriching experience. Indeed something that I will remember. I will definitely recall the nature part of the journey most of all. Taganay and Stolby, the two nature reserves (parks) that we visited gave us a much deeper insight of the Urals and Siberia than any large city could have done. And Baikal is unforgettable. Nature will never disappoint you regardless of the weather conditions. We enjoyed it with all the rain and mosquitoes and would do the same were we travelling in winter or autumn. I would even add much more nature to such trips. Nature and people.

Visiting smaller cities was quite a smart thing to do too, although there is always this chance of getting bored. When I was planning the trip several months in advance, trying to make the hours we would spend on the train not that long and tiresome, I guess I had a very vague idea of what the trip would actually feel like. I was avoiding the cities I’d already seen and that was the main principle. But I was also trying to opt for those places which would reveal their history and give us the sense of getting a bit closer to the life of the region (ideally). Now that I look back to my selection I think that even with those cities that we didn’t enjoy immensely (like Omsk or Tyumen) we actually learned something that enhanced our overall experience. After all, each city or place we visited added up to the incredible puzzle that our trip turned out to be.

And you know what? Wherever we went there were three things that we noticed in common: the traditional Russian beverage kvas sold in the streets (it was summer after all), birch trees (apart from the Russky Island perhaps) and… Lenin Streets! 🙂

Some more Russian train trip tips came to my mind recently:

  • the less things you take with you – the better. Ideally – a medium-size backpack with a small bag to fit your wallet, phone, camera and passport.
  • don’t drink water from the tap (particularly on the trains) and you’ll be fine.
  • should you have any concerns when travelling on a train, go to your coach’s supervisor (provodnik in Russian), they should be able to help you
  • take notes, seriously. After the first city you won’t be able to recall any details, I assure you! An even better idea would be to take notes of the pictures you make!
  • look out for the locally produced stuff (food, clothes, etc). These are not only the best souvenirs to remind you about the trip but also sometimes things that are (unjustly) forgotten and unheard of where you come from.

And here is the (entire) Trans-Siberian railway map from Wikipedia which shows you not only the extent of the way in km but also in hours. We only made it to the +5 h blue zone round Baikal on the train which leaves us 4 more time zones yet to explore 🙂

Trans-Siberian railway map from Wikipedia

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 9: Vladivostok and Russky Island

Vladivostok - 1

Hello Vladivostok! My friend met me with a flower, such a treat! After a flight which felt like being on a bus as it made several stops on its way from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, Ulan-Ude being its first one. We flew over China twice: before its second stop in Blagoveshchensk and after. It felt so weird to be travelling alone and not to have any more trains to take. Travelling by plane and covering over a thousand kilometers in a couple of hours seemed almost unnatural!

Vladivostok - 1

Walking along the embankment or should I say the shore of the Japanese Sea later that day and listening to a street musician playing a bagpipe I was wondering whether I was in China after all? Or in Thailand? Never seen either of them but it felt like I was truly in Asia.

Vladivostok - 1

My eager eye spotted the decadence and rejoiced at seeing these authentic courtyards which used to be quite a dangerous area and now is mostly occupied by various hippy-artsy places:

Vladivostok - 1

Since its foundation as a outpost in 1860 Vladivostok (‘own the East’ in Russian) has been a melting pot of nations and interests. This district in particular – still called Millionka (either from the ironical ‘Millionaires’ or Million People) – was the local China town with gangsters and smugglers and spies and whatnot. It became a real city within a city but then the Soviets came and cleared the place out in the 1930s.

Vladivostok - 1

Evening view over the city from one of its numerous sopka (volcano, hills). The new districts seem to climb to the top of the hills, the view from there should be amazing, I suppose. Next morning we set off on our way to the Russky Island – across the Zolotoy Bridge – and thus spotted more breathtaking views over the Golden Horn Bay (Zolotoy Rog):

Russky

Then we crossed another impressive bridge called Russky bridge and got to the Russky Island which is located … “9,334 kilometres east of Moscow” according to Wikipedia. That was amazing. I thank my friends who took me there regardless of the distance. I guess those Far Eastern girls just don’t mind those kilometers of walking at all.

Russky

Apart from being quite a challenge in trying to reach one of its capes, Tobizin Cape, through mud and over the cliffs, this island offered to me an insight into the unbelievably different nature of the Far East. It IS different there on the island, no birch trees by the way, which seemed to accompany us all throughout the trip.

Russky

My mind was trying to find a reference, something to compare the sight in front of me with. But it failed! The closest at times was the Mediterranean but the rest, especially with those long capes and gulfs and volcanic rocks and the horizon. I was swept off my feet! The eye would just fail to encompass it all.

Russky
Nature is generous on dimensions there. The Japanese Sea and the Ocean:

Russky

and then… there was all of a sudden this mist, at first just drawing a curtain over the sun:

Russky

People were seemingly unabashed by that change in the weather. They kept jumping off the cliff (I preferred not to look at them but still I could hear them) and swimming. It’s a pity I didn’t as I thought we would find a less rocky beach since there were quite a few of them around… Meanwhile the mist was stubbornly making its way to the city, enveloping everything in its white blanket:

Russky

It wasn’t cold at first so we just walked back to catch the bus (which we missed), stopping here and there to admire the Nature:

Russky

White poppies and thyme of the Far East:

Russky

And that was when people started gradually getting out of the island which inevitably created traffic jams on the only road leading to the only bridge connecting the island with the mainland Vladivostok. We hitchhiked a part of our way on some weird mini-bus full of quasi-military guys (we thought they were either soldiers or some military-style game addicts?) who ate the rest of the very tasty home-made cake 🙂 We thus got to the vast-vast campus of the DVFU or FEFU (Far Eastern Federal University) which looks more like a city and contributes to the population growth on the island:

Russky

They built all the monster buildings there on the ex-military school territory for the 2012 APEC Summit (as well as those two impressive bridges) and later they got revamped into the campus for the recently united three local universities. It’s enormous, there’s a bus circulating on its territory which we took for a quick excursion… and in that mist which was chasing us out of the island the campus in the middle of nowhere looked even less credible. One of the university alumni is Russian singer Ilya Lagutenko and he was scheduled to perform later that day in a concert on the main square. We got there on time but the mist was so thick and cold and damp by then that we failed to wait any longer and went home to warm up our bones. And sample some cooked bracken!

Vladivostok - 2

Next day I went around Vladivostok on my own. I started my journey from walking to the Tokarevskaya Koshka lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country. It’s located on this narrow man-made patch (called koshka) which is washed by the waves from both sides and which disappears with the tide. It felt very… special being there all alone in the early morning, breathing in the ocean and observing the boats passing by. They say that this is the spot to meet the beginning of the day – it seems like the day on this planet starts somewhere over there!

Vladivostok - 2

Then I got on the bus (and here I should say that Vladivostok buses are the most outrageously kitsch-decorated buses I’ve ever seen – inside, not outside) and first visited the Vladivostok railway station. I already felt nostalgia when I looked at all the trains and people going places. The building is in neo-Russian style and has these beautiful ceramic tiles:

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Walking in the city I – as always – mostly paid attention to the remnants of the bygone era. Loved this tiny Pharmacy on the corner:

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This is Vladivostok:

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Quite a mixture, isn’t it? The city is also quite rich in various types of street art, particularly paintings on the walls. Well, birds are abundantly present too 🙂

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The only museum I visited in the city was the Arsenyev Museum called after Vladimir Arsenyev who spent his life in relentless expeditions all across the Far East and wrote books about the region.

Vladivostok - 2

I liked the museum (and the building!) – it was small enough not to get tired and some halls in particular impressed me with their curious ideas of how to display the exhibits. For instance, they had a huge shelve stand with a specific object representing this or that merchant / trade in the city’s history. And this is what you do when you have far too many books:

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They do not need any extra filters there with this mirror:

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I walked along the most central of the streets of Vladivostok, Svetlanskaya. As you can imagine, I was quite happy to see the street  lined with Art-Nouveau buildings as well as decadent Soviet creations. Loved this mirror and the staircase in the local GUM (central department store):

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Walking away from the center and then turning right to the embankment, I saw this submarine turned into museum. Remembering that sheer fright I felt inside the submarine in Kaliningrad, I avoided going inside 🙂

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Zolotoy (Golden) Bridge looking pretty… silver:

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I entered the port area and thoroughly enjoyed those red-brick workshops with layers upon layers of time periods on them:

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My friend suggested going up to see the Gothic-style Catholic church which I did – though I spent quite some time trying to get round all those courtyards and winding parking lots (roads?) leading towards the church. The church itself didn’t impress me as much as the view from up there, revealing even more layers of time:

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Vertical layers too:

Vladivostok - 2

Later that day I thought how weird it was that people living in the easternmost part of my country would go to sleep at the same time as their friends at the other end of it would be at work. And then when you wake up – your friends are still awake on that other side… SEVEN hours, seven time zones!

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My last day in Vladivostok was a lazy day with even more mist, stifling dampness and drizzling rain. First I went out of the city to visit the Botanical Gardens. There I walked in the woods and admired more of that nature (see red fish in the bottom left corner of the picture above?) so strikingly different and yet so near. Then I bought some LPs for my Mother at a store called Kontrabanda (Vladivostok was always famous for it being too close to the capitalist world where they have jeans, Beatles, short skirts and long hair) and as a parting gift enjoyed a tea ceremony at home 🙂 Early next morning it was time to say goodbye – both to the city and the journey.

Vladivostok highlights:

walking along the embankment and people / sunset / sunrise watching

Tokarevskaya Koshka lighthouse (preferable before the tide:)

Millionka district, the local (ex-)China town

Arsenyev Primorye Museum

send old-school postcards with Millionka to your friends on the other side of the world

MISTS (June-July is the season)

Russky Island and other wonderful natural places away from the city

the Ocean, the port and the bridges

Vladivostok in a few words: Hills, ocean and layers of time that are recent enough to be visible and yet old enough to spark an interest. In some ways Vladivostok is pretty close to St Petersburg actually! Equally an ‘artificial’ city built to both defend from and be a window to the world. But just on the other side of the country 🙂 And although the city failed to keep my enthusiasm going for 4 days, I would like to come back.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 8: Breathing in Steppes in Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude

My idea was to take a train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude which will join the Circum-Baikal Railroad, to see Baikal from the other side too. And not by night but in the morning. So we had to wait for the train in Irkutsk at the station and then had some time to sleep before we would see this:

Ulan-Ude
I’ve made several bleak attempts at capturing Baikal from the train window, so don’t mind the wires. I woke up just on time when the train was getting closer to the Lake. The sun was rising, the water gleaming. you don’t see it in the photo but the colour was silver! I woke my friend up. Then we passed through a tunnel. We fell asleep for a moment. And then the Lake appeared once more. The train was following the winding road along the coast, sometimes we would see some village, sometimes abandoned and ruined agricultural constructions.

Ulan-Ude
Where does the sky end?

Ulan-Ude

I even took photos right from the open window in the WC 😉 And each time the road would pass through a tunnel I was thinking – this is our last chance to see Baikal, please don’t turn away from the lake now, not yet!

Ulan-Ude
Last glimpse of Baikal at the station justly called Povorot, the Turn, after which the road runs away from the shore:

Ulan-Ude

Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude

distance: plus 456 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 6865 km

local time: Moscow time + 5 hours

train: our last train Moscow – Ulan-Ude; takes you to Ulan-Ude from Irkutsk in exactly 8 hours.

Somewhere close to Ulan-Ude and already we could sense the steppes and the piping-hot day that was awaiting us:

Ulan-Ude

The landscape was truly impressive, with the river and the villages and the mountains in the background! And the road itself would keep on turning here and there. I think those 8 hours the train takes from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude are due to this turning and turning.

Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic. Which is a part of Russia. And it’s not in Mongolia though Mongolia is very close. I mean it, even some of my Russian acquaintances asked me if I went to Mongolia when I said I was in Ulan-Ude. The name does have a similarity with Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, both having this Ulan word which means Red (hence Ulan Bator = Red Hero). Both names appeared thanks to the Communists: Ulan-Ude used to be Udinskoye first, then just Udinsk, followed by Verkhneudinsk and finally Ulan-Ude in 1934. All these names contain the name of the river – Uda – on which the city is located. Just as many Soviet cities, Ulan-Ude used to be a closed city for foreigners until 1991. But now that’s it’s open we didn’t see much tourists around apart from Chinese.

Voila, theeee steeeepppeeee right in the city – can you feel it?

Ulan-Ude
The door to the Buryat Republic History Museum:

Ulan-Ude
We we glad to get inside air-conditioned exhibition halls and forget about the heat for a moment. As in a true Soviet museum we were issued several tickets for every hall and in each hall they would check them (and first they would open those halls for us as we were not many in the museum). Thanks God the museum was just several buildings away from our weird hostel (which turned out to be an apartment managed by a young girl. In that heat there was no fan so I won’t even mention the name!), same street. I cannot say that the museum was particularly entertaining (or was it just the heat? or a modest amount of exhibits?) but we saw some curious stuff. And that’s tea there to the left:

Ulan-Ude
Boy was it hot! The city just pressed us down with the heat. The air was hanging there without any movement.

Ulan-Ude
Hot hot hot

Ulan-Ude
Though apparently not that hot enough for these newlyweds!

Ulan-Ude

We were amazed that with such a heat people would walk with no hats, no sunglasses. Kids were running here and there and their parents seemed to be unmoved by the sun and the absence of air. They are just used to that steppe climate! By the way, Buryat people represent 20% of the population in the city. And you can see that this is truly so. Like in Kazan you instantly realize you are in a different setting so to speak. And people speak their language, you see signs written in it. You can also sense that China is definitely close by. There is a traditional boozy (not boozy but bo-o-zy) dumplings offered at every corner. My friend tried some in this super tiny one-room cafe run by a woman who would take the order and go to the kitchen and get it done with another woman. It felt like we were somewhere in another country!

Stalinist heritage on the main square of Ulan-Ude:

Ulan-Ude

Lenin’s head. The only thing that is interesting about it is that this is the largest Lenin’s head in the world. Yes it is. And that’s all about it.

Ulan-Ude
And a sample of the nowadays architecture (this is the local theater):

Ulan-Ude

It’s funny that the modern part of Ulan-Ude is quite limited. And I mean it – there are so many log houses left and inhabited! Whole districts of them. This is an embellished old Siberian house (upper-class, probably a merchant’s house) in the center:

Ulan-Ude

Moving a bit off the city center to the Uda river (which was dirty and certainly NOT refreshing):

Ulan-Ude
A local take on Art-Nouveau-ish windows:

Ulan-Ude

Auuuuthentic:

Ulan-Ude

Mum said this one in particular looks just like her native Rossosh in the South of Russia:

Ulan-Ude

It was so hot and stuffy (or rather – there was just no air to breathe!) that our minds were boiling. We wandered from shade to shade, resorting to shops and cool commercial centers (cool in terms of the temperature and very 90s / Asia-cool too). We got so dizzy with all our energy squeezed out that we went back to the apartment (aka hostel) and stayed there until the evening (helping the host assemble the fan which she finally bought – one for all her guests). Then when we felt we had regained some strength we got on a marshrutka (commercial bus) which took us up  up up to Lysaya Gora (Bold Mountain) where they have their datsan, the Mongolian for the Buddhist university monastery. It was the first time I ever visited one (I know there is one in St Petersburg but I never went inside) and thus could discover for myself another facet of Russia. Ulan-Ude is considered to be the center of Tibetan Buddhism, they say.

Ulan-Ude

Everything felt very unusual in that place – silent and full of some uncertain feeling at the same time (probably because we felt we didn’t belong here?). Local people would ruin the silence a bit with their loud shouting but when we moved away from the parking lot where the city could be admired from above (quite a view)…

Ulan-Ude

…we entered some unknown territory. The monks would walk from one building to another and say Hello to you. The sun went down and there appeared that steppe wind on top of the mountain – but at first it brought almost no change to the stifling air!

Ulan-Ude

These reminded me of Robert Plant’s Heaven Knows video:

Ulan-Ude

It was getting late so we took our marshrutka back (and down) and there it was, Lenin’s head again! Looking quite menacing but at the same time – so lonely and ugly, don’t you think? Poor old Lenin, who would believe back then that his head would become a selfie point of the city…

Ulan-Ude

There were many people in the streets, children included. Everyone was gathered round the fountain as if waiting for something so we went closer to see what’s going on. But nothing was, they were just looking at the fountain.

Ulan-Ude

And then the rain started and we could finally breathe again. We fell asleep to the sound of rain and the railway station.

Ulan-Ude highlights:

Buryat History museum to try to understand the region, its religions and peoples

Lenin’s head to wonder why it is so special apart from being the largest in the world (7.7 meters and 42 tons) and built in 1970 for Lenin’s 100th birthday

Baikal is farther from Ulan-Ude than from Irkutsk but you can see its other ‘side’ if you have time to travel

beautiful nature around the city

view over the city from the datsan on Lysaya Gora (or go to a farther Ivolginsky Datsan)

local food for meat-lovers

Ulan-Ude in a few words: City where you will breathe in the steppe, learn about Buryat’s culture and discover Buddhist Russia.

The next morning we had to part with my brave companion. We took separate planes: one went back to St Petersburg via Moscow and mine made an unexpected stopover in Blagoveschensk and finished in Vladivostok. We flew over China by the way! More about it in my next and last Trans-Siberian post. This is the airport of Ulan-Ude called Baikal airport:

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Goodbye to Baikal! And here’s the reverse of the air ticket. And of coooooourse they take the beautiful part of it and leave you the smaller one to the left:

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My plane took me to the ultimate stop of the trip: Vladivostok.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.