Tuesday, 28 May 2013

My 10 Months In Europe Top 5's

Here are some of my top 5 lists for places visited or experiences during my travels.

I admit these rankings are far from perfect. I used a balanced approach to include personal opinion and to make unbiased recommendations for you, the viewer, to decide your next travel destination. Rankings were spread out geographically, in order to highlight as many different parts of Europe as possible, and sometimes underdogs were picked to bring attention to little known places.

That is why you will notice that my rankings do not include the most popular countries and cities in Europe, such as London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, etc. You already know about these places, thus, I preferred to highlight other lesser known great travel destinations.

Controversy dogged me in every category. In the end these rankings were painstaking to compile, and I flip flopped many times, eventually forced to exclude many places worthy of a ranking. Even now, I'm still not sure about the results. Nevertheless...

Over my 10 months of travels, in no particular order, here are my top 5 rankings for:

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Waiting for the End

I spent the final 3 days of my trip in London on a stopover to slowly wind down my trip. Like the weather, my mood was somber. Like the London fog, an air of sadness and emptiness was hanging over my head, clouding my thoughts.

To distract myself, I spent time in London with friends whom I had met abroad. But when I was alone in my friend's flat or walking along the south bank of the Thames, admiring Tower Bridge and Big Ben, long spells of vast silence would overcome me, and it felt like I was the only person in London. It was like being stuck in some parallel dimension between traveling and real life.

Over 10 months I became completely detached from real life, grown accustomed to spontaneity and adventure, lost all concept of time, and adopted the road as my new home. But soon I will be once again enslaved by routine, no longer able to wake up whenever I want, no longer living out of just a backpack, but tied down by my condo, car and material goods. I wasn't sure if I was ready for it yet.

At times my trip felt like a movie, and now that the movie is over, I was the only one sitting in the theatre after everyone left and went home. But I was afraid to go home to reality. Going home meant abandoning all the places I visited and friends I made, and memory wouldn't be enough to hold onto them.

One other thought haunted me. Coming home, I was afraid of how I would fit back into society. While on the outside I have not changed much, besides having longer, slightly more grey hair, and more wrinkles (wisdom lines as I call them), on the inside I have changed immeasurably. My previously outlying views on philosophy and society have become stretched further from my travel experiences. While family and friends will welcome my return with open arms, I am afraid I will feel like an outsider.

At 4 pm on May 21, I finally landed back on Canadian soil and my trip officially ended. I am still in Montreal, so still not quite home yet, but everything feels familiar, and I'm starting to feel positive again. Time will tell how I fit back into the real world, but in the meantime I have the comfort of great memories from 303 days of the most amazing trip of my life and the knowledge that there is a beautiful inspiring world out there, ready and waiting for me to explore it.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

From Russia With... A Fresh Perspective

Often times during my second visit to Russia I got the feeling that I was conducting my own cultural anthropological experiment. The same way famous anthropologists wandered into primeval forests and lived with native tribes in order to understand them, I felt like a pioneer, wandering into a country so vast and significant yet such a mystery, at least among my peers back home, and on a mission to find out the truth about its people.

Here are some of my experiences and anecdotes about Russia with the intention, hopefully, of dispelling certain stereotypes or foster understanding of its people and culture.
Kremlin - the palace of the central government of Russia
Moscow itself is a unique metropolis due to its geopolitical and economic status in Russia and relations with nearby countries. It has a deep history. Today it teems with culture. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet it attracts people from all walks of life from poor illegal immigrants (including prehistoric looking Asians from the -stan countries) to multi-billionaires like Roman Abramovich. Aside from my sidebar to St. Petersburg, I have spent my time wholly in Moscow, wandering and getting to know the city, learning Russian, and meeting people for language and culture exchange.

One stereotype Russians are aware they have, and that they jokingly questioned me about, is that they are serious people. The Russians I met were ashamed to admit that the majority of them never smile on the Metro, and that shopkeepers are brutal and straightforward, and don't understand the concept of customer service.

Well, I think the former complaint can be excused, after all it's an urban big city phenomenon. I feel that people are generally less friendly (and in more of a hurry) the bigger the city, based on my experiences throughout Europe and even in Canada. And Moscow is the biggest city I have ever visited, with estimates of its population between 12 and 19 million. So it is no surprise that people are less friendly here. In addition, I was told people are friendlier in the countryside of Russia.
One super friendly Russian - my Couchsurfing friend Vitalak

Pretending I can play guitar with Vitalak's replica of Flea's guitar from Red Hot Chili Peppers
While most of my Russian friends are not heavy drinkers, Russians are generally known as such. While I didn't notice much heavy drinking, quite often, I've seen people with a beer in their hand while walking down the street, sitting on benches in parks, in the Metro and on the bus. It's a curious phenomenon to witness, as someone from a country where drinking in public is illegal (it is in Russia too, but never enforced). At least it seems that public drinking is done responsibly and respectabley.

Like friendliness level, alcohol consumption increases in the rural areas. I've been told Russians don't just drink vodka either; they drink anything and everything. It's just that vodka is the most common and cheapest liquor available. Apparently poor airport workers in Siberia even know of a way to separate alcohol from antifreeze...
Lenin's Tomb in Red Square - he is still a hero amongst older Russians; not as much amongst the younger

Corruption is still a problem here in Russia. And it starts at the very top. Its current president, Putin, has secured a stronghold on the presidency through less than integral means. And anyone who crosses Putin will likely be punished, whether it's nosy journalists, outspoken celebrities, or the general public. I may even be on his black list now for these comments.

There's a running joke made famous following a recent political election. The election was rigged, but exposed itself on TV when a voting poll mistakenly totaled 146%. Now whenever a Russian is quite certain of something, they sometimes say they are 146% sure.
Screenshot from the rigged election. Total voting = 146,47%
This corruption trickles down to street level and can be observed in police enforcement. Cops can stop you anywhere without reason, slap you with a ghost fine, then hint at a bribe in exchange for your freedom. I was randomly asked for my passport by a cop at a Metro station. But did I really look like a suspicious character in my bright orange jacket and a bright multicoloured toque?

On the bright side, when cops aren't out for your money, they are pretty slack about the laws. People can drink just about anywhere, and cars can virtually do whatever they want on the road in Russia. My driver to St. Petersburg stopped on the highway shoulder after missing an offramp and backed all the way up to catch it. My favourite road scene is seeing cars towed by other cars, tied by means of a simple rope, to avoid hiring tow trucks.
Posing near the Kremlin on my last full day in Moscow

This unique twist of freedom, among other things, is what makes Russia a fascinating and beautiful country. It's the only place where I've seen local food markets selling vegetables past its prime at discount rates, preventing waste. The general disregard of rules allows the Russian version of Facebook, vKontakte, to stream music, outright ignoring copyright laws. Besides this, Russia is amazingly diverse, with tens or hundreds of small culturally unique tribes or "republics" living in mountain regions of the south, and up in the frozen north. It's moving up the world stage, set to host Sochi Winter Olympics and, soon after, the World Cup. If they don't remove barriers to obtaining tourist Visas by then, if you are willing to endure the complications of getting the Visa, I recommend going to check out this country which is far down most peoples' travel lists.

I think the general North American view of Russians is confined to a few stereotypes, which are not so flattering. I was eager to play journalist, to dispel these negative stereotypes, or at the very least uncover the cause of them. After all, we are all humans that have simply grown up in different environments and become accustomed to them.
Another one of my many awesome Couchsurfers in Moscow - thanks Philip and Yulia!
Russia's roughness around the edges is part of its slow and sometimes painful smoothing out process from a long, embattled 20th century of political oppression and war. People haven't forgotten the Soviet Times, which shaped who they are today. In fact I often heard sentences beginning with "In Soviet Russia..." However, generation by generation, the bitterness and pessimism from the past is fading from memory. The people are sometimes harsh, but at least they are honest and unabashed, and definitely very interesting to talk to.

Russia has grown on me the more time I have spent here, especially Moscow and the many great people I have met here. I would love to come back to spend more time and visit other cities, and even experience the wildnerness of Siberia. But for now, it's mission accomplished...

I'm coming back to Canada!

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633532243018/
Bonus picture for fans of Master & Margarita! - Patriarch's Pond

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Last Stop - St. Petersburg

Ladies and gentleman, it's been nearly 10 months since the last time I set foot in Canada. Since then I've visited many cities and been to many attractions. You have followed me along my course, become jaded with me, maybe even became bored of the same old pictures of architecture and cityscapes that I became bored of in person.
Church of Our Savior stands down one of the canals
As glamorous as it is to travel, it all becomes too much at some point. And yet you just can't stop while you're ahead. This is the problem I faced upon visiting St. Petersburg, the final "tourist" destination of my travels: could I enjoy it without getting bored?

St. Petersburg is rather unique. Founded by Peter the Great just over 300 years ago, it is pretty young by European standards. Yet it flourished and developed, and today is one of the biggest cities in Europe at over 5 million, and a centre of culture and arts. The city is adorned with lovely canals and, as per usual, impressive palaces, cathedrals and monuments.
St. Petersburg - 670 km!
Surprisingly, transportation between Moscow and St. Petersburg is very expensive and with few alternatives. So I resorted to a method I hadn't used in months - hitchhiking. Fortunately, I started early, because after a disastrous first 5 hours, in which 3 cars and 1 bus took me barely 100 km, I was finally saved by a kind man named Dennis, who took me the rest of the 600 km in about 7 hours. Long day!

The day after I arrived, St. Petersburg was alive and the streets were buzzing at a feverish pitch. It was May 9, Victory Day of the Great Patriotic War. Now without descending into a full blown history lesson, you should at least know that this war is probably known to you as World War II. However, ex-Soviet countries call it the Great Patriotic War, and it only encompasses Russian involvement. Thus, the start of GPW was the day Germany invaded Russia in 1941, and the final date was when Russia captured Berlin on May 9, 1945, NOT the day Japan surrendered after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
May 9 - Victory Day Parade

Anyway, May 9 was a good day to be out on the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or any major city in Russia. There was a Victory Parade in the afternoon, then in the evening there were also fireworks, and many of the main streets were closed down so that pedestrians filled the streets, chanting and singing with pride.
Fireworks seen from a packed bridge
Besides the festivities, I managed to see two pretty memorable museums. One local treasure was the miniature museum, which illustrated Russia in one massive papier-mache incredibly detailed landscape brought to life with miniature buildings and people. It even had moving trains and cars, and a real time traffic control system for these mini vehicles, operated by staff behind a window. As an engineer, wow!

The other museum I saw was the Hermitage, the second largest museum in the world. Quite resembling the Louvre, the interior is decorated like the best palaces in Europe, with grand hallways covered with frescoes, statues, gold trim and finely ornamented. The museum's collection houses millions of items, mostly paintings and artifacts of European origin. I braved over 2 hours in the rain lining up for this beast. And, well, it was worth it.
Standing in line for the Hermitage - lady in umbrella says it all
As a jaded tourist, I couldn't be bothered to pay the extra 200 rubles, or about 5 euros, for the right to take photos. Nor could I bother to search out any featured paintings or statues in the massive complex. Thus, I discarded the map and wandered aimlessly, like a kid in a neverending candy shop.

In similar fashion, the rest of my time in St. Petersburg was spent walking. I've learned that walking is the best way to get to know a city. That and avoid spending money on attractions that are ultimately forgettable. Curiously, clamoring around St. Petersburg's streets, I felt like Raskolnikoff, the main character in Dostoevsky's thrilling Crime and Punishment, which I am not so coincidentally currently reading.
Neva River, which adds to the beauty of St. Petersburg
Despite all the goodies mentioned above, my time in St. Petersburg was ambivalent. In my jaded state, I probably enjoyed this city more like a bored fool than a wide eyed camera toting tourist. Besides, other external matters played a part in my moodiness, such as bad weather and painful feet.

But what right do I have to complain? None, really. I owe nothing except gratitude for being a tourist for so long. With this in mind, I can rightfully conclude that St. Petersburg is a pretty great city and one highly recommended by myself.

As I write this, I am back in Moscow living out my days as a free man, back in less than 2 weeks. And though I will be glad to come home, a part of me will wish I was still living out of a suitcase, checking famous cities and big museums off my bucket list.

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633476998440/
Contemplative walk along the Neva River, last night of St. Petersburg