Posts Tagged With: Russia

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

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Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The China and Russia Tourist Visas

The other day, I wrote about the process of securing tourist visas for all of the countries we’re visiting on our trip.  As I mentioned, there were only two visas that required a bit of effort: China and Russia.

We found that the process to secure a Chinese visa requires painstaking detail and precise planning. First off, it should be noted that the Chinese consulate might very well be the least convenient government type building in New York City. While most consulates and embassies are located in cozy brownstones on the Upper East Side or in nice offices adjacent to the United Nations, China has built an imposing fortress at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with Manhattan, that address is close to exactly nothing. And I made the trip out there three times.

Alas, that was just the first of a dozen small hassles that we encountered when applying for a China Tourist Visa. First, the hours of operation listed on the website are wrong. (That’s one wasted trip to the desolate west, west side). Second, it is not clear online exactly which form is needed. And the forms themselves are confusing. For the record, it is the four-page intense questionnaire called “V.2011A”. The forms are known to provide such perplexity that an enterprising team has set up a van just outside the consulate to assist/charge wayward potential visitors. Finally, building security will only let you enter after you show you have all the right documents in hand. We suggest you arrive early because the wait can be up to 90 minutes during busy times.

Once you wind your way to the DMV like window, the staff is curt but incredibly efficient. They expect all paperwork to be ready and they don’t seem to like questions. At one point, the official pointed out that I had not listed where I was staying in China. When I tried to explain that we haven’t scheduled a place to stay yet (“Figuring it out as we go! What fun! Right?”), I was told to come back when the form had an address where were staying. Thank Cupertino for the iPhone, because I was able to look up the address to the Guangzhou Hilton, make a reservation and keep my place in line (avoiding a fourth trip). After a five day processing period during which they kept our passports, our application was reviewed and accepted. Conveniently, you can drop off applications/pick up visas for several people if needed.

Each visa is good for 90 days and is valid for a year from the date of issue (so, in theory, we have till June 2013 to start our visit). Total cost? $140 per person. Ooof! It is all going to be worth it when we step off the plane in Guangzhou and into China! Again, living in New York worked to our advantage because we found if you can’t apply in person at a regional consulate, you must use a private service to secure the visa which comes with a significant additional charge.

The Russia visa was the one visa that just never ended up materializing. It turns out that, loosely translated, Visa means “Bureaucratic Red Tape” in Russian. We’ve learned that wrapping your fingers around a Russia Tourist Visa is trickier that a David Blaine illusion. You must have a sponsor in the form of an authorized hosting Russian traveling agency before you can even apply. And that’s apparently just the beginning of the needed paperwork.

If you’re booking a trip to Russia knowing where and when you’ll be staying (or if you’re part of a tour), this isn’t terribly overwhelming. But if you are flying by the ole seat of your pants, the visa process is enough to make you go cross-eyed. We’ve heard stories of corruption, bribes, and hassles. The more we learned about what we needed, the more complicated it seemed. Lucky for us, we’re visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Norwegian Cruise that offers a variety of Shore Excursions. We were a bit hesitant to book one since that’s not the preferred way we hope to explore new nations, but it appears to be our best and simplest bet for getting ashore.  The cruise line has a blanket visa that covers all passengers…but only for these tours. So, we’ll see a great chunk of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately we probably won’t have any adventurous exploring here.

Our one piece of advice based on our experience with the China, Russia or even Vietnam visa is to research, read and prepare well in advance of a trip to any country that you haven’t visited before. And don’t be afraid if the process seems a touch shady; every country seems to have their own way of doing things. A little knowledge and prep goes a long way to making sure you’re going to get into the countries you want to visit.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Destinations, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep, Visas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Securing Visas for our Trip

Truth be told, there are only a few things that one must do before embarking on a Round The World trip. Don’t misunderstand: there are boatloads of tasks that one probably should do to ensure an easier, lower-drama journey with minimal hassles. But one mandatory need that should be set before showing up at the airport is making sure that Visa and Entry Documents are all set.

Handy Visa GuideBy our math, our itinerary is sending us to at least twenty-three separate countries. We wanted to avoid any surprises and make sure we’re set lllllooong before arriving at customs. Lots of research ensued. The State Department has a handy, easy to navigate, up-to-date website that clearly lists the policies for Americans visiting just about every nation. We were delighted to find that the vast majority of countries we’re visiting have a similar policy: No advance paperwork or fee required for a 90 day tourist visa issued upon entry with a valid US Passport. Since we’re not planning on working or spending anywhere near 90 days in any one nation, this makes it easy breezy.

As with all things, there are a few exceptions. In remote and geographically isolated New Zealand, we’re told that officials often check that you have a round-trip or onward ticket (i.e. – a way to leave once your visa expires). They also check to see if you have funds to cover your time in New Zealand. Both Argentina and Chile have recently adopted a fee that reciprocates US Policy. In short, every American has to pay a $130 “Entry Fee” (not a Visa fee) as a sort of equalizing measure for what the United States government charges their citizens to enter America. Note that this Entry Fee is only collected at major International Airports. Sneaky, Sneaky. Therefore savvy tourists could enter through bordering countries.  Lastly, we learned that you seem to need passport sized photos for just about everything. Get a bunch because agency after agency keeps requesting them. Update:  just found out that it looks like the fee has gone up to $160. Joy.

In the end, there were only three countries that required us to secure Visas in advance of our visit: Vietnam, China and Russia.

Securing the Vietnam visa was a simple and intriguing process. We visited the Vietnamese Consulate in New York City which is right across the street from the United Nations in a non-descript office with other foreign government offices. Once in the office, we were directed to fill out some long forms that asked us to explain (in great detail) the nature of our visit.  They took our pictures, took our money (cash only), and told us they would have the Visas ready in a week. At first, they asked us to leave our passports behind, but we pushed back on that request a bit without a problem. In the end, the staff might have been a bit cold and not exactly helpful if you’re seeking any tourist info, but they got the job done efficiently and easily.  One week later, we picked up the visas and had them stapled into our passport. Total cost: $160 for both of us. In retrospect, we’re glad that we were physically in New York City and able to deal with the staff face-to-face. We are pretty sure that made things much easier.

The Russia and China Visa process were far more complicated but also a lot more interesting. They are deserving of their own blog posts that will be coming later this week.

We’re looking forward to having well-used passports stamped with the colors of the rainbow by the time we arrive home in November.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Doccuments, Packing, Permits, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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