Posts Tagged With: Subway

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

Impressions from Hong Kong

Nightly Laser Show in HKThere are no two ways about it: Brooke and I have really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong. We really dig it here. We’ve been in town just long enough to get a taste for this unique city. Three days has been enough time to allow us to get a sampling that left us with a quality impression of Hong Kong. This is a city that manages to be both part of China, but not much at all like the rest of China.

As with every destination so far, we had some miscues upon first arriving. After rolling into town, we were quickly misled by signs indicating a “subway.” Turns out that a Subway here refers to subterranean passageways underground cross walk and complicated network of pedestrian tunnels scattered throughout the city. These help with the flow of streets and are far more often seen than traditional cross walks. The subways also have an added bonus of being a fantastic way to dodge the summer heat. Of course, we had misinterpreted the “subway” signs for an subterrain train (which is in fact commonly called the MTR).

Food at the Night MarketSpeaking of the heat, we have been knee deep in it. The sights of Hong Kong during the day have been plagued by some tenacious haze, but I suppose that’s what you get for visiting Southeast Asia in the middle of August. As unlikely as it sounds, it somehow keeps getting hotter and hotter as the day progresses into night. We’re pretty sure that by 8:00 PM it was hotter than it was at 2:00 PM! Baffling. As we head even further south into Vietnam and Singapore, we’re thankful that (so far) we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay that have functional, soothing Air Conditioning.

View from the 55th Floor of the IFC Tower!

Brooke and the View from the free 55th Floor gallery of the IFC Tower!

Over the course of several bus tours and self guided tours, we’ve taken in a pretty good chunk of the city. One of the great things about this trip has been being able to make connections. We were surprised to see that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is apparently alive and well beneath the HSBC Bank building in central Hong Kong. There is a public space beneath the bank’s giant tower, reputed to be Hong Kong’s best architectural example of feng shui, that apparently has been bereft of campers and protestors since October. A movement is underway to kick them out, but it is kinda cool to see what was happening all over America also in play in the middle of Hong Kong.

Speaking of banking, we’ve also found that Hong Kong hasn’t been the most inexpensive city, but it hasn’t been as costly as we expected a giant metropolis to be either. We’ve stumbled across some meals that are full of flavor, quick, cheap and no frills just the way we like it. But the (large) beers continually run us about seven dollars a pop. The only exception is during evening Happy Hours and in the outdoor markets where there are an abundance of deals to be found. In this weather, it is hard to resist a nice, cold beer in the middle of sight seeing during a hot day. We’ll keep looking for the perfect dive bar!

The famed Peninsula Hotel!Cost is all relative, I suppose, and flashy businessmen can be seen everywhere.The central neighborhood on Hong Kong Island is a spectacular mesh of glass and steel buildings banking, commerce, company headquarters and high quality hotels. It’s remarkable. There appears to be no end to the number of five star hotels. NEXT time, we will book a room at The Peninsula or the Ritz Carlton…or the Intercontinental! But that’s just one section of town. The culture here is a brilliant blend of 150 years of British colonial rule mixed with with an old Chinese City. The result is a mixed ethnicity, langauge and amusing juxtaposition like a Baptist church next to a market with fresh duck hanging in the window. One of our favorite common sites is buildings under construction with workers climbing on scaffolding…made of bamboo!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Hong Kong as seen from central with the HK's tallest building in the backgroundBeyond Hong Kong, as we continue to expand our world view, it’s been good to see that some things are universal. A bride in Cincinnati looks pretty identical to a bride in Guangzhou, there are lines at the post office no matter where we go, drunk 19 year-olds at a Hotel bar in Hong Kong act a lot like drunk 19 year olds in the states. My personal favorite is that the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep on the subway in Tokyo reminded me a lot of the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep in NYC.

And there are some shops we’ve found that are ubiquitous in any city. No matter where we’ve gone so far, we can count on seeing plenty of 7-11s (which have come in quite handy), Starbucks and McDonalds. Our one regret? We might have bought our souvenir set of Chopsticks too soon. Every other shop is selling an interesting set of chopsticks. It’s funny because when you are in the states, you never see stores falling over themselves to sell forks. I can’t wait to see what new experiences Vietnam brings. Onward!

–Phil

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like Koala Bears climbing the building!

Brooke trying very hard to just get a dang spoon from the counter person at 7-11

Phil getting some food from the 7-11 – A surprisingly great place to get a quick bite

Categories: China, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trains in Japan

JR Line TainAfter five days in Japan, we’ve noticed a million examples of how things are slightly different here. From the insanely loud Pachinko parlors that resemble slot machines on crack to the ubiquitous bowing. But the one that strikes us over and over is that train travel in Japan is both astounding and outstanding. The traveling Kollineisers have been continually in awe of this vast and extensive rail network that runs smoother than seems possible. In fact, aside from the power of our own two feet, train rides have been our sole mode of transport since arriving. I really, really wanted to avoid throwing up this tired cliched mantra, but it is unavoidable: the trains in United States look like a half-hearted joke when compared to those we’ve seen here. (And yeah, probably Europe too, but we haven’t made it quite that far yet).

Before arriving, we purchased the seven-day Japan Rail Pass (the JR Pass) that must be purchased outside of Japan in advance of arrival. At around $350 per person, that pass wasn’t cheap, but it has already paid for itself twice over. It has been easy to use and one of the best purchases made to date. In fact, short of subway rides, it is the only transportation cost we’ve incurred. And to be candid, it helps that I love trains. I always have.

Phil has no clue where the hell he's goingWe’ve had a chance to ride the regional rail, Subways in Kyoto and Tokyo and even the Shinkansen (aka the famed “bullet train”). Our first experience was on the regional rail – the line of trains that connect city to city in and around Tokyo and continues through the rest of Japan. It starts with a never ending rail map that seems to have infinite possibilities and infinite stops. It took some time and patience, but with the help of some stop names in English, we were able to decode the rail map sufficiently. I’d rather not mention that this was a map that included only PART of the Tokyo system, but I’ll include that admission for the sake of accuracy. So far, we haven’t had to wait on a train for more than, say, seven minutes at most. At first, we chalked it up to some solid train luck, but the reality is that they just always seem to be pulling into the station. All of the train schedules – and even all of the seemless connections from line to line – are planned to such a methodical timetable that it would make the most dedicated clockmaker cry like a baby.

On all the trains we’ve ridden, people line up directly behind the space on the platform where the doors will open. Polite and organized. (Keep in mind, we haven’t been on the subway during rush hour which sounds like it could be much different.) While everyone has a mobile device in their hands, everyone avoids talking on their cell phones. My absolute favorite part is that each train line has their own unique, fun jingle that plays when the train doors are about to close. No boring chimes here, more like friendly little tunes that sound like you just hit the jackpot on a slot machine. And with so many trains, you end up having not just express service, but some crazy, multi-station skipping service called “Rapid Super Express” service. On top of all that, the trains are all remarkably clean. It’s possible we’ve just been riding at the right times, but we’ve seen no graffiti and no trash.

Directions are so clear!Brooke and I spent the last six years riding the NYC Subway just about every day, so we were interested in comparing the two underground labyrinths. To start, each car ends with a giant glass door that allows you to see into the next car. When everyone is seated, you can literally see from one end of the train to the other which makes for a more exposed experience. We’ve also seen doors and sometimes full walls that are on the station platform. They line up with the train doors and, in theory, prevent a rush hour passenger from falling onto the tracks. Finally and probably more importantly, each station has a designation like “N5” or “A10” (letter for the line, number for the stop) and a sign indicating which direction the train on these track will go and what the previous and next stop will be. Genius! That already saved us going in the wrong direction before we even got on our first train! Thanks, Japan!

Ticket Machines are a little trickier when they are in JapaneseSimilarly, the stations have maps indicating the time in minutes to the future stations on the line. Seriously, these are such simple, amazing ideas that Brooke and I need to import ASAP. In the stations, we’ve even managed to see a few women (and a handful of men) wearing traditional Kimono outfits. We’ve seen signs that during rush hour times, there are trains that are “Women Only.” Pretty sure that one is to dissuade the icky gropers. As if that weren’t enough, each station on the regional rail (JR lines) have a nice set of shops and in some cases giant malls attached to the buildings.

I am a train riding giant!For the nerd in me, It has been a giant thrill learning and mastering a complicated new train system, exploring the trains themselves, and discussing complicated routes with Brooke. Talk about getting some insight. I became dangerous when I finally scored a quality map. It’s been my new best friend. However, we should point out that there is no 24 hour rail service in Japan. We haven’t found any trains that run much past midnight. I guess NYC’s 24-hour subway scores a win in that category. Well, that and you have a more intriguing set of smells on American subways. Overall, it is a simply amazing system. Sensational! But beyond all of that, the single most impressive thing is that Brooke and I haven’t gotten on the wrong train once yet. Trust us, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Give it time.

-Phil

PS – We’ll do a full write up of the Shinkansen in a few days!

Categories: Doccuments, Japan, Tokyo, Trains, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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