The In-Transit Report

Archive for March, 2014

Russia Part Two: Volgograd

Volgograd  Square of the Fallen Soldiers 2

After the Olympics (which I will write about later), I made a stop in Volgograd, a city southwest of Moscow with a tragic and complex history. This city, one of the biggest on the Volga river, was formerly known as Stalingrad. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to brush up on your World War II history.

Stalingrad was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was invaded by the Nazis from August 1942 to February 1943, and the loss of this battle marked a major turning point in the war. Ignoring the lessons of the past, much of this battle was waged by the Nazis in winter, when temperatures could be as low as -30 celsius (-22 f) with fierce wind, constricting mobility and resources. Hitler also vastly underestimated Soviet resistance, resources and reinforcements, and demanded that Paulus’s 6th Army hold the city at all costs.

Although initially successful, the logistically impaired, undersupplied Germans were unable to resist Soviet counterattacks in the dead of winter, and Paulus requested to be allowed to surrender. Hitler refused, instead promoting him to Field Marshal, implying that since no Field Marshal had ever surrendered, nor would Paulus. However, the battle ended with a surrender and Soviet victory in February 1943, with staggering casualties on both sides.

With all of this in mind, I stepped off a night train in late February 2014. It was about -20 (celcius) with a heavy wind, and I walked around for a while in the wind trying, unsuccessfully, to find a hostel. Finally, I succeeded, and happily relaxed in the warmth, particularly appreciative that I have the option of shelter, and reflecting on the irony of my first hours in Volgograd.

I’ve read a lot about the history of Stalingrad, mostly from an academic perspective, and so have approached this place with a particular interest and a desire to see it from a more human, more personal perspective.

On a recent flight I watched a Russian film about the battle (Stalingrad, released early 2013), and found the plot strangely familiar. Apparently, part of the plotline was based on Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a fictional book about the losses of various soldiers and families in Stalingrad. That book also happens to be inspired by War and Peace, one of my favourite books. The movie wasn’t the best, but since I watched it after my visit to Volgograd, it was interesting to watch, being able to see some of the places where I’d walked, and the memorials I’ve seen.

Volgograd  Mamayev Kurgan 26

Volgograd was named a “Hero City” of Russia, and its dizzying array of monuments and plaques, memorials and historical sites speak to the grandeur of Russian victory. But the size of the monuments, including Mamayev Kurgan’s impressive 91 meter tall statue, also conveys the extend of the losses. This statue, The Motherland Calls (pictured), stands atop Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city that was the site of fierce fighting due to its strategical importance.

The statue is around the same height as the State of Liberty, and is thoroughly vertigo-inspiring to stand under. Her face, twisted in rage, and those of the other statues that populate the hill, convey various themes such as strength, camaraderie, and grief.


Volgograd  Flour Mill Ruins 8

Almost everything standing was destroyed in the battle, and thus all but a few of the buildings are newer Soviet structures. There are a few remnants, though, including the ruins of a flour mill, which stand next to the Panoramic Museum that details the battle. When you walk to the top of the museum, a panoramic painting depicts what the battle would have looked like from where you are standing. The museum is also holds an array of artefacts, including famed sniper Zaytsev’s rifle. Snipers were used to inflict further casualties, including Zaytsev, who is commonly portrayed as a hero in books and films about the battle. 

Everywhere you go in this city, there are more memorials, making a walk through like a history lesson. It’s open to debate if this is a celebrate of victory, or a city not letting go of its past. Though meeting people and talking about it, I’ve heard about both the pride of the Soviet triumph, and the desire to let the past be the past. It’s a complex history to reflect on, especially for someone who lives here.

Either way, I’ve never been to a place where I so often am reminded of its history. Coming here in winter was completely appropriate for me. To walk through Mamayev Kurgan and see everything in bloom would contradict the tragedy of war. To feel the chill is to be reminded of how lucky we are to have shelter, hot food and drink, and the choice of how to live our lives, not the prospect of a certain and painful death because of the mistakes of our leaders.

Russia Part One: Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg Hermitage 15

Saint Petersburg has been written about in Russian literature for hundreds of years, photographed and sung about for ages. In classic Russian literature, it’s seen as the city of culture and balls, of the arts and intellectuals, an escape from the hum-drum of life in Moscow. Characters of all kinds have walked along Nevskiy Prospect, and of course I got to do the same. Saint Petersburg was my introduction to Russia, and, accordingly, I loved it. There’s no lack of things to see and do, countless museums and old, opulent buildings in pastel colours to offset the grey of the late winter weather and melting snow on the ground.

I’ve tried hard not to have preconceptions about anywhere I’ve gone, but at times it’s difficult; after being told how Russians are very rude, I was prepared for that to be true. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice people were to me; in some cases they were nicer than people in a lot of ‘nice’ countries. However, I’ve also been lucky to meet exceptional people. Through Couchsurfing, I made a number of new people who introduced me to Russian culture, and other cultures as well: an ethnic Russian born and raised in Uzbekistan now living and working in Russia, a number of Petersburgers from Siberia and the Urals, and a recently transplanted trilingual half-Russian girl who was raised in the middle east and now teaches English, of all things. So maybe I hadn’t met many “average” Russians in town.

The first thing I learned about Russia is that it’s not really one giant country. It’s a patchwork quilt of cultures and tribes tied together by a border, with many areas being their own Republics, ethnic groups dominating some towns and cities, and of course sometimes involving contested borders and conflicts, as in the North Caucasus.

Elements of all of these cultures thread through Russia, from architecture like the famous Onion church domes which many theorise are Islam-inspired, to foods of various other regions, such as kefir, which is originally from the north Caucasus. I’m certainly not the first to think of the quilt analogy. In fact, the signature background pattern of the Sochi 2014 Olympics is a collection of textile patterns pulled from the many regions of Russia.

Nevskiy Prospect is a long, long walk, leading through a series of impressive buildings that culminates in Palace Square and its primary site, the Hermitage. This was the first site to really blow me away. The Hermitage (first picture) is the city’s most famous museum. The building itself is incredible: a massive work of art taking up blocks on the edge of a river and dominating the square. The main building is the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian monarchs. 

IMG 1485

The rooms themselves are magnificent. On top of that, the collections of furniture, implements and paintings of various time periods is simply astounding. The level of opulence in this place is unmatched. And of course I could imagine scenes from Russian literature played out in all of the rooms, although I’m sure the families in those books weren’t quite as rich as the royal family.

The picture I’ve included (taken with my iPhone) from the Hermitage is simply a sitting room. Simply a gold trimmed, lavishly decorated sitting room.  Simply… ridiculous. And yet I wouldn’t mind having one in my house. It’s so flamboyant it’s almost a parody of itself, as seems to be the case with much of old Russian architecture, including the colourful onion-domed churches that are notoriously omnipresent on postcards from Russia. Even if they are a bit like decadent cake toppers, they’re absolutely amazing pieces of architecture.

The bottom of the museum is fairly plain, architecturally speaking. I went down to find the exhibits on Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are pretty high on my interests list. Having been part of the Soviet Union, they’re well represented in Russian museums. Gradually I’m learning more about the history and culture of these particular regions.

Another great museum recommended to me for the history of Russian cultures was the Ethnological Museum, situated right next to the Russian History Museum. Clearly, people have mixed them up in the past, as the cashier reiterated the name of the museum to make sure I was in the right place.

This was an incredibly comprehensive museum, covering the history of the peoples of regions ranging from the Far East, Siberia, the Urals, Northern Russia, European Russia, the North Caucasus, and also covering the peoples of post-Soviet states, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, and even Ukraine, Belarus. It also had an interesting section on the history of Russian Jews, covering even the Jews of Central Asia! Unfortunately there weren’t always English captions; still, I got the idea, and the detailed displays were well done.

Saint Petersburg  Singer House Bookstore 2

Another highlight on Nevskiy Prospect was the Singer Building (pictured), a beautifully unique building made for the sewing machine company of that name. It was originally intended to be a skyscraper, but the ordinance at the time limited the height, so instead the dome was added to simulate a skyscraper without violating the rules.

The building holds different businesses, but is best known for housing Dom Knigi, a wonderfully huge bookstore you can get lost in for hours. Dom Knigi (literally “House of Books”) has other locations, but they don’t match the atmosphere of the Singer Building. I looked for some books on learning Russian, but they’re simply too huge to lug around in my small backpack. I contented myself with browsing instead, and then had a meal at the upstairs Singer Cafe for sunset, overlooking the Prospect and the massive Kazan Cathedral across the street.

Saint Petersburg  Church of Spilled Blood Interior 15

Postcard-perfect Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood is just a few blocks away from Dom Knigi, and along with Moscow’s St. Basil’s, it’s the quintessential Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

This church is probably one of the most visited tourist spots in Russia, and the inside is even more astoundingly decorated than the outside. Gold prevails in the details everywhere, accenting the paintings that cover the cathedral wall-to-ceiling. But there are some more “subtle” details that I really enjoyed, like the carved marble pictured here.

Opinions on churches can vary widely from person to person. Many say the money would be better spent on the people (which I definitely agree with), but others see it as an artistic dedication to faith. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the details and passion put into these churches, and many others I’ve been to around the world, is quite a testament to the dedication of the faithful. Whether or not they are economically ethical is a question that has to be put aside momentarily to appreciate their character.

IMG 1841On the topic of opulence, the Metro stations all throughout Saint Petersburg (and Moscow) are gorgeous. When I think of Philadelphia’s subway, it’s pretty much a sewer in comparison to Russia.. though that isn’t hard to say about Philadelphia.

After World War II, the Soviet Union put a lot of money into making these beautiful metro stations, and while many people think about all the money that didn’t go to the people themselves, others enjoyed the feeling of wealth that walking through the metro brought from then on. The stations are truly beautiful, with large open halls and arches, chandeliers and a variety of mosaics, many matching the station names and themes. The one pictured (an iPhone snapshot) is from Moscow, though I forget the name of the station.

I will definitely return to Saint Petersburg in the future. There is still so much to see and do, and it would be lovely to see in the summer.

Northern Europe Part Three: Norway & Estonia

Stavanger  Lysefjord 43

In Norway I had more relatives to visit: my stepmom’s good friend moved there years ago, so I had an open invitation in Stavanger! I stayed with Karen and her husband for a few days and enjoyed her amazing cooking, lots of conversations about what my dad and stepmom were like when they were my age (haha), and other more or less funny topics ranging from American politics to WWII history and scuba diving. We went to the movies the first evening I got there, and saw the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which ironically involved the character travelling to at least a few places I want to go. It was very appropriate.

Stavanger is a beautiful little town on the west coast of Norway, with some lovely old buildings in town, and impressive fjords nearby. In the first picture, if you look closely, you’ll see a small rectangular ledge that juts out. It’s just to the right of the vertical middle, in the sunlight. That small ledge is actually a huge tourist spot, called Preikestolen or Pulpit Rock in english. The view from up there is incredible, though in the middle of winter and with my fear of heights, I quite enjoyed seeing the fjord from the water below.

Norwegian Southwest Coast 1

I took a scenic bus ride up the coast, winding through the edges of fjords and over the ocean (2nd picture) via a ferry or two. That’s one of the nice things about countries with beautiful landscapes: it’s completely fine to spend bus rides just staring out the window.

I wound up in Norway’s second largest city, Bergen (which really isn’t much of a city at less than 300,000 residents). It’s a lovely town with a UNESCO World Heritage listed site called Bryggen (3rd picture). This small, cheerful section of buildings is pretty much the oldest part of Bergen, which has been (along with Stavanger) a major trading city for hundreds of years, dealing mostly in fish. Bryggen’s old buildings are made of wood, and are visibly leaning, though they still house shops and restaurants. There’s nothing like having your afternoon coffee in an old wooden building that’s slightly off-kilter. Apparently there’s a trading company that’s been in business there for 300 years. Which is older than the USA. Just… think about that for a minute.

Bergen 59

That’s one of my favourite things about travel – being reminded how far back history really goes. My concept of ‘old’ is quite, well, older than it was before. After seeing so many natural wonders above and below the water, ancient and modern temples and ruins, iron age bog bodies and preserved communist leaders, viking ships and cannons from the 1700’s, etc, the USA really is just a teenager in the world; maybe even a tween. I really appreciate Scandinavia’s progressive values, civil rights, and general approach to everything, not to mention their quirks. Like fish salad in metal tubes (think toothpaste, but for your lunch), and the dichotomy of the relaxed national attitude versus the innovative heavy metal scene. I could definitely live in either Denmark or Norway, and want to visit Sweden at some point!

Anyway, after a nice couple days in Bergen, I hopped on a train inland toward Oslo. This train ride, known as the Bergen Railway, is considered one of the world’s most beautiful train rides. And it was definitely beautiful, though there are pros and cons to traveling in winter. In this case, the pro was that it was much cheaper to do than normal. The con was that I only had sunlight for the first part of it.

Still, it was quite a treat to speed through the mountains, watching the tiny villages that were completely buried in snow glide past the window while sipping hot chocolate and listening to music. And still have the seat next to me empty, for plenty of extra sprawl space. The stations each announced the altitude, because apparently this is the world’s highest altitude train ride. After Peru and Bolivia, though, anything under 3,000 meters isn’t worth batting an eyelash at, and the high point here is only around 1,000 meters. Overall, the scenery was gorgeous, and now I want to come back in summer to do it in both seasons and compare. Any excuse to come back to this country will do, and add to the above all the scuba diving I didn’t get a chance to do yet… I’ll be back.

I honestly didn’t do very much when I got to Oslo, because in Bergen I had started to get sick, and so I spent the first few days in Oslo getting acquainted with Karen’s daughter’s couch. Although we’d never met, Karen offered me Anne Brit’s couch, which I gratefully accepted. After being a terrible, sick guest for the first few days, we finally got to get to know each other and spent a few days walking around the city, drinking good beer, eating good food, and laughing about our crazy parents. It was, yet again, like being home with friends and family. She’s even a good cook like her mom. We walked around the Opera House (which was nice, but not like Sydney’s) and the Astrup Fearnley Museum, which is a museum of incredible bizarre and entertaining modern art. I had the right company for it, though, which is what makes modern art museums a fun experience and not one where I stare at some strange piece and wonder what I’m doing there. Oslo is a nice city, but it doesn’t have nearly the charm for me that Copenhagen did, though I would love to go back and visit more of the museums I didn’t have the time for when I was sacked out on Anne Brit’s couch.

On one of my last days in Norway, I took a short detour down to another small city called Fredrikstad, in order to visit someone I’d met back in Australia, from my dive course. Knut had been taking the same dive class, along with his son and daughter, and the two of us had a really nice dive together at the end of that trip. We kept in contact, and once I knew how close to Oslo he was, I got in touch. I took the train down and met up with him and his girlfriend, Christine. We drove around and they showed me the town and Fredrikstad Fortress. After a stop for coffee in the ambiance of a fortress cafe, Christine cooked a delicious vegetarian dinner for us in her very adorable purple apartment. Another great day with friends in Norway!

Tallinn Old Town 2

With the Olympics getting closer, I had a short amount of time left to get to Saint Petersburg before my flight down to Sochi. Despite the perceived time crunch, I still had time for one more stop: Tallinn, Estonia (pictured). This is a town I’d wanted to see for a while, after seeing in and reading up on it during the time I was saving money and would sit at UPenn’s bookstore cafe with a stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks, researching for hours.

One day while researching the Baltics, I was texting my best friend, Laura. At that time, she was visiting a relative in Helsinki, Finland, and had actually taken a quick ferry ride across to Tallinn, where she was messaging me from. Just as I was reading about Estonia. Talk about good timing. Anyway, she recommended it highly, and everyone I talked to agreed that one or two days was fine to see the old city. Even though I try to stick to the ‘enough time to immerse’ theory, Tallinn was perfectly situated to work as a short stopover en route to Saint Petersburg overland.

So I found myself on a plane to Tallinn, and booked into a cozy hostel inside the old city walls. Luckily, everyone was right, and two full days was enough to wander all over the city, getting to know its cobblestone alleyways and squares very well, explore both sides of the walls, and climb to the highest spot for a nice view of the snow-capped rooftops. It’s full of restaurants and pubs, souvenir shops of course, and beautiful churches and towers, and the nicest thing is that everything fits together. The old town is not a place where old and modern buildings stand next to each other (not that that’s a bad thing), but where it probably looks nearly the same as it did years ago, and it’s still completely functional. If anyone wants to take a vacation to a fairy tale land (ignoring the parked cars), than Tallinn is the place to be! Absolutely charming.

After this perfect stopover, I took a bus up to Saint Petersburg, where I went through the nerve-wracking experience of crossing the border into Russia. I normally don’t worry during border crossings, but the fact that the Olympics was the core around which my entire trip outline thus far was built meant that this crossing was one I especially didn’t want to have complications.

Luckily, everything went completely smoothly, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief after we continued on. My first introduction to Russia was the tall, straight trees in the snow, and the passing houses in vastly different styles. And then, there was Saint Petersburg… another entry in itself.

Northern Europe Part Two: Germany

Hamburg Promonade 8

My next stop, in Hamburg, Germany, was like a holiday from my travels. My stepmother’s cousin and her partner live there, and they invited me to stay with them for a few days. Well, I was well-fed and shown ALL the sights of Hamburg in that few days! Between Ingrid’s wonderful cooking and Rolf’s love of west coast USA, we had wonderful food and conversations every day, even with the language barrier!

Hamburg is one of Germany’s biggest cities, and claims to have the highest number of bridges in the world. Actually, I tried to do some research on this and found a lot of forums with people arguing over this question! Hamburg has around 2300 (more than Venica and Amsterdam), while tons of arguments for Pittsburgh only mentioned 446! I’m convinced that the answer is Hamburg, naturally.

Besides that, it’s a lovely city with lovely bridges, cool architecture and a nice vibe to it. Ingrid and Rolf took me on a boat tour through many of the city’s canals, and drove me to lots of other great spots, including the beautiful St. Michael’s Church, and a small little alley that’s home to some of the oldest buildings that survived the bombing in World War II. I never could have found that without them. I think I’ve seen the city inside and out! I think very fondly of my time with them, and will definitely visit again, given the chance!

Koln 74

After Hamburg I went down to Cologne for a few days to visit some friends I’d made in Peru & Ecuador, which was really nice. These were two of the five I’d stayed with in Vilcabamba for around two weeks, so visiting them was like taking another holiday. Another home away from home. Cologne’s a beautiful city in itself, with the famous Cologne Cathedral a highlight of Gothic architecture (see picture). It’s one of the tallest cathedrals in Europe, most of which you can climb through a narrow spiral tower. I tried not to let fear of heights get to me, and made it up to the top for a few minutes with my friends before I was ready to go back down.

Cologne also has its own kind of beer, like any respectable German city would, so my friends took me to the best place in town, where we had a few drinks and some snacks. They’re also vegetarian, and understand the difficulties of eating vegetarian in many parts of the world! The rest of the time we just strolled around, visiting various spots and popping into a bookstore for a bit.

After years of people telling me how much I would love it, I FINALLY made it to Berlin. For me, Berlin holds a lot of interests, including World War II history, alternative culture, and the Berlin Wall and the city’s divided history. First off, Berlin is basically a city of neighbourhoods, all different from one another. I could probably write a whole entry on each one I visited, but I won’t make anyone sit through that.

Berlin  Topography of Terror 14

The first few days I stayed at a hostel, and explored the middle district, with its concentrated collection of WWII history sites. I have a complicated interest in this war. As a Jew and someone interested in military history, I have two minds when visiting museums and monuments, and oftentimes I have to switch one side off to really appreciate the other.

What struck me about the various museums and sites I visited was their simplicity. Their design and surroundings weren’t overwrought; instead, they let history speak for itself, and created an environment that provoked a reflective mood.

The museum on the site of many SS and Gestapo buildings, called the Topography of Terror (pictured), was one of those sites. It’s in a unique spot: a museum and memorial set next to a large preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, with unearthed sections of the gestapo prison right next to it. The museum isn’t an apologist for what happened; rather it is stark and factual, omitting nothing, forgiving nothing. It is overwhelmingly dark, just like the grey gravel and concrete paths that wind through the expansive area it takes up.

This is what I found interesting, and what is true for the other sites: Germany does not defend its actions in WWII, nor does it downplay them or distract from them. I have been to memorials and museums in countries that do. They do not honour their former SS; they still prosecute them. Every German I know probably knows more about this part of history than anyone else, and knows which side of the war they were on. The national attitude about history is much different here than it is in, say, Japan.

There were also some small but inspiring places, namely the Museum of the Resistance, which highlighted those of the population who tried to topple the National Socialists, even before the Holocaust, and the people that saved Jews and others. A special section highlighted the members of the army and civilian population involved in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler, which unfortunately left him unharmed. The museum is in a building overlooking the courtyard where the main plotters were quickly executed the night the attempt failed, and a simple monument, a male holding a sword, stands guard in the snow.

Another major site is the Memorial to the Jews, a holocaust memorial consisting of rectangular pillars of varying size, forming a large field. When you wander through, you quickly find yourself in over your head, on rough terrain. Very symbolic. Below this field of pillars is a museum, which is an amazing concise and powerful account of the holocaust, with striking portraits of the people who died during it. In one room you can sit and listen to short biographies, spoken first in German and then in English. Most are missing information, but at least their memory is kept alive. Very powerful exhibit.

Nearby to the holocaust memorial, almost an afterthought but quite a pleasant surprise, is a small memorial to the LGBT people killed during the holocaust. Further up, a small pool with a flower in the middle, dedicated to the Roma killed. And I’m sure there are many, many others I didn’t have the time to see. There is also the parking lot over the bunker where Hitler committed suicide during the last days of the war. This site is marked only by a sign; I think it’s very appropriate to mark this spot with something so unceremonious; his is not a legacy that should be honoured. It was a little strange to watch the walking tours go by, though.

Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery 11I’ll end on a positive note, I promise! But before I do, I’ll talk about my visit to the East Side Gallery. This “gallery” is actually the longest remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall, covered in beautiful street art, and now an unfortunately amount of pointless graffiti. The iconic “Mortal Kiss” is desecrated; a real shame.

The wall is also in danger, considering that part of it was torn down already for retail space. It’s an important part of history and I hope to see it better preserved. Walking along it, you can see a wonderful harmony of different styles, all with similar expressions of a desire for peace and reconciliation. I wish my understanding of this part of history was better, but at the very least I have an overall understanding now, coupled with a sense of what it looked and felt like.

Another walk in this area was along Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly Stalinallee, in former East Berlin. The architectural style is markedly different. The wide streets and simple, somewhat dreary off-white buildings are something I’ve gotten used to now that I’m in Russia, but you can feel, even without being told, that you’re not in west Berlin any more!

Berlin  ChurchThe side of Berlin that I want to go back and explore the most is the alternative side. I was lucky enough to Couchsurf with a German girl who also happened to be a metalhead! Right off the bat, we had music in common. She also loves Scandinavia and the Nordics, so we talked about wanting to go (or go back) to various countries in the north. And, best of all, she took me to a bar where they play only metal, with a viking theme. I could practically live there. I’d love to go back to Berlin and just spend a few weeks or months getting to know every neighbourhood in depth, make some friends, and generally get a feel for the while city. It has a lot to offer.Aside from the more depressing parts of Berlin’s history, there’s a lot of beauty in the city. The opulent old buildings, which I assume are restored and not original, decorate the streets and squares.

The impressive Museum Island is home to, well, museums, and also a beautiful church. Speaking of museums, one of the best I went to was the main history museum, a massive building with a massive array of exhibits set inside a beautiful interior. I chose to explore the sections on history before the war: even I’d had enough of WWII history. It was great to see Germany’s rich history and heritage, learn a little more about how its borders have changed over hundreds of years. There were samples of household items and other objects, as well as paintings, and one of my favourites was a small section of modern home furnishings at the beginning of the 1900’s… which looked very similar to something made in the 60’s and 70’s. Hmmm.

While I only had a few days, I filled them up with a fraction of what there is to see and do in Berlin. I was sad to leave, but happy to go to Norway!