So I just got back from a long weekend in former imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Built by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, it has a number of features that are generally lacking in the current capital of Moscow, such as non-Stalinist architecture, breathable air, and some sort of basic logic to their road system. A nice change.I also got back to my backpacker roots and stayed at a hostel. They are still the same. Bunk beds, shared bathrooms, some long-haired idiot in homemade shoes playing the mandolin.
Most of my time was spent hanging out with a group of current and former Harvard students (by hanging out I mean getting stupid drunk), and walking around the city. It is really easy to get drunk in St. Petersburg because it never gets dark. You just look out the bar window and it looks like it is late afternoon - plenty of time for another round - when it is really 2 am.
In between hangovers, I was able to see most of the main sights about town. Specifics included both the Winter and Summer Palaces (opulent and opulenter), Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (gorgeous onion domed cathedral built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was killed by wealthy landowners who where exquisitely pissed off when he freed their serfs), Cathedral of St. Issac (built because city officials wanted to be the unquestioned center of worship for *someone* and therefore selected this character - lovely views from the roof though), Blockade Museum (a surprisingly tasteful Soviet memorial of the blockade of Leningrad during WWII when pretty much everyone starved to death but still held off the Germans), and the Yusupov Palace (lavish palace of the richest pre-revolution family in Russia, best known as the place where the mystical shaman of sex, Rasputin, met his end. Not easily I may add. He was, in succession, and on the same night, poisoned, strangled, shot multiple times, thrown down the stairs, beaten beyond recognition, and bound and tossed in a mid-winter canal. He died of drowning.) We also saw the Kazan Cathedral - recently resurrected as a church after riding out the Soviet years as a Museum of Atheism.
The other main activity in Petersburg, with its numerous rivers and canals, are boat tours. Camera toting tourists are steered along by some stoned teenage boat driver to see the main sites of the city. And I will say from experience, this all works much better with 30 of your friends and a couple shopping bags full of beer. I think I took some nice pictures before getting weaving drunk. Also, generally these boat trips are designed to highlight the raising of the bridges. All of the main bridges in town are draw bridges that are raised for three hours each night in the summer to let the larger boats pass. What is fun about this is that the whole road tips up 80 degrees, leaving things like street lamps jutting out at weird angles. Bizarre to watch, particularly in the alcohol-soaked state you are in by 1:30 am when this all goes down.
I am back in Moscow now, packing and killing time before my train to Irkutsk, a clearly reasonable 4-day, 5000 miles away on the Trans Siberian Railroad.