21.04.2009 - 12.05.2009
Well ladies and gents, I believe this will be one of my last entries from Finland! With a trip to Russia and the lakes of Finland since my last entry, time has sneakily slipped away, leaving me with a little over 2 weeks left in my beloved Turku. Already my friends are beginning to leave the Student Village for their home countries around the world. It's not easy to convince myself that I may never see them again! Even so, they've made an immeasurable impact on my life and I hope that someday we can all re-unite!
But let's get to business here! I want to tell you all about Russia! This was yet another fantastic adventure for me, and this time I got to enjoy it with a few more of my friends from Turku! The trip was arranged by the Exchange Student Network, so there were over 100 of us exchange students traveling together. The first adventure we had together was the Russian night train. We got on the train in Helsinki, greeted at the train by an angry Russian man in a gray uniform and furry hat whose sole duty was to check our passports at 3 or 4 different intervals of the journey, and walk up and down the corridor looking menacing. Four of us, Monica and Adria who I've mentioned before, and another Spanish friend, Nerea, shared a tiny cabin together on the train and had a great time for the most part. The only drawback was the excessive waiting at the borders. I didn't realize it before, but we actually had to cross two borders to get into Russia. First we cross the Finnish border where they check to see if we all have passports, then we continue through a gap of no-mans-land for about half an hour or so, then we cross the Russian border, where our passports are taken from us, we are given strict rules not to leave our cabin, and they are returned to us stamped and checked after about an hour of waiting. Then, we're finally in Russia! We tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep on the train, and by 8 am the next morning, we were awoken by our grumpy conductor "GOOD MORNING, MOSCOW!" The next surprise was the toilets you had to squat over in the train station. I hope that was my first AND only experience with them. Monica and I decided that even though it flushes, it's still worse than peeing behind a tree because they smell worse.
Moscow was an incredibly unique experience though. The city felt so different in comparison to any other city I've visited. You can definitely feel the Soviet impact on the city, seeing gray building after gray building after gray building, followed by statue upon statue of Lenin or Marx. There was an incredible energy to the city, the main contributing factor being the insane traffic, but there was also a feeling of new growth somehow, like the city was finally growing out of its shady past.
Our night train from Helsinki - probably the worst sleep of my life, haha.
Moscow train station. My first glimpse of the Russian language. From then on I gave up all hope of understanding anything.
Russia loves its war memorials. This was one of our first stops in Moscow. This was a WWII memorial, and it was massive!
See, it was huge! It was also ridiculously cold and windy that day. But then again, we were told it was a better than normal day in Moscow.
Former KGB headquarters. I'm not sure what they're using it for now.
Russia also loves clean streets in the central areas of their cities. Watch out when this mean old water truck comes after you!!
Inside the Kremlin. This is where all the main political palaces and churches are in Moscow. Our tour guide described it well saying that the Kremlin is an excellent example of how Russians are the best at building the biggest, most useless things. This bell was built in honour of a Tsarina and it weighed over 300 tonnes. Yup. A bit excessive.
The church where every Russian Tsar was crowned. It was absolutely gorgeous. And it was also the first time I've had the main ideas of the orthodox church explained to me. If you're curious I'll tell you about it sometime :D
A little excited about being in the Kremlin! Possibly a little overtired as well...
The Tsars didn't want to be crowned and married in the same church, so they built this one for the marriage ceremonies. Funny story about this one; the Tsars were allowed to marry 3 times at most, a very gracious exception from the church. However, when one particular Tsar had sent his 3rd wife to the convent and brought a 4th to be married there, the priest closed the door to him because a 4th wedding wasn't allowed. No problem! The Tsar ordered a new door to be built. It's the small one on the left.
In most places we visited, pictures were not allowed inside. But a lot of the times, the ouside was even more beautiful. The Kremlin was filled with these golden domes.
Outside the Red Square, a little bit of historical irony. A major symbol of Communist power surrounded by modern capitalism.
The Red Square! It was closed to the public that day because of some sort of military rehearsal for the arrival of a really important person in the next couple days.
So we bought some sweet hats to console ourselves :D
We managed to find a place to get some pictures of St. Basil's in the Red Square! It was breathtaking.
This is the reason we couldn't get into the Red Square; Army guys driving gray convertibles with no seatbelts.
Moscow was filled with tiny little churches like this, but they were all so spectacular to see!
This one looked like something out of a fairy tale or something, so candy-like!
One of the legacy's of the Soviet era is the underground metro system of Moscow. They wanted to build palaces "for the people", so they filled the metro with patriotic statues and sculptures and architecture. It was gorgeous. This one reminded me of Rascal..haha
In the metro again
More beautiful metro stations
Beyond exhausted, we went back to the train station around 10:30 at night to get on yet another night train. Although this one was a billion times nicer than the first, the beds were still tiny, and the train is still not a nice place to get a good night's rest. We woke up in Saint Petersburg early the next morning, a little bleary eyed, but ready for the adventure. At this point I was beginning to realize that the little tickle in my throat was more than it seemed, and I was starting to actually get sick. Not the best timing on my part.
Our first stop in St. Petersburg: St. Isaac's square. "Under the horse's ass" was to be our meeting place over the next few days.
The incredible "Spilled Blood" Church. It was built on the spot where a Tsar's father had been murdered. There's just so much history here it's hard to soak it all in!!
Next stop, Peter and Paul's fortress, where St. Petersburg was founded. This church was the tallest structure in the city. I really liked how despite the massive size and population of the city, it wasn't filled with big ugly sky scrapers and whatnot. Really different.
Peter the Great and myself. He was so irresistible! haha!
Crazy Russian signs!
On our drive out to the Baltika brewery we caught a glimpse of some Real Russia. Not palaces and churches, but worn down soviet buildings, trash everywhere, and capitalism leaving its mark.
We had a quick tour of the brewery, then we were led into a room where the tables were filled with every kind of beer you can imagine from all over northern and western Europe. Imagine 30 odd exchange students with half an hour before we had to leave. Let's just say we had a good time!
These were my favourites. The one on the left was made in the Brewery we were in, the one on the right wasn't. But if you see them anywhere back home, let me know!!
This was our first stop on day two in Saint Petersburg. Catherine's Palace in Pushkin town. Talk about overdoing it, this place was gorgeous, but holy wowzers was there a lot of gold!
Monica and I in the hall of lights
This choir sang for us in the main hall and it was absolutely chilling. The sound was perfect and if you closed your eyes you could almost go back in time :D
Golden hall after golden hall, after golden hall....
Sicker than a dog at this point, but still excited!
One of the many statues in Catherine's gardens
This is some very mild Russian traffic, most times lanes were a figment of your imagination, but I wanted to show you the crazy amount of cables everywhere for the buses and trams!
After Catherine's palace I was almost too sick to move, but decided to drag my butt to our next stop: The Winter Palace. This was the last home of Tsar Nicholas II before the revolution and now it's a part of the Royal Hermitage museum. I'm so glad I went! Not only was the architecture incredible, but the art from the worlds great painters was almost unbelievable.
The gate to the palace. Again, Russians love their monuments.
After Hermitage a few of us got back on the bus and we were on our way to the Ballet!! This is the Mariinsky theatre where I saw the most amazing Ballet of my life.
The cast of Raymonda. As one of my companions at the theatre put it, the Russian Ballet is like the Holy Grail for us dancers, and we finally got to witness it!
Day three began with a bus tour, and a slightly healthier Julie. This is St. Nicholas's Cathedral.
The St. Petersburg skyline. I love how modern buildings haven't taken over the city!
All day we played "count the brides!" I think the count came up to something ridiculous over 30
The Aurora! It was a canon blast from this ship in 1917 that signaled the beginning of the Russian Revolution!
This is the very cannon. Apparently a lot of Chinese communists make a pilgrimage here, kind of like it's a holy spot.
I was enjoying a little Titanic moment :P
An abundance of tourist traps outside of the Aurora. And our bus!
On our way to find some lunch Monica and I found the "kissing" bridge. People write their names on locks and then 'lock their love' to the bridge. It was pretty cool.
We walked by the Mariinsky theatre where I had seen the Ballet too!
Mmm..Cabbage rolls!! They were so good. I ate a lot of amazing borcht too. I think that's why I recovered so quickly from my sickness :D
Hugs for St. Isaac's Cathedral! The columns were sooooo massive!
I love this! Everywhere I've been in Europe there's always some renovations going on. The best part is they always show you what you're missing!
The Beautiful St. Isaacs. It reminds me of St. Paul's in London.
From here we went to the Yusipoff palace, which is where Rasputin was murdered! The palace was incredible! Again, no pictures were allowed, but to be honest, I felt like a Russian princess in there! I can`t get it through my head how someone comes up with the designs for these places and then actually builds them. So crazy. This palace even had its own private theatre. They could bring the best performers of the day to give them private performances. Too cool. The tour finished with a descent to the basement to the very room where Rasputin was murdered. They actually built the basement in the way that it was purely for the purpose of his murder. It even had one room where the walls were covered in about 8 mirrored doors so that if he escaped he would get lost and they could corner him. It was pretty intense.
That night was definitely a unique experience as well. Who needs to go out to a bar when you can rent a limo for really cheap, shove an international hodge-podge of 16 people inside, add a little Russian vodka, and you've got all you need! Our driver was great, stopping at all sorts of cool places for us to take pictures. It was a lot of fun!
We even managed to catch some fireworks over Hermitage! I kept thinking the whole time "I'm in Russia! In a limo! This is soooo cool!"
A plethora of Russian dolls! I bought one for myself and she's beautiful :D
Our last day in Russia, we just walked around for the morning before getting on the bus for the incredibly long journey home. I just loved the way the streets looked.
Everything is just so elaborate!
Another giant cathedral, the Kazan.
Another thing about Russia, army guys are EVERYWHERE! And for the most part, they really do wear those fuzzy hats!
Placing some postcards in the care of the Russian postal service. It took a lot longer for them to get to Canada than I thought it would!
Our awesome hotel. It looks small from the front, but it's actually a massive complex complete with a mall inside.
Driving home from Russia, I couldn't help but notice that things looked a little familiar...minus all the trash everywhere though.
We made it back to Turku exhausted and carrying an abundance of duty free goods from the Russian border. The border was crazy. Again, we had to go through two of them, but the Russian one was crazy! You arrive, someone gets on the bus and checks to see that everyone has a passport, then you wait, then you're ushered into a small waiting room where one by one you go to get your stamp, then you wait, then you're allowed back on the bus, but not before another angry Russian checks that you all have stamps. Phew. It was insane! All we wanted to do was just go home! But now at least I can say my passport is a little more exciting. I've now crossed borders by plane, train and car! Now I just need the boat stamp!
Russia was a really cool experience with an entirely different culture and a history so rich you couldn't escape it. I really really liked it there! Even so, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief driving into Finland again! It really has become a home away from home. I'll really really miss this country!
In order to experience our Finnish home a little more intimately, a group of 10 of us decided that we'd take on a 5 day motorhome trip through the lakes district! And what a trip! The lakes are so gorgeous, and this area of the country is more like a freshwater sea spotted with islands than land spotted with lakes, it's incredible. So, 9 Spaniards and 1 Canadian rented 2 caravans, bought a huge amount of food and a couple of maps and we were off!
The whole group of us ready to leave the Student Village!
We drove clear across Finland in one day, almost all the way to the Russian border!
We arrived in Imatra really really late, so we enjoyed a parking lot midnight lunch!
We woke up to a beautiful scene in Imatra. I really fell in love with the lakes.
We realized in the morning that we had parked beside a great mini-golf course with a picnic table; the course wasn`t open, but we sure got some funny looks from the passers by!
We found a `scenic rest area` on the map, and this is what we found. I guess even Finland can be dirty.
Again, because I was traveling with 9 Spanish people, we arrived late to our next campground. We had a great barbeque that night.
Day three was incredibly cold and windy so we spent most of our time in the caravans playing cards. I`ve learned some great Spanish games to teach all of you when I get back :D
Our little hut where the BBQ was. It also served as a great refuge from the wind!
Day three was also the day of mis-haps. We lost a cable, bent a key, and spent far too much time at a gas station buying food!! We finally did arrive in Lahti though to find a great campground waiting for us!
The next morning I was up early for a shower and then spent almost an hour wandering around the campground taking pictures. The morning fog was so pretty.
This is my favourite part about the lakes; the little islands that are everywhere and covered in trees.
I watched this guy row his boat from the town all the way to a little island, where he got into his wee little cottage. What a life :D
Hanging out on the caravan was a favourite activity for these three.
Zeltia and I
A classic look for Pulga, haha. He was also our brave and talented driver. I`m going to miss hearing his accent; he can`t say Julie so I`m Yoolia to him, haha
Silvia and I
The always cheerful, most times singing, Sandra
Monica and I. You`ll be seeing more and more pictures of this lovely girl as the summer rolls on, she`s coming with me for the first few weeks of my adventure!
My long red hair that stands out so brilliantly against the dark hair of my Spanish friends. This is the last you`ll see of this though, I got a lot cut off today! But don`t worry, not soooo much Gramma!
We drove over to another part of Lahti for a picnic lunch. It was gorgeous.
As you can see, we had fun :D
The whole group of us, don`t we look good!
Our lovely picnic
We managed to rent a rowboat for a couple of hours that afternoon! Hooray!
My rowing buddies, Anna and Monica
From the rowboat
Anna was so cute, she couldn`t row unless she was sticking out her tongue.
The island we attempted to get to but the wind was getting pretty strong.
The great thing about being in Finland this time of year is that the sunset lasts hours! These next few photos were taken around 10:30 or so.
This one was taken near midnight. It was incredible. It never truly became pitch dark, around 3 the sun starts coming up again!
We left bright and early the next day to get back to Turku on time to return the caravans. We had to stop for the essential tourist picture with the Moose sign :D
We never did see an actual moose though. haha
This trip, although frustrating at times when it takes a little longer to do everything than I`d like, was a truly incredible adventure. I got to travel with my friends, see Finland`s natural beauty, and have a great time. I will really miss this country`s pristine lakes, tiny red cottages, and exquisite beauty. Finland has stolen a little piece of my heart!
Now, I`ve just got one last essay to finish and I`ll be done all of my classes! Then I`ll have a little over a week to get things booked and prepared for the summer and Monica and I leave for Stockholm on the 27th! From there we`ll be seeing Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, and parts of Germany together! It`s going to be fantastic! I`ll make sure to write here at least one last time before I go, then once I`m backpacking I`ll keep updating, but I`m not sure how easy it will be to get the pictures on here, but we`ll see.
Until next time!
Live, Laugh, and Love always,