Transsiberian, Day 7: A solo day away from the group

Monday January 2nd, 2017

This morning, it was snowing. Watching the snow float beside the pastel buildings was like watching sugar dusted over a cake. Every day gets more and more beautiful, and I feel a sugar rush just walking around. I will miss this.

Only after two days of group travel, I was anxious to break away. You get spoiled traveling on your own, having all the time in the world to explore the winding streets of a new city, or spending as little time as you want to see yet another gorgeous cathedral that kind of looks like the last gorgeous cathedral.

I went straight to the post office to get stamps but found it temporarily closed and took the opportunity to return to a cute café I’d passed while we were out walking yesterday. It was called Wolkonsky café, and of course it made me crane my neck at the sight of pastel merengues stacked in a conical Christmas tree next to a pastel gingerbread house, beside strings of twinkling lights. It was the perfect place to enjoy a city that exudes the same magical elegance.

The café was small in the front with only two tables beside the window, and a much more open area tucked in the back, but the quiet morning left me with the place to myself. I snacked on a black currant pastry, a cappuccino and a freshly pressed apple juice (so fancy!) while gazing out the window through the twinkling lights hanging before it.

I then went to the post office, which was yet another magnificent treasure, with a giant glass ceiling in the style of a greenhouse, and a second story balcony with chartreuse-painted walls held behind a wrought-iron banister twisted into intricate patterns. In the center of the massive space is a mahogany wood-enclosed store selling stationery and stamps. As I wait in line to buy postage, I see two children getting private lessons in Cyrillic calligraphy. I write my postcards and send them off.

I next head to the St. Isaac’s cathedral, which we had passed yesterday but was closed. The dome on top is open to the public for a 360-degree viewpoint of the city. I wait in an exhausting line for tickets, all while learning that Russians don’t really form lines, but rather clusters that slowly push forward from the sides, cutting in front of you, so I had to be aggressive to be sure I got my tickets at my turn.

As far as the view? I didn’t think it was worth it. It took some of the magic out of the city. On street level this place is amazing, but looking at it from above, with cranes in the distance, is like seeing Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld with his costume head removed.

At this point I stupidly misread my military time clock and thought I only had a little time left before I could go to the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, since that closed at 5:30. But I was wrong, yet I didn’t know this until later.

I unnecessarily rushed off to the Kunskamera museum over the Zayachiy Ostrov, which in my guide book was marked as a “can’t miss attraction.” It is Russia’s oldest public museum founded by Peter the Great in 1714 to promote scientific education. The place has many rooms of costumes and living artifacts of the peoples of North America, Asia, Africa and South America, but the reason the museum is so famous is because it has a collection of human fetuses and infant hearts, preserved in jars of vodka and vinegar. A lot of it I skimmed past, as it was just one deformed fetus after another, but it was still interesting. It took me all of fifteen minutes to go through… and I’d waited outside in a 35-minute line to get in. For some reason you’re required to check your coat, but I luckily had a tote bag that I could jam my outerwear into before entering so I could bypass even more lines and more waiting. I rushed off to the opposite end of town to the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood, arriving around four but thinking it was around five. So that was the end of rushing. I checked out the inside of the cathedral which was of course beautiful and magnificent, but needed all of ten minutes view.

I left the cathedral and again was in the presence of the long row of souvenir vendors from yesterday. I approached the booth with the English-speaking guy from yesterday and he greeted me with “Hello my princess! I remember you!” His breath smelled of rum. I bartered with him for some necklaces but he wasn’t going with a good enough price, so I went to a few other vendors with the same items, albeit less selection, and got a better price. A woman with whom I made a transaction was overly grateful, as I had apparently displayed great patience when she walked me down the long line of booths to her other booth in order for her to show me other colors. After buying from her, I said “spasiba” and she said “No! Spasiba to you! For coming with me here to see my other items!”

There was one more necklace that only the rum man had, so I went back to him, and he now doubled the price, so I just stared at him stone-faced, holding rubles of the previously agreed upon price in my hand until he stopped laughing and just took it. SUCCESS. I walked along Nevskiy street and came upon a gorgeous store called Eliseyev Emporium that had elaborate window displays with moving figurines, and the interior was even cooler. It was a sort of gourmet food shop that sold candies, sausages, wines, sweets and more. Velvet curtains hung from the massively high ceiling, tucked beside the windows and gilded-mirror walls, and in the center there was a series of café tables where you could dine in. I was tempted to buy anything and everything, but held back as I planned to go to the farmers market next.

But there I walked, all the way to the market, only to find that it was closed for the holidays.

I never ate lunch, and now it’s nearing the planned group dinner time. There was a place I wanted to check out from Spotted by Locals, and it was nearby. I decided to skip on the group dinner and enjoy eating at a leisurely, quiet pace at Kvartika.  The restaurant was a traditional soviet restaurant decorated like it was from a past era. Basically, if your grandma lived in Russia in Soviet times, this is what her house would look like. It was cozy, with earth-toned tables, seat cushions and walls. There were vintage phones and suitcases casually tucked into corners, and black and white family photos from the mid-1900s framed and hung on the walls. Each table was accompanied by a small box of dominoes to play while waiting for your food.

The meal was soviet comfort food. I got a glass of hot honey sbiten, a mulled honey drink served with two cloves floating in the top. The appetizer was s bowl of pelmini, a Russian dumpling. My main course was a pork and chicken filet, a sort of roll-up rich with savory seasonings rubbed between the layers, served with a side of mashed potatoes and lingonberry-juniper berry jam.

After eating I joined with the group as the departed their dinner. Calvin’s "date" Anna (from the hookah bar the other night) was with them, and we walked through the Dvortsovaya square. Calvin made the depressing comment that this may be our last time ever walking through the gorgeous plaza. It was glowing and twinkling as it was in the previous nights, and it was sad to bid it farewell.

We returned to the hostel, gathered our things, and headed to the train station in a few cabs. This is when I discovered that I packed the absolute least, even less than Calvin, something I’m quite proud of. My tiny backpack was nothing compared to the massive bags of some of my fellow travelers. But everyone had backpacks, which is the best way to travel. Your hands are always free to carry a map or a snack or to point to something!

We boarded our train around ten at night, and this train was so much nicer than the train I took from Romania to Moldova. The train was so much newer and high tech, with an in-room thermostat, a box of toiletries, eating utensils, a muffin and water bottle for each person, brighter lights, and cleaner bed linens. I shared a room with Ihita, June and Amanda, the latter of which was so excited at the train departing that she ripped the Velcro curtains off the window to get the maximum view of the train leaving the station.

Originally, before the trip began, we were going to have a four day long journey on the train. But plans changed to allow more time in Moscow and Irkutsk, so our train journeys were now split up and much shorter. But, I think it worked well this way. We got all the romance of the train ride without any of the annoyances or cabin fever of a long trip.

Our train was to arrive in Moscow tomorrow morning around 8am so just as we were discussing what we’d do for breakfast, a woman comes by the room and informs us that she is taking our breakfast orders for tomorrow at 7am, which is included in the ticket price. Coffee or tea is extra, but only by a few dollars. There is a man with her translating everything, a handsome blonde with a vague accent. I later learn he was just another guest on the train translating as a favor to the train attendant and our group. The options were porridge or pancakes, and our entire group universally chose the latter. Once we set our orders aside, another woman stopped by offering beer and wine for sale, and Calvin treated the group. All of us squeezed together in one room and shared snacks, like mushroom soup-flavored Lays potato chips that Ihita found. We played cards until it was time to go to sleep around midnight.

Just before bed, we encountered the translator guy again, who was in a room at the very end of our car with a couple obnoxious middle-aged German men who blocked the hallway, caressed me as I walked by, causing me to curse at them and the translator to apologize on their behalf.

Then it was time to go to bed and get ready to wake up in Moscow!