Dobrey Dehn from Russia
Date: Sunday, March 19, 2006
I am currently in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was here for two months back in 1992, when Boris Yeltsin first came into power and Gorbachev’s Perestroika was on its way out.
As you can imagine, things have changed drastically since then. I came back and visited my old friend Pasha and his wonderful wife Sasha.
Pasha registered me with the Russian authorities as a foreigner to stay at his flat-a testament to our patience in dealing with Russia’s bureaucracy.
I started my visit in Moscow. Russia’s most famous attractions are the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil Cathedral.
The Kremlin is an old fort by the Moscow River from which the Russian royal family, the Russian Church and later the Communist Party governed the country.
Nowadays, the parliament resides in it and only a small portion (churches and armoury) is open for tourists. The churches were built around the 15th Century and are magnificent. The old Tsars were coronated-and buried-in them.
All the Russian churches I have visited were nicely decorated, usually with bright colours. Russian Orthodox churches differ from the Catholic and Protestant churches.
Their architecture and fresco paints are more Byzantine-influenced (with rounded, onion-shaped domes like Islamic domes). Russian religious icons and paintings are painted on panels of wood instead of canvas.
Many of these wooden icons are framed by gold, silver and precious stones. You can find many of those in the St. Basil Cathedral (built between 1555 and 1561 to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s capture of Kazan in the Tartar region).
The Kremlin’s armoury was impressive. There was a great collection of royal carriages. I was most impressed to discover suspension systems on these 17th and 18th century carriages. Only the best for the comfort of Tsars and Tsarinas.
I also visited the Museum of Contemporary History of Russia (formerly known as Revolution Museum), which enhanced my understanding of Russian politics. It was informative, though there was little English labelling, as it traces the socio-political times from the fall of Tsar Nicholas II to Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin.
I’m sure there was lots of propaganda too, but because I can’t read Russian, it was lost on me.
During this trip, I have noticed vast changes in Moscow’s socio-economic fabric.
Moscow is a bustling business and political hub and, where there is wealth, it is concentrated. Russia, like many countries, suffers from an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Downtown Moscow has all the large retailers-Versace, Armani, Mexx, Zara-that I have seen in every city of every continent.
Inflation is said to be officially nine per cent (unofficially 12-15 per cent). Local salaries aren’t at Western levels but prices of restaurant meals and clothes are.
And there are lots of people buying things and eating in these places. I cannot work out how they could afford this.
Gone are the days where people queue to buy things. Open market, advertising, and globalisation are in full swing in Moscow.
It is sad to see the once-strong Russian culture fade as the country becomes increasingly Westernized.
I am amazed by the popularity of make-up and high heels among Russian women.
Even wearing my sturdy hiking boots, I have trouble walking in the snow, ice and slush on the streets. That Russian women can walk in their stiletto heels (and they walk fast too) is nothing short of remarkable.
After a week or so in Moscow, I took the overnight train to St. Petersburg. Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to here. During the Soviet era, it was known as Leningrad; it reverted back to its original name in the 1990s.
St. Petersburg is nothing like Moscow. It is quiet, small and tame. It is known as the “Venice of the North” because of its many canals and Italian architecture.
But the best thing about St. Petersburg would have to be the Hermitage museum.
It is housed in three separate buildings that used to be the residences of the royal family: Winter Palace, Little Hermitage and Large Hermitage.
The exhibits are magnificent (with big names like Leonardo Da Vinci, Rubens, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, etc.). There are supposedly 14 Da Vinci paintings left in the world; two of them are here.
My time in Russia has to an end. I would just like to close by saying that Russia is not for everyone. It is not tourist-friendly.
There are significant cultural barriers, like the language. People don’t smile much, customer service is nearly non-existent and Soviet-style bureaucracy is frustrating. But I like Russia. Maybe because I have spent a bit of time here, I am comfortable and understand the culture.
Once you get to know the locals, they are friendly and generous. The food is tasty (if meat-heavy!) and the museums and art are great and affordable to visit.
I’m leaving for Helsinki, Finland tomorrow. Four days there and that’s it for Europe. After that, Asia.
Hei and Kiitos from Suomi
Date: Friday, March 24, 2006
I am currently in Helsinki and, even though it is late March, it is still very cold here.
Temperatures average -15 to -3C – although my first two days were slightly warmer. But then it turned grey and snowed on me.
Helsinki as a whole is a welcome change from Russia. This place is very safe and clean. There is no rubbish or graffiti to be seen on the streets.
Even the tap water is fantastic. Helsinki has a population of 560,000. It has a high literacy rate and high living standards. The city itself, however, is small.
Helsinki was founded in 1550 on the orders of King Vasa of Sweden. It was a naval and trading port. Back then, Finland was a part of the Swedish empire until it became part of Russia in 1809.
Retaining its autonomy while under the Russian rule, the city’s architecture, industries and arts flourished. However, things went sour in 1899 when Russia revoked all of Finland’s constitutional rights.
In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, Finland finally regained its independence and became a constitutional republic. Today, Finland is a neutral country and not allied militarily.
Everyone here speaks English and English books are readily available in stores. Compared to Russians, Finns are polite and friendly.
They actually smile and look at you in the eyes. Just two days ago, a complete stranger noticed that I was struggling coming down some icy stairs and she came to help me.
I’m very happy to see that there are no Starbucks in Helsinki. There are significantly less American fast food chains here than in Russia-McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were the only two that I saw.
And, instead of malls, the shops here are more boutique-types. The most recognizable Finnish brand name would have to be Nokia.
There are not as many Volvo cars here as I expected, being next door to Sweden and all.
The only downside to Helsinki (other than the cold weather) is that it is an expensive city. Not only because of the Euro currency but because of the prices.
It’s not just me; the German and Italian tourists were complaining too.
It was too cold to be outdoors, so I visited some of the museums: the Arteneum Art Museum, National Museum of Finland and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma.
But, because I’ve recently seen the Hermitage, all the exhibits seemed small and insignificant. I did brave the cold, going for a brisk walk around the Harbour.
The Gulf of Finland was still frozen over, so people were walking across the ice to get to the islands.
Seventy-two per cent of the population are Evangelical Lutherans; the big white Lutheran Cathedral seems ubiquitous to Helsinki.
Inside, this church is totally sparse with no decorations. After seeing numerous Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches in Spain and Russia, it was a bit surprising for me to see such a plain church.
Because it is such a young country, Finland has trouble defining what it means to be Finnish. A visit to the souvenir shops yielded few uniquely Finnish items.
But one thing they prides themselves on is stylish Finnish design (think Ikea). Unfortunately, many of these stylish things were too pricey for me.
The youth hostel I am staying in had a TV in each room! After months of not having English-language TV, I am ashamed to admit that I became a TV junkie.
I watched The Simpsons, CSI, 24, Desperate Housewives-all the American TV shows that I normally don’t watch. Luckily for me the BBC news cable channel was available too.
I will be heading off to Hong Kong tonight. It will be a long flight. I cannot wait to go to Asia. I’m really looking forward to see my parents again and relatives, especially my 89-year-old grandma.
Of course, the warm weather, yummy food and fantastic shopping are good reasons to go too!
Subject: Goodbye, Taiwan, Hong Kong; Hello, Malaysia.
Date: Sunday, April 30, 2006
I made it to Asia and I’m currently travelling to my last continent in my last month of my round-the-world-trip.
I have met up with my parents and together we visited Taipei and Hong Kong. We parted way after Hong Kong and I arrived alone yesterday into the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
I am staying with my relatives in Ipoh, the Malaysian city where I was born.
I spent some 10 days in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan Republic of China (ROC), not to be confused with the big China which is the People’s Republic China (PROC).
My mom is from Taiwan and her side of the family reside in Taipei. I haven’t been to Taipei in 18 years, so you can imagine how keen I was to see the place.
Both Taiwan and China have a turbulent history. Currently, Taiwan’s political situation is in turmoil over the issue of reunification and China’s “One China” policy.
As expected, all my relatives have aged and my cousins are now moms and dads. My maternal grandma is still alive at 102 years old but unfortunately she is very frail.
Taiwan, compared to other Asian countries, does not have a huge tourism industry.
However, there definitely is touristy stuff to do and see. While in Taipei, I visited what was at the time, the highest building in the world “Taipei 101” at 509m or 1970 feet.
Built by the Chinese, the building adheres to fengshui design principles. We went to the 89th floor observatory and to get there, we took the world’s fastest elevator. Its top speed is 63km an hour.
I just couldn’t believe how fast it was. It took 37 seconds to go from the 5th to the 89th floor.
Taipei is not a small city. Its population is 2.4 million and it has an excellent public transportation network. I took the subway and train everywhere.
When I went into the subway, the first thing I noticed was the train carriage ceilings; they are low, by Western standards. Anyone six feet or taller has to duck their heads to go through the doors.
Naturally, there is lots of yummy Chinese cuisine to eat. My uncle took me to a dumpling restaurant that is very popular and “world famous” though I had never heard of it. It even got written up in the New York Times.
We had to wait 45 minutes for a table. It is unbelievable that so many people want to eat there and are willing to wait, but then again, food is an important part of Asian cultures.
I must admit the dumplings were worth waiting for. Absolutely divine!
After Taipei, my parents and I went to Hong Kong. In my opinion, Hong Kong is a glitzy, neon-lit, densely populated concrete jungle. If you don’t like crowds, sky scrapers, shopping or Asian food, don’t go there!
It’s kind of like Asia’s answer to New York City. Hong Kong always has been, and still is, a huge trading port and that’s part of why it is so prosperous.
Hong Kong used to be a British colony and, in 1997, it was handed back to China. Hong Kong still retains a lot of the English influence. It’s got English street names, English sign-posts and a large ex-patriate community.
My parents and I took the funicular tram up to ‘The Peak’, a hill on Hong Kong island with an excellent view of the city. At night, we walked on the “Avenue of the Stars” at Tsim Sha Shui promenade to watch the ‘Symphony of the Lights’, the world’s biggest permanent sound and light show, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Avenue of the Stars is exactly the same as Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. As many people know, Hong Kong is huge in the film industry. The most famous of its stars would have to be Jackie Chan, but stars like Jet Li, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung from movies like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are represented here too.
I couldn’t help myself, I had to take a photo of myself with Jackie Chan’s plaque!
Shopping in Asia is an experience. Haggling for prices is necessary and I was pretty good at it because I had lots of practice in Cairo’s bazaar.
Of course, there is only so much clothes and shoes one can buy or look at and strange as it may seem, after two weeks, I’m sick of looking at these shops.
This vast consumerism and materialistic culture is actually quite disconcerting. But, this is not just confined to Asia; the whole world is heading this way.
I am now in Malaysia, my last country before I head back to Australia. I had planned to go to Borneo to climb Mount Kinabalu but unfortunately, the tour is booked until July.
I am very disappointed to have missed out, but after 2 weeks of pigging-out on Asian food, I’m probably in no-shape to climb mountains anyway!
So instead, I’m going to Penang to relax by the beach. Time for me to get a bit of a tan before I head home.
After visiting five continents, 15 countries, numerous cities, towns and villages and being away for 365 days, my round-the-world trip has come to an end.
It felt like only a few months ago that I was packing to get ready to leave Australia.
My trip definitely cost a lot of money and energy, and I must admit it wasn’t all fun. It was tiring to be constantly vigilant about safety and money. There were moments where I got very bored with wearing the same clothes over and over, packing/unpacking the same backpack and become anally obsessive about weight and volume of my pack because I was fed-up of lugging the damn thing around.
My daily concerns became simply what/where to eat, sleep, visit, see and do, and of course, how to get there.
Similarly, one soon learns a few tricks on getting some privacy and most importantly getting sleep in noisy hostels and on buses and planes.
It certainly got to a point where I was sick of moving around and yearned to remain in one place and experience some of life’s mundane but comforting routine.
Therefore, it was a real pleasure and wonderful break from backpacking for me when I stopped and worked in Sudbury, Canada for four months last year. When I got back to Australia, everyone asked me what I learned and what my favourite places are. It was just so hard to choose and rank things as there are always going to be good and bad features for everything and everywhere.
I might have enjoyed one place but other travelers might have hated this place, as it all depends on what we did and who we were with and of course, what weather we had. Having said this, I do really enjoy South America.
It was my first time on the continent and I found it absolutely fascinating and different from all the other places I’ve been to before. Looking back, I can’t believe that I’ve been back in Australia nearly five months now. I guess I can safely say that I have progressed onto a new chapter in my life. I have moved back to Melbourne after seven years away and started a new career in a new industry.
I did miss Australia while I was away, especially the lovely smell of eucalyptus forests and clear blue skies that seems to wider and bluer down under!
It wasn’t all smooth sailing adjusting and settling back in as I certainly felt that I lost my independence and was slightly ‘caged’ to know that I was home again.
Regardless of all the cost, discomfort and negative aspects, I would definitely, happily and willingly do it all again.
The life experience I’ve gained, people/friends I’ve met, places I’ve been and the knowledge and outlook I now have in my life are worth every single second of the hardship.
Many people have said that I am very brave for traveling to the places I went and doing it alone but really that is not bravery. That is adventure. The bravest thing I have done is deciding to travel. I believe everyone has the ability to go traveling and venture out of their comfort zone.
Most importantly, traveling is not a competition or a ‘show-off’ to see who has been to the most countries/cities. Just because someone has been to a place doesn’t mean he’s better than others who haven’t been. After all, it’s the attitude or manner in which one does one’s journeying that is the real essence and joy of traveling.