Christopher Street Day: Gay Pride in Berlin

Up until now, most of my travelling through Europe had been sporadic and unplanned, never really knowing which city I was going to be in on any exact day, with only though vaguest idea of an itinerary. However, my plans for Berlin were different. Some prior research had told me that Berlin would be celebrating gay pride during the middle of June, and so I had based most of my rough plans around the desire to definitely be in Berlin during that time. Pride week was supposed to begin on the weekend I arrived and run right through until the end of the next weekend. If I followed all the strong suggestions to stay for at least a week, I would be in Berlin for most of the festive period. Berlin was supposed to be a pretty crazy city with a huge and diverse gay party scene in general, so it would be an understatement to say I was excited to see what the city had to offer at its flaming homosexual finest.

***

They say the world is a small place place. In an almost eerie coincidence, Dane – the very friend who had raved to me about Berlin just before my departure from Sydney – was in the German capital at the exact same time as I was. I’d seen his movements around Europe through his Facebook page, and couldn’t believe it when he to me the dates he was going to be in Berlin. We made plans to meet, and so on the Saturday afternoon after my crazy first night out, Dane picked me up in his hire car and we drove to Schöneburg, the ‘gay district’ out in west Berlin. The streets were packed – for all of my queer Sydney readers, it was a similar vibe to Fair Day during Mardi Gras season, kicking off the pride period. There were food stalls and restaurants and pop up bars selling beers and cocktails and all sorts of other fun things. One huge cultural difference I discovered in Germany is that it’s completely legal to drink alcohol on the street. I mused to Dane that if this were an event in Sydney it would be an absolute nightmare for licensing laws, and there would have to be so much strict control around the perimeter to make sure no alcohol was removed from the designated drinking zones. Germans have a reputation for being sticklers for rules, but I guess that doesn’t really mean anything when there’s no rule about it in the first place!

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

Oh, the people you see on the streets - standard Berlin.

Oh, the people you see on the streets – standard Berlin.

Dane and I wandered through the streets, soaking in the atmosphere, and occasionally stepping into some of the shops that lined the streets. Another thing I loved about Berlin was the sheer amount of crazy and kinky fetish shops that they had – it reminded me of home and the shop that I used to work in, except back there we were one of the only stores in the city to sell such quality kinky leather wares. Remembering all the names of places that Lola had listed for me the previous evening, we browsed through the stores and the huge ranges of leather jeans, harnesses, jock straps, butt plugs and… well, I’ll leave something to the imagination. The day kicked on into the evening and the partying in the street continued, though eventually Dane and I left, making plans to regroup later as he dropped me home. Unfortunately those plans never came into fruition – when I arrived back in Kreuzburg, I settled down for a quick power nap to recover from Friday night… only to wake up again at 12:40am, feeling like I’d been hit by a train. I wandered out into the kitchen, which was big enough to double as a lounge and chill out area, where a bunch of people were scattered around the floor, drinking and smoking and listening to music. Someone was on ‘something’, quietly laughing to himself on the floor. Someone else had done a huge bulk order McDonalds run, so I sat down, devoured a quarter pounder and then, after realising I hadn’t heard from Dane at all, decided to call it a night and headed back to bed.

***

If there’s one thing that all gay pride celebrations have in common, other than scores of drunken queers, it’s a full blown, glitter and rainbows pride parade. “According to one of my friends, Christopher Street Day is actually this weekend,” Donatella had informed me on the Monday after my first weekend in Berlin. “I thought it was later, but if it is this weekend then you should definitely stay for another weekend. It will be pretty crazy.” Already the words of Ruth and Lola were creeping into the back of my mind – was I ever going to leave Berlin?

Sadly, Dane’s travel plans meant that he couldn’t stay for the following weekend, so when the weekend finally rolled around after my week of being fairly touristic, it became my mission to find new friends to celebrate pride with. I’d been keeping an eye on the official events online, and so on Friday night I headed out to Schöneburg by myself with the intention of hitting the opening party at a nightclub called Goya. I arrived relatively early though, so instead of heading inside straight away, I wandered up Motzstraße to see if there were any other bars that were busy. I was only half successful – there were plenty of people around, but none of them were in the bars. Since the weather had been particularly warm lately, and drinking of the street is completely legal, throngs of gay men were gathered around outside the bars, on the footpath and the side of the road, talking amongst themselves while clutching their bottles of beers. It was a pretty cool set up, but unfortunately made mingling a little hard, since everyone already broken off into their own seemingly impenetrable groups.

As I was wondering what to do, I was approached by a group of four guys. “Hi there,” one of them said to me in a charming, distinctively British accent. “We were just wondering if you knew of any good bars around here to get a drink?”
I was a little taken aback. “Umm… I actually don’t.” I pointed to the crowd across the street and said, “That kinda looks like the place to be, though. I don’t really know any specific bars.”
“Yeah, but…” A second British man, clearly already a little tipsy, leaned in closer to perform an exaggerated whisper in my ear. “We’re interested in a slightly… slightly…” He glanced back at the crowd.
“Younger?” I offered.
“Less… bear-ish crowd,” he finished with a giggle. His assessment of the crowd wasn’t wrong – while the four in front of me all seemed the be in their mid-twenties, the group across the street contained a high proportion of broad shoulders, silver hair and scruffy, salt and pepper beards.
“Wait a second,” the first guy cocked his head a little as he considered me a little more closely. “You’re not German?” Ever since I’d arrived in Berlin, I’d constantly had people mistaking me for a local German and asking me for directions. I blamed the particularly butch haircut that I’d gotten in Groningen, but I didn’t really mind too much – I’d studied enough maps that half the time I could actually tell the enquirers where they had to go.
“Nah, I’m Australian,” I replied.
“Oh, nice!… And you’re here by yourself?”
“Yep.”
“Well, we’re looking for a place to have some drinks before going to the opening party later, but you’re welcome to join us if you like. I’m Giles,” he introduced himself. I went to shake his hand, but he was a bit of an eccentric character and insisted on cheek kisses, before acquainting me with the rest of the group of friends. They were a bunch of guys from London who had flown over for the weekend. The idea of flying to Berlin for the weekend blew my mind at first, but I realised that the city couldn’t be more than a few hours away from London via plane.

So I tagged along with Giles and the Londoners for the evening, eventually just grabbing some beers from a convenience store before heading back to Goya. The venue was huge and elaborate, with towering domed roofs and chandeliers that sent the laser lights scattering, and curved marble staircases that led up to a vast dance floor. The crowd was full of gorgeous men, but from the ones that I spoke to and interacted with, I quickly realised that a large percentage of the crowd were foreigners like myself and the London lads. It was very drunken and slightly messy night, but I remember encountering very few, if any, German men. There were drag shows and pop music and smoke machines and overpriced drinks – I had a great night partying with my new friends, but reflecting on the night in the morning, I decided that it had been in its own way, for all intents and purposes, a bit of a tourist trap.

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

***

Though as a mentioned earlier, for every spectacular pride party, there must be an equally fabulous pride parade. Christopher Street Day is essentially the German version of Mardi Gras, except it doesn’t just happen once a year – apparently an event by the same name happens in cities all over Germany at various times of the year. A perpetual pride of sorts, I suppose, and completely befitting of the the Germans, in my opinion. Despite making new friends the night before, I didn’t end up making plans to attend the parade with them. That didn’t stop me though, and when I emerged out of Nollendorfplatz station onto the main strip on Motzstraße I found the streets busy and bustling with people. Some were on-lookers, wide-eyed and curious. Others were selling water and beer and food and drinks and all sorts of goods, but most of the crowd was decked out in full blown costumes, whether it was leather daddies and their ass-less chaps, drag queens in their finest frocks and wigs, or gym bunnies that had seemingly been dipped in pots of glitter. I had arrived just in time to see the passing parade, so I walked down the road a little bit to find a spot with a good view to stand and watch the parade.

Leather pride marchers.

Leather pride marchers.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

More kinky leather men.

More kinky leather men.

One key difference I observed in the Christopher Street Day parade was that everything was just so casual and relaxed, while still operating and functioning in an efficient German manner. Once again, drinking was a non-issue, and marchers in the parade blatantly clutched bottles of wine and cans of beer as they strutted their stuff down the street, whether it was on foot or on one of the many floats. It threw me back to the comparison I made between the crowds in Thailand during the crazy
Songkran water festival, and crowds at Australian events. While in that example I felt as though an Australian event would have grown quickly out of hand and potentially violent, I feel as though had Australians been given the ability to freely drink in the streets, we’d have a lot more problems of misconduct than the Germans were having. Another key difference in this pride parade was the ability to participate. I was feeling slightly hungover from the previous evening, so I chose to remain a spectator from the sidelines, but there were no fences or barriers between the sidewalk and the road – anyone could step off the curb and join the masses in their dancing and partying, strutting and posing, actively taking part of the pride parade. It was worlds away from the organisation and red tape that goes into the planning of Mardi Gras back home, where no one is allowed to pass over those barriers once the parade has started. The German way seemed so much more open and liberated, which is exactly what you would expect from a pride parade, though I can’t help but think that given the same privileges, Australians would still somehow manage to make a mess of the whole thing. Maybe I’m just disillusioned after several years of seeing more intoxicated bogans roaming the streets of Sydney during Mardi Gras season than actual queer people.

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

But is wasn’t just the organisational set up of Christopher Street Day that impressed me – the participants really did put on a show. There were gay pride groups for men in leather, lesbian mothers, transgender and intersex people, drag queens of every shape and size, queer students, campaigners for marriage equality, and many other queer community organisations and businesses – my personal favourite was definitely Dildo King. Everyone was dressed in amazing costumes, and music was blaring out of all the trucks that carried the floats. Free stickers and giveaways were being handed out and thrown from floats, and it was impossible to wipe away the smile that was plastered across my face. As a citizen of a country that doesn’t yet recognise marriage equality, I was really pleased to see that people in countries that do recognise it still continue to be proud and fight for the rights of their international queer brothers and sisters. Because up here in Europe, there is a situation that is far more dire than the right to a same-sex wedding.

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Russian float - proud and naked.

Russian float – proud and naked.

The only thing they're guilty of is being so cute.

The only thing they’re guilty of is being so cute.

There were several groups of Russian marchers who genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Whether they were dressed plainly and carrying slogans and banners, or fierce drag queens strutting down that street with their hearts on their sleeves for the world to see, my heart simultaneously swelled with pride and broke just a little, for these people who had been turned into exiles and criminals in their own country, to their point where this kind of march would have them thrown into jail or beaten to pulp, perhaps even both. ‘Dark days in the white nights’, read one of the placards being waved over the weave a Russian drag queen whose pissed off expression should have frightened anyone into giving her equal rights. ‘#putinmyass’ was another popular slogan that was being waved around. I screamed and cheered with the crowd around me as these brave souls marched down the street in front of us. Between then and the time of writing, the situation in Russia has only gotten worse. More than ever I reflect upon my visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and how the laws being laid down by President Putin are becoming frightfully similar to a Nazi Germany that the world saw during World War II. It’s terrifying, and my heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in Russia who are being faced with such terrible conditions. But there at the Christopher Street Day parade, I was assured on one thing – the world isn’t watching on silently this time, and these atrocities aren’t going unnoticed. It’s almost a little ironic that these displays of pride are now happening in Germany, but it’s up to us, and the people with the freedom to be proud of who we are, to stand up and protest against the Russian authorities, Putin, and the oncoming homosexual Holocaust.

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The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

Something In The Water

Our first night in St Petersburg was a Sunday night. However, given that the city’s birthday was technically on the Monday, we figured out that it was a kind of long weekend holiday, which meant that not as many people would have to work the next day, which meant that we finally might be able to have the night of partying that I’d had a hankering for since the moment we arrived in Moscow. After we’d arrived back from the Hermitage and taken our well needed showers, I did a little bit of research into the gay scene in St Petersburg. From what I could gather, there were two major nightclubs: Central Station and Blue Oyster. They were in close proximity with each other, and both of them were a reasonable walking distance from the hostel. I put the idea to Tim to see if he was keen, and he assured me he was on board. So after we’d had a few drinks with the whole group at one of the pubs in the street adjacent to our hostel, Tim and I set off for the gay bars, arms linked with a tipsy Kaylah who was to play our token fag hag for the evening.

***

I hadn’t been to a gay bar since I’d watched amateur drag queens over a margarita in a cocktail bar in Siem Reap, so I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the gay rights movement in Russia had taken multiple, crippling blows over the last year. I’m not even entirely sure if being gay is technically illegal or not, but there are now anti-propaganda laws that prohibit the promotion of a ‘homosexual lifestyle’, and there is supposedly a general hostility and climate of hate towards gay people. Tim had said that he’d heard it was a lot less conservative in the major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, so I wasn’t too scared. But at the same time, we were advised to keep our wits about us and try to not get into too much trouble.

We had been aiming to go to Central Station – apparently the bigger of the two clubs – but I’d only had one day to get to know the layout of the city, and I experienced a few navigational issues that took us a block or two too far in the wrong direction.
“Well,” I’d said as I studied the GPS map on my iPhone, “if we turn down here and double back then we should arrive at the other one, Blue Oyster.”
“Do you know which ones better?” asked Kaylah.
“Um… No, not really?” I’d focused on locations and dates and times in my research, but had only skimmed through a handful of reviews, none of which seemed to distinguish one club from the other.
“Well it’s only a quarter to eleven… Why don’t we just start off going to… ah, Blue Oyster?”
“Yeah, Blue Oyster is the one that’s closer,” I said, pulling out my phone again to consult the map.
“Yeah, I know. Its right here.” I looked up, and Tim was pointing to a small neon sign that read the name of the club, but would have been pretty easy to miss. Especially for someone who walks around with their eyes glued to their phone.

“Oh! Okay then, well… In we go, I guess?” We walked up to the security guard who was standing in front of the door, and made a motion that we were interested in going inside. The guard looked confused.
“Gay bar,” he said very shortly, almost under his breath. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Uh, sorry?”
“Gay bar. This is gay bar.” It was mine and Tim’s turn to exchange confused looks – I mean, I was wearing a pretty homoerotic Tom of Finland t-shirt. We weren’t exactly subtle, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Err, yeah? That’s the point?” I’d replied, not sure if he was taking the piss out of us – unlikely, from what I’d experienced with most Russians senses of humour – or if it was just a precautionary warning that he gave everyone. As he shrugged and stepped aside, I felt as though we were actually doing something slightly risky or dangerous. As far as I knew, it wasn’t unheard of for police to raid gay bars, but the risk added an element of thrill unlike any other gay bar I’d been too – and I’ve been to quite a few gay bars. We stepped through the small doorway and into the darkness within.

The bar wasn’t completely empty, but it was very far from full. There was a bar in front of us, and a dance floor dimly lit with hues of deep red stretched to our right, occupied by only a few people. I shrugged, and assured Kaylah that it would probably get busier as it got later. Exactly how much busier, none of us could say, but that was part of the beauty of exploring the unknown bars of a new city. We started at the bar, where there was a two-for-one special on all drinks before midnight. All drinks, including cocktails. Soon we were standing at a high table and I had two Long Island Ice Teas in front of me, and part of me already thought that even if nothing else happened that night, it would still be a success. The three of us stood around talking, or more accurately shouting, due to the loud music, but the scene around us inevitably led to some curious questions by Kaylah, and all of us talking about our views and experiences of homosexuality. I like to think that I’m a complex and interesting person, and that being gay is only a mere facet of my personality, but in a lot of ways I still feel like my sexuality is a quite a large and undeniable part of who I am. So it always feels great to talk about it with new friends, allowing me to share more about myself and the way I perceive myself. And of course, for better or for worse, alcohol always makes conversations a lot more heartfelt and meaningful, and the three of us had quite a deep and personal discussion.

While that was going on, the club had slowly started to fill up with people, mostly guys but with a few women here and there. It wasn’t packed, but the club itself wasn’t too big – half the dance floor was comprised of wide, podium-like steps that gave the illusion of more space with the different elevations, but it was tiny in comparison to the bars in Sydney or Bangkok. But I liked it – it was a little more personal, and there were also a few upper balcony levels, although they were always full with what seemed to be packs of regulars, smoking their cigarettes and gazing down on the crowd below. At some point after our deep conversations had reached a closure, there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The rather nondescript house music that had been pumping away was replaced with instantly recognisable pop hits – the kind the fills a gay dance floor in ten seconds flat. The Long Islands were kicking in, and before long we were bopping away on the dance floor with the locals as though they were our new best friends.

There were also a few drag numbers – some hilariously performed in Russian, during which Tim, Kaylah and myself were the only ones not singing along – but the inspiration for most of the costumes and dance routines undeniably came from Lady Gaga. Almost every single one of her chart topping hits were played at some point during the night – Alejandro made two appearances, and there even a well-rehearsed drag performance to Telephone – and each and every time the crowd went wild. Having somewhat of an affinity myself with Mother Monster, I thought it was amazing. I have a crystal clear memory of ripping my t-shirt off to join a couple of other shirtless dancers on the podium steps, while Tim just sighed and rolled his eyes and Kaylah watched on in hysterics.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke, but I was still having such an awesome time, and there was even a handful of decent looking guys in the room. I was approached by a tall handsome guy named Nikolay, although I freaked out a little bit when he spoke to me and I discovered he had braces.
“Oh my God! Tim, all these Russian boys are so young!” I remember saying at one point as we passed each other in club.
“I know! How do you think I feel?” Tim was 26, and while most of the Russians looked like big, strong men, I couldn’t find a single one over the age of 22. It was kind of creepy how they obliterated my average accuracy when it came to age guessing. Nikolay turned out to be 19, I had found out when I’d decided to give him a second chance and have a chat with him. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together that evening, though we used our mouths for things other than talking. It turns out that braces, despite their visibility, can be surprisingly inconspicuous to the touch.

***

“Hey, where’s Tim?” I’d found found Kaylah by herself at one of the tables, after returning from a semi-scandalous rendezvous with Nikolay.
“There you are!” It wasn’t easy to lose someone in a club this small, but I must have managed somehow. “Tim is over there,” she said as she pointed across the dance floor, where Tim was locking lips with his own Russian boy.
“Ah, I see,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea. He just said to me, ‘I’m going to go make out with someone,” and he did it.” We both laughed, and I made a mental note to applaud Tim later.
“Well, I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is after 4.” I’d noticed the crowd on the dance floor starting to wear a little thin, and I myself was starting to get a little tired. We let Tim enjoy his spoils of war for a little longer, and I said one last goodbye to Nikolay before we stumbled out of the club.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed when we stepped outside. “It’s alright light!” It wasn’t exactly daylight, but the darkness of night had very much been replaced by twilight of dawn. In fact, it was so similar to the dusk from which we’d entered the Blue Oyster that it would have been easy to believe that the sun had never set at all while we had been inside the club.
“The White Nights, they’re called,” Tim had said as we’d staggered through the streets. We stopped on one of St Petersburg’s numerous bridges to take some photos of the picturesque scenery, and then headed home – swinging past a McDonalds that had closed only 15 minutes before we’d got there, much to the disappointment of Kaylah and Tim. Instead, we went to the 24 convenience store on our hostels street.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

“Don’t forget to get some water if you need some,” Tim had reminded us.
“Oh yeah, you can’t drink the tap water here!” said Kaylah. Earlier that day, Vladimir had told us that the pipes that carry the cities water supply were so old and contaminated that they contained traces of bacteria that make you quite sick, essentially rendering the tap water toxic. After having drinkable tap water for the first time in months in Moscow, it almost seemed like a cruel joke that we’d come even further west to find out it was once again undrinkable.
“Yep,” I said with a smile, as I picked up the biggest bottle I could find, chuckling to myself as I remembered the nights events. “There really is something in the water in St Petersburg.”

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.

In The Ring: Moscow Circus

Our second night in Moscow had been a Friday night, and since we had spent most of the week in complete isolation, I was very keen to have a bit of a fun night out. Maria had suggested that we visit the Moscow Circus, located very close to hostel, and we figured that we could do dinner and drinks afterwards, so despite the wet weather a group of us got together and headed out. Two of our party, Dan and Claire, actually had training and experience as circus aerialists, with Claire having done it professionally, so they were both quite excited to see the show.

The circus ring before the show started.

The circus ring before the show started.

We had a beer in the café before heading into the show. The performance was very entertaining. There were a handful of acrobatics and tightrope walkers who did some amazing performances, though I cowered in my seat at the thought of being that high up, when some of the performers didn’t have any kind of safety harness or net to catch them. There were also lots of animals in the circus, and this what became a hot topic both during and after the show. There was a man doing a lot of tricks with birds and parrots, making them do all kinds of stunts. It was actually entertaining to see cockatoos portrayed as some kind of rare and exotic bird, given that they were considered pests back home who would chew the wood on the veranda of my family home. There was a were about five different dogs ran around the ring and rode on the back of a horse, and there was also a horseback acrobatic performance.

Though it was the elephants that seemed to strike a chord within the audience, or at least within the members of our group. The elephant trainer came out, and there were three adult elephants who performed a variety of tricks, such as standing on their front legs, balancing on tiny little platforms, and picking things up and throwing them with their trunks, as well as displaying a host of other talents. At one stage I think the elephants mounted each other, with their front legs on the back of the one in front of them, and walking around the ring in a little elephant conga line. The crowds cheered and applauded, and from what I could see the trainers seemed to be quite gentle with the elephants. There was no whipping or anything that could be considered overly harsh. My only complaint would have been that the elephant set seemed to drag on forever – over half an hour of elephant tricks definitely felt like enough.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the show, when the cast and crew were taking their final bows, did I even notice that the seats where Matt and Jen had been sitting at the end of our row were empty. I only noticed because I saw Tracy make a point of standing up and walking out. I was a little confused, but I had an idea as to the reason of why they left. Tim, Alyson, Kaylah, Jenna, Dan, Claire and myself all stayed until the end, and we met Tracy outside. Matt and Jen were no where to be seen – I wondered when they had actually left – and there seemed to be a weird tension in the air. Dan and Claire were having what appeared to be a pretty intense discussion, so as we made our way out of the circus I approached Tim to ask what had happened.

“Matt and Jen left, I think, and I guess Tracy walked out…”
“Because of the elephants?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He gave a shrug.
“I don’t know, I didn’t think the elephant part was that bad.” I knew that some people thought having animals in the circus was cruel, but maybe the glitz and the glamour distracted me from the fact that these animals were being forced to perform. Tim was in a similar state of mind, and not really sure what to think.
“I guess. But just watching that, I dunno, their eyes seemed so sad!”
“Really? I thought they looked really happy!” That just made Tim laugh.
“Well then I guess that’s a pretty arbitrary point. I just hope it doesn’t get discussed too much at dinner. That would be a bit of a downer.”

Sign

***

Fortunately, the topic was pretty much left alone. That actually surprised me a little, with people like Dan and Claire in the group, but if they had any strong opinions about what we had seen, they kept them private. Unfortunately, the mood didn’t seem to pick up. The mixed emotions about the elephants combined with the wet weather meant that by the time we finished dinner, everyone seemed ready to call it a night. Even I, who had been so excited to experience the Moscow nightlife, was feeling far too tired to make the trek out into the city in the rain.

But the whole evening did make me think about my position on animals in captivity, and reminded me of my visit to the zoo in Beijing. Back then I had thought that the animals had seemed so sad, cooped up in exhibits with habitats that hardly seemed suitable, but I could also recognise that zoos provide a place for the conservation and preservation of endangered species. The animals in the circus were also living in captivity, but their domestication was purely for the purpose of human entertainment. Some people consider that cruel, with the animals being forced to do tricks and stunts that go against their nature, but I honestly thought that the elephants looked like they were having a lot of fun. I have a friend at home who worked in a travelling circus, and he assured me that the animals where he worked were treated exceptionally well, sometimes even better than the human performers! So when I saw the animals performing their tricks, I simply saw them as part of a team of performers, all doing the acts that they work on and rehearse nearly every day. The animals in a zoo don’t have any freedom either, but the existence of the animals in Beijing Zoo seemed positively boring.

I don’t feel like I can condemn zoos while being so enthusiastic about the circus, so now I honestly don’t know how I feel about either. I guess it’s just like Tim said – we’re never really going to know how these animals feel about their situations. As long as they’re not being whipped or beaten or locked in tiny cages, I guess none of them really have it that bad.