Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Looked Like a Terrorist... But in a Good Way

So if anyone has read the post below, it says that one may fly on RyanAir with only one 10-kilo carry-on item. Well, on all of my 5 RyanAir flights I meticulously managed to scrap by that rule without paying a single surcharge.

You see, I actually had about six carry-ons with me. One was the one that I showed at check-in, which left me with five more. The second went around my waist and was barely visible, although it was actually quite large (it was a fanny pack [bum bag in the U.K.], and I packed my heaviest items in there). The third was a camcorder and cassette case, which, luckily, I wrapped around my neck and kept behind my jacket. Another carry-on I opened up and asked if it is okay to take it on board for free, since it was all newspapers of various kinds, and they said okay. The papers combined actually weighed about 5 kilos! And my last two carry-ons were sundry items, which I put in all my pockets. Now I wore pants with 6 huge pockets, 2 jackets (i.e. 4 more pockets), and another item, so I had 10 pockets to store stuff.

Basically, this meant that check-in was a pretty dull moment. I would look like a terrorist, coming to the check-in desk with all my pockets loaded with items that, from the way they looked packed inside my pants and jackets, could have been mistaken for explosives. Then after check-in, I would go to a small corner and unload all of these items into the original bags, which were empty. I was able to transport one bag for free of charge, since I told the check-in people every time that it was indeed empty and simply for souvenirs that I would buy along the way.

Pretty funny, actually. This ended saving me a minimum of 70 euros on the trip.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Few Notes on RyanAir...

RyanAir is, generally speaking, Europe's cheapest airline. It is completely no frills. I'm surprised they don't tax people for oxygen, because they tax and charge for almost anything (that's not meant as a jibe to RyanAir... simply some dark humor). No meals are included in the ticket price. Seats don't recline. There are no magazine holders tied to the back of the seats for the person sitting behind someone to keep their reading materials sturdy. The only free luggage allowed is one 10-kilo carry-on item (you can check in luggage, but that costs extra). But, hell, what do you expect for a ticket that costs 20 euros one way from Barcelona to Paris, for example?

Well, that's another thing. RyanAir is a cheap airline, but there are several "catches":

1.) You must fly light (i.e. one 10-kilo carry-on), as checking in luggage isn't free (on the contrary, it's actually quite expensive)

2.) The airports used by RyanAir, especially in bigger cities that have multiple airports, will probably be those furthest from the city center.

In fact, I was flying from Stockholm to Barcelona to Paris. In each leg of my journey, I knew to expect a long flight, since I would actually be flying into Nykoping's Skavsta Airport (100 km south of Stockholm), Girona's Costa Brava Airport (92 km north of Barcelona), and Paris Beauvais Tillé Airport (85 km north of Paris). Each time, it took about about 60-90 minutes to reach the airport from the city, or vice-versa. And, more often than not, your shuttle bus ticket(s) to the actual city--if you're going to Stockholm, Barcelona, or Paris, that is--will cost more than the actual flight.

All are important things to keep in mind when purchasing tickets on RyanAir to certain destinations. Luckily, for cities such as Dublin, Edinburgh, or Riga, they only fly to the main airport, since that's the only airport available. So do some research before purchasing tickets on RyanAir, for you may realize that you're not heading exactly where you expect. :)

Cheap Travel? Where?! 5 Affordable Destinations...

So with the unfolding global economic crisis, several currencies are tanking -- some rapidly, some not so fast. The U.S. dollar is down against just a few currencies this year, but overall, many destinations have become bargains for U.S. travelers, the biggest of which I will list on this blog for those interested in planning an affordable vacation.

1.) ICELAND - The country which, without any doubt, has suffered from the credit crisis more than any other, so it's no surprise that this is a budget destination now, due to a rapidly falling Icelandic krona. Actually, the exchange rate looks to have stabilized at about 120 kronas = $1, but when I was there back in June, it was about 75 kronas : $1, which means that Iceland is now much, much cheaper. It will still be somewhat pricey, though, since this country used to be the world's most expensive travel destination, but at least it has become much more affordable. I suggest traveling there from May to September, since, due to its northern geographic location, the country does not receive much daylight in winter time. Conversely, in the summer time the sun barely goes down, especially from June to August. The only question is: what will be the exchange rate come then? is offering great promotions out of several U.S. cities, since its planes are half-full now, as Icelanders cannot afford to travel to Europe or even the U.S. at this exchange rate.

2.) SOUTH KOREA - The won has been in the range of 1,300-1,450 : $1 these past few weeks, which is a bargain, compared to the 950 : $1 that it averaged less than a year ago. Tailor made suits and general costs have thus come down by at least a third, so planning a trip to South Korea would be a smart choice.

3.) MEXICO - The peso is down, so anyone planning a spring break vacation in Cancun can expect local costs not to hit the U.S. consumer that hard in dollar terms. :)

4.) AUSTRALIA - Talk about a currency collapse... Having been almost at par with the U.S. dollar back in the spring, the Australian dollar has fallen to the range of 1 USD = 1.50 AUD as of recent. In other words, the currency has fallen by half, meaning now is a great time for U.S. dollar earners to go and spend their greenbacks at the Land Down Under.

5.) UNITED KINGDOM - The pound, or sterling, is at a multi-year low against many currencies, and the U.S. buck is not an exception. At a rate of 1 GBP = 1.50 USD, prices in the U.K. finally don't appear that ridiculous to Americans anymore. Not that it is cheap there, but, hey, dollar-wise, rarely has there been a better time to go.
P.S. The above photo of Reykjavik, Iceland, is courtesy of .

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Days 116-118: Edinburgh, Scotland and the Long Way Home

I liked Scotland and I liked Edinburgh, but not as much as Glasgow, which I visited on a day-trip to Scotland from Ireland back in January.

Edinburgh had a much prettier skyline thanks to the Castle, and the exchange rate of 1 pound = $1.50 was much better than $2.00, but Edinburgh didn't captivate me like Glasgow did. And I don't know why.

Oh, for the record, the locals all call the city Edin-bur, so don't add in the "g" ending. Apparently, that's the correct pronunciation :)

And one more note: for one reason or another, it always tends to rain in Scotland... well, almost always. ;)

The castle, at 11 pounds and no student discounts, is too expensive, in my opinion. It is Edinburgh's most famous landmark, but 11 pounds is just a bit too steep. Luckily, haggis, at only 5 pounds, is both tasty and not expensive for travelers using the U.S. dollar these days.

On my way back home, I spent the night in Dublin Airport. For one reason or another, time went by a lot faster than my last night at an airport: at Heathrow in London back in August 2006.

And there you go... that's my 115-day trip, totaling some 16 flights, 5 ferries, roughly one-and-a-half weeks on a train. This is some 18.5 hours on video, 6,200 photos, and $9,200 later. Not a bad once-in-a-lifetime investment, if you ask me.

P.S. Now that I am home, I will finally be uploading pics of my travels to this blog, so anyone reading this, stay tuned, this isn't the end... yet. :)

Day 115: Bratislava, Slovakia

It feels like deja vu... I realized how this day I would be in three countries in one day: waking up in Austria, then going to Slovakia for most of the day, before flying into Scotland near midnight. This was similar to the wake up in Denmark, go on a day trip to Sweden, all before flying into Germany program we had on my group Euro trip in January.

This was possible, though, because Bratislava and Vienna are almost the same city, aside from the fact that they speak different languages and are the capitals of Slovakia and Austria, respectively. They are only about one hour apart on a train, though, and are actually Europe's closest capitals. So, in order to save time, I decided to fly into Slovakia and fly out of Bratislava.

Bratislava has actually come a fairly long way from its sorry days in years past. I could not help but remember the mediocre reputation the city garnered from the "Eurotrip" movie and from others who visited, but the city looked fairly rich when I was there. Certain differences with Vienna were noticeable, but Bratislava is one of Eastern Europe's richest cities today, not least because, due to its lower wages and flat tax, Slovakia got so much foreign investment in recent years that the car plants of many famous brands, such as Kia and Toyota, are in Slovakia. Kia's advertisement in Slovakia is actually kind of unique: made in SlovaKIA (get it?). In fact, today Slovakia is the world's number one car producer in terms of per capita figures.

Bratislava deserves to get more tourists than it does, as most are transit tourists coming from one of two directions: Budapest (Hungary) or Prague (Czech Republic), or simply day trippers from Vienna, like me. While it is a small city of some 400,000, its Old Town is remarkable.

The only problem I had in Slovakia, though, was kind of a big one. I was heading to the airport on a bus and walked up to the bus driver to buy a ticket, which cost only 18 crowns ($1 is roughly 21 crowns). Apparently, he shrugged, implying that he did not sell them--and started the bus immediately. I didn't have time to get off, and the next thing I know, about 10 minutes later, a ticket inspector gets on board and fines me some 46 euros for riding without a valid ticket. Then he followed me all the way to the final stop -- the airport -- and took my passport until I went to the closest ATM and paid him the fine. I asked for his identity card and receipt, so as to make sure he didn't take the money unofficially (i.e. as a bribe). For the record, though, although I did end up riding without a valid ticket, it would help if the driver would sell them to foreigners at least. I wasn't even asking for change back. How hard is it to tear off a ticket and hand it to a passenger? Especially in the railway station, I did not know where to go to purchase one, and for many day trippers like me, it would be great if the airport bus and several of the main bus routes sold foreigners tickets on board. Apparently, my instance of being fined for not having a valid ticket despite wanting to purchase one is one of many in Bratislava, as I have found out.

Days 113-114: Vienna, Austria

Vienna is actually located further east than Prague, yet it is considered to be a part of Western, not Eastern, Europe. It sure feels like a mix of the two, though. At its airport, there were more flights to Eastern Europe--Tirana, Sarajevo, Kharkov, Minsk, Kiev, Krakow--than to the West. Vienna's two train stations are similarly catered to these two parts of Europe: Westbanhof goes, well, west, and the South train station goes to the east and south. But the city itself feels more like Western Europe when walking its streets.

But first, let's backtrack and start chronologically.

As written in the Paris entry below, my trip to Austria was somewhat longer than I expected, since my flight out of Paris Orly to Vienna was moved up to 1 p.m. from 9 p.m., in essence killing my last day in Paris.

However, by the time I got to my hostel in Vienna, I was so exhausted that all I did was nothing.. It took me about two hours just to stop talking to the girls in the room and get myself on my feet to go and eat some great local Austrian food.

I had a reason to be exhaused, though. My camcorder broke when I was coming back from Versailles. For some reason, the mini cassette was stuck inside and would not come out. I really wanted to catch Vienna on video, so I decided to find a shop that could fix my camcorder. Unfortunately, to fix a camcorder in such a country in not always done on the spot, and I was told that it is too expensive (about 70 euros for one hour), so it would be better to buy a new camcorder. So by the time I arrived in Vienna from the airport and visited this shop and then another, I was told that I would definitely be better off buying a new camcorder, especially since there are now holiday promotions for 99 euro camcorders--and I would be eligible for tax back, too, since this is a fairly big purchase.

Great, only the retail stores closed at 6 p.m. and it was already 5.45. And I still had all my luggage on me and did not find my hostel, not that I really tried. So imagine me running with all my 6 bags of various sizes down one of Vienna's main shopping thoroughfares just to get inside a store on time. Luckily, at about 5.52 p.m., I made it inside and bought the camera by 6.02 p.m. Unfortunately, the cheapest 99 euro camera, a JVC, was sold out, so I bought the next cheapest one in stock: a 119 euro Samsung camcorder. With a 13 euro tax refund that I should receive in the mail some time soon (hopefully), the final price was only 106 euros, or something like $140.

Then I checked into my hostel. And by 9.30 p.m I was back in my hostel from a great Austrian meal of local soup, some bread and meat thing, and some salad. Yummy.

The breakfast wasn't any worse. For one, I purchased two tickets (for two breakfasts, since I was stayingf for two nights), but I was only asked to show my ticket once, meaning my first breakfast at this hostel was, in essence, free. I still paid the money for the tickets beforehand, so I just ended up giving the leftover ticket to the great Australian girls from my room. But this breakfast has to be seen to be believed: for only 3.50 euros, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet, with croissants, butter, jam, cereal, an espresso andhot chocolate machine, liver spread, eggs, bread of all types, sausages and other meat, cheese, etc... Easily the best breakfast of my trip. And the bar in my hostel was advertising happy hour beer for only "one fucking euro." For a traveler on a budget, things did not get any better than that, although, trust me, the last thing I wanted at this time (i.e. after the Paris pub crawl) was a cheap beer. Instead, I needed some sleep.

Which I got after my first night in Vienna. I made sure to get up early, since I had one full day in Austria. Luckily Austria's whole population is roughly equal to that of Paris, meaning Vienna was much smaller and compact. It is truly a beautiful city, but the weather was cold and murky. By midday, it improved, and I truly enjoyed my time in Vienna. I actually saw all the sites I intended to see save for one castle that was quite far our from the historic city center.


So in reality my trip is 115 days long, but due to rounding, my blog will have entries that mean my trip seems like it ends up being something closer to 117 days. This is because of rounding.

Quite simply, if all day I am flying and arrive in a city at 3 p.m. and still go out to explore the city, I'll list that as two days rather than one. If I am flying all day, though, and arrive so late that I go to sleep, I don't count this day at all. This means that my entries eventually add up to make my trip seem longer than it really is.

Days 111-112: Paris, France + My Favorite Cities

There are two things that one should never do in Paris:

1.) Hail a taxi from a street
2.) Walk home for two hours in the middle of the night from a nightclub

Unfortunately, the two were related, meaning I had the sheer luck of feeling this double-whammy. First, I ended up going on a falsely advertised 12 euro pub crawl, which was to include unlimited amounts of orange vodka shots but in reality included only one free orange vodka shot with each purchased drink, aside from two initial free drinks. Great, what a scam.

In any case, we ended up having a good time and decided to catch a taxi at 2.30 a.m. back home. Alas, we had no such luck. Then we were told that in Paris the taxis stop only in designated areas, so we had to hail them from a certain location. Thanks, locals! Well, once we found that location, it was freezing cold and we knew it would only be a matter of minutes before a taxi wuld stop to pick us up. We got so desperate that we were holding euros in our hands when hailing them, but still no such luck! The cars kept wizzing past us, either not noticing us or not wanting to stop; others already had people inside.

So, for about two hours (until 4.30 a.m.) I walked back "home" with Adam, a great guy I met on the pub crawl that happened to be from my hostel. Perhaps things were not as bad as they could have been, though, as I did find a 10-euro banknote along the way, and we did not catch hypothermia after all, which is possibly due to the recently-consumed alcohol that was still circulating through our bodies. But what a great late-night/early morning walking tour of Paris we had, as we literally covered about a third of Paris... not that we had much of a choice.

Aside from those incidents, though, I finally understood why Paris is the world's number one tourist city. In short, it offers such a wide array of historic and cultural landmarks. The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arche d'Triomphe, and Versailles are just the beginning. There is so much art, history, attractions, and other goodies in Paris that it is impossible to cover them all, ever. What made it worse is that my flight to Vienna on SkyEurope was moved forward without me having a say in it, so I had one full day in Paris. I tried to make the most of it, waking up at 6.30 a.m. to go outside just as the sun was rising and not coming back until late in the evening. Obviously, I did not see all that I wanted to, especially the inside of the Louvre, but I know I will return to Paris quite soon in my life to see it. Luckily, I did go inside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which is only a bit smaller, and I did have my picture taken in front of the pyramid Louvre entrance.

Paris definitely made it on my Top 10 list of cities (in my Top 5, in fact). The list for my trip, since I know all are curious, is as follows:

1.) St. Petersburg, Russia
2.) Kyoto, Japan
3.) Paris, France
4.) Stockholm, Sweden
5.) Hangzhou, China
6.) Busan, South Korea
7.) Moscow, Russia
8.) Tokyo, Japan
9.) Macau, China Special Administrative Region
10.) Vienna, Austria

Days 109-110: Barcelona, Spain

I was disappointed with Barcelona.

True, the city does have many whacky statues and other types of architecture thanks to Gaudi, the luny architect of much of the city. And they were very admirable.

Likewise, the temperature was great, and quite a contrast with the freezing temperature I had experienced in previous weeks. At some 19 degrees Celcius (about 65 farenheit), it was a welcome change.

But the city was too costly, especially for Spain, which is not exactly a super-rich country. And, for some reason, I was expecting so much more excitement than I got. Barcelona is a great city, don't get me wrong, but it fell far short of my expectations, which I now in retrospect realize were set too high due to things I've heard about the city from others.

What upset me the most, though, is the aquarium. I was contemplating going there, since students were not offered a discount and there were many other things to do. However, after having accidentally stumbled upon it, I decided to give it a go at 17 euros (about $22). This was the second largest aquarium in Europe, in fact, but it turned out to be much, much smaller than I expected. So, coming out of it about forty-five minutes and 17 euros later, I was left thinking how much better, in my opinion, the local Shedd Aquarium in Chicago was.

Perhaps the women weren't as good-looking their Eastern European or Swedish counterparts, either.

It is a still a city that must be visited by everyone at least once in their lives. That goes without saying. But, probably for the reasons outlined above, I felt that I didn't see what I came to expect.

Days 105-108: Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm was one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited. In the winter, obviously, things are not quite as nice as in the summer, but it was still terrific.

The city is actually located on many islands, so with the long summer days come the warmth and picturesque moments. In the winter, it was as good as it gets, which is saying one must make most of the six hours of daylight.

Another pleasantry was the fact that Sweden's Central Bank had cut interest rates by about two percent the day I arrived, so the krona, the local currency, fell against the dollar to 8.40 SKR = 1 USD. Back when I was in Malmo, Sweden, in January, one U.S. dollar bought just 6.06 kronas, so prices, in dollar terms, were down by roughly a quarter--and this made a big difference.

For once in my life in Scandinavia, I wasn't being too price conscious. I actually bought many things in Sweden: good food (rather than the cheapest stuff in town), a teddy bear souvenir, a newspaper, and other items. Sweden's taxes are so high that many of these things--especially alcohol--are prohibitevly expensive, but we found a place that was selling draft beer for about 25 kronas.

In short, I had a great time in Stockholm. It turned out to be, along with Paris, my favorite European city. And it wasn't even that cold out.

Now what could be better than that?

Day 102: Riga, Latvia

Boy, what a difference a year makes.

If things in Lithuania were bad, in Latvia they are now miserable.

A year ago my friends and I visited Riga en route to Vilnius. In the Old Town, stores were open, housing prices were still on the increase, and Latvia's economy was just starting to slow from its break-neck double digit growth. True, economists were worried that its economy was overheating and that the Central Bank wasn't doing enough to contain the situation, but at least consumers had money (i.e. credit) and were on a spending spree. The Old Town shops selling traditional souvenirs, as well as restaurants and eateries, were full.

Alas, some 11 months later, perhaps Latvia's economy is, after Iceland's, Europe's most worrisome.

First, the asset bubble has popped and property prices, which fueled this economic boom, are on a downard spiral. The lat, which remains pegged to the euro, should in theory depreciate in value, but because it must remain pegged to the euro (thanks to EU accession rules), the local currency board wastes millions of euros just to maintain the peg. Latvians are panicking so much, and thus withdrawing cash at such a furious pace from banks, that ATMs were out of cash several days before my visit. With tourism bringing in a lot of money in recent years, this is likely to fan out due to the economic crisis spreading all over Europe. Parex Bank, Latvia's biggest, was nationalized by the government, but not after trying to keep it afloat with a (failed) 300 million euro rescue. Sweden and Denmark are now loaning Latvia some 500 million euros for short-swaps in a dire sign of Latvia's economic malaise.

Unfortunately, the same picture was obvious in Riga, as many of the shops in the Old Town are now closed--and will remain so until things get better. Alas, they will get worse before they get better--and that is a safe conclusion to make.

Latvia's economy will contract next year, and as the EU's third poorest member state per capita, that does not bode well for its citizens.

Having spent one day here, I felt depressed a bit, despite the good weather. It is just so mind-boggling how so many people saw this coming, yet the Central Bank didn't do much to calm the storm before it was too late.

And now most of Latvia's 2.5 million people are feeling the effects of a protracted economic contraction and a drop in living standards.

Day 101: Vilnius, Lithuania

What's nice is that even with inflation, some prices are too good to be true. Take the price of my ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania, for example. From the Belarusian capital of Minsk to Lithuania's baroque capital, Vilnius, a ticket nowadays costs only $8 for the 185-kilometer (115-mile) journey. Unfortunately, due to the speed of the antiquated trains, and also because of the numerous stops along the way as well as customs and border checks, the journey takes about four-and-a-half hours. However, for $8 that is still a bargain, especially since two years ago this ticket was $7. With the dollar being up in both Lithuania and Belarus, perhaps this price will keep falling (in dollar terms) in the future.

Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole, is an interesting place. Due to the country's tumultuous history, nowadays Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian are heard on the street and all three languages are understood. Lithuanian itself is a captivating language and a mystery for linguists, who study it with passion, as it is the language alive today that is most similar to ancient sanskrit. As a new European Union member, Lithuania is still one of the poorest member states of the 27-member bloc, but that results in lower prices. And with one of the most beautiful -- and largest -- Old Towns in Eastern Europe (the second largest, actually, after Prague), it is definitely well worth a visit. As for me, I only stayed in Vilnius one night, for I have been here before numerous times, most recently back in January on a group trip with friends that turned out disastruous just about here (read below).

However, it is best to go in the summer to this part of Europe, since it gets excruciatingly cold in the winters, though coming here at any time of the year is no longer a problem, with Lithuania having joined the EU and the subsequent proliferation of low-cost airlines, such as RyanAir, which fly to nearby Kaunas, Lithuania's second city.

Whatever you do in quirky Vilnius, though, do not go to Zemaicai restuarant and order a piglet under any circumstances, as we ended up doing on my initiative back in January. In "we" I mean me and my nine friends, who ended up coming to Lithuania and pre-ordering a piglet that my Lonely Planet guidebook told me cost about $65 and feeds four/five. Well, the actual cost ended up being some three times higher for the piglet alone, thereby making Lithuania, which was to be our cheapest destination on the trip, our most expensive. And this could not have come at a worst time, for it was the last several days of our two-week journey and just about everyone was low on money, if not completely broke. In any case, this guaranteed that everyone would be broke henceforth. So, for the record, be sure to take the prices in Lonely Planet's Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania book with a grain of salt.

Luckily, I avoided the piglet trap this time around. With its cobblestone streets and warmer temperature then at this time last year, Vilnius was a more pleasant experience--especially now that I was coming here from the East (Russia or Belarus) rather than the West (Germany, for example). It's always better to come to Lithuania from a country that's even poorer, since it looks rich in comparison, so coming from Belarus is an excellent choice. If last year I was surprised by how poor Lithuania looked even after Berlin, which is by far not one of Europe's richest capital cities, I was pleasantly surprised by how civilized and relatively rich it looked after Minsk.

The one low point of my visit here this time around, though, were the ubiquitous signs of the credit crunch and, worse, a faltering domestic economy. With the global financiasl crisis exacerbating, I noticed how Hansa Bank, one of the Baltic States' most common banks, was now gone. In its place was Swed Bank, which, apparently, bought Hansa Bank out. And while talking with my relatives in Vilnius, much of the conversation focused on lamenting about the dire economic conditions of the day: how no one's job is secure anymore, how the excellent growth has ended, how inflation isn't abating much, etc. Quite a dire status quo, especially if comparing it to Lithuania's economic indictators back in January, when, generally speaking, things were looking fairly bright.

Minsk, Belarus (continued)

Luckily, after a week or so of adjusting to Minsk, one usually gets used to it.

And, in that way, I had to get used to my sandbox (a.k.a. brothel), as someone called it. My neighbor, a kind woman of about 60, stopped me on my way out one of the first few days to ask me where the owner of my flat was. I told her that I had no idea, since one of my local female friends found me the flat, and that I only saw him a few days prior to give him the money for the apartment. She then told me that the flat is usually a mess, since the owner doesn't care about it, and that it is usually used for one-night stands by randy men who pay hookers for a whole night and get their maximum enjoyment for this money right there in my apartment.

Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, per se, except that it was clear that the bed sheets were never washed. And that, true to her word, when the shower broke on day #3, the owner didn't bother fixing it.

All in all, for the 16 nights I paid, I only slept there about 11 or 12 of them.

But, at least during the day, I was home quite often... usually to clean up after a party or to cook myself breakfast.

I wished their was heating, though, but with such an irresponsible owner I was not surprised that even that was lacking.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Minsk, Belarus: Days 85-100

Europe's last dictatorship and a Soviet Union time capsule. Or simply "communism with a cappuccino," as the Lonely Planet tourist book company had called this place.

All was great, except my first four days or so here. And except the weather. And except the place I ended up staying at. And except a few other things. Oh, well, I'll explain this in my next post, but, seriously, the people here have become a lot nicer in recent years. Maybe no one still smiles--and neither do I expect them to--but the level of customer service has noticably improved here, as have the visa regulations and border crossing procedures.

So Belarus is catching up with Europe at least in some aspects, albeit at a much slower pace. In any case, at least it's European geographically.

Unfortunately, I have spent so much time here before that I didn't get much sightseeing done, but as far as stories go, boy, are there a ton of them. Since my time at the local Internet cafe is ending, I will update this post tomorrow from Vilnius, Lithuania. )))

St. Petersburg, Russia: Days 81-84

St. Petersburg (or St. Palaceburg, as it should more aptly be nicknamed) turned out to be my favorite city on my trip so far (with Kyoto a close second and Hangzhou in third place), despite the very limited daylight the city receives in the winter and despite the common drizzle.

The city is a real gem.... So much to see, so much to do, and so little time. Even waking up at 6 a.m. every day to be out at 8 a.m. and to come back at 6 p.m., when it was dark already, was not enough time. Indeed, I wanted to see a few more palaces and one monument that I didn't get to see because time had run out. Prices were significantly lower than in Moscow, too, at least for most items, so that made the visit to Piter, as the locals call it, that much more pleasurable.

The Peterhof (Petrodvorets) and St. Isaac's Cathedral was amazing, as was the Hermitage and the city's skyline in general. Actually, the whole city is one large museum, as a local had told me on the Moscow-St. Petersburg train. He wasn't joking.

I have about 700 photos of St. Petersburg (previously known as St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, afterwards Petrograd, then Leginingrad (again), and now, finally and hopefully for the last time--and again, St. Petersburg). This is more than I have of China in total, which only goes to show how much the city offers for tourists to do. It was a great experience, and I can only imagine how great the city is in the summer, when the long, warm summer days lead into the White Nights, when the sun barely goes down.

The one thing that bugged me, though, was the foreigner vs. local prices. Citizens of the Russian Federation pay, on average, about 3 times less than foreigners do, and Russian students pay much less than foreign students. I was dumb enough to ask for a student ticket, after which they would ask for my student ID and always charge me for the foreigner student price, as my ID was in English. Only on the last day did I realize that I was better off paying the regular Russian citizen admission price, since they never check a passport, rather than paying the (foreign) student price. When tourists inquire why they pay more, they are always politely told that they are simply paying the market price, whereas Russians pay lower prices because their tax roubles are used to subsidize their museums for them. Ahh, see what a nice government they have?

In truth, the people in St. Petersburg and Moscow were very polite to me. Only once in Moscow--and never in Piter--had someone balked at me. The people were always very friendly, helpful, and courteous. Perhaps this is why, more than any other reason, I enjoyed these two cities so much. They had seemed a whole world apart from Vladivostok, which was actually 7 time zones ahead but some 6 days on a train away (and, culturally, years away)--and still a part of the same country. Well, that's Russia for you: a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, as someone had once quipped.

Some Moscow Quirky Stories

Sorry for the prolonged delay in updating this blog. It's been more than three weeks since I last updated this page.

As promised, I will start with a crazy Moscow story that transpired right in my hostel.

When I was leaving Irkutsk, I forgot to write down the name of my Moscow hostel. I knew I had two hostels: one that I booked months ago and the second hostel that I booked literally days before, since I would be coming to Moscow earlier than I expected (since I decided to skip Mongolia). The reason I booked a different hostel in Moscow rather than adding days to my original reservation is because this hostel was cheaper and I try to keep my expenses to a minimum--especially when realizing that I have a $350 deficit when comparing my planned expenses to my actual ones. I was positive I had booked Godzilla's Hostel, though, and didn't sweat that I didn't get the address from the Internet, since it was posted on the Irkutsk Baikal Hostel's info board. All I needed to do was copy it down and I was set to go.

So I arrived to Godzilla's Hostel in Moscow on Bol'shoy Karetnyy Pereulok and was told that they didn't have a reservation from me. Strange, I thought, for I had reserved a room for two nights. I told them that they must have lost it and ended up convincing them, rather easily, that I had to pay only the remaining 90% for the first two nights, after which I would end up staying at the Napoleon Hostel. So after I had checked in, I checked my e-mail and realized that my reservation was NOT at Godzilla's Hostel for the first two days, but at a different one. What's worse is that the other hostel was not only cheaper, but I would also be fined a first night fee for no-showing if I did not call them. And I realized that I had screwed Godzilla's Hostel out of 10%, too, since I only paid them 90%, as I was sure I had paid them the deposit online.

This was insane! So I called the hostel I had actually reserved online and asked them if we can work something out where I would not be fined the first night's fee. They told me, yes, it's OK, there will be no fine if I show up the next day and stay for 2 nights, as I had reserved--just on slightly different dates (Nov. 11 and 12 rather than 10 and 11). No problem, I thought! I agreed, and then proceeded to e-mail Napoleon Hostel and tell them to cancel my reservation. Since I had paid a 10% deposit to Napoleon Hostel and was canceling more than 24 hours in advance, I would not be fined at all. So I stayed at Godzilla's Hostel the first night, at the originally-reserved hostel the next two nights, only to come back to Godzilla's and stay my last night there. It was no problem to change my booking in Godzilla's from Nov. 10 and 11 to the 10th and 13th, since there was room available and the reception people were great and friendly. Hours later I was told that I had paid them an extra 1,000 roubles ($38) somehow--and that I was overcharged for my room as is.

I could not fathom how this could be, but, apparently, as I had told them that I had reserved online, the price listed online for the cheapest dorm is more expensive than the actual price if purchased on the spot. So not only did they return me my 1,000 roubles, which I had no idea I misplaced, but a few days later they reimbursed me for overpaying, too. Thus, rather than me screwing them out of 10% profit, they actually screwed me out because of my mistake but happily admitted that forthright without me even inquiring and paid me all the money back. That's what I call amazing customer service... and in Moscow, of all places. :)

P.S. Then this is where the scary part begins. In short, there was a psycho American girl who was complaining about her health on the first night. She had some boyfriend who was supposed to meet her in Moscow, but he ditched her at the airport and she was penniless (literally). So the embassy (U.S. Embassy) took her passport as a deposit and was giving her $25 per day (about 700 roubles) that she had to pay back later. This meant she could not fly out on time either. Every 10 minutes she would complain about her health to the point that the reception girl didn't know what to do. When she heard the word "emergency," she kinda freaked and called the ambulance. So, at 2 a.m., the ambulance arrived and I was there as a translator, translating random questions to the psycho girl, who was giving weird answers all the time. Then they left and said she seemed to be relatively OK. When I checked back into Godzilla's Hostel for my last night, the U.S. embassy personnel arrived and gave her a new ticket from Moscow back to the States, as well as her passport. I'll never forgot moonshining as a translator (voluntarily, though) in Moscow at 2 a.m.--and at a hostel of all places. :)