Tuesday, December 2, 2008

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.

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