Sunday, August 12, 2007

Путешествие (Travels)

After the program’s end (today, essentially), I will continue to travel around, visiting friends and visiting places of interest. This was really difficult to plan, and once I started digging into planning, at times I just wanted to give up entirely and come home. There are two main issues that make this scheduling difficult. The first is that I plan to travel by train for all of this. When traveling by airplane, one can pretty much take for granted that one can find a flight on any given day to any given place, and get there that same day; this simplifies booking hotels, especially since you can take care of it all online in one step. On the other hand, the train doesn’t necessarily go where you want when you want, and one might not need a hotel depending on the train schedule or the length of the trip, and I can’t just book it all together online (though fortunately, I found train schedules online, which was the biggest step. The second issue is that my visa expires on September 1st. This means I can’t stay as long as I’d like in many places, and coupled with the train issue, makes it very complicated, since, if one is staying in a place for a few days (e.g. 4 or 5), it doesn’t really matter if the arrival or departure is at 8 AM or 8 PM, whereas, because in some places I was planning to stay only one day, there is a big difference between arriving at 8 AM and leaving at 8 PM, as opposed to, for example, arriving at 1 PM and leaving at 3 PM.

My first destination is Murmansk, followed by Arkhangelsk, and then back to St. Petersburg for a few days. One friend from St. Petersburg (Katya Uskova, our friend from last year) was going to be returning from her dacha on the 19th, and another from the US that was with me last year (Tanya) was going to be in St. Petersburg from the 13th to the 24th (which of course meant she would be arriving just as I’d be leaving) and I of course wanted to see both of them. With this in mind, I figured I’d go to Murmansk (about a 28 hour train ride from St. Petersburg) from the 13th to the 16th (visiting a friend I’d met last year at the New York Institute, Katya Shevchuk) and then take the train to Arkhangelsk on the 17th, and leave the 18th to come back the 19th (another day-long train ride). Coincidentally, it turns out that the first Katya was going to be returning from the suburbs of Arkhangelsk, and so if I took that train we would both end up on it. This more-or-less cemented the schedule.

There is no direct train between Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (Murmansk in on a peninsula, and Arkhangelsk is across the sea), so when I tried to actually buy the tickets, it became clear that this wasn’t going to work, because I’d need to transfer at Vologda, and the trip between these two would actually take a full two days, and so I would get into Arkhangelsk just in time to leave again. I looked for a plane ticket on Expedia/Travelocity/etc, but it was $400 (one-way, remember) and connected in St. Petersburg, which bothered me on principle. I was beginning to think I’d scrap Arkhangelsk (which I’d wanted to visit for no good reason), but then I saw on the map in class that there was a ferry between them (which I figured might be the case) but when I started asking about actually getting tickets, it was apparent that there was no way to be sure about doing that, and of course I couldn’t take that chance. But, finally, I found through another site a direct flight between them for about $220, which wasn’t that bad, and was only 2 hours, as opposed to 50, so I decided we were back in the game after all, but the issue was that I couldn’t buy it directly at the site (in the normal sense, of paying online and getting an e-ticket) so I had to go to an office of theirs in the Angleterre hotel (next to Astoria, by St. Isaac’s), so at long last I finally cemented this, and consequently bought the train tickets to Murmansk and from Arkhangelsk and reserved hotels in both cities (since I obviously couldn’t do this knew where I was actually going and how long). Note the length and complexity of this process, which covers less than a week of travel to two other cities. I still had two weeks and four other cities to plan. The final outcome of this is:

8/13 train from St. Petersburg to Murmansk
8/14 arrive in Murmansk
8/17 fly to Arkhangelsk
8/18 train from Arkhangelsk to St. Petersburg
8/19 arrive in St. Petersburg

I planned to stay in St. Petersburg until the 23rd, at which point I’d head down to Moscow for a few days, until the 27th, followed by, in no particular order, Smolensk, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod. The reasoning behind Moscow is obvious, although I will be meeting some friends there from last year, including Lidia, who is from Italy but will happen to be there in this timeframe, as well as another student I met last year, Natasha Ivlieva, and also Irina Kazanina, the sister of Nina Kazanina who taught at the New York Institute both last year and this year. Each Sunday, Polly Gannon (another staff member at St. Petersburg University, who teaches at the New York Institute but has also been part of our program this year) is at Café Zoom with whoever wants to meet her, and I decided to go there after my phone got stolen as I was feeling pretty down, and both of them were there along with Blake and invited me to visit. I’m visiting Smolensk for no good reason, just as Arkhangelsk, and Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod were recommended to me. Smolensk, Moscow, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod are all in a line from west to east, so I figured I’d try to take day trips between them. This posed similar issues to the first set, in that schedules are really important when one is only in a place for a day. I thought about it a lot and then decided it’d really be a lot easier to eliminate one of the latter two cities (Vladimir/Nizhny Novgorod) and spend one night in each of the remaining, taking a day to travel between them via Moscow. This worked out and so the schedule is:

8/23 train from St. Petersburg to Moscow
8/23 arrive in Moscow
8/27 train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod
8/29 train from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow
8/29 train from Moscow to Smolensk

Now the question was when and where to actually exit the country. The original plan was Kiev, Ukraine, but Minsk, Belarus is right next to Smolensk, so I thought about that but quickly learned that I’d need a visa for that, and moreover, Belarus is kind of unfriendly right now (a clue was the list of places from which you don’t need a visa: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, etc). This meant I’d need to go through Moscow, so the schedule became:

8/31 train from Smolensk to Moscow
8/31 train from Moscow to Kiev
9/1 arrive Kiev

And thus is planned the entirety of the Russia trip. Of course, it would be too easy to say everything is all tied up in a bow; before we left on our cruise I tried to take care of all of the remaining train tickets and hotel reservations. The train tickets were fine; I happened to find a cashier right near the Gostiniy Dvor metro station and it all worked out fine, which was great. As for the hotels, it started much more simply since I could do everything online, but I ran into a snag with Smolensk, namely that none of the sites I tried acknowledged its existence. I figure I’ll take care of that at one of the travel places I worked with along the way here (for the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk train/plane tickets I used two different places) once I come back to St. Petersburg. A more serious snag came up on the cruise; in spite of the fact that I told my credit card company when and where I’d be traveling (in general terms, obviously), they decided to block my charges when I started booking the hotels. Fortunately the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk reservations went through (as I’m writing this, I am realizing exactly how incredibly fortunate that is), but the St. Petersburg and Moscow reservations were blocked until I cleared them. I worried that the reservations would be canceled when the charges were denied, and wondered what would happen when they cleared the charges through, and sure enough when I checked the status of these bookings, they were canceled, so hopefully this works out without my being charged twice. On the other hand, I decided to ask my “host mom” as it were, if I could pay some more and stay there for those few days, and she said fine, so that’s one fewer hotel and a lot less money spent.

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