The Norwegian cruise was set to end in the far far north of Norway in a little town called Kirkenes. When mom and I realized we would be getting off the ship right there in Russia’s back yard, we looked at each other and said, “We have to go to Russia!”  We knew we had to go.  Not going really wasn’t an option. Mom and I are strange like that. Things most people would not be interested in, well, we are interested. We are similar in that respect. So I started looking into how to get into Russia, visas, etc.

The visa process was a real hassle.  So far in my travels, India was the only country I needed to apply in advance and send my passport off to the consulate.  It turns out Russia is similar, so it was a real pain in the ass to get Russian visas for US citizens from Berlin. But we managed it! Then I had to figure out how to get us from Kirkenes to Murmansk, Russia, the closest major city.

We waited in a parking lot in Kirkenes for our bus to arrive.  It was hazy, gloomy, foggy and cold! At 3:00 in the afternoon, we knew there were only a few more hours of daylight and the sun was already falling.  There were no signs or anything indicating that this was the correct pick up spot, but we thought we were where we were supposed to be. It is freakin’ cold and wet – we’ve checked out of our hotel, and are waiting for this once a day bus. This is not the time to miss your bus!  Luckily there was a couple with luggage in the same vicinity and they spoke English, yay! We all agreed we were in the right place.

We were on the lookout for one of those huge greyhound type buses, but were surprised when an oversized VW type van arrived that seated fifteen. Surely this Kirkenes to Murmansk route is a highly traveled one that warrants a big bus… NOT!  The gentleman jumped out of the drivers seat to greet us and load our luggage.  The door slid open and we saw a van full of people stuffed in there like sausages, with only 4 seats left.  The Russian couple went to the way back and luckily left mom and I to get the front two seats nearest the door.   With our luggage at our feet, piled in behind the closed door, we took off.

I’ve noticed I’m traveling differently with mom here. If she hadn’t been with me, I’d have been eager to sit with the Russian couple and talk with them the whole way. It’s so interesting to meet people from different cultures and learn our similarities and our differences in lifestyles, governments, ways of thinking, etc. I’m just so intrigued by it. But I tend to hang near mom a little more and make sure she is feeling comfortable in these strange traveling situations, so we stayed in the front.

We made it to the Russian border within an hour or so and all piled out of the van with our passports and luggage. I’d be curious to know how many Americans pass through Russia on this route – probably not many… We had no major issues going through so we all piled back in the van, after a jumping picture at the border, of course. LOL We carried on through the desolate, frozen lands of north Russia passing the town of Sputnik and finally into Murmansk.  Luckily the bus had a drop off location at a hotel, so I booked us to stay there for the night.

We didn’t see much of Murmansk as we had a train booked to St. Petersburg the next day.  We made it to the train station and luckily I could read enough of the Russian signs to get us to the correct train. Whew!  We’re making our way to the proper car and I’m going through my mental checklist… Do we have everything? Tickets – check… Passports – Ohhh snap, passports! The woman at the hotel check out didn’t give us back our passports! Aagggghhhh!!!!  We have 25 minutes left until the train leaves the station for our 30-hour train ride… Will that be enough time to get a taxi back to the hotel and return to the station?  Holy shit man!

We decide it’s best for mom to stay with the luggage and get all our crap on the train, find our cabin, etc. and I’ll try for the passports. I tell her to go on without me if I don’t make it back and I’ll find her in St. Petersburg. With my fumbling Russian and a non-English speaking taxi driver, I somehow convey we must get to the hotel quickly for passports.  He laughs and we zoom off… Yes, yes I’m the American in Russia without a passport, I know, I know.

Fortunately the hotel is fairly close and I run in and get the passports from the woman who checked us out earlier…. Grrrr… The woman is embarrassed and profusely apologizing. No time for apologies or being angry, I gots to go man! What a stupid rule, hotels holding passports – and that’s why right there!

I make it back to the train station and run through the doors and see the train is still there. Whew! It’s snowing and the walkways are icy and I’m trying to hurry down to the train without busting my ass on the ice. There are guards walking around the platform with German shepherds, and I don’t why, but something about uniformed guards with attack dogs in the former Soviet Union makes me feel I should walk tall and slowly and not draw attention to myself.

I make it to car thirteen and see mom peering out the window in a panicky state. Then I see the relief on her face as she sees me. Whew, I made it, I made it! I jump into the train with only a few minutes to spare and settle into the cabin.   We laugh about what almost just happened and were relieved, of course, that I made it back in time.  Although, I can tell you after about 10 hours on the train, I was wishing I had missed it!  Hahaha

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See how close Kirkenes is to Russia?  We had to go!P1120099

From the bus

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In the van traveling across the frozen north of Russia

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That’s our bus

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 Murmansk train station

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 Played a little cribbage

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I wish I could tell you that my 5 years of Russian came rushing back to me and that it was hugely helpful…  I wish I could tell you that 😦 I’d have to spend some serious time there for it to come back, I’m afraid.
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Well, we didn’t get sick, that’s all I can sayP1120154

It was pretty much like this for 30 hours – we may have slightly over-romanticized the train ride through the Russian countrysideP1120152 P1120151

Random St. Petersburg picsP1120249 P1120247

We were lucky and had a few beautiful days – although it was still freakin’ cold!P1120245 P1120244 P1120234

 This dude is crazy!  I could barely stand out side with my face exposed to the cold when I took this picture.  And he’s kayaking?  Oyyyy!P1120221

Just a random beautiful building tucked behind Nevsky Prospect on a little streetP1120220 P1120219 P1120218

Impressive architectural details and massive buildings all aroundP1120215 P1120213

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Ok, now we know we’re far away when Netflix hasn’t made it to that part of the world! 20141017_191948

We went to see the famous Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake – sorry no pictures were allowed of the performance.  I know you’re devastated…. hahaha20141019_154048

And, off she goes, out into the streets of St. Petersburg braving the wind and snow!20141014_142737

Thank goodness for hot drinks… and vodka!  LOL20141016_165114 20141014_142402

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This has got to be the most impressive church, no no, building, I’ve ever seen!  I had to show you some close up pics of this place.  They don’t build ’em like that anymore, that’s for sure!  Here’s the wiki link if you want to read up on this cathedral

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Savior_on_Blood

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Look at all those details!  I’d hate to be managing all the subcontractors on this construction project!P1120233

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And, of course there’s a mandala inspired by this cathedral

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Palace Square and The Hermitage

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermitage_Museum

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Shhhh, don’t tell anyone – a jumping picture inside the Hermitage…  Inappropriate Eryn!P1120330P1120329P1120326P1120322P1120321P1120320P1120409P1120407That’s all for now folks… Next post comes to you from Munich, Germany 🙂

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