JOE LAUFER’S JOURNAL
RUSSIAN RIVER CRUISE – JULY 5-18, 2005
From Moscow to St. Petersburg
#1 – ABOUT TO LEAVE FOR RUSSIA – Tuesday, July 5, 2005
You are among the "select" chosen to be in my "Russia Email Group". I leave on Tuesday and have just finalized this list. This is your last chance to ask to be removed from the list. I won't be offended if you don't want to receive the e-mails, which, depending on the accessibility of Internet Cafe's in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I will send on a regular basis. We leave Vincentown at 3:30 P.M. on Tuesday, and fly out of Philly International at 7:25 p.m., with a stopover in Paris, then arriving in Moscow at 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 6, their time. Moscow is 8 hours ahead of Eastern US time, so we'll actually be arriving in Moscow at 7:10 a.m. Wednesday, US time. The total elapsed time from Philadelphia departure till Moscow arrival will be 12 hours (11 hours and 15 minutes in flight - considering our 45 minute layover in Paris). Our return trip is on Monday, July 18, leaving St. Petersburg at 7:25 a.m. their time (that's 11:25 p.m. Sunday night, July 17, our time), arriving in Philadelphia at 3:35 p.m.
On the deck of the m/s Litvinov on Lake Ladoga in Russia - July 14, 2005
Joe Laufer, Jay Bransfield, Margaret & John Hoffman, Peg Amico, Doug Ghaul, Corinne Lovenduski, Charlotte D’Autrechey-Scott.
Upon arrival in Moscow, we immediately board our ship, the m.s. Litvinov, whch has 116 cabins and holds 220 passengers. The Litvinov will be our hotel for the entire trip. Here's our itinerary:
- Wed. July 6 thru Sat. July 9 - Moscow - 3 full days
- Sat. July 9 - Cruise the Moscow Canal and Volga River to Uglich
- Sun. July 10 - Visit Uglich - continue on Volga River to Yaroslavl
- Mon. July 11- Tour Yaroslavl, then cruise thru Rybinsk Lake to Goritsy.
- Tue. July 12 - Tour Goritsy. Continue cruise thru White Lake and Lake Onega.
- Wed. July 13 - Arrive at Kizhi Island and tour the Island.
- Thurs., July 14 - Cruise the 139-mile Svir River thru Lake Ladoga and the Neva River with a stop at Svirstroy to St. Petersburg.
- Fri., July 15 thru Sun. July 17 St. Petersburg - 3 full days
- Mon., July 18 - Back in Philly at 3:35 p.m.
Here’s the map of the whole trip
That's it for now. Hope you will enjoy the emails.
#2 - ARRIVED SAFELY – GREAT FIRST DAY – Thursday, July 7, 2005
This will be a short 'HELLO" from Moscow. I'm at a painfully slow computer -- and have to be on our bus in 15 min. Trip over was flawless -- arrived in Paris on time, transferred to plane for Moscow easily -- arrived here as scheduled. Ship was only about half hour from airport. Weather is delightful -- lowest 60 -- highest 72. Long days - daylight till 10:00 p.m. Ship exceeds our expectations. Toured Red Square and downtown Moscow this morning. This afternoon, another tour of the city, then Moscow Circus tonight. Hard to believe we are here -- it is a fabulous city. We don't leave port till Saturday. Hope all is well there. Sorry I have to be so short, but I have to run. More later.
#3 – THURSDAY NIGHT FROM MOSCOW – Thursday, July 7, 200
Sorry about the quick email earlier today. I just made it to the bus. My email access is very limited here -- and when I do have access to this computer, it is an extremely slow dial up connection (I've been spoiled by Comcast). It is 11:25 p.m. -- we had a 10:00 p.m. dinner tonight (it stays light till a little after 10). Reason is that we attended the famous Moscow Circus tonight -- the show was at 7:00 p.m. It was absolutely fantastic (part of the tour package). Earlier today we started the morning with a guided tour of Moscow, including St. Basil's and Red Square and several other stops. I'm very impressed by Moscow -- what a transformation is taking place here as they move into their version of capitalism. It is a huge city and very hectic. There are major traffic jams, which slows down our touring time. I was in awe as I stood in Red Square this morning and saw St. Basil's, the symbol of Moscow. We returned to the ship for lunch after our morning tour. After lunch we returned to our bus for a tour of the magnificent Russian Metro stations. These were created in the Stalin era and are not just subway stations -- but actual mini-museums, loaded with mosaics, paintings, and all kinds of other art work. A young Nikita Kruschev was given responsibility for the project, which gave him the credibility to move up the ranks in Russian politics after Stalin. The subway tour was very special. Tomorrow we tour a famous monastery in Zagorsk, then an Art Gallery and finally we are doing a " Moscow by night" tour. There will be a concert on board ship at 10 p.m.
As I indicated in my first quick email from here, the weather is fabulous. We are using our summer clothes -- mild during the day, cool at night, but not too cool. Lots of night life near our ship -- outdoor tavernas, etc., and the country has become very westernized. All I've heard in the taverns so far is American Music. The people on our ship are very nice -- and the eight in my group stay pretty much together and are really having fun. Russians smoke too much -- it was hard for us to make the transition in the airport and in public places -- they haven't heard of smoke free environments here. Also, there are many, many young Russians -- they must be having some kind of population explosion. They also love their new-found freedom. The young people like it more than the older generation, who are having difficulty making the transition. But by and large, they are glad to see Communism and the KGB gone.
Not sure when I will have access again to this computer -- or whether it will be running at a reasonable speed -- but I will try very hard. Keep in touch! We set sail on Saturday morning on our cruise through the lakes and rivers to St. Petersburg.
To my family -- hope all goes will on Saturday night. Write and tell me about it.
#4 – DAY 4 FROM RUSSIA – Saturday, July 9, 2005
We just finished dinner after our first port of call -- the Historic town of Uglich on the Volga River. We sailed all night and went through 5 canal "locks" to get here -- we have ten more locks to go through before arriving at St. Petersburg. Tomorrow's port of call is Yaroslavl, also on the Volga, before we enter one of Russia's largest lakes. Our tour of Uglich went very well, although we had our first cloudburst. We were prepared with our umbrellas, however, and now the sun is shining. As we go further north, it has become "sweater" weather -- but still wonderful. Last night my group of 8 closed the bar at about 1 a.m. -- the young husband and wife duet were taking our requests. We also danced a few of the "party" dances -- polkas, macarena, etc. and were taught a few Russian dances. They want us back tonight!
This morning, while cruising, we had a lecture on "Russian Democracy" by a Russian University Professor. It was extremely enlightening -- helping us understand Russia from Communism through Perestroika and up till today -- and how it is all working. Later, we had a class in Russian -- which was more fun than anything -- it is even more fun hearing us try out our Russian on our waiters and crew members. On our tour of Uglich we were inundated with merchants selling their wares -- so I got most of my souvenir shopping done. There is a line waiting for the computer, so I will cut this short.
Family: I heard the fireworks/Michael's Birthday party went well. Tell me more when you get a chance. Again, Happy Birthday to Penny -- sorry I couldn't be there to help celebrate. We (our group of 8) will show you how we celebrated your birthday when we share our pictures -- you were definitely a part of our fun last night.
That's it for now. Will talk to you tomorrow, hopefully.
#5 – DAY 5 – ON THE VOLGA RIVER – Monday, July 11, 2005
It is 5:30 p.m. here on Monday, July 11. This morning we toured the city of Yaroslavl, a former capital of Russia on the Volga River. It is an industrial city, but pretty well balanced with culture and open space. There are a number of parks and a lot of history associated with Yaroslavl, a town of about 40,000 people. We went to the Kremlin (each major town has a Kremlin -- or walled fortress -- something we learned as not being exclusive to Moscow), and visited the Transfiguration Church. The Russian Orthodox faith is alive and well here in Russia, despite the years of oppression under the Soviets. Almost every church we visit -- and we've visited a lot of them -- has a service going on when we enter. They are all being tastefully restored -- after having been secular museums, barracks, horse stalls, etc. during the Soviet era. We are amazed at the frankness of our local guides as they deplore life under the Soviets.
We hardly have to use Russian Rubels as currency anywhere -- the American Dollar and Euro are active currency almost anywhere you go in Russia. This was another eye opener for us. At the end of our tour of Yaroslavl, they took us to a theater where we attended another Russian Folk show -- music, dancing, etc. -- all very lively. Tonight on board ship they are having a Vodka tasting party. We've mainly been drinking Russian beer, which is quite good. Our meals have been very good -- all of them aboard ship. We have people from all over the US and Canada among the 200 people on board ship -- and from all walks of life. I tried to find an internet cafe in Yaroslavl, but there was only one at a distance from where we were touring. This is one area where Russia has a lot of catching up to do.
Hope all is well in the US. One of our guides told us that despite what some of our friends might have said back home to dissuade us from coming to Russia, we are in the safest place in the world. Frankly, I tend to believe it (after what has happened in London). We have no private TVs in our rooms, but there are about 4 TVs in lounges throughout the ship where we can see CNN. Sometimes we loose satellite connections, but generally only briefly. So we do know what is going on back home and throughout the world. As I indicated yesterday, we are experiencing a bit colder weather than in Moscow -- sweater or jacket weather -- in the mid to high 60s during the day. It is very comfortable. The area we are sailing into is fairly remote -- so we may not be able to use the computer for a few days. That will do it for now. I write my email first, then check to see if I've received any mail, since we're never sure when this ONE computer will go down. Take care everybody!
#6– DAY 10 FROM ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – Friday, July 15, 2005
Since my last email we have been "incommunicado" as we traveled north into the more remote sections of Russia. In fact, we went pretty far north so that we were only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. We have been experiencing "white nights" at this latitude -- it stays light as late as midnight -- and well after. I have some great sunset pictures taken after midnight! Our trek north out of Moscow took us through many very ordinary country towns and some beautiful forested areas. We saw life in Russia that has not yet been touched by the "Market Economy" -- dirt roads, people carting water to their homes, cows being herded through the streets by babushka-covered women, and some very simple homes. In fact, yesterday, I was invited into a private home by a young university student and his grandparents. They gave me a drink (vodka) and all I was expected to do was leave a tip. We also saw some unique Russian architecture -- all wooden cathedrals with the onion shaped domes in shingles, etc. The pictures will tell it all.
Joe (in black) and Smithsonian Adventures Group in Russia
( Kizhi Island), July 13 2005
Everyone on the cruise is raving about the trip and the weather -- it has been ideal. We are back to shirt sleeves -- temperatures up to the high 70s -- and new revelations about Russian life at every turn. Everyone exclaims often: "this wasn't the Russia I anticipated" -- it has defied every preconceived idea we've had about the country. On this phase of the cruise we've passed through heavily forested areas, logging camps and all sorts of beautiful scenery. On board ship our University Professor ( Sev Marinof) has given 3 great lectures about Soviet and post-Soviet Russia with tremendous insights into its past, present and hopes for the future. Western (American!) influences are all over -- from music, dual-language signs, fast food chains, (yes, McDonalds all over the place| - even Baskin Robbins) and a genuine curiosity about our American ways.
This morning we arrived at absolutely beautiful St. Petersburg. We had a formal tour of the city in the morning, and this afternoon visited Peterhof, the magnificent summer palace of Peter the Great, about 30 miles outside the city. Tomorrow we visit the unparalleled Hermitage Museum. There is so much to share -- the trip has exceeded our expectations beyond description. One footnote for those who may ever anticipate coming here -- you have to be reasonably fit -- it is a very aggressive trip. There’s lots of walking and no "handicapped" facilities of any sort. Even our ship lacks an elevator or escalator. We have to navigate 5 decks on foot -- and services and facilities are located on each deck. We are certainly getting our exercise. We've had a few people (not in our select group of eight, however) take a bit of a fall at certain locations.
I am limited to half hour on this computer, so am closing now, in order to read any emails I may have gotten. There are computer cafes in the town center, and I plan to try to hit one of them either tonight or tomorrow. Hard to believe the trip is winding down. But we still have lots to cram in over the next two days. Hope all is well in the good old USA. Miss you all. See you soon. Hope to write again tomorrow about St. Petersburg.
#7– FROM THE HEART OF ST. PETERSBURG – Friday night, July 15, 2005
Hello again. I'm making up for those days "at sea!" After dinner tonight, I decided to take the Metro (subway) to the "action" section of St. Petersburg -- right in the heart of the city. It was quite a challenge. Despite what I said about a lot of bilingual signs -- the subway signs are only in Russian -- and since they use a different alphabet, you have no clue if you don't have a cheat sheet. So of all things I forgot from my language class, I didn't know what the word for "exit" was -- so I wandered around the tunnels for a while till I found my way out. Note: I'm by myself. I also learned that unlike Moscow, most St. Petersburg people don't speak English as readily as in Moscow. So now I had to find an internet cafe. I went into a book store, and the first guy had no clue what I was asking. Another guy did, and just pointed up the street, but couldn't tell me how far -- his English was very limited. Well, it wasn't far, and here I am. It is a great Internet Cafe -- high speed Internet for the first time since I left Vincentown! And dozens of computers occupied by an international clientele. I was able to read all my accumulated emails -- which I couldn't do on board ship because of the slowness and the limited access.
Now I can say I've navigated the Moscow and St. Petersburg subways (that is, if I can find my way back to the ship tonight). I think I've pretty well communicated how much in awe we all are on this trip. St. Petersburg has us in "awe nirvana"-- as we saw the magnificent buildings which have meticulously restored since World War II. Hitler pretty much destroyed a lot of St. Petersburg -- so you have to give the Russians credit for the way they've restored the historic buildings and churches. Tomorrow we go on a canal ride through the city "The Venice of Russia". I am purchasing the ship video of the tour so I can share with you some of the things we've seen, done and learned on this fabulous trip. We're going to have to have a Russia night in Vincentown.
The churches and cathedrals here are indescribable -- so much care has gone into preserving and restoring them. The people LOVE Puten , by the way -- especially here in St. Petersburg, his home town. We feel we've gotten to know a lot about him -- things we could never have learned on FOX, CNN or CBS. They're trying to figure out how to keep him around after his second term ends and he can't run again for President.
Another comment on the weather -- although we are in the same latitude as Northern Alaska, they are having a heat wave here. We have had absolutely fabulous weather throughout the trip. Today it was Sunny and in the high 70s -- and my favorite thing is the "white nights"-- sunshine till midnight, then about another two hours of semi-dark.
Well, I don't want to bore you. I'll try to get back here tomorrow or Sunday -- then it is home on Monday. We have to get up at 4:30 a.m. Monday to prepare for our flight home. Wish all of you could be directly sharing this experience with us. We'll tell you all about it when we come home.
Take care. Joe.
#8– DAY 11 FROM ST. PETERSBURG – Saturday afternoon, July 16, 2005
Hello again, all.
I’m taking advantage again of the Internet Cafe in downtown St. Petersburg. On the way here I experienced a close call from professional pickpockets. They were about to cut lose my fanny bag at a busy corner -- but being the seasoned traveler I am , I cut them off at the pass. I'd hate to have been a victim on my second to last day! It is another scorching hot day here -- and this morning we toured the Hermitage Museum -- which, according to Russians, is better than the Louvre in France, the Prado in Spain, the Uffizzi in Florence, etc., etc. It may well be. We experienced another "benefit" of group travel with the right organization. As members of a Collette-Smithsonian Adventures tour, we were allowed into the Hermitage two hours before it opened to the public. Of course, we had to get up early to do so. We had the museum all to ourselves. And lucky we were. As we emerged around noon, it was shoulder to shoulder people everywhere. I never saw so many people crowding into a museum. There are tourists here from all over Europe, all over the USA, and all over Asia. The whole place is buzzing with tourists. The museum is everything it was cracked up to be -- not only European masterpieces, but everything in between -- and we were able to see it easily and at our pace with the help of some wonderful tour guides. Ours was named Natasha!
On my way here to the Internet Cafe, I visited the only active Catholic Church in St. Petersburg (all the others are Russian Orthodox -- and there's also one Lutheran Church here). The Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was reopened in 1992 after being a vegetable storehouse and later a concert hall during the Soviet period (when all churches were used for secular purposes). It is currently being restored and is very beautiful. They have Mass in English at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday.
Tonight we are going to a Russian folk show. I am hoping they will have some Cossack dancers -- as we have not seen them elsewhere on the tour. (Post trip note: YES – there were great, energetic Cossack dancers in the show!) Some folks are going to the Russian Ballet tomorrow night. Ballet -- even the Russian kind -- isn't my cup of tea, so I'm by-passing the opportunity. Things are winding down and we are preparing to leave for Paris on Monday -- we have a 4 hour layover there, then it is on to Philadelphia.
Our ship is moving to another port tomorrow morning, so I doubt that I will be able to get to this Internet Cafe again -- so this will be the last email from Joe from Russia. I thank you for your patience in allowing me to share my experiences. There's so much more to share -- visually, and I hope I will be able to do so when I get all my pictures and memorabilia together. Oh yes, as is my tradition, I purchased a Russian Flag to fly over Vincentown when I get home. I finally was able to get one yesterday.
Take care -- see you soon!
#9– BACK HOME IN VINCENTOWN – Post trip summary
Well, the trip is but a memory. My emails have been edited (sorry about all the original misspellings – I was so rushed I could never go back to spell check), my pictures have been developed and my scrapbook is filled to capacity. Our flight home went well – we weren’t exactly excited about our 4-hour scheduled layover in DeGaulle Airport in Paris and the extreme heat which welcomed us when we arrived in Philadelphia. Our limo-bus was waiting for us at Philly International and got us to Vincentown in time for supper on Monday, July 18. Tired and sore from the trip and all the exercise in Russia, we have fond memories of a fabulous adventure that was both entertaining and educational. My photos are on “ Snapfish” and a slide show can easily be sent to anyone who requests it. Time now to start planning my next overseas adventure – The Imperial Cities Tour ( Krakow, Prague and Budapest) scheduled for April, 2006. Hope to see some of you on that one! Joe