Month: November 2015

The Great Firewall of China

Apparently China’s vast and perplexing firewall includes blocking innocuous US based WordPress blogs. Therefore, posts won’t be coming again for a couple of weeks.
My laptop does have VPN but not strong enough encryption to not be detected and blocked.
I’m currently writing this post from my phone because my US based TMobile phone does have good enough encryption and VPN to not be blocked. I can’t recommend TMobile enough,  their service has just worked in every country I’ve been.
Anyway, I’m not going to write 500-1000 word blog posts on my phone but you can follow me on Instagram at: 


When I was in 7th or 8th grade I had a civics teacher who was a right-wing, Reagan loving, Joseph McCarthy apologist. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a card carrying member of the John Birch society to boot.

When she wasn’t maintaining her undying love of Ronald Reagan and explaining how he was going to single-handedly defeat those ruskie commie bastards by the sheer strength of his patriotic mind bullets, she would occasionally show us “educational” films about the “Real Soviet Union.”

I have no idea where these films came from but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been produced by the Jack Van Impe Ministries or some similar cockamamie enterprise. The Russia depicted in these films was universally bleak, poor, depressing, and full of drunk and/or incompetent communists. The subtext was that Russia and its people were wrong and immoral. To be sure, life in the Soviet Union wasn’t a joy ride for 90% of the population but even at that young age, I knew that 99% of what was in those films was pure unadulterated bullshit.

While those films portrayed no known reality, information from and about the Soviet Union was so scarce and distorted during the Cold War that that is literally all the exposure that many people, myself included, had about the everyday life of millions of people. What’s most frustrating is that I still remember those films from nearly 30 years ago and somewhere in the recesses of my brain they in some small way informed my expectations of Russia in general and Moscow specifically.

My middle school teacher’s attempts at brainwashing notwithstanding, nothing really prepared me for the sheer delight I had in visiting Moscow. It is a huge cosmopolitan city; and the three days I spent there hardly scratched the surface of all it has to offer. It was clean, easy to navigate, most people were helpful (despite my complete lack of Russian), and the restaurants I ate in were all good.

Day 1

I was staying near the Kremlin and I woke up early to check out Red Square and the surrounding neighborhood. As the Kremlin itself is closed on Thursdays, I then headed over to the Novodevichy Convent via subway.

The convent grounds were nice and some of the buildings were open but a lot of renovation was going on so the main cathedral was closed. 

Novodevichy Convent. #novodevichy #moscow #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

There is a cemetery next to the convent where many famous Russians are buried, including Chekhov, Bulgakov, Krushchev, and Gogol. Unfortunately, the little map of graveyards was only in Russian and the graves were not well marked so I only found Chekhov and then gave up on the rest.

Afterwards I wandered around the neighborhood and then walked next to the river to Gorky Park. It was late October when I visited and they were already setting up the ice rink that probably stays open until early May.

Day 2

Tickets to the Kremlin include access to Cathedral square which consists of three cathedrals, a palace and two other churches. The palace is inaccessible as it’s President Putin’s residence but you can go into all the churches.

The Kremlin itself is huge but visitors are only allowed access to Cathedral Square and the Armoury Chamber and wandering around aimlessly is strictly forbidden. The Armoury is now a large museum dedicated to the treasures of the Russian state going back to the early Tsarist era. Imperial Russian regalia remains surprisingly intact despite the Revolution of 1917, the ensuing Civil War, and nearly 70 years of Soviet rule.

After the Kremlin, I walked around Red Square and, despite Amanda’s prompting, decided to skip Lenin’s tomb. I’m pretty sure Lenin’s body was replaced with a wax replica long ago.

Red Square. #redsquare #kremlin #moscow #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Day 3

In the morning I went to Patriarch’s Ponds, a park in a well-to-do neighborhood just north of the Kremlin. Despite the name, there’s only one pond in the park but it’s the setting of the beginning of one of my new favorite books, The Master and Margarita by Mikail Bulgakov.

Afterwards I walked past the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior and then down to yet another park that contains some old Soviet era statues and an excellent Modern Russian art museum.

St. Petersburg

I took the high-speed train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. The trip into Russia from Helsinki could not have been easier. Just inside Russia, the train briefly stopped and passport control and customs agents boarded the train. Then, as the train continued on to St. Petersburg, agents came through the train to check passports, visas, paperwork, etc.

Customs didn’t ask me any questions and the passport agent spent about 2 minutes going through my paperwork, stamped my passport and migration card, and then I was officially in Russia.

The Hermitage

The first day in the city, I walked to Palace Square and toured the Hermitage Museum located inside the Winter Palace. This museum is massive and contains the largest collection of paintings in the world. My ticket included entrance to Peter the Great’s old Palace which was kind of a waste of time as well as entrance to the General Staff Building which was recently renovated.

The General Staff Building displays later European art from French Impressionism to the Mid 20th Century. There was also a temporary exhibit by Steve McCurry, most famous for that National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl.

I liked the Hermitage mainly because, even though there were thousands of visitors inside, the place is enormous enough where it didn’t feel crowded. There’s no set route that you have to take through the palace so you can wander around the 300+ rooms however you want.

Peter and Paul Fortress

On day two I started off by taking the subway closest to the Peter and Paul Fortress. I got off at the wrong stop so ended up wandering around Vasilyevsky Island for an hour or so.

Peter and Paul Fortress contains several museums, the old mint, and the famous Peter and Paul Cathedral where many Tsars were coronated and also buried.

Nevsky Prospekt

The next day I walked from my hotel to Nevsky Prospekt which is St. Petersburg’s main street running from the Admiralty to the Moscow train station.

Just off Nevsky Prospekt, I toured the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood. This church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, hence the “Spilt Blood” in the church’s name. This is an unusual building for St. Petersburg. Built in a more Moscovite style, it definitely sticks out from its more classical European surroundings.


St. Petersburg was a lovely city and a good way to ease into Russia. I don’t think I actually needed 4 whole days as, once I hit the highlights, I got a bit bored with the homogeneity of the city’s classical architecture. Central St. Petersburg has done well to preserved it’s classical European architecture  but that also means it lacks the variety of a larger city like Moscow.

Thanks to the currently weak ruble, Russia is cheap. The ruble has lost nearly 50% of its value against the dollar in the past year so most things are a bargain.

Chocolate and bread in Russia are fantastic!



I started my trip  through Russia, Mongolia and China by taking the train from Berlin to Copenhagen and staying the night in Copenhagen. I´ve written about Copenhagen before so I´ll skip it this time.

The next day, I took the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm and then an overnight ferry to Finland. I had two and a half days to explore Helsinki and found it to be a charming little city. My biggest impression was its natural beauty. Set on a small peninsula on the Gulf of Finland, the city is also surrounded by hundreds of small islands.

I took the ferry to the Suomenlinna islands during one day of my stopover. Suomenlinna was first developed as a fort by the Swedes and then taken over by Russia in 1808 when Finland became a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Empire. The fortifications and buildings were interesting but the real charm of this place was the natural setting.


The other highlight for me was a visit to the contemporary art museum Kiasma.  Kiasma is world famous for putting on cutting edge and thought provoking exhibits and I was not disappointed.

The downtown area is exceedingly walk-able and meticulously clean, I wasn´t more that a 20 minute walk from any of the main sites.

Helsinki is an expensive city so I purposely stayed in a hotel with a small kitchenette so I could buy groceries instead of eating in restaurants.

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