Before I’ll take you to Russia let’s set one rule: DON’T GO TO MOSCOW.
Once we accept it, your Russian experience would be exciting.
Moscow is a snobbish, bureaucratic and chaotic place, a country within a country. Too many luxury cars (haven’t seen so many in NYC or Tokyo) with too many poor people, too. True, I live in Moscow and I like its rhythm but this rhythm is not unique, it’s like in any big city. It is also filled with Byzantinist vibes such as its mixed architecture and the Kremlin politics, the old-fashioned people behind its walls, their minds hopelessly outdated… Don’t waste your time.
Go instead to Saint Petersburg aka the ‘Northern capital’. It is also known as ‘the most European Russian city’ with its Classic and Baroque imperial architecture, its beautiful bridges over the Neva river and its gloomy weather when it always rains. Such crappy weather is imprinted in local residents’ mind and is an integral part of the city’s heritage. The city that, according to the legend, was built on the swamp by Peter the Great.
Being there, you’d go to the Hermitage. I especially like the Nicolas the Second’s library. It is all-wooden, two-storied, windows looking out to the Neva and the Peter and Paul fortress just on the other bank of it. I’d imagine the last Emperor holding a glass, sipping red wine looking out through the frozen windows in, say, 1910…
Walk down the 1812 Patriotic war gallery with the portraits of the heroes of that victorious war with Napoleon… Then go down to the underground floor to see its Egyptian mummies; for some reason I always have fun looking at those dried-out ancient guys…
To me the Hermitage is the heart of the city still securing the proud spirit of the Imperial times. From here the Russia’s Tzars once ruled a diverse, timeless country spread from Finland to Alaska and from Poland to the Caspian Sea shores…
But don’t limit yourself by that only. The city is eager for you to explore, from cafes to churches to the Soviet era artifacts such as the ‘Aurora’ cruiser, the symbol of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
It is my hometown, too, though I’ve spent most of my life in Moscow.
To experience Russia’s natural beauty, in sharp contrast with the Saint Petersburg’s urban grandeur, take an almost 9-hour flight to Kamchatka to get to the opposite side of the country. It is the Far-Eastern peninsula, the terminal point of the Aleutian islands chain; this is all that is left of the great Ice Age land bridge in the North Pacific all the way to Alaska.
The place is truly incredible with its dozens of snow-covered volcanoes, including the Klyuchevsky, the highest one in the whole of Eurasia, still active and very dangerous toddy. There’s brown bears looking for salmon when it goes up the rivers in springtime. There’s moose wandering the forests. There’s hot springs to relax. Just like in Alaska, there’s a very ancient tradition of sled dogs. Those two places look very much alike in many aspects, not only in terms of its nature but with shared cultures of the past, too. You could find totem polls on the both sides of the North Pacific, for instance. You could enjoy the delicious Bering sea crabs there, too.
Kamchatka’s motto is ‘Where Russia begins’ as it looks east, facing the Sun rising above the wild ocean. Its capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, lies on the bank of the picturesque Avacha bay where Franco-British navy once fought the Russian garrison there as part of the Crimean war, in 1854. Sailing through the bay waters, just before you go to the high seas, you’d find there the famous Three Brothers – three tall rocks rising up the surface, a symbol of the town.
I think these two places with both its cultural and outdoor experiences would be the best option to feel what Russia is.
What must you experience in my country?
If you read these musings regularly, you will know that I have very little time for my birthplace, Britain, or more exactly, England. To my mind, the country has been ill-served for too long by hopelessly out-of-touch toffs, the dealing with the pandemic has been little short of disastrous, and leaving the European Union remains one of the most baffling decisions in its entire history. Of which there is plenty.
But there’s still a plethora of places in England to admire for my two writing pals Dean and Sergey. So I’m (virtually) whisking the pair off down the south coast, and the beautiful Purbeck Hills, a ridge of chalk downs in the county of Dorset.
A main advantage of England’s very dodgy weather means that the countryside mostly looks extremely lush – in this case, miles and miles of undulating, unspoilt land, blending into a collage of every shade of green you will ever see in one place.
My friends and I can walk over the hills, until they reach the sea at Swanage. We could, but we won’t. Not today, anyway. Because, plying its way through the hills and dales is a preserved railway line. Much more fun.
The line passes through the picturesque village of Corfe, and as the beautifully maintained steam engine pulls its retro-carriages into Corfe station, a simple glance upwards will enable the boys to witness the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle.
I hope the boys are enjoying the sights, as we have already sampled the delights of the buffet-car, with its tempting range of fine food and wine. Another few minutes, and we’ll be arriving at the terminus of Swanage, a lively seaside resort still loved by thousands of holidaymakers.
And there, another treat in store for the boys. A visit to two or three traditional British pubs, and the chance to grab some fish and chips ready for the journey back. A perfect day out, which will live long in the memories of my two pals.
I’m not wrong about this place you know – the celebrated author E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End: “ If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.’
I’m not arguing.
I must send you to a single place so you can experience America. Of course, the obvious comes to mind first: Disney in Orlando, or The Air & Space Museum in Washington, or maybe even Williamsburg, VA. All great places. But I’ll argue they only show slices of my country and none show the heart. Perhaps Williamsburg comes closest, but no… it’s more British than American.
If your’e from the US, I’ll share a phrase, an insult you have never heard before: “That’s Cowboy.” As far as I’m aware, it’s exclusive to the UK. It means something that’s badly done or completed in a half-way fashion.
I’m not sure about the origins of the phrase but I am sure it doesn’t describe cowboys in the slightest. By the way, if you call the UK home, you may wish to know:
- Far more cowboys died from snakebites than gunshots
- About ¼ of all cowboys were of African decent — even before the Civil War
- This was/is hard, brutal work — not for lazy, half-way people
- What you see in the movies is Star Wars level fantasy
Of course, you know that’s not right because you saw John Wayne kill six men and the Sheriff didn’t even care.
So my experience for you would be two weeks at a Dude Ranch. What’s a Dude Ranch you say? It’s a working ranch where greenhorns are allowed to ride with real cowboys.
They will literally show you the ropes. You will work the herd. Perhaps you will ride a fence line looking for breaks or maybe you need to go out and search for a missing calf.
Yeah, I suppose some guy named Cookie will whip you up a big mess of Chilli, then you’ll lay down on the ground, pull your hat over your eyes and listen to Frank play the guitar by the fire. Too damn many movies. I’m sure the cowboys would chuckle but they would let you “experience” it.
Listen: when you wake up you will not be able to move. That ground is so hard you will discover muscles you didn’t know you owned. Yes, I do know what I talking about because I’ve done it. Not the Dude Ranch part but everything else.
Yeah, it’s hard. But when it’s over you will love the place like I do. Yes, I used to listen to Coyotes at night; for years. You’ll experience the bright Milky Way, the fire, the smells… and you will never say That’s Cowboy again because you’ll know the truth. These guys can look at the sky and give you a forecast. They can look at the ground and tell you when someone came by. And they love the land and the freedom. And that IS cowboy.