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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Japan - Prelude

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It would be my third time visiting Japan.  

My first visit was the summer when I turned 16.  I went with a study broad program to California for a month.  On the way back, we stayed in Tokyo for a few days before we returned to Taiwan.  The only vivid memory that I had of that trip was watching porn in the hotel room for the first time with a bunch of girls; which would be a story for another time. 

The second trip was maybe 10 years ago, meeting my high school best friend in Tokyo before going back to Taiwan.  I remembered lots of shopping, running around and getting lost, early morning fish market and sushi brunch, and almost missed the return flight. 

Many of my Taiwanese friends LOVE Japan, and return to visit year after year.  I did not understand their enthusiasm.  If it was not for the debate that H and I have been had for a long time, I honestly did not know if and when I would return to Japan again.  

A few years ago, H met his colleague friend for two hours when we had to transfer flights at Tokyo International Airport.  H did not leave the airport but he did go through customs and had a stamp on his passport. 

"I met my friend in Japan, I went through the custom and had the stamp to prove it!" H said with a mischievous smile. 

"No way! That did not count. You didn't see anything in Japan except the airport." I insisted, rolling my eyes at him. 

Last year, when the airline that we usually take to visit Taiwan changed their flying route from New York-Alaska-Taipei to New York-Osaka-Taipei,  I figured that we can finally legitimize H claim after all these years and stop by Japan for a short trip after visiting my family in Taiwan.  Deep down, I knew H would LOVE Japan, and I was excited to take him there. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Russia - Afterthoughts & Tips

"What do you you think of Russia?" People asked us when we returned from our trip.  

H and I found ourselves having a hard time answer the question.  "It was different than what we imagined".  That was the best way we could describe our feelings about  this trip.

Before this trip, Leo Tolstoy's literature and Tchaikovsky's music came to mind when I thought of Russia.  I imagined it being a freezing, dark, depressed and repressed land with people who were stern and harsh.  H still had vivid memories of watching news of the Soviet Union with his grandfather growing up. Secret police giving us hard time and the inevitable bribery to get us out of trouble was what he expected of this trip......

Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, we could not find any trace of evidence that associated to the impressions we had of Russia.  St. Petersburg was as beautiful as many Eastern European cities, and Moscow did not miss a beat compare to any other global metropolitan city

The trip demystified Russia for us.  To be 100% honest, we were almost disappointed that we did not find the Russia we had pictured; the Russia that was a bit dark and dangerous to satisfy our cravings for adventure. 

Shortly after we came back from Russia, H started look into traveling to North Korea out of curiosity. 

I cracked up.   For someone who hesitated traveling to Russia at first, this was a little extreme, don't you think?

After thoughts:  

  • There definitely is a lot of room for improvement when it comes tourism in Russia.  Although the system can be challenging for tourists, most people we encountered were very nice and helpful.  
  • There were times when we travel to other cities, and we felt that the hotel staffs or store clerks were flaky in a way that they were trying to make a few more bucks and be less truthful about the information they gave you.  The people that we encountered in Russia were endearingly direct and honest.  We never felt once that we were misguided to spend more money.
  • I think what really surprised us about this trip was the soft side of Russians.  The arts were amazingly colorful and cheerful;  so many restaurants were tastefully done and elegant.  The most charming thing we had quickly discovered was that Russian people LOVE flowers! At the customs exit at St. Petersburg Airport, I have never seen so many men holding bouquets of flowers, waiting to pick up their loved ones.  Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg, it was a common sighting to see women holding flowers that their dates brought for them.  There were flower shops in every metro station.  Who would've thought that Russian men were so romantic!


  • Travel Resources: I bought two guidebooks for this trip: Frommer's and Eyewitness Travel, but found the these guidebooks either did not cover a lot of details or were not up to date.  The best resource for the trip planning  to Russia for me was the Tripadvisor forum.  It is especially useful if you are an independent traveler. 
  • Midnight Train: Although we had a good experience taking the "Red Arrow" train for our overnight trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I discovered the "Grand Express" after I came back home and found that it was probably a better train to take.  The travel time is longer which  allows you more sleep, and the facility on the train seems new and modern compare to the Red Arrow.  The most important thing is that the Grand Express has an English website and is so much easier to navigate and purchase tickets. 
  • Opening Hours: Traveling to Russia in the winter may be a different story, but a great benefit about traveling to Russia in the summer is that a lot of tourists sites and shops open very late.  You really feel that you can do so much in one day.  Do not rely on the guide book's information about the opening hours since we have discovered that many tourist sites change their opening hours from season to season.  It is best to go to their websites for the most updated information. 
  • A-La-Cart Admissions: Get used to may layers of admissions at one site when you travel to Russia. Most audio guides cost extra, many special exhibitions cost extra, and in rare occasions, it will cost you money to take photos or videos.  If your budget is tight, you may want to do some homework and be more strategic about what to pay and what to skip.   

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Russia - Moscow 7.7 - 7.8

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  • Tretyakov Gallery
  • White Sun of the Desert
  • Metro Stations
  • Ulitsa Arbat
  • Sturgeon Caviar
  • Aeroexpress

Although Moscow is a bigger city than St. Petersburg, in terms of tourist activities, Moscow seems more manageable. (It is a different story if you like shopping and night life.)  Our walking tour guide from the first day had recommended Tretyakov Gallery Since we really enjoyed the arts we saw in St. Petersburg, we decided to check out the gallery on our last day in Moscow.  

In the beginning of this trip, we had always paid extra for the audio tours to all the sights that offered them.  As we waited to pay for the gallery admission, we looked at each other and had the same response, "Nah..." Both of us just could not sum up the concentration to listen to another audio guide anymore.   Trekyakov Gallery also had some really good collections, but we did notice that there were quite a few duplicated paintings from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.  The museum staff struggled in English trying to explain to us the reason.  From what we could gather, it seemed like the painters painted a few copies of the same paintings, so all the duplicates were authentic.  It was also worth noting that seeing the Royalty family portraits with the dresses we saw in display at the Armory Museum was pretty cool.  

After the museum,  it was time for lunch.  Although I had a restaurant in mind that I wanted to check out, I was dreading to repeat the nightmares of looking for addresses and getting lost.  Judging from the map, the restaurant was within walking distance.  We decided to take a chance and find the restaurant.  We walked through some residential area.  The streets were quiet and clean.  In front of one building, we saw three guys cleaning the building windows with only a few strings  to secure their waists.  Crazy!  I guess I have been living in the U.S. for too long now that I have become a total wimp! 

Luckily we were able to find the restaurant without too much drama.   White Sun of the Desert served central Asian cuisine.  The menu was extensive that would make your head spin,  and there were a lot of meat and intestine dishes.  We ordered a couple of appetizers to share.  Perhaps we did not order the right dishes.  The food was good, but not memorable. 

Although I did not write much about the Moscow Metro so far, we had been using the Metro everyday since we arrived.   For 28 rubles per ride and trains arriving at the stations every 1-2 minutes, the Moscow Metro was an amazingly efficient and economical way to travel around town.   Operating since 1935 for the first time, the Soviet Union  played a pivotal role in building one of the largest metro system in the world by enlisted red army soldiers, members of communist youth league, and many of the best artists.  The Metro stations reflected Russian's socialist glorious past and was an excellent way to explore underground Moscow.  We often hopped off the train to take pictures of these beautiful stations and hopped back on the next train to the next station.  

After taking a detour and visiting a few more metro stations, we eventually came to the pedestrian street, Ulitsa Arbat.  There were a lot of souvenirs shops and restaurants along the street, but it felt quite touristy.

Since it would be our last night in Moscow and we really had not eaten  a decent dinner in Moscow yet, we made an effort to make a dinner reservation at Kitezh, a highly recommended restaurant by Frommer's guide book, and prayed that we would find the restaurant easily.  However, not so lucky.  We once again found ourselves running around in circles and people on the streets were sending us in different directions even though the whole time, we were standing in front of the court yard that led to the restaurant.  30 minutes later, we found the restaurant and was led to our table in an empty, small, narrow, and ark cellar.  The restaurant seemed to host a private event that day and there was a large group in the next room with a live band playing extremely loud music.  I put down the menu, asked H, "Do you want to leave? I don't want to eat here."  H felt the same way, and with in 2 minutes, we walked out of the restaurant.  

Sigh..... I was feeling defeated and really disappointed that I had not have a chance to try the Sturgeon Caviar in Russia.   We did not know where to go for dinner nor did we want to put ourselves through this ridiculous ordeal to look for another address again!

Finally, we went back to the gourmet food shop at Gum, bought Kvas, a small tin of Sturgeon caviar, bread, and some other goodies, and had a picnic dinner at our hotel room.   

It was our last night in Moscow, and the next day, H and I would go on our separate flights.  I would be leaving from the international airport back to New York in the morning.  2 hours later, H would be leaving from the domestic airport to Austria visiting his family.  It was not what I pictured how we would spend our last meal in Russia, but sitting in bed next to H, and eating caviar in our bathrobes,  it was both intimate and romantic in a strange way. 

The next morning, H took the Metro with me to the station that connected with the airport shuttle, Aeroexpress. The transportation was seamless, easy, fast, and cheap.  I waved goodbye to H as the train quietly sliding away.  

Knowing that H was nervous coming to Russia in the beginning of our trip,  it was ironic that he ended spending time here alone.  I wondered what he would be doing the last two hours in Moscow by himself.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Russia - Moscow 7.6

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  • Kremlin & Armory
  • Okhotny Ryad Shopping Center Food Court
    • Cafe Pushkin
    • Yeliseevskiy Gastronom ( Yeliseev's Food Hall)

    It was the day for the Kremlin today. The MUST SEE place in Moscow.  H loves history.   Knowing that there were so many important political events taking place at the Kremlin that had profound impact not only to the Russian history, but to the world, he was excited to finally see this place in person.   To beat the crowd, we were already waiting in line for the tickets by  9:15 AM, 15 minutes before the ticket booths opened.  Once we got the tickets, we headed straight to the Borovitskaya Tower entrance to wait in line again for the Armory Chamber.  There were a few people being turned away at the check point because they carried backpacks.  The coat check station was near the ticket booths.  I felt bad for these people.  Hopefully they had a chance to make the 10 o'clock admission session for the Armory.   As an independent traveler to any country, you either do the homework and be prepared or accept some unexpected hassles.   Traveling here in Russia, it is important to keep that in mind. 

    The Armory Chamber was absolutely worth the extra costs to visit.  I was most fascinated by the carriages and coronation dress collections. They were amazing!  After the Armory, we came to the Cathedral Square.  A total of 3 churches and 3 cathedrals surrounded the small square.  By the time I made the round, I was all Cathedral & churched out!

    After the Kremlin, it was time for lunch, and I was in no mood to spend hours running around looking for restaurants in vain again.  Fortunately, we stumbled upon Okhotny Ryad Shopping Center right by the Kremlin.  Another huge shopping mall with a food court on the bottom floor.  The food court was a mix of American and Russian Fast Food.  It was really interesting to see what Russians Fast Food was.  We got some Pelmeni and Fries, H had a beer, and I finally had my first Kvas (A dark sweet, low alcoholic content drink made from Barley and Rye).   Having only been to "proper" restaurants spending at least 2 hours on each meal the past 6 days,  the quick and easy Russian Fast Food was a welcomed change, and the food was pretty decent by the tourist standards.

    Since we were already in the mall, naturally, we went shopping after lunch.   Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall had more contemporary brands and the prices were a lot cheaper than the luxury boutique shops at the GUM.   

    A couple of shopping bags later, I was happy, satisfied, and once again remembered how tired my feet were.   We returned to our hotel a few minutes walk away to drop off our bags and gave each other foot messages. 

    We left the hotel around 3:30 PM again.  I was craving for some tea & desserts and decided to go to Cafe Pushkin.  On the way there, we finally found a postal office to get some stamps for our post cards.  It seemed that post office was the only place you could buy stamps, or you may pay a premium at the hotel for them to mail the postcards for you.  

    Cafe Pushkin looked like it was frozen in time from 19th century.  You would've never guessed that it only opened in 1994.  Again, the service was impeccable, and my honey cake was TO DIE FOR.  So good!

    Traveling to a new country, I always love visiting the local food markets to see what people are eating.  I was especially looking forward to check out Yeliseevskiy Gastronom after seeing the exquisite interior of this 19th century food hall from my guidebook.  Better yet, it was open 24/7!  It was such a luxurious food hall with huge chandeliers and ornate walls.   I could not imagine a more refined and elegant environment to do grocery shopping.

    Although we just had tea & dessert not long ago, shopping in Yeliseevskiy Gastronom made us crave for something to eat again.  We had no plan or desire to look for restaurants again,  so  we went back to the shopping center food court and got some Chinese dishes, blini with mushroom & cheese, soup, and Kvas from the Russian pancake fast food chain, Tepemok

    It was an early night for us, as our legs could not take more abuse to walk any longer.  We spent the evening at the hotel's  Jacuzzi and swimming pool

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012

    Russia - Moscow 7.5

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    • Leningradskiy Train Station
    • Hotel National
    • Moscow Free tour
    • St. Basil's Cathedral
    • Gum Department Store
    • Japanese restaurant

    30 minutes before the train glided into Moscow Leningradskiy Train station, our train attendant knocked on our door to ask if we wanted some coffee or tea in Russian.  Although we did not get too much sleep that night, we were too wired to feel tired.  The train arrived on time at 7:55 AM.  Once we got out of the train, we easily spotted our driver arranged through our hotel.  

    15 minutes and 1,500 rubles later, we were at the Hotel National checking in.  The classic Hotel National in Moscow is the total opposite of swanky W hotel that we stayed in St. Petersburg.  Built in 1903, it has a rich history.  Lenin stayed here in room 107 in March 1918.  The location of Hotel National is excellent.  It sits opposites of Red Square, and has a metro station next to it.  

    Our room was not ready yet when we arrived, so we decided to get some breakfast at a random cafe nearby. The city was slowly waking up, and traffic was getting busy.  It was clear we were not in St. Petersburg anymore.  The city felt more commercial, crowded, and busier.   The weather was about a few degrees warmer as well. 

    We had booked the Moscow Free Tour online for this morning at 10:45 AM.   In St. Petersburg, we had not gotten any chance to take the Metro.  I was glad to finally get a chance to take it to our tour meeting point, Slavyanskaya Square.   Our tour guide, Airat, was a colleague student majoring in Political Science who spoke great English.  He did a great job not only feeding us historical and factual information, but also engaged in some interesting conversations about Russian culture and politics today.  

    The 2.5 hours took us through most major sights in Moscow and ended in Christ the Savior Cathedral.  We were glad to do the tour the first thing when we arrived in Moscow.  It was a quick way to get us oriented and to plan what sights we wanted to come back and visit. 

    By the time the tour was over, our room was ready for us.  Before we walked back to our hotel, we stopped by the gorgeous GUM, which stands for State Department Store.  Created a century ago, The building was magnificent with ornate facade and glassed ceilings which occupied almost the full eastern side of Red Square.  It housed many top designer shops and probably was one of the most gorgeous department stores I have ever seen. 

    We went inside the Gastronome No. 1, a gourmet shop inside the GUM.  I guess all the sour creams & dills in almost every Russian dishes had gotten to us, and H was really craving for a cold cut sandwich. We did some food shopping, headed back to our hotel to finally take a shower, make sandwiches for lunch, and take a much needed nap. 

    We left the hotel after a couple hours of rest, and walked back to the Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral.  Bigger than the Church of spoiled blood in St. Petersbugr, St. Basil's Cathedral stood on the north end of the Red Square.    From afar, it almost seemed unreal that these onion shaped domes and vibrant colored architecture should only exist in a fairytail.   

    The Cathedral opened late in the summer time.  By now, we were sort of used to the a-lar-carte admission fees through out all the Russian tourist sites.  However, it was the first that I saw an additional cost for Photography (160 rubles) and videotography (180 rubles).  As elaborated and impressive the exterior of the cathedral was, it could not be said about the interior.  

    After the Cathedral, we were ready for dinner.  Both H and I really enjoyed the Georgian food at Kavkaz Bar in St. Petersburg, so for dinner, we decided to take Metro to Genatsvale restaurant for Georgian food again.  Once again, we were running circles trying to locate the restaurant.  It was another frustrating hour long search.  Finally, a super nice Ukraine woman walked with us for a good 15 minutes to bring us to the restaurant.  But guess what? The restaurant was closed for private event!! Of course, as I am writing and visiting the restaurant website for the first time, I just discover that Genatsvale restaurant has a few locations in Moscow. UGH!

    Once again, we found ourselves in the situation that we were too tired, hungry, and annoyed to sum up the strength to look for another restaurant.  And frankly, I was done looking for addresses in Russia.  I just wanted some familiar comforting food at this point.  We ended stopping by a Japanese restaurant on the way back to the hotel to have some sushi & noodles for dinner.  It was not Georgian food, but nonetheless comforting. Walking out of the restaurant, I was in a better mood. 


    Friday, September 14, 2012

    Russia - St. Petersburg 7.4

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    • Russian Museum
    • Tinkoff Restaurant
    • Red Arrow Midnight Train from St. Petersburg to Moscow

    It came to my favorite part of the trip, when we had crossed off most of the items on our itinerary, familiar with our surroundings, and felt relaxed.  It was our last day in St. Petersburg, and the only place on our agenda was the Russian Museum. 

    We slept in until 11 AM, checked out of the W at 1 PM, and left our luggage in the hotel.  The hotel concierge helped us to book the taxi for tonight and even coordinated with our hotel in Moscow for next morning's pick-up.  They were so helpful!

    We walked back to Nevskiy Prospekt, and went to a random cafe for some bagels & wraps before heading to the Russian Museum.  We started with Benois Wing first since it housed the 20 Century Russian arts.  Although I did not know much about Russian art prior to this trip, I truly enjoyed the exhibitions in the Russian Museum. 

    After we left the Russian Museum, we took one last chance to take more pictures of the Church of the spoiled blood, wondered around different canals, and simply enjoyed the city.  

    We wanted to try a Siberian restaurant listed in Frommer's guidebook, "Black Cat, White Cat" for dinner.  It turned out to be a frustrating search.  First, it was hard to find the addresses in St. Petersburg to begin with.  After asking many people on the street, we "probably" had found the correct address, but there was no restaurant in sight.  Even now, I can't tell you whether we did not find the address, or the restaurant was closed.  By the time we gave up, we were tired, annoyed, and hungry.  We randomly picked another highly recommended restaurant from Frommer's guidebook, Tinkoff.  It was probably the WORST dinning experience we had in Russia.  The restaurant looked like a combination of a bar/nightclub with dim lights and cold bland decor.  I wanted to walk out as soon I stepped inside the restaurant, but I was too tired to look for another restaurant.  The simple German sausages we ordered took more than one hour to come.  We could not wait to finish the dinner and leave. 

    After we finished the dinner, we still had sometime left before our midnight train to Moscow.  We went back to Gosti restaurant to get some dessert and tea.  This had never happened to us in our previous trip that we actually went back to the same restaurant three times!  We told our regular waiter that we were leaving to Moscow.   Our waiter quickly said, "Give it four hours, you would not like it." in a no none-sense manner that we had already gotten used to by now.  We laughed.  Like it or not, we were ready to find out. 

    When we were planning for our Russian trip, we deliberately skipped the flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow so we can experience the midnight train with sleeping compartments.  However, booking the tickets from the Russian Railway Website turned out to be incredibly challenging for someone who could not read Russian.  Fearing that we would book the wrong tickets and wake up somewhere in Siberia, we ended up biting the bullet and booked the higher price tickets through a travel agency in Germany.   

    By 11 PM, we returned to the W hotel to collect our luggage.  Shortly after, we took the prearranged taxi to the Moskowasky Train station.  The Red Arrow Train from St. Petersburg departed at 23:55 PM and arrived in Moscow the next morning at 7:55 AM.  It was only 11:30 when we arrived at the train station.  All the signs in the train station were written in Russian, and H was getting anxious trying to find the platform.  Thankfully, it was pretty simple and we found our train quickly.

    Our compartment was clean and did not feel claustrophobic.  There was a TV and electronic outlets in the compartment.  Bottles of water, clean towels, bed sheets, blankets, and pillows were provided.  We were a bit concerned about the safety on the train, but the luggage was stored under our beds, and we were able to lock our compartment.  We were excited.  It felt nostalgic and romantic to be traveling the old fashioned way.  


    NEXT: Russia - Moscow 7.5

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012

    Russia - St. Petersburg 7.3

    • Peterhof
    • Peter & Paul's Fortress
    • St. Issac Cathedral 
    • Restoran
    I felt slightly anxious last night.  Despite my best intention to go with the flow and be relaxed about our itinerary, after the luggage delay and not really doing much yesterday, I thought there were still quiet a few important sights we haven't seen in St. Petersburg and time was running out. 

    So we decided to get our act together, and asked for  a morning call at 8:30 AM this morning.  After a quick breakfast stop at a nearby cafe, we were at the ticket booth behind the Winter Palace boarding the Hydrofoil to Peterhof at 10:30 AM. 

    30 minutes later, We were at the Peterhof.  There was no shortage of tourists when we arrived.  It was hard not to be dazzled by all the water fountains and golden status as we walked through the lower garden.  Tip: If you go to Peterhof, resist the urge to get distracted by the Grand Cascade.  Save the photo ops for later, and head straight to the Palace entrance first.  Once we got to the entrance of the palace, all the a lar cart admissions for various exhibitions, and a very long line getting into the main palace were aggravatingly confusing. 

    It took us awhile to figure out which line was for the Palace admissions.  Of course it was the longest line right in front of the Palace main entrance.  10 minutes after we were in line, a staff member announced something in Russian. People waiting in line looked annoyed by the announcement and some left.  We were confused and tried to get some answers.  Another staff member used broken English explained that the ticket booth was closed.  Not willing to give up so easily, we went back to the announcer again for more information.  It must be our lucky day, because the announcer actually pointed to the main entrance and gestured us to go in! We were like two VIPs in the New York night clubs scene, walking through the crowd, and going straight past the red velvet rope!!  What just happened??

    Once we got in to pay for admissions, we realized what a great timing we had.  Turned out, it was 11:55 AM, and the ticket office was about to close.  We were the last visitors in the morning!  If we would have been turned away, we would probably have missed the palace after coming all the way to the Peterhof. I could not believe our luck! THANK YOU, GOD!

    The interior of the Palace reflected the Russian Royality's aesthetic preference with a lot of intricate details and gold plated panels. However, since photography was not allowed,  I could not remember much. 

    We tried to figure out how to get to the upper garden after the palace, but it did not seem that the upper garden was open to the public at the time of our visit.  So we went back to the lower garden for more water fountains.  It was a really hot day, and we saw quite a few Russian women all decked out with high heels in the garden.  I was impressed!

    By 2:30 PM, we were back in St. Petersburg and on our way to Peter & Paul Fortress.  Personally, if I never visit another fortress for the rest of my life, I would not miss it.  It just does not excite me.   However, H loves it and I was happy to go with him.  It was pretty neat to visit the Cathedral seeing the actual tombs of all the Russian Czars and their families.  The Trubetskoy Bastion was another captivating site for us to get a glimpse of the turbulent Russian past. 

    After Peter & Paul Fortress, we went back to the hotel for a quick break.  Our legs were hurting with all the walking we had done the past few days.  But there were still a lot to see and we still had the whole night ahead of us.  

    We dragged our tired feet out of our comfortable bed. (Seriously, the W bed and blanket were the MOST comfortable ones we slept in! Obviously we were not the only ones who felt this way because the W actually sells their beds & blankets online.)  The evening started out with the visit to St. Isaac Cathedral.  Although we only had 5 days in St. Petersbug, but coming to visit in the summer time had its advantage.  Everything opened late, and the sun was out until midnight, so we were able to do so much more in one day.  Tip: The opening hours for Cathedral and colonnade walkway varies depending on the time of the year you visit, and the admission fees were higher if you visit after 6 PM. Check the website for accurate information. 

    St. Issac Cathedral was one of the most impressive cathedrals we have ever seen.  It was grand and majestic.   After we toured the inside of the Cathedral, we decided to have dinner before returning for the colonnade walkway.  

    Restoran was on Vasilevsky Island, a short walk from St. Isaac Cathedral.  As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I fell in love with it's minimalistic and elegant decor.   Although our server was struggling with English, he was attentive and made great suggestions on what to order. 

    Since Restoran has an extensive appetizer selections, we skipped the main course and ordered several appetizers.  It was really a lot more fun to sample different dishes this way. 

    Russian Collection - Salmon tar-tar with pike caviar, vinaigratte with sprat, forshmak, olivier with veal. 

    I loved the pike caviar! It was similar to the flying fish roe in Sushi restaurants.

    Zakuska - lard, onion, garlic. 

    This was H's favorite dish.  The server mentioned this dish usually would be ordered with vodkas.  I could see that the salty jerky texture like lard being the perfect match for vodka drinking. 

    Solyanka - Country style fish soup (Left)

    Siberian dumpling (right)

    Pancake with salmon caviar & Sour-cream

    Salmon caviar had a much stronger fishy flavor.  I wanted to order the sturgeon caviar instead, but with the heavy tag of more than $200 per plate, I simply could not stomach it. However, I did like the combination of caviar, sour cream and pancake together.  

    Dessert: Kissel - berries jelly with cream
    Flavored Vodka
    Cranberry, Siberian buckthorn, and pepper vodka.
    Cranberry vodka was my favorite one. 

    H and I love to share dishes when we dine out.  In New York restaurants, we often have to request for extra plates and utensils when we share dishes.  Coming to Russia, we did not expect the service to be good. To our surprise, the service had been exceptional in most of the restaurants we went.  Every dish that we shared were split and served on two plates.  A new set of utensils was provided for every new dish.  I almost felt bad for all the extra work our server had to do with us sharing dishes. 

    I was glad to walk off the meal by climbing to the top of St. Isaac Cathedral.  It was around 11 PM and the Sun slowly came down over the horizon and cast a golden glow over the city of St. Petersburg.  The city from this angle was serene and beautiful, in an understated and nostalgic way.... 


    Sunday, August 12, 2012

    Russia - St. Petersburg 7.2

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    • Kilikia Restaurant
    • Nevsky Prospekt 
    • Kupetz Eliseevs Gourmet Store
    • Mariinsky Theatre
    Did it ever happen to you when you travel that there were days when you just could not get anything done for one reason or another? 

    This day was THAT day for us. 

    Despite a morning call at 10 AM, we still managed to leave the hotel around noon.  Yesterday around this time, we already went to the airport, got our luggage back, and ready to head out again!  I blamed it on H as he was taking his sweet time getting acquainted with the hotel toilet if you know what I mean....

    Anyway, the sky was cloudy like yesterday morning, and we were debating whether we should bring an umbrella or not.  Since H carried an umbrella for nothing yesterday, he decided to chance it and not bring one.  Of course you know what happened next. 

    We headed straight to Kilikia restaurant to try Armenian food for lunch as we were both hungry.  The food was mediocre at best, so I am not going into too much details.  Bottom line: Don't bother. 

    By the time we finished lunch, it was pouring cats and dogs.  We had to ask the restaurant manager to call a taxi for us so we could go back to the hotel to get an umbrella.  Once again, I blamed H for not bringing an umbrella in the first place. 

    Of course, after we went back to the hotel and got the umbrella, the Sun had came out.  

    We decided to visit the Russian Museum in the afternoon.  As we were trying to buy the tickets to get in, the credit card machine was not working, we did not have enough cash, and the museum ATM machine would not take our bank cards.  Oh yes, I blamed it on H when I suggested getting more cash earlier, and he thought it was not necessary. 

    As you can imagine, H was having SO MUCH FUN today. 

    It was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and we had tickets for the  Ballet at 7 PM.  The day was pretty much a bust.  We gave up any attempt for sightseeing, and just walked along Nevsky Prospekt people watching and window shopping.  

    It was our third day in St. Petersburg, and a couple of things had caught our attention:

    1. Russians love flowers. First day when we came out of the airport custom, we saw many Russian men holding bouquets of flowers waiting for their loved ones.  There were many flower stands/shops in the city.  It was a common sight to see couples walking on the street with woman holding a bouquet.  Who knew Russian men were so sweet and romantic. 

    2. Russian women are gorgeous.  This should not come as a surprise, we all know that already.  But walking on the streets of St. Petersburg, not only there were many tall, blond, beautiful women, most Russian women were also very fashion conscious.  We saw many women walking on the street with full makeup, 8 inches stilettos, and dressed to the nines during the broad daylight.  I definitely felt under dressed!

    3. Parking on the sidewalks.  This one was a bit confusing, we saw a lot of cars parked on the sidewalks in all directions.  Is it legal to park on the sidewalk in Russia? 

    4. Drinking on the streets.  Drinking in public is illegal in the US, so it was really fascinating to see many people carrying bottles of wines/liquors/beers on the streets drinking in public.

    We had passed Kupetz Eliseevs gourmet store the day before and I was drawn to the colorful window display right away.  There were the beautiful stained glass windows.  Inside the store, the whimsical huge pineapple was in the middle of the store with chandeliers hanging from the leaves, which made the surrounding tables more so inviting.  The cold cuts, caviar, or dozens of various desserts looked enticing.  I am a total sucker for ambiance, so it was a no brainier for us to take our coffee break at Kupetz Eliseevs this afternoon.  

    After the coffee break and a quick nap back in our hotel room, it was time to head out again for the white night festival ballet performance at the Marrinskly Theatre.  It was the premiere of Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that I didn't like it.  I was hoping to see the classical ballet, and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort was not.  After the intermission, we were seated for a long time and the curtain would not open.  The audience grew impatient and started clapping several times trying to get the performance started.  Finally, we knew the reason for the holdups.  After the VIPs returned back to their box seats, lights were dimmed, curtains were lifted, and the performance finally began.  I was really aggravated! How could the theatre make all these people wait for a few inconsiderate A-holes?  

    Anyway, the second part of the ballet was better.  Although there was no story lines, we got to see the dancers' skills and techniques.  I wish we could have seen a classical ballets such as the Nutcrackers or Swan Lake.