MIKHAIL Baryshnikov's White Nights, 007's run-ins with the KGB and War Games have forever etched in my mind what Russia is all about. Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Iron Curtain may have changed things but first impressions stay.
As I arrived in St. Petersburg, I realized that Russia had really been transformed. My driver picked me up in a neat SUV and looked like one of the Back Street boys, which one I couldn't tell you. And playing in the SUV was some cheesy Euro-Techno music. I realized then that I would have to embrace the Russia of today, or else be disappointed.
St. Petersburg is a true European treasure in a Venice like setting, on the Gulf of Finland. In fact, Finland is only a few hours away by car. The Winter Palace of Peter the Great, also known as the Hermitage is one of the World's largest museums with collection after collection of renowned artists. There are Greek, Roman, French and Italian collections among many others. It is said that to truly see the paintings of the Hermitage would take about a year. Having but a couple of days, I quenched my desire with a mere sampling.
On my first evening in St. Petersburg I tried to find a restaurant near my hotel, the Ostinskaya. I then realized that not many people spoke English here. After wandering around in vain, I finally found a restaurant. Inside disco strobe lights were on and the song playing was the Carpenters' "Mr. Postman". And to add to this strange mix the waitress and the server were in Cowboy attire. The saving grace was that I actually found "Beef Stroganoff" on the menu, in this not-so-Russian environ. That evening I enjoyed one of the best sunsets of my life, the Sun almost never sets here in the summer and it was amazing to witness a "White Night". It was August and late in the summer, so the Sun eventually set at about 11pm.
After a couple of days in the city of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I was on an overnight train to Moscow. I shared a cabin with a couple traveling the Trans-Siberian railway all the way from Denmark, via Russia and Mongolia to China. I was so envious that sounded like: the trip of a life-time. After an 8 hour rail journey, I was met by my guide in Moscow at 8 am. I could not wait to see the Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral they were indeed magnificent icons of Russia. Every now and then I would spot a hammer and sickle and it would be a reminder of Russia's communist past. But they were dwarfed by bill boards and posters with advertisements everywhere. Capitalism had found its way here. My guide was very candid and told me her experiences growing up. Her father would smuggle in Beatles records and hide them or else he would be in trouble with the authorities. In fact the former KGB building looms large in Moscow a reminder of Russia's austere past.
In Moscow I met my climbing partners. We took a plane to Minerlnye Vody (translated "Mineral Water"). From Minerlnye Vody we took a bus to Terskol, a small town in the mountains. This region was a complete contrast to Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is a village where cows roam free and you have to visit the post office to make a phone call. The air was fresh and white mountains surrounded the green valley floor. I was in my element here. A week of hiking and ice-climbing was a perfect way to round off the trip to this magnificent country. Having bought my ticket using air-miles my route home was Moscow-Zurich-London-Vancouver-San Francisco, and yet another adventure awaited me at Heathrow during the airport strike but that is another tale …
Nabeel Atique teaches Math at Mission San Jose High School and San Jose City College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an avid mountaineer and has climbed extensively in the Alps, Andes, Cascades, Rockies, Asia and Africa.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005