May 28

Yartsevo to Minsk

Day 27: Yartsevo to Minsk: A visit to Smolensk on our way to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where we will enjoy a sightseeing tour of this former Soviet stronghold. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Orbita
Breakfast: 8:30 Bus departs: 9:00

Some people were still drunk this morning at breakfast. Renae made me bread with vegemite on it, as she had promised. Vegemite is vile! Lets just say that the fact that I thought my gagging on it would make the hung over people at my table throw-up so I had to use all of my restraint to control myself. After breakfast we had a tour of Smolensk, a dingy little Russian town. The Cathedral of the Assumption was the highlight of the tour, it is a remarkable cathedral.

At 9:45 we had a stop at Katyn Forrest where 21,000 Polish elite were rounded up and executed by the Russians, simply for being smart, which was a threat to Stalin. When this was discovered the Russians blamed the Germans (easy targets after WWII) and tried to divert attention by building a memorial at Khatyn Village (which I will describe later). In 1990 Gorbachev finally admitted to a mild version of the events that transpired here. The memorial here is very serene, a pathway through the woods with little memorials throughout. After walking through I used the bathroom before heading to the Belarus border, a very good decision.

At 11:00 we arrived at the Belarus border and made it into Belarus fairly easily by 11:55. Once in Belarus we had to turn our watches back 1 hour. At 12:15 we had a lunch stop on the side of the road. It had a closed restaurant on our side of the road and an open one (with a decent bathroom, or so I’m told) on the other side of the road. The bathroom on our side of the road was the worst bathroom I have EVER seen in my life! It smelled from a mile away too. I skipped using the bathroom at this stop.

On the bus we played some games to make the drive go faster and Maggy told us a little about Belarus. One of the things she told us about was Chernobyl, which was actually in the Ukraine, but 60% of the fall out landed in Belarus leaving large portions of the land unusable. There have also been reports of “monster babies,” which are quickly taken away from their mothers. It is believed to be the result of all the nuclear waste that went into Belarus and other surrounding countries, like Russia. This has also lead women to actively avoid men (as partners) who have genetic ties to areas near the nuclear fallout, and men to try and hide their ties.

At 3:15 I overheard Maggy on the phone with the local guide, telling her that we were lost and wouldn’t make it into Minsk until 5:30-6:00. I guess these things happen when the road signs aren’t in English.

At 4:15 we arrived at Khatyn Village for a 30 minute stop. In Khatyn Village the Nazi’s had come, rounded everyone from the town up, put them in one shed and burned it down, there were 3 survivors. 2 girls and 1 man. The 2 girls went to live in another village and were killed when that village was also burned alive. The man is Josef Kaminski, who is the man modeled in the Unconquered Man statue holding a child, he is holding his son who he found at the site after the Nazi’s left. He worked at the memorial and was often seen caring for different parts of the memorial over the years. The memorial is one of the most moving I had ever seen. Soil was taken from each of the 618 villages destroyed by the Nazis to create part of this memorial; the cemetery of villages has a plot for each of the 185 villages that were never rebuilt. The bells at the village ring every 30 seconds, representing some (I think the rate that Belarusian’s died in the war) rate of death during WWII. There is also a Memory Wall with a plaque and alcove for each of the concentration camps and sites of mass extermination within Belarus. There are many other symbolic aspects to this memorial, if you’re interested take a look at this site.

We arrived in Minsk at 5:30 and at our hotel at 5:45. We took a quick bathroom break, which I needed since my bladder refused to use a squatter toilet and earned a gold star for the day! Then we did a city tour. Before arriving Maggy had told us that Belarus is a little screwed up… Although this is considered a free state, it is run by a dictator, Aleksander Lukashenko, and as long as you agree with everything he says and vote for him, it’s a free state. I remember Belarus in the news a couple months before my trip, the elections were rigged, and people were actually bold enough to protest. President Bush commended those who protested, because it was such a dangerous thing to do. Anyway, 90% or 95% of industry in Belarus is government run leaving almost no public companies in the country. The major industry is refrigerators and TV’s,; however, Maggy tells us that they have not upgraded these industries in decades. They simply take the manufactured products and put them in warehouses and tell everyone they export them, primarily to Russia. The TV’s we had in our rooms in Russia were in varying degrees of newer then the one we had in our room in Belarus, which was easily 25 years old, technology wise.

On our city tour we saw the building where the Communist Party in Belarus started, The KGB building, Independence Square, and the bridge at the Island of Tears. Everything in Minsk seemed very shinny and happy. It was a weekend so we saw several brides. We also learned that it is traditional in Belarus to go to a memorial on your wedding day, which would explain the bridal party we had seen at Khatyn Village early. There is a religious reason, that I don’t remember, that keeps people from marrying through most of July and August, leaving June as a very popular month for marriage. In Minsk we also saw a lot of happy people relaxing, some on paddle boats. It was a weird place, knowing how much turmoil there is behind the smiling faces. Everyone looked to happy and the place looked too nice, it reminded me of the Stepford Wives. Our local guide explained to us about there industry – refrigerators and TV’s that are exported, mostly to Russia.

Once back at the hotel we checked in and had dinner. For dinner we had very greasy chicken and a delicious pastry for dessert. After dinner and before the exchange place opened up again (it had weird hours, on and off for 30 minute blocks all day) we were standing outside by the bus and looked over and saw a man peeing against a wall. It was so funny, but I didn’t have my camera, but James did and he took a picture for me. So James, if you’re reading this, can you send me a copy of the picture? Then we went to exchange money, for 5 euros I got 13,250 Belarussian Rubles, Wahooo, I’m rich! At the grocery store, which reminded me of an old school grocery store where the cashier manually enters each price, I struggled to spend little more then half of that money. I ended up giving Lis some of my money because the cashier didn’t have change for her 10,000 bill, since she had already given me all her change. It was actually pretty comical trying to pay for our stuff, since we all had large bills. This was not the first country we went to where ATM’s and exchange places gave you really big bills that no one wanted to take or didn’t have change for, I don’t get it.

After shopping Lis, Jilly and I popped into the bar for a few minutes, then ended up at the casino where James had won (and saved a casino chip for me to take home to my brother-in-law, I bet his other friends don’t have casino chips from Belarus.) I wanted to play the slots once, but you needed a chip or something and I didn’t have enough money to buy chips. What’s wrong with a machine that accepts bills in small denominations like they have in the rest of the world? Owell, there loss. After that failed attempt we went back to the bar for a few minutes and then decided to go to bed early, 10:45 since we had an early start in the morning to get out of Belarus. Yea, we were heading back to a civilization, Poland. I never thought I would say that.

May 21

Moscow to Yartsevo

Day 26: Moscow to Yartsevo: From Moscow, we continue to Smolensk – visit “Borodino” on the Dnieper that became the strategic key to Moscow in 1812 and 1941. Later we arrive at our overnight hotel in Yartsevo. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Breakfast: 9:30

I woke up at 8:10, before my alarm, and used my extra time to go to the grocery store for food for the bus today. I met Leah at 9:30 for breakfast as we had agreed on the night before, and then we headed out to the market near the hotel. The art market here is famous for good prices and selection so most people used their free time to shop there this morning. It was raining this morning, which made shopping outside a bit of a struggle. We walked through the non-art market market, which consisted of mostly clothes, shoes and stuff like that. Then we got to the art market where there was a 5 Ruble charge to get in (the locals didn’t seem to be paying though). We decided not to go in as it was already getting a bit late (it took a while to get through the market with the rain) so we wouldn’t have much time and it was pouring rain which was dampening our shopping spirit. We ended up at the grocery store where I tried to spend most of the rest of my Rubles on candy and snacks.

At 11:30 the bus left for Yartsevo. I had trouble with my ipod last night, it wouldn’t turn off and it scrolled through my songs, but wouldn’t actually play any so I asked Andy, my new best friend, to take a look. Apparently charging it last night fixed it and it was working fine. At 1:30 we ended up making a quick stop at a McDonalds because we had been stuck in too much traffic and needed to stop soon anyway. I just got some fries in an effort to use up some more of my Rubles, the remainder of my Rubles would be used as donations at different memorial/ monuments and as souvenirs.
At 3:40 we stopped in Borodino to see the monument and use the bathroom. During the war of 1812 when Napoleon tried to take Russia the Russian army retreated to Borodino. In Borodino the Russian’s took up a defensive position and Napoleon’s Army took a frontal position. 75,000 people died and the Russians retreated, but both armies claimed victory. The Russians burned Moscow and when (as Maggy called them) General January and General February stepped in, the French were forced to retreat. Napoleon returned to France with 25,000 of his 700,000 member army. One third of the military age men in France had been killed. Today there is a monument and our first encounter with squatter toilets in Borodino. I did not use the bathroom, but they didn’t seem that bad, for squatter toilets.

At 6:30 we arrived at our hotel – the Motel Oasis, best described as a truck stop in the middle of nowhere, Russia. Outside waiting for us was Dodgy Michael; we had been warned not to buy his cigarettes or his Vodka as they were both of very questionable quality. This hotel wasn’t terribly nice, the only nice thing was that my room (and some others, but not all) had a bathroom and separate bedrooms or a bedroom and a living room. When you walked into our room you were in a foyer and straight ahead was a bedroom (Tania’s) and to the left was the bathroom, both the bathroom and the bedroom connected to my bedroom. Maggy had warned us we might not want to shower here. While I couldn’t smell the water (still had a cold) I was told it did have an odor to it, and the shower had seen better days, about 50 years ago. Every Contiki tour has a dodgy hotel, this was ours.

At 7:30 we had dinner which was to be followed by a show. Apparently whenever Contiki shows up some of the local girls come to do a show for them, and the Tour Manager and Driver cover the cost of the show in an effort to help out the local economy. Since I don’t think there is a local economy (we were in the middle of nowhere – I’m not just being a wiseass) I’m sure it didn’t take too much. 4 girls, who seemed to be in their late teens came on and did a couple different dances to different songs. Since they changed after each song we had a little intermission between each song. I like to think of this as the Moulin Rouge of Yartsevo – the dancing they did wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t high caliber – think HS talent show caliber. After the teenage girls finished a stripper came out (we had been warned incase anyone wasn’t interested) and some people got special attention. It was an interesting night, Dodgy Michael was around all night; apparently his services also included prostitutes. When Kieran knocked a glass over, breaking it, Dodgy Michael tried to swindle 100 Rubles out of him for the glass. But since he hadn’t actually seen it, just thought it was Kieran, Kieran was able to tell him he didn’t do it and as far as I know Dodgy Michael didn’t get any money. The sign that the night was going downhill was when Clinton’s leopard skin g-string came out. At that point I decided it was time to go to bed…

May 14

Moscow Day 3

Days 25: Moscow Sightseeing: Two days to explore this fascinating city. Our sightseeing tour includes the Kremlin, the onion domes of St Basil’s, Red Square and the GUM Store. There’s even the opportunity to travel on the Moscow underground! (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Izamailovo Beta Block
Breakfast: 8:30 Bus departs: 9:00

When I woke up this morning my eye was stuck shut, not good, I had pink eye! I’m in Russia, on tour, I couldn’t have pink eye! But I did, and I was not going to go to the doctor! He’d probably send me to the hospital, I would tough it out without medicine.

This morning Galina took us to a WWII museum (it might be the Armed Forces Museum), which was very quiet since it is not the typical tourist spot. Galina had been a history teacher and so knew all the good museums in Moscow. Then we went to the museum for the Revolution. I think my brain had fully shut down by this point, but it perked up for Galina’s story about the first McDonalds in Moscow, I will now butcher her story… You would wait on line for about 2 hours, typical for Russia. When you walked in, the floor was clean, that was the first sign that something wasn’t right. When you got to the counter they had a smile in their face (hello, this is Russia) and asked what you would like. This was Russia at a time when you hoped they had something at the end of a line, let alone what you actually wanted. You ask for a Big Mac. Then to add to the confusion – they asked how many you wanted? Not only did they have food, you could get as much as you wanted. This caused so much stress and confusion (people thought it might be a trick and the government was listening) that they had to put up a sign limiting the number of Big Mac’s to 15, people literally didn’t know how to handle a lack of limits and choice. This was Russia where you went to a store and took what they had, they didn’t have selection but they did have limits, there was a 2+ hour line behind you after all. In the bathroom they had… toilet paper, and if you took the toilet paper they put a new role on. This was all knew to the Russians. I love this story, it really made me understand Russians a bit and why capitalism was such a struggle for them culturally.

After the museum Kate, Andrew and I went in search of lunch, we ended up at the underground mall again. We ran into Lis, Jilly and Tom and relaxed a bit after lunch chatting since we were so tired. We were going to head outside to people watch until our meeting time, but it was raining so we went shopping instead. I found a T-shirt (which I had been looking for) and a long sleeve shirt (I had not been looking for), but when I went to buy it there was confusion with my credit card. They wanted my passport (which the hotel had, and stupid me forgot I had a copy of it in my backpack) and eventually accepted my room card, but then the credit card didn’t work. I have no idea why and they didn’t speak a word of English, owell. I met Kate and Andrew outside the store (Lis and Jilly were shopping in another store), and after telling them my story they offered to lend me the cash. Yea, I have 2 new shirts!

At 5:00 everyone met, but the bus was late picking us up. We didn’t get to our restaurant until 6:00 and the circus started at 7:00. Once inside the circus they had animals displayed and you could get your picture taken with them. During the circus I sat next to Cara and we discussed what was going on. The first act had monkeys dressed like people, 2 were on leashes. One might wonder why you would have a monkey who needed to be on a leash in a circus. Then they had dogs, they would do tricks and get food as a reward. We all wondered if they were fed, maybe they didn’t feed them and they had to do their tricks so they could get food. During the intermission I was on a hunt for cotton candy, it wouldn’t be the circus without cotton candy. But we kept getting distracted looking at people taking pictures with animals (Marie got one with a lion cub). Finally I saw a woman with cotton candy, I chased her down for my cotton candy, it was as good as I remember it. In the second half of the show they had lions who seemed to be afraid of the lion tamer. Some seemed to be afraid to do their tricks, but when the lion tamer took out his whip they did what they were told. What I learned about the circus – you can be too old for the circus, but you can’t be too old for cotton candy, clowns are dumb, and animals doing weird things isn’t entertaining, it’s weird.

When we were on the bus after the circus we saw two drunk guys fighting, fortunately they were too drunk to actually hurt each other. But one guy did take his shirt off for the fight, but all he did was kick the tire of our bus and stumble off in the other direction. When we got back to the hotel I got my stuff ready for a bus day the next day and then went with Tania to send some emails. I finished before Tania and decided to pop into the grocery store on the way back, not my brightest idea at 11pm. I was looking around and then noticed someone looking at me, for a second I thought maybe he was someone from tour, he had on goofy glasses, but he was just a weirdo. I made a quick exit and went back to the hotel, lesson learned.

I ran into a bunch of people at the hotel bar and hung out with them. It was an interesting night. Kevin went up to the bar to get a drink and the drunk prostitute hit on him, I guess he declined because she went back to the guy she had been sitting with earlier. When Sky and Tom went up to the bar she went up to them too, she was pulling on Tom’s belt and made a pass at Skye as they were walking away. When the guy she was with left, she followed him, but he kept telling her to go away, oh those crazy Russians!

May 07

Moscow Day 2

Days 24: Moscow Sightseeing: Two days to explore this fascinating city. Our sightseeing tour includes the Kremlin, the onion domes of St Basil’s, Red Square and the GUM Store. There’s even the opportunity to travel on the Moscow underground! (Breakfast included)

Hotel: Hotel Izamailovo Block “Beta”
Breakfast: 8:30 Bus departs: 9:00
At 9am we all met in the hotel lobby, today was a coach free day so we were starting off with a tour of the Metro. But first the sick people would have to be cared for. Daniel apparently had been sick for a few days and last night Galina had taken him to the hospital. He had an inner ear infection, he was still in the hospital. Tom also wasn’t feeling well – something in his throat. Galina took him to the doctor this morning and he had to go to the hospital too, something had to be cut out of his throat or something. It turned out he had an infection in his throat (possibly from having a cut/sore in his throat and brushing his teeth with the water in St. Petersburg.) They gave him an anti-biotic and told him if he wasn’t feeling better in a couple days it would have to be cut out.
At 9:45 we finally left, there was a Metro stop 2 blocks away, I took a picture of the name of the stop incase I needed it later. For the tour Galina would tell us the number of stops we were going and put up the appropriate # of fingers so everyone knew where we were going. No one seemed to get lost. At each stop Galina showed us all the cool stuff. The Metro was cool, much of it looked like it belonged in a palace, it was very grand. The decorations were very ornate and there was quite a bit of Communist things there, though some had been taken down. In one station they had montages and in one section they showed communist scenes, but in another area they had been changed and were just flowers. As grand as it was, the train cars looked like they were made of wood – that can’t be safe.

When we finished on the Metro Galina put us on line to see Lenin’s tomb. We waited on line for a little bit, then had to put our cameras and bags in a security thing since they can’t go in. Going into the tomb was a very weird experience. After going through security you go inside the building, it’s quite dark and the floor looked like granite, it was hard to see. There were guards when you first walk in, then you go down stairs and there were more, maybe 6 or more in each spot. Then when you walk into the room with his body there were only 2 in there, but at this point you’re afraid to do something anyway, it’s a very intimidating experience. Once in the room you walk on a pathway around the body, you can’t stop or put your hands in your pocket (I heard someone did that and a guard came right up to him). The body is encased in glass and looks very waxy, totally unnatural – it was a parafin waxy look to be more specific. When Lenin died he wished for a small funeral with little fanfare. Stalin had a huge funeral with lots of fanfare for Lenin, he also ordered that his body be maintained so people could see him, like me. He told the Russian scientists to figure out a way to maintain the body. According to Lonely Plant the body is wiped down every couple days and then they use paraffin wax on the body to keep it looking fresh, that explains the waxy look. You too can have this done to your body, you just need to pay 1 Million dollars. After Stalin died his body was put with Lenins, but after 3 years Kruschev had his body removed from the tomb and buried.

Once we left the tomb we had to walk half way around Red Square to get our stuff back, but we did walk through GUM, which is a high end mall. One of the stores had mannequins with potato sack heads, interesting. Andy, Kate, Marie, Kieran, Ted, Lis, Jilly, James and I all went to the Church of Christ Our Savior, which is supposedly one of the most beautiful churches in all of Europe. The hand of St. John the Baptist was in the church, making it a little difficult to get in. It seems that every human being on the planet had made a pilgrimage to the church to see the hand, who knew? We walked by the line for it for quite a while before getting to the back of the church, we thought it was the entrance, but we couldn’t get in since it was the exit. We were only able to take pictures of the back. From where we were the line continued around the block and then to the front of the church to get in, the line seemed to be over a day long. Man these Russians really do know how to make a line! After taking a few pictures we headed back to the Red Square area for lunch.

On the way back Lis and Jilly wanted to sit for a few minutes, it had been a long day and it had started getting hot out. Only Kate, Andrew and I waited with them, the others went ahead for lunch. The 5 of us ended up at the underground mall by Red Square having lunch at the food court – we had pizza with bad salads, we also ran into Tom, who had been released from the hospital, I think Lis had sent him a text message about where to meet us. At 3:00 the group met outside the Kremlin for our tour of the Kremlin. Once inside there are areas where you can and cannot walk, they get a little pissy if you cross the line. While inside the walls we saw a group of the military marching in formation, they started heading in our direction but Fraser didn’t see them and they just kept marching right into him, it was pretty funny! Inside the armory we got to see some of the Tsar’s Faberge Eggs, which were very nice. But I was so tired that it was hard to concentrate on what Galina was saying. After that we went to dinner near Red Square and had Borst (soup) which I didn’t like and Chicken. After dinner we tried to go to a bar, but the one that had been picked out wasn’t that good so most of us left. We went back to the hotel and tried to go into the Vodka Museum which was nearby, but it was closed. We ended up in the hotel bar having a few drinks, Daniel was there, he had been released from the hospital and was feeling a bit better.

Apr 30

Novgorod to Moscow

Day 23: Novgorod to Moscow: Past Klin where Tchaikovsky lived, then a short drive to Moscow where we enjoy a first glance at the city sights, including Red Square. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Izamailovo Beta Block
Breakfast: 7:00 Bags to the bus/depart: 7:30

I’ll start with a brief history of Communism in Russia…
Although Moscow’s history is much more diverse then simply Communism, the remains of Communism are much more prevalent then they were in St. Petersburg. Moscow is first mentioned in historical chronicles in 1147, it’s been burned down several times and been at the center of many battles. But I think the more modern history of Moscow is more interesting so I’ll stick to that.

After the Bolsheviks took power they moved the Capital back to Moscow, in fear that the Germans would try to take St. Petersburg if it were the Capital. In an effort to maintain power the Bolsheviks and Lenin imprisoned and killed opponents, the same as had been going on in Tsarist Russia, just at a higher level then the Tsars. Several attempts were made on Lenin’s life, resulting in Red Terror – tens of thousands were executed or put into labor camps. Meanwhile the continuing civil war caused widespread famine and death in Russia. Both the red army, led by Trotsky, and the white army (Tsarist with the support of the US, British, French and Japanese) ravished the countryside of Russia. Lenin and some Bolsheviks broke off from the Socialists and started the Russian Communist Party. After the war, Lenin tried to rebuild industry and agriculture in Russia, as well as fighting Anti-Semitism. In January of 1924 Lenin died, but not before criticizing Stalin and saying he is too harsh and should be removed from his post.

After Lenin’s death there was a struggle for power between Stalin and Trotsky, eventually Stalin took power, the party chose him because they thought he was the lesser of two evils. Trotsky and his supporters were exiled; eventually, Trotsky would be assassinated by Stalin. Stalin went on to ban the Russian Orthodox Church, and executed the Priests. His vision for Russia was to take the peasant society and make it an industrial world power, which he did. He took away the farms and property of 4/5ths of the population in order to achieve his goal – if they refused – Stalin sent the secret police in. Those in violation were sent to Gulag Camps, by the 1930’s there were 10 Million people in forced labor. Stalin ordered the deaths of 90% of the 17th Congress, because he did not trust them. Paranoia and hysteria reigned supreme – 1 and a half million people were killed within a 2 year period in Stalin’s effort to eliminate dissenters – this was known as the Great Terror. Those who were sent to Gulag Camps didn’t fair any better, they did back breaking work and the death rate was close to 100% in some of these camps. Throughout all of this Stalin was revered as the father of Russia and loved by all, YEA for propaganda.

In 1939 Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. This made Hitler’s attack on Russia even more successful, Stalin didn’t expect it and dropped the ball on the response. In World War II over 8 and a half million Russian soldiers and 20 million civilians were killed in the war. At the Yalta Conference Stalin demanded control of conquered German areas in the East, the Allies agreed.

After the bombing on Hiroshima, Stalin studied the effects of the Atomic Bomb: Hitler’s invasion of Russia was 4 times worse – Russia would be able to survive an initial strike by the US – a little scary if you ask me. In March of 1953 Stalin suffered a stroke and died 3 days later. I have heard that they knew what was going on (stroke) when he was dying, but refused to help him, waiting for him to die.

Nikita Kruschev took over power after Stalin and started the De-Stalinization of Russia, which allowed more liberalism in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. The Russian economy grew faster then many Western economies. But he also encouraged the building of the Berlin Wall and persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church. He deployed missiles to Cuba, causing the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that Kruschev was ousted.

Leonid Brezhnev took power in 1964. I like to think of him as the leader of Russia when the Soviet Hockey Team lost to the USA Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. But he did other things, like sending his military into Afghanistan. It is also believed that he ordered the failed assassination of Pope John Paul the II in 1981.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of Russia. Under his leadership the economy failed and there were severe shortages of food. Gorbachev worked with Ronald Reagan (who promised to win the arms race) to bring an end to the Cold War. He relaxed control over the Soviet Caucuses and eventually brought an end to Communism in Russia, along with allowing the unification of Germany. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
And so it was time to drive to Moscow…

We left a few minutes late this morning because Tony had accidentally taken a towel from his room and the hotel wanted it back. Our first stop this morning at 10:30 was interesting… It’s almost like a rest stop, well more like a gas station with a shop inside and a restaurant next door. They had animals in cages (like a bear and a fox in a cage, along with other animals), it was a bit weird as they obviously were sedated, either that or they have all lost their will to live. I used a really crappy bathroom, but it was better then the free one. Maggy said the free bathroom was the dodgiest bathroom she had ever seen in her life, and she has been to Egypt so it’s saying something. (That was what I had originally written and in all my life this was the second worst bathroom, the worst was in Belarus. The bathrooms in Egypt weren’t that bad.)

After that stop we played a game with a matryoska doll of Russian leaders that Maggy had and then she gave us some more history on Russia. At 2:30 we had a stop at McDonalds, I tried to order my cheeseburger with only ketchup (I was afraid of what else they might put on it), I thought we sorted it out, but I ended up with extra ketchup and everything else (mustard, pickle, and onion). It could have been worse; I think, they originally thought I didn’t want any ketchup. After lunch we drove to Tchaikovsky’s House, on the way we passed a public bus that was missing a tire, it was just riding on the wheel, and no one seem fazed.

We arrived in Moscow at 6:15, picked up Galina, our Moscow guide, and Maggy gave our passports to someone else to go get our Belarus Visas. Galina talked to us a bit about Moscow and Russia on the way to Red Square for our group photo. On the way over to Red Square I saw a kid walking around with a stuffed mouse, what? Who would want a stuffed mouse? And no, it wasn’t Mickey. Don’t kids want giraffes like me? So we walked into Red Square where the Red Army has marched countless times. We were quickly lined up for our picture, we took a couple and of course I was squinting in the one they picked, owell, but St. Basil’s is in the background. In Red Square they were cleaning up from the concert the night before, the one that Tania and I had watched on TV, I guess it was live.

After our photo Galina took us on a city tour, she showed us the KGB and a bunch of other stuff, I think my brain was getting overloaded at this point. She explained to us about the double headed eagle that Russia uses. I explained before that it came from the Byzantine Empire, and was taken by Tsarist Russia. Under the Tsars the two heads represented the church and the Royal Family working together. When communism fell they needed a symbol, so they took the double headed eagle again, now it represents the government and something else, but the running joke is that the other thing is the mafia.

When we got back to the hotel the girl who had taken our passports wasn’t back yet, she was stuck in traffic, and so the hotel would not let us check in. Around now the trip was getting to me, I was tired and it had been a long day, I even commented to Kate that I was ready to kill someone, no one in particular, just that I was on the edge. I had been one of the last to get into the hotel and I heard Maggy announce that we couldn’t get our rooms yet and that we were going to leave our bags in the lobby (with someone watching them) and the rest of us would eat. Everyone was bunched up in the middle so I was waiting till they cleared out to put my bag in the middle with the others. Renae asked if I was going to dinner, I said I was just waiting for everyone to move (I think I sounded a bit short with her). Right after Fraser came over and told me I had to put my bag in the middle… Well I lost it… I yelled something about how I could see what was going on, Fraser tried to explain himself, but I just yelled at him more. I hear he mumbled something about me being a bitch, he’s not the first, wont be the last even though I really am a nice girl. Once I put my bag down I went up to dinner with the few people who were around to witness my outburst.

After dinner several people went to do internet in one of the other buildings in the complex, our hotel is part of a multiple building complex that was used for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (the ones the US didn’t attend) so the hotel was nice, though the rooms were out of date, but the elevators rocked! While waiting I waited on line at the reception desk to find out about the internet in our lobby, eventually I found out they were only open 9am to 7pm – when we would be out of the hotel, naturally. Anyway the girl with the passports got to the hotel at 9:15 and I was in my room by 10:00. I did a little laundry in the room, since Moscow is the only city in Russia with “safe” water (I still only used bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth). When Tania got in she wanted to go use the internet so I went with her and spent 50 minutes updating everyone as to what I was up to. I had planned on doing something with Kate and Andrew, but I felt bad that the family hadn’t heard from me in a while. I finally got to bed at 12:45.