Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Waiting for the Train at Port Baikal

My friend and travel mate on the Russia trip, Carol Ann Stoney, is shown below
while we were waiting to board the Circum Baikal railway in late May. Carol Ann and her family farm in southern Wisconsin, and I had not met her or any of the other fellow travellers before the trip.

Our backgrounds are fairly different, although we're both only children from the Midwest.

Carol Ann is an amazingly talented and hard working person, always doing some kind of handiwork while sitting in a bus or plane. She and her husband attend a farmer's market in Dubuque, Iowa every Saturday, where they sell mainly vegetables and fruit and samples of her crocheting, embroidery and knitting. Believe it or not,she and her husband has hardly missed a Saturday in 40 years. Carol Ann created a beautiful embroidered table runner for our lovely host in Irkutsk, and was kind enough to add my name.

I really enjoyed travelling with Carol Ann and the other Friendship Force( members, mainly from Dubuque but including some from Nevada and Texas. I'm a convert, having recently sent in my application to join the FFI chapter in Montreal. If the people I met on this trip, both American and Russian, are typical of Friendship Force members, I can't think of a nicer group to join.

Addendum in early January, 2017. I was very sorry to learn that Carol Ann and her husband were burned out of their homestead on Christmas Day. They survived, fortunately, but the house was totally destroyed. My thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Catherine Palace

Several of the most interesting buildings in St. Petersburg are not in the city itself, but in the suburb of Pushkin, formerly known as Tsarkoe Selo or Czar's Village. The wing of the Catherine Palace above looked expecially pretty with colourful flowers in front, I thought. This palace was built by Catherine the Great and named for her mother, Catherine I.

The most famous exhibit in it is the Amber Room, where photographs are forbidden. Originally a gift from Frederick the Great of Prussia, it was destroyed or disappeared sometime during World War II, when Leningrad was besieged by the Germans for some 900 days and this palace fell into German hands. The room visitors see now is an exact replica of the original, and was a significant artistic achievement in itself. It took many years, and was financed mainly by a German company in honour of the city's 300th anniversary in 2003.

Other interesting displays include costumes worn by the Empress Catherine, a beautiful ceramic clock in the entrance hall, and rooms that contain furniture similar to what would have been used in the 18th century.

If you go to Pushkin, don't miss visiting Peterhof, the even more spectacular palace built by Peter the Great that is renowned for its monumental fountains.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Twitter for Travel?

I've recently signed on to Twitter ( and you can follow me (s0mebody, please) @Westmount Writer and am discovering some travel deals advertised there. For instance, Jet Blue Airlines is supposed to post deals on Tuesdays that you can follow as Jet Blue Cheeps (cute, yes?)
A few other airlines, travel companies and writers are also listed. For a time I was being followed by a site called @London England that was supposed to be posting discount deals every day in London. When I checked a couple of days ago there didn't seem to be any activity--perhaps they were delayed by the riots?
This is an experiment with Twitter--am trying to figure out how to link posts for this blog to Twitter. Not sure how it will work out, but any source of travel bargains in these economically difficult times is worth checking out.
I would be pleased to hear from anybody who has found good travel deals through Twitter. I suppose it could be especially useful for people on the road with their mobile devices.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sergiev Posad

The beautiful church above is the Cathedral of the Assumption in the St. Sergius Trinity Monastery at Sergiev Posad, one of the holiest places in Russian Orthodox Christianity. If you ever saw the old film The Russia House, some of the outdoor scenes were shot here.

The monastery was founded by Saint Sergius Posad in the mid-14th century. The saint, who helped organize opposition to the Tatar occupation of Moscow, is a favourite of Russians. He is said to have been somewhat like Italy's Saint Francis of Assisi, a person with a special relationship with animals.

Today the monastery, which was closed for a while during Soviet times, is again very active. Some 1,000 or so young men study here for the Orthodox priesthood, and visitors to the complex are required to dress modestly.

I found this large monastery to have an atmosphere of holiness similar to that of only a few other places I have been. During my visit I lost my sunglasses, and decided to say a prayer to St. Sergius to find them again. Then I recalled leaving them in a church, and when I checked they were where I thought they would be. Not a miracle perhaps, but very helpful.

The monastery and town of Sergiev Posad lie about 75 kilometres east of Moscow. For more pictures of and information about it, check the Website

Thursday, August 18, 2011

House on the Embankment

One of the more pleasant ways to sightsee in Moscow, notorious for its traffic, is on a river cruise. Cruise boats leave from Kievski Metro station, and a two hour cruise costs about $20. Among the many interesting sights you pass is the infamous House on the Embankment, showm above, on the south bank of the river near the Kremlin.

In the 1930s and 1940s many of Stalin's top generals and other advisers lived here. The building is said to contain secret staircases that security forces used to listen in on and arrest many of these people. Most of the people arrested were never heard from again.

Today the building is once again a very desirable place to live, with expensive apartments. On top (not really visible here) it boasts a very large silver coloured Mercedes-Benz symbol, ironically for a former Communist stronghold. It is, however, appropriate in light of the close ties that now connect Russia and its old enemy, Germany.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Cottage on Lake Baikal

The cottage below is the place where I actually stayed, overlooking the Small Sea of Lake Baikal, courtesy of my Irkutsk host. It has a large kitchen, four double bedrooms, two half baths and a shower room, as well as a large lounge with a gorgeous view of the lake. It is one of a group of cottages that are for rent, managed by a company whose Website is

The cottages are very clean and comfortable, and it is possible to rent an entire cottage or just a room in a shared cottage. Prices per person average $30 to $50, depending on the season. You must bring your own food, since it is hard to find restaurants or food stores nearby. Remember, this is the Wild East.

There are legends about the rejuvenating effects of bathing in the lake, or just washing your face in it. This is one of the few parts of the lake where people do actually swim, because the water gets fairly warm in late summer (at least warm by Canadian standards.)

What I noticed at Baikal was the clean air, such a relief from the air quality in Russia's large cities. And if you stay up late enough that other cottagers have turned off their lights, you can get a great view of the night sky, something most of us can no longer see at home. I had good intentions of staying up to see a lot of stars, but succumbed early.

The top photo is of the largest cottage in this complex. If you go, you will need to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle, since there is no actual road leading to the cottages.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Boats in Irkutsk

The above picture shows the ice-breaker Angara with small boats piled in front of it, at Irkutsk. Siberia is known for its fierce winters--I was told that most people put their cars in storage for the winter, and the ice-breaker keeps the river open. The river bank at Irkutsk is lined with small cafes where locals relax in summer.

According to a small guidebook on Irkutsk, in summer it is possible to travel from Irkutsk by hydrofoil to Listvyanka, Peschanaya Bay and as far as the mysterious Olkhon Island, noted for its wildlife.

Probably everyone has heard of the Silk Road, but in Irkutsk I learned about the Tea Road that used to connect Irkutsk with Kyathka on the Mongolian border. Tea is perhaps the favourite drink of Russians, rivalled only by vodka. Until 1992 there was a large tea-packing factory in Irkutsk that shipped its products throughout the old Soviet Union.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Not Time to Panic

I probably should start a new blog on investing, but in the meantime I feel compelled to say that today's big market sell-off in New York and elsewhere is not a signal to panic. Yes, the markets are under heavy pressure because of the downgrade of U.S. government debt by Standard & Poor's, European debt woes and other concerns.
It may take a while for stocks to rebound, but those who sell during a panic like the present one usually live to regret it. The only individual investors who should be selling stocks now are those who may need the money they have in stocks in the next few months. (And in that case, the money should not have been in stocks in the first place.)
However, bond investors with positions in long bonds might consider selling in the near future. While stocks were down sharply today, bonds including U.S. treasuries were up. At some point, probably fairly soon, interest rates will start to rise and that will lead to a sell-off in bonds, especially those at the long end of the yield curve, 10 year or more.
It's hard to give up the income bonds provide, but the premiums that long bonds have acquired won't last forever. Better to bite the bullet now than wish you had sold them at some point down the road, when the premium has vanished.

Labels: , ,

Vrubel fireplace, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

I enjoyed a brief visit to the Tretyakov early in June, and was able to get this shot of one of the interesting objects from my favourite room, the large one devoted to the work or Maxim Vrubel, who worked in the early 20th century. It is a Majolica-fronted fireplace from the home of a rich merchant. Vrubel was one of the best-known Russian artists of the Art Nouveau period.

There is a large work titled "The Dream" by Vrubel nearby, with rows of chairs for visitors to contemplate it in comfort. If you don't want to pay admission to the museum, you can see one of Vrubel's mosaics atop the Metropole Hotel on Red Square.

I'm interested in Jungian psychology, and I have long had an idea about exploring the link between the psychology of Jung and Freud, with its emphasis on dreams, and the art work of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Maybe someday...

The Tretyakov, which is located south of the Moscow River, is well worth a visit for its collections of Russian art and icons.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Smolny Institute

I had heard about the Smolny Institute for the Education of Noble Girls for a long time, and on my recent visit to St. Petersburg finally got to see it (pictured above.) Originally a cathedral and convent, it was made into a girls' school by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. Modelled on the teachings of Voltaire (a friend of Catherine's,) it wasn't just a finishing school. Students were required to live there from age 5 to 18, and to study languages, mathematics, science and religion in addition to dancing and drama.
The Institute is also known for its architecture. It was designed by Rastrelli, who also designed the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in neo-Classical style. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin closed the school and used it as his government headquarters for some months. (He later moved his government's capital to Moscow.)
The Smolny is located on the main island of St. Petersburg, on its northeast corner somewhat far from most other attractions. Unfortunately it continues to be used for government purposes, and was not open when I was there in May. Normally a few rooms, which have been made into a museum, are open to the public.
If you are interested in Russian history and/or in the education of women (a noble endeavour,) it's a must on any visit to the Venice of the North.

Labels: , , , , , ,