Russia Diary #5: Murmansk part II

The main focus of our trip to Murmansk, and indeed to Russia, is, of course, the Aurora hunt. Our Airbnb host runs an Aurora hunting tour on the side, so we booked with him for three nights (for $65/person/night, it’s about $20 cheaper than other tour offers we’d seen.) At 9 PM the first night, we, along with a few other guests, got picked up by our host at a meeting point and then driven outside of the city. We were anxious because the forecast wasn’t promising – it’s a low-activity year of the solar cycle, so the KP Index (a scale of 0 – 9 that indicates the likelihood of Aurora) was low.

When the car stopped and the host said, “There’s the Aurora,” we all gawped at the sky and went “Where? Where?” like a bunch of idiots. That was when I learned the truth about the Aurora – most of the time, and especially when the KP Index is low, it’s not as bright as in those photos you see online. To our untrained eyes, it just looked like clouds. By the time I set up my tripod and took a few snaps, the Aurora had moved on. We drove around some more, but it didn’t reappear.

What we saw vs. what the camera saw

We all felt a little anticlimactic, so the host took us to a viewpoint to see the city lights of Murmansk. The lights are pretty, but it was the walk there that stayed with me. Imagine this: walking uphill through the snow, in the dark, when you’re sleepy and disoriented, and suddenly you see a bunch of fighter planes rising out of the snow like a row of eerie sentinels (later, I learned that it’s the Monument to the Soldiers of the 1st Air Defense Bulk. It looks a lot less ominous during the day.)

But tell me that this doesn’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror

The lights of Murmansk

It snowed all day the next day and only stopped around 11 PM, so we didn’t set out until midnight. The sky was beautifully clear and I managed to take some great photos, but it was so cold (-25 degrees Celsius) and the Aurora is nowhere in sight.

The sky was so clear we even saw a moon ring

When the host finally pointed out a smidgen of light in the distance, we were all amazed – how did he even see that?!

And remember, it was much, much fainter in person

Since that didn’t really count as catching the Aurora, the host offered us a discount for the next night – also our last night in Murmansk. This was our last chance. And it didn’t look good. Again, the sky was clear, but as we kept driving around and waiting, driving and waiting, there was no sign of the Aurora. We began to resign ourselves to the fact that maybe luck wasn’t on our side.

The light pillars (light reflected from ice crystals in the air) were cool, but the Aurora would be nicer

However, just as we were settling down to warm up with some tea and fruit pies (which the host supplied every night), the host burst into the car, saying, “It’s starting!” Throwing the tea down, we scrambled outside and there it was – a streak of green in the distance. It still wasn’t as bright as we’d hoped, but there was no mistaking it for clouds this time. I don’t know if it was because our eyes were more used to seeing it or because it was actually brighter. We could actually see it moving around, undulating and shifting like a ribbon in the sky. Our extremities were all freezing, but we must’ve stood around for nearly half an hour, just looking at it.

I didn’t even turn around for the photo because I didn’t want to take my eyes off it!

Some of my photos turned out blurry because the wind was so strong that it rocked my tripod around

Finally, after 3 nights of driving and standing around in the freezing cold, we were rewarded with the beautiful, memorable sight of the Aurora. There’s a reason it’s called a “hunt” and a “chase” – it was tough, but when we got the result, it was all worth it.

Russia Diary #4: Murmansk part I

We went to Murmansk with the sole purpose of hunting for the Aurora, so we didn’t think much about what else to do there. In truth, there isn’t much to do in Murmansk, period. The top two “things to do” in Murmansk, according to Tripadvisor, is to visit a nuclear icebreaker ship, but after I read Midnight in Chernobyl, you can’t pay me enough to go near anything nuclear, and “Alyosha”, a World War II monument which we could kind of see from the window of our Airbnb apartment, so it doesn’t hold much interest for us.

The view from our Airbnb (taken at 10 AM!!!) and a street nearby

The Alyosha Monument under the morning sun

Schoolkids playing hockey just outside our window

Murmansk may not have a ton of tourist attractions, but it does have one thing – snow. A lot of snow. And snow, I find, is a great beautifier. You can take any depressing Soviet bloc city – and Murmansk is certainly not going to win any beauty contest – and bury it in a foot of snow, and it’ll look pretty and pristine and romantic. So we spent a lot of time just walking around and taking photos. When it got too cold, we would simply duck into a coffee shop or go to the mall.

Instead of gilding their interiors, the people of Murmansk appear to combat the weather by painting their houses in bright colors

… and by putting up a lot of Christmas lights

Me goofing off

It was so cold that my breath condensed on my eyelashes!

People skiing at a local park

The one tourist “activity” we did, other than hunting for the Aurora, is to visit a husky farm, Ulybka Alyaski. There are different husky farms around Murmansk, but this is the best one, since the dogs are trained for sled-racing, not for tourists; opening the farm for tourists is just their way of making money for the dogs. The staff is very friendly – we showed up without knowing that you need to pre-book a tour (there are trips of different lengths that you can go on the sleds – 3km, 5km, and 600m), but they fit us in for a short trip anyway.

In the end, we were glad we didn’t go on a longer sledding trip, because we weren’t dressed for it, and a short trip still gave us a taste of what dog sledding is like. Afterward, we had a lot of fun playing with the dogs (not just the sled dogs but also other breeds like the Finnish Lapphund, traditionally used for herding reindeers) and warming up in the cabin with tea and cookies.

Don’t let that pretty face fool you…

He almost killed my mitten!

Yummy cookies inside the cabin

Stay tuned for the next part of our Murmansk adventure – the Aurora hunts!

Russia Diary #3: Saint Petersburg part II

For our third day in Saint Petersburg, we took a day trip to Catherine Palace, aka the Summer Palace, which is located in the small town of Pushkin (also known by its old name, “Tsarskoye Selo”, meaning “The Tsar’s Village”), located about 30km away from Saint Petersburg. We could’ve taken public transport there (you’d need to take the metro, then a bus), but it was cold, so we decided to book a Yandex taxi. Divided between the four of us, the cost of a taxi was not that much higher than public transport and it got us there in half the time.

The drive was unremarkable, just passing through bleak industrial land, but Pushkin itself seems like a pleasant little town. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would’ve loved to walk around there and see more of Russian life outside of the big cities. But as we were freezing, we hurried into the Palace.

The Palace’s front gate (the entrance is in the back though)

Inside, we found the same resplendent and luxurious interior as the Winter Palace – perhaps even more so, because at the Winter Palace, the artworks take the spotlight, whereas here, it’s just gilded carvings and glittering crystals everywhere.

Russia’s answer to Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors

The famous Amber Room (this is a reconstruction, after the original was looted by the German Army during WWII and went missing)

The one thing I don’t like about these palaces, though, is that they don’t give a clear impression of how people used to live back then – as opposed to say, the palaces in France (like Fontainebleau and even Versailles), where the rooms are set up as if they were still in use. Here, some rooms do have furniture and stuff, but the furnishings feel more like decorations than actual things used by actual people. I don’t know, perhaps the decorations are so dazzling that I can’t imagine them being really used.

Like this dining table, for instance

Afterward, we took a stroll around the park. In the summer, you’ll need a separate ticket (costing 150RUB) for the park, but in the winter, since all the outbuildings in the park are closed, entrance is free. Still, there is a certain kind of beauty about it, with all the barren trees clipped to an impressive symmetry and standing out against the snow. Plus, we practically had it to ourselves, which was awesome. There is also Pavlovsk Palace about 7km away, but we were getting tired, so we went home and took the rest of the evening easy.

The symmetry really is ridiculous

The next day, which was our last day in Saint Petersburg, we checked out the inside of all the churches we haven’t managed to see in details during the walking tour – St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and Kazan Cathedral (Kazan Cathedral is still a working church so no photography is allowed inside.)

If you think that the interiors of the Winter Palace and Catherine’s Palace are resplendent, then these churches are resplendence on steroids. My friends and I soon dubbed the trip “A Pain in the Neck” because we were forever gazing up at ceilings and murals and mosaics. I’m a staunch atheist, but even I felt awed by these churches.

St. Isaac’s

… and the interior

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

… and the interior

Afterward, while we were on the colonnade on the roof of St. Isaac’s, the sun came out – the first sun we’d seen in four days! So we spent the rest of the day walking along the Neva River to soak in some vitamin D. There are still tons of sights to see (like Peter & Paul Fortress, the Faberge Museum, and the Kuntskamera, a museum of curiosities), but we’d had enough of gold leaf, so we just walked around until it was time to return to the apartment, pack up, and head to the airport. Like I said, you have to save something for next time, and I hope there will be a next time in Saint Petersburg for me.

View from St. Isaac’s colonnade

The Kunstkamera (center)

Peter & Paul Fortress

Up next is our Northern Lights adventure in Murmansk, so stay tuned!

Russia Diary #2: Saint Petersburg part I

We arrived in Saint Petersburg late at night, and after a good night’s sleep, we set out for a free walking tour (with, which I always recommend for your first day in a new destination – it’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. While the tour was great fun – we learned a lot about the history of the city and got some good tips from our guide – it was marred by two things:

One, the weather. It wasn’t because it was cold (though yes, it was freezing, “warmest winter in 133 years” or not), but rather, it was depressing. There wasn’t much snow; there was just gray slush on the ground and gray clouds in the sky. Against such weather, the stately architecture of Saint Petersburg ends up looking gloomy and menacing instead of imposing, and it’s understandable why the city is nicknamed “City of Sadness” (according to our guide, it only has 62 days of sunshine a year!)

The Kazan Cathedral, which is just opposite our Airbnb

Two examples of Saint Petersburg architecture – Neoclassical and Art Noveau

You can see how dirty the streets are by looking at the white car

Statues of two of the most famous Russian monarchs – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

Two, I accidentally dropped my camera and damaged the lens, so after the tour, I had to scramble around trying to get it fixed, which ate up precious sightseeing time. But I was determined not to let it ruin the trip and eventually sorted things out (and don’t let the stereotype about the cold, unfriendly Russians fool you – the people at all the different camera shops I went to were so considerate and helpful, even if they couldn’t fix my lens.) We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets, and I must say, under the twinkling lights, Saint Petersburg looks a lot prettier.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (so named because it was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II), back and front

The Mikhailovsky Palace

The next day, we started out early for the Hermitage – pretty much the #1 thing to do in Saint Petersburg, and perhaps in Russia as a whole. I’ve been obsessed with the Hermitage ever since I saw Russian Ark in college, so this is a dream come true for me. Upon arriving, we realized we’d made the right decision to travel in winter – there was no crowd at all, as opposed to the summer, when the line can stretch around the block (you can always skip the line by buying tickets at the ticket machines just inside the main gate, but then you’d have to deal with the crowd inside.)

The Winter Palace

The Palace Square, with the Winter Palace on the one side and the General Staff building on the other (both belong to the Hermitage Museum)

Once inside, we soon discovered what the Russians did to combat the depressing weather outside – they gilded the shit out of everything. I’m not kidding. Everything is carved to within an inch of its life and covered in gold leaf.

Like so

Or so

The interior is so jaw-dropping that I almost forgot about the artworks themselves. Almost. We were there for half a day and only managed to see a fraction of the museum (a well-known rumor goes that if you spend one minute at each of the displays, you’ll need 11 years to cover the entire museum), but we did see all the important ones – the Jordan Staircase (you can’t miss it, as it’s the first thing you see upon leaving the cloakroom), the Raphael Loggias, the Italian Fine Art rooms (the Red Rooms), the Peacock Clock and the Pavilion Hall, and the Malachite Room.

The Jordan Staircase

Me being touristy at the Raphael Loggias

The Red Rooms

The Armorial Hall

The Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting and the October Staircase

The Peacock Clock

The Pavillion Hall

View of the Neva River from the museum

The Peacock Clock was supposed to be wound that day (it’s wound every Wednesday at 7 PM), but as we had to leave for the ballet, we missed it. But then again, you have to save something for next time, don’t you? We ended our day with a night at the ballet, which I’ve described here.

And that concluded our first two days in Saint Petersburg. More to come next week!

Russia Diary #1: Overview

This trip came about in a rather roundabout way. See, my friends and I had the idea of going on a trip to hunt for the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. However, when we looked at usual Aurora destinations, like Iceland and Scandinavia, they’re all expensive, and other than Aurora hunting and winter sports, there isn’t much to do there (and I’ve been to Iceland already.)

Then, during our searches, we stumbled upon Murmansk, a Russian city in the Arctic Circle that is growing in popularity as a destination for Aurora hunting due to its cheap prices and close proximity to big cities (it’s only a 2-hour flight away from Moscow). So I thought, why not go to Russia? Even if we didn’t see the Aurora, there would still be tons of things to do and see and we would still have a memorable trip nevertheless.

The idea of traveling to Russia in the depth of winter was a little daunting at first. The funny thing is, this is Russia’s warmest winter since 1886 (!!!), so we didn’t get a lot of snow. For us tropical dwellers though, their warmest is still pretty effing cold, but we got through it, and I’m glad we did, because I feel we got a more authentic experience. Lower prices and fewer crowds are always a plus too.

Besides, you can get scenes like this…

Or like this (it kinda looks like a horror movie, but still beautiful)

Or this

Since Russia is such a big destination, it took us some planning (the shopping for winter clothes alone took a lot of time, which I’m going to talk about in the packing post.) There is plenty of information on Russia travel out there, but here’s my experience:

– Visa: You probably need a visa to travel to Russia. The application requires a letter of invitation from Russia, which can be provided by a travel agency. We just did everything through an agency. It costs more, but it’s much less hassle.

– Money: We exchanged our money before leaving, but exchange places can easily be found in big cities. Our budget came out to about $50/day (about 3000RUB), but with transport and accommodation, it’s actually closer to $120/day. Russia isn’t that cheap.

– Accommodation: Since there are four of us, we decided that Airbnb would be easier than hostels (also, being old ladies at heart, we’re not keen on hostels anymore.) In Saint Petersburg, most of the attractions are around the town center, so it’s easy to find a place within walking distance. Moscow is more spread out, but the city is linked by an extensive metro network, so it shouldn’t be a problem either. Still, I recommend staying within the inner ring (the main roads of Moscow form a series of rings surrounding the Kremlin) because that’s where most of the restaurants and shops are. The center of Murmansk is tiny and as long as you stay around Lenina Prospekt (Lenin’s Avenue) and the Murmansk Mall, you’ll be fine.

Near our Moscow Airbnb. It’s a pedestrian street lined with restaurants and pubs

– Getting around: To save time, we traveled in a triangle (Saint Petersburg – Murmansk – Moscow) so we didn’t get to travel on Russia’s legendary railway. Instead, we took domestic flights between cities (we booked on, which has cheaper prices and also shows flights with free checked luggage – important, as we couldn’t travel carry-on only during the winter.) Within the cities themselves, we did a combination of walking, taxi, and public transport (I will talk more about this in my Moscow posts.) The Yandex Taxi app is the Uber equivalent of Russia; it’s much cheaper than traditional taxis and easy to use.

– Food: Luckily, food in Russia is relatively cheap. We ate pretty well, with a mix of fast food (mostly Russian fast food, like Teremok, which specializes in blini), sit-down meals, and home-cooked food. Russian restaurants usually have lunch “sets” – combo of soup/starter + main dish + drink – for 300-500RUB, which is a great deal. There are also cafeteria-style restaurants where you pick and pay for the dish you want. Out of all the traditional dishes I tried in Russia, my favorites are vareniki (dumplings), borscht (beet soup), blini, and honey cake. Also, make sure to keep warm with a lot of tea (not vodka!)

A very Russian lunch with borscht and vareniki

Georgian food is also a favorite – like these pork patties with mashed potato

Blini from Teremok

A cafeteria-style meal with a slice of honey cake

Coffee break – hot chocolate and pavlova

– Language: Other than the Metro, you won’t find a lot of English signs in Russia, so it helps to learn the Russian alphabet (I used a pretty fun app called Russian Cyrillic in 3 Hours). Some words may look totally foreign in Russian, but when you sound them out, you can actually recognize them (for example, “ресторан” is pronounced “res-to-ran”, and yes, it means “restaurant”.) English speakers are rare (in fact, we encountered more English speakers in Murmansk than anywhere else!) but Google Translate and body language can take care of it, so we never had any problem with communication.

The sign for Arbatskaya Metro Station

Stay tuned for more detailed posts about each city!