Sunday, June 14, 2015

From Warsaw to Moscow

My wife suggested that we should try a Western tour operator for our intended visit to European Russia. Flight Centre of Melbourne signed us up on Globus. The journey would begin in Warsaw. The coach would then take us to Vilnius, which is the capital of Lithuania, then to Riga, the capital of Latvia and after that, to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. From there we would take a cruise ferry to Helsinki, the capital of Finland before crossing the border to St Petersburg. We would then travel by Russia’s “bullet” train to Moscow.

For our return journey, we would fly via Paris, specially to take a look at Versailles, which we had missed out during the last few times we were in France.

It was such a whirlwind tour that by the time we finished in Moscow, I could hardly remember the names of the capitals of the three Baltic countries we had earlier visited! I have to take a read of my wife’s notes to write about them.


Poland’s “modern” history was a sad one. Apparently, it had always been carved out by its two strong neighbours, namely, Germany and Russia. After World War 2, while Western Europe, including ironically West Germany, was able to benefit from the Marshall Plan to rebuild, Poland was left in the cold because it had the misfortune of becoming a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Its capital, Warsaw, which is a city of 3 million today, was 85% destroyed during the war.

Queuing for social aid in Warsaw

Certainly better built and maintained than those in China

Poles are a very religious people; 95% of its population is said to be Catholic. Warsaw is a city of churches; there are more than 200 of them.

One glaring observation is the lack of entrepreneurship there. There is actually much to see in its old town, but surprisingly, few were enterprising enough to seize merchandising opportunities to thousands of tourists that mill around the Main Street and its alleys. Apart from amber, not much handicraft was on offer in a country of that many million people.

McDonald's is a rare sight, but KFC, with its "Oriental Menu" - not sure what it has to do with the Orient, tough – is everywhere.

Ice cream in Poland must be good; people seemed to be queuing for them. Food was generally so-so. There were only a few varieties of fruits available and those on display look quite pathetic actually.


The Baltic countries appear more well-to-do. Like Warsaw, each of these capitals had a fairly historic Old Town – all quite similar in terms of design and grandness about their palaces, cathedrals (which are mainly of Baroque design), town halls, monuments and buildings.

A typical Baroque

The KGB Museum in Vilnius is worth visiting. I now understand why the people in the Baltic countries are so happy to be in EU and NATO. And one has to respect their attitude towards Russia now. It is “Let bygones be bygones!” How magnanimous!

A torture chamber in KGB Museum in Vilnius
Lithuania is also predominantly Catholic. At Sauliai near the Latvia boarder, there is a Hill of Crosses. There were countless crosses planted there by devotees. They are affordably sold, generally at about €1.50 for the more ordinarily crafted ones. 

Hill of Crosses
Among the three Baltic capitals, Riga appears most prosperous. Estonia is the only one that is predominantly Lutheran. Its capital Thallin is a major seaport.


I have visited Finland in the early 1990s. But I just couldn’t discern anything familiar!

In the home of Nokia, I found my laptop just couldn’t connect up with the Internet in RaddisonBlu. And Kone is supposed to be the world leader in lifts, in Raddisonblu, it also did not function well! I thought the Finns are a very exact lot?

Falungong has also come to Finland, thanks to Finnair!

Watch out, China, Falungong is coming!

Vikings plant tree differently!
Finnair is one of the few airlines in Europe that understands the potentials of Chinese market. It flies to Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Xi’an and Helsinki has become the natural hub for Chinese travellers. Chinese are everywhere in Helsinki! No wonder you see Falungong!


Our tour director gave us the impression that crossing the Russian boarder could turn out to be a traumatic experience. We were only one coach behind another when we reached the crossing. Sure, the guards looked formidable. And the checkpoint took ages for them to clear the first load of passengers. But when it came to our turn, it was no big deal at all. But we were certainly fleeced by the money changer there. We were short-changed by at least 10% by the “official” exchangers there!

The entire city of Petersburg is magnificent! Every building is an architectural feat, let alone the great palaces and cathedrals. How could a city like St Petersburg be possible?

If one cares to think a little about the Russians, maybe it is not that hard to understand. Tsarist Russia was a feudalistic world in the absolute sense. Besides the Tsars and Tsarinas (incidentally, these titles were derived from the word Cesar), his or her courtiers and ministers, the archbishops and his clergies, and the rich merchants (many of whom are said to be Jews), the rest were largely serfs. They were exploited to their bones to pay for these excesses. No wonder Communism could come easy to the masses there! I should also not forget to mention that apparently, most of the designs and art works were carried out by Italians, Germans and even Scots – commissioned by the Tsar or Tsarina, of course, with their good tastes!

Grandeur exceeding that of Versailles
Jews in new Russia


Moscow looks more austere, even though it is older and has been the capital since the 12th Century. Moscow is now the biggest city in Europe. Everything is also exceedingly big in Moscow, for obvious reasons, given the ruling class’s perceived superiority during the Soviet era. Nonetheless, I was particularly impressed by their war museums which have been so meticulously built and maintained. Of course, its Red Square and Kremlin are certainly not to be missed. They are indeed sights to behold.
One of the most iconic buildings in Moscow: Nice from Far, but Far from Nice (inside!)

And the much talked-about subway stations of Moscow

There is no sign of hardship in spite of the West’s economic sanctions. Supermarkets are well-stocked and certainly not like the fake fronts one heard or read about in North Korea.

However, my first impression of Russia was lousy. Its drivers are worse than Malaysia’s; many are very reckless. People are generally not very friendly. Maybe all these are also understandable. Both had to do with Russia’s immediate past.

Many Russians have become very rich under Putin. These nouveau riches now have a chance to drive the latest models including those expensive marques from Germany. It is time to show off! The mistrust amongst citizens instilled during the Soviet era still looms large; hence the reason for the lack of warmth to strangers?

Both Napoleon and Hitler’s armies reached Moscow. But neither was able to conquer Russia. There are many explanations, among them: the impossible winter conditions of Moscow and the perseverance of the Russian people. Our visit to St Catherine’s Palace in Moscow gave me a slightly different twist to these two conventional views, though.

There must be tens of thousands of tourists pouring into St Catherine every day. But guess what? There is only one little booth to do the ticketing. And there is absolutely no concept of crowd management; everyone is left to do what he or she thinks fit. Fortunately, Western tourists have better etiquette than we Orientals. They are happy to queue for their turn. Even then, it took a long time before we could gain entry into the palace (which is really worth the wait, though). This scene is repeated in most of the tourist destinations in Russia. It would be totally chaotic if this is Asia! Perhaps you can some conclusion on the easy intrusion but the impossible conquest of the country by an invading army? Only the Japanese have officially won a war against them!

This is the first time we were travelling with a Western tour group. Our tour director Colleen was most knowledgeable about the history and geography of our destinations. The coach was a beautiful new Mercedes Benz – very spacious and comfortable. The driver played safe most of the time. Everything was executed punctually. Of course, Globus charges much more than what we have been paying to tour organisers in Malaysia and Singapore.

Spotless! Why can't ours be like this?
A little footnote on the “bullet” train from St Petersburg to Moscow: In a hitherto classless society, there are actually four ticket classes in this train: First, Business, Premium Economy and Economy. Lenin would roll in his grave. (But wasn’t he the top pig in George Orwell’s Animal Farm?)

Certainly not classless!

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