One of my dear friends from Oxford, Masha, invited me to her family's country home (their dacha) in July. It was marvelous to see the "real Russia," and not just Moscow and St. Petersburg (although I saw both of those cities, too).
Every day was an adventure (as Tolstoy wrote, "things that don't happen, happen in Russia"). But it was great having Masha by my side to see her homeland through her eyes. (Also, Masha is definitely in the running for the Top Ten Nicest People in the World. You didn't know that was a competition? Well, it is in my world, and she's totally a contender.)
[Here we are in Gorky Park. We found Baba Yaga's hut. No one was home (fortunately). I don't know why Baba Yaga would choose to have her summer cottage in the middle of Moscow, but who I am to judge the decisions of ancient, immortal witches?]
[Masha is unafraid of the fountain, but I am obviously nervous about my bag getting wet. Or something. I don't know what I'm doing in this picture.]
We had an unexpected stop in Moscow because our flight got in late and we were unable to make our train to the countryside. But that meant that I was able to experience the best of Russian hospitality (and that is said without an ounce of irony--seriously, we were so well taken care of by Masha's friends. They deserve gold medals), and I got an extra day in Moscow, which I'm always a fan of. Although it was hot. I was not expecting to be thrown into full-blown summer, especially after being in temeprate, rainy England. England doesn't know how to do summer. Russia does.
[Looking over the Moscow River.]
[With new friends and old khrams.]
After Moscow, Masha and I took a night train to Yoshkar-Ola. It was my first time ever traveling on a night train, and luckily, it was a good first experience (because they are often hit-or-miss). I loved just being able to see the Russian countryside cruise past me. It was serenely beautiful and often magical. There was one moment in particular when I woke up around 3:30 am with the sun streaming through the window, and I saw little Russian cottages and farmer's fields go past me, as a sign which read "Welcome to the Republic of Tatarstan" came into view. It was just one of those moments that will always stay with me.
Also, just as an aside. I did not fully realize how massive Russia is as a country until I was actually traveling across it. I mean, I didn't even travel that far into the interior. But I traveled enough to realize that Russia is huge.
Masha and her family were the perfect hosts. They made sure I had a banya experience, they set up tours of their town and took me to the "real Russia" (the countryside), the Volga River, they fed me Russian food . . . I honestly couldn't ask for better hosts.
[With Masha and her parents.]
[Just look at that sunset. Just look at that view. Stunning.]
[Country roads like these bring back so many memories.]
[As does street art. This one says, "Good morning, sunshine!"]
[House in the "Real Russia." This house is now a museum.]
[The Volga River.]
[Masha and I by the Volga.]
After Yoshkar-Ola, Masha and I took another night train back to Moscow, and then took the fast train (Sapsan) to St. Petersburg, where Masha's friend Yulia was our obliging host.
St. Petersburg was beautiful, too. It has a more European feel than Moscow (which, given its history, makes sense as Peter the Great wanted to Europeanize Russia, and Petersburg was his way of showing Europe that the Russians could play the modernization game very well, thank you). Certainly, the weather felt very . . . well, it felt very English, actually. Grey and rainy, which after days of 30+ heat, I was grateful for.
["Have you heard? Megan Beth is in St. Petersburg!" You knew it was coming.]
[In front of Spac-na-Krovi, or The Cathedral of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It was a cathedral built over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.]
[I know this is a dorky selfie. And I'm posting it for that exact reason. It is dorky, and I love our faces and the random guy in the hoodie who is in the picture. I don't know who that guy is, but I love him.]
[They have kept the cobblestones where Tsar Alexander II was killed right here. There is a shrine over that section of street now.]
[Just can't get enough of these cupolas.]
[Masha was very excited to show me this lovely statue in St. Pete. It's called Cheezik Pizhik (which they apparently called law students at the law school in Petersburg back in the day) and it's a little bird. You try to get coins to fall on his pedestal. I failed. No luck for me.]
[Reppin' the Y in front of the Winter Palace. It's fine. I was singing Anastasia songs to myself while in St. Petersburg. I'm 100% sure Masha thought I was nuts.]
[Fun fact about Petersburg: they open the bridges at night so that big barges can get through. Which means that you'd better be on the right side of the city at 1 am, or else you'll be stuck. Also, notice how there is still light between those clouds. We were there during White Nights (well, the tail end of them), and this was at 2 am. This was as dark as it got. Amazing!]
[Here you can see the bridge opened.]
One of my favorite trips we took was to Peterhof, which is a series of gardens and palaces designed by Peter the Great. Some people compare it to a Russian Versailles. I've never been to Versailles, so I can't really compare, but what I do know is that Peterhof is absolutely stunning. I hope to go back someday.
[Fountains, fountains everywhere.]
[Loved this little palace.]
[Gulf of Finland.]
[Yep. Wouldn't mind having Peterhof as a summer home.]
We also got to go to Tsarkoe Selo, which was where Pushkin studied/grew up.
[Wouldn't have minded studying here.]
[Hurray for Russian friends!]
[And more Russian friends!]
Other highlights of Petersburg included seeing some of my really good friends from Ukraine at one of the LDS wards in St. Petersburg, and taking a canal tour of Petersburg.
[On the Neva.]
There's this madness and wonder that seems to permeate Russia. There's never a dull moment, that's for sure. Russia fascinates me and always pulls me back. I love this land and I love these people. I love their potential, their history, and most of all, I love the Russian soul.