Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30 2013: Moscow is out of this world!

This morning, Kostya dropped us off at a cafe for breakfast at Liudi kak Liudi (People As They Are) while he went to recycle cans, bottles, cardboard, paper, and other packaging materials. He missed most of breakfast, that's how dedicated he is - and how difficult Moscow makes it - to recycling. There are two recycling centers in the city, he and Dania do their part to save the planet one carload at a time. What he was missing was an amazing creamy Champignon mushroom pie and an apple cinnamon banana yogurt smoothie - such a sacrifice!

Dania pouring over plans for
construction near the community garden

Belka, Strelka, and their Sputnik

Next on our agenda was a tour of the super cool Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. We visited:
- Belka and Strelka - the first Earth creatures to go into Outer Space and return - along with some mice, flies, and algae. Sadly Laika didn't return from a previous test flight due to what the tour guide implied was a defect in the animal that caused it to not be able to handle temperatures above 50C/122F.
- Some scorched Soyuz capsules that returned Cosmonauts and Astronauts to Earth,
- A lifesize walkthrough replica of Mir (sadly no antigravity simulator)
- Moon rocks and meteorites
- Three scale models in various colors of the ill-timed Buran Space Shuttle project. If the Buran hadn't launched just as Perestroika was kicking off, maybe we would've had an orange shuttle!

Buran models!

About to enter Mir

The museum borders an amusement park that, in 1935, was designated for World Fair type of agriculture Expo. According to Wikipedia, the opening of the park had to be delayed by Stalin and then by Khrushchev as the exhibits and pavilions were continually not ready in time. Times changed and the USSR wanted to highlight its industrial prowess, so the guy who originally thought of the idea of the fair was jailed for five years. Anyway that's a lot of random history, the point is it's a very silly place that sort of feels like a time capsule with its Monorail and All-Russia Exhibition Centre and 360 degree Panorama Theatre (in the round) showing propaganda films about how amazing Siberia is.

What a Soyuz crash landing scene would look like??

Panoramic theatre in the round

After ditching the car (Kostya had to find a safe place to keep it for a week while we travel), we visited the CRCL community garden he and Dania are protecting. They weed and plant and water and organize - but mostly it seems they are fighting big developers who want to encroach under, over, and within the garden property.

Just a sampling of the Panorama film

I like Moscow very much. We've seen more of it than on previous trips, and in particular with Kostya's stewardship through the finest cafes and restaurants in the region, we really had a wonderful time. If you are not particularly interested in Opera or open bridges or high school reunions, it seems Moscow is the place to visit.

at the exhibition grounds
(tragically didn't have a chance to try it)

Dania at the entrance to the garden

One note on pricing: At Dzhagannat, two cups of coffee cost 200 rubles ($7) while two trays of food cost about twice that amount. Some things in Moscow are extraordinarily expensive. At a grocery store while we were stocking up for the next train ride, they were selling a very small carton of kumquats for 700 rubles ($25). And lunch in the Russian Academy of Sciences building was literally hundreds of dollars - small glass of juice there is 800 rubles ($25).

Kostya maintaining the CRCL community garden

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29 2013: Moscow's veggies, startups, and long lost shuttles

Kostya, Dania, Olga, and I had Zaftrak (breakfast) at Moscow's amazing vegetarian cafe Dzhagannat.
It was a feast, there were so many interesting things to choose from. I tried the tofu bean sprout salad, lentil cutlet, squash ball, red curry tofu, and some little chocolaty minty desserts. It's also two floors of vegetarian grocery shop and then an Antoni Gaudí-inspired restaurant deep in the bowels of the shop, kinda like the former Virgin Megastore in NYC. Everything was super flavorful and interesting - Kostya and Dania are super lucky to have this place nearby! Walked around Pokrovka neighborhood a bit, popping into bookstores, cafes, and trinket shops.

Kostya and Dania take
recycling very seriously!

Amazing breakfast at Dzhagannat

Met our friend Lenya and his girlfriend and newborn for lunch at the grotesquely ugly seemingly-but-not-actually-finished past-version-of-the-future Russian Academy of Sciences. One of the highlights of this entire trip happened at lunch. There was a great view dining at the top of the Academy of Sciences, and there was a moment I was looking out the window from my seat and I could swear I saw a space shuttle near the river! I went out onto the observation deck and confirmed it - there definitely seemed to be a space shuttle sitting there in the middle of Moscow! We did some research and found that Buran OK-TVA - a test model made for the USSR's aborted 1980s Buran Shuttle project - has been living in Gorky Park since 1994. I visited Gorky Park about 5 years ago and didn't even know it was there! So cool to spot it - from my lunch table no less. I had read once that the Burans were so similar to NASA's shuttles that NASA even considered buying Burans after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster - until they saw the shape they were in.

Yarnbombing in Pokrovka
Increasingly futuristic Russian
Academy of Sciences

One other thing happened at lunch at the top of the Russian Academy of Sciences - the top scientists of Russia were having a special election to decide who will lead them going forward. Apparently there was some intrigue with the previous president - they say a ton of money was allocated for funding of schools and such that never arrived - so this new election is being followed very closely. Judging from the table of scientists sitting next to us at lunch, I think the money may have found its way into numerous rounds of wine and caviar.
Can you spot the Buran in Gorky Park??

Lunch with Lenya

We high-tailed it across the city to make it to a performance of Argentinian symphonic music performed by Russkaya Filarmonia in the new Moscow International House of Music. The venue is great visually and acoustically. The performance was lively, the Argentinian conductor had a very active spirit, and it gave us a chance to rest a little and catch up on our thoughts.
Kostya trying a Walking Desk at Yandex

Russkaya Filarmonia,
Argentinian style

After dinner, a friend of Kostya's who works at Yandex (Russian equivalent of Google) invited us over for a tour. It was neat checking out the startup culture, which is still evident even during our tour at 2:00 in the morning. With Bean bag couches, air hockey tables, heated patios, free food, and eclectically-designed interior walls, you would guess it's the office of a Bay Area based startup.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 28 2013: Dutch and Belgian influences in St Petersburg!

The past couple of days have been a blur of getting up between 6:30-8am and going to bed around 2:30am. Olga is relentless when it comes to visiting with the most friends and family in the shortest time, and this trip is one of the shortest in St Petersburg. Some of the highlights for me include sleeping during The Mermaid opera in the beautifully modern and comfortably seated new Mariinsky-2 Theatre, falling asleep on the couch during a lull at a dinner party in the dacha near the Finnish Gulf, and passing out against a wall at Pierogie restaurant near Nevsky Prospekt.

Chef Boyardee of Russia
Advertisement in SPb Metro
Filmed in San Francisco?

Our last day in St Petersburg before heading further east, we checked out two cafes recommended by Olga's brother Kostya, who's sort of the king of the St Petersburg cafe scene. First up was Candies by Coffee Room, where we were treated to a beer cocktail consisting made from Licorne Black темное пиво (dark beer), лайм (lime), and cranberries. I've seen beer cocktails at San Francisco beer week, but haven't tried them until now. It's a refreshing sort of sangria-like drink, like en effervescent fruity party in your mouth! Eating all the beer-soaked fruit at the end was fun too. At Small Double we had a choice of coffee made by Syphon, Chemex, or Aeropress. We took the Chemex as it's similar to the cup-at-a-time filtered 3rd wave coffee we'd grown used to in San Francisco. The syphon looked super interesting too, to try when we return to St Petersburg next week.

Beer Cocktail "Black Keys" and Bird
Cherry Cake at Candies by Coffee Room

New Holland Island - an oasis in St Petersburg

Mid-day we explored Новая Голландия (New Holland Island), which was military warehousing for 200 years, before becoming abandoned for almost 100 years, finally becoming a public park, and soon to be a mall and hotel space. Stay tuned as the old brick buildings get converted into a mall, sort of a luxury version of Arsenal Mall in Watertown MA. In the meantime we have temporary cargo containers housing bookstores, galleries, an "open library" book exchange, ping ping tables, and a biergarten. It's a lovely space!

For dinner we convinced Maria and Leonid to meet us as the Belgian restaurant Cafe Trappist, with its patio, upstairs, and cute cellar. The cellar was perfect for us and, although the portions were small and pricey, food arrived much after promised, they brought some of the wrong dishes, and I might've had an allergic reaction to the mussels, still I enjoyed the place and especially their phenomenal-for-beer-naive-Russia beer menu.

Maria enjoying a Belgian Lager

Food Truck movement making its way to St Petersburg

Next up was the Sapsan high-speed train to Moscow, which sped up the normally 8+ hour trip to a perfect 4 hours. I installed a GPS speedometer app on my phone to track the speed, at one point hitting 200 km/h, but most of the time it hovered around 140 km/h. Other than napping, reading, and gazing out the window, we spent the time listening to four drunken older Russian men hitting on 1 blonde woman who had the luck to be assigned a seat with them. She took it as well as she could, giggling and seeming to enjoy their stories for four hours. At the end, when it came time to ask for her number or take down theirs, somehow nobody could find a pen. :)