3 Farflung Museums of the World

My current home town of NYC has some pretty amazing museums.  The city is fortunate to have the world’s history and art come to them instead of traveling many time zones away to see it.

When I’m traveling I’m always up for checking out the ones that get a little less attention and are somewhat off the beaten path.  I’m in search of what will never reach any museum close to home because it’s just impossible to really appreciate something that is thousands of miles away from its origin.  It’s pretty hard to move an entire building as well.  Some have been somewhat successful.  For example,  the MET in NYC did do a great job of bringing the Islamic world back after being in storage for a decade.

I usually find places that are more known for both their architectural beauty and small collection of art inside. Here are a few of my favorites from my travels over the years.  Trips to Russia and Iran just require a pricey and lengthy visa approval process and Syria is considered very unsafe for foreigners and nationals alike.  Things will hopefully the violence will end and peace will resume in days ahead.   Here’s just a little look inside a few.

Moscow – The Gorky Museum

Gorky Museum
The stairway and beautiful lamp at its base inside the Gorky Museum in Moscow
Gorky Museum
The Art Deco designs on the outside of the Gorky Museum in Moscow


Kahn, Hamah – The Mosaic Museum of Syria

Mosaic museum
Syria’s Mosaic Museum displays amazing Byzantine works in the Town of Kahn just outside of Hamah
Mosaic museum
Highly detailed Byzantine Tile work on display at the Mosaic Museum in Syria



Yazd – Coin and Anthropology Museum

Yazd - Coin and Anthropology Museum
Yah..coins!!  The name sort of deters some but not me. Stunning sight for those who aren’t afraid to embrace their geekiness
Yazd Coin and Anthropology Museum
Don’t see many of these around
Yazd - Coin and Anthropology Museum
See…more than just coins and bills.  The empty rose filled courtyard of the Coin and Anthropology Museum in Yazd Iran.  It’s just you, the guard and his friend handing you the ticket.

Your priced out of a trip to Moscow? How about Georgia instead?

Mosaic of Stalin in the Josef Stalin Museum Gori - Georgia
Mosaic of Stalin in the Josef Stalin Museum Gori – Georgia

We all have a vision on how we will spend our precious days away from regular life. For some its traveling far from home to a place where most things are foreign.  An evening stroll along the Volga viewing the red stars that light up the top of the Kremlin, Seven Sisters and St. Basil’s.  There’s also the subterranean beauty of the extensive subway system lit with crystal chandeliers and elegant tiled passageways which look more like a museum then public transport hubs.

Boating down the Volga in Moscow
Boating down the Volga in Moscow
Typical interior of the Moscow Subway
Typical interior of the Moscow Subway

Intrepid shopping trips to the Vernisage in Izmailovo Flea Market checking out Matryoshki dolls painted with Putin and Medvedev faces, Lenin and Stalin commemorative Statues and other Soviet Kitsch objects.

Souvenirs @ Ismailovo Park in Moscow
Souvenirs @ Ismailovo Park in Moscow

Today, visitors can freely walk around the interior walls that surround the Kremlin fortress where former Czar royals lived in seclusion and away from the common people. Their ostentatious collections of jewels, thousands of pieces of cutlery, carriages, clothing and countless gives from allies are on display for those who can pay 700 rub or about $25 USD and no pictures allowed, viewing  times are limited and just about everything is a bit irregular.

All there is to be seen in Moscow and much of Russia does come with a hefty price tag which starts with the visa and goes through the lack of budget accommodation. This is not an ideal backpacker spot since it’s impossible to just land and figure it out as you go. I guess if there is a will then there’s a way like but at an expense which would deter most vagabonds.

If a traveler has their heart set on a trip to Russia then the investment is well worth the hoops and greasy palms one must contend with before being let in. If not, there are less expensive alternatives which provide similar experiences with less of a price tag and hassles. Many former Soviet controlled cities offer a good alternatives for travelers looking for signs of the glory days of communism under Stalin and Lenin.

Mtsketa
Mtsketa Cathedral in Tbilisi

Tbilisi instead of Moscow

One of those is the lovely former Soviet satellite country of the Georgian Republic.   This lovely country is on the move and could be a member of NATO as soon as this May when NATO holds their summit in Chicago. This doesn’t exactly thrill Russia and tension between the two still continues on.

Tbilisi lies of the banks of the Kura River and it’s hills contain medieval fortresses, parks and the larger than life soviet style Kartlis Deda Statue.

Kartlis Deda statue above Tbilisi
Kartlis Deda statue high in the hills above Tbilisi

Wonderful 360 degree pic by photographer Ilia Zakaraia  he entitles:  the Bridge of the peace at night in Tbilisi ,Georgia in Georgia
The ultimate Soviet kitsch experience – Gori, Georgia

The war is over in Georgia and it’s a wonderful place to visit. Travelers can’t find any better Soviet kitsch then the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia. This is where you can see the home of Josef and his family and view the 83 ton very secure custom train the paranoid Stalin travelled in while visiting his post 1941 conquered regions.  There is much more to Georgia than birthplace of one of the world’s most paranoid and murderous dictator.  They are still in the process of removing him from their past which includes everything Soviet.    Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-Western president, is trying to get rid of all Stalin references and not so long ago finally had his statue removed from the center of Gori. President Saakashvili wants to continue to sever all connections to Russia’s former occupation of Georgia.

Stalin's Train in Gori - Georgia
Stalin’s 83 Ton Private Ride
Stalin's Private Train Car in Gori - Georgia
Inside Stalin’s Private Train Car

Craving Vodka?

Just trade it for Red Wine and/or Borjomi

Georgia  continues in their quest to be known less for its conflicts and more for things like their  fine wines, bubbly therapeutic mineral water and unique culture.The Russian’s continue their embargo on Georgia’s biggest beverage exports, wine and a salty mineral water with the labels of Borjomi and Nabeghlavi.

Wine is the blood of Georgians as vodka is in most of Russian citizens blood. Russia’s ban only makes both very affordable for locals and visitors.   Vodka of all kinds is not hard to find and one of the few Soviet traditions that will be hard for Georgians to give up but the wine is devine and extremely budget friendly thanks to the Russian embargo and lack of interest from this feisty neighbor.

Medieval walls of Jvari Church Tbilisi
Medieval walls of Jvari Church Tbilisi where wine was once produced
Beehives in the countryside of Tbilisi Georgia
Beehives in the rich countryside of Tbilisi Georgia with the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range in the background
he Metekhi Church and the equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali
The Metekhi Church and the equestrian statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali

Soviet Metro Systems in Tbilisi

There’s nothing that can touch the beauty and elegance of the subway stations found in Moscow. The few built in Tbilisi which give visitors a feel for the signature look the Soviet designers were going for. Construction of most of these smaller marble walled stations was completed in 1966. Today, there’s no longer signs of Stalin, but they do deeply resemble those built in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The subway conductors and security do not allow picture-taking inside the subway system. I managed to accidentally bump my camera with this one below.

Tbilisi Subway - Republic of Georgia
Tbilisi Subway – Republic of Georgia
Gori
Gori with a Soviet leftover statue

Budget low down:

Travel Visa:

Georgia: Free for most upon arrival

Russia: $130 on average and need to start process at least 2 months before departure

Accommodation in the city:

Tbilisi:

$40-100 USD/night for most hotels including breakfast and private bath similar to the Charm Hotel

Moscow:

$70-100 USD/night for most double with separate bath no breakfast at hotels like and similar to the Petrovka Loft close to Red Square

Meals:

Tbilisi:

Splashed out 3-course meal: $30 USD

Traditional Georgian Cuisine Menu:
– a glass of wine for $3.61
– a liter bottle of Borjomi for 90 cents USD
– a plate of 3 Khinkali for 90 cents USD
– a large Khachapuri or cheese bread for $3.91 USD

Meal totaling: $9.32 USD without tip

Moscow:

Basic Budget meals: $10-12 USD without drink

McDonald’s Value Meal: $4.99 USD

Cheap Eats listed on this site made for foreign students staying in Moscow.

Cities of Georgia may not have the prestige of cities found in the former Mother Land of Russia but they are easier on the wallet. The choice is  of course the travelers.  Travelers will find a visit to Tbilisi an experience to remember. Travelers can see where Stalin grew up and how the first Soviet satellite country to declare independence from Russia has fared despite continuous conflict after cutting loose.

A trip to plan: will it be Stoic Russian or Festive Mexico?

The trip in May came down to two locations.  Mexico or Russia?  My husband and I had our usual debate.  We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.

We decided on Russia.  The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One.  The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way.   At least we expect it.

So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair.  This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles.  The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge.  A carry-on in this case is required.

We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary.    There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one.  Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities.  It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square.  There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age.  They may have been an option 10 years ago.

Another option was renting a flat.   This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy.   These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month.  The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more.  A few days stay goes up at least 30%.  So that wasn’t an option.

With a little more  research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted.  There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers.   I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com.  I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment.  The remainder is paid when you arrive.  If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking.  It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel.  I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation.  It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming.  This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.

The fun has momentarily ended.  It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application.  Each country that requires a visa has their own system.  Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash.  Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money.  The questions are like an employment application.  I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit?   I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long.  Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.

The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant.  Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia.  Basically, someone who will be responsible for you  while in Russia.  These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it.  The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work.  We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com.  It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.

Now, my  (1) valid passport with at least  two clear visa places available (2) a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and  now all I need to do is get (5) a  $131 USD money order from the bank.  I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning.  I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.

The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days.  I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think.  Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city.  After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.

Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh

Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa

For a quick guide of St. Petersburg click here

For Moscow click here