Where in the world

by Sarah Welch

The travel industry has changed dramatically in the 35 years that I have been involved in the industry as a travel agent.

Airlines used to give free tickets to top producing agencies, but that has ceased along with paying commission to agencies who sell their tickets.

In those ‘good old days’, airlines and tour companies offered familiarization trips (fam trips), as well.

I was lucky enough to travel on numerous fam trips earlier in my career. One of the most memorable was a trip to Russia, compliments of Lufthansa Airlines and Quasar Tours.

Travel agents from across the county were the guests, and the owner of the tour company was our guide.

The trip was in Feb. 1993 and it was very cold, snowing off and on the whole time. I do not recall ever being that cold since.

Our guide was a descendent of an aristocratic family who fled from Russia to South America during the Bolshevik Revolutions. Each generation of his family was taught the Russian language, their culture and history in the hopes that one day they would be able to return to their homeland.

This was his second trip back since the fall of communism.

As we arrived in St. Petersburg, I was immediately aware that we were in a different world.

Everything seemed dark and old. We checked into the huge Hotel Prebaltiskaya, very near the Baltic Sea

The lobby was very large, but dimly lit. Walking through a maze of hallways to our room, we met older ladies sitting on stools, obviously requesting a tip.

The rooms were antiquated and very sparse, with plumbing showing under the sinks and the bathrooms boasting scratchy, mis-matched towels. This was ‘third-world country luxury.’

We had meals of typical Russian food with lots of ‘mystery meat,’ potatoes, cabbage and beets. Entertainment included folk dancers and musicians.

We toured the magnificent Hermitage with its collections of artifacts worth millions.

One item that attracted me was an urn, probably six to eight feet tall, made entirely of Russian Malakite. Many of the buildings were huge, square, utilitarian structures.

Every time we left our hotels we were met by the ‘Front Steps Store,’ which was vendors selling such things as fur hats, lacquer boxes and pins, and wooden nesting (stacked) dolls. I bought a silver fox hat which I have rarely worn in Texas.

Once they learned our country of origin, the street musicians would serenade us with “America,” “Dixie” and “Home on the Range,” which provided plenty of laughs and good cheer.

The tour group visited the beautiful palace of Catherine the Great, where we put felt slippers over our shoes to keep from scratching the gorgeous inlaid wooden floors.

The palace was filled with great works of art.

We spent one night in a palace in Pushkin, singing and dancing in a room where it was said that Kruschev and Nixon once met.

Then the group enjoyed a delightful ride in a troika through the snow, making me think of Dr. Zhivago.

For the return to St. Petersburg the group had to prepare for an overnight train ride with a stop in Moscow.

All I can say is “wow!”

Visualize an espionage movie set in the 1940’s. I had thought we would wait on the train in a warm terminal building, instead we gathered like freezing refugees on the ramp waiting for the train.

The train finally chugged closer and it had the red star on the front, just like we have seen in the movies, it was an eerie feeling for sure.

While we had been freezing waiting for the train, we entered a cabin that was blazing hot.

Our compartments were tiny and not much bigger than a closet with narrow cots against each wall -- also in the compartment were the ever present scratchy towels.

As we traveled across the country, making stops for passengers to get on and off, it really felt like we were in a time warp.

The German built Kempinski Hotel in Moscow was the total opposite of our St. Petersburg hotel.

It was new, bright and offered all the amenities. In Moscow, we toured St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square and the Assumption Cathedral inside the Kremlin Walls.

There were actually three cathedrals, one which was the private cathedral of the Czars.

The church allowed three or four wives, but Ivan the Terrible had seven, so he built seven ‘onion’ domes on top of the cathedral in hopes of appeasing God.

We had a day excursion outside of Moscow to visit Vladimir and Susdal, two ancient rural villages.

There we saw many old wooden buildings, built in the typical Old Russian style. We even saw a woman washing clothes in the stream through a hole she had broken in the ice in order to access the water.

Our bus trip back to Moscow was a bit treacherous as blinding snow covered the roads.

I have no idea how the driver knew where to drive, but we made it back safely in order to pack for our return flight home.

Just before this trip, I picked up a book titled “Ruska” by Edward Ruther ford, that went over Russian history from the beginning of time up to the Bolshevik Revolution and was extremely helpful in understanding the culture and politics of Russia through the years. Russia is a country with a rich ad turbulent history.

I have visited St. Petersburg more recently on a cruise, but that first trip is an experience I will never forget.

“Experience, trave - these are an eduction in themselves,” Euripides.

Please email me at sbwelch@gmail.com with any questions or comments.