Tuesday June 5, 2012 – What kind of Buddhists are these?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

We take it easy on our last day in St. Petersburg and see some local sights. We walk to a park that opens onto the water – there’s a riverboat service to Kronstadt Island, and I make sure to remember it. (Obscure Communist joke there, in case you were wondering.) There are luxury apartments lining the water and giant yachts, but working class people are still strolling through.

We stop for lunch in a nearby Buddhist temple. At first I’m full of sympathy for them being closed down during the Revolution – surely there’s no need to suppress minority religions, only the Russian orthodox institutions tied into Tsarist state power?

But my sympathy wanes when we go to the cafe. I’ve been looking forward to this since I arrived, since Buddhists are vegetarians, they created fake meat so travellers could eat at their temples, and the restaurant ‘Buddha’s’ in Toronto serves giant plates of noodles and gluten and mushrooms. Neither M. nor myself can read the menu so we just order everything. It’s certainly cheap – the meal for both of us costs about $6 – but it’s all meat. Crab salad, soup with bits of beef in it and beef dumplings. Upstairs a temple worker told me to remove my hat; apparently grinding up your fellow animals is OK but covering your head is an affront to God. I know religions have to adapt to local customs, but I thought not harming Creation was high up on the list of Buddhist must-dos? I skipped the dumplings, ate the salad and picked out the beef chunks in the soup – I was too hungry to leave. But we went back to the mall for an ‘e-mail’ crepe – mushrooms and crème – which I washed down with a big cup of kvas, a red fermented rye-flour drink that tasted vaguely alcoholic.

Suitably refreshed, we went behind the mall, past giant new gated office developments, to the local cemetery, which turned out to be huge. We passed the giant memorial to the Siege of Leningrad, complete with eternal flame (they lost 2 million residents, after all):

Then we wandered down some back paths, overgrown with weeds, and saw graves dating back to the 19th century.

Caged:

This guy was a year older than me. Not to speak ill of the dead, but I think I’ve aged better:

Each plot had a small fence around it, and there was a lot of artistry on display: elaborate iron crosses, etched portraits, and my favourite, rusting towers with red stars on the top:

On the other side of the main walkway was the military cemetery, the only section still being developed, where we saw rows of sailors and soldiers. I guessed that many had died in Chechnya. Many had Soviet insignia on their photos or tombstones. Some were their kids, I’m guessing – this one was posing with a 2010 model Macbook Pro. Tempis fugit…

These grey-black crows were all over the cemetery and St. Petersburg:

We said goodbye to Anna and her mother, who were lovely hosts. Her mother said (through Anna) that she wished us safe travels and that she’d miss us – all the more remarkable considering we never exchanged a sentence with her in a common language. But we still managed to communicate. Then we made it to Moscowsivaya Railway Station, where we got a four-person berth on the Red Arrow, the train of the old Party elites.This isn’t a great photo, but you can see the grey-suited train attendants lined up at regular intervals outside the doors:

For a half hour we thought we’d have the berth to ourselves, but all the Russians were just waiting outside the train to have one or more last cigarettes. Rousing music played over the station speakers as we rolled smoothly away. I didn’t sleep amazingly well, but it was so cool to be on a train, slipping through the night.

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