Compass Blog

Mark Terry, Explorer-in-Residence, Goes Behind The Former Iron Curtain

Locations: Europe, Russia

What’s behind the (former) Iron Curtain? A lot of sights you won’t find anywhere else! I was fortunate enough to have the Canadian government sponsor me on a speaking tour of Russia recently. I arrived at what seemed to be a very modest Moscow Domodedovo Airport. The Arrivals gates suggest you may have landed in Siberia, but as you walk into the main terminal, it blossoms into an enormous and spectacular international airport. One of the first stops on my Russia tour was, of course, Red Square. After standing on the geographic centre of Moscow just outside the square for a picture, I soon took in the architectural wonders that make up this iconic international landmark. The snow-covered peaks of St. Basil’s Church displayed an impressive array of colours, shapes and patterns. Inside the church, the various towers held labyrinths of chapels, stairs that led nowhere and museum displays. Up the winding staircases, you find perhaps the best views of Red Square as the Kremlin and the enormous GUM shopping mall stand majestically before you. While it is easy to get lost in all the beautiful sights St. Basil’s holds in its architecture and museum pieces, don’t forget to look up as breathtaking sculptures and stained glass skylights are often found far above your head. In the GUM (Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, meaning "main universal store" and pronounced “goom”) shopping mall, you will find all your familiar brands and one of the best food courts in the world. I ordered the lunch special in GUM’s famous buffet cafeteria and got a plate of seasoned chicken breast with a side order of buckwheat covered in mushroom gravy. It sounds simple, but the spices and ingredients used to flavour the chicken and the sauce were amazing! The next not-to-be-missed tourist destination in Moscow is Gorky Park. Built in 1928 as the gardens of the Neskuchny Palace along the Moscva River, it covers an incredible 300 acres in downtown Moscow! As it was winter when I visited, the park was covered by miles of frozen paths for pleasure skating, snaking their way through the park with various levels, bridges, openings to frozen ponds and even hockey rinks. What a great way to take a “walk in the park”. After screening my films The Polar Explorer and The Antarctica Challenge with Russian subtitles for the EkoCup Environmental Conference, I spoke at the School of Journalism of the Moscow State University and on a television talk show called “Context”. My tour complete in Moscow, it was now time to travel to St. Petersburg. I took the midnight train for the eight-hour trip and was treated to a very comfortable cabin complete with fold-out bed, a sink and mirror, closet and cable TV! At Latitude 59, the beautiful city of St. Petersburg was actually quite cold, but the snow-covered statues, ornate architecture and unique style of this city really warms your heart. Founded by one of the world’s most famous explorers, Peter the Great in 1703, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia until 1918 when the central government bodies moved to Moscow. Today, Saint Petersburg is a European cultural centre, perhaps best known for the largest museum in the world – the Hermitage. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, it comprises nearly 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. I was stunned to see the works of such European Masters as Monet, Picasso, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Rodin, Gaugin, Raphael, etc. etc. all under one roof. The six buildings that make up the Hermitage Museum are works of art themselves. Ornate sculptures abound, but you need to look everywhere, including up, to see them all. Often adorned with gold or crystal, the entire structure absolutely sparkles inside and out. Another smaller museum worth visiting here is the State Russian Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. Built in 1838, it first housed polar exhibits in 1922 and is the only museum of its kind in all of Russia. It is one of the largest museums in the world devoted to the discovery and history of exploration, natural environment, and the economy and culture of the polar regions of the planet. It is also the only one in the world having both Arctic and Antarctic expositions. Today, the museum collection contains near 75,000 exhibits. While it’s easy to be blinded by the beauty of both Moscow and Saint Petersburg, don’t get your pockets picked by the local taxi drivers who are very aggressive and will almost assuredly over-charge you if they see you are a tourist. The alternative? Stand by the road and wave your hand in a downward motion about waist high. This is the local method of getting a ride. When a car stops, tell the driver where you are going. If they are heading that way, they will give you a ride for a far more reasonable amount. The experience is a hybrid of hitchhiking and taking a taxi. It would also help to learn a bit of Russian before you go. While the academic community I hung around with spoke English well, almost everyone else speaks Russian only. Kensington Tours offers incredible private-guided tours to Russia. Discover the history, art and culture of mysterious Russia as you experience its flagship cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 7 Day Russia Highlights. Click here to find out more.

Mark Terry, Explorer in Residence

Mark Terry is a Fellow International member of The Explorers Club and recipient of the Canadian chapter’s highest honor, the Stefansson Medal for his international field work “documenting our natural world”. As well as a Community Leader for the David Suzuki Foundation, Mark is also this year’s winner of the Gemini Humanitarian Award, presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in recognition of his work with the United Nations with his documentaries. Working closely with the world’s scientific community in Antarctica and the Arctic earned him the recognition of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2008. His last two films – The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning and The Polar Explorer – were made in partnership with the UNEP and both premiered at the Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Together, both films have won 20 international film awards for excellence. As a member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the University of Alberta's Northern Research Network, Mark lectures and speaks regularly about the environmental issues affecting the fragile eco-systems of the polar regions and, by extension, the world.

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