Published: November 8th 2008July 12th 2008
In a rare moment of sunshine
Looking back, I don't think that we really got a lasting impression of St Petersburg. Whether this was due to some 'travel weariness' or because we felt like we'd already seen similar sights in other European cities, I don't know. We did enjoy the few days we spent in St Petersburg though and we did our fair share of exploring.
St Petersburg has nice buildings. It has very old buildings. It has history. It has one of the best art galleries in the world, and it has countless things for tourists to see. In spite of all this and even though we were excited to be in Russia, we just never really got a feeling for the place.
We stayed in two different hostels in St Petersburg - both of which were housed in rundown-looking buildings. It is difficult to find cheap accommodation in Russia, so we were a bit worried when we arrived at our first hostel. The stairwells and exterior looked like they hadn't been touched by human hand for many years. The hallways were cold and dark, and some of the concrete stairs were a bit worn and crumbling. But we needn't have been concerned because
Palace Square in St Petersburg
The square where the Hermitage is
the hostels hidden inside were modern and cosy. At the first hostel we were given a warm welcome, and the woman who ran the place couldn't have been more helpful.
For the first couple of days in St Petersburg, it was just the two of us. We were staying on a street right next to Nevsky Prospekt, (the main shopping avenue), and just around the corner from the Hermitage museum. The city is built on a series of canals and Nevsky Prospekt is lined with grand old buildings - many of which feature the half-naked statues seen in other parts of Europe. We wandered the length of Nevsky Prospekt a couple of times - a very long way indeed. We stopped in a few cafes for a quick coffee or blini to escape the rain.
The weather wasn't kind to us even though it was summertime. We were told that this was normal for St Petersburg, and that the weather is always very changeable. It is similar to Sweden as well, in that the daylight hours in northern Russia are very long at that time of year. It stayed light until about midnight on most days.
a bit of an art fan, so we had to pay a visit to the Hermitage museum - something I was really looking forward to. I'd been to the Louvre in Paris before, and I'd heard that the Hermitage was just as fantastic. Much like the Louvre, the Hermitage building itself is amazing. It is huge - as are the queues to get into it. We aborted our first attempt to get in, because we tried at lunchtime, when the queues stretch through the massive inner courtyard and to the outer doors. We recommend that if you want to have a decent amount of time in there, and not queue for hours, it is best to arrive an hour before the doors open, which worked for us a second time.
I wasn't disappointed by the Hermitage, but there was so much art on display that we made an early decision as to what we wanted to see and what we would leave out. Choosing what you want to see is only half the fun though, as locating the modern art on the top floor took us a couple of hours. Like in Harry Potter, the staircases seem to move...
or perhaps our map reading skills are not quite up to scratch. Nonetheless, we were both interested in Picasso and the collections of Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir. Accidental detours through some of the older sections were also interesting but largely themed around the bible. If you want to see how many ways someone can paint a bloke nailed to a piece of wood, the Hermitage is for you.
After a couple of days, we switched hostels and met up with our group, who we would be travelling with for the next 2 weeks. For me, it was a pleasant change not to have to plan anything from that point on. All the transport and hostels had been taken care of by someone else, and I could relax a bit more - safe in the knowledge that we'd be unlikely to get left behind in Russia.
We had never travelled in a group before, as we normally prefer to do our own thing, and to plan our own journeys. But not really knowing what to expect from Russia, and knowing that we'd have to spend 4 solid days on a train across the country, we wanted to get
The Neva River in St Petersburg
The Hermitage stands on its banks
ourselves some travel buddies. They were a brilliant group too - people from America, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, NZ and Denmark. Easy-going and mostly experienced travellers. We didn't live in each other's pockets, but we did meet up for food and beer in the evenings, which we enjoyed.
The food in St Petersburg and Russia in general, isn't bad - but it's not cheap either. We had a couple of really good meals. The fresh fish is excellent, and so are the pancakes. Caviar is ridiculously easy to come by, and there can be a sprinkling of it with any meal. The smoked salmon and caviar bliny are really good. I tried caviar once, many years ago, and hated it. But I thought I'd give it another go. It's not something I'd eat all the time, but in Russia I thought it was pretty tasty.
The day after meeting our group, we had to catch the overnight 'third class' train from St Petersburg to Moscow - which turned out to be a memorable experience. Having travelled pretty extensively by overnight train in Asia and other parts of Europe, I didn't think I would be in for any
surprises.....wrong! The space allocated for each person on this particular train was tiny! The third class carriages are open - not dissimilar to the hard sleeper carriages on Chinese trains. However, the Russian third class manages to squeeze an extra couple of beds into the aisle of the train as well. When we boarded, we didn't think we actually had a bed, because all we could see were 2 chairs, and a table, crammed into a short space in the aisle where our bed was supposed to be. We finally worked out that the table swivelled round and transformed into a bed - and the shelf above, came down to make the top bunk.
These beds were not designed for anyone taller than 5 foot, or wider than Kate Moss, but they turned out to be perfectly fine for a short 8 hour journey....as long as you didn't move too much.
Travelling in this style also gave us a chance to get to know the Russian family and their dog, who were sleeping just inches to our right. They seemed very pleasant - lots of smiles and nods in our direction, although we really had no idea what they were
Red Square by Night
With St Basil's Cathedral
saying. They were probably most amused by our confusion. Their dog did take a liking to us though - often hopping over onto our beds for a change of scenery. Needless to say, not a great deal of sleep was had on that journey......but I didn't care. I was really looking forward to checking out Russia's capital.
Our time in Moscow was short. It was a whirlwind of sights, and more rain. We couldn't do the city justice in the time that we had there, but we did enjoy it. After checking into our hostel, and a breakfast of more pancakes, we headed straight to Red Square.
Standing in front of St Basil's Cathedral is quite mind-blowing. We couldn't quite believe we were there. It seemed so surreal. We had seen Red Square so many times on the TV - and here we were. I had to control the urge to take millions of photos of the buildings in the square. I restricted myself to fewer shots, and spent more time actually looking at the place. Sometimes, when I go somewhere that has been a dream of mine or that is very famous, I find myself spending the
whole time snapping multiple photos of everything - almost like my experience will be measured by the number of photos I have taken. I love photos and I feel they are a major part of the memory of a place. I like my pictures from Red Square, but they don't quite capture the feeling of being there I don't think. It was very cool.
One of the buildings on Red Square is Lenin's Mauseleum where his embalmed body is still on display more than 80 years after his death. We actually did go inside. I suppose we were curious. For me, it's always seemed strange to look at the embalmed body of anyone - let alone someone famous who died so long ago. To see Lenin, you have to form an orderly queue outside, get rid of all your bags and cameras, and wait for a while. Then, they let you in and you walk around the body at a decent pace. The lighting is very dim, and you cannot stop to linger or take a closer look should you be so inclined. There are always guards there who make sure you don't have your hands in your pockets
and are not smiling or talking.
We also visited the Kremlin, and checked out some of the churches inside. There seemed to be a lot of churches and cathedrals in Russia actually. Some of them are incredibly ornate and amazing to look at. An interesting sight inside the Moscow Kremlin is the world's largest bell - known as the Tsar Bell - and weighing a couple of hundred tonnes. It also has a huge piece that has broken off it. Apparently, this wasn't due to anyone dropping it, but rather a fire that caused the bell to crack. It's nice to wander around the Kremlin - there are some pretty gardens, and you can get a decent view over the city.
We should also mention the Moscow Metro. It has some splendidly decorated stations, that more resemble an art gallery than an underground train station. We travelled on the metro a few times, and we saw some really nice stations, but apparently we didn't see the best ones. We found the metro a little tricky to navigate. The station names were all in Russian lettering - no English. But our map only had the English translation - not
Russian. Plus, there didn't appear to be any metro maps on the platform walls (as per the London tube). Instead there was a list of the stations that each train stopped at, but we couldn't tell which direction the train would travel along the list, or match the station names with our map.
So, we often spent a good 20 minutes translating the station names from Russian into English (using our trusty Lonely Planet decoder) before we could decide which platform to be on. Maybe we were just looking in the wrong place, or we missed a huge map on a wall somewhere.....Still, it wasn't as straight forward as most metro systems I've seen.
We seem to have had a small case of “blog laziness'' lately. We've been back in China for a few months now, and still have a decent amount of writing to catch up on. It has always been an ambition of mine to visit Russia, and travel on the Trans-Siberian railway, and since I hate flying, I saw this as an interesting way to travel back to China. We'll be catching up on the next leg of our Russian journey soon.
There are more photos below