So we finally arrived in St Petersburg, a little more than a week after our epic journey began. To me, arriving in Russia signals the start of the next, and very significant, phase of our journey, the Trans-Siberian.
In the land of Ladas, vodka and beef strogonoff (we tried it, the vodka and the beef, naturally, it's good), I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The guidebooks tend to paint it all in such a negative light, be wary of this and that, and of course I had visions of Russian Mafia running through my head anyway, so none of it served to put me at ease. One of our comforts though was Nikolai, our driver. We saw him every day, as he happened to pick us up from the airport the first day, drive us on our guided tour the next day, and then again the following day as he dispatched us from the hotel to the train station. He didn't speak a word of English but his smile and gentle nature about him was enough to put us at ease in the time we were with him.
And then once you wander around the city itself, you almost half to remind yourself that you are in fact in Russia. The city, with its many bridges, canals and grand palace-type buildings could easily be mistaken for Venice, Amsterdam or Paris.
The immediate reminder that you aren't in Western Europe though is that you can't even begin to read the signs! Of course, its all in Russian alphabet (Cyrillic, to be exact) and has similarities with Greek. With Greek though, they are gracious enough to put most of their signs and menus in both Greek and English. In Russia, not so. You can't even guess the words, unless you have done a bit of research beforehand (here's where I wish I had undertaken my "Learn Russian in 2 weeks" CD-ROM before coming, rather than just looking at it in its box) so we have had to steer clear of restaurants that don't have their menu in English etc. Can you imagine if I was deprived of food because it took too long to read the menu?! Yeah well, David knows all too well that its just not worth it. Its hilarious though reading their English descriptions of some of the dishes, quite obviously translated very literally. Anyone for some delicious boiled cancer? (That's boiled crab for the foodies amongst us!) that said, we have had some very good meals, and it is very clear they have a love affair with dill. (its on everything, as a sauce, as a garnish, they even have dill-flavoured crisps!)
The second day in St Pete's, it snowed (more than flurries) and it made the scenery just breathtaking. Very romantic, exactly what I thought St Petersburg would look like. All those connotations and images of Russia in winter where everyone is wandering through the snow, with big furry hats and coats, well, it is exactly like that. With a backdrop of massive, ornate palaces, dusted with a coating of snow, it is amazing. Almost every building in the main city centre is a 19th century masterpiece.
We paid a visit to the Hermitage museum, housed in the very beautiful Winter Palace. Not being particularly keen on art and museums, I have to say I thought this collection (and we saw prob only 30% of the total in the 3 hours we were there) was interesting, but also because the collection is housed in the Winter Palace itself so when the art gets boring you can look at the beautiful rooms themselves, all kitted out with golden furniture. I was so impressed with the Hermitage, I cried for more, so we went to the State Russian Museum the next day, housed in another palace. This gave us a flavour and much insight into Russian art over the centuries.
What also amused us during these museum visits was the Cloakroom Experience. That in itself is a process that takes longer than it does to get your entrance ticket! Vast basement corridors are used as cloakrooms to house coats in winter and you cannot enter the museum until you have ditched your coat here in exchange for a plastic tag. Of course, the problem is once these rooms are full with coats, and this is no small feat,one must wait until a peg is free in order to put yours in. Makes sense, much like waiting for a carpark to come free in the St Lukes carpark, there's just no telling how long this is going to take. There's a chance this wait may begin in the snow outside, like ours did, as the cloakroom at the Hermitage had reached maximum capacity when we arrived. Such a crazy concept, coming from a country where we don't really even own a winter coat!
We decided to succumb and do one hellishly touristy thing and that was to attend a Cossack show in yet another former palace. The Cossacks were amazing, they must have very strong legs to be able to do what I can only describe as Russian break dancing.
Minibuses are a very popular form of public transport to get around St Petes. They are usually 10 or 15 seater mini vans which all serve numbered routes and you just pile in even if there are no seats left. When you get to your destination you just shout at the driver you want him to stop and he pulls over when he can. We thought we would earn some "intrepid" points by catching a mini bus back to the hotel after the Cossack show. Was really our only choice given our hotel was quite far out of the city centre. We knew #190 would get us to our hotel so we paid our 17 roubles each (30p) and jumped in. In no time at all during the ride, I was helping act as intermediary cashier helping pass the rouble fares forward to the driver (who might I add was doing a splendid multitasking job of driving whilst handing back change to passengers). The only hitch was that having been driven round by Nikolai the past couple of days, we only had a vague idea of where we should yell stop to the driver. When it seemed like we had started heading in the wrong direction, we jumped out at a stop with others, a little too prematurely. It became apparent after only a couple metres walk in below zero temperatures and plenty of snow that our hotel wasn't there where we thought it was supposed to be. Heading back to the "stop" where our mini van had dropped us, we couldn't find a taxi or another 190 bus and it was too cold to stand still and hope. We were now well out of the safety of the city centre, and in the suburbs of St Petes (with apartment blocks that still look like they are part of the Soviet era) So we started walking in the direction of the original 190, down a road that had few street lights, manholes partially covered with snow, and no other people on the streets crazy enough to be out in the cold. It was very eerie. We walked fast. A few hundred metres down the road we hit a junction and thankfully, like a beacon of light, shone the lights of our Hotel Karelja, the only lit up tower block for miles. But still a good 2kms away. Given we still hadn't seen a taxi, and at least knew where we needed to get to, we decided to walk the rest of the way, but that didn't make it any less scary as there was no one still for miles and we would have to walk down the side of a park to get there. I practically ran most of the way, as much as possible given the snow. But we made it, finally, and headed straight to the shower to avoid hypothermia! We then drove past it in the daylight the next day, and it wasn't nearly as scary as it felt the previous night!
All in all, we got a taste for what St Petes had to offer and it was all good. Next begins the first train journey of many, the overnight train to Moscow.
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