The last time I wrote, I was just about to leave Vilnius, the current European capital of culture, in Lithuania. I had a slight feeling of anticipation about the next leg of my journey, as I’d read on numerous occasions that entering the Russian Federation can sometimes be a torturous, time-consuming affair. Luckily I was able to escape these feelings on the short walk to the train station. A couple of policemen flicked inattentively through a soft core porn magazine in their car. They gave me a look that wreaked of masculinity when they caught me peering through the car window as I walked past. Further on a group of tone deaf teenagers grunted to two friends who were walking in the wrong direction. Strangely enough they were oblivious to the calls and rapid hand movements.
I needn’t have worried about the border crossing. It passed without a hitch. The only trouble I had was from the train attendant who became disgruntled when the ‘free’ cup of tea she brought me turned out to be a tad more expensive than ’free’. After spending the rest of my Lithuanian money before boarding the train, it didn’t take long before a stalemate was reached. It took several minutes and a barrage of shouts aimed in my direction before my cheeky smile won through and the train attendant admitted defeat. Why she wouldn’t accept my Euro and Polish change I’d managed to accumulate is beyond me!
It was morning when we arrived in to St. Petersburg and I was ready for my first taste of the well documented Russian hospitality. It didn’t take long before I experienced such a delight. Needing to take the metro to our hostel, I was slightly taken a back when upon queuing to go through the ’big bag’ barrier, the well dressed metro attendant became quite agitated before shouting and mocking me in front of the passing public. From what I could gather, the bags on our backs, bags the same size as an obese pizza-hugging adolescent weren’t acceptable through the ‘big bag’ barrier as they neither had wheels on them or were being carried by elderly babushkas (grandmothers).
I tried in vain to rectify the misunderstanding through a game of charades, but to no avail and I was forced, along with my wife to try and squeeze through the normal barriers. I managed to get through unscathed. Sadly my wife, who’s bag was slightly bigger than mine got wedged stuck and needed a two-hand pull from myself to free herself and get through. Cue more mocking, shouting and pointing from the metro assistant.
I could have jumped to the conclusion that Russians are cold, icy, unfriendly bastards from this first contact, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After learning a few words of Russian and once making an effort to speak in their language, Russian people thaw out very quickly. They do have one frustrating quality though; answering every question with another question. Upon reaching our hostel the first conversation went something along the following lines of;
"Hello, we have a reservation in your hostel."
"You have a reservation in this hostel?"
"Yes, I have the email reservation if you would like to see."
"You have an email reservation? Would I like to see it?"
"Yes would you like to see it?"
"Hmmmmmm, would I like to see it?"
"Can we see our room now?"
"Can you see your room now?"
After what seemed like an ice-age, my wife and I were finally able to check in and explore St. Petersburg. Ever since leaving England, their have been some very obvious differences, none more than the fashion. The further east I’ve travelled, the higher the skirt and the longer the heels have become. I didn’t think Russia could push the levels of common decency any further, but they have managed it with little effort. If you want to see a procession of 6ft women and what they have eaten for breakfast, then Russia really is the place for you.
I still felt slightly uneasy walking through the streets of St. Petersburg. It wasn’t the parading bears and monkeys that were harbouring these feelings, but the image of the Russian police, wanting to stop you for bribes and harassment at every turn. This was another urban myth that proved unfounded and it wasn’t long before I was able to enjoy the city for what it was, a drab, dreary, soulless place. To get from A to B you were faced with an obstacle course of dog shit and hearty human phlegm to navigate through.
It could be that I was visiting at the onset of winter, but if St. Petersburg really is Russia’s most beautiful city then I don’t have too high expectations for the rest of the trip! There were a couple of redeeming factors, most notably The Hermitage (the worlds largest art collection at 3 million items), The Church of the Spilt Blood (a very colourful holy meeting place) and some of the best theatrical performances outside of England and America. I decided to enjoy the latter, with a trip to the opera, my first ever visit to such a show. Even though it was all in English, I only understood four words throughout the duration and even fell asleep briefly during the second half of the performance.
Up until St. Petersburg my wife and I had travelled independently, but from now on, thanks to the hassle of buying train tickets and obtaining visas we would be travelling in a group. The highlight of the group is a 57 year old, bordering alcoholic, American lady, who has the mentality that the world is stuck in some 70’s hippy, free-loving time warp. She proved her ‘group potential’ on the overnight train to Moscow when she managed the near impossible fete of getting the whole carriage of stone-faced Russians to sing The Beatles’ hit ‘Yesterday’, while attempting to moon walk up and down the carriage, grabbing at her crotch in the process. Yes, she had been sampling the Russian delights of vodka and high-strength beer!
Moscow surprised me. Expecting the drab and dreary soul of St. Petersburg again, I was instead met with a city full of elegance, exuberance, expensive tastes and a never-ending procession of churches and museums. I’d always thought Moscow had nothing more to offer than the Red Square and the Kremlin. Instead I was met with a magnitude of delights including St. Basils (the colourful ice-cream coned church, which I’d always thought was The Kremlin) and Lenin’s Mausoleum. I’m not one for controversy, but is it really the great, influential man himself inside, or a second rate Madam Tussauds wax work? I’m still undecided!
Before catching the longest train journey of the trip, a ninety hour, four nights, three days journey in to heart of Siberia, our group had the chance to partake in our first proper vodka-drinking experience. This was in the tiny town of Suzdal, once Russia’s capital and a place famous for it’s ridiculous array of churches. At one point there was a church for every twelve inhabitants.
In places like Suzdal, Moscow and St. Petersburg many local residents hire out their apartments to visiting tourists, offering traditional Russian homestays and experiences. Such extra income for those lucky enough to get tourists through their doors is the difference between living on the breadline and being affluent. Illena would be our host for the evening, not only preparing a traditional Russian meal, but free flowing vodka to accompany each mouthful. Illena was a single, middle-aged lady and it quickly became apparent it wasn’t tourists’ money she was after. As soon as the food was eaten and enough vodka drank to leave the majority of people inebriated, Illena pounced. Turning on the music she went from person to person, thrusting her saggy breasts against them for as long a time as she could get away with. For Illena these meetings were probably her only chance for companionship and the chances of touching up as many young people as possible!
It was an entertaining way to round off our time in Europe before embarking on the trip in to Siberia and indeed Asia.