Sensory overload part 1

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Aug 19, 2011

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This morning I woke up to the sound of the ship as it pulled into the harbor at St. Petersburg. I really don't know how well I slept because my head was filled with dreams and there was at least one more time change during the night.  Meanwhile, I had a rough night, tossing and turning in my bed through out.

As the ship docked, the passengers were already lining the main hall with their suitcases and bags ready to disembark.  It gave me pause because I really hadn't thought about the time it would take to get off the boat and it made me worry a bit about my return plan.  I have a short time to get across Helsinki and if the ship is late or I get delayed, I may have to re-do my reservation.  Oh well, trips like this are bound to have a few issues.

So, as we got off the ship, a band was playing welcome music along the gangway to greet us as we all anxiously made our way to the passport control.  Unlike exiting Helsinki, there was no issue entering the country, in fact, I’ll have to say that the woman who stamped me in was most friendly, smiling and doing her best to use her somewhat limited English.  She was really cute with her puffy, black hair and her little, round face and red "granny glasses."

The terminal was small with very few services but there was a machine available to change money and I had already purchased a shuttle bus ticket to get to the center... It's part of the requirement for the "non-visa" plan. My hotel was located across an island and a canal from where the final shuttle stop was supposed to be and I was trying to ask about the best way to traverse the distance when I was introduced to a very nice couple from Hong Kong named Wang and Chung (for some reason, Chung’s wife had told me his name was Bishop but when he got into the cab he said to call him Chung) who were going in the same direction and were just as confused as me, so, one of the cruise directors hooked us up with a different shuttle which would take us to the nearest subway station, where we could buy a metro ticket to our hotel. But this is where it got even more confusing. Absolutely nobody spoke English and although Chung had researched his journey thoroughly, we became those annoying people in line who ask too many questions in a foreign language, holding everyone up.

Finally, after creating havoc in the busy ticket line, we opted to split a cab to the hotel which came to 300 rubles to me, 1000 in total and the ride was fairly short at about 15 minutes through very heavy traffic.  The driver, who I think was drunk, was glad to point out some of the sights along the way, albeit in Russian.  I was eagerly looking out the window at the writings on the billboards and restaurants, shops etc. but I couldn’t make anything out.  The writing was a complete mystery and I was a bit worried that I'd be able to such simple things as buy dinner.

When we got to the hotel, it was only 11:00 and the receptionist explained that our rooms wouldn’t be ready for 1 hour so we checked our bags and parted ways.  I went to the tour information desk and asked about tours, in fact booking a tour in English for the following day at noon then went out into what was becoming a rainy, cold day.

The hotel was located exactly across a main bridge leading to the second largest of the islands which make up St. Petersburg, so I walked in the direction of the center according to my map and ended up in front of the Battleship "Aurora" which is famous for firing the first shot of the "Bolshevik Revolution."  Tours were free but I still hadn’t figured out my way or what I wanted to do so I basically just stood there getting rained on for about 15 minutes until my favorite “first day” thing pulled up… You guessed it… there was the “Hop On/Off” tour bus right in front of me

Although it was raining quite heavily now, I decided to go ahead with the tour as I only had 24 hours to see as much as possible in this grand, foreign city.  I got a seat on top which proved to be very cold and wet, even if the canvas tops had been stretched across, forming a tent-like roof,  as the bus made it’s way through the heavily trafficked streets.

That tour lasted about an hour and a half which was just about all I could take because by now, I was completely soaked by the rains coming in from the side, but, even so, there is absolutely so much beauty and so much to see that even being wet and cold, it was worthwhile.

When the "Hop On/Off" tour brought me back to the starting point, I went ahead back to my hotel and got settled into my room.  Anyone traveling on this “visa free” program needs to know that the program (Not needing a visa) is new and the hotel staff searched frantically for my visa and asked me a lot of questions in badly broken English, which made me a bit nervous. Finally,  I was able to get someone who knew how to manage the paperwork.  BRING YOUR RETURN TICKET! It sort of acts as your visa. At any rate, the hotel room was nothing short of a small apartment with lavish furnishings and a sweeping view of the Neva River and downtown section of St. Pete’s.  My room had a double bed, second, separate living room and a dressing room just outside of the bathroom with sunken, full sized tub and shower. I can't wait to use that!!

I really didn’t want to waste too much time in the room and by now the rains were subsiding into a cloudy but friendly day, with the sun hinting at an appearance, so I made my way back to the central area across the first bridge, through “Mars’s Garden” and then retracing the route of the previous tour I had just taken.  Without realizing it, I had become a bit intimidated and slightly edgy, probably due to the problem I encountered leaving EU and also I hadn’t eaten since the night before and even then, sparsely.  As a result, I felt a little scared because I not only couldn’t understand anything, but nobody understood me and the exchange rate of the money makes you think everyone is ripping you off...It's 40 of theirs to 1 of yours, so a coke costs like 80.00 and it seems like you're always breaking 100's.  I got in the habit of dividing everything by 40 to set my mind at ease. And even better, when I got to my room, I divided the money I had into the amount of days I would need it, giving myself an allowance...It helped a bit.

St. Petersburg is absolutely huge with a population of over 5,000,000 non English-speaking people.  So as I found myself surrounded in a swirling crowd of people without knowing how much money I had in my pocket, I began to feel a bit nervous and scared and disappointed with my decision to come here.  I soon got over that though, after I ate and the sun finally came out all the way.  It probably wouldn't have hurt me to have taken a nap at the hotel before going back out.

I remembered seeing a “subway” sandwich shop on “Nevsky Prospect” which is a huge, long, main, very crowded, noisy, busy, heavily trafficked thoroughfare (in fact, I have NEVER seen so many people and so much traffic in my entire life) but I couldn’t find it when I got back there and even so, it turned out I only had enough money for crumbs.  So when I reached the main train station and metro stop which is at a circle at one end of the street, I got some cash and went back to good ole’ McDonalds and ate a Big Mac which immediately calmed my nerves for the rest of the day.

Since the sky cleared up, I was able to retrace almost the entire bus tour I had taken earlier and I became enamored by the amazing buildings and the grand scale of everything even if I wasn’t 100% sure what I was seeing, it was worth seeing it anyway.  I made my way back down Nevsky Prospect and ended up at the “Admiralty” which basically is located at the very heart of S.P.  I circled it and walked along the river front and back around to the main Cathedral which is the 4th largest in the world following Rome, London and Paris’s icons and then I ended up in front of the “Winter Palace” of Catherine the great where I was awestruck by the size and perfect symmetry of the structures in the plaza. Of note, the largest single piece of granite in the world forms the monolithic pillar in the center of the square and it is not fastened to the platform by anything but its 600 tons of weight.

I then walked along the river and turned up one of the many lovely canals reaching the famous “Church of the Spilled Blood” which is built on the spot where Alexander II became mortally wounded by terrorists.  The structure is unbelievable and pictures simply don’t do it any justice. It is most notably famous for its giant and colorful, onion-shaped domes.  I worked my way through the market in the plaza in front and found a friendly, old, Russian guy with some rare stamps. I had told myself earlier that stamps would make great souvenirs and so I was down for looking at his collection, of which I bought several, including the “Munich 1972 Olympic” I missed buying in Munich last winter along with some other very rare and collectible Russian historical and commemoratives.

By the time I had retraced the tour on foot, it was getting to be maybe 9:00 p.m. but I honestly had no concept of the time because the sun barely was setting even at 10/11 P.M. but I slowly made my way back along the river, crossing several of the many lovely bridges and across 2 of the islands and enjoying the locals as they were out walking dogs, jet skiing in the river, roller-blading and sailing.

When the sun did begin to set, the golden gilded tops of the churches began to glow with a most beautiful hue as if to boast the cities beauty, gleaming against the pearlescent sky and reflecting the sun as it dipped into the Baltic Sea.

Then to make the day perfect, as I approached my hotel, fireworks began to explode over the magnificent spires and domes, crackling and popping and coloring the sky. Then as I entered my room, the city lights were glowing and beckoning me to see even more.

I was on sensory overload by now and couldn’t take in a moment more of this and I fell asleep gazing from my bed across the glittering river and listening through my open window to the sounds of the life beneath me.
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