White night city of no sleep and all beauty

Trip Start Jul 15, 2009
Trip End Dec 21, 2009

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Flag of Russian Federation  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The first two hours spent in this city set up the rest of the three days in a way that we did not expect it. From four till 6 we slept in the Grand hall of the train station, people waiting for their trains under the dim lit halls, painted by communist degree of the might of the Soviet Union in Olympic games. We set up in a corner, I unrolled my roll-mat, which I have not yet had the pleasure to use, lied down, and went straight to sleep. For two minutes. At which point I was prodded in the ribs by a policeman who started talking in Russian at me. “Ya ne Panyemayoo” I told him, when he explained in sign too. “No sleeping lying down. You can nap sitting up, but we don't like that sort of behaviour here.” 
So we slept for another two hours, and went underground, setting off towards the hostel, where though check in was at 12, we could chill out on a couch and get to grips with this new city. The Metro station was interesting in its own right. I have not yet seen a metro where you could not see the tracks. As the train rolled up behind the rows of closed black doors, you could hear it stopping, then the doors opened, and you could see and walk into the train. The stations themselves were built in the grandiose style that Moscow's stations were built in, long, tall, a lot of carvings and decoration in bronze, and fluorescent lighting. 
As soon as we exited out of the station, the first thing we saw was the dawn golden light illuminating and casting shadows over the Kazan cathedral, it's rows of columns curving on the other side of the road, the two statues of the generals who helped win the particular battle, that the church was built in honour of standing proud in the 6o clock dawn. For some reason our bags felt light as we turned towards the Singer Building, its statues holding the great globe up to the heavens, its majesty proving to the world their accomplishments through the last few centuries. The sun put a spring in our step and we set down towards the river Neva following the wide emptiness of Nevsky Prospect. I got a good feeling for the city, and we decided not to bother going to sleep now. The pictures I was taking came out crisp and beautiful, something that I have not noticed in either of the cities we have been to. It's like the light was fresher, the air was better, and immediately, whichever direction we looked at the architectural marvels stood out, the plainest building on the road looking much more elegant and romantic that the most elegant in Moscow
We were getting hungry, and a subway on our right beckoned and called, and Jon started drooling as he recognised the picture and word for Bacon. It was relatively cheap, and we went in, still wearing our bags, drawing stares from the Saturday night crowd who was just finishing up with their parties. Service stopped right in front of us for 15 minutes, so we went to dump our bags in Cuba, the hostel not being far away, down Kazanskaya St., Just behind Kazan Cathedral. It looked nice enough, the receptionist girl was bleary eyed and tired from staying up all night, and we already noticed a few people milling about upstairs, a little man putting on hardcore disco songs full blast on the computer, looking like he just had one or two drink too much to be comprehensible. 
After registration, we left our bags up at reception, and went for a walk until 12, finally managing to get our Subway bacon and egg sandwich. It was good, but I think we have finally started to realise that a lot of our money was going out on food, so after this we decided to stop and be sensible with our spending and eating habits. 
As we started down towards the Hermitage, and then further down through and into and over Saint Petersburg, we started to realize that this was going to be a fun place to see. Maybe it was because of carrying our bags for so long that day and the night before, it was getting easier to walk for 7 hours none stop, and we visited Peters Fortress, in there admired the soaring towers of St Peter and Paul's cathedral, and walked along the walls, inside and outside
On  the way to this island, I saw my first dead body. A young little girl was taking pictures of him with a small camera, and examining him with rubber gloves, and he was a deformed hulk of a man lying on the bank of the Neva, cordoned off by a police line and red tape. We were told off for taking pictures, and were told that he was dead for 5 days. 
This happened after an explosion that made us jump, and Jon pointed out the Jet-boat race that started off on the Neva, the boats screaming along at huge speed, turning around buoys with unbelievable accuracy and agility. For the next two hours, we could hear them screaming and fading and racing each other to the finish line. Team Azerbaijan won in the end, we found out later. We even saw an explosion later, when we were in the fortress, the plumes of black smoke rising into the sky. We wanted to look, but we could not find our way out of the walls, so I cannot report what it was exactly... 
I have developed a nasty cough over the last three days. Drinking alcohol and eating badly over the last three days has made me lose a lot of weight too. The food was ok, when we did get it, but more often than not, we grabbed a kebab or something quick and cheap, and probably only enough to tide us over till the next meal. No steamed vegetables and very little fish. I suppose it'sa travelling man's life. But as it was, my immune system was kicking its last, and I had a cold coming on, and the cough was getting worse and worse. 
Back to Saint Petersburg, we walked until we could walk no more, 7 hours, and it was still only 1PM. We have seen the locals sunbathing on the cobbled beaches of the St Peter fortress, enjoying the blasting sunshine by any standards that we were having that day. We saw the raising bridges on the Neva, that raise around 1AM every night, to let the shipping traffic through. 
We saw the beautiful parks and fountains and statues of the place that I can honestly say has the largest, most beautiful concentration of touristy buildings and interesting places that I have ever seen. The city was teeming with tourists on the Sunday, the crowds of people storming the cathedrals and palaces, museums, bridges and parks snap snap snapping away at their smiling relatives and the sights that were theirs to see. We enjoyed it greatly, the sunshine and the clear day, a new city that was much more impressive for us than Moscow was.
We checked into the hostel, dumped our stuff, had a shower and went to do some laundry, research and some food. Not quite in that order, and when we found the laundry place close by, we gave in our clothes, got a couple of beers and played a bit of backgammon, while we were waiting for the machine to become free. We then went to pick up food – Jon a sausage and some potatoes, and I sushi, to compensate for my lack of healthy food. It was good. We picked up our clothes, and then went to do research. Done with the sightseeing, we sat in a bar, got two more beers and started to plan our route through Russia. We were in a very European city, very cosmopolitan, and fashionable, slow paced and touristically expansive, and it was the last bastion of European history for the next year and a half. It was also the last place where we had any chance of being able to pick up train tickets. Our path was still not clear, but  at the hostel we found a huge map of Russia and looked north. “Ah Murmansk – that was the city that I was always talking about that was really far up north and was not Arkangelsk” said Jon. “So Why don't we go there by train. We still hit the Arctic Circle, though we won't get a chance to see the sights quite like from a boat, but it will still be good. We can head off into the tundra for two days, camp and maybe we'll see the Aurora Borealis. Or the white nights of the summer north” So there we were after a few hours of research, two tickets to Murmansk, and not really sure how to get back, how long to stay, what there is to see or do, which we found out later, that the three most interesting places were the Municipal Swimming pool, a Banya, or sauna by the lake, and see the great soldier statue that overlooked the city and get awed by its size. 
It's not really the point,but it seemed interesting that we planned for our year of summer, the concentration of hot places and sun-bathing, and here we were looking for the cold and winter...But that's not the point either. Moscow and St. Pete's are only two facets of the history of Russia. The natural beauty and the vast expanses of open space, the huge forests and lakes were something that we wanted to see. Something we wanted to do very much. So we left the rest of the decisions for tomorrow, there's time enough when we spoke to a few peeps from the hostel, beer research and Vodka was very good at turning the pages of the spoken Lonely Planet. Seemingly everyone was prepared for Russia, and the rest of the world, the guide books weighing down their bags like war and peace was weighing down mine. Why bring my own when everyone has a book, and everyone already knows. And never underestimate the importance of local knowledge either, as we have found out later on that afternoon. 
The hostel was quiet. There was vodka for 20!!! Rubles that is, but we were prepared with a bottle of carbon filtered, or whatever filtered and bitter lemon, and were in the jazz lounge, drinking our second or third, appreciating the décor of stripped walls, green paper curtains, packaging stapled to the wall, bare plank ceiling that rain filtered through when it rained the plain foam couches and the single bar unit in the corner, from which cool jazz music pumped out. We quickly swapped the leads, hijacked the decks and put on some metric to speed things up a bit. A Russian joined us soon, and we established that there will be no communication very soon. Soon we were on the landing, as people came and went, and nobody stopped in the empty room, except to pick up a drink. The landing was the smoking area, though there were people who did not smoke. It's always the case, smoking seems to be more sociable than not. Talk was flowing. Everyone about russia, about themselves, their trips, and it seems that it was the usual talk in every hostel: words in russian, places in russia and places in the city that we were currently in. It was fun, we were finding out about places to go out to, when Julia, our receptionist girl, who was saying she cannot come out because of work in the morning – 9-9, called up the stairs: “OK, I can take you guys out to that crazy place I told you about... Fidel? Is anyone coming” and the crowd milled about for 5 minutes, and then left single file, across the river on the golden Griffon bridge, and round the corner to the side of Gostiny Dvor, which seemed like an interesting place by the number of milling manikins that were having a constant party on the first floor balconies. 
Fidel is the memory I have in my mind most clearly, as I have spent more time in and outside it in St Petersburg than sightseeing or indeed back in the hostel. I don't see this as a bad thing, as we have made new friends, talked to more people -  as I was sitting on the cold curb all night, as they sat down next to me, and I said “Hi” to everyone, whether young old, male or female - more than I would have done in the hostel, on the streets, or any other way. The club was dark, played a fantastic mix of music, had beautiful local clientèle, mixing with the hostel people on the dance floor and off. The night was long. I spent a lot of time outside, mingling with the locals, and finding out that there were two 24 hour shops outside that sold beer for 30-35, Baltica 1 through to 9, and I tried them all: much better than 100 for a Heineken inside. In out in out, and start chatting to a guy called Ivan, and his brother, Alex, who is locally working as a restaurant manager, and Ivan is off to Finland for studies soon, and is visiting his brother for a couple of days, and tomorrow, they're having another party and we should come and meet them. “Sounds awesome, tomorrow it is” And it becomes a blur as the people come and go, we dance like we're madmen, but the girls like it, and I'm dancing with a girl and Jon leaves with Richard Bakker the dutch guy, they seem to be having a laugh together, going in and out of bars and chatting to girls, who don't talk back much, and I give him my wallet, and the girl tires of dancing, looks around and I finally ask “Do you speak english?”  “Yes” “Would you like a drink?” “Yes” And she sits down by the bar, and I realize I gave my wallet to Jon, and I say “Scuse me”, as I run down the street to find Jon, who must have just gotten round the corner.
And then I start thinking. What do Ivan and Alex want. What does this girl want. Here she is already looking for a drink out of me. But the guys even bought me beer. So it seems that the trust that I used to have in humanity seems to be disappearing as I go through all these countries? What could she want? She's a girl, who's out dancing, and all girls expect a drink or two and good conversation no? And the guys are genuine fun people! So I turn back, I did not find Jon, but in my haste maybe I ran past them. And to be sure, to be sure, they were outside another bar back by Fidel laughing at something, so I take 500 from my wallet, and back to pay for her drink, and then trying conversation. This was already 3AM. She wasn't really interested anymore, when the communication was not engaging or interesting. So I said my good night, and walked outside, to chat a little longer with Alex, give him my number, and get dragged off towards Nevsky prospect by a drunken Latvian DJ and his girlfriend. 
Under any scale, it was a successful night, stumbling in at 5AM, to have 4 hours of sleep and then head out to chill for a while next to a canal of the Neva, looking for pictures and  angles - of the Hermitage, and the Church on the Spilt Blood (Resurrection of the Christ) and windows and gratifies, bridges and boats and monuments. The headache soon dissipated, we got a few texts from Alex, saying that we're meeting in the Blues bar, Sundyk, at 6, so we negotiated: 10, no 7, 9 Ok, live blues and jazz, and then Fidel and then Mod. Sounds good to us, but we'll see how the night goes, and maybe have one drink, then just take it easy. 
The city was beautiful in the daytime, we had some breakfast of old bread and cheese and the regulars and a dinner of tiny hamburger and plain hotdog, also small in proportions, in relation to other hot dogs for example, and ca va... we found a cool place by one of the canals, and sat down to read for a few hours, and to write about the last few days, the sun shining, the boats passing in their hundreds, lots of parts of tour guide talk in different languages, probably explaining to the tourists, why they were on a tour boat, that you couldn't actually see any of the sights, because the banks and the sides of the canals obstructed all the views... It did not seem like we were in St Pete's. We were in a city where the sun was shining, the people were cool, and sights were beautiful, the buildings majestic and the vibes positive. As the boats passed, their waves washed our feet with cold northern waters, and I coughed along the the rhythm of the engines. The cold water, and only the semblance of warmth from the distant sun did not help my cold, and surely, the next day I felt it. 
Our one drink with Ivan and Alex became 8'o clock pancakes, or Bleen as they call it, savoury pancakes with the most unlikely crowd this side of the Neva... The night started quietly. From the hostel, we got a map to our destination, and to the constant messages of “Our new Russian friends”, we caught the Metro, I full of energy from the relaxing day, and Jon also filled with hopes of a possible good night, both keeping our options open, and our conscience wide shut. Was this not what I wanted to get away from? The nights a blur, just like this one became, people sitting next to me, like a game of tennis talking and the beers went from one to nine, and over and beyond care, Baltica always, Russian beer in Russia, always local if possible. Except that this time round the frequency of these  night changed, always feeling slightly bad about it the day after. And I'm certain that it's not just the hangover, but it's the fact that, again, we have missed out on the walking tours of St Petersburg, and though we have a guide book of the place, it's not the same as actually seeing the hidden sights, the secret courtyards, and an interactive guide to one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. But maybe, to muse on a little longer, this is not the same as the nights I wanted to get away from. I have not seen anyone on all fours, everyone composed and though drunk, the mood high and light. The people all around laughing and mingling. The girls elegant and composed, tasteful and classy. And although the alcohol was cheaper than food, the people still shwing restraint. Conversation was meaningful. Our new friend coming over, sitting down, high fives, jokes and laughter, meeting new faces and still the same old facade in front of me, grafitied, but true to its name, looking like an archway out of Havana. 
So maybe it was not the same. We walked over to Fidel from the blues bar, where the music was exquisite, the beer was slightly pricey, the talk was easy and the décor was the best I've ever seen in any pub club or bar. Ever. It was like they took two surrealist and three post modernist artists in there, gave them three barrels full of beer and wine, gave them some raw materials and let them loose for a week. The talk in the bar was easy, stories both tall and short were told, we found out that you can buy tickets online, but only in Russian, and collect from the train station. The russian lads, and the Polish lad, Ashton Kutcher as he became known through the night had a run-in with some georgian tourists which almost came to blows, and they were laughing bout a repeat performance that night. Tourist bashing tourism. We also found out that the new “Gary” Potter movie was bad, so the russians tanked up on a load of beer and laughed through it all. The law is cheap in Russia too, not just the food and the vodka. Apparently, if you get stopped in the street   with a drink or without papers, make them shout at you. It's illegal. Or give them 500 rubles, and they're your best friend.
The walk was scenic, the city well lit, the beer in the shops cheap. Everyone dressed for the warm night, tourists and locals going out alike, the city having a quiet pulse, nothing like Istanbul, everything moderate, clean the lines straight and the talk jovial but quiet. 
Fidel, as I have mentioned already was simply there. I sat for five hours straight on the curb, moving only when nature called, or when the cleaning car swept past in a spray of water and a gurgle of vacuum sweeping the rubbish of the night away to leave behind the pristine clean roads that we started off with. Jon found a group of three graphic designer students, 19 only, but liking our english accents, and we chatted away, Jon putting on his unavoidable accent, which one girl commented “But you are not English, yet  when you speak, It's so clear, but Jon's very hard to understand...” And I just laughed. 
Jon got barred from the bar, when he tried taking a can of beer that he bought in the shop in... They would not let him back in for the rest of the night. The clubs closed later, and people got hungry, and we started a migration towards the Bleen place, picking up a strange looking local man, and later, a mascaraed blonde gay Russian, the most extravagant and outrageous man I've seen on this trip. He had camp movements, and tried kissing both girls and guys alike. So we proceeded to order  our pancakes bacon ham and cheese for both, and a green tea for me, normal tea for Jon, and it was relatively cheap, behind me an impromptu photo shoot developed, the gay man lying on the tables, striking poses like he was going to be on the cover of vogue. The sun was well out by this point, a herd of fluff-clouds marching across the field of golden rays of the sun, people waking for Monday morning work, suits and briefcases, serious faces. 
We gave a hug to the girls, “See you tomorrow”, Said goodbye to Alex and Ivan, Ivan leaving with the late train that night, And we smiled through it all, went back to the hostel and slept for four whole hours, the sun high in the sky when we left the hostel again in search of: 
1.A camping shop2.Food for the trip3.Train tickets for the rest of the journey4.A small bag for Jon, that he could hang stuff of and take on short camping trips.
We found a department store soon, and while walking around, I felt like I have overdone it with two nights of drinking and no sleep, the bad and irregular food, and almost fainted. We did not find a bag, and the only camping store we found by accident was closed. We got breakfast, of pastries filled with unknown fillers, possibly spinach and possibly celery, and some apricots, and it was getting better again. I made a resolution to stay healthy after this. My stomach was also suffering, aching from the amount of coughing I was doing, and admittedly, my digestive system also seemed a little worse for wear. 
Russian shops also seemed strange to me. I suppose it's a bit of an insight into the minds of the russians, but the small shops are thriving. The shop windows give very little away. They seem a very text oriented people, and to us, it's not good, as we can maybe decipher the letters, but you still have to understand them. No pictures or very few of them, and you don't find out what's inside unless you go in. There were a lot of pharmacies all over town, two on a street sometimes. And the little food stores you have to ask what you want, similar to Ukraine, three counters, one for meat and dairy, the other for bread and condiments, the third for drinks and alcohol. That is why we almost walked past a camping shop (which was closed) because neither the shop window or the sign above it gave anything away. 
We found a shop named Novgorodsky Bacon, and we needed no more prompting, we bought: 4 pork chops, prime cut no fat, a loaf of bread, some cream cheese, a big bit of mozzarella, a large curve of sausage, good both raw and cooked, some fatty bacon, unsalted, or szalonna as we call it at home, potatoes, an onion, tin foil, a box of eggs and c'est tout. We then went and after much deliberation over one coffee and one juice, we have decided where we are going. We have one ticket to Murmonsk, but we could go to Archangel, get a boat back down somewhere, some trains, Kazan, Krasnoyarsk, Chelobinsk, Miels, Irkutsk, on the BAM railway from Krasnoyarsk to the north of the Baikal, or options too numerous to list... 
So we decided on the following, and in three hours we had tickets to each but the last destination: 
Murmonsk to St Pete's where we'll spend 12 hours to pick up the stuff that we will leave behind so we can hike out into the tundra and not have to carry too much
St Pete's to Chelabinsk where we will take an immediate train to the heart of the Ural's to Miels, which is according to Ivan a very beautiful place, we can camp, so it will be cheap. 
Chelabinsk to Kraznoyarsk, where we will spend a night, and move on early next day to Irkutsk, where we have 5 days to see the Baikal lake. 
And finally we leave from Ulan Ude to Ulanbataar, the city where all roads disappear into the steppes, the 1 million strong coldest capital in the world of one of the most sparsely populated country in the world. We have not yet bought this ticket, as the other 4 tickets cost 300 quid each, and have taken over 45 minutes of paper-passing and number writing to get this far. The woman behind was going to shove a mobile phone up our nether regions – though the woman serving us was jovial enough, she was only doing her job... 
After this, we went back to the hostel to cook our meal for the next day,  and that night, boil a load of potatoes and chop them up with cheese, eggs, sausages, bacon and other such good things. Except that the hobs were useless, they barely got the water warm, and after 3 hours, the skin of the potatoes was  possibly softer than before. Marginally. Of course, a wok is not quite the cooking instrument you want to put potatoes in, but that was the only thing available, so we make-did. I grew tired of it eventually, the cheese was grated, the bacon chopped, the sausages sliced and the eggs boiled, and the potatoes were still hard, so I nuked the life out of them in the microwave, and even ten it took an hour. Of course this meant that they became knife-proof and their skin impossible to remove, but again, a hungry man who only had two pastries that day was not going to complain about a bit of skin, and soon the steaks were nicely fried up, and the sausages letting off juice and the bacon curling, releasing its goodness for the onions to crisp in, and the potatoes went in finely chopped, and the smell bought other hostel dwellers, who I have been chatting to about various things,cooking their own meals in the meantime, or just complimenting us, both on the amount and the quality of our cooking (it did make 3 meals in the end)
We had a carton of wine in the fridge, which came out, and the possibility of another early morning night was becoming a reality. Early start however, so we had to be responsible... It soon disappeared, and we got the dutch boys, Richard and Philip out to Fidel, where we got a couple of beers in, and soon the girls arrived again, and my lord did they look young... Jon had his Kate to talk to, and the Dutch and I each other, as none off them actually spoke English, at all or barely. After a huge rain earlier, the air felt cool, and floor cold, and I tired. I had a last beer, chatted to the rest of the guys from the hostel, who were having fun in the bar, making light conversation to the local girls... 
I had enough. It was 2'o clock. I was shattered, with only 8 hours of sleep for two days, I decided to grab my tripod and camera and swing around to Nevsky, take a few pictures of Petersburg at night, and head on home to some sweet sweet sleep. I said goodbye to everyone, got the tripod out, and walked in the silent hum of the night (much quieter than Bristol), none of the noise of the motorways, or cars at night, none of the hum of electricity, only the quiet flow of the Neva. The pictures turned out ok, the quiet was therapeutic, the locals out in the parks, laughter sounding from the park benches, other tourists hauling ass and tripods down along the length of the Neva, along by the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, down by the canals, heading for the raised bridge visible from the distance. Then down along the Neva all the way to the Hermitage, with its puddles o so photogenic and back home along the quiet fast food shops of the Nevsky, the locals having a quiet post-Tuesday night out meal. 
I sorted my stuff out for the next morning, after some eye-opening conversation with a couple of the hostel dwellers, and Austrian, a French and a cool Canadian. The Austrian and french were drunk beyond words. They were saying that two nights ago, people were arriving home from Fidel, and that they asked them and people told them about their life stories. But they should have asked more personal questions. So they were like “Are you happy with your lives? How do you feel about your parents? And do you feel that with travelling you leave a little bit of you behind?” But the Canadian was having none of it. With a constant smile, he was honest and open, and it won me over. The Austrian girl was not happy. We have found out after talk turned to the meaning of it, and why I and the Canadian were happy, yet she wasn't. And it seems that happiness is a choice. Hat she was not prepared to make, and was not prepared to even try and understand, so we both went to bed. What kind of a person asks whether someone leaves something behind by travelling? Maybe troubles. Or ignorance. A little bit of themselves if they find like minded people who are happy to open up to them. In my opinion, I have already gained more life experience than a whole year of living in England could have provided. I met more people than a month of clubbing in England would have allowed me to meet. And I have in these three-four weeks learned to understand things that I never could have unless I've been to these cities and places. 
Some people are just not worth talking to. I agree with something I have heard in the past. Concentrate on the things that you do want to happen, positive things, surround yourself with positive people, and live your life being positive to other people. My things were packed in a jiffy, I put my head down, and the next thing I know is Jon coming through the door, a wide smile on his face, saying “I have just done some Tai Chi on the river. Half an hour and pack and go?” “Cool man...” I had my alarm set. I knew I'd need it. An hour later, 9AM, I wake Jon to an array of  “Biscuits! We don't need to go... Where?” and once he came to, we packed, left half our stuff at the hostel, and set off for the train station. Next up, Murmansk, the far north and the cold of the Tundras. 
Both of us got on the train and went to sleep immediately, sleeping until 7. The sights were irrelevant at this point, coughing and sneezing we had a light fever and a raging cold, maybe of the swine variety, maybe of the vodka variety, maybe of the pavement arse variety. It did not matter, we spent the night sleeping fitfully, achily, as there was no comfortable position to be found on the train, we ate twice during the day, and our pillows in the morning were soaked with sweat and drool... But I was rested in the morning, and looked out the window, at the rivers and lakes passing by, the trees next to the rails felled and branched, some rubbish littering our route, but mainly the low hanging, never ending clouds reflected in the green lakes, and the never ending green fir and white barked birches that surrounded us in all directions. We stopped in a few cities, and towns, where the group of sellers lined the platform as we pulled in, carrying baskets of smoked fish and smoked shrimp, sweets, drinks and food. We moved on soon, a feeling of family on the train, as people left, the children played together, they ate together, shared their sweets and magazines and toys, and when we got off the air was crisp and fresh, and the temperature chill and brisk. 

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