Trip Start Jan 01, 2012
14Trip End Aug 15, 2014
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Having spent last Christmas day defrosting my freezer and de moulding the window frames I vowed I wouldn't have a repeat this year. So with that in mind I took to the net in search of a Christmas deal. GBP200.00 later and I was on my way to Russia for non-freezer defrosting Christmas fun.
It wasn't until I was firmly buckled in my Aeroflot seat that it dawned on me the reason for the cheap price tag was due to the fact that no sane person would voluntarily head for -15 degree temperatures. Fortunately for me I like a challenge so I braced myself for a very cold few days ahead and counting my lucky stars for the thermals and numerous layers I had packed.
I arrived into St Petersburg at 10am and made a beeline for the very Russian looking giant of a man holding the name of my tour company hoping he was my ride into town. Turns out that said giant of a man did not speak English which lead to me miming driving motions and making car engine sounds.....those who have played charades with me know just how much I suck a this game so I can only imagine how comical I must have looked. It also lead to a very awkward moment where he put his hand out in front of him, naturally I assumed it was to shake hands so I placed my hand in his and shook vigorously then pointed to myself and said 'Alisha'. His response? A very loud 'Njet', a shake off of my hand as if I was carrying some infectious disease and then he grabs my luggage. I guess a hand shake is not a universal means of greeting....
Unable to establish if he was actually there to meet me I climbed into his car which looked like a personal vehicle with rubbish strewn about and baby equipment in the back and I crossed my fingers and toes that I was indeed in the right persons car and that the Russian giant was a friendly one and would indeed be taking me to the right hotel.
My first observation as we drove was how dark it was, at 10am it felt more like 8 pm and I was struck by the grandeur of the city. I had been expecting a small city, narrow rounds, and square grey apartment blocks but in their place were wide roads, grand brightly coloured buildings with detailed facades, and a never ending stream of Christmas lights and trees.
I breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled up to the correct hotel but that relief was quickly replaced with dread on check in as they asked for my passport and told me to collect it later. I know this doesn't sound scary, nor does it sound like the end of the world however only the night before I had watched the first Hostel movie where backpackers have their passports taken by hotels and then can't escape. Ok so I know I have a vivid imagination but still you can't blame a girl for being cautious.
My hotel room was adequate. It wasn't 5 stars but was clean, had a hot shower and was all mine. I couldn't complain at all for the level of accommodation in comparison to the price I paid. That night I met the other 6 people on my tour and the tour leader. Our leader was such a strong personality, bold, bright, in control, but most importantly spoke impeccable English, which after my earlier encounter with the giant was a welcome relief.
We headed to a local Ukrainian restaurant for dinner. It turned out that those on my tour were all Antipodeans living in London with the same idea as myself of escaping a lonely London Christmas, and experiencing a new culture in the process. The meal was my first introduction to Ukrainian/Russian cuisine; I tried the Borscht, a beetroot and pork soup for starters and Pierogi dumplings for mains. I would soon learn that that Russian's love a bit of sour cream as both courses were served with it, actually come to think of it everybody's food was regardless of the choice. The walk to the restaurant was my first encounter with the Russian outdoors and whilst it was cold it was nowhere near the -15 degrees I had been bracing myself for. Don't get me wrong I was still thankful for the thermals but it was no colder than London.
I had been fairly sure that if there was one place I was guaranteed a white Christmas it would be Russia but it turns out I was wrong and the country was actually experiencing the warmest December in over a hundred years. I was still freezing my bum off so was quite surprised when we were told the weather being experienced was more typical of spring.
Day two saw us visiting Catherine's Palace, an absolutely beautiful blue Rococo palace that was the summer residence of the Tzars. We had to don these weird brown booty things, god forbid we traipse dirt onto the palaces parquet floors. The palace was incredibly spacious and grand, it was also possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I have had the pleasure of visiting. Did I mention that every possible service was covered in gold leaf? All the bling was almost blinding but it did make it obvious how much wealth the Tzars must have had which I imagine back in the day was purpose of exhibiting so much gold.
From Catherine's Palace we visited Peter and Pauls fortress which is the original citadel of the city. The sun may only have risen by half ten but by half three it was preparing to set again. The beautiful pinks and purples of the sunset contrasted so beautifully against the gold steeples of the St Peter and Paul Cathedral which made for some beautiful photos.
The cathedral itself houses the bodies of all the great emperors and empresses since Peter the Great who founded the city. It was interesting to view the chapel with the remains and memorials of the Romanov family. They weren't permitted to buried inside the main body of the cathedral as the church does not officially recognise the deaths of several of the daughters as their remains were not found. In 2007 remains believed to be theirs were found in Yekaterinburg however to this day are still undergoing official testing to determine the identity of the bodies.
That evening a few of us went to a folklore show. I was blown away by the voices of the men who sung acapella. I have no clue as to what they sung about however can tell you that whatever they were singing about was full of such emotion.
We watched performances by various cultural groups, the women looked so stunning in their beautiful traditional dress and the men's Cossack dancing almost looked as if their legs were not attached to their bodies. In some ways to me it looked as if modern break dancing was derived from this style of dance.
The following day, Christmas Eve we did a city sightseeing tour before heading to the Hermitage museum. I have the attention span of a goldfish so normally really struggle with museums but our guide somehow brought it to life. I have never met someone so well versed in history and art, on top of this she was clearly passionate about it and has an incredible memory. I tried to catch her out by reading the tags to see if she was getting the information correct and on every single one she was right.
That night we boarded an overnight sleeper train to Moscow, It was tight and cramped but very well thought out in regards to space saving, Ikea could certainly learn something from the Russians! I had stupidly watched the movie Transsiberian before going on holiday about drug smuggling in Russian dolls and murder on overnight sleeper trains to Moscow so I had completely freaked myself out the entire journey. The moral of the story is that I watch far too much TV....or at least too many scary movies.
The journey itself was actually rather pleasant, I liken it to business class travel on a flight, ok so there were no trolley dolly's bringing champagne and warm cloths but I did have a flatbed and an overhead compartment. It snowed the whole time we were on the train but the minute we pulled into platform at Moscow it stopped so no white Christmas for me.
We were taken to a pancake factory in a mall for breakfast before heading out sightseeing. Our first stop was Lenin's tomb. It was really scary how well preserved his body, goatee and all was, it looked waxy and small but apparently the size is due to the body shrinking in death, they even strategically place mirrors to make him look bigger.
Next up came the Red Square and St Basils cathedral. We had seen other churches in St Petersburg that were probably more grand or more detailed however after staring at a giant photo of St Basils on my wall at the centre of my vision board for the last few years it felt very surreal to be standing actually in front of it. Luck would have it that it was miserable and grey however from the back end of the church I got the blue sky and picture I had been dying to get. Surprisingly the inside of the cathedral was far more basic than I had expected and far less elaborate than the exterior.
Next stop came the Kremlin with its many many churches. The interiors were stunning with the brightly coloured paintings on the iconostases framed in gold. It was amazing to think that the art that decorated them came from the 1400's and yet were still so vivid and clear. I would be lieing if I said that after the third church visit that day I wasn't knackered.
After the Kremlin we headed to our hotel which was freaking huge with its 1771 rooms and 8 restaurants, it felt almost like a Vegas hotel. We had Christmas dinner which for me consisted of pumpkin soup and carbonara in one of these restaurants. We did a small Secret Santa and despite my heart aching for my family on such a special day I had fun. I laughed, I ate and after our meal we spent our night in a Russian Karaoke Bar so drank vodka and was very quickly merry. It may not have been a family Christmas complete with the good silver and ham but it certainly beat defrosting the freezer on my own and I was and am very thankful for the amazing bunch of people that I got to share it with.
Boxing Day began with a tour of the incredibly beautiful Moscow metro, followed by an extended city sightseeing tour then free time which I spent shopping for Russian Dolls. I must have looked at thousands of dolls that day varying in price from GBP5.00 to GBP750.00. In the end after all the dolls in different colours I had looked at I ended up going for the plain traditional ones simply because they reminded me of the small set my mum kept in the printers box throughout my childhood.
We ended the day by visiting the Moscow State Circus. I do love a circus however without being able to understand the filling story it was a bit of a challenge to follow. I was surprised when after intermission a giant safety ring was erected surrounding the stage and when the lights were switched on twelve giant tigers were revealed. I didn't realise that animals were still used in circus in this day and age. Initially I was wowed and the sight of twelve giant cats prowling was breath-taking however as soon as the tigers didn't perform a giant metal pole was inserted on stage and used to poke the cats to get them to move. The minute I saw this that initial sense of awe and amazement quickly vanished as I realised that what I was watching was cruelty to the animals.
We had a farewell dinner that night at the hotel which ended up with me arguing with staff over an incorrect bill, it wasn't anything serious but it just wasn't the nicest way to be ending what was an amazing holiday.
The following morning after an extended breakfast to kill time it was time for me to head back to the UK.
I had a long wait before my flight and had plenty of time to reflect on my previous five days in Russia. I hadn't had many expectations of the country but was still surprised by the grandeur and size of everything. I am thankful it was nowhere near as cold as I had anticipated and what I did learn is that vodka acts as an incredibly fast acting internal heater.
The country itself is so rich in history and I am very thankful to our guide for sharing some of it with us. She spoke not only of the country's history but of her memories of living in Soviet times and the realities of day to day life in Russia at present. One of the memories I know that I will hold onto for years yet will be the strength in her voice as she told us that she and her husband had done everything possible and impossible to protect their son from going into conscription. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to have to protect your child from birth to avoid them being sent to war. You can read about history, you can watch the news but there is nothing that compares to hearing first hand someone's own experiences.
I will take from this holiday, the beauty of the cities, its rich history and more importantly the strength of its people. I truly had an amazing time and am so thankful for the experience.