Inabstinence, Power and Grandeur

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Russian Federation  , North-West Russia,
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

With another four days on a train lying ahead I was keen not to induce any sweat beforehand. I managed this, good, but what can you do when a drunk munches down on a fish so close to you that you feel the fish oil lubricate the back of your neck? Wouldn't be the first or the last time a drunk in Russia had made me laugh, even if it was a few hours later. The carriage for this leg of the Trans-Siberian was second class, as opposed to third on the first leg. This was because a tour operator had told me falsely of the horrors of third class so to be safe, I split it up.

I shared a cabin with Sasha and Olga. Classic names, not so classic company. I was enthusiastic when meeting them, hoping to encourage them to come out a bit as I had found Russians to be kind and generous but not so friendly or approachable. It worked to great affect and I was soon thrust a massive pack of photos of Sasha and Olga's life thus far. Dull family get togethers, where in every photo at least one person sat clasping a bottle of beer. Another was of Sasha at Olga's parents where her father was, from what I could tell, initiating him into the family with vodka and a sauna, thick Siberian pines the backdrop. There was a delightful one of Olga, who was rather large, wearing a bikini and covered in mud. Sasha looked on and I gave a slightly awkward laugh. Olga did not smile. I wonder why.

A shout from two Aussies in the next cabin who I had met on the platform rescued me from the fifty photos still to go through. A four day bender, from this point onwards, had begun! Ex-pats from Guangzhou in China and previously Jakarta in Indonesia they had a lot of things to say that I was interested in. We had a great few days, never quite sober, taking in the better half of the Trans-Siberian's landscape; towering pine forests that dwarfed the train; isolated wooden villages sitting in bright green grassland dotted with purple wild flowers; and the most beautiful sight of a Siberian mist lifting from the woodland in the red glow of a 4am sunrise. There were also decrepit, past-it, industrial towns en-route, adding some realism to where Russia is and what it's recovering from. It is not this idyllic country you see for the vast majority of these train journeys. Perhaps this is why many of the older Russians look at the Trans-Siberian so romantically.

Moscow highlighted the problem Russia has with its distribution of wealth. Sports cars raced down Moscow's wide roads, past grand facades and old rich men walked with beautiful young wives. It was a world away from the wooden shacks and acute social and alcohol problems of rural Russia. St Basil's Cathedral blew me away with its onion shaped domes covered in primary colours. The loudest building I've seen, I was humbled. I was also humbled in Lenin's mausoleum. One, if not the, most influential man of the 20th century, who went on to shape much with his ideology after his death as he had alive.

Tragedy struck our little group of four as Amber's passport was stolen just before we were to board a night train north to St Petersburg. Jax and I went north, Amber and Lloyd stayed in Moscow to sort things out. The implications were not immediately apparent but Amber ended up flying back to Australia, not China, on an emergency Russian visa to get re-issued a Chinese work visa losing a lot of money and time.

St Petersburg is the grandest city I have been to. I was pretty amazed at every corner. Take Glasgow's most impressive Victorian façade and that is St Petersburg's grandeur throughout almost its entire centre. Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag, is the epitome of rich 18th and 19th century Europe. Wander down the roads branching off and it's an architectural historians dream. The landmarks raise the game further; St Isaacs gleaming gold dome; endless self indulgence of the Hermitage palace; the extravagance of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ features out does Moscow's extroverted church; and the semi-circular colonnades of Kazan Cathedral are mighty and Romanesque. Canals and rivers slice up the city and awe inspiring communist train and metro stations full of murals and general grandiose dot the city. The sunset lasts roughly three hours this time of year, pink light thick in the sky. St Petersburg is special.

Russia was a surprise. It was not that I expected less than what it had to offer, it was that I was coming down from 16 months away. The end of a very special time in my life was nigh and the thought of this, along with thoughts of home, sat heavily given a minute. But Russia grabbed many of these minutes. Expansive rolling landscapes, people so genuine they would make a Brit blush, a love of alcohol highly appreciated by myself in the long sunny summer days, the most eye catching women (if not the most attractive) I've seen, a culture not too far from home (considering that I've just spent three months in Asia) but rough enough to remind you that you certainly were not. Baikal, St Petersburg and to a lesser extent Vladivostok were my highlights, as was the company of fellow travellers Amber, Jackie and also Lucas.

So my come down was put off until Helsinki, which I hoped, and expected, would allow it. A £28 nine hour night bus - to save on hostel fees - took me to Helsinki. Twilight clung to a spot on the horizon until 3am, reflecting dully off Finnish waters, waters penned in either side by silhouettes of evergreen forests. A special ambience to accompany special thoughts - I would be home in four days.

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