Days 20 to 22: St Petersburg

Trip Start Aug 01, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Monday, August 20, 2012

Looks like our "flashpacking" days are over for the moment! We just managed to get the last 2 seats on the bus from Tallinn to St Petersburg which was surprising as our other journeys had been so simple with plenty of seats available. 5 minutes before our empty bus departed we found out why, as 50 odd elderly Brazilians (+ a couple of Portuguese) turned up as part of a large tour group. Bedlam ensued as South American levels of organisation and punctuality kicked in. It was hilarious watching the Russian driver's bewilderment as 10 of these guys were babbling away at him at a time. Not so hilarious was when the tour group leader borrowed the bus microphone for “just 5 minutes” and then blasted us with a stream of Portuguese for the next 6 hours. Getting that lot through passport control was fairly interesting as well with lots of pushing and shoving and queue-jumping.

We are sure that most people are aware of how difficult Russian visas are to obtain and how you have to prove where you will be for every moment of your stay in the country. However, this isn’t about the pesky Russians making life difficult for us Westerners. It turns out that these visas are primarily to control internal migration, so if you were from an Oblast in Siberia and you wanted to visit Moscow you would need a visa for your stay. It is what they mean by having your “papers” on you at all times. From what we can tell, this has been set up for two reasons, firstly to stop mass migration of people leaving the harsh life in Siberia and moving to more pleasant and higher paid European Russia, and secondly, due to terrorist attacks, they want to keep tabs on people from Chechnya and other wannabe breakaway states. Luckily all our papers were in order and we re-entered the Brazilian madness of getting us and our luggage back on the bus.

We pulled into St Petersburg one hour late and missed our transfer to the hotel so had to get them to come back. Transfers may seem a little un-backpackerish but we got them on the advice of countless other travellers, guide books and consulates. Due to loads of corruption amongst the police and mafia-run taxi services, it is somewhat dangerous for tourists to catch a taxi from any major bus or train station or even the airport. So we decided to stump up for them.

St Petersburg itself is an incredibly beautiful place. Peter the Great really pulled out all the stops when he put this baby together. It’s like every building in the city centre is a palace and it gets a bit tough to know what you should be taking a picture of. We stayed at Nevsky Grand Hotel (unfortunately, not all that Grand!) that was conveniently placed near Nevsky Prospekt which is the main drag.

There is a real mix of wealth in this city. Lots of Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris parked alongside ancient Ladas. The one constant was how these people drive….like life isn’t all that important! The white lines on the road are for decorative purposes, no-one knows what the flashing orange lights on the side of their vehicles are for, and the one rule is that the amount of forward movement is directly proportional to the level of aggression in the driving. The number of battered cars we saw was mental and if half the back of your car has fallen off – that’s fine just keep on driving! One thing that stood out is putting stickers on your car, now we’re not talking amusing bumper stickers here, we mean stickers ANYWHERE on your car. One car had bird poo stickers on the bonnet – what’s that all about? Wish we’d managed to get a picture of that one but a big Russian guy was sitting in the drivers seat looking very mean and really chuffed with how his car looked!

We wandered up and down Nevsky Prospekt marvelling at all the fancy shops and restaurants. We couldn’t afford much here (or in St Petersburg in general) as things are fairly pricey (small Latte = £4), when you are on a budget. However we did find a crazy Soviet themed restaurant complete with automated farm animal noises blaring out into the street to attract punters. It was full of Russians reminiscing about the good old times of the proletariat where being a farmer was as good as it got and you got to fill your days queuing up for hard-to-get consumables (one woman told us her parents had waited 3 days for toiletries!). Food options were pretty good and included vegetable Pelmeni, meat pie, potato pie and baked aubergines. The food isn’t amazing but then Russian cuisine is supposed to be pretty bland. The unfortunate thing for Soph was that the Russian versions of veggie staples Borsch and Rye soup now had meat floating in them.

Our attempts to talk to locals failed fairly dramatically, there isn’t a lot of English spoken here and the people that do – don’t want to talk to you. Even in the one tourist information place we found the staff would do anything (play with their mobile phones, talk to the other staff, stare out the window) than make eye-contact with you. Same deal in a bar we went to – as soon as the barmaid realised that we didn’t speak Russian she served everyone else until other customers dried up. Trying to use some Russian words doesn’t help either. Everyone looks so grumpy it’s a real contradiction to how amazing the city looks. With the exceptions of the Hermitage and the Vodka Museum (yay!) there is no interest in the tourism industry here – we guessed most of the people would prefer it if you stayed at home!

Getting our prepaid train tickets printed at the ticket depot was another all-Russian experience. The booking information sheet we had to give to the ticket booth attendant was in Russian with clear instructions of what we needed. We even found a North American guy who was fluent in Russian to help us and after an hour and a half and being sent to 3 different ticket booths we gave up and decided to try again the next day.

Our next stop was the Hermitage. What can we say about the Hermitage? It’s tough to think of enough words to describe it…. So we won’t…. Instead just know that it is amazing, that you didn’t know whether you should be staring at the Da Vinci’s, the Raphael’s, the Rembrandt’s or just the rooms themselves. Have a look at the pictures and you’ll see what we mean. If you are planning on going then book your ticket online it means you don’t have to join the MASSIVE queue at the entrance and you can walk right in. Oh and also - don’t stare too closely at the paintings, there are motion sensor alarms that go off when you get too close. Mike didn’t realise that the alarm noise was due to him until he got an earful of angry Russian from a furious little old lady who worked there.

Which brings us to our next point. Old ladies are a force of nature in Russia, they do not have to queue, they do not have to stand when a chair is present (occupied or not), they do not have to wait for anything. If you are sitting in the aforementioned seat, or object in any way to this little old woman barging her way to the front of the ticket office line, then you will be set straight, in no uncertain terms, on the natural order of things!

After our trip to the Hermitage we went for a wander around the river and canals to the Peter and Paul fortress. The walk taught us many things about Russians – they love having their pictures taken, they always strike a pose and you MUST have your wedding pictures taken with an exotic backdrop. We walked past at least 10 wedding parties getting thousands of photos done. Even those not tying the knot were at it. We know that we mentioned the photo shoot posing of the Estonians in our earlier blog, but this was on a different level, the men and women of Russia are world champion photo posers. We started taking our own Vogue moments and the more ridiculously over-the-top we went, the more approving nods we received from the St Petersburgians.

Another marvel we witnessed was the home made pop star. To have an idea of what Russian pop music is like think Eurovision song contest style singing with accordion solos thrown in. As you walk the streets you can see Take That wannabes standing at their very own street side stalls blaring out their amazing hits (with CDs for sale) in the hope that this will catapult them to international stardom. Our favourite was a huge guy who looked like an ex-body builder (whose body has run to fat), resplendent in his skimpy singlet and 1980s George Michael bouffant. Best of all, the CD cover included what looked like his twin brother and himself wearing string vests astride Harley Davidsons and both staring wistfully into the distance. How has nobody signed these guys yet??

When we got to the Fortress we realised that we were churched & museumed out and couldn’t actually be bothered going into anything! On the walk back we made the exception of heading to the “Church of the Resurrection built on the Spilt Blood” (phew!) it is one of those onion domed orthodox jobbies where the entire interior decorations are dozens of mosaics. It’s impressive and worth checking out.

Our final day saw us fighting with Fedex over being charged twice for a delivery to Oz, and another joyous trip to the train ticket depot where we only had to go to 2 booths and queue up for 1 hour to finally get our train tickets printed!

Feeling quite knackered we headed off through the canals (Peter the Great wanted St Petersburg to be a Venice of the North) and caught a hydrofoil to Peterhof to see the summer palace. It was awesome, if a little expensive. We didn’t realise that our boat tickets were one way.... or that in order to get off the boat and onto the island requires buying another ticket.... and then finally we needed to buy a ticket to get back. The round trip ended up costing us £50! It would have been a hell of a lot more without Soph’s ISIC student card (imagine the looks when they worked out she was 30yrs old). The island housed lots of golden statues, lots of fountains, lots of museums we couldn’t be bothered going into and lots of Russians posing for photos (which we gleefully mimicked).

The last bit of sightseeing was the one museum that Mike could be bothered going to – the Vodka Museum! The whole thing was in Russian which meant we could fly past the exhibits and get to the main draw – the bar with over 150 varieties of vodka. Some brands stood out as ones we recognised – Russian Standard is made in St Petersburg and they are very proud of it, Stolichnaya, Beluga etc etc. Thankfully there was not a Smirnoff bottle in sight. Seeing all the empty small shot-glasses littered on the tables from previous patrons, we decided to try a couple on the list, only to find that the shot glasses we had seen were “tasting” glasses and what we had ordered was single measures….which is 100mL! In Russia a double shot of vodka is 200mL. Naturally we ordered a third and then wobbled off back to our hotel to get our transfer to the train station.

After an entertaining car trip (we almost had a head-on collision with a bus) we arrived at the station to catch the No.53 Grand Express sleeper train to Moscow. We had a 4-berth cabin (check the pictures) which we shared with 2 Russian guys who slept the entire time. The cabin was as tiny as it looks so it was all pretty intimate!

Anywhoo time for this essay to come to a close!

Da svidániya

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