The Border Crossing & Wonders of St. Petersburg

Trip Start Aug 06, 2012
Trip End Aug 27, 2012

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The next morning we were up at 5am to travel to St Petersburg in Russia, leaving at 6:30am. To say that the journey was an experience is an understatement. We chose to leave very early in order to be one of the first buses at the Russian border as it is quite an ordeal to cross - sometimes apparently taking hours to get through.

We travelled for around 2 hours from Helsinki prior to getting to the Russian border, then the ordeal commenced. No cameras are allowed, you do not joke around and don't smile. They advised of a couple of Russian words (which we promptly forgot) that would win us some credit if questioned. First of all we had a Finnish process at the start of the "no man's land" with passports shown, guard houses and processes, where we each had to file through, look the guards in the eye and they stamped the passports.  When it got to me they interrogated me (whereas most just went through).  They asked me why I was going to Russia, where I was going and how long I was staying etc. - all asked with a very dour face. We all eventually got through that process and drove on in the bus to the next check point which was a Russian one (a km or so further on).  Once again we had to bail out of the bus and take our passports. On this occasion we lined up and had to pass through one by one before the Russian Guards.  This time we had a big tough female office who looked you up and down (again with a very sour face) while you stood there looking serious.  Eventually she stamped the passport and allowed you to pass on into another section of the building (but not going too far).  You were very restricted.  The bus driver spent a lot of time in front of a Male officer getting interrogated for a considerable amount of time.  He ended up having to pay the officer a considerable sum of money etc. (as you do!!!!) prior to finally being given the nod to proceed. 

Meanwhile, cars were going through another lane with their paperwork and passports. A couple of people were being brought from their cars into another room for further questioning etc.  All very interesting.

Eventually we got underway to the next point another kilometre or so where a couple of Young soldiers looked at the bus and then waved it through.  That still was not it.  We drove on again probably the same distance again and were once again stopped.  This time by a very Russian, large female officer with a very serious face.  She demanded to look at the records and then proceeded to enter the bus and work down the aisle to look at all of us.  Finally she gave approval to proceed.  Hooray, after a bit over an hour we were finally free to proceed.

Well the next period was something to behold.  Immediately the road condition deteriorated drastically.  We literally bounced along the road.  Huge undulations, potholes and major cracks in the bitumen.  At each major bridge you came across, the bus would have to slow as invariably there was a jump up onto the bridge deck or off of it on the other end as the pavement had subsided to some extent.  The driver was very good in trying to limit the discomfort of our journey.  Not only would he slow at each bridge, but would also drive down the middle of the road to avoid edge rutting or potholes etc., and simply move back to his side when vehicles approached.  It was quite a hairy experience. 

We eventually stopped for lunch at a very run down town (Vyborg) at a large hotel / disco / restaurant (or whatever you may wish to call it). Externally it looked pretty average, however inside it was very ornate and although the staff couldn't speak much English, we managed to communicate. The attendants were beautiful Russian girls.  We had soup, rice and chicken, along with a few vegetables, coffee, tea etc. - and bottled water!!.  We were warned that anywhere in Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, you do not drink any water or even clean your teeth with their water.

After lunch we got under way again and travelled along a fairly high standard road.  We finally got onto a better section of road (much newer) with sealed shoulders. Well the next experience was to confront us!!!  Cars and many trucks were going in all directions using the full width of the sealed road, including the sealed shoulders.  People were overtaking on shoulders, ducking across lanes, and at times you had 3 vehicles going in the same direction side by side while someone else was travelling in the opposing direction - or two in each direction.  I would say the trucks made up 30 to 40% of the traffic, many of them belching smoke (not very healthy I must say), so this made for and extremely dangerous situation.  All of these antics were going on while everyone was travelling at 100kph or more in each direction.  Even though extremely dangerous, and we should have been very scared, it became a bit of a joke after about the first few close shaves.  They assured us not to worry as this was the norm. 

We also had a long road block for about half an hour due to bridge works.  The queue went for many kilometres.  We thought there must have been and accident, as that would not have surprised us at all, given the driving antics.  We discovered further down the track that there were two bridges, about a kilometre apart, that were half closed with works occurring on them that was causing the problem. 

We finally arrived at the beautiful city of St Petersberg (safely!!!) at around 3pm on Wednesday 15 August 2012.  Slightly drained for the experience.

We went straight for a tour of the Peter & Paul Fortress which was an ancient fortress of Peter the Great and the dynasty that follwed.  There was a massive catherdral within the fortress where most of the Tsars of Russia are buried within.  There were also soldiers barracks etc.

In the evening were went to our hotels and were later picked up and taken to a small restaurant to have a meal.  It was an excellent experience with very Russian food, also Vodka if you wanted it (it is in plentiful supply and cheaper than water in Russia!!!).  A small Gypsy Band gave a couple of brackets of songs to entertain us.  We finally made the trip back to our hotel to settle and have a sleep.

The next day was a big day of exploration of the city of St. Petersburg - what a beautiful city!!.  It has a population of around 4million people and was damaged in a big way during the second world war by the Germans.  It was under siege for 3 years and took a lot of bombardment, however they never managed to enter the city and take it over.  Many of the very old buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged.  You would not know it now.  They had pictures of the very historic buildings, of which there are thousands dating back to the 14th and 15th century, and they have painstakingly restored them all.  It is an absolute credit to them.  No wonder they are so proud of their city. 

We visited to massive palaces through the day, and viewed many other historic cathedrals and old buildings.  I have to say that our guides all throughout our trip to date have been magnificent.  Their English has been excellent and the expression in their voices is a pleasure to listen to.  Their knowledge of their past history is fantastic, and they are clearly passionate about telling their stories - both the good and the bad about their past.

We first visited was the Yusupov Palace which was a privately owned palace and tied in with the Rasputin story and those who ruled Russia for over 300 years.  The ornate nature of the very large palace and its furniture and art work was magnificent. The details relating to the sordid manner that many of the various key figures in the family were killed off from time to time was also fascinating.

Later in the day we visited the Hermitage Palace where the same family and later Czars etc. ruled from.  It was made up of three palaces all joined together (the Summer palace, the winter palace and the new palace, All of which date back through the 14th to 16th century.  It was an absolutely magnificent palace with extremely ornate ceilings, chandeliers, furniture, painting collections etc.  In actual fact there was really too much to take in.  We were in it for over 2 hours and only scratched the surface.

That is probably enough of the main buildings we visited.  I have placed a selection of sample photos below to give you a taste.

In  the evening after a very quick meal, where we had to try to have the waiters understand what we wanted and to ask them to "bistro bistro bistro" (which in Russian means we need to be very quick), we went off to the Ballet of Swan Lake at the Alexandrinski Theatre.  What a magical experience.  The theatre is something to behold.  It holds between 750 and 900 people (as calculated by me), with a large tiered floor and five levels of balconies in a horseshoe fashion all the way around the edges of the theatre.  Obviously the ballet was excellent - as if you would expect anything less in the country of the home of Ballet and Tchaikovsky.

The drive back from the theatre was also a fantastic drive.  Much of what we viewed in the day plus basically all of the old buildings, were all lit up with special lighting.  All of the old buildings were lit with up lighting and special affect lighting.  Not just lights from the windows, but rather lighting that enhance the architectural attributes of the buildings.  Although past 11pm, the streets were alive with people.  It was a fantastic atmosphere.

One thing we noticed was that it currently gets dark around 11pm and light again at around 3am.  St Petersburg actually experiences "White Nights" for 6 weeks of the year.  Starting from around the last week of May through to mid-July, there is no darkness, hence the name. This would be really weird to experience.  Apparently not even Moscow experiences this.  They usually get dark around 12 midnight to 12:30am up to around 2 am.  On the other hand in the middle of winter St. Petersburg gets light about 9:30 to 10am and once again gets dark around 3pm.  That would be depressing!!!

In the morning (Friday 17 August 2012), we got up at 5:45am to have breakfast and leave on an early morning boat cruise along the Neva River and canals in the city.  This provided us opportunity to see much of the city from vantage points that we previously had not seen.  This went for an hour and a half.

What was very interesting was a boy (say about 14 years old), appeared on the peak of every arch bridge we went beneath for the full length of our journey (1.5 hours).  He would go to the middle of the bridge and with a big smile wave madly to us as we passed beneath.  Of course we all waved back to him.  He would then take off and run along the river or canal and appear on the next bridge by the time we got there.  He must have run probably in the order of 10 to 15km and appeared on say 30 bridges, or maybe even more.  At the end he appeared at the top of the stairs as we got off the boat.  We all gave him a significant tip as we felt he deserved it.  He did pretty well out of it.  Good luck to him.

Following this we departed on a half hour hydrofoil ride up one of the main rivers to the Peterhof Gardens and Palace fortress that is at the entrance to the Finland sea.  It was built as a gateway to protect Moscow from Finland who were at war with thin in the 15th century.  Once again, a fantastic palace up on a hill with multiple cathedrals and with gold leaf covered domes, as is the norm throughout all of Russia's Russian Orthodox cathedrals.  What was also very interesting was that at 11am sharp the numerous fountains were set going with the National Anthem being boomed out across the grounds.  The fountains were original when the palace was built centuries ago without the aid of any pumps.  They simply relied on the water pressure created by the elevation of the reservoir above the site (80m of head).

Following a trip back into St Petersburg by bus, we had a quick lunch and then prepared for a fast train adventure to Moscow.

Well we have made it this far without a belly ache or the Russian Mafia getting us!!! We have been in St. Petersburg for the last 2 days - what a beautiful city which is steeped in so much history.  We next embarked on a 4.5 hour train trip to Moscow on a fast train. 

While Russia appears to have beautiful and historic cities, we have learnt that everything is basically run by a corrupt "Mafia", or so they are referred to. You can basically ask for anything and it will be arranged - of course for an additional fee!!! Even the police will take a payment to overlook a bus going over a particular bridge when the sign says that is forbidden. Very interesting indeed!! It will be interesting to experience Moscow. Anyway will try to keep the Travel Blog up to date as much as possible - We don't have much time to work on it.
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