Culture + History Galore

Trip Start Jul 24, 2006
Trip End Jan 07, 2011

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Flag of Russia  ,
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Well, it's taken us a while but here we are again - our first of two stops in Russia. We've certainly had a few detours getting here, but it's a beautiful city and definitely worth visiting - in fact both Pete and I are quite worn out with all the sightseeing and traipsing around on food we've been doing since we arrived on Tuesday evening (1st August).

We had a slight setback when we left Warsaw last Sunday evening, on the night train to St Petersburg - at about 01:30 in the morning we were woken up by the train staff warning us that as we were approaching the border, we should prepare our passports and fill in immigration and tax declaration forms. That was when we first realised there might be a problem with our not having a visa for Belarus. Somehow when we'd booked the rail tickets through Eurail they hadn't mentioned that there were 2 stops between Warsaw and St Petersburg, and that one of them was in Belarus terrirory! Anyway, it ended up with 3 of us getting thrown off the train - us and another German man called Michael.

In fact, we had time to become quite friendly with him as we were then marched off under guard to be kept under supervision in the huge immigration and customs hall until the first train back across the Polish border, which we were later told would be at 0700 but in fact was 0800!

What an experience that was. We were conducted (again under guard) onto a train filled with just plain wooden benches and motioned to sit on the 2nd bench only. Then suddenly 3 men, rather unkempt-looking and smelling of alcohol, rushed onto the train talking loudly and removed what looked like thin mattresses from the from bench and started opening their bags and generally making their presence felt. Next what seemed like hundreds of women, mostly aged about 30-50 imvaded the train and all proceeded to spend the half an hour before the train moved, exchanging merchandise such as watches, russian dolls, shirts and all sorts of other goods and either collecting or paying out US dollars! Some of them had hundreds of dollars in cash.

When we finally got off across the Polish border, they all got off and seemed to continue their black market activities quite freely - the customs staff seemed to either ignore it totally or stayed away from the main station entrance hall where most of it was taking place. Well, Michael was as surprised us we were. Everything was done so blatantly and noisily with all the women exchanging remarks loudly.

We had been told to go to the nearest big town in Poland to apply for a Belarus visa, but when we enquired whether there were still any berths left on that evening's night train to St Petersburg, we were told there weren't, so ended up taking a train back to Warsaw instead. We had time to go and find something for breakfast in town and then it took about 5 hours because of an accident on the line just outside Warsaw! You can imagine that we were rather tired by the time we actually arrived - having only had about 2 hours sleep on the train the night before!

Enquiries made at the station and then through a travel agency revealed that the quickest way for us to get to our destination would be to take a flight early the next morning to Helsinki and then get either a train or bus from there! In the end that's what we all did. Luckily our Warsaw hostel students were still at the station arranging free taxi rides to the hostel and we were really grrateful to get under a hot shower and just sleep until 0400 when we had to get up to be at the airport for 0500!!

One good thing was that we had an unscheduled stop in Helsinki and made the most of our morning and lunchtime there - the weather was splendid and the people friendly and helpful. There seemed to be young music students playing classical music in quartets or trios on most of the big street corners, which made it all very pleasant. We were very pleased to get a seat on the 1545 train to St Petersburg, which was due to get in at 2240.

The three of us had decided to stick together after our ordeal, and had a very enjoyable ride. Unlike the staff on the night train who were not at all friendly, the lady we had looking after us was lovely. She didn't speak a word of English but made up for it by miming everything and getting someone else to write things down when we didn't understand the words in the Russian-only Customs declaration forms etc. We were given hot tea, yogourt and chocolate biscuits which, together with the company of a young Russian Pilates instructor and a middle-aged lady who joined our carriage half-way through the journey, made the time pass very agreeably!

Enough of the journey. Suffice to say that since our arrival in the city here, Pete and I have spend most of our time on foot - partly because you can see things at your own speed that way, and initially because we had no idea how to deal with the buses, trams or metro. However, yesterday we made our first metro journey and haven't looked back since! We went to visit the Hermitage - what a palace and museum. It was so full of interesting object and wonderful paintings that I could have spent a lot longer, really. However, hunger forced us to hurry up a bit to look for somewhere to eat and drink.

A boat tour along the canals gave us a good overview of the city layout and was very relaxing. Unfortunately yesterday, the weather was not so nice when we had decided to meet Michael again before his return to Germany, and to visit the Pushkin palace. Again, we were bowled oever by the sumptuousness of the decor - the Czars and Czarinas certainly knew how to live it up! It was only a shame that it started drizzline and didn't stop for most of the day, so we didn't get to make the most of the beautiful grounds and gardens that were there. Most impressive was the famous Amber room - a room entirely pamelled i amber. It was absolutely gorgeous, although apparently it all had to be replaced after the Nazis stole everything when they invaded. However, a few years ago, a large German company gave Russia about $3,000,000 towards the cost of reconstructing it.

Well, nearly up to dat - today we decided to revert to form and make sure we visited at least one 'flea' market during our stay. The only problem is that anything we buy, we have to carry in our packsacks, so that rather limits the choice. Never mind, it was a good experience. I really must learn a few more words in Russian, as haggling is not easy when you don't even know how to make a counter-offer.

To close, we're off to Moscow tomorrow evening - on the night train again. Let's hope there are no more set-backs! Tune in to find out what happens next......... Will definitely try to add some of the many photos Pete has been busily taking everywhere we've gone!
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