Trip Start Apr 01, 2001
89Trip End Ongoing
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On the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg we had our first "Russian Experience"...
Just before the border a foreign exchange trolley came along the train. Everybody was changing money, so we decided to exchange $200. We had a note that the rate was about 27 Roubles = $1, but our transaction only got us 6 Roubles for each dollar! We sat pondering whether the rate could possibly have changed so much since February and concluded that... we had just been ripped off... big time! Welcome to Russia!
Luckily, there was an American group on the train with a tour leader who spoke good Russian. He followed the exchange sharks off of the train and explained their "mistake" to them. Tonya then had to give our Roubles to the train conductor who also disappeared off with them, while we had to remain on the train, pennyless. Just as we thought the situation about to go from bad to worse, the men returned with fists full of Roubles... all our money at the correct exchange rate! Thank you, Thank you!
At St Petersburg station we were met by Tamara who was to be our host for a few days. We piled into an old Ford Sierra Taxi (not the Lada we were expecting) and survived a hair-raising journey to Tamara's apartment. Pot-holes and tram lines which stand 4 inches higher than the road cannot be good for your suspension. There are no lane markings... and apparently no rules of the road.
Our first homestay was in a traditional Soviet-era block. Tamaras apartment was tiny. There was a bed, 2 armchairs, a dining table, a bookshelf full of Russian books, and a TV which was covered with a T-towel from Yorkshire! A jug of water stood on the table with a sign "cool boiled water". We hoped it had been boiled for long enough to kill the Giardia parasite which lives in St Petersburg's water supply.
Tamara's daughter, Olga, was to be our "Buddy" and took us on a long walk around the city. Olga was very knowledgable, she showed us all the main attractions and instructed us how to use the Metro system to get around.
We saw someone drive into a parked car just outside the "Church of Spilled Blood" - quite appropriate really! Some idiot in a brand new VW Golf GTI zoomed past a tatty blue Lada and nearly pushed him off the road... pushed him far enough that he smacked into the back of a parked car. The flash git in the VW just drove off leaving the Lada driver to explain to the police how his Lada came to be lodged in the back of a parked car. It seems that in Russia, the more you pay for your car, the greater your entitlement to drive like an idiot.
Our highlights of St. Petersburg included;
- Winter Palace (Hemitage Museum), we spent a full day here and particularly enjoyed the Malachite room with it's white dining room, where the clock was stopped at 2:10 am when Kerensky's provisional government were arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
- Aurora Battleship. This was the first ship in the fleet to side with the Bolshviks. On the night of October 25, 1917 it moved down river and dropped anchor at the Luitenant Schmidt bridge and at 9:40pm its forward canon fired the historic blank shot at the Winter Palace - the first in a sporadic barrage that accompanied the "Storming" of the Palace. After it had fallen, the ship's radio was used to broadcast Lenin's address "To the citizens of Russia" proclaiming the victory of the proletarian revolution.
- Peter and Paul Fortress.
- The Field of Mars with it's eternal flame.
- Russian Museum (inside the Mikhailovsky Palace). We can only vouch for the 1st half of this exhibition, as those tricky little Ruskies kicked us out at 5pm and not 6pm, which was meant to be closing time (according to Let's Go).
Tamara drew us a map and we found our way to Moscow station. There were 7 trains all leaving for Moscow at 11-something pm. We had to be able to recognise the Russian signs for left and right as the platform is shown as 4 left or 4 right, so it would be easy to get on the wrong train. Luckily, we managed to find the right one and located our beds, bottom bunks in a compartment, with two young Russian women. It was the first time we had travelled on a train with oriental carpets in the corridoor and velvet curtains on the windows.
We were met on the platform by Sasha (the 1st of many) who handed us our tickets to Irkutsk and lead us to a taxi. We arrived at our homestay and met our host Tanya, who is a doctor and speaks a lillte English. Tanya and her husband spend their summers "in the country" (40 km from Moscow) and Tanya had come back to Moscow just to look after us.
Once again Russian Experience had organized a buddy for us and Lenya took us around town. We saw:
- Several churches that during Soviet time were converted into Ice rinks, swimming pools etc. Since Peristroika these have been beautifully restored and returned to the people for workship.
- The Metro. The stations are like palaces with sculptures, mosaics, and no grafitti.
- GUM, which used to be the state owned department store. What a shock! It was full of Channel, Trussardi, Bennetton, Deisel etc, etc. with prices worse than London.
- A power station inside a grey Soviet style building with some very interesting sculptures on the outside. From the front these sculptures show three men working, but from the side they show one man having a W??? (rhymes with Tank). Apparently somebody upset the sculptor and this was his method of revenge.
- Red Square and St. Basils Cathederal.
- Tretyakov gallery, great Russian art.
- Lenin Mauseleum. Leave your bags and cameras at the luggage deposit. Guards search you as you enter. We filed in to the pyramid in silence, passed stern looking soldiers. Lenin has pink spotlights shinning on his face and hands and is clearly not a wax replica, his hands and checks are too wrinkled to be wax. Mind you, he looks pretty good considering he has been dead since 1924.
Tonya's parents host foreign students in London and had Natalya from Moscow stayed with them a few years ago. We met up with Natalya and her 9 year old daughter Diana and got a Russian perspective (and prices) on the city. We took a river boat trip and Natalya pointed out the sites we passed. (This was useful as the commentary was only in Russian). We had lunch in a true Russian restuarant... the kind of place we would never have ventured into alone. Firstly, from the outside it looked more like a repair shop, and secondly, even if we had realised it was a resturant we would not have been able to get fed... There was no menu, you had to ask for food... and there was nothing on display so you couldn't point.
We also went to Moscow zoo which was fun, but the conditions the animals are kept in is rather sad. The Kangaroo had arthritis and couldn't hop, the Polar bears were having sex in their concret pen in 30c heat, the Peacocks didn't have any tail feathers because they had been plucked out to be sold and the Monkeys didn't have any toys to play with.
At Sokolniky park there was music blaring and old people ballroom dancing.
What we didn't see but would have liked to:
- The Kremlin. Unfortunately no one told us that the Kremilin is closed on Thursdays. Russian Experience Iternery said it was closed on Mondays...we told Lenya, Tanya, and Natalia that we planned to visit it "on Thursday"... and no one commented - Obviously Russians do not go to the Kremlin often.