The world’s biggest and world’s coldest country, spanning 11 time-zones – home to the planet’s deepest lake, largest plain, most expensive city (Moscow), home to every mineral on the periodic table – and, for a short time, home to yours truly!
Much of my 6-hour train journey from Estonia was spent at border control. Sniffer dogs, beady-eyed officials and guards swept through the carriages, scrutinised my visa, raised eyebrows at the hard-drive I was carrying, grilled me on my finances and eventually awarded an entry stamp. St Petersburg was only just getting dark as I arrived around midnight. I’d heard that ‘any car’ is a taxi, you simply had to flag down a passing vehicle – probability of death and kidnap was minimal if there is just one chap in the car, and if you’ve checked the back foot well for hidden nutters…
Knowing no Russian whatsoever, using frantic pointing and a badly reproduced Cyrillic note, I managed to convince what must’ve been the oldest guy I’d ever met to drive me to the hostel in what must be the oldest Lada I’d ever seen (Ladas are still big news here). This decrepit banger made my old Grundmobile look like a Porche – the fact that it pulled away was a miracle, and if it wasn’t the relic of a car endangering us, it was the frankly terrifying death-wish-o-rama driving from my equally ancient chauffeur. Relieved to be in one piece, I was dropped at what appeared to be the correct address for the ‘7 Bridges Hostel’.
It was a dark, gloomy dead-end – kakking my pants, I encircled the building and double checked the Russian characters, most of which looked more at home in a maths equation than in a street name. Just when you think you can understand a word in Cyrillic, you get weird inverted number sixes, back-to-front nines, a ‘pi’ symbol and a love heart. (Hearing Russian is even odder, as it sounds like English spoken backwards – I have a theory that if recorded and reversed, the locals all actually have broad cockney accents). I went up and down the street and entered a building which stank of cats; there were no markings on what was apparently the correct door so I decided not to knock for fear of rape, pillage and being left for dead…
I texted the hostel owner and waited for a reply as I imagined the headlines and rooster-related tabloid puns when news got home that the naive Chickenman traveller had been ruthlessly butchered, skinned and marinated. Thankfully, the address was correct – in a tax-avoidance effort, the ‘non existent’ hostel had a deliberately anonymous looking door!
The crumbling, charming architecture of St Petersburg was stunning. Statues, cathedrals, bridges, cafes and endless museums – all set amongst wide roads and rivers crisscrossing the city. It was difficult to know how to tackle such a cultural extravaganza, but the world famous Hermitage Museum (the second-biggest on the planet) was surely a good start. 1057 rooms, 117 staircases, a massive collection of over 3 million items, with only a twentieth of it actually on display! It’s a crime to spend less than a full day around the complex, but unfortunately I just lack the patience, depth and sensitivity to appreciate most of it. Despite a crash course in Art History at Uni, dusty collections of priceless artworks just don’t – unfortunately – do it for me.
I noticed that there appears to be a culture of ‘job creation’ or ‘over-employment’ in Russia — there are attendants at every escalator, every portaloo, every train carriage and every room in every museum (sometimes two in a room, in fact). Rather than being of help, the formidable and domineering ‘babushkas’ (elderly women), seem to be there simply to administer random bollockings. These are the real people running the country – step out of line in a museum or commit a faux-pas on the street, and you’re liable to get an earful from these boisterous grannies. One babushka, with a particularly frightening beehive hairdo, hollered at me to “stand back from the display!”, when I was a full foot from it. Another – also with scary hair – insisted on following me around and dragging me back to exhibits I’d quite intentionally omitted — only when I’d feigned an interest in a potato peeler once used by Lenin, would the old dear be satisfied enough for me to move on…
As for the younger generation, it’s unnerving how well some Russian girls can make themselves up to look somewhat like transvestites. Many of the local ladies seem to have a penchant for sporting gaudy excesses of colourful make-up, stylised in such a way that it makes them look like men-dressed-as-women. It’s all very odd, although many of the younger ladies are heartbreakingly gorgeous and tend to embrace a, let’s say, ‘economical approach’ to clothing. This phenomena of having ones boobs and bum flapping all over the place makes for a strange juxtaposition (and indeed, a usually welcome distraction) when you’re trying to consider the artistic genius of a 16-century Flemish masterpiece.
The rest of Russian society is renowned for being rather blunt and humourless, and – as yet – it’s not been far from the truth. I understand there is supposedly a genuine warmth underneath, which I’ll hopefully get to know when I’m stuck in a train booth for 4-days solid with some locals and a bumper supply of vodka… Though it may seem reasonable for the long-suffering older generations to be perpetually miserable, one has to wonder why Mother Russia’s youth aren’t a little more bright and cheery. Maybe it’s the shit weather (although it’s delightfully hot at the moment!).
It’s a shame more of St Petersburg museums don’t have English translations as I’d have liked to have learnt more about the Leningrad Blockade, which seemed like a dreadful ordeal for the city dubbed Russia’s ‘window on the West’. 872 days of shelling during WWII, starvation and disease with a million dead – more than the total UK and US war causalities combined. With the Nazis on the doorstep promising to ‘wipe St Petersburg from the face of the Earth’, the locals were forced to eat pets, rats, birds, the paste behind wallpaper, leather belts (cooked until chewable), and even, eventually, each other. 150,000 bombs and shells were dropped with up to 30,000 people dying per day from hunger; yet still, plays, concerts, poetry recitals and life in general continued. What a resilient people.
The next day in St Peters started badly – I nearly got run over (keep looking the wrong way!), lost my sunnies down a toilet and then sat on them and I’d turned up at a prison to find it was closed to visitors. Normally, one can get a tour of the working state prison; I wandered around in confusion – no-one could understand me, and I felt a bit bad as a ditsy tourist amongst the queuing family members who’d come to see their poor incarcerated loved ones… However, I then realised I was starting to sympathise with murderers and thieves, and so re-checked my guide to find the tour was only available at weekends.
I spent the afternoon meandering around Battleship Aurora and St Peter & Paul’s Fortress (which is definitely in my top-five fortresses) and returned to the hostel to repack my two big horrible backpacks. Just as I’d finished leisurely folding, organising and zipping up my crap, I realised I’d misread my ticket and my train for Moscow was, in fact, leaving in half an hour. A sweaty and undignified ‘Run Lola Run’ mission ensued across the city landing me at the station with 5 minutes to spare, mostly courtesy of a passing Lada…
So here I finally am at the Godzilla Hostel in the capital, the last stop in Europe. The sprawling city is famous for Red Square, the Kremlin and its Metro – many stations are art galleries in themselves, with thousands of chandeliers and marble décor. Busier than London and New York’s tube systems combined, the long escalators transport 9 million people per day deep underground (stations were dug super-deep to double as bomb shelters).
So far in Moscow, it’s been Russia – 1, Grundy – 0, with the Cyrillic signage and soul-destroying bureaucracy getting the best of me – hence this rather cynical email. However, I did manage to queue up to see the lovely Lenin. He’s looking well, if not a little pale and waxy, for a dead guy. The set-up was almost identical to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in Vietnam, and I imagine it’ll be similar to Mao’s (who I didn’t manage to visit last year – I’m collecting all three!). Stern-faced soldiers keep devotees moving as visitors slowly file around the glass cabinet – photos are strictly forbidden, but here’s one I found online. The tomb is located just a few hundred metres away from a McDonalds, which was actually Lenin’s dying wish. Fact.
All guidebooks tend to stress the importance of ‘keeping a low profile’ from the police around the Red Square (and Rusky in general) as the cops tend to pick on foreign types, giving them a grilling and possibly, let’s say an “on-the-spot fine” if there any ambiguities with one’s papers… Pissing around the Kremlin in a chicken outfit was therefore deemed unwise; particularly as I’d failed to register my visa after a whole week (it’s meant to be done after 3 days – others tended to gasp in horror when I told people I hadn’t yet bothered…)
Just when I thought I’d gotten away with it all, I was faced with a humourless-looking official at a metro station. It was just him and me near the ticket office, so all I had to do was be cool and look and act like a local. It would’ve been easy had I not been carrying 4 bags worth of Trans-Siberian Express food supplies (namely pot noodles, fruit and bread). As I approached and we clocked each other, I could hear the bells tolling in my head – a hefty fine or a night in the cells seemed suddenly inevitable – I repeated to myself, ‘be cool… you’re the Fonz… be cool’. Predictably, I immediately managed to get myself into an undignified knot around the turnstile, as I stupidly dived in bags-first. What an amateur! I must’ve easily stood right out as a dumb tourist…
I walked passed the policeman thinking he’d overlooked my ungraceful performance. Then he called me back over in Russian. “Nyet Rusky!” I exclaimed in a panic, to which he replied ‘Passport!’ I awkwardly fannied around in my body belt… after much inept foraging in my groin area, I produced my passport and handed it over, forgetting that I should only show photocopies to the authorities. Much to my relief, after some extended banter in Russian and me doing my best to look pathetic and apologetic, he examined my passport, train tickets, shopping and pointed for me to bugger-off. Kakking myself and grateful he hadn’t inspected my underwear, I scuttled quickly onto the metro train. In the wrong direction.
The next morning I set off for the Kremlin, explored the grounds which were open to the public and got the arbitrary photos next to the world’s largest bell (202 tonnes) and largest cannon. Neither the bell nor the cannon had ever actually worked, as the laws of physics deemed them simply too large to be functional. (By the same logic, I could quite feasibly claim to be the world’s tallest midget – even though I, personally, do not quite live up to what would be traditionally/technically construed as a midget). I looked around some of the cathedrals – photos weren’t allowed, but in one of the buildings every surface was covered in a painting of a biblical story – it was marvellous.
I guess things began to make more sense in Russia that afternoon when I met up with my Uni friend Kevin who’s been living in Moscow with his girlfriend. We toured the Red Square and St Basils (the multicoloured ‘gingerbread house-esque’ cathedral at the head of the square), visited a touristy market and I got a lot of my questions answered… I think it’s true to say the country is torn between nostalgia for the past and excitement for the future – people don’t know which is preferable, and elements of yesteryear are evident in the new systems of now. The bureaucracies involved in booking a train ticket, registering a visa or even buying some batteries can really be out-of-this-world. Some have suggested to me that people lack dynamism, innovation and motivation as they are coming from a time where everyone was paid the same wage, and there was no reason to climb a career ladder. Though I’m more reluctant to make such a generalisation, it does seem – from my super-limited experience – that something is slightly warped with the Russian take on capitalism. Unlike China, perhaps, they’ve tried to build-in soviet ideas and it’s not especially worked…
Early on the Sunday morning I set several alarms and sweated my way around the cryptic, but fantastically decorated Metro system. Much of the efficient, extensive and splendid underground network was bloodily constructed with forced labour, as were many of the roads, railways and infrastructure in Siberia. By deciphering the weird Cyrillic signage and pestering the occasional babushka, I managed to emerge in the correct train station, ready to board a sleeper train for 4 whole days…
Loaded with my two huge cursed backpacks and a ton of vegetarian food, I entered my 4-bed cabin to find I was sharing with what turned out to be a group of consistently drunk, but cool, Latvians and a friendly Russian chap whose English consisted of ‘I love you’, ‘bagel store’ and ‘London’. Either the limits of his vocabulary were completely random, or he was particularly keen on expressing his affection for a London-based bread shop.
Though it’s the longest train journey in the world, the scenery was mainly quite unremarkable, comparable to Kent much of the time – though things got more interesting as we passed over the Urals and from Europe into Asia. The rhythm, the smells, the sounds, the distorted sense of time, the cosy enclosed space – I loved it all. My journey to Irkutsk took me over 5 time zones to this town near Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border. Each cabin came complete with bedding, lots of storage and a reading light – at the end of each carriage was a toilet (where your business is deposited straight on to the track) and a constant supply of boiling water for coffee and the pot noodles which all passengers survive on. Each carriage also had an attendant or ‘provodnitsa’ — they clean, hoover, sweep up and provide cutlery, drinks, snacks and light banter – some were more friendly than others. Whilst the daytime shift provodnitsa (or ‘smiler’ as I called her) had it in for me, the night shift attendant thought I was a ruddy legend.
The train stopped several times a day and my guidebook informed me that a vast array of snacks and drinks were available from touts at the stations. This was not the case at the first stop which seemed to be populated with folks selling bizarre one-off random objects such as two-foot plastic cats, chandeliers huge tasteless vases, fur hats and other tacky plastic tat. As I watched the various comedy items pass my window it reminded me of the Generation Game conveyor belt – I couldn’t help but give a little cheer as the woman covered head-to-toe in teddy bears slowly drifted by. ‘Who the hell buys this crap?!’, I said in disbelief to a nearby tipsy Latvian – and then, as if on cue, half a dozen fellow passengers re-boarded the carriage, arms full of teddies, vases and other junk!… We could only presume that this was the stop for buying gifts for loved ones at the end of the journey.
I went for a wander and spotted a group taking photographs – figuring they must be fellow tourists, I asked one of the guys where he was from (Poland), I then asked the same of a nearby girl, who insisted she was from ‘Love’. Thinking this quite an odd answer, I spoke more with Justyna, a complete weirdo who I’ve now gotten to know well – and it turns out she’s very much a freak just like myself. She has her own language, believes in reincarnation, eats everything with chopsticks which she keeps permanently in her hair, has only one dimple, used to eat flowers as a child as ‘they were beautiful’, burnt her house down last year and lost everything but found it ‘liberating’… and has exactly the same music taste, fondness for gadgets, the same dress-sense and outlook as yours truly. We’re frighteningly similar on many levels and she’s also performed a political stunt whilst living in Ireland which made the front of a magazine. [We’re now travelling together, which is an absolute joy despite the fact she keeps meowing at me and wishing me a happy birthday almost every day.]
Days on the train were passed reading, eating, exploring the carriages, admiring the rolling landscapes, hanging out of windows, being told-off by attendants for hanging out of windows, flirting with the said attendants, and doing English lessons on the laptop, in my chicken suit, for the excitable on-board kids. It was great to stretch ones legs during the intermittent stops, but less fun when everyone suddenly disappeared and you find yourself still on the platform, with the train puffing and hissing and making various other ‘ready to leave’ noises.
The journey was warm and comfortable and I could’ve happily have done the full stretch for a week – it’d be even more fun in the winter with a snowy landscape. I even discovered after 4 days of grubbiness that a warm shower was possible in the form of a length of hose available to rent from the attendant… In the dead of night we arrived in Irkutsk and waited for sunrise before trying to find our hostel…
Irkutsk reminded me of Laos, with its unique and grand crumbling architecture and laidback feel. This town, which held up a lot of resistance against the communist government, is a hub for travellers – all of which were are taking the Trans-Siberian east or west. Most, like us, would also take a trip to the world’s largest body of freshwater – the awesome Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake which is about 70km away. Home to dozens of unique species and a fifth of the planet’s freshwater, the ‘Pearl of Siberia’ is crystal clear for up to 40 metres and is over 2 miles deep. Justyna and I stayed a night in Listvyanka, a Russian holiday hotspot and the nearest the locals get to a beach resort. We stayed in a gorgeous wooden cottage in the middle of a village and took a boat ride along the coast.
Whilst I loved the train and many of the people we met, I don’t know what it is about Russia, but unfortunately it’s not a place I’d return to, and fellow travellers I met seemed equally lukewarm. It’s got a big and important history, but it’s all so difficult to absorb and understand, and the people just aren’t the world’s friendliest. Apparently anyone who goes around smiling is deemed loopy or taking-the-piss, so it’s best to blend in and adopt a permanent dejected grimace. This is odd when you come from a culture where smiling breaks down social barriers and makes folks feel comfortable. Travelling in Russia is hard work, nothing comes to you – you have to go to it. I think you’d need a passion to visit the place first, and a fair bit of research done before you decide to rock up, as customer service and a state tourist board are simply non-existent. I know I’m largely to blame for my lack of enthusiasm for Mother Rusky, I should’ve read-up more and learnt some Russian – but then again, I guess my visit is more incidental – as this trip is more about the journey!