The Wheels on the Bus and Trans-Siberian Simulated Sleep: Sunday 22nd April

This morning we got up early and caught the bus to Sheremetyevo International Airport. Our flight was not until almost 15:00, but given the quality of Russian roads and the judiciousness of Russian passport officials, we decided that it would be best to get to the airport with as much time to spare as possible. This turned out to be a very good idea, as about 40 minutes into the bus ride (which should have taken about 45 minutes to an hour) there was a rather loud commotion, with the other passengers first shouting at each other and then remonstrating with the bus driver. This resulted in the bus driver turning around on a busy motorway, and going in a completely different direction, and as the only word that I recognized was militia (which was said with what was, at the time, alarming frequency) I feared the worst, that our fellow travelers were all escaped fugitives, and that we were now heading back to a secret underground bunker, or worse back to Moscow. It turns out that the driver had ‘simply’ taken a wrong turn and had got us hopelessly lost, meaning that everyone else had to first decide upon the best route to the airport, and then guide the bus there. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but we got there eventually, avoiding all bunkers, secret or otherwise.

Home again.

Russian passport control was pretty straightforward, consisting of only 3-4 minutes of being looked at like a worthless dog, whilst my entry ‘card’ (read piece of paper that was not stapled to anything, and without which I could not leave the country), which I had so lovingly cared for throughout the duration of this trip was simply cast aside like yesterday’s news. The flights themselves (one to Copenhagen, and then on to Manchester) were fine, and it was an emotional reunion with mum and Becky at the airport, as the last time that we were all together was well over 18 months ago, when I first left for Japan. This trip has been incredible, but obviously I was delighted to be home, even if someone had removed my ‘black-out’ curtains (without consultation), and replaced them with a version which guaranteed trans-siberian simulated sleep for some time to come…

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Moo Moo and Real Russian Cuisine: Saturday 21st April

After an amount of sleep that I have not been accustomed to for the past few years, we were up and (just about) functioning, trying to make ourselves look presentable for my Russian friend Yulia, who with her boyfriend Farhat had kindly agreed to meet up with us and show us around Moscow for the day. First up was a visit to Catherine Palace in the South suburbs of the city, an incredibly ornate castle and gardens which we strolled around leisurely for a while before heading off to My-My (pronounced Moo-Moo) for a bite to eat. This upmarket Russian cafeteria provided hearty-looking food in healthily sized portions, which was just what the doctor had ordered for some of the more fragile members of our group, even if my continued insistence to pronounce the name of the eatery phonetically somewhat detracted from the cow-theme that appeared to be going on.

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My Oh My

After lunch we headed for a walk down by the monastery on the river, where we were able to observe the Russian tradition of ‘driving miles from the wedding venue to get snaps in a pristine and idyllic environment), before heading off to Yulia’s for dinner. It is safe to say that the meal Yulia cooked for us is the best food that we have eaten since arriving in Russia, but then considering some of our meals have literally been a bag of hamburger meat cooked in kettle, I am not sure if this is offering that much of a compliment. At any rate, it was the perfect end to what has been an incredible trip; I can’t believe that we are flying back to the UK tomorrow!

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The Secret Garden and Late Nineties Cheese: Friday 20th April

This morning Josh and I headed over to the Kremlin, where another refusal to accept my Japanese ID card as anything other than an absolute sham resulted in us both paying the full price of R350 to gain access into the grounds. It turns out that this didn’t amount to very much more than entrance to a couple of reasonably fancy cathedrals and being told by burly security men to stop walking within 1cm of an empty road with no traffic. Of particular annoyance was the fact that whilst the Kremlin map given to us upon arrival clearly depicted an area marked ‘Secret Garden’, when we tried to enter said area we were resolutely denied by a very officious-looking guard. I managed to resist a sardonic comment regarding Frances Hodgson Burnett, partly because of my lack of Russian, but mostly because of the very large gun.

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Only now did I feel truly at home in Russia.

Tonight Josh and I headed out for a night on the town with a few of our fellow hostel dwellers. The evening began by (successfully) convincing dodgy looking Russian ‘club-owners’ that we were more interested in a venue which we could leave with both our wallets and our teeth, before settling on a rather nice cafe/bar/club hybrid called ‘Bilingua’. In spite of the name it was pretty much a ‘onelingua’ venue, but despite the obvious language difficulties, everyone seemed friendly enough, and we were treated to several hours of late nineties cheese, before heading back to the hostel at around 4 am, with both our wallets and our teeth firmly intact. It was just a shame about my dignity, which I left on the dance floor at almost exactly the same point as I had during late nineties, the first time around.

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A Welcome Reception and a Cheeky Big Mac: Thursday 19th April

We arrived in Moscow this morning at just gone 07:15, and somehow managed to find the way to our hostel in under 40-minutes. For the next few days we will be staying in ‘Napoleon Hostel’ in central Moscow, which is ideally situated less than a five-minute walk from Red Square, and had many positive reviews regarding the amenities and the friendliness of the staff. After ringing the doorbell we were eventually let into the hostel, whereupon I had the following rather frosty exchange with the severely hung over looking receptionist. ME: ‘Hello, sorry it’s a bit early isn’t it.’ HER: ‘Yes it is.’ ME: ‘Er, okay. We have a reservation’ HER: ‘Good for you. Check in is at 12.’ ME: ‘OK (awkward pause). Can we leave our bags somewhere?’ HER: ‘Try the corridor.’ ME: ‘Er thanks. See you later I guess.’ HER: ‘Yep.’ Not the most auspicious of starts, and exactly the kind of soothing tones that I longed to hear after a rather sleepless night.

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Capitalism takes a bite.

Shaking off the passive hostility of the hostel we dumped our bags, and made our way over to Red Square, where we marvelled at St. Basil’s cathedral, but decided that impressive as it was we both preferred the ‘Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood’ in St. Petersburg. At 10:00 Lenin’s tomb opened (not literally of course, as that would just be REALLY weird), and so we went to go and pay our respects to his mummified remains; a rather bizarre ordeal which basically involved being ushered through numerous rooms of low-level lighting, before being shown a glass coffin which revealed a surprisingly short corpse which had quite frankly seen better days. We continued our personal vigil to Lenin and his beliefs by tucking into a McDonalds just outside Red Square, the golden arches tastefully located almost directly opposite the tomb of the unknown soldier.

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Whale Bones and Our Last Train: Wednesday 18th April

Today was our last day in St. Petersburg, and as our train to Moscow did not leave until 11 pm, we had quite a lot of time to kill. Owing to the fact that the weather was miserable, and that we had walked approximately the length of a famous Proclaimers song over the past couple of days, we decided to limit ourselves to a little stroll, and to surveying the wonders of the zoology museum. Sadly the ticket inspector at the museum was having none of my Japanese student card, meaning that we were forced to each pay the full entry fee of R200 (just under a fiver). However, it was well worth it, as whilst the museum had clearly fallen on hard times (being nowhere near as well kept or as architecturally impressive as The Hermitage), the sheer volume of exhibits was staggering, and made for a very interesting couple of hours. Whilst the museum is allegedly famous for its Wooly Mammoth collection, it was the whale bones, particularly the entire skeleton of the blue whale which they had on display, which impressed me the most; unsurprisingly it was rather large.

Them bones, them bones, them whale bones.

Tonight was the final train that we were to take on this trip: an overnight-er to Moscow, due to arrive at the highly sociable time of 7 am. This was our eleventh night on the train, and despite ours sometimes cramped surroundings and noisy fellow passengers, we have had nothing but good experiences during our railing adventures. Tonight’s train was packed, but mainly with families and respectable looking couples, meaning that we were left in peace to play a few hands of cards and then drift off into a heavily light-polluted and spine-compressing sleep. My only worry is that upon our return to the UK I will be unable to sleep in a bed that is actually large enough for me, and in a room that is not as bright as the centre of a dying sun.

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The Hermitage and Running in the Rain: Tuesday 17th April

Today we woke up to yet more miserable weather in Piter, but it didn’t really matter as this morning and early afternoon had been earmarked for ‘The Hermitage’, the world famous Russian museum, situated a mere stone’s throw (providing that a Trebuchet was doing the throwing) from our hostel. After hearing of mile-long queues I made sure that we we arrived a good 25 minutes before the doors opened, to the delight of certain memebrs of our fraternity, especially when the queue turned out to be seven elderly couples. Eventually we navigated past the masses and entered inside, where my out-of-date Japanese student ID seemed to cause enough confusion so as to nab me a free student entry (R400 for adults, and R200 for the right to take pictures). The musuem itself was stunning, set on three floors of the old Imperial residence (the Winter Palace), the rooms in which the innumerable artworks were displayed was often as (and sometimes more) impressive as what was on display. Personal highlights for me included the Ancient Egyptian mummy and a series of intricate wood whittlings, which were hidden away in an effusive dresser down some random side corridor on the second floor. After almost four hours we had pretty much traipsed through every room, and were quite burnt out, and so beat a hasty retreat back to the hostel. The Hermitage had certainly lived up to any expectations that I may have had for it, ranking very highly in terms of the most impressive museums that I have ever visited, and had I actually the first inclination of what constituted fine art (rather than my ‘I like what I like and that’s what I like’ approach to artisitic apraisal) I am sure that I would have been even more bowled over than I was.

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Barney Rubble and me inside The Hermitage.

This afternoon I attempted a solo expedition to see Smolny Cathedral, as whilst we had seen ‘quite a bloody lot of similiar looking cathedrals and churches’, ‘Lonely Planet’ told me that I must go, and so off I set, relying on my newly aquired skill of ‘heading out without a map in a direction which seemed vaguely appropriate’ for navigation. The ‘quick 25-minute jaunt’ rapidly turned into a ’50-minute power walk’, but eventually I reached my destination, where despite the by now heavy rains and gale-force winds I managed to convince myself that the ‘blue-and-white Baroque spires rising majestically above the banks of the Neva River’ justified my now bedraggled state. For the journey back to the hostel I decided that walking along the river would be quicker and easier than my previous route; sadly neither would prove to be correct. As well as adding a good 3 km onto (at times I thought I was en route to Finland), the proximity of the river ensured that I was soaked and battered in equal measure. Fearing that I would be walking for ever I soon adopted a run, which had the dual benefit of leaving me feeling damp & cold, whilst attracting a lot of unwanted attention from passing locals. Eventaully I made it back to the hostel; soaked and panting heavily, but with a new-found love of Baroque architecture.

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Male Orienteering and a Cleansing: Monday 16th April

Having originally spent a fair few hours planning a meticulous walking itineary, which would allow us to see almost all of the recommended sights in as short as time as possible, it was tactfully suggested by certain members of the group that such an itineray would result in the sucking of all fun from any such activity, and so said plans were abandoned in favour of setting off without a detailed map in what promised to be an ‘interesting looking’ direction. We were aiming to spend time walking around Piter’s collection of Northern islands (the largest of which are Vasilyevsky Island, Petrogradsky, Dekabristov and Krestovsky), taking in the sights and abosrbing the general ambience of the place, and as usually happens in such situations we ended up hopelessly lost, trying to pinpoint our location using the map that was given to us by the hostel (which whilst inconpicious was to be frank, useless), ‘You are here’ information markers (as frequent as unicorn mounted leprachauns), and that tried and tested method of male orineteeing: ‘gut instinct’. Six hours and about 15 km later we had finally gathered our bearings, whilst remarkably having managed to see most of what I had originally planned for such a trip; turns out there is a lot to be said for seemingly sporadic walking afterall.

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A scale model of the Mariinsky Theatre.

This afternoon we continued our trek down to the glorious Mariinsky Theatre, which whilst sadly long since sold out for shows during our stay in the city, was still an architectual triumph; an inspirational source of wonder which was well worth the trip. After this theatrical pilgrimage we headed off to the beautiful Vitebsk Train Station, to wallow in its grandiose Art Nouveau designs and to get our train fix for the day, after over 10000km we need to slowly nurtured off our habit. As we attempted to head back to the hostel via the central market (which appeared to be nothing more than an ugly shopping mall), the heavens opened, quickly soaking us both to the core and once more leaving me ever-so-thankful for my non-existent circultory system. On a more positive note, the heavy showers meant that my clothes finally no longer stank of smoke and shame from the enforced Suzdal BBQ incidences.

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