This morning we arrived in St.Petersburg, and my first impression was: Wow, civilization! After weeks of shoddy roads, soviet-era concrete jungles, and cities which felt more like left overs from a recent apocalypse than habitable dwellings, the ‘Venice of the North’ was a revelation. After spending a couple of hours aimlessly walking through the wide promenades and architectually magnificent streets (we were lost, but like all good men managed to convine ourselves that we were simply getting a good lie of the land), we checked into our hostel (more of which later), and went for an stomp around the Historical Centre. The opulence on show at The Hermitage, Kazan Cathedral, Palace Square, and The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood were mind-blowing, and sp far removed from some of our previous exploits that I was almost moved to tears. Thankfully I resisted, pulled myself together and continued with our trek, which culminated with a beautiful sunset down by the Neva River; watching the last rays of sunlight dance on the floating ice and flowing waters.
Sunset in St. Petersburg
The name of the hostel that we were staying at is ‘Cuba Hoatel’, and in terms of location it is by far the best hostel that I have ever stayed in. Situated less than a 30-seconds walk from Kazan Cathedral, we are right in the heart of St. Petersburg’s Historical Centre, and ideally placed for numerous ramblings and explorations. The hostel itself is also a breath of fresh air, filled with fellow travellers and staffed by experienced and friendly staff, it is a far cry from some of the places that we have stayed in so far on this trip. However, there are obviously a couple of downsides to staying in what I would classify as a ‘Party Hostel’, especially if you are deciding not to have a party because you got zero sleep on the train as a result of the ‘let’s leave the train lights on all night and starve our esteemed customers of sleep’ policy. Whilst a certain amount of noise was expected, and received, the main thing that I had forgotten about was that a room full of drunken people have the capacity to create a sonic wall of snoring that is terrifying to behold. After my initial shock at being woken by this sozzled nasal orchestra, I began to pick out harmonies and fluctuations, and ended up being gently soothed back to sleep by my very own dawn chorus; the chap on the adjacent bunk to me providing a particulary sublime baritone.
This morning we finally departed Suzdal, where our host shook our hands and waved us on our way; either oblivious to the events of the past few days, or mindful of them and the possibly hostile review that they would entail. Either way it was good to be back on the road again, catching an early afternoon bus to Vladimir where we were due to catch the 22:21 train to St. Petersburg. This meant that we had about 8 hours to kill in Vladimir, which whilst harbouring quite a few charming churches and thankfully lacking in soviet-era monstrosities, was hardly a hub of activity. So it came to pass that we whittled away the hours in a McCafe, before moving on to the train station to read amongst the homeless, having somehow stumbled into a waiting area which clearly doubled up as a shelter.
Chilling at the Shelter.
When the time eventually came for us to board the train there was a bit of a problem. It seemed that whilst I was seat/bed number 45 in carriage 6, Josh was seat/bed number 46 in carriage 8. Amazingly we had not noticed this when we bought the tickets from an automated machine last week, but the carriage attendant was not so lackadaisical. Fearing that we would be separated for the duration, we duly followed our charge as she beckoned us on to carriage 8, and somehow persuaded her colleague that we should be allowed to sleep in one of her bunk beds. Thankfully she agreed, and so we were spared the ignominy of once more sleeping with strangers.
Today was an absolute washout, the abysmal weather meaning that we were pretty much consigned to the hostel for most of the day. This was obviously met with great delight by our friendly host, who viewed every minute that I spent on the Internet as an affront to his personal happiness. I never could quite figure out what he kept trying to do whilst he was at the computer, but it seemed to involve watching several Russian news outlets whilst making copious amounts of notes, and telling me that he would be finished in ten minutes, just ten minutes more (which never less than half an hour, and was always issued in French). In hindsight I have absolutely no doubt that he was filing in some kind of report, and that it did not reflect particularly favourably on either of us.
Due to the bad weather we were unable to use the BBQ, but seeing as we didn’t want to eat pot noodles (an ageing kettle being the only ‘cooking’ implement available to us), and that we had some food that needed using up, we were forced to get inventive. After the relative success of lunchtime, when we bpiled eggs by submerging them in boiling mugs of water, we branched out into the world of boiled potatoes and broiled meat. For the potatoes we crafted a mini-boiler out of coffee mugs, aluminimum foil, and a never ending supply of kettle water to boil the potatoes over a 90-minute period. The broiled beef consisted of sealing our remaining hamburgers in a clear plastic bag and then putting this inside the kettle whilst it boiled over and over and over again. The result, when combined with some butter and spices was basically minced meat and new potatoes, a Northern treat which warmed the soul, and no doubt infuriated Mr. Happy as he retreated to his room to selfishly use the hotplate and other assortment of kitchen paraphanelia that he had refused to share throughout our stay.
Today Josh and I split our time equally between wandering through the beautiful streets and churches of Suzdal, and constructing apparatus necessary for tonight’s BBQ. Whilst the former involved gazing wistfully at lovingly crafted onion domes and Arabic themed citadels, the later involved traipsing through bins looking for bits of wire so that Josh could make a ‘frying pan’. In the end he was able to construct a fairly impressive effort from some aluminium foil and the metal support rods of the foundations of a house, but our efforts were almost in vain, as once again ‘Mr. Go the extra mile’, was extremely peeved at having to get up from the computer (which by using meant that us, the guests, were denied access) to help us out.
A feast fit for a (constantly rebuked and patronised) king.
Thankfully I managed to convince our host that we needed to eat to live, and he even provided us with an axe, although the head was very suspiciously loose. Learning from last night’s failures, tonight we simply wrapped the jacket potatoes in aluminium foil, whilst using Josh’s dying pan to cook the burgers. Accompanying this feast were some steamed vegetables (cooked in an aluminium purse) and some hard boiled eggs (done inside the empty large tins of sweetcorn), whilst for desert we had bananas stuffed with chocolate (again baked on the BBQ using aluminium foil). The smell of the desert caused Josh to remark that it reminded him of childhood, and with the constant surveillance from our Russian friend one was certainly left feeling infantile, especially when I was told off for using the wrong toilet (apparently the one in the common room is in fact not for common use)!
This afternoon Josh and I, via a short bus ride from Vladimir, arrived in the picturesque Russian village of Suzdal. Located in Russian’s Golden Ring, around 200 km from Moscow, this quiet little market town of approximately 12,000 people is best known for its beautiful kremlin, scenic views, and disproportionately large collection of churches. We had booked to stay in ‘Godzillas Hostel’ for 3 nights, hoping to make the most of the recent good weather and the surrounding countryside to gear ourselves up for the intensity of the coming trips to St.Petersburg and Moscow. Upon arriving at the hostel, a beautiful large log cabin with roomy dormitories and well designed features, we were met by a surly Russian who didn’t speak a word of English, and who informed us that there was no kitchen on the premises. This rather flew in the face of our plans to cook for ourselves over the next few days, and also seemed to directly contradict the information on both the internet, and the rather large kitchen that was clearly on show in one of the outhouses. Questioning our ever so helpful host about this new development he said something about gas and then just kept crossing his arms and making surly remarks, leading me to jump to the (admittedly rather hasty conclusion) that there was no gas in the kitchen. Thankfully Josh had spotted a rather large BBQ pit in the garden, and after pointing to various items of wood and then insinuating that I wished to burn something similar, I was eventually told (or rather pointed and shrugged at) that yes there was wood, but that no I was too weak to fetch it. I kept inisiting that I wanted the wood, and eventually our amicable host put down the the TV remote for 20 seconds, walked the 30m to the wood store, and dumped a few large logs right in the middle of an even larger puddle. Service with a smile.
Josh displays his culinary expertise.
Thankfully our delightful new friend had not counted on over a combined decade of scouting experience, my stubborness to avoid eating in overpriced and heavily subsidised restaurants (a selection of which a certain someone was only too happy to recommend), or my brother’s ingenuity. A couple of hours, an old Russian Avon catalogue, and a hollowed-out beer can later we were feasting on cheese burgers and jacket potatoes with a side helping of Russian chargrin. The jacket potatoes (cooked in tins of sweetcorn) may have been as paltable as Grumpy’s constant checking up on us, but the cheese burgers were actually damn tasty. Tomorrow night Josh has said something about cooking fish and a selecetion of vegetables, which may or may not involve the use of a hollowed out tree trunk. At any rate, it promises to be a meal infused with irritation and dripping with displeasure; none of which shall be ours.
The diet that we have been subsisting on here in Russia (when we haven’t had access to a soviet-era oven) has been exceptionally varied, consisting of fried bread, bread that’s been fried, and objects battered and then deep fried. It is a miracle that the majority of Russians that we see are not just not obese, but are incredibly svelte. Obviously they have mastered the combined arts of restraint and rapid digestion, skills that I am sadly yet to acquire, the result of which being that my insides now resemble a Scottish Fish and Chip shop.
This evening Josh and I boarded yet another train, an overnighter from Yekaterinburg to Vladimir; a journey which would take us to within 200 km of Moscow. Unfortunately we had left Josh’s trusty deck of cards in the youth hostel. Fortunately I had a spare set that my mum had bought me for Christmas. Unfortunately they happened to be double sized, printed with childish images of the planets, and were almost certainly developed as an educational tool for children with deep-burning social issues. Fortunately we were able to laugh about this, as the chance of anyone wanting to inspect these cards in detail was non-existent. Unfortunately this was not actually the case, as within 90 minutes of the 22 1/2 hour journey someone had asked to borrow our cards. Fortunately they only wanted to borrow them for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately this was almost certainly due to the fact that we were now looked upon as sociopaths by our fellow passengers.
This morning we rolled into Yekaterinburg station at around 04:45, meaning that we had a good three hours to kill before we could reasonably head off to check-in at our hostel. Thankfully I had just finished all of my reading material, and so was able to read in detail the sections in my Lonely Planet guide which dealt with ‘travelling with children’ (don’t) and ‘how to deal with snakebites’ (avoid getting bitten). After checking into the excellent ‘Meeting Point’ hostel, more of which later, we headed out into Yekaterinburg in search of culture, inspiration, and above all breakfast. What we discovered was a fairly charming city with a slightly Western feel, some beautiful churches badly in need of a paint job, and at the end of the central pedestrianised area a lifesize bronze cast of Michael Jackson. Sadly the only resemblence that this monument bore to the erstwhile King of Pop was a comic sense of misproportions, and slightly flakey skin.
Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.
The ‘Meeting Point’ hostel, run by the wonderful Katia, is basically a set of bunk beds in an old soviet apartment block, but one which has been decorated in a very homely and welcoming manner. This evening I elected to make a pasta bake for the two of us, as after living in Tokyo I was desperate to use an oven, even if it was a soviet era version which required leaning halfway into the oven with a match in order to light it. There were a few nervous moments as I thought I heard the vague rumblings of an imminent explosion, but thankfully these turned out to be nothing more than the (also soviet-era) plumbing. All-in-all it was a rather delicious meal, which was even more impressive given that I had cooked the whole thing in what later turned out to be an ancient cake tin.