Tag Archive: Russia


We left our hostel in St. Petersburg with what we thought was plenty of time to spare. Upon arriving at the main train station (the very same train station we had bought our tickets to Moscow from) we discovered that we could not see our train on the departures board. Dumping our stuff, I left Lucie to look after it, and went up to some police officers to ask.

“Niet,” came the reply when I asked what platform our train went from. The man looked at his watch. “Niet,” he said again.

“Not this station?”


Starting to panic, “What station? How can we get there?

“Metro, taxi.” The man looked down at his watch again, “Niet.”

Seeing the look on my face, another officer said “How many are you? One?”


“Follow me.”

In turned out this very kind (or maybe just very bored) policeman was about to give us a police escort to the correct station. During the journey I tried to talk to him, but after intially telling us how much he enjoyed British snooker, and that he had the autograph of Hendry, he looked at his watch, stopped talking and sped up. We arrived with at least 5 minutes to spare, thanked him profusely and ran to our train, where we encountered a very bitter, sour-faced old woman.

We staggered into Moscow at the unholy hour of 6am. It was still dark. After a long search for the equivalent of a workers’ cafe, we fell into a ridiculously upmarket “Italian” coffee shop. That was a bizarre experience, as was watching a homeless man attempt to sleep on the widow ledge outside. A make-shift security man turned up, put on some plastic gloves, walked outside, lifted the man on the window sill and unceremoniously dumped him on the floor! Having been woken, the man proceeded to make his way into the lobby, only to be removed once more.

The day only got more bizarre from here. We planned on meeting a friend of a friend, who is a teacher. She brought her 14 year old student along to translate and learn English with us. We met under the multicoloured splendour of St. Basil’s Cathedral (of which later we were given souvenir spoons by Katya) and proceeded from there to Lenin’s tomb. Lenin didn’t look too happy. Whether it was Lenin at all seemed questionable, but we were reassured later that after his death some university students learnt how the ancient Egyptians preserved their dead and applied it to Lenin. We were filed past his tomb, not being allowed to stop, only to ”pay our respects” quickly and leave. We then had to walk past all the graves of all the other “Communist” leaders. Lenin is probably not all that happy that Stalin is hanging out right next to him. But then, Lenin is probably not too happy that he has been turned into a tourist attraction either. While he was apparently always more arrogant than Trotsky, he did not consider himself something to be idolised or immortalised.

The Red Square itself was closed as there was a German delegation hanging out in the city: obviously you have to close these things when you’re Russia…

The rain was coming down quite hard by this point (what else would you expect in Moscow), so after a quick visit to an Orthodox Church to stare at all of the hundreds of icons, we were ushered underground for a commercial lunch. When Katya (our guide) found that it was still raining she suggested an alternative plan: visiting the incredible underground stations in Moscow. Many of these stations look like palaces – these were Stalin’s gifts to the people – although some are designed to look like streets complete with lamp posts which come on at night. We saw statues of young people holding books and hammers and drills (the future of communism), murals of Lenin and gold ceilings. Somewhat more interesting than the London tube.

From here, Katya invited us to her school as our young translator needed to be back in lessons. We found ourselves buffetted from lesson to lesson, introduced to group after group of students. A very surreal experience, caught between the massive generosity of these people (we were bustled out of one class room and into the cafeteria where we were presented with sweet tea and tasty biscuits) and being brought in as examples of Real Life English people.

After a walk in a beautiful park from which you could see the whole of Moscow, we made our way to the train station. Having learnt from the day before to get there early and check we were in the right place, we discovered that, once again, we weren’t. Luckily the train station we wanted was only two minutes walk from the one we were at. Once sat under the right departures board, we suddenly enveloped by a German tour group who kept throwing us confused looks during their opening rally as we bopped away to Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip. This next phase of our adventure was just beginning.


Vilnius and St. Petersburg

Vilnius provided a much-welcomed break from our speed-tourism. It is a very tranquil and beautiful city, with a couple of endearing quirks. The Republic of Uzupis, which was once a neighbourhood in the city, declared itself an independent Republic on April Fools’ Day, 1997. It’s a bit like Christiania in Copenhagen, but completely different – they share in their ‘alternative’ approach to things, but it is clear that Uzupis is not regularly raided by the police…

There is also a bust of Frank Zappa on a tall plinth (which Josh was totally unimpressed by), made by the same creators of the various Soviet leader statues which now all stand in the bizarre Grūtas Park.

Vilnius isn’t really a place I’d go out of my way to visit, and I think I’m joined in that by many due to the total lack of tourists (probably due to the economic crash of the Lithuanian state airline during the credit crunch) but just travelling through was very relaxing.

The train journey to St Petersburg (also known as Petrograd or Leningrad) was an experience. It was easier to find the train than it had been in Poland, but the inside of the train was somewhat unexpected. Boiling hot and with no privacy other than in the toilet (an intriguing affair with an all-70s look other than the extremely modern taps), the train became slightly more unncomfortable when the old Lithuanian couple boarded and insisted on moving our bags so they could put their bags under the seats, and standing on our card game so they could store the rest of their stuff. They then proceeded to sit where we had been sitting as we stood in confusion in the gangway. I don’t know what it is about a lot of the countries we have been through – a considerable amount of the time, the people you don’t talk to are extremely rude, but the ones we have spoken to have been really friendly and helpful. This distinction is clearest with this couple, who were quite friendly once Josh helped out with their bags!

‘Right kiddiwinks, you have to get up bright and early, so go to sleep!’ was the implication of all the lights going out at ten pm. In retrospect, perhaps we should have gone to sleep instantly, since border crossings into Latvia and into Russia involved lights on and foot pinching by sour faced and be-uniformed guards for anyone not awake to show their passports and visas.

We arrived in St. Petersburg and started our Russian adventure by watching the Prince of Persia on the big screen TV in our hostel when waiting for a free room! When we turned up, there was a note on the Reception desk with a picture of the Terminator saying ‘I’ll be back!’. We sat and waited, and a few phones rang, until one of the crumpled figures on a sofa stirred.

‘How long have you been waiting?’ asked Andre.

‘About half an hour,’ we answered.

Since he was supposed to have been on reception, our thirty minute wait paid off with free coffee, soup, pastries and the entertainment of the Donnie Darko actor prancing around in a loin cloth bouncing off walls and celebrating the Persian Empire. After that, we were told that unfortunately we had been moved (free of charge) to a double room instead of the 7-bed dorm we had booked. What a shame…

We later found out that the 7-bed dorm no longer exists, as the hostel has changed location since we made our booking. As a result, almost nothing that we booked was available, and we had a late evening adventure to another hostel to use their kitchen (!) because Andre was so insistent that we be able to cook our pasta.

Later on, the hostel was completely silent by about 10pm – no music, no people in the bar. Unnerved by the eerie atmosphere this created, we drank the Crazy Duck beer quite quickly. We found out that the reason for this lack of entertainment was that the rest of the entire hostel (including a sofa in the bar) had been booked out by some Russian Orthodox Christians, who seemed to have demanded silence…

St. Petersburg itself is a spectacular sight. Filled with grandiose buildings covered in gold and bright paint, it is a treat simply to walk around the city. We luckily found time on the one day when the sky was clear and blue to head up the colonnade to have a 360 degree view of the city.

We were directed to the Russian equivalent (and originator of) the milk bar, where you can get very cheap canteen-type food. Both here and in Poland they serve a juice drink that seems like they have boiled red fruit in some sugary water. It’s pretty tasty! Another cheap but much tastier eating spot is Stolle, which sounds German but is a pie chain found throughout St. Petersburg. Real pie here – the mushroom is simply jam-packed with mushrooms, none of this creamy nonsense, just mushrooms and garlic. Yum.