Friday, 26 November 2010

Saint Petersburg, 19 - 24 November 2010

All dazed and culture shocked I stood there at the reception desk being checked in whilst lots of half dead people appear from the dorms and head to the kitchen for breakfast.  I was shown around and told that I'd have to wait until midday until I was able to find a home for my bag and somewhere to sleep.  Taking the first opportunity I grabbed a towel and headed to cleanse myself of the nights travelling.  Finally I was feeling refreshed and headed to the kitchen to meet the fellow travellers and have something to eat.  I was confronted by many people, so many I couldn't quite take in who said what and where they had come from.  One Australian guy welcomed me to Russia and presented me with a Big Bong, a Russian equivalent to Pot Noodle but in a bowl and having tried it later that evening, much nicer!

A certain amount of relaxation is required by all of us mere mortals so I decided to take the first day easy and just have a walk around the local surroundings and get my Russian visa registered in Saint Petersburg.  Not only do you have to fork out a lot of money to buy a visa for Russia, you have to also register it within three working days of entering the country at an extra cost of 600 Roubles (about 20GBP) and again if you go and stay in another city for three or more working days.  Real Russia who I got to acquire my visa for me, gave me a name and address of their partner company in Peter who could register it for me.  Luckily enough it was only the next road up from the hostel so it shouldn't have been a long walk.  But me being me I walked the wrong way up the street until I found some building numbers and realised I went the wrong way.  I got there in the end though and sorted it out easily.

Having registered my visa, I took a walk down Nevski Prospekt which is the main street in Saint Petersburg.  I was struck by the grandiose buildings that were built down the entire length of the street and throughout the city.  After Tsar Peter the Great gained the land during war against the Swedish he build the Saint Peter and Paul fortress and begun the development of St Petersburg and taking inspiration from European cities, he used serfs and prisoners of war to build 'the Venice of the North'.  Once completed, the capital of the Russian Empire was moved from Moscow to Petrograd by order of the Tsar.  It's a truly bizare place and must have been worse during the USSR days.  Such grand buildings and yet so many poor people.  After the revolution Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

I stumbled upon the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.  It's was my first sight of this type of Russian architecture and was absolutely amazed, it was like something out of a fairy tale.  I began to read the plaques outside and discovered that the church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.  I was going to go in but was stalled when I saw the entry price and that non-Russian Federation citizens have to pay double.  That price was too steep as I had little money left after paying the hostel and visa registration costs.  A few days later I did get to visit and the inside was completely decorated in mosaics and was absolutely fantastic. 

I was utterly disappointed to be in a snowless St Petersburg, it was cold, bitterly cold down by the river and by the Peter and Paul Fortress.  The fortress was built by Peter the Great to protect the Russian Empire from Swedish invasion as they had previously been able to sail straight down the Neva.  However, the fortress was never used for that purpose and became a prison for enemies of the state, such as, Dostoevsky and the Decemberists.  The Peter and Paul Cathedral was also quite a sight, here most of Tsars lie in state, including the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his family and servents who were executed in 1918 during the Bolshevik revolution in Yekaterinburg.  Their remains were recovered from a mine shaft just outside Yekaterinburg and were brought back to rest with the other Tsars but in their very own chapel within the cathedral.  Two of Nicholas' sons were never found.

During my stay I went to see Il Viaggio a Reims at the Mariinsky Theatre. The theatre was absolutely amazing.  The opera was in Italian, and they had subtitles in Russian so I didn't understand a word.  I really enjoyed the performance, unfortunately a lot of the action happened off stage in the auditorium which I couldn't see from my seat.  The turn around with shows at the theatre is truly amazing, they have a different show on every night.  I would like to see how quickly they can strike a set and rebuild for the next show.  As I left the auditorium, smiling at the fantastic performance I had just seen, I was confronted with St Petersburg under snow!  It had been snowing all day but nothing had settled, but during the show it had laid and was quite deep.

They say that you should get a taxi after dark in Russia because it is not safe to walk around, however that would mean you would need to get a taxi before 9am and after 4pm.  Since being in Russia, I have not felt threatened once and have been able to walk around unhindered.  I'm not sure if it's because I can pass myself off as a Russian or whether it is as safe as it feels.

To pass yourself off as a Russian, you must follow some simple rules:
  1. Never smile
  2. Let go of doors which means smacking the person behind you in the face
  3. Pretend people aren't getting off the metro and walk through them to get on board.
Saint Petersburg also hosts The Hermitage and Winter Palace. The palace originally built by Peter the Great was the home of the Russian Tsars.  The Hermitage is one of the largest art galleries in the world and was the creation of Catherine the Great who wanted to share the countries collection of art.  I'm not the biggest art fan but the building itself is a piece of art.  Every room has it's very own decoration style and I found myself more interested in the building than the art hanging on the walls.  If you are a fan of art, you could easily spend a whole week looking through the endless collection.  They have so much they can't show it all at once and continually rotate it.  The Hermitage also has collections of artifacts too, such as Ancient Egyptian mummies.

I returned to the hostel one night to find that a crazy Brazilian man who wore florescent trainers and a Brazil fleece had joined us.  He said that he was surprised that he got stopped by the police and asked for his passport and registration documents.  He was a very strange man who kept going on about how he hated the English because of what happened to Jean Charles de Menezes, and I tried to convince him that we also didn't like what happened to him either.  Then he said that he would like to see Elizabeth II die and he'd visit her grave.  At this point I was speechless and didn't really want to be alone in the same room as him!  He did teach us all a trick of his though.  He said that he doesn't like sharing toilets on plane journeys, so he take a bar of chocolate and covers the toilet in melted chocolate which stops others from using it.  This all made us laugh hysterically although it might have been down to the consumed alcohol.

During my last day I wanted to visit the Leningrad Blockade Museum which commemorates the The Siege of Leningrad which lasted for 900 days and saw 332,000 army and over 16,000 civilian casualties.  Unfortunately you never know which days places close in Russia as they seem to be any day they like and it so happened that the day I wanted to go, it was closed!

Since arriving in Saint Petersburg I wanted to go out for a drink, but the people staying at the hostel were all couples and didn't want to go.  This all changed when I was about to leave as a couple of British guys came and wanted to go out for a drink.  Unfortunately it was my last day and I had planned to go and see Giselle at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre.  As I had seen an opera, I thought I should see a ballet too.  Unlike the Opera or theatre, you can understand ballet (if done well) as there is no language.  I enjoyed the performance and the dancing however became tired at some points as it seemed like they were just repeating the same choreography.  I sat right up in the gods and next to this lady who decided that it would be a great idea to blow her nose during a very calm section of the performance, and also was texting on her mobile phone during the second act, to which I gave her a look that said 'put the bloody phone away'!

After leaving the theatre, I needed to get back to the hostel where I would have about one hour before I needed to catch my overnight train to Moscow.  When I am travelling, I like to be at the place of departure with plenty of time to spare just incase anything happens.  I was however convinced by the people in the hostel to chill out for a bit and Pavlik, who worked in the hostel, would take me there.  We got to the train station five minutes before my train was scheduled to leave, which would have been plenty of time if my carriage wasn't the last one. So I had to run down the platform being very cautious of the ice as I did not want to slip over and hurt myself!  With a minute to spare I gave my passport and ticket over to the provodnitsa (Attendant) and was thrust onto the train with the door closing behind me and the engine kicking into life.  I found my compartment and was impressed with the quality of the train.  I was met introduced myself to Vladimir, a business man and there was a guy already asleep on the top bunk.  Vladimir wasn't very talkative so I climbed up to my bunk and made myself at home and fell asleep.  The train was extremely hot it was like stepping off a place in the Mediterranean but stepping out of the freezing cold of Saint Petersburg into the warmth of the train.  Eight hours later I arrived in Moscow.

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