In 1917 Lenin returned from exile to the Finlandsky Vokzal railway station in St. Petersburg, or Petrograd as it was then. He left by the front entrance and made his legendary speech in the square outside the front of the station. Some 85 years later we are at the same station and are having a problem that Lenin certainly didn't have. We can't find our way out of the bloody place.
We took our time getting of the train. Whilst we now have mounting and adjusting the backpacks down to a fine art, it is best done when the masses have left us in peace. Don't want to be swinging 25 kilos of Karimor into an old lady passing by... And like snails with our homes on our backs, slowly we crawl out of the train and make our first footsteps in Russia.
Obviously we are important people, a band plays to greet us. They are giving a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem or the red flag or whatever and I'm thinking, hey! this is cool. We stop, and in a carefully choreographed manouvre, Lindsey backs round, pushes her front day pack up, deftly unzips it and thrusts it towards me. Simultaneously, I dive into the bag and grab the HandyCam, get it out of it's protective case and power on and... oh boy. oh yes, come on! Give me some of those horns. Oh yes, full trumpet section in the house. And then Lindsey is kicking me and telling me to put the bloody thing away. And probably she is right. A group of drunken youths are looking enviously at us. Hmmmm. Feel out of place. And with these bloody great packs. But I look around and there are three youths, fellow backpackers. But come on now, you can't be serious. I mean that pack is twice the height of mine. It's twice the size of the small wiry boy who is carrying it. It is enormous. But enough of these diversions. We have got to get ourselves out of this station.
We go towards the main hall. The pictorial signs to the exit appear to point to the left. But to the left it is just a building site, with scaffolding and wooden barriers blocking any potential way out. No other way. Must be through the building. All the doors have mirrored glass so we cannot see what is through them. People are coming out through the doors, but no one is going into them. If we hadn't spent so much time watching the bloody band we'd have seen where our fellow passengers went...
We push the doors and go into the main hall. Facing us are a row of ticket barriers. None of them is a potential exit. To our right are several benches. A group of elderly men and women sit on them. I approach one particularly gnarly old man, his complexion worn and weathered from too many years of toil in the outdoors, skin like leather with trenches for wrinkles etched over his brow. A drab suit and a dirty old shirt, the only colour to this old boy is the red and gold of the badge on his lapel. A picture of Lenin. And I thought that only students wore such badges. I try in vain to use sign language and facial expressions to ask how we leave this place. He fails to acknowledge me. A blank, icy look. I try again. But I am talking through him, He ignores me. He turns to the equally gnarly old woman by the side of him and starts talking to her. And by the lack of movement in her eyes he is not even commenting to her about the Western, capitalist fool standing before them. Perhaps I am below contempt. Perhaps they remember the KGB and think better of talking to foreigners. Perhaps they are just plain rude. Or perhaps this is something common about Russians...
Time passes. Every door in the station complex is locked Every gate is padlocked. We are now becoming increasingly conscious of the unsavoury characters around as. A motley crew of beggars, invalids and drunks, hanging around the station. I am now uncomfortable. Lindsey has her "I'm pissed off now and stop asking me 'am I alright' when you know I am not alright and I've had enough of this, why did I let you talk me into this" head on.
The Streets outside
From the corner of my eye I see a door opening. A fat old babushka has unlocked it. Beyond it I can see freedom. We walk briskly towards her, the momentum is too great now, she cannot stop us. She does not try to stop us. We are outside the station.
Our senses are assaulted. This is not what I am expecting. This is like the third world. Developing countries that I have visited have several common impacts on the senses, and standing here outside St. Petersburg station I'm getting them all. The smell. A heady, choking aroma of exhaust fumes, only partially burnt petrol from the inefficient poorly maintained engines. This is combined with high notes of diesel fuel, a subtle yet sweet dash of detergent all polished off with a dusty undercurrent hum of rot, sewage and urine. Mmmmmm.
The skin becomes clammy. It is hotter here than we expected. As I perspire, the sweat mixes with the dust and grime of the street, combining to make me feel dirty. The pollution in my nose begins to solidify into brittle irritating lumps of snot. We are tired. Can't be doing with taking the Metro. Couldn't find it anyway, everything is in the Cyrillic script. No English anywhere. We are illiterate. Dazed. Confused. Lost. The worst way to appear in a new country looking for a taxi. I look left and right. Indecision. We start moving to the left, but then I change my mind. We head towards the front of the station.
We walk past old women displaying their goods on the pavement in front of them. Small cardboard boxes with carefully arranged piles of vegetables - mainly potatoes and spring onions. Never many mind, it occurs to me that Sainsbury's sell the same amount these old ladies have on their entire stall in one convenient family-sized pack. Other women, always women are selling flowers. Waiting to sell the one or two bunches they have. Always in odd numbered bunches. A gift of flowers must always be an odd number. A Russian would never give a dozen roses to his sweetheart. Unless she was dead. Even numbers are reserved for funerals.
We are outside the front of the station now and there is a line of taxis waiting. Here we go. A taxi driver approaches us and in broken English asks us where we want to go. He doesn't understand my attempts at pronouncing the address. So the guide book comes out. If the backpacks are not a sufficient declaration of our tourist status, then Lonely Planet is the first class ticket that shouts 'please rip me off'. I point where we want to go. He nods. "How much" I ask. "How much you want to pay" he replies. This stumps me. I have no reference point from which to start bargaining with. No idea. Nyet. I don't help myself, my blank facial expression must make me out as a particularly dumb tourist. "400 rubles" he says. Ten quid. Far too much. Even half I feel is too much. It is, I am sure, only a ten minute trip. And so with a spot of haggling we agree on a price of 200 rubles. We climb into his old jalopy. Something like a Lada, that had not been serviced for years. He takes a final drag on his cigarette, locks the boot starts the engine and across Moscow we go.
So I'm sitting in the back and am practicing in my head how to say 'thank you' because I always feel that it is important to at least try and make an effort to converse in the local language when you travel.
Spasiba. But I just can't get this right. Spasy-bar. Spas-ee-bar. And then my head is saying Spas-be-yar. And the taxi stops outside the hostel and I've paid the driver and I want to say thank you and I'm looking at him, about to say something, he's looking at me expectantly.... and nothing will come out. I'm dumb. My mouth is poised to speak but my mind is prohibiting words from being generated. The wheel is spinning. What's it to be? Spasy-bar? Spas-ee-bar? Spas-be-yar? I'm standing for what seems like an age, mouth agape, spittle about to drip off my tongue and I loose the plot completely. "Thank you" I squeak, turnaround and run after Lindsey who is entering the hostel.
Mental note. Spasiba. Combine spastic with placebo. That seems to do it. Spasiba.
Entering the St. Petersburg youth hostel reminds me of entering the University of Calcutta. The same smell, the same atmosphere of an old building slowly rotting through years of neglect. Another smell of the third world. This time of dampness, rotting plaster and mildew. We check in and retire to our room.
Baboushkas at Breakfast
Breakfast, of a cardboard cereal, milk, boiled egg, plastic cheese and stale bread is provided. Served up by a fat, glum old babushka. Years of misery are etched onto her pudgy face. We must hope that she is happy inside, but our dealings with many of these old women would suggest not. You can either choose to be helpful or not. Usually these old Babushkas travel the later route, being obstructive and downright unpleasant to the ignorant foreigner. And you come into contact with them on a regular basis. More than once have we tried to buy tickets, food or asked directions and been greeted with a yawn, a swipe of the hand shooing us away, or just been ignored.
That is not fair. They are not all bad. We encountered one particularly friendly woman who helped us buy our tickets to Moscow. Her face was a picture of friendliness and happiness. Which is more than can be said for Lindsey who remained gloomy-faced as I asked for 'kupe' class tickets rather than first class. We'll be going first class on the trans-Siberian. It would not be good not to experience any other classes of travel whilst we are here in Russia.
We descend into the bowels of the earth on the never ending escalator. The Russian metro systems in St. Petersburg and Moscow are the deepest in the world. In St. Petersburg this is because the city was built on a swamp, and they had to go so deep to find solid material to tunnel through. And in Moscow their depth, and huge thick doors tell of their preparation as air raid shelters, to withstand the might of an imperialist, capitalist attack from the west. At the bottom of the escalator is a booth in which a Baboushka sits. The escalator controller, her job seems to be to just watch the up side going up. And the down side going down. She has two levers in front of her, and two telephones. Hotlines to the KGB? 'Ploshchad Lenina here. The two Britons are descending escalator 2. Awaiting orders...' As you would expect, with such a tedious job, these old birds are usually asleep at the controls.
And then on the platform. They know how to build underground stations. Temples to transport, imposing classical architecture with decor extolling the Soviet work ethic. Got to have our wits about us as there are no platforms as such. Just walls with sliding doors that open when the train pulls in. And they do with amazing regularity. nothing like the London tube over here. But no signs telling you what station you are at either. The recorded announcements are not clear. Got to count the stations...
Genes on the main drag
We are walking down the main drag in St. Petersburg, Nevsky Prospekt and I'm looking at the magnificent buildings. Neo-classical hulks that speak of past glory, urban grandeur, whose forlorn facades are now gradually crumbling away through disrepair and neglect. Some are being restored, but it will take a long time to bring this city back to the shape that my relatives would have known it. Yes, we are walking down Nevsky Prospekt and Lindsey is saying, 'just think, your Great, great Grandfather Lucas probably walked down this street' and I'm thinking about that and wondering about my Russian genes that I have. Now I don't want to be politically incorrect, but from the observations we have made in Russia, there are some very, very beautiful people around these parts. But there are also some of the ugliest. I mean real mooses. Women that look like men in pantomime. Male features caked in poorly applied, cheap make-up. And I'm wondering is this one of the reasons Lucas left Russia to come to England, to marry an attractive Irish girl rather than the aesthetically challenged women that are abound here?
New approved series for the ballet
Surely you can't come to Russia without seeing the ballet. Kirov, Bolshoi... And some of the greatest composers are from these parts, None of whose names I can spell, but you know them. Swan Lake, Peter and the wolf, Pictures at an Exhibition... So we decide to try and get some culture in and hit the Kirov. Fancy a bit of ballet. Booking office. Another Baboushka. She doesn't speak any English, but we manage to ascertain that there is something on at the Kirov tomorrow night. 140 rubles for the tickets. Great. We'll have them. And then a moody old battle axe appears. "Nyet. Foreigners. Hundred dollars". Eh? She thrusts a piece of paper towards me.
"Dear Sirs: the maximum ticket price for evening performance will be set at 100USD in rubles.... for foreign students who study in Russia... discounts may be established on the price of the tickets. When entering the theatre, persons who are not subject to the discounts must present a ticket of THE NEW APPROVED SERIES. Tickets acquired in the box office of the theatre or in the box offices of St. Petersburg with the discount price indicated on them are to be exchanged for tickets of the new series with additional payment up to the new price."
Hmmm. that's clear. OK, so it says 100USD, but that is the ...maximum price. What about the face price. She won't budge. "one hundred dollar for each ticket. Good seat. Kirov." Sod that. We walk out. So there'll be no ballet here then.
Until we pass a small kiosk to the side of the street. It also appears to sell tickets. "You speak English?" "Yes" well that's a good start. "Got any tickets for the Kirov tomorrow night? "Yes" nice one. "How much?" "140 rubles" You sure? "What's on, ballet? "No, not ballet, just music. Pictures at an Exhibition." Which is a bit of music I must confess to having in my CD collection. But given that it is not ballet, we decide to pass on these tickets. It was the Kirov ballet that we had after all set our hearts on.
We enter the Hermitage. Like theatre tickets, there is one price for locals, another, hugely inflated for foreign tourists. At another museum I ask the Baboushka who is demanding 5 dollars from us rather than 50 cents why this is. She replies icily "locals earn fifty dollars a month. they pay what they can afford. You pay what you can afford." Hmmm. Fair enough I suppose if this were a brief, 'tourist' visit. But we are 'travellers' on a budget.
An aside on the tourist and the traveller
(Not wanting to go into that anal debate on tourists Vs travellers, sitting on the toilet in the St. Petersburg hostel, amongst the usual graffiti was scribbled the following nonsense that I thought I could weave into my ramblings "We are not travellers, not even tourists. We are parasites consuming culture with every few nights stop we make in the next oddity of another town" It was the final paragraph in a diatribe of crap titled 'Irrelevance'. Someone scribbled after this 'Go try the 12 steps Mr. Irrelevance'. Quite.)
The worlds greatest art collection
Anyway, back to the plot. The Hermitage. I put our pack in the cloakroom ("you got camera? You show me!" says the attendant. Paranoia. Now he knows I've got a Sony HandyCam he's going to steal it... Doh! He wants to know this so he can put it in a 'secure' area). And we start walking around the galleries.
And we walk. And stare. And gawp. and walk. and stare. And are overwhelmed.
The Hermitage has to house the finest art collection in the world. It is awesome. Five hours after first entering we find ourselves in the attic. Low ceilings, cracked walls, crumbling paintwork, terrible lighting... and there's a Van Gogh. And another one. And another one. And more. And a Renoir, Degas. Not just one, many. A Delacroix to bring us back in time. And then they are all here, all the Impressionists and post-impressionists. Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, Sisley. And more Van Gogh. And then a room full of Picasso. Art history overload!!! Matisse. Fantastic!!! This is truly awesome stuff, but so strange to see painting by some of the worlds most priceless artists displayed in the loft as almost an afterthought - got to find some space somewhere. And that is what the Hermitage is, crammed full of beauty. In the lower floors magnificent paintings jostle for your attention around the majestic rococo opulence of the buildings interior. After all, this was the Tsar's Winter Palace.
We are looking for a cafe that is recommended in the guide book but cannot find it. We've been walking for hours and hours and are hungry and tired. My feet ache with a dull pain which I ignore- for once they have seen real exercise. It should be this building, number eighty two, but we are standing outside it and all we can see is a door with a huge stereo-typical Mafioso thug standing outside. Dark glasses, dark suit and radio ear piece. Several black Mercedes and a new, black Land Rover are parked outside. All with tinted windows. We don't feel comfortable. Cafe Idiot obviously doesn't exist. We are the idiots for walking all this way, and religiously believing the guidebook.
We find a Russian fast food restaurant, Lindsey has chicken Kiev and I have beef stroganoff. Very authentic cuisine.
It is striking how much people drink here. Wandering around the streets, at any time of the day it will not be long before you see someone swigging from a bottle of piva, beer. They drink quite openly on the streets here. And it not just the 'drunks.' Young, old, male, female, they are all at it. Sitting on the underground, a young businessman on his way home from work. Suit and tie. He produces a bottle from nowhere, pen-knife out, whips off the crown cap and knocks back the amber nectar with relish. Opposite him two teenage girls are sharing a large plastic bottle of the stuff.
With all these bottles being consumed you would expect to see broken bottles littering the streets. But you'd be hard put to find them. No sooner has an empty bottle been finished, carefully cast aside on a wall, corner of the pavement or bin, then it finds itself picked up and placed in a rag sack. Old Baboushkas wander the streets, picking up the empties. They take them to the water fountains, wash them out then carry on their merry way, picking up more of the empties as they are disposed off. cans as well. They place them end up and carefully balancing on one leg (quite a feat for some of these old dears) stamp on them to crush them. I can only assume that there is money to be made from returning cans and bottles- it certainly keeps the streets safe from being paved with broken glass.
Cafe Idiot revisited
Reading the listing paper it was clear that Cafe Idiot does indeed exist. Once again we trudged along the St. Petersburg streets to find it. This time I bowel up to the dodgy geezer with the dark glasses and ask him where the Cafe is. He points to a narrow doorway with a small sign above it. It is in Cyrillic. I'm beginning to learn the alphabet now, this sign certainly does not contain the word 'Cafe'. But ho hum, we push the door and find ourselves sitting in a basement cafe, full of atmosphere and life. It is dark and slightly seedy. A jazz soundtrack plays in the background. A library of books sits in one corner. We order our drinks. They are brought to us in double. Plus a couple of shots of Vodka. This is happy hour. We order food.
And then Nick the Greek Joins us. "I hope you don't mind me taking the liberty, but I heard your familiar English accents and wondered if you know how the place is" he said in a thunderously posh accent that would comfortably fit in in Eton or Harrow. Indeed he made numerous references to the former. Nick was a character, who I have every intention of writing about during the long days of nothingness aboard the Trans Siberian. It will require much racking of the mind, because copious amounts of alcohol were consumed and plenty of bullshit talked about.
But for now, that ends St. Petersburg. Moscow next stop.