The scariest part of Russia was the border crossing. Our overnight bus reached the border at 3am so it was dead and eerie. Our bus only had about 10 of us on it, so the process went fairly quickly. Usually the passport agents take a quick flip through your passport and then stamp it and let you move on. Not these Russians! They scoured every stamp and even spent a solid 30 seconds glancing back and forth between me and my photo to make sure I was the same person. Talk about nerve wracking! If we were refused, we would have been trapped in rural Russia with no way of getting back to Tallinn.
We arrived in St. Petersburg around 7am and had a bit of a tiff over whether to take a taxi or the metro. I’m always a fan of adventure and luckily taking the metro won. It was daunting at first because nothing – and I mean nothing – is in English. Typically signs have the country’s language with English underneath. Even Jordan had this! But in Russia, everything is strictly Russian. I still don’t know much of the language other than two letters I’ve learned so far, but we managed to get around. Our hostel was called Baby Lemonade and was so accommodating. They let us check in at 7am, a full 5 hours before the official check in time. Since it is the off season, they only had two other guests, so we were allowed to nap in two empty beds. Technically we got a night free if you count sleeping from 7am to 12pm a night!
Our first day was spent walking around the city and seeing the famous sights. It was frigid, but I think I’ve gotten used to never being warm. We saw the Peter and Paul Cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood, and the Palace Square. They were all gorgeous! Everyone says Helsinki is known for architecture but St. Petersburg has the most breathtaking buildings by far.
Everyone who told us that Russians don’t speak English was right. Ordering at restaurants involves simply pointing at the picture and some gesturing. Sometimes this doesn’t work out the best. For example, last night I pointed at a bowl of traditional borscht beet soup. I guess my pointing was vague because she delivered – and charged me for – two bowls of soup! One was the beer borscht and one was a meat soup. Oh well. Both were delicious and I simply saved one for the next night (asking for a take away container was a feat).
The next day, Tracy and I decided to each do our own thing. She wanted to shop all day for fur and I wanted to take the metro/bus out to Peterhof and see the famous summer palace. It is the second most famous attraction in the city, so I had to see it! I took the metro to the last stop where I was supposed to catch a mini bus that would drive to the suburbs. I exited the metro station and it was a neighborhood. I saw no busses. Everything looked bombed and run down with stray animals running through the dirt. I walked around a bit and finally found the busses. The ride to Peterhof showed the less picturesque side of the city. It actually reminded me a lot of Dubai, in the way that it was a sea of skyscrapers. Of course, Dubai’s are beautiful and shining while the suburbs’ looked brown, rotten, and bombed. As we drove farther out of the city, the homes changed into mini palaces connected by American-style housing subdivisions. It makes me wonder what rural Russia looks like in the daytime.
Peterhof was, of course, not as gorgeous as it would have been in the summer when the fountains are on and everything is in bloom, but it wasn’t hard to imagine. The grounds are free to walk, so I did, along with only one or two other tourists. Even though I didn’t leave feeling amazed, it was nice to have a first-hand experience seeing something most people only read about in travel guides.
Next, I took the same bus back to the city and went to the Hermitage museum. Tracy despises museums and I’m not usually a big fan, but the Hermitage is one of the most famous in the world, so I figured I should see it! I ended up liking the architecture exhibits the most. The Hermitage used to be Peter the Great’s winter palace and some of the rooms are restored to look as they did. I had more fun looking at the ceilings than the famous works of art that all seem to look the same after awhile. However, the Hermitage does house Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous “Madonna and Child” piece that I saw only a few minutes before the museum closed!
Tracy and I met back at the hostel around 7pm and had awhile to hang out before our 12:40am train to Moscow. Even though we had officially checked out of the hostel, the front desk girl was nice enough to let us sit in the common room and even connected her laptop to the TV and let us watch Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It was a pretty good movie that never failed to keep my interest, but it was one of those films where everything manages to go wrong scene after scene. I refuse to believe anyone can have that bad of luck.
Now, we are on the train to Moscow. I think my dad would get a kick out of seeing this sleeper car. Somehow it has about 60 beds in one rail car! We are packed like sardines and, of course, I got the squeaky top bunk.
Speaking of language barriers, after the conductor came through to do the ticket check, he walked through again, asking everyone something in Russian. He got to us and we said we only speak English. He then tried asking in German. Nope. It was pretty funny to watch him laugh at himself because he couldn’t communicate. He even found a paper and pen and started writing down numbers to make us understand? And pointing at the linen? We assumed he meant we had to pay to use the sheets, so we did ($4) but then we realized he didn’t collect money from anyone else using the sheets – which is everyone. I have no clue what we just paid for.
It’s crazy to think that my trip will be over in two days! It is bittersweet because, while I love traveling, it is hard to constantly keep moving. At least staying in one place lets you get a deeper feel for the city and sink in a few roots. Plus learning new metro systems and keeping track of all of my bags is more than stressful!