From Russia with love
We landed in mother Russia at Saint Petersburg international airport. The term ‘International’ is a bit of a stretch as the airport was really just a dinky little shed with three gates. Being good backpackers we boarded the airport shuttle instead of a taxi and headed to our hotel. We had one extra night before meeting our group and officially starting the Trans Mongolian train tour. Our first hotel was interesting. Probably one of the worst places we have stayed to date. I’m convinced it was not actually a hotel or if it was, their rooms were available for rent by the hour. After securing our valuables we headed out to grab some traditional Russian food….at an Irish pub. It was here we discovered that Russians don’t speak a lot of English. Joseph poured over the menu translating cyrilic spelt words and consulting the guide book to see what the tasty little treats were. After about forty minutes one of the Russian bartenders just recommended what we should eat. This was one of the only times the Russian people would offer any kind of assistance. I think she even smiled at us. The Russian people are not a happy or helpful lot. We’ve been to countries where not a lot of English is spoken and have had an enjoyable experience using hand gestures and body language to get our points across. Russia this is not the case. If we don’t understand what they say the words are simply louder and angrier with lots of huffing and pointing. We didn’t know it yet, but there would be many more incidents of Russian abuse. Dinner was basically cheese sticks and little greasy balls of mystery meat. The next day Joseph got up early to use the washing machine and dryer to wash our ever growing pile of dirty laundry. The hotel receptionist neglected to tell him that the dryer actually didn’t work. So we checked out with about fifteen kilograms of wet, but clean, clothes. We eventually found a dryer and with clean clothes set out to explore St. Petersburg, the ‘Venice’ of Russia. There are a few canals that snake through the city so I guess this is where the name came from. But the similarities end there. There are some very beautiful palaces and grand buildings scattered throughout the city but in between those are some very rundown buildings containing angry Russians. Russian fashion is worth noting at this point too. I am no fashionista but it seems like Russian fashion has been frozen in time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Fluorescent colours, animal print leggings, mullets and big hair are everywhere here. It is like one big, bad eighties dress up party and no one is having any fun. That evening we met our tour group for the first time. First impressions were good as they all seem to be normal and there was even another gay in the village joining us, Steve. We all went out for another Russian meal, this one was actually pretty good. The group then bonded some more over a few drinks at another Irish pub. I ordered a double Vodka and tonic and was presented with a bottle of tonic water and two shot glasses of vodka separately. I received a strange look when I asked for a glass with ice. Apparently it is considered weak to mix Vodka with anything, the custom is to just drink it straight. I decided to be weak and mix my drink at the table. Saint Petersburg has many museums but the one I wanted to visit the most was the Ethnography Museum. Not because of the displays of different peoples clothes and ways of life around the world, more for Peter the greats collection of ‘monstrosities’. In the 17th
century it was cool to collect and preserve weird things in jars. The exhibition was mostly human body parts and two headed babies in glass containers. It was fascinatingly creepy and I was sure I’d be seeing some of those little babies in my nightmares that evening. We also explored the city from the canals on a sightseeing cruise and saw the Russian Museum, the Hermitage and the Church of spilt blood where Alexander II was assassinated. Our first night train bound for Moscow didn’t leave Saint Petersburg until 11pm. It was a long day and the entire group was a little on the stinky side by the time we boarded. The train was an experience as we were all scattered throughout the carriage and there was zero privacy. I slept underneath a tiny Russian and next to two chatty ladies. My bed would have been comfortable if I was four foot tall so consequently I slept in the foetal position clutching my passport and valuables. Seven hours later we had arrived in Moscow all cracked out and in desperate need of a shower. Our hotel was the old Olympic games athletes village and was actually pretty nice. It was a fair distance from red square and tourist central so we quickly became pros at navigating the Metro. The underground metro stops in Moscow are actually very beautiful. Each stop is different and grandiose with lots of marble, steel and statues. There is also no graffiti so I guess the Ruskis are quite proud of them too. We visited the Kremlin and red square which were on our list of must see sights. There was also an opportunity to see Lenin’s preserved body. The queue was short so we jumped at the chance. Seeing preserved bodies turned out to be a theme in Russia. Lenin’s wishes were apparently to be buried next to his mother but instead he was embalmed and popped in a glass cabinet for the world to see daily from 10 till 4. The secret embalming recipe is apparently the best and is owned by a company in Russia. For just one million American dollars you too can be preserved for life. His tomb is creepy. It’s very dark and only his body is lit up. There is a path that you have to silently shuffle around and then you exit. You’re not allowed to stop or make any noise so it means you’re in and out in about 45 seconds. The Kremlin was pretty cool. There are many churches and cathedrals inside all capped with giant gold plated onions. I am sure there is a proper name for those, but you catch my drift. Outside the Kremlin was Red Square. Unfortunately there was some kind of stage that was temporarily built on it so it didn’t seem as large. Saint Basils cathedral sits at the end of the square and again has more onions on top, this time in all different colours and patterns. We also got to see the Cosmonaut museum, well the outside of it as it was closed and Victory Park. Victory Park was built to commemorate the defeating of the Germans in WWII. Before we knew it our time in Moscow was over and it was time to board the Trans Siberian train. This leg would be our longest at four nights travelling over 5200km to Irkutsk. The train was cool. Each carriage has a little Russian attendant who looks after you. Our guy, Sergei, had a side business selling everything you could need for you journey. Mostly instant noodles, potatoes, chocolate and beer. Our accommodation was actually pretty nice too. Each cabin contained four beds of ample length that fold away during the day. Our roommates were two guys from the tour so we were lucky. Steve unfortunately had to share his cabin with a Russian man, Vicktor and his 9 year old boy Maxim. The little boy was nice but the dad was a piece of work. At first we thought he was friendly offering us vodka and chicken. It was an experience and an insight into the Russian way of life….then it just got weird. The guy drank solidly for about 12 hours, it was ok for us as we could just sleep in our cabin but poor Steve had to put up with him. The Russian way of life must take its toll on the body. Vicktor was 37 and looked 57. As a general rule of thumb, subtract 20 years when guessing a Russian’s age. At each stop there were babushkas, little old Russian ladies, selling food and stuffed toys. Joseph and I tried a few things that looked ‘safe’. The ‘mystery surprise’ bread was fun, one contained boiled eggs and another a hot dog with small hard bits in it. I always thought hotdogs didn’t have bones. But my favourite were the pancakes that tasted like cat food. Even the stray dog wouldn
217;t touch those. Steve’s Russian roommate purchased a semi dried, raw fish and devoured it in his cabin. We were four cabins down and could smell the reeking stench of rotten fish. Yum. And that was basically our life for the four nights. The cabins were comfortable and we slept a lot with the exception of the last night. The train runs on Moscow time for the entire journey even though we crossed through five time zones. So we essentially arrived in Irkutsk at 2am Moscow time, 7am local time. It was here that Joseph and I were struck down with illness. I think it was the mystery meat in a bread pouch that did it or the sheer quantity of noodles, potatoes and vodka consumed had done a number on us. We stayed in a nice little bed and breakfast near the shores of lake Baikal in a town called Listvayanka. There is not much to this town but it does provide amazing views of Lake Baikal. Joseph and I spent most of the day feeling sorry for ourselves. In the evening I felt better so joined some of the group to experience a traditional Russian banya. It is basically an extremely hot sauna with a very chilly pool outside. Nicolai, our host, whipped us with hot, wet birch tree leaves in the sauna for a while and then when we could take it no more we ran and jumped in the pool. The room of torture did not end there. We were then scrubbed with a natural sponge that was quite abrasive, doused in hot water and finished off with a bucket of icy cold water dumped on our heads. I think Nicolai took a little sick pleasure in the whole process. All in all I am glad I did it as I felt cleaner and more refreshed than I had in days. Our final day in Russia was spent in Irkutsk. It’s a decent sized town and the walking tour we went on was kind of interesting. The rest of the day was spent organising supplies for the next two days on the train that will take us to Mongolia. So tonight we say our final farewell to Russia. She’s an interesting country with an interesting past. They’re not the friendliest folks but that said we met a few characters who made us laugh along the way. UPDATE: Hi guys, Joel here. We’ve created a fantastic travel website designed to inspire your next destination. For a guide to Moscow, check it out.