travel back in time

Friday 14th January, St Petersburg, Russia

It was yesterday. We'd been in St Petersburg for just a couple of hours. Disoriented and intimidated, we'd taken refuge in a cafe under the pretense of actually desiring a cup of coffee. In a back room there was an internet cafe, and I received the following greeting from one of my Russian friends:
"Welcome to Russia. I hope you are ready, because Russia is a very strange country."

I replied immediately, assuring him that we had quickly discovered that Russia was indeed a strange country. In the words of another, "WE AIN'T IN KANSAS ANY MORE, TOTO!"

But I'll start at the beginning so as not to confuse the slower thinking among you...*you never know when a New Zealander has logged on*

On Wednesday morning, Maria and I accompanied Liva into Riga. She had an exam and we had a breakfast date with my mate Kevin. As we were to discover, young Kevin had only gone to bed a couple of hours prior to our arranged breakfast meeting time. Apparently, Riga is something of a lively town... even on a Tuesday night! Slightly the worse for wear, he dragged himself out of bed and joined us in (of course) a Lido cafe/bar where he made a valiant attempt to eat solid food.

Kevin playing with his food, trying to stay awake.

Kevin was no use to anyone so we dumped him back at the hostel and caught a train to the beach. The beach? Well, why not? The coastal area just northwest of the city had been a popular tourist destination during Soviet times, so we'd read. We spent a few hours wandering along the sand at a small seaside town called Majori, surveying the damage from the recent strong winds and wondering just what was going on in this region. There were massive bleak hotel blocks- obviously Soviet era- that had obviosly been left abandoned years ago. Between these were gorgeous old beachfront mansions, grand ornate buildings that probably boasted a dozen bedrooms, but had also been left to fall into disrepair, with their doors and windows boarded up. Occasionally, you'd come across one of these old buildings that was in the process of renovation and amidst all this there were (confusingly) a number of new constructions taking place.

Staring out across the Baltic Sea to Sweden.

One of the most memorbale moments of our visit to Majori came while walking along a beachfront path, watching the residents hard at work peforming a cleanup after the storm. A chorus of chainsaws filled the air, and we stood and watched as a guy felled two tall pine trees that were leaning threateningly towards his house. First one, then the other, he simply cut through the thick base and allowed the towering trees to crash wherever they chose. When the first crashed with a thunderous roar onto the roof of his house, I would have bet he'd call it a day. But no, that other pesky tree had to go as well, and with a deafening splintering sound he managed to drop it onto the other side of the house, caving in a large section of the roof. Content with his morning's work, he abruptly killed the chainsaw and retired into the house for a large shot of vodka, and to work out how he would explain himself when the wife came home.

We did meet up with Kevin again when we picked up our backpacks from the hostel where he was working. He joined us for a beer and a snack before walking us to the train. All the trains to St Petersburg were night trains. Ours left at 7:30 and dumped us into St Petersburg twelve hours later.. 8:30 am local time. And that was when the fun began....

My fatal mistake (and yes, I admit it was my mistake!) was somehow assuming that we had arrived into St Petersburg's centrally located Moskovsky Voksal. I found it on the map, charted a route from there to our host's home, a couple of kilometres away, and off we completely the wrong direction! As it turned out, the station we had arrived into was several blocks from Moskovsky Voksal, and with all the street signs written in Cyrillic it was impossible to recognize our mistake.. sorry, my mistake... until we had trudged pretty much right across St Petersburg. In case you're not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, a street sign in Russia could be made up of a collection of the following symbols, and a seemingly random smattering of our Latin characters as well.


We stopped a number of times to escape the cold in small cafes, to relieve ourselves of the heavy backpacks, to blame each other for our predicament, and to attempt to clear our groggy heads with coffee. Still, even with many offers of help from friendly but inevitably non-English-speaking waiters and waitresses, we managed to take the best part of four hours to find Alexey's home.

But of course, the battle was far from over. We found the street (a major triumph) and even found the building number, but on finding the apartment number in the old sprawling block of flats we failed dismally. Rather than kill each other, we decided to split up and work separately. Maria's role would be to drink Fanta in a cafe across the street while I scoured the rambling complex for a door with '54' on it. There seemed to be no reason to the numbering, and it was impossible to distinguish where our host's apartment building ended, and the equally labrynthine building behind started. So I did what all great explorers would do. I gave up. I returned to the cafe to pass on news of my failure to Maria, when who should I bump into along the street but Alexey. I recognized him from his photo on Couchsurfing. Alexey had just been out to buy tea and sugar in preparation for our arrival.

Alexey making us a cup of tea.

Alexey lives in an apartment with his mother Olga. When Maria asked him how his Mum felt about him inviting strangers to stay, Alexey said that she wasn't very happy about it, but since he pays rent too, he can invite who he likes. We felt a little uncomfortable about that at first, but Olga took every opportunity to join us whenever we were in the kitchen, asking us questions about Australia and Spain, and excitedly telling us all about her home- St Petersburg- which she is immensely proud of.

Dvortsovy Most, bridge across the frozen Neva River, St Petersburg.

Alexey had a few things to do on his computer, so Maria and I set off to give the city a second chance, to see if we could actually enjoy walking around St Petersburg this time...without the weight of our heavy backpacks.

The Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.

The Peter and Paul Fortress wasn't so interesting in itself, with the exception of the beautiful Cathedral within, and the restaurant with the shortest opening hours I've ever seen.

Geez, you'd better be quick to place your order in this restaurant

Of course, night falls early at this time of year, and it wasn't long before we were reminded that Russians celebrate New Years Eve on this day. A beautiful fireworks display crackled away behind the terraced buildings of The Admiralty, while we observed from the other side of the frozen Neva River. This, however, was the extent of the city's celebrations. When we went for a walk across town with Alexey later in the evening to visit his friend, there was no New Years party in progress. Life on the streets consisted of one or two old drunks on each block and a couple of bored cops, sitting in their dirty Lada with the engine running, waiting for their shift to end.

Fireworks over the St Petersburg skyline. Floating restaurant in foreground.

Alexey's friend, whose name was of course Alexey, showed us his collection of Medieval costumes. One of his hobbies is re-enacting Medieval battles, and for such occasions he makes his own period shoes, and has the other garments and weapons custom made for him. Also, while at our host's home, we met two of his other friends, one naturally named Alexey, and another, Grigori. Grigori and Alexey and Alexey have travel stories that would make a mother's hair turn white- being robbed at knifepoint in Mogolia, being detained in Iraq first by local Iraqi forces, and then transferred into the custody of US forces, fearing deportation to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, being woken in their tent by armed soldiers, only to discover that they had in fact pitched camp the night before right inside a military compound...


Follow the links below, or on my Russia page (under construction) to check out Alexey and Grigori's sites.

Alexey's website

The academy of free travel

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