Stand By Me – Red-ux

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 4, 2010

St Petersburg, Russia

PREVIOUSLY on the road to New York… In the last episode, we left our intrepid travellers in Estonia, about to embark on their first major border crossing of the trip.

Did they make it across the border? Were Phil’s warnings about the time it would take mere scare stories to win the sweep? Will anyone in the back half of the bus ever really go to a bar for “just the one“? And how much vodka can we consume in Russia?

Read on for the answers to at least some of these questions.

Plus, find out how half the group got lost in St Petersburg, what is a ‘suicide lane’, why sleeping on a coach is so tough on Russian roads and how a Welshman found himself the star attraction in a Russian folk show.

And much, much more…

Please be aware, this episode contains strong language unsuitable for young children or those who have never heard a Latvian swear.

Hermitage Museum
Reflected Glory – The spectacular Hermitage Museum in the River Neva

THE fact this entry is being written while being shaken about on the extremely bumpy highway between St Petersburg and Moscow answers a couple of questions.

We’ve experienced some wonderful things since we crossed into Russia in a time of two hours, seven minutes – about as smooth as it gets – but the roads aren’t among them.

We face at least one major wait at a border as it takes at least eight hours to change the wheels on the train when we reach China, but that’s still the best part of two weeks off.

Before then, we’ve got more of Russia. Lots, lots more.

We can let the train take the strain most of the way, starting with four nights on the Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk from tomorrow.

St Isaac's - St Petersburg
St Petersburg – St Isaac’s Cathedral

While that holds its own fears and has left the bus crammed with food, drink (no vodka as yet), pots, pans and a collection of cutlery acquired in a selection of nefarious means, it means no more being bounced around the coach and hanging onto anything which might fly around (as has been the case for the last five minutes with my laptop).

Sadly, it also means we bid farewell to our driver Martins.

Barring a whistle stop tour of Moscow tomorrow which deposits us at the train station, today’s 700km marathon – punctuated by a couple of police road blocks and constant potholes – is Martins’ last stint. He will be missed when he turns round and heads back the way we came.

A man of few words, in any of his three languages, he is responsible for the catchphrase of the trip so far, the simplistic but hugely adaptable FuckYes and its little brother FuckNo – both creations of his alter-ego Marius.

Marius has only appeared twice on the occasions when the bus was off the road the following day and he has joined us for a few drinks. Which inevitably led to a few more.

Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood - St Petersburg
Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood – St Petersburg

He popped up on two of the trip’s biggest early nights out, in Prague and Vilnius, and – along with his good lady and, somehow, his daughter living in Spain – was responsible for us spending two nights in a Russian bar in his home town of Riga, from which tales are still being recounted.

Having steered us across Europe, Martins has been one of the team and will be missed.

Among his finest driving achievements has been dealing with suicide lanes in these parts.

They are basically thin strips down the centre of the road down which vehicles in either direction overtake, or merely use to avoid a huge pothole, requiring the oncoming vehicle and the one being overtaken to move over onto the hard shoulder.

Quite disturbing when you wake up from a snooze to see a lorry haring straight at you, but Martins has done us proud.

Dealing with such problems and all the hassle of getting into Russia was all made worthwhile by St Petersburg, my prime contender for best city of the trip so far, despite the reservations of several members of the trip.

Hermitage Museum - St Petersburg
Hermitage Museum – St Petersburg

The former Russian capital was built to rival the major Western capitals by Peter the Great and his successors as Russian leader right up to the revolution in 1917. As such, everything is on a grand scale.

Despite the punishment it took during the Second World War, the not always favourable treatment it received during the Soviet regime and the fact it is looking a bit threadbare around the edges, it remains a spectacular city.

There are some glittering sights and even some of its grimiest streets boast impressive architecture, as we found out when a trip for something to eat ended with an impromptu late-night walking tour of the city’s back streets when an attempted short cut sent us way off course and hopelessly lost.

It had all started so well, a wander around the city providing some spectacular sights and the successful location of the tucked away Idiot bar for food, drinks and the obligatory free vodka.

Madonna and Child - Early Leonardo Da Vinci
Getting cultural in the Hermitage – Madonna and Child, Early Leonardo Da Vinci

Having found one idiot, fingers have been pointed in various directions to identify the other idiot who suggested a different route home which saw a group of 10 splinter in two and totally unsure of where they were.

Thankfully, Freddie’s GPS system finally got us home – or, to be more accurate, to the Irish pub next to the hostel – to be followed by the stragglers minutes later.

Things then followed a more familiar pattern – a few beers, a drunken Russian taking a shine to Phoebe and a night that ran a little bit later than was really necessary with a full day’s sightseeing to cram in the next day.

Hence we may not have been at our best when our guide Anna was detailing some of the fascinating history of St Petersburg, the Romanovs and Rasputin as Martins carried us round the main sights.

She certainly knows her stuff and did not deserve to be met with snores from the back of the bus. But it was still early and we were very tired.

Refreshed and rejuvenated by free tea, coffee and, yes, mid-morning vodka at the Faberge shop, we tackled the Hermitage Museum which is, quite simply, spectacular. And huge.

St Peter & Paul Fortress - St Petersburg
St Peter & Paul Fortress – St Petersburg

Situated in the former Winter Palace – the one stormed by the Bolsheviks to spark the revolution – and later additions, it gives you not just a fascinating insight into Russian history and the ruling Romanovs, but contains a staggering collection of art.

It is said that if you spend a minute looking at each exhibit, it will take five years to see everything.

We only had a couple of hours, but thankfully, Anna knew her stuff and gave us the highlights package of the museum and the Peter and Paul Fortress over the River Neva where the Romanovs are buried – including the recently-discovered family of the ousted Nicholas II.

After such a staggering intake of culture, the evening’s folk show seemed a little bit of an afterthought. More than one of us considered not going, but boy were we glad we did.

Those readers who know me will be surprised at my enjoyment of an evening of traditional Russian singing and dancing, but it was breathtaking and had the added bonus of more free vodka and one of the comedy highlights of the trip.

Canal - St Petersburg
Last signs of winter – The ice melts on the canals of St Petersburg

Just before the interval, three of the female singers headed out into the audience to coral volunteers into joining in with the performance.

Settled as we were in the centre of the back row, we thought we were safe, but something drew one of the girls to Mike and before we knew it, the Welsh wonder was strutting his stuff on stage and playing to the crowd.

A quick drink – for us very much so – and that was that for St Petersburg, which is a shame as it is a wonderful city. A little jaded, but quite spectacular in parts.

Sadly, much of the countryside we have passed through since leaving has never reached the levels of jaded and grim just does not suffice.

Still, Moscow awaits – if we can ever find a service station with a loo…

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