Wanderlust is a treacherous thing. It causes some to burn all their savings booking an impulsive flight to an undiscovered place, and others to drunkenly stumble to their computer at 3am to book last minute tickets to the Far East; some it makes bitter and jealous, others it makes impossibly spontaneous.
The common ground, however, is that it usually ends with travel and subsequent happiness. This time, the trip was to Russia.
One of my greatest friends and travelling partners, Sasha, had been living out in St Petersburg for over 6 months, so I thought it was just about time I went and stayed with her. It sounds a bit silly, and hugely spoilt, but Russia had never really been on my ‘must go’ list before the decision to go was made. Swept away by the cold and austere stereotype and news debates on Pussy Riot, there didn’t seem to be anything very appealing waiting for me there. Little did I know.
Sash and Pushkin
We were mugged within our first few minutes of Russian life outside the airport… ‘Shall we head to the centre of the city the Russian way or the tourist way?’ our greeting committee – a fur hat clad Sasha – asked us. It was a loaded question; she was testing me to check if I’d changed. ‘The local way, of course’, I replied, as if on cue.
So down into the Russian metro we headed. I’d been told a little of the history about the metro by a friend, but I had hardly expected it to be so beautiful. It was filled with chandeliers and mosaics, golds and reds, as though it were an underground, undercover palace. This treasure was of course the result of Soviet looters and their fight for equality during the Russian revolution, passionately murdering, stealing and cutting the aristocracy back down to size.
Tickets were purchased, metro was boarded (neither of which would have been possible without our on-site translator) and moments later we were bumbling along in a train beside a lot of Russian commuters. But this wasn’t your average tube ride. To get on the metro, you had to run at the crowds of people and push your way in (a bit like getting onto platform 9 3/4). It was clearly believed that no train was ever full and to assume so would be completely defeatist. But not only that; to stay on the metro, you apparently had to continue your pushing and shoving, and take both to levels unseen in timid little England.
We fell out at our stop and – in a movie-esque way – Tom felt up his pockets and realised he’d been pick-pocketed. His hands had been resting over his pockets and yet, in the commotion of it all, some cunning Russian had grabbed what he’d wanted. The dramatic pushing was clearly some elaborate team pick-pocketing ploy. And it had worked.
So out into the depths of St Petersburg three English people walked, one with a slightly lighter pocket than before.
‘The Russian Smile’
The 5 days we spent out there were pretty incredible, and mind-blowingly informative. It was an indulgent gold mine for the keen and observant tourist, especially as we had our own personal Russian-speaking (English-thinking) guide. We explored abandoned Soviet buildings covered in dust and topped with falling ceilings, attended edgy art openings with our suitably edgy hostess, drank in smokey Russian bars, and tracked Russian history by invading the never-ending churches and palaces of St Petersburg (wearing the ‘shoe bags’ so as not to spoil the remarkably shiny Rococco floors). During our brief stay, not only did I discover that Rasputin’s tackle was a LOT longer than Mr Hill had taught us in GCSE history, but I realised that Russia is home to some of the most beautiful art I have, and probably will, ever see.
The Hermitage gallery itself is worthy of at least a whole paragraph; its vastness, its independent beauty, and the beauty of the art within its walls, is truly sensational. Sasha – an ex History of Art student – had been working there for the last three months, so we were lucky enough to have a proper, personalised tour (with brutally honest commentary attached). We were – to cut a long history short – in a staggering, never-ending palace (a complete art gallery in itself), appreciating the finest, most highly celebrated art ever created, which hung from its walls. And the cheesy couple in full wedding attire, posing on the main steps for a good half hour, with band of photographers in tow, clearly agreed. Yet problems came close to arising at the end of the day, when we came seconds away from a proper Hermitage lock-in. With hindsight, that would’ve been a little eerie, however fast running and sliding through humongous rooms (to a chorus of abuse from gallery guards) brought our authentic ‘Night in the Museum’ to a premature end.
On another note, the local food was actually pretty amazing. I was expecting the worst (the guidebooks had done their best to prepare us) however the warming beef and potato stews, thick beetroot soups, creamy stroganoffs, hearty rabbit pies and gorgeous salmon pancakes really did suit the freezing cold climate, and my tummy welcomed them in with what might be described as overly-loving arms. To be honest, everything we did was geared towards the next meal; and towards the eye-wateringly potent shots of vodka which accompanied each dish too, of course. In fact, the vodka happened to be cheaper than bottled water. We discovered that as soon as it became clear (through an unfortunate mistake on our part) that ‘voda’ does actually mean ‘water’.
Our best ‘Russian Vodka Experience’ was in fact in a little soviet cafe in the centre of the city. We walked in, and were immediately transported back in time. The room was entirely wooden, there was some sort of shrine to Lenin on the end wall, the waitresses were all dressed like frilly 1920s dinner ladies carrying ladles and dishing out thick meaty soups for just £1 to all guests, and all vision was made hazy by a thick, volcanic cloud of cigarette smoke. As I looked around, I realised that I was certainly in the minority by not brandishing a little tube of smoke; smoking was clearly the done thing here in St Pete’s. The locals within the cafe were very friendly, and suitably gossipy. Despite our slightly blank English faces, we were chatted to in thick Russian on a regular basis. Nodding, smiling and pointing got me through most conversations, until Sash had to step in on one and make clear that no I would not and could not feature in the old man’s film next week.
Another high of the trip was the hailing of ‘cars’. There seemingly weren’t any taxis in St Petes; if you wanted a private car, it was all about hailing random cars driven by locals. You stand on the side of the road, with your hand out, and wait for the first car to stop…they then ask which direction you’re wanting to head and, if it suits them, you hop in and pay them the tiny agreed sum at your destination. I say ‘tiny’ because you usually target the battered old cars, driven by young people who just want a little bit of extra cash-in-hand. So you essentially hitch-hike to get about the city, if you’re not using the metro or the rather confusing bus system. I think this might be the best transport system ever invented. Not only is it an interesting way to meet locals, but (from their point of view) it’s a ‘what goes around comes around’ sort of system, which enables friendly people to pocket a bit of extra money without going too far out of their way. Coming from a city dominated by extortionately expensive black cabs, it seems to me that the Russians have discovered the perfect solution, and that we really could learn a lot from them.
We had several odd experiences out there. Witnessing the non-stop propaganda, brutal ‘Face Control’ at clubs (no fit = no entry), seeing a man in a bin, watching bizarre new art inventions in full-swing, the machine gun-clad soldiers all over the streets and the Jordan-esque limos which snakily schmooze their way through the city, but by far the oddest experience of all was the Banya. You’ve probably heard of the famous Russian ‘banya’, which is essentially a steamy and slightly homosexual sauna for Russian men, predominantly. It is within the walls of the banya that massaging, or rather ‘whipping’ with birch tree branches, occurs. You have to be invited along by a ‘member’ if you want to experience an authentic Russian banya, but luckily we had our popular hostess and her lovely Russian friends alongside us, when we arrived at the slightly shady-looking, backstreet-hidden banya, at 1am on our last night. It was basically a sociable ‘gentleman’s club’ filled with naked men who wanted to grab a proper dose of heat in the cold and depressing Russian winter months. We were offered teas and stronger drinks, before being showed through to the wooden sauna. Here, men were strewn around naked, discussing life and politics. Once the heat got too much for them, they would take their naked bodies and plunge into a freezing cold pool right outside, before re-entering the sauna carrying a birch branch, and subsequently lying-out and whipping a fellow sauna-ite with the leaves.
Little more needs to be said here, except that I laughed more within the walls of that unconventional gentleman’s club than I did at the latest Michael Mac DVD (which is saying a lot).
Artistic Face Control
Though I have been lucky enough to see some pretty cool things whilst travelling, few trips gave me such an interesting insight into local life as this one. And the flight to this ‘distant’ and ‘alien’ country was a mere 4hrs from London, meaning that it’s within anyone’s reach (and I really do recommend you reach for it, if you can).
Our brilliant hostess Sash (or Sashinka as she’s more lovingly known out there) has recently announced that she’ll be staying out in St Pete’s for another 6 months, so another trip – and another slice of adventure – will definitely be following.
In the meantime, I will just have to settle for homemade beef stroganoffs and pretty inferior vodka.