Finally, I have gotten around to organizing, reminiscing, and writing about my travels throughout the infamous Mother Russia. Seeing as I was going to be spending Christmas alone, I decided to take the opportunity to visit Russia; I was closer than I had ever been to this alluring, mysterious country, and conveniently for my travel plans, most Russians are Orthodox – which means the country does not celebrate Christmas until January 7th. This meant that during my Christmas break the shops, hostels, trains and buses would be open and operating – unlike in Finland, where Christmas time is one of the most recognized and celebrated holidays.
I packed all of my belongings, stored my suitcases with a friend in Helsinki, moved out of my flat, and headed off to Russia – officially homeless and with nothing more than my 37 litre daypack. I got extremely lucky and had a mutual friend from Wisconsin who teaches English in Russia. His school just happened to be taking a field trip to Helsinki. Perfect. I met them at the Museum and jumped on their school bus to ride across the border! Hours and a Russian children’s film later, a dying iPod and a weary Kassidy arrived at the Finnish Russian border. The process of crossing the border is intese – security everywhere, a checkpoint at the Finish border, passport control, another checkpoint at the Russian border, and then a passport check to ensure everyone was properly stamped and accounted for. As your passport is checked you are presented a slip of paper that you must keep with you at all times, and have with you when you return across the Russian border – in addition, you must keep all of your paperwork, VISA, and passport on you at all times while in Russia. This is VERY important for obvious reasons. A bit intimidated, but too excited (and exhausted) to let it bother me, it finally hit me – I was on Russian soil.
After crossing the border we stopped at a roadside rest stop and I ate my first traditional Russian food: a type of macaroni and mayonaise salad, and a plate of unidentifiable fried meat. The children gobbled down their food and started a snowball fight outside. Luckily one of the boys ‘protected’ me as I borded the bus. The roads were especially dangerous that evening, with plenty of ice and sleeting snow, there was no shortage of vehicles in the ditches. I tried to sleep and stay calm, as I felt the bus fishtail frequently throughout the trip. Three minutes before the bus arrived at the school, I heard an unmistakeable gag and smelled vomit. The child sitting behind me had managed to projectile vomit down the isle of the bus. After the long day, (and the smell of fresh vomit), I was relieved to get off the bus and officially start my Russian adventure.
I started my journey by staying with an English teacher (the mutual friend of my brother’s) in Pavlovsk, a small village is located to the south of St. Petersburg. Even though I had made it through all of the check points, it is a law that all foreigners must register their VISA and passport with the authorities within three days of crossing the border. My new acquaintance was a wonderful host and helped me register my VISA, as well as informing me of some essential Russian survival ‘tips’.
First tip, no potable water in Russia. After a bit of online research I discovered that most of the water contains Giardia, and although there are water treatment plants located in some parts of Russia, “don’t drink the water”. Russia’s pipes are notoriously old and are known to disperse water of various colors, ranging from dingy yellow to rusty brown. In general if you do not like diarrhea, stick to bottled water – even for brushing teeth – it is available most everywhere and relatively cheap. Another bit of advice I received was: “boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.” Got it.
Second tip, transportation. In order to travel by mini-bus, train or metro, I was told to get a map, learn the stops, learn some basic Russian, and watch my belongings. The mini-buses or even sometimes vans have numbers taped to their windows, there are no real schedules or clocks, they just arrive when they arrive, you flag them down, hopefully they’er not full, and you jump in and go. When you reach your desired stop there are no buttons to push to signal the driver to stop, so I had two options: yell to the driver to stop in my best Russian accent, or pray that someone else was getting off at my stop and that they would yell at the driver. Conveniently there was a train located about 15 minutes from the flat I was staying at in Pavlovsk. The trains are more reliable and faster, but more expensive than a bus. Buying a train ticket was relatively easy, the hard part was not wrinkling or losing the train ticket. There are turns-dials located at the entrance and exit of the train stations in which the ticket must be scanned in order to get through; tickets are also regularly check on the trains as well. I learned that there were people who would some how manage to board trains without tickets and walk about the trains during the trip to avoid the ticket checkres, they would then leap off the platforms at their destinations into the snow to ‘bushwhack’ to their final destinations; the locals called these type of people ‘rabbits’. As for the Metro, St. Petersburg Metro is one of the deepest in the world, reaching depths of 105 metres (about 345 feet)! The St. Petersburg Metro is also known for its use of tokens. It is necessary to buy tokens to enter the Metro, after that I would then ride the escalator down into the depths and bowels of St. Petersburg, hopefully catch my correct line, and politely give up my seat to any Babushka or child. Navigating the Metro was confusing at first, but I got the hang of it after the second day. The most difficult part is dealing with the crowds; personal space is nonexistent in Russia, especially on the Metro.
Luckily my host accompanied me on my first trip to St. Petersburg from Pavlovsk, which made things much easier. We met another ‘expat’ for sushi one evening in the city, where I got more advice, practiced my pathetic Russian, and prepared for my upcoming adventures, which would be alone!
Returning to Pavlovsk by train, I did some research about the village I was staying in. Pavlovsk is a picturesque ensemble in the valley of the Slavianka River. One of the advantages of staying in Pavlovsk was that my friend’s flat was literally 2 minutes from the famous Pavlovsk Palace. I took an afternoon to explore the park surrounding the Palace, as well as treat myself to a festive, winter wonderland, horse drawn sleigh ride! Unfortunately, many of the historical places in Russia charge extra if you are foreign, and charge even more if you want to take pictures – therefore I tried to find internet links that provide pictures! On the other hand, these gouged ‘tourist’ prices enable the Russian people to have lower prices for their admission, to their own historical sites.
Next week join me as I show you around St. Petersburg!
Увидимся! (meaning ‘see you’ in English, pronounced ‘Uvidimsya’)