I arrived at St Petersburg station in plenty of time but looking like a drowned rat. My ‘new’ backpack coated in mud on one side from where it had toppled over in to a small puddle. Luckily the train and platform were both showing on the board so I made my way. A quick look in my faithful lonely planet guide to confirm how to say “Do you speak English?” and to make sure I’d read the carriage number correctly.
“Vi Ga va ri tye pa an gli ski?”…”Nyet. Passport!” There is something about the Russian accent that makes me feel I’m constantly in trouble. I handed over my passport with a smile. *Frown* “Immigration card?”…what now…the crumpled bit of paper I’d nearly thrown away but shoved in my document folder at the last minute? I retrieved what I hoped was the paper needed and handed it over. Success. Though more suspicious frowning.
I boarded the train and found the cabin I’d call home for the next 8 hours. Luckily I was first so I started storing my bags. A guy soon poked his head around the door and I tried to introduce myself in Russian. “mi nya za vut John”. Now if I was on the train and someone suddenly told me there name, let alone tried to talk to me I’d probably think they were a bit weird. It turned out ‘Mike’ felt the same way and we didn’t say another word for the rest of the journey. ‘Peter’ was more friendly but by the time the 3rd arrived I’d given up. I shut my eyes and rolled over. I woke up about 5am and it seemed the unknown Russian was having a snoring competition with himself.
Eventually we were arriving in Moscow and it was at this point it was translated to me that the food on the table was free. I ate it very quickly and rushed off the train hoping I had everything.
I navigated my way out of the station and to the Metro. I had no idea which way to go because in Moscow there was no translation to how the Russian text was pronounced. Plus it was the 8.30am rush hour so there wasn’t much time to think or to look at the board.
I dragged my bag down up some steps to the red line. 5 stops to the change. I counted and must have lost interest as I got off a stop to late. It was a horrible blur at the time. I was hot, dehydrated and even though I had plenty of time I just wanted to be at the hostel. Alas It didn’t get any easier in fact it became an endurance test. Having finally arrived at the correct station 45 minutes after I expected I started the short 5 minute walk. Except as with St Petersburg the directions made it sound more simple than it was. I therefore walked past ‘megaphone’ store because I can’t read Russian and turned left a street to late. Walking half way up a steep hill I knew I was on the wrong path. So I had to backtrack all the way to the station. I sat down on my bag and worked out the options. 1) hope the hostel or a sign for it suddenly appeared, 2) look for a taxi, 3) follow the directions more carefully. I opted for 3 as I couldn’t see a taxi.
Finally I found the correct turning and lugged my bag up the steps. Check in wasn’t until 2pm and it was now 10.15am. I’d been on the metro and walking for 1 hour 45 minutes and was just glad to be there and to put the bags in storage.
I sat in the lounge and got chatting to a 61 year old American. I didn’t realise at the time but he was the manager of the hostel. We talked about various things; the difficulty in navigating our way through Moscow (apparently things are better than 6 years ago), the storms in the UK compared to those in Tornado valley and the merits of the NHS and a TV licence. He also told me where to transfer my money at a good rate.
I slowly regained my strength and left the hostel to change my money and whilst i was out i had a burger king though I had already realised that fast food is not a cheap alternative out here. I just didn’t want to battle with trying to make an order for something I didn’t know if I’d even like. I got back to the hostel, checked in made the bed and showered.
whilst i had a few bits to sort in hindsight i should have used the free time to explore but I’d misread the itinerary and thought I had another free day. Finally it was 5pm and I got to meet the tour group and our honcho Elena an English tutor. There was a group from Leeds (Paul, Chris and Claire), a couple from Cambridge (Callum and Fi) and a guy from Norway called Gjermund Aasbrenn who told us to call him Gary. Sara was late arriving but everyone who was there seemed to be quite easy going and the ice was broken fairly quickly. For me it was relief to have company for the next leg.
It was raining and rather than heading for red square Elena suggested showing us the metro. I shuddered. But i knew from the tourist books some of the stations are considered tourist attractions in themselves and perhaps I’d appreciate it more when I wasn’t in a hurry.
Each station was like an art gallery to the Soviet Union with some even named and dedicated after different parts to the empire. it beat the bland old maze of Green Park. I grudgingly gave Moscow Metro a star. It got another when I appreciated that the trains were even more regular than in London. I still felt the directions didn’t make any sense but I could see some logic and maybe if I was Russian I’d find London underground equally baffling.
Finally we went to a convenience store to get supplies for the train to Irtusk and having dropped these off we successfully found a bar having now been united with the missing group member Sara. We had a couple of beers toasting new adventures and didn’t return back until after 1am.
We were up early next morning to explore Moscow. The breakfast service was slow and then when we finally arrived outside Red Square we couldn’t find the tour guide. It was the start of a number of frustrations.
First we all wanted to go to the Kremlin but Elena opted to take us to a nearby park which meant crossing over the river to the opposite Sadly none of us remember the name but if I’m being honest, none of us cared and it felt a waste of precious time. It would be like people wanting to see Westminster Abbey and me walking with them past it over the Albert Bridge to Battersea Park. Finally she relented to an extent and took us in to Red Square. First she insisted we saw Lenin. I think I’m the only one within the group that had a morbid interest in seeing how a man that had such an impact on the 21st century is now left in a mummified state.
Annoyingly we couldn’t take our cameras in and the tour guide wasn’t by the exit which meant when we were finished we were near St Basils Cathedral but couldn’t take any pictures. It was now also 11.30 and our train was at 13.05. We weren’t sure how long the journey to the hostel and to the train station would take but we were expecting a mad rush. Still we hadn’t got to go inside the Kremlin.
Eventually we got the go ahead to go inside. The tour guide admitted she’d been a number of times and didn’t find it particularly interesting. We had 30 minutes to take in a sight that could easily have taken a day. It was such a blur but having heard so much about it I have seen behind the wall.
Unfortunately we now had 1 hour and 5 minutes to get back to the hostel and to the station. Tensions were high – but the group vowed not to leave anyone behind…