The Russian train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg was comfortable, fast and efficient. The speed indicator inside the cabin showed our top speed to be 220 kilometres an hour – Australia really needs to get some of these high-speed trains. The cost of the three hour train trip was AUD$85 each.
We cautiously arrived at Saint Petersburg as we had heard it is a city where tourists are often targeted by thieves and scammers and then proceeded to blunder straight into being ripped off. Please also bear in mind, friends of ours were targeted recently in Saint Petersburg by a gang of five thieves and had to ‘fight’ them off – so we had recent anecdotal evidence to support our concerns.
Saint Petersburg was cold at 3pm, even though it was only the first day of autumn, there was an icy wind blowing. Di and I were both coming down with colds and were just keen to get to our hotel. The first taxi we approached wanted 2000 rubles (AUD$44) for what we knew was only a short distance to our hotel. I wandered around several different taxis and the cheapest was 1000 rubles and we eventually went with this guy. We literally drove around a large block, as it was all one way traffic, to arrive a few minutes later on the opposite side of the road to where we caught the taxi, then drove 700 metres down the road to our hotel – yes it was that close – we just paid AUD$22 to be driven down the road. ‘Let the buyer beware!!!!’
On top of this the exterior of the hotel, shall we say, was shoddy and I will even go as far as saying it was sinisterly seedy – I wondered what the formal way of speaking to the Russian Mafia was!!!! ‘I am gonna make him an offer he cannot refuse’!!!
We entered the large dirty brown metal door of the hotel into a dirty old decaying hallway – yet we still proceeded on up the stairs.
There we came to a second large metal door with an intercom – we pressed the button and hoped for the best. The door was answered by a lovely lady, who spoke no English, but was extremely helpful in her animated way of showing us around. We were staying at Hotel Lota for AUD$71 per night and the room was delightful. ‘Never judge a book by its cover!!!’
The hotel was a small, family run affair and they were security conscious. We had to press a button to get through the hotel door, after 7pm the door to the street was locked and we had to use a code for that door and the door back into the actual hotel. Breakfast was included in the room price and we ordered it the night before and the next morning it was delivered to our room. Unlike the breakfast in Moscow, this breakfast was lovely, eggs and bacon, croissants, porridge and tea/coffee – and all served on a little trolley! “It was practically perfect in every way”!!!
After our lovely breakfast we walked up the street to the railway station – seriously, it took five minutes – then headed for the tourist hotspots about a 40 minute walk away. This walk was straight down one street, Nevsky Prospekt, and Di and I were like two gawking tourists staring at all the majestic buildings and architecture we passed – this was just walking down the one street.
On this walk I gave Di a little history lesson on Leningrad during World War 2. Leningrad was literally surrounded by the German army in what became known as the Siege of Leningrad. The siege started on the 8th of September 1941 and ended on the 27th of January 1944 – some two and a half years later. The city of Leningrad during that siege was completely destroyed. The siege is regarded as the longest and most destructive siege in history. The Russians had casualties of nearly two million army and civilians killed with another two million injured. The Germans casualties were about 600,000. Leningrad never fell to the German army. When I finished my little history lesson Di said ‘Why are you telling me about Leningrad tell me the history of Saint Petersburg instead’………………. ‘Why is everyone looking at me’!!!!!!!!!!!
Saint Petersburg was the capital of Russia until the Russian Revolution in 1918 when Moscow became the capital. When Lenin died in 1924 Saint Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. It stayed Leningrad until the demise of communism in 1991 and was renamed Saint Petersburg. We were walking through just so much history.
Saint Petersburg is full of small canals and we were constantly crossing small picturesque bridges over lovely waterways as we walked down the street.
Our first stop was at the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood – gruesome name, but such a lovely walk along the side of a canal to this stately building. The spilled blood reference was in relation to the fact that Emperor Alexander the second was fatally stabbed at this location in 1881 – construction of the church began in 1883.
Di went inside the church, there is a small fee, and was amazed by the colour and the artwork throughout the church, it was simply beautiful.
It is then a short walk to the Arch of The General Staff, which leads through to the Palace Square, the Alexander Column and the very impressive Winter Palace and Hermitage House. This short walk is an attack on the visual senses.
The Square is simply massive. Di and I wandered apart as we snapped away with photo after photo and immersing ourselves in the sheer history and ambiance of the place.
I looked over and saw Di hurrying towards me with a worried look – behind her a man aged in his forties followed her, he was speaking to her as she walked away. When she reached me she said the guy would not leave her alone and kept talking to her in Russian and following her. I glared over at the man and he glared back – oh dear here we go I thought. I then spoke loudly (to attract the attention of those around us) and very directly at the man (please insert the expletive you are comfortable with here). He then looked at Diane and back at me and then grudgingly walked away. He then walked away straight up to another woman and a man close by, who also tried to walk away and the man followed them. I am not sure if he was begging, as he spoke Russian, but his demeanour was aggressive and not what a normal beggar does – so his intentions were unclear – but he scared Diane and I thought a physical confrontation with me was likely. We did see the guy walking out of the plaza a few minutes later – never a copper around when you need one! This was to be our final negative issue in Saint Petersburg.
From there we walked down to the Neva River and gazed at the view along the river. The river bank is littered with regal buildings. Once we hit the Neva River we followed the river bank along. We passed several buildings we thought must have been palaces or cathedrals only to find out they were just buildings. Di bought some caramel liquorice, I normally don’t eat a lot of liquorice, but I had a taste of this caramel liquorice and I just could not stop eating it!!!!! Yummo!!!!
We reached the Bronze Horseman and were amazed at the grandeur of the building next to the statue. Oh it’s just a building, never mind!
From there a walk through the park brought us to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. There was another wedding taking place in the park with the Cathedral as a backdrop, so we crashed it and took some photos.
It was then we saw a horse and carriage prance past and the carriage was in the shape of a Faberge Egg – at no time did I notice the stunningly beautiful lady with long blond hair in a ponytail who was the Coachman – or should that be coach lady – or coach person of none identifying ….. forget it!!! The lady and the Egg were stunners!!!
We then ventured across the canal to the Mariinsky Palace – there we took a quick snapshot and moved on without taking too much notice as our senses had been saturated with the grandeur of so many fabulous buildings, the Mariinsky Palace paled into insignificance – we had just been so spoilt!
By this time our feet were screaming and my big toe was enhancing the already toxic looking blister it had formed. We had only stopped for a brief moment to buy the caramel liquorice and we were wearing down. We had a few more stops on our ‘to do list’ and made our way to the Kazan Cathedral. The cathedral was built in the early 1800’s and has a large dome on the roof – we took a photo and moved on.
We made a big effort to go to the Faberge Museum but kind of lost interest and decided we were tired and headed back to the hotel. The temperature was dropping as we trudged back along the Nevsky Prospekt, and we realised we simply did not allocate enough time in Saint Petersburg too. We had dinner at a lovely Russian restaurant and the price of the meal was value for money. We slept well that night.
The next morning our breakfast was trolleyed in right on time with a smile from our gracious host and was again simply perfect. My toe though was not. I had heard that if something cannot be fixed with either WD40 or duct tape then buy a new one – so I thought I would start with duct tape and work up to WD40 – I taped my big toe up with duct tape. The day before we again had walked over twenty kilometres and our feet were protesting that these numbers were not in their contracts!!!
When we set off the second morning, the Saint Petersburg weather had deteriorated significantly and felt like a good winters’ day in Goulburn!!! The wind was blowing an icy breeze and there were tiny bits of cold rain mixed in. We set off at 9am on a Sunday morning and the streets of Saint Petersburg were empty. It took an hour to walk to the Neva River ferry terminal and catch the hydrofoil ferry to Peterhof and the Grand Palace. The ferry cost 800 rubles (AUD$17) each for the 50 minute journey out into the Gulf of Finland.
The ferry trip was interesting going along the Neva River as there are ship building ports, bridges, navy ships, container wharves, even navy submarines docked along the side of the river. The water was reasonably flat in the river but once we exited the river and hit open water it became a lot choppier. The hydrofoil though seemed to handle the rough water pretty well and Di refrained from any seasick issues.
The wharf at Peterhof is NOT protected and the frigid wind was blowing straight off the ocean – it was $#$#@#$ freezing exiting the ferry.
We then had to pay 500 rubles (AUD$10.50) to enter the Grand Palace grounds. We scurried off the wharf to get to the protection of the trees.
The Grand Palace was built in 1721 and was the Tsar’s summer residence. The palace is long and narrow and sits on a small hill. There are numerous fountains and statues flowing down the hill from the palace. These fountains and statutes are golden and make for a scene of opulence.
Leading away from the palace is a lake with several small bridges. This lake goes all the way to the wharf so once you exit the wharf, you walk directly along the lake to the shining palace in the distance – it is an amazing scene.
The actual palace area is packed with tourists. There were many tour buses there and all the tourists congregated around the fountain area. To go into the Palace you have to pay an extra fee at the palace – we chose not to go in.
Everybody who has read my blog knows the Chinese tourist has a special place in my heart. Di was standing in the courtyard at the top of the fountains and statues and looking down. The area was pretty crowded with fellow tourists – when a Chinese lady came and stood next to her, posed for a photo, then looked at Di and pushed her out of the way, then resumed her photo pose!!! There was no excuse me, or request for Diane to move, even though Di was there first. Di moved back next to the woman and made sure her bright red jacket was as close to the woman as possible – the woman gave her a filthy look but did not resort to the hands on approach again.
The palace, lake, statues and the fountains are all very impressive and this is where the tourists flock.
The palace grounds though are very large, around 1500 acres, and are just as impressive but I reckon that only 10% of the tourists wander around the grounds. The reason, I think, is that most of the tourists are on a tour and have only been allocated a set period of time at this location and as such just see the palace.
The grounds are extensive and long tree-lined paths lead to other lakes, fountains, buildings, monuments, gardens, stairs, statues, …………. it is just gorgeous and there is hardly anyone else there – everyone is swarming over the palace.
We caught the 2pm ferry back to Saint Petersburg and paid another 800 rubles – yeah sorry folks the fare was not return but one way. The afternoon was actually colder and the rain was starting again. The ferries are lovely and warm and when we arrived back at Saint Petersburg we so did not want to leave our cosy seats – but they made us get out and off the ferry!
The rain was stronger and silly me had not brought my Gortex jacket with me, so Di and I snuggled up close under her small umbrella for the long walk back to our hotel.
Near our hotel were several cafeteria type restaurants, which are extremely popular with the locals. We tried one of these cafeteria restaurants that evening for dinner. At a counter there are dozens of trays with various types of food, you point to what you want and the lady serving, in true cafeteria style, scoops up a large blob of the food and slaps it on a plate. I had mashed potato and a beef goulash dish dumped on top. Di was conservative in her selection of a beef pastry and a cheese pastry. This meal was very cheap, it came to less than AUD$9 for the two of us, but was bland and ….. well, cafeteria slop – ‘you get what you pay for’!!
The duct tape worked on my toe, the redness had diminished and the swelling was less, so option 2, WD40 was not used the next day!!!
We left our hotel at 5.30am the next morning and our lovely hosts were up to help us through the metal doors with our luggage. We then walked to the train station in 6 minutes and 23 seconds. We were now catching the final train of our epic train journey from Beijing in China to Tallinn in Estonia. The distance by direct route, as the crow flies, is exactly 3,955 miles or 6,365 kilometres, the actual train would have travelled a greater distance though.
The train departed at 6.30am and we were the only ones in our carriage, in fact, the whole train was pretty empty. The seven and a half hour journey to Tallinn cost about AUD$190 each and included a small packed lunch with fruit juice.
We arrived at the Russian border and waited patiently for our passports to be processed. The immigration and border control ladies were all elegantly dressed in coarse bland grey uniforms that seemed two sizes too small for their bulking frames. These charming Russian ladies seemed to have forgotten to bring their personality to work that day and the only word we got out of them was ‘Passport’. There are stereotypes for a reason you know – these ladies fitted the stereotype for a female Russian, militaristic, official perfectly.
After the Russian border we crossed the river to Narva and went through the, oh so casual, and friendly border staff of Estonia – who wished us a pleasant stay in Estonia. We were now in the 24th country of our journey – Estonia!!!
We loved our brief stay in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and wish we had planned a longer stay in both. The main reason we entered Russia was for the train journey across Russia, I wanted to travel the Trans Mongolian Railway – staying in Russia was only secondary and not that important. Now I have completed my dream of experiencing the rail journey and have had a taste of Russia, I so want to come back to Russia and experience more of this vast land.
I also feel there is more I would like to do in Mongolia and hopefully will return there one day too.
Thank you for coming along and reading about our journey from Beijing to Tallinn, I hope it amused and excited you as much as it did Diane and I.
The journey is not over yet though and the adventure continues …………………………….