Tour "Around The Baltic Sea" report - Report 6; 5/8/06 – 12/8/06 (Russia & St Petersburg).
Robert Laing (Szkocki Bob)
Crossing the border from Estonia to Russia was quite scenic with good views up and down the river from the bridge and large fortresses to admire on either side. Just as well there was something scenic to look at because as usual it involved lots of waiting, queuing, waiting, and more queuing and waiting. We eventually got going and the contrast with other countries was immediately obvious. Apart from the main highway to St Petersburg the roads were in a shocking state with lots of ruts and potholes deep enough to lose yourself in. Nothing of interest along the way and the whole scene seemed dull and drab with hardly any shops or bars. Lots of old decrepit cars and the drivers worse than ever.
On our first day in Russia a group of us found ourselves lost, hungry and thirsty. Ula was so desperate for a cup, of tea that she decided to ask the people in the garden of a rather prosperous looking house with a tidy garden if we could buy some cups of tea from them. Such was Ula’s charm and proficiency with the Russian language that all 6 of us were invited in for tea, sandwiches, biscuits, fruit tart and, of course, some beer and vodka. Real Russian hospitality even if they thought we were all crazy. Our hosts refused to accept any money and all we could offer in return was the bar of chocolate I bought with my last 13 Estonian Krones at the border.
By the time we left it was 11.30pm and pitch black and we still had 30km to cycle. We ended up seriously lost and unable to find the sleeping place. Fortunately we had a couple of tents between us and so our first night in Russia was to put up the tents at about 4.30am for a few hours cold sleep with 4 of us in one tent with only one mattress and sleeping bag between us. But we did set a new record for the greatest distance so far in one day; 145 km. We woke to “Good morning Russia” very early and when we eventually found the correct sleeping place it was to discover that we had been within 50 metres of it in the middle of the night. Sh*t!
Although the roads to and from St Pete were rather dull this was more than compensated for by the city itself. St Petersburg is fantastic, amazing, exhilarating, extraordinary and exciting. But also exhausting, risky and bizarre. Like Tallinn but even more so round every corner brings some new and spectacular views.
On the second night in St Pete after a tiring day sightseeing and a good Russian dinner Ula had the bright idea of watching the bridges open. St P is built on several islands and between 1 and 5am various connecting bridges are opened to allow ships through. First problem was that we were still on one of the islands at 0.45am and needed to get off to avoid being stranded until 5am. We made it with 3 minutes to spare. And it was worth it. Seeing the bridges lit up and open at night was quite spectacular. And the same night while strolling about around midnight a jeep drove up and parked near where we were standing. The driver got out pulled the cover on the back of the jeep to reveal … a machine gun! We didn’t hang about to see if it worked.
One other good thing about our time in St P was staying in a hostel with real beds and clean sheets. Bliss after 5 weeks of camping.
Unfortunately we had many problems in Russia. They started as soon as we tried to enter from Estonia. The van, with all our luggage in it, risked being held up at the border for several days. I’m not sure how Sigitas managed it but with the aid of some roubles into various officials’ back pockets he sweet talked them into letting the van through. While waiting for hours and hours the driver decided to take a leak at the side of the van. This is an offence and he was seen by a policeman. It took 20 Euros in another back pocket to avoid being taken to the Police station. While taking some people and their bikes to the bus station the van driver was stopped and asked to produce his licence and some other papers. Unfortunately he did not have the necessary documents with him and there were various suggestions he would have to go the the Police station for a few days!! When asked if it was possible to settle the problem on the spot the answer was, “Of course … for 8000 Roubles! After some negotiations this was reduced to 4000 Roubles - which the group didn’t have. Ula, clever woman, turned out her pockets to show she had only 2000 Roubles (hiding another 2000 in another pocket), and the Police eventually settled for that.
Whilst Rowen (the other Brit) and I were in the Irish Bar writing postcards and hoping to watch Hearts (my team) v Athens in the European Championship and debating whether to have Russian beer at 70 Roubles or Guinness at 200, he had his camera stolen from right next to his elbow. Then followed nightmare scenario while we tried to find a Police station to report the theft and get the necessary form for insurance purposes. Unfortunately no English speakers at the Police station and after much shouting and gesticulation we understood we had to return the next day. And in the middle of all this we watched another policeman calmly loading the bullets into his gun.
And I suspect a couple of guys tried to rob me while walking down the main street during the day. One guy thrust a guide-book into my stomach asking if I wanted to but it while trying to grab my bum-bag which I was wearing to the front while his accomplice fumbled with the catch at the back. Fortunately I had spotted them looking rather suspicious and was able to hold onto the bag with one hand while pushing one away as hard as I could.
Add to these incidents our experience in Kaliningrad at the hotel and you can see why I consider Russia fascinating but corrupt.
Strange sensation leaving St Petersburg. For more than 5 weeks we have been cycling into the sun in the morning and on our backs in the afternoon and always into the wind. Suddenly it is the other way around with the sun on our backs in the morning and facing it in the afternoon and with the wind behind us. However the wind does not seem to blow as strong behind us as it did when we cycled into it. Or do all cyclists feel this way?
Other experiences in St Pete were caviar flavoured crisps (chips). And while accompanying Rowen to the Police station the morning after he had his camera stolen our Russian guide/translator pointed out the spot where Rasputin drowned. It’s all culture – even if not always as we know it!