No trip to Russia is complete without going to Moscow and St Petersburg, and it was in these cities that we got our first taste of the cold weather; a balmy -15C – enough to get some icicles in the newly grown beard.
But, as with anyone, your thoughts on a particular place, city or country are always going to be subjective based on your experiences there, and if I was going to base Russia on Moscow this post would be pretty negative, which is why I have dropped in the beautiful St Petersburg to help even it out, of course this is only my own opinion!
Feeling pretty refreshed, at about 9am and the first task was to get to the hostel and drop off our bags so we could get out and explore the city. In the haste to get all of the supporting information together for our visa applications we made a few gambles on our accommodation choices trying to find a balance between cheap and well-rated venues. For Moscow I thought that I had found a real bargain, £15 for two people for three nights with something like a 9/10 rating… as you can guess it wasn’t to be. On arrival, out in the Moscow suburbs, we found the decrepit looking building that was to be our home for the next few days, and inside it was the image most people have of a real backpacker hostel. It was a full offensive on the senses; first was the mass of wet clothes hung all over every space available, second was the smell; a mixture of wet dog and body odour and lastly the barren looking kitchen and common room. We did hesitate, but we ploughed on thinking that we had stayed in worse and the price warranted us to stay here, however we found the straw that broke the camels back, the thing that every traveller fears: BEDBUGS.
The hostel was a knock off version of one of the cube style hostels that started out in Japan, essentially a box with a bed and a light in it. The first warning spark was what looked like a line of ant powder straight across a row of about five beds (two of which were ours). I switched the light on my handy smart phone on and lifted up the mattress. I know it sounds over the top but it’s an old habit, which has helped avoid a lot of sleepless nights in the past. And for the first time in my life I saw a real bed bug infestation. To say there were hundreds might sound like an exaggeration, but underneath my single mattress there must have been at least 60 or 70 that I could see scurrying around away from the light looking for gaps and cracks to crawl down into. We stayed long enough to use the wifi and book somewhere else and with an unashamedly unapologetic sorry, we left. Luckily, the next hostel was a clean and great experience with friendly staff and quite a few friendly resident Russians (it seemed that in the big cities quite a few of the migrant workers lived in hostels, at least on a semi-permanent basis). But we had learnt a lesson: don’t trust Booking.com or Tripadvisor reviews on Russian hostels and hotels without really scrutinizing them. On a more thorough view, there were 50-60% bogus reviews on a lot of accommodation options all from Russian accounts with only 1 review to their name. In the interest of fairness this doesn’t apply to every accommodation option, but it is good advice to apply anywhere in the world.
Moscow itself seemed quite sterile to me, it may have been the season I visited, it being a long way from the summer but not quite snowing, just austerely cold, or it could have been the phantom itching from the bedbug run in! However the Red Square was a real burst of colour and character emanating from St Basil’s and penned in by the Kremlin and Lenin’s Mausoleum. Overall it is worth making Moscow the start of any Russian adventure to give you a taste of what the old Hammer and Sickle has to offer. After a wander around the Square and Christmas Markets (this was December after all), we went for an amble around the outside walls of the Kremlin, which is circled by main roads, parks and various statutes. At night, the lights turn it into a beautiful spectacle, with bars and shops built into the arches of local bridges creating a really romantic atmosphere in this pocket of Moscow, especially against the backdrop of falling snow. This is then followed by some amazing artwork and statutes in the subway system in Moscow, it is worth buying a one way ticket and having a ride through a few stations to see it, a much more interesting alternative to some museums, although don’t get carried away taking photos on platforms as this can get you in trouble with the local police!
From here, we took the fast ‘Sapsan’ train to St Petersburg – an alternative to the more famous overnight Red Arrow Train that is supposed to be an incredible experience. However, with our choice of doing 300+ hours of train travel over the next few weeks we decided to take the short cut with a high speed four hour train. A comfortable and effortless journey through some uneventful, partially snow covered countryside. Arriving in St Petersburg was refreshing, you can see subtle changes in the architecture, and even people on the street are smiley, whereas Moscow residents had a much hardier look about them. Following our bed bug fun in Moscow, we had another hostel fail with our pre-booked dorm, which turned out to be two rusted dorm beds in the moldy spare bedroom of a Russian family’s flat. After a quick search, plan B hostel and then plan C hotel were taken up!
We had an amazing couple of days around St Petersburg taking in some wonderful sights. Given that it was December, the walking around provided a challenge for me, the 3-4 inch thick ice on the pavements turned my walking ability into that of newborn Bambi, much to the laughter of a few locals. Thankfully I had two Leki walking poles with me that have never seen as much use!
The first thing that really made stop and take a breath was the frozen Neva River; it was so wide and vast from one side to the other and it was solidly frozen, at least a few feet thick (which could be seen from where it had cracked against some steps leading down into the river). In the summer the river is so large, fast flowing and powerful, but now it is in pure silence just waiting to break free and show its power.
And power is something that is seen in the strength of the architecture in St Petersburg, with the Peter and Paul Fortress sitting on the banks of the Neva, with its great encompassing walls protecting a towering, gold-encrusted church, which is the last resting place of the Romanov family.
From here we went across to the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood which, as striking
as it is on the outside, is even more beautiful inside; the colours and designs are truly outstanding. It is hard to think that after the war it was used as a vegetable store – a massive artistic waste to me – but it shows the needs and practicality of a nation of people. Walking in-between the two venues I came across some comic relief, a group of Russian workmen replacing some paving slabs. At the time they were tamping them down with the largest steel tamp I had ever seen (tamping is where you hit the slabs with a heavy load to ensure that they are bedded in safely), admittedly I stood watching for a couple of minutes (I have
been around this kind of work all my life, with both of my brothers running their own building companies) until the looked up, smiled and offered me a go. Well, I couldn’t say no! What I can say is that chunk of metal weighed a ton!
We rounded off our visit here by going to the Hermitage and the Winter Palace which is Russia’s State Museum, the best part of six hours were spent here and barely covered a quarter of it. It includes exhibits about Russia’s history and artifacts from all around the world. If you are any kind of history buff, or even have a cursory interest in museums, then a visit here is a must. To get across the sheer size, the main cloakroom can cater 3,700 people, and there are more cloakrooms besides that one!
As you can probably tell, I favoured St Petersburg over Moscow, but both provided great experiences and a taste into a culture that I had not yet visited. They also helped ground me and provide an idea of what the next couple of weeks will be like travelling through Russia into even more remote areas across Siberia.