Friday, December 7, 2012

Trans-Siberian Railway Part I: St Petersburg

Here are some photos and extracts from my journal when I travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway from St Petersburg to Beijing. The trip was booked to satiate my irrational childhood desire to go to Mongolia and taken after I finished my degree.

My actual travel journal was written in brief note form and I never completed the last few days of it because we did so much in such a short time - I'll just write out what I can and try and give a sense of the experiences I had.

I'll never forget those couple of strange, sunflower seed sprinkled, long daylight houred, city-to-wilderness-to-city-again weeks back in 2006 when my mum and I traveled East by train through some of the world's most remote and fantastical landscapes.

I only took a tiny digital camera and all my pictures are very bad and low quality but I still hope they will be interesting.  This trip made a deep impression on me and I'll never go back to these places (especially since St Petersburg has now banned 'homosexual propaganda') so the photos and memories are all I have.

Our soviet hotel
We get on the plane in Heathrow and get off in St Petersburg with a short and efficient stop in Frankfurt. The passport checks are intimidating, standing alone in front of the stony gaze of a middle aged Russian woman with bright orange hair. Our luggage has arrived with us and we fail at declaring out valuables in custom because we just want to get out of the building.

We go out into the arrivals lounge and there is our hotel transfer, a dark swarthy man in a Hawaiian shirt. He waves his arm and takes our bags to a battered Landrover without speaking, our names on a printed sheet of paper still stuck to his chest. He passes cars without warning, speeding down shortcuts to overtake the traffic. The roads do have lanes but no one takes any notice. There is a huge crack in the windscreen of the car.

We arrive at our battered soviet hotel and make-up caked faced Disney princesses in neon and enormous meringue dresses run past us through the entrance hall. They are bridesmaids. I cannot believe I am in Russia.

We eat and go for a walk into the late evening, covering much of Western St Petersburg from Nikolskaya Cathedral to the Mariinskiy, St Isaacs and the Aleandrovskiy Gardens. It's June and the season of White Nights - the sun only goes down for around 3 hours. 1am and it's still light, everyone is outside and children are playing in parks, we just keep walking in wonder.

Where Russia's biggest Beatles fan lives.

1am from St Isaacs

There is a nightclub in our hotel called 'SHA!' - There is a private lift to get there. 'From 11pm-3am - non stop erotic dance show. Erotic Drive Show. Find yourself in a hot desire and crazy imaginations!' 

After the party

Typical Russian car


Where the artists hid

The next day we go on a walking tour with an extraordinary guide called Vera, who is 19. We visit two different types of market, one where everything is clean and arranged as a display - even the piles of cherries are meticulously lined up. The other sells guns, women and toothbrushes. We walk to Dostoyevsky's house where he wrote Crime and Punishment, past Rasputin's bath house and the cellar where the great mystic was poisoned and shot.

Our guide tells us about her sister who has married a Frenchman and left Russia. Vera is widely read and intellectually driven. All her efforts are to educate herself and leave the country as soon as possible, she speaks Russian, French, German and English. She tells of the pointlessly corrupt education and police systems, the young soldiers who come back deeply psychologically damaged and brutalised from conscription to the army, no good for marriage, supporting a family or living to an old age (the life expectancy for Russian men is 59, for women it is 72). She tells of the rivalry between St Petersburg and Moscow, and how a twisted nostalgia for Stalin exists among people who are suffering under 'democracy'. I begin feel Russian society collapsing around myself, destroying a people so proud of their country they refer to her as 'mother'.

The meticulous market
The toilets in The Cynic, a famous St Petersburg cellar bar
My mum and Vera walking through the ruined bath house
Rasputin's Bath House, now derelict. It's so hot - I wasn't expecting it and have no appropriate clothes. Somehow I  imagined Russia as a perpetually cold place.

A leaning building by the banks of the canal

I think this was the building which had the cellar Rasputin was assassinated in
St Petersburg is filled with incredible looking people
Props at the back of the Mariinsky Theatre
Men drinking Kvass, a fermented rye drink
A bride
We have dinner out at The Idiot cafe. I have a 'useful vegetable' ratatouille.

The next day we visit the Hermitage.  A tiny baby bear is on a chain outside, tame and reserved. The heat is almost unbearable.

We drift through the galleries, thousands of priceless paintings, sculptures and historic items. Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Gauguin are all hanging right there on the sweating walls with tourists grouping around them, snapping and pointing. Wallpaper peels and there is a pervasive smell of damp. If you wanted you could reach out and touch the paintings.

Baby bear captive
Japanese tourists

The opulance of the guilded rooms is a disgusting contrast to Vera's history lessons of the previous day.

Peeling walls

We can't take anymore and wander back past towering coloured churches and down Nevskiy Prospect.

That night we must catch our first train so we go back to our hotel to pack up and eat. Our journey to Moscow is overnight, and we have our first taste of many overnight trains to come.

This train turns out to be the most luxurious and comfortable of all the ones we will travel on. Each cabin is equipped with bottled water, juice and a paper.

The sheets are pressed, neat and turned down. It's unbelievably humid and hot in the cars. A Russian radio station playing awful music can't be turned off and I wonder how I'm going to sleep. The train starts moving and eventually the air conditioning kicks in, the lights dim and the radio turns itself off.

My journal tells me I lay awake all night on the bunk, staring at the twilight scenery, listening to the deep breathing of my mum and the two Russian women we're sharing our cabin with. It wasn't light enough read, and I could only just see the lines of my handwriting on the page. I make a list in my notebook of train essentials for future reference: torch, CD player, ear plugs, toilet paper, and my amazing Thai fisherman trousers.

 The train speeds up, the light dims even more and I scrawl on the page how I expect Moscow to be even more 'Russian' feeling than St Petersburg.  Instead, I find the Russian capital as brutal as London and will be very glad to leave.

At 7am the train arrives in Moscow Station. be continued..


  1. This was a blast to read and the pictures were amazing. Excited for the next installment.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. Next stop
    Moscow and Siberia!

  3. This was so interesting! I nearly applied to do Russian studies at uni but was talked out of it! Looking forward to the next post :)


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