Thursday, 1 September 2011

First impressionskies of Russkie

View of St Petersburg from the Azimut Hotel sky bar
Vodka, fur coats, big hats, and snow...these were all things that I associated with Russia and about as much as I knew about the country when Chris and I first decided to start our trip here...that, and bits and bobs about the Cold War and Soviet Union that I learned years ago at school. As a result, it all felt a bit surreal last Tuesday morning when Chris and I woke up at the crack of dawn to make our way to Heathrow with our enormous and jam packed rucksacks. Why exactly had we chosen St Petersburg as our first destination!? Not quite sure either of us knew but it seemed as good a place as any and even though it has taken a few days for it all to sink in (and it still hasn't entirely) we are now extremely pleased and excited to be on our way...

The beautiful Hermitage
My first overwhelming impression as we made our way into St Petersburg from the airport was how lost I felt being unable to speak or read the language. I have experienced this before of course, but somehow you can always find someone who speaks English. In Russia not so...literally no one seems to understand. It is quite an experience. As the linguist of the relationship I have to admit that I have taken a back seat here and have made little progress with the language beyond the formalities. Chris, on the other hand, has done amazingly well at communicating and can read Cyrillic with ease which is a huge help....he says his maths background means that he understands the Greek letters...i think he likes it cos it's like solving a puzzle - something he has more patience for than me.

One of St Petersburg's many canals
View of St Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt
 St Petersburg is a beautiful city. Its architecture, canals and wide boulevards, make it a lovely place to wander around and I can't remember when I last did so much walking. The much cited parrallels with European cities, and Venice in particular, are clearly evident. The highlight of our visit here so far has to be the much heralded Hermitage museum. A beautiful building in itself, whose ornate frontage opens onto a vast square on the one side and the river bank on the other, it is nevertheless the treasures inside that are the main attraction, enticing enthusiasts and experts from far and wide. Neither Chris nor I are big museum junkies but we both managed to wander happily around the old Winter Palace for hours, taking in the impressive collections by the likes of Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne and Rafael.

I have to say, I don't feel like we have found the pulse and soul of the city though. There are restaurants and bars aplenty but they all seem very geared to tourists and lack atmosphere. This is a shame and most certainly down to our own ineptitudes at finding the fun. Nonetheless, it's been a good place to unwind, take stock and gear up for the real adventures ahead. I am hoping that the train and Siberia will provide the vodka fuelled parties I was anticipating.

A few observations I have made thus far about Russia (please excuse the sweeping generalisations...these are simply my thoughts on day 5 so entirely subject to change, as is a woman's prerogative):

1. Russian dress sense - very odd. It is almost like the women here dress according to 2 different periods in history. On the one hand we have the dowdy, plainly dressed crowd and on the other, girls who are dressed up to the nines, every minute of the day, with full make up and skirts that just about cover their bottoms. Either way, consumerism is in full swing here and they are not afraid to show it.
Weird cat billboard on the metro

2. Russian girls are, on the whole, very beautiful. The men, not so much.

3. The metro is incredible - highly efficient, easy to navigate and each stop is grander than the last. Despite the odd cat photos we were pretty impressed with it overall.

4. Puddings - the russians LOVE their cake and puddings. I have never seen so many desserts on offer, nor so many people eating them. I saw a girl eating nothing but grated carrot for her dinner yesterday so I think  that this must be the secret to the piles of cake that are consumed - well maybe that and the relentless chain smoking that we've seen amongst, well, everyone so far.

5. Grumpiness seems to be the norm...either that or jubilant smiles (though there are rare and, I suspect, usually alcohol induced). Being a fairly smiley person myself and having always believed that a smile can get you a long way in faraway lands, the more someone ignores and resists my grinning face, the more I beam at them - this doesn't seem to yield results...i will keep trying!

6. Basics are pretty expensive. I kid you not, Chris and I bought 2 pot noodles and 2 big bottles of water the other day and it cost us £6! And those were published prices, not tourist ones...needless to say, our budget has kind of gone out of the window a little.

7.  Russia does pretty good sushi...I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise given the abundance of and proximity to fish but it is delicious as well as adventurous (lots of eel and such). It has been a bit of a weakness for me on the trip so far- did I say our budget had gone out of the window?

8. Cash machines and mini supermarkets - there are literally hundreds of them. There were 4 cash machines in our small hotel lobby alone and about 6 supermarkets on the 500m stretch of road between the Azimut and the metro (each with their own special little cash machines too) - mental!

9. Roadside drinking is the order of the day here. From early in the afternoon it seems to be the done thing to sit around on park benches, or even the curb and sink a few pints of beer...Boris Johnson would be outraged.

10.  Mosquitoes - who'd have thought that Russia would attract swarms of mozzies!? It turns out that in 1922 Russia suffered one of the world's worst known malaria epidemics. The malaria has gone (we hope) but the little blighters are still here....Chris has spent hours hunting them in our various hotel rooms (a very funny sight believe me) and has many a war wound to show for it...I don't really get bitten :).

So - there are my random thoughts thus far. Sure there will be more to follow our Trans-Siberian adventure.


  1. Hello
    Glad to see you are off to a good start.....xx

  2. Ems! Wonderful to see the blog up and running, it looks lovely! Looking forward to reading all about your travels and getting seriously jealous! Have fun! xx

  3. ToulouseDonny04/09/2011, 21:33

    Ems! These are exactly the things I felt about St. Petersburg and I was with two native Russian speakers! It's so intimidating even when you've had an introduction to the alphabet before going! St. Petersburg has some lovely bars where the locals will happily let you buy them jugs of straight vodka. Moscow is not so friendly though so if you have missed that out then other than the obvious tourist things, you really haven't missed much! Keep enjoying yourselves xx

  4. Grandjacquet06/09/2011, 08:36

    Glad you are up and running, fantastic blog, looking forward to following your travels xx

  5. So pleased to see your blog on your mothers computer she will show me how to get to it and them I can follow your progress. Sounds wonderful so far the hermitage is amazing but for me too big. Have a wonderful trip all my love

  6. Really going to enjoy reading about your trip. Lots of love from Mike - Mum's best mate!!!

  7. fab photos keep snapping