Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Well, the main story of our departure from Moscow is not the train journey (a relatively easy overnighter of about 9 hours) nor indeed our intended destination of St Petersburg, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

It was about The final judgement.

If you have been reading closely and looking even more closely at the photographs of my journey since I joined my latest group of companions, you will notice that I had become gradually more hirsute as our travels progressed.

The reason? Well it was my own silly fault. One of my companions had informed me, as we left Beijing, that in his home town of Melbourne, they have what they call “Movember” where people grow the most ridiculous moustache they can in the month of November to raise money for charity.

Now, I am not sure why, but it suddenly struck me as a good idea that we should all try this for the length of our journey from Mongolia to Moscow or “Mo’golia to Mo’scow” as it soon became dubbed.

Remarkably, everyone agreed including our guide, Andrew who spent the next two weeks complaining loudly and bitterly about his growing facial fuzz.

Well, I can understand it, because, as we travelled, everyone’s facial features became slowly more hidden beneath ever growing and ever more ridiculous moustaches.

Mine especially. Now, I have always been able to grow a pretty mean ‘tache, but I surpassed even my expectations and, by the time we climbed on board the train to St Petersburg we were ready to be judged.

The ladies on the tour had also come up with a plan for their own competition which included dressing in the most garish Russian style make up, hair and earrings possible.

We made a plan that the guys would take it in turn to enter the women’s carriage and be “interviewed” by the others before they took a vote. The same was true of the women as they came into ours sporting enough make up for an entire performance by The Rockettes, satellite dishes for earrings and made up names like “Ivana Humpalot”

Well, you will be delighted to know that the beer fuelled event passed without us getting arrested or thrown off the train and with yours truly emerging triumphant. Shamefully, I am a hugely competitive sort and things like this matter a lot to me. Mind you, like every other bloke on the trip, I whipped off the offending hair as soon as we I had access to my hotel room in St Petersburg.

Mind you, that was not for a while. We arrived at St Petersburg station at around 7am and headed by taxi to our hotel where, true to form, our rooms were not going to be ready for some time.

We had planned a walking tour with a local guide, Nicholas, at 9am, so we sat in our dishevelled state, in the hotel lobby and waited for him.

I felt slightly sorry for him having to arrive to face a group of garish looking women and hairy men who had had too much to drink and not enough sleep the night before but this soon disappeared when he arrived and seemed to be in even worse shape than us.

He claimed not to be a drinker, so I have to wonder quite why he looked so wretched. Still, despite the condition of both us and our guide, it was a good tour and he showed us some of the sights that we could revisit later when we were all in a better shape.

We ambled through courtyards in between old blocks, past churches, through the Winter Gardens, past the Hermitage and around the main market. All the time, Nick who was now improving thanks to a large cup of coffee, gave us some local insight and anecdotal background to places and people. One of my favourites being about The Hotel Astoria where Hitler had made plans to have the celebration for the defeat of Russia during WWII.

St Petersburg is, of course, immensely popular as a tourist attraction and I can certainly understand why. I had visited once before when I was dating a Russian girl called Evgenia who lived in the city. We spent a very happy week between Christmas and New Year exploring all her favourite, er, places (don’t be so filthy, you know what I mean) I also remember it being cold and snowy which, in December was hardly a great surprise.

This time, in September, it was gloriously sunny and, as we walked, all the memories of my previous trip came flooding back to me. I could not wait to go out and explore on my own.

First, however, I needed a shower and a shave, so after the tour, headed back to the hotel, collected my key and stood under the brown water of the shower for as long as it took to feel clean. The offending facial hair came off easily and I even had time for a nap before wandering out to explore a few more sights.

Now, as I travel, around The World lugging “Big Red” sleeping in basic hotels and eating street food, I have the occasional need to return to ‘my world” My World is, for those who know me, one of comfort, food served in nice restaurants and, of course, the opportunity to chug down a cocktail.

It had been nearly a month since I had last done this and the opportunities to indulge had been few and far between since we left Beijing. So, here in St Petersburg I was determined to find a place to sit, eat some nibbles and quaff a number of cold, well made cocktails.

Fortunately, a lot of my companions decided to join me and, that evening, I dragged them down to the lavish Hotel Grand Europa where I introduced them to the pleasures of some truly excellent Martinis.

Then, it was their turn. They dragged me ( not unwillingly, it should be said) to another local bar this time to down beers ( served in two litre pots) eat sausage and to listen to some truly horrendous local band play hits from the 80’s. A particularly Russian version of “I Love Rock n’ Roll” still haunts my sleep.

A short journey back to the hotel on the St Petersburg subway had me in bed a little past midnight and in the land of Nod about five minutes after that.

There is, obviously, an enormous amount to see in St Petersburg, but I decided that I would concentrate my efforts on The Hermitage, that most remarkable of all museums. It would take days to see it all, but I gave it my best shot and, after it opened at 11 o clock, I spent a very happy five or six hours trying to cram in as much as I possibly could which, as it turned out, was barely scratching the surface. It is spectacular not just for the collections it houses, but also for the buildings itself ( it is actually five buildings) and, as always, I went in without a specific plan and just wandered where the whims took me.

By the time I emerged it was beginning to get dark so I headed back to the hotel to see if my train ticket to Helsinki had arrived. Now, as if to give me a little reminder of Russia at its worst, this proved to be a huge polava.

I had been promised that my ticket would arrive the day before. It did not or, at least, I was told it had not arrived by the reception at the hotel. I then called the agency and was told it was on its way.

A number of checks with reception proved fruitless with lots of “we told you it is not here. If it was here we would have informed you” protests, lots of shrugging of shoulders and lots of looks of withering comtempt.

I was in a bit of a panic by this time as I had made plans to be in Helsinki the next day to meet with friends to go hunting. So, I began to ponder on other travel arrangements by bus.

However, I got back to the hotel and was summoned by the receptionist. The same one I had asked about four times before about my package.

“do you not want your package? It arrived yesterday”

“Er, I asked you about this already. You said it was not here” I replied in exasperation.

“No, you did not ask me, you must have asked someone else” She replied with a shrug of the shoulder.

There is nothing to do in these situations. I merely returned her shoulder shrug, took my package grateful that it had arrived and headed up to my room.

The good news though was that I was able to join my travelling companions for a final meal at the well known Idiot CafĂ© before I had to say “good bye” to them

As so many meals in Russia, it was passable hardly memorable for the food but I was incredibly sad to part from the small group I had spent the best part of a month with as we travelled from China, to Mongolia, through Siberia and into Russia.

It had, truly, been a life changing trip. One that I will remember for as long as I live and one that introduced me to many, many new tastes and sensations.

Next stop was Helsinki, but more of that later.

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