During the last few hundred kilometres down to St. Petersburg, our Unimog reached a rather significant milestone. Even with your many faults, you did get us through the Sahara, through the Atlas, through the Russian Tundra, and even to that Arctic Ocean.
We love you.
As I’ve mentioned before, driving into a foreign city is no easy task. I take on role of navigator, and give Mac specific need to know information well in advance so he can plan accordingly; direction, traffic lights, pedestrians, speed limit, weight limit. Ah yes, the weight limit. Russian cities have a weight limit on certain roads inside the city ring, prohibiting anything over 8 tonne of getting within 10km of the centre.
Our decision to completely ignore this was based on a few things. The police presence on the roads was next to none, we’d had absolutely zero hassle from any authorities and we were feeling a little bold… Also, as convenient as the metro is, it closes between 0100 and 0500 and 10km taxi rides at 0300 are just too expensive! So, twelve ‘no-entry 8T’ signs later, we were parked on an unused grass verge of a carpark, outside of an apartment block just 1.5km from the central strip – Nevsky Prospekt. We had to fill with water and empty the now functional waste tanks so we didn’t actually park until late afternoon. St. Petersburg exploration began on Thursday 14.
Our initial impressions of Russia’s second city, and the former capital prior to 1918 were impressive. The streets were immaculately clean, people walked out of their way to put cigarette buds into the appropriate containers outside of shops and restaurants. Hundreds of men and women are employed to shovel snow from the pavements, seven days a week. We saw no evidence of homelessness, excessive drinking or aggression. Respect was shown to public servants in restaurants and bars. The metro. We were stunned by the metro system! Firstly, have you ever ridden the metro in London? There is rubbish everywhere, graffiti sprayed onto the walls and it’s absolutely filthy. Now let me take you to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg metro is the deepest metro system in the world at a maximum depth of 86m. Construction began in 1938, using pickaxes and shovels. Each station has a unique design, and are absolutely stunning. Some feature monuments, stained-glass windows, polished tile flooring, detailed pillars, patterned coving on the ceiling and chandeliers. It goes without saying, we were extremely impressed.
As much as I try to avoid the tourist traps in any city, there are massive benefits to taking a city bus sightseeing tour. It gives you so much information and it’s a quick way around the city when you’ve got a lot of places to visit in a short space of time. We visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and The Winter Palace which was built in 1762. The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian Tsars (Royal Family) before they were overthrown during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The family Romanov, the ruling family at the time entered World War I, to which civilians rebelled against. Control over the civilians and the guard were lost and a revolution instigated by Bolsheviks – a Social Democratic Political party lead by Lenin, began. Lenin, and the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia and ultimately became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, founding USSR. Thus began the next 60 years of anguish forced upon the people of Russia, and USSR.
The Winter Palace has been preserved as the State Heritage Museum and contains thousands of artefacts, from the Tsars Dynasty between 1613 and 1917.
Having spent hours trying to digest so much information, our stomachs were on the growl so we walked back down Nevsky Prospekt in search of dinner. We found an underground, local buffet style restaurant, so we sat and filled our boots over a beer for our father daughter travel style, £4 Valentine’s Day dinner. We were still there three hours and 2 beers later talking past and future travel trips and ideas. There’s no one else I’d rather share my table with on this day.
During our time in St. Petersburg we happened upon a big boat by the name Frigate Grace. It was a restaurant and given the opportunity to have lunch on a ship, one has to take it. Afterwards, we walked to Hare Island to stroll the walls of Peter and Pauls Fortress during sunset, with panoramic views of the most iconic buildings of St Petersburg. We headed back to the truck early for a nap, ahead of Friday night antics.
I woke at around 2330, to Mac holding out a beer. A difficult beer to drink having just woken from a 3 hour snooze. But it was Friday night in St. Petersburg! We found the people of St. Petersburg, in comparison with Murmansk, much more engaging and open minded, most likely due to their increased education opportunities, job availability and heightened interest and ability to travel.
We went out again on the Saturday, and ended up in a nightclub. I engaged with a wonderful group of local girls’ aged between 18 and 20. They were being university educated, with the knowledge that English language skills will assist them in employment later on. They had high aspirations and an intent to travel throughout Europe. They were engaging, communicative, interesting and welcomed me into their group without a second thought. With the nightclub closing hours being around 0800, it was a much later night than I was expecting. I took a taxi back to the truck, alone and felt comfortable in doing so.
We both find it easier to engage with people during polar hours and there’s so much to be learnt about a society by observing how they behave after dark. Like I mentioned earlier, we saw no evidence of excessive drinking, no one stumbling around outside of bars or needing to vomit back their last shot of Sambuca. There was no aggression, none of the classic street behaviour we find in so many places throughout Europe. We discussed why we think people have this attitude. Why do people carry their litter home, why do they drink only in moderation and leave respectfully after their night out? Why is there no graffiti under the bridges of motorways, why are the vending machines under said bridges stocked, taken care of and in working order? Do these people live in fear of the suppression they have previously experienced from their government? Or do they just have the upmost respect for their country and other civilians’ quality of life?
We consider ourselves fairly competent travellers, and therefore have learnt the importance of not having too many preconceptions. However, it is impossible not to formulate preconceptions about Russia, due to the media we are exposed to in UK. How utterly wrong we have been. Our entire preconceptions of Russia, its people and society have been completely obliterated.
Although we have been very impressed by what we have witnessed in St. Petersburg, and the fine environment and society it appears to be; there is another side. As a result of speaking with numerous locals we have learnt, prior to recent general elections the persons employed by the state (public servants) are put under pressure in the work environment to vote for the current political party. In addition to this, they are to take a friend along who is not a public servant, to do exactly the same. Our source of information recalls, many of the public servants comply, in fear of losing their jobs – his wife being one of them. Having said this, the government have recently increased the minimum jail term from five, to ten years for corruption within any government administrative department. Thereby proving, the current political administration has a huge desire to leave the Soviet era behind and develop a modern, thriving, capitalist society.