July 7 – I am going to lose so much weight just by carrying my backpack around. I reduced and reduced the amount of stuff I packed to the indispensable minimum, and still the 500m walk from the bus stop to my hotel in St. Petersburg nearly killed me. I also discovered that Moskovskaya station is not the same thing as Moskovskaya train station. It’s not even near. But the scene where the ticket lady (every bus has one) along with several passengers try to explain to me which bus to take to get to my hotel is priceless. That’s where I understand that all my english is going to be completely useless in this country. A mixture of badly pronounced Czech and gestures has been the most reliable option ever since.
Hunger drives me out from my hotel. I buy some kind of a public transport pass, but have no clue what exactly it is, because the girl only spoke Russian, and I couldn’t make out a single word from the speaker. Anyway, it seems to be working alright. I head for Pelmeni Bar, a traditional place close to Neva, recommended by the Guardian. For once they got it right. The place is a fair mix of locals and tourists, and looks like somewhere I would take my foreign friends for traditional food in Prague. I order ukha, a fish soup, and pelmeni filled with minced meat, and it just hits the spot. At 10 pm the sun is just setting and the sky is unbelievable. To you, St. Peterburg dressed to the nines:
More importantly, the night is young and it’s the first night of the journey. Celebrations are due. I head for Domskaya street, which is supposed to be the beating artery of the nightlife, and stumble upon Fidel Bar, a place that a friend had recommended. 5 minutes later I am downing awful shots of cherry liquor, vodka and tabasco with my new friends Sasha, Misha and Igor. They cannot be more than 20. Together. Again, english doesn’t really work, but they seem delighted when I present myself as Katya (a nickname I’ve always hated, but what can I do), and they toast to my russian name.
July 8 – I wake up early and surprisingly without a headache. First task of the day: contact the agency that organizes the trek in the Altaj, and find out where the hell am I supposed to meet them. This is the conversation. Thank God I taught myself the cyrillic before the trip.
Relieved that I will probably not be left alone somewhere in the middle of Siberia, I snob the french-like breakfast in my hotel, instead opt for a pancake filled with cheese, sour cream and tomato in a random local cafe. Came for half the price, too. I decide to dedicate the first day to walking around the city and see the usual stuff: I walk down Nevskyi Prospekt, visit the Winter Palace, cross Neva and take a walk around the Peter & Paul Fortress (and visit the cathedral where all pre-revolution russian royals are buried), then have a look at the cruiser Aurora. That’s kind of disappointing. I don’t remember much from the communism in my country, but I do remember that we used to build Aurora from big wooden cubes every year in the kindergarten for the anniversary of the October Revolution. The wooden one was better. I cross the river again and visit the magnificent church of The Saviour of the Spilled Blood – a memorial cathedral to commemorate the assassination of (St.) Alexander II of Russia. The interior of the church is amazing. 7 square kilometers of mosaics. The audioguide is something that reminds of watching foreign movies in the early 90s, when the films came with the “lektor” dubbed over the original sound still recognizable in the background. A single male voice read the lines of each character, without any trace of emotion or expression. The same voice for every actor (male or female) of every foreign film. Now I know where the guy ended up – recording audioguides in Russia.
I am completely gutted that the Mendeleev Museum is closed on weekends. I will be forced to leave St. Petersburg without visiting the apartment of the man who sealed my fate. Oh well, this only means one thing: I have to come back. Instead I go for a boat trip through the canals, which is charming (though a little chilly), but the speaker behind my back shouting fragments of russian commentary (it’s not working very well) makes me want to seek revenge for the ’68.
By the end of the cruise I’m completely deaf and frozen, fortunately this is where serendipity steps in. I happen upon Russia’s most famous cinema Aurora (opened as Piccadilly Picture House in 1913), and they are showing Kill Bill in English. Well, why wouldn’t I? I’m a nerd, after all. And when I grow up, I want to be Black Mamba and chop up idiot men with my katana.
I approach some English speaking people outside the cinema and ask them for recommendation for dinner. They suggest a soviet-nostalgic place for russian food, I reply that I come from Czech Republic and I am quite positive there is nothing whatsoever to be nostalgic about, then I realize the guy is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Well, he had it coming. Instead they suggest a Georgian place called Khachapuri i Vino, where I taste kharcho – a spicy thick beef soup with vegetables and rice, followed by potato and cheese khachapuri (pie) that comes with yoghurt. A distant memory from my university years flashes in my mind. Natural yoghurt is thixotropic. Meaning it is almost solid when not stressed, but when it undergoes deformation (when you stir it with a spoon), it will become liquid, and stay so for a long time before it naturally reaches the solid/gel state again. Wow, my physical chemistry prof would be proud of me. Point was, this is the first yoghurt where I actually observe this behavior, not like the low-fat crap you buy in the shop. Unfortunately the place is out of kvevri wine. Kvevri is the traditional Georgian wine matured on peel in big ceramic vessels buried in the ground. To the Georgians, the peel is the mother to the wine, therefore, our european style wines are motherless. Well, I will have to meet the mother of wine some other time. The dry red was excellent too. End of nerd moment.
July 9 – I planned everything to the perfection. I bought my ticket to the Hermitage online so that I could jump the queue, I had my breakfast early enough to be in the museum just for its opening. Alas, best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Most of the city centre is closed due to some run, on the bright side, I am forced to see the metro, which looks very much like the one in Prague before the health and safety EU-imposed nonsense kicked in. Anyone remembers how fast the escalators in the Prague tube used to be? Well, in St. Petersburg they still are. Fast and long. There is a little cabin at the bottom of each, from where usually an elderly lady controls that everyone’s behaving. I stop to take a photo, she signals towards me to approach and she readily shows me a card with all the technical data of the escalator, which is kind of sweet.
It takes me more than an hour to actually get inside the Hermitage, because of all the traffic closures. The museum is of course packed, I decide that there is no chance that I can see all of it, so I skip the european paintings, and see the magnificent far and middle eastern, caucasian and Siberian collections (which are surprisingly empty) instead.
The planning still isn’t going too well, cause I had counted one hour for lunch before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Moscow and Barnaul, but the service is excruciatingly slow, which forces me to take a cab. However, my czech-russian is definitely improving because I am able first to explain to Analotolyi the driver that first I need to pick up my luggage in the hotel, and then I agree with the airline hostess that she checks my luggage all the way to Barnaul without me having to worry about it in Moscow. Very pleased with myself.
So, St. Petersburg. I will have to come back, eventually. To see all the things I did not manage to see this time. The big collections in the Hermitage, the Mendelev Museum, and a ballet in the Mariinsky. Anyway. Off to Siberia now. Over and out.