As Paul Theroux has said on many an occasion, train travel is the real travel. We couldn’t agree more. After our two days in Finland we did what the UK hasn’t managed to do in three and a half years and caught a fast train out of the EU. From Helsinki Central Station, with its stern-faced, globe-toting giants, we took the morning train to St. Petersburg for the heart of our trip back to Europe: two weeks in Russia.
Cutting a swathe through a dense sea of birch, dotted with lakes and occasional clusters of solid-looking cabins the colour of burgundy or wine (we ended up settling for ‘Finnish red’) with white trimmings, we finally approached the Russian border after about two hours. This was a big moment on our trip. Normally quite cool customers, Alexander and Eoin put their Kindles down and sat up and looked out and around keenly.
We’ve crossed our fair share of borders within the EU over the past few trips back to Europe, and usually there’s not much more than a ‘Welcome to …’ to tell you you’re no longer in one member but rather in another. Funnily enough, the one we most recently crossed, Germany’s with Denmark, has an actual border control, albeit half-hearted, it seemed to me. It’s there because of the continuing high levels of illegal secondary migration, one reads. Large signs at the crossing – ‘Tipp Tipp Tot‘, which translates as ‘Click Click Dead’ – warn against being distracted by your phone while driving.
No such desultory faffing at the Finno-Russian border, however. A phalanx of dominatrixes got on the train in the no-man’s land leading up to the frontier and went through the carriages checking passports and visas. Despite having shown ours to their satisfaction, I found I had underestimated the thoroughness of their mission when I was waved away like a bad smell not five minutes later after walking several carriages to get a coffee only to be demanded, once again, for my passport by a haughty, statuesque, made-up blonde. I’d neglected to take it with me since I don’t normally bring my passport when I go for coffee. I think I will from now on.
In St. Petersburg cottony stuff floated around like snow. Was this place just so northern and cold that snow fell even in the middle of June? The snow was in fact wispy, fluffy seeds from the city’s many aspen trees. Lovely. And the city itself, once we got away from the underwhelming Finlyandskiy Station (no Helsinki Central) and Lenina Square we’d arrived in, by means of the very deep Metro system, was lovely too, in a sturdy, monumental way.
In what’s been called “the city’s gift to travelers” (by me) Metro tickets are a fixed price regardless of where you’re going. Using the Metro here (and in Moscow) just to get around means you’re killing two birds by seeing one of the city’s grandest, most impressive construtions, with all its bronze statues, marble halls, and chandeliers. When encumbered with all our gear, though, we’d end up catching a Yandex taxi. Яндекс (Da, that’s Yandex) is the biggest tech company in Russia, and one of their many services (it’s the fourth biggest search engine in the country) is finding you a taxi. If there’s a local alternative to Uber in a city, we’ll use it, not out of any overarching principle, but in the same way that we’ll go to a local cafe rather than a Starbucks, for example. Except in the USA, of course, for obvious reasons.
Our hostel/hotel was well-situated between two of the concentric canals and rivers that centre on the Admiralty/St. Isaac’s Church/Heritage nucleus of the city, and we took an evening constitutional in order to uphold our part of the bargain we’d made with Alexander and Eoin when we’d planned this Russian trip back in Brisbane. Bypassing the glories of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, the iconic monument, and one-time church, to the assassination of Alexander II, we took them straight to an indoor shooting range where they got to fire replica Desert Eagles, AK-47s, Glocks, and other delights, and then from there straight to the adjacent Museum of Soviet Arcade Games where they walked around with a matchbox full of kopecks playing pixelly old shooting games, and I found that my skills at Galaxians hadn’t rusted in all those years. First things first, even in St. Petersburg. The churches and museums could wait until tomorrow.
On our first night I woke up at 3:38. It looked like it was just as bright outside as it had been when I went to bed at 11:04, which was fairly bright. Wispy, fluffy, lovely aspen stuff drifted by.