8,504km later: The Final Leg of the Transsiberian

This post is part of my Transsiberian Chronicles collection, where I post entries that I wrote in my journal during my travels through China, Mongolia, and Russia in the winter of 2010/11.

St Petersburg-6.jpgMoscow. -18 degrees.

I can’t believe we’re almost finished this thing. Only another 649 kilometers to go, and we’ll have traveled a total of 8,504 km by rail, from Beijing all the way to St. Petersburg. Weird. That’s just weird.

We’ve had a handful of sparkling, wintry days in Moscow. We head for the Russian capital’s frosty station under backpacks and swathed in the thickest layers of clothes we own. It’s time to board our sleeper train for Saint Petersburg.

Compared with the clunky behemoth we endured for our 5 day marathon from Siberia, this train is glorious.I mean it’s actually glorious .

It’s new. The compartments are clean. It doesn’t smell funny. It isn’t stagnantly hot (granted, we’re in Russia in the dead of winter and it’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, but since when does that merit a need for plus 50 degrees Celsius inside the train?).

We have been provided with complimentary “welcome aboard” food packets, complete with delicious wafers, cream crackers, jam, and tea. A single-use toothbrush & toothpaste for each passenger, individually wrapped. Slippers, shoe polish, and… a shoe horn. Just in case.

We’re sharing a wagon compartment with a mother and her daughter, which lowers the risk of alcohol-induced anxiety to exactly zero. — (we need it after this).

Relaxing, simple, clean, and short-lived, I couldn’t be more impressed with our over-nighter to St. Petersburg. The bathrooms even have flushing toilets!


A handful of kilometers later…

Holy smokes. We made it.

We actually made it. And we’re both still alive, to boot. How improbable was that.

After a restful sleep on beds floating us into the northwest of Russia, the train clunks into the Saint Petersburg train station in total blackness. A glistening moon overhead.

“5:00am. Dance music: “I’m Horny”  (horny horny horny), music blaring from speakers nestled in the fluorescent lights overhead. Coffee shop. Orange plastic bubble-shaped seats.

What a way to wake up. My glasses are falling off my face. Probably from the dirt (it’s been awhile since I showered). I’m wearing exactly the same clothes I was yesterday. I don’t even think I changed my socks.”

It literally feels like a decade has passed since we left Beijing. China, what?

After our morning overdose of cappucinos and totally awesome music, we left the Saint Petersburg train station to search for our hostel.
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It was a nightmare to find. An absolute NIGHTMARE. We were staying at the Gogol Mogol hostel in Novocherkaskaya, and the directions we got from the website were atrocious. It took us a good 30 (ok fine, 50) minutes of backtracking before we came to the “entrance” – around the corner at the rear-end of an old soviet apartment building and across a puddle as big as a lake. No signs, no visible address, nothing. We literally buzzed up in every “buzz-up” location we could find until eventually someone let us into the building

(Pretty sure this hostel is illegal ).

Anyway, we got upstairs and it turns out the place is actually pretty fantastic. Beautiful little refuge from the bitter cold outside. Bright colours, comfortable couches, showers. I may or may not have showered for an entire hour.

I tell you, I’ve never appreciated showers (or cleanliness, for that matter) quite so much until I came to Russia.

We spent the day exploring. It was all sorts of awesome. This was one of those days where we didn’t particularly feel like doing anything “touristy”. We figured we’d walk around, see what we could see, do what we felt like, and call it a day. It was one of those incredible “zero pressure” sightseeing days that I so rarely get when I’m traveling with a companion. It was awesome.
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We left the hostel and wandered into a random subway station (it looked like it might be warmer underground). Decided we’d hop a train to the general area of the Hermitage (we didn’t honestly know what else to do).

The metro in Saint Petersburg — can I just say, wow. The entire station is constructed of marble.

Marble here, marble there. Marble, marble, everywhere.

And escalators were so vertical that I thought I might fall off. Literally it felt as though we were being taken to the centre of the earth.
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At the bottom of several of these extraterrestrial escalators, we reached a network of marble tunnels stretching in every direction. Dim sconces on the walls and signs in Cyrillic lit our path to the platforms.

Now, let me just say that these platform where you get onto the train look nothing like normal platforms I’ve stood on, anywhere. These metro-train platforms in Saint Petersburg have hidden doors, and look suspiciously like bomb shelters. If I didn’t know better, I’d keep walking. It doesn’t look like a train stops here at all. Were you fortunate enough in your childhood to have read the Robert Munsch book “Jonathan Cleaned Up — Then He Heard a Sound“? Because this is exactly what it reminded me of. Walls opening up to passengers flooding a bedroom (or, in this case, a bomb shelter).
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On exiting the subway station, we happened upon the majestic Church of Spilled Blood. Reminiscent of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, but slightly muted. More beautiful, in my opinion.
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The next day (or the day after that, or the day after the day after that, I don’t remember – and who am I kidding, who cares anyway?) we wandered to the fabled Hermitage as the snow fell lightly around us. Didn’t go inside. Didn’t feel like it. Chastise me?
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All this non-sightseeing was making us hungry. We contemplated sushi…

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…but we’d had enough of that in Moscow.

Instead, we opted for Subway sandwiches. Yes, that’s right. A Subway sandwich. Just like any sandwich you can get from any Subway restaurant in North America. Except these Subway sandwiches were made by Russian sandwich-makers. And they were… just as bad as they are in Canada. It was worth a shot.
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And then, guess what. We went to see a movie. Why, you ask? Because, quite simply, I had a craving for movie popcorn of course.

So we walked around every main street in Saint Petersburg in search of a cinema. Some place, any place, that would show us a movie and provide us with popcorn.St Petersburg-11.jpg
Did you know Russia has pornography cinemas ? Oh yes, they most certainly do.

We nearly stopped at one and indulged, but the thought of a movie in English was too tempting to resist. So we carried on. And eventually we found a theatre playing a movie with an actor we recognized – Matt Dillon – so we made the fatal assumption that the movie would be in English.

We bought our popcorn and settled in to watch “The Takers” in a small Saint Petersburg cinema along with 20-odd Russians.

The entire movie was dubbed-over in Russian. THE ENTIRE MOVIE. No subtitles, no nothing. Just English speakers with Russian voice-overs. Let me be the one to say it: Not even a Russian voice can make Matt Dillon’s acting good.

Well anyway… we had this giant bucket of popcorn and we weren’t going to not eat it, so obviously we stayed. And watched the entire movie in Russian. Oh yes. What a terrible movie. What a terrible, awful, no good, very bad movie.

But I wouldn’t take it back. Because it was hilarious, sitting there and enduring this thing. And I learned a valuable lesson: Russians really do hate speaking English (almost as much as the French).
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Saint Petersburg feels decidedly Scandinavian, what with all the canals and unique architecture. Gorgeous city. Shitty cinemas. We should have gone with the porn.
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Oh, question. What is up with the extensive use of the word “bloated” in this country? Bloated sturgeon belly, sliced. Or perhaps you prefer the Broiled bloated eel? Boiled and bloated sausage? No?