Friday, July 25, 2008

Splendour of Saint Petersburg

In this summer journey, Russia for me is the most important destination. After intensively studying Russian language for the last year and specializing my geography studies on the former Soviet Union, I really wanted to visit the Russian Federation. Actually it is the second time I visit Russia, the first time being a journey to Moscow and along the Trans Mongolian railway to Ulaanbaator. But with just two days in the capital, I couldn't really say I had been to Russia. So my intention to visit Russia is mostly based on practicing my Russian, to travel the historical center of the country and to view Russia's nature in the European north.
We entered Russia by bus from Tartu, Estonia. The bus trip was nice, although the driver really drove like a madman. On a 70km/h road, he easily drove 130, bumping the ramshackle bus towards the border. Surprisingly, the border crossing was pretty straightforward and compared with other former Soviet Union border quite easy. On the Russian side of the border, we talked a bit with an Orthodox priest, who told us about the history of Pecheri monastery (which is 10km from the border). Continuing along the terrible road (which actually is a 'paid-road'), we hopped off the bus in first city in Russia: Pskov.
Pskov is a city with a long and proud history, also being one of the oldest cities in Russia. The city is famous for Alexander Nevsky's battle with the German Teutonic knights on the frozen Peipus Lake and for its beautiful Kremlin. But coming from Estonia, Russia was kind of a cultureshock, especially for Stephan, Jurjen and Davey. There is garbage all over the place, pavements are in terrible condition and with all the grey apartment blocks, the outskirts of Pskov look pretty grimm. And after a long walk from the trainstation to our hotel, we were confronted with Russian bureaucracy again. It took us about an hour just to check in to 'Hotel Krom' and we had to pay some strange 'registration fee' of 200 rubles each, but the room was nice though.

Our walk in the city was really nice, the Kremlin of Pskov is absolutely beautiful. It is situated on the banks of both the Volkhov and Pskov rivers and the views over the river and city are fabulous. We walked along the main street to Lenin square, where a big statue of Vladimir Ilich himself is still standing. Also we saw lots of nice Orthodox churches, which reflects the rich history of Pskov. Besides our sightseeing tour we ate in a good italian restaurant and we spended some time waiting in an internet cafe for the rainy weather to change. We also had a lot of fun taking Lada and Volga taxis, as they are extraordanary cheap and I love those Russian made cars.
Getting to Pskov from Estonia was really easy, but leaving the town is a different story. Not so much because there is a lack of transport, the main problem is buying a trainticket. The Russian railways are not the most efficient ones and it took us one and a half hour waiting in line just to buy a ticket. Also here we experienced the bureaucratic system. We managed to get the ticket anyway and we took a nighttrain to Saint Petersburg. We bought the cheapest tickets (platskartny) and after the short night we arrived in St Peterburg's Vitebsky trainstation.

In 1703, Peter the Great ordered his people to build St Petersburg (or 'Piter' as the locals call it) with the aim of creating the most beautiful and glorious city in the world. He also had the aim to create a city which could serve as a 'window to Europe' and to be Russia's new Baltic port. A couple of years after Petersburg's creation, it served as the capital of the Russian empire. Until 1917 when the communists moved it back to Moscow and changed its name into Leningrad. The architecture of St Petersburg is mostly based on western European cities, including Amsterdam, which is visible at the cities canals. Therefore today, St Petersburg is probably the most European city of Russia and with a population of over 4.5 million, it's the second largest in the country.

After our arrival at Vitebsky station we travelled by Peterburg's efficient metro to our hostel. And after some resting I walked with Davey along Nevsky Prospekt (the most famous street in Russia) to find a place to do our laundry. Finding the laundry place turned out to be pretty difficult and actually we spended most of the day searching for those well hidden washing machines. During the time we waited for our clothes to be washed, we walked a bit admiring the beautiful churches, boulevards and palaces. The city feels as a huge museum packed with nicely decorated buildings.

On our second day in Piter, we visited the Hermitage, a huge art museum on the Neva river. Luckily, I managed to get all for of us in for free by showing my fake (bought in Bangkok) ISIC student card. So with free enterance, we were happy to walk around past the numorous Picassos, Dutch masters and other arts. The Hermitage actually is so huge that it is almost impossible to see everything in just a day. But as we are not the greatest art-lovers, we spended only a couple of hours before continuing our walks along the Neva, catching a cold Baltika beer on a terrace. Continuing our walking tour we went to Peter&Paul Fortress, an island in the Neva river, and after we strolled past some of the most beautiful Orthodox churches in the city.
As in Russia is some kind of weird 'registration' policy, which means that one is not allowed to stay longer than 3 days in a Russian city without official registration, we had to make a daytrip out of Petersburg. We chose to travel to Novgorod, 3 hours south of SPB. From the busstation we hopped on a bus towards Novgorod, but unfortunately it broke down after 10 minutes and we had to wait for another bus 2 hours later. The Russian customer service was not exactly friendly, but we got a bus to Novgorod anyway. Sitting in the tiny bus cramped on the last seat, there was a guy opening a 2 liter beer bottle, which he was emptying during the busride. This actually is a typical scene on Russian streets or basically everywhere in the country.

After our arrival in Novgorod, we walked towards the city centre, dropped our bags in 'Hotel Akron' and relaxed in the evening. That night, I read some history about Novgorod and I discovered that the city is one of the oldest in Russia. It used to be a main trade post for the Varanga Vikings, who sailed down Russia's rivers and created the settlement in 862. Later Novgorod became a strong, independent kingdom and the political center of Kyivan Rus. Today, Novgorod is a relaxing town with a laid-back atmosphere and some striking sights. The main one being the impressive kremlin on the bank of Volkhov river. Inside the kremlin is St Sofia's Cathedral and some other religious buildings. The other side of the river hosts Yaroslav's court, which basically is a large park filled with old churches.

Luckily, the day we visited Novgorod was pretty warm and sunny and the riverside beach was full of sunbathing people that day. We enjoyed some nice shashlyk before catching a terribly slow elektrichka (suburban train) back to Saint Petersburg. We spended the night in the same hostel we stayed before and the day after I brought Jurjen, Davey and Stephan to Pulkovo Airport for their flight back home. From that moment onwards, I continued travelling solo, with Russia's north as my first destination. I took a nighttrain to the capital of Karelia republic, Petrozavodsk, that evening.