Tuesday, July 8, 2014

St. Peterburg Russia...need to go back soon

Photos here: St. Petersburg


A Russian, Frenchman, Irishman, and me.  Drinking.

Vodka.   Lots of different kinds of vodka.   And some beer, too.

All for national pride.

Sounds like the start of a joke, but this challenge was for real.  I think the four of us covered the hardest drinking nationalities, but we would only distinguish the pretenders from the real men at the end of the last night.  Hint: it wasn’t the Russian.

I really enjoyed St. Petersburg.  I came via the 72 hour visa-free rule, and left regretting not getting a real visa and staying longer.  Even one more night would have made a difference.  And before you get the wrong idea, the drinking was but a small detour in the reasons I fell in love with this city.

I was excited to go to St. Petersburg.  I had been to Moscow before on an “in-and-out” business trip, but that left no impression of the country.  I was eager to experience Russia for the first time.  Moscow may be the political and commercial capital of the country, but St. Petersburg has always been the cultural center.

Getting a Russia visa is cumbersome and expensive.  While researching Helsinki, however, I discovered that Russia offers a visa loophole.  Cruise passengers coming from Helsinki to St. Petersburg are allowed to stay in the country for 72 hours without a visa, provided that they are part of a tour group.  St. Peter Cruise Line of Russia monopolizes this route.  They also provide a sham “City Bus Tour” to solve the tour group loophole issue.  The bus simply shuttles passengers to and from the ship to the city center, without any real “tour.”

I had my moments of anxiety about travel logistics, but it was about the return as opposed to the entry.  I had never been on a cruise before, and I realized that I didn't know how long it would take to disembark and clear customs.  On my return, I needed to catch a flight to Copenhagen, but would I have enough time?  After a bunch of hand wringing and asking around, I managed to figure things out and headed off to the boat.

Even though I had come three hours before departure, I was surprised to see that two burly Russians were already in the cabin.  They stank of stale beer and body odor.  They spoke little English but grunted a lot.  They stripped off to their underwear, turned off the lights, and went right to bed without a word.  I figured they had been partying it up the night before in Helsinki and now wanted to sleep.  I wasn’t going to disturb them, but I wasn't just going to sit in the dark either.  So I left.  You know the saying: don’t disturb sleeping bears.  I took my backpack with valuables, including my laptop, with me, just to be safe.

I found an indoor deckchair, which wasn’t easy because the rains had driven everyone inside.  I sat down and did work for a couple hours.  For dinner, I ate the sandwich I had bought at a grocery store, since the food on this particular cruise line is reputed to be very bad and quite expensive.  Finally, I was on my way to Russia.

From this rather complicated beginning, I had the most marvelous of trips. S t. Petersburg is a treasure trove of cultural and historical sites.  I tend to avoid museums, but I did two, yes two, in this city.  The Russian Museum has the world’s largest collection of Russian Art, and I enjoyed it.

The highlight, however, was the Hermitage.  Only the Louvre and the Met can rival the Hermitage’s collection.  To my surprise, I wished that I had even more time than the half day I allotted to the Hermitage.  I cannot rave enough about this museum, and I was lucky as they were co-sponsoring an extensive modern art exhibit as well for a few weeks.  The exhibits enthralled me.  That was even before I saw a Russian woman walking around the exhibits in a sheer skirt with no underwear!  What?  In a museum?  See if you can find the photo in the album.  It’s hard to miss.  On a serious note, I liked the Hermitage more than any museum in a long time, and hope that I can go back soon.  It’s remarkable when you consider the fact that it was also the Imperial Winter Palace back in the day.

St. Petersburg’s other historical buildings, and the overall streets and canals, were both picturesque and full of history.  The weather didn’t cooperate the first day, so I covered the same route on a later day when the weather turned gorgeous.  Compare the photos.  It’s amazing the difference that good lighting and weather can make.

I also spent half a day wandering the outskirts of St. Petersburg.  Tourists rarely venture out this far, largely because of the language barrier and because the core center offers so much for the visitor. I wanted to see how most average Russians live, so pursuant to a Lonely Planet suggestion, I hopped on the metro and explored a couple areas.

One stop had Stalinist era apartments which contrast sharply to the beautiful buildings serving as living quarters in the core city.  But then again, I had also discovered that many of those “beautiful” buildings in the core city were mere facades; I snuck into the courtyards of some of the structures and discovered decay, crumbling infrastructure, and beat up elevators.  Perhaps on a future trip, I can get to the bottom of all this.

The second stop took me out to the suburbs, where I found that most of the structures were basically shacks that the locals kept up as best as they could.  They didn’t live in huts, but this view reminded me very clearly that Russia is a country with a developing, not developed, economy.   The government wants to project an image as a super power, and the cores of St. Petersburg or Moscow resemble that of any major developed city.  However, just as with the buildings and their shabby back alleys, Russia is not yet a modern economy beneath its gleaming, beautiful surface.  Traveling beyond the tourist center confirmed that.

The food was also quite good.  I tried everything from traditional Russian fare to a Korean restaurant for lunch.  The city is neither cheap nor expensive, so it was fun trying different kinds of places, and I found almost all of them worthwhile.

Now for the vodka.

In Russian, vodka is derived from the word for “water.”  And Russians like to drink it as if it were water.  One of my roommates in my hostel was a Russian web game programmer who currently lives in New Zealand.  He emigrated from Vladivostok Russia when he was 19, but often returns to the motherland as a tourist.  We struck up an immediate friendship when he found out how much of a fan I was of New Zealand’s south island.

The World Cup was in full swing.  Due to the time difference, however, the games were not on until late.  But that’s OK, because St. Petersburg was in the middle of their “white nights” summer.  In the summer months, the sun sets, but hovers near the horizon for an extended period so that the skies never seem to get quite dark.  The nights are white.  The locals use this as an excuse to stay out and have a good time until, well, the sun actually rises again.  This is reinforced by the fact that St. Petersburg is a series of islands.  The metro ceases running and the bridges are raised and uncrossable after a certain hour.  Just as in Tokyo, where the salarymen are “forced” to stay out drinking all night if they miss their last train to the suburbs, the local Russians stay out all night if they are “stranded” in the core island.

In any case, we were joined by a primary school teacher from the U.K. and a construction engineer from France.   The first night, we went to a local bar and had a hoot of a time watching the game.  I don’t even recall who won, but everyone was drinking and cheering and booing.  Sure enough, by the game’s end, everyone in the bar was friends with everyone else.  Everyone was also totally s*faced.  To their credit, the Englishman and Frenchman held up pretty well.  I think I did as well.  The Russian?  Well, the Russian was definitely teetering.  Somehow, we managed to drag his limp body back to the hostel.  There was still a lot of touring to do the next day!

The next night was my final night in St. Petersburg.  Ahh, the damn 72 hour limitation.  The USA would be playing in the World Cup quarterfinals, but not until midnight.  We decided to hit some of the more popular non-sports watering holes first.  The Russian claimed that he zonked out the prior night because he had been drinking during the day, so had been way ahead of us in alcohol intake when we started that prior evening.  As juvenile as this sounds, he boasted he would outdrink us all this night.

Now, I like to drink.  And sometimes I get drunk as a result.  But my days of drinking just for the sake of getting drunk are long behind me.  I think the other two guys felt the same, but we humored him and his bravado.  We each beat our chest and boasted about the strength of our nationalities.  It was our own mini World Cup of sorts, but with vodka.

We ended up bar hopping and having a blast.  We met and made friends with many locals, learned and sang a bunch of Russian songs, and had a generally great time.  My favorite bar in St. Petersburg is Fidel (yes, named after that Fidel), but all the bars are largely indistinguishable, including a bar named Barakobama (Russians apparently can’t spell).  It was just pure, good natured fun.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, however, the Russian disappeared.  He wasn’t looking too well, so we figured he just went back to the hostel to sleep it off.  The three of us continued to bar hop until around 2 am, when we headed back to the hostel.  We even caught on the lounge TV the tail end of the USA game which had gone into extra periods.  Overall, this was one of the bigger party nights I’d had in awhile, and quickly fell asleep.

I woke up fairly early the next morning to squeeze in my last bit of sightseeing before I had to head back to the cruise boat.  I felt hungover, but I’ve been in worse shape.  Alas, I stumbled badly when I tripped over something in the common room.  Huh?  I looked down, and it was the Russian.  He was crawled up like a ball on the floor, moaning softly.  I tried to wake him up, but it was hopeless.  I had to get going so I reluctantly left him there.

When I returned that afternoon to collect my bags, I found him semi-asleep on the sofa.  He stirred as I was checking out.  I asked him if he was OK.  He replied that he felt really sick and had been throwing up since the prior night.  I asked him what happened.  He said that he left us because he "met some chicks” at our last bar and disappeared clubbing with them and did a bunch of shots and got wasted as a result.  Hmmmm.  OK.  Sure.  Anyway, he was a nice enough guy so I wished him the best and headed out.  I hope he survives the rest of his trip.  He is a heavyweight drinker in his mind but a lightweight in the real world.

By the way, I think the Frenchman won.  I saw him that morning and he looked totally unfazed.  The Englishman looked like I did, not terrible but surely showing some wear and tear, and a bit of the bleary eyes.  The French guy, however, looked at us with a questioning look, inquiring “what eez the big deal?”  So based upon this small sample, France has the strongest drinkers and Russia the weakest.  France won our mini World Cup.

Overall, St. Petersburg was a great trip.  I feel as though I spent every waking hour on the run, either as a tourist or just out having fun.  And yet, I feel like I only scratched the surface of this complicated, interesting, historical city.   A common tourist complaint is the unfriendliness of Russians.  I found the exact opposite.  Whether in the bars, stores, streets or even the suburbs of this wonderful city, I found most Russians to be friendly and approachable.  I hope to be back soon to continue my adventures.

Photos here: St. Petersburg