Russia 2019 day five: moving to St Petersburg

Seven o’clock isn’t actually very early to get up but it felt like it, especially for a train leaving at 9.20 from a station two metro stops away. I got there in time. For the first time, the day dawned grey and with the sound of tyres on wet roads. That could be due to obsessive road-washing but no, it was a damp day.

I’d heard that I needed to be at the station an hour before the bullet train left, to go through security and find my platform, neither of which turned out to be a problem. Security meant dumping my bags on the conveyer belt of an x-ray scanner, as I’d already done a couple of times, and then again to gain access to the Сапсан platform. The departure boards spoke English but I think I’d have been able to figure it out. Sapsan has its own platforms and its own branding and I can read Санкт Петербург so I’d probably have been ok anyway.

One thing that surprised me was that the guard didn’t want tickets for boarding, only passports, and then I needed the last four digits of my passport number to use the wifi. It was like being on a plane except Russian-style – men guards in big military hats and white gloves, women guards in tight grey pencil skirts, an entire army of them, at least one per wagon.

It’s called a bullet train and Sapsan means peregrine falcon so I was expecting fast. And it does make the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg in four hours instead of nine or ten but the fastest I saw, briefly, on the carriage displays was 219km/h which is 136mph which is fast but it’s not that fast. It never felt faster than the train I take from Southampton to London.

Four hours passed surprisingly fast and before I knew it, I was packing up ready to alight in my second city. Escaping St Petersburg Moskovskaya was a lot harder than getting into Moscow Kurskaya and once I was outside – onto Nevsky Prospekt, I discovered later – it was chaos. Far more chaotic than Moscow. So far my images of the cities were that Moscow is the huge old sprawly dirty scary city and St Petersburg is the smaller, more delicate and pretty one. London and Helsinki. But I’d been wrong about Moscow, which is the cleanest city I’ve ever been in and surprisingly ordered, although it has too many cars, as does every major city in the world. I have three full days to see how right or wrong I am about St Petersburg.

My hotel was just down the road, although my luggage seems to have doubled in both volume and weight since I arrived in Russia so it felt far too far. Carrying it from the station to the hotel in Perm next week is probably going to kill me.

First things first, a quick lunch from my Moscow leftovers and then back to the big shopping centre behind the station for new supplies. There’s always a supermarket in a shopping centre and this one possessed the same supermarket as the one at Kyivskaya the other night, my favourite one so far – although in this particular one I question their decision to put the chocolate and confectionery on opposite sides of the shop. Same goes for drinks & juices and cheese & yoghurt.

I knew I wasn’t going to do much today. But when I’d walked into the hotel, they had an excursion booking desk and front & centre was a big poster for Feel Yourself Russian, the folk show we saw here seventeen years ago and it’s still running, with the same posters. I’d been considering hunting it up but since it right there I booked it for the evening.

Transfer is included in the price – that means a taxi gets sent for you. I’m not a huge fan of taxis and by the time I arrived, I wished transfer was not included. It would surely make tickets half the price and I’d be far more comfortable on the metro. In a car with a stranger, on streets I don’t know and which don’t match the route I looked up before going out, driving at 70km/h on inner-city boulevards, overtaking, traffic lights going green onto green-lit zebra crossings and it took twenty minutes for me to notice the three-foot crack across the windscreen. I was pretty sure someone was going to die before we arrived and while it was probably going to be a pedestrian, I wasn’t ruling out it being me.

I don’t remember going to the Nikolaevsky Palace last time but how do you forget walking into a palace, up a huge ornate staircase that gets specially pointed out in the Wikipedia entry, and into a palace chamber? Even better, there’s a string quartet halfway up the stairs and people in Imperial Russian costumes dancing around.

Last time, we took photos throughout. Not in 2019, although fully half of the front row didn’t get the message and there was one woman at the far end who didn’t once look up from her phone or remove on earphone.

Audience aside, it’s a great show. It starts with a four piece male choir (who leave waving CDs and traditional wooden clacking instruments) and then they bring on the band, complete with enormous triangular guitar-thing and two accordions, and then the Cossack dancers. It’s all so chaotic and colourful and crazy. There’s someone in the band whose job is to whistle deafeningly, and the male dancers yell and the female ones shriek. And yes, they do the floor dancing that looks really bad for your knees.

During the interval there were snacks, Russian-style. We wandered freely around the palace – well, the part that was open to us. There’s a lot of palace that isn’t. The second half was similar except it was a different dance group and the band had been wedged into the corner so they had as much stage as possible.

I recognised some of the costumes from my old photos and I recognised the dance of two elderly Cossacks hugging each other, which is actually one person with boots on their hands as well. Bit disappointed there was no chicken dance this time or playing of tiny saws. But they did a dance with one person continually falling off the stage and one where they all sat on the stage and took it in turns to show off their favourite floor-dancing and at the end, one woman crouched while one of the men spun her round and round using an actual handle.

Afterwards, those of us who weren’t on a tour bus gathered around Sergey, who delivered us to taxis back to our hotels. This one wasn’t quite so scary but I’d still take the metro over my first Uber. I saw St Petersburg by night. There’s a palace or neoclassical mansion quite literally around every corner. There are horses pulling decorative coaches. My brief impression, somewhat blurred by speed, is that I like Moscow more. There are ladies selling tourist junk from tables along the street, I saw litter and using a zebra crossing seems to involve taking your life in your own hands. I felt safe in Moscow at night. I’m not so sure about St Petersburg.

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