Out of nowhere, I decided that I should visit Russia. The other reason was I had a friend there whom I could meet. So, I got my Visa from Russian Consulate at Mumbai. It’s a quick, cheap and fairly easy process. Only weird thing is that you need to get a tourist voucher from a recognised travel agent based in Russia. There are ample of web sites that provide such tourist voucher letter online costing 12 to 20 Euros. You can also ask your accommodation provider to provide you for free. I visited the Russian Consulate personally; the lady at the counter asked me some basic questions on the purpose of visit, date of return, etc. Mine was a challenging case because I wanted to enter Russian land by road from Estonia. I had no clue, no information on internet on how feasible it is, still I took a chance. I decided to visit only one city, St. Petersburg for 9 days as I wanted to deeply experience the city culture. I had my hostels pre booked online. Accommodations are fairly cheap in St. Petersburg. I paid around 55USD for 9 days for top rated hostels (That’s a steal!).
So, May arrived, I packed my bags and I was ready to go, standing here outside my door, I didn’t know really what to expect from Russia. The picture painted in my mind was of old grey soviet-era buildings with huge photographs of Putin hanging on them, Stalin statues here and there, and serious-looking people in military uniforms shouting Communist slogans all around. Ohh and I had also read there are millions of Single Russian women due to gender imbalance who are waiting to grab foreigners by their hand. That was fairly a fascinating and scary picture of the country I had!
I had booked a bus ride from Tallinn to St. Petersburg. Apparently, I was the only brown guy in a bus full of Russian and Estonian people. At the start of the journey, the driver handed out an immigration form for foreigners to fill. I realised I was not carrying a pen with me. Panicked, I Google translated on how to ask people for a Pen in Russian. I succeeded to get one and later thanked Engineers at Google. Lady who borrowed me Pen was very nice that she gave me a pen as a gift saying I may need it later on. Well, that made my day! Bus passed though Narva which is the last Estonian city to the border. Finally, the day arrived when I reached Russian border. There were 3-4 checks performed, some on the Estonia side and some on Russian just doing Passport and luggage scans. The Border patrol officer seemed to be surprised seeing me. Her eyes rolling, she could not anticipate who is this guy from India crossing a border from Europe to Russia for tourism purpose. It took longer than usual for me but it went fairly smooth. The whole process took around 45 minutes that’s because you need to wait until all the passengers pass border control. The border crossing was well organised and damn beautiful. There is a castle on the border, a beautiful garden and people taking stroll with their dogs like any city center garden. Finally, I was on the Russian land, my hands yaying as if I conquered a city. This was the first time ever I crossed a restricted border by land.
I reached St. Petersburg bus station in the afternoon. I had 2 options either to catch a metro or a taxi ride to the hostel. For some reasons I always prefer public transport over comforting taxi rides even if taxis cost same as public transport, And taxis are super cheap in St. Petersburg. That’s probably because I get to experience the local feel of the city.
I reached hostel which was located in Ligovsky Prospekt, took a shower and went out searching for a lunch. Entered couple of local restaurants and just came out as I could not understand the ABC of what they are serving. Finally, ate at KFC, the safest choice! In the later days, I did try local delicacies. Hostel was super clean and staff was very friendly however, boring as they did not had a single tourist. There were mostly locals and students living there. Staff went way beyond their limits in helping me out with queries related to sightseeing or even filing a registration with the government. There is another weird requirement from Russian government that if you plan to spend more than 7 days in Russian territory, you have to register your stay with the government authorities. Luckily, hostel staff took care of this for me.
Later in the night, I decided to hit the night life, visited a club named DOM 7 as they were playing a Live Jazz band. Place was crowded and people were enjoying at full. Later, I thought I should visit another club named Purga which is known for celebrating New Year eve every night of the year. I reached their gate and the clowns did not let me in (Well, the Guards were dressed as clowns apparently). I was shocked, this was my first ever encounter with racism outside India. I felt deeply insulted despite experiencing severe racism in India. Then I found a noble way to relieve my anger, I gave them zero ratings over social media ????
After 5 days, I moved to another hostel named Chill Out and it lived to its name. This hostel was the exact opposite of the earlier one, one of the best hostel stays I have ever done. The lady managing it was awesome. She had never travelled to India but knew a lot about Indian culture. Her mom had been to India twice. The common area was full of collectibles, musical instruments – a guitar, ukulele, piano, mandolin and balalaika, board games, awesome art works and 5 pets. And she was an artist herself. She made me felt like I was at her home. She treated me with home cooked bliny, herbal and Peur tea multiple times. She even taught me how to do a tea ceremony and please the tea God, and allowed me to play all her instruments. Later, On St. Petersburg day she took me to the roof top of a 150+ year old building to see the fireworks. This was the most dangerous climb I have ever done as we had to walk on the slanting roof top without much support. Hostel was full of locals’ long time stayers but pretty chilled people. One of the young Russian guy in my room carried a copy of Bhagwad Geeta, would light incense stick (agarbatti) every morning, chant some mantra, play soothing Zen Buddha music and would roll a joint to start off his day! The guy was living his life! Amazing guy to converse with. The best part is when they share some unique cultural insights about India which we just take it for granted like Baba standing on one feet forever, ladies wearing bindi and snake charmers.
On the other days, I met my friend who took me to a beach-like river front and to Kronstadt, a small naval town in St. Petersburg. The river front was quite an experience; with rich Russians chilling out in Cafe, folks playing volleyball, youngsters walking around with songs playing on full volume on their JBL’s, a women dropping her pants and taking pee in open air, and couple making out on the sand! Nobody gave a damn about others. Later, I had a lunch at her house and she bought raw horse meat for me to eat. Well, I did try it but it felt like eating a semi-liquid state plastic. I just could not chew it; you need super powerful horse-like teeth to chew it. And she just ate it like a waffle!
Overall, nine days were spent great. It’s a great 18th-century city of remarkable grandeur, slowly reviving from its Communist era. With their colorful, playful Baroque facades, its buildings exude the opulence of Tsarist Russia, but are more European in essence than the Kremlin domes of Moscow. It was from St Petersburg that the tsars ruled Russia for two centuries until their downfall in 1917. City is full of historical museums, art and amazing architecture. There is a great European influence and you do feel European culture and vibes on the streets. City has lots of canals flowing in every corner of the city. It’s also called as the Venice of the North. People are helpful and kind in general however; very few people speak English. You would experience some dose of unpleasant experience if you cannot converse in Russian. Like, Enquiring for a transport card in the sub way station was next to impossible for me. I had to then Google, thank engineers at Google again and read the information on internet and then find somebody close to the ticket counter who can converse in English. Even buying a SIM card and asking the sales guys to explain me internet plans was almost impossible. On other day, I ended up booking an Opera ticket instead of a Ballet because of language barrier. Well, the Opera did turn out to be a great experience ultimately. Opera was in Italian and I believe no other language can ever do justice to Operas. Italian must have been born for Operas. Your fondness towards Italian language would grow multifold if you ever watch an Italian opera. And then I had to book a ballet show for another day. Even ballet was quite an interesting experience. You just wonder how somebody can walk on their toe the entire time.
Hermitage museum is a must-do thing if you are in the city. You need one full day to tour and perhaps few days if you are a serious history/art freak. They have Michelangelo and Picaso’s work on display. It’s the second largest museum in the world. I read somewhere there are 427 museums in St. Petersburg city. It is called cultural capital of Russia for a reason. City has been home to some of the legends in the world of literature, art and music – Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Nikolay Gogol, Tchaikovsky among few. I would definitely recommend watching a ballet, an Opera and an Orchestra in Mariinsky Theater to get the true royal feel. The theater was founded in year 1860 and is incredibly beautiful.
Nevsky prospekt is another must-do thing. It’s the main avenue and the most happening street in the city. It cuts through the historical center and several touristy spots in the city. The street looks like a grand carnival on Friday and Saturday evenings with people drinking (Vodka is cheaper than sprinkled water), singing, dancing all over the street. There is somebody busking on the street every 100 meters either an individual or a band, and people participate with high vigor. This is something that’s unique to St. Petersburg. There must be more than 250 cafes, restaurants, and pubs on and around the Nevsky Prospekt Street.
I was lucky I got to witness a white night in St Petersburg, with the Sun setting in too late or perhaps not setting at all. That’s like a literal 24 hour day! Also, I got to experience a river bridge split opening on St. Petersburg day.
On another day I went to one of the flea shop and flea market. It’s the best flea market I have ever visited and you get authentic collectibles from the vintage era. I bought 90 souvenir items and the weirdest things I have ever bought with money including used library card, a driving license cover, dead film roll cameras, a wooden whiskey hip flask, school medals and dolls. One of the old lady seller I encountered happened to be a fan of Raj Kapoor and sang me one of his iconic songs and gave me a free souvenir as a token of appreciation. Well, I was flattered!
If it’s St. Petersburg, you definitely cannot afford to miss traveling on its subway stations. The system exhibits many typical Soviet designs and features exquisite decorations and artwork making it one of the most attractive and elegant metros in the world. Sometimes you feel like you have entered a noisy art gallery. Saint Petersburg Metro is also one of the deepest metro systems in the world. Escalators in some stations take as much as 140 seconds to reach the platform despite them operating at high speeds. They are so long that they have a full time lady operator sitting in a cabin below watching people over CCTV full time to safeguard any mishaps.
Overall, it is a great city perfect for all kinds of travelers – solo, couples, and family.
Coming back to my initial picture of the city framed in my mind, I could conclude following
– I could not smell communism anywhere. City and culture appears as European as Paris or Berlin and totally capitalist. It’s a bustling city with 10 Million+ people. Seeing so many people I felt like my home city, Mumbai
– There are no posters of Putin on the buildings
– There is no gender imbalance among young population
Some interesting things I noticed –
St. Petersburgians are huge in size, at least majority of them. And the men look real tough with their smile less faces. So, don’t mess up with them.
People usually do not smile much at strangers even when you converse with them
Pastries are incredibly cheap and absolutely yum yum
Borsh(a beetroot soup), and bliny are worth a treat
Climate gets cold even at the end of May month
All buses have only mid aged/old ladies as conductors for some reasons
Vodka is super cheap and youngsters drink like crazy
Hipster culture is very much visible on the streets. They truly believe in partying with their soul whether it’s on the river front, a car, a club, a garden or in a crowded street
Women are mostly pretty with great sense of fashion
Social Latin dancing scene is virtually non-existing
Russian is a very sweet language.
Most of the Russians I met could sing and dance on Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy aaja aaja aaja