Truth be told we mainly just walked around St. Petersburg ;-)
07.08.2013 - 10.08.2013 27 °C
So with much excitement we left the camp site and headed to the border crossing a few miles away. We had already filled up with petrol and theoretically had enough to get to Saint Petersburg in one go as it was only about 220km away. Just before customs we decided to buy some Roubles and 3rd party insurance for the bike. Money changing was easy enough, to get insurance was a detour of 30km, mmm, guess I will just blag it and get it at the first petrol station across the border. As this is what the guide books said could easily be done.
So we rolled into the short queue and waited our turn. It seemed we had to hand our passport to the woman in the window... seems simple enough. Haha! We tried this but got an irritated look from the scowling woman sitting in her little box. She then blurted something out in Russian and tried to shoe us away. Let the fun begin! So we met the stereo typical Russian and prepared ourselves for the worst. Luckily a border guard came over and walked us to the woman and got some forms from her and handed them to us. Curses, both pens we had were packed deep in the Givi box somewhere. Then the Russian guard came over and gave us both a pen. We managed to fill out the form, both part A and B for when you return and is not to be lost. We had sorted out visas already. We headed back to the surly woman and handed in the forms and passports, I think we got a stamp each. We then stood around trying to figure out what to do next. I see the Russian border guard and try to return the pens and thank him. He smiles and insists I keep the pen, maybe he knows something I don't? Yes, he then gets some more forms and beckons me inside, he sorts out a chair for me and then sits down next to me...oh is this when I am supposed to bribe him?! Luckily not. The forms are in Russian and might as well be in hieroglyphs as that is as much chance as I would have deciphering them. We go through it all together, VIN number, motorbike model etc. He shows me what to put where. When we are done I try to return the pen again but he gets some identical forms and says make copy and also gets a spare in case I make a mistake. Once complete we head to another window and hand it all in, the lady checks it all and then enters it in the computer. I then ride the bike up for a once over and the barrier is lifted for us to enter. I thanked the guard, who was a true ambassador for his country and without his help we would have had a very bad day...
So finally we are in the mighty Russia, behind the Iron Curtain, in the USSR. Whatever you call it, it has always been a fascinating place for me and since being a boy I have always been keen to check it out but in those days it would have been close to impossible plus it was on the other side of the world coming from South Africa. The Russians were always the baddies in movies and TV, worse than even the Germans! No offence, but just imagine the years of properganda us westerners have had rammed into our ears and eyes about these far away scary places. I want to see for myself...
Well things were different all the way to the border in Finland and you could see it getting more rural and rougher. Then once on the other side you could see the difference, people looked poorer, selling potatoes and other home growns on the side of the road. The road itself was in bad condition. But to be fair they were building a bigger better one. I rode into the first petrol station, long drop toilets, nice. Pretty girls in hot pants attending the petrol pumps, nice, pitty I still had a full tank! I head inside to enquire about insurance, I can't speak Russian and nobody there speaks English... mmm to hell with insurance, I am sure the Russians are careful and considerate drivers?
We head back out to the road and speed past a cop car on the side of the road with the copper fast asleep in the front seat! Cool I like this place already. Riding becomes like a TV game, dodge trucks, dodge trucks over taking cars overtaking other cars plus the guy in the BMW X5 overtaking everyone. Similar driving style to Albania, cool, I know how to do this. Turn machoness up to ten and show no mercy. Sure enough along the road there are immaculate grave stones with pictures of the deceased and then bits of the car as well, sometimes a bumper and a wheel or two. Hilarious!
There are a good mix of younger well dressed people in western branded clothing waiting for the buses and then people that look like they belong in a jar of formaldehyde in Peter the Greats Kuntskamera (more on this awesome places later) you can see they have been left behind and are still ticking on soviet time, they missed the capitalism bus and now probably have an even worse existence than the good old days. We marvel at the people and mainly thick forest for a few hours until we hit the outskirts of St Petersburg. I didn't pull over and stop anywhere as there was nowhere to do so without risk of getting flattened by a truck plus there wasn't too much too see but mainly as I didn't want the Guzzi messing with my mind by doing a not starting trick or similar. It has been running pretty sweet since the new gasket and it was fun gunning it full throttle past slower moving cars and in between trucks and bouncing over the bumpy roads.
As we came into the fabled city of 500 palaces, there were people swimming and sun bathing all along the river Neva and Baltic sea. The weather was cooking. The highway was modern and lots of high rise apartment buildings and big western brands like burger king polluting the sidewalks. I followed the open maps that I had downloaded onto the Garmin straight to our hotel in the Petrogradskay area right on the Bolshoy Prospekt, maybe a 20 walk North from the Peter and Paul fortress. Lots of trams to dodge now as well, but it is fun running the red lights and speeding up to try run pedestrians over... well when in Rome, er Russia! Tip, don't think a driver will stop for you or slow down if you are on a pedestrian crossing.
The hotel had a small sign next to a big metal door in a rough looking wall. We pressed the buzzer and the door opened, we headed down the dark threatening passage and found an old type of lift at the end. We climbed the steps to the first floor and approached another door where the friendly Russian lady welcomed us in. She took us to or room and I enquired about secure parking, she walked me to the landing and motioned for me to park in the space next to the lift. Mmm OK... not sure how I would get the bike up three steps. Cool parked behind the metal doors in the passage, try that in London!
We unpacked and headed to the metro 5 minutes walk away, which would then whisk us wherever we wanted to go for a few pennies. No luck the metro station Petrogradskaya is closed for renovations for a few months. Aaargh. We walk instead. Its better we get to see more. This city must have been incredible before the communists got hold of it. I guess the decay is still part of the charm and you can imagine how grand it must have been. The detail and scale of the bridges and buildings is something to admire and easily matches and exceeds other capital cities. From the heights of the Alexander column and the huge square surrounding it, to the brightly coloured church on the spilled blood and the kaleidoscope of mosaics inside to saint Isaacs cathedral, the Winter palace, St Nicholas cathedral, the Hermitage, Kuntskamera, St. Peter and Paul's cathedral/fortress...the list goes on. You could spend weeks here trying to see everything. We made a list of some things we had to see then also left time for random encounters and just exploring. We headed to the Soviet version of krispy kreme, number 25 Bolshaya Konyusshennaya, since 1958. Only one type of donut here and one type of coffee, its tasty and super cheap...maybe this communism thing isn't so bad after all! We see a flyer for a collection of soviet era video arcade type games. Have to investigate further. We find the place and enter, first we try a USSR soda machine that produces luminous green soda type drink, not bad. Next we hit the games with a pocket full of coins. Mostly practical type games, simulating shooting, torpedo aiming and strength or memory improving games. All to make you a better communist I suppose? We have a blast and kill an hour or two. Highly recommended. Next we check out the Kuntskamera, Google it to see some photos as you are not supposed to take any. Two headed calf anyone? Maybe some two headed babies or other delights? Row upon row of grotesque human deformaties and mangled aborted freak fetuses in jars of formaldehyde line the walls. Its like being in a Marilyn Manson or Rob Zombie video. I love it. So horrible but you can't stop looking. This personnel collection by Peter the great is incredible and pretty freaky but was used to educate people that the cause of these deformities was not witchcraft but can be explained by science. The rest of the museum is extremely absorbing just wish we had more time to explore it. Church on the spilled blood was another highlight. The interior has recently been renovated and is magnificent and almost magical. I hope you get the idea from the photos. We have seen hundreds of churches from all over Europe and the inside of this one is truely special. Although it is strange how theses churches could be so opulent and full of beautiful objects and then at the same time try sell you a seat in heaven or torture you until you admit that are in league with the devil then burn you at the stake?
From Wednesday to Saturday we sampled all the delights of saint Petersburg, well not all we didn't try the prostitutes or seedy gentlemen's clubs but did somehow pay just under a thousand roubles for two beers, around 16 quid! To add insult to injury the waiter insisted on pouring the beer into the glass without tilting the glass. Then looked confused when it went foamy from the bottom to the top. WTF!? Haha
We also ended up at a HOG meeting, that's Harley Davidson owners group, which was pretty cool. We checked out some local markets and rode the underground, which is impressive and much deeper and grander than London. The escalators go on for miles. I was thrilled to be singled out by the Stasi... I mean metro police and searched and scanned. Must be the beard!
All in all St Petersburg and the small part of Russia we travelled trough was a great experience and we highly recommend it. It definitely changed our perception on the surely type Russian with no emotion. We had no problems and the people were generally the same as in any big city, selfish bastards, haha just kidding. But you do tend to have more of those special human connections with strangers the further away from cities you get.
It is also very cool, to get the biker wave no matter where you are or where you are from, as long as you ride a motorcycle you are made to feel welcome...
Saturday morning I hooked up the drift camera to my helmet, in case of any altercations, all the bikers seemed to have one, and we headed towards Estonia. We passed some proper old soviet type monuments and buildings on the way. It took us hours to get through the busy border and back into the EU, but we were glad we made it. Russia is big, scary and awesome and I would love to go back and ride its breadth one day...