Ivan's travels experiences St Petersburg

Monday, August 18, 2003
After spending an enjoyable week with Hank and Yvonne and travelling with Hank out on the job for the first four days seeing a little bit more of Holland and enjoying the town's we visited. Both were very gracious hosts as always.

Yesterday morning Hank took me to Amsterdam airport for my flight to Frankfurt and then on to St Petersburg. Totally uneventful as occasions like this should be except for when we arrived at St Petersburg they stepped the brakes ever so fast and it rattled and banged I thought hello that is interesting, however it was a nonevent.

I was one of the first off the plane having filled in my immigration form and customs form in duplicate, collecting my bag, which was second off the plane, lining up to go through goods to declare, because I had my computer and cameras, to be told to go through the green line so it was off out into the waiting crowd found solid looking Russian lady with my name she took me to her car, I put the luggage in, and we were then on our way to my host for the next 11 days.

She presented me with an account as we were driving, for her fee, the fee for my host, and the fee for the bed-and-breakfast in Moscow. Now this was not the arrangement we made by the e-mail so I said nothing, so she told me she did not speak English in any case, arrived at my hosts, after dragged my suitcases up three flights of stairs, thought this was Poland, rail all over again, met my host who spoke good English, she was an English teacher, sorted my driver out settled down for a sleep in their lounge which they rent out every summer, nowhere to hang my clothes, oh well!

Asked my hostess if I could use the telephone to log on for my e-mails to be told that there was a fault somewhere in the telephone line and it would probably take a couple of days to be fixed. This meant finding an Internet cafe tomorrow.

The building that the apartment is in was built in 1913 and has got wonderful ceilings and doors at least 8 ft. tall. Most of the window frames are in need of replacing the road outside the apartment is a graveyard for cars, but it is reasonably central to most of the attractions.

This morning my passport arrived back with the Visa having been registered, I was given a set of keys for the house I made a note of the address in English and Russian, found out the minibus that would take me to the centre, and then decided to walk which was something I had not done enough of since my return to Europe, well I certainly made up for it today, the map I had was too small, the names were in English, the names on the street were in Russian, and you think I could get the two matched, not on your Nellie, so I decided just to walk and look for a company to supply a sim card for my New Zealand cell phone, and then a Internet cafe.

Well the sim card was easy, purchased $10 of airtime and was given a telephone number at no charge, you need your passport to do this. And the phone number lasts for nine months and if not used is automatically cancelled. But do you think I could find an Internet cafe, I walked until lunchtime had lunch, steak and chips 190 rouble. Walked on and on and on. After five hours I arrived back at the apartment talked to my hostess and decided to go back into town via the minibus.

Waited five minutes for the minibus, which took me into the Main Street and low and behold there was an Internet cafe. Purchased 25 minutes of time, the minimum, was allocated computer number 67, yes it was big business in this city, cleared way 40 junk mails, replied to four e-mails and decided to walk back to the apartment.

Down the road and little bit I found a map, purchased it, 50 roubles, looked at it down the road and discovered it was all in Russian, thought all that will be good at least I'll see how the Street names are spelt.

At least I had discovered an easier way back to the apartment with the minibus and the map and I decide to stop for the evening meal with it being about 630.

Found a rather nice restaurant in a large hotel, when sat down was given a menu in English, thought Oh, this is good, prices have very reasonable, my brain at this stage was out of gear, so I ordered my meal, a Diet Coke, another Diet Coke, and another Diet Coke. Just then my eyes drifted to another menu that was on my table and I realised everything was in American dollars. So I did not order another three dollar small glass of Coke, well the meal arrived steak and chips the same as lunchtime, I should have gone to McDonald's for the chips and the $34 steak was not all that smart. Total for dinner 1305 roubles, total for lunch 190 roubles, difference in the meal is zero. So another lesson on the advisability of staying away from the American tourists and their support system.

Time to wander on back to the apartment with my new Russian map to discover that when I needed the names on the streets there were none and when I found a name on the street it was not on my map so I only made one detour that took a extra 30 to 40 minutes before I found myself back at the apartment.

That was probably a good seven hours of walking today so that should help with the old waistline after the easy time I had over the last few weeks.

I did see a few high-heeled shoes today but nothing like the Ukraine, there was certainly nothing to compare between the two countries in the dress of the ladies. The Ukraine wins almost without trying. It will be interesting sometime to do research into this phenomena and I may look for funding to carry out a 10 year research.

I have found it very difficult today trying to find the very many attractions here in the city that all listed in my copy of the lonely planet, but this damn Russian alphabet has me totally baffled. I would have thought that some of the major attractions would have at least had some small English sign out but no, no such thing. Must look for more maps and more guidebooks tomorrow, in English of course.

After the seven hours of walking yesterday I allowed myself a sleep in until 930. After breakfast I headed for the Hermitage and looking at the length of the queue I should have been there a couple of hours earlier. I stood patiently in the queue for 90 minutes and got to the ticket office where there was one person selling tickets, I guess when you have the biggest show in town, you do not have to worry too much about what the paying public think. To the other degree perhaps unless there is a long queue the Russian people may think it is not worth while attending.

Well I wandered through the Hermitage and was totally overwhelmed by the size, the expensive decorations, the inlaid floors, the elaborate goldwork, the paintings on the ceilings, I could go on and on and on. It is the grandest building I have ever seen.

And the treasures inside the building leave one gasping. It was a total cultural overload. It is worth while returning to St Petersburg just to walk through the Hermitage again.

Well I felt quite good when I came out of the Hermitage and saw the queue was at least twice as long which based on my wait meant three hours before they were at the ticket counter, unless, heaven forbid, they had opened two ticket counters.

So far since I've been here I had had hot sunny weather. It's been a joy to walk the streets and to walk home from Nevsky Prospekt which takes 45 minutes of fast walking has been enjoyable and a good way of keeping fit.

I finally found that the Internet cafe where I have been downloading my e-mail will also allow me to connect my laptop to their system, you can make local phone calls, long-distance phone calls, it is a busy, busy place with about 70 terminals and a very fast Internet connection. It is just as well because my hostess tells me the phone may not be reconnected at her apartment for several days.

Dined at a small cafe on Nevsky prospekt and could watch the locals walking past, there were seven local lads doing the American Negro dancing of spinning on the ground etc. they had a big audience, lots of applause, past the box around and I hope they got enough money to pay for all the energy they used.

Where I was sitting was on the main street of St Petersburg and was after work, well 730, they did appear to be a much better dressed group of people parading the street that what I saw yesterday on my wanders on the other streets. So could be that two things are at work here, one it is the area the well-dressed people parade, two I may have been seeing girls that had gone home from work and changed their clothes then came back to Nevsky to parade.

Sorry folks the Ukraine still wins for everyday wear in the street during the day. This is of course just a casual comment and by no means is meant to be the conclusion of the extensive study like I suggested earlier in this journal.

The first wet day for sometime, just a light drizzle, but enough to be a nuisance if you are walking the streets trying to find where you are going.

I set out this morning to visit the Russian Museum, I used my new guidebook, the new map system, which is a wonderfully easy, unless you turn right instead of left like I did then it is very hard to find the building your looking for.

Eventually I realised I was going the wrong way, turned round and went back and there and front of me, had I looked before, was the magnificent "Church on Spilled Blood". Today being Wednesday the church was closed, and as I did not have my camera because of the wet weather and will be another visit both to see inside, and do several photographs.

I still could not find the Russian Museum so I wandered through the marketplace of stalls selling Russian icons, dolls, painted eggs and so forth. This was across a bridge and a professional photographer was a busy talking to a bride and groom all in a light rain on the bridge and no one seemed a little concerned, so I walked over to a shelter, pulled out my guidebook, and try to work out where I was.

Eventually I decided if I walked back I may start getting close. At that moment another three cars pulled up and another bride and groom and wedding party and other hangers on pulled up to be photographed in front of the church in the drizzling rain, so champagne in the drizzling rain, then the first couple the groom picked up the bride, wobbled a fraction, had a photograph taken and then took his bride back to the bridal car, when he was allowed to put her back on the ground. The bridal car was a black BMW with a large symbol of two rings joined and this was secured on the roof.

This seems to be a normal scenario, because the second groom also picked up his bride and carried her back to the car. I might add that in both girls were of the slimmer variety.

That entertainment over I wandered back on the other side of the canal and then came to the conclusion that the Russian Museum was down a side street so I crossed over the next bridge and eventually found my way to the ticket office.

Absolutely wonderful, no queue, checked my jacket and umbrella into the cloakroom, had a bite to eat, and was now ready for what turned out to be the most magnificent collection of paintings I think I have ever seen. Again it was overwhelming. Some of the paintings were of a magnificent size and needed one of these old Russian palaces with the magnificent high ceilings to be able to display them

With these two days of culture I may never ever be the same again. As a matter of interest tourists pay about 10 times the entrance fee of the local people.

Found an English written Russian newspaper yesterday, it was interesting how it is still a little bit of the wild West here, it was talking about the coming elections and how some of those on the outer are having their telephone conversations bugged, then the people that they were talking to being advised they should not too what the telephone conversation was about. On the street you watch the traffic, even if you have a green light to cross, as I have seen several cars approached the pedestrian crossing at a high-speed blowing their horn, naturally the people scatter, and after observing that a couple of times you treat crossings with respect.

I note in the new guidebook it warns that one should not drink the tap water as it has heavy metal and giardia, so went out and bought some bottled water to clean my teeth with.

I been using the minibus system where you wait on the side of the road and when you see the one you want, mine is 169, you wave, it stops, you get on and pay your 10 roubles (US$0.30) and takes you any distance that is on its route. A fast efficient system, there is one along every five minutes.

As long as you stay away from the American tourist traps it is quite a reasonable city to visit, moneywise, once you can sort out accommodation. You do however need to know the price of souvenirs before you buy from one of the street stalls because like everywhere in the world they count on you not knowing the price and using your value system based on your own country, which of course is out of kilter here.

Well at looked like it was going to be fine today and it was most of the day just one shower to date. I took the computer first of all in to the Internet cafe and downloaded 120 spam letters, all addressed to me, all with the virus attached, and then to 200 yesterday and it looks like I am being bombed. I may have to consider not publishing my e-mail address on my web site and that may be a way of eliminating this continual problem.

My first visit was to the "Church Of Spilled Blood", I photographed it from the outside and paid my 50 roubles on top of the 250 entrance fee to photograph inside. Most impressive the painting over almost every exposed portion of the inside of the church.

Then I caught a minibus home, to dump my computer and went back in to the city with just the camera and umbrella. Wandered around Nevsky getting photographs that I missed the other day, went into the Armenian church, where it was handed back to the Armenian community it was a wreck inside after 60 years of neglect and they have worked wonders on the restoration.

It is interesting to see the St Petersburg girls, if you look at one of them in the eye, they will look at you straight back as if they dare you to do something about it, or that is the feeling one gets, this is even if they are with a guy. While having my lunch and I happened to catch a girls eye, she looked me straight back, then looked away, and I could almost see her thinking, I'll teach that old "B" to give me the eye, so she stared me straight back without a blink, all this was getting a little bit more than what I had bargained for so I thought the only honourable way out was to wink, well she could not help herself, but burst out laughing, of course I was laughing as well, then she had to explain all to the girlfriend, but I noticed she did not look back again. Score Ivan one, girl zero.

It is a little disconcerting as your walking down the street and you are admiring a pretty girl walking towards you and she pauses by a rubbish container and spits a good healthy measure in to the container. Funny how you go off people isn't it.

On a wet day you can't help noticing all of the downpipes from the roofs which are of a tremendous size in empty their contents onto the footpath, I thought this must be wonderful with the first frost you would have a good iceskating ring. The size of the downpipes also made me wonder that then I realized that as the air is colder the water would freeze to the edge of the down pipe and ice would make the size of the down pipe smaller, a bit like the clogging of the arteries.

The Russian family I am staying with is a little bit dysfunctional and is a little bit like many homes I visited in New Zealand as a wedding photographer. Unwashed dishes on the bench, cold chips in the frying pan, dishwasher full of dirty dishes, a hot water system in the bathroom there was a simple flow through electric heating system, that supplied warm water, a toilet that smelt, either through the deodorant used or the rubbish container full of used toilet paper. Yes it is interesting.

Also interesting as the moving around in the rain, standing on the side of the road waiting for a minibus, getting on board with all of the other people wet, seeing life as it happens on a daily basis, almost, seeing the people walk in the rain without a umbrella or overcoat, perhaps they can afford neither, seeing the drudge of the ordinary people's life, knowing from experience it is not going to get any better. Yes if you live in the West you need to give thanks on a daily basis that you are not born and one of the Soviet republics. That is of course unless you had the tenacity to become one of the many millionaires and billionaires in these republics.

Is unfortunate that if you speak English in this city you are naturally assumed to be American with a unlimited supply of American dollars hence the street traders and taxis like traders and taxis the worldwide put their prices up by at least 100%. I guess that is part of the price being born in the west, the ability to pay for the ticket to get to this country. I guess that is a small price to pay. But you can't help wishing the Americans understood that all of the economies of the world are not the same and goods in this country actually cost a lot less money.

Friday, August 22, 2003
As I wander around St Petersburg I see many things which I try remember, one of them is the amount of beer I see being drunk out of bottles by men of all ages as they wander along, like you see in the West, peoples swigging out of water bottles, what that's what they are doing, except they had beer bottles. Occasionally you get groups of young ladies doing the same thing, have noticed this is common throughout the old Soviet block.

Nevsky Prospekt, as you will quickly find out is the main drag, and if you find your apartment which is on this street you may think you're lucky, well this street is about 3 mi. long and numbers up to say 85 or lower in the hub of things those over 85 getting onto the other side of the Moscow Station and it is quite a long walk to the main area. There is of course the Metro and buses and the Mini buses, but I mentioned this in case you think you've got it made and find you are almost on the other side of town.

Today I wandered Nevsky with my guidebook in my hand looking at the buildings and the description of the buildings in the guidebook as to when they were built and why, most interesting.

Wandering through a large block of shops I came across a painted wooden egg, a low price of 360 roubles, compared to thousands a roubles in the tourist marketplace. It was interesting in these shops as to the reasonable prices for woman's clothes, that is compared to the west, and the styles were, to me, very good.

I have a large semi professional digital camera, which is unfortunately reasonably large and heavy to carry around all the time. Particularly in variable weather like I have had the last couple of days, so I went on to a camera shop and bought a small digital camera, smaller than a pack of cigarettes, it appears I paid normal western price for it, and for that I had the pleasure of getting an instruction manual in Russian (all was not lost I manage to download the instruction manual from an Pentax American web site, I started with the UK web site that they wanted money for the instruction manual, so I thought, the Americans are too busy, to be chasing a little pieces like that and sure enough they had Adobe files for the manual.).

It was interesting to note the prices on cameras, and the fact two had been sold whilst I was there, so somebody in this country has money.

Fortunately I know enough about cameras, to do with out an instruction book to start, for most of it seems to be common sense, however there are one or two minor things which I the downloaded manual will help me with.

I did this as I was going to walk around the Hermitage and over the bridge to the Vasilevskiy Island, this was good being able to pull out the small camera and take photographs as I saw them, but I did not have quite the precision of my good camera, but it was better than nothing. I think I'm going be very pleased with this camera, and I can see that I'll carry it often.

Evidently the island is a popular place for newly married couples to have photographs taken, so I spent an enjoyable hour or more photographing the couples being photographed. The brides did seem to be extremely young by Western standards, more like the Sixties in New Zealand when I was photographing weddings and most of the girls were 18 to 21. In those days if you were 22 and not married you are considered to be an old maid, my how things have changed, today.

Whilst I was on the Island, a young Russian approached me with a book of Russian stamps for 350 roubles, or the equivalent in euro or American dollars, I made hand signs to him that I would talk to him after I had wandered around so on my way back he was waiting, and whilst I assumed he was making a good profit from this, to me it was a reasonable price and worthwhile having, what for I am not sure, but time will tell.

In all I took over 80 photographs with the new camera, downloaded them into the computer, and I was very impressed in pleased.

Whilst I was on the island photographing couples a wedding party of a very young couple, no professional photographer there, he was just a student, and the boys from the party adopted me for a few moments pouring me a healthy tot of vodka, I referred to as, Russian water and they liked that.

On the way home I stopped at an Irish pub, yes they are here as well, had my evening meal there, there's one thing I found out about this country that like Poland and the Ukraine they love their onions, I had shepherds pie, as I broke the top open, a strong smell of onions wafted towards my nose, it made me think that pie was 90% onion and 10% shepherd, now I have learnt with everything to specify no onions please. However I may be safe ordering a custard square without special instructions, I would hope. It was good to see the butter supplied was New Zealand butter.

This morning at the B&B there was no food at the inn, the hostess was away for four days and the daughter and husband was supposed to be manning the decks as one could say. However as I noted earlier the family was dysfunctional so I decided to eat in town and caught the normal mini bus in. I wandered around, but it was too early for most cafe's to be open. At this stage I was getting very hungry and I thought of the good old Scottish family called McDonald's, so I went there and sure enough they were open, extremely reasonable and price, and that kept the wolf from the doors. I visited them twice later a day apart, and both times it was after 12 o'clock and they were packed totally, I in my travels have never seen anything like it, if you wanted to make money buy a McDonald's franchise in Russia.

Pizza Hut and Kentucky fried and both also here, but do not have the same sort of crowds as McDonald's.

After no breakfast at the house, I decided I was going to move out of there and get an apartment, so I started searching the Internet and appears that the quite a lot of apartments available to rent from about $60 to $120 or more. A lot of them are rented through the "Russian bride system" is geared up to match lonely Americans with Russian girls, they want to go to the magic country. Eventually I found an apartment right on Nevsky not too far from the centre at $65 a day.

It is interesting that a lot of the apparent successful Russian men dress themselves in total black, drive large B&W's or Mercedes, new ones of course, talking of that I saw my first 760 iL BMW today, illegally parked of course, Windows all Black, these men usually have a young lady on their arm at least 20 years their junior, I guess nothing changes in any country.

Talking of this, my hostess tells me her current marriage, is her second marriage, the daughter is from the first husband, whose extremely wealthy today, and gives the daughter anything she wants, so technically she does not have to work, so I would guess he is one of the men I have described above.

It is very interesting St Petersburg, built over 200 years ago, okay it has had its 300 year celebrations, but let us say 200 years, and Nevsky prospect which is the main street can take three lanes of traffic going EACH way. How could you visualise 200 years ago that you would need streets this wide. Easy you say, OK what will we need in 200 years time…… now?

Yesterday when I was on the shop waiting be served, a young girl perhaps 14 or 16 pushed in front of me and bought ONE cigarette. And it almost appear from my observations that as much has 80% of the population smoke. It has obviously been a wonderful publicity campaign, and I would guess that some party big wig has got a string of cigarette agencies all sown up. However it is interesting to note that people are still smoking outside the offices or shops so there is obviously some restriction during working hours.

While selecting my apartment from the marriage agency, they suggested I have a look at the girls they had on their books. There's a tremendous amount of girls from 18 through 35 all wanting husbands, financially secure, fond of children, who do not drink, and all the girls claim to be non-smokers. Well with what I have seen these 24 girls that I glanced at, all extremely good-looking, I might add, all non-smokers, must be the only non-smokers left in St Petersburg.

I'm starting to notice well-dressed young girls walking down the street with a open bottle of beer in one hand, sipping straight from the bottle, and a cigarette in the other hand.

The other day when I was lined up at the Hermitage, a woman pushed in, and is worthwhile noting how she did it, she just stood slightly behind me, her back towards the queue, looking out away from the queue, and she never made eye contact with anyone in the queue. She just move forward with everybody and missed out on the incredible 90 minute wait. I guess with the 50 plus years of queuing in this country there is little bit of a fine Art on how to do things like this.

At the Irish pub, a couple of young girls came in, probably 16 years of age, bought a pint of beer and sat down sipping the beer. I guess it was as close to a foreign experience that they could get, for the price of a beer.

Fur coats are not necessarily a fashion item here, more like survival. Having said that they do have some beautiful Fur coats and to me the seen to be quite reasonably priced. I'm not sure of what sort skins they were, they looked good, and were priced from 46,000 to 80,000 roubles this equates to US$1505 to US$2620

Walking through the shops you occasionally get close to people that cannot afford, or do not believe in deodorant. It is quite frequent, and depend upon where you are, and I often think, on occasions like this, of New Zealanders describing the London underground in winter or early spring as something to be avoided. But I guess they have not been on a Russian metros.

Today I thought I wander back to the Island, see some other sights over there and see if there are any more wedding happening. Went through the Naval Museum, everything was written in Russia, I wonder why, it did say in the guidebook that they were now acknowledging that the West was part of World War II on the same basic side as Russia, but there was no sign of that, to me, at the Museum.

After this I walked round the Island around some of the Grand old homes and then ended back on the waterfront where the couples come to be photographed.

Evidently observing what goes on, they get married, and then come to the waterfront location where they are either have friends or what were grubby photographers do a series of photographs. It is easy to see the ones that had a pro, they seem to get a good series of photographs taken and have some sort of organisation to the time they spent there.

Others sort of arrived, milled around the car, ate sandwiches out of a box in the boot of the car, drank champagne out of plastic cups, the bride and groom had champagne glasses, which after they had toasted each other they threw against a rock face, smashing them. The broken glass was littered everywhere.

Two old guys playing music, when the next bride and groom arrived, they had two tunes, one of them being Laura's theme. I think that was only played if they were given a donation, because they did not seem played at every time.

Today is the day I move into my apartment, it is raining cats and dogs, or very hard, I decide to leave my suitcases at the B&B while I look at the apartment, so I walked to my normal location to get that the mini bus, I got almost drenched while I'm waiting, two buses go past the full, and between the two buses there is a cloud burst, I was thinking, yes, I've been in situations like this before at home, like a lot of people, but the difference is we can is often see a way out of it, where is looking at the people here, there is no way out.

So in desperation I flagged down a bus going the opposite way, paid by 10 roubles, at the destination the driver said finish, or words to that effect, I gave him another 10 roubles, which he accepted turned around and pulled up to a long line of people waiting for the bus to go into the city. I now see why the last two buses were full. Of course this bus was not quite full, and when it got to my stop there were four empty seats, but least I was as fraction drier, and had contributed another 10 roubles to the Russian economy.

Well I telephoned the agent to look at the apartment, this was at 915, she was not available until 1030, so I filled in 40 minutes at the Internet cafe. Walked in the rain down to 69 Nevsky, the agent appeared from the Metro, the Russian owner of the apartment who could not speak English was there, she would have made a wonderful anchor in a tug-of-war team, and an illustration of what these cute little Russian girls can end up like.

Nevertheless she owns the apartment and so I was given a guided tour, paid my money, the agent took her cut, passed the rest onto the owner, the agent ordered me a taxi, which arrived 30 minutes later, I had interesting fast drive through the wet streets, in a Lada, with the driver only getting lost once, picked up the suitcases, back to the apartment, not quite sure, at this point, why I put myself through the B&B.

The rest of the day was spent trying to find a telephoned plug, to try to get onto the Internet from the apartment, found the plug, but could not connect to the Internet, something to do with the phone system. Walked back down to the Internet cafe that will allow me to plug my laptop in, cleared up all my e-mails, told the other people who were trying to rent me an apartment that I now had one, all the time wondering, with all the rain, if someone, somehere was building a Ark.

Is interesting going into some of the grocery shops, one in particular, you had to go and pay for what you wanted, as far as I can tell, before you were given the goods. I went to open a fridge to get a bottle of cold water, it would not open, I turned to the girl and sort of signaled what am I doing wrong, she picked up a remote control, pointed it at the fridge, and I was able to open the fridge. Almost everything seems to be locked up, and only opened to remove products once they have been sold. It almost seems as if they expect to queue everything, as I see queues were ever I shop.

Tomorrow I must get back to the sightseeing business as I'm running out of time.