Welcomed With Wasps

My train arrived in Helsinki precisely on time at six o’clock, although the sun outside felt as though it should only be about three in the afternoon. I disembarked and made way to the end of the platform where I found Susanna waiting for me. Although we’d never actually met, I guess you could say Susanna was technically a family friend. Her mother is a close friend of one of my aunts, and when I had been telling her about my travel plans and mentioned that I was thinking of going through Scandinavia, she has suggested that I get into contact with her daughter Susanna. She’d Susanna might be able to offer me a place to stay or at the very least show me around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. Susanna herself was from Canberra, living and working in Helsinki, so even though it was our first time meeting we seemed to have a bit of common ground, and we got on quite well.

Helsinki Station.

Helsinki Station.

We got one of the local trains back to her apartment, which was only five or ten minutes away from the city, and as we walked from the station she explained the public transport system a little bit more, and told me which trains to back to the city. She also explained a few of the other little quirks about the Finnish systems and culture: the tickets were available on trains, but the people who sell them aren’t the people who check for them; beer is available in the supermarkets but only until 9pm, and everything else is sold at shops appropriately called ‘Alcos’; most people diligently obey road rules, including pedestrians – you won’t see any jaywalking from a local in Helsinki; access to free Internet is officially a human right in Finland, and there is free wifi basically everywhere. It was interesting how different things were from Russia – particularly the alcohol availability – when the geographical distance was so small, but that was one of the beautiful things I was soon to discover about Europe. You can travel a matter of hours between countries, or even just within cities, and there is such a rich and unique cultural diversity that just isn’t as prevalent or profound as it is in “multicultural Australia”.

When we arrived at her place, Susanna gave me a quick tour of the building, showing me the laundry room where I could do a much needed load on washing, and the sauna where she had a weekly reservation every Friday evening. She gave me a detailed briefing, to the point where I could essentially be left to my own devices, though it was only at that point that I realised that was exactly what she was doing. She clarified by saying that she had work the following day, a Friday, and then an all day hens party on Saturday, and that she was going to leave me the keys to her place and stay with a friend for a few days. I was a little shocked, and again felt a surge of gratitude towards someone who I hardly knew, yet was going out of her way so far as to give me her apartment for the next two nights. It was a small studio, so realistically it would have been a bit of a squeeze for the two of us, but she assured me that it was no problem for her. She’d mentioned a few times that she had done a bit of travelling herself, so I suppose she knew how much a few free nights of accommodation can mean to a budget backpacker. Furthermore, it would be nice to have my own room and some private space for the first time in weeks.

***

As I was unpacking my things, and Susanna was preparing to leave, I noticed a bug flying around in the kitchen. I moved a little closer to take a look… and then bolted to the other side of the apartment. It was a wasp.
“Ahh, Susanna? Is it normal to have a wasp in the apartment?”
“What? A wasp?” She’d been in the bathroom gathering some of her things, but now she stuck her head out into the main room. “Err, no. No, that’s not normal.” We watched the wasp buzz around, hoping it would fly out the window again. Instead, it circled around and flew to the top of the windowpane – where its nest was hanging from the curtain railing.
“Oh my God! Is that a wasps nest?” It was only the size of a golf ball, but there was no denying what it was it after we watched the wasp climb through the hole at the bottom. “It’s definitely new. They must have come in and made it today, because that was not there this morning.” Her reaction was a combination of disbelief and concern – but I had to drop a bombshell that could potentially add panic to the mix.
“Ah, just before anything else happens, I should probably mention that I’m allergic to wasp stings.”
“Shit, really? Like anaphylactic allergic?”
“Um, I don’t really know. I haven’t been stung in years, but I don’t have an epi-pen or anything.”

After a little while of deciding what we were going to do, the wasp emerged from the nest, and I had a mini panic attack and ran to the bathroom to hide in terror. But by some chance the wasp decided to fly out the window, and Susanna quickly jumped the close them all as soon as it left. We’d previously been deliberating whether or not we could knock it out the window with the broom, but we weren’t sure how many wasps were inside and were too concerned that it might miss, which would be even more of a disaster. We’d even googled “How to get rid of wasps nests” and watched some pretty unhelpful YouTube videos that only inspired more fear. But now, as we slammed the windows shut, the nest seemed lifeless. But it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take, and Susanna had no equipment suitable for removing wasp nests. We made a quick trip to the supermarket to see if we could find some kind of pesticide or bug spray that might help, and on the way back we ran into some of her neighbours who were working in the communal garden.

“The wasps mostly live in the trees around here, like the ones just outside the apartment,” Susanna had reasoned, “so maybe some of them will have experience with getting rid of one.” She conveyed the problem to one of the older women, using a combination of English and Finnish, and it was almost a little amusing to watch the expressions on their faces change as the tale was told and retold in Finnish. Eventually one of the men offered to come up and have a look at the nest for us. When we got there, he simply plucked the small nest from the curtain railing and put it in a plastic bag. There mustn’t have been any more wasps inside, because that was the end of it – we thanked the man and he took the bag with the nest out with him. Later, I would find a wasp angrily buzzing at the closed window, so I made a point of opening none of them for the rest of the evening.

***

After that initial moment of excitement, I spent the rest of my evening – and in fact most of my time in Helsinki – just relaxing. I spent a bit of time in my evenings at Susanna’s sending requests and emails on Couchsurfing – Susanna was only able to offer me a place to stay for two nights, and I also didn’t have any contacts for the next few cities I would be visiting. I also used the sauna during the time when Susanna had her weekly reservation – she wasn’t going to be around and said that I was more than welcome to use it. Saunas are hugely popular in Finnish culture, and my experiences in Russia had reignited my love for their intense steamy heat. However, in Finland it’s customary to always be naked when inside the sauna, and is actually considered quite rude, and in some cases unhygienic, to wear swimwear whilst in a sauna. I don’t really have a problem with nudity in the first place, but since I had the sauna to myself I didn’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t go naked.

During the day I ventured out into the city to do some exploring. I walked through some shops and ate at a few places, and it was quite startling to see how expensive things were. I’d been warned that Scandinavia in particular was quite expensive, but it was a culture shock that had progressively escalated, all the way from South-East Asia and right across the Trans-Siberian. Susanna had advised me of a lounas culture, a custom in which many places offer buffet style lunch menus that are about a third of the price of similar meals when ordered during the evening. Finding cheap places to eat at night could also be difficult, so Susanna encouraged me to make lunch the main meal of the day. I managed to find a few nice places though, and after all the rushing around with the Trans-Siberian tour, in the end I found one of the nicest things to do was lay in the park and enjoy the seemingly endless hours of sunshine. Even some of the locals agreed that it was one of the best things I could be doing, obviously smitten by their summer weather in the same way that the Russians were.

I was more than happy to sit back, soak up the sun, and access my human right to free wifi in the park. I had an email from my parents, who were also taking a short holiday through Europe, saying that the weather in Spain was cold and rainy. It seemed a little ironic, but I couldn’t suppress the sense of smugness that I felt when I replied to inform them that I was currently sunbathing, in Finland of all places.

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The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

Something In The Water

Our first night in St Petersburg was a Sunday night. However, given that the city’s birthday was technically on the Monday, we figured out that it was a kind of long weekend holiday, which meant that not as many people would have to work the next day, which meant that we finally might be able to have the night of partying that I’d had a hankering for since the moment we arrived in Moscow. After we’d arrived back from the Hermitage and taken our well needed showers, I did a little bit of research into the gay scene in St Petersburg. From what I could gather, there were two major nightclubs: Central Station and Blue Oyster. They were in close proximity with each other, and both of them were a reasonable walking distance from the hostel. I put the idea to Tim to see if he was keen, and he assured me he was on board. So after we’d had a few drinks with the whole group at one of the pubs in the street adjacent to our hostel, Tim and I set off for the gay bars, arms linked with a tipsy Kaylah who was to play our token fag hag for the evening.

***

I hadn’t been to a gay bar since I’d watched amateur drag queens over a margarita in a cocktail bar in Siem Reap, so I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the gay rights movement in Russia had taken multiple, crippling blows over the last year. I’m not even entirely sure if being gay is technically illegal or not, but there are now anti-propaganda laws that prohibit the promotion of a ‘homosexual lifestyle’, and there is supposedly a general hostility and climate of hate towards gay people. Tim had said that he’d heard it was a lot less conservative in the major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, so I wasn’t too scared. But at the same time, we were advised to keep our wits about us and try to not get into too much trouble.

We had been aiming to go to Central Station – apparently the bigger of the two clubs – but I’d only had one day to get to know the layout of the city, and I experienced a few navigational issues that took us a block or two too far in the wrong direction.
“Well,” I’d said as I studied the GPS map on my iPhone, “if we turn down here and double back then we should arrive at the other one, Blue Oyster.”
“Do you know which ones better?” asked Kaylah.
“Um… No, not really?” I’d focused on locations and dates and times in my research, but had only skimmed through a handful of reviews, none of which seemed to distinguish one club from the other.
“Well it’s only a quarter to eleven… Why don’t we just start off going to… ah, Blue Oyster?”
“Yeah, Blue Oyster is the one that’s closer,” I said, pulling out my phone again to consult the map.
“Yeah, I know. Its right here.” I looked up, and Tim was pointing to a small neon sign that read the name of the club, but would have been pretty easy to miss. Especially for someone who walks around with their eyes glued to their phone.

“Oh! Okay then, well… In we go, I guess?” We walked up to the security guard who was standing in front of the door, and made a motion that we were interested in going inside. The guard looked confused.
“Gay bar,” he said very shortly, almost under his breath. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Uh, sorry?”
“Gay bar. This is gay bar.” It was mine and Tim’s turn to exchange confused looks – I mean, I was wearing a pretty homoerotic Tom of Finland t-shirt. We weren’t exactly subtle, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Err, yeah? That’s the point?” I’d replied, not sure if he was taking the piss out of us – unlikely, from what I’d experienced with most Russians senses of humour – or if it was just a precautionary warning that he gave everyone. As he shrugged and stepped aside, I felt as though we were actually doing something slightly risky or dangerous. As far as I knew, it wasn’t unheard of for police to raid gay bars, but the risk added an element of thrill unlike any other gay bar I’d been too – and I’ve been to quite a few gay bars. We stepped through the small doorway and into the darkness within.

The bar wasn’t completely empty, but it was very far from full. There was a bar in front of us, and a dance floor dimly lit with hues of deep red stretched to our right, occupied by only a few people. I shrugged, and assured Kaylah that it would probably get busier as it got later. Exactly how much busier, none of us could say, but that was part of the beauty of exploring the unknown bars of a new city. We started at the bar, where there was a two-for-one special on all drinks before midnight. All drinks, including cocktails. Soon we were standing at a high table and I had two Long Island Ice Teas in front of me, and part of me already thought that even if nothing else happened that night, it would still be a success. The three of us stood around talking, or more accurately shouting, due to the loud music, but the scene around us inevitably led to some curious questions by Kaylah, and all of us talking about our views and experiences of homosexuality. I like to think that I’m a complex and interesting person, and that being gay is only a mere facet of my personality, but in a lot of ways I still feel like my sexuality is a quite a large and undeniable part of who I am. So it always feels great to talk about it with new friends, allowing me to share more about myself and the way I perceive myself. And of course, for better or for worse, alcohol always makes conversations a lot more heartfelt and meaningful, and the three of us had quite a deep and personal discussion.

While that was going on, the club had slowly started to fill up with people, mostly guys but with a few women here and there. It wasn’t packed, but the club itself wasn’t too big – half the dance floor was comprised of wide, podium-like steps that gave the illusion of more space with the different elevations, but it was tiny in comparison to the bars in Sydney or Bangkok. But I liked it – it was a little more personal, and there were also a few upper balcony levels, although they were always full with what seemed to be packs of regulars, smoking their cigarettes and gazing down on the crowd below. At some point after our deep conversations had reached a closure, there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The rather nondescript house music that had been pumping away was replaced with instantly recognisable pop hits – the kind the fills a gay dance floor in ten seconds flat. The Long Islands were kicking in, and before long we were bopping away on the dance floor with the locals as though they were our new best friends.

There were also a few drag numbers – some hilariously performed in Russian, during which Tim, Kaylah and myself were the only ones not singing along – but the inspiration for most of the costumes and dance routines undeniably came from Lady Gaga. Almost every single one of her chart topping hits were played at some point during the night – Alejandro made two appearances, and there even a well-rehearsed drag performance to Telephone – and each and every time the crowd went wild. Having somewhat of an affinity myself with Mother Monster, I thought it was amazing. I have a crystal clear memory of ripping my t-shirt off to join a couple of other shirtless dancers on the podium steps, while Tim just sighed and rolled his eyes and Kaylah watched on in hysterics.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke, but I was still having such an awesome time, and there was even a handful of decent looking guys in the room. I was approached by a tall handsome guy named Nikolay, although I freaked out a little bit when he spoke to me and I discovered he had braces.
“Oh my God! Tim, all these Russian boys are so young!” I remember saying at one point as we passed each other in club.
“I know! How do you think I feel?” Tim was 26, and while most of the Russians looked like big, strong men, I couldn’t find a single one over the age of 22. It was kind of creepy how they obliterated my average accuracy when it came to age guessing. Nikolay turned out to be 19, I had found out when I’d decided to give him a second chance and have a chat with him. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together that evening, though we used our mouths for things other than talking. It turns out that braces, despite their visibility, can be surprisingly inconspicuous to the touch.

***

“Hey, where’s Tim?” I’d found found Kaylah by herself at one of the tables, after returning from a semi-scandalous rendezvous with Nikolay.
“There you are!” It wasn’t easy to lose someone in a club this small, but I must have managed somehow. “Tim is over there,” she said as she pointed across the dance floor, where Tim was locking lips with his own Russian boy.
“Ah, I see,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea. He just said to me, ‘I’m going to go make out with someone,” and he did it.” We both laughed, and I made a mental note to applaud Tim later.
“Well, I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is after 4.” I’d noticed the crowd on the dance floor starting to wear a little thin, and I myself was starting to get a little tired. We let Tim enjoy his spoils of war for a little longer, and I said one last goodbye to Nikolay before we stumbled out of the club.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed when we stepped outside. “It’s alright light!” It wasn’t exactly daylight, but the darkness of night had very much been replaced by twilight of dawn. In fact, it was so similar to the dusk from which we’d entered the Blue Oyster that it would have been easy to believe that the sun had never set at all while we had been inside the club.
“The White Nights, they’re called,” Tim had said as we’d staggered through the streets. We stopped on one of St Petersburg’s numerous bridges to take some photos of the picturesque scenery, and then headed home – swinging past a McDonalds that had closed only 15 minutes before we’d got there, much to the disappointment of Kaylah and Tim. Instead, we went to the 24 convenience store on our hostels street.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

“Don’t forget to get some water if you need some,” Tim had reminded us.
“Oh yeah, you can’t drink the tap water here!” said Kaylah. Earlier that day, Vladimir had told us that the pipes that carry the cities water supply were so old and contaminated that they contained traces of bacteria that make you quite sick, essentially rendering the tap water toxic. After having drinkable tap water for the first time in months in Moscow, it almost seemed like a cruel joke that we’d come even further west to find out it was once again undrinkable.
“Yep,” I said with a smile, as I picked up the biggest bottle I could find, chuckling to myself as I remembered the nights events. “There really is something in the water in St Petersburg.”

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.

In The Ring: Moscow Circus

Our second night in Moscow had been a Friday night, and since we had spent most of the week in complete isolation, I was very keen to have a bit of a fun night out. Maria had suggested that we visit the Moscow Circus, located very close to hostel, and we figured that we could do dinner and drinks afterwards, so despite the wet weather a group of us got together and headed out. Two of our party, Dan and Claire, actually had training and experience as circus aerialists, with Claire having done it professionally, so they were both quite excited to see the show.

The circus ring before the show started.

The circus ring before the show started.

We had a beer in the café before heading into the show. The performance was very entertaining. There were a handful of acrobatics and tightrope walkers who did some amazing performances, though I cowered in my seat at the thought of being that high up, when some of the performers didn’t have any kind of safety harness or net to catch them. There were also lots of animals in the circus, and this what became a hot topic both during and after the show. There was a man doing a lot of tricks with birds and parrots, making them do all kinds of stunts. It was actually entertaining to see cockatoos portrayed as some kind of rare and exotic bird, given that they were considered pests back home who would chew the wood on the veranda of my family home. There was a were about five different dogs ran around the ring and rode on the back of a horse, and there was also a horseback acrobatic performance.

Though it was the elephants that seemed to strike a chord within the audience, or at least within the members of our group. The elephant trainer came out, and there were three adult elephants who performed a variety of tricks, such as standing on their front legs, balancing on tiny little platforms, and picking things up and throwing them with their trunks, as well as displaying a host of other talents. At one stage I think the elephants mounted each other, with their front legs on the back of the one in front of them, and walking around the ring in a little elephant conga line. The crowds cheered and applauded, and from what I could see the trainers seemed to be quite gentle with the elephants. There was no whipping or anything that could be considered overly harsh. My only complaint would have been that the elephant set seemed to drag on forever – over half an hour of elephant tricks definitely felt like enough.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the show, when the cast and crew were taking their final bows, did I even notice that the seats where Matt and Jen had been sitting at the end of our row were empty. I only noticed because I saw Tracy make a point of standing up and walking out. I was a little confused, but I had an idea as to the reason of why they left. Tim, Alyson, Kaylah, Jenna, Dan, Claire and myself all stayed until the end, and we met Tracy outside. Matt and Jen were no where to be seen – I wondered when they had actually left – and there seemed to be a weird tension in the air. Dan and Claire were having what appeared to be a pretty intense discussion, so as we made our way out of the circus I approached Tim to ask what had happened.

“Matt and Jen left, I think, and I guess Tracy walked out…”
“Because of the elephants?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He gave a shrug.
“I don’t know, I didn’t think the elephant part was that bad.” I knew that some people thought having animals in the circus was cruel, but maybe the glitz and the glamour distracted me from the fact that these animals were being forced to perform. Tim was in a similar state of mind, and not really sure what to think.
“I guess. But just watching that, I dunno, their eyes seemed so sad!”
“Really? I thought they looked really happy!” That just made Tim laugh.
“Well then I guess that’s a pretty arbitrary point. I just hope it doesn’t get discussed too much at dinner. That would be a bit of a downer.”

Sign

***

Fortunately, the topic was pretty much left alone. That actually surprised me a little, with people like Dan and Claire in the group, but if they had any strong opinions about what we had seen, they kept them private. Unfortunately, the mood didn’t seem to pick up. The mixed emotions about the elephants combined with the wet weather meant that by the time we finished dinner, everyone seemed ready to call it a night. Even I, who had been so excited to experience the Moscow nightlife, was feeling far too tired to make the trek out into the city in the rain.

But the whole evening did make me think about my position on animals in captivity, and reminded me of my visit to the zoo in Beijing. Back then I had thought that the animals had seemed so sad, cooped up in exhibits with habitats that hardly seemed suitable, but I could also recognise that zoos provide a place for the conservation and preservation of endangered species. The animals in the circus were also living in captivity, but their domestication was purely for the purpose of human entertainment. Some people consider that cruel, with the animals being forced to do tricks and stunts that go against their nature, but I honestly thought that the elephants looked like they were having a lot of fun. I have a friend at home who worked in a travelling circus, and he assured me that the animals where he worked were treated exceptionally well, sometimes even better than the human performers! So when I saw the animals performing their tricks, I simply saw them as part of a team of performers, all doing the acts that they work on and rehearse nearly every day. The animals in a zoo don’t have any freedom either, but the existence of the animals in Beijing Zoo seemed positively boring.

I don’t feel like I can condemn zoos while being so enthusiastic about the circus, so now I honestly don’t know how I feel about either. I guess it’s just like Tim said – we’re never really going to know how these animals feel about their situations. As long as they’re not being whipped or beaten or locked in tiny cages, I guess none of them really have it that bad.

Much More Moscow: Kremlin and State Armoury

After our first failed attempt at visiting the Kremlin, seeing it became the primary objective on our second morning in Moscow. We rallied in the hostel common room bright and early, then made our way back into the city centre. But before that, we had some goodbyes to say. Rach and Marti would be leaving us this morning, and travelling down into Eastern Europe rather and continuing on to St Petersburg. The two girls had definitely been a dynamic presence within our group, and I think most of us were sad to see them go. We went around the group taking turns to hug them goodbye, with warm wishes for the future and promises to stay in touch.

***

Maria had advised us that the tickets to all the Kremlin attractions, including the State Armoury, can sell out rather quickly, so we kept that in mind when we were planning our day. We were so punctual in arriving to purchase our tickets for the Kremlin that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the first people there, but somehow there was already a line of tourists waiting outside the security check point out the front of the complex. We purchased our tickets, checked our bags into the holding room and joined the end of the queue. I remembered back to something Kostya had said at Lake Baikal: “Yeah, in Russia… Russians don’t really understand the concept of a queue.” That can be very frustrating, especially in big crowded queues like this one. People would elbow their way in wherever possible, but I think by the end of our stay in Russia we’d learned to play by their rules, and we found that our group – small in comparison to some of the larger tours – was flexible enough to slip in between other people and slither ahead in the “queue”, non-existent in the eyes of Russians.

The Kremlin is essentially a huge palace complex that has been the hub of political power in Russia since forever, pretty much, and is surrounded by high walls made of blood red brick. It was once the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the central office for the royalty and tsars as well as communist leaders and democratic presidents alike. The red bricks surprisingly have nothing to do with the name of Red Square, and are no suggestion to communism either. Later, Maria would inform me that in Russian, the word for red has dual meanings, and that it had actually been the word for beautiful long before it was ever affiliated with the colour. The more you know. The main features of the Kremlin, though, are the churches inside, some of which have been transformed into museums and exhibitions. Most are still very well maintained in their original condition, designs that appeared to be far more modern than the palaces I observed throughout Asia, though can easily be admired as whole pieces of art in their architecture and decoration. They all follow similar Russian Orthodox designs on the outside, but the insides are far more intricate. Most places required the purchase of a permit to take pictures, but I don’t think any photos can really do justice to these places – especially not the camera on my iPhone.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

On this particular day, there appeared to be a lot going on inside the Kremlin. Once we were inside the main complex, we stumbled upon a huge congregation of priests who were all dressed up in their very formal robes. We asked Maria what was going on, but she confessed that she wasn’t a very religious person and so didn’t really know much about the occasion.
“Some angels have days, that are holy days that are assigned to them. I think today must be some angels day, and so they are praying and celebrating or something. I’m not sure which one though.” I still didn’t really understand, so I just settled for observing the crowd of devout men and watching them meander about the courtyards, looking rather excited as they chatted amongst themselves. We waited around for a little while, watching the men and listening to some of their singing while we waited for everyone to come outside of the final museum, before heading out of the Kremlin and back towards the ticket box.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

I’m not really sure of the specifics or details of what happened next, since I had been taking a pretty passive role in decision making, happy to visit whatever sights had been deemed must-see. We took our time looking through the churches and various exhibitions, and Maria told us that we would be able to arrive at the ticket booths at 11:15am in order to get tickets to the session at noon. Maria had collected the groups money in order to buy all the tickets, but I came along with her because I was going to attempt to buy a student ticket with my ID – it was my university student card from last year, and I was well aware that it had expired, but the foreign people rarely noticed the expiry date and the savings, particularly for entrance to the Armoury, were worth at least attempting to score the discount. However, literally as we got to the front of the line, the woman selling tickets announced something in Russian over the a loudspeaker. I waited tensely beside Maria, who finally turned to me to translate. “She said that there are no tickets left for the Armoury, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we should see what the others want to do.”

The others weren’t impressed. There was another session in a few hours, but I think most of the group had given up and decided we had wasted enough time trying to see these places, when it seemed like a constant uphill battle to even get into them. We ended up separating again after having some lunch, with some people going shopping, and others going for a longer, scenic walk back to the hostel. I returned to Red Square with Kaylah to take some photos, but after that I returned to the hostel via the metro to have a rest. I didn’t gotten a very good sleep the night before, and after talking to Tim yesterday we had decided we might like to go out for a few drinks and see some of the nightlife in Moscow. However, it rained rather heavily that night, which put a bit of a dampener on the mood. We went out to the Moscow Circus and had a beer before the show, but afterwards no one really seemed to be in a partying mood, so we called it a night and headed back to the hostel in the wet weather.

***

I was woken up the next morning by a knock on the door of my dorm. It was Kaylah.
“Tracy and Jenna and I are gonna head back to the Armoury. It’s early enough that we should definitely get tickets.” It was a struggle, but I rushed to ready and head out with them – inside the State Armoury is an opulent collection of treasures and artefacts that is considered one of the major attractions in Moscow, and even though I’d had another terrible nights sleep, I couldn’t justify sleeping in when I knew there was a group planning to head out that way one more time. “Okay, but we need to get back here before noon – we have to check out by then and I’ll have to get my stuff together.”

So off we went to the Armoury. I tried to purchase a student ticket, but unfortunately the woman working had been more attentive than the woman who sold us our tickets to the Kremlin, because she picked up on the expiry date – I still figured it was worth a try. But finally, after three days in Moscow and our numerous trips to this part of the city centre, we finally got into the Armoury. The collection of treasures inside was definitely worth it – all I could think of was how many millions of dollars these items would be worth. Goblets and plates and portraits and books and tea sets and dresses and weapons and – well, the list goes on, but everything was decorated with lavish jewels and pearls and I’m almost at a loss of words for how extravagant it was. It was the kind of extravagance that you only ever really saw in movies, and even then you knew they were most likely props that were worth only a fraction of the real thing. The diversity of the collection was also impressive. Jewelled sword handles and horse armour were in the room next to elegant pearl inlaid gowns, which were in between classical horse drawn carriages and a room full of velvet-lined thrones. We followed the directions of the audio guide tour, seeing the most important and interesting pieces in the collection and learning a bit about their histories.

While seeing the Armoury had been worth the rushed trip, it definitely made the rest of my morning a little more stressful. Firstly, as we walked down the stairs out of the exhibits, I dropped my audio guide. Despite having the safety strap around my wrist for the entire time we were in the museum, is was on the hard marble stairs that it slipped from my grip. It landed with a clatter, and I clutched at Kaylah’s arm when I saw that one of the buttons had lodged loose. I quickly scooped the handheld device up and shoved the button back into place, but the LED screen was starting a flicker, a sure sign that the machines life was about to expire. An endless stream of mumbled profanities escaped my mouth – we’d only needed to leave one form of ID as insurance when we’d collected the devices, but it was Jenna who had left her drivers licence with the desk.
“Just be cool, be cool Robert,” Kaylah had assured me. Once we got the desk, we placed our devices face down, showing the woman behind the counter their numbers, and she returned Jenna’s licence.
“Okay, be cool, stay cool, but go! Go! Go!” I’d whispered to the rest of the girls as we scurried out of the museum and back into the sunshine.

The second thing that made my morning just that bit more stressful was our returning time from the Armoury. I literally ran from the metro station back to the hostel, arriving at 11:58am. Perfect, I’d thought to myself, I literally only need two minutes to gather my things into my bag, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the hostel hadn’t been to sure I would arrive back in time, and I found my bag on the floor of the main hall with most of my possessions thrown into two big black garbage bags. Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been that bad. What actually sucked about this was that it wasn’t just my possessions – the bags was a mixture of my clothes and what may have been the possessions of one, or maybe two other guys from the room who weren’t part of our group. I felt kind of bag for that guy(s), because I’m not even positive they were supposed to be checking out, yet they’d had all their things scooped into a bag and thrown into the hall. I had to sit in the common room of the hostel and sort through all the bags to make sure I’d recovered all my things, while the rest of the group sat around waiting for me.
“I’m so sorry guys, sorry for holding us up,” I must have said a dozen times, but they all dismissed my apologies and said it was fine.
“We’ve got the entire day where we don’t have anywhere to be, so we’re not on a tight schedule, don’t worry.” I was glad they were being so nice about it, and as far as I could remember this was the first time I’d ever really had a problem or held the group up in any way, so they seemed fine with it.

Still, I had run all the way back to the hostel, and combined with the embarrassment of sorting though my bag and packing everything while the others patiently watched on, I found myself dripping with sweat. It was a warm, sunny day in Moscow, and I ended up mopping myself down with my towel and changing into a singlet and shorts. When I’d finally packed all my stuff up and put my pack in the storage room, we headed off as a group to get some lunch.
“Wow, Robert,” Don had said as we walked beside me, “You look like you’ve just had a shower or something.”
“Yes, Don, I’m a little sweaty,” I said, feeling a little testy and unable to hold back the sarcasm. “Thanks for pointing that out. I would rather have had a shower, but I’m actually just really sweaty. ” I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in a very good mood for the rest of the afternoon.

***

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The rest of the day was spent as a group, hanging out in a park to eat some street food lunch, visiting a popular Russian market, and finding a few restaurants and bars to have a few drinks in and just hang out, enjoying each others company. I think the long train ride had really brought a lot of us together, but it was nice to hang out with each other in a different, relatively normal environment, although the absence of Rach and Marti was strangely noticeable. But after we whittled the afternoon away, Alyson and Tim and myself had a few more drinks at a pub just near the hostel, and eventually it was time to head to the train station to catch the midnight train to St Petersburg.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

Maria had met us back at the hostel and taken us to the station, and made sure we’d all gotten on the train safely. “There’s two places empty?” she had asked us, and we reminded her that Marti and Rach had left us the day before, forfeiting their tickets for that section of the journey. “You should come with us to St Petersburg, Maria!” someone had said jokingly. At first she had just smiled and laughed, but five minutes later she stuck her head into our cabin, where Tim, Tracy, Jenna and I were preparing our beds for our final night in transit. “I think I am going to come to St Petersburg. I have a friend who I have been saying I will visit, but I have never been, and it’s been, oh, I have been saying I will go for four years or something.”

We were all a little stunned, but we couldn’t help but laugh. Maria had seemed like quite a lax and easy-going woman, and while it had been a little frustrating when she hadn’t known some things about Moscow that we might have expected from our guide, I couldn’t help but applaud her spontaneous nature that told her that getting a train to another city, with absolutely nothing except a phone, wallet and the clothes on her back, was a perfectly good idea. I guess I learnt something from Maria that night, because with my plans for the rest of my time in Europe being just as unplanned and flexible, I was going to have to learn to be just as swift and spontaneous when it came to making decisions about my travels.