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.

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.