Onwards to St Petersburg!


I say my goodbyes to Anna and Natasha as I have to change trains to get to the inter-city station I need for the journey to St Petersburg.  This is my first experience with these trains and I have no idea what to expect.  I find the station and the platform surprisingly easily; this information is printed on my ticket in Russian.  The train is already there when I arrive around midnight, half an hour before departure.  I acquire a couple more beers for a nightcap and then a litre of water to help me out.  I then find my wagon and hand my ticket and passport to the provodnitsa.  Each wagon has its own provodnitsa who is a combination of ticket officer, cleaner, caretaker and general boss of the wagon and everyone in it.  I experience some trouble finding my cabin, partially from all the beer I’ve been forced to consume and partially because I’m expecting to see four beds arranged in it and can only find two bunks on the left hand side.  The disabled sign on the door also leads me to believe it must be for someone else.  The provodnitsa comes by and indicates brusquely that it’s correct and points at the lower bunk.  This is the first time I notice the number affixed to the wall above it that confirms it is indeed my bed.  Jackpot!  A two bed cabin on my first train journey in Russia!

I stow my backpack by lifting my bed to reveal a ready made storage area.  As I’m doing this, a young Chinese guy enters the room and greets me in Russian.  I return the greeting and smile before continuing,
“Do you speak English?”
He smiles and concentrates for a moment before replying,
“Only a little.”
We move to stand at the window in the corridor and between my bad Russian and his bad English we manage to talk for a while.  He’s a student here in Moscow, but he’s now going home to china for the summer holidays.  His parents are also on the train, since they had come to visit him before they all returned home together.  He shows me the four berth cabin his parents are in and then I head for a cigarette and nightcap before turning in for the night.  Imagine my surprise when I find his parents in the two bunks in our cabin.  I stand, baffled for a while, until he reappears and says we can use the beds in the four bunk room while they sleep here.  I look at my suitcase and wonder where it will go, not happy with the idea of sleeping further than arms reach from it.  I’ve heard bags, or their contents, have a way of disappearing on these trains and Natasha warned me again about this just before we parted.  I must look upset at the idea of moving, because as I’m trying to console myself with it, he moves his parents back to their cabin and tells me to lie down.  I have no idea what else to do and have no energy left, so I curl up on the bed and fall into a black, silent sleep.

I wake up feeling dazed and confused, but sporting a smile in memory of the arse slapping antics of the previous night.  I grab the water I’d bought in the station and drink a litre of it in about ten seconds.  I watch the landscape of St Petersburg roll past as we head for the city station.  Already the place feels very different to Moscow.  Certainly the classic soviet apartment buildings dominate, but somehow here they seem further apart, less frenetic and hurried.  As the train approaches the centre of the city these buildings give way to an amazing array of 18th century architecture still in remarkably good repair – or at least the facades are kept scrubbed.

Alisha, my host, is meant to be working, but she messages me saying she’s sick and has stayed at home instead.  Navigating the Metro here feels easier than Moscow, there are less lines and I only need one change to get to her station.  This does involve walking down a short stretch of the famous Nevskiy Prospect – the road at the heart of St Petersburg.  It’s busy and directed, with the flow of people relentless in every direction.  It seems St Petersburg too is in the midst of a construction frenzy; with scaffold cradled buildings a common sight.  The street feels burstingly alive; like an artist wracked by inspiration and struggling to capture it all and make it real before this moment passes.  This feels like a breath of fresh air after the twisted depressiveness of Moscow and I wonder how much of this style is still the living expression of Peter the Great’s dream of a European capital.  I stroll out of Alisha’s Metro station and message her that I’ve made it; she says she’s still ten minutes away.  I sit with my bag near the Metro exit and immerse myself in the constant flow of people.  This station is to the north of the city centre and right on the Gulf of Finland.  I notice again the flower shops that seem to always exist at station exits in Russia.  I imagine in a country that knows winter too well, flowers are a welcome blessing anytime. 

A woman with dark brown hair and huge sunglasses walks laconically towards me.  Her every movement is a study in smooth efficiency that seems like a lazy dance.  Alisha’s smile comes slowly, with the same calm fluidity, and lights her face from within with a warmth you feel to your bones.  She holds my hand as I kiss her cheek and then explains we have to go and catch a marshrutka.  We walk towards a line of yellow minivans as she explains them to me.
“They run a set route, but you can wave them down and get on or off anywhere at all along it.” 
Her voice is husky and earthy, but her sniffles give away her sickness. 
“You need the number 123 to get to my place, just sit on it until the end.” 
Her accent is fairly soft, but definite.  As we scramble with my suitcase into our marshrukta, I ask,
“How often do they run?  When do they stop?”
“All day as long as the trains are running.  They drive to the other end of the route and wait there and have a smoke or something until some people get on.  It costs ten roubles, which you pass down to the driver after you get in”. 
I settle down as someone takes it upon themselves to sort out change for everyone in the back half of the minibus and passes a single handful of notes and coins to the driver.  In all the times I travelled in these across Russia, I never see anyone try to get away without paying, but locals tell me it does happen.

The trip takes about fifteen minutes and the last stretch is along the coastline next to a large park.  The final stop for the marshrutka is at the end of that road, right in front of Alisha’s apartment.  With much grunting and sweating I manhandle my suitcase out of the van and into the complex.  We enter her building and it again meets the standard of being pretty decrepit on the outside, but giving way to a lovely and recently renovated interior.  Her apartment is on the third floor and looks out across the park and over the water of the Gulf of Finland.  Another friend of hers is waiting for us, a woman in her thirties from near Novosibirsk (the capital of Siberia); just like Alisha who is from Barnaul (a few hours drive to the south of the capital). 

Alisha really is sick, her friend is as hungover as I am and the effort of manhandling my suitcase has drained the rush of energy the city had given me.  We alternate sitting in her loungeroom and kitchen, drinking fruit juice and staring out the window at the ever changing view over the sea.  The view from Alisha’s window becomes an integral part of my days in St Petersburg.  At first I’m watching her staring at the horizon dreamily, then I get caught by it as well.  Every day the combination of sunlight, clouds and the water itself provides endless variations on a beautiful scene.  Adding to that is the small river mouth to the right that features a steady flow of boats and the park in front of us with people walking alone, in couples, with dogs and sometimes in small groups.  Much farther to the left is the mouth of the Neva river (St Petersburg’s primary watercourse) that produces even more shipping and the hydrofoils that take happy tourists to visit Peter the Great’s amazing summer palace.  It’s possible to stare out of this window at any time of the day or night and be rewarded with a view that is at once profoundly relaxing and invigorating.  The slow movement of the water and boating is offset by the faster pace of people walking through the park and down the street.  I try to capture this a few times with my camera, but the relatively narrow view always renders the result at best a dull reminder of the feeling in the moment.  This is one of the first times I truly appreciate what might be captured in a single painting that might take a lifetime to find in photography.


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