4.30 am. My surly carriage attendant hammers on the door. We have finally reached Moscow’s Kievsky railway station. Three nights and four days after leaving Sophia on the Bulgarian Express I must re-enter the real world. It is dark, windy and raining cats and dogs.

I search vainly for anything resembling English. The Cyrillic Russian alphabet teases with just enough familiar letters to confirm that I am utterly helpless.

“Excuse me, I am a tourist. I want to catch the train to St Petersburg” - She continues painting her perfectly manicured nails without even a glance in my direction. Three more tries and I wind up with two abrasive “niets” and a dismissive wave of the hand.

I head for the exit and hide under my collapsing, collapsible umbrella. A huge hotel looms ahead. At The Slavianskaya Radisson I meet a busload of nervous Americans, all dressed in their Sunday best. They are here to adopt Russian children and must soon go before the judge who will either grant or withhold permission – Good – At least someone speaks English! 

I am told to eat breakfast. The Concierge will arrive at 7am. There are nine railway stations in Moscow. Crossing the city by Metro in rush hour is not for the faint of heart. Eight million souls use the system daily. I encounter them all, as I am swept down elevators and along corridors like a rubber duck on a tidal wave. “Beware of pickpockets on the subway,” urged my guidebook in the box marked “Warnings.”

Hopefully a week’s supply of over-ripe underwear will deter potential thieves. I teeter under the weight of a heavy backpack, wearing “Victim” across my face.

Small successes can revive a chap’s spirits. I spot a station matching the hieroglyphics drawn on Radisson notepaper by Vladimir, the helpful Concierge. Triumphantly, I shove my way out of the carriage through a solid mass of expressionless humanity, and resurface, miraculously, at the correct railway station.

My luck holds a little longer. I am now in the hands of a syrupy Intourist Agent. “Yes yes I will arrange a ticket” he assures me. I relax momentarily. “You are lucky, it’s Independence Day  – A holiday.” “There is one seat available - on tonight’s train.” “It leaves from line #3 at 7.30pm and arrives in St Petersburg at 4.00am.”

My heart sinks. A fourth night on the train. “Is it First Class?” The dismissive scowl confirms my worst fear. “It is Platskartny Class.” (Below Second and above Slatted Seat) “You will have a bunk. Please give me 315 Roubles.” (roughly $14).

This is a good place to get organised. A glassed-in area contains banks of telephones separated by plywood partitioning. I enter – hand over some roubles to the stunning cashier – settle on a stool in my allotted spot, and open the guidebook. “Budget Accommodation – St Petersburg.” With half a dozen to chose from it should be no problem?

“Niet” “Niet” “Niet” – “It is a holiday.” “It is high season – maybe next week?” – Desperate, I look under “Agencies - Home stays and Private flats” “Would you stay with a family?” Right now I‘d settle for a tent on the banks of The Neva. “OK. Call back in five minutes I think I can help.”

Securing the last berth on anything carries inherent risk. I have the top bunk attached to a wall shared by the washroom door. In an open configuration of four, the lower two bunks belong to a young couple playing out an explicit love scene. Their amorous antics seem choreographed to relentless acid rock pounding from the tabletop speaker.

They break off for just long enough to assist me with the bunk mechanism and a bag of bedding, thoughtfully dropped off by the attendant (with a crusty demand for 14 Roubles). Probably to get me out of sight? Ah - The joys of Platskartny class.

What little remains of the night is punctuated by ever increasing, vodka-assisted, slamming of the washroom door, and consequent reverberations through my bunk. The acid rock has ceased – perhaps a flat battery in his Walkman? My spent young couple are dreamily entwined on the opposite lower bunk. They chose well!

Thankfully, The Moscow station in St Petersburg is tourist friendly. There are signs – even announcements – in English!

A young man “relocates” the black bags of an Orthodox nun and beckons me to sit down. I am instantly suspicious, but he calls himself a goodwill ambassador and points out bathroom and shower facilities – Wow!

At 7.15am, I emerge into the sunshine. According to the map, I am within staggering distance of my address on Nevsky Prospect. I pass under an arch into the courtyard. The smell of urine is rank. I find #23 and press the intercom for flat #7. The buzzer allows me into a dank cement-floored hallway. The smell of urine persists. Graffiti covers the walls. A coffin-sized elevator groans towards the 7th floor. Bolts are systematically withdrawn behind the steel door.

Yuri is a short, fit, gregarious man of 52. He is in charge of the power grid that keeps discos jamming and factories humming 24 hours a day. He shares a 5 bedroom apartment with his wife Lina, an insurance underwriter, and their daughter Ana who will definitely leave “Pieter” when she graduates in Economics.

My large, comfortable, sun-filled room is lined with bookshelves. A TV. A desk. Large metallic bows add a sort of 3D effect to the yellowing wallpaper. The bed chesterfield has seen better days. Coffee, toast, and two boiled eggs are already on the kitchen table, together with a plate of ham and cheese slices.

I am to take my passport to “The Agency” for registration. Since Yuri’s home is not “official accommodation,” I must be registered, nudge nudge, wink wink, at a hotel acceptable to the authorities. From the daily rate of US$35, my hosts receive just US$15. The rest evaporates in bribes and fees. So much for the collapse of communism.

St. Petersburg is an ideal walking city. I am in luck. Nevsky Prospect, a wide traffic-choked avenue pulsating with people, is the main artery to everything. Want a burger? Try MacDonald’s. Fancy a boat ride through the exquisite canal system built by Peter the Great three centuries ago? Follow the loudhailer and step aboard.

Need costumed “Peter and Catherine” posers to sex up that photo? Always on hand. A Faberge egg? A Tiffany diamond? Try the lobby at The Grand Hotel Europe, where a night in The Imperial suite will set you back a cool four grand US.

In the roadside park, gardeners fill empty flowerbeds with fall bulbs. A sad pensioner, left out of the new economy despite rows of military ribbons earned from many a campaign, rattles his tin mug in my direction.

On the bridge, an artist adds finishing strokes to the ninth, and final, brilliant cupola on “The Church of Spilled Blood” – A stunning edifice constructed just along the canal where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated.

A gilded spire, slim as a hypodermic, pierces the heavens. I am closing in on The Admiralty and The Neva River. Three preppy girls clatter by on horseback. They cross into Admiralty Gardens for an afternoon ride, bringing recollections of London’s Hyde Park.

Police sirens. The road empties. Expectant crowds jam the sidewalk. The sound of drums. A marching band is heading my way. Of course - An Independence Day parade.

The women are first. Smart navy caps worn at jaunty angles. A ponytail, here and there, to reign in wild blonde or jet-black curls. Crisply pressed white shirts. Neckties. Epaulettes, decorate the shoulders of double-breasted, brass-buttoned, jackets or zippered tunics. Column after column in perfect lockstep. Surely, my drifting eyes are failing me?

Skirts, hiked well above the knee – must be easier for marching? But.. black stockings? And…and.. and.. high heels? Surely these babes – I mean soldiers - are dressed for a 50’s Hollywood musical. If this is glasnost, we could do with some at home. Then I get it. Who could shoot at GI Barbie? That must be it? – A cunning ploy indeed!

I tag along, through the the archway straddling a narrow side street, and The Hermitage appears, like a framed mirage, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. A vast baroque Palace containing over 1000 rooms, freshly painted in apple green, white, and gold, topped with posturing Knights, Gods and Nymphs.

In 1754, four thousand construction workers camped in this very square, now packed with battalion after battalion of Russia’s finest.Today, it is one of the world’s finest museums with over three million items on display. 120 rooms are crammed with masterpieces: Van Dyck, Rubens, Michelangelo, Rembrandt. It will take a day to sample or a week to appreciate. Reason alone to visit this glittering city overflowing with treasures.

Surely, luck brought me to Yuri and Lina’s home. I quickly find the best Borscht soup, Lamb Shashlycks and Beef Stroganoff, in tiny underground smoke-filled cafes well off the tourist path.

Later, at the Metro station, I hand Yuri 450 Roubles ($20) for a ticket to Swan Lake in The Conservatory. “No no Andrew, The Marinsky will cost you 5 times that amount. Save your money. Take a tour tomorrow.” I learn about a simple man who loves to spend time at his dacha, picking wild mushrooms or fishing for trout.

I have become part of the family. I bring a bottle of vodka to Yuri’s afternoon birthday party and endure the obvious wrath of three Jewish aunts – “So you had two spoonfuls of Bella’s potato salad and only one of my Gefilte fish?” -  “So what’s so wrong with Eliza’s pizza that you have to leave the crust?” Yuri winks and fills two glasses. “Na Zdorovia” – “Cheers.”



To obtain a Russian Visa as an independent traveller you must first have an INVITATION to visit a person or institution acceptable to the Government. If you think this smacks of kickbacks and bribery, you are right. A Visa + Invitation runs a whopping $240.

I bit the bullet and phoned specialists:
Capital Business Travel, #207-700 W.Pender Street, Vancouver. BC V6C 1G8.
Ph: 604-609 9680 Toll Free:1-866-204 4969 Fax:604-609 9681
email: victoria@capitalbusinesstravel.com
Alternative online application:  www.GoToRussia.com

REGISTRATION: You must be registered at an acceptable address every night you spend in Russia. DISREGARDING this can cause problems when leaving the country. In my case the agency dealt with the details. Capital Business Travel can also advise.

MY AGENCY: Ost-West Kontaktservice Ph: 327 3416 (St Petersburg)
Email: info@ostwest.com Helpful English speaking staff also booked my hotel in Moscow.

Also recommended: Host Families Association Ph/Fax: 275 1992 (St Petersburg) alexei@hofak.hop.stu.neva.ru

Hostelling International: Ph: 329 8018 Fax: 329 9019 (St Petersburg) email: ryh@ryh.ru

USEFUL GUIDEBOOK: I used Lonely Planet but there are many more around.

SAFETY: Russians love their vodka and at night the streets are littered with drunks and empty bottles. Miraculously, both disappear by morning. Pickpockets are rampant, especially along crowded Nevsky Prospect. Always use a hidden moneybelt.

WRITER'S NOTE: A fast day train “The Aurora Express” runs between Moscow and St Peterburg in 3 hours – Caviar and Champagne are available. Book early. Even at 1100 Roubles ($50) it sells out fast. 


Copyright © 2006 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.