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Tag: The Red Arrow

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

Booking the Red Arrow

I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.

I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red ArrowКра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strelapossibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.

Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?

AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.

Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:

And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!

I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)

I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.

I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.

AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.

I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.

The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)

They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.

As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?

It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.

Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.