8th – 14th July
Our first border
What a difference a border makes. A thankfully unexciting 1 hour 20 mins at the Finn-Russian border marks the end of the efficient, becalmed sanity that is Finland (and Europe) and the start of the vast, multi-faceted chaos that is Russia.
It is impossible to appreciate the size of this country as you enter, our bones jarring on the instantly potholed and treacherous roads. Much of our route towards St Petersburg is on a back road abutting the Gulf of Finland, today an inviting, sun drenched sea that meekly heads the Baltic. Whilst padding along the sands of this shore it is unimaginable to think you need not cross another border before repeating this same exercise on the Pacific.
Our first stop is Vyborg, a rambling, once grand port that bears the hallmarks of centuries of struggles between the Swedes (ruling the Finns) and the Russians. It has an air of regal decay, the wealthy, well dressed businessman fallen on hard times. Beautiful 18th century mansions, once resplendent in vivid blues and ochres, now barely stand, utterly derelict and apparently beyond salvage. Yet the city has a pleasant, laid back feel and the locals are as friendly as any we’ve met, and we enjoy a relaxing few hours in the sun and enjoying the fact that the last of Europe’s exorbitantly priced countries is behind us.
The Russians no longer do campsites. Since the fall of the USSR, budget vacation spots for a proletariat unable to leave the country due to both economic constraints and party dogma seem to have fallen largely redundant. We drive the entirety of the road to St Petersburg without seeing a single operative campsite, barring one just 10km from the Finnish border which at the time, we had no reason to believe would be our last.
The 'Window on Europe'
Thus we rather unexpectedly found ourselves in St Petersburg on the 8th, a night earlier than planned. Immediately this revealed itself to be a good thing, for even five days in this city does it little justice.
As it’s impossible to be brief about this city, and so as not to bore those who may have been there before (indeed anyone who finds inadequate descriptions of extraordinary places a little dull), we have written a different page solely dedicated to the sights we saw here.
We stop for the night in the pleasant and thankfully reasonably priced hotel, just off the main street, Nevsky Prospect (being past 8pm, we had long since given up any thoughts of a campsite). Thankful to now be in one location for 5 nights, our first evening is spent in an enthusiastic but chaotically disorganised restaurant eating food we hadn’t ordered, beer we didn’t like and vodka we asked for more times than we care to remember.
Our second day in Russia gives us our first taste of the infamous, corrupt and one would imagine impecunious militzia, the Russian police. Leaving our hotel in the morning by car with the purpose of a gentle recce before our serious sightseeing, Charlie pulls a left turn from our side street onto Nevsky Prospect. A demanding manoeuvre, though not by London standards, but no signs to tell you this was illegal (how quickly one learns…). A police car, obscured in the morning traffic, spots us and with an immediate U-turn pulls us over, a deafening ex-Soviet loudspeaker barking unintelligible instructions at us through the car windows.
Presently the passenger policeman gets out, a stocky, square faced individual with an officious looking expression beneath the obligatory short cropped black hair. He arrives at my window, gives a cursory salute and barks a few commands. I understand I am required in the back of his car, complete with documents. So I leave Nina in the car and head off to discover my fate.
We had been much warned and briefly drilled with how to deal with Russian police but it is always a little different putting it into practice for the first time. After some initial interrogation and heavy perusal of my documents (much to their frustration they were immaculate, much to my frustration they didn’t hand them back) our conversation, in equally pigeon Russian and English, went a little like this:
‘You understand now what you did wrong, yes?’
‘Yes. Now I understand. But I did not before. I am sorry.’
‘But in Russia you must realise that what you did was very bad thing’
‘I did not realise that, but I do now’
‘Tell me, what would happen to you in England, if you do this thing?’
Spotting a chance for some leniency, I lie profusely: ‘Well, the police would (I slap my hand on my wrist demonstratively) say “Don’t do this again, this time we give you a warning”’
‘Well in Russia we can’t do that. You see we have these (waving them in case I didn’t see them) books, forms to fill in. I must have this (agonisingly he now waves my International Driving Permit at me). You must go to juste (court)’
Uh oh. I need to have that back, we are not in Russia long enough to go to court and collect it’
There is a pause, they gabble amongst themselves. It’s important not to be too visibly concerned about their current withholding of my IDP, but easier said than done.
‘But you must understand you do very bad thing, here in Russia’
‘I do, now. So how can we finish this now? Is there some fine, some penalty I must pay?’
More insistence I must go to ‘juste’, which doesn’t bode well on day two in Russia. Eventually, a breakthrough: ‘OK, here, you can pay, and I give (my IDP back)’
With stifled relief, ‘OK, how much?’
‘One hundred (what sounds like) roubles’
Bingo, I think. Two quid!? Surely not… I pull one out of my wallet, eager to conclude this.
‘No, no, no! One hundred dollars. US.’ he barks agitatedly, perhaps thinking I was trying it on.
‘Well I don’t have $100 on me’ I retort ‘that is way too much.’
‘OK well in that case it must be 1000 roubles.’
‘I don’t have that either.’ I know we are winning now; we are bartering. Producing my wallet in full view, I continue: ‘Look, I have $20 and 100, maybe 140 roubles. That is all.’
Eager to conclude this rather messy transaction now that they have implicated themselves in their unintelligent but effective corruption (it is illegal to pay for anything in dollars here, including fines), the passenger policeman snatches the $20 and 100 rouble notes, throwing the 10 rouble notes back towards me disgustedly. Without another word, his colleague starts up and revs the engine, and I barely have time to collect my now thankfully intact papers and extricate myself from the back seat before they are off.
Not a cheap start to the day, but by no means disastrous – it certainly could have been much worse. We also learn how the road signs work – unlike the UK, here you can only do what the signs tell you (i.e. straight on, left turn etc) – anything else is illegal, no helpful ‘No Left Turn’ signs here…
The rest of the day is spent happily sightseeing, first the Russian State Gallery then the remarkable, incongruously resplendent Church of the Saviour of the Spilt Blood, sitting alongside one of the many canals.
That evening, though exhausted by so much culture and beauty, we are pleased to meet by chance one evening Barry Finlayson and Donal O’Burke, Scottish and Irish respectively, here for a brief few nights having arrived on board one of the tall ships – the Baltic section of the race has just berthed in St Petersberg. They are charming, quick witted and hospitable, and we spend our first night in the company of Brits, sharing stories and vodka, until the latter catches up with us and the former become slurred – thankfully our accommodation is very close at hand and we can stumble happily home.
We spend a few days perambulating happily through this city, sometimes driving (it is vast), though always wary of the peculiar electric farting noise behind or aside us which signals transgression of another petty traffic law – during our first six days in Russia we are pulled over four times and fined three. The fines are small but tiresome and the negotiations to continually retrieve one’s licence from a corrupt police officer can be exhausting. We are not targeted because we are foreigners - the locals get the same treatment (we see police pulling over cars every 5 – 10 minutes in St Petersburg).
On the rebound
The Russians themselves are something to behold, the natural sense of ostentation and determined flamboyance which enabled them to build such awe inspiring palaces as The Hermitage has returned after decades of communist suppression. This time round though, their materialistic tendencies take the form of dazzling mini skirts and obligatory three inch heels for the girls (which they wear determinedly in every possible situation, no matter how inappropriate) and enormous, blinged-up, blacked-out cars for the men. But on a personal level (officials aside) they appear friendly, sociable and vivacious.
After five days in St Petersburg, staying in the same hotel (which, courtesy of Russia’s extraordinary booking system, was half price so long as we checked out each morning and re-checked in after 8pm each evening) we headed south towards Moscow.
Camping in Novogorod
The Russian roads are variable, ranging mainly from virtually undriveable to only occasionally potholed. Our journey is interrupted by more bare faced corruption from the police (fine #3) and by the afternoon of the 13th, we have only made it to Novgorod. One of Russia’s most historic cities, as far back as the 11th century, Novgorod vied with Moscow for supreme control of the country before Russia was unified, only to succumb to the ruthlessness of the Muscovite agents.
Our first night’s free camping in Russia, on the banks of the Volkhov, is a pretty basic affair (we turned down offered an uninspiring patch of tarmac outside the Novgorod Hotel Intourist). Our nights sleep is disturbed by a plague of mosquitoes, the enthusiasm of the local nightclub and an endless procession of couples driving down to the river for their illicit canoodling.
Nevertheless, we manage a few hours sleep but set off early on the morning of the 14th, determined to make Moscow and some much needed and anticipated home comforts, courtesy of some friends of friends who work for the British consulate in the capital.