If it weren't for Mike, the trip could have been real interesting. Virtually NO ONE in Russia speaks English, not even a word. The Cyrillic alphabet doesn't help Westerners either. Needless to say, I got really good at miming, so watch out for a game of charades when I get back to the U.S!
The one piece of advice I got before the Russia trip was to never EVER ride in a taxi. I was told that driving there is a zoo and riding in a taxi is a sure sentence to a near death experience. Needless to say, that was the first thing we did upon arrival. In order to enter the country without a visa, we were required to purchase a "city bus tour" aka "swerving in a sketchy white van through Saint Petersburg to be dropped off at the center" tour. It was a real welcoming gesture on the Russian's part.
Ironically, the Russian taxi system turned out to be one of my favorite parts about the country. If you stand on the side of the road and hold your hand out, literally the first car to pass will pull over. If they feel like giving you a lift, you settle on a price and are soon on your way, at what feels like an 80 MPH high speed chase toward your destination. We found this service to be extremely helpful en route to and from the bars each night.
Alex and I spent our first day visiting the Hermitage and seeing all the other major sites in the city. There are some truly spectacular and out of place looking buildings. For example, the church below. For some reason, I couldn't get over the fact that it looked like it belonged in a plastic amusement park, but I was seeing it as a real cathedral in real life.
As a whole, I would not consider Saint Petersburg a beautiful city. It has a very industrial feel with overcrowded streets, traffic in a constant state of disarray and practical looking cement style high rise, state-owned buildings. I couldn’t help but have communism lingering in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t hard to imagine what the city may have been like 20 years ago.
There are however, a few random and out of place gems in the city, that just make you scratch your head and ponder. For example, a subway stop with mosaic walls and chandeliers, mind blowing cathedrals built for each of the major churches (yes, I’m still wondering why a communist government would be so interested in building churches) and gorgeous women clad in fur coats, fur scarves, fur hats and high heels.
It wasn’t they type of city I would want to spend a day wandering the streets and taking it all in, but the culture and history definitely made Russia an interesting place that fascinated me. Despite their current “democratic” state, the government is still very corrupt. The police take bribes, elections are rigged and students pay teachers for grades.
It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago everyone had a closet full of the same outfits, each kitchen had the exact same appliances, there were only a few restaurants and multiple families shared a flat with each family in one bedroom. A Russian girl told me about a movie where the main character travels from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and wakes up in a foreign flat, but cant tell if it belongs to him or someone else, because everything looks the same. Totally believable.
Today, the city is more cultural and has become infused with western staples such as McDonalds, Subway and a variety of coffee shops. The transition process is continually moving forward, but a part of the society still clings to the nostalgic past. This is evident in a giant monument for Lenin topped with the communism star in the city center and the menial jobs that still exist, such as attendants at the bottom of the escalator in the metro and waiting at the top of staircases in public places.
During our three day visit I did see a few “hardened criminals” and begging babushkas, but was also entranced by a society rich in history and culture. I cant say that Russia is at the top of my list of places to return to, but it is definitely one in which I am intrigued by and am anxious to learn more about.