When I think of Russia I think of three things: first, a somewhat shady, dangerous “oh you’re going there” kind of place, second, the animated movie Anastasia which managed to earn itself the title of one of my childhood (and current) favourites; and third, big fluffy hats, lots of them. No preconception was able to prepare me for the trip.
‘Twas the morning of departure, when all through the bus
Not a creature was stirring, barely even a fuss
The bags were loaded with care
With thoughts of St. Petersburg, we would soon be there
The teens were nestled snug in the aisle
Content with thoughts of adventure, but only for a while
When I say barely a fuss, I mean it was 0600 and there were people – who are obviously far better equipped to handle mornings – excited and chatty. And by soon, I mean 14 hours. So, nothing like I described it. Despite my disarray over having to be awake so early, the gradual addition of culture and language made the journey a special part of the tour.
By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg the sun hung low in the sky, casting a beautiful orange light over the city. The architecture had obvious links Helsinki, (due to Russian influence in both cities) but it was obvious that the city had expanded in recent times and not all buildings were quite as exquisite. The evening was spent putting faces to names and trying to adapt to how different it was. I had travelled the entire width of Finland to get here, but even so, I was still so close to Finland even though everything felt so different.
In those first few hours all of my expectations were met. There was an unfamiliar atmosphere and I felt far less secure then back home. Even the alphabet was intimidating. I’m still unsure if I found the country intimidating, or was manipulated into thinking so by my preconceptions. The lack of snow was disappointing to my inner child, but the beauty of the buildings and statues was exactly how I imagined … and there were fluffy hats, lots of them, everywhere.
The following day our St. Petersburg adventure truly began and in spectacular fashion. Our first stop was the Hermitage Museum which is among the largest and oldest in the world. It is made up of six different buildings and could take over a month to explore. The main building, the Winter palace, it so beautiful and elaborate it itself could be a museum. Every ceiling was adorned with gold and detailed paintings, the floors were covered in beautiful tiles or floorboards and the walls showed spectacular art that I barely remember because I was too in awe to listen or really look. I must have at least 100 pictures of ceilings and a further 50 of doors.
It may sound dramatic, but for me it is so bizarre to think that people actually live like this. They see these buildings are every day; this is their reality. Having spent my entire life so far in Australia, an admittedly young country (well, kind of) with a kind of blurry culture and probably no buildings older than 1800, this city is just so beautiful and mysterious.
After a very short three hours that passed in a blur, it was time for a traditional (?) Russian lunch. I won’t lie, it was very different. We started with something that I was told was a potato salad but in flavour and appearance it had no resemblance; I couldn't even find the potato. This was followed by a cabbage soup (maybe) that appeared … interesting and tasted pretty much the same. The next course resembled chicken and rice and tasted far less sketchy. Overall it was a meal that, to my delight, did not make me nauseous at all.
Next on the agenda was Peter the Great’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, also known as Kunstkamera (German word), the first museum in Russia. The tour was quite short but not at all rushed. We started with displays from several continents showing native clothing, tools etc. When we made it to the second floor many people became more interested. This area is dedicated to things that are more 'exotic'. Exotic doesn't quite cover it. As much as I'm trying, there is no subtle way to say this. The museum had a very extensive display of babies in jars, all of which have some sort of deformity, whether it was an extra arm, a missing eye or legs that grew to resemble a mermaid tail. Think of everything you never thought possible, things that where never more than stories to you. That's what was in this section. Some people were admittedly more comfortable with this than others but I think you need a special interest in this kind of thing to really appreciate this museum.
That evening I wasn’t sure what to expect. We loaded onto our buses knowing we were going to a folklore show in yet another pretty palace (Nikolaevsky Palace). We all had our own expectations but none of them could prepare us for the amazing show we experienced. To many, myself included, it was one of the highlights of the trip. It consisted of traditional singing, dancing and music as well as quite a bit of humour. The dances told stories of lovers and failed romances, and at one point three tourists from the audience were roped into joining the cast. Despite the fact that I was, at this point, incredibly tired, the show managed to awe me to no end. The dancers had real talent and the overall atmosphere was amazing.
We spent the next morning sightseeing by bus, stopping each 20 minutes at a place of interest to take cliché photos with our flags before being rushed back onto the bus so we could stick to our schedule. We visited all the important places including the ‘Church of the Saviour on Blood’, an excellent spot across the river from the Winter Palace where we could take panoramic photos of the impressive buildings and plenty of other sights I don’t remember the names of.
After the tour we had some free time, during which we time we tried to search for the KFC we had driven past several times (I had no interest in finding it, but there aren’t any in Finland). In a tragic turn of events, we didn’t find it but later found out it was only a few hundred meters from the point at which we decided to give up.
That night it was time to witness yet another show of sheer talent, this time it was the Russian ballet. We had dinner and put on our nice clothes and then off we went to watch the Nutcracker – yet another animated movie that I loved throughout my childhood. I found comfort in the fact that I wasn’t in completely unknown territory despite not knowing what to expect. I have never been to the ballet, nor have I had much interest in it (at least not after I grew out of my ballerina phase). I must admit that I did have to fight off sleep toward the end, but it wasn’t the performance, it was me and the extreme lack of sleep I had had the past few days.
The trip was a magical experience despite the fact that we probably spent more time driving than actually anything else. Two days obviously isn’t enough time for me to develop a complete understanding of an entire nation, especially in a country as vast as Russia, however, I stand by my beliefs formed by the movie Anastasia, and I know now for a fact that the Russians really do wear those hats as much as we think they do.
Until next time,