When I told people back in Denmark about my trip, they would always ask me, if I wasn’t scared about travelling alone in Russia and urge me to be careful, while I was there. When I was travelling in Poland and the Baltics, the eastern Europeans warned me, that Russians couldn’t be trusted and advised me not to go there. When I finally got to the big bear, I was even warned by all the Russians, who helped me, that other Russians couldn’t be trusted and wouldn’t want to help strangers.
Russia is a country with a, partly deserved, bad reputation across the world, and that reputation has been extended to the Russian people as well. Though the Russians can seem cold at first, you’re considered a creep if you smile at other people in the street, my experience hitchhiking the largest country in the world has been extremely positive. I rarely waited more than 10 minutes for a ride, and, despite the very challenging language barrier, most lifts would drive me several hundred kilometers and buy me dinner along the way as well.
I had dedicated the first half of my Mother Ruski to Saint Petersburg and Moscow, the cultural and political capital of Russia respectively. Both are massive cities, with 8 and 16 million inhabitants, that spans 20 and 40 kilometers in each direction, which made them hitching challenges compared to the tiny Baltic capitals. It took me 1 day to go from Tallinn, Estonia to Saint Petersburg. The border control was only about 1 hour, which after dealing with Israeli border for 3 months seemed like virtually nothing. To get to my hosts apartment, I first had to cross the city by different buses, and since I hadn’t been able to withdraw rubles for the ticket, I decided to play the dumb tourist with all my 3 bus drivers, who didn’t speak English, until they let me ride for free. Maria, my host, was an avid hitchhiker herself, who had once gone all the way from S.P. to Georgia, so she gave me great advice about the Russian roads and debunked many of my initial fears. On top of that her apartment was amazing and very central, so it was the perfect base for exploring this great city.
There are few words, which seem appropriate to describe St Petersburg by, and none that I know. So instead I’ll get some help from one of the city’s greatest sons: The poet Alexsandr Pushkin, who wrote a poem called “The Bronze Horseman” as an ode to his hometown.
By the new capital, the younger,
Old Moscow’s eclipsed at once -
Such is eclipsed a queen-dowager
By a new queen when her time comes.
I love you, Peter’s great creation,
I love your view of stern and grace,
The Neva wave’s regal procession,
The airy iron-casting fences,
The gentle transparent twilight,
The moonless gleam of your nights restless,
When I so easy read and write
Without a lamp in my room lone,
Saint Petersburg was established from nothing in 1703, by Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted access to the Baltic Sea and served as the capital until the revolution. It was built during the height of the Russian Empire, and every single building in the center would be considered an attraction on its own in any other city. The Russians imported architects from all over Europe, so the capital feels a lot more European than the rest of the country and reminded me of Vienna in its size and style. When walking around the grandiose palaces of the imperial city one cannot help but empathize a little with the revolutionaries in 1917, because these building were being built at a time, where most Russians, who were peasants, lived almost like slaves and weren’t allowed to move from where they lived without permission.
The highlight of St-P is the Winter Palace, which houses the second largest art museum in the world; the Hermitage. When you are walking around inside, it can be difficult to decide, which is more beautiful: The incredible collection of European art or the luxurious rooms of the palace. It completely took my breath away, and I ended up spending 7 hours seeing only a part of it. Before visiting Russia, I had watched Alexander Sokurov’s stunning film; Russian Ark, which is filmed in the palace, and he depicts the Hermitage, the way it should be experienced: Men in military uniforms and women in ballgowns sipping champagne amidst the masterpieces. I instead got to view the art in shorts and a t-shirt looking over the heads of about 1000 Chinese tourists and their tour guides, which was also nice but ruined a bit of the magic.
I was in Saint Petersburg during their famous white nights, a period in the end of June, where the sun only sets for a couple of hours. When I discovered, through Instagram, that two of my friends from Denmark where vacationing in the city, we decided to go out at night to experience it. We went for some Georgian food and then hit up some bars while waiting for one o’clock, when they raise all the bridges connecting the old city to the rest of the city, and both locals and tourist gather along the river banks.
Unfortunately, the opening of the bridges happened at the same time as the subway closed for the night. That meant, that when the girls wanted to go back to their hostel in the middle of the old city, I had no way of getting back to my host’s apartment until 6 in the morning. We therefore smuggled me into their hostel for me to sleep in one of their beds. This worked perfectly for about half an hour, until I was awakened by 4 hostel employees, who off course didn’t speak English, and had to get dressed in front of 4 people, who very clearly thought, that I had been trying to have sex with my, by the way lesbian, friend. I did the only thing, a person can do at 2 a.m. in the middle of a Russian metropolis and found myself a bar, where I befriended a couple of Polish law students on vacation.
After all the bars closed, I went to a strip club, where I spent a couple of hours, and way too much money, falling momentarily in love with a 23 year old girl from Kazan named Ekaterina. Then morning came, as all mornings do, and with it the opening of McDonalds. I went there to get some breakfast and wait for my friends to wake up. When they did I attempted to go sightseeing with them, but I was so tired, that I had to give up and go back home.
The road from Saint Petersburg to Moscow takes 9 hours by car, and I assumed, that it wouldn’t be doable in one day and therefore aimed for a night in my tent along the road before reaching Moscow the following day. Because of that I didn’t leave the city until 4 in the afternoon. I had however underestimated the Russians. After 5 minutes, I got a ride with a guy, who was going all the way to Moscow and offered to not only take me the entire way, but also buy me dinner along the way. The only problem with his kind offer was, that it meant arriving in Moscow at 2 a.m. in the morning. Sergei, my ride, dropped me off 15 kilometers south of the city center in a small park, where decided to put up my tent.
If you have not tried spending a night on an unknown location in the middle of Moscow, in a tent, during a storm, I can promise you, that it can be a bit frightening, if you aren’t prepared for it. By the morning the storm had increased, and though I stayed in my tent until noon in the hopes, that the weather would change, I ended up having to pack my completely soaked tent down in the middle of the rain and go search for a place to charge my phone. Luckily my host Jackson was cool with me drying it in his tiny one-bedroom apartment.
Moscow lacked the
elegance of Saint Petersburg, but made up for it in a breathtaking sense of
grandness in its giant plazas and impressive soviet monuments. Especially the
Red Square is a reminder, that this is a superpower which has scared the crap
out of the rest of the world for over a century. Here you can combine a visit
to Lenin’s grave with a view of Moscow’s Kreml, where Putin would have be hard
at work, if he hadn’t been in Hamburg, while I was here.
I stayed with Jackson for 4 nights. Jackson is a New Yorker, born and raised. When he was 20 years old, he had only set foot in a couple of other states and no other countries. That all changed, when he went on his first trip. He knew that he wanted to visit a place, that was as different from the US as possible. Being on the safe side however, he wanted to go somewhere in Europe, as was his first trip, and he was going alone. After much consideration, he settled on Ukraine, which was a great decision, as he fell in love with both the country's ex-soviet charm and with a young Ukrainess whom he dated for the 2 months, he stayed there and some time after returning. Since then he has devoted most of his time to traveling, and at 25 he has now visited more than 20 countries all over the world. Last year, inspired by the appeal he found in Ukraine, he decided to move to Moscow and work as a private English tutor.
When he is not working, he is arranging or attending events in the Moscow Couchsurfing community, and I spent most of my time in the capital being voluntarily dragged along to pub-crawls and language cafes. It was in one of these, I met Anna. She was heading south the next week to visit her grandmother, and when she heard, that I didn’t have any plans after Moscow, she invited me to join them. I was originally planning to go west and see the Ural Mountains, but when I compared the temperature there to the temperature in Annas hometown Elista, I quickly decided to accept her invitation.
The couchsurfers, I
had met, all told me, that Saint Petersburg and Moscow are considered very
European in their vibe, and if I wanted to experience the “real Russia”, I had
to visit the Regions instead. For the next 13 days I did just that. It was an insane
experience, that both confirmed and refuted many of my stereotypes about the
Russians. But more on that next time.
Брюхо сыто, да глаза голодны. The belly is full, but the eyes are hungry.