My travel starts with two great Russian cities and not without a bump.
I arrive into bustling St Petersburg with 2 hours sleep in the fuel gallon already standing at empty on the first day of the school holidays. I don’t waste any time with my travels.
The baggage area of the airport is a fascinating mix of West meets East. It is a great place to watch people, especially as they spend hours waiting for their bags, generally resigned but with some grunts as sniffer dogs are let loose on the baggage carousel. Narcotics have been found on a plane from Kazakhstan and all the luggage is held up.
When I am finally outfitted with my bags and chatting to some friendly Iranians, disaster strikes. Exhausted and sidetracked, I manage to leave my small rucksack containing my all my travel essentials and valuables on board a small local bus going from the airport to the city.
A kindly local stranger I meet in the subway station, who can barely speak any English, sees my despair and marches me up the stairs to the police, who don’t do much to help. He introduces himself as Armen and becomes my guardian angel. For the next couple of hours armed with the patience of a saint and the persistence of a toddler learning to walk, he makes dozens of phone calls and using my finger sized bus ticket miraculously retraces the bag. It sits in the same bus, parked in one of the many, maze-like bus terminals on the outskirts of the city. The bus driver is waiting for me to collect it. I am incredibly lucky. The decency and goodness of humanity prevails. And in the light of this my adventures begin.
Majestic St Petersburg
St Petersburg must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Entering its kingdom is an experience which merges all of the senses. Majestic grandeur, pomp and glory fill its air. The city enchants with its grand palaces, luscious parks filled with pearly white busts, fountain jets, and flower filled orangeries, inconspicuous gold domed Cathedrals and, of course, the renowned Hermitage.
The ‘Winter Palace’, a section of the vast Hermitage houses nearly 3 million works of art, from Rembrandt to Leonardo da Vinci. It also contains the ostentatious apartments of the Tsar, wherein I feel like a Grand Duchess as I wander around the sumptuous surroundings. These include a stunning chapel with a golden, crown-shaped dome shimmering in the sun’s rays.
The Venice of the North lives up to its expectations in every facet. Canals and rivers meander around the city, leading to the many islands. A leisurely boat trip brings an entirely different perspective with its reflections of the magical buildings and the few clouds in the lapping waters, particularly as the sun starts to lower its head.
Hare Island is home to a lavish cathedral where the Romanov’s were laid to rest in 1997, 80 years to the day of their murder in cold blood in Ekaterinburg. Next to it a former prison lies, where Revolutionaries including Trotsky were housed in large, damp, dark rooms. Despite efforts to sound proof the walls prisoners communicated using an ingenious tapping alphabet, on the walls and windows.
Nevsky Prospect, perhaps the most famous street in Russia, heaves with shops, cafes, and street sellers making coffee from the boots of cars and vans. People are all over the pavements and clamber over its bridges lightly raised above the intersecting canals.
The Church of the Spilled Blood sits on the river bank of one if Nevsky Prospect’s side streets. It is overwhelmingly beautiful. Sublime, religious paintings cover the walls, portraying the lives of sacred figures, covering every nook and cranny. It is as if man was working in union with the divine in producing something so beautiful.
The Faberge museum is a treat. It hosts the world famous, captivating Easter eggs which Tsar Nicholas II gave to his wife every Easter. Each delightful, unique, intricately detailed egg took an entire year to make and was a race against the clock.
There is so much more to discover in this charming city, but with my tight schedule and a heavy heart two days later I head to Moscow.
Lost in the enormity of Moscow
Dead at night, dropped off by a friendly Uber driver, I find myself lost in Moscow. The street of the hotel has several buildings of the same number on both its sides. Some kindly road workers come to help but with no luck. My communication difficulties in Russia are twofold: both the language and the alphabet are different. With the sheer scale of the place, Moscow does not help. From the very onset, it becomes clear that Moscow is on an entirely different plane to St Petersburg. An enormous industrialised megalopolis with over 10 million inhabitants it contrasts with the easy-to-get around, cosy and oozing charm of St Petersburg.
Moscow’s highlights lie in the centre with its renowned Red Square, the Kremlin, surrounded by startling fortress fiery red walls on the river banks and Lenin’s mausoleum, where his body lies preserved and open to the public against his wishes and those of his wife. Scores of visitors from around the world come to see him daily.
Monsoon style weather hits as I meander around the Kremlin. Enormous glorious cathedrals are the perfect place to shelter whilst drinking in the beauty of the Russian orthodox religious icons. These icons are believed to link our earthly dimensions to the divine and are seen as a window to heaven.
The Red Square is home to the iconic, extraordinary cathedral of astonishing geometric proportions, St Basil’ s Cathedral. Inside: more beautiful iconography, the relics of Saints and beautiful voices of musicians echoing throughout as they raise their voices to the heavens.
A day in Moscow is complete, it is time for my next stop, Irkutsk. It’s 4200km, and although the 4 days train travel on the Trans-Mongolian Express appeals — it is supposed to be great fun and beautiful — I choose the 6-hours flight to save time.