Russian ballet, vodka and the Trans-Siberian railway
We land in Minsk, Belarus, in transit to Russia. Apparently, we need to be escorted by several severe looking women in tiny spandex mini-skirts to our next flight, as a routine transfer procedure doesn’t exist. A menacing blonde woman in a makeshift passport booth (that was created just for us) shakes her head disappointingly at Jared. It appears that the worse thing imaginable has happened: Jared has lost the stub of his boarding card for the previous flight that we were on. Can you believe it!?! She looks at Jared with her narrowing ice blue eyes and spits out, several times, “you are very very bad,” whilst waging her finger at him in her ridiculously sexy skin-tight airport security uniform.
I see a little smirk start to emerge on Jared’s face and have to look away to hold myself together. She then proceeds to pretend to make phone calls on several different Soviet style phones for what seems like a very long time, and then just as our next flight is about to close, she decides to let us through, telling Jared that he better not do that again! If this is a sign of things to come, then we are rubbing our hands together with glee.
We land in St Petersburg – “Russia’s window to Europe” – and check into a luxurious hotel, (which is now affordable as the ruble has halved in value in the last year). There is a lady in a ball gown playing the harp for us as we wonder into the marble reception and there are copious members of staff fussing over us. Tapestries woven into all the walls, exotic fruit bowls at our fingertips, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t actually a Russian tsar. After some fine dining, we fell asleep in our (oh-so-temporary) cotton wool haven of luxury.
St Petersburg is staggeringly beautiful. We spend hours at the heavy weight Hermitage museum viewing Picassos and such, and getting told off for acting like children, (I don’t know why old-school museums engineer such a strong desire to misbehave, but perhaps it is the overly stifled formality and the unspoken understanding between all fellows humans that we are all only pretending, to some degree, to be interested).
Whilst chatting to the concierge back at the hotel, we dropped in that we really wanted to go see the famous Russian ballet Don Quixote at the Marinsky theatre but that there were, of course, no tickets left (being the day of the performance). He made a few phone calls and told us that if we hand over quite a lot of cash, we could get the chauffeur to take us to a woman who would be standing on the street with our name on a board, who would then hand over said ballet tickets. We ask how this is possible if all the tickets have sold out and he says he knows some people that can miraculously add two seats to the stalls for the right price. Ah-ha, so that is how you do things in Russia! Well, when in Rome… A few hours later we are sitting on pathetic classroom style chairs that have blatantly been squashed into the stalls for some corrupt idiot tourists that are staring wide-eyed at the extraordinary three-hour long ballet extravaganza. Totally worth it.
Post-ballet, we decide to have “one drink” somewhere. The taxi driver tells us on the low-down that there are some “gay bars” nearby. Gay bars are usually the best bars anywhere in the world, so why not have a taste in Russia, we thought, especially given the recent publicity about the disregard for gay rights in Russia. We turn up at a tiny seedy karaoke bar, where they are singing DEATH METAL at full blast in broken English. We are the only tourists. I have just come from the best ballet the world has to offer, so I am wearing a black cocktail dress and designer stilettos. It is an understatement to say I don’t fit in. All a bit awkward. Quick, order some beers.
We end up in a club next door, where there is a live death metal band and, believe it or not, a mosh pit!! Jared throws me his coat and jumps into the frenzy of testosterone-laden punks pushing, shoving and punching each other furiously to the thrashing ‘music’. All I could think about was that I needed to save him from getting bashed to pieces by massive Russian dudes, but my outfit simply prevented me from doing so – my dignity clearly comes before Jared’s safety.
I ended up at the bar, to escape the death pit. No one could speak English, not even a little bit, and the only word that we could all understand was… Wodka! House rules were that you could only buy six shots at a time (!!) so the bar kept filling up with shots and it was, quite frankly, rude not to drink when you were told to drink. I really don’t know how this happened but about eight shots later, at about 3am in the morning, I was dancing in my ballet gear like a maniac with my new Russian friends at a death metal club in St Petersburg. Jared, about ten shots later, was doing the same thing. Enough said.
The next day, or what was left of it, was spent meandering through beautiful streets in St Petersburg. I can’t say I really remember what we saw that day. We hopped on a train to Moscow to be greeted at the station by Maria, (a Russian friend of ours), who then drove us to some arty Air BnB place in Moscow, which had mosaics all over the walls.
We spent a couple of days walking around in Moscow, marveling at the Kremlin, the Red Square, and the quintessential St Basils cathedral, (where the only word for how many photos we took is, quite frankly, disgusting). Everything was just very very big in Moscow – symbolic of Stalin’s attempt to show off his Soviet strength. The people don’t smile at you but underneath the stern surface, they were actually all really lovely and friendly. We knobbed around some art galleries and wanked off to some Russian politics and history, which is all totally fascinating. It was only zero degrees but there was a snowstorm and the winds were powerful and ice cold. It actually hurt to be outside for longer than 15 minutes and we had proper ski-gear on. Our lovely host Maria took us to some gorgeous Russian restaurants where we gobbled up Russian cabbage and pies and dumplings while we listened to her take on modern day Russian politics…
The big moment arrived. We were standing at the train station, looking around for our new home for the next five and half days on the legendary Trans-Siberian railway. Jared, with immeasurable confidence, said the train left from platform 4, so we accordingly stood waiting on platform 4. Lots of Russian military officers arrived and jumped on the train. The train attendant wouldn’t let us on. We. Were. Confused. And then suddenly it dawned on us that this was the wrong platform. We (tried to) run with our ridiculously huge bags (WE STILL JUST CANNOT SEEM TO PACK) to another platform and jumped on. It was the Trans-Siberian railway this time, and phew, because it only leaves once a week.
We giggled at how (sort of) lovely our new little home was. We actually had sheets for the (rock solid) bunk-bed and a shared “ensuite”. The ensuite was a very dirty room with a sink in it and a hole in the floor that went straight out the bottom of the train. But the sink had a plug, so we devised an ingenious method of showering by filling up the sink with boiling water that we stole from the train attendant, and used an old mug to throw the water over ourselves. Brilliant. Totally had a shower every other day. The toilet, at the other end of the carriage, was a trap door to the ground, so you just had to press a pedal, and voila.
The train is old and rickety, and there are coal fires in every carriage, and therefore totally romantic. The best part is the view and the Russian matriarch of the train who commands how and what we eat everyday. Let’s just say, for a vegetarian who is kinda obsessed with food, there is a lot of time spent daydreaming about fresh fruit and salads. The first day I brought strawberries and artichokes and vegan cookies, and the matriarch shouted at me in Russian for smugly eating them in the corner. Since then, I have eaten omelets and potatoes swimming in oil every single day. Apparently, the meat soup is delicious, although I think even Jared is starting to go off it after eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. We can’t sleep very well either, because the train rocks like mad, and we are thoroughly tormented by the constantly changing time zones, so we never know whether we are supposed to be asleep or awake.
We have watched the remote and baron Russian countryside slide past us while we contemplate our navels. We brought 15 books, (I told you we can’t pack), but have so far been a bit too distracted by the view. At the moment, I sit writing this looking out the window at the beautiful Lake Baikal. It is the deepest lake in the world, and holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It is completely frozen, so is totally white, as is the sky, so you can’t see where the lake ends and where the sky starts. Never seen anything like it…
Next stop is Mongolia for dog sledding on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere.