Russian ballet, vodka and the Trans-Siberian railway
We landed in Minsk, Belarus, in transit to Russia. Apparently, we needed 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) shook her head disappointingly. It appeared that the worse thing imaginable had happened: Jared had lost the stub of his boarding card from the previous flight. She looked at Jared with her narrowing ice blue eyes and spat out “you are very very bad” whilst waging her finger at him in her ridiculously sexy skin-tight airport security uniform.
I saw a little smirk start to emerge on Jared’s face and I had to look away to hold myself together. She then proceeded to pretend to make phone calls on several different Soviet style phones for what seemed like a very long time, and then just as our next flight was about to close, she decided to let us through, telling Jared that he better not misbehave like that again!
We land in St Petersburg – “Russia’s window to Europe” – and check into a luxurious hotel. 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 spent 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 (it being the day of the performance). He made a few phone calls and told us that if we hand over a large amount 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 had sold out and he said 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 were sitting on silly classroom chairs that have blatantly been squashed into the stalls for two corrupt idiot tourists that were 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 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. 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 short designer black cocktail dress and stilettos. It is an understatement to say I don’t fit in. All a bit awkward. Quick, order some drinks.
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…
I ended up at the bar, to escape the torment. 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 (not joking!!) 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 cocktail dress like a maniac with my new Russian friends at a death metal club in St Petersburg.
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. All I remember was that we ended up in Moscow later that evening.
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 big in Moscow – symbolic of Stalin’s attempt to show off his Soviet strength. The people didn’t smile at us but underneath the stern surface, they were actually all really friendly. We knobbed around some art galleries and read up on some Russian politics and history, which was all 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. 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 six 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) cute our new little home was. We had ordered an “ensuite”. The ensuite was a 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 was old and rickety, and there are coal fires in every carriage, and therefore totally romantic(?). The best part was the view and the Russian matriarch of the train who commanded how and what we ate everyday. Let’s just say, for a vegetarian who loves good food, there was an awful lot of time spent daydreaming about fresh fruit and salads. The first day I brought strawberries and artichokes and vegan cookies from Moscow, and the matriarch shouted at me in Russian for smugly eating them in the corner. From day two, I ate omelets and potatoes swimming in oil every single day, twice a day. Apparently, the meat soup was delicious, although I think eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day must have got tiresome. I couldn’t sleep very well either, because the train rocked like mad, and I was thoroughly tormented by the constantly changing time zones, so I never knew whether I was supposed to be asleep or awake.
I watched the remote and baron Russian countryside slide past while I contemplated life. We brought 15 books altogether (I told you we couldn’t pack) but didn’t mange to read much. The view was too distracting, in a poetically bland sort of way. I remember 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 was completely frozen, so totally white, as was the sky, so I couldn’t see where
the lake ended and where the sky started.