Sunday, 26 August 2007

St. Petersburg and Moscow update!

Currently we head in the direction of Barnaul, our previous location being Moscow and the journey duration set to a cool 55 hours. Plenty of time to sit and think about the world, life, and everything in between. Nearly 20 hours into the leisurely jaunt across Russia's Siberian backbone however and conversation has dipped to the depths of discussing the ins and outs of the Moscow Sanitation System, and debating the continuing battle against illegal music piracy and it's role in funding global terrorism. So at this point I nod an acknowledgment to my peers, ascend to the top bunk of the carriage and set about penning a few lines to describe the last week or so spent exploring the infamous sprawling metropolis' that are Russia's 2nd city of St. Petersburg, and it's illustrious capital, Moscow!

St. Petersburg was as expected, and much more. The city exercises grandeur like none other. The faces of the buildings creating postcard perfect pictures on every turn and the glorious palaces standing majestic with all the pride and passion of a nation steeped in patriotic history.

In between visiting the usual tourist hotspots such as the cheerfully named Church of Spilled Blood, the vast Winter Palace, and the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, we attempted to get into the Russian mindset, as the saying goes: "When in Rome, do as the Roman's do". We decided to do as the Russians do and go for an authentic Russian Banya. There had been many stories floating around the hostel as to what we should expect from this experience, from being thrown around a room by a big Russian bear, to the usual connotations that come with foreign massages. Unwavered however by these mire rumors and determined to seek the truth we arranged ourselves an appointment with a reputable local Banya. Bags packed with Kendal Mint Cake, Ginger Beer, a towel, and a pair of swimming trunks (which we hoped to high heaven would be required!) we set about on a voyage of discovery and enlightenment.

Upon arriving at our destination it immediately became clear this was no David Lloyds, so with DL membership cards safely nestled back with the moths in our wallets we made our way down a dark passage off the main road, passed an elderly "woman" with child, towards a central parking area totally encompassed by towering concrete monstrosities. Somewhere in the distance a cat screeched and a siren wailed as three of the worlds most touristy looking tourists stood in a courtyard searching for a sign that this wasn't just a muggers dream scenario and that there was indeed a reason for our blatant disregard of all the warnings people had given us before we left home about dark alleys. Nearing desperation point, with clammy palms and sweaty brows we turned to face our exit point only to find it blocked. After a moment taken directly out of a John Wayne film we refocused on the looming silhouette and it became apparent that the old "woman" with child had infact hobbled down behind us and now extended a scrawny index digit in the direction of a red door. Without much hesitation we made a move towards this pillar of hope, and I'm left wondering if that was infact a young child in her arms or merely a turnip in a towel, both possibilities seem unlikely but we'll never never i suppose.

The Banya itself was a series of oven hot saunas followed by being plunged into an icy cold pool over and over again. Much to our relief trunks were welcome and bodily contact was kept to a minimum, both suited us down to a tee.

After having finished Banyaing and happy in the knowledge that we were now revitalised, we returned to our hostel for a good nights sleep before attempting to tackle to enormous Hermitage the next morning.

While St. Petersburg was of tremendous beauty and had an ability to captivate the soul, Moscow lacked this raw magnetism, but still remained of great tourist interest with such assets as Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, the seat of Russian presidential power within the Kremlin, and the eerily wax-like embalmed body of the Communist revolutions pioneer Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin died in 1924, but his preserved body remains on display for mourners and tourists to file by as if he had passed away only yesterday. We half expected him to sit up and enquire what was for breakfast, or how his beloved Soviet Union is coming along.

Unfortunately we were unable to find a bar in Moscow which had Sky Sports for the footy updates so we promptly packed our bags and left the most civilised place we'll see until Beijing and jumped on board the Tran-Siberian railway heading towards to the rising place of the sun, the far East.

Moscow behind us and Barnaul and the Altai Mountains to come...

(Due to lack of interenet access this is being uploaded later than anticipated, they didn't even have proper toilets in the mountains so a a good Broadband line was unlikely! IR)

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