Our Russian adventure is already at an end…, but our Scandinavian one is just beginning!
A week goes by so quickly when you’re having fun, and our week in Russia was definitely exciting. A little nerve-wracking at times (i.e. any time we were in a car or bus weaving in and out of traffic), awe-inspiring and magnificent in some ways, and yet so dirty, unkempt and disappointing in others. I’ve never clutched my purse quite so tightly as on the Moscow Metro, and have never seen so much gold and opulence as in the palaces of St Petersburg; I’ve never encountered so many grim-faced people, or so many wildly passionate, loud and boisterous people. The contrasts in Russia were quite stark, but all together our experiences created a kaleidoscope of colour, sights, sounds, smells and tastes that is Russia for us.
Some of the things we will always remember about Russia:
- The people. Far from unfriendly, we found Russians to be quite friendly; though they don’t smile much and can seem to be quite grim. If you happen to touch on a subject they’ve got an opinion on though, they get so passionate! Speaking of passion, we’ve also seen more young couples in love trying to devour each other, face first, on the streets of Russia than anywhere else in the world. I guess young love can’t wait ’til you get home…
- The fashions. If you love 1980’s haircuts, perms and mullets, Russia is for you. If you love tacky, sparkly clothes coupled with LOTS of make-up, Russia is for you. If you think the best way for women to dress is just shy of whorish, consider Russia. Not everyone dressed like they were in a 1984 episode of Dynasty, but enough that it was definitely noticeable.
- The music. The sound of Russia, in case you’re wondering, is bad Euro-Pop. Everywhere we went, the music was always thumping Euro-Pop, played nice and LOUD (just enough to make conversation awkward).
- The dodgy factor. There is a reason all the guide books tell you to take extra care in Russia; there is definitely a dodgy element to be aware of. Not that we saw anything ourselves, but we saw signs of businesses and people trying to live with crime. For example, our hotel in Moscow had multiple levels of security – the hotel was behind a big fence with a guard at the entrance, you had to show the security guard at the elevator your room key before you could go up to the rooms, you had to swipe to get onto your floor and then swipe to get into your room. What were they protecting us from exactly?? Guess I’d rather not know. And in all the restaurants and shops we went to, when we paid with a 5000 Ruble note (about $165AUD), they ran it through an X-ray scanner and/or a UV scanner. Seriously! Is counterfeit money THAT common? Yikes!
- The food. Everything we ate in Russia was so tasty and filling, though the Russians do seem to have a penchant for dill. Seems they can’t serve you anything without adding generous amounts of dill. So if you’e wondering what Russia tastes like: it tastes like dill. Lots and lots of dill.
- The crazy driving. Wearing a seat belt is not mandatory in Russia, but it is very highly recommended. So many of the cars we saw parked up on the kerb and driving around had lots of dings and scrapes so obviously their driving style does have some consequences from time to time!
- The history. The main reason we wanted to come here was to see what’s left of the mighty Russian Empire, one of the greatest powers of the last 1000 years; and to see something of the Soviet era as well, one of the super-powers of the the 20th century. Whatever Russia may be today, it definitely has an epic history and was absolutely worth visiting. Hopefully we can come back one day and see more of it, but for now, we leave with our minds and eyes well satiated and happy. Thanks Russia!
We left this morning by train on the Finnish Helsinki-St Petersburg intercity train. What a modern wonder that was! Not quite a Japanese shinkansen, but not far off. We sped along at 220km/hr, travelling from St Petersburg to the Russian border town of Vyborg, where the Russian immigration officers came on board and checked everyone’s passports and visas. Quite painless actually. We were quickly through and on to Vairrikala, the border town on the Finnish side. Here the Finnish officials came on board and checked our passports and stamped us into the Schengen area (as Australians we don’t need a Schengen visa, but we are limited to staying in the Schengen area (basically Europe) for a maximum of 90 days). Again, quick and easy. From there it was another 2 hours or so to Helsinki. Along the way we passed some beautiful Finnish countryside – lakes, pine forests as far as we could see, and the occasional village and town.
We arrived in Helsinki at 2:00pm, quickly found our hotel and checked in. The hotel is a tiny boutique lace near the train station which occupies the top 2 floors of a lovely 19th century building. We have a great room, facing the street, with our own miniature ensuite bathroom and 3 windows to open and enjoy the long days (sunrise is at 4:30am, sunset at 10:30pm). There are cafes and restaurants below us and the waterfront is just a few hundred meters away.
As soon as we’d dropped our bags off, we headed straight for the ocean and found a lively market with stalls selling everything from basic clothing, to real fur coats, hunting equipment and fruits and vegetables. Best of all where the stalls selling berries – punnets of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, red currants, black currants, gooseberries and some berries we’d never seen before: cloud berries. We had a great afternoon snack of fresh berries and a relaxed stroll around the Helsinki waterfront.
Helsinki is a very pretty city, lots of well maintained 19th century buildings and wide streets. There’s a big park through the middle of town that we wandered through; it was funny to see people lying on the grass sun bathing when it was only about 22C. I guess when winters go down to -30C, +22C must seem pretty warm! We’ve got the whole weekend to see more of this cute city, so we’ll tell you more about it tomorrow!