St Petersburg, Russia
Jun 25, 2004
|I won't keep you in suspense about our overall impression of St. Petersburg - basically, it was a let down for both of us. I had heard great things about the city from lots of people and seen beautiful pictures of the city. Charlie had fond memories of the year he spent here in college in 1987 88. Unfortunately, it seems that the city has not made many improvements in recent years and maybe has even gone down hill since the 1980s. The beautiful old buildings I had seen pictures of are still there, but they don't seem to be building anything new worth mentioning. They certainly don't seem concerned about making a good impression on tourists. But maybe it was just that we started off in a bad mood...
The plane ride from the south of the country near Elbrus was in a large but ancient looking plane that didn't have air conditioning (I didn't even know that such things existed - although since we've been in Europe for quite some time now I can unhappily say that air conditioning seems to be an American phenomenon). Despite the fact that it was supposed to be a direct flight, after about an hour the plane made an unscheduled stop in a random town to refuel (luckily Charlie speaks enough Russian to have understood the announcements about the unscheduled stop, otherwise we would have been totally clueless about what was happening). It was over 90 degrees inside the plane. Finally after sweltering for about 45 minutes one of the pilots came to the back and opened the emergency doors to let some nice warm breezes and gas fumes into the plane as well. The whole stop added over an hour to the „direct flight."(the guy who sat next to us replied to my question that this is not unusual, he said that it is understandable since Russia is a big country. I did not tell him that so is the US, yet... Charlie)
So we arrived wilted and over an hour late, but at least our luggage wasn't lost this time. We had made arrangements through a travel agent to stay at a private person's apartment (apparently a common practice there where hotel prices are outrageous). We took a crowded bus and the metro to the station that had been given to us as directions to the apartment (and had been pointed out that it was one stop from Nevsky Prospect, the city's version of 5th Avenue). We couldn't find the correct street on our map, so Charlie asked around. No one had heard of the street. Finally someone had a map and I could tell by their expression and hand gesturing that the street was not close by. So after over a 30 minute walk away from the center with our big backpacks we finally arrived at our street. It was next to a little park/playground that I eventually nicknamed „Sketchy Park," so you get the idea of the neighborhood. The apartment itself was nice enough and our room was big with high ceilings and a big window. There was a very cute cat that meowed a lot. The owner was kind of annoying (she kept commenting on how late we were - we pointed out that in addition to the flight delay, it wasn't as if the apartment was exactly conveniently located) but luckily she was on her way to the country for the weekend, which was just fine with me. She gave us instructions on how to use the keys and also asked us to leave our shoes by the door instead of wearing them while inside. After she left we walked back in towards the city center. It was pretty late but we were there during the „White Nights" so even at midnight it was fairly light outside (which was good otherwise I wouldn't have wanted to walk through Sketchy Park).
The next day we headed out for more sight seeing. Charlie had left his Tevas by the door as instructed but when we were leaving discovered they were wet. We thought maybe the owner's daughter or the English woman renting one of the other rooms had spilled some water on them. He put them on and we set out, not thinking much of it until the same thing happened the next day. I got a little suspicious of the cute cat and a quick sniff of the shoes confirmed that it had been using the Tevas instead of its litterbox. Since my shoes had been spared I thought this was really funny.
Ok, so we went to many of the main tourist attractions. We first went to the Summer Palace outside of the city on the Baltic Sea where the Tsars had a huge palace and grounds filled with more fountains than is really necessary. We also went to the Winter Palace (the building I had seen all the beautiful pictures of) which now houses the Hermitage Museum which was billed as one of the best art museums in the world (my favorite parts of this museum were the huge ballrooms with beautiful chandeliers - I could have done without the artwork 80% of which was dark, religious scenes over and over again). At both Palaces there were separate entry fees for Russians versus for „Foreigners." The Foreigner price was at least 4 times as much as the Russian price, and for the inflated Foreigner price you were treated to signs and descriptions that are exclusively in Russian. For example, just to get onto the grounds of the Summer Palace it cost the equivalent of about 10 dollars per person and there was no information in English. The price of admission also apparently didn't include use of the bathroom there, which they charged a separate entry fee for. This is something we encountered over and over again and is why I'm saying that they don't seem to care about making a good impression on tourists - they just want to get the maximum amount of money from them while they are there. (I agree, it looked like that the foreign tourists are considered milking cows. If one of these would want to see everything else within the garden, that would coast the equivalent of over 70 dollars, not including going to the bathroom. We took the suburban railways back to the city from here to see how the locals would do the trip, which showed a dismal picture: run down communist style housing and during the 4ö min ride 2 beggers and 7 people whowere selling items from snacks to socks went thorough the car. It was a very sad ride, Charlie )
While I'm talking about the bad parts, I might as well move on to our impression of the locals. Firstly, eveyone between the ages of 15 and 65 must walk around with at least one, but preferably two of the following items - a cigarette, a large bottle or can of beer or an ice cream. While carrying one of these items you are not allowed to smile or make eye contact with anyone - you must wear a skulky expression to show that you are cool, or at least disinterested in everything around you. If you are a girl or woman between the ages of 15 and 40 you must dress like a skanky ho. Extremely tight pants are mandatory, preferably see through ones so that everyone in the world can know that you are wearing a thong. You should also wear a low cut or skin tight shirt and heavily applied makeup. At least the women's sour expressions can be explained - nobody can be happy wearing pants that tight. And I'm not kidding about these things being mandatory. For a fairly large city there was very little diversity in the appearance of the locals.
Also, for a fairly large city we didn't see any other backpacker types. People stared at us as if they've never seen a backpack before (or maybe it was my loose pants). The only other foreign tourists were large busloads of eldery Americans or Japanese. We encountered these tourist buses at all the major attractions, including the Russian Ballet's production of Swan Lake we went to on the last night there (it was one of three Swan Lake productions going on while we were there). This was the best value we got in the city - for 5 dollars each we got our own little balcony box (it was the highest balcony, but we there more for the experience, so we didn't care that it was high up). Despite the fact that about 90 % of the audience was not Russian there was no program in any other language, but we both knew the story...
So that's all I have to say about St. Petersburg. It unfortanely left me with a depressing impression of Russia, although I have to remind myself that the Russians we met at Elbrus were all very nice people and that Moscow appeared to a modern and happy city.
(a few more comments from Charlie. Perhaps some of our feelings were such because we were so well taken care earlier in the country by the people of Pilgrim Tours, and during this later episode we felt at best tolerated. The city is still pretty, at least in the touristy parts, but there is no sign of the development that is apparent in Moscow. Our favorite episod was an hour, or so, when we were watching guys trying to pick up topless girls on the beach in the city. My favorite bad picture is one I took after a running festival on the square in front of the winter pallace: it was totally littered by empty beer bottles. Also for our runner friends, Russian women may take much of the prize money at marathons in the US, but we saw the finish of StPetersburg marathon and we think this is not going to last for long. This major city marathon had about 600 finisher, many of them italian or french, and even fewer spectators. As we said repeatadly, current youth prefers drinking to training. Our favorite comment came from a British woman to someone who was doing a customer satisfaction survay at the new international terminal of STPete airport. She said: in England we que.(as oppose to pushing ahead, regardless that others have been waiting longer or those who would exit did not even start to move out)I would have wanted to ad that putting up no smoking signs in one row, then disposal containers in a paralell one 10 feet away is not helping the non smokers)