At last! Internet facilities are pretty thin on the ground here, Ijust hope that things are better in China. So far so good - 3 and a half hour flight from London, 3 hours ahead and a half empty plane, so good service from BA and they even managed not to lose my bag (for which I had to pay excess - painful but inevitable!!!).
Well, having arrived with all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner being sent to the Gulag Archipelago in the snowy wastes of Siberia, I am finally beginning to appreciate the full extent of the adventure upon which I've embarked! It is still with a deal of trepedation that I contemplate the next 7 months - a long time and a lot of ground to cover but I'm sure it will all be worthwhile.
My impression of Russia as being cold, drab and forbidding was pretty much confirmed on the journey from the airport but once the sun comes out (which seems to be every other day), the city takes on a completely different aspect. Thee is a lot of snow about, piled into huge mounds in the gutters and the pavements are like skating rinks but the (young) Russian women teeter around in the ice and snow on stilettoes with a confidence born, I guess, of habit. There were also a few people skiing and tobogganing in the parks and the rivers and canals are frozen solid. Car washes seem to be in as short supply as internet cafes and all the cars are uniformly mud-covered and correspondingly mud-coloured, except for the occasional and unexpected stretch-limo, which is spotless.
The hotel is very nice and central with all amenities but desperately over-heated, the heating bill must be astronomical. Breakfast consists of vast quantities of smoked salmon, amongst other less appetising dishes (cold vegetablesand sundry meats). I have spent a couple of evenings, drinking Russian beer and watching the snow fall on the roof tops outside, with a Canadian guy called Bob who was on the same flight as me and is staying at the same hotel. He is also going onthe train from Moscow to Beijing but not on the same one as I am, which is a pity as it's nice to have company. We have arranged to meet in Tiannamen Square to swop stories!
St. Petersburg is sublime in the sunshine but feels remote and isolated from Europe in spite of the classical European architecture that abounds. What a sad sight though -2 captive brown bears. The first I saw pacing up and down outside the Hermitage and the second as I walked towardsthe St Peter and Paul Fortress. I heard a low, pained groaning coming from what I assumed to be a dog ona lead, but was, in fact, a small bear who, presumably, should have been hibernating rather than posing for tourists. Quite a shock to see that such cruelty still persists. That aside, it is an entrancing city with the most wonderful architecture and friendly, though not particularly smiley, people. However smiling can be difficult when one's face is permanently frozen and it is fearsomely, eye-wateringly, face (even tooth) achingly cold. The contrast between the interiors (hotels, shops) and the exterior couldn't be more marked.
On the subject of shops, there is no sign at all of the austerity or food shortages of the communist era. On the contrary, the little supermarket next to the hotel, albeit situated, as it is, in the bowels of the earth, could almost rival Fortnum and Masons in terms of quality, variety and display of products! There are expensive clothes shops with designer label clothes (Armani, Alexander McQueen, etc)and quite a few High Street sort of shops (Zara, Bennetton)and, of course, the ubiquitious McDonalds which is enormously popular with the teenage population. Prices have risen along with choice and I think that Russia is now quite an expensive place to stay.
I have done most of the sights on my list and spent yesterday in the Hermitage - a magnificent but exhausting place to visit. The rooms and collections of paintings are superb and I'd love to have time of another visit. I gave the metro a go as well. It was very easy to use but incredibly deep and going down the escalator felt like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland - you wondered when it would ever end. It is clean and very spacious but not grand like those in Moscow.
So, I'm off to Moscow tonight on the midnight train (probably sounds more romantic than it is!), then the Trans-Mongolian on Monday evening. I'll write again when I next get a chance. Adieu!