Mother Russia, the largest and most intimidating country in the world. 17,000,000 sq km with 141,000,000 people living on it, and that's the official stats, so technically there are a lot more people off the records. Russia is most famous for but not limited to, producing and drinking a lot of vodka, having a well-known history in communism and being full of rich billionaires, the mafia and corruption, and on my Contiki trip into Russia I learnt about, consumed and witnessed all of these things.
The first leg off my trip was fine as I had managed to stay the night in an apartment in London thanks to my cousin Darren, so getting up after a great night sleep - because I wasn't getting any in Scotland - was great and meant I could take my time getting to the airport. Anybody who is or has travelled for a long time would appreciate that a lot. Cut the boring stuff I finally ended up in Helsinki in Finland to meet with everyone I would be joining for the rest of the trip and after spending the night there we all headed off the next morning to St Petersburg. For most of the part the drive was boring just lots of trees and a few rivers, but getting to know everybody else on the bus was good fun and quite interesting. Paul Metarazzo my roommate for the whole duration of the trip was great to talk to, mainly as he is a psychologist and can read my thoughts, atleast that's what I think anyway. Everybody else came trickling into my bubble and eventually by the end of the trip I knew all fifty people on the bus. Rob our tour manager was fantastic, knew his stuff and was always keen for a drink or ten, Rich our bus driver just a down right legend.
St Petersburg was a bit of a surprise. I was expecting large apartment complexes, poverty everywhere and boring and colourless streets. What I actually did see was bright and vibrant streets, popular shopping stores and a young generation of people with a very European style about them, oh and a lot of smoking hot girls. The main thing that really grabbed my attention was the 18th - 19th century neo classical architecture of orthodox churches and palaces that are spread over the city.
The first day we arrived we did a little bus tour with our outlandish somewhat alcoholic tour guide Anna. We headed along the Nevsky Prospekt, which is the main street through the main part of the city, it is 4Km long and ends at the Hermitage Palace museum. Basically the street is 4Km of old palaces and ends with the biggest one of all. We stopped at St Nicholas Square In Front Of St Isaacs Cathedral and, well when in Russia, drank some vodka and champanski. Learning about history and getting drunk is great don't know why they haven't applied this to the school curriculum; well it is Russia so I wouldn't be surprised. After the drunk history lesson we went to dinner and had a traditional Russian dinner, which included; for entre cucumbers and tomatoes with some sauce, main course of beef stroganoff and mash spud, I enjoyed it but I enjoy just about anything so you be the judge. Can't remember desert because by this time I had had a few too many vodkas.
An early start the next day which never agrees with me after a late night out, but considering how much I drank and the hours of sleep I had, I didn't have a hang over - Russian vodka is just fantastic! - So after having breakfast and brushing my teeth I headed down stairs to jump on the coach. On this day in particular we had to use a different coach because Rich needed a day off, I had no idea which coach to get on so I walked out the front of the hotel looked around and couldn't see anyone, so I kept running back in and out and eventually gave up and started running around like a headless chicken trying to ring Rob to work out where everyone was - later that evening I was told the bus was right in front of me and a few people saw me running in and out but for some "bizarre" reason they didn't say anything to Rob and they just drove off - After an epic fail to find out where everyone was I went back to bed had a big sleep then headed into town by myself to have a look around, I wasn't going to waist a whole day of Russia. Funny enough with a city of 4.6 million people I ran into Frodo (he looks like Frodo from Lord of the Rings), Laney and Rose, in the middle of the Nevsky Prospekt. I rejoined the group jumped on the canal cruise we had organized and drank a few too many vodkas once again.
Our last day in St Petersburg was probably the best but maybe that's just because of the dead babies - please read on there is reason to this, I'm not some sick sadist boy - for most part of the day we visited the Hermitage Museum which is the largest museum in the world, it is so big that to spend and average of one minute to look at every piece it would take you five years to see everything. The palace/museum is amazing the place is made from marble, a lot of gold, silver, amazing masonry and wooden carvings and well, so much more. I should probably get to the babies thing right, well there is another museum across the river "The Kunstkamera" that was recommended to go and see. Myself and few others went over bought our tickets and ventured in. Most of the museum is about other cultures and their history, but we weren't there to see history, we where there to see some Imperial grade weird s***. The Kunstkamera is home to one of the biggest Teratology exhibits in the world. The main attraction is Frederik Ruyschs collection of deformed and preserved infants. Now this place is definitely not for everyone but it is quite interesting, I use interesting in a loose term because you don't really learn anything while you are there, just walk around with your eyes popping out of your head and for a couple of people holding your stomach at the same time. Freddy bought all the still borns off a Dutch scientist to study humans who are born with deformities. After finishing his research with each subject he would preserve the body or body part. Now all his research is on display and I mean ALL of it, I wont go into details of some of the things but I will say there were some bizarre things on display such as mermaid looking babies, elephant nose like ones, Cyclops', Siamese twins, there was even one born without the top half of it's body and well you get the picture.
I did eventually leave the exhibit and did realise it was for the better. This unknown hidden away exhibit is something I will enjoy telling people and having a joke about, but I certainly won't be going back there any time soon.
After a night of nightmares of zombie babies Paul and I got up for an early start to head to Novgorod for the night and then to Moscow early the next day.
The road to Moscow had me starting to realise how the other half lived, very poor old houses, dirty clothes and people making a living off selling goods on the side of the road. I did see some funny things on the extremely bumpy poorly maintained roads in Russia, such as old MIG fighter jets mounted as statues and old tanks at intersections, we even saw a wedding in front of a tank at a huge Y intersection on the highway, I was guessing that was the best place to do it in the outer towns. I am still curious as to how the couple heard each other's vows over the noise of the traffic. But sadly not everything was so exciting, we did come across a small "zoo" at a truck stop, bears, wolves, foxes and deer where held in cages barely big enough for them to move around. The animals were on display for passerby's and tourists, this was Russia though and you have to expect to see messed up s*** like that.
Moscow; capital city of Russia with a population of over 10 million people, home of Communism, the KGB and the most interesting metro system I have ever seen. After arriving at the Kremlin we met our tour guide for Moscow, Galina. Galina took us down to the metro to show us a few of the stations and eventually catch it back to our Hotel. The first thing I noticed was how deep the escalators went and how open the place was, after reaching the bottom we went to the first platform to have a look and catch the train. The stations we visited were like palaces with chandeliers, gold murals and stain glass displays, amazing artwork and statues anywhere they could fit one. The place was so extortionate it was hard to get my head around it at first.
It was really good fun catching the train with such a large group, everything is in Cyrillic so Galina had to hold up her fingers to show how many stops to go until we needed to get off, this was amusing when she pointed at something on the roof and everyone thought to get on the train and go one stop. There was reason to this madness of a metro station in Moscow, it was a statement from the USSR to the rest of the world to show that communism works, and the point of the metro being so deep was to double up as a nuclear bunker during the cold war, communism works ey?
The following day I decided not to join the tour of Statue Park and went into town with a few others to check out red square and Lenins tomb. Lenins tomb was under tight security, we had to go through metal detectors and bag checks and while in the tomb we couldn't have our hands in our pockets, we were not aloud to stop walking and could not talk. Still I wonder why they have his body on display, as he was a dictator that most Russians did not like. Russia is not a communist country anymore but it is still right there in front of everyone's faces, from Lenins body to the hammer and sickle plastered on every building.
One of the biggest highlights of the trip was going to Pacha night club that night, we all payed 150 Euro, got a VIP area looking over the main dance floor and free drinks - well until we ran the bar tab out at four in the morning - apparently it is in the top ten clubs in all of Europe, hard to tell though because I haven't been to the other top ten. The vodka was good especially when drinking straight from the bottle in the drunken state I was, trying to get as many photos as possible with all the professional dancers and talking to the drop dead gorgeous Russian girls that were flooding the place, and offcourse just having a ridiculously good time with everyone else on the Contiki tour. I don't really remember much so I will just have to leave it at that but I do remember being the last person to leave, saying good night to my two hour Russian girlfriend and getting home at sevenish in the morning to annoy Paul again.
We ended our tour of Russia with a trip to the Russian Circus, which was just a perfect way to sum up Russia, a massive extravagant building with performances from the weird and wacky and the colourful and romantic artists that blew me off my seat. If you haven't been to Russia get your ass over there, it is nothing I have ever seen before, but not all of it will be around forever. The subway will be getting ripped apart and a lot of buildings are already being torn down, this is for the good of the people living there but for the rest of us who travel to these golden pockets of the world it is AMAZING!!!!!