First day in St Petersburg

This is a throwback to my travels in 2010 when I spent 4 months travelling around Europe and Asia. This is taken word-for-word from my TravelPod blog that I kept at the time, and have recently re-discovered.

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When Visa say that they’re accepted worldwide, they may not be lying but they’re certainly stretching the truth. It was not a great time to find this out after having arrived in St Petersburg, having not eaten a proper meal in 3 days, water supplies long gone, dehydration looming, no way to pay for my hostel for the night, and with not a single cash machine in sight sporting the Visa logo. Russia may still be insular in many ways, and the way it likes to move money around the cyberspace is certainly one example.

An hour or so of wandering aimlessly, I eventually found my way (at last) to a touristy bit with a Visa cashpoint. Put my card in, entered pin, yada yada yada… your card has been declined by your bank. This wasn’t turning into a good day.

I concluded that, since I had bought train tickets in Lithuania, and to a bank watching its accounts for fraud, finding transactions in Lithuania that it hadn’t expected might be considered suspicious and so HSBC had probably blocked my card. I don’t know whether they’re just keen to minimise fraud or just like being overzealous to annoy their customers, but this will have been the third time it will have happened. Not impressed…

Last resort, I decided to go straight to the hostel I was booked to stay for the night, and ask for their trust and kindness and for them to let me use their computers and check in before I had access to any cash. Thankfully, all was fine. I was able to call up the bank from the number online, sort it out, get my card unblocked, and also to give the bank my travel plan so hopefully this won’t happen again. They say.

The hostel itself is on the 4th floor on the main road into town, by the station to Moscow. In a 14 bed dorm (not too packed though – it’s a big room). Fairly clean, friendly staff, amazing showers – power shower jets and a built in radio?? Mainly chinese students in at the moment, there was a party of English people but they left this morning before I had a reasonable chance to meet them. Hostel is about 25 minutes walk from the city centre.

Spent most of the day doing some intense sightseeing. There is so much to see here, it’s incredible – landmarks like palaces, mansions, monuments, cathedrals and gardens all knit together into a seamless sequence around the city. If Moscow is where money was made, Saint Petersburg is where it was spent. And I’ve only seen a fraction of the city so far. No photos yet (USB ports on this computer have been disabled, or are just broken, dammit!) but a quick google should give you an idea.

The feel of the city itself is certainly worth noting. It’s now 22:40 and the roads are still full while pedestrians, both tourists (lots of them!) and locals, are zipping around the city or taking part in the city’s significant cafe culture. It has probably helped that today’s been stunningly hot – especially for this part of the world – 26 degrees in the afternoon I believe. For most of the day, the street outside my hostel turns into a carpark more than anything worthy of being called a road. The buses and trams are always full, and even during off peak time the subway is an intensely crowded experience. Towards peak time, crowds were spilling out of the subway stations, out of the halls, and well onto the paths outside. There are just so many people here. Even compared to London, this is something else. (And Saint P is certainly not supposed to be one of the busier cities on my route – so there could well be even more to prepare for!) It seems “off peak” isn’t defined as the time when the roads are fairly empty, just as the time you can actually move.

Speaking of the metro, at only 22 rubles a single (50p) it’s a fairly cheap way of both getting around and doing some sightseeing too. The lines are incredibly deep – the escalator journey alone takes 2 minutes each way. I believe the reasoning is that the stations underground were designed to double up as air raid shelters in case of war – which is also why they are so ornate. I wish I was able to take more photos (only got a few on my camera phone) but bringing out your camera in a tube station around 100 commuters in a packed subway station not only is asking for pickpocketers and the like, it just feels a bit silly too.

Back to the roads – if you ever thought there were some bad drivers in the UK (you know who I’m talking to) then Russia is a whole new experience. Lane discipline is optional, the horn rules, pedestrians and even other drivers are annoyances that prevent drivers getting to where they need to be, and must be eradicated. Speaking of which, there’s a very strange rule on pedestrian crossings here. When the green crossing light is on, you cross. But right turning traffic still crosses their line and is about to cross your crossing. In the UK, that would mean somebody’s done something wrong, so you jump for your life out of the way. But here (and also, oddly, in Berlin) it’s the norm that the car gives way, and then carries on when everyone’s crossed, like a UK zebra crossing. But not all the time. I still haven’t quite figured it out. Sometimes I attempt to cross and have to react quickly to the driver’s own inability to do so. Sometimes the car approaches, I jump back, the car stops anyway, the driver looks confused and annoyed. I just follow everyone else now. Also… half the cars seem to run on half flat tyres. The roads are filled with the noise of the flat tyre squelching sound. Maybe they forgot that winter’s finished? Just something I noticed. Also saw that, with the introduction of capitalism, the number of Ladas is surprisingly low on the road (separately saw 4 of them broken down on the streets today). You can’t help but get the impression that Russia still doesn’t really want to do capitalism and suchlike, but it’s getting there.

Long tiring day, exhausted. Planning tomorrow maybe to catch the train just out of the city to see one of the many palaces around the area . We’ll see.

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