I arrived in Saint Petersburg in the early hours of July 30th. Since it was 3am, I decided to splurge on a cab to downtown - in retrospect, I’m glad I was half asleep while we whizzed past soviet-style high rises adequately painted dark against the light sky, with and average of 60kmh over the speed limit in 40kmh zones, with smooth jazz playing on the radio for calming effects. Saint Petersburg, by daylight and especially in the early evening when the light takes on a slightly rosy color, is quite beautiful. The broad boulevards remind me of some areas of Berlin, and the nicer parts of the city center or Warsaw. The city is proud of it’s palaces and museums, in particular the Hermitage. Visiting it, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of things - the number of Asian tourists, squeezing their way through the entrance gates, the number of halls and rooms and artefacts, which are exhibited in a way that I could not make sense of. In one room, visitors marvel at hundreds of tiny little Japanese teapots from different centuries, but once you step into through the doorway to the right, you find yourself amidst medieval armory, only to be surprised by a wonderful Bruegel in the next corridor. Unless you speak and read Russian, it seems like the best strategy is to just follow the flow and be impressed by the sheer vastness of the space, and the number of items on display.
In contrast, Catherine Palace a short distance outside of the city itself is much smaller than you’d think from the outside. That is, there are far fewer rooms you can visit than the size of the compound would suggest - mostly because the palace was destroyed so thoroughly by the German army during it’s occupation that in the 55 years since the end of the war only a handful of rooms and the outside of the complex were restored to their former glory. The gardens, however, were wonderful, and mostly untouched by the flood of Chinese tourists that jammed the golden hallways of the palace.
On Sunday, August 2nd, I took a Sapsan train to Moscow. Six short hours on a train that feels much more modern than the German ICE or the French TGV. Thanks to Couchsurfing, I had a place to stay and a host who took it upon himself to show me all the must-see elements of the capital within the 12 hours I had in the city before my train to Irkutsk was to leave. Hüseyin is originally from Istanbul, and has been working in Russia for 3 years. “It’s okay”, he says, “better than Oman”. Hüseyin loves photography, so, armed with our cameras (I bought a new one for the trip), we started out at 11pm to explore the city. At this time of the day, the red square was nearly empty, but beautifully lit. Quite a serene atmosphere. Weirdly, Lenin’s mausoleum with the Kreml as a backdrop is juxtaposed with one of the most exquisite shopping centres in Moscow, which, with it’s turn of the century style, elaborate illumination and lush flowerbeds reminded me of a mix of Disney-esque shopping mall and a the grand warehouses of Paris. Moscow, in general, loves luxury. We passed many fancy restaurants and bars where apparently wealthy men were dining impossibly thin girls in very short skirts and incredibly high heels. The clubs we could see from one of the bridges reminded me of the stylish open air bars in Tel Aviv, well lit in warm colors with lots of plants to accentuate the outdoor feeling. Certainly in contrast to Berlin night life with it’s gritty clubs where you can hardly see enough to make your way to the bar. I might need to come back some time, armed with some heels and dresses, and explore the night life.