Friday, October 05, 2007

First impressions of Russia

This was our sixth border crossing, but the first "real" one - not within the EU. We were on a night bus, and we were rudely awoken at 4am. Everyone got off the bus (we slowly realized what was going on and followed). At passport control, the border guard was not impressed with Anthony's arrival card and demanded "ручкой." Due to his uncomprehending stare, she began to wave her hand, giving the international signal for "pen." Unfortunately, Anthony misinterpreted this for the international signals for "sign here" and "waiter, cheque please" and continued to stare uncomprehendingly. Eventually, another passenger provided her with a pen, she made some illegible notation, and we were allowed into Russia (after passing our bags through a metal detector)!

We got minimal sleep on the rest of our night bus ride, due to poor roads, bad driving and squeaky brakes. At 7am, we were again rudely awakened, to find that we were in St. Petersburg (an hour early! - or so we believed until we realized that we'd passed into a new time zone). We were dropped unceremoniously on a street corner, with a small map to our hostel - that did not have a scale, or the street names in Cyrillic (the funky alphabet that Russians use). We had been warned not to look too much like tourists in Russia, as cops will ask to inspect your passport - and then demand payment to get it back. So, we were tired, grumpy, disorriented and trying not to look like tourists as we looked for street signs (and lugged around backpacks with Canada flags on them).

We walked for about fifteen minutes, until we found a street called Лабутина, which we guessed was the Labutina on our map (as it had an 'a' 'b' 't' and 'a' in the right places...). We found the right building, and the right door (entered the security code that they post on the web) and climbed some dark, dirty, unwelcoming, creepy stairs to door #34 (the hostel's "address"). Still no signs of a hostel. We rang the doorbell and knocked repeatedly. No response.

Feeling defeated, we retreated to a nearby park to eat some breakfast and figure out what to do. We were completely unconvinced that we had found the right place (despite the correct security code). We had no way to check the internet, or to call the hostel. We decided to forfeit our deposit and just go find another hostel, but that we should check door #34 one last time.

This time, we rang the bell and someone answered! What a relief! The hostel people were just waking up and I guess no one was awake yet when we first arrived. When we came in we were offered tea (just what we needed) and shortly afterwards we met several nice people staying at the hostel. After Marieke took a nap - she was a bit of a zombie by this point - we all headed out for a day of sightseeing.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, easily as stunning as Paris or Venice. Our first impressions quickly melted away.

No comments: