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Travel blog I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but I'm intercontinental and I eat French toast (Beastie Boys) | | | Photos available at www.istockphoto.com/georgeclerk

From Russia with Love / Daylight Robbery

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Friday, 21 September 2007 | Views [4025] | Comments [5]


With me just slightly concerned about having all the right visas and documentation to satisfy the famously tricky on-train Russian immigration officers, the Finnish train Sibelius rolled gently out of Helsinki at 07.27, bound for St Petersburg.

Three quarters of the way through the journey, for the hour or so between the last Finnish station and the first Russian one, we were instructed to go to our booked seats, not to move, and that the toilets were locked.

Expecting a brash immigration officer, twenty minutes later I got one who queried me about details of where I was going in Russia, why, and whether I planned to work. But when he gave me immigration cards to fill in and spoke in Finnish to a colleague, I realised that he was in fact not a Russian, but a Finnish official, making sure that they had details for all passengers. Then later on, with armed customs officers on small metal bridges over the train, it stopped briefly near the border for the Russian officials to get on. The process then took a long time as the train slowly passed through the customs zone, and without a word the officials took our passports and cards. Eventually we were all processed with no problems, had our passports returned, and we picked up pace again towards St Petersburg.

This was actually taken at the St P to Moscow rather than the Finlandski station, but there's not much difference.

Finally arriving on the unbelievably long platform, we then walked to the station itself in no doubt that we'd arrived in Russia - sweeping and majestic Russian music was blaring loudly out of the Tannoys.

On it's way to do some roadworks - I know 'cos I saw it chopping up the road later on.

Crossing the road

In contrast to the Scandinavian preference for waiting for the green man before crossing the road, even when there's clearly no oncoming traffic, the policy in St Petersburg seems to be that you try to cross when there's a red man, even when there is oncoming traffic. It then becomes a battle of the egos between pedestrian and driver.

Walking from the train station complete with all my clobber and having to cross huge busy roads while dodging cars that were meant to have stopped for the lights marked a big difference from Helsinki that morning.

Buying a train ticket for Moscow

I'd decided to stay in a hotel in St Petersburg to give me a break before the cooped up conditions I'm expecting on the Trans-Siberian trains. Needing to get a sleeper ticket to Moscow, I thought it would be good to get the ticket myself, rather than use the hotel's train booking service. Possibly not the wisest decision!

The train I wanted to book was the famous 'Red Arrow', which leaves St P. at midnight, gets in to Moscow just before 8am, and is known for its comfort and reliability.

So I spent 45 minutes walking the entire length of Nevsky Prospect (that's without stopping), past block after block of incredible architecture to get from my hotel to St Petersburg's Moskovsky station.

Having got to the station, just finding the ticket office was the first challenge, so I tried the most likely looking office, but on getting to the front of the queue was politely told this was not the right place for my intended travel dates. For the second attempt, I felt more confident as I could see actual tickets changing hands. But after some brazen queue-barging slowing the queue down quite a lot, I asked if the lady spoke English, and she just looked cross and shook her head. 'Is this the office for train tickets?' just led to more angry head shaking, and when I politely tried 'train ticket, here?', complete with hand movements, she continued to shake her head, and had definitely had enough of me. So 45 minutes in, I tried number 3, in a different office, and finally I was told that the best place for my tickets was out on the train platform. And sure enough, there on the platform itself, obscured by a long train, was a big ticket office. It was very dimly lit, and full of individual queues for the kiosks. I joined the shortest queue I could find, and fairly soon discovered why it was shorter than the rest - with 3 people to go, the attendant pottered about for a while in her kiosk, then closed the glass and left.

So we joined another queue, where the woman at the front took all of 25 minutes to get tickets. Half an hour after that, when I only had two people in front of me, a very pretty girl was trying to get her tickets, and two twentysomething louts went straight up to the front, talked over her completely, and began the process of getting tickets for themselves. The others in the queue rolled their eyes, but nobody said a thing, and the pretty girl just made faces at us about how badly they smelled. But as they became more obnoxious, the ticket lady was raising her voice, and becoming more and more annoyed.

Eventually they left with their tickets, and then the pretty Russian girl left with hers too. Next up was a girl in front of me, and she had no luck at all - after just one short question, the ticket lady just repeatedly shouted loudly at her and bashed her keyboard hard. Everyone in the nearby queues was staring in disbelief. So as I approached the glass, the ticket lady was looking at me despairingly and (I think) swearing profusely in Russian. Replying with my best Russian 'Hello' and then '...do you speak English?...', I was almost preparing myself for physical violence from her, but incredibly she gave a coy smile and said 'just a little bit'. So I carefully explained what I was after, she bashed the keyboard a bit, then started writing out some details on paper, which I recognised as the times of the Red Arrow train. I started to feel cautiously hopeful that - after 2 hours I may actually be able to leave with some tickets.

At this point, and to their great anger, she instructed the ten or so people behind me to move to a different queue. At 2,000 Rubles (c. £40quid), the Red Arrow seemed fine, and my 'perfect!' was met by her 'passport?' which I handed over while just checking with her that Visa or Mastercard was OK. No. Cash only. I hadn't expected this at one of Russia's busiest train stations!

Having only changed 50 Euros to get some Roubles for starting off, I only had 1,500. She bashed away a bit more, and wrote down more details for times at 1,700, still no good. Finally she tried again, and the third train price was spot on 1,500. Not great times though, a slower and older train, and arriving in Moscow at 5am. But of course I went for it, and she even helpfully underlined the important bits on the cryptic ticket.

Russian Menus

Celebrating my Russian arrival with a restaurant meal that evening, I checked that each page of the menu had been - as I'd read that it should be - individually signed by the chef and head waiter, then officially stamped. And it went on for over a dozen pages of small type, detailing every single thing for sale, including all brands of cigarette, cigars and even chewing gum! Apparently this is to prevent the waiters from charging their own prices, then taking a skim. In the end I had a decent enough meal.

Cultural Stuff

First thing on the following morning, I walked the length of Nevsky Pr for the third time, and a bit further to get to the start of the Peter's Tour route. Run by a group of postgrads, they do very highly rated 5 hour walking tours of the city. I found the place just before the start of a heavy downpour of rain, and met New Yorker Jessamyn, who I have to be nice about as she's planning to read this ;-). But that's easy as she was (honestly) very nice!

Nikoli, the PhD qualified born and bred St P tour guide suggested that we ditch the tour and go for a coffee instead, as only two people had showed up, and none of us fancied 5 hours in heavy rain.

So he kindly gave us some inside info on what to see and how, and also some language help. The best of this was how to say 'hello'. Transliterated from cyrilic it looks like 'zdrast-vuy-te', but he said that was rubbish - the way to say it right is to say the following, very quickly and with no breaks: 'How does your ass fit you'

Armed with that, and that ‘thank you’ is just like 'placebo' but starting with an 's', and ending with 'a' instead of 'o', Jess and I headed back to my end of Nevsky Pr., to start at the Hermitage.

The Hermitage was incredible in both the artwork and the architecture, with everything from the first version of the Three Graces to Da Vinci paintings left, right and centre to a long series of huge rooms packed full of Van Gogh then Gaugan then Picassos, ending with three rooms of Matisse.

Jess had no qualms about becoming part of this Matisse (or about prancing down elaborate red carpeted staircases), while the Russian official lady looked on with total disinterest.

The Hermitage is enormous - although we zoomed through most rooms barely pausing, and saw less than half of the collection, we were at the Hermitage for many hours.

A tale of two cities...

Jess already had a ticket booked to see the ballet 'Giselle' at the famous Mariinski theatre, so I agreed to try and get a ticket, and had no problem getting one in the cheap seats right up at the top. But despite being 5 stories up, I could hear and see almost everything, and to be fair both the orchestra and the performers were amazing - especially when the female lead was meant to be gliding forward from her grave, and she did this very fast but almost completely invisible foot shuffle on the tips of her toes from the very back right to the front of the huge stage. It made it look like the stage must have had a built in conveyor belt. Like a forwards moonwalk, but on tiptoes, and smoother! She also did lots of pirouettes and impressive prancing.

Cyrillic alphabet training: "McDonalds" and "Baskin Robbins"

Daylight Robbery

The next morning, I checked out, making sure I was prepared to depart St Petersburg on the overnight train that evening (and effectively the start of my Trans-Siberian / Trans-Manchurian journey). Finally the weather had cleared, and I headed for the Winter Palace, then the 'Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood'. Seeing dozens of American and Japanese tourists wondering around with expensive video and still cameras, I decided not to put my camera away between there and the Russian Museum, where I had a laugh seeing 4 police officers in a police car, all looking extremely rough, and drinking beer from cans, at 11am. After that I headed back to Nevsky Prospect, planning to cross over to the nearby Kazan Cathedral. Camera over my head rather than just over my shoulder as normal, and all pockets etc firmly zipped up and checked, I felt reasonably secure.

Along Nevsky Prospect there are lots of people everywhere selling things or giving out leaflets, and occasional street beggars displaying war wounds or boxes full of kittens. A few metres away a guy was approaching people as they walked past, showing them his selection of booklets and postcards of the city and the Hermitage. As usual, nobody was interested and brushed him away. I edged slightly further across the pavement to avoid his pitch, and just when I thought I was past him, as he was hassling a woman coming the other way, he turned and thrust his fan of photos and booklets in front of me. 'No thanks' with a smile was no good, he carried on, quickly pressing the booklets into my chest, and saying what a good price he'd give me.

Hearing again that I wasn't interested, he quickly tried to sell them again, but eventually accepted that I wasn't going to buy anything as I kept on walking, and just offered me one small postcard for no charge. I said 'No thanks' and he looked sorrowful and finally let me continue walking on, just 10 to 15 seconds after he'd first started hassling me. I thought the free card offer was a bit odd, and turned round to see him crossing the seven lanes of traffic on the street with his booklets and cards, but he seemed to be in no great hurry. But I knew that he'd definitely tried something, so I quickly checked my wallet, phone, bag, carefully hidden passport and all was well. Though my camera must be fine as it was still firmly around my neck, I looked down at it to be sure.... and the camera was indeed still there, but the 18-200mm lens had vanished as if by magic! I couldn't believe it, and looked for the thief/magician, and of course even though I'd seen him just seconds ago, he was already long gone.

Incredible - in the split second while he pushed his booklets at me, he must have reached under them with the other hand, and in what must have been a very carefully practiced move - different for each brand of SLR camera - pressed in the lens release button on the camera and, simultaneously, rotated and then removed the lens. Normally I'd notice the difference in weight with the lens gone, but since he must have removed the pressure of his booklets at exactly the same time as the lens itself, I didn't feel a thing. Also he did the whole thing blind as he was looking straight at me the whole time. And I suppose the free postcard would have provided a diversion for a few extra seconds while he got away. Damn! Damn!! Damn!!!

There seemed very little point in going to the police - even if I found an officer who wasn't drunk, the chances of him speaking English were almost zero, and anyway, I had no proof of what happened, nor anything to prove that I even owned the lens. From speaking to other travellers, filing a police report here involves unbelievable amounts of red tape, and you have to stay in the same town or city for 3 days while it's processed.

Plus St Petersburg police are notorious in Russia for their corruption.

But I did go back to the spot through the day in case he was operating again, and also to some camera shops to check that they weren't stupid enough to be selling my hot lens complete with the filter that I'd had on it. Two shops did have the same lens, but I think they were genuinely brand new.

And, just to give you a laugh, here’s the last picture I took through the lens …

Off to Moscow

So obviously now being doubly paranoid about security, I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing... although the lens did cost marginally more than the camera itself, I've already made the cost of it back, it contained no personal information, I hadn't been beaten up or anything, and a wallet or passport being stolen would have been worse.

Everyone I spoke to about it agreed that there was no point in wasting time with the police about it, so I resolved to try to put it down to experience and enjoy the rest of my day in St P. And Jess kindly came to see me off, giving me more excellent trans-sib advice (she had just finished two weeks on the trains), including the not easy task of finding your berth. I showed my ticket and passport to the provodnista (carriage attendant), who retained her distinctly unimpressed attitude throughout the journey.

But I landed on my feet, in an entirely Russian populated carriage, I was sharing with a great young couple who had recently returned to Russia from postgraduate study in Ohio, and were desperate to speak as much English as possible. The other, older Russian lady in the swelteringly hot compartment spoke no English at all, but was perfectly pleasant as we tucked into little snack boxes that we were given, and slowly chuntered into the dark countryside.

Tags: Scams & Robberies



George was admirably stoic about his lens. I see he left out the part where we shamefully grabbed a sandwich at Subway!

  Jessamyn Sep 30, 2007 9:35 AM


I know who did it! I know who did it! It was the shifty looking bearded guy in the green hoody! How do I claim my reward?

  Will Oct 1, 2007 7:59 AM


I thought getting a Scubway in Russia was a definite cultural experience!

Will - that dodgy character had just stolen two Faberge eggs in there I think!

  george Oct 5, 2007 11:36 PM


George - that totally sucks about your lens. Glad to hear you've got the D300 now - hope your enjoying it!

I'm enjoying seeing your pics coming in - excellent as usual. I am so envious!

Good luck & bon voyage!

  Warwick Mar 11, 2008 10:14 PM


The same guy, working with two others attacked our group with one mobile phone as a result. Later he bumped into me when we were alone and as I recognized him I pushed him away, but too late, another one had lifted my camera from its bag. The loss of the camera (FUJI 9600) is a nuisance, but the loss of 200 fine pictures still irritates me. By the way, our Russian guide brought us to the nearby policestation, where a nice policeman made an impressivelooking paper for my insurance claim. This took less than 30 minutes and the policemen looked sober!

  Dick Jun 16, 2008 11:36 PM

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