They think its all over, it is now!
Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
142Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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St Petersburg ended up with the honour of being our final destination, before we reluctantly boarded a flight back to London where real life recommenced
We were surprised to read that St Petersburg is Europe’s fourth largest city, it certainly doesn’t feel very big, and doesn’t suffer any of the usual hang ups of other big cities. No over congested roads, pollution or poorly planned buildings. Instead it’s a beautiful open and airy city, with big wide streets, the huge River Neva running through the centre, canals weaving their way between the streets, all overlooked by beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings. A really lovely city to explore, with plenty to fill our time.
Number one on the list for anyone visiting the city is of course the world famous Hermitage Museum. Billed as one of the best in the world, it certainly lived up to that billing. Seeing works of art from the likes of Monet, Rodin, Van Gogh and Matisse in such as spectacular setting was a real treat. The museum buildings are works of art in their own right, with ornate ceilings, inlayed doors, gold door handles and huge expanses of intricate patterned wooden floors. We had attempted to book tickets in advance on-line but sadly an admin error resulted in us needing to queue with the masses first thing in the morning for the 10am opening. Good job we arrived early as at 9.15 the queue was already starting to snake out of the courtyard and by 11am must have been 200 or 300 people long at least. There are miles upon miles of rooms and corridors, which could easily take up a week or more to explore if you had the time
Part two of our St Petersburg sightseeing was founded by the cities name sake. The imposing Peter and Paul Fortress sits on the banks of the Neva River and where it acted as a defence for the city. The buildings inside its mighty walls have served many purposes over its history, including a prison and a space and rocket research laboratory. Kev loved the Space museum, what is it about boys and Space? Some very interesting photos and artefacts detailing Russia’s space history, including a photo of two monkeys in space suits shaking hands, the famous Space Dog Laika and plenty of newspaper cuttings about Gagarin, who will be celebrating the 50 year anniversary of his space flight this year. One big surprise at the fort which most definitely wasn’t mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide book was the legions of St Petersburg residents who line up along the warm walls of the fort when the sun comes out to soak up the rays. Definitely rates as one of the most bizarre sights of the trip, with legions of nut brown bodies spread eagled up against the wall, wearing nothing but the briefest of briefs
As we’d timed our visit with Easter weekend we got a couple of extra bonuses thrown into the tourist experience as we were treated to not one but two military parades in the square outside the hermitage, some very impressive uniforms and even more impressive straight legged marching. Clearly very flexible hamstrings these Russian Military types. Easter Sunday is a huge deal with Orthodox Russians, where there was a live TV coverage from the main Cathedral in Moscow, plus coverage from St Isaacs in St Petersburg. We got to see the huge tv trucks with their miles of cables getting themselves all set for the main event, the midnight mass, which can last up to 8 hours! This is a marathon no matter how strong your religious beliefs are, especially as Russian churches and cathedrals have no seats or pews!
You will have probably noticed that food has featured pretty highly on our trip and having the opportunity to sample something we’ve never tried before on an almost daily basis is probably my favourite thing about travelling
Apart from its rather stern and surly image (not strictly true, we met some very friendly Russians) I guess the other thing Russia is known for is its love of drinking. Vodka obviously sits at the top of the preferred tipple list, but beer runs a close second, with literally dozens of Russian brewed varieties to choose from. Apparently beer was initially introduced and heavily promoted as a ‘health’ drink to try and reduce the amount of vodka people were downing in the hope reducing alcoholism and poor health. At only 5% alcohol content its considered a ‘light’ option, and as such people can be seen walking down the street at anytime of the day swigging from a can or bottle of beer
Our final night in Russia and we suddenly realised that we’d not drunk one drop of vodka since arriving – we made great efforts to remedy the problem, heading to the very appropriately named ‘Russian Vodka Room Number 1’ for a tipple or two. The restaurant also had the honour of being the location for our last meal out after eating out everyday for 12 out of our 17 months . It was only in Australia and New Zealand where we actually had the chance to cook our own food, other than that we’ve had the luxury of being cooked for and even better, no dishes to do! The Russian Vodka room was a very atmospheric place, set in a lovely old building, with curved ceilings, period features and a live band. As the name would suggest they sell a lot of vodka – over 90 varieties, with more of the menu dedicated to the clear stuff than food. As always Kev managed to pick one they didn’t have in stock and so took the waiters recommendation. Our large 50ml shot glasses arrived, and Kev enquired the name of the one he had been recommended. This request appeared to get lost in translation somehow as 2 minutes later we were presented with two more 50ml shots. Too embarrassed to send them back and secretly happy at having the excuse to down shots like a real Russian we worked our way through them. 200ml of neat vodka downed and we were ready to order the bill and wobble our way back to the hotel. The bill arrived, with the immortal words – ‘This is present with bill’ and two more shots of Vodka were placed in front of us! Down the hatch, after all when in Russia do as the Russian do.
I’m sure none of you want to know about the journey to St Petersberg airport or the trip back to Essex from Gatwick so I’ll spare you the details of the final conclusion to the trip. I think to conclude what has been the most fantastic, wondrous, fascinating, challenging and truly amazing experiences of our lives I’ll compile a list of best and worsts.
Favourite wildlife experience – 2 million bats flying over head – Kev. Seeing Organg-utans in the wild – Hannah
Favourite form of transport – Skidoo, Russia – K Motor bike and side car, Philippines - H
Favourite street food – Thailand - K&H
Favourite Beer – Monteiths, New Zealand - K&H
Worst Drink - Monglian Milk Tea - appeared to contain no tea, just luke warm goats milk, rice and salt!!
Favourite Beach – White beach, Boracay, Philippines - K&H
Favourite celebration – New Year celebration at the Dinosaur Museum, Laos - K&H
Favourite City – Sydney - H, Siem Reap, Cambodia - K
Favourite cultural exchange – volunteering in St Josephs School, Kerala, India – K
Most useful thing learnt - Globalfreeloading.com – free accommodation and making new friends courtesy of the internet – K Don’t put boiling water on green tea, it makes it bitter - H
Favourite journey – 30 hours by sleeper train down to Kerala, window down, wind in the hair, smiling passengers and enough random happenings to make the time pass quickly. – H Off roading by Moped in Northern Vietnam - K
Favourite walk – Menang to Pisang on the Annapurna circuit – walks don’t get any more beautiful than this. – K. Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains - Australia - H
Most memorable experience – Skydiving over Lakes and mountains of New Zealand – K. Swimming with Whale Sharks, Philippines – H
Biggest achievement – Surviving the trek up to the Thurong La pass, Nepal , Over 5400 metres above sea level – most definitely the hardest and most challenging thing either of us have ever done – harder than running the New York marathon for sure. – K&H
Scariest moment – Realising how easy it would have been for me to fall off the mountain in an altitude induced stupour on the day we went over the high pass
Favourite people encounter – Gate crashing a hill tribe wedding in India. – K Meeting Mongolian Herdsman out on the Steppe. - H
Best Backpacker Accommodation – Jade Emu, Dali, China – K&H
Best Free Accommodation – 5 star high rise couch-surfing luxury, Singapore – K&H
Favourite Hotel – Alta Vista, Boracay, Philippines – K&H
Worst accomodation - Rat infested hotel room in Fujian Province, China - K&H. Shoe box sized windowless cupboard of a room, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong - K
Most unusual accommodation – A Mongolian Ger tent – K&H
Favourite Meal – Chick Pea Ghoulash – not the best dish but a real surprise
Worst Meal - three days of Pot Noodles for tea, resulting in MSG induced Migraines.
This list could go on and on, with everyday providing us with some sort of memorable moment and no two days alike it really has been a blast. One things for sure, the travelling bug is now firmly IN the system, and we'll be doing our best to make sure the rest of our lives continues to be filled with adventure - even if it does mean having to shoe horn it inbetween working and earning a living :)