Halfway, half-time, and a pitstop
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
36Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Too early by far to even test the hotel's noon check-in.
A large station with a lot of warmth and coffee inside. But hopeless if you want to watch sleepy people stumbling out of their snug carriages during this brief moment of madrugada, the dark before the light.
Photographer Margaret Bourke-White once noted: "You have not seen downtown New York until you've seen it before the dawn." Her observation tested out. Also black, chilly, in autumn, the rumble is the alert - a subway train, tracking a long, straight road above, on the island's strictly gridded layout. The rumble is heard, and felt. A geyser of steam appears, billowing up from an air vent, warm subway air compressed and squeezed out into the end of the night by the big, flat, ugly blunt end of the onrushing engine
The roads are uncannily quiet, only a squeal of a tyre or lone, distant dog. Then 100m on another plume of steam, and another, and the next, a street-length of steam gushers unveiling the dawn of the sleepy commuters below.
In Peter, as Russians call their second city, passengers lurch out, lumbered and scarved, from suburban runners and more red-eye shuttles. Businessmen and women, tailored, collared and coated.
And every now and then a trio of drawn-faced, young gigglers. A ruffled looking, leather-jacketed, moneyed buck, and two 'flossies'. Elbows and candy. Knee-length stiletto boots, crotch-length skirts, glam shoulder throws and long blonde hair. A menage-a-trois to the rhythm of the tracks.
The first trio tak-a-tak past on hard heels, tight, bare skin puckering to cold's gnaw.
By the third trio, a pattern emerges. There are around half-a-dozen tripplers over a two hour period.
An insider later reveals details of a semi-institutionalised 'night run'. Moscow moneybags grabs a coupla gals, loads up with 'carry on' requirements, and 'let's go play trains'. Toot-toot.
Passing suited men sit next to me on the garden-style bench. They are drinking beer at 7am, 8am. The beer shop is open. It is easier to buy beer in Russia than it is to buy water.
Russia would be the life and death of Brits, Aussies and Saffers. Beer drinking in the street is allowed, it is tradition. Stall after stall near train and subway stations and bus stops offer a window full of beer varieties. Twenty, thirty
Vodka is a slightly different story. It is forbidden to sell spirits at these beer vendors which pose as general traders. Supermarkets have full stock. But alcohol between 3.5% and 42% may not be sold between 11pm and 7am. Russian vodka is a standard 40%. There would seem a practical logic to the 11pm cutoff, but to sotto voce publicly declare that you can/should hit the firewater at 7am raises an eyebrow.
The fun hour over, head into the warmth of the station building, load up on caffeine, watch the Chicago Cubs cave in the 7th to the Milwaukee Brewers (where, oh where is Sammy Sosa?) and help extend the longest pennant drought in World Series history.
St Petersburg engulfs the visitor with magnificence.
It mercilessly piles ostentation upon ostentation upon one's head. It's an encyclopedia of neo-classical and Baroque architecture. 18th and 19th century buildings merge into lane after lane of grandiosity, reeking of history and eloquence. A living ode to 'spare not, want not'.
A name-dropper's fantasy land, from the Greats Peter and Catherine onwards. Culture vultures follow in the footsteps of Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Nureyev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovic, Balzac, Chekhov ..
Yet it doesn't seem blinding in its splendour, much more embracing, throwing a large warm arm around the shoulder, in complete contrast to the colder, more mechanical Moscow.
Proclaimed the capital of Russia in 1712, it was built by title, for title - the non-titled even refused permission to reside within its limits.
Its capital status was dumped in 1918, after the communist revolution, and it was renamed Leningrad in 1924, three days after Lenin's death, having endured the name Petrograd since 1914 - St Petersburg having been decreed "too German".
The new regime threw its resources and developments into Moscow and eastwards, thankfully leaving the grand old dame alone.
There is no monolithic Soviet constructivism to mar the sensual elegance and curves of each building, nor to soar and sour the skyline. Accusations have been leveled against tight-pocketed Moscow - in a subconscious, or not, spur against the aristocracy of old - for allowing a certain amount of decay to set in, but ironically it would be this very meanness that allowed St Petersburg to maintain her beauty and form.
How does one fall in love with a city? I don't know. It just happens.
Set on the banks and mouth of the Neva River, flowing into the Gulf of Finland, a myriad of well-paved canals and streams bisect the urban spread. Bridges criss-cross in all directions. It's an ambler's delight. Round each corner and there is another palace, another museum, another theatre that was a palace.
An 18th century height edict declared no building could reach above the Winter Palace, once official home to the tsars
There are no new buildings in the heart of the city. Anything new would be completely out of place. The resident ghosts of tsars and princes would cringe at the chrome and glass that gets tossed off as modern and classy in the newly-styling Chinese cities. This is a home of real old-money. No chintzy new-dollar brashness here.
Golden spires and spheres, beaten brass, wink in the sun above the tailored roofs.
The residents also seem to be enchanted in their city of palaces. The pace is slow, for a city of five million. Stately tall masts are moored to the river's banks. Fishermen slowly work the waters for pike. Strollers stand and gaze, casually, at lines of elegant buildings. The height edict carried a rider, no space between buildings either. The city carries a long, flowing line.
The Hermitage Museum, art gallery extraordinaire, is housed within the Winter Palace, stretched along the banks of the Neva River. It is a wealth of Western art, Russian history, western Asian artifacts, housed in ballrooms, throne rooms and galleries of grandiloquence - 25km of art, 3,000,000 pieces. Even that distance of walls can only carry half the museum's art at one time.
How many rooms of Matisse, Gauguin and Cezanne can one actually appreciate? The collection of the masters is astonishing: Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son is amazing, Van Gogh, Rubens, Michaelangelo, Rodin, Picasso, Dali ...
Hall after room after gallery of the history of my planet in paint on canvas, in marble, in gold, in steel
The city's beauty stole my heart, now the art was blinding my eyes. The place is so big, it is difficult to navigate. One can either drift or aim for a specific section. I wished my cranky Dutch friend was there as I drifted in the Hollands/Netherlands section. A odd painting, bizarre and ghoulish stood out in a peculiar way, Landscape with the legend of St Christopher by Jan Mandijn. The temptation of sin, monsters, rivers and a hatchet in a floating head. In complete contrast to simple power of the touted Conversion of Saul.
In the street outside, a lone busker plays a violin into the night. The cold night. She stands in the main street, evening after frosty evening, forcing numbing fingers across the frets. She is young. And does not play very well. Perhaps the violin box does not like to resonate in the cold. She deserves every rouble she gets.
Up the same road, a painted sign, a relic of WW2's terrible 900-day siege Leningrad: (roughly translated) This side of the road is safer during times of bombardment.
In 1991, a referendum requested the city be renamed St Petersburg again.
And a monumental decision to take a break from travelling and spend a few months topping up the bank tank with a contract job that has been offered in Indonesia.
Down the track, from St Petersburg, to Sochi, in the southwest corner of Russia, a quick dash into Turkey, and then the brakes come on, the beard comes off, and I fly to Jakarta to play party to the birth of a new newspaper. A rare opportunity.
So the final train ride, nearly 20,000km of rails, takes on a solemnity, yet happily offers up two nights of traditional entertainment.
The provodniks, the two carriage stewards, take me in hand on a train which does not generally carry travellers, and give me the sausage and vodka treatment.
Russians will not drink vodka without eating. "We have respect for 40%," I am told.
Prepare the snack first. A slice of bread, a thick slice of pork fat, a slice of cheese. Set the glasses, pour a triple shot. Clink, toast and down the hatch. Then eat the snack. No scrabbling around after the drink for something to eat, it must be laid out first.
Pick the glass up at the bottom, with thumb and index finger! Don't put it down on the table once you have picked it up, I am scolded.
The bacon fat runs out. Enter smoked sausage, and bread and cheese. And more vodka. Tapping the side of the throat with the back of the hand, or flicking same with a finger means 'time for another'.
They don't speak English. I, of course don't speak Russian. We speak. For hours.
End of the ride, end of the rail. Sad to bid farewell to the safety of a train carriage. Kind of like leaving a cinema, having watched a country and a half flash by the window screen. You paid your money, saw the show, now time to go. 20,000km. Halfway around the world.
Sochi, on the Black Sea - it's a bit rainy brown at the moment - is home to the Winter Olympics 2014. It's the resort city/town for Russia, the southern-most, warmest, with a beach.
Plan is to get a ferry to Turkey, quick bus dash to Istanbul and fly back to the coalface. Ferry turns out to be a flight of fancy. There is no such thing as the touted passenger ferry. It is a truck-delivering/smuggling ship from Turkey that runs anywhere between once a week and once a month. When there are enough passengers, it returns south to Trabzon.
Inquiries reveal "not today, maybe tomorrow, possibly the next day, and definitely Friday". Ja, like I haven't heard this story before.
The next day's inquiry: "Maybe tomorrow, possibly Friday and definitely Saturday."
Russian visas are extremely strict. There is no extension possible. And warnings abound about overstaying your welcome.
How about a bus or train to Turkey. It's only around 500km or so away, a mere stone's throw after the ride so far. Ha. The border to Georgia, a few kilometers south of Sochi, is closed. There's a bit of arm wrestling going on. And around the east of Georgia, Russia will let you out, but Azerbaijan will not let you in. Basically impossible to continue forward by land/water.
Opt to fly to Istanbul as next available seat to Jakarta from Sochi is in three weeks' time.
Spend a penny or two in Sochi. Pop down to the beach, and it's like 'surreal Sunday', or Monday ...
Russian loutsville. On beaches of stones and pebbles. Ouchville. Beer belly bay, men and women. Babes and boys and bellies and babies. Like 20 Bapsfonteins rolled up into one. Like boer-boy heaven. I sit, and gawk, and add rudeness to the equation.
And roll out of Russia, brave Aeroflot to Turkey, chuckle with a little relief to see it's a hired Air France Boeing 757.
A night dash into Istanbul. Get a six month return ticket. That takes care of the six month contract in Jakarta, who thankfully foot the flight. The kebabs smell and taste incredible. The end of an overheard phone call gets my attention " ... hullo my brother ... god bless you, and your wife, and your children, and your country ... thank you, love and strength". I love it, and can't wait to sink my teeth into another kebab in six month's time.
Now it's time to spend a few months with pick and shovel to balance the bank after the depredations of the great Russian gouge.
PS: HALFTIME NOTE: When I began this travelogue 8 months ago, I had no idea what it would turn out like, or where it would go. The number of people who have read my natterings has astonished me. In the words of the immortal Brian Lara, I hope it has been entertaining. I suspect I do not know a number of readers. If anybody has any suggestions, criticisms, wails of horror etc, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com
I shan't bore the pants off all with the great work saga in Jakarta, but I do look forward to renewing acquaintances when the second half of this long journey, from Istanbul to South Africa, begins in April.