Fab Russian routelettes
A single guy driving through the breathtaking and untouched vistas of Russia, I knew I wasn’t going to see the sun for two weeks, and I was ready for the Russian winter!
I landed in Moscow and headed to my hotel, in the heart of the city, by the Moskva River with fabulous views of the Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral, in temperatures as low as minus 21 C. Brrrr.
Russia truly is more than the stereotypical land of the Siberian Husky, vodka and corruption! There’s much more. Deciding to train it (four hours) from Moscow to one of the oldest cities rich in history — from Hitler and Napolean trying to turn it into ruins was Smolensk. Its architecture spoke volumes.
At the Smolensk station, the taxi took me aback. It felt like stepping back in time to the 1900s. Snow-covered roads and paths created by the tread of moving cars, the air was crisp and my anticipation knew no bounds.
I stayed at an inn where even the receptionists barely spoke English. My Russian skills probably helped me survive. Smolensk has the most beautiful cathedrals, and I started my journey with the 800-year-old Assumption Cathedral, the principal church of Smolensk.
Lopatinsky Gardens is another attraction where the grave of major Anton Slalom lies, who died defending Smolensk. A visit in the understated winter really shows one how beautiful and stark the landscape is — Frozen ponds turned into makeshift ice rinks with locals skating to opera strains, it was spellbinding.
Visiting a local Irish pub, unsure of the city’s tourist-friendliness, after a couple of vodkas, I decided to use the restroom where I bumped into the stereotypical Russian — All of 6 feet 3 inches or more, making me look pocket-sized.
One walked up and uttered a hoarse, “Privyet” or hello. With my elementary skills of the language, I realised he was asking if I was from Pakistan. I tried explaining my ethnicity but it took a while to get across that I was Indian.
And then, in a couple of minutes, three men were trying to carry me, joyous as they love India! Unbelievable! Knowing I was 6,000 km from home, and didn’t know what I was going to get myself into, I beat a hasty retreat!
All those articles and books on Communist Russia and the bigot population had me rather pensive. My next destination was St. Petersburg and knowing that Smolensk does not have an active airport, and train signs are an arduous task to translate, I decide to do something absolutely delirious, and carpooled it to Saint Petersburg!
One of my friends set up an app for my ride with three unknown Russians. My journey started at 7 am from Smolensk and took nine hours. A friendly gentleman greeted me at the bus stop — our meeting point and it cost 1,500 Rubles or Rs 1,700 — a steal and also a chance for me to debunk the introvert mentality of Russians.
We picked up two others and none seemed to know English. The drive was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ memory as we cruised 150 kmph by the border of Belarus, Latvia and Estonia.
Snowy flakes sinking into trees, I didn’t want to sleep, lest I missed any thing. We stopped for a hamburger at a local food joint where the meat was palatable, the waitress though, barely understood what burger I wanted, I managed with a picture!
An hour through the drive, and the gentleman in the passenger seat enquired, to my delight, if I spoke English. An engineer from St Petersburg, his broken English was a gift.
We witnessed a packful of military en route, most of them guarding the border of Russia with their former Soviet Union counterparts. We reached St Petersburg in eight hours, and I had the biggest smile on my face, all I had heard about the city was true.
The driver dropped us at a metro station and a fellow passenger waited until he found me a cab to my hotel. Everything about St Petersburg was tourist-friendly, and the locals more welcoming that other parts of Russia. I was glad that I had reserved the best part of my holiday for this vibrant city.
St Isaacs Square is where I stayed, with views of the larger than life St Isaac’s Cathedral. Surreal. My trip to Russia seemed like it just began in this city of architectural wonders that left me speechless.
From the larger than life St Isaac’s Cathedral to the bustling Nevski Prospekt, I couldn’t wait to get my expedition started in this former capital. My favourites were the visit to the Kazan Cathedral and St Isaac’s Cathedral.
I found the cafe culture wonderful, and the food delicious with traditional dishes like Dressed Herring, Borscht, Stroganoff, Golyubtsy, Solyanka Soup and much more. My visit here has left me astounded and I would definitely visit in the summer to experience the other side of the season. Warmer too!