I’ve been to nearly every single ex-Soviet state except for the mother of them all: Russia. That changes today.
And it wasn’t easy getting here.
Recalling my first monsoon trip to Egypt, I also once again answered the call for emergency services personnel onboard my flight out of NYC, but this time actually as a doctor instead of a pre-medical student. I took care of 2 people, one of whom was having a delayed allergic reaction to an MRI with contrast (the feeling of difficulty swallowing, which I treated with Benadryl) and another who felt like he was having low blood pressure (he wasn’t).
And as for Russia itself, after a deportation, tons of visa bureaucracy, this week’s international saber rattling, and even a near-scare today where one of our own, JC, was prevented getting on his Aeroflot flight because of an uncertainty whether Hong Kong Passport Holders can visit Russia without a visa (they can, and for up to 14 days), it seemed that Russia was simply becoming the forbidden kingdom; but alas, here I am, typing away this entry in our first day in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Formerly known as Leningrad, Saint Petersburg was formerly the imperial capital of Russia for 200 years before the Bolsheviks moved it back to Moscow in 1918. Given its proximity to Finland and the rest of Western Europe/Scandinavia, Saint Petersburg is not your typical Russia; it emanates a warm charm fitting for a Western European city while still reatining the cold, steely soviet pride of Mother Russia.
To get to Saint Petersburg, I had to switch airports within a 10 hour layover in Moscow. Departing from NYC at 7:20pm and landing at around 1pm in Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) located about an hour’s drive north from Moscow, I had to carry my bags with me for the rest of the day before catching an 11pm flight leaving from Vnukovo International Airport (VKO), located about another hour’s drive southwest from Moscow. Luckily, Uber cabs in Moscow are dirt cheap, which each hour’s drive costing no more than $10 USD each way.
Although taking public transportation to and from the airports can cost you only $1 USD to get around, remember you’ll have to carry all your bags up and down tons of escalators and stairs while adding another 40 minutes to your journey compared to an Uber. If you think you can get away with it by checking in your bags prior to departure, it won’t work; Aeroflot makes you reclaim your bags in SVO airport once you land and you’ll have to take them with you yourself to VKO airport.
That said, with a long enough layover, I conveniently arranged an appointment at Real Russia’s Moscow offices to pick up our train tickets on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway.
FYI, taking Uber, while affordable in Moscow can be a risk too – the Uber driver I took from Moscow to VKO airport didn’t know where the departures terminal was and insisted where he was dropping me off was the right place. I got out to ask at this random office, only to find him absconding and leaving me in the middle of nowhere. WTF.
The people in the office didn’t speak a lick of English, so all they did was shrug their shoulders and point in the direction where I had to walk to get to the airport. So I ended up walking about 45 minutes along a random expressway in the middle of a Russian winter night, while narrowing avoiding getting hit by a few cars, buses, and a snowplow before finally getting to the departures terminal!
Choose your opportunity costs wisely. On the bright side, taxis in Saint Petersburg has wifi and accept credit cards! Wheee! I ended up staying at Simple Hostel, which was conveniently (and strategically) located about 5 minutes away by foot from Palace Square.
The next morning I woke up to a hazy dawn of a New Year’s Eve, where I waited for the rest of the monsoon crew to arrive in 2 hour intervals. During this whole time, I spent running back and forth between the taxi-drop off area by Palace Square and the hostel to pick up and drop off bags for my co-travelers as they lingered around exploring the crown jewel of Saint Petersburg.
The Palace Square is one of the largest squares in the world, where events such as Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917 took place.
Sitting on the north side is The Hermitage: Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852, this museum is one of the largest and oldest in the world with a catalog spanning over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
Tickets cost around $10 USD per person, and it closes at 6pm. While some people spend a whole day here, most of us lingered and gawked at the opening stairway for a good 10 minutes before spending no more than an hour for the rest. It’s up to you.
While the collection is impressive, it’s the rooms that demand the most time and attention.
Remember Disney’s Anastasia?
It’s right here:
After closing time the 9 of us walked back through Palace Square back to our hostel to freshen up and take our jet-lagged naps.
While watching Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (Aka The Irony of Fate), the 1975 Soviet screwball romantic comedy that’s played every New Year’s Eve in every household TV of every former Soviet republic state except Ukraine, we were treated to a homecooked Russian New Year’s dinner by our hostel:
A little bit of pregaming:
After which we headed back out to Palace Square to celebrate.
FYI, there’s a huge security crush to get into the main Palace Square. There’s no sense of queue at all, so push and shove, even if it’s a Speznatz police officer holding you back; the harder you push the more likely you’ll get in.
Celebrating a Russian New Year’s Eve on the Gregorian calendar is essentially catching Putin give his annual State of Union address remarkably similar to the one Melissa Weinmann and I saw together a year ago in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Maybe we both should make this an annual tradition at this point?
Putin comes on at 11:55pm:
He speaks literally until midnight, after which it cuts to the clock at The Kremlin ringing 12 times. Then random fireworks start (set off by random locals left and right of you), the most of which climaxes at 3am.
And outdoor drinking is totally sanctioned here:
The thing to do after Putin is to walk down Nevsky Prospekt with the crowds, drinking and posing for photos with random locals.
Hello to 2017!
What better way than to celebrate than with a wonderful group on our first day of meeting one another at a chill, off-the-books secret rooftop hookah lounge called The Office?
– At time of posting in Saint Petersburgs, Russia, it was 35.6 °F – Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy