Thursday, 3 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Visiting the culture capital: Saint Petersburg

During my Russian sojourn, many people raved to me about the inexplicable beauty of Saint Petersburg - the culture capital of Russia founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Perceptibly the most westernized city in the country with strong European influence in art and architecture, it is an important port on the Baltic sea. When I decided to visit this magnificent city, one of my acquaintances in Chelyabinsk connected me to her friends in Saint Petersburg who happily hosted me. So a week before returning to India, I traveled from Chelyabinsk to Saint Petersburg and back by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

First week of December 2014. My host family dropped me off to the railway station early in the morning. The station (vokzal) was apparently posher and better maintained than the airport. The train was fully air-conditioned and the berths were cushioned. On a stool near the door stood a samovar which provided a continuous supply of hot water that could be used for making soup and tea. I shared my compartment with a middle aged lady who proved to be my angel in disguise during the trip. When we reached Saint Petersburg, she rang up the girl who was expected to pick me up and informed her that I was waiting inside the station. During my stay in Saint Petersburg, I ran into her again. I was lost then, looking for the nearest metro. Funnily enough, I met her once more in the train back to Chelyabinsk four days later. She bought me an ice cream from one of the intermediate stations and even gifted me a tiny wooden box with a personal message scrawled on it. I also made friends with a playful six year old girl from Ukraine. She and her family were moving to Saint Petersburg in the hope of building a new life.

I stayed with two young girls who had come from Chelyabinsk to Saint Petersburg to pursue their dreams for a better life. They were contagiously jovial and kind-hearted and I felt completely at ease around them. Working alternate days, they showed me around the city during their off times. One of them picked me up from the station early in the morning and accompanied me back to their apartment. She fixed a hearty breakfast consisting of quinoa, chicken nuggets and fried eggs before rushing off to work. That's when a handsome young guy appeared from one of the bedrooms. He made himself comfortable in the kitchen and started working on his laptop. I later came to know that he had come in as a guest but ended up as a freeloader. The girls didn't really mind it as they had grown fond of him. I took down some directions from them and decided to venture out on my own that day. The metro station was only a five minute walk from the apartment.

I was completely lost the first day. The weather was quite pleasant unlike Chelyabinsk. Though I got off at the correct station, I roamed around in circles without really seeing anything I wanted to see. Eventually, I walked into a mall and ate a burger before heading home. But I did get a taste of the city streets and it's hidden alleys sporting enigmatic graffitis. Unlike Moscow, getting around Saint Petersburg was a breeze. The city seemed to be designed to attract tourists. The metro network is extensive and there are signboards in English. On the second day, I managed to find the major landmarks in the city clustered around the central area adjoining Nevsky Prospekt. The age old buildings lining the street were strikingly European in their style and design. From the archaic Kazan Cathedral, I walked down to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - a monument so richly embellished inside out that it almost seemed unreal. The museum of stone located behind the church showcased the entire range of ornamental rocks and minerals used in the construction of these monuments. I walked past the Hermitage buildings on Palace Embankment stretching along the Neva River and spent the entire day strolling down the various lanes and by lanes of this awe-inspiring city steeped in history. During my walking tour, I came across famous sculptures such as The Bronze Horseman, The Tsar Carpenter, Monument to Catherine the Great, Monument to Nicholas I, Rostral Columns and the Lions on Palace Pier. Late in the afternoon, I took the subway back to my host's apartment from a station close to Saint Isaac's Cathedral.

The next day was better planned. In the morning, I visited the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and met up with a Couchsurfing member in a different part of the town before joining one of my hosts on a tour of the city centre. The ascetic vibes of the lavra were accentuated by the thick vegetation encompassing the monastery complex. When I entered the church, a priest was performing funeral rites while the family of the deceased grieved in silence. I stood behind, trying to take in what was happening. From the lavra, I headed to Moscovsky Prospekt to say hello to my CS friend, Alexey. An IT engineer by profession, he moved from a smaller town to Saint Petersburg to enhance his career prospects. He was kind enough to meet me during his lunch hour and give a tour of the Victory Square, Moscow Triumphal Gate and the Russian National Library - the oldest public library in the country that is ranked among the world's major libraries. He also took me to an unusually designed church which looked more like a pink and white doll house.

After the brief rendezvous, I headed back to Nevsky Prospekt. Katya (Catherine), one of the girls from the apartment, joined me outside the metro station. After a light meal, we proceeded to Anichkov bridge running over the Fontanka river. The four equestrian sculptures in the vicinity of the bridge, collectively known as The Horse Tamers, caught my fancy. Afterwards, we visited the Peter and Paul fortress overlooking the Neva. By the time we were finished, the moon had begun playing truant behind the obscure clouds staying afloat in the Prussian blue sky. After getting home, we took a midnight stroll to a river bridge located a few miles away from our apartment. That is when Katya told me about the drawbridges which open for a few hours in the night during the navigation season (April to November).

Katya and I visited the State Hermitage museum, the next morning. It is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world with a formidable collection of paintings, sculptures, porcelain and other articles of historic and artistic significance. The complex comprises of six buildings including the Winter Palace and the Hermitage theatre. We spent the whole morning admiring the finest works of art from across the globe. To say the least, the experience was quite overwhelming. I shopped for some souvenirs at the Udelnaya flea market that evening. Katya dropped me off at the railway station the next day, just in time for my train back to Chelyabinsk. We hugged goodbye and I left that beautiful city with my heart full. I had grown truly fond of that girl - she was simple and dignified with a penchant for music. She assured me that once she had saved enough, she would buy a harp and find time to practise it. In those few days, we shared a kind of understanding that did not need many words.

During the return journey, a Bashkir lady occupied the seat opposite mine. She offered me meat cutlets and eggs and tea, showering a kind of motherly affection. The train lugged past monochrome landscapes donning layers of pearly white snow. Two days and two nights passed. I arrived in Chelyabinsk on the third morning with vivid memories of my trip to the second capital of Russia.

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