Size: Is It Everything?

By Stephen Ewashkiw | July 30, 2013

Woke up this morning after a rough sleep. I was in a cabin with three other guys, and one of them was a loud snorer. I, of course, forgot my earplugs in Helsinki. I will definitely get some for the return voyage.

Jane and I met up out in the hall and she hadn’t slept well either. In fact, she had barely slept at all. No snorer in her room, but the rumbling engine had kept her rumbling in bed. Not much we can do to prevent a repeat of that on the way back, unfortunately.

We headed to an outside deck to see what we could see, and there was Russia before us. It was just the rocky islands on the edge at first, but on the horizon we could see high rises. Russia!

Port As Far As The Eyes Can See

Next, the port appeared, but we weren’t meant to dock for 90 minutes. I said to Jane, “Well, we might actually get in early,” as had happened when we took the ferry to Croatia.

Not so. I have never seen a port this big. It was beyond a scale I can really comprehend. Think of the most epic of epic scenes from a science fiction movie, where your brain thinks, “How could they do this before CGI?,” and you’re getting close.

Smoke rising here and there, flames flickering from piles of garbage, trucks dwarfed by the sheer size of the machines designed to move containers around the port, and ships bigger than anything I have seen before.

This went on for 90 minutes. Capturing it in pictures seemed futile, but we tried.

russia from the water

Our first glimpse of Russia.

old warehouse in st petersburg

An old warehouse, St Petersburg. Still in use?

Our hostel, Soul Kitchen Hostel, is the top-rated hostel in Russia, and we were looking forward to a couple of nights here. When we checked in we were given an impressive tour of their beautiful facility. We’ve said it before and I will say it again: hostels have come a long way in the last two decades. Cool design, clean surroundings and care for the clientele. Impressive.

From the vintage foosball machine, to the beautiful, clean kitchen, to our hip, bright room with badminton racket turned mirror, every detail was well thought out and well executed.

bed in a hostel in st petersburg

Our bed overlooking the Moyka Canal, Soul Kitchen Junior Hostel.

hallway at soul kitchen hostel st petersburg

They have bikes for rent at Soul Kitchen Junior Hostel. We are tempted.

Our room was even ready for us and it was only 11am. This meant we could drop our bags off, wash, and then head out into St Petersburg.

Rome To Russia, With Love

Well, that wasn’t so hard after all. Rome to Russia. Really, it sounds massive, even now, but if you have a big dream, don’t let the size of it hold you back. Take it one step at a time and you will get there.

We gave each other a congratulatory kiss as we walked away from the hostel towards a vegetarian restaurant one of the receptionists had recommended.

Four months ago when we left Los Angeles, it seemed impossible that we could ride our bikes several thousand kilometres without much trouble and with much enjoyment. That was part of the challenge that excited me. It was such an unknown.

I didn’t know how far it was from Rome to St Petersburg. Even if we had mapped a specific route, had a sheet that said 4,700 km, the numbers would have meant nothing to me. The most I had ever ridden my bike in a day was probably 60 km. Now that we are here, albeit with our bikes safely tucked away in Helsinki, I am really looking forward to the next challenges in life.

We spent the afternoon wandering around, seeing a few sites from the outside, enjoying coffee and cake at Biblioteka, then taking a long nap break at the hostel.

woman at biblioteka st petersburg russia

Jane at Biblioteka, St Petersburg. The card catalogue is an impressively decorated facade.

We tried using St Petersburg public transit to get to a yoga class at Hot Yoga Studio, where I will teach on Thursday, but failed to leave enough time. Again, the scale of things is just incomprehensible. We were hustling along the Neva, with the sun beating down on us, and realised it was futile. There was no way we could cover the remaining distance between us and the studio in time. So, we walked a more scenic route back into the centre of town.

Capitalist Communism

I am disappointed we didn’t get to yoga, but without our failed attempt we wouldn’t have seen Kresty Prison, which looks like something out of Victorian England with its red bricks and falling-down appearance. Again, it is on a scale that is really quite difficult to comprehend.

We were pretty shocked when we saw bare bulbs alight in the cells. The prison is still in use. I knew nothing of Kresty before we stumbled upon it (it is not in the St Petersburg tourist brochures) but having read up on it, I am glad we saw it.

Later, we found ourselves on the other side of the prison, and are sure we witnessed two women using binoculars and sign language to communicate with someone locked up inside.

Jane’s note: One of the women was clearly drawing letters in the air with her finger. We tried not to stare, hoping to give the poor women some semblance of private time with their loved ones.

Putin, ever the capitalist, has ordered the prison closed, but it still houses several hundred inmates awaiting transfer to a different prison. Kresty occupies a huge chunk of real estate along the Neva, the main river. The plan is to redevelop the site into high-end hotels and a shopping space.

After the sight that tourists are not meant to see, we walked over to the Winter Palace, which is the sight everyone sees in Piter. It is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the city. There were enough tour buses in the forecourt to hold several thousand people, and there were queues in the inner courtyard that seemed at least a thousand deep.

winter palace st petersburg

Wedding photos at The Winter Palace.

Fortunately, Jane noticed that the Hermitage has late hours tomorrow night, so our plan is to come then when the crowds should be much smaller.

The Long Walk Home

Admittedly, I had been very unwell just two days ago, and didn’t sleep well last night, but I don’t think I was being particularly unpleasant today. Jane wasn’t so sure. She had had enough of me by the time dinner had ended. I put it down more to her lack of sleep on the boat, and a mindset she gets herself in when she insists I am unhappy about something. Either way, she got quite grumpy, told me I was being a jerk, and went back to the hostel on her own.

Jane’s note: Hrmph.

I then went for a long walk on my own around the canal edge of the Peter and Paul Fortress, where I seemed to be the only tourist amongst hundreds of locals. It was a great time of night to be there, with the sun just setting, and the nighttime crowd not yet out for the revelry for which this city is well known.

There are so many distinct, artistically finished, and absolutely massive buildings in this city that it is quite overwhelming. As I took in the view across the Neva with the sun setting and the colours becoming even more vibrant, I began to understand why every tour book seems to describe the city as “the most breathtakingly beautiful city in the world”.

The view seems to go on forever, with pastel building after pastel building filling your eyes.

View along the Moyka canal, St Petersburg.

View along the Moyka canal, St Petersburg.

I walked and walked and walked over four bridges and three canals, past several beautifully decorated churches, and along vast boulevards to get back to the hostel. It was close to midnight before I got back, but it was still not fully dark out.

This is quite a city.  

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  1. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie August 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

    I would love to compare 1999 St. Petersburg to 2013 St. Petersburg… Thank you for sharing some familiar sights!

  2. Comment by Andrea H

    Andrea H August 2, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Congratulations on ‘finishing’ (this leg of) this amazing adventure! It has been great following along with you the whole way. It is a teensy-tiny bit kinda sorta a little like being there. So glad you are going to keep going!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen August 5, 2013 at 6:15 am

      So happy you are following along Andrea. We really couldn’t stop now – especially since we had to visit Finland to see what makes Taina tick!

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