Transsiberian, Day 5: New Year's in Saint Petersburg

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

The reason I chose Moldova was because I worked backwards trying to figure out which country would fly directly to St. Petersburg to begin my Monsoon Diaries trip. Chisinau flew directly there for cheap, thus here I was on NYE packing up my bags at three in the morning for a six am flight to St. Petersburg.

I take a cab to the airport, and despite the twenty minute ride, the cost is less than three USD. Viorica recommended I arrive at the airport by four in the morning, but as the situation these early flights in small airports are organized, I zip through check in and security in less than ten minutes, and then find myself using the airport wifi for the next hour and a half. I watch a cute little Romanian boy play with the ornaments on a big Christmas tree in the airport. He’s wearing a sweater vest over a collared shirt and little brown leather boots with embroidered machine gun patches on the sides.

The announcement is made and I get on the bus to the plane, which then sits on the tarmac for about twenty minutes, jammed with people, until it decides to move towards the plane. On the plane I have an aisle seat and towards the end of the flight I befriend the young man sitting in the window seat beside me.

His name is Vladimir, and he’s from Moldova, traveling to St. Petersburg to see his parents, who live there. He actually lives in Transnistria, an unrecognized state between Moldova and Ukraine, officially recognized as just another part of Moldova. He speaks English well, and I ask him how many languages he speaks. He tells me English, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian and a little French. “That’s it, though.” “That’s IT?!” I laugh at him. That’s three more than I know, dude! We chat and I find out he’s 21, he worked in the USA in Georgia and Seattle, but didn’t like Seattle as much because there were was too much gas. Then I realize that his thick accent made me think he was discussing a natural resource but as he continues, he hadn’t said gas but rather he had said gays, and he talks about how gross they are. He doesn’t understand their ways and thinks it’s repulsive. We continue the conversation on other topics, but that sticks out as a bummer of the otherwise pleasant exchange with this man. But this is what travel is about. I was raised one way, in a liberal culture, or what I perceive as such, and he was raised in a different one. We may never agree.

I get off the flight and go through customs. Despite getting stuck behind a Columbian who has passport issues, border control is swift. The car that is supposed to await me, arranged by Calvin, never does. I wait and wait in the arrivals area and never spot the cab driver holding a sign with my name on it to no avail. I get on WiFi and there’s some strange confusion with the cab driver, who didn’t actually come inside the airport, because he was too lazy to come out of his car. However, by this time, JC, who is also on the trip, arrived and his cab was successfully waiting for him. We cancel my cab aka give up on it and I hop in JC’s cab to the hostel.

We arrive and are greeted by Calvin. We check into the hostel and drop off our things, meeting David as he arrives. We hit an ATM and then we get food at a restaurant called Eurasia, which provides a menu featuring foods such as sushi alongside borscht.

The remainder of the group is to arrive later, so we head straight to the Hermitage. The Hermitage is the former palace that has been converted into a museum. The expansive building is a mix between preserved royal rooms and rooms filled with artwork from around the world. The building itself is gorgeous on the exterior, but even finer on the interior.

Once we arrived at the museum, we split up. I didn’t care for the rooms of artwork, so I instead splurged on the audio tour device and browsed the palace rooms. They were intricate and gorgeous, but my lack of sleep was catching up with me. I eventually arrived in the room with the large golden clock that had detailed peacock, hen and bird mechanisms that had coordinating features to run the gears. It was at an odd time, so I decided to wait until the next quarter hour to see the clock in action. I sat in the corner on a bench and the metal ticking lulled me to sleep in less than a couple minutes. I jolted awake and decided that instead of meeting at our predetermined location in the square at six pm, I would head to the hostel for a much needed nap.

As soon as I returned, though, I discovered that most of the group was on the same page as me, and that they would return to the hostel to nap as well. I set my alarm to wake up sound seven PM.

I wake up and join the group in the lobby, meeting Lai Yuen, Taylan, Ahita, June and Amanda. The girl working at the hostel, Ana, made us and another guest a NYE dinner around ten PM. She made a sort of potato salad, of which I was familiar from my time living in Spain (there, they appropriately called it ‘Russian Salad’). She also served us orange caviar on toast. The Irony of Fate, a Russian movie traditionally associated with NYE, was playing on the TV in the background.

Off we went to the Dvortsovaya square to see the celebrations. This is the same square where the Hermitage is located, as well as the General Staff Building, the latter of which is covered completely with light projections that animate trains, polar bears, snowflakes and other holiday-themed imagery. It was spectacular. I climb on Calvin’s shoulders to see over the crowd and we learn the congested wall of people beside us is actually only ten feet deep, and after the fence is a completely open square, one I say is open enough for people to do cartwheels in. We decide to push our way through.

It was pretty scary… the crowds here in Russia, or perhaps just this particular event, are aggressive. We shove our way to the fence bordering the square, and there are only two small entrances indicated by metal detectors. There are hundreds of people trying to get through, with no order or organization. As we get closer to the entrance, I see there are about five police officers facing it, linking arms and leaning their bodies at a 45-degree angle to push their backs against the shoving crowds.

 Occasionally they release four or five people through an opening in their arms, and then sometimes they shove back strongly at the crowd behind them, making the congestion even tighter. Utter chaos.

We make our way through and can finally breathe. The Hermitage, which already gleams in the daylight with its mint green exterior and gold ornamental design, is now lit to exude even more extravagance. Next to it is a large stage framed by LED screens. In the center of the curved General Staff Building is a massive Christmas tree, glittering with blinking lights. Despite all of this magnitude, there are not too many people in the square to enjoy it. Around midnight, we hear Putin’s speech, which is something like a state of the union. As he finishes, the clock strikes midnight. No countdown, but appropriate fanfare follows in the form of random fireworks and people lighting sparklers. We leave the square and return to the hotel to get some sparkling wine we left behind, as we now know from observance that it’s ok to drink on the streets.

We take to the streets again and Calvin pops a bottle of champagne before we head southeast on Nevskiy Prospekt, following the hordes of people wandering down the blocked off road. The city is sparkling, with lights hanging over the main avenue, and the energy of the people is at a lively buzz.

We wander into Bar Saigon, where JC and I find a spot at the bar against the wall. A young man with a moptop haircut and black turtleneck approaches us. It appears that he’s a waiter, but to me he seems slightly off, like he’s drunk. He very calmly tells us in Russian about the drinks, then upon learning we speak English, he pulls out his phone and brings up Google translate. He speaks into it, then shows me the English text. He communicates with us multiple times in this manner, asking us what drinks we want, because this bar has a variety at reasonable prices. I tell him I saw a sign for the ice cream outside and his face brightens before he asks the bartender for an ice cream menu.

He shows me the pictures in the menu and they’re all oddly gourmet flavors, like wasabi or gorgonzola cheese. He asks me what I like, and I say chocolate, to which the translator replies “chocolate is too cheesy.” After pondering the options, I decide on a honey and walnut option. It’s brought to me and it tastes like cream cheese, which is alright, but I’m not a huge fan. JC uses the translator to tell our new friend that he looks like a young John Lennon. Then our new friend, whose name is Igor, speaks again into the translator and shows me the text. “I do not work here, I am just a one customer institution.” We start laughing hysterically. So he has to be drunk, right? He ends up paying for my ice cream, or maybe the bartender doesn’t charge, but either way it’s free for me. A live band comes on and Igor begins enthusiastically singing along. He gives us a look that reads “Oh, let me translate” before singing into the phone, and the text reads: “In St. Petersburg, to drink to drink.” I crack up. This guy is weird and hugely entertaining.

The group decides to leave for a hookah bar, so we disappointingly have to part ways with our new friend. We invite him along but he stays with his friends.

We end up going to a back alley down the road from the bar, into a tall apartment-looking building to a hookah bar called The Office. It’s pretty lame in my book, as it’s super quiet and not nearly as hopping and lively as the previous bar we attended. I only enjoyed the opportunity to speak one of my favorite Russian phrases when food arrived: Vot pietzah (here is the pizza).

The last people standing were Calvin, June, Ahita and me, and we headed back to the hostel in the early hours of four AM to go to sleep.