Transsiberian, Day 6: The magical splendor of Saint Petersburg

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Due to our late night activity from celebrating the new year, we wake up late and head out of the hostel at noon.

I looked up a place on Spotted By Locals for the group to eat for lunch called Marketplace, which is a cafeteria-style restaurant that easily allows us to pay our own bills, making it convenient. It’s lit with spotlights on the food, making it appear gourmet and high class. The upper floor has a large ceiling decoration of hanging white plates, with a world map on the wall comprised of words relating to the type of foods in each region. USA has a lot of “BBQ” written over it. Sounds about right.

I order some sort of rice pilaf which resembles a less-greasy version of plov that contains lamb meat, a bowl of butternut squash soup, and a glass of red currant juice (like a slightly sweet cranberry juice). All of this for under six dollars. We eat upstairs in the café area, next to a bar and coffee barista with a tempting glass case containing pastries and treats.

I go up to the counter and joke with the barista that I want all of it. He laughs and in broken English says “good for me, but maybe not good for you.” And I laugh and make a gesture indicating an expanding stomach. I take a photo of the case and he makes a face, mocking me, and I just say ‘tourist’ and we both laugh. I eventually order a slice of batata pie which appears to be topped with lingonberries for decoration.

We finish eating and head off to Kazan Cathedral, which is unique in the way it mixes traditionally Catholic and Orthodox decorative elements.

Walking around this city is spectacular. Later tonight, Amanda would ask me if I knew what a particular building was, because it was located along the river bank, and it was lit to bring out the detailed façade with ornately decorated white windows. It must be something out of the ordinary. But we discovered that it was ordinary, because in Saint Petersburg, the administrative buildings, the post offices, the banks, the apartments, the cafés, the department stores are all the same. They are lavender, mint, strawberry, lemon and olive colored buildings with white designs carved in swirling delicate details like frosting on a cake. I know people imagine Paris to be like this. I’ve never been to Paris. But I cannot imagine any city to keep such charm over so many years, or to be better than this.

It’s like someone took everyone’s dreams and created a wonderland comprised of all of their desires. That is how I describe Saint Petersburg.

After the Kazan Cathedral, we then head towards what is in my opinion the crown jewel of St. Petersburg, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It’s the onion-domed church you associate with St. Petersburg, and also Tetris. It’s just as gorgeous in person as it is in photos, only towering and more magnificent. The inside is closed, so tomorrow we plan to return. Lining the river leading up to the church are dozens of souvenir stands selling everything from mugs with a photoshopped Captain America (with Putin’s face and the Russian flag to say ‘captain Russia’, of course) to matryoshka dolls to jewelry to soviet star-imprinted hip flasks. David approaches one guy’s stand and he speaks very good English. He asks us where David is from. “DC.” “Ah! USA! What’s up dude! Everyday I’m hustling!”

David and I notice that hidden away amongst the wooden dolls, magnets, jewelry and other miscellaneous trinkets, the man has a bottle of rum tucked in the corner of one shelf. David and I tease him about it and the man comments it’s too cold to not have it. Our group reunited and walked toward Isaakievskaya square, where Marinskiy palace is located, the last palace built during the era of the czars. Across from it is St. Isaac’s cathedral, which was also closed, and to which we will return tomorrow. We walked over to Yusupov’s palace, the sight of Rasputin’s ultimate demise alongside the river. It’s where, after poisoning him with arsenic, and shooting him, they threw Rasputin into the river to drown him. We didn’t go to the museum inside since no one was particularly interested, but I was satisfied enough since I have a morbid fascination with the man’s multiple escapes from death.

We then walked north to go towards the Peter and Paul fortress, passing the admiralty building and the Alexandrovskiy garden along the way. It’s located on the other side of the Zayachiy Ostrov, across from the Admiralty building so if someone were to ever overtake the latter, the fortress could destroy it from the other side. What happens when the fortress is overtaken first, I don’t know.

In the fortress is a cathedral that houses the graves for the Romanov family remains, as well as remains of royalty like Catherine the Great.

We went to the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison, also located on the compound, which served as a prison for state criminals from 1718. Throughout the museum there were stories of the criminals who were housed there, but to me it seemed none were all that bad, or at least a majority of their crimes were speaking out against the government, leading revolutions, or publishing illegal newspapers. I guess the worst were ones with attempted assassinations. It was rare for me to come upon information on female inmates, of which there were very few. However, one stuck out in my mind, as she was going to be executed but they delayed it because she was pregnant. Shortly after she gave birth, though, she died in the prison for other reasons.

We hit up the souvenir shop at the fortress and they had some of the best St. Petersburg postcards I’ve seen, so look forward to getting some if you’re on the mailing list!

Finally, on this whirlwind of sightseeing, we went to the St. Petersburg mosque, before taking Ubers back to the hostel to prep for dinner. One of the Russian hostel employees is playing some 90s alternative, and I hear a fellow guest from Columbia down the hall tuning his guitar. That’s how you know it’s a real hostel. Amanda had bought a Putin shirt that read “the people’s gentleman” in Russian, which she cut to make a crop top. It’s just as fantastic as you would imagine.

We got back in Ubers and ate at a Chinese restaurant called Tan Jen before heading off to a hookah bar that we paid for by the hour to get unlimited tea, pastries and hookah. At first the waitress fumbled her English and told us the price was 3000 rubles per person per hour, then changed it to 300. What a difference a zero makes! While we sat there at the table enjoying ourselves, June and I occasionally discussed the clubby music choices of unfamiliar crude songs that played on the speakers. One song kept repeating the phrase “that booty percolating.”

Calvin invited a girl he met on Tinder to join us as a platonic date, just so we could meet locals. She was very friendly and knew English very well. We learned the first of many times that the Russians love Trump, and why wouldn’t you, if he wants to make relations with USA and Russia better?

Upon departing, Ihita, June and I discussed the whole Tinder thing and how that was so normal, and great to meet a local that way. We also said there is no way that we as girls could use Tinder to meet local Russian men without them expecting sex. We would test this theory in our remaining days in Russia.

June, Ihita and I caught an Uber back to the hostel around 2am and planned out our day for tomorrow. It was a free day, so we could either join Calvin in hitting up certain sights at certain times, or we could venture off. I wanted to fly solo to squeeze in as much as possible, while they planned to go with the group for the first couple sights and go off on their own in the afternoon. I was going to do the same things as the group, albeit in a different order. June eventually went to bed around 3:30am, leaving me finishing up my plans in the dead of the night.

Just as I packed up my things to go to sleep around 4, I saw another hostel guest waking up for the day to catch an early flight.