At 3:15am we experienced our first rail border crossing. The cabin door flew open with a bang to reveal the shape of the most official looking person I’d ever seen, wearing the biggest hat I’d ever seen. The Estonian guard stamped our passports with the exit stamp. We were now out of Estonia, but not yet in Russia. At 3:45am the door banged open again, an even more official looking guard with an even bigger hat stood there – we were in Russia. As he walked in the cabin I wondered if his hat had been made the exact width of the door, or the doorway had been made to accommodate the exact diameter of the hat. An hour later and by the time the seventh guard entered our cabin, I didn’t care about hat sizes, and had stopped worrying about our visa, I just wanted to sleep.
I opened my eyes feeling like I’d slept for about 12 minutes, Sarah was up already standing in the cabin in front of me, “you’d better get ready, I’ve already had my wet-wipe wash!” At 7:30am our feet touched the platform of St Petersburg’s Vitebsk station. The cold hit our faces and although the icy sting almost hurt, it reminded us that this wasn’t a normal holiday it was adventure time. “We’re in Russia,” said Sarah with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. It sparked a surge of adrenaline that coursed through my body, numbing the pain from my rucksack shoulder straps. We bought our tickets for the evening train to Moscow, ditched the bags at left luggage and went exploring.
First things first, breakfast. With all the windows being mirrored or high up, we couldn’t tell if shops were restaurants, hairdressers or corner shops, all the writing looked backwards or upside-down. Then I saw writing I could understand, a big yellow M. “Follow me” I said. Five minutes later we were tucking into our first Russian McDonalds. And if you’re wondering, yes, it’s the same as every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever had, luke-warm, squashed and nothing like the menu photo.
Our first impression of St P was that everything was beautiful, or massive, or both.
The buildings were intricately decorated; the city centre roads were as wide as freeways and the lamposts were like works of art, the diameter of oak trees and higher than a redwood.
I still don’t know if it was the adrenalin or the lack of sleep or the excitement, but the day was a blur.
We saw buildings, we saw bridges, rivers, forts and even a wooden galleon, but I had no idea what we were looking at. Even Sarah, the expert travel researcher, flicked through our travel book trying to keep up with the fast pace of the day. By nightfall we were back on the train.