We almost didn’t make it…..
Our start in St Petersburg wasn’t the best! We woke up in Helsinki at 5am, leaving at 5.30 to catch our 6.20 train. Sara kindly offered to drop us at the station, which we were very grateful for as the trams don’t run that early, so we would have had to have paid a small fortune for a taxi. We arrived in good time – at 5.50 – and were told by Sara that we were at the Pasila station, not the main Helsinki station, so our time would be a little different on the board. We queried whether our train would go to this station and she informed us that all the trains definitely go through here, so we’d be fine.
We loaded up with our bags and headed into the station, scanning the departures board for a time close to ours. There was nothing on the board that resembled our train and the station was completely empty, so we couldn’t ask anyone. Eventually Gary managed to find someone, who luckily also spoke English, and told us that the trains to St Petersburg no longer stopped at that station… SH*T. Gary definitely picked the right guy to ask – it turned out he actually worked there but was off-duty. He kindly took us out to the taxi rank, called a taxi guy he knew and told him to get there pronto! We were told the station was 5 minutes away but it was now 6.10 so we had 10 minutes for the taxi to arrive, to get to the other station, find our platform and get on the train. It’s safe to say we were both bricking it – that was a ticket we did not want to have to buy again…. The taxi arrived after a couple of minutes and was told to get to the station as soon as possible. He (luckily?!) ran every red light and got us to the station with 4 minutes to spare. By the time we had found the platform and got on the train, we had enough time to put our bags up before the train pulled away! PHEW!! Thanks Sara! 😉
One we had recovered from our stressful morning, we were able to use the train wifi to plan our journey to our accommodation in St P, and have a look at the Metro map. The following four hours flew by. As we were crossing between countries, there was a lot of repeated passport/ visa checking; Gary even got told off for going to the toilet without his passport!
It was a short walk from St Petersburg Finlyandsky station to the Metro, then 30 minutes navigating the ornate underground system. The stops were written in Russian Cyrillic but also in the Latin alphabet, so we were able to work out where to go pretty easily. The St Petersburg Metro is the deepest in the world and it takes over two minutes on the escalator just to get down to the platform. It’s actually quite terrifying plunging into the depths of the underground from such a precarious height! The stations are more like art galleries; a plethora of marble, beautiful sculptured pillars, decorative lights and large archways. We didn’t even see the best of St Petersburg’s stations, but were really impressed nonetheless.
We were staying with Couchsurfing hosts in St Petersburg and their apartment was a 20 minute walk from the nearest Metro station. Unfortunately we were unlucky with the weather and the skies decided to open on us, soaking us and our bags as we trudged along trying to find where the entrance was to the apartment. After navigating the maze of apartments for about 10 minutes, we finally found the door thanks to some helpful locals! Our hosts were a couple – Katerina and Andrey – and their 18 month old daughter Lisa. Their apartment was lovely; beautifully decorated and immaculate.
When you arrive in Russia, you have to register your visa within 7 days. Not doing so can cause massive problems if you are stopped on the streets for a passport/ visa check by the police, or when you try to leave the country. We decided to get the visa registration done and out of the way on our first afternoon as it was still pouring with rain and we wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway! Katerina was really helpful, and rung a Russian company based in St Petersburg and arranged for us to go down to see them. We plotted the location of the office on our map and set off to find it. When we arrived at the destination, it was the back of a block of dodgy-looking apartments, with no sign of this company. We tried asking a hostel we found tucked in a corner, as well as buzzing random doors – one of which turned out to be a dentist! Whoops. We spent a good half an hour walking up and down trying to find it, but eventually had to give up. We had a second option – an English speaking company we’d used to book some of our train tickets. They have a partner office in St Petersburg that can register visas. Once again we headed to the address on our map and once again we couldn’t find it!
Hungry, wet, and even more frustrated, we traipsed up and down in the rain with no luck. I spotted a small underground office, so we decided to go and ask for help. Luckily the guy spoke a little English and used his laptop to find the correct address. After searching online for 15 minutes, he found what we were looking for. He jumped up, grabbed his coat and asked us to follow him. He then walked us over 10 minutes (!) back in the direction we’d just come from. I couldn’t understand why he was going so out of his way to help and was convinced he was taking us somewhere weird, or was going to ask for money afterwards… We stopped outside an office block (with no signs or hint of the company anywhere) and he asked people inside in Russian where we should go. Turns out the office was on the FOURTH floor. He even came in the lift with us, and dropped us off at the door, before announcing this was the place, and saying goodbye. Thank you kind stranger!! How people are expected to find that office, I have no idea….
We eventually applied for the registration and were told to come back the following afternoon to collect. After an uninspiring lunch in a local Russian fast-food chain, we attempted to walk to some of the attractions despite the continuing rain. Ten minutes later, we were halfway along the road, soaked through and miserable with the rain getting harder and harder. The roads and pavements were all completely flooded, which was leading to chaos on the roads and some kind of human pile-up on the streets. We decided to call it quits and retreated back on ourselves to Galleria, a large shopping centre, to dry off. We spent a couple of hours walking around the shops, looking for a warm jumper for Mongolia as we were starting to worry we hadn’t packed enough warm clothes! We had dinner on the fourth floor, in a restaurant called ‘Market Place’ which was recommended to us by Katerina. There’s a few dotted throughout the city – it’s a collection of open kitchens cooking a variety of different dishes using fresh produce. You get given a card as you enter and scan it at the different stalls when your order your food, then pay for everything at the end. I chose rice noodles with veg and a mixed leaf salad and happily scoffed both. I really like the idea and it was easy to find vegetarian and vegan options too.
It wasn’t a great start to our time in St Petersburg but luckily we got to see a lot more of the city over the next two days!
DAY TWO & THREE