It begins in St Petersburg.
04.08.2013 - 07.08.2013 30 °C
Arrival in St. Petersburg was easier than I thought and included possibly the cheapest airport transfer I've ever had -- 78 rubles, or €1.78. (Previously, the cheapest was my home town, which is admittedly tiny.)
Because I hit a low on the flight from Moscow and knew I was going to be useless for the rest of the day, I decided to just do some aimless wandering around where I knew the city centre was, and then get an early night. It's actually quite fun to just run around a city, spotting buildings you know must be famous but not having a clue what they are. I don't really do it often when I get to a new place, but it's quite relaxing.
When I got back to my previously empty dorm room, I met the first three members of my Vodkatrain group, the other two followed the next day. Th roll call:
Courtney from the UK, a policewoman;
Verity from the UK, a grammar school teacher;
Josh from the UK (the only man at the hen party), who has "the only morally acceptable profession in finance", which is basically catching insider traders;
Jay from Australia, a doctor;
and Renata from Brazil, who recently quit her job as a corporate lawyer to go on a round the world trip.
I'm incredibly happy with my group, because everyone is awesome. I didn't quite know what to expect, but we all hit it off right away. Four out of six (including me) are 23 years old, and everyone knows I'm a big anglophile, so no surprises there.
That's actually a great thing, because our first honcho (the local Vodkatrain person who's at our service) turned out to be not only underwhelming, but also a bit of a tool. Admittedly, it was a bit weird to have spent 24 hours in the city before meeting him -- we felt like we knew our way around already -- and in the group, or most of it. On the one hand, we didn't need as much info from him as we would have on the first day; on the other hand, we'd already bonded, and he didn't quite fit in. The biggest problem, however, was that he was 40 minutes late for the first meeting (and over an hour late for the meeting before we caught our train to Moscow!), he was also sort of weird and didn't have much of a clue what was going on. His first words were literally, "So, you're here. I don't actually know what to tell you." His tips were alright, but unenthusiastic and pretty superficial - for example, rather than just telling us that ZooM was a nice place to eat, he could have mentioned that it was extremely popular (I found out even before we went out that it's number 1 on TripAdvisor!), but that we'd have to wait up to an hour for a table any time after 6pm. Finally, he just didn't come across as very nice; the words "please" and "thank you" hardly ever left his mouth (if they did at all), even though I noticed more than once the pause in the sentence where they would have gone. Frankly, we were all glad to leave him in St Petersburg.
Which leads me to my next observation: Russians and politeness, two great tastes that either taste great together or repel each other like wine and oil. Our experience so far has been pretty astonishing, because the Russians we've met were either incredibly sweet, or the rudest people we've ever met. There just doesn't seem to be any sort of middle ground.
It's probably partly due to the fact that I spent most of my summer so far in England, and that I'm travelling with British people, that I'm noticing the rudeness quite this much, but I'm also used to grumpy, grumpy Vienna, and this is nothing like that. From people absolutely refusing to crack a smile or say one word more than strictly necessary, to actual elbowing me out of the way and pushing in front of me at the ticket counter when I'd already given the ticket officer my student ID (Austrians are messy queuers, but I've never seen such blatant queue jumping as here). The worst instance was a simple misunderstanding about a boat tour, when our informing the ticket officer that her colleague had just told us a lower price lead to her literally snapping at us to "Get another boat then," turning around on the spot leaving us.
By contrast, however, we've met some of the sweetest people here as well, and not just people like the staff in our hostel that we'd been getting to know. Perfect strangers starting a conversation after overhearing us wondering about something (or because they just liked our accents!), spontaneously leading us to their favourite pie shop, or even trying in broken English to help us to understand what the fruit seller wanted from us. All of those instances were so heartwarming that they left me actually smiling. It's a weird duality of sorts.
So far, my experience has been quite amazing. I knew the honchos were gonna be hit-and-miss, and hopefully this one will have been the worst of the lot. Just meeting this awesome group, though, has made me glad I chose to do the Vodkatrain. Of course you meet people everywhere you go -- we've already adopted two Bavarians who are doing the Transsib independently, and the English girls are in love with two German girls from our dorm -- but there's something to be said for knowing that these people will be travelling with me for the next three weeks, instead of just having a string of two-day friendships. (Of course the two aren't mutually exclusive.)
More on St. Petersburg -- and pictures -- later. My hunch that I'd only have time to blog on the trains seems to be pretty accurate. Amazingly, though, this train has wifi that occasionally works.