Joe Hendren

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Travels: First Impressions of Russia

From Finland to Vyborg

20 September 2002

Just crossed the border into Russia from Finland. There is a large no-mans land between Russia and Finland. Rows and Rows of trucks line the side of the road as they await customs approval. On the Finnish side of the border there are western consumer goods such as cars, while the Russian side of the border logs and other primary production are the focus of Russian exports. While the nature of the area may exacurbate this, its likely to be a common pattern.

Passing through the border took just over an hour. The sky was humid, with light rain. At first we had to get off the bus to be processed through border control, then we had to hop on the bus again for our next stop at customs. The border control guards did not appear to have visable guns, however I was assured later that they did. One guard was carrying a large knife. The border control guards all wore army style camoflage gear.

The road to Vyborg is lined with trees. It appears to be a mix of natural forest and plantations. The colours are very reminicent of central otago - pastel greens, warm golds and pine green. Made a short stop in Vyborg. Most of the buildings are very old and not well maintained. Vyborg is one of the oldest towns in Europe. The town is first mentioned in chronicals of the 12th century, the town becoming more prominent during the time of the crusades. The money exchange where the bus stopped had some neat old Viking rowboats. It is now another 130km, or 2 hours to St Petersburg. Passing through the border into Russia the years appear to drop away. Wooden powerpoles that line the road, in a similar style to those found on long forgotten country roads in the backcountry of New Zealand (or think 20 years ago). Seventies and Eighties rusting ladas and old model Mercedes pass the bus on the other side of the road.

First Impressions of St Petersburg

St Petersburg is the most amazing city I have ever seen. Nearly all the buildings are historical, with many being well over 200 years old. Although some buildings are in fact more modern, there are very few that do not look in keeping with the style of old St Petersburg. While the cars, trains, trams and trolleybuses are common with a modern city, the significant number of old vehicles on the road add and not subtract from the overall look of antiquity.

The traffic here is like nothing I have ever seen. Traffic lights and even lanes in the road are seen as complelely optional. Progressing though the traffic is only achieved by inserting the nose of your vehicle in such a way that the others must let you through. Even the public transport follows the 'local' rules! Just seen the oldest ever trolleybus - I am amazed it still moves. It looks like it has been painted with very cheap house paint, only not to be repainted ever. All windows appear to be intact even though the metal frames are all rusted. The roof appears to be flaking away. The whole trolleybus is covered in a dark grey soot. From the sooty look of the indicator lights it does not appear that they are operational, but given the lack of road rules in this city this is not likely to be a problem.

Due to traffic delays, parts of our scheduled bus tour are postponed until tommorrow. I arrived at the Hotel Russia around 5.30 very hungry as there had been no lunch provided during our bus journey. As soon as we stopped Rae, the tour leader, went down the aisle of the bus collecting our passports so that the Hotel could verify our stay. As part of the Russian visa requirements visitors must surrender their passports to the hotel where they are staying in order to keep the immigration people happy. The hotel safe is likely to be the safest place for passports in any case. I love our hotel room. It is so quaint. The room is full of 1970s looking fashion and technology. A bright red pulse dial phone sits on top of an older TV than I had in my student flat in Christchurch. First impressions of Russian MTV is good, the first video being the theme song from 'Dusk till Dawn'. Apart from the mildy dodgy and garishly coloured bathroom, I don't mind - whats the point of traveling if the hotel is not part of the experience!

Related Travel

Visit to the Hermitage Museum / Winter Palace
Visit to Summer Palace of Romanov family