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Into Saint Petersburg

by Going Slowly


We've just crossed the Russian border, and are now driving towards St Petersburg. As we cruise through the familiar scenery of birch and pine forests, I flip on the radio. A crackly voice comes in through the speakers as cars speed by us. Immediately we are thrilled by the "Russian-ness" of it all. We pull to the side of the road to capture a few excerpts.

Though we remain quiet while we record, we're making faces at each other, mouthing things like "Holy crap! We're in Russia!" As we sit in the car listening, we watch in awe at the mess of cars on the road. The lines painted on the pavement don't seem to mean anything. There are supposed to be two lanes, but in reality, there are three. People drive half on the shoulder, half off, giving others just a few death-defying inches to pass in the "center" lane.

As we pull back into the fray, I am shaking my head and laughing at the blatant lawlessness of it all. Suddenly, the breakneck pace of traffic slows considerably. Oncoming cars are flashing their lights at us! We learned in Romania that drivers perform this service for one another in solidarity against the road police. This is the first time we've seen it! Like a well choreographed dance move, everyone returns to a legal speed. A few seconds later, there he is.

Most people drive right by, but we and another car are hailed. An officer walks over, and asks for our passports and then driving licenses. He seems a bit thrown by the fact that we don't understand his Russian, or maybe because we hand him a lot of papers and cards (passports, customs declaration forms, drivers license, international drivers license etc). He looks them over, then hands them back and motions for us to keep our lights on at all times. We nod, and he says, "okay, goodbye" as he waves us back on the road.


As we near Saint Petersburg, I take up the role of navigator, opening Garmin's nRoute on our laptop (a software package that lets us use our handheld GPS on the computer). I start by routing us to our host's house using the coordinates listed on his Couch Surfing profile. We also have map from him, so I have a look at that too. Unfortunately, when we opened it this morning using our Finnish internet access, we didn't zoom in very close to his marker.

A high-level of detail isn't available, but from what I can tell, our GPS coordinate and our host's map are telling us very different things. One is north of the city center and one is in the city center. One of these has to be wrong. Using what information I have, I line up the maps, and try to make sense of the situation. Finding what I think is his place in nRoute, I mark a waypoint and send our GPS there instead.

Tyler is highly dubious about this and thinks we should go to the Couch Surfing coordinate. The whole thing would be easier if we just had his address. Aleksandr calls us and we assure him we're on our way. It is hard to understand one another, and there is a lot going on: driving in downtown St. Petersburg, talking on the phone, navigating, comparing maps etc. Through the chaos, I ask him if the GPS coordinate is, indeed, indicative of his home, and he assures me it is within a kilometer.

Going against my instinct, I acquiesce to using the Couch Surfing waypoint. I try to convince myself that the map doesn't have a lot going for it (even though it is direct from our host who presumably knows where his own house is!): it is very hard to read, and not very detailed, and missing the actual house address.

So off we go, directly through St. Petersburg. Tensions run high and patience is low in our LRC. It is ridiculously hot, more than 30°C (85°F), and there are no trees to tame the intensity of the sun. We are stuck in traffic. Our fuses shorten with every blocked-off road our route points us to. The stupid navigation voice gets stuck in a ceaseless loop of aggravating and useless phrases:

In 100 meters, turn right, then turn left.
When possible, make a U-turn.
Turn right, then turn right.
Turn left.
Turn left.
Lost satellite reception.
Turn left, then turn left.

At very, very long last, we arrive at the coordinates, only to find that our host is nowhere in sight. Thankfully, he calls just as we arrive. Tyler grabs the laptop and botches the pronunciation of the road we are on, but not so badly that Aleksandr doesn't recognize that we are in completely the wrong place. Barely able to communicate, Tyler apologizes and tells him that we know where to go, and that we'll call when we get close.

I resist the urge to say "I told you so—why didn't you believe me?!" and Tyler is upset with himself for intervening in the navigation at all, when he couldn't see the maps. Unable to figure out where exactly we're going, seething, we drive north through the city.


The traffic is even worse the second time through. We are both upset, miserably hot and sweating profusely. I don't know how we're going to make our way to Aleksandr's house, but the only option is to drive. As we move at a snail's pace through the city, things start to look familiar. I recognize some of the monuments from the XBox racing game, "Project Gotham". I used to race these virtual streets!

My excitement only lasts a few moments; the heat is oppressive and we run into yet another blocked road. I am ready to snap. Recognizing that I'll get us killed or arrested if I continue driving, I stop the car and surrender the wheel to Tara. While she drives, I navigate us towards the waypoint she determined was near Aleksandr's home. Our spirits take another hit when we find that it is twenty kilometers away. The traffic and heat continue.


Somewhere amidst the chaos and tension, I have a smidgen of a happy thought. I realize that this is actually pretty cool. I am driving in Saint Petersburg. We are in Russia! Tyler navigates, and finally, we arrive at my waypoint, roughly in the neighborhood of Aleksandr's home. A few more phone calls later, and we are led to an intersection to meet at.

We are almost there, when a man in a bright yellow T-shirt leaps out off the sidewalk towards us, waving his hands madly. Aleksandr! We pull over and he is trying to explain how to get to his apartment, but I just shove a few things over, hop in the back, and tell him to get in the passenger's seat. A few blocks and turns later, we park in front of his apartment building, very, very glad to be done for the day.

Aleksandr makes us hot cups of tea, shows us where we'll be staying, gives us slippers to wear in the apartment, and abruptly treats us to a rousing rendition of "Yesterday" by the Beatles on his casio keyboard.

Then, he explains that he has to work during the week, but is eager to take advantage of the rest of Sunday. He wants to take us on a tour of the city now. This is probably the last thing I want to be doing, but it would be a shame to miss this opportunity. After a few minutes to relax and wash our hands, we head out on foot towards the metro.

Thus begins a whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg!

We learn how to buy tokens for the Metro: "schateeree jettonay" or something like that. The stone-cold woman behind the glass seems to understand it well enough to give me four tokens. Coins in hand, we descend an escalator ninety meters below ground. Aleksandr informs us that this is one of the deepest subways in the world!

I like standing and doing nothing during our descent, simply watching the world go by. In the lower part of the station, I love feeling a rumble beneath my feet and a cool wind in my face as a train approaches. As well, there is an almost deafening squealing and roaring that everyone else seems oblivious to. The train comes to a halt and a voice comes on in Russian announcing the name of the stop. The doors open, humanity drains out, and we step aboard.

On the train, Aleksandr shows us photo albums from various trips he's taken, which is nice of him, but I am too exhausted to engage in the conversation. Instead, I am watching everyone's heads sway and bounce around in perfect unison like they are bobblehead dolls. I look across at my reflection in the window, and I find that my hair is a mess and I'm a bobblehead too.


Emerging from the metro about forty minutes later, it is broiling hot once more. We wander around, stopping for lunch at a Russian fast-food place to try traditional pancakes and a glass of kvas, which is an alcohol-free beverage made from bread. It is dark, and a little sweet, and tastes like maple-flavored whole wheat bread, in a not-entirely-pleasant way.

Back outside, we walk to the Niva river, where a naval festival is going on. There are old army ships to see, though we are too late for a tour on one of them. People are leaping off the bank and into the water, and there are navy-and-white striped shirts for sale, as well as kitchy sailor's hats. Tara spots this couple, sweetly reconvening, before jumping in the water once more.

Russian Couple

Everywhere, women preen in front of their husbands or boyfriends' cameras. Tara chuckles and snaps a few photos of them, too. It seems to be the norm to strike dramatic, over-the-top poses in front of nice views and tourist sights. Even with boring backdrops too, like the women are mannequins on display in a shop window! People are so strange.

Posing for the Camera


From the river, we walk to St. Isaac's Cathedral. By this point, my feet hurt a lot, and the wee bit of enthusiasm I mustered for this outing is depleted. I try to be appreciative, but this sort of touristy back-to-back sight-seeing is exhausting and definitely not my thing. Especially in the heat.

St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg

The best part of the tour is stopping our multi-kilometer trek to watch this girl blowing bubbles in the park. Tyler motions that he'd like to take her take a picture; she smiles and nods.

Russian Girl Blowing Bubbles

And then, she rushes towards him, blowing bubbles in his face!

Russian Girl Blowing Bubbles Russian Girl Blowing Bubbles

We wish we could sit in the shade forever, but there is no time. There is more of St. Petersburg to see! Aleksandr's friend, Lisa, comes to join us, and we walk to "The Hermitage".

St. Petersburg Hermitage Aleksander & Lisa

A bevvy of names and tourist attractions, not to mention the heat and the hours of walking we've been doing, send my head spinning, and I'm not even sure what we are looking at any more. There's the Winter Palace and a Statue of Peter the Great and a famous bird sculpture that people drop coins on, and statues of Atlas, holding up a building instead of the world, and a zillion other sites.

Atlas' Foot in St. Petersburg

Finally, the tour comes to an end, mostly due to the fading daylight. By the time we get back to the apartment, it is 11:00 PM and we are caked in sweat and grime from the city. We thank our host for taking the time to show us around, and collapse onto bed at last. Phew. We made it!

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Killed with kindness much?! Mike and I loved reading this post as we could relate so much to the stress of driving in an unfamiliar city at the mercy of an insane GPS device with escalating tension! We've never had to do a whirlwind tour of a major city until 11pm afterwards though! Oi vey!
Posted by Katherine on July 30th, 2010 at 8:55 PM
I can't believe you're in my home town! I was born and raised (until 6years old) in St. Petersburg (on Vasilyevsky island), and my mom used to work as a tour guide at the Hermitage (winter palace). I am so so jealous right now - I've been trying to go back and visit. I've been waiting to read these entries, but am so looking forward to it :0) Enjoy St. Pete's for me!

Posted by liza on July 31st, 2010 at 6:11 PM
OMG, Russia is sooooo cool! I'd love to visit one day; maybe go teach English there. The little girl blowing bubbles is adorable!
Posted by Kat on August 6th, 2016 at 10:46 PM