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14

Russia - St Petersburg
16th - 17th Dec

I am a bird in flight. I care not in which direction the wind takes me, as every gust takes me higher.
TD

The Trans-Siberian express is the longest train journey in the world at around 9,300 km and has been a little like a puppy in a shop window for me perhaps for more than 2 or 3 years. The thought of it was captivating but difficult to explain why. At various points it had pushed its' nose against the window and wagged its' tail by way of reminder that it had not gone away. The most recent occasion being when I was in France, as I walked past a theatre I noticed a presentation that evening by a company marketing their Trans-Siberian tour planning services, including videos, live dialogue and a question and answer session. Naturally I attended.

Last July it looked like I was going to spend at least 6 - 9 months in Spain and there were some African projects that I thought I may get involved with, so my long awaited visit to India had been put back by about a year. Then during a conversation with a friend it dawned on me that there was no reason why I couldn't go to India in January and attend some of the retreats I was keen to do for just 2-3 months and then return to Spain. This evolved. Spain got reduced to just a few short months and my trip to India took over.

Now I needed to decide how to get there. It seemed far too easy to just jump on a plane so I was looking for a more interesting way of getting there. The bus would be parked up somewhere, where was not important, and I would continue with just a rucksack, as since my trip to Ireland with just a backpack I was longing to travel lighter. But despite having just the rucksack I have the feeling that in the future I will be traveling even lighter as I still feel a little like a packhorse and wonder how much of this stuff I really need. Time will tell. I liked the idea of traveling overland, by thumb and maybe public transport, but as my visit to England continued to extend, this option had to go. Additionally I didn't feel I was quite ready to take a trip of this nature on, as at this point I felt I still had much more to learn and understand. So the Trans-Siberian route came to the fore. I could pick it up in Russia, and although the trip is over 9000 km long you can get to Beijing in under 7 days. I decided to take about a month to make my way across and have plenty of stops along the way. From China I could pick up a flight to India, but this was not something that I would arrange before I set off in case I wanted stay in China longer.

Even this still felt a bit touristy, but allowing myself a month or longer it would give me a brief insight into cultures and a part of the world I have not experienced before. Almost like a small flavour. As when I got to India I didn't know what may be in store, and hence, it could be some time before I had this opportunity again.

St Petersburg was my shortest stay, with only one night. To arrange a tour of this nature you are at the mercy of train timetables as in some cities on route there is only one train a week, so schedules have to be arranged with some thought and may not always have as much flexibility as one might want. But in each location, as I had booked with an agency in London, there was always a greeter at the train station, with a taxi to my accommodation waiting. I had also asked for a guide, for one day in every city, saving me lots of time finding my way around and awareness of the major sites of interest. This also proved invaluable when it came to getting the history of the country, the city and the background on all areas like the politics, industry and culture of the location. Also providing me with a captive audience for all my questions. So whilst my stays were relatively brief, my background readings, the guides, combined with all the people I met along the way, I managed to get a reasonable flavour of the places I visited in a short period of time.

Unsurprisingly I had left the Uk in somewhat of a hurry and had arrived with a couple of items that I meant to leave behind, namely some keys and a cheque book. So I asked Olga, my guide, where I could post them, when she waved a finger in the general direction of a post office, which try as I might I couldn't see, I asked her to help me. Reluctantly she agreed. If I had not, I would still have the items with me now. We had to visit 4 separate buildings and after what seemed to be unnecessarily extensive dialogue, complete forms, before the envelopes' contents were checked prior to posting. Later learning, that if somebody thought that there may be something of value in the package, it may not even arrive. This was my first taste of Russian bureaucracy and it unnerved me, as I would not have been able to deal with this on my own. There seems to be a strong controlling element still in place; there are uniforms everywhere. I asked Olga to what they all relate but she was suitably vague. However they are ever present. Probably as a result of my ignorance and it being my first day in Russia they are intimidating. Yet people are being stopped in the streets to have their papers checked, apparently now being put down to anti-terrorism, and people accept it. (Didn't America recently sneak a very questionable bill through congress under the same pretext interestingly called the Patriot Act? Perhaps some European countries may be currently playing similar cards, the Uk included??) Even at the tube stations, where there seems an even lesser polite urgency than in London, as I descended an escalator I was met by a bustle of people stood in an orderly fashion waiting behind a barrier to ascend a separate empty escalator. Whilst uniforms watched on. For no obvious reason, but presumably for some form of congestion control, but to the ill-informed observer it appeared totally unnecessary.

However, after a brief encounter with two students any fears of vulnerability I may have been feeling were put back into perspective as I was reassured that wherever you are there are always people there to help. (See photo no. 16)

So after an enjoyable but full-on few weeks back in the UK, with 'stuff' to sort and bridges to burn, ensuring I could continue with a clearer mind, I had arrived. Sitting in a cafe I breathed a huge sigh. I sent a friend a text message:-

'In St Petersburg, everything now behind me everything now in front, and it feels fantastic!'

To Photos