I was about to cross into Russia, and it dawned on me that I had only ever crossed without apprehension between EU countries.This was a new kind of border and I was nervous.
The border official, who had the obligatory fear-inducing expression and tone of voice, asked for my documents. She inspected them as if she were a detective at a murder scene, and as she did, the possibility of getting turned away arose.
With a look on her face which said ‘you got lucky this time’, I crossed into my 30th country. I did not have a good first impression of this new land – barbed wire fences held my excitement in, as did the defeated looks on people’s faces.
I was met once again by the abundance of nature apparent in Estonia, but here, it was darker. It felt dangerous, not delightful and it certainly wasn’t as magical. The roads were now laden with potholes and the vehicles were beaten up, scratched and dented.
The first man to pick me up had such a car. He spoke not one word of English, as I would come to realize was the case in almost all of Russia – They do have the biggest country in the world, after all.
I listened to the indecipherable streams of sound flowing from his mouth, but could understand not one word. A few years back, being in a country and not being able to communicate would have petrified me, but now it actually excited me.
When he left me, he gave me a look to say ‘best of luck, you will need it!’.
The next car took me to St. Petersburg, where I would stay with my next host for three nights. It was a suspiciously new and shiny white Lexus, which stood out from every other vehicle on the road. The immaculate interior of his car stood out to me too, because there was no personality to it, as if it wasn’t his. The man driving it was different, too – There was something about his eyes; he was using them to interrogate me with aggressive curiosity.
After a lot of hitchhiking, you begin to realize that safe people will seem a bit excited and often a bit lonely. When you get in, they ask the same kind of questions: ‘how old are you?’, ‘what’s your name?’, etc. I know that if anyone breaks these patterns, then I should start to worry.
This man asked me what I was doing in Russia, what was in my backpack, why I was alone, etc. He even asked if I knew about MI6.
I got warned by a Royal Marine back in the UK that I’d be on their radar as soon as I crossed, being a British man travelling alone without flights or a tour group. After an hour’s ride though, he took me to the city, as he said he would, and I never saw him again; that’s not to say he never saw me again.
The 20km walk into central St. Petersburg presented me with the transition from the grimy, slimy grayness, with the stench of the sewers steaming into the cold, humid air from the drains, to golden light bouncing off Orthodox churches sitting on the riverside, making everything seems okay again; walking into a city gives this well-rounded experience of a place – a worm’s-eye view, which is a perk of my rule of never paying for transport.
Once there, I sat in a McDonald’s for three hours while I waited for my host to finish work, during which time a man in his fifties was sitting at the other end of the restaurant to me, with no food. He was looking in my direction, but not directly at me. I managed to catch his eyes after an hour and he got up and left before coming back five minutes later and sitting somewhere else to resume his surveillance. Luckily, I had nothing to feel nervous about.
Just before midnight, Alexander met me outside his apartment. He was a friendly Russian who spoke English well enough. He looked like a body guard. Maybe he was, secretly? He showed me to the living room sofa-bed and asked if I was tired, to which I couldn’t lie. Without room for argument, he told me to sleep and I didn’t put up a struggle…
Alexander, my host and ex-tour-guide, showed me around the highlights the following day, with great enthusiasm. I won’t pretend to remember or understand what he said, but his energy made the beauty of the place quite memorable.
He taught me some basic Russian, which I realized I needed now because English is not enough in this country. But even the basics like ‘hello’ (preeveyet), ‘please’ (pashawesta), and ‘thank you’ (spasseba), were tough to memorize. Not to mention the alphabet being different, but I managed to pick that up within a few days, given that all road signs had the Cryillic and Latin characters together on road signs. Shop signs were all in that alphabet, so I was forced to learn quickly.
He told me that across the country, as consequence of reshuffling of the population during Soviet times, they can understand each other without much difference in accent or dialect. Europe, which is significantly smaller, has completely different languages just hundreds of kilometers apart. In the UK, I cannot understand what some people from the North of the country are saying.
Despite having most of the time in this city to myself while Alex was at work, I did nothing but rest. I was knackered. All I managed to do was cancel the $4000 worth of fake flights needed for failed chinese visa application and delete all of the photos from Latvia Lithuania and Estonia. I was not best pleased.
Within three days of my arrival to Russia, I had to ‘register my arrival’ with the police service. After a lot of research, I found that Alexander could do it for meat the Post Office. At 8am (how the hell did I used to wake up this early?) on my final and third day, we went and waited for two hours. Finally, I was given a piece of paper stating that the relevant information had been sent to the relevant body. I was very grateful for him doing this, because he had to take the morning off work.
I made him dinner that evening, as a combined thanks for also letting me stay.
We said goodbye the next day and he expressed his confusion around me choosing to walk out of the city.
Up until this point, I had followed the rule of never paying for transport, but during the 30km drudge out of St. Petersburg, which went back the way I had alread came, I began to realize I was doing it unnecessarily. It rained, I had blisters in-between my toes, and I spent more on food than I would have on a metro ticket. I enjoy the struggle that comes with adventure, but I realized here that as long as I wasn’t paying to advance, then I wasn’t breaking my rule. I only realized this once I reached the outside of the city, with my damp clothes hanging up inside my tent.