White Nights, Bright Lights

Arrival time: 5:30am
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia (CAHKT-ПETEPБУPГ, POCCИЯ)
Latitude: 60°00’N
A city of unexpected grandeur. A city infamous for bad streets, pickpockets and some of Russia’s best architecture. From the get go, the former capital of the Russian Empire made no attempt to hide its Soviet pride with a cavalcade of cars parading the communist “hammer & sickle” flag through the streets as some sort of salute to hundreds of Russian sailors that had docked in the city’s port. The rhythmic clapping of the audience in complete unison at the end of a ballet performance in the city centre, as if keeping time to a medium-paced folk song, further hit home their collective communist mindset.
According to our diary entry we rocked into St. Pete’s around 5:30am. The sky was already getting light and the incredible thunderstorm-cross-torrential rainfall we had experienced throughout the 10 hour drive from the Russian border had subsided. One of our roof racks shook loose and dug into the side of the car when a gaping hole in a central road appeared too late to be avoided. Shortly afterwards, the rack was back in place and we were on our way to the hostel where we scored free parking spots – but that was not for another hour and a half. A few of us decided to sacrifice a warm inviting bed for the safety of the cars by sleeping in them until the carpark opened.
A short kip was had by all and by one o’clock that afternoon we had found enough energy to scramble out of the hostel and onto the sprawling, colourful streets, ready for a day of running errands. Firstly, according to all accounts we have come across, one must register their presence in Russia (in either a police station or an official hotel/hostel) within 3 days of arriving and roughly every 3 days thereafter whilst still in the country. We chose the hostel option as a visit to a Russian police station does not sound particularly fun or straightforward – no matter how simple the request. We handed in our passports to reception along with an unavoidable fee and they were handed back with small stamped slips of paper attached.
The other big pending issue was that of car insurance. Our understanding was that we would be required to buy insurance at the border.. Simple. Right? After the fourth and final border checkpoint, it became evident that we had just crossed into Russia uninsured (we think the lovely and helpful lady at the border got a little confused with all of our paperwork that she forgot to ask). Luckily, probably due to the intense rainstorm, we managed to drive an entire evening and early morning into one of Russia’s biggest cities without being pulled over by the police. We had to recify this ASAP as our luck would probably not hold out for too long, and we managed to find reasonable coverage from a local dealer run by two more very helpful and friendly locals, who seemed to be more interested in our trip than selling us their insurance.
Later that evening we took in a ballet performance, dressed in our finest flip-flops. Fittingly, the performance was set in a place close to our hearts, Scotland (our official rally starting point), and showcased an abundance of kilts. Following this a few of us headed out for some dinner and drinks to finish off our first official day in Russia.
Our next day progressed at a much more leisurely pace and we started out by meandering about the city until we found the famous Hermitage, which is situated in an impressively large and ornate teal and white building adorned with gold-plated columns and numerous statues and urns. A quick spot of lunch later and we began our exploration of the three enormous floors of the Hermitage, which houses thousands of pieces of artwork, sculptures and relics from all over the world, including a large section devoted, not surprisingly, to Russian history.
On the walk back towards the hostel, following one of the many canals that weave aimlessly across the city, we came across a small tourist-oriented marketplace – with $100 Russian hats and Obama babushka dolls – which was overshadowed by the colourful and flamboyant Church On Spilled Blood. This is the classic popular image of Russian architecture; spiralled onion-shaped bulbs resting atop vibrant, intricately decorated church spires. A wonderful sight, indeed.
The evening came and following a communal homecooked pasta dinner (true backpacker style), some rearranging of our gear and an internet session, we hit the sack ready for the big 700km drive south to the country’s capital, Moscow!

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