Around the World on $50 a Day - St. Petersburg

| Intro | London | Dublin | Paris | Budapest | St.Petersburg | Moscow | Frankfurt | Zurich | Delhi | Hong Kong | SF |


St. Petersburg, Russia

I had often dreamed (in my sleep) of visiting Russia long before I became Orthodox. So St. Petersburg, the home of Dostoyevsky and St. Xenia, was a highlight on the tour for me. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

The foreignness at the airport was overwhelming. There was almost no English signage, but I was able to ask at an information counter how to get into the city. The woman replied, "taxi," but when I objected, she said, "Take a number 13 bus from the corner of the next building to the Metro [the subway system], and take the Metro into downtown." When we first tried to board a 13 bus a man standing nearby said "no, no, next one." The next one was already crowded, but we squeezed on.

Standing near the front door of the bus, I asked "Metro?" of people nearby and they told us "no" for one stop and pointed it out later. Fortunately the Metro was identified by large "M's" above the stations. Judging from the Cyrillic spelling for Moscow, apparently that alphabet's letter for "M" is the same as ours.

Inside the Metro we seemed to be at the end—or beginning—of the line, but there were trains on either side of the platform, leaving us perplexed as to which one to take. Some girls who appeared to be in their mid-teens and appeared to be swigging from a large bottle of beer or ale, spoke "a little" English, and told us, saying we'd have to transfer. When the train pulled in, Bob headed for one car but I wanted to stay near the helpful girls in the hope that they would confirm our transfer point. Bob kept me in view through the windows between the two cars.

The girls did tell us where to get off and how many stops we would have to the Moscow Railway Station stop, the one closest to our hostel. When we got off that first train we weren't sure which way to go, so one of the girls popped her head out and pointed us to the right exit.

Once off the Metro at the Moscow Railway Station, we found our little map from the hostel difficult to follow, and we chose a wrong route, but several people helped us to Third Sovetskaya Ulitsa (Street; number 28, telephone +7 (812) 329-8018; worldwide web—; email—, and we arrived at our Russian Youth Hostel in timely fashion.

It was a tall, four-story building plus an attic, and of course there being no lift, we were on the fourth floor. We did "luck out" and get a double room with no room mate(s). The receptionist told us we'd probably prefer to eat in a fast food place that offered English translations on the menu boards, which proved true.

St. Petersburg Russian Youth Hostel

The only such restaurant we found was Carroll's, which was very Western-looking, though neither Bob nor I had seen one before. We also saw a Western-style chicken-type fast food place a few blocks farther, but it had no English "subtitles" on its menu, so we never did try it. We both ate our first Big Mac-type meals in years at Carrolls (interestingly, though Moscow is famed for its McDonald's and Pizza Huts, we saw none of these in St. Petersburg).

Temperatures in St. Petersburg, which is on the same latitude and long ferryboat rides away from Stockholm, Sweden, and Helsinki, Finland, were the warmest thus far, in the 70's into the late evening (which stayed daylight because of the northern latitude). After dinner we walked down the city's main street—Nevskiy Prospekt, as far as the first canal.

Before bedtime, I decided, as an experiment, to send an electronic mail message to a group of friends in San Jose. The hostel office makes this service available, using its computer for $2 US per email. I chose the friend whose Internet address I was sure I could recall correctly, and she forwarded it to half a dozen others on a local mailing list who share news of common interest, jokes, and mutual concerns. It went through without a hitch, the only "postcard" I sent on the whole trip.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $23

Sunday, May 12

Breakfasts of Cheerios, a slice of cheese, milk, Nescafe (which the Russians all over seem to consider coffee; our mother did, too, but I never have accepted that proposition) or tea, bread and jam were included in the $17 US per night prepaid fee for the room, so even though Bob wanted a "real breakfast," we settled for that. (Tip: although in general I took along far more items than I needed, if your day begins with coffee as mine does, it might be a good idea to carry a few of the "singles" coffeebags now available from several American coffee manufacturers; hot water is usually available when real coffee is not.) We made the acquaintance of a friendly young man from Toronto, and a father, mother, and young adult daughter from Santa Rosa, Calif. (about 100 miles north of San Jose) over breakfast, which was reason enough, in my opinion, to take advantage of the hostel's hospitality.

Having recently converted from a lifetime as evangelical Protestant to Eastern Orthodox, one of my main goals in visiting Russia was to worship in an Orthodox church. But we had thought the time difference between Frankfurt and St. Petersburg was one hour, learning too late on Sunday morning that it was two hours, and we had slept through regular church services.

I found that the receptionist had good maps available in the Western alphabet for $3 US (published for the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg in 1994), so I bought one and we walked to the Neva River, saw the Kazan Cathedral, which is being rebuilt, the Admiralty, and the Hermitage, the Czar's fabulous winter palace. We didn't tour the Hermitage, though I got to see a little of it before finding the ticket window. Bob wasn't interested in historical and cultural artifacts, and the fee was 40,000 roubles—$8 US—for admission, plus another 50,000 R—$10 US—for a permit to take video. Knowing I wouldn't remember anything without video and thinking that $18 was exorbitant (the National Galleries in Washington and London are free, after all), I declined.

After a walk toward Peter and Paul's Fortress island where all the Czars except Nicholas are buried (and he probably will be when the controversy over his remains is finally settled), Bob opted to return to the hostel. I'd have preferred a river tour, which was also $8 but would have been worth it, I thought. But being left alone, I decided to press on to the Smolensk Cemetery, in which is located the chapel of St. Xenia (or Ksennia) containing her remains and considered one of Russian Orthodoxy's holiest places. St. Xenia was a legendary Russian "fool for Christ" of the nineteenth century who gave up an affluent life to become a holy woman after her husband's sudden death at a party. From then on she gave up all her worldly goods and lived on the streets of St. Petersburg, often dressing in her late husband's clothes and going by his name, apparently hoping by her holiness to atone or make up for the carnality in which he died, thus saving him. Many good deeds done in secret, as well as many miraculous intercessions, have been attributed to her.

Both my own pastor and a friend acquired through the Internet, Basil, are great admirers of St. Xenia, and I promised to offer prayers and light candles for the friend and his wife, whose name is also Xenia, and get some icons of the saint for them. It was a long walk (perhaps three more miles from the Hermitage) on blistered feet (I considered it something of an ascetic act), under mostly sunny skies which also dropped a few sprinkles threatening to turn to rain. After finding the small Armenian Orthodox Church and the Church of the Blessed Icon of the Mother of God, I finally found St. Xenia's Chapel. It was only about a 100-meter walk from the latter church, but when I asked in its icon shop where to find "St. Xenia; St. Ksennia," the clerk, who did speak "a little" English, had no idea.

The cemetery was like none I'd ever seen before, huge and in a woods, with lots of benches at gravesides where relatives apparently sit "visiting" their departed. The chapel was beautiful. I got lots of video and some still photos outside, and was able to attend a memorial service inside, lighting candles for myself and my parish family and Basil and his wife Xenia. I also was able through pointing to buy the icons and I received some chrism (anointing myrrh) on my forehead from the priest, but I didn't see any vials of chrism for sale such as I had been asked to buy. (Click here if you'd like to visit St. Xenia's WWW home page.) (I've since St. Xenia's Chapel been informed that these are not available at the icon counter but only through the priests, so there was no way, with my lack of facility in Russian and lacking an interpreter, that I could have accomplished that.)

After completing what I'd come for, I found the Metro station nearest the cemetery and several people who were willing to direct me back toward the Alexander Nevskiy Lavra (monastery) at the end of Nevskiy Prospekt. But I lost count of the subway stations, and there being no signs on them but rather only spoken announcements of each one over the public address (in Russian only, of course), I got off at a wrong station, where I couldn't find anyone to help. I got back on and off again at Moscow Hotel, having been told that it was the Moscow Railway Station. In the lobby I found someone to direct me to Moscow Railway Station, from whence I made my way back to the hostel.

Being "dead on my feet," Bob and I again went to Carrolls for a Carolina dinner—big cheeseburger, fries, and Fanta orange (Bob's a healthy diet advocate and orange is the only approved sodapop). Back at the hostel we found that we'd missed the hours in which to book a Monday train to Moscow through their tour agency (assuming incorrectly that that could be done any time at their reception), so we concluded that we would have to get to the station early Monday morning to buy a ticket for the 8:30 a.m. train.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $31

Monday, May 13

We were at the train station by 7:30 a.m., but of course nothing was open, and we couldn't even tell where the ticket windows were. (Tip: much later we would see what appeared to be the normal ticket windows out the rear doors of the terminal, in the boarding platform area.) Finally, after 8 o'clock, with the train to leave at 8:30, I found an open Intourist window and tried to buy tickets. They asked for my passport and said if I wanted two tickets they needed the other passport, so I went to find Bob. The women "helping" me, one a ticket agent and the other supposedly an English interpreter, insisted on selling us night sleeper train tickets though we already had our room paid for in Moscow and one of Bob's chief desires on the trip was to see the scenery between the two cities. But through very choppy English they indicated that we would get our passports and visas back only after buying the tickets of their choice, for about $35 US each. The one bright spot was that, from what I'd seen earlier on the Internet, I thought the tickets might cost twice that much each.

We were crestfallen, feeling foiled by an unfair and unkind system; shades of Soviet totalitarianism. With our train not scheduled to leave St. Petersburg until after 10 p.m., we returned dejected to our hostel, after checking all our luggage except the cameras in a train depot locker area, a story in itself but suffice it to say that with hand signals and an English set of printed instructions we were able to manage.

On the way to the hostel, where their tourist agency, Sindbad travel, was to open at 9 a.m., I hatched an idea. We explained the whole scenario to the tourist agent, who was exceptionally kind and sympathetic. She said she could get us on a train at either 1 or 3:50 p.m. for $25 US each, and that either train would get us to Moscow at about 10 p.m. We opted for the express. She even said she could show us how to get the tickets without having to pay her a commission, but I said I'd gladly pay the commission just for her good English and helpfulness. She said we might be able to get "a little" refund for our night-train tickets, but it would require our going back to Intourist, which we declined.

Before the tourist office had opened, we had bought a phone card from the hostel for $6 US to call our Moscow hostel and tell them we would not be there Monday night, but to keep our room for Tuesday.

We asked reception whether, since we had left the hostel for the station before breakfast, we could go upstairs and have breakfast and the receptionist said, "of course." Over breakfast we again got to talk with our fellow traveler from Toronto, who was in the former Czarist capital doing doctoral research. I mentioned my frustration at having been unable to find the St. Alexander Nevskiy Lavra, and he said it was only about 10 minutes walk from the hostel. It was a beautiful day, temperatures in the sevenites; things were suddenly looking up.

St. Petersburg, continued; St. Alexander Nevskiy Lavra. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

Having got his bearings in that vicinity better than I, Bob walked part of the way with me, but decided to return to the hostel once we sighted the monastery. I continued on—it was at least a half hour walk on my sore feet—and it turned out to be directly across the boulevard from the Moscow Hotel in which, lost and somewhat fearful, I had asked for directions the day before! In my anxiety, I had missed it.

Situated on a canal of the Neva River and the burial place of Dostoyevsky and half a dozen other historical figures, it is magnificent. Providentially, I arrived during a liturgy (worship service), and as a recent convert this turned out to be the highlight of my journey. The church in the lavra serves as the temporary cathedral while the permanent one is being restored—it was the most beautiful church I've been in, despite its profusion of "Western-style" ("realistic" rather than the traditionally Orthodox two-dimensional) icons. The choir, only eight voices, was literally and metaphorically heavenly; the acoustics such that their voice was naturally amplified throughout the cathedral. Photography was prohibited inside, but I was able to shoot a little video through the open door and a lot of video and still shots of the outside.

I got back to the hostel about noon. Our day-train tickets had arrived and I was able to get my six dollars back for the phone card, still in its unopened cellophane envelope. We gave our night tickets to the agency in the hope that they could make some use of them, said our goodbyes and went to lunch. We ate at an English-theme pub called the John Bull, though it had no menu in English, but the waiter spoke enough of it to get us a meal of roast chicken, potatoes, and vegetables (about $10 US). Except for us, it was virtually deserted at 1 p.m.

Then we walked a block to the Moscow Railway Station, recovered our luggage (we weren't even sure how many hours we had checked it for!) and waited for the 3:50 departure for Moscow.



 © Jon Kennedy 1996, 2009