Last year I sauntered off to Finland to see the Northern Lights and wrote about it for my university’s newspaper, hoping that my supervisors didn’t regularly read the newspaper and find out that I’d been devoting more time to writing than project work.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three little countries that slipped past the Iron Curtain before it was cool, collectively known as the Baltic Tigers on account of their rapid economic growth -seemingly fuelled a desire to flip communism the bird. For example, Estonia, the home of countless tech startups (including Skype!) and a capital that boasts free Wi-Fi, has already joined the Eurozone as of 2011.
Although, for a while it looked touch-and-go whether we’d make it out of Russia into Estonia. On arrival in St. Petersburg we were given immigration cards that we weren’t even sure how to fill out properly: my friend got refused past a check-point in customs despite making it through the second time, having not changed any details on his card in between. We were also confused/ignorant/lazy about researching having to register though it turns out that you need to if you spend more than three nights in any one city of more than a week in total. We didn’t learn this until day 7 of 8 on a Sunday, so it was too late to do anything. We were now gambling that some kind of common sense would kick in at the Estonian border (“Who cares? We’re like, anti-immigrating.”), or that we could just play dumb and they’d let us through this one time, muttering under their breath that “these post-Cold War kids have it so easy”. Having also never crossed a border in a bus before, I had my reservations about the guy in uniform who boarded to collect all our passports. For all I knew they were going to be replaced with a “Passport of the European Unoin”, laughed at at the checkpoint and sent to Siberia for the rest of my life to share a cell with a guy named Alexei who won’t take “nyet” for an answer. As a speaker of zero Russian for all I know the woman checking my papers only let us through because she liked my hair, but I was just glad to be in the world of crazy petrol prices again.
Tallinn injected a dose of humanity that I was suffering withdrawal symptoms from in Russia: we had trouble paying for the tram so a kindly old man cobbled together some charades to help us out. I’m not judging the Russians, though: they’re just so jaded by corruption that having to put up with shit without trusting others has just become a way of life. On arrival to the Tallinn Backpackers hostel we were greeted by the Australian manager who rocked the kind of moustache that betrayed his employment terms there: accommodation and board, contract running out presumably once he’s run out of alcohol money or healthy liver cells. It’s a pretty great place if you just want to get hammered with a bunch of rugby lads- I had to observe drinking rules the moment I stepped in, something I thought I escaped when I downed my final pint as a student at Imperial College.
We naïvely assumed we could escape the drunken crowds by hitting up the old town we were situated in. After a satisfyingly cheap dinner our Lonely Planet compass pointed us towards a bar “famous” for its shot of tequila, sambuca and Tabasco sauce. It’s a pretty decent marketing strategy: make a drink that tastes worse going down than when it inevitably comes back up, then rake in the €€€ as pissheads in Tallinn there for a stag night flock to take the €4 challenge of downing this monstrosity without swearing allegiance to Satan. Here’s some advice: save your money and spend it on the wide variety of ciders that the Baltic region does so well. The only thing that made up for the drink was meeting a drunk dead ringer for Meat Loaf who was saying things that even locals couldn’t understand, all the while trying to grope a middle-aged woman (with the help of his wingman who was a short-haired Ian McKellen).
The silver lining of having limited time in a place is that is focuses your efforts to see only what is worthwhile. Definitely worth it was a jaunt into an abandoned prison replete with old typewriters, bottles of variously coloured fluids in an operating theatre and pitch-black rooms where I tried jumping out from to scare my friends.
However, I did blow their minds with an “Eesti Prison Wi-Fi” newtork courtesy of my phone’s hotspot app, in a building that hasn’t seen electricity since a Western European country won the Eurovision Song Contest. Back in the old town, we were surrounded by medieval-themed restaurants and shops selling locally-sourced amber or carved wood, which was actually pretty cool alongside the cobbled streets and the well-preserved city walls, but I’m sure the novelty would’ve worn off before you can say 12 months in Estonian. And being only a couple hours’ flight from London but no language gradient to adjust to (most young Estonians speak English, they’re cool and modern like that), it lends itself perfectly to a weekend break.
1. See Lenin’s body
At first I wondered why there would be a mausoleum for the guy who lit the slow-burning shitcandle of communism in Russia, but then realised how laughably tacky the whole thing is. Literally. As we walked into what looked from the outside like Thorpe Park’s “X: No Way Out” I couldn’t help but snort at the dimly lit granite walls and stony-faced soldiers guarding Lenin’s corpse, as if the market value of formaldehyde-soaked flesh is high enough to be stolen. I apparently wasn’t irreverent enough, though: someone else in there spoke a little too loudly and was swiftly met with a harsh “Shh” from one of the soldiers. Second warning is gunfire.
2. Eat at McDonalds
And not just any one, but the first franchise after the USSR called it a day and let the capitalist pigs win. If you’re the kind of person who likes doing ironic-but-not-actually-ironic-when-you-think-about-it things, a Cyrillic McDonalds receipt is a must-have souvenir. It’s also one of the few places where you can be sure of what you’re eating if you can’t read the language, so there’s that for the fussy eater.
3. Drink vodka
Of course. Despite Moscow’s prices following the scent of the elites’ fat stacks (13% flat income tax, jesus), bars are better value for money than they are in London – £5 gets you a cocktail. After freezer-chilled vodka, which by the way shows that I’ve been enduring the astringent aftertaste of the stuff for way too long, I went for the most disgusting thing on the menu. Even the bartender pulled a face when I ordered it. The IVF, named probably because you’d need it to have kids after drinking one, took absinthe, kahlua and an espresso shot and…made it work. I left disappointed by my efforts to sabotage my tastebuds. Be prepared to be put through the third degree upon entry though! My friend of the Asian persuasion was refused entry into another bar because he didn’t look Russian enough. Even a fairer-skinned Turkish acquaintance of mine got refused. I guess it’s White Russians or nothing in some places.
4. Buy weapons
Preferably not in the order prescribed by this list. There’s this great flea market on Fridays which sells all manner of clichés like army caps (with full uniform), fur hats, and pretty much anything vendors can stick the letters CCCP on. There was a lot of pretty cool stuff, like maps back from when the world wasn’t so damned balkanised, and small chunks of meteorite.
But what firmly stamped the Russian identity on this place wasn’t the “Soviet” memorabilia, but the stalls selling god damn rifles, belts of machine gun ammunition, rusty old WWII grenades and sharp pointy things that one definitely should not try to smuggle across Europe.Something my brain conveniently forgot in the midst of haggling for this beautiful solid steel dagger reaching from elbow to fingertip. I pleaded to my dumbfounded friends who really should’ve expected something like this from me that I got a certificate stamped by the Ministry of Culture proving that it’s a souvenir, but they kindly rebutted that it’s no bloody use if you can’t read Russian.
Hell, for all I knew it had nothing but borsch recipes written all over it. The next twelve hours I proceeded to sweat bullets remembering that upon entering rail stations here you have to go through metal detectors. The other quirks in this market were several stalls selling vintage cameras, and even a few that were selling not only the kitchen sink, but these:
5. Use their Metro
I love the Tube very much, but it can’t boast being a day out in itself like Moscow’s. Each station is like a concert hall in its own right with tall arched ceilings adorned with artwork, and occasionally huge statues like
A pretty damn cheap day out too – a disposable chip card good for a return trip costs just 54 rubles, or about £1. If you want to save that for a beer, you can always walk straight through the barriers, because the security watching you cares roughly this much. Some guy tailgated and got nothing more than a stern whistle.
For those enticed by the idea of Muscovite tube architecture there’s Gants Hill station on the Central Line on the Tube – whose design was inspired by the Moscow metro.
6. Visit the Red Square
It’s not just about the Kremlin – as visually impressive as it is. We did a tour of the Armory, which housed a lot of old military equipment, clothes of the Czar(ina)s, carriages, and general bling of the Russian Empire. Helping us make sense of all this senseless wealth was the voice guide who freely described Catherine the Great having enough “insulation” to live through a Russian winter, among other things.
7. Go into the suburbs
Sergei Ploshad – a small town on the outskirts where you can buy giant animal-shaped gingerbread filled with some mysterious caramel and buy wild mushrooms from old ladies who have them pre-bundled in certain weights because a weighing scale and a calculator is too much to bring to work. It should be noted that the train journey there is worth it in itself: enterprising young Russians walk though the carriages with various products to sell, complete with a pitch – and a demonstration for things like glass cutters and stain remover.
Russia is about as friendly as the associated animal (fuck you Yogi Bear you’re not real). If you want someone to feel welcome in their country, it’s a really bad start to make people trot down to your
only if you live in London or-Edinburgh local visa office, shell out the equivalent of single flight all the while being sneered at the some blonde Russian serving you who looks like she’s a matryoshka doll with the others nested up her arse. Here’s a clue, mother Russia: visas are for countries worth getting into. Nobody north of Hell wants to emigrate to a country where its people are as cold as its winters and anyone who lands a job can look forward to the prospect of being paid in whatever the hell the government can rustle up. One might argue that it’s all part of the Russia experience, in this case that of their red tape.
My first impression of the land of backwards letters pretty much corroborated the vibe from one Youtube video: it’s just one giant game of Russian Roulette. Cigarette and loan shark adverts everywhere, designated smoking rooms in immigration control. Not like they need adverts. £1.20 per 20-pack? You can’t afford not to smoke. Same with the beer, calorie-for-calorie about as expensive as its solid counterpart and other Russian breakfast choice, bread.
Then we stepped out of the airport. One thing St. Petersburg does well is architecture (kinda like the Carlsberg of beers…) – their buildings can be best described as giant Lego blocks that were designed during the 1600′s with the vibrant colours to match. One of these being the Hermitage, filled with enough art to make me ponder the imagery while stroking my chin like a twat until the end of time. In another other gallery I felt like Steve Buscemi in the Rorschach test scene in Armageddon.
And what better way to wash down all this culture than with a few brewskis from the local mini-market which, in what is the most half-arsed effort to curb drinking ever, won’t sell anything stronger than 5% ABV after 23:00. That still left 30-odd varieties of beer and caffeinated alcopops to choose as our poison.
St. Petersburg is entry-level Russia for anyone from Europe: as its westernmost major city it remained familiar enough to fool someone that they never left the EU and they’re in one of those new states that they let in. Our next stop was to the east to Moscow, of course not before being played out of the Moskovskaya train station with some sort of military orchestral piece that sounded like it was meant to make us swell with pride for Mother Russia.
Kiev is what a normal European city would be like if you took acid. The roads are seemingly wide enough to pass tanks through them, or to reduce rampant drunk-driving accidents (both equally likely). And when the buildings straddling them are proportionally huge too, you can’t help but wonder if that bottle of beer you just had had “drink me” written on it in Cyrillic. Or if you stepped through the looking glass – a 5 minute walk from one of the busiest streets in the city was some empty main road with high grass banks that should be in nice clean suburbs in Zone 4.
Normal common sense rules don’t apply, either. When you’re wandering in some foreign place you make sure to keep valuables out of sight, keep to well-lit areas, etc. etc. to keep yourself from running into the sharp end of a sticky situation. Worthless Our meandering led us to some brightly-lit road lined with cafés and bars where some guys coming out of a club called at us in something I didn’t really understand because I’m not from these parts, but these guys probably already knew that. What proceeded was basically an almost-mugging in slow motion – they started off with a polite request for money, which I calmly explained wasn’t in my best interests (I don’t think they brought a translator along, though). With some bear-like figure flanking the smaller guy in negotiations with me, it was clear that this would be concluded without force on my behalf. My friends were standing by at a short distance providing moral support, but understanding this was my deal to close. With a lack of a mutual tongue or interest the talks hit a roadblock, forcing the smaller guy to grab my arm, which I thought about for a minute before my amygdala was like “why the fuck are you just standing there” and we bolted it back to the hostel like the ghost of Stalin was after our wheat harvest.
Finding the hostel was just another episode in this farce of a night. The directions given were sketchy at best, but hey, at least they specified a building, a code to get into said building and a room number. Once we found the right place, we keyed in the code to get in, and…the door numbers ran out before ours even got a look in (“wait are you sure? *counts again* 12, 13 – nope it definitely ends at 13″). Either the person who wrote the directions was dyslexic or it’s the wrong building and nobody in Ukraine bothers to change their door codes from the default. Our beds for the night were tucked away off a side road, behind an archway with nothing but ” <— hostel” (thankfully without the quotation marks) scribbled on the brickwork. Forgive me if that’s one rabbit hole I’d rather not go down, thanks.
So we bundled ourselves into the taxi and headed off to a nightclub that seemed to exist purely for our purpose: we, our contact and a few of his friends were the only ones there downing vodka and Red Bull, the former the only reason why this situation didn’t scream “Hostel 2″. Once our friends decided that the nightclub was “dead” we finished the night up with yet another bottle of vodka on the pebble beach of the Black Sea. The aftermath of this was not pretty: we awoke in our apartment to find a couple windows smashed (from the outside…) and a broken toilet shelf. We think they were like that when we got there but we couldn’t exactly be certain and with only rudimentary Russian to explain to the angry landlord through, it was just easier to shut him up with a bit of money.
We sought a cure for the mother of all hangovers and Georgia duly obliged, probably having seen it coming from the moment we entered her borders (visa-free for UK nationals! It’s good to be British). Khachapuri: a flat bread that’s been left to rise to give a doughy texture, commonly topped with suluguni cheese – best described as a stronger-tasting salty mozzarella that’s lumpier. I’m sure once tourism kicks off there it will get marketed as Georgian pizza. We also met our friend to show us around a few places, handing over bottles of Borjomi spring water, famed to be a great hangover cure too on account of its high electrolyte content – so high that it tasted like electricity and therefore rejected for a more damaging but delicious non-descript native-brand fizzy drink.
This day was going to be a lot slower-paced – milling around the town gazing at the odd cool building and doing the whole “they have one of those here too!” every five minutes while locals try to work out why people who aren’t Turkish businessmen after some tail are spending any time here. It’s a cute little place, but there isn’t much “going on” in Batumi, aside from a pebble beach which is just nature’s way of saying it couldn’t be arsed to grind the rocks up any further. Just as well, we were due to spend just that day there before training it to capital of Tbilisi overnight.
Ridiculous hospitality that borders on power-play? Check. Freshly hunted wild boar kebabs garnished with the equally wild purple basil it was probably eating in the mountains as it got killed? You better believe it.
Pork is a deceptive meat: it tastes mostly like chicken, i.e. of nothing, but it’s only half-way through the meal do you realise that these chunks are too big to come from something so small. Wild boar is even brown, which allows it to hide in the rather large “nondescript dark meat” category. Whichever animal it came from though, it was promptly washed down with pretty decent white wine – any self-respecting Georgian household makes their own, much like in France but without the attitude. It goes hand in hand quite nicely with their tradition of toasting: at feasts like this one the head of the household would make a toast to his wife, good health, the President etc. With each speech everyone takes their cup, home-made from clay, and drinks its contents in one go: doing so is to “drink with all your heart” – a statement of good character that is certainly a more honorable incentive than “down it fresher!” or, cringe, being pennied. Now that I explain it like that, I’m no longer surprised that five people got through 14 litres over the course of three hours. Horrified, yes. Maybe even a little proud. Needless to say, we weren’t quite as good at drinking as our hosts – they had the home advantage, I swear. The guy making all these speeches also didn’t know any English, so aside the laborious process of my friend’s contact translating between us, the wine served to quickly get everyone so drunk that we’d be mutually unintelligible anyway. And to get us dancing.
The night culminated in smashing the “friendship cup” – pointed at the base so that it doesn’t sit by itself, meant to symbolise how people need their friends for support. Being the lone and drunken wolf that I was I forgot this fact and just like that, instant desecration. The twist was that one or two other person(s) had to smash their own cups to “counter” mine, just when I felt bad enough being responsible for one pile of broken terracotta. By the end of the night the patio looked as if a poorly pottery-trained silicon-based life-form got out of its cage. With that behind us, we had a taxi ordered to take us back to the half-finished apartment block that we’d call home for the next three nights. Sorry, did I say home? As far as our hosts were concerned, the night had just begun and we were in no real disposition to disagree.