It rained during the night but we were snug and dry inside our van. When we awoke, Dick phoned Andrey Beryozkin in St Petersburg. Andrey is a friend of Dimitry’s who had offered to help us. He owned a warbird L29 and belonged to a flying club north of St Petersburg. Andrey had a successful air conditioning business.
Unfortunately the telephone reception was bad and it was quite difficult to understand what Andrey was saying, so we decided we would head on into St Petersburg by ourselves and then try and arrange to meet Andrey at his flying club.
We paid 120 Rubles ($5.50 AUD) to stay in the yard for the night and use the power. While we parked there, a friendly Russian/Finish man also with a campervan showed us which pieces of paper that were issued to us at the border were important. He pointed out that we had been given a small insurance sticker, which we should place on our windscreen. We also telephoned Dick’s assistant Yolanda in Australia and asked her if it would be possible for her to book us into a hotel in St Petersburg – one with parking for the Earthroamer - now that was a challenge.
On departing, we called into the local service station and Dick purchased some maps and marked a suggested route into St Petersburg. The maps were all in Cyrillic alphabet so they were difficult to understand but then again a diagrammatic map is reflecting what can be seen from the air so it wasn’t too hard. Pip became quite good at matching the words on the map to the sign posts along the way.
We were on the road at 9.40 am. and passed a beautiful little church in the town of Kondratjevo. The rain was falling lightly and it was 52°F outside. We were stopped by a policeman waving a baton. This was an ANC check point – well it is what we called it. The Cyrillic letters looked similar to our letters of ANC. It appears this is the ‘State Automobile Inspectorate” or GAI which is short for Gosudarstvennaya Avtomobilnaya Inspektsia.
Regularly along the road we were to find these check points. It appears they are at the boundary of many of the Russian Regions and outside the cities and towns. The inspectors stand on the road, normally two at a time and wave their batons if they want you to pull over. In this case the friendly officer checked our passports and the vehicle’s Russian Permit with the Driver’s Form which we had ready. When it was obvious that we didn’t speak Russian, he smiled and sent us on our way.
We found it rather different driving in Russia. It was once a police state so they have rules for everything, even more than the British. However the difference in Russia is, it seems the rules are made to be broken. We noticed that most vehicles were speeding and many drivers were crossing single unbroken lines. We hardly saw anyone other than ourselves wearing a seatbelt – even though it is the law to do so.
It appears Russian’s love breaking the law and then paying a few rubles to get out of the consequences. A friend told us the story of how he wanted to park his car on the pavement in front of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the friendly police officer said, “Sir it is forbidden but it is possible”. This clearly meant, “pay me a few rubles and you will be able to park there”. A very flexible system!
Dick had travelled along this same road from Helsinki into St Petersburg in late April 1966 and he couldn’t get over the change. Not only was it freezing at the time but also the only vehicles on the road were small old-fashioned trucks. Now we were passing huge billboards for new cars, modern petrol stations and motels.
The traffic consisted of huge modern trucks and mostly modern imported cars, BMWs, Toyotas and sometimes a Rolls Royce or Bentley.
We did see the occasional Russian Lada car creeping along at a slow speed and sometimes broken down beside the road. It was amazing to see the change. We were told that this had happened only in the last 5 to 10 years.
In 1966, everything was a drab brown and Russian’s dressed in either grey or brown clothing. Dick was amazed to see how colourful the environment had become; now colour was rampant. You could be driving into any major city in the modern western world.
We had the Garmin GPS with the Garmin world map but it just showed a general road which seemed to be within a mile or two of the correct road. This was no help, other than giving a us a general idea of the direction and if we were heading the right way. All the signs were in Russian but we managed to match the picture of the word on the sign with the picture of the word on the map! Pip managed to navigate us on the correct route right into the main street of St Petersburg. We drove through extraordinary high levels of traffic but we made it!
We initially turned right into the main street called Nevsky Prospekt, but just as we turned, Pip noticed the hotel called the Corinthia Nevskij Palace in the other direction.
We were then stopped by an enthusiastic young police officer doing random checks on vehicles. Dick said hello, explained we were from Australia and we only spoke English. We showed him our passports and vehicle papers which he then showed to his boss. His boss grinned and waved him away, so off we went. We think we were too difficult to deal with as we didn’t speak Russian. We drove a little further down the street and noticed a number of cars doing a U- turn on the main street, so we followed them. Luckily, the Earthroamer just got us round and we pulled up on the pavement to ask if the hotel Pip thought she had seen in the distance was the correct one. Fortunately, we found a young Russian woman who spoke some English and she confirmed it.
Within five minutes, we were parked outside the hotel and Pip was talking to a friendly English speaking doorman, Ivan Baranov.
Yolanda had done the most extraordinary job and had arranged for us to park our Earthroamer at the hotel – yes it was going to cost 80€ ($125 AUD) a night and a colossal 448€ ($710 AUD) for the room. Then again, we had been saving a fortune by staying in the Earthroamer so you have to have a bit of luxury occasionally! To be able to park our vehicle and stay in the middle of St Petersburg was worth every penny!!!
We were instructed to drive the vehicle around to the back of the hotel, and we parked it in the street after the security guards moved a few barriers. We have no idea how such approval was gained. That is where our vehicle sat for two days, with the security guards watching over the vehicle. We could even lean out of our hotel room window above and see our trusty Earthroamer and make sure no one had pinched the spare wheel.
The hotel was a fairly new expensive modern hotel. Nothing like the Russia that Dick had seen in 1966 or we had both seen in our Sikorsky flight around the world in 1995.
After a quick freshen up we wandered along Nevsky Prospekt. Well you won’t believe it, we soon found a McDonald’s which was absolutely packed. Not quite like the early McDonald’s in Moscow where it could take up to six or seven hours to be served and people would actually pay for someone to stand in the queue. We were very hungry so we have to confess that we did buy a hamburger and fries - how outrageous to be in St Petersburg and end up with American junk food!
We spent the afternoon walking west down Nevsky Prospekt to Kazan Cathedral
the Palace Square
and to the banks of the Neva River
St Petersburg is a beautiful city, described as a Venice of the north, and it certainly is. The city was originally built by Catherine the Great on swampland and there are still canals entwining the city and its streets.
By the time we got to the Hermitage Pip’s leg was very tired so Dick managed to arrange a water taxi to take us back along the canal to where it crossed Nevsky Prospekt near our hotel. Imagine that, a small entrepreneur or “capitalist” (they do not like that word there), had set up a business using a small speed boat as a water taxi.
Dick remembers that during his visit in 1966, at the height of the Cold War and Communism it was almost impossible to buy anything, let alone travel in a commercial water taxi. Every time Dick and his Aussie friends got off the Trafalgar Tour bus there would be young kids standing there trying to buy chewing gum or jeans. These were highly sort after in Russia in the 1960’s.
When you check into a Russian hotel, you have to hand in your passports to be ‘registered’. The receptionist was very concerned that our immigration card had not been stamped at the border. We decided not to worry about it because it was too late now and we would deal with it when we left Moscow in a week or so.
We did experience a couple of incidences with pick pocketing while we were out walking. A young man tried to pinch Dick’s wallet but fortunately he had placed his water bottle on top of the wallet in his pocket so all the pick pocket got was the water. Pip also felt a man trying to open her handbag but fortunately she keeps it well closed with the zipper – we had to be careful especially when we were in crowds.
After we had dinner in our hotel, Dick walked around to the Moscow Railway Station, which is where the trains head to Moscow, and found that the clocks had moved ahead one hour. We had tried to purchase tickets to the St Petersburg ballet for the evening but there had been a misunderstanding with the Conceige – now we understood why!
202kms Today 17,530kms Total since Anchorage Alaska