Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saint Petersburg – a sudden journey


Monument in front of our hotel

It was Saturday when I realized and decided that I want to make a journey to St. Petersburg. Actually it was the 1st day of my vacation and before that moment I didn’t even have an idea of going anywhere. It suddenly came to my head in a talk with my sister when she was trying to make me go with her to our grandparents. I’ve counted my money - it was 50,000 rubles/$1,666 and thought that it would be quite enough for a week in St. Petersburg for me and my sister.
It took me 4 days to buy railway tickets, find a proper travel agency, book a hotel and move out.
Actually we could go there by plane but we didn’t, railway was a bit cheaper and a bit reliable. The most difficult task was to buy railway tickets. August is the hottest season for tourism in Russia and if you want to have nice and inexpensive tickets I recommend you to buy them at least in 2 weeks. But we didn’t have such time. Anyway with the help of the internet and special sites we’ve managed to find proper time when some extra tickets are released and bought them.
So we have moved out.

Train - Day 1

Ekaterinburg at night

Our journey was to be started in Yekaterinburg where the train to St. Petersburg goes. So we took a mini-bus from our town and came to Yekaterinburg about 20:30. We had about 3 hours of free time in the city.
We dropped out our luggage at the railway station, it cost us 160R/$5.30. Then we had a meal at some diner for 380R/$12.60 and I bought a book to read in a train (Franz Kafka – The Castle) for 169R/$5.6.
After that we decided to take a walk around and followed down the street of Sverdlov. Night in Yekaterinburg is nice, will check St. Petersburg later.
Finally our train came. Car numeration was weird: after the 11th car went the 22nd, that confused us and first we didn’t find our 10th one.
Actually the train was going from Kazakhstan to St. Petersburg so we were ready to meet a lot of Kazakhs, but they were not so many. Actually the only Kazakh I can mention was our conductor. When he was giving us our bedding he asked if we want to move to a deluxe compartment with air conditioning and TV. After that he showed a number 3 with his fingers and whispered: 3 thousand ($100). I wasn’t going to buy this, so I declined. Later I counted that it was pretty cheap because a regular price for this would be around 15,000R/$500.

Train - Day 2

Local train
I guess it would be the longest day in the whole journey. Eat, read, sleep, repeat again. Then I’m writing these words. And eat again.

First Impressions

Neva navigation
So, Saturday, the 3rd day came. And after 3 hours of waiting we got off the train and met the city. It was warm and convenient. To my surprise subway station and the railway station shared the same building. So we just followed the signs and found ourselves at the Ladozhskaya subway station. A bit after I found that all or most of the railway stations are located with subway ones. Convenient.

The subway. It’s rather clean, understandable and comfortable. Most of the time you won’t find a free seat in the car but it’s ok, because it doesn’t take too long to wait for your destination. Locals say that the subway is the fastest transport in the city. It will take you about 40 minutes to get from one end of the city to another.
We got out of the subway and found ourselves in the city. Now our target was to find the hotel. It was hotel “Saint Petersburg” and it was 12 minutes from the subway station. That’s all we remembered. The guide with directions was deeply buried in one of our travel bags so I took my GPS navigator and turned it on. It took us about 15-20 minutes to find the right place.
Suddenly I noticed the smell of the water. That meant that we were already at the place. Our hotel is located at the embankment of Neva River. We turned around the corner and got in.


First I’d like to tell about my expectations. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews on the internet about low-cost rooms in this hotel. In fact it wasn’t bad at all. For quite a good price (3,100R/$105 per night with 4 excursions or 2,200R/$73 without excursions) we got a two bedded room with windows looking at the yard. There was a bathroom with toilet, a TV, a table with a mirror, 2 armchairs and a wardrobe. The furniture was definitely soviet but solid.
My worst expectations were about the bathroom but they didn’t come out. Bathroom was 8 out of 10. I took away 2 points because there were not enough towel hangers. By the way I didn’t get it: why were there 3 towels per each person? So 6 towels were hanging on just 2 towel hangers.

View from our room
I think we had a good view out of the window – another high class hotel out of glass and metal 20 stories high.
One more good thing to mention about our room – we had free Wi-Fi internet. It was essential.


Business center nearby
As I have already said access to the Internet is vital when you are in unknown city and you don’t want to spend all the time in the hotel.
I was spending about 15-20 minutes every morning defining directions, subway stations, places of interest and pricing. I guess it would be not a full trip without the web.
Before the trip I thought that the best way would be to buy unmetered GPRS internet from the cellular operator. That would be around $1 daily. That would have suited me fine, but I found a different option. Wi-Fi.
Our hotel “St. Petersburg” has its own free Wi-Fi hotspot but it is available only at the lobby and the restaurant. By the way I didn’t manage to connect to it, I guess some key is required and you have to ask it at the lobby.
But there was another Wi-Fi connection in our room named “default”. I guess it was from the business center nearby. It wasn’t very strong so I guess it was only available to rooms with inner yard view (cheap ones). So it was good that we didn’t take the Neva view room.
In popular cafes and restaurants there is also free Wi-Fi so you can use it while you eat.

The elevator

Elecator shaft
There are 9 elevators in the hotel. 9 elevators for a 11-stories high building. Stories numeration is also weird for me: A-B-1-2-3… We were living on the 1st one that was actually the 3rd from the ground.
On the second day there we were going to have breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant “Bering”. We needed to go 1 story down and we decided to use the elevator. That was a mistake. We got in with some couple and pushed our buttons: B for us and A for them. But instead of going down the elevator decided to go up. First it was the 3rd floor then 5th then some more. There were about 14 people in the car but it kept moving upwards. It was stopping at each floor when there were people but they didn’t manage to get in because it was full. After that it reached the A floor and everyone went out. Some of them then used the stairs to go up like us.
After that we have decided not to use the elevator at the breakfast time.


St.Petersburg subway
The subway is really nice and we spent quite a lot of time there. Before going out you usually look through the map and find required subway stations. We were living in 12 minutes to the “Ploshad Lenina” (Lenin’s Square) station.
The most impressive thing about it is the depth and the length of the escalator. I guess it took us about 3 minutes to move the right level. My sister was reading a book, I was watching over crowds of people moving in the opposite direction. I guess every fourth was reading too: books, papers, e-books and anything else. E-books are rather popular here, but I don’t want to buy one – I don’t think I can devote right amount of my spare time to reading.
While in a subway car I tried to look in other people books and try to get their titles. Most of them were rather popular and casual stuff like Murakami, Marinina, Werber, Akunin and others.
Also I would like to mention that there is a decent amount of disabled people in the subway. First I doubted if they can move through the escalator. But they did. They also can easily enter the subway car without anyone’s help. Good stuff.
Navigation here is quite simple – you can always find direction signs at the platforms and in the car. Signs are in Russian and English.
Right at the first day we bought season tickets for two weeks this saves you some money and it is very convenient – you don’t have to buy a token every time. We had 2 tickets for 20 rides each which cost us 800 rubles/$27.50. During these 7 days we used only 14 rides and 6 were left. This means that we wasted 6*20*2 = 240 rubles/$8.27. It’s ok, I don’t mind.


Business center where we had a lunch
Our meals consisted of a breakfast, one big dinner and some kind of night supper at some days.
Breakfast first. It was awesome. We had a smorgasbord in the Bering restaurant. Good thing about it – you can have your meal at any time between 7:30 and 10:30 so you can sleep almost as long as you want. Usually we woke up at 8:30 and moved to the breakfast hall at 9:30. Cereal, corn, milk, ham, fried eggs, cheese, pastry and even water melons were at your table during breakfast. It’s not easy to control yourself when you have all this yummy stuff for free. Because of that our second meal was not at normal time.
We could eat from 13:00 to 20:00, so because of that, we usually had 1 big dinner and had some minor snacks at the hotel before bed to satisfy our hunger.
During this trip we’ve visited (with our check for two):
  • cafeteria “La Canteen” (450R/$15, 3 times);
  • sushi-bar “Fujiyama” (1200R/$40);
  • café “By Avrora” (1400R/$47);
  • McDonald’s (450R/$15, 2 times);
  • café, “Teremok” (480R/$16);
  • dinner on a bench in Peterhof (450R/$15).
As you see our average check for two was about 480R/$16 because we visited cheap places that we’d found on the Internet. Some days we went to a local supermarket and bought some snacks like soda, chips and other. It was just behind our hotel so it was rather convenient to drop in after some walk through the town.
In most cafes in the city you can find “Business Lunch” options which let you have a normal dinner for a cheaper price at workdays. Average cost for such meal for one person is about 290R/$30 that can save you about 20%-50% of a normal price of these dishes. In my local town average price for a similar meal is about 200R/$7.
And notice that this option doesn’t work at the weekend. Once we didn’t get it and had to order normal meal for 1400R/$47 for two. But it was worth it.
Fast food cafes are all over the city. The most expanded one as I think is “Teremok” network. It’s specialized in national cuisine with western way of fast serving. But I didn’t like it. Neither food nor atmosphere. Fast food cafes are always overcrowded; try to find a more peaceful place.

Places of interest

In front of the Hermitage
Our economy tour included 4 excursions and 3 free days. And we have wasted 2 excursions out of 4. We decided to manage our time ourselves.
So during this trip we have visited:
  • Hermitage,
  • Peterhof(with tour),
  • Kronstadt (with tour),
  • Oceanarium,
  • Kunstkamera,
  • Zoo,
  • Planetarium.
I guess it was quite enough for 7 days. Just a few words about it.


Hermitage is huge. Here are my tips:
  • Go to their site, find what you like and get the directions. Otherwise you can get lost inside.
  • Don’t miss the map. Somewhere near the entrance in the main building you can get it. We didn’t find it at the right time and were missing it a lot.
  • Get to the right queue.
    Line to get inside

    Queues for locals (Russian citizens) are gigantic. If you are Russian you can get the ticket for 100R/$3.3 but you have to pass through a big queue in the yard. We have spent 1 hour in it. But if you are foreigner you can buy only full ticket for 400R/$13.3 and it can be bought at the automated machine (kiosk) before the inner yard.
  • You can take photos inside only if you have bought a ticket for photo for 200R/$6.6. But I didn’t meet anyone who was checking whether you have it or not. So my recommendation – don’t buy it.


Some palace in Peterhof
Peterhof is a park with lots of fountains, some palaces and nice looking plants. That’s it. I liked it.
  • Buy/find a compass. It is one the most important thing in unknown city/place. GPS is also good but compass is a bit faster to use.
  • Price for a ticket is about 200R/$3.3 (maybe more for a foreigner).
  • There is a park called Alexandria next to Peterhof parks.
    Seems Gothic

    It’s just a park with a cottage house of some emperor. You can visit it for separate price.

  • Fountains are started at 11 a.m.
    Main fountain line

  • Some fountains are really impressive.
    Main fountain (forget the name)

  • Gulf of Finland is vast.
    Gulf of Finland in Peterhof

    You can find it in the southern part of the park.
  • Public toilets are well hidden. There are some signs showing directions, but you cannot always find it the way you think. Keep trying.
  • You can find free Wi-Fi around the park. It’s convenient.


Kronstadt cannon
Kronstadt is a nearby town with parks, channels, port and marine monuments. I didn’t like the excursion, it was a bit boring and too long.
  • Visit the light house at the port.
    Light house in Kronstadt

    It’s huge.
  • Take a picture of the fountain.

  • Sit in the park eating ice-cream and taking photos of pigeons.
    Pigeon in Kronstadt

  • See the Gulf of Finland during the ride.
    Some building floating in Kronstadt


Not my picture (don't know what it is)
We have missed the tour to Peter and Paul Fortress but visited the city oceanarium. Now I think that it was in vain.
  • 450R/$15 for a ticket.
  • Photo is for money only. Don’t try to do it without photo ticket. Keepers are everywhere and are watching you.
  • The whole thing isn’t that big that I thought. We spent about 40 minutes.
  • Seals are very funny.
    Not my seal

  • Giant fish is gigantic.


Not my Kunstkamera
Kunstkamera is just another museum. Dummies, some regular old stuff and human freaks. That’s it. Better have some more time in Hermitage or take a walk along the Neva embankment.
  • 200R/$6.6 for entrance;
  • Foto is free. But forbidden at the hall with human freaks.
  • It won’t take more than an hour.


Not my Zoo

Zoo is ok. Must visit.
  • 300R/$10 for entrance.
  • Prepare to spend here at least 4 hours. It’s worth it.
    Geese in the Zoo

  • If you are tired - find a bench in the shadow of the park and buy an ice-cream.
  • Squirrels are the funniest animals here.

    Video is somewhere here.
  • There is special time when some animals are fed. Don’t miss.
    Real lion in the Zoo

  • Don’t feed the animals. Even squirrels.


Some crawler
Right after the zoo we decided to visit planetarium. What a shame of us. Don’t do it unless you are a 7 year old boy.
  • 300R/$10 for entrance.
  • It’s very outdated and soviet.
  • The special effects are also soviet.
  • During it we were even watching two cuts from some BBC documentary with very bad dubbed sound.


Hotel St. Petersburg in the back
Now I’m back home and writing all these words down. We have left this nice city and I wish not for long. I think I’ll visit it again in short time and maybe even stay here for more than a week.
It was really cool to be there, thanks.