Tuesday, January 11, 2011

83. Moscow to St.Petersberg

It was August 2006, and a year since our lovely visit to Bali. My eightieth birthday had passed and time was racing by. Nearly forty years ago a medium had told me that I would live to be eighty four and although the women in my family generally lived well into their nineties, they had probably been healthier than I am. So every day must count. But, count how? Every morning I vow to be tidier, work harder, be kinder, get thinner, to nag myself less and to tackle the long list of “things to be done”, which is endless. When I complained to a wise man once, when Tom was very ill, that I seemed unable to cope he said, “No matter how much you fret and worry you can only do one thing at a time. Focus on that one thing, do it and forget about all the other things, they must take their turn.” It was good advice. I should take it.

Should I try harder every day to earn a seat in the stalls on “the other side”? What and who is over there? My friends generally are very knowledgeable about the Bible; they attend church, study and pray, what is more, they have faith. But none of them really know what is in store for us. It would be nice to be able to put right at least some of the wrongs I have done, but that would probably take another lifetime! I once wrote down all the things I could remember doing, or not doing, that were wrong or hurtful and then, as far as possible, put a monetary value on each incident. Saying “Hail Mary’s” would have been cheaper, but I figured I would not be here long enough to say them all. And anyway, I am not a Catholic so it probably would not have worked. The sum total was considerable, and I paid it off in monthly installments, secretly, to ordinary people in need. In a silly way, I hoped their pleasure at receiving an unexpected gift would fly out into the atmosphere and help negate the unhappiness I had caused. All sounds rather daft, but it helped put the sad stuff behind me. I now do this every New Year, instead of making and breaking New Year’s resolutions, and my misdeeds must now be decreased in accordance with my shrinking income. I am a stickler for paying my accounts.

Mysteries and secrets intrigue me. I want to know more about nature, tribal customs, magnetic forces, geopathic stress lines, the paranormal, all things one cannot see and touch. And I find history fascinating, all the millions of people who have gone before us and left their mark in some infinitesimal way. One day soon I will be history, and it will not matter at all that I died on a bad hair day, twenty pounds overweight with chipped fingernails and untidy cupboards. Where is all this leading to? Ah, yes, well I decided to stop being introspective, to cease worrying about things I don’t understand and to have an adventure. And that preamble was my way of trying to justify my decision to go to Russia, on a cruise of the lakes and rivers between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Yes, I know I said that I would not go on another holiday, not fly on another plane and not board another boat, but this boat would not be on the ocean and we would be getting off every day to see different places. The medium had also told me that in my last incarnation I had been a peasant! Maybe a Russian peasant, who knows?

“You will love it!” I was told by people who had done the same cruise. I really wanted to see Red Square, the Winter Palace, the cathedrals, the gold painted onion domes and all the wonderful treasures that had, somehow, survived the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. The brochure in the Travel Agent’s office was very colorful and seductive. The tour startedat  Heathrow and, on the way back, I would be able to visit my sisters, Jane was also now living in England, and best of all I could see my first great grand daughter, the beautiful Emily.

The flight from Cape Town was due to leave on the day of a big terrorist scare. Security was tight and my nice little transparent plastic carrier bag was confiscated and replaced with an ordinary plastic bag. There was a possibility that the plane might not take off, but fortunately it did and we endured the usual hours in a zero comfort zone. The following morning Heathrow was chaotic and I was so grateful to be an “assisted passenger”. My sister Jane, being terribly independent at eighty eight although only partially sighted, refuses to be an assisted passenger, preferring to get lost, to lose her luggage and nearly miss her connection, rather than sit in a wheelchair. I say this concession is the only advantage to being over eighty, and I do not object to being wheeled down long walkways and up and down lifts by someone who knows where they are going. I also like being whizzed through immigration and customs.

My luggage had been booked through from Cape Town to Moscow and so my assistant was able to wheel me through all the highways and byways of the airport and transfer me onto a bus which took me to another terminal, where I was met and taken straight to a little lounge reserved for assisted passengers. The ground hostess greeted me, and apologized because the plane for Moscow would be twenty minutes late taking off! Was that all? Two people who were on my SAA flight, had not checked their luggage right through, and were delayed so long claiming and clearing their cases that they missed the flight and were four days late joining the trip. Two other happy holiday makers lost their luggage completely and had to borrow clothes from fellow shipmates, which was difficult because one of them was very large! When I returned to Heathrow two weeks later, unclaimed suitcases were stacked in huge piles waiting to be reunited with their owners who, by now, were probably scattered throughout the world! Being an assisted passenger is the closest I will ever get to being treated like Royalty!

Going through security my book, the newspaper given to me by the hostess in the waiting lounge, and my ball point pen were taken from me. I wonder what happens to all those confiscated ball point pens. There is something I would like the security experts to explain to me. Why did they confiscate my eyebrow tweezers, because they represented a sharp object and were therefore dangerous, but allowed me to purchase a bottle in the duty free shop, take it on board as hand luggage where it could be smashed, thus providing me with a very dangerous weapon indeed! Taking away our pens meant that we could not complete the immigration forms required while airborne. I could have written mine in blood but I had nothing sharp! The crew had no pens to lend us, which I thought strange, but somehow, one of the passengers did have a Parker, and so this was passed round the cabin.

Russia is about four time zones away from England and so, by the clocks at least, it took something like eight hours to get there and twenty minutes to get back! Perhaps that is the secret of eternal youth; if you keep going backwards you will never grow old. Counting the very early breakfast served before arriving in London, we seemed to eat a breakfast every time we passed through a time zone. Most peculiar. Moscow airport was a madhouse and I was pleased to be in a wheelchair. The tall, very thin young man in charge of me did not speak a word of English (why should he?) but he took my passport with much smiling and we went straight to the head of all the queues. In the arrivals hall we found the tour guide who asked us to stay there with the other members of our party, while she waited, holding a board on the end of a pole, for the rest of her flock. The board had “Peter The Great” written on it in large letters and, during the days and tours that followed I learned not to lose sight of it. I was very grateful for the wheel chair because there were no seats or benches in the hall, and two hours passed before the tour guide gave up on her lost passengers and collected us. Despite going into one of my foreign language mime acts, my escort had refused to leave me to wait alone, but I did not know if he was afraid of losing me or the wheelchair. And so I sat and waited and observed. The first thing I noticed about the Russian men was their shoes; they wore the longest winkle pickers I have ever seen, the tips extending a good four inches beyond the foot. Looking very smart, young men wearing uniforms walked around in polished boots and, like my escort, they were just boys, and the high fronted hats made them look even taller. They were not at all threatening, in spite of the guns in their holsters; they could have been just playing soldiers. The women wore very high heels and very tight skirts, and they were all slim, well dressed and pretty. Everyone was very pale, but I would imagine there are few sun tanned Russians around.

The day was sunny and hot. Why did I think it always snowed in Russia? I had seen many Russian plays where the sun shone and now, beside me, was a florist's kiosk full of beautiful flowers. I could not do a financial conversion, but they seemed to be expensive because people tended to buy just one rose.

The tour guide, having given up on her lost passengers (which pleased the rest of the party because they were tired of standing) I was signed for and handed over like a package. My escort was more than happy with his gratuity, the tourist season lasts barely four months and every ruble counts. The drive from the airport to the boat was depressing. Hundred of residential tower blocks about twenty stories high filled the skyline, grey and bleak, with flaking paintwork, and generally the balconies were full of washing and rubbish with, occasionally a plant pot or two. In fact, the place screamed POVERTY and overcrowding. In some of the buildings one could see four different types of window frame which indicated the financial standing of the occupants, rotting wood, solid wood, brown plastic or white plastic. There were very few trees in sight but hundreds of hoardings, some home-made, some industrial and, naturally, the wording was all in Russian. Now, I can usually make a little sense out of French or German, but the Russian alphabet, like Arabic, is incomprehensible to me and nowhere did a European language appear as an option. One hardly needs a caption for Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken!

In contrast to the tower blocks, the Government and University Buildings, monuments and statues were beautiful. Unlike other countries where past dictators are pulled down from their pedestals, in Russia not all the statues of Lenin and Stalin have been removed because they were considered to be part of Russian history. In fact one tour guide joked, as we were looking at a statue of Lenin, that it was appropriate that his right hand was pointing towards the prison. I later saw many lovely parks in Moscow and people walked through them even quite late at night. It must be a way of escaping from those awful high rise buildings. It is surprising that so much money and effort is spent on growing all the beautiful flowers that can be enjoyed for such a short time each year. The tourist season in Russia lasts only three - four months, for the rest of the year the rivers and lakes are frozen or freezing so nothing moves. I guess there were about two hundred cruise ships doing the Moscow to St. Petersburg to Moscow route, averaging two to three hundred passengers each. The Cruises lasted for fifteen days, so each boat completes about eight trips a year. It is a very short season and I wonder if they go somewhere else during the winter. The crewmembers, cooks, dining room staff and tour guides must find alternative work during the winter. We had four resident tour guides on board, pretty girls - university students - who spoke excellent English, and local guides joined us on the coaches for some specialised tours. One of our guides told us that both her parents were doctors, but that their salaries were so poor they relied on the “envelopes” patients gave them to keep up any standard of living. I did not work out how the envelopes worked, whether they bought early appointments, or medication or preferential treatment - I don’t know.

My cabin was basic in the extreme, a double bed pushed against the wall, a small cupboard that was full of extra bedding with no room to hang clothes, and a tiny fridge. No chair, table or desk. There was also a very small shower cubicle, hand basin and toilet with instructions not to flush ANY paper down the loo. The water was not for drinking, or even for brushing ones teeth, and bottled water was very expensive on board. We quickly learned to buy bottled water on shore.

The Cruisers would be docked five or six deep and we had to walk through other ships to reach the landing stage. My impression was that the German and French ships were superior to “Peter the Great”. The majority of our passengers were Canadians, members of an oldies touring club, I was seated at a table with five Canadians, two middle aged ladies and a father with two grown up daughters. They were all good company. Meals, apart from self serve breakfasts, were awful and it was embarrassing when so many plates were handed back to the waitress with the food untouched. We were served a great deal of very boney, unrecognisable fish which I suspected was caught as we went along! They were quite disgusting. The waitresses were very pretty, charming and wore traditional costumes and we were served with a free glass of  - I'm not sure what, probably vodka, bur I am not qualified to comment.

The trip lasted fifteen days, three days in Moscow, four days in St. Petersburg and the rest cruising down rivers and across lakes, stopping off at little villages en route. Everywhere was packed with tourists, a large number being Chinese, or maybe Mongolian. Tours through museums and palaces had to be booked and timed, and we were monitored. In some places we were given covers for our shoes to protect the floors, which was a very good idea. On our first day out we went into Moscow to see Red Square, the Kremlin and the Armory. The “Red” in Red Square had nothing to do with the colour of communism, red means beautiful. The Square has been in use since the 13th century and was Moscow's gathering place for all state and religious festivals and was also used as a market place and the venue for executions. It is 1100. ft long and 230 ft wide but looks much larger. I had not booked for a tour of the Armory because I do not like guns and stuff, but the Armory actually housed the most magnificent museum of jewels, a collection, which was started in the 14th century, so I really missed a treat. Some tours were part of the “package” and some were extra.

Since 1547, all the tsars of Russia had been crowned in Moscow with a magnificent diamond, ruby and pearl crown and regalia, which I saw in another museum. The number of diamonds in this crown should have been blinding but, probably because of the old fashioned cut of the diamonds and the fact that they needed cleaning, the display was disappointingly dull.

I had expected to see one or two official Ladas being driven across Red Square, but I didn't. The roads around the city were jammed with traffic, everything from Beetles to Mercedes. The big car mystery is how  people can afford them on such poor wages, and where did the drivers park their vehicles? Riding in the coach one day, over half an hour out of town, we passed a large area where there were hundreds of shacks. For a minute, I thought it was an informal settlement, but the guide told me that those were all garages. Muscovites take a bus from their flats to the garages, take their car out for the day, return it to the garage and take a bus back home!

Russia is probably the greatest treasure trove in the world, and it is amazing how much survived the war. As the Germans were about to invade Stalingrad, trains were loaded with treasures which were sent to Siberia to be hidden, but not everything got away and the amount of treasure later looted or destroyed is unknown. Oh dear! This could develop into a book about Russia, the most fascinating country I have ever visited.

But before we leave Moscow, I must just tell you about the Moscow underground railway. You may have seen photographs of the special stations with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, pictures in mosaic tiles and the magnificent, life size bronze statues of “the workers”. But the afternoon we toured the underground there must have been a million Russians going home at the end of the day. We were not the only group of tourists trying desperately not to lose sight of our guide amongst the thousands of commuters. Guides all carried boards, or things on the top of poles, everything from teddy bears to huge sunflowers, ours was Peter the Great. Suddenly I saw our board being carried along by the crowd and onto a train and I knew that if I lost sight of it I would be completely lost, so I pushed through the crowds with all my strength and got squashed in the closing doors and was quite bruised!

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