St Petersburg, Helsinki & the trip to Aus
St Petersburg, Con't
We walked up Nevsky Prospect (the busy street where our hotel is located, as is most of the tourist attractions), down to the Hermitage. Overall, the city is more beautiful than Moscow- not as many rundown buildings, and just more interesting architecture throughout. We stopped into a McDonalds after our walk/ photo expedition, to poach some wifi. Even at 3pm it was so packed we were unable to find a seat. We found the directions to Zoom Cafe- a restaurant we’d noted in the area on trip advisor, and headed that way. We got a table and ended up staying for a couple hours – the atmosphere was very mellow- each patron gets a white piece of paper as their placemat, and there are pencil crayons on each table as well. We ordered soup, salad, a beer and a tea, and then didn’t see a waitress for probably at least an hour (other than to clear our dishes), until I nodded to one and she came over to take another order of more soups, and two beers. We headed back to our hotel around rush-hour, and watched some terrible Russian tv while I prepared the Moscow blog... is all dubbing just loudly talking over top of English?
We again walked the city, rather than try to navigate on the metro. We took a couple photos outside the Armenian Church and the Russian Museum (previously the Mikhaylovskiy Palace) and then at the Church on Spilled Blood. Outside the church was some beautiful music, which we soon discovered to be a middle aged man playing the flute; a gorgeous touch. Jeremy wasn’t interested in heading inside, so I made a quick tour, taking lots of photos and video. It was a gorgeous, albeit gawdy, gold and mosaic interior. Then I spotted a tourist market, my only regretted non-purchase to that time had been a “Santa Claus”. I spotted some, and the seller spoke excellent English- and told us that he’s actually Father Frost, and he traditionally has a spear to cast spells on the evil people, and rewards those who are good with gifts. She showed us a few; I explained we didn’t have much space, so she showed a few more. There was one that caught my eye- the summer price was 1700p (around $55), but she could offer it at 1350. I said we had to do some other shopping, and she told me to make an offer; 1200? We settled on 1250. Bartering in Rubles is tough- it seems like a big discount, but 100p is only around $3.40... Still, happy with the purchase, we ventured toward the Hermitage Art Museum. We got there around 1:30 and the line-up was fairly big, but it was a cool, windy day, and we weren’t sure what else to do, so we hopped in the line. A few people ahead of us was a young Russian couple, very much in “love” (even moreso than the typical European couple), they stood facing each other, with only a few inches between their faces. This lasted for about an hour. Finally we got in, and tried to navigate into the museum; the map was fairly useless, but we managed to get started. We enjoyed the Roman statues, which we saw near the beginning of our tour. We were awed and a bit disgusted with the overwhelming palace which housed the collection, as well as the Russian school groups that overran much of the exhibit. We persevered, and finished in just over 2 hours. We walked past Zoom Cafe, but there was no hope of getting in, so we stopped at Bogart’s Grand Cafe, which also had good ratings on TA. Being that we didn’t have lunch, we were dining far earlier than the typical crowd (6pm, done by 7); so the restaurant was essentially empty- we had a nice supper with excellent service, and then headed back to the hotel.
After breakfast in the hotel, we headed to Zoom Cafe for lunch. Then we made our way toward St. Isaacs church/ museum. We enjoyed a view of the city from the outside of the dome, then were awed by the size and gold detail inside. We took some other pictures of statues in the area, and headed back to the hotel. We headed back and, well Jeremy suggested that he upload Russian tv for those nights when having trouble sleeping... he was fast asleep by 8:30 (which may also have something to do with walking >10km each day). I went down to Tepemok, a local fast food company. I had another bowl of borscht, and gave the blini another try, I was happy I did, as it was much better than the previous one (thinner pastry, not so chewy).
We checked out and stored our bags. We had some printing to do to prepare for our arrival to Aus., so we headed to CafeMax- a very large (and cheap) web cafe with printing. We took a photos of the Burger King and KFC sign, before stopping into KFC for a bite to eat. We stopped again at Tepemok for another little snack before taking our bags on the metro to the airport. We successfully found the city bus that travels to the airport, and with no one with good enough English to help us, we got off at the first sign of the airport. We arrived at the terminal to find only 1 door open for everyone to go through initial airport security (bags going through the scanner, and people going through metal detectors), just to get into the airport. Once we got through, we were confronted with the sounds of masking tape... a lot of masking tape. All the travellers were securing their bags. These travellers were 95% male, and a couple tones darker- most of the flights were going to areas in the Eastern former USSR- Turkmenistan was leaving around the same time as us. Finally our ticket window was open. We were the first in line. The Russian at the ticket window spoke no English, other than “too many bags”- our cabin baggage was apparently over her limit (even though WestJet, Air Transat & Aeroflot hadn’t even blinked at it). We explained to another Rossiya worker who was standing beside the window that we had a 21 hr layover coming up in Helsinki, and needed the bags, which would be going through to BKK (although not to Sydney, which she could not provide a reason for either). We argued for a few minutes, and although the woman who spoke some English was helpful and sympathetic, the one behind the counter was not. We quickly reconfigured some bags, and carried on. (I’ll quickly back up the story and explain that we did not book with Rossiya, but with Finn Air... all the flight numbers had an AY code for Finn Air, even though they were resold to affiliated airlines, which we realized later). We went through the passport line-up for the longest look over of a passport/ person comparison I’ve seen, and then through another round of security (for the most intimate pat down either one of us have ever experienced). At least we didn’t have to go through the additional passport review before going through the gate (the officers just waved us through, they were dealing with the Turmenistites). A bit exhausted by the process, we hit the duty free for some cologne for Jer, an amber bracelet for me, and a beer to split before hitting the air. We boarded the plane, which was maybe 1/5 full (making the limited carry-on even less explainable). We had to find humour in the raggedy seats, duct-taped armrests and very thorough safety review... it was that or run off the plane screaming! 40 minutes later we were safely touching down in Helsinki, without incident. We took the Finn Air bus into town, bought a 24 hour metro pass, and ventured to our hostel, transferring trams just outside of the Cathedral, so I ran back to take a few night photos. Not wanting to venture out after that, we shared a pizza in the hostel. We decided to split “one more beer”, before finally making conversation with a girl at a neighbouring table who kept looking at us like she wanted to chat. She was from Switzerland, but living in Helsinki, trying to learn Finnish so she could work as a nurse. Very well travelled, we ordered another round of beers, and 2 shots of a traditional Finnish liqueur, Salmari, which was made in-house. It was just as I’d read, hard to describe, but kind of a salty liquorice taste. Unfortunately, the bar tender had to open for breakfast, so at 12:55pm we ended up having to chug our beers and then head to bed. We made our way up to our room, and laughed at the Japanese neighbours stereotypically giggling next door... not so laughable was the ones vomiting in the bathroom as we got ready for bed.
We woke up early and left the hotel by 9, and decided to head to Market Square right away, after stopping again at Senate Cathedral for some photos. We found a place for breakfast down at the market, and shared fabulous potatoes and sausage, and even better “pancakes” (more like crepes) with strawberry jam and whipped cream... so good we had another order of the pancakes (only 4Euros). We did a bit of browsing there, and then venturing on. We saw as many of the local sights as possible; the soccer and Olympic stadiums, Passio Musicae (a unique “statue” to commemorate composer Jean Sibellus), the National Museum and Parliament. Then we stopped at the post office to mail our collectables from Russia back home (it was a bit of a shit-show and we ended up spending about a half an hour in line behind people who were trying to decide on the spot how many and what type of commemorative stamps they wanted, Christmas ornaments etc.) We’d planned to stop at Restaurant Zetor- a unique Finnish experience, according to the Helsinki tour information, but we had difficulty finding it, and decided to head back to grab our bags. Zetor was supposed to be right be main station (which is where we were to get back on the Finn Air bus), we found it, but time would be tight, so we just headed back to the aiport. We ate their and uploaded photos etc. before heading to our gate. We were really happy with our plane, it seemed brand new, and there were pillows, blankets and water waiting for us at our seats. Unfortunately, just prior to take-off they found a problem with one of the engines, so we sat for an hour while they got it sorted. The flight was comfortable, with the exception of me spilling a tea all over both of us (mostly me) after supper. We enjoyed watching Hangover 2, which we’d been meaning to see. We only slept 2-3 hours each, and headed soon landed in Bangkok. We got in just after daylight, and were able to see the devastation from the air- they’ve been flooded for over a month now, and it was very evident- with more water than land being seen in some parts.
We collected our bags and tried to find the Qantas airlines to check them again- unfortunately, our flight was the first one, so they wouldn’t open for a few hours. We wandered around like zombies, trying to get wifi (I was able to get it easily in the baggage terminal, but that was about it), trying to find a comfortable place to sit (we finally realized they were all located in the terminal after going through security) and finally finding some decent Thai food and much needed beer. After having our faces burned off from spicy green curry, we wandered back to the airline check-ins and we happy to see Qantas/ British Airlines open. They told us that if we checked more than 1 bag each we would be charged 4000 baht (110Euros), but they allowed me to take my backpack as a check-on (after unstrapping the extra bags from the handles). That made for 5 carry-ons (again, making the Rossiya situation seem like a complete joke) and a huge savings. We went through security, and managed to find a comfortable place to sleep for a while, until the Emirates flight-goers overtook the area. We finally boarded the plane and, although it was an older 747, it had all the amenities of the Finn Air flight. We were alone in our row of 3 (thanks to me doing some shifty on-line check-in where I put us in the aisle and window seats, leaving the middle seat open). Again, with the time-change we got into Sydney around 7am. We got through security (multiple drug dogs later- unsure if that’s the standard treatment, or just those coming from BKK), and were extremely happy to be at our "new home".