Getting overwhelmed in Saint Petersburg

I was very nervous when our bus approached the border between Finland and Russia.

Do I have all the documents? How will they treat me? Will they let me in? I kept imagining the worst horror stories I could think of. I had never been to Russia and western media never really painted such a good image of it, especially now with the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

We rolled into our first border crossing and were ordered to leave the bus to have our passports checked. I thought that this already was the Russian checkpoint, but was left a bit confused as I didn’t get any stamps in my passport. It was only later I realised that it was the Finnish one we just went through. After 15min at the tax refund booth we continued our journey towards the Russian checkpoint which looked more like what I had imagined, as it looked a bit more run down and utilitarian than the Finnish counterpart.

There we had to leave the bus again, but this time with our entire luggage in tow. I took the last spot in the queue and I seemed to be the only non-russian, as everyone else went through passport control in no time. It was my turn. I had expected a grumpy looking 40 year old guy to check my passport but it was a young woman in her mid-twenties, nevertheless she looked very serious.

After a gazillion of stamps, she gave me back my passport and I was through. “It wasn’t that bad” I said to myself and returned to the bus. We continued our way towards Saint Petersburg on roads that were in pretty bad shape, considering I just came from Finland, where everything seemed pretty impeccable. Another thing I noticed straight away was how reckless people were driving, one overtaking each other with only split seconds before oncoming traffic and it wasn’t just cars but trucks as well. In one instance we passed by a huge truck, and once I looked over to the driver, I saw him with one leg up on the dashboard, “I didn’t just see that” I thought to myself.

We made it safely to Saint Peterburg, although a car nearly crashed into the side of the bus the moment when we turned into the coach station. I was slightly terrified when I left the bus as that little bit of safety was gone and I found myself in the middle of the Russian chaos. I went straight to the chash point and got some money out in order to pay for my metro ticket that I needed to get to the hostel. I had been preparing myself for this by learning some Russian on the bus and with a mix of hand gestures I managed to get 10 transit tokens, which should last me for the next 5 days.

As with any new and unfamiliar place the hostel proved to be the first place to establish a safety bubble from which I start to explore the city. With each day I grew more confident and ventured further out to see the many palaces and parks that were only reachable by taking public buses.

In the short time I spent in Saint Petersburg I had seen mare palaces, gold and art than in all my previous trips combined. One of the things that struck me most however were the evening prayers in the orthodox churches as people seem to be very deeply religious and took their worshiping very seriously. When I left Saint Petersburg for Moscow I felt much more at ease to be in Russia, as every cliche and prejeduice I picked up on the way there, got eroded away very quickly. Now I felt ready to face Moscow and the rest of Russia.