I’d been able to find such a good route from Moscow to St Petersburg thanks to a GPS file that I’d found online. There was a small problem with the next leg. The blogger had mentioned being forced to take a train for one stop, and my googling wasn’t finding much about how frequently the train rain. There was also the problem that while it was dry when I set off, there were some impressive rain clouds around St Petersburg that seemed to be intent on heading towards me. A seperate blog I found mentioned a possible muddy path that I didn’t see on my GPS map, but would hopefully get me through without the train. Even the intercity trains between Moscow and St Petersburg only seemed to run a few times a day, so I wasn’t hopeful that one joining two hamlets was going to be running when I got there.
On the positive side, the ride north took me back on small roads with the odd pretty farmhouse to entertain me until I made it near to the train line. I found the turn off to the dirt track, and it started quite nicely. It was about 5km before the train station, and I hoped it’d get me the whole way through. The wonderful track through a forest dead-ended into a fence with a big no-entry sign, but an open gate seemed like it was worth trying and I found what was possibly a work camp. There was one guy wandering around, but he paid no attention of me as I pushed my bike through and into the forest on the other side. What had been a track before turned into little more than a trail, but it was genearlly possible to guess which way it went. To make it more fun, the clouds that had been threatening for a few hours finally emptied themselves and got me soaked.
There was one stage where the trail split in two. I guessed wrong at first. I know this because after about 20m the trail become a muddy bog which I sank into up to my knees. Even if that was the right way, there was no way I was going to get my bike through so I doubled back and tried the other trail. It had parts that were just as ugly, but crucially there was also a bit of a side path that ran parallel which was maybe OK for hiking but meant breaking a fair amount of branches as I pushed my bike through and scratched my legs up. There’d have been more photos, but the rain compunded my lack of enjoyment to mean there was no way I was going to record the moment until near the end when the trail had widened considerably but still had large bogs in it.
This was followed by a 50km ride to the next town, through cold pouring rain, where I knew there was a fire station. I ended up riding 175km, a fair way longer than my 100km average, and it was the knowledge that I’d been welcomed so warmly at the previous three fire stations that kept me going. Arriving in this town, the sun had set and while I was walking across the parking area in front of the station I met a firemen who had just come back from a shopping run and was carrying a couple of bottles of vodka and some other alcohol to an expectant colleague. I explained myself to him, and he went off to speak to someone else, but tragedy struck as I heard nilsya, not possible. Being wet and dirty I looked at my GPS and the only other thing that jumped out was a single Orthodox church. Fortunately I arrived as the gates were being closed, so I could explain my situation and… nilsya. Another rejection. My plan to find somewhere nice to sleep had failed, and so I found a small road leading out of town. A couple of kilometres down it I headed into the muddy forest and set my tent up, knowing that it’d be raining and trying to clean myself up to not make everything inside the tent muddy.
Even though it was bucketing down, my tent stayed dry, although my socks were still wet when I woke up. On the positive side I was only 75km from St Petersburg, and so a shower would be mine shortly. I’d found a place to stay on Couchsurfing, but it wasn’t until the following day so after finding a petrol station to kill a few hours in while the rain continued, I got to St Petersburg and checked into a hostel. The first time I’d paid to sleep since Peru. They had a fantastic shower, and I spent the evening catching up on some things, in no rush to sightsee in St Petersburg as I would have a couple of days to do that after. Unfortunately in the evening I got a pretty abject sleep. At first I thought it was a couple of mosquitoes, but considering I had 30+ impressively inflamed bites on me the next day I think I’d paid £6 for the privilege of being eaten by bedbugs.
The city of St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great, but was definitely not named after him, or so some people liked to claim. The story goes that it was founded on St Peter’s Day and so got that name which just coincidentally was the name of the emperor as well. Peter the Great spent years travelling around Europe, and especially fell in love with Amsterdam. Convenient considering just like Amsterdam he decided to found St Petersburg on some seriously damp ground. People sometimes call it The Venice of the North, but the canals of the city are definitely designed with Amsterdam in mind as Peter never visited Venice, or possibly Italy. His time in Europe motivated him to have the city built in this completely non-Russian way, and the city definitely has that feel and look. Jonathan Dimbleby, whose book I mentioned before, finds the city completely distasteful and fake, and part of me can understand that. He also talks about how Peter did his best to Europeanise those in the city at the time, which was met by great resistance and resentment.
My favourite couple of stories about the city were both about the same French architect. He was invited over, and offered huge wealth, and so came to build the column in front of the Winter Palace. It has a very minimal foundation, and is impressively tall, to the extent that locals were scared to go to the square it was placed in because they were fearful that it would fall over on them. To combat this, the architect took his dog on daily walks around the column, but it proved unsuccesful and it was avoided. His other building was welcomed more warmly, the Kazan cathedral, named because it’s centrepiece is an icon found in the city of Kazan, further east where there was a large battle against the Golden Horde (the Mongols). Before construction started, an old wise lady/witch/soothsayer told him that he would die once the cathedral was completed. Instead of taking a few years as expected, it took 40 years to build. One month later, the architect died. He was buried in France and his body is now only visited by Russians as no French people have any idea who he is.
My favourite place in the city, is the Fortress of Paul & Peter. This is because of a statue of Peter. There is a very famous one of Peter on a horse, riding a wave. He looks very heroic and powerful on this horse. A death mask was made when he died, and so the statue in the fortress was built to look accurate. What an ugly bugger. As a tall and thin guy, I shouldn’t criticise, but he took it to extreme levels. He was well over 2 metres/7 feet tall, and his arms and legs had little more to them than pipe cleaners. The best part however was his head. It seemed to be about the same size as a cantaloupe melon which combined with his lack of a neck made it look like it was disappearing into his body.