Thursday, 3 January 2008

Beetrootin' across the USSR

Moscow NYE
Originally uploaded by patfoz.

During a tumultuous period where I was constantly tossing up whether or not to quit the UK , I decided that I definitely needed to have done some more travelling before heading home with my tail between my legs. One of the results was a more or less spontaneous decision to sign up for a trip across Russia over Christmas and New Years with some buddies from the ABS.

Choosing a destination on a whim like this can be extremely liberating - you have no overblown expectations, you have no real preconceptions about how good it should or will be, but on the flip side, you have absolutely no idea of what you're getting in to. It wasn't until I'd already handed over my massive wad of savings that I found out Russian winters often dip below -30C, and that there is still a major issue with tourists being ripped off by corrupt police. Nevertheless, a little research (any guidebook) and preparation (new thermals and snow gear) had me excited about peering through the rusty iron curtain.

The trip kicked off in St Petersburg, which completely lived up to everyone's reviews as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The Hermitage was even more extensive than I was expecting, and after half-a-day staggering between the halls crammed with art, I was very much ready to have a culture detox by checking out the freaks in the Kuntskamera. Sublime to the ridiculous.

In a similar vein, following one night spent at the ballet seeing a modern interpretation of Giselle (which no-one could follow - I blame the suitcase of babies and the fact the duke and the dancer looked alike), we saw 'Feel Yourself Russian!', a cheesy show of folk music and dance. Despite the cheese factor, it was a fun night out and the Cossack dancing is mighty impressive. That was followed by a night on the turps in an underground bar. By the time we surfaced, the mild winter had turned to blizzard and no one could remember how to get back to the hotel. Luckily the vodka fairies were looking out for us.

Next stop on our Russian odyssey was Novgorod, birthplace of the Russian nation. Legend has it that the town came to prominence when a local fisherman named Sadko caught a magic fish that taught him to become a percentage-taking middle-man... Sadko is honoured in the highest possible fashion in Russia - there's a vodka named after him.

For me, our brief stay in Novgorod was the highlight of the trip. Unlike St Petes and Moscow, it is a proper Russian country town, surrounded by bleak fields and buffeted by ice-cold winds roaring across the plains. It's also where we saw a Russian man so drunk he couldn't defend himself when his wife started beating his head against the wall. Yes, Novgorod showed us the real Russia!

Moscow was something else again. A huge metropolis that could be any other, except that everything isn't quite right. Public transport that runs efficiently and on time. Huge mega-clubs where the men are more interested in actually dancing than watching the topless dancing girls. Mullets in fashion. We braved the crowds and military cordons to get into Red Square for the NYE fireworks, and for the first time in a long time, I didn't find it disappointing. Just being in such an iconic place, with such a huge crowd made it all worthwhile. And we weren't even drinking vodka!

Like the trip in Spain, this trip was made all the better by the people sharing the journey. Thanks to Cass and Craig for letting me tag along, and to all the other Beetrooters for making it a great week. Funnily enough, as soon as I touched down in London, I started feeling completely miserable again...

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