Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Wednesday 3–Friday 5 September 2014

You could say we weren’t quite ready for the Vodkatrain to finish when we got to St Petersburg, so we decided to extend it to Finland. We got up early on Wednesday morning to get to our train bound for Helsinki, which we managed to find despite the complicated and contradictory instructions of various Russian train station employees. The efficient, tidy, noiseless comfort of the Allegro train was a pleasant surprise after the rattly old hunks we’d been on for the last three weeks, so I pretty much slept the whole time. No scenery for me!

Waiting for us at the other end in true Vodkatrain honcho style was our friend Heli, who’d graduated from being one of our fellow trans-Siberian travellers to tourguide who very kindly showed us around her home city and put us up in her guest bedroom.

Our train at Helsinki Station.

Obviously I’d had a ball in Russia and enjoyed every moment of it, so I was not prepared for the buoyant sense of relief that overtook me the moment I set foot inside the Finnish train station. Suddenly everything was clean and safe and easy! Everyone spoke perfect English! Everything made sense! We were back on the sensible numbers of the euro, as opposed to the hundreds and thousands of the rouble, tugrik and yuan. We’d survived Russia! We’d survived the Vodkatrain!

We took a bus to Heli’s apartment to drop off all our stuff, then set off for an introductory walking tour around the city. We had a brief pitstop at Heli’s old work – a children’s hospital – so she could pick up some things, then walked through a ridiculously verdant park featuring a cool monument to Sibelius, the Finnish composer, where we stopped for tea and some Finnish delicacies at a quirky little café called Regatta.

All the apartments in Heli’s building had their occupants’ surnames on them!

From there we continued on through the park to see a Finnish ‘beach’, which didn't quite meet our exacting Australian standards, and then into town. From what we saw Helsinki seemed like a very liveable place – clean; friendly people; quiet streets; nice atmosphere; walkable, if a little on the expensive side. It happened to be the first week of uni while we were in the city, so everywhere we went there were bands of students roving around, all wearing different variations of the same badge and patch-encrusted pants, different colours issued by different faculties. It struck me as something Australian eighteen-year-olds would be ‘too cool’ to ever embrace, but the Finns seemed to revel in the fun. Heli even told us if you saw someone who’d swapped the bottom of their pants with someone else it meant they’d hooked up, but we didn’t see any of that.

Heli led us to a cool church hewn straight out of a rock, then to a supermarket so we could pick up ingredients for our picnic on the fortress island of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Swedes to protect themselves from the Russians in 1748.

Some interesting-looking pond scum.

A flattering photo of Helsinki beach.

The rock statue.

An amusing statue by the docks.

Heli, Tilly and I on the ferry.

The path of the ferry was littered with these little islands with one or two shacks on them (see the short video at the end of the post for some footage).

The island.

Basically just look like we were stalking this old lady, now.

We hadn’t been on the island long before we crossed paths with Daniel, Zac and Nathan, the three Aussies living in London who’d done the Vodkatrain trip with us. We knew they’d be in Helsinki at the same time as us, but it was still a pretty big coincidence to run into each other like that. Heli gave them some quick tips, we arranged to meet for drinks that night while she was at soccer, and we parted ways.

Vodkatrain reunion selfie!

Beautiful Suomenlinna.

Walking around the old battlements and cannons. The hills look like hobbit houses.

Heli led us down through the tunnels to the spot where we ate our delicious feast of chips, dip, crusty bread, avocado, juice and chocolate.

After lunch we wandered back to the ferry and headed back to Heli’s place. She left for work and we lazed around for a while watching a crappy television show on MTV (Heli professes to be an avid fan of Australian MasterChef, which apparently airs there two years behind us), then left to catch the bus and tram into the cool area of town to have some dinner and meet the boys for drinks.

We’d seen a veggie place on an outdated tourist map we picked up from Heli, but when we got there it was closed down. Luckily another one (Just Vege) had since opened up across the road, and we finally got the veggie burgers we’d been craving for the last few weeks (at a steep price, though!)

After that we had a few beers with Nathan, Daniel and Zac in a gruff-looking but cheap bar Heli had recommended, then moved on elsewhere to a place filled with taxidermy animals, gossiping and reminiscing about Vodkatrain times. While we were in the second bar, a group of four off-their-faces Finns swaggered in sloshing gigantic drinks around, and proceeded to snort lines of cocaine off the table before they were swiftly booted out of the place.

Poor guy.

We left at around midnight and got home safely, but we heard later that the same couldn’t be said for Nathan, who somehow sprained his ankle on the way back to their place.

The next day Heli was at work again and we were keen to take it easy and do some organisation stuff on the internet somewhere, so we went into town to another veggie place called Zucchini, where they do a great big hearty, healthy meal every day and you just take a plate of whatever it is. It was really busy, so we were lucky to get a table, but we could almost feel the nourishment of all the vegetables and vitamin-rich grains soaking into our bodies after so long eating crap every day. After that we wandered around a bit more, saw the church and the markets, found a few souvenirs, and then occupied a corner of a Starbucks for a few hours, planning, answering emails, uploading photos and writing blogs. It was here where Til and I got the great news that the book of essays we had both contributed to as part of the Transnational Story Hub project we’ve been working on for the last four years (since the first time we came to Europe! I even wrote about it last time) had won the Australian National University Centre for European Studies publishing prize, and would be going on for peer review and publishing as an ebook!

Fresh fruits at the markets.

Once Heli finished work we got in touch and met up in the centre of town to find somewhere for dinner. She led us to a nice, cheap bar with a bunch of great veggie options and sat with us for a while before heading off to a Couchsurfers meeting at an Aussie bar, inviting us to join her once we were done. We sampled some local favourite drinks ('long drink' or lonkero), then tried to meet up with her, but we went to the wrong Aussie bar (who would've thought a city with a population of 600,000 would need two!?) and we had to get up early for our plane the next morning anyway, so we just ended up going back to Heli’s place.

Til modelling a pair of Hipster glasses we found in a park built on a cemetery from the plague. Speaking of it, she looks like Alice from MasterChef 2012.

The wrong bar.

Who would pay for imported VB, anyway? Except maybe the odd nostalgic expat, I guess.

We had a farewell chat wth Heli when she got back, then turned in for an early night.

At the airport the next morning we accidentally attempted to smuggle a big pair of scissors and our Swiss army knife through security. I would’ve expected some harsh questions at least, given that we each had a different weapon concealed in our carry-on luggage, but all we received was a very Finnish polite apology.

Our plan had always been to do an annular tour around Europe, so it would’ve made a lot of sense geographically to continue on from St Petersburg anti-clockwise through Finland into Scandinavia, but not so much meteorologically. We wanted to flee south to squeeze as much summer out of Europe as possible, and return north later for a spectacularly cold winter and northern lights, but we couldn’t get any non-dodgy flights out of St Petersburg, so Helsinki became the point at which we awkwardly changed direction to start going clockwise, from Dubrovnik north. But we’re glad it was, because one of the two non-Australian nationalities represented in our Vodkatrain group happened to be Finnish, and it meant we got to spend a great two days with our new friend for free!

Check out the few snippets of footage I took during our short stay in Helsinki below:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The end of the vodkatrain and disaster in st petersburg

Sunday 31 August–Wednesday 3 September 2014

God and guns

Waking up as our train pulled into St Petersburg on Sunday morning we all agreed it'd been the most comfortable train of the whole journey, and we'd all had an amazing sleep (except Heli, for some reason). It was a weird feeling going to sleep in Moscow and waking up in St Petersburg. I kept forgetting I was actually in St Petersburg because it didn't feel like we'd travelled there.

I caught a glimpse of our new honcho, another Dmitri, from the train as we disembarked, and instantly knew he was a musician, which he was. He escorted us via minibus to our hostel, then led us on a walk to a cafe for breakfast. After that we started a bit of a tour around the city, the first stop of which was the Church on Spilled Blood, a beautiful cathedral built on the site of Tsar Alexander II's assassination as a place of mourning.

Anika and Nathan photobomb my shot.

The stunning exterior.

The ornate interior.

Every wall was adorned with breathtakingly intricate mosaics.

From there we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress and the courtyard of the Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps, where we saw Russian weaponry dating from the Middle Ages to the Cold War. 

Small head next to big head: Mihail Chemiakin's odd Monument to Peter I, the founder of St Petersburg.

A man dressed as an executioner casually watches a musical performance at the fortress.

Modern weapons.

Medieval weapons. They just don't make them like they used to. So much effort!

An unexpectedly arduous/soporific boat ride

After that we wandered around some more and decided to take a boat back to our hostel and see the city from the canals. If only it were so simple. They told us we'd have to wait for about twenty minutes for the next boat, which was okay, but then it started to rain. Then when the boat did finally arrive, it was subjected to a random police check, which took even more time. We stood pathetically on the dock, huddled under what few umbrellas we had between us and blankets they'd brought out from the boat, waiting to board.

When we eventually got on, the warmth and gentle rocking of the boat, the sights slowly sliding by and the time delay between the tourguide's trivia and Dmitri's (admirable) real-time translation conspired to put us all to sleep, as you can tell from our expressions in the picture below: 

The rain kinda killed the mood. See the video at the end of this post for some footage from the ride.

Mexican, mojitos and museum mondayitis

When we got back to the hostel we split up to go for lunch. For ages, Anika, Emma, Til and others had been pining for Mexican, and we happened to have a Mexican place on the corner near our hostel, so they finally got it. It was a great feed, but Heli and I both objected strongly to the notable omission of guacamole from the menu.

Refreshing mojitos.

Over lunch, we learned that museums (the main attractions in St Petersburg), were typically closed on Mondays in Russia (and Europe), and the group's last day in St Petersburg and therefore the last full day of the Vodkatrain trip was going to be Monday. Sadly, this meant the group had missed its chance to see Peterhof Palace, the Hermitage, and many other highlights due to bad timing, which was really disappointing. Luckily for Til and I, we had an extra day in the city after everyone else left.

Russia in miniature

The next day, Isabell, Chris, Anika and Emma went to the Peterhof gardens even if they couldn't go inside. With all the main attractions closed the rest of us were forced to be a bit inventive, so we ended up going to the Grand Market Russia Interactive Museum, which featured a model of Russia in miniature that spanned an entire room.

When we arrived it appeared we might've made a mistake and come to an oversized toyshop, judging by the exterior and the queues of school children wending about, but the model was actually really cool. It was made up of different sections representing different regions from all over Russia: mountains and forests, cities, oceans, farmland, everything. Cars and trains moved around the whole thing constantly, there were buttons you could press to interact with the features in different ways, and it alternated between day and night every couple of minutes. See the photos below, and the video at the end of the post for footage.

George and Daniel dance around while awaiting us on the way to the museum.

Night falls over a snowy region as children watch in the distance.

A tennis match.


Someone shines a light in a shipwreck.

A hot air balloon takes off.

Pigs mating in someone's backyard.

A horrible giant emerges from the mountains.

The impressive command centre making sure all the trains run smoothly.

More sightseeing

After that we had some traditional Russian pastries for lunch, then set off for some more sightseeing, namely the Bronze Horseman and the Palace Square.

The Bronze Horseman, another statue of Peter the Great, whose name comes from an eponymous and celebrated poem by Alexander Pushkin. Supposedly the rock his horse is rearing on is called the Thunder Stone, and was carved from the largest rock ever moved by humans (on the insistence of Catherine the Great).

Guards Corps Headquarters in the Palace Square, the site of Bloody Sunday and the October Revolution.

The Winter Palace.

Afterwards everyone aside from Til, Dmitri and I headed back to the hostel, while we carried on to see the Blue Mosque. We thought we'd be able to go inside, but when we got there we realised it wasn't really a tourist attraction so much as a continuing place of worship, so we didn't want to go in. The exterior was still impressive, though.

The last night

That night was the last of the Vodkatrain trip, so of course we had to celebrate. Originally the plan was to go out together for a nice dinner, then for a few drinks at a bar where we'd be able to talk, but that all went out the window once we started drinking at the hostel and got a bit raucous.

George's beloved hat Marshal Sanchez (on the left) had been missing since Irkutsk, and this was the way the boys chose to return it to him – hiding amongst the other exotic hats that decorated the walls of the hostel common room (see the video).

I found this cushion featuring one of AJ-47's less favoured nicknames.

We force Dmitri to prove his Russian-ness and do a vodka shot.

Setting out.

Instead of a restaurant, we somehow ended up in this weird Russian pasta/pancake fastfood shop, sitting separately in booths all over the place. Anika in particular was very drunk, and at one point while we were waiting in the absurdly long queue she scooped some ice from the counter and ran to put it down Daniel's shirt.

Anika being shushed.

Sober faces.

They had these delicious-looking mushrooms that went on the pancakes, but I wondered if I'd be able to get them with pasta instead. I asked the guy who took my order and he just looked at me blankly and said 'No.' I said, 'Really? Why? I'll pay extra.' And he just gave me the same look and said, 'Sorry, no.' 

Despite my troubles, George somehow sweet-talked the same guy into putting some of every topping in his pancake, but the guy also then tried to charge him an exorbitant amount for it, as you can see from George's incredulous laugh here.

From dinner it was a short walk to Fidel Bar, where Til ended up getting into a D&M with an Oxbridge-educated, unabashed Russian nationalist and some of the others danced like crazy on the d-floor (see the video).

Dmitri and Zac.

The last photograph of Anika's bag ever taken.

Self-portraiture by Nathan and Ajay.

At some point in the madness Anika set her bag down under a seat for five minutes, and when she came back for it, it was gone. At first I didn't quite understand the severity of the situation, but then someone told me that not only did it contain her camera, wallet and phone, but also her passport and it really sunk in. For a few minutes we turned the club down upside down, looking in bins and bathrooms and under tables, and asking staff and patrons if they'd seen it. I decided I'd take a look around outside in case there was anyone suspicious hanging around down the road, or someone had looted the valuables and chucked the bag in a bin or something, but to no avail.

When I came back in Anika and Emma were gone and everyone was hanging around a bit stunned. We weren't sure if there was anything we could do, but Til and I decided to follow them back to the hostel in case we could help somehow. Understandably Anika was pretty distraught – Russia is not the place to be without a passport. I'm pretty sure we checked every bin on the way home, just in case. 

At the hostel the guy at the desk, Michael, was a massive help, even letting Anika use his phone to make international phone calls when mine ran out of credit. It became clear that she'd need a police report if she wanted to file an insurance claim, so Michael called us a taxi and offered to come with us to translate to the police, rousing another of his colleagues to man the desk in his absence. 

At a police station around the corner, Michael asked some officers sitting in a car outside whether we'd be able to make the report there, which they said he could. We went in, but the officer at the window was clearly not happy to see us. Michael exchanged some terse words with him, and he made us wait for a long time, during which two young guys were escorted inside and said something in Russian. Michael told us they'd said, 'This is our life.' Finally the officer told us we'd have to make the report at the station in the area where it happened, so we turned back to the hostel to make another report.

On the way there Michael told us he'd asked if we could just make the report there to save us going all the way back, and just say that the bag had been stolen in this district, and apparently the officer threatened to arrest him for misinformation. He also told us a story about a guy who went to turn in an iPhone he found and ended up being put in jail for four years!

We took another taxi to the right police station this time, where Anika and Michael went to be interviewed while Emma and I waited behind. It took them about an hour, so at around 4am we all went across the road to get some consolatory Maccas. Anika told us the interviewer couldn't have cared less about her predicament, and spent most of the time she was talking looking at his Facebook feed. She also said that they had a lot of reports about theft at Fidel Bar, and that they suspected some of the staff may be in on it.

We finally got back to the hostel just as Daniel and George were arriving, who told us the night had gone downhill after we'd left, so we hadn't missed much. Michael was able to take over from his sleepy replacement at the front desk, while the rest of us ate our Maccas in the common room and headed to bed. 

The summer palace

I woke up the next morning to Chris and Isabell saying goodbye, just in time to offer them a sleepy farewell. We joined the others in the kitchen for breakfast and got ready to go. We said our goodbyes to everyone else, who'd be gone by the time we got back from our excursion, and headed for Peterhof.

Once we got there we ended up having two 'BIG' portions of chips at the fast food places outside the gardens for lack of preparation and want of any other vegan options. Then we headed in.

This cheeky girl was helping herself to the waffle icecream cones.

And this little dude hopped right up to our chips.

Our first view of the palace gardens.

The grand cascade, dotted with golden statues of Greek mythological figures.

The slippers you have to put on your shoes to enter the palace.

No photos allowed inside the palace (of course), but here's one I snuck as an indication of the absurd levels of splendour to be found there.

Needless to say, both the inside and the outside were marvels. They don't call Peterhof the Russian Versailles for nothing (see the video for some footage). After we went inside we spent more time exploring the gardens:

The long escalator ride back up to the surface on the way home. St Petersburg has some of the deepest metro stations in the world.

Eventually we came back to the hostel to meet the unfortunate Anika, our only remaining fellow Vodkatrainer in St Petersburg, for dinner (which she kindly shouted as thanks for helping her out the night before). She'd had a bastard of a day rushing back and forth around Moscow trying to get things in order. She would have to travel back to Moscow to get a temporary passport from the Australian embassy there, but of course you need a passport to do anything in Russia, including boarding trains and buying train tickets, so that was also going to be an ordeal. Luckily it worked out and, though she missed her flight to Iceland that day, she was able to make it there to meet up with her friends a little later. 

After dinner we went to buy her a cheap Russian phone and simcard, which spoke Russian every time you typed in a number, and then went back to the hostel. We said our goodbyes and she went to the station with the other hostel guy from the night before, the one who'd filled in for Michael, and who'd been taking her around the city all day. We knew she'd want to thank both of the guys but wouldn't have the chance to buy a card or a gift, so on the way back from Peterhof we'd stopped off to buy a card and a few pieces of cake as small thank yous on her behalf. 

After that we went to pack our bags for our very early train the next morning to Helsinki, and that was our time in St Petersburg and the end of our Vodkatrain experience. It was really sad to be leaving everyone behind after such an awesome, intense experience together, and especially ending on such a weird note. But we already had plans to meet up with some of the group, and I'm sure we'll cross paths with the rest at some point. Either way, thanks guys, for an awesome journey!

 Emma and Anika had been shooting a video throughout the whole trip of them (and sometimes us) dancing in all different locations, which Anika has since edited together, and it's well worth checking out. Below you can also see my video from St Petersburg, which is much less worth your time (haha):