Saturday, 23 June 2007

Day 6 - St Petersburg and Coach to Tallinn

Our final day in Russia was spent in an extremely chilled manner, we only had the morning in the city as at midday we were to get to the main coach station to catch a bus to Tallinn.

We actually ended up spending most of the time we had left in our coffee shop base.

Now back in Moscow myself and Jeppe were having a discussion on the Metro and to show that I agreed I put my thumb up like we do all the time. A young couple who saw me do this started laughing, and Keith was convinced it was because a thumbs up sign is interpreted differently in Russia and it means "up yours" in the same way the middle finger means here. He basically convinced me that I shouldn't put the thumbs up in Russia and I was paranoid about doing it, and it was the subject of much mirth for the Russia leg of the trip at least (jokes about the Fonz and Jean Claude Van Damme not being popular because their trademark signs were inciting hatred etc.). Now imagine my surprise therefore when I saw this sign not far from our hotel. It turns out that whilst Keith was right if we were talking about some Middle Eastern countries, in Russia it means "awesome" so I was OK to do it. Keith! I hate you :P

Anyway we were met by our driver (the last one) who took us to the coach station.

This is the Egyptian bridge, originally built in 1825 but rebuilt in 1955 after it collapsed.

For the duration of the trip all our drivers had got the name details wrong for Jeppe.

This is Balticskaya Station, one of the main train stations out of the city and also the pick up point for our coach that would take us to Tallinn.

This was the second most stressful point of the trip (the first comes later) as it wasn't obvious where the coach would pick us up from. So far we had relied on not needing our city agents but I had to call her twice to make sure we were in the right place and nothing was astray; both times she ensured I had nothing to worry about, and I should have listened but if you're trip organiser you fear the worst until said coach turns up. So to avoid over people going through my panic should you ever be inclined to try this trip (I've not put you off) then the pick up place is behind the tree. There's a yellow sign that says Eurolines, a sign we managed to overlook on a number of occasions.

and here is the coach. The coach journey was going to be quite a few hours (6 or so) and we had two drivers, one for Russia and one for Estonia.

This is the route the coach was taking.

The Russian driver drove like an idiot. We nearly crashed on a couple of occasions when he over shot red lights, and he had his foot down for a significant part of it.

This is the start of the border control into Estonia.

As we made our way to the border controls I was looking out the window planning how to cross should we not be allowed out of the country. You'd have to swim across this river and then there's about a mile of no-mans land to get across. Not worth trying! Our crossing was in the city of Narva close to Ivangorod castle. Whilst I would have loved to have taken pictures I was bricking the impending scrutinising from the border police to bother getting the camera out. We also had a panic when a Brazilian guy was kept back because his Visa wasn't in order, and they thought that Jeppe and myself were part of his group and wanted to keep us back too (Keith had made it through by this point). However we managed to convince them that they weren't with us and were let through. This was the most stressful point of the trip for me because I would have had no idea what to do if one, or more of us for whatever reason failed to make it over. The Brazilian guy did make it back to the coach after paying a fine, no idea how substantial though.

This is Narva station where some of the passengers got off and others got on. Whilst there were no stops on the Russian side, there were quite a few on the Estonian side which meant the journey took a bit longer than it could have. Fortunately the driver was a lot more safer behind the wheel.

We eventually arrived in Tallinn, and this is the bus station. We had to get some cash here as the bank were only able to give me £20's worth before I left. Our organised trip was officially over and from here on in, it was down to my organising. First things were to get us to the hotel, and whilst we could have got a tram, the taxi was quite reasonable to so we took that. I made a mistake getting in and was just about to get into the driver's seat thinking it was the passenger's. This caused much laughter between the taxi drivers, Keith and Jeppe.

This is the hotel, the Metropol, which is within walking distance of the old town.

This is a bit of graffiti seen close to the hotel, nice huh? I like these projects where people post the empty bubbles on posters leaving them for passers by to fill in. I've seen this in London before and it started in New York.

Organising a trip to Russia

For those that are thinking on organising a short trip to Russia here's how I did it.
I used a company called Sundowners who have a division called Vodkatrain. They have pre-arranged itineraries specialising in Tran-Siberian rail journeys between Russia and China. They were able to build us the custom itinerary and sorted out the hotels, transfers and visas. Sundowners only deal with official travel companies so I used STA travel, a well respected student travel company in the UK.

With the visa you can get them to do it or if you didn't want to give up your passport they'll supply all the documents for you to take to your local embassy. The hotels they find are really good, we were especially impressed the Shelton. Hotels however are subject to change, originally our hotel in St Petersburg was elsewhere. It wasn't until the final itinerary and travel vouchers were sent out that we realised we'd been assigned a new one.

The visa isn't easy to get as you have to be invited into the country and some hotels won't accept you until you have proof of invitation; a bit chicken and egg. Sundowners have the correct contacts to get around this, for us it was Olvita, the hard to find travel company in Moscow. The vouchers you're given are the method for paying for the hotels and transfers, although our drivers never asked for them. Be sure to take plenty of copies in case you lose them. It's also worth taking photocopies of your passport and visa.

I had heard bad things about Russian police and how they'd sometimes stop tourists, tell them their papers aren't in order and ask for a fine to supplement their incomes. We didn't see any of this the whole time we were there and I can only say that based on our experiences the travel guides got this wrong. We also never encountered any trouble or had any run ins with locals. Some skater kids did come and ask for cash on our last night in St Petersburg but I'd been taking pictures of them, so it was understandable (it also gave me a chance to ditch the loose change). I don't know if it was because there were three of us that we weren't approached, perhaps had I gone on my own some people may have tried their luck, but this might be me trying to justify the travel guides, which actually were way off the mark, for us at least.

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