This was always going to be a long and eventful day. And that is exactly how it turned out. It began when my alarm went off at 5.30 am in my hotel room in Helsinki. A quick look out the window showed that the blue skies that we had enjoyed for the past three and a half weeks had disappeared. They had been replaced with a long lying blanket of grey clouds. A steady drizzle of rain had already soaked the roads and footpaths.
That was exactly the type of weather that I had feared could have followed us for our entire time in the Baltics. I must admit that I was almost glad to see it now as it would have seemed a bit unreal for us to have spent so long in the region without getting some of their "normal" weather.
After breakfast I donned my waterproof jacket for the first time on this trip (I was wise packing it in my bag after all) and headed out for the final time. After a little aimless wandering, I found myself in the city museum. It had an incredible series of huge photographs of Helsinki that showed life in the city at various times since 1866. The detail was amazing, so much so that you could spend a lot of time at each image, just to look at what the people were doing.
I finally worked my way to the top floor, where a complicated array of data projectors were showing some sort of movie. It was quite dark and I nearly had a heart attack when a voice came from below me. "Hello Dennis", it said. I know that technology is smart, but how could it know my name when I had come from the opposite side of the planet ?
The mystery was solved when I discovered that it was Sue. She had made herself comfortable as part of the exhibit and was watching the movie. I asked her how she understood Finnish. Apparently she had already read the script and knew what it was all about.
I continued to the market near the pier. Already several new ships had docked and disgorged their human cargoes. Quite a number of them (about 500 I reckon) were animatedly shoving themselves and taking selfies around the market stalls. I decided that Helsinki is a lovely city, but I was ready for something different.
Our train for St Petersburg was due to leave at 4 pm. At the appointed pickup time of 3 pm our small group of 6 were all waiting with our luggage in the hotel foyer. When there was still no sign of a driver at 3.15 pm, I decided that it was time for us to walk. It was only a 10 minute walk and the rain had now stopped.
We found the St Petersburg train and climbed on board. It was a shame that there was no room for our luggage - only a small overhead rack for hand luggage. Fortunately I found a small storage compartment at the end of the carriage and,after a little rearrangement (throwing everyone else's luggage out into the aisle) , I was able to find a nice secure spot for my bag.
Right on schedule at 4 pm we were on our way towards Russia. The scenery consisted of trees - mile after mile of forests and very occasionally a house or two. This area really is remote and very lightly inhabited. All the time we knew we were getting closer and closer to Russia.
It was what happened over the next 90 minutes that was the really interesting part. Firstly a large guy with absolutely no neck at all, wanted to see our passports and make sure that our Russian visas were in order. A short time later a group heavily armed and very serious Finnish immigration police wanted to examine my documents.
They slowly worked their way through the carriage, until it was my turn. The serious faced official slowly turned over every page. He seemed concerned about something. I was certainly concerned. I was far too old to be sent to a Russian gulag, or even a Finnish one for that matter. He eventually told me that I must have entered Europe illegally,since I had no arrival stamp. This was my worst fear come true.
Trying to remain calm, I explained to him that I had entered through Warsaw and that he had better have another look. He went back through the pages again and finally found the stamp he was looking for. Thus satisfied he added a new stamp to my passport and handed it back. He seemed a little disappointed that he had missed the chance to make his first arrest of the day.
The border crossing itself was a little anticlimactic - just a sign, lots of barbed wire and CCTV cameras. We were now in Russia, little wonder that the weather seemed gloomier and the forests looked like they had more weeds than trees. The sides of the railway line were lined with miles of coiled barbed wire and numerous cameras. It was a delightful way to welcome foreign tourists to your country.
The carriage was then filled with a succession of uniformed Russian officials. There were so many of them that they filled all the standing room in the aisle. Some were dressed like police, while others looked like army generals. It was an impressive show of force. Sweat started to drip from my chin as they worked their way towards me. I started to wonder whether I would be offloaded to the next train to Siberia. To my relief I was eventually awarded the coveted Russian entry stamp, but not before another long and detailed examination of my passport.
Right on time we rolled into St Petersburg Central Station. Another adventure was about to begin. I wondered whether our driver would be waiting for us. Would we have a hotel to sleep in that night ? It was very reassuring to see a man holding a sign with my name on it outside the station. He even had it spelt correctly. I started to relax.
We were ushered to a waiting large mini bus and were soon heading towards our hotel. I watched the progress on my GPS, but soon noticed that we were heading in the opposite direction to our allocated hotel. Maybe the driver was a KGB agent and we were being taken to Siberia after all?
A few minutes later he stopped outside the very impressive Sokos Vasilievsky Hotel and indicated that this is where we would be staying. I was not so sure, but we unloaded our luggage and rolled into the fancy lobby. To my relief the guy at the desk spoke excellent English and was obviously expecting us.
We were directed to our rooms and discovered them to be far in excess of our expectations. In fact the rooms were enormous, the beds magnificent, the air conditioning was functioning and the bathrooms alone were as big as some of our previous rooms. I even found that my window could be opened - something that many hotels no longer allow you to do. When I looked out my window I found that I looked straight down into a yard filled with broken toilet cisterns. I am not joking, but I am not complaining either. I am very happy with the hotel and my room.
At 8.30 pm we met to have our first foray into the unfamiliar city. We immediately discovered a new challenge. It is impossible to read most signs, because the alphabet is so different. Since no one speaks English,ordering anything to eat is a complicated matter of pointing and grunting, but somehow we managed.
The next couple of days will be interesting.Read more