Around eight years ago, I was working as a travel agent in Oxford. The growing prevalence of online booking agents (and a smattering of fraudulence from a past manager) meant no one was hitting their targets. My friend and colleague, Andy, turned to me one day and said, ‘Let’s move to New Zealand!’ I took a cursory glance around the boneyard of an industry in need of palliative care and said, ‘Okay.’
I have never really liked flying, so I made an off-the-cuff suggestion about how we should try to get there without taking a plane. There was a tour package we sold that went from St Petersburg to Beijing over the course of a couple of weeks or so. Andy had sold enough of these trips to earn himself a free one, and he persuaded a lady friend to part ways with her entitlement to a half price trip for my good self. With such a massive part of the trip already accounted for, we committed to going overland.
We set off, accompanied by a couple of friends at this point, in November after booking ourselves a cheap ticket on the Eurostar before leaving our jobs. It took us to Brussels, which we had both been to before and thought little of, so we got on a train set for Amsterdam. The travel time between Amsterdam and Brussels is around three hours, but, for the purposes of saving about a fiver, we opted for the overnight train stopping in Cologne. Have a look at a map and realise how stupid this is. But it saved us some cash, which we had very little of. We had all been to Amsterdam before, but did the things you’re supposed to do there anyway. Anne Frank museum – again. Heineken museum – again. And coffee shops – again. The imagery of ducks on the canals by thin strips of houses in Amsterdam give way to stag dos and debauchery as the sun goes down. It’s fun for a while, but rarely leaves a yearning to return. Incidentally, the reason there are so many thin houses is because the Dutch used to tax citizens based on the width of their homes. You can walk around and spot people who definitely don’t own a super king sized bed, if that’s your kind of thing.
The Dutch used to tax citizens based on the width of their homes.
In Copenhagen we had booked a room in a brand-new hostel. Generator, it was called. It would be the last time we exploited our positions as travel agents to book accommodation. It’s a place I’d like to go back to; like so many places, I didn’t take advantage of being there. In my mid-twenties I looked even more like a hippy, and everywhere I went in the world people tried to sell me drugs, or catch me with drugs in my backpack… or elsewhere. So, it was unsurprising that when we asked the receptionist at the hostel what there was to do in Copenhagen, she directed us to an anarchist commune, Freetown Christiania, where it’s acceptable to buy and smoke weed. We weren’t interested in procuring cannabis but walked around the park nonetheless, as it was the only suggestion offered to us. It reminded me of Amsterdam. Later we found some trampolines built into the pavement and had a nice bounce for a bit, but it was very cold. My overriding memory of Copenhagen is that on the way to the park, we saw a (presumably) homeless man lying down on the street. On the way back he was blue and surrounded by police. To be homeless in colder countries is even more of a peril than it is in this part of the world. We said goodbye to our two part-time companions as they returned to their lives in London, went for a few extremely expensive beers, slept, and left for Sweden with heavy hearts and light wallets.
It should be noted that the reason we were heading to Gothenburg, was solely because Andy had an interest in pursuing a past flame and making her his girlfriend for the night. We knew nothing of the city itself. When we arrived, the woman – I can’t remember her name – informed us that Gothenburg was a bit of a student city, and people flocked there in the summer for the weather. That sounded great: Midnight sun, young people partying all night. But alas it was November, and we did not party. Plus, we were trying to save a little money for the long trip ahead. We rode around the city on trams which, we were told, many people chose not to pay for, then accepted the hefty fine when you inevitably got caught. This put me on edge. I wanted no such fine. We were successful in saving money, no fines, free room (in the nameless woman’s house for the night – Andy was unsuccessful in his personal endeavour), and left for Stockholm.
This put me on edge. I wanted no such fine.
Stockholm has a fantastic old town. Walking through the cobbled streets past the red, green, and yellow 18th century buildings helped cement the feeling that leaving everyone and everything we know behind to travel the world was a good thing. We were finally getting further enough from the UK without flying to feel like we’d achieved something.
Andy had spent some time in Sweden before so was keen to get on with the next leg of the journey. The most sensible option was to book a boat to Tallinn and then get a bus from St Petersburg from there. We booked a boat, not knowing that this overnight route is taken by many Scandinavians keen to take advantage of the cheap booze and drink themselves silly all night. We joined in a little, but the whole thing felt a bit seedy. The man sharing a room with us bought a 24-pack of some grapefruit flavoured lager and proceeded to plough through it, falling off his bunk in the night and landing next to Andy, touching him in a wild panic of darkness and inebriation. Drunken fumble aside, we arrived in Estonia unscathed.
It was cold here, so we found a picturesque, well-heated but dimly-lit cafe and went in to eat something weird. Reindeer soup, I think. The process of going for light to dark, cold to hot caused something to happen inside Andy as, when I walked out to leave the cafe, I saw him standing like a statue with one arm out staring into oblivion. He stayed like that for a few seconds before I retrieved him and he explained that he couldn’t see or move. Apparently this had happened before after playing football in the cold weather and jumping into a hot bath. He’s still alive, so it’s probably nothing serious.
I think the mattress was cardboard.
Tallinn is yet another city with a beautiful old town, although I got the feeling it was preserved more for the tourists than anything else. This feeling was compounded as we took a tram to the bus station, venturing out of ‘tourist town’ and into an old soviet block; grey buildings and grey faces. There was nothing to hold on to when the tram moved, and the weight of my bag betrayed me once more as I fell into a woman and her pram laden with a baby. She was displeased, I was apologetic in the wrong language. She probably still hates me.
As we embarked on the nine or so hour trip out of the Baltics, darkness fell over the increasingly miserable looking apartment buildings, finally blessing us with the gift of unseeing. There were two stops in St Petersburg. We needed to get off at the first, but got off at the second. This was only my second ever encounter where speaking English couldn’t help me out in a tough situation. We were unable to communicate with the lady at the small bus stop, even with map in hand and, strangely, the taxi driver we found outside didn’t want to take us. Fortunately. I like to look at maps of places before I get there, and had noted where this bus stop was in relation to our hostel by the Neva River. I knew the river was north (the bus had been travelling east so I knew roughly which direction north was), so we walked north. For five miles. With a heavy backpack.
We eventually found ourselves on the Nevsky Prospect, the main road running through the city. I rarely get blown away by the architecture of a place, but the masterpieces flanking the Nevsky Prospect are quite something. It’s just one building after the other of grandeur and magnitude. To add to the effect, every man we passed was a bodybuilder and each woman, a model. We managed to find an internet cafe (old school) and discover our hostel was only a further thirty-five-minute walk up towards the river, then left a bit. I’ve slept in some sorry excuses for beds, but never anything as pathetic as the one in that hostel. I think the mattress was cardboard – that’s not hyperbole – but we stayed there for a few nights because everyone there was so friendly. They also had a foosball table, a place where I’m happy to show off my skills learned from misspent days at sixth from, and free cigarettes behind reception, so I was happy.
We befriended a Russian photographer named Oleg whose English wasn’t great, but he’d left his wife and young child for a few days to take pictures of the city and conveniently acted as our tour guide. I’ve found him on Instagram; looks like he’s still taking photos. We also met a Brazilian guy, Jonas, who years later would invite me into his home in Sao Paulo. Those few days were great. Being in a new place, a new culture, with new people, is always fun, but it was time for us to meet the rest of the tour group in Moscow…