My very first trip abroad, and alone (traveling to and from, anyway) was to St. Petersburg, Russia to visit my uncle on spring break of my sophomore year of college.
In preparation, I applied for my passport. As soon as it arrived I sent it off to D.C. for a Russian visa. My uncle sent me lots of packing and travel tips and instructions. These included pictures and descriptions of what shuttles and taxi’s would look like.
I needed most of this info for one task. I was landing in one airport in Moscow, but had to figure out how to get from there to a different airport for the flight to St. Petersburg. In less than one hour.
So, I get off the plane and go through customs, which took what seemed like forever. I definitely had not figured this into my hour time frame. After customs, the sliding glass doors opened and I spilled into a frenzy of drivers with signs, friends and families waiting for loved ones, a million taxi drivers, and guards ensuring everyone stays in line.
As a just-turned-20 year old with a US passport in my hand and eyes the size of saucers, I was an immediate target for at least 15 taxi drivers who knew a few words of English. My uncle had prepared me for this and I dismissed them all and headed to the ATM for some rubles.
Then I headed outside and pulled out my sheet of paper with a picture of the shuttle van I needed. I looked and looked for what seemed like forever, but was probably about 10 minutes, with no luck.
The clock was ticking and the other airport was about 30 minutes away. Just as I started to get a little panicked, a taxi driver approached and asked where I needed to go.
I will never forget sitting in the back of that car, staring out the window and thinking “I am 20 years old. I have never been outside the US. And now, I’m in Russia and I just got into the back of a middle aged mans taxi and I have NO idea where he is taking me”.
This was the beginning of quite a spiral of not-so-pretty thoughts. First, it was “why in the hell didn’t I bring a map of the way to the airport so I would at least know if we were going in the right direction?” Then, “I’m pretty sure I could jump out of the car, onto the highway, in the middle of traffic, if only I knew if we were going in the wrong direction” . . . that turned into “what am I going to do if we stop somewhere other than the airport?”
But just as every scene in every horror movie I’ve ever seen began to play on a loop in my head, I saw the most glorious highway sign for the airport, took a deep breath, and tried to relax just a little.
I have no idea how much the driver charged me – I’m sure it was way too much – but I happily paid whatever he told me, ecstatic just to be alive and where I needed to be, on time.
But let’s back up to another little not so fun fact of this trip. I began by flying from Springfield, Missouri to Chicago O’Hare. About half way through that short flight I could tell I was getting sick. And I knew it was going to be bad. As soon as I landed in Chicago I bought some cold medicine and starting hoping for the best.
Unfortunately, I spent my entire trip the sickest I have ever been in my entire life (knock on wood). As it turned out, by the time I got back to school and to the doctor, I had a severe sinus infection and an ear infection in both ears, which explained the eventual (temporary) loss of hearing. The doctor was amazed my ear drums hadn’t burst. Honestly, so was I because each one of those flights home was so painful that I would have sworn they had both burst 100 times over. Hands down the most miserable I have ever been.
But, 2 rounds of antibiotics later, I was as good as new with the best spring break experience and tons of pictures.
Back to St. Petersburg. My uncle greeted me with flowers – a much appreciated gesture after the Moscow ordeal. We got on the metro, which is the deepest in the world (by average depth of all stations), and eventually ended up at my uncles very nice flat.
A good nights sleep and couple of doses of cold medicine later and we were off to explore the city. In late March there was still a pretty decent covering of snow on the ground and the river was a bit icy – though this didn’t deter a local woman from plunging right in for a swim.
To get around the city you have several options. Options are the metro, taxi’s, and little vans called Marshrutka that run on fixed routes, much like buses. We took the Marshrutka several times and I don’t remember ever using a taxi.
We visited the Peter and Paul Fortress, lots of old shops, Hermitage Museum, and several gorgeous cathedrals.
**Tip** If you wish to take photographs inside a church, make sure the flash is off. If not, you will likely be asked (told? I didn’t quite catch the Russian) to leave. I’m going to blame that on the head infections settling in.
I believe it was on our way to the Fortress that the hockey team won their game. The celebration in the streets was quite unlike anything I witnessed in the states and you couldn’t help but smile.
The crown jewel of the trip was seeing The St. Petersburg Ballet perform Swan Lake at The Hermitage Theater. The theater and performance were both beyond stunning – even with my head being on the verge of explosion. I can only hope to have another ballet experience as magical as that one was. Perhaps the swimmy head just added to the surreal experience, but either way it was certainly one for the books.
Russia has a great deal more women than men (I forget the exact statistic given that it’s been 8 years). Women are stunningly dressed in hopes of finding a husband. I was a stark contrast in jeans and flats the whole week (sans the ballet). Luckily, I didn’t notice any strange looks – possibly because I was concentrating on how to put one foot in front of the other.
Russian hot chocolate was another wonderful treat. It’s a much closer cousin to melted chocolate in a cup than it is to what you think of as hot chocolate in the US. One small cup is the perfect, decadent treat to end a long day of exploring.
After a short 5 days I found myself packing up and heading back to the airport. I was both dreading and feeling confident about the impending transfer between airports in Moscow. This time I had a red-eye flight (and believe me at this point of the infections, my eyes were very red). When I landed in Moscow there were no eager taxi drivers in sight.
There was; however, a shuttle van. Marked with the names of both the airport I was at and the airport that I needed to get to. I beamed when I saw it, threw my bag in the back, and settled into one of the seats. I was feeling quite proud of myself, and amazed by how easy it was to find the shuttle.
A few others climbed in, and off we went. To a hotel. Not, as I had hoped, to the other airport. So, as everyone is getting off and collecting their bags, there I sit, trying to figure out if I have any option other than getting off the van and going into the hotel at almost 3 AM.
Turns out, that was the only option. So off I went into the lobby. After everyone else, who actually knew where they were going, retired to their rooms I approached the counter. I pulled out my cheat sheet and asked if there was a way I could get to the other airport.
Now that it’s 8 years later I don’t remember exactly how long I ended up sitting in that random (though very nice) hotel lobby, waiting for the shuttle that they provide for their guests, wanting to decapitate myself with a plastic butter knife, but it was at least several hours, I’m pretty sure.
Eventually, the shuttle returned and carted me off on to the next airport – no questions asked. I had a 3 hour flight to Frankfurt from Moscow. By the grace of God, I had an entire row to myself, so I laid down and fell fast asleep.
St. Petersburg is a truly beautiful city and I really hope to return someday. I would love to go back in the spring to see all of the fountains and green parks.
If you ever have the opportunity to go, take it! With any luck you won’t be nearly as sick as I was, but either way it will be an unforgettable trip. I can’t thank my uncle enough for the invitation and introduction to the magic of travel.
If I hadn’t had this trip under my belt, who knows if I would have had the courage to take the next trip!