The train pulls into the border checkpoint. The cold air of the Russian night fills the carriage as the army guards climb aboard to inspect passports.
After a few minutes of checking to see if there is still some resemblance between myself and the awful photo I had taken at 14, they move to the next compartment and my head hits the pillow once more.
The train was heading to St. Petersburg, the 300 year old city built up from the mosquito infested swamps on the orders of visionary Tsar Peter I. Feeling more weary than when we got on the train, my girlfriend and I were immediately confronted by the challenge of the Cyrillic alphabet as we attempted to navigate the metro system to the hostel, but, by a combination of charades and louder than normal English, we eventually found our way.
Russia is now a resurgent economic power, and St Petersburg shows the incredible wealth that the Tsars once had. Located in the heart of the city on the banks of the Neva River, The Hermitage Museum, housed in the stunning Winter Palace, has the world’s largest collection of paintings and it would take days to visit all 400 rooms. This enormous prosperity has returned to some people in Russia with young millionaires parking Ferraris outside gaudy casinos, whilst on the other side of the road an elderly lady hobbles along with barely enough clothes to keep warm. Moscow now has more dollar billionaires than New York and they certainly know how to spend their money.
Russian people don’t have a great reputation for being tourist-friendly and so the sight of two English travellers with enormous backpacks wasn’t exactly welcomed as we arrived at the main train station to book tickets. My diplomatic attempts to ask for two tickets in a 2nd class sleeping car to Minsk were met with a straight “NYET!” and a facial expression to match from the Babushka in the kiosk.
Luckily, a Russian speaking French tourist came to our aide and we boarded the night train to Belarus. However, once on board, the Russian attitude changes, each carriage has its own attendant. She is the mother of the carriage, ensuring everyone finds their bunk bed, offering tea, keeping the carriage secure and selling food.
Belarus has been described as “the last dictatorship in Europe” by the US government and still retains the KGB in its original form with a building that spans an entire block dedicated to its murky activities. On the visa application form submitted two months before arriving, you have to state exactly which train you will be arriving on and western visitors are only allowed to stay in specified hotels. This Orwellian style society is frightening to someone used to growing up with so many freedoms and is a real throw back to the Soviet Union.
Flattened during WW2, it is only 60 years old, and lacks character of many other European capitals. Designed by Stalin himself it boasts grand buildings, broad avenues and wide squares to create public living spaces. It was built with room for population growth, the main street is vast and for a city of around 1.5 million people with very few privately owned cars it gives a slightly eerie feel as the streets seem empty. It is a unique city within Europe, with very few tourists and perhaps only a few years before it changes.