I had a slow start to my second day in St Petersburg. Things like laundry, calling my mum, and planning my time in Finland kept me inside until the afternoon. I had time, energy and inclination to see one thing, so I picked another museum, the Russian Museum in another palace. Getting out and about in a strange city on my own for the first time in over a week felt a little uncomfortable but I soon got over it. The cars in the area around the hostel are Audis, Range Rovers, BMWs, and old Russian things barely chugging along. The St Petersburg metro is even deeper than the one in Moscow, with escalators to match. By the end of this day I was more confident on them. I wondered how many more attempts it would have taken me to get to the top of the hill in Guilin. The stations are decorated in a similar way to those in Moscow but I noticed more signs of aging and disrepair. Tiles missing from the tunnel walls at the platforms – decoration that hides all manner of pipes that run along the tunnel walls.
As expected, there was a bunch of old stuff at the museum, starting with icons from the 1300s and 1400s. General themes were death, dying, torture, and killing. In one piece, St George had his ribs tickled with pitch forks, was warmed up in a cauldron (we saw some actual cauldrons the day before) and had various other tortures inflicted but neither he nor his tormentors looked particularly upset about it and in fact appeared to be waving hello. I didn’t wave back.
There was a collection of toys that I liked. Moss dolls and wooden toys with moving parts so that men scythed the grass and women chopped the cabbage with paddles at a big table. And gingerbread boards which I assume had dough pressed into them to make patterned biscuits. Security rounded everyone up room by room from about 10 minutes before closing time, clunking doors closed behind us. I ended up at an exit at the other end from the cloak room. I showed my token for the cloak room to a security woman. She smiled and took me gently by the arm and led me upstairs and round corners back to a familiar section where I could find my way.
Thinking I needed something more than bread and cabbage to eat, I went searching for a vegetarian café in the area that I’d found on Happy Cow during my slow morning. The streets are wide and the old buildings are scaled to match. Gated arches provide access to courtyards behind the street front, suggesting the tall wide buildings aren’t very deep. Trees and graffiti grow hidden in these spaces. I couldn’t find a single street name sign and only the occasional street number. I had to check the map and my phone several times to find the café. The fellow at the counter spoke English! Not that it mattered here because I was happy to eat any of it. Legumes! Taking my plate into the dining area I saw five people sitting at separate tables at their phones, tablets and laptops. I wanted to call out, “Hey, we’re all vego, surely we can find something to talk about. Why don’t we all sit at one table?” But I didn’t. I did leave my phone in my bag though.
Near the hostel I went into one of the little fruit shops. The shops were either goods behind flat glass with an open window, or several counters in one room. The fruit shop was the first type. Apples, bananas, cucumbers, oranges filled the windows, held in place by the fruit boxes behind them. The woman who served me was from a country to the south, I can’t remember which. She was friendly and up for a chat but it was hard work and I was tired.
I had an early start planned for the next morning to get to the 6:40 train to Helsinki, and a terrible night’s sleep for no good reason. Oh well. The taxi driver in the morning smelt of dope and drove over 100 ks an hour down the empty city streets. He dropped me in front of the station, a different one to where I arrived. I was very early so I wasn’t surprised at how few people were around and the train was listed on the board so I was in the right spot. Announcements were made, some duplicated in English, but not loud enough to be heard clearly. Something about customs before boarding, but that was nothing new. When the platform number was put up for my train I went over towards the gates to ask where I was actually supposed to go. The rule about the main entrance at a big building was wrong. The security person pointed to an informal A4 sign telling me to go out the front door, around the side and down the street a hundred metres where there was a small side entrance with no sign jutting on to the street but a sign on the door. There were stacks of people already on the train and I realised I hadn’t paid enough attention to the complete lack of people waiting with me as the departure time drew nearer. No worries, I expect the little waiting room at the side entrance had been overcrowded and hot.
The display in the train said it got up to 197 km/h but it wasn’t as smooth or big as the high speed Chinese trains. The Russian immigration people boarded the train at a stop close to the border. They had the same nifty little machines to do the passport control on the spot, this time while the train moved. Unlike other immigration officials, these ones smiled. I’d been thinking that all the previous ones must have had training on looking serious and not smiling, but being Russian I wonder if these ones had to be trained to smile to the customers. Or maybe they were sent to this border because they were naturally inclined that way despite their culture. They got off and Finnish immigration got on. He said hello in the language according to people’s passports, spoke English, Finnish and Russian at least, asked a few questions about duration of stay and then stamped the back page. That was it. I can’t remember if he even had a machine, just that he had a gun on his hip. After some initial confusion about my itinerary, he thought I said Turkey when I was trying to say Turku, he tried to teach me how to pronounce it properly. He put about ten more r’s in it than I could. I could only manage about three. Later I remembered the guide book had said the emphasis falls on the first syllable so maybe that was my problem as well.
I didn’t see a great deal from the window on this trip. Too busy trying to write and sleep but not at the same time. The houses were different again, less ornate than the Russian countryside and the colours muted. There were more types of trees mostly due to an increase in types of pines. There were modern buildings and letters on the signs that I could recognise even if I couldn’t pronounce them. When I arrived, Helsinki was cold and wet. I couldn’t find an ATM so I went to the currency exchange counter where I was served by a very smooth salesman who managed to get all my weird and wonderful cash off me except the Vietnamese dong notes that were worth less than a euro cent. It’s a good thing he was locked behind that counter because I think he could have sold just about anything including the steak knives.
The rain pushed me to exploring the underground walkways. At a supermarket the same self-weigh system operated as in Russia. That made me glad I’d learnt that one earlier. I wanted to get out and do things whether or not it rained so I went back above ground and ate my snacks in the entrance to the subway like a homeless person. Wandering around and looking at the trees, I went, oh, that’s what was missing from the streets of central Moscow and St Petersburg. Helsinki was also nice afer those two because it had a mix of the old and new designs. Mostly I liked it because the buildings and streets were on a smaller scale. It rained.
I stumbled into a museum which told of Finnish language revival around independence from Russia and that people burnt their houses as they fled their towns ahead of the invading Russians. Of the objects, I remember a pair of old ice skates with the metal blade embedded in a timber piece that strapped on over other shoes with leather straps. The pictures from the past helped me see the landscape today in that context. It was raining again outside so I went into another museum around the corner. It had a display of advertising posters from the post war years for the co-op supermarkets. They were cheery and sexist.
I found some potatoes for lunch at the markets outside the museum, where here have been markets for a long time, only this time the potatoes came with tomatoes. There was a ferry out to a set of islands that had been a fort, some of which are still not open to the public. I ummed and ahhed about going for so long that by the time I decided to go I’d just missed one. I wandered off to explore a less touristy old part of town and missed successive ferries till I only had half an hour out there before my time was up. It was windy and grey. The walls on the little bit I saw had grass growing on top and the buildings were yellow against the grey sky. On the ferry back, the birds circled over the water churned up behind the ferry, and rode the wind currents just above the bridge.
The bus to Turku only took a couple of hours. To turn around leaving the bus stop, the drive took a little detour through a part of town I’d missed during the day. It had new modern buildings that I liked. This surprised me, that I prefer well designed new ones to lots and lots of old ones. Out of town, there was a rainbow over the fields and glimpses of lakes or inlets among the pines. In Turku I convinced myself not to try walking to the hostel. The driver of the first local bus that showed up said his route would work for getting to the hostel, then proceed to ask people getting on later whether they knew where the hostel was! (In Finnish. He was one of the older ones whose English was limited.) Time to use some map data. Oh yes, now he knew where I should get off. It turned out I could not have been a better route or got dropped off closer to the hostel. I’ve had such great luck this trip. The best thing about arriving in Finland was that finally, I could pay for the hostel on my card. Sweet, sweet modern life.