The plan is for us to go to Pushkin and see some majestic summer houses which belonged to the Russian nobility. We will get the Metro to the edge of the city, then catch a train to Pavlovsk and see the Czar Pavel’s Summer Palace.
Czar Pavel was the son of Catherine The Great. He reigned for only 4 years, then his German wife lived in the palace.
There we will also meet one of Olga’s relatives, who is also (conveniently enough) called Olga.
The plan fails when we miss the train to Pavlovsk by about two minutes. Instead, we get back on the Metro and head to an outlying residential district, and catch a bus from there.
As is usually the case in Russia, the bus is packed with people. We stand at the back and try not to fall over whenever the bus hits a pothole, which is frequently. This bus is small and red, unlike the larger yellow-orange metropolitan buses.
The summer palace in Pushkin is white, with an amazing cobalt blue paint. There are the traditional Russian gold leaf onion domes on the top. Stone statues of Atlas hold up the balconies. Like the Hermitage, it’s amazing, but a bit too much.
We walk through the gardens and over the bridge. I curse myself for forgetting my camera, but console myself with the fact that it isn’t actually a very Russian building; it’s more Italian in style.
The Pavlovsk gardens are painstakingly landscaped based on precision drawings made by a Scotsman, to make them look like English countryside. There’s an aviary, but all the birds died in the harsh climate. More amusingly, there’s a luxury peasant hut, built for the nobles so that they could sit and drink milk in the sun and pretend to experience the lifestyle of the happy peasants.
We manage to get the train for the return journey. The benches are hard wood, like church pews. The train is packed with people, just like the bus was. I get stared at when I hold a door open for someone. He’s a man, which probably makes it even more insulting.
In the evening XQ and I go out alone. We get the Metro to the other side of the island, and walk past row after row of brutal Soviet architecture. We turn the corner and past more blocks of flats, to the block where XQ spent her student months. Now she’s shocked to discover that there’s a shop on the ground floor selling everything from Mars bars to vodka to Tampax. She used to have to sneak to the hotel hard currency shop for such luxuries; most of the time she’d be joining the food queue at the state shop down the road with all the Russians. Now there are no queues, and no rationing.
The whole area is a huge grid of tower blocks near the sea. It’s vast, the blocks are hundreds of meters apart. I try to imagine what it must be like in winter, when the temperature drops below -20 celsius, the sea freezes over, and gales blow snow in from the Gulf of Finland.
We visit the hotel where Alexei works, near the student hostel. It’s mostly a hotel for rich foreigners; it’s space age Soyuz chic, big and square and ugly.
We wait for a bus home. After a while, we decide to splash out on a taxi fare. The bus is 20 rubles, but a taxi is 1000—an incredibly expensive extravagance for a Russian, one quid for us.
The taxi is licensed, meaning it’s one of the better ones. It’s painted to look like a taxi, has a light on the roof and everything. Unfortunately, the car beneath is Soviet built, and has seen better decades; I can see the asphalt rushing past through a rusted hole in the floor. The driver drives like his life depends on it, and given the state of his vehicle it probably does. We get to the nearest Metro station alive.
There are two girls in spandex on the Metro on the way home. They’re reading a Russian medical textbook about sex, and giggling.
Dinner is borscht. An egg, something green, and some stuff that resembles sour cream, in soup. Then there are blinni, little pancakes, and more cream stuff, and actual raspberries. I demonstrate again that I really can eat, and the previous evening wasn’t a fluke.