Friday, June 17, 2016

Day 35 – 16 June Kolomna to St Petersburg - The Finish Line

It was indeed a pity to leave a place like Kolomna in such a short time. The place is a spa. The peace and quiet of the city, the hygiene and cleanliness, the air and the water, the friendly people and its history – all of them give the city a 10 on 10. Kolomna is indeed one of the prettiest cities I have been to in all my travels. Moving from here was indeed a difficult thing to do. Yet the overarching desire to realise an objective, a dream, kept the focus sharply on the same. So it was adieu to Kolomna early in the morning. The day had broken so bright that it looked as if it was already just a couple of hours to noon when I left a half hour before 5 am.

The target of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg was over 800 km away. I had heard about the notorious traffic snarls in Moscow. And prayed that the road condition was good. It all turned out quite well right from the start. I took to the last stretch of M5 from Kolomna to Moscow and did that 100 km in as many minutes. From very close to the centre of Moscow one of the ring roads took me to M10, the final stretch to St Petersburg. I did not encounter any major delays in that transit via Moscow. The last bit of the M5 had been excellent. By about 6.30 am I began the last lap to St Petersburg. The road condition improved drastically. The infrastructure build up is apparent. Many new links are being added and the lanes are being widened. One of the major issues with the highways in Russia is that they pass through villages and small settlements. The speed through those places is restricted and pedestrian walkways further reduce free access.

The excitement of getting closer to realizing a dream is tinged with the anxiety about some last minute glitches. It is always like that for me. I remain positive throughout till the breasting tape is sighted. This time I decided to sleep it away. I pulled up on the shoulder of the road about 300 km from St Petersburg and slept for 45 minutes! Thereafter, the drive was smooth mentally. I reached the outskirts of St Petersburg by a quarter past three in the afternoon. Google Maps led me through an amazing drive beside the canal to the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. I could not find parking anywhere close to the Square. There were people everywhere and tourist groups hogged the place. I had no option but to do something unconventional. Breaking lane discipline and being tooted at angrily I drove to where a police car was parked. When I stopped the car beside it the policemen looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost! I asked if I could park there for two minutes as I was driving in from India. That marinated their mind and one of them gave me permission to stop there for ‘one minute’. Then I did what the policeman never expected. I asked him to fix the sticker on the car and he was overjoyed, I could tell. The only problem was that he was in a hurry to get it done I could not get a good photo of the event. I had to get all my photos done in a jiffy and leave the place. So a historic event could not be captured to my satisfaction but the satisfaction was in the successful completion of the expedition. The distance covered from Chennai to St Petersburg across four countries and two continents was 20112 km in 34 days, 10 hours and 45 minutes. The Trans-Siberian highway of 10117 km from Vladivostok to St Petersburg was covered in 12 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes.

Today is 16/06/16 – the day I completed the pioneering expedition from Chennai, India to St Petersburg, Russia via the Trans-Siberian Highway. Two years ago, on 16/06/14 I started the epic expedition from Cochin, India to London, UK via St Petersburg. Today I have reached St Petersburg – it is here that this day I successfully completed the Trans-Siberian Expedition. Two years ago it was in this city that the team that was on the expedition to London broke up. Lal Jos, the celebrated film maker and one of the fellow journeymen in the London expedition, canned the climax of his movie, Neena, in St Petersburg two years ago, after the London expedition. This day I digitized the climax of my expedition in Saint Isaac’s Square, St Petersburg after the Trans-Siberian Expedition. The coincidences are unmistakable. I believe that every beginning has an end and, in many ways, the end is also a beginning.

It was quite early in the evening when I set out from the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in search of my accommodation. I could not find the exact location in Google Maps. I proceeded in the general direction and soon found myself driving out of St Petersburg! And it started raining. Raining is not the correct word. It was more like a cloud burst and it was peak hour traffic. GPS would suddenly play truant and I was soon hopelessly lost. After nearly two hours of the most aimless driving based on changed coordinates of Google Maps I turned into a fuel station to seek directions. The fuel station happened to be closed. I was wondering what to do next when a few cars turned into the station to tank up in the pouring rain. I asked one of the drivers if he knew English. He introduced me to his girlfriend who spoke the language well. She said that the property I was looking for is quite close – 17 km! Phone calls to the property, however, went unanswered. I set course for the direction the lady had set on Google Maps for me and I reached there in about an hour after sitting through peak hour traffic very patiently. I discovered to my horror that the said address is a boarded up house! I rang the bell in one of the houses of the neighborhood and that kind gentleman told me that I was in Pushkin in the street by the same name I am looking for in St Petersburg. It’s never too late to learn!

I had booked a single room apartment in St Petersburg as that was the only one that suited my budget after I rescheduled the dates. The original hotel booking had to be cancelled as they could not accommodate the change. I reached the apartment address and the security at the gate told me that he could not let me in without the flat number. I did not have that as I had only the name of the apartment. I kept trying the numbers forwarded by Booking.com and was confronted with the message that the numbers are temporarily suspended. I started to search for alternate accommodation in the vicinity and nothing turned up. That’s when I met Karen. He was walking out of the complex and I asked him if he could speak English. He turned out to be a Georgian pursuing his post-doctoral study in endocrinology in St Petersburg. He understood my dire situation and reached out to the flat owner, Natasha, on WhatsApp. There was no response and after nearly an hour – it was past 9 pm – he said he could take me another hotel nearby where I could try to get accommodation. As we neared the hotel Natasha called Karen and told him that she has sent a guy to the apartment who would take care of my booking. We returned to the apartment complex and found a guy waiting for us. I thanked Karen for the company and assistance – where God sends HIS Guardian Angels from we will never know; this one was from Georgia.

The man could not understand what I wanted and the same was true in reverse! He showed me into the flat and was in a hurry to collect the rental for the three days I was booked to stay. When I showed him the amount I am to pay he started saying things more unintelligible to me. That’s when I remembered Vassily, the contact provided by Egor. Vassily was supposed to meet me to finalise arrangements to take the car in for transportation to India. Through his mediation I came to understand that the man wanted RUB 2000 extra as caution money. I put my foot down and said that was not part of the agreement with the booking site. In the end, after a lot of back and forth, I had to give him a bakshish of RUB 200! Such are the properties promoted through Booking.com. I have every intention of making a strong pitch regarding the three bad experiences I have had in Russia. It was a relief getting the man out of the flat. It was past 10 pm and I wanted to rest for another busy day on the morrow because I had to hand over the Champion to a container freight terminal for shipment back to India. Formalities are many and I banked on the help of Egor and Vassily to do that in a day.


The day was not yet done. If I had to hand over the car the next day I had to repack the luggage. I did not want to carry much with me on the flight; left all what was not immediately required to be ferried in the car. It took me about an hour to get all that done and then it was vodka time. I had not had any hard liquor on the expedition because of the drive. But tonight I had to celebrate and unwind. It was three straight shots of Russian Standard before the sack hit me!

5 comments:

  1. Looks like an interesting end to the drive.

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  2. How is XUV compared to Ford for such long expeditions?

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  3. You're an inspiration to me sir. Following you always :)

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