Thursday, June 30, 2016

Day 39 – 20 June Dubai to Cochin - The Home Run

The Quantas-Emirates code share flight from St Petersburg landed in Dubai ahead of the scheduled time and I took the train shuttle to the T3 terminal from where the Cochin flight was scheduled to leave. After the security check, which was quite rigorous but not intrusive, I had more time to roam around the dazzling T3 terminal complex. I had a long walk to the gate and I kept gaping at the amazing display of products all along the way. I had to wait for about two hours before boarding the flight that would take me home. I used the free WiFi at the airport to update my status and catch up on pending news. I also arranged with Ajay to pick me up from the Cochin International Airport.

When the gate was opened there was a mad rush to board. I waited till the tail of the queue was clearly in sight. When I got to the gate entrance the young girl asked for my passport and gave me a new boarding pass. I realized that I may have been upgraded, but was not so sure. So when boarding for Business and First Class passengers was announced I waited in the lounge till the last of the economy passengers had boarded. Then I made a beeline to the economy gate, only to be politely directed to the Business Class entrance.

Once again I had an aisle seat. The seat could double up as a flat bed and that is exactly what I used it as after the take off and a glass of champagne. The extremely comely airhostess woke me up in time for a lamb mince breakfast, which I had chosen prior to the nap. The seat had to be propped up for the meal and a while thereafter. I slept for a couple of hours more before landing was announced. A strong cup of coffee set me up for the homecoming.

Immediately on getting to the arrival hall of the CIAL I recalled the famous Shashi Tharoor statement of ‘cattle class’. The treatment that one got at the Immigration counter and the baggage hall was nothing short of this. Manned counters were insufficient to deal with the numbers that disembarked. The two security scanners were inadequate to deal with the hand baggage. The terrible experience at the baggage carousal had to be experienced to be believed. Bags spilled inside the carousal and baggage handlers were least interested in putting them back on to the belt. There were large gaps between loads that were deposited on the belt. It took nearly an hour to retrieve the baggage. To say that I was relieved to meet up with Ajay to leave the terminal would be a terrible understatement. Well, it was meant to be “Home, Sweet Home”.

Now some facts and statistics of the expedition. The path-breaking solo tour of four countries in two continents, the Trans-Siberian Expedition, was completed in 34 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes. The distance covered was 20112 km. The Trans-Siberian highway of 10117 km was completed in 12 days, 10 hours and 45 minutes. The entire trip was completed two days ahead of the scheduled program. INR 66,045 was spent for 1473 litres of diesel fuel, which cost an average of INR 44.84 per litre and gave an average mileage of 14 km to a litre. The cheapest fuel was in Myanmar at INR 34.75 per litre followed by Russia at INR 39.8 and China at INR 51. The costliest was, naturally, in India at INR 53.22, which was tempered by the low prices in the North East.

INR 28,800 was paid for tolls during the expedition. Toll charges were the highest in China at INR 5.02 per km followed by India at INR 0.8 and Myanmar at INR 0.4 per km. Russian highways are not tolled except the M11, which is fairly steep. The rather high toll charges in China are backed up by superior highway infrastructure. They shorten time taken for journeys and reduce wear and tear.

The self-driving trips through China and Myanmar cost a lot because of government regulations. The payment to the tour agencies cost over INR 4,40,000 for 10 days in China and that to Myanmar cost nearly INR 1,70,000 for four days! The Myanmar tariff included car formalities, accommodation, food and toll. The China tariff included just the formalities for the car and its transportation across the border into Russia in a truck.

Accommodation in China cost an average of INR 1825 per night and that in Russia was INR 3455. The chain hotels in China provide comfortable accommodation at least cost. However, the restriction in China is that hotels that can accommodate foreigners have to be separately registered by the hotel owners. Even small towns have comfortable accommodation at affordable prices in China. In Russia I sourced slightly pricier accommodation as I wanted to ensure private and secure parking for the car. Food cost only INR 23,250 during the entire trip, with that in Myanmar included in tariff. The other major expenses for the expedition were the Carnet fees of INR 1,00,000, which is ridiculously high, shipping of the car from St Petersburg (INR 1,80,000) and visa fees of INR 31,500.

Costs are secondary when it comes to fulfilling a passion. Yet, prudence demands a balance. With that in mind, wherever cost could be cut it was and unavoidables were gone through, like the last minute facilitation across the China-Russia border which cost me USD 700. The alternative would have been much greater costs in money and time. The expedition was highly enjoyable and an eye opener to the immense potential for tourism in Siberia. A must visit place, I hope that my self-driving trip will make that reality for many who have already dreamed and for others who are now motivated to dream.

Day 38 – 19 June St Petersburg to Dubai

Finally it was the day to leave for India. The days have gone by so quickly, interspersed as it was with some tensions and stresses, and I felt I should have driven onwards to Finland and all of Scandinavia! The white nights in St Petersburg light up the skyline quite early and so it was this day with the early part of the day being bright and sunny. The wind was tolerable and hence, I stood relaxing in the balcony for some time taking in the skyline and wondering if I will ever have another opportunity to come back to this city. I get this thought every time I leave a place I stay overnight or spend enjoyable time in. A city that my mind goes to without a prod and immediately is Cobb in Ireland. The halt in that city had been just a couple of hours during the London drive, but the amazing city, loving people and great hospitality made the visit memorable and yearn for a leisurely visit sometime in  the future.

I am maniacal when it comes to packing. Major part of the luggage had already been packed in the bags that would get to India in the car. I had segregated items and packed in such a way that I would be carrying just a couple of small duffels and a laptop bag. Even then I had to take things out, wonder if that was in the right bag and then rearrange some more till I had no more time to do all that in the flat. Truly, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. I had arranged with the owner of the flat to hand over the key of the flat at noon, over the booking site. I was told that the person who had come to hand over the key to me would take it over too. Hence, I prepared for the noon rendezvous after a lazy and long hot shower. The toilet kit and the flip flop were the last items that took their appointed places in one of the duffel bags.

Exactly at the stroke of noon the bell to the apartment rang and a roly poly lady with a most engaging smile explained that she had been deputed to collect the key from me. It is not as if I understood what she said, but the gestures and general demeanor made me realise that. She was carrying a few items to clean the flat and I knew that she was discharging a dual responsibility that morning. She quickly went around the flat to assess if any damage had been done to the flat that may require additional payment from me. She found all was in order and said so. I collected my bags and, wistfully, handed over the key and stepped out of the flat. Initially, I had been apprehensive about the place I had chosen to stay in the city. But in time I knew that HE had guided me to the right one. The container terminal, where the Champion was handed over, had been quite close to the apartment. The Metro station was less than a five minute amble from the complex, which could take me to any part of the city quickly and affordably. It was the Metro I intended to take this afternoon to the bus stand that would cart me to the Pulkova international airport.

As I was waiting to hand over the apartment the weather, that had been sunny, turned to being cloudy and it also started drizzling. In the past three weeks in the country I realized that it did not take long for the weather to change from the cheerful to the gloomy. Talk about ‘typical English weather’ and you find it in Russia! The light rain did not affect my walk, with the bags, to the Metro station. I reached the Zvozdnaya Metro station soon enough and took the steep escalator to reach the platform. The Moskovskaya Metro station, from where I would get a direct bus to the airport, was just a stop away. When I exited that station the rain had become a bit heavier and I virtually ran to the bus shelter across the road. It was a virtual run because, these days, it’s only the mind that races, the feet plod along lazily.

I did not have to wait long for the bus to the airport. Since that was the first stop there was enough room for luggage and enough seats for passengers. Traffic was light and, therefore, I reached the airport in about a half hour. The journey from the apartment to the airport had taken less than an hour and cost only RUB 65 – INR 72! It had been comfortable too. I had been told that a taxi ride could cost anywhere from 500 to 1000 RUB depending on the type of cab I took! I walked into Pulkova 1 terminal, the only functional terminal now, four hours ahead of the scheduled departure of the Emirates flight at 5 pm. My intention was to check in the baggage and explore the Duty Free shops at leisure. Those plans were struck a lethal blow when I was informed that the counter would open only by 3 pm! I had two hours to kill. Undeterred I switched plans - finalise documentation over a cup of coffee in a terminal restaurant. I got one of the duffel bags shrink wrapped and moved around to locate a place to sit and have a cup of coffee. I walked all around and discovered to my dismay that there were no seats to sit or any restaurants to relax till the counters opened. Machines vended beverages, hot and cold. I boycotted them and found a steel railing at ankle high to perch precariously, shifting weight regularly on the behind – lest that part of the body go to sleep. In that uncomfortable position I sat and watched ‘life’ in the airport. People with sad faces, those with cheerful countenances, people with aged companions who required help, those with toddlers who couldn’t manage on their own, people who were leaving their homeland, those who were returning to their own, people weighed down by huge pieces of luggage, those who traveled light, people traveling with their loved one, those who were travelling alone – all the different facets and stages of life made often for a thoughtful collage at that sparse Pulkova 1 international airport terminal. At times it was entertaining too. My perch was not far from the washrooms. The way people made their way to them, I thought, displayed the urgency of the visit. Some of them could not hide their distress while most took the stress in their stride!

The Emirates counters were in my line of sight and by a quarter to three I perceived some activity there. It was time to stretch my legs and I made my way to the head of one of the counters and was told that the counter would open shortly. It did and I was relieved of the bags that were booked through to Cochin. I was handed over the boarding passes for St Petersburg and Dubai. I was awfully hungry by the time I competed the security check. I had a small water bottle of premixed vodka in the laptop bag and that was, to my dismay, banned for carriage beyond the security area. I parted with that sadly and moved in search of a restaurant. I found one and decide to kill some time there. I ordered a ham omlette wrap and cold coffee, which the waitress told me would take about 20 minutes. I had more than 60 minutes to board. The Duty Free shops didn’t seem interesting enough to warrant extra time.

Once the excellent wrap and the huge cup of cold coffee were savored and disposed of I sauntered through the duty free picking up chocolates and a bottle of Beluga vodka. But what arrested my attention was the price of Russian Standard vodka. I had bought a 1 litre bottle of that spirit in Omsk for about $8. In the Duty Free shop at the airport it was priced at $25! I kicked myself for not having picked up a few more bottles from Omsk. By the time I boarded the flight to Dubai I had exhausted the entire stock of RUB.

I had a pre-booked aisle seat. This is another change that has come over me with age – I don’t know if it does with others. Even on long international flights I loved to hog the window seat in the younger days. The changing hues of the sky fascinates me. Once I got on to the wrong side of 50 toilet visits became inevitable in flights that were more than an hour long. That could be done without annoying or disturbing co-passengers only if I was seated in one of the aisle seats. I was happy with the seat I had for the 7 hour flight to Dubai. The middle and window seats were taken by a middle aged couple, evidently travelling home after a holiday. The flight didn’t seem to be full and soon after takeoff I slipped into a deep sleep. I was keen to wake up in time for dinner. In fact, my nose woke up first – the aroma of food and beverages brought me back from a dream filled sleep. I sought a peg of Glenfiddich on ice and kept sipping on that through the chicken meal.  Just a packet of bun remained to polish off the meal. The specially packaged bun remained stubborn through many attempts to open it. Finally I decided to poke it with the knife, holding it firmly in my hand. The Glenfiddich induced poke produced the most humorous after effects. The special package opened with the sound of a pistol going off inside the aircraft. Not only did the sound not alarm me; I saw concerned faces all around. It did not stop at that. The bun instantly rolled out of its cocoon and thudded into the half finished peg of Glenfiddich, spilling the whiskey on my shirt and trousers. A few ice cubes decided to cool a certain part of the body between the legs! After doing all that mischief the bun rolled under my feet and out of sight. The wreck that the blessed bun left in my attempt to eat it was a massive blow to the ego rather than the need to finish the meal. The couple who were peacefully having their meals next to me sought to soften the blow by offering me one of their buns! With that incident the meal and drink were over, rather abruptly. To get over the discomfort of wet clothes and a cooled extremity I sought refuge in Bajirao Mastani. The excellent acting and superb direction made me soon forget the disaster and inconvenience.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Day 37 – 18 June In St Petersburg

I woke up to howling winds but a clear sky. I ventured on to the balcony of the 13th floor apartment and almost got blown away. I feared for the phone camera more! The high railings around the balcony was a harness of sorts while I took in the glorious sights from that height. But the cold winds sent me shivering back into the warm confines of the bedroom in a short while. I decided to take it easy this day with the only objective of wanting to experience the Metro and possibly go to the Nevsky Prospect in the evening. I lazed around trying to find something to do! It had to be the blogs. By about noon I was up to date and ready for the Metro outing.

The Moscow Metro had fascinated me when I visited there in 2014. Many of the stations are virtual museums. Roman had warned me that I would not find the St Petersburg Metro stations so ornate but they would be clean. I learnt that the discussions about building an underground rail system in St Petersburg had started in 1812. There were many plans and proposals. Each of them was torpedoed for some reason or the other. Even the church had played its part in delaying the underground system concluding that it would be an affront to the dignity of the Church! The first section of the Metro opened in November 1955 and now covers 113 km through 67 stations on 5 Lines. The sixth line is under construction. The Metro is one of the most important means of transportation in this large city and carts nearly 2 million passengers daily. The unique topology of the city has made the St Petersburg Metro one of the deepest in the world and the Admiralteyskaya Metro station is 86 metres below the ground. This makes the elevator systems so steep that I almost felt that I would fall off the elevator. When I reached the Zvyozdnaya Metro station, the closest to my residence, I thought it resembled a dungeon. The doors to the line were steel encasements! Then I came to know that the Metro stations were also meant to be bunkers in the event of nuclear attacks. Each trip on the Metro system costs RUB 35. Metro coins are issued that has to be inserted into the turnstile to gain entry into the station. Metro cards can also obtained and topped up as and when required. However, unlike the London Underground there is no facility for a Day Pass. That’s a bit tiresome for tourists. But they can avail bulk travel coupons for journeys ranging from 10 to 50 trips. The stations are so vast that daily use of the Metro can also provide enough exercise for the body as I found out by late evening.

The morning outing was short because, as soon as I ventured out, it started drizzling and the winds made progress almost impossible. I secreted in the confines of a McDonalds for a Big Mac and a drink. I virtually ran back into the residence after experiencing the Zvyozdnaya to Kupchino ride in a Metro train. It was a seminal foray to appraise how user friendly the system is. I found it extremely so and thought of using it for the evening outing, weather permitting.

When I woke up after a short snooze following lunch of chicken cutlet and a bun the weather was not as threatening as it had been in the morning. The irony was that I had packed up all the warm clothes in the car for shipment to India. Armed with a sleeveless jacket I took the Metro to the Nevsky Prospekt without having to interchange. The Nevsky Prospekt is the main street in St Petersburg and serves as the principal shopping place and where nightlife never ends! The avenue is said to have been planned by Peter the Great, the founder of the city which served as the capital of a growing country for two hundred years. The grand Kazan Cathedral hogs the limelight in the area, the construction of which was completed in 1811. The church was considered primarily as a memorial after the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.

While walking around the cathedral area enjoying the architecture and the memorials around the place I found many tour operators promoting canal rides. St Petersburg is built across the Neva River delta and hence, is interlaced by a system of tributaries and canal systems that run more than 300 km in and around the city with over 800 bridges crossing them. From the Kazan Cathedral I walked along the Griboedov Canal enjoying the views on both sides of the canal as well as the grand sight of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The major tourist attraction in St Petersburg is an arresting sight from anywhere. It is modeled after the St Basils in the Kremlin. The colorful onion rings are captivating. The church was built at the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in an attack by an anarchist in 1881. The construction of the church was completed in 1907 but was badly damaged in looting and arson during the 1917 revolution. During WWII the church was used as a morgue and thereafter as a warehouse for potatoes! The renovated church does not have regular worship but is a rich museum of mosaics. However, memorial masses are held in the church.

After spending considerable time soaking in the sights of the canal and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood I trudged to the Palace Square. By this time the feet had become weary, for distances are deceptive and the sights too captivating to skip. The Square was decked up for some major events. Three huge stages had been put up that spoilt the grandness of the place. I was told by one of the security guys that the Square often serves as an open air concert center for international artists. The Winter Palace or the Hermitage is the central building in the Palace Square. Opposite to the Winter Palace is a huge arc that was designed as a monument to the victory against Napoleon. At the centre of the Square is the red granite Alexander Column, which is the tallest of its kind in the world.

A short walk away from the Palace Square is the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Square. The magnificence of the Cathedral is indescribable. It is the fourth largest cathedral in the world and the largest Russian Orthodox Church in the city. At the centre of the Square is the bronze equestrian monument to Tsar Nicholas I. Opposite to the Cathedral is the beautiful Marjinsky Palace, which presently is home to the Legislative Assembly of the city. The Blue Bridge and the Moika River grace the front of the erstwhile Palace.

By the time I reached the Blue Bridge, which at one point had been the widest bridge in all of St Petersburg, my legs had stopped co-operating. It was time to head home. I reached the Admiralteyskaya Metro station and made haste to the flat after making an interchange. Leftovers from lunch served as dinner laced with a few stiff servings of Russian Standard Vodka.

I am all packed for the trip back to Cochin. As I shut my eyes thinking of the White Nights of St Petersburg the mind wandered to the Dark Knights in God’s Own Country. Life without struggles is no life at all. But to struggle against negativity is a waste of one’s life, I believe.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Day 36 – 17 June In St Petersburg - Taking leave of the Champion

If I was under any misconception that what happened last evening with the flat was the height of stress during the Expedition the events of this day corrected that. Vassily had sent me a link last night of the place where we could meet at 9 am to complete the formalities for shipment of the car. I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic and started early after making sure that I had put all the required stuff in the car and had all the original documents with me. I reached the location advised by Vassily well in time and messaged him that I was already there. I parked the car and strolled around. I walked to what looked like a beautiful church of Our Lady close by. The premises were closed. However, a security guard opened the side gate for me and said that I could walk around inside if I chose to as the church would open after 9 am.

The angst of Beslan in stone
When I was praying to Our Lady standing outside the church I got a call from Egor asking if I had time to check my mail and get the required documents done. I told him that I would shortly be meeting up with his colleague, Vassily, to get the printouts organised as well as notarization of the Power of Attorney. Egor didn’t seem happy about the arrangement at all and said that I should get all that done by myself and that Vassily is no longer available to help me! I was too stunned and shocked to even react. My mouth went dry and knees weak. I didn’t know why such a thing had happened. I prayed to Our Lady to help me through this crisis, as I do always when confronted with one, and started pleading with Egor to lend me the assistance of someone who could communicate in English and guide me through what was needed. After a while, Egor gave me the contact of Roman who worked as a surveyor with a company in the Port of St Petersburg. Roman told me to meet him in the port premises and send me the GPS link to the site. As I was leaving the church the security guard asked me if I was Indian and advised me not to keep the purse in the back pocket!

When I reached the port I was stopped by security personnel who mentioned that the access to where I wanted to go was sealed for the time being because of the high profile Economic Forum conference. However, an English speaking guard, who also went by the name Roman, came to my rescue. He spoke to Egor’s contact Roman who confirmed that he would come to meet me at the place where the guards had asked me to park the car. Roman, the pleasant young man, arrived soon and we exchanged plans for the rest of the day. Egor and he gave me some sense of comfort that all would be done to take the car into the container freight terminal before close of business that day. I had to fill some forms and sign them. Some other forms had to be notarized, for which Roman had to get the correct contact. He promised that he would finish his work and come back to me with the printed forms in an hour. That interval stretched to three! With every passing hour my despair increased. If there was any glitch to the handing over of the car to the terminal it could also jeopardize my travel plans back to India with attendant financial implications.

Finally when Roman arrived he took me to a Notary where he was told that we would have to go a firm where translation would also be available. We then drove to the city centre, close to where Roman stayed with his wife in a 200 year old apartment! The Bruxelles complex was also the place where Fyodor Dostoevsky had lived and penned his famous works. At the firm all the details were taken and we were asked to return in an hour to do the rest of the formalities. We had time till 5.30 pm and I suggested lunch. Roman took me to a restaurant operated by his friend. The young Roman has had a varied life so far – he has been a chef and sailor and now a surveyor and entrepreneur; he runs a specialty Chinese Tea Shop with a friend. Roman had a pasta while I wolfed down a chicken roll. After we returned to the firm we had to wait till 7 pm to complete all the documentation in the firm, scan them and send them to Egor, who had to get the permission of the Line to take in the cargo.

When all that was being done Roman told me that the Modul Container Freight Terminal would be open only till 8 pm to accept cargo! It all seemed hopeless because the rush hour traffic would defeat all the efforts of the day, I surmised. When I despaired thus Roman mentioned that someone would wait an extra hour to accept the Champion. Miracles like these keep unfolding, when all seems lost. We reached the terminal just before 8 pm and drove into it after getting all the permissions. The terminal seemed empty of people for the busy one that it is. A few reachstackers were operating and so were a few forklifts. Roman located the person, Cheska, who would do all the formalities. She did a thorough inspection of the car and all its contents. Photos were taken from different angles and views to establish the condition in which the cargo was being accepted in the terminal, to guard against any future claims against the terminal. She said that the documents have to be modified since the cargo inside the car had not been mentioned prior. There was also a lengthy discussion with another gentlemen who had to be convinced about the contents in the car as well as the non-hazardous nature of the consignment.

It was 11 pm by the time the Champion was parked in the suggested slot inside the terminal and all necessary documentation completed. Roman told me that the car would be stuffed on Monday for shipment. Cheska had been a great help through the trying times inside the terminal and she understood my urgency in getting the car into the terminal. She also appreciated the journey I had done in Russia. The Champion also attracted some of those in the shift to admire the art work on her. It was an emotional moment taking leave of a companion who was the only one who understood what we had been through in the past 35 days. As I bid adieu to the soulmate I could not hide a tear that silently rolled down the corpulent cheeks.

Roman called for a Uber cab and soon I was deposited at my apartment complex. I was surprised how close it was to the freight terminal. Roman also told me that the place is quite close to the airport. I had despaired yesterday thinking that I had chosen the wrong place to halt in the city. As it turned out it was the right one. All things happen for one’s own good, if you believe so.

Two days of tension and extreme stress found an outlet in the Russian Standard vodka that was waiting for me in the apartment. I have never had such strong drinks in a long time. But the stresses had to get out. I counted my blessings through the expedition and found that at every step I was helped by the prayers and good wishes of friends and family. One does not accomplish anything by oneself. There are many accompanying components and prayer is the most powerful of them all.

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 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 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!

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...