It is 11.30 pm. The night sky is dusky blue and stars wink at us from the light coloured horizon. The boats rock dangerously from the motion of the tide coming in as we step gingerly, but in a carefree holiday manner - champagne glass in hand - across the six tour boats berthed alongside each other to our own. There was lots of excitement and laughter as we made friends with others in the boat, using hand gestures, giggles and minimal Russian. We waited and waited along with thousands of others who had lined the banks of the river Neva or who had poured on to boats like ours. What for? "The White Nights!!"
St Petersburg is a working port and every night from 1.00 am to 5.00 am the city bridges are raised to allow ocean-going ships to pass through. This happens nightly from May to September and as a result has become a 'must-see' for all visitors during the warm summer nights. The melee of pleasure craft wait upstream. One at a time the bridges are raised and the 60 or so small craft, laden with hundreds of noisy holiday-makers (mostly Russian), rev their engines in anticipation of the race to be the first through the open bridge. It's a fun ritual more than a necessity as all the boats can easily go under the bridges when they are down! The crowded boats then take their excited passengers on a memorable tour through the canals of a city which is beautifully illuminated even in the early hours of the morning.
St Petersburg is a magnificent city. The 'Venice of the North' has some of the world's best museums. The Hermitage (the rebadged Winter Palace) has some 3 million artefacts; while the magnificent palaces of Pushkin and Pavlovsk and summer palace of the Petrodvorets are all places one should visit. We explored this historic city on a fascinating walking tour before embarking on a train trip that would eventually take us all the way across Russia, Mongolia and northern China to Beijing, nearly 9000 kms later.
The Trans-Siberian Railway has always had a mystique to travellers and we were no different from anyone else. Travelling with my husband and good friends, we spent 12 days working our way first to Moscow, and then eastwards across the Urals into the taiga of Siberia, the steppes and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and Northern China, stopping, and getting off, several times en route. What a fascinating and interesting vista unfolded outside our compartment window - and the infinite numbers of wild flowers were amazing.
If one was to remain on the train one could complete this vast distance in 7 days. Most travellers get on and off along the way, spending time exploring some of the interesting destinations. In reality, the Trans-Siberian is a combination of many local trains and even the name 'Trans-Siberian' can be a little misleading. There is only one dual train track that wends its way eastwards across the entire country but after five of the seven days it splits into the Trans-Mongolian (through Mongolia to Beijing), the Trans-Manchurian (through Manchuria to Beijing) and the Trans-Siberian (finishing in the eastern Russian port of Vladivostok).
The train itself was remarkably comfortable. Kept at a pleasant 21C, each carriage had an attendant who took pride in keeping her responsibility clean. On several occasions a day we were asked to lift our legs as our little two-berth compartment was vacuumed! Each compartment was provided with an adequate supply of bed linen too. The toilet was regularly cleaned out, something we had not expected. Furthermore, the train stuck to a rigid timetable of departures, necessary on one of the busiest rail tracks in the world. It was impressive and reassuring! Many of our concerns about travelling for such a time dissipated very quickly. Furthermore, the food in the dining car proved most adequate although we only tended to use it for our evening meals.
We got into a daily routine of checking the distance from Moscow (there are signs every kilometre along the track) and working out from our guide books what to look out for within the next hour or so and in which direction, north or south of the train. Stops at small country towns became a hurried foraging expedition to buy water, or beer, a salami sausage or cheese, bread or biscuits for a lunch in our compartment. When joined by other travellers (Dutch, Danes, French, German, English, Australians) these meals became an increasingly friendly hubbub of travel stories and experiences. Folk we met we saw at different times and places down the line and we swapped stories of experiences we had had away from the train on our various stop-overs.
Memories of the trip are etched in our conversations. Wild flowers, forests, the beautiful Kremlin in Moscow. The flatness of the countryside and the disappointment that the Urals which separate Europe and Asia are not high mountains. The huge rivers flowing northwards thousands of kilometres to the Arctic Ocean. The beauty of Lake Baikal and a fascination with its depth (1.6 kms). The friendliness of the Mongolians and an appreciation of their magnificent country (a place I would love to return to some day). The dryness and flatness of the Gobi Desert: and then as we headed towards our final destination of Beijing, the vista of the Great Wall of China snaking along the ridges.
We had had a fabulous trip - one of life's great experiences! And a train trip I would strongly recommend to travellers of all ages. Contact Viv 1300 815 512 (0415 250 224) to book your own Trans-Siberian trip.