Friday, 7 November 2014

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Tula to St Petersburg

I shouldn't really be giving Michael Portillo any more wordspace. I've written about this programme before. But he has a new series. New routes, same idea. Same old battered copy of Bradshaw's. Same terrible jackets. In fact they've got worse. I can't actually think of a word for the shade of yellow Portillo was sporting last night. I have to come up with several. Creamy fluorescent not-quite-ripe lemon with a hint of Easter chick? He still likes to play the buffoon, though not necessarily intentionally. And he still likes to take his clothes off, this time behind a strategically placed pillar, ready to be scrubbed violently by men in funny hats.
Last night he was travelling in Russia. How changed it was from the country I visited on a school trip aged 15. Last night's Russia was colourful and gilded and vibrant, hi-tech and high-speed. Whereas when I went, in 1989, with glasnost and perestroika still new to the dictionary, Leningrad still called Leningrad, and the iron curtain still to fall, everything seemed brown and bare (although Leningrad did have a lot of yellow buildings with white pillars). Portillo was there in the long warm evenings of summer (he could thankfully even take those jackets off at times) and we were there in March with snow still on the ground, but regardless of the weather, it's a very different world there today.

A yellow building with white pillars
St Isaac's Cathedral

Moscow University
But some things would never have been the same, whatever the era, since we were there on an educational visit that was very much on the cheap. Portillo stayed in what were always luxurious hotels with famous historical guest lists, whereas we were forced out to the suburbs, into high-rises with broken lifts, 1970s decor, frightening electrical wiring, orange frosted glass, cleaners stealing our tights and KGB officers sitting in the corridor outside. The food was terrible, and we sat and watched the hotel cooks recycling our leftovers onto someone else's plates, and tipping ash from their cigarettes into our ice cream. Whereas even on a train, Portillo experiences fine dining. "Ochin harasho", he comments at every mouthful, with his supercilious grin. Portillo gets to down vodka; we were offered turquoise blue lemonade which may or may not have done irreparable damage to my nervous system. The lemonade was all we could drink - we were banned from touching the water in Leningrad. We weren't even allowed to brush our teeth in it. (The same water notoriously killed Tchaikovsky, after all.) And the mineral water we were offered came from the local marshes, with a lot of the marsh bottled with it.

Our hotel in Moscow, and how far we had travelled from it
before our bus broke down
Portillo's train from Moscow to St Petersburg took him only four hours, looked like a sleek and streamlined TGV or German ICE, and had reclining seats. We had to go overnight from Leningrad to Moscow in a metal prison on wheels, four to a cabin, with a drunk man outside trying to break into our berths (or "berthas" as our guide called them). Forty hysterical 15-year-old girls. You can imagine the squealing. We didn't see Portillo's railway Portaloo, but our toilet looked like this:

But anyway, we got what we deserved. The good things were all wasted on us. We ignored our teachers' instructions and disrespected authority. One of our group got arrested for taking a camera into Lenin's mausoleum even though we had been given strict instructions to leave all photographic equipment on the bus. We got sent to bed early for singing Bros songs on the way back from a beautiful choral concert in a cathedral. We only really enjoyed posing in our trilby hats on Red Square, telling everyone how evil Margaret Thatcher was, and buying Communist posters in the bookshop on Nevsky Prospect to pin on the walls of our classroom at school. I shall never forgive myself for being in the Hermitage (probably the greatest art gallery in the world) and feeling bored in the Impressionists room, just wanting to escape outside to hang out with my friends and go leer at sailors. And I brought home a tin of caviar, but fed it to my cat.

But even though we were so obnoxious, the Russians were not keen to let us leave, keeping us on our last day at Sheremetyevo Airport for hours and hours after our scheduled departure time, telling us that our plane hadn't turned up and our plane that we hadn't turned up. There being no seats, we had to sit on the terminal floor. Eventually, we were allowed to board, the air stewards just seconds away from their maximum permitted shift length, and the chicken Kiev they grumpily threw at us once airborne was the most welcome meal of my life.
Posing with a trilby in Red Square

The Hermitage, scene of the Russian Revolution and one of my greater moments of ignorance

Nevsky Prospect, Leningrad

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