Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 6 Helsinki to Stockholm

Helsinki to Stockholm

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Took the high speed Allegro train to Helsinki. The journey takes 3.5 hours and it is a lovely train. I had lasagne from the restaurant car and wondered how much horse meat had found its way into my meal. It was nice anyway. There’s free wifi, a children’s play area, and currency exchange on the train.

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Passport stuff was all done on the train with portable passport reading machines. There are stops along the way but passengers aren’t allowed off at certain points. It was….so friendly…so efficient….Russia and Mongolia felt a long way away already.

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It was nice being in the EU, comforting. It was great to be able to speak to people in English again as I asked for help getting to the ferry port. I was told to get the tram which turned out to either be free or I didn’t understand how to pay. The port was very near, I was disappointed that I hadn’t walked, especially considering the fact I could have used Google maps seeing as Helsinki has free wifi. Everywhere. I got to the port a couple of hours before my Silja line ferry was due to leave.

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The Silja line ferry leaves Helsinki in the late afternoon and arrives in Stockholm in the morning of the next day. This was to be my first ever cruise experience and having had some bad experiences on shorter trips to and from France and in the Thai islands, I approached this portion of my trip with some trepidation. Happily the sea was like a pond and the ship was so vast that it rarely felt like you were on water.

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My Swedish friend in Bangkok had referred to the ferry as the Chlamydia Cruise and so I had expected a rather rough and ready affair full of drunken scandies but what I found was a lot of families and couples on duty free shopping trips. I had been upgraded as they were reasonably quiet and I found that I had my very comfortable compartment to myself.

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Breaking through the ice as we left the harbour was epic. I had a beer in the pub at the stern of the ship and watched us leave Helsinki behind.

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As it got darker and we entered open water, I had a wander around the ship. There was a lot of duty free shopping being done on the lowest level while Irish Titanic jigwankery entertainment kicked off in the central promenade. Surrounded by ice, with this Titanic theme and a nightclub by the name of Atlantis, I couldn’t help but feel that fate-tempting of this magnitude could only ensure that this ship would never end up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

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I got drunk and watched a pretty good solo singer in the pub as well as an ice hockey game before losing some money in the casino and suffering the workmanlike Black Eyed Peas wannabe band and daddy-dancing for a while. As the number of people watching and dancing dwindled and it all started to look rather pathetic, I went and found the other club above the pub. I was impressed by how clean, polished, and well lit the interior of the ferry was. I would imagine that it could be a good lads night out experience there were it busier.

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The club was dead but a few persevered, including myself it would seem as I’d gotten pretty drunk, but it was that nice inebriation that fits so well with new experiences. I wandered through the now empty ship to my room and collapsed into bed.

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I woke up early to watch the ship creep through the fjords as we approached Stockholm. There was a thin film of ice sitting on the sea. The sound of it cracking softly in our wake was wonderful and the scenery was stunning. I was hungover and quite possibly still quite drunk and it was actually all rather emotional after having travelled so far. It was very possibly the highpoint of the trip that morning.

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The ship glided smoothly into port in Stockholm.

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Part 7 Stockholm and Copenhagen to London

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Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 5 St Petersburg

St Petersburg

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St Petersburg is stunning. From the moment I got off the train at the end of Nevski Prospekt, the main drag that runs a couple of miles up to the Neva river and the Winter Palace that sits on its bank, everywhere you looked there was incredibly beautiful and well-maintained architecture. It naturally has a fascinating and long history but there also appears to be a marvellously diverse nightlife and social scene and the people are confident and interesting.

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I got to my hotel, The Nevsky Central Hotel a short walk from the station on Nevski Prospekt, around breakfast time and was told that I could check in after lunch, so I stored my bag and walked to the Hermitage museum.

On the way I had a coffee in KFC. This man was sleeping in his suit, obviously worse for wear after a night on the times in one of the 24 hour bars or late closing nightclubs that dotted Nevsky Prospekt and its side-streets.

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This is a fucking Burger King

I didn’t eat here but simply had to go in to look at the layout of the place. It’s a Burger King. A. Burger. King. Every facet of the city seemed to want to maintain the tasteful, classical styles of the larger historic buildings.

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The Hermitage is incredible. From all the art that had been stolen from all over Europe by the Nazis, to the exquisite decorations of the Winter Palace, and the hall full of portraits of military leaders that fought against Napoleon. Then there’s the Egyptian collection and the Jordan Staircase. Much like the city itself, it’s difficult to walk ten metres without wanting to take pictures.

I was hungover and rather respectful of the hundreds of old men and women whose jobs seemed to consist of sitting in the corners of rooms and looking disapprovingly at people wielding Nikons in the directions of the paintings.

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The next morning I took the underground to Peter and Paul Fortress over the Neva from the Winter Palace. While waiting for my train. The doors of the St Petersburg underground are very unforgiving. Once they start to close, that’s it. You’re either in or you’re out and for a few people in the picture below, that was particularly bad news. The doors closed with a very young child on the one side while his family screamed in panic on the other. The look of desperation on the face of his mother and the sound she made as the train pulled away was horrible. I have to imagine that it is something that happens regularly, and they therefore are used to dealing with such situations. I hope everything was OK anyway. I felt particularly useless there at that stage, unable to offer any realistic help.

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Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the island stronghold built by the tsars, was home to a good number of attractions, primarily Peter and Paul’s Cathedral where the empire’s leaders’ bodies were all laid to rest and a certain Mr Tolstoy  was banished.

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The main lot were all laid to rest here, inluding Alexander and Catherine the Great who was put in the casket next to the brother she assassinated in order to claim the throne.

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People in tour parties were given the opportunity to climb the tower with a few of the active priests that wandered about the place. I was shouted at for taking this picture and wrongly identified as a member of the Italian tour party. What an amazing adventure.

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Visitors can exit the Nevsky Gate where people were sent for execution and walk around the frozen periphery of the island. I did so myself, noticing on the way Russians taking a load off here and there to relax while enjoying a view of the Neva. While frozen it must essentially look very much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. In the warmer weather it’s probably crawling with oligarchs’ yachts.

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Having done a circuit, I checked out the Naryshkin Bastion, the prison on the island that had been home to very many political prisoners including Trotsky, Lenin’s brother who would be later executed and a great deal more in addition to a good deal of members of the establishment after the revolution.

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Here and there in the more tourist parts of the city, people wandered around in period costume ready for photo opps such as these two newly-weds.

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St Petersburg wasn’t free of the panpipe menace.

This was a rather striking mosque

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This was a rather striking old ship

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And this was the rather stunning Church on Spilled Blood built on the spot where Alexander the 2nd had been assassinated in 1881.

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Inside, I was compelled to say the most inappropriate/appropriate ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’ since I’d visited some of the grander cathedrals in Italy.

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This is the precise spot where Alex Part Deux was forcibly shuffled off his mortal coil.

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Naturally, there was religious tat for sale to appease the angry God of capitalism.

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I left the church and walked back to the hotel, checking out the sights as I went.

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This was a lovely knife and gun shop I came across.

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This was a club shop for Zenit St Racistberg fans that were probably regular customers of the aforementioned shop (I’m sure this is an unfair reflection of the majority of Zenit fans).

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Below my hotel there was a bar/internet cafe establishment by the name of CafeMax. I went here to have some food and a beer before retiring for the evening. It was a Saturday but still surprisingly busy. I was informed that this was a city wide meeting for different ‘Mafia’ clubs and they were having a tournament that day. This was the kind of stuff I loved seeing, locals interacting and doing stuff that I could both relate to and which rather mystified me.

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The game seemed to be a sort of roll-playing game where they took it in turns to shout at each other. At the beginning they all wore blindfolds while an invigilator shouted more things I didn’t understand in Russian. Loud rock music played over the shouting. It was marvellous.

The players were animated and passionate, genuinely delighted and despondent having won or lost respectively. I sat there watching those that were waiting to play while drinking more strong Russian beer. These were to all intents and purposes what would be deemed nerds in the UK/US but they weren’t socially inept. In fact, probably buoyed by the heroic volumes of caffeine and sugary cakes they were ingesting, they were confident and talked animatedly.

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The women were fucking absurdly attractive as well. Russian women were by and large very attractive. Not so much because of their features, Russians resemble British people. They have a poise, and a knowing sexiness that they exude in the way they fix their stares on their partners and the way they walk, stand, sit, and slouch. The staff in the hotel in Irkutsk, for example, all had athletic bodies and the aforementioned poise. Like gymnasts and ice skaters that had had to take on more mundane professions to pay for their husbands’ alcohol abuse issues.

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All in all, I loved my very brief couple of days in St Petersburg and recommend it to anyone. However, Scandinavia was waiting.

Part 6 Helsinki to Stockholm