- Andrew - 1999
St. Petersburg - Andrew, Jacqui, her Mum and friends - 2014
Even since the demise of the USSR, Russia is still so big it is beyond comprehension. The country straddles Europe and Asia, although the majority of the population lives in the European part of the country. The Asian part of Russia is dominated by the Steppe and the icy wastes of Siberia.
Russia faced a hard struggle from Communism to Capitalism that took it through corruption and civil violence. Today the country seems to be getting more on its feet and keen to regain its influence in Europe. This is a country with a history and culture to match any of "Western" Europe, one only needs look at St. Petersburg and the capital city Moscow to see this.
Russia always held a fascination for Western visitors and this has not diminished today.
Vyborg - Andrew - 1999
Travelogue written in 1999
My trip to Russia begins in Finland, in the town of Lappeenranta in the harbour at about 5:00 pm, along with Karoliina Kiianen with whom I was travelling.
The M.V. Kristina Brahe does regular cruises down the astonishing Saimaa Canal to the formerly Finnish town of Vyborg (Viipuri in Finnish, Wiborg in Swedish and in Cyrillic Russian) which became part of the Soviet Union along with a big chunk of Karelia after World War II.
The Kristina Brahe leaves Lappeenranta at around 6:00 pm and heads out first into Lake Saimaa and then into the Canal, which stretches 43 km and drops through 8 locks - so great is the drop in altitude level that when you stand at the top of the Castle in Vyborg you are at the same height as the water level on Lake Saimaa!
The Kristina Brahe functions as a kind of floating pub for much of the duration of the journey. The Finns on board are mostly heading to Russia for cheap beer and cigarettes and, determined to make the best of it, are getting rowdily drunk in the confined space inside the boat. A respite came when we went upstairs and stood on deck staring at the pitch darkness of the Russian countryside around us. I have never seen it so dark, so many stars twinkled in the sky and the eerie patterns of the bow waves off the boat in the black water made this a very restful memory.
Eventually even the hard-partying Finns had to call it a night, and almost everyone on board was asleep when the Kristina Brahe first entered the Gulf of Finland and then pulled up alongside the mooring in Vyborg at 2:00 am the following morning.
An early start was necessary at 6:00 am to get up and get ready to visit Russian soil for the first time in both our lives. Slightly sleepily we queued to get through customs; me with camera in pocket, Karoliina nervously clutching her mobile phone. Once through we waited by the harbour, across the road from the mighty Castle, for the bus to take us into the town centre. The contrast from affluent and clean Finland to poor and dirty Russia was immediately apparent and stark. The bus was on the edge of falling to pieces and it passed through the remnants of once proud houses the very short distance to the market square.
For the majority on the boat this was the destination; time to stock up on the cheapest beer and fags imaginable, even though most of it is of 'dubious' origin. Me and Karoliina, however, were here to see the town! We shopped for souvenirs (astonishingly cheap, of course) and then went into the covered market. Here we saw one of the least pleasant aspects of our trip, the meat counter with its pigs heads, very raw-looking dead things and clouds of flies (accompanied by a pretty disgusting odour the origins of which we didn't care to think to hard about). Escape from the covered market and its charnel atmosphere was very welcome indeed.
We took the decision to walk back towards the Castle and the boat, despite Karoliina's nerves which never quite stopped her wondering when we would be mugged by wandering bands of Russian thugs. It was a cold, still day and I got some wonderful photos of the Castle reflected in the still waters. We had to wait a while for the Castle to open; this is Russia after all and it was a bit much to expect things to open on time.
We were rewarded with a scramble up the tower of the Castle to some superb views back towards Finland and across Vyborg Town. Like the whole town the Castle is suffering from lack of care and the rail around the tower walk was a little shaky to say the least. After a good look around the Castle, it was sadly back to the Kristina Brahe; although I think for Karoliina is wasn't a moment too soon. To read more about Vyborg Castle visit the Castles of Europe pages.
The journey back up the Saimaa Canal was in the daylight and allowed us some excellent views of the bridges crossing to Vyborg and the thick Karelian Forest...out here in the wilderness there isn't any difference between Russia and Finland.
Crossing the border was announced by the almost immediate eruption of chirruping mobile phones - as sure a sign as any that you are back in Finland.
Andrew J. Müller - November 1999
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