Saturday, 30 July 2011

Leaving Russia

Tuesday 26th July 2011

The ship had made arrangements for transport at appropriate times to ferry the departing passengers to St. Petersburg airport to go our various ways. My departure time was 11.30 a.m. and I was determined to squeeze the most experience out of the remaining time by making a 'whistle-stop' visit to the city centre.

I established that the first shuttle bus to the Metro station was at 9.00 a.m. so I was waiting for it in good time. The bus made good time across the river to the Metro station and purchasing a ticket was no problem. When I got to the platform level, I realised that the station lacked any signage in 'Romanised' characters but the Metro map I was carrying only had the place names in 'Romanised' form, so I struggled to determine in which direction I should be heading. A train came in on what I thought was the right direction so I caught it. After a fair bit of worrying and trying to guess the meaning of words in Cyrillic characters each time we stopped, I arrived at Gostiny Dvor in the centre of the city.

St. Petersburg street scene.

It was another sunny morning with plenty of people about and I happily wandered around for a while until fear of getting back to the ship late overcame me so I entered Nevsky Prospekt Metro station, purchased a ticket and made my way through the underground passages to get to the Gostiny Dvor platforms, aided by at least some of the signs using 'Romanised' as well as Cyrillic characters.

With some relief, I boarded a train going in the right direction and counted off the stops. When we arrived at the stop before mine, I realised my carriage was now empty. A minute later, the driver walked through the train 'shooing' any remaining passengers off the train. The platform edge doors closed and I heard my train rumble away. I'd no idea why the train was being taken out of service. After a few minutes, the following train arrived and I was able to continue my journey. By now I was worried that I would miss the shuttle bus back to the ship so I sprinted up the long escalator until I was panting heavily, emerged into the sunlight and impatiently waited for the traffic lights to stop the traffic and allow me to cross the road. By now, I could see the shuttle bus but my watch suggested that the bus should be about to leave. Two passengers were still on the pavement - 'Plenty of time' they assured me and, indeed, it was about a minute before the bus moved off with one relieved passenger still breathing heavily.

After this adventure, I was back at the ship with time to spare before saying my final goodbyes, identifying my luggage and joining the coach to the airport. The coach initially took the route we'd used the previous day going to the Catherine Palace at Pushkin before taking the airport road, passing a large retail park and pulling up at a surprisingly small airport terminal building. This was Pulkovo II which appeared to be for international flights. As we'd arrived, I'd seen another terminal in the distance crowned with what looked like five cooling towers and I assumed this was Pulkovo I for domestic flights. The terminal was fairly crowded with a number of queues snaking towards check-in desks placed around the outside of the space. According to the passenger displays, I had at least an hour to wait before I could check in so I found a relatively quiet corner of the terminal, sat down on my large case and took out my notebook computer to pass the time preparing text for the blog. To my amazement, the computer immediately connected itself to a free, fast 'Wi-Fi' so I dashed off a couple of e-mails. I was quite happily typing away and didn't at first notice that check in had started at two desks for my flight to Zurich.

One desk for Economy had a very long queue but the other desk for Business had a short queue which I joined. There seemed to be a group of French ladies at the head of the queue attempting to check-in (in English) but the check-in girl was repeatedly directing them, with extreme politeness, to the other queue. I assumed they didn't have Business Class tickets. Next, the French contingent tried to book in by speaking French. Once again, the check-in girl declined with great courtesy, responding in French. One of the French ladies then insisted on remaining directly in front of the check-in desk, glowering at everyone in sight. The check-in girl then processed the Business class passengers very efficiently and I commented on her patience. Check-in complete, I made my way through security and immigration, with the French ladies still attempting to picket the Check-in desk.

I found the nice, quiet Polkovo business lounge which had extremely friendly staff and a reasonable range of snacks. Once again, the 'Wi-Fi' worked well and it was soon time to make my way to the Departure Gate for my flight. The advantage of the small terminal was that it only took a couple of minutes to get from the lounge to the gate. There are plenty of airports where they warn you to allow 20 minutes!

Taxiing away from Pulkovo II terminal at St. Petersburg.

Once on the aircraft, I was able to relax and catch my last views of Russia as we made our way to Switzerland. It was sunny and hot when we arrived in Zurich. The terminal seemed very crowded but, to my relief, my flight was called quite soon and I boarded the bus taking us onto the apron where the aircraft for the Birmingham flight was waiting. The flight was uneventful and we arrived at Birmingham on time - a satisfactory conclusion to what had proved a stimulating and fascinating tour.

More pictures.