Travel like a local in Russia

You know the feeling. It is late in the afternoon; you have just spent several hours on your feet and you are simply exhausted. All you want to do is get home. Now.

I felt like that a couple of weeks ago in St Petersburg Russia. We had spent the morning sightseeing in the city and the whole of the afternoon walking through the beautiful but huge Peterhof.

Finally we decided it was time to go back to the hotel. My husband and I decided that we would take the bus, instead of the tourist boat, to see some of the countryside.

Bad idea.

It was later than we had supposed and there were simply no buses stopping on our side of the road. We waited a while. I could feel the fear rumbling deep in my stomach. We were in a strange country 50km from our hotel. We did not really speak Russian and very few Russians seemed to speak English. I was exhausted and hungry. But to do anything about that would involve wondering away from the relative safety of the bus station into an unknown small town.

So we waited.

At last I noticed a mini bus parked by the side of the road. It had in fact been waiting there for most of the time we were waiting for a bus. There were two men inside it. As I watched, one slid open the sliding door. They were clearly waiting for someone.

I ventured closer and saw at the front of the mini bus was a large sign saying "ABTOBO". This was the name, written in Cyrillic, of the metro station where we wanted to go. I could feel my heart beat faster. Was this a taxi? Or a different kind of bus? I screwed up my courage and approached one of the men who was now standing beside his vehicle.

I said hello in Russian. I was the one speaking to strangers instead of my husband, because I had studied the language and supposedly spoke it a little. But on that afternoon I could not remember anything beyond hello. So I proceeded in very broken and hopefully simple English. I established with relative certainty, that yes, they were going to Avtovo Metro station. What did it cost? The Russian had trouble explaining it to me. Seventy or seventeen rubles? The distinction seemed to confused him. Admittedly I have had trouble hearing the difference when first language English people say it. Finally I decided it did not matter what it cost. It was a taxi or a bus of a sort and it was going where we wanted to go.

We boarded, choosing two seats near the back. Some two minutes later more people climbed on board. All of them seemed like locals who had just finished work somewhere close. It was then that I realised it. We were on a Matrushka bus, something I had read about and been warned not to use...

Only, to get off at that point, seemed impossible. People were blocking the isle and the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to the fact that we were defenseless tourists. So I kept my mouth firmly shut and within moments we were off, with only two seats remaining empty.

The driver weaved between cars like an expert and applied his foot to the break with zeal; each time stopping just before we hit the car in front of us. We stopped twice to pick up more passengers. Finally when two people were standing in the isle between the seats, the taxi was declared full. After that we stopped only when the robots were really red or when the traffic were too congested to move an inch. Mostly we moved fast. We bumped over tram lines at 80 km/h while the Russian countryside flashed passed us.

At last I forgot to be worried and instead became filled with the wonder of the journey: forests, people with prams, a modern glass and steel structure with a stream of ancient trams heading towards it, the blue sea shimmering in the background.

Abruptly we stopped. We had arrived safely, exactly where we wanted to be. Relieved, relaxing, we joined the stream of locals heading towards the subway. We had survived a journey on a Matrushka bus - a form of transport locals seem to like.

A du Toit

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