Trip 1: London - St. Petersburg

Part of it was what people in London had said. It was also the way that people on the plane asked why on earth I would go to Russia, notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were on the same plane. It felt like the first episode of The Prisoner, though the staff of Austrian Airlines had forgotten to wear the buttons with the big tricycles.

We landed at Pulkovo airport, which is a mud-spattered, bleak, Soviet-looking place from the 50's or 60's. The small plane landed in the middle of the runway, and we were herded in to the hall. My main concern was with the immigration forms that you had to answer accurately without instructions or else. I knew I didn't have any "psychotropic drugs or substances", but didn't know whether I had anything to declare. This could escalate into a problem very quickly. But when I asked the customs official whether I needed to declare my camera and she rolled her eyes, I realized that things had probably relaxed a bit.

As expected, the taxi driver was there to take me to the hotel. I tried my best to make conversation throughout the trip, and was actually pretty pleased that I could say anything at all. Like drivers in any other city, this fellow could make due with all sorts of small talk. The trip from the airport was my first tour of St. Petersburg. This part of the city was pretty run-down. The people didn't look so run-down, but everything around them was kind of dire, though they didn't seem to notice. The whole place smelled from petrochemicals, a smell which, it turned out, stayed around until I left Russia.