Gulag-style apartment complexes were lined up in every direction; the highways were empty except for the odd ancient bus belching black smoke; and the only other pedestrians were staggering drunks with their faces freshly bloodied from brawls or falls. A young Russian named Nikolai, who was guiding me through this apparent disaster area, identified one of the monolithic apartment blocks and we cautiously picked our way inside.
Now things really felt grim. The main door hung loosely off its hinges. A dismally lit entry hall looked more like a bomb shelter, and the broken concrete floor was strewn with old garbage. Worse, the place smelt like the public lavatories in Hyde Park - and the reek became almost overpowering in the tiny lift that lurched its way up to the sixth floor. 'Every building in St Petersburg smells like this,' confided Nikolai with a forced smile. 'The basements are full of feral cats. But don't worry: the smell doesn't get into the apartments.'
It was a relief to get that straight. After all, for the next two weeks, this place was going to be called home.
Of all the historic changes now going on in the former Soviet Union, one lapse of regulations has provided foreign travellers with a dubious opportunity. For the first time in decades, individuals can now be issued visas to many Russian cities without having to prebook pseudo-luxurious hotels at pounds 150 a night, and in the spirit of capitalism, St Petersburgers are making use of whatever they have got, throwing open their apartments to anyone who will pay. If you want to stay in the central part of the city - an 18th-century enclave of magnificent facades and Venetian canals - there are now a number of bed-and-breakfast organisations that will arrange accommodation for about pounds 20 a night.
To find your own apartment, simply ask around: I started off on a group tour for a couple of days and made a few inquiries with the guides.
Within hours I had several offers, including one from Lena, a young doctor who would move out of her place for pounds 6 a day. (I overcame my moral qualms at this situation by telling myself that the daily rate was the equivalent, at the time, of a doctor's monthly salary.) Staying out in Leninsky Prospekt might seem like drawing the short straw in the accommodation stakes (to say the least). But once I got over the initial shock at the Blade Runner look of the building, it turned out that the apartment itself was perfectly comfortable, even quite charming. And living in Leninsky Prospekt turned out to be a classic Russian experience. While central St Petersburg is turning into capital-
ist heaven, out in Leninsky Prospekt the anonymous Soviet lifestyle is only now, very slowly, starting to crack.
It was perversely satisfying to find that, out here, all the cliches of Russian life still applied - proving a disturbing rule of thumb that what is truly miserable for a local resident can be exactly what a traveller is looking for.
Nikolai was right: two thick metal doors, each with double locks, did keep out the smell from the cat-infested basement. Instead, the one-bedroom place had the musty, nostalgic scent of grandmother's house. As if to ward off the chaos beyond its doors, every aspect of the apartment's well-worn, Seventies-style decor was meticulously arranged; the gas oven in the kitchen worked perfectly and the shower usually ran hot, albeit only with a thin trickle.
Oddly, everything seemed to be coated with a film of grease, even the plates and utensils (which made one wonder how the surgical instruments were doing at Lena's hospital). Hygiene was a bit of a problem out in the corridors, too. Garbage was supposedly dumped down a metal shute, with a huge stick provided to ram rubbish down its narrow neck. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to have the energy to use it, so the refuse just overflowed around the stairwell.
Perhaps this contributed to the distinct lack of neighbourly good cheer. Nobody nodded to one another in the corridors or even shared the lift. Lena had warned darkly of regular robberies and hold-ups in the building, and admonished me never to speak in the corridors, to avoid being marked as a foreigner. I soon adopted the stony Russian expression from the apartment door, into the street and - above all - down into the metro, joining the tidal wave of people surging Metropolis-style into the bowels of the earth.
Within a quarter of an hour, having been whisked past marble-lined stations adorned with statues of the poet Pushkin, I would be spat out within a stone's throw of the former Winter Palace. In central St Petersburg, a fistful of dollars will now buy you almost anything, either at the glitzy hard-currency stores and restaurants or the Asiatic, open-air bazaars that the pavements have become.
But out in the suburbs there were no restaurants, good or bad; just the food lines and empty shelves so well-covered in the Western media. Finding something to eat is a time-consuming business, even for a foreigner.
At least the bread and milk lines were not as long as expected - sadly, Russia's spiralling price rises mean that fewer people can afford what is at the other end. Twenty minutes was the norm, giving me time to memorise the appropriate lines from a cheap Russian phrase book: 'six eggs and milk, please' comes out something like shest yaytsa y moloko, pazhalsta. (Which was nothing, really; asking someone on the subway to tell you where to get off supposedly goes like this: pazhalsta, pryedupryeditye myenya kagda maye nuzhna vikhadit.) Luckily nobody expects you to be able to speak Russian, so pointing and gesturing goes a long way. Despite the horror stories, not all Russian food was inedible: the wholemeal bread is surprisingly tasty, for example, and the leaf tea excellent. Bottled milk, on the other hand, turned out to be sour about 50 per cent of the time.
Getting beyond bread and eggs was more complicated. Perversely, black caviare and Russian champagne were being sold all over Leninsky Prospekt, but it was not exactly the ideal diet. A few valiant street vendors had begun congregating around the metro entrance, selling items like curd and withered green beans; once someone turned up with a satchel full of imported Italian pasta.
Eventually, by asking Russian friends, I discovered that the best place to buy food was the giant markets at Vladmirskaya, where vegetables from the Ukraine are sold off in a cast-iron hall the size of an aircraft hangar.
The quality was as high as organic vegetables in the West: the tomatoes and oranges were perfect, and the carrots seem to glow orange (hopefully, fallout from Chernobyl had nothing to do with this effect).
But the item that finally drove me skulking into the hard currency stores was water. St Petersburg tapwater is too polluted even to brush your teeth in, and Russia may be the only place in the world where the local bottled mineral water seems more dangerous. It tastes of nothing but rust. I left a glass out overnight, and it turned a mysterious orange colour. By the second day, a silvery film had appeared on its surface.
'Not many places bring to bear such gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the spirit of man as Petersburg]' complains a character in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. 'It's a city of the half insane.' Economic disaster has recently added to the weight of northern fog, darkness and drizzle that plagues St Petersburg even at the height of summer, and Leninsky Prospekt has more than its fair share of people muttering to themselves and wailing in the streets.
After two weeks of the Russian experience, even with my complete cushion of dollars, the atmosphere was starting to get to me, too. The ubiquitous blank expressions began to look more like profound sadness, as if all have just been told that their mothers have been killed in some horrible, easily avoidable accident. And riding the metro, I began desperately wishing that something would happen to break the silence, imagining that some panhandler would wander on, start yelling about his service in Afghanistan or wanting to sell chewing gum, or . . . anything.
On a bad day, it could feel as if it would take generations before any real change would make it out to Leninsky Prospekt.
But then, on my last night in St Petersburg, something happened: for the first time, the pristine walls of the subway station were marred by an advertisement. From now on, the tidal wave of commuters would gaze at the tanned face of . . . the Marlboro Man.
Well, nobody ever guaranteed that change would be for the better.-
GETTING THERE: Aeroflot (071-355 2233) return flights to St Petersburg (Saturdays from Heathrow, Tuesdays and Sundays from Stansted from the end of March) or Moscow (daily from Heathrow) start at pounds 230, no advance purchase necessary, no minimum stay, maximum stay 3 months, payment by cash or banker's draft only at the Aeroflot offices, 70 Piccadilly, London W1. British Airways (081-897 4000) offers Apex returns to St Petersburg from pounds 384 and to Moscow from pounds 412 (28 days' advance purchase, minimum stay 1 Saturday night, maximum stay 3 months). Trailfinders (071-937 5400) return flights to St Petersburg or Moscow start at pounds 269.
STAYING THERE: Several incipient bed-and-breakfast services now operate in Russia, including HOFA - whose agent is in the United States on 010 1 201 435 8868 (phone and fax). Rates are dollars 30 a night for bed and breakfast in the centre of Moscow or St Petersburg (in locations, it should be stressed, far more charming than the suburban Leninsky Prospekt described in the article above). 'Full day tourist service' - including bed and breakfast, an English-speaking guide and use of a car with a driver - runs at only dollars 60 a day. Asking around from English-speaking guides at hotels for somewhere to stay, it is possible to find an apartment for between dollars 5 and USdollars 10 a day.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Although an invitation and prebooked accommodation are still theoretically needed to get a Russian visa, travel agents can now easily arrange this, especially if you start your visit on a short tour and want to stay on.
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