The journey to St Petersburg was quick and uneventful. Though I recommend travelling early on a Bank Holiday as for the first time in my life when I got to security at Heathrow there was no one in front of me at the queue and we literally waltzed straight through (all right, not literally, but I wish we had). I made the metal detector beeper go off and had to stand inside a special scanning Tardis with my hands above my head, like I was Joe 90. It was cool.
At St Petersburg airport I was concerned that we might not be let in for some reason (the company we'd got our visas from had said that there was a bit of damage to my passport which might mean I would be refused a visa - I wasn't, but I still feared it might lead to problems). The lady at passport control certainly spent a lot of time looking at my photo and then at my face as if playing "Spot the Difference". I thought this probably meant she fancied me (or possibly that she couldn't believe how much I'd aged since 2006 when the photo in my passport was taken) but she didn't say anything. Oh Nikita, you will never know, anything about my home.
My wife said that the same official had done exactly the same with her, but that might just mean she fancied my wife too.
But within minutes we were through and into secretive and sinister Russia, which somehow seemed unimaginable to someone brought up in a world where all this stuff was literally behind an iron curtain. What a stupid material to make curtains out of. Was the curtain rail made out of marshmallow? And what did they attach it to?
The first things that struck me were that it was much hotter than I'd been led to believe by my Lonely Planet book. That said it would be 0-10 degrees in April and there'd be slush everywhere. It was 22 degrees and very hot. And I had my ski jacket on. And whilst most of the signs were in a different alphabet and there were plenty of austere soviet era buiidings near the airport, what struck me was how much the West had encroached on the culture, from the massive Snickers bars in the airport vending machine (called Snickers Super) to a Coca Cola factory, Pizza Hut and various car dealerships. The world is homogonising.
Our hotel is on the Moika Canal, not far from the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin met his fate and we walked over to have a look in the warm evening sunshine. It was too late to go inside, but it felt strange to be close to the spot where Rasputin died. And the reports that he actually drowned in the end are spurious and without foundation - he was shot point blank in the middle of his forehead. Tomorrow we will visit the palace itself and hopefully manage to get on to the Rasputin tour to see the room where it all happened.
What we've seen so far of the city is fairly spectacular. I don't know how much sight-seeing we will get to do as there is much work to be done. But for tonight we had a few drinks and a nice meal and it felt like a holiday. Even though it's one with a slightly morbid undercurrent.