Heather Cole is the writer behind Conversant Traveller, your destination for adventurous travel with a good dose of authentic luxury, and a dash of humour. She is a part-time traveller, and likes to spend her holiday time ploughing rice fields in Laos, hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, getting embroiled in smuggling incidents in the Galapagos, and chilling out in jungle infinity pools and hot tubs around the world with her hubbie. Come check out Conversant Traveller for unusual vacation ideas, luxury hotel reviews and a few laughs along the way. Besides checking out her site, you can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
I never knew that ‘travelling’ was a thing. I thought that our annual family camping escapades to the Alps were the height of excitement. And I’d never even contemplated exploring lands afar. That all changed on Friday 11th February 2001, and it all began with a midnight escape from a castle!
Yep, I once lived in a castle! Durham Castle to be precise, where I was a university student and shared a room at the top of the Keep with my best buddy Kayna. Being geography undergraduates we shared an interest in maps and a growing curiosity about what lay beyond all those unfamiliar international borders. So one dull winter day we decided to go on an adventure. Not a perambulation in the local woods, or even a trip to see the bright lights of London. Nope. We decided to go to Russia, St Petersburg to be exact. Simply because we fancied ourselves the fur-hat-clad heroines of all the romantic novels we’d been reading. We were sure we’d get to ride in troikas through snow-laden forests and meet dashing princes who for some reason are all called Basil.
We didn’t tell a soul about our plans, mainly because we didn’t want anyone else to tag along and spoil our illusions, plus we were skipping a few lectures and didn’t want the formidable professors to find out. Our student friends weren’t interested in culture, and being mostly guys they certainly wouldn’t have indulged our visions of being countesses for a few days. So we made up tales of having family weddings to attend, and one dark night just after the clock had struck 12, we snuck out of our castle, climbed down the motte and legged it to the bus station laden with bulging backpacks full of ridiculous amounts of winter clothes. Something told us February in Russia might be a bit chilly.
It was very nearly a disaster. Being rather naive, we hadn’t realised we needed visas, and after a last minute panic managed to acquire them the same day we departed. Talk about a close shave. After a long night bus ride down to London, we hopped on a plane and were soon in Helsinki. We felt so naughty, and perhaps a bit guilty that all our pals back home didn’t have a clue we’d left the country, but boy was it an exciting feeling. The adrenaline increased as after a night in Finland we caught a virtually empty night train across the border into Russia. Besides us, the only carriage occupants were a few Cossack-looking police types, who no doubt wondered what the hell we were doing. It was absolutely freezing, we’d seen a sign proclaiming the temperature to be -14 degrees, and were already wearing the entire contents of our luggage.
At the border the train stopped and a guard wearing one of those cool hats stomped menacingly towards us, making sure we’d noticed the gun beneath his cape. He demanded our passports and disappeared with them into the endless wilds of the dark snowy woods. We sat there for over half an hour, getting worried that we were indeed about to become part of some over-imaginative piece of Russian fiction, and all the while the other guards sat and smoked, covertly watching us from their seats. Just as the panic was beginning to set in (we now realised the folly of keeping our little escapade a secret!) the Cossack entered the carriage in a shower of snow and returned our documents with a brusque nod of the head. We assumed we’d been accepted and began to relax as the train rattled onwards into the country of our dreams.
We couldn’t quite believe we’d made it, and to celebrate we broke open the emergency pack of chocolate biscuits, only to discover they were frozen solid. Have you ever been somewhere so cold that your chocolate freezes? We were not happy, and even less so upon discovering there were no restaurants or supermarkets open, resulting in our entire menu for the duration consisting solely of bread, cream cheese and frozen biscuits.
Being students we slept in a hostel in 8 layers of clothing to ward off the cold. The lovely elderly chap who ran the place cooked us a boiled egg each morning to supplement our meagre rations, and although our only way of communicating with him was by using hand gestures, we got by and decided it was all part of the adventure. Over the next few days we had the Winter Palace, the Church of the Saviour in the Blood and the Smolny Cathedral all to ourselves. We went to the ballet (where language difficulties resulted in us mistakenly taking the wrong, more expensive seats and gaining a few local resident enemies), bought some fur hats and even encountered a lone elephant wandering down by the River Neva at one in the morning. Had we been drinking too much vodka? On our final morning I couldn’t quite believe we were standing next to the tomb of Tsar Nicholas II in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the shivers down my spine weren’t just from the cold.
It was rather surreal a day later when we were back in lectures, learning about globalisation, dodging missiles from bored fellow students, and listening to our pals recount the number of ciders they’d drunk the night before. A world away from our secret mission to discover icy Russian streets and snowy palaces. We didn’t find our Price Basil, or get a ride in a troika, but instead came away with something much more precious. A taste for adventure. Oh, and some fur hats!