Know Your G20
There are nineteen member countries in the G20 - bet you didn't know that. If you did, you'd probably know that the "20th" member of the G20 is the European Union. Such knowledge I picked up in St Petersburg, along with how to converse using your hands and what to do when you're detained by government security.
Crazy Taxi: Moscow Edition
"You need a taxi sir?"
"Sure, how much?"
"Ah, no. Let's try 3000."
Truth is, I had no idea what that was in pounds. It just seemed fair for a trip from Moscow airport to a stopover hotel. Plus, bartering is fun and Russians enjoy yelling. With no airport shuttle, this cabbie with an "official taxi driver" lanyard around his neck was my only option. Sounded totally safe.
I found his manner a little too aggressive however and was relieved when he handed me over to a female colleague who'd actually drive the cab. I shouldn't have been. Off we went at 120kms an hour, veering across six lanes of traffic in search of the correct exit in a vehicle-based version of Russian roulette. I particularly appreciated how she snuck through a toll gate by tailgating the car in front of us.
"Welcome to Russia," she said as we pulled up at the hotel. Indeed.
Two hours sleep in a room next to a vodka-fueled swingers party (I'm not joking) and I was off to St Petersburg.
The Most Beautiful City You'll Never See
Everyone had told me how beautiful St Petersburg is. I'm sure it is lovely, it looked as such from my taxi (again, an Ayrton Senna-esque driving experience). But my three days in St P were to be restricted to a hotel and a tent.
Not surprisingly, security at the G20 Summit was pretty tight. Put seventeen world leaders, a Saudi minister, Bob Carr and a European Union dude in a room and you're likely to get a few police wandering around.
Getting to the summit site was both fun and frustrating. Jump on an official shuttle bus, get to checkpoint, bus is searched, you are searched - before getting accreditation. Don't lose your accreditation, or presumably, you'll be shot.
Once you had your gear torn apart and reassembled, it was onto a high speed ferry to get to the Constantine Palace, where the summit was being held. "High speed" seemed to be the same pace as the ferry to Manly, but it was a pleasant journey none the less.
Fifteen minutes later you arrive at the summit site - not the palace itself, which is a kilometre away and guarded by half the Russian Army. We were based in the media centre, a giant tent with dozens of rows of computers.
It was a curious mix. There were tv crews with gear sprawled all over the ground. Newspaper journos, furiously bashing out stories every time another random delegation member held a press conference about financial regulation. And charity workers, desperately harassing reporters and asking if we'd like to interview them about poverty eradication.
I found a spot, then headed off for my first of many live crosses. The freelance crew we used spoke little to no English, meaning we communicated using hand gestures.
The cameraman wiggled his hand to the left, then tapped his watch. I moved slightly until he finished focusing, then said "five", hoping his question was "how many minutes until we're on", as opposed to "out of ten, how good do you want this shot to look?"
From there, it was a whirlwind of press conferences, photo opportunities and crosses. All involving translation woes and somewhat intrusive security.
So Why Exactly Are We Being Detained?
The only way to see any of St Petersburg's beautiful architecture was through a 'pool visit'. You put your name on a list, you're loaded onto a bus, then driven to whatever G20 event it is. Then, you wait.
I'd signed up for the official dinner at the Peterof Palace, a stunning building half an hour from the summit site. As my bus full of photographers pulled up, all the snappers started to look edgy. When it came to a stop, they sprinted off as if there was a fire.
Off they ran, a group of 100 or so media. I trailed slightly behind, as I had heavy gear to carry and had overindulged at the free cafe earlier.
After a kilometre of walking down a road lined by military men holding rifles, the press pack stopped. Why? Apparently, we'd gone the wrong way. So began our three hours of lockdown.
We walked back and eventually found where we were supposed to be. Entry required a full scan of all our equipment. We shuffled towards the palace.
"Sir, you must remain here."
"Mate, you just spoke English"
I thought about pointing out the irony of him saying "no English" in English, but decided against, as he looked like the bloke with the gold teeth from Live and Let Die.
No one had any idea what was going on. Would we miss the official arrivals? Have we been detained because we mistakenly entered a secure area? Is there anywhere here to pee?
I can't tell you why we spent three hours sitting on our gear boxes, because we never received an explanation.
In the end, we were released, but it wan't worth the (unforeseen and unexplained) wait. The leaders wandered in, but it was too dark to do a piece to camera, too crowded and too cramped. All I managed was a selfie with a blurry Barack Obama. Bob Carr gave me a wave, but neglected to invite me to the dinner.
In Russia, Bridge Crosses You!
The two days of the summit passed in a flash. No resolution on Syria and really not much agreement on anything significant.
It was time to leave, but getting out can be as tricky as getting in.
I asked the hotel concierge to book me a taxi for my 6.10am flight.
"So 4am will do, I know it's very early"
"Ah, Mr Lewis, you will need to leave at 2.30am"
"That's in three hours. Why?"
"We are on an island sir, and all the bridges are raised at night to let boats through. You must pass before 2.45 or you will be stuck until dawn."
This was clearly a situation neither our travel agent nor I was aware of.
So at 2.30, I jumped in the waiting taxi and headed to the soon-to-be-raised bridge. Before we got there, the phone rang.
The driver answered and spoke furiously in Russian.
"You talk," he said, handing me the phone.
"Hello, this is Park Inn hotel. This is not your taxi driver."
"What do you mean?"
"This is another man's. Yours did not arrive."
The driver turned around and started heading back to the hotel.
"Ah, hang on, if we go back, I'll miss the bridge and my flight! Sorry, but I'm keeping this cab."
I asked the driver if he could just keep going to the airport. He looked confused.
"Airport!" I say.
"Niet, hotel" he says.
I lost my patience.
"2000 rubles, take me to the mother-loving Airport!" (This sentence has been edited for family-appropriate content.
He got the message. We u-turn and start speeding towards the bridge. It's about to be raised. I have visions of him putting the foot down, warning lights flashing, a security guard screaming "NIET" as we launch off the ramp Dukes of Hazard style, before landing safely on the other side.
In reality, we made it across with a couple of minutes to spare. Shame.
What I Didn't Get to Enjoy
It's a shame as the country, from the little bit I've seen of it, seems endlessly fascinating. Vodka; goulash; dancing bears on bikes in little hats; the architecture - from old palaces to the communist equivalent of a housing commission flat; the history - from Bolshevik through to Putin; and the food - terrible for you, but so very tasty and carbtastic
I'll have to go back to Russia soon- if an Australian could accidentally get locked up for something in Moscow, that would make it tax deductible. I'd even buy that poor soul a vodka.