Renata Rubnikowicz finds a two-city tour by train is a fast track to Russian culture
Washing stereo!" After five or so vodkas, this is what a Russian toast sounds like in an Australian accent. It's the first time in St Petersburg for everyone and we're busy getting to know each other, with the help of a few free drinks and instructions in Russian drinking customs from Sasha, our "beetroot buddy" or fixer-cum-rep in Russia. We gasp, sniff the black bread (it takes the edge off the neat vodka), and pour the next toast.
Beetroot Backpacker trips are aimed at the kind of people who are more interested in the people and culture of the place they're visiting than five-star hotels, but are glad to have some help with Russian visas and bureaucracy. The mainly 20 and 30-somethings have arrived from Helsinki, Prague, Tallinn and Berlin or, like me, direct from London. Perhaps it's the time of year, just after Christmas, that accounts for all the Australians. Sasha assures me later that there is usually a greater mix of nationalities. "At first, I couldn't understand the Scottish accent at all," he says.
We had all been met at our various stations and airports. For me, the drive into town was one long traffic jam, but it was enlivened by the decision of some locals to take to the pavement. Our route passed the city's most celebrated landmarks: the mounted statue of Peter the Great, the city's founder, the domes of the Church of the Spilt Blood, the long facades of the Hermitage and the river Neva, frozen in cloudy blocks. The temperature of - 8C doesn't deter the tides of people surging up and down the glittering Nevsky Prospekt: New Year is the time for presents and special dinners with friends and family. Everywhere there are brilliant Christmas trees and neon fountains of light.
The following day, Sasha helps us buy a carnet of metro tickets and we descend the speedy escalators - going at twice the lick of London's - before fetching up in the city centre for a three-hour walking tour. We're all glad of our warm layers and sensible boots, but young Russian women negotiate the icy cobblestones in stilettos and spray-on jeans too tight to hide thermals. Zenya ("call me John," he says) whisks us round the city, beautifully renovated for its tercentenary a couple of years ago, and sparkling in the cold sun.
After a self-service lunch, we are free to go our own way - some to the souvenir market by the Church of the Spilt Blood for fur hats and matrioshka dolls, some to the SS Peter and Paul fortress, others to the Kunstkamera, Peter the Great's cabinet of curiosities. People have already made friends and plans to eat dinner or go clubbing together later.
I decide to begin at the beginning. St Petersburg's most evocative building is a three-room log cabin beside the river Neva. Here, for a few weeks in 1703, Peter the Great lived while his vision of a new city that was to be Russia's window on the West began to take shape. You can see the desk where he laid his plans, looking out across empty marshland, drawing inspiration from the time he spent working in the shipyards of Amsterdam. Barely 20 years after its construction, Peter's cabin was preserved by being enclosed by another building. Thus it became Russia's first museum, a humble precursor to the glories of the Hermitage, where I escape the cold into the hot colours of Gauguin's Tahiti and Van Gogh's Provence for the whole of the next day before Sasha gathers us together for the overnight train ride to Moscow.
The bunk is warm and sleep comes easily, though there's raucous toasting practice in a neighbouring compartment. After an early check-in at our hotel we take the glorious Moscow metro to join our guide, Lena, for a walking tour made special by her personal recollections of growing up in the city during Communist times. We see everything - the Kremlin, GUM, the Bolshoi - through a blizzard. Later, I retreat into the fabulous, century-old chandeliered halls of Yeliseev's delicatessen, Moscow's equivalent of Harrods food hall. It's full of the rich stocking up for New Year's Eve.
At our celebration, a banquet laid on by Beetroot in a cosy, wooden restaurant, we all show Sasha how well our toasting has progressed and he celebrates by showing us and the redoubtable folk singers his Cossack dancing. So it's a merry bunch who make for Red Square. The blizzard has stopped, the temperature is a positively balmy zero and President Putin greets us on the giant screen. We cheer as fireworks explode at midnight over St Basil's and the Kremlin's towers. Tomorrow Moscow is ours to explore and we plan to be in the queue for Lenin's tomb by 10am.
The Russia Experience operates a year-round programme through its Beetroot Backpackers subsidiary. Prices start from pound;299 per person for three nights each in Moscow and St Petersburg plus one night on the train connecting the two. The company also operates themed tours in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks, the Romanov Dynasty and Dr Zhivago with prices from pound;399 to pound;599. Beetroot Backpacker prices are fixed throughout the year with no seasonal fluctuations, but do not include flights or Russian visas. Details: 020 8566 8846; www.beetroot.org