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Posts Tagged ‘Russian trains’

take off your underwear

March 26, 2011 1 comment

Sitting next to a grotesquely fat man on the way home from a relatively unsuccessful trip to a destination we hadn’t intended to visit was kind of the icing on the cake for me. Usually it’s a crying child or someone annoying but this time all I had to contend with was a minefield of fat oozing over the hand rest onto my thigh.

Plotting our next move on the train

I’m on the way back from Riga in the bus with Russians Nick, Misha, the fat man and many others, a long way away from our planned, unromantic weekend getaway to Kiev in the Ukraine. We left on the overnight train on Friday afternoon but soon after setting off the train hostess informed us of a potentially dreadful issue. If you look at this map you’ll see that the most direct way to Kiev is via Belarus, a stupid country with stupid visa rules for foreigners that is located somewhere not worth knowing roughly south-west of Russia. The problem was that the train had planned to go through Belarus in order to get to  Kiev. For Nick and Misha this was fine as their Russian passports allow them to visit Belarus visa free without any issues. But for me it was a different story.

Apparently, even if I didn’t exit the train when in Belarus, I was still required to hold a transit visa, something I’d heard of for the first time while sitting on the train on my way to Belarus. Despite buying the tickets with my Aus passport and discussing my plans with many people of varying nationalities, no one thought to mention the round-about route the train takes on its way to Kiev.

I was in a downright pickle. The train hostess hadn’t ever had this issue before with a foreigner as apparently the journey between Saint Petersburg and Kiev isn’t one travelled that much by Aussies. Using my fantastic phone I did some quick research on the chances of being allowed to pass through Belarus without a transit visa.

There were varying reports of what may happen to me if I attempted this. Some said I’d be fine, others told stories of being imprisoned for a several days, of malnourishment and of sexual misconduct. Fortunately I had several hours to choose my fate and make up my mind before we reached the Belarusian border so I occupied my time with other things. Many hours later after I had discussed my dilemma with a variety of people on the train a policeman jumped on board to check passengers’ documents. He came over to our section of the train and asked to see our IDs. We handed them over and thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him about my visa issue. He suggested that I wouldn’t have a problem passing through Belarus mainly because I was Australian and I held a Russian student visa. Hearing conflicting reports from a number of people on the likelihood of being either allowed to pass or being locked up didn’t really fill me with a lot of confidence. As the policeman was looking through our documents he noticed Misha sipping on a small open bottle of whisky that he brought along on the journey to keep himself entertained.

As is often the case in Russia, the policeman took issue with to Misha’s open bottle of whiskey and decided to issue him a fine for having hard liquor open on board a train. This law came as news to all of us as generally Russian trains are notorious worldwide for being places of traditional Russian alcoholic festivities – something I made the most out of two years earlier when I did the Trans Siberian across Russia. Nevertheless, the policeman insisted Misha had indeed broken quite a serious law and deserved to be punished for his indiscretion. The cop motioned to Misha to follow him to the end of the train where he was then asked to pay his fine on the spot. Refusing to pay the fine would result in him being ejected from the train at the next stop. Recognising the policeman was in fact asking directly for a bribe to avoid going through the proper procedure to issue fines Misha bravely refused to conform and returned back to his seat to tell us of his unfortunate news.

bloke snoozing in the station in the middle of nowhere

As he was explaining to us what had happened and that he was going to get kicked off the train, the man opposite looked over and enquired further about our predicament. The train hostess who had been helpful in advising me on Belarusian transit visas also came over to ask what had happened. Misha told them the story before the man announced that he had a contact who worked for the police who may have been able to help. Sure enough, after the man made a phone call the policeman didn’t follow through with his threat and Misha was allowed to stay on the train. Shortly after I made the decision to get off the train at the last station before the Belarus border as I wasn’t keen on the idea of risking it and potentially being detained in a dodgy Belarusian jail. We got off at the station which was pretty much in the middle of absolutely nowhere and reassessed our options. None of us were particularly keen on returning to Saint Petersburg having just sat on a train for eight hours. The station where the train had dropped us was a complete crap hole. As is often the case with rural Russian towns it really felt like we’d stepped back in time 50 years. The train station was very soviet-looking. There were several middle-aged ladies quietly brushing the already clean floors just to keep themselves from falling asleep and there were more surly-looking police walking around watching people than actual passengers waiting for a train. And this was at about 2am on a Friday morning.

The lady at the small kiosk selling cigarettes, chocolates and beer was asleep resting on her hands waiting for that one customer who could almost justify her staying there all night. A few other dishevelled looking guys were sleeping on the chairs in the waiting room perhaps waiting for a train but more likely just utilising the station as shelter from the cold. After thinking for a while we decided what to do. If there was a train we’d head to a nearby European country instead. Sure enough at about 3am there was a train passing by on its way to Riga, Latvia. We decided to head there as I didn’t need a visa and Misha and Nick’s existing European visas were still valid. Eventually the overheated train arrived in Riga at about 10am on Friday morning, some 24 hours after we’d left Saint Petersburg. We were completely buggered but satisfied that we didn’t just turn back or give up. Annoyingly, somewhere on the journey I lost my glasses and unfortunately they were my only pair.

little moscow

We stayed at a very cool and cheap hostel owned by a young Australian guy during our stay. In many ways Riga was quite similar to Tallinn although less compact. Like Estonia, nearly everyone spoke English and Russian in addition to Latvian. On the first day Nick was keen to try to find the black market which is located in the nearby dodgy district called Little Moscow. We walked around for several hours but we couldn’t find the market where apparently they sell old soviet stuff and other semi-illegal things.

Although we didn’t make it to the black market I was kept constantly entertained by Nick and Misha’s frequent bickering on a whole range of topics. Firstly, Nick took issue with Misha’s moral stance against bribing the policeman the night before as it would have been easier to just pay him off so he’d leave us alone. This evolved into a more broad discussion on corruption at all levels of Russian society and its impact on people. Instead of providing my foreign, mainly ignorant perspective, I let them debate the topic while I listened. About two hours later the debate was still continuing with Misha as the progressive advocate for transparency and Nick as the defendant for the way things are done, and have always been done, in Russia.

stalin building, little moscow

That night we decided to visit a bar located 25 floors above the city. We had an overpriced drink and headed downstairs to play some blackjack at the casino in the lobby. I sat down at a table before the dealer said something strange to me. “Excuse me sir, would you mind taking off your underwear and putting it in the closet”, she said. Initially I assumed I had heard wrong or that she was speaking either Latvian or Russian. I said “excuse me” back to her in Russian.

She then repeated what she said to me initially in English, in Russian. This time she made it clear that she simply wanted me to put my coat in the cloakroom and that my underwear could remain on…

Just a short time after we started playing, the next round of bickering began, but this time the topic was statistics. Misha’s argument this time was that gambling in a casino is a totally pointless exercise given statistically the player will always lose to the casino. On the other hand, Nick contended that life is all about inconsistencies and anomalies and that he didn’t want to live his life constantly weighing up the statistical probability of everything he did. We left the casino, all of us just about breaking even, but with several free drinks in our bellies. Misha and Nick developed an intelligent system on roulette to maximise our chances of winning while also attaining free drinks at the same time. We stuck with that rule for a while until we had drunk too much and decided to go all in with our chips.

bickering away

Sunday was our last day so we arose slowly from our beds. We headed outside for breakfast but not before I asked a provocative question about transport within Saint Petersburg. Of course, this once again triggered a heated debate between Misha and Nick surrounding the viability of bikes and  more efficient, environmentally friendly forms of transport, and whether they were suitable for Saint Petersburg. Misha supported alternative forms of transport to ease the congestion whereas Nick suggested bikes and trams were not the correct solution considering Saint Petersburg’s weather and existing transport infrastructure. The debate went on for several hours again before I demanded a ceasefire and peace was restored.

One of the great things for me about going to another country for a few days is the opportunity to watch movies in English. I jumped at the chance to watch The King’s Speech in English with both Russian and Latvian subtitles.

While I’m no movie reviewer, it was a good film considering the overall story is generally pretty average. That night we caught the bus – which I now find myself sitting on with the fat man – back to Saint Petersburg. Apparently if we’re not waiting at the border for too long we’re supposed to arrive back in Saint Petersburg by 7am, some eight hours from now. Let’s hope the fat man doesn’t get too hungry between now and then… It’s also worth noting that initially we were heading to Kiev with Max, a British guy studying Russian here, but he couldn’t get his visa to exit Russia in time so we left him behind.  If you haven’t already you can subscribe to my blog by providing your email address in the column on the right.

Matt

Typical Russian Tourist