It’s been a recovery day today. A series of late nights, and then yesterday’s 19-hour train journey had left me exhausted, thus, when I arrived in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk at 5.30am my first thoughts were of getting more sleep in a cheap hotel.
And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Checking in was fun. I asked, in my best Russian, for a single room – but they had none. Instead I was offered a room for three, which I accepted. It would seem that no-one else is going to be joining me though, so I have a larger room for less than the price of a single which I’m chuffed about. I reckon they are afraid of getting complaints if they put anyone else with the foreigner who has decorated the place with his freshly hand-washed underwear, and who has spread his belongings far and wide in a bid to find out what’s in the bottom of his rucksacks.
Then came the trouble with my visa. In post-communist Russia, one still has to get one’s visa registered whenever one stops anywhere for more than 3 days. Many hotels offer this service, and charge up to £20 for doing so. Its a nice little earner for them, and many tourists, hearing tales of fine-hungry cops pouncing on unsuspecting foreigners, are only too eager to pay for the stamp.
However, technically, if one is moving on in less than 3 days, one doesn’t need a stamp – it’s just a waste of money. Thus, when the lady at the reception asked for my passport, ticket and immigration card I suspected she was going to ‘kindly’ (and unnecessarily) register my visa, and charge me more than the cost of the room for the service. How could I explain that I didn’t want to be registered? In the visa section, my phrasebook only tells me how to say “Where can I have my visa registered?” (gdye registriravat vizu). What to do? My solution was to say, in Russian,
“Where can I have my visa registered? NO!”
The receptionist looked a bit perplexed, but eventually seemed to understand and only charged me the £10 room fee.
After a morning nap and the writing of a load of emails connected with my return to the UK (I came to the conclusion that the only sensible way to deal with the fear of returning was to embrace it), I decided to head out to Stolby nature reserve, which, with its spikey rocks is one of the main attractions around here. However, on arriving at the appropriate bus stop it began to rain (for the first time since I left Japan, aside from the amazing thunder and lightening storm that the train passed through last night, scaring the stripy red and white-topped girl out of her wits), thus I decided to do that tomorrow, weather permitting. My train to Moscow isn’t until 10.30pm, so I’ll have the whole day to do stuff. Oh, about that train: you know yesterday I said that “My lack of funds means that the use of the comfy couchettes has come to an end. From here it’s Platzkart all the way to Moscow… well, yesterday’s 19 hour trip persuaded me otherwise when it came to buying the tickets this morning. At least I think so. The price would indicate that I bought a bed in a comfy couchette carriage, although I won’t really know until I get on the train. The thing is, in order to pack an additional 20 beds in per carriage they’ve made the bunks much smaller, thus, not only do my feet stick right out into the corridor, but there’s also the risk of falling off the top bunk as there’s no guard rail. Also, there’s no air conditioning, and when the fearsome granny says she wants the window shut, every obeys. Finally, there’s no corridor with windows in which to sit and watch the world go by or to take photos from. Yes, I may be spoilt, but the thought of another 3 days spent on a train like yesterday’s just fills me with despair! Thus my 15 minute preparation for the ticket-buying event, which saw me painstakingly writing out in Russian script exactly what I wanted, with a “please” written in big letters along the bottom of the scrap of paper.
It seemed to do the trick.
I was actually pleasantly surprised to be able to buy any ticket at all. It’s well known that these trains get booked up in advance, and even if there are tickets available there is this mysterious phenomena in Russia whereby people will just refuse to sell you something for no apparent reason. It’s most common on the railways, where one can simply be refused a ticket to some particular town, despite the fact that other travellers you know have had no problem. This even occurs with Russian speakers, such as Mark, the travel guide author, thus ruling out the possibility that this is just due to the language barrier. It happens elsewhere too – like in the supermarket. I was refused some bananas the other day, for no apparent reason. I was allowed bread, cheese and water, but the big display of bananas they had was off limits. There was nothing I could do but shrug my shoulders, pay for what I was allowed, and try someplace else.
I don’t really enjoy shopping for food in Russia as it involves a lot of pointing and misunderstanding. For some reason – I guess it’s high crime levels – in virtually every food shop I have been in one is not allowed to pick up what one wants oneself. Everything is behind the counter, which is sometimes protected from the public by a row of iron bars which stand from counter to ceiling. There may be fridges stacked with drinks on the customer’s side of the counter, but these can’t be opened unless you ask the lady behind the counter to point her remote control at them. This one took me a while to figure out; I’ve never come across such a bizarre system.
My impression of Russians in general is that once you get to know them they are friendly and helpful. Initially, my unthinking feeling was that they’re not half as friendly as Asians – in Japan, China or Mongolia conversations with complete strangers were not uncommon – but to say such a thing would not be fair. After all, here I tend to blend in. I don’t look like a foreigner so there is no obvious reason for the locals to ask me where I’m from. Another reason for having less interaction with the locals is that English speakers are relatively rare in Siberia, in comparison with the number that there are in Asia. I suppose this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise really. German seems to be the preferred second language.
My time on the train yesterday was punctuated by acts of kindness by my fellow passengers, despite our inability to effectively communicate. As I mentioned before, the granny expressed considerable interest in my journey (as well as asking if my laptop computer was in fact a computer…), the man in his 40s gave me his seat, the stripy-topped girl bought me a cup of tea, the man in his late 20s helped with my luggage and generally kept an eye out for me. I felt looked after by that temporary family.
I must admit, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I’d pictured that local trans-siberian train as being filled with chain-smoking vodka-swilling men singing hearty folk songs (as it happens the trains are non-smoking), but in reality it was far less rowdy. In fact, I think the most ‘rowdy’ element was the school-mistress granny, and the 1980s/early 90s Western pop music playing over the PA system (I almost started to sing along when Berlin’s ‘Take my breath away’ came on).
Anyhow, I can feel my tummy rumbling, so I think I’ll head out for a bit of food.
If I don’t have time to scribble an update tomorrow, the next you’ll hear of me will be on Sunday or Monday, when I arrive in Moscow after three days in what will hopefully be a comfy bed on wheels.
From Russia with Love,