Posts Tagged ‘Borders’

Moscow and Trans Siberia, Our Style

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Dan and I arrived in Moscow before noon on the 27th, with only the afternoon and early evening to collect our next train tickets and explore. I would be unable to experience the city’s infamous nightlife. Given the nature of this journey, however, we weren’t completely disappointed in our tight schedule. Moscow is the priciest and (according to a study) rudest city in the world. Alas, we wouldn’t have time for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee among the world’s largest number of billionaires. Not our style.

We disembarked from the train and starting walking north, searching for a Wi-Fi connection. We knew we needed to collect our Trans Siberian Railway tickets but we were clueless as to where we could find the Real Russia office. We would ned to find the tourist agency and collect before our train departed at 10:45 that night. No pressure. Along our route, we exchanged some money at something like 44 Rubles per Euro. It’s always surreal to handle bills with so many zeros, but we took consolation that there was much more money in the pockets of most people we passed. The Cyrillic alphabet was new to both of us so we started deciphering business signs as we walked. Dan related his knowledge from our guidebook but we found no sign of an ИНТЕРНЕТ КАФЕ (Internet Café).

Instead, we found more familiar letters spelling “McDonald’s.” Say what you will about the fast food chain, but it still offers free bathrooms and often, outside the States, free wireless Internet. We found a power outlet on the second floor and Dan began trying to coax life from the macbook’s damaged power cord. Apparently, Apple had recalled its cords for their faulty wiring. PC fans out there: judge not lest ye be judged. Apple will replace damaged cords for free. We just didn’t have time to find an authorized reseller in Moscow, collect a new cord, find Real Russia’s address, find their office, and pick up our tickets.

I set out to find the ИНТЕРНЕТ. It was a challenge because no one understood my intentions. After half an hour of making a fool of myself, a young man pointed me in the right direction. I soon returned to the Mickey D’s with an address and Google’s directions to the RR office, a thirty minute walk. We lugged our luggage across town until pausing for a break. A friendly hostel owner stopped to ask if we needed directions, helpfully identified a nearby Metro station, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We followed our map to the office, presented our passports, and left with eight train tickets. Dan and I stopped at a park on the way back to the subway and I popped the rest of the popcorn. A laughably cheap snack in such an expensive city. Our style. We braved the Metro system to find the Red Square.

Our packed subway unloaded just across the road from the Red Square wall. We entered through the Resurrection Gate, a copy of the original Stalin destroyed in 1931 because he felt it impeded his parades and demonstrations. The lovely Kremlin’s occupants liked to strut their stuff around the Square. After several days on the train, we were less than strutting about the Square. Not our style. We saw Lenin’s Mausoleum but not the father of Soviet communism’s embalmed body, the world’s most famous mummy. A secret until the fall of communism, Ol’ Lenin was preserved by being wiped down every few days and then submerged in a tub of chemicals, including wax. For a million dollars, you can have the same done.

Alternately, you can pass the tomb and view the incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. What ridiculously wonderful swirls of colors! The building is the culmination of the Russian style, developed in wooden churches, and contains nine chapels. I was struck that it looked like candy, like technicolored peppermint-striped candy. The eccentric colors made me want a taste. It was constructed over the grave of the an equally eccentric character, Saint Vasily (Basil) the Blessed. Great guy. Great style. He was an early nudist and liked wearing chains, perhaps the equivalent to “bling.” He told Ivan the Terrible off for not paying attention in church and for his violence towards the innocent. So we appreciated the nutty saint through the Cathedral, and circled the Square, past the State History Museum and the State Department Store, both closed.

Back at the main train station, Dan and I took turns exploring a local grocery store while the other “watched” our luggage (I took a nap). I pulled another close-call, returning to quickly walk our bags to line 3, struggle down the narrow isle, and sit down, just as the train pulled away from the station. We were on the Trans Siberian Railway, one of the 20th century’s engineering wonders. We shared the “row” with four others, one young man and one elderly, and young and older women. The older man spoke a little English and grilled us as to why we were traveling Russia without a translator. After a while, he began repeating the phrases, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.” It was a little unnerving. Dan and I had our own beds on this train so we were content.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our beds; our first TSR leg lasted three nights. Days were spent in sleep and reading. I love books but I began to regret my iPod’s deceased condition. The morning of the 28th, the train stopped for an hour and almost everyone awake in the car, got out to smoke and buy snacks from numerous vendors. Dan and I, stocked with provisions, remained on the train, reading our books. That night, around 11:00 Moscow time, we shared my “birthday meal” of Ramen noodles, cooked with the hot water available on the trains. Totally our style. Dan surprised me by producing a delicious jelly roll cake-substitute and, to my delight, a 1,5 liter Mountain Dew. I was appreciative and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the low light and calm car. I drank half the bottle and my body, unused to the caffeine so late at night, remained awake until around 4:30 a.m. Completely worth it. I am 21 years young.

The next day we were back to reading and sleeping. I was working on Desiring God, a wonderfully challenging John Piper creation expounding what he calls “Christian hedonism.” Strongly recommended to anyone! Dan finished Eco’s The Name of the Rose and began Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Around 6:00 p.m. the train stopped and ominous, uniformed Russian officials inspected our faces and validated our visas. We always feel a little nervous at these borders; we have nothing to hide but are doing our best to stay out of prison. The government officials in these districts seem to do their best to intimidate. The train continued a little further and stopped at the Kazakhstani border. The gruff border guards collected our passports and the packed car waited in the hushed silence that reverberated fear and apprehension. For an hour and a half. During that time, one guard searched our bags and one took Daniel aside for questioning. Note: questioning works very poorly when neither parties speak the other’s language. The guard wouldn’t even try to understand Daniel and seemed disappointed for some unknown reason. More on that later. The locals sharing our row laughed as we finally left the border, blaming us for the delay. We could only shrug. I was merely happy to have made it into my 39th new country. The next morning (July 30th) we pulled into Astana’s train station, our first TSR leg complete. The two of us had made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan, not without some excitement. It’s our style.

The Train to Moscow

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Waiting in the station was an intense game to play. While Matt went hunting for postcard stamps and some form of money, I watched the piles of luggage. We had stocked up on some supplies earlier in the day, not knowing what would be available on the train, so we had 6 bags with us. My backpack was ¼ full of clothes, ½ full of food, and ¼ full of medical supplies and toiletries and hanging from it was our pot, my shoes, two Nalgenes, and my sleeping bag. My bookbag was full of bowls, books, my laptop, camera, phone, and all the associated cordage. We had a hearty plastic bag with several loaves of bread, some jam, peanut butter, a bit of cheese, some meat, silverware and cups and random odds and ends. Matt’s big bag had his clothes, his tripod, some food, the tent, his sleeping bag, and sundry other items, hanging from it were two water bottles. Matt also had his small camera bag which had his camera and its associated items.

It was this motley group of items that I carefully guarded as Matt hunted. The time came, however, to load up like pack mules and make our way to the train. Matt, however, was nowhere to be seen… I began to become nervous at the end of an already slightly stressful day to have the stress of being unable to board our train was a bit much. Matt showed up about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and we rushed down almost the entire length of the train, got into our car and began to make our very disjointed way down the packed aisle.

The car we boarded bears some description. It was a dingy yellow on the outside with the roof a dingy grey. Inside, wooden sides betrayed the age of the wagon and the thin foam pads on the seats were covered with some sort of vinly, cracking under the abuse of years and passengers. The train car itself was separated into 6 or 7 unenclosed compartments. Along the left-hand side were facing bench seats with a table between them and a “bed” or sleeping-board above each. Above the beds were another flat surface intended for luggage. On the right-hand side as we jostled our way up the crowded car to our seats, were single benches flat against the outside wall made of three sections: two seats and a fold up seat/table between them. Again, above this a bed and above that luggage storage.

We had plenty of luggage and were at a loss as to where to put it. Every seat was filled with three people to a bench in the left-hand compartment and a lady sitting on the bench on the right-hand side, where our tickets indicated our seats were to be. With many apologies in unintelligible English, we eventually got our luggage situated and settled down for what would almost certainly be an uncomfortable night. What did we expect, though, when we bought the cheapest seats on the train?

A few hours later we cleared the luggage we had put on the bed area and the old lady climbed up to sleep there. Matt and I were left trying to find ways we could fit at least 75% of our bodies onto the bench without sticking either our elbows or unclean feet in each others faces/necks/backs/stomachs. I drifted off after a while to an uncomfortable and frequently interrupted sleep. We woke once to be briefly interrogated by first the Latvian/EU and then the Russian border guards. The event went smoothly and in the morning I woke, after a few fitful hours, to find ourselves not much over two hours from Moscow.

To Dalmatia, with Problems

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

The night of the 8th the 50% smaller crew arrived in Venice and wandered the streets for a while. We both decided that Venice is a city best visited with wives. We figured it was good to scout it out, though, just so we knew what we were doing if we ever brought our wives there. I especially enjoyed all of the amazing architecture, almost all built on piers in the middle of the water. It’s difficult to determine where the islands end and the water begins and there are no streets of asphalt or even cobblestone, just walkways and waterways.

We slept that night an hour or so outside of Venice, and the next morning took off toward Slovenia. The border crossing with Slovenia went off without a hitch and we were in… but then we remembered that we had to make a call to an Italian toll-free number to verify with our bank that it was, indeed, us who were using our cards all over the continent. We turned around, made the call, and then headed back into Slovenia. Wanting to avoid paying a vignette (highway tax) we took the scenic routes, leading us to the top of a mountain with a centuries-old graveyard overlooking a beautiful valley. We eventually made our way to a border crossing with Croatia and were turned back because it was for local use only, but the border guard did give us very clear directions to a border crossing we could use.

We approached the crossing in a carefree manner, unconcerned since the past several dozen border crossings had gone without a hitch. We pulled up, they took our passports, they asked us to pull to the side, all good so far. The one border guard, a rather curt fellow with unhappy features, started searching our car. Not a problem, we had nothing to hide and had gone through a few cursory searches before. But this one was different. Everything was taken out, the car was ripped apart. Every bag was opened, all of our seasonings, our dried soup mixes, our bookbags, our CD cases, everything. The guy searched everything while a second fellow, slightly younger, called in our passports for background checks.

In the meantime, another fellow took Matt and I one by one into a small, air-conditioned room for about 10 minutes of intense questioning and a strip search. They were looking for drugs and were certain that we had them. We were told time and time again that it would be better for us to just give them the drugs and we could go. “Just give us the drugs” they said. “We don’t have drugs!” we said. They asked if it was ok if they gave us a urinalysis and called the drug dogs. We readily and heartily agreed! Finally a way to definitively prove our innocence! They were disappointed and didn’t call the dogs or drug testers.

They continued to search the car, they took all the bags out, they opened our ibuprofen bottle, they called in our passports to other officials. They were completely convinced that we had drugs, especially when they learned that we had been to both Amsterdam—home of Marijuana—and Morocco—home of Hashish—AND were students traveling Europe. They made us sit on the curb while they searched and called, searched and called. They discovered Matt’s GORP and exclaimed in glee! “Checka! Checka Checka!” They were disappointed when they realised it was trail mix.

It took almost two hours of humiliation for them to begrudgingly accept that we weren’t smuggling large quantities of who knows what. I’m still not sure they were convinced, but they did wave us on. It took us almost 10 minutes to get enough of our stuff (as little of it as there is after Dan and David left) back into the right places in the car and off we went, free of the tyranny of the Croatian border guards and it turns out we didn’t have any drugs… surprise, surprise.

I had mixed feelings about the entire situation. For one, it’s good to protect nations against illegal drugs and their importation, on the other hand they could have been more polite as we cooperated fully, they could have had a dog check the car, they could have been more careful with our things, they could have put things back where they found them. These were the hurt feelings I was mulling over as we drove away, but all of this was mixed with a feeling of relief.

We had to find somewhere to relax after the past few days of stress culminating in the unnecessary intrusion of our privacy at the border so we headed for the beaches of Croatia along the Dalmatian coast.