Posts Tagged ‘English’

Clueless American Tourists Leave Omsk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The next morning we had a late start and were beginning to feel pressed for time before our train left at 1216. With twenty minutes left, we were a little unsure as to the distance after I proposed we try a more direct route than that which we followed two days before. With only 26 roubles to our name, even a taxi was questionable. The clock at fifteen until our only TSR train left the station, I found an ATM and we tried to hail a cab. A few minutes dragged by until we wedged ourselves into the back of a yellow van and asked for the вагзал or train station. The ride wasn’t long but I doubt we would have been able to walk it in time. The driver accepted my 20 roubles and we hurried inside the station with a minute to spare. We didn’t even check the train but boarded the first one we encountered. Barely settled, we pulled out of the station with the consolation that it was 1216 on the dot; it had to be the right train.

We shared this two-night trip with a congenial older woman and an always-smiling middle-aged man. The woman took it upon herself to explain much about the train to the clueless American tourists. Unfortunately, she did so very quickly in Russian. Between reading and sleeping, I was able to learn that I could not plug Dan’s laptop into the two power outlets when we were stopped or when we were moving, for that matter. They were for cell phones, only. I also learned why the smiling man was smiling; he was traveling to Irkutsk to visit his girlfriend. Before night fell, he presented the train’s blankets to Dan and I, smiling. At least one clueless American tourist was thankful during the chilliest night in a while on this trip.

It didn’t help, however, that I had the bunk against the end of the car, next to the doorway to the bathroom and area between cars where many people smoke. That door happened to be one of those that people feel required to slam as hard as they can. All day and all night, people loudly passed. My bunk also had a footboard which prevented me from a comfortable sleeping position. I have always preferred to sleep in a K-shape but the bunk only allowed something like a ƙ-shape. With my feet planted on the board, I couldn’t even lie flat without tilting my head to the side. My mattress kept sliding nearly off the bunk as I tried to find a comfortable position in my sleep. My smiling friend, sleeping below me, was always ready to assist the clueless American tourist in repositioning my mattress.

During the evening we played a version of Charades with the smiling man. It took a few minutes, but we identified his occupation of air traffic controller based on his sketch. Dan’s web developing and my design occupations were easier to guess. He also bought us a “souvenir” at one stop, a steamed pine cone or шишка. He demonstrated how to peel back the segments to reveal delicious seeds or оген. I wonder if I could do that with the millions of pine cones at home. This morning both he and the woman wished us hearty goodbyes as we arrived in Irkutsk about 1030 local time (5 hours ahead of Moscow time). We thanked them and I wanted to wish him well with his girlfriend, but as a clueless American tourist I didn’t know how. If I had to guess, I would say he’s still smiling.

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Registering with the Police

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Our second day in Astana (31/07) was also the last day of July. We looked back on our more than three months of travel and realised how long we had been gone. This feeling of a bit of homesickness was enhanced by the fact that we didn’t really know what we were doing in Astana.

Our first task, however, on this Friday was to get our visas registered before the government had any reason to have problems with us. We found a booth in front of the train station which looked official and had the word bureau on it in Russian. We went to the booth, tried to inform the lady inside, who did not look official, of our needs and were told to wait a few minutes (another Russian phrase I had learned, between Matt and I we had a good dozen words and phrases!). We waited and soon a lady came and hurried is out of the booth, onto a bus (60KT per person, not bad) and we drove downtown.

We got out in the middle of the new old city (the Soviet-looking part) and walked a block to what proclaimed itself in small English letters to be the Migration Office of Kazakhstan Police. This is what we had been looking for! Inside, our friend sat us down and gave our passports to a police officer. That police officer directed her to another room, where she disappeared for a few minutes and came back, rather agitated. Apparently the Migration Office could not register our passports because we were tourists, not actually migrants, at least that’s how we understood it. Our guide then took us down the street and we walked a bit looking for, from what we could understand, a tourist agency where they could register our visas.

Apparently, and to our great surprise, we were expected to have an arrangement with a tourist agency when we requested our visas (hence the confusion and concern of the border guard) and that agency would then register us upon our arrival in Kazakhstan. We had not heard any such thing before applying for our visas and therefore were at a bit of a loss when we heard this. We did eventually find a tourist agency and someone who spoke excellent English. She explained the situation to us but told us she couldn’t register us. She did, however, point us to an agency that could. We made our way there with our guide (we had decided at this point to offer her 1000KT for her selfless assistance). At that agency we handed over our visas and 6000KT, got an official receipt, and left, thanked our guide and offered her the 1000KT Matt and I had agreed on.

She refused the money, but not because she was too kind, but because she claimed we had somehow agreed to pay 10000KT for our visas, 6000 of which was to go to the travel agency and 4000 was to go to her. We understood that it would have taken significantly longer than the half-hour it did take to figure out for ourselves how to register our visas, but we were quite convinced that it was not worth a full nights hotel cost for half an hour especially since we had agreed to no such arrangement. She was not happy and claimed that she would take the receipt (which I had firmly placed in my wallet) and return it to the agency (something the agency told her it would not allow). We finally got her to accept 2000KT, and, as we parted ways, felt a bit bad about the situation.

We wandered the city again, bought some delicious street-food for cheap, and stopped in at a little restaurant for 90KT chai. We relaxed there for quite a while, strolled the riverside watching the ferry boats make there way up and down the river, and made our way back to the hotel. On the way back, we found a little internet cafe and stopped in for an hour mostly so Matt could print off his airplane itinerary for his departure from Ulan Bataar in just a few weeks. Then, we returned to the hotel, bought another night, cooked up some food in our now-empty room, read a bit, and went to sleep.

The next day (Saturday, 01/08) I got up, exchanged some more money, and went to a gostinitsa (hotel) we had noticed just off the square in front of the train station. It was only 3000KT a night for a two-person room! And it included a shower! The only catch was that the cheap price for for only 12 hours so we would have to do something with our four heavy bags. I went to the train station, discovered the left-luggage office was only 300KT per bag for 24 hours, and we had a deal. 400KT less and we had showers and a place to wash our clothes.

That day, we again wandered the city, enjoyed some 80KT Chai (we were finding the cheap places), found a bit of free street-wifi, and learned more Russian. Matt went to use the internet again before we checked into the hotel and met an interesting Canadian fellow named James who had been doing a very similar thing to us, except he started six months earlier in China and travelled through Southeast and South Asia before making his way up to Kazakhstan. He was traveling with his brother until his brother found a job in Almaty just a few days before. James was leaving from Astana on the 5th, the day after we were, heading home to south-central Alberta via southern Ontario. He had just arrived in Astana and Matt and he decided we should meet up the next day at the odd statue of the wolf with the kid on its back, so we could swap stories.

In the meantime, I had been accosted by a very nice completely soused man who attempted to inform me of his need for more vodka. He did so in Russian however and, except for the words vodka, magazin (a small shop), and Guri (his name) I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That is until a 14-year-old chain-smoking boy showed up who, though unable to speak English, was quite good at explaining things in a way which the pissed-as-a-newt Guri was not. I talked with them both for about an hour and a half learning a lot about their life and about Russian. My vocabulary surely doubled.

After Matt came back, I finally convinced Guri that I wasn’t going to buy any vodka or even schnapps for him, and bid goodbye and thank you to the boy. Matt and I made our way back to the hotel that evening, checked in around 2230 and were informed that we had the room until 1030 the next morning. We stocked the refrigerator with a drink we couldn’t identify which Matt thought was milk (tan it was called… neither of us enjoyed it) and some real milk (moloko, another Russian word). The next morning we had Müesli and oatmeal with 3.2% milk straight from the bag. Like being back at home.

Hunting for the US

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

When we left off we had just arrived in Astana and were making our way South exploring the city. We were also looking for a place to register our visas, and keeping our eyes open for a hotel (which I had learned in Russian, thanks to my phrasebook, was gostinitsa).

Just north of the river we ran into a student who spoke some English, the first Anglophone we had met so far in Kazakhstan, and asked her if she knew where the US Embassy was, we had a few questions including where we could register our passports (we figured the Embassy could help us with that) and where to find an English-speaking church service (we had no idea if they could help us, but figured we’d ask anyway). She told us where she thought it was, pointing to an area on the map and telling us it was near “The Pyramid” (which turned out to have been designed by Sir Norman Foster himself). We went to where she said, found no pyramid, found no embassy, and made our way to the tower of Astana.

While under the tower, we spotted a few policemen in their giant, round hats lounging on a nearby street corner. I was a bit reticent to approach them, as I always am with policemen, for some reason (perhaps related to my experiences with extortion in other countries I’ve visited). But, Matt’s cool-headedness prevailed and we walked up to them. In broken, horribly pronounced Russian learned directly from the phrasebook I had been studying as we walked, we asked where the embassy was and, after quite a bit of map flipping and some squabbles among the three officers, were given a route to get to the embassy which was apparently right near the Pyramid, although the Pyramid was on the other side of the city from what we had been told.

Before we left we asked the kind policemen where we could register our visas and were met with a bit of shock when we handed them our unregistered passports and informed them of our predicament. They told us they had no idea how to help us, drew a location on our map telling us someone there might be able to help us and bid us goodbye in Russian (dosvedanya), English (goodbye), and, for some reason, Italian (ciao). Matt and I headed off encouraged. We could communicate a bit in Russian and had a pretty good idea of where the Embassy was!

It took a bit of walking and the directions turned out to be a bit off. We were standing slightly forlornly on the street corner when all of the sudden I spotted a giant US flag waving proudly over a huge building (remember, Kazakhstan has oil). We had found it and were a bit proud of our nation for providing such a beacon of hope to us. That hope was crushed, however, when we approached the well-defended embassy and talked to the entrance guard, Dmitry. He spoke English slowly, with a stutter, and had a limited vocabulary. That was ok with us, however. What was not so ok was that the Embassy was closed for the day and wouldn’t be open until 8 or 9 the next morning. No help there.

We made our way back toward the city, it was along walk. We stopped at one “supermarket” (the sign for which I could now read after studying the Cyrillic alphabet for a bit), found the prices to be out of our range and kept trudging. That evening, however, we had our first break. We found a cafe by Matt’s intuition and my Russian reading and discovered that delicious tea was only 100KT and a plate of delicious crepes with sour-cream was only 200KT! For about €1 each we had a wonderful break from our walking, two cups of delicious green chai (another word I could read, hooray!) and some heartwarming crepes. We also listened to MTV Dance Russia… which was not so heartwarming and was rather loud over the cafe speakers.

We made our way back North, it was getting late and we didn’t find the train station until after 11 that evening. Upon arriving back at the hotel we found one fellow already asleep in our room and another just coming in for the night. I had a nice conversation with him in what English he understood. It turned out he was an Electrical Engineer just in town for a short stay and was leaving rather early the next morning. Matt and I bid him goodnight and made our way outside to surreptitiously, and quickly cooked up a pot of stew in the parking lot behind an ancient Soviet dump-truck and crawled quietly into our beds so as not to wake our two roommates. We slept in the next morning, although not particularly well as our roommates had to catch their trains early, one left loudly at around 0400 and the Electrical Engineer left a bit less loudly at around 06:30.

We had learned a lot in our first day in Astana and were still learning the ropes.

Paris: Comprenez-vous?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Sunday morning (17th of May) served as another major step in our adventure: the language barrier. After breakfast, we arrived in Pontoise with full intentions of parking and taking public transportation into Paris. Even the former was a new challenge; our understanding of French parking signs was far from perfect. The qualifications above our parking sport contained an ambiguous French word, sauf. Ziegler successfully defined the word’s meaning as either “except” or “death.” Parking there meant either that we should pay-and-display except on Sundays or that we would be killed on Sunday. I (Matt) instinctively hoped to avoid both fines and death, if possible. Transportation inspired more trepidation. We studied the train and bus station’s maps and ticket machine for such recognizable terms as cul-de-sac, soup de jour, rendezvous, or laissez-faire. After seeing our few minutes of failure, a timid young woman approached us and asked in halting English if we needed help. Oui. She generally explained how to purchase tickets on the RER train into Paris. As she led us to the correct terminal, she informed me that she was studying to be an illustrator. Still very cautiously speaking with limited English, she brightened when I told her of my graphic design minor. We thanked her profusely and I boarded the train with the broader awareness of the extent of our adventure. We were suddenly very foreign and very alone in a country that spoke very little of our mother tongue.

Upon leaving our final stop we chased the first recognizable structure, the Eiffel Tower. We circled beneath the monument and asked a random tourist to take the clique picture of us with the monument. The young man turned out to be a missionary kid from Utah, the first person we had met who spoke English comfortably. We moved on toward the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk past numerous buildings with illegible signage. We arrived at the famous arch during a curious lull in traffic and ascended to the top. Paris is quite the lovely city and the Arc serves as a hub for its numerous boulevards. We enjoyed the view and I, surprisingly, took several pictures before we purposed to walk along one such boulevard. First, we had to cross the roundabout encircling the Arc with its increased traffic. David informed us that the circle was the only place in France where fault was not defined in auto accident insurance claims. Instead, all involved drivers split the responsibility to avoid conflict. We decided to test this approach by making a mad dash across numerous lanes of traffic to the sidewalk. David had a showdown with a Mercedes-Benz and apparently some cops yelled at Shenk from a Police van. Still alive, we continued down the Champs Elysses boulevard to the impressive glass pyramids of the Louvre and then across the city to the even more impressive Notre Dame cathedral. Our hunger prompted a splurge on the exotic-sounding dish on a McDonalds menu, the Croque McDo. The woman behind the counter handed us a ham and cheese sandwich. Finding a train station, we returned to our camping spot for soup and sleep.

By the light of Monday morning, Dan discovered we were parked on one side of a stand of trees from a golf course; too bad we had forgotten our clubs. We drove back into Pontoise, bought some groceries (including croissants and Laughing Cow cheese), and parked the car at the station. We rode to the Louvre and ate a late lunch of our purchases before splitting up in the art museum. I could have spent two weeks in that building. Instead, we rationed our time in the three and a half hours until it closed at 5. I felt immensely torn between seeing as many works of art as possible and allowing enough time at specific works to appreciate them. As such, I had to continually remind myself that what I saw was not merely the subjects of my studies over many years but actually the pieces of art touched by the very artistic masters themselves. Da Vinci himself touched the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks. Delacroix touched Liberty Leading the People and not Coldplay. Some master sculpture chiseled Venus de Milo over two thousand years ago. Hundreds of brilliant artists had touched the art in the museum and made each uniquely beautiful. I emerged and met the guys at five, all of us slightly dazed. We walked across the river to Notre Dame but found it closed. On a brighter note, I finally made good on my aim to kick a pigeon and it helped me relieve some of the disappointment in missing the cathedral’s interior. The four of us began the journey alongside the Rive Seine and I tried in vain to ask where we could procure bagets, thin loaves of bread. I really fail at foreign languages and our French phrase book helped very little. To tide us over until dusk, we had some Expresso coffee and a croissant at a little restaurant. At the Eiffel Tower a little after nine, we discovered we were unable to climb the steps to the first platform at night as we had orignially planned, to save 3 Euro a person. I could have kicked another pigeon but we still took the trams up. Paris is even more lovely at night and from its highest point. We did the touristy thing and took lots of pictures. On the way down I realized I, the only single guy on this trip, had just passed up the most ideal opportunity to kiss a random girl. How could a single young woman refuse me a kiss at the top of the most iconic and romantic places in the City of Love? I even considered how long it had been since my last shower but I doubted it was much longer than for any true French young woman. On another note, we didn’t see any all red pickpockets like on the tower’s cautionary signs. Shenk, in his red lumberjack coat, was similar but thankfully kept his hand out of others’ purses.

By the time we returned to earth, it was after 11 and we had missed the last Pontoise-bound train from the nearest station. The feeling of being alone and foreign returned as four young men set out to either return to the car or find a place to sleep for the night. We trained to the central station and happily discovered the last train of the night to our destination would leave in 17 minutes. Naturally our debit card refused to cooperate in the ticket machine and anxieties began to rise. We tried to explain our situation to an employee and thought he explained that because of our predicament, we could just get on the train without a ticket. We hurried aboard. In our second encounter with the law, six police officers followed us onto the train and demanded tickets. Pale, we explained our position but the tense situation seemed rapidly leading toward us sleeping on benches in that station for the night. As exciting as that would have been, we were relieved when the head officer finally relented and we barely left on the last train to our car for free. Truly an exciting beginning in the foreign language step on this exciting journey.

Matt