Former USSR | Russian Federation – Already hit the road, Jill
I know it’s well-late, in that I’ve already made a move, but the plan is as follows: Go from Laaaandon (England) to South East Asia (somewhere) by train. It’s possible to go from London all the way to Vietnam by train, and that’s the first instalment, but hopefully I can continue overland in some manner to the rest of south east Asia and beyond, Captain.
The story so far, in a nutshell, getting straight to the point, without beating around the minge, and just, you know, getting on with it, cos I know you people are busy, and can’t afford to read paragraphs and paragraphs of (you’re already starting to annoy me, King Kaisy):
Left London and am now in Moscow. (Good lord, King, give me a break…). Okay, for those with a little time on their hands, here’s what’s been ha’nin. I left London on Tuesday the 5th of November at 5:30 in the evening, heading out on the Eurostar to Brussels. Absolutely nothing of interest happened, as expected. My intention was to get to Russia as quick as possible, partly due to financial predicaments and a tight budget, but also on a I-can-go-to-places-in-Europe-anytime-so-why-attack-it-now kind of vibe. So I fled Brussels on the first train to Berlin, which happened to be overnight variety, which was niiiiiiiiiice (especially due to the fact that the carriage was mine… all mine). I hit Berlin the next morning, and booked my onwards ticket to Warsaw, allowing myself 5/6 whores (hours) to look around town.
FIRST STOP BERLIN:
Loved it. Quality place. I basically took the metro to East Berlin, got out and walked back to West Berlin train station. First thing I saw as I got out of the station was a guy surrounded by about 10 people playing the matchbox game (you know the one, doctor everything’ll be alright; no, you know, where he has three matchboxes and one thing underneath, and he proceeds to swap the matchboxes all over the place and you have to guess where the thing is). Maaan, maybe I’m particularly good at the game, but the con is so obvious. 100 Euros later, I walked very quickly away from the guy just in case he was planning to send his homies after me. Shweet like chocolate.
Berlin’s cool. East Berlin is very old, traditional, lots of police/military/guys with taches, and lots of old-school architecture. Then, literally as you cross over where the wall used to be, you hit West Berlin, and motherfucker does it change. Straight away it’s high-rise buildings, offices, new restaurants, madness. But good vibe all round. Got back to the train station and got a five-hour train to Warsaw. And this is my first experience of border control on trains:
A guy comes along each carriage asking for your passport. He looks at the visa, then opens it up to your picture. He then takes an obligatory step backwards (they ALL do this), and spends what seems like an eternity eyeing first you, then your picture, then back to your boat, then back to the photo. And finally he punches your passport number into his little computer, stamps the fucker, and hands it back to you. All with the hugest smile in the world…. NOT.
WARSAW TRAIN STATION
Yes, that is correct. I saw Warsaw train station. Jealous? Lord, man, tell you what, STAY AWAY FROM IT IF YOU CAN! Dodgy place. It basically consists of a load of interjoined tunnels all with shops selling either beer or knives. And the frequenters (yes I know this word doesnae exist) are ugly. So I had a beer, got given a free banana by a kind fruitseller who took pity on my lack of Polish currency (zloty?), and indulged in a typical “aaaah, London”, “eeeeeeee, Gascoigne” style conversation with a pissed-up young Polish geezah. By which point my overnight train to Minsk pulled in, I got in, and this is when things start getting a little more interesting.
BIG BUNCH OF PISSHEADS
International trains seem to consist of carriages which contain four-bed berths, or at least that’s been my experience going on either long journeys or international journeys, and going second class. My berth had a 30/35 year-old guy who spoke a little English, and a couple who were students at Minsk university and could not agree on anything we ended up having discussions about to the extent that I thought she was gonna deck him one. All really nice and friendly. Until we hit border control: Guy comes on, in a not disimilar was to my previous experience, and does the one-step-backward manoeuvre before going to me:
“da svisjd polinska” or something along those lines, meaning “Do you speak Polish?” in Polish.
I paused, looking at my English passport in his hand and said, “English”.
Border police: “da skjfjkdf russki?” (or “Do you speak Russian?” in Russian)
Hmmmm…. I paused, LOOKING AT MY ENGLISH PASSPORT IN HIS HAND, and said “English”.
Sense prevailed: “Do you speak English?”
Me, trying hard not to shout: “Yes” (wanting to follow it with “cos I am fucking English and you have my fucking English passport in your goddamn hand”).
Guard: “Omar. Is nat an Inglyish name.”
Stamp! Passport back! Thank you very much! At which point the man in his mid-30s (who later turned out to be a Belarussian policeman who luckily didn’t have any problem with me telling him to lie about the weight of his luggage so he wouldn’t have to pay a fine) said “Hahahaaa, TERRORIST!”. Yes. Hilarious.
Getting out at Minsk, I had another 5 hours to loiter about town before my onward train to St Petersburg. It was 8am. I wanted a coffee. I walked out of the station and into town, and found a place that said it was a cafe, so I went in. And that’s when I understood why it was I’d been smelling alcohol all the way down the road (it was people’s breath). The place was a tiny, seedy little cafe, with two on-duty policemen to my left drinking a beer (it’s 8am remember), two young guys in front of me at the counter drinking beer (it’s 8am remember), and three old men to my right downing shots of vodka (EIGHT AM, PEOPLE, WAIT TILL AFTER BREAKFAST AT LEAST). I had some coffee (or was it treacle?) and waited til the three old men had knocked over all there chairs and spent a good five minutes attempting to climb down the stairs (there were 3 whole stairs so fair enough, really), then walked around town. Bizarre place. Feels really cold war Russia styleee. Lots of official looking buildings which are bright pink, etc. I then returned to the station, and got my overnight train to St Petersburg.
PETER WAS A GEEZER
The nicest city I’ve ever visited. Rome’s my favourite in terms of, it’s cool, it’d be good to live in, I loved the history and culture. But St Petersburg is just the most good-looking, elegant city I’ve ever had the pleasure of frequenting. I spent 5 days there, just walking about, and it was lovely. Motherbastard cold, but lovely. First day I just walked around aimlessly, looking at the amazing architecture. I got stopped by the police, which I didn’t realise occurred, but now realise occurs on average once a day. There were two of them. And neither spoke English. They basically asked for my documents, I surmised that a passport would do, and handed it over. he looked at it, and in Russia you have to register yourself whenever you go to a new place. My first day, hey, guss what, I’m not fucking registered. He then started to walk and made me follow him. He kept speaking to me in Russian, I kept saying “English”, we kept walking. When we hit a tiny little alleyway, I stopped, thinking “naaaaaah, I’d prefer not to go down there”. At which point, he frisked me from head to toe, even opening my cigarette pack and flicking my lighter 5/6 times. I’m still not sure how I avoided having to pay him money… That night went out for a few beers with some people from the hostel (one of whom decided the next day to rob me of 200 dollars which I’d stupidly left in my money belt, which I’d stupidly left under my pillow when I went to breakfast the next day, but hey, hopefully he’ll get his comeuppance in some particularly nasty form).
The second day was similar, but a different route. I spent the afternoon in the Hermitage, which was the Tsar’s winter palace, and now consists of a huge art collection and loads of Russian state treasures. Absolutely beautiful place. Went clubbing at night in the supposedly coolest club in St Petersburg, which existed in a disused (thank the lord) bomb shelter. Wicked place! UK Garage all over! 5 or 6 MJ Cole choooons, “Re-re-wind”, and all that jazz, and an old Indian man who when I asked what he did in St Petersburg, he told me “I fuck women. I counted the other day and I have fucked 157 women in 8 years.” If he was expecting applause, I wasn’t offering.
Third day in St Petersburg was hangover day. So I hit the banyas which had been recommended to me by a couple of guys at the hostel as being quality. Apparently the ones I went to hadn’t changed since Rasputin used to be a regular attendee. I hadn’t exercised since leaving Blighty so I thought, “Let’s do this, homeboy”. The guys had gone to the Deluxe one, which was closed the day I went down, so I paid 50 roubles (a measly squid) and hit the common baths. Lord. The place was well seedy, very dark, murky, old. I put on the sheet I’d been given and walked in. I noticed people walking into this one room, so I followed. It was the sauna. As you walk in, there’s basically some stairs heading up to a platform where there were some long benches and about five people there, all butt-naked. One guy at the railing at the front of the platform was holding on to the railing and bending forward so that his ass was sticking out, while another guy wearing a big motherfucking hat was slapping his ass with two big bunches of birch leaves, one in each hand. After sweating for 15 minutes, I left, chilled out for a few minutes, then hit the plunge pool, which consists of LITERALLY ice cold water. And that’s the cycle. You head from one to the other with some rest breaks in between where you drink tea and play backgammon with the locals. Absolutely wicked! That night we spent laughing at some Aussie guy with a hearing aid called Al who looked so much like Osama Bin Laden it was unbelievable. One of the guys had bought some of the dolls (you know, made of wood, you open the doll up and there’s a smaller doll, which you open up to find a smaller doll, etc.), and the set was of famous dictators. First up was Osama Bin Laden, open it up to find Mullah Omar, open that up and you get Saddam Hussein, which you open up to find Arafat, and finally Ayatollah Khomeini! If I wasn’t crossing borders I would’ve DEFINITELY bought one!
Day four I went walking with 3 Scots from the hostel (one of whom kept going out at night wearing a kilt in the sub-zero temperatures). We went to the Vodka museum then basically proceeded to get hammered round town. Luckily for everyone, I had my Discman and some CDs on me, so I treated St Petersburg to a night of DJ Omar on the decks.
Day five walked around (sound familiar?) before leaving that evening on the overnight train to Moscow. I befriended this wicked Russian guy on the train who took me to the drinking, sorry restaurant, carriage, and ploughed me with beers til 4:30 in the morning, by which time I had to decline his kind offer of another big bastard bottle of beer, and it the sack for a massive night’s 3 hours kip.
First two days (I’m running out of time at the internet cafe, good people) were cool. Just walked about, saw loads of stuff, met lodas of people at the hostel who sit around all night drinking and smoking, both of which I have been known to partake of in my time. Highlight was definitely watching a 50 year old bum conduct a bunch of buskers playing some Tchaikovsky in a subway tunnel (not that they had requested his services, you understand).
This is my third day here. Saw the Red Square and Kremlin and the like, which were brilliant. In the Kremlin is the biggest bell in the world and the biggest cannon in the world. The biggest bell in the world was made in the courtyard where it stands, but is so big and heavy (it weighs 300 tonnes) that after making it they realised they wouldn’t be able to actually carry it anywhere. Genius! And it was so hot at the time that things around it were spontaneously combusting and the bell itself cracked. Even smarter! The cannon is massive as well, but after making it they realised they’d made the walls of the cannon too thin to actually fire anything. So it doesn’t. Yet even more incredulously brilliant!
Moscow’s a funky place, but there’s just way too many cops about. Thing I’ve realised about travelling alone is, I’m way more likely to be stopped and get a dodgy deal off the police. Classic example was to today in Red Square. Four policemen stop me. One takes charge and asks for my documents. On inspecting my passport, he realises I’ve registered in St Petersburg but not in Moscow, so he starts telling me how I need to register in Moscow (in Russian, but it’s pretty damn obvious what he means), while another guy is saying “Irish pounds. Present for police.” I say no to his kind offer of letting me give him some money to let me go, whereupon the two of them lead me away telling me that I have to register in Moscow, where’s his present, etc. etc. I remember this cool Aussie guy who I walked around Gorky Park yesterday telling me that he would just pay it and go, so I think “Fuck it, I’ll give the guy a 500 rouble note, and Bob’s your auntie”. So I pull out a 500 jobbie. He says “No, no, no, no, no” and holds up 3 fingers. Lord. I offer 2. He takes it saying “Good, good” (the bastard), and I walk off, 20 quid less better off. It’s not fucking right. Corruption is corruption (which apparently is corruption), but it’s not good. It leaves you in a bad mood, I’m on a fucking budget, so I’ve decided to avoid spending as much money as I would do in London, and am heading off tomorrow to Yaketerinburg, two days away on the Trans-Mongolian, and where you can do dog-sledding supposedly. At least the dogs won’t be able to scam the foreigner…. he hopes….