Sunday, October 12, 2008

Buying a Train Ticket, Russian Styles

Train Station in Kazan

As we are on the Trans-Mongolian train heading all the way across Russia, Mongolia and into China, and stopping frequently it is necessary for us to buy lots of train tickets. Seeing Russia is an awesome place, they’ve made it not possible to buy an open ended ticket that allows you to say have unlimited rides for a month or whatever. Instead you have to buy a ticket each time you want to take the train and buying up a stack of tickets isn’t possible as we don’t know our sleeping arrangements either. So basically we have to buy a train ticket each time we wish to ride a train. This would be no problem in any normal country. I did it in Germany last month without any problems; I’ve done it before in the USA without too many issues either. But the big difference is that these places are used to foreigners, Russia is not. It often feels as though we are the first foreign people to ever come on this type of adventure.

Example ticket request

We start out by writing down in Cyrillic the destination, date, time, class and number of tickets we’d like on a piece of paper. Luckily we’ve learnt enough Cyrillic to do this comfortably. Next we head to the Kacci (ticket office) with the information, phrasebook, money and passport in hand. After waiting in the poorly formed Russian queue for a while, we politely say ‘dobriy dyehn’ (good afternoon) to the ticket lady, then hold up the piece of paper with details on it to the window and say our destination. Next either one of the following two outcomes happens. The most likely thing to happen on the first attempt is for the old grumpy lady to say het (sounds like ‘nyeht’) which means no. Without having a load of other options we try again but usually get another ‘het’. If this happens we just have to give up and either wait in another line for a nicer lady or wait until she has gone off her break and been replaced with someone else. The other possible outcome is that the ticket lady is actually helpful, which seems rather unlikely and helps us. Usually they’ll speak loads of Russia which we’ve no idea what they are saying, then we’ll signal for the lady to write down the details of the train she seems to be booking in. Usually this process goes alright and we get a train that is within the time and price of what we’d like. Lately we’ve also been trying to ask for certain seat numbers, as we’re riding third class which means half the seats available are terrible. Unfortunately we rarely succeed at getting good seats. After this we wait for the word passport to be said by the lady. Then we hand them over for her to get our details which are helpfully written down in Cyrillic on our Russian visas. Finally she’ll write down the price and we hand over some ridiculous amount of roubles which usually works out very good in New Zealand dollars. (A typical 10 hour overnight train is about 500-800 roubles each which is about $25-$40, awesome value for the distance.) A quick double check at the printed out ticket results in a job complete and a new destination with grasp.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Moscow, The Heart Of Mother Russia

Wall of Freedom

The train departed St Petersburg at 2 am. It was our first Russian train experience, not authentic Trans-Siberian, but very similar. The journey was just 10 hours, and we were quickly lying on our 3rd class beds feeling like a true member of soviet society. The gentle tooing and froing of the train rocked us off to sleep. The next morning we woke up to the rising apartment blocks of Moscow, and spend the next hour chugging along through ever taller and taller ugly concrete blocks. The train arrives and we hop off and make our way across the second busiest metro system in the world to our hostel.

Cathedral number #200987439 in the Kremlin

The Sweet Moscow Hostel directions were to get off the metro, walk along a street 50 metres, take a left and walk another 100 metres. Then find a building opposite the hard rock cafĂ©, and in a door next to a telephone booth enter a nine digit pin. Somehow we managed to complete that task only to be inside of a 20 storey building stairwell with no idea of the apartment which the hostel was in, and no indication of where it was on any walls. After walking up 10 storeys of the dead rat smelling stairwell Tom dropped his pack and ran ahead to see if he could find anything. The fourteenth storey had a door with a small sticker on it ‘Sweet Moscow Hostel’. We take the decrepit lift up and enter.

The worlds biggest bell

Before booking the hostel we read the reviews of other visitors, ‘the hostel was overbooked and we had to sleep on the couch in the hallway’ one read. As the giant babushka welcomed us in with a fire in her eyes, she pointed to the couch ‘2 beds, 1 couch’ was the limit of her English. Unfortunately we’d assumed that booking 3 beds meant that we’d all be sleeping in beds and not a couch. So after pointlessly trying to argue with the big babushka, she rings her manager or mafia partner to tell us in English that we can come to another hostel on the other side of town where there are some beds. But this was way too late, we were over being involved in some scam they were running where they over book the small ‘sweet’ little hostel and then send guests to the terrible one out in the middle of no where. So with a failed attempt to reclaim our deposit we manage to ask for the use of a phone to call some other hostels and just so happen to find a gem, Comrade Hostel.

Red square, it is sweet seriously

We spent 4 nights in Moscow, with the first day mostly gone to hostel dramas we managed to squeeze in a market visit, the second was spent at the Kremlin, the third at Red Square and a sculpture garden, the next at a little monastery town called Sergiev Posad, and the morning before leaving at the Cosmonauts Memorial and surrounding gardens.

Inside the Kremlin, it is well fortified

The highlights of our visit were definitely red square and the cosmonaut memorials. Red square was on the back of the kremlin which was mildly impressive, even after Arnika and I getting in for a bargain using our ISIC cards. The few cathedrals here all seemed to blend into one gold dome and the insides were beyond my knowledge of the Russian Orthodox church. But Red Square on the other hand was everything I’d hyped it up to be in my mind. For about a year I’ve had a cut out from The Press containing a picture of St Basils detached from a travel article for Russia. With the words ‘Russia is awesome’ inscribed by Arnika on it, trying to convince me to give up a career job, spend a fortune on travel, and changed the course of my life. Somehow she did convince me to do all this, and so standing at the bottom of the inspiration for this entire adventure felt quite overwhelming.

St Basils, it is so sweet

Also at Red Square are a number of other incredible sights along with St Basils. Firstly the square itself is perfectly set up for all the countless military parades that have been held here. Walking along the poorly paved square felt like I was matching in front of great and not so great leaders of the past. And that was exactly what it was. Alongside the square lies the tomb of Lenin. He is embalmed here, preserved in a glass case for all the public to see forever more. We felt incredibly lucky to be able to enter the tomb and proceed quickly past him for a glimpse of one of the most famous leaders of the previous century, with guards posted every five metres along the tombs walkway it was peculiarly real. The constant watchful eye of the military and the presence of a communist leader who is held in the peoples minds with demigod proportions made this the closest to soviet realism I’ll ever get to experience.

Wasn't allowed to take photos inside Lenins Tomb, so this will have to do

Behind the tomb sits statues of over communist leaders gone by, with a small representation of Stalin lined up with others behind the tomb of Lenin you feel as though Russia has done its best to forget its darkest days. A stark contrast to Germany where oppression was right there reminding every visitor of hard times to ensure it never happens again. I wonder if there will come a time when Russia has fully forgotten its horrific unspoken of years and does not stop it from seeing a similar situation coming around again.

My name is Lenin, my head is everywhere

Later that day we went scavenger hunting around the Sculpture Garden where old statues of the soviet days have been collected together and either revamped to be slightly ironic or just left for the grass to overwhelmed what was an indestructible representation of power. Many a good photo was had, and we exited the park to be presented by a real treat, being a way over the top statue to what I assumed was Peter the Great in a sweet pirate ship.

This is rediculous

Sergiev Posad is a little town an hour or so out of Moscow reached by a suburban train. The suburban train is a very different system to the long overland marvel that is the Trans-Siberia. The seats are hard and three people must share a small bench with little room to budge. This made the short journey rather interesting or at least made it seem like a very long trip. The small town was rather quaint and pretty, especially the monastery with its funny blue onion domes. This was the first of the golden ring towns we’d visit in Russia of three, and was well worth the $1.50 train ride.

Golden Ring means lots of Gold Domes

Cosmonauts Assemble!

The final really good sight in Moscow we went to was the memorial to the cosmonaut. This is basically a mentally big obelisk made of shiny steel with a rocket on the top of it. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Being a bit interested in space travel and all that, I probably enjoyed this way more than most people would, but seriously it was sweet. Over the road we decided to walk around the gardens that happened to be there to kill our last hour available before the afternoon train out of Moscow. Somehow without anyone actually knowing it was there, we’d stumbled into the place where Soviet wealth was shown off, in all its falsehood. Numerous ancient greek styled buildings with impressive gold finishes and large Lenin memorials where placed around this 2 km long spectacle. It was a sight unexpected but was totally tops.

Gold, Gold, Gold means soviets are rich

Without getting carried away, we managed to make it back to the hostel on time to get our bags and head off on another suburban train which thankfully wasn’t completely packed to Vladimir, the next Golden Ring destination.

Hostel: 700 rbls a night for four nights (total = $70)
Visa Registration: 300 rbls ($15)
Eating: ~300 rbls a day
Trains: ~100 rbls out to vladimir
Metro: 150 rbls for 10 rides
Total: about NZ$170
Running Total: $5050