Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Train to Moscow

On Sunday morning, despite not having a Belarus transit visa, we set off for a suburban train station to catch the 10:38 train to Moscow. We had butterflies in our stomachs, not knowing what lied ahead. As we left the hotel, the doorman said he hoped he would see us again soon. We replied in unison, "Not too soon, we hope".

At the station we went to buy two first class tickets. There were none available. The train was full! What about second class? The same thing. The train was full. We couldn't believe it. How can a whole train on a 24 hour journey be full? After a few moments of standing there looking forlorn, the ticket agent suggested that we could try buying a ticket from the conductor on the train.We went to the platform and waited. There were a lot of other people waiting as well. Finally, just after 10, three dirty second class sleeper cars showed up. This was not what we had expected. We approached the conductor who asked in Russian for our tickets. When we gestured we wanted to buy some, he gave us a signal that clearly indicated the train was full. As we stood there trying to decide what to do, a young Polish couple came by and asked if they could help. They spoke to the conductor and reported that the train was full, but maybe someone won't show up. We should wait. We started to chat and I asked him about transit visas. He said it shouldn't be a problem. He didn't need one with his Polish EU Passport. We had both Canadian and British EU Passports.

For the next half hour, we stood near the stern gold toothed conductor. A few moments before the scheduled departure, he showed me a small piece of paper with the number 300 followed by an 's'. I took this to mean each ticket would be 300 zlotys, about 10 pc more than the cost of a second class ticket at the counter. I nodded in agreement. I counted our money and we were short by the amount we had left the housekeeper as a tip! But I suddenly remembered I had a similar amount in my 'fake wallet'. If we got on, we'd have enough cash to pay to pay the fare. As for the visa, we’d worry about it later. We had euros and dollars. With a minute to go, the conductor signaled for us to get on the train.

We settled onto a small compartment with two beds. The conductor came by and while gesturing to the beds, tried to explain something in Russian that I didn't fully understand. But it seemed like another person would be joining us at Terrespol, the last stop in Poland. We didn't care since we were happy to be on the train and not likely to have trouble at the border.
After the train left the station, I went into the next car to visit the couple who had helped us at the station. They were delighted we had made it with just enough cash. They were drinking beer with another couple, who it turned out, were Russians now living in Toronto. I told them about my difficulty understanding the conductor and they offered to help if I needed translation assistance.

I asked them about visas for Belarus. The girl said there shouldn’t be a problem. Her boyfriend was traveling on a Canadian passport and he didn't have one. If there was a problem, I may have to give the border guards money. "That’s how things work around here, I’m afraid to say."
I returned to our compartment to give Sally the news. We laughed at the absurdity of being pleased with ourselves even though we would be on a dingy train for 24 hours with no dining car and no zlotys. Then our conductor appeared and I gave him the agreed upon amount.
He shook his head. "Nyet", he said. "Dollars, no zlotys." I didn't bother to ask if he would take Visa or Mastercard! I knew we had a problem.

I went to see the girl living in Toronto who agreed his request was ridiculous and offered to help me out. She and the conductor got into a long discussion which I didn’t understand until I heard the subject of passports and transit visas came up. After a few more minutes, she turned to me and said, "I'm so sorry but you’re going to have to leave the train. Even if you pay him what he wants, he can't guarantee he can get you into Belarus without a visa. Things have changed. It’s better to get off at the next stop than be turned away at the border five hours from now."
I went back to Sally who was curled up with her new Harry Potter book and gave her the news. Then the conductor came by and gestured that the train was stopping and we must get off right away. But he wanted 20 dollars for all his troubles!The next thing I knew, the train had stopped at a platform and he was carrying Sally’s bag to the exit. As he hurried us off, I stuffed some zlotys into his hand and he passed Sally's bag onto the platform. As the train pulled away, the Russian girl and her boyfriend were standing over him. "I’m so sorry" she said. I wished them good luck.So there we were at a deserted train station one and a half hours from Warsaw. I checked inside and there would be a train in an hour. I now realized I would have to give up on my idea of traveling from Istanbul to Moscow by train. Despite the cost, we would fly in the morning. Assuming all the planes were not fully booked! Before the train arrived, I went into an internet cafй at the station. I found the Belarus website for UK, and Brits did indeed need a transit visa. Moreover, the fees had just gone up in June. It now cost 79 pounds for processing within 48 hours. Even if we could have bought our way out of the situation, it would likely have cost a few hundred dollars each. All Sally could say was that she hopes Canada beats Belarus in their next hockey game.The train ride back to Warsaw was uneventful. We returned to our hotel and I set out to purchase two plane tickets on the internet. I came across a Danish website with a better price on Aerosvit, a Ukrainian airline. By traveling through Kiev we could save about $400, and we wouldn't need a transit visa!

It was the afternoon of the Open Championship, so we set off for a sports bar in the nearby Marriot Hotel, where we managed to catch the last 9 holes seated near a very excited Irish couple whose cousin was married to Padraig Harrington. We missed the 4 hole play-off since Polish television didn't carry it. But we read a text account over the internet. Poor Sergio.

The next morning, after another breakfast of smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, we set off for the airport. This time we would not be back. Around 4 o’clock, we arrived at a small Moscow airport. We went to the information desk where we showed the lady our cruise coupon with the address of the port. "Take the 851 bus outside" she said. "It will take you there." I thought she had to be kidding, but as we left the terminal, there was an 851 bus, so we got on. An hour later, we were let off at a Metro station in what seemed like the middle of the city. All we had was a picture of the ship, and the address in English. I showed it to a few people, including some taxi drivers, reflecting on the absurdity of the situation. "Do you know where we can find this ship?"Eventually, someone came along and offered to help in English. With a smile, he said we were actually quite close. We didn’t need to take the Metro, or a taxi. We could walk to the ship, and he gave us directions. So there we were, walking along a busy Moscow street, pulling our luggage, looking for a 5 storey cruise ship!Eventually we found it, next to a Stalinesque Port Building, and are now aboard. We look forward to 11 relaxing days of cruising up the Volga to St. Petersburg. Now someone else can make all the arrangements. Pass me the vodka.

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