Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Plane, Train, and Automobile

I arrived at Домодедово (Domodedovo Airport) late on a Tuesday evening, a day later than I had planned due to some frustrating and expensive visa snafu's. I got off the plane, found my ski bag (which made it!) and headed for the exit. I talked some taxi driver down from $100 to about $70, still about two times what I should have paid, for the 60 minute ride to the train station. All well, I seem to be starting a tradition of horribly overpaying a taxi driver my first time in a country. (Three years ago in Rome I paid some bloke 40 euro to take me what turned out to be 4 blocks.) On our way out of the airport parking lot I sat and watched as he stopped a 100 meters before the automated toll gates. As soon as the police officer monitoring the area had walked to the other end of the exit area, we pulled right up to the nearest gate, to the point that we were hitting it with the car. The driver reached his hand out his window, lifted the gate until it was over the roof of the car, and sped away. I'm going to have to see if this trick works in the United States.

He was actually quite friendly, and we had fun talking to each other in broken Russian / English. As soon as I had communicated that I liked hard rock, he looked at me excitedly and popped in a cassette. Out came good 70's American and British rock. For the rest of the ride, I think we were both relieved that we didn't have to listen to the nauseating mix of Russian and American pop coming out of the radio. So maybe the $70 was worth it.

Because of my delayed arrival, I did not have train tickets from Moscow to Novosibirsk. At the Ярославский Вокзал (Yaroslavsky train station) I discovered that not only was the first train to Novosibirsk all booked up in плацкарт (3rd class), but also the next train, and every train until the next night. So, without much else to do, I bought a ticket for a train leaving the next night at 10pm and prepared myself to spend the night in a Russian train station.

The train station is on a main square in Moscow with two other train stations and a major Metro stop. All together, they make up one of Moscow's "busiest and hairiest centers' according to Lonely Planet. Having abandoned my large ski bag and backpack in the center of the main hall full of people, where I hoped they wouldn't be rifled through, I headed out to explore the area and quickly confirmed my guidebook's assessment. Even inside of the train station, there were quite a few stumbling drunks and other harmless, homeless-looking types, but I can't say it felt much different than Port Authority or even the Cleveland Greyhound Station.

I found the baggage storage area in the basement, checked my bags, and headed to the second-floor hall, a somewhat larger, warmer, and cleaner area. There most people were laid out on benches sleeping, and soon was among them. Around 1:00 am, however, we were all woken up and quickly shooed into a much smaller room adjacent to the second floor hall. Initially confused, I realized the handful of police officers and station attendants were systematically checking everyone and kicking out those that didn't measure up, separating the bums from the upstanding passengers I guess. I wasn't really sure into which category I fit as all I had was a ticket for a train that didn't leave for another 21 hours. Watching carefully as the more sober and clever homeless types were cleared despite their clearly invalid tickets by approaching the young, bored, and tired police officers rather than the mean and vindictive station attendant babushkas, I quickly handed my ticket and photocopy of my passport to the youngest, most friendly looking Moscow policeman. He looked at my ticket and passport, and with a bewildered amusement, looked at me and said, "Ты Американец?" (Are you an American?) I confirmed that I was, and shaking his head, he handed me my documents, and walked off. Other than a few arguments spiraling into minor fights and a few more people getting thrown out of the room, the next few hours were pretty dull. Around 3:00am they let us all back into the larger room and I slept for the rest of the night. Also, as an aside, they weren't completely throwing out the poor homeless folks, just making them go down to the first floor where it wasn't quite as warm.

I spent some of the next day wandering around Moscow and Red Square, seeing some churches, etc. That evening I (finally) got on mine train, managing to drag my ski bag and find a place to put it without upsetting anyone. I was traveling плацкарт (3rd class), meaning that my ticket for 55 hours of travel across thousands of kilometers of Russia was only about $50. It also meant that I got to travel in conditions that make most Russians shudder. To be honest, it really wasn't that bad. Half of my nearest compartment-mates were always kind and generous, sharing their food and stories with me. I got to impress them by explaining that my wife wasn't with me because she was competing at Biathlon World Championships, and they got to impress me by being able to recall exactly how the American women, including Carolyn, placed in the relay at the Olympics last year (15th, at 3rd to last, their best finish ever). It was true that the other half of the people on the train were in various states of drunkenness, but they kept to themselves for the most part and didn't bother me too much. To be honest, most of the train ride was just boring, passing endless snow covered forests, fields, and semi-abandoned villages.

I arrived at the train station at 5am in Novosibirsk to be greeted by two fur-clad and chipper twenty-year-old girls, two of my students.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.

29 October, 2008 18:13  

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