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interthink » Escape From The Iron Curtain (part one)

Escape From The Iron Curtain (part one)

After surviving another night parasite-free, we woke up on our last day in Russia determined to make the most of it.  To satiate our thirst for culture: Peter & Paul’s Fortress (with a lovely cathedral, beach and….helipad?), St. Isaac’s Church (with a 300-step climb to the top of the colonnade), Kazan Cathedral (with – astoundingly – more worshippers than tourists) and a trip on the metro to briefly spy Alexandr Nevsky Monastery.

We then returned to the hostel for a snooze, a chat with new arrivals and a farewell to our departing multi-national friends over a hearty home-cooked Dr. Oetker pizza.  We also found out that Mark and an American were involved in a late-night scuffle with the St. Petersburg locals following Tamera’s birthday celebration – it’s true what they say about going out at night…

With our hand-drawn map of St. Petersburg’s metro system from the receptionist, we left Crazy Duck hostel and arrived promptly at Baltiskaya – our supposed bus terminal.  In truth, this was just the square in front of the metro station and, after trying to get on the wrong bus in a blind panic, we boarded the off-white 2355 Eurolines Baltic Express, stopping service, to Riga. ETA: 1045.

2356: no free wi-fi.  0115: thunderstorms and the first stop.  0230: the routine stop at the Russian border that we’ve all come to know and love.  Humorous anecdotes were shared only three hours earlier in the hostel about the lax security at the edge of the Iron Curtain.

Apparently, however, they’re much more concerned about people leaving the country than entering it.  When I’d hauled my bags up to the passport desk, I was met with a steely gaze and a frown at my passport pages.

Customs officials muttered into their walkie-talkies, and I was escorted through a labyrinth of doors to a back room.  A beer-drinking Ruskie and a non-descript young man awaited me.  The uniformed official left and shut the door.

Well, this is it, Nick. You meet your end at the border of Estonia and the Russian Federation, at the hands of a drunk and someone claiming to be there for “assistance”.

On 12th July 2009, it seemed my luck had run out.  Not only my, luck, but my visa, too.  Yes, that’s right, it was 12th July 2009, and our visa expired two hours ago, on 11th July 2009.  Let’s just forget that we boarded the bus at 2355 on the 11th, shall we?

Mr. Manners wasn’t too far behind me, so we were at least matched in terms of numbers.  The plain-clothed “official”, whose English was so poor we had a better job communicating with the drunk Russian, eventually managed to tell us that it cost 300 Rubles to prolong our visa.  That’s not too bad – I had that in my pocket.  I see how this works: I give them 500, they keep the change and we all go our separate ways.

Nope.

After politely arguing our travel details with him and two other uniformed customs/immigration people (who still had our passports), we were told to obtain a document from the bank to go along with our visa.  At 9am.  No passport so far, no bus (that had long since left) and no visa meant no exit.  They didn’t budge.  I threw everything at them – doubling the money, blaming the embassy,  pretending the bus was late….and still, nothing.

Finally, a severe-looking woman in charge of this whole palaver came to preside over this five-way debate.  Her English was the best out of the lot, and after no consideration to our situation, simply gave us the same information we’d already digested.  She was even prepared to let us stay in their lovely clinically-decorated room for free!  We’ll take the nearest hotel, thanks.  800 Rubles a night is far better value than the company of an intoxicated native and Soviet-era desks and chairs.

We were given our passports back, a map (in Russian) and instructions for obtaining our document in the morning (in Russian).  A heavily-jacketed Russian soldier then escorted us to the side of the border we were so desperate to escape from and we were then left to our own devices.  After failing to navigate to the hotel in a place we’d never heard of, let alone located at half past three in the morning, that plain-clothed official had followed us in his new capacity as Russian fixer.  Leading us up inside the drabbest post-Soviet dilapidated relic known to man, it was time to wake up the old Russian proprietor to check us in to our room.  Of course, to get a room, they required such important details as your passport number and exact place of birth,  Clearly a little riled about being woken up so early/late, she wanted a conversation out of the three of us – we joked and laughed like old friends.  Just don’t ask me what we talked about, because I have absolutely no idea.  After much studious perusal of some ancient chart, there was a room free on the third floor with two beds.  1500 Rubles each.  Sorry, what?  We’ll just take a single bed, then.  Cue more careful studying of the chart.  Fourth floor: 750 Rubles each.

We climbed up to the top floor (penthouse!) to spend a night in what many Russian salesmen must have done before us.  Think of all the stereotypes you could fit into a dodgy Russian hotel, and it was fully furnished with all of them.  Even the check-in card had the year of birth section listed as “198_”. We locked the door behind us.  Double-locked it. The novelty of the situation has long-since gone.

I’m sitting on the chair, finishing this entry before squeezing onto the bed.  No, I’m not going to risk the floor.  I’m barely going to risk the pillow.  You know what? I might just stay on the chair.

In about three hours, it will be time for us to have another go at leaving the country.  I’ve no idea where we’re going to get another bus from, either.  Our Russian fixer said he’d help us, but I’ve got a feeling that once we’re in Estonia, we’re on our own.

Until then, here we are:  trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

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