Last Sunday I arrived home from my first trip to the east (not south-east), to the bigger brother, Russia and particularly Moscow.
For getting there I decided for an unusual Warsaw-Moscow route through Kaliningrad to save on time and costs, but ofcourse my implementation of the plan in practice was neither cheap nor quick, although I still think the plan was good (and original) and it could work out if I had reserved slightly more time buffer. I ended up taking four trains to get to Kaliningrad, then a bus to the Khrabovo Airport and a KD-Avia flight to Moscow Domodedovo. Each of the four trains had a delay from the schedule so I missed my bus from Olsztyn to Kaliningrad (would be much cheaper than train) and my Aeroflot flight from there (with an Asian-Vegetarian on-board meal I chose from the list of like twenty types of food that the web-app presented me with when buying the ticket online).
On the Braniewo-Kaliningrad train I was sitting next to a guy from Ghana who spoke neither Polish nor Russian and everyone believed that he speaks English, which was not entirely true, and it turned out I was the only person to understand English on the train so I was automatically assumed to have to help him get through the border. On cheap country-border-crossing routes like this I find that some 90% of the passengers are smugglers who, when you meet them, are making the route for some third time on this day and they form something which I believe you can very well call a community, they treat every other passenger on the train as their co-workers and they see many of the same people a couple of times every day. Crossing the border is the routine for them and talking to the exceptional tourists and the border zone security officers is their diversion. So I was seen obliged to fill in the Dominico’s immigration forms and other documents which he only limited himself to tell me that he couldn’t do because he was too confused. He was speaking something between French and English but this language was evidently not his native one because he couldn’t express many things in it (apart from my understanding or not). Dominico posessed a valid Ghanaian passport, no Russian visa and a Belgium residence card which the officers deemed a fake (as I understand – they were speaking Russian and me Polish) but I’m not sure if that was based on any reasoning or just their guess. In the end for the sake of my own getting through the border I had to invent the purpose of Dominico’s visit in Russia and his legal situation and the story behind it because I was unable to get this information from himself, and the train was already delayed by over three hours at this point. The enterprise succeeded and nobody in the carriage had been forced out.
In Moscow I stayed mainly in a residence hall room of Kate who I had last seen in France and of her roommate Nastya (diminutive for Anastasia..). Most Moscow residence halls employ various techniques to prevent strangers from entering the building so the way I entered and parted the 2nd floor room every day (in Russia floors count from 1st floor which is the ground level) was through the window. Everyday in the evening I would climb up to the window clinging to the tube installations on the wall and the bars on the 1st floor windows and then knock the glass and if it was the right window, the person inside would open it and very quickly let you in. This procedure also had further complications due to issues like room assignment and people in some rooms being out of home this day so actually almost every day you had to use a different room in the morning to get out and in the evening get in but seemingly it is something completely normal for the people of the dormitory, nobody is even mildly surprised when a person knocks at their window, enters the room, says hello and immediately after walks out through the door to the corridor. When there’s a party in a 3rd or 4th floor room the guests will use one of the 2nd floor rooms to leave the building after the party finishes at some 3 am. We spent two nights in a Kate’s friend’s friend’s private flat in the outskirts of Moscow when there were problems with the dorm. In Moscow the university residence halls generally don’t have a free internet service in every room (and there’s no WiFI in range in most places, especially not in a dormitory of a non-technical university like MGOU where Kate studies) which surprised me a lot because I remember that in Warsaw in the 90s when having an internet cable in your private home was still very uncommon and the only way most people could connect was through a 56K dial-up modem, you would usually go to a friend in a univeristy dorm to download the latest movies and get music from P2P. Dorms were one of the first places to have a true cable connection and still today use to have the widest bands.
In consequence a big number of the “cost effective” Moscow tourists go daily to one of the McDonald’s in the centre to use internet. There’s one that offers free WiFi for everyone and when you go there you see at every second table (and even outside in the street when it’s not raining) someone sitting with a laptop surfing away and some people are known to spend hours there. The staff in this particular McDonald’s is extremely tolerant.
I visited most of the main touristic sites in Moscow, and many non-touristic attractions that you don’t find in the guidebooks, thanks to the excelent guidance by my host.
I have seen the dead tovarish Lenin and I take the side of the part of population that thinks the body is genuine and not a plastic replica, but I’m not 100% sure, it might be a fake. Moscow in general was very impressive even despite the very bad weather in which I had to appreciate it.
I was slightly disappointed by the gastronomic offering of Moscow but I didn’t have time to get to know it very well (and in my judgements I only consider the part that has a reasonable economic aspect and I’m very low tolerant to pricing (cf. greedy)). If I was to recommend one place for general eating out it would be the Solecito Italian restaurant (pizza dlya gurmanov!) in Nikolskaya street, and for Russian food the canteens at university departments (but then the access to the buildings is restricted to non-students or those who don’t know the cunning tricks to get in, which is not so difficult).
I went with Kate to some of her classes during this week which was interesting because I speak no Russian and they were all in Russian. I was immediately being noticed also because almost all of linguistics students are females at MGOU so in many clases I was the only male and the only person who had a laptop on during the lectures.
We went to a see a movie in the Moscow’s Iluzyon cinema that plays one French movie in French, no subtitles, every month. It was A nos amours, a 1975 production. Later when Nastya was explaining to us the plot, we learnt that we don’t know French sufficiently for watching movies, yet.
The coming back to Poland was again interesting but this time I decided to take the route that most back-packers take, to really cut down on costs this time, which partially worked out. The plan was to take a Moscow-Brest platskart train, cross the Belarusian – Polish border on a Brest-Terespol bus and take a normal polish train from Terespol on. The Brest-Terespol buses go rarely but there are short elektrichka trains that are only slightly more expensive and carry immensely more colourful adventures involving the said smugglers community. First thing was just when I appeared before the customs clearance office door someone ran up to me and asked if I had any cigarettes in my bag and if not, whether I could traffic one box for her (one big box is a legal quantity). In the black plastic bag that I was assigned by this person I later found out was also a bottle. My conversation with the customs officer was along these lines:
– Do you carry any alcohol?
– Yes, one bottle, Sir.
– What alcohol is it?
– No idea, Sir.
– One box, Sir.
– A paczka [Polish for “box”] or a sztanga? [WTF is a sztanga of cigarettes?]
– A box I suppose, Sir.
I was let in, despite the lack of registration in Moscow, and then on the train I started reading a book. When the train was already running, suddenly a lady climbed one of the tables in the wagon and to my exclusive surprise ripped off a piece of the casing of the ceiling and stuffed a number of big, black, flat packets into the hole. This is when I very carefully produced camera and started recording. While she was doing this three persons of the railway staff were passing through the wagon and again to my surprise, they were completely not interested. Also later, just before stopping for clearance in Terespol I am pretty sure I saw someone run out of a rye field by the rail track and collect some objects that must have been thrown from the train, and immediately run away afterwards.
Note: the registration is a requirement of Russian immigration law that states that if you’re staying three days or longer, you should go to a nearest police office with the owner of the place where you’re staying and have the officer put a stamp with the address in your passport – this procedure takes five days to complete. Hostels, however, will do this for you if you’re staying at a hostel, so many people will go to a hostel before leaving Russia and pay some nights at the hostel to get the required stamp (theoretically you can be asked by police to show the registration stamp any day even if you’re just walking around a city, but the risk is very low). It turns out thought that sometimes you will not be asked for the registration at the border at all, when leaving Russia, and even if you are asked for it, the fine (cf. bribe) is less than the cost of five nights at a hostel so this way is often recommended. (I’m not entitled to give legal advice so don’t take this as an advice.)
So this was my first time in Terespol and while waiting for the train home I had a short walk through the town. I noticed that it is a very little town much smaller than I expected. Later I was wondering why I expected Terespol to not be a little town like this, or why I expected anything from Terespol at all. The answer may be that my expectation came from the board-game Monopoly. In its Polish version, that I played when I was very little, I vaguely remember the main hotels or train stations or whatever it was (say hotels) were named something like Hotel Paris, Hotel Warsaw, Hotel Vilnus and Hotel Terespol. And this is I think particularly the only place I had ever seen the name Terespol before so I imagined it to be something important but it actually has a one main street and a couple smaller streets on its sides, a supermarket and a computer shop next to a church with a tower with a clock with no hands (but otherwise a very nice clock!) on each of the tower’s four sides. I will need to check it.
Pictures from the whole trip here.