Published: October 29th 2010October 7th 2010
Russia, at first, seems to be a huge, impenetrable fortress. A land where you need to fill out pages of forms, (proving your existence, your intentions, with a few passport sized photos), just for a one week visit. The former Soviet empire, looming over Europe like a forbidden forest. And finally, with a reason to visit and a girlfriend who can speak the language, here was my ticket into the deep dark woods...
As if sorting out all the papers wasn't hard enough (you have to buy an invite from a hotel for visa eligibility) our entrance across the Finnish/Russian border was impeded because someone on the bus had been accused of having a fake passport. A fake passport! And luckily for me, I passed through just before they did, so I had a great vantage point to watch as the passport control seized the passport from the unlucky individual and summoned the chief interrogator. Espionage, Bond, Bourne, drug running, identity theft, terrorism... these thoughts were all flooding through my mind. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, I'd predicted the Russian border to be a highlight and here it was, happening right behind me. And even
though it was all in a different language, Karina later translated everything for me because she was even closer to the prime suspect.
In fact, she was the prime suspect.
She had relied on her Belarusian passport to get through without a visa. But, this passport was from the glory days when Karina was 16 going on 17, had black looking hair, and what appears to be an afro. It looked almost too fake to be called a fake. But, fake was the accusation, and Karina was to spend the next 30 minutes (30 minutes!!) being cross-examined by the head customs official. Every stamp was scrutinised. Every page was perused. Every detail dissected. I watched from 2 or 3 metres away on the Russian side, unable to gauge the mood because I couldn't understand a single word. Now she had her Swedish passport out and they didn't look too pleased about that one either. They kept asking where she'd got it from, and no answer was good enough. It's strange really, when a passport is considered the ultimate proof, how do you prove it is legitimate?
Meanwhile, a bus load of passengers could do nothing but wait,
and I sat there confused on the Russian side, one eye on Karina and the other on the bus, ready to run for it if it started to pull away. What would I do if she didn't get through? I was thinking of all the bookings we'd made, the strict deadlines on the visas.
Eventually, the bus driver came to see what was going on. A reasonable looking man, perhaps a problem solver.
"It's a real passport," Karina explained, "there's nothing they can actually do... is there?"
"It will be fine, don't worry," he replied, but with an afterthought: "Or of course, you might go to prison."
"Prison?! Why? This is the passport they gave to me. I've done nothing wrong!"
The driver paused. "Once a man went to prison and thought he was innocent. 6 months later he remembered that he'd untied his neighbour's cow and it was eaten by wolves."
The driver smiled, added a quick 'what else can I do?' shrug, and walked off. I was delighted. Wolves? Neighbour's cattle? Prison? This was my kind of country!
Needless to say, it turned out that Karina hadn't been forging passports (or untying cattle), so
she was eventually let through to my great relief. I was beginning to think I was going to have to go on without her...
A few observations...
One thing that needs to be said immediately is that Russia is big, and I mean really BIG. Bordering with 15 other countries it is easily the largest country in the world and over 7 million square kilometres larger than Canada (which is number 2). To put that in perspective, Australia itself (which is among the largest countries in the world) is about 7.5 million sq km. So, if you took an Australia-sized chunk out of Russia, it would still be as big as any other country on this planet. But it's not just the size of the country itself. It's the size of everything. Tall buildings, wide streets and massive rivers, huge supermarkets, long words, the steepest and longest metro elevators you will ever see. And the people! Women with long legs, men with big hair, HIGH heels, big noses. I fit in quite well.
That's not true, I didn't fit in very well at all. Neither did Karina actually. People could spot us as tourists a mile off
and we were often catching surreptitious glances on the sidewalks. It took me a while to figure it out. Even when we weren't speaking, people still looked at us differently. And why? Our faces didn't look so different, what gave us away? We put some serious thought into it, and it wasn't until we were sitting on the metro that we realized it was our shoes. Our casual, white, well-used, sporty looking shoes. Everybody else had black or brown, or very occasionally dazzling white leather. The whole carriage was a sea of black, respectable cowhide and there we were in white. After that revelation, I always felt like an outsider. As if I'd turned up at a fancy dress party with nothing fancy about my dress. Or gone to school in my jim jams.
Besides its size, another thing that stuck out about Russia was that so many things were unexpected. After a while, nothing seemed to surprise me anymore. Did a supermarket staff member just roller skate past me? Does that man have pet monkeys with him? Did that woman just walk past with a brown bear on a leash? (Yes, yes, yes). Sometimes big AND unusual were
On a roll
combined, such as when one of the tallest women in the country was dressed up as a doll to promote the opening of a bookshop. I shook her hand. I still don't know why.
Another thing I found quite interesting is the written language, which is called Cyrillic. I didn't even know it existed until fairly recently in my life, so here is a little bit about it. First things first, it uses a different alphabet to our Latin one, and so there are all kinds of funny little letters. You might think my learning the alphabet was fairly unnecessary, but if you were standing out the front of some toilets, one marked with M and one with Ж I'd like to see what you'd do. I included a picture of McDonald's so you can get an idea, one of the few words that is pronounced the same wherever you go.
Any old how, I'll write a bit more about the places we visited soon (St Petersburg, Moscow, a country house near Tula), but for now, a few final thoughts about Russia on the whole. Russia is a place where you're likely to hear the negatives before you
hear all the redeeming positives, kind of like South Africa or Whitney Houston. Sayings like "The only good Russian is a dead Russian" still float around today, unfortunately. You might notice, I even did it with this blog entry. I started out with fake passports, difficult customs officials, wolves and prison even though I found it to be beautiful and interesting. But that's what it's like in Russia. Such cultural history - genius poets, writers, musicians, artists. Such rich traditions. Such stunning architecture. You just have to do a little bit of digging to get the good stuff.
NB. I spent a good month digging (both literally and metaphorically) in Russia and Belarus, so there will be more to come on everything I unearthed as soon as possible.
(Panorama picture at the top is Saint Petersburg's riverside, complete with The Hermitage (in green and white) and St Isaac's Cathedral's gold dome)