Come on, we've all had them, those moments when you are not quite sure just what you have agreed to, signed up for, or worse, how you will emerge. Usually has you sweating at the time, makes you uncomfortable later, and is a wonderfully funny story with enough time.
My moment, like many I imagine, occurred when I first landed in China. The school that hired us had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Beijing Airport and take us to Tianjin. This was no black sedan, but a rickity old 70s van with a wooden bench in the back for us. Fine...whatever. It was the fact that our driver was illiterate, may have never driven before and didn't know how to get out of Beijing!
My favourite moments of the trip (now) include, stopping at a brothel to ask directions, driving straight into and over a metal construction sign, coming to a full stop in the middle of the freeway with other vehicles slamming on their breaks to avoid us, driving in reverse down the same freeway for a full kilometre to reach an exit (no not in the emergency lane) and finally with our new school in sight, being inches from a head on collision.
I have been in China for 6 months now, and while Chinese driving can always be a little crazy, this has created a great benchmark, as no other driving incident has even come close to being as terrifying.
Alright, who is up next???
Ok I'll go next - and I'll stay on the driving theme.
There was a class excursion to Tatarstan while I was studying in Russia. I didn't sign up first time around, but after the trip was postponed I changed my mind and joined the rest of my classmates when we finally set off. We were promised a comfy coach for the 13 hour trip - and were less than impressed when a bright yellow 10 seater mini-van came to pick us up!
The driver - we learned half way to Nizhnyi Novgorod - was a shaman witchdoctor with a few tasty ideas about where hell is situated, who drove us straight through shallow rivers whenever he lost his way.
It was an amazing trip; with so little space and so many bumps and wrong turns we all got to know each other much better. We kept a 'quotes book' to remember the funny things people said that term and almost filled it up that night. The town we ended up in was fantastic, with an attractive little hotel and beautiful white and turquoise mosque. On the way back we stopped in the middle of the Russian countryside in the middle of the night and sung Robbie Williams' 'Angels'.
If the bus had left on the day it was meant to I would have missed it all.
So many of those moments! - I think they're part of life - but particularly common when travelling and only understanding 20% of whatever is really going on.
I spent a day hiking in the forests of Latvia - Ignalina - with my ex-girlfriend - at the end of the day, we arrived back at the minor train station for the last train to Vilnius and the hostel. The train had left, I'd written down the last train as leaving an hour later than reality.
It's ok we'll hitch back... we walk out onto the main road and in an hour one car passes - and doesn't stop.
There must be a taxi... we walk around the small town - no taxi's, no people, no shops - it's a ghost town.
We start a search for a hotel or anything - and start to realise that shorts and t-shirts are not ideal clothes for an unexpected night out in a ghost-town. We try calling numbers in the lonely planet for hotels in the area... but most don't pickup and the one that does doesn't understand us or vice-versa - wrong number? I'll never know.
So we go back to the train station - the next train 6am - we'll wait. About 10pm we're pretty bored and getting cold - so we go for a walk - drink some vodka (where did that come from?) and an hour later head back to the station. It's shut - a thunderstorm is coming in from no where... there is no shelter.
Then we find a little shop - a special shop that only opens from 11pm to 7am - ?!? - a Latvian 7/11? - we try to ask for permission to wait out the night in the shop - but we don't speak Russian or Latvian and the owner, she speaks no English, German, Hungarian, French or Spanish (yeah I tried) - so I just slump in the corner and hope she doesn't call in the heavies to throw us out - the women tells us to go to the station for a period but eventually gives up.
We catch the train at 6am - and survive - if it hadn't been August and we hadn't found shelter in that little shop - well - we probably would have started hammering on any door with a light on. It really brought home how despite having had money and credit cards we weren't able to get out of the situation - in a harsher environment it's possible to see how these situations escalate out of control.
Lads - great stories.
Ok, here's ours. We're fresh on our journey and leave the comfort of our hostel in Estonia for the midnight bus to St. Petersburg, carefully noting our eta of 6.30am and sit back for a nice cozy night of sleep delighted to save on accommodation.
Not so. Once we drift off to sleepland we hit the border at 2am with scary looking border officials checking us out. We're the only non Russians and Estonians on the bus so are left pretty much alone, but there's a whole kerfuffle of grumbling Estonian grannies and men in leather jackets being taken off on the Estonian side and then shrieking Russian Babushkas being sent home to St. Petersburg on the other side. Any thoughts of sleep were put to bed by the awful roads from the border on and then horror of horrors we are all chucked off the bus at 4.30am at an unknown destination. Sleep-deprived, weirded out and confused, we look around to see packs of starving dogs eyeing us up, bored prostitutes and lairy angry drunken soldiers. I wanted me mammy.
Somehow we figure out where we are, how to get to where we want to and get there. I don't know how.
A week later Russian soldiers are trying to coerce Alan into using their prostitute, a Russian Train Lady is accusing him of robbing a towel and threatening to get the soldiers (no, not the pimp soldiers...)
Russia, you gotta love her. Seriously, we've had strange experiences elsewhere, but so far on this trip, Russia has provided the strangest.
"Умом Россию не понять" - Fyodor Tyutchev.
On my last day in Russia I fell asleep on the train from Tver, the town I was living in, to Moscow. I woke up to find my laptop, camera, wallet and phone had been stolen; the last three from my jacket and jeans pockets, the computer from a bag I was using as a pillow. The drunk on the bench next to me saw a couple rob me but didn't say anything. I'd arranged to spend the night with a friend in Moscow but with no mobile I couldn't get in touch with her - the train was very late and by the time I arrived it was one in the morning and she had left the platform, not knowing what had happened to me.
Three members of the Russian militsiya
found me and make me finish their late shift with them before taking me to a hotel. I was in the front seat as they tried to run pedestrians over. They dropped me off in an almost pitch black alley in a kvartal
of the city I had never been to and demanded to be paid. With all the roubles I had loose in my pockets I gave them about a quarter of what they wanted, and waited for all of my lights to go out. They left me alone instead; I was very lucky that I speak Russian and wasn't just another tourist to rough up.
The nearest hotel was a 5-star one. With just a few more kopecks I paid for half an hour in the internet cafe, and slept there, pleading with the staff not to throw me out until the metro opened at 6 the next morning. From there I found my friend's business card and sat in the street outside her office until she arrived at work at 10, where through tears I could explain what had happened.
My Russian improved more that night than in the 8 months I'd spent in Russia before that. There are always positive things to take out of rough experiences, and always a story to tell!
That is a bit like how I felt on the plane to Iran last October.
I also had that feeling when I was on the plane to India 10 years ago.
Haha thanks for the stories! I love all the journeys that look like easy, quick, normal train/bus/taxi/ferry rides; but end up being epic adventures where everything that could possibly go wrong actually DOES go wrong! Ive attached a link to the story of my worst/most memorable such adventure, I hope it sounds as frustrating and unlucky as it really was.
Anyone who has travelled in Africa please share such stories as well, as I think those ones will easily top the list 😊
Chasing A Ferry By Train
Great topic. Mine was getting taken for interrogation on the Russian-Mongolian border when they mistook me for an imposter!!!
Interesting how there are more of them about transportation than about border crossings. Yet it seems so unlikely...come on, lets get some good border crossing stories.
I had a not-so-enjoyable time crossing the border from Namibia into Zambia last year. When I was in South Africa I had purchased a nicely made Zulu spear in one of the many basket shops in Zululand. I wrapped the spear up in plastic and stashed it in my pack (I had bought it without the long wooden handle to make transport easier) I traveled up through Namibia for a while and and then on to the Zambian border. I had made it through several border searches unscathed, but there was something different about the border guards there. I unloaded the contents of my backpack onto the ground and spread it all out so the guard could see it. He inquired about the plastic-wrapped something and I told him is was a souvernir spear from South Africa. He wanted to see it and he began struggling with the plastic wrap. He cut the plastic off and pulled the spear out, held it above his head like a proud warrior would and started yelling, "CONTRABAND!!!" and then he ran around to all of the other guards to show them the treasure he had found. So there we stood as the last of my fellow bus-mates re-packed their bags and got back on the bus. The guards were all huddled around me and their faces were contorted in a way that said you are in big trouble. It seemed like their biggest gripe was that I didn't have a receipt and, when I asked how I could have gotten a receipt from one of the street sellers, they just smiled and told me I should not buy stuff from the street sellers. It was becoming clear that they were holding out for a bribe of some sort and I wasn't willing to play the game so I asked them, "Am I getting back on the bus with or without my spear, or should we just tell the bus to go without me?" Suddenly the problem went away and they told me with a smile on their faces to get a receipt next time and to have a nice trip. I suppose it could have turned out worse, but it was a little stressful at the time. I remember wondering when I bought the spear if it would give me troubles at the borders - I guess the answer was yes!