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Holland to Russia on the Cheap

Holland to Russia!

Remember when you are your young and you can still take risks? Well, that is exactly what I did when I was a young lad. With relatives in the Netherlands, a one-way ticket and one booked tour in Europe I went. Worry about getting home when the time comes.

The trip in Europe went as was expected. Full of fun and joys, the thrills and spills of an 18 year old traveling without a worry. And then the big day came that there was no more money. I had to settle down in Holland and work till I could afford a one-way ticket home to Australia.

My backpack floated between my grandmother’s and my uncle’s house whose respective houses were within a stones throw. Another stone’s throw away was my maternal grandfather, who was being looked after in a catered for house as he was senile.

Odd jobs, odd thoughts

Surrounded by supportive family I worked various jobs, kitchen hand at a lunchroom in a nearby seaside resort, loading and unloading planes at Schiphol, the airport –at the weirdest times- and other odd jobs. I had a cheap bicycle that I had run into the ground by racing around Holland and Belgium visiting relatives.

Being bitten by the travel bug I had no real intention to just jump on a plane home and arrive in Australia in 30 hours, I wanted to ‘travel’ home. The way I fancied was with another chap whose name I found on a notice board in an Amsterdam coffee shop. He and I were going to ride to Australia….. Not all the way, but mostly. We were not going to be adverswe to the odd train or boat, even a flight here or there would’ve been OK, but in principle, with the bicycle…

This starts of by cycling from Holland, then in a broad general way, through the Swiss Alps, through Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India… Southeast Asia somewhere, fly into Perth and cycle the last 3000 miles across the Nullabor to Canberra – home! Three months, no worries mate!

Granny votes 1 for Russia

One little problem, apart from my stuffed (and tired) bicycle, my grandmother was adverse to me traveling through Iran and Iraq. The are anti-Semitic and you may get killed. She did not trust the Ayatollah Kohmeini, and could not sleep with the thought in her head I was going to cycle. Several times in the middle of the night she would come to my room and plead with me, offering to pay the airfares, and trying to talk me out of it.

So that was the end of that. It was perhaps a little far fetched. I had no trouble with the idea of cycling around the world, but the last 3000 miles in Australia was a little too close to home. I knew that that would really be a very very long stretch!

The next plan was to catch the train through Russia. My grandmother was relatively relieved, she had been to Russia and had even learned some Russian in the past, so that was OK, and she could sleep at night again. The extra challenge was to do the Trans Siberian railway for USD35 as I had heard you could get the ticket for…. From Budapest, Hungary. Local enquiries revealed price tages 50x that amount!

Martin

One of my odd jobs in Holland at that time was working in the bank. Well, out of the bank, as a security off sider in a money truck. Picking up bags of coins, and driving big cheques to the reserve bank in Amsterdam. Things we do for temporary jobs! A fellow worker I met was called Martin, and he witnessed the travel section woman coming downstairs to me saying she booked me on a $10 trip to Paris, to kickstart me on my way towards Budapest. Martin had to know more about this. He had never heard of $10 trips to Paris.

It was a $10 shopping bus to Paris, you basically get 4 hours of shopping in and the bus comes back again the same day, except I wasn’t going back. Martin was briefed on the plan, and he was keen to come, all the way to Australia! Although he still had to get his passport and sell his motor bike, pack and other things… he was so keen, he would meet me in Budapest! And so the plan was made to meet him in Budapest on top of the hill, the Citadel, the castle which is a youth hostel, overlooking the Danube.

My bus to Paris was as was expected. No frills. From Paris I took a ‘hitch-hiking service’ to Vienna, and from Vienna I hitched. Got a ride to the border with some ace Mercedes trucks (like 19 of them) that were being driven to Saudi Arabia… I was so keen to stay on! The trucks looked like they were from the 60s, but that was some special design required there in the desert.

The Hungarian border didn’t like me much, I had no visa of course. They tried to get me to go back to Vienna. I did like Vienna, I liked the tower youth hostel, with one room to each of its 8 floors. But I didn’t like it that much to go back.

A little perseverance goes a long way, and I soon discovered that by train I could get a visa on the spot, so a bit of juggling, and I soon found myself on the train into Budapest. Turns out the youth hostel Citadel castle was booked full with Eastern European students. Trust me to come on a popular holiday. Instead I found a nice spot to drop my backpack in a zimmer-mit-fruhstuck arrangement somewhere in a private home.

Budapest

Budapest was very much an iron curtain country in my eyes, but in reality it had opened up lots already, and was way ahead of the other east-bloc countries. Technically I was still supposed to get police stamps in my passport every time I entered/left a town, but it never seemed a pressing issue, and I don’t think I ever actually got around to that.

It was from Keleti Pu that the trains left for Moscow I was told, so that is where I started the enquiry for the legendary $35 ticket to Beijing. Turns out that was the student price for East bloc students. That was easily done, right there at the station was a place where you could be issued the student IDs. Blank student ID’s! Great Idea I thought, as I filled in the Moscow University as the institution I supposedly attended, and carefully put my name and d.o.b. in Russian Cyrillic – fortunately staff there were able to help me do that. My excuse was that I was an East German citizen (I speak ein bitchen doitsh!) studying in Moscow for a year.

The next trick was to have a booking. It takes 6 months to book a seat on the trans Siberian, and you had to have all the required visas. The official man at the station asked me which train Trans Siberian I was planning to catch. I almost asked him which way African Swallows migrate in summer, but fortunately he explained that the Chinese trains run through Mongolia to Beijing, and the Russian trains run through to Khabarovsk and Harbin to Beijing. The point being that I would need a Russian visa, a Chinese one and possibly a Mongolian one.

Brent

Equipped with Martins passport photocopy I went to visit the relevant embassies to pick up the forms and do what I could do. When I stormed into the Chinese embassy, with the reverence of a bull in Pamplona, I ran into a young American traveler. He was quietly sitting on the bench in the foyer as I cleared my throat and loudly apprehended the first Chinese looking man in sight.

I got my forms and instructions for Martin, and then spoke to the American. Reynolds was his name, Brent Reynolds. Brent was also trying to get to Beijing, and also didn’t have a package tour waiting. We swapped numbers and decided to meet somewhere. Brent was pretty uncomfortable associating with me at the embassy because I had obviously not seen the way Chinese operate, and probably had not heard of the word ‘Meo’ yet.


Where is Martin

In the mean time I was meant to find Martin. He was not at the Citadel that Friday at 5pm. The understanding was I would come the following nights at 5pm as well, in case he got delayed. But I wasn’t allowed to wait inside the Citadel. As I was not a guest I was not allowed to be inside…. So I stood outside for 2 nights in a row. The third night I went in when the desk was unattended, browsed behind the counter and found a note from Martin. “Walter, where are you man? I have to leave this place”. Nothing else. Why wouldn’t he put a contact on?

A visit to the Dutch embassy proved useful. They let me call Martins mum, and she said he’d called and said he was going traveling through Europe for a bit cause he couldn’t find me. It told her to tell him to contact the Dutch embassy for my phone number. And so it happened that a day or so later Martin called home, called the embassy, got my number and called me. A new rendezvous was planned. In front of the Gellert Hotel on the Danube where the famous Turkish baths are. Main entrance right at the end of Bela Bartok avenue. Cannot miss me I said.

Sparkles burning and a bottle of champagne at the ready, there I stood waiting. Martin was a little embarrassed to approach me in public, not many people in Budapest light sparkles in the street. But he found me!

Ground work

In the mean time I had joined forces with Brent, and between the three of us we figured we could do it. We ran into all sorts of tricky situations. We couldn’t get the ticket without having the visas, we could not get the Russian without the Chinese, and couldn’t get the Chinese without the Russian. We couldn’t get either without the Mongolian, nor could we get any of them without the ticket…

Getting the ticket was an easy job with a digital watch. Step one covered. The next day, after we were told the booking was just as crucial as the ticket, we even got the right carbon paper and pen and a fictitious booking ‘suggestion’ to put on the ticket. We even got the watch back that day because the station man said he should not have accepted it!

With a ‘reservation’ and a ticket for the Trans Siberian and a lot of luck we managed to get the Mongolian visa. The day we found the Mongolian Embassy turned out to be one of their public holidays and we spoke to a woman. We were nice, showed her we had the tickets to leave the next weekend, and if her husband, the ambassador, could help us get the visas. I am sure it was Brent’s way with women that helped our passports to actually be ready and waiting for us with a Mongolian visa the following Monday.

The Chinese were happy to eventually stamp our visas after we assured them that the Russian visa had been issued but that they wanted to see the Chinese visa stamp before issuing it to us. And so we eventually got them all. It took a good two weeks!

In those two weeks we had 2 haircuts each in a special hair dressing training salon full of young girls with scissors and white short nurse outfits on. They liked us foreigners and gave us lots of attention. We saw the parliament house, the gypsie wine bars, we had a good time. The underground train was lovely too incidentally, they have (historic?) wooden train carriages underground . Not all of them, but some are just classic!

We even visited the caves on the Czechoslovakian border. The caves had colored lights inside them and a water fountain show to Dracula music inside the main cathedral. We were refused a drink in a bar out there, so we locked the door with an old padlock I happened to have in my pocket. The people in the bar got all freaked because the old stone building only had one door with a heavy iron grate and all windows were grated. When they discovered that the padlock on the steel grate door was not actually latched they came running after us. Luckily the bus to Budapest just pulled up. We jumped in and got driven back to the city. We made sure we waved at them as the bus drove off.

Not sure why they refused us a beer. Certainly looked like a pub with people in it, and bar tenders. Not sure what the story was, but we surely would have missed the bus had we been served! A much less exciting venture was made out to Lake Balaton, a family picnic ground. Lovely lake, lovely place…

We also took the tram down the Danube and visited the old towns between Budapest and Esztergom. We discovered great ruins where we could risk our lives walking over huge stone arches, or should I say remains thereof, that had like one stone joining the arch together on top. We also discovered that the best home made ice-cream in the world was sold from these towns along the Danube.

The Fishermen’s bastion was lovely with the views, and the close proximity to the Budapest Hilton which is built around old walls of castle ruins.

The big day had come to pick up the Russian visa. It was there, waiting for us. So we could not wait to go. So what did we do? We went. It was a day early, but hey, we had places to go! A quick last minute impromptu visit to the hairdressers for a haircut…. Not much left to cut, so we got a Mohawk. Not easy to convince the coiffeurs in training to cut off hair that radically, so it took a lot of coaching. Martin wasn’t game, he figured he’d need to cheperone us through the USSR so he better look respectable. Martin was not convinced of our dodgy tickets and unorthodox practices.

Naturally we had to have beer as well. So we bought 2 crates each. That is 24 pints each, that ought to get us o the way we figured, it is a whole week scooped up in a train! By this stage we were running late for this train to Moscow. The taxi raced for the station. We ran, and found our train had left the platform. Well, almost left the platform. It was moving. We threw our belongings through the doors as they went past, including the beer, then jumped on the back wagon ourselves.

As we collected our belongings hiking from the rear to the front of the train we discovered the train was actually very full. We did not have a booking for this train either, the booking we did (legitimately) have was for the train to Moscow the following day. Wherever we sat down we were chased away. Even when we found empty carriages train conductors would come and chase us away! We were not impressed, and wondered if this would happen on the week trip to Beijing as well! On the run in the train for a week? Chased from seat to seat? Well, we did only pay $35 I suppose…

The Russian border came up. We got sweaty palms. Our Russian visa was not actually quiet valid yet. Not for one more day. When we were advised to take all our possessions through customs none of us were game to carry the beer as well…

So we left the beer in the train. The carriages were hoisted up onto new wheels to accommodate the different gauge rails in the USSR. We were fed through customs and actually got through without a problem. I even asked an official looking man about our little seating problem. This was an Inturist agent, and he proved very useful. He came over to the train, yelled some harsh sounding words at the train staff, and we were seated and treated with respect from there on!

Only one minor problem. We did not carry food. Nor did we carry any rubles because ‘legally’ you cannot buy them outside of the USSR. In Budapest at the station we could’ve bought them at a great rate, but lets admit we slipped up a little. I had been caught in Leningrad before selling jeans on the black market, and I was not interested in getting caught again. This little slip up was quiet an inconvenience because no-one on the train was prepared to change money for us, or sell us food without rubles!

One thing we also didn’t have was beer. It seemed to have disappeared at the border. We were glad to be through with our not yet valid visas and were not too worried. But a friendly train staff came to the rescue. Beer? Beer? He asked us. We said yeah! Beer Beer, back. He got me to follow him, and he showed me where he had hidden the beer from customs for us. This of course made us break open a few bottles and give the man his fair share. Beer is of course regarded as a non-alcoholic drink in the USSR, as their traditional table wine is Vodka. ‘Drinking on duty’ thus did not apply. This was our guess.

When we came to Omsk we decided to venture of the train and look for a bank… First a glance at the train timetable board. Train tp Moscow leaving in 3 minutes, and another one in 8 minutes. Obviously, having just arrived, we had to be the latter one. We’d traveled without stopping for so many hours that surely we’d have to be here for 10 minutes. Just in case Martin volunteered to go back to the train.

We asked directions to a bank. No one understood us, except a black man. He asked us which train we were on. We said we’re on the train to Moscow. Which one? Well, we think the one leaving in 5 minutes (3 minutes had passed), and if we’re not then Martin will stop it from leaving…. Maybe not the man said. Wise thought. He told us the shortcut to the tracks and told us to run.

Panic set in and Brent and I ran to the train…. Which train? Well, they all looked alike. We jumped on the first moving train we saw. Moscva? Moscva? We yelled. Nyet nyet, we were answered. We jumped off the train and onto the next moving train. Moscva Moscva? We yelled. Da da! Phew, close shave that was.

We walked for miles through the carriages to get to our seats. And there was no Martin. We gave him 3 minutes before calling the conductor. With the aid of our fingers we explained the number three, and then indicated each of us as being one and two, then pointing out the window to the quickly disappearing city of Omsk, and indicating our third finger, and naming it Martin. This third finger was frantically pointing out the window. The conductor got the spiel eventually, slowly repeated the show with his fingers, exclaimed ‘Martin?’ in a thick Russian accent, and we said ‘da da’. He smiled and disappeared. Was back within minutes with a big smile to say what we interpreted as Martin is OK, he’s on the next train to Moscow – the one that left 5 minutes after ours!

Brent and I had to pack up Martins gear, including the socks he probably wished he put on before disembarking the train into the snow covered station of Omsk. Oh, and we packed his wallet and his passport as well. Bet you he wished he had them when he realized he missed the train! We broke open a few more beers and cheered Martin for getting on the next train. We got friendly with some other passengers and scored food.

In Moscow we didn’t cheer Martin because we had to carry all his stuff and his beer up and down between lockers in the station. We had barely finished the job, and there pulls in Martins train. Martin came out all Happy, got his gut full with nice Russian fare, Vodka on top. And so we arrived in Moscow.

Our little problem regarding the fake booking for the 7 day train journey started being a more pressing issue. Especially after we discovered one (of the two weekly) trains was leaving tomorrow afternoon. We had real trouble communicating as well, and meine bitchen doitsh got us somewhere. It got us to the Inturist office in the Red Square. I had been to Moscow on a previous trip, and had some (residual) knowledge of the layout. We found the office.

The man there took our tickets. Took a good look, and disappeared into the back. Came back 10 minutes later and asked for our passports. Came out again and asked us where we got these tickets. We told him Budapest. ‘Strange’ he said. It is marked for a Chinese train date, and the seats indicate Russian seating arrangements, plus there is no record of any bookings. We shrugged our shoulders. The man wanted to keep our passports overnight. ‘Come in tomorrow morning’ he said. And we forgot to ask him where he thought we might like to stay for the night…

Hotels in pre-Jeltsin Russia are impossible. You had to stay in the Inturist hotels, equipped especially for tourists, and ridiculously expensive. You normally had vouchers for the hotels because you could only enter the USSR with a preplanned prepaid itinerary when you get voucher for all your hotels and transfers.

Not needing to worry about accommodation yet I showed Martin and Brent the Gum store. The Gum store is the biggest shopping mall in the country. It is something like 5 stories tall, huge, marble, arches, and shops that sell Russian stuff. It was a cool place to wonder around for an hour. I pointed out the mausoleum where Lenin’s body is preserved and where you could queue up and view him. The Lenin Museum, the Kremlin… Its all there around the Red Square. Shame we had other things on our mind and no time to appreciate and see it all.

We stood in front of a BerriOzka store, a store where one can spend foreign currency, and buy foreign goods. Like real chocolate, wine, groceries etc. Double the normal price, but unavailable anywhere else. A man outside the shop window asked if we could go insde and buy him 3 plastic shopping bags. He gave us $6, and we went inside. We bought him $12 worth of shopping bags and when we came out told him we’d like to give him 3 spare ones and his money back if he could kindly put us up for the night.

And so we ended up all three of us in the mans unit in Moscow. It was small and dreary, quiet, dusty, gray, solemn. He was still nice to us after we took off our MadBomber hats – revealing the Mohekian hair style. I did ask him if he thought it was weird to him. He told me that everything about us was weird and that the hair was just as weird as everything else about us foreigners. Foreigners really do stick out in Russia!

His little place had one spare single bed, and head-to-toe-to-head us three guys shared it. Brent and I were scared we’d get tinea behind our ears from Martins feet, but we survived.

The next day we visited the nearby Moscow GPO and I mailed home a lot of stuff. It never arrived. It included plenty of little souvenirs, but worse of all lots of diaries.

The inturist guy had sorted out our tickets, we were on today’s train, our passports were in order, and he wished us a pleasant trip. And we disappeared into the Moscow underground. Now the Moscow underground is legendary. Not only is each and every station beautifully presented with art and sculptures, they are very deep underground. The rumor goes they are nuclear proof, and were designed that way. You have to go so deep down with the escalators that it looks like you are disappearing into a dot below, beyond perspective. It is a strange feeling to go down so deep into the earth to catch a metro.

Other good points about the metro system in Moscow is that despite the masses of people using it, no one is visibly worried or stressed. No rushing, pulling, pushing. All orderly. And the price? 5c per trip or something tiny. The little boom gates you walk through stay down for everybody who inserts their coin correctly, but when you happen to put it in on the wrong side, and walk through the right side entry, then the boom gate flies out and hits you in the knee cap. I had done this a few times…

Worst feature of the Moscow underground is how the stations are named according to the art and style of the actual station. This is highly impractical as it does not relate to what is on top, and of course it is written in Cyrillic as well! This made finding the station back very difficult…..

In the end we got to the right underground station and found the actual train station on top. We raced to the lockers, got our gear… well, Martin and I did, but Brent’s wouldn’t open. Our train was ready to go any time and we knew our track record was no good when it came to catching trains. Brent thought Martin and I would jump in the train and tell him to have a nice stay waiting for the next train. But we were mates. And besides, there was beer in that locker! I gave it a good kick with my boot and a good jerk, and the locker popped open. We ran to the moving train, and as per usual threw our belongings in each carriage as it pulled out of the station.

We were on our way to China.

 

 

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