Three loud clunks announced my official admission to the Russian federation. The Russian border control official stamped and returned my passport, waving me through. A few minutes later, Rosanne emerged from the checkpoint as well. Excitement shone on both our faces; we were officially on Russian soil to start our big adventure.
The first leg in our big adventure would be to travel by train along the Transmongolian Express route through Russia and Mongolia to Beijing. But before we really started, two small adventures presented themselves. The very first experience in Russia was a humbling one: to feel like an illiterate child again. Even though we practiced reading some cyrillic beforehand, being bombarded with cyrillic texts from all sides is daunting and at first downright frustrating. It makes you realise how much you’re dependent on your reading skills in everyday life.
Reading cyrillic then, feels like navigating a maze with many dead ends. You spend some time and mental effort deciphering a word, only to find out that it is a Russian word you do not recognise in any way: a dead-end. Contrary to languages in the latin alphabet, where at least you immediately see if you know a word or not. Still, it can be useful to keep trying, as there are many familiar loanwords in everyday Russian. For instance, “ресторан” transcribed is “restoran”, “шоколад” is “shokolad”. And being able to use a few keywords can make a big difference in communication.
We arrived in the station main hall and found pandemonium
The next memorable experience was another maze, our first run-in with Russian bureaucracy (not counting our earlier visa experiences). Yes, I know, complaining about foreign bureaucracy is standard fare for every traveller. But since it’s sort of a tradition, we had better get it over with, right?
Via a comfortable airport express train and Moscow’s efficient metro network we arrived at Kurskaya train station, from which our train to Nizhny Novgorod would leave the next day. A good location to try to exchange our electronic vouchers for actual train tickets. We followed the signs to the ticket office, passing through a few narrow corridors flanked on both sides by small restaurants and convenience stores bursting at the seams with last-minute items. We were so intent on following the signs that we accidentally bypassed a security check, resulting in loud verbal abuse by a less-than-amused guard. Fortunately, we did not understand a word of it!
We arrived in the station main hall and found pandemonium, or in other words, rush hour in one of Moscow’s major stations. On one side, over thirty counters, most of them open, with at least ten people queuing for each. On the other side, a single information booth without a queue. First choice was easy: try our luck at the information booth. Remember: we were only exchanging vouchers, not going through the whole process of finding and purchasing tickets. This should be pretty easy.
The lady at the information booth appeared to have dressed for a prom later that night. She was looking quite lovely in a beautiful blue dress, with matching high heels, perfect make-up and long flowing near-black hair. Her attitude was less-than-lovely though, looking bored out of her wits, talking on her mobile, with her legs hanging over another chair. The whole scene shouted ‘please do not approach me’, and I suddenly understood why there was no queue at the booth. After having patiently waited some time at the counter, she fortunately managed to end her call and asked us how she could help us. “We’re looking to exchange these vouchers for train tickets”, I said. She said she didn’t know about that, but “please ask at counter nr. 11”.
Counter 11 was staffed by a lady who looked rather less friendly than the previous one
Counter 11 was titled “information” and was staffed by a lady who looked rather less friendly than the previous one (there was no queue for this counter either). We showed her the vouchers and she looked baffled. “Exchange for tickets?” I said. The word “tickets” registered and she pointed us towards the ticket-selling counters. We suspected that this was not the right way to go and attempted to get something more out of her, but this turned out to be all we would get: she stared straight ahead, completely ignoring us, occasionally responding in Russian to a conversation going on behind her. After a minute trying vainly to get her attention, we decided to try our luck at one the ticket counters.
Counters 12 through 30 were ticket counters, and we picked number 23, where the queue seemed somewhat smaller. We quickly realised that there was some kind of protocol associated with these queues. Many people would exchange a few words with people in the queue to determine if they would join, and also in which position they would join. Not being able to partake in this ritual, we hoped we were in the right place. But it seemed we weren’t. After 15 minutes, the people in front of us gestured that they were leaving the queue and that the ticket counter would be closing. Better luck next time.
Fortunately, a helpful man behind us translated in two words: “redde shurt!”
We ended up at counter 18, which proved to be for advanced queueists only. The synchronization ritual was in place, as in the other queue. But this queue also had a life of its own: it moved from counter 18 to 19 and back. Counter 19 was not a ticket counter, but a luggage counter, and had no queue of its own. But, I suspected, there would also be little reason to be in both queues at the same time. Still, people were fluttering like butterflies from the queue to both counters and back, with us on our island of ignorance in the middle. Somehow, after 20 minutes we ended up speaking to the lady behind the counter. She looked at the vouchers and indicated that she couldn’t help us. She said some words in Russian and pointed in the direction that we came from. Fortunately, a helpful man behind us translated in two words: “redde shurt!”.
Lo and behold: halfway the hall a lady in a red shirt was standing next to a number of ticket machines. With a little help from her we managed to finally exchange the vouchers. While Roos was operating the machine, I looked around me to see where the bureaucratic obstacle course had led us. And of course, we were right back where we started: as I looked up, I saw the blue prom dress lady at the information counter right next to the ticket machines.
Incredulously, I looked at her. She smiled a friendly smile – for a moment there I didn’t feel like smiling back. But then I realised we simply had had our first small adventure. Moreover, one we would not have to repeat, since we had collected all train tickets at once. It seemed we were ready for the next adventure. Smiling to myself, I turned towards Roos: “time for dinner?”.