Episode 7: Rob arrives in Russia...
( A long post this one - a lot has happened and I’ve been without internet)
Great-Dane’s cheekbones! I actually pulled it off! Arriving at Pulkovo airport to a warm and muggy St Petersburg, I shuffled nervously with the other RLUS (our course operator) students towards the minibus that would be taking us 7 hours north to Petrozavodsk. It was a battered white Mercedes that had seen better days but nontheless gave off an aura of reliability despite its shabby coating.
|Lake Onega, Petrozavodsk|
The driver, “Alexei” I think, had a crafty grin that somehow made him seem reliable – not sure what that says about Russia. We also met a chap who would be our guide, teacher and one of the few English speakers available to help us. He has the cool of the eternal student and, after extinguishing a cigarette, helped us heap our luggage onto the dusty bus seats.
Suddenly we were motorwaying out of Petersburg and trying to form new friendships with each other while attempting to withstand a dreadful bisecting by our overenthusiastic seatbelts. We bonded quickly by watching in amazement as our bus, the slowest thing on the road, was overtaken on the outside and inside by all manner of LADA, modified BMW and converted army truck. The Russian motorway was long and a little frightening, seeming vastly unregulated even so close to a major city.
Having small-talked for an hour or so we all retreated to our ipod islands and even got a few hours sleep. The effects of our complimentary BA full-English breakfast had worn off by about 2-and-a-half-hours into the journey and Sasha negotiated a stop at a Russian service station in a small town. Here we bought crisps (“Chipsy” in Russian) and water and huddled outside the small shop while our driver vanished into the “Cafe”, it looked more like a strip club, for twenty minutes or so.
A man, drunken in gait, with an unleashed, black dog approached us from behind. I heard him mutter the words “ Eh, lads..?” among a string of other unknowable, Slavonic syllables, and I gaped at him not knowing how to answer. It turned out he was asking for a cigarette and having said a nervous “Nyet” in reply, I watched him nod and walk past. He apologised profusely for having caused us any kind of disturbance, which I found very sweet, and he disappeared behind the petrol pumps
The next few hours of journey I barely remember. The afternoon was slowly dying and my eyelids became heavy with lack of sleep. We seemed to be entering a large forest and the motorway was stretching on for miles. I drifted off counting the headlights approaching us down the vast, straight Russian roads. They bobbed and dipped hypnotically like lighted boats on a choppy river.
I was woken up by the slowing down of the bus at a second service station this time resembling a bombed tractor factory. It was nearly, fully dark by this point and road signs indicated that the road ahead was going to get even worse: so far it had been bumpy at best. Having stretched my legs, I felt refreshed enough to stay awake for a while. We still had about 2 hours to drive by this point and as we left the station I marvelled at the denseness of the forests that cover this part of North-European Russia.
The roads here are lined with innumerable birch (the national tree) and they flicker past your eyes like old black and white picture frames if you press your face up to the glass. The forest is ghostly and cold. It seeps in through the windows. Before long I had covered myself with my coat and was pushing myself for more sleep just to help the tens of kilometres go by faster.
I was awoken with a start by the bus slowing down. We were about an hour from Petrozavodsk and one of our party desperately needed to urinate. The driver reluctantly pulled over at the side of the road and the desperate traveller, thanking him, leapt into the night drizzle to dash for the bushes.
Suddenly he came back.
“Er, there’s a guy out here..."
Sure enough, a man in full camo-gear, carrying a stinking white bucket of mushrooms boarded the bus behind him and waddled over to speak to our driver. We suddenly all looked very serious. The look on the face of our guide was at first one of slight panic, but between him and the driver, the three men negotiated a kind of deal. The stranger was simply hitchhiking his way back to town after a weekend’s forest scrounging, and our guide regained his natural cool which relieved us all.
At first no-one could sleep, the mushroom hunter proved highly talkative and stood ominously at the back of the bus trying to start a conversation about football. If it wasn’t for the lurid smell of the mushrooms and the fact the man may have been armed, it would have been completely unproblematic, but coming from a country where all forms of hitchhiking are treated with suspicion this was, at the time, a pretty frightening experience.
We arrived very late in the town, but our host families were ready to greet us. I arrived at the apartment of my hostess, to a table full of Russian cold meats and cheese and was even more relieved to be poured a mug of fantastic Russian tea...