Ever since we have announced our trip and our planned route I have had people asking me with varying levels of concern about whether it is wise to be going to Russia given the current political climate. At no point had I been worried at all. We had previously been to Moscow last year and had quite like our time there and felt quite safe. I also figured most ordinary people are going about their business and couldn’t give two hoots about what two British backpackers are up to.
My personal concern was the language barrier that you encounter when switching to the Cyrillic alphabet. I had managed to pick up the letters last time round and could mangle together a few words here and there, but thought it a good idea to try and learn a bit more. I downloaded the same language course we had used for Manadarin. And I tried. I really did. But I just couldn’t pick up the words and none of it sunk into my head. I had also pretty much forgotten the whole Cyrillic alphabet. As a consequence as we were approaching the eve of our entry to Russia and were talking to people in the hostel, statements such as : “they don’t speak English, it will be hard” etc gave me the wobbles and I started to lose confidence on whether this was such a good idea after all.
And then suddenly I was also worried about the reception we would get entering the country via a land border. A friend of mine previously had gone via bus into Russia from Estonia and been given the third degree by the border police about why he was travelling that way. We were going by train over the border. Would we get the same treatment..?
So I went to bed that last night in Tallinn and slept a little fretfully with these worries whirling around my head making for a disturbed night of sleep.
We caught the train the next morning. All was going well. We had been allowed on after our passport and visa had been scrutinised closely. I started frantically revising my Cyrillic alphabet to be ready for our arrival in Russia. One hour in and we were leaving Estonia. The train stopped there for half an hour while the Estonian police carried out their exit checks. There was a massive group of Chinese tourists which need their passports stamping so this took a little while. Then the train started moving again, we went over a bridge that crossed a large river far down below it.
On the other side of the river we were greeted with a view of barbed wire and uniformed men holding guns. We were now in Russia. The train pulled into a station and there were uniformed men with large peaked hats standing on the platform. The Chinese tourists got excited and started taking photos of these uniformed men, they were sternly told to stop and to sit down.
We sat their waiting quietly for our turn to be checked. The man came over, took our passport, checked it was us in the photo, looked at our visa and then asked us for our entry form. Our entry form? We didn’t have one! I tried to explain we didn’t have one. I got a finger waggled at me in reprimand. It was at this point the lady who worked on the train realised she had failed to give us the form and she hastily gave us some to fill in. Mr Waggle Finger slipped our passports into his bag and walked off. This made me squeak with alarm at Alan, “he has our passports, where is he going with them?!?” Feeling very apprehensive now I filled in the form, unable to complete my visa number as this was on my now absent passport.
Then we sat and waited.
And waited some more.
A flurry of activity down the Chinese end of the carriage occurred. There were a number of them wanting the toilet. “No!” They were told as it was locked while the border checks were being carried out.
Then we waited a bit longer.
Finally the Russian border guards returned and people were being reunited with their passports. Still no sign of Mr Waggle Finger though.
Then he finally reappeared with our passports. We filled in our visa number on the form, he stamped everything and then he took me by surprise. He managed to crack a smile at us!
The Russian border guards exited the train and we slowly pulled out of the station again. We were now safely in Russia. It was time to eat our picnic lunch we had prepared and then to sit back and relax until St Petersburg as by this point I had managed to conquer my other worry regarding the language. The Cyrillic alphabet was now fresh in my memory and I was ready to explore all that St Petersburg had to offer.