Sunday, September 2, 2007


The new train's ultimate destination was Brest, Belarus. As I stood on the platform, a man asked me if I was from Belarus. Having misheard him, hearing the ending for destination as opposed to origin, and thinking that he was asking whether the train was going there, I answered yes, and when he said "I don't believe it (ни фига!)," I realized and confirmed what he'd asked, and said sorry, no, I was from the US. On the train, a family (evidently from Belarus, based on their talking amongst themselves in what I assume was Belarussian) was asking me something, and when I responded, the daughter asked if I was from Poland. I decided not to delve into the details of my family tree (my grandfather on my father's side is of Polish descent - no way I was going to successfully convey that in Russian succinctly), and simply answered that no, I was from the US. I was surprised that the inevitable follow up, "зачем" (namely, what are you doing on the train to random places?) didn't result in either case, but all the same it was nice to have a rest; the trip was quiet like to Murmansk, though the Belarussian family talked to one another.

This train was not Russian railroad, but Belarussian. Linen wasn't included, which may have explained the price, but I didn't need it anyway (it was a six hour ride to Smolensk). This train had newer cars (though I think they were still Russian, based on the factory name), having readouts of temperature, time, and whether the lavatory was occupied. The beds also had fold out railings to prevent one from falling off, which had crossed my mind the first time to Murmansk. Of course, I merely ended up smashing my elbow on it at one point. We arrived, and I nearly beaned the guy on the adjacent bed as I took my unbalanced suitcase from the top rack. I took a taxi for 200 rubles ($8), which I thought was kind of steep, but figured what the heck, he and his beat up car could use the money more than I.

I settled in; the elevators here were also Russian, but there were three so it didn't matter much. My room was quite nice; it felt like a cozy bedroom. The key was like that of Murmansk, strange and annoying as it was impossible to know how to insert it (the cross-section is a semi-circle, and there was no way to predict which way was going to be up when inserting the key). A lone mosquito kept me up for most of the night as I'd hear it buzz toward me as I dozed off, but would then wake up and swat it away, driving it off for a while to repeat the cycle again.

The next morning, another mediocre breakfast, and I've obviously concluded that the one in Murmansk was just really good (relatively) and not that all the others since are that bad. It still pales compared to that of Prague, which was really fantastic, and I'd say one of the best I've seen anywhere. It spoiled me. I went for a walk, and saw a statue of who I correctly guessed was Karl Marx, and then, whoa, there was the wall of the krepost' (fortress) around the city center which I walked around for a while. There were various war monuments and another wall of hero-cities, and then a museum to World War II (aka the Great Patriotic War) which I explored. I felt bad about using my student Id once I realized it was a 5 ruble difference (20/15) as the 5 rubles were certainly not going to put me in the poorhouse. It was again a grim reminder of the horrors of WWII, which the US never really felt, as most of Europe and Russia had been laid to waste like Pearl Harbor. And for what? What had the Axis accomplished in the end beside pointless destruction and death?

As I continued to walk around the city, I put a bit of money on my phone to get rid of the small amount of debt that would be blocking it. No sooner did I do that, than did the travel agency in Moscow call (through which I'd booked the hotel in Kiev). Seems my credit card company was rearing its ugly, stupid head again. The woman said a lot of things but I boiled it down (what an odd phrase) to "карта не работала? (the card didn't work?)" and she confirmed I'd need another one by tomorrow to hold the reservation. I started panicking a bit, and was irate and started swearing as heavily as I had when my phone was stolen. I was going to Kiev in a day, and now I had no confirmed reservation. I continued walking around but was distracted by anger and worry; I couldn't enjoy the stuff I was seeing as I walked around the city. I needed to go to an internet cafe at some point to get my father's credit card info to give to them, which he'd sent me when I started having problems with mine. Basically internet purchases were not going to go through due to fraud worries, in spite of my instructions that I'd be traveling through Russia until September 1st, and Europe thereafter. I could only use it at physical places unless I gave advance notice (24 hrs) which was effectively impossible. This was terrific. Of course, this was stupid as even though I'd used the credit card at a physical travel agency, it was the hotel in Kiev that was trying to put it through, and thus, я не получился (i.e. no dice). Sure, I said I'd be in Russia until September 1st, and now a hotel in adjacent Ukraine is charging my card a few days before this. Surely the two are unrelated.

I managed to put it out of my mind when I reached the edge of a hill with a terrific view of the valley and more of the city in the distance, with more krepost' wall behind me further up the hill. I climbed my way up there and started walking along the wall, and then there was a tower with an opening to go through, to the other side of the wall, so in I went. But not only that, there was a staircase to go up to the wall (like Peter and Paul's fortress in St. Petersburg). So I did, walking along the wall, practically no one in sight, though there was lots of trash in the stairways and corridors, mostly plastic beer bottles and broken glass ones. The city lay to one side, hills and valleys to the other. This was amazing! I was worried when on the cruise, Natasha (a guide on our staff) had said she'd been to Smolensk but didn't enjoy it. There were two children who came up another stairway and passed me in the other direction. I reached another tower at a corner of the wall, and went inside, which was also incredible. It was a cavernous, open cylinder, though another giant pile of trash lay at the bottom. There was a staircase to get to the very top, and I did. This was real, not some sanitized tourist attraction, just pure history. No guardrails protecting someone from walking out into the center, or off the walls. I reached the end of the wall and went down more stairs; there was a cobblestone road with houses, as I'd seen from above. I eventually ended up back towards the center of the city; there were flowers spelling out "Смоленску - 1143 (Smolensk is 1143 years old)," similar to Moscow, which was "merely" 860.

I made my way back to the hotel, where I inquired as to an internet cafe. I got the number I needed, and made further reservations to Bilbao, and decided to call it quits from there and tried to find a flight home. I ran into trouble, as the flights I found were either problematic or absurdly expensive. There was a (relatively) inexpensive 2-stop flight from Swiss - that was the problematic one, as the first segment (Bilbao to Madrid) was a code-share on "Spanair" and didn't offer e-tickets, so that was out. The remaining ones were about twice the cost. Round trip was significantly less expensive, even including the same flights that I'd found for the one-way. Somehow adding the tickets from the US to Spain made the ensemble cost several hundred dollars less. Shrug. I figured I'd try that but at the end discovered that you had to display the card at the first segment (i.e. leaving NY), and I further discovered that not using earlier segments cancelled subsequent ones. So that wasn't going to work. So after playing around I settled on an Iberia flight to Madrid, and then booked the remainder separately through Swiss. (I looked into staying in Madrid for a few days, but it was more than I was willing to pay). This means it's two distinct flights, so this leaves open a window for problems with the connection that would be my responsibility (though I scheduled the first flight as early as possible), plus my luggage can't be checked all the way through. Oh well. So I'll be back September 25th!

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