Rostov to Volgograd

The idea of a 16 hour train ride sounded less appealing than the 10 hour bus ride, so I selected the latter.  The night before my trip, I checked my Russian dictionary and my Lonely Planet phrase book and wrote down my origin and destination, the time and date, and that I wanted a ticket.  I presented my paper to the ticket clerk and in characteristic fashion, she just looked at me with an annoyed look and shrugged her shoulders and looked at me with a look that said, “And, what do you want from me?”  I said, in my broken Russian, “I want a ticket to Volgograd.”  She looked even more annoyed and just stared at me.  The civil servants on the east side of the old Iron Curtain don’t care much for tourists – in my experience.  Although, this seems to be getting better, and is even less when my plans are organized and I have some Russian language knowledge.  This lady was a little “old school” and she, as some others have done on this trip, seem to take great pleasure in torturing the backpackers.  I suppose it irks them that some foreigner comes through, one who earns a higher salary, and has the gall to “not” speak Russian.

Later, I would speak with another American who travelled from Vladivostok and was heading to Moscow when I ran into him in Ekaterinburg.  He noticed that the poor attitude/service that the ticket clerks give is the same to everyone, Russians included.  He came to the conclusion that everyone here is used to it and that we aren’t.  Food for thought…  Anyways, the ticket clerk looked at me and shrugged, indicating that she would not help me.  I was stubborn and pointed again to my little slip of paper and asked again for a billet (ticket).  The man behind me was getting impatient and he shouted something at her and she finally – reluctantly – issued me a ticket.

I arrived early for my bus ride.  I made sure to stock up on water, juice, bread, and other snacks for the long journey.  While I waited at the bus station, I checked out the other passengers.  And, they checked me out.  I was the only one with a backpack and I was certainly dressed differently than everyone else.  When the time came to board, the bus driver opened the bottom luggage compartments.  I went to stow my backpack and the woman attendant asked for my billet (ticket).  I showed her my ticket and she said something to me in Russian.  It was much too fast for me to understand.  I held out my ticket again but they both began to talk to me in raised Russian voices.  The woman pointed to the ticket counter and said that I had to go back.  I wondered what was the problem?  As I walked back to the ticket counter, one woman from my bus ran to catch up and asked me, in English, if I needed help.  I told her that I was not sure what the problem was.  She said that I had to have a luggage ticket.  It seems that, like American Airlines, the Russian busses charge an extra 25 rubles (.80 cents) to stow a bag below.  We paid for my spare bag and then boarded the bus.  Fortune would have it that I was sitting right next to her and her friend on the bus.  Her name was Oksana, her friend, Tatiana.  They were returning home to Volgograd after a 2 week vacation in Rostov and the surrounding cities.  As we rode the 10 ½ hours to Volgograd, Oksana helped me with my Russian and I helped her with her English.  She told me about Volgograd, its politics, history, and its people.  We chatted about the Russian economy, politics, and she asked me about my travels.  She described my life as a “fairy tale.”  I suppose, in a city where the average monthly wage is $150-250 a month, this is not too far from the truth…  but then again, many American friends and family tell me the same thing – LOL.

The bus stopped about 25 times, often picking up passengers who were going in the same direction.  Since it was a Friday, many students were returning home from school for the weekend.  At one point, the bus doubled in capacity until it was standing room only.  When the man sitting next to me departed, a young man sat next to me and his girlfriend sat in his lap.  Well, ½ in his lap, she was ½ in my lap as well…  LOL.  Oksana and I played with the Rubik’s Cube, it has been quite a hit on the busses and trains so far…

The bus also had frequent stops.  Stops to eat, stops to use the toilet, stops to pick up and drop off people…  it was nice to have breaks, but it really made the ride a lot longer than it would have been without the stops.  At one stop, I see Paris Hilton.  I look again, yeah, it’s her all right.  I try  take a photo, but the windows on the bus are just horrible.  The frosted windows ruined the view along the way, but it was still a fun ride.  I was tempted to get off the bus and shoot a photo of Paris’ twin Russian sister, but an undercover cop was doing random searches on the bus.  He passed me over but I thought that my camera would attract his attention earning me the privilege of having to unpack my backpack while he searches it.  Later, Oksana tells me that the derogatory term for the police (Militisia) is “Minti.”  She was sure to warn me to never use this word in their presence as it was sure to land me a bump on my head from their nightsticks.  Apparently the cops are very unpopular here.  With the amount of bribes that I was propositioned for on my first visit to Russia, I can understand why.  But, my luck has been good on this trip, so far…

At one stop, I bought a meat sandwich.  The meat had a unique flavor; I had never tasted anything like it.  I was about 1/2 way through it when Oksana asked me where I had gotten it.  When I pointed to the nearby food stand she gasped with a look of horror.  When I asked what the problem was, she informed me, that in this part of the country, roadside food stands were not above serving groundhog, rat, or dog in their sandwiches.  I said to her, “So this might be a sobakka (dog) sandwich?”  She started laughing.  I was hungry, so I finished it…  no ill effects, yet…

When we finally arrived in Volgograd, Tatiana’s boyfriend gave us all a ride and I was dropped at my hotel.  None of them could understand why I would choose to stay at the $60 a night “Expedia” hotel instead of the Hotel Volgograd (US $240 a night) or the Hotel Intourist (US $210 a night) since I was a “rich” foreigner.  I asked them to multiply $240 a night times 3 months and see if it seemed affordable to them.  They all looked at me with a quizzical look.  They didn’t seem to understand.  So, I tried to explain to them that I was not here for a “luxury” tour, my goal was to take the trans-Siberian railroad and to “tough it out” a bit and to see and meet regular Russian people.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t understand why anyone would want to “slum it” in “regular” Russia.  Even staying in hotels is liable to earn me some ribbing from some of my more “extreme” backpack traveler friends…  The hotel proved to be rather “scary” in the bathroom.  But, it was warm, the bed was OK, and the breakfast was decent, so I have no complaints.  The location is right in the middle of the city, so I really scored in that regard…

 

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