Sunday, 16 January 2011

Goodbye Russia,You've Been Great! 10 December 2010

"Beep, Beep.... Beep, Beep."  My eyelids open with hesitation.  It was 6am, dark, cold and my bus heading for Mongolia was leaving at 7am from the centre of Ulan Ude.  As it was so early, I was advised to walk as the trams and buses were unreliable at this time of the morning.  I collected my things for the last time in Russia and headed for the front door which, of course, was locked.  So I had to wake the Russian lady up to unlock it and release me.  I stepped outside into the dark, moonlit backstreets of Ulan Ude's suburbs and embraced the cold.  Luckily, my hefty backpack assists me in keeping warm!

As I made the long trek down the road into the centre of town, I felt a mixture of excitement and regret.  I was excited that I was soon going to be in Mongolia but sad to be leaving Russia, a country that I had really fallen in love with.  Russia has always been on my wish list ever since I started thinking about travelling.  The vast country that offers an immense array of history, culture, nature and above all friendly and hospitable citizens.  I only wish my visa would have allowed me to stay longer.  The time since I arrived on Russian soil on the bus from Tallinn seemed so long ago and it's hard to believe the distance I had travelled, the people I had met and the things I had seen along the way.

I soon arrived at the opera house where the bus was leaving from and greeted the driver, who quickly took my bag and stowed it in the luggage compartment.  I'm always concerned when I am separated from my bag especially when somebody could just walk past and take it from the hold.  I nevertheless boarded the bus, found my seat and got comfortable for the long journey ahead.  I was alone on the bus for around 10 minutes and thought that I was going to be lucky and have the whole bus to myself.  This soon changed and the bus filled up quickly.  Like the trains in Russia, the bus left exactly on time and headed off into the sunrise towards the border.

Another feeling was present within me during the journey, nervousness.  I was nervous about the border as I had lost my migration card which they give you as you enter the country.  I had heard from Dimitri in the hostel that they could fine me up to 5000 RUB (Around 100 GBP).  All of the preconceptions people have about Russia being unfriendly and inhospitable are false and I was hoping that the stories about corrupt border officials extorting money out of tourists was also not true.

After waiting in the long queue of buses and cars crossing the border, the moment arrived for me to bite the bullet and head to passport  control.  I gathered all of my bags, including my food bag I had for the journey and headed inside the building.  Inside, I stood for what seemed to be a very long time.  I passed through the metal detector and was asked whether I had any narcotics on me, which made me laugh as what drug smuggler would answer yes to this question?  I then arrived at the passport control point where the line divided into two queues, I chose the left.  The nervousness built up as I anxiously waited for the people in front of me to pass through.  I pushed ahead of a couple of people so that I wouldn't be the last one from the bus to go through.  Soon, there was the moment, my moment to step up and hand over my passport and visa registration documents to a rather beautiful Russian girl behind inch thick glass.  She looked at my visa and my registration documents and then enquired about my migration card, to which I replied that I had lost it.  Of course she didn't understand English and so with melodramatic hand gestures I made her understand.  She immediately picked up the red telephone next to her and barked something down the receiver and told me to step aside.

I was soon standing alone in the building and I then feared the bus would leave me in no mans land between Russia and Mongolia.  However, a tall, slim, male Russian Border Official approached me and ordered, "Mr Adam, Follow me!"  I was following him around a maze of small corridors with rooms either side which I took for interrogation/torture rooms and I though the worst.  It is ridiculous that the loss of an !6 piece of paper can cause so much aggravation!  The corridor was coming to an end and I spotted an open door way on the far right.  I followed the man in and to my surprise it was a nice little sunlit office, with pot plants and two ladies doing paperwork.  I was asked to sit down on a sofa, which was extremely comfortable compared to the bus.  I was struck that there was a happy mood and as soon as I took a seat the man started to laugh with me about loosing my migration card.  I was still however waiting for them to ask for money as when things seem to good, they usually are.  One of the ladies turned around and asked me to sign a piece of paper and as soon as I did that I was awarded a new migration card completely free of charge!!  I soon said my thank yous and good byes and was escorted out to the passport control desk by the man who was asking me about my trip and generally having a laugh and a joke with me.

The passport control was the first time my photo and my face have been so intricately compared.  The attractive girl behind the glass window was staring at me for around two minutes matching all of my facial irregularities before she grabbed her rubber exit stamp and attacked my passport with it.

I said goodbye to my new border official friend, quickly ran outside with a smile and to my relief the bus was still there.  My bag was snatched from my hands and thrown into the luggage compartment and I boarded the bus and felt everybody's eyes on me wondering what took me so long!

The bus soon passed through the Mongolian border checkpoint with little hassle and we pulled into a restaurant on the other side for a pit stop.  A man approached me who I saw was also griiled at the border.  His name was Caue Ferraz, a Brazilain travelling the world and we sat in the restaurant drinking tea and talking about our experiences in Russia.  It turned out that Caue was heading for the same hostel in Ulan Bator.  It's always a relief to dind another person you can have a decent conversation with as it's hard sitting there in silence or trying to translate what people are saying to you.

The rest of the journey on to Ulan Bator was bumpy and cold.  The frosted windows prevented up from seeing out into the barren Mongolian countryside passing by.  The driver decided to turn on some really cheesy pop music for a few hours which prevented sleep and made it had to listen to my own MP3 player.

As we reached the outskirts of Ulan Bator, the road surface became marginally better and the neon lights began to polute the darkness that covered Mongolia.  The bus pulled into its final stop around 8pm and it was time to get our bearings and head to the UB Guesthouse where we would soon check in and, out of habbit, meet Christian once again!