I have reached southern Russia and I cannot decide whether to write up the trip for Travelers Digest or The Police Gazette.
Aeroflot certainly did give us a little slice of Russia in the Air. Because I am too tall to fit into a standard seat, last year we purchased tickets early and reserved exit row seats. Unfortunately, we got to airport after other passengers and someone gave the checkin clerk $20 to get our seats and we ended up in the bowels of the airplane. This time we both reserved the exit row seats AND came to the airport three hours early – to hear from the checkin clerk that we had reserved seats 10 rows behind the exit row. She looked at us and said with a straight face that those were the seats we had reserved. Later, during the trip, I met several other Americans who had been moved to bad seats. In one case, a husband and wife were informed that they had reserved seats several rows apart. Apparently, seat reservations at Aeroflot are considered only mild suggestions for the checkin people. The flight also left about an hour late as two passengers failed the security checks and they and their luggage had to be removed from the plane. This turned out to be the highest point of the trip.
The train was a different experience – much worse.
As Larisa is staying in Russia for an extended period, we are carrying a total of seven bags. Four large checked bags stuffed to the 70 pound weight limit, two 20 pound carry-ons, and a computer bag. By the time we reached Prochlodney, I viewed those suitcase shaped boat anchors with all of the affection that the Russians felt toward the Nazis.
We got to the train station a little early and waited outside surrounded by our wall of bags. When Larisa went inside to check the schedule, I noticed that a young Russian was squatted down near me, talking on a cell phone. He was maybe 20 years old, dressed in the latest all black hood’s attire, including the pointy black elf shoes that are all the rage with men in Russia. He kept getting up to stretch his legs and each time, moved closer to our luggage when he squatted down. About 20 feet behind him, three slightly younger men were lounging by a wall, closely watching his progress. It’s an old gag, send someone to grab one bag and run and if the victim pursues the bag, the other three move in and remove the rest of the luggage – in the other direction. The last time he got up “to stretch”, I moved around to where he was, sat on a bag, and made eye contact. The three “strangers” behind him were visibly disgusted. When Larisa returned a minute later, he got up and started to walk off, but stopped to say to Larisa “Your man does not seem to like me to be near his luggage.” As he left, the other “strangers” also decided that their cigarette break was over and left.
We got some porters to move most of the luggage to the train platform. However, luggage carts can only hold so much, so I ended up stuck carrying the heavy computer bag and dragging one of the overloaded carry-ons. As a result, I fell a little behind Larisa and the porters. When I reached the top of the entrance ramp, I damned near fell over a fellow who was kneeled down “tying his shoe”. At the same time, the world’s worst pick pocket bumped into me from behind and went for my wallet and passport. As the wallet was buttoned in and the passport was in my front pocket, along with my left hand, he didn’t get anything except a brief hand holding as he went for the front pocket. He was almost running when he retreated. As there was no time to report him, I continued to the train platform and wondered how long it would take for such a clumsy team of bumpers to end up in jail.
When we got to the train platform, there were at least four guards checking everyone’s tickets. Our guard took one look at our luggage and declared that we were obviously overweight. We would have to get our baggage checked before we got through. This happened last year, and a small four dollar tip got us through without hassle. This year, the guard ignored the offer for a tip and pointed out the weigh station at the other end of the train station. As we started to leave, a “helpful” 40 year old civilian who looked like he should be on the Sopranos said he would talk to the guard and see if the matter could be solved without the weighing. He came back in a few seconds with a price of 2000 Rubles – about $80! Larisa told him to stuff it and we headed for the scales. It turned out that we were four kilograms underweight. Close, but in the free zone.
The clerk stapled the weight tag to the tickets and we headed back to the train. This time, three guards passed our tickets back and forth between them, trying to figure out how to get past the problem that we were underweight. They grudgingly let us pass, but as we were putting the bags on the train, another angry man in civvies ran up and told the porter that she couldn’t let us board the train because we didn’t have a printed receipt for the overweight bags. She told him that we had tickets and a receipt for the scales and there was NO such thing as a printed order when we were underweight. He left angry enough to have a well deserved stroke.
I suspect that the inflation in tips was because organized crime had another outlet. Instead of it just being the local guy getting lunch money, the organization provided a go-between to shield them from corruption charges, a local tough guy manager to keep everyone in line – and hefty price inflation.
The lady ported turned out to be one of the few highlights of the trip. She traveled all the way to Prochlodney with us, gave good service and was actually cheerful sometimes.
When we reached the border of the Caucuses, my education continued. As you may know, Russia is not as integrated as the US. There are several “independent republics” that have a status something like an Indian Reservation in the states. They are allowed their own border guards, legislature, language, and laws – up to a point. When the train reached one of these borders, a very young military type went down the corridors checking visas and passports. When he got to us, he told me that my passport was no good because I had to carry a Russian translation of it with me at all times. I was still trying to remember the Russia word for BS when his supervisor came up and gently took the passport from him. The nice man asked if I was an American, verified the visa in the passport and welcomed me to wherever it was we were. Then he pulled the young man aside for a conversation that I would guess included a lesson that Americans do not take silly hints for bribes.
I knew from the newspaper reports that corruption was getting much worse in Russia, but I had no idea that it was also becoming more incompetent.