The disadvantages of a Scouse passport
12.09.2011 - 12.09.2011 20 °C
A year spent living in Liverpool but working from an office in Salford meant I became all-too familiar with the many shortcomings and few benefits of commuting between the two cities by coach. Thus I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say I was especially trepidatious at the prospect of taking a coach from Tallinn into Russia as far as St Petersburg. I arrive at Tallinn's coach station in plenty of time, but - unlike Britain's National Express, who run a turn-up-at-least-10-minutes-before-departure policy - when Eurolines put 8am on the ticket, it means the coach will turn up bang on 8am.
Half an hour later and (following no end of pre-departure seat-swapping shenanigans) we're off. Being a pint-sized capital city, it doesn't take long for the industrial outskirts of Tallinn (Is it a nuclear power station? Is it a factory?) to give way to pine forests and fields. The route out of town is being turned into a dual carriageway with the help of some EU Structural Fund cash, giving an ironic twist to the comments of the Estonian finance minister, shown as one of the news headlines on the on-board tv, that the Eurozone should get its (shared) house in order. There's not a lot of other televisual treats treats on offer, so the free wifi is a boon, especially after many months of unreliable mobile internet signal along the M62 corridor. Rural Estonia seems predictably forested, as well as flat (I hadn't made any predictions as to the nature of its relief). It's also finite, and before long we arrive at the border town of Narva. Telly goes off, the coach driver bolts outside to chat and chain smoke with his colleagues while border guards embark and collect passports - the first time I've had to produce mine in over a week of travelling (thanks Schengen!). For an hour or so we remain parked at the top of a hill looking down a road lined with razorwire fences towards the border gate, or at least what I took to be the border gate, but turns out to be a gate near the border. If it wasn't an international frontier with all the militarised gubbins that goes with it the place would be picture postcard pretty; as we descend the hill to cross the Narva river it becomes clear that we've been parked next to a castle (prompting the cry of "Baaarbara, take a picture of the chateau" from one of the Canadian tourists sat behind me) with a counterpart on the opposite bank.
There's not much time to take all of this in, and certainly not to take any photographs (hence the image-light nature of this post) before we park up again at the Russian border post. This time everyone troops off the coach, collects their bags and makes their way into the adjacent passport and customs hall. I'm one of the last in, making for more standing around reading the English-language bits of the proscribed items lists on the walls. Finally I step forward to one of the two passport control desks, hand over my passport and (in what I would quickly come to learn is an entirely redundant gesture in Russia) smile at the lady behind the perspex. She flicks through the pages and puts it under the scanner. Then scans it again. And again. Then she gets up and walks over to the other desk where she talks to her colleague and shows her my passport. Back she comes, and back under the scanner goes my passport. Once again whatever she wants to happen does not, so she rises from her desk only this time goes out the other side of her desk cubicle and disappears through a door in the wall next to it. I'm worried, surmising that the case of my non-scanning passport has now been escalated to the line manager. I look around and realise that all the other passengers have already gone through passport control and the final few are having their bags checked. There's a dog padding about the place; initially I take this to be a reflection of the rural dustiness of the place, but just as I'm about to crouch down to pat it I clock that given the context it's a sniffer dog and I should probably avoid getting myself into even more trouble than I'm in at present. The border guard comes back, my passport in hand, and shoots me another disdainful look. I'm desperately scouring my mind for something in my one-term's worth of A-Level General Studies Russian vocabulary that may be helpful to say, but even if I did learn the phrase "Is there a problem officer?" at the time then I have forgotten it in the decade that has elapsed since then. So I stand there in awkward silence, now the only non-border guard/sniffer dog in the hall. The same routine of scan, re-scan, and huff follows before, with clear reluctance, she stamps my passport and hands it back to me. Perhaps she exercised her judgement to conclude that if I was a British agent entering the country then from the look of me I'd prove even less effectual than MI6's fake rock in a Moscow park and would be on a one-way ticket out of the country before the end of the week.
(I later discover two things I wish I'd known before reaching the border post, so will impart to all awaiting or contemplating a trip to Russia. First, Russian border control computer systems are notoriously slow, so the constant re-scanning of my passport may have had more to do with its inadequacies than anything else. However, my second observation is that my new-style British passport, obtained at the end of one of my last coach journeys to Liverpool as it happens, looks decidedly amateur-hour - comparing it a few days later with an Irish passport, the lack of a high-quality photograph or any holograms make it ripe for suspicion on the part of border guards whose job it is to be dubious of your travel documents. If you possess a new-style passport like mine then I'm not sure if there's anything you can do to avoid the discomfort I went through, other than maybe avoid the border crossing at Narva. In conclusion, nice one UK Identity and Passport Service.)
The baggage check flew by in comparison to what preceded it, although it was every bit as stressful (fortunately it turns out Russian customs officials understand what you mean when you identify opaque sachets of powder as Imodium). Finally, after what seems like an hour but probably at most was only half that time, I get back on the coach. Once we're away from the border there is a palpable change in mood on board, at least among those like me for whom the journey is the first time they have entered Russia. For one thing, the wifi stops working. Then there's the visible signs of a heavy military presence within the first few miles from the frontier, in the slightly-intimidating forms of memorials and an old T-34 tank. There's sharp intakes of breath when we cross a temporary bridge across a ravine (does anyone else play the thinking-up-tabloid-headlines-to-describe-the-circumstances-of-your-premature-demise game?) but we make it across unscathed. Russia looks, well, Russian, but Cyrillic characters aside, it's hardly a massive change from Estonia. Same kind of forests, same kind of single-carriageway roads, same kind of petrifying overtaking manoeuvres. Only when we near St Petersburg airport does the road take on a more impressive character. As if to make up for lost time, from thereon it's constant flyovers, underpasses and wide boulevards as we near the end of the route.
Suburban St Petersburg is grimly impressive, peppered with hefty soot-blackened buildings and monuments. Baltiskaya Station is one such building, but more importantly it marks the end of the coach trip. Without the slightest bit of ceremony we're thrust out into a maelstrom of taxis, smoking bystanders and other coaches disgorging similarly-disorientated passengers. Gathering my thoughts, and switching to watching my valuables mode, I manage to buy a metro ticket (clearly sitting in a glass-windowed booth doesn't make every Russian unhelpful and uncommunicative - heck the ticket vendor didn't even complain about me paying with a note). Two trains, and some of the longest escalators I've ever ridden, later and I emerge onto the streets of central St Petersburg. It takes me a while to orientate myself, but finally I make it to the gates of my hostel. Disconcertingly, smoke is billowing from a bin hard by them. I resolve to be a good traveller and use the last of the bottled water I have with me to extinguish this mini-inferno. My recounting of this act of civic heroism fails to impress the staff in the hostel, and over the course of the following week or so I learn that burning bins are a common sight (and smell) in Russia, ones that are best left alone. Nevertheless, despite almost having fallen at the very first hurdle, I feel like Russia and I have got off to a good start.