With our trail to Beijing established, we enjoyed a couple weeks in Prague while Sonia was getting paperwork for her van prepared and we visited the embassies of the countries which required visas for us to transit or visit. Sonia had to go with us to the Russian embassy as she was our sponsor. Whenever we visited the Russian embassy Sonia would wear a long wig – something I never fully understood. I believe her short hairstyle was probably unusual to most Russians and in dealing with officials being unusual was something that could impede normal consideration of your request.
In part of this process she was dealing with one guy at the embassy to whom we paid a “transaction fee” – Sonia claimed that he was one of a number of former KGB agents who had secured positions at every embassy in a network which operated within but separate from the official Russian government.
After we had decided our course – driving up through Poland into Russia – whenever we were out meeting people and talking about our plans the first thing half of them asked us was “Do you have a gun?” Answering in the negative, a few times we were asked “Do you want to buy one?” I did follow up with one of these offers just to find out what options I might have. When the deal turned out to be an Uzi for US$1,500 (never having seen the equipment) I declined – mostly because I couldn’t afford that much for a gun I expected to be tossing in a dumpster or a river before leaving Russia.
While we were in Prague, Frank and I would sometimes take care of Vadim while we were touring the city. Since neither Frank nor I had any ability in Czech, Vadim would translate for us – Japanese being our common language. Of course every time we did this the person Vadim was talking with would ask what language he was speaking with me. Half the time when he told them they would laugh incredulously. The other half would sternly tell him to stop lying and give a straight answer. Vadim, like most children his age, was a language sponge and after about ten days hanging out around us had collected a small vocabulary of English words and was starting to put together basic sentences.
One afternoon we were hanging out with some friends of Sonia’s at their apartment and it was decided that we should have some refreshments. We all kicked in some cash and gave that and a bucket to Vadim who went to the bar next door and came back with a bucket of excellent Czech beer.
One evening out in Prague with Frank and Jack I was the designated driver. Heading back to Jack’s apartment well after midnight, I was stopped at a traffic light behind two other cars waiting to make a right turn. After the two cars turned I waited for a break in oncoming traffic and turned. A police car turned on its lights and pulled me over. The cop came up to my window and in broken English told me I had made an illegal turn. He asked me how much I had been drinking – to which I replied “nothing.” He told me the fine was US$50 which I could pay now. I told him I didn’t have any money on me. He told me to go to a hotel just down the street and use my credit card. I said I had tried that earlier and they wouldn’t do it for me.
I had no reason to believe that the Czech authorities would be rough or overly zealous in attempting to squeeze a bribe out of a backpacker who had not really broken any laws. And I didn’t have a schedule to adhere to, didn’t have to be on a plane in a week, or a job waiting for me to get back to. $50 was more money than I could afford to just hand over – even if I did have it on me – so I figured I would wait and see where being patient got me. The cop was standing there, watching other cars go by which he could be pulling over and hitting up while traffic would soon be dwindling down due to the late hour. He looked down at me and said “You go” then turned away and got in his car.
After two thoroughly enjoyable weeks in Prague it was time to get on the road and start our drive. We took an early morning train to Bratislava where Sonia’s van had been getting some body work done – the first evidence that she wasn’t kidding about not being a good driver. We arrived just after dawn and a couple of Sonia’s friends drove her van to the station to meet us. We piled our bags and Sonia’s luggage into the van and I got behind the wheel.
Sonia’s van – an older model Toyota Lite Ace – still had the Japanese plates on it. And being a Japanese car the steering wheel was on the right-hand side – but streets in the European mainland are driven on the right-hand side so driving it took a little getting used to. The paperwork had been certified in Slovakia by a clerk who I would bet my right testicle had no idea what was on the original Japanese registration other than the letters and numbers. Sonia had sourced two military style steel gasoline cans – very similar to the 5 gallon variety used by US troops. We would need these because it was harvest season which meant that gasoline would be a rare commodity once we got to Russia. Some aspects of the Soviet economy were still in effect which meant that certain resources were reserved for industries which would not function without them.
The trip, driving up from Slovakia through the Czech Republic and Poland, was uneventful. Getting stopped by police five or six times during the one day we drove through Poland became routine. One time, after the cop had handed back our passports and vehicle registration Sonia translated his incredulous exclamation – “Russian mother, Czech boy, American drivers, Japanese plates – this is so strange it has to be legit!”
The Russian border at Brest was a different story. We got there just as the sun was setting and stopped behind a sedan with Polish plates. The line of cars and trucks stretched back at least a mile and a half from the checkpoint and was moving at a pace so slow we would sit for about 20 minutes before starting the engine and moving 20 or 30 feet before stopping again. That stop-and-go pace never changed through the entire night.
All night small groups of people would come up and knock on a window, offering a better spot in line ahead for eighty or ninety Deutsche marks. It was an eerie, surreal setting. Everybody seemed to be on edge, unsure what to expect but knowing that no surprises here would be good ones. Both Sonia and Frank, who had chided me for carrying pepper spray and two large combat knives in my backpack, each asked if I would lend them a weapon until we got through the border.
Frank and I had manned the driver’s seat all night from the point when we lined up to cross the border and both of us had been up keeping an eye out for the roving groups passing by in the dark. We finally got through the checkpoint just after dawn and drove on into a bright day in wide, open fields on a straight, well paved highway. Neither of us had slept much at all so we asked Sonia if she could drive for about an hour so we could get some rest. Understanding our condition but not wanting to stop where we were right then, she reluctantly agreed to drive.
I promptly fell asleep in the front passenger seat while Sonia drove. She was doing 120 KPH (about 75 MPH) as we had discussed earlier – partly to make good time to our destination and partly to avoid bandits. About 20 minutes later I was rudely awakened by a loud thumping. Startled awake I found myself where I would otherwise have expected to be driving the car I was in – left-hand front seat on the right side of the road – as we were sailing through a small, scattered flock of sheep at 75 MPH with the ones in our path being ejected off the road and splattering on the pavement. Instinctively I jammed my foot where the brake pedal should have been as I flailed wildly for the steering wheel which wasn’t there.
“I didn’t know what to do!” exclaimed Sonia. “Looks like the sheep didn’t know what to do either,” I replied. We pulled over and checked out the situation. There were 7 dead and dying sheep along the road and a minor dent just below the van’s bumper along with a few smears of blood and sheep shit. Luckily there was no damage to anything functional on the vehicle.
Sonia counselled – “If we wait here the shepherds will expect us to pay them a lot of money because you are foreigners. The police will also need bribes to keep from charging us with traffic violations. We’d better keep moving.” There were no people or even buildings in sight so there was little reason to think that anybody but us were yet aware of what had happened so I started the engine and got back on the road.
We only slowed down every hour or two when the road took us through a village. Passing through the villages we would pull over so Sonia could ask people if they knew where we could buy gasoline. We had one can left with less than half a tank in the van so we weren’t desperate yet but knew that we were better off filling up if we could find a chance.
Passing through a town a bit after noon we found somebody who knew where we could get some gas. Sonia got the directions to a garage which we located outside the town so we stopped while she spoke with the people there. Sonia came back to the van, “They don’t have any gas here right now but they will bring us some.” We talked briefly and understood that this was our best offer so we were resigned to wait. We ate a lunch from some provisions we had brought and waited. It was close to three hours before we heard the truck rumble up outside and we were able to top off the tank and fill the empty jerry can.
A couple hours after gassing up we were passing through open fields punctuated by broken clusters of trees. The road rose and fell slightly with the terrain. I was driving as we came into another open space – about 200 yards across. About halfway across I zipped past three sedans off on the other side of the road parked and facing the direction we came from. There were six or seven armed guys – one of them nonchalantly holding up an AKSU-74 (short-barreled Kalashnikov) as casual as if it was an umbrella. Glancing in the rear-view mirror after I passed them I saw them burst into an excited exchange, some of them obviously wanting to pursue us but the others seeming accept that they couldn’t get turned around and up to speed in time to have a chance of catching us. They couldn’t afford to waste gasoline for an unknown bounty. Saved by pure luck.
At early twilight we reached Pskov. We paused as Sonia asked an older gentleman for directions to the police station. As he raised his arm to point the way his jacket lifted, exposing a Tokarev T-33 (semi-auto handgun) tucked into his belt. It seemed perfectly normal and I doubt he cared whether we saw it or not.
By the time we got to the police station it was dark. We had been driving hard all day after a bizarre, restless night before that so we all needed sleep. But there was no safe place to leave the van unattended so we parked it in front of the police station under a street light and slept in our seats. I was so tired I slept soundly until sunrise.
At sunrise we woke up, started the engine, and got back on the road. We pulled into Saint Petersburg well before noon and Sonia directed us to her mother’s place – an apartment in a brick, Soviet era building just outside the center of town. We unloaded the van and carried everything up to the apartment – with friends of Sonia’s waiting and watching the van. After that we drove directly to a secure storage area. Imagine an area of about three acres surrounded by a wall of angle iron and sheet metal 12 feet high – topped with double concertina wire. The wall was obviously not just to keep others from getting into the area but also to keep them from even seeing what was in there so they couldn’t know if it was worth breaching the wall to get in.
Back from the perimeter inside the lot were posts with enough light fixtures to make the interior bright as day after sundown. The guards were well armed and the night patrol dogs were kept in a caged off area during the daytime. Sonia had to pay to store her vehicle there but that was the only option if she wanted to keep it long enough to sell and get her money out of it.
That evening, in a conversation with Sonia’s mother (with Sonia translating for us) her mother related that Russians believed that freedom meant freedom to commit crime and everybody was out to get money or any goods they could, however they could.
Frank had always made a dinner every time we were given a place to stay and this time was no exception. The problem was finding ingredients. The old Soviet distribution system was unevenly sputtering along with major gaps in availability of just about everything. Whenever something did show up the news was spread by word of mouth and people would mob the central store.
In the week or so we spent in Saint Petersburg there was no news of new produce or goods arriving. We went there to see what was available. Walking into the central store your senses were assaulted with the stench of rotting vegetation like being hit in the face with a 2X4. You had to fight from gagging as you walked between the empty shelves. The place was as big as an American small town grocery store. There were a few piles of nasty looking potatoes and some unidentifiable goods in cans and jars. That was all.
The next day we went to a specialty store which was where expats went for their needs. This was a small but well-stocked shop filled with imported goods. The prices were beyond anything most Russians could even dream about. We got most of what we needed but paid about double the price we would have were this back in the US.
In my travels around the world I find food stores to be an indicator of the level and health of the local economy. Less developed countries have less to offer – mostly local produce or meat, a small number of packaged/processed products, and few imported items. Poorly functioning economies often lack numerous basics. In the larger cities there are often imported goods shops catering to foreigners – at exorbitant prices. We bought some spices and vegetables which we took back to make dinner.
Walking back to Sonia’s home from the subway station we saw a truck parked on the side of the road and a guy was selling beer from the back. The bottles were bundled 8 in a small cardboard crate, some with labels half-applied and some without. I bought a crate which we put in the fridge for dinner. Later, when we sampled this brew we found it unpalatable with a heavy chemical aftertaste and poured it down the drain for Sonia’s mother to use the bottles later.
We spent our days seeing the sights of the city – a highlight being the Hermitage. This museum holds many famous works of art – quite a few which I expect anybody would recognize immediately.
As we were walking near the main port one day I saw a Ford Model T parked in a small space outside a tiny, old warehouse – the blue-and-silver “Ford” insignia on the radiator having been replaced with a hammer and sickle.
One day we went to an open air car market. This was nothing more than a strip along a major road with enough of open land on either side where people could park their vehicles with hand-lettered “For Sale” signs stating prices. There were all varieties of car and truck from all over the globe. I noted a late-’70s Trans Am still bearing Wisconsin plates. From what we saw, Sonia figured she could triple what she had invested so far. I very briefly considered the idea of repeating what she had done – buy vehicles in Japan and sell them in Russia – but the uncertainty and risk of getting them there with both the vehicles and our anatomies intact didn’t seem to be a viable proposition.
Sonia’s mother worked in an office affiliated with the government transportation bureau and was able to secure tickets at Russian prices – about US$180 each – for a bunk on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. We knew this was a good deal but had no idea how good until we met our fellow passengers after departing from Moscow. Most tourists purchasing these same tickets through tour agents in the various first world countries paid well over $800 for a bunk from Moscow to Beijing.
Soon we would be leaving St. Petersburg, boarding the first of a series of trains which would eventually get us to our final destination on the continent.