SOVIET HOSPITALITY part 2
Second part and second atempt as earlier versions got lost. I’m learning!
Arrived at Белорусский station – no Rabfail. Didn’t know where to wait as there were two halls so sat conspicuously in the middle of the площадь until an enormously tall intourist man offered help. He put out a call, tried to phone Ufa and despatched me to exchange money. En route to the rouble exchange office I was accosted by a foolish fellow in uniform of some sort to change cash on the black market. He must have a great loss of income now the bottom has fallen out of said black market with the devaluation of the rouble. Nine hundred roubles to the good I returned via the palatial metro for five kopecks and bought coffee and a salami sandwich for 90 kopecks.
Rabfail’s phone number is evidently a work one so Intourist drew a blank. Then it occurred to me that at 2.15 am with a blinding migraine I maybe had not expressed myself very clearly in Russian anfd maybe he expected me to arrive by plane. Intourist’s guardian angel phoned Shermetyevo and lo and behold within an hour Rabfail turned up and spirited me away in a taxi through Moscow’s rainy streets to a ‘co-operative’ flat occupied by an elderly lady called Lida Grigorievna. It was very small but, as always here, warm. We drank tea and I slept like a log.
I awoke to find Rabfail and Lida Grigorievna dressed and drinking tea. When I had collected my senses we set off with my luggage and hailed a taxi to leave the luggage at the station from whence the train would depart for Ufa. A taxi here for two kilometres costs 40 kopecks. The average wage here is 220 roubles a month. Lida Grigorievna is about seventy. She is a lift operator and her wage does not affect her pension.
Having deposited my luggage in the left luggage we set off to try to book my return passage. I had a return ticket but British Rail had said they could not book my sleeper as they would have to wire Moscow and in all probability the Russians would not reply. A less than helpful young lady in the rouble exchange office said I couldn’t have a sleeper till the 26th March unless I changed not only trains in Berlin, but stations. The idea of being stranded by my own incompetence scared me stiff so we took a few minutes out of the queue to consider the matter. Meanwhile перерыв (a tea break) occurred and was greatly prolonged by the arrival of two men who proceded to decorate the windows with strips of plastic. This they did meticulously and very slowly while the girls waited behind the counter and the queue lengthened behind us. Rabfail says that such practices are ‘бардак’ ‘беспорядок’ i.e. disorder. Finally I opted for the 26th. I asked for just a seat and was told ‘we only have sleepers here’ We then set off across Moscow to extend my visa by a day.
The building to which we were directed (no.5) turned out to be all private accommodation. We peered all round it as official places are often hidden behind the most inconspicuous doors in back alleys. However, we later found it in another no.5 about a kilometre away and were told we had to do it in Ufa.
At this point we felt the need for food and went into one of the new private co-opetative cafes. This one was Georgian and we had харчо (hot peppery meat soup) and then a spicy meat dish and tea and ice-cream with jam. The cafe was beautifully decorated in dark blue and gold and service was good – the acceptable face of the private sector. I hope they don’t one day get replaced by th Little Chef.
Finally, once more by metro, we set off for Kazanska station. The metro never ceases to amaze – so palatial, so clean and so quick – a train every three minutes in every direction. We got the Ufa train in good time but then Rabfail went for our remaining luggage and returned half a minute before it left. We’ll be on it for 24 hours (1500 miles). Rabfail asked me how many we were together on the international train. When I said two, he said, ‘Oh it’s no fun with two. There will be 50 in the carriage to Ufa. It will be весело (jolly).
We found ourselves in a six person of a partially divided wagon with a huge mechanical samovar contraption at the end and a slightly more salubrious toilet than the other trains.
We were on the four people to a side so we had a bunk to sit on. The individual seats opposite converted at night to a bottom bunk. The upper bunks stay put. In our foursome section are two delightful girls from Ufa, Tanya and Flyuga. The lady who dispenses tea and sheets is less amiable than the дядя (literally uncle but often jus used for elderly man) on the other train but we had a very jolly picnic where we all shared our fare. The girls’ granny makes lovely jam from plums from her garden outside Moscow. They are studying robots in Ufa University and come from ‘not far – only 3 0r 4 hours’!
Rabfail and I had chicken and vegetable soup, bread and сок (juice) for 70 kopecks each.
Rabfail woke me at Ulyanovsk, Lenin’s birth place, to see the Volga. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s as if the sea were frozen with its waves. There is an enormous breakwater to protect the bank and allow ships to dock when it is not frozen. Fanatical fishermen were dotted about on the ice fishing through holes. One chap was even sitting way up on the beck. I asked Rabfail what he was doing. The answer was, ‘Resting or drinking tea.’ It makes our anglers with their umbrellas by the river in the rain seem quite self indulgent.
We picnicked off various remains for breakfast and Rabfail got off at a station and returned with some enormous currant buns. The tea lady is selling soup but we are all full. Later we went to the restaurant wagon, had some soup and sok and took a photo. We finally arrived at Ufa at 8 pm and were met by Rabfail’s daughter, Gulya, and Nikolai, his boss, who drove us home. There Rosa had prepared a delicious meal of which I ate too much with wine and strawberry drink (both homemade). Then we watched parliament (Совет) and saw the debate and vote on whether or not to have a president. The whole thing was on the telly and they first voted on whether or not to have a secret vote. It was decided easily to have an open vote and then to create the post of president.