September 27, 2004 GMT
Trains and Planes and Motorcycles

Lots of people have asked me (including some Russians) whether I'm worried about the rumours of bandits, muggings, thefts, hijackings, dishonest policemen and so on.

Quite honestly, the only threat to life and limb (apart from the drivers, who make the Italians look like amateurs) I've come across is the bureaucracy, which can rapidly make one lose the will to live.

The policemen are unfailingly polite, and always let me off with a smacked wrist; the rather sinister-looking Russian youths on the streets at night help old ladies across the road and open doors for me; when I'd overestimated the amount of fuel I needed at a petrol station the cashier behind the blanked-out window emerged and came into the adjoining cafe to give me a refund; the hotel in Yekaterinburg insisted on giving me a discount because of the extra time I had to spend here because of the above-mentioned bureaucracy; and I could go on.

Where have all the sparrows gone? They're here. I've seen no more than a dozen pigeons siince I've been here, but the entire country is overrun with sparrows. In the cities they're very tame, perching on cafe tables waiting for crumbs and taking baths in puddles on the pavements.

I cracked looking like a local early on. Even carrying a camera doesn't mean you're not Russian, but the clincher is a placky carrier bag. Maybe it's a hangover from the Communist days when everyone carried a 'perhaps' bag in case they found a shop with something on the shelves. Absolutely everyone carries a hand- or shoulder-bag (men included) and a plastic carrier bag, with mandatory surgically-attached phone for teenagers.

The rules for booking a berth on the 'Rossiya' (train no.2 from Moscow to Vladivostok) seem arcane in the extreme. It's a 'passing' train, so you can't just go to an agent or the station and book. Sometimes you can secure a berth three days in advance; sometimes eight hours; sometimes one hour. Last night I went to the station at 11pm hoping to get a berth on the no.2 leaving at 1:30am. Yet another deranged harridan yelling "Nyet", of course. The whole thing seems to be down to luck and whether you can find the train conductor to offer a bribe. It's too late now as the next no.2 isn't until tomorrow night, so I'm flying (with which airline I've no idea) tonight on the redeye.

The bike is allegedly on train no.904, in the tender care of Tatiana and Sergei (whose mobile phone numbers I have but which may be useless as they probably don't speak any English). This should arrive in Vladivostok a week today at 4:30am Moscow time which, I think, is 11:30am local time.

Maps. They are available. Except a road map for the bit of road which now exists between Chita and Khabarovsk, opened by Putin about six months ago. Even road maps of the rest of the country are pretty hard to come by. There's a specialist map shop up the road which appears to be pretty well stocked, but even there the concept of a road map appears alien. Interestingly, nearly all the 'country' maps I've seen of the Russian Federation are in conic projection rather than Mercator.
This means that the country looks its real size and you get a crick in your neck trying to read the names. Perhaps if the Americans showed their country in conic projection they'd have a less-inflated idea of its importance.

TV. Lots of English programmes overdubbed (Prime Suspect, Midsomer Murders, wildlife stuff), the maddest of which is Top Gear (picture Jeremy Clarkson overdubbed with a Russian monotone). The adverts are hilarious; some are familiar, some are tacky, and many wouldn't be allowed in Western Europe. You can't believe the snake oil being flogged here. They do, however, appear to have a ban on tobacco and spirits advertising on the box. The news and weather is pretty good and more-or-less comprehensible.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at September 27, 2004 04:16 PM GMT

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