We reached the ‘Balti Jaam’ with half an hour or so to spare, so we sat around in the waiting room, just killing time. I was curious as we sat, about the translation for train station and so I popped it into Google translate, selected Estonian to English and was surprised and concerned by the answer.
“Must be a mistake.” I said to Kate.
“You know how we’ve been laughing about the name for the station –‘Balti Jaam’ all the time we’ve been here?”. It looked funny and sounded nothing like ‘train station’. It was like some kind of Estonian jive language, I had wondered.
“Google says the it translates as ‘white power!’” I said.
The words had seemed comical to us. We’d taken to singing it, like it was a genuine funk song lyric, each time we passed by. ‘Take me to the Balti Jaam. The the the Balti Jaam” we’d twang out. Little did we realise. Now we sounded like a pair of racists (not unlike some of the Estonia government, we read in the news that day)
We hopped on the short bus ride from the train station up to the main bus terminal – the ‘Bussi Jaam’ – and boarded our connection, bound for Saint Petersburg almost immediately. I did not translate the bus stations meaning.
I’m not sure but I suspect we are the only two people on board who aren’t Russian. It was a simple coach and smelt a little funny, of mustiness. The vehicle its self, must have been twenty years old. The old faded curtains dangled lifelessly from plastic hooks, only coming alive when the manic driver took on some kind of daring overtaking maneuver.
We were sat on the very back row of five, as one of the last people to purchase our tickets. All five seats were occupied and I was sat next to a porky Russian bloke. He talked expressively but not too loudly to his companion, all the way. I wondered what his business had been in Estonia. He had a quietly menacing look about him. Perhaps he was Russian mafia – a crime boss of some kind – I thought. I slapped myself on the wrist for thinking ill of him without evidence, my prejudice showing.
The side of his large belly rubbed against me with each bounce in the road. It was not the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had but I refused to allow it to frustrate me too much. There were six hours to go and I wanted to make the best of it. Besides, I had more important concerns, like the Russian border crossing a Navka to deal with, which I was shitting myself about.
This was to be our first experience of border controls on the journey so far. I had only learned the Russian for hello – “privet’ – and thank you – “spasiba”. I was poorly equipped if anything was to go wrong, some would say. Others might suggest I was going in with a positive approach, expecting nothing more than a greeting and a word of thanks would be required.
Read more: Start from the start and follow our overland trip from Scotland to Australia here.
We waited 15 minutes outside the border compound on the bus. Huge, grey, metal gates separating us from no-mans-land, where the checks were being carried out. When it was our turn to enter, my nerves reminded me that I was far from home but I tried to put a brave face on it, to keep Kate assured.
(Photo: Estonia-Russia border)
The gates shut behind us with a loud clang. A police officer with military looking precision boarded and started to check and collect everyone’s passports, from front to back. We were last to have ours picked up but the officer at this point, gave our documents no more scrutiny that anyone else’s. In my passport there was a pre-arranged Russian visa from the visa centre in Edinburgh and I was relying on it to open the gates that lay at the other end of the compound. We’d had to give our fingerprints over and obtain proof from a Russian travel agent of our visit, in the form of an invitation letter – it had not been the easiest of processes.
The policeman re-boarded after a short time and handed our passports back and we headed for customs. I felt confident that many of my details were now permanently logged on a Russian government database, including my fingerprints. Although I felt uneasy about that, I hoped the cost of entry would not outweigh the rewards of travelling Russia.
Our passports were checked several more times, including once by a female customs officer, who upon catching sight of the visa and picture page, turned my pages closed, so she could glance at the logo on the front and identify where I was from. It was clear, not many non-Russian’s used this port-of-entry, as she glanced up at me with a mildly puzzled but not unwelcoming expression.
The whole process took just over an hour and a half and we were on our way, catching our first glimpses of Russia – wooden detached houses, some looking like decent but simple country homes, others in a poor state of repair. Ghostly wisps of grey smoke rose from the chimneys of only a few houses, as it was warmer than I had expected and not many were lit.
We arrived into Saint Petersburg both tired from the journey and confused, as we’d come into a different bus terminal from the one we’d expected. Whilst using the last bit of EU valid data on our mobile phones in Estonia, we’d been cautious enough to load up a map of St Petersburg, so we would see where we were, when we arrived. It looked a long walk, maybe an hour or so, with full backpacks on our backs and small rucksacks on our fronts but what else could we do? We knew very few Russian words and we’d read that you could only pre-order taxis in Russia, not hail them on the streets.
(Photo: Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg)
Dripping in sweat and arriving at our hostel just before dark, was a relief. We struggled to communicate with the receptionist.
“Sorry full” he said.
“We have booking” I said back in pigeon English, hoping that fewer words would make my sentences easier to understand.
“Ahh, booking?” he said. We were shown to a dorm room, which looked much nicer than the average dorm, but we had book a private room and we craved it, in the same – but obviously less severe – way that pets often seek a secluded space before they expire.
“We book private room” I tried.
“erm…privet?” meaning hello in Russian, can the confused response.
“oh, no… erm” I was stuck, so I reached for my guide book to help me.
It was a struggle, but at last we were in a safe, clean and in a private place for the night. We were so worn by the experience that we ate Burger King for dinner. Fast food can sometimes be a guilty pleasure of mine but for Kate, that’s unheard of. The familiarity of a meal that we knew well was all that either of us wanted that night. We needed comfort food and this was the very definition of the term. Thankfully, that night, there was not a murder in Burger King. No drama at all.
We grew into huge, brash powerful Russia. It was uncomfortable at first but getting out of your comfort zone must have benefits, we hoped. Russia in not a perfect place but the media portray in the UK is inaccurate. As we are there, we are reminded that less than a century ago, they were one of the worlds greatest assets in WW2 – the only just war that the UK, USA and Russia have fought, so many say. Russia suffered the greatest casualties, sacrificed the most.
Our time here was brief, intimidating yet educational. Well, brief considering the scale of the place – the largest country in the world. Next came a five day long train ride, from Moscow to Mongolia – the world famous Trans-Siberian Express.
I might have gone a little stir-crazy on the train. Cabin fever. I dunno. Judge for yourself. It was the first train journey I ever got jetlag from, so trainlag is actually a real thing now. Five timezones in five days. It is strange way to travel this overland lark but it beats the hell out of flying.