Monday, May 22, 2017

Down And Out In Astrakhan

I arrived on the train in Astrakhan, Russia, fairly late at night. The hostel had emailed me and asked me when I was going to get there. I looked at my ticket and it said I was arriving at around 9:30 pm Moscow time, so I figured it would be about a half hour walk from the train station, and I told them 10 pm. But, actually, it was a little blip of time zone that was an hour later than Moscow; I had just assumed it was the same time zone, since all the other cities I had been at close to the same longitude had been in Moscow time. Let the lesson be here, always check. All train tickets are issued in Moscow time, regardless of local time zone, so you always have to translate. I guess I just got lazy about it.

I realized just as we were coming into the station that I was going to arrive about an hour later than I had told the hostel. No sweat, I figured, they are probably used to people who give estimates that are off a bit because shit happens. When I got off the train, I checked Google Maps for the way to get to the hostel. The first five blocks we're no big deal, just walking on well-lit commercial streets. But then I had to turn into this dark, overgrown mudpit with a lot of abandoned houses that looked really sketchy late at night (and even in the daytime it looked sketchy, as I found out when I went back to the station), and it was so dark that I couldn't even see where I was stepping, and there were a lot of deep ruts. Plus, parts of it looked like I was just walking through someone's back yard. I'm not all that crazy about getting into a strange city late at night anyway. I prefer to walk to where I'm staying, or if it's a really long way, I'll try to get public transportation. I've only gone by taxi a couple of times. So I had ignored all the taxis that tried to hawk me at the train station, in favor of hoofing it. Also, I never know whether taxis in a foreign place are crooked or dangerous, which they sometimes can be.

So after I came out of the dodgy looking stretch (it wasn't all that long, maybe a half a kilometer or so, but I had to take it really slowly because I couldn't see a thing), I came out, and saw there was a large police vehicle parked right near the road there, maybe to catch people who have just gotten off the train coming into town. There were five cops standing there, and they were busy with some other traveler, going through his stuff, and asking him a bunch of questions. Nothing to see here. Just pretend you don't see it and keep going. So I just averted my eyes and kept moving, and I had just about thought I had passed the engulfment zone, when I heard a shout in Russian behind me. I just ignored it at first, but then I heard more shouts that we're more insistent. I turned around and a Russian policeman was hurriedly approaching me. He motioned for me to go back to the car where the others were waiting. He seemed a little pissed that I had ignored his commands and that he had to come after me.

I got back to where the vehicle was, and two of the cops were busy with the other guy, but one cop started interrogating me in Russian. I just meekly said, "Ni ponimayu", which means, "I don't understand". The cop then asked me, "English?", and I nodded. He asked me, "Passport?", and I nodded again, but made no move to produce it. He then motioned me to open my big backpack. I had a lock on it, so I had to undo it, and it was so dark I could hardly see the combination dial. But I got it undone, and he went through every single thing in every pocket, leaving it all in disarray. Then he asked to go through my little backpack, which I carry on the front, and then my fanny pack. He was very thorough, and went through everything, leaving my meticulously packed stuff just scattered all around in the dark. They seemed frustrated that I couldn't answer any of their questions, and just gave up on trying to question me. Then they just waved me off and told me I could go. I had to shove everything back in to my backpacks haphazardly and get them closed, which wasn't an easy task, since they were overstuffed anyway even with everything neatly packed. The funny thing was, they never did check my documentation. I headed down the road, a little shaken by the experience, and since this confrontation had taken about a half hour, I was now an hour and a half later than I had told the hostel I would be.

Finally I found the hostel, and it was well-marked on the outside, which sometimes is not the case when it comes to Russian hostels. I followed the signs up one flight of steps, and the door was locked. So I tried what I thought was a doorbell, but I don't think it worked. Nobody was answering the door at all. I tried knocking several times, and nobody answered. Great, it looked like I was going to have to sleep in the hallway. So I set up my little backpack as a pillow, and lay down on the floor outside the door for a while. Well, that verily sucked, so I got up and tried knocking on the door one more time. Finally a woman answered the door. She was just a tenant, but she spoke really good English, and she said the owner was not there. She asked if I had told them I was coming, and I said yes, but I was a little late. She had the owner's phone number, so she called him, and he approved letting me in, so she did. Well, I had to figure out where the room was, and just pick a bed for myself, and then figure out where everything else was, like the bathroom and the kitchen. Usually someone will show you all that stuff. But I was glad at least that I had gotten in and had a bed for the night. There was one other guy asleep in the big room filled with bunks, and she and her boyfriend were in a private room to themselves.

The TV in the common room was on, and right as I got settled in, the show "Big Love" was starting, dubbed in Russian. I watched it for a while, but couldn't really understand it, so I blew it off and just started channel-surfing. The TV was hooked up to some strange glorified internet-dongle-slash-cable-box with a ton of channels from all over on it. I watched a French channel for a while, but then finally turned in, as it was getting late.

The next day, I woke up, and a hostel manager was waiting for me to collect my money and give me a key. That was all I saw of management there, except for the owner dropping by briefly later that night, which was great because he was able to fix the wi-fi, which hadn't worked at all up until that point.

I walked around the city, and toured the Astrakhan Kremlin. Astrakhan is in southern Russia, close to the Kazakhstan border, right next to the European part of Kazakhstan (it sounds strange to talk about European Kazakhstan, but about 10% of it is in Europe). I wanted to visit the Volga River Delta, but I found out you need a special border permit to do that, which is a bureaucratic mess and will take days at the least, maybe even weeks. So I didn't have the time, as I was only in Astrakhan for two more days.

When I returned from checking out the city of Astrakhan, it was just me and the other guy in my room.  He checked out the next day, leaving me the next night as the only person in the whole hostel, which was kind of weird. I went out for a second day of city exploration, mostly walking along the Volga River, but also checking out other parts of the city I hadn't seen yet. When I got back that evening, it was to the freaky ghost hostel, where I was the only restless spirit there.

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