Having visited almost all the Balkan and Eastern
European states art least once in the last ten years I now decided to venture further
East into Ukraine and Russian Caucuses as far as Volgograd
(Stalingrad) for no other reason than an interest in "Operation Barbarossa",
the German offensive against the USSR in World War II. The route and logistics didn’t
seem to pose much of a problem but the visa situation was more
starting in Romania, then through Ukraine into Russia would require
firstly a double-entry Romanian visa, then a double entry Ukrainian
visa, and lastly a single entry Russian visa. The first was no
problem; I could get it at the border. The others were more
difficult; when contacted both Embassies came up with the usual
rubbish, i.e. no visa without pre-booked accommodation and a
day-to-day itinerary. The Ukrainians even insisted I had a letter of
from a Ukrainian National or approved business. Not living within
four hundred miles of either embassy I had no option but to go
through a specialist company who could acquire them for
good news. The Russian Authorities had dropped all pre-booked accommodation requirements
and surprisingly their Embassy issued the visa without any problem. No such
luck with the Ukrainians who refused point blank to issue a double
entry tourist visa. They would however issue a single entry, which was no
good as unlike the German XIth Army I intended to make it back home.
Eventually they compromised and agreed on a double entry transit
visa (three days maximum stay in each direction). Reluctantly I agreed. However
then the idiots issued it for 6 consecutive days not the dates I
asked for. This meant I had three days to cross and leave the Ukraine in
one direction, and then I would have to re-enter and retrace my
steps in the next three immediate days. Not much use, and despite all
entreaties they dug their heels in and refused to admit their
mistake, or alter the dates. But at least I had the documents to get
there; I could worry about getting home when the time came.
had a bit of luck on my flight out to Budapest. A man travelling
first class (paid for by his business), asked swap seats with me to be with
his wife and baby, (in Economy), so I ended up in a window seat in
row 1 with lots of. leg space and a champagne breakfast on both legs
of the flight. From Budapest I caught the overnight "Dacia Express"
got the required visa on the Romanian Border and got off at
Sighisoara in Transylvania for a couple of nights. On the Monday I
got the train to Bucharest and booked into my usual central and
1 star hotel for the night. Next morning I bought a ticket for the
overnight train to Kiev from the travel booking office in town to
avoid the joys of queuing for hours in the Gara de Nord railway
station ticket office. I also stocked up with food and water for
what was going to be a long journey
journey to the Ukrainian border was uneventful and I managed to get
a couple of hours sleep in my top couchette. I awoke later, it was
dark, the train had stopped and the only sound was the slightly
tense shuffling-for-documents noise you always get from passengers
at border stops on big ex-Soviet Bloc trains. Knowing I was going to
be singled out as a Western curiosity, and because I knew that it
would take longer to process my documents than the locals, I went
out looking for the Customs.
of them spoke any English, a Ukrainian officer who after inspecting
my passport/visa asked me in her limited English if I had any money
to give her. However it wasn’t a currency bribe she was after, it
turned out she collected foreign coins and I was the first British
passenger she had encountered! I did have some UK coins (and even a
rare Scottish pound note) in my rucksack in the compartment.
Unfortunately the sight of a Customs Officer apparently making me
drag my luggage out into the corridor nearly caused a riot as the
passengers assumed I was being kicked off the train.
It was sorted out and she got her bank note.
I arrived hungry in Kiev and quickly confirmed that
the "MacDonald's" outside the railway station was no better or worse
than anywhere else in the World. Unfortunately, thanks to the visa
cock-up by the Embassy it was all of Kiev I was destined to see. The
border checks had taken 9 hours (I even ended up helping them
filling out the declarations for them in order to speed things up;
they may have been printed in Ukrainian but otherwise the
format and questions were almost exactly the same as the ones used
in the UK) and we had arrived six hours late. I had intended an
overnight stop in Kiev but
enquires revealed that most trains heading East into Russia had been
cancelled due to the war in Chechnya, even although I was only going
as far as Rostov-on-Don. Apart from trains to Moscow all other
Eastbound trains to Russia were fully
for the next 48 hours bar one, and it was leaving in fifteen
minutes. As I only
had 48 hours left on my transit visa; and not wanting to
overstay my time in Ukraine and spend the next 5 years in a Gulag or
whatever the penalty was I had no option but to get aboard.. With the
help of a passing Nigerian student who had translated all this for
me I bought my ticket and we bolted for the train. I just made it,
but so much for Kiev.
Kiev to Rostov was
not my all time favourite train journey. The train was hot and crowded
and in my rush I had had no time to stock up on food or drink, all I
had was about 3/4 litre of water and a few rolls in my berth to last
the next 24 hours. This increased
about 30; the train not only stopped at the Ukrainian side of the
border for 4 hours but also then crawled over to the Russian side
for another few frustrating hours stop so the Russian Customs could
repeat the whole ritual over again. By now I was beginning to get a
bit worried, I had to get over the border before my Ukrainian visa
expired and most importantly I was beginning to doubt if I was going
in the right direction - there was after all a second border into
Russia to the North of the Ukraine. No-one spoke a word of English;
asking for "Rostov-na-Donu vagzal?" (Rostov-on-Don station?) or even
writing it down in Cyrillic only got the response of a shrug and the
reply "Da! Moscva!” Even the rail map on the train was the wrong
one. Finally we started to move. I decided to get off at the first
stop anywhere, (anywhere!) which appeared to be bigger than a
village. The main thing was that I was in Russia. I could surely
then get somewhere to stay the night, find out where the hell I was
and work out how to get to Rostov from there.
stopping at a few stations where nobody got on or off and where
there was no sight of a single building let alone town or village we
stopped at a station which at least had a road and a couple of
houses next to it. I took my chance and got off. Fingers crossed,
and luckily there was a taxi and he did take US dollars (I hadn't had
a chance to get any roubles yet). He didn't understand my asking
where I was but did understand "mne nuzhna gastinitsa" (I need a
hotel). We drove along a never ending road for a while then suddenly
over a hill, and apparently from nowhere appeared a large city with
golden onion domes gleaming in the sun. "Ah Rostov!" the driver
beamed. "Rostov? Rostov-on-Don? Rostov-na-Donu"? - I couldn't
believe it. "Da! Rostov-na-Donu!" he confirmed. By sheer luck, and
despite its dead-end appearance, the tiny railway station I'd got off
at was in fact Rostov’s East-West station.. Another 20 minutes and I
was installed in the "Hotel Rostov" with a big room,a hall,
an en-suite bathroom with
a bath and hot water, satellite TV, a three piece leather suite, a double
bed, fridge and even a writing desk. All for a staggering eight U.S.
dollars a night.
Despite being described in my guidebooks as "not very
interesting" I took to Glasgow's twin city at once. Despite being
almost totally destroyed in WWII it has been rebuilt quite
tastefully, an near absence of tower blocks and abundance of green
parks being just the thing after two and a half days cooped up in railcar
compartments. I was only a 10-minute walk from the River Don and the
South of the City. It was pretty obvious however that the populace
weren't used to Western backpackers here, I was stopped twice by the Policia who wanted to check my visa and police registration; this
had been done by my hotel: technically unless you were on a package
tour or official business trip this was still compulsory although
they didn’t tend to bother as much in well visited places like
Moscow and St. Petersburg.
That first evening I came upon the "Restaurant Fish"
in the park across the road from my hotel. This was excellent, well
situated, partly outdoors beside flowing water, friendly staff and
provided an initiation into
I checked out the central market. This covered a large area on what
seemed to have once been a tram terminus, the tracks were still
there and occasionally a lost tram would try to get through, people
would just uproot their stall, let it pass then resume trading
again. Next to it was the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral. This was
in the final stages of a lavish restoration; all the domes had
recently been re-plated with gold leaf, as well as the inside, which
was ludicrously ornate.
finally worked out the crazy railway infrastructure. Rostov had
three stations. Firstly the out of town one where I’d arrived which
doesn't sell tickets, secondly the big central station which dealt
with most international and long distance trains which was
completely hidden underneath giant tarpaulins and not signposted and
thirdly a small but very conspicuous station which only dealt with
local trains but sold most tickets for trains leaving from the
international station. I found this out the next morning when I
tried to leave Rostov: I got my ticket at the local station OK but
by the time I realised the train left from the larger station whose
existence I was unaware of it was too late and I missed my train.
my train gave me a lesson on being P.C. After queuing I asked for a
ticket to Volgograd. The woman behind the desk shrugged and feigned
puzzlement. "Volgograd" I repeated. Still indifferent non-response.
“Volgograd? Volgograd?” Still a look of knowing indifference. Them
someone at the back of the queue shouted “Stalingrad!” “Ah
Stalingrad" smirked the ticker woman as if she hadn't understood me
before. I got my ticket and later found out that while the late
dictator may not be Russia's most popular asset, many people in the
Caucuses still want their "Hero City" to be called Stalingrad.
railway worker on his way to work took me a short trip along the
track back to the local station. This involved dodging moving trains
going through and even dodging under stationary trains but I'd done
it all before.
along the platform of this sleepy little station and took a
photograph. This was my first mistake in what was to become a
Immediately 2 young policemen apprehended me and asked to see my
documents. I was so used to this by now that the first thought had
become "don't laugh". Then they made me empty my pockets. Then they
frisked me (Badly, they didn't even find my body belt) and
meticulously went through everything. Then I was told to come to the
was taken downstairs into an underground room and sat at a
desk. What was going on? About a third of the room was taken up by a
large green cage with vertical bars, of the sort once popular with
travelling circuses and wild beast shows. I was left sitting for about
half an hour with the two cops on the door with thoughts of Salt
Mines and Gulags going through my mind (well not really; actually
working out how to bluff my way out this fiasco). Then an older,
plain-clothes guy arrived and sat down across from me. He went
through all my stuff again, looked carefully at my camera and asked
me who I was, where I came from, had been, was going, was staying
etc. For a sixty-plus guy in an out of the way part of Russia he
spoke unusually good English. This went on for about twenty minutes, the
same questions again and again. Finally he looked me in the face:
replied. "I'm a
to his feet, thumped the table and roared "NO! WHO SENT YOU HERE!"
Oh dear! Didn't this idiot realise the Cold War ended
10 years previously? Apparently not. He ranted on for a further 10
minutes about the heinous nature of taking photographs of
clapped-out Thomas the Tank Engine type railway trains but
presumably eventually decided I wasn't James Bond after all and he
let me go. Mind you I was still escorted back to my hotel, no doubt
to make sure I didn't have a couple of ICBM's stashed behind
reception. They even forgot to confiscate my film.
Perhaps that should have given me enough excitement for one day
but I had better things to do than stay put in my hotel room as
instructed. "Breaking cover"
that afternoon I headed into a part of town I hadn't been to before.
Perhaps I should have worn a false beard and dark glasses? Slightly
lost, I was looking at my map when an old man came over and started
giving me directions. Suddenly two police cars screeched to a halt,
gun-toting Policia yelling “Cocaine! Heroin!” tumbled out and next
thing we were spread-eagled against the wall and subjected to an
enthusiastic but ineffective rub-down (again they didn't find my
body belt). The old man was eventually taken into a car and driven
off my the gun-crazed maniacs. In the ensuing confusion I lost my
temper, a rare thing for me, and temporarily oblivious to the fact
that I was risking sudden and terminal lead-poisoning went
ballistic, yelling that I had diplomatic immunity, was a top British
police officer, don't you recognise me and other
demanding to see their chief, get them all sacked etc etc. In
retrospect not the most sensible course of action but it worked and
they retreated back into their cars and drove off. I don't know what
happened to the old man though.
after a last sturgeon steak dinner I checked out of the hotel
and walked to the station to catch my train. No-one arrested me for
spying, travelling on false papers or even drug dealing, in fact not
a single member of the Rostov-on-Don Keystone Cops was in sight.
Maybe the antics of the previous day had busted their overtime
budget. Who knows?
Three hundred kilometres or so passed uneventfully enough, why the
train arrived five hours late I don't know, as I was asleep most of the time. We
eventually pulled in to Volgograd in the early afternoon.
I must admit I wasn't sure to expect to find in
Volgograd as the travel
guides were rather patchy and photographs all seemed to dwell on the
mounds of rubble the city became in 1942. I was pleasantly
surprised, like Rostov most of the city was low rise, there
plenty of green spaces, the weather was beautiful and a high-speed
tram ran almost the full length of the long narrow city making
almost everywhere of interest accessible.
station it was a five minute walk to Fallen Warrior's Square at the top
of the Avenue of Heroes, (the street names were great!), a long
pedestrian avenue that stretched down to the River Volga. At the top end I
had a choice of two hotels, the Hotel Intourist and the Hotel Volga.
They were both equally pleasant in a decaying sort of way and as the
"Intourist" suggested they had the best rooms but the "Volga" the
best food and the "Volga" staff confirmed this, I ended up staying at the "Intourist"
but eating at the "Volga" to the satisfaction of all parties.
that afternoon after eating I took a walk down Hero Avenue to the
River. I took time to watch the Changing of the Guard at the first
of countless war memorials I was to find. The Avenue itself was
lined by life-sized statues of workers and soldiers striking true
Stalinist heroic poses, at the end an enormous staircase leads down
the embankment to the river and the main River Terminal. It was a
beautiful warm evening; I took a stroll along the embankment before
returning to the hotel.
Next day I took the tram the full length of the City
and then back again. Everywhere you went there were grandious war memorials and statuesof
heroic soldiers in heroic poses. T-34 tanks were displayed
along the Volga and even WWII aircraft and river patrol boats were mounted on
plinths. It didn't seem ostentatious however and people of all ages
could be seen from time to time still laying flowers on the various
memorials. You could feel that people had a genuine pride in their
city and the terrible battle that marked the beginning of the end
for the Third Reich.. I could also understand why a lot of people wanted
to change the city's name back to Stalingrad.
visited the "Museum to the Defence of Stalingrad". Although all the
captions were in Russian you got the message. The highlight was the
360-degree panoramic painting of the battle in all its gory detail
as seen from the top of the Mamaev Kurgan. It also held a huge
model of the ruined city and amongst other exhibits the rifle used
by the famous Soviet sniper Vassal Azotes. Outside the museum were
surprise yet more rows of T-34s and other military hardware and the
preserved ruins of a flour mill.
following day I visited the Mamaev Kurgan (Tartar Burial Mound), the
strategic "Hill 101" where the most ferocious fighting took place.
This had now been turned into a huge war memorial. To approach it
you walked through a long tree lined avenue then up through rough
steps surrounded with sculptured friezes showing the Russian
defenders battling their aggressors. At the top was the circular tomb
to the Russian dead, Inside you walked up a circular ramp, on the
walls were inscribed the names of ten thousand soldiers buried here.
At the centre was a clenched fist holding an ever-burning torch. The
only sound was quiet, mournful music. Despite the size of the place it
was very effective.
Outside, at the top of the hill was an enormous
statue of "Mother Russia", sword aloft, willing victory. Despite
being about eight metre high the statue was free standing.
took a cruse up the Volga on one of the river cruise boats. The
two hour journey down river to Tumak cost less than two U.S. dollars
and on the way back it stopped off on the East bank. I caught a
later ferry back across.
I had realised of course that my single entry Ukrainian
visa was going to be a problem: as soon as I had crossed from
into Russia there was no way back unless I could get a new one, or
at least some sort of an extension. My first plan (a long shot) was
that there might perhaps be a consulate in what was after all the
biggest Russian city in the Caucuses. There wasn't. Unfortunately my
second plan was also thwarted when I found out that Belarus had
stopped issuing transit visas on trains back through their country
into Poland. The last option was to fly back to Bucharest.
Unfortunately due to the centralised air network Volgograd Airport
only handled domestic flight. So perhaps my jokes that unlike the
German XIth Army I was not going to get trapped had been somewhat
premature. Luckily Aeroflot got me a flight to Moscow and then a
flight on to Bucharest.
Moscow flight on an Tupalov 154 was actually up to Western
standards, it even including a hot meal and good value at only
the equivilent of thirty U.S. dollars. I did have to hang around at Moscow Airport all night however
before flying back to Romania, this time at Western prices. I
checked in back at the same hotel in Bucharest. Mission
I spent a few days in Bucharest determined to finally
tame the beast. From my normal hotel I quickly mastered the public
transport system and spent a couple of days taking in the main
sights. Central Bucharest was almost like two cities, the pre-WWII avenues with wide huge
ornate buildings, now slightly crumbling and showing signs of decay
and then the Ceausescu era part. This comprised of even wider
avenues and even huger buildings built after Nick 'n Ella came to
power and began to build on a megalomaniacal scale.
I started in the centre of the city at the Civic
centre. This began with a
huge square that was meant to be
Unfortunately the hot, dry and polluted air in Central Bucharest had
never been taken into account, an most of the grass was dead and withered
the ground reduce to hard, compressed earth. From here I walked up
the long "Boulevardi Unirii" which was supposed to be Bucharest's
answer to the Champs Elysee but failed spectacularly. At the top of
this was the "House of the People" which I was told was the second
largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Knowing this, I
thought it would be bigger than it appeared although most of it is
underground. I took a guided tour of a small part of the building:
which was OK although rather sterile with a rather formulated
took a tram to the end of the line to see the huge artificial lake
build partly to provide water for Ceausescu's answer to the River
Seine, a semi-artificial river running through the centre of the
city. Once again it turned out to be entirely made of concrete and
surrounded by litter-strewn scrub-land. A few optimistic anglers
fished for empty oil cans or whatever it was that survived in the
murk. While it may function as a reservoir for the city it worked
less well as the "source" of the city's river. Seemingly it never
occurred to the planners that rivers require an incline to
flow. Bucharest is
almost flat and the river was more of a weed infested canal.
I rather liked Bucharest's rather ramshackle glory and contradictory
planning and design. I spent three
nights there and then returned to Sighisoara for a couple of days.
After this it was time to go home so I got the train back to
Bucharest (where it arrived at a very inconvenient three o'clock in
the morning) and
caught my plane back to Scotland.