Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 11: Goodbye, Russia

Not knowing how rough the journey back to kirkenes would be, I woke up early to hit the road. A man from my travel agency had told me the day before that I would have to take the south road - the same harrowing off-road experience that I had come in on. Apparently the north road is closed on Thursdays.

So it was this morning that it became clear to me that everything anyone tells you about Russia is false.

Four days ago, another man from the same travel agency had told me that the south road was much, much better than its counterpart to the north. And yet there were whole sections that weren't even ROAD.

More than a few people had warned me to be careful of taking photos, that I would be thrown in jail without hesitation, and yet I had thoroughly enjoyed my chats with dimitry and his chubby friend.

I'd been advised that cops would be on the take and pull me over for random offences, demanding bribes. For a second I had thought that the 1000rur fine that dimitry was putting on me would be a bribe, but even that was done by the book. Not a single cop so much as looked at me.

No whores, no street currency changers, no petty criminals. Just thick-skinned, good-natured people still living in something close to poverty.

Russia does take the prize for world's worst roads - previously held, in my opinion, by the united states. I haven't been to Africa or India, so I may have seen nothing yet, but for a country that outwardly does a passable impression of having an advancing economy, the roads are appalling and hilariously mismanaged.

Which is one of the reasons why I ended up on the north road - there were no signs for anything else. But my successful passage through it in record time suggested that it was not closed.

The first 40km or so were a pleasure; smooth black asphalt, a little rolling and undulous perhaps, but good. Almost too good, as if...

Sure enough, it wasn't finished yet. Not by a long stretch. Soon it went down to one lane, as the oncoming lane became acrid smoke and steaming earth. Typically, there were only a few men working - just like their counterparts working on the road to the south. After that, it turned to gravel for a while, then back to rough asphalt, then very rough asphalt, punctuated occasionally by teams of men whose job it was to half-heartedly patch the holes with Brie, or some similarly short shelf-lifed material. It doesn't take a genius to realise that these men, working as one team, could finish the whole road in perhaps
a few weeks, and then move on to the next.

As I rounded a sharp turn, I looked to my left to see a midsized car. Upside town. In some bushes. I did a quick u-turn, and pulled up to find a family of five standing in an orderly group, looking a little shaken but otherwise unharmed. Winding down the window, I asked them if they were okay - and remarkably, these were some of the only people in Murmansk to understand me - to which they politely replied 'zankyow, yez'. Are you sure? 'Yez. Isnowprowblem.'

There was a good amount of traffic on the road, and they had already put out an emergency marker, so I left them to it and pressed on.

An hour later I passed through a different checkpoint. No salute. No smile. I hand over my documents and the officer takes his time. Looks at me abruptly and says 'Open baggasje'. He appears to be satisfied with the tripod; after some time the barrier goes up, and I'm into military territory; no-photo territory.

This place looks like 1950. Men - teenagers, really - dressed entirely in olive green push carts of wood around, run in tight formations with a red flag at the front and a white flag at the back, stare down from watchtowers and drive beat-up old trucks from a to b. This, apparently, is where Yuri Gagarin came from, a base so big it spans multiple towns. Burnt out cars sit by the side of the road; several tanks line a lake and as I pass, a whole group of kids in uniform follow me with their eyes.

As I approach the town of nikel - that dimitry warned me not to chance photographing, being as it sits inside the restricted area - the chimneys belching grey-brown smoke are impossible to ignore. This is the nickel-mining facility that puts 300,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The Norwegians paid the Russians a good chunk of change - several million - to clean it up, but apparently the Russians spent the money on hookers and street meat, or competition exhausts for their new AMG. It looks nothing short of filthy.

So I had to chance a photo; one from the main road, two from a lower section, all the time wondering if, even if I escaped the town, I would be stopped at a checkpoint closer to the border, warned to watch for a small silver Suzuki.

I wasn't. But for some reason, traffic today was very light - so every guard I met took their sweet time, with nothing better to do.

The first border stop, where they unbolt a heavy iron gate and then raise the barrier, was staffed by a soldier who was perhaps a little slow. Four days earlier I had the benefit of a confirmed check ahead of time at the real border. This time I could have been anyone. So he checked my passport, checked the documents for the car, checked in the trunk - a tripod! You make photo? naughty naughty! - all the while singing to himself.

After that, you're in real border territory, where you don't stop the car. Tall, meticulously-maintained barb wire fences lined the road; taller watchtowers that I hadn't been able to see driving in the other direction stuck up from the treeline. I wondered what it would be like to try to get through there - apparently nine people had made it to Norway the previous year.

The border itself was much the same story, empty and bored. Customs checked all my bags, x-raying everything. I present my film for the hand exam and the first thing they try to do, like they do everywhere - is open it - glad I taped it securely. 'You can't open that,' I say. 'But we must!' Pause. 'IT'S FILM.' I've had this conversation a few times.

To be fair, all they see is a box that could contain any number of things, and they're not under any obligation to hand exam it. Everyone on this trip has been quite considerate once I explain it; especially if I make their lives a little easier by separating all my film containers out into their own tray.

After this, you schlep all your bags back into the car, where another man is inspecting the undercarriage, looking in the spare wheel compartment, digging through your seatback magazine holders, when he finds a Polaroid of the Murmansk bay. 'What is?' It's Murmansk. He rushes over to his colleague to confer, but decides to let it slide.

On the Norwegian side of the gate, it's like walking into someone's house. The room is tastefully appointed; a little R&B is playing in the background, and it smells of fresh pine. A motherly lady looks at your passport, smiles, and says 'welcome back', and suddenly you feel a little more appreciative of your background than you had a few days earlier.

Later that day, a flight back down to Oslo, where my grandma regales me with stories of my grandad's trips to Russia before the fall of the iron curtain ("CAPITALIST!!!", cried the random protester who had broken into the hotel with the express intention of trying to strangle my grandad - "of course, he didn't know what to make of this", noted my grandmother). And then an early flight back to the US, which struck me more than anything else as an interesting counterpoint to my experiences with Russian security; my passport was examined by no fewer than eleven different people between checking in and landing at Newark, making Russia seem like a bastion of freedom by comparison.

But it's still always nice to come home - to the invisible man making bad jokes over the luggage carousel PA, to the sunshine, the voicemails, the ridiculous wait to enter the holland tunnel, the friends you'll hang out with in just a few short hours, even though you're bushed and most of your body just wants to go to bed.

Next stop... Chernobyl? (seriously)

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