But First, Moscow
The following story happened to me about a year ago, during a business trip to Ukraine. The purpose of the trip was to visit a team of engineers I work with remotely. I was staying in St. Petersburg at the time, but there was no Ukrainian embassy in St. Petersburg so I had to travel to Moscow.
Plans were made, and I travelled to Moscow by train, using the new high-speed “Sapsan” train. The journey was wonderfully smooth, and lasted 4 hours.
Once in Moscow, I located the Ukrainian embassy where I waited for hours until I finally managed to get a Visa to visit the Ukraine. It may have taken longer if not for my friend Igor who is kind of a Russian celebrity; The lady who takes care of Business Visas recognized him, and with his verbal skills he managed to coax her into being especially helpful. The Visa I was granted and was a “One Time” thing, meaning I could enter the Ukraine once, but if I leave it is stamped out and can no longer be used, even within the valid period. I mention this because it becomes relevant later in this story.
Igor took me to the train station the next day, where again I stood in line for hours to buy a train ticket. It was an especially hot summer day. Hundreds of sweaty, tired Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and various other tourists and backpackers were all crammed together in the same space, waiting for the staff to start their shift. Once available, things started moving fairly quick, and I managed to obtain a ticket 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave.
Moscow to Vinnitsa
The journey to Vinnitsa lasted 18 hours, which isn’t too bad considering the ride is super smooth, quiet, and you get a bunk bed with clean sheets. I shared a room with two old ladies, and a charming young lady. This woman bought a bag full of beer, and dried salmon. During the trip we connected and exchanged music, stories, and she insisted on giving me half her beer. So I was half drunk the entire way to Vinnitsa!
Vinnitsa itself was beautiful and pastoral. Green grass, birds singing, beautiful women, a relaxed atmosphere, and they even have a mini-mall complete with electric stairs and air conditioning. Night life was quite interesting as well, with some “posh” clubs that offered international music and special payment cards you had to buy at the entrance.
Time to leave… Vinnitsa to St. Petersburg!
With my visit to Vinnitsa concluded, it was time to get back home to St. Petersburg. The office administrator in the company I was visiting offered to help me buy the ticket, since I did not speak Russian. I agreed, gave her the cash, and used the extra time to spend more time with the team in the office.
The journey back was supposed to last more than 20 hours. I didn’t understand why the journey was longer, since the distance to Moscow was greater, but I didn’t mind. I bought some food for the journey and was taken to the train station. I said my goodbyes to my hosts and boarded the train.
A couple of hours into the journey, We reach a checkpoint. Ukrainian border police get on the train, and start to stamp passports. My Ukrainian Visa was stamped and was now no longer valid, but who cares, right? I’m going to Russia, and I no longer need it. With the border police off the train, we continue our Journey towards Russia, or so I thought…
Around 4 hours later, we reach another checkpoint. This time, I assumed, I would encounter the Russian border police, and I prepared my Israeli passport (Israelis do not need a Visa for Russia). The police officer asks me some questions in what seems a weird Russian dialect. I didn’t know how to answer his questions so he searched my Passport once, twice, looked at me, searches the passport a third time, and then gave me an angry face, and cross his arms to make a big X to convey that I can not enter the country he is protecting with his life.
I look in disbelief, and ask why not? He says “Nie Visa”, which means “No Visa”. I tell him I don’t need a Visa, and he says this is Belarus! I was asked to leave the train, which was not the best feeling I have to admit! As I pack my stuff and get off the train, the implications of a horrible mistake start to dawn on me: I have foolishly allowed a train ticket to be purchased for me, that does not go directly to Russia, but does a detour through Belarus first. Needless to say, I did not have a Visa for Belarus, and having left Ukraine just 4 hours earlier, I did not have a Visa for Ukraine!
My passport was taken, and I was asked to wait for the next train back to Ukraine. While waiting for the train, a local Belarusian country girl almost convinced me to marry her. I showed my wedding ring a couple of times (which did not help as much as I’d hoped), and I managed to resist. We smiled to each other in understanding, and everything was fine again. Another 4 hours later my train arrives, and I am escorted by the Belarusian border police (who by the way were extremely nice to me). They spoke to the controller and explained the situation. I was given a seat, and we began our journey back to Ukraine.
Stuck in Limbo!
We arrive to the first Ukrainian checkpoint again, where I again encounter the first Ukrainian Border Police. They look at my now expired Ukrainian Visa, and ask me to get off the train. The situation is bad: I am now in Limbo – Unable to enter the Ukraine, and unable to enter Belarus. Stuck between worlds. It is in such a moment precisely, that you wish governments didn’t exist, and that political borders would finally cease to exist.
The two officers who got me off the train gave me sad faces, and conveyed to me the situation was dire, but that their boss would know what to do, AND assured me he also spoke English! So there I am, waiting patiently for their boss to save me, as I looked on sadly at the train resuming its journey into Ukraine without me.
So the checkpoint boss finishes up the paperwork for the train that just left, and finds some time for me. He repeats what his soldiers told me, that this is a complicated situation, and that they don’t really know how to deal with it. He assigns a very tall Ukrainian soldier to stand next to me wherever I go. She’s very pretty – In New York she would probably make a top model, but she’s a soldier and sports a serious face that means business…
The boss goes into their main complex, supposedly to discuss my fate with a group of officers. Meanwhile I wait outside, near the checkpoint’s exit gate. Beyond the gate, the last few Taxis take people who disembarked from the train to their homes. I find myself wishing I could do the same – Just go home, shower, and lay in bed for 5 days straight.
Finally the boss comes out, and asks me, how much money do I have? I tell him I have very little money on me, in an attempt to stave off any exaggerated bakshish requests… he looks at me severely and goes back into the complex. At that point, the driver of the last remaining Taxi approaches the gate. He looks at me and smiles, and starts talking to me. He asks if I’m in trouble, and if I need help. I tell him yes, and tell him what happened. He tells me he knows exactly how to get me out of this tight spot, and that he will help me.
I’m thinking, what’s the catch? Where I come from, you learn to distrust Taxi drivers, and that they are just after your money. But something told me there was something interesting and different about this Taxi driver.
So I ask him what to do, and he starts giving me very clear instructions: Go to the Boss, tell him Vladimir will take you to the Airport in Kiev. Ask to talk to Igor, and pay him 1500 Rubles to eliminate any paperwork mess. Then pay me 2500 Rubles for the Taxi ride. They know me and trust me. Go, and good luck.
I do as he says, and the Boss says, Ah, Vladimir! Very good. You want to talk to Igor? Sure! Go to this corridor, turn right, then last door to the left. I knock on the door, walk into that room, and find a smiling man in his 30′s. He understands I’m not a Russian speaker, and that excites him to no end. He decides to practice his English with me, when all I want to do is get the hell out of there. We talk for almost half an hour. At some point I just stick the money on his desk, indicating I want to get down to business. He gets the hint, fills some paperwork, and lets me go, not before holding me again at the door for another 5 minutes to practice a few more sentences in English…
I go back to the gate, say my goodbyes to the checkpoint boss, who exchanges a few words with Vladimir the Taxi driver. It becomes apparent they know each other quite well, and that the checkpoint boss has a LOT of respect for Vladimir. The gate is opened for me, and I feel a huge relief when I put my bag in the Taxi and sit in the front seat.
The ride to Kiev (through the Forbidden Zone!)
On the way to Kiev, Vladimir tells me a few surprising facts. It turns out he is married to the mayor of that town. It also turns out he was the previous checkpoint Boss, and that the current boss used to report to him. I start to connect the dots; Suddenly it’s all clear to me, how Vladimir knew the procedures, knew the people by names, and knew exactly how to get me out of my situation.
He goes on to tell me that it’s already late evening, and the drive to Kiev takes normally around 4 hours, and do I mind if he takes a shortcut, and that it will save 2 hours. I tell him sure, shortcuts are fine with me – as long as we get there. Little did I know that the shortcut involves traveling through the forbidden zone around Chernobyl.
We approach a checkpoint to the forbidden zone, whence a checkpoint soldier stops us. He approaches the car suspiciously, but then he recognizes Vladimir he stands to attention and salutes him(!). They exchange greetings and the soldier runs back to open the gate. We enter the forbidden zone, and I get a strange feeling that maybe I should not have agreed to this shortcut, but on the other hand I was also curious and excited.
We drive insanely fast in Vladimir’s old Lada Taxi in the forbidden zone, on surprisingly good roads. The asphalt still relatively dark and crisp. The roads are completely deserted. I ask Vladimir about this and he says the roads are great because nobody drives on them, so the roads do not deteriorate. Obvious signs of neglect can be seen off road, however, with plants growing wildly everywhere, including in buildings, from within windows or from cracks in the walls. The buildings are all dark and abandoned, giving the zone an eerie zombie-land feeling.
We then talk about family, and he asks me if I’m married, I tell him that I am but I have a brother in America who is not yet married and looking. He tells me if my brother wants, he can organize a “bridal event” for my brother. Basically, my brother would come for a week to Vladimir’s village. There would be an event where beautiful potential brides and their parents would participate, eat, drink and make merry. At the end of the event, my brother would choose a bride among the women, they get married, and leave back to the US. I took Vladimir’s number, and promised him to convey this idea to my brother.
After a long half hour of avoiding the subject, I ask Vladimir about the radiation. He laughs and says not to worry about it. You only get dangerous levels of radiation if you live in this zone for many years, he adds. But for the 45 minutes we’re spending on the edge of the zone, it’s practically safe. I decide to let the subject rest, as I relax into my seat.
When we reach the end of the forbidden zone, we are let out through another gate, and 5 minutes later, we reach a very strange road side hunters restaurant and gas station. We stop to rest, and I buy Vladimir two cans of Redbull per his request. I take some photos of the restaurant, which was chock full of stuffed animals that were hunted in the forbidden zone. Their eyes and teeth were painted red for the dramatic effect…
Finally, Kiev, and a Flight to St. Petersburg
We leave the strange restaurant, and within 45 minutes we are in the airport in Kiev. Vladimir helps me into the airport with my luggage. I pay him, we hug, I wish him a safe drive back and we say our goodbyes.
The airport has Wifi, and I pull out my laptop and start looking for flights to St. Petersburg. I can’t find anything for a reasonable price. Finally, I decide to try the sales agents in the airport. They are all closed except for one! I approach the lady in the counter, and enquire about a flight to St. Petersburg. She runs a query and finds a very last seat on the last flight to St. Petersburg, and tells me I’m very lucky. I buy the ticket, go through security, and 3 hours later I’m on a flight back to St. Petersburg.