I was reading a review on Foodosophy today and while leaving a comment I was reminded of a story I have told many times. It’s about one of my travel experiences that must be one of the more unusual I’ve had the pleasure to add to my list of anecdotes.
This story can begin with what is most certainly a cliché opener but suits it very well…
It was a dark and stormy night, (see, I told you so) I was on a bus in Russia travelling from the city of St. Petersburg to Moscow with the same group of travellers I had seen most of Scandinavia with. This motley crew consisted mainly of Aussie and Kiwi students and professionals. There were a couple of Canucks such as myself whom it seems were there just to keep the rest from entering areas of certain cities where the local cops don’t even go, being killed by mob types while drunk and mouthy or perhaps being arrested for drug possession while crossing international borders (these are a few of many more tales that I rather enjoy relating to others).
I had, over the time I’d been in Europe seen, met and travelled with so many strange and interesting people from these two countries that I often found myself wondering if there were anyone left in the Southern hemisphere. Who, if anyone was running the place right now? And if not whether the last ones out had in fact remembered to turn out the lights when they left.
These people were not foodies or experienced travelers and they most certainly could not be mistaken for history buffs as my constantly having to explain who certain figures were(such as the Vikings and Rasputin) would indicate. It was my impression from having spent several months with a number of the same sorry group that they travelled for no other reason but that previous generations of their countrymen had informed them that they had a really good time doing so and the booze was fairly good in other countries. None the less I had enjoyed my time with at least a couple of them and they had even saved my life in Norway when while stricken with some unknown local virus I had a fever too high to allow me to think. After a couple of weeks they’d taken me to hospital where I received immediate treatment for the Pneumonia that was now present in every lobe of my lungs and would according to the doctor have caused full respiratory arrest within days. I like to think they did so out of some sense of altruism and not merely because my coughing and sweating was becoming annoying, not to mention I actually knew where we were going to head next and had set things up.
So, after a couple weeks of recovery and several cheaply acquired doses of frighteningly large pills of unknown content I found myself in a cold bus surrounded by semi-drunk companions speeding down a dark rain-soaked highway. A highway full of a disturbing number of large potholes which our “driver” managed to barely avoid hitting by using the aptly named “suicide lane”. The victims of this road lay in the ditches on either side and the length of time some of the now deceased vehicles had been there was evidenced by the lack of paint/wheels/glass on many of them.
This barely roadworthy transportation had been arranged for us by the enigmatic figure we’d come to rely on as our local “fixer” and we’d decided to call Dodgy Serge for what to us were obvious reasons. This bus trip had however not lived up to Serge’s previous work for us and I was wondering if this was the final act in Serge setting us all up to trust him before we became an unfortunate statistic at the hands of his unsettlingly nasty cohorts(a few of which we’d met). He did however redeem himself with tickets to a Russia vs. Finland hockey game in Moscow that was “sold out” and he managed to also get us in to view Lenin’s tomb after it had been permanently closed to the public.
We were to have left St. Petersburg earlier in the day but the bus we should have been using had been “taken”. This was the simple explanation Serge had given me via the payphone I was to wait for his call on. Thus we had the cold and perhaps barely maintained coffin on wheels in which we now found ourselves. As mentioned before the weather on this evening was bad and the rain was coming down so hard that I began asking what my companions wanted to do to deal with what was becoming even for us an unusually dangerous situation in my view. They were characteristically unconcerned until the driver hit the brakes a short time later and managed a full 360 before stopping and informing us that the wipers had stopped working. This was enough to persuade the lot that finding somewhere to spend the night may just be a good idea.
We drove on for another 30 minutes or so at a much more life-extending speed until the driver announced that we were close to the outskirts of a town called Tver and he knew of a “hotel” we could spend the night in. We all quickly agreed that since driving on would endanger us to more of a degree than we were willing to accept at the time we would stop here and continue on to Moscow in the morning. We were told by the driver it wouldn’t cost any more money paid to him. It seems he felt that not rendering his wife a widow tonight was worth more than money. All we need do was cover his room cost for the night.
We pulled in to what from this point on I’ll refer to as “the truck stop” and parked near a small building that looked like a house. Myself and a few others got out and ran through the rain to the office with our driver who now had to act as interpreter for us. The negotiations with the manager went very smoothly, no doubt aided by the fact we said we’d pay in American dollars. We managed to get enough rooms for all and quickly agreed to a price that we felt was quite good considering they threw in a dinner and breakfast as well.
Soon we were all grabbing our packs from the bus, getting keys and running across the lake of mud that was the parking lot to the oddly barn-like building we had been told by the manager would be our home for the night. We walked up the wide wooden stairs to a hallway with 15 large wooden doors, some of which were not useable due to missing handles. Two bare bulbs lit the narrow hall and the floor was bare wood which creeked badly when any of us moved. I found my room and tried the key. It never even fit the lock and I was able to just twist the handle and push the door open. Others had the same feature on their rooms.
Now, I have to say that I’ve travelled a fair bit and am not easily disturbed by what would be considered to be shall we say less than luxury accommodations in many countries, but the room in which I found myself bunking with long-time roomy Tony this night was an true eye-opener for me. I discovered upon entering the room and quickly looking it over that perhaps it may be better to leave the truck stop and take our chances with the storm. After all the rest of the trip to Moscow wasn’t really that long and the rain could be letting up. This was a feeling shared by most of my companions and one that had the driver not vetoed it and refused to leave would have surely been acted upon.
Our room looked oddly medieval with large wooden furnishings and panelling, the bathroom consisted of a small toilet like device, a wash basin and a large raised tile platform that was apparently the shower, although the lack of a curtain made this assessment not 100% provable. I made the mistake of using this thing only to discover the water was dark yellow and the smell we were so offended by upon opening the door to the the bathroom had not actually come from either the toilet or the rotting walls as we’d previously thought. I closed my eyes and holding my breath quickly scrubbed the previous two days off myself. Unfortunatly I felt no cleaner after this experience. Tony wisely decided he could wait one more day before showering upon smelling my new aroma.
The door to our room had been broken down on what seemed a number of different occasions based on both the damage and numerous subsequent repairs that were visible and the lock did nothing aside from make an interesting grinding noise when we tried to use it. Tony and I decided it would be a good idea for us to move the large, heavy wooden bureau in front of the door while we slept. We’d also come to the conclusion that given we were on the second floor we reasoned the window that did not close or lock was less likely to be the entry point of those we were certain would visit during the night.
The group had agreed to meet in the restaurant an hour after we’d arrived so I headed down and across the parking lot to the building it was housed in. I entered a dark smoke filled hallway and at first wondered if my instructions were correct as to where to go, but after making my way down the corridor I discovered the bar and soon a large open space with a stage at one end that reminded me of a school gym. I found a few members of the group and after giving our ticket to the guy at the bar we entered the dining room. Some more of our companions were already sitting at a long shabby table with drinks in their hands and we quickly moved to join them as the assortment of large mean looking Russian truck drivers eyed us and made comments to others nearby. Tony joked that perhaps we were to be the entertainment for the night and pointed to the stage that seemed so very out of place. We didn’t laugh.
Soon the rest of the group was at our table and we now felt better knowing that with nearly 20 of us it would be very unlikely that we would be bothered while eating dinner. We all agreed that strength in numbers had served us well in the past and would do so again should we need to employ it. I note that even the most rowdy of our group had expressed no intention of hanging around after dinner and sharing a few drinks with the locals.
Shortly after the group was together we received our food, obviously we were not going to be asked what we wanted and while this was annoying we were all pleased to see the plates of what looked like chicken arrive at the table. We examined the food and thought maybe it was a schnitzel of some kind or perhaps chicken Kiev. It did look quite good and we all began to eat.
I cut off a piece of the chicken on my plate and now realizing how hungry I was promptly put in my mouth and began to chew. I immediately noticed a disturbing crunch and felt the sting of bone slicing into my gums adding the taste of blood to the mouthful of what? chicken? was I still thinking this was chicken that shredded my mouth? I looked at my friends and saw the expressions of surprise and disgust on their faces, some had even spat out what they’d put in their mouths. I used a napkin to remove what I’d bitten off and placed it on the table.
I now took a good look at what was on my plate, it still looked tasty sitting there and I used the fork and knife to remove the coating mix and skin that was on the piece. There underneath was what I can only describe as a chicken back that was repeatedly hit with a hammer or run over with a truck perhaps. This thing was flattened completely, there was only the small sharp fragments of bone that opened my gums and no visible meat at all. We were not happy but decided it would not be worth making a stink about and as a result just ate the skin and limp veggies, washing all down with what in my case was very potent vodka.
We were beginning to get ready to leave when the lights dimmed and the groups of truckers who until now were doing no more than mulling around drinking and talking suddenly all sat down at the other tables in the room and became quiet, they looked towards the stage and this prompted us to do the same thing. I was amazed by what I saw there.
What I saw was something that to this day is both hilarious to discuss and perhaps frightening enough to make me wonder if I’d been sharing in some mass hallucination. One brought on by something having been slipped into our drinks in order to render us more easily overpowered when we were to be rolled for our money and packs.
The show we witnessed that stormy night in a dangerous looking truck stop in the middle of Russia was a young lady dancing. No, she was not naked nor touching herself in any way. Quite to the contrary she danced in lovely clothes holding large feathers to very nice classical music. All in all the routine was quite elegant and well performed. Scanning the assortment of large, scarred, tattooed and hairy truck drivers that surrounded me and noting the intensity with which they watched this show was unearthly. They made no noises and no crude gestures were offered to the girl before them who moved beautifully around the stage. It was a form of what I’ll crudely describe as culture-shock that prior to this moment I would not have guessed was even possible. And while certainly aided by being tired and not having eaten the feeling was none the less exceedingly uncomfortable.
After a period of time I was able to get hold of myself and I looked at my companions. They too were in utter disbelief at what was happening, as evidenced by the looks of shock on their faces. This was so unsettling (in a Twilight Zone/Weird dream sort of way) that we all quickly and without a word spoken seemed to decide at once to remove ourselves from the situation. We all got up leaving food and unfinished drinks on the table as we swiftly returned to our rooms. There was a very large man in the hall outside our rooms and we moved past without eye contact, hoping he wasn’t there to relieve us of our belongings and that we’d just interrupted him.
Tony and I for our part never even spoke about what we’d just witnessed. Laughing about the strangeness of it all was something reserved for later. We were honestly just happy that upon returning to our room we found nobody had tampered with the chains we’d used to lock our bags to the perhaps 800 pound beds and that the huge guy in the hall had not decided to nudge the door open for a look. We moved the heavy furnishings in front of the door and climbed into bed with thoughts of leaving as early as we could the following morning.
None of the group had their doors kicked down in the night and in fact not one of us had any problems at all. This may have been the result of the 6’9″ guy with a gun that wandered up and down the hall where all of our rooms were that night. Hearing him plodding back and forth on the squeaking floor caused me so much grief that I finally -and to Tony’s horror- had to look into the hall at around 3 am. I received a smile and Zdra-stvu-eetee from the monster of a man who was the same one we’d seen earlier. He raised a palm to me and said “go, sleep now, good and safe”. I closed the door, told Tony that we were apparently being guarded and after blocking the door again (for good measure) went back to bed. We thanked the manager the next morning for the protection and before departing left him a US $10 tip (may not seem like much to you, but converted to roubles it was two months pay for him). None of us had slept well (Some hearing the pacing back and forth in the hall never slept at all) but it was over with.
We decided not to have breakfast at the dining room and opted instead to consume some of our portable stores in order to leave as quickly as we could. The rain had ceased and the drive to Moscow was mostly uneventful other than the usual lane changes and passing of slow-moving vehicles in the suicide lane. Upon arriving in Moscow the bus died with a huge smoky bang just inside the city. We were however able to get to our next stop-over via subway so we decided to move on. We wished the driver luck, gave him his money and after a call to Serge were on our way. When we finally discussed the previous night and all that it had entailed it was with the levity of looking back and having moved on. This was aided by a great deal of vodka.