Vilnius to St. Petersburg, 14th to 15th of May

I had a little while to wait in Vilnius station, so I used the time to grab a snack and a drink for the journey, using up most of the last few litas that were burning a hole in my pocket in the process. Then I sat in the waiting room, alternately reading and watching the departures board. While I did so, a lady with a clipboard approached me – she didn’t seem to speak a word of English, but I grasped that she was doing some kind of tourism survey and would I mind answering some questions? I indicated that I didn’t mind and she dug out an English version of the form for me. Some of the questions were more straightforward than others – my age category was easy enough, a rough break-down of my expenditures on various activities less so. I really wasn’t sure what to say for the question asking about my source of information on Vilnius, either. I regret to say that I did no research into Vilnius because I hadn’t expected to spend any time at all there until I realised that the train from Warsaw got in about 15 minutes after the St. Petersburg train was due to leave. In the end I poked a finger at “Internet” – after all, I’d looked up the hostel online. My nationality was apparently confusing too – I’d put British, but the lady looked baffled until I said ‘England’, feeling my Welsh ancestors scowling at me disapprovingly from beyond the grave as I did so…

Finally, my train was announced and arrived at the platform, and everyone queued up to board it. One particularly unkempt and apparently drunk chap seemed most put out by the wait, and I found myself hoping that he’d be in a different part of the carriage to me. Finally we started to board, each showing tickets and passports to the Provodnitsa (train steward) before getting on. My fears were not allayed when I handed her my rather battered passport and she examined it as if she’d never seen one before. However, I was allowed to board, though my passport got subjected to a second-opinion analysis by another woman and I was asked if I was American. ‘British … English’, I replied, and thankfully they seemed to accept that. My opposite neighbour was an older Lithuanian lady who seemed determined to put me at ease even though we lacked a common language, and I was grateful to see a friendly face. Thankfully the drunk chap from the platform was nowhere to be seen. I found that efficiently spending the last of my litas before boarding had been a mistake because it meant I had no change to buy hot drinks from the Provodnitsa, but at least I’d brought some supplies of my own, so I made do.

My memory of the journey is a bit of a blur. My friendly neighbour and I were joined by another woman and a youngish chap, and they chattered to each other while I practiced the Cyrillic alphabet and looked out of the window. I was on tenterhooks because I knew that passport checks and border shenanigans loomed ahead, but I had no idea when or how things would progress. The Provodnitsa had handed out migration cards and we all filled them in diligently. There was a bit of a fuss at this point and to my surprise, it didn’t involve me – the second woman seemed to have some question mark hanging over her passport or visa, and spent a lot of time fretting and discussing it with the other two in what seemed to be alternately anxious and defensive tones. Finally it got too dark to read any more, my friend had already tucked herself in her bunk and I could hear loud snores from the next compartment, so I decided to settle myself down too. It worked like a charm, because no sooner had I got myself comfortable than the first round of passport examinations occurred. Things got a bit hazy at this point because it was well after midnight, but the pattern was set – just as soon as I let myself relax, someone else would come and check passports or luggage or bring another form to fill in. I remember the lady collecting the passports seeming quite pleased to have the variety of a British citizen to deal with, and the luggage chap asking me something in Russian, then pulling out a list of controlled or banned items for me to check. I read it and shook my head like a loon, quite spaced out by this point. He pointed out a couple in particular – drugs and antiques. ‘No, no,’ I said as emphatically as I could. It seemed to work, and he moved on. At last it was all over – even the woman with the passport worries seemed to get through ok – and I drifted into an uneasy doze until just before we reached St. Petersburg, where we were disgorged into the gorgeous but disorienting Vitebsky station and I set about hunting down some roubles and figuring out my way to my hostel.

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