I’d been worried when during the previous evening I had checked out the bus station in Ivalo, and out of all the routes on display in the window, Murmansk was not amongst them. Neither was any other Russian town, although I wasn’t expecting any, given where the border post was. So it was with some trepidation that I walked down the street first thing in the morning, and with some relief (and a tiny amount of suspicion) that they sold me a ticket to somewhere not on their route lists.
The hotel very kindly let me keep the room until the bus came at 3pm, so I got some supplies from the supermarket and then hung out doing some writing and watching some television. I took a walk down to the river and took a couple of shots, before heading back to the station to see if the bus would arrive. The staff inside assured me a small van would rock up, and right on time, a minivan came along, and soon there were three passengers going to Murmansk.
A couple of brief reindeer sightings and soon enough we came to the border of Finland, which was straightforward enough after filling out one form, and then a short time later, we arrived at the one I was worried about – the Russian border. Last time I was in Russia I arrived by plane, and the first two Russians I came across at the airport both yelled at me (no photos of planes allowed, and stood in the wrong queue), so by land I was dreading what I might do wrong. Adding that to me being in Russia as a tourist on a double-entry Business Visa (tourist visas are too short), I had no idea what to expect.
First the driver and the others went through the border, chatting earnestly to the mostly bored-looking border officer. I double-checked my forms and walked up, and in my very best Russian completely mangled “Privyet”. He looked at my passport, glanced at my form, made a quick phone-call, picked up his hat and indicated I take a seat. He closed the big roller-door border, leaving me separated from the others, and walked off.
I did what I was told, and sat. And waited. Nervously.
10 minutes later he came back and seemed surprisingly chatty, even switching to English. It appeared that he’d just never had to deal with a New Zealander travelling from Finland to Russia by land as a tourist on a double entry business visa before. Fair enough. And then the following conversation occured:
Him: “You will visit someone in Russia?”
Me: “No, but I’m meeting a friend who is in Moscow at present” (Danny had reached Moscow by this point on his scooter)
Him (grinning slyly): “Aha, a lady, perhaps?”
Me (without even thinking about what he meant): “No, a guy”
An awkward silence followed, while he stamped my passport and opened the border again, and I scuttled out as quickly as possible. Thanks a lot, Danny.
The ride continued, and the driver got one of the locals – a girl from Murmansk who apparently spoke some English – to ask me where I wanted to get dropped off. I’d assumed they’d drop me at the station, but hey, I wouldn’t complain, although it did sound like it may cost me a little. I asked the girl if there was a way to get to the ocean from Murmansk, as it was something I was hoping to do – strangely her response was that she’s never really been, no, she wasn’t sure how you could even get there. Odd.
I was dozing and glanced up as we passed a bus station, but the name wasn’t Murmansk so I nodded off again, and next thing he was telling me we were at my hotel. Apparently that bus stop WAS Murmansk, and I felt extremely unnerved as I didn’t really know even what direction we’d come from, and we appeared to be in the midst of a housing district.
The driver explained he wanted 50 Rubels for the extra ride. Suddenly I realised I had no Russian money on me, but did have Euros. 5 Euros then. I realised at the time that 5 Euros is actually about 220 Rubels, but I really had no choice at the time, and later would be quite pleased when I realised the walk uphill from the station.
I’d spent time in Ivalo searching for hotels after once again I’d established there were no hostels, or even guesthouses. In fact, almost every accommodation website named just one hotel in Murmansk, and it was over 100 Euros. Finally, through Google Maps featured locations I found Black Belt Hotel, which strangely was only 40 Euros. Shrug, done, booked.
Black Belt Hotel is cheap because it is not in the central city. It’s not in the nicest neighbourhood – really a housing estate with abandoned buildings and broken roads around. Sure, when I walked down a few blocks to find an ATM, I was certainly keeping a cautious eye on everyone around me. But the hotel itsels is very comfortable, and I’d got my own room with twin beds again, and a private bathroom.
While getting the cash from the ATM I stopped in at a late night supermarket to get change as well to get some snacks. Oddly I wasn’t feeling very hungry despite not eating all day. Going to the cashier, she asked me some questions but I apologised as best I could for not understanding – there was certainly no English here. I’d also forgotten just how difficult it is not being able to even read things – Cyrillic takes a lot of concentration and I’d forgotten most of it. Then she gave me my change and I looked around, saw some bags so went to take one, and she started yelling at me. I think perhaps I was meant to pay for it, but everyone was looking so I put it down, mumbled an apology and grabbed my stuff and walked off.
And in fact apart from the drink, I didn’t really feel like eating or drinking much at all. I figured I was tired, and crashed for the night, vaguely aware that once again, the sun wasn’t setting.
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