22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

Much More Moscow: Kremlin and State Armoury

After our first failed attempt at visiting the Kremlin, seeing it became the primary objective on our second morning in Moscow. We rallied in the hostel common room bright and early, then made our way back into the city centre. But before that, we had some goodbyes to say. Rach and Marti would be leaving us this morning, and travelling down into Eastern Europe rather and continuing on to St Petersburg. The two girls had definitely been a dynamic presence within our group, and I think most of us were sad to see them go. We went around the group taking turns to hug them goodbye, with warm wishes for the future and promises to stay in touch.

***

Maria had advised us that the tickets to all the Kremlin attractions, including the State Armoury, can sell out rather quickly, so we kept that in mind when we were planning our day. We were so punctual in arriving to purchase our tickets for the Kremlin that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the first people there, but somehow there was already a line of tourists waiting outside the security check point out the front of the complex. We purchased our tickets, checked our bags into the holding room and joined the end of the queue. I remembered back to something Kostya had said at Lake Baikal: “Yeah, in Russia… Russians don’t really understand the concept of a queue.” That can be very frustrating, especially in big crowded queues like this one. People would elbow their way in wherever possible, but I think by the end of our stay in Russia we’d learned to play by their rules, and we found that our group – small in comparison to some of the larger tours – was flexible enough to slip in between other people and slither ahead in the “queue”, non-existent in the eyes of Russians.

The Kremlin is essentially a huge palace complex that has been the hub of political power in Russia since forever, pretty much, and is surrounded by high walls made of blood red brick. It was once the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the central office for the royalty and tsars as well as communist leaders and democratic presidents alike. The red bricks surprisingly have nothing to do with the name of Red Square, and are no suggestion to communism either. Later, Maria would inform me that in Russian, the word for red has dual meanings, and that it had actually been the word for beautiful long before it was ever affiliated with the colour. The more you know. The main features of the Kremlin, though, are the churches inside, some of which have been transformed into museums and exhibitions. Most are still very well maintained in their original condition, designs that appeared to be far more modern than the palaces I observed throughout Asia, though can easily be admired as whole pieces of art in their architecture and decoration. They all follow similar Russian Orthodox designs on the outside, but the insides are far more intricate. Most places required the purchase of a permit to take pictures, but I don’t think any photos can really do justice to these places – especially not the camera on my iPhone.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

On this particular day, there appeared to be a lot going on inside the Kremlin. Once we were inside the main complex, we stumbled upon a huge congregation of priests who were all dressed up in their very formal robes. We asked Maria what was going on, but she confessed that she wasn’t a very religious person and so didn’t really know much about the occasion.
“Some angels have days, that are holy days that are assigned to them. I think today must be some angels day, and so they are praying and celebrating or something. I’m not sure which one though.” I still didn’t really understand, so I just settled for observing the crowd of devout men and watching them meander about the courtyards, looking rather excited as they chatted amongst themselves. We waited around for a little while, watching the men and listening to some of their singing while we waited for everyone to come outside of the final museum, before heading out of the Kremlin and back towards the ticket box.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

I’m not really sure of the specifics or details of what happened next, since I had been taking a pretty passive role in decision making, happy to visit whatever sights had been deemed must-see. We took our time looking through the churches and various exhibitions, and Maria told us that we would be able to arrive at the ticket booths at 11:15am in order to get tickets to the session at noon. Maria had collected the groups money in order to buy all the tickets, but I came along with her because I was going to attempt to buy a student ticket with my ID – it was my university student card from last year, and I was well aware that it had expired, but the foreign people rarely noticed the expiry date and the savings, particularly for entrance to the Armoury, were worth at least attempting to score the discount. However, literally as we got to the front of the line, the woman selling tickets announced something in Russian over the a loudspeaker. I waited tensely beside Maria, who finally turned to me to translate. “She said that there are no tickets left for the Armoury, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we should see what the others want to do.”

The others weren’t impressed. There was another session in a few hours, but I think most of the group had given up and decided we had wasted enough time trying to see these places, when it seemed like a constant uphill battle to even get into them. We ended up separating again after having some lunch, with some people going shopping, and others going for a longer, scenic walk back to the hostel. I returned to Red Square with Kaylah to take some photos, but after that I returned to the hostel via the metro to have a rest. I didn’t gotten a very good sleep the night before, and after talking to Tim yesterday we had decided we might like to go out for a few drinks and see some of the nightlife in Moscow. However, it rained rather heavily that night, which put a bit of a dampener on the mood. We went out to the Moscow Circus and had a beer before the show, but afterwards no one really seemed to be in a partying mood, so we called it a night and headed back to the hostel in the wet weather.

***

I was woken up the next morning by a knock on the door of my dorm. It was Kaylah.
“Tracy and Jenna and I are gonna head back to the Armoury. It’s early enough that we should definitely get tickets.” It was a struggle, but I rushed to ready and head out with them – inside the State Armoury is an opulent collection of treasures and artefacts that is considered one of the major attractions in Moscow, and even though I’d had another terrible nights sleep, I couldn’t justify sleeping in when I knew there was a group planning to head out that way one more time. “Okay, but we need to get back here before noon – we have to check out by then and I’ll have to get my stuff together.”

So off we went to the Armoury. I tried to purchase a student ticket, but unfortunately the woman working had been more attentive than the woman who sold us our tickets to the Kremlin, because she picked up on the expiry date – I still figured it was worth a try. But finally, after three days in Moscow and our numerous trips to this part of the city centre, we finally got into the Armoury. The collection of treasures inside was definitely worth it – all I could think of was how many millions of dollars these items would be worth. Goblets and plates and portraits and books and tea sets and dresses and weapons and – well, the list goes on, but everything was decorated with lavish jewels and pearls and I’m almost at a loss of words for how extravagant it was. It was the kind of extravagance that you only ever really saw in movies, and even then you knew they were most likely props that were worth only a fraction of the real thing. The diversity of the collection was also impressive. Jewelled sword handles and horse armour were in the room next to elegant pearl inlaid gowns, which were in between classical horse drawn carriages and a room full of velvet-lined thrones. We followed the directions of the audio guide tour, seeing the most important and interesting pieces in the collection and learning a bit about their histories.

While seeing the Armoury had been worth the rushed trip, it definitely made the rest of my morning a little more stressful. Firstly, as we walked down the stairs out of the exhibits, I dropped my audio guide. Despite having the safety strap around my wrist for the entire time we were in the museum, is was on the hard marble stairs that it slipped from my grip. It landed with a clatter, and I clutched at Kaylah’s arm when I saw that one of the buttons had lodged loose. I quickly scooped the handheld device up and shoved the button back into place, but the LED screen was starting a flicker, a sure sign that the machines life was about to expire. An endless stream of mumbled profanities escaped my mouth – we’d only needed to leave one form of ID as insurance when we’d collected the devices, but it was Jenna who had left her drivers licence with the desk.
“Just be cool, be cool Robert,” Kaylah had assured me. Once we got the desk, we placed our devices face down, showing the woman behind the counter their numbers, and she returned Jenna’s licence.
“Okay, be cool, stay cool, but go! Go! Go!” I’d whispered to the rest of the girls as we scurried out of the museum and back into the sunshine.

The second thing that made my morning just that bit more stressful was our returning time from the Armoury. I literally ran from the metro station back to the hostel, arriving at 11:58am. Perfect, I’d thought to myself, I literally only need two minutes to gather my things into my bag, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the hostel hadn’t been to sure I would arrive back in time, and I found my bag on the floor of the main hall with most of my possessions thrown into two big black garbage bags. Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been that bad. What actually sucked about this was that it wasn’t just my possessions – the bags was a mixture of my clothes and what may have been the possessions of one, or maybe two other guys from the room who weren’t part of our group. I felt kind of bag for that guy(s), because I’m not even positive they were supposed to be checking out, yet they’d had all their things scooped into a bag and thrown into the hall. I had to sit in the common room of the hostel and sort through all the bags to make sure I’d recovered all my things, while the rest of the group sat around waiting for me.
“I’m so sorry guys, sorry for holding us up,” I must have said a dozen times, but they all dismissed my apologies and said it was fine.
“We’ve got the entire day where we don’t have anywhere to be, so we’re not on a tight schedule, don’t worry.” I was glad they were being so nice about it, and as far as I could remember this was the first time I’d ever really had a problem or held the group up in any way, so they seemed fine with it.

Still, I had run all the way back to the hostel, and combined with the embarrassment of sorting though my bag and packing everything while the others patiently watched on, I found myself dripping with sweat. It was a warm, sunny day in Moscow, and I ended up mopping myself down with my towel and changing into a singlet and shorts. When I’d finally packed all my stuff up and put my pack in the storage room, we headed off as a group to get some lunch.
“Wow, Robert,” Don had said as we walked beside me, “You look like you’ve just had a shower or something.”
“Yes, Don, I’m a little sweaty,” I said, feeling a little testy and unable to hold back the sarcasm. “Thanks for pointing that out. I would rather have had a shower, but I’m actually just really sweaty. ” I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in a very good mood for the rest of the afternoon.

***

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The rest of the day was spent as a group, hanging out in a park to eat some street food lunch, visiting a popular Russian market, and finding a few restaurants and bars to have a few drinks in and just hang out, enjoying each others company. I think the long train ride had really brought a lot of us together, but it was nice to hang out with each other in a different, relatively normal environment, although the absence of Rach and Marti was strangely noticeable. But after we whittled the afternoon away, Alyson and Tim and myself had a few more drinks at a pub just near the hostel, and eventually it was time to head to the train station to catch the midnight train to St Petersburg.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

Maria had met us back at the hostel and taken us to the station, and made sure we’d all gotten on the train safely. “There’s two places empty?” she had asked us, and we reminded her that Marti and Rach had left us the day before, forfeiting their tickets for that section of the journey. “You should come with us to St Petersburg, Maria!” someone had said jokingly. At first she had just smiled and laughed, but five minutes later she stuck her head into our cabin, where Tim, Tracy, Jenna and I were preparing our beds for our final night in transit. “I think I am going to come to St Petersburg. I have a friend who I have been saying I will visit, but I have never been, and it’s been, oh, I have been saying I will go for four years or something.”

We were all a little stunned, but we couldn’t help but laugh. Maria had seemed like quite a lax and easy-going woman, and while it had been a little frustrating when she hadn’t known some things about Moscow that we might have expected from our guide, I couldn’t help but applaud her spontaneous nature that told her that getting a train to another city, with absolutely nothing except a phone, wallet and the clothes on her back, was a perfectly good idea. I guess I learnt something from Maria that night, because with my plans for the rest of my time in Europe being just as unplanned and flexible, I was going to have to learn to be just as swift and spontaneous when it came to making decisions about my travels.