Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Greetings from Braniewo Poland,
I am writing this in a quaint little hotel in
I'd be willing
to bet the farm none of you have ever been here or even know where it
might be... without checking a map. I first became aware of this tiny
berg boasting a population of under twenty thousand from the GPS display on my Galaxy Note smart phone when trying to
see how much further I'd need to walk in the dark after being turned
around at the Polish-Russian border for trying to cross two days before
my brand new Russian visa became valid. During the planning phase for
this Kaliningrad trip I vaguely recall seeing some mention of a short
waiting period before a new visa could be used. But, in the eagerness to
get going I timed everything so the minute they handed me the visa I
bought my bus ticket and started the trip, having been malingering for seven
days in Gdansk luxury.
Comforted by that realization I turned my attention to making rapid progress toward the closest town now somewhat less than the originally suggested seven kilometers from the border. Two sets of highway signs pointed to named places 2 and 3 kilometers off the highway, but looking in the indicated directions nothing appeared terribly inhabited, more like clusters of farm houses and such. One highway sign marked a bus stop! My spirits soared briefly until I realized I'd be better off continuing my walk toward a real town. If a bus route did actually exist out here, schedules I'd seen put the buses infrequently far apart and I could be waiting for hours... or even all night!
Slowing my walking pace to
reevaluate the available options I noticed headlights moving through
the light grove of trees off to the left and cautiously approached the dirt
road they were on as it met the highway. The car slowed and stopped just
short of entering the highway and I walked in front of its headlights. A
male voice called out in Polish mixed with a smattering of English
words. I walked over to the driver's window and could see two men in the
front seat. "I hope you guys are policemen!" I ventured in
English and leaned in
through the open window.
The night receptionist spoke quite good English, but everyone else speaks only Polish. The next morning I renewed my search for a better hotel to sit out the second night of waiting. The option of heading back to Gdansk for the last night occurred to me, but seemed terribly inefficient use of time as the round trip takes four hours at least. My walking search found only one other hotel and it was even more basic than the one I had. So, I asked the Warmia day receptionist if she had a better room in her hotel for my second night.
Instead of answering me she pointed to a sheet of information in Polish and made me understand the eleven AM checkout deadline had past and left the conversation ambiguous. I repeated my query about a better room using the translation feature on my Galaxy and she understood that. "Yes," she replied in English and grabbed a couple keys and motioned for me to follow. The room she showed me was no better and only had a couple single beds where mine had a king-size. So, I resigned myself to making do with the room I'd gotten the first night. The WiFi is quite good so I've been able to work on this draft much of the time while in the hotel. Breakfast early the next morning in preparation for an early walk to catch the Kaliningrad bus turned out to be a custom selection of mostly cheeses, lunch meat and scrambled eggs, but the calories surely would keep me going for the morning.
The bus "terminals" here are actually simply designated areas on the grounds of the rarely used train station. Most (all) trains this time of year are freight trains. The buses rely on schedules known only to a privileged few or those able to decipher the Polish versions available on line at secret websites... or so it seems to this naive foreign traveler. With multiple corroborations of the 08:30 bus for Kaliningrad, that is the one I selected for Wednesday morning, the first day my Russian visa is supposed to be valid.
Near the train station I spotted an enormous cemetery full of grandiose grave sites, most of which featured a prominent crucifix of some sort. Nearly all of the elaborate tombs showed the results of people caring for the monuments: artificial flowers and candles in weather protectors. I took a lot of pictures.
After waiting the required two days for the Russian visa to become valid I awoke early in order to walk the half hour distance to the designated bus pausing point for that 08:30 departure. Confirming with several people around the bus staging area that I had the right location and time, I waited. Several buses came and went and as the designated 08:30 departure time arrived I watched the placards in the windows of all the buses carefully for one with the KALININGRAD designation, but there was none.
An unfamiliar bus looked suspiciously different from all the other buses going to Polish cities and I felt an urge to ask the driver if Kaliningrad might be included, but it bore a destination sign in no way resembling the word "Kaliningrad!" After it and another local bus departed I waited another five minutes and then returned to a little snack shop where I had previously confirmed departure information. The jolly proprietress stood in the open door of her store, out in the cold watching me. When I said the work "Kaliningrad" and gestured to the bus area, she anxiously jabbered something in Polish and waved after the just departed bus accompanied by an exasperated monologue no doubt chiding me for being so stupid. That odd green bus with the strange city name must have been my bus.
Now what? The next bus for Kaliningrad would not leave for another seven and a half hours! Considering my options, it occurred to me buses from other cities must be making the trip to Kaliningrad and that perhaps I could catch one of them at the border. So now I faced that same seven kilometer walk back to the border... or try for some form of wheeled transport. Rather than wait around for something to come by I decided to start the walk and hope I passed a taxi or saw a border bound bus. About fifteen minutes into the walk I spotted some sort of emergency vehicle in the lane behind me. I turned and glued my eyes on the driver's window. He stopped! The passenger side window rolled down and he shouted: "Where are you going?"
I replied in an even voice: "The border." At that point I noticed a designation on the van that identified it as a Polish Border Police vehicle. "Are you guys Polish Border Police?" I queried.
"That's right; hop in. We'll give you a lift to the barrier, but you know you can't walk across the border, don't you? You will have to find someone to give you a ride."
Well, I didn't know that, but prepared to get in just the same, grateful to cut my walking time a bit. The guy riding shotgun pulled a latch and the rear passenger door opened... into a "holding cell." The little steel enclosed cubicle had one metal jump seat facing the side door I'd opened... and a heavy duty steel door into the more secure containment cell in the back with a serious padlock deterrent. During the process of getting settled we chatted amiably about my plans and the fact they both spoke perfect English like natives.
They seemed to know something about my activities, more generalities than specifics. So, I asked if they had learned about me from the other Border Policemen who had helped me two nights before. That they denied, but I suspect they might have overheard casual comments from the other shift about the crazy American sneaking around in the dark near the Russian border. In any case, we reached the border area in a few minutes and I thanked them for their assistance. I cannot help but observe that if you want to cross any border illegally, choose the Polish borders because the police are so friendly and helpful! Of course, if I had actually been up to some mischief, my experience with them surely would have been totally different!
Getting out of the car for the next episode I faced a two block long line of waiting cars, most with their engines stopped, so it looked like everyone expected a long wait. My impromptu taxi turned around and I walked the hundred meters to the barrier gate. As the arm was up allowing a few cars to enter I just kept walking, keeping an eye on the security guard window on the other side of the road and pausing when I saw some movement in the window. Out came the guard huffing indignantly and in an official commanding voice informed me in struggling English I could not be on foot past the gate. Asking him how I could get into Russia if I couldn't walk in, he replied I might find someone to give me a ride across the actual border and returned to his shack keeping a weary eye on me as I retreated back away from the forbidden zone.
As a youth I did my share of hitch hiking. It is easy. Just stand there for hours and hours and hold your thumb up, right? I learned it is a different process when we are older! Instead of holding up a dumb thumb, holding up some money probably would work better. It is not surprising few sensible people pick up hitchhikers under ordinary circumstances; I never do. But, at a border crossing like this other considerations prevail and one of them worked in my favor. I spent an hour trying the ol' thumb trick, including the display of my American passport as an added incentive for any Americans who might be waiting in the queue. Finally, resigned to sitting it out until the 16:00 bus arrived, I halfheartedly tried one more time and "Ivan" slowed, opened his passenger window and asked in perfect Russian: "Kaliningrad?" I nodded and he motioned for me to get in.
Oh, Oh. That seemed too easy... What is this guy up to? Am I going to disappear in some out of the way place unknown to anyone outside the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad? Have I accepted a ride with a smuggler, a cannibal, a dope dealer, a wanted criminal on the run using me as a decoy? The possibilities are endless, so I reminded myself all life is an illusion and my personal well being is of no particular significance. All that is real is here and now. So, I relaxed and watched to show, marveling at how such insignificant matters can take on overwhelming importance given half the chance.
As I calmed to enjoy the adventure into which circumstances had delivered me, Hugo Chávez bid farewell to a short life of devoting his public efforts to the non-rich citizens of his country and Venezuelans wept at their loss of a true champion of the common man. A few days later as his body lay in state, many of the world's leaders honored this socialist visionary as well and I recalled my short visit to his country back in March of 2005 where I saw first hand the admiration he enjoyed from his fellow countrymen.
But I remained unaware of all these momentous events, preoccupied as I was with my own present drama. The first act required getting the Polish customs guys at the border to let us through. Ivan's car got a casual inspection of trunk and passenger space. A lot of jabbering continued for some time in Polish between the driver and police with occasional gestures in my direction. When the customs agent finally took our passports Ivan glanced at me conspiratorially and made the universal thumb rubbing index finger gesture for money. Here it comes, I thought. He wants me to bribe the Polish police! But, that wasn't it at all because we soon had our stamped passports back and drove the half block to the Russian checkpoint.
The rest of this story as I enter the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad must wait for the next postcard now being drafted.
Fred L Bellomy