The rail trip itself couldn’t be faulted. The Express train which had already done the 18 hour overnight haul up from Petrazavodsk was itself in quite reasonable condition, surprisingly clean, and not too crowded. As to the route, it was spectacular and scenic. Just north of town it crossed the Arctic Circle and then headed up across the gently undulating tundra of Russia’s remote Kola Peninsula, travelling from the industrial aluminium smelting city of Kandalashka to the ice-free port of Murmansk. It was the departure which descended into farce.
Upon booking the journey over the internet the online Russian travel agent had explained that the seat in my name would have been reserved from its date of departure from Petrazavodsk, namely Thursday, and that’s why it would say ‘Thursday’ on my ticket, although I would be boarding the train on Friday morning. All people working on Russian Rail understand this system, he added. Well not quite all, as it turned out. He hadn’t factored in Ms’ Nyet’, who was in charge of Carriage No 12. In a movie, she would probably be portrayed as having the body build of a shot putter and the feminine graces of Brezhnev, but in fact she was a stunner. Blonde hair, immaculate make-up, late 20s and eyes the colour of the Arctic blue sky. But she was implacable. ‘Nyet!’ says she, upon inspecting my ticket. ‘Da’ said I. ‘Nyet!’ ‘Da!’ ‘Nyet!’ Stalemate.
The part of Kandalashka station where Carriage No 12 could be boarded from didn’t have a platform, and the height up from the weed-infested rails that I’d had to scrabble across to get to the carriage was about 4 feet, which made boarding difficult at the best of times, particularly with a heavy back pack in tow. In one athletic feat I managed to hurl the bag on to the train, landing a foot or so from Ms Nyet. In one swooping action it was airborne again, headed for the shunting yard. Perhaps she was a shot putter after all.
I ran after it, and tried lobbing it back. Windows opened down the carriage as the passengers and locals took interest. A whistle blew. Her whistle. Immediately a policeman started advancing towards me down the rails from the other end of the train, and the train’s own whistle started blowing. Persistently. Oh Lord, please don’t let me get stranded in Kandalashka . I don’t think my brain could take another evening’s worth of vodka in the company of the Admiral.
Of course..! Now was the time to call for the assistance of the Admiral. “Admiralle”, I shouted.. “Da” came a distant cry. I’d been the sole guest at the Byelomore Hotel the previous evening and he, the manager, a proud retired admiral of the Soviet Navy had regaled me with tales in very broken Russki/Engliski of the world’s ports he’d seen, the injustice of his shrinking pension and his delight at having a genuine foreign guest staying at his establishment. We’d even laughed about the shocking plumbing and threadbare curtains which had failed to keep out the midnight sun. And he’d just dropped me off at the station.
Thank God for the Admiral. When pulling rank in the Kola Peninsula, clearly an admiral, retired or not, outranks a station inspector, a policeman and a Miss Nyet. Frantic arguments ensued, more train whistles blew and Ms Nyet and I faced off across the 4 foot divide. ‘Da!’ exclaimed the Admiral triumphantly, and to my surprise in one movement my bag was airborne again, this time at the hands of the cop , who was surlily made aware of his place in the pecking order, and with a shove from the admiral I was aboard as the train started moving, and I faced the indignant smouldering wrath of Ms Nyet.
A shouted ‘spasibo’ out of the window to the admiral was all the thanks I could give, and as I entered Carriage No 12 to the applause of my fellow Murmansk-bound travellers, sweaty and puce, it was clearly time to crack open the Vodka the admiral had generously thrust upon me just 15 minutes before, for drinks all round as Kandalashka disappeared from view. To her credit, Ms Nyet did at that moment crack the glimmer of a smile, and her ‘nyet’, when offered a glass of vodka was at least accompanied by a ‘spasibo’. Nastrovia!