Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, my friend Chris and I arrive in Paris, and our long train journey from Vladivostok will be over.
We’ve been pretty fortunate on this trip: almost everything has gone well. We’ve stayed healthy; Chris and I are still fast friends after being together night and day for 11 days and over 8300 miles; and even the weather has cooperated, gifting us with mild temperatures and pretty skies whenever we actually had to be outdoors.
But yesterday we were in Moscow, and it was without a doubt the low point of our trip.
After four nights on the train, we were very ready to disembark, check into a nice hotel, take showers, and enjoy terra firma for a few hours before getting on our last train, the Moscow-Paris Express.
Our train from Irkutsk arrived on time at Yaroslavsky Station on Wednesday morning, and we were met on the platform by our MIR driver, a man I’ll call R. because I didn’t quite catch his name.
We were about two-thirds of the way down the platform when a policeman stepped forward, stopped Chris, and demanded to see his papers.
Chris complied. “This has happened to me before,” he said quietly to me.
R. immediately stepped in, presumably explaining to the cop that we were American tourists, that he was our driver, etc.
The cop ignored him. He and his partner, a man who might have been his twin, chuckled while they made a great show of examining Chris’s passport and visa.
The partner then stepped away to detain another group of passengers making their way from the last car of the train. It was a large group of young men who’d been on the train since Irkutsk. At every stop, they’d pour out of the train and squat on the platform while they smoked. We guessed they were Mongolian, although whether they were students or laborers we couldn’t tell.
Then the first cop suddenly seemed to notice me and demanded my papers as well. He began saying something rather urgently to me, which turned out to be a demand for a registration form we’d received from the hotel where we stayed in Listvyanka.
Since we hadn’t been in Listvyanka for four days, I no longer had that form tucked into my passport. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure where I’d stashed it. Fortunately, I found it pretty quickly in my backpack.
But the cop was still holding forth about something while R. became more and more agitated. He kept arguing with the guy, repeating something that sounded like “tourist” while the cop waved his hand like that didn’t matter and barked back, repeating a word that sounded like “registration.”
R. pulled out his cell phone and called someone (the MIR office, I presume) and started expostulating to someone about our dilemma. Meanwhile the cop just stared down at us imperiously and continued to harangue us even though it was obvious Chris and I had no idea what he was talking about.
Can I just say that everything about this guy, from his stance to his supercilious tone of voice to the smug look on his face just screamed “asshole”?
Wow, I thought. Pigs everywhere.
“I think I have my next blog post,” I muttered to Chris.
“Welcome to Moscow,” he said with a shrug.
“It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to take my cell phone out and start taking pictures, right?”
“That would be a really bad idea.”
R. motioned for us to follow him down the tracks. The cop walked alongside, and the two men continued to argue. Chris and I wondered whether we were being taken to the station for further questioning or what, but at the end of the platform, R. just made for the exit, so we did too, and that was that.
Meanwhile the Mongolian contingent was given the green light, so this large-ish group of Asians all left the area simultaneously. A golden horde, if you will.
Ours was a long train filled with people. I didn’t see every person on the train. But Chris and I had walked up and down that train repeatedly to make our daily trip to the restaurant car, which was at the other end, and I’d noticed no other Asians on the train besides us and the Mongolians. I can’t swear the cops hadn’t stopped any other passengers before they laid eyes on us, but I noticed them long before they noticed us, and I hadn’t seen them talking to anyone else.
In other words, it certainly seemed like the only people the police stopped from our train were Asian. It also seemed like they stopped all the Asian passengers on the train.
Welcome to Moscow, indeed.
I think that the policeman was insisting that we were missing documentation to show that our visas had been properly registered in Moscow.
Foreign visitors to Russia are required to register their visas upon arrival and whenever they show up at a new town for any length of time. If you stay at hotels, the staff normally do this for you. The guesthouse proprietor in Listvyanka had been very careful about this, making sure we had our copies of the registration before we left his property to spend the day exploring the town.
But we had literally just arrived in Moscow when the cop detained us, so there was obviously no possible way we could have secured this documentation for Moscow already. So basically it was just security theater. And garden variety harassment. And racial profiling.
Once in the safety of R.’s car, a staffer at the Moscow MIR office got me on the phone and instructed me to make sure I didn’t leave the hotel that evening without our registration forms. He also said R. would be picking us up half an hour earlier than originally scheduled in order to account for traffic.
In order to allow for any additional encounters with the police, I thought.
We had only a few hours to unwind at the hotel before catching our next train. Fortunately the Aquamarine Hotel is a really nice place. Unfortunately, at the front desk, we discovered that I actually was missing an important document, the small white departure form I’d received at Immigration in Vladivostok.
“This is a very important document,” the pretty, unsmiling clerk said in perfect English. “You must have it in order for us to process your registration.”
Thank God that cop didn’t notice I was missing this, I thought.
They let us check in without it as long as I promised to bring it down as soon as I found it. Once in the hotel room, I proceeded to empty out the contents of my purse, backpack, and suitcase onto the bed, and still it didn’t turn up.
I double-checked every pile. Still nothing. I wonder what will happen to me if I cannot find this form? I wondered. A faint tingle of panic started to make itself known in the back of my mind.
Then I started looking in all the pockets of all the things. I have a tendency to stick stuff into pockets and then completely forget about them. Twice a year, when I switch out summer clothes for winter clothes and then vice versa, I always end up with a windfall of at least $5 and sometimes a BART or Charlie ticket or unused Kleenex or even candy.
It was in the pocket of my windbreaker, which I have worn exactly one time on this trip, the morning we were in Listvyanka.
The stress of having to upend all of my luggage to find the missing form pushed the unpleasantness of the police encounter out of our heads. But in the elevator on our way back down to the front desk, we started debriefing about it.
“You said this happened to you before?” I asked Chris.
It had, he said. Once before in Moscow. And once on the Eurostar. “It’s because I’m Chinese,” he said matter-of-factly.
I couldn’t deny it. I’d seen how quickly the Russian cop reacted as soon as he laid eyes on Chris. And how quickly his partner intercepted the Mongolian passengers. Meanwhile literally hundreds of white people streamed past unmolested.
I also reflected on the fact that nearly all of my other travel experiences have been with my white husband and our two mostly-white sons, and we’ve never, ever been stopped by a cop anywhere, ever.
“This is what it must be like to be black in America,” Chris added.
I’d just been thinking the same thing.
Except that we agreed that neither one of us had actually been afraid for our safety during the incident. Call it American hubris, but standing there on the platform while this jerk lorded himself over us and our driver, we’d been pretty confident that it wouldn’t escalate past low-level harassment.
So in that sense it wasn’t like being black in America.
We took our showers, treated ourselves to a delicious dinner in the hotel lounge, repacked while watching BBC news (our first news in English in ten days—alas, Trump was still president), and met R. again in the lobby at six.
Unbelievably, the most stressful part of our day hadn’t happened yet.
The traffic was beyond hideous. Thank goodness MIR recommended we leave half an hour earlier than originally planned. We should have left an hour earlier.
I was enjoying the architecture of Moscow—the ornate old buildings, the imposing Ghostbusters-apartment-building-style Foreign Office skyscraper, the statue of Peter the Great emerging out of the the Moscow River. It was all quite wonderful, but then it was 6:30 and then 7 and then 7:30 and we still hadn’t reached the station, and our train was leaving at 7:53.
“Should we be worried?” Chris said at one point, ever the master of understatement.
We crossed a wide overpass, and I saw to our left what looked like a fabulous old train station, painted that distinctive Russian shade of lime-sherbet green that I’ve come to love, to the left. And then R. got off to the right and parked.
God, I hope we don’t have to run all the way over to that building we just passed, the one on the other side of the overpass, I thought.
It was at least a quarter mile. Under the overpass. Up some stairs, then down. Across traffic. Through puddles. Over some wooden planking. With our luggage. R. took my suitcase for me, and was shockingly fleet-footed for a guy his age. (I’m pretty sure he was older than me.) Through security. To the schedule board to figure out the platform. Down, down, down the platform to the right car.
We made it, but with less than ten minutes to spare.
Did I mention that Chris and I have been training for a half-marathon?
Yeah, that’s because we’re not.
My lungs were still burning this morning.
But by then we were well on our way to Paris on the Moscow-Paris Express, having crossed into Belarus during the night.
At Brest, some Belarussian border control folks came on—a statuesque blonde woman with enameled nails and a steely sort of beauty and an even taller man with chiseled features and very clipped English. The woman took our passports and flicked through the pages with her scary nails.
She handed my passport back to me right away, but took an absurdly long time with Chris’s passport, looking at him, then at his passport photo (which looks exactly like him), then at him, then photo, then him, then made him smile, before finally deciding he matched his ID.
He shrugged again. “We all look alike to them,” he said when she left.
Then she came back and made us leave our compartment while she made the most incredibly perfunctory search of our space. I can’t imagine what she was looking for.
But I’ll tell you what I did imagine. So help me, the whole thing looked like a setup for a porno. (“This photo does not look like you, sir. You’ll have to come with me…” “What do you have hidden in your suitcase, madam? I’m afraid I’ll have to punish you,” etc.)
And then we crossed into Poland, and the Polish border guards came on, and—they were, well, nice. Did we have any cigarettes? Nope. Did we have any produce? Nope. And then the friendly smiling woman stamped our passports to mark our entry into the E.U., and the stamp includes a choo-choo train image, and that sort of made my day.
And tomorrow morning, we’ll be in Paris.
I’ve really enjoyed following you on this voyage and I can’t wait to read the book.
In 1979 I spent the summer as a student in the USSR, mostly in Leningrad. It’s interesting to learn that for some travelers the same level of hassle persists in Russia today. Back then, you could not travel at all without being accompanied by a guide every step of the way.
Oh, I don’t think we experienced anything near the level of hassle from the Cold War days! This was just 10 minutes of unpleasantness, not being handled & watched incessantly. But thank you so much for reading my posts (another one is in the works about my time in Paris) — and for encouragement for this book project.
Hi Naomi, In reading about your trials and tribulations regarding this trip it seems like it could be the basis for several tanka poems. The contrast between the nature you see outside your window and the actions of some of the people you have encountered is fertile soil for poetry. I have always felt that we are all connected if not by blood then by spirit to people who have traveled before us. Your journey expands the continuing memory of Akiko. What inspired her and drove her also is in you. It is all one expanding legacy. I really admire what you are doing. When things get difficult remember Gamman!
Arthur, I’m very late in replying to thank you for this kind & heartfelt comment! I’m not much of a poet, I’m afraid, but you’re right that there’s material here for poetic expression.
Naomi, BEST short story I’ve read in ages!! As they say, truth is stranger…
Happy rest of your travels and s’il vous plaît, have a dozen croissants on my behalf!!
I’ve been thinking about you since your twitter post yesterday, combined with the major news topic right now. I’m glad you’re safe!
The only time I’ve been out of the US was to go to Canada, and believe it or not I was nervous about that; I admire you for all the work you’re doing for your art.
Thanks so much, Karen! I really appreciate knowing people are thinking of me while I’m on this adventure.
Sent from my iPhone