Previous Trip Reports:
In the parts of the world where globalization has truly set in, skill with languages is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In some cases, I’ve learned, it’s better to play dumb even if you really do understand what’s going on around you.
Naturally, large international airports are some of the most globalization-infiltrated centers of colliding worlds. Today I’m back in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport for the first time in a couple of years. I used to fly in out of here at least once a year, but since I shifted airline loyalties away from SkyTeam and started using Round-the-World tickets, I hardly ever come back this way.
Except, of course, for trips like this one. I arrived in the late morning after flying through the night from Minneapolis. Even though the Netherlands is one of my favorite countries, I’m not in Amsterdam to sightsee. I’ve been here many times, and most of my travel time is now devoted to going places I haven’t been before.
I’m here instead to connect on to Riga, Latvia, using the return leg of a ticket I booked nearly a year ago to get home from Bucharest. I asked Delta to change the return destination to Helsinki (Finland), Vilnius (Lithuania), or Riga (Latvia), and Riga won the Delta lottery of limited awards seats.
Latvia is in the Schengen zone of European travel, so we have to go through a security check to get out of the E.U. concourse and over to the Schengen one. What this means in practical terms is that whatever you have successfully smuggled through one security checkpoint is now at risk of being confiscated in another one.
In front of me in the line is a guy carrying two liters of duty-free liquor with him. The bottles are carefully wrapped with “plane-friendly” stickers on them, but the airport is not Schiphol—he bought them from his original airport on another continent, and is now connecting to the Schengen zone. I wince as I know how this is going to go over with security.
Duty free man puts the scotch in the basket for iPods and laptops as I follow behind. Not going to work, dude I think as we go through the screening. Sure enough, on the other side a guy is already holding the basket. Duty free man and security guy have a long, heated argument that is not hindered at all by the language barrier (duty free man is from somewhere in Latin America and not fluent in English). This is partly what I mean about language being somewhat irrelevant.
The $60 liquor is confiscated, and the man is not happy. Because the rules about liquids are inconsistently enforced anywhere I’ve ever been, this scenario might play out differently in a different airport. But in the Netherlands, rules are rules, and no illegal scotch will be carried through the check-point.
I’m not a big duty-free shopper, so I’m not affected by any threats of confiscation, and the rest of the transit passes uneventfully. I end up flying to Riga on a KLM commuter jet feeling tired, but knowing I need to keep up my strength for the upcoming travels throughout the region. I have an overnight bus ride, a three-hour ferry, a 7-hour early morning train, a flight on a crazy airline, and a 14-hour overnight train ride ahead of me over the next week.
Since I’ve done a lot of traveling, I can usually go to places like Holland and not feel that differently about where I am. Even in countries with widely different cultures, my brain switches over right after arrival. Culture shock is for travel novices, I sometimes think.
But then there are the places I go where things really are a lot different. I experienced this in Taiwan last year—even though I had traveled a lot in Asia, including the predominantly-Chinese cities of Singapore and Hong Kong, I hadn’t been in China since 2002.
Yes, I realize Taiwan is not the Chinese mainland either, but culturally they are pretty similar. When we touched down in the city of Taipei on the Asiana flight from Tokyo, I wasn’t feeling anything special. But when I walked out into the night and looked around for my transport options, I suddenly realized: oh yeah, this is China. Wow. I had forgotten about the crowds of people and the spitting and the August heat. I remembered that I really don’t know how to speak Mandarin, aside from my name and where I’m from.
I feel similarly on most trips to Africa, but I kind of expect it there. When I came into Russia via Helsinki, Finland the other day, I noticed the same phenomenon, and this time it was unexpected. I left a place that was relatively familiar – despite the fact that I’d never been before, I felt comfortable in Helsinki – and entered a land that was definitely unfamiliar.
Helsinki – St. Petersburg
I took the Sibelius train over to St. Petersburg, which leaves Helsinki every morning at 7:25. I had been up since about 3:00 a.m. due to jet lag, so I took my time wandering over to the train station from the Eurohostel near the ferry terminal. The train arrived on time, and I took my seat in coach 5 at the end of the platform.
An hour later we left Finland with an efficient and uneventful immigration check. A Finnish officer without a gun stamped my passport after looking for the Russian visa everyone is required to have before leaving Finland. At first I thought he was from the Russian side, since I fly so much and had forgotten about the need for dual passport checks on the train. When the train announcer said something about the Russian border ahead of us half an hour later, I realized there would be more to it.
Before we got there, we heard a whole series of announcements about the border. During the stop, the toilets and the dining car would be locked. We would be entering a border area that is not technically part of Russia, so that if we are not permitted entry to the country we can be kicked out without formal deportation proceedings. The whole time we are stopped, we are not to get out of our seats.
This sounded more like the Russia I had imagined, and I wasn’t disappointed. Whereas the Finnish immigration delegation consisted of two bored guys who ambled down the aisles looking haphazardly at travel documents, the Russians arrived in a contingent of 10 officials. They entered in one car and marched down the aisle together before two of them were assigned to each compartment.
Our two officials walked throughout the coach inspecting passports, but upon verifying that the photo matched the passenger and that everyone had a visa, they kept the passports and walked off to another car.
Half an hour later, they got off at an intermediate stop and the conductor returned our passports to us. Since the guards were gone and all the buildings outside had Russian script, I decided I had made it. Country #84! Rock on.
We had a few more hours to go, and I spent the time reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (as usual, I am behind the rest of the world—but it’s a great book) and napping against the window. A woman with a mobile ATM came wheeling through the train offering to change money for passengers. I had never seen one of those before, but I decided to wait until arrival in St. Petersburg before getting my stash of rubles.
St. Petersburg – Chisinau (Moldova)
I had a good time in Russia itself, although it was somewhat disorienting. I’ll write more about the visit in a future essay.
On my day of departure, I had so many adventures and misadventures that it’s hard to put them down in the right order. I took the metro to the stop I thought I needed, but it turned out to be the wrong one, so back I went. At the right metro stop I got out and headed for what looked like a bus stop. I asked a few people, “Airport? Pulkovo?” but no one responded to me. Oh well. I finally made it to the domestic terminal, which turned out to be where my Air Moldova flight was leaving from.
When I checked in for the flight, I asked for an aisle seat close to the front. “Yes, okay,” said the guy. You can probably guess how that worked out—I ended up in a window seat, all the way in the back.
Air Moldova isn’t the greatest airline. I’ve flown on worse, certainly, but since I have no plans to return to Chisinau, I can safely assume I won’t be flying with them again. The seat pitch was incredibly tight, but I enjoyed talking with a guy in the middle seat who spoke English and had never flown before.
Check out these photos from my not-so-great window seat in Row 28:
Chisinau – Bucharest
From the railway station in Chisinau I boarded the daily train to Bucharest. It was 32°C (89.6°F) in Moldova that day, so the non-air-conditioned train was incredibly hot. As soon as we started moving, the breeze helped cool things down, but we stopped frequently to allow police and border officials to board.
In each country they looked at my passport (I used the duplicate one, so there weren’t a lot of stamps or extra pages to draw too much curiosity) and asked the usual questions.
“Why you come to Moldova?”
“Because I wanted to see it.”
The honest answer is usually the best, but it does tend to confuse people sometimes. The agent stared at me as if no one would ever want to visit her country, but then stamped my passport and handed it back.
During this train ride I saw something I’ve never seen before. Just before sunset at 9:30 p.m., the train ground to a halt before proceeding to make a lot of noise for the next 45 minutes. We shifted back and forth for a while, and each time we stopped, it sounded and felt like we had crashed into another train.
I looked outside and saw a crew of engineers jacking up each carriage of the train and replacing the wheels. The train tracks in Moldova and Romania are completely different systems, and completely incompatible. Twice a day, every single day, engineers meet at the transfer point and exchange the wheels of the train. In our case, off went the Moldovan wheels and on went the Romanian ones. It was kind of like changing a tire, except a lot more complicated.
Check out this video someone else took of the process from the Bucharest-Chisinau side:
(If you have problems with the embedded video, use this direct link.)
After we had the new wheels on and had cleared all the immigration and custom stops, I slept through most of the night. I woke up about 5:00 a.m. and ate a banana and some bread I had bought at the train station the night before.
We arrived at the Bucharest Gare du Nord just after 7:00 a.m., only about half an hour late. Being only half an hour late was a personal record for me and Eastern European trains, which usually arrive at least two hours late. It’s funny how when you are used to being much later, you get excited about the “bonus” of being just a little late. This reminds me of the attitude of the major U.S. airlines these days—“just be happy we got you there.”
Bucharest – Bucharest Airport
I’ve been to Bucharest before, and didn’t feel like there was anything to do in the city, so I decided to see if I could get on the earlier flight out to Vienna. The only problem was that the earlier flight was scheduled for 8:00 a.m., which was less than an hour away… and the airport was at least half an hour from the train station.
I decided to go for it, because the idea of hanging out with my bags and no place to stay for 10 hours wasn’t that appealing. By the time I changed money and went outside to get a metered taxi (ignoring the guys inside, as always), I had less than 45 minutes until the plane was supposed to take off.
We drove through the city and it was nice to see the tree-lined streets I had walked on a year ago. Arriving at the airport, I was able to get on the earlier flight in part because the schedule had been changed to 8:35 a.m. instead of 8:00. (I went through security and immigration at 8:10, so it’s a good thing the time had been changed!)
I’m now resting in Vienna and getting ready for another couple of stops, including one unpublished place on my itinerary that I’m especially excited about. If all goes well, I’ll report back about that as soon as I return later in the week.
What’s Coming Next
On Wednesday I’ll post the latest in the profiles series.
On Thursday I’ll be asking for your questions as I prepare to create a FAQ page for the site.
Later in the week, or early next week, I’ll post more about my time in Russia and Moldova, as well as the secret stopover I’m headed to now.
For now, please feel free to share your comments, stories, and suggestions in the comments below. Enjoy your week, wherever you are.
Image by katesheets