The penultimate post on my travel retrospective, in which I’ve been travelling in my mind while my physical self remains sat in a chair in my living room.
York, England: York is a wonderful place to visit because it combines several layers of English history in one small space: Viking history, medieval history, Victorian history and modern history. In York you can still walk around the city walls, visit the Minster that was completed in 1472, learn about the Vikings who boosted the city’s prosperity but also left their mark on the nomenclature of the city – the name Jorvik (precursor to York) comes from them and the city’s many “gates” come from the Viking work “gata” meaning street. The Victorian era brought the railway to York, and allowed two famous chocolate companies – Rowntree and Terry’s (of Chocolate Orange fame) to ship their goods around the country. The importance of the railway to York can be seen in the National Railway Museum being sited just behind York train station, a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts. I’ve been to York several times, and on each visit I discover something new. For an old, old city, that’s impressive.
Yaroslavl, Russia I arrived in Yaroslavl on Saturday morning in the midst of a thick, heavy snowfall. My hotel, the big pink Hotel Kotorosl, looked like it was set up on a scale to handle large coach parties, but on this weekend in winter, it was empty, so it was probably not necessary for me to have booked a room in advance.
The hotel administrator, on seeing my foreign passport at check in, suddenly thought that perhaps the simple “odnomesti” (single) room I had booked would not really be to my liking. I was sent up to the dezhurnaya (the Kotorosl being a proper Russian hotel with a woman “key keeper” on every floor) and made to go look at the odnomesti, dvemesti (double) and Lux rooms (lux actually being a kind of suite made out of two singles). The odnomesti room shared bathroom and toilet with one other room (which was empty), so it was fine for me.
(My Russian tutor laughed when I told her about this confusion at check in. She said people “in the countryside” think all foreigners are rich.)
Once I was checked in and free of my luggage, I went out to explore Yaroslav, ploughing down the street to the centre of town through drifts of snow that were already knee high in some places. My first stop was a café for lunch. I was really hungry by this time, as I’d missed breakfast. (I had the intention of getting breakfast at the train station in the morning, but I only got to the train station seven minutes before the train left and it was a very near thing for me to even get on the train.) I seemed to be the only person in the café not drinking beer (and it was -5C outside!)
Refreshed and refuelled, I headed into the Kremlin / Monastery area, then up the hill to a spot where I could look over where the Kotorosl River meets the Volga. It was hard to tell exactly where this was happening because both rivers were thoroughly covered over in ice and snow, enough for people to be sitting out on the ice, fishing. I walked around the town for another hour or so, until my shoes were soaked through and I was cold and ready to go back to the hotel. I took a tram back to the hotel, although the lack of heating on the tram meant it was only marginally warmer than outside, and the rattling of the tram on its tracks very nearly loosened my teeth.
Sunday morning I got up, full of anticipation for my trip to Rostov Veliky (Old Rostov) on my way back to Moscow. I headed to the train station and joined the scrum of people in the ticket office. I saw on the display screen that I was already in trouble because the train I planned to take home from Rostov Veliky that night had no tickets available.
A bizarre “take a number” system was in place where you take a number and then still have to fight your way to the front of the queue when it’s your turn. After shoving some hairy men out of the way so I could get to the ticket window, I asked about a ticket to Rostov Veliky. The bored kassa told me I was in the wrong place – I needed the elektrichka ticket office next door. Heartily disappointed at the wasted time, I went next door to the elecktrichka kassa. She sold me a ticket for Rostov Veliky. I asked from what platform it would leave. She shrugged. Her job is only to sell tickets, what did she care about platforms? “Look at the board.”
There was a train to Moscow coming through shortly and my guidebook cheerfully informed me that most trains between Yaroslavl and Moscow stop in Rostov Veliky. As the train arrived at the platform, I trotted up with my elektrichka ticket and tried to get on. The carriage guard stopped me. “This train stops in Rostov?” I ask. He nods. I show him my ticket but he shakes his head. “Electrichka ticket,” he says.
“I can’t get on this train with this ticket?” He shakes his head again. (It was at this point in the story, when I told my Russian tutor some days later, she said I should have asked the magic question, “How much will it cost to get on this train?”) Disappointed and knowing that my day was already ticking rapidly away, I went back in to the station to see when the next train was – 40 minutes. I can tell you with all sincerity, if you only have 40 minutes to spend in Yaroslavl, I don’t recommend you spend it at the train station.
Eventually the next train arrived and I went through the same procedure. It seems that while these trains do indeed stop in Rostov Veliky, you need an intercity ticket to travel on them, which I could have got from the first kassa (the one who dismissed my request and sent me to the elektrichka ticket office). Instead I have a worthless elektrichka ticket that is only valid on the next elektrichka train which is finally showing on the departures board for… 3.30pm!
Panic starts to set in. It’s already after 12pm, the fast train I intend to take back to Moscow from Rostov Veliky is full, which – supposing I ever get there – means it will take me 5hrs to get home by slow all-stopping local trains. But how to get to Rostov Veliky in the first place? The guidebook tells me that buses leave from the other train station (“Yaroslavl Glavny”) throughout the day. To get to this other train station means a bus back into town and a bus back out the other side.
My time in Moscow had been fraught with bus problems. It turns out this kind of problem seems to extend to ALL cities in Russia, although it seemed straightforward at first. A bus into town, no problem. I get off at the square that’s a kind of bus interchange and get onto a bus that lists “Yaroslavl Glavny” (the other train station) as one of its points of call. I am on this bus for what seems like a very long time, and we have left the city, we’re approaching the tower-block-and-factory zone on the outskirts of the city. But what’s that building over there with all those heavily laden people coming out? Why, it must be the train station! It certainly looks like one, so I ring the bell and get off the bus, heading with full confidence to the building which turns out to be… a market.
Cursing my foolishness, I get back on another bus and sit there until it stops. Everyone else gets out and changes to another bus. I tell the conductor I want to go to Yaroslavl Glavny. She directs me onto the other bus, telling me this bus is going out of service to get some petrol, and for her and the driver to get some lunch. So onto the other bus I get.
And within minutes I was getting off the bus outside the other train station… which was closed. And there was no sign of an intercity bus going anywhere. Not even a sign to indicate where intercity buses would stop. There was however a McDonalds, although I resisted the temptation to go in and eat a lot of junk food in an attempt to calm the panic that was rising.
I considered my options:
- Persist with my plan to go to Rostov Veliky which, at close to 2pm, was looking unlikely as I would only have the shortest of times there before sunset and then I would have to try and get back to Moscow by the long and torturous route of unheated elektrichkas for 5 hours. No way.
- Give up on Rostov Veliky and go straight back to Moscow. But how? My planned train was full. There was only one thing for it – go back to the original train station and hope for an option to present itself.
With some miracle of bus serendipity, within half an hour I was back at the main station, back in the room that had been a completely crowded scrum in the morning, but was now pleasantly empty. With joy and elation I saw on the display board that the 2pm train from Archangelsk to Moscow was 40 minutes late and that there were tickets available. Hurrah! (Had it been on time, I would have missed it). On spotting my foreign passport (because you need to present your passport to buy an intercity train ticket, I don’t know why) the kassa sold me a first class ticket (“all foreigners are rich”) but I didn’t care, I was just happy to know I was getting out of Yaroslavl at last. I was even more happy when the train pulled into Moscow Yaroslavskiy station three hours later.
Travel wishlist – Yerevan, Armenia: I like a city where you have a view of mountains, and from Yerevan you can look out at Mount Ararat. Does Noah’s Ark actually rest there? Probably not, but Mount Ararat and Noah’s Ark do feature on the Armenian coat of Arms.
A little digging on things to do in Yerevan (apart from the main reason it’s here – it’s one of the few places I could think of starting with Y) reveals The Cascade – a staircase of fountains and sculptures that offers a view of the city (and Mount Ararat) from the top. And there’s an art gallery tucked in there as well.