I had never been happier to reach a destination. After the train ride from hell, all I wanted to do was drop my bag at the hotel, explore Vladimir and forget about the morning’s events. Though, as soon as we arrived, we learned it wasn’t going to be that easy.
One of the worst things that can happen when walking with a 65-liter pack weighing heavy on your hips is to experience an interruption en route to your destination. Mike and I prefer to carry a backpack versus a wheeled suitcase because it’s much easier to zigzag between people and move quickly over uneven paths. The biggest drawback, however, is that your body heat rises and your muscles begin to hate you as soon as you strap it on.
Karen (my mother-in-law) had set up our accommodations but forgot to print off directions to the hotel, so our first mission was to find a map. Sure enough, standing in-between us and the train station’s main building were a few sets of tracks. The only way to cross was to walk up a seemingly endless set of stairs to an overpass that led into the train station.
The blinding summer sun penetrated our skin as we walked down the empty platform and trudged upstairs. Once inside, we quickly discovered no difference in temperature. But we had hope, and went off to find a map.
After circling the desolate train station, we found no evidence of tourist information or a city map. It struck me as odd. Vladimir isn’t an off-the-beaten-path city. It’s a well-trodden tourist destination on the Golden Ring near Moscow. Where were all the tourists? But we didn’t consider this oddity too long. Our main concern was figuring out how to get to our hotel, which we assumed was within walking distance to the train station, though we had no basis for this assumption.
We made our way to a corner of the nearly empty station. Mike and I carefully took our packs off and leaned them against a faded metal railing lining the wall. As I turned to face Mike and Karen, I could already feel a river of sweat making its way down my spine. The three of us stood in a triangle and stared at each other, silent, hoping our eyes could magically produce a solution.
The only thing left to do was ask around, though our options were slim. Karen offered to use her Russian to talk to those working in the station while Mike and I guarded our bags from the ruthless hoards of pickpockets and screaming tourists. Karen approached a couple food vendors with a booking confirmation to see if they could point us in the direction of our hotel. They all claimed not to be locals and could offer no help whatsoever. We were off to a good start.
Now that the inside of the train station offered no help, we walked outside to see what we could find. Directly in front of us stood an empty parking lot. I was starting to see a theme unfold and wondered if the city, too, would be empty. Then to our right we saw life – cabs. So we decided to enter into the unpredictable world of Russian taxis. In this world, you negotiate a fare, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, hang on tightly and hope for the best.
Before making our approach, we had to strategize. Karen, with her intermediate Russian skills, was voted “it,” our negotiator. We read in a tourist pamphlet in Moscow that a short trip should cost 200 or 300 rubles. Being in the boonies, we reasoned that a short trip should be cheaper here, but since we didn’t know where the hotel was, 200 seemed like a good place to start. Karen left her suitcase with us and, armed with our random 200-ruble offer, made her way to the small cluster of chatting taxi drivers.
Mike and I again guarded our bags from the heavy foot traffic and watched the exchange. No one was screaming or drawing weapons, so it seemed to be going well. Moments later, Karen turned toward us with a smile and said the cabbie knew where the hotel was located. He offered to take us for 300 rubles, which, at the time, converted to approximately $9USD. Since that’s nearly what taxis start at in DC for three people with luggage, we were happy campers. Mostly, we were glad someone knew where the hotel was.
Personally, I was excited. This would be my first Russian cab experience. I had seen cabs fly by in Moscow and wondered what it was like to be inside one of the most dangerous vehicles on the road.
The cabbies flipped a coin, drew straws or in some way decided which of the three of them would have to go to work and drive us. One of the middle-aged men opened a trunk, and we hesitated before loading our bags. The trunk space was small – a one-body trunk for sure. We had two 65-liter packs and a suitcase of about the same size to squeeze in. The cabbie turned around to his friends and left us to figure it out. Mike used his expert packing skills to arrange and rearrange the bags, somehow managing to fit it all and close the trunk without trouble.
Karen, our honorary translator, sat in the front seat, and Mike and I climbed in the back. The rickety dull black car had definitely seen better days – graying floor carpets, peeling leather seats and doors that nearly popped off their hinges when we closed them with our super-human strength. The cabbie left his friends and, as he sat down, removed the yellow and black taxi sign from the rooftop and tossed it under his feet. That definitely made us feel comfortable.
Our unmarked car pulled away from the train station and sped uphill. Within five minutes, we were approaching Vladimir’s city center. This was not indicated by a Cyrillic welcome sign of the Russian sort, but by the international sign of commerce: a crowded McDonald’s.
The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians, and I was happy to see that life existed beyond the train tracks. As we continued past the golden arches and turned a corner, I noticed a market on my right side. “We can pick up bottled water here,” I thought and noted its location in my memory’s map. I looked around for hotels, but every time we would come upon one, the driver continued past it. Soon, we had driven so far from the market that I started searching for new ones that would be closer to our hotel. I was glad we didn’t attempt to walk from the train station.
But my happy feelings soon faded. We still hadn’t stopped, and it seemed to me that we drove past all the hotels. Commercial buildings disappeared and were replaced by trees and shrubbery. It wasn’t long before the city center was just a speck in the rearview mirror.
“Where are we going?” I wondered as we continued driving away from the small town. I turned to Mike with a look of worry, and he was just as puzzled. It was obvious that we were leaving Vladimir behind.
The driver remained silent and continued onto a long bridge with what looked like thick forest beyond it. My imagination took control: the car is no longer labeled as a taxi, we don’t know where we are, the cabbie looks anything but friendly and we’re headed straight for a desolate wooded area.
My internal freak-out system was activated. Was he taking us to his cousin’s rural house to rob us and leave us stranded? Would he hurt us? Kill us? Escape options began racing through my mind for all the potentially bad situations I thought we might find ourselves in. What’s the best way to tuck and roll out of a speeding car on a busy bridge? How do we coordinate for the three of us to go at the same time? My sweat glands were pumping as though I was in a sauna. I tried to breathe deeply, slowly, and looked at Mike again, grabbing his right hand with my left.
Karen turned around and mouthed that maybe she mistranslated 3,000 as 300 rubles. That seemed quite possible since we had been driving for more than 15 minutes. But that was a secondary issue to me. I couldn’t fathom why we hadn’t stopped at any of the hotels in the city center. It seemed to me that this faux taxi driver wasn’t taking us to our intended destination. I squeezed Mike’s hand with the hardest grip I could muster and tried to find some kind of hope or calm in his eyes. He looked back with a smile. Even when Mike’s brain is racing, he remains externally calm. I don’t know how he does it, but I know why – to keep me sane.
Still, the situation wasn’t ideal. The city center, and Vladimir for that matter, was BACK THERE! But if we did magically arrive at the hotel and the cost turned out to be 3,000 rubles, which we did not have in cash, the driver would surely unleash hell. This was one of those instances when I wished I spoke Russian – so I could just ask what was going on. I think Karen was too worried about mistranslations to ask him anything in Russian.
After I was thoroughly freaked out, the driver made a left off the main street and onto a narrow secondary road. “This is it. This is how it all ends,” I thought with another deep breath. The car slowed as we made our way down a sparsely populated street. “His cousin who will kill us must live at the end of this road.” We passed deteriorating apartment buildings, more trees, a small grocery store, more trees. We were going slowly enough that the tuck-and-roll wouldn’t injure us. But now there was nowhere to run. No one to help us.
He gradually pulled off the road and into a dirt lot. The car stopped and he turned off the ignition. I glanced around and realized it was the parking lot in front of our hotel. We had arrived – to the middle of nowhere, also known as a suburb of Vladimir. Relieved, we got out of the car and gathered our bags. The cabbie confirmed the fare to be 300 rubles and, again, we were relieved.
And now with our remote location and inability to easily tour the city, we had a new problem on our hands. Karen had wanted to show Mike and I not only Vladimir but also a church outside the city and Suzdal, a nearby town. Given the transport issue and associated costs, we discussed whether to just call this day trip a bust. After all, we had to be on a train back to Moscow in less than 24 hours, and it was already early evening.
As we put the pieces together, we realized we should have booked a Golden Ring tour like the rest of the tourists who visit Vladimir. Since most visitors arrive on a tour bus, the train station doesn’t bother stocking things like a city map or an information desk. As a note to anyone interested in visiting cities along the Golden Ring, your best bet is to join an organized tour or rent a vehicle and drive yourself around. Arriving in the city expecting to hire a driver will bankrupt you of your travel funds if you aren’t Russian (as we later found out), and public transportation to the locations we wanted to go to didn’t seem easy to navigate.
So what did we end up doing? Find out how the rest of the trip plays out in Situation 3: Strangers Can Be the Nicest People (still to come!). If you missed the opener to this three-part series, read A Rough Ride in Russia.