15. My first hours at Ekaterinburg: no one speaks English!
It was a two-hour flight but because we were flying east we had gained two hours. Instead of arriving at thee in the morning we arrived at five in the morning local time. The sun was shining when we landed. That struck me in Moscow as well that the sun went down after ten at night and it was nearly dark at about eleven at night. I did not pay much attention to the sun going down so late because we were in the underground shopping center in the late afternoon in Moscow.
Again I was surprised with the old airport. Ekaterinburg’s airport looked much older than that of Moscow. It was not in a bad condition, it only looked very old. There were no conveyer belts to transport your luggage. It was offloaded from the planes onto trolleys and placed on the floor for collection. After collection you had to prove that the luggage indeed belonged to you by presenting your receipts that were issued at the Moscow airport before you could exit the secure area.
It was Thursday, 25 June that I arrived in Ekaterinburg. As I left the secure area I did not expect anybody to meet me, even though that I had informed Elena of my arrival date. I did not even bother to look for her. I intended to get to the hotel to wash and sleep and then make contact with Elena. Outside the secure area there were guys that were calling “taxi, taxi” all the time. I approached one of the guys and asked him how much he would charge to take me to the Centralnaya hotel. He could not answer me in English and wrote the amount on paper. The amount was two hundred Roubles. I tried another guy and the answer was the same. So I looked for the first guy and asked him to take me to the hotel. Elena afterwards told me that they have prices for foreigners and prices for Russians. If you are not fluent in Russian without an accent, you will not be able to bargain the price. I also did not know that you could bargain the price. When I asked for the fee I was expecting an approximate price because I believed the price could only be determined once you had driven the distance and the meter would indicate the price. That was not the case; the system does not work that way in Russia. The price that you pay is negotiated before the trip, and you will pay the exact amount according to the agreement. It does depend on the distance but also on the place from where you travel. If you travel the same distance inside the city, it would be 4-5 times cheaper; but if you travel from the airport or railway station, you have to cough up.
The taxi was a very old car and the taxi driver was not a youngster either. The shape of the car was at least thirty years old if not older. Until today I do not know what type of car it was, but it was in a fairly good condition. But you should see the road we were driving! It was in the terrible condition, with holes in the paving all over, but this guy was driving as if he was late for his appointment. I asked him what was the hurry but he could not understand me. I tried again to start a conversation but without any success. I was also sure that he was taking back roads to reach the hotel. The factories and buildings that we had passed on our way were very old. I must admit I was a little disappointed, probably I had expected more from the third biggest city in Russia. I said to myself, this guy is using back roads and is passing through the worst areas. I was telling myself to wait and see. Eventually we reached the city center and it was looking much better.
The taxi driver stopped in front of the hotel and helped me to offload my luggage. I paid him; he waved good-bye and disappeared in the same fashion, as if he was late for his next appointment. My biggest concern was that I arrived so early at the hotel and I wondered if they would have a room available for me. It was nearly six o’clock when I entered the hotel reception. Behind the counter was a young attractive lady. I greeted her and she greeted me back in English. I gave her my reservation document, she gave me a form to fill out and after completion she asked for my passport and visa, which confused me. She locked my passport and visa away without saying anything, and I thought that she would keep it as long as I stay in the hotel. I thought that it was the procedure that they follow with foreigners in Russia. I had found out later that every foreigner must register with Russian authorities on his arrival to the city, and if you stay in a hotel, the administration will do it for you; you don’t have to go to KGB in person. This is why the lady at the counter took my visa and passport; she gave them back to me when she saw me next time. But she did not explain that to me when she took my documents. I was therefore left to wonder why hotel administration took away my passport, did they think I was going to steal a coach and drive away with it? (My staying at the hotel was prepaid so they could not worry about me booking out without paying the bill.)
She gave me the key for my room and when I asked her where could I have breakfast later, she blushed and could not answer me. At least she was feeling guilty in not understanding me. I said to myself that I would ask someone else later after I have showered and slept. That morning I showered in cold water, not that I preferred it that way, but because no hot water came out of the hot water tap. At that time I was wondering if it was not because I was showering so early in the morning. The hotel was a very old building and it was in the process of renovation. Probably that could also be a reason for the cold water. I brushed my teeth and took some water from the tap to rinse my mouth. I then realized that it was definitely not advisable to drink any water from the tap. The water had some yellowish color and did not look 100% clear. Being unfamiliar with Russian water supply I did not know whether it was some kind of industrial water. But I was too tired to wonder about it, and decided to leave water related questions for later. Now the only thing that was in my mind was to get some sleep. I was up for more than 30 hours because I didn’t sleep on the planes.
My bedroom was not renovated yet and was painted many years ago but at least it was neat and clean. It did not really bother me because the purpose of my visit was much more important then the old room that I would sleep in. On the bed were enormously big pillows. I was surprised because to me that was continental pillows and not pillows that you sleep on. I was tired and said to myself that it was not important and the rest of my visit in Russia slept on these big pillows.
After a few hours of sleep I was ready. I tried to use the phone in my bedroom but could not get a dialing tone. I tried to read the document that apparently featured some phone numbers and how to use them but soon realized that I was fighting a losing battle. My next option was the lady on reception. We could not communicate and now I had to ask her to phone for me. I wrote Elena’s home phone number with her name on it and went to the reception. The same lady was still behind the counter and that could make things easier. I gave her the piece of paper and with hand sign showed her that she should call Elena. She phoned the number I gave her and asked for Elena. As I could expect in the middle of the working day, Elena was not at home. I heard she mentioned my name to the person on the other side that gave her Elena’s work telephone number. Without asking, she called Elena. Elena was at the office and the lady told her that I wanted to speak to her. She gave me the receiver, and for the first time Elena and me were talking to each other. We arranged a date for 13h00 and that she would meet me in front of the hotel. The conversation took a while because I was talking too fast and sometimes had to repeat my words a few times so that Elena could understand what I was saying. I was overwhelmed with joy and the lady behind the counter could see it. She had a broad smile when I thanked her and went back to my room to enjoy the happiness of the moment.
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