The Black Volga. It’s not just a Soviet Era car but a well-known Russian urban legend. The story exploded to life in the 1970’s and always begins the same way. A black car appears, as if from nowhere, to take in unsuspecting passengers. These passengers, usually with youth on their side, would never be seen again. But who drove the car? The legend differs. The drivers range from priests to nuns and even Vampires. Some say it was the Devil himself. That the side mirrors of this malevolent machine were in fact horns. The most widely accepted variation though has government officials at the wheel. These stories, rooted in a culture of government paranoia, speak of KGB agents seeking out youth and vitality on the streets before snatching them up and harvesting their organs. Or, more commonly, draining their blood to use in treating Russian elites suffering from Leukaemia.
As I stepped off the footpath in St. Petersburg and into a Black Volga with a small, plastic ‘Taxi’ sign perched precariously on top, this urban legend remained at the forefront of my mind. I exchanged looks of incredulous uncertainty with my brother, who sat in the seat next to me, and ran my hand over the worn interior. It was decades old. If I had to take a guess I’d say, the 1970’s? There were no seatbelts to be found in the back. And my window was sealed shut with the winder long since snapped off. The smell of fresh petrol permeated the car. It was as if the tank was leaking directly through the floor, which had splintered and cracked under the unrelenting pressure of time. And all the while the driver, an aged man with a cigarette dangling from his gnarled lips, sped silently towards our destination. Or perhaps his, it was hard to tell.
Despite all that, and with the Black Volga legend seemingly coming to life around me, there was only one thought in my mind. If they really do harvest the blood of the young to use in Leukaemia treatment, should I mention to anyone that I’d already been there and done that? No. This was their Russian legend. It wasn’t up to me to re-write their story. And in any case, I’m getting ahead of myself. My Russian story began two weeks prior…
I’m a sporting fanatic. A tragic even. Not only do I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to the sporting codes I love, but I literally wear that love on my sleeve. The logo of my favourite football team, Arsenal, is forever inked on my skin.
So, when my brother called me up one day and asked, “do you want to go to Russia to see Australia play in a football tournament?” the answer came to me quickly and without hesitation.
I had a job and responsibilities, bills to pay and a mouth to feed (my own). I can’t just pick up and leave my life behind for a month. Plus, Russia is so far away. And if the news is anything to go by it’s a nation full of hackers, mobsters and mail order brides. All just chomping at the bit to get back to the good old USSR days. I turned him down quicker than you can say “Нет, я не хочу ехать в Россию” and got on with my life.
But his invitation stayed with me. First, like an unwanted house guest. Then later as civil colleagues, and finally, as a great friend. And it was in this spirit of friendship and brotherly love that I called him up a week later and said, “fuck it, let’s go to Russia”.
“What?” came his disoriented reply, “oh yeah, sorry I was really drunk. I don’t really remember inviting you”.
It took me a moment to register that. But we’ve all been there. Put our foot right in it. Swiped right when we meant to swipe left. Texted ‘ISN’T MICHELLE THE BIGGEST BITCH YOU’VE EVER SEEN’ to Michelle. Mix-ups happen. And anyway, Russia and drunkenness go hand in hand, in fact they rank #1 in world alcohol spending, so maybe there was some poetic irony there.
So, we decided to make the plan official. He never really asked me, and I never really wanted to go. And just like that, we were going to Russia.
Now, itineraries can be difficult to prepare. Hell, even the word ‘itineraries’ is difficult to spell. But thankfully our path beyond the Iron Curtain was plotted for us. We were going to follow the Australian football team – The Socceroos, as they played three group stage matches in Sochi, St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectively. They were competing in the Confederations Cup, a largely irrelevant tournament held every 4 years. The Confederations Cup began as the pet project of Saudi Arabian billionaires back in the early 90’s who invented it as a reason to bring international football teams to play in their own country. Later, with FIFA’s involvement, it grew in both size and prestige. And so, the Confederations Cup was born. Now, in 2017, it was Russia’s turn to host, and Australia, well we were going along to give it a red-hot crack.
As the departure date for my Russian adventure grew near, everything was coming together. I was turning my dollars into Roubles. I’d watched every video on Russian tourism that YouTube could provide (and a good number of videos about other things because I have poor focus). I’d also dodged one of the most frustrating aspects of travel to Russia. Up until this point, to gain access to the Russian Federation, a traveller required an ‘invitation letter’ from the hotel in which they were planning to stay. This formal invitation requires forethought of full accommodation, and so gives very little room for changing your plans, not to mention it allows Russian Big Brother to know exactly where you are. It also involves a fee, it’s time consuming and is an example of bureaucracy at its very worst. Who knew there was so much red tape to get to the red state?
As a ticketholder to the FIFA Confederations Cup though, I could skip this convoluted invitation system and stroll through customs with nothing but a passing wave of one of my $135 match tickets. Of which I had purchased seven. And sure, that means *technically* I was paying close to a thousand Australian dollars to save half an hour in a customs line. But can you really put a price on something like that? I know I can’t.
And just like that. Russia here I come!
Well, after 10 hours in the air there was a quick 4-hour layover in China, but then Russia here I come!
Well, I mean, after another 8-hour flight and a second 4-hour layover in a second Chinese city before a final 7-hour flight, but once that’s done it was Russia here I come! It really was as simple as that.
“But Alex” I hear you cry, “what about the Black Volga? Did you make it out with all your organs intact?!” Well, that’s a story for another day. Because things started to heat up long before I touched down in Russia. Literally. Somewhere over the South China Sea I started to feel an uncomfortable warmth spread throughout my body. My legs begun to cramp. I found it difficult to breathe. I couldn’t focus on anything but a drop of perspiration as it balanced on the tip of my nose. My eyes turned inwards as this tiny drop of sweat rolled slowly across my skin, which was roasting in the tight confines of the plane’s cabin. It fell from my nose and out of view before long, almost as if in slow-motion, but it left me in no doubt that I had left my health back in Sydney.
There was a clamminess to my hands as I brought them up and wiped my brow. Not that it would last as the sweat replenished and returned almost immediately. Most of all I could feel heat, constant and unnerving heat, radiating from my skin and as the final hours of this first, long flight to Russia ticked away I was ecstatic to be touching down in China.
To avoid wasting time at carousel baggage’s I’d opted to travel with one piece of carry-on luggage only. The contents of my month ahead squeezed entirely into one bag which now felt like it was full of concrete as my aching arms swung it high onto my back. I was the last person to disembark in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, my tingling legs needing the extra moments rest as everyone filed out of the plane. And by the time my dazed shuffling took me to customs there was an empty hall before me.
‘You’ll be in Russia soon’. The words silently on repeat in my mind. My head now spinning and my feet unsteady with this cyclone of ill health that had struck halfway through my first flight. ‘You’ll be in Russia soon’.
It was only when I walked through the narrow entrance point in Guangzhou’s immigration hall, setting off a body scanner which pinpointed my temperature at just below 40 degrees Celsius that I began to get nervous. But still, I kept telling myself, ‘You’ll be in Russia soon’.
Ushered away by a Chinese official who’s mouth and nose were covered by a crisp, white facemask. And herded into a small, sterile room where I was told to empty out my belongings and hand over all copies of my passport, tickets and itinerary. I could barely hold my bag anymore as it slumped onto the floor. My legs shook as I sat on the white sheets of a thin, metal framed bed. My skin simply pulsating heat.
“What’s going on?” I asked, “Is there a problem?”
“Yes. Big problem” the unnamed Chinese official told me, the words sliding through her facemask and into my reality. “You are sick. And this is quarantine”
And suddenly, I wasn’t so sure I’d be in Russia soon…
TO BE CONTINUED…
Inked and Abroad’s Russian Odyssey continues when he attempts to get out of Chinese Quarantine, befriends a prostitute loving Indian called ‘Raj’ and tries Russian Cabbage Pie while trying not to collapse on the historic streets of St. Petersburg.