IF YOU have contacts, money and the ability to plan ahead, getting into Russia is not a problem. My friend and I had none of the above, so arrived at the Romania/Ukraine border post at Vadul Siret with dollars 100 between the two of us, no visa, and a bad case of nerves.

A whole battalion of border guards, complete with fur hats and machine guns, boarded the train. One of them entered our compartment, checked the corridor to see if anyone was looking, and started making Monty Python-style smoking gestures. He was sadly unimpressed when we gave him a pack of a Romanian brand. 'Marlboro?' he asked, speaking the international language of capitalism, 'Winston? Camel?' We shook our heads, so he took our passports instead.

The three Romanian men who shared our unheated compartment from Bucharest and had spent the night eating onion sandwiches and complaining about the smell of my feet, became sudden allies and spat at the floor as the soldier left. They still had their passports, though.

We waited in suspense for half an hour until Mr Big arrived. You could tell he was important because of the large amount of gold braid which adorned his shoulders. Instead of confiscating our Levi's and frogmarching us back across the border, he smiled broadly, doffed his hat, and announced, in perfect English, 'So sorry to keep you waiting. Would you care for a drink?'

It was six o'clock in the morning, but who were we to argue? Boris escorted us to his office in the barracks, made a young conscript carry our rucksacks and extended his arm to help us off the train.

Upstairs in the barracks the mean- looking soldier boys looked altogether more harmless. Some were sprawled across a bed listening to a Madonna album, while others were engaged in unashamed preening in front of a full- length mirror.

Alexei, our friend with the gold braid, was doing a very bad impression of a Soviet border guard. He obviously hadn't been watching the right films. 'Vodka? Tea? With lemon? We'll have to search your bags, but it's only a formality.'

He soon dispensed with this formality, however, after uncovering half a loaf of mouldy bread, a squashed banana and some very dubious socks. 'Ah, but I thought that the English like to wash their dirty linen in public, no?' Alexei chuckled. 'You must excuse me. I study the dictionary, but rarely have the opportunity to use the proverbs and sayings section.'

Deciding that this was the moment to confess, I sketched in the details of our embarrassing lack of train ticket and both Ukrainian and Russian visas. 'Ah, but of course,' said Alexei understandingly, 'but please first do me the pleasure of singing Ticket To Ride. The Beatles are my favourite group.' Public humiliation seemed a small price to pay for the Russian visa. Jeremy Beadle failed to materialise from behind the filing cabinet, so Marx was wrong, there must be a God. The barrack boys loved every moment of my performance. They obviously did not have nearly as many stupid foreigners passing through Vadul Siret as they would have liked. After that there seemed to be no good reason not to sit around, drink vodka, and crack proverbs.

True to his word, Alexei snapped his fingers, interrupting two of the soldiers from a rather delicate nasal hair removal operation, and dispatched them to get us tickets. 'You are in sleeping car 14. The price is 2,934 Coupons.' Coupons are the Ukrainian version of the rouble. It sounded like a rather worrying amount of money to someone with dollars 50 to their name. Fortunately for us, although rather less fortunately for the Ukrainians, the Coupon had gone ballistic, and the two-day journey to Moscow cost well under a dollar. Suddenly I felt guiltily rich. My dollars 50 represented several months' pay.

Wanting to give Alexei some sort of present, I dug into my pack and found some tapes and books. The soldiers gathered around excitedly to look at the cassettes. Instead of looking on covetously, they picked them up in disbelief and started laughing. Alexei played translator: 'Perhaps in Moscow you can pick up something a bit more modern.' So much for being a flash Westerner.

He put us on the train, gave us the necessary documents and told us to visit his mother in Moscow for him. 'Next time you come,' he added wistfully, 'perhaps you can sing Back in the USSR.'

Travel hints: you can enter Russia on a three-day transit visa, though you will probably have to prove you are passing through. Buy any rail tickets only to the border: domestic trains in Eastern Europe are still relatively cheap, but international ones are heavily inflated.

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