...THE YEAR IS 1999...

... GORBACHEV IS STILL AT THE HELM OF THE VAST U.S.S.R. THE IRON CURTAIN HAS CRUMBLED AND RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD ARE BEGINNING TO THAW. I HAVE THE CENTRAL ASIAN COUNTRIES OF UZBEKISTAN AND KYRGYZSTAN IN MY SIGHTS AND WONDER IF NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME TO POUNCE.

IT IS...BUT FIRST THERE IS THE PROBLEM OF A DODGY VISA.

Oct 8, 2010

3. RORTING THE SOVIET SYSTEM



RORTING THE SYSTEM

When the Dragon Lady delivered me to Tashkent’s  foreigners departure terminal  I really thought I had only a few hours wait for the flight to Frunze.  At that stage I had no idea at all that the vast dominions of the U.S.S.R. from Leningrad to Vladivostok and south to Tashkent were ruled literally by Moscow time... the reading of a clock face.

Back in Singapore Mitzi had secured  that dodgy visa by booking a compulsory first nights accommodation.  I can remember her words still as she filled in the application .
‘Where would you like to spend your first night?’

She showed me a map and of course everywhere looked relatively close.  I didn’t want to stay in a big city, Frunze, but the capital of Kirghistan seemed small enough. Reading further in the brochure that it had a resident circus clinched the deal.

Mitzi booked an on going domestic flight to Frunze departing at 1125 hours after working out arrival time in Tashkent at around 4 am; so six or so hours hadn't seemed too long to wait.  But Irina, the blonde Dragon Lady checking my ongoing ticket looked worried.  I couldn't spend the rest of the night here, she said, I would have to go to the Intourist building at the domestic terminal.

The Intourist building was behind a high wire fence where we were checked in by an armed guard on duty. Irina showed my flight ticket to the officer in charge and then led me upstairs to a darkened  waiting lounge the size of a once grand ballroom.  The ornate bevelled glass doors were padlocked; she produced a key, unlocked the doors and settled me on a soft leather lounge.  In the gloom I could make out the form of one other sleeping person on another lounge.

Irina whispered directions to toilets and warned I should trust no one and must not leave my belongings behind when I went downstairs.  She gave me her address and phone number in case I needed help, explained she would not relock the doors and left. 

Deighton and Le Carre hadn't exaggerated; the Soviets were heavily into drama.  I was dead tired though, and settled down for what I imagined would be a short nap before the dawn.

The first disturbance was a deafening announcement on an old pre-war sound system that seemed to be wedged just above my head.  I couldn't understand a word the voice was shouting.  I looked across to the other person but there was no movement. The system went silent again and I gave sleep another try and probably did nod off before I heard the doors being unlatched and saw a woman being helped to a lounge across from me on the other side of the room.

There was much whispering and I gathered the woman was ill.  I turned my back and tried to sleep but a few minutes later the door opened again and a woman in a white uniform carrying a medical bag entered, examined the patient, gave instructions to the man with her and left.

That made four of us stretched out on lounges in the huge dark hall.  By now I was wide awake and while I couldn't see my watch imagined it must be close to daybreak.  After all, I reasoned, if the plane landed at 0430 hours and with all the fuss that followed it must be at least two hours later...and then a penny dropped.   The clock on the wall when I arrived had read 0150.  There was a three hour difference and if that was the case I still had a long wait until dawn.

The woman across the way was now sound asleep and snoring, the man with her got up from his chair and tiptoed out. He returned a little while later with another woman who settled herself on another chair.  We four became five.

I must have slept because next time I opened my eyes to the deafening roar of the loudspeaker a grey light was creeping in through the windows and I could read the time, ten past six.  It had been a long noisy night.

I glanced across to the ill woman and she didn't appear distressed, but was fast asleep, mouth open and snoring like a trooper.  It crossed my mind she and her companions had pulled what we Australians call ‘a swifty’ to gain access to this comfortable dormitory.

By now I was hungry and decided to explore.  Across from the waiting room, where my four companions slept, was a dining hall deserted at that hour.  I wandered downstairs to another waiting room where a dozen or so foreigners, Afghanis and Iranians were draped across chairs and on the hard tiled floor in various attitudes of sleep.  Apparently, Intourist had a system of class distinction that the four upstairs had managed to rort. I stepped carefully around mounds of luggage and over prone bodies.


Down a hallway I found the toilets where Irina had said they would be.  I would have found them anyway by simply following my nose. Through desperation I managed to perform in the ‘hole in the floor type' loo lined by once white tiles that now begged a starring role  in an Aussie toilet cleanser commercial.

Across from the toilets was the Duty Dispatcher’s office, which must have accounted for her sour expression.  I produced my ticket to Frunze for verification.

‘Bring back one o'clock,’ she grunted with a heavy accent.

I wondered how I could do that when my plane was due to leave at 11.30.  The disinterested look on her face discouraged further quizzing and I decided I really couldn't fight another problem on an empty stomach.

By now it was well after seven and I climbed back up the marble staircase to the dining hall.  The doors were closed but unlocked so I went in.  Nobody about but I could hear noises from the kitchen and I politely waited for someone to emerge.

Finally a woman with a white coverall over day clothes came out and I asked her could I have something to eat.

‘Nyet.’

I pondered on this for a moment, did that mean ‘nyet speak English’ or ‘nyet you can't have breakfast.’?

Mustering a smile, I tried again and received another nyet. 

But this time I sensed the woman was embarrassed, unduly perturbed. Was there a problem, I wondered?  Maybe the famine stories I had heard back home were true and here I was, a foreigner, taking the food from her mouth.

I hated to admit defeat but retreated as gracefully as I could to plan another attack.  From the waiting room where the slumbering four dozed on, I kept an eye on the restaurant door. A number of the unfortunate ones from downstairs entered and were dispatched with probably the same flea she had given me.  

Oh, what I would give for a cup of hot tea.
____________


Episode 4.   Saying Nyet

© Robyn Mortimer 2010

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