Nearly arrested in Saratov

Saratov TheatreIt was a night train from Samara to Saratov. The carriage attendant had already woken up the passengers long before the train entered the outskirts of the town. I poured some boiling water into my cup, added some instant coffee and had some breakfast while exchanging a few words with the couple who had been shopping in Samara over the weekend. We parted on the platform: the man was hurring off to have a quick shower before reaching his workplace, whereas I headed for the upstairs area of the train station and tried to organise my day.

The heat in that building was typical of many Russian indoor places in summer, sealed from the outside world by a double layer of glazing that doesn't let in or out a breath of wind. It is a necessary barrier against the extreme winter temperatures, but in the heat it creates a microclimate that the Russians seem particularly at ease with: a dry doldrums glasshouse atmosphere. I left my backpack to grill in the safe storage and bought a ticket to Volgograd for the same night. That would make two consecutive night trips with no crash point for the day.


A policeman made an appearance in the distance, walking straight in my direction with a military gait. Somehow, I was dead certain he was coming to me.

I couldn't expect Saratov to be as fascinating as Samara, but it certainly had a few interesting things, like the central market with its elegant structure, and the nice geometry of the circus dome opposite. Between the two there was a permanent market under canopied stalls. I passed the big theatre and entered a vast square dominated by the unavoidable statue of Lenin with his finger pointing to the ground. But this authoritative gesture had only obtained that under it, then and there, a temporary honey market was taking place.

I walked down to the river Volga, a constant presence along my trip by now, but it had nothing of the joyful beach atmosphere of Samara. Here the river was disconcertingly broad, crossed by a bridge that drew a hump-backed curve before continuing its long way in a straight line to the opposite far-away bank. The plane of the water seemed flattened down into a still quietness by the oppressing heat. Now and then a ferry wearily furrowed the waters and lost itself in this immensity. The embankment was practically desert apart from a beautiful young mother strolling her child. A squat building painted the colours of the Italian flag with a big "Celentano" writing in block letters advertised a disco bar inside.

My train was leaving in the evening. I had finally secured a lower bunk, the comfy one. I wouldn't have to wake up in the middle of the night with a parched tongue and a claustrophobic feeling, unable to sit up and drink because of the low ceiling of the upper sleeper. I wouldn't have either to spend the night cramped between the two partitions of the aisle berths. But as lower sleepers are appreciated by all they sell out first.

Lenin's everywhereI had time for a tasty roll which I matched with some cool beer from one of the station kiosks. I had not been sitting by the monument on the square for ten minutes when a policeman made an appearance in the distance, walking straight in my direction with a military gait. Somehow, I was dead certain he was coming to me. I waited until he planted himself in front of me, still sitting on the curb. He clicked his boot heels, saluted me and asked for my passport and, more important still, the stamped immigration slip that seems to be the ultimate proof of one's existence and identity in Russia. All was right, but then he asked if it was beer I was drinking. He mentioned a fine, but I said I didn't understand much Russian. I knew he didn't mean to be nasty, he was just doing his job. If I wanted to drink beer I could do so provided I hid the bottle in a paper bag, I understood. He wished me good luck in English and let me go. I found another corner and drank on my nice cool beer, hiding the bottle in a bandana – this was what the law required.