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Strangers in the Night

The most unforgettable moment in Russia.

Khabarovsk, January 2nd 2014

Despite the hustles and bustles, I couldn't find a queue of taxis. In a distance I saw my nyam-nyam friends hailed a passing by taxi and got in. I myself watched out for any passing by taxi, but spotted none. Ah, I regretted myself. If only I had kept myself close to them, who knows they were going in the same direction as me and were willing to share the taxi with me. There were many buses in front of Khabarovsk Railway Station, but of course I was completely clueless which bus to take to my hotel.

I walked around the park... and, uhm... isn't that a taxi? The car had a yellow-black checkered pyramid on top.

"Can you take me to this address, please?" I handed the driver a piece of paper with my hotel's address on it.

He raised my paper up to the light, squinted, and then, "Houskvousk rousk vousk." He pointed at the bus stop.

"I can take a bus? Which number should I take to this address?"

"Houskvousk rousk vousk."

"Number. What number?"

"Houskvousk rousk vousk."

"Can't you take me? Is this not a taxi?" I pointed at his car.

"Three hundred," he replied.

"Fine! Three hundred!" I agreed quickly. From the bus terminal in Vladivostok to my hotel was 300 roubles, too.

Hesitantly he opened the door for me. Phew, at last! I sighed. But... before starting the engine, the driver rolled his window opened and with his right hand, pulled the taxi signed down, put it under the seat. Why does he have to do that?? Ah... never mind, I told myself. Next, he pulled a map from his dashboard. "Houskvousk rousk vousk," he murmured. He shoved the map up and down, left and right. "Houskvousk rousk vousk." And then he nodded his head repeatedly.

"Do you know the place?"

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." He nodded. "Three hundred."

"Okay. Three hundred."

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." He started the engine.

Two three hundred meters away he kept on talking while ocassionally turning his head to me.

"Excuse me. I don't understand."

"Houskvousk rousk vousk three hundred."

"Ya! Ya! Three hundred roubles. I know!" I took out 3 notes of one hundred rouble from my purse. "Three hundred, right?"

The driver's face widen. "Yes! Yes!" He stretched out his hand.

I hurriedly pulled back my hand. "No! Bring me to the hotel first, and then I pay you!"

He nodded and went back to the steering wheel. He didn't insist, nor argue. Obviously he looked relieved. Oh... so he just wanted to make sure that I would pay him?? Do I look like a desperate refugee? Oh well.

On the way we passed a car accident. One car had hit the back of another car right in the middle of the street. The driver pointed out , turned his head to me, and said a few things in an excited tone which base on his expression, I interpreted as "What a mess!"

*****

My driver pulled over in front of what appeared as a restaurant. "Is this my hotel??" It didn't look like a hotel at all. Nothing like a lobby reception. Closed silent door only. I tried to compare the letters on the signboard with the Russian name on my booking paper. Nothing was close.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk!" The driver pointed satisfactorily at the closed door.

"Nooo!! Bring me to my hotel, pleaaaseee!!" I wanted to cry.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk!" His facial expression said "It's there!"

Okay! So I'm being fooled. He doesn't know the place but just bring me to anywhere. I got off the car and slammed the door as hard as I could. Should I run? I was thinking.

As I walked away I heard him like calling me and the word "money". Since he didn't bring me to my required address, I resisted to pay. What should I pay for?!?

"I asked you to take me to my hotel. This is not my hotel!!" If only my voice could break the ice on the ground.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk! Police... " He held his cellphone by his ear.

A bad guy certainly won't call the police, but his friends. In that split of second, as I ran away from him, my mind ran faster. "If I don't give this bad guy the three hundred roubles, he and his friends would chase me, and then harm me. I certainly won't outrun them."

So I turned back and handed him three hundred roubles. However... I yelled at him, I pointed my finger at him... I...

Two Chinese (or Korean) guys came by. My heart stopped beating. Are they this driver's friends?? No... they passed by. I yelled again at the driver... and the driver stood motionless, no word.

After a few quick steps, I turned my head to know whether he was after me. No... he was still standing. I yelled again at him. He got into his car and slowly drove away.

Phew! Now, what shall I do? The freezing night doubled my goosebumps. Any hotel would do, but there no signs of any kind of accommodation around here. One thing I was glad about was that the driver didn't drop me off on a sleepy dark road. This road was wide, bright, and still busy. Buses, in their color and shapes, went by and by in both direction. "If only I know which bus goes to the train station," I thought, "then I can at least spend the night at the train station. It would be safe there."

I walked and walked... thinking what my friends would say. It's funny actually, that every time I encounter a daunting situation on my travels, the most thing I'm worried about is what my friends would say, instead of about myself. Especially now, when it happens in a country I have never been to, whose language I know none, whose people to whom I look the least alike.

A passing by car slowed down. The window rolled open. "Taxi?" I asked.

The car stopped. I walked closer and handed the piece of paper with my hotel's address to the two guys in the car. Who knows this is like China, where taxis can take two different passengers at a time, I thought.

"Three hundred," said one of them.

I was about to agree when a very strong feeling inside me: "Sonja, don't!" cried aloud. Along with that I heard the rock music playing in max volume on the car's stereo.

For the second time, I ran away. I took the opposite direction as to prevent their car from running after me. Every now and then I turned my head to make sure a white sedan wasn't after me. No, there wasn't.

Phew. I took a breath. One two people were seen at the bus stop. This place is still awake. That's at least a good sign. I figured out that the train station must be on the opposite direction. So I crossed the road and got on a bus which stupidly I guessed that the words on the bus said "Khabarovsk Train Station." My logic said, even if I don't get to the train station, being in a bus with many people must be safer than alone on the street."

Inside the bus, "Why not ask the bus attendant whether she knows the address on my paper?" I thought.

"Excuse me. Do you know this address?"

The bus attendant lowered down my piece of paper and looked from the bottom of her eyes. "Houskvousk rousk vousk!" She waved her arm to the direction across the street.

"You mean this number is across the street?" I pointed my finger outside.

She nodded and waved her hands again. The next thing I understood was that she told me to get off on the next stop and cross the street.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk!" She shook her palm when I gave her 15 roubles for the bus fare.

"It's okay."

"Houskvousk rousk vousk!" She didn't want to take my money.

At the next bus stop, the door opened, she looked at me and threw her arm in the air gesturing "across the street".

"Thank you! Thank you!" I felt bad that I never cared to memorize what "thank you" is in Russian.

But across the street, still nothing looked like a hotel. At the bus stop there was a man like in his 60s.

"Excuse me, Sir. Do you know this address?" I handed him my piece of paper.

He moved his hand over his chest pocket, but couldn't pull the zipper. So he pulled off his hand glove, pulled the pocket zipper opened, took out a pair of reading glasses... I felt bad. I know how terrible it feels to take off hand gloves in such a freezing air. I wanted to tell him, never mind. But, I didn't know how to say that in Russian. Moreover, he was like my only hope.

This man examined my paper, frowned, looked up again. "Houskvousk rousk vousk." He pointed his pointing finger downwards and moved it left and right.

"Do you mean this is the street?"

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." He pointed on the address on my paper and then pointed to the ground again. No doubt, I'm on the right street already. My heart beat faster. Excited. The man looked left and right, searching. And then a bus came. "Houskvousk rousk vousk!" He signaled me to follow. Oh... all the time I was like watching a movie in foreign language guessing what the actors were saying.

On the bus, the bus attendant and a few other guys turned busy searching outside for the address written on my paper. They spoke to one another while passing my paper over like, "Do you know this? I think it's here and here..." and so on. While the guys on the right look to the right side, the man in his 60s was rubbing the frosty window on his left side, trying hard to peep through the empty space between the thick frost. I wanted to cry.

At one bus stop, they all said to me, "Houskvousk rousk vousk." and pointed to the door.

"That," to something like a flat "is this hotel?" I tried to clarify.

They all nodded.

"Thank you! Thank you!" Ops, I forgot the man who took me on the bus. Standing on the bus step, I turned to him and bowed my head. "Thank you." He smiled.

I couldn't find which one was the entrance to the 'hotel'. It didn't look like a hotel. You know, that one with a lobby in front. Anyway it looked more like a place to stay than the one where that bad taxi guy had dropped me off. The 'hotel' was bright, but silent. No one was in sight. Well, who would go out at near midnight like now, not to mention the freezing weather? And everyone must have gone inside for warmth. So did I conclude.

From a street vendor across the street, came a guy maybe in his 20s coming my way. In his hands was a plastic bag of, I think, shawerma. I could see vapor steaming out of the plastic bag. How nice it would be just to hold it in my hands, I imagined.

"Excuse me."

He stopped his long legs in an instant. With his mouth full, he looked at me.

"Do you know this address?"

Now, he too, pointed to the ground after reading my paper.

"I know the street is this. But I don't know where this number is."

It seemed that he understood my spoken English although he didn't speak it. He pointed on the phone number written on my paper and gestured making a phone call.

"My phone has no signal. I cannot make a call."

I hated XL for completely loosing signal in Khabarovsk. Otherwise, I could have called Booking.com, my hotel booker, and asked for help, because they have an English speaking representative ready 24 hours. If I'm on the right street, maybe Booking.com could contact my hotel and have someone fetch me. I was almost certain that could be done.... if, XL didn't loose connection. Aaarrrgh. But on another thought, what Indonesian would go to Khabarovsk anyway? Maybe to Moscow or to St. Petersburg, but not to Khabarovsk. Even the name is unheard. Why should XL bother reaching Khabarovsk? It's my fault not to be mainstream.

He took out his cellphone from his pocket and started tapping the numbers. I felt sorry that I made him leave his shawerma go cold.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." He handed his cellphone to me.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." said the voice over there.

"Hello. Is there anyone who speaks English over there?" asked the voice over here a.k.a. me.

Peeeepp... The phone over there hung up.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk??" asked this young guy.

"They hung up. Nobody speaks English."

He held the phone to his ear and then down. "Houskvousk rousk vousk." The expression on his face somehow was comfort for me. At least I knew I had someone who felt for me.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk!" His face brighten. I peeped on his cellphone screen. It was GPS. Tap... tap... tap... "Ah! Houskvousk rousk vousk!" He pointed in front of us. Before I could ask, "You got the place?" his long legs were swinging swiftly in front of me. I half ran behind him.

And then... he stopped right exactly in front of the building where the taxi driver had dropped me!! I wanted to cry again, but for another reason.

"I have been here alreadyyy!! This is not the hotelll!!"

"Houskvousk rousk vousk.... restaurant...."

"Nooooo. I'm not looking for a restaurant. I'm looking for a hotellll...."

"Houskvousk rousk vousk.... restaurant...."

"Nooooo. Hotellll!!"

"Hotel?"

"Yeeess!! Hotelll!!" I put my hands next to my face gesturing "sleep".

Behind the gate there were a few signboards which I had already examined previously. None of them had similar letters as written on my booking form. Not even close, I told you. In case you are wondering, I had two booking forms. One written in English and another in Russian. This guy stood in front of the gate with eyes fixed on the signboards. I had been hopeful, but now I'm dismayed. This is not a hotellll.... aaarrrghhh.

Suddenly he raised his right arm to the air. Did he say "aha!" ? I don't remember. His long legs made a big step into the doorway, pushed the door opened, and signaled me to follow.

I trembled. Right in front of us was a silvery glittering wall. Nothing and nobody. I could hear loud music from upstairs. Is this a night club?? What is this guy going to do with me?? It's hard to run away from a place like this. I'd better stay on the street until morning.

On the right side of the wall was a narrow corridor. The guy walk through, but I stood still. I was at the point thinking of turning back, push the door, and run away. Better run away while I still can, I thought.

The guy sensed I wasn't following. He turned back. "Houskvousk rousk vousk!" His hand gestured "Come on!"

Hesitantly I followed. At the end of this short corridor, on the left, under the stairs, was a petite counter.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk?" the guy to the lady behind the counter.

"Houskvousk rousk vousk." The lady smiled.

The guy turned to me requiring for my booking form. He shoved the paper under the glass window.

"Agghha, agghha." The receptionist nodded repeatedly with a big smile.

The story in my mind was that this guy knew my hotel couldn't be found. So, he wanted to put me here, in a maybe... nightclub or sort of.

"Is this hotel (I pointed on my booking paper.) here?"

"Yes, yes! It is!" replied the receptionist, in English!

"It is? This is Yunkhe Hotel??"

"Yes, this is Yunkhe Hotel. "

I hardly could believe that. Did this guy tell her to say 'yes' when I ask??

The receptionist pointed on her computer screen and read my name. My name is long and rather difficult to pronounce for let alone a foreigner. It's impossible she had memorized my name within one minute. She really must be reading -- not memorizing -- my name on her screen.

"Yes, that's right," I confirmed.

"May I see your passport, please?"

The way she checked my passport and compared with what's written on her screen was exactly what normally a hotel receptionist would do. I am not being tricked. I have arrived at my place, finally. I turned my head. The young guy was still standing behind me looking through the window, anxious trying to make sure everything was okay.

"It's right," I said to him. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

He gave me a big smile and a look so relieved as if he had just saved me from drowning. Then he walked away, back into the freezing night. For a second I was dumbfounded by that look. Me, merely a foreigner, a complete stranger to him, obviously was nobody he could gain anything back from. And yet, he drew all his might, his heart, to help me.

*****

Inside my room, I fell down on my knees, and broke into tears. Vividly still, in my mind I could picture my taxi driver standing next to his car, speechless, as I yelled at him. His look at that time, was another look I can't forget. Ever.

That night, the next morning, and the next morning, and the next morning, I asked God's forgiveness for the bad words I had said to this taxi driver.

*****

To the people of Russia, I have dedicated Call Me Sonja.

Posted by automidori 06:09 Archived in Russia Tagged people russia khabarovsk

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Comments

That was a really scary night, I am glad that in the end you got to your hotel.
Thinking calmly at home, you probably should have paid taxi driver and then asked him to take you into hotel. He probably would have helped. But if I happened in your situation... I would have panicked too.

by Katya

Thanks for your comment, Katya.

It looks like I have totally failed to describe the very main situation for you. The taxi driver stopped in front of what appeared as a RESTAURANT, NOT A HOTEL. And, IT WAS A RESTAURANT. Yunkhe Hotel was on the third floor. I think I did mention twice that I tried to match the letters on the signboard with the name on my booking form. I couldn't find Юньхэ written on the signboard. That made me more convinced that this was not Yunkhe Hotel. I also mentioned that the guy who in the end brought me inside was ALSO CONFUSED. If had found the name of the hotel on the signboards, he wouldn't have thought I was looking for a restaurant, and he wouldn't have to stand in front of the signboards (there were several) reading them one by one.

I also mentioned more than once that the restaurant was closed at that time. If it were opened, I could have gone inside and asked. It was like 10:00 PM at that time.

I hope it's clear now that I thought the taxi driver had fooled me by bringing me to a place that was not my required destination. If you think a person has fooled you, would you ask that person to bring you further (into danger)?? I wouldn't.

IT WAS NOT THAT I DID NOT DARE TO GO INSIDE BY MYSELF.

One thing that had made me suspicious was that the taxi driver took off the taxi sign from top of the car before he drove me. To me, that was weird.

Most important of all, may I confirm that I DID P.A.Y. the taxi driver!

by automidori

That's why I said "when thinking calmly at home", I also should add "from native's point of view".
Taxi driver taking off his sign would have meant for me that he was getting ready to go home, and this way marked that he wasn't taking any more passengers. And when he was so sure he brought me to hotel... well if I don't see a hotel here, he'd better lead me right to it's door.
Although your way of thinking is a safer one.

by Katya

Sonja, I lived for 31 years in Khabarovsk and never heard of that hotel. Why didn't you ask a normal hostel or hotel to meet you on the railway station or order a taxi to meet you there? It's a normal thing around the world to be safe and not to pay extra. You could buy a SIM card from any operator in Vladivostok or Birobidzhan without any problem and be online.
Why didn't you download HERE maps of far eastern Russia to your Nokia to track where you are and how to get to the certain street? I have the same phone as you are and there are HERE maps of Khabarovsk that can be downloaded and work offline.
Why take these risks?
Anyway risks were minimal as Khabarovsk is relatively safe city and taxist wouldn't get into trouble with a foreigner anyway. All the damage you could experience is emotional and you were scared to death which isn't good at all.

by Clrs

Anyway, I really admire your courage traveling in the foreign country without knowledge of language, without phone, maps or any data alone. I'm a man wouldn't be that brave. :-) Can't imagine a girl doing all this.

by Clrs

1) I have also lived 30 years more something in my city, but I don't know every hotel/hostel in my city.
2) without phone, maps or any data alone --> Sorry, you probably haven't read my posts.

by automidori

3) You haven't heard of that hotel, but my taxi driver knew. He actually brought me straight to the hotel. It was me, who got over-suspicious and thus created chaos over myself. In the end I felt terrible sorry for my suspicion on my good taxi driver.

by automidori

I read your posts very thoroughly actually. That's why I'm saying phone didn't work, no maps were downloaded and you had very limited knowledge about the country. It just sounds strange to me but you are really brave. Don't get this little criticism too close to heart please.
I found this hotel on the Internet and now I understand why you were scared that much. It's a small Chinese hostel in the heart of Chinese community and market and it doesn't look really good from the street. It's more a restaurant for Chinese than a place to stay.
If you would chose something more foreigner-friendly (actually any other hotel) there wouldn't be any issues at all.
If my comments are hurtful, I can stop commenting. Sorry if you feel they are too harsh.

by Clrs

1) Post'S' is with an S. If you have read my postS, you'll know I had a downloaded map on my cellphone. But the name of the hotel was not listed there.
2) XL is the name of my cellphone operator. In Vladivostok it still worked. I didn't know it would loose signal in Khabarovsk. So, you are wrong, to say I had no phone.
3) Data. I carried my booking form which had the full address and phone number, and small map on it. Otherwise, that young guy would have no clue at all to help. I also had a piece of paper with the address written in Russian. Otherwise, the man at the bus stop and the people on the bus would not understand where I wanted to go.
4) As I have explained to Katya above, another thing what aroused my suspicion was that the taxi driver took off the taxi sign from top of the car as I got into the car. But in the end he turned out not doing me any harm.
5)"Small Chinese Hostel" -- Chinese is foreign to Russia, isn't it. Foreigner-friendly? They were friendly. That's why I said, read my postS.
6) I thank you for dropping comments here. Hurtful, I don't know. It's just strange that in this post I actually wanted to describe how extremely kind and helpful Russians were. But on the contrary, I get all these comments as if you guys are trying to proof the opposite.
7) Thank you for justifying me to have very limited knowledge of your country. My readers know.

by automidori

Addition:
5) They were friendly. Whom I meant with they were ALL Russians. I didn't meet any Chinese staff in this hotel.

by automidori

Now, the comments are getting longer than the post itself. Sooner or later, people reading these comments would say, "See? We thought so." Then there goes all my sincere intention on writing this blog. Karena nila setitik, rusak susu sebelanga.

by automidori

Actually I read all your posts with interest. But anyway I don't want to argue anymore. Just a couple of comments about Chinese stuff in Khabarovsk, so you better understand the whole picture. Most of Chinese people (I would say 99%) who are in the city are for trade in cheap markets for poor people. Many are having their visa expired and illegally here. They are like Mexicans in California. Pretty the same situation. A lot of crimes are committed by them. That's why police takes a closer look and often check their IDs, makes raids where they concentrate much, deport them constantly an so on. It's becoming harder and harder for them to obtain visas.
That's why if you look Asian (I don't really know how you look but I guess) you had these problems in Irkutsk. All Chinese are required to have a local registration with address where they stay, so police can check. The first police officer probably thought you are Chinese and that's why he was that unfriendly and asked for "Irkutsk visa". Once the third officer discovered you are Indonesian, they immediately lost any interest as you are a normal tourist. Hope I clarified a bit.

by Clrs

On my very limited knowledge of your country, I understand enough that there are many Chinese in Khabarovsk. Nevertheless, on my very limited knowledge of your country, I don't understand why that fact has to make you guys have to make comments like the above. May the unlimited readers judge for themselves, about Russians, for I believe I have described more than enough.

by automidori

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