‘Go ahead, get in the car,’ she said, ‘If you’re not afraid’
Diego, Poor John and I must have looked like typical tourists—daypacks strapped to backs, cameras slung over shoulders and lost looks plastered across faces.
We were in Barnaul, a large town in the Altai district of Russia. One bank had already refused our request to exchange our fistfuls of Kazakhstan tenge. In an attempt to help, they waved a hand in a far-off direction and scribbled the name of a bank that might oblige.
That vague hand-wave got us nowhere, so we stood on a corner trying to decipher the bank name written—in Cyrillic—on a slip of paper. Suddenly a chirpy blonde woman with a ponytail appeared at our side. Her English wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good.
Can I help you?
Handing her the paper, we explained that we needed to change Kazakh money to Russian roubles. She and her hubby consulted and decided the nearest branch office was quite far away.
But we can take you. We have just come from the police station where we were completing forms. It’s okay. Go ahead, get in the car, she said. If you aren’t afraid!
Hmm? Police station? Completing forms? Oh, what the heck.
They seemed genuine. Besides, we were three and they were two. Not that Poor John and I would be a match for determined kidnappers.
So we piled into their Mercedes and off we went. And what a wonderful experience we had.
Elena (sounds like Helena without the ‘h’ but foreigners never pronounce it right) drove through traffic for almost 15 minutes before pulling into a bank parking lot. Her hubby (whose name I never got) was charged with getting Diego and Poor John set-up in the bank, while Elena and I had a good old Aussie chinwag out in the car.
You know plenty about us, so let me tell you a bit about them.
They have their own business—ball bearings that get sold in Kazakhstan and other neighbouring countries. Her hubby spent much of his childhood in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, where we had just spent almost a week.
Their grown-up daughter (their only child) is studying in St Petersburg. She has promised to join them on a family outing to the lake region in the Altai sometime this month. Every night recently, they’ve searched Google maps trying to decide exactly where to go.
They’ve had fun being on the register for couch surfing even though not many people choose Barnaul as a travel destination.
They are avid travellers and would love to visit Australia, but the challenge of obtaining a visa is costly and time-consuming. Elena said they would have to fly to Moscow to be interviewed and stay in a hotel while waiting for certain processes to be completed. Even then, a visa was not guaranteed.
I reckon that people who own and run a business in Russia are unlikely to overstay their visas, so it made me sad they were finding it so difficult to visit Australia. It also made me think back to how easy it was for Poor John to front up to the Russian Embassy in Canberra to get our visas a couple of months ago.
Oh, and why had they been at the police station? To fill out forms to provide a letter of invitation so an Uzbek could apply for a visa to visit Russia.
Eventually the fellows returned with the roubles (after Elena went in to hurry things along). Then they drove us back to where we got ‘lured’ into their car.
We hoped to buy them lunch as a thank you, but they were running late for another appointment, so they dropped us off and moved on. I did have time to scribble down the url of this blog and I hope Elena finds her way here to know how much we appreciated their help.
When I get home to a better internet connection, I’ll find their listing on couchsurfing and post a link here. They’d be wonderful hosts.
P.S. We had just a couple of hours in Barnaul and didn’t manage to fit in much sightseeing. These pics are what we captured between the time we finished our banking and when rain started to bucket down. Notice how the colour of the sky changed.