Saransk: a city I never knew existed but one I won’t forget

Delighted to meet the locals in the middle of nowhere

Saransk. What is a Saransk? Some type of Russian cuisine? A coat you wear in winter? The name of your fluffy pet at home? No, it’s a little town, mostly unbeknown by Russian citizens and its existence unheard of by the international traveller. In this guest post for Brazilfooty, Iresh gives you the lowdown on this unusual place.

This small town is 400 miles east of Moscow with inhabitants of about 300,000, roughly close to the number of people living in the upper east side of Manhattan. It became a big shock to the Russian public when this town was allocated World Cup matches but to the elation of the locals. Many boasting to me at bar that CR7, the best in the world, will be in their very tiny town.

No one goes to Saransk for holiday, or move there for work, it’s one of those places you grow up in, marry a lovely local lass and end up staying and the next thing you know you 65 years and ready to retire. I learnt from chatting with locals, that the main trade there is not oil and gas like most of Russia, but rather industrial/ manufacturing type jobs.

Now back to my experience there over the last 4 days. The plan was initially to take an overnight train from Moscow to this funny sounding town. It was a 9 hour train journey. Flights were fully booked and I thought why not do the train, it would be cool to travel with die hard Colombian fans and we get a little bunk bed to sleep in our cabin. Also, there were so few flights to this city and prices were north of $500, one way, when I looked it up a month before the Cup. So, the little adventure begins….

We get to the train station at Moscow around midnight on the day of the match only for me to realize that my train ticket was booked but not paid for as my credit card company denied the charge and needed further approval. This totally slipped through the cracks and I only found out then. After running around this train station from one counter to the next, I somehow managed to get the very last ticket for the train leaving an hour later. My friend from South Africa, Agi, travelling with me is clearly a little annoyed. He did well to hide it but after knowing someone for 25 years, you just know. We decided we will split up, with him taking the original train an hour earlier so he won’t lose his ticket. So, here you have my friend like our very own Caster Semenya (I’m not suggesting he runs like a girl or anything) sprinting to catch his train. At this point, I was lagging behind, carrying a bunch of things, tipsy, tired and only to see him stroll back in annoyance that he now missed his train as well. This was mainly due to him being with me to help sort out my mess. Rule number 1: never leave a fellow crasher (ie buddy) behind.

Eventually, we go to the counter, and after some work by the ticketing agent, we get on the last train that would get us in on time for the game. This departs at 2am and arrives at 11am. At this point, we were like screw it, we already so invested in this Colombia v Japan match. I didn’t know what to expect on the train. Will the fans be drinking and cheering or sleeping before the match? There were some on the beer but mostly everyone took the latter option. I was squeezed in a cabin with a lovely Colombian family: Dad, Mum and Son from Bogota, who were travelling through Russia watching the World Cup together.

I have to say that I have the softest spot for Colombia: its people and the country in general. The people are so warm and friendly and their county survived some bloody days during the drug trafficking in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, they also survived the civil wars with groups like FARC and the economic instability to go with it. However, it has a beautiful natural landscape and people are very passionate and proud of their country. It reminds me a lot of South Africa, in a way, and hence my love for this South American country. Can’t wait to visit again. Holding thumbs they still go through.

Back to my story then. The bunk beds on the train were surprisingly comfortable and we both had a decent sleep. Agi said that it was even better than the beds you get in business class flights. I would have no clue as I travel only economy and don’t have enough miles to upgrade. Apparently though, trains are a very common way to travel in the largest country in the world (land mass wise that is), even though some train journeys here can take up to 2 to 3 days. Plus it’s cheap if booked in advance, something I never do…oops!

After arriving there, all we wanted to do was take a shower in the Airbnb that we booked well in advance. To our surprise, the Airbnb host was not at the station to pick us up as promised. That I could live with, but then we were told our place is not ready, which was the last thing you want to hear after taking such a long journey and shower is all that’s in your head. We paid $230 for an Airbnb studio apartment for the night, which does not seem a lot to most international travellers but considering the monthly rental for a one bed room in this city is 200 greenbacks per month, I was a little annoyed to say the least. I’m paying your mortgage for the month and I can’t get my bloody shower in.

Our host, who spoke like 5 words of English, eventually got me a taxi. The only piece of detail I got from him was it’s a red car and to go find it. No number plate, pick up point, driver name, estimated arrival time, etc. You know, none of the important stuff. So, here’s two tired South Africans walking the streets around the stadium looking for this so called red car. At this point a helpful FIFA staff informed us that the streets in a 3 block radius to the stadium are closed and we were like FML and still in search of this infamous red car. After climbing up hilly roads with our bags and our red car gps tracking system in full alert, we managed to track the said car down. Shout out to that lovely FIFA person for talking to our driver in Russian to help track the car down.

Now what, where to, we need to shower and the match starts in 2 hours. Our host told me that he has arranged for us to shower at an apartment (yes, ”an”, not sure who’s at this point) and he will keep our stuff and we can have the apartment we originally booked after the match. I mean, why not trust a total random in a foreign country in a small unknown town to keep your valuables safe right? A lot of that sounded dodgy, but we didn’t have a choice really. After being lost for a 15 good minutes – this was mostly the theme of this World Cup with taxi drivers – we find the ”apartment”. To my surprise this Airbnb host did not look like the guy from the site and he could not have been older than 19. He was just a hustler, a downright hustler. The World Cup comes to his town and there is no way he’s not making money from it. As an entrepreneur, I get it but let’s deliver on what’s promised young man. Rule #1 in business.

So, we climb up a few flights of stairs in this shady-looking block of flats and get to this apartment. At this point I don’t know if it’s even where he lives. As we walk in there’s 10 pairs of shoes by the door. We walk past two rooms packed with people, mostly Colombian fans. This guy was running a dodgy bed and shower operation mostly for football fans coming from the train from Moscow. We get pointed to our temporary room while we wait to shower, bed clearly not made properly, just pulled over, you know….we all have done this when we get last minute guests. My buddy finds a pair of woman’s earrings on top of the drawer and there are men slippers on my side of the bed, not to mention a condom just lying around. Not a used one luckily! At this point we were so resilient and we took anything thrown at us. What was meant to be a 10 minute wait for a shower turned out to be an hour. And after asking our host a few times, we finally got our turn.

I won’t go into detail to describe the specifics of the bathroom but you can imagine what it’s like with 10-15 others showering before you. Agi was handed a hand towel to dry himself and I just used my t-shirt as I didn’t really want to share the said same hand towel. I did ask the host if he had a clean towel and he pointed to one on the rack, which looked like it was drying, and had probably been used by 5 others. I politely said, I’m good.

This is Saransk!

We eventually left the apartment and what was suppose to be a 25 minute walk turned out to be an hour as we got lost. Google maps was not helping and we got to the match 5 mins after kick off. Obviously the result was not what was expected but it was lovely seeing the passionate Colombian fans cheering for their team. What could have been the biggest after party Saransk would ever witness turned out to be a much tamer affair. Fans on both sides were lovely, many swapping jerseys after the game and taking pictures together and hugging. Humanity is still alive and I believe in it Mr Trump!

What to do in Saransk

Not the result we wanted

We did get to the correct apartment after the match, with all our belongings there as promised. These apartments looked like they were built for the World Cup. We had a lovely steak dinner and watched Senegal – who knocked out South Africa in the qualifiers – win that night.

Our trip back to the apartment was in interesting one. With no taxis in sight, we decided to trust good old Google maps one more time. We did put in shortest route but we didn’t expect Google to send us on a witch hunt. We started off walking on normal routes through streets then the route put us through the dodgiest short cut ever: a stone rubble and sandy pathway between tall grass and some rural housing. It was pitch black, I mean blacker than my hair, something out of a Blair witch project movie. I told my mate Agi it was nice knowing him as I was to be robbed or my soul taken by the evil ghosts in the woods. We were both strolling in hope that nothing happens and come out of this. Then alas, we see a little light and two somewhat drunken locals having a laugh as they were staggering home. We slowly caught up with them, high fives all around and hugs. Of course a selfie shot too. We survived!

Delighted to meet the locals in the middle of nowhere

Agi left for the airport at 2am, but I was too exhausted to take my originally planned 6am train to Kazan and decided to stay another night in Saransk. My host actually gave me a free night given all the troubles he put us through, so that was lovely. Thanks Sergei!

I think I slept for like 12 hours and only got up at 3pm. This old man needs sleep. I planned to spend the day working but that never happened. Nothing like a long warm shower to refresh the body but after that when I got out the bathroom, it was flooded, water everywhere. The water even got into the passageway, and I figure it was just from poor bathroom construction in this new building. I find a mop in the bathroom, so here’s me thinking this clearly has happened before. Mopped the place up and getting ready for the day. Then, three intercom calls and all I hear on the other side is an angry sounding Russian gentleman. No clue what he’s ranting about, could be Putin foreign policy, the Kadarshians or the soccer score from last night for all I know. His voice just sounded angry. I thought it’s a false alarm and didn’t make too much about it. Then 15 minutes later, three loud knocks at the door and here is two rather large and stocky Russian gentlemen standing there and having a go at me. I was like slow down soldier, I don’t live here. Google translate to the rescue again. Apparently the water seeped through the floor and got to the below apartments. I think they were the maintenance guys, they had a look at the bathroom, checked out the situation and were gone. Surprisingly not back to fix it though. That was that then.

A recent trend on my travelling adventures is having a lot of fun, late nights when I’m alone. This usually starts with a few beers at the bar and then socializing with the locals. This was such night but I promised myself I’m can’t miss my flight to St Pete. There’s only two a week from Saransk and I can’t afford to miss the Brazil and Costa Rica match that I have tickets for.

On my night out, whilst minding my own business at a restaurant, trying out the local vodka, sorry but for me vodka is vodka, it’s not like scotch and single malt. People think the vodka here is very different and at a better level. All taste the same to me!  A middle age gentleman comes up to my table, mutters something in Russian, which I guess was can I join you. This is new territory for me now. I’m not sure if that’s a common thing in Russia or Saransk, but he looked harmless so I gestured sure. We both got the Google translator out and it turns out he’s local and owns a textile business. I found it weird that he bought an apple juice after taking a shot, so got him another shot. We attempted to take the shot but he sipped it like that one friend that hates shots and hopes no one notices. I knew something wasn’t right.

He then excused himself from our conversation, while busy texting with someone. After 15 minutes he reappears saying that he is having issues with his wife. Poor guy, he clearly needed some alone time, so I tried to leave but he kept insisting I stay. After several attempts, I told him to join me at a bar down the road when he sorts out stuff with the wife. He agrees, but I never see him again. Another classic Saransk moment.

What happens? I get home at 6:30am, hit the snooze 3-4 times after my nap and got to the airport late. However, still 30 minutes to departure time. This airport has to be the smallest I have ever seen: there’s like five flights a day, three check-in terminals and everything and everyone is on slow mo. Frustratingly though, I miss my flight. I’m annoyed but see it as a sign that Saransk just won’t let me leave yet.

That evening was the usual: selfie requests from locals (mainly as there are no brown people in Russia), someone at the fan park telling me that I look like Snoop Dogg, a few pints but a very determined individual to get to St Pete. What would have turned out to be an easy two hour flight before turns into a flight via Moscow, then a 2 hour taxi from one airport to the next and total travel time of 6 hours. Argh….

Anyways, that morning, the alarm sounds at 5am, cab booked on time, I hurry downstairs to see that my cab ride has almost been stolen by other passengers. Now with all this commotion I’m cutting it tight. I genuinely think the cabbie would rather have them than me as passengers. I had to convince him and show him my phone several times, that I did indeed book this. He was too infatuated with the Colombian fans, whispering a few Spanish words to them. I felt bad but I had to ask them to remove the luggage and then off I go with this driver. In my head I was like vamos!!! This driver was a character, all chatty and in the driving miss daisy vibe to the airport. Here’s me panicking as if I miss this flight, that’s it, no Brazil vs Costa Rica match. Every time I typed something on Google translate he laughed it off, like dude you must chill, life is too short to stress. Cruising on the empty roads instead of flooring it!

Eventually, got there with 40 minutes to go, and I felt like it was ground hogs day here again. There is one check in terminal open, and 3 people standing around the computer staring at it like they seeing pornography for the 1st time but instead they were trying to check in this Colombian couple. This took 10 minutes which felt like an excruciating hour now. I eventually cut the line, politely requesting someone to serve the other 8 of us in line. The lady just sitting there and not doing anything was clearly not happy. I disturbed her and she actually had to do work now.

Finally got my boarding pass, which I felt happier about than getting my green card and now the sprint is on. As I approach the line to go through security, there’s this model like lady smiling welcoming passengers through. She was tall, had pink high heels on, body hugging blue skirt and outfit. I was wtf, am I at a club or airport security. Then this dude – that probably hasn’t smiled in the last year – makes an action that he wants to check my bag.

I was at that moment really dude, now as I’m so late and close to missing another flight. He looked through my stuff, then asked me to open my toiletry bag almost like he wanted to see what cologne I’m wearing. I finally got through that and got to the airport bus. I’ve never been happier to leave a city. I mean the experience there was great, I loved the people, the vibe of this little city and the stadium was beautiful, but the longer I stayed, I felt my life expectancy was on the decline… Alas, in Moscow I took the taxi from one airport to the next but when I’m ready to check in for my flight to St Pete, the lady at the desk says ”sorry sir you have no seat”. The flight was overbooked. I mean seriously, after all of the commotion in Saransk, I’m still denied the opportunity to watch Brazil. How does a booking agent send me confirmation of a flight then an hour before I check in, I get an email that I don’t have a seat. I only saw this once I got WiFi. I was really bummed and even tried giving tickets to this random Brazil fan going through airport security to give these to my friends in St Pete, but in his words “I don’t want to take responsibility”. I felt bad missing the game but felt terrible I denied a friend a chance to watch the match too.

Looking back, from a very philosophical point of view, if something is not meant to be, it won’t happen, no matter how much you try. Agi, a week before the trip, said he couldn’t make that match, and I thought it’d be a good idea to give it a miss too. But knowing me, I want to do everything and then, by missing my original flight by a mere 10 minutes, they whole trajectory of my trip was changed from possibly one of the best ever to one that was very good but comes along with lessons and repercussions. Same thing could be said about life I guess…don’t chase what’s not meant to be. Life is all about timing. I’ll see you in 2022 Brazil.

Moving on then….I do want to say Russia is a beautiful country, with friendly and curious people (don’t expect locals to speak any English), the food is good and so is the hospitality. They really outdid themselves, I did not expect this and I can see myself visiting again. Moscow is huge but you feel like you are in the capital. St Pete is beautiful with his history and architecture and Sochi has a great beach town vibe like Cape Town.

Tips if you travelling to Russia:

– all local taxis will try rip you off. Use Uber or Gett. However, download a local app called Yandex taxi, it even translates automatically to Russian

– get a 20 bucks TMC SIM card, it’s unlimited Whatsapp, social media and 10 gig odd internet for 2 weeks

– when you enter the country, they give you a white travel document. Keep this safe or they won’t allow you to check into hotels. The one guy almost didn’t let us check into this dodgy hostel without it and made it seem like we going to church without the Bible.

– draw cash from atms. Dollars are no good here. Just carry roubles but most places do accept credit cards. Also, nothing annoys the locals more than giving them a large note (i.e. 5000 roubles)

– don’t discuss politics and Putin in public. It’s like an unwritten rule. 80% of Russians are happy with him and why go down that route when you there on a holiday

– tips are always in cash and you can’t use your card for this. I would tip but to the locals’ surprise, I don’t think tipping is customary

– very much pay as you go service. If you are at a bar, you can’t put your card down

– Google translate is your best friend. Use the voice print feature: you can talk in English and it translates to Russian. Also, the feature with imaging is amazing, you use it with your camera, you focus on foreign text and it translates it automatically

If you like this post, sharing it with friends or on social media would be much greatly appreciated. That sort of thing really helps blogs like Brazilfooty and Iresh would enjoy that too. Thanks for reading it and hopefully its given you with a little bit of flavour of the World Cup in Russia, and this odd place called Saransk.

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4 thoughts on “Saransk: a city I never knew existed but one I won’t forget

  1. Great story Iresh and Saransk certainly sounds like an interesting place. Its a shame that the complicated logistics involved meant that I couldn’t go to the match with you. The result in that game was certainly a pity, no doubt negatively affected by the early red card. Colombia certainly smashed it today.

    I’m gutted for you that you missed the Brazil game and that really is unlucky that your flight was overbooked. Really horrible how airlines do this and unlucky for you that you were the guy that had to suffer. I can’t believe that you almost missed your second flight out of Saransk though. Maybe it is your destiny to stay. Go back, find that guy with the textile business and become the Snoop Dog oligarch of Saransk. After making the big bucks then run for mayor, take over the local football team and have the mission of guiding them to lift the Champions League. 😉

    • Hahahaha. I just hope that guy is still not having probs with his wife. To be honest, it was a bloody adventure and Saransk is a town close to my heart now.

  2. My Nephew Iri.Omg u are too much.I read the blog and really enjoyed it.u are too funny. Missing flights still the rest of the World cup.and some quality time with mum,Pregs,Tash and Shani.see u in September.take care lots of love.

  3. Nice adventure Iri,very scary on the lonely roads though esp in a foreign country. Happy you enjoyed . See you soon in The Big Apple.

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