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Just before 8:30AM on Wednesday June 7th, I walked to the Khabarovsk train station to undertake the longest leg of my Trans-Siberian journey. I would be on the train for roughly 58 hours. For this jaunt, I was on train 007 – Vladivostok-Novosibirsk. While waiting at the platform, a 20-ish student approached me and asked if he was in the right place for his train. He was French, spoke somewhat broken English, and zero Russian. He was indeed in the correct place, and it turns out that he had the bed above mine in the train. His name was William. He had some time off from university, and he decided to take the Trans-Siberian and make some stops along the way. His grandfather had done it the year before, so that was one of his motivations to take the trip. We would be together on the train for 50 hours, until he got off at Ulan-Ude, a stop that I wanted to make but didn’t have time for as my trip was already 16 days long.

Novosibirsk-Vladivostok carriage number 12, my home for 58 hours.

As we got to our area, we met out other traveling companions. The person with the lower berth across from me was a 70 year man named Boris. He was traveling from his home of Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude to visit some relatives. When William and I got to our spots in the train, Boris was sitting with his wife. They both sighed in relief when they found out that I spoke Russian. Boris’s wife was not going with him, though, she was just saying goodbye to him. In Russian trains, it’s common for people seeing you off to walk into the train and help you get your things settled at longer stops. The conductors allow this, and a few minutes prior to departure, the conductors walk through the carriage telling those accompanying passengers to leave the train. Boris was quite the character, and he made sure my time passed quickly on the train.

Bad photo, but the only one I really got of Boris.

Above Boris was Ulugbek from Kyrgyzstan. He had been in Korea (which Korea was slightly unclear) on a work contract. Ulugbek was an engineer who works in hydroelectric stations. He was riding on the train from Vladivostok to Krasnoyarsk. I was worried because we got onto the train already 13 hours into its journey, and Ulugbek had an unrefrigerated rotisserie chicken that he proceeded to eat over the next two days. He was also very friendly and pleasant company.

Ulugbek and his collection of most likely rancid food.

Along the window there was a 20-ish girl who was a student at Far Eastern Federal University, who was riding back home for the summer. I forget where exactly she got off, but it was towards the evening of the first day. She had to switch trains to ride to some smaller city called Tynda. She was asleep most the day that we were with her, and she didn’t say anything to us, though she did tell Boris she was a student and going to Tynda.

The train itself was pretty nice. It was the newest style of older carriages. The bottom bunks had padding for your back when you were seated, and I had the coveted spot in the carriage that had an outlet. In the older trains, not every spot has an outlet. Usually the second series of berths on each side have one outlet. Then, there is usually an outlet by the toilets at either end. I didn’t have to worry because I could change my phone whenever I wanted, but others in the carriage took turns standing by the toilets and watching their phones. Others just decided to chance leaving their phones by the toilets. On our longer train, we had police officers patrolling the carriages, and at times they would ask whose phone was being charged as a reminder to look after ones belongings. The carriage we were in didn’t have air-conditioning, or if it did, it was broken. Thankfully, our window opened. And, unlike the older trains, these newer carriages have LED displays at both ends of the carriage that display the Moscow time, the temperature in the train, and whether or not the toilet is free.

Pretty nice for platskart.

Although my ride to Irkutsk was long, it wasn’t bad. I alternated my time in the train talking to my companions and reading. The train also makes a few longer stops each day, and in the Russian Far East, villagers have created their own small businesses around the train schedule. They know when the long-haul trains make stops and line up near the station to sell provisions.

The food sellers in Belogorsk.

In Belogorsk, for example, I managed to buy a hardboiled egg, some potato vareniki, and a local fish called harius. I opted to go for hot smoked, which leaves the flesh pliable and soft as opposed to cold smoked, which dries out the fish and almost turns it into jerky. The meal was scrumptious. While at the stop, a man selling fish looked at me and turned to the woman with the eggs and vareniki and said in Russian, “Do you speak English? You better.” I responded that I speak Russian, and they were happy.

Hot smoked harius.

I then had a discussion about the differences in fish smoking techniques. I also had to help William buy food as he couldn’t communicate with the people at all. After we ate our food, I watched in horror as Ulugbek added a large quantity of unrefrigerated mayonnaise to his bowl of ramen. The standard train foods for these journeys are sunflower seeds, a Russian pastime, and either instant noodles or potatoes. Every Russian train carriage has a water boiler for tea and food.

Golden Lenin of Belogorsk.

Most of my entertainment from the train ride came from talking with Boris over the first two days. I spoke a little with William, but his English was bad, which limited our conversations. Boris was a bit of a provocateur, and was full of lots of interesting information about Russia. He constantly spoke in a weird slang, and refused to ever use common words to explain himself. He asked me if I heard about what to say if someone asks if you want a brick in Vladivostok. Apparently, this is a petty form of extortion. The person being asked is to respond, “how much?” and then pay said amount, otherwise they will be beaten and robbed. Apparently, there are lots of similar tactics on Russian roads in the Far East. Often, people will just sit on the side of the road and say they don’t have gas, or will try to sell you gas. Sometimes, they’ll leave something on the road for you to stop and grab. In all of these situations, I was told to never stop. However, if stopped, it’s always best to pay what amounts to the bribe. Finally, when traveling on Russian roads, it’s good to have a weapon in your car trunk. Boris was once stopped by a group. One guy talked to him while another searched his trunk. They both left him alone after the one who opened the trunk found a large machete. This also partially explains the wooden mace that the government chauffeur in Ulyanovsk had in his car trunk.

Typical view at a stop: everyone out and smoking.

Between teaching me about how to survive in Siberia, Boris spent time provoking me and those around us in the train. We discussed Russian history at one point. He was angry that I didn’t know a word or two about tributes during the Mongol conquest of Russia. I said that my specialty was Soviet history. He said that it wasn’t an excuse, that instead my program was probably weak or that I was lazy. I responded that I don’t have time to read about early Russian history in depth because I have to spend my time reading about the Soviet Union and other history. This then caused Boris to launch into a lecture about how I have time because I do not work on a kolkhoz, a form of village based Soviet collective farm. Had I lived in a kolkhoz, he said, I would truly not have time. I would have to wake at 5:00AM to feed the chickens and milk the cows, make breakfast, wake the children, “pat [my] husband on his head,” and send everyone off before doing my assigned labor task on the farm for the day. This then caused Boris to lecture about American women. He wanted to know why it was acceptable to go shopping in house clothes or sweat pants. In his mind, women need to dress up to buy groceries or run simple errands. In his eyes, a woman should always be made up and strive her best to visually please the men around her. That was a fun conversation, and one of many of different cultural views about the gender roles and marriage ages in America versus Russia along the train ride.

At one point, when William and I were speaking in English, we caught the attention of two young girls in the train. One asked what we were speaking, and was surprised when I said English. She said she studied English, but refused to say anything to me from being shy. Eventually, she told her mother about us, and then her mother came to talk with us. Boris then began to provoke the mother and said that her daughter didn’t speak any English because she refused to say anything to me. Boris then proposed English lessons on the train. He said he was the director of the school and would get 70% while I would get 30% of the proceeds. When asked why the cut was so large, Boris cheekily responded, “because I’m here getting you work, while you’re being lazy and just reading books.” He then said that lessons would begin promptly at 8:00AM the next morning. I groaned about the early hours, and he laughed. Although Boris liked to poke fun at people or stir up trouble, he was truly a nice man. One night, he noticed that I had gotten cold while sleeping and got a blanket for me.

Boris was also immensely entertaining because he somewhat befriended the lady who walks through the train selling food and drinks. He offered all of us, plus her, some food and drink. She accepted the offer, and would sit down with us when she passed us by. She affectionately called him “ded,” basically, “gramps.”

Making friends with the food seller.

One of the interesting experiences on the train was with the police. They extensively patrol the trains in the Far East. At times they were doing document checks, but they never asked us for our documents. I have rarely seen the police on trains in Russia. I have only on one occasion seen them on one of the trains between Moscow and Ulyanovsk, and they asked for my documents then. I remember being confused, and the older woman in the kupe with me said that it was nothing to worry about and normal. They did a little more on this train, though. On the second full day on the train, we stopped at a small place called Mogocha. About fifteen minutes after leaving the station, the police walked through our carriage with a man in handcuffs. There was one cop in the lead and there were two behind. The second cop had his hand on the back of the man’s neck/head, forcing it down. The man’s hands were tightly cuffed behind his back, and he was bent over and walking in a stress position. The third cop was carrying the man’s bag. Boris said that he had never seen that before in all of his years riding the train. He seemed to think that the man had tried to ride on the train without a ticket, but from a conversation I had just before getting off the train in Irkutsk, it seems that the man might have been belligerently drunk. He was hauled off of the train when we stopped in Chernyshevsk.

Also on this day, as we rolled through some middle of nowhere part of Siberia, it began to snow. I had not expected to see snow that south in Siberia in June. It was crazy.

On the second day, the girl had gotten off of the train, and no one new joined our area. This meant that we could sit at the two smaller window seats when we pleased. At one of these periods, William’s passport fell out of his pocket, which caused me to have a discussion with Boris about Russian passports versus American or European ones. Russians have two kinds of passports, internal and external. The external passport is just like ours and is used for leaving the country. The internal passport serves the function in Russia that our driver’s licenses do, basically, and then some. They include information about birth and age. They also include where the person is registered to live, marital status, and information about children. While talking to Boris, a man in the next berth over noticed that I was foreign and began to speak with me. Andrei was a sailor who works on large freight ships. He was traveling from just outside of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, to see his children in Irkutsk, where he had grown up.  Andrei was very friendly and went on long rants about the divisions within Russia between Moscow and Siberia. In his opinion, Moscow steals everything from Siberia and gives nothing back. Boris at one point was jealous that Andrei was taking over as the one to tell me tales about Russia and told Andrei that I probably didn’t understand what he was saying. What Boris didn’t know was that I understood Andrei’s slang better than has because Andrei used simpler words and words that I was familiar with.

Andrei mid-speech about something.

In the morning of the second day, when we made our “breakfast” stop, Boris told me to buy something called “сера” (sera), which is a Siberian gum. It’s made from tree sap/rubber. It tastes like chewing a mixture of a pinecone and a rubber band. I can’t say I super loved it, but it did make my mouth feel cleaner around sporadic trips to the somewhat gross toilet to brush my teeth. You buy sera by the stick. I got one. Others bought bushels of them. Apparently, it’s only common to buy in the Far East.

Sera – Russian gum.

As the train carried on across Siberia, I alternated between reading and staring out of the window. I had heard someone describe the Trans-Siberian as “the greatest Russian novel ever written.” I’m not sure where I heard this, but I agree. It was easy to spend hours just looking out of the window, watching the scenery change. You would fall asleep and wake up in what looked like a completely different country as the geography and vegetation would change drastically. The temperature also fluctuated between hot, comfortable, and downright cold. At one point, the provodnitsa walked through the car and asked if we were cold and if they should turn the heat on. They were taking a poll of the passengers and their comfort level. I said I was fine and just put on a warm shirt. Thankfully, they didn’t turn the heat on. The villages that came and went along the rail lines were fascinating to look at. Although some of them looked a little rough, none of them looked totally rundown. There is clearly poverty in Russian villages, but they don’t look like war zones like some of the places I’ve seen in ex-Soviet republics. I now really want to find a way to spend at least a day or two in an actual Russian village.

Village life.

Another interesting part of riding through the Siberian wilderness was looking at the cars. The number of vehicles in the villages was pretty small, but almost every settlement had either an UAZ Bukhanka, UAZ 469, or a Lada Niva. Ulyanovsk pride for Siberia! On the whole, cars in Siberia were interesting to observe. Most of the cars in Vladivostok were right-hand drive, brought in from Japan. As you ride across back towards Moscow, the percentage of right-hand drive cars shifted from about 90% to 40%. I suppose the Urals are the dividing line for this trend. In European Russia, it’s possible to find a right-hand drive, Japanese import car, but it’s rare.

Ulyanovsk pride in Siberia.

 

After Boris and William got off in Ulan Ude, I spoke with Andrei quite a lot on the leg from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, an additional 8 hours on the train. This was the best part of the trip because we spent most of it riding along Lake Baikal, and the view was mesmerizing. Andrei gave me tips for what to see or do in Irkutsk and told me the history of the area and the Angara River. He also gave me his phone number and said that he would be glad to show me around the Vladivostok area should I wind up there again.

Lake Baikal from the train.

Just about two hours before Irkutsk, the train made a stop in a place called Slyudyanka, and a man of about thirty got on and took what had been Boris’s space. He was nice and well prepared for the long train ride. He had brought a combination strip outlet/extension chord with him to power his laptop. He offered some of his snacks, and asked if I wanted to watch a movie. I declined as I was getting off of the train soon and had to gather my things. At that point, another guy came into the area and asked Andrei where the foreigner was. He said that he was in another car with a French guy, “from Brussels.” I told him that Brussels was in Belgium. He said, “Whatever. He speaks French and English. I don’t speak much English. Please come and translate for him and two other foreigners.” The new guy next to me asked why I had to do that. The strange man said that the others around them in the carriage also didn’t speak English, and that most of the others around them were foreigners, like my neighbor, and spoke Russian with an accent. My new neighbor then got angry and said, “What do you mean foreigners like me and what accent?” The guy responded that he was clearly from a different country. The neighbor responded that he was born and raised in Irkutsk, and that his family was from Dagestan, which is part of Russia. The weird guy again said whatever and ushered me off with him.

My new home? It would probably be a good place to write my dissertation distraction free.

We walked into the next carriage and I met the Belgian guy, who was named Arthur. He was talking with two Italians who were going home from an 11 month trip around the world. Both Arthur and the Italians were on the train for the sake of saying that they had done the Trans-Siberian. They were all riding from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, stopping in Irkutsk to see Baikal, and then going from Irkutsk straight to Moscow. I chatted briefly with them and then went back to gather my things. Andrei and my new neighbor wanted to know what was going on, and I said the strange guy was just drunk and that there was no need to go off and talk to the others. However, when I got off the train, I did end up sharing a taxi with Arthur, who must have been some sort of rich Belgian playboy or trust-fund guy. He talked about having spent the past three months in Asia. He also had an American Express Platinum card in his wallet. His hostel was near the one where I was staying, so I figured it would be ok to grab a cab with him. We took a Yandex taxi for under 100 rubles, which was funny because the taxi driver asking if we wanted a ride quoted 500 rubles for the same ride, and I just laughed in his face.

Like the serialized stories of Dostoyevsky or Dickens, the next few posts will chronicle my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This year has been one of freedom and exploration for me. There have been a number of places within Russia and the former Soviet Union that I have wanted to see for a long time, and I’ve taken advantage of my relative flexibility in this year to see them. One of the things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time was to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia, and I am pleased to say that I recently returned from a two-week trip doing so.

On Saturday the 3rd of June, I boarded a plane from Moscow to Vladivostok at Sheremetyevo Airport. I was tired of the constant cold and bad weather in Moscow, so I flew to Siberia, where it was sunny and warm aka actually summer. I’m surprised to have had to go to Siberia for summer weather as well. We took off after an hour or so delay due to late aircraft arrival and then made our war arching north across the frozen northern reaches of the Russian Federation. It was a bit of a trip to see the permafrost from the plane.

Permafrost.

Without issue, we landed in Vladivostok, and I didn’t have to wait too long for my bag, a backpack lent to me by my friend Terry. I then walked through the terminal to a train that took me from the airport to the central railway terminal in Vladivostok. From there, it was about a ten minute walk to the hotel where I was staying. I was exhausted. It’s an 8 hour flight across Russia, and we left around 4:00PM Moscow time. As I wasn’t tired, I couldn’t really sleep on the flight and arrived at what felt like midnight my time, despite it being 7AM in Vladivostok. Russia has a lot of time zones, and Vladivostok is 7 hours ahead of Moscow, so I was 14 hours ahead of New York time for some perspective.

I was able to go to my room early and collapse for a quick nap. I didn’t have much time to recover, because I was getting a tour of the center of the city from a friend of a friend’s brother. He met me in the lobby, and we set off the see the waterfront, a ship, a submarine museum, the WWII monument, the historic GUM shopping center, and the beach, among other things.

Vladivostok from my hotel window.

One of the highlights of the tour was a surprise car show on one of the main squares. I excitedly saw a display of a few UAZiki, which made me instantly very happy.

A little bit of Ulyanovsk in Vladivostok.

After our walking tour, which lasted a few hours, I went back to my room and crashed for a few hours. Feeling better from some sleep, I walked around the center again and got some dinner and headed off to the famous Mumiy Troll’ bar. Mumiy Troll’ is a cool rock group from Vladivostok, and they opened a bar in their hometown.

I was there a little early for the evening, but when I went in the place was dead. I was super disappointed in the bar, sadly. They had no Russian beer, so I had a Guiness. I then decided to have a White Russian. The bartender proceeded to then fill a glass with ice and a splash of vodka before pouring in a whole lot of cream. He had forgotten to add the Kahlua for a good two minutes.

The Mumiy Troll’ bar.

The next morning, I got up at had breakfast at a Soviet themed stolovaya. I then walked to the funicular to get to the view point of the city. Annoying, the funicular was closed for “technical reasons,” so I climbed up the whole hill to the view.

Central Vladivostok.

It was definitely worth it. I took a bus back down to the center and had lunch at the stolovaya because the three restaurants that I had tried to eat in where closed for unknown reasons.

USSR themed stolovaya (cafeteria).

After lunch, I took a taxi to Russky Ostrov (Russian Island), where is the home of Far Eastern Federal University. To get to the island, we had to cross a major bridge, now a symbol of Vladivostok, which is the longest bridge of that cable style in the world.

The Russky Ostrov bridge.

The university itself is a massive university campus the likes of something like Ohio State or the University of Illinois.

Far Eastern Federal University.

The plus of the university is that the campus has a beach on the Sea of Japan, which I stuck my feet into briefly.

The beach.

Running somewhat out of time, I got back on a bus to the center of the city to grab some dinner and get some last minute provisions for the overnight train ride. When stopping at a café for a coffee, I thought there was a language barrier between the Russian staff and the Chinese tourists ahead of me in line. I heard the woman ask if they wanted something with milk or juice. I just assumed that there was something wrong with someone’s English; however, I was super surprised when asked, in Russian, if I wanted my iced coffee with milk or juice. I can’t imagine why anyone would mix coffee with juice. I apparently could also only get an iced coffee with syrup in it, which I thought was strange. Apparently the staff doesn’t understand that they make more money off of me if I refused the sugar syrup.

The end of the Trans-Siberia: 9288KM from Moscow (5771 miles).

The first leg of my train adventure was on train 001, the fabled Moscow-Vladivostok train.

Train 001- Moscow-Vladivostok.

Unlike some, I wanted to use the train to get off and see some major cities along the way in Siberia instead of riding 7 straight days on the train. For the ride, I was going in third class, platskart, the whole way. I wanted to mingle with lots of Russians, and I somewhat accomplished this task. When I handed my ticket to the provodnitsa, the conductor, she asked if I spoke Russian and signed a huge sigh of relief when I said I do. “Thank God,” she said. Apparently, the Trans-Siberian is super popular for foreigners looking for adventures, most of whom who don’t speak any Russian. This strikes me as very strange, as Russia isn’t really a country that is great to travel to if you don’t speak the language. A few people speak English, but most of the people one would encounter on the train don’t, and speaking with the real Russians is part of the appeal of the journey.

Getting onto train 001.

The first night in the train, from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, my immediate section of six spaces was full. It was myself, a father and his young son, two Czech guys, and a Russian student from Far Eastern Federal University, who was a cheerleader heading home for summer break. The Czech guys started to talk to me and we had a good conversation with Zhenya, the student, for a while. The Czech guys were drinking a lot, which is forbidden on the trains except in the dining car, and eventually attracted the attentions of a random Russian guy from somewhere else in the car. He came up and insisted on speaking to us in broken English, which the Czech guys couldn’t understand at all. The Russian guy, Sasha, just wanted to mingle with some foreigners, which the Czechs didn’t understand. They didn’t know what a rarity it is for Russians to interact with foreigners, especially in the Russian Far East. One Czech guy forgot that he told Sasha that they were form the Czech Republic, and the second guy got spooked when Sasha said something about the Czech Republic. The second guy then got paranoid. He thought that I knew Sasha and turned aggressive and yelled at Sasha to leave. He then said to me, “we don’t want any trouble,” as if I had some connection with Sasha and we were trying to pull some sort of scam. It was weird. In the morning, they basically didn’t say anything to me as we got off the train in Khabarovsk.

The Khabarovsk train station – the largest in Siberia.

In Khabarovsk, I got off the train and walked the fifteen or so minutes to my hotel. The woman who checked me in was super nice and gave me a ticket for breakfast that day. It was a decent place to stay, but was super Soviet in that there was a lady on the floor, with whom I had to leave my key when I wasn’t in my room. After showering, changing, and having breakfast, I set out for a whirlwind day in Khabarovsk. I walked down the main road and through a Chinese Market (clearly all of the items were 100% legitimate Adidas and Armani products, no counterfeit items at all) to eventually make it to the riverfront on the Amur River, which serves as the border between Russia and China. In Khabarovsk, I was only a few kilometers from China.

The Amur and the steps down to the central beach in Khabarovsk.

From the river, I tried to go to the military museum, which was closed for no reason. The door was open and I walked in to buy a ticket, however the woman at the desk said it was closed and wouldn’t explain why. Instead, I walked across the street and spent some time in the Regional Museum, which was pretty cool. They had a large series of fish tanks with some of the famous Russian fish such as the sturgeon. They also had a lot of stuffed animals eating other stuffed animals.

Om-nom-nom.

After the Regional Museum, I walked off to see the local history museum. A bored docent was pleased that I spoke Russian and gave me an impromptu tour of the first floor of the museum. After my unofficial, but informative, tour, I walked to a nearby shopping center. The food court had a Mexican restaurant run by an American. I was able to get a real burrito for the first time since Murmansk, and the hot sauce was indeed actually spicy.

Happiness is a good burrito.

From lunch, I walked back to a different area along the waterfront.

Downtown Khabarovsk.

I went to see the main cathedral, which is allegedly the second tallest in Russia after Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Tallest cathedral in Siberia.

Eventually, after more walking, I wound up at a different mall food court near the hotel where I got an excellent dinner of Korean food. I then walked to the store to load up on provisions for my next train leg, almost 58 hours between Khabarovsk and Irkutsk. All in all, I walked a total of 14.4 miles in Khabarovsk. I crashed hard that night, and got up and had breakfast before walking to the train, which left around 8:00AM. The long train journey and my adventures in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal will be chronicled in another post.

Last Saturday, I flew off to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, another ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus. I had not planned to go there at all, but a fellow grad student invited me to visit. Rebecca and I had shared an apartment at a University of Illinois summer research session. Rebecca saw that I had been in Armenia and invited me to Azerbaijan. Curious, I checked the visa requirements and saw that they had just changed as of January for American citizens. There is now a fast, electronic visa that is ordered online for a total cost of about $25.00. I applied for my visa late on a Thursday night and got the visa via email around noon the next day.

Flying in to Baku over the Caspian.

The flight to Baku was uneventful. The only news to report is that I’ve been flying frequently enough that I’m repeating Aeroflot planes. I was on a Boeing 737 in the name of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was the same plane that I flew to Yerevan on. One thing of note did happen on the flight, which was a slightly different safety demonstration. As a good chunk of the flight crosses the Caspian Sea, the flight crew had to break out the lifejackets to demonstrate how to wear and use them in the event of a water landing. Sadly, the lifejackets do not have winged hammer and sickles on them. Flying into Baku over the Caspian was a real treat. We landed slightly late as there was some sort of medical incident with a passenger while we boarded, but it was all ok in the end. I passed customs without any problems, though the guy did stamp my passport right next to the Armenia stamp. Thankfully, he didn’t ask me anything about my trip to Armenia.

After crossing customs, I was met outside the airport by Rebecca and we hopped in a cab to her apartment in the center of the city. Interestingly, a lot of the cabs in Baku are the same ones as the London taxis, though they are left-hand drive. Thankfully, Azerbaijan carries in the car traditions of the other Caucasian republics. There were a lot of 1990s Mercedes on the roads, especially W201s, W202s, and W210s.

Just a few Mercedes.

We popped into Rebecca’s apartment to drop off my stuff. We then walked to one of the main pedestrian areas of Baku, Fountain Square, to see the fountains and meander our way towards the waterfront park. Along the way, we kept running into barriers that are being erected for the Baku Formula 1 Grand Prix, which will be taking place in a few months. I didn’t realize that Baku hosted F1 events. Similar to the Monaco Grand Prix, the race takes place on the actual roads of the city and not at a race track. Apparently, there are special paving materials that they can put down to cover some of the cobblestone roads, which can easily be removed after the race to restore the charm of the old city streets.

Stands and barriers going up for the race.

The waterfront is spectacular, and immediately highlights Baku’s claim to fame. Baku is a major site of oil production. Many American and European fortunes were made there prior to the Bolshevik takeover in the early 1920s, and around the turn of the century, Baku produced about half of the world’s oil. It was particularly interesting to travel to Baku immediately after Volgograd. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa was a three pronged attack. One group of soldiers worked north with the goal of Leningrad, one more to the middle towards Moscow, and a third group down to Stalingrad (Volgograd). Stalingrad was to be a double target for both propaganda and tactical reasons. One major goal was to conquer the city named in honor of the Soviet leader (one reason why Stalin ordered the Red Army not one step backward). The other major reason was that Stalingrad was a major port city on the Volga River, which would allow access down to the Caspian and to Baku and its oil reserves. And what an oil city Baku is. The coastline smelled of crude oil, which is extracted both from the grounds of the city and from offshore rigs. There was even some oil floating on the water of the Caspian.

The main drag along the water.

From the waterfront, we walked over to the Funicular, and rode that to the hill overlooking Baku (Soviet city planning at its best, having a funicular or gondola to a hill overlooking the city, which has an imposing TV tower on it). While riding up, it started to rain heavily, which is very rare for Baku. There was even some thunder and lightning. We stood under cover for a while before venturing out into the rain. We walked along a series of graves for people considered to be Azerbaijani martyrs. They died in the tensions and clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Azerbaijan and the Soviets during the end of the Soviet Union. At this hilltop park, there is a great overview of the whole city and the Caspian. We also walked near the base of the Flame Towers, the architectural symbols of Baku. There was no easy way to cross the road to the base of the Flame Towers, so we gave up and walked down the hill and back to the center to get dinner. We had some decent Mexican food before calling it a night.

Panorama from the top.

The next morning, we got up and walked to the Old City, which is as the name suggests, the old part of the city. The narrow, winding roads and architecture made it feel like we were in another world. While there, we climbed the Maiden Tower, and then wandered around the Palace of the Shirvanshahs museum. The old architecture was fascinating. We then walked back to the Fountain Square area for lunch before taking yet another adventure. We hopped on a regular bus and rode about 30 minutes out of the center to see a beach and the oil fields. I was excited to go see the fields because it’s where they filmed the 1999 Pierce Brosnan James Bond film “The World is Not Enough.” Immediately after the main city limits, there are fields of oil derricks pumping away, and it was pretty interesting to see them still working. They were apparently built in the 1930s and continue to pump to this day.

The “James Bond” oil fields.

Getting to the derricks and the offshore platform was easier said than done. We got off of the bus at the correct stop, but there was no way to cross the road. We walked in one direction and didn’t see a place to cross, so we walked in the other direction only to see an unending stretch of road. As we didn’t want to run across a few lanes of highway speed traffic, we got into a cab that was parked on the side of the road and had him loop us around a roundabout and drop us off at the beach by the offshore platform. Apparently, the first offshore oil platform was built in Baku. We saw some people fishing in the Caspian and some swimming. Rebecca put a foot in, and I waded in the waters a little bit. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea as when I came out, there was definitely some oil residue on my feet.

Touch waters of the Caspian: check.

We took the bus back to the center, grabbed some caffeine to recharge, and hopped on the metro to a different part of town to check out the Heydar Aliyev Center. Heydar Aliyev was a Soviet leader of Azerbaijan, and its second president after the Soviet collapse. His son is the current president of the country.

The Baku metro is an older Soviet metro that was opened in the late 1960s. I would have taken photos, but it’s forbidden to do so. The trains are the standard 1970s design of rolling stock that operates in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. Like the other Caucasian republics, the Baku Metro cars are renovated and repainted in colors different from the standard Russian blue and white exteriors and plain interiors. The stations themselves were a hybrid of Soviet metro design. They were smaller stations, generally of the caterpillar design favored in the 1950s-1970s, but mixed in elaborate mosaics like those of earlier Moscow Metro stops. Inside, the trains made the station announcements in Azerbaijani and English. A nice touch unique to the Baku Metro is that the noise that plays before a stop is different for each station. Each station has its own snippet of famous Azerbaijani music assigned to it. Like the Moscow Metro, police presence in the stations was high, and unlike the Moscow metro, each of the train cars had tens of cameras operating in them.

The Heydar Aliyev Center is a joint museum and concert hall space. We saw some interesting exhibits about the culture of Azerbaijan, the history of the Aliyev family, and a showcase of miniatures of the architectural highlights of the city. My favorite exhibit was a collection of three cars that had been used by Heydar Aliyev in his capacity as a leader of Azerbaijan. There was a Soviet ZIL limousine as well as two armored Mercedes W140 S-600s, once of which was a stretch Pullman.

I’ll take one of each, please.

From the Center, we went back to the center of the city for dinner at a great Lebanese restaurant, and then we went to see the waterfront and the city lit up at night, which we couldn’t due the night before due to the rain storms.

The next morning, Rebecca had to go off to her Azerbaijani classes and the archive, so I amused myself until she was free. I first went to the Fountain Square area to find some postcards, and then headed off to the post office to get some stamps. The Azerbaijani post office was nice. There was a kiosk to determine what kind of service you needed, which printed out a number. My number was immediately called to a desk, and the woman there sold me stamps, which I was then told to glue onto the postcards. She then stamped them and told me to put them in the box on the street, which I did.

After the post office, I strolled the streets and enjoyed the weather before getting some döner for lunch. Azerbaijan is very influenced by Turkish culture and history. Many of the foods are shared, and Azerbaijani itself is basically a dialect of Turkish. The döner hit the spot, and then I went along the waterfront to the carpet museum. Besides oil and caviar, the other main product of Azerbaijan is carpets. The museum is even in the shape of a carpet. Inside, there are all sorts of different carpets from Azerbaijan, and cool information on how all the different rugs are woven. There are even a few weaving stations set up in the museum, and I watched a woman making a carpet for a while. I don’t know how they do it. It seemed extraordinarily complicated, and I would find myself lost and frustrated very easily.

I have neither the motor skills nor the patience for this.

Sadly, the museum didn’t have any carpets of Soviet leaders, which are my favorite ones, but they did have some lovely socialist-realist carpets, one of which saluted the Baku oil industry. There was also a second oil industry carpet, and a portrait of the composer Shostakovich.

Carpets are probably my favorite socialist-realist medium.

From the carpet museum, I strolled back to the apartment and rested for a while as I had been walking a lot, and we had big plans for Monday night. The first plan was to meet with another former Fulbright ETA, who happened to be passing through Baku on a trip in the Caucasus with her friend. In the evening, we met up near the American Embassy and walked off to find dinner. The guards at the Embassy, rightly, were a little uneasy about Rebecca and I standing around and looking for two other people, but they quickly left us alone when they saw we were Americans and were meeting other Americans. We ended up walking to a restaurant near Rebecca’s apartment that specialized in meat. After dinner, we walked towards the Metro and split ways.

Rebecca had gotten us tickets to see the closing ceremonies for the Islamic Solidarity Games, which is like the Olympics for nations with large Islamic populations. Azerbaijan is technically a Muslim country, but they are very secular. Azeris eat pork and drink, but there are definitely very divided gendered norms in the country and some more conservative values. For example, women rarely drink or smoke in public, and Azeri men can been very forward or harassing towards women, especially foreigners.

Closing ceremony festivities.

To get to the closing ceremonies, we had to walk a long distance from the closest metro stop along areas flooded with police. We then went through security tighter than at airports with metal detectors and pat downs. We finally entered the stadium to catch athletes parading, speeches from the Vice President of Azerbaijan, who is also the wife of the President, and the head of the games committee. After the speeches, there was a concert of a number of Azerbaijani pop artists. Each artist was given two songs, and they seemed to grow in popularity. We saw three women, and left during the second guy we saw. Of the five acts, only one was actually good. One guy seemed to be an Azerbaijani Pitbull. He rapped and had the same outfits and swagger as Pitbull. Tired from the day, we left the stadium while the songs were still ongoing, and went home near 11:00PM.

The final morning, we slept in and then met up with Rikki and her friend for brunch at a Turkish café before seeing the waterfront a last time. To clarify my earlier point about Azerbaijani being a dialect of Turkish, Rikki spoke to the staff at the restaurant solely in Turkish. They understood her, but she had some difficulties understanding the responses in Azerbaijani. Rebecca mostly gets by in Azerbaijani, and when that fails, speaks English to people in the service industry. Like most ex-Soviet republics, I was able to get around in English or Russian depending on the generation of the people I was speaking to. There was still a good amount of Russian being spoken on the streets amongst the local population, and Rebecca said they often mix both Russian and Azerbaijani in every sentence.

The world of Soviet/ex-Soviet scholars is quite small.

After lunch, I grabbed the tings from the apartment and got a taxi back to the airport. I went up to the first taxi in the line, which was a 1995 Mercedes W202 C-Class. The driver spoke Russian and we agreed on the price. As we rode to the airport, he told me about his car and then asked how long I had been in the city, what I had seen, etc. He said that Baku is okay, but that the best parts of Azerbaijan are out in the mountains. He told me that I should come back and find him at the same taxi rank by the hotel, where he always waits. He said we can have him drive us around the country.

At the airport, I had no problems checking in for my flight or passing through customs. My flight back, though, was somewhat unpleasant. I had an empty seat next to me, and the aisle was occupied by a 60-ish Azeri man. He was clearly bored on the flight and at one point started to talk to me while my headphones were out around when I was getting something to drink. He said he was an actor at the Azerbaijan State Academic Drama Theatre. He then proceeded to show me photos of his roles over the years on his phone. He said he was traveling to Chelyabinsk for his friend’s birthday party and invited me to go there with him and to vacation with him in Altai later in the summer. When it was time to get off of the plane, he grabbed my backpack and carried it for me. He wouldn’t let me grab my own bag. While waiting to cross customs, he insisted on giving me his name and phone number.  When I went to the immigration window, he blew a kiss at me and told me to call him. I handed my documents to the official and didn’t look back. I then ran away as fast as possible after being handed my documents.

He also told me some really weird stories on the plane. He said he liked the sportsman who became a present. I looked confused and he responded, “the one who met Gorbachev?” “You mean Reagan?” I asked. “He was an actor.” “Yes, him.” He then asked if I knew who killed JFK. I said ostensibly Lee Harvey Oswald. He response was that it was LBJ, because he wanted to become president. He then ranted about Marilyn Monroe, who was killed—it was made to look like a drug overdose—because of the secrets she knew from dating JFK. For these secrets, she had a secret meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was on a boat, and Monroe entered the boat from below the waterline. There, she traded the secrets for Khrushchev’s weight in gold. It was a surreal experience.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I did laundry before venturing out into Moscow while incredibly exhausted. It was Jean Louis’s last day in Moscow, so we had to go out and do the obligatory group photo by Red Square.

The gang.

On Friday, I flew off on an adventure with some friends to see the city of Volgograd, which was known as Stalingrad during part of Soviet history. I have wanted to go there for a long time, especially since my cousin gave me a handmade, scale model of the famous Motherland Calls statue as a college graduation present. Studying German prisoners of war, I figured it was especially important that I go see the location of the bloodiest battle in history. It was at the Battle of Stalingrad that the course of the Second World War changed in the Eastern Front. It was a major victory for the Red Army, and it was the first one in which they took massive quantities of POWs.

Hero City Volgograd

On Friday afternoon, I headed off with Gustav and Linda from the dorms to meet Erin at Belorussky Train Station. From there, we took the Aeroexpress train to Sheremetyevo together. We easily and quickly printed our boarding passes and made it through security. Feeling peckish, we went to a Shokoladnitsa in the airport and got some food. The service was less than stellar. The table was dirty, and I had to ask the waiter twice to clean it. He still didn’t clean it, and only did so after we tried to flag down different waitresses in vain. When he did finally come to clean it, he left a giant pile of crumbs in front of me, and the others joked that it looked like he was going to push them onto my lap.

After eating, we walked to our gate. Boarding was annoyingly delayed without any announcement as to why or for how long. Eventually, we boarded the plane and pushed back from the gate mostly on time. The flight was relatively pleasant and only lasted about one hour and twenty minutes. Linda was dozing off at one point and tried to refuse the snack, but the flight attendants woke her and insisted that she take her fish sandwich. None of my traveling partners were enthused about the meal, though Gustav thought about taking Linda’s spare sandwich as an additional snack depending on his hunger later.

Back to the orange summer uniform, and with a St. George ribbon for Victory Day.

Volgograd is going to be a host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and it’s quite clear that a lot of infrastructural development in underway. When we landed, we taxied to a far part of the airport, surrounded by gravel access roads. We walked off of the plane and boarded a bus to the terminal. While we waited to depart, I asked one of the lovely Italians back in Moscow to sign me up for laundry on Monday night. I was barred from doing so on Thursday and the sheet would only be available after 6:00PM on Friday. Surrounded by a number of UAZ bukhanki, we rode down to the terminal. We exited at the old, Soviet Terminal A, but it looks like the brand new Terminal C is almost complete. They are in the process of paving new taxi ways and aprons towards the terminals.

Airport paving in the distance.

We then went into the baggage claim area, which like the Murmansk airport, only had a single toilet that we took turns waiting for. Exiting the terminal, I called a Yandex Taxi to take us to our hostel. We got to the car with a quoted price of about 350 rubles. The driver then spoke to me and asked me to cancel the ride so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the commission to Yandex, and then wanted 400 rubles from our group. Without many other options and not wanting to fight over $1.00, we quickly agreed to get in and ride off. He then took us across the city to the hostel and pointed a few things out along the way. At one point, he caught me looking off at a walled building with barbed wire in the distance. “Это зона,” he said (“It’s a prison” – literally, a zone). He then said that there were dachas next to it and that “it’s Russia.” He told us what we had to see in the city over the next few days. He also pointed out the jail when we drove past and laughed. I asked him if he knew anything about the POWs in the city and their role in reconstruction, and he said that they rebuilt the whole city, so I knew my research was off to a good start.

Eventually, we arrived at the very center of the city and where we had booked a room. Through Booking.com, we found a hostel called Hostel Like at Home. We had managed to get a room for four people in it. When we arrived, we were slightly confused because the address was an apartment in a building. I typed the number in the domophone and asked if it was the hostel, and they said that we had booked a room with them. They opened the front door of the building, told us to go up to the fourth floor, and greeted us at the apartment door. It was indeed a converted apartment of a formerly elite caliber. The apartment had four rooms, a kitchen, and a toilet and shower. Our room had a large bed, a sofa bed, and a bunk bed in it. The hosts, husband and wife Nikolai and Lilia, were very friendly and made us immediately feel at home. We set our things down, and they gave us some maps of the city and recommendations for dinner.

We walked out onto the street and at the bottom of our building was a very nice Georgian restaurant, where we decided to have dinner. The weather was a balmby 60 or so degrees, and after the snow of Moscow, it felt delightful. Indeed, on the 12th, I was walking to get lunch at the cafeteria in one archive. To do so, I have to cross an interior courtyard. It was snowing when I went to get lunch. Our waiter at the restaurant was fantastic and friendly, a nice change from the anger of the waiter at the airport café. We were also pleasantly surprised that there was the option to order khakhapuri with two eggs instead of the standard one for ten rubles more.

Perfection in food form.

After dinner, we walked back to the room with a stop to buy some water along the way. We then tried to figure out about bedding for the sofa bed, which Nikolai searched for and later gave us. With the bed pulled out, it was a tight squeeze in the room, but we each had a bed and it was fine.

We slept in a bit on Saturday and woke up to find breakfast waiting for us. There was cereal, yogurt, tea, coffee, bread, and butter. While eating, we befriended a Dutch backpacker who had been traveling around Russia by train. He was leaving Volgograd that day, but he gave us a few tips for what to see in the city. We eventually got our acts together and headed out to see the city.

Our apartment truly was in the center. We were near Lenina (generally the main road in any ex-Russian city that hasn’t been heavily renamed), the water, and the central eternal flame. When we walked to the eternal flame, we noticed a bunch of high school children who were performing an honor guard near it. They even did a changing of the guard with a slow march. From there, we popped down to see the riverbank. We saw a cool clock counting down to the opening of the World Cup, and got mobbed by Russian school children out on excursions.

Just a little over 365 days until the start.

We walked along the waterfront to the Stalingrad Battle panorama museum. Parked outside was a neat T-34 tank, which we took turns climbing. We then spent a few hours walking through the museum. It had a bunch of cool artifacts from the war, such as legendary Vasily Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle. Sadly, there wasn’t anything in the museum for me about POWs. Outside the museum, we walked around the samples of military technology and looked at the ruins of an old mill, which are preserved to show what the battle did to the buildings in the town.

The mill and a reproduction of the famous fountain that appears in numerous war photos.

After the museum, we headed off to find some lunch, which we did at a wok and sushi place, which wasn’t too bad. From there, we walked the last mile and a half along Lenina to Mamaev Kurgan, the park for the Motherland Calls statue. From the bottom, we walked up a series of steps that said “To Our Soviet Motherland – USSR!”

At the top of those steps was a walkway that led to a giant statue and fountain of a WWII soldier holding a grenade and a PPSh machine gun.

From him, we climbed more stairs with reliefs that had popular motivational slogans from the war. There was also patriotic war music playing, like the well known song “The Scared War,” which is the song that kicks off the Victory Day Parade in Moscow.

“Everything for the front. Everything for victory.”

Past more statues and reflecting ponds, we found the entrance to a building that housed an eternal flame and honor guard. On the façade of this building was a series of reliefs depicting Lenin, Red Army soldiers, and to my surprise, German POWs being taken captive. I couldn’t believe that.

“The fascist forces wanted to see the Volga. The Red Army gave them this ‘opportunity.'”

As we entered the hall with the eternal flame, we couldn’t believe our luck to catch the changing of the guard.

We watched from inside and then left when we thought it was done. We then went outside to head our way up the memorial complex, but turned when we heard footsteps getting louder. The soldiers march all the way up the complex and out the top of it.

We were glad to catch them coming out and then walked up to the base of the Mother Russia statue. Along the way, we had a tremendously sobering moment when we saw a sign asking visitors to keep off of the grass as it was a communal grave, which contains remains of 34,505 people.

“Keep off of the mass grave. There are 34,505 buried here.”

Seeing the monument in person was spectacular. We were barred from getting very close as the statue is slightly under renovation.

The Motherland Calls.

We then walked into the nearby chapel before walking down the hill and catching a trolleybus back to the hostel to relax a bit before dinner. We ended up getting food at a Russian restaurant that had a DJ, who curated a sweet soundtrack. We then walked to a local supermarket, where Erin and I bought some Russian beer, which we drank at the hostel before falling asleep.

The next morning, we got up and arranged our transit to the airport the following day with Nikolai. Our flight was to leave at 6:00AM, so we wanted to give them warning and ask about when we should order a cab. Nikolai took care of it all for us while we were out exploring. As we ate out breakfast, a new guest came to stay at the hostel. He was a French backpacker who had flown to Vladivistok and was making his way back to Moscow via train. For reasons we couldn’t understand, neither the French nor the Dutch backpackers spoke much Russian. The French guy mostly sat there as we planned our day. Nikolai seemed sad when we didn’t take him with us for the day, but we had planned to travel far out in the city that day, and there wouldn’t be space for him with us in the taxi.

From the hostel, we walked a few blocks to the basement of the Central Universal Store, or TsUM. Originally, in the basement, there was a Red Army field hospital. As the territory changed hands over the battle, it then became a Wehrmacht field hospital and headquarters of sorts. In this basement, General Field Marshall Friedrich von Paulus was captured by the Red Army. He was perhaps the most notorious German POW in Soviet hands, and Hitler was livid that Paulus allowed himself to be captured instead of killing himself. The museum was also great in that the woman working at the desk remembered us from the Panorama the day before and believed that we were all students. We also found out that photography, including flash photography (usually a huge no-no in Russian museums) was allowed at no extra charged. As we neared the end of the exhibit, one of the directors noticed us and gave us a brief private tour in English and then invited us to join along on the Russian tour, but we sadly had to decline to go off on more adventures.

Paulus being captured.

From the bunker museum, we walked towards the train station hoping to find a place for lunch. We quickly found a burger joint that was Chuck Norris themed. They even had Chuck Norris juice and ketchup and mustard bottles.

Chuck Norris branded everything.

After a quick walk around the train station, and a stop by the recreation of the famous fountain of children around an alligator, we called a Yandex taxi to take us about 45 minutes out in the city to a former German settlement called Sarepta. We got into the cab and I told the driver that I was surprised that he was willing to drive us so far. He said it was only 30 kilometers, which was nothing given that the city itself is 80 kilometers (50 miles) long. Along the way, he laughed when I asked him to turn up a currently popular Russian rap song on the radio called “Ice Melts Between Us.”

At the Sarepta museum, we got to go into exhibits in three buildings of a former German farming settlement. The first building, where we bought the tickets, was actually the last building. We were instructed to head off to a different one, which turned out to be a museum of mustard. Apparently, Volgograd is known for mustard oil, and we got to see how they traditionally extracted it with a candle and hand crank press. In the third building, we got a small view of what rooms looked like that people lived in in the community.

The Museum of Russian Mustard.

From the museum complex, we walked about five minutes to a bus stop to catch a marshrutka that would take us along the Volga-Don Canal and to the largest Lenin statue in the world. It was originally a giant statue of Stalin, which was turned into a Lenin statue during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign.

World’s largest Lenin statue.

Along the statue, there was some sassy graffiti, such as one piece that said “Я жив – В.И. Ленин (I am alive – V.I. Lenin),” which was a play on the famous Soviet slogan “Ленин жил. Ленин жив. Ленин будет жить (Lenin Lived. Lenin is Living. Lenin Will Live.”

“I am living. – V.I. Lenin.”

At the bottom of the statue, there were steps leading to the Volga River. The water seemed to be unusually high and flooding some trees. We also saw a man drive up on a boat and potentially exchange some things and money with some youths. Basically, we may have witnessed a boat based drug deal. So that was fun.

From the Lenin statue, we walked along the river to see the main gate of the Volga-Don Canal, which was a massive Soviet canal project that was completed after the war and largely through the labor of German POWs. The gates were impressive, and as we neared them, we noticed that men were catching fish in the waters. One guy saw us and asked if we wanted to buy fish. I said that we couldn’t, that we had no way to prepare them. He answered that he would give us a bag, and it would be fine. I then explained that we had nowhere to cook the fish, and he let us go.

The entrance to the Volga-Don Canal.

From the Canal, we headed off towards a café that was built around a Yak-40 jet, and decided that it would be a good place to call a taxi back to the center. A driver somewhat quickly accepted the fare, but then I noticed that he wasn’t moving on the map for a long time. I called him and asked why he was taking so long. He said that he didn’t want to drive back to the center, that it was too far and for too little money. He told me that no one would want to drive that far for Yandex. My reply was, “then how did I get here in the first place?” Annoyed, I hung up on him and saw that he was refusing the cancel the order. I cancelled, filed a complaint against him in the system, and then got a different driver. Rather than wasting time again, I called him and asked if he would take us to the address. He seemed confused by my question. He said that he could see on the map that it was where we want to go and asked if we wanted to go somewhere else. Unlike the first driver, he paid attention to the address of the fare and didn’t mind driving us there. We then embarked on a forty minute ride of insanity and terror.

Russian taxi 101.

Our driver, while extremely friendly, drove like a rally driver in a beat up old Nissan station wagon. He was very gopnik, complete with a knockoff Adidas track jacket, and the standard Russian man sunglasses. The car smelled strongly of gasoline, and he weaved in and out of traffic. Once he started talking, he didn’t stop until we arrived at the hostel. At first, he started talking about the Mongol conquest of Russia when Erin and I said we were historians. He then started to talk about a friend who uses a metal detector to search for treasures in the fields, which led to a story about him finding and selling a coin from the era of Peter the Great. The driver then started to talk about some icon that his grandfather had given him. During this conversation, he almost drove us into a truck. He also narrowly avoided running over a large chunk of metal that had fallen off of a different car ahead of us. As he was talking about the icon, he mentioned something about the water of the Volga and quickly pulled off of the road and into a gas station. He then got something out of the trunk and poured it into the gas tank. I’m not sure if he was pulling in gas from a jerry can, as the fuel gauge read E the whole way, or if he was adding dry gas. Either he was supposed to bless his icon in the Volga, or there was water in his fuel. He spoke in a very confusing fashion, which wasn’t helped by the radio and open windows. We got back onto the road, and he then told us about how he had broken up with his girlfriend of five years. Mercifully, we arrived before we could die from his driving.

Exiting the taxi, we popped into a local blini restaurant for an early dinner. The shashlyk blini was depressingly bad. Gustav then headed back to relax while Erin, Linda, and I walked to the water and then into a bookstore. We then returned home where we sat and had tea until nightfall. We had decided to go back to Mamaev Kurgan at night to see it lit up. We took the tramvai there, which in Volgograd is like a miniature metro at times. In the center of the city, the tramvai runs underground and has stations reminiscent of the metro. And, without street traffic, the tramvai was able to go really fast.

Tramvai? Subway? Subvai?

We got out at Mamaev Kurgan and climbed our way up and got lots of photos at night. We also went up past the statue to see if the cemetery was lit up, which it wasn’t, so we turned back and walked back down.

On the way down, we noticed a woman wearing a very strange track suit. Actually, track suits were very popular in Volgograd. She had a green, knockoff Adidas track suit that was very tight. She decided to pair it with a pair of heels that only a stripper would wear. As we walked down, I got a sneak photo. Others were not as covert. One guy with his girlfriend took a photo with a flash. His girlfriend was laughing, and I told her that we had also taken photos. This caused her to burst out laughing to the point of tears.

We climbed down and took the tramvai back to the hostel. There, we had tea with Lilia and Nikolai in the kitchen. We told them about our day’s adventures, while the French guy awkwardly sat there looking at his phone and eating cereal without milk. Lilia asked if we had tried the mustard oil at Sarepta. When we said no, she pulled out a bottle and cut up some bread for us to taste it with. Nikolai reminded us many times that it was better with black bread, while we had to make do with French bread. We also told them that I was studying German prisoners of war, and they told me that they had built their building. Lilia also told me that there is a cemetery in the area that has a new monument and German graves, so it looks like I’ll have to come back to Volgograd. Nikolai then told us that we had to each wake up in 15 minute intervals, which was actually right. He made a joke that we wouldn’t all go in the shower that the same time, but that it was OK with him if we wanted to. He said we were more than welcome to try, but that he couldn’t imagine how we would all fit. Lilia then told him to stop teasing us.

Thus, at 3:00AM this morning, we took shifts waking and dressing before bidding Nikolai goodbye and heading off in the taxi. Our driver this morning was crazy. He laughed when those in the back seat tried to find their seatbelts and said they weren’t necessary, and that no one would get in trouble for not having them. He then drove like a maniac the whole way. At one straightaway, he accelerated up to 155kph, or 95mph, and took his hands off of the wheel to see if the car would track straight. The instrument cluster was also lit up like a Christmas tree. ABS? ESP? Those are for cowards. He almost crashed us into the back of a car that didn’t move over for us, and aggressively passed a series of other drivers. He then dropped us off at Terminal C, which was the wrong Terminal. We then walked over to the dilapidated, Soviet Terminal A, where we checked in. At check in, Gustav had a run in with the man putting on the baggage tags. The guy said that he would have to check his bag because he had a small wheeled carry on and a small backpack. I said that he was allowed to have a bag and a smaller second bag that’s a personal item. He then countered about the weight of Gustav’s bag, which was heavy due to his school books, but the issue was quickly resolved by the woman working at the check-in computer, who said he was going to Moscow and that it was fine for him to take the bag onboard.

The new terminal, which was still closed, at least for our flight.

Before passing through security, we had a breakfast, which was packed for us by Lilia. She had given each of us a juice box and a bear shaped treat that are filled and made for kids. We then made it through security and killed time before getting onto a bus to the plane. It was a little unclear which gate was for our plane, and no one seemed to work at the airport to tell us. The flight was uneventful, and we landed in Moscow without any issues. We got on a bus, walked through the airport, and ran to catch the 8:30 Aeroexpress train. I then went back and took a nap before wandering around Moscow with my adviser, but that is a story for another time.

May 9th, or Victory Day (День Победы, Den’ Pobedy), is a major Russian holiday at commemorates Soviet victory in World War Two in the European theater of war. The first Victory Parade was held in Moscow at Red Square on June 24, 1945. After that, though, Victory Day was not a holiday, and did not become so until 1965 and the 20th anniversary of the ending of WWII. During the Brezhnev era, the Soviet victory over fascism became a point of stability and self-worth for the Soviet government. It was under Brezhnev that the Cult of WWII became a phenomenon and part of Soviet society. Major parades on Victory Day, though, were reserved for large anniversaries of the date. Only four Victory Parades took place in the Soviet Union, in 1945, 1965, 1985, and 1990. The major military parades were saved for the anniversary of the October Revolution, which was celebrated on November 7th (when the Revolution took place, the Russians still used the Julian calendar; the Soviets switched the nation over to the Gregorian calendar). Under Putin, however, the Victory Day parade has become a staple, and the Cult of WWII has regained a prominent place in Russian society. As a fan of military technology and the stereotypical images of tanks and ICBMs rolling down Red Square, it was a dream come true to be in Moscow for Victory Day.

ICBM in downtown Moscow. No big deal.

Due to the importance of the event, a number of practices are held in the weeks leading up to the parade. One night after Taekwondo, Jean Louis found out about the practice, so we headed off to Red Square around 9:45PM in the cold and rain. We were able to stand near the Okhotnoy Ryad Metro entrance and see all of the tanks parked and ready to roll onto Red Square. As we stood under the rain, we heard the soldiers on Red Square shout “УРА” (Hooray) before the machines started up and rolled past us. It was absolutely unreal to stand meters away from moving tanks, missile launchers, and ICBMs. It’s one thing to see them in museums, but it’s completely different to feel the sidewalk shaking underfoot as the trundle past at speed.

A few days later, I managed to see another practice off of Tverskaya Ulitsa, one of the main roads in downtown Moscow. This practice was held earlier in the evening, or rather, I saw the technology roll by closer to 7:00PM. They would then wait outside of Red Square and would again drive onto Red Square after 10:00PM, once the soldiers had finished their marches. I went with two of my dorm neighbors, Gustav and Linda, and we were again very lucky to get right up to the barricade near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop. This repetition was even better because it was daylight. Because we were at the spot where the tanks turn off of the Garden Ring and onto Tverskaya, there were some gaps in the procession and differences in speed of the vehicles. Trying to catch up to the ones ahead, some of the tanks were clearly driving at full speed when they went past. You could see the damage they were doing to the pavement.

On Sunday morning, I had been having brunch with Jean Louis on the 8th floor. While we were cleaning up, we got the surprise of a lifetime with the practice for the aerial portion of the parade. Our dormitory is right under the flight path towards Red Square, and the planes were just overhead. The view from the kitchen window was perfect. I geeked out as I saw a number of really cool planes fly over, such as an Antonov An-124 Ruslan (the largest military transport plane in the world), and the Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. The Tu-95 is known as the Bear bomber according to NATO, and it is Russia’s equivalent to the B-52. It’s the USSR/Russia’s strategic long-range bomber that can drop nukes and conventional bombs as well as fire cruise missiles. Unlike the B-52, which is jet powered, the Tu-95 features 4 turbo-prop engines with 8 contra-rotating propellers.

A trio of Tu-95s.

It’s one of the fastest propeller driven aircraft and is also one of the loudest military aircraft. The noise of them flying overhead was deafening. You could hear them from really far off, and that must have been somewhat what it was like to live through the Blitz, hearing propeller bombers approaching from far off. The sound meant that nothing good could be coming. There was also a sweet flyover of various fighter jets and bombers, which were in great patterns. The final planes dropped smoke in the color of the Russian flag, which was great.

On Victory Day itself, I woke up at 6:30 so that I could leave the dorm at 7:00 to head off to Tverskaya, one of the main roads in Moscow to try to watch the military vehicles parade down the roads. The major ceremony takes place at Red Square, but only diplomats, veterans, and special guests can go to see the parade in person. It’s an invitation only event. Myself and a few others braved the cold weather and rain to head to the same spot on Tverskaya just past the Mayakovskaya Metro stop to catch the machinery roll by before parking off of Red Square. The official ceremony starts at 10:00AM. We figured we could see the stuff and then wait for the planes to fly over.

When we got there around 7:30, we spoke to a few cops and they said that the stuff had already gone by at around 7:00 if not earlier. While deliberating what to do, Jean Louis was briefly interview for some Russian TV channel. Slightly discouraged by the lack of tanks, we walked by foot in the direction of Red Square to see how close we could get. The closest, near the Teatralnaya Metro stop, didn’t give us views of anything. The others talked about maybe going to one particular spot, and I wasn’t sure what would or wouldn’t be visible from there.

I walked back to the dorm to have a quick chat with the security guards about going on the roof. The guy in the first building said that he didn’t have a key to the roof, and to ask the guys in the main building. He told me to tell him if the other guards had the key, because he also wanted to go on the roof to watch the planes fly over. So I went off to the main building and asked the guard there if he had a key to the roof so that we could watch the planes. He said that he didn’t have it, and that he himself had been searching for it for the same reason. I wished him a happy holiday, and he said he would unlock the main door for me to leave. We then stood there for a solid minute while he tried to unlock the door. Once again, I was reminded at how deadly every exit to the university potentially is.

On the street, I ran into an acquaintance named Anna. She said she was waiting for her friend Dasha, and that they were going to go to Tverskaya together to watch the tanks. I said that I had been told that they had already gone by, and she said that was crazy. By this time it was already nearing 9:00AM. She said that the first vehicles, such as the T-34 tank on a trailer (70+ year old tanks aren’t meant to drive miles down the roads of Moscow), were probably what had gone by.

The T-34 gets special treatment. It was the tank that won WWII, and the first to use sloped armor.

We then set off to the Mayakovskaya station to get a spot and wait for Dasha. When we got to the station, a cop was announcing on a megaphone that the tanks had already gone by, and he listed a few places for us to go to see them, once of which was where the others had gathered.

We hopped on the Metro and rode to the center, to a station where there are four stations together. It turns out that we could only exit from one of them, which means we had to walk through basically three others to get to the street. We exited at Arbatskaya and stood in a fairly thick crowd. By chance, another acquaintance, Dima, was there and saw me. He said hello and told us how to join up with the others, so we quickly walked off and wound up on a hill overlooking the exit of the Kremlin, right were the vehicles would leave the Kremlin and drive up and through the city.

Sadly, from that point it’s impossible to see the foot soldiers. The parade of vehicles was just as cool as when I saw the various repetitions. On one hand, the practices were better because I was closer to the vehicles, but it’s something else to see them rolling with the Kremlin walls in the background.

С Днём Победы! Happy Victory Day!

As soon as the tanks passed, the police made announcements for the crowd to disperse. Due to the poor weather, the planes had been cancelled. Some people were saying that it was the coldest Victory Day ever. While I’m not sure of that, I do know that it was indeed cold. On the 8th, it alternated between raining heavily and snowing. I thought that this was intentional. The Russians do something to the clouds to push them out of the sky and cause them to rain before and after the holiday so that the skies are clear on the holiday itself. They either didn’t do it, or it was too cold and the clouds were too saturated. The temperature on Victory Day ranged from the mid-30s to the mid-40s Fahrenheit, and it rained on and off for most of the day. The weather was evidently bad enough that they decided not to do the fly overs. Slightly dejected, we wandered off to get food. We wound up back by Pushkin Square, which was filled with a parade for various political parties including the Communist Party and one that was for the restoration of the monarchy.

Lenin Lived. Lenin Lives. Lenin Will Live.

I wound up getting a photo with some Communist pilots, who I think used to fly for Aeroflot.

With my new pilot friends.

After getting cut off a few times, we eventually wound up in a good cafeteria where we all chowed down and regained some energy. We then walked to the Hermitage Garden, where there was a smaller collection of Victory Day activities. There were a number of old GAZ Volga cars, and there was a Ural motorcycle that we could sit on. There was a concert of military music, and there was a special ceremony of thanks and recognition for a few veterans of WWII. There are still a few of them around, and they were proudly enjoying the day’s activities. From there, we walked back to RGGU to have tea and rest up for other activities.

To Berlin!

Around 7:15, Jean Louis asked if I wanted to get dinner with him. We walked to the store and got some booze and then grabbed some food from McDonald’s, which we ate in the 9th floor kitchen. Izaro was making herself pasta, and Étienne was sitting and having a cup of noodles. Jean Louis then invited him to the fireworks. Gustav also joined us, and we hopped in the metro to ride off to Park Pobedy, Victory Park. The show was supposed to start at 10:00, so we left before 9:00. When we changed stations at Kievskaya, we all piled into an overcrowded car for the one stop to Victory Park. In the station, we met up with Dima, and then we proceeded out and to the park. To get into the park we had to wait in line to go through metal detectors. The crowd was pretty tight getting through security, but once we were inside it was OK, as the park is huge. We then met up with the Italians and two Germans. At 10:00, the fireworks began and lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes.

This might be slightly better than the 4th of July.

Leaving the park was quite difficult. As soon as the fireworks ended, people rushed the exits. We went towards the exit, but all movement stopped pretty quickly. We stood unmoving for quite some time. We then tried to see if we could go out a different exit, but it had been blocked. We were essentially locked into the park by police barricades. Only after a while did they open the main barricade that was stopping us. We got shuffled and pushed towards the exit with the mob. We unfortunately lost two of our friends in the process. As we approached the entrance to the metro, the mob was bonkers. We were being crushed and pushed from every direction as everyone rushed to get down the stairs. Once a few steps into the metro entrance, however, the crowd dispersed and we were able to have some space to ourselves and make sure everyone was there to head home.

Packed metro. All of these people were exiting the station.

In total, Victory Day was absolutely fantastic. I fulfilled a dream of mine to be in Moscow on Victory Day, which is everything I had hoped it would be and more. I also walked 13 miles over the course of the day, so my body feels like one of the tanks rolled over me. And now I have to leave for the former Party Archive, where I will spend my day reading about POWs. Life is never dull as a WWII historian.

I just got back from a weekend trip to Yerevan, Armenia. I’ve wanted to go to Armenia since my sophomore year of college. In spring 2009, I took a course in the politics of the ex-USSR. We studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and how it impacted each of the 15 republics, as well as many of the Eastern Bloc nations. A major component of the course was to spend a semester studying one of those nations. We had to write a research paper on them as well as make drafts of a Wikipedia page of sorts for the country. The professor told us that it would behoove us to choose a country that had a close history or political relationship with another country. The other country would be our partner, and we were supposed to help each other out. My good friend Lauren and I met to strategize and pick nations that we thought would work well together and wouldn’t be immediately chosen by others. Being a huge fan of the band System of a Down, I wanted to go with Armenia. For those of you unfamiliar with System of a Down, they’re a metal band from Los Angeles. Each of the members is of Armenian heritage. They played a great concert at Yerevan’s Freedom Square in 2015 for the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Lauren chose Azerbaijan, and our semester of research took off without a hitch. After spending months researching Armenia, I became fascinated by it. I even strongly considered applying for a Fulbright ETA to Armenia instead of Russia. Although Russia won out in that decision process, I had not given up on eventually going to Armenia. Thankfully, one of my fellow ASEEES grantees has been doing research in a few republics other than Russia. Erin was wonderful and let me visit her and crash at her place.

On Friday morning, I headed off to the airport. On the way out of the dorm, the strictest dezhurnaya, Olga, saw me leaving and asked why I was leaving so soon. She had evidently noticed that I had not been around for a few weeks and was confused as to why I was again heading out of the dorm at an early hour with a full backpack. I explained that I was going to Yerevan for the weekend to visit a friend researching there, and that I had to do the super quick turnaround due to Russian migration laws. When you travel within Russia, or return from abroad, you have to register your place of living. I traveled to Ulyanovsk when I did to make sure that I could see two of my best friends and to ensure that I wouldn’t have problems with migration concerning the trip to Armenia. I had booked the tickets to Armenia moderately far in advance with regards to Erin’s schedule. Immediately after returning from Kazakhstan, I handed in my papers at the university to register at the dorms. According to Russian migration laws, a foreigner has to register their visa within 7 business days in a new city. Then, when I traveled to Ulyanovsk, I registered at my friend Ira’s apartment. It takes me a week to get my registration from the university, as opposed to immediately if registering with a private citizen through a post-office or police station, so I knew I wouldn’t have time to reregister after Ulyanovsk before heading to Armenia. That’s why I decided to come back from Ulyanovsk on a Wednesday and fly out on a Friday, I wouldn’t have to bother with reregistering.

The flight left Sheremetyevo a little late, but we were scheduled to land early. The flight was mostly fine. It wasn’t quite the steal of $15 roundtrip to Kazakhstan, but the miles reward flight only cost me $50 roundtrip. We got the standard “breakfast” meal of a fish sandwich, yogurt, and chocolate bar with a drink. Around the time that they were serving me, we started to hit some light turbulence, so they stopped the hot drink service. After the meal service was cleaned up, we hit some moderate turbulence. You know it’s never a good sign when they tell the crew to take their seats. We were jostled fairly roughly for about five or ten minutes. After that, though, it was fairly smooth into Yerevan. My plane even had WiFi for streaming of entertainment on personal devises. There’s a reason why Aeroflot has recently become the top rated European airline.

Entertainment on your device on some B737s.

The skies were clear, so I had a great view of the mountains, countryside, and city the whole way into the airport, which was pretty awesome.

Passing through customs was also a breeze. Although a few flights had landed around the same time, we moved through the line quickly and efficiently as there were about 15 customs officers working to process all of the passengers.

After making it through the airport, I met Erin and we grabbed a taxi back to her place. We managed to take the same taxi that had dropped her off at the airport. She had told the driver that she was picking me up, and he had given her his number and told her to call in case he was still around. To my glee, our taxi was a 1997 Mercedes W210. Erin spoke with the driver in Armenian, but he also spoke Russian, so I questioned him about his car a little. He seemed pleased that I was so interested in it. While on the topic of cars, Armenia was a vehicular paradise for me. Many of the cars are old Mercedes, mostly C and E classes from 1995-2003.

1997 W210. A luxury ride into Yerevan.

There are also a smattering of Baby Benzes, the W201, and a few of my beloved W124s, though those were rarer and are generally post-1990 face lift models. There were also a fair number of newer E Classes of the W211 and W212 models, a smattering of W140 S Classes, and a surprising number of Geländewagens. For the German car nut, Armenia is probably a place to travel to hunt what are becoming collector’s items in the USA and Europe. I saw a few 190Es plus some rarer tuned Mercedes. There were a handful done by Brabus or Carlsson. However, I’m not sure how legitimate all of these are. My taxi back to the airport on Monday was clearly modified. For example, the driver had affixed a gear knob that said V12, and the steering wheel was from a 2002 or so W210, and not 1998, which he said the model was. I’m also second guessing the authenticity of some of the W124s. A former neighbor from Ulyanovsk lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He told me that it’s common to apply the newer body kits to the first generation W124s. He did that himself to his W124.

A common view of lots of Mercedes.

Mercedes were by far the German car of choice in Armenia, but there were also some great BMWs, including a drool worthy M3, and some Audis. Opels were also quite common on the streets. German cars made up either 1/3 or ½ of the cars on the road. The remaining models were split between Soviet cars, like Lada Zhigulis and Nivas, or my beloved UAZ and odds and ends of other companies from Europe, America, and Asia. I asked my driver back to the airport on Monday about all of the Mercedes in Yerevan. I wondered if there was a company that bought them wholesale and brought them in, but he said it was all private buyers who went to Germany and drove them back.

The green 190E on the left is a collector’s item now.

After dropping off my stuff at Erin’s apartment, we set off to explore downtown Yerevan and grab some lunch. Our first order of business was to walk down to the main street and hop in a marshrutka, which took us further into the center. In Armenia, the marshrutki are predominantly old GAZelle models. Unlike in Russia, you pay when exiting the marshrutka. Also, unlike in Russia, you can stand in the old model of marshrutka.

In the center, we headed to a hipster microbrewery. There is a vibrant Armenian community in Los Angeles, and it seems that some of LA has moved back to Yerevan. The microbrewery had excellent beers, one of which was an apricot wheat lager. Armenia is known for its fruits, one of which is apricot. The menu had sassy descriptions of trendy foods such as Tex-Mex and poutine. While I am generally missing Mexican food in Russia, I couldn’t help but order the poutine to troll my Canadian friends. It was delicious and I regret nothing.

“Any resemblance with the name of a well-known politician is out of pure coincidence.”

Erin and I also ended up splitting a tasting flight of the local brews, all of which were great. In addition to the superb apricot beer, there was also a wonderful and tart cherry one.

Delicious.

From lunch, we wandered around one of the main squares of Yerevan, Opera, and then we popped into one of Yerevan’s many cafés to have a pick me up of coffee. Yerevan has a very European feel. It reminds me a lot of France, actually. There is a huge coffee and café culture. Everyone enjoys sitting out on the street, sipping coffee, and watching the crowds go by. Yerevan is also moderately accessible for a foreign traveler, especially one with knowledge of Russian. Most people over 30 are bilingual in Armenian and Russian. People under 30 seem to be bilingual in Armenian and English, or are trilingual with Russian.

Cafe life.

Architecturally, Yerevan is also a mixture of Soviet and European. Although many of the older buildings are in the standardized Soviet five or nine-story blocks, they have their own character. There is a lot of volcanic stone in Armenia, the most common of which is in a pinkish hue. Most of the buildings are constructed of this local stone, so they don’t have the same depressing quality as the grey blocks of the rest of the USSR. Located on the periphery of the Soviet Union, it seems that Armenia was also granted some leniencies to allow its local culture to flourish. Again, which the buildings are in somewhat standardized configurations, they often had uniform and ornate balconies as well as embellishments such as carvings and columns. While this architectural style is often vaguely brutal in the terms of Stalin’s neoclassical style, in Armenia it makes everything look like a Mediterranean paradise.

Armenian architecture.

From coffee, Erin and I relaxed a bit before changing, grabbing a taxi, and heading off to another one of Yerevan’s venerated traditions, a jazz club. We went to the most famous venue in Yerevan, Malkhas Jazz Club. There’s live jazz starting at 9:00PM nightly. We went and had a nice table with a decent view of the musicians on the ground floor. The band was great, and the food and drinks only added to the experience. I was able to get a perfectly cooked, rare filet mignon for about $10. The White Russian I had with it made it an evening of surprisingly affordable decadence. The cover charge, food, drink, water, and gratuity was less than $25.00 for me. That’s another nice and handy thing in Armenia. In most restaurants and cafés, a 10% gratuity is automatically applied to the bill.

Steak, cocktails, and live jazz. Pure paradise.

On Saturday morning, Erin and I ventured out of Yerevan to two nearby and major sites. Her landlord gave us the number of a taxi driver, who took us out and back for about $25.00. He picked us up from the apartment, which is actually right next to his usual corner taxi stand, and drove us about an hour out of the city along the winding roads of the countryside to Garni and Geghard.

The countryside in Armenia is simply stunning. Yerevan itself is built at the base of and then up a mountain. We drove up the mountain and then found ourselves riding along road paradise. I would love to rent a car and drive around the back roads for a week or two. Unlike in Georgia, the drivers seemed fairly calm and more or less respected the lines on the road and kept to reasonable speeds. Along the road, we passed stands selling local food delicacies, small villages, dacha settlements, and a very interesting farm fresh butcher. There was a shepherd with a pen of sheep. You could pick out the sheep and the guy would kill, skin, and cut it for you on the roadside. Farm fresh eating indeed. Sadly, I didn’t manage to catch a picture of that.

The magical Armenian countryside.

The first place we went was the Temple of Garni. It was probably built in the First Century AD to a sun god. It was repurposed into a royal residence after Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. According to Wikipedia, it was ruined in an earthquake in the 17th century, and was later rediscovered during archeological digs. The Soviets reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s the only Greco-Roman colonnade building in the former Soviet Union. The temple itself was pretty impressive, but the views from it of the mountains, valleys, and rivers were stunning.

Garni.

While walking back to the taxi, we popped by the stands of local food vendors and acquired a few provisions for our travels. We bought a fruit leather called T’tu Lavash or Lavashak. Basically, fruit is cooked down with water and then spread out to bake, traditionally in the sun. Think of it as an all-natural fruit roll up. I believe we got a pomegranate one. We also got a second one that was apricot that had walnuts rolled up with it. Finally, we got a traditional bread that’s frequently sold at Garni and Geghard called Gata. It’s a sweet bread, and the local variant is filled with something called koritz. It has the consistency and almost the taste of marzipan, but it’s just flour, sugar, and butter.

Gata.

Armed with snacks, we got back into our taxi and rode to Geghard, which is a monastery complex that’s partially carved out of a mountain.

The complex was founded in the 4th Century and the main chapel was built in 1215. Perhaps few know the religious history of Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st Century AD, and Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD. In comparison, the Roman Empire Christianized under Constantine the Great during his reign from 306-337 AD and it only became the state religion by the end of the 4th Century. Kievan Rus’, a predecessor of the Russian Empire Christianized in 988.

We wandered around the various caves and chapels in the complex before having a picnic in the shade on the back side of the territory. The monastery was pretty austere.

Many of the monks lived in little cells that were hewn out of the mountain. Being fairly isolated from society, the monks took to harvesting honey for nourishment. This tradition continues to this day, and there are a ton of bee hives around the territory of the monastery.

Geghard.

After our picnic, we rode back into the city and rested for a  bit before walking into the center of Yerevan. We walked around one of the other main sites, the Cascade, before grabbing dinner at a Caucasian restaurant called Kavkaz that had a mixture of Armenia, Persian, and Georgian foods. We split a delightful khachipuri; a dolma platter (pronounced tolma in Armenian) which included stuffed cabbage, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes; and a meat, potato, and spice dish called ker u sus that translates along the lines of “shut up and eat.” Everything was delicious and I was too busy stuffing my face to remember to take a photo of the meal. We also had a cool yogurt drink called Tan. It’s basically just watered down yogurt, and it’s super refreshing and cooling, especially in the hot weather. Coming from Moscow, it was indeed hot in Armenia. When I left Moscow, it was around freezing, and it was in the 70s during the day each day in Armenia. It was a treat to walk around in short sleeves and to sit outside for most of our meals.

After dinner, we headed to a rock club called the Stop Club to catch a band playing covers of 70s hard rock. They were pretty good. They played the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and the Doors among others. The mostly stuck to bluesy hard rock.

You can still smoke indoors in Armenia. The singer always had a cigarette in his hand.

On Sunday morning, we had a later start and walked into the downtown for brunch outside at a wine restaurant before making our way up the Cascade.

The Cascade.

With the inside of the Cascade is the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The museum is broken up into five levels that go up and into the mountain. On each level, it’s possible to walk out onto the Cascade and get different views of the city. It’s also a convenient way of heading up the mountain. The last few flights have to be done on foot.

Downtown Yerevan from the Cascade.

At the peak, there is the Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia, as well as a planned but still unfinished space for the expansion of the monuments and museum space of the Cascade.

50 Years of Soviet Armenia.

From the top of the Cascade, it’s a quick walk over to Victory Park, which has a variety of war monuments ranging from those who died during WWII to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The highlight of Victory Park is the Mother Armenia statue, which originally was a statue of Stalin that was only taken down in 1967.

Mother Armenia.

One cool part of this Victory Park is that no one seems to care if you climb on the military hardware on display around the base of the Mother Armenia statue. One piece of hardware is a T-34 tank, which was the main Soviet tank of WWII. It was the first tank to use sloped armor, and is sometimes known as the tank that won WWII. I, naturally, never pass up the opportunity to climb one if it is offered. It’s dissertation research at this point.

На Берлин! To Berlin!

We then took a marshrutka back down into the city so that we could take a ride on the Yerevan Metro. The marshrutka was already full, so we had to stand for the ride down the hill, which was a little unpleasant. The driver was speeding, and I made the mistake of looking at his instrument cluster. What I found was a series of broken gauges. The rev counter was stuck at 5,500 RPM, the speedometer didn’t function, and the needles were missing from the fuel and oil gauges. Thankfully, we arrived without harm, and hopped into the metro. It was opened in 1981, and looks like most Soviet metros. It is built with the simpler caterpillar design of halls, but they are moderately ornamented with national themes.

The cars themselves are the standard 1970s design that continues to run in Moscow and Tbilisi, but like in Tbilisi, the cars have been renovated recently with investment from the European Union.

While not as frequent as the Moscow Metro, trains run every 5 minutes.

From the Metro, we walked back to Erin’s place with a quick pit stop at a vendor by her street. I had noticed a man selling homemade wine and spirits out of the back of his Lada. He was selling them in recycled water and soda bottles.

Buying wine from the back of a Lada. What could go wrong?

I asked what he had to offer. He had a variety of flavors of wine including raspberry and cherry. He offered a sample of the raspberry wine, which I bought a bottle of for about $3.00.

The delicious raspberry wine.

Erin and I then relaxed and had some wine in her apartment before walking into the center for dinner at an Indian restaurant. Stuffed to the gills with butter chicken, lentils, and nan,we walked to the second main square of Yerevan, Freedom Square, via a quick stop at Opera Square again. We saw the start of a rally on the eve of Genocide Remembrance Day. We didn’t quite catch the start, but people had gathered for a candlelight vigil before marching off somewhere else in the city.

Gathering at Opera, the standard point for mass meetings in Yerevan.

Freedom Square was nicely lit up at night, and they have a fountain, light, and music show in the evenings called the Singing Fountains, which we watched for a while. The song choices were quite eclectic. When we approached the square, we heard Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” before also hearing Wing’s “Live and Let Die,” “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King, and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” From Freedom Square, we hopped back on the Metro and went home for an earlier evening.

On Monday morning, we woke up early so that we could attend the traditional ceremony for Genocide Remembrance Day. April 24th is a holiday in Armenia for that cause. From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire launched a genocide against its Armenian population. The arrest deportation of Armenian intellectuals, which started on April 24, 1915, is seen as the starting date of the Genocide. Every year, Armenians gather at the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd to walk up the hill to the monument and lay flowers inside the memorial. One of Erin’s Armenian friends said that we should get there around 8:00 to avoid waiting for a very long time. We got up and walked to the taxi stand at the end of Erin’s street and found a nice man with a W140 S Class to drive us as far as the bridge that leads up to the memorial complex. Some of the roads were closed to regular traffic to accommodate the large crowds heading to the memorial. Incidentally, this was the first time that I got to ride in a W140, so I was pretty excited. I was not excited, however, when the driver used most of the power of the V8 engine to rocket us down the hill while his break wear indicator light was on. My only consolation was that these cars are absolute tanks, and unlike in Georgia or Central Asia, the seatbelts in the backseat were still installed and functioning.

Heading into the Genocide Memorial.

We walked across the bridge and found a flower vendor near the base of the complex. We climbed up the hill with the crowds and eventually wound up in a fairly large crowd at the top of the hill to wait our turn to enter the memorial and lay our flowers around the eternal flame. The ceremony was understandably a very big deal, and a variety of news outlets were televising the procession.

The flowers at roughly 8:20AM.

The event was also incredibly well organized. The crowd was funneled up the complex to the monument along one main path. From the top, the crowd was then taken down to the other side along a different path. At the base of the path, there were free busses, which were there to take people either back to the other side of the memorial or to one of the metro stops, which we rode on back to Erin’s neighborhood. We then walked back into town for a brunch at a café where I had something that more or less approximated a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a bagel. We then strolled back to her apartment with a stop via a nice bakery for some cookies.

After a quick drink of a little more of the raspberry wine, we headed outside for my taxi back to the airport. We had arranged with the guy who drove us to the Genocide Memorial for a taxi to take me to the airport. The guy was supposed to be at the apartment at 12:15, but when he wasn’t there around 12:30 we deiced to call a taxi through Armenia’s version of Uber, GG Taxi. At the same time that the GG Taxi arrived, the other driver showed up. He was slightly annoyed that we had called a GG Taxi, but it was his loss for showing up about 20 minutes late for a ride to the airport. I was also not so secretly happy to get to ride back to the airport in a 1998 W210.

A slightly modified 1998 W210.

I had already checked in for my flight, so I just had to wait in line for a short bit to get a boarding pass. Immigration control once again went very quickly with the 20 or so kiosks that were set up to process travelers. The terminal itself is fairly new and quite small. There are about six gates, a few kiosks for food and drink, and newsstand, and great lounge chairs with views of the runway, Mount Ararat, and free WiFi.

Probably one of the nicest airport terminals I’ve ever been in.

Although our plane boarded a few minutes late, we pushed back from the gate 2 minutes ahead of schedule. The flight was calm after some light turbulence around takeoff, and we landed in Moscow 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I made it through immigration reasonably quickly and without issues and was back in my dorm well ahead of my 9:00PM laundry slot. And so concludes a the trip to my 6th ex-Soviet Republic.

Yesterday morning, I returned from a two week trip to Ulyanovsk. I went in order to do research in local archives there. Of course, I also spent time catching up with friends. I even served as a tour guide for a few days. Anne-Marie has been traveling a bit around Russia and wanted to see the city that I’m always raving about, so we went together for the first few days.

The view from third class.

We left Moscow on a Monday night on the train. Anne-Marie and I ended up getting spots in platskart, or third class. I’ve never ridden in third class before, and she had never been on a sleeper train, so it was quite the adventure for both of us. Third class is an open train carriage with roughly 6 sleeping places grouped together. Like in kupe, or second class, there are four spots around a table, two upper and two lower. As there are no doors diving the spaces, there is more space along the walkways in third class, so there are two bunks that go along the windows. Anne-Marie got the upper bunk on the hallway, and I got my preferred lower bunk. Our neighbors on the ride to Ulyanovsk were fairly nice but weren’t talkative with us. They left us to our own devices.

The typical Russian train experience.

On another train adventure, Anne-Marie and I walked down almost the entire length of the train to check out the restaurant car. I had never been to one on a Russian train, and she was curious. The crossings between the train carriages were pretty scary at times, but we made it to the restaurant and back for a beer.

The restaurant car.

We arrived in Ulyanovsk on a Tuesday morning. We hopped in a cab to meet my friend Ira at a language school. Ira was incredibly generous and let the two of us stay with her, and then continued to let me stay with her the whole time. After a detour to the famous Shashlychnaya on Federatsiya, we dropped off our stuff in the apartment and got another set of keys made before I showed Anne-Marie around the major streets and sights of the center.

The best shashlyk. Period.

One of our stops was the Lenin Memorial Museum. Sometime since the summer of 2014, they redid some of the exhibits. We enjoyed the museum, but I was upset because my favorite exhibit is gone. My favorite item there was the giant socialist-realist carpet with Lenin, scientists, and farmers. I asked a woman working there where the carpet had gone. “I see you’ve been here before,” she stated. She then said that they had slightly changed the exhibit, and that’s just the way that it would be for a while.

The most beautiful carpet c. 2014.

Thankfully, the portrait of Brezhnev made out of various grains is still in place. It’s a small consolation.

Brezhnev in grainy glory.

The next day, we went to a series of other museums along Lenin and Tolstoy Streets. My former Russian teacher, her friend Olga, and the new Fulbrighter at the Politech went on the excursions with us. It was my fourth trip to the architecture museum, I think, and when we went inside my Russian teacher said that it was now my turn to give the tours. In Russian! So I complied and talked about the formation of the Simbirsk Kremlin by Bogdan Khitrovo on the banks of the Volga, then the edge of the Russian state.

Some of the other important food tours of Ulyanovsk included shawarma from Shawarman (the best shawarma in Russia!) and a donut from Donut Family.

Pure joy. Danila, you make some really good donuts!

On Thursday, we got up and headed to one of my favorite museums in the world, the Museum of Civil Aviation. It’s a moderately sized aviation museum on the outskirts of the city by the old airport. While it may not be huge, I think it’s the best aviation museum in the world because you can enter a few of the planes and sit in the cockpits. We had a ball wandering around the Tu-124.

You know you would want us to be your Captain and First Officer.

When we arrived, we were told that the Tu-144, the Soviet Concorde, was closed. After having fun, we went back to the office to ask how to take a bus back, as we had taken a taxi to get to the museum. A new man was sitting in the office and was curious about our accents. He got very excited when we said we were from the USA and Canada. He then made some jokes about maple syrup and silver dollars. I jokingly said I had American Marlboros, which I would trade to get into the Concorde. He said we could go into the Concorde anyway, but gladly took two cigarettes. As we were being let into the Concorde by the woman who sold us the tickets, she told us that the man was the director of the museum. After playing around inside the Concorde for a bit, we went back into the office where we had tea with the director and museum employees. The director is an incredibly friendly and generous man, who invited us back to the museum for a private tour with him.

With the wonderful director!

From the aviation museum, we got another meal at the shashlychnaya before heading to the Fire Museum. I had never been there before. The highlights of this particular museum are uniforms that you can try on as well as a cool 1938 GAZ-AA fire truck and a Ural motorcycle with sidecar that had been transformed into a fire vehicle.

Ural Motorcycle.

Sadly, the fun had to end, and Anne-Marie went back to Moscow on the train on Thursday night, while I began my work. On Friday morning, I went to work in the Archive of Modern History, or the former Communist Party Archive for Ulyanovsk. I had tried calling their phone number a few times so that I would not be showing up unannounced but no one answered. I went to the archive and saw the security guard inside and said that I had called and was trying to find out about receiving permission to work there. He told me to wait a second, got up, opened a door, and shouted, “The American is here!” From there I was introduced to the head of the reading room, who told me that the reading room was closed on Fridays and Mondays, but that I was welcome to work in them on those days anyway. She then introduced me to the director of the archive, with whom I chatted for a few minutes. She asked me about my topic and RGGU, because she graduated from the archive and history department there.

The building in the background is the archive.

In the reading room, the worker showed me a series of helpful books. She also give me a complete electronic folder of documents and photos about one particular street in the city, which was built by German POWs. The reading room itself was very comfortable, and it had plenty of outlets for computers. It also had really neat displays on the wall from the 1980s about representatives from Ulyanovsk going to various Communist Party Conferences in Moscow, such as the famed 20th Party Congress in which Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” that denounced Stalin and his cult.

On Saturday morning, I woke up early and walked off to my friend Natasha’s apartment to get into a taxi to the bus station with her. We took a long distance marshrutka to Tolyatti, with Alex, who is the Fulbright ETA from the Ulyanovsk State University (the Lehigh to the Lafayette of the Ulyanovsk State Technical University). I’ve wanted to go to Tolyatti for a long time, and mentioned it to Natasha when she told me that she was going there to visit her boyfriend, who is from there. She said that it could easily be arranged for us to travel there. My interest in Tolyatti is that it is the location of AvtoVAZ, the Russian car company that makes the Lada. It was built in the late 1960s with the help of the Italians and the Fiat Corporation. The infamous Lada Zhiguli is really a modified Fiat 124.

We rode in the marshrutka quite comfortably. We got out for a quick stop when we got to Dmitrovgrad, the second largest city in the Ulyanovsk Oblast. We took a photo together there and almost got run over in the process. After more hours of riding, and passing some Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy, we got to Tolyatti, where Natasha’s boyfriend Sasha met us with his car.

He took us to the main overlook of the Volga river and told us that Tolyatti was originally called Stavropol-Na-Volge, of Stavropol on the Volga. Two important things happened to the city in recent times. The first was the construction of the Kuybyshev Dam and Reservoir in the 1950s. This caused the city to be completed moved. The reservoir ended up flooding the old city completely. Thus, Tolyatti is a completely new and Soviet city. Sasha said that when the water level is really low, you can walk along the banks of the Volga and find remnants of the old buildings or grave stones from the cemetery. The other major change to the city was the construction of AvtoVAZ in 1964. Due to the project, the city was renamed Tolyatti in honor of Palmiro Togliatti, who was the leader of the Italian Communist Party from the late 1920s until his death in 1964.

Scenic view of the Volga from Tolyatti.

From the visa on the Volga, we headed in the city to grab some shawarma at the best stand there. Then, we took a drive along the massive AvtoVAZ factory before going to the museum. Sadly, we couldn’t go on a tour of the factory because they didn’t allow foreigners in. The museum for the factory was pretty cool, though. And part of the museum with the concept cars was basically on an extension of the factory floor. You could hear them assembling stuff on the other side of the wall.

The AvtoVAZ Museum.

After the AvtoVAZ museum, we went to a giant military museum and wandered around fields of tanks, troops carriers, trucks, and missile launchers. They even have a submarine on display, which was sadly closed on the day we were there. There is also a second area at the museum that has a number of military and civilian trains, including one from America. It was pretty cool to climb around on an armored military train. Yet again, I was living out some of my Goldeneye fantasies.

Armored trains are cool.

From the military museum, we picked up Sasha’s best friend and went to a Serbian burger restaurant that’s a chain in Tolyatti. Then, we went to a shooting range. Sasha has a shotgun, and we shot clay targets. It was the first time that I’ve been clay shooting. I’m pretty decent at hitting standing targets, but it is a bit of a challenge to hit moving targets. After shooting, we rode back to Ulyanovsk in Sasha’s car.

This is my boom stick.

I spent most of my second week in Ulyanovsk catching up with friends, people at the Politech, and working on my research. On Monday, I got up and headed to the archive. The woman who works in the reading room was clearly bored, so she had looked through all of the folders I had requested and had marked off which pages talked about the POWs. She also handed me a few other files about the construction of the automotive factory, which she thought might have some things of use for me. She was indeed correct.

For some reason, fate is always kind to me in Ulyanovsk. When I was in the reading room, a man overheard me talking with the reading room attendant. He asked if he had correctly heard that I’m researching German POWs. I said that was indeed the topic of my research and he introduced himself. He’s a former journalist, who now writes local histories. Many of his books are based on recollections of older citizens from the city. During the lunch break, he took me to a historical institute in the city, which houses his personal collection of files. He had a complete folder just on the monument to the dead German POWs that is in the cemetery in the north of Ulyanovsk. I was ecstatic. I knew about the monument and researching it was one of the goals of my trip. It was like divine intervention. The folder had news clippings that covered the contest to create the design of the monument as well as information about opening ceremonies.

The memorial c. summer 2014.

I also had a productive meeting with the former head of the UAZ Museum, who gave me a number of articles about when some POWs took a trip back to Ulyanovsk again in 1994. She also helped me set up a meeting at the 33rd Gymnasium, where I met with current and former students and a history teacher there. The teacher invited me to tea with the students, and two former students gave a presentation on their research. They had spent 3 years working on a project on German POWs in Ulyanovsk as their major course work for high school. I had read a cropped version of their report in a publication from an Ulyanovsk history conference.

Making new friends at the school.

I also spent a few days working in the main library in the city, where I found a number of useful newspaper articles as well as an interesting lack of publications about the POW memorial in one of the two local papers.

Having enjoyed my trip to the aviation museum, I contacted the director and asked if I could come with the new Fulbrighter for a tour with him. He gladly accepted, so I went to the museum again last Sunday with Katie, Ira, and two new acquaintances from South Africa. We all wandered around the planes like children and had a blast. As we were with the director, we got to go into two planes that are usually off limits in addition to the Tu-124 and the Tu-144. We got to tour the Tu-104, which was specially outfitted to ferry Soviet military officers. The seats were all fancy, and there was even a special bedroom cabin it in. We also got to enter the An-14, known as the “Little Bee.”

The whole group on the Tu-144.

On Tuesday night, I headed back to the train with a heavy heart. I hate leaving my adoptive Russian home. Ulyanovsk truly is my favorite Russian city. I’ll be trying to find a way to get back even for just a handful of days before flying back to America in July.

Slight consolation: shashlyk on the train.