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In my final days before departing Russia, I had quite the packed schedule. I returned from Ulyanovsk to go back to finish up a few archival folders. From there, I headed to Taekwondo, where I spent the night sweating and learning Koryo with the Russian national poomsae champion. On Thursday night, I went to ShOR 41 for the last time for Taekwondo. It was super sad. I’m going to miss training with my excellent coach and the cool Russians. I definitely learned a lot of good drills and skills while training with them. I’m going to long for the intense practices.

With my coach on the left and the Russian national poomsae champion on the right.

On Wednesday, I worked in Little GARF and finished my research there. In the evening, I went to Erin’s and we made tacos. The weather was slightly nice enough for us to have a beer on the balcony before we froze to death. On Thursday, I went to Alla’s for tea. She fed me okroshka and a berry pie. After Taekwondo on Thursday, I had some drinks with the Italians and some of their Italian speaking Russian friends. It was a mini-goodbye party for the Italians.

One of the Italians now. Va bene!

On Friday, I got up and went to say goodbye to Alessandra, one of the Italians from my floor. She also had to go to the post office, so we took a taxi to one by Chisty Prudi together. I had to send Jean Louis the coat that he bought and couldn’t get from the dry cleaner in time before his departure. I went to the first window to buy a box. She told me to get a bag and to go to window 46. At window 46, I waited while someone else was in front of me. She told me to go to any other window. I went to a different window. The woman there told me to get a bag from the first window. I went to the first window but there was no one there, so I went back to window 46 and got the bag and filled out all of the forms there. It was an unpleasant exercise as usual. I also had to pay roughly $30 in cash to send the coat. I’m glad that I had enough money with me at the time. Alessandra and I then went back to the dorm and we quickly chugged a beer each in her room while she packed and before I headed off to lunch.

I met Oksana, my former Fulbright coordinator, for lunch at a beer place called Brussels that’s right next to her office. I joked that I want a Russian husband so that I can get permanent residence status and a passport. She said she would help me out. As we ate, the skies opened up to a massive storm. It stopped raining when we left lunch, but the sky was fearsomely dark. I made it to the perekhod in time for it to start pouring like crazy. Oksana messaged to see if I was ok, and I doubled back and had a cup of tea in her office for a bit while the rain lessened. It did indeed slow, and I walked home without getting fully soaked. I then relaxed at home for a short bit before heading off to meet Anton, Aleksei, and Mikhail.

With Oksana as the storm rolled in.

Anton met me at the Serpukhovskaya Metro, and we rode to Profsoyuznaya. Profsoyuznaya has super evident blast doors at the entrance. They have handles and you can see the rubber seals for the hermetic seals. Anton explained that each door has its own generator, and they cannot be opened without the generators. They’re too heavy and would take a massive crew and machines to otherwise open.

Super blast door.

We ended up walking through the rain and meandered our away around eventually to the Rio Mall by Krymskaya. We went in there and got some food before walking to Tulskaya where we parted ways. Nothing much of extreme interest happened while out. The sky was scary and we kept trying to walk away from the storm. At one point, we got somewhat caught in the rain and stopped under a bus stop roof for a while where we drank balsam from a bottle that Anton had. At some point in time Anton found an umbrella on the ground, but it was broken. He walked with it for a while, though, because it did provide a small amount of relief from the rain.

Aleksei couldn’t quite fix the umbrella.

On Saturday, I got up at met Erin outside Alla’s. We had breakfast/brunch with Alla. Alla had made a nice salad as well as a different berry pie. Alla told me and Erin to come back in September. In the afternoon, I went to Tatiana Selvinskaya’s. She is my grandmother’s cousin, who I met through fate while I was teaching in Ulyanovsk. She was excited to see me and said as such. She had two of her students with her, both men. Oleg was about 30 and Aleksei was about 45. They were sweet and helped her out a lot. We chatted about the family as well as her art. She was happy that I took a keen interest in her paintings. Apparently some people come over to her studio and don’t bother to look at her work, which annoys her. She is turning 90 in November and invited me to her exhibition at the Bakhrushkin Museum. I said that I had to teach, but maybe I could be “ill” and miss class for a bit. She found this hilarious and approved of my idea. I have the email of Oleg, and have promised to look for a send her photos of her aunt Raisa, my great-grandmother. Tatiana has never seen a photo of her and wants to badly because allegedly she looks like Raisa. She also insisted on feeding me and made me eat a lot. She’s very sweet and seems sincerely keen on having me stay in touch. I was impressed with how sharp she was mentally at almost 90. She is hard of hearing and slightly slow to move around, but she still paints almost every day. I guess we get our work ethic and good genes from the Russian side of our family.

With Tata.

Finally, on Sunday July 2, I flew home from Russia. The night before I managed to pack everything up. I got up in the morning and then handed my key into Evgeny, the only guy who works at the front desk of the dormitory. He said goodbye to me and was super nice and carried my second bag out to my waiting taxi. I then took a taxi to Belorussky Vokzal to take the Aeroexpress train to Sheremetyevo Airport. Annoyingly, the front of the station is currently under construction and I was forced to carry my two bags up a set of stairs into the station because all of the ramps were blocked off. I then got my ticket and onto the train without an issues. I was happy to see that Russia was being Russia on my way back to the airport. There was a woman across from me who had a cat on a leash with her. The cat looked unhappy and kept meowing at times and she just shushed it.

Russia doesn’t disappoint.

At the airport, I went through initial security with no comments. Last time, they made me turn my computer on at the first security check point. I then waited in a super long line to drop off my baggage. After dropping off my bags, I was told to cut the line and return to the window because I had to pay for my second bag, which can only be done at a separate window. When I put my first bag down to be weighed, I had a moment of anxiety. It turned out to weigh 22.9KG of the allowed 23KG. The man taking my bags laughed and asked if I had been very worried. He then complimented me on my packing skills. The second bag, a much smaller one, weighed less. I then went off to pay for my bag at the other window and was surprised by the even higher baggage fee. Years ago, there used to be two free checked bags between Moscow and New York. This is now down to one bag. In September, I paid $50 to check my extra bag (there is no other option when one bag is boots, coats, and hats to ward off the Russian winter). I was slightly shocked to find out that the new fee is 100 Euros because my flight originates in Moscow. In the future, it might be cheaper to initially book a more expensive seat on the plane in exchange for extra baggage allowance.

A very rainy departure. My friends and I joked that Russia was crying about me leaving.

My flight home was uneventful, but annoying. I’m sad to say that it was probably the worst flight I’ve ever taken on my beloved Aeroflot. The Boeing 777 was clearly one of the first ones that entered service on the airline. The seats were the cloth ones, and they were already worn out. The padding had been worn completely down on my seat to the point that the plastic sides of the seat were jamming into my ribs. The tray table was also worn out. In newer planes, the tray tables fold in half to accommodate for the larger seatback TV screen. Because my tray table had been used, and abused, so much, it folded out past its intended dimensions so that instead of being flat, it almost took the shape of and upside-down V. The result of this was that my food tray kept sliding off of the tray table. I could only eat my food with one hand, the other had to hold my try in place. Additionally, we took off in fairly heavy rain. The rain was so bad that when we took off, a lot of it leaked through the plane and onto me. I was fairly wet for a while, but dried off quickly due to how hot and dry it was in the cabin. Finally, I spent roughly 10 hours being kicked by the small child in the seat behind me and kept awake by the multitude of screaming babies and toddlers on the flight. In the summer season, there seem to be a lot of small children flying between New York and Moscow, which always results in unpleasant flights.

Thankfully my phone was in my hand and didn’t get soaked.

We landed without incident and I quickly passed through customs. Even if you only flight once or twice out of the country, I would highly recommend you get Global Entry if you qualify for it. It’s only $100 for 5 years, and it comes with TSA Pre-Check. I literally spent 30 seconds filling out my customs form, having my picture taken, and talking to the customs official. I then spent 45 minutes waiting for my bags because JFK is a crumbling, third world airport. Nothing says welcome to America like broken and dirty bathrooms and crumbling infrastructure. After getting my luggage and proceeding past the final customs point, I met my dad in the airport and we headed off to get pizza in the Bronx. Life is good, and I’ll be spending as much time as possible passed out in my hammock this summer.

Some post-Russia traditions are sacred.

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Our train ride to Novosibirsk was uneventful. Our neighbors spoke briefly with us, but were mostly uninterested in us. We got a taxi to our hotel easily, and checked in early, which they didn’t charge us for. Normally it’s an extra charge, but the woman waved it as a present. She then said she would find out if we did or did not have to register there. After showering and changing, we headed off to an okay Mexican restaurant before going to a museum of Siberian architecture in a local design university. The museum mostly focuses on Novosibirsk and lots of the constructivist architecture in the city, but it also had examples of diagrams for typical Siberian wooden houses and plans for grandiose Soviet projects that were never built.

The Novosibirsk train station.

From the architecture museum, we went to the regional museum, which had an interesting series of exhibits on the history of Novosibirsk and the Trans-Siberian. Novosibirsk is a new city, only 124 years old, and exists only due to the railroad. Started as a railway settlement, it grew heavily during the years of Stalinist industrialization and industrial evacuation during WWII. At present, it’s the third largest city in Russia and is seen as the capital of Siberia. Despite these facts, there isn’t too much to see or do in Novosibirsk itself. It’s just a large, industrial center that doesn’t have too much of its own culture due to its youth.

Krasny Prospekt – the main road in Novosibirsk.

One of the highlights of Novosibirsk was where we got dinner, a hipster, new Russian cuisine restaurant called #сибирьсибирь (#SiberiaSiberia). I finally got to try bear meat, which was prepared in pelmeni. Erin had some deer medallions, which were divine. We also had a great salad of pine nuts, greens, local cheese, and pesto.

Bear meat pelmeni at #сибирьсибирь

After dinner, we went back to the hotel via a stop at a local craft beer place. While in line and trying to decide what to get, the very drunk Russian guy in front of us started to talk to us. He insisted on buying us beer, partially because we were Americans in Novosibirsk, and his daughter has just become an American citizen and lives in New York. He then tried to get us to join him and his friends at an apartment, but we declined and went back to our room, which we could only do after giving him our phone numbers. He also asked why we weren’t married and told us to get Russian husbands before letting us go on our way.

The train museum. Some railroads in Siberia still use these old steam engines.

In the morning, we got up and ate breakfast in the room, which we had gotten the night before, while deciding what to see before out train to Yekaterinburg. I texted a friend of a friend about going to see the German POW monument in a cemetery in a certain district of the city. The local travel guide had warned against going to that area, and she confirmed that it was not good to go there without someone from the area, so we scratched that plan. Instead, we went to Akademgorodok, which is a scientific and university center on the outskirts of the city. Along the way, we stopped at a great railroad museum. It was full of a series of trains from steam engines and tsarist rolling stock to more recent cars and engines. We were allowed to go into a few of the cars. A highlight, or scary part, was when we went into a 4th class carriage made in the 1930s. This car featured the exact same hardware as on the 069Ya, Chita-Moscow train. The beds were exactly the same, which was a little off putting.

1930s 4th class beds, the same design as on the Chita-Moscow train.

We also got to enter a car designed for transporting prisoners, which was rough. And we got to enter the cabs of a few steam engines, which was also really cool.

Inside a prison car.

The train museum also had a small collection of Soviet cars; however, it didn’t have any UAZiki, so it’s not really worth talking about as a Soviet car collection. Amateurs.

From the museum, we took a marshrutka to the center of Akademgorodok and got some lunch at a stolovaya and saw the university grounds before taking a taxi back to the hotel to get our stuff and go to the train. The train from Novosibirsk to Yekaterinburg was train 091, from Tomsk to Moscow. It was brand new and very fancy. It was comfortable, had air-conditioning, and plenty of outlets. As a new train, it also had biotoilets, which means you can use the toilet whenever. On the older trains, the “flush” just drops waste onto the tracks. Thus, there are sanitary zones a certain distance outside of cities. The toilets are locked during station stops and in these zones, so it’s not always possible to use the toilet on the older trains.

The modern goodness of the Tomsk-Moscow train.

Our train mates were quite the interesting bunch from Novosibirsk to Yekatrinburg. When we got on the train, we immediately attracted the attention of Nikolai, who was about 25 and quite drunk. He was excited to meet Americans and couldn’t believe that we were on the train. He then proceeded to tell people around him that there were Америкосы on the train. Amerikosy is slang for American, and is generally a derogatory term, but he seemed happy to meet us. He was from Tomsk and was riding off somewhere to work for Gazprom, the Russian gas company. He told us that we made a mistake not going to Tomsk, which he says is the best and prettiest city in Russia. “Come visit me, I have a motorcycle and will drive you around and show you the whole city,” he said multiple times. He promised to take us to the forest to gather mushrooms, which you can do from the motorcycle, and to take us fishing. We also had pleasant conversation with the slightly drunk Artyom, about 25, and Yura, about 45.

Nikolai discussing something of presumed importance.

Immediately across from us were Galya and her 7 year old son Kolya. Galya was very religious. Her husband is an Orthodox priest and she was going with her son to visit her parents in Vladimir. She is a doctor by education, but now sings professionally in the church. Her son, a very bright and kind child, studies in a private Orthodox school in Novosibirsk. He had his English workbook on the table, and we offered to help if he needed it. Galya was very sweet, excited to speak with us, and helped us out when the drunk Nikolai got too rowdy.

Yura, who gave me the switchblade.

Nikolai wanted us to drink beer with him. We were instead drinking kvass, the carbonated Russian bread drink (it’s literally made by squeezing water out of soaked bread). Eventually, with the help of Galya and Yura, Nikolai was ushered away and we were left to have more peaceful conversations with Galya, Yura, and Artyom. Yura was somewhat drunk, but he was a happy drunk. He was attempting to eat his sausage log to varying degrees of success. He started by just taking bites out, which he didn’t like. He couldn’t immediately find his knife, so he took a bottle cap and scooped out bite sized chunks of sausage. Eventually, he found his knife, a switch blade, and he asked us about life in American versus Russia. I don’t know what prompted it, but he told me to take his switch blade as a gift, and for protection. I politely declined at first, but he was adamant, so I took it. In exchange, I gave him a mostly empty pack of Marlboro Reds, which he was ecstatic to have. He made me write a note on the package for him.

After a while, we all went to sleep. Yura had a few issues. He folded down the table and put together his bed. He lay down and then mumbled to himself for a while. He asked for water, and Galya gave him some. He then went back to lying down and mumbling. After a few more minutes, he packed up his bedding, put the table down, and then made himself some instant noodles. Sometime after that, he went to sleep. Over the night, he got off of the train, and an Orthodox priest took his place. Galya had spoken with him in the earlier morning hours, and she introduced me to him after I woke up. He was pleasant to talk to, and was excited that two Americans were studying Russian history and riding out on the Trans-Siberian. He got off of the train a few stops before us. As he got off of the train, he blessed Galya and Kostya. He then turned to me and Erin and wished us success in our research and told us to return to Russia, “so that your souls can be happy.” I gladly accepted the blessing of sorts.

In the last few hours of our train ride, we spoke more with Galya. She offered us some hardboiled eggs and other food. She was surprised that we were getting off of the train alone in Yekaterinburg and taking a taxi to our hotel. When we arrived, though, we saw that it was easy to take a trolleybus from the train station to our hotel. We then checked in, showered, and changed before hitting the city.

Our first stop was a cup of coffee before heading to a comics shop that Erin had found through the internet. The comics shop was rad. I ended up buying two underground, trashy, locally produced comics, and the author/artist happened to be in the shop, so he signed one for me and drew a cool drawing in the other. I also got another Russian comic about bandy, which is also known as Russian hockey. Instead of a puck, bandy is played with a ball. The world bandy championships were held in Ulyanovsk in 2016. I was sad to have missed that.

Getting my comic improved by the author.

From the comics shop, we just strolled around the city for a while. The area along the riverside was pretty. We heard music coming from an underground crossing, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and went to investigated. In the underground crossing we found a guy playing guitar with a female drummer in a tunnel decorated with Viktor Tsoi graffiti. Tsoi is a super famous Soviet rocker who died in the 1980s. There’s a whole wall dedicated to him in Moscow just off of the Arbat. The duo played pretty well, and we listened to a few songs. A babushka came up and even dropped 100 rubles in their pot.

The river front in Yekaterinburg.

We made our way along the water to the Church on Blood. This church was built on top of the site where the Romanov family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The church was quite impressive inside, and it housed a lot of information of Communist persecution of Orthodoxy in the early Soviet reign and the Terror. They had an interesting collection of documents such as lists of all of the churches that were destroyed and how many priests were killed. From the local archives, they had quite a number of execution orders on display.

Monument to the Romanov family in front of the Church on Blood.

From the somber atmosphere of the church, we went off to get dinner at an Uzbek place recommended to us by Dakota, someone else who also has our grant, but spent the whole year in Yekaterinburg. The food was indeed super yummy. We then went to Jawsspace, which is a bar that sells the beer brewed by the local company Jaws. From there, we ventured to a different bar—Amerikanka (American Girl)—across from our hotel. The bar was mediocre. While finishing our drinks, a guy of about 55 came to talk to us after noticing we were speaking in English. He wanted us to join him and some students for drinks, but we politely extricated ourselves to pass out.

In the morning, we got up and had a delicious breakfast at a place called Engels Coffee and Waffles. They had great waffles such as a banana one or caramelized apples. I’m sure Engels is overjoyed that his likeness is being used to sell hipster foods. From breakfast, we swung back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and stash it in the storage room before walking off to see the Boris Yeltsin Center. On the way, we saw a fishing tournament taking place on the river.

Engels’ Coffee and Waffles

The Boris Yeltsin Center is fascinating, and very worth visiting. It’s a two story museum, as well as art gallery and multi-purpose space, that acts very much like an American presidential museum. The museum chronicles the life and work of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia. He was from Yekaterinburg and rose to power there. The first floor of the museum describes the early life of Yeltsin, and the history of the USSR as a whole. Being a museum that celebrates the work of the guy who helped bring about and lead an independent Russia, its view of the communist years was quite grim. The second floor is organized around seven very important days of Yeltsin’s life such as a highly critical speech in front of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1987, the August Putsch of 1991, the Constitutional Crisis of 1993 (when Yeltsin called tanks to shell the Russian White House), Yeltsin’s health troubles, and his eventual resignation. We spent about three hours in the museum, and I could have easily spent the whole day there.

The Yeltsin Center.

From the Yeltsin Center, we walked a bit deeper into the center of the city to meet a former student of mine from the Ulyanovsk Politech, Zhanna, who had moved to Yekaterinburg after finishing university. She came with her husband and we walked around a few of the central parks. Along the way we saw a neat monument to the computer keyboard and some outdoors exhibits of industrial history from the time of Peter the Great to Stalinist industrialization. The weather wasn’t complying too much, so we ducked into a café to chat and have tea for a while.

With Zhanna. Say, “Политех лучше всех.”

It was nice to catch up with Zhanna. She and her husband walked us back to our hotel, where Erin and I met Dakota, another student with our grant. We popped into a nearby Vietnamese restaurant before ducking into another restaurant to hide from the rain and get another beer before Erin and I had to catch our train. We had a good time discussing our different graduate programs and the pros and cons of researching in different Russian cities and archives.

After doubling back to the hotel to grab our things, Erin and I headed to the train station for our final ride, a 30 hour one from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. On the platform, we started to talk with a guy from Kyrgyzstan, who had a spot near us on the train. As our train departed around midnight, Erin and I waited for the train to start rolling. The conductor came by and took our tickets and handed us our bedding, and then we pretty quickly both went to sleep. Before I could sleep, the Kyrgyz guy was asking me about how he could get to America and differences between life in Russia versus America. He thankfully left me alone when I said that I wanted to sleep. He was even kind and got my bed roll down for me. After I got settled into my bed, I noticed him hanging around a bit, so I pretended to go to sleep. I heard him catch Erin and start talking to her. He was thankfully pretty respectful and left her to let her sleep after about five minutes of talking. When we got up in the morning, he was gone.

Deep thoughts on the Trans-Siberian.

The ride back to Moscow wasn’t bad, but it was slightly unpleasant because we were on train 069Ya again, the Chita-Moscow train that was old. What was most annoying was our placement in the carriage. Our window was an emergency exit, so it did not open at all. Just walking a few feet over in the train was a relief from the heat and still air. The whole day on the train was fairly peaceful. We didn’t have neighbors most of the time, so we were left to our own devices. We read through our comics from Yekaterinburg. I ended up finishing some books and starting others. Over the course of the whole journey I read three novels, one monograph, one autobiography, a quarter of another novel, and about a third of “Doctor Zhivago” plus three short Russian comics. If you ever need to catch up on reading, take a trip on the Trans-Siberian. I haven’t “read” that much since preparing for dissertation qualifying exams.

Platskart life: dodging feet and shirtless Russian men.

During the full day on the train, we stepped out onto the platforms at station stops. At one station, the train was much longer than the platform. As we were in one of the first carriages, we walked off of the train and had to step down onto some parallel rail lines to get to the ground.

When the train is too long for the platform.

After some moderate boredom, and looking for a change of scenery, we walked to the restaurant car to have a beer. We managed not to die walking between the cars, which is always scary. On the way back to our carriage, we were walking through one car when the train had made a quick stop. The provodnitsa in that car was trying to sell some people some souvenirs. I waited a bit for her to stop blocking the aisle. Eventually she looked at me and said, “You can’t get out at this stop.” I responded that I didn’t want to get out, but that we were trying to walk back to our car, which was a different one. She seemed moderately annoyed by us walking through her carriage, and eventually let us pass.

The funky restaurant car.

The only really bad thing about our return to Moscow was the time that our train got in, a little after 4:00AM. I was rudely shaken awake at 2:30AM by a sadistic provodnik. At first, I thought it was the guy from the bed above mine being bad at getting in or out of bed. Instead, it was our warning to get up and use the bathrooms before they were locked before Moscow. I went to the toilet and then went back to sleep, only to again be violently shaken awake by the provodnik at 3:30 when he handed me my ticket. I then stayed awake as we rolled in to Yaroslavsky Vokzal. We got off of the train, and I called a Yandex Taxi to my dorm, as the Metro wasn’t to open for an hour.

My taxi was quite the adventure. My driver was Turkish, which I found out later, and spoke terrible Russian. He called me when he “arrived” and told me he was near a black car, to which I responded that there were many black cars. I said that I was by KFC, in both English and Russian, multiple times and explained that it was a chicken restaurant. He eventually understood and drove to find me. I’m not sure where he was originally, but it was quite far from the front of the station. In the cab, he asked where I was from. I said America. He then asked what nationality I was, to which I replied American. Unsatisfied, he asked where my mother was from. I said that she, and my grandparents, had been born in America. This did not please him either. He asked what nationality she was. I explained that she was German, Swedish, and Slovak. I said that I also had German, Russian, Norwegian, and Irish ancestry on my father’s side. He then asked if my relatives still live in Russia, to which I replied no. He couldn’t understand why I was in Russia or that I no longer really have family here. He asked what I was doing—studying I said. He asked if I wanted a Turkish boyfriend. Fearing where the conversation would go, I lied and said I already had a boyfriend. This then got him to ask why he wasn’t here in Russia. I lied again and said he had work in America and couldn’t come. The driver then proceeded to fail to properly listen to the navigation in the car and go the wrong way to the dorm, so I had to direct him myself. He then asked what school it was. Finally, as I managed to leave, he asked if I was going to rate him. I lied and said I would give him a 5 out of 5. Instead, I gave him a 3 and said that he doesn’t speak Russian well and can’t use the navigation.

Back in Moscow. 4AM and the sun is already up.

I then wandered into the unlocked dormitory door without any issues, used my keycard on the turn style, came into the dorm, and passed out on my bed for a few hours of extra sleep before handling re-registration and heading off to an archive for a few hours.

In Irkutsk, I met up with Erin at the hostel. She was my travel partner for the rest of the trip back to Moscow. Her flight got into Irkutsk before my train, so she got into the room and took a nap. Upon arrival at the hostel, I immediately went to shower after almost three days on the train. Feeling like a new human, we ventured out to get dinner at a Mongolian restaurant. We then walked around the downtown and shore of Irkutsk before calling it a night.

Downtown Irkutsk.

Our hostel was ok, and we had a private room, but there were some issues with it. The first was that there was no overnight staff. The second was that there was no insulation, so it was very noisy. Both problems combined around 1:30AM when some drunk Russians pounded on our door and shouted, “девушки” (girls) and then “hello” in English. I just angrily cried out, “что” (what) and they left us alone. They were again up at 6:00AM and making noise that woke us. When we left, they were drinking beer around 9:00AM. Good times.

From the hostel, we went to grab some breakfast at a café before heading to a literary museum for the writer Valentin Rasputin, a Siberian writer and one of the subjects of Erin’s dissertation. The museum was brand new and pretty cool. From there, we walked off to a museum of retro motorcycles and Soviet technology. The museum was especially cool because we were allowed to sit on/in a number of the motorcycles.

Newest members of the traffic police reporting for duty.

After the museum, we grabbed some lunch at a German style beer hall before hopping in a marshrutka to ride about 90 minutes to Listvyanka, the closest settlement on Lake Baikal. The village itself was beautiful, but it had the feel of a Russian Jersey Shore. All of the people there were fairly low class, which caused a few issues.

Baikal beach at Listvyanka.

We walked to our hostel and dropped our stuff off in our room before exploring the village on foot. We ended up walking about three miles down the road to try to get to a lookout point, which we later found was far too far away to get to. We then tried to go into a local scientific museum, which was closed despite the hours indicating otherwise. We then decided to go into a nature reserve, which said it would close in about 15 minutes. No one stopped us from entering, and we wandered to a lookout point in the reserve.

View from the nature reserve.

When we got back to the gate, it was closed, and we had to climb over it to exit. We then tried to get a taxi back to the center of the village. The first company told me that they were busy, and it would be better for us to take the marshrutka back as we were already at the bus stop. I called a second company, and they said they would call back with the info about the taxi. The never called back, but after about ten minutes, a red mini-van pulled up and the guy asked if I was the one who called the taxi. A little concerned, I asked if he knew where he was going. “No, you have to tell me first.” Slightly worried, we got in, but as there was only one road, we were ok and he took us to our place.

We then set off to a Georgian restaurant in a nearby hotel to have dinner. We came in and were seated. After ten minutes, someone finally wandered over and asked if we were ready to order. We said that we still hadn’t been given menus. She then said that they menus were only in Russian, which was an odd comment as we had been having a conversation with her in Russian. Eventually we ordered, and it was pretty good food. A highlight was a serving of local omul fish, the famous fish of Baikal, done in what is similar to a ceviche style. It was incredibly delicious. The downside of dinner, besides the staff, was another diner. It was a woman, her toddler, and seven year old son. At one point, she changed her toddler’s extremely full diaper in the play area in the restaurant. The smell was awful and lingered in the restaurant. Even the staff was somewhat upset. They checked for damage in the play area and opened up the windows.

Ouml round one.

From there, the night only got worse after a quick stop via the first market for some more omul.

I want them all.

Our hostel had quite a lot of problems. The first was that we paid extra for a room with a balcony, only to find that our balcony was just a hallway. The “balcony” room also meant that we were on the second floor in a wing accessible only from an outdoor staircase that was very steep and unlit at night. We shared our hallway with another room, which was for three people, and we had a toilet on the floor. The shower was annoyingly in the main part of the building, which was down the stairs and completely on the other side.

Around 9:30, Erin went to shower, and I was just sitting and reading in the room. At that point, our neighbors came back. They proceeded to make a lot of noise. From the yelling, doors slamming, and jumping noises, I thought they were high school aged kids horsing around. After about fifteen minutes of noise, and hearing that they were in front of my door, I exited my room and found two thirty-ish, trashy Russian women. I asked what was going on. One asked if I was sleeping already. I said no, and again repeated what was going on. The other just said, “Oh you know, girls.” She then asked if I was cold and wanted to show me how to use the heater. I said I was not cold, and again asked what was going on. I was then dismissed. They stopped making tons of noise, and I went back into the room. A few minutes later, Erin came back and asked if I knew why the neighbors on the stairs said “they know Russian” and why she heard “not a shy girl.” I explained what happened, and we then got ready for bed and read.

When I went to the bathroom, I noticed that they were quite drunk, and that they had pissed all over the toilet and used all of the toilet paper. I braved the deadly stairs with my phone flashlight to go to the main building. In the main room, there was a doorbell with a sign to ring it and wait a few minutes to wait for the staff to come. I did this multiple times and waited about 20 minutes before giving up. I then went back to the room and tried calling the phone number from the booking website. Someone eventually answered and I asked if anyone worked at the hostel. They said the person who is usually there had a problem and wasn’t there that night. I explained the problem with the bathroom and the noisy neighbors. They told me where to find more toilet paper and said that the neighbors had already been warned to be more quite and to call again if there were still problems. By midnight, we got tired of the super loud and rambunctious neighbors. I called again and was allegedly talking to the owner. He said he was on his way to kick the women out. About twenty minutes later, there was a knock on our door. It was a guy who was clearly not the owner. He asked about the noise and we said it was the room next to us. He knock on their door and asked them to be quieter, which caused them to storm out and pound on our door and yell at us to come out. The guy did nothing to stop them. Erin went to talk to them, and it got us nowhere. They said we are foreigners, and in our country everyone has to go to sleep at 10:00, but in Russia they can do what they want. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much at all that night.

The next morning, when we tried to check out, there was no one to give the key to. I again called and was told to wait and that I would be called back. Someone else called and told me to lock the room and leave the key in the door so that no one would get into it. I was confused, because if I locked the door and left they key in the door, someone could open the door with the key that was in it. I also said I was upset about the lack of staff and that we were very angry about being lied to the night before. I said I was extremely frustrated with the poor management, and that I would be leaving a bad review. The woman asked if we would like a free night or the use of the banya, but I said that we were leaving soon. She then relented and gave us our money back in full. Apparently some Russians are now afraid of me. This is very pleasing.

Not everything at Listvyanka was bad, though. After dinner, we strolled along the water a bit and headed to the local market where we got two different types of smoked omul, cold and hot. We also got some local beer and enjoyed some of the fish with it on our “balcony.”

More fish please.

The next morning, we got up and went to the local beach so that I could swim in the freezing waters of Baikal. My swim was very short, as the water was pins and needles cold, but it was actually very refreshing. I also impressed a gaggle of Chinese tourists who came down to the beach just after I got out of the water and sat on the dock trying to dry off in the sun. They spoke neither English nor Russian, but we communicated with gestures. A man came up and asked if I had gone swimming and I said yes. I used my three words of Mandarin with him. I pointed to the water and said “good” and made a swimming motion. I pointed to the water again and said “bad” and made a cold gesture. He understood what I meant and was very happy. Some other women came up and then they all insisted on getting photos with me and Erin. I asked them to take a photo of us as well, and said “thank you” in Mandarin, which also greatly impressed them. And that is how Erin and I briefly became celebrities with the Chinese tourists in Listvyanka. It was actually hard to get away from them to head back to the room so that we could head back to the city.

Becoming celebrities with the Chinese tourists. The was the first of MANY photos.

Irkutsk itself was also a major highlight of the trip. The city is beautiful. There are lots of wooden, Siberian houses all over the city. There are also plenty of places for getting food and drink. And there are plenty of museums to spend time in. The waterfront was also quite nice. Irkutsk itself would be a great place to spend a solid two or three days.

So many cool, wooden houses in Irkutsk.

Despite wanting to spend more time in Irkutsk, we had to get on another train to Krasnoyarsk around 5:00PM. It was a ridiculously hot day, probably about 80F. When we got into our Chita-Moscow train, train 69Ya, we thought we were going to melt. As we tried to cool off and relax, we caught the attention of the children in the train around us. A grandmother in the next berth over asked if we knew Russian and what language we were speaking. She said the children kept walking back and forth because they wanted to know what language we were speaking. We said English and she asked about where we were from. She relayed the information back to the children, who then came over in droves. The car was basically full of a children’s choir heading to Krasnoyarsk for a folk music festival. They asked us a number of questions and then gave us a concert. They were exceptionally skilled, and it was quite a delight. After the songs, they continued to question us until eventually the grandmother intervened and told them to let us rest. One of the children was our favorite, though. His name was Vova and he was obsessed with Star Wars. He asked us about all of the film and what our favorite pieces of Star Wars technology were. He clearly had a much deeper knowledge of Star Wars than us, as I caught mentions of things that were presumably in the Clone Wars cartoon, and bits of light saber related mechanics that I remember from playing Knights of the Old Republic.

After a few short stops, we got someone in our immediate berth area. We didn’t get his name, but he was a very chill guy to ride with. He had a lovely collection of gold and steel teeth that I sadly didn’t get a photo of. He showed us how to properly rip apart the cold smoked omul that we were going to snack on. He also told me that in the future, I should always ask to have my fish wrapped in paper and not plastic because the fish needs to breathe. He seemed only mildly concerned that he was transporting lots of fish to friends somewhere else on a very hot and non air-conditioned train.

Our very cool train neighbor.

One of the women chaperoning the children was annoying at night. She came by and said that we had to close the window because of the breeze. Russians are paranoid about breezes and catching colds from them. It was still very hot in the train, and I told her it was hot and that we didn’t need to close the window. The man with us also agreed and told her to leave us alone. He made pleasant conversation with us and told some jokes, but at one point he asked our ages and if we were married. At this point, Erin was getting some tea in the morning, and he told me that we need to get married and soon. It’s not good to be our ages and not have husbands. Then children also got off of the train at Krasnoyarsk, and a chaperon joked that the man could now have some peace. He joked that he could now start drinking vodka.

Train snack – cold smoked omul.

In Krasnoyarsk, we got a taxi to our hostel, which was fantastic. If anyone needs to stay there, I highly recommend Hovel Hostel. It’s in the center of the city, the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and the facilities are great. Our private room was huge and had its own PS3 and copy of Call of Duty. They also had laundry facilities, and let us shower the next day after checking out but before our train to Novosibirsk. The hostel also had a card, which got us discounts at a few local restaurants.

The super amazing room in Krasnoyarsk at Hovel Hostel.

The guy working at the hostel when we arrived was friendly, but he gave us a hard time about registering. In Russia, you have to register your presence in a new city, but generally only after seven days. As a rule, though, hotels have to register you while hostels don’t always have to. The guy working there said he had to register us, which is different from what Erin had been told by the visa staff at her university. While waiting to enter our room, we made some small talk with a British traveler staying there and some Russian guys who were also checking in at the same time. One of the Russians asked lots of questions and kept talking to us all the time when he saw us around coming and going from the hostel. He was a little annoying and demanded to know how to move to America and what we thought of Trump.

We went to one of the discounted restaurants for lunch, a beer hall, and then went back to take a nap before exploring downtown Krasnoyarsk on June 12th, Russia Day. There were some activities set up along the main road, Prospekt Mira, and around Lenin Square and the Central Park. Unfortunately, most of the stuff on Prospekt Mira was being packed up by the time that we got there. There was a classic car show at Lenin Square, which was really cool, and we were allowed to sit in a few of them.

Lenin overlooks the Soviet cars.

We then walked through the park, stopped by a rock concert for a bit, and then went to the central view point of the Yenisei River. We then doubled back along the park and listened to a few more bands before grabbing some dinner and then popping into a local craft bar for some beers. When we emerged from the bar, it was raining. The rain wasn’t too heavy, but it had been much worse while we were inside and the streets were flooded. Nearing the hostel, we were heavily splashed by one driver.

View of the Yenisei.

In the morning, we got up and went to the literature museum. After wandering through it, Erin spoke briefly with the director before we got some lunch and coffee. After, we took a taxi to go to the Stolby National Park. Thanks to the awesome girl Anya who worked at the hostel in the morning, we knew a few tips that made the visit to the park much better. The first was to be super careful of ticks, so we bought tick spray at the pharmacy before going. She also told us that it’s possible to get to the park by bus, but then it’s about an 8km walk to the park from the bus stop. Instead, it’s better to take a taxi to the ski area and take a lift up and down. The lift takes you to the center of the park, where it’s possible to easily hike on mostly level terrain and see the solby (pillars) for which the park is named.

Up we go.

At the top, we spoke briefly with a family from Krasnoyarsk who had relatives visiting from Kazakhstan and Chechnya. They were excited to meet us and asked to get photos with us. Then, at a later point, I asked a young Russian couple to get a photo of us. I asked if they wanted one in return and said that it wasn’t necessary, they would take a selfie. I said I wasn’t skilled enough for us to take selfies and they laughed.

With the Russia/Kazakh family.

The park was definitely worth the visit and the stop in Krasnoyarsk. The city itself seems to have a few cool museums, and there is definitely a lot of good food and drink to be found in the city.

Krasnoyarsk from Stolby.

Of course, I also had my own other motivations for seeing the city. Being a huge fan of the Russian sit-com “Папины Дочки” (Daddy’s Daughters), I wanted to see the city after one of my favorite episodes, which revolves around going with Papa back to his hometown of Krasnoyarsk for the summer. It’s episode 110 for those of you who know Russian and wish to watch it. It’s clearly a favorite episode as it’s also not posted on Youtube with the random other episodes uploaded by the studio.

One of the major pillars at Stolby.

After the park, we got dinner at an Indian restaurant. We then went back to the hostel to shower and get our things before the train to Novosibirsk. Anya also roped us into filming a quick video for the hostel as we are Russian speaking foreigners who had a good impression of the place. I told Anya about my interest in seeing Krasnoyarsk from Papiny Dochki, and she laughed and couldn’t believe me. She also asked why we were going to Novosibirsk and told us that there was nothing there besides a metro. After another night on the train, we realized that she was somewhat right.

While heading to the train station, we had a very funny taxi driver. He lamented the loss of the USSR, where there were no “drug addicts, terrorists, or prostitutes.” He then was angry about nationalism for different ethnic groups and thought it was better when everyone was one country. He then talked about the Russian police, or the politsiya, and said that he missed the older militia, militsiya. He then asked us about cops killing people in the USA. He said that if a cop ever killed a member of his family, he would kill the cop without any hesitation in revenge. He was a charming fellow.

Some Krasnoyarsk Communist Party trolling. “How’s living under capitalism, comrades?” Also, UAZ!

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.