Posts Tagged ‘Аэрофлот’

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.

I just got back from a “spring” break trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Last Tuesday morning I woke up early to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo to fly to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty, formerly known at Alma-Ata, was the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan. In the late 1990s, the capital of Kazakhstan moved to Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh. My trip to Kazakhstan was possible due to the hospitality of my friend Jonathon, who is there for dissertation research. I invited myself to crash on his couch, and he was thankfully not opposed to the idea.

The flight to Almaty was trouble free. I once again flew on Aeroflot. I’ve earned enough miles that my flight to Kazakhstan was essentially free. I only paid $15 for the roundtrip tickets, $5 of which was mandatory insurance. Flying to Kazakhstan was cool, because I got to depart from a different terminal of Sheremetyevo than usual. The flights to New York, both on Aeroflot and Delta, operate out of Terminal D, which is also the main Aeroflot terminal. I’ve only been there. My flights to Tbilisi, Georgia and Murmansk also departed from Terminal D, which I think is the newest of the terminals. The flight to Kazakhstan left form Terminal F, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. It’s been renovated since then, but it does show its age such as with the old style board that announces all of the flights. The terminal is also a little more confusing to navigate. For example, the check-in counters are technically behind a customs declaration zone, which is different than in Terminal D. I went and found the correct area to check-in and drop off my bag. When the woman affixed the baggage tag to my bag, I was pretty sure my bag would not arrive. Instead of putting it around the handle, she just aggressively slapped it across my entire bag.

After grabbing a snack, an announcement was made that my flight had been switched from Terminal F to Terminal E, which wasn’t a huge issue. Both are connected, the only indication of them being different terminals is that the gates for Terminal E are a level above those in Terminal F. Terminal F has a few small places to get food, but the terminal is really just one long string of duty free shops. Terminal E, which is also crammed with duty free, has a few more places to find different levels of food ranging from fancier sit-down stuff to Burger King.

The flight began to boarding on time. While waiting in line to get on the plane, the man behind me saw that I had an American passport and started to speak with me in English. He was originally Ukrainian, but has been living in Canada for about a decade and has Canadian citizenship as well. Like me, he was headed to Kazakhstan to see friends. Boarding was relatively calm, and we pushed back from the gate 3 minutes ahead of schedule. As it was a longer flight of just about four hours, we got a better meal choice. There were three options for breakfast: rice porridge, blini, or an omelet. I went with the rice porridge, or risovaya kasha, which is my favorite of the Russian breakfast porridges.

Aeroflot breakfast.

Looking out of the window was pretty interesting during the flight. Kazakhstan has a lot of steppe and desert land. It was surreal to see snow fields just transition into desert. And there’s also a lot of emptiness, which I noticed even more on my return flight, because unlike the way over, I didn’t spend the majority of the flight asleep. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by land mass, but it only has about 18 million people in it, which is the population of Moscow. Seeing it from the air, it was quiet evident that made sense that the largest Gulag complex was in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The harshness of the Gulag environment was also evident from the flights. It’s been steadily in the low to mid 40s Fahrenheit in Moscow for a few weeks now, but it was around freezing and snowing on and off in my time in Almaty, which is much more temperate than Astana.

Snow to desert.

In Almaty, we landed smoothly. Annoying, Aeroflot did not hand out the migration cards on the plane. I had to find a table for them just before passport control. I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity without the line moving, so I moved over to the other line, which was constantly moving. As I neared the front of that line, we ran into a snag because one of the two windows that our line went towards was occupied with a Hungarian woman. I don’t know what was wrong with her passport, but multiple guards came over and questioned her and I heard her saying something like “no, I don’t have any sisters, I only have a brother” and “why does it matter that I’m wearing earrings now but not in the passport photo?” When I finally got to the window, my border crossing officer was incredibly friendly. I came up to the window and said “hello” in both English and Russian. The woman immediately began to speak to me in perfect English, asking if it was my first time in Kazakhstan, and telling me to enjoy my stay. I then grabbed my bag and got into a taxi to my friend’s apartment.

From the airport I took a taxi to Jonathon’s apartment, which is a fifth-floor walk-up. He lives about 15 minutes from a metro stop that’s two stops away from the center of the city. The Almaty Metro is pretty interesting. In planning construction since the 1980s, it was finally opened in 2011. It only has one line and a handful of stations, but it’s fairly convenient for getting to a few of the places around the center. The metro is sparkling and the halls and train cars have TVs in them, which seemingly only show a series of commercials. The trains and cars themselves are made by Hyundai of Korea. They have a completely open interior design, where you can walk between all of the cars. Unlike the Moscow Metro, it’s relatively un-crowded. Perhaps this might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t go very far, or perhaps it’s because you have to wait 10 minute between trains. While inside the trains, all of the announcements are made in Kazakh, Russian, and English. Kazakhstan is officially a bi-lingual nation of Kazakh and Russian, and there is a generational divide between who knows which languages. Younger Kazakhs are now more likely to speak Kazakh amongst themselves, whereas those who are older still predominantly speak Russian. However, Kazakhstan is now attempting to move into being a tri-lingual country; thus, the metro announcements and signage in major places are in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

The Almaty Metro is clean, bright, and new.

On Tuesday night, Jonathan and I wandered around some of the main sights of the downtown before and after grabbing some dinner. One of the places where we killed some time was at Panfilov Park. The park was built to commemorate the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, who legendarily all died while attempting to halt a Nazi tank advance on Moscow. I saw a new Russian war movie about them in December, which was a stereotypical war film. A post-war investigation found out that not all of the men had died, but this information was suppressed in the Soviet Union and was only recently declassified. Nonetheless, the myth of the Panfilovities is still popular and widespread in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the origin locations of the men who made up the unit. In addition to a major sculpture to the men, there are also monuments to those who died in the Russian Civil War, WWII in general, and boxes with dirt from the Hero Cities of the Second World War. Nearby there is also a monument to Soviet soldiers who perished in Afghanistan, a war that is not as frequently commemorated or talked about in Russia.

The monument to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen by day.

On Wednesday morning, I got up and headed to Shymbulak, a ski mountain just on the outskirts of Almaty, while Jonathon was a good student and headed off to the archives. He dropped me off at the bus stop and told me roughly where to get off, “at the gondola.” I figured it was the correct bus as I saw a bunch of people getting on with ski equipment, and I just followed them when it was time to get off.

Yup, on the right bus for sure.

The bus ride from the center of Almaty to the mountains takes about 30 minutes. Almaty itself is built at the base of the mountains. The bus stops at a major recreational park called Medeu, which is a massive skating rink. Around the same complex it a gondola, where you buy tickets to ride to the ski mountain base area as well as the lift passes for the mountain. The ride from the Medeu station to the base of Shymbulak takes about 15 minutes. I paid 7,000 tenge, or about $21.00 for a four hour lift pass. The four hour pass itself costs 5,500 tenge, or $16.00, for a weekday. I had to also pay about $4.00 and change for the electronic card for the ski passes. This isn’t uncommon, even in the states. For example, we go skiing as a family at Stowe, Vermont every December before Christmas. Stowe has a plastic card that we had to buy once about five or six years ago by now. We just go online to buy our tickets through our accounts, and the cards work at the mountain. Shymbulak doesn’t seem to have the online payment option yet, though, as everyone was waiting in line to reload their cards.

Shymbulak base after the gondola from Medeu.

Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak in Russian (there are lots of names that are slightly different in Kazakh and Russian, partially due to Russian spelling rules) is a resort that lies along the Talgar Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. I spent a lot of time in my youth watching the Warren Miller ski videos, and still do to a certain point. The movies from the late 1980s were probably his best, but I had seen a cool clip from one of his movies from the early/mid-1990s in which his crew went to Chimbulak. The clip is fascinating to watch in terms of seeing how much Almaty and Chimbulak/Shymbulak have developed.

Unlike Gudauri in Georgia, Shymbulak has a true base area that includes a lodge with the ski rental in it. The rental was quick and easy, and they also had lockers to stow gear, which were missing at Gudauri. The locker itself was 1,000 tenge, or about $3.00 for the day, and to rent a board, boots, and helmet for the day cost me about $20.00. In total, I spent less for a good four hours of skiing (I didn’t have more time, but a full day pass would only have cost $3.00 more) and equipment than it would have cost for the lift ticket alone at most other local American ski areas, and half the price at least of major ski areas like Stowe or Killington.

The mountain is serviced by two major lifts as well as two smaller lifts. The major lifts are a strange combination lift that I’ve never seen before. The lift operates both detachable gondolas and quads on the same loading and unloading areas.

Design that I haven’t seen before.

The snow itself was neither hard nor soft the day I went. The trails were very clearly marked, unlike at Gudauri, and showed evidence of being groomed. The run lengths were about the same as at Gudauri, though Shymbulak is technically a few hundred meters higher. Also like at Gudauri, there were also some more difficult “trails” that were basically large swathes of off piste areas. I ventured briefly into some of these areas to test the snow, which was a little more powdery. Skiing without a partner, I didn’t really want to venture off much into the better snow or steeper stuff for a few reasons. In addition to being alone, the medical facilities in Kazakhstan aren’t exactly up to Western standards, and I didn’t want to chance any injuries. There were also a few signs with avalanche warnings, which I was a little afraid of. My good Marker ski jacket at home as a Recco avalanche reflector beacon in it, but for space reasons I have traveled to Russia without it. I would never venture much into avalanche zones in general, but I’m certainly not going to do it without avalanche recovery gear.

The views were pretty unreal.

Skiing mid-week was great. The trails were pretty empty. The people were all super friendly at Shymbulak. At one point, I was in the gondola to the top of the Talgar Pass with three Kazakh girls about my age, who were speaking Russian amongst themselves. As we were getting to the top, one asked me in Russian if I ski frequently, and I said that it was my first trip to Kazakhstan and Shymbulak, but that I ski every now and then in America, which I true. Christmas and Spring breaks in our household usually entailed going skiing in Vermont. Skiing in Kazakhstan felt like a real spring break for me in that sense. The girls were happy I was there, and one started to talk to me in perfect English. I got them to take my photo at the top, and wished them a good day of skiing.

Proof that I was indeed at Shymbulak. Also, ski in Asia: check. This winter season I’ve skied in three continents.

I took a number of good runs around the top half of the mountain and took a quick break for a lunch of a hotdog and tea at an outdoor snack area near the mid-station where I could eat and have my rental gear with me. During my lunch break, I noticed an interesting local wearing camo pants and smoking. He had modern ski boots, but he had late 1970s/early 1980s Fisher skis and a set of the same vintage Marker ski bindings. Having sold a lot of retro ski bindings on ebay, especially Markers, I know he has a set of $60 antique bindings. I sold just the toe pieces of similar bindings to someone in Japan for about $20.00 a few years ago, and have made good money off of some earlier Marker safety release bindings.

I don’t understand why people still use this retro gear, but it’s cool to see.

At one point, I noticed that the ski patrol had a St. Bernard dog, which was hanging around a snowmobile.

Ski patrol to the rescue.

The dog was super friendly, and I went up and gave it a good pet for a while, which was nice.

Making friends.

Shymbulak is clearly partially sponsored by the Head ski equipment company. All of my rental gear was made by Head, and I’m assuming the same would be the same for the ski equipment. At the bottom, I noticed that they had made a ski chair of sorts.

 

Thankfully, the ski chair I made myself is a better design, and truly made out of the skis, unlike taking the lazy route of just arranging some skis behind a regular chair.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. I had to return my things and head back to the Medeu base to take the bus back to the center, where I had agreed to meet Jonathon after he finished up at the archives. We were both about right on time at the meeting point, and we headed off to see the Zelyoni Bazaar, or the Green Bazaar, which was quite a sight. The main attraction of the Bazaar is the food market. There were a range of meats, but the exotic one for me was seeing horse meat. In Kazakhstan, horse meat is neither a standard meat nor a delicacy. It is not omnipresent nor is it as cheap as beef, but the price is only a little more and it’s not uncommon to find dishes with horsemeat at restaurants around the city.

The bazaar in all its glory with the horsemeat closest to the camera.

From the bazaar, we got dinner at a Kazakh stolovaya (cafeteria) chain called Kaganat. The food was delicious, filling, and extremely cheap. After dinner we walked around a bit more before heading home via the grocery store. I decided to get two products that are reasonably common in Kazakhstan, camel milk and a somewhat fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. The camel milk was basically just a bitter, almost plain yogurt flavored milk, which tasted pretty good in a cup of coffee. Kumis, however, was not my thing. It was extremely bitter, harsh, and tough to palate, but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

Camel milk on left, kumis on right.

On Thursday morning, we got up at went to the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, a museum about the local culture and history. Sadly, most of the best exhibits from the museum were moved to a newer museum in the modern capital of Astana. After the museum, we headed to a beer hall style café that had horse meat on the menu. I got a horse steak so that I could try the meat. It was incredibly tender, and had a slightly different and vaguely gamey taste from that of beef. I regret nothing; sorry to you horse lovers out there. I enjoy trying new, exotic animals. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh that carries exotic meats, and my goal is to eat through their entire list of offerings before graduation.

Horse steak.

On Thursday evening, Jonathon and I flew to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We decided to fly despite the fact that there are relatively easy to find buses and taxis to go across the border. We wanted to skip them because we didn’t know what conditions the roads would be in with the potential for winter weather. We also avoided them because at times you can pay your driver to take you all the way, but he can leave you at the border. This is such a prevalent practice that there are plenty of taxis and buses station at the border to carry on stranded passengers. Passport control at the border can also be problematic.

Going to Bishkek was my fifth ex-Soviet republic, which means that I’m one third of the way through my goal of visiting all fifteen of them. Bishkek is a 30 minute flight from Almaty. We flew on Air Astana, basically the equivalent of Air Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, the airline was pretty nice. You could check a bag for free even on this short flight, and they offered two rounds of drinks as well as some candies before take-off. We were even lucky and got the exit row for the flight. Getting onto the plane was a little nerve-wracking for me though, as the passport control guard very closely inspected every single page of my passport. He then asked if I had a visa for Kyrgyzstan, which I said I was pretty sure that I didn’t need. He double checked with his superior before sending me on my way.

Air Astana.

The plane was a pretty new Embraer 190 jet. The Russian man next to me was named Vyacheslav, and was very friendly. We chatted for the entire flight. He was from St. Petersburg and frequently travels to Bishkek for business. He was just very confused as to why a Russian speaking American was flying from Almaty to Bishkek, and what we were going to see there. I explained my desire to see as much of the ex-USSR as possible. He then at times insisted on taking photos and videos for me through the window, and told me not to pay more than 500 som for the taxi. He insisted on taking a photo of the takeoff for me, despite me not asking for it. Annoyingly, he filmed in portrait and not landscape, but the view of the sunset takeoff was pretty cool.

Jonathon, however, was not as lucky with his seat partner. The guy next to him spent the majority of the flight with his head buried in his hands. Either he really hated flying, or he was going through some major personal crisis.

The guy was like this the whole flight.

In Bishkek, we easily passed through passport control. We were then swarmed with taxi drivers after passing through the door to the arrivals hall. We got one guy to agree to 500 som, and we followed him off. He had us follow him a little ways off because he explained that you had to pay to park in the main parking area, so he parks off to the side somewhere. He also went proudly on and on about his diesel Ford car, which got great fuel economy, unlike the gas cars that most drivers use. His selection of 1980s pop music was also a delight.

In about 30 or so minutes, we made the ride to the center of Bishkek, where we were crashing in the apartment of another Fulbrighter, Dave. Dave teaches American history and culture at a university in Bishkek in English. He has a great two bedroom apartment, which also had a nice living room. I snagged the couch in the living room, which I quickly discovered was a sleeper sofa. Apparently, another Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a small city about 90 minutes away frequently stays with Dave, but never bothered to check if the couch turns into a bed. Dave was pleasantly surprised that I checked and made the discovery, and Will was shocked when I told him at dinner the next night.

We dropped our stuff off with Dave before heading to a restaurant that was open a little later. It had a fusion of offerings ranging from Kyrgyz, which is really just a spin on common Uzbek dishes such as lagman (noodles and meat) and plov (rice pilaf with meat) and Georgian khachipuri as well as shashlyk, grilled meat. Entertainment at the restaurant was a man who was singing karaoke and playing the drums. Eventually, he turned into a DJ and the children dancing on the dance floor were replaced with a number of Kyrgyz couples, who danced for quite a while.

A true statement. I really liked Bishkek.

In the morning, Jonathon and I got up and had breakfast at the ex-pat coffee shop, which had a fully western menu. I was able to get a breakfast burrito, and it was delightful. We then slowly meandered around the main roads via a bookstore to the TsUM, Central Universal Store, which is basically a Soviet shopping mall. The TsUM had both a Nathan’s Famous in it (there was another one a few blocks away) as well as a store that specialized in Soviet antiques. Jonathon got some stuff for himself, and we headed off to see the Frunze Museum. We had to walk a little out of our way in the morning, because the Kyrgyz equivalent of the White House was along the way. Someone important must have been coming or going, because the roads immediately along it were closed to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and there were police officers ever few feet.

The Frunze museum was a standard Soviet leader birth house museum. Like those for Stalin or Lenin, the house is there, but unlike those others, you can enter Frunze’s house. There are also exhibits about his early life, education, and revolutionary activities. We had a fun moment early on in the museum when we noticed that there was a group of Kyrgyz third graders on a tour. We thought we had managed to get a free tour, but unfortunately for us, the tour was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand.

School kids on the museum tour.

The museum has clearly seen better days. Some exhibits were falling apart. At one end of the museum, there was a rope cordoning off some of Frunze’s office effects and his couch. I asked the woman working there if it was possible to go past the rope and to look at the item descriptions, and she allowed us to do so. Then, on the bottom floor, outside of Frunze’s house was a small exhibit on Kyrgyz men who had served in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jonathon and I were very curious about it, and we very slowly walked around this area and carefully read everything there. This caught the attention of someone working there, who came up and asked if we had any questions. We explained that we were Soviet historians, and then had a lengthy conversation with her before entering Frunze’s house. She also engaged with us again after I bought some postcards and Jonathon bought some books at the museum entrance/gift shop.

Frunze’s dining room.

From the Frunze museum, we backtracked a few blocks to find the major WWII museum in Bishkek, which was opened in 1985. The main part of the memorial is in the shape of a yurt, which was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was hazy both days that we were in Bishkek, and we couldn’t see the mountains in the backdrop of the city, which you normally can.

Bishkek’s main WWII monument.

From the WWII museum, we headed to the Bishkek Panfilov Park, which is more of an amusement park that has one statue to Ivan Panfilov, who eventually became the military commander of Kyrgyzstan, and was the commander of the 28 guardsmen who heroically died defending Moscow. Panfilov himself died shortly after their stand from a splinter from a German mortar attack. At Panfilov Park, we got a late lunch/snack at a café. What we got was some sort of “burger” which was really shaved shawarma meat on a bun with cheese, “ketchup,” mayo, coleslaw, and French fries. Basically, I got a Primanti Bros. sandwich in Bishkek. Primanti needs to protect their sandwich copyright.

Kyrgyz Primanti Bros.

After our meal, we went back to Dave’s apartment for a quick break before joining Dave at the American Center of Bishkek for the English conversation group he leads with Amanda, the Fulbright ETA. Jonathon and I joined in on their discussion for the day, which was about fashion. There was one older man of about 50 or 60 who kept saying funny things. He complimented my jeans and later said that he likes women who wear miniskirts, because he likes to look at their hips. The first table I spoke with was mostly dominated by a strange and highly opinionated guy of Slavic decent with a mullet. He basically shooed me away from the table. “You can rotate you know, so you should rotate. That table doesn’t have anyone, go there.” I figured it was easier to leave than deal with him being hostile, so I did. The other table was much more excited to have a new American to interrogate. The wanted me to introduce myself and asked me questions about myself and why I was in Bishkek, etc. One guy asked how old I was, and asked if I was married when I said I was 27. He then started to ask questions like why wasn’t I married, did I want to be married, and what kind of guy do I like? I asked if he was making some sort of proposal.

Sometimes I miss working as an English teacher in the former Soviet Union.

From the American Corner, we went to a local Korean style chicken restaurant called Chicken Star where a group of 15 or so of us who had connections to the Fulbright program in Kyrgyzstan gathered. Some were Kyrgyz people who had done Fulbrights in the USA or worked for Fulbright in Bishkek. There were some Fulbright researchers, ETAs, and State Department English Language Fellows around as well as one Boren Scholar. I had a good time talking with the people there, and had a great chat with one Kyrgyz guy especially. He was about 50. I’m not quite sure what his connection to Fulbright was, but we were chatting and he asked me if I was German. Apparently my heritage is also noticeable in other ex-Soviet Republics beyond Russia. I told him that I used to live in Ulyanovsk, and he got excited because his father lived and worked there at one point. We discussed the virtues of the UAZ 469 jeep, which he claimed was pure Russian engineering, and he claimed that the Mercedes Geländewagen is a derivative of the 469, which I don’t quite agree with. We also talked about the Mercedes in Bishkek. Many of them are W124s (1986-1995). Although most of them are post-1990 face-lifted W124s, there are still plenty of 1986-1989 ones running around the city. The W124s are also quite popular in Almaty, where they are quite prevalent; however, the ones in Almaty are mostly 1990-1995 models.

A snow covered W124 in Almaty.

In Bishkek, most of the minibuses, or marshrutki, are also Mercedes. There is a good mix of Sprinter vans and older Mercedes vans from the 1970s and 1980s, which I was happy to see.

Old Mercedes van marshrutka.

I also learned that the W123 has a special name in Kyrgyzstan, where it is called the Krokodil, or “crocodile.” Jonathon got a little frustrated with me taking photos of all of the Mercedes in Almaty and Bishkek, but he was overall a really good sport about my obsession.

A W124 taxi in Bishkek.

The next morning, Jonathon and I woke up to walk with Dave to the Osh Bazaar, the main Bazaar in Bishkek. It was a lot rougher looking than the bazaar in Almaty, and wasn’t a place that was good to take photos for a variety of reasons.

Entrance to the Osh Bazaar.

Kyrgyzstan on the whole is a lot less well off than Kazakhstan, which has a lot of oil and gas money. The city of Bishkek clearly received attention in the Soviet era. Walking around the city was actually like walking around a Soviet time capsule. There were a ton of Soviet buildings, which have not been changed, unlike in Almaty or Tbilisi, Georgia. However, in the post-Soviet collapse, not much has been improved or well maintained.

Soviet Bishkek.

Despite this, though, there were a good number of western stores and chains in Bishkek, as well as some delightfully funny local knockoffs, such as BFC, which seemed to be a Bishkek Fried Chicken.

Bishkek Fried Chicken?

From the Bazaar, we went back to TsUM to get a few more things at the souvenir stand. After that, we grabbed some lunch at a local stolovaya cafeteria before walking back to the apartment to pack and get a cab to the airport. Our cab driver to the airport was fairly chatty, and he made sure to point out the village next to the airport where a cargo 747 from Uzbekistan had crashed in the fall. That was just what I wanted to hear about before flying away from Bishkek.

Things got momentarily worse when we were in the airport. We checked in without problems, but ran into a snag at passport control, or at least Jonathon did. He was questioned for an extra long time about his past travels. Thankfully, he was eventually let through and we waited around for our flight. The plane from Almaty was late. Then, there was no announcement made, but our plane was beginning boarding at a completely different gate than posted on the sign. We only discovered this through an Australian couple who were traveling with their three young children on a visa run from Almaty. The mother was walking around with one of the kids to get him to calm down, and then came and told her husband that the gate had been switched and that the plane was going to board soon.

The flight back was fine and without issues. We got a taxi back to Jonathon’s and basically passed out. In the morning, we got up and lazed around before meeting another grad student, Sean, and his wife and daughter at a café in the center for a late lunch. From there, Jonathon and I rode the gondola at Kok Tobe, to the observation point above Almaty. Unfortunately, it was a snowy day, and the view was obscured by the clouds. The area at the top was interesting, though, because they had a zoo with some strange animals ranging from goats, rabbit, and deer to ostriches and emus. There was also a monument to the Beatles at the top for confusing reasons.

The bottom of the gondola from my first night in Almaty.

After Kok Tobe, we grabbed tea in a café before wandering around a bit and getting dinner at Kagant again. The snow picked up a bit, and we headed back to veg out for the night with Russia related youtube videos. In the morning, we got up and explored a local park before getting lunch. I used YandexTaxi to get a ride to the airport. The price was an unbelievable 1,500 tenge, when the good normal price is 3,000 tenge. My driver was a nice 4th year university student. He was excited to have an American in his car. He was telling me how had spent two years in the Kazakh military and earned the rank of Lieutenant. Military service is not required in Kazakhstan, but it’s fashionable and can help get a variety of other jobs related to the government such as working for the police. He multiple times asked if I was married or planning to marry. At one point, he asked if I would ever consider marrying someone who was Kazakh. I’m not sure if he was implying something or not as he also kept talking about how much he wants to travel to America. He also had never been to the airport before, I was his first drive there.

Checking in for my flight back was smooth, as was passport control. We had a very rough takeoff that was caused by the old runway itself. The runway was clearly worn and in bad shape. I didn’t notice the same amount of bumps in the smaller Embraer, but in the larger Aeroflot Boeing 737, the disrepair of the runway was a little more evident. Still, it’s a long way from the Soviet Union where a number of distant airports didn’t even have paved runways. Soviet jets were designed to takeoff on packed snow or gravel runways.

I flew back without any problems with passport control. The landing was smooth for the rain that we landed in, and it was a perfectly Russian experience of having everyone clap loudly because the pilot didn’t crash. Everyone also got up while we were still taxiing to remove their items from the bins.

Now I’m back in Moscow and itching for my next adventure.

I just got back from a trip to Murmansk and Teriberka, north of the Arctic Circle. Thursday was February 23rd, Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which used to be Red Army Day, and is roughly the equivalent of men’s day in Russia. Due to the holiday, the archives, as well as much of the country, shut down. The archives were closed Thursday and Friday and had a half-day on Wednesday. The side reading room in GARF also decided to have a half-day on Tuesday. The closures also mean that my document request times are pushed back and the soonest I can see documents again are this upcoming Thursday. Thanks to the holiday, I got to take an amazing trip to the far north reaches of European Russia with a few others. Because what is a better time to head north of the Arctic Circle than in February? Actually, February is a mild time. There is something called the Polar Night up there in December and January that lasts for about 45 days. They get dusk and dawn, but that’s the extent of the daylight, in reality its almost 24 hours of darkness. In the summer, they have the Polar Day where it’s light out 24 hours a day.

Murmansk.

Murmansk.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

On Friday morning I woke up super early to catch a 7:20AM flight to Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. I ended up having to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo as I needed to get to the airport before the Aeroexpress train started to run.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Getting out of the dorm was my first adventure of the day. I’m not quite sure what time they technically open the door to the street, maybe 5:00 or 6:00AM? The night before, I went to speak with the guard. The door guards work in 24 hour shifts, so the guy there in the evening would be there through the next afternoon. He’s friendly and asked where I was going and was excited when I said Murmansk. He was also quite drunk due to the holiday. I told the guard that I had to leave early and asked if I could due to the flight. He said it was fine and then rambled on about the holiday in slightly slurred speech. I congratulated him and walked off. In the morning, I went by the little guard office near the door and noticed he was asleep on the couch. I went and tried the door, which was open, so I didn’t have to wake him. From there, I just waited for my Yandex Taxi to arrive and went off to the airport in about 25 minutes due to the lack of traffic in Moscow in the early morning hours. As I’ve learned flying in and out of JFK over the years, as painful as it is to wake up for the early flight, it generally makes the process of getting to and through the airport much less stressful.

This was my first time flying domestically in Russia, and as such was my first time at the domestic “terminal” at Sheremetyevo. What this really amounts to is going to the far end of the check-in hall. There is a separate security point in the domestic flights terminal past security is just a wing of the overall terminal, which is blocked off by a wall. I quickly killed some time walking around the entire domestic part of the terminal before getting ready to board. As I saw I was at a lower level gate, I immediately knew that I would be getting onto a bus and then getting onto the plane with stairs. Boarding was fine and swift and we departed 10 minutes early from the “gate.” The flight was reasonably full. I had a mother and her 9 year old son next to me. The son was playing GTA San Adreas on his iphone, which was moderately interesting to watch. We got the same breakfast meal that I got on the flight to Tbilisi, a fish, pickle, and spread sandwich with a yoghurt and small chocolate bar. After two hours, we landed smoothly in Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

Murmansk was founded in 1916 as a year-round port on the very northern shores of Russia. Due to the Gulf Stream, the waters remain navigable year round. As I have said, it’s the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and also features the northernmost trolleybus system. I have wanted to go for a while with my pop-cultural influenced love of Russia. The Hunt for Red October essentially features a submarine from nearby naval bases. These bases aren’t actually in the port of Murmansk itself. They’re spread throughout the nearby territory in closed settlements. Neither foreigners nor regular Russians are allowed to go to these places. Sometimes, to travel to nearby areas for hunting or fishing, or overland border crossings to Norway or Finland, special permission has to be received from the local authorities.

I traveled north with three acquaintances. The person who invited me was Vanessa, an Italian whom I had met in the dorm a few times while she was visiting some of my neighbors. She teaches Italian at a few places in Moscow. She casually invited me at dinner one night, and I immediately agreed to join the trip. The third member of our group was Terry, an American who teaches English at a private Russian school on the outskirts of Moscow. Our final travel companion was Alex, a Russian who somehow knows Vanessa through the other Italians. We all had different travel arrangements, more or less, that were facilitated by the February 23rd holiday. Terry arrived Thursday night, I arrived Friday morning, and Vanessa and Alex were supposed to arrive at the hostel around midnight on Friday into Saturday.

From the airport in Murmansk, I quickly grabbed a Yandex Taxi that was waiting in the parking lot. The cab drivers clearly hang out at the airport in the hours near the flight arrivals. It was only 500 rubles to go the 30KM from the airport to the hostel compared to the 1,000 rubles to cover roughly the same distance in Moscow from the dorm to Sheremetyevo.

I got into the hostel on the outskirts of Murmansk around 10:30AM, which was named the Little Mermaid in Russian. I found the reception staff, two nice men of about 40-45, and placed my things in my room before finding Terry. We spoke to the two hostel guys about getting food and then seeing things in the city as well as excursion outwards on either Saturday or Sunday. The guys recommended a food shack that was on the opposite wall of their office. We went there to get food before heading into the center of town to explore the city. The guy running the food shack was named Sasha, and he was super excited to meet two Americans in his little establishment on the edge of Murmansk. We ate some of his grilled wings in the unheated food shack. We wanted to get shashlyk, grilled meat, but he didn’t have any ready yet. He gave us his number and told us to call and come for dinner.

After lunch, Andrei, one of the managers of the hostel, drove us into the city and dropped us off at the main square. Terry and I wandered up and down and around some of the side streets of Prospket Lenina (Lenin’s Prospect) before popping into an Irish pub to grab some drinks and warm up. It was probably about 10F on Friday. In the Irish pub, we were met fondly by the bartender and one other patron who were excited to speak with some Americans. We tried some beers from a local brewer, which were quite tasty. If the option to drink Piligrim’s (Пилигрим) wheat beer is presented to you, go for it.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

A few hours passed in the bar and Terry and I headed back out to wander more in the cold. We walked past the obligatory statue of Lenin off of his street. We also found a monument to Sergei Kirov, a somewhat rival of Stalin and Leningrad Party Boss whose suspicious murder helped kick off the Terror of the 1930s. Getting cold and hungry, we wandered into a different bar that on the outside looked like a German style brew house. The inside was themed as an Irish bar, and they only had two types of beer as well as a weird menu that was a mixture of Russian classics and pub foods. From there, we headed to a supermarket to get something for breakfast before taking a taxi back to the hostel.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

For anyone looking to travel to Murmansk, do not stay in the Rusalochka Guest House (Русалочка). There is a reason why it was dirt cheap. As we were in two person rooms, we each paid 400 rubles a night to stay there, or roughly $7.00. The place was on the edge of the city in an industrial park. There was nowhere to walk to from it, and the bus that the internet said existed didn’t really exist. We had to take taxis to and from the place all the time. There were a few other foreigners there, but the clientele was mostly sketchy Russians.

Murmansk street corner.

Murmansk street corner.

My room was so-so. Coming first, I was a jerk and stole the more real bed. Vanessa got stuck with a folding cot with a decently thick mattress on it. Our room was also a former office. The key even said “Office No. 2” on it. Thus, there was a large desk and some chairs in it as well as an old bookcase. There was only one shower in the whole building of maybe 30 rooms, and there were two other toilets, which were basically unheated. I couldn’t figure out how to work the shower, either. There were no regular knobs. I went into the hall and asked a Russian guy if he knew how to work it. He somewhat laughed at me and came in but couldn’t figure it out. He also asked some other Russian man lingering in the hall outside the kitchen if he could figure it out, which he couldn’t. I found Terry and he showed me that it operated with a push button that had to be hammered in with your hand. It’s basically the same mechanism as those sinks where you push down on the knob and the water runs for about 10 or 15 seconds.

Our next problem with the hostel came from the overnight staff. While Terry and I were out, Vanessa and Alex messaged us that their flight was going to be delayed. They would arrive closer to 4:00AM. When we got back, Terry and I went to inform the staff. The woman working overnight was creepy and unfriendly. I told her about the delay and she told me to tell them to immediately find her so that she could copy their information from their passports. I sent this message along to Vanessa and Alex. In the mean time, Terry and I walked around outside the hotel a few times to see if we could see the Northern Lights, which was a failure. The guy from the food stand came up and asked why we hadn’t come for dinner, and when we went to see if we could walk anywhere along the road, a passing motorist seemed to stop to see if we needed assistance. Eventually we called it quits and went inside to go to bed.

Vanessa's bed.

Vanessa’s bed.

As I was getting ready for bed, the woman working at the guest house knocked on my door and asked if I was going to lock it when I went to sleep. I said I would, but she told me not to as the others were coming in late and it would be a disturbance if they knocked on the door. I said that no matter what, I would wake up when they arrived, so it wasn’t an issue for me. She then left me. At about 4:15AM I got a phone call from Alex asking me to open the door. I got up and went to the main door, which was unlocked. Vanessa and Alex didn’t even try to open it, figuring that the outside door would be locked at that hour of the morning. They had tried to call the posted number for the worker, but got no answer. I told them about the passport, and we knocked on the office of the administrator, but there was no answer. So we went to our rooms and to sleep. We forgot to lock the door to our room, so Vanessa and I were rudely awakened at 5:00AM by the crazy woman. She threw the door open and turned on the light, which scared us to death. She then started to demand the passport from Vanessa. I went back to sleep and then slept poorly and woke anytime I heard someone approach the office doors near our room.

In the morning, we got up and attempted to eat breakfast in the kitchen. The kitchen really served as the smoking room for the Russian clientele, who used a jar and its lid as an ash tray. The Russian men were also having beer for breakfast. We had gotten cereal to eat, but there were no spoons in the hostel. Instead, we just munched on the dry cereal and tried to figure out what to do for the day and when to arrange a trip to a village called Teriberka about 120KM away that was on the Barents Sea. We spoke with Andrei, who told us that he knew a guy and we could arrange a trip for the next day. He then dropped us all off in the center of the city, but this time by a restaurant where we got a second breakfast/early lunch.

Beer for breakfast.

Beer for breakfast.

We ate and then walked along the main road to the train station. From the train station, we crossed a series of tracks on some bridges towards the port, where we went to the museum for the first atomic icebreaker, named the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

It was built in 1959 and served until 1989. The only way to go on it is through a tour that runs certain days at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. We got the 2:00 tour, which seemed to be the most popular. Walking through the ship was pretty cool. As a floating city, there was a very scary looking medical complex featuring a dentist office, an x-ray room, and a surgery.

The stuff of nightmares.

The stuff of nightmares.

The grand staircase of the ship was slightly ornate. However, unlike the famed staircase of the Titanic, which featured a centerpiece carving of Honor and Glory crowning Time, the Lenin had a giant Lenin quote and carving of his head.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

We got to go past the decommissioned nuclear reactor, which had a good display set up in it to see what it looked like while working. There was also a tour of the engine room and the steam turbines that powered the ship with over 144,000HP.

Steam turbine.

Steam turbine.

The best views from the ship were from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

After the tour, we headed back to the center via a stop at an old steam engine by the rail tracks. We climbed up it for some cool photos before getting a taxi to an edge of the city to see the giant war memorial.17021499_10212322263634583_4807174153905822397_n

Murmansk was a major city for Russia during the Second World War. Murmansk is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the former Soviet Union, cities of the most importance to the effort on the Eastern Front. Because of its year round port, Murmansk was a major target for Nazi advances and bombing campaigns. This port is where a lot of the Lend Lease goods came in to supply the Soviet war effort. The Nazis wanted to cut this off, but never managed to take over the city and do so. Murmansk was actually the third most attacked and ruined city of the USSR, and Russia, after Leningrad and Stalingrad due to its immense strategic importance. On a hill overlooking the city is a giant monument to the war effort, called Alyosha, of a Russian soldier that was built in the 1970s.

At the Alyosha monument.

At the Alyosha monument.

The view of the city from the top was absolutely stunning.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

We wandered all around the monument and took in the views of the city before walking down through the park back to the city. We walked the whole way from the monument to the main roads of the city. While heading back to Prospekt Lenina, we stumbled upon a Mexican bar and restaurant called Amigos right on the edge of the main road. We went in and enjoyed having fajitas and enchiladas in the arctic north. I haven’t even had Mexican food in Moscow, yet there is a decent place to eat it in Murmansk. Who would have thought?

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

We wandered more and then took a trolleybus back towards the outskirts of the city in an attempt to find a place to look for the Northern Lights. After wandering around outside for about a hour, we headed into a café next to a park to have some tea and warm up. There was a DJ there playing songs off of his laptop who kept staring and me and Vanessa. If we started to bob along to the music, he would turn it up. If we didn’t, he would skip songs until we did. I ended up seeing a kid eating ice cream and talked about eating it outside. It was a bitterly cold day of -13F that was down to about -20F with the wind-chill. The others somewhat dared me to eat ice cream outside, so I got one and did so. It was wonderful.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

We regained some strength and headed outside through the park to look for the lights again. On the way, we found a slide made of ice. I found a cardboard box on the ground, and we took a few turns going down the slide before heading back into the center on the trolleybus. We grabbed some breakfast foods and then went to bed fairly early after chatting in our room for a while as we had an early start the next day.

We arranged through Andrei to get a driver to take us to the fishing village of Teriberka. I highly recommend going there, but it is very important to go with an experienced guide in the winter. We were lucky that the road was currently open, though it closes sometimes for days at a time due to the snow, and people can be stranded in the village. Our driver Igor was an extreme professional. He had an SUV with studded snow tires. His trunk was filled with shovels, a sleeping bag, and a butane camp stove among other supplies. His day job is with the МЧС, or the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Basically, this means that he works as an emergency first responder. He has his own tour company for other days. I highly recommend his services. The price was 10,000 rubles for the day in which we left at 9:30 and came back at 6:00. Split between us, it was 2,500 rubles each, or roughly $45.00, which is not bad for a whole day with a knowledgeable guide.

His group is called Туры и экскурсии по Кольскому полуострову (Tours and Excursions along the Kola Peninsula)  and he can be reached through his Vkontake page.

As we headed out, the danger of the drive became a little more evident. He kept checking in with someone else on his phone. They try to take the drives in groups of at least two cars in case some sort of problem happens with one. You literally drive across the middle of nowhere with no available help. The road on much of the trip is really just gravel, though in the winter everything is snow. A few times we passed giant trucks that were removing snow from the road. Igor told us that on one recent trip, they had to wait three days for the road to reopen. As we headed farther away from Murmansk, we crossed into the tundra. The weather conditions immediately changed to heavy snow and essentially white out conditions. Both the road and the horizon were white. The only way to see where to go was orange markings on the side of the road, which also told the plow drivers where to plow.

Difficult driving conditions.

Difficult driving conditions.

Along the way to Teriberka, we stopped a few times for photos. At one point, we took photos on a dam. I reveled in living out GoldenEye fantasies of being on a snow covered damn in northern Russia. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of that particular film, the opening shot is at the fictional Arkhangelsk Chemical Weapons facility, which supposedly sits at the base of a dam. James Bond runs across the dam and bungee jumps off of it to enter the base. In reality, the scene was shot at the Contra dam in Switzerland, but I didn’t care. Arkhangelsk is another far north Russian port city with a sizable nuclear fleet base.

View from a Russian dam.

View from a Russian dam.

Another very interesting sight on the way to Teriberka was the presence of a group of para-snowboarders and skiers. These extreme sports junkies head out in convoys to the snow drifts of the tundra. They attach parachutes to themselves and have the wind propel them along the snow as they attempt to do some jumps.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

The road to Teriberka was also dotted with little fishing encampments, or just cars parked along the road for people to head to the many nearby lakes for some ice fishing.

Fishing encampment.

Fishing encampment.

After about three hours of driving including a few photo stops, we reached a fork in the road for Teriberka and New Teriberka. New Teriberka is a settlement that sits a little more inland on the Teriberka Gulf. It has a few buildings, a café, and a sandy beach.

Some of New Teriberka.

Some of New Teriberka.

The real Russia.

The real Russia.

We walked along the beach and took photos of the stunning countryside before heading into the café for a lunch of soup and local crab and scallops. Igor told us that the crabs were not native to these waters. Instead, Soviet scientists took crabs from Kamchatka and brought them to the Barents to see if they would take off, which they did. However, Igor told us that Russia has very strict regulations about the fishing of fish and shellfish to control the population. Apparently, the Norwegians don’t follow the same principles.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Refreshed after having food, we got back in the car to Teriberka via a quick stop at the ship graveyard. They are early steam ships. Igor said that he’s tried to learn the history of them, but hasn’t been able to do so.

Ship graveyard.

Ship graveyard.

There wasn’t actually anything to see or do in Teriberka itself. Instead, we drove to the edge of the settlement before undertaking a 30 minute hike across the snow to the rocky beach on the Barents Sea.

Hiking to the sea.

Hiking to the sea.

The views along the way were also breathtaking. Murmansk is more of a stereotypical northern city near the water that has a few hills and trees. As we headed out of the city, the large pine forests started to surround us. Then we got to the nothingness of the tundra before approaching giant mounts near the sea.

The beach at the Barents was really just a pile of boulders that we had to carefully climb over.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

Vanessa was partially insane and a trooper. She was insistent upon swimming. Igor helped her get to the water and loaned her his second jacket and sleeping bag in place of no towels. She got up to the water, took off the jacket, and got hit by a massive wave before quickly getting dressed again. I took off my shoes and socks and walked up to the water. It was quite painful, but eventually my feet just ignored the pain and went back to feeling normal. Due to the rocks and waves, I couldn’t really get into the water. Instead, I stood in a small puddle near the edge, which kept going up and town with the tide. I my book, it doesn’t count as visiting a body of water unless you at least stick your feet in.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Alex also took off his shoes and socks. After having our water adventures, Igor pulled snacks and tea out of his backpack and we had tea on the rocks of the Barents Sea. It was an unreal once in a lifetime experience.

Picnic at the Barents.

Picnic at the Barents.

The tide was approaching our perch, so we warmed up and then hiked back to the car. Igor drove us back to Murmansk without any issues. Along the way, he started to talk about WWII a bit and I asked him a few questions. I knew that there were about 5 POW camps in the area. He said that the POWs helped to rebuild and that they were largely used in the construction of a hydro-electric plant that the Finns designed. He also mentioned that a lot of the nearby roads to the various fishing spots were first built by the Germans. They paved them with gravel and stones, and they are all apparently still in fantastic condition.

After arriving back at the hostel, we got dinner of grilled meat from the shack, much to the happiness of the owner Sasha. We relaxed and chatted in the room. We had a carton of milk that we hadn’t opened and were wondering what to do with it. Jokingly, we said we should freeze it and turn it into ice cream, so we put it in cups out of the window to do so overnight.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Vanessa and Alex had the 5:00AM flight out of Murmansk so that they could be back in Moscow in time for work on Monday. They left the hostel around 3:00AM. I was dead tired and didn’t hear Vanessa get up. Nor dead I hear or notice her opening the window to try some of the ice cream, of which she took a flash photo. I only woke up when she said my name, goodbye, and walked out of the door. I woke again a few hours later to gather the last of my things, hand Terry the key to my room, and get my taxi. My taxi was at 8:45, and there was seemingly no one working at the time. Terry was OK with taking the key as his flight was at 1:00 or so.

I got into the cab with a nice driver. He first asked if I was from Norway or Finland, and was surprised when I said the USA. On the way to the airport, he insisted on us stopping at a natural spring at the side of the road so that I could try the local spring water. I did, and it was indeed fresh and lovely.

The spring.

The spring.

We got to the airport quickly and easily. I then waited in line to check-in. I wanted to be there early for my 10:50 flight as I couldn’t check-in online. The line moved fairly quickly as the check-in was just for my 180 seat plane. Oddly, there was a group of about 20 Chinese tourists also on my flight.

After a quick and simple security check-point I wound up in the mostly wonderfully Soviet airport terminal. There was a giant socialist realist sculpture on the wall. The layout was also that of a provincial train station. It had the same design and furniture of the train station in Ulyanovsk, for example.

Soviet airport greatness.

Soviet airport greatness.

The gates were also just two doors out to the tarmac. I got some great views of my plane coming in from Moscow as well as an old Antonov An-24 turboprop plane operated by a small regional airline called Pskovavia. The particular model of plane was manufactured from 1959-1979.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

Boarding was just us all massing at the gate door. Our tickets were ripped, and we got onto a bus to take us to the plane. We quickly boarded and left on time. As the airport is tiny, there isn’t much of a taxiway. There’s just a strip from the middle of the runway to the terminal area. We drove up the strip and along the runway. At the edge of the runway, the plane made a u-turn. I didn’t realize that an Airbus could turn around like that. Then we took off and landed in Moscow with a minimal delay caused by the traffic in front of us to land. Lunch on the flight was a simple ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich, a fruit bar, and a mandarin.

We got an actual jetway when we arrived and quickly got off of the plane. I walked to Aeroexpress and was back in the dorm by 3:00PM. And thus ended my adventures to the far north of Russia. I highly recommend taking a similar trip if someone ever gets the chance. It was refreshing to be outside of Moscow in the real Russia.