Posts Tagged ‘Aeroflot’

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.

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

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

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

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

Entertainment on your device on some B737s.

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

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

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

1997 W210. A luxury ride into Yerevan.

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

A common view of lots of Mercedes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delicious.

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

Cafe life.

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

Armenian architecture.

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

Steak, cocktails, and live jazz. Pure paradise.

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

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

The magical Armenian countryside.

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

Garni.

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

Gata.

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

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

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

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

Geghard.

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

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

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

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

The Cascade.

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

Downtown Yerevan from the Cascade.

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

50 Years of Soviet Armenia.

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

Mother Armenia.

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

На Берлин! To Berlin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The delicious raspberry wine.

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

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

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

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

Heading into the Genocide Memorial.

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

The flowers at roughly 8:20AM.

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

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

A slightly modified 1998 W210.

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

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

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

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.

Yesterday evening I arrived back in Moscow after a short trip to the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Republic that is located in the Caucasus. I left Friday morning to go there with a friend of mine who studies Soviet history at Ohio State. He is currently doing research in Kazakhstan, and his visa requires him to leave there every 90 days. He was going to go to Georgia for his visa compliance trip, and I invited myself along, which he thankfully didn’t reject.

We met at the gate in the airport in Moscow before flying to Tbilisi, the capita of Georgia, together. We flew on Aeroflot. There were no problems boarding the plane, and the trick of getting seats in the back of the plane worked to our advantage. I got the window and he got the aisle. As it wasn’t a full flight, we had the middle seat open. The flight was pleasant enough, left roughly on time, and was mostly smooth. We were fed a snack, which was a, um, thing? It was a sandwich of smoked salmon, pickles, and mayo? Mustard? Mustard-mayo? I made it through about two bites before quitting. I like Russian cuisine, but this was far too Russian for my liking.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I've been offered to eat on a plane.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I’ve been offered to eat on a plane.

Migration at Tbilisi was quick and easy. We then easily grabbed a taxi to our AirBnB. The trip was off to an auspicious start, as our taxi was a late 1990s Mercedes C-Class wagon. The driver was very friendly, and conversed with us in Russian. He took us to our apartment and gave us a mini tour of sorts along the way. He showed off the newer glass police headquarters, a physical attempt at transparency with the police, and an American chemical company. The American chemical company was our first taste of the current Russian-Georgian relations. The driver said that it’s just a normal chemical company, but when it was being built, the Russians tried to convince the Georgians not to allow it, that it would be making chemicals and dangerous substances. Georgia is caught at a cross-roads between Russia and the United States. Russia clearly still has a lot of influence there, but the Georgians aren’t very pro-Russian, and often look to the US. This also led to a few tense moments at times when I didn’t know which language to speak, Russian or English. I didn’t want to be insulting and assume that everyone knows or would like to speak Russian, but I also didn’t want to come across at the rude American who goes abroad and assumes that everyone speaks English. It was uncomfortable at times.

Riding in comfort and style.

Riding in comfort and style.

After riding around a series of ridiculously narrow back roads, we were dropped off at our apartment, which was right behind the old Parliament building.  It was a pre-revolutionary former noble residence. After the revolution, it was turned into collective apartments, which were eventually privatized. Despite being privatized, we got a small taste of the collective apartment experience. There was a door off of the stairwell that went into an entryway with three doors. The door on the left went to our kitchen and bathroom. The door to the right went to the bedroom/living room/dining room. The center door was to another private apartment. “Don’t worry, they have their own entrance and rarely use this door,” said Eka. We have different versions of the word rarely, because they kept coming and going through the door all hours of the day and night. They also had their TV on all the time. And smoked. Best neighbors ever!

The doors off of the entry hall.

The doors off of the entry hall.

We put our stuff down and then headed to the basement of the building, which was accessed from the street. In one basement area there was a small shop where we bought milk, juice, bread, and eggs. In another basement area was a café that cooked up home style food that could be eaten there or taken out. For about $6.00 we got two huge portions of food with potoates and a tasty sauce, which the woman called “Georgian Ketchup.” The wine was home made and complimentary from the AirBnB host.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

After food and a nap, we set out to explore our neighborhood of Tbilisi. We were essentially in a government center. We walked down and back the main road of our district, Rustaveli Avenue. There were a few examples of anti-Soviet sentiment there. The first was a plaque on the Parliament building, which talked about free elections and independence in 1918 until the annexation by Soviet Russia in 1921. Another plaque down the road mentioned a peaceful demonstration that was “gunned down by the Soviet Regime” in March 1956. The national museum even has a permanent exhibit called the “Museum of Soviet Occupation.”

There's a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

There’s a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

We ended up walking up the hill in our neighborhood up to the Funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain that is behind Tbilisi. The view was nice at night, but it was a very cloudy night, which spoiled things a little. We wandered around the park at the top of the hill and took in the fake dinosaur park and the behemoth Soviet television tower, which was quite imposing while emerging from the clouds. We also grabbed a good dinner at a restaurant at the top before heading back to the apartment to go to bed.

The mighty TV tower.

The mighty TV tower.

On Saturday morning, we were met at 8:00AM by a driver, Gaga. Some of my Italian neighbors had gone to Tbilisi last semester, and I got his number from them. Gaga is Georgian and also speaks Russian, but no English, so all of our communication was in Russia. We got into the car and he drove us north to Gudauri, a ski area up in the Caucasus Mountains. On the way, we took a quick stop at a McDonalds drive through so that he could get a cup of coffee. The particular McDonalds was across from the American Embassy. I joked that it was a convergence of two American embassies. We also stopped briefly after switching to the Georgian Military Road so he could get more gas. While waiting in the gas station, I saw a W202 C-Class towing another W202 C-Class. At least half of the cars on the road in Georgia are used German sedans and wagons that range from 10-30 years old, though the average is about 15 years old. I saw quite a few W202s and W210s, arguably two of the worst Mercedes made. There were also a good number of BMWs and a smattering of Opels and VWs. There is clearly some sort of business that buys up used cars in Germany and ships them to Georgia.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

The road to the Gudauri was harrowing. It was snowing, and we were generally on a two-land “highway” the whole way. Sanding operations on the road were also crazy. There were men riding in the backs of trucks and shoveling sand and gravel onto the roads.

Advanced sanding operation.

Advanced sanding operation.

The roads were poorly plowed and our driver was speeding like a madman. He was also aggressively passing other cars and trucks around blind curves. At times, the car would skid a little or I would feel the ABS going off as he did some rather questionable maneuvers. To make matters worse, he was driving a Toyota that had been imported from Japan. The steering wheel was on the wrong side, so it was harder for him to see around vehicles to pass. At one point, we were essentially driving down the left lane of the road for a few miles as we passed dozens if not hundreds of stopped trucks. They were forbidden from going up the steep mountain pass in the snow, so they were parked along the side of the road.

The stopped convoy.

The stopped convoy.

As we heading into the mountain switch backs, I really started to panic. I had a white knuckle grip on the seat as we weaved around corners and skidded in the snow with sheer cliff faces and not much of a guard rail. I made it through quite a few decades of the Rosary along the way, and was slightly hyperventilating as we got towards the top of the switchback.

This was literally the most scared I have ever been in a car, including that time that I was at a Mercedes driving event and went around the track with my instructor in his car. A trip that ended with him crashing his car after we had brake fade coming out of the straight. If you’re going to crash, crash in style in a limited edition Mercedes SL500. Thankfully we slowed enough through him pulling the emergency brake that when we hit the gravel pit and the deformable barriers, the airbags didn’t go off (thought they might, which is why I put my arm with the camera down in the video). It was just cosmetic damage to his car, but I didn’t think this Georgian driver would have the same skills as my instructor, plus we were on a track with safety equipment for to minimize damage and injury, including wearing racing helmets. Going off the side of a cliff or smacking into another car would have been a different story.

We finally reached Gudauri after two or two and a half hours of driving. Gaga left us to go to the ski rental, where I rented a board, boots, and helmet for about $11.50 for the whole day.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

The lift ticket was about $15.00 for the whole day. My friend was a good sport and wandered around the base area for a few hours while I went up and snowboarded. The first lift was a slow-speed quad, which led to a different base area with a higher speed, detachable quad. Both were made by Doppelmayr, an Austrian lift company.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base areas for both quads featured a variety of food and souvenir stands and restaurants. From the second quad, I asked some Russians how to get down to the Gondola, which was a little unclear. They just told me to head left, which I did and basically found the Gondola no thanks to the lack of trail markings.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The mountain itself was fabulous, the crowds weren’t bad, and the skiers were generally in control and weren’t crazy. However, the mountain isn’t quite up to American or European standards when it comes to trail markings.

Most American and European ski areas don't have stray dogs all over them either.

Most American and European ski areas don’t have stray dogs all over them either.

American mountains, at least in the North East, basically only have well marked trails. American resorts in the West tend to have more free skiing options, as do the European Alps, but the boundaries are fairly well marked. This was certainly the case in Jackson, Wyoming or Garmisch, Germany. The same does not hold true for Gudauri. Sign posts were very rare, and the limit of the trails was always unclear. I headed left from the middle quad to what looked like a trail that ran under the lift and doubled back to the side. At least in America and Germany, the small trail would have double backed into a main trail. Instead, I found myself in open free skiing. The snow itself was fabulous powder, and the area where I was happened to be rock and crevasse free, thankfully. I then went down that for a while before rejoining the actual trail.

Sun and perfect snow.

Sun and perfect snow.

The way down from the Gondola was easier to decipher. I wish I had had more time to ski the mountain all day. The runs were pure joy, some of the best skiing I’ve experienced in my whole life. I stuck basically to blues to the whole way, though, as I was skiing alone. The blues were super easy, more like an American green. They were all wide trails with good snow. There weren’t any icy patches at all, and they weren’t that steep. Had I been with a partner, I would have ventured off into the more difficult stuff, but I wasn’t going to push anything while alone on a mountain in a country with questionable medical facilities. The mountain was also interesting in that it has allegedly affordable heliskiing. The heliskiing tracks were super visible off on the mountains to the side. My favorite ski conditions are heavy powder, so I was sad to not get to track the fluffly stuff on this trip. But if I get the opportunity, I would definitely come back here and would totally recommend the place to others.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

After skiing for a few hours, I met my friend at the base. He had gotten an order of food for himself earlier for about $8.00, which was a giant portion of khachipuri and potatoes. He couldn’t eat it at all, and got the rest to go. When I joined him again, he gave me some of the food.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

After the harrowing drive up, we asked the driver to take us back to Tbilisi, and at a slower speed. He had wanted to take us up farther into the mountains, but we were too afraid of the roads and didn’t want to be riding on them at night. Visibility during the day was bad enough, and there were hazards like cows, dogs, or people riding horses that we had to avoid on the way to and from the mountain. The driver relented, and took us back to Tbilisi. Along the way, we stopped at Ananuri castle complex, to see a 13th century castle and church.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

In Tbilisi, the driver took us around the city for a while and showed us stuff from the car before taking us to the Memorail to Georgian History at the top of a hill. We climbed up and explored it for a while.

An imposing monument.

An imposing monument.

There was a great view of Soviet Tbilisi from this hill.Tbilisi itself is an interesting mix of national, pre-revolutionary architecture and Brezhnev blocks. After the memorial, he dropped us off in the center so that we could see the Museum of Soviet Occupation.

Soviet Tbilisi.

Soviet Tbilisi.

The Museum of Soviet Occupation was a permanent exhibit in the National Museum. It consisted of two rooms that portrayed a very bleak picture of Russian-Georgian relations. On one side of the first room was an old train car with bullet holes in it, in which hundreds were allegedly shot. Our AirBnB host later told us that this was a fabrication, it was a mock train car and had holes drilled in it. There was also a video showing the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and Russian bombings in South Ossetia. The next room was mostly just copies of archival documents that were execution orders for Georgian citizens, nobility, and clergy. Essentially, the Bolsheviks shot the majority of the Georgian nobility. It listed thousands of people who were shot during the Soviet era, as well as the 400,000 Georgians who died during WWII as victims of Soviet occupation. The final part of the exhibit was about continued Russian occupation with the contested territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are under Russian military control. Oddly enough, the museum didn’t mention anything about Stalin or Beria, two Georgians who initiated many of the killings that took place in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Gaga had let us borrow a metro card for the night, which was topped off, so we took a ride on the Tbilisi metro to see what it was like. It’s fairly small, and was initially built in the 1960s. It runs the same cars as the 1970s style ones of Soviet design, though they’ve been renovated with newer interiors and exteriors that feature Georgian pride.

We also popped into a wine store to get some wine. We wanted to get some red Georgian wine of the Kindzmarauli semi-sweet kind. The store had nice Kindzmarauli on tap, so we got two plastic 1 liter bottles for about $7.50, which provided us with drinks for the two remaining nights in Tbilisi.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

The next morning, Gaga met us at 9:30 to take us to Gori, Stalin’s home town so that we could go to the Stalin Museum. The museum was oddly built in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and during Khrushchev’s campaign of de-Stalinization. The museum has a major building of exhibition halls chronicling his whole life and death. It starts with his birth, features and exhibit with the 6th of the 9 official death masks, and a giant hall of gifts from his 70th birthday.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

One of the funny pieces was a model of his secret, underground printing press.There is another copy of this exact model in the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk. I’m not sure whether or not to be impressed or distressed with myself for recognizing the model, though I’ve been to the Lenin Memorial three times.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin's train.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin’s train.

Also at the museum are Stalin’s birth house and a train carriage. The house sits in its original location, and there is a giant stone structure built over it to protect it. The train carriage is an armored one that initially belonged to Nicholas II. Stalin left it basically unchanged with the exception of the addition of an air-conditioner. The train was given to the museum by Gorbachev sometime in the 1980s. Stalin travelled pretty much everywhere in the train car, especially as he had a fear of flying. He only flew twice in his life, from Baku to Tehran and back for the 1943 Tehran Conference with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. As our guide Georgi said, “Stalin didn’t want to be too close to God.”

The tour with our guide was great. He made plenty of sassy comments towards Stalin and the Soviet regime. We were also joined over time by a motley crew of American and Indian tourists, who I really wanted to ask what they were doing in Georgia. During the tour, our guide mentioned that the museum has its own archives, including Stalin’s original death mask. We said we were historians of the period and asked if we could somehow get permission to enter the archives. He said that they are private, but that there was a public archive that we could see. The public archive is actually just an exhibit on the crimes of Stalin, mostly the shootings of the purges in the 1930s. The guide told us that the museum was a standard Soviet one that glorified the leader and the regime without mentioning any of its bad times, so he got the permission to create this additional exhibit with archival research that he has done. The only downside to the museum was that it really wasn’t heated. There were some space heaters, but it was absolutely freezing inside. There were, however, very nice and clean bathrooms in the museum. We later rated all future bathrooms on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a dirty Turkish toilet and 10 being the Stalin museum bathrooms.

After the museum, we got in the car and rode off through the countryside to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. As we rode through the countryside, I was struck by how poor Georgia really is. I knew that the Caucasian Republics generally were poorer and were hit hard by the Soviet collapse. I had assumed, wrongly, that they had gotten a little better. Many of the villages were run down and looked almost like they had been bombed. People and animals were milling through the streets. Many of the houses did not have indoor plumbing, as outhouses were visible all over.

Uplistsikhe was fascinating. It was a city hewn into the sandstone of some cliffs. It was probably founded in the Iron Age, and featured a series of living quarters, wine presses, bakeries, jails, and theatres. There were even spaces for pagan ritual animal sacrifices and star worship. Our guide told us that there were some Soviet additions to the cave city, such as cement support pillars, which prevent it from being classified as a UNESCO heritage site.

The cave city.

The cave city.

I mumbled under my breath that it might have had something to do with the place being a giant death trap. We were climbing up worn down sandstone cliff faces that were covered in snow. There were no hand holds and very few places had level paths of any kind. I was worried about breaking an ankle in some places, and falling off the exposed side of a mountain at another. I’m not really a fan of heights and panicked a little at the completely open cliff face at one end of the complex. I would have lost my lunch had we been able to stop for lunch before seeing the place.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

After Uplistsikhe, we rode from about an hour through the countryside. At one point, Gaga started taking photos of the view while driving. At others, he was texting. Sometimes, he would have phone conversations without bothering to turn down the blaring radio. Eventually, he took us to a roadside café complex just outside of Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia. It was clearly where all of the locals ate, and we again dined on khachipuri and khinkali. After lunch, we went to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th Century.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

Gaga came inside with us and explained different parts of the history of it, such as the lore of it being built above the grave of someone who died and was buried while holding the robe of Christ from Golgotha. While inside the church, we witnessed a traditional Georgian Orthodox wedding, which was pretty cool.

Well this is awkward, I didn't bring a wedding gift.

Well this is awkward, I didn’t bring a wedding gift. The groom was clearly calling me out for it with his stare. Also, lots of other random people were taking photos, so I figured it was OK to do so.

From Mtskheta, Gaga drove us back to Tbilisi and left us off at the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. We went inside it and enjoyed the view. We also went into a smaller church built on the complex before grabbing a cab that would take us to the gondola that runs over the city. To my happiness, we got into another Mercedes C-Class taxi. This one was a sporty W202 C180 with a manual transmission. To my regret, my seat was missing its seatbelt, which was extra unpleasant when we went down the super steep cobblestone road in a car in which the brake wear indicator light was flashing. The roads and drivers in general in Georgia are frightening. They make Moscow drivers look calm and people in the Bronx like grandmothers out on Sunday drives.

The gondola ride to the top was cool. It was just before dark, so the view was still great. Jonathon put some coins into the binocular machine and enjoyed the view from it. We wandered around the top for a while and got up close to the Monument to the Mother of Georgia. When we rode down, it was dark, so we got a different view. We then walked across the river on a pedestrian bridge. We resisted the urge to invest and double our grant money at the local casino. We walked back to our neighborhood and grabbed dinner before heading back to the apartment to drink wine.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

In the morning, we had until 12:00 to leave the AirBnB. We got up and had breakfast before walking down the main road a last time. We popped into a local bookstore where we each bought a Georgian-English book to teach the Georgian language for about $10. We also walked along the street trying to buy stamps for some of the postcards that I had gotten. None of the souvenir shops had them, despite someone in Uplistsikhe telling me that those stores sell them. I asked if there was a post office, and one set of babushki told me that there aren’t any in the neighborhood at all, that I would have to walk a few blocks and then take a bus a few stops to get them. I gave up on the notion of sending some postcards actually from Georgia at that point.

After the failed stamp quest, we headed back to the restaurant below the apartment to get a last meal before going to the airport. Just after cleaning up after eating, our AirBnB host was there to collect the keys and call us a taxi to the airport. For future reference for anyone going to Tbilisi, Yandex taxi works there, and they have the cheapest rates to and from the airport.

Our driver was a nice older man who wanted to know where we were from and what two Russian speaking Americans were doing there. He complimented me on my Russian and asked Jonathon a series of questions about life in Kazakhstan. Along the way, he told us that there is more gender equality in Georgia, and that Georgian women truly have a say in their households. He then made comments about the Central Asian republics being dominated by elder males, and derogatory comments about Muslim families in general, such as Azeri women only voting for whomever their husbands tell them to. There is evidently a lot of rivalry between the ex-Soviet republics.

At the airport, boarding the plane was a bit of a free for all. The people working at the gate walked over and people just lined up and started getting onto the plane before boarding was announced at all. There was no regard to class or seat position for boarding. We then got onto the plane and proceeded to sit for a long time. Eventually, the captain said that we were being delayed due to slow boarding and baggage loading. About 90 minutes after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and then de-iced before taking off (dégivrer, my favorite French word). I think what happened was the flight was not full and we waited until every seat on the plane was filled with passengers. Jonathon and I lost the empty free seat that was between us.

Argh, why is the flight delayed?

Argh, why is the flight delayed? Also, proof that we were indeed together in Georgia.

The flight itself was uneventful. It was a smooth ride and the skies were reasonably clear, so I had a great view of the Caucasus Mountains.

The sandwich this time around was better, too. It was ham and cheese with pickles and the strange condiment spread. When we got to Moscow, though, we were again delayed due to the weather. It was snowing, and we had to circle for about 20 minutes before the runways were cleared for us to land. Landing was smooth and fine. I still feel slightly weird when the whole plane erupts into applause upon landing, though. The pilot did his job and didn’t kill us, why are we cheering for fulfilling the minimum criterion for his job?

Due to the delays, I was panicking a little because I was supposed to go to the dorm and do my laundry at 8:00. We only have one working washer for the two dorms at the RGGU main campus, so if you lose your slot you can’t get another one for at least a week. We pushed to get onto the almost full bus that took us to the gate. We said goodbye quickly in the terminal, and then I rushed to immigration. I was worried that I might be given lots of questions for flying in from Tbilisi. I stood anxiously in line while the people spent forever processing some passengers from China. When it was finally my time, I had to wait three or so minutes for the staff at the window to change. I handed the woman my passport and she asked where I had flown in from. I said Tbilisi, she nodded, and then stamped my passport and migration card and sent me on my way. I then essentially ran across the airport to the Aeroexpress terminal and got onto the 7:00 train with five minutes to spare, which meant that I was back in the dorms 10 minutes before I had to start my laundry.

All in all, it was a spectacular trip. I cannot wait to visit Kazakhstan and Armenia later this semester. It’s interesting to see how these countries retain some of their Soviet past, and to what extent they reject it. I’m also fascinated by the changes that have happened in these places in the 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Back in Moscow

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

A few hours ago I landed back in snowy Moscow. I spent roughly a month “home” for Christmas and New Years. I use the term “home” loosely as I wound up in Vermont, Cape Cod, Boston, New York City, Connecticut, Chile, and Argentina over the month. Most of my trips were to see family or friends, but the trip to Latin America was business oriented. I presented a paper at a conference in Chile, and wound up winning a best paper award for the conference.

The host university.

The host university in Chile.

The flight back to Russia was its usual fun routine. I’m currently stuck with a conundrum when it comes to flying abroad. I have Global Entry, which also gives me TSA Pre-Check, which means that I can go through expedited security lines that don’t require me to remove my shoes, laptop, or liquids. I also get to go through a regular metal detector instead of the millimeter wave scanners. However, this only applies to American carriers. Thus, my choice of poor fates is to either fly internationally on an American airline or to go through regular security in exchange for a better flight experience. For Russia, I don’t really have a choice. Delta now only flies seasonally between Moscow and New York, and for some strange reason, the season is not in the middle of the Russian winter. People who have read this blog before will also know that I despise flying on American airlines and love the Russian airline Aeroflot. I’ve had much better service on their New York-Moscow flights than on the same route with Delta.

Breakfast Aeroflot style: blini and herring salad.

Breakfast Aeroflot style: blini and herring salad.

Check-in at JFK this morning (yesterday?) was a breeze. The security line was frustratingly long, as usual, but I managed to avoid having to be patted down. Boarding was delayed by about half an hour because the plane was late to arrive from Moscow, probably due to de-icing. What was new this time was a bevy of security checks at the gate. I’m not sure if there is something about the particular flight and current Russian-American relations or if screening has just been amplified after the Florida airport attack earlier this month. First I had to present my passport for a visa check, which is normal to fly to Russia. Then, my passport was checked by a TSA agent. From there, I was asked to show the contents of my bag to a different TSA agent. Finally, while getting onto the jetway, I was asked to show my passport to an Air Marshall, who left me alone, but they were asking the Russians what they were carrying, specifically quantities of money.

The flight itself was uneventful. I had a window seat, which I strategically booked towards the back of the plane in a row in which the aisle had already been selected. Thankfully, the seat between myself and the man on the aisle remained empty, and I could stretch out during the flight. As usual, the best part of the flight was the people watching. There was a Chinese man in the row in front of me who likely has a gambling addiction as he spent the entire 9 hour flight playing a Texas Hold Em poker game on the in flight entertainment system. The guy who had the aisle seat in my row was also a bit of a character. He got on the plane and moved his bag from bin to bin every few minutes. I also noticed, during some of his luggage rearranging, that he had bought a bottle of Bacardi at Duty Free, which he had consumed about 1/3 of before boarding the plane. Thankfully he wasn’t a drunk mess, nor did he consume more during the flight. In total, we were about 90 minutes late due to the delayed boarding and waiting to taxi and take off. The second we touched the ground in Moscow, the guy in my row and some others stood up and started to remove their bags from the overhead bins. This prompted the flight attendants to get up to tell them to sit down. The men who were standing were angry and responded that they were 90 minutes late, which somehow justifies standing when they weren’t supposed to stand?

Immigration was fine, as usual, and we had to wait a while for our bags due to “technical reasons.” I hopped on the Aeroexpress Train, which boarded exactly a minute after I arrived at the platform and bought the ticket, thankfully. I then grabbed a taxi from the train station to the dorm. Due to the traffic and the crazy intersections and long lights around the station, I probably could have walked to the dorm in the time it took to drive, but I’m lazy after the flight and with my luggage.

Back in the land of snow.

Back in the land of snow.

I caught a break when coming back into the dorm. When I left, they took my electronic key card that gets me through the turnstiles at the security checkpoint in the building with street access. I have a student ID as well as a different paper ID that says that I live in the dormitory, but it’s a hassle to dig them out of my bags and talk to the guards about why I don’t have the electronic pass. Thankfully, the guard on duty when I arrived was Anatoly, who I have previously bribed with cigarettes. He said welcome back and opened the gate for me, and I walked right through and went to my dormitory building. The next fun step was getting my room key and keycard back. There was no one at the desk, and the administrator was not in her office. I just wandered down a corridor of offices near the laundry room and found the administrator in order for her to give me my stuff.

No, seriously, the land of snow. This was shortly after we began to taxi to the gate.

No, seriously, the land of snow. This was shortly after we began to taxi to the gate.

I quickly dropped my things in my room before heading to the main building to hand in my passport and migration card for the registration process and to pick up my letters of introduction to re-register at the archives.

The second I put my big bag down in my room, though, I began to slightly worry. I noticed that the lock was missing, a telltale sign that the TSA had inspected my bag. Whoever searched my bag must have thought I was a complete weirdo. My bag contained two pairs of pants, some sneakers, and a sweater. The rest of the bag was whiskey, chocolates, peanut butter, hot sauce, and a large bag of Splenda. In retrospect, having a bag containing white powders is probably a super sure way to get your bag searched at the airport. Thankfully, noting was removed, and perhaps the most important item remained, the Splenda. The woman who makes the letters of introduction for the archives has a diabetic mother. When I stopped by her officer every few weeks to check the mail for things from home, she mentioned how her relatives in the States send Splenda for her mother. Before leaving, I stopped by the office and asked if she wanted me to bring some Splenda before asking if I could email her the list of archives ahead of time to have the letters ready when I arrived. The promised bribe worked. Irina responded to my email in record time for RGGU and the letters were ready within 24 hours. I popped by her office and got the letters, and she very gladly received a large bag of Splenda from me. She was so happy to get it that she even hugged me.

I hit a new minor snag of sorts with the bureaucracy associated with the registration process. The visa office requires a photocopy of your passport, migration card, visa, and entry stamp to fill out the registration documents at the Federal Migration Service. Previously, I would walk into the office and they would do the copies then and there for me. Now, though, they want you to use a kiosk in the lobby of the building to do the photo copies. The copies themselves cost 7 rubles a sheet, or roughly $0.11. The problem is that the machine produces very low quality copies. I walked back up to the office with the copies, and the woman then just photocopied the necessary passport pages on the copier like she always used to. I don’t know why I was sent to throw money away in a low quality machine if she was going to make the copies again anyway, but this is an aspect of Russian bureaucracy that I’ve learned to ignore.

After taking care of this business, I went and bought food, showered, and napped. I feel human again and am more or less ready for five and a half more months in Russia. Tomorrow I’m off to re-register at some archives. Stay tuned for more adventures in Mother Russia, as well as some ex-Soviet republics. I have plans to travel quite a lot around my research this semester.