Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

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

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

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

One of the Italians now. Va bene!

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

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

With Oksana as the storm rolled in.

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

Super blast door.

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

Aleksei couldn’t quite fix the umbrella.

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

With Tata.

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

Russia doesn’t disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

Some post-Russia traditions are sacred.

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

The Novosibirsk train station.

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

Krasny Prospekt – the main road in Novosibirsk.

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

Bear meat pelmeni at #сибирьсибирь

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

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

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

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

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

Inside a prison car.

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

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

The modern goodness of the Tomsk-Moscow train.

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

Nikolai discussing something of presumed importance.

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

Yura, who gave me the switchblade.

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

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

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

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

Getting my comic improved by the author.

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

The river front in Yekaterinburg.

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

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

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

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

Engels’ Coffee and Waffles

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

The Yeltsin Center.

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

With Zhanna. Say, “Политех лучше всех.”

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

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

Deep thoughts on the Trans-Siberian.

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

Platskart life: dodging feet and shirtless Russian men.

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

When the train is too long for the platform.

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

The funky restaurant car.

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown Irkutsk.

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

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

Newest members of the traffic police reporting for duty.

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

Baikal beach at Listvyanka.

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

View from the nature reserve.

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

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

Ouml round one.

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

I want them all.

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

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

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

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

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

More fish please.

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

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

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

So many cool, wooden houses in Irkutsk.

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

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

Our very cool train neighbor.

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

Train snack – cold smoked omul.

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

The super amazing room in Krasnoyarsk at Hovel Hostel.

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

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

Lenin overlooks the Soviet cars.

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

View of the Yenisei.

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

Up we go.

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

With the Russia/Kazakh family.

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

Krasnoyarsk from Stolby.

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

One of the major pillars at Stolby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulugbek and his collection of most likely rancid food.

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

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

Pretty nice for platskart.

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

The food sellers in Belogorsk.

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

Hot smoked harius.

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

Golden Lenin of Belogorsk.

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

Typical view at a stop: everyone out and smoking.

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

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

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

Making friends with the food seller.

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

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

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

Andrei mid-speech about something.

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

Sera – Russian gum.

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

Village life.

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

Ulyanovsk pride in Siberia.

 

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

Lake Baikal from the train.

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

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

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

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

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

Permafrost.

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

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

Vladivostok from my hotel window.

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

A little bit of Ulyanovsk in Vladivostok.

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

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

The Mumiy Troll’ bar.

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

Central Vladivostok.

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

USSR themed stolovaya (cafeteria).

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

The Russky Ostrov bridge.

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

Far Eastern Federal University.

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

The beach.

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

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

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

Train 001- Moscow-Vladivostok.

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

Getting onto train 001.

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

The Khabarovsk train station – the largest in Siberia.

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

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

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

Om-nom-nom.

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

Happiness is a good burrito.

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

Downtown Khabarovsk.

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

Tallest cathedral in Siberia.

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

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

ICBM in downtown Moscow. No big deal.

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

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

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

A trio of Tu-95s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

С Днём Победы! Happy Victory Day!

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

Lenin Lived. Lenin Lives. Lenin Will Live.

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

With my new pilot friends.

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

To Berlin!

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

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

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

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

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

I just got back from a 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.