Posts Tagged ‘snow’

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Riding in comfort and style.

Riding in comfort and style.

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

The doors off of the entry hall.

The doors off of the entry hall.

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

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

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

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

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

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

The mighty TV tower.

The mighty TV tower.

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

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

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

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

Advanced sanding operation.

Advanced sanding operation.

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

The stopped convoy.

The stopped convoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun and perfect snow.

Sun and perfect snow.

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

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

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

Ski lunch Georgian style.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

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

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

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

An imposing monument.

An imposing monument.

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

Soviet Tbilisi.

Soviet Tbilisi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

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

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin's train.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin’s train.

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

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

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

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

The cave city.

The cave city.

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

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

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

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

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

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

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

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

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

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

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

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

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

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

Argh, why is the flight delayed?

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

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

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

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

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