17 July 2011

One Cat, One Baby, Many bottles of Vodka... [Russia]

I'm not sure if you are aware, but Russia is a f'n BIG country... Yeah, I have seen a map of the world before, but it doesn't really sink in until you spend days on end inside a train, and afterward only arrive somewhere near half way across. For simplicities sake (OK, I'm just lazy) I am going to group these last couple of weeks travelling across Russia togethor in one post...

My first step from Moscow was only a couple of hours East, to a town called Vladimir. It is one of the ancient capitals of Russia, and lies within the Golden Ring. These cities in the Golden Ring are all full of Monasteries, Churches, Cathedrals, Convents etc. If you are a fan of the Orthodox religion, this area is like Disneyland!

I was surfing in Vladimir with Yana, a Russian girl living togethor with her family. The experience staying with Yana and her family reminded me a lot of staying with Marina in Pompeii - the family was so inviting and warm. Any time I walked in to the house there was always food or coffee waiting, and even when I refused (which wasn't often, I'm a poor traveller!) they wouldn't believe me and made me eat anyway. I felt right at home!

I was lucky to meet Yana - as on the day I arrived in Vladimir we were both waiting in different parts of the rail station. After waiting for about 45 minutes, trying to call her several times (but the number I had wasn't working), I decided she wasn't coming... So I messaged another host I had been in contact with (Irene) to see if she was able to take me. It turned out that Irene and Yana were friends! And Yana had contacted Irene also, to say she couldn't find me and ask what she should do! So Irene put us in touch and all was well. One night we met up with Irene and some of their other friends. Within five minutes of getting to the bar I was challenged to a game of chess by one of the guys. Chess is not really my game, but I managed to take the first piece and keep my head above water... for about 10 minutes. Then it all came crumbling down. But I was relieved. I didn't really understand why you would go out to a pub and play chess. The girls we were with were all very beautiful. Why would I want to spend my time concentrating on a game?

Actually the girls in Russia are generally... ummm... well put togethor. They seem to spend a lot of time on their appearance; always immaculately made up and dressed. High heels are every day footwear. Apparently they even wear them to the beach.

So, Vladimir. I don't have a whole lot to say, really. It is a cool little town, filled with beautiful old churches. Yana and I took a walk through the old town and I think we covered 'the sights' in about an hour. But it is a nice, relaxed place. We also visited Bogolyubovo, I small village just outside Vladimir. It has a wide open field with one of the most famous Churches in all of Russia! I am not exactly sure why, it is very small, but apparently it's true. The name of it is Church of the Intercession on the Nerl (awesome, right?) if you want to google it and find out. Besides that there is a nice river, which has a cool 'beach'; complete with plenty of locals cooling off.

Suzdal is only about an hour from Vladimir, and is the most famous of all the cities in the Golden ring. It is literally FULL of churches, cathedrals, monasteries etc. The weather was really crappy the day we were there, but we still spent some time wandering around. It is a really beautiful place, some of the buildings are very impressive. We entered a working convent and took a look around, and spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering and soaking (bad pun) in the atmosphere...

My train to Yekateringburg left at 6:40am, so I got up and left the house at about 6:10, plenty of time. I had purchased tickets online, and on the last leg they just took my printed e-ticket. When I tried to board the train they weren't having it! I had to go and swap the e-ticket for a 'normal' one... the train was departing in about 10 minutes! But luckily with the help of one of the staff I was able to skip to the front of the line, get the ticket and run for the train!

I had another train-related incident in Vladimir I'm going to mention very quickly. I have already told you about the queueing system in Ukraine. Well, Russia is exactly the same. The queue seems to take it's own form, with people coming and going, standing around to the side, the best way to describe it is; chaos. The Russians (like the Ukrainians) have no concept of personal space. Almost every time I am at the counter being served, the next person in line is literally standing right beside me at the counter, like they are trying to push me out so they can have their turn. Add to this that the fact that the rail staff are less than enthusiastic, the ticket purchase system is one of the least efficient I have ever experienced, and the whole thing is a loooooooooooooong and frustrating process. I tried to purchase a ticket from Russia to Mongolia, a very important ticket as I want it for the last day my visa is valid, but gave up in the end. It just took too long, and when we finally did get to the front of the line, we were told we had to go to another desk for international tickets. And that desk was closed, of course.

Anyway, back to the train. As I mentioned in the last post, I had the worst bed in the carriage - the high bunk in the corridor, right next to the toilet. The toilet didn't smell, you just get a lot of foot-traffic, making it hard to sleep. The train is also HOT. Most people think of Russia as that big country with covered in snow, full of people who wear funny hats and drink vodka. Well, let me smash some stereotypes... In summer, Russia is hot! 35+ is not uncommon. Russians do wear those funny furry hats, but I'm pretty sure they only do it in winter. Oh, and they do drink Vodka, but not as much as I expected. Infact, I think it is no more than any other country I have visited.

Arghh, sorry, I am getting side-tracked again. So the train was hot. And I was uncomfortable. For 27+ hours. It wasn't toooo bad, tolerable I guess, but I wouldn't want to go repeating it any time soon. At least it was interesting... I took the cheapest seat in your average commuter (cheap) train that was full of local Russians. I was a bit of a novelty, especially for the children. They kept trying out their English words on me, and when that failed, we just had conversations without language. It was pretty cool.

I finally got in to Yekaterinburg three hours late. My host was an amazing interior designer/architect, water-pipe smoker, Russian porridge and pizza maker, tea drinker, and hostess with the mostess! Oksana =]

The weather was pretty shitty while in Yekaterinburg, which was really disappointing. Oksana and I planned to join a big bike ride to go and look at some interesting abandoned industrial... place/thing, but it was just too wet. I did manage to see a bit of the town in-between storms, and it is a very nice place. One area in particular, Plotinka, where the river meets a damn. The whole area is paved and surrounded by trees, and a lot of people come here in the evening to hang out with friends and have a few drinks while the sun sets. Other highlights - the keyboard monument. I have no idea what the significance of this monument/sculpture/whatever you want to call it is, and even when asked no one seemed to know, but it is kinda cool. The Church of the Blood, which was named as a memorial to the slaughter of the Romonov family is quite impressive. The City Hall, also.

I tried to buy the Russia to Mongolia ticket again in Yekaterinburg. Thankfully the lines at the ticket counters weren't too long, and I was served within about 30 minutes. Oksana had written all the details about the train I wanted in Russian for me, so I just handed the ticket-seller-lady the piece of paper. She tapped away on her computer, and after a minute or so started talking to me (obviously in Russian). The only word I could understand was "Niet!". But, why?... I was at the international ticket desk. Was there no train? Or no tickets left? I tried two more ticket desks, and each time "Niet! Niet!". I was getting worried. I needed to get a train on the 19th, as it was the day my Russian visa expired. To leave earlier would have meant forfeiting some other tickets I had already purchased. I left the rail station defeated. Later I did a little research on the net. It turns out there is a bus that runs the same route and takes half the time. Success! I sent off an email to reserve a seat...

Some quick observations I made in Yekaterinburg. Well, these actually apply to all of Russia... People like to get married. It seems that every time you go to a monument, church, or almost anywhere in the city, there will be three wedding couples there having photos taken. And they love HUGE (tacky) dresses... Apparenly it is quite dangerous to get drunk in Russia. While Russia is only the third in the world for the most of alcohol consumed per capita, they are number one for alcohol related deaths. It seems that there are a lot of Russians enjoy drinking, but also a lot do not have money. They buy very cheap vodka, or just drink ethanol (pretty much the same thing I think), causing some serious cases of alcohol poisoning. Also, it gets pretty cold in Russia during winter. -60 in some parts. As you probably know, drunk people plus ice... something bad is going to happen. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but here that is pretty much a death sentence. People literally freeze to death on the street... OK one more - something to lighten the mood. In all the railway stations they have scanners you need to pass through to enter. To stop people with weapons I guess. There are armed guard standing there and everything. I have been through these scanners countless times, and it has gone off every time without fail. But no one is ever stopped or searched. "Look how safe we are, we have scanners in every rail station in Russia!, but we aren't actually going to stop and check anyone..."

My last few hours in Yekaterinburg were frustrating. I arrived at the rail station about an hour before my train was due to depart (at 20:50). Plenty of time. But the departure board only showed trains for the next 30 minutes or so. So I sat around an waited. Only after about 20 minutes did I discover that the time on the departure board was showing 18:20, two hours earlier than the time I had. WTF? I thought it must have been wrong, so waited for another 15 minutes for my train to show... nothing. I wandered around the station trying to find another clock to confirm the time, and they were all showing two hours earlier... Was I in a time warp? I was sure that the time I had was correct. So I took a seat in the waiting room and waited for my train to show on the departure board. I managed to catch a glimpse of someone else's cell phone and they had the same time as me... Hmmmm... Anyway, about 90 minutes later my train shows on the departure board. It's delayed by an hour. The hour passes and my train is almost at the top of the departure board, I am just waiting for a platform number. But the arrival time passes and... nothing. After a few minutes the arrival time is updated and my train slides back down the departure board. This is repeated about three or four times. FINALLY somewhere after midnight (my time) the platform is displayed.

I get on the train with no hassles, find my cabin and it is empty. I start to organise my things when a young couple enters... with a baby. Awesome. They start unpacking their things and I hear a strange noise... After a few minutes it gets louder and louder. It is the unmistakable meow from a cat, coming from somewhere inside their bags. 10 minutes later when everyone is settled in they open a bag and out pops a cat. So I am sharing my cabin with a baby and a cat. I know you are laughing right now, but it is NOT funny! Within half an hour I can smell shit. Baby or cat, I'm not sure... That evening just after we turned the light out, the cat went mental. It was running, head first, into the wall, I guess trying to break out. I'm not joking. I could hear little cat feet running, then BANG!, BANG!, BANG! So it seems Russian cats are crazy, too!

The following day I woke and looked at my watch. 9am. Or was it? By this time I was completely confused about what time it really was. I had a thought; were the trains running to 'Moscow' time? That is why they seemed to be two hours behind? Or had I somehow jumped forward two hours? (I later found out this is exactly what was happening. The trains in the whole of Russia run to Moscow time. I have no idea why, it seems pretty crazy to me). Add to this the fact that I had been on the train for about 9 hours now, and I was unsure if we had crossed any time zones (I would cross three over the two days on the train). In the end I decided that it didn't really matter. When you are stuck inside a carriage with nowhere to go and nothing to do, what does it really matter what time it is?

The train was, as you might expect, quite dull. I got a lot of reading done, watched a few movies, slept a lot... There was only one other English speaking person in my carridge, and it was an old French guy... yeah, we didn't have a whole lot to talk about. We passed by a lot of interesting and beautiful scenery, and the stops were always entertaining. Every 5 or 6 hours we would stop somewhere for about 30 minutes. The platform was lined with people selling all sorts of stuff. The first stop we made people were selling nothing buy soft toys... really? Soft toys? Why?! But generally they were selling food; pastries and breads, dried fish etc, and drinks. Some of the foods were... interesting. And the people selling them, even more interesting.

On the final day I was wandering around at one of the stops and saw a guy wearing a NZ t-shirt. I went up and said hi, and it turns out they were travelling the route with Intrepid Tours. Jackpot! I found 10 or so English speaking people. People that were... normal, made sense, basically, weren't Russian! (Not that being Russian is a bad thing, they are just quite different to me). So the final night I hung out with the Intrepid crew and got really drunk on cheap Russian vodka. Good times.

A few more interesting observations for you... These are all about Russian men.
1. Russian guys like to take their shirts off. Sure, it's hot, but I really don't want to see your hairy man-boobs.
2. The next best thing is they wear those open-mesh t-shirts. I'm no fashion expert, but those things are just weird.
3. Russian guys have the strangest haircuts. It is like they are stuck in the 80's. Mullets, big fringes, flat tops... it's all in style in Russia.
4. They LOVE gold teeth. I couldn't imagine anything worse than two gold teeth right up front, but I have seen it five or six times. And almost every guy has at least some mouth-bling.

That's all I got this time. Next up - adventures in Baikal, the deepest (and most clear I think) lake in the WORLD!


  1. Awesome post. Really loving your blog updates buddy.

  2. 1. You still owe me an email.
    2. I think it's bizarre that Russia is behind like 20 years in fashion.
    3. I love how you hung out with a baby and a mental cat. That is my life. Times two. ;) Thefact I'm not an alcoholic shows my unlimited patience and awesome.
    4. I saw a picture of a boat on the lake in Bikal and it seriously looked like it was hovering above the water. It was eery but very cool.


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