Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Moscow and Trans Siberia, Our Style

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Dan and I arrived in Moscow before noon on the 27th, with only the afternoon and early evening to collect our next train tickets and explore. I would be unable to experience the city’s infamous nightlife. Given the nature of this journey, however, we weren’t completely disappointed in our tight schedule. Moscow is the priciest and (according to a study) rudest city in the world. Alas, we wouldn’t have time for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee among the world’s largest number of billionaires. Not our style.

We disembarked from the train and starting walking north, searching for a Wi-Fi connection. We knew we needed to collect our Trans Siberian Railway tickets but we were clueless as to where we could find the Real Russia office. We would ned to find the tourist agency and collect before our train departed at 10:45 that night. No pressure. Along our route, we exchanged some money at something like 44 Rubles per Euro. It’s always surreal to handle bills with so many zeros, but we took consolation that there was much more money in the pockets of most people we passed. The Cyrillic alphabet was new to both of us so we started deciphering business signs as we walked. Dan related his knowledge from our guidebook but we found no sign of an ИНТЕРНЕТ КАФЕ (Internet Café).

Instead, we found more familiar letters spelling “McDonald’s.” Say what you will about the fast food chain, but it still offers free bathrooms and often, outside the States, free wireless Internet. We found a power outlet on the second floor and Dan began trying to coax life from the macbook’s damaged power cord. Apparently, Apple had recalled its cords for their faulty wiring. PC fans out there: judge not lest ye be judged. Apple will replace damaged cords for free. We just didn’t have time to find an authorized reseller in Moscow, collect a new cord, find Real Russia’s address, find their office, and pick up our tickets.

I set out to find the ИНТЕРНЕТ. It was a challenge because no one understood my intentions. After half an hour of making a fool of myself, a young man pointed me in the right direction. I soon returned to the Mickey D’s with an address and Google’s directions to the RR office, a thirty minute walk. We lugged our luggage across town until pausing for a break. A friendly hostel owner stopped to ask if we needed directions, helpfully identified a nearby Metro station, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We followed our map to the office, presented our passports, and left with eight train tickets. Dan and I stopped at a park on the way back to the subway and I popped the rest of the popcorn. A laughably cheap snack in such an expensive city. Our style. We braved the Metro system to find the Red Square.

Our packed subway unloaded just across the road from the Red Square wall. We entered through the Resurrection Gate, a copy of the original Stalin destroyed in 1931 because he felt it impeded his parades and demonstrations. The lovely Kremlin’s occupants liked to strut their stuff around the Square. After several days on the train, we were less than strutting about the Square. Not our style. We saw Lenin’s Mausoleum but not the father of Soviet communism’s embalmed body, the world’s most famous mummy. A secret until the fall of communism, Ol’ Lenin was preserved by being wiped down every few days and then submerged in a tub of chemicals, including wax. For a million dollars, you can have the same done.

Alternately, you can pass the tomb and view the incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. What ridiculously wonderful swirls of colors! The building is the culmination of the Russian style, developed in wooden churches, and contains nine chapels. I was struck that it looked like candy, like technicolored peppermint-striped candy. The eccentric colors made me want a taste. It was constructed over the grave of the an equally eccentric character, Saint Vasily (Basil) the Blessed. Great guy. Great style. He was an early nudist and liked wearing chains, perhaps the equivalent to “bling.” He told Ivan the Terrible off for not paying attention in church and for his violence towards the innocent. So we appreciated the nutty saint through the Cathedral, and circled the Square, past the State History Museum and the State Department Store, both closed.

Back at the main train station, Dan and I took turns exploring a local grocery store while the other “watched” our luggage (I took a nap). I pulled another close-call, returning to quickly walk our bags to line 3, struggle down the narrow isle, and sit down, just as the train pulled away from the station. We were on the Trans Siberian Railway, one of the 20th century’s engineering wonders. We shared the “row” with four others, one young man and one elderly, and young and older women. The older man spoke a little English and grilled us as to why we were traveling Russia without a translator. After a while, he began repeating the phrases, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.” It was a little unnerving. Dan and I had our own beds on this train so we were content.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our beds; our first TSR leg lasted three nights. Days were spent in sleep and reading. I love books but I began to regret my iPod’s deceased condition. The morning of the 28th, the train stopped for an hour and almost everyone awake in the car, got out to smoke and buy snacks from numerous vendors. Dan and I, stocked with provisions, remained on the train, reading our books. That night, around 11:00 Moscow time, we shared my “birthday meal” of Ramen noodles, cooked with the hot water available on the trains. Totally our style. Dan surprised me by producing a delicious jelly roll cake-substitute and, to my delight, a 1,5 liter Mountain Dew. I was appreciative and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the low light and calm car. I drank half the bottle and my body, unused to the caffeine so late at night, remained awake until around 4:30 a.m. Completely worth it. I am 21 years young.

The next day we were back to reading and sleeping. I was working on Desiring God, a wonderfully challenging John Piper creation expounding what he calls “Christian hedonism.” Strongly recommended to anyone! Dan finished Eco’s The Name of the Rose and began Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Around 6:00 p.m. the train stopped and ominous, uniformed Russian officials inspected our faces and validated our visas. We always feel a little nervous at these borders; we have nothing to hide but are doing our best to stay out of prison. The government officials in these districts seem to do their best to intimidate. The train continued a little further and stopped at the Kazakhstani border. The gruff border guards collected our passports and the packed car waited in the hushed silence that reverberated fear and apprehension. For an hour and a half. During that time, one guard searched our bags and one took Daniel aside for questioning. Note: questioning works very poorly when neither parties speak the other’s language. The guard wouldn’t even try to understand Daniel and seemed disappointed for some unknown reason. More on that later. The locals sharing our row laughed as we finally left the border, blaming us for the delay. We could only shrug. I was merely happy to have made it into my 39th new country. The next morning (July 30th) we pulled into Astana’s train station, our first TSR leg complete. The two of us had made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan, not without some excitement. It’s our style.

The Train to Moscow

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Waiting in the station was an intense game to play. While Matt went hunting for postcard stamps and some form of money, I watched the piles of luggage. We had stocked up on some supplies earlier in the day, not knowing what would be available on the train, so we had 6 bags with us. My backpack was ¼ full of clothes, ½ full of food, and ¼ full of medical supplies and toiletries and hanging from it was our pot, my shoes, two Nalgenes, and my sleeping bag. My bookbag was full of bowls, books, my laptop, camera, phone, and all the associated cordage. We had a hearty plastic bag with several loaves of bread, some jam, peanut butter, a bit of cheese, some meat, silverware and cups and random odds and ends. Matt’s big bag had his clothes, his tripod, some food, the tent, his sleeping bag, and sundry other items, hanging from it were two water bottles. Matt also had his small camera bag which had his camera and its associated items.

It was this motley group of items that I carefully guarded as Matt hunted. The time came, however, to load up like pack mules and make our way to the train. Matt, however, was nowhere to be seen… I began to become nervous at the end of an already slightly stressful day to have the stress of being unable to board our train was a bit much. Matt showed up about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and we rushed down almost the entire length of the train, got into our car and began to make our very disjointed way down the packed aisle.

The car we boarded bears some description. It was a dingy yellow on the outside with the roof a dingy grey. Inside, wooden sides betrayed the age of the wagon and the thin foam pads on the seats were covered with some sort of vinly, cracking under the abuse of years and passengers. The train car itself was separated into 6 or 7 unenclosed compartments. Along the left-hand side were facing bench seats with a table between them and a “bed” or sleeping-board above each. Above the beds were another flat surface intended for luggage. On the right-hand side as we jostled our way up the crowded car to our seats, were single benches flat against the outside wall made of three sections: two seats and a fold up seat/table between them. Again, above this a bed and above that luggage storage.

We had plenty of luggage and were at a loss as to where to put it. Every seat was filled with three people to a bench in the left-hand compartment and a lady sitting on the bench on the right-hand side, where our tickets indicated our seats were to be. With many apologies in unintelligible English, we eventually got our luggage situated and settled down for what would almost certainly be an uncomfortable night. What did we expect, though, when we bought the cheapest seats on the train?

A few hours later we cleared the luggage we had put on the bed area and the old lady climbed up to sleep there. Matt and I were left trying to find ways we could fit at least 75% of our bodies onto the bench without sticking either our elbows or unclean feet in each others faces/necks/backs/stomachs. I drifted off after a while to an uncomfortable and frequently interrupted sleep. We woke once to be briefly interrogated by first the Latvian/EU and then the Russian border guards. The event went smoothly and in the morning I woke, after a few fitful hours, to find ourselves not much over two hours from Moscow.