Harry's Trails Around The World

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Postcards from Russia

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 5:40 PM

Foreword: I have been writing this over the past month. When I paste it in this site, there is always a formatting problem which means one space per line is lost and two words are glued together. The text below is far too long for me to edit it...so I apologise for the occasional lack of format, just use your imagination...

Part I, Train 010, Pskov-Tver, Russia   March 20, 18.30


There is something about trains. Something thatjust inspires me to write. Maybe it’s the flow, the fact that the images comeand go so fast, and so do the thoughts in my head, with the speed of light, andthis is when they are best expressed in words. This is probably the only trainthat I will be able to write on. And that’s because this is a ‘new generation’Russian train, not the old grotty Soviet variation. And that means that apartfrom lavishly sleek red-coloured seats that become bunks, one gets earphonesand a socket for the computer. There is also a restaurant car, but given thebudget cuts that I am subjecting myself to, starvation is the price to pay forall this travelling. A few kilos less will not hurt me anywhere, and I can restin the knowledge that I am nourishing my cultural credentials. This sleek trainalso features the most gorgeous attendant this side of the iron curtain, Iswear. Not the grotty old babas that get the Siberian routes, they save thesegorgeous girls for this sleek extra super train. Of course it all comes at aprice, but what the heck. A smile from a female like that can only melt you ina thousand pieces. My trip has been made worthwhile already.


Landing yesterday in St. Petersburg in the fog and snow, Iwondered how come spring officially starts on March 21. But that was yesterday,and this morning it actually got worse. Vehicle drivers here seem oblivious tothese weather conditions to be honest. The marshrutka from the airport (Russiais one of these great places where you can still get from/to the airport forless than a euro in a marshrutka) whizzed down the slush of the avenues of St.Petersburg in what appeared like the speed of light. Just a quick look at theplace, and you know you are somewhere grand. Mental note: do St. Petersburg justice while I have theone-year visa and spend at least 3 days exploring it, this is my chance. Aftera bumpy ride, I was deposited in the centre of this metropolis and headed forthe bus station with the confidence of somebody who knows exactly where he isgoing. Good planning is essential for these trips, nothing more than that. So Imade the 1 pm bus to Novgorod, Russia’sself-proclaimed oldest city, featuring a kremlin, a river, a bridge, variousold buildings, stuff tourism brochures are made of. Sadly, tourism brochuresare made in the summer and not on March 19 in snowfall and puddles that freezeyour socks instantly. Clearly I was the only tourist in town, though tourist isnot exactly how I would put it, this is a frenzy to go to every administrativeunit of the country rather than necessarily explore something. The wind blew meto pieces in the kremlin and taking pictures was almost mission impossible, sothe tourist activities lasted little more than 10 minutes and then I got down tothe business of issuing all the train tickets I will need on this leg of thetrip. What always surprises me is Russia is the pan-faced expressionsof the agents whose miserable fate it is to issue me with all these bizarretickets to and from places. They do the job without the least iota of surprise.The fact that I am a foreigner and asking for transportation to places nobodyhas ever heard of either doesn’t strike them in the least bit strange or theyare so mind numbed from a. the cold b. their job c. the former customers thatthey just go into autopilot and do it all. You cannot accuse them of not beingefficient, that’s for sure.


After the poverty of Moldova,Russiacomes as a much richer and more modern variation. The first slap in your faceis the price of gas, at all of 60 cents to a euro, which is just so terriblyunfair if you think about it. Now I know why we are supposed to have thesepeople, why we were always told they are the bad guys. Because they are the badguys! They can travel around so much more cheaply than we can. And a tastybusiness lunch still costs 3 euros for 3 courses as I found out to my joy in Pskov today.


Given my exhaustion and inability to explore Novgorod yesterday I was set to do more justice to Pskov, to which I arrivedafter a 4-hour bus ride in ominous conditions. The drivers cigarettes are veryhard earned indeed. We past three accidents on the way, one of them appearingto be quite serious and involving four vehicles. The snow was relentless, thevisibility at points so-so, and for much of the trip we were on a road full ofpuddles. How we still arrived on time is a mystery, though I am realising thattimetables here are planned to allow for all sorts of calamities on the way andnot disappoint those with a Swiss-bent for efficiency, which will seemmisguided here for sure.


Despite the elements and the fact I didn’t havea map and I was freezing away in a wind designed to protect the country’sborders, around 30 kilometers away from the invisible line of civilisation toEstonia or Latvia, I was adamant that Pskov will be done justice to. I didremember that the lonely planet guide dedicated a number of pages to the place,so there must have been something worthwhile seeing. Indeed, soon it becameobvious that the place was replete with various churches, all convenientlylocated on either side of the main street, unimaginatively named Oktombryanska.It was with some pride at my achievement of having come this far that I alsoread a plaque about the city having been awarded the ‘city of excellence’ (orsomething equivalent) by the Soviet committee for such things back in 1984. Thecity of excellence did not seem to have one international cafe with wifi, whichmost places of similar size in Russiahave at every corner. Maybe all that potential space was just taken up but yetanother church. Finally, past yet another Lenin (it’s always the sameprotagonist here, no surprises), the local Kremlin. Windblown and icy, I headedinto the church at the top of the hill, with one prayer in mind: will this snowever stop and will I ever see the sun again? I thought of lighting a candle tomake my wish more grounded in spiritualism, but decided that giving the Russianeconomy another boost, however little, was just not going to happen. Godlistens candle or not candle, right? Right. I only spent 3 minutes in thechurch, but on coming out the snow really had stopped. It took slightly longerfor the sun to come out, but it finally did and is shining now in magnificentcolours as the day slowly comes to an end. I am now more of a believer thanever, plus I see the wisdom of placing the spring on March 21, not a dayearlier.


So, tomorrow is the spring. For astrologists itis the entrance into Aries and the start of a new year’s cycle. As for me, itwill be, hopefully, a day of three full new points, my equivalent of Christmas,especially at such a late stage of my travel career. The fact I may not reallysee much of the places I will be arriving at is irrelevant. And besides, Istand by my theory that you can see every small town in an hour or so. Therehas yet to be a place that breaks this rule and it certainly won’t be in Russiawith its Lenins, its Karl Marx streets, its old ladies with plastic bags, itschurches and, let’s hope in the future, some decent cafes. They will be my onlyhope to actually post this message, at some point in the future. Let’s hope itis still spring, or at least that there is a church nearby.


Part II, Saratovrailway station, March 24,  23.06


I spoke too fast. The snow has devastated theearth. I cannot believe it, to be honest. So much snow, so powerful, so allencompassing, how do these Russians cope with so much of it and so long? I hadassumed that by the end of March spring would be here. Wrong. Now I understandthem, it has to be said. With so much snow, I am one step away from the vodkabottle myself. The temperatures are well below zero and I have predictablycaught a cold despite trying my very best to take care of myself. The pace ofthe trip, entirely frenetic, has not helped keep a very healthy routine and Iseem to eat whenever and whatever I can find, if I remember. And yet, despitethe fact that I pass cities one after the other at what seems like the speed oflight, I really do remember each and every one. Pskov was probably the best so far, though Ididn’t do Tver much justice, how could I at 5 a.m. walking in the darkness withmy bag and freezing away in what must be the ultimate perversion that will winme a ‘wacked tourist of the decade’ award. Kalugais built on a hill and seemed a great mess, though it suffered in world war twoand they are slow rebuilding stuff here, but I was thankful for Kaluga when I saw Bryansk,which must be a nominee for worst place in this hemisphere, a league of its ownin filth and lacking any charm at all. Voronezhwas very much a real city, with traffic to match and rather grand buildings.Lipetsk was unremarkable even though I hardly saw it, and Tambov was not verysubstantial either but I did have a great cake there and I will never forgetcosy hotel Uyut, where the reception was basically a friendly granny doing theironing in the company of her very innocent looking teenage grand-daughter (whoI caught smoking the following morning, so not so innocent after all). In Penzalooking for a hotel in a snowstorm after a 6-hour bus ride without heating isnot something I will forget, but Saratov was even worse (although it looksreally pretty and very mixed, with quite a number of more Asian populations) inthat I couldn’t seem to get from the bus station to the centre, and then when Idid find a taxi there was a terrible traffic jam because a lorry had juststopped in the middle of a road. In the short conversation I could have withthe taxi driver given the language barrier, I managed to ascertain he believed‘Americans very bad people’. So much for not stereotyping. Roads in Russia, for therecord, are an embarassment to civilised societies. What were those communiststhinking? And why haven’t they done anything to improve it all in the past 20years? Bus rides end up being a vibrating experience through roads filled withholes, and there is no excuse for the state of the supposed highways. I nowrealise just how advanced the west really is, and by west I do very muchinclude poor little Greece.The train rides in Russia,on the other hand, are a pleasure in an exotic, alluring sort of way. I willnever get enough of these trains, but goodness knows I am overloading, with atotal of 15 rather long rides scheduled in a 5-week period (I am 5 down at themoment, 10 to go until the end of April). Russiais infuriating a lot of the time, with pan-faced service in most cases, but thelady who issued my bus ticket in Voronezhhad a naughty sparkle in her eye. The slush and snow everywhere don’t help, andI am certainly the only ‘tourist’ (if I can call myself that) in any of theseplaces at this time of year (perhaps at any time of year) but then there aremany angelically blonde girls at every corner who smile away and wear thesecute pink ornaments in their hair, they cross out the vile sight of classlessbabushki (grannies) who seem to be the staple of every nook and cranny of thisvast country and who always carry a plastic bag (there is one sitting by mehere in the waiting lounge, slowly eating her piroshki and chewing every morseldeliberately – she may have false teeth poor thing). I can’t say I will besorry to see the last of the Lenin statues - or the signs of ‘technologicalbreak’ which means the counter is closed because the (usually a woman) manning(womaning?) it has gone for a cigarette, a call of nature or just to gossip (ithas nothing to do with technology, I am sure) - when this Russia extravaganzais over, but at the end of the day, this is a world of its own, entirely apartfrom what we know, and deserves more attention that it gets on the tourist map.Though I doubt Bryansk – or Kaluga,or Penza forthat matter - will ever have an overworked tourism board.


Part III, Volgogradrailway station, March 26, 18.02


Boy it isn’t easy travelling on one’s own whenone is ill. Yes, you got it folks, the Russian winter (it is supposed to bespring by now, but with temperatures of -5 it doesn’t quite cut it) beat me Iam afraid. My medicine chest (I always carry one with me on long trips) hasfinally been needed and it has been needed intensely as I am coughing, my noseis running wild and my temperature keeps on skyrocketing until the paracetamolkeeps it under control. Any normal human being would rest and get over it, butthis trip has been too finely planned for such little mishaps such as illhealth to change the routing. Luckily I have inherited a strong constitutionfrom my father and respond to medicine rather fast. So despite feeling awful, Idid brave the cold wind and visited the Mamaev Kurgan memorial to the battle ofStalingrad, which will certainly be thehighlight of the sites I will see on this part of my Russian trip. Plenty ofcommunist hero art, lovely engravings which certainly evoke the atmosphere ofthe war effort. I was rewarded for my superhuman efforts by arriving just intime for the change of guard which offered wonderful opportunities ofphotographs of real Russian soldiers – not opportunities you get everyday. Volgograd today haslittle to remind one of the struggles 69 years ago when this place was shelledand two million died. The only preserved building is an old mill which has beenleft as it was, a testament to the devastation of the place. Needless to say,this disaster tourist was orgasmic with glee upon witnessing thisbullet-infested building. Another one in my long list of bizarre disasterphotos, to go together with the album of Somalia,Vukovar, post-Israeli bombing Beirut and Kabul of course.

By the way, there are three pigeons in the hallkeeping the passengers amused with their antics while always happy to getpieces of bread from some generous onlooker. Don’t these pigeons ever get full,I wonder?

I rarely cut corners on my trips, unlike someof the other ‘competitive travellers’ I know, who often indulge in behaviourlike taking a flight to a place and returning on the same plane, and justcounting the destination as visited because they have been to the airport. Myinherent sense of fairness toward every place makes me have to investigate it,give it a fair hearing before I judge it as good, neutral or dreadful. But Iadmit that I had to cut a corner with Kalmykia, because I wanted to get thatpoint, and a bus ride all the way to the capital of Europe’sonly buddhist republic, Elista, would have been way too long, especially givenmy cough. So I did the almost unthinkable, took a taxi and we went up to thefirst village past the border post, little more than a few houses with muddyroads. I can’t say I understood Kalmykian culture or engaged in anyintercultural awareness activities, which makes me feel terribly guilty giventhe natural quirky value of buddhist pagodas in the European continent.. On theother hand, my efforts to enhance global bonding seem to fall flat in Russia, as 90%of the people are unsmiling, pan-faced and unwilling to even try tocommunicate, despite the language barrier. If they spoke slowly and showed andinterest, the message would get across. But these people are not interestedsomehow. Efficient, absolutely. Today I bought a second set of train tickets.The woman, once again, exhibited no surprise at a list of entirely unrelateddestinations spanning a few days, nor the fact that I would be paying in cash.She did what she was meant to do and issued me the tickets, informing me of theprice of each one duly, as if to ensure that someone as unassuming looking asme actually did have that amount of cash with me. But no further comments, noquestion mark, nothing. Of course for the 90% of that you get the 10% that thegrandma in Tambov’s‘cute hotel’ belong to. They are the ones who upon seeing that you are 40 onyour passport will comment ‘oh, how young’, totally against any hospitalityindustry etiquette. And I suppose, with that 10% there are certain moments ofjoy, amusement and satisfaction. But otherwise, this is one glum country to bea tourist if you don’t have friends around. And the theme is always the same:the great war, Lenin, Marx, same names, same squares, same hairstyles.

On the bright side, I seem to be going aroundeverywhere uncontrolled. Security measures are very high, especially in trainstations, with guards overlooking the whole area for anything suspicious. Itappears I must have a harmless face, or maybe I look like a nice middle-classRussian or something, so far not one check anywhere for me, while people infront or behind me get picked. This can only be a good thing in a place wheregetting stopped may well mean a bribe for not having the correct documents.Especially if you are a foreigner. There aren’t too many around here, no doubt.


Part IV, Train 239, Perm-Kirov, March 28th,16.02


For once I am alone in the compartment, doing ashort 7-hour ride on what is an almost 7 day trip for this train, the originalTranssiberian, from Vladivostok to Moscow. It must have leftVladivostok last Friday, when I was still in Tambov. I have justwatched a bizarre film called ‘Elvis has left teh building’ with Kim Basingerand Angie Dickinson in a small part, about Elvis impersonators accidentallybeing killed whenever Kim Basinger is around them. Very batty and highlyentertaining and quite of another dimension to the endless whiteness and baretrees out the window.

Yesterday was the worst experience of mytravels ever, but today I believe in miracles. That is how life’s ups and downscan be summarised when one is trailing all alone on the railroads of Russia.Yesterday I took in Astrakhan, which had mefeeling I had crossed a border somehow and was in Uzbekistan. Most of the place wasin bewildering delapidation, and the mix of peoples, many with very Asianfeatures, reminds one that Russiais a mosaic and should not be equated only with one race, or one climate, forthat matter. It was with joy that I found no snow in Astrakhan, though the rivers were stillfrozen, almost at the point of finally setting their waters free as springcomes.

The problem was in reaching Perm,after two 2-hour flights (via Moscow),the only flights on this otherwise rail and bus trip. After crossing a thickand endless layer of clouds, the view that emerged was of Antarctica.Obviously Russian airport safety regulations are not the same ones as in Europe. The airport in Perm was operational but chilly winds swayedsnow all across the tarmac, making for a chilly scene from the comfort of theplane. And then, of course, you can imagine what happened. When you need ataxi, there is none to be found. So I waited for the bus, which came promptly,a stroke of luck admittedly, but this took me only as far as the bus station.Another stroke of luck is that I had a map of Perm in the form of a lonelyplanet book cut-out, so at least I could locate the bus station and my hotel onthe map. But the distance was more than a kilometre, it was already dark, itwas snowing heavily and there were no taxis to be found and I didn’t know whatpublic transport to take, nor at which end of the street the hotel would be.Not a good situation to be in in a new town with a bad cough and a 10 kilo bag.I walked it and did find the hotel, but those 20 minutes must have been themost agonising and freezing of my life, and in every second of them I findmyself asking the inevitable question ‘why’ and waiting for May 2nd to come,when I formally announce my retirement from travels, and this time I mean it.

Perm is pretty for sure, as much as Icould see of it this morning, feeling rather better with all those pillsobviously working. It appears quite a cultural city compared to others, and isintent on luring tourists obviously, with neatly arranged plaques at points ofinterest in Russian and English, which is quite an achievement. Incidentally,the flight to Permappeared to be quite an international one, with many foreigners on board and adelegation of Finns. What were they doing in distant Perm in the middle of winter (which it isn’t,but it felt like it) is anybody’s guess.

This morning I woke up craving ‘dulce deleche’. This is very yummy indeed and seems to not exist in Greece or in the UKto the best of my knowledge, and I have eaten it in Latin America more than anywhere else. Why suddenly a bizarre craving,maybe the effect of the medicines, who knows. My chances of getting dulce deleche in Russiawere exactly ziltch. At the railway station I went for a nice ‘chorniy caj’(black tea) with lemon, extra ammunition for my bad throat, and thought I wouldtreat my thriftiness of having avoided taxis in Perm by getting a croissant. From the packingI understood there would be a flavour in it, which I assumed would bechocolate. In fact, it was dulce de leche. They must call it something else inRussian, who knows what. I was ecstatic. More than anything by the fact that,ultimately, it takes so little to make one happy if the timing is right.


Part V: Ryazan-II Railway Station, April 1   13.58


The last days have whizzed by with littleimprovement in weather, but at least I finally met people thanks tocouchsurfing. My host in Kirovwas Evgenij whose very obvious limp seems to have done nothing to curtail hisenergetic, organisational personality. So he was not only a lecturer at thefaculty at 25 (they have a different system in Russia before you go thinking hewas some sort of genius) but also avid hitchhiker, member of a local rockclimbing club etc. It was in fact to a meeting of this club on the universitycampus that I was taken to, being treated to the experience of a Russianuniversity building (it did not look extra-terrestrial nor even oddly Sovietthough there were numerous portraits to important people, quite predictably).The evening with Evgeniy continued with his group of friends, none of whomspoke any English, coming to his house and then all of us venturing intosub-polar temperatures for a walk by the riverside in what was actually quite apleasant evening. The friends did try their best to extract valuableinformation from me about ‘abroad’ (a very all-encompassing concept) while onegirl was planning a holiday to Greece in May and wanted to know whether sheshould choose Crete or Halkidiki, which to her probably just sound very faraway indeed. I told her absolutely and no doubts Crete.The conversation then ran thin, given that most of them went on a drinkingbinge, oddly downing cachaca as I told them this was a Brazilian drink in thesupermarket and they liked the idea of trying out something new. One of theguys was intent on driving his virtual car down the video game panel as fast aspossible, while there was also romance in the air between the girl who is goingto Greece and one of the friends who obviously though it was a good idea todisplay his bare chest, temperatures indoors allowing.

The next night was considerably different inVologda as I got a far more familial atmosphere courtesy of Sergey andabsolutely stunning Lily, who had something oddly oriental about her looks (shelater told me she had Tatar blood, which explains it). Sergey’s father had beenan army man, and they were transferred around the country, ending up in Vologda where theystayed, in a rather large and nice, though extremely Russian, apartment, redcarpet, embroidery on the wall, you name it. Sergey’s English was exceptional,with an American accent to match, Lily could muster a few words, while themother, from Belarus, was understanding enough to speak Russian very slowly,which finally meant I could have a meaningful conversation with a nice motherlyfigure. Given my cold, I was given all the attention, teas and capsulesnecessary, was provided with a warmer coat and then, for the road, given as agift an old, unused coat that Lily thanked me for taking. Not the epitome offashion, but the republic of Komi, which was next in line, and Ryazan, my last destination on this trip,could hardly be described as global cat-walks in any book. Vologda, for the record, was really pretty,with a far greater than average per capita of churches at seemingly everycorner. It almost made capital of Russia but apparently as thekremlin was being built, a brick fell almost onto the head of Ivan the Terribleand the mighty man decided this was a sign. Had that brick not fallen maybe itwould be Moscowone would be writing about as a forgotten provincial backwater.

By the time I reached Syktyvkar, the capital of the autonomous (inname only I am sure) Komi republic, after an endless 17-hour train ride, Ithink I called it quits. I walked down the main avenue for a while with myincreasingly heavy bag before deciding that this was enough. Syktyvkar had a national theatre and one oftwo monuments to offer, and signs nominally in two languages to display itscultural credentials. I cannot say I did any of this justice, probably thevictim of a minor panic attack. It happens to the best of us, and with endlesssnow all around, a feeling of having reached the end of the line (in more waysthan one) and carrying a bag in yet another grey destination, I think any panicattacks in this country are more than justified.

After flying to Moscow,I had a final quickie train ride to Ryazanbut of them all, this was the most exotic. I had to take the last train out toensure I would make it, and the honour fell to the Moscow-Tashkent route, runby the Uzbek National railways. As I opted for the cheapest available ticket,the platskart, I was treated to an open compartment full of distinctly Asian-lookingfolk speaking an obviously Turkic language and carrying endless goods, with asmell to match. The carriage exuded a sense of 1001 nights better than anythingI have ever seen, and the permeating green colour of everything just made iteven more cult. There were salesmen passing by the carriage selling water andsashlik at one in the morning, in case those taste buds needed their share ofgoodness in the midst of yet another endless night. One day, this is a ride Iwould like to experience from start to finish, though for sure it can beneither time nor cost effective. But for certain it is here that you can feelvestiges of what must have been the Soviet Unionand its considerable variety. A lot of which has now disappeared in splitnations, though not split ways of doing things.

Ryazan, falling two weeks in places as diverseas Pskov, Astrakhan and Perm, was an odd last choice, a last ditch effort for apoint. I thought that at least with the onset of April, the snow would decideto behave. But it hasn’t. It is continuing, stronger than ever, as if to showme for one final time that it is stronger than any of us, and that I should bemore than appreciative to be of a far more southern heritage.


Part VII: Cafe Coffee House next toPaveletskaya railway station, Moscow,April 17, 13.58


It appears that for my ultimate oeuvre, justlike an artist who needs to create his ultimate masterpiece which will surpasseverything he has done before, I have opted for a crazy bravura trip which hasme on my toes all the time, depending on (what appears so far reliable)connections to go from one place to another within Russia. I have to make upfor the fact that Russiais not a suitable last trip really, not dangerous or challenging enough,especially since I can read the language and kind of speak it, when necessary.But given the planes, trains and buses and different cultural and geographicallocations I will be visited in my 17 days in the country, including turnaroundsin places 5 hours away just for a few hours stay, this is definitely aiming tobe the trip that makes all the others pale away. One of the records I aim tobreak is the number of days I go without a room, or a shower. It will be 4nights, 5 days. While I was counting on the cold to make it not too bad, theone problem I didn’t count on given the weather I found on my last trip washeat.


It turns out that getting to Adygeya would bethe adrenalin high of the trip, at its very beginning. Possibly because Ididn’t get there at once, but made for Krasnodar – whose name means beautifulgift and invites one really, though the industrial reality is less comforting –where it was 20 degrees and far too hot to be carrying (this time wellprepared) coats for voyages on ice-breakers. I had decided to skip the capitalof the republic of Adygeya, whose territory begins just across the riverfrom Krasnodar,because it would be too far and apart from a mosque, probably there wasn’t muchto see. Instead, a place called Adygeysk, only 20 kilometers from Krasnodar, seemedappropriate. Just like Tunis is the capital ofTunisia,so Adygeysk’s name kind of made for visions of an important place within therepublic.


I ended up at the Krasnodar bus station on a bus goingsomewhere else and I was the only passenger to Adygeysk, which was not a goodsign to begin with. The ticket said the trip would take 30 minutes, so that wasmerciful, but how to come back was another question. Then, in the heat of thebus with passengers of seemingly every shape and size, including ethnicallymuch darker and Asian, we hit a traffic jam in Krasnodar, and I wondered if we would everget out of town. I even started wondering whether Adygeysk was, in fact, inAdygeya, or had I perhaps been too hasty. I did know a river must be crossed,and then we should be in the republic and I get my much needed point. Finally,we made it across the river, and I did remember that the very first place wouldhave a very long and hard to pronounce name starting with a T, and it was infact correct. But no sign ‘Welcome to Adygeya’. I was most disappointed. Evenmore so when Adygeysk appeared. I was left on the highway having to cross it,which was not easy as there was a field in between the two directions that Icouldn’t cross, so I had to walk further down to a loop road. On the way anAdygyean dog started barking (mercifully in a cage) while the cars whizzed pastthis maniac carrying a coat walking aimlessly on the highway. I also passed astand selling crabs of all things and Adygeyan cheese. So there, my culturalcredentials have been enriched with the knowledge that they produce cheesearound these parts). Sadly there was little other cultural illumination withthe communist blocks of Adygeysk on the other side of the highway and the rowof tall trees on both sides of the small road where I did, for the record, seea very big BMW – so someone in Adygeysk has money (and it ain’t from sellingAdygeyan cheese). Finally I clicked my camera with glee at a small monument forthe victims of the war in the Caucasus, obligingin both Russian and the local language which is predictably unintelligeable. Mymission was complete and, thankfully, I found that there were many a marshrutkaplying the route Adygeysk-Krasnodar. Had I known I would have avoided the busstation but in these situations you can’t really know. You go with theflow.


From the heat of the Russian Caucasus to theArctic in two easy flights (including flying the very rare Antonov 148, whichis a new plane supposedly hailing the new manufacturing era of the old Sovietair manufacturer), I reached Murmansk where the temperatures were predictablebut not half as bad as expected. Clearly, my two weeks of absence from thecountry had brought something of a semblance of spring. Sadly, no weather canredeem Murmansk,which I maybe had great expectations from given its location. A drabber city ishard to imagine and the people were all as solemn as hell even as theyanticipated the resurrection in Christ that very evening. When the view fromthe hotel is of two funnels churning smoke, all possibility of romanticdelusions is forever finished I am afraid.


The train ride from Murmanskto Petrozavodsk was (and will be) the longest Iwill experience in Russia,at 19 hours. I think this must be my limit on a train, although I had a Serbianbook with me with a rather dense plot involving three intertwining storieswhich all have to do with parallel lives and dimensions, so I was keptentertained in my favourite language as the snowy countryside outside went by.It was snowing more on the way, on April 16th. I think these latitudes (or isit longditudes) must be devised by God for people who have in their previouslives committed really bad crimes. The fact that in Murmanskthey were advertising holidays in Greece seemed most appropriateactually. As the endless ride approached its end in the middle of the night, Imade for the bathroom to freshen up. A girl sitting in the lap of a handsomedark map (not ethnic Russian, clearly) was in little room for the person incharge of the wagon, who controls tickets. They were all semi-drunk, deep inthe night, and asked me where I was from. Had I said Atlantis or Mars, thereaction of the girl would not have been more enthusiastic (aided by thealcohol in her vains). Her pretty blue eyes grew bigger in glee, she startedjumping up and down, and promptly left the embrace of her handsome partner tocome and touch a Greek. She had never spoken to such a specimen before andcould not contain herself. It made me realise that, in the end, exotic is all amatter of perspective, and of course if your life has you in Murmanskmore time than not, Greecemust appear like the epitome of fantastic. The conductor asked me what I wasdoing in Murmansk,which is not an easy question to answer when you don’t speak the language well.I lied bigtime, saying I love Russiaand find it extremely interesting and want to know it better. They all seemedquizzed (clearly they were not that drunk) and in disbelief, almost mutteringwhat there is to like about Russia.I have come to realise that deep in the psyche of this strange nation is aneternal feeling of self-depreciation and lack of worth, which does them no goodat all. The girl then asked the sensitive question of how old I am, of whichshe was exactly half, and I bid my goodbyes and headed to the toilet, where Ihad wanted to go in the first place. But when I came out, the girl had changedand was in uniform. Only then did I realise that she was also one of theconductors (they have to have a change of shift on these endless journeys) whowas having a rest, and an affair with one of her colleagues obviously, as wellas dreams of possibly, after the millonth train ride, being able to afford atrip to that magical land, Greece.


After this enjoyable experience, finding cafeParisienne at 4.30 a.m. in Petrozavodsk andbeing exposed to french chansons while eating apple strudel in the black ofnight in the capital of Karelia just had meconvinced that this day will certainly be a good one. Because in the end, nomatter the dimension you are in and the parallel universe you float in, it alldepends on your state of mind.



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