Visas, trains and mosquitos.Pretty much the order of our Russian concerns.Visas, are now offered as 3 year multiple entry type for US citizens, which is the way to go if you can. If you happen to be Canadian as I am, then this option is not open to you yet. Trains, what can I say that has not already been said, heck, let me give it a try.
Forget traveling PLATZ CART which is the cheapest method of travel. I see it mentioned in blogs posts quite often, but have simply been unable to make it work…..at all. I say this for the simple reason, I have no idea where you would put your bike and bags etc, if you were to board on a Platz Cart ticket???. It just looks like a waste of time to me. There are no instructions ANYWHERE in English nor any other language.When you travel in Russia, its just Russian. Which in unlike traveling in most of China for instance. And just forget about the Russian lady behind the ticket grill being willing and helpfull……because they are not. Best advice, travel KUPE, which usually means 4 bunks per room. Buy all 4, put the bikes on the top bunk, upside down. And you sleep on the bottom bunks. Mosquitos, they are big as birds, can suck an infant inside out in less that 30 seconds. In that time they will leave with enough of your blood to run an average ER room for 2 shifts. Wear long pants, socks over the pants…….yes, I KNOW it looks dorky. Long sleeve shirt, wrap your neck, and where bug spray like a teenager wears cologne. The months of May June and July are the worst for mosquitos. The rest of the months all you have to worry about is frost bite and horse flies.
Russian countryside between Novosibirsk and Omsk, generally flat and wooded with meadows. Lots of standing water
Small villages are made up of mostly log homes with gaily painted windows, huge gardens, small fruit trees.
We have come to enjoy the people that we have met as much as the country side we have seen. Are there peculiarities and strange idiosyncrasies that are hard for the western traveller to adjust too? Boy howdy, are there ever. We have found that like most of Europe, these people enjoy watching you struggle to pronounce the few words that you know in thier native tongue. Belive me, i do not regret bringing my 22 year old free-download language app with me. I feed him 6 times a day, and he does his best to imitate Siri……but with a manly voice. Meet, Pine. Dad is terrible with languages, lives by the motto, that if they dont understand then say it louder. Also, a word of note……Russians understand internationally recognized sign language….ie: a man standing with his legs crossed is most likley looking for the bathroom. Where as, do the same thing in China……and they most likely offer you a sewing machine, or maybe a shoe shine since your feet are so close together. That sort of thing, all pretty usual stuff, but it sign language works here.
Front gate entrance to the Kazan Kremlin
The Citidel in center of Kazan
The last we posted we were back in Novosibirsk, and I mentioned Mosquito Ridge or Road. We have had several friends who have traversed this section, and each has told us to take a train thru it since itvirtually the same every mile.. No doubt some of you willbe surprised or even offeneded that we have taken this option. The whole scoop is, we have a limited time option as it pertains to the visa, I have a limited time with my son, and he has plans as do I on what we should and would like to see while together. All those items and personal agendas have to be married into one journey, and thats ours. We trained it for just under 1800km, watched it out the train window when we were awake. For myself, I was still busy recuperating from ieth heat stroke or something that we ate??? Not sure but it lasted for almost 5 days.
Let me give you the skinny on the country side, think of it as being basically flat, with any lowlands filled with standing water and the proverbial Russian Bloodsucker aka,mosquito. The grass is deep, knee high in most places, the soil rich, wet and black as that of the Red River valley in Manitoba. The forests on the east side near Novosibirsk are for the most part birch and poplars with a few pine and spruce thrown in. As we went west and towards the Urals(dont think here of mountains per say, think of a speed bump on the praries). The tree cover turned to mostly pine, with spruce and balsam filling the gaps as tree covered rolled off the edges of the now sandy hillocks. The rolling Ural regions give way quickly to what is reffered to as the plains of Samarra. This is a huge grain growing region within Russia, the farms are both beautiful and rustic at the same time. Land ownership is allowed in Russia today, so the modren farmer struggles with the land purchase as well as upgrading or updating his mechanical infrastructure. It is happening albeit slowly, but they are inded headed for modern best method farm practise. Keep in mind that much of the national farm support infrastructure is now laying derelict and unuseable. From grain terminals to rail spur lines, most is no longer in place for the expediant movement of ag products.
Pine and I, watched in awe, as five of the biggest combines that Gleaner makes, took thier mechanical toll on a huge field of barley. We seen plenty of 4 wheel articulated rigs doing thier own work out in the beautiful black dirt. Our best estimate, 20 years from now you would noy know that you were in the same place. It does seem to me, that is far more land that goes unfarmed than there is which is farmed.We dismount the train in Kazan, considered the 3rd capital of Russia, following of course Mockba(Moscow) and St.Petersburg. Kazan is a heavily Muslim city, and called the Istanbul of Russia since it lay upon the broad banks of the Volga river. The Kazan Kremlin (think FORT when you see this word), is a breathtaking landmark that occupies the north bank.standing erect with golden domes and tall spires, and at the center of the Kremlin grounds is a gorgeous Mosque. Right behind that stands the Orthodox Church of Peter and Paul also sporting a huge golden dome at its roof center. A stark white spire shoots skyward, and the Crucifix of Lorraine in black steel is afixed to the top of it all. After walking the Kremlin grounds, we head towards city center and maybe something to eat.
This is the view as we ride along the bank of the Volga river
We are both struck with the oppulence of the city, but also it has a very distinct western European feel or character to it. Gone are the bleak grey edifices of Communist Russia that we have all come to know. These streets are cobble and or pavers. The buildings that are under renovation, are totally stripped and gutted. Fit with new rooves, new wiring, plumbing, new cement for steps and side walks, the facade on the exterior exudes culture, romance and art. Every where we walked was pretty much the same with regards to looks and quality of reconstruction. Bottom line, would I take my wife there…….without any hesitation.
We talked over what we both seen and felt in Kazan Russia, and we both thought the tale would be told when we rode our bikes out of Kazan the following day. The rest of the tale held a true course, we sure hit some poorer areas, but for the most part, Kazan is city that is racing forwards into a new future. Aided by 3 mountain bikers we finally navigated out of the city, over the mighty Volga and onto safer secondary road. Our direction now is mostly south towards Ulyanovsk. And we will be following the banks of the Volga doing so. Small quaint farm villages dot the rolling lanscape. The countryside is equal mixture of farm ground and treed areas. The grains are mostly oats,barley and wheat. We seen scatterings of corn and milo, grass hay, but no alfalfa at all. Every yard is a garden…..every inch. No need for a lawn mower here. We seen old men on bicycles slowly creaking along, conveyed by a rusty chain, a scythe slung over thier shoulder. We seen older couples hand stacking loose grass hay around a small vertical center pole, this pole adds rigidity to the stack as it grows. We watched old women stooped in the garden. Pulling weeds like a gladiator, and carrots like a loving mother. Kids hung about the hand water pumps, throwing water as kids are inclined to do……..oblivious to the mud and mess they made. A universal axiom.
Broken chairs, and old wooden boxes in the shade of a fruit tree somewhere in the yard becomes a community center. Old men in rough heavy clothing, soiled work boots, and women in dresses and aprons, older women always wear the head scarf or babooshka. They gather in the shade, where stories are told, memories revisited, gardens are compared and the heat of the day is quenched with a cool as springwater glass of Kvas (a drink made with sugar, water and old rye bread,fermented till it is fizzy but not alchoholic) The 3 day ride south was like riding thru the pages of a story book. 117 miles our longest day so far. Many rolling hills, and great camp sites.We arrive in Ulyanovsk, and bumped right into an oops. Crap, the fellow we planned on seeing, actually lives 80 miles due west. So, we park our bikes in a safe place, and take a bus. Allow me to back up alittle so i can paint a better word picture for you.
Bear with me here. 8 years ago, I went to Estonia to teach and spent 4 weeks doing so. Later, my family and nephew came to meet with me, and for 4 weeks we traveled Russia,Latvia,Finland,Estonia,Poland and Germany. Loved them all……..except for Russia (miserable little buggers was my impression). We all get home and get back to life and bills etc. That January, as is my usual year, it starts with me working the Market in Denver. I do my duty in Denver, have a good time and show. As is also usual for me, I got home with a head full of ideas, a tangled mess inside my head. So, the first afternoon after getting home, I take off on a normal bike ride for me, maybe 20 miles up the mountains and back. Blow a little fresh air thru the lungs and get the synapses firing as they should.on this particular day, with blue sky and early grren grass, I decided to dismount and lay in the grass facing the sun……just think and pray about the directions ahead. My solitude and mental contemplations were fractured by the sounds of fabric and plastic flapping in the wind. I look up too see a guy on a mountain bike, wearing a slippery track suit, with plastic shopping bags bungeed to a single back rack. Plastic bags with stuff inside hung from both ends of his handle bars. Heavy wool socks captured the bottoms of both pant legs, mitts covered his hands. Okay I thought, its iether a bum changing address or an escapee from some institution……not you normal cyclist. Heck, I can catch him no problem……..by Johnsons corner,I thought, as I vaulted onto my carbon fiber Calfee steed.My bike is super quiet as compared to his, which sounds like a tall ship just catching a freshening breeze. So, I ride right up on him, right along side and slap him on the back as I do so. I surprise him so much, he even farted in Russian. I knew as soon as he spoke, that he was Russian. We talk, better we gesticulate back and forth without many words that were understood. Finally the direction from God prevails, and I invite him (Vladimir), to spend the night with us. I once again, silently, ask God if he remembers our trip thru Russia…….because I sure did.
So Vladimir is welcomed into our home by a wide eyed family…….they all gave me that “what were you thinking” silent look. As it turned out, Vlad is a school teacher in Russia. He has traveled the world quite literally, and is an engaging and interesting fellow. We all thouroughly enjoyed our time with him, and were so glad that God Picked this Russian in order to soften my heart towards the many. So, this is the man and his family that we have come to visit.Vladimir, is the quintessential athletic “beast”. He takes his fitness as serious as any manI have met. He is fit and cut like a olympic gymnast, and just the mildest mannered, affable fellow you will meet. Excuse the huge slice of crow on my plate as I write this, as every Russian that we have met to date has been friendly and very helpful, not just Vladimir. We had Vladimirs son, Roman, come to live with us for 3 months, so we knew him well. This trip we got to meet the wife whom we had heard about but never met, Gala is her name. Pine and I were with Vlad for 2 days and were shown the sites of a small town/village in Russia. We were fed like Kings, treated as Royalty and very much regretted our short time that we to visit.
Came away with a few recipes for things I want to try and make when Iget back home. For a specialsurprise,Vladimir spent one whole day preparing. Russian Bath for us…….we had no idea what this was,but volunteered anyways.My Christian friends, you need to open yourminds alittle here as this gets to be Xrated pretty quickly withouteven tryingtomake it so. If I wanted to, I could veryeasily make this read likea chapter right out of Hugh Hiefers life…….but I wont. I think it,ssafe to say, that 3/4 of rural homes have a bath house out behind the main house. The main houses will almost all have electrical services,most however lack indoor water and sewer. Behind the main house will be several outbuildings, one willbe an outhouse in the far corner of the yard. Another may be a chicken coop. While yet another, will be about the size of a chicken coop….but it will have a metal chimney poking out the top. That will be the bath house.
So, 3 fellows, who do not know each other very well, all head out to this bath house….this already sounds like an intro to a Monty Pyton skit.? We all strip…….bare assed naked………aaaaah, ……maybe a little uncomfortable. Rummage around to find a wool beanie that fits down over your ears…….for???? I was already thinking maybe a “tube sock”……may be more apre,po?? Our beanies in place, we step thru another door and immediatley feel that blast furnace heat……now I am really wanting tomove that beanie, my zipper pull was hot. “Just sit for a few moments”, says our bathhouse guide. Maybe 5minutes go by, we are all sitting on the lowbenches at this stage, discussing what all naked men discuss……ground grip tires, spoke wieght and of course who can resist taking about inner tubes at a time like this. “Okay, its time says our guide, move up one layer”…..I feel it, and holy crap Agnes…….it is scalding. Here,says our guide and he hands me a small towel to lay on the surface……..while he is soaking………..what the heck, small branches with leaves attached………in a basin of cold water???? Okay,”JW, you can go first, says our guide……also naked……..just lay on your belly on the top bench. The top bench is about 24-30 inches from the roof. It is hot as blazes……..and Vlad-the guide adds more waTer to the steamer and the heat pops again…….so hot now I have a hard time catching my breath. Jesus………those are my lips moving……..and I amPraying…….sure hope that you notice. Right says the bath house guide, we first wipe away the sweat water, then the dried birch branches are used to open your pores………..so says JW……LIKE HOW you gunna open my pores exactly. Ah, you will see or feel in a moment says Vlad. He brings out the branches and swishes the excess water off against the stove, when it feels about right, he begins to swish/spank that handfull of branchs from the toes to your neck. Poochie Maggie folks, gotta tell ya, I about crawled out of my skin, that little bit off aDDED WATER ON THE SKIN AND IT BURNED LIKE BLAZES. Youch, was all I could think of, while i tried to suck in air and was failing at that as well. OKAY, says the guide………lets roll over and do the other side……….folks, this is where I was questioning my sanity at agreeing to all this. I reluctantly roll over, my guide offers me a pot holder to cover up my STUFF, I am thinking maybe a hockey sock and a goalie mask??? Add to the heat, get those wet birch branches and repeat the whole process again on the only side of me not yet scalded.
With that done, I am instructed to step out into the back yard and rinse in the cold water shower that is set up. So, out I go, just me and about 5 other houses all looking towards me is how it felt……the old lady right next door……with the roto-tiller…..nope, dont think she even heard me. While I showered, Pine got the same treatment as I, then he to showered. We talked as we cooled down, then repeated the process again, with a little more vigorous birch branch whackings the second time, followed by another shower. That was follwed by more talk, then a good heat up and soap down with cold water inside the bath house, then rinse off in the cold shower out back one last time. Whole process, maybe 2.5 – 3 hours and yes, very relaxing. Fell asleep in my mashed potatoes at supper that night.
Gala, that is Vladimirs wifes name, fixed us fish soup with dill, cutlets and rice, rye bread, some home town cheese, new honey with wild strawberries poured over home made Tovrog. Great meal and good company. The following day, we were photographed at the local News Paper, toured the local Museum, and met the most important people in town. Took our bus back to Ulyanovsk and then onto Moscow. Ulyanovsk is a 16 day ride to the Ukraine border, and our Visa is not that generous, plus we are a little concerned with the border crossing situation. But more on borders and Ukraine later.