Russia, unexpectedly kind

I admit that I too had been influenced by the media on the tensions between Russia and other countries, most specifically the US.   For the past thirty years I have been thinking that Russia and its people would be very unwelcoming.   I have been guilty of judging the book by its cover.  And boy was I wrong!!!  Russia is a beautiful country with incredible cities that compete against Paris and Prague for beauty!  And its people?!  Well…they get the second prize for the nicest people in the world (after Myanmar).  They get the first prize for hospitality though!  This proves exactly what I was trying to explain on a post that I recently made on FB- Our fear usually derives from ignorance.  We only have to go find out for ourselves and see how things really are.  Don’t form an opinion just based on what you read or see on the web, go out and see for yourself!  I am very glad that I went to Russia and experienced what a great country it truly is, and how much it has to offer.
I took a twelve-hour bus from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Ulan-Ude, Russia (just on the border); which was faster and cheaper than taking the train. I wanted to see if I could get into the country with my Colombian passport before I bought a ticket for the long Trans-Siberian train journey.  I was a bit nervous about using two passports at a land-border crossing. I wasn’t sure how that would go, specially a US passport in Russia if they asked to see it, because US citizens are required to get visas prior to coming to Russia. The border control took about one hour, both emigration from Mongolia and immigration into Russia. I had to switch my passports depending on who was asking for it. After exiting Mongolia and getting to the Russia border line, an agent entered the bus and asked to see passports again so I gave her the Colombian passport thinking that she was from Russia already. She was about to open it when I saw “Mongolia” printed on her jacket so I immediately grabbed my passport back.  She of course gave me a not so pleasant look but accepted the change. Oops!
I was the last one to go through Russian immigration, the agent flipped through all of the pages of my Colombian passport with a confused look, of course, she couldn’t find any stamps. I didn’t want to offer my US passport until she requested it.  Eventually she asked in a loud and upset voice “where is the Mongolian control?!”. I replied that I had two passports and she waved her hand rapidly towards her signaling for me to give her the other one. Not one question was asked after that, she saw the Mongolian control stamps, proceeded to stamp my Colombian passport and welcomed me to Russia with a smile. Pheeeewwww, that was easier than I thought!
I was finally in Russia! A country I never thought I’d visit but became part of my list when I learned about the Tras-Siberian train. It sounded so adventurous and remote that I had to try it!
My journey begins traveling from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk on train #69, one of the older trains.  As soon as the train departed the station, the passengers began to change into their comfortable lighter clothes and flip flops. Everyone was preparing for the long and hot journey inside the train. The heat on the train is turned on very high so you have to dress as if it was summer, even though outside the temperature is -15 to -5c.  The attendants in the train actually have quite an efficient system, they never clean inside the cars in between trips. They let everyone get on, get situated, then about half an hour after departure, they come around exchanging tickets for clean sheets wrapped in sealed plastic bags.  Once everyone makes their bed and lays, or sits down they come around again with a broom and mop cleaning the entire floor.  The train stayed clean for the rest of the journey as they come around at least twice a day cleaning the floors.  This photo speaks for itself, look at the floor… you never see this in India or China…
img_8476It was a long and uneventful eight-hour journey, with beautiful views of the Baikal Lake during the last three hours of the journey. Baikal Lake is one of the biggest in the world. It had not yet frozen over but it won’t be long until most of the lake is frozen solid. I decided to travel in 3rd class not only for the cheaper price but hoping to also mingle with the Russians a bit. Everyone seems nice but no one even attempts to talk to me. I didn’t take much of an interest in talking to anyone as I was surrounded by teenagers and their mothers. It looks like everyone was traveling to some kind of an athletic event as the kids were pretty buff.
I arrived to a great little hostel called Rolling Stones, recently opened by two young Russians. This was a high recommendation from friends that I’d met in Mongolia so I wanted to try it. Everything good they said about this place was true. The owners were super sweet and helpful, and also spoke English; which is a rarity in Russia.  I met a great group of young travelers from all over the world- Mongolia, Switzerland, Singapore, Italy, and Chile, and for the next three days we all became a close little family. We visited nearby Sludyanka to see the Baikal Lke, we exchanged travel stories and tips, we went to the local bars, we played drinking games, and even poker… It was the most fun I’d had in a while but I was also quickly reminded that I am too old for the party hostel life! Never again! Of course my body rebelled and I came down with a cold afterwards. Ha ha!
As I have explained before, what makes this trip amazing is the people that I meet along the way.  I met an amazing guy named Riccardo from Italy.  In a few hours we became very good friends.  I called him my brother by the end of the trip.  He is one of those special people that make everyone feel happy and loved.  He would later meet me in Italy to show me around Venice.

baikal Lake
My new brother Riccardo
Friends at Rolling Stones hostel
at the top of the hill to get a view of baikal

I continued my journey through Siberia by train. I traveled 6,206km in 86 hours and only got off the train about three times to get food from the ladies that sell traditional Russian snacks on the platform. Back in Irkutsk I had booked my ticket after having had a few drinks and in my drunken state I forgot to choose a seat. One was assigned to me automatically on a top bunk. I wanted to choose a bottom bed on the side of the car so that it would be easier for me to use it as a seat during the day. I tried to change it at the station but it was too late. Luckily the default seat given to me was #4, right next to the car attendants’ cabin. They usually save beds #1 and #2 to put the linen bags on them. The male attendant happened to like me so he decided to clear the bottom bed and turn it into a seating are so that I could hang out during the day. I had a very pleasant journey overall, all the passengers in 3rd class in my car were quiet, clean, and nice. I was lucky to get some nice bunk mates for the entire four-day journey. On day one I got to hang out with a super sweet kid named Anton from Omsk. He could only speak a few words of English but with the help of google translator we were able to get to know each other a bit. About five minutes before getting off the train, he bought me a little stuffed bear to remember him and my Trans-Siberian trip. How sweet!  On day two I met Alexi, an oil rig worker who did not speak a word of English but also used his translator to communicate with me. He noticed I had a little bit of a cold so he offered me a new pack of Kleenex. Getting random gifts from people on the train became common on the last two days. A lady gave me a giant apple before she got off at her stop, another couple would come and cut some of their sausage on my plate when they saw me eating, the attendant would give me free candy and coffee. Everyone was very hospitable and friendly.

Alexi and the lady that gave me the apple on the background
my sweet friend Anton holding the teddy bear that he gifted me

I tried a couple of meals in the train restaurant, just to change scenery for a little while. The food was a bit overpriced, the portions rather small, but their taste was very good.
img_8514After every major city station the attendant would sweep and mop the floors and give out clean sheets to all new passengers. I was very impressed with how hard the attendants Mitri and Tuyana worked to keep the train comfortable. The car was always spotless. I had to go through five different cars to get to the restaurant and noticed that the other cars  were not as clean as the one where I stayed, and after day 2, they had a bad smell.
Mitri and Tuyana, the best train attendants:
img_8525The hardest part of the journey was the time change. As we traveled west we gained five hours so I was very jet-lagged or rather, train-lagged when we arrived into Moscow. There was one day when I pretty much stayed in bed for over 12 hours waiting for the sky to lighten up. On day three we woke up to a lot of snow on the ground. The temperature outside was very low, sometimes reaching -15c (5F).
Pictures of people smoking outside during a 20′ break.  Vendor selling food on the platform:
img_8497 img_8491
We got to Moscow at 4:00 am, it was dark, cold and snowing. In trying to charge my phone at a little charge station in the waiting room of the station a man approached me and told me where I could charge it for a lot cheaper. Eventually he offered me his shop to charge my iPad, and use wifi for free. Of course I always think there is a catch to people offering free stuff, I don’t believe there is anything for free. But this time I was wrong, the man just truly wanted to help a traveler. He travels a lot himself and understood that I needed time to get situated before taking the subway into the city. He opened a facebook account, for the first time ever just so that I could get in touch with him if I happened to need anything while in Moscow. What a nice man! Another example of how wonderful Russians are.
Moscow station at 4:00am
img_8527The first night in Moscow I had stayed in a place that was more like a frat house, supposedly with my own room but it was noisy, right by the kitchen and we had to get in line to use the shower.  There was only one shower for about twenty people. I noticed that what they call “hostels” in Moscow and St Petersburg are actually used by local residents, usually students or young workers. No one speaks English and you end up being pretty much the only foreigner. I decided to change to another hotel for the second day.  I was able to find the address quite easily with but I had no way of getting to the actual door.  I had asked Alan, a friend from the hostel in Irkutsk to meet me there.  In Moscow the budget hotels are usually on a floor inside a multi-story building and you need to get through a few gates first before getting to the actual hotel.  Of course without a phone I could not call the hotel manager to give me the code for the door. Luckily Alan happened to see me just outside of the building gates and called the manager for me.  But of course he didn’t speak any English so after a while of sending texts back and forth and with the help of google translator, he eventually came out to the streets to let us in.
Alan and I posing with our new Soviet hats.  Alan could not leave the city without getting one  of these and I decided that I needed one as well.  
img_9111Alan and I hung out and saw the highlights of the city together. Even in the cold, snowy, and dark days of winter, Moscow was still very beautiful. People are extremely helpful and very hospitable. They don’t speak English but they will try to understand and help you as much as they can. It was easy to get around using the subway.  All train and subway stations are pretty spectacular with paintings, statues, shops, etc. On my first day before Alan arrived I joined a free tour of the city where I learned a ton about the history of Moscow through Elena our guide. She was actually very funny and made some jokes about the political situation there, including Putin. At one point she said, “well we know there is some tension between Russian and a lot of countries out there, so we have a saying around here that goes, “Visit Russia before Russia visits you!”. She spoke about the cold war and how far Russia had come since then on human rights and democracy. She said that in Russia they did not have a Democracy, but rather a “Putinocracy”.  She explained that times were much better now. In the past she wouldn’t have been able to say these things right in front of Lenin’s mausoleum (where we were at the time), or even near the Kremlin. She also explained how she found it ironic that they had Putin in his office in the Kremlin, right in front of the mausoleums of the heroes of Communism, Lenin and Stalin, and just in front them, you now have Dolce & Gabana, and Gucci.  If Lenin knew…
These free tours are now offered in all major cities around the world. The guides just work on tips and they are usually very knowledgeable. I highly recommend doing these.

the churches inside the Kremlin
St. Basil’s Cathedral
A well known Soviet Communist statue- The worker and Kolkhoz woman.
Lenin memorial at VDNKh

I took a train to St. Petersburg where I met Alan the following day. I did a free tour again and enjoyed the highlights of the city. This city is pretty spectacular, even in the cold, snowy (sometimes rainy), and grey winter. It is full of beautiful big Russian orthodox churches, big avenues, gardens, cafes, shops, cathedrals, statues. Here you can find English speakers everywhere, they seem to be more used to tourists in this city than in Moscow.  I fell in love with this city and hope to be back to see it again in the spring or fall. The only small complaints we had were the fact that the sidewalks are not cleaned and you find yourself slipping on thick sheets of ice. We were also almost robbed by a man that managed to open both of our backpacks while we were walking. We noticed him standing over Alan’s shoulder so we moved aside, a few minutes later we noticed the zippers were open.  Luckily he didn’t take anything out.
Anyway, a short post just to say that I really enjoyed my time in Russia, even if it was super cold.  I think the people are incredible, and I hope to see more of it in the near future.  Like Elena said, “Visit Russia, before Russia visits you” 😉

Alan playing at the Soviet arcade museum
the frozen Moyka River, I was staying in the yellow building to the right
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
view of the city from St. Isaac’s colonnade
Palace Square
the beautiful rooms in the Hermitage Museum
the beautiful rooms in the Hermitage Museum

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