Saturday, August 26, 2006

Okay, I guess I should make one last detailed blog entry before heading off to the wilds of Central Russia. Obviously I made it back into Russia, safe and sound, with no major injuries or incidents. For once the person sitting next to me was very cool – a middle-aged Russian lady who taught literary in a high school in some smaller Russian city. I was impressed with myself – I managed to hold a rather long conversation with her about literature…in Russian! I didn’t think my language skills were that good, but I was able to make myself understood and I even when I didn’t know what to say, I could understand what she was saying to me. I had a similar experience later that day at the train station (though the conversation was decidedly less intellectual). Both convinced me that maybe I’m not completely screwed after all. I’ll at least be able to converse with the babushkas in Irkutsk, even if I have no idea what is happening in class.

When I was waiting in line at the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, there were a couple of other Americans there as well. One of them was a guy who was trying frantically to get a visa to leave on Friday but was having trouble because the only blank page in his passport (and hence the other page on which the visa could be issued) was slightly damaged. The Russians being the sticklers that they are for such details wouldn’t issue him a visa unless he got a new passport. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see him again, considering he was just going to Russia as a tourist. As it happened though, he was able to get his visa and was on the same train and same car as me. The poor guy seemed completely overwhelmed by the trip and the rush to get to take it. He had no idea how to get to the hostel he was staying at or anything. Since I had to head to the Moscow station anyway to drop off my bags for the train later that evening, I took him with me and showed him around for about an hour. I had this image in my head of him wandering aimlessly about the city without a clue where he was going or how to ask how to get there – I had to help him. The situation made me wish that the code of hospitality was still working. People nowadays are so afraid of strangers and every little bad thing that could possibly happen. Yes, there are bad people out there – but there are also good people, and getting to know good local people while you’re traveling is the whole point in my book.

But I digress, as always. I got in touch with Charles (my neighbor at the dorm, with whom I had left my big bags) and went by to collect my things. After a bit of rearranging (and one last blini at “Nyam Nyam”), I worked out a why to handle all my baggage. In total I five bags – the big backpack, camera bag and rolling carryon that I left home with, and the little backpack and duffle bag that I managed to fill along the way. Somehow I made it to my bunk on the train, causes a number of odd looks and a few angry scowls. I even found a place for all of my things near my “platscard” (place) on the train.

I took the cheapo train to Moscow. It was only twenty dollars. I was only able to get one grungy picture of the car (I didn’t want to piss anyone off), but it tells a lot. I actually like traveling in the open car like that – you get to meet a lot of the locals that way (because the tourists usually shy away from the third class tickets for fear of being raped or pillaged by rowdy drunkards). The only downside is it’s a bit on the dirty end of the spectrum. And it’s a pain in the ass when you have as much luggage as I do. If I just had a backpack, I totally would have gone for the third class ticket to Irkutsk. But I’m playing it safe this time – there’s always next year.

I wasn’t able to check into the hostel into 1 pm, so I spent all morning roaming about. The place I’m staying is right on Old Arbat street – one of the main walking streets. On Saturdays (I don’t know about other days of the week), there’s a market that sells everything from tourist crap to fresh fruits and vegetables to underwear and socks. I did a bit of windowless window shopping and such. It was on this walk, as I was passing McDonalds, that I discovered something wonderful – a few of the Moscow McDonalds have free wireless!!! How wonderful. If only the ones in St. Petersburg had been the same. And there is a McDonald’s just across the street from me - another bonus of this hostel.

This hostel, by the way, is awesome. It’s almost identical to the Aboriginal, the place I stayed in Budapest – even down to the Ikea beds and high percentage of Brits and Aussies. I think I’m the only American here tonight. Not only is it really small and cozy (which I prefer to the big hostels), but it’s one of the cheaper ones in the city. And it’s right in the center of things. Not only are we on one of the main old streets but we’re only 5 minutes max from the nearest metro stop. So even when I had to go all the way to the outskirts of town this afternoon to pick up my train ticket to Irkutsk, it was no trouble at all. And there are a couple of guys here from Glasgow, complete with totally incomprehensible accents. I think they’re brothers or cousins or something – they both look like relatives of Mr. John McLean (the McDermott Scholar, not the Die Hard hero). They make me miss my Scottish and wannabe-Scottish friends. Erica just left yesterday for St. Andrews – she better give everyone a hug for me. Finding places like this is sort of like finding a needle in a haystack. But once you manage, it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s almost as cool as couchsurfing.

I’m trying to get in touch with Ben, one of my friends from class in St. Petersburg, who is staying in Moscow at the moment as well. Unfortunately, both of our SIM cards are for a company that doesn’t operate in Moscow, so it’s been a challenge. Hopefully we can meet up for lunch or something tomorrow before I head out. It’ll be my last chance to hear someone speak in fluent English for awhile, since I only know of two native speakers of my language in Irkutsk. This could be interesting.

Well, I need to get back to writing my paper for Elena. It’s horribly overdue. I feel bad about it. And I need to put together something for the SRAS people, who are using some of my Russia pictures for their website. And I need to write a McDermott blog entry with Chris. And do about a billion other things in the next twenty-four hours. So goodnight (I mean good morning), all, and I’ll see you on the flip side.

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