While tales from China and Mongolia are under construction (we’ve upped our travel pace in the last month!), I’m breaking our usual chronological series to pass on the spirit of our current surroundings. I couldn’t wait to tell you about our first experiences in Russia. We have just entered the country from Western Mongolia into the Altai Republic in southern Siberia.
A few facts about Russia that made me a little anxious about coming here: it went through the biggest organised genocide in human history; it hosts some of the most polluted places on the planet (and it has sucked dry an entire sea!); it was involved in starting a war in Europe in 2014; its TV cites sersious spokesmen saying gay culture was invented by the West to control population growth; temperatures of -40ºC are annual here. The country’s currency fell so dramatically this year, almost overnight, that Russians living in Thailand started making jokes about renting out their places in Thailand to holiday in Moscow (the Ruble is in rubbles). In Russian language there are words expressing such grim misery that they don’t translate to English. I was apprehensive about what we would find in this country and how we might be received, as representatives of ‘The West’.
Yet… It’s just amazing here! Turns out there was nothing to fear. In fact, quite the opposite. We’ve been blown away by Russia! And the beauty of the Altai Mountains, known by some as the most beautiful place on Earth, falls second to the generosity and hospitality of the people of Russia.
We are starting to understand that the strength of Russian people, the determination to survive despite their physical and political environments, comes through their willingness to look out for one another. On mentioning the currency rates, our first driver smiled, “Russian people will get through anything.”
Russians seem to understand that hard times come, and not judge each other for it. Since entering the country, we’re strapped for cash as all the ATM’s we’ve met have very low withdrawal limits, senseless given the extremely high overseas transaction fees our Australian banks suffer us. Last night we arrived to the village of Chemal and needed a hot dinner. We carefully studied the menu for our selections. Upon barely mentioning to the woman behind that counter that we have a limit due to troubles with our bank card, she said “Hmm… Let’s see! I can give you a half portion of the dolmades, which will still be enough for you. Do you need bread?… No worries, I’ll give you bread for free and I’ll give you a discount on the cutlet… And then you’ll still have enough for 2 beers! Are you sure you’ve got enough cash left for the road tomorrow?” I’m struggling to see a cafe in small town Australia reacting the same way.
I’ve been really impressed by Russian cafes. There’s nothing trendy about them. Just simple, no frills, unrenovated rooms, often with toilets outside. They seem to be self-service, you order at the counter and your tray will be pushed through a little window for you to come and collect. When you’re finished, please return your dirty dishes back through the same window. Efficient! But the best thing about them is you get really good quality food totally inexpensively. Homemade pastries. Salads of vegetables maybe even picked fresh from the garden this morning. We had homemade Armenian bread complementary last night! You find these cafes in even the most tiny villages, and they all seem to give a shit about serving good food… (maybe not necessarily stressing the serving part so much) Food in Russia is as yet unspoilt by the industrial production systems ubiquitous in The West. Here, people still put their heart into preparing good tasty meals. And don’t expect to get rich for it.
This is a currently working Russian ambulance. Working as in there is even a patient in the back! The driver stopped into the same cafe as us for lunch and asked if the service could be a little faster, on account of the patient waiting!!
Racially, Russia is a melting pot. So much movement during the communist years, means that you pass so many different faces on the streets. And you should give up guessing where people might be from. They are descendents from the USSR. They could have grandparents from Kyrgyzstan and Belarus on one side and Germany and Kamchatka the other. An Altai woman (the traditional people of the Altai Mountains) picked us up hitchhiking yesterday. She is soon getting married to her Uzbek fiance. “If you’re Sharmanist and he’s a Muslim, what tradition will you marry in?” Asked Jurek. “Russian.” She replied.
The Russian countryside is like stepping into a fairy tale. You really might meet a bear or Mr. Wolf in these forests. The villages are made up of traditional style wooden houses, which yes, are suitable for the -40ºC temperatures of the winter. Most people will also have a banya (sauna) in their yard. But I am struck most by the large garden that EVERY house has. Really, a whole field of vegetable patch is next to each house. Walking along the streets, you’ll see trees of private orchards bursting with apples and pears. It seems everyone is growing at least some of their food. Brilliant!
Arriving to Chemal last night, we were lucky to meet a local who lead us to a woman who rents a small cottage next to her house. “My grandparents use to live here. Now my son and his girlfriend live here in the summers.” The house is spotlessly clean and beautifully decorated – the type of place I could happily hide away in for a week. If not my whole life. Later, she comes by to let us know the sauna is ready for us and explains how we should mix the waters and can smack our skin with birch leaves. It’s a reawakening experience. This morning we pack our bags slowly, reluctant we cannot stay longer in the cosy cottage. When Jurek goes to pay the woman, she’s surprised that we don’t want to stay longer. Jurek explains that we’d love to, but withdrawing from the ATM to pay her will cost us almost the same as staying the night and that we don’t have much money left at all. “So stay for free. The nature’s so beautiful here, you should take a walk” she says, “I don’t have anyone else needing the cottage.” “Wow, I’ll have to discuss it with Wendy. We’d really like to… But actually, we don’t even have enough cash left to buy food, so we’ll have to leave.” says Jurek. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you some potatoes and tomatoes from the garden!” she replies, later adding “My son also travels, and people often let him stay and feed him for free, now I’ll do the same.” No way to refuse an offer like that! True to her word, she later appeared with hot potato, sour cream and tomatoes she preserved the day before in preparation for the winter.
So far, so amazing. Perhaps these initial findings are naïve and our view will change as we move across the huge land mass. But we have an feeling that all that we tell here, may be the same upon our exit. Whatever the case, we look forward to the lessons Russia has in store for us in the coming month. Somehow we already find ourselves saying “I want to come back here.”