The Trans-Siberian!

The Trans-Siberian (lots of pictures inside!)

The Trans-Siberian railway, or Транссибирская магистраль (Trans-Siberian Magistral), is the longest railway line in the world, and one of Russia’s most infamous institutions. It was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II in 1890, following the foundation of Russia’s Pacific Port at Vladivostok in 1860, as a way of linking European Russia, the Eastern Provinces, and the Pacific. Since its completion in 1916, it has represented not only the major form of transport across Russia’s vast territory (within Russia alone the original railway spans 7 time zones), but also a symbol of Russian power and pride, and the ability to overcome all of the many, many obstacles that nature will throw at you, especially when you’re undertaking a construction project in Siberia!

There are actually three main railways generally referred to as the Trans-Siberian. The original is the main, transcontinental Russian line that runs the 9,259 kilometers between Moscow and Vladivostok and connects hundreds of towns and cities across Russia, including Yaroslavl (of which Alexandre Dumas wrote, “”I found one of the best hotels in Russia there, perhaps the only one with normal beds apart from the two capitals”), Perm (site of the last remaining gulag, which is now a museum – Perm 36), Yekaterinburg (where the last Tsars were assassinated), Chelyabinsk (where they had the meteor. Described by the poet Zhukovsky as “a poor little town” in the time of the Tsars, it changed drastically under industrialization – its symbol is now a Tractor Plant), Omsk (where Dostoyevsky was imprisoned), Novosibirsk (which, until the early 20s, had two time-zones within the one city and is currently home to the largest metro bridge in the world), Irkutsk (the “Paris of the East” near to Lake Baikal), Ulan-Ude (home to the largest sculpture of Lenin’s head in the world) and Khabarovsk (where North Korean leader Kim Il Sung studied). It takes 8 continuous days onboard a train to complete this route, so travelling straight is certainly not for the fair of heart!

The second major route is the Trans-Manchurian, which also links Moscow and Vladivostok but cuts the journey time down (and the visa fees up!) by travelling via China’s northeast provinces (where it is also possible to continue to Beijing or even to the bright light(s?) of Pyongyang in North Korea). While the third primary route is the Trans-Mongolian, which branches away from the Trans-Siberian at Lake Baikal, heading down to the Mongolian capital of Ulaan-Baatar before continuing southeast to Beijing.

The Trans-Mongolian is widely regarded as the most exciting of the three, with the greatest variety of landscapes, cultures, and even types of train (ooo-er!); and so, in June, with light hearts and heavy bags, we set off on our very on Trans-Mongolian adventure!

The initial fears that I had, that I think many people have, related to price and safety. Growing up in the UK, where I once paid £95 for a single journey from Bath to London (90 minutes of travel time!! 90 minutes!!) I didn’t see how an 8 day journey to Ulaan-Baatar could be something I could afford in my lifetime, let alone in my early 20s. Additionally, horror tales (both fictional and factual) of journeys across the Russian wilderness, (for example… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=386HCnvhQ2A  , which I think summarizes what a lot of people seem to think my life was like in Russia), coupled with a cultural anxiety about sleeping in a train carriage with 40 strangers, means that my poor, Californian grandmother, even following my obvious survival, still shudders slightly at the idea of it. But as it turns out, the only thing you really have to worry about with the Trans-Siberian is organization.

As the Trans-Siberian is, after all, the major transport network for Russia, it is imperative to buy tickets well in advance, particularly during peak travel seasons, to avoid missing out and potentially being stranded in remote parts of Siberia. Booking tickets is further complicated by the fact that all trains in Russia are run on Moscow time (that is, they use the time-zone that Moscow is in). Your ticket will say that you’re departing at 4am, but if you’re in Novosibirsk, that’s actually 7am local time (can you imagine trying to work this out before the 1920s when there were still 2 time zones in Novosibirsk alone!). You also have to book all of your train journeys separately – you can’t hop on and off the train, but instead must buy several tickets (e.g. Moscow -> Novosibirsk, Novosibirsk -> Irkutsk, Irkutsk -> Vladivostok, or wherever else you want to stop). When you consider you’re taking 20, 30, 40, 80-hour trains spanning multiple time zones and days, this can all get a bit confusing, particularly if you’re on a tight schedule, and necessitate your ridiculously organized, French flatmate (I love you, Diane!) and several charts.

As for price, however, it was certainly affordable. Granted, we were already in Moscow and had Russian visas, but in total, from Moscow to Ulaan-Baatar, we spent less than £350 on train tickets. This was by travelling ‘Platzkart’ (third class). The majority of westerners we met traveling along a similar route had opted for ‘Kupé’ (second class), where you have a small compartment with two bunkbeds of sorts and a table, which is admittedly more expensive (although not significantly more! However, we were too hardcore for that!). Platzkart is open plan sleeping at its best. An entire train carriage filled with rows and rows of bunk beds.

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Lost in the bunk beds

Lost in the bunk beds

Aside from cheapness, this form of travel has other advantages! Most notably, that it’s really easy to meet people! Even if those people, 90% of the time, are old, Russian women who continually feed you strange fruits from their baskets or large men who insist on your participation in various vodka-laden toasts, I would argue that talking to strangers really is the Trans-Siberian experience. If you don’t speak any Russian, a dictionary, some photos, and an ability to draw or act out key facts about yourself will go a long way here! But as well as this, travelling in an open-plan carriage is actually quite safe, as there are so many people around you. Having said this, notices did warn us to keep an eye on our fur coats while the train was stopped at a station (luckily it was summer and 30 degrees so this was not particularly concerning), and Diane did meet a lovely drunk man in the middle of the night who was convinced that she had “stolen his bed” and was determined to yell at her until she returned it to him (when she fled to the toilet he followed her there, yelling that she had “stolen his toilet”). However, the only major disadvantages to Platzkart travel that I could identify were the lack of privacy, and the fact that if any of those 40 people in your carriage snore, sleeping at night becomes just that bit more challenging!

Also hilarious, the "safety".

Also hilarious, the “safety”. Strapping yourself in to the top bunk!

As I am not one for advanced preparation, I started my journey with nothing more than some clothes, a Kindle (a good idea until you realize that it is incredibly difficult to charge anything on the train – bring some paperbacks as well!), a pillow shaped like a duck (thanks, Victoria!), and two packets of biscuits, and I managed to survive unharmed! (the train on the main line stops every 3-4 hours for 20-30 minutes, and it is possible to buy basic food on the platform). However, if you were going to be smart, I would recommend the following items: a pocket knife (to slice bread, cheese, meats and vegetables that you can buy at the stops), cutlery, instant noodles or anything that you can make with a kettle (there is hot water available in every carriage), wet wipes, a head lamp (so that you can read at night), flip flops (for the lovely bathrooms – note, there is only one shower car on every train, and you have to pay to use it), a deck of cards (and other entertainment items – both to keep yourself occupied and to make friends!), and a carefully maintained itinerary so that you don’t miss your stop!

Happy after successfully folding a bed out of two chairs and a table!

Happy after successfully folding a bed out of two chairs and a table!

But, forward planning be damned, we were off (on the 24-hour journey, which we would soon regard as a “short” train trip) to Perm!

There are two main attractions in Perm – the ice caves, and the last remaining gulag. Despite the beautiful ice formations in the caves that attract visitors from all over the world, as I had only one day in Perm, my inner history nerd won out, and I chose to visit the gulag museum – Perm 36.

Some really very attractive ice caves

Some really very attractive ice caves

Visiting Perm 36 (and, as I have subsequently heard, the ice caves) is, however, easier said than done! The gulag is around 60 miles from Perm, and so I was up bright and early to catch a bus to a nearby village.

Downtown Perm

Downtown Perm

Unfortunately, the bus stop that is closest to the village is still an hour’s walk from the actual museum, and is completely unmarked and indistinguishable (to the non-local) from all of the other bus stops. This resulted in me ending up a few villages down the way, where luckily I managed to convince a man who’s sister worked for the museum to drive me the 20 or so miles back. The drive was a bit of an experience. Shocked that I had never been this far east of Moscow in Russia before, this stranger took it upon himself to show me his favourite parts of the local area. These included his old school, his daughter’s old school, his house, his mom’s house, a river where you can go fishing, and the local producti (corner shop), where I had to try to local orange juice. Eventually arriving at the gulag (by now, late in the afternoon), I met his sister, who sat and watched a documentary about the rise of Stalinism with me, before encouraging me to explore the remains of the prison (after warning me that I shouldn’t stray too far without telling her, because security could shoot me – “just like the old days”!). The museum receives almost no funding, but to walk around the remains of the gulag is fascinating, if horrendously depressing. Be forewarned though, the hour’s walk back to the bus stop can be a bit tough, especially if you’re visiting in winter! Locals assure me that yes, there are wolves!

The Russian countryside on the drive in

The Russian countryside on the drive in

"Marxism is eternal, because it is true!"

“Marxism is eternal, because it is true!”

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Gulag shots

The walk back from the museum - beware of wolves!

The walk back from the museum – beware of wolves!

The next day, it was back on the train, and our next stop was Yekaterinburg, home of the end of the reign of the Tsars and also the end of European Russia. After a few “oh this is the wrong bus..” moments we managed to make it to the continental border, charmingly positioned on the side of a motorway, with a small café next door.

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"The Second World Festival of Clowns" We didn't understand either.

“The Second World Festival of Clowns”
We didn’t understand either.

Getting a lift back from here, however, was slightly difficult, being as it was along the side of a motorway that was fastly flowing in what was now the wrong direction (with no visible ways to cross), and involved convincing the owner of the café to call his friend to give us a lift.

And then we were in to the vast expanses of Asian Russia, and it was onwards to Novosibirsk. Most travellers skip Novosibirsk (certainly, we were only there for its transport connections), and it’s quite easy to see why. With the Lonely Planet entry praising only “its collection of Irish pubs – the most plentiful in Siberia!” it’s quite hard to love this otherwise grey, Soviet mining town. However, after now roughly 3 days of eating stale bread on trains, we were more than happy to buy food that we could cook in an oven, and haul up in a hostel until our morning train! Or at least we thought we were, until we tried to turn on the oven, and all of the electricity went out. And the hot water stopped. And the internet went off. When we called the landlord, he replied “oh man, you didn’t try to use the light in the kitchen AND the oven, did you? No wonder it all went off!”. 2 hours later we had soggy pasta in the dark. Goodbye, Novosibirsk! One thing that I will say for the city though – the people were very friendly, and after several days of passing through small villages, it was nice to see real shops and restaurants again!

Mixed feelings about being in Novosibirsk

Mixed feelings about being in Novosibirsk

Shops and restaurants were certainly not plentiful in our next stop – the Altai. Not actually on the Trans-Siberian route, we took a detour South in order to visit this area of renowned natural beauty. The Altai Mountains are where Kazakhstan, Russia, China and Mongolia meet, and the Altai Republic is an autonomous republic within Russia, with its own language (though Russian is still the official state language), and a separate registration system (be forewarned and research this before you go – it’s tricky!). Travel here is long and arduous, which, combined with its remote location, is one of the reasons that Westerners are not often spotted here. Some people certainly didn’t believe that we were actually from the UK and France, instead choosing to believe our we’d learned our English skills back on the other side of the Urals (“their English is pretty good… I think they’re from Belarus”). It is a desperately poor region and the infrastructure certainly leaves much to be desired, but the scenery is absolutely stunning.

Photo taken by someone fancier than me

Photos taken by someone fancier than mePhoto taken by someone fancier than me

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Apparently, this appeared "all by itself" on the side of the mountain. Uh-huh.

Apparently, this appeared “all by itself” on the side of the mountain. Uh-huh.

If you are in any way in to hiking… Go. It is so worth it! There are also a lot of adventure sports and traditional spas there, if that kind of thing tickles your fancy.

After that (and around 60 more hours on a train, including spending 9 painful hours listening to children recite the entire dialogue of the Russian version of Bambi while I tried desperately to sleep) it was back to a more traditional Trans-Siberian stop – and certainly a favourite of travellers – Lake Baikal.

Stopping in Irkutsk, which was the closest town, we managed to navigate our way through the city and on to a bus that was headed to the Island in the center of Lake Baikal (Olkhon). As the Island is very sparsely populated, many people bring most of the things they are going to need for their stay on the island with them. In our case, this meant that we ended up on a bus filled with alcohol and extremely excitable 21-year-olds, heading to the island for their friend’s birthday party. It made the 6 hour Marschrutka journey fly by though – especially when we had to stop to rescue a couple whose car had burst a tyre on the treacherous country roads, and who had subsequently been stranded there for almost an entire day! (invest in a proper car before you try this!!)

But a short ferry-crossing later, we were on Olkhon, and Lake Baikal, the most voluminous fresh-water lake in the world (containing 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water supplies!), was laid out in front of us. Stunning.

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Unfortunately, due to the lake’s location in less-than-tropical Siberia, it is absolutely freezing, not only to swim in, but to walk around (though hiking further inland is quite warm!)

Several jumpers and some very windswept hair!

Several jumpers and some very windswept hair!

This became particularly apparently when we chose to take a full-day boat trip around the island. I would think very carefully before doing this! It was absolutely freezing on board, and though it was cool to see some smaller islands, the “prepared lunch” of stewed fish heads, and the constant terror that the enormously fat man on board with us would break our flimsy wooden plank that was the only way on or off the ship and creaked and splintered each time he stood on it made the whole experience slightly stressful!

Please hold, Mr. Plank! You're our only way on and off the boat!

Please hold, Mr. Plank! You’re our only way on and off the boat!

Back on the island, life is slow, small-scale and relaxed.

The regional parliament building

The regional parliament building

And home to a lot of native and not-so-native wildlife that can’t wait to meet you.

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But overall, absolutely incredible scenery. It is the ultimate, secluded, relaxing vacation destination. And all of that only a 4 day train journey from Moscow! Easy. Or maybe not. But if you’re ever thinking of taking the Trans-Siberian, do NOT skip Lake Baikal – it really is the jewel of Russia!

But from there it was on to a Chinese train, and on to Mongolia, where we would be faced with new challenges: horseback riding for 8 solid days, the Mongol language (toilet is three words. THREE.), a lack of running water (and subsequently too much running water after a pipe explosion and a cheeky bit of nighttime flooding), “meat flavoured yoghurt” (yeah, just let that sink in), and continual arguments about the correct pronunciation of Genghis Khan. But that’s a different story 🙂

The Trans-Siberian is a fantastic adventure through the world’s most vast country. Though the view from the train can be somewhat monotonous (if you ever wonder which country is hoarding all of the trees THEY’RE ALL IN RUSSIA), the train itself is a wonderful cultural experience, rich in characters and its own once-in-a-lifetime challenges. Russia certainly has more to offer than just Moscow and St Petersburg, and indeed the Russian countryside is surely one of the most underrated landscapes in the world. There are stunning mountains, incredible lakes, and wonderful scenes of fields and forests. It was a fantastic way to cross in to Asia, and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a few days of living on instant noodles and listening to the snores of others. It’s so worth it.

The journey continues – Uzbekistan!

I apologise in advance for the brief write up, as I’m currently sitting in a fold-out bed in St Petersburg, ignoring the fact that I have to pack for the trans-siberian tomorrow, but I wanted to give a brief account of Uzbekistan before I embark on multiple 30+ hour train journeys and kiss my internet connection goodbye!

Where I last left off, we were safely through the Turkmen border control, having named enough Premier League football teams to appease the security guards and passed the carpet-smuggling exam. Knowing that the Uzbek government is far more hospitable to tourists (acquiring a visa for Uzbekistan was not only hassle-free but downright pleasant – “you’re from England! Lovely to meet you! When do you want your visa for? That’s fine!”) we assumed that their border controls would be even more lax than the ones on the Turkmen side. We were wrong. Several official documents declaring our worldly wealth (depressingly little) and a full bag-search later, we found ourselves awkwardly answering questions regarding everything we happened to have on us at the time (including a collection of fake moustaches and contraceptive pills, both of which evoked peals of laughter from the otherwise fearsome Uzbek soldiers). We safely made it through after an hour or two, however, and managed to hire a lift in to town in what can only be described as Uzbekistan’s answer to the party bus. By which I mean an old man, with gold teeth, in a broken-down Lada, playing English 90s disco hits through a staggeringly loud sound system, and rolling down his windows every time we passed someone he knew (and boy did he know everyone) to bop out of the window to the music and point to us yelling “ANGLISKII!”. We were in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is one of the only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world (countries that are only bordered by other countries with land borders), and is also Central Asia’s most populous country (with a population of around 30 million – the same as Canada!). 80% of that population is Uzbek, but there are other notably minorities, even including an ethnic Korean population that was forcibly resettled there under the Soviet Union. The part of Uzbekistan that we entered in to is know as the region of Karakalpakstan (which I still can’t say on the first try) and is located in the South West of the country. The region is quite distinct, and even has its own language, separate from Uzbek and, of course, Russian. Regions in Uzbekistan seem to be important, and moving between the regions involves being checked to varying degrees of intensity at border points, but more on that later! As for the moment, were in the capital of the region – a market town called Nukus – which was friendly and bustling. After the uniforms and quiet, ordered streets of Turkmenistan, the disordered but good-natured chaos of the Uzbek markets was welcome. As were the lower prices! The Uzbek Som, however, is somewhat complicated to pay with. As £1 is equal to £3,171.00 Uzbek Som, the prices mount up pretty quickly, and you will find yourself with literally bags and bags of money on you at any given time. It’s even worth bringing a big handbag just for this purpose. Once again, there are no ATMs in Uzbekistan, so bring dollars from the outside and change them once you get there – the easiest (and possibly only!) way to do this is on the black market. This involves going in to a market, finding someone who looks like they’d have a large amount of currency (usually an old, male, bored-looking shop owner), and suggesting a trade. It’s illegal, so make sure the police aren’t watching, but the rates are good! Other times we gave US dollars to friendly Uzbeks who claimed to “know a guy” and would disappear into houses and come back with som for us. Just get used to counting wads and wads of money to make sure that “this guy” hasn’t cheated you and you’ll be fine!

ImageNotable – a lot more donkeys this side of the border! Uzbekistan is quite obviously poorer than Turkmenistan and cars (and petrol) are a lot more expensive.

 We then hired a car to drive out from Nukus to the Aral Sea. The drive was rough, to say the least. This is unpaved desert road, in an Uzbek car with very limited suspension. The bruises on our hips from bouncing against the side of the car throughout the 8 hour journey were pretty painful, and having to stop multiple times so that our drivers could feed us camel milk (it’s like cream and Sprite together? I don’t even know how to describe it but fizz is definitely invovled…) and collect buckets of mud to bring home for their wives’ beauty treatments made the journey even longer, but it was absolutely and completely worth it.

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Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea has been shrinking drastically since the 1960s, when the Soviets decided to re-route the rivers that fed it in order to grow cotton and rice (which both require a lot of water) in the Central Asian deserts.

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 The Aral Sea from Space in 1960/70

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 The Aral Sea in 2009

What has been left behind is one of the biggest manmade ecological disasters in history. The region’s fishing industry has been destroyed, and the lack of water has led to over-saltification of the sea, dust storms, local climate change, and massive health problems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_health_problems_in_the_Aral_Sea_region). It is utterly heart-breaking to see.

 Image This all used to be under water, which at its deepest was 67m deep.

After a night of camping on the old Aral Sea bed, we travelled to the once-prosperous fishing city of Moinak. Now faced with an evacuating population, it is most famous for being home to the “graveyard of ships”. A collection of old fishing vessels, left to rot on the old sea bed.

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Though Kazakhstan has put forward some initial plans to help replenish the northern part of the sea, which has as a result recently begun to grow again, the Uzbek government is currently doing nothing to stop the problem in the south – the growth of cotton is too important to them. Cotton is in fact so important to the country that they annually pull the majority of citizens out of work in order to help harvest the crop. We left the region feeling traumatised. The idea that an ancient sea of such local and global importance could vanish in a generation, and effectively take a region of the world with it, was horrifying. I would love to get involved with any projects that are looking for a solution.

 Back on the road and running out of time on our Uzbek visas we started the frantic dusk-trek towards Bukhara. We travelled this section by gypsy cab – basically, hailing a person, any person, telling them where you want to go, and agreeing on a price to take you there. While this is a common way to travel across the former USSR, from going between cities to getting home on a night out in Moscow, it definitely goes against a lifetime of Transport for London’s “ONLY GET IN A REGISTERED CAB” teaching, and takes some getting used to! The majority of the time it is absolutely safe, and our first car of that evening was totally fine – though he played very explicit English hip hop for the entire journey which we’re pretty certain he didn’t understand the full meaning of (“I like it bouncy bouncy, I like it big and juicy, some come on bounce me bounce me, I need a real man” or something to that extent.. slightly awkward!). The second car, on the other hand, was a bit more of an adventure. After fighting extensively about a price (he finally lightened up a bit when I managed to convince him that he was already a rich man as he owned his own car, a fact that he had to agree with and made him visibly swell with pride), it became clear that we were not his most important cargo of the evening, as unmarked packages were stuffed in to the spare space at the back of the car. We forgot about them for the majority of the 5 hour journey, entranced as we were by the belly-dancing video he had playing where most cars would have their stereo system, but we were horribly reminded of them when, at around midnight, we pulled up to a road-side brothel christened “Kamelot”, and scary men (to use the technical term) came out to take the packages away. Terrified we were going to die as there appeared to be a brief argument about payment, we sat quietly in the car until we were unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road with the words “Bukhara city border. Goodbye”.

Despite our less than glamorous entry to the city, I seriously can not rave enough about Bukhara. It is absolutely stunning! An old silk road town, it is packed full of ancient buildings, beautiful mosques, and lovely fountains. A wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and cheap, tasty food cemented its position as one of the better places I’ve spent a day in the world.

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Yes, those are my pyjamas. I needed to cover my legs to enter the mosque and it was all I had on me at the time.

Samarkand the next day was similar. The more famous of the two, it boasts the biggest mosque, the bigger population, and the bigger tourist industry. It’s true that parts of it are absolutely fantastic, though to be honest I preferred Bukhara. Samarkand is far more built-up and hectic, and there is a wonderful ancient and peaceful feeling about Bukhara that gives it a sense of magic.

 Image Samarkand… Fit.

We travelled between these cities, and then from them to Tashkent, by train. The trains in Central Asia are mainly Chinese, and are very efficient, though quite hot and cramped. A lot more comfortable than travelling by bus (buses can often break down in the desert – leaving you stranded for up to a day.. so bring water if that is your plan!), though often a bit slower, the best bit about travelling by train is undoubtedly the people. People in Uzbekistan LOVE to talk on trains, and they want to know everything, from how much your parents earn to whether women in the UK breast or bottle feed their babies. There is nothing that people don’t want to know and to talk about, all with a smile on their face and one hand forcing traditional snacks in to yours. People were so unbelievably kind to us. At the point where an Uzbek family grabbed our hands and thanked us for several hours of conversation and wished us good, happy lives with good, happy men I almost burst in to tears at the sincerity of the affection. Throughout Uzbekistan we met incredibly lovely people. I would like to publically thank them here for just being awesome.

We stopped in Tashkent only briefly as our visas gave us less than a day to get out of the country from the time we arrived. As it was a 7 hour drive and the border was prone to closing and opening erratically, it’s fair to say that we were more than a little stressed at this point! We found someone by the station to drive us to the border, and bundled in to the car.

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Mmmm.. spacious.

As mentioned briefly earlier, crossing through the different regions of Uzbekistan is not equivalent to passing a “welcome to Kent” sign back home. Each regional border has a check point. When we drove in the smuggle-mobile to Kamelot, the man driving (who, judging from his tattoos, had spent some time behind bars) seemed to know all the border guards, and with a hearty laugh and some money transferred from his hand to theirs via a sneaky handshake we were waved through every border. However, on the drive to the border with Kyrgyzstan, our driver didn’t seem to have such connections. We were pulled over several times, and at one point we had to evacuate the car and were sent to wait at a roadside café with the immortal words “it’s better that you don’t see what happens”. Apparently, the border checks are so thorough because Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan makes it a frequent route for heroin smuggling. They take it very seriously. At some borders we had to re-register our passports, and at others show them our bags. 

Soon, though, we were surrounded by the stunning mountains that mark the national border with Kyrgyzstan.

 Image After being hustled through the line at the border by the world’s slimiest guard who took a fancy to Ettie “Ahhh you are not married.. well… not YET” we were on our way to Kyrgyzstan – the only country in Central Asia that we didn’t require a visa for and therefore, we hoped, potentially the most trouble-free! It didn’t quite pan out that way…

I really should pack for the train now so I apologise again for the disjointedness of this post!! I really would encourage everyone to visit Bukhara and Samarkand – they are truly gorgeous cities – and to read as much as possible about the Aral Sea. I really hope it’s not too late to do something about it. I loved Uzbekistan and hope to travel back one day. Anyone who’s headed that way feel free to ask any questions – there is so much more to say that I unfortunately don’t have time or space for! Just one quick note – if you’re in Uzbekistan, you’re supposed to account for where you sleep each night. Hotels/hostels will give you little slips to say that you slept there on those nights. KEEP THEM. They can ask for them at the border and if you don’t have them it can result in a prolonged interrogation! Stay safe!!

Lots of love from St Petersburg!

Turkmenistan – the world’s 7th least visited country.

Home to some of the most ancient civilizations of Central Asia, a base on the Silk Road, and the proud possessor of the world’s 4th largest oil reserves, Turkmenistan is a country that many would struggle to locate on a map, let alone would be planning to visit.

ImageHere it is, just for reference!

 Unlike it’s more infamous neighbours – particularly Afghanistan and Iran – Turkmenistan has been at peace following its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, throughout the post-Soviet era, Turkmenistan has taken a neutral position on almost all international issues, with many Turkmen people proudly declaring themselves to be Central Asia’s Switzerland – beautiful, historical, and most importantly stable. This comparison, however, might be somewhat flawed. For example, Switzerland’s political stability has not been the result of totalitarian rule by a man who literally changed his name to “leader of Turkmen” (Turkmenbashi – president until his sudden death in 2006) who is, in international circles, regarded as second only to Kim Jong Il in terms of repression, authoritarianism, and most importantly, crazy. This is a man who changed the national anthem to feature himself, renamed the months of the year after members of his family, and whose cult of personality still resonates throughout the country in the form of gold statues on every street and portraits in every building.

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According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan has the 2nd worst press freedom in the world (behind North Korea), with only 5% of the country having access to the (still heavily censored) internet, and each broadcast by the President beginning with a promise that the broadcaster’s tongue will shrivel if he slanders the country, flag, or president. There haven’t been any extensive changes under the new President (Berdimuhamedow… try saying that one quickly), with many of Turkmenbashi’s official policies, ranging from the celebrating of “Melon Day” every August to the prohibition of elections, remaining in force.

The country that he governs, however, has enjoyed economic growth due to the exploitation of their massive natural resource wealth. Electricity and gas are free for citizens of Turkmenistan and petrol is a meager US$0.26 per liter. Resources are so cheap there that many prefer to leave their gas stoves running 24 hours a day rather than buy new matches in order to relight them just to cook. Economic growth has not resulted in liberalization though, and Turkmenistan has remained one of the most repressive and isolated countries in the world. Hostile to foreigners, the lonely plant entry on Turkmenistan literally begins with the words “all hotel rooms are bugged”. It is this country that we visited.

The first step was to acquire a visa. This is easier said than done. In order to stay in the country for longer than 4 days (the maximum permitted by a transit visa) you need to be on a registered tour, with an official tour guide ensuring that you don’t stray from the designated tourist areas. Wherever you go – the tour guide must go – and you have to pay for it. This sounded not only expensive but also extremely limiting in terms of itinerary and, importantly, personal space, so we opted, despite the warnings from other travellers, to enter in to the bureaucratic game of obtaining a Turkmen transit visa. This required, among a host of other forms, photos and embassy visits, writing a formal letter to the government of Turkmenistan (in English and Russian) explaining in detail why we found ourselves in the position of having to transit through Turkmenistan and where exactly we would be passing through while we were there, and holding our breath for a response – a process that took, overall, around a month. Not only does the Turkmen government have a reputation for refusing transit visas at random, but our application was made all the most illegitimate by the fact that we were literally flying in to Ashgabat (the capital), and therefore pretty obviously didn’t need to transit through the country. However, a couple begging notes about how we couldn’t afford to fly straight to Uzbekistan and how we’d be really good – we promised! – later, we were granted a 4 day transit visa and off we went!

Until we got to Ashgabat airport, where we were detained for 3 hours while a string of men in army uniforms demanded to know over and over again why we couldn’t just get in a car heading to Uzbekistan straight from the airport and cross the border in 7 hours. “It doesn’t take 4 days to get there. I expect you to cross the border tomorrow at the latest” the last border guard shouted in Russian as he finally let us through customs. Nevertheless, as he had only written down our details on a post-it note that he found in his office and couldn’t spell any of our names, we reasoned that he probably wouldn’t follow up on that, and decided to continue our 4 day itinerary as planned and simply plead incompetence and transport problems when we finally got to the border.

Whatever images spring to mind when you think of Turkmenistan, I promise that the city of Ashgabat will surprise you. For starters, everything is white. Everything. Turkmenbashi destroyed buildings that weren’t white, and in their place he built towering, gleaming structures in the shape of rockets, birds, and of course himself.

ImageNote: completely empty. This is a main street.

It is absolutely incredible to behold. Impressive does not accurately cover the view of Ashgabat’s skyline and the vast road networks and modern infrastructure that all shines in the desert sunshine. The gleam is maintained by teams of people who’s job it seems to be to clean the city continuously – from the lines on the road to the many, many parks, there was always someone around who was cleaning and polishing.  The only people more plentiful are the police, who are everywhere. Apart from a few directions as to what we could and couldn’t take pictures of (really, just the Predient’s palace that they didn’t want photographed), they left us alone though. How they treat local Turkmen people I really couldn’t say, but they seem to be mainly in charge of maintaining public order.

Not that they seem to need to, however, as the streets are really quite empty. There are no big congregations of people – instead, where you do see them, they are generally walking alone or in very small groups, heading to their destinations purposefully. Whole areas of the cities are seemingly deserted, and there is no sense of the spontaneity or hustle and bustle that would normally characterize a center of population. Particularly unusual is the prevalence of uniforms, particularly for women. Girls that are in school are all clad in bright green traditional dresses, while women at university wear red traditional dresses. It’s an aspect that is certainly unique to Turkmenistan in the region, and is somewhat disorientating to visitors.

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The masterpiece of Ashgabat is probably the US$20 million cable car that climbs the mountains south of the city and marks the border with Iran. The view is fantastic, though you have to wonder whether, with only 7,000 visitors a year, it was the best investment idea. The only other living soul we saw up there was the man whose car we hitchhiked with to get to the bottom of the cable car, and who subsequently decided that he wanted to ride it with us, if only to spend the entire return journey listing in Russian reasons why I should marry him (“you could live in Turkmenistan with all of our free electricity!” Tempting!!). Ashgabat as a whole appears to be a show-piece city. Everything is big, grand, white and fantastic. No wonder that it’s the part of the country that the government is most ok with you wandering around un-guarded. ImageReally very empty.

ImageOh hey there, Iran!!

To leave Ashgabat is a complicated process, and from what we could ascertain, if you don’t have your own form of transport, or the desire to spend a very long time in a Marschrutka (a minibus type of public transport popular throughout the former USSR), you have to go through an official tour company. We finally found one willing to book us an internal flight to Turkmenistan’s second city – Mary – which, seeing as it was in the opposite direction of the Uzbek border, caused a bit of tension with the lords of our visas. It is, however, worth taking a flight in Turkmenistan just to enjoy the amount of pictures of the president you will see in the process. Flights are cheeeeaappp (about US$11), and you will be greeted by larger-than-life effigies of the President not only outside AND inside both airports, but in several places on the inside of the plane, and, around 20ft tall, on the runway itself.

Turkmenistan’s second city is a much smaller, more agricultural version of Ashgabat, based heavily around the cotton industry. Every billboard along the roads features a celebration of Turkmenistan’s cotton industry – whether through pictures of tractors or smiling people wearing cotton-based garments. Cotton is vital to the whole central Asian region, after the Soviets, under Krushchev decided to focus on the production of “white gold”. Now it is second in importance only to oil, and relies on an intricate irrigation network that will be discussed in a future post regarding the problems of growing cotton in a desert and the Aral Sea.

Mary’s greatest attraction is the ruins of Merv, an ancient Silk Road city that some claim that, prior to, among other factors, its overwhelming destruction by Genghis Khan, was once one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world. The lack of tourists in particular makes these remains amazing to walk around – they are so empty of external influences that it is really possible to enjoy their ancient glory.

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 So good, Genghis Khan said to leave it standing. Seeing as he killed all but 400 people in the area, it must have really impressed him if he left it intact.

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However, many of them are still under excavation, and experts in the area are confused as to the exact purpose of a number of standing monuments.

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Back on the road, and driving through the Turkmen desert (this time the right way! Towards Uzbekistan!) proved somewhat tough. The massive temperature changes in the region (between -15 in the winter and +50 degrees centigrade in the summer) are a nightmare for building materials, and the road are plagued with potholes, often covered in sand, and occasionally part of the territory of herds of camels (each one worth over US$2000 in Turkmenistan so definitely not something that you want to hit!). 4×4 drive is a definite necessity here, as well as a lot of soft clothing to attempt to insulate your bones from the unavoidable jolting!

It is worth it however in order to get to the Darvaza gas crater. Located between the capital and the Uzbek border in the North, the crater is a result of a Soviet decision to attempt to burn away a “left over” natural gas deposit by setting it on fire. 50 years later, the crater is still burning, and is locally known as “the Door to Hell”. Camping close to the crater (not too close though! It is incredibly warm and there are some pretty special and not altogether healthy vapors being emitted from it!) is an absolute must-do in Turkmenistan. There is nothing that I can say that would accurately summarize the experience of watching the flames dance at night in the middle of the Turkmen desert. You simply will have to see it for yourself.

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And then it was off to the border with Uzbekistan! After hiding our camera cards, and any proof that we strayed away from a direct route from Ashgabat to Uzbekistan (uhh yeah, Mary.. definitely didn’t go there), we entered the border patrol point, ready to be frisked, questioned, and all-together roughed up. But we weren’t! Instead, we were hastened through in an excited manner while the border guards tried to name as many English Premier League teams as possible, and asked us questions about England that could help them complete the crossword they had been doing. Everyone wanted to see our passports, even though they couldn’t read or understand anything that was written in them, and the security check was limited to “do you have drugs or traditional carpets that you are attempting to smuggle? No? Great! Lovely to meet you!”. While I cannot say if this is a typical border experience, I can say that it really was a great one!

And that brings me to the last thing that I really have to say about Turkmenistan: the people. They are so unbelievably friendly. From the people I met at the Turkmen embassy in Moscow, all of whom were wonderful and some of whom I am still in contact with today, to everyone we met throughout our journey, I can say that they are seriously some of the kindest people I have ever met. We were fed, plied with vodka, given Turkmen names that were easier for people to say (“Malal” is apparently mine?), and asked endless questions about what life is like in the UK. People were so excited to meet foreigners that really wanted to travel to Turkmenistan, and keen to tell us about their country, that it was impossible not to be excited with them. Russian is definitely helpful here – not many people speak English – but after a few shots in the desert it certainly won’t matter if you’re not fluent!

And there is as brief-as-possible a write-up of my whistle-stop tour of Turkmenistan! If anyone would like to hear about anything in particular detail there is loads more to say – just let me know! As for advice for anyone who would like to visit (and I would recommend it), make sure you get the visa process started waaayyyyy in advance. It can randomly take weeks and be repeatedly rejected, so you do not want to leave it until the last minute! Some knowledge of Russian (or, obviously, Turkmen!) will make your life a lot easier and also your trip a lot more enjoyable. People are very excited to meet foreigners and will happily regale you with tales (many of which focus on the greatness of Turkmenistan) and bombard you with questions – being able to chat to them makes this process a lot more fun 🙂 Also, importantly, there are NO ATMS in the entire country, and the Manat is a protected currency and difficult to acquire outside of Turkmenistan. The easiest way that we found to manage this was to bring enough US dollars in the country to pay for the entirety of our stay and change them at a Turkmen bank when we got there. Unless you have your own form of transport (and really a 4×4 would be necessary here!) you will probably have to organize a tour in order to see things such as Darvaza, but there are plenty of tour companies with internet sites who will be willing to make you offers. Definitely a trip that you need to prepare a bit in advance, but it so incredibly worth it! The heavy police presence is disconcerting, but have resulted in the country feeling incredibly safe. Just don’t stay out after 11pm. There’s a curfew and they really, really don’t like that. The new President has hinted towards being slightly more liberal. Let’s hope that that comes true. Turkmenistan has a lot to offer.

I will leave you with some words of wisdom from Turkmenbashi.

“Gold teeth were discouraged in Turkmenistan after Turkmenbashi suggested that the populace chew on bones to strengthen their teeth and lessen the rate at which they fall out. He said:

I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice.”

Going Underground (for up to 6 hours a day). Life in the Moscow Metro.

The Moscow metro is a vast, underground labyrinth, crammed full to bursting at all times of the day and home to an incredible range of experiences: from the most fantastic architecture to the most terrible smells. The main engineering designs and routes of the original metro were actually the work of British engineers, hired by the Soviets in the wake of the success of the London Underground. However, in 1933, Stalin’s paranoia got the best of him, and these engineers were accused of spying for the West, given show trials and deported, and the metro that you see today is distinctly Soviet in appearance. The world’s 3rd busiest metro system, with an average daily “ridership” of over 7 million people, the Moscow metro is where one in every 20 Russians spends a considerable amount of their time.

For many of these people it is truly the only way to navigate the city. Home to some of the worst traffic (and the worst driving http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/feb/15/russian-roads-dash-cams-video – there’s a reason that when I asked a group of Russians what the most dangerous job in Russia is they replied “taxi driver”) Moscow is, for many, simply impossible to navigate by car. Traffic jams can last up to 6 hours during peak times, and during rush hour cars can literally average one mile per hour. The metro is simply the only option for a city where almost half the population spends more than an hour commuting to school or work (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/daily-moscow-commute-gets-longer/423497.html). In order to cope with the demand, the metro runs at astonishing speed (faster than New York or London), and during rush hour trains appear at each platform every 45 seconds (even in the suburbs at midnight you’d be severely unlucky to wait more than 4 minutes. Something that TFL could learn from!).

Despite this, the metro is still horrendously overcrowded, and any visitor travelling during peak times must be prepared to be pushed, shoved and squeezed in to the tiniest crevice of available space.

Thanks, Wikipedia! This is my life every morning..

Thanks, Wikipedia! This is my life every morning..

There are no “pleases”, “thank yous”, or “excuse mes” here – this is the dog eat dog world of Russian commuting where, surprisingly, the Babushka (Russian Grandmother) reigns supreme.

Coming for a seat near you!

Coming for a seat near you!

Usually small and docile in appearance, your average Babushka knows exactly what they want (a seat on the very next train at that station) and is prepared to fight you for it. If you feel someone elbowing you in the back, throwing you against the side of a door, or just shouting at you seemingly because they can – my bets are that they will be a Babushka. I have had old women grab my legs (without any formal introduction! At least take me to dinner first…) and rearrange them in silence in to a position that is more suitable for them; I have been tackled for seats; I have been pushed on and off trains – nothing stands in their way. If you take the first metro in the morning (usually at about 6am), among the weary party-goers and the keen businessmen you will see a multitude of Babushkas. Having asked many Russians where all of these old women are going at 6am, I have discovered that nobody seems to know, and some joke that they’re going to the gym to work on their pushing muscles before rush hour begins.

The iron-fisted reign of the Babushka is not the only peculiarity of the Moscow Metro – it is indeed an incredible insight in to Russian life. The first thing that most visitors will notice is undoubtedly the beauty of the stations. With different themes, artwork and statues and covered in intricate paintings, mosaics and goldleaf, many stations are tourist locations in their own right. With Soviet busts, hammers and sickles, and pictures of Lenin abound – a tour of the metro is definitely a must-see for any visitor to the capital.

However, the beauty of the stations is not the only thing that makes the metro interesting! First there are the trains themselves. A notable feature of them is that the voice of the station announcements when travelling in to the city is read by a man, and the voice when travelling out of the city is read by a woman. This idea, that a man leads you to work and a woman leads you home, is apparently to help blind people identify which train they are on, but also makes an interesting point about the strict gender identities still present in modern Russia.

The stations themselves are also home to a wealth of opportunities – especially those for the impulsive shopper! As the name of this blog suggests, you can buy all manner of things in your average metro station, including cats, turtles and rabbits, as well as underwear, food and a wide variety of trinkets (and of course the standard array of flowers!). Usually sold by old and widowed women looking to earn money to support themselves, they are often worth a browse (the clothing is not necessarily bad!) – though for those who enjoy a drink or two, be forewarned that when in an inebriated state, it is really hard to make a rational decision when faced with a basket of adorable kittens.

However, unfortunately the metro is not all kittens; there is a far darker side to this underground metropolis. Wild dogs (“бездомные собаки” in Russian – homeless dogs), driven inside by the winter cold, roam the entrances and sometimes even make it on to trains. Usually harmless, it is nonetheless heartbreaking to watch them, especially when Russians tell you “it’s better not to ask what happens to them”. On my way to work last week I saw a street dog that had made it on to a train and gotten off at a station only accessible by escalator. Terrified of the moving steps, the poor dog was running in circles and whimpering as he tried to get out. A team of what appeared to be rescue Babushkas was called and they seemed to be trying to herd him to safety when the escalator took me out of the field of view. I can only hope he made it out ok!

It is not only dogs, however, but dead people that you will find on the metro. They say that you can’t live in Moscow for more than 3 months without seeing a dead person. In my 7 months here, I’ve seen three on the metro alone. One man had fallen down the steps while drunk, smashing his head to pieces. Another was an old man that appeared to have passed away peacefully while sleeping in his seat. And the third was a homeless man, curled up in the entrance to the metro to try to keep warm, who had turned a terrible green colour. As one of the only heated and free places, the metro attracts a lot of homeless people, who ride the rails attempting to keep warm. Sleeping on the metro can end badly for you however, as trains stop every now and again so that the police can patrol them, literally beating people awake with sticks and dragging them from the carriages. Be forewarned: if the excessive cruelty doesn’t get you – the smell of sleeping homeless people in a very highly heated enclosed space probably will.

There is so much more that I could say about the place where me and many other Moscovites spend on average 2 hours of their day, but I’m aware that this is getting excessively long! One final word of advice: the metro is very easy to use with coloured lines and clearly marked transfer points, but it is almost entirely in the Cyrillic alphabet! I would therefore advise anyone planning on braving the metro alone to brush up on their Cyrillic (most of it is just station names, so just knowing the alphabet is often enough!) in order to avoid getting lost 🙂 On the way out just look for “Выход в город” (the incredibly vague “exit to the city”) and you’ll be good to go!

Good luck and happy travelling!

Molly

“Don’t go to the hospital unless you are literally about to die”. Healthcare in modern-day Russia.

“Don’t go to the hospital unless you are literally about to die” was one of the first pieces of advice I was given on arrival in Russia, along with “don’t drink the tap water”, “don’t expect any post to arrive un-tampered with” and “don’t buy any vodka for over 500 roubles (£10) unless it’s for a special occasion – the bargain stuff isn’t so bad!”. Foreigners here are generally told by the expat community, embassies and employers that if you’re unlucky enough to get sick during your time in Russia, to just try to stay home and sleep it off unless it’s an emergency – and if it’s a real emergency then to shell out the extortionate prices for the American or European hospitals.

However, Russians do not seem to share this fear. They take their health extremely seriously. Even when they are healthy, they take extraordinary precautions to avoid illness or harm (for example, in Russia, women do not sit on the floor. According to Russian tradition, if women sit on the floor, especially if it’s cold, they will become infertile. This led to one older Russian woman literally wrestling my friend off the floor of a hallway while crying “DON’T YOU WANT CHILDREN?” – a bit of a surprise for any Westerner!). However, when they are sick these habits are exacerbated ten-fold. Russians will rush to the hospital for even the most minor of ailments, such as a headache, and once there will be put through what can literally only be called a barrage of testing. Russians in London told me that if you ever want to find out what is wrong with you to go to a Russian hospital, because they will literally test you for everything, and they could not have been more right. A trip to the doctor with a headache ended in a friend of mine wearing a heart monitor for 2 days, having an endoscopy and an X-Ray and enduring 10 different blood tests. After all the results had come back they concluded that he had just been adversely affected by the changing weather.

These tests may also be slightly unfamiliar. My housemate, Diane, realized this when she visited the doctor with the flu. Initially, they insisted that they must operate on her to “remove the flu”. Understandably alarmed, she turned down the mystery operation, and hoped that the next course of option was antibiotics and some painkillers. Oh no. The Russian solution to blocked sinuses, as many people have now confirmed for me is standard practice, is to put a large, thick needle (around 5-7 inches long) up the patient’s nose in order to break the small bones located near to the eyebrow, allowing fluid to drain out in one big rush. The accompanying blood and “mysterious yellow fluid” as one survivor of this technique described often leads to the patient fainting, and is understandably deeply traumatizing – especially for children! To enjoy the privilege of what I will refer to as the nose-needle, Diane had to sign forms that read “medical system of the USSR” at the top, which raises worrying questions about how often the equipment is updated…

In fact, various sources assure me that in a city of over 150 hospitals there are only 4 that are considered “good”. In order to get to one of these hospitals – officially state hospitals and therefore free for those with Russian health insurance – it may often take some serious money. A friend of mine, while being picked up by an ambulance, asked to go to one of the “good” hospitals, and the driver replied that it was full and that he would take her to the closest one instead. A few thousand roubles later, the hospital was no longer full, and she was escorted to the front of the waiting list. State doctors are so poorly paid in Russia that many of them make their living from accepting bribes, and Moscovites with money enjoy immediate medical treatment at any centre they desire, while those less privileged are often forced to cross their fingers and hope for the best. It is not unusual for doctors to be drunk in hospitals, and even if they appear sober, the culture of cheating and paying your way through university means that often you just have to hope that your doctor actually passed medical school on their own merits.

In some cases, having money isn’t even enough, but having connections can seriously improve your treatment. One woman I spoke to who had been employed in the Ministry of Health fell on the ice last winter and broke her nose. She waited in the hospital waiting room for 15 hours, before the doctor told her that she should go home, because he wanted to leave. It took a call to her former boss to reopen the hospital for her and set her nose. A luxury that not many can rely on!

Outside of the main hospitals unusual practices are also abound. Pharmacies (аптеки) are everywhere, and you can purchase many things over the counter – such as birth control pills, antibiotics and codeine – that are prescription only in the West. However, though Father Ted makes the case that if something is banned in Europe then it must really work ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aatlliinymw ) this unfortunately is not the case for most Russian pharmaceuticals. Often, reputable packaging is filled with cheap knock-offs of drugs, brewed by the pharmacists themselves. This fear of sub-quality medication means that many Russians will literally bring bags for medicines when visiting European countries so that they can take them home and save them for emergencies.

One final story from the strange world of Russian healthcare, this one about childbirth. Near my friend’s flat there is a building for pregnant women. Women go there in the late stages of their pregnancy and remain there for 2 weeks after the baby is born. They aren’t allowed any visitors during this time – including their husbands (or baby daddies, depending on the circumstances) or parents. In the mornings you will often see women standing at the windows shouting down to their husbands who are standing on the streets outside and attempting to show them their children. This period of isolation is apparently to reduce the chances of infection and is considered completely normal in Russia. This is still a country where men not only do not go to the hospital when their partners give birth, but aren’t expected to play much role at all in the first few weeks of the child’s life. Sitting in an American diner in central Moscow last Thanksgiving, I met a Russian who’s friend informed me had just had a baby. “When was she born?” I asked. “Yesterday” came the reply. I think I speak for most women when I say that if I’d just had a child the day before I would not be thrilled if my husband was spending his time drinking beer in a diner.

There are obviously differences in medical systems all over the world, and Russia is by far not the worst one (when suffering from stomach pains in Cambodia I was offered an injection that the doctor admitted he had no idea what was in, but “it came from India so it must be good stuff!”). However, I would recommend anyone coming to Russia to bring all of their medications and to invest in travel insurance, so that they can visit the international hospitals if something serious does arise, However, if you’ve been through other medical systems for seemingly undiagnosable problems – Russian hospitals might be worth a try. You can be sure that they will literally try everything!

Thank you for reading and stay safe, stay healthy, and don’t sit on the floor!!

Molly

Valentine’s Day in the land of 24-hour Flower Shops

Happy Valentine’s Day from Russia! Not a traditional Russian holiday, Valentine’s Day is celebrated quite sporadically by the younger generation. Similar to the Russian opinion of Halloween, still seen as somewhat strange by many Russians who could not envisage granting strange and hyperactive children in costumes access to their flat (perhaps fairly), Valentine’s Day seems to be seen by many as “not our holiday, but a bit of fun”.

While the rest of the world frantically searches for good locations to buy flowers and chocolates, however, in Russia they’ve got that covered.

24 hour flower shops are as common here as coffee shops. In my 7 minute walk to the metro I pass by 3. Buildings adorned with ‘цветы’ (‘flowers’) can be found literally next to each other, with another one across the street for good measure. Who needs a wide variety of floral choices at 3am on a Tuesday night? Russians.

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And they all stay in business! Russians seem to buy flowers for every occasion and every non-occasion, with women literally gasping in horror as I explained that men in Britain would buy flowers “maybe on your birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day”. “Do they not love you??” I was asked. Apparently men in Russia are expected to buy flowers for their girlfriends, wives and mothers almost constantly; while the 8th of March (International Women’s Day) takes this peculiar fixation to its zenith, with men being expected to buy flowers for all of their female relatives (http://www.internationalwomensday.com/about.asp#.URvzUKWzBlI).These flowers must always be in odd numbers, as even numbers are only used for funerals.

The prevalence of flowers in everyday life is not the only difference between Russian and English dating customs. Love in the Russian capital still takes a far more traditional form than in its Western counterparts. It is normal to be married by 25, and women in their early 20s are often considered to be “on the hunt” for a man. At the tender age of 22, I am asked “are you married?”, with the immediate follow-up question of “so when will you get married?” far more often than “what do you want to do with your life?”. Russian weddings appear to be splendid affairs, where the bride and groom traditionally travel throughout the city, taking pictures in front of all of the major landmarks (visit Russia in the summer, and your tourist pictures are sure to be dotted with wedding parties). However, getting married early unfortunately does not equate to eternal bliss, as Russia’s divorce rate is ranked among the top 5 in the world (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_div_rat-people-divorce-rate) and is rising; an unfortunate side-effect that many blame on marrying too quickly.

Dating itself is a relatively traditional affair. Men are expected to do all of the asking, the organizing and the planning, while women (in the highest of high heels and the most intricate of hairdos) expect to be wooed. Chairs are pulled out, doors are held open, and as someone who has grown up in an age where “dating” in the UK is often limited to “well.., we’ve hooked up several times when we were drunk so maybe we should hook up sober?” it is quite nice to see an idea of romance and chivalry.

However, this comes at a price, with women often taking a definite subordinate role in the relationship, decision-making, and altogether life. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that there are two words for “married” in Russian. Men are женатый – they have taken a wife; whereas women are замужняя – literally, they have “gone behind a man”. Though this is certainly not true for all Russian relationships, there is an overwhelming trend of maintaining very clear gender stereotypes. Men carry all of the bags and women do all of the cooking, for example. I met a young Russian girl on the plane from London to Moscow, after I went home for Christmas, who was excited to see her boyfriend again after 3 months of being away. I asked what they were going to do on her first day back. “Oh, I’ll be helping his mother cook dinner of course!”.

One thing that visitors to Moscow will not fail to miss however is the public displays of affection. Move over Paris, Moscow is an extremely couple-y city and they are not afraid to show it. People are always holding hands, kissing, or full-on going for it in places you would not necessarily expect – such as the metro. This is partly a result of the fact that most Moscovites live in small flats with their entire families – sometimes including two sets of grandparents – limiting the space available for amorous activities in the home. They are often therefore non-averse to more adventurous locations. Some friends of mine, while on a train from Kazan to Moscow, witnessed a group of high school kids on a school trip. Half way through the journey, two students merely put up a sheet and proceeded to enjoy their makeshift privacy, while classmates and teachers seemed oddly unphased by such behavior. Parks during the warmer months are another favourite, as people scramble to make use of the limited space in a city of over 12 million.

Truthfully, if you’re looking for a location to engage in some traditional romantic fun (and all of the PDA you can stomach!) Moscow is definitely the location. If you’ve seen Paris and Rome, and are looking for a new romantic break this Valentine’s Day, try indulging in the flower shops and sexually charged atmosphere of the streets of Moscow!

Molly

Russia: The Wild, Wild East

The question most Russians will ask you when you tell them that you’ve decided to live in Russia is quite simple: “why?!” The idea that a foreigner would want to live in Russia is one that most people still find it difficult to accept. Many Russians are still surprised to overhear people speaking in English (or any other foreign language) and I have been approached many times by people who, without trace of resentment but merely pure curiosity, just want to know “what are you doing here?”

The Russians are on the whole a very patriotic people, proud of their traditions and history and their unique place in international relations; but they are very aware that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily see them this way. The look of excitement on people’s faces when you tell them that you really like Russia and that you’re studying Russian is fantastically heart-felt. In truth, what has struck me most about Russia is the overwhelming kindness of people, both strangers and friends, most of whom are thrilled to tell you stories about their lives, and insatiably curious about what life is like in your country (as well as everything else – from your love life and your hobbies to what you had for dinner that day).

One of my fondest memories of this was on one Saturday-night metro journey, where the old man sitting next to me alerted me to the fact that my phone had vibrated, and, noticing my accent (and questionable grammar…) proceeded to ask where I was from and excitedly shoot questions at me about my life. When I told him I really liked Moscow he teared up, saying that that meant a lot to him, and as we parted ways he shook my hand firmly, repeating that he was so happy that he got to meet someone from England – as he had thought he never would.

I have had a truly amazing experience living in Russia, and I will have memories and friends from here that will last a lifetime. However, it has not been without its shocking moments (they say you can’t spend more than 3 months in Moscow without seeing a dead body… in my experience this has proven to be accurate), unique experiences (bear meat has a distinctly chewy texture) and hilarious cultural and linguistic misunderstandings (asking whether you can pay with potatoes as the grocery store was certainly not something I would have done at home). I hope to share some of my strange experiences, weird and wonderful facts, and general reflections on life in the motherland here!

But if I could only say one thing, it would be this: Go to Russia. You won’t regret it!

Molly