Advice for Americans and other foreigners traveling long-distance on Russian trains.

As I mentioned, I was recently in Siberia, specifically in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. But before I can tell you about Kyzyl, I have to tell you how I got there. I took the train! This (obviously) makes me an expert on Russian long-distance trains, so I will share my wisdom with the rest of the world.

Accommodations.

Russian trains have three “classes”: In platskart, there are no doors and something like 60 people sleep on bunks together and share one bathroom. Kupe has separate compartments with four bunks each and a lockable door. And Luxe is fancier, but I’ve never been in it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like.

For my trip, I was in platskart for one day from Arkhangelsk to Moscow, and then kupe from Moscow to Abakan, for three days. There are pros and cons to kupe. There’s slightly more privacy, and if you find three friends to travel with you, you have a lot of security, because you can lock yourselves in. But, when it comes to being a young woman traveling alone, some say it’s better to go platskart, because that way there are more people around. You never know who might get locked into that kupe with you.

I was traveling alone half the way, until my colleague Anita joined up and occupied the other lower bunk of the kupe for the last two days. I had no problems in either platskart or kupe.

With all options, you get bed linens and a towel with which to create a tiny little domestic cubby on your bunk for however long the train will be home.

Food.

My first train experience, a short 24-hour jaunt to Moscow back in May, was not very pleasant, mostly because I was unprepared in the food department. The Siberian Adventure was much better.

Apart from my suitcase, I had a backpack stuffed with provisions, and never had to visit the restaurant car. I took with me: several liters of water, three apples, dried apricots, a package of smoked braided cheese, three baked pastry thingies, half a loaf of bread, sliced gouda cheese and salami (which was still okay, if a little greasy, after three days unrefrigerated), two packages instant mashed potatoes, two packages instant soup, cookies, crackers, a carton of juice, and a bunch of tea bags. Perhaps someday I’ll be skilled enough to bring pickles, packages of smoked salmon, jars of mayonnaise, and whole baked chickens, like real Russians.

I brought my own mug, utensils, an extra towel, and a package of paper napkins, after observing the super-prepared people in the bunks across from me in platskart on my way to Moscow last time.

The most important thing to know is that there is an unlimited supply of free hot water, which you get from a large, industrial-looking samovar tank at the head of the car, near the conductor’s compartment. So, you can make tea, instant coffee, and any other instant food to your heart’s content. You can also buy tea or coffee from the conductor for 15 rubles, and it comes in the wonderful, classic Russian train cups.

Hygiene.

Two words: Baby Wipes.

The biggest difference between Russian and American trains (apart from the fact that Russian trains are always on time) is that on Russian trains there are no showers. Russians carry moist towelettes around the way Americans might carry hand sanitizer, and I had taken to carrying them myself—but I am so glad I had a whole package of proper baby wipes with me on the train. It’s amazing how one or two of those, appropriately applied, can make you feel fresh and clean in the morning.

Also, while hot water is limitless, toilet paper might not be, so I suggest you bring your own. Basically, spend as little time in the bathroom as possible.

Finally, someone suggested a headscarf, and it was quite effective at helping me forget how unwashed my hair was after three days.

Entertainment.

Four days is a long time to sit in a confined space alone. I recommend enjoying the scenery, but there’s only so many hours of scenery one can handle in a day.

I brought more than I ended up using in terms of diversions, but that’s better than the alternative. I read A Clockwork Orange, which I’d been meaning to read since my first year of college, and which I enjoyed a lot less than I was expecting to. I also brought a Russian magazine and a book, and my dictionary, with the noble idea of working on my language on the train, but that didn’t pan out.

And of course I made sure to have my iPod fully charged before I left. There are a few electrical outlets in each train car, but it’s probably better to plan not to have to use them. My best decision was the suggestion from Randi (of course) to splurge on downloading the audiobook of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. It turned out to be really interesting and helped get me in the mood for my adventure.

The only thing I wish I’d brought is a map of Russia with the train route on it. The train stops pretty frequently, especially before actually getting to Siberia, and I kept wondering, How far have we gone? Have we crossed the Urals? Are we actually in Siberia yet? Where the hell are we?

After a while, though, I got used to it, and just enjoyed the rocking of the train and standing at the window in the corridor to catch an afternoon breeze in the heat of midday.

Positive Vibes

Lots of happy things to share with you today!

[1] I have a confession to make. I’d been halfway considering buying a new pair of black boots for some time, something to wear to more formal occasions. I love my brown boots, but they are quite practical. Yesterday, an occasion that called for something fancier arose, and I took the opportunity to justify buying these boots:

And to pay way more for them than I have ever considered paying for footwear in America. Though, when you compare the $200 I paid for my other boots, these were a steal. I just wish I hadn’t waited til this late in the season! There have been great sales on winter shoes since after New Years, but I haven’t taken advantage of them til now. But, I’ve already worn them twice and I like them a lot, so I think I will get my money’s worth out of them. I guess I’ve become the kind of person who wears black leather heeled boots. I can’t quite compete with those Russian girls who wear six-inch stilettos on the ice, but I felt pretty badass today.

[2] My lesson plan was a hit today! It was a kind of last-minute thrown-together lesson on Mass Media, subbing for another professor who is on vacation in Spain. I wanted to talk about the media shifting from TV to the Internet, so I showed them these two clips covering the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall.

The first was coverage by ABC. The second was Dan Brown’s vlog take on it posted on YouTube. His video was particularly good, because in the second half he talks about the media shift from traditional broadcast media to social, participatory media, which was the point I wanted to get them talking about.

It was a group of fourth year students, and they were way more interested in it than I could have hoped for. I think they were surprised that I would bring in something so topical and so contemporary and so relevant to their own lives as the Internet. They were a little overwhelmed by how fast Dan Brown talks at first, but I think they were pleasantly surprised by this distinct variation from the usual language class fare. They even expressed interest in watching more of his videos. So that was unexpectedly gratifying. My fifth years are amazing, but I often feel they’re beyond my being useful to them.

[3] Ratatouille! It was totally worth it to hold out for zucchini to show up in the grocery store again instead of trying to substitute cucumbers, of which there have been an almost pathological abundance for the last month and a half. I made ratatouille tonight, my offering for the international dinner that Łukasz, Liv, Nils, and I are plotting tomorrow. I know, I know, “ratatouille” is French, but like I said to Łukasz, any food can be American. I’m also bringing back Linda Lang-Gun’s Sweet Potatoes for an encore.

string cheese

So, there’s this cheese they have here in Arkhangelsk (and I guess probably other parts of Russia, but I’d never seen it before coming here). I don’t know what it’s called, but it looks like this:

And it goes really good with beer. We got some at the Cuban restaurant with Dad and Nils and Liv last week, and when Dad tasted it, his reaction was, “This is cheese?” It’s incredibly salty and smoky, and tastes more like beef jerky than like cheese. But I love it, and now I have some of my very own! We’ll see how long it lasts…

Today was English Day

This conversation transpired today between my new Polish roommate Łukasz and me as we were walking to the electronics store.

Łukasz: I bought those things for us.

Me: What things?

Łukasz: That we saw at the store yesterday.

Me: But what are they?

Łukasz: I don’t know how they’re called in English.

Me: Is it a fruit?

Łukasz: Yes, it’s food.

Me: Fruit, fruit. Frukti.

Łukasz: Ah, no, it’s not a fruit.

Me: Is it cheese?

Łukasz: No, it’s not a cheese.

Me: Is it….

Łukasz: Morskaya yeda.

Me: Ohhhh, seafood, seafood. I know what you’re talking about. Those… things. I don’t know what they are in English either.

pause

Me: Łukasz, have you ever heard of the game Twenty Questions?

What a Day!

What a day, dear readers!

I went out for lunch (pizza!) with one of the Finnish teachers living in the same hotel/dorm as me, and I tried another yummy warm drink traditional to this region of the world– although this time I knew what I was getting myself into, unlike with the sbiten’. This one is called a glitveyn, and apparently they drink it in winter in Scandinavian countries and Germany and here in Arkhangelsk. It’s mulled wine.

After lunch we met up with the Norwegian girl, and we all went to a museum in town with a contingent of Russian teachers intent on showing us the town. It was a lovely outing. The museum is called the Osobnyak, or Palace, on the Embankment. I did not take any pictures there, because it costs 20 rubles PER PICTURE. The three of us non-Russians also had to pay a higher price to get in than the Russian citizens. The museum was nice and well-kept, but not terribly interesting, although I did learn that it was popular to paint men’s studies green at the end of the 1800s.

After the museum, the group split up, and Elena and I went on an EPIC adventure. (Elena is the woman who’s been my contact person since the beginning, and I’ll be working with her classes starting next week). So Halloween is fast approaching, and I have promised a Halloween party as the first meeting of the American Club. And for a Halloween party, we must have a pumpkin! Elena and I went to one grocery store, then took a bus to another, walked through an outdoor market, to a third grocery store, got lost, went to two or three more grocery stores, asking at each one. We found pumpkins that looked like melons, melons that looked like pumpkins, little oval pumpkins, things that looked like squash but were labeled “pumpkin,” one pumpkin that was enormous and a horrible grayish green, and finally one that might do, in a sort of mottled grayish orange shade, but it had some deep nicks in it, and Elena insisted that we must have an unblemished pumpkin. So, the search continues.

Elena left for home, and I continued on to the dorm, but I stopped at one last store on my way, wanting to buy juice. But what I found there was so much better than juice! I know this would be a lovely circular narrative if I were to find a perfect pumpkin, but alas, things don’t work that way in Russia! No, I found MARSHMALLOWS! After spending a good $25 on real American marshmallows in Moscow, here in Arkhangelsk, tucked away in a box underneath one of the candy shelves, I found a bunch of bags of marshmallows. They’re not quite the same texture as American marshmallows, and they are strawberry-flavored, but still! I never thought I’d find such a thing here!

The final excitement of the day is that I have a permanent roommate, finally! More on that later :)

Photographic evidence of the marshmallows:

Gender Roles in Russia

Image

I found this when I was grocery shopping today, so obviously I had to buy it.

The front says “PROTECT FROM WOMEN”

And the back? “A special delicacy especially for men. Potent and sweet. Do not touch, men’s property!” Please note the little warning label in the top left corner, which says “Store out of reach of women.”

The chocolate itself is just extra thick and has the little warning label picture of a woman crossed out stamped on all the squares. It was also delicious : )