Monday, 5 December 2011

EPISODE 19: HOME!

Just a short update this time.
As the more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed I am now safely stowed away in the UK, miles away from giant, Putin posters and angry, trolleybus conductors. Of course I will be returning to Russia in the new year for more adventures but this doesn't mean that fromrussiawithrob will be stopping; I am in fact working on a holiday treat for my voracious readers. you have been warned.

thanks for following me this far, see you on the other side of the holiday season!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Episode 18 (final part): Veliki Novgorod or Novgorod the Great (in both senses)

final part of my travels chaps, thanks for reading all the way!


We confused the hell out of the compartment conductor by doing an Andrei impression when he asked us if we were British:
“Dah! Koneshhnoh!” we groaned in unison causing the poor man to stare perplexingly at us.
After face-palming our idiocy, we settled down for the night train from Moscow to Veliki Novgorod and tried to get some sleep. We were on our way to one of the major, ancient cities of Russia and a place of learning and religious mysticism. We slept not really knowing what to expect. The strangely negative Lonely Planet section described it as “a bit of a backwater” and out initial impressions upon arrival at pitch-black 6am were equally as frosty.
  
The Old Kremlin of Novgorod

We didn’t know if we should check-in at our hostel or hit a cafe and turn up in daylight.  We stumbled, sleepily and weighed-down into the 24 hour cafe at the station and immediately froze in terror. Despite the bizarre hour, the place was packed and stacked with kebab-eating, drunk Russian men who, with gaping jaws looked at us through the sizzling heat of a grill. Silence descended menacingly over the plastic table tops. The smell of greasy meat seemed to be say “ooh foreign tourists, maybe we could relieve these good people of their bags and wallets.” We backed out sharpish and tumbled into a taxi.

Arriving at our hotel, we were confronted by another drunken group of men, this time arguing with the reception staff.  After attracting a lot of attention from them with our accents we eventually procured our key and locked ourselves in for a four hour nap, finally safe from the drunken denizens of Novgorod.
We awoke and realised how small the town was instantly: we could walk to the historical centre in 10 minutes.  After fortifying ourselves in a cafe that played some awesome 80’s music (well I like Laura Brannigan – google “self control” TUNE!) we stood awe struck looking at the beautiful kremlin that is the main attraction of the town. It easily gives the red Kremlin of Moscow a run for its money and houses the beautiful Cathedrals and churches of the ancient city. We wondered around inside a few of these and received an impromptu religious lecture from a very friendly, slightly crazy curator. Our Russian-university, student cards were incredibly handy in this town as they guaranteed us free entry to everything. We then visited the 

Cathedral of St Sophia and saw the monument to one thousand years of the Russian people – a beautiful giant, ceremonial bell (see right) with intricate carvings of scenes from Russian history.

After taking in our fill of culture we collapsed in a local bakery/cafe where we sampled some of the most affordable and tasty Russian pastries of all time. We loved it so much that we figured we’d use it as a base for the next and final day, when we would have to be up until 2am to catch our final train. The rest of the day was spent looking for places near the train station that were open long enough to crash in until we could board the train. We discovered a brilliant little restaurant and the local cinema which, to our blessing, had an odd 11 30 pm showing of the new “Tin Tin” film that ended 30 mins before our train was due to leave!
  
Me on the river
We think there was a rodent in our room, but nonetheless slept well.  On our last day we wondered the lovely, clean and cultured town once more and went to see the famous “birch-wood manuscripts” – some of the earliest examples of Russian writing. Reading the modern Russian translations we inferred that several of them were cooking recipes and many were humorous letters from different people to one another. They all began with the same phrase “Poklon ot” which roughly translates as something like “With bows of respect from...” so we figured they were kind of like a greetings cards from medieval Russia!


Staring madly at my Grape Gateaux
Eventually the evening came and we had a slap-up meal in the same restaurant as the first night as it was near the cinema and we had all of our heavy luggage with us. As a treat, we hit a really pricey cafe for last-night desserts (see picture) and found that we had a whole cinema to ourselves to enjoy “Tin Tin”. This was the best, most eccentric way to end the trip and after boarding the train at 2am we soon drifted off and woke up again in Petrozavodsk, refreshed from the road and reminded of how much we love studying this wonderful, diverse country and rich culture.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Episode 18 (part four): Goth Moscow (Lenin the Mummy, the Cemetary and a massive Cathedral)


“Nyet!” said the scary Russian police lady. “You need to leave all bags and cameras in the museum before queuing up here!” We shuffled off heads bowed in shame. Of course it was high time to visit Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square and I got everybody out of bed with a rousing speech about the joys of visiting a dead communist! Jovial tone aside, the tomb and embalmed body of Lenin is surely a candidate for one of the wonders of the world, especially to an amateur history buff like me, so let me explain a moment...Not only is it a testament to human achievement (the mummification of a body to a level in which it can be viewed) but also the architecture and eerie atmosphere of the place gives a real sense that “here lies one of the most significant shapers of the modern world, don’t stare, keep quiet, pay your respects and move on.”
Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square

Sure enough, the guards inside the tomb quickly moved us through with snaps of their fingers and hisses for disrespectful, noisy tourists to be. Apart from the charge of leaving your bag (roughly 60 roubles) this is a free attraction and also includes a walk around the back of the tomb, under the Kremlin walls, where many other famous heroes of the revolution lie. Someone still puts flowers on these graves, someone still puts flowers on Stalin’s...

The grave of Anton Chekhov
Not quite having our fill of death for one weekend, we took a metro trip to ‘Novodechivy Cemetary‘ (the Moscow equivalent of the ‘Père Lachaise Cemetary’ in Paris) where many famous Russians are buried. We managed to find the grave of Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Khrushchev and Yeltsin yet were disappointed by the poor map of the graveyard which did not lead us to where Gogol and Bulgakov are supposed to lie. Nevermind! Have to come back when i’m living there in January! This cemetery was again a free attraction and certainly should be on the list of things to do for literary and history fans visiting the city.

Our final major visit was to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which, after being destroyed and turned into an open-air swimming pool by Stalin, now dominates the skyline as a national icon of the Orthodox Church. It is truly lavish and a contrast to the grim, candlelit interior of St Basils. It reminded me of the Vatican and was awe-inspiring.

We had plenty of time left to kill before our 9 o clock train to Veliki Novgorod so we chilled out in a cafe on the beloved Arbat and passed a pleasant afternoon in high-spirited debate about pretty much everything:  corporate greed (ironic as we were sat in a McKafe), pro-wrestling, Beyonce vs Rihanna, the state of the UK, the state of Russia, the upcoming elections and the American education system. ..
This leads me to say a simple thank you to Alex, Jaya and Marilyn who made a good trip great. Travelling with you was a joy and I really hope we can the chance to reunite one day for other adventures.
Alex and I kicking back in Mckafe

Concluding episode on Veliki Novgorod will be out soon! (I will eventually have this all written up!)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Episode 18 (part three): Bartering, boats and bottles of (single-use!) vodka...

The next day we rose late and seriously enjoyed the lie in. I mercifully leant on the snooze button with all my might until eventually we decided it was high time to crawl our way to Moscow’s biggest souvenir and Soviet Kitsch market at Lamailovo. Arriving at our destination we were somewhat dismayed by the very few stores that are open at this time of year. The market is vast, and I assume that at a weekend during peak season it must be atmospheric and buzzing. However, the traders on that particular day could not really be bothered...

Hunting for the perfect Matroshka...
They smoked and shuffled their feet. They didn’t chase sales. They didn’t push their goods. They didn’t rush after us screaming and yelling about roubles and kopecks. In hindsight this may have been a good thing, but at the time, the long metro journey seemed a little empty. Still, we got stuck in and did our best to barter our way to lower prices for the things we wanted. It was great to know that after researching, we were buying cheaper and smarter than in the Arbat shops from the night before.

Bear in mind this is not always the case and if you are travelling with no idea of prices or no knowledge of Russian you may want to stick to souvenir shops. I toyed with the idea of buying a smallish banner of Lenin from the market and was told it cost 3000 roubles (about £60). I had no idea of the price but being familiar with what things should be worth I told the man he was obviously joking and walked off. I would have bartered but he didn’t follow me. Later in the day I found the same lanyard in a shop on the Arbat for 900 roubles (still too much for what it was) and then felt rather smug...Nonetheless, we all left the market with shorter Christmas lists and heavier rucksacks...

State History Museum
 Finally we were able to get into the state history museum on Red Square! Today it was open and sidling in we took full advantage of the student discount with our Russian student cards. This museum was a joy to walk around, especially the upper floors which chart Russian history from Ivan the Terrible to the Revolution. The lower floors contain an average exhibition on Russian pre-history and ancient tribes that is quite dull except for an amazingly old boat that was found in a river. Much better exhibitions on this can be found in Karelia and Veliki Novgorod, but those are other stories...

Tired after another day’s adventuring we frequented our favourite subterranean supermarket for nibbles and I got it into my head to buy a bottle of vodka for the road. I felt that i’d like to sip a little each day to keep off the cold and picked a brand that i’d heard good things about “Putinka” (correct me if i’m wrong). Everything seemed fine until we got back to the room and popped the cap... Turns out that, instead of having a screw-top this was a single-use bottle of vodka. Oh the disappointment was written across my face as I realised that i’d either have to down the lot or pour it away... still it only cost me £2-50 so it wasn’t a major loss. In conclusion, in Russia everything that is good for you costs and lot and everything that is bad for you is very cheap! Gosh!

More soon!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Episode 18 (part two): "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown"

hats off to anyone who gets the movie reference, boo and go watch it to those who don't

Thus continue Rob's adventures in Moscow:

GUM department store on Red Square
We rose after a long hibernation and crawled our way to Red Square again. We tried to get into the State History Museum but fell foul to bizarre Russian opening times and had to make do with exploring GUM and looking for a part of Moscow known as “Kitai Gorod” (which means "China Town" although is actually a mistranslation) According to Lonely Planet this is the GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH full of narrow streets, a gripping atmosphere and a vibrant cultural mix. We either failed miserably at navigation or found a string of unhelpful Muscovites to ask for directions from as when we finally entered the supposed area we were madly unimpressed. The supposed “narrow streets” must only have been narrow by Moscow standards (e.g. two lanes of traffic not eight) and in truth we never really felt the character of the place. It seemed like a string of restaurants offering Sushi or Arabic cuisine, a Mcdonalds and  Starbucks. Very meh. Defeated, we ate in a Russian, fast-food cafe, drinking Kvass (Russian bread beer) and planning how to get to Sparrow Hills for a stroll above the city that would hopefully reinvigorate us.

We met up with Jaya’s hostess’s granddaughter (yet another Sasha to add to our collection) at Sparrow Hills metro station and took a long stroll around the imposing state university that dominates this part of the skyline. Built as one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters”, the university is one of the best in Russia and is characteristic of Soviet neo-classical and “wedding cake” architecture. In my opinion it is also absolutely terrifying. Even more so than the gargoyles of Oxford colleges and St John’s porters....

We then took a long trip on the Moscow metro to get back into town. Sasha wished to take us to the Tretyakov Art Gallery – Moscow’s equivalent of the Hermitage in St Petersburg and a pilgrimage for lovers of Russian art and culture. We were not disappointed. Several hours were easily filled here looking at some of Russia’s most famous portraits and landscapes. Unfortunately the cloak-room staff and security guards were a little too self-important and snooty which somewhat soured our impression at first, yet overall, the majesty of the place and the calibre of the collection won us all over. My favourite works were probably those of Vrubel who I would now rank as one of my favourite artists (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Vrubel) although I really enjoyed the portraits of famous Russian authors, a lot of which are reproduced on the backcovers of the editions of their works that I read at uni.
Taking a break in McCafe (don't judge us!)

It was with aching feet and sore eyes that we ended up deflated and in need of food, our brains swelling with stirring images from Russia’s cultural past. Sasha suggested we should try to eat at Moo Moo’s on the Arbat (Moscow’s most famous street) as not only was the food good, but the atmosphere of this part of town would make up for the Kitai Gorod disappointment.

Agreeing we parted ways and plummeted again through Moscow’s beautiful metro to the Arbat station – possibly one of the prettiest stops – and in no time we were queuing up for a mega buffet of Russian, edible goodness. I highly recommend Moo Moo as a stop for travellers and tourists wishing to eat things a la Russe and the two outlets on the Arbat are probably the most comfortable and convenient. After eating we strolled up and down researching souvenir prices in the obviously expensive stores that line the streets. The Arbat is something of a "Las Ramblas" for anyone who has been to Barcelona and also has its share of street entertainers. We easily killed another hour here and returned contented to our hostel for more sleep – we were still dead on our feet from the gallery.
Posing with the Moo Moo cow on the Arbat

More really soon, probably tomorrow as I need to get this all written up :)







Friday, 11 November 2011

BONUS PHOTOS: Red Square day and night

As promised a malenki, little photo update ala Tumblr!

Onto Red Square




Looks a bit familiar...


The State History Museum


On Red Square



Photobombing Red Square

Rob in front of GUM


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Episode 18 (Part One): Moscow, hostels, builders and Basil's

"ты хочешь знать, что видел я на воле?"
Mikhail Lermontov, "Mtsyri" 

Oh would that I had a smart phone so that I could have better kept my word and filled you in from the road dear reader! Or rather not, because I was having far too much fun to write blog-posts! So stop complaining! Jeez!

Bags all packed!
Of course we arrived a little heady and tired-eyed into Leningrad Station (also known by its old name Oktyabersky Vokzal as our confusing train tickets taught us) and dropped our bags underneath the giant Lenin head in the entrance hall. The train journey was pretty good. Alex took a fantastic photo of me cramming a bun into my mouth but unfortunately his camera went missing later in the trip...(that’s another story.) Spending the night in the platzkart (cheapest) carriage was pretty much ok. We were not robbed or murdered. We did not encounter “bizarre people” as one of our university teachers guaranteed. Our conductor was pleasant and once the large lady sat opposite us stopped snoring we were able to shut our eyes and drift away into sleep as the Karelian forests dwindled outside the window...

We knew we were in expensive, metropolitan Moscow because all of a sudden all the toilets cost 20 roubles a go and in every direction we were confronted by H&M and Zara advertising. The pavements were clean and unbroken. People from various ethnic groups cropped up all over the place. The tang of a nearby Mcdonalds drifted over the streets. Yes still Russia, but sadly a lot more like anywhere else in the world.
A gorgeous fountain in the 'Alexandrovsky Sad'

The Moscow metro was our first port of call and we easily navigated our way to “Okhotni Ryad” which was the station nearest our hostel. Our eyes opened wide as we emerged onto street level and came face to face with not only the newly-opened Bolshoi Theatre but also with the State Duma (parliament) and the red walls of the Kremlin. Who knew the main attractions were so close together! The sun was shining, we were in high spirits and I didn’t even need my mittens! Moscow grasped us immediately and the brief illusion that we were in any-old, global city was shattered by the red Russification of those searing onion domes.

"rising majestically" (ignore the manhole)
We found the hostel no problem, tucked in an alley near the Armenian Embassy annex. The friendly reception staff adored our fragrantly accented Russian and showed us the windy, confusing route to our room. Our four- bed dorm was nestled under several flights of stairs and the neighbouring rooms were being renovated by a gang of sketchy builders smoking, swearing and loitering in the hostel. Their sleazy sneers and loud protestations made our first trip to the showers a little tentative but hey we’re young and pretty aren’t we? Nothing to be ashamed of and no awkward towel slippages... So yes we felt a little uneasy at first but had a prime location near the communal kitchen and showers and our door had a decent double-lock so we soon settled in.

After taking a short break to wash ourselves up and wipe the sleepydust from our eyes we hit Red Square – a candidate for the country's greatest icon- and were greeted by the stunning St Basil’s Cathedral rising majestically on the skyline. It was our very own Virginia Woolf "moment of being" but we couldn't shake the gruesome story that Ivan the Terrible, according to legend, blinded the architect who built it so that he could never design anything more awe-inspiring. As always I find myself returning to my philiosophy that no matter how beautiful or crazy Russia seems it will never, ever be boring!

More really really soon. (no, really. I’m not having you on anymore)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Episode 17: I made it to Moskva! (or Rob has no time for blogging right now...)

Oh so much to let you all know and so little time! Instead of writing up all my adventures now, hurriedly and without photos, I have decided to wait until I am back in PTZ (what the cool kids call it) where I can upload at my leisure and put my thoughts in order. For now, click the link on the right to find my twitter page where I'll be keeping you all updated, as usual, with weird thoughts from the road.

Basically get ready for one massive episode when I get back featuring waxwork communists, looking like Gogol,  haggling with bored market traders, looking for a curry, taking "shocked face" photos in Red Square, giant cleaning ladies and the super rich...oh Moscow.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Episode 16 and a half : "Мир тесен" ("it's a small world") - or Rob drunk calls a British journalist in Moscow



"So what is it that you wanted from me?" he asked earnestly after my inane and slurry introduction.
"Oh nothing really," I replied "we've just had a few beers..."

I did not intend to write anything until I was within the walls of the Kremlin, but tonight, dear reader, I am compelled to share. On a celebratory binge with some good friends in "Kafe Kirvach", the conversation moved to the notion that the world is often far smaller than it seems. Little did we know how truly and completely we were going to illustrate this idiom.


Sasha began telling an anecdote about how, even in a city the size of Moscow two people can end up living in the buildings next to each other, as was the case for one of his friends, a British journalist. I took another sip of beer and then added my own story to the mix. I spoke of how the best friend of my dentist in sleepy little Devon presented a documentary about Karelia that I watched to prepare for my year abroad. I mentioned also that he was British journalist living in Moscow and that I had gotten to know him through e-mail while looking for an apartment in Moscow. Sasha's eyes lit up as the crushing irony hit. These people were somehow one and the same.

With this stunning and almost uncanny revelation the entire table burst out laughing to the point of tears and we were nigh unapproachable for over ten minutes. The staff looked askew at us, wondering how so many people could act so tipsy after so few beers. Never in my life has something so bizarrely coincidental occurred. It was, for those long minutes, as if all the stars were in alignment. As if god had suddenly found a sense of humour.

Naturally we did the sensible thing and drunk called said journalist in Moscow to tell him what had happened, blatantly interrupting whatever he was up to at the time. Suddenly the phone was thrust at me and in my own special awkward way, I spoke to "Mr Brown"( who found my politeness hilarious in hindsight) and tried not to let the beer get to me...somewhat unsuccessfully as the opening quotation will have you realise.

Anyway, tomorrow Moscow, tonight goodnight!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Episode 16: Kanikuli!!

What have I gotten myself into this time?? The red city is calling me. The night train wheezes at the station. Silence descends over Petrozavodsk.

It's the uni holidays! Like having half-term all over again! Oxford doesn't allow the luxury of the reading week so I have decided to go all out and hit up a couple of Russian towns in an action-packed week of suspense and drama! Leaving this Sunday from the station, my friends and I will be plunging southwards from the northern darkness on a train bound for Moscow where we intend to be proper, noisy tourists. Our list of things to try and accomplish includes having tea with a Lenin impersonator and seeing the man himself, not being able to afford anything in GUM, trying to find a curry (so desperate to eat curry!!) and potentially seeing what all the master-and-margarita fuss is about with these "Patriarch's Ponds..."

Coming to a Russian town near YOU (maybe not)
After spending a few days in the capital we will once again overnight-train-it to Veliki Novgorod. Although near unheard of in the West, this is apparently a gem of ancient Russia and famous for some lovely, old architecture and monuments. All we hope to find is respite from the supposedly manic pace of life that will be Moscow. Somewhere where we can chill out, have some kvass and regain some energy before returning to the 'Gosuniversitet' for our last weeks of study.

So it's certainly not goodbye from "fromrussiawithrob" but i'll be relying on internet cafes and hostels for updates from now. Maybe it'll mean more tweets and photos and less text but hey, expect a proper write-up when I get back! Poka!


thanks for following and do keep doing so! x

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Episode 15: Rob gets patted down by a burly, Russian security guard (twice)

"Aha!"
said the security guard, reaching into my satchel and grasping my asthma inhaler. The smile of satisfaction at actually having done something soon left his face when I explained it was for my mild lung condition and not some fancy, foreign drug-taking paraphernalia or home-made, tear-gas canister. He then asked me to stand like a scarecrow and thoroughly patted me down for "sharp objects" that I might have been carrying. In all honesty I was a little bit miffed. Especially considering we were going to a low division football match between two relatively unknown teams. Especially considering it was bloody freezing, and especially considering how madly intimidating the huge police presence was.

Hopefully the only time I'll be behind bars in Russia
I don't know how much of a problem football hooliganism is in Russia. I can only assume it is considerable. I do know that, in this instance, there were more police than players on the pitch. They looked dead bored. They walked up and down kicking their heels, hands touching their batons in agitation. I wasn't sure if they were hoping something would kick-off (excuse the pun) or whether they just wanted to get off duty as fast as possible and into the bar. Needless to say this was a lot different from seeing Torquay United play at Plainmoor, which can be intimidating for a lot of other reasons.

The game itself was quite enjoyable. Smolensk dominated the first half and scored the only goal of the match. FC Karelia, despite losing half of their home audience at half-time, played a much stronger second half. More football-minded friends informed me that the level of football was nowhere near the level of the equivilent English league. "Fair play" I shivered, content simply with the novelty of watching a match in Northern Russia.

The game was free although I did treat myself to an FC Karelia football scarf for 250 roubles which makes a nice souvenir. They were being sold by a freezing cold, but very cheerful girl in a kind of tent outside the stadium. Why she couldn't have been inside one of the stadiums buildings I have no idea. The walk to this merch stand wasn't far but obviously meant another pat down session with Russian security. This time, my guard of choice took a particular disliking to my selection of pens and fumbled each one before deciding they weren't a threatening weapon and chose to pat me down again looking for "sharp things". I sighed and succumbed to the search, trying to make myself feel like a suave secret agent instead of an uncomfortable, twice-molested foreigner...

more asap!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Episode 14: Early mornings and English language assistants

I can barely believe that I am half-way through my time here in Petrozavodsk. It seems like only yesterday that I was scared to death by the mushroom-bearing hitch-hiker of Karelia (http://fromrussiawithrob.blogspot.com/2011/09/episode-7-rob-arrives-in-russia.html ) on the bus on the way here...such fond memories. Still, life certainly hasn't let up and as usual I'm busy busy busy!

English teaching has a new (very red and cold) face
Anyway, I've recently taken aboard the morose and vile habit of rising at 7am. I know right! What kind of student am I! Twice a week I get up early, like a normal person, shovel down spoonfuls of porridge and sip a cup of scorching black tea only to hurl myself into the black, cold morning. This isn't entirely without reason. I have in fact been volunteering as an English-language assistant in a couple of lessons at the university. My early morning walk to the Political Sciences Faculty has been somewhat physically and mentally demanding. The cruel, northern wind is funneled down Alexander Nevsky Avenue into my face, taking with it fallen leaves and dust from the road. At this time all of Karelia is still bathed in semi-blackness. I have to admit, waking up to streetlights and car headlights in October is a sensation unknown to me and highly disorientating- Grandma you were right! Although during the day the weather is mild, these early mornings and late evenings show the extremities are beginning. This morning, being only 2 degrees celcius, the falling drizzle soon turned to a kind of sleet/hail that drizzled down the back of my jacket and played along my spine...shudder. I arrive to the university lobby with red cheeks and hilariously red ears.

Yet the city is surprisingly full of life at this time. Petrozavodskers get up and head into work, walk the children to school and smoke at trolleybus stops. Shops seem to open a lot later though, many at ten or eleven, but the Kiosks as always radiate light and I have to fight the urge to buy a snickers everytime I come within paces of one. In this respect, they are the oasis mirage of the early morning as the only thing keeping me from freezing is the fact I keep moving. Stopping to wait for a road-crossing is when the cold really sets in, obviosuly I've cracked the long-johns out already.

All this early morning adventuring and psycological battering is worth it though. Students are immensely responsive in classes. I have never considered myself the "teaching type" if such a thing exists and my only past experience in this realm is from teaching primary school children cricket on a grammar school sports program. My contribution to lessons can be anything from simply reading out a text in my own way - today I murdered Shakespeare's sonnets - to trying to explain tricky aspects of English grammar (something also difficult for me). Being told that Russian students love English accents is flattering! My ego is swelling to gigantic proportions, soon I will erect a statue and write an epic about myself...kinda like this blog actually...oh.

the well
I even got up early this weekend! Before you all perish from shock, early means 9am on Sunday and again with good reason. As I enjoyed so much my amble to the Devil's Chair of last week, I took Kate and Tom and headed off into the wilderness in a different direction. We followed a wooden boardwalk north of Sortavalskaya and ended up at a little well and stream. The signs told of a clean water spring and local people kept turning up with big, plastic containers to fill up with water. There was a little a fire left burning which gave off the gorgeous aroma of pine. It was very peaceful. I recently watched a documentary on tv talking of Karelia as a mystic land of rivers, forests and magic - for the first time, other than perhaps last weekend, I felt that I was experiencing this side of the picture.

The bog
We tore ourselves away from the warm, little fire and headed off past some makeshift wooden tables and benches. We ended up on a kind of trail which we followed until we entered a kind of semi-marshland. We picked our way around it sticking close to half-submerged trees and using their roots as bridges. Growing up near Dartmoor certainly has its benefits sometimes! We ended up on the other side and were in a large gap cut into the forest. Electric pylons stretched on for miles either way, the sheer enormity of Russian entirely self-evident in this engineering achievement alone. We sat and ate half our picnic (including a really odd tasting smoked cheese ("сыр колбасный??") before feeling chilly and returning to fire and the well.

Again, another amazing weekend in Northern Russia. This town may be small but it is the gift the keeps on giving! More soon!



the pylon field - nice spot for a picnic?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Episode 13: If you go down to the woods today...watch out for the devil

So there we were, a teapot of Englishmen (yes, that is the collective name) waiting in the cold of the university trolleybus stop. The elusive number "4" marshrutka ( a kind of mini-van taxi with a set route) was to take us to the start of our woodland ramble in a village on the city limits. They are supposed to come once every 5-10 minutes, but the wait was agony in the shrill breeze and not a single number 4 was showing up. So, like the bloody foreigners we are, we did the natural thing and broke out into a flash mob, dancing to the Russian pop-music that was blaring out of the neighbouring kiosk. Judging by the odd looks we got, the locals didn't really get our sense of humour and our Russian friends are far too cool to have joined in so did an admirable job of ignoring our flailing limbs and swinging hips until we finally got aboard.

Onega and distant Petrozavodsk  from "the Devil's Chair" side

Ode to a Lada
Today was absolutely lovely! As I pondered in my last update, we are certainly in a Russian "Golden Autumn" as despite frequent outbursts (surely 'downbursts'?) of drizzle, almost on a daily basis, the sun never fails to find a way of piercing the clouds and making Karelia look so pretty. On the knowledge that this would be another good weekend weather-wise, we decided to head out on a woodland ramble to "the Devil's Chair" a local, Petrozavodsk beauty spot on the opposite shore of Lake Onega...

Finally on the number 4 marshrutka we experienced a properly bumpy ride which was made all the more comical and hair-raising ride because the tallest one of us was forced to double over and squat by the half open door for the first five minutes of journey due to a lack of seats and a capitalist driver. We soon ended up on a country road approaching a pretty old church near some wooden buildings. This part of town is a kind of mini village which seems to be populated half by permanent residents and half by dachas (Russian holiday homes) of various sizes and builds. Crusty men  prodded smokey barbecues in their front yards, dogs barked excitedly over picket fences, children rode bicycles through muddy puddles and women chopped firewood as we walked down the mud tracks towards the woods. We picked up the trail to "the Devil's Chair" just as the sun came out. The smell of the wood stoves and cooking meat hung in the air and everything felt like the end of a long and beautiful summer. The whole dacha ideology began to make more sense.

A pier in the village and a couple of dachas
We found "the Devil's Chair" without a hitch. It's a kind of cliff with a stunning view of the lake and you can make out the entire urban, sprawl of Petrozavodsk on the opposite bank. The so
 called "chair" is a kind of natural "throne" eroded into this cliff face although it certainly doesn't look comfortable and I'd recommend beezlebub a decent chiropractor after an extended sit in that...

Legend has it that two fishermen saw the devil here  one night when out in the woods. Either that or they had drunk slightly too much "Karelian Balsam" (a local Jaegermeister-style herb spirit) and run into a bear. On this topic we successfully created a self-styled "Jaeger-bomb" out of a liberal share of it mixed with the Russian energy drink ominously called "BURN." Of course, we have ceremonially dubbed the new drink the "Karelia-bomb" although we doubt it'll catch on in the UK without a severe relaxing of import/export laws. Shame.

To be honest, i'm not sure if "Lonely Planet" know about this place. This is a lovely and beautiful part of Russia. Certainly if you ever get the chance to visit Petro this is well worth your time. Pack warm clothes, some ok-ish boots (the trail is muddy), but other than that all you need is a camera, some great friends, some emergency Pushkin and a picnic to get close to the beautiful Karelian soil! A quality Saturday all round! More soon x

The woodland trail
 
Onega from atop the Devil's Chair
The beauty of Northern Russia

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Episode 12: Lost voices, Ladas and Leaves

Have you seen my voice?? I've lost it. It's a little posh, about 21 years old, speaks English and a little bit of dodgy Russian? It often uses stupid old-fashioned words like "gosh" and "boy oh boy"? When it's on the telephone it sounds a bit like Daniel Radcliffe? No? Oh i'm sure it'll turn up somewhere...

Anyway, this update finds me a little under the weather. But what weather to be under eh! The sun is shining off the puddles of motor oil, rainbows play accross the waves on Lake Onega and people walk around the big market on Kirov Square, smiling, drinking beer and haggling for jars of honey. Is this what you call "Золотая Осень" ?

It has actually been quite lovely here. The leaves have all fled their trees and they are scattered all over the streets, avenues and trolleybus tracks. Sunset comes early but brings with it a healthy light that rejoices in all the colours of autumn - the reds, the browns, the greens, the yellows. It might be getting colder but it is also getting prettier. I heard there is a place called "The Devil's Chair" that is worth a visit this time of year - is this the case?

Lots of new photographs. I now take my camera about with me all the time and snap away at things that catch my eye. Apart from the weather and parks of Petrozavodsk one more Russian icon has caught the attention of my lens: The LADA KLASSIKA. Don't ask me why (love does not respond to such a low question!) but I am head over heels for this little box of Soviet love. I stumbled past the dealership near my apartment the other day and saw a brand new one - all shiny and ready to roll - and nearly went straight to the "bankomat" to take out money. But alas! I fear it'll never be! They only come in left-hand drive : (

Tom poses with a crashed Lada - is this a weird monument or a real accident?
On this topic I have been struck by the number of car crashes in this town, which seems to me (by British standards at least) to be abnormally high. It must be to do with the condition of the roads and the fact that cars are seemingly allowed to turn into a new road when pedestrians are crossing. Does it get even worse in winter with the snow?


A recent conversation at a party revealed to me that it is a lot quicker to get a driving liscence in Russia than in the UK. I assume this means that it is easier to? A bizarre and humourous advert on TV for a local driving school states, without any sense of irony, that it is as easy as "1-2-3!" This seems to be somewhat flippant - in the UK this would be considered an act of parody. To my knowledge, neighbouring Scandinavian countries have incredibly high requirements for prospective drivers with respect to the shifting climates and it's demands on roads, cars and drivers. I imagine it ought to be the case here or am I being too judgemental? Recently I saw an advert on TV for an upcoming tv-investigation show in which a journalist will investigate why the mortality rate on Russian roads is so high. I also believe that a couple of first-year university students were run down in Moscow - my heart goes out to their families if this is the case.
Wow that got a lot more serious than I first intended! How about I leave you (no pun intended) with some more pictures of Autumn? I've also included some from the weekend where I went out Lada hunting and ended up at the abondoned, tractor factory...as you do...



Thursday, 29 September 2011

Episode 11: Birthdays, bands and beer bottles...

I recently read that a computer program designed to solve the Shakespeare-Monkeys-Typewriters conundrum (link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem) has just proved it to be possible. Well I could do with a team of type-writer monkeys about now as things are happening quicker than a boy can keep a blog!


Did I just say boy? Oh gosh! Should I be saying man now? What is a man? An ape? God's image? A sentient fleshpod on a spinning ball of elements suspended in an endless sea of meaninglessness? A 21 year-old English boy in Northern Russia? No idea! But philosophy aside: I TURNED 21 OVER THE WEEKEND!! And I did it in style too! By this I mean in a Russian nightclub, eating pizza* with the Finnish 'Guns n Roses'. Let me set the scene a little...

*nightclubs often serve food here though the service is slooooooooooooowwwwww

This weekend was the Carelian Faces international music festival! This yearly event is a ray of political sunshine in Nothern Russia promoting peace and international friendship through the combination of cheap beer and folk rock. Highlights included self-styled Rasta Man 'Papa Zai' and his reggae politics. He regularly stopped his "Selecta" to announce things like:  "Crowd-a people...all we need is to burn tha' germs in society and get ridda corruption" - always to raptuous applause. There was a brilliant female-fronted Russian punk/rock group who sang in an obscure Finnish dialect, as well as 'Caroline' (the aforementioned Finnish Guns n Roses) who broke hearts and guitars on the main stage in their tight leather, bandanas, guyliner and heels.

After we had all fallen in love with their inimitable swagger we followed their camp-as-you-like tour van to the afterparty at a Russian nightclub on the otherside of town. It was quite a trek and as we wondered the city streets we discussed Gogol (as is the custom) and picked up a trail of other drunken festival goers who had stopped at wayside kiosks to get refreshments. This is an interesting and excellent Russian pecularity as at any time of day, seemingly seven days a week, you can find these kiosks open. Each one has its own pecularity. Most are diddy off-liscences others are fruit and veg shops, so whether you have a mad craving for another brew or are going cold turkey from an abscence of cashew nuts all you have to do is leave your flat and head towards the glowing neon of the nearest 'Zodiac' kiosk - absolutely ace! It does feel a little odd speaking into the little window to the cashier though...As if the poor person inside is doomed to a life of being perpetually awoken by drunken foreigners tapping the glass window and demanding liquid gratification in dreadful Russian. Passing money through a little window and receiving chocolate and beer in return though is a wonderful experience but I still miss Oxford kebab-van banter quite badly...

Eventually we found ourselves in a club underneath what looked like a swanky office building. The entrance hall was bizarre and massive. According to the custom in most Russian, buildings bars and clubs, we had to first locate the cloakroom and trade-in our jackets for a piece of plastic with a number on it. Failure to comply usually results in looks of disgust and your being dragged away by bouncers. It'll be the same situation with boots when the snow comes...

Valya - the first girl to ever buy me flowers...
The next morning, being my birthday-proper, I awoke to my first present: not having a hangover. I stared at my fresh-faced reflection in the mirror with genuine surprise. My experiences of Russian beer so far have been akin to batheing in salt and I've often woken up after just one or two drinks to a swimming headache and chapped, dried-out skin. I assume it is the cheapness of the beer, the addition of many chemicals and the fact you never know how strong draught is.

Anyway haha! Not today fools! I was plucky and bounded into the kitchen, narrowly missing Luis the cat's tail, only to be greeted by Valya, my landlady, who gave me an extra friendly "Dobroye OOtroH!" before wishing me a happy birthday with a multi-layered gateaux, flowers, a mug of Karelia and a bottle of political "stop-using-my-shampoo" shampoo.

My birthday cake :)
I happily ate my porridge as quick as possible and taking a mug of tea and some cake back to my room began to open cards from home and display them all over my room. Then I got hurridly showered and dressed and bounded into town for my combined birthday meal with Ben and the rest of our group of English students. We'd picked the local Karelian-themed restaurant which proved to be an incredible experience in itself. After pulling open the heavy, wooden doors we stepped into the main body of the restaurant. It was laid out like the inside of a traditional Karelian home, wood-pannelled, very warm and full of cultural bits and bobs. Fake windows were a novel way of framing pictures of the countryside and kept up the illusion of being in a Karelian village decades ago.

The food was somehow even better. We tried everything from yak pie to home-grown, vegetable platters and sampled some genuine Russian Kvass - a kind of summer beer, very bready and fresh. If you're ever in Petrozavodsk, and have quite a bit of money on you, then seriosuly consider finding this place it's called: Kareliskaya Gornitsa and is opposite the Hotel Severnaya.

We rounded off the birthdays with cheesecake and milkshakes ala clockwork orange in Begemot which I needn't praise anymore for fear of becoming an online advertising agent.

So now that i'm able to drink in the USA and, according to one of our teachers "marry without my parents consent", I feel its time to get back into routine and head off for another week of Russian uni, folk dancing and trying to run a semi-indulgent travel blog (with hopeless spelling mistakes)...cheers for reading!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Follow my adventures on twitter! (and a few thanks)

Long-term or one-time readers alike might like to follow me on twitter http://twitter.com/#!/frmrssiawithrob

I pledge:
- more musings on this wonderful country
- extra anecdotes that don't make the episodes
- reposts of cool stuff I find
- the chance to ask me questions

thanks for your support so far! I'm so happy with the comments and the viewing stats! Never thought anyone could be this interested - makes me so happy and makes me keep writing. Once again spasiba!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Episode 10: Rob does Russian things (with mixed results)

I'm under swift instructions to "sort out my apostrophes" so if you spot one misplaced or missed out then would you be a dear and put it in the comment section, ta. 

So now that I have somewhat settled into life in this little town i've built up sufficient swagger and bravado to leave my room and take on some extra-curricular Russian activities (not just drinking).
Where I live! In the sunshine!

Ok so drinking! In the last episode I praised Petrozavodsk's bar culture and here I praise it again. Good places to get a drink here include the "PTZ Pivnoi Klub" (impossible name nice bar), "Neu Brandenberg" (the German-themed place: great staff, so so cheap and a really nice vibe in the daytime) and obviously "Kafe Begemot". What I have yet to incorporate into my post-university attempts to meet and speak to Russians is clubbing and tbh I don't think it'll be very good... I mean Oxford isn't exactly club Mecca but something tells me this place isn't either. On the other hand it's my birthday soon so maybe we'll find out, eh? Anyway through drinking we have made some good (I think they're good) friends. There is Evgenii the bodyguard, Juri who likes punk rock and several other people who are just as lovely and animated. It's amazing how the odd drink improves one's ability and confidence to speak! Just not sure if several drinks starts to ruin it all again...

Next we have the couchsurfing meeting! Ha ha! Excellent! I first heard of couchsurfing in first year through a good friend from Canada (by way of Hong Kong and New York obvs) and so I decided to pop along with some classmates to the meetup of the Petrozavodsk contingent. We thought that it was supposed to be at "Bar Corsica" but outside in the cold we were met by Roman (a friendly coachsurfer) who told us it was in his flat in a neighbouring building. A stray dog audibly growled as we crossed the street and headed into the communal yard. Roman tapped in his security code and opened the heavy doors to usher us up the thin staircase past countless closed doors into his warm and cosy apartment.

After tripping over the shoes of the other assembled coachsurfers we were greeted by a huge table of refreshments in his siting room. As we nervously shuffled in, the room of Russians ominously bore down on the Englishmen in the corner. The mood was far from icy but something definitely needed to happen. Thank god for Sheffield Tom turning up with a bag of beer to prompt a swift loosening up! We did our best to endear ourselves in stuttery Russian to the couchsurfers who did their best to laugh at our attempts at humour as we explained our couchsurfing understandings and gave a few anecdotes of our experiences. Later, after a prolonged and chilly walk around the town, we ended up in another flat (we were kicked out of the first one for being too merry post-meeting) and I made a ton of good friends in the early hours, debating British accents, nice socks and how amazing this Soviet style apartment was. At this party we were invited too...

...Karelian folk dancing! Now i'm getting truly Russified! We turned up to the ministry of culture in Lenin Square on Monday not knowing what to expect. Immediately we were lead into a polka. The angry girl partnered with me, frustratedly shouted "Stoi!!" ("stop!") every five seconds because I couldn't get the ryhthym down for the galloping. Round and round we polka'd as the demon accordion player garbled on and on. Soon we began to get the hang of it and collapsed for a tea break. Next we danced something that seemed faux Irish which we managed quite well, but then came THE CIRCLE OF DOOM...

Demon accordion player - get your polka on!
We entered into a kind of rituatlistic part of the routine (bear in mind this is written by an Englishman with no concept of folk dancing or its vocabulary) where we first had to bow to a girl, then fake a chase after her (all lecherously) then do some kind of improv dance routine for her while she clapped and stamped. Oh dear. The Russians ahead of us in the circle successfully cossack danced their way through the routine and I'd like to say we valliantly tried, but I fell flat on my arse...

h the emabarrassment! But nevermind dear reader! - I got an applause anyway and I have just enough pride in my still to go again this Thursday! What a weird hobby i've started!

Anyway this was a nice distraction, now back to Russian Jeremy Kyle... thanks again for keeping up x

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Episode 9 (part two): This isn't Paris, this isn't London, it's not Berlin, it's not Hong Kong...

continued impressions of life in a small(ish), Russian town...

The giant orange paw prints painted on the pavement led the way to Cafe Begemot. A cafe named after a giant, ficticious, black cat with a Browning automatic? I'm there!
We edged slowly down the narrow granite and marble staircase towards to front door.

Begemot spots me from a roof...
"Is it open? It doens't look open..."
A man pushed the door open at us giving us a start.
"Yup it's open"
We went in tentatively. Oh wow.

Red velvet curtains led the way through the first room. Bookcases lined the walls, and expensive, black-leather sofas framed polished-wood coffee tables. More curtains tastefully tied back with gold cords, led into the second room - a giant basement, red bricked like the Kremlin with musical instruments in chipped, bronze frames in the walls. A jazz band played cooly on a stage. They wore sunglasses.

If there is one thing Petrozavodsk does well, it's bars. Tasteful interior design, attentive staff and high-class atmospheres somehow come paired with unbelievably cheap pints (over £1.50 you're paying too much). This is still taking some getting used to!

If there's one thing Petrozavodsk doesn't do well its pavements. Giant potholes line the roads and side walks. They fill up with water during the many many downpours and cars regularly kick up this muddy slush, showering pedestrians waiting at the city's very few road crossing. This is hardly the fault of the town and I imgagine it has something to do with the extremities of climate: water getting into cracks, freezing and expanding.

Public transport is great, but it is also a kind of experience in it's own right. At rush hour trolleybuses fill up and steam up. Yes there is always the smelly guy in the corner of the bus in the UK, but could someone please open a window? Ok it's not that bad. The price of public transport and the frequency of services is absoultely amazing and it's hardly a country's fault for it's citizens' ignorance of deodrant. The "one price any distance" system is a blessing for students providing you don't try and pay with a big note and if you can put up with the bumpy ride, the lead feet of just about every driver gets you to where you want to go in no time.

All the cool kids just say " I took the trolley yesterday"


I don't like to complain much - after all I chose to study here and love it but if there is one more thing that stands out as a slight annoyance about life here then it is the degree of scorn that accompanys most monetary transactions. Russians seemingly hate giving change, and even big supermarket cashiers are prepared to start a duel over the slightest overpayment. It must be a weakness of the currency system, but when bankomats (cash machines) only give out 500 and 1000 notes I have no idea how the locals get by...

People here are mostly very friendly. Foreigners are greeted with more warmth than suspicion. I suppose curiosity translates awkwardly a lot of the time and we feel stared at simply for being here. After dark things are a little edgy. Drinking in the street is common place here and big groups of Russian men cluster under lamps on street corners, half empty litre bottles of beer swinging menacingly in their hands. Stick in a group guys.

and now for something completely different...cheers for reading.