Summer comes to Russia

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July 5th 2010
Published: July 5th 2010
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After months of only going outside when absolutely necessary the weather starts to relax. The temperatures drop from the minus twenties to the minus teens. There are several false starts when zero is approached, we think the snow is going to melt but then the temperature drops again. Eventually it seems to settle between minus and plus five and the snow does melt. For a month the city is awash with black sludge which, by late April, in temperatures that on some days even reach plus fifteen, has more or less cleared up.

Going outside becomes bearable then even enjoyable again. I throw away my bus pass and walk everywhere, including the forty minutes from my house to the nearest metro station, reveling in the ability to breath fresh air, or air as fresh as it ever can be in Moscow, soak up daylight and avoid depressing, overcrowded buses.

In May I go away to Siberia for two weeks and return to find Moscow transformed beyond recognition. Everywhere bright green grass has sprung up and is dotted with buttercups while the previously barren and skeleton-like branches of the trees are now bedecked with leaves. The temperature is plus 25, sun illuminates places that were previously dark and bleak while in the centre people sit in the outdoor seating of cafes, the need for hats, scarves, multiple layers and thermal underwear now just a memory.

Alisa and I spend a national holiday in her home town of Protvino, 100km south of Moscow near the borders with Kaluzhskaya and Tulskaya provinces. It was built in the fifties and is a phenomenon that I have not seen anywhere in England: a small town of 40,000 surrounded by undulating green and forested hills but without a single house that is not a high-rise apartment block. Despite this there are plenty of parks and greenery within the town's limits. There is little traffic and people regularly stop to greet one another on the streets. A lack of factories and industry seem to have helped it preserve a somewhat rural atmosphere.

We pass a miniature exhibition of paintings by local school children aged between five and sixteen as we stroll on Friday night. They are united by a common theme: protest against a bottle factory that is in the pipeline for Protvino. Some of them are frighteningly powerful: a grey, rubble-strewn industrial wasteland peopled by men with terrifying, monstrous faces drinking from bottles and the words "Our Town" scribbled in red, dribbling, blood-like script in the bottom left-hand corner; a lightning-ravaged sky above a factory from whose windows demons pour forth on the town below.

On Saturday we spend hours plodding through a forest and scouring the ground for mushrooms. Everyone else finds plenty but each one I proudly bring to show them is deemed to be poisonous. Eventually, minutes before we leave, I find a squat little brown thing that is apparently edible.

"Great," Alisa's dad, Sasha, consoles me, "Ed's found the most beautiful mushroom we've seen all day!"

Afterwards we buy bread from a shop called 'Bread' and meat, fruit and vegetables from a shop called 'Meat, Fruit, Vegetables.' We have a shashlik barbeque on the shores of a lake and I try to argue against their firm belief that Vladimir Putin is a great man who only has Russia's best interests at heart. By the end, both sides have managed to change the other's opinion to a certain extent and I am surprised at myself for having been looking at the situation so one-sidedly previously.

The next day we go on a long bike ride in Kaluzhskaya province, through villages where chickens and cows plod the grass or dirt streets, where almost every house is wooden and with beautiful, traditionally-carved colourful window frames and where every town has a stunning old church.

We eventually arrive at Tarusa and wander its streets for a couple of hours. Here, unlike Protvino, there appear to be no highrise buildings. We see locals filling water bottles from a spring next to a church and decide to do the same. The wonderful weather, the lack of traffic, the forests, streams and rolling green hills just outside the town's boundaries, the people who relaxedly pace the streets chatting and laughing with family and friends, the gentle splash of a fountain in front of the main church, all lend the place a wonderfully calm atmosphere. Only an otherwise pleasant area with benches shaded by large overhanging trees feels uncomfortable due to a group of loitering smalltown drunks. They keep themselves to themselves though.

On arriving back at the main square we find that we have missed the last bus back to Protvino and will have to cycle the 40km again. We set off but the pedal on my bike starts to loosen and we have to stop and push our bikes back to the main Kaluga - Serpukhov road in the hope of catching a bus or hitching a lift. Eventually we manage to stop a car.

"Sure!" the driver says. "I'll give you a lift if we can fit the bikes and the four of us in." After taking the wheels off we manage it and are saved.

In June my parents come to visit. We visit parks, rivers, beaches, monasteries, sculpture parks. We feel the immense spirituality and calm devotion of the queues of people in the jaw-dropping Cathedral of Christ the Saviour waiting to kiss their most sacred icons.

"It's so clean, so relaxed, so beautiful here!" my parents tell me. "The people are so friendly, so polite and so helpful!"

Admittedly this is their first weekend, we are in the centre, the weather is lovely and we are observing people strolling happily on their day off. But there is more truth in what they say than most Muscovites and ex-pats would have you believe.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.

Additional photos below
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Me, having just found my one and only mushroomMe, having just found my one and only mushroom
Me, having just found my one and only mushroom

I'm wearing that thing to keep the insects out of my hair

5th July 2010

Quite a contrast from your previous few blogs, and not a single mention of vodka!!
6th July 2010
House in a village on the way to Tarusa

A home in Uttarakhand is really superb.
6th July 2010

ooohhh, refreshing summer! cool ...

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