A very Russian autumn

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December 20th 2010
Published: December 26th 2010
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A missed flight from Tajikistan to Ukraine followed by a hastily booked, last-minute one from Tajikistan to Frankfurt and a 36-hour bus journey across Eastern Europe to Kiev followed by a 14-hour train had me arriving, although only just and with 14 pence left to my name, back in Moscow.

The first weekend was spent in my girlfriend Alisa's home town of Protvino, a well-planned, high-rise concrete grid, population 40,000, that sits starkly amid the forests and rolling green hills that surround it 100km outside of the capital. A weekend engaged in those two most Russian of activities, collecting buckets of mushrooms in the woods and drinking vodka around a kitchen table, proved an excellent antidote to the stress that had ensued after my fifth missed international flight in as many years. In between meals we ate home made jam and honey, drank milk fresh from the cow and generally enjoyed these small pleasures available to almost any Russian but that are now considered privileges back in England where preservatives, pesticides and GM or factory processed food have become the norm.

Back in Moscow I eased myself into the world of work, at first with just three lessons a week but gradually picking up as time went by. Having the luxury of setting my own timetable and of charging such a high fee for private English tuition that even just a few hours a week is enough to live off, I decided to do just that and to spend my free time writing and indulging two new hobbies I had just got into. One of these was taking elektrichki (suburban trains) a couple of hours out of Moscow and cycling 70 km or so to a station on another train line, hoping eventually to have cycled around Moscow province in a ring connecting all the train lines. The other was walking entire metro lines top to bottom and walking from one end-of-line station to the next. Before cold weather set in I managed three bike rides, two completed metro lines and the entire north of Moscow connected by end-of-line stations in an arc from the blue line in the east to its end in the west.

At the end of October, the weather still being uncommonly warm, Alisa and I decided to spend a weekend away in Tverskaya province, a few hours north of Moscow. She had mentioned she was keen to try horse riding and while near where I live costs 1500 rubles an hour, I managed to find a place in a village in the middle of nowhere in Tverskaya province that for 1000 a day gave you unlimited horse-riding lessons, accommodation, bath house usage and home-cooked food. So off we went.

We took a bus four hours north to a town called Staritsa. I was reminded immediately of how much things change when you leave Moscow: everything in this town was a little dirtier and more dilapidated, the people less soft-faced and the clothes less snazzy. A young man called Dima met us and bundled us into the back of his Lada. He was skinny, with a long, black, spikey mullet, prickly stubble, an earring, tight black jeans and a leather jacket. He drove us for an hour, around forty minutes of which was done literally at a fast walking pace due to the condition of the road. Eventually we arrived at the village of Dubrovki, a muddy, overcast collection of wooden houses on top of a hill entirely surrounded by a river. We had to wait there for half an hour for a man called Sasha to arrive in a sort of cart pulled by a horse to ferry us across.

Russia has 22% of the world's forest, covering a total area larger than the USA. A weekend spent amid the multitude of autumn hues, woodland trails and mozaic of countryside olfactory stimulants that made up this small corner of the total, nestling on the banks of the northern Volga, was an incredibly refreshing break from hectic, smog-clogged Moscow. Living there might not have been such fun though: walking alongside the river we fell into conversation with a grim-faced old man we passed who was carrying a plank of wood and herding a few sheep the other way down a muddy track.

"What's your name?" Alisa asked.

"Toadstool!" he replied.

"Toadstool?" I asked.

"No, just kidding, I'm Uncle Kolya."

"I'm Ed and this is Alisa," I said. "This is a beautiful place here."

"Well, I've been here all my life and haven't seen anything good."

We kept talking for half an hour. He turned out to be quite cheery, full of jokes and a little mad. He almost would not let us go from the conversation and we felt sorry for him when we left.

I began taking on more lessons as I started to worry about money for my New Year trip to Arctic Siberia and the clothing and equipment required for it. As a result of increased hours spent teaching and racing all over Moscow on buses, trams and the metro, the desire to get away also became stronger. Mid-November Alisa and I found ourselves on a weekend day trip to the town of Klin where Chaikovsky had had a small estate. For me, however, the best part of the trip was not the composer's house, which had been left in exactly the same state as when he had been alive, but the opportunity to participate in a phenomenon I had long observed occurring on elektrichki but never had the guts to get involved in: on the way back to Moscow, due to lack of funds, we were forced to ride the elektrichka "as a hare" as they say in Russian, that is without buying a ticket, something that is much more widespread and less frowned upon even among working adults than it is in England. This time the whole process unfurled in exactly the hilarious manner in which I had observed it among other passengers on previous occasions and had Alisa and I gasping for breath and spluttering with laughter.

We sat down on the hard plastic seats in the middle of the carriage and passed the first two thirds of the one-hour journey quite peacefully. Then, suddenly, the doors at one end opened and a line of five or six young boys entered and paced quickly down the aisle shouting, "They're coming! They're coming!"

Half the passengers leapt to their feet and bolted for the same door the boys were heading to, Alisa and I with them. We stopped in the area between carriages where the doors would open onto the platform at the next stop. A moment later, through the pane of glass in the doors that led onto the carriage we had come from, we saw the ticket inspectors appear in the carriage. It was night time and so many passengers had exited the carriage that the inspectors worked their way through those still sitting at alarmig speed. Afer watching them for a second it was clear we would have to move further down the train and once again the crowd suddenly bolted.

We moved two more carriages down, picking up more hares as we did so, but still the inspectors were moving too quickly so we moved another two, nearly at the end of the train now. People were starting to get frantic. Thankfully, the train began to slow on the approach to a station. What needed to be done was the following: during the few seconds that the elektrichka doors would be open at the station, everyone would have to exit and run down the platform to another carriage that had already been checked.

The train was slowing but the inspectors were already in the carriage next to us and we could see them approaching through the glass. No one wanted to move to the next carriage as that would mean double the distance to run on the platform but at the same time they were nearly on us, it really was going to be touch and go. As the train was coming to a stop and the blue, uniformed demons were just metres away on the other side of the doors, in the space between carriages middle-aged men, children and married couples alike surged towards the still-closed doors, crushing up against one another, hammering on the glass with their fists and in the case of one guy even trying to force them open.

Something like fifty people were released with seconds to spare and stampeded down the platform to the next set of doors. While doing so I was vaguely aware of people who had actualy dared to go a carriage further than us and were running from there, and of someone stumbling and falling nearby, but all I could think of was getting back on the train before the doors slammed shut.

November was a month of arguments. A drunk tore up a train station cafe because the waitress gave him white bread instead of black then told him there was no complaints book. I walked into my local 24-hour shop to catch the serving woman, eyes ablaze with fury, screaming at a customer: "F**k off, you're not getting anything on credit, you're f**ked in the mouth!"

Alisa and I sat in the hallway outside a children's talent show, parents all around proudly photographing their little girls dressed up and posing in a way that would have
Graffiti of TSSKA football team near my flatGraffiti of TSSKA football team near my flatGraffiti of TSSKA football team near my flat

The red writing says "We are TSSKA" and the blue "We will be victorious!"
been considered positively indecent back in Britain. To our right three young teenagers swayed from side to side, singing in shrill voices: "Nice little rain... warm puddles, wet sand!" To our left two builders appeared and set a ladder against the wall. One climbed up it and got in an shouting argument with the other:

"That doesn't f**king go there you c**nt..."

"Nice little rain..."

"F**k off you retard..."

"Warm puddles, wet sand!"

By December all tickets and clothing for my trip to Siberia had been paid for. All that remained now was to pay the rent and save up spending money for the trip. I lived in constant terror of lesson cancellations.

Thankfully everything I had ordered through the internet arrived on time. Picking packages up from the post office was easier said than done though. I approached the post office at 1pm on the dot to pick up a fleece but was frightened to see a troublesome-looking babushka guarding the entrance.

"We're closed, closed for lunch. Come back in an hour," she shouted in a deep, gruff voice.

"Please, I'm late for a bus," I replied. I really was late to go to Protvino to see Alisa.

"What do I care? Come back in an hour."

"Please, it's extremely urgent, I can't come back in an hour."

After a minute or two she let me in and I stood behind the woman who was currently being served. When the babushka behind the counter had finished serving her she told me to get out and come back in an hour, categorically refusing to serve me despite my please of urgency.

I went home and came back at 2pm on the dot, at which point there was somehow already a sizeable queue. The serving babushka occasionally looked up and saw me while seeing to other customers but when I finally got to the front of the queue she said, "you can't pick up your parcel here, go to the other room."

"Where is the other room?" I asked.

"Go outside and it's the next door down," she yelled impatiently.

In the other room there was a queue of eight people. It looked like I should get served fairly soon. I was, however, forgetting something vital about the Russians' queuing habits: the fact that, when there is actually some sort of orderly queue (which there is not in every situation) people constantly leave and ask others to save their place. People in this post office queue were getting served slower than in any other queue I have stood in anywhere in the world and as a result more people were leaving and getting others to save their places than I had ever seen before. The resultant confusion caused a near-complete breakdown in the normal rules of society.

Let it first be said that it took me almost exactly two hours from the time I entered the "other room" before I was leaving with my parcel. I, along with everyone else, was wasting my precious day off and was barely managing to keep my temper in check. Every person that came in jumping to the front of the queue and claiming to have saved a place gradually eroded our collective patience until shouting broke out and someone even got shoved. A weak-willed woman made it to the front only to be told she did not have the right forms; she went next door, got them, filled them out then joined that back of the queue again. She then left for a while and on returning couldd not assert her right to the place where she had previously been standing in the queue forcefully enough, again having to join the back and breaking down into tears.

"A nightmare!" someone said, only just audible above the general clamour.

"An outrage!" someone else agreed.

"The horror!" an elderly lady exclaimed, wiping the sweat from her forehead with her headscarf.

"It's not my fault!" the serving woman blurted out, only just keeping her voice in check. "My work's tough and complicated and my salary's small. That's why the employees from the other two post offices in the area have left and they haven't been able to open and you're all in here causing this nightmare!"

I began to question the safety of staying in Moscow much longer in terms of mental health.

Thankfully though Alisa and I were soon to escape to a nice Christmas with my family in England. We made the mistake, however, of applying for her visa at the same time as a female Russian spy was discovered in Britain. We received an aggressive refusal letter from the British Embassy saying that they did not believe we were in a genuine relationship and claiming that we had not submitted necessary documents such as bank statements when in fact we had.

I made my escape alone, from a land where corner shops and post offices sometimes have bad service to another where roads are impassable, people cannot go to school or work, trains and buses are not running and the world's busiest airports have shut down due to a couple of inches of snow and temperatures of minus 2.

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.

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26th December 2010

really interesting blog! I've been fascinated by Russia and Russian culture since I was in 9th grade and am still trying to visit! I really enjoyed reading, thanks
27th December 2010

For a change!
That was quite a change, Ed. A pleasant change. You normally don't post your photos in your blog, but you did here . Looking good. You and Alisa. Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you both! Btw, i enjoyed this blog as I usually do with your other blogs.

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