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Published: February 20th 2007
The three drunkards and the scotch-experience
Taking the train to Russia was a bit of an experience! Most of the Russians come in groups by bus, so the ones travelling by train, are the poorest, most hardcore ones.
At seven in the morning, there were about fifty, sixty of them, with maybe ten HUGE bags each, filled with goods to sell back home. A good deal of them had already had their dose of morning-vodka, and I somehow happened to attract the drunkest of them.
At the train one man with a strange nose, that sort of hung down at one side, sat down beside me. He had tattoos everywhere (which in Russia is a sort of cast-mark that you have been to prison), while his comrade, who had only half an ear on the right side - the rest sharply cut away with a knife or some other sharp tool picked me as their conversation partner. Their third friend had severe stottering problems and some really weird spasms. All of them were drunk like spring-tornados. Their wives were really upset with them, so it was only when their dames looked away, that the vodka bottle came up.
Russians are skilled traders. At all levels. Going in and out of Russia, you can bet your head that they have filled their bags to the brim with things to sell. But this version I had never ever seen before: as we came close to the Russian border, they all started to fix bottles and all kind of stuff directly to their bodies with broad scotch (no - not the drink!), until they could hardly bend. When they moved, it squeaked and cracked. The vodka is 30 roubles (1 dollar) in Russia. Only ten in China! If they caught with as much as a bottle of beer on them, they will get a stamp of denial to enter China for all future.
The guy with the tattoos told me he did some “freelance”-smuggling as well. For this he got a few kopeks. It was just sad and depressing, as well as funny and entertaining at the same time. But that is so much Russia in a nutshell for me; life is hard, but people do as best as they can - and many of them give a hell what may be the consequences. I don’t know if the three merry guys ever made it across the border with no problems. But most probably they did.
As a foreigner in a checkpost that very very very rarely see anyone else than Chinese and Russian traders, the officials were so stunned to see me, that they just hurried me through all the procedures.
A barely walking granny and Russian health
In Pogranichny - the Russian side, I had a downright disgusting Chinese meal before I sat off to Vladivostok on a bus. Again; half way, we picked up a woman, not much older than forty, but sometimes it can be hard to tell the age of Russians, because of conditions of life, drinking and all that. Anyway - she was supported by two innocent-looking happy children, and quite literally placed on the bus. She could have been anyone’s grandmother. But she was drunk out of her wits, spending all the time entertaining the rest of the bus until the driver got sick and told her to drink less next time and behave decently. Nobody was surprised though, neither me. In a nation where the life-expectancy is somewhere around sixty for men - and that is not due to warfare, to put it that way, things like this is a common sight.
I was truly moved last time I was in Altaj, and not one person I met had any dreams, goals or aims for the future, but spend all the money in instant pleasure of different kind (mostly the male part of the population, I have to admit). I had never met anyone who had no dreams before! They did not even understand my question.
Also I read an analysis of brewery business when I was living in St. Petersburg. On the world-scale list of beer-consumers Russia was pretty far down not long ago. Then they suddenly were number nine! And the industry is looking happily towards the future, as there is still no real substantial middle class here. Once it has developed properly, the consume is expected to go heavenly. When living in St. Petersburg, one could spot very young school kids with beer cans in their hands on the way to school every morning. Everywhere people had a beer ready to gulp down. Among the vast majority, beer is not regarded as alcohol, but as a soft drink. In Siberia, however, most of the people I met, preferred vodka and samagonka - self brewed firewater, as its cheaper and the effect is more potent.
But health is not going entirely to hell in Russia. Even though having a tendency to feed on mayo and fatty meat, it is a pleasure to see that more and more places have non-smoking policy. When this can be successful in Siberia with minus forty, fifty, I think it should be possible nearly everywhere else.
Moving on towards Vladivostok was interesting. It was unbearably hot, the sky was blue and clear. I have been to Siberia three times altogether (although Vladivostok may not really count as Siberia). Every time I’ve been blessed with good weather. To accompany me, I had Alison Krauss and bluegrass turned on high volume. It was a superb match with the scenery that was as if taken out of a neo-impressionistic art-movie.
The flat fields and pastures-to-be, lay there like an endless painting in beige, grey and brown. The emptiness was like an echo between the sky and the earth. Never have I seen such vibrant, shining brown anywhere, filled with melancholy and something timeless that touches the very existence. Not even in the great Sahara, have I seen such loneliness. If you are lost here, there is no point in starting to run. To where should you head? Everything looks the same, miles and miles with flat fields and an odd, dry tree here and there, like a comma in the infinite line, wetlands and mountains divided by the mighty rivers.
Any photographer’s wet dream
Somewhere, in Ussurisk, the weather changed. In one second it went from being warm and sunny to misty, cold and foggy. Fog is the usual weather of Vladivostok, I heard. It is a thick version, that would be every still-photographers wet dream.
The bus pulled in to my new hometown at eight in the evening. Or - actually at five, Chinese time. Although China is huge country, the operate on one single time-zone. In Russia not. So suddenly I was three hours behind.
Got on a bus to the centre, and got a cab to take me to the dorm. I was expected, and I got the keys right away.
The room is far above my expectancies. It was cleaned when I came, it has a colour TV with remote-C, lots of shelves, cupboards, central heating, a kitchenette, huge studytable, telephone, and a bath attached with a bathtub. Real clean kitchen outside, washing machine at the second floor and a lady that scrubs my room every third day. Compared with the little shithole I used to forego in back in St. Petersburg, this is really something! And all for a mere hundred dollars a month. Only the readers who have been studying in Russia can fully understand the true magic of all these benefits listed above.
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