The story of a journey into Siberia . . . in the dead of winter.
When I told my friends and acquaintances I’d be going to Russia in January, most of them questioned my sanity. After all, winter is the time to hit the southern destinations of the globe, beaches, that kind of stuff, right?! I shrugged it off, saying that I am not that much of a beach walrus myself, and that I’ve wanted to go to Russia for years and I’ve finally got the chance. Furthermore, going in the height of winter means that I’ll get to experience (in smug pretentious backpacker lingo) the “real” Russia, and that growing up in snowy Québec is something that makes one quite tolerant of cold weather. Hell, I even LIKE winter. So bring it on!
But now, as I hop off the train in Heihe, one of the northernmost cities of China (a good 20- hour train ride north of Beijing, and lying right on the Sino-Russian border), I realize I might have bitten more than I can chew. I am not that well equipped for an outdoor winter adventure (especially as far as the footwear goes), and that cold is on another new level… As I walk past the few taxis waiting at the ungodly hour of 5 AM and decide to stroll towards the border, having a lot of time and needing to stretch my sleepy limbs, I see a large billboard showing me the outside temperature: -34°C. Without windchill.
As can be expected, there are not many souls on the streets. I can therefore walk smack dab in the middle of the extra-large Chinese style boulevards, which gives me an illusion of being the king of the world. Only once every two minutes or so do I have to yield the way to the sporadic car coming my way, slowly advancing through this urban blizzard. At some point, I cross a park, and a pack of dogs only two or three generations removed from wolfdom circle around me, barking, grunting and staring in awe at this large slab of white delicious laowai meat before being called to order by some elderly parka-clad man leaning on a snow-covered statue. They then all disappear, leaving me completely alone once again. The whole place feels like an absolute ghost town, and I love it. Sure, it would be nice if I could still feel my feet and fingertips, but let’s not get too picky here and appreciate what we’ve got.
I make it to the border as the sun slowly rises, and soon finds myself in the middle of large warehouses full of Chinese knick-knacks to be shipped north and sold to the local populace. Even though I stick out like five sore thumbs nobody pays attention to me, busy as they are loading the bags on trolleys among a lot of shouting in heavily Heilongjiang-accented Mandarin (the coolest accent there is), until someone indicates me where to go. I then sit around and wait for the border to open, and see a bunch of Russians slowly pouring into the building. Most of them wear fur coats, oversized fur hats, and look angry. I smile at this display of Russianness, even though I am not even in Russia yet. There are also a few Chinese people, acting Chinese, only way more confrontational than what I am used to — probably due to a mix of their northern ruggedness and disdain for Russians. While waiting at the exchange booth for some rubles, an old lady decides that the 17 cm or so between the counter and myself is enough for her to sneak in, hand a wad of yuan and start barking orders to the attendant, already busy counting my money, so I hip check her back to where she came from. She calls me a хулиган (hooligan), and starts mumbling about me being an impolite Russian fuck. And later, when I am waiting in line for the passport control, the border guards call me “Hey! Russki!” and when I tell them that I am not Russian they don’t believe me and get angrier. They just can’t fathom that a third-party would show up to this rather remote border, and I have to wave my passport around for them to stop talking to me in broken Russian. They suddenly become more polite when they realize I am actually not Russian, the same thing that happened when I crossed the Chinese-Kazakh border.
Once outside, another confusion arises: Russia lies on the other side of a frozen river, and even though it is only a few hundred meters away, we have to take a bus across. There is a Russian bus, which costs 40 yuan, and a Chinese bus, that costs 10. Of course, I am directed to the former (with a shout of “Hey!!! Russki!!!” and unceremonial vigorous pointing, obviously), and again, when I tell them I am not Russian and thus want to take the bus with Chinese nationals on it, they get all confused and start deliberating for a long time. I end up having to take the Russian bus, something about a leaving tax I guess. 40 yuan for a two-minute bus ride is hella steep but I don’t care, because soon after I am in Russia! Finally!
The Russian border guard, a Fedor Emelianenko lookalike, has this “I wonder which one of his limbs I should break first” vibe about him, and thumbs through my passport ominously for an uncomfortably long period of time, before just waving me in. He didn’t stamp anything, though, so I have to go to some special booth with a stone-faced Irina behind a thick double layer of Plexiglas and turquoise make-up. She makes a call or two, stamps me, and thirty seconds later I am in the streets of Blagoveshchensk.
First impression? For some reason, the place is highly reminiscing of Trois-Rivières, the industrial city right in the middle of Montréal and Québec City, where my dad is from. Maybe it’s the size, climate, high proportion of old people on the streets, lack of anything going on, dilapidated turn-of-the-century red brick buildings, but for sure the place has a highly familiar vibe, while being totally foreign and strange.
I honestly can’t think of a land border in the world in which the change is as drastic as the Russian-Chinese one. Seriously, can you?! Sure, some neighboring countries can sometimes be vastly different one from another, but there tends to be some kind of slow transition and a buffer zone with minorities and influences from the other country as you approach the frontier. But here, it’s like it was cut with a sharp knife: on one side you have pasty white people who speak a Slavic language, on the other, archetypal Asians who speak Mandarin. The socioeconomic difference is, if it’s even possible, more striking. While Blagoveshchensk is a sleepy small town in the Russian Far East, Heihe is a four million person behemoth with large boulevards, futuristic buildings, and tons of development. Hard to not wonder which one embodies the past, and which one embodies the future…
So those are the thoughts defiling my head as I am walking the streets of Blagoveshchensk, looking for my way. The strangest, most striking thing is that even though I am now 10,000 km from Paris, London, Rome, and much closer to Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, hell Bangkok even, Blagoveshchensk is unmistakably an European town. And because of its size (not too big, not too small), convenient location, and lack of international presence it was the perfect introduction to Russia as far as I’m concerned. In Blago, there are no famous landmarks. No large museums. No tourist sites. No ethnic minorities, except a few Chinese salesmen who are PRC passport holders anyway (the Chinese and Korean minority of the area got deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during Stalin’s tenure to prevent Japanese spies from easily blending in). Only Russians and Russian stuff. And that’s what I came to Russia for.
To make the Russian experience even deeper, I managed to find Couchsurfing hosts in every city I will visit. Oh yeah, that slashes the costs, as Russian hotels tend to be very expensive, and also helps me learn way, way more about Russian people and culture that I could ever do just by myself — especially since “just walking around and getting the vibe of the place” is not much of an option in this almost-North-Pole-like weather. And, as I am about to find out, throughout this whole trip the reputation of Russians being an hospitable bunch is true and tested.
I find a cute little café, take off several layers, and sit down to eat a slice of cake and drink a nice cup of tea. I then summon all my Russian skillz to get a stranger to lend me his cell phone, he smiles at my stilted attempts at his language then hands it over so I can call my first host Alexey. He is about to have his lunch break (I crossed the border at 8 AM Chinese time, which oddly corresponds to 10 AM Blagoveshchensk time, and now it must be around half past 11) and tells me to wait for him to pick me up. Ten minutes later he shows up with his small car (unfortunately not an old-school communist one, even though I see plenty around) and waves me in. Oddly enough, in Russia they drive on the right side of the road, but the steering wheel of most cars is also on the right. Somebody explained it’s because the cars were destined to another market or something like that, I forgot.
We make it to his apartment where his pregnant wife, Olyesa, is putting the final touch to a quickly prepared lunch before they go back to work together. We eat some simple yet delicious Russian fare: soup, black bread, pickles, sour cream, salad. They then both go back to work and let me use their couch for a well-needed nap. They come back several hours later with their 4-year-old son, Tima, who doesn’t seem weirded out by my presence at all. I give him the miniature portable chair I bought before taking this long, long train ride from southern China (Spring Festival time, no more seats left, I was lucky to even get tickets) and even though he’s got some pretty cool toys already, he just stares in awe at the little folding mechanism and carries it all over the place, happy to finally have a place to sit that is adapted to his pint size.
At night, I join Olyesa for a supposedly very Russian activity. Her friend (unsurprisingly named Irina) picks us up, then drives to a small café where several people (mostly women around 40) are waiting already, drinking tea/coffee. On the program: several rounds of Mafia, the Russian party game. It takes me a short while to understand the rules, but it’s basically a lying/bluffing game; we sit around a table and all get a card with either Mafia, Citizen or Sheriff on it. During blindfolded rounds, the mafia kills a citizen, and then people discuss and try to figure out who the hell could be in the mafia, before voting to execute the prime suspect.
It is quite fun actually, and as those people play often together, they tend to be pretty good at spotting lies and dodgy body language, and creative in their accusation or defense. But me, being the crap-Russian-speaking first-timer, I manage to confuse the hell out of them and end up winning every single time, just like the first and only time I played Texas Hold’Em poker.
We then go back to the apartment, and after a late dinner, Alexey shows me the pictures he took at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. He seems to have quite a huge boner for rugby, as his place is covered with rugby memorabilia, posters, magazines in English or Russian, several oval balls lying around, pictures of the Blagoveshchensk rugby team (founded by him) and a spray-painted All Blacks logo on his computer desk. Thus, his dream was to attend the World Cup, despite all the hardships that Russians who want to go to Western countries have to face.
After he told me about the whole visa application process, I suddenly felt I was somewhat lucky to have gotten mine so relatively easily, even though it was the hardest and most ass-painful to obtain of all the countries I had ever been to in my life. Alexey tells me other things about growing up and living in Far Eastern Russia, a region where life is expensive yet they don’t benefit from much economic support from the central government, and explains to me the whole Putin electoral fiasco. Russians sure like to talk about politics, and are not shy about dissing their leaders, even in front of foreigners and near-strangers.
The next day, Alexey, Tima and I go to some hanger turned into a pretty versatile gym. Alexey’s brother and two other guys are there as well, and they all speak to me in decent, but not exactly fluent, English with a strong Russian accent. I personally think that men who speak with this kind of accent sound like they kill people for a living, and I’m terribly amused by their way of speaking. They are all extremely friendly though, and together we play a succession of sports, using the gym facilities: basketball, tennis, volleyball, soccer, ping-pong, and of course rugby.
Tima, meanwhile, circles laps with his little scooter, seemingly very happy to get some exercise that doesn’t involve having to wear 10 layers of clothes.
While we are on the ride home, Alexey tells me the program for the rest of the week-end. Go to the park with his nieces and slide down on crazy carpets (Fuck yeah!!!), eat dinner at his friend’s place, and then on Sunday go to the swimming pool, go skating, go to the bathhouse. Quite a plan, and all of it is pretty much set in stone, as they do it every week-end. Just like how the Mafia evening is done every Friday night and the sports session is every Saturday morning. I then realize that it makes sense to have such a rigidly planned social schedule, as you cannot “just hang out, go take a walk and see if we run into some friends of ours” in wintertime. It just ain’t an option when the sun sets at 5 PM, and the temperature is below -25 Celsius all day long and -35 at night.
And taking part in all those activities, I am happy not to sit idle and I get to realize that Russians are a lot of fun to be around. Seriously, a lot. It really shatters the stereotype perpetuated by the post-communist bureaucracy and the ignorant backpackers who just come to Russia so they can tick the Trans-Siberian off their bucket list and make no effort whatsoever to establish any kind of connection with the local folks, and then flood the internet with dumb assessments about them. Thankfully, I like to make up my own mind about things, and when doing my pre-travel research tried to gather as much information as possible while leaving aside unfounded opinions. It allowed me to come with a positive and optimistic attitude, make friends along the way, and thoroughly enjoy my little Russian experience.
On the fourth day, Alexey drives me to the train station and escorts me to my seat to make sure I don’t get lost (how nice of him!). I am a bit sad to be leaving his family after they showed me such nice hospitality, but at the same time I am happy to be moving on to my next destination is this seriously underrated country. Such is the life of a traveler… We bid our farewells, promise to keep in touch, and part ways. Next stop: the small city of Belogorsk.
Other quickies about independent travel in Russia:
- English spoken? Hahaha! Make sure to bring a Russian phrasebook. And expect locals to be VERY curious about you. So get your listening going real quick to understand the same three or four questions people are going to ask you all the time. That said, like everywhere in the world, there are English speakers with various levels of fluency lurking in the shadows, just don’t expect ANY of them to be in the service industry.
- Budget? That’s the tricky thing: it’s impossible to really tell, as it varies tremendously across the country. Moscow has the reputation for being one of the most expensive cities on Earth, but the Far Eastern localities I’ve visited didn’t break my bank at all. Hotels are crappy and not cheap (minimum $50 a night), and domestic flights are outofthisworldly expensive, but train travel, food, booze and the odd little expenses (skate rental, movie ticket, Red Army souvenirs) are surprisingly cheap — being on par with the cheapest Eastern European countries or even less. The best way to eat on the really cheap while filling yourself with good hearty local grub is to hit the small supermarkets, which all have a deli section, lots of cold cuts, and bread. They sometimes have a few tables set up for workers to eat on the fly, so you can get several lunch items and a beer for $3-4 and fill yourself up on the spot. Restaurants and cafés are quite affordable as well.
- Buying train tickets is easy and straight-forward, even though it can be a bit nerve- wracking as some clerks don’t have much patience to listen to inadequate Russian. Better to write it down or bring a Russky with you. They will need your passport for some odd reason. Also note that all trains run in Moscow time, which means that the Khabarovsk-Vladivostok train you might wanna take may be announced for 12:07, but leaves at 7:07 PM local time! Little travel hack: there are three classes, but unofficially a fourth one that is MUCH cheaper and sometimes worth the gamble. It’s the “open class,” which is in a 3rd class (platzkart) car. Rather than selling a maximum of 36 tickets (the number of berths in the car), they stop selling at 54. That means if the car is sold out, passengers have to sit together on the berths as on a couch, but if they sell less than 36, you are guaranteed a bed anyway. I did it twice, and saved even more on an already super cheap ticket.
- I was a bit surprised by the lack of in-your-face binge-drinking culture, a Russian stereotype if there is one! Sure, every corner store has 20 brands of beer on display and a wall-sized shelf of vodka, but nearly all the Russians I interacted with were moderate/ social drinkers at best, and when questioned about the local drinking habits, they told me that the government recently has taken lots of measures to educate the people on the dangers of alcoholism (still a huge problem, especially in rural areas) and severely punishes drunk driving. Seems like it’s working, based on my very limited experience at least.
So, should you go to Russia? Absolutely. Pack some warm clothes, layer well, and be ready to be really off the beaten path. Walk slow!