Working out the riddle – Russia from East to West

Here’s another post from our ongoing Travel Writing competition. Thank you Esther Harper for this little gem! Send your entries in and stand a chance of winning a trip to Morocco. More details here.

Vladivostok, June 2010, from Esther Harper

Armed with a travel guide, later dubbed the Russia Bible, we hunched over a map of this vast country, and wondered exactly how we would shape this unmanageable mountain of information into our own trans-Siberian adventure.

As students, just about surviving the freezing temperatures of Moscow in late November, we had begun to dream of the Russia beyond the MKAD. Those dreams of discovering Siberia and the far east for ourselves seemed so far-reaching, and the doubt that they would ever get to anything more than dreams remained, even as far as check-in for our flight to Vladivostok.

You know, even to this day I’m not sure it’s really sunk in that we did it. For a month in Russia’s famous 2010 heat wave we travelled the country east to west, discovered her inside out and realised that, for better or for worse, we loved her.

The Golden Horn Bay, coupled with feelings of complete liberty and independence (as well as relief that we’d survived the Russian airline domestic flight here), made Vladivostok the perfect place to begin our journey. The city amazed us- some days blazing sunshine prevailed, on others a low mist would come down in minutes and turn it into a ghost town. Russki Island, with its dust tracks, rolling hills, remote shorelines and militarised buildings, took me into a beautiful new reality I could never have imagined, in more ways than one, thousands of miles away from the life I knew.

It’s not always the destination that is the most important, but how you get there. Never was a truer thing said. More than two full days and nights in the cheapest class of the train travelling towards Ulan Ude turned out to be the best train journey of my life. Meeting Russia face to face through her people – drinking vodka with the boys heading home after a year in the army, the woman desperate to show off her crystal collection, the little girl opposite who forced us to do dictations of Pushkin to keep her amused.

Russian soldiers on the march

Still seven hours ahead of Moscow time, Ulan Ude, on the eastern side of Lake Baikal, beckoned us with a completely new set of adventures. Stepping off the train after two days without its weight, my rucksack didn’t sit so nicely on my back. How about a few miles’ trek to a hotel now, only to be declared ‘illegal’ upon arrival and redirected to the city’s immigration headquarters? With fears of deportation and future refusal back into Russia, imagine my sheer relief when, met with questions about our interest in Russian literature, rather than our legality, the missing document was simply replaced, and we were sent on our way. I will, for this reason, forever appreciate the illegitimacy of Russia’s bureaucracy- until, at least, the day it counts against me.

After about a week on the move, the ‘jewel’ of Siberia awaited us: having long been highlighted in the Russia Bible, Lake Baikal seemed like one of the mythical places, a bit like Marquez’s Macondo, that you hear lots about but would never actually see for yourself. And now, surrounded by royal blue water, snow-capped mountains, fresh green grass and run down little shacks, here we stood- on Olkhon Island, half-way up the western shore of the lake, and five hours minibus’ ride away from the next main city. The definition of purity and freedom lay right there, teetering on the cliffs of this immense island, and looking out into what seemed like a blue eternity. A day’s WC2 expedition to the northern tip of Olkhon, fresh fish and potato soup for lunch, and hundreds of photos is ideally topped off with a session in the banya.

Rolling on the snow after the banya

I felt like this incredible sauna-like replacement for a shower was the perfect metaphor for how I perceive Russia. As you go naked and vulnerable into the banya, you throw yourself into life in Russia, with a desperate trust that everything will be okay, but not really knowing what is going to happen. Sometimes, like being in the steam room, life there is overwhelmingly hot and frustrating, making you feel restricted and alien-like. And some days, like dousing yourself in icy water after the heat, the country and her people seem so unpleasant and cold, you wonder why you’re bothering. Then you take a towel, protecting yourself at least a bit, and step outside into the fresh outside air, and you take a deep breath of pure, clean air and simply appreciate.

You realise that every moment of frustration, when the cashier just refused to understand you, and every moment of hostility, when you smiled and received nothing in return, has shaped part of you and how you understand this country. Every one of these moments when you felt entirely foreign and unwanted, is cancelled out: by the true Russian friendships you made and nurtured, the sunny prazdnik days spent just enjoying being, the moments of elation when someone didn’t ask you to repeat what you just said and that true feeling of being at home in Russia and genuinely dreading the day you’ll leave.

Our travels across Russia lasted a month, but we discovered the country to such a depth, that it felt as if we had been travelling for years. We had our ups and downs, moments of fear and those of ecstasy. But we made it back to Moscow in one piece, with a whole heap of memories of people and places to take away. I wonder what happened to the woman who gave us seaweed and chocolate for breakfast in Khabarovsk, or the boy in Novosibirsk who was just curious and wanted to chat, or the man who’d gone to Vladivostok’s mainland in a futile search for fish, or the driver of the empty bus who gave us a 90 kilometre lift to Perm and thought we were Estonian. All faces of an amazing trip I will never forget, across a stunning country I think and pine for daily.

- Esther Harper

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