Dienstag, 8. September 2015

My Russian Top and Flop 10

My almost thirty days in Eastern Russia are over. While going from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk to Sakhalin to Irkutsk to Baikal and finally to the gorgeous Altai mountains, I got to know a lot of people and saw quite some places. Here are the Top / Flop 10 of my Russian experience.
Let's start with the Flops and end with the Tops, so the good things stay in our memory. :)

Flop 10: 

1. "Patriots", more concretely:

  • People try to "teach" you about history and politics (most often when they are drunk), particularly about Stalin and about the current war in Ukraine (which, in the eyes of some, is only a "civil war").
  • Too many Soviet legacies live on and are being reinforced by the massive new and old nationalist/Soviet monuments in every city as well as the gigantic "victory" celebrations (the longer the war is past, the more enormous the celebrations seem to become). The Soviet Union is being idealized and missed as if it had been a paradise (I don't know if it was worse than today, but it probably was not a paradise). New legacies are created by today's political agenda, and not much is done so that people can acquire a more balanced view.
  • The West certainly needs to review its stance on Russia, but some people (a bit like very conservative Americans) boast opinions that just frighten me. Apart from the common "the USA is causing most of our problems", my two favorites were:

    1. "We Russians in Siberia starved in the late 40s and 50s because we gave all our food to the now ungrateful Poles and Czechs." (a 28-year-old man)

    2. "Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus share the same blood, so they have to have a common future. And I will do everything possible to help that we will be together again." (a 27-year old woman who even studied journalism!).
  • Of course, by far not all people were like that, I also met open-minded ones (usually the higher their educational level, the more balanced and less "patriotic" their views). But here as anywhere, it is patriotism that shuts peoples' ears and eyes, and the line between patriotism and blind nationalism is very thin (if there is any at all).
A young lady wearing a T-Shirt of the patriotic Obsherossiyskaya Molodyozhy (Pan-Russian Union of Youth) with Putin on it

2. Trash.
People start to become more conscious (at least it was a topic with most people I met and I saw more signs and posters urging people not to leave their trash in the forest, park or wherever), but still, being a tourist and nature-lover, trash is the number two annoying thing for me in Russia. Even in natural parks like Olkhon island on Lake Baikal, you see way too much trash lying around where it shouldn't.
Trash near a forest on Olkhon Island, Baikal
3. Baikal on fire
I have never been so close to a natural disaster (read more here), and the fact that it happened around one of nature's pristine refutes was just horrifying - the fact that the smoke-filled air dirtied my lungs and clouded my vision was the smaller problem.

Around Lake Baikal, it looked like a dense fog, but it was smoke from gigantic forest fires.
The rest is really just to fill up the top 10 and didn't really bother me: :)

4. Standing in lines forever (read more here) and then feeling bad when people look at you pissed because you committed the sin of not having "meynshykh" (small change).

5. The cacophonia that are the entrances of Russian train stations (and some airports, too). 
First, you often need to open a rather narrow door, and many times, the door opens in your direction, so you first need to drop your luggage. After squeezing through with your big luggage, you get to a control point where you are screened by one of these x-ray machines that you know from airport checkins. Next to the machine, one or more people are sitting around, dressed in uniform, with pistol and stick. But they don't care. Everybody just goes through these x-ray screeners, the screeners constantly lighten up and beep whenever someone is passing through. No reaction from the guards. These x-ray machines seem to just be there to do what exactly? Frighten people? Hold up queues?

One of the entrances of the large train station of Irkutsk. 
Everyone is being x-rayed, but noone cares about the constant beeps and red lights.
6. Russian udareniya (emphases). 
Even more than in German, the meaning of a word can change depending on which syllable you emphasize (simple example: stóit (costs) or stoít (stands). Moreover, unemphasized "o" are pronounced as "a", so hearing a word, you never know what is o and what is a which makes learning to write much harder than Polish or Spanish). Like in German, you may be understood or not just because your emphasis is on the wrong syllables. And like in German, you sound very weird and hard to follow if you constantly emphasize wrongly. Apart from some very simple rules (like that ё is always emphasized), there are none according to my Crimean teacher - she says the udareniya are "kak popalo" (random). Comparing this to French, Polish, Catalan or Spanish, where emphases are so easy and logical, this is a nightmare and something a foreigner can hardly ever conquer.

7. You can go time-travelling in sometimes really, really old buses that look like taken from the scrapyard (but somehow, they amazingly still work!)
An old bus on Sakhalin island
Another grandpa bus in baby-blue in Khabarovsk
8. The fact that Sakhalin island could live large on its oil and gas resources, but the money seems to be invested more in gigantic representative, patriotic buildings while most places outside of the capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk still look as if the Soviet Union had not ended yet.

Another huge patriotic memorial is being built next to an also-new church in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Sign in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk warning of the legal consequences of taking bribes. The governor of the island was recently jailed because of corruption.
A small, dilapidated town (Ozyorsk) on Sakhalin island
9. The worst roads of any country that I have ever been in (maybe save Malta) and again the enlightenment of how much cars can actually take. You need a healthy back to survive a longer bus ride.

10. Lentechki (bands) on trees in beautiful places that supposedly fulfill wishes, but really only look ugly and dirty after some rainfalls, hurt the trees, create even more trash in nature and make beautiful natural places look less beautiful.

My Top 10:

1. Russian people. I experienced most of them as very warm-hearted, welcoming, hospitable, helpful and selfless. You are often quickly invited into their circle of friends, and when they get more comfortable, they even tell you very private things you'd need years to hear from a Swiss or German. I will forever remember the days and evenings I spent with people I had just got to know on the same day.

And I will be forever grateful to the man who, on my last day when my taxi didn't come, just spontaneously took me to the airport. That is very typical for Russia, and unthinkable in a cold-hearted, formal place like Zurich or any German city.

Most Russians are authentic. They say what they think, and that can hurt and make you feel uncomfortable if you are not used to it (example: vendors in a shop looking and talking with at you as if you were a thief, not a client - because they just have a dull job, a bad salary, and thus a bad mood). But if a Russian smiles, he means it. If he is nice to you, it is because he really wants to, not because he thinks he should.

A Russian friend who lived in Germany for many years before returning to Russia in disillusion put it like this:

"In Germany, I learned to smile, but I unlearned to laugh."


2.  Altai mountains - simply amazingly beautiful, I have never seen a place like this before.

A crystal-clear pond with a moving, turquoise-blackish crater somewhere near Mongolia

3. The people from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok and the unforgettable Rybalka afternoon on the Ussuriy river with Igor climbing on the car roof while driving 90 km/h.

4.  Russian trains (apart from the toilets) are like a family ride, just very cozy (if you book a bit ahead and don't get the one seat where you are right next to the toilet aka illegal smoker's room and can't stretch out your legs because that would block the door). And you almost always meet some interesting people to share words and food with.

5. Funny imported German words in the Russian language: Russian boasts a sheer endless supply of unexpected German imports (Shtraf (Strafe, penalty), Reytuse (Reithose, riding pants), Schlagbaum (barrier, turnpike), Butyerbrod (Sandwich (Butterbrot)), Shveytsar (doorman (maybe the first doormen back then were Swiss ("Schweizer")?)), and many more. I need to write down a top 100 one day... :)

6. Meeting Melissa "Mo" O'Reilly, the American ice swimmer who crossed the Bering Strait in a bathing suit and now swam across the First Kurilskiy Strait (from Kamchatka to the first Kuril island). Her friend and also ice swimmer Cristian Vergara (Chile) was also there. :)

7. The rocks and beaches of Olkhon island (Baikal) where we had a beach barbecue.

8. My "rented grandma" Tamara, my AirBnB host in Irkutsk. She was amazing, not only giving me a clean and cozy bedroom to sleep, but also preparing tasty and healthy dishes with fruits and vegetables from her own Dacha and helping out with contacts and tips for touring Lake Baikal.

9. Hardly if any Western tourists, so you don't feel like in Australia, Chile, Southeast Asia or other common destinations for longer trips. There, you are often the object that is to be made money of, which makes any authentic contact to locals harder. In Russia, you are something unusual, and that sometimes draws curiosity and makes it so much easier to start conversations with people. Russia  (not: Moscow or St. Petersburg) is the perfect combination of "just enough comfort and similarity to Western Europe", "beautiful landscapes", and "no Western tourists". This is the positive side of people being afraid of Russia in the West and Russia requiring a not-so-easy-to-obtain visa - you can easily get it, but it takes time and money and bureaucracy and striptease (how much money is on your bank account etc...).

10. You can order a taxi and know what it will cost BEFOREHAND! 

Bonus: 11. Russian eye-less smilies)))! Much easier to type)).

Overall, it was a more than positive experience, so it kind of isn't fair to have 10-10. The Top 10 heavily outweigh the Flop 10, and I can recommend a Tour de Russie and would do it again anytime! 

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen