Notes On Russia

If you ever wonder what happened to all the sour cream and dill. It’s in Россия (Russia). It makes for a refreshing change from the carrot and meat of Монгол улс (Mongolia) and the non-cream anything of 中国 (China).

Also, side-cars. I realised, as we crossed the border into Россия, that I’d not seen a side-car since I was about six or seven. We’d gone to Symmons Plains in Tasmania to watch some racing. I think they had sidecars. My brother and I rode our bikes around the track. I was too little and couldn’t make it all the way around, so I took a short cut. So anyway; side cars are big in Eastern Россия.

Side Cars

On Улан-Удэ (Ulan-Ude)

I was meant to spend a day in this city but because of УлaaнЪaatar and the train incident I only managed a single night. I saw the most important thing, a giant head of Lenin. It’s not the most important thing, but it’s a thing and it’s all I saw. Улан-Удэ is that capital of the Буряад (Buryat) part of Россия. The Буряадаад are related to the Mongolians. Some of their food is similar. I bought a bread roll thinking it was a bread roll. It was filled with that steamed minced lamb I don’t particularly like.

I spent my only night talking to the owner of the hostel, he was quite sick but wanted to talk. He told me that, until a few years ago, he’d never heard of sunscreen. I didn’t need sunscreen for most of Россия, until my penultimate day in Москва when I got sunburnt and now I have a dividing line across my forehead. I was wearing a beanie.

On Иркутск (Irkutsk)

It’s in Иркутск that I start to comprehend the русские (Russian) love of блины (bliny; pancakes). You can get them almost everywhere; you can get them at almost any time; you can get them with sour cream; you can get them with sweetened condensed milk; you can get them with cottage cheese and raisons; you can get them any old how. As a matter of fact, I’ve got them now.

The first pancakes I ordered were at a cafeteria. I slid my tray along the rails and pointed at the things I wanted. When it came to the end the woman asked if I wanted sauce. I didn’t know which sauce was which so I said yes and asked her to pick. She slopped down two table spoons of sweetened condensed milk over my pancakes and my fish cake. Mmm, fish and sweetened condensed milk.

On Большое Голоустное (Bolshoe Goloustnoe)

This tiny village is on the edge of Lake Байкал (Baikal) and I spend a couple of days here with my guide Lana. We went a picnic and went ice skating on the lake –and I’ve still got a sore heel from it. It’s a quiet place but after Mongolia it wasn’t as stark or as quiet or as isolated. Somehow, that took away from the place. It was still beautiful though, especially at sunset.

Sunset over Lake Baikal

On The тайга (Taiga)

If you’ve ever been in a mirror maze then you know what it’s like to be in the тайга. All around you are endless identical trees stretch into infinity. Any direction is, ostensibly, the right direction the take. It’s impossible to tell. The world is quiet. The animals that survive here are clever enough to keep quiet about it. The birds, while spring is here are not yet ready to sing about it. The only noise is an occasional snow-fall or the gentle creaking of pine. This is the тайга and it stretches on and on and on; for a distance similar to: Melbourne to Brisbane.

On Красноярск (Krasnoyarsk)

Красноярск isn’t a terribly exciting place but it is 26 hours by train from Иркутск and 38 hours from Екатеринбург (Ekaterinburg); so it’s a delightful place. It does have a ski resort at the edge of town, so it’s another place you can knock off work early and catch a few hours on the slopes. From a rough estimate, a day of skiing with all gear included is about $40 AUD. We (myself, Andrew –an American working in a town nearby and Liz –a New Zealand backpacker heading east) went to the slopes on a Monday so most runs weren’t open until two in the afternoon. We were going for a hike, so we headed back into town before driving back up the slopes for our hike.

There is something magical about walking through the still trees dusted with snow. The only sound is the crunch of compacting snow underfoot. As we walked, parts of the trail ran along the ski run. The same group of eight kids came past us again, and again, and again. The runs are not very long here and it would be only five to ten minutes before the kids would come past again.

The end of our hike had us on a outcrop that looked back down over Красноярск.

Krasnoyarsk

On Екатеринбург (Ekaterinburg)

From here on in the cities tended to become more beautiful. The main street of Екатеринбург is very wide. It’s a bit silly how wide it is. I mean, it’s not so wide you can’t see the other side… but you do have to stare to make it out.

Екатеринбург has one of many ‘Churches of the Blood’. They built theirs on the site where the last царь (Tsar) was murdered. Does the noun regicide apply to цари? It’s a charming little place with four beautiful churches, each of them of a different size, shape and style. All within a tennis-ball’s throw of each other. On one side of the cloister cluster was a frozen park, a common thoroughfare for русские. The women, almost exclusively wearing high heels, inch their way across trying not to fall. Somehow, the hypotenuse is still quicker if you’re going less than root(a+b) slower.

On the other side of the churches, a little bit away, is a pond. Mostly frozen over at this time of year. Narrow trails still exist on the ice where intrepid locals make their way across. When I was there only a handful would still make their journey. Often they were also ice fishing on the remnants of the ice. If you walked around the pond there is a dam where the water gushes out with tremendous force. A freezing spray of water creates rainbows in the crisp winter sun. Underneath the water the current is brutish. If the ice were to crack you’d be dragged under the ice and I doubt you would be able to hold your breath as far as the dam.

Frozen Pond

On Пермь (Perm)

Пермь was the coldest place I’d been since Mongolia. I went here to see the only remaining gulag left in Россия: Perm-36. It’s bleak and the explanation by my guide is detached and emotionless. I had expected anger and animosity towards Stalin. He killed so many русские. The only time this comes through is in the last couple of rooms of the tour.

The driver for the tour got a speeding ticket on the trip and drove extra fast afterwards. That’ll show that police officer. It’s only 500 roubles for a speeding ticket. That’s about $15 AUD and he was going 26km/h over the limit when caught. The number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents in Россия is quite high: 28,000 last year.

On Кунгур (Kungur)

I ended up with a spare day in Perm through a scheduling error. I took the bus down to Кунгур. It snowed the whole way. The view I had from the bus was the one they use in TV shows when the protagonist has to go out into the snow against their wishes. It’s swirling white on a grey road and the glow of braking cars in front of you.

Кунгур has ice caves.

Ice Ice Cay-ve

On Киров (Kirov)

There is a Lenin statue here. I will say no more of my time in Киров.

On Казань (Kazan)

I was still quite sick in Казань so I didn’t do much other than visit the kremlin twice. Once in the bleak snow and the second time in beautiful blue skies on the day I left. Казань had the first kremlin (citadel (fortress (military stronghold))) that I visited and it’s impressive. I found the whole city pleasant because it’s hilly instead of the impossibly flat setup of most русские towns.

When I reached the kremlin I looked at the signs that say I need money to get in. I’m fresh out of roubles, so I wander off looking for an ATM. I find one about a kilometre away. I start to use it and an option for English comes up. I press it. The ATM remains in русские. I can deal with this. After a half-dozen attempts I’ve deduced the ‘Withdraw Money’ button. I press it and it asks me how much I want. I suggest 15,000 Roubles. It tells me I can’t have more than 7,000 Roubles and rejects my card. I try again but this time with 7,000 as the magic number.

ERROR. INDIVISIBLE AMOUNT.

I wander off looking for a better ATM. When I get back to the kremlin I try to pay but a woman tells me that entry is free.

Kazan Kremlin...church

On Санкт-Петербург (Saint Petersberg)

Art. Art. Art. Art. ART. ART. ART. ART.

ART.

Art. Art. Art.

AAAAAAAART.

Art.

Then rooms say. Look at us. We are all different. We are Art. Too. Art. Art. Art.

In case you were wondering I went to the Hermitage and spent two days looking at ART. They have lots of ART here. ART. ART. ART.

After a day of ART I learnt that I really like landscapes. I especially like religious paintings that are really landscapes and seem to only include religious motifs because they had to. I weary of religious art. It’s all I ever see in museums and it's not terribly varied. Every painter needs there own Passions of Christ or Head of John the Baptist or The Adoration of the Magi.

I loved the Rembrandt’s and was in awe at his sublime use of brown. The Monet’s were supremely delicate and the Picasso room stopped me in my tracks. I was walking through, letting the ART glaze over my eyes. If it draws my gaze it warrants closer attention. The paintings in that room grabbed me and I wandered over to take a closer look. Oh, a Picasso.

Enough of ART. Let's get back to CHURCHES!

Our Lady of Kazan

Санкт-Петербург has a bit of variety with strikingly different Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Our-Lady-Of-Kazan Cathedral. Both are Neoclassical in design. The pretty church goes to the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Санкт-Петербург is meant to be the favourite city of Россия. I has something for everyone, churches, ART, a couple of Sphinx for those unable to duck over to Egypt. But it didn't grab me the way that I thought it would.

On Москва (Moscow)

Contrary to Санкт-Петербург, I had been told numerous times that Москва is a noisy ugly hectic city with a rush-hour that lasts for hours. If I had to split time between here and Санкт-Петербург; to give as much time as I could to the latter. I ended up doing that, not by choice but because I was waiting for my Belorussian visa. I liked Москва more than Санкт-Петербург.

What did I do in Москва? I hear you ask. We'll of course I engaged the locals in an exchange of views on expansionism in contemporary Россия. This was as well as a contrasting exploration into Old Россия, Soviet Россия and New Россия.

Nah, who am I kidding. I visited churches and museums.

Actually I did both. The Old, New and Soviet Россия triptych was experienced in a day with my friends Влад (Vlad) and Настя (Nastya). Both grew up in Екатеринбург and now work as SAP consultants in Москва. Old Россия was the humungous palace and parkland built in Москва for Catherine II. She didn't use it once.

Catherine II's palace

Soviet Россия could be seen at ВДНХ (VDNKh) an exhibition site built to show off Soviet accomplishment. Each of the pavilions are excessive in their construction and the boulevard runs for a kilometre, spaced by gilded statues and waterfalls. There is a space-rocket too and the place was bustling as it's the anniversary of Ю́рий Гага́рин (Yuri Gagarin) first manned space-flight.

Both of these places are parks where modern русские go and hang out. The past is buildings and battlefields. The future and now are people. So New Россия are my friends Влад and Настя. Generous and kind they distance themselves from Soviet Россия.

"That time is past." They say.

They voice their disdain for the policies of Putin and what's going on in Crimea. But not every русские shares their view.

The exchange of views I had on expansionism was entirely one way. A hostel employee decided that I needed to know his feelings on Crimea. He felt that Crimea, Sevastopol and Odessa were русские and need to belong to Россия again. It was a mistake to give them to Ukraine at the fall of the USSR.

He lets me know that he doesn't like the US, NATO or the UN and they should back off otherwise Россия will retaliate. He also thinks that there will be an economic war between Europe and Россия much like the Cold War between the US and Россия. He didn't think that such a war would turn out well for Россия as it's just history repeating. I've been listening to 'The Guns of August' and it seems that nations that think they're entitled to foreign territory, to expansionism can be a source of trouble.

Anyway, back to the CHURCHES and ART.

I visited the Church of Jesus Christ the Saviour. I went inside and examined the art work. Monty Python has forever ruined this particular kind of religious artwork. I can’t help but think it’s some kind of skit. I also think the front on shots of saints and apostles with the halo around them makes them look like sports cards. This is Saint Paul, he bats with an average of 47.0 in tests, etc. In Baseball that would be an average of 0.300 or thereabouts.

I only visited one museum in Москва and that was the Tretyakov museum. It starts off with what seems to be four little rooms of art before slowly unfurling into the maze of thirty something rooms. I’m exhausted by the time I reach the end. As a museum it taxes me as I'm always trying to see every room and all the ART while trying to limit myself by only visiting each room once.

Some of the ART is just amazing. I’m still not sure why there are always ruined cities in the background of landscapes. I’m still drawn to the landscape pieces and am happy that most of the paintings here are not religious. There are still a few rooms of religious paintings but it’s not fifty rooms like the Hermitage.

The portraits of русские are interesting. For a period of time and perhaps this was only one artist, but the heads of the subjects were all very round and small in proportion to the rest of their bodies. Not just a little bit, enough for me to notice. Why didn’t they notice?

Another aspect is how painting of unknown people are listed as “Painting of Unknown Woman.” If her name is not known. If the person’s position in society is known then it’s “Painting of Slave.” Or “Paining of Beggar”. Who they are is not important.

In one of the rooms is a huge painting, it consumes a wall. Around it are all the smaller pieces of work that went into the larger one. The artist painted a least fifty different paintings. Some of them with showing different scenes, some with different people, some just multiple attempts of the same image to get it right. It takes a little away from the magic of ART but gives you an appreciation for how much practice artists do.

Oh and I saw the Kremlin, Saint Basil's and the Red Square too.

Red Square

And this is Влад and Настя

Vlad and Nastya

when: Saturday, May 03, 2014