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Christmas in Ulan Ude

After my daytime train along Baikal with stunning views (and all the nice weather I missed when I was in Listvyanka), I rocked up to the hostel in Ulan Ude freezing my face off. I hadn’t intended to spend 3 days in Ulan Ude, but I screwed up some of my train scheduling, so I ended up there for Christmas instead of Mongolia like I’d expected. It ended up being the coldest part of the trip, and I spent a majority of those three days inside. But it wasn’t a bad place to have a bit of a break in the end.

The first night, there was a group of French guys who were on their way home from a semester in China. The guys who worked in the hostel made us all borscht for dinner, one of the French guys made some banana and apple thing for dessert, and then they insisted I drink their bottle of vodka with them. I’d not had much vodka in Russia yet, as previously mentioned, so this was my last chance. It was good! I think I did about 5 or 6 shots, and I didn’t die. And that was after half a bottle of wine. I couldn’t actually believe the three of them went out clubbing after we finished it, because I went straight to bed.

The next day was Christmas Eve, but A: Christmas in Russia is the orthodox Christmas on 7 January, and B: I was in the centre of Buddhism in Russia, so there wasn’t a whole lot of Christmas going on. I was just hoping there’d be some people in the hostel up for a bit of food and a party.

I went out for a short walk through the old wooden houses and some Buryat fast food. I basically pointed to some stuff on the menu without knowing what it was and enjoyed some surprises when the food came. Some lamb and noodle soup, massive dumplings, a meat and potato dish, and a pickled salad showed up and all of it was good. And warm. And it was so cold when I went back outside that I went straight back to the hostel and, aside from some grocery shopping, stayed there the rest of the day.

I’d not had a lot of vegetables in a while, so my Christmas Eve indulgence was a massive salad made of all the local, crunchy stuff I could find, plus some nice looking pickled fish and cheese and crackers. And I got a box of chocolates and some mulled wine to share because CHRISTMAS.

No one else showed up that night, but Ivan and Sasha, who worked at the hostel, hung out with me and played board games and taught me a Russian card game called Durak (which is Russian for ‘fool’) while I doused my liver in wine (mulled and non). It was a really good time. I skyped my parents, did some more blogging, and went to sleep without an alarm clock.

On Christmas day, I checked the temperature in the morning to find it was a debilitating -39C. Jackson from Hong Kong showed up to stay, and I convinced him to go check out the Buddhist monastery on the highest point in the city with me. The idea was partially to get a good view, but it was so hazy you couldn’t see much, so we walked around the temple a bit and then headed back down into town. We took a few silly pictures with Lenin’s head – Ulan Ude has the world’s biggest statue of Lenin’s head, which is one of the main reasons I decided I needed to stop there – and went across the street to thaw ourselves out in The Churchill (the local ‘British’ pub) for beer and food. I had grilled lamb and cake, so it was a pretty successful Christmas lunch, I’d say.

Later on, Sasha gave me a super tasty cinnamon bun from the cake shop downstairs with a hand drawn card on top as a wee Christmas present, which was really sweet. I drank my Christmas beer from Kazan, wishing I’d bought more, and decided at the last minute to try to get a Couchsurfing host in Ulaanbaatar instead of a hostel. (This turned out to be an excellent move.)

I didn’t do too much before catching my train the next day, but I did get to share the walk to the station with some Australians who were getting a train in the opposite direction. And then, for the first time, I met a load of English-speaking trans-Siberian travelers ON MY TRAIN! I was sharing a compartment with Harald from Sweden, and there were two other girls from Sweden next door and a guy from Austria who was hanging out with us as well. I joined Harald in the restaurant car to jettison the last of my roubles on wine and potatoes with mushrooms, and then joined in the prosecco drinking once we’d crossed the Mongolian border.

The border crossing on this train wasn’t too bad. They did lock the bathrooms for two hours on each side, but there was a brief window in between, and it wasn’t the nightmare 6 hour stop I’d heard tales of on the interweb. Unfortunately the train was kind of freezing. (It was probably the oldest, crappiest train I’ve been on the entire trip.) But the company was good and I got to use an extra blanket for my brief sleep since there were only two of us in a 4 person compartment. I got up around 6 and said a quick goodbye to my Swedish bunkmate before exiting to a dark, smoggy Ulaanbaatar to start the next brief chapter.

Lake Baikal

Baikal was incredible I managed to miss the good, clear, blue-skied weather, but it didn’t matter. It was so cold I could barely stay outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but it didn’t matter. The lake wasn’t frozen like I’d hoped it would be, but it DIDN’T MATTER.

Because guys, I jumped in that lake. 3 times. Yes I did.

I arrived late in Irkutsk and met Ming from Singapore who’s doing this trip before he has to go into the military (mandatory for 2 years in Singapore). I convinced him to split the cost of a driver guide to get to Listvyanka the next day and he convinced me to book the hostel he’d just come from in Ulan Ude instead of a hotel (he was traveling the opposite direction).

In the morning, we packed up and got in our guide Julia’s car. We got a brief drive-through of Irkutsk and then started the very snowy drive to Listvyanka. We stopped at the open air museum which was pretty nice, but enormous and half closed because not many people are trudging around in the snow like us to see these things. My toes started to freeze pretty fast. I did hit up one of the big ice slides they had set up around the place, but I got too excited when I went to get up at the end and completely wiped out because I stepped in the middle of the ice rather than to the side. Bashed my knee up, but luckily no one was around to see me faceplant and attempt to scramble back up properly.

We had some Omul (fish from the lake) soup in a cafe in Listvyanka and checked out a church, but didn’t go up to any of the good viewpoints because the weather wasn’t clear enough to see very far. I picked up some fish and postcards at the market then we headed up the hill to Belka hostel to drop our stuff and see who else might be about.

The hostel was lovely and cosy, just quite a hike away from the lake. When we got there, we met Felix from Germany and Alice and Jimmy from France. Felix told us about hiring the Banya at the hotel by the water in town and jumping into the lake the night before with some South Africans who were there, and we all decided we MUST do the same. I was slightly terrified of this because A: I don’t generally like Saunas (although this was more like the Finnish Sauna which I can handle, unlike the Turkish Baths in Budapest) and B: SO COLD OUT, ALSO SO COLD IN THE LAKE, ALSO JUST SO COLD.

On the other hand, how many chances do you get to jump into the world’s biggest, deepest freshwater lake in the middle of winter? Especially when you thought it was gonna be frozen already?

So we suited up and walked down to the hotel at the lakeside and steamed ourselves til we couldn’t take it anymore. Then we steeled ourselves, grabbed Alice’s waterproof camera, ran upstairs, through the lobby, across the road, past some locals laughing at us (they knew enough English for ‘crazy’), and straight into the lake. And then darted right back out. The water was unbelieveably freezing, but the minute you step out into the -11C air, you feel bizarrely warm and absolutely incredible. And your hair freezes all crunchy immediately because it’s wet. (The boys were all like, ‘can I touch your hair?’ because it’s even cooler with long hair.)

So naturally we did it all two more times. We also went the whole hog and beat each other with birch branches in the Banya in true Russian fashion. And it looks kind of violent, but it’s actually pretty pleasant. I could have stayed another hour, but we decided to be reasonable. Alice and Jimmy went to a restaurant because it was their last night in Russia, and Felix, Ming and I took a taxi back up to the hostel to make pasta and drink beer.

Up to that point, it was definitely the best night of this trip.

In the morning, I walked back down to town with Ming to send some postcards and get a drink from the lake with the wooden mug Kristina gave me before I left Edinburgh (the water was lovely, of course). And later on, Felix and I caught the bus back to Irkutsk and kicked around drinking beers at a German themed bar til he had to get a train to UB and I had to go back to my hostel. But this is not the last you (or I) will see of Felix, as he convinced me to join him in checking out the ice festival in Harbin once we’d met back up on the New Year train, and that turns into a whole new madcap adventure.

Russian trains

Russian trains! One of the main points of this trip, and all in all, pretty nice. Clean, safe, on time, largely comfortable, affordable. What more could you really ask? Most of my trips were just overnight with a few hours on either end, but I had one 48 hour stretch booked as well as one 8-hour daytime trip. For the former, which was my trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, I booked one of the nicest fast trains, the #2 Rossiya that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. And for the latter, Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude – during the day in order to see Lake Baikal in all its glory – I booked my only 3rd class leg since I wouldn’t be doing any overnight sleeping. It turns out 3rd class on that train was even more comfortable than 2nd on the Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar train, so the whole dormitory on wheels thing wasn’t really a problem.

I was actually looking forward to all the various trip lengths and classes for different reasons. But much as I was longing for the experience of 3 days, 2 nights on a single train (mostly in order to read and think forever without option), I have to say now I’ve done it, I can check that off the life list and not do it again.

Sleeping on a train, in itself, is actually pretty nice. You get rocked to sleep and the noises aren’t all that bothersome. It’s the temperature they keep the cars that kept me up. It’s ridiculous but I kept thinking of how impossible I found it to sleep in Africa because of the temperature. In Russia it’s somewhere around -20 to -30 outside but on most of the trains I was on, especially overnight, it can get up to 29C! Way. Too. Hot. The train I took for the Russia/Mongolia border crossing was actually freezing, but it was a super old school train and it seems I’d been spoiled up to that point. No matter though. That was also the first one I met any other English speaking foreign tourists on – LOADS of them – so it was good fun.

So. The heat was the main discomfort issue. But it doesn’t actually matter if you don’t sleep much because you’re also not moving around or using much energy. I didn’t even go to the restaurant car on the 48 hour trip, so I walked only back and forth between the toilets and the samovar at opposite ends of the carriage.

And tea. My god. You think the British like tea. I drank enough tea in 48 hours to keep the British Empire running from roughly 1908 to 1911. I guess this is because Russians love tea and there’s no fresh cold drinking water on the train, so, ENDLESS TEA. I actually had to stay off the tea (and any liquid at all) on the border crossing train because they lock the toilets until all the checks are done and that may well be the most terrifying part of this entire trip for me. No joke. (I survived.)

While drinking all that tea, staring out the window at the opposing temperatures of the beautiful Siberian winter confirmed to me that coming at this time of year was the best decision. I know even the Russians think I’m batty for wanting to be here now instead of summer. I’m sure it’s beautiful in summer, but I also think it probably looks a lot like the Scottish highlands. This kind of winter, however, we definitely don’t get. So why not see something different?

Anyway, as mentioned, One of the main things I was looking forward to was allllll the reading time. And that has been great. I devoured Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (of Born to Run fame), which was pretty much the PERFECT book for this trip. It had adventure and travel and science and all sorts! I loved it, and it has also given me plenty of ideas on how to take better care of myself. And trust my feet more. (Or rather, my balance.)

I also read Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (recommended by Drama Professor Extraordinaire, Jason) which was a great thing for when I couldn’t actually speak to people, because David Greene had the advantage of an interpreter where I did not. So at least I could read people’s stories if I couldn’t get some firsthand. That book also firmed up a lot of the separation I feel from America now though. Particularly when Greene is talking about the connection he feels with a particular Russian couple that has a similar lifestyle to his and his wife’s, the only difference being he and his wife don’t live in a society they see as ‘ill’.

And this is where my ‘REALLY, WHAT?’ flags went up. All through this book, he’s highlighting the problems in Russian society and government, and none of them are minor things. However, there’s an air here and in many other things I’ve read and heard that America (and other Western countries for that matter) is so healthy that they simply don’t have an equivalent problem set. And on that I call complete and utter bullshit. America may not have the SAME problems as Russia, but it has some pretty freakin’ big ones it can’t seem to solve for the life of itself (*ahem* gun control, healthcare, women’s health, ETC), and this is again what makes me feel we’re all more alike than we want to admit.

The other thing that struck me was the bit on Putin’s New York Times op-ed response to Obama’s comments that the US helping by taking military action in Syria is one of the things that makes the US different and exceptional. Putin said, well actually, it’s kind of dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional. And Putin is not a man I’d agree with on most things, but when it comes to countries’ own views of themselves, I think he’s right. Seeing yourself as a great country is all right. Seeing yourself as The Greatest country is not. (And on this, David Greene seems to be thinking in my direction.)

I don’t have a whole lot of personal commentary on Putin. Some of the Russians I met dislike him. Some of them felt he pulled the country out of a few dark holes despite not necessarily agreeing with everything he does. He’s a politician, and politicians aren’t perfect. But even the ones you disagree with are capable of sense. In any case, things could always be better no matter where you live. Just because American problems don’t match Russian ones doesn’t mean the US is somehow better or more extraordinary. And Russia is not the horrendous, scary place that some people would like to think. People are lovely here! Things work! Bears are not roaming the streets! It’s just not the same as the Established Western Democracy you’re used to.

ANYWAY. I unfortunately did not get to discuss most of this with any Russians on any trains, because of what I think the hardest part of being on the trains for so long was – the language barrier. I didn’t run into other English-speaking traveling adventurer types on the  trains until my train that took me out of Russia. Most people I encountered didn’t speak much or any English. This is obviously totally fine and I don’t expect anyone to be speaking my language, but it does cut any conversational potential quite short.

It’s very nice to try to find out who people are and where they’re traveling to, but it’s pretty hard to go much further than that. And that’s what got to me in the end. I’m cool with being quiet when I’m by myself for long periods of time, but to be among people who are having great conversations and unable to join in just feels extra isolating. I was so happy to meet people in the hostels in Irkutsk and in Listvyanka that spoke English I probably talked way more than I normally do. Hopefully I didn’t drive them totally nuts. On balance though, I’m glad I didn’t have a trip full of only English-speaking travelers, because that would be fairly bland in terms of a foreign experience.

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

22 Hours of Ups and Downs in Yekaterinburg

After a full day of reading and drinking tea and looking out the windows of a train with only one other person in my compartment who spoke no English and kept the TV on all day despite only watching it about 15% of the time, I pulled in to Yekaterinburg for a whirlwind stopover before my 3-day-2-night train to Irkutsk.

Ksenia was my host for the night. I’d met her for about 5 minutes in Edinburgh when she was Couchsurfing with a friend of a friend who was helping deliver a couch to Eva’s new flat. She found out I was going to be in Yekaterinburg and insisted I stay with her, so I found her on Couchsurfing a few weeks later and locked it in. She’s only been speaking English for 2 months, so there was a language barrier, but we got by just fine on enthusiasm alone.

She and some of her friends met me at the train and took me to dinner, where I had borscht and pelmeni, traditional Russian stuff, and delicious! She and I then went to this Mexican themed bar called Agave to have a beer. The place was enormous but mostly empty. About 5 dudes sitting at the bar, one or two people at tables, and us.

Ksenia knew one of the comedian guys working there, Alex, who came over to say hello. Alex was very clean cut and was wearing a wooden bowtie. His sidekick, whose name I didn’t catch, was a bit scruffier and was wearing a green baseball hat with red antlers that said ‘Oh Deer’ or something like that. He sort of reminded me of Frank from 30 Rock.

When Alex discovered I was from Scotland, he later worked it into their act, quizzing the whole bar (well, all 10 or so of them) on all the Scottish things he could think of. The colour of the flag, whisky, kilts, the usual. And between comedy sets, the dynamic duo were replaced by a pair of scantily-clad men dancing on the bar to bad techno, trading off with a pair of scantily-clad women doing the same. I guess this would have been slightly less bizarre had there been some actual people in the bar, but the staff and the performers outnumbered the customers by at least double.

Blue for Scotland

Blue for Scotland

During this dancing one of the bartenders who had been reeling off names of single malts during the quiz with nods of encouragement from me sent me a bright blue cocktail as a gift. It was sweet and had a massive orange garnish. Not my usual thing but since he went to the pains of matching it to the Scottish flag, I gracefully accepted.

After the bar I was up til 2am sorting things on the WiFi, as ever. Then up early when I got ANOTHER amazing breakfast, this time pancakes filled with lots of lovely things. Went to drop my bag off with Ksenia at her work so I could walk around for a few hours unencumbered before my train. It was clear and sunny but absolutely freezing with lots of snow and ice on the ground. It’s the first day I’ve really felt very, very cold. It’s a wonder I never slipped badly enough to fall on my face too. I’m sure it’s going to happen at least once before I’m out of snow zone. I just hope it’s not when I’m wearing a full backpack.

I was roughly following the red line walking tour, which is literally a red line they’ve painted on the ground in a circular route around the city centre, going past all the main things you’d want to see. This is an incredible idea, and I was actually pretty surprised it wasn’t completely obscured by the snow and ice packed onto most of the ground. It’s so nice to have something to orient you without having to look at a map constantly. And I managed to see most of the major sights this way.

I kept having to duck into shopping centres and cafes to warm up, and I happened to stumble on this wee coffee shop called Papa Carlo. I walked in and asked if they spoke English, and one of the girls sitting at the counter said yes, we do! She was an English teacher, also called Kate, and she taught classes at the shop, including to the people who worked there. Timor was sitting with her and I asked him if they did stuff like Aeropress and Chemex and he was like, you’re our perfect customer!

I told him about my friends Steve and Kate’s shop, Machina Espresso, back in Edinburgh, and we chatted about coffee and stuff for a while. He made me a Moscow-roasted coffee two different ways as part of his preparation for a barista competition, and wondered how I’d found them (sheer luck) because not many people in town ‘get’ what they do yet. I was there for an hour or so and they refused to let me pay. Instead they made me promise to take pictures in Machina with their cards. Hopefully I can send them some stuff from Edinburgh because all my little Scottish gifts were in my big bag. And I’ve been telling everyone I meet headed west to check them out when in Yekaterinburg.

Hooray for lovely people and lovely coffee!

Hooray for lovely people and lovely coffee!

It was such a fantastic thing to happen, and I’m glad it did because without it the day would’ve been far less balanced. I walked around a little bit more and did some grocery shopping for the long train trip ahead before going to collect my bag and getting the metro to the train station. Then stress time started.

Just as I walked up to the station, everyone started coming the opposite direction and the police were clearing everyone away from the station and the entrance. I had no idea what they were saying and I was early enough not to panic yet, so I just kind of followed the crowd, randomly asking people if they spoke any English (no one did). Everyone was going to the outdoor entrance to the tracks and just crossing over the tracks to the platforms that way, but I had no idea where I was supposed to be and still no clue what was happening. And it was COLD. And my bag isn’t super heavy, but it’s not nice to wear for an hour in the cold, which is what I ended up doing.

I kept asking people if they could explain to me, but while everyone was very nice, most people didn’t have enough English to really help. One woman finally said ‘bomb’. So I assume there was a bomb threat or a suspicious package. I still don’t really KNOW. And it was getting closer to my train time, so I was getting more worried about what the hell to do, and colder. But I just kept having to tell myself to calm down and just take the next logical step.

I fished out my online ticket confirmation and found a group of police officers. None of them spoke English either, but I showed them the paper indicating I needed to know where to go. One of the women motioned for me to follow her and we walked towards the station and back while she spoke to someone on the phone. By the time she’d worked it out, they opened the station back up so I was able to go look at the board 10 minutes before my train arrived.

This all made me incredibly happy I didn’t store my bag at the station during the day because I may not have been able to get it back in time to board. And it was also a good move to get groceries earlier in the day or I’d have ended up on a 48 hour train ride with no food. All in all, it wasn’t a disaster of an experience but the language barrier and the cold can really make a confusing situation so much more intimidating and tiring.

I collapsed in a bit of a discombobulated heap when I made it into the train. This was also the only train when I’d requested a female only compartment, which was really nice after having shared with a lot of old dudes who didn’t seem to want to communicate in any way. And there was a girl in my compartment who spoke a little bit of English which was a fantastic relief after the kerfuffle in the station.

I do wish I’d had more time in Yekaterinburg because I got the impression it was a pretty awesome city, but I was incredibly happy to get on that train. However, I was probably just as happy to get off of it 48 hours later. More on which next time.

The train at last.

The train at last.

Kazan

Kazan is gorgeous, even in winter when it’s fairly empty. Moscow and St Petesburg are big, international cities, so they’ve got tourists and crowds even now in the way-off season. Kazan, not so much. Once again, the chorus rang, ‘it’s so nice here in the summer, why are you here NOW?’

Still no regrets. The frozen Volga river is a thing to behold. You roll across it as you come into Kazan’s central station, and it was mid-morning when I arrived so I could see snow-covered everything. There were people out there straight up walking on it. (I don’t know what they were doing particularly, maybe ice fishing?)

I found the right tram and got off at the right stop despite them only announcing about every 3rd one. Then my fantastic host Maria let me take a shower while she made me breakfast. (Everyone is making me breakfast! Delicious, delicious, hot breakfast. It’s amazing! I freaking love breakfast! This country is INTO it.)

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kazan in winter. I managed to see the Kremlin, where the mosque and the cathedral sit happily next to each other, and the Soviet Lifestyle museum within a few hours, then sat in a cafe with a pot of tea and a massive piece of poppyseed cake wondering what I’d do for two more days.

The Soviet Lifestyle museum is a private collection I’d really been looking forward to seeing because you’re allowed to play with about 50% of the stuff in there. There’s clothes and hats you can try on and lots of toys and old books and magazines and things to look through and tinker with. It’s basically a bunch of cool old stuff, which wouldn’t be nearly as remarkable if you weren’t able to interact with it. It was a fun way to spend an hour. Definitely one of the times I wish I’d had someone with me for more goofing off potential.

The first night, I bought some snacks and wine in the quietest, most awkward grocery store I’ve ever been in. this was my usual adventures in foreign grocery shopping where I just pick up a bunch of stuff that looks like it might be good and hope it all goes together. Unfortunately, because I can’t read Russian, I didn’t realise I’d picked semi-sweet red wine (boooo) so I failed there. Maria and I drank it anyway, after she impressively used a stiletto heel to open it, having lost her corkscrew. I promised to make dinner on my last night and buy actual good wine to go with it. She promised to take me to two Russian craft beer bars in town the next night. Hooray!

The second day I walked around the Tartar quarter for a bit before seeking out a Tartar food restaurant Maria had recommended for lunch. It’s mostly different sorts of pies and meat. I had some triangular meat pies with clear broth and a sweet rice, cheese and fruit pie, which was all right, a bit greasy. I later tried the national Tartar dessert, Chak Chak, which reminded me of a giant rice-krispie treat.

Before I met Maria for dinner and beer, I went to the Soviet Arcade museum. They have a branch on St Petersburg and Moscow as well, but I saved it for Kazan, which was good because I had nothing else to do. No one was in there so they turned on all the machines for me, and I tried most of them but got a bit hooked on the pinball and another one where you fling spinning rods at patterns to knock them out. Again, a good way to spend an hour, but would have been more fun with a buddy to play some of the two-player games.

After killing some more time out of the cold gandering around a less-awkward grocery store, I began my foray into Russian craft beer. Being very into my strong porters and imperial stouts, I didn’t waste time and went straight for the strong stuff. I haven’t had much vodka in Russia (more on which later), but I have had many beers over 10% abv!

Maria seems to know everyone in Kazan, including the guy who owned the first bar we were in, and he gave me some personal recommendations. I even took a bottle of triple IPA away to drink on Christmas, continuing my tradition of drinking some kind of super strong fancy beer every December 25th. We met a guy there with his English language group who wanted to got to the other craft bar we were headed to as well, so he joined us. His name was Sasha and he was a medical student trying to improve his English in order to improve his medical studies.

More very strong stuff in the next bar, which was the polar opposite of the first in terms of style, but had equally amazing beer. I also had some smoked cheese bar snacks and was allowed to choose the music from the big record collection. (When trying to explain to me that this bar had records and a record player, when he couldn’t think of the word ‘vinyl’, Sasha described records as ‘big black CDs’. Soetimes working across languages provides some excellent descriptions.) So I got to listen to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday while sipping some 13% Russian deliciousness.

Maria told me about how Kazan is quite a tolerant place being half Russian half Tartar. Everyone pretty much gets along. Her parents celebrate Muslim holidays with their friends, despite not being Muslim, and she said that kind of thing is pretty normal. Lots of international students come to university in Kazan because it’s easier for people of all different cultures to get along here than it is in Moscow or St Petersburg (as well as being less expensive).

The next night when I made dinner and bought decent wine, we talked about how Russia is never what Westerners expect or are told to expect. I was saying how I was shocked I’d had more wine and beer and barely any vodka after having read everywhere that wine in Russia is terrible and everyone will be trying to get you to drink their vodka. the reality is, most Russians I’ve met don’t like or drink vodka, and prefer wine or beer. Maria showed me this awesome website called Bears and Vodka, which expands on these subjects and I can’t believe I never found on my own.

I had to get up at 4am to catch my train to Yekaterinburg so we couldn’t stay up and continue solving the world’s differences. Maria was good enough to wake up at 4.30 and call me a taxi to the station so I wouldn’t have to work it out in Russian. Just another amazing display of Couchsurfing hospitality.

Check out the full Kazan flickr album

Moscow

Ever since I knew I’d be going to Moscow, the thing at the top of my list was the Cosmonaut museum and the monument to the conquerors of space. SPAAAAAACE!

It’s probably been at least 20 years since I went to the Kennedy Center in Florida, and I know it was great but I don’t remember a whole lot about it in detail. Then of course there’s the Air and Space museum in DC which is fantastic, but I was looking forward to seeing the story from a Russian point of view.

The Cosmonaut museum was super awesome. I must have spent 2-3 hours there, and it’s not big, but it packs a lot in. I’d been worried I wouldn’t be able to read anything or get any details, but I paid for an English audio guide as well as a pass to take pictures, both for photography and to use Google translate’s instant photo translation on my phone. (Proof we live in the future – does this mean we’ll have a babelfish or a universal translator soon?!) To be honest, I’d have skipped the audio guide and just used the photo pass. The guide was annoying and slow and only an overview, and while it’s great that they have it, I preferred working out the actual labels I was interested in.

Anyway, in addition to the proud display of Soviet and Russian space achievements, they also showed what other countries had done, particularly the US, in a great cooperative spirit, which is so nice to see. One of the things I love about space exploration is that it brings countries together that are often at odds in other areas. There was, I thought, a particular emphasis in more than one place in the museum on the fact that the plaque placed by Apollo 11 says ‘We came in peace for all mankind’. And even just seeing Russian and English directions for assistance on the back of the Soyuz landing pod (a real, used one!) shows the expectation that everyone will help when necessary because it’s about humans rather than Russians or Americans or whatever. SEE, WE CAN ALL GET ALONG. In space at least.

Before I went in, I walked around the monument (which the museum is underneath) and there are lots of monuments of famous Russian cosmonauts. Including, right next to Yuri Gagarin, one of Valentina Tereshkova, which I was specifically looking for and really excited to see. It’s rubbish that it took so long AFTER Valentina to get another woman into space, but I’m happy that the USSR did put her up there, and what an awesome lady to go first. She is all about going to Mars and she’s nearly 80 now!

Aside from the cosmonauts, the Moscow Metro may have been my favourite thing about the city. the stations are amazing, and all so different. It’s pretty hard to get a proper look at them when it’s busy because no matter where you stop, you’re in the way. But pro tip: It’s all pretty empty on a Saturday morning. You can spend a long time bouncing around between stations and metro tickets aren’t timed, so you could technically be underground all day for less than 50p. I only did 2 hours at a stretch though because that’s long enough to be away from daylight.

I did go to the Kremlin because I felt like you sort of HAVE to go to the Kremlin, but I wish I’d only done the Armoury Chamber and not paid another 500 roubles to get into the Cathedral territory. I just wasn’t up for another 6 or 7 cathedral interiors. Plus it was a gorgeous sunny day! I tried for like, the 3rd time to go see Lenin’s mausoleum but it was closed again (it appeared to not have any kind of normal opening schedule) so instead I got some mulled wine and a pancake at the christmas market in Red Square and planned the rest of the day’s wandering while getting warm-booze-toasted in the middle of the day.

I had some lovely outside wanders in Moscow too. Red Square (and GUM) at night (where they kept playing the tetris song, which I found hilarious), the Boulevard ring at sunset on that beautiful Friday when I escaped the Kremlin early, Gorky Park and Muzeon Arts sculpture park on the river, where they have all the old Soviet monuments that have been removed from various places around the city. There’s a whole lot of Lenin and Stalin going on in there, but there’s lots of other non-soviet-themed sculpture in the park as well.

It finally snowed on Saturday, which made it feel like proper winter at last and gave me my first taste of the treachery of walking on snow and ice on the way to the Moscow Swing Dance Society. The blast of cold was, as always, appreciated when I exited the dance, for at least the first 3 minutes anyway.

On my last day I decided to go ice skating at VDNH because YAY and Russian winter etc etc. I’d seen the rink in Gorky Park which was impressive, but apparently the VDNH one is the biggest in the country (which begs the question, is there a bigger one somewhere ELSE?) so I HAD to go there. Turns out ice skating is like riding a bike. I’ve not been in years and years (no idea why because I love it) but I got on the ice wobbled for like, 5 seconds, and was off just fine. I’m not the best at stopping, but I didn’t fall or careen into any stray small children. I even got some good pace going. It was a good day for it too. Between that, the dancing the night before, and very little sleep in between, I was sufficiently tired out for my overnight train to Kazan.

Moscow sort of felt to me like the Russian equivalent of London. It was an interesting place to see, and there’s a lot happening, but I think St Petersburg is nicer. This seems to be the consensus among all the Russians who asked me which I preferred as well. In fact, I think some of them might have been shocked if I had said I preferred Moscow. I had just as much fun there though, and once again had absolutely fantastic hosts.

Check out the full Moscow flickr album

Dancing in Russia

One of the goals of this trip was to dance as many places as I can, especially considering I’m doing a weekend-long Lindy camp at the end of it, and I can’t do that kind of hardcore event after spending 3 months getting rusty. But it also gives me something specific to aim for in a few places, and an environment where, while still potentially intimidating, I feel pretty comfortable as far as social situations go. Particularly as it’s perfectly acceptable to not really talk much if you don’t feel like it. All you really have to do is dance! That I can do.

St Petersburg was my first time ever dancing away from Edinburgh, and the first time with no one I knew or recognised around for support. It was definitely a little scary to walk in there. But by the end of the night, I realised I just have to keep telling myself I’m never going to see these people again so just go all in. It’s quite freeing to your dancing to know that whatever you screw up (or nail!), no one knows who you are anyway, so you can learn a lot and have fun with it. I just tried to dance with as many different leads at as many different levels as I could. And everyone in both places was super friendly.

The space in St Petersburg was amazing. It was in the Freedom Palace, and it was an old high-ceilinged room with velvet curtains and a friggin’ canopy around the bar. The floor itself was a bit meh but it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was good and so was the music.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

One of the great things about this already is hearing the different music selections. I’m trying to remember some of my new favourites, but I wish I could shazaam everything so I could just have one big list of the music the rest of the world is dancing to on the regular. Some of it is the same of course – the band in Moscow played ‘Splanky’ and I immediately thought of my friend Graeme running by yelling ‘NAKED GUN THEME’, because, um, that’s what happens in Edinburgh – but even hearing different versions of the songs you’re used to (and deciding which you like better) is quite fun for a music dweeb.

The first thing I’m doing everywhere is just watching for a few songs. A, because it’s way too nerve-wracking to jump right in, and B, because I learn a lot – who I want to try to dance with, what the floorcraft is like (one place was definitely scarier than another in this respect), what everyone’s style is, who’s showing off, who’s shitting it because they’re a beginner (in contrast to me shitting it because I don’t know anyone).

Also there are some things that are comfortingly and amusingly the same everywhere. Everyone appreciates cake. The water is always a hot commodity. And you can never have quite enough windows to throw open, even in Russia when it’s -2 and snowing out.

If the room in St Petersburg was grand, the room in Moscow was totally cool in the opposite direction. It was like a secret Lindy clubhouse. Pictures of Dawn Hampton and Frankie Manning on the wall, old dance posters, dressing rooms and a wee bar. A bit speakeasy-ish, and very home-y and comfortable. You can tell it’s well-loved, and the floor was great – they don’t let any outdoor shoes in the place without plastic covers. And you’d never know the place was there from the outside.

Trying to find these places is always slightly intimidating when you’re somewhere strange. The MSDS website literally called the entrance to their space ‘very soviet looking’ and it was in a bit if an industrial park-ish area next to a shopping mall. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was slightly like, erm, where am I? But then you hear some jazz clarinet or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice wafting around a corner or out a window somewhere nearby and you know you’re in the right place, just follow the music.

There were some amazing dancers in Moscow, and the place was heaving. They had a live band and a super impressive cabaret the night I was there (see video playlist below) so I’m sure this meant it was probably even more crowded than usual, but it really highlighted the difference between being in a place with all your friends and being in a place where you don’t know anyone. Especially as a follow, this is super difficult. Even when you muster up the chutzpah to ask every lead in your sight line to dance, they still get snapped up crazy fast. And when you don’t have friends around, you have no guaranteed dances so it can feel like a lot of work just to get on the floor regardless of how much enthusiasm you have because NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s teaching me to adjust my expectations accordingly (and miss my friends a whole lot).

HOWEVER. Despite the difficulty if going into a social alone, it’s absolutely worth it. I had some lovely dances with some awesome leads. I got some crazy new moves thrown at me and I was able to follow at LEAST half of them. I think the lead/follow bootcamp of Winter Swing Weekend before I left Edinburgh was incredibly helpful. And it’s a pretty big boost to realise you know how to do something well enough that you CAN hold your own in a completely different scene.

(I totally need to up my fast Lindy game though. Oh my.)

Earlier in the day I went dancing in Moscow, I’d met up with Lana, who I’d been put in touch with by Ian, a fellow Edinburgh Swing Dance Society member. She walked me around, showed me some sights (in the snow!) and took me for lunch at this Russian cafeteria-style place called My-My (pronounced ‘moo moo’). We got some sweets with the bill, and I threw mine into my bag, not really knowing exactly what it was but too full to eat any candy.

Russian tablet.

Russian tablet.

At the end of the night when I made it back to the metro sweaty, exhausted, and slightly overwhelmed, I was rummaging in my bag for SUGAR PLEASE SUGAR NOW as usual after a big dancing night, I pulled out that wee sweet from lunch. I unwrapped it to find it was more or less exactly like Scottish tablet, which was such a perfect thing, because there’s always tablet at Lindy events in Edinburgh. SUGAR FUEL. It was like Edinburgh was taking care of me from far away, and the universe was saying ‘well fucking done you for sticking with it even when you were terrified’. HOORAY FOR DANCING.

Not sure if the Chinese have their own version of tablet, but I’m definitely looking forward to dancing in Beijing, which should be my next chance in a few weeks’ time.

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

Start by learning ‘P’ is ‘R’, and the rest will follow

So, before I get into Russia, I just have to mention the rest of my ferry trip. It got way more interesting! After I wrote that last entry, I went up to the pub and got a very tasty pint of Helsinki Porter. I can’t have been sitting there 5 minutes, just about to bust out the kindle, when this older guy came and asked if, since I was alone, I wanted a chat. So I said of course! His name was Heimo, from Finland, and he was just on the boat with a friend for fun because, ‘hey, it’s cheaper than going to a restaurant!’ which, yes, the fare actually is.

Anyway, I told him about my trip, which was met with the usual expressions of disbelief, but he was totally into it. He’d done a bunch of traveling himself and he was super excited for me, which was lovely. He then INSISTED I come with him to the karaoke at one of the other bars. I was slightly hesitant because, ugh, karaoke, but then I was like, obviously, what else am I going to do, why on earth would I say no to this. So we went to the other bar where we met his friend and a group of girls about my age who were having a bit of a work Christmas do.

There were all of maybe 15 other people in this massive bar space with a stage and a dancefloor in front of it, and a whole lot of Finnish karaoke ensued. The girls and Heimo also sang some things in English (The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of all things, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to which I said surely it’s bad luck to sing that on a boat?!). They were all trying to get me to sing because, according to the girls, it’s just WHAT YOU DO on the Finnish ferry (this was backed up by Carolina and Johanna later). I said the only way it would happen was if they had ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, which they did not, so I was off the hook. But I did do some dancing with them! It was all very bizarre and wonderful. Just the sort of crazy shit I hoped would happen.

Anyway. After a day of bad weather and rest in Helsinki (and a lovely dinner with Carolina and Johanna) it was off to Russia. The border crossing was super easy as everything was done on board the train and all the train staff spoke Russian, Finnish, and English, so everything was explained perfectly. But then you get off the train in St Petersburg and it’s like the deepest deep end. They direct the international passengers directly onto the street, not even into the station. I’m SO GLAD my host Elena was there to meet me because I probably would have been a bit lost without her.

The main terrifying thing is having no grasp on the alphabet, let alone the language. So everything just feels ten times more confusing. I realise this will occur pretty much every time I enter a new country on this trip (Mongolia does use the Cyrillic alphabet but apparently it’s a little different) but maybe it’s because I’m so close to Europe that it feels that much more shocking. I have such bad memory for language learning, and even my very few words of Russian exit my brain when I’m feeling frazzled (I have had about 10 moments every day where I temporarily forget Спасибо (spasiba) – which is ‘Thank you’ and just about the only thing I know outside of ‘da’ and ‘nyet’). But I’m trying really hard to learn the alphabet so that I can at least read things properly. I’m about 3/4s of the way there. I basically just try to read every word I see to myself, and use the things that are in both Latin and Cyrillic to help me. Also, all the Western brand names are written in Cyrillic (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc) which does help me fill in the blanks because I know what they say already.

It’s quite nice to witness my brain building new connections, because I’ve been here 4 days and I AM learning. Slowly, but it’s happening. Immersion! It works.

I also fully realise it’s ridiculous to expect myself to know all the languages I’ll encounter, but I have this native-English-speaker guilt that I don’t know any more than English. If I maybe knew ONE other language (HTML does NOT count) I’d probably feel a little better about things, but to be so privileged to speak a language that so many other cultures learn as a second (and sometimes third or fourth), it feels so lazy to not know more. I really, REALLY wish ALL English speaking countries required kids to learn a second language from the time they start school. The world would be a much better place. And it would be easier!

In any case, all I can do is make my best effort. And I do. And of course ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ are ALWAYS first.

That first day was immensely tiring. I did wake up at 5 to get the train, but that combined with brain-working-overtime and new country anxiety is a recipe for pure exhaustion. I didn’t exactly take it easy. Elena took me home to drop my bags and have a shower, then she made me an AMAZING breakfast of fried cottage cheese cakes with sour cream and jam, then some tea and meat and bread (this was the first of MANY incredible breakfasts). She then helped me out with maps and metro stuff and a few other basics, then sent me on my way into town to the Hermitage since it would be dark soon and I might as well do something indoors.

So, I was off. The metro is relatively easy as everything is colour coded and written in Latin and Cyrillic and it’s just a metro. I’ve not yet encountered one that’s not workable. But then I got off at Nevsky Prospect and luckily went in roughly the right direction because the tourist maps were not really computing in my head and everything was so jaw-droppingly gigantic and Russian. When I saw the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood down one of the streets I quite literally did a double-take. It was like seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time in real life – you can’t quite believe something you’ve seen in a bunch of pictures is a real thing in your sight-line.

In my tourist haze, I made it to the Hermitage, which is pretty much the top of every St Petersburg list. And it is big, big, big. Bigger than big. There is so much art in the place I almost stopped seeing it. The detail in the doorknobs alone could fill its own museum. (My favourite was an eagle talon holding a red ball of glass. I don’t know why I didn’t take a picture. It was fucking cool.) The floors and the ceilings and every bit of each of the rooms were at least as interesting to me as anything they contained. And boringly, one of the things I kept wondering about is how on earth they keep it all so clean. And how it must cost a FORTUNE to heat, especially here. (I’m definitely British now.)

I don’t really do well with excessive museum-and-gallery-going, and I hit my saturation point in the Hermitage pretty fast. Tour groups with selfie sticks (AGH!) and people taking more pictures of the art than actually looking at it never help this. And then I start questioning how we as a culture make decisions about what to preserve, and why so much of it, and are people really paying attention to it, especially now that they seem to just take pictures of it instead. (Do they ever even LOOK at those pictures if they can’t be bothered to look when they’re IN the place?) This is not to say preserving things isn’t worth it, but where do you start and stop? We can’t save everything forever.

On the other hand, what I usually take away from such massive collections like this and the Louvre and the Met and all, is just LOOK at what humans are capable of. There is such unbelievably detailed and skilled craft and art on display in these places in such quantities. There is some bad shit going down in the world right now, and it’s nice to be reminded that we as a race are fucking amazing. Why any one of us could then decide to turn around and shoot someone capable of such creativity boggles my mind, but at least there’s plenty of proof in the world that we do some good stuff.

Speaking of which, THE FOOKIN’ BALLET. (Thanks to Billy Elliot, I can’t actually hear the word Ballet without that happening in my head. SORRY.) After a somewhat terrifying first experience ordering food (Russian fast food to be precise. Pancakes!), I went to the Mariinsky Theatre to see my FIRST EVER Ballet, Don Quixote. I, in my hiking shoes, jeans, and wool hoodie, had an amazing seat in an amazing theatre among all sorts of fancily dressed people. It was so impressive. It was 3 hours long! Those dancers have some superhuman talent. And muscles. I honestly thought some of them couldn’t possibly be real. And a full live orchestra is such a lovely thing. AND there was even a horse and a donkey! (They were not dancing.)

At the end of the night, I managed to find a whole different metro stop in the cold and windy rain and get back to Elena’s in one very tired piece. There was then fruit and tea. She has Twinings English Breakfast tea and did not tut at my request for milk. This cup solved all my immediate problems – further proof I’m a fully assimilated Brit.

I then slept like the dead for 10 hours on a golden couch. And that is how you do a first day in Russia.

Russia, immigration and politics

Sometimes when I mention how much I want to do the Trans-Siberian, I get a good bit of side-eye, which can at least half the time be interpreted as, ‘Ehhh, Russia? Really?‘ And I know. Russia is a big ol’ political and moral quagmire, at least from a Western point of view. I don’t claim to be up on all the issues or anything, but Putin is doing what the hell he wants, which is usually not agreeable, and the general consensus is that most Russians love him anyway.

On the recommendation of about 5 different people, I recently had a watch of the first two episodes of Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia, which are on extreme nationalism and discrimination against the LGBT community. In both there are some pretty damning and disturbing views on immigrants and gay people which are in most cases backed up by the state, if not actively then by an obvious lack of action to support the victims.

But these are extremists, and extremists exist everywhere. It’s just they’re so much easier to see in Russia because it’s not against the law to act on your own horribleness there. Horrible people exist around the world – it’s just a matter of how much power they’re given. And I’m sure leaving them to it without even trying to get to know the people the extremists are shouting over is giving them more power.

I can’t get behind not going to a place because the views of the leader or the state are ones I do not agree with. (If I could I’d’ve had a hard time being home during the George W Bush years!) And if I judged all Russians on the fact that the Western media tells me What They Are and What They Believe, I’d be just as bad. I can absolutely see why there’s an attitude that ‘We are not going to be what the West decides we should be’. It’s just too bad that it often takes the shape of so much blatant hate and fear.

Reggie Yates did a fair bit of digging into where people’s radical views came from – particularly admirable because he was often being directly offended while he tried to do it. He was trying pretty hard to understand these people, and the state they feel they’re protecting by maintaining these views, despite vehemently disagreeing with them.

But he also talked to plenty of people who were NOT full of hate.

I’m not naive enough to believe everyone shares my modern peace-loving, tree-hugging views on the life and the world, but I do believe that, in general,  people with a variety of competing views are not actively bothered to make a fuss about it on a daily basis. No one can be an activist 24/7, and most people are, quite frankly, not that engaged. (You can see evidence of that EVERY DAY. I know I do.) People just want to get on with life. You’ve got to do your day job and eat your breakfast and get the fucking duvet cover on. No one, or at least, very few of us, care to be at war all the time, regardless of whether we agree with the dude next to us about gay people.

So unless there’s an actual war going on, none of this is going to keep me from going to Russia.

Interestingly enough, after the first episode of Extreme Russia, I was poking around iPlayer for something else to watch and ended up settling on a thing about the Glasgow Girls. It was a pretty crazy contrast, to go from how horrible it is that these extremist Russians treat immigrants like scum to our own country’s treatment of asylum seekers. (For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the Glasgow Girls are a group of school girls who campaigned for the release of their friend who was taken in a dawn raid while awaiting a decision on asylum in the UK. They got the backing of the community AND cross-party support in parliament.) To watch something on Russia and say that could never be us when, in some cases, it has been and IS us, particularly in matters of immigration, is just a whole load of hypocrisy.

My first vote in the UK is swiftly approaching and it should come as no surprise that immigration policy has a very significant bearing on where my support is going. There’s a lot of very thinly-veiled racism in some party policies and quite a lot of people’s views on who should and should not get to stay here. Frankie Boyle wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian about this, which is absolutely worth a read.

I AM actually an immigrant. It seems somehow easier for people to forget this because I’m a white girl from America. But this doesn’t exclude me from immigration law and it doesn’t exclude me from feeling offended when you go on about how we shouldn’t let THOSE people in here to take our jobs and our public money. Just because I don’t have an eastern European accent or a different colour skin doesn’t make me more valuable or legit than immigrants who do.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here but my point, I think, is that there are people in the UK (and the US) with beliefs just as disturbing as what we see on TV coming out of Russia. So it stands to reason that there are also plenty of normal, friendly, decent human beings who do not make the news, who DO make the country. I’m pretty sure if I keep my common sense switched on and I don’t go ambling into a protest or a war zone, I’ll have a lovely time and meet some fantastic people. Who can maybe then explain to me why everyone loves Putin so much (if they actually do).