The Far East of Russia in the winter, while cold, has a beautiful glow and certain crispness to it that I’ve certainly missed while travelling in large cities of Asia. Gone are the smog filled horizons where each day looks like it will rain, yet it never does. Instead gazing outside your carriage on the trans Siberian you can seemingly see for miles across the over exposed snow covered fields and frozen rivers. At first glance, this could be Canada, or Americas vast upper west. Closer examination reveals the details…. Small groups of farm homes built of wood centuries ago and complete with pens of animals…. A lone ‘Lada’ – the Soviet Chevy, waiting on an endless seeming road for the train to pass. This is the Russia of your minds eye.
The interiors are indeed quite different…. Step inside from the -20C temperatures and the train carriage is a balmy +25C. It’s strange but remarkably comfortable for me to sit here wearing shorts as I look at Russian workers on a train platform wearing massive coats, boots and fur hats. After some time in the overheated interiors of the Russian Far East, one often looks for ways to stand outside or get some air to cool down before returning to the warmth.
Before leaving our hostel in Khabavorsk I stepped outside for air immediately the two Russian guys standing outside began to try to communicate with me… Strange in a way as we had sat in the same room hours before without as a much as a word between us, but nevertheless I welcomed the opportunity to try to converse with some Russian travelers. My Russian is non-existent… I like to convince myself that my limited knowledge of Czech/polish/Serbian/Slovene (all hopelessly jumbled into a weird Slavic tongue) gives me some advantage but the reality is that other than understanding numbers and the odd word here or there, Russian is as foreign to me as Japanese. One of the two – whose name I can’t remember how to write speaks enough English to break the ice and we at least establish where we are all from and what brought us to this hostel. I learn that his friend, Max was a sonar commander in the Russian army who was recently in Ukraine (well that was unexpected) but now is trying his hand at work in pharmaceutical advertising. We quickly bond over the irony that we both work in some form of marketing…and I get the expected amount of chuckles at my time in L’Oreal marketing women’s cosmetics. “Zenske Kosmetika” said from one to another with a laugh is easy enough to follow with my Slavic language knowledge.
“Do you drink Vodka?” Somehow they ask this question in perfect English and its a question I somehow knew was coming…. “Sure..ah yes, I drink Vodka.” “YOU…ME…HIM.. we go drink vodka now.” Well ok… There it is… This should kill a few hours before the train ride. I stress that I must get on a train at 22:00 this evening and that I can’t drink too long and I think they understand.
Regardless, I’m lead into their dorm room where they currently live while working in the comparative big city of Khabarovsk. Their dorm room is a quaint affair, a typical hostel 4 bed room they are living in now. The door is quickly locked as vodka is pulled out and food appears from somewhere. A couple shots of vodka poured with some standard toasts and the food is laid out and I’m encouraged to eat (presumably they think I can’t handle my vodka and this will help soak it up). The offerings are bizarre but somehow tasty… First a hearty Russian rye, an unusual tube of meat that is sliced and eaten in the bread, and lots of bananas. The bananas caught me off guard….. How do these factor in. Nevertheless, I ate quickly not knowing how many shots I might end up doing.
As our conversation begins to get more complex, Google translate comes out on our phones as the best means of communication. Most often it’s remarkable and we can literally type and pass the phone around to talk when words or gestures won’t do. Other times it’s humorous…. I get phrases like “Where is your cow rush” handed to me… So at times it’s easiest to simply laugh and say “Fuck Google,” which is always universally enjoyed.
At many times in the conversation Max keeps telling me how to use this word “Pa-hoye” in Russian… How to say it to someone who is talking to me, etc. obviously my first thought is that I’ve now learned something I will never under any circumstances utter, as I have no clue what it means but when I say it they laugh wildly.
All of a sudden Max begins sharing his Kontakt page — a Russian equivalent of Facebook and proudly announces that his avatar is Putin. Oh this is about to get good… I think…. I ask him to translate the meme on the picture and I’m not sure Google was that helpful but it was something about Ukraine so I don’t prove too much further… They tell me how our US$ is strong and while nodding to them I express that our politics are messed up, and how the US media attacks on Russia are not representative of how we the people feel. This they understand with a “Ja Puno.”
The time passes and I sense a good break in the conversation when I should head out while I’m still not fully drunk, so I commence a final toast of Vodka. We toast to Russian American friendship and to better times. I’m humbled by their immediate attempt to see beyond the surface of the medias portrayal of our countries relations.
As I go to leave, I get hugs from each one… So much for the stereotype of cold unfriendly Russians. Max stops me as I’m about to leave and says “Do not say Pa-hoje.” We all burst into laughter and I assured him I never planned to in the first case….
As I drifted asleep our first night in the train to Ulan-Ude, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing would happen at home. These kids literally spent 2 hours typing in Google translate and struggling to get out simple sentences in English just to communicate with me. They sent a friend to buy Vodka and a feast of snacks moments after meeting me without any hesitation.
I’ve often said that travel is the cure for so much in the world, and I’ve realized after thinking about that statement at face value that it might come off as pretentious and entitled. That is far from what I intend….instead what I mean is that not only do we gain the experiences from travel, but others who we meet around the world get a chance to meet and interact with one of “us.” If I was a Russian kid and all that I knew of America and Americans is what the media told me of their foreign policy….without ever meeting a single American, I might just believe that we are an wholly consumerist state without any regard for those living beyond our borders. All the media propaganda in the world is thrown out the window when people interact on a person to person basis.
It’s for this reason among others why I fear the idea of sanctions on a country – if we close off relations we force a country to either fend solely for itself and resent us for that, or far more likely to form alliances with other nations we have ostracized. The end result is not pretty. If we can acknowledge that the Cuban sanctions program was an abject failure in achieving its intended results, can we not holistically acknowledge the failure of the idea of sanctions across the board?
Coming to Russia at this time when America’s relationship with Russia has reverted to some of the darkest days of the Cold War has shown me that one of my oldest adages remains true – “don’t blame the people, blame the government.” Much like the giant Serb who said to me in 2003 that “I hate George Bush, but I love Americans,” the trend continued last night when numerous “Fuck Obama” comments were raised…. We as a people remain remarkably able to distinguish between the propaganda and the reality and I believe if given the choice most of us choose friendship and comradery instead of hatred.
The Trans-Siberian Experience