In Russia I am so often in a state of high emotion. I am teary more often than I have been all year, and my mood swings up and down in a way it never did before. The highs are pretty damn high and the lows are never very low, but all the same. I blink back tears when the prodovnitsa on my first train trip corrects me on the disposal of toilet paper because I feel so foreign and because she says it so kindly. (In Siberia used paper is binned rather than flushed, for plumbing reasons.) By the time I get to Vladivostok I am choking up at the sight of a mournful dog then moments later feeling so elated at the beautiful view that I could skip down the street.
It seems appropriate really. This is Mother Russia after all. A country that evokes strong feelings across the globe, that has produced beautiful symphonies and bloody revolutions, that is full of big cities, big cars, big landscapes, big politicians. Russians themselves can be the coldest of cold and the warmest of warm.
And whenever I sit down to write about this country, it is Russians that keep taking centre stage in my stories. I gave the people little thought before arriving, hoping only to chat to a few locals along the way. Perhaps I had some preconceptions, and certainly I had some concerned friends and family waving me off. But from the taxi drivers who go to great lengths to deliver me to hostels that seem to be in hiding, to the locals who take me under their wing and feed me and walk me home, I have never received so much kindness from strangers before.
Outside of Moscow, most people don’t speak English, but sometimes I come across someone who does. Tonya is one of them. I arrive in Ekaterinburg late in the evening and after the taxi driver has finally tracked down the hostel (no sign or building number and an entrance that is actually on the other side of the building and therefore on a different street – how I would have found it on my own is beyond me) I gratefully drop my bags in the pink and white dorm. A couple of girls are lounging about on their beds. They are chatting in Russian and I feel a bit lost until Tonya says, “Where are you from?” We talk, slowly, and I immediately feel the warmth of simply being welcomed in a foreign land. Tonya is big-hearted and funny. She refers to my boyfriend as my “love man” and her hometown in the north of Siberia as her “little fairy town”. When I compliment her on her English she says she is so grateful to her high school teacher for teaching it to her that she could kiss said teacher, and then mimes it. She also helps me by translating for the hostel staff when I find that their promise of “visa support” is not the critical visa registration I need. Mostly she just puts me at ease, telling me how much the bus fare will be and asking how my day was. The morning I am leaving for the train I hoist my enormous pack onto my back and Tonya says, “You are strong, like Russian woman.” I promise – in the way travellers always promise, with the best of intentions – to visit her town one day, and then I am off on the next train.
In Irkutsk, I take the ever-erratic local matrushkas into the centre each day, looking at the weathered wooden buildings with their bright, carved window frames. I walk amongst the gold-leaved silver birches on an island in the middle of the River Angara. And at night I return to my modest little hostel where Nina, an older woman with dyed blonde hair who flutters about like a mother bird, is entranced by me. Every time we speak she says “beautiful girl” and occasionally puts her hand on my hair. There’s nothing special about me, I’m just exotic here. On the hostel wall there is a big world map and we exclaim together at how far I have travelled from home. Despite the excessive attention, she is sweet. She feeds me any time I’m in the kitchen, offering tomatoes, sunflower seeds, chocolate, fruit. One morning she feeds me smetana on bread and I discover it is a kind of delicious soured cream and my new favourite thing. I joke through sign language about there being a composer with the same name. She laughs. Our primary form of communication is gestural, unless she can rope in one of the staff to translate for her. She nods and laughs a lot, almost frantically. She is also incredibly devout. One day she emerges from her room with a blue scarf around her head holding a small book with an image of the Virgin on the front. She shows me and kisses the image before returning to her room to say some very long prayers. In the evenings I hear her praying in the alcove, murmuring fast and low. When I say I am also Christian she crosses herself then points to the ceiling and says in clear English “same God”. Yes, I agree. She mimes dancing and waving her hands at the word “Protestant” and I cross myself and fold my hands solemnly and say “Russki khram” and she laughs at this. She laughs at almost anything I say.
The morning I leave for Lake Baikal, Nina is not yet awake, so I write her a note and bequeath her my smetana.
After the mini bus picks me up we lurch around Irkutsk collecting other passengers before we finally head off to Olkhon Island. We are from all over the world – France, Germany, the United States, Hong Kong – and I realise these are the first foreigners I’ve met in weeks. For the next few days I don’t meet many Russians, but I do meet Kolya. I’m aware of him before I meet him, drinking vodka and arguing about politics in one of the other tour buses also driving around, looking at Lake Baikal. He’ll talk to anyone who wants to, smattering a bit of German amongst his Russian, which is surprisingly helpful. Later that night I’m sitting in the bar at Nikita’s Homestead with some other travellers and Kolya sits down opposite me. He proceeds to make sure we are friends, orders beer and cold smoked omul’ fish, and shares them with me. I’m surprised by how good both the beer and the fish are.
Listening to Kolya it occurs to me how beautiful the Russian language is. It seems odd to say this about a rough, vodka-sculling Siberian, but there it is. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t let the fact that I hardly understand anything he says slow him down. His flow is unrelenting, even lyrical, and as I listen I start to understand that Russian is a language that turns on stressed syllables and intonation. I am not always sure what we are talking about but when in doubt one of us says “Avstraliya!” or “Rossiya!” and we clink beer glasses.
People are always wide-eyed when they hear I have come from Australia. “Avstraliya!” they exclaim. “Da,” I grin. “Avstraliya.” On the train to Vladivostok two men in their thirties approach me shyly as I’m watching the landscape from the corridor windows. Where am I from? My answer gets the same reaction as always. “Such cool girl,” Alexei says about my travelling alone, translating for his friend Roman. Later they tell me they knew I wasn’t Russian because I was wearing a long skirt. “Russian women,” they say, indicating mini-skirt and high heels.
Alexei and Roman turn out to be lovely and genuinely caring. They invite me to their cabin, where a young mum, Masha, is travelling home with her son, Pasha, to his dad, Sasha. They teach me how to drink vodka the traditional way. Masha smiles indulgently in the corner and Pasha bounces around like any five-year-old boy. “Russian tradition,” Alexei says as we raise glasses, and this becomes a running joke. (When the restaurant car keeps refusing to serve me lunch until a specially appointed time in the afternoon, Alexei rolls his eyes and says “Russian tradition”.) The police come through on one of their semi-regular rounds and Alexei quietly hides the vodka bottle. Turns out it’s now illegal to drink in your train cabin. Secretly, though, I’m loving the cliché.
When they get off the train at Belogorsk we part like old friends. “You are in my heart,” both of them say as they hug me goodbye, and I realise I feel the same way. These dang dramatic Russians, they’re rubbing off on me. All of these people have gotten into my heart in some way, and when I think about that I get teary again.
I still don’t know many words but nearly four weeks after arriving in Moscow, I go to the post office in Vladivostok one day and get through the whole transaction in Russian. It’s simple stuff, something like, “postcards, two Australia, three Switzerland, one Great Britain, please, yes, how much? OK, thank you” but it’s a thrill all the same. The woman behind the counter is one of the superbly kind, helpful Russians, and when I also want to send a parcel she shows me to a different building, because one of those inexplicable Russian things is that you can’t send your parcels in the same place as your letters. From the gentle, friendly little postcard office I walk into a big, busy parcel office with people milling about and numbers being called. After forty-five minutes on a cracked blue vinyl seat my number is called. The woman at the desk makes no indication that she is aware of my presence so after a few minutes I step closer and show my number. Reluctantly, she looks up. I apologise, in Russian, for not speaking Russian and ask, in English, if she speaks English. The woman stares at me with her stone-face on. “Nyet,” she says. I show her that I want to post my parcel and she shakes her head like I am an idiot, then writes down an address on a slip of paper, hands it to me and points outside. I read it. “Voksal?!” I ask incredulously. “Da,” she says, a breath away from rolling her eyes. I have to go all the way to the train station to post this? It makes no sense. I give up with a parting “spaseeba”.
I fell in love with Russia but it made me tired too. These extremes, like the post office clerks, and the way buses sometimes don’t turn up, and the bureaucracy, and the constant language and culture barrier… I never know what’s coming at me next. I am having a ball, but by the time I leave Vladivostok I am entirely out of energy. So as my plane flys out of Vladivostok I am sad, yes, but I also feel like I’m letting out a big sigh of relief. I’m getting off the rollercoaster – but I reckon I’ll come back for another ride one day.