Continuing the Russian journey I had begun in this post, I had spent ten days in Russia, travelling and watching a match in Nizhny Novgorod. Despite the challenges, I had started loving this country with its peculiarities. After the match in Nizhny, I spent a few days in Moscow trying to live a non-touristy life and then took a 20 hour train to Adler.
Match Down South
When I woke up the next morning, the train was ambling along the Black Sea and a couple of hours later stopped at the Adler railway station. I caught a bus to the guesthouse and took a nap. When I woke up, it was pouring down like crazy and I had to go get Parul from the airport. I waited a while and eventually arranged an umbrella from the guesthouse. The airport was a short walking distance from the guesthouse and I went to pick up Parul. We came back and settled into the room. Since it had been a while since the two of us had been together, the day was spent in the room mostly. We got out once to stock up on beer and have some food at the nearby stolovya. The stolovya was an interesting concept. Something of a canteen which had food on display that you could pick up as you passed. You were billed at the end of the line for whatever you put on your tray. It was a reminiscent of the soviet times, as I had read earlier. I had failed to find a stolovya in all the towns thus far or maybe I was not looking in the right places. It was a economic way to have one’s daily meal and seemed pretty authentic as well.
The next day, we had planned to go to Sochi to catch the first match at the Fan Fest. However, Sochi was not that easy to get to from Adler and the heavy breakfast and hot sun were major deterrents. In our defence, we did sit at the bus station for a while but the buses were late and we traced our way back to the room for some more time indoors. We eventually left the guesthouse and headed for the stadium.
The stadium was buzzing with activity. Parul had to collect her Fan ID so we got there early. Then we spent time drinking beer, watching people turn up in huge numbers, everyone super high on energy and enthusiasm. Some random strangers got pictures clicked with us and we happily obliged. Parul got her face painted and we even got bam-bams to add to the decibel levels of the stadium. Eventually, we had to run the last few hundred meters to get to the stadium on time as the gate was really far off and we had spent too much time on shenanigans!
The match did not disappoint, nor did the stadium. It was by far the most exciting match I have seen. The Russian fans were jumping and shouting and creating a ruckus. The Croatian fans in their corner were being their usual self, infectious and loud. Everyone was so engrossed in the game that not even a single wave managed to cross the stadium! 😀 We watched the whole match on our feet amidst a crowd of Russians. I found myself sympathising with the home side as the match progressed. The match was a thriller in itself. 1-1 at the end of full time and 2-2 at the end of extra time. Eventually Croatia won but Russia had certainly outdid itself.
It took an eternity to reach the shuttle buses and another one for the shuttle to reach the airport whence we walked back to the guesthouse. Somehow I found Adler to be less organised than Nizhny. In the shuttle bus, a bunch of Russian youngsters struck up a conversation with us. They were from Saint Petersburg and the girl who did most of the talking had been to India. She also knew the “Jimmy” song! After Goa, I found this song to be the most recognised aspect of India. Bappi Da was certainly a genius! 😂
The next morning, I had a shooting pain up my legs despite not having walked a lot. I suspected that my shoes were not properly cushioned (I confirmed this later and ditched them in Russia). While we had initially planned on spending the day hiking some places close by, we changed the plan in favour of Rosa Khutor, a ski resort town 40 kms from Adler.
We sat at a bus stop waiting for a bus when a shared taxi offered us a ride. The driver initially demanded 500 for the two of us and then 400. Since I am not very comfortable with taxis in general, we declined his offer. But the taxi driver was convinced that we should take this offer so he followed me back to the bus stand and pushed two of his fingers in front of my face saying that a bus takes 200 so 400 with him was a great deal. This entire negotiation took place without either of us understanding a word of what the other was saying. 😲
The taxi ride turned out to be a good deal. The roads were beautiful and there is something about the mountains that’s always endearing. Rosa Khutor is just a kilometer of promenade along the river lined with cafes and hotels. It is beautiful, colourful and has a pleasant temperature, pleasing to the senses in every way. I found myself thinking that this was what Lavasa ought have been like.
We enquired about possible activities and it turned out that taking the ski ropes to the peak was the most popular one. We did consider it once but the crowd at the ticket booth made us decide against it. The lakes and hikes were limited to foreigners since it was close to the national border, not that I was in a shape to hike anyway. So we decided to waste the day walking around the beautiful small town.
We got a bottle of rosé wine and sat in a cafe by the stream till the sunset. Then we watched the sun slowly disappear behind a hill, leaving an orange tint on the clouds that dotted the sky. We then dined at another cafe on some tasteless pizza and discussed a zombie apocalypse situation involving the abandoned ski ropes and the approaching darkness.
We decided to leave late in the evening. The buses were unpunctual as usual so we decided to wander on the other side of the bus stand. There we stumbled upon a square with people dancing to some live music. We would have loved to spend more time here had it been possible but for now, we had to catch a bus back to Adler and that in itself was an activity.
The next day was to be our last in Adler and we wanted to make the most of it. The train was in the evening and we wanted to spend the day at the beach. So we booked a hostel close to the beach-side of the town and shifted our luggage there. There was a whole lot of Indians there and one of the talkative ones told us about how he had recently graduated and planned to become a scuba instructor. The younger generation is so full of this sense of adventure!
The beach was nice and sunny, not something that Indians crave for 😳 But the water was pleasant and we spent a lot of time in the sea.
Parul got herself a floating donut and I practiced my swimming. It seems like I am getting better, if only in iotas.
While we sat on out lounge chairs, taking a break between bouts of swimming, a Russian guy chatted us up. At the end of the conversation, he said “Welcome to Mother Russia!” in such a typical way that both of us had to control our laughs 😂
Finally, we wrapped up, went back to the hostel and checked out to the amazement of the receptionist and started towards the railway station. We stopped at a nice Georgian restaurant for a late and heavy lunch and then stocked up on supplies for the long train journey ahead.
We reached the station well ahead of time despite a few anxious moments in between. Once again we had a cabin all to ourselves. The train started from Adler and was to reach Moscow 34 hours later. A long journey indeed. The FIFA appointed translator who came to our cabin to give some information asked be a somewhat unsettling question. She asked me if I was not afraid of travelling on the train with such a beautiful girlfriend. Her creepy demeanour did not help as well and I started wondering if there was anything to be afraid of in Russian trains. The locking cabin doors also spoke of an unpleasant past of the railways in this part of the world.
The 34 hours in the train passed rather uneventfully. I was a tad bit disappointed at not having seen the famous Russian train culture in lieu of sharing the cabin with denizens. The Russian countryside had offered little in terms of entertainment; it had been vast, green and monotonous. The more lands I travel, the more I marvel at the plethora of experiences India provides.
We were back in Moscow after the long train ride but it was not Moscow’s turn yet. We caught another train to Yaroslavl soon after and a short 2 hour ride brought us to the capital of Russia’s golden ring.
We found a bus to the “old town” and thence walked to our pretty boutique hotel.
We got out to walk around the town and to find something to eat. The heritage town was concentrated in a small area which was easily walkable.
We started with the cathedral right behind our hotel and walked around in whichever direction caught our whim. Everything about this town was extremely beautiful; the small roads, the cathedrals, the parks, the river bank, the colourful buildings.
We ended up in an extremely authentic place for lunch. So authentic that just the concierge spoke a bit of English and the staff had difficulty finding an English menu. We ended up ordering something with the help of the Translate App and the pictures and then waited in apprehention. Turned out that we had not done too bad. The food was quite delicious. However, I could not appreciate the caviar in the salad. My pallate is still rustic I guess 😛 There was also a local drink that we had ordered which turned out to be heavily wasabi flavoured and extremely potent. We had a nice buzz by the time we left the restaurant and the day got even more lovelier.
That evening we went for another stroll around town.
We ended up in a cafe nearby to watch the match over some beers and a platter of cheese! 💓 England crashing out of the World Cup was simply a perfect ending to the wonderful day. #itsnotcominghome 😛
We spent the next morning seeing a nearby complex (Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy) which had museums about Yaroslavl’s history. We understood little of the history which was explained mostly in Russian.
We had quite a few interesting episodes where the staff of the exhibitions and museums were amused at two Indians walking the corridors cluelessly 😅 At the first exhibition the news that we were Indians travelled with us and the matronly women on duty came up to look at us curiously. In another, we were bombarded with a series of instructions in Russian before the lady looked at us and burst out laughing when she realised that we had understood nothing of it.
The complex had a tower which provided a beautiful vantage point for the city.
In one of the parks, an old man came up to us to ask us whether we needed help in understanding the map we were staring at. He started talking to us in Russian and our attempts to tell him that we did not understand his language were offhandedly shrugged off. Upon learning that we were from India, he started reminiscing about his past travels perhaps and named the neighbouring countries, cities and Bollywood actors that he knew of. He even hummed the tune of Raj Kappor’s Mera Joota Hai Japani with some makeshift lyrics 😂 👞 🎼
We spent more time on the banks of the river Volga, walking along the embankment. There were boats plying the river taking tourists out and back, some were set up as hotels and restaurants. A few men sat fishing as well. Volga was vast, beautiful and serene.
We went back to see the eternal flame as the evening grew darker.
To end the night, we hit the cafe street again for some good cocktails and food.
The two amazing days in Yaroslavl ended with us catching the wrong bus for the railway station. Thankfully we realised well in time and ran to catch the right bus 😬 Murphy never ceases to add adventure to our travels.
Moscow at Last
We were finally in Moscow, the last leg of our journey in Russia. Parul had to leave a couple of days earlier than me but we still had four days together and decided to make the most of it. As usual, we planned but never really stuck to it 😝
The first evening, after checking into the hostel and relaxing a bit, we hit the Ismaylovo Kremlin. It was a weird and colourful fort with a random assortment of architectures.
We walked about the kremlin and the adjoining flea market for a while and then went towards the city center to meet Yan. We had met Yan on one of the trips to Sri Lanka many years back. We had (mostly Parul had) getten back in touch with him when we were headed to Moscow and he told us that he was in town. So that evening, Yan, his friend Timur, Parul and I got together at Kitay Gorod and sat in a cafe to have some beers. Timur spoke little English, probably comparable to my Russian. While it had initially seemed that the evening would wrap up early, since none of us had much to talk about, it turned out to be quite eventful.
After one beer at the cafe, we raided a supermarket and sat in a park (the same one where I had spent my first morning) to drink. The park was lively with people all around and musicians putting up a show. Yan told us that drinking in public was prohibited in Russia and the rule had been relaxed specially for the World Cup. I learnt a lot of things that evening, about the unrest of Russian people and how happy or unhappy they were with the government and it’s ways. Yan thought they controlled too much and said that he liked the flexibility of Indian laws! I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.
We got more beers from a nearby pub, drank some more and laughed a lot more. Timur enhanced our Russian vocabulary with some swear words. It turned out to be an extremely good night that ended late but would have gone on still had we not had plans for the next morning. Timur’s disbelief is still vivid in my memory when I told him that we would take a bus back to our hostel instead of a cab 😂 It really was quite late.
The next morning we woke up and rushed for the free walking tour that we had booked. The spot was easy enough to find and was full of a lot of people.
The entire crowd was eventually divided into groups of roughly 30 people and we were allotted to the group of Paulina (the name of our guide). The tour was quite helpful in understanding a few things about Moscow and Russian culture in general. For example, we came to know that the number and colours of the cathedral domes have a significance. Also, that the Russian schools had literature as a mandatory subject in which the students were made to read a lot of European and Russian classics. Paulina also told us about de-Stalinization and walked us through some interesting spots around the center of the city.
After the walking tour, we spent the rest of the day at Moscow’s Fan Fest watching Belgium beat England in the third position playoff.
The next day we decided to look up some of Paulina’s recommendations. Arabat Street, which she had suggested for souvenir shopping was up first and we walked down and up the entire length of the pretty street without doing much shopping.
While the initial plan was to go back to the hostel and drop our cameras before heading to the Fan Fest to watch the finals, we were delayed and decided to head to the Fan Fest directly. There was a din as soon as we entered the metro station. The Croatian fans were at it, singing all the way to the stadium and the Fest.
We somehow got to the Fan Fest in time and wasted 30 minutes or so in a line to get beer and ended up leaving without the beer since the line had barely moved in all this time. All this time and an earlier incident at a shawarma place where it took us 40 minutes to get a shawarma, had me musing at how Indians would have made a killing in such a place. We are trained to work on scale! 😀
We went all the way back to watch the match on an auxiliary screen. A drunk group of Russians identified us as Indians and spent the next ten minutes professing their love for India and Goa to us!
Russians loved India, specially Goa. Yan finally helped me understand the reason for this. Russia (at least Moscow) gets terrible weather during the winters. Goa is good weather for them and combined with the parties, a big Russian speaking community and relaxed laws, it is a better home away from home for these people.
We watched Croatia suffer a heart-breaking loss to France, specially so because they had controlled most of the game. But France were tactically stronger and immaculate in their finish. In the end, the better side had won.
We got out of Sparrow Hills as soon as the game ended and got caught in a shower right outside. It was a sudden heavy downpour and we did not have enough time to find a shelter. We stood under a flimsy cloth cover trying to protect our cameras between the two of us. The heavy rains had us drenched in the 15-20 minutes that it poured and then we finally booked our first and only cab ride in Russia. By the time we managed to communicate our location to the non-English speaking driver, the rains had let up and we raced across town to our hostel.
There was a party going on in the center of the city but we got lazy after changing out of the wet clothes, got a couple of beers from a supermarket and drank them at the hostel before calling it a night.
The next morning we packed up our partially wet clothes and moved to another hostel. I had, for some reason, completely forgotten about agoda till now in the entire trip. This last hostel that we booked through agoda turned out to be the best of the lot in Moscow. We quickly checked in and rested a bit before heading out for the day.
The agenda for the day was simple enough. We walked around the Red Square clicking photographs and enjoying the bright and sunny day.
Then we headed to Dr. Jhivago, one of Paulina’s suggestions, for our fancy lunch of the trip. The place was beautifully done, extremely busy (we had booked the place a day in advance!) and the food was delicious.
I also tried a soviet style glazed coffee which was amazingly good. A pity I never found it in any other cafe in the rest of the trip.
Post the lunch we spent some more time wandering the streets and in a huge bookshop called Respublica. There is something about books that eternally binds me to them. We must have spend almost two hours there browsing and buying books, CDs, pens and what not.
We came back to the city center later in the night to check out the brightly lit buildings. The Bolshoi theater, Metropol Hotel, GUM and TSUM malls were all beautifully lit up. Nikolskaya street was still abuzz with the football hangover. The Croatian fans had taken over an entire pub for themselves and were singing at the top of their voices. Quite a crowd had gathered around that area to partake in their infectious enthusiasm! The Red Square was off limits so we just walked around before catching the last metro back to the hostel.
The next morning Parul left for India. My flight was two days later so I spent most of my day in the Izmaylovo Kremlin yet again. The place was less crowded than before and looked more delightful. I wrapped up the pending souvenir shopping and almost bought a jacket that I did not need!
Then in the hunt for a relaxing spot, I reached the Izmaylovo Manor House. It was a beautiful and peaceful manor house that was not at all touristy. I walked around, clicked photographs, sat in the park outside, read, wrote and watched the day pass by.
That evening I gave into my Vietnamese temptation and had dinner at a Vietnamese joint next to my hostel. Jose, a Mexican American from the hostel, was there as well and we chatted during the dinner. He was telling me about the alimony laws in the USA and then we bitched about the country and it’s policies in general. He sold me South America yet again and told me that if I learnt Spanish I could easily make some money on the go while travelling in South America; perhaps teach English, a possibility I had considered myself many-a-times.
The next morning I walked all the way to Gorky Park from the hostel; an idea that I had gathered while talking to an accounts teacher from New Zealand over breakfast in the hostel. I saw more of the city this way than my regular way of taking the fixed routes of trams and metros.
By the time I reached the park it had started raining. Gorky Park was way too touristy after all the parks that I had seen in the country thus far. I wandered for a bit and then when Yan pinged me to meet up, I left without a qualm.
Timur had arranged for some local alcohol for us after the conversation we had the other night. While he could not make it, Yan met me to hand over the bottle of suspicious smelling alcohol 😂 Then he took me for a round around the neighbourhood we were in. He told me some things from back in the 90’s. Then we did a quick tour of a factory complex that had been tastefully rebuilt into a new office space.
This evening progressed in much the same way as the last one that we had met. We sat to eat something in a cafe and had a few beers. The night ended in a delirium of drinking beer, discussing politics, walking, taking trams, clicking random photographs, hopping cafes and flirting with waitresses. I woke up the next morning with a heavy head and no idea of how I had crawled into my capsule bunk! 🍻
I regained life somehow and managed to pack up and check out of the hostel. An amazing shawarma had a big role to play in my recuperation ❤️
I had reached Russia thoroughly unprepared, not even knowing that there would be a language problem to be faced. My itinerary was not the best one and I was attempting something of a cross between travel and football tourism.
However, now that I sat at the airport looking back on the amazing three weeks that I had spent in this beautiful country, I felt a sense of accomplishment akin to the one felt at figuring one’s way around a new town. I had stuck out like a sore thumb initially, not knowing the language and with my strange attire. But given how I had stuck to local interactions and the chances I got to talk to locals like Yan, Timur and Paulina from the tour, I had a sense of understanding these people slightly better. Their daily life; what they considered rude and what not; their mannerisms; their youth and it’s unrest; the older generations and it’s curiosity; the askance glances at my fakir looks; the smiles at my attempts to speak Russian; the drunken high-fives and the enthusiasm around the World Cup. I sat there, feeling as comfortable in this foreign land as if it had been my own.
I have always been happier travelling when I got to understand the place better and got to interact more with the denizens. It has never been just about the sights and definitely not about the parties. It has been more about finding a relaxing park or a cafe, having a meaningful conversation, making connections that are not ephemeral. And for all these one needs time. ☺️
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And here is the complete album of the Russia trip.