27 April 2010

Golden Ring (part one)

We arrived in Sergiev Posad on Wednesday evening, at about 9:20.  This would be our first excursion into real Russia, the one that existed beyond the metropolises of Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  The first thing we noticed was how to get off the platform and towards the station building to get out onto the road.  You walked to the end of the platform, and then over the tracks of the next two lines.  We’d seen this plenty in rural and remote areas in Germany and Austria, but this was a station with about 10 lines going through it, and before we got to the platform's end, an incoming train was already blaring it’s horn at the passengers crossing.  We were only 70km out of Moscow.  I can only imagine it getting more interesting the further on we go.

The town itself was dismal; badly lit, roads full of potholes and decrepit buildings.  The walk to the hotel (and I use hotel very loosely) wasn’t great.  There was loads of dogs barking in the night air, and anyone who knows me well knows how I feel about dogs in general.  The “Hotel Aristocrat” reminded us somewhat of Bates Motel, standing alone on a hill (we only took this picture during the day, so our feeling is more than a little lost).  Cold showers and bad lighting were the order of the day.

The reason we were here was to visit the Monastery.  It stood out in the night sky brightly, and was obviously the only thing the whole town had going for it.  The next day, we got there early.  It was meant to be free, and after asking the lady at the office by the gate if it was ok to take photos (quite often you have to pay to do so in Russia), she presented us with a bill for 500 rouble.  We said we thought it was free (according to the guide book), and there was no sign indicating prices, but she was insistent.  We wouldn’t have minded, but only a few of the other visitors seemed to be paying.

We were denied entry to one of the churches we tried to enter as it was closed to the general public, but noticed other tour groups going in.  A group of Japanese tourists, with a Russian guide then approached, so we went up to the door with them.  Unsurprisingly, I was refused, but Audrey squeezed in with them to get a look at the place as a Japanese tourist.  Seems like they all look alike to Russians as well  ;-)

The town is meant to be a jewel in the crown of the Golden Ring, if that’s the case, I felt like the crown must have been made of pyrite.  Although my opinion of the place is probably been altered by the hotel and that ‘bureaucrat’ (plus it took us a good hour to get a bank machine the previous evening so that we could pay for the hotel).

We moved on from there to Rostov.  On the train, we noticed an interesting phenomenon.  The train was packed, with a few people standing in the aisles.  At some point in the journey, well between stops, we noticed people streaming down the aisle past us, and into the next carriage.  This carried on for a good five minutes, before the ticket inspector arrived, and our carriage cleared out somewhat also.  As we departed from the next station, we could see a large crowd of people on the platform, no doubt waiting for the next train so that they could continue their journey without paying for a ticket.

Rostov looked awful from the outset, with the potholes even large than the previous place.  I watched a Lada Riva (stereotypically they are ubiquitous) plough into a large puddle, only to watch it lurch ungainfully to one side.  It soldiered on regardless, until it was in up to the headlight on one side, and the bumper on the other.  Miraculously, it made it out, if only to prove the durability of those old Rivas.

We were staying in the Kremlin (link) in Rostov that night.  It was a great place to stay, basic, but our wing was made completely of wood, and was the reason that we were there.  The next day we were to do a day trip to Yaroslavl, which was meant to be the main draw in that area.  Unfortunately it was ruined by the weather, very damp and very cold, and the fact the bus station was miles from the town centre.

We were back to Rostov that evening again to stay in the Kremlin.  Before we got there we stopped into a little Georgian restaurant (where we had breakfast that morning, the place didn’t have many culinary options).  We ordered a few different plates of food that Audrey could make out from the menu.

There was a table of four Russian men nearby, who’d been there a while.  I threw a cursory glance their way every so often, in the hope of spotting what we believed to be the obligatory bottle of Vodka on the table, but couldn’t see it, only spotting a nearly finished beer, and a glass of wine (plus a lot of tomato juice).

After a few minutes the curiosity of one of them got the better of him, and he asked us where we were from (Audrey’s Chinese looks, my ginger beard, and our inability to order properly normally make us stand out).  As usual, Audrey’s Russian language skills proved extremely helpful.  I did my best to communicate where possible, as most of them had a little bit of English, and some German also.

They we actually two Russians, a Chechnyan (could also be considered Russian, but I’ve heard it can be a bad idea to get into politics in Russia) and an Azeri.

It turned out it was of the lads birthday.  Then the bottle of Vodka appeared.  We were obliged to have a shot to celebrate with him.  Audrey struggled to do the necessary deed of polishing it off in one.  They were understanding though.  Many more shots followed, as they invited us to join them at their table.  The was some good banter, despite the language barrier, plus a heated argument about who Andrei Arsharvin scored 4 goals against, Man Utd or Liverpool. Turns out I was right, I’ll let the Chechnyan bloke know when we send them the photos.  Here’s one:

The Chechnyan fellow (top left) then treated us to a virtuoso performance of traditional Chechnyan dance, which we were then forced to join in with.  With one eye on the fact we had 6 hours worth of bus journeys the following day, we made our excuses and left at this point, but not before another shot of Vodka was downed (to inebriate me even further).  A thoroughly interesting encounter.

We left Rostov at 7:20 the next morning.


King prawn said...

I've now taking to copying all the text of your blog and sending it to my Mom in SA who phoned me today for an update. True story. Dude I would have giving anything to see you doing a traditional Chechyan dance!! Hilarious:))

Unknown said...

Hi, Russia sounds grim, but if you don't like s**tholes you shouldn't have gone there.

I liked your News of the World moment where 'this reporter made his excuses and left.'

Get out of Russia quick. Leave them too it.

Why did you stay in that hotel because it was made of wood? It's not a gag. I want an answer.

Good luck my friend