Carolyn and Anthony

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Trip to Novosibirsk

Yesterday Anthony and I decided to go to mass at the cathedral in Novosibirsk. We actually live in Akademgorodok (roughly translates to “small academic community”), which is about 30 kilometers outside of the big city Novosibirsk—a metropolitan area of about 2 million. I actually hadn’t been to Novosibirsk yet, except for arriving at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, and we were both excited to see the city and the architecture of the cathedral. To make the 9am mass we had to leave our apartment at 8am on a particularly crisp Siberian morning. While eating breakfast, my culturally sensitive husband half jokingly pointed out that I might want to wear a skirt, as the Lonely Planet Guide book recommended it at the Novosibirsk Cathedral. Skirt? It was -22.6° C at that moment (a mere -8.7° F, sans windchill). Not wanting to be a rude foreigner, I donned my thickest long underwear, the one skirt I brought, and my boots—though they were not Uggs…I might have looked fashionable if you squinted your eyes and ran by very quickly.

Quick movements seemed to be the MO for the day. As we walked the 10 minutes to the bus stop, even stoic Siberians were steeling themselves against the abrasive wind that quickly found its way through my long underwear. Pedestrians walked with great speed and swing of appendages to keep them filled with as blood as long as possible. Everyone’s eyes quickly filled with the tears from the wind, as if a cold front were meeting a warm in the mountains of the cornea.

After a numbing 12 minute wait, bus route number 8 swung through our stop and we jumped on. The bus system here seems to be quite good. At least ten buses came to the stop before number 8, but only this route takes you all the way into Novosibirsk, through all the other outlying towns on the way there. On the bus, I sat down in a comfy chair only to realize at the next stop that I should give up my seat for some older women who had joined the trip. Anthony did the same, but I noticed that young local men did not think twice about leaving their warm reclines. I suppose that perhaps Anthony and I had actually insulted these tough older folks, implied that they needed to sit and could not stand. They were clearly experienced at bus travel and seemed to walk around with great ease as we jolted down the frost-heaved highway.

If it weren’t for a thankful smile from one older lady, I would’ve been very sorry for giving up my seat because our new location had us standing directly in front of the door, getting blasted with cold air at each of the many stops we made before Novosibirsk. When we finally arrived in Novosibirsk, we were cold but still functioning and decided to walk to the cathedral rather than taking an in-town bus. Walking would obviously warm us up, and figuring out which bus to take would’ve meant a painfully cold moment of looking through the map and guidebook.

It’s a rare case when vigorous exercise can’t warm you up. Walking up the hill from the main bus station was one of the coldest experiences of my life. The vast street we were following was a giant wind tunnel, though the explosions of wind seemed to come from every direction. After a dreadfully long 20 minutes of walking, we felt we were honing in on the cathedral and turned off onto a side street. This street was amazingly warmer because of its relative shelter from the wind. My calves were still anesthetized with cold though, which I don’t think I’ve ever felt before, and poor Anthony was wearing sneakers (the only shoes he brought to Siberia), so his toes were quite painful. For the record, I told him to bring boots many times.

We finally spotted the cathedral and arrived there at a timely 9:42am. 9am mass was coming to a close, and during the “kiss of peace” I noticed that I was in fact the only one there in a skirt, or a least a skirt that was not hidden by layers of coats. We stayed a little while after mass was over to pray/prepare ourselves for the elements, and on the way out I realized that chairs along the sides of the church were placed right above the heating vents. I decided we should sit and pray a little more.

Finally, still quite cold, we got up for the return journey. Sight seeing was out of the question. We hopped on a trolley, thank goodness, to get most of the way back to the central bus station. Once there we had to wait a grueling 20+ minutes in the cold. We were not alone in misery, there was a lot of pacing and purchasing of warm “chai” by the locals to stay warm. One woman with the tell-tale Russian plastic zip up shopping bag was constantly tapping her boots together. I was a bit comforted that many weather-worn Siberians clearly regarded this as uncomfortably cold, not just we green Americans. We were all allies against the artic. Amazingly though, some travelers looked quite at ease even with fewer clothes on than most.

Bus route 8 again came infrequently, so we had to wait while numerous other buses tortuously came and left. Finally it arrived and people pushed and shoved their way onto the bus. This rush of activity and body contact was like the secret way to warm each other up. We got shoved towards the front of the bus, and seeing as there were several open seats there we gladly settled in for the farthest destination of route 8.

Apparently being seated and not next to a door makes little difference—I did not warm up one iota for the entire ride (during which the driver was driving excruciatingly slowly). When we arrived at our stop, I started a stiff awkward walk then run back to the apartment. We made it, and after some warm food while sitting on top of the heater, my body temperature felt somewhat normal. I then went skiing and actually was quite warm the whole workout. Apparently sitting, standing, and even walking in the cold are just not sufficient for generating warmth.

Most days have not been that cold. We’ve enjoyed temps between 0 and 20° F for the most part, so it really has not been unbearable. Today was a balmy -10 C, about 14° F. I hope you all had a wonderful and warm weekend.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Plane, Train, and Automobile

I arrived at Домодедово (Domodedovo Airport) late on a Tuesday evening, a day later than I had planned due to some frustrating and expensive visa snafu's. I got off the plane, found my ski bag (which made it!) and headed for the exit. I talked some taxi driver down from $100 to about $70, still about two times what I should have paid, for the 60 minute ride to the train station. All well, I seem to be starting a tradition of horribly overpaying a taxi driver my first time in a country. (Three years ago in Rome I paid some bloke 40 euro to take me what turned out to be 4 blocks.) On our way out of the airport parking lot I sat and watched as he stopped a 100 meters before the automated toll gates. As soon as the police officer monitoring the area had walked to the other end of the exit area, we pulled right up to the nearest gate, to the point that we were hitting it with the car. The driver reached his hand out his window, lifted the gate until it was over the roof of the car, and sped away. I'm going to have to see if this trick works in the United States.

He was actually quite friendly, and we had fun talking to each other in broken Russian / English. As soon as I had communicated that I liked hard rock, he looked at me excitedly and popped in a cassette. Out came good 70's American and British rock. For the rest of the ride, I think we were both relieved that we didn't have to listen to the nauseating mix of Russian and American pop coming out of the radio. So maybe the $70 was worth it.

Because of my delayed arrival, I did not have train tickets from Moscow to Novosibirsk. At the Ярославский Вокзал (Yaroslavsky train station) I discovered that not only was the first train to Novosibirsk all booked up in плацкарт (3rd class), but also the next train, and every train until the next night. So, without much else to do, I bought a ticket for a train leaving the next night at 10pm and prepared myself to spend the night in a Russian train station.

The train station is on a main square in Moscow with two other train stations and a major Metro stop. All together, they make up one of Moscow's "busiest and hairiest centers' according to Lonely Planet. Having abandoned my large ski bag and backpack in the center of the main hall full of people, where I hoped they wouldn't be rifled through, I headed out to explore the area and quickly confirmed my guidebook's assessment. Even inside of the train station, there were quite a few stumbling drunks and other harmless, homeless-looking types, but I can't say it felt much different than Port Authority or even the Cleveland Greyhound Station.

I found the baggage storage area in the basement, checked my bags, and headed to the second-floor hall, a somewhat larger, warmer, and cleaner area. There most people were laid out on benches sleeping, and soon was among them. Around 1:00 am, however, we were all woken up and quickly shooed into a much smaller room adjacent to the second floor hall. Initially confused, I realized the handful of police officers and station attendants were systematically checking everyone and kicking out those that didn't measure up, separating the bums from the upstanding passengers I guess. I wasn't really sure into which category I fit as all I had was a ticket for a train that didn't leave for another 21 hours. Watching carefully as the more sober and clever homeless types were cleared despite their clearly invalid tickets by approaching the young, bored, and tired police officers rather than the mean and vindictive station attendant babushkas, I quickly handed my ticket and photocopy of my passport to the youngest, most friendly looking Moscow policeman. He looked at my ticket and passport, and with a bewildered amusement, looked at me and said, "Ты Американец?" (Are you an American?) I confirmed that I was, and shaking his head, he handed me my documents, and walked off. Other than a few arguments spiraling into minor fights and a few more people getting thrown out of the room, the next few hours were pretty dull. Around 3:00am they let us all back into the larger room and I slept for the rest of the night. Also, as an aside, they weren't completely throwing out the poor homeless folks, just making them go down to the first floor where it wasn't quite as warm.

I spent some of the next day wandering around Moscow and Red Square, seeing some churches, etc. That evening I (finally) got on mine train, managing to drag my ski bag and find a place to put it without upsetting anyone. I was traveling плацкарт (3rd class), meaning that my ticket for 55 hours of travel across thousands of kilometers of Russia was only about $50. It also meant that I got to travel in conditions that make most Russians shudder. To be honest, it really wasn't that bad. Half of my nearest compartment-mates were always kind and generous, sharing their food and stories with me. I got to impress them by explaining that my wife wasn't with me because she was competing at Biathlon World Championships, and they got to impress me by being able to recall exactly how the American women, including Carolyn, placed in the relay at the Olympics last year (15th, at 3rd to last, their best finish ever). It was true that the other half of the people on the train were in various states of drunkenness, but they kept to themselves for the most part and didn't bother me too much. To be honest, most of the train ride was just boring, passing endless snow covered forests, fields, and semi-abandoned villages.

I arrived at the train station at 5am in Novosibirsk to be greeted by two fur-clad and chipper twenty-year-old girls, two of my students.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Russian Ski Race

This past Sunday was the All Russia Ski Day (Лыжня России), which consisted of ski races happening all over Russia, all at the same time. There were over 4000 racers competing in Novosibirsk. It was likely one of the most intense races I've ever skied with some VERY serious and competitive masters men and women. In the US we have "master-blasters," those 40-60 year-olds who are constantly out to prove something in their midlife crisis. In Russia, it seemed like there were hundreds of them, all far fiercer than their American counterparts.

The competitive wave included all bibs less than 1000 (probably about 300 people), and my bib was 8000-something. Not to worry, I just hopped the fence into the starting pen like all of the other greater-than-one-thousand bibs who wanted to be in the real race. Since plenty of the ten-thousand-plus folks had Russian National Team suits of a late 90's vintage, I figured no one would say anything and fell in behind them at the start line. When the race organizers began to yell at us about our improper bib numbers, they all just started yelled back. When the organizers started to yell at us for creeping over the start line, the racers didn't yell back. They just false-started. Causing the entire wave to trample those same race organizers. All of this happened a full three minutes before the race was actually supposed to start, and there was no stopping and restarting this bunch. It was amazing.

The race was only 10km long (skate), and the wave stayed as one drawn out pack. It was really just a 30 minute long mass start. We were all constantly passing and being passed by other racers with lots of shouting, pushing, and stepping on each other's equipment. The course looped around through the woods, making a few dips into and climbs out of a gully. It finished with a 3km trek around a giant, normally windswept field. Fortunately, on the day of the race the sky was clear and the air perfectly still at a cold 5 deg F. The highlight of the race was definitely the LARGE military helicopter which buzzed the open field as we skied by so its cameraman could get a good shot of the race from eye-level. I've had to ski in a lot of conditions before, but icy, exhaust-filled helicopter rotor-wash has not been been one of them.

In the end, I finished 44th (or 144th?). I'm unsure of what the guy yelled at me as I finished and with the false-start and wave-jumping that was going on, I'm not sure anyone kept track of results. As I didn't get kicked out of the start pen, trampled by far the most furious mass start I've ever seen, or blown over by the helicopter, I was pretty happy with my result, whatever it was.

/* Removed 2007-02-28