IN memoriam of the magnificently bellicose stylings of Dennis Farina, here is a declaration: go to Russia!Maybe summer has quickened the blood of the populace, or maybe tales of unfriendliness are nothing more than remnants of US Cold War propaganda, but I will swear up and down about the sheer warmth of Russians until the end of my days.
This is an unusual stance, to be sure, as there is much coming out of Russia that raises hackles and eyebrows in equal measure. Putin and Medvedev are engaged in a two-person game of musical chairs for the country’s top positions. The members of Pussy Riot are still in jail. LGBT rights are evaporating faster than oil reserves can be squandered on football clubs and yachts.
But Russians know these things. More, they know that humour is the best response to oppression. It’s why they’re amused by the hugely pricey brands clogging the department store facing Red Square,the raiment of capitalism decked out in the former heart of communism. It’s why they tell jokes like this one, delivered with some aplomb by a Buryat girl with green-gold eyes on a boat in the middle ofLake Baikal.
“An American dog, a Polish dog and a Russian dog were discussing how to get food from their masters,” she says. “The American dog says ‘I bark and I get meat’. The Polish dog asks ‘What is meat?’ The Russian dog says ‘What is bark?’”
Of course, there is an element of the wounded bird to solo travellers, particularly those dripping with backpacks. Travel with even one companion and you’re ensconced in a bubble – travel by yourself and you attract no shortage of interest. There is a certain quizzical look, perhaps garnished with hand behind head, that seems to draw the attention of strangers. How else to explain the hotel concierge who helped me find my hostel – their competition – at 3am in Yekaterinburg, or the tattooed, bearded Muscovite astride a unicycle who took it upon himself to provide a tour of Kitay-Gorod?
I travelled more than 7,000 kilometres by trainfrom Beijing to St Petersburg, and if you are ever inclined to take the Trans-Siberian I recommend traveling from east to west. This is the route most Russians take, and they are delighted to have someone with whom to exchange stories. I met a vet whose ambit is “every cow in Siberia”, and a geneticist on her way to Novosibirsk to work with crops. The best thing about travelling overland is the space – an appreciation of how vast the world is, and how varied the people that live in it.
From Irkutsk, a part of the globe only familiar from marathon sessions of Risk, I boarded the world’s smallest minibus in an attempt to get to Olkhon Island. I sat at the very back, and watched, jaw agape, as no less than 14 people – and luggage! – were squeezed on board. We rattled along for six or so hours, conversation in three languages aided by a woman called Natalya. When we stopped, she produced four stainless steel shotglasses from a clever pouch, and bottles of Mongolian vodka (“For you!”) and Kentuckian Jim Beam for herself. She dabbed her heart twice, flicked a drop into the air and one onto the table (“For husband and son!”), and then she drank deep.
In St Petersburg, I discovered to my delight that the local football team was due to play on the day I arrived. Zenit St Petersburg has had some trouble in the past with racism, and I’m the only brown person in the stadium; it doesn’t help my mood any to spot thousands of police in full riot gear keeping a watchful eye on the fans. There are occasional curious glances during the game, but when Zenit’sbrilliant Brazilian forward Hulk puts them 2-0 up late in the first half, the man next to me cannot suppress a jubilant hug.
“You also Brazilian?” he says, then yells “No matter!” before I can answer. The next hour is then dedicated to learning songs in praise of Zenit and chants denigrating the visiting team. Based on the hilarity when I attempt them, I am certain that either my pronunciation is abominable or their content is unsuitable for a family newspaper.
My favourite encounter, however, was the final leg of my rail journey, on the train from Moscow to St Petersburg. I shared a cabin with a charming older lady and a skinny St Petersburg native with a serious nose and a tousled mop of hair. “Travelling alone?” he asks, and when I nod in the affirmative, he shakes his head in disbelief. “Very hard if you don’t speak Russian.”
My new friend, Dimitry, had just finished a job working for one of the Big Four consulting firms, and is now employed by a telecommunications company. He tells me of the weird and wonderful word of former Soviet republics, of fudged ledgers and reports that mysteriously vanish, and is utterly bemused by my stories of friendly Russians. “Maybe you’re just lucky,” he says. “I’ve seen people rob one another without a second thought. These aren’t easy times.”
We go to sleep on that note, warning each other that we snore. Ten minutes later we’re grinning at each other, roused by the Richter-scale snuffling of our cabinmate. Somehow I fall asleep, and my next memory is of being shaken awake just before the train pulls in. I pull on shoes and backpack and blink, dazedly, at the platform. Dimitry materialises at my shoulder, asks where I’m going, and bids me follow. We walk for a while, then he points to a street and starts to turn around.
“Aren’t you coming?” I ask. “No,” he says, “I’m in the other direction. I just wanted to make sure you were going the right way.” He grins and salutes, and I start walking, buoyed by the kindness of someonewho has spent much of the trip trying to convince me of the unkindness of his compatriots.
The views expressed are entirely the writer's own