Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cheap Living, Austin Karma, and a Russian Bear Hugger from Hell in Chita

I've planted myself in Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia, for a few days. It's not a huge tourist destination (at least not for foreigners, though some traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad do stay here), but I'm enjoying my stay in this exotic Northern outpost. Chita is pretty big; it has over 300,000 people. There is plenty to see wandering around the city and I've been doing my best to see as much of it as I can. I had never even heard of this place a few months ago, and now, here I am.

There are a lot of really cheap hostels in Chita.  Many of them are half the price, or less, of the place I am staying. But none of them advertise on any of the big hostel booking sites. I suspect that this is because they can't afford the commissions that these Internet sites charge for advertisement and booking. So if you have the stones to just show up in some Russian town without a place booked at all, despite the language barrier, you could probably get a super-cheap deal. If I hadn't already booked my trains, I would definitely extend my stay and move to one of the cheaper places for a while. They all look OK, at least from the outside...they look clean and hospitable.  You would probably have to choose a city that is relatively large, rather than a one-horse town. And it would be a gamble. But I can tell you for certain, that if you come to Chita, the places are there. I can't tell you whether they would all be booked during high tourist season, which starts around late June, and runs through August.

The first night I was in the hostel, I had the whole room to myself. The room is pretty nice; there are only three beds in the room and they are not bunk beds. It looks a lot like a hotel room rather than a hostel suite, though it is a bit small, and there are no windows, which is a little bit weird, because there are no clues as to what time it is.

The next morning, there was a knock on the door, and the desk clerk was there with a guy named Jesse who would be my suitemate for a couple of nights. I think up to this point, I had been the only foreigner in the hostel. But it was a really strange coincidence that Jesse had been living in Austin for the last three years, not far from where I lived in East Austin! He was originally from Pennsylvania, and was traveling for a while before he planned to teach English in Moscow. Not only that, he was another long-haired guy. How strange to travel so far around the world, and find a suitemate from my same city here in the middle of Siberia!

There was this big, gregarious, Russian guy who befriended me in the lobby. He smelled strongly of vodka, and kept giving me bear hugs and firm, clasping handshakes after everything he said, with a deep, booming laugh and constant thumbs-up gestures.  We had difficulty communicating, but finally I got out my phone and just let him talk into Google Translate, which worked most of the time, but he kept using these idiomatic phrases that Google just translated literally, and came out as nonsense. It was mostly him talking and me reacting. He kept hugging and jostling me, was a very physical guy. He said he had been in Special Forces in Bosnia in the 1990s, and wanted to talk about war stuff a lot. He wanted to know about the military service of most of my male ancestors, and regaled me with his family military history. He insisted on giving me an orange, which I accepted. He said it was a tradition to give something sour on Founders Day (which was a big holiday the day before), even though oranges aren't really sour. Somehow the conversation began turning dark. He started asking me why I was weak, why Americans were not strong; at this point I started looking for an exit strategy.  Then he scolded me about the 27 million Russians who died in World War II, including his grandfather, and asked why I didn't help. Well, I wasn't born yet, so there wasn't much I could do, but I didn't say that; I was mostly trying to keep him from getting more agitated. Why didn't the Americans do anything, he persisted. Why was I of no use in the war in which so many were killed, even though he had given me an orange, he insistently wanted to know. This was really starting to get out there. Luckily at this point, one of his friends showed up, whereupon they bearhugged each other and gave each other copious salutations, and I was able to slink away.

Jesse, my suitemate from Austin, and I met up at a bar around the corner called Plan B after I had done my daily wanderings. I was pretty tired, so I didn't stay long, but he stuck around there until the wee hours of the night and ended up going to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town with some Russian friends he met there. He told me that some of the Russians in the bar were curious about me, and were asking him some questions. He said the bar owner, who was familiar with American culture (the bar is American-themed and serves a lot of American food) tried to explain to some of the locals the concept of "hippie", but they were all puzzled. Finally one of them said, "You mean he is happy?" whereupon he gave up. The next night Jesse and I wandered down to Plan B again, and there was a really rambunctious atmosphere. I met the head bartender, Victor, a friendly guy with a real steam punk look, who had a few facial piercings and some tats, a bowler hat, and long, braided hair. He kept serving up vodka shots, and some of the locals kept buying vodka and whiskey, and Victor and the other bartenders were all doing shots with us, making toasts, and slamming the glasses down. Me being the lightweight drinker I am, I had to stagger the hell out of there around one or two in the morning and make my way back to the hostel. But Jesse stayed out until nine in the morning, and got back to the hostel just in time to get booted out because it was checkout time. They told him he could stay, but it would be 100 rubles an hour, and his train out wasn't until 7 at night. So he chose to split rather than pay the 100 rubles an hour to stick around. But we were supposed to meet up with Victor the bartender at 2 in the afternoon outside the hostel, as Victor was going to do our hair in dreadlock-slash-braids.

Jesse rolled back to the hostel at 2, and I met him outside. The poor guy looked ragged after not having slept all night and having carried his full pack around town. I actually booked another day at the hostel and paid for it, even though I won't spend the night tomorrow, because I am potentially going to be in the same boat the next day, getting booted in the morning, but having to take the same train in the evening. If the hostel knew I was leaving that day, they would only offer me the 100 rubles an hour to hold over, rather than an extra day, which is tons cheaper. Anyway, Victor never showed up to braid our hair (probably was dead crashed after partying into the wee hours of the morning), so Jesse and I went to a Mongolian-themed restaurant and tea house to get some tea and grub. I left a couple hours before Jesse had to catch his train, and bade him farewell and safe travels.


  1. You know me, I like to drink, but I'm a lightweight compared to the Russians I met. The Poles, too, for that matter. Your encounter with the pushy guy was something I dreaded and learned to fade out of at the first warning signs. I always had a lie ready to make my escape. That instant vodka camaraderie rarely ends well.

    Great stories! I am a bit surprised that they'd never heard the term 'hippie.' It might be just as well, since it's associated with drug use. I suggest always adamantly refusing the company of anyone who offers or even talks about drugs of any kind.

    1. Yeah, I am definitely leery of the hyper-aggressive guys fueled by vodka. That whole deal can turn into a lynch mob quickly. And as for drugs, I follow the Sgt. Schultz path...I know nothing. I see nothing. I stay away. Don't need that kind of hassle in a foreign country where there are already enough potential pits to fall into.