Monday, May 22, 2017

Down And Out In Astrakhan

I arrived on the train in Astrakhan, Russia, fairly late at night. The hostel had emailed me and asked me when I was going to get there. I looked at my ticket and it said I was arriving at around 9:30 pm Moscow time, so I figured it would be about a half hour walk from the train station, and I told them 10 pm. But, actually, it was a little blip of time zone that was an hour later than Moscow; I had just assumed it was the same time zone, since all the other cities I had been at close to the same longitude had been in Moscow time. Let the lesson be here, always check. All train tickets are issued in Moscow time, regardless of local time zone, so you always have to translate. I guess I just got lazy about it.

I realized just as we were coming into the station that I was going to arrive about an hour later than I had told the hostel. No sweat, I figured, they are probably used to people who give estimates that are off a bit because shit happens. When I got off the train, I checked Google Maps for the way to get to the hostel. The first five blocks we're no big deal, just walking on well-lit commercial streets. But then I had to turn into this dark, overgrown mudpit with a lot of abandoned houses that looked really sketchy late at night (and even in the daytime it looked sketchy, as I found out when I went back to the station), and it was so dark that I couldn't even see where I was stepping, and there were a lot of deep ruts. Plus, parts of it looked like I was just walking through someone's back yard. I'm not all that crazy about getting into a strange city late at night anyway. I prefer to walk to where I'm staying, or if it's a really long way, I'll try to get public transportation. I've only gone by taxi a couple of times. So I had ignored all the taxis that tried to hawk me at the train station, in favor of hoofing it. Also, I never know whether taxis in a foreign place are crooked or dangerous, which they sometimes can be.

So after I came out of the dodgy looking stretch (it wasn't all that long, maybe a half a kilometer or so, but I had to take it really slowly because I couldn't see a thing), I came out, and saw there was a large police vehicle parked right near the road there, maybe to catch people who have just gotten off the train coming into town. There were five cops standing there, and they were busy with some other traveler, going through his stuff, and asking him a bunch of questions. Nothing to see here. Just pretend you don't see it and keep going. So I just averted my eyes and kept moving, and I had just about thought I had passed the engulfment zone, when I heard a shout in Russian behind me. I just ignored it at first, but then I heard more shouts that we're more insistent. I turned around and a Russian policeman was hurriedly approaching me. He motioned for me to go back to the car where the others were waiting. He seemed a little pissed that I had ignored his commands and that he had to come after me.

I got back to where the vehicle was, and two of the cops were busy with the other guy, but one cop started interrogating me in Russian. I just meekly said, "Ni ponimayu", which means, "I don't understand". The cop then asked me, "English?", and I nodded. He asked me, "Passport?", and I nodded again, but made no move to produce it. He then motioned me to open my big backpack. I had a lock on it, so I had to undo it, and it was so dark I could hardly see the combination dial. But I got it undone, and he went through every single thing in every pocket, leaving it all in disarray. Then he asked to go through my little backpack, which I carry on the front, and then my fanny pack. He was very thorough, and went through everything, leaving my meticulously packed stuff just scattered all around in the dark. They seemed frustrated that I couldn't answer any of their questions, and just gave up on trying to question me. Then they just waved me off and told me I could go. I had to shove everything back in to my backpacks haphazardly and get them closed, which wasn't an easy task, since they were overstuffed anyway even with everything neatly packed. The funny thing was, they never did check my documentation. I headed down the road, a little shaken by the experience, and since this confrontation had taken about a half hour, I was now an hour and a half later than I had told the hostel I would be.

Finally I found the hostel, and it was well-marked on the outside, which sometimes is not the case when it comes to Russian hostels. I followed the signs up one flight of steps, and the door was locked. So I tried what I thought was a doorbell, but I don't think it worked. Nobody was answering the door at all. I tried knocking several times, and nobody answered. Great, it looked like I was going to have to sleep in the hallway. So I set up my little backpack as a pillow, and lay down on the floor outside the door for a while. Well, that verily sucked, so I got up and tried knocking on the door one more time. Finally a woman answered the door. She was just a tenant, but she spoke really good English, and she said the owner was not there. She asked if I had told them I was coming, and I said yes, but I was a little late. She had the owner's phone number, so she called him, and he approved letting me in, so she did. Well, I had to figure out where the room was, and just pick a bed for myself, and then figure out where everything else was, like the bathroom and the kitchen. Usually someone will show you all that stuff. But I was glad at least that I had gotten in and had a bed for the night. There was one other guy asleep in the big room filled with bunks, and she and her boyfriend were in a private room to themselves.

The TV in the common room was on, and right as I got settled in, the show "Big Love" was starting, dubbed in Russian. I watched it for a while, but couldn't really understand it, so I blew it off and just started channel-surfing. The TV was hooked up to some strange glorified internet-dongle-slash-cable-box with a ton of channels from all over on it. I watched a French channel for a while, but then finally turned in, as it was getting late.

The next day, I woke up, and a hostel manager was waiting for me to collect my money and give me a key. That was all I saw of management there, except for the owner dropping by briefly later that night, which was great because he was able to fix the wi-fi, which hadn't worked at all up until that point.

I walked around the city, and toured the Astrakhan Kremlin. Astrakhan is in southern Russia, close to the Kazakhstan border, right next to the European part of Kazakhstan (it sounds strange to talk about European Kazakhstan, but about 10% of it is in Europe). I wanted to visit the Volga River Delta, but I found out you need a special border permit to do that, which is a bureaucratic mess and will take days at the least, maybe even weeks. So I didn't have the time, as I was only in Astrakhan for two more days.

When I returned from checking out the city of Astrakhan, it was just me and the other guy in my room.  He checked out the next day, leaving me the next night as the only person in the whole hostel, which was kind of weird. I went out for a second day of city exploration, mostly walking along the Volga River, but also checking out other parts of the city I hadn't seen yet. When I got back that evening, it was to the freaky ghost hostel, where I was the only restless spirit there.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hot Times At The Hot Springs In Tyumen

I arrived in Tyumen on the Trans-Siberian train very early in the morning. I got my stuff together on the train, loaded up my backpacks and proceeded to walk about two kilometers to the hostel​ where I was staying. When I got there, the room was pretty full and all they had available was an upper bunk. It had been a while since I had been assigned an upper bunk. In the last few hostels I had stayed in, they been empty enough that only lower bunks had been available, or I had just gotten the lower bunk by the luck of the draw. It was no big deal though, of course, I prefer lower bunks. But you gotta build some bunk karma, so every once in a while you get an upper bunk to take one for the team. Funny, when I was a kid, I always liked the upper bunk better.

As soon as I checked in, I wanted to look around the city. The city looked more modern than most of the other Siberian cities I had been in, and had a much more European vibe, even though I was still in Asia. So I walked around the town and just checked things out.  In the early evening, I ended up stumbling across a pre-Victory Day parade, so I made a video of part of it. After I had finished my wanderings through the city for the day, I got back to the hostel, and there were a bunch of friendly, talkative Russians who were curious about this American guy who didn't seem to fit their stereotypes at all. We had an amazingly broad range of conversation, considering that I know very little Russian, and each of them only knew a few words of English. But I really hit it off with my bunkmate, the guy in the lower bunk. I wish I could remember his name. I also wish that I had gotten some contact with him on social media; I realized a few days later when I was leaving the city that I hadn't. I find that a lot of Russians are not on Facebook, but Instagram is really big here. I started using Instagram just recently; I joined a few years ago but never used it and never took the time to figure it out much after the first couple of times that I had tried to do stuff with it. But I hadn't taken​ enough time to figure it out, so I didn't get far with it. Later in the night, a Russian guy who spoke English really well showed up with his girlfriend, and he kind of acted as an interpreter, which made the conversations easier. But he only stayed that one night. I asked him how he learned English, and he said it was almost all from movies and TV, and that he hardly ever had opportunities to speak English with anyone. He said he appreciated the chance to practice, though he spoke really well.

Over the next couple of days, my bunkmate and I had some remarkable conversations considering our linguistic differences. We discussed things like JFK's assassination, our respective countries' involvement in Syria, the situation in Chechnya, and so on. He was very surprised to find out that there were homeless people in the US, and that they could be found on street corners in cities holding signs asking for money. He asked me how much people made in the US; I told him I thought most people probably made between about two and three thousand a month, and he was surprised that it wasn't more. But I told him that many people made a lot less, and maybe had to cobble together several part-time jobs, and that jobs might not pay as much or have as many benefits as they used to; he made a wry face and said it was the same in Russia. He said he thought we were a rich country, and I told him we are, but the rich people have all the money. He laughed, and said, "Just like Russia!"

While in Tyumen, I wanted to visit one of the many hot springs in the area. I found that there were many hot springs within a fairly short distance, so I looked into trying to get to one of them. I found that some of them were attached to expensive resorts, and most of them were some distance out of town, and I couldn't find any information on transportation to get to most of them. Finally, I found one hot spring, Yar Hot Springs, that was right on the edge of the city, and there was a city bus that went there that only cost twenty-five rubles. What a deal!

I started walking towards the bus stop, and stopped to look at some plants popping up in a garden. The Russian spring is just starting, so green stuff is starting to come up. I was trying to figure out if some leafy stuff that I had seen elsewhere was a weed or some kind of cultivated plant, when I saw a gentleman with a sour-looking face approaching me. He stopped in front of me and unleashed a barrage of hostile-sounding Russian at me, ending in a question that it sounded like he wanted an answer to. I did not pick up on anything he said, since my Russian is still fairly terrible (though I'm studying every day hoping to get to at least a moderately communicative level), so I answered him with, "Izvinitye, ni ponimayu", which means, "Sorry, I don't understand". Well, I understood his response. He asked me, "What don't you understand?" OK, this is definitely hostile. I thought about answering him in English, and then saying, "Did you understand?", but I thought better of it and just gave him a half-smile and a wave, and scurried on my way.

I arrived at the bus stop, and waited for the bus. I was looking at the bus maps, and they didn't reveal much information. Many countries I've been to put their bus maps on straight lines with the names of the stops, and that's the way they did it here. But I sure wish they would draw actual maps. I wouldn't know where the listed stops were even if this was in English.

It turned out the bus I had to take was one of the big van type buses packed with seats, with a partition separating the driver. On most Russian city buses that I've taken, there is a conductor circulating among the passengers who takes your money and issues you a ticket at some point after you board (they use this same model in Vietnam). But there was no conductor in this bus. Usually I try to see what the other passengers are doing for payment, but I guess I didn't notice anything about that when I got on the bus. So at the next stop, I just passed twenty-five rubles to the driver through the window in the partition, and that seemed like the correct method. Every country does buses differently. Who do you pay and how? Some places have a driver and a conductor, others just a driver. Some places make you buy a ticket beforehand. On some buses, you pay at the beginning, and on some, at the end.

I missed my stop, even though I was monitoring Google Maps for where I had to get off. But Google Maps was doing a thing it does sometimes where it takes a minute to catch up, and suddenly the dot shifted to a place past my stop. Oh, well, I figured I would just get off at the next stop and walk a little farther, no big deal. The next stop was right outside the sign marking the city limits, and I got off there. On the way walking back into town, I passed a stolovaya, which is a cafeteria-style canteen with cheap food. I like to eat at these places because they are very cheap and popular with locals. Though all of the main courses are usually meat-based, (why did auto correct just change meat-based to near-impossible? I just changed it back) there are a lot of tasty side dishes that I cobble together a meal with. I had buckwheat groats with a cabbage-filled salad, tea, and a tasty onion piroshki. A piroshki is a bread roll filled with some filling, usually cabbage (kapusta) or potato (kartoshka), but occasionally with mushroom (gryb) or onion (luk). They are all over the place in little restaurants and street stands.

After eating, I moved onward toward the hot springs. Yar Hot Springs only charged 250 rubles to enter, but they also had little cabins there for rent that you could pay modestly more for. So, if you're thinking about staying in Tyumen, that's an option that would let you use the hot springs whenever you want during your stay. It looked like the price was about twice as much as the hostel where I'm staying, but still a deal for a single room, though the rooms looked tiny, and I have no idea what amenities the cabins have.

There was a changing room with a shower, but no place to lock up belongings, so I just hung a plastic bag I had brought a change of clothes in along with my wallet and phone on a hook near the hot spring pool, and kept my eye on it. It seemed like people were mostly just leaving their stuff laying around, so it seemed pretty safe. But you never know, there could be opportunity snatchers anywhere.

After I was there a few minutes, a bunch of Russian police in uniform came in, made some announcement that I didn't understand through a bullhorn, and then wandered around the grounds. They didn't mess with anyone, though. It seemed like there were a bunch of police hangers-on, people who were buddies with the police and hanging out with them, or maybe even police in plain clothes. I just try to keep out of trouble and nobody messed with me. The lifeguards seemed pseudo-police-y too. They would occasionally say something through a bullhorn, or release a siren-sounding alert with a stern instruction to someone, stuff like stay off the ropes or telling kids not to run...typical lifeguard commands.

The water was a brownish color and very minerally...I tasted small amounts on my lips, and it seemed like there were a lot of salts and minerals in it. I hung out in the pool for quite a while, and discovered there was a little walled-off section that was even hotter. It was very relaxing, but I realized I'd have to get out of the pool into the cold, windy weather, so I readied myself for that. I got out of the pool, got dressed, and then stopped in the little cafe that they had on the premises.

I just stopped in the cafe to sit for a bit and drink a soda. A few people came in and out while I was there, and there was a really drunk couple who were drinking a lot of booze while I was there. I saw them go through a bottle of vodka, then they ordered another bottle, and invited me over to drink Schnapps with them. I said, "nyet, spasiba," several times, as I'm not really drinking these days, but they were very insistent, and came over to my table to sit with me. I told them, "nyet alcohol", which was about all I could manage to communicate about why I wasn't joining them. They said, OK, then ordered beers. Apparently many Russians don't think of beer as alcohol. Last year, when I was traveling in Eastern Siberia, a guy in a hostel told me that we Americans probably think of Russians as heavy drinkers, but he had a neighbor who didn't drink at all. But in the course of the conversation, he later indicated that his neighbor drank beer.

So they poured me a beer, and I kept begging off, and finally pushed it away. I tried to be gracious about it. Anyway, the wife ended up drinking the beer. They told me their names were Sasha and Olga. After a while, the guy was so drunk I though he was going to puke on me a couple of times, and his wife was hanging all over me and pushing her legs against mine; I couldn't tell if it was flirty or she was just so drunk that it was for support, but I suspected the latter. He started ranting about Obama and giving him the finger.

This drunken, aggressive vibe was getting a little weird for me, so I started contemplating an exit strategy. They kept trying to get me to go with them in their car to their house, but I didn't want to be driven by people that drunk, and I didn't want to go from the edge of town to who knows where, and who knows how I'd get back. Finally Olga went out to smoke, and Sasha went to the bathroom, so I darted out the door to go catch my bus back into the city. But they ended up leaving right after me, and caught up with me, and kept saying stuff about money; maybe they wanted me to give them money, but I just wanted to move on. A guard at the gate asked me if everything was "normalna" (OK), and I smiled and answered, "Normalna". But I used the break in continuity to break away and walk faster, and they didn't catch up.

I walked to the bus stop and caught the bus back into town; that evening was pretty uneventful, but I had more conversations with my bunkmate. By that time, the room has emptied out, and I probably could have changed to a bottom bunk, but I just stayed in my bunk out of inertia.

The next day was Victory Day, May 9. I was planning to go out and check out the activities, but I procrastinated, paying bills and stuff, and ordering train tickets and hostel reservations online, and didn't get out until two in the afternoon. But by that time, it was mostly over. I guess it's more of a morning thing. I walked around the city, but only encountered groups of people in uniforms and wearing ribbons milling around after the celebrations. Oh well. But at least there were fireworks in the evening that several of us watched from the hostel balcony.

The next day, I had to take off on the train. I packed my stuff, said, "Da svidaniya, udachny", to my bunkmate, and left for the train station to take off for Kazan in Tatarstan. I looked at my electronic train tickets, which I had been able to use without printing before, but they didn't have a train number, car number or seat number on then, so I figured I had better get them printed at the train station. So I went to a window, and they printed tickets with all the required info on them.

Finally on this trip, I would leave Siberia, and cross over into European Russia. When I got on the train and got in my compartment, I found that I was the only one in the compartment, and there were even very few in the whole car; maybe only two other compartments were occupied. The pravadnitsa stopped by to offer me tea or coffee; I opted for a coffee. About a half hour later, I closed the door to my compartment for some solitude. After a few minutes, to my surprise, some woman barged in to my closed compartment to try to sell me some shawls. All I could think was, "what the fuck are you doing in my compartment." I kept just saying, "nyet" and didn't let on that I didn't speak much Russian and didn't understand anything she was saying in her obnoxious hard sell. What are you doing, lady, casing my compartment? Finally, I said, "Nyet, nyet, nyet!" very aggressively and waved her out, and she left. That was the first time anybody has ever just pushed their way into a closed compartment I was in and it kind of annoyed me.

Anyway, here I now sit on the train to Kazan, Tatarstan, awaiting new adventures.