I've been on the road for about 18 days now. I took the train through Russia, stopping to stay with my buds in Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg, the third and fourth largest Russian cities respectively. Seeing my friends has been wonderful, and getting to see so many different Russian cities has been quite an experience. I feel like I have a much better perspective on Russia as a whole, better, in fact (and in part(, than some Russians, who've never been outside of Petersburg or Moscow, and who scorn the smaller "regional" cities as primitive and backwater.
We saw quite a bit in those few days. Novosibirsk, so close to Tomsk geographically, is a whole different beast of a city. Enormous, uniformly grey, very young, very Soviet, but as Matt (Fulbrighter living there( would tell you, not without its charms. Ekaterinburg is famous for a number of reasons. We visited a church recently constructed on the spot where the Tsar's family was murdered. It was pretty moving. It's also the rock capital of the Urals and Siberia, if not all of Russia. From what Abbie tells me and from what I saw, the music scene there is pretty great, especially by Russian standards. We even went to a Beatles-themed bar. The river there translates from some local language to "stinky dog river". It did smell. In fact, all of the water there smelled pretty foul, worse, in fact, than a stinky dog. Anyway, Tomsk is dwarfed by these two little-known metropolises. They both have metro lines (Ekaterinburg even has two hypothetical lines sketched on the metro maps in the wagons... luckily Abbie was there to keep us from trying to transfer onto them.
So the three of us continued the train trip all the way in to Petersburg. I could tell you a lot of things about Russian trains, good and bad, but I'll just mention a few. People bring all kinds of food and booze on, pack mini-feasts even. Really. One of our bunkmates named Sergei brought an entire, enormous chicken for the ride, but about half-way through he started trying to sell it to us and to the attendant ladies. No sales. He also tried to steal my pocket knife and trade phone batteries with Matt. All in all we rode the trains for about 2.5 days, stopping only to buy chips and beer from ladies who wait by the stations. You can't use the toilets when the trains stopped, or half an hour before or after a stop, which makes for some difficult situations when there's nothing to do but eat and drink for days at a time. One form of currency that goes a long way on a Russian train is being able to play the one Russian card game that anyone knows, "Durak", which means something between "idiot" and "asshole". Anyway, as Matt explained when he taught us in Kiev, you basically have to know the game to successfully ride trains in Russia. We played until we could play no more. Once we played with this surly Russian man, who was so good that by the end of the game he knew exactly who had what cards and collected cards specially to ruin other people's hands. Amazing. By the time we got to Petersburg we were ready to be done with the whole train thing. I got fined for sneaking my luggage onto the metro, but I didn't care. I was in the most beautiful city in the world!
I'll continue this post later, because my friends are waiting for me to start a game of Durak, but stay tuned for stories from Piter, Amsterdam, and Berlin!
Love you all,