A day in Novosibirsk

After a sort of a good night’s sleep, powered in part by local produce and in part by pretty good homebrew, it was time to go explore the wonderful city of Novosibirsk.

The city was only founded about 120 years ago in a major drive to civilise more of Siberia and use it as something more than just a place to send unwanted prisoners to (as we found out later on in the 20th century, that didn’t quite work out). That said, with about 1.5 million souls, it’s Russia’s third largest city (which just speaks volumes about Russia: metro Moscow is like 20 million, St Petersburg is 5, Novosibirsk is 1.5… and then there’s another 120 million people (or so) in cities of less than a million. That’s just…….. nuts. Russia is HUGE.

Anyway, so we went out for a walk. Armed with Onitsuka Tiger sneakers who probably have never seen temperatures below +20, and a thick sweater that my thoughtful friends brought me, this is what awaited us: snow.

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And moar snow.

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Some moar snow. (Okay, it’s Siberia. I don’t know what I was expecting in November. Leave me be).

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Nice old Soviet architecture (below) mixed with Soviet architecture of the anonymous 70s above.

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Novosibirsk has a pretty well functioning metro system, so we went for a ride. The cars look exactly like the 1980s Moscow ones did (well… I’m pretty sure one factory built cars for the entire Soviet Russia), and by looking at the side, you almost wonder whether they’re the original ones, because you know, we all think Russia is this terrible decrepit country that relies on an oil budget that has been exhausted in the last millennium.

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Turns out they aren’t the old cars. They kept the old look on the side, but the locomotives are recent.

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… very recent. I almost wish they stuck to the old look, what’s with this futuristic bug-eyed creation?

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Metros were always the pride of the local economy, and so decorating stations was required. In this station, there is a stained glass window for every major Siberian city that matters. This one is for Surgut, as Wikipedia puts it, “the largest city in the administrative region” (with a population of 340K people, heh).

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The Cocalizatoin and McDonaldization of a country continues.

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The central water pier is located next to a park. We decided to walk around and see what things looked like.

Saw some birds engaging in the favourite activity of the fauna in Russia: loitering.

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The central stairs to the river; probably fairly pretty in summer (that is to say, on that weekend in July) with the flowers and all. Right now, just a carpet of snow.

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The Oktyabr’ Bridge (of course, imagery of the Socialist Revolution).

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Another view:

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Of course, what wall would be complete without the requisite peculiar Russian sense of humour. The writing says, “Lena… I need you!” and the postscript reads “… and your c*ck.”

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Sunset was in progress (yeah, we started the day really late – must’ve been the homebrew), so we thought it’d be nice to go look at it from somewhere up high…. like a Siberian Ferris Wheel!

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The view from the top was pretty in a hardened, Siberian kind of way. Others may find “bleak” to be a more appropriate word.

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Soviet buildings as far as the eye can see.

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The sun was really on its way out at this point.

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When we got down, we encountered another example of peculiar Russian humour. This one says “Exit” and the smaller sign says “Push me. Signed: door.”

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Another shot of the dying sun, from the ground this time.

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In a typical Russian tendency of not really completing many things, here’s an unfinished snowman. Squirrel?

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On the way back to the hotel, just thought it was an interesting scene from the life of the average Novosibirskians.

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The next morning we decided that since it was our last day in the city, it would be wise to cut down on the homebrew and wake up at a reasonable enough hour to actually, you know, go see something other than a sunset.

This was the city history museum (that we didn’t get to go into, as it was closed for some reason).

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Saw a great example of Soviet automotive industry work its way through the cold.

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And these things… the indestructible trolleybuses. Like honestly, if it wasn’t for the Subaru on the left, you’d think this was a picture from the 1980s. Absolutely nothing has changed in terms of architecture.

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This was absolutely awesome. The city’s Hall of Fame (well, “board” of fame). Great dignitaries tirelessly working for the great benefit of social responsibility. …………….. I didn’t even make that up, that’s more or less what’s written on the board. There’s representatives of the automotive industry, nuclear energy production, defense, and so on.

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The requisite statue of Grandpa Lenin was there, together with great heroes looking on as he thoughtfully reflects on the future of socialism…

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… with a Marriott sign above his head. I made an effort to compose this shot as it occurred to me that I’m not exactly sure whether these two concepts really go together at all.

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Here’s proof that it’s actually not warm in November in Siberia. As if the snow wasn’t a dead giveaway.

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I came across this gem driving along the road. It’s one of the quintessential workhorses of the Russian auto industry, together with its cousin, the UAZ SUV that truly defines what an SUV should have (AC absent? check. Windows that need a screwdriver to open? Check. Can run on just about anything that burns? Check. Can climb vertical slopes, drive upside down, tow Landcruisers and Land Rovers from the mud at the same time? Check.).

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But what was more … endearing, I guess, for lack of a better word (and see my soliloquy on diverging life paths at the end of this post) was just how different its life was from this example of the same car:

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… which I saw, of course, in Japan.

We went walking around some more. Came across a monument that once again paid respects to all the major cities in Siberia.

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As well as a pretty rustic wall.

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In a purely modern Russian twist, a steel and glass building advertised a Burger King, a sushi restaurant and an English learning school, and right across from it was…

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… a beautiful old Orthodox church. The juxtaposition of old and new never ceases to amaze in Russia.

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Walking on further, we came to the Novosibirsk Main Station – the (obviously) main train station of the city. It’s actually a very important node, as you will see in a map further down, because it’s about midway on the Trans-siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok, as well as a key node to various local destinations. The building was started after the Revolution in the 1920s, but having gone through a few iterations, the final version was finished in 1939, and that’s basically how it looked like since then.

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Closer-up view (and that’s a Hunger Games poster):

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View back onto the main square (that ghastly building is Hotel Novosibirsk, which was pretty much the only hotel in the city during Soviet times where just about anyone and everyone who didn’t have family stayed at):

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Closer up view of this bastion of greyness.

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But back to the station. View from up close:

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Train stations always fascinate me because they have a certain vibe that airports just do not. First off, trains require commitment. It’s hardly a lifelong achievement to hop on a plane and fly for eight hours to go somewhere. It’s much more of one to hop on a train and be on it for five days. You make different connections, you experience an entirely different way of life, and hell, you stop at a bunch of godforsaken places along the way that you probably never even knew existed. For this reason, train stations always have a certain mystery that airports just don’t.

Waiting room (and that board shows all the incoming and outbound trains):

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The rail map isn’t quite India, but it’s impressive nevertheless, considering that covers about a third of the Earth.

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Throwback to the old days, though obviously the communal drinking glass is missing (there used to be a single glass that you’d drink from and then were responsible for washing so the next comrade could enjoy this great product of socialist labour equally and without hindrance). Also, the new liquid tastes like liquid shit. No wonder nobody drinks it anymore.

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A very odd sign seen in the toilet. It says, “washing feet and head is forbidden“. I can only wonder at the reason why this is even there.

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The green train in the back is more old Soviet design; the ones in the front are the current, rebranded ones, where the national railway company realised that it’s good to be cool and introduced lux seating, swanky branding, amenity kits and even a frequent flyer rider program!

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Another tableau of incoming trains. This one has the uber, uber long-haul Moscow-Vladivostok on it.

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Back outside. I didn’t mention this since it was fairly obvious, but just as how the first day was unfathomably bleak and grey, so was the second day an absolute wonder of colours. The air was clear (though obviously cold), and somehow, everything was just really, really bright. It was interesting to experience Siberia from these two vantage points.

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The sky is just surreal.

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And back to earth, here’s another never-dying love of the Russians: fur hats and fur coats. Just like a Japanese woman is expected to own at least one Louis Vuitton bag (and conversely, over half of the women in Japan are understood to own one), so too does pretty much every Russian woman own either a mink hat, better yet a coat, better yet all of the above. Somehow.

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An example of a typical Soviet building. Notice the different glass enclosures for balconies (and some are missing them entirely). The story here is this. All apartments in Russia used to come with the balconies open to the elements. It was originally thought that it was nice to have a pseudo-terrasse, I guess. Unfortunately, then reality set in (kind of like when the Montreal Olympic Stadium was built with the awesome telescoping roof until snow fell and it collapsed under its weight): having an open balcony in Siberia and in most cold places in Russia sucks. So people started “glassing” them up. Of course, since it was a completely individual activity, all balconies ended up getting done in their own unique ways, and some didn’t even get done (for reason financial, rebellious, or simple apathy). So then you get a mishmash like this.

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To illustrate, here’s another view (and I haven’t got the remotest clue how that graffiti got up there, but my guess is they wrote it upside down from the roof, and nobody can be bothered to go clean it off anymore):

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The Siberians are not devoid of basic human desires to sodomise their cars, either. I bet this right-hand drive Mazda never thought it’d end up, you know, in Siberia (just like that UAZ in the earlier pic).

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The cosmetic store called Eiffel went to the trouble of actually constructing an, uh, Eiffel inf ront of it. How cute.

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In a great Stalin-era building, an organisation sits that probably runs a large percentage of the economy of the region… (national rail company).

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And with that, our brief visit came to an end. We headed off to the airport, boarded our respective flights, and went off to our respective destinations.

So what are my impressions of Russia, first time in 20 years?

To cut to the chase, in a short summary, it’s kind of like you know you have a friend who you haven’t seen for a long time that was like a brother to you. Or a “first love”, to be massively cliche. Neither one is particularly upper class, fine, refined, Elizabethan aristocracy. But you had something there, something you no longer have. So after many years, you go back …. and you discover that “something” again. This is kind of what I felt. Of all the places I’ve travelled to, and of all the places I’ve lived in, despite the fact that I speak all the relevant languages reasonably well, Russia is the only place I didn’t feel like an outsider. Did I feel like a tourist? Sure. Do I want to live there? Not really. But do I feel something …. familiar, something I can identify and connect with, and something that I can really like? Yep. It’s very difficult to qualify this statement. The roads are dirty, the citizens are poor (although there are a LOT of fur coats as I wrote above, and they sure as hell aren’t cheap!), and the infrastructure is decrepit. But the jokes are funny, the reactions are predictable, and the general (somewhat cynical) view on life is “familiar”. It’s not even so much the content of individual opinions. It’s just their presence, perhaps.

On the way back, I ran into a very interesting situation. I was flying Novosibirsk-Vladivostok, then layover, then Vladivostok-Tokyo. This time, I religiously followed the lounge dragon’s guidance (and they really did announce final boarding, FINAL boarding, FLIGHT CLOSED, and then they took the business class people and ferried them to the plabne). I was on a redeye (10pm departure, and something like 9am arrival to Vladivostok) and I expected to just nod right off to sleep. Except… I got a seatmate from hell. I was completely exhausted, and I knew that when I got to Tokyo after the redeye flight, I had much to do still (I was going to work, after all), so I literally wouldn’t get to sleep until the following evening. So since this was a 6-hour flight, I was looking forward to sleeping.

Then this man sat next to me (and it looked like he was yanked from the back of the plane). Somewhat rugged looking, military cut, looking entirely out of place in business class. He started talking to me the moment he sat down (and we’re still on the tarmac, so my panic level immediately went through the roof). After about a half hour, I wanted to shoot him in the head, because he literally would. not. shut. the. fk. up. It was complete insanity. I was considering pulling some sort of an emergency hatch release function to either throw him off the plane, or  just escape from him, because nothing of what he was saying I cared remotely about, and I just wanted to sleep.

He was telling me a story of how he, a military man, went through six months of Russian Army bureaucracy where he, a cynologist (a dog trainer for the Army), was due to be up for promotion to sergeant. He was supposed to take a course, which he did, but for some reason, the paper that was issued was missing some stamp or note, and as a result, his entire 3 months away from his family was not recognised, and his promotion wasn’t happening. After knocking on everyone’s door, he was told that he had to re-do another 3 month training in a different training camp, if only because the first one was now under suspicion of being incompetent and therefore no longer qualified to issue such trainings. So he had to go away for another 3 months from his family, and two weeks before he completed this training, they sorted out his first one and told him he could actually abandon and still get his degree.

Sure, a very personal and burning story, but realistically, I do not care. I just spent a weekend drinking homebrew, eating grilled chicken (and borscht), and walking around in -11C weather exploring a city I have no connection to in a country that I didn’t know anymore. So I listened very painfully (my upbringing required me to politely listen, despite me looking, as the Russian expression goes, for a “fifth corner in a room”, meaning looking for an escape route), but I showed nothing to the guy. Through this I discovered that the only reason he was in business class was because the nature of his ticket was ‘last seat’ (free, provided by the Army, and entitled him to the last available seat on the plane) – which meant a business class seat in this particular case. He actually didn’t even want to sit in business – there was some girl he met during registration that he wanted to chat with as he felt they connected on some further emotional level, and just wanted to chat with her in the back – so he wanted to move to the back and trade places with the guy who was sitting next to the girl in question. All this he was telling me as we were getting through dinner, which I had to somewhat show to him how to partake in (because he didn’t know what to start with). It was his first time in business class, and second time in his life on a plane (that’s not a bad upgrade ratio!), so he wasn’t even sure how many drinks he could order before they became non-free.

The reason I bring up this story is because as I listened to him go on, and on, and on, something changed. At some point, I didn’t care anymore that I didn’t care about his story. In fact, I gradually started being interested – and we haven’t had any alcohol at that point, so I know for a fact this wasn’t alcohol-induced. I literally realised that this opportunity to hear this much background story about someone’s life is simply not going to happen in another country. First, business class people are typically stuck up and impossible to talk to. Second, even when they aren’t stuck up, they just don’t really share all that much about themselves – and as this guy pointed out, I appeared to be the first person to ever actually listen to him that far in (according to him, most people start tuning out at the five minute mark, or else they start telling him about themselves). I just listened, nodded, and took in what he had to say. And in all honesty, at one point it just became interesting. Not his army story – as he noted himself, with me being so far detached from that life, I could never understand it all. But we talked about other stuff. Unsurprisingly, religion, politics, traditions, human relations (which, once again, only happens in Russia: generally speaking, there is a spiritual paucity in men of the sword, or even regular people of today to even remotely get into that sort of conversation with a stranger on a plane – but in Russia, it’s entirely not abnormal). At one point he rather duly noted that although the entire beginning of the flight he was looking to move to economy and talk to the girl, the way our conversation was heading it would probably be to its detriment – and a waste of a good conversation partner. So he stayed and we talked. Turned out he was from a village called Чугуевка (Chuguyevka – http://goo.gl/maps/YJnX9). It was surreal for two any less likely people to talk (a fact he entirely agreed with) – him, who, on getting off the plane was hoping in a car to be driven some 400 kms to the middle of nowhere, and me, who was about to jump on another plane to head to Tokyo, Japan, a place he probably only heard of in movies or on the news.

By now, though, my pragmatism began to take over and I realised that if I don’t move this conversation to culmination, I’ll never get any sleep. So I got the flight attendant to bring out a bottle of vodka and we got on with it. After some time, I seemed to drink him under the table as his eyes glassed up and he slowly passed out, and I went to sleep. Bizarrely, not only did we finish the (only!!!!!!) bottle of vodka they had onboard, but we lapped up the cognac they had, as well. I was a bit disappointed S7 stocked so little proper alcohol. Also just as sadly, by this point a good three hours went by, leaving me with a piddly three left to sleep. Interestingly, I didn’t regret it in the slightest.

When we woke up we talked about lake Baikal and going fishing there (and the zero likelihood of that actually happening), and by and by, we landed. We went to baggage claim, picked up our bags, shook hands and parted ways – him in an Adidas track suit, and me in an Adidas track suit by Yohji Yamamoto, him on a road trip over 400 kms of taiga, me in business class to a country where people don’t even invite each other for a barbecue.

I’m not sure if that comes across bitter at all.