We get off to a great start and things get even better when we get to the house where we’ll be staying. Though he was born and raised in Dagestan our couchsurfing host, Renat is unlike the people we’ve been meeting so far. Through our discussions I get the impression that he’d be more at home in Western Europe than on the Caspian coast. And because he seems to be familiar with two worlds he proves indispensable in giving advice and explaining local culture.
When we visit the beach on our first day in Makhachkala we have to walk a bit till we get to a more quiet section, past playing kids, hawkers selling beach supplies and food, and women in full hijabs wading through the water. It’s one of the stranger beaches I’ve ever been on. When we join in an English lesson at Renat’s friend’s school we are asked why we are not too scared to come to Dagestan. A question we answer by pointing out that bad luck can strike anywhere.
But fortune has been very kind to us so far, mostly because of the very helpful people we keep on meeting. We head to the southern most city of Russia, Derbent where Preparations are under way for celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the founding of the city. Through it’s long history many armies passed through the city, whose name translates from Persian as ‘gate’. Traces of different civilizations are still to be found. A beautiful ancient castle protecting a narrow strip of land between the waters and the mountains the entrance to the Caucasus is now a museum and wedding location.
I’ll be hitchhiking with Daryl, a Malaysian guy studying medicine in Volgograd. I wait for him to finish class in a park outside the university. While there I start talking to a young Chechen on a smoking break. I ask him if it is true what people have been telling me, that Grozny nowadays looks like Las Vegas. ‘It’s true, it’s beautiful now’ he says. I try to imagine how a capitalist den of iniquity can be similar to a city where the local leader instructs his men to shoot paint-balls at women without headscarves. I’ll soon find out.
My first meeting with Daryl goes well. His main motivation for traveling south was that his university explicitly forbade him from visiting the area. So he’s up for an adventure. He seems like an enthusiastic yet fairly laid back guy plus his Russian is way better than mine, he has a fair bit of medical knowledge and he is a guy which considering Caucasian culture is an advantage. We’re going to some places with bad reputations but we’re hoping our combined skills will keep us safe. We leave for Astrakhan the next day.
The ride out of town comes early, but then… nothing. We wait, still not anything. We try to convince each other that this is no indication for how the rest of the trip will go. Things are bound to get easier once we reach the Caucasus, so famed for its hospitality. But somehow that makes us even more despondent. We decide to split up. Daryl goes first as I hide out in the shade across the road but within ten minutes he has managed to talk the both of us onto a bus heading our way for free.
The cities start to blend into one. No matter where I go I encounter the same rows of gray apartment blocks, a few streets with houses from Czarist times, Soviet era statues and potholed roads. Samara doesn’t feel like it has a million and a half citizens. It’s quiet on the streets. I guess the day long drizzle keeps people inside. I seek shelter in the regional museum which has a couple of shelves dedicated to the Stalinist terror, an unusual sight in an otherwise unremarkable place. The most impressive thing about the city is the wide Volga that runs through it.
A pendant with Arabic writing hangs from the mirror of the car taking me out of Samara. The driver is Chechen, though he left long ago. I take it as a good omen. I have made the decision to hitchhike through his homeland even though its reputation lead me to seek out a travel partner whom I’ll meet up with in Volgograd. If everybody is as nice as the driver I’ll be fine. Later in the day I’m picked up by a truck driver. He’s a slow driver, and as we pull up into a busy protected parking lot he calls it a night early. I consider trying to get another ride, but since I won’t reach my destination today anyway I figure I might as well wait until tomorrow.
I don’t feel very comfortable, the guy has not explicitly done anything to deserve my distrust but he gives off a bad vibe. Prying a bit too deeply in my love interests and asking if I want to borrow pajamas. I wonder if I should sleep outside but once again I decide to stay put and sleep in the front seat. The next morning he asks if I want to lay down in the bed behind the seats. I’m glad when we finally head off. Luckily he has a dvd player and I spent the next few hours watching a Russian series on Gulag life. Just before we reach the city the guy gets into a screaming match on his telephone. I feel an incredible sense of relief when he drops me off on the outskirts of Volgograd.
I’ve been told that the border between Europe and Asia is purely a political, imagined one as opposed to a physical geographical one. Crossing the mountain pass through the Urals certainly doesn’t feel like a sea change. The guy giving me a ride is a police officer in a small mountain town and he loves to travel too. Though he doesn’t seem to understand my joy at being back in Europe he stops by the marker denoting the border between the two continents and offers to take a picture of me with the sign. We spent the ride talking about his plan to take his family and his car and drive all over Europe after his retirement. Both the difference in our background and our shared love of exploring serve as a reminder of the vastness of the Eurasian landmass and the seemingly endless number or roads that can be traveled down.
I get to Ufa by evening time and spend the next day cycling about town. I spent some time at a house where Lenin lived for a while that is now turned into a museum. It feels like the Soviet Union never ended, but once I’m outside again it’s clear that Ufa is not caught in a time warp as I navigate my way through the streets filled by a mix of new SUVs and old Lada to a posh, well stocked bazaar in what used to be the Soviet central market.
The city is the capital of Bashkortostan, the land of Bashkirs, an ethnically Turkic, predominantly muslim people. The city’s mosques, bilingual street signs and all the different faces once more emphasize how ethnically and culturally diverse Russia is. I might have entered Europe, but I’m still a long way from home.
The only reason I want to be in Chelyabinsk is that it seemed like only a day hitchhiking away. Almost one thousand kilometers seems like a long way, but distances seem shorter in Siberia where hundreds of kilometers can lay between a town and it’s neighbor. But as it turns out, I’ve gotten overconfident and now a truck driver just dropped me off at a petrol station a hundred or so kilometers from my destination as it is starting to rain. Luckily there’s a 24 hour canteen. I get some goulash and spend the rest of the night playing solitaire on my laptop. I’m afraid the ladies will kick me out but nobody pays any attention to me.
In the morning I meet Alexander, dressed semi-formally and without any luggage. He’s hitchhiking to Saint Petersburg. When I ask him why he’s traveling without anything my Russian proves insufficient to asses whether he has a plausible explanation, something about a deal to move into an apartment having gone awry. Strange though he is, he’s a nice guy, I give him an apple since he hasn’t eaten and spent all of last night walking down the highway. We get a couple of short distance rides together until a truck stops and he insists that I’ll be the one who gets the empty seat.
Chelyabinsk was once the first port of call for people entering Siberia. A pretty main street still attests to its former commercial importance. Though the city is dominated by big pre-fab apartment blocks which are more in line with the city’s nickname ‘Tankograd’. When the Nazis overran large parts of the western Soviet Union factories were moved across the Ural and Chelyabinsk became the country’s largest producer of tanks.
I don’t have any trouble finding rides in Russia. My way west feels like I’m just effortlessly bobbing along a current. I was prepared for a bit of xenophobia to come my way, seeing as I’m from a degenerate Western European country, but nobody gives me grief because of my passport. And when one of the Azerbaijani guys sitting in front of me in a sedan asks if I have ever gotten into any trouble with the police it serves as another reminder of how easy things have been. I answer that, no, I can pass for Russian so they leave me alone. What about his own experiences, I ask, and he begins to detail all the ways in which the police have made life difficult for him.
Omsk is not exactly Russia’s hottest tourist destination, but by the grim standards of Siberia it’s a fairly pretty city. I spend two days walking around town and see a few interesting things: a memorial to Stalin’s victims outside of what is still the secret police headquarters, a pretty decent regional museum, a couple of nice buildings and an underground station for a metro which was started in the early 90s but of which the opening date keeps getting pushed back.
Luckily my couchsurfing hosts are good people: the guy is from the Netherlands and I contacted him a year ago to get some advice about hitchhiking in Kazakhstan. It was a nice surprise to come across his profile when I was searching for hosts in Omsk. Together with some friends we kill a few hours eating shashlik, drinking beers and hanging out by the riverside. It’s a good reminder that the most interesting thing about cities tends to be the people living in them.
My next destination is over fifteen hundred kilometers away, yet somehow that doesn’t seem like such a long way. I have gotten used to sleeping in truck cabs and spending hours watching the Siberian landscape roll past. The monotony interspersed with the occasional bursts of conversation, but those seem only like brief interjections as we drive down the seemingly endless stretch of asphalt.
I’m on my way to a a young family who, though city born and well educated, have left urban life behind them and bought a house in a small village about one hundred kilometers south of Novosibirsk. The stay is a bit of a surreal experience especially because the husband is almost constantly stoned, but I manage to help out a bit around the house and take a closer look at the type of place I usually roll through in a few minutes.
We spend an evening hanging out with the only other family around who have swapped city life for clean air and snowed-in winters. As the farmers walk past with their cows I wonder if I’m any more of an outsider than my hosts are. I leave the next morning, I have close to 800 kilometers to cover.
Russia is huge and my time is limited, but I decide to take a little detour of just under two thousand kilometers to Tuva. Coming from Irkutsk in slow-moving trucks it takes me a day to reach Krasnoyarsk. It’s not exactly the place I would expect an Egypt-inspired museum building or an Indian restaurant. I briefly escape into an exotic other world before making my way to the road leading south.
Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, has a very distinct character. A railroad connection to the rest of Russia has been promised for years, but at the moment the only way to reach town is by airport or by the long road over the mountains and through hours of nothing but fields. I don’t see many ethnic Russians (most of them left after race riots in the early nineties) so it almost feels like I might be in another country.
The people are obviously proud of their singular history: many buildings in town serve to show off Tuva’s culture and it’s supposed geographic location at the center of Asia. Historically, many of it’s residents were nomadic and animists which means I ought to head out into the countryside, but time won’t allow it. I have to head on.
The guy giving me a ride to Irkutsk acts more like a tour guide than just somebody who happens to be going the same way a hitchhiker. That’s fantastic because we are passing one of Russia’s most beautiful spots: Lake Baikal. We stop at several points so I can take some pictures and eat the famed Omul fish, unique to the lake. Perhaps he’s feeling a bit like a tourist too, since he’s here visiting some friends. He actually lives close to the Arctic Circle, so I guess the edges of ice around the lake this early May are just a joke to him. To me however they give a sense of Siberia’s intimidatingly wild beauty.
I arrive In Irkutsk in time to attend the ninth of May commemoration, Victory Day, Russia’s most extravagant holiday, which means I really should have gotten to the main square earlier. In spite of my best squeezing and gentle prodding efforts, all can see is a mass of people in front of me as the military hardware rolls by. I get a better glimpse of the civilian parade which follows the military one, which it seems people are less keen on sticking around for. Still it’s busy and it seems that today that the entire city revolves around the commemoration of the end of the Second World War. No matter where I go in the center I see people dressed up for the occasion.
Irkutsk feels different to the other cities I’ve recently visited. Maybe it’s true what people have said to me that because of it’s function in czarist times as a conveniently far away location to exile troublesome opponents to the city has a more intellectual feel to it. Or maybe things just feels more pleasant because the weather is getting better.
As spring is starting I make my way west through Siberia. Things are getting greener as the landscape changes from rocky slopes and barren birch trees to undulating steppes and green valleys, which gives me an extra hopeful feeling. Many times during the ride I feel compelled to express my sheer amazement at the beauty of the landscape to the person giving me a ride.
There isn’t a whole lot to see in Ulan Ude, except for maybe Lenin’s giant head, which when I pass by is serving as the backdrop for a practice run of the ninth of May Victory Day parade. I meet a few interesting people though, including an opera singer who takes me on a tour through the Opera House and points out the depiction of Stalin nobody ever bothered removing. And in the hostel I meet a well-educated Buryat couple, who regretfully tell me they don’t speak the language of their ancestors. Maybe it’s a class thing, because the construction worker who gave me a ride into town does speak Buryat with his family, as does the guy who gives me a ride out of town in his beat-up car.
Outside the city stands a giant Buddhist temple complex. The few kilometers I need to walk through windswept farm fields to get there after getting off the bus gives it an extra feeling of ascetic isolation. It’s part tourist attraction, part center of worship and scholarship. And it’s entirely not what I was expecting to find here.