Orenburg is an old frontier town. Currently located close to the border with Kazakhstan it once played a central role for the Russian empire as a base for conquering Central Asia. With its glory days very much behind it both the city and the provincial history museum don’t even bother covering twentieth century history, apart from some displays on the Second World War. Still the city center’s nineteenth century architecture and quiet streets leading down to some great views of the Ural river make a good place to wander around for a day.
I’m heading northwest to the city of Penza and I’m finally hitchhiking again. It’s great to be out on the road again, where it’s impossible to predict who I’ll end up talking to or where I’ll be in a few hours. Though the journey is over 800 kilometers I still manage to get to Penza in the evening after a long ride with a former Soviet army officer who had served in Afghanistan but has by now become a tax lawyer and a Russian orthodox believer to boot. Plenty of subjects for some good conversations.
Unfortunatly my day in Penza isn’t half as interesting as the previous day getting there. Orenburg at least still felt like a place where different cultures came together. But Penza is just drab. Maybe I’m just not paying attention. My only moment of surprise is the bust of Stalin in a courtyard off one of the big streets I glimpse from the corner of my eye. I walk over to take a closer look, and there’s a giant banner as well as a sign above the entrance way of a building announcing it’s the Penza department of the Communist Party’s Stalin center.
The next day I’m walking along a road trying to find a good place for vehicles to stop. It rained last night, and the pools of water and mud make it difficult to find a strategic place to wait and not get brown water splashed on me. I’ve got a long way to go. I want to get to Saint Petersburg by tomorrow evening. That’s 1,352 kilometers in 36 hours. The first two rides are provided by truck drivers. The second, a Kazakh who moved to Russia for the better healthcare that could be provided to his ill son, has a meticulously decorated and clean cabin. I take off my muddy sandals but I still feel guilty about all the mud I’ve undoubtedly dragged in.
I get dropped off at Moscow’s outer ring, a good 70 kilometers from the Kremlin, in the evening. As the hours progress the kind of people giving me rides changes. First two friends driving home from work. Then a migrant worker from Southern Kyrgyzstan on the night shift and a truck driver bringing goods to central Moscow before the stores open. Then some people on their way to work followed by a bunch of guys driving to their dachas followed again by long-distance delivery drivers. The last guy has driven a van all the way from Tatarstan to transport some furniture. He tells me he’ll spend the night sleeping on the front seat before going back the next day. But I’ve gotten to my destination of St Petersburg and by the time I get to the hostel I’m beat, having been awake for a good 36 hours. I manage to stay awake just long enough for the first of my friends to arrive before I crawl into bed.