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Rick's Adventures - The Trip to Chita, Siberia
"You must really hate this job." That's what my boss said when I told him I was moving from San Diego to Siberia for a year. In reality, I was bored and looking for something that would be completely and utterly new. Whether it was sunstroke or a developing tolerance to margaritas, San Diego just wasn't cutting it anymore. Heck, I hadn't even gone to the beach in nine months and it was only a few blocks away. Time to rediscover a zest for life.

As you are doing now, I trolled the Internet looking for that rare opportunity that would renew my vigor and let me brag to my domesticated friends. Pick coffee in the South Pacific? No, I already drink too much of it. Sail around the world on a container ship? No, I wasn't ready for involuntary self-reflection. Before I knew it, I had agreed to move to a city in Siberia known as Chita. Yes, I was going to be a professor at Chita State Technical University through a program put together by Siberian Intercultural Bridges. Donate - they need the money: www.siberian-bridges.org.

So, what does one take for a one-year stay in Siberia? Why, I'll just go buy a guidebook on Siberia and read the "what to take" section. My search of the local mega bookstore was disappointing. Shockingly, there were no guidebooks for Siberia. I was tempted to write a nasty letter to Lonely Planet and others until the bookstore clerk said, "You're going WHERE?" When she started giving me the "you must be a criminal on the run" look, it was time to go.

Fortunately, I was able to find experienced travelers that could provide me with the details and items that were absolutely necessary. My girlfriend gave me the all-important electric blanket, a power converter and intimate details about what would happen to me if I should dare share it with another women. Grandpa gave me a World War II down coat that was about three sizes to big and made me look like a walking gopher. Family, friends and random strangers contributed further items and advice that would be critical to my survival.

Apparently rating my chances of survival at 50-50, friends and family put together a going away/never see him again party the day before I left. Of course, everyone brought Vodka as a humorous going away gift. The tide quickly turned, however, as all were asked/forced to try a "taste of Russia." Many of the events of that night will remain forever sealed in antiquity, but it should suffice to say that the wife of one friend went into labor which made it a very fun night and subsequent day for him at the hospital. Few got off so easily.

Gigantic backpack, electric blanket, hangover and I headed to the airport the next morning.

Standing in the airport in San Diego, I began to wonder exactly how long it was going to take to get to the city of Chita in Siberia. The combination of a vodka hangover, three flights, one train ride and a jump over the international date line didn't help. At first glance, it looked like a total of two days, which wasn't bad for going to the other side of the earth.

I should have paid more attention in math.

The itinerary for getting from San Diego to Chita read like this:

1. Fly from San Diego to Seattle.

2. Meet charity representative and other professor.

3. Fly from Seattle to Anchorage.

4. Fly from Anchorage on Aeroflot [gulp] to Khabarovsk, Russia.

5. Take train from Khabarovsk to Chita.

How bad could it be? Very, very, very bad. Did I mention "bad"?

Day 1

The flight to Seattle was no problem. I met Tom Dickinson, the founder of Siberian Intercultural Bridges, but we couldn't find the other teacher. Turns out the flight to Anchorage wasn't till the next morning, so it didn't really appear to be a problem. Around midnight, our attitude changed and we had written off the teacher.

Day 2

At 8 AM, Grea Waters from Kentucky appears out of the Seattle mist. We have our second professor and he speaks fluent Russian. This is a big relief as I had spent a lot of the previous evening contemplating my Russian skills. That is to say, I had none. I couldn't even pronounce the name of city we would land in, Khabarovsk. I nearly had a panic attack during the night when I bolted up in bed upon the realization that I would have no way of knowing how to get to the train or when to get off. You see, the Russian language is based on the Cyrillic alphabet. There is no way to wing the Cyrillic alphabet. For example, the letter "y" is pronounced "ch" as in Charlie. I was in definite trouble. Would the rest of my life be spent riding around aimlessly on trains? The continued grinning of Tom Dickinson didn't make me feel any better.

Our flight from Seattle to Anchorage was uneventful. Yes, we flew Alaska Airlines. While waiting for our connection in Anchorage, two thoughts kept running though my head. First, isn't Aeroflot the airline with all the crashes? Second, how did a man from Kentucky become fluent in Russian? I mean, what about his accent? I was feeling less confident about my translator and decided to investigate. I started rubbing my temples when he told me that he had never been to Russia. Alas, there was no turning back. Trust me, I tried.

Day 3

Technically, it's day two and half. I think. Time began to blur as we flew over the international date line. Wait, do we add a day or lose a day? I was so confused that I didn't know whether to whine about losing or gaining a day in my life. Whatever day it was, we were flying along happily on Aeroflot.

I must say that communism had some things going for it. The average airline ticket in the U.S. should come with a shoehorn to help wedge you into the seat. God forbid if the person in front of you should put their seat back. Damn people in first class! Communism solved this problem nicely.

I wouldn't say our plane was old, but the younger planes around our gate were crowding in to hear our plane tell stories about the first flight of the Wright brothers. Despite some interesting details [My God, does that look like a crack in the wing? That better not be duct tape!], the "maturity" of our flying bull had some distinct advantages.

A central concept of communism is that there is only one class of people, to wit, the workers. Theoretically, everyone gets the same treatment. The benefits of this theory are debatable, but I can tell you it stomps capitalism into the ground when it comes to flying.

The seating compartment on our plane was uniformly first class. There was plenty of space for one's rump and legs. Each two-seat section was the equivalent of three seats on a U.S. airline. It was at least two feet to the seat in front of me. Those that fly a lot will understand as I quietly shed a tear in memory of that flight. Dozing comfortably, I didn't give a damn if the wings fell off. At least we were going in style!

Our flight consisted of about 100 people. Of these, 90 percent were Russians. Grae and I counted as two and the remaining five or so people were religious volunteers going to convert the godless masses. They appeared to be having no luck on the plane, but Grae and I were able to strike up a few conversations.

I must say that the Russians on the plane were extremely nice and very honest. While honesty is generally a good thing, their frankness made me a bit uncomfortable. First, there was a clear consensus that we were out of our mind for agreeing to go to Chita. "You are going WHERE?!" was followed by a lot of whispering between Russians and bulging eyes. Since I doubted the pilot would be willing to turn the plane around, this wasn't particularly comforting.

Our conversations raised an additional problem regarding the definition of "fluent". In my mind, being fluent in a language meant that one could get directions, tell boring stories, etc., in the language in question. It quickly became clear that Grae's definition of "fluent" was something less. This was verified when he turned to me and said, "Man, I've forgotten a lot." Great. Khabarovsk was only a few hours a way.

As I lounged in my huge Aeroflot seat, the stewardess announced that we would be arriving in Khabarovsk in the next 30 minutes. Khabarovsk is located in the deep south of the far east of Russia on the border with China. It is the home of the Far East Military of Russia and is the largest city east of Lake Baikal. I was primarily interested in how hard it would be to find a hot shower.

Well, this was it, the first day of my year in Siberia. I had my phrase book, electric blanket, traveler's checks and a solid rush of adrenaline. Of course, I had never actually taught a class before, but I would deal with that later.

We descended out of the clouds into a rainstorm. The view was still incredible. We were flying into a flat valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Everything was a deep green. A few cabins could be seen on the ground.

There was a very clear view of the airport as we banked through the valley to approach from the West. Umm, aren't airports usually lit up? This one looked like a ghost town. The runways looked fine, but there were no lights in the buildings. There appeared to be a dearth of activity on the ground. I had never backpacked from a plane to the airport, but maybe this was the way it was done. When in Rome...

Finishing off an incredible flight, our Russian pilot set us down with a light touch. As we taxied up to the airport, I could only think that if the rest of Russia was as good as the flight, it was going to be a great year.

Blink, blink, blink... lights started coming on in the terminal! Despite being no more than 50 feet from it, we were herded onto a transport. We started, did a wide u-turn and stopped at the gate. All I could think of was "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

"The Gods Must Be Crazy" was a hilarious movie released in the eighties [no jokes about my age]. The first scenes of the movie are biting satires of our modern way of life versus the indigenous tribes of Africa. In one scene, a woman gets into her car, backs down to the end of her driveway and puts a letter in the mailbox. Ah, progress! The journey from the plane to the airport couldn't have been much longer.

The airport terminal was pretty industrial. That is to say, no effort was made to sell you fast food, booze, ice cream, "Khabarovsk Hard Rock Café" shirts or duty-free crap you really didn't need. Frankly, it was a relief.

Russian customs worked pretty much the same way as customs at any airport. You grabbed your bags, bummed pens off of strangers to fill out forms and stood in long line with other tired travelers. Eventually, you got to the front of the line and tried to see how the person standing eight feet in front of you did it.

Unfortunately, my turn was also my first chance to experience the Russian language. I passed my passport, custom forms and visa through the little window. I also tried an innocent smile, which worked about as well as smiling at an IRS agent. Everything went smoothly until the customs agent started speaking rapidly and pointing at my customs form. Something was wrong, but I hadn't a clue as to what. I turned to Grae with a quizzical look and he came forward to interpret.

All international travelers quickly learn a fundamental rule. The "wait here" line at customs is sacred. To prematurely cross the line is to commit an act of war. Russian customs was no different. Grae was loudly instructed to get behind the line and wait his turn. The customs agent then gave me a stern lecture. To this day, I can't tell you if he was discussing my forms or the weather, but the tone was definitely stern. The lecture was capped by the universal customs agent expression known as "stupid foreigner... why did I take this job... I really wanted to be a painter..."

Eventually, the issue with the form was resolved. I would like to tell you that I took an active role in this, but I basically stood there while the agent grumbled and aggressively stamped the documents. I did actively pray that the stamp wouldn't explode, but that was about it. Grae moved through customs without incident and we walked out into the cool, wet air of Khabarovsk, Russia.

Khabarovsk

Khabarovsk is an amazing city. Museums with works from Picasso, Rembrandt and other masters. A bustling downtown area with cafes, a lively music scene and architectural triumphs. Then again, maybe not. We were far more interested in finding a hotel with hot water and never ventured into the city.

Outside of the airport, we were a bit flummoxed by the fact there appeared to be no taxis. We quickly learned that practically any Russian with a car is also a taxi for hire. After 5 minutes of egging each other on, Grae made taxi arrangements and we were off. Apparently taking in out disheveled appearance after 3 days of traveling, our driver suggested the Intourist hotel. We readily agreed.

During communism, Intourist hotels were set up for exclusive use by foreigners. Ours was fairly nice and, importantly, had showers with copious amounts of hot water. After having returned to humanity with one of the best showers of my life, it was time to brush up on my Russian skills.

I am a huge fan of ice hockey. During the eighties and nineties, many of the best players were Russians. In interviews, they almost always talked about learning English by watching television. If it worked for them, it would work for me. Not exactly.

As Grae showered, I flipped through the eight available channels. Sitcoms were a non-starter, but I eventually found a news channel. I see the images. I know what the images are. I hear the words being spoken by the reporters. I have absolutely no idea of what words go with what images. Okay, let's back up. What words do they use over and over? Damn, do they have to talk so fast? After 30 minutes, I have learned nothing, nada, zippo. My respect for Russians playing in the NHL has never been higher.

Might as well sleep on it. Yes, day three of the trip was finally done. My original prediction of a 2-day trip was out the window. Still, we were in Russia, so how much longer could it take? Pull out a map and take a look at the country. It is twice the size of the U.S.

Day 4!

My original travel estimate was 2 and half days from San Diego to Chita, Russia. Well, day 4 has arrived and I am just getting on the train. This horrible time estimate is evidence of a poor math education. I blame the American education system!

I never could figure out those math hypotheticals, "If a train is going south at 'x' speed and a cyclist is going north at 'x' speed, when will they meet?" When are they going to meet? More like, "What the heck is cyclist going to look like WHEN they meet?" What about his family, not to mention the nightmares suffered by the conductor. I mean, really, who can do math under such circumstances?

Stairs... Evil, Evil Stairs

At the Intourist hotel, we arranged for train tickets to Chita. By we, I mean my friend Grae did everything. For $27, "we" had arranged a private berth and all was good. With a good nights sleep, we headed down from the room and out into the... pouring rain. A local was kind enough to give us a ride to the train station and all seemed good. After a bit of pointing, extreme facial expressions and so on, we discovered our train was running about an hour slow. We hunkered down and did a bit of people watching.

As we sat, I pondered my luggage. I had a large hiking backpack and something I called "the lump." The lump was an extremely large duffle bag with tiny wheels on one-end and plastic bars running down the flat side/bottom. In theory, you could roll it or drag it anywhere. Mine was black, wet and weighed about 70 pounds. Before you snicker, keep in mind I was going to Siberia for a year. What would you take? Still, I had an uneasy feeling, but couldn't really figure out why.

Our hour was up and it was time to head to the track platform. Like many European train stations, one had to actually walk down stairs, through a tunnel and then back up stairs to get to your platform. This is not the way it works in San Diego. It also doesn't rain in San Diego. Rain, 70 pound bag on wheels, plastic bars, stairs... I think you get the picture.

The stairs were packed as I shuffled forward pulling the lump behind me. You would be proud. I made the first flight without maiming anyone or being slapped. Just as I stepped down the second flight, "thou was nudgeth from behind."

Time slowed.

The lump hit me in the back of the knees. I fell back onto the lump. In a transformation beyond my primitive understanding of quantum physics, the lump became a high performance bobsled. Down I went.

Still in slow motion, I couldn't help but notice the agility of the Russians in the stairwell. Some jumped up an ornamental shelf running down the stairs. Overweight individuals sucked it up and suddenly became thin. Miraculously, not one soul was hit on my way to the bottom. My landing was uneventful, which is to say there wasn't a loud smack on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.

I jumped up and turned to see if anyone was injured. There was total silence. Faces just stared back at me. Apparently, the only thing injured was my ego and skin, which was turning a dark shade of red. Well, I like to make an impression! I vehemently prayed that none of them were going to Chita.

Everyone started moving again and not a word was said. Alas, the lump was not so accommodating when it came to climbing up the stairs on the other end of the tunnel.

A Train To Nowhere?

In deciding to travel to Chita, Siberia, I had originally estimated a travel time of three days. Okay, maybe three at the outside figuring time changes and such.

As day 4 of the trip headed into the afternoon, I was finally on the train that would take me to Chita and figured I would be there in a day or so. I would finally get to see the beautiful and extreme landscape of Russia. To make things even better, I would get to brag to my friends about riding on the famous Trans-Siberian railway. This was going to be great. As is often the case with anticipated events, reality threw an ugly wrench in the proceedings.

Stop... Go... Stop... Go

In California, there are two types of trains you can take. The first is an express train that pretty much takes you from point A to point B with few stops in between. For those traveling shorter distances, there is a "slow train" that stops at every little town and station. In Russia, we were clearly on the slow train.

As we pulled out of the train station in Khabarovsk, anticipation was in the air. The train slowly gained speed. We stared out the window as the city started to pass at an increasing pace. After about 5 minutes, we stared out the window as the city started to pass at a DECREASING pace. After a few more minutes, we stopped at another train station.

Ah, there are probably two big stations in the city and it makes sense to pick up everyone for the trip across the country. Soon enough, the whistle blew and off we went again. Smiles spread across our face. These disappeared roughly 5 minutes later as we stopped again.

My god, how many train stations are there in this city? I can tell you there are at least 5 since we stopped at that many. With time spent sitting in each little train station, an hour had passed and we weren't even out of the city!

As I stood at a window in the hall, a Russian man heard me muttering and decided to practice his English. We chatted. I remarked on the number of stops. He grimaced and told me the trip to Chita would take 3 plus days. I grimaced. And nearly cried like a small child. Three days in a train compartment no bigger than a closet. Oh, my.

Then he told me the food car on the train was closed for the trip. Since this is a clean web site, I can't print the words I uttered at that moment. Just picture the reaction of Homer Simpson on learning there is no more beer in Springfield.

My new Russian friend smiled and said, "What does that word mean? We never learned that."

The Horror

As my new Russian friend walked down the hall, I reflected on the information he had provided me with a grimace. The train ride from Khabarovsk to my destination, Chita, was going to take three days. I had already been traveling for four days and the thought of 3 days on a train made me... unhappy.

While reflecting on this development, I had an opportunity to take a look at my new neighbors, err... fellow passengers. They were moving in. Literally. Pillows, sheets, bags full of food. The general impression was we were going to be on the train for a long, long time.

As we actually cleared the city, I told myself to look at it as an adventure. An adventure? Oh, yes.

Of Crackers and Grape Juice

Nutrition is an odd thing. Like many, I try to eat a healthy diet with vegetables and so on. Of course, a stressful day at work has led to more than a few fast food meals. On the Trans-Siberian Railway, I would've killed for fast food.

Contrary to what another passenger had told me, the food car on the train was open for business. The woman in charge of our car told me this in limited English and an exasperated look on her face. Well, she didn't lie. The food car was open. Unfortunately, the only thing it was selling were boxes of crackers and grape juice.

I'm not a big cracker fan, but I'll eat them. I happen to like grape juice... or I did. For the next 48 hours, Grae, a fellow traveler, and I munched crackers and drank juice. Then we drank juice and munched crackers. Then we crushed crackers and put them in the juice. Then we made feverish declarations to never eat crackers or drink juice again. Ever.

The Funny Part

After 48 hours of crackers and juice, I was more than willing to starve. I kept having nightmares about the horrible things happening in my stomach. Grae apparently had arrived at the same opinion. Cinching up his pants, he went to hit up our fellow travel companions for some real food.

Part of the fun of traveling is realizing how foolish you really are. When you are in a country where you don't speak the language, you are going to eat a pretty hefty amount of humble pie. What the hey, we were hungry.

After five minutes, Grae returned to our compartment with one of those looks on his face. We had lived on crackers and grape juice for no reason. Yes, we could buy food at every stop the train made by just walking into the train station. And we stopped a lot.

As we pulled into a little town, Grae and I were hanging from the doors of the train. We ran into the station and... all they had were crackers and grape juice. Just kidding. I am not sure what we bought, but it was the best food I've ever had.

Next stop... Chita!

Siberia As Seen From A Train

In preparing for my trip, I had actually done some preparation. As a common man, I know most of you female readers will find this hard to believe, but I swear it was so. Yep, I had read up on books, rented movies and so on. I was familiar with the tundra, the forest and the perma-frost of Siberia. And I was going to see it all during the three-day train ride across Siberia. Au Contraire!

Apparently, the untamed wilds of Siberia are a bit farther north than where the Trans-Siberian Railway runs. During our train ride, we saw no forests, no mountains and pretty much nothing. It was like taking a really slow train ride across Kansas. There just wasn't much of anything to see. I wish I could tell you differently.

End of the Road

As I went to sleep on the evening of the sixth day of the trip, I was developing a firm conviction that I would never see Chita. Instead, it was clear that I was in some type of bizarre reality television series based on travelers being driven slowly insane. Amazing Race? Give me a break. As with oh so many things, I was wrong.

The Seventh Day

Brooms scratch. Particularly when handled by the Russian woman in charge of our car. As I shot up out of my bunk, I realized she was talking loudly and pointing more than a bit. The train was slowing down, but I couldn't see much out the window because we were in trees and there was too much sun. Upon awaking Grae with a few whacks and a laugh, I finally recognized her saying, "Chita".

We had arrived. After three flights, one angry customs official, a few embarrassing moments, way too many crackers and seven total days of travel, we had indeed arrived. At 5:30 in the morning.

Jumping out of bed, we each stuffed our belongings into our bags. Staggered out into the hall. Realized we both badly needed showers.

And stepped off the train into Chita. Siberia. Russia.

At last I was there.
About the Author
Rick Chapo is with Nomad Journals - makers of travel journals to preserve your travel experiences.
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