Staraya Russa

ed note: I wrote this a day ago, in SR. I’m actually in Moscow now – just arrived by overnight train. I couldn’t post this from SR because the internet cafe there was disgusting and I didn’t want to spend any time there. and no wifi. anyway…here it is. more about Moscow when I’ve got it.

Staraya Russa, the little town south of Novgorod where I’ve spent the past few days, is a Russian reinterpretation of the Three Little Pigs. The oldest part of town, where the Dostoevsky family lived until Fyodor died, is filled with lovely wooden houses. Some are kept up beautifully, while others tilt and sag at odd angles for lack of a foundation. Each house sits on a small plot of land, most with a neat garden for tomatoes, potatoes, or what-have-you.

The other end of town, towards the bus and railway stations, is slightly more urban. The buildings are larger and closer together, built of brick beneath painted stucco facades. Between these two, unfortunately at the center of town, sits a decaying, colorless ghetto of unmistakable Soviet blocks, their cheap concrete crumbling into trash-strewn paths.

Originally I wanted to come here to seek some quiet, to try to read and write and clear my head. “A 19th-century village along the river” seemed like the right sort of place. As it turns out, I also needed to clear my sinuses (see previous post). So after a day in my Novgorod sick bed, I took the 2-hour bus ride here to finish getting better. I’m glad I did. Novgorod was too small to be exciting and too big to be peaceful. Like the American suburbs.

I’m staying at the Hotel Polist, a friendly place in the center of town. It also happens to be the only decent place to eat. It seems my arrival – a foreigner! who doesn’t speak Russian! – spread quickly through the staff. During my first trip to the restaurant I was immediately handed an English-language menu (thank god – I was still too sick-headed to try to decipher the menu in Russian). Word of my tea-needs also spread: When I show up with my travel mug and tea bag, the waitress on duty nods and takes it from me, knowing to fill it with hot water and return it to me before I finish my meal. After a day of consomme, sleep, and gallons of tea, I feel like myself again.

Yesterday (May 6) I visited the Dostoevsky Museum. It’s just his old house furnished with his things – his writing desk, photos of his children and wife. But it was peaceful and comforting, somehow, to see how he lived and where he wrote, looking out large windows at weeping willows sagging into the molassas Porusya River.

All around me, since I arrived, spring is doing its thing. When dad and I were in St. Petersburg, the trees were bare, the landscape a thousand shades of nothing. A week later, on my first walk through Staraya Russa, I noticed some early buds, still bashful, at the tips of each tree branch. Overnight the buds became leaves, and from then on, seemingly with each passing hour, the leaves grow larger, changing color from lemon to summer green. I keep doing double-takes: “Is that the tree that had such delicate, tiny leaves this morning?” Perhaps it’s my years in the city, but I’m taken aback by what I’m witnessing here. It’s like watching grass grow, but actually seeing it grow.

As wander the town, my eyes stinging from exhaust fumes and pollution despite the new greenery, I’m transported back to my first year in Hungary. I keep wanting to greet babushkas with “keszi csokolom” (“I kiss your hand” in Hungarian). When I enter a cafe or restaurant, it takes all my control to not ask for the “etlapot” (menu). I can’t shake the feeling that I’m simply traveling in a part of Hungary I’m not familiar with. But then I’m confronted with Russian cold stares, grudging service, and bursts of language I don’t understand, and I know I’m a bit too far east for that. I’ll just have to crack the Russian code.

St. Petersburg seems like a dream, a blur. It was all too much to absorb – the new culture and language, the almost excessive art and architecture – given my frayed state of mind. I will have to go back, with perspective.

Indeed, over the past few days I’ve come to terms with the too-muchness of Russia itself. There is so much history and complexity here, impossible to unravel. What’s the phrase? A riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma? Reading my guidebook and other travelogues (Through Siberia By Accident, by Dervla Murphy, and, at the moment, In Siberia by Colin Thubron) I feel like an overexcited puppy yapping at nothing and everything: I’ll go to Murmansk, on the Arctic! I’ll go to Astrakan, to see the Caspian and the land of sturgeon! I’ll go to Kazan, for East-meets-West and the Volga! I’ll go to Suzdal, for ancient Rus! I’ll go to the Altai Mountains, to hike! I’ll go to Elista, to see Russian Buddhists! It goes on and on.

Like my writing, my travels need editing. I only have three months, after all. (Less than that! In 2-1/2 months, on July 22, I’ll be in Wuhan, China, for the eclipse.) And before you scoff at “only three months,” consider that the world’s largest country covers 13% of the globe. A telling opening line from a Lonely Planet chapter: “Just 260 km from Novosibirsk…”

Beyond the physical vastness of the country, there’s the complex political and cultural history of both Russians and the many minorities that form the patchwork of distrcits, autonomous regions, semi-autonomous territories, and so on of the new Russia. (As an aside, I’m a bit mortified and how ignorant I am about this country. While it’s fine that I didn’t know much about, say, the hill tribes of Southeast Asia before I went there, my lack of knowledge about some basics of Russian history is ridiculous. All we learned in school was essentially, “USSR = bad!” And I never filled in the details. Sad.)

Anyway, I remembered last night that I’m seeking the offbeat, the odd Russia. So I’m ditching my half-assed idea to do the Trans-Siberian from Moscow in Vladivostok in one go (I’d miss too much!) and I’m doing it in chunks. At the moment the plan is to take the train to Moscow tonight, spend about 5 days there, and then leave European Russia behind. I’ll go to Kazan (capital of Tartarstan), then Tomsk (in western Siberia) and then…probably all the way to Irkutsk. I’d like to have at least a week – maybe two – in the Lake Baikal region. I want to get up to Yakutsk, especially if I can be there for their summer solstice festival (June 21-22). Other planned highlights would be Kabarovsk and some combo of Sakhalin Island, Magadan and/or Kamchatka (all along the Pacific coast). Then to Vladivostok and China.

Already that’s too much for the 10ish weeks I have left. But it’s only the first round of editing…

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