Nothing like a two week vacation to the former Soviet territory where they have yet to understand the full concept of a “Western-Style” toilet (i.e. that you do not stand on the seat and squat over the bowl and that toilets can be more than just a hole in the ground) and have yet to understand any part of the concept of being polite when working in the service industry.
Of my own free will, I traveled on leave recently to the lovely if still catching up country of Russia. There were things to love, things to hate, and things to haunt my dreams forever. In short, everything you can ask of a fun and mountain filled vacation.
In long… to begin:
We started out in Moscow, landing in the newly built and still under perpetual construction Domodedovo Airport. We found our way to our hotel by hunting around for signs and relying on my loose grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet, so it was a chancy but in the end successful operation that took a little longer than normal since we quickly found that there were two types of people in Moscow: those that speak no English at all and those who speak a tiny bit but would rather scowl at you. Our hotel clerks spoke a tiny bit, enough to check us in and get us settled, at which point we went on a quest for 1) our plane tickets from Moscow to the Caucuses, which involved a lot of sign language to a Siberian Airlines worker and about an hour of standing around while she meticulously typed our tickets, 2) our train tickets, which simply involved communicating to our hotel desk how to spell my last name when I would swear I was the only person in the country at that point with a distinctly Irish last name, and 3) finding food.
Part 3 was where we first discovered that the people who mentioned to me in passing that Moscow was a little bit expensive might also consider, say, the purchase of a small island in the vicinity of Fiji for private use a tiny dent in their pocket. A glass of juice was nearly ten dollars, and I had a heart attack at the price of a main course. Luckily we only had one day in Moscow, because my savings account would hardly support an extended stay.
It turned out we didn’t need much longer than a day. Moscow is a regular big city, we found, though with prettier if Lenin-decorated subways. We saw Red Square, the Kremlin was closed, and you can’t take pictures of Lenin’s body. We nearly got arrested in front of the former KGB headquarters and basically ran amok from tourist site to tourist site, snapping some pictures along the way. The Russians looked at us with disdain but luckily didn’t speak enough of our language to be downright rude.
We then flew to the Caucuses on the dodgy Siberian Airways, pleased that the weather was calm and recounting crash statistics to pass the time on the two hour flight. Our purpose about 20 miles from Georgia and about 60 miles from Chechnya was to summit Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. Linking with our group, we found there were two Swedes, a Norweigian, two Germans, two Singaporeans, and including me three Americans. That plus our two Russian guides and a Nepalese Sherpa guide. A mixed group, but everyone spoke English and we began our journey after getting gas at a large, detached petrol tank parked on the side of the main highway. The others in the group outside of my traveling buddy and I first encountered “Turkish Toilets” on this part of the journey, discovering that the bathroom was a porcelain covered (if they were lucky) hole in the ground and a bucket of water to wash it all away. Bring your own paper. We got to the hotel four hours later and I met with the two Germans, of course, in the bar for an evening beer from a bartender with the least personality I have ever met in a non-metal object. I am still convinced that beneath his harsh exterior is… just as much of a harsh interior.
Day one of the trek was a quick jaunt up the chair lifts of Cheget Mountain in order to get used to altitudes above 3000 meters. Our guide Vitali said to wear tee-shirts and maybe a light jacket. He wore shorts. He regreted this when the weather turned halfway up the lift and we were dancing about in a freezing, pouring rain for the remainder of the day. The scenery was beautiful even in the rain, but he ushered us down the mountain as fast as he could muster. For the rest of our week in the Caucuses we asked him if we should wear a tee-shirt.
The next days saw us moving up to the barrel huts or Bochki Camp, big metal sleeping barrel huts around 3900 meters on the side of Elbrus. It beat sleeping in tents, so few complaints were made except for the fact that someone appeared to have “missed” when getting rid of their dinner in the covered hole in the ground outhouse we all shared as a commode with about 80 climbers and guides. We made a quick five hour hike to and from the Pushtov Rocks at 4700 meters our first day at the huts, coming into our first contact with strong winds and a little snowstorm just strong enough to make you wonder why you thought this would be fun.
But those winds were nothing, though we didn’t think so at the time. After a rest day where we learned to use our ice axes to stop ourselves should we take a tumble from the mountain, which involved a lot of tumbling down snow-covered slopes and a bit of happy bruising on our bums, it was our summit attempt. At our start after a 0300 breakfast call we took the snowcat up to the rocks and immediately found out that the winds had failed to die down. For the next fifteen hours I would get blown all over the side of the double-peaked mountain, thinking about how nice it would be to climb in Australia where the highest point is about 1000 meters and you really can wear a tee-shirt. I slowed down, keeping my own slow but steady pace, and the group moved on ahead while I stayed slow and plodding with one of the Russian guides, Sasha, occassionally grabbing my bag during particularly strong gusts so I didn’t get blown off the side of the east summit traverse. He thought I had altitude sickness because I was moving so slow and falling over. I told him to lose half his weight and trying to fight against these winds, and did he have any candy I could munch on as I hadn’t eaten much of the breakfast porridge and was considering eating the snow regardless if it was the yellow flavor or not. We finally reached the saddle at 5300 meters about a half an hour behind the main group, and found them in a little ice cave munching on a small bag lunch packed from base camp. I crammed a pastry in my mouth, drained my juice box, and found I had plenty of energy to argue with our lead guide about the fact that I wasn’t sick, just hungry, so to let me attempt on the summit. Five of our group of ten turned back at this point, the winds and their faster pace exhausting them to the point where they didn’t want to struggle the extra 300 (vertically) meters to the summit. The remaining five, myself having won the battle, continued up at this point, me roping to the Nepalese sherpa and, after watching someone from another climbing group get blown aside and tumble down the side of the west summit all the way down the ice back to the saddle (luckily unhurt, as we saw him get up at the bottom cursing that he would have to start his summit attempt again), the whole group roped together. About two hours later, we saw Europe from its rooftop. I had left my camera in the saddle, but my fellow guides and climbers snapped pictures of me and my teddy bear Paddington at the top of our second continental peak, finally able to ignore the winds blowing around us at about 50 kilometers an hour.
The trek down was arduous, and I made a mental note to learn how to hangglide and to pack a glider for my next expedition. My feet were numb, my legs swollen, my nose sunburned even on the inside from the snow reflection, and I resorted to my old techniques of finding a smooth and steep spot to put my bottom to slide down as much of the mountain as I could, much to the amusement of my Sherpa friend who was walking with me. The rejoicing upon reaching the barrels and hearing that breakfast wasnt until after 0900 the next day could probably be heard back up on the summit. We packed our gear in anticipation of the following day’s return to the hotel and fell asleep before 2100.
The next day we decended and rested, and then it was time for Russian celebration. Which meant vodka. Sasha, the guide who helped me reach the saddle, acquired a nasty habit early in the evening of pouring a shot for everyone and then a doubleshot for me and reminding me that I was crazy. We danced to Russian music. We took pictures we would not remember later. I drank way more vodka than appropriate and my stomach revolted, which would have been fine had I not been confounded by the bathroom stall doors which had counterintuitive (i think) locks so once inside I could not figure out how to get out again, so I sat and waited and acknowledged that I don’t even like vodka and wondered how Russians could think it was a good idea to force people to squat over a hole-in-the-ground toilet when they could barely stand up, that it was only asking for trouble. I am sure I thought many things, having resigned myself to spending the rest of my known future locked in the stall until a nice Russian girl peeked her head over and asked if she could help, at which point I gave her my friend’s name and she told me which way to turn the handle to make good my escape from the bathroom while she went to find him so he could escort me back to the van along with the rest of our exceedingly drunk climbing crew and we could stumble our way back to our hotel and beds. Luckily the next day our lead guide just took us on a walk (which he said was 20 minutes and turned into an hour or so) to a fishing hole where we caught trout and the russians grilled it for us for a nice, calm lunch before our departure the following day.
Our flight back was entertaining, particularly after spending about six hours in an airport where there was nothing better to do than look at Russian women who dress to fly as though they were going to be making a little extra cash on the flight. Our pilot was clearly a MIG pilot before he went commercial, because as we circled the Moscow airport in bad weather waiting for air traffic control to realize there was a plane up there he started getting ancy and making turns involving dipping the starboard wing before turning port, which made for very interesting creaking noises in a passenger airliner that was probably well past its prime. We landed, thankfully and luckily, grabbed our bags, said some goodbyes, and made our way to the trains downtown so we could catch the overnight Trans-Siberian line to St Petersburg. Minor confusion as we figured out our Russian printed tickets and we found our compartment with two Russian men who both, though they didn’t know each other, giggled nervously a lot and didn’t speak a word to us or each other.
St Petersburg was grand, full of history and color and reasonable prices. We stayed in an apartment, had a city tour with the third Tatiana we had met on our trip (our guide in Moscow was Tatiana 1, one of the hotel proprietors and climb operators in the Caucuses was Tatiana 2, and this was now Tatiana 3 and I was getting nervous about just how far the Russians had gotten in their stem cell research projects), took a night boat ride though the sun hardly went down because it was still considered White Nights and watched the drawbridges open, battled the damp weather, and watched the skin on my nose finally flake off from the sunburn I received in the south. Our guide’s driver was only stopped twice by the police and only asked for a bribe one of those times, which is apparently good, and overall we enjoyed ourselves even in a land where service with a smile is as foreign as patience.
The trip was fun, and a wonderful experience. In both cities we still felt as though we were in a constant bread line, since no one would ever smile or make you feel welcome, and boarding flights, asking for help in a train station information desk, and even getting to the counter to order a cup of coffee in a cafe felt like you were fighting back the masses scrambling for a seat on the last thing smoking out of Vietnam. “Push and shove, people, push and shove,” became our ready mantra in the cities, just as “20 minutes and wear a tee-shirt” became our Caucuses identifying call. I don’t feel the need to ever return to Moscow, but would do so to St Petersburg if I had the time.
But for now, I have to figure out if Aconcagua or Carstensz Pyramid should be the next mountain… or maybe diving in the Red Sea… or hike the Inca Trail…