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Say [EAT DRINK WALK] to Moscow
Travelling across Russia
camille nageotte
Trans-Siberian, September 2016

Chapter 1. Moscow
As for lots of travellers, the Trans-Siberian train was a dream for me since a very long time, and finally I got to making it come true. However, travelling in Russia always has to be prepared well... First of all, I neither spoke or read Russian, and at the same time, I wanted to discover the country in another, authentic way, by meeting local people instead of sticking to hostels all the time. So I had to study the alphabet before starting my trip.

When I arrived to Moscow, I was totally lost! Luckily, the metro network isn't complicated, but it was still hard to arrive in a country where everything is written differently. I had to ask passengers waiting on the metro platforms, and even though they mostly didn't speak any English, they always tried to help me.

Metro stations in Moscow are like Russia itself: huge! Spending time in Moscow often means spending time in the metro's corridors, walking long ways from one metro line to another. The metro is famous for its architecture and each station is decorated like a palace! As I am not fond of big cities, I found it tiring, but very interesting. Cristal chandelier, coloured marble walls, sculptures... I visited some museums too. The Tretyakov gallery shows beautiful paintings from old times and rural life, and I also liked doing the free walking tour of the city center.

Moscow was the starting point for my Transsiberian journey. I realised that I've planned too many stops along the way, so I had to select the cities I really wanted to see. The Russian tourist visa is valid for only one month, which is way too short to visit the biggest country in the world...
So, having carefully read my guide book, I decided to follow the Trans-Siberian railway until Taichet, where the railway splits into two lines: the Trans-Siberian keeps going to the south of Baikal lake through Siberia until Vladivostok, and the Baikal-Amour-Magistral takes north of Baikal and crosses Siberia parallel to Trans-Siberian. I wanted to follow the latter, less touristic and more natural.
Chapter 2. Suzdal, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan
First I went to Vladimir, taking a bus to Suzdal from the city. In Suzdal, this beautiful and well-preserved slavic town, I was welcomed by a friendly Russian man who studies French by himself. We met through Couchsurfing and had long conversations, sharing stories of our cultures with each other. Suzdal is peaceful and bucolic, and it is very pleasant to walk around its monasteries, town itself and its countryside.

Then I took a train to Nizhny Novgorod. The city center is small and fine, the Kremlin, spread out along the Volga river, was beautiful.

Then I reached Kazan. I visited another Kremlin, as well as the beautiful local museum of Tatar culture. I didn't have much time but I wanted to see a different kind of Russian cities, and Kazan was the best choice for that. After Suzdal, traditional town famous for its wooden architecture, I wanted to see modern and classic style of Nizhny Novgorod, and islamic Tatar culture of Kazan. It was very interesting to visit Kremlin in each city, especially the one in Kazan where a modern and beautiful mosque takes place just next to an orthodox cathedral.
Chapter 3. Yekaterinburg
The train took me further east to Yekaterinburg. This time I could spend more days in a city. I was hosted by a nice couple, two dynamic and joyful young couchsurfers. They welcomed me with tea, just like they do everywhere in Russia (and oh, how much I like this habit!). They had to work during the week so I walked a lot by myself to discover Yekaterinburg. The way along the river is calm and and beautiful. It has a nice view on the city and the famous church built on the spot where the Romanov family was killed. They advised me to visit a very new museum: the Yeltsin Center, the exhibition was very interesting. The museum is dedicated to the 1990's and Boris Yeltsin's government, very appropriate to someone like me who doesn't know much about Russian history...

While having a lunch alone in a local café, I had some communication problems with the waitress, I could not understand what was the dish named pelmyeni. The two businessmen sitting at the table beside me helped her out, explaining me it is a sort of raviolis, and describing the different kinds of pelmyenis from the menu. When I finally ordered my dessert, those two men invited me to finish eating and having coffee together... and to speak French! One of them used to speak it a while ago, but he hadn't practiced for a long time and was very happy to get to speak again. I felt so grateful and also surprised to be suddenly so interesting for someone!

In the evening, I had dinner with my hosts in a restaurant, trying some local craft beers and talking until late at night. Unfortunately, I wanted to see more of Russia, so I could not stay longer in their home. It was the time to go.
Chapter 4. Tomsk
I took the train again, but with a dilemma in my head: should I visit Novosibirsk, which is a big city again, or go to Tomsk, which is a smaller town, but is situated away from Trans-Siberian itinerary and needs more time?... I decided that I would know the answer upon my arrival to Novosibirsk. I would have to take my bus to Tomsk from there anyway.

Indeed, the answer came to me right at Novosibirsk railway station! I left the train at 4am without knowing where I would go, doubting whether I should start searching for a hostel or a couch later in the morning, or find a bus to Tomsk. As I needed to have a walk, I went out of the station and a young lady came to me. She talked to me in Russian, and when I answered in English, she immediately repeated in English. She was waiting for her friend arriving by the same train I took, and for a moment in the darkness she thought I was her friend. Then she asked me : «May I help you?», so I asked her if there were some buses to get me to Tomsk. Surprisingly, she opened wide eyes saying that she goes to Tomsk by car as soon as she finds her friend, and she invited me to come with them. Here was my answer, I was going to Tomsk! We left Novosibirsk before the sunrise and arrived in two hours. After having a good breakfast, Oksana and her friend took me to the university where they used to teach. We visited the buildings, a garden, and another garden in the back, where we walked on the rooftop – pretty amazing!

After this long morning, I had a call from a couchsurfing couple inviting me to stay at their place. They picked me up at the station and took me to their apartment by car. We had a homemade lunch, sharing long conversations about travel life, with a lot of humour and energy! This couple used to organize many events and meetings in Tomsk for the local students. This city has a campus and a lot of universities which host students from everywhere in Russia, and international students too. After lunch, they took me on a ride across the city. Tomsk is famous for its gorgeous mansions and villas with traditional wooden architecture! We took some beautiful streets, stopped by amazing houses well-restored by the municipality, and after such a long day of walking and discovering the wonderful city, I realized how tired I was, and dark was the night... I checked my watch: almost midnight! I was up since 4 am! To finish it in a good mood, Serge bought some local beers and we went back home to drink them, with long conversations of course. They were very talkative so we went to sleep quite late.
Chapter 5. Severobaikalsk
After Tomsk, the train route splits into two. I was going to the north of Baikal lake. There is a city named Severobaikalsk, and I read about a man running a small hostel with some trekking activities organised. As I sent him an email, he told me I could come whenever I want, the hostel is usually empty at this period. I found the city pretty ugly at first. Large buildings, concrete everywhere, dusty roads... but I knew the famous Baikal lake was nearby. The landscape was covered with a thick smoke due to a fire in a forest a few kilometers away. Evgueny, the owner, was waiting for me at the hostel (an apartment on the first floor of a building) with black tea, biscuits and Siberian berry jam. He was like a grandfather: very simple and caring. As I asked for information about where to go hiking, he suggested we go together for a long day hiking in the countryside. He is the coordinator of the NGO named Great Baikal Trail and knows everything about the nature around. The aim of this organization is to build a hiking trail all around the Baikal lake and to promote ecology. Passionate of trekking and nature, Evgueny took me for a long walk through the forest, 20 km along the Baikal lake, until Baikalskoe, a fishermen village where we had a lunch at his friend's house. All the day we walked in the silent nature, damaged by another fire which happened a year ago. The lake appeared like a ghost, partly hidden by the smoke. It makes a weird atmosphere: the forest with shades of green, yellow and red colours of the autumn, with such heavy smoke all over... The village looked empty – we met only one fisherman, and apart from him there was no one out there.

I spent 2 days at the hostel. All alone in the flat and feeling home, hiking around with Evgueny, and cooking with his son Semyon, who just opened a new coffee spot in the city center – this family was very friendly and welcoming. I also visited the local museum, with every single caption in Russian language, although the objects and pictures were very interesting, and there was a cool shop selling oils from local trees, and Evenki handicraft.
Chapter 6. Long way on board of the train
It was not the first time I took the Transsiberian for many hours, but this time it was going to be a 3 days trip across Siberia! I wouldn't leave the train until Komsomolsk-na-Amure, another sovietic city at Amur river, in the far-east Russia, a little bit before the Pacific ocean.

The life on board is so special, we don't know this in France! People get on the train, they take off their daily clothes to put on sportswear or a pyjama, slippers, and they sit on their bed as they sit at home. Reading a magazine, texting on their phone, chatting or playing cards with their neighbours. And time goes slowly – there are no hours anymore. We cross many time zones and the clock always indicates Moscow time, which is obsolete here in Siberia. We just follow the rhythm of the sun, counting stops on the different stations. My favourite activity was sitting by the window and just watching. Landscapes are amazing: huge forests, lakes, rivers, wooden villages, sovietic cities in concrete... Day by day, I was learning some Russian vocabulary with my book. Evgueny taught me the names of the trees: beryoza, kedr, sosna, listvennitsa

The train itself is a microcosm: there are children, teenagers, adults of all ages, and old people. Some of my neighbours wanted to talk to me, but at some point I couldn't understand them. We could exchange basic phrases, I would introduce myself, but that was all. Most of the time I was the only foreigner there. People were surprised to see a young French lady travelling alone so far into the wild! I explained how I like travelling, meeting people, discovering cultures... And even if we couldn't exchange that much, we always shared a piece of bread, some ham, cheese, cookies, pickles or chocolate. Everybody travels with a big bag of food. You can't really cook in the wagon, but there is free hot water all day and night long.

The provodnik or provodnitsa (female) always takes care of the passengers. They make sure that we have linens and are registered, they sell some tea, sweet snacks or crackers, and they know how exactly to react if someone is drunk! Like a mummy, she would yell at a man and throw his bottle away.

I like the slow pace of the time on the train, I could read for hours, listen to my podcasts, write and observe people around. The further I got, the more people would have an asiatic face: we were going deeper and deeper into Siberia.
Chapter 7. Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Khabarovsk,
Once I arrived at Komsomolsk-na-Amure, a couchsurfer welcomed me at the train station and took me for a breakfast in the city. He couldn't host me but was up for exchange with me about our cultures, our experiences. He was from Khabarovsk, the city I planned to go next, and he said he really missed it. Komsomolsk looked pretty quiet, there were colourful buildings but not much to see and to do. The place I really liked was the riverside: there was a large area with a beach and some benches to rest and enjoy the view. At night, a group of couchsurfers welcomed me to the theater they worked at. They have a company, the KnAM Theater, famous for its modern plays since the 80's. Having spent a while in the theater, sharing French wine and a good conversation, we joined some friends at a buddhist meditation center. Their friends warmly welcomed us in this peaceful place with many different kinds of food.

...The local train took me to Khabarovsk. The city was lovely, and weather amazing! Big blue sky, even though it was quite cold. Many parks, promenades and riverside. My hosts were a young couple with a kid, Andrei. They welcomed travellers to make their kid meet foreigners and open his mind. Andrei was easygoing and liked to play with me. His parents told me about their ambitions to open an art therapy center for children. I hope it all comes true for them.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to reach Vladivostok. I had to leave the country very soon, and there was a 3 days ride from Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude, where I had to transfer to Mongolia, my next destination. This was my last trip on board of Trans-Siberian, going to the west this time, a journey with a bit of nostalgia.

In Ulan-Ude, I found a hostel where, for the first time in the trip, I met a lot of backpackers. Until then I had always been the only one. The couple of hostels I stayed in, in Kazan for example, had only Russians clients. Now I had an occasion to talk with foreigners, exchange our experiences – and we all kept going to Mongolia, some of them – until Beijing. I had 2 days to spend there, and a Russian friend of mine took me to a famous buddhist monastery, out of the city. The landscape changed drastically: no Siberian forest anymore, no trees, no mountains. There was a deserted area, tanned and bared hills, rare villages: the steppe. The monastery was gorgeous! A complex of several buildings, with some monks living there, others coming to practice meditation or to teach, or for local exhibitions. I like the atmosphere of buddhism mixed with old slavic style houses. This was my last day before I took a bus to Mongolia.
Back to Russia, February 2017

After a long trip in far-east Asia, I decided to come back to Russia during the winter, especially to experience a journey on frozen Baikal lake. It sounded like a dream to me!

The flight from Seoul, South Korea, to Irkutsk gave me a glimpse by the window: a huge white territory was spreading underneath... how would I survive in such a cold temperature?

I landed in Irkutsk by night, and a cab took me to a friend's house in Sovietskaya. The driver got angry as he didn't understand where I was going despite my efforts to speak Russian, and called my friend on the phone. When I told him I was from France, he immediately stopped being angry and sang some French songs he learned from his nanny in his childhood!

My couchsurfing friend welcomed me in the Russian way: with cakes, berry jam and black tea. The first days I spent hanging around in Irkutsk made me feel good, I was happy to be back in Russia. I found the Russian wooden houses again, the blinis, the street dogs, the cold people's faces in the street... It snowed a lot and I discovered the Russian winter style. Especially women are very chic: they wear a long coat with a shapka (hat) made of fur and walk with high heels in the snow! I don't understand how they do it, as I struggled to walk without slipping on the icy streets with my trekking shoes! I found it quite amusing. In Irkutsk, I visited the ethnological museum, and an art gallery. My host invited me to visit the church of Our Savior, where he knew the ringer of the bells. Every year this master taught his art of ringing bells to a dozen of students, playing beautiful melodies to be heard throughout the whole city. Later at night, my friend took me to join him and his friends to a bar, where a poetry competition took place. He was playing at theater, and this was a chance for me to play in public too! I also met a girl who suggested I try banya. I didn't know anything about this culture, so we went together the day after. It was a great discovery! We chose a banya in the periphery of Irkutsk, and she gave me a little hat everyone was wearing to protect head from the heat. That was the time I learned how to use the pine branches on my body too, what a surprise it was!
Olkhon island
After a few days, I took a bus to Olkhon island. My friend gave me the contact of an old buryat lady, a retired German teacher living there, in Khuzir village. This old babushka welcomed me for 3 nights. The bus went along the Angara river until we arrived to Baikal lake ...and started to drive on the icy lake, which was absolutely amazing. We were going through the lake by car! To really enjoy the journey on Baikal lake and be independent, I rented a bicycle. The studded wheels allowed me to drive without slipping on the ice. The journey was magic: I met some cars going to the north of the island in the morning, but then I have been alone the whole day, in this silent frozen world... Not too silent though, as I could hear the ice cracking, and it was freaking me out. The Shaman Rock recommended by many people was a beautiful place as well, but so much wasted by the many noisy tourists hanging out there with no respect. One day, as the bike chain broke, I could not fix it with my frozen fingers and stopped a car to ask for help. Two Russian guys, astonished to meet a French girl alone on the lake, repaired my bike and put it in their car. They took me back to the village to make sure I don't get lost. I saw myself offered some vodka to fight the cold. Back home, the babushka hosting me had prepared some milk from her cow and put some fire in my room. On my last evening there, a neighbour suggested I go to the municipal hall where some festival was taking place. It was the buryat New Year, and people were singing and dancing dressed in traditional costumes! It was a very beautiful celebration, and I was glad to escape from the touristic attractions and mingle with the locals. Folk songs and dances were very interesting.
Later I received a mail from Evgueny. I met this man last September when I stopped by his hostel in Severobaikalsk. He said he could organize a tour for me to meet some Evenki people. Evenk ethny used to be nomad and are still living in tents named tchum. Nowadays, there are not so many people living the traditional way anymore. Evgueny knew a Russian-Evenki man, Sasha, who bought an old farm in taiga and restored it. He now worked on it with two farmers, and they invited me to visit them. I immediately accepted and took the way from Irkutsk to Severobaikalsk. Evgueny introduced me to Katya, a woman working as a translator, and we went together to Uoyan, a little city in the north of Baikal lake. Sasha and his son Sergey picked us up and took us by car to taiga. The journey was quite long, we stopped sometimes to eat and drink some tea. After four hours driving, we met the two farmers waiting for us with their reindeers and snowmobile! We continued the way to the farm with the reindeers, through a big forest. We even crossed a frozen lake, covered by a lot of snow. The weather was wonderful: no clouds, just sun. I felt very cold though, it was about -20°C – but they laughed at me: for them it already looked like spring! Luckily for me, they gave me valenky which are much warmer than my boots.

I spent 2 days in taiga, learning a lot about the farm, the Evenki language, their traditions, their way of living... Aleksander and Volodia, the two farmers, taught me about how they hunt, how they fish, how they smoke the fish they get, nd how they cook the bread. I also learned to make tea with local herbs. I had so much fun with all of them! When we went back to Uoyan, Sasha invited us to have dinner with his family.
After the trip to taiga, I went back to the city and took the train again. It was very comfortable to travel in the warm cabin, drinking tea and coffee all day, watching the white landscapes by the window... I arrived in Novosibirsk after about 40-hour journey. My new couchsurfing friend welcomed me in the flat she was sharing with her grandmother. She cooked delicious blinis and we had long conversations, talking about our projects, about life... Later in the afternoon, she introduced me to her friends – Julia running an art center, and Dmitri, a folk musician. He brought all his music instruments for us to discover the local sounds. He played beautiful folk songs, let us try his instruments, all by some tea with sweet cakes. Then my host took me to Novosibirsk city center to visit a dance school. We met a dance ensemble which was training all the afternoon. They were practicing folk dances and invited me to join them and taught me their choregraphies. I loved dancing with them, it was such a great experience, and we spent a wonderful day together!
I took a flight to Saint-Petersburg where I planned to spend my last week in Russia. Such journey by train takes some days, and I didn't have time for that because of my visa. I preferred to have more time for the city so I flew. I was hosted by a young man who likes to welcome travellers, and travels a lot himself. Together we had lots of walks in the city, shared some beers and dinners. I spent a week visiting everything in this big cultural city! The Peterhof palace and the Hermitage, of course, but also an interesting museum of Russian music and ballet, some old temple restored as a cultural center where we were able to watch a soviet movie, the famous Mariinsky theater, and Pushkinskaya street. We also visited a shelter run by volunteers to take care of street dogs. It was less snowy than Siberia, but Neva river was still frozen. The ice was broken in the middle by a boat to prevent people from crossing the river by walking on the ice.
I enjoyed travelling in Russia, as it was not touristy enough to always be surrounded with other tourists. I had a chance to meet wonderful people on my way, to be warmly welcomed as a single foreign traveller.
I hope I will be able to welcome them in my turn someday, making them discover my country, sharing my culture and make them feel as welcome as I felt in my Russian journeys...
Since my childhood, I am curious and thirsty for discoveries, always dreaming of traveling far away. The most interesting part for me are the people I meet on the way. Thanks to couchsurfing, hitchhiking and some jobs, I get to know local people and other travellers in many countries. That's the way to be conscious of how respectable and wonderful human beings are, with many different ways of life, and a way to learn about ourselves. My mistakes teach me a lot, the best antidote to fear is curiosity, and step by step I develop some human qualities like compassion and humility.

My new project is to travel around the world of dances. I used to study dance for many years, and I decided to travel away again and search for people dancing, to see how they move, understand our relation to our body, and learn about other cultures through dances. From globe-trotter, I've become globe-dancer!

Camille Nageotte
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