On the last leg of our Russian journey, we met a set of interesting characters, ranging from “church security” twins to a vodka drinking cop by the name of Nikolai.
Our stay in Novossibirsk began with a seven hour search for accommodation. We had arrived to find that our couchsurfing host was out of town, leaving us no choice but to find the next cheapest accommodation. We quickly found a seemingly close hostel on the Internet and set off in search of it. Two hours later, with the help of a Russian office worker we eventually found it, and it was full. Next on the list was only slightly out of town, but after another futile two-hour search we were back to square one. The next hostel seemed to be nearby and we quickly located the building, another soviet style block, which ominously stretched for about a kilometre. No flat number was listed so we spent 30 minutes checking every entrance for any sort of indication that there might be a hostel lurking behind one of the heavy metal doors. No luck.
Help us search for accomodation in Novossibirsk
By now it was after midnight and frustration had well and truly set in, so it was back to Subway and its WiFi. Phil found another hostel, this one with a phone number. He called and woke up a lady who promptly hung up on him. We were starting to suspect that we would have to stay in a hotel, perhaps the cheap soviet style hotel nearby. It was a bit more expensive than a hostel but we were running out of options. We found that they had a room for three without en suite for 600 roubles ($18) each. Finally our luck had turned; the kind receptionist took pity on us and as it was after midnight she discounted the first night, meaning we got two nights for the price of one!
Alex and Alex the bouncers
We were a bit annoyed at settling in so late, but never mind. The next day we explored Novossibirsk, a cool student city with a great atmosphere. In the evening we headed back to the hotel for some warm up voddies before our big night on the town. There we met a couple of Russian guys, Alex and Alex, one of whom spoke a little English. They were massive, in a scary bouncer kind of way, but seemed nice, so we accepted their invitation to drink beer in their room. They travelled a lot and said they worked for “church security”, a job title none of us understood but it sounded dodgy.
We had planned to go to a bar recommended by a lady who had helped us in our hostel search, ‘Dog without a home’. The name suited us perfectly and we were keen to get there, but after several beers and a quick kebab with the bouncer boys, we only arrived in time to hear the last few tracks of the band playing. The bar emptied not long after, so we found ourselves back in Alex and Alex’s room for more beer. Upon hearing that we were heading to Kazakhstan Alex (left) said that he had been there before and gave us these parting words of wisdom:
“The watermelons in Kazakhstan are delicious but make sure you get the greenest one you can find!”
Nikolai the policeman
After a couple days of road we stopped at the foothills of the Altai mountains, which straddle the Russian, Kazakh, Chinese and Mongolian borders, for a couple of days of R&R before heading over the border into Kazakhstan. Up to this point we had not camped in the same place for more than one night so two days to chill out in the mountains by a lake sounded like heaven. And it was pretty heavenly for the most part.
We arrived in the quaint village of Artybash late in the evening, quickly set up camp next to the river and cooked in the dark before collapsing into bed. We woke up late the next day to find ourselves almost instantly befriended by a large burly Russian policeman by the name of Nikolai. He was soon joined by a very drunk Zhenya, another camper. Before we knew it we were drinking shots of vodka at Nikolai’s campsite, the sleep barely out of our eyes. They hardly spoke any English but it didn’t matter. Language barriers are funny things and it always amazes me how well people can get by using a mixture of language and gesturing. Vodka of course aids the process. Nikolai was from Bisk, a couple of hundred kilimetres up the road, and was having a weekend by the river with his family. They had gone out for a day trip to a nearby waterfall- he had decided that drinking with us was a better choice.
Nikolai and Phil hit it off discussing the Klitschko brothers, a famous pair of Ukrainian heavyweight boxers. Phil preferred Vitali but Nikolai was adamant that “Vladimir…iz..betterrr fighterrr!” Several more vodkas and some shashlick (barbecued meet on skewers) ensued, before Nikolai pointed to the river, “Phil, now… we swim!” The rest of the day was spent lying in the sun, swimming and chilling out. The policeman would potter over to our tent every so often with his bottle of vodka and a “Let’sa drrrink!”. We had no choice but to obey.
Later that day, Nikolai’s family came back after their day of sightseeing and invited us over for some snacks and drinks. His wife had made a delicious sauce/jam of mountain berries. While she was not impressed with the state of her husband and the amount he was still drinking , she seemed happy to have some foreign guests at her campfire.
When we woke the next morning however, we found that disaster had struck. Our food and cooking box containing all our pots, pans and utensils, as well as all the culinary delights for our tasty bush meals had been stolen. The thieves had taken it from right outside our tent door and even though our policeman friend was next door! We had a quick look around but it was nowhere to be seen. Nikolai was now up and we tried to explained what had happened but he gave a shrug of the shoulders; the bandits were long gone. There was no point in going to the police station to report our balsamic vinegar and potato masher stolen. So we headed off with heavy hearts, angry at ourselves for being so stupid to have left it outside.
That said, it was the only bad thing to have happened in Russia in a whole month. We had all thoroughly loved this fascinating country, its scenery, its people, its food and of course, its drinks.