August 11, 2004
Crashing in Yekaterinburg
DAY 290: The No. 118 train continued to cruise eastbound to the outer limits of Europe as the sun came up to start a new Trans-Siberian day. Despite the stereotype that there's nothing in the region but snow, it was starting to get sunny and warm -- after all, it was summer.
For breakfast I did as the locals and avoided the pricey dining car (400 roubles [about $13] for a soup!) and bought food supplies from the babushkas (Russian women with scarves wrapped around their heads) on the train platform during station stops. You could get anything from pre-wrapped chicken to dried fish to a bucket of forest berries, but I just stuck to the staple: dried lupsha, or ramen noodles, since each car provided hot potable drinking water.
The Russian family that had shared the compartment with me was replaced by another family, a mother and two restless girls who kept kicking each other while trying to read Mickey Mouse comics or do word searches. We rode the train all day, cruising passed villages, small lakes and forests (picture above), listening to the conductor's choice of music to put on the speakers: a medley of Russian boy bands, Russian hip-hop (with a horrible Russian version of ODB's "Brooklyn Zoo"), and the ever-popular song from the Romanian boy band O-Zone, which was sweeping all of Europe -- even my cousin Hans-Georg and family had the CD.
I continued to write until my 8:24 p.m. arrival in Yekaterinburg, birthplace of Russia's first democratic president Boris Yeltsin, on the eastern edge of the Ural Mountains, the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. As soon as I exited the car, I was staring at a sign that read "Mr. Trinidad" in beautiful Roman characters. Holding the sign was a tall, young Russian guy that could speak English named Sasha, sent from the Yekaterinburg Guide Center -- partner of my Trans-Siberian tour agency, Sokol Tours, who had set up my train tickets and homestays. Sasha gave me my ticket for my second leg of the train trip.
"You will be staying at our flat," he said as we walked down the platform and out of the station.
"So, are you from here?" I started with the small talk.
"No, I come from a smaller village called," (he paused for a second) "Asbestos. Because of the mining." I chuckled. "Everybody laughs when I say that," he said. The Asbestosian and I hopped in a taxi and rode crosstown to his apartment building.
When I originally decided to do homestays through Siberia, I had this image of staying with a "traditional" family unit, with a father and mother and a couple of kids in a small house or cabin, all bundled up to go ice fishing or wrestle polar bears. Instead, I was staying in a spare room of a college apartment on a warm summer night -- which was still fine by me because it gave me that nice "Dude, I'm crashing at your house" feeling. Living with Sasha was his girlfriend Tonya, who greeted me at the door. Both of them were English language students at Ural State Educational University, not too far away.
Sasha and Tonya had all the regular things in any American apartment -- kitchen, sofa, TV -- and my only "authentic" experience came from the fact that there was no hot water that particular day. Sasha and Tonya had to boil me water to put in a basin in the tub for me to blend with cold water for a makeshift bath -- something I hadn't done since my last homestay in Quito, Ecuador -- which I didn't mind at all. (I had been warned by Artour at Sokol Tours that this might be the case.)
"So what do you think of [Yekaterinburg]?" Sasha asked me.
"I'm actually surprised that there's a city this big here," I said. "I think most of the people in the States think there's nothing but snow."
We chat over watermelon slices about this and that. He almost fell off his stool laughing when I told him that I had spent a whopping 400 roubles for a bowl of borscht in the train's dining car.
"Well, I got a beer too." More laughter.
After a day of ramen noodles, pizza, beer and crashing at a college students' pad, I closed my eyes, feeling like I was twenty-one again.
If you enjoy this daily travel blog, please post a comment! Give me suggestions, send me on missions, let me know how things are going back home in the USA. Knowing that I have an audience will only force me to make this blog more entertaining as the days go by. Donīt forget to bookmark it and let a friend know!