3 Days in Rural Russia
Moscow and St. Petersburg are amazing. Simply amazing. And I will share our adventures there soon. But what my son and I remember most about Russia is getting out of our comfort zone and venturing north of Moscow to two small villages. We had unforgettable adventures there that we still talk about today.
These are things you cannot do when on a river cruise or in a tour group. So if at all possible, plan this trip yourself and go explore.
When we go back to Russia, we will definitely hop on trains and explore villages all over Russia. These are hidden gems.
Day 1: Adventure in Rural Rostov, Russia
We want to push our comfort level so we climb aborad an old rickety train headed three hours north of civilization (Moscow) to one of the most ancient Russian towns, Rostov, founded in 862.
I book an old-fashioned sleeper car so we can both nap. Or just lie down and read. It’s kinda cool.
There’s a little hallway where we meet two Canadians heading 8 hours north for an international conference on managing Arctic oil reserves with other countries without inciting nuclear war. Interesting. So the train slows down but doesn’t announce your town. And promptly dumps you in the middle of the train tracks.
In the middle of nowhere. Where very few Americans ever venture. Where you think you may be in eastern Kentucky. I’m walking a mile with too heavy a pack hating it. Casey’s loving the adventure.
It’s kind of like a ghost town, but beside the abandoned houses we notice these cool wooden houses with a distinct design around the windows.
It’s kind of creepy. We see no one. And the only cars are old soviet models from the 1970’s.
This beautiful scene is right next to the Munsters house that’s our hotel for $32. Welcome to Rostov!
We walk tentatively into the ghetto hotel. And it has a beautiful sitting area and staircase. It’s lovely and so are the people. And we get our own stick figure beds!
We drop our bags and start walking. Not sure what we’re going to see if this is going to be a waste of time. It’s not a tourist destination for sure.
And then we see the colorful onion domes unique to Russia.
This ancient monastery is huge and sprawling. Magnificent.
There are treasures around every corner you explore. Like this door. And a park.
Then we notice a lake and find a dirt path leading to water. It leads us to a stunning view back at the monastery complex.
Casey goes one way and I go the other. I see another monastery about thirty-five minutes away, on a winding dirt road by the lake. You can see it below to the right. Wow. Now I’m excited and call for Casey to come join me. He doesn’t. So I leave him.
You see a bored teenage girl and boy sitting in trees, guys fishing, just everyday life like in a Keith Urban song.
It’s very liberating walking alone in a foreign country where no one knows you or even your language. But it’s also a little scary. What if there are poor people who see these strange outsiders and want to rob us? What could we do then? I feel a little guilty leaving my son, but I keep walking, figuring he’ll catch up.
And then you see these brilliant blue spires reaching up into the sky.
It’s an intoxicating feeling, like discovering something new. These walls alone have centuries of stories to tell. So much character. And we are virtually all alone.
Casey catches up and finds me. We pay a couple bucks and climb up through this tower.
And get amazing views of the monastery with nuns and monks walking through the courtyard, and the lake beyond.
Nobody else is here so you have it all to yourself. You stand for awhile and just hear the wind blowing. Time stands still in this place that has heard prayers to God for almost 500 years.
As you walk back, you think Monet could have painted this. You see kids riding their bikes and laughing like we did as kids. And then reality hits. We are starving, having walked another 25,000 steps with no lunch.
We can’t find a restaurant! And most close here at 6pm. Finally, we venture into some weird, dark place and a lady invites us to sit down. And she’s sweet, doing her best to describe the menu items. We point to four things, including beef stew and potatoes and beer (possibly Budweiser, it’s big here). All for only $15! I don’t know exactly what we are eating, but when you’re hungry, everything is good!
So we make it back to the hotel just as the rain starts. And looked out our room window to find a rainbow.
By 8pm, we are hungry again and figure we’d split a snack, but instead we discover they serve gourmet food in this quaint room.
Casey gets duck and I order a Greek salad and pumpkin soup with meat in it.
It’s excellent and costs next to nothing. Just bummed the kitchen is closed so no chocolate. 🙂
Afterwards, I go for a walk down by the lake. A really peaceful way to end the day.
You can’t have days like this without being so incredibly grateful. Okay we have curfew tonight. Up at 5 to catch the only train out of here tomorrow to another small village. Love you all.
Day 2: Naked Russians on Trains / Helpless in Russia
Getting there was a bizarre experience. This is the most helpless I’ve felt on the trip.
I’ve learned how to read the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, kinda. But when you show up at a tiny train station at 5:55am waiting for a train, you’re not sure which one to get on. There’s only one train today going our way.
So we’re standing on the platform with locals. A train pulls up. Our tickets say we have a bottom bunk, but we don’t see any bunks on this train. It’s a cattle car.
Do you hop on and risk ending up stranded in some little town? Or do you pass and risk missing your last way out? In the moment, it’s nerve wracking.
There is no Uber up here. No buses that we would take. These buses look like something from 1970’s Cambodia in The Killing Fields movie. I think everyday Russians would be blown away by the level of affluence of our poor people.
So we see other people crossing the train tracks. We show our papers to the purser, who says something and motions for us to get on. We stand there. It’s weird.
But the whistle blows and the train departs at 6:10. It must be ours. Whew. Then it gets weird.
We walk from train car to car. Upon entering one, there are dormitory style bunks with people sleeping, shirts off, kids all over. Like Walmart at midnight Friday or like a refugee camp to me, though it doesn’t bother Casey.
We’ve got our big American packs and nice clothes bumping our way through, trying in vain not to disturb people. Sometimes I wish I’d gone into the military for a couple years just to work out my “particularness” over things and expose me to different stuff. I’m still so rigid and difficult.
We encounter a gruff Russian lady we can’t understand. She checks our passports. It’s the only time I’ve been really uncomfortable here.
She shoos us down the hall. She knocks on the door of a closed compartment. She finally opens it.
We see an old Russian man on the top bunk looking down at us. He’s naked, partially covered by blankets. It’s warm and humid in there. It’s just weird. We woke them up. Their food is on our table. They’re half naked.
We climb in silently, close the door and sit on our bunks. I had thought it would be cool to try this, but I was picturing being in a compartment with jovial Americans, not a naked Russian couple. Casey sleeps.
I can’t stand being trapped in a hot, humid room breathing the gross air this couple has been emitting all night. I don’t want to get sick. So I sit on one of these pull down seats in a cramped hallway and read, relieved.
It’s only 90 minutes. I can’t wait to hop off. We have a two hour layover in a small town. We find a little coffee shop, but it’s so bad even Casey won’t drink it.
It’s weird. Stuck in this deserted town with Budweiser: King of Beers plastered all over. I make Casey go get us “food.”
The little pastry we get has some kind of funky gray meat inside.
I decide to do what any smart person would do. Water isn’t safe here and the bathroom I used possibly smelled good in 1952. So I get a Belgian beer from the cooler at 8:30am (only $1.75!!) and wash my almonds down. A perfect breakfast. I guess.
We read, kill time, and then freak out when we can’t find our next train listed. A friendly (scary) gentleman nods and we board. We’ve never been on a train this “rustic.”
We finally make it. The first taxi driver doesn’t know our hotel. The other guy takes us. Only $3.50! We arrive and the host says no electricity, no internet. So we go walk.
For 700 years, pilgrims have to come here to kiss the icons. The Russian Orthodox people cross themselves and bow repeatedly, incessantly. Almost like Orthodox Tourette’s. They kiss pictures of saints. Over and over again.
But it’s a beautiful little town.
We find an underground restaurant. The girl has no clue what we are saying. So we get an appetizer and head to take a nap.
So after a nap, I go walk to forage for food. I get lost. Shocker. An old Russian woman sees me looking intently at my map and asks in broken English where I want to go. Supermarket. She starts to show me, then takes me by the arm and walks me to the supermarket. How humbling and sweet.
I really, really enjoy shopping like the locals. It takes me literally 10 minutes to figure out what is butter. But I like the challenge.
And tonight we have a feast in our room that makes our stomachs happy. Baguette with half that block of butter with cheese and walnuts I kept from lunch.
And how’s this for dessert, Mom?
Snickers and almond crackers. I get all of that plus two huge bottles of water for $5!
So we head downstairs after dinner to get wifi in the living room. And the owner sits and talks with us. Really neat lady in her 50’s. We show an interest in Russian culture. She puts Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on the old record player for us.
Then she brings us Russian black bread, “no chemicals.” It’s like a strong rye bread. And puts on a famous Russian movie version of Dostoyevsky’s ” The Idiot” in the cafe. Just really charmingly thoughtful.
It was a weird day, but a good day with more “interesting” experiences. Goodnight from Russia with love!
Day 3: Russian Billy Joel Saves Us!
So what’s worse than encountering a naked Russian man on a train? Oh it gets worse.
Our final day in Russia began wonderfully with an early morning walk alone, following an Orthodox priest to church. Blue skies. Birds singing.
Maybe I should have kissed the cross like all the Orthodox women with headscarves did.
After our morning walk, we are treated to a gourmet breakfast of Russian porridge (think oatmeal) with fresh strawberries and an omelette with grilled vegetables. Really fantastic. And it’s included with our room.
This breakfast and stay in a beautiful home costs $51. I almost tell our hostess her rates are too low. What a memorable person she is.
We purposefully catch an early cab to the train station. So we are all ready.
I should have known something was amiss. Old soviet mindsets trip us up. I pick up water and snacks at the grocery store. The line is forever. The cashiers here sit while the manager (guy with thumbs in pockets below) literally stands and watches the cashier. Doesn’t help pick up hand baskets. Doesn’t open another register. I think he does what his job description says. That’s it.
I think people here are accustomed to waiting in line. They’d wait for a couple hours for bread or meat back in the day.
It was the same cashier as last night–she babbles in Russian, probably making fun of me, but smiles because I have exact change ready this time. Funny how much you can communicate by facial expressions. I tell her she’s my favorite Russian lady. She shoos me away.
I cross the street to the station. The sign says our train leaves from platform 2. We go there. I ask two older ladies if this is the platform for the 10:12 train to Moscow. “Da.” Cool. I really have to pee badly, but the train will be here in a couple minutes and I am too cheap the pay the 20 roubles (34 cents) at the station.
At 10:10, a train approaches on track 1. Track 1. Casey says that’s ours. But I counter, “What if it isn’t and we get on the wrong train?” It’s too far to run all the way around to make it. But Casey has that determined look and begins sprinting with his packs on. I just stand and watch.
As the train pulls away. Our train. No other train shows up. Realization hits: we just missed our train. There it is.
We missed our train. That’s even worse than seeing a naked Cossack.
We have to be in Moscow to catch our fast (expensive) train to St. Petersburg. Options close.
We stand there bewildered for 30 seconds thinking, “What just happened?! How did that happen?!” Then you begin looking for solutions. Oy.
An older guy that looks like Billy Joel notices my distress. And my F* bombs. He’s just standing on the platform for some reason. Not sure why because no train is coming. We talk in broken English. “A comfortable Bus 833 goes to Moscow. Over there.”
I thank and dismiss the Piano Man as I go stand in line for tickets (people SIT when in line here so they thought I was butting when I STOOD there) while Casey tries to talk to a customer service lady.
He keeps pointing to the 10:12 train on our ticket and saying what can we do now? She simply says it left at 10:13. She’s not getting it that we need a new option! Surely that must happen to other people at times. But that’s not her job to fix it or help.
I’m not being mean here. But this is why Russia will never really be a threat to us. For centuries, they allowed Tsars to rule over them. They believed that God ordained Tsars to rule them on their behalf. They went from that system to ruthless communism overnight. It’s all they have known. Freedom, initiative, and making your own destiny are just not common here.
So I have my mini Steve Martin airport moment from Planes, Trains & Automobiles. ****!!
I storm outside to get the bus, cursing this stupid communist state and their inept systems. I see a bus pulling up right then with 833 in the front window.
At the same moment, I see the Russian Billy Joel pointing to it. I’ve never really believed in that guardian angel thing, but I believe Billy Joel was mine. Why else would he be out on that platform? He didn’t take the train. Yes, I believe!
The bus is packed. I have to pee. Horribly. I’m sitting on the floor in the back at first. Trying to not think about my bladder. It’s en excruciating two hours, but at least we’re headed to Moscow.
The bus moves quickly. We arrive in beautiful, safe, comforting, predictable Moscow where the trains run on time. Funny how we were scared to come here and now Moscow itself seems comforting!
We hop off, take the metro to our station and get taken in by the Russian very plain Katie Holmes hawking chocolate ice cream on the street. It’s like dark chocolate sludge and I love it.
We finally find food and fight over which platform we get on for the big train. For the first time, I’m right!
So we spread our American picnic out. Relieved. The Russian purser and Casey have a little thing going. She’s adorable.
We look up at the movie playing.
It’s Richard Gere, in a Yankees hat, in a movie called Hachi. On a Russian train, this is the movie they play. He lives in this upscale neighborhood and we wonder what the Russians think of the affluence and freedom we take for granted. Do they desire it?
I listen to the movie in Russian and still get the entire story just by watching. Richard Gere dies, but his faithful dog waits for him to return every afternoon at the train station. And yeah, I shed a couple tears. *%*%^#!!
It feels good to just be on the right train. So happy! We hop off the train in St. Petersburg and show a taxi driver our address and offer 500 roubles. His reaction could have been from a NYC cab driver!
So Casey carries my heavy bag and we walk, saving us $17. Kid’s a beast sometimes. We get back to our favorite St. Petersburg hotel and head immediately for our Georgian restaurant. Cafe Cha-Cha.
A new hostess we don’t recognize says they are full. We ask to wait, which is rare here. A business suit dude barges in and tries to get a table. She says no. He stands impatiently behind us common tourists. He tries again, using intimidation. He gets rebuffed again.
We know three of the waitresses, who all walk by and smile. One goes to the hostess and says something. A minute later, we get seated. It pays to simply be nice to people!
The waitress couldn’t have been sweeter or more endearing. At one point she said, “Thank you for you.” She remembered exactly what we drank last week. Memorable moment.
We celebrated making it here with chocolate cake. And then walked to watch sunset over the water.
We will miss Russia, but not their stupid trains. 🙂
Tomorrow morning we take a super early bus over the border into Estonia. Goodnight all. Love you.