Reflections on Russia

In Russia, they eat a lot of dill. Like a lot of dill. You may think that you put a lot of dill on your fish, but that’s just peanuts to Russians. Listen…

I have a number of other reflections, but memory and scent being so interlinked, I think I will always recall Russia with the smell of dill. Every canteen and most restaurants you enter, you’re hit by a blast of the stuff. Even when we were hiking we came across a guy at a picnic table with a handful of it for his lunch on the go. Russians use a frankly sarcastic amount of dill.

Other than this, we’ve seen a number of different faces of Russia. In Moscow and parts of St Petersburg (and even occasionally in Irkutsk) there is an increasing number of high end luxury shops, selling conspicuous consumption to the wealthy. This is contrasted by often ramshackle wooden houses and gritty concrete apartment blocks and tenements. There is a distinct love of pastel shades and buildings are often painted pale peach, yellow or blue – peaking in the pistachio of the Hermitage in St P. Any investment seems particularly linked to consumerism – hence perhaps why Moscow felt so vibrant compared to other locations (and was also noticeably more expensive). St Petersburg had its charms, but they came across very much fading. Irkutsk is fine, but really I primarily saw it as a mere gateway to the natural beauty of Siberia and Lake Baikal.

The Trans-Sib was a great experience, but there’s no doubt that the carriages are closer in age and quality to the fading Polish trains we got, than to any of the more modern western European offerings. Perhaps this is the nature of the great breadth of this country and the necessity of having just the one main east-west trunk leads there to be less attraction in investing and developing it. In particular I think the trains will suffer badly in comparison with the trains we will take in China – again perhaps the geography is the limiting factor.

It would be an interesting experience to repeat the journey in winter. Perhaps it would be necessary to draw any true conclusions. While perhaps hints of what is only a couple of months away are imaginable, I am certain the reality is harsher and more affecting. The high twenties of our journey is only one side of the Russian coin. I’ve enjoyed our time here (particularly Lake Baikal and Moscow), Russia’s Summer Knight has treated us well, perhaps we shall see her Winter Queen some time.

Despite dire warnings of the officiousness and hostility of Russian police and militia, we experienced no issues – even given my appearance varying substantially from my passport by way of blond hair and a beard. We registered our presence in each region (at the slightly ridiculous cost of ~10 quid per person per registration) but I think we could have easily not have bothered. Other than passport control and customs on entry and exit we were never stopped.

Some thoughts are needed on something Amy touched on in an earlier post. In the past few years there have been some excellent steps toward LGBT equality in Western Europe and the Americas – even China shows signs of progression. It is odd to see countries genuinely regressing as Russia has recently. Of course it is by no means unique, Uganda and other African countries have horrifying recent records on gay rights. Amy and I discussed on our travels that if the new laws had come through before we had booked the trip, we would probably have altered our itinerary (you’ll note that we didn’t – and certainly are vulnerable to a few accusations of not putting our money where our mouths are).

I think these situations are weighed against my selfishness. It’s so easy to hold my views cosseted in London. Amy lives her vegan decisions as best and practically as she can – without risking her health. Hedonism doesn’t necessarily need to be extreme pleasure seeking, maybe it’s just selfish indulgence at smaller levels too. Perhaps it’s time to consider the consequences more.

Anyway, this oddly earnest divergence was written while sat for five hours at the border with Mongolia. We’ve got a half hour trip and then another 2 1/2 hour stop on that side before overnighting to Ulanbaatar (I may spell this three or four different ways). We’ve got just one day there before the sleeper to Beijing (and probably a block on WordPress/Facebook) so this may the last blog for a week and a half.

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