You know you are going to love a country when a local picks you up in his hotted up Lada dressed in a clown costume.
I arrived tired and a little unsure about what to expect in big Russia. I had organised to meet with a couch surfer, but last minute she had called in sick and so I was arriving alone and a little confused as to what to do. After stepping off the train I sat down on a step to gather my thoughts and to set a plan in place.
“Are you Hannah?"
All of a sudden a girl in her early twenties approaches me and she not only spoke English, but also knew my name. I don’t usually believe in angels but this was too good to be true. Liliya was a gorgeous Russian girl who had contacted me via couch surfing and had found out that I was travelling from Aytrau in Kazakhstan to Astrakhan and had found out what time the train arrived just to meet me. Amazing.
Liliya introduced me into her Russian life, her family, her friends, her university everything. I literally followed her around for almost a week soaking in everything I could about life in Russia.
She continued to surprise me not only with her enthusiasm and hospitality to show me her town, but also with her job. She is in the entertainment industry working as a dancer and can do various jobs from weddings, to birthday parties, to bachelor parties and even clubs.
And so I became a professional wedding crasher sampling the tasty and tacky cuisines the brides has fussed over for months. Trying to make small talk with the guests, then trying to create a reason why I only spoke English. A lot of smiling and pretending like I had a mouthful of food when people tried to talk to me, where I would point to my mouth (with puffed out cheeks) and nod enthusiastically, laughing politely.
But as the vodka bottles emptied, my levels of subtlety were not as necessary as the conversations were limited to mainly grunts anyway (which is a universal language of course).
The nights were flurries of hidden secret changerooms, back entrances to clubs, a sea of feathers, masks, glitter, make-up, stockings, hairspray, high heels, whips, LED light suits, clubs, wedding parties and more.
I had found myself in the middle of Astrakhan's event entertainment industry where their acts ranged from raunchy red latex-devil themed numbers to keep the vodka intoxicated drunk Russian men in clubs happy, to uplifting comedy sketches for the bride about happy married life or, my personal favourite and one to keep the bachelorettes happy, a male strip show done with a Jame's bond muppet style body suit.
Finally after waiting 3 weeks for my Russian visa in Hong Kong, it paid off. With the stamps in my passport I felt like the large efforts had been justified, although my route had drastically changed from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow and St Petersburg to the border town Astrakhan on route to Georgia, a part of Russia that I never knew existed.
Astrakhan truely was a fortunate lucky dip. It went from being a place that happened to fall into my squiggly line that mapped out my route to Georgia to a whirlwind of smiling kids, colourful frocks and many apologetic moments lost in translation.
After spending an amazing few days in Astrakhan it was difficult to leave, especially as the lovely host family I was staying with had cancelled everything for the morning to drop me off at the bus station, along with a delicious packed lunch to say goodbye to me.
I owe my new found love for Russia to this amazing family. They immediately took me into their homes as another addition to the family and always tried their best to help me and make me feel comfortable, like I was always a part of the household. Its moments like these that you never look forward to whilst travelling, saying goodbye to those you have created everlasting friendships with. But as I always like to think it is goodbye for now and not forever.
Passing through the region of Chechnya and Dagestan I did constantly think about the conflicts that have happened so recently in that region. History conflicts in this area between Russian and the Chechnya people dates back way before Stalin moved the entire population to Central Asia in the 1940s accusing them of collaborating with the Germans. More recently there have been tensions since the military invasion by the Russian government into the region in 1994 where the goal was to get Chechnya back to Russian hands in what the president at the time claimed to be a “short, small scale war.”
This small scale war lasted over 18 months, where many fled. Those who couldn’t escape were subject to invasions and “ethnic cleansing”, where villages were evacuated in two our corridors and the remainders were sent to “filtration camps.” Towards the end of the 90s there were apartment bombings in Moscow, that was blamed on the Chechnya rebels, and so the conflicts started again. People of Chechnya(n) ethnicity were then rounded up and were suspected of terrorism. Now with the overwhelming support of the Russian public, the Russian government then reinvaded Chechnya where 100,000+++ locals started fleeing. From a population of just one million there were estimates over over 100,000+ locals that were killed.
And now due to the constant violence and instability of this area there are many cases of kidnapping of mainly foreigners to be held for ransom. It is said to be one of the only ways of getting money now. Some foreigners weren’t so lucky if their ransom wasn’t met and were killed.
With all this in mind, as soon as I stepped off the bus in Vladikavkaz I straight away went around asking for a way into Georgia that day, scared to spend any unnecessary time around that part of the world. I found a nice Japanese lady and together we were the only tourists in that area. She seemed as keen as I was to get out of that area and so we set off looking for a way across. We found a rather grumpy and pushy taxi driver who was demanding extraordinary amounts to take us across, seeing our distress, but I refused to get ripped off so continued to look around. I had only a little bit of rubbles left in my pocket and couldn’t afford his rates at all. Eventually the grump of a man softened up and took us across for a third of what the other passengers were asking, allowing us to give him the change from our pockets.
/pictures and videos are to be added to this blog, as soon as I reach good internet. Current internet on St Helena (a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean) is slow and costly, sorry/