It’s winter here in present-day Boston, and working my way through these Russian summer photos is a unique form of torture for someone who’s never fully adjusted to winter being a season. It looks so warm and sunny and bright in the photos, and it’s so gray and cold outside. Augh. While I was busy longing for the eternal summers in our photos, I thought I’d put together a post of all the various Russian bugs we saw. I did one for Stolby Nature Preserve already, so this will be everything else. Now you can long for summer right along with me, or if you don’t like bugs, be grateful that summer is still a ways away.
We’re now in St. Petersburg, a distinctly European city filled with colorful characters and locals. The change in both architecture and atmosphere is amazing, but makes sense—Peter the Great built this city from a nothingness of swamp to be closer to Europe and learn her ‘modernized’ ways. He was astonishingly successful. One story (shared with is by Guy of a previous post) tells of Peter’s dispute during the city’s construction with a noble, his close friend: “The noble told Peter the Great ‘Your majesty, sir, we cannot build a city here. There is only swamp. Nothing can survive here!’ Peter asked him ‘Do you see that tree over there?’ ‘Yes,’ the noble responded. ‘That is where you will build your house.’” Now St. Petersburg stands as a gateway between Russia and Europe, one that most tourists can access visa-free.
That has not helped prices, which are sky-high in the city for everything from food to housing. Our hostel is friendly, but housed in a dilapidated apartment building with cracked floorboards and uneven walls. We found two bed bugs earlier today (picture here); after an obsessive search of our beds and our rooms, we determined there were no more in the immediate vicinity, zipped up the backpacks, and put them as high up as possible.
BUT we also have amazing company in our roommate Javier, who comes from along the U.S./Mexico border but just came from working in China. To celebrate, we decided to go a vodka tasting at the local Museum of Russian Vodka, until we found out it’s 1,000 rubles per person to taste only 3 types of vodka! So we did a better, potentially worse thing for us: we went to local liquor stores and bought as many different small bottles (~100 mL) of vodka as we could find. Because our hostel forbade alcohol consumption on the premises, the three of us gathered in the dusty stairwell on the floor above for our vodka tasting.
Here are our ever so not-expert notes on their flavor profiles and drinkability:
Vodka #1: Belenkaya (Беленькая)
76 rubles for 100 mL, this stuff looks solidly middle-shelf.
Stoytcho: This stuff is alcoholic with no real flavor, nor is it particularly smooth.
Natalie: Augh. Harsh alcohol taste followed by fruitiness of ketones. Tastes like I imagine the lab’s 80% ethanol cleaning solution tastes.
Vodka #2: Taiga
79 rubles for 100 mL, with a name that’s weirdly not in Cyrillic.
Stoytcho: Much smoother, fern and forest notes. Much lower bite of alcohol.
Natalie: Much less harsh front alcohol flavor, back of the throat burn. Fruity, reminiscent of peach bruise flavor with a bitter aftertaste.
Vodka #3: Chistye Rosy (Чистые Росы)
149 rubles for 50 mL, this is the fancy BIO-labeled (Europe’s version of USDA Organic), high-end stuff that’s kept in a glass case. Its name means “clean dew”, though I’ve never known dew to have an alcohol content this high.
Stoytcho: Good burning sensation, not as smooth as Taiga but more flavorful.
Natalie: Also smoother than the first one, a little burn at the front of the mouth and back of the throat. Flavors are more pine-nutty instead of fruity.
Vodka #4: Russkij Sever (Русский Север)
71 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle says ‘I’d rather be out on the Russian tundra’, which is fitting for something named “Russian North”. It sports a couple of tiny awards printed on the front, but goodness knows what they’re for.
Stoytcho: Sweet and corny, too sweet for my taste. Smooth though. Upon second taste, I get old rubber hose.
Natalie: Slightly sweet, but more of a barley or wheat flavor. Smooth-ish, but not as smooth as Taiga. On second taste, I get barley.
Vodka #5: Legenda Imeperi (Л егенда Империи)
70 rubles for 100 mL, I get the feeling this bottle is lower or middle-shelf based on the bright bottle label and font. This is “Imperial Legend”, so let’s see what that legend is all about.
Stoytcho: Fairly smooth with a mild burn. A bit sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.
Natalie: This tastes just like lab ethanol smells, but it’s less bitter. Again, fruity like bruised peaches.
Vodka #6: Tri Starika (Три Старика)
80 rubles for 100 mL, this alcohol has a similar lower- or middle-shelf shiny, ornate label with a peacock. Let’s see what “Three Old Men” tastes like.
Stoytcho: Highly alcoholic with a middle-to-high burn. It’s middling-sweet and slightly bitter.
Natalie: Nooooo… Harsh, alcoholic, a little sweet but mostly burny with a medicinal hint reminiscent of ginseng.
Vodka #7: SORDIS Liricheskaya (SORDIS лирическая)
82 rubles for 100 mL, the clean label indicates this is ‘middle-shelf’ vodka. A sticker on the front says this vodka is ‘silver-filtered, special story’. So that’s a selling point, I guess?
Stoytcho: Lower alcohol than Tri Starika but the same rough burn. It’s more bitter, but somehow a bit smoother.
Natalie: It’s sweeter and less harsh than the last one, but has a hideous bitter flavor. Ughhh…so bitter, nasty. God, this is what I imagine isopropanol tastes like.
Vodka #8: Urozhai (Урожай)
65 rubles for 100 mL, with a simple, colorful label that says ‘yeah, I’m pretty cheap.’ The name means ‘vintage,’ so maybe we can take the bottle to a secondhand store afterward.
Stoytcho: Plain flavor, mild burn, low alcohol flavor. Nothing of special note.
Natalie: Semi-smooth with a tongue-throat after-burn. Main flavors are wheaty and bready. Hey, this is like drinking a slice of bread! (Stoytcho: no, that’s kvas).
Vodka #9: Staraya Kazan (Старая Казань)
65 rubles for 100 mL, this is “old Kazan Lux”. Kazan is a city at the edge of the Urals, famed for its architecturally gorgeous ancient fortifications and mosques. Let’s see what Kazan has in store for us.
Stoytcho: High alcohol, mid-level burn. Sweet sticky taste, overall terrible and gag-inducing.
Natalie: very sweet, with rubbing alcohol aftertaste and throat burn. Not super fruity, just sweet. Ok, now THIS is the lab ethanol I’ve been inhaling as it evaporates off surfaces for the last five years. I bet this burns perfectly if I need to sterilize some equipment.
(All of us voted this one the worst. Sorry, Kazan.)
Vodka #10: Zelyonaya Marka (Зелёная марка)
77 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle of ‘Green Mark’ is in an odd position. For one thing, Stoytcho has already read online it’s some of the best Russia can offer. But they also didn’t have any “original” flavor Green Mark at the store in a convenient 100 mL format, so we went with ‘кедровая’ or ‘cedar’ flavored.
Stoytcho: Smooth, mild burn, with a grassy sweetness. This is indeed really good.
Natalie: Sweet, slightly pine-nutty, would pair well with juice. It’s not to burny and fairly smooth, kind of like Listerine. Ok, I’d drink this.
Between each taste-test, we rinsed our glasses and our mouths out with water. After we calculated the first scores, we tried the top five vodkas iteratively until we had a definitive ranking. And our winner is…Zelyonaya Marka! Perhaps we were biased by online reviews, but it was pretty drinkable. Here’s how all of the vodkas ranked, just for you:
1st: Zelyonaya Marka
3rd: Urozhai (surprising for the price, I know!)
4th: Legenda Imperi
6th: Chistye Rosy
Everything else: please don’t make us drink it again.
The Russian (and also other eastern European countries but really mostly Russia) tradition of the ‘dacha’ goes back a long way. It started out as a large house in the countryside, and is now, after some turmoil, basically the same. A house with a plot of land, somewhere near but definitely outside a city’s borders.
The royalty back in pre-communist days had dachas as summer estates, large houses and ornamental gardens for entertainment and repose. The industrial revolution brought about a larger upper and middle class who also wanted to join in the quiet country life, so they too bought land and built dachas.
Then came the Soviets. They took the dachas and redistributed them and placed rules on the size and scope of newly constructed ones. Dachas became a reward mechanism for those in the party’s good graces. Did a good deed for a party higher-up? You get to use a dacha for a while. Become a rising and prominent member of the elite? You get assigned a dacha all to yourself. Until you fall out of grace and the dacha is revoked along with probably a few other things.
Around this point in time, dachas were summer homes. They didn’t have indoor plumbing and they had relatively small plots and house sizes. They usually didn’t have great insulation, so they weren’t ideal for living out the cold Russian winter in.
When the USSR fell dachas once again became private property. Construction rules were relaxed and those who had income built their dachas to be large, year-round houses. Their garden plots became functional gardens growing potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many of the dachas we saw had little greenhouses in the plot so they could grow long into the shoulder seasons.
Modern dachas come in two neighborhoods – specific dacha-only areas, and small villages. The dacha-only areas are traditional. Large chunks of land are divided and then used as summer retreats. The small-village dacha is an outgrowth of everyone ever moving to the cities, leaving the outlying villages empty. Cheap property leads to more people being able to afford a house, and so, former actual villages, now filled at least partially with part-time dacha residents.
For most, the dacha is a source of enjoyment and pride. The garden provides a little extra, and the ability to get away from the city on a regular basis – for long periods during the summer – refreshes the soul. In poorer areas of Russia, the food that a dacha garden brings is often enough to help a family feed itself during the year without cutting back drastically on other expenses.
The family we stayed with for a night on the shore of Lake Baikal were at their dacha, preparing for a summer celebration. When we got to Moscow we met with my mom’s aunt who was residing for the summer at her family’s dacha. It was lovely to meet her and speak Bulgarian again for a bit.
We helped out in the garden, but mostly relaxed, took pictures, went swimming in the local pond, and walked around. The dacha lifestyle is meant to be relaxing, revolves around walking and meals, and is meant to be shared with family.
We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?
Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.
The art gallery
We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.
After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.
Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”
Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.
The Grand Strategy
Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.
We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.
Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.
Photos from the the capital of Russia, celebrating the space race, architectural grace, and its ever-growing consumer base.
Nearly every city or town we visited in Russia had a statue of Lenin. You’d go to the main square, and there was a Lenin. You’d get off the train at a stop along the trans-Siberian, and you’d find a Lenin. You’d be walking around downtown and find a Lenin. Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.
To people from the U.S. or Western Europe, this might be baffling. “Isn’t the Soviet Union dead? Isn’t the Communist experiment over in Russia?” they might ask. But Lenin’s continued popularity doesn’t seem to have as much to do with Communism as with Russia’s image as a great country. Lenin is a great man to Russia not because he brought about Communism, but because he grew the Russian sphere of influence. He made Russia more productive, more powerful. As someone we met on our travels put it “Lenin was a great man, a thinker, an intellectual. He did great things for Russia.*” So in honor of that, here’s where we spotted Lenin in Russia:
This glorification of Lenin is an interesting contrast to his treatment in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, where Lenin statues lie unloved in storage or have been moved to memorial parks, long since removed from their original posts. If you’re looking for more info, there’s a fascinating website on the Communist monuments of Eastern Europe and the Balkans here.
Oh, and the only place we didn’t see a Lenin was in St. Petersburg (although I’m sure he’s around if you search hard enough). Instead, we got this guy greeting us at the train station:
*When we asked the same person about Stalin, their response was, “Stalin…was both good and bad. He did good things. But he was scary. So not many statues of Stalin.”
Springing for Splany Wagon
We’re bound from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian, a trip of 2.5 days. We’ve got a little bit in the budget to spare, so we’re springing for splany wagon instead of kupe, so we’ve got a cabin all to ourselves this time. It’s uh, definitely a step up:
The ticket also includes one meal. Yeah, one. For 62 hours on a train. But don’t worry, now versed in the ways of Russian train travel, we’ve come prepared. We visited a grocery store just before leaving our hostel and used the kitchen to boil potatoes and eggs. We also bought vegetables, cheese, and lukanka for salads and sandwiches, fruit, and a lot of chocolate. Bring it on, Trans-Siberian!
The great unbearable silence
AUGHHHHH. Death by starvation is unlikely in our cabin, but death by boredom sets in fast. The excitement over our Splanywagon cabin lasts for a few hours as we find places for things and settle in for the long ride. The silence follows. We read books, write blog posts, read more books, and organize photos. When we’re done with that, we stare out the window. Though we now pass more towns and cities, the landscape continues to be endless.
The undeniable boon and bane of Splanywagon is its privacy. With only two in a cabin, you never have to interact with anyone you don’t know, save for the traincar attendant. With my interest in reading and writing exhausted in half a day, I find myself walking the corridor outside our door restlessly, pausing to look out the window. I rarely see anyone and the few people I do see give a half smile and nod before diving back into their cabins. They don’t want to talk.
So there are no chance meetings, no funny stories here in Splanywagon. There is only the countryside and your mind to keep you occupied. And beyond that, there is the great unbearable silence.
The anatomy of a stop
As we head westward, we encounter more towns and cities and find the train stopping often. While most stops only last a couple of minutes, the train will stop for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour at certain major cities. These are the long stops everyone is waiting for.
There are two types of long stop, the short-long and the long-long, and the stop type determines what everyone will do. The short-long is hurried and frantic, as everyone rushes out of the traincar to walk around, buy snacks from kiosks on the platform, and chat frenetically. In the plazcart section, the additional goal seems to be huffing as many cigarettes as possible in five minutes. People try not to stray too far from their traincar and the attendants keep a wary eye out for anyone wandering off.
The long-long is somewhat more relaxed, though it depends on who you are. Most people take the chance to slow their pace of walking and conversation, and the frantic cigarette huffing is replaced with a slower burn. We’re free to wander around the platform, which from end to end can be more than a half a mile long. And we can stare out between the fence at the city we’ve stopped at, watch its people carry on with business in the square outside the station.
Then there are the long-long runners. These are the people who take the opportunity of a long stop to actually go do something in the city. It’s usually a run to the grocery store or liquor shop (though alcohol is not allowed on the train), and you can spot them because as you’re getting off the train, they’re already running through the doors into the station. They’re gone for fifteen or twenty minutes, probably visiting a store in the main square, and return about five minutes before the train departs laden with grocery bags. I have no idea whether how they get through the security and ticket check in that time.
How does mail go between east and west Russia? Well, apparently one of the options is by train. These guys were unloading mail from a traincar at one of our stops, just bags and bags of letters:
I can’t explain my joy at seeing this, although it may partly stem from the total lack of new things to see or do in the last 48 hours. But the Mailcar is just so cute. It’s labeled as the ‘Почтовый вагон’ or ‘postal car’ and they’ve got a tiny tractor out hauling little carts with packages and bags of letters and everything. I love it.
A change of scenery
In the last 15 hours of our trip there is a marked change in scenery. We’re no longer in Siberia, with its open plains and pine forests and emptiness. Instead, the scenery outside looks more European, frequent villages and cities separated by small patches of countryside. We’re encountering the ‘дача’, the ‘dacha’ or ‘country home’, something common throughout Eastern Europe. The dacha is the original farm or homestead of a family, kept even when everyone in the family has moved to the city. In the warmer months, it serves as a weekend getaway. It’s also a place to grow some fruit and vegetables, saving some money on the more expensive city produce.
On the morning of our arrival, we awaken at 4 am and catch the sunrise over the misty countryside. In an hour, the last of the green fields disappear and dense buildings spring up in their place. This is the edge of Moscow.
Our train edges in to Moscow’s Kazanskaia Station at 5:38 and we stumble off with our belongings. I have a hostel booked for us, but they’re not going to let us check in at stupid o’clock in the morning. “10 AM”, the attendant at the hostel says, “We can have a room for you then.” We drop our heavier bags and wander out into the 7 AM world, devoid of all but a few people and a handful of cars. We’re unsure of what to do until we spy a familiar landmark in the distance.
It turns out absurdly early in the morning is a great time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral. Our only company is a cluster of policemen directing traffic and a handful of construction workers working on the nearby bridge. I am not a morning person, so this experience is possible only because we’ve been gaining hours as we head west. But the morning sun, the open space, and empty streets of Moscow feel good.
One of the coolest things about Stolby was the abundant wildlife; there were so many different insects, birds, mammals found along the trails. Here’s what we found on our hikes in July:
The purple trail takes you pretty far into the reserve, so it’s not surprising that’s where we saw wolves, a six-pack to be exact (no, really, not kidding and yes, pun intended). There’s no picture here because a) I wasn’t fast enough and b) I took me a few seconds to realize the dog-like creatures in front of us were wolves. We simply rounded a bend in the trail and suddenly there appeared to be five german shepards 20 feet in front of us. My first thought was “who left their dogs out hereeeooh MY GOD THESE AREN’T DOGS.” because as I scanned left, I noticed a massive black animal at the front of their pack. They paused, sniffed the air, and then they loped off into the bushes. Stoytcho apparently spent the three seconds ouf our encounter desperately searching for a nearby stick, so yay, survival skills.
There are tons of Siberian chipmunks (Eutamias sibiricus) along the paved trail into the park because people feed them. I can’t comment on the ecological stability of this, but can say that the Russians know how to feed their animals. Everyone brings sunflower or other seeds for them, and any attempts to give them bread are met with strange looks. So at least the chipmunks won’t get diabetes. If you bring your own packet of seeds, you can get the chipmunks to eat out of your hand.
Strangely, squirrels are much rarer than the chipmunks. We encountered this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) along the paved trail into the park. It was pretty skiddish, though it feasted on the same sunflower seed bounty that its chipmunk cousins loved.
We’re not well versed in birds, though we did recognize when we stumbled too close to a hawk or eagle nest and the thing just wouldn’t shut up. If you visit Stolby, though, the most common bird you’ll see is the great tit (Parus major). It’s a pretty yellow and gray bird that also partakes in the bounty of seeds visitors bring. If it’s early summer, you might also see a fun show of adolescent birds demanding to be fed by their parents, despite the fact that they can already fly.
We saw a snake! Tally one to our sightings of snakes on the trip so far (this number is around a woeful 3 or 4). This one was crossing the paved path on the way into the park. My tentative guess on the species would be Elaphe dione, the Steppe ratsnake, according to a nature guide of animals in Transbaikalia.
It’s summer and the biting bugs are definitely abundant. Besides mosquitoes, two things to watch out for are horseflies and ticks. The horseflies have bites that hurt like hell, while the ticks here can transmit some kind of encephelitis. Yay.
We found two ticks in four days of hikes, so they’re pretty common. The first was on Stoytcho’s clothing while hiking the (blue?) loop trail to all of the climbing rocks. The second was on me. We climbed part of Manskaya Stenka on the purple trail and on the way back down, while clinging to tree roots I felt a tickle on my belly. I freed one hand and pulled my shirt up to find a tick crawling its way across my stomach. Fighting the frantic urge to flail, I kept one hand on the tree root and used the other to flick it off and FAR away.
So yeah, watch out for ticks.
Other (more fun) bugs
There are a plethora of bugs in Stolby that don’t bite and can be downright lovely. You’ll encounter a lot of beetles on your hikes, with the largest and most common being black-colored scarabs that shimmer iridescent blue in the sunlight:
Then there are a variety of ants, including the near-universal golden carpenter ant and ‘farmer’ ants that tend to their flocks of aphids:
I had no idea what these insects were–they’re probably some kind of nymph and not the mature adult–but they would cluster together on railings along the trail. When disturbed, they would shiver and scatter in unison:
Here’s a cute little ladybug sporting reverse colors:
And lastly, snaaaaails!
Siberia in summer contradicts every imagined image conjured up by the word. Devoid of ice and snow, the summer Siberian landscape clothes herself in emerald hues dotted with flecks of whites, reds, purples, and pinks from flowers and berries. Here are some of the beautiful summer plants we encountered on our hikes in Stolby:
Stolby Nature Reserve in the summer plays host to hundreds, if not thousands of fungi species. Here are some of the gorgeous specimins we saw during our camping and hiking in mid-July. Identified *tentatively* wherever possible.
I’d lichen more…
Okay, so technically not just fungi, but lichens do consist of at least one fungal species! Here are two bonus shots of the local lichen for you.