Hey, Russian border control, do you think for once, just for once, you can look at my passport, stamp it, and let me in? Does it really have to be an event where I have to stand out of line, calls have to be made, colleagues summoned, etc.? No, it doesn’t. I have nothing to hide.
This will only be a little about hitchhiking, I promise. It might bore many of you, but for me hitchhiking is adventure and an authentic way to meet Russians. It’s a shame it’s all but dead in my country. The problem with hitchhiking in America is that there is no culture of it any more; it is two generations removed by now. In most countries in the world, when they see someone on the road, hand extended, they think “hitchhiker” or if that is a pejorative word, someone who simply wants a ride. In America, the first thought is “homeless drifter” or “prison escapee”, or, worst, “reality show contestant.”
I’ve been obsessed with the lack of taiga in Russia. I tell anyone who will listen that before I came I had been reading about endless birch forests, and I still have not seen it save for small patches. (To a Russian ear when I try and say this I think it comes out as, “On America, my book, big taiga. Here, no taiga. Where?” I still speak Russian like a Neanderthal. I haven’t been diligent in studying Russian for Free.)
Russians shrug and say it’s beyond a mountain range or it’s farther north, just never where I am.
Crossing Siberia with one pair of pants is no big deal. It’s been warm aside from the first few days. The point is Siberia was such an unknown for me that that everything is a revelation. I don’t know what the Far East will bring, but Siberia has been a highlight of Russia so far, maybe the highlight.
I should point out that I have only been in southern Siberia, and only along the main road/train line. The so-called real Siberia and all the gulag stuff extends faaaar north. That’s where true travelers go while I sip my lime and mint water.
Several times now I have found myself at a cheap hotel in the Slav Hotels chain. They are always big, monolithic, Soviet-style buildings but OK-enough single rooms can often be had for $10-$12. It helps if you don’t mind tacky linoleum floors.
Most travelers pass through Ulan Ude on their way down to Mongolia. At the bus station (the train is much more expensive and much longer) I saw these prices (64 rubles = $1): Ulan Bator 1500, Darkhan 1200, Sukhbaatar 1000, Altanbulag (the Mongolian border) 900. Kyakhta (Russian border) to Ulan Bator was 1000.
Thanks to Jen who sent me this link showing the funny bus stop architecture of the Soviet-era. It’s my kind of thing.
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