Warning: this is likely to be a very long post, as I have four hours to kill before my stop, and even the best trees eventually start to look all the same. Here is a song (after which this post is titled) to entertain you as you read. Kazan is not located anywhere near the steppe, but I don’t know any songs about taigas, so I did the best I could.

I’m pleased to report that the fairy-tale trees are as dreamy as ever and the taiga just as prime for tromping around (was that essentially the same statement twice? Yes, but it bears reiterating).

I’ve been on the road (slash sky, slash rail, slash floor of a transportation hub) for coming up on 38 hours, and had been feeling rather sorry for myself until I wrote that and realized that Nathan and I have, on several occasions, spent that long on a single bus. That is a good time for self-pity. Not this.

The line at customs was a mess. In fact, it took us so long to get through (an hour and a half) that by the time I made it past border control to pick up my suitcase, the carousel for our flight had already been reassigned and the leftover bags sent to never-never land. While waiting to talk to someone about that, I re-learned an important lesson that you, too, will learn if you come to Russia: stand very close to the person in front of you when waiting in line. Otherwise, people will think you are an innocent bystander. Then you’ll be mad because they cut you, and they’ll be confused as to why a person who clearly was not in line is now angry at them*.

Interlude:The train announcer just announced the stop: Petrozavodsk. Petrozavodsk is like 10 hours northwest of Cherepovets. Did I get on the wrong train? Why is this my life? Let’s make sure I know where my passport and wallet are.

It’s probably not the wrong train. Probably there are two Petrozavosks (Try saying that one time fast).

You’d think that the long line at border control meant that an effort was actually being made to control the border. Not so. Once again, I just dragged my suitcase right on through past the agents, did not pass go, did not collect $200, and did not heed the siren call of gypsy cab drivers in the lobby.

The Moscow metro, it turns out, is even more massive than I remembered. I only had to go 3 stations, but from turnstile to turnstile it was almost an hour-long journey (most of that was walking from platform to platform or standing on an escalator the length of a freight train).

And now, a list:

Times a man has decided he knows better than me and should therefore give a clearly helpless Kate a hand (since entering Russian airspace):

      1. Turning my A/C on and off on the plane
      2. Working blankets on the plane
      3. Ordering my own tea on the plane
      4. Getting my bag down from the overhead bin
      5. Carrying my suitcase into the train station
      6. Selecting soup
      7. Finding my bedroll on the train
      8. Working a door (although I actually did need help there)

Number 5 was actually cute, though. So I’m at Kazansky Voksal, which is one of – count ’em – THREE long-distance train stations connected to Komsomol’skaya metro station (the train to Cherepovets leaves out of Yaroslavsky Vokzal, which is one of the other two).

I finally arrived at the station, along with a raging headache, something that I had thought was nerves but is turning out to be a stomach virus, and a dangerously-close-to-the-23-kg-limit suitcase, having missed my train in a big way (thanks, customs). At this point, my mind was in a heavy fog. My last meal had been a tomato and shredded cheese sandwich (what?) compliments of British Airways. The promise of shchi, that third most delicious of Russian soups (after sol’yanka and borscht—although, of course, borscht is actually Ukrainian), helped persuade my feet to keep putting themselves in front of each other and seemed like a good remedy for a frowning stomach.

schi

Shchi da kasha — pishche nashe. Cabbage soup and porridge –that’s our food! (Russian saying)

So I went into this “cafe” that advertised beer, juice, and water and was greeted by a tiny old man who seemed very excited to have a customer. Behind his counter, he had two disposable bowls of soup: one of borscht and one of chicken lapsha (noodles). I ordered the borscht, and he replied, “No, you want the lapsha. It’s much better.” I informed him that no, I had just arrived after a period abroad and really wanted some borscht (the truth was that I hadn’t seen a vegetable in 4,000 miles and was well and truly over it), to which he replied, “Take the lapsha. The borscht isn’t as tasty.” Being an independent and Grown Damn Human who doesn’t take orders from anybody, I…took the lapsha. Plus a tvorog (pseudo-cottage cheese) pie for breakfast, since I’d apparently forgotten that I hate that stuff. When I paid, he warned me in advance that he was going to give me 50 rubles change (darn tootin’, I thought, that’s what you owe. What is there to discuss?). So he pulled out five 10-ruble coins (Why, oh why not a 50-ruble bill, I thought) and with a flourish tossed them onto the counter—which turned out to be magnetized, so the coins all landed and bounced onto their edges, balancing at improbable angles. Change-making has never been so whimsical. I applauded his trick, ate my soup (I think the borscht would have been tastier), and skedaddled to the Chamber of Expectancy (“waiting room” to us Anglophones), where I connected to the definitely-completely-secure wifi and distracted Nathan from his job for way longer than was moral.

Interlude: THE LAND IS GETTING LUMPIER! WE MUST BE APPROACHING THE VOLGA! I LOVE LUMPY LAND! IT’S WHY I LIVE IN KENTUCKY (but don’t tell my boyfriend)!

Outside the bathroom was a sign that said “All passengers have the right to use train station facilities (toilets) free of charge.” Inside the bathroom was a sign that said “Use of station facilities 30 rubles”. I decided my sink-shower could wait until I got on the train.

Time to buy a ticket. Since I hadn’t been 100% sure when I would get to the train station, I had held off, certain that there would still be second-class seats available (third-class had been sold out for weeks—or possibly they’ve stopped offering third class on that line). When I finally found a ticket machine, however, I was chagrined to learn that only first-class seats were available, for 9,800 rubles on the 23:10 train or 5,300 on the 23:38. Since I had been relying on the availability of second-class tickets (about 3,000 rubles), I said a bad word and took the cheapest option.

Later, I discovered that second-class tickets had been available, but for some reason weren’t showing up on the machine. But upon asking to exchange my ticket, I learned that the exchange policy had become stricter. Last time I was here, you could get a full refund up to 12 hours before your trip, and a partial refund after that. Now, you can still do that if you order the ticket at a counter, but if you buy it from a machine (even a machine that is directly across from a counter in the same station), no exchanges are possible, period, ever. Silver lining: That means more speaking practice when I travel. Black and stormy center: That stupid ticket cost me 80 dollars, and I don’t want to ride in stinking first class.

So I take my dumb ticket and go to the dumb platform (that takes forever to find because they’ve listed it under an incorrect name on the marquee), show the provodnitsa (attendant) my dumb passport, and she tells me how to get to my dumb compartment—as if there’s really any way to get lost on a train car.

First class, it turns out, looks an awful lot like second class, just with a TV (that doesn’t work) and a mirror on the door. And there are no bunk beds, so you have two people per compartment instead of four. Allegedly there is also complimentary booze, and there are supposed to be newspapers, but I was no more interested in those things than the provodnitsa was in offering them. The problem with first class is that it’s way more awkward to sleep next to one stranger than to sleep next to 4. Or 60. Any number is better than 1 where sleeping and strangers are concerned.

My stranger is an engineer named Timur from Kazan. We had a sufficiently awkward chat last night before I finally told him I absolutely had to sleep (but not before he half-joked that maybe he shouldn’t be talking with an American). Before that, however, I managed to give him my elevator pitch for my research project, and now I have his card so he can hook me up with some friends who work for the Ministry of Something and are Tatar and might be interested in talking with me!

Timur doesn’t really speak Tatar, although he understands it somewhat because his grandparents speak it. He studied in an English-intensive school but doesn’t remember much. He has also disappeared this morning. I don’t know where he and his newspaper went, but I am enjoying having the compartment to myself. Naptime.

*Exception (added after 2 days of standing in line at the international students’ office: If the student is from Turkmenistan, they will cut you like it’s their job even if you are physically touching the person in front of you. It will make you seethe and glare, until a university employee comes out and, upon learning that you’re “Ketrin, the Amerikanka” pulls you to the front of the line. Even though you don’t understand what’s happening anymore (welcome to Russia), the satisfaction will last you for days.

More updates on the way, but if I don’t get out of this cafe soon they’re going to kick me out and never let me come back.

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