15 June. We’re on a train headed to Krasnoyarsk and we’re gonna spend about 25 hours in here. And it’s only 10 AM. Boring? Wrong. We immediately meet this couple from a small town in the Siberian north, Valerii and Tamara, who are headed to Novosibirsk and from there to the Altai mountains for their summer vacation. They’re about 60 or 70 and start asking us where we’re from and so on. When they hear we’re Italian their eyes brighten up and the conversation just flows on and on from there on. They wanna know what’s our story, what we are doing in Russia and what we think about it.
Then Valerii opens up and it’s kind of lovely to see the way he shows his love for his country, how he defends it (although it doesn’t really need defending, but that’s just a Russian hing, they’re always on defense). He explains us why he supports Putin and how he really only admired three political leaders in his life: Vladimir Putin, Helmut Kohl and… wait for it… Silvio Berlusconi (yes, you read it right).
Then they start setting the table and offer us lunch, no chance for us to refuse: Valerii serves us ogurtsy and bread with kolbasa and cheese and biscuits, repeating on a loop “ne stesnyaites’! voz’mite eshche!” “You are in Russia so you are our guests!”. Meanwhile, he tells us Russian jokes and anecdotes, all of them revolving around some foreigner struggling with the alcohol endurance of Russians, and concluding with the observation that no one can keep up with the Russians at drinking, except for maybe the Finns.
Valerie also asks us to sign his ticket and leave a message, in Italian, cause he’ll be happy to have it translated and keep it as a souvenir. The train then stops in some forsaken town, he gets off and comes back with three ice-creams, one for each of us!
We are stunned by the kindness and generosity of this couple. There are no words to describe them.
At 6PM we reach Novosibirsk and we get off the train with them, as we promised we would take a picture all together. We say goodbye and they his us, wishing us safe travels and fortune and happiness. The Russian way.
Back on the train, we spend the rest of the evening playing cards, hanging out and eating “delicious” noodles (yuck).
16 June. Krasnoyarsk, 7:40 AM, local time. We get off the train and start walking toward our hostel. At least we think we are walking toward it. We have the screenshots of the directions on our phones, but we don’t really know how long it’s gonna take (that’s another thing about Europeans in Russia, we don’t really have the feel of how big spaces and distances can actually be over here, no matter how close it seems on a map: as far as you know it could take 10 minutes or 50).
Anyway, the weight of our backpacks and he heat really make the road seem neverending and I literally have no idea whether we walked 20 minutes or an hour. Finally, we reach the address, but once again, we only have the number of the “dom”, the door is closed, we have no idea what domofon we should call and there’s no hostel indication whatsoever. Great.
Fortunately a man comes out of the building and we ask him whether he knows if there’s a hostel in there. He looks confused, said he never heard of a hostel bit kindly offers to go check for us with the komendant and let us know.
So he lets us in and disappears in the elevator. Afte a few minutes he’s back and tells us that the hostel is in apartment 23, most likely on the 6th floor. Then smiles and leaves. How the hell is a normal traveler supposed to find this place? I mean, is it so hard to put up a sign outside the building? We will later know that no normal traveler has ever or will ever stay at this hostel, which is more of a shady dorm for local single people, but anyways.
We get to the 6th floor, ring the bell of apt. 23 and yes, a weird lady opens the door and confirms we’re int the right place, apparently. She lets us in and takes us to our rooms, gives us sheets and towels (I got yellow sheets with sunflowers and butterflies, yay! So lucky!). She doesn’t ask for our passports and when we try to pay her she goes “later later, when the owner comes back with the keys”.
The whole thing looks a bit shady, like we immediately get the impression that there’s something off with the place, as if its unregistered or illegal or something. We also don’t really get the target of the hostel, there’s an old lady in my room, then a 20-sth year old girl, then a mom with a kid. Well the host lady seems nice though, she treats us kindly so whatever, we don’t really care.
We settle down and while we try to figure out what’s to see in the city, the owner shows up and hands us the keys. Then with a cheeky smile he asks: “Are your rooms okay or maybe you wanted to sleep all together in one room?” And winks. What? Two girls traveling with a guy and god knows what sorts of ideas popped up in the mind of this man.
He then offers to drive us to the Chasovnik and almost without thinking we agree and get in his car, as he starts driving us to a place we don’t know exactly where or what is.
Midway Marta and I look at each other and realize how stupid this likely is: this guy from this shady hostel really could be taking us anywhere, grab our passports and whatever to us. Smart. But we’re like, let’s just hope for the best.
And the guy ends up taking us exactly where he said he would and proves to be genuinely nice. See? You never know, sometimes people don’t need ulterior motives to be nice. And it’s cool and at the same time kind of sad that we get so surprised and wary when someone offers something out of pure generosity, we no apparent material gain behind it. Again, the more we travel in Russia, the more we realize that that’s just how people are over here. Their hospitality really goes beyond.
So the chasovnik is basically a small chapel on top of the Karaulny mountain, which overlooks the whole city. The hostel guy tells us that the cossacks used it to stand guard against potential enemies and shoot at them when needed. Speaking of shooting, there’s a gun right near the chapel and at noon, a polkovnik approaches it and within a few seconds a blind shot goes off. A “what the fuck” escapes from my mouth and before I even realize it, all the kids around me, who are probably on a school trip, start repeating it over and over again, right in front of their teachers. Oops.
The hostel guy then drives us to the city and drops us off at prospect Mira, so we can walk around. Not that there’s much to see, really, the city center is rather small and basically made up of 3 streets, guess which? Prospekt Mira, prospekt Lenina and prospekt Karla Marksa, duh. All of them lead to the Yenisey river.
We walk down prospekt Mira, visit a couple of churches, Marta and I putting on the skirts and plot we find near the entrances to cover our heads and legs, according to orthodox customs. We then reach the naberezhnaya, there’s an arc in the middle of the square, completely disconnected with the rest of the architecture, half soviet, held modern. Cars are scattered all around the square. On the left, toward the bridge, a number of cafes, kiosks and shashlik places, rickshaws and rollerblades for rent weirdly disconnect even more from the rest of the square. It’s kind of like the whole place is trying to be something that it’s not. It’s hard to describe anyway, just have to see it.
We walk back on Lenin avenue, or Marx avenue, one of the two, they’re both ugly as fuck anyways. We stop for lunch at a 24/7 stolovaya called “7 slonov”, after the Siberian expression “being so hungry I could eat 7 elephants”, cause a horse isn’t enough, of course.
What to do now, what to do now? Right, we still have to see the Ballet & Opera house and square, and as we get there, all we see are fountains, fountains everywhere. Which is nice actually, it’s like the flowing water breaks and masks a little bit of the ugliness of Soviet architecture. We walk around the square and reach the big Krasnoyarsk bridge as we walk along the Yenisey. This area, I have to admit, is quite nice. Bars and cafes lay on the boardwalk, people ride bikes or rollerblades, here and there old men fish and smile as we pass by.
We read somewhere on our LonelyP. that there’s a cafe from which you can call any number in the world for free. We figure it might be cool and maybe even allow us to get in touch with that guy from Kazakhstan we tried to call in Omsk to confirm our stay in the mountains at his guesthouse. So we start walking and walking down on Lenin street in the heat. We’re actually dying of thirst but obviously as we get to the address, we realize the cafe is not there anymore, it was probably closed down and replaced by some tacky grill lounge. Bummer.
A stolovaya will have to do then. We find one down the corner, order Lemonade (this time a real one) and Marta messages this friend of one of her Russian classmates, who agrees to meet us in the evening to show us around.
At 7.30-ish PM we head to the Opera Square to meet her. We’re obviously late, but as we get there we’re apparently talking so loud in Italian that she immediately recognizes us, despite having no idea what we look like.
I’ll speak to you in Russian, she goes immediately, cause, well, we are in Russia. Okay. Then we hop in her car and she drives us around the city, to the filarmonica, prospekt Mira, and to the tsentral’nyi park, located right behind one of the many huge Lenin statues.
The park also leads to the naberezhnaya, where people sit and chill eating shashlik and drinking beer. Down on the boardwalk, some kinds are hanging by the river bank, ducks with their ducklings are swimming in the pond.
Cool, let’s stay here and chill! But no, Ol’ga is committed to show us the “true” wonders of Krasnoyarsk so Park Pobedy is our next stop. A permanent flame is burning in memory of the WWII victims and soldiers, while a bung of tanks is parked on one side of the square. Right.
We’re kind of starving and we’d love to go back to the park and have shashlik and beer, but none of us has the guts to tell Ol’ga that we thank her but we just really want to chill and have some cheap stuff, so we end up at this expensive restaurant on top of a building in the new part of the city, for which we are not dressed at all (I mean, I’m wearing flip flops).
The walls are all made of glass so we get at 360-degree view on the skyline. Which is actually nothing special, but don’t say to Ol’ga. It’s nice to see how proud she is of it, as she goes: “finally we are also developing, we are building this beautiful tall buildings, no more just derevnya!”
Once again, we are stunned at how nice and genuine she is. The sole fact that she agreed to meet us in the first place although she din’t even know us, that she took the time to prepare an itinerary says it all.
17 June. We wake up in no rush and as we have breakfast we check out how to get to the Stolby national park. Our train to Irkutsk is leaving tonight at 3 AM, local time, so there really is no hurry, we have the whole day.
Apparently bus # 50 passing by the Opera house goes directly to the Stolby. So we walk there, and as we hop on I ask the driver where we should stop to get to the funikuler. We cross the bridge and the city takes a whole new face. It’s back to derevnya. One main street and wooden houses on its sides, trees and fields all around.
We get off at the stop indicated by the driver, but there is no funikuler in sight. I ask a couple at the bus stop and they tell me that, unless we wanna climb for 7 km on foot, we should take a bus and go back a few stops. We thank them and hop on the next bus. Once arrived, this time at the right stop, we see the funikuler in the distance and start walking toward it, coasting a narrow stream.
As we get closer, we realize the funikuler actually lies within an deserted amusement park. We buy our tickets and get on the kanatkaya that takes us on top of the mountain, well, a 500-meter tall hill let’s say. We fly through the pine trees, surrounded by the green, the wind blowing in our faces.
We get to the top and on one side we can see the city and the Yenisey river, on the other side the mountains covered by woods. The place is stunning and the weather is perfect.
We have our lunch packed to we decide to walk along the path and find a nice spot for a pick nick. The road leads us toward one of the Stolbys, this rocky summits of the “mountains” with weird segmented shapes. A red flag waves on it. On the side of the path there’s a series of wooden huts, with proper tables and chairs and bbq grills and all. We find one that overlooks the Stolby. That’s our place!
It’s locked but we figure, who cares, let’s just jump in. We set the table and have our lunch, immersed in the nature. In front of our hut, a sign says: “watch out for the bears”. Ah!
We chill here for a while until, suddenly, the park okhrana shows up with an angry face and yells us that the huts are not for free and that unless we’re willing to pay we should get out immediately. Oops. He sees we’re foreigners and asks us where we’re from. “Italy”, we reply. That’s the magic word, he smiles and goes: “So, will Berlusconi become president again?”. We look at each other and without and go: “of course!”. He smiles and helps us climb out and well, what? Whatever, at least Silvio got us out of trouble, for once. I’m not really sure whether we should be happy or sad about it.
We keep walking along the path till we reach a smotrovaya ploshchadka in the middle of the woods, overlooking the whole park. I sit on the wooden floor, my feet hanging in the air, my arms on one of the wooden bars. It’s like I’m sitting by a window and the infinite beauty of mother nature opens up in front of me. I look at the woods, hills succeeding one another till they fade in the distance, soothing me. And I could watch it forever. Everything is so still, even the clouds barely move. Yet it’s a stillness that vibrates. It’s alive. A butterfly landing on a flower, a gust of wind shaking the trees, moving in waves. The white of the clouds melts with the different shades of green of the woods, and in the distance the two colors come together, becoming one. Everything is one.
I am awaken from this sort of trance by one of the visitors saying as he leaves: “Spasibo, Stolby!”. Yeah, thank you.
We take the kanatkaya doroga once again and walk back to our hostel. It’s about 7 PM by the time we get there and we still have like 7 hours to kill before our train leaves. We decide to stay at the hostel as long as possible. The owner doesn’t really seem to care, so we go to the store and buy some stuff to cook pasta.
The last bus to the train station is supposed to be at 11 PM, so around that time we take our bags and head to the bus stop. We sit on the benches and wait. And wait. And wait some more. It’s 11.45 PM and still no sign of any bus. Great. We look at each other with defeated faces as we know we’re gonna have to walk to the station with 15kg on our shoulders and pray we don’t get lost.
After what seems like a lifetime we finally arrive, find some seats and rest. Our train is coming in 2 and a half ours.