Stop 1: Nizhny Novgorod

6 June. We are on board of the “Lastochka”, Nizhny Novgorod bound. It’s a gorgeous day: the sky is uncharacteristically blue and the sunbeams make the trees extra green, like splotches of color against the grayness of the khrushevy. The clouds all have the same weird shape, like an army of snails moving in synchrony across the sky. Walls of conifers surround us on both sides and our eyes get lost in the labyrinth of their tall and skinny logs.

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We arrive at Nizhny Novgorod’s train station right on time and my friend Natalie is standing on the platform, waiting for us. I hug her and introduce Gian to her, although they already met at one of Nathan’s legendary parties in Moscow. She takes us to her car, a huge 4×4 (we’ll only later understand why she actually needs such a beast).

She drives us around the city, explaining how it lays at the confluence of two rivers, the Volga and the Oka, dividing it into a lower part and an upper part. We pass by the XIII century Kremlin, located on top of a hill surmounting the rivers, and we finally reach her house, in a derevnya called Taynovo, just outside Nizhny. As we enter the village, it’s like we’re going back in time. The road gets bumpy, wooden houses start lining up on one side, a pond lays on the other.

Natalie’s uncle is working in the garden, and as I say privet and walk into the living room, there’s a DEAD BEAR laying on the ground. Head and pawns and all. Natalie reads my face and goes: Oh, say hi to Misha!

What? Did they even name it? Well, apparently in Russia it’s normal to use dead bears as carpets.

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The house is huge, there’s even a 2-storey banya in the garden, overlooking the pond, and Nizhny Novgorod’s skyline appears in the distance. We eat some cheese soup made by Natalie’s aunt and head out to meet some of her friends, who are having a gather up in the woods. Creepy? Not really, that’s just what people do in their free time over here.

When we get there, I am in awe. The forest is just so thick, the trees so tall. The singing of the birds gets mixed up with the sounds of the water flowing down the river and of the tree branches blowing in the wind. It’s almost like a symphony. The smell of meat on the grill melts with the aroma of flowers and berries and newborn leaves. Here and there sand fields interrupt the green of the grass. After living in Moscow for a year, this place really seems unreal.

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Natalie’s friends are gathered around a table beneath a tree by the river, eating, drinking, and grilling mushrooms. They instantly make room for us and start asking us all sorts of questions. They all seem to be very simple people. Genuine.

We take a walk along the river, there’s people chilling in their teepees here and there, playing guitar and singing old Russian songs. Back at our “camp”, all sorts of goodies materialize on the table: grilled everything, chicken, mushrooms, veggies, and beer, lots of beer. Some other friends join us till this Russian policeman, dressed in military clothes for god knows what reason, shows up with a bottle of Tequila. Oy oy.

Fortunately, I am a woman and this is Russia, so I’m out of his drinking buddies’ roster. All the honor falls on Gian. I’m just happy to stick to my beer. The girls start sing Russian pesni and one of them plays the guitar, a glass of beer rigorously within her grasp. Cause you know how it is: bed bokala net vokala!

At some point one of the girls shows up with a bunch of leaves in her hand and goes: poprobui! I look at her warily and blabber: chto? She doesn’t seem to accept no for an answer so I’m like, what the hell, let’s just try this, hopefully she won’t poison me. And the leaf is actually really good, for a leaf. It tastes like lime. Natalie says they would come here as kids and eat them when their mothers punished them and left them without dinner or something. Nice.

Meanwhile, the police guy, who’s been drinking straight tequila with salt and no lemon goes: Uhm, this may actually be a good substitute for lime! And starts chugging shots and chewing leaves like a goat! How can you not love Russia in moments like this?

It’s 10 PM now and everybody is like, please don’t leave! Stay with us, spend the night here! The tequila is finished but, abra kadabra, a bottle of vodka magically appears as police guy shouts: nu, tekila zakonchilas’, nado vodku! Makes perfect sense, how to argue with that.

Thank god, Natalie saves us, especially Gian, who’s been having shots since 5 PM, and we head home. She wants us to try her banya. Why not. Apparently it’s never a good idea to mix vodka and banya, so it’s just me and Natalie. Check.

7 June. We wake up in the early morning and Natalie teaches us how to make bliny, which we eat with sgushchenka and homemade jam. Breakfast of champions.

Around 10 AM we hop in the car, direction Gorodets, a small town about an hour from Nizhny, renowned for its craftsmanship. We pick up Natalie’s Yoga teacher, Liudmila, and drive through the green fields till we get to the Gorodets Museum, located inside a beautiful wooden building. No nails were used to build it, Natalie says. Different crafts are exposed in each room: wooden sculptures, toys, textiles, clay utensils, wood paintings and decorations. This town is indeed famous for its patterns and bright colors used for decorating wood. We even decide to take a master class and we’re handed out wooden plates while a local lady teaches us how to paint a Gorodets flower on them. From the look of it, I can’t say I’ll ever become a Gorodets Master, but I tried my best.

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Once we finish our tour, we sit down in the cafeteria and have some Ivan chai, served with pryaniki and other local candies. Speaking of pryaniki, we also get to visit the pryaniki museum. Yes, there is a cookie museum in Gorodets – gorod masterov. It’s impressive how the people of this tiny town really manage to put their skillful craftsmanship into everything, even cookies, baked on engraved pieces of wood so that the biscuit will take the shape of whatever the engraver wants it to take. They are also quite delicious actually.

Liuda then suggests we go to this Serflager place, so we drive and drive till we reach a forest and keep driving right through it on a bumpy (well, bumpy is an understatement) path, here and there wooden plates with painted arrows pointing toward serflager hanging on the pine trees.

As we arrive, I immediately fall in love with the place. It’s like some sort of spiritual haven, deep in the forest, looking right onto the gory-more, the part of the Volga river that gets so wide it almost looks like a sea. It’s hard to describe this place, it simply emanates such positive vibrations.

An Indian guy who speaks Italian with a Bergamo accent (I know, right?) serves us samosas and masala chai, which I love and missed so much. People are doing yoga and massages in the tents scattered through the woods. Some kids play on a swing knotted on two pine trees overlooking the beach. A guy is kitesurfing, while a woman bravely bathes in the ice-cold waters. Everything is wonderful.

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On our way back, we pass by the house of Natalie’s cousin, who makes us chai and introduces us to her seriously obese cat. We get home and homemade pel’meny are waiting for us. They are so good I could eat them forever. Nothing to do with the shit you buy at the producty. As we eat, Natalie pours us some Samogon, a very strong liquor made by her uncle. Fortunately she has to go to work tomorrow so the drinking of this deadly thing stops at 2 glasses.

We then decide to watch a movie, a Russian one, Lyubov’ v bol’shom gorode. It’s supposed to be a romantic comedy I guess, but seriously I am laughing so hard the whole time at how ridiculous this film is. Only the Russians could create such a thing. Just watch the movie and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

8 June. It’s Monday and Natalie has to go to work, so we wake up at 6 AM so she can drop us in Nizhny on her way. There’s probki everywhere, and we have to take the backroads, in the countryside, till the kanatkaya doroga, where Natalie drops us off. Apparently it’s the longest in Europe and was built by the French. That’s reassuring..

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We buy our tickets and as I look at Gian, I see his puzzled face as he goes: What is that exactly? – And when he realizes we’re gonna be suspended in the air I can see fear crawling up his face. But he acts as a good soldier, and before we know it we are crossing the river and reach the old part of the city.

We walk along the Oka on Verkhnovozhnaya naberezhnaya, or something like that, until we get to the Kremlin. It’s about 9 AM now and it’s actually very pleasant at this time of day. Everything is quiet and still and the weather is wonderful.

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We spend the day walking around the city, which is quite small and cute, compared to Moscow at least.

Our train leaves at 7.24 PM, but Natalie really wants us to have some dinner before getting on the train so she picks us up and we go back to her place. We has soup and grechka with meat, pirozhki and ice-cream and candies and chai (not exactly in this order I might add), and then we all take the elektrichka to the station.  Apparently t’s faster than driving there due to the probki.

So we get to the platform of the closest stop and wait. The problem is the damn elektrichka only shows up at 7.10 PM. Our train to Yeka is leaving at 7.24. Uhh.

Still, as I always do in these situations, I’m not too stressed about it and stick to my philosophy of “don’t worry until you have to, or unless you can do something about it”. But Gian is already nervous. I try to calm him down and everything seems under control until I see Natalie’s face, as she tells me: ya perezhivayus’. I check my phone: 7:18, and we are still on the elektrichka. Uhm. This doesn’t look good, the odds seem to be against us, but let’s see what happens. I think in my head.

As we are finally approaching the station, we all frantically try to check the trains outside to see if we can spot ours and find out the right platform. Gian manages to read the screen for the train standing in front out us: 092, it’s ours!

19:21, we might actually make it! If only the damn elektrichka didn’t keep going so slowly. That’s what you get with old Russian suburban trains.

Come on, just open the freaking doors!

19:23, they’re calling it. The train is about to leave. My mind is going, oh, this would be funny if it left right under our nose, with us stuck in the effing elektrichka.

Then, magically, incredibly, against all odds, fate kisses us, and the doors open. We throw ourselves onto the platform, waving our tickets to the rzhd lady standing in front of carriage # 10, ours.

I hug Natalie as the train lady hurries me in, yelling: Just get in, i’ll check your documents later!

Wow. We made it. That is incredible. Life is beautiful.

We get to our sleepers at the end of the wagon and an old lady is sitting with two kids around the age of 6 or 7. She seems okay. A bit cranky, but all Russian ladies are cranky after all.

A while later, the provodnitsa comes to us to actually check our passports and tickets and goes: What about the sheets? – What about them? – Do you want them? Its 135 Roubles. – Aren’t they included?

She explains to me that when you buy your tickets online, you actually have to tick the sheet box at the bottom of the page. – Oh, that explains the discounts we thought we got. Good to know.

So we buy the sheets and as I start to make my bed on the upped berth, the old lady, Liudmila Petrovna, goes: davaite ya sam pomogu. And she makes my bed without me having a say in it. Thanks?

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Gian and I start walking through the wagons until we reach # 13, and there we find Jean-Yves and Solene. What! How did we even end up on the same train! They are also stopping in Ye-burg for a couple of days. Crazy. Totally unplanned. We hang out with them for an hour or so, chatting and drinking beer (Shhhh, we know it’s forbidden).

And the world is so big. And it is so small.

Cheers, P.

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