Finding out that Russia was on my work itinerary for March 2014 kind of made me nervous at first. Given the tenuous political relationship between the U.S. and Russia, the difficult to anticipate laws, language barrier, and the COLD I wasn't sure how I would fair in this huge country. I have worked on missions and at the center with Operation Smile Russia volunteers before and found them to be incredibly nice, so when I found out that I would be meeting many of them again throughout my journey in their home country, I felt relieved! Just getting prepared to go though was one of the hardest parts. I had no clothes for cold weather save one pair of 'boots,' and a few long sleeve shirts my mom gave me while I was in California over the holidays. I had to piece together other cold weather wear from colleagues because there was nothing for me to even purchase in Guwahati. There just happened to be a team from Russia here as I was leaving and when I showed them my hodge-podge collection of 'warm' clothes, their general reaction was that they thought I would probably survive. I mean, they grew up in the Soviet Era so, if they're saying I'll survive I confidently went thinking just that.
So off I went.... the week after Russia started militarising in the Ukraine over Crimea. And where was the first place I had classes scheduled? A city called Taganrog in the Caucasus region of SW Russia right on the border of the Ukraine. I landed in a bigger city called Rostov-on-Don in sleet and freezing rain and had a real Russian winter welcome! As we drove to Taganrog, we passed a handful of Russian military tanks that were heading to the border. The tensions were high, everything on the news was about Crimea and the Winter Olympics (which had the closing ceremony the day I arrived.) Talking to locals about the political situation was incredibly interesting, I spent each night after class at the home of my Russian colleague. His wife made wonderful food, my favorite was her vegetarian borscht, and we talked about Russian history extending from pre-Soviet Era to the current tensions. We watched together as the public of Crimea voted near unanimously to be annexed. My general impression was that the Russian people absolutely do not want war, but they also don't want the cultural suppression of their friends and relatives in the Ukraine, whom they consider as a branch of Russia itself still. I am well aware of how the situation was brought across in western media vs. Russian media vs. Ukrainian media, it doesn't all align but was and is there a real crisis amongst the huge Russian population in Crimea? Yes. Is it/was it handled correctly? I do not know... When leaving the area I lost count of how many tanks I saw driving to the border, let alone other military vehicles. It was pretty quiet in the car at the time. As I said, no one I know in Russia wants war.
Winter becoming Spring in Taganrog
My favorite cafe!
See how sweet?
WWII depiction in the underground tunnels of Rostov.
After Taganrog my colleague and I flew to Novosibirsk, Western Siberia. I loved this little Siberian town! Perhaps the best part was the snow and that one of my favourite paediatricians came for the advanced class and we got to share a room and time together. It was the second morning that I woke up and saw the snow outside and was elated! We walked to the hospital we were teaching at just so I could enjoy it. I hadn't been in actual falling snow in years so it was a treat. The craziest part about teaching in Russia was that OpSmile volunteers were flying in from all over the country just to attend. Not only did I get to see Elena the paediatrician but I got see a nurse I know, an anaesthesiologist and one doc who was there during his birthday; we had a special dinner that night for him in Novo. The food everywhere I went was AMAZING. It was wholesome, warm, tasty and given to me in abundance. There were points that I thought I wouldn't make it through a meal because I was being fed so many heavy dishes and sweets. I had recently been sick and had hardly been able to eat prior to Russia. It all turned around here though. I gained weight for the first time in 6 months :)
Happy Snowy Kristin
The largest Opera/Ballet Theatre in Russia. With a statue of Lenin in front.
The cutest hand made birdhouse on the walk to the hospital
Happy Birthday Maksim!
After Novosibirsk we took the Trans Siberian Rail to Krasnoyarsk in Eastern Siberia. I was SO SO SO excited to take this train. I really enjoy train rides even on the most rickety trains here in India so I had my expectations pretty high for this trip. I wish I could have taken pictures of the station and the exterior of the train but apparently that is punishable by law, including the possibility of jail time... ? I still get that travel-happy fullness in my chest looking back. The train was perfect. We got in our little car. Sat down with tea and talked for sometime. Eventually my colleague went to sleep and I stayed up and read Harry Potter and gazed out the window until it was too dark to see anything. I drank more tea, snacked on Russian treats and eventually dozed off while reading. When I woke up in the morning it was just becoming light again. We were passing through vast Russian wintery tundra and I was smiling from ear to ear watching it all go by. We ate breakfast in the home of a volunteer, again the way I was welcomed so warmly humbled me at every turn. Krasnoyarsk was different from the other two cities, it felt like a whole different place but had its charm. My favourite tidbit about Krasno is that the Yenisei River running through the city flows North into the Arctic Ocean!
On the Trans-Siberian Railway
My favorite Russian Orthodox Church I saw
Take a book/leave a book in the middle of the sidewalk!
Guiding the students while they practice Intra Osseous Insertion
On my way back to India I had around a 9 hour layover in Moscow; I took the opportunity to utilize the rapid metro so I could see a bit of the city. Again, I was so accommodated, my colleague's daughter in law met me in Moscow and took me all around. We first went to the Red Square so I could stare at St. Basil's Cathedral. Stare I did. Up to that point (I hadn't been to Petra) this was the most stunning piece of architecture I had ever seen (far surpassing the Taj Mahal!) To me it was so unique and also very lucky to have survived the communist era which was characterised by an atheist state. During that time religious buildings and properties were being seized and this was one of them. It hasn't functioned as a church since the late 1920s and is still owned by the government, not the Russian Orthodox Church. Ironically enough, the mausoleum of Lenin is just to the right of it in the Red Square. The rest of Moscow was such an interesting mixture of extremely old buildings alongside high end malls and modern architecture. We walked for hours just so I could see the many different sides of the city. We ate lunch, had tea and braved more walking in the beginning of a large snow-storm. Before I knew it, I was back on a plane headed for Delhi.
The Red Square (R-L: An old building turned shopping mall, St. Basil's Cathedral, The Kremlin with Lenin's tomb right outside)
It just doesn't even look real to me!
So many beautiful buildings
Russian Harry Potter!
Russia completely blew me away and exceeded every expectation I had for it. I want to go back and visit my friend in Tomsk and explore other parts of this diverse country again someday. It really goes to show that we can not have reservations or assumptions about travel and the way you will be treated in the country simply because of political relations. I was so worried that I would be treated differently. I was scared that I would unintentionally do something wrong. I had so many incorrect ideas before I went there and every single one of them was disproven. I was lucky to have been there for work and therefore had access to English speaking Russians who could help me with anything I needed. I was made to feel like family and this changed how I have accommodated guests who come to Guwahati for short term volunteer work/work at the center since my return. I truly learned a different and warm hospitality from everyone I met there. Every day they taught me about the country's vast history, and even helped me picked up on the Cyrillic alphabet and essential phrases! I had fun, stayed warm in the freezing cold and came out feeling like Russia gave way more to me than me to it during my time there.