Strange market forces
The hotel room had a fridge as well as a bathtub the size of a walnut. The fridge made so much noise that I had a hard time sleeping. My next door neighbor dunking his head against the wall every two minutes or so didn't help either. After a long time of trying and watching what there was to watch on television (mostly porn-related advertisements) I managed to fall asleep.
The next morning, I tried to arrange a train ticket to Krasnoyarsk, it supposedly being my next step closer to lake Baikal. I had to change some dollars into Rubles and wanted to try that at the more up market hotel Sibir. They where able to change money, although at a very bad rate, since their regular exchange office was out of service and all they had was a money changer at the casino (it being already ten in the morning). They also could get me train tickets to anywhere in Russia. Them speaking English, it seemed to make arranging my next leg of the journey an easy one. That was, until I had to pay four times as much per kilometer as I had in the before.
There was this 'law' that obliged foreigners to pay 4 to 5 times as much for train transport as compared to Russians. It seemed that only in Moscow, when buying the ticket to Nizhni Novgorod had I paid this 'regular' fair. For the other legs of my journey I somehow had managed to pay the Russian's fair. Now, in Novosibirsk, they wanted me to pay the regular foreigner's fair.
Having to pay an astounding $40 for a ticket to Krasnoyarsk, in stead of the Russian's $10, I asked what it would cost to fly there instead. The air fair was a mere $18. I decided I would try to get a train ticket at low price from any one of several other ticket offices scattered around town, mostly since the next plane to Krasnoyarsk wouldn't leave for a number of days. Getting a low-fare train ticket, however, turned out to be very difficult if not impossible. Some of the offices where closed, and when I found the one that was able to sell me the right ticket, I had to wait an hour to find out it didn't sell any tickets to foreigners (although the waiting wasn't all useless since I had a nice talk with a very beautiful ballerina before I was kicked out). I had to get my ticket at the train station. There, they wanted me to charge the earlier mentioned $40. I decided I was going to fly.
Although the air fair to Krasnoyarsk was low, planes only left once a week. Since the last one had left the day before, I needed to figure out another destination, since I didn't want to be stuck in Novisibirsk (however nice) for a whole week. Considering Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Severobaikalsk and other stops along the way, I finally decided that, if I was going to fly anyway, I might as well fly all the way to Vladivostok.
Luckily, the hotel Sibir also was able to get me a plane ticket. I wasn't completely happy with flying in Russia. Mainly because I didn't want to leave my luggage with anyone at the airport (especially security) besides myself. I started to ask a question to the lady who was helping me on the subject of luggage. I said "I have been told…", but I couldn't even finish my sentence. She immediately cut in: "Don't believe 'em!". "But should I believe you?" I enquired with a small grin. "Of course." she said. So I believed her. She said I could take a fairly sized bag with me on the plane but should leave anything over the top to be transported as regular luggage. The size of my backpack could not be described as fairly sized.
The ticket to Vladivostok was also very reasonably priced and I would already fly the very next day. The fact that the ticket was arranged in only minutes put the smile back on my face when I left the hotel again, in the blazing Siberian sun. The outside temperature was about 45 degrees, Celsius, 35 in the shade, so the smile came in handy. I decided to let the folks back home know of my change of plans, I went to the local telephone office.
An Irishman in Novosibirsk
Still with the smile on my face, I tried to arrange a call back to the Netherlands. Phoning abroad is something of an art in Russia. Depending on the city, you can either call from your hotel, or you need to go to an International phone and telegraph office, where you can place a call to a foreign country. You give the country and phone number of the person you want to speak to, to someone at a desk (behind a glass window) and then you wait. After some time (when your number's up and when 'they' have made contact) there's an announcement saying to which phone box you have to hurry. There, your call is waiting and you can accept the call by picking up the phone that's inside the booth. Sometimes, since you can't call from such a booth anyway, the phone is nothing but a horn on a thing that looks like a phone but has no touchtone or dial whatsoever on it.
So I was in this communication center, asking the (nice) lady at the counter whether she spoke either English, Dutch, French, German or Hungarian. She didn't. She did speak Italian. Of course, I don't, but just then a friendly Irishman (aren't they always) appeared out of nowhere and helped me out. John had been in Novosibirsk for about half a year and had arrived in December when the temperature was at a heart warming -45 degrees Celsius. We went for a drink in one of the Pizza places.
John, by circumstance, had come to Novosibirsk to teach English but was now working at some humanitarian organization doing Internet research. He had found a girlfriend here (or a girlfriend had found him) and was enjoying his time immensely, picking up some Russian in the process (probably to help stray cats such as myself in phoning home).
Having just bought a plane ticket, I was already short on cash. So again, I had to exchange some dollars. I didn't want to get fooled by the casino at the Sibir once more, so I asked John where I would have the best bet in changing at a good rate. He said he knew a couple of people that would be able to change money and indeed, after some time, someone entered the pizza joint where we where having some Pepsi, who John knew could exchange cash. We agreed an amount and some moments later, he came back with the Rubles. I wanted to change $200. He came back with the right amount all right, all in 50Ruble notes. That's about 100 notes all together. Great. John and I agreed to meet again in the evening, in one of the pizza places that doubled as a Jazz club at night. Next, I was off to see a bit more of Novosibirsk.
One of the things I had to see up close, here in Novosibirsk, was the river Ob. So that's where I went. A huge waterway (but then again, which waterway in Russia isn't huge) with, on several beaches along its shores, thousands of people sunbathing and swimming. Boat wrecks lying on the shores, kids playing in and on them. Older men trying to catch fish for an evening meal and tomorrow's market. Stray dogs trying to wash the hot day off of them. The peace and quiet along the whole shore. In short, a great place to linger.
Walking back from the river to the city center, a bus driver asked me to help push the bus and get it going. He couldn't get the ignition started, so he had asked one of the passengers to sit behind the wheel while he himself and I would push the bus, so that it could start. After several tries, we got it going. I also cam across a small chapel that claims to be the geographical center of Russia. I couldn't help but wonder why they put such a very small chapel in such an important place. Grabbing some culture along the way, I also visited an art museum. Here, too, international artists where adorning the walls. Among others, the Dutch painter Ruebens was represented here, as well as the Russian Reirikh (or Roerich).
When night fell, I went to the pizza place and was surprised by four things: the friendliness of everyone in the bar, the quality of the food, the cosines of the bar and the high standards of the jazz that was being played. John came in several minutes after me with his (gorgeous) girlfriend (she looked like Natascha McElhone and we talked about Russia and things you talk about with a foreigner when you meet each other in the middle of nowhere.
John knew some of the people in the Jazz band that was playing and after the gig (when already a new band was lining up, also not bad (but not as good as the first band)) two of them sat at our table. One of the guys, Alexei, had actually toured part of Western Europe as well as Turkey with his band, him not being able to stop rambling on about the fantastic things he had seen on his trips to the West. His most fantastic story was on Novosibirsk though. He said that the personal ads of one of the local news papers consisted for 80% of articles of the type: "Wealthy Dutch male is looking for handsome young Russian woman: 18-35, 90-60-90, no kids, for marriage." He stressed that these 80% where all Dutch men. I wondered.
John told me a remarkable story. The expat community in Novosibirsk being kinda small (all pizzerias, the Irish pubs and a bakery run by the same American guy), he knew one of the big Honcho's of Coca Cola.
Apparently, since the Russian market crash of 1998, Coca Cola has been losing $1million (yes, 1.000.000) a month by staying in Russia. What's more, before the crash, they expected to break even in 2004. Now, they've put back that figure by 50 years! Problem is, they can't just back out. Pepsi would, then, easily rule the whole country and could start making a profit in less than a few months! Interesting stuff.
John was the first who suggested the thought to me that Russians consider the time it will take for a change to happen in Russia to be some 25 years. The 'age' of one generation. Professors in university now teaching the free market economy have never experienced it themselves. How can they teach? The parameters that are enforcing the economy to work only seem to work for the select few. How can a whole population be convinced. By law, everyone has to be paid in Rubles, but everyone immediately converts their money to Dollars, to avoid the problems a default might cause. How can this system ever work?
The two lovers (John and Julia) left earlier than I did, which rendered me a remarkable view of the second band that was now playing. The drummer looked like a young version of Nick Cave, the lead guitarist was a good imitation of Christopher Walken. The base guitar player was short and fat, constantly jumping around the whole club, with a bad-ass smile on his face, he looked like a converted communist general. The keyboard player seemingly had just crawled out of bed, still wearing his green pajamas and his curly black hair was trailing off in all directions. And then the singer. Half-long greasy hair, which he constantly waved back and forth, and the painful look on his face, which made him look like a cross between Eric Clapton and Jesus Christ.
I noticed a nice looking young girl sitting alone some tables away from me and, since I could still manage a couple of hours, figured it wouldn't hurt striking up a conversation with her. I went over to her table, asking if it was okay for me to sit down. She politely said "No.", which caught me a bit off guard. She, noticing that, although I did understand what she had said, I hadn't understood why, she went on to explain: "I'm single", and then nodded with her had as if to say 'therefore you can't sit here'." By no means did I understand it at all, but I figured it was time to take a nap after all.