|I've been in Russia 19 days so that makes me expert, right? Not really, but as I'm about to leave for Mongolia I thought I'd share with you some of my impressions . Mind you this country is so huge that Ive only seen a little bit of it. Although Ive travelled over 5000km from Moscow I could go on another 3,500km to Vladivostok and even then I'd only have seen a fraction. It really is massive.
The place to start is with the friendliness of the people. Wherever Ive been people have been friendly and helpful. When I was struggling with the Cyrillic alphabet on the Moscow metro, to decide which direction to go, people were willing to help me. In fact one guy told me which way to go and then chased after me to make sure I got on the right train and knew how many stops to travel. And, on one of my train journeys, I chatted for hours to a Russian engineer, Alexandr, who spoke some English. He was determined to help me find the best way to get to my hotel when I reached my station so he researched it on his phone and translated for me and wrote it down for me. From Moscow to Irkutsk people have been helpful as Ive bought things in supermarkets, or tried to go in the right direction. On one occasion( actually the only occasion so far) when I got lost I found a place to ask for directions. The people couldn't speak English but they went and found somebody who did. I've managed with a handful of Russian words all the way down the line because somewhere or other somebody who speaks some English can be found. Mind you, I wish I had visited Irkutsk first because here I have been helped by Nadia who I bumped into when I heard her speaking some English in a small crowd that was watching a little ceremony. I lent over to ask her if she could explain what was going on, which she did and since then she has chatted to me several times and even taught me a couple of Russian phrases.
If the people are friendly then there are plenty of them in uniforms. I've never seen so many types of uniform or so many people in them. On the one hand it creates a sense of security but also it is a little sinister. It maybe connected to the Great Patriotic War celebrations which have been going on. If they are not in uniform then there are loads of people employed in shopping malls, on trains , on the metro, in hotels, etc. I have never seen so many staff . Quite how any of these places make money is a mystery. On the metro there are women( I only saw women) at the bottom of every group of escalators in little booths, while on the Trans-Mongolian railway there are more staff at most stations then I reckon BR has on its entire books. No wonder they gave me the VIP treatment at Ekaterinburg because half of them seem to be employed to sit around and watch people and they seem pretty bored.
There is a strong western influence in the cities. They all have shopping malls and shops with designer labels .
All the brands seem to be here eg Mango, Benetton, H&M etc and you can get all the western goods from smart phones and tablets to 4x4s etc. Now, you maybe wondering what I'm doing looking around shopping malls. My excuse is that I'm looking for decent toilets - to avoid the little booths in the streets! And some of these shopping malls are very large. I'm not sure how they make money because although there is money around there are lots of people who clearly struggle to get by. A fair number seem to be older people who can be seen hawking simple goods , or handing out leaflets or wearing notice boards.
From shopping malls to churches. More churches than I expected and there is certainly an interest in religion . I've been into 2 churches when a service was taking place while in others there has generally been somebody engaged in devotions. Most of the churches are Russian orthodox but Ive seen Roman Catholic , a synagogue and a mosque. Again, the fact that it was Easter week might help explain the people at church but the interest in religion does seem real. Some of these churches are very impressive both inside- see picture - and out with the onion shaped gold domes.
But I cant say the roads are impressive, except that is for the size of the pot holes. Makes our pot holes look like little cracks. I'm not sure I'd like to drive on the roads because, besides the pot holes, the drivers seem to have just 2 speeds, fast and very fast .They also seem to only obey road signs when they feel like it. I've seen lots of cars with dents and bumps and several crashes.
As Ive watched the countryside out of the train window Ive been wondering about their care of the environment. I've seen loads and loads of rubbish alongside the rail line, while the rivers, of which there are plenty, all look a dirty brown colour. But on the other hand they have national parks, nature reserves etc. I haven't seen a wind turbine or solar panel despite the strong Siberian wind that frequently blows and the sun, which does shine. Could be that with all that coal , gas, and oil and rivers to dam they don't need wind or solar energy but it doesn't suggest that care of the environment is high up the agenda.
So how free are the Russian people? Well according to Nadia they are ' getting freedom'. I saw a demonstration in Moscow and articles and pictures about the pussy riot dolls but Aleaxandr and Natasha( a guide on a tour in Krasnoyarsk ) both said they check the BBC world service for news. My impression is that they do have democracy and freedom but that it takes a long time for this to become embedded; the Soviet era was only 20 odd years ago and even before that people were exiled to Siberia. One Russian joke is that Russia is one big prison!
A couple of other observations. One is that in some cities they have piped music in the streets which plays a mixture of songs in Russian and English. I've heard Bob Marley, Dire Straights and the Beatles among others. The Beatles are particularly popular- see photo. The other is the presence of street dogs. They have a fair number of them. Glad I got the rabies shot!
One more thing; statutes of Lenin-see photo- are to be found in lots of places. Communism maybe dead but Lenin is still highly regarded as is Karl Marx but no other figures from the Soviet era.
Off now to Mongolia so next update in about a weeks time or so.