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The Mothmen Prophesies

I'll let you in on a little secret that many Russians already know: After three weeks on the road, I smell terrible. Multiday train rides, hot water in occasional short supply and laundromats as of yet unheard of in most of Russia has left me with filthy clothes and a scent redolent of the mayonaise you forgot in the back corner of your fridge in 1982. The hotels will wash your clothes, with 3 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants, socks and boxers costing a measly $40 CDN. I loosely refer to this as "Tourist Tax". I have not yet submitted and therefore leave an easy trail to follow even for those not keeping track on this website.

Rob and I are presently in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia and fourth largest in the country. Still unused to the layout of Russian cities we continue to act as The Mothmen of The Canadian West; we rarely know where we are going so, when in doubt, we simply head towards where there is the most light and hope for the best. There is no shortage of moths in Russia so when I see one fly into a candle and experience a quick and fiery demise I try and come up with a better analogy.

The Kremlin in Kazan, Tatarstan.

Our travels recently took us to Kazan, capital of the autonomous region of Tatarstan, a predominantly Muslim area of the country. What most separates the Tatars from the rest of Russia is their use of the Turkic language and a genetic predisposition towards poor roadside Karaoke. Kazan is a gorgeous town, however, with an amazingly well-preserved Kremlin (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), a slick European-style pedestrianised boulevard and sandy beaches along the Kazanka river. The town boasts numerous mosques - unusual for Russia - including the overwhelming Kul Sharif mosque, with it's luminescent sapphire-blue domes. Also to be found is the pretty purple, orange and blue SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in the town's centre. We spent two days relaxing in Kazan after a long train ride before hopping on another 2-day journey here to Novosibirsk.

The train ride, as they often can be in Russia, was somewhat surreal. Twenty minutes into the journey I was greeted by a superhumanly drunk man carrying around a beheaded raw fish. He rambled on and on at me in Russian, trying to hug me and smear raw fish on my t-shirt, going on a slurred 5-minute diatribe before winking at me knowingly, poking me in the belly and saying "Jiggy-Jig", then continuing on his Russian discourse. He was eventually ushered away by an unimpressed Russian army Major, saying "Chihuahua" repeatedly as he went.

Next, at our first long train stop, about 10 hours into in the ride, everybody got off the train to stretch their legs and buy food from the babushkas at the side of the tracks. Rob got back on the train first and there, in the carriage, sitting all alone, staringly longingly through the misty window to the foreign world outside, was, of course, a monkey in a diaper.

It turned out that we were sharing a carriage with a group of circus performers, all of them animal trainers. In our carriage we had a trained monkey, some cockatoos and a couple of parrots, both of whom spoke more Russian than Rob or I. We had a great time with the performers and even after 40 hours aboard the train we were sad to get off and see them go.

We got into Novosibirsk, which is not a terribly interesting town, more of a gateway city that only came into existance about a hundred years ago due to the creation of the Trans-Siberian. We used it as a gateway to go to the Altay region, a mountainous camping area 500 km south of Novosibirsk, at the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

Through a travel agent we rented a cabin and took a 10-hour bus ride down to the Altay on Friday. The bus had absolutely no shocks which, despite the roads being in relatively good condition by Russian standards, made the ride abominable. Reading, sleeping and other time-wasting was impossible as the vehicle bounced up and down violently and swayed back and forth a jell-o mold in an earthquake. Then, the bus broke down. Four times. I began to think that if getting there really was half the fun, then I should fully expect to be greeted at the cabin by a poke to the eye and a cricket bat to the testicles. Due to an extreme stroke of good luck, this did not happen.

We spent 2 days in the region, hiking up steep mountains, spelunking through a glorious maze of caves and just being generally awe-struck by the beauty of the Russian countryside. We met a terrific group of Russians - Andriiy, Luda and Marina - who helped us out and made our trip down that much more special. Disappointed by the brevity of our visit but with the end of our Russian visas now just 10 days away, we came back on Sunday night. And broke down four more times.

Standing on Devil's Finger, Altay Region.

We are now a few hours away from leaving Novosibirsk and heading east to our last Russian stop, Irkutsk. I am hoping that our moth-like abilities will lead us towards a great souvenir for our time in Russia, which I have not yet found. In truth, I did see what I wanted, which was a pair of running shoes a young guy was wearing in Moscow that had a Hammer and Sickle where the Nike Swoosh usually is. I would give my left leg for - well, I guess not for a pair of those - but I have yet to find them in any store. Maybe I'll buy some cool Russian clothing, but it's not like I could wash it if I did...