Our initial approach

There are more than 9,000 kilometers separating Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan coast, from Moscow. We had intended to travel them all slowly on the trans-Siberian rail line, with stops along the shores of Lake Baikal, at the foot of the Ural mountains and in the heartland of Tatarstan before reaching Moscow. If time had allowed, we would have pushed all the way to the old tsarist capital, Saint-Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic. On a flight from Delhi to Istanbul, Leanne once had a stopover in Moscow, where she managed to leave the airport (wrapped in blankets, for her luggage and winter clothes didn't follow) to go visit the Red Square. Apart from that, Russia was a huge unknown to us and we really looked forward to crossing almost the entire length of the country, from East to West, immersed in Russian novels as the landscape unfurls.

The morphed approach: Russia became chapters 2 & 3 in the summers of 2017 & 2018

Saint-Petersburg would have been the final destination, had we stuck to the initial plan. Instead it became the starting point of chapter 2 of the BRICS road in the summer of 2017.

It was a busy year for us as we settled into our new Abidjan home and started new jobs. We only had 2 weeks to dedicate to the BRICS road. The kids have long summer holidays; in August, Côte d'Ivoire comes to a standstill and it was the height of summer in Russia. 15 days wasn't much time but it was enough to explore its two biggest cities: Saint-Petersburg and Moscow and not feel short-changed.
In the summer of 2018, Guillaume went back alone to enjoy the FIFA WC with his brothers, catching matches in Sochi, Moscow, Kaliningrad and Rostov and, therefore, spending endless hours on the Russian rail. Leanne and the boys joined him for three days around the Moscow match.
We told ourselves that we shall not yet abandon the trans-Siberian dream. There will just have to be a future occasion, during a longer (sub?) chapter of travel through BRICS...

People & Language

Though Russia may appear monolithic and uniform from the outside and Russian is indeed, the only official language at national level, there is actually a great diversity of ethnicities and languages, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union meant that most Central Asian territories became independent. At regionl level, the republics that constitute Russia can and do adopt official languages in addition to Russian but the latter remains the main language of education in almost all schools in the country. There are thus 35 official languages at regional level and it estimated that roughly 100 more minority languages are spoken, though some are in danger of disappearing. Ethnically, the population is roughly 80% Russian but the many migrants from former soviet republics that enter Russia every year may actually mean that estimate is outdated.

Music & Literature

Guillaume was given a torn paperback copy of Dostoyevski's novel, Notes from the Underground, by a random stranger he met in a Salvador favela, many years ago. They had just shared an endless night of profound and boozy conversation that marked them both, one of those rare encounters we interpret as a sign from destiny. When they parted at dawn, never to see each other again, he gave Guillaume the book. He was consumed by it. He felt as though Dostoyevski had read his mind and found the words he never could put on paper himself to express the very essence of his soul. It sounds dramatic but that's Russian literature for you...

Those few pages confirmed Guillaume's love affair with Russian literature (which began in the 10th grade, when he was made to read Crime and Punishment) and he has since used the time spent on Russian trains to acquaint himself with many more: Bakunin's God and the State, Gogol's Dead Souls, Guelassimov's Thirst, Solzhenistyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich and several others.

As for music, since the only artist we truly knew was the haunting Vladimir Vissotski. We found his statue in a Moscow park. The kids loved the sounds the Balalaika and we managed to also catch a live show of folk song & dance in St. Petersburg.

Food

Apart from a few months spent in Poland (writing - strangely enough - about the food industry). which we assumed to have similarities given their shared slavic traditions and mutual influence, there wasn't much we knew about Russian food at all before going. We were therefore very pleasantly surprised to discover that the local cuisine was much more refined and diverse than we had expected. What stood out the most were the amazing soups, both cold and warm and the delicious slow-cooked game meats. The kids, of course, preferred the blinis, which they ate daily for breakfast under thick layers of condensed milk.

Did you know?

  1. Russia is the largest country in the world by area. Its 17,000+ km2 make it slightly larger than Pluto and 1,8 bigger than the USA;

  2. Siberia covers 77% of Russia's territory and 75% of it is in Asia. Only 22% of the population lives in 'Asian' Russia;

  3. Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, holds 20% of our planet's (unfrozen) fresh water;

  4. Russia also hosts 20% of the world's forest area, roughly 1.6x the forest area of Brazil;

  5. In Russia and India, banknotes have braille markings for the blind. Only 3 other countries do;

  6. 21 countries in the world celebrate the day they obtained independence from Russia. Only the UK (58) and France (26) can claim to have more;

  7. The Transsiberian is the world's single longest railway. The 9,200 km journey, if undertaken non-stop, takes 152 hours and 27 minutes;

  8. When riding the subway in Saint Petersburg, you'll find yourself 100 meters below the earth's surface;

  9. The world's first satellite, Sputnik, was placed into orbit by Russia in 1957;

  10. In the border town of Jalainur, China, some seven 7,500 kilometers from the Red Square, there is a scale replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral. It's not a church, it's a museum.

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© by Leanne & Guillaume de Bassompierre.