Taking a detached view
The Spanish traveler Viktor Olaya has devoted 16 months of his life to traveling around Russia
Tolstoy once wrote that “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold”.
In no other place like in Russia – Tolstoy’s motherland – this sentence is more true, for Russia is a place where truth can be more unpredictable, deceptive and hard to find than anywhere else. And, also like nowhere else, the truths one finds in Russia, especially those about the country itself and its people, can be golden.
When asked for advice about traveling to Russia, I usually do not tell people about places to go (most of my favorite places in the country are not what a casual tourist would like to visit, since I consider them mainly for emotional and personal reasons, not for their beauty or touristic value), but instead I tell them to pack one very important thing: patience. It takes time to get to know a country, even to just grasp a basic understanding of its culture and the idiosyncrasies of its people. Russia is no different from other countries, not more mysterious, or secluded, or unfathomable. It’s just that it requires more patience. A lot more patience.
I arrived at Arshan late in the evening. It was January, and nights there are rather long at that time of the year, so it was already dark. Arshan is a small village with wooden houses and cows strolling the streets. The village is also known for its thermal and mineral waters, and in the summer it is visited by tourists (Russians only) in search of the Siberian version of a spa treatment.
There was no one in the street when I arrived. The thermometer in the “marshrutka” that drove me there said the temperature was –29°C. I didn’t know where I would spend the night, but a friend of mine from Irkutsk had recommended me to go to some sort of mountain lodge (the nearby Say-an mountains are a popular destination among climbers) in which he had stayed some time ago. In any case, it would not be difficult to find some place to stay, he assured me. Admittedly, he had only visited Arshan during the summer.
There was no trace of the mountain lodge where it was supposed to be, although I could find a sign in the street confirming that I was in the right place. I tried knocking on a few doors that announced that accommodation was available, but I got no answer at all. When I decided that I was not going to have any luck in the village itself, I moved out of it to where the thermal resorts are found.
There are two “sanatoriums” in Arshan. The first one I came across in my walk was one of the most depressing buildings I have ever seen. A massive concrete building painted in green, looking like an abandoned Soviet ruin, it made a shocking contrast with the dim-light-ed snow fields around, the faint silhouettes of the mountains in the background and the cows patrolling the surroundings, and it was hard to imagine that during spring or sum-mer it could be crowded with people relaxing in pools of hot water and sip-ping vodka. Instead, it looked to me like a scary psychiatric asylum where the nicest treatment that you could get would probably be an electro-shock session. Seeing it at night only made this impression even worse.
In the area of the second sanatorium, I found a much nicer building, which was the biggest one of a small set of them. It had a discrete panel which indicated that it was a residence, and it had light inside. I rang the bell and a woman came to one of the windows and looked at me for a few seconds. Then she shook her head and with the fingers in her right hand pointed at her left wrist where a watch was supposed to be. I guess she was telling me that it was too late to give me a room. I rang again trying to be more insistent, and she came back to the window only to repeat the same gesture. I left the place and headed back to the village.
I had been walking around for about ten minutes without finding anything, when I saw a young man passing be. I approached him and asked him about the mountain lodge that I hadn’t been able to find.
– It doesn’t exist anymore. It caught fire last year.
That explained everything.
– Is there any other place where Ican stay?
– Do you have money?
– 500 rubles?
That was a fair price, and I was notin the mood for discussing it. I nodded and he took his mobile phone and made a call, and although he moved away from me I could hear that he was talking to his mother. She was a bit reluctant at first, but he convinced her easily. I assumed that I would be spending the night at one of this wooden houses, and that looked to me like a nice plan.
I followed the young man across the village, and after a few minutes we found another man. He was older, probably in his sixties, and it appeared to be drunk. They talk-ed for a minute and the young man told the other man that he would be meeting him as soon as he had shown me the way, but quickly changed his mind and decided that we were already close enough and I could go on my own.
– Go all the way straight and cross the park, and at the end you will find a house. My mother will be there wait-ing for you.
And, without giving me time to say anything, he went to join the other man for a drink, something that seemed to be more interesting to him than walking with a foreigner.
I had lost my orientation after all the time I had spent wandering in the village, but soon after he left me I started realizing that, although coming from a different direction, I was heading to the same residence where a few minutes ago that woman hadn’t even opened the door to me. I thought about turning back, but decided to continue. And there she was, that same woman, waiting for me at the door, as her son had told me.
She welcomed me and quickly went behind a counter. To my surprise, she was nice and kind, and she started asking me questions about my trip and myself. She asked me for my passport and tried to find in it the information that he needed to fill the inevitable bureaucracy. I helped her and showed her the page where my visa was, so she could read it there.
– That’s much better – She smiled, – I studied some German at school but I forgot everything and Russian is all I can read.
As she copied the passport information, she kept on asking me about my reasons to be there and about how I had learnt her language. Then she grabbed one of the keys and walked me to the room. She turned on the TV to show me that it worked, and selected a channel that was airing an old Soviet film.
– You will like this film – she said, and she smiled again before leaving me and going back to the entrance.
Instead of watching TV, I switched it off and thought about how she had turned from a rude person that refused to even open the door, into a lovely woman who treated me kindly, almost as if I were his son.
One month later in that same trip, I was passing through Kemerovo, a grey industrial city in the west of Siberia. I was having trouble finding an address, so I decided to ask some-one in the street. My first attempt was unfruitful: the man I tried to ask just avoided me and didn’t even bother to listen to my question. I tried again, this time with a woman, just to get the same result. She even put me out of her way with her arm. I tried a third time with another man, and as he saw me approaching him, he start-ed negating with his hand. I decided that I should be more persuasive, so I stepped in his way, forcing him to pay me attention. He stopped and listened to my question without com-plaining, not showing any discomfort.
Unfortunately, he could not help me with the address, but instead of running away he asked me if I knew any other place nearby that could give him an idea. I didn’t know much more that the address itself, but he insisted, trying to be helpful. After one minute, it was clear that he was not going to be of much help, but the man started to give me some recommendations and asked me about my trip and myself.
I guess he was curious to know what had brought me to such a non-touristy place in the middle of winter.
– Where are you staying? – he asked me.
I told him that I had booked a room at a hotel, and he showed some disdain.
– You will never know the real Russia if you stay at a hotel. Why don’t you come to my place and spend a few days with my family?
And as he said that, his face start-ed to show some friendliness, as if he was also getting excited about the idea of having me in his home.
– My wife has always dreamed about going to Spain, but she could never make the trip. I think she will love having a Spaniard at home.
I politely declined his offer, and he said he was sorry for not being able to help me finding that address. Then he walked away. Still surprised, I thought about the woman in Arshan and how she had changed his attitude from the first time I knocked at her door, seamlessly passing from the rudest mood to the loveliest attitude, from Hyde to Jekyll, just like this man had just done.
I continued my trip and found many stories like that, as I did also in all my travels after that one across the country. Eventually, I realized that this multiple personality, this particular sort of bipolar disorder, goes beyond just people, for all aspects of the country and its culture seem to have more than one facet: grey cities with bright and colorful lives, cold landscapes where one feels warmer than anywhere else, unfriendly places that somehow make the traveller feel at home.
Books should not be judged by their cover. And in Russia, not only you should not judge a book by its cover, but you should also refrain from doing so until you have read its very last page.
Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, as Churchill once said in a sentence commonly quoted. There might be a mysterious side to Russia, but if there is one truth in that sentence, it is not that, but the multi-layered nature of all Russian things, the deceptive wrappers that cover every part of the so-called Russian soul. Just like a well packaged treasure, anyone want-ing to understand the country has to patiently unveil all those layers before getting to the core of it. And there, under all of them, truth will be waiting. And it will be, no doubt, golden.