29 October 2009

An October Summer in Sochi... 10 days away from St Petersburg rain and snow!

All we want is some good weather...

A month or so ago, Larissa got a call from Galla, a friend who had just returned from two weeks in Xocta.  We decided to follow Galla's example and act fast to escape the St Petersburg cold to the Sochi warmth, going from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea... so as to get two more weeks of summer!

Hard work to leave the city...

Travel by train or plane is easy compared with just trying to leave St Petersburg, year by year increasingly jammed with traffic.  A taxi in late afternoon might take a few hours to get through the number of cars that has been slowing the city recently.  So, loaded down with luggage we pushed and pulled our way through the wind and snow to the bus stop on Parachutna.  We took the Number 172 to  Pionerskaya metro and, after an exhausting struggle to cross crowded streets and get through metro passenger tunnels, we arrived at Moskovskie train station. 

Night Train!

Throughout  two nights and an intervening day we rolled through a part of Russia I had never seen.  Cultivated land, simple painted country houses, the colossal cold architecture of an unknown city seen through the window of our train at 3 AM.  The ride was smooth and lulling, inducing good sleep and adding to the energy I felt as an expectant traveller, seeing something new at every turn.

Just a little something to eat...

We brought a heavy amount of bread, pastries, cheese, mustard, cooked chicken, apples, pears, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, butter... everything but the toaster... typical of travellers in Russia.  The large lady who shared our compartment unpacked a small cutting board and made a careful salad from a collection of greens and vegetables.  Perochki, smoked fish, and apples were for sale at most every stop by baboushklas and at kiosks.

The great Russian railway system...

Russia is famous for poorly constructed highways, but it should also be acknowledged as a leader in passenger train travel.  Physically it is the largest country in the world, 1.8 times the size of the USA, but only has approximately 143 million people (USA 307 m).  Russia has 8.2 average persons for each square kilometer, while the USA has 34. 

How can Russia, nearly twice the size of the USA, with less than half the population of the USA, spread thinly over its tundra and taiga, be unified?  The answer... its phenomenal passenger and freight railway system.

Amtrak and Russian Railways are not comparable...

We used Amtrak when we toured part of the USA in 2002 and 2004.  It's expensive to have your own compartment, even though it is so compact as to make you feel you are on a space shuttle.  I much prefer the roominess of Russian trains.  

Americans would feel uncomfortable sharing a compartment with a stranger in the top berth, so a smaller compartment is the price they pay for being sealed off from unknown people.  This insular attitude is a drawback to getting to know what Americans are like in their own country. 

All aboard!

Our train, The Northern Palmira  (a way of referring to St Petersburg), starts in Murmansk on the Barents Sea, stops at St Petersburg,. skirts Moscow, and stays to the east of the Ukraine.  The train makes its last stops at Sochi, Xocta, and  Adler.  The final stop is just a hop from the  Abkhazian border.

Sochi has a humid subtropical climate similar to the American south, the only one within Russia.  Yalta, part of the Crimea peninsula now controlled by the Ukraine, has drier air.  Many Russians hold the last leaders of the USSR, along with Yeltsin, as responsible for the loss of Crimea.

Xocta, pronounced hos-ta

We had sun every day during our stay from 14 - 24 October.   Then we had rain for three days on our return to St Petersburg.

I was happy to be among hills and mountains and next to a beautiful sea.  While swimming you can taste the salty water.  Larissa and I collected a cereal box full of the beautiful pebbles.  To walk comfortably on the stones and pebbles you need flip flops. There are no life guards but beaches are posted and a red flag flown when there are stormy conditions.  I loved the sound of rolling stones at the water's edge.

Penguin Beach

How to spot a Russian anywhere on the beaches of the world?  Just look for someone standing facing the sun, hands on hips.  With pleasantly hot air and water around 20 degrees C, we had ideal beach and swimming conditions. 

The Lejak, a wooden grill for your suntan...

20 rubles rents a lejak... 9 slats from head to toe, and 5 slats crosswise for a wedge pillow of wood.  On top of this contraption people place beach towels and cushions.  Plastic chairs were not as popular.

If it's free, it's for me!

October is the end of the tourist season, and it was easy to select any pensionat or sanatory beach to use for free.  Also there were water fountains, free cold showers on the beach, free changing rooms, and free stand up men's room facilities (women pay 10 rubles).

Even warmer swimming!

One day an old fishing boat tied up at the pier next to our beach.  The cheerful captain was there to take people out to the yet warmer water of the open sea.  We paid 300 rubles each and went along.  We swam as much as we liked in the 23 meter deep water as he fished.

Good food store prices and a pleasing stolovaya...

Contrary to negative reports about restaurants, we were tipped off by Galla as to the best place to eat, the stolova Lotus... a cafeteria restaurant with Russian cooking along with some regional dishes.  We found an Uzbeki stolova on the main street that serves large delicious portions of montee (large raviolis), shash-leek (shiskabob), and plovf (chicken pieces mixed with rice).  These restaurants had clean bathrooms.

Soviet Street Name Math   30 Dec 22 + 50  = 1972 = ulitsa 50 let CCCP

We rented a room with enclosed balcony from a lady who owns and lives in the apartment.  We were on the fifth floor of #10, ulitsa 50 let (years) CCCP.  The hillside view reminded me of Paris.  In Russia, buildings that in America would be considered recently built are looked on as old... this one was constucted in the 1980's and was faded and run down.  Still, I liked the setting with the palms, cedars, and vegetation.  Our room was comfortable. We cooked a porridge breakfast every morning.

Tricky rental tactics found throughout the world...

Lydia, our landlady, insisted on upfront payment of 4500 rubles for 10 days.  We were tired, and complied.  After a few days something happened that was like insider trading... the town turned off residential hot water for annual maintenance.  So we paid for a hot water rental and got hit with cold water.  Really, the apparent trickiness bothered us more than the loss of hot water.  When needed we washed with water from the tea pot and a cloth.

Seeing is believing...

When I first saw our country village in Tverskya Oblisk, I realized how beautiful Russia can be.  Now in Sochi I understood there is a part of Russia as warm and as appealing as  Southern California, Mobile Alabama or Savannah Georgia.  Flowers are everywhere, the pace of life is slow, people are pleasant.

Xocta is part of Sochi, and Sochi is part of Krasnodar Krai.  Krasnodar is famous for Cossacks, Romany, and a source for many vegetables.  http://www.timothypost.com is the address of a blog written by a native Bostonian now enjoying life and doing business in Krasnodar. 

Xocta has back streets lined with blooming bushes, flowers, and sycamores.  We never got to the city part of Sochi but were content to see some views from a sanatorium in the hills.  By the end of our 10 days I had worn myself down to a tired old man and it was time to get me out of there and back to normal life.

Larissa changed our return rail ticket to a more restful two person compartment , with three meals spread out in strange fashion so that we had a fish dinner for breakfast.  The food was delivered to us, which they considered top service... but I would have enjoyed these meals more if we had them in the dining car.

How the Russian Railway deals with Daylight Savings Time changes...

We left Xocta on 24 October around 355 PM Moscow Daylight Time.  Moscow Daylight Time ended 25 October at 2 AM.  The train in the early hours of the 26th was instructed to wait an hour on a siding outside of St Petersburg.  Why?  The Russian Railway balanced the earlier Moscow Standard Time arrival by having us physically wait out the hour difference.

What with computers and world famous Russian mathematicians, the railway found this the most expedient way to deal with time changes!? 

Maybe you could submit your comments about time change manipulation on the Russian Railway, along with a better solution to us, and I'll forward your idea to the railroad! 

So, if you want to appreciate what a country has to offer, get out of the cities at least once a year... to the forests and villages... to the seaside... and you may start feeling an affection for the new land in which you are living!

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  1. Thanks for this article ! Reminded me of my Trans-siberian trip and I thought the waiting outside St Petersburg an hour due to the changing of the clocks made me laugh ! (It probably wasn't much fun for you though).
    And it's true what you said about needing to get out of the city from time to time - otherwise you forget/under-appreciate what else the country has to offer.

  2. Yes, train scheduling reflects rather tortuous logic at times!

    I love the special information and views you impart on Smart Travels. http://travelssmart.blogspot.com/

    And now you've visited North Korea!


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