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Filmed: September 2012- Length: 35:25 - Equipment: Sony Cypershot Hx9v and GoPro Hero 2
Russia Discovered was a discovery in itself. I went to Russia knowing that I would complete the Trans-Siberian Railway over the course of 5 weeks and planned to make a film about life on the rails and document what it's like to travel on this 8269 km (5138 mile) journey. However, along the way, I realized that there was so much more to show the world than the simple romance of traveling across an entire continent by train. Without any professional equipment film equipment, I used my trusty point-and-shoot Sony Cypershot Hx9v and a GoPro Hero 2 to capture this all of the footage. No DSLR camera, no external mic, no interchangeable lenses – just the basics in my backpack and on my way.
I traveled the entire journey alone and without any previous knowledge of the Russian language – I find that traveling alone is optimal and if any of you are lucky enough to travel along this same route, you will find that when you are alone, you stumble upon encounters that would never happen if you were in a group. Imagine you are on a train with 6 beds open to each other and you are obviously the only foreigner. You are much more approachable alone than being with someone else speaking in your native language the entire time. Through this, I experienced hospitality like nothing else I've ever experienced in my life. The Russian people went so far out of their way to help me along my way by giving you food, endless tea, communicating with the conductor, and as even as far as inviting me to their home in the destination city. I've traveled a lot in my young years but I can say without any doubt that the Trans-Siberian was the best trip I have EVER taken in my life. In fact, the experience I had in Russia convinced me to completely change the direction of my life and to learn Russian.
In the following I will give insight into each leg of the journey:
One of the first words I learned in Russian “babuska” meaning “grandma”. The lady you see in this part of the film playing music I met by a complete luck. St. Petersburg is full of street performers but my Russian friend Anna and I saw her one day outside of a shopping mall. We were fascinated by how well she played her instrument. I was kicking myself that I had no battery in my camera left to capture it. We returned to the same place two days later and were surprisingly lucky enough to see her again.
My friend asked her politely if she wouldn't mind telling a little about St. Petersburg to an American and she proceeded to give us her whole life story and play two songs for us. Imagine me, kneeling down in front of this woman, putting a camera in her face while she speaks to me in a language I completely don't understand. I almost feel invasive in a way but this was the only way I could share this beautiful old lady's talent and story with the entire world.
While walking past the Church of the Savoir on the Spilled Blood, one of the ionic symbols of St. Petersburg, I found Maxim, the man playing the guitar in the beginning of the St. Petersburg section. The song he played, “Выхода Нет” or “no exit” (in regards to love), would stick in my head for the entire journey and became my personal song for the journey. From on the street in Samara to karaoke bars in Omsk, I would continue to hear this song across all of Russia
One short clip shows St. Petersburg from the rooftops. A friend of Anna's who studies in Russia showed us this secret spot and we literally had to sneak up a private apartment building, through the attic and climb through a hole in the roof to get up there. All while trying not to be heard by those who lived there! We succeeded and the view was stunning!
From this friend of Anna's we also learned many interesting local tales, including the one shown in the video below about a jealous artist.
It was also here in St. Petersburg that I got the idea of filming the rotating scenes with the camera on the collapsable stick. While sitting at Peterhof with Anna, I was fooling around with the camera on the stick making a silly video. After looking at it, I realized, “Wow! That looks pretty cool!” I started to film something similar in every city and put them all together at the end of the film. I'm not a museum person but the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg was likely the most impressive museum I have EVER seen in my life. One could spend days in there!
Moscow is the city of big business, Putin, money, and fancy cars. While I was in St. Petersburg, Igor, a guy I previously studied with in Germany, saw I was in Russia and offered to host me in Moscow. He and his mom Larisa appear in the Moscow section and gave me my first chance to see how living in Russia (at least Moscow) is. I felt as if I was home with the two of them and am very thankful for all I learned from them about Russia as they kind of helped me prepare for the real adventure ahead of me. They were both very interested to see through my video how Siberia really is because like many Russians in western Russia, they have never been beyond the Ural Mountains and into Siberia. As they said in the film, Moscow is like another country in itself. You can't even compare Siberia to Moscow where every second car is a Porsche or Land Rover. If you go to Russia and ONLY visit Moscow, then you haven't really visited Russia.
As you can see in Saratov, there is a complete contrast to what one experiences in Moscow. I got the feeling that the citizen in this city don't have true love for their city and they spoke freely about the problems. Nevertheless, they still had this amazing spirit as Masha mentions in this section. With so many things to be depressed about, you can just walk along the bank of the Volga and see all the passengers dancing and celebrating that their ship is leaving port. This kind appreciation and joy for life was evident throughout all of Russia despite the numerous social problems in the country. I believe the film speaks for itself when it comes to the rest of the social issues touched on in this section. Masha and her family were even kind enough to invite me to their home for a birthday celebration.
The spirit I found in Saratov was even exponentially greater in Samara. I met up with a dance studio in Samara at with my friend Arina taught at and met some very open minded, happy people who truly enjoyed living their life. The interview with the girls shows how much they are laughing and playful in their daily manor. I laughed more during my two days in Samara than I had in months. The shoreside (embankment) on the Volga in Samara was recently completely re-constructed and is VERY impressive. It gave the city almost a beach feel and watching the sunset over the volga couldn't be beaten!
The music played at the beginning of this section is from Lydmilla. I met her as she was picking up her kids at the dance studio and she was more than thrilled to share her talent for music with me and even allowed me to put it in the film. She also gave us the craziest taxi-ride home I've ever experienced in my life. Lymilla, like the rest of the people I met in Samara, was just so full of life. It was about here that I realized, “wow, Russia and its people are really something unique... I'm starting to really like this.” Below you can find her music group's music video to one of her featured songs.
Ufa / Kaga
Two weeks before I left on this journey Alena from Ufa contacted me through the online website www.interpals.net. In fact, many of the people I met along this journey I had been in contact with for some years through this website. Alena offered to organize a camping trip to the mountains with a group of her friends if I was going to be coming through Ufa. This wasn't an opportunity I could miss so I changed my whole route to accommodate this and it was one of the best decisions I made for the trip.
I arrived in Ufa and Alena's father gave an a whole tour of Ufa. Her mother then proceeded to cook up an amazing assortment of Russian food and I tried for the first time in my life alcoholic horse milk.
As the evening rolled around Alena's mom began to get ready to leave. It was then that I realized that she had to go work in a factory the whole night. I could not believe that she spent her whole day cooking for me, some stranger in her home, when she should have been sleeping or resting up for work. She didn't want to be in any videos or photos, simply wanted to provide me with a warm home-like atmosphere. I couldn't believe this at first, it took me back. Such hospitality I had never experienced and it was only the beginning of a reoccurring theme that I would find throughout all of Russia.
Alena organized a complete group of people to go camping for the weekend in a small village a half-a-day's drive away from Ufa. I wasn't aware of this before hand but other than Ramil, our driver, our guide Zarema, and all the participants were female. The small village where we stayed was called Kaga (Кага) and truly felt like living in the 1940s or something.
We spend the weekend exploring the nature and the region around Kaga. From mountain hikes to exploring caves with paintings over 10,000 years old, this was an amazing experience. We cooked all of our meals at the “cabin” and I was amazed at how EVERYONE pitched in right away when something had to be cooked, cut, prepared, taken out, etc. The idea of “We are all in this together and we all do our part” was very evident and highly effective. At home I'd never seen such efficiency in a group. Zarema, our guide, was a very knowledgeable and spiritual woman and shared told many folklores about the region, some of which you see in the film. She shared with us some of her passions as well such as palm reading and interpreting our vibrations with a ring on a chain over our heads.
While Ramil and I often needed someone to translate for us so that we could actively communicate, we gained a strong mutual respect for one another during our weekend in Kaga. I was touched to hear that I had inspired him as well.
23 Hour Train Ride Ufa-Omsk
Along this 23 hour journey through the northern tip of Kazakstahn I made friends with the man selling drinks and food on the train. I was in the food car during the first evening of the leg and was sat down by an extremely intoxicated middle aged man. While I was unsure of the situation at first and always kept my guard up, I was able to take from the situation that the man's family just rejected him or sent him away from Moscow and now he was going back home alone. This was all from drawing pictures that the guy did in the back of my journal. He was a sad man and wanted to tell his story to someone. He always wanted to hold my hand in an arm wrestling position, not to wrestle but to show respect for the other. An old man who sold drinks and food on the train saw that I was a foreigner and came by to talk to me a little and ask where I was from. He took an interest in me and kind of made it his job to take care of me. While the drunk man was in the bathroom at one point, the old man working the train kind of motioned to me, “hey comrade, now would be a good time for you to dash out of this place,” so I did. The old man working the trains would always talk to me during the 23 hour journey when he stop by my train car. He spoke a little German and a little English and that's how we communicated. In fact, most of the train staff thought I was German and would explain always explain food items to me in German. Here is a video of my friend as he was passing by one time.
When I woke up in the morning new people had occupied the beds around me. None of them spoke English but the lady who had a bunk bed under me kind of took me under her wing and wanted to eat with me, teach me card games, etc. While we could barely speak a word that the other understood, it was evident that she was a really kind and genuine woman and we were able to create a nice friendship. She always told me that she wished I was not getting off in Omsk but continuing with them to Vladivostock, the city at the end of the Trans-Siberian line (another 3 days head). I gave her a post card from San Francisco when I had to get off in Omsk and wrote a thank you note on it for being so friendly to me, it brought a tear to her eye. It's connections like these that I value so much and while I know I will never see this kind-hearted loving woman again, I will always have this photo with her and the short video clip of her at the end of the film. When I see these, it reminds me of the compassion and mother-like figure she was to me.
I chose to make a stop in Omsk rather than Novosibirsk as I had a contact, Nadia, there. Where I was staying was actually a wellness center where people would spend a few days to relax and recuperate (the website never mentioned anything about this). Regardless, after coming home late one night, I realized that I was locked out of the wellness center compound. In the middle of the night I had to climb the compound fence without getting stuck on the top, and jump inside. As I made my way to the entrance of the building I could see the security guard standing over his computer screen confused by what he was seeing. I knew this guard wouldn't speak english so I just walked in like I owned the place and caught only a really confused, almost stunned, look from the watch guard.
Omsk was my first true Siberian city. Before starting this trip there was one monument I was keen on seeing known as “The Plumber”. Some of the highlights of Omsk were it's embankment along the north-flowing Irtysh river and it's city park, both of which are seen in the film. While strolling through the park with Nadia trying to find someone to interview to talk about Omsk we approached a couple and they began to laugh and responded, “sorry, my man is too drunk to help you out right now.” In fact, this was the only time during my whole journey were someone didn't want to talk on camera who I asked. Amazing when you think about it. Nearly everyone was willing to share their life and stories with some stranger who doesn't speak Russian and wants to record them.
The little girl you see riding her bike in this section of the film actually crashed right when that clip cuts out. Nadia and I ran over to check on her and she was in tears but wanted nothing to do with us or any of our help. She then proceeded, while fighting off tears, to return to her mom who was talking on the phone and didn't notice anything that had occurred 50 meters away.
While in Omsk, we visited the Siberian Museum located there. In the basement of this beautifully hand carved wood building was a man, Nikoli, showing off his Wooly Mammoth tusks. While this section of video didn't make it in the film, Nikoli gave me priceless advice about what I should do later on in my journey. By a strike of luck he had just been at Lake Baikal a few weeks before and he strongly recommended that I explore Olkhon Island when I get there. This advice was some of the best advice I received for the entire journey.
Nadia, who I met in Omsk is actually a professionally trained translator and was one of the 4 people (Masha, Alena, and Agata) who helped me translate many parts of the the Russian interviews into English. I don't know how I would have completed all the translations without her help and the rest as well. My last night in Omsk was my first night of Kareokee in Russia and I gave my best to “Sweet Home Alabama”. This night, the theme song of my whole trip “ Выхода Нет” was played. From St. Petersburg to Siberia, this song traveled with me the whole way.
On the way to Krasnoyarsk I met another great group of people in the train. The guy in the bunk under me was from Uzbekisthan and then a middle aged woman and a woman my age were across from us. Adjacent was an Grandma, or “Babushka” as she called herself. None of the others knew each other from outside of the train but had all been traveling for 2 days plus together and had quite the comradery already in place. I was able to make a translator work on my phone from time to time and I was amazed how well the Babushka would handle the smart phone and type something to speak with me. I also had the phrase book which was given to me on the flight to St. Petersburg and at one point, 3-6 other people from our train car surrounded around our area and tried speaking English to me from the phrase book and wanted to join in our the fun that we were all having. This was a perfect example of how language didn't have to be a barrier for us to communicate and enjoy each other. This segment of the train travel will always be in my memory of riding the rails in Russia. It was simply a beautiful clash of cultures.
At a German Language school in Munich the summer of 2012 I met Lisa just a month before I leaving on my trip. She was from Krasnoyarsk, a city I had been planning to visit because of it's famous and beautiful Stolby National Park. Unfortunately, she was not home when I came through Krasnoyarsk but she was kind enough to inform her friends Rita and Yana about me. The two of them organized an amazing few days in Krasnoyarsk. While in Krasnoyarsk, one day Rita arrives at the place I was staying and says, “come one, we've got something planned.” Unsure exactly what's planned, she drives us to the Krasnoyarsk Lake were we meet her parents who are all ready to go out on a boat for a picnic on the lake. What a surprise! All of this for some stranger they have never met before. Simply unbelievable...
The last day in Krasnoyarsk we had a day hike up into Stolby National Park. This park if famous for its various rock formations and is amazingly close to the city, only 5 kilometers! Imagine living in a city of a million people and having a HUGE national park and a ski resort in the winter only 5 minutes away. Every year there are recorded bear attacks as well... this is Siberia.
After a few hours hiking into the national park we reached some of the famous Stolby rock formations. Now, I enjoyed climbing rocks as a kid but I never would have imagined what I would experience here. We came across a man (later to be known as Nick) before the rocks in very ragged clothing who asked us if we wanted to see something. At this point Nick preceded to climb this 27 meter rock formation without any safety equipment and come back down on his chest (explaining why his clothes looked the way they did, he was a professional at this). Nick is a Stolbist. A member of a rock-climbing, nature loving sub-group with a long tradition of climbing these majestic rocks. The video below provides more insight into this amazing Stolbist culture.
Lake Baikal (Olkhon Island)
While back in Omsk, the man in the basement of the Siberian Museum with the mammoth bones gave me the advice to head to Olkan Island when at Lake Baikal. As I said before, this advice was some of the best advice I received on the whole trip and has continued to change my life until today.
I arrived in Irkutsk at 4am and had to make a trek across town, over the river, to get the bus to Olkhon Island. It was here at this hostel where I got the bus and for the first time in 3 weeks met other travelers. Since Moscow I had not seen a single foreigner. All these days on the trains and never once did I cross another travler like myself. One of the first people I met at the hostel was Joseph. Joseph, an Irishman, and I would end up being great friends and later discovered that we had tickets for the same train to Mongolia in 5 days and travel all the way to Beijing together.
The journey to Olkhon Island took about 5 hours. The drive to the ferry dock was a nice paved road and the morning clouds on the Siberian Tundra were stunning. The nature here was very different from the endless moutains of trees which I found in Krasnoyarsk.
Now in this transport van were a mix of nationalities, French, German, Spanish, Irish, Finnish, etc. While none of us know each other beforehand, this small group would be the core of the experience on Olkhon Island for the following days to come and the friendship of this group is still alive and strong today and some of us have even met up in other parts of the world or spend Christmas together since our amazing days on Olkhon Island.
The van itself is a story to be told. Now, this brand-new looking Mercedes Benz transport van looked solid from first glance. Our driver, who didn't speak any English, had a heck of a time navigating from the dock on the island to the village of Khuzhir. While there was a solid, but bumpy, formed road on this island, our driver had a taste for adventure and was always taking detour routes 15-30 meters off the beaten path. Till this day we never understood this but once or twice the Mecedes Benz nearly rolled. And truth be told, the Soviet made vans which we would later experience on this island, which look as if they couldn't make it for than 5km without falling apart, are acutally some pretty hard-core off-road warriors and were hands down better transport than the high class Mercedes-Benz. Much respect was gained for these Soviet vans.
Olkon Island is the largest Island on the largest (in terms of water volume) lake in the world. There is more water in Lake Baikal than all the North American Great Lakes combined. More than 20% of the Earth's unfrozen fresh water is in Lake Baikal and parts of the lake are more than 1,600 meters (5,300 feet) deep. Where we were staying was the main village on the island, Khuzhir. The island itself has less than 1,500 inhabitants, most of which are the island's ethnic aboriginals. Khuzhir itself has about 1,200 residents and has only had electricity for 5 years. Outside of Khuzhir it's really hard to find another human on the island.
When we arrived in Khuzhir, the bus driver was lost and had to stop and ask a local for directions. Where he was trying to find was Nikita's- the most established place for tourists to visit in Khuzhir. While asking a lady for directions, she tried endlessly to persuade one of us to stay at her house. However, no one took up the offer. To this day I still ask myself how the local people in Khuzhir feel about Nikita's monopoly and bringing tourists to this small village and can imagine that some miss how things “used to be” in Khuzhir before the tourists come, while some others are thankful to have a steady source of income from the money tourists bring in. It's a tough question...
Regardless, we made it finally to Nikitas after a 30 minute zig-zag fiasco through Khuzhir (keep in mind, the village isn't that big). It must have been the driver's first day on the job and we aren't sure if he found his way back to Irkutsk or not.
The best way to descirbe Khuzhir is to consider it the Siberia version of Northern Exposure (TV series filmed in a deserted Alaskan city in the 90s). There are no paved roads on the whole island and likely a larger population of cows than people. Cows roam freely through downtown. Our first evening we explored the village and were standing on the corner of main street. Just then, a cow grazes around the corner and continues along it's away right through the main intersection. It was just like the scene of the Mouse in Northern Exposure. Occationally the Soviet vans would drive by or bikes from WWII with the 2nd person seat to the side. I believe this was the closest one could get to time travel.
The next 3 days would be labeled by many of us as the “Best Three Days of our Lives.” The atmosphere of this simple gathering of a small group of internationals in such a far-away, foreign place is hard to put into words. Each one of us had surpassed countless obstacales over the last 3-4 weeks to get to where we all were. Some coming from Beijing heading to Moscow, others going the opposite direction, all clashing together here on Olkhon island for 3 days. I was the only American of the group and many told me when they met me that they met another American woman some weeks earlier along the rails in Russia. Sure enough, this other American, Coleen, would arrive on Olkhon island the following day. Others had also bumped into each other weeks earlier in cities such as Kazan and everyone had crazy stories from all over Russia to share. This special group of people was made of Jospeh- the Irishman mentioned earlier, Coleen- the fellow American, Pablo and Bea- from Spain, quit their jobs, married, and began traveling, Ilmari- the craziest Finnish man I've ever met, Fredrick- Swedish guy traveling around Asia with a guitar and chessboard, Mark- English guy traveling from England to South East Asia, “Mara”- Spanish girl traveling alone on the Trans-Siberian, Andreas- Law Student from Germany, and Jan- Austrian who helped me tremendously with learning Final Cut Pro to edit this film.
During our days in on Olkhon Island we endulged in the Russian tradition of Suanas direct on the shoreline of Lake Baikal (as seen in the film), explored the island on bikes- including the island deserted airport, took a day trip in the rugged Soviet vans to the tip of the island over unimaginabley horried roads and through corrupt national park guards (credit to our new driver and amazing van), endulged in fresh fish caught from the lake, enjoyed the daily music performances from Nikoli on the accordian and Nikita's daughter on the piano (both of which are featured in the film), and then gathered around in the local saloon with Fredrick's guitar and sang songs late into the night such as our rendition of “Siberian Dreaming” and the “Piano Man”. The atmosphere was so contagous and lively that even Nikoli and some of the other locals joined in with us. In such an enviornment the beauty of people from all corners of the world coming together to sing in on a song together can't be captured with words. Never in my life had I made such close friendships in such a short amount of time.
Still feeling the high of the unforgetable 3 days spend on Olkhon Island half of us made our way back to Irkutsk on the 4th day. Along they way we met Masha and Nastya, two Russians who had been staying in Khuzhir elsewhere in the city and found out that I had acutally bumped into them in Khuzhir and asked them a question a few days earlier (in such a small village, these things are bound to happen). They were kind enough to show us the city of Irkutsk and made our last day in Russia one to remember.
Onwards After Russia
Along the Trans-Siberian Railway one must decide if they stick soley in Russia and continue after Lake Baikal to Vladivostock, or if the turn south along the Trans-Mongolian through Mongolia and continue on to Beijing. Joseph, Mara and I planned to continue on to Mongolia together from here. Unfortunately, through a series of odd events, Joseph and I got split up with Mara in Irkutsk and ended up going to Mongolia just the two of us. After some days exploring the Mongolian countryside, staying in traditional Mongolain Ger huts, hearding sheep from horseback with locals and spoting actual wild horses we continued on to Beijing.
Joseph and I took different routes from the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, China but met up there on their national holiday October 1st. October 1st in China is like the 4th of July in America. Seeing the ceremonies on this day at Tiananmen Square was special and the friendliness from the Chinese was even more special. We must have taken 50 pictures with people who came up to us and some even guided us around for hours on end. At dinner, we approached a restaurant that was full and told we could not eat there, so a man came up to use, called and reserved a table at another local Chinese restaruarnt where only Chinese people ate, walked us 1.5km there, translated the menu for us, talked the manager into giving us free shots of Chinese Whiskey and only wanted in return some coins from our home countries to give to his son. At this point we thought, ok, what could even happen next, this is unbelievable what has already occurred to us. Well, crazier it would get in about 30 minutes.
making our way back from dinner, Joseph and I were heading somewhere
to enjoy our last night in Beijing together as he flew home the next
morning. Then, on the streets in Beijing, a city of 20 million
people, we ran into Mara, the Spanish girl from Olkhon Island who we
lost in Irkutsk, 2,469 km (1,534 miles) away and 2 weeks later. I
was just blown away, a loss for words, the odds of such a thing
happening are just unimaginable, as if it was something from a movie.
Goals For Film
My goal for this film is to display to the rest of the world how special Russia is by showing what genuine, hospitable and lovely people live there. Regardless of our pasts and what is depicted in the media, there is no reason to have animosity toward other countries. I hope this film is one small step in helping bring the world together by opening peoples' eyes to something they may not have considered before. By seeing that people all over the world are just like you and me, it tears down social barriers, creates a sence of unity, encourages friendliness and co-operation, making the world simply a better place. While this film opens up Russia for the world to see, it has inspired me to continue pursuing these goals in a much bigger way: To travel around the world and show that no matter where you are born, where you live today, what religion you are, what social status you have, what your background is, people from all over the world share common emotions, goals and aspirations in life and are naturally good people.