It turns out hitchhiking in Russia is a blast. I started today, on my first real day of hitchhiking ever. I got a really late start, but I still managed to get about 400 km in two different cars. The first guy was a rambling, big-nosed guy in a beat-up Lada, and I could hardly understand a word he said, but I did grasp that he didn’t want to charge me anything like so many other cars on the road would. And I suppose it’s true, because I got a few other very short rides at the very beginning, and two of them asked how much I was willing to give them. Luckily, they both turned out not to be going where I wanted to go, anyhow. There was also the guy who, when I told him I’m American, said, “I have to go to hospital. You unstand?” I’m not sure if that was a lie or if he really was going to a hospital in Krasnogorsk, the next town up.
The guy in the Lada dropped me off at a turnoff in the middle of nowhere, with forest all around and no town within visible distance. I stood by the road something like half an hour, slowly coming to the conclusion that I’d really blown it now, and I would probably have to sleep in my camp by this turnout and figure out a way tomorrow to get back to Moscow and find a train to Riga. I didn’t actually make it all the way to that level of fatalism, though, before a black pickup truck pulled over and a balding guy told me to get on in, and that he was going to Toropets, 300 km down the road toward the border. I could understand his Russian way better, almost as though I could really speak the language, which of course I can’t. We spent a little while getting to know each other – his name is Arkady, for instance – and then he put on the radio and later a CD full of songs he listened to back in the day at the Soviet diskoteka. Stuff like Abba, Dschingis Khan’s “Moscow”, and lots of Russian singers that no one’s ever heard of outside of Rus He gave me some fruit juice he had, and at a gas station we stopped at, he bought me a piroshki. He was turning out to be a heck of a guy.
When we reached the turnoff to Toropets, he stopped and told me to nod if I understood him, so he could be sure I was getting this, and then said that instead of sleeping in my tent, I could go 20 km down the road with him to his house and sleep there, and he’d take me back to the highway in the morning. I kind of wanted to try to make more progress, but I decided this was far too good an offer to pass up.
Toropets is a town of 18,000 people and it’s a century older than Moscow, I learned from Arkady as we drove through. His building was an unpromising Soviet-style block of apartment/condos. But when we walked in, it was full of warmth and light and the smells of a happy family. His wife, Iyulia, and his ferret, Prushcha, came to greet us, and he urged me to sit down in a comfortable chair in the living room. We all talked, and soon his ten-year-old son Roman came in and exhausted his English class learnings by saying, “My name is Roman.” Meanwhile, Iyulia was making me and Arkady some food, and while I was looking through Roma’s English textbook with him, Arkady came in and said it was time to eat. A big bowl of borshch with sour cream, and then a heaping plate of mashed potatoes with chicken, and pickles and bread on the side. In Moscow I went out to a restaurant that billed itself as highly traditional Russian cuisine, but the hell with that, right here in Toropets is where I’ve gotten the definitive Russian dinner. Including shots of homemade moonshine from either Arkady’s or Iyulia’s mother.
They’ve ousted Roman from his room for me, and given me his computer. They’re just in the next room, watching TV, but the light from this room is probably keeping them awake, so for now I’m going to refrain from writing the big blog I have planned about the Trans-Siberian experience. You’ll just have to be satisfied with this. But I know I sure am, so I suspect you might be too.