The Vast Russian Steppe
It was a cold, blustery day in Moscow as I hopped into an old, grey sedan. The driver was my friend Anya, who I had met during a previous backpacking trip. The ultimate destination of our journey was a small skiing village situated in the Caucasus mountains called Arkhyz (Архыз). According to the GPS, we had nineteen hours across the vast open Russian steppe ahead of us. I settled into my chair as I set off down the road. Our adventure had begun.
While living in Moscow, I had gotten used to seeing something happening in every direction. But, once we left the city, the atmosphere drastically changed. There was no urban landscape, nor was there an endless suburban sprawl like the kind I had grown used to back in the States either. Here there was snow. No buildings, no billboards, not even trees. Literally nothing could be seen but vast, endless fields of snow... with one exception. Every half hour or so, I began to notice something that was breaking up the monotony. Something so unexpected and surprising...
'Was I hallucinating?' I thought. 'Could the car be leaking carbon monoxide, causing my brain to fry? It's -30C (-25F) outside! How is this possible?' This is the winter that decimated Napoleon and turned the tide of the Second World War, yet here these older woman were, each standing by a parked car with a table and sign that usually read Мёд и Горячий Чаи (honey and hot tea). Before this trip, I, like a fool, thought I was pretty tough and could handle the elements. But when I stepped out of the car earlier in an attempt to fill the tank with gasoline, I went beyond the point of feeling cold and just felt pain. My body screamed 'what the hell are you doing!?! Strutting out like it's a summer day in Rhode Island? Idiot!' But damn, upon seeing these babushkas as they stood calm and stoic waiting to sell their products, I was thoroughly humbled.
Despite the cold, the ride was going by quite smoothly. Other than us, very few cars were on the streets and the sun even occasionally peaked out from behind the white and gray fluffy clouds to remind us it still existed. We had just about run out of things to discuss by this point, since neither Anya's English nor my Russian happened to be that good, so Anya turned the radio to a Russian stand-up comedy station. I couldn't fully understand but was amused, nonetheless, by the excessive amount of yelling.
As the time passed, we were lulled into a state of comfort and decided to stop for a bite to eat in a cozy, wooden roadside cabin. We hurried from the car to the cabin, careful to avoid the -30 temperature as much as possible. As we entered, shivering, we were greeted right away by a short, kindly old lady in a red headscarf. We sat and thawed by the glowing fireplace and were soon were given a few hearty, home-cooked blini (similar to crepes). I smiled, ate, and thought to myself that this was too good to be true. Turns out it was...
Shortly after we left the cabin to continue our drive, the Russian winter decided to reveal its true terrifying self. Suddenly strong winds swept across the plains and the sky, which was just recently showing us the sun, now threw down a flurry of snow. I started to feel a little tense, but Anya still seemed fairly contained and relaxed. 'She must be used to this,' I though, and eased back into my seat. However this feeling didn't last long because there was another element of danger at work, which was even more revered in Russian than the winter... Now, I could go on and describe what began to unfold, but instead, I'll just recommend typing 'Russian drivers' into YouTube and watching the first video you see. That does a better job than my words ever could.
As the weather grew worse, so did the other motorists. With growing frequency, the cars around us began to swerve, spin and sputter off the road. It reminded me of a baby bird attempting its first flight out of the nest, but unfortunately these baby birds were quite large and full of flammable gasoline. I again looked over towards Anya and asked how she was, but she was to fixated on what was ahead to respond. Her small frame and pleasant demeanor transformed into that of cornered tiger flaring its teeth. Ferociously she slammed her fist on the car horn and spat curses at anyone who spun into her path forward.
At this point I wasn't sure whether to be terrified, fascinated or just entertained by the spectacle of it all. Ultimately, I have to say I was impressed, for as I, myself, am a rather poor driver (or, to put it bluntly, terrible and far too easily distracted), but Anya, now several coffees down, held her own and valiantly battled the elements. And while this wasn't by any means the first car ride where I felt in grave danger, it was by far the coolest. That being said, I was still quite relieved when we stopped for the night.
As we pulled into a parking space, I braced myself for the icy rush of the cold night air. 'Three.' I began to count down to. 'Ok... I got this... Come on! Remember all those childhood moments of jumping into cold pools to show off in front of the girl.* Two. One! Deep breath and go!' I sprang up out of the car ready for all the cold and pain the Russian winter had to offer, but unfortunately there was one thing I forgot to prepare for. During all my fixation on the cold, I completely forgot what eleven hours in the car would do to my back. So instead of bravely jumping to my feet, puffing my chest out like a manly lumberjack, my exiting of the car more or less resembled Quasimodo falling out of bed.
*(in my adolescence, my friend groups usually just had one token girl. Hence the singular noun)
The place was a small, roadside inn about an hour outside the city Rostov. I walked in and, shivering madly, handed my passport over to the lady at the front desk in order to check in. She took Anya's first and quickly returned it, but she held on to mine. She looked down and then back up at me, studying my face. "Американец?" (American) she asked. I nodded. She looked again and then disappeared into a back room. Instead the worst ideas rushed through my mind.
'Noooooo!' I screamed internally. 'I'm not properly registered! She's gonna send us back into the cold storm!' I tried to pass this sudden wave of terror off as being cold, but unfortunately I don't think I was fooling anyone. Then the woman returned.
She looked directly at me. 'That's it! Can't register me. Back out in the cold...' I thought. But to my surprise, she smiled and then exclaimed that I was the first ever American to stay at the inn. Yanking my arm, she pulled me over to the computer and instructed I write a review! 'Yes!! I get to be exotic for a day. Break out the champagne!' Happily, I complied, wrote a stellar review, then brought my bag to the room and laid down in a nice comfortable bed. And finally, after the cold, storm, back ache and near disasters, I drifted off into deep sleep.