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From: Bela Lubkin
Date: Thu, 21 Aug 1997 00:38:06 +0000
Subject: Off To Yaroslavl...

Hi! This is the first time I've written for the list.

We're taking off tomorrow afternoon for Yaroslavl, a town about 150 miles north of Moscow, on the "Golden Ring". We'll be gone from Thursday morning through Sunday evening.

Getting the tickets (and even the destination) has been a bit of an adventure in itself.

The main problem was to find a travel agent who spoke enough English, since our Russian still isn't up to complex tasks like planning a trip. We'd already talked to a couple of small travel agent kiosks, enough to realize they weren't going to do.

The other choice is Intourist, the Russian national travel company. Last week we had stopped at an Intourist branch office in Dyetsky Mir [Kid's World -- a huge department store of toy, clothing etc. stores] and talked to a nice lady whose English was 100x better than our Russian. But she told us that we would need to see the main office, next to the National Hotel.

So we went there last Saturday. This involved taking a Metro line we'd never been on before, stopping at Ohotny Ryad. The trains and stations on this line seemed a lot dirtier than the others we'd been on. The underground passageways at the destination were a complete mess -- under construction. (But then, most of Moscow seems to be under construction...) The exit in our direction was closed; a few bold people were going out the entrance doors ("Vihada nyet!"); we settled for the long way around. A group of string players were playing classical music (I think Vivaldi), with a small crowd listening; we had to hurry by because we didn't know when Intourist closed.

At Intourist, we talked to a nice 40ish man whose English was passable. What we really wanted was a home stay or Bed-and-Breakfast place in Klin (birthplace of Tchaikovsky) or Borodino (required stop on the itinerary of World Dictators: both Napoleon and Hitler fought battles there).

Well, Intourist "used to do" home stays, and didn't understand "Bed-and- Breakfast" ("of course you get breakfast with your hotel stay..."). Oh well. Anyway, he couldn't really help us then, we should come back during the week -- and maybe they could even arrange a home stay.

After that we detoured up Tverskya Ulitsa, looking for a post office. Everyone we asked said that the Central Telegraph Office was nearby. We never did find it, even after triangulating the directions they'd pointed. Maybe it was the huge building completely covered in scaffolding, that looked closed.

Across the street we found the Danone Store. It really was a whole store filled with Danone (Dannon) products: mostly various sorts of yogurt, plus some baby food products and yogurt bars. Prices were surprisingly reasonable (2000 roubles = ~35 cents for a 150g. plain yogurt, 2400 roubles = ~41 cents for flavored); we bought a bag full.

Then we hurried over to Red Square (past the string ensemble, who were packing up), to the GUM department store, to buy a matching spool of thread for Sandy's embroidery project. We had to fend off a self-appointed Tour Guide who really wanted to show us everything about Red Square for half an hour -- we never did find out what trifling sum this would have cost... On the way back to the Metro we got some ice cream, then a Xot Dog & some kartoffel fries (ice cream first, so we wouldn't spoil our appetites :-).

Monday -- back to Intourist. A group of Loud Obnoxious Americans were in front of us in line. They were astonished to hear that we were staying here for 5 months. Had we been to the Arbat yet? Would they be able to buy Matroshkas there? They had already bought dozens -- none of their friend's kids had toys like that ...

Our turn in line. This time they looked at us completely blankly when we mentioned home stay, and were generally unhelpful. We finally gave up and went back to Dyetksy Mir and the helpful lady. On the way we listened to the string ensemble for a while. First they did a septet [1-base 1-cello 1-viola 4-violin] version of something that I *think* was Bach; then two of the violins took a break and they did a quintet version of something that I didn't recognize at all. We tossed them a 5000-rouble note.

Walked over to Dyetsky Mir. The lady was helpful again, making lots of phone calls, but she finally had to advise us to give up on the idea of home stay. Maybe we would like to stay in a hotel in some smaller town? Unfortunately, Klin and Borodino were too small, Intourist didn't have any contacts there. Would be like to visit Yaroslavl instead?

Argh. I guess We Would Like To Visit Yaroslavl Instead. We're not sure what we'll find there, besides "historical museums" and "a typical Russian town". But at least we will be out of the Big City for a while.

Ok, so we were told to call the main office on Tuesday afternoon, to see whether everything was ready. All we had to do was read them our 4-digit reference number [in Russian] and they would say "OK" or not.

From Dyetsky Mir we decided to walk over to a nice cafe we'd found last week, and maybe try to find the English bookstore that was supposed to be in the area. So we got to where this English bookstore was supposed to be, and the darn place only had about three books in English, besides Russian/English dictionaries and English textbooks for Russians. We were disheartened, until we noticed that the place we were looking for was next door. A whole store full of English! Wow! What a relief! One whole wall of Penguin and Wordsworth Classics, at really reasonable prices (I got Don Quixote -- English translation of course -- for $2.20). On the other walls were art books, translated Russian classics, and small sections of various genres -- westerns, mysteries, science fiction, best seller fiction -- all at outrageous prices. Typical paperbacks were $10-$18. We escaped with 5 books for 100,000 roubles ($17.25).

[By the way, almost all restaurants, and many other places, quote prices in dollars, but you must pay in roubles. According to ``Where Moscow'' magazine, "Sometimes prices are indicated in 'y.e.' (which means 'conventional units' and is equal to USD)."]

It was coming up on rent time, so I was pleased to find an ATM that dispensed dollars. In fact, when we tried to get some roubles (we were almost broke), it said it was out and suggested we try dollars! It had a $200 limit, but didn't mind when I took $200 out three times in a row (exceeding my $500/day limit with the bank -- I hope they don't hit me with some nasty charge). Next we waited about 10 minutes in line at a money changer's window, in a nasty hot cellar under a bar. I was so tempted to try to do a direct exchange with the woman in front of me, who had a handful of roubles; but it would have saved me less than a dollar, and I didn't want to get in trouble with the law. So we waited. The exchange rate at that moment was 5750:1 for buying roubles, and 5850:1 for buying dollars.

Up on the street, we bought a newspaper-funnel of roasted hazelnuts and this funny candy thing from a babushka. She was very pleased to say "Thanks" to us in English. The candy thing is a string of hazelnuts, dipped several times into a light coating similar to melted gummi bears.

Finally arriving at the cafe, we sat for a while reading the Moscow eXile, "Moscow's Only Alternative [Newspaper]". Several other customers were also reading the eXile -- apparently a great favorite among both English-speaking expatriates and snooty almost-English-speaking New Russians.

Tuesday afternoon: all we had to do was read them our 4-digit reference number and they would say "OK" or not. Hah. Actually, they asked us lots of questions and had to dig up someone who spoke English, to explain to us that the hotel was all set up, and the train tickets there, but they were having trouble with the return tickets. Call back Wednesday afternoon.

Weds. afternoon: they still didn't understand my reading of the numbers, dug up their English person. Tickets all ready, come on down. We did. By now they'd completely rearranged the mess at the Metro station; now everyone was going in the out door, instead of vice versa. We followed a small trickle of bold miscreants who were actually going *out* the out door.

At Intourist, the ticketing ceremony seemed fairly complex -- run the credit card, call in to a credit card office and talk to a human about whether we were good for it, fill out this and that, let me have your passports for a while, fool around for a while in the other room [is Interpol looking for these people? CIA? KGB? XYZ?] ... fortunately, *we* didn't really have to do anything except sign the credit card slip. They did all the paper shuffling. We were eventually given a credit card receipt, a hotel voucher, two sets of train ticket vouchers, two sets of "bed linen" vouchers for the train [I'm not sure what for -- we bought 2nd class `hard seat' tickets], and an overall receipt for the whole mess.

Now there's just one more thing to wrap up, besides packing. Our rent is due the 23rd. I called our landlord this evening and told him we wanted to pay rent early. Hopefully he'll actually show up tomorrow at 10am, like he said he would, because we've got to be out of here no later than 11...

Stories & pictures when we return. (We've loaded lots of pictures into the laptop, but haven't got the web page framework far enough to actually release it for testing...)


All text and pictures copyright 1997 Sandy and Bela Lubkin, all rights reserved.