All weekend I sat in miserable 40C heat dreaming of Russian winter, of the sound of snow crunching beneath my boots, and the endless white landscapes. Today my February trip comes full circle, the final post from my most interesting journey to date. I put off writing this post for a long time. For me, it's very sad to close the loop on my Russian adventure. Many times during the trip I felt like the man in this photo, alone and deep in contemplation about the sites and people around me. Like some lone stranger, walking the streets of a very unfamiliar and strange country. Many curiosities and questions remain. I'll continue to write about them, but now let's walk the snowy paths of ancient Novgorod.
1. Before we begin, it's necessary to reflect a bit on the journey to Novgorod. I already wrote about the horrible road that carried us from Moscow to St. Petersburg in my first post. After many hours driving the route, we made a quick stop in the small village of Krestsy. Here also another world! Old women sitting on the side of the road in the bitter cold selling food, drinks and other items. But most interesting are the tiny huts off the beaten path, with their steaming kettles and tasty treats.
2. How many Americans have stopped at one of these roadside shacks? I doubt many, and I'm grateful for the experience. Several women gave me the typical shrug, cold stare and "NO!" when they saw my camera. However, this kind lady was an exception. I'll never forget her gentle spirit or smile. She spoke no English, but waved me into her hut and fed me a delicious apple turnover. See the light in her eyes? The eyes are the true windows to a person's soul - either signs of hope and life, or complete defeat and hopelessness. In most provinces I traveled through, the latter was the norm.
3. Russian dog! You will never see cats in this blog. Dog lover 100% percent.
4. Miles and miles of desolation and sunken homes, but here signs of life. Homes in this area were in better condition, yet no escape from the ever present fences. I have only one mobile pic to capture the scene.
5. We walked through Novgorod with two local journalists. I will not go into a detailed explanation of the history of Novgorod because readers know it much better than me, and should feel free to share interesting facts in the comments. The iconic staple of the city is the old Kremlin and its many towers. In winter, it's difficult to appreciate the full splendor because moats and other nuances are completely covered in snow.
6. St. Sophia Cathedral is visible from most points and is pleasing to the eye with its colorful domes. However, not as colorful as her fellow namesake St. Sophia in Kyiv, which I also visited.
7. Church of St. Stratilata, dating back to the 14th Century. The location seems a bit out of place. Who can tell me more about this tiny church? Detailed English language information is pretty much non-existent.
8. The city as a whole is scenic, with an extremely large number of churches in a condensed space. More churches here than any other Russian city I visited.
9. I'll talk about the great pedestrian bridge later. However, again the love locks I admire. :) Not as many on this bridge, but still interesting to read the names and wonder whether the love and commitment of these couples still endures.
10. This artistic statue sits right by the pedestrian bridge, with the Volkhov River as a backdrop. Very life like and known by the simple name "Tourist Girl." I read it's common for tourists to drop coins in the girl's shoes for good luck/happiness, but I didn't know this during my visit. I'm a real sucker for these superstitions and would have contributed to the pile.
11. The most fascinating thing to me in any country - local people. The way they look, the way they interact with one another and, most importantly, the way they treat outsiders. You can't judge an entire nation by the actions of a few, but in Russia it's sort of a herd mentality. A general distrust of strangers, which is not typical in America. It's merely an observation, not a reflection on the superiority of one country over the other. You will never understand the difference until you've walked the streets of both countries.
12. Young children, of course, the most innocent and precious things on earth. Not yet infected with media-drilled stereotypes and trusting of others, until their parents give them a reason to fear or hate.
13. Russians - they have a distinctive look. I can easily spot them in the States and abroad. How can you tell whether someone is American? I believe this is a much harder task given that we are the melting pot of the world, with every race and nationality blended into society. Very soon whites will be the minority in America. Cause for alarm? Not in my mind.
14. The perseverance of the elderly in Russia constantly amazed me. Here a frail old lady navigating the snowy paths alone, with complete ease. Accustomed to walking on slippery slopes since childhood, while I struggled to stay afoot on many occasions.
15. Novgorod has very modern buses, even resembling the public transport buses of Washington, DC. Yes, the antiquated buses in some of the provinces shocked me. Like something from another century.
16. It was in Novgorod that I had another adventure - my first ride in a Russian car! :) Four people crammed into a 2004 Jigulee. I wish I had a photo but this image remains framed in my memory. In the Jigulee we rode through this neighborhood about 15 minutes outside city center. Special thanks to Alexander Frolov for the ride!
17. This abandoned church sits in the middle of the neighborhood in Rakomo. What happened? Locals have several theories. First, that a bomb destroyed the church during World War II. The city of Novgorod was almost completely destroyed during the war, but now fully restored. The second theory is that lightning struck, causing an initial collapse that was never repaired.
18. The cross is still in perfect form. Kind of eerie, the photos displayed underneath. I don't know who the people are, or the significance of the remaining photos.
19. I'll end with the pedestrian bridge in Novgorod, a symbolic figure for me. Many of you came to me after seeing my first Russian post in Top LJ, where I was critical of the country. I don't regret or take back one word in that post. I'm an open minded and reasonable person. I don't judge people based on ethnicity, but rather on the behaviors I see with my own eyes. On the words I hear with my own ears. I've written a lot of opinions and thoughts on Russia, both good and bad. I continue to believe it's a xenophobic nation, yet a fascinating country to which I'll definitely return.
The purpose of my blog will remain the same - to help bridge cultural gaps, to help us better understand one another and the similarities and differences in our nations and mentalities. In the end, we're all human with the same desires for love, acceptance and happiness throughout life. However, the manner in which we live and interact with others is very different.
Readers continually explain to me the root of Russian mentality - the constant oppression and wars throughout history. I understand the foundation for the mentality, but hope for change. I hope those who aren't satisfied with recent events continue to protest, continue to shout until their voices are heard. You can call me a naive American for making this statement, but no change comes from sitting on your ass complaining about the past. My country is living proof of this. A place where gays fought for their rights through protests and in courts, and are now moving toward full equality. Where blacks marched for civil rights, shifting America's conscience.
There's one thing I'll never understand, in my country or any other - radicals/fanatics with no tolerance for divergent viewpoints or lifestyles. I'm afraid this is your current regime, silencing people through laws or jail sentences. A regime that allows people to openly profess faith, yet criminalizes those who "insult" religious feelings. I could never live in such a country, in the same way many of you could never live in America. I don't claim America is a perfect country - far from it. At some point, I'll write a post outlining what I believe are the most pressing problems of my nation. But now I'm writing about Russia. About a place with a very tortured and complex history, deeply entrenched in the neuroses of its citizens. A truly intriguing country and people, unlike any other I've encountered.
Thanks to all for reading! Soon, another travel announcement. :)