Recently, Russia has shot into the headlines by hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in the southern city of Sochi, and it's no secret that the publicity for this post-communist state has not been entirely positive. With news stories concerning poor accommodation facilities, countless numbers of stray dogs and questionable food, it has not been Russia's finest hour in the media.
Regardless of these shocking Olympic revelations, if anyone is asked about their ideas concerning Russia, "the motherland", you will no doubt be flooded with classic stereotypes such as heavy vodka consumption, the secret KGB police, Stalin, Russian dolls and Princess Anastasia. Having lived in Russia for three months, it can be said with confidence, that all of these stereotypes are completely correct. I have been studying the Russian language for nearly eight years, and have completed half of my year abroad living in a small city called Yaroslavl, situated three hundred kilometres east of the country's capital, Moscow. For twelve weeks, Russia became my home; a bizarre collection of elderly host mothers, bottles of vodka, practically inedible food and intimidating natives.
After arriving in Moscow, and travelling seven hours on a coach to Yaroslavl, an incredibly loud woman in a tracksuit came to collect me from the bus station. This woman was to be my host mother for the next twelve weeks. My first few days in her beige-themed Stalin-era flat were spent in my bedroom, in order to avoid this woman. However, despite her alarming cooking style, bizarre house rules, her tendency to drink large amounts of cognac and the terrifying possibility of finding her skinning a fish in the shower, my host mother's hospitality and caring nature soon came shining through the insanity. She is a fantastic example of the drastic transformation that can occur from the initial meeting with a native Russian, and truly getting to know them.
Russia's vast rail network, including the famous Trans-Siberian railway is impeccable. Trains arrive on the platform precisely to the second, and leave in exactly the same manner. The engulfing, suffocating scent of a Russian overnight train, is one that seems to be stuck in time. It is an aged smell of musty leather, pungent alcohol and homemade, lardy train snacks. The first battle is successfully navigating yourself and your luggage onto the correct wagon, as well as surviving the interrogation with the train conductor unscathed. The train conductors, 'provodneeks' are usually middle aged, severe Russian women who, for some baffling reason, dislike all people, especially foreigners. This showdown usually results in brash shouting concerning seats, bedlinen and 'tapochkee' (slippers, which are required to be worn on the train). Majority of Russian trains are battered, ancient pieces of soviet machinery, which would have been discarded long ago in the Western world. However, Russian 'babooshka mentality' has infected the nation, popularizing the proverb, 'if it's not broken, don't replace it'. Despite this, Russian train etiquette also has the ability to be extremely hospitable and caring; traditions include drinking shots of vodka, accompanied by snacks such as questionable fruit and intense-smelling slabs of meat, which are shared amongst the cabins of new acquaintances. In Russia, something as simple as a train journey is transformed into a diverse, cultural encounter.
Mother Russia may not be everyone's idea of a tranquil holiday destination, however, with a rich cultural history, astonishing architecture, and, if you give them a chance, an incredibly caring and welcoming population, Russia is a fantastic experience.