“You must really hate this job.” That’s what my boss said when I told him I was moving from San Diego to Siberia for a year. In reality, I was bored and looking for something that would be completely and utterly new. Whether it was sunstroke or a developing tolerance to margaritas, San Diego just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Heck, I hadn’t even gone to the beach in nine months and it was only a few blocks away. Time to rediscover a zest for life.
As you are doing now, I trolled the Internet looking for that rare opportunity that would renew my vigor and let me brag to my domesticated friends. Pick coffee in the South Pacific? No, I already drink too much of it. Sail around the world on a container ship? No, I wasn’t ready for involuntary self-reflection. Before I knew it, I had agreed to move to a city in Siberia known as Chita. Yes, I was going to be a professor at Chita State Technical University through a program put together by Siberian Intercultural Bridges. Donate – they need the money.
So, what does one take for a one-year stay in Siberia? Why, I’ll just go buy a guidebook on Siberia and read the ‘what to take’ section. My search of the local mega bookstore was disappointing. Shockingly, there were no guidebooks for Siberia. I was tempted to write a nasty letter to Lonely Planet and others until the bookstore clerk said, “You’re going WHERE?” When she started giving me the “you must be a criminal on the run” look, it was time to go.
Fortunately, I was able to find experienced travelers that could provide me with the details and items that were absolutely necessary. My girlfriend gave me the all-important electric blanket, a power converter and intimate details about what would happen to me if I should dare share it with another women. Grandpa gave me a World War II down coat that was about three sizes to big and made me look like a walking gopher. Family, friends and random strangers contributed further items and advice that would be critical to my survival.
Apparently rating my chances of survival at 50-50, friends and family put together a going away/never see him again party the day before I left. Of course, everyone brought Vodka as a humorous going away gift. The tide quickly turned, however, as all were asked/forced to try a “taste of Russia.” Many of the events of that night will remain forever sealed in antiquity, but it should suffice to say that the wife of one friend went into labor which made it a very fun night and subsequent day for him at the hospital. Few got off so easily. Gigantic backpack, electric blanket, hangover and I headed to the airport the next morning.
Standing in the airport in San Diego, I began to wonder exactly how long it was going to take to get to the city of Chita in Siberia. The combination of a vodka hangover, three flights, one train ride and a jump over the international date line didn’t help. At first glance, it looked like a total of two days, which wasn’t bad for going to the other side of the earth.
I should have paid more attention in math.
The itinerary for getting from San Diego to Chita read like this:
1. Fly from San Diego to Seattle.
2. Meet charity representative and other professor.
3. Fly from Seattle to Anchorage.
4. Fly from Anchorage on Aeroflot [gulp] to Khabarovsk, Russia.
5. Take train from Khabarovsk to Chita.
How bad could it be? Very, very, very bad. Did I mention “bad”?
The flight to Seattle was no problem. I met Tom Dickinson, the founder of Siberian Intercultural Bridges, but we couldn’t find the other teacher. Turns out the flight to Anchorage wasn’t till the next morning, so it didn’t really appear to be a problem. Around midnight, our attitude changed and we had written off the teacher.
At 8 a.m., Grea Waters from Kentucky appears out of the Seattle mist. We have our second professor and he speaks fluent Russian. This is a big relief as I had spent a lot of the previous evening contemplating my Russian skills. That is to say, I had none. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of city we would land in, Khabarovsk. I nearly had a panic attack during the night when I bolted up in bed upon the realization that I would have no way of knowing how to get to the train or when to get off. You see, the Russian language is based on the Cyrillic alphabet. There is no way to wing the Cyrillic alphabet. For example, the letter “y” is pronounced “ch” as in Charlie. I was in definite trouble. Would the rest of my life be spent riding around aimlessly on trains? The continued grinning of Tom Dickinson didn’t make me feel any better.
Our flight from Seattle to Anchorage was uneventful. Yes, we flew Alaska Airlines. While waiting for our connection in Anchorage, two thoughts kept running though my head. First, isn’t Aeroflot the airline with all the crashes? Second, how did a man from Kentucky become fluent in Russian? I mean, what about his accent? I was feeling less confident about my translator and decided to investigate. I started rubbing my temples when he told me that he had never been to Russia.
Alas, there was no turning back. Trust me, I tried.
To be continued…
Rick Chapo is with Nomad Journals – makers of small, compact travel journals, hiking journals, rock climbing journals, fly fishing journals, bird watching journals and more. Record in detail special moments of your adventures so they don’t fade away with time.