Novosibirsk – The Party Begins

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Lenin, Takoi Maladoi

Lenin, Takoi Maladoi

In the morning we each demolish a noodle bowl and then line the windows in the corridor of the wagon to watch the scenery change as we enter the city.  Yulia and I exchange a few messages as she explains where to meet.  We exit the train and stand waiting, wondering how we will spot her.  Soon we see a vast, bright smile underneath a pair of huge sunglasses leading a curvaceous Russian woman up the stairs.  She is a bundle of endless energy and has us organised and through the station in record time.  Her short blonde hair gives way to a child like freckled face that never sits still for long; this is Vortex Yulia.  She manages to talk us through the city streets constantly, even noting that everyone says she talks a lot, but she still enjoys it since we’re so quiet.  We are all enjoying the flood of information about the streets, the city, herself, her family and are too dazed at first to respond.

“How do you like the way Russian girls dress so slutty?”
She says it as a matter-of-fact statement and she is commenting on a few women we’ve just passed.  The three of us burst out laughing with her bare honesty, it’s a very Australian way of speaking, and Don and I admit that we love the Russian women.
“There’s been more than one occasion where the two of us have been following cute women down a street and Lari has been following, thinking we actually know where we’re going”, I explain.
Lari discovers this for the first time too and she disowns us immediately.
“You’re just typical bloody men”, she exclaims.
Somehow she manages to smile while pouting.  She and Yulia laugh together as Don and I strut down the street grabbing our crotches and leering randomly.  Who are we to disagree with two beautiful women?
“Yulia, I think I’ve fallen deeply in lust at least five times a day since I’ve been here in Russia”, Don admits.
“You’re counting?”
“Yes.  At least two of those could probably be love.”
I’m busy watching a girl stroll bouncily past us.
“I think that’s my second for today”, I announce.
I go on to explain my theory about Russian women and their love affair with personal photography.  She looks thoughtful for a moment and then admits that she and all her friends have exactly the same portfolio going.  She adds that she made her father take pictures of her in her bikini at the lake near their dacha a few weeks ago, so she would have some new ones in her collection.  We smile and talk about our experiences in the first three cities, when we get a chance to speak at all amidst the Yulia vortex.  She is still busy trying to get us oriented in the city and is pointing at a succession of landmarks and street names and making us repeat them back to her.  We are on the way to her friend’s apartment first, which is where Don will stay.

Yana, her best friend, is also an English teacher and had joined the Couchsurfing site after agreeing to help host us.  Yana is at work, so Vortex Yulia is just taking us there to drop off luggage.  When we reach the door, Yulia produces a key and wrestles with it for a minute, unable to open the door.  She looks frustrated, then turns to us and says by way of explanation,
“This really is the right key, I’m not breaking in here you know!”
We laugh and I offer to kick down the door if it will make her job easier.  As she’s considering that option, the key turns and we enter the small apartment.  Don puts Nastya the Tree in the kitchen window where she can get some sunlight on her leaves and gives her a little water.  He grabs his small backpack and announces he’s ready to continue the Novosibirsk adventure.

We head into the street with more of Vortex Yulia’s directions on landmarks and street names flowing straight through my head for the fifteen minute walk to her house.  I’m enjoying the parkland and open, wide streets we are drifting along.  It’s still early Friday afternoon and people aren’t hurried or appearing bothered by anything.  Vortex Yulia’s family are finishing the renovation of their large apartment and painters and builders are scurrying around as we find a place for our bags.  A rhythmic pounding sound announces the arrival of ‘Sharon Stone’, their new sausage dog.
“You can’t touch her until you wash your hands”, she advises, “she will have her shots next week so it will be alright then, but we have to be careful.  She’s only a little puppy.”
Yulia then washes her hands to play with Sharon as we prepare to leave again.
“Why Sharon Stone?”, I ask as she scratches Sharon’s little head.
“Because she likes to lie on her back with her legs wide apart like this”, she answers.
Sharon does indeed seem completely content to lie back with legs akimbo.  I laugh at the disturbingly appropriate name and we leave, enjoying being inside Vortex Yulia’s whirlwind of energy as she takes us for a walk through the centre of the city.
“You must beware of speaking English too much and too loudly in public.  It will probably be alright, but there is a common thought that all foreigners are very rich, so they will try to bring you away from the street to take your money”, she warns us.  “So if you have to speak English, try to do it near police or somewhere open and large like Lenin’s Square”, she adds loudly.
In English.  In public.  And still some distance from Lenin’s square.

Vortex Yulia - In a quiet moment

Vortex Yulia - In a quiet moment

We’d all heard about troubles with this, but it was curious to hear a local confirm it – and somehow reassuring as well.  She wants to show us the famous Opera and Ballet theatre there.  It is the largest in Russia, bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it’s also known as the ‘Siberian Coliseum” and is one of the largest theatres in the world.  This completely fails to explain why it is closed for summer.  I suppose if you visit Russia in the summer, you don’t really want to be inside all the time, but a show in a theatre like this would be worthwhile anytime.  It opens onto Lenin square with the standard statue of Lenin overlooking the city; this one looking particularly windswept and interesting.  There are three statues of soldiers standing together to one side of him and statues of a married farming couple on the other side.  The couple each have one hand in the air giving the impression they are guiding a plane in to land on Lenin’s head.  We look around for a statue of a plane heading in to land and can’t find it, so we ask Vortex Yulia where it is.  She laughs, looks thoughtful and says,
“It’s being renovated at the moment…like half the city.”
On our long walk from the train station we had already noticed there is plenty of building activity in Novosibirsk – this trend continues across the country.

We spend the afternoon drifting in Vortex Yulia’s wake and resting before the fun that had been arranged for that evening.  She explains she has spent a few years living in London, but also returned home more recently after breaking up with her long term boyfriend.  She also has Russian Jewish heritage and plans to visit Israel in the next year or two.  On the day before the eclipse she will have an examination on English, which, if she passes, will rate her as a native speaker for the purposes of her teaching career.  This means a pay rise and that she will get to do more work for the corporate customers teaching conversational English.  She routinely stops to ask our opinion on sentence structures and how we would say something in English.  She has a particular way of building sentences that we all naturally love; they’re always bluntly honest and direct, informative and open and, most amazingly; incredibly Australian.
“You know I love platypuses!”  She announces.
“I think the plural is platypi”, I correct her.
“Are you sure it isn’t platypus?”, Lari pipes in.
“Now you mention it, you could be right”, I accept.
Vortex Yulia is looking quite confused by all of that so she adds,
“Have you seen one? Do you get them in your yard or something?”
“No, I’ve never seen one in the wild, it’s very rare and unusual to do that”
“I’ve seen one in the wild”, Don says in regal tones.
“Melbourne zoo is not the wild Don”, I correct him with a smile.
“Nah, I saw one out in Victoria camping somewhere near a creek.  I was sitting on the shoreline and it popped up and swam by”
“Okay so nobody except freaks like Don see them in the wild”
“I’ve seen one too”, Lari adds thoughtfully.
“I’m surrounded by freaks!”  I yell, throwing my hands above my head and running off.

Vortex Yulia later asks what we plan to see and do in the week before the eclipse happens and the three of us look at each other vaguely.  I try to summarise my thinking on the topic,
“We want to get on the river for a boat trip at some point, see the Ob Sea, find the best place to see the eclipse and maybe visit the Altai area or at least Barnaul.”
She nods and continues,
“You know the Ob Sea isn’t really a sea? Well it is, but we made it, it’s for the dam where they make electricity.  You have to go see the zoo while you’re here, there’s a liger! It was born here a couple of years ago and it’s really great and so is the zoo!”  The three of us look at each other and agree a liger sounds like something unique that’s worth seeing.
“It’s mother is a tiger, it’s father is a lion…I don’t know how they got them to mate, maybe they get them both drunk and put on the right music.”
We laugh and I suggest,
“Of course, I think that’s how breeding programs work all over the world.  It’s not just humans that like nightclubs you know!”
I ponder the thought of bored Russian zookeepers trying to dress animals provocatively for their breeding programs and wonder if we’ll be able to watch that in action.  Artificial insemination doesn’t seem such a brilliant option next to this.  They could make a reality TV show about it, putting dumb animals together in a zoo-like environment and seeing if they will breed.  Then I remember that show featuring humans has already been on TV around the world for years.

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