Monday, June 3, 2013

June 3 2013: Planes, Trains, Boats, and now Automobiles

Hotel, rail, and cruise ship staff on this trip all assume that Kostya and I are brothers because we look so alike. Because he and Olga have the same last name, they have repeatedly been assigned to a room together, presumptively as husband and wife, and Dania and I together as 'the foreigners', not noticing that Dania speaks perfect native Russian. No amount of explaining in advance will stop this oversight until the staff visually sees us going into each other's rooms, then they suddenly realize their mistake and have to contact the Kremlin in Moscow to adjust the recorded room inhabitants (I'm not kidding!)

Getting some farm fresh "live" milk on our way out of Samara

The only thing I knew about Samara going into this trip, other than that it is the name of a tank-like Soviet car, is that it has been plagued the past few years by massive sinkholes. The London Daily Mail astutely states that Samara is being eaten alive (click here for amazing photos)!

Roadside picnic: Samara bread, avocado,
strawberries, instant coffee, fresh local milk

Photo mashup: sinkhole last week, patched up today.

We scoured recent news and blogosphere to find the site of the most recent sinkhole, and off we went! What we found was that, sometime between May 27 and June 3, the city patched up the awesome hole. What is causing Samara to crumble into the core of the Earth? There is no shortage of theories: The region is known for natural resource extraction which causes underground caverns; Leaky hot water pipes - in Soviet days, most cities centrally heated their water centrally in each neighborhood and dispersed hot water from there to ugly Stalin-style apartment buildings - hot water pipes corrode much quicker than cold water pipes - and they are all reaching the perfect age for leakage; One person even suggested that Swiss "Scientists sent rockets into the core of the earth to see if they could re-create the big bang" and this is the side-effect (I believe she was referring to CERN). Whatever is causing this, it is fascinating to watch. I hope the city starts taking some proactive measures before the entire town is gobbled up!

Dania pulling us into a parking spot

After picking up a rental car, documenting the sinkhole, and even driving back over the repaved section (it's probably the safest section of street in Samara), we started our 460 Km (285 mile) roadtrip from Samara to Ufa. In the US, this would take, what, about 5-6 hours? We were on the road at noon and arrived in Ufa at midnight, with minimal stops. The entire trip was along the M5 highway. So what look so long?

Vendors selling local honey on the roadside
We must be in the Bashkiria region!

Endless roadwork for 460 Km

The Russian Steppe is beautiful with its majestic green rolling hills and blue violet skies. We did see one horse and buggy as we approached the Bashkiria region, famous for its history intertwined with that of horses (more on that tomorrow). The entire stretch of highway had three conditions - and I am not exaggerating - construction, rain, and ditches. Either you were driving through a ditch, stuck in bumper-to-bumper stopped traffic while a construction crew was repaving the section of road, or one of those two conditions with the added amusement of rain. The road trip was fun though, with us all taking turns driving, playing music, reading, enjoying the view of the Steppe, pontificating how a road trip across Russia is even possible (it is!), stopping 3 times to switch drivers and for coffee (all we could find was instant - and local custom is to serve it with sugar - so you have to request 'kofe bez sahar').

Olga trying to find anything open in Oktyabrsky
Completely light out at 9:45pm!

With about an hour left on our journey, we stopped in the town of Oktyabrsky looking for a real cup of coffee. Every single cafe in town was closed, seemingly at 7:45pm. It took us a couple beats to realize that we had jumped two time zones. Somewhere between Samara and Ufa, there's a bit of a wormhole that causes electronic clocks to jump two hours forward. Or perhaps we spontaneously simultaneously passed out for two hours - because we can't account for the time!

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