Exploring East Russia – A Trip That Changed My Life

In the spring of 1991, about twenty passengers, including myself, flew into Alaska to board an AN24, a small Russian fixed wing aircraft that was to take us from Anchorage to Sakhalin Island. The passengers were a combination of businessmen, some governmental types who would not say who they represented or what their reasons were to go to Russia and some would be investors. At the airport we waited anxiously while the organizer of the trip was in touch by phone with Russia. At about 5:00pm we were advised that the flight would not arrive until the next morning. The next day the plane arrived. Having never really seen a Russian plane before, we were entirely astonished.  https://findlocality.in/

This was what we would be flying on? There were about 30 seats, side by side in a plane that looked to be blunt, past its time. The seats themselves were thin and utterly uncomfortable. There was no space for our luggage, other than the back of the plane. The toilet was unspeakably filthy. And yet, we were excited! That tells you what happens to people who love adventure in all shapes and forms. There was no kitchen, but there were cookies and sandwiches for the first leg which would take us to Magadan. The seats folded down and since there were not a whole lot of us, we spread out. And after some ridiculously long scrutiny of paperwork, there we went. Because the plane was small and it could not take fuel in the US (the type of fuel used in Russia at the time was different), we had to stop in Anadyr. We had been cautioned not to be overly curious but ask that of a crowd who though all of this was terribly exciting. We were surrounded by soldiers, who seemed entirely too young for this duty, wearing stiff long green coats who were not overly friendly. We tried to step out of the plane but that was nixed immediately. However instead of taking this as a negative, it gave us more energy, knowing that what we would experience would certainly be different.

Magadan appeared only a few hours later, still nestled in layers of snow. We were supposed to take on a new crew and go through customs and immigration. We were cautioned again not to be overly friendly and to put cigarettes and chocolate on top of the clothing in our suitcases. So that if a bribe was necessary it could easily be accommodated. Se we filed in as serious as we could be to face immigration and customs. They were friendly and we did not have any problems with them. However, they told us the crew was not there and they had tried to get a hold of them. We were told to wait and that we did, hour after hour. The evening turned into night and there we were all twenty of us, trying to sleep on wooden benches as well as the floor. We really got to know each other intimately, right there and then. The morning brought our missing flight crew, where they had been no one knew, or perhaps they did not want us to know. We boarded the plane and this time flew right on to Sakhalin Island, our destination.

We were welcomed by the governor’s representative who took us in a small bus, which obviously had been used on rough roads, to our hotel. While others went on to meet with the governor, one of the women on the plane, who had expressed an interest in tourism development and I were dropped off at our hotel which was called “Lada”. The hotel, we would later realize, was typical Russian. Largely build of brick, with one elevator, which was not working at the time, it offered small rooms with a TV and a bathroom with a large bath but no hot water. My window looked out on the nearby park, which at that time, showed us trees and flowers, their buds almost ready to flower.

Others went to a meeting with the governor, one of the big deals being discussed the building of a potential ski resort in the nearby mountains, in the vicinity of the center of town. Sakhalin had previously been used as the training ground for Olympic skiers. A company from Colorado had sent their representative along to investigate the opportunity. When they returned, we all went down to dinner in the restaurant which was full of people to enjoy our first Russian meal. As usual, I was the most difficult one to please, because I do not eat meat and so I ended up with a plate full of delicious tomatoes covered with doles of mayonnaise and eggs and a red cabbage salad. Others tried mostly Russian potato dumplings with meat. The coffee was absolutely terrible so we decided to just drink tea. That evening out of curiosity I went downstairs as I heard pounding music and watched the restaurant come to life. Everyone was dancing including I as I was totally enchanted. I stayed not long though because we had not slept well over the last few days and I could barely keep my eyes open. While leaving a man spoke to me in English and asked me how I liked the music, I said it was great and realized later on I was talking to the governor.

The next morning I walked into the park, and surprisingly it was snowing. And even more astonishing, I saw a man streak by, dressed only in his tiny swim suit racing along the lake. This was something, I observed often in the next couple of years. Even skiers when the sun is out, wear only the European types of swim suits covering only the most essential part of their bodies.

Finally we would be shown the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Not much to write home about except for the market place with which I have always been fascinated. Here the woman selling wonderful, polished fruit and vegetables were Korean. They sold it mostly out of empty baby carriages in which they displayed their food products beautifully. All vegetables and fruit at that time were mostly grown around dachas, and tasted great, specifically the tomatoes. This I was told because they did not use pesticides in Russia.

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