Monday, January 20, 2014

Ешь! И едешь в Шерегеш - Sheregesh

The view from the apartment. We came, and almost didn't manage to leave, on a bus.

Every day, when I would go to buy groceries in the local grocery store, универсам (Universal), an add would play over the store speakers. "Ешь, и едешь в Шерегеш!" I would translate this roughly as you eat, then you go to Sheregesh! Having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the grocery and having been wanting to go for a long time, I finally got my chance to experience the only ski resort anyone around here talks about.

The trip began with lugging WAY too much stuff half way across the city for an overnight bus. It's about a 7 hour drive to Sheregesh, and Russia doesn't exactly have the same sort of highway system that America can boast, so it's not exactly a smooth ride. The road winds and twists and is half covered in snow and ice.

Our first stop was a little rest stop. It was really just a bunch of little cafes and stores lining both sides of the highway, and they left you to fend for yourself to dodge the buses as you cross from one side to the other. One thing I've learned so far (and I keep learning again and again) is that Russia is a land of chaos. More on that later.

They also don't have very many bathrooms (note, Russian buses have no toilets at all) or quick service, so my friend, Zhenya, and I were almost left behind as were the last ones onto the bus. It would happen to be very foreshadowing of events to come...

As we left behind "Dear Old Auntie Anne's Cafe" (Старый добрый уют), we settled in to watch а Russian comedy "Love - Carrot" (Любовь - Марковь), which actually wasn't half bad. The basic plot is a husband and wife swap bodies through some mysterious therapy to save their marriage. As we watched, the group of girls behind us drank heavily, which for some reason I had thought about doing until watching them do it... not a bad idea. By about midnight everyone on the bus had fallen asleep.

Eventually, we made it to Sheregesh and into our little one room apartment on the fifth floor of an old Soviet apartment building with no elevator. The pitch black stairs made for a fun time getting to the mountain every morning in my ski boots, but hey, who said life should be easy? There was a decent view of some little houses/dachas at the back of the building, so at least there was that.

The first day on the mountain was pretty uneventful. It was cloudy, and we oriented ourselves about the mountain. But then, around 4 o'clock, a snow storm rolled in and it was almost impossible to see on the trail. I'd say I had about 20 feet of visibility at one point, and I was afraid we would get separated or end up on the wrong side of the mountain (hey, it's happened to me before in thick fog, right Scott? Didge?)

But we managed to get down the mountain, and the snow fell and fell and fell for the next 24 hours. There was already a lot of snow on the ground, but after and during this storm there were mountains of snow on every trail. They didn't bother grooming the trails while the snow fell, they just let everyone ski on the powder. So every trail turned into little, poorly carved mogul fields. I'd say the majority of the people on the mountain were beginners (hey, skiing is expensive and the mountains are far away in Russia) and I'm not exactly a mogul carver I self, so the day was mostly an exercise in watching people face plant into piles of puffy white powder (or face planting myself).

I guess I didn't realize all the powder skiing I would be doing, so I rented regular skis for the three days. But then I realized that (again, chaos) there are trails on this mountain, but you can really just go ahead and ski wherever the hell you want. So I spent most of the time in the woods, occasionally winding up in snow up to my waist.

Which was fun, because it didn't hurt to fall. But sometimes I would choose a path that would get the better of me. All of the sudden the trees would be dense and the grade steep, and I'd get a ski stuck under a snow drift and I'd go swimming in the snow. Which was usually fine, unless I lost a ski or a pole, because they would literally disappear without a trace into the snow. One time I had to pace back in forth over a 20 x 20 foot grid hoping I eventually kicked my pole. Fortunately, I did, and I started using the wrist straps.

Sometimes I would fall, and the weight of the snow made it impossible to lift my leg to stand back up. I would try to use my poles for leverage, but I couldn't push the pole deep enough to hit the ground, it just sank deeper and deeper into the snow whenever I put weight on it. I had a few close calls where I didn't know how I would get up again, or get back into my skis, but I always found a way.

The highlight of the trip was when we took a snowmobile ride from the top of the ski resort over to a nearby peak with a giant cross on top of it. The weather on the final day was perfect - sunny, calm, almost warm even. And let me tell you, Siberia looks pretty cool from 5,000 feet. We took pictures and walked around, and then I skied all the way down from the peak to the base of the ski area. I took a few dives into the powder while I was at it, and paused to take a few videos for you folks, wherever you may be. You can watch them on my Vkontakte or Facebook:

Or you can skip the videos and check out the pictures below:

After 3 days of skiing and 2 nights of drinking (including a 5 hour dance session at the club, Bunker), we were more than ready to head home. For one, all of our money was gone (and I still haven't gotten my cards since they were stolen on New Year's), secondly, our bodies were in a considerable amount of pain and fatigue.

We cleaned the apartment, packed, returned the keys, and arrived in plenty of time to catch our 22:00 bus. We were basically the first ones there. But there's a problem. We're not on the list.

You don't want to be not on the list in Russia.

We had a ticket that plainly said we were on the 22:00 bus to Novosibirsk, but somewhere in bureaucracy land they mixed up our reservation and put us on the 15:00 bus. Then they yelled at us for not answering the phone when they called us at 15:00 to tell us to get on the bus. At 15:00 we were on the mountain... what were we supposed to do, jump off the mountain into the bus?

So they unloaded our gear and I stood there freezing in the middle of the road, thinking that we were actually going to be stuck in Sheregesh. Again, we had about 1300 rubles between us ($40), which was not going to be enough for a 6 hours taxi ride. We watched as everyone loaded their gear and got on the bus. And we just waited and got more and more angry that the people who booked our places on the bus were doing nothing to help us, despite the fact that it was their mistake.

Finally... Finally, they told us that there was ONE free seat. I told them I wasn't against sitting on the floor if it meant I would be in Novosibirsk the next day, and they let us onto the bus.

You know, sitting on a crowded bus in a little seat is always kind of a cramped, uncomfortable experience. Think about your last long distance bus ride. Ok, now suspend a seat cushion above the aisle between two seats so you're sitting 5 people across with nowhere to move and no where to put your stuff, and with no seat back. Now sit, but don't sit back, and don't relax because Russia doesn't have actual roads - it's going to be a bumpy ride!

So we took turns in the fun seat, and everyone around us hated us for not getting on the 15:00 bus and taking up the extra space. Well EXCUSE me unforgiving Russian passengers.

It's funny, Russian's will treat you one of three ways. 1) They find out your a foreigner, and they're way nicer to you than anyone ever has been before because they want to impress you or they want  something from you, or maybe they just want to know if you have anything interesting to say. 2) They treat you with complete indifference. This is how they usually treat each other. 3) They make it plainly clear how big of an inconvenience you are in their life. You don't speak Russian? You don't know how to behave? You don't know how to get things done in Russia? Get out of my way.

More generally, if you mess up in Russia, or Russians think that you messed up, Russians will flat out tell you, and it will not be polite. There's not much sympathy to be found here.

So after a long night where we each took turns in the "fun seat" we arrived in Novosibirsk. At least we didn't spend the night sleeping on the street in Sheregesh.

Despite the slightly terrifying ending, I loved my trip to Sheregesh, and I'm already thinking about going back.   

Ok, now seriously, if you've actually read this far go ahead and check out the photos for crying out loud!

A storm is coming

Just a casual drink out of a USSR flask at the top of the highest peak

I, Crusader

No words

Does skiing get better than this?

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