Russia - The Market

| Sunday, May 31, 2009
Shopping in Russia is a different experience than going to the local supermarket in America. Shopping is done in a few different ways and I will cover those over the next few days. To start off, I wanted to cover one of the funnest ways to shop in Russia as an American – the rionik.

A very non-busy day on the rionik.

In a lot of countries outside the United States there are similar outdoor markets where goods and food are sold right on the street. The rionik is just an outdoor market where lots of people come together to buy what they need. Rioniks in Russia vary in size and can serve a very specific purpose, such as only have shoes or boots, or can be a smorgasbord of anything and everything (I like to call these your outdoor Walmarts).

Most cities have one to two major rioniks (Moscow of course has lots that I don't know where to start counting), and are an exciting place to shop. The rioniks are open daily from about 7:30 until about 4:30. The rionik closes for a couple of holidays during the year and when the weather drops to -35 and below. During a recent trip to the rionik we purchased some food (halva for me), socks, and sunglasses. We checked out other clothing and looked for nailclippers as well but didn't buy any.

Shirts on the rionik

A walk down the rionik in Russia.

If you are looking for something of nice quality then the rionik isn't the place for you (I call it the outdoor Walmart for a good reason). However, if you are looking for a good deal then the rionik is definitely the place to go. You can usually get prices lowered down if you try to (however I have found that for some reason most natives don't try...Americans always do though). Maybe that is one of the reasons that I love the rionik so much is because if you want a sweet deal, then you can make it.

For example, when I was in Moscow a few years ago I was looking for some Matroshki dolls. Since Moscow is the best place to buy the dolls on the rionik or at the street vendors we started walking around. After visiting about 10 stands and having each one make some kind of offer, I finally made my final purchase of 10 matroshki for about $90. Considering the starting offer of $250 that they were asking for, I felt pretty good and I could probably sell the dolls for a pretty penny in the United States for them if I wanted.

One thing we never did though was to buy meat at the rionik. Let's just say that it looked scary enough that I never do. However, that's not to say that I don't eat the meat from the rionik because where I am staying now they normally buy their meat from there and so far I haven't gotten sick (keep my fingers crossed). Vegetables are super cheap during the summer season and you can usually get a kilogram of tomatoes for under $1 (that's under .50 cents a pound for fresh ripe tomatoes).

Meat inside on the rionik.

Fruits on the rionik.

Another shot of a row on the rionik.

Overall the rionik is a fun atmosphere and if you visit on the weekend then expect the crowd. If you plan on visiting Russia though, definitely make some time to visit a rionik while you're in the country in order to get a good taste of Russia.

Another video on the rionik.

Russia - Living Space

| Saturday, May 30, 2009
People who live in their apartments and homes either own or rent them. During the Soviet Union, the government owned everything including the homes and the land. While there were apartments before the Soviet Union, they were quite rare compared to the landscape now. Before the Soviet Union, most people lived in homes like the one pictured in my previous post. People built these homes and lived in them. However, the socialistic years brought about many changes. The government built the apartment buildings and replaced a lot of the regular homes. You were then given an apartment according to the number of people in your family and some other factors.

When the Soviet Union fell, people held on to their apartments and homes and thus most people own their apartments or homes where they live. In fact, most of them don't pay anything besides the standard utilities (water, gas, electricity, other) so they are quite fortunate in that sense. Prices to purchase an apartment in Russia are quite high. A one-room apartment in Moscow will cost you about $400,000 (I'll explain apartment sizes lower). For the younger generation they typically stay with their parents or rent because purchasing is almost not an option.

Having lived in America my whole life, I realize how spoiled I am when coming to Russia. I know that in Europe and other countries as well housing sizes are much smaller than the United States. Apartment sizes in Russia range from one-room to as large as five room (this is rare) and almost always have one bathroom (I am not sure I have been in an apartment with more than one bathroom in Russia). Houses are usually slightly larger, but the bathroom is usually seperate from the house so it gets nice and chilly in there during the winters :).

In the United States houses are measured by bedrooms. For example, we have a three-bedroom house in America. However, apartments/home sizes in Russia are measured by number of rooms. So, our house is a 7-room house in Russia (3-bedrooms and 4 living/dining rooms). Bathrooms and kitchens don't go into the room count. I am not sure how they'd count a garage...

Upon entering a typical Russian apartment, you will find a place to remove your coat or other outer garments as well as a place to take off your shoes and leave them at the front door (I have never been inside a Russian's living area where it is alright to wear your shoes). From there, you will typically be able to get to each room from the entrance or a hallway. Typically Russians live and sleep in the same room (which makes sense since most of the apartments are one to two rooms). This means that most rooms have large bookshelves and garderobes in each room to hold stuff. They put everything away and in closets every morning (blankets and all), so they need somewhere to put it.

An entrance to an apartment.

A standard bookshelf.

Another bookshelf.

My wife lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her Mother and Grandma. The three of them lived in one room and they rented out the second room to students (typically they had 3 students in the room). While this is usually more than people had in such a small place, it makes you realize how much you really have. If you have more rooms than you have people living in your house than you are almost always living in a larger space than Russians.

The bathroom in each apartment is typically split into two rooms. The bathroom is in one room and the bath and sink in the other room (this makes sense since there is almost always one bathroom per apartment). Typically the kitchen is pretty small and you will find a fridge and stove. Dishwashers are basically non-existent and if a washing machine is owned then it is typically in the kitchen. Microwaves are becoming much more common but usually food is reheated on the stove.

The typical Russian toilet/bathroom.

The separate washroom. The tubs are usually bigger than in America :).

A russian kitchen. The stove is new so it looks nice.

The fridge.

Most apartments will have a balcony. A lot of the balconies have been closed in with glass to make for extra space to store different things. They are too cold though to sleep in during the winter though.

A closed in balcony.

Another shot of the closed in balcony.

Apartments are heated by the water heater that is on the wall. You don't have any control over the temperature or when to turn it on or off. In the small homes, you typically are able to turn on or off the water (as long as the water is already running) to give yourself heat. The homes also usually have a wood burning stove to keep it warm for the icy winters. During the summers a fan is used to keep the air circulating. Central air is half a world away and air conditioners are also pretty rare.

An apartment heater behind the curtain.

The condition inside an apartment ranges pretty largely. A lot of people hang a rug on the wall to keep the warmth in. Walls and floors in a lot of the older apartment building is pretty bad unless the owner has done repairs (even then the repairs can sometimes be pretty “Russian”...meaning super glue and cement probably shouldn't be used together for redecorating).

I don't know if I could live in Russia in such a small area my whole life. I am sure I would be able to cope but I definitely have way too much junk and I like to keep my sleeping area pretty private and out of sight of people. I think that such living conditions force a person to better know their family (parents and grandparents since they typically share a room). After being in Russia though I am extremely grateful for the many blessings that I enjoy.

The biggest apartment I was ever in was 5 rooms. It was huge (probably smaller than our house now though). But the people who lived there were loaded which was obvious when we saw the beday in the bathroom. That was the one single time I ever saw anything on a level close to what a lot of people I know in America live in.

I found an interesting discussion on this forum about Russian apartments.

Russia - Domes and Scenery

| Friday, May 29, 2009
First impressions of a country and of new experiences often stay with a person for most of that person's life. I remember my first day in Russia like it was yesterday. There were so many new and different experiences and I could practically retell the whole day down to several small details. One of the experiences that I don't think I'll ever forget occurred on my first day in Russia. As we were driving from the airport to the city, we began coming into the city and I remember very clearly two huge buildings standing on the outskirts of the city. I think my mouth was hanging wide open at what I saw. The buildings were probably 15 stories high and looked like the following.

A look up at a large building in Russia.

These huge buildings are probably the first thing I think of whenever I think of Russia. These buildings are the apartment buildings that stand row after row all throughout the cities of Russia. Each apartment building ranges in size from 2 to 20 stories (maybe higher but I have never seen one that big) and have hundreds of apartments each. If there are 5 stories or less, no elevator for you, otherwise there is one that hopefully works. I know only a handful of people that don't live in an apartment in Russia as it is the way that most everyone lives. The domes (each building is called a dome) are made of metal and concrete (pretty much they are slabs of concrete stacked on top of each other).

Standard elevator inside a dome.

A typical dome has about 5 entrances (each one called a podiezd) and on each level, 3 to 6 apartments. Just for a general idea, the dome that we are in has 6 podiezds, 6 apartments per level and 9 levels. That is over 300 apartments in this building alone. Just from outside the front door of the podiezd, I can see at least 10 domes of the same size. 3000 apartments in site from where I stand just outside. Tomorrows post will be more about the apartments themselves, but that is a lot of people in a small amount of space.

The entrance to one of the podiezds. You need a key to get in, or dial on the dom-a-phone.

A look up the podiezd.

Don't expect any important mail.

The biggest problem with the domes is how beat up most of them are. Most of the buildings were building during the USSR period and have seen a lot since then. The buildings are very run down and from outside, you definitely get the feeling that you are in a third world country. The problem is that there really isn't enough people who would want to take care of the domes by painting and doing other repairs. I wouldn't want to either up on the 13th floor of a building. I don't blame anyone for that.

A beat down Russian dome.

A typical Russian dome.

However, the thing that I love about the domes is that they leave so much space for trees and other greenery. Just walking outside of your apartment building you will find more green beauty then in most places in the United States.

Later this evening we are going up to the top of the hill here in Penza, and we are going to look out over the city. There are two things that I am excited to see that truly define the landscape of Russia – the huge domes that cover the land and that are filled in by the beautiful greenery. Don't let the outward appearance of the domes make you think that this is a torn down country. It really is a wonderful place.

View of the beauty of Russia.

A couple other notes:

There are regular homes in Russia but they are even more beat down than the apartment buildings and the roads are all dirt. Imagine what it is like in those rainstorms. I've included a picture of the outside of one just for you to see.

The funniest description I heard of the dome was from my grandmother in law who called it the beehive.

A regular home with a dome behind.

Some more domes:

Favorite Time of Year

| Thursday, May 28, 2009
It's Russian children's favorite time of year...when they turn off the hot water (Mom doesn't make them take a shower). As for me, I'll boil my water up on the stove thanks :).

Russia - Roads and Sidewalks

Today's entry has to do with the roads and sidewalks of Russia. I think that the roads are probably one of the scariest places in Russia. The reason for this is because of how terribly Russians obey the laws of the road. When we flew in, we were picked up at the airport and drove through Moscow, fearing for our lives. I remember the same feeling when I came to Russia my very first time as well. I myself could never drive on the roads here because of how terribly people keep the laws. One thing I must say that is regardless of how badly the laws are kept and enforced on the road, Russian drivers are some of the very best I've ever seen. There are probably less accidents on the roads here then in the United States. It's hard to explain without experiencing for yourself, but before you get on the road in Russia, either be prepared to close your eyes or else have a tough stomach. Russians can fly down the road, weave in and out of cars and get within a few centimeters of other cars without even flinching. I definitely don't have the guts for it. Too bad I couldn't get a good video of it. Winter is just plain out scary...

Another reason that the roads are so scary is because of their terrible condition. The roads range from good condition to asking what in the world they were thinking. The roads have actually gotten a lot better since I was here a couple of years ago, so maybe they figured something out. All the same, the roads are extremely dirty. People liter without thinking twice and with the huge smoking problem here, there are cigarette butts all over. To go on top of all that, the roads are just plain dirty. Anya and I decided that this is because of the non-existent sewer system.

The first few days when we got here, it rained. Without the sewer system, the streets stop looking like streets and more like small streams. The water just kind of sits on the road however and doesn't go anywhere. When the water finally drys up, the dirt just stays on the road and the roads get super disgusting.

Russian street during a rainstorm.

The small driveway up to a Russian building.

As you can see in the second picture above, the driveway up to the homes is completely destroyed. This is what I usually think of when I think of the roads of Russia. So many of the roads and sidewalks are practically non-existent. They are often so beat up that they hardly resemble roads or sidewalks for that matter. When it rains or the snow melts it can be pretty tough to find a place to walk that isn't muddy or filled with water. No complaints from me though. This is what makes Russia such a unique place.

A typical Russian sidewalk.

Video of the sidewalk in Russia. (Sorry about the really bad quality)

Russian Transport

| Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Getting to and from the city is only the first part of the battle. Next up, you have to get around the city. Over the past couple of years a lot more cars have shown up on the streets of Russia with the big credit boom that was going on. However, there is one big problem for everyone with cars in Russia – parking. There is hardly anywhere to park for all of the cars that already are on the road so I don't expect everyone to own a car, like in the United States, anytime soon without a major rethinking of how cities are lain out.

That being the case, there are 3 primary modes of transportation that are in basically every city and used by everybody daily, 1 form of transportation that is in every city but used rarely, and 2 other forms of transportation that are less common but still fairly prevalent.

The first mode of transportation is the bus (aftobus). The bus system is very intricate and will get you basically anywhere you need to go. I have never seen a bus schedule, or any other schedule for that matter, for what time the bus is going to be at the stop or anything like that. Transportation comes when it comes and it doesn't wait for anyone, literally. The biggest thing I dislike about the bus is that it is only so big. However, don't think that stops people from trying to cram in like sardines. At the busy times of day, you should be prepared to get real close to your lovely smelling neighbors, who if you're lucky have showered within the past couple of days and don't wreak of some form of alcohol (more on that to come). The bus however will get you where you need to go in a decent amount of time and was the form of transportation that we most commonly used as missionaries.

Anya getting on the bus.

Inside the aftobus.

Next up is the trolleybus. This isn't the bus and you will get corrected quickly if you call it the bus. It's the “trolley”bus because it runs on electricity which comes through the overhead connection it has, just like a trolley. The trolleybus is extremely slow and mainly older folks use it to get to their destinations. The trolleybus is slow because it can't go to fast or it will get disconnected from the overhead connection. If you want to take a nap, then the trolleybus might be the way to go (I have already ridden on the trolleybus once since we've been here).

The trolleybus - you can see the connection above the bus.

The last form of transportation that is in every city is the gazelle. No, these aren't little gazelles running around the city that people sit on, but vans, usually yellow, that sit from 8-14 people. Obviously, this mode of transportation is much quicker than the first two, but with so few places, often you will have to wait for awhile to get a spot and the cost is higher. However, if you want to get somewhere in about half the time, then a gazelle is the way to go. Be ready to tell the driver when you want to stop though because unlike the buses, the gazelle only stops when needed and not at every stop.

A picture of a very nice clean gazelle.

Inside the gazelle.

Me inside the gazelle.

Next up is the most expensive way, and that is by taxi. There are plenty of taxi drivers around, but be prepared to pay a good price. If you are super late though, a taxi driver is the way to go as they usually know the fastest way, and they will get you there quickly (more to come). You can usually just stick your hand out to flag down a passing by driver or actually call and order a taxi. You can get a great deal if you catch the right driver who is passing by.

Next up, the two forms of transportation that are not in every city, but still common. First up is the tramvai. This is another form of a train and if you live in salt lake, you can think of it as the 30 year old version of TRAX. It runs throughout the city and gets you where you need to go, but once again is pretty slow so make sure you've planned your time ahead.

A typical tramvai in Russia.

Finally, one of the coolest modes of transportation is the metro. The most intricate metro is found in Moscow and is has the smartest layout that I have ever seen. The metro has several levels in it and you can get pretty deep down into the earth at some of the stops. Other cities in Russia have a metro as well, but they are nowhere near as complex as the Moscow Metro. The Metro is one of the quickest ways to travel as the trains fly and there is no traffic to worry about. It still takes about 1 hour to get from one end of the Moscow metro to the other, which goes a long way in showing how big Moscow is.

A metro stop in Moscow.

The Moscow Metro map.


| Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I have had so many Russian experiences in 3 days. It has been great. Russian life is so different. My first post about Russian life and culture is about the primary mode of travel from city to city in Russia, the train.

There are train stations in every major city and in almost every other little town (деревня) throughout Russia. Trains primary purpose in Russia are to get people from one place to another, unlike in the United States where the primary purpose is to move goods from one place to another. The most famous train is the Tran-Siberian which travels 6 days from one side of Russia to the other, however I have never actually ridden on this train.

The train station is always a busy place and you can think of it like the airport in America, because literally that is what it is. The train station in Moscow is a melting pot of nationalities, dominated by Russians of course. It is the starting and ending point for many people. We got there a few minutes early and I had time to snap a few pictures.

The train station (vokzal).

Conductor checking tickets and passports.

In order to get on the train you must show your passport and ticket upon which you go to find your spot on the train. Each spot is a bed, with two beds to a wall (one on top and one on bottom). Most people prefer the bottom bed because the top spot gets unbearably hot at night usually.

The next part will be hard to understand for most who have never been on a train in Russia, but there are two different car types where people can sleep. One of them has kypes, which are like small rooms, with 4 beds to a room. As missionaries we always traveled in kypes and we always paid for all of the spots in a kype even in we were only going to use 2 of the 4 spots. Each bed/spot is long enough to stretch out on for someone like me and the room gives you privacy since you can close and lock the door (however, locking the door usually isn't a good idea if you have other people in the room with you that you don't know).

The more common car that Russians typically travel in is called platscart. The plats cart is divided up also into rooms but the rooms don't close off and there are two additional spots at the end of each “room.” In other words, as you walk down the car, you walk by everyone and see them and what they are doing. It leaves no room for privacy, but is cheaper and since you are usually only traveling over night, it isn't usually too big a deal. I have traveled platscart 3 times now and never had any problems, and during this past trip met some very nice people who shared their food with us.
The two main car layouts.

A view from our bed.

The thing I love most about the train is that you can lay down and sleep. Yes, the train takes longer to get to your final destination, but catching some winks on the moving hotel is better than losing your lunch on the flying bird. Don't take my word for it though. Experience it for yourself!

The metal toilet in each car.

Russia - A Unique Land

| Thursday, May 21, 2009
Well, it's almost here. Just a few more hours and we're taking off for the Motherland. I can't believe it's been 3 years since I've been home from my mission! It is certainly crazy. Even crazier is that Anya and I will be celebrating our 2 year anniversary while there. It is going to be great to get away for a bit and relax some. It has been 2 years since we have taken a vacation so this is a well deserved break.

As I head back to Russia, I have a much better understanding of what the Russian culture is like than when I was serving my mission there. Not only have I had time to think about my mission and learn from it, but I've been living with a Russian now for 2 years :). A lot of people are still confused about what Russia is really like and I still get funny questions all the time. As a result, I have decided that over the next 2 weeks, I am going to be writing blog posts about the things I find unique and peculiar about the Great Mother Russia. Really, these things may not be unique to Russia but they are differences between Russia and America (the two countries I have spent so much time in). Here is a list of different topics that I plan to blog about:

  • McDonalds in Russia
  • Train
  • Apartment Buildings
  • Street Conditions (roads, drunks)
  • Rionok
  • Bus/Tram/Gazelle
  • CDs/DVDs and Copyright Laws
  • Grandmother's selling
  • No bags in stores
  • Church Members
  • Moscow Metro
  • Food/Candy

If you have any preference about what I blog about first, or if there is something else you would like to hear about, please leave a comment and let me know. I hope that others will make comments on my posts who have also been to Russia so we can get some different perspectives on subjects. As a warm up, here are a few pictures from the great country:

The first thing people think of when they think of Russia. (Moscow)

How most of Russia actually looks (see those beautiful homes in the background). (Izhevsk)

And yes, Russia really is beautiful. (Samara)

Gmail Importer - Not Quite There

| Monday, May 18, 2009
I can't believe that its been nearly a month since I posted here. We are going to Russia in 3 days!!! I can't wait. I will have lots to post about while I am there. Expect lots of posts when I get back.

I recently tested Google's new import tool to move all of your e-mail from your current e-mail provider to start using Gmail. I have been thinking about moving over to Gmail as my primary account, but I wasn't sure. I decided to see how the new import tool worked.

To start, I created a dummy Gmail account since the feature doesn't yet work with existing Gmail accounts, and besides I wanted to test it out anyways.

After creating my account, I had 3 e-mails in my Inbox which is definitely new as usually there is only 1 e-mail. One of them had instructions on importing my e-mails from other accounts.

To get started, I went to my settings and found the "Accounts and Import" tab (used to be just the "Accounts" tab) and found the button to import my old mail.

It took me through a pretty simple process of entering my e-mail address and password to access the old mail.

It then gave me some options for how I wanted my e-mails to be imported. I changed the tag from my e-mail address to say hotmail, but other than that I just left everything default.

Once I clicked the import button, I got the following screen that said I would need to wait for up to 2 days.

I went to bed and in the morning when I loaded Gmail back up, all of my e-mails had been moved over along with my contacts.

Well, almost all of my e-mails. Actually it looks like they are slowly pulling over all of the e-mails. And I mean slowly. It has now been more than a week since I signed up for the service and I still don't even have half of my e-mails moved over. Another issue that I found was that different languages don't seem to import correctly. Here is an example of what I am talking about.

Yes, that is Russian to me too :).

Overall, I think there is still some work to do before using this tool. Specifically, I think the overall time to import e-mails needs to be decreased significantly. Secondly, they need to figure out how to import e-mails in all languages. Since I have a lot of Russian e-mails, this is a problem. I think that this is an awesome idea though and once again, props to Google for another great idea. I am sure the kinks will work themselves out over the next couple of months.