Eight days without a shower and counting.
When I got to the ferry station in Kholmsk, one of the first things that I saw was a bunch of young people apparently camped out near the ticket counter. This was not really a very good sign.
Anyway, I got talking to them (after an appropriate period of them staring at me, and me wondering when someone would say something), and it turns out that they are a tour group (from Birobidzhan – say that 3 times quickly).
With the demise of the Pioneers (a youth organisation that organised all kinds of cool trips for young people, a bit like scouts but more political and more formal and far more universal), opportunities for young people to get out into nature and do stuff are limited (not by the nature, which is basically limitless here, but by lack of organisation).
So these kids have formed themselves into a group. They have a leader, and they spend every August somewhere different. This year they went to Sakhalin (a pretty way out destination) and to the Kuril Islands (a seriously way out destination). They bring all their own equipment, cook all their own food (basically dried camping food for a month, plus whatever they can get for fresh bread and some veges), camp everywhere and do absolutely everything as cheaply as possible (since they have no money).
We immediately had things in common. None of us had had a proper wash for ages. All of us had really dirty clothes on (even I would admit that my cargo pants are filthy – not that this stops me wearing them. Actually I met a guy in China whose shirt was so dirty he turned it inside out and wore it that way). And all of us were waiting for days for a ferry that was coming, it was just that no one could tell us exactly when.
Anyway, one conversation led to another, and they kind of adopted me. It was all good. I ate their dried food, taught some of them to play hackey-sack and throw frisbee, and others how to play Snap (this was very popular), and told them all about New Zealand.
We hung out for the ferry trip (we bought the same class of ticket – no bed, sleep where you can on the deck), and for the 15 hours on the train to Komsomolsk (where I am now). One of them helped me to patch my filthy cargo pants (which had given way in the bum). I suspect I might have collected a few Russian pen pals. The guide even invited me to join them next August (when they might be heading off to Kamchatka – check that out on your atlas!).
I was really impressed with their ability to make do with nothing, and just entertain themselves for hours. Clearly Russians learn this stuff on their mothers’ knees. We made camp while waiting for the train in amongst a pile of rubble underneath a overpass by the train tracks. They had a fire going in no time, and dinner ready even faster. Then it was served, cleaned up and replaced with cups of tea, and everything packed away ready for next time.
They helped me get a train ticket in record quick time too (basically the guide just let me push into the queue in front of him – since he was second in the queue I got my ticket in about 30 seconds).
In classic Russian style, we exchanged gifts. I now have a portable seat (a strip of foam with a strap on it that you wear around your middle, and push down over your bum before you sit down). Extremely useful in Russia, where there are never enough seats and nothing is ever clean.
(Parenthetically, it is funny how many strange looks you get if you go barefoot anywhere).
I wanted to wave goodbye to them (they were going home on the train), but I had to queue for a ticket in Komsomolsk. It looked like I was going to get my ticket before their train left, but sadly it did not work out that way. And I watched their train pull out from the confines of my queue.
I often feel like my Russian language skills are inadequate to convey my emotions, especially when I am grateful to people. This time was no exception.