Siberia Pt. 4: Hitchhiking to Omsk, and hooray! finally getting bribed (not while hitchhiking, though)


omskhitchStill with an afterglow from visiting the domesticated foxes in Novosibirsk, I set off hitchhiking to my next stop, Omsk. The only reason I was going to Omsk was to obtain a Kazakh visa, and it was the only place in Siberia that had a Kazakh consulate (that I could find).

Only about 600 km away from Novosibirsk, I decided to hitch to Omsk due to the short distance and to save the $25-30 it was going to cost for a train ticket. On the advice of my Couchsurfing host, who said hitching in Russia is no problem even for people with minimal Russian, I took an electrishka in the morning to the outskirts of town near the road to Omsk and flagged cars for about 20 minutes until a car stopped. I couldn’t figure out where he was going, so I eventually just wrote Omsk and Novosibirsk on some paper and drew a line to imply the road and asked, “Where?”. He only ended up going about 20 km out of town before he turned to the south, so I just got out there and started flagging cars again.



The traffic was sparse and I wasn’t having much luck for about an hour, so I found a cardboard box near the lonely bus stop I was next to, tore it apart, and wrote “OMCK” with a pen. It took a while to make the letters thick enough to see, but it wasn’t like I was going anywhere. The sign seemed to help, and I was offered a few rides that I turned down because they weren’t going close enough to Omsk.

Eventually a truck driver going all the way stopped around noon. He had a long gray pony tail and a calm demeanor, and we made basic conversation for a little bit. He was actually from Kaliningrad, which is a bizarre exclave of Russia nestled right between Poland and Lithuania on the sea and that is completely separate geographically from Russia. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had no idea it even existed, but in any case, he was driving all the way back there and was going past Omsk.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, and between me falling asleep there was pit stop for coffee and topping up the fuel tanks. Refueling was a bit surprising; instead of pulling into a station, there were actually Soviet-era (at least they looked it) fuel tanker trucks parked along the road that dispensed fuel directly into the truck. The scenery was the same as the rest of Siberia: flat with a bunch of pine and birch trees. Pleasant, but nothing that you would crane your neck to see.

We came around south of Omsk at sunset since the highway didn’t go into the city, and I was a bit worried how I was going to get to my Couchsurfing host’s place before the night set in. I could see the smoke stacks of the city about 20 km in the distance, and I got out of the truck near the highway exit that went towards the center of the city. There was essentially no traffic and no buses or marshrutkas in the area.

I called my CS host for advice, but he didn’t have a car to pick me up. As I was watching Russian army tanks in the distance rumbling on a training exercise, I just decided to walk along the road toward Omsk as the sun was letting loose its last light. Worst case I could just put up my tent in ample wooded area and wait for the morning to walk to Omsk.

I kept walking, and just as night was closing in I saw a lone white car slowly heading towards me. I had a few worrisome thoughts about how screwed I would be if it was a bunch of drunk gopniks that wanted to give me a hard time, but it ended up being three giggling, slightly chubby Russian girls, one of whom was learning to drive and lacked a few teeth. They switched drivers and took off toward the city, first stopping at the southern end of town and tried to find a bus going toward the center for me. I had them talk to my CS host on my cell phone, so they knew the situation.

A small crowd gathered around me and they all seemed to be arguing about what the best way to get me to center was, and eventually I offered a few dollars’ worth of rubles to the girls for gas just to drive there. They agreed, and another one of their friends joined along for the ride. He bought me a beer, and between the girls trying to convince me to bring them to America, he managed to explain to me that he really liked the Detroit Red Wings. Drinking the beers in the car was apparently not a problem in Russia (surprised?), and we eventually arrived to my host's place.

After chewing the fat with my host, Victor, and the crowd in the car on the street for a bit, I settled into Victor’s cozy apartment around 10pm. I found out he actually owned the apartment at the young age of 26 and only shared it with his cat. He was a busy computer programmer, working in Omsk programming alarm systems as well as doing outsourced programming assignments from the US and Europe. He helped me work through the visa process at the Kazakh consulate the next day, and was just an overall great host for the days I passed in Omsk.

It was mostly chilly and rainy with brief interludes of sun, but the town itself was very pleasant. It is hard to describe why exactly, but it had the right combination of non-crowded streets, good public transport and urban design, people that cared about how the city looked, and enough trees to make it easy on the eyes.

I decided to enter Kazakhstan by bus, first to the city of Pavlodar. There wasn’t much rationale for my visit there besides the fact that I found a good Couchsurfing host. On the bus ride there, I was pleased to encounter my first Russian bribe about a half hour from the Kazakh border. The bus pulled over near nothing in particular, and a lady in a neon vest got out of a car and started measuring luggage. Apparently I owed them about $6 because my backpack exceeded an imaginary size limit (the bus was half-empty and the cargo hold even less full), and the lady wouldn’t return my bus ticket until I paid. A few people on the bus made gestures to me to indicate that I shouldn’t pay, and after trying to argue with her for a few minutes just decided to pay it so the bus driver could get his cut on move on. I suppose they are getting more creative with bribes in Russia with “baggage fees”.

In any case we arrived to Pavlodar around midnight, where Shannon, my Couchsurfing host, met me. I'll pick up here in my next post.

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+1 #1 Jameson Toole 2011-05-03 13:50
I find it hilarious that baggage fees are "bribes" in Kazakhstan, but are totally reasonable revenue generators by corporations in the US.
0 #2 Tyler Cole 2011-05-03 16:13
Well, the difference is that you know about legit baggage fees ahead of time, or at least can look it up. That said, I still think they should be fought like a bribe.
0 #3 Elena 2012-03-16 04:59
You must be nuts to hitchhike in Russia - I would NEVER do that, and I am from that country...
A few points...
1. Not all Rusians believe that you sholdn't sleep with your feet towards the door - I heard that only once from my grandmother and totally forgot about it until you mentioned it!
2. Not waving you contry's flag at your home or business is not a lack of patriotism; it is simply considered to be an act of a gross ass-kissing, (even in the Soviet era).
3. You schould publish your Mac and Cheese recipe - looks awfully good!
4.Where is the rest of it?
0 #4 Tyler Cole 2012-03-24 19:54
Thanks for your comment Elena.

1 - Maybe it is something that is more common in the east of Russia?
2 - I didn't mean to imply that people SHOULD have the flag out, and in fact in the US I would say there is a bit too much unquestioning patriotism and flag waving. But I think it just reflects two different styles of government, and I didn't mean it sound as if it was a bad thing. Just an observation that Russian people feel more isolated/less confident in their government than other places I have visited.
3 - This is basically the recipe:
4 - Rest of what?

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