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3 days in Novosibirsk, Siberia - AND a total solar eclipse!

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: August 2008

I'd wanted to visit Russia since my teenage years; after the Soviet Union collapsed in '91, I sometimes joked that I had missed my chance to go there when it was still "dark and evil." I didn't know if I'd ever get there, but the laws of planetary motion finally dictated a trip this past July and August. You might say that it was "in the stars."

I'd wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun ever since I was into astronomy and science fiction as a kid. My dad wasn't about to allow my then-adolescent self to travel alone from Buffalo to Minneapolis for the 1954 eclipse, and I missed the 1963 spectacle because I was too busy courting my wife-to-be. But when I realized, early in 1970, that a total would be crossing Mexico and the southeastern US on March 7, I checked the weather forecasts carefully, flew to Virginia Beach (I was then living in southern Michigan) and saw a beautiful eclipse in a totally cloudless sky.

I was hooked! I began chasing totals (and a few spectacular annulars, in which the sun is almost but not quite covered) seemingly everywhere - north and south America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe, India and southeast Asia, some alone, some with my wife, some with one or more of my three daughters, and once (Curacao, 1998) with the entire "gang of five." After my wife and I saw the '06 total in the spectacular Cappadocia region of Turkey, I had 11 totals, two annulars and one spectacular and rare annular-total (in downtown Atlanta, of all places!)under my belt. And I hadn't been clouded out once, although I'd had some very close calls! In '07, my wife asked me when and where the next one would be. I checked and told her - far (VERY far) northern arctic Canada, Siberia and China. The forecast for arctic Canada was - well, as New Yorkers famously say, fuggedaboudit! That left Russia and China. My wife was nervous about traveling independently in China because of its sheer "foreign-ness," and I had been getting really put off by Chinese repression (not that Putin's Russia was that much better), the Tibet issue, and the regime's closeness to such world-class regimes as those of North Korea, Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe. But the deciding factor was that the eclipse would be August 1 and the Beijing olympics - with the attendant crowds and inflated prices - would begin only days later.

I began studying the path of totality through Russia. The path entered from the north and sliced down through central and southern Siberia, clipped the SW corner of mongolia and then entered China. Quite a few Russian cities and towns were in the path, but the clear winner was Novosibirsk, the biggest Russian city that I (and probably you) had never heard of. Russia's third largest city, it lies astride the River Ob, and is a major junction on the trans-Siberian railroad. The weather prospects were favorable, and there was easy access. It was settled. "Novo" was our choice.

The first step was getting the plane tickets. TransAtlantic airfares in the summer are costly, but, fortunately, require no more in the way of mileage awards than offseason. When you live in south Florida and have kids and grandkids in Atlanta and LA, the miles pile up, and we greedily hoard them. That's how we got to Austria and Turkey in the summers of '99 and '06 for those totals.

After spending a few hours on the phone with American Express and Delta reps, we got our paid-for-with-mileage tickets as far as Moscow - leaving Miami International the afternoon of July 28, Air France to Paris and again to Moscow, and return to Miami via NY/JFK on Aeroflot and Delta on August 12. This allowed plenty of time to get from Moscow to Novo. Those tickets had to be paid for - with money, unfortunately - and bought directly from Aeroflot. That should have been easy. It was not. Aeroflot wanted not just money but documentation, including at least one passport, before turning over the tickets. Frustrated, I finally decided to physically go to their office in Rockefeller Center during a one day visit to NY in December. I got to see the big Christmas tree - but not the tickets! They had the reservation request, and I had my passport in hand, but they wanted to see my wife's passport as well. After returning home, my wife faxed a photocopy of her passport to them, and they finally mailed us the tickets. Our flights were now settled. We'd arrive Novo early morning of July 30 after 25 hours in transit and two redeye flights two nights in a row, leave Novo the early morning of the 2nd, land in Moscow 4 hours later, leave Moscow on the 4th on a 70 minute "shuttle" to St. Petersburg, fly back to Moscow the morning of the 12th, then nonstop to NY/JFK on Aeroflot and on to Miami on Delta.

Now came the processes, first, of getting a hotel room in Novo, and then getting our Russian visas. Have you ever tried to book a hotel room in a city which might as well be on the moon as far as all the usual American and European booking sites know? Moscow? No problem. St. Petersburg? No problem. Novosibirsk? Fuggedaboudit! As if that wasn't enough, the hotels themselves, once I managed to get their names and addresses, were impossible to reach directly. E mails, in the rare cases in which an e mail address was available, were ignored. Phone calls? Fine - if you speak Russian. We didn't.

Why the hotel room first and then the visa? Very simple. No paid-for hotel room for each Russian city on your itinerary? No visa! To get a Russian visa, you need a 'letter of invitation" from every place you're going to stay. In practice, that means a letter from each hotel certifying that you have a room reserved - AND have paid for it. But wait! There's more! You need to get rooms in hotels that offer "visa registration." What's that? It's a requirement that you have to "register" your visa in each city in which you will spend three or more days. Three days can mean three full days. It can also mean arriving in a city at 11:55 at night on Day One and leaving at five minutes past midnight on Day Three.

OK, you don't HAVE to stay in a hotel that offers visa registration - IF you don't mind going to a government office in each city and maybe waiting in line and then doing it yourself, probably with a clerk who speaks no English.

I found several travel agencies that could get us what we needed in Novo. Each one wanted to charge us 3 to 4 times the going rate. I finally found a German-owned Russian agency - with an office in Novo, and an obliging young English-speaking lady named Alla - who booked everything that we needed for us in all three cities, at reasonable prices.

There would be eight full days between our initial arrival in St. Petersburg and our final departure from that city. St. Petersburg is not far from both the Estonian and Finnish borders, so I decided to spice up our itinerary. Three days and nights in St. P., then a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, then a boat across to Helsinki, a visit there, then back to St. P. for one more day and night there. I decided to arrange that, but first we needed not just Russian visas, but Russian double-entry visas, because we'd be leaving and then returning to Russian territory. We downloaded the Russian visa application forms, discovering in the process that the fee had been raised from $100 to $131 each to match a recent US increase for Russians in the same amount. Money orders or cashiers checks only, of course.

We messed up two sets of those forms before finally getting everything right. Names (single and married), current and the previous two addresses, name, address, phone number and dates for every previous employer and every college and/or university attended as well as last high school attended, addresses and phone numbers for each of our hotels, every country visited within the last 10 years, and so on. All this went, with our passports, money, and the required prepaid return FedEx empty packet, to the Russian embassy in Washington. A week and a half later, our passports came back, each with the precious sticker in it. Needless to say, we kept copies of everything we'd sent.

We were now into the spring of '08. The next stage was to fill in the Estonia/Finland travel itinerary, which eventually involved a bus from St. P. to Tallinn, ferry to Helsinki, and bus back to St. P. I'll save the details of those trips, and the preparation for them, for separate trip reports.

It was time for the final planning stage - the local logistics and tourist stuff. My practice, when traveling, is to use public transit whenever and wherever possible - especially when going to and from airports. Doing this in Russia, once you visit the library and photocopy everything you need from guidebooks, isn't that difficult. But there is one catch. You MUST learn the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet! Without that, you will be lost, unable to make out station names, street signs, etc..

No problem. The letters A, K. M, O and T are the same in Russian as in English. Russians also have B, C, E, H, P and X. Problem is that their B is a V, C is an S, E is a "yeh," their H is really an N, their P is an R and their X is, well, an H. A small 'y' is "oo." A small e is an e, but if it has two dots over it, it's "yo" (as in Rambo). Russian, of course, wouldn't be Russian without a few of those backward letters that western cartoonists love to make fun of. So, a backwards R is "ya" (as in a Minnesotan saying "yes") and a backwards N is "ee." A 3 might mean 3, but also might be a Z, unless it's shaped a little differently, in which case it's "eh." I'll spare you the rest, except to note that if you've ever seen what a spider looks like after the cartoon cat Garfield has squashed it, well, that is a "zh" sound. Every night for at least two months, before turning in, my wife would say "why aren't you studying your Russian alphabet?" Eventually, I "got it."

I had made a special effort to rent a car in Novo, in case we needed to move quickly to get out from under cloud cover, as I had had to do for several totals in the past, but this turned out to be next to impossible. There were six or seven local rental agencies. I called them all, and no one spoke English. Hertz had an outlet and available cars, but we were leaving too early the morning after the eclipse to return the vehicle while their office was open. I finally decided we would see what arrangements we could make when we got there. Perhaps we could hook up with some other independent travelers and pool our resources.

I accumulated lots of photocopies of maps, suggested itineraries and so on. The final thing left to do was to arrange to have our house, two dogs, cat and bird taken care of in our absence. I managed to arrange for one of our daughters to move in for all but the final three days, during which I hired a pet sitter to come in three times a day.

The first stage of the trip was an overnight nonstop on Air France from Miami to Paris/Charles de Gaulle (CDG). We'd taken that same flight in '06. It was full then, and was full this time as well. As always, we carried our luggage. I'd been advised that the weight limit for a carryon suitcase was 10 kilograms - about 22 pounds - and a "personal item" was also allowed. We kept our suitcases down to 19 or 20 pounds throughout, and I packed everything heavy into my "personal item." I had supplied myself and my wife with hand-printed plasticized home made baggage tags for every segment of the trip in case we were forced to check anything. Each tag had our destination hotel in English and Russian. (Thank you, freetranslation.com) I knew that, in Europe, the carryon suitcase is always weighed, but the personal item is not.

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