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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

We were packed in, but were also fed well and supplied with free drinks. In '06, we'd had to change from an Air France Miami-Paris flight to an Air France Paris-Istanbul flight. It was a nightmare - we had just over an hour to do it, had to change terminals, take a bus, cope with the only rude and unhelpful people I've ever encountered in France, go through extra layers of security, and finally found our gate when the question "Are you people going to Istanbul?" was answered with 'We THINK so!"

I was told that this would be much easier. Our flights arrived and left from the same terminal, we'd have only to walk from one gate to another nearby, and we'd have four hours to make the switch. Right. We had to walk endlessly, ask several times before discovering which way to turn, take a monorail ride, go for another long walk, and go through extra security, during which the small scissors that TSA had had no problem with were confiscated. ("Ohhh, FORBIDDEN!") and everything was hand searched. Thanks to decades of familiarity with inflated airport prices, I'd packed plenty of food, and we had snacks at our gate. The flight to Moscow took about three hours. Lunch was served. The landscape was totally clouded over. It was only on the final descent that we saw ground, trees and buildings.

We were brought to a building, told to descend a stairway, and were in a huge room with at least 500 people in it, milling around as best they could in such a crowd. There were passport control booths, but people were processed with extreme slowness. On our right were two special lanes, one for diplomats and one for people with electronic passports. All the signs were in both Russian and English. Even though we had a four hour layover before leaving for Novo, I was concerned, because we were going to have to transfer from the international airport, Sheremetyevo (SVO) 2, to the domestic terminal, Sheremetyevo 1.

The room emptied very slowly. I began seeing more and more people go through the "electronic passports" line and began thinking that perhaps many of them didn't have electronic passports. Finally, I walked up to that booth - there was no line at all - and asked the woman if she could process us, and she said certainly. Afterwards we walked through the customs "green line." I didn't see anyone's bags being searched.

Outside was chaotic. Cab drivers were besieging us and everyone else with offers to take us to Terminal 1. I saw what appeared to be a shuttle van. I'd read over and over about Russian cab drivers, and none of it was favorable. We got into the van and were taken the three miles to the other terminal. The fare was posted as 15 rubles - about 65 cents - but no one asked for any money, so our ride was free. We had to go through a cursory security to get inside Terminal 1. It was confusing, a sort of long wide corridor with dozens of numbered doors. There were frequent announcements in Russian and English, each with a number. We finally figured out the system, and when our flight was announced, we headed for the appropriately numbered door and were allowed in, and our passports were checked.

The last thing I'd expected to see in a Russian domestic airline terminal was a crowd of other Americans, but now we were amidst well over a hundred of them, mostly 50s and up, and all wearing badges for an eclipse tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope magazine. Such tours are all inclusive, and also very expensive. They were from all over the US. One woman had paid $100 - that's dollars, not rubles - for a cab ride between the two terminals, the same journey that we'd made for free. It was a mob scene. When I got to the Aeroflot checkin desk, the impatient and irritable young woman agent insisted that I check my bag. It was the only time during the trip that that happened. I could have asked for the station manager, but it didn't seem worth the trouble. It was a nonstop flight to Novo. I made sure it was correctly tagged (OVB) and put my own tag on it before handing it over.

We left around 11 PM, with probably a greater percentage of Americans aboard than on the average US domestic flight. It was about a four hour flight, almost due east. The cabin was darkened, and we dozed off. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, we were awakened with everyone else and served a full hot supper. It was good, too. We dozed again, waking as the sky lightened and we saw a strange almost-barren landscape with strange elongated shaped land between rivers and streams.

Novosibirsk's Tolmachevo airport is a new, modern two-story facility, with shops, some of which were already open, and a cafeteria. We left the plane with no formalities and I claimed my bag. I knew there were public buses that ran into the city and to the huge Novosibirsk Hotel, but what I didn't know is that Novo, like other Russian cities, has both private and public buses running along the same routes. It was confusing, but we finally found a large, inter-city type bus heading into the city for a low fare. We passed buildings and factories - Novo was founded as an industrial city in 1895 - and finally crossed the bridge over the Ob and were soon at a huge multi story hotel. We entered the large, well furnished lobby, checked in, collapsed in our modern room, and turned on the TV, eager for news, but the only English language channel we could get was Bloomberg business news. We couldn't have cared less about the Nikkei average and the price of pork belly futures.

We looked through our windows. The view was amazing. We overlooked one of the city's busiest streets. Across the street was the huge, surreal, green-colored Trans-Siberian railway station. Between it and the street was an enormous plaza, filled with people and vendors. On the left side of the plaza was a huge, ever changing video screen, mounted on a sort of pedestal. On the other side of the station and behind it was the River Ob, with various watercraft on it and an industrial area on the other side, fading off to the horizon. between the station and the river, and on either side, was a network of tracks, with trains frequently moving in and out in both directions. The sky was clear and the weather was very warm.

A word about the Hotel Novosibirsk's buffet breakfast. It was awesome! I wasted few calories on the mediocre pastries, preferring to splurge on the fish, the cheese, the veggies, the fruits, the olives, the sausages, the berry juice. Lunch? Fuggedaboudit!

A few weeks before the trip, I had discovered the novosibirskguide.com website. It seemed to have been created primarily for the purpose of bringing together people like us, who were traveling there to see the eclipse, and doing so on our own. Several dozen people, all from Europe and the UK, had written in. the site was being more or less coordinated by a woman from Holland who had taken the nickname "Stardust," and a man from Austria named Thomas. Several days before we left, it was announced on the site that we'd all be getting together at the Lenin Statue in Novo at 2 PM local time (local time being 11 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time) on July 30, the day of our arrival. So much for crashing from exhaustion right after arriving and taking a very long nap.

There was one desk employee, a young pretty woman named Olga, who spoke English well and gave us directions. We set out, passing the casino and KFC outlet adjoining the hotel, heading up hill along a busy street lined with buildings, shops and a few restaurants and cafes. It was mid afternoon of a weekday. The sidewalk was crowded with workers, shoppers and delivery people, all looking and dressed much like Americans on a typical American city street on a warm day. There were just a few things about the scene that distinguished it from that. The Cyrillic letters on signs and building fronts, the frequent shallow yet hazardous steps built into the sidewalk, and the profusion of small private buses running back and forth with number and fare signs in their windows. And, most of all the covered kiosks - small roofed structures - which sold snacks, newspapers and magazines, and dozens of different brands of cold beer and bottled water - the latter considered a necessity in Russian cities. I quickly learned to ask for Russian rather than the costlier German beers - the Russian was just as good, and a bottle averaged about 65 or 70 cents.

We managed to get lost several times, because Olga had told us it was only a few blocks, and it seemed more like a few dozen. But eventually we came to a huge intersection. On the other side of it was a plaza with a large raised stone platform. On it were way larger-than-life statues of three heroically-posed men. The middle one was Lenin. A Soviet image right out of the books.

People were gathered atop the platform, and we joined them. These were our fellow eclipse-chasing independent travelers. We were half an hour late, but it didn't matter. Everyone was chatting. but no one had any clear plans for "e-day" - August 1st - and no one had arranged for a vehicle rental. Finally, someone mentioned that there would be some sort of eclipse-related artistic presentation that evening. She pointed down the street that ran in front of the statues and to either side, providing directions.

We headed back to the hotel, the walk easier for being downhill. We had plenty of food left in our bags. My priority now was getting internet access to let our three daughters and others know that we'd made it safely. The hotel had a large room off the mezzanine lounge which served as a business center. Two doors from the mezzanine lounge led into an even larger conference room. An orientation for the American Sky and Telescope group was taking place in it, and almost every chair was filled. On a long table inside the business center was a single laptop. I had to buy a voucher from the front desk, come back and submit it. The system didn't work well, but I did manage to get my e mail out and check a few incoming notes.

On the end wall of the business center area was a huge video screen, divided into at least a dozen square sections. On the screen ran a continuous and endlessly varied series of street scenes and blown up photos, some obviously current, some dating back years and even decades. The young man in charge proudly told us that "this shows the history of our city."

The eclipse-and-art event we'd been advised of was scheduled for 7 PM. I asked Olga how to get to the Lenin statue by public transit. I didn't feel like another long uphill hike. Take the Metro, was her advice. During my research, I'd learned that Novo indeed had a Metro (subway) system, less than 20 years old, and with two intersecting lines. Our station was easy to find - there was a large sign with a big yellow "M" in the railway station plaza. The fare was about 65-70 cents, paid for with small coppery tokens bought at a window. We boarded at one end of a line. The cars were sleek and modern. We changed lines, and emerged right across from Lenin. The street we followed took us past a couple of museums, and ahead of us, in a sort of island, was a small church with a huge golden bulb on top.

Two blocks along, and one block short of the side street where the event was, we came across a good sized park, and I experienced one of the most magical moments of the trip. The park was filled with - as the old REM song goes - shiny happy people. All age groups, all enjoying themselves, all enjoying themselves on a balmy summer evening. There was a large fountain, with people sitting on a low wall around it. There were children enjoying pony rides, lovely flower gardens, various types of beautiful luxuriant trees, and intriguing semi-abstract white statues of people, including my favorite, a mother and baby. Off to my left, bordering the park, was a popular restaurant I'd come across in my on line research, the improbably named New York Pizza - part of a small Siberian chain, founded by an American expatriate. On the other side of it was a small area in which people were breakdancing! The last time I'd seen public breakdancing had been in Rockefeller Center.

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