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We piled into Zhenya’s silver Toyota Camry Lumiere. I eyed the Buddhist charm hanging from the rear-view mirror as we tore home, skidding on black ice and dodging pot-holes by veering on to the wrong side of the road. Conversation fell to the three musketeers and me. Actually—as they were quick to point out—they were Catalan, not Spanish, from Barcelona.
‘I never wanted a Russian flag,’ said Bernat, the selfappointed spokesperson, owing to his superior English. ‘But I would like a Buryatian one. We have sympathy for Buryatia under Moscow’s centralised control.’
We were so immersed in conversation that both the view and Zhenya’s silence were overlooked. Chastened, I tried to chat with her, but after repeating myself and even trying out some Russian (to which she pulled a face of mortal horror), she finally confessed, ‘I find your accent difficult.’ Zhenya spoke American-English. English-English was niche, it seemed. She dropped her head: ‘I need to practise.’
‘We can help with that,’ I grinned.
‘That’s why you’re here!’ she said.
‘The suburbs’ were the Beverly Hills of Ulan-Ude (well, relatively speaking), at the end of an unprepossessing, three-mile dirt track. We pulled up at a large, detached house. This was my first couch not in a Soviet block. The senses were slapped hard. With the distinct aroma of pickled cabbage and charcoal smoke under my nose, I was introduced to her father, a small man of a sensei’s build with a beatific smile, and her younger brother, Sasha, who was going mountaineering with his university friends that weekend. In amongst the rush of the family running around, grabbing at ropes and high-tech outdoor equipment, Zhenya showed me my room—my own room! We’d all be going out again in twenty minutes, she told us (it was Friday night), and left to grab at ropes.
My Own Room was large and bare, with a single bed, a computer and, on the walls, two posters of models in bikinis pressed against shiny red Mercedes—the fascinating habitat of a Russian youth. As a matter of emergency, I washed my hair and changed my top (there was no washing or changing on the Trans-Siberian), and chatted to the Catalans who were sleeping in Zhenya’s vacated room next door. Worn out, they were all lying on their mattresses. This, too, was their first couchsurfing trip, and we traded tales. Some of their hosts had even met them with name placards, and one of their hosts’ boyfriends split for three days because he didn’t like couchsurfers. I instantly liked them—but then, I needed them.
We didn’t get very far on our drive into town because we were stopped by the police.
‘One of you hide!’ Zhenya urged dramatically. ‘Four in the back is illegal.’ We all simultaneously ducked. Wearing a cute leather bomber, an asymmetric black miniskirt and foxy kneehighs, she stepped out of the vehicle.
‘She never passed her driving test,’ one of the musketeers whispered. ‘Apparently Sasha knows the right people.’
Sliding back behind the wheel unscathed, Zhenya purred, ‘Sometimes, it’s good to be a woman.’ The police had been looking for drink-drivers. But the action didn’t stop there. After dropping Sasha off, there was then a near miss with a tram, which she avoided by reversing into oncoming traffic. And when trying to parallel park (a group effort), she ripped her tyre on a metal spike.
How many Spanish firefighters does it take to change a wheel? More than three evidently. ‘Don’t worry!’ they rallied. ‘We can fix this!’ They were quickly pushed aside by a local and we celebrated with a meal in a nearby Chinese café, where Zhenya’s Buryatian friends—a cousin, an ad exec, and a well-known opera singer—were waiting. There were no Russians inside—Ulan-Ude was quite the ethnic departure. Its population of 360,000 included Mongolians, Chinese labour migrants (Buryatia was close to the Chinese border), and twenty-one per cent Buryatians.
While waiting for our food, I decided to tell a perfectly relevant joke:
Me: Did you hear about the three Spanish firefighters?
Me: They were called Hose A, Hose B and Hose C.
Me: You know—like José! No?
Lost in translation. I distracted the table by switching focus on to Zhenya. The name ‘Zhenya’ was—like her peers’—a Russian name because they’d been born into the Soviet Union. Despite her strong Buryatian identity, Zhenya couldn’t speak Buryatian; her mother, also Buryatian, was a Russian literature and language teacher. But Zhenya knew enough to give me my Buryatian name, cecek—‘flower’. I felt like I almost belonged. Zhenya had recently returned to Ulan-Ude to look after her ill father, having been working in Moscow for three years at a Russian high-street fashion chain. ‘I miss Moscow,’ she said, her perfectly groomed brows knotting. Finding work in Ulan-Ude in the current climate was proving tough, and Ulan-Ude was not cosmopolitan, but, it seemed, the Buryatian sense of family duty took priority. I exhaled—I felt safe, and also excited. I could suspend my guard. That, as I would realise later, would prove dangerous.
‘NO!’ gasped Zhenya to the musketeers. ‘It’s not good luck to stick your fork in the bread.’
Sharing-plates of glass noodles, deep-fried pork and chubby knots of steamed bread had arrived. With food to negotiate, conversation fell to the path of least resistance: the Europeans with the Europeans, the Buryatians with the Buryatians. It felt wrong, like I preferred to talk to the firefighters. This was the ex-pat conflict. I wanted to explore new frontiers, but it was hard work. I’d instinctively slipped back into my comfort zone.
Over tea so milky it looked like just milk, the musketeers grumbled about not being able to find a decent coffee. But that was one of couchsurfing’s blessings, wasn’t it? That it broke the spell of bad habits. I was off the double-shot cappuccinos with caramel drizzle because it just wasn’t an option. I was probably kicking all sorts of habits, emotional and physical. That, unfortunately, included sleeping and washing—sometimes they weren’t available either.
‘Fasten your seatbelts!’ the firefighters insisted. We’d ditched Zhenya’s car and were in her ad-exec friend Rinchin’s gleaming Nissan Presage for a spot of ego-tourism, as he sped, tail-gated and devoured Ulan-Ude’s urban sprawl as if driving a tank. The firefighters and I volleyed fearful expletives, but they only seemed to provide the encouragement that Rinchin craved. And the emergency? We needed milk vodka, a Buryatian speciality, to toast new arrivals. Despite losing an hour, plus days off my life, to this perilous and ultimately fruitless quest, it was for the best—we were spared a night on fermented, curdled mare’s milk. Couchsurfers couldn’t say no—after all, wasn’t that why we were here, for the access to traditional delicacies?
Reprieve was short-lived. Russian vodka and balsam (a herbal vodka) would have to do. Rinchin stormed Skin Mountain, a hill studded with Buddhist prayer stones overlooking the city, for the welcome we’d been dreading: the SUV’s leather seats were then swivelled around into a cosy circle. ‘No, no, I can’t drink tonight,’ groaned Bernat. Why not? Because exactly the same thing had happened the night before. I could only wait to find out what.
‘The first toast is for respect,’ said Zhenya, pouring out six shots. Respect—that made it impossible to say no. Despite our full bellies, we were instructed to chase with huge buuzies (doughnut-sized, Buryatian dumplings). The boys gritted their teeth and ate their words. Rinchin didn’t seem remotely bothered by the drink-driving crackdown. ‘What’s the penalty?’, I asked, in undisguised disapproval. ‘A two-year ban, and if you have an accident, nine months in prison,’ he said, unmoved. I buttoned my judgment—it felt disrespectful. The toasts kept coming. To health! To love! To friends! To…The fog of forgetfulness soon descended. Suitably tanked up, Rinchin dropped us off at Metro, apparently Ulan-Ude’s best club.
I hadn’t anticipated a club because I wasn’t quite at one with the couchsurfers’ motto: Be Prepared for Anything. Despite Face Kontrol not adoring my walking boots, our association to Zhenya—a girl about town with her Moscow credentials—saw us swiftly ushered into the velvet banquettes of the VIP area. Much more vodka was bought, and we were introduced to Zhenya’s friends. They’d heard some girls outside trying to remember some Spanish words. News that three macho Spanish guys were in town was out.
It was at about this point that amnesia drew its black curtain. I remembered saying thank you to Zhenya a lot, and clinging to my new ally, David (okay, I was flirting with the unattached one; I didn’t want him, I was just feeding my emotional hunger). There were strippers, there were bottle-blonde Buryatian women, there was shameless dancing, there were good times. Apparently.
Still dressed, still drunk and my mouth desert-dry, I woke up in Sasha’s bed, numb from a night on its wooden base—all Russians seemed to like it hard, evidently. But how did I get here? Where was my BlackBerry? Whose was that chapka—the Russian fur hat? That camera? And—oh God—did I kiss David or was it a dream? I scrambled to check the photographic evidence: tight embraces, topless boys, boys kissing boys, power punches…worrying. Then I thought about Ollie, and The Emperor, and I realised I hadn’t worried about anything since I’d arrived. Getting out of my head had, quite literally, helped me get out of my head.
I could hear that the boys had just woken up and were laughing about the night. I froze, realising that to get out of my room, I had to go through theirs. I drew a deep breath.
‘So, boys, I seem to have lost my phone and my memory and gained a camera and a hat…’
I searched David’s eyes, but I couldn’t find the answer there. I quickly scurried out—I was going to have to ask Zhenya.
‘Hungry?’ chirped Zhenya, orchestrating the domestics in the kitchen.
‘Sheep soup,’ she explained, handing me a large bowl.
Would it be insulting not to eat the solid cubes of fat, the layers of alimentary canal and the tendons swimming like eels? I was the only one eating, so I had no one to copy. Plus, as a couchsurfer, I was learning that you ate what and when you could—the fridge wasn’t mine to raid.
‘So what do you grow in your kitchen garden?’
With tomatoes, onions, cabbages, cucumbers, apples and potatoes, it was the picture of Siberian self-sufficiency.
Having pointed her attention outside the window, I threw the unspeakables away. And that possible indiscretion? Cowardice struck—I could hear the boys coming. I’d wait to ask Zhenya after they left for Vladistock later that day. Losing one’s memory had its hazards, but it was also a face-saver.
Losing my BlackBerry was rather more straightforward—it was lost. Of course, there was the possibility that something more sinister than good times had taken it, but the idea was unthinkable. Hosts had far more to lose.
The day’s next excitement was the hypermarket, for the boys to stock up for their three-day train journey. In the car my gaze was conveniently averted outside, to catch, in amongst a constructivist majority, Ulan-Ude’s bronze monuments to heroic, mounted Buryatian warriors, and Buddhist buildings with flying eaves. At the supermarket, Zhenya picked up a couple of value tins of horsemeat.
‘You need meat,’ she said maternally.
‘Why?’ responded Bernat, with some disdain.
‘For the train.’
It was useful to see how others—non-Brits—were with their hosts. Bernat wasn’t rude, he just didn’t want tinned horsemeat. His candour was inspiring.
We hugged the boys goodbye at the station. With them safely out of earshot, I could finally ask Zhenya for the missing details.
‘You were in the back of my car wearing his chapka,’ she said, her voice tripping into a laugh. ‘And David asked, “Can I kiss you?” You said yes. And then he asked, “Can you kiss me?” and you just started singing.’
(Was it ‘Can I kick it?/Yes you can,’ I wondered). But did I kiss him?
‘Then we got home and you went to bed. When I asked where David was, I found him in your room but you were asleep, and I shouted, “David, go back to bed!” The boys were laughing for thirty minutes.’
As did we. Too bad alcohol took as much as it gave.
My next stop, in two days’ time, would be just outside Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, where I’d be staying in a ger—a traditional felted tent. My host, a German woman married to a local, had three negative references—quite a count for couchsurfing. She’d been ‘moody’, and had pushed her guests into doing her ‘maximum price’ tours. She responded negatively to one reference, saying the guest had set fire to her house and stolen her phone. It sounded like a cartoon. But she also had plenty of positive references. I was intrigued; it sounded authentic. Maybe Marco from Italy summed it up: ‘At Sabina’s I had the craziest couchsurfing adventures, she is unique, in both really good and really bad ways, but once you understand Mongolia, you understand Sabina, or vice versa.’ It promised some safe danger. I was excited.
‘I have to visit my aunt with a broken rib,’ Zhenya announced after helping me buy my tickets to Mongolia. ‘I’ll be back at 10pm [it was now 5pm]—maybe you can go for a walk.’
The apron strings were suddenly severed. I was going to have to be independent again. Placing all emotional needs on my host was an ask too much, I realised, and foolish. So I decided to go and place them on the internet instead.
News from Ollie: he was ‘lying very still’, under self-imposed house arrest, ‘maybe for a whole month’, but now that the knife had been at his leg, it was ‘nice and flat’. Ollie was such a stoic. I was going to miss his calm crisis management.
10pm suddenly became 7pm—Zhenya was going to come back early. She was waiting outside in her car, with her mother and another cousin, Nastia (short for Anastasia). They screamed when I tried to get in. This was, of course, because I’d got into the wrong car of Buryatian girls. I guess Zhenya saw all of this because I then heard a car horn, presumably to aid my sonar location. But once reunited, no one mentioned it—least of all me in my deep shame. I missed having someone to laugh with.
We dropped Zhenya’s divorced mother at home, taking the silent and shy 20-year-old Nastia, a ‘customs’ student, back with us. Was I hungry? ‘A little bit peckish,’ I said warily, thinking about sheep entrails. Plus, I’d just eaten half a packet of strawberry sandwich biscuits. Too bad—pancakes, tomato chutney, smetana and Siberian apple jam were promptly laid out on the kitchen table. Nastia and Zhenya folded their pancakes into neat little parcels, so I did too, filling mine with round after round of the most delicious apple jam—crunchy and fresh cherry-sized apples in a tart but sweet sunset-pink apple soup. Zhenya had made it herself; her grandmother did the blackcurrant jam, which they’d mix with cold water for a drink. But that was nothing, her father had built the whole house.
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