((Apologies, but photos follow when i can get them off my camera again))
Some cites can be relatively large without being of any great relevance or interest to the outside world, and even unknown to a large percentage of people. This is especially true in the old Soviet Union (and China, for example) where there are any number of cties wth over a million inhabitants which remain unknown and unvisited by the outside world, although in many cases not entirely without reason. In to this category, I would add Cheliabinsk.
It’s a city of some 1.3million inhabtants, but in the LP of Russia which I stole a look, merits only a page, half of which is given to ‘nearby’ attractions which are 2 or 3 hours away. It was a city closed to foreigners in Soviet times, and houses a huge metallurgy works. It was a major centre in the production of tanks and armour plating, and in the good old days, a nearby nuclear processing site had blown up (the city got really lucky with wind direction). And it has also been listed as the most polluted city on the planet, although I personally doubt that claim.
Not long after joining FT, i‘d come into contact with Michiel (Also known as the Mad Professor and most commonly, Mjeh – and for those who have the faintest idea what i‘m talking about, I’ve decided it should be pronounced M-Yay) and we’d started talking. On discovering that I have been to Russia several times and even previously passed through Chel previously, an invitation was extended for me to drop off and stay a bit if and when I happened to be that way again. Mjeh, a Dutch-Canadian, had moved to Chel about 4 years previously in order to live with his lovely Russian girlfriend, Evgenia, and to try and teach some of the locals English.
Despite all of the dire warnings I had been given (by them) about how bad the place was, it wasn’t all that bad at all. I have seen many worse within the Soviet Block, and t was no where near the likes of Aylesbury or Hassleholm, for example. It was refreshingly Russian - A large Lenin statue in the square, a hotch-potch of building styles and buildings in various states of construction, the inevitable tomb of the unknown soldier (I’m forced to conclude that Soviet army conscription records and identifications were not quite as good as they could have been), and centre virtually without Western influence. No McDonalds or western fast food joints or cafes, with only the inevitable fake Irish bar, Benetton and Raiffeson Bank plus, more oddly, the smallest and most inconspicuous Ikea I have ever seen in my life (and I have to wonder whether Ikea themselves even know about it) as western influences. There is hope for humanity yet.
Whilst the city possibly lacked excitement and could be a dour place to live (along with temperatures of +35 in summer,-35 in winter) and lacked anything vaguely touristy or visually stunning, it was not unpleasant, and the amount of new buildings or those under construction indicated that there was at least some money in the city and hope for the future.
And so it was that I arrived in Chelyabinsk. Originally I had intended to stay for 2 or 3 days, but such was the amazing hospitality of Michiel and Evgenia and the way of the world, that i ended up staying for almost 2 weeks. It should have actually been a quite frustrating time as plans always seemed to fall through, but oddly, it didn’t really matter to me at all, although i would have liked to have done the things which all failed. This is obscure Russia, and attitudes and the way of life just goes on, regardless of what plans you have and try and make. And I had little problem with it. A 2 day rafting trip in the hills, a visit to Turgayak (a lakeside camp, where amongst other things Russian kids were enjoying summer camp, and where Evgenia’s mother was working for a few of weeks), Miass – an old town in the hills a couple of hours south and one of the LP listed places – and the Dacha (summer house – as in Sweden, huge amounts of Russians have summer houses, often barely an hour away from home, but out of the city centres where they spend their holidays) of Evgenia’s father, plus tennis and a second game of football all fell through for assorted reasons.
Instead we wandered randomly around town, went to the beach (always interesting with the nearest coast over 3000km away), bowling for the first time ever in my life (first game I scored 28, 4th an apparently respectable 128), entertain Evgenia’s father, walkng his huge and very friendly Labrador, Urmass; played Russian Billiards and numerous assorted board games (mostly very badly), and even played football. For the stupidity value as much as anything else, there had to be an official FT kickaround, especially as one of Mjeh’s colleagues, Yuri, was also a member. So a Chelyabinsk version happened long before a London one, which has been in the planning stages for at least 18months and I doubt will ever happen. There are a few photos and report on FT for those interested, but suffice to say, the world side beat the Russians in the battle of ChMZ, meaning my lucky charm attendance continues. Played 2, won 2, and astonishingly I didn’t even hurt like heck the day after – I barely felt it at all - as per the Vilnius episode. Scarily, we then played again (only the Stokie's ahead of Chel now) on my last day and again i felt fine the day after...
We also talked a fair chunk about China, somewhere which has long fascinated me and I hope to live and work in in the relatively near future. It is a country that I will be visiting later on this trip, hopefully for an extended stay, and which Mchiel and Evgenia are also moving to. They have finally accepted an offer which was favourable to both, and will be leaving Chelyabinsk within a month to go and teach English in a University on the SE Chinese Coast.
But mostly, I did very little. Even the most regular of travelers needs a short break every now and again and It was great to just talk lots and relax, respond to job offers, enquiries and emails, play some games, got chatted up by random curious locals (why does t always happen to me?!), got my washing and some bits of work and admin done, my journal finally up to date and photos sorted, catch up on sleep and virtually cut off the alcohol for a while. All whilst killing – and being bitten by - huge numbers of mosquitoes.
All of that was almost outweighed by the delights of the registration process though. By law, any visitor to Russia must register their visa with the local authorities in any town or city where they are for more than 72 hours on working days. If you stay in a hotel and some hostels, it is automatic, whilst in some cities, agencies affiliated with your visa supply company (such as in St. Petersburg) can do it for you. Anywhere else, or if you stay at a private residence, you have to register yourself at the local UVIR office. And if you have gaps in your date stamps, you need to be able to account for them (i.e. by showing train tickets to prove where you were). I won’t go in to the full story and problems here, but suffice to say that it didn’t go according to plan. It took us trips to 5 offices (some several times, including the place I needed the stamp on my migration card from who first saw us on Fri and didn’t stamp me until Wed), in and out of assorted offices, payment for lots of different forms (some of which then weren’t needed), huge amounts of queuing – We wasted literally days in queues, and the queues would have made very impressive rugby malls, in stuffy smelly corridors with lots of frayed tempers and temperatures probably touching 40-45. I’ve no idea why the Russians are so poor at the game on the showings I had - and general chaos and contradiction all around. And not helped buy strategically closed offices at certain times and on certain days (UVIR on thurs, then a separate office we discovered we needed an official stamp from on the Fri and Mon).
I arrived on the Tuesday morning and it took until the following Wednesday to finally get registered, meaning I was well over the 72hour limit (which would either have 2.30am Friday or Monday depending on whether Thursday counted as a business day. It was a normal business day, but not a UVIR one, and nobody could confirm which version was relevant) been could have all sorts of problems when I try and leave the country and have to pay a fine/bribe or simply be banned from Russia for 1/5 years or permanently. Or have no trouble at all.
But that’s a story for the future when I actually leave and know how the story goes.