A Journey Deep Into The Arctic Heart Of Russia

By Jennifer Sherowski

“This doesn’t even feel like Russia.”

“But maybe this is the real Russia.”

Eight of us-all North Americans, all snowboarders-are sitting around a fireplace one night trying to comprehend the fact that we are somewhere as completely foreign and absolutely insane as the former Soviet Union. And Mary, our Russian interpreter, is trying to help us. We ambush her with questions and glance curiously out the windows for clues about the place. It does feel remote out here-just a few squat stone homes neighbor our rental chalet, and we can even smell some spicy, pungent meat stew they’re cooking up next door … but, no, no, it still just doesn’t feel like Russia.

So what is the real Russia, and why wasn’t it meeting up with our expectations? “I think you guys make too much of those ideas about mafia and spies and all that,” said Mary. And it’s true that most of our crew spent our younger years under Reagan and in the Cold War, reading stories about Russian spies and the KGB and believing that all Ruskis were espionage-prone “Reds” and “Commies.” Well, guess what? Russia is no longer Communist-it hasn’t been for fifteen years. In fact, a swanky shopping mall inhabits the former university building on the east side of Red Square, just 50 feet away from Lenin’s tomb. How’s that for capitalist irony?

The truth is that Russian people are just people. A lot are poor by Western standards and most have seen serious hardship in their lives, not to mention cataclysmic change over the past two decades-but they’re just people. The Russian mountains are just mountains. They’re giant, wild, and looming-but they’re mountains nonetheless. What, did we think we were going to be kidnapped by the KGB while shredding, or that Siberian timber wolves were going to surround us on the hill and tear out our jugulars? Actually, yeah, that’s kind of what we thought. In fact, one day we were somehow convinced that we were trespassing into Soviet Georgian territory by building a jump off the edge of the resort. We all talked big about how there were snipers in the woods getting ready to pick us off one by one. It would’ve been good for the story, I guess.

However, all that isn’t to take away from the wonderful, mind-blowing mystery that is a trip to Russia. Surprisingly, several snowshred crews made it to that far land this winter, lured there with tales of lawlessness and untapped Alpine potential. This included big-mountain Jeremy Jones and a few of his fellow Rossignol riders, as well as the Mack Dawg crew, comprised of Louie Fountain, Josh Dirksen, DCP, Lukas Huffman, and Shin Campos. I headed to Russia on the Mack Dawg mission, abandoning North America in late January at the height of X-Games fury-hell-bent on finding out exactly what this place was all about.

We flew south two hours from Moscow to Sochi, making our way to a resort called Krasna Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains (Jones, along with Jonas Emery and a few other riders, would rampage through this place a few weeks later). Stepping off a shifty Russian plane that looked more like a Greyhound bus on the inside, we walked into the meager Sochi terminal housing just the bare necessities (a vodka stand, plus a porcelain hole in the ground as a toilet) and watched our bags come out on an impossibly old conveyor belt. Cab drivers carted us up to the resort, speaking at us in friendly (but incomprehensible) Russian with detailed descriptions of the surrounding countryside. We saw a camel on the side of the road. Things were definitely feeling strange.

The house where we were delivered and where we would spend the next two weeks, though, was a nice, normal chalet-style joint. We unloaded, immediately filling the place up good with shred gear and all your typical shred smells (fragrant boots, well-used capilene undershirts, et cetera)-and suddenly, it started to feel like any other snowboard trip. think that’s where the confusion about the “real” Russia started. It’s hard to feel culture shock when you’re eight-deep in like-minded Yankee-speakers and conversations naturally gravitate toward what trick whoever did on whatever rail in whatever ad three years ago. Nevertheless, we were in Russia.

The resort of Krasna Polyana is absolutely amazing. It’s one of those places like Whistler or Las Le§as-a playground for those who want to hike and build and shred. A string of four rickety double lifts takes you straight to the top of a giant ridgeline, with flutes and spines immediately available and an endless footpath leading out to untouched bowls upon bowls upon bowls. Saying we rode this place is like saying my flight from Portland to Moscow was long, or that vodka on an empty stomach is a bad idea. We slaughtered the mountain. We chewed it up and spit it out. We’d be straight-lining down dusky runs each day at five or six, headed straight to the restaurant, tired as dogs, happy and hungry, ready for “that red soup with the meat stuff in it,” or “the pasta thingy with chicken,” beers all around, loud stories, red faces.

Now, funny thing about renting a house in Polyana, each evening upon getting home, right when we were pealing off sopping layers and stretching out on couches, the caretaker/manager would come in and hit us up for money. His name was Sergei, and he had gold teeth. Sometimes he was asking us to pay up for breakfast that morning, sometimes it was for the bribe he’d coughed up at the airport to get some of our lost luggage out of baggage claim without proper documentation. It didn’t really matter for what, just that he was hitting us up, and we had to pay-right then, in cash. Sergei didn’t speak English, so these situations inevitably became heated Russian shouting matches between him and Mary, while we all looked on wide-eyed, understanding nothing and yet still getting more and more stressed out. It was a nightly ritual, and it was not relaxing at all.

However, we eventually accepted this as part of a tradition of mild extortion and making whatever you can off whoever has more than you. This realization made it a little less surprising, then, when our passports, um, parted ways with us for a few days. Actually, this was one of the major panics of the trip. See, the Ruski government requires a registered lodging stamp in your passport to account for every day of your visit (see Red Alert sidebar), so we really had no choice but to hand over our prized documentation of citizenship to two swarthy Russians who were somehow “helping” Sergei run the rental house.

Needless to say, the two dudes went incommunicado for a few days with our thick stack of passports. We bravely joked about how our identities were currently being sold on the Russian black market; but seriously, the likelihood of that happening was too good to joke about. When Mary finally got in touch with them, they claimed the registry stamps “would cost some money.” Surprise, surprise. Well, our lives were in their hands, so we paid up. They only got about 50 bucks out of each of us, but with eight people in total and taking into account the currency exchange, they made out pretty good. I’m still trying to figure out how to categorize “bribe” on my expense report.

Because I enjoy making ill-advised decisions and have never been one to stick in a single place for too long, I decided to leave Polyana early and cast out on my own to “see Russia.” Now, I won’t lie, this is a tough place to get around by yourself. I’d changed my plane ticket over the phone, but that was no help to me at the Sochi airport when passport control slammed the door in my face for “trying to fly on the wrong day.” So there I was, alone in the freezing, empty terminal, feet numb and pant legs wet from wandering around in the snow, no one to call, no one to ask for help-truly pathetic. Finally, a friendly old man who spoke a bit of English lent me a hand clearing up the mess. Taking in how pitiful I looked standing there with my red nose, worried eyes, and sopping feet, he had these words of wisdom for me: “In Russia, we have to laugh at our problems, because if we didn’t, we’d all die pretty young.” And I did laugh-but only when I was seat-belted into a plane headed back to Moscow.

Moscow … this is the place. A cold, sprawling metropolis filled with contradictions: Muslim temples next to Orthodox churches. Casinos next to state department buildings. The desperately poor next to the flagrantly rich. Eastern onion-dome architecture next to the hard, mighty giants built by Stalin. I got lost wandering around the ornate innards of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square before heading into the ultra-capitalist extravaganza of a shopping mall next door. Fendi, Burberry, Louis Vuitton-damn, I can’t afford that shit. So into a cab and out to a labyrinthine street market where there are endless stalls of designer knockoffs, fake ice, amber jewelry, weapons, antiques, and old wartime relics. I wandered around for hours, haggling prices with hand gestures and spending countless crumpled-up rubles. Upon return, I had a bag full of weird, random treasures that cried Russia way more than a 2,000-dollar designer handbag.

The rest of the Mack Dawg crew, well, I heard that they had their own adventures. There were wild tales of an aborted plane landing in Moscow, an all-night train ride from St. Petersburg, a mysterious lady friend (or two), a crazy-eyed dusk-’til-dawner in the guts of the vodka-soaked Moscow club scene. Yeah, each traveler has their own Russian experience to grapple with, and in the end, it’s better that way.

So, what is the “real” Russia? Well, that’s kind of like saying, “What’s the real U.S.?” It’s a huge country with so many different kinds of people and places that you can’t sum it up in a few easy lines. Sure, there are some things you’d expect. Thin, gray light does filter down onto the frozen expanse of Moscow, faintly bathing the crumbling concrete and weary faces pinched against the cold. But there’re also giant, jagged mountains in the south and east that swoop down onto bright-white beaches. There are Hummer-driving mafia members, but there’re also shred kids just like you. There’re old-timers eking it out on pre-capitalist pensions-and right down the street, there’s Gucci and Prada. There’s, well, everything.

The truth is, you kind of have to go and see it for yourself, because books and movies won’t give you the real picture, and it definitely won’t be what you expected-it sure as hell wasn’t for us. But then again, that’s the beauty of traveling, ain’t it? Discovery.

Red Alert

Traveling to Russia is absolutely not like going to Europe or even Japan. Bush and Putin may be “friends” these days, but in a lot of ways, Russia is still very much a closed country. The government keeps tight tabs on all foreigners within its boarders, and tourism is a relatively new phenomenon over there. Here’re a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about ducking behind the former Iron Curtain.

Visas: As a North American, you need a visa in addition to your passport to even get on a plane to Russia. A visa requires an invitation from a Russian party. Now, don’t get discouraged if you don’t know any Ruskis, because there’re plenty of travel agencies out there who’s job it is to get you a visa-you pay them a fee (several hundred dollars), and they will secure your invitation and visa all at once.

Guide/Interpreter: Don’t try to travel around Russia without a guide or interpreter. All might be well and good in Moscow where many younger people speak English, but once you get toward the outskirts of town or definitely anywhere in the mountains, you will be completely helpless. There’s no customer-service desks at airports, and people by and large don’t speak English or care about your situation-they have they’re own stuff to worry about, ya know?

Lodging the mess. Taking in how pitiful I looked standing there with my red nose, worried eyes, and sopping feet, he had these words of wisdom for me: “In Russia, we have to laugh at our problems, because if we didn’t, we’d all die pretty young.” And I did laugh-but only when I was seat-belted into a plane headed back to Moscow.

Moscow … this is the place. A cold, sprawling metropolis filled with contradictions: Muslim temples next to Orthodox churches. Casinos next to state department buildings. The desperately poor next to the flagrantly rich. Eastern onion-dome architecture next to the hard, mighty giants built by Stalin. I got lost wandering around the ornate innards of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square before heading into the ultra-capitalist extravaganza of a shopping mall next door. Fendi, Burberry, Louis Vuitton-damn, I can’t afford that shit. So into a cab and out to a labyrinthine street market where there are endless stalls of designer knockoffs, fake ice, amber jewelry, weapons, antiques, and old wartime relics. I wandered around for hours, haggling prices with hand gestures and spending countless crumpled-up rubles. Upon return, I had a bag full of weird, random treasures that cried Russia way more than a 2,000-dollar designer handbag.

The rest of the Mack Dawg crew, well, I heard that they had their own adventures. There were wild tales of an aborted plane landing in Moscow, an all-night train ride from St. Petersburg, a mysterious lady friend (or two), a crazy-eyed dusk-’til-dawner in the guts of the vodka-soaked Moscow club scene. Yeah, each traveler has their own Russian experience to grapple with, and in the end, it’s better that way.

So, what is the “real” Russia? Well, that’s kind of like saying, “What’s the real U.S.?” It’s a huge country with so many different kinds of people and places that you can’t sum it up in a few easy lines. Sure, there are some things you’d expect. Thin, gray light does filter down onto the frozen expanse of Moscow, faintly bathing the crumbling concrete and weary faces pinched against the cold. But there’re also giant, jagged mountains in the south and east that swoop down onto bright-white beaches. There are Hummer-driving mafia members, but there’re also shred kids just like you. There’re old-timers eking it out on pre-capitalist pensions-and right down the street, there’s Gucci and Prada. There’s, well, everything.

The truth is, you kind of have to go and see it for yourself, because books and movies won’t give you the real picture, and it definitely won’t be what you expected-it sure as hell wasn’t for us. But then again, that’s the beauty of traveling, ain’t it? Discovery.

Red Alert

Traveling to Russia is absolutely not like going to Europe or even Japan. Bush and Putin may be “friends” these days, but in a lot of ways, Russia is still very much a closed country. The government keeps tight tabs on all foreigners within its boarders, and tourism is a relatively new phenomenon over there. Here’re a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about ducking behind the former Iron Curtain.

Visas: As a North American, you need a visa in addition to your passport to even get on a plane to Russia. A visa requires an invitation from a Russian party. Now, don’t get discouraged if you don’t know any Ruskis, because there’re plenty of travel agencies out there who’s job it is to get you a visa-you pay them a fee (several hundred dollars), and they will secure your invitation and visa all at once.

Guide/Interpreter: Don’t try to travel around Russia without a guide or interpreter. All might be well and good in Moscow where many younger people speak English, but once you get toward the outskirts of town or definitely anywhere in the mountains, you will be completely helpless. There’s no customer-service desks at airports, and people by and large don’t speak English or care about your situation-they have they’re own stuff to worry about, ya know?

Lodging Registry Stamps: As part of your visa, you will be given a flimsy little piece of paper that must be guarded with your life, as well as registered and stamped by every lodging establishment you patronize-every night of your visit must be accounted for. If you stay with a friend, you’re required to go to the police station and get the thing registered. In this way, the Russian government knows exactly what you’ve been up to within its borders. Yikes.

What We Learned On Our Big Trip To Russia

Any car on the road is a taxicab-just stick out your arm and whoever feels like it will pull over. They’re called Gypsy cabs. And it’s not hitchhiking because … well, I guess because you still have to pay.

Russians have a rule about never drinking beer and vodka together. The theory is that the two alcohols are at different temperatures, and it’s mixing the temps that make you feel sick the next day. Not, mind you, all the booze you drank.

Russians aren’t nearly as worked up about President Bush as central Europeans. They’ve got bigger things to worry about, like their own government-and working out the kinks of that lightning-quick Communism-to-capitalism makeover they got a few years back.

Russian cops get paid a pathetically puny salary and often supplement their income by extorting tourists on trumped-up charges related to the tourists’ travel documents. In other words, try to keep it low-key over there.

The body of Vladimir Lenin is embalmed. In other words, if you ever visit Moscow, you can go to Red Square and see him pickled in a glass case. No cameras, though.

U.S. Customs officers find it really hard to believe that a person would go to Russia for two weeks to just “snowboard.”

The Sledding Hill

By Louie Fountain

The sledding hill setup at the base of the ski resort-it seems pretty normal when you’re just riding by at the end of a long day. Then, you do a double take. They’re hauling-like 40 miles per our, no joke, narrowly avoiding disaster at every second. Everyone is involved: mom, dad, teenage son, grandma, grandpa, small babies, overweight middle-aged men in leather jackets, sketchy uncles-all equally as reckless. The run out is half in the parking lot, half in the helicopter-landing zone. Shouldn’t there be some rules? Shouldn’t this be illegal? That’s what runs through my head.

We venture into the middle of the madness and try to get in touch with what’s going on. They’re having a ball, barely skidding to a stop and then turning around to run back uphill-some of them bleeding, some missing teeth. Overjoyed at the spectacle, we stand by a mound of rocks and snow for protection. Soon, they’re aiming right for us and launching off the mound. Drifting sideways and kicking wildly, they crash down to the ice. Should I rush to their aid? They’re not getting up-they’re laughing, and bleeding. Shouldn’t there be some rules? Shouldn’t this be illegal? That’s what runs through my head. I’m uptight about the whole situation. Why? Because I’m from a different land.

ing Registry Stamps: As part of your visa, you will be given a flimsy little piece of paper that must be guarded with your life, as well as registered and stamped by every lodging establishment you patronize-every night of your visit must be accounted for. If you stay with a friend, you’re required to go to the police station and get the thing registered. In this way, the Russian government knows exactly what you’ve been up to within its borders. Yikes.

What We Learned On Our Big Trip To Russia

Any car on the road is a taxicab-just stick out your arm and whoever feels like it will pull over. They’re called Gypsy cabs. And it’s not hitchhiking because … well, I guess because you still have to pay.

Russians have a rule about never drinking beer and vodka together. The theory is that the two alcohols are at different temperatures, and it’s mixing the temps that make you feel sick the next day. Not, mind you, all the booze you drank.

Russians aren’t nearly as worked up about President Bush as central Europeans. They’ve got bigger things to worry about, like their own government-and working out the kinks of that lightning-quick Communism-to-capitalism makeover they got a few years back.

Russian cops get paid a pathetically puny salary and often supplement their income by extorting tourists on trumped-up charges related to the tourists’ travel documents. In other words, try to keep it low-key over there.

The body of Vladimir Lenin is embalmed. In other words, if you ever visit Moscow, you can go to Red Square and see him pickled in a glass case. No cameras, though.

U.S. Customs officers find it really hard to believe that a person would go to Russia for two weeks to just “snowboard.”

The Sledding Hill

By Louie Fountain

The sledding hill setup at the base of the ski resort-it seems pretty normal when you’re just riding by at the end of a long day. Then, you do a double take. They’re hauling-like 40 miles per our, no joke, narrowly avoiding disaster at every second. Everyone is involved: mom, dad, teenage son, grandma, grandpa, small babies, overweight middle-aged men in leather jackets, sketchy uncles-all equally as reckless. The run out is half in the parking lot, half in the helicopter-landing zone. Shouldn’t there be some rules? Shouldn’t this be illegal? That’s what runs through my head.

We venture into the middle of the madness and try to get in touch with what’s going on. They’re having a ball, barely skidding to a stop and then turning around to run back uphill-some of them bleeding, some missing teeth. Overjoyed at the spectacle, we stand by a mound of rocks and snow for protection. Soon, they’re aiming right for us and launching off the mound. Drifting sideways and kicking wildly, they crash down to the ice. Should I rush to their aid? They’re not getting up-they’re laughing, and bleeding. Shouldn’t there be some rules? Shouldn’t this be illegal? That’s what runs through my head. I’m uptight about the whole situation. Why? Because I’m from a different land.