We stumbled out of the train station bleary-eyed after our longest stint yet on the Trans Siberian Railway. It had just rained and the commuters were dodging the puddles as they rushed to go home. The air smelt renewed as it always does after a good soak. We had no idea which direction to take because we forgot to write down the details of where we were staying, we did know the name though. We started to look in our guidebook when a local girl no older than 16 came up to us and asked if we needed help in perfect English.
Actually, her first words were “what the hell are you doing here? Nobody comes here!” We laughed and told her about our 18-month trip from Europe to Asia by train and where we were from. She got so excited when we mentioned London, it had been a dream of hers to visit London for a long time. When Karen mentioned that she was from Malta she was expecting an even bigger wow, but alas, our friendly local had never heard of it. Karen tried hard to hide her disappointment but I knew she was gutted that I had the biggest wow.
We told her we were staying at the Linguistic University (more on that later) and she escorted us to the correct bus stop. At the bus stop, there was the usual set up of people heading home, some reading newspapers, more looking at their phones. Our new friend was giving us tips on where to visit in Nizhny Novgorod and a brief history of the place when our bus came. She actually wanted to jump on with us but she had a prior engagement. She shouted something to the people on the bus and said goodbye.
It was more like a minibus than a typical city bus. We sat down and gave our bus fare to the person next to us who then passed it along until it reached the driver. Everybody does this and it always amazed me that we got the correct change every time, especially when a few people get on the bus at the same time. Even though it had just rained the bus was quite stuffy. The people sitting across from us asked us where we were from and Karen quickly said London!
It turned out the guy who asked us had a cousin living in London and he would visit him often. We soon had most of the bus asking us questions and chatting away with us. It was such a warm welcome to a new city. No matter how experienced you are at travelling that initial entry to a new place is always a bit disorienting. The people of Nizhny Novgorod made it an easy introduction.
It was getting darker outside and the roads were becoming more residential. I was slightly concerned at how far we were from the centre but we couldn’t afford any of the hotels downtown on our backpacking budget, hence how we ended up staying in halls of residence at a Linguistic Univesity!
As our new friends departed at their respective stops they would shout to the driver to make sure he told us where to get off. This happened at least 3 times, I’m sure the driver couldn’t wait to see the back of us so he could have a more peaceful drive. We were alone for the first time since we got to the city. I was reflecting on all that had happened and chuckled to myself. Prior to starting our trip a friend of ours looked at our Russian itinerary and asked us why were visiting places like Suzdal, Nizhny Novgorod, and Yekaterinburg as not many people visited them. We said that is exactly why we want to visit them. His response was “be careful because the locals might not be that friendly”.
My thoughts were interrupted by the driver shouting that we had arrived at our stop. We thanked him and slowly got our backpacks and daypacks on. This was week 3 of our trip and I was still getting used to carrying 25kg of stuff with me. The bus pulled off and we were standing on this huge road in the dark. It was so long we couldn’t see the ends. Foolishly we forgot to ask what direction to walk in, so we were just standing there like a couple of lemons when 3 young people headed towards us. They asked us where we were heading and when we told them The Linguistic University, they replied that they lived there and they would take us. They even helped carry our bags!
I admit, at this point, I thought we must have died and we were living in some alternate universe where everybody on earth is super nice and super helpful. Normal life doesn’t work like this. As we walked down the dark, deserted street (thank the gods that they came when they did) they gave us a tip on where to go that evening. We said our thanks and goodbyes as we entered the university.
We danced like nobody was watching. The views around us were breathtaking, I could see two rivers meeting below and an old Kremlin to my left. Karen and I were the youngest people by at least 30 years but it was the older generation that kept insisting we get up for another dance. After taking the advice of our last helpers, we ended up at an outdoor food market where they served delicious smoked fish and cheap local beers. Everybody was super-friendly which was no surprise after the day we had. The DJ was playing tunes that the locals loved and they insisted we join them for a drink and a dance. Who were we to say no? As the clock turned midnight and a new day was about to begin, I reflected on the past 6 hours.
6 months before I had never heard of Nizhny Novgorod, and the only advice I had about the place was a warning. As I danced I thought to myself that I am so glad that we came here and we got to decide for ourselves what it’s like. It was a lesson learnt that I still go back to when deciding where to visit next.
We got in the taxi tired but happy, as we got to the university it turned out we didn’t have enough money for the fare. I asked him to take us to an ATM but he gave us a reduced rate instead. Of course, he did, this is Nizhny Novgorod.