I promised I'd say something good about Russia, because there is definitely a place in my heart for this gigantic, surly, complex land, or I wouldn't be here right now. Yeah I lived in Ukraine and most of my experience is in Ukraine, but the untrained eye would hardly notice a difference. My previous trips to Russia have been to Kaliningrad at the western extreme, and Kamchatka/Vladivostok at the eastern extreme. Those two places are also quite similar despite their being separated by 10 time zones - the Soviets were amazing like that. Anyway, as I've penned before, whenever I return to these parts it feels a bit like returning home. And home is something you appreciate, warts and all.
That said, it's a bit harder to appreciate this particular part of Russia. Maybe the warts are a little more prominent, or the highlights a little less high. The Black Sea resorts are nice enough, but they are Russian family resort towns. There are no independent foreign or Russian tourists with whom to swap war stories over a cold beer at night. No hostels. No must-visit attractions. It's Russians on vacation on a pebbly beach. As a single foreigner I was out of place. Covering the big cities of Rostov and Krasnodar, meanwhile, reminded me of covering Ukraine's Russified East. Rostov especially is a perfectly pleasant, even Cosmopolitan city. Yet there's nothing really of interest there to tourists, save the spectacle of a witnessing a newly rich former Soviet industrial city in action - a dose of glitz here, a dash of Soviet quirkiness there. In short Rostov is nice enough, but it's not going to excite you if you've spent too much time in Eastern Ukraine within the past year, as I have. Unless you just love Cossack culture, as lots of Germans, French and Italians do (I've never met an American who loved Cossack culture). Rostov is where the Don Cossacks once roamed, and their former capital, Starocherkassk, is an idyllic riverside village with a smattering of Cossack-related tourist attractions (mainly a palace and a church). It's one of those places that time seems to have forgotten, and it was by far the highlight of my first week in country. That said, I wouldn't fly all the way to Rostov just to see it. Unless I just loved Cossacks.
I daytripped to Starocherkassk my second day in Rostov (later that day I would slice up my finger). Naturally, I met a couple Cossack-loving Italians there, who were being ushered around in a fancy black car by a travel agency (bastards!). I met them on a barge crossing the Don River. I had arrived there by my marshrutka (a Russian public transort van, basically). Meeting them was significant because they were the only two tourists I would meet during my entire first week in Russia. Three days later in Anapa I met two more Italians in my hotel, but they were businessmen visiting a local factory that their company owned. They didn't count as tourists, but they inspired me to pursue a much-needed diversion: I'd start counting tourists (foreign tourists, that is, not Russian or Ukrainian tourists, of which there are many down here). So heretofore at the end of every blog entry I will give a tourist count. Actually this idea isn't totally unique. One of my co-authors, Robert, counted moustaches in the Russian Far East when he updated the previous version of this book. Moustaches in the Far East are presumably a lot more common than tourists in the south, so his was a more labor intensive endeavor. Anyway I wasn't thinking of Robert when I decided to count tourists, unless subliminally. I only thought of him afterwards, which makes my idea somewhat unique still.
As it's now June 11, I can now update my tourist count with all the tourists I saw during four days in Sochi. My total tourist count is now 4. That's right. I saw a whopping 2 tourists in Sochi, site of the 2008 Winter Olympics. They were Dutch retirees. They were checking into my hotel yesterday (Tuesday), the morning after the Netherlands whipped Italy 3-0 in the Euro Championships. I was the first to inform them of the result, as they had spent the night incommunicado on a train from Rostov after coming over from Ukraine. The husband was ecstatic and almost hugged me. He said I had made their day. That made me happy. It's always good to make someone's day.