Our adventure in Novosibirsk certainly didn’t turn out exactly the way we expected, but it was fun and showed us a totally different side of Russia than what we saw in Moscow.
We stayed at the Marriott near Lenin Square and the staff was amazing. They helped orient us to the city, arranged for cheap taxi, and even made sure we had a boxed breakfast when we left today at 4 a.m.
We have had two days of 4 a.m. wake-up times and in both cases we departed the hotel ridiculously quickly. Yesterday it took us 15 minutes. Today 10. And we left with sandwiches, fruit, juice, yogurt and muffins in our boxed meal. That clerk at the front desk was insistent we take breakfast since it came with the room.
But back to pizza. We took a preliminary walk around downtown Novosibirsk, focusing on a strange tiny church in the middle of the street, the opera house and a delightful park. The park had a fairly dense collection of trees, some flute players in South American garb, two dogs lying on a blanket wearing sunglasses (begging for money, which seemed odd to me. How exactly do canines panhandle?), a woman giving pony rides, kids driving mini battery operated cars and a kiosk selling some overpriced but hysterical political themed t-shirts.
We wandered to a local coffee shop, where the reality set it that no one around us spoke English. We managed to decipher the menu, and the prices were half what they were in Moscow. The cakes looked incredible. Travel always leaves me dehydrated so I ordered a “chai latte” (tea latte in English). In Russian, it looks like “yan (triangular staple shape)atte.” M stepped out on a ledge and ordered the mochachino.
My tea came in a pretty standard coffee shop cup with the types of coffee and add-ons written on the side. It had a lovely spice blend, I could clearly taste the ginger, and I’m not sure if they used a special local honey or if something about the milk made it so different and rich.
We also discovered one of those sidewalk drink huts that had a BIG bottle of water and it cost what I paid for the small ones in Moscow. That made me very happy. I have discovered my Russian vocabulary can only yield beverages. I can order coffee, tea, and water. And I can count to three.
At this point it was about 5 pm so we returned to the hotel to see if we had heard from our contact at Pizzasinizza. The answer was no. So we decided to wait until 5:45. We decided we had four options: get a cab, walk, phone them, or merely order the pizza for delivery. We had flown 7,000 miles for this pizza after all.
We consulted google maps, which implied that it would be an 8 km walk to the pizza place, a 15 minute cab ride or require three buses on public transportation. We used the map in the back of a magazine in our hotel room to translate the names of streets into a familiar alphabet, but this seemed not quite do-able on our own.
At 5:45 we had heard nothing so we headed to the hotel lobby. I at first asked for change for a 5,000 ruble bill. Russians seem to prefer exact change. And I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to use the equivalent of a $100 bill on the street or at a delivery-only pizza place.
Then, I launched into my more complicated of problems. I explained how I had come across this pizza place on the Internet but with our limited Russian I didn’t know if we could call them or find them. The front desk googled them. They tried to telephone but no one answered. They offered to call a car but seemed to think public transport would be easy.
The one clerk printed us a map, circled the metro stations and our destination address. He then drew a line for our walking path once we exited the station. “Take the red line,” he said. “To [insert Russian word here]. It is three stops, toward [more Russian words], that’s two words. You will see the river. Take the red line toward the two words at the end of the line. Then return to Lenin Square.”
He repeated the Russian words for Lenin Square a few times. He told us how much metro tickets would be and off we went. When we walked up to the ticket window, it was funny because I was only confident that I knew how to count to three. I think I know four— it sounds something like “chest” but I might be confusing that with the number six. We ended up with four tokens. And they were tokens that indeed went in a little coin slot. I don’t think I’ve ever used a token on a subway, always paper tickets or the smart cards.
The Novosibirsk subway has old cars and rides fast with the rhythm of an old wooden roller coaster. It was much easier to navigate than Moscow, but that was because we had some idea where to go, a familiarity with Russian subway basics and it was not rush hour.
We wove through the underground shops of the metro station and realized we had no idea what side to exit on to follow the map the hotel clerk gave us. We checked with some police officers. We had obviously picked the wrong side, so they added more arrows to our map to loop us around the block.
It got interesting because the streets in Novosibirsk aren’t labeled well, often not at all. We followed our map to where we thought we might need to turn, and asked (by gestures and pointing to the map) an older man in a military style uniform where to go. He pointed toward the street and told us a bunch of things in Russian we didn’t understand.
We followed that street for a while and again got confused that we should be making another turn. This time we stopped in a little grocery store. We started down a cross street that brought us through block upon block of identical apartment buildings that represented the classic idea of how I pictured Russia in my mind. And the amount of garbage we saw along the streets reminded me of some of my experiences in Africa as if the West had merged with the developing world.
We had agreed that if we didn’t find it by the next major intersection, and if that street wasn’t a real commercial street, we would turn around. I had to use the restroom. Remember I said I bought a BIG bottle of water? That was ill-timed.
And then there it was. TWO pizza places side by side. We walked into the first, but despite the sign on the door, the hall seemed dark and as if it were private. We visited the second. That was Asterix Pizza. They directed us down the dark hall, which opened up to this bright little room where a woman was writing on pizza boxes with a crazy yellow seat beside her.
No one spoke English. But with the help of cell phones, we explained the situation and they let us order pizza. And I got to use the toilet.
The girl writing on the pizzas was checking Instagram to try and understand how this all came about, and I even turned on my cellular data so I could show her from my account. That’s when a message from our original contact pushed through. M texted whomever that person is on my behalf.
And we sat on a bench in a non-touristy neighborhood on the other side of the river in Novosibirsk waiting for our pizza. When it was ready, the cook made me count out exact change and handed me three pizza boxes and a wrap.
We embarked back to the metro station and to the hotel. We spread the pizzas out and ate on the floor. The pizzas came with some unusual dipping sauces: a not-like-in-America barbecue sauce, a cheesy-mayo like sauce and a sweet and sour sauce.
We enjoyed our pizzas and were in bed by ten to rise early again today. Sadly, my contact messaged asking if we could get together for coffee before I flew to Moscow. I wish we had the time.
We felt very triumphant that we got the pizza. From the time we left the hotel to the time we returned was two-and-a-half hours. Ironically, there’s a Papa Johns about a block from the hotel. We enjoyed our pizza. More importantly, it showed us how truly sweet and helpful the Russians are and allowed us to explore the city.
Of course, M had proclaimed I am not allowed to pull a stunt like this again.
That’s okay. I can find something as equally crazy.