To Suzdal

Nov 4, 2013 by

At 4:13 am, the train chugged into Vladimir. After a long time queueing for train tickets in St Petersburg and encountering a stiff and brute language barrier with both the ticketing agents and the huffing and puffing impatient Russians behind us, this was the only option we had.


The provodnitsa had gently touched my leg as I slept rigidly on one of the upper berths of the third class wagon. I was jerked roughly from a light sleep and gathered my belongings. When I stepped off the train, travel partner in tow, we watched as family members met loved ones who had arrived with us, and I thought how nice it must be to have someone there to greet you at 4 in the morning, to then get in their car and be ferried to a cozy home with a warm meal and a clean bed. These people all left, and I stood on the platform, dazed. I looked down at my camera, at the tiny photo I’d taken of the city map online and the directions to our hostel. I couldn’t tell if we could walk or not.




We took a wrong turn, having misunderstood the scale of the map. Ten minutes later, we turned around, and with heavy bags on our backs, made our way to the correct street. After another 20 minutes of walking and getting chewed up by mosquitoes, we agreed we couldn’t walk to the hostel. We waved over a cab and he took us the remainder of the way, telling us the fare by writing it with a finger in the dust on his car.





The lady working the night shift at the hostel let us in. She was kind in letting us leave our bags there but encouraged us not to stay since we hadn’t booked for that night. It was close to 5:00 am. I felt crusty from having slept on an overcrowded train, so I washed my face. We connected to the internet, did a little research for that day, sent a couple of “I’m still alive” emails, and then with more prodding from the hostel lady, we left.



By then, city buses were running. We noted the Lenin statue near our bus stop for our return trip that evening and boarded the bus. Not knowing how much the fare was, when the fare collector came around, I held out a handful of change and she picked out what she needed. I saw that I had paid 13 rubles. She ripped off a little ticket stub for me, and I tucked it away in my pocket.

We arrived at the central bus station where we would buy our tickets to Suzdal – the reason we had come to Vladimir at all.




It was around 7:00 am by that point, and we were on one of the first buses out of Vladimir that morning. I could feel the heat setting in, and I knew we were in for a hot day. I don’t fare well in heat; truly, I was made for the climate of Ireland – places with lots of clouds and rain. Knowing this, I felt a sense of dread set it, a feeling I get in extreme heat. It’s as if my body is bearing down, going into survival mode: Just get through the day, a voice tells me. We boarded the old soviet bus, desperate for repairs, its parts wheezing and sputtering as it pulled into the station, and I felt the absence of air conditioning. Just get through the day, the voice repeated.


The bus ride was over an hour. I dozed, I watched the countryside roll by, I nibbled on an apple. When we arrived at the bus terminal in Suzdal, a new ticket collector came onto the bus and began talking at us in Russian. We didn’t understand him, and there was no one around to translate. He kept talking at us and pointing at our tickets. We showed him our tickets repeatedly, but there was only disconnect. We got off the bus and looked around us as the bus took off, driving down the street. We looked at our map and realised the bus was going where we wanted, to the centre of the town, and we concluded that the ticket collector had only wanted additional fare from us.

So we walked.

And the rest, I think, is a story for another day.




When people tell me how jealous they are of my travels, sometimes I have no reply. Sometimes I just smile. The truth is that I don’t do the kind of travel most people enjoy. I’m not an easy traveler, and I often find myself in difficult situations like this either by chance or to challenge myself just because I want to prove that I can. The form of travel I find satisfying and rewarding is this kind, with little to no sleep often in a strange place, getting lost and then found, being unfathomably sweaty and then basking in the most glorious shower, eating a bit of weird food, being uncomfortable and uncertain. When I travel, it’s not for a vacation. That said, I began to feel a shift in my travel style this summer. I’m entirely unsure how much more hard travel like this my body can take. That fact doesn’t change the core of what drives me to travel though. That will never change. For when I travel, no matter where, and no matter how, I travel to live. I travel to see. I travel to feel. I travel for the adventure.

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  1. Zhu

    Like you, I save my “exotic” tickets and take pictures of them! They are great souvenirs.

    I love the first picture. It could have been taken a few decades ago, it has this timeless feel.

    • Colleen

      I never thought of that. I suppose it does!
      And yeah, I love those exotic tickets. I usually save mine for photo albums or collages later.

  2. cubiclethrowdown

    This sounds like a tough day, but beautiful scenery!! I don’t think I’d fare well somewhere without the Roman alphabet…

    • Colleen

      It was tough! But by the end of the trip, I could read the alphabet just fine. Not speaking the language, though, meant that I could only read things like street signs and train stations… which was really all I needed…

  3. Dawn Kurtagich

    You’re such a beautiful spirit, Coll. I love you so very much. One day, I’m going to capture you in a book, for everyone to see. I wish people were more like you.

    • Colleen

      I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you… I didn’t even know I was capture-worthy. Can’t wait to see what you write. Love you!

      • Dawn Kurtagich

        You are definitely capture-worthy. You are one of my favourite people.

  4. So glad you pushed through because you have a good story and fun photos for me. 😀

  5. Sam

    Nice post. I like the way you portrayed the sense of uncertainty throughout. And the little details about how you communicated with people like the driving telling you the cab fare and the bus conductor taking your change – they ring so true! Having travelled in South America for the last 10 months, the idea of being somewhere where people ignore you actually sounds quite nice. Sitting on a bus without music = heaven right now.

    • Colleen

      This is why I love writing. Everyone who reads what I write takes away something different, all very valid things. I never wrote this with the intention to show the communication barriers; this was just an honest and critical part of my day. I love that this had meaning for you.

  6. I’m totally with you there! It sounds like my kind of travel days: exhausting, long, yet very, very rewarding at the end!

  7. Oh man we’ve been in those shoes a few times! And I am with you on the heat – everything is more bearable when the weather is cool. But on the plus side, Suzdal. One of my favourite places in this whole wide world x

    • Colleen

      It was such a beautiful town. The one thing I can’t figure out is if how I felt about it was swayed significantly by that atrocious heat!

  8. Great story Hansel. As per usual I will systematically give you my favourite parts:

    a) the little white cartoon that looks like albino poo saying something derogatory in Russian,
    b) the fact that you managed to do your nails,
    c) the abandoned buildings that are actually lived in!!! wow.

    I can only imagine how hard that travelling is on you. Good on you. Keep it up Coll,,, great writing and photos too.

    • Colleen

      Yes that albino poo was the weirdest. I thought maybe a ghost? But yes, poo is a definite possibility.
      If I don’t do my nails, I chew them. And pick up weird foreign bugs and get wicked sick.
      Thank you again for such a kind, funny and thoughtful comment!

  9. I know what you mean; I’ve also noticed a softening change in my travel style. But when I read this story it reminded me of similar adventures and those are indeed the most rewarding travels! Russia is perfect for “hardcore” traveling! 😀

    • Colleen

      It was definitely not for the faint of heart. I’m glad you could appreciate the softening of styles… I’m not alone!

  10. You told that story so well, and almost nothing happened. Well done.

    I wonder, too, how long travel like that lasts before burnout hits. But having a solid bed at the end of the day makes it seem not so bad, too…

    • Colleen

      Thank you Sally!! That means so much.
      Beds are so crucial. Makes a world of difference. I slept in so many bad ones this summer, I thought I’d have permanent spinal damage. Well, not really, but pretty much.

  11. I love the stories of your journeys as always, Colleen! The pictures really told a lot of the story. Wow, on writing the cab fare in the dust! I’m not a super hot weather kind of person either. I’m glad you pushed on for the experience! I especially liked the very last part of what traveling brings to you. That made me smile! 🙂

    • Colleen

      Mike, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. Thank you for such a kind comment.

  12. Good for you for having such a positive spirit! I’m not sure that I would have fared so well under the same conditions… I probably would have forked over whatever the owner of the hostel asked to just go pass out in bed! Great story- I loved all the details you included!

    • Colleen

      Thanks Casey! I try to keep a positive attitude, but it can be so so hard sometimes. This was one of those times that really tested me. I’m really glad you took the time to stop by and read!

  13. francaangloitalian

    What a story! We almost went to Russia last year, almost because at the end we couldn’t get our visas while in Ukraine (sad face). I knew it isn’t easy to travel across Russia but you manged to push trough, well done! 🙂

    • Colleen

      There were times I wasn’t sure that I would last the whole trip…
      Yes, Russia is a tough place for so many reasons. Sometimes it’s hard just to get into the country!

  14. Great story girl! This area looks a little bit creepy to me though :).I never made it to Russia, but it’s on my bucket list. You should try to get there in winter :).

    • Colleen

      You would love Russia, I’m sure. I would love to go in winter sometime… all the pictures I’ve seen in the winter look so magical! Although… having said that, I’m sure it would be a lot like Canada weather-wise. People would think I’m crazy!

  15. Emy

    Once again I can only agree. I do not see travels as vacations really, and I’m not looking for rest, at least not rest as we usually think of. I want to feel, to experience, to see, to hurt sometimes because it hurts not sleeping, not eating, walking for hours with heavy luggages or just feeling homesick times to times. And just like you, when people tell me “Oh that must have been amazing, I would love to do that!” I think of all the very gross, tiring, and unpleasant times my travels sometimes consist of, and I realise that, yes, definitely, that isn’t what most people are looking for in a trip. But I think that travels are amazing because precisely I feel like my body and my mind can take almost everything then, and it’s a very liberating feeling somehow…
    I feel like we would be good travel partners!
    I hope you’re doing well!

    • Colleen

      I would love to travel with you! The only question is WHERE should we go??? 😀


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