A night in stunning Svetlograd (August 3, 2011)

By David Cianci

It had been a long day. After 7 hour wait for a ferry to cross into Russia the previous day, we were eager to make progress. We were happy with our short experience in Russia so far though: the customs people were incredibly friendly and helpful, immigration was “rent free” (just as a signed penned in English at the border told us it should be), and the roads were silky smooth compared to what we had experienced in Ukraine. But we were behind schedule. We drove a long way on good Russian roads but didn’t progress as far as we’d hoped after getting lost and going far out of our way in the decent sized city of Krasnodar. Tired and ornery, we stopped in a small town called Svetlograd.


View Silk Road in Stereo: Mongol Rally Route in a larger map

I was pessimistic about our chances as we took the road to town.  The grass had grown over train tracks that hadn’t been used for years.  Long-haul trucks rusted in empty lots.  In front of us loomed one of the huge abandoned granaries that we had observed, regularly, from a certain distance, since we first crossed into Ukraine.  I still don’t know whether we have received a satisfactory answer from anybody about the functions served by these distinctly Soviet structures.  But up close, as the road curved and we found ourselves following a course parallel to its monstrous length, we saw up close the cracks in a facade that must have reached 15 stories into the sky and stretched half a kilometer.  We surmised that there were structures built for storage because a series of slides or tubes crisscrossed the front and back of the building.  It was gray and cold.  I imagined a line of terrified men in thin jackets summoned to an office to explain real or imagined shortages of corn, wheat, and concrete.

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At dusk, Svetlograd was as welcoming as its biggest building.  Stoplights swayed ominously in the twilight.  A van followed us and its occupants’ smiles were directed at the women in our car.  The town grid was a disorganized mess of single direction lanes, but we managed to find a small store where the team bought vital supplies: piva (beer), sausage links, cheese, and хлеб (bread).

James and I set out to find help after we debated the merits of finding a campsite in the area.  Two friendly but impatient women agreed to take us to a hotel after pretending to understand our bastard aggregation of pantomime and Russian as spoken by illiterate Chinese.  It was clear that she wanted us to hurry, so I ran back to the car with the good news.  We should have just turned onto the main road where her car was waiting only 300 yards from the intersection, but a big sign indicated that such turns were prohibited.  Fearing unseen police officers, we obeyed the law and got mired in a labyrinth of one-way streets that surrounded a large army installation one block off Svetlograd’s central thoroughfare.  From behind the buildings we could see James, with his arms outstretched, following our progress with an understandable mix of rage and incredulity wondering just where do those idiots think they’re going?

Our first true screaming match occurred after we found our way back to him 20 minutes later, while we were all in the Hyundai following the women to a brick building on an open plaza near a university in the middle of the city.  Although unimpressed by the hotel, I was surprised by the strength of our anger and frustration.  Poor Jamie had been with us for only a few days.  A tall statue of Lenin looked down on us, dispassionately, as everyone apologized and unpacked the car a few minutes later.

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There were no other travelers or students occupying our large and dirty dormitory.  After we checked-in and registered, a group of students approached us as we shouldered our backpacks and asked about the names on the car.  They offered to share their cocaine and marijuana, indicated that most guests left the hotel red with bedbug bites, and informed us that there was a better, cheaper alternative nearby.  Although we were locked inside by the solitary guard at 10 p.m., the evening was productive.  James and his cousin duetted on violin and guitar and we played a little pinochle.  There was no breeze. Each of us slept with the windows open in our bags on top of tired, flattened mattresses. A quiet night was interrupted only once with a scream of horror when the world’s largest grasshopper took a flying leap onto my wife’s sleeping face.

World's largest grasshopper in our scary soviet style hotel room