I finally connect with the university climbing club- have to completely rethink my idea of climbing, and learn some lessons about Russian hospitality.
Olga is a teacher, speaks great English, and gives me a wide smile of welcome. Together with and Italian student, Sara, we make our way to the ‘Children’s House of Tourism’. We arranged this meeting through text- the club had posted a small flier in the dorm, and I thought I’d give them a ring- and attempt to tackle the language barrier and my fear of their different safety methods.
Getting off the bus, I realise that I have not been this far in the suburbs for a while. Apartment blocks rise around us, windows covered with curtains or cardboard. The initial assessment is not good for my nerves. It seems to be an unwritten rule of climbing centres that they are always in a large, shabby looking building, in the middle of an area that you would otherwise not really have a reason to go to. The Children’s House of Tourism rises up like a weary old worker; the brick is unpainted, and it screams ‘monotone building style’ that is associated with the USSR. It is somehow clear that it has seen better days, even though I don’t know exactly what it is that is giving off that impression.
We enter, hang our coats in the cloakroom (a ritual I now consider an essential part of Russian habits), register with the security guard watching tv, and head down some narrow steps. Light filters into the big hall through windows secured with cross-hatched wire, the floorboards, warped and creaking are painted a putrid yellow and a colour that I guess used to be red and is now a pinkish brown. On one wall there are two ‘climbing walls’, or what I would consider a climbing wall with routes that have clearly not been changed since they were constructed. In the middle of the room stands a man in full body harness, ropes hanging off him, his curls attempting to escape from under his helmet (which has a string dangling from it) with a kayak paddle in one hand.
I do a double take. Where am I?
Twenty minutes later everything makes a bit more sense. I have learned that my new climbing buddies are Misha and Andrei, and have watched the boys as they set up our climbing playground, hanging ropes from the ceiling and from the ceiling to the wall. I have learned a new knot, and some new vocabulary, and attempted, haltingly, to speak Russian. They all seemed to find that amusing, and we switch back to English for most safety instructions.
For the next four hours we climb up, down, and across, mostly on the ropes. I improve my abseiling skills, which I rarely use otherwise, and learn the ins and outs of ascenders- devices which I previously considered fairly useless. This assisted climbing is so different from what I am used to, and I realise that have rope burn and bruises everywhere. Others join and leave as they please, but after we have all used up our energy we take everything down and a table is put in the middle of the room.
Food magically appears from everyone’s bags- sandwiches, cookies, chocolates and fruit. Tea is passed around, and we chat, switching languages, asking vocabulary, checking cultural references, talking about adventures passed and adventures planned. This is the infamous Russian hospitality, without the vodka (thankfully). I feel guilty for having nothing to share, and make a mental note that I need to bring something special back when I return from my next trip abroad. Shortbread, perhaps.
Back at the dorms my friend grins at me: ‘You’re glowing. You must have had a good day today. ‘
Yes, yes I did.