A Bus Ride to Yoshkar-Ola
Lesson learned: take the expensive bus
It was a wintry day in the Chuvash capital of Cheboksary. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city, seen the sights, and met a number of ethnic Chuvash. As it was time to leave for my next city, I collected my thoughts.
Racially, Chuvash were quite easy to tell apart from the Russians in the city. The Russians were fair skinned with round faces and round eyes, while Chuvash had features that varied considerably. Formed by the earliest Turkic wanderings (some historians believe the Chuvash are the descendants of the Huns), the Chuvash are predominately Finnic in origin, with a fair amount of Slavic and some Turkic ancestry. This ancestry is visible in their features. Fair skin predominated, though a large minority had the "yellow" skin we normally associate with East Asians. Folded eyes were uncommon, though most Chuvash had almond shaped eyes. Blond hair was more common than expected, and produced an odd effect when mixed with the darker skin and almond eyes. While many Chuvash had the round Slavic face, others had the high cheekbones of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. Chuvash appeared to be shorter than the Russians.
The city was considerably more prosperous than expected. The Volga riverfront in particular was quite luxurious, with new apartment complexes under construction. There were some run down areas, but even those were much cleaner than Los Angeles. The roads and sidewalks were in poor condition, and got worse the further from the river. Although many signs were in both Russian and Chuvash, Russian was almost exclusively spoken. I only heard Chuvash spoken by older people. Ethnic relations seemed to be good, with many mixed Chuvash-Russian couples. A giant pro-Putin billboard was in one of the poor neighborhoods, one of the few I saw in all of Russia.
Leaving the hostel, I summoned a yandex.taxi driver (Russian version of Uber) to go to the avtovokzal. The driver was a friendly old Chuvash communist who said that everything was much better under communism, and that most problems had only appeared in the late 1980s. My description of Los Angeles largely confirmed his impressions of the United States. He was interesting to talk to, but due to the small size of the city we quickly arrived at the avtovokzal and parted. Avtovokzals are essentially bus stations, though considerably cheaper and busier. There were several buses to each of the neighboring cities every day, with more on weekends. Prices ranged from the ruble equivalent of $7 to $18. I unwisely purchased the lowest priced ticket to the Mari capital of Yoshkar Ola, intending to meet Mari people, a Finno-Ugrian people. The schedule showed that the trip was estimated to take 90 minutes.
After purchasing the ticket, I waited inside the avtovokzal for half an hour. Unlike a bus station in USA, people from all classes were present. Most people were dressed in the puffy synthetic coats that are popular as cold weather gear, with women favoring bright colors and men darker colors. Perhaps it was an unusual day, but most people in the station were Russians, while Russians are only about half the population of Cheboksary.
It was snowing harder, so I waited until it was ten minutes prior to bus departure to leave the avtovokzal and walk to the departure area. The bus arrived shortly, an older Ford Transit model with faded paint and a fair amount of damage. The driver was a middle aged Chuvash with an oddly shaped asymmetrical face who seemed dim. The driver and bus didn't inspire much confidence, but I got into the bus nonetheless - Mari El awaited. Only one passenger got into the bus - a blond flattop thirtysomething Russian in a cheap suit with a briefcase who seemed underclothed for the cold. He seemed completely unperturbed by the weather.
As we pulled away from the station, the driver started smoking and opened the front windows, ensuring a steady amount of incoming snow & a constant blast of winter air. Traveling through Cheboksary and across the Volga bridge was swift. The streets had been plowed and salted, and traffic was minimal. While we were traveling faster than we should have, it wasn't too alarming given the light traffic. It was only several kilometers north of the Volga that I began to experience true fear.
Cheboksary & Chuvashia became Turkic speaking because they are part of the Eurasian steppe. Chuvashia is south of the Volga, the land along the river is flat and open other than human settlement. This made it easy for horse riding nomads to conquer and settle the region, thus its Turkic heritage. On the north side of the Volga, there are dense forests where the Mari (amongst many other peoples) held out against the steppe nomads.
As we drove further north, we entered this dense forest. Nothing could be seen but trees, clouds, road, and snow. The snowstorm had grown even more furious, and the bus windows were frosted. The road narrowed to two lanes - one north, one south. Unlike the salted & plowed roads of Cheboksary, this road had snow and ice in many parts. Our driver continued to drive well over a safe speed, and we began our first fishtail. As the bus swung to the right, I was able to see the swamp that we were about to fall into. Thankfully, the driver regained control and set the bus straight, continuing to speed.
Traffic was quite light, but other drivers were cautious given the wintry conditions. We came across a sedan that was heading north as well. Despite an incoming cargo truck, our driver swerved into the oncoming traffic lane, then swerved back to cut off the sedan. We only narrowly avoided a head on collision with the truck, missing it by at most 5 meters. The rapid movement caused the bus to fishtail again, again coming perilously close to plunging off the road into a ditch. Again, the driver regained control of the bus and straightened it. Again, we sped up to go a speed far greater than necessary.
Having had two close calls, I wondered how our driver had survived this long with his terrible driving. Or perhaps, he is some sort of driving savant, capable of navigating the ice slicked roads of the Volga republics as few others are. At no point in our journey was the suited Russian businessman ever perturbed. Whether this is because journeys in Russia are generally so hazardous or because he is a stoic, I will never know.
As we continued racing north to Yoshkar Ola, a large snow drift appeared ahead. Our driver swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid it, but failed, hitting it indirectly, and causing the bus to fishtail again. The road at this point was thankfully drier, so he was easily able to regain control of the bus. The hit on the snowdrift covered the entire side of the bus with snow, making it impossible to see out of the side windows. At that point, I reconciled myself to fate.
We endured several more fishtails and sliding turns on the trip, but were unable to see the causes of each other them. I clung to the seat for dear life, hoping that I'd survive what seemed to be an inevitable crash. I finally acclimated myself to the driver's cigarette smoke and the cold winds blowing through the windows.
To my immense relief, we pulled into the Yoshkar Ola avtovokzal safely. An insane old woman wearing a scarf greeted us with a glare and screeching as we stepped out of the bus onto the slushy cement. I checked my phone. We had done the 90 minute drive in 55 minutes. The driver was clearly in a hurry, abandoned the bus, and walked away swiftly. I spent the rest of the day exploring the lovely capital of Mari El - Yoshkar Ola.