Our Trip to Russia, April 15 through April 26, 2001

by John

It's April 15, 2001 2:10 PM and I'm sitting on a DC9 about halfway to New York City. My wife and I are just starting an incredible journey to the other side of the world to meet up with Jansen as he finishes up his mission. He is on a train travelling the opposite direction as he takes a 36-hour train ride from Ulan-Ude to Novosibirsk. He finished up closer to Beijing than the mission home in Novosibirsk. We're very excited and a little apprehensive as we head off into an unknown land. We'll be meeting Joy at JFK, who's flying in from SLC.

It's now April 20 9:31 PM (MN time) and the four of us are riding on a 737 from Omsk to Moscow. We have been having a great time in Russia. We met up with Joy OK at JFK then got on an Aeroflot (Russian airline) 767 and headed off to Moscow. I was able to sleep pretty well on the flight and it didn't seem as long as 9 hours. When we got off at Moscow I was really glad we had arranged to have someone meet us and take us to the next airport. Not only are the signs and directions impossible to read (can't even sound them out), but the procedures are so different that you don't have a clue what to do. So we were helped to our flight to Novosibirsk, and made the 3.5-hour flight and got in at 5 AM on Tuesday (we started from MN on Sunday morning). Again, we had someone meet us, a good thing, and get us to the hotel. We were able to get a little sleep before Jansen came by at around 11AM. Boy it was good to see Jansen again! We went over to the mission home where Jansen had his last meal and we had a nice time with President and Sister Dudley and five other missionaries going home. We really liked the Dudleys. They fed us a very nice meal, then when we brought back Elder Bingham, who was out visiting with us on his last day, at about 10 PM that night, I asked for a little first aid for a wound I received when a cat climbed up me at one of our visits. Sister Dudley was very helpful with that, and probably prevented me from a bad infection and a slow death. Then she fed us with leftovers from the dinner we had been fed earlier.

Novosibirsk has a very efficient and new (built in 1985) subway system that we used quite a bit. It cost 13 cents for as long a ride as you need. We also traveled by bus and streetcar, and found everything packed all the time. We found it interesting that anyone can be a taxi. We would walk to a main street, Jansen would stick out his hand, and usually within a few seconds someone would stop, Jansen and the driver would arrange a fare, and we'd be off. Very interesting. The traffic is hectic, and they don't seem to pay much attention to lines down the street and make lanes anywhere they can be squeezed in.

The next day we also did some visiting, and I was impressed that everyone we met expressed their testimonies and how appreciative they were for the gospel and Elder Price. It was a real treat.

On Thursday we hauled all our baggage down to the train station and boarded the Transiberian Railway train for an 8-hour ride to Omsk, where Jansen first served. The train is very efficient and organized, and we had a nice ride there. We arrived pretty late and went straight to the hotel. We had all day Friday to visit and see things. Omsk is a city of about 1.5 million, so it was pretty big. We visited some museums in the morning and saw one of the sisters of the branch where Jansen served in the afternoon. We went to the home of a member that evening, and the word had gotten out, so there were a dozen or more members over, including three men who were not baptized yet. We had a dinner, including borscht made by one member (we got the recipe), some visiting, then they made Jansen sing some of his songs. I and my family also were requested to sing some songs with a guitar that was brought. There was also some hymn singing, and testimonies expressed. In almost every occasion when we visited with people, they told us of their beliefs and how much the gospel meant to them. The meeting Friday night was a real feast, with lots of good food, but even more so on a spiritual basis. There was so much love expressed, for the Lord and between each other. And Jansen was greatly loved by them too.

On Saturday we got up early and headed down to the airport to catch a plane to Moscow, then from there to Ulan-Ude where Jansen had finished his mission. To Moscow we flew on an Aeroflot 737, but we found out that Aeroflot didn't fly to Ulan-Ude (even though our itinerary said our flight was with them). It turned out to be with Buriatian Airlines and a Russian TU154 jet. We had to wonder about it when we got on because everything was so rickety and old. But it seemed to fly all right and we made it OK to Ulan-Ude. The flight time from Omsk to Ulan-Ude by way of Moscow was as long as from NY to Moscow. It sure is a big country! So we spent all day Saturday travelling, and got in pretty late to Ulan-Ude.

The branch meetings began Sunday at 11 AM. Jansen had informed me that I would be speaking in sacrament meeting, and that our family would be singing "Love at Home," so we had been practicing the hymn, including a couple phrases in Russian. A couple sisters spoke before the musical number, then I spoke on the family, with Jansen translating. It turned out to be a good meeting. There were perhaps 25 in attendance, with 21 members on record. Even though the branch president is one of the four missionaries, the meetings were all conducted by local members. The first counselor was baptized about 5 years ago in another mission, another member was baptized a couple years ago elsewhere, but everyone else was baptized less than a year ago. It was really amazing! The second counselor and his family were just baptized in September, but you would guess they've been members all their lives. My wife said that the Relief Society president, also a member less than a year, did a great job conducting and giving the lesson. She is Buriatian, a group whose ancestry comes from Mongolia, and who are very Asian looking. Nearly half of Ulan-Ude's population is from this group. They seem to be very well integrated with the Europeans, and the same is true in the branch.

After the meetings nearly everyone traveled over to a local sauna for a baptism service. A 20-year-old girl and a 10-year-old girl were baptized. Both are in families who are being taught, but these were baptized a little before their parents. The 10-year-old, Anna (pronounced Anya) has an older brother already baptized. The 20-year-old, Rita, asked Jansen to baptize her, even though he didn't teach her. I think she's in love with him. There were 32 in attendance at the baptism, including many non-members, many of whom bore their testimonies at the end of the service. It was a great baptismal service.

Sunday evening we went over to the home of the branch second counselor where several from the branch were gathered. Again it was a great evening as many expressed their love for the gospel and for Jansen.

On Monday, we met Rita, the mother of the Rita who was just baptized, in front of the 20-foot-high Lenin head in the center of town, to go visit some museums. This Rita, referred to by the missionaries as "señor-rita", is not yet baptized, but I'm sure will be when she quits smoking, is an incredible fireball and takes charge of any situation she's in. The museums are closed on Mondays, but we still were allowed to visit four of them. She talked them into opening for us. She wore us ragged till about 5 PM. We went to a Nirvana restaurant with her for lunch and had some Buriatian ravioli-like dishes. Rita made sure we prayed before we ate.

On Monday evening we went to the Relief Society president's home, where she, her 16-year-old son and her mother and aunt live, for a visit. My wife, who is the Relief Society president in the Bloomington Ward, gave her some suggestions at her request.

To finish out the evening and our time in Jansen's mission area we went to visit the family of the 10-year-old girl Anna, who was baptized the day before, consisting of Anna, her mom, Sveta, plus a 15-year-old brother, and her grandparents. Sveta is also the sister of the branch second counselor. She teaches music in the schools, and often plays the keyboard for church. Jansen said she was one of his favorite Russians. She played and sang us some songs, and also insisted that we sing some hymns. Our family also sang some songs using her son's guitar. They fed us some things, including pozy, which is a Buriatian dish like stuffed wontons. Jansen and Jill bore their testimonies, which I believe were well received. Hopefully some more baptisms in this family are forthcoming.

Now it's April 25th. We got up this morning to catch the flight to Moscow, and were met by Rita (the senior) and Masha, both non-members but who are planning to be baptized soon. I think Masha also loves Jansen. Rita had arranged a van to take us to the airport (she doesn't allow anything to go on unassisted), and they both rode with us to the airport to see us off. Rita was helpful in getting us to the VIP lounge and into the right places. Russian airports are very confusing.

We made it to Moscow on another Russian TU154, the same as on our flight to Ulan-Ude, though this time it was a smoking flight and we ended up in it. But because the flight wasn't very full, it wasn't a problem.

At the Moscow airport we needed a big taxi to get us and our luggage to the hotel. We found a booth for arranging taxis, but found they wanted 1500 rubles (the most we'd paid before was 400 for two vehicles). At 28.6 rubles/dollar, that comes to $52.45. We told him he was insane, and carried our luggage out of the airport to find something else. They have some kind of a pact (secret combination) to keep the price up. He followed us and agreed to 1300 rubles. We found someone else a little away from the airport that we finally talked down to 500 rubles, for a small car in which we were really packed, and which we thought still pretty high. It turned out to be quite a ways, about 30 km, and we found out later that 450 rubles is the going rate. So that was our introduction to the Moscow cockroaches (as Jansen calls them). Fortunately, once we got to the hotel, things started looking up. We were at the Rossia Hotel, now the 2nd largest hotel in the world since the construction of Excalibre in Las Vegas. It was a nice hotel in many ways, but still with some of the old quaint (stupid!) ways. For example, you go to the floor maid to get your key, and you have to surrender your hotel registration card to get your key. When you leave your room, you're supposed to surrender the key to get back your registration card, which you occasionally have to show to security, or to get breakfast. Of course, we didn't know this and got in trouble before someone adequately explained it. Also, to make a phone call you have to enter a PIN code which is on the registration card, but if you're in your room, you have your key and not the registration card. Russia has a long way to go before they are customer service oriented.

The hotel is next to Red Square, so we went up for a walk in that area. It was pretty impressive and pretty big. To the east of Red Square is what is designated the largest department store in the world, GUM. I thought it was more like a mall, in which case it's not the largest, but is still pretty huge. It was built around 1860.

That evening we went to the Bolshoi Theatre to see a ballet, La Sylphide. We really liked it, and the theatre, built in 1858, I think, was very impressive.

On Wednesday morning, the 25th, we went on a tour of the Star City cosmonaut training center, just 30 km north of Moscow. We thought Jansen would like that because of his interest in becoming an astronaut. We all enjoyed it very much, and got to see an American and a Russian in training exercises in the big water tank for simulating one aspect of weightlessness. The tour guide from Red Star Travel that took us, Natasha, talked about her conversion to Christianity from being raised agnostic during the communist regime. She was very interesting to talk to. We told her about the Book of Mormon, but she didn't seem too interested, feeling that she now had a good relationship with God. We got her e-mail address, so we'll have to keep up the dialog.

Now it's April 26 5:23 AM. We've been in the air about 2.5 hours since leaving Moscow. We are having about the worst time of our lives. We got seated right next to the smoking section of a 767. Not only can't we breathe, but everyone around us is drunk and making a racket. I keep thinking they will all go to sleep soon, but no such luck yet. Maybe we'll make it to JFK without getting too sick.

It's interesting that we found a former member of the Bloomington Ward on this flight. Dorothy, mother of Matt Hansen, serving in the Russia Ekaterinburg mission, is on her way home after a week here for a meeting. She said she had permission to see Matt in sacrament meeting this past Sunday. That must have been nice for them.

Jill and I spent a couple hours on the flight standing up in the non-smoking section trying to air out our lungs. It was a very long flight, but somehow we made it to JFK. We said goodbye to Joy, then took the bus over to the Northwest terminal for our flight home. On the way, we became acquainted with a couple from St. Paul we had seen on the Moscow-to-JFK flight. They had been to southern Russia where they adopted a boy just over two and a girl just under two. They really had their hands full! We wished them well with their new "twins".

We were met at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport by Julie, Jackie, Jerica, Jordan, Kelly, Ethan and Will Holman. It was a touching moment as Jansen's siblings, nephew and friend met him.

Now it's April 28, and we've been home for a day and a half. Jansen is having a very interesting time adjusting to being home. For example, he and Jill went shopping yesterday, and Jansen felt he had to wear a suit to go to Target, and even at home. He was amazed to receive change in quarters and dimes. He complemented all the store workers for their great customer service. He can't believe that he is hearing English in the background everywhere he goes. He keeps saying: "I can't believe I'm in America!"