Cramming Russian on the Trans-Siberian
July 7, 2008 5:12 AM   Subscribe

I'll be taking the Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Moscow, leaving next Saturday. I'd like to spend my five days on the train doing a cram course and learning as much basic Russian as I can. I already know the alphabet, and some very basic phrases (ie. "where is the metro?"). Are there any good online courses I can print out and take with me?

Ideally I would like to be able to hold a very, very basic conversation at the end of my trip, though I don't know if that is realistic.
posted by pcameron to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (2 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Go to Wang Fu Jing, or some place with a lot of foreign books, and get a small English - Russian guide. With this, you'll make a ton of friends. You've got two things in your favor: a desire to learn the language and two hundred bored Russian speakers with nothing to do for five days. A print out will be exhausted as a source of conversation within a one hour conversation, but everyone likes flipping through a phrase book.

Don't be scared of anyone, even if they're feeding you solid fat and ketchup sandwiches. You want to learn, right?

There's one thing going against you here, though: there's going to be 40 westerners on board who are also bored and who want to party and learn about life in (checking profile) oh, hey, Canada. This may detract from your learning of the crylic alphabet.

Overall, I'm saying that everyone brings books to read on that journey and movies to watch (even the Chinese conductors), and no one actually reads / watches them. It's a lot of talking, not a monastic mobile library.

One thing, aim for the Russian guys doing a lot of drinking. If you smoke, this will be the one time it benefits you. Eat and drink anything they give you. Bring stuff -- the usual things you bring to make new friends: cards, photographs of Canada, that sort of thing.

And when you're back, please confirm via mail (SPOILER ALERT) that Siberia looks like Saskatchewan. I haven't had anyone confirm that with me yet.
posted by sleslie at 6:15 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cyrillic is supa-simple, and Russian proper contains lots of loan-words from German, French, Latin, Greek and English. I spent 2 weeks traveling (via taxi / bike / machutka) in Central Asia / Russia in May, and I found the game of pidgin Russian vs. pidgin English to be delightful. No game of charades; just honest, dirty-joke filled banter. I bought a Lonely Planet Russian phrasebook and it got me around just fine. Plus everyone loves the chapters about sex, health problems and buying drugs.

Honestly, though? You'll learn more by struggling and having a breakthrough than by beating yourself over the head with an internet language guide. Plus you absolutely will run into the Monty Python Phrasebook problem when your accent, combined with vodka and nervous tension, fails out and you give up. Just take it slow. Basic conversations aren't the stuff of 5 days, especially if you're new to Slavic languages. And people would rather practice English with you, anyway.

What you should do is prepare to drink a mess of sour yoghurt (kefir), what tastes like prune juice but isn't (kvass) and eat deep-fried sugar-coated everything. You will know the flavors of 10 sausages by the time you are done drinking. To me, the culinary adventure was cooler than any random conversation.

As far as danger, if you're SOL and there's some dude calling his friends over, just call the militsya. No shame in that. You won't run into problems on the train, but I don't know how comfortable you are with being ripped off by taxi drivers.

Oh, and if you're lost on culture: as far as conduct, think old-world politeness. You're my age, so our experience will probably be similar, except for the Moscow part (I'm not a billionaire, so I didn't stick around.) For the first few days, you'll be a guest. People will pour you vodka, break bread, cycle/pour tea, and so forth. You're not required to be comfortable at all, just travelerish. Use that time to practice Russian and do the obvious: Hit. On. Every. Xenia. There. Even in English or French or Swahili. Even if you're shy. You will absolutely be a novelty, and you will be appreciated for it.

And FFS! Enjoy the adventure, man! You're in the freaking lap of luxury on the Transib!
posted by electronslave at 7:14 AM on July 7, 2008

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