It was dark as we drove north across one of the many bridges out of Vladivostok. We both still had on our jackets, and the gauge on the Prius display board showed the outside temperature slowly dropping as we continued on. By the time we would get to Arsenyev, it would about -20C (-4F).
Along the way we talked about funny things that had happened to us that week, me in broken Russian, him in broken English. We talked much about crazy Russian drives that we met along the way, and when my lacking language skills were no longer doing the trick of keeping him awake, he called his mom and talked to her for a while on speaker phone.
Around 11 we were finally standing in the living room of his father's house. We discussed having some tea, but decided it would be better to just get some sleep, since we had to get up early the next morning. But for what? Apparently my friend was going to bribe these guys at an flight center to let us pilot an old Russian war plane. And if not, we were at least going to get a ride in it. Needless to say, I went to bed excited for the next day.
Before I knew it, his alarm was going off and I was being told to get up and get dressed. And by get dressed, I mean super dressed. I had tights on under my jeans, the thickest socks, a couple shirts, long underwear, three coats, plus a scarf, gloves, and a hat. When we stepped outside, the sun was only just beginning to light the sky, and the temperature gauge still read -20C (-4F).
On the way to meet the people that would take us to the runway, my friend told me that today my name would be Masha, and that I should just let him do all the talking. I nervously laughed, hoping that no one would try and talk to me.
We met up with the other Russians in a warehouse. Everyone had been waiting on us to go to the site where the plane would land. I didn't really know what was happening, and I couldn't figure out why people were dressing up in skydiving suits. At that moment, I concluded that we would just be flying the plane that these crazy fools were going to jump out of, which was fine by me.
But then the denial wore off when I saw the glint in my friend's eyes. When we got back into his car to follow the other vans to the airplane, I frantically asked if we too would be jumping from the plane. He got the biggest smile on his face, laughed, and said, of course!
I froze (this time not because of the weather). This is not what I had signed up for. I had had no time to mentally prepare myself for jumping out of a plane. And not just any plane. An old, should be sitting in a museum somewhere, Russian war plane.
Apparently, I had no need to fear, though, because they were of course going to provide an 'extensive' training secession for us...A training secession where my brain was scrambling to translate all the important things that were being said.
I kept sending my friend sidewise glances, but by the time I found myself strapped into the practice parachute-jump contraption, I realize there was no turning back.
The one thing that was constantly repeated, and was simple enough for me to understand, was that we were to be sure to keep our feet and legs TOGETHER, especially when we were about to touch the ground. It seemed simple enough.
After our training was done, we were taken to this table that had been set up alongside all the parachutes and the vans, where a woman gave us two pens and two release forms to fill out. At this point I could no longer be Masha, and I was secretly hoping that my American citizenship would keep me grounded. It, however, did nothing to help my situation.
By the time we could make out the sun rising above my friend's favorite mountain in Arsenyev, it was time for us to suit up and put our 20 minutes of knowledge to the test.
Here is a video of my friend jumping and then me jumping. It wasn't very high off the ground, only 800 m, and we both landed without incident. Still, I definitely closed my eyes for this part...
It was all worth it in the end. Slowly floating down to the ground, looking out at the surrounding neighborhoods, I felt very free. (Also very cold). And at the end of it all, we even had a little graduation, with diplomas to prove we had survived!
But wait! There's more.
Because I had been such a good champ about having to jump out of a plane, I guilt tripped my friend into taking us to see one of the rare Primorski krai tigers on our way back to Vladivostok.
My friend had talked to someone who knew that there was at least one tiger at this nature preserve not too far from Arsenyev. To get there we just had to drive almost to one of the Chinese border crossings, which meant hours of watching the beautiful steppe landscape pass by our windows.
When we finally got to this preserve, I quickly started questioning the legitimacy of it. We first had to drive through one of the poorest neighborhoods I have had to see in Russia, then take a turn by this interesting war monument, and then walk through a tree-enclosed path, which took us to this out of place gate, which led us to a woman sitting at a bench in what looked liked her own backyard.
My friend asked her how the tigers were doing, and she said there was only one left, as the older one had died a few months earlier. She told us keep walking until we got to the cages where we could see, not only the tiger, but some bears, foxes, and other winter cats.
Soon we both caught a glimpse of something orange and black moving in the forest, and Almas, the tiger, kindly climbed into his feeding cage so that we could get a better look.
The cages were poorly built out of random materials, and at a few moments I was a littler afraid that some of the bears might get out. It also, sadly, brought up the awful feelings I thought I had left for good at the circus...but I held strong.
Like I said, the whole thing didn't really seem like a legitimate place for scientists to study the life habits of such a majestic creature, as my friend explained it. However, I still ended up giving the old man and woman who seemed to run the place 600 rubles to help feed the tiger (and maybe the other animals, too). I can only hope that Almas eats a hearty meal on my behalf...
But that's pretty much it. The rest of our trip was just spent in the car getting back to Vladivostok. We stopped to eat delicious sandwiches that my friend's grandmother made, and we saw some classic Russian things along the way (pictured below)
It was, all in all, a wonderfully exciting weekend, and I am happy to say I made it out alive. Слава Богу!