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Russia By Rail: An Idaho Native Ponders The Russian Potato

I'm from Idaho. Born and raised. And believe me, I LOVE a good potato. I've had them baked, fried, stewed, mashed, broiled, boiled, scalloped, and on and on and on.

That said, I have never eaten as many potatoes in such a short span of time as I have in crossing Russia. There are potatoes in everything. I've had stir-fried potatoes. Potato pancakes. Potato dumplings. There are even chunks of potatoes inside fried bread rolls, which, while delicious, seems a bit like starch overkill. I've tried to order dishes that don't come with potatoes, at least according to the menu, but somehow they still appear on my plate.

I was told I would eat a lot of potatoes. That is a fact. If eating potatoes makes you a Russian, then I am practically native at this point.

More facts: Vodka is plentiful. Siberia is cold. Russia is a big place.

That last fact I could see just by looking at a map. But riding this trans-Siberian train has given me a completely new perspective. This is a truly enormous place. After leaving Moscow, it took us 64 hours on a train to reach the half-way marker, and we were still looking at another 80 hours or so on the train before reaching Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

So how do Russians in Vladivostok feel connected to those in Moscow? People in Idaho talk about feeling disconnected from Washington, D.C., and yet that's not nearly as far as the distances in Russia.

As a passenger pointed out, this is the 21st century and there is Skype and the Internet and all the technological marvels that make communication easier.

Many of those things tend to help with personal communication but I wonder if they help build or strengthen a national identity? Yes, if I'm in Vladivostok, I can read about what's happening in Moscow and with the government, but do I feel part of it? Or am I more concerned about what's going on in China, which is practically in my backyard?

Not only is it a physical distance but it's a matter of time, too. As the train has made its way eastward, we've steadily changed time zones, gaining one hour and then another and then another. By the time we reach Vladivostok, we'll be seven hours ahead of Moscow. In the short days of winter, the sun will be setting in Russia's Far East before people in Moscow have had their morning coffee break. This vast landscape puts people in a different place not only physically but mentally as well.

Part of what we're hoping to learn on this grand adventure is exactly what holds Russia together. In talking to Russians, it seems to be an amalgamation of government, history, culture and language. And perhaps the shared experience of too many potatoes.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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