The capital city of the Republic of Mordovia (from where all Finno-Ugric peoples originate, purportedly), Saransk, is the smallest city to host World Cup matches in Russia this summer and evidently underprepared to do so, which has been both frustrating and fascinating. Comparing it to the smallest host city of the last World Cup, one recidivist soccer fanatic concluded: “I thought Cuiabá was a disaster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but this is incredible.”
Unable to find affordable accommodations online for the match days I would be in Saransk, I booked a bed in hostel for two nights before any matches began with the hope of finding something affordable once I got there. Confident that my spontaneous and relatively planless travel method would work as well as it usually does, I ended up paying for it dearly and drearily, but it was definitely worth it.
After unsuccessfully searching for further accommodations on my own the first day in Saransk, I asked the staff at the hostel where I booked two nights if they could makes some calls and try to find a bed for me. They seemed a little reluctant to help at first, but after showing some desperation and suggesting the possibility of sleeping in the hostel kitchen the next four nights, the staff agreed to make some phone calls on my behalf.
Confident the hostel staff would find a bed (or something better than their kitchen) for me to sleep that night, I went about my second day, finally touring the city’s parks, monuments, and other sites (most notably, the Museum of Mordovian Culture where I was accompanied by a free and extremely animated guide from whom I may have understood 10 percent of what she was so excited to explain to me in Russian).
After watching the World Cup opener and witnessing Russians relish their 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia, the hostel staff was asleep or hiding from guests by the time I made it back on my second night. The next morning I was told all hostels and hotels were full, so the staff and the hostel owner were busy calling friends and family to find me a bed. I packed, checked out, and waited patiently until unbearable hunger and imminent World Cup matches compelled me to just leave my backpack (and destiny) with the hostel staff and owner so I could go out to eat and watch the soccer I’d been waiting four years for (especially the Uruguay vs. Egypt match).
whether I’d be sleeping in the hostel kitchen or the street that night, I returned to the hostel after celebrating Uruguay’s defeat of Egypt and learned that I would be sleeping in an apartment on the outskirts of Saransk. The apartment owner arrived shortly thereafter and drove me to the apartment, which was far, drab and relatively expensive ($45 a night), but definitely better than sleeping in the street (and probably better than sleeping on the floor of the hostel kitchen).
Most importantly, I was able to sleep 5 or 6 hours before the sun permeated the useless translucent curtains in the apartment and forced me to begin my day much earlier than expected because I wouldn’t be enjoying such solid sleep again until leaving Saransk four days later.
The following nights were relatively sleepless but enjoyably full of soccer, soccer fans and soccer-related shenanigans, so on my last night in Saransk I decided to skip watching the end of the last match at the FIFA Fan Zone downtown (and, of course, the post-soccer dance party) so I could get some decent rest before my early train departure the next morning.
But a surprise midnight visit from the apartment owner (an intensely friendly and active Tatar Muslim electrician) and his friend with a bottle of cognac changed that plan.
I tried to politely hint that I needed to finish packing and get some sleep, but they kept pointing at the cognac and smiling and telling me how happy they were to have a new American friend and I was only able to convince them to leave when the sun began to rise around 3 am. Fortunately, my train compartment had efficacious curtains so I could recover during my 21-hour journey from Saransk to Volgograd.