Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gulag Jamboree

I know. I have been back for almost a week and I just posted this. Cut me a little slack here, I have been out there doing my damnedest to entertain you for the last two months. I need to wash socks and underwear.

Rural Siberia was awesome. I don’t know what all those political exiles were whining about, the weather was beautiful when I was there. Apparently there is at least one month a year were it isn’t snowing.

After getting off the train, my traveling companion and I hid out for the night in the Soviet-era medical school dormitory when one of her college buddies was living. That lasted a day before the babuski found us and packed us off to the dumpy bus station hotel downtown. It was the kind of place a former B-list Russian celebrity OD’s, but had reasonably priced laundry service, so all-in-all not a bad deal.

After a day of logistics, we decided we needed to get our Siberian vacation off to a rocking start - so we went to the Museum of Wooden Architecture! Which, and this may be my inner Risk-playing dork showing, was actually really cool. I will add a few pictures to let you see for yourself, but what isn’t there to love about wooden yurts? Then we went to Listvianka, which is a domestic Russian tourist trap known for its special omul fish. The fish almost made up for the total shit show going on around me. Russians are a people that live by the general rule that ones skirt should never be longer than your heels are high, imagine what beach-wear looks like. It isn’t so bad for young ones, as they are all skinny and beautiful. The problem occurs when no one mentions to you that you are no longer young and skinny and beautiful. Ladies over 50, please don’t wear thong bathing suits in public. Not even if you are Cher.

The next day we headed off to summer camp. In 1983, Nikita Bencharov was an all-Russia table tennis champion. In 1988, he visited a friend (who still hangs around the dining hall) on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, and decided to stay. Today, it is by the far best example of sustainable tourism I have ever seen. The place is a castle-like compound, designed in part Siberian carved wood, part what tourists imagine Siberian carved wood should look like, with kitschy folk art furniture in the new buildings. The place is eco-friendly, with all bio-toilets and steam baths. It isn’t dirt cheap (which keeps out the hippies), but contributes heavily to a community that has been desolated by the closure of the Soviet era fish processing plant. All meals are served in community dining halls and use ingredients from the local community – which sort of means omul for breakfast, lunch and dinner – but it is the thought that counts. The guests are everything from domestic Russian tourists to Midwestern American families – with kids and pets running all over the place (in a isn’t-this-homey-sort-of-way, instead of the why-doesn’t-someone-cage-these-things-sort-of-way.) There are lists of group excursions – jeep trips and hiking and biking – to sign up for, or you can just laze around the lake. And a bar that serves local beer. In short, everything a 28 year old kid wants in camp.

I spent five days out there, staying on even after my traveling companion left. I could drone on forever about the place, but instead I just posted pictures and will list the highlights.

(1) Scenery. I will let the picture speak to that.

(2) White Caviar. On the jeep trip to the north cape of the island, we stopped for an omul soup picnic. I arrived to lunch late because I had wandered off looking for seals, so I thought I got the dregs of the soup. But there in my bowl I had something that looked like a little round white tic-tac. Inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled omul eye. (Name came about during Soviet times when real caviar was scarce in central Siberia.) They nodded approvingly as I enthusiastically popped it into my mouth. Eh.

(3) Yak Vodka. We went to a performance of traditional Buryat (local Mongolian-ish ethnic minority) folk music. The performance had the general feeling of a poorly staged middle school talent show, but there were highlights, including the late 90-something year old (somewhat senile) matriarch of the family telling us all to pass her pipe and go the hell away. And then there was the local vodka. It tasted like a cross between vodka and Tibetan yak butter tea. I don’t particularly like either one, but the combination made my teeth shudder.

(4) Swimming. So the legend of Lake Baikal is that if you stick your hands in, you will live an extra 5 years. You get 7 for your feet, and a full 25 if you manage to submerge your whole body. This is all on the condition that the shock of the ice cold water doesn’t kill you instantly. Seriously. It is the world’s deepest lake and it freezes over thick enough to drive over in the winter. This is some cold-ass water. Regardless however, with all my drinking and smoking and tropical disease thus far, I figured I had better suck it up and take the plunge. Tomorrow. Every day I found some reason to put it off. Then one afternoon, as I stood atop a 20 foot cliff overlooking the lake, I decided, forget it. It is just a silly superstition. I am not getting in that water. I hate the cold. Rather unfortunately for me (at least in the short term), I was so distracted by these profound thoughts, that I didn’t put my lens cap on straight. It popped off, bounced down the cliff, and splashed into icy Lake Baikal. *Son* of a bitch. So my friend laughed her (dry) ass off as I slide and skittered down the cliff, waded through the waist deep water around the rock point, and retrieved my lens cap from the (thankfully crystal clear) waters. Later that day I decided hell-with-it and took the whole plunge. Hopefully I won’t be cursing myself in 2097, when I am 118 years old.

(5) Rock Graffiti. In the summer, tourists use the bright chalky white rocks to spell out messages to passing boats on the green hill overlooking the main beach. We added our own little bit…

Then it was time to drift back home. The only other bit of excitement was the S7 Airlines flight. They used to be Siberian Airlines but had three crashes in less than a year. Putin made them sell all the broken ones and pick a new name. But other than being 2 hours late, the trip was uneventful.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Trans Siberian Railroad

So I am, in all seriousness, in Siberia. In the town of Irkutsk, which my fellow nerds in the audience will remember from ditching class to play Risk in high school. (Unrelated side note, to this day I am always red when I play board games because I always wanted to be the Red Army conquering the world in Risk. This related directly to my teenage pinko politics. Parents, never let your daughters read George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" in middle school.)

Anyway, at 3 am this morning, I got off a 5152 kilometer train ride (just over 3200 miles) from Moscow. How long does that take you may ask?

About 5 days. Living on bunk beds in a tiny little moving box with three other adults and a three year old.

The family that shared our compartment had the questionable wisdom of taking their "energetic" little boy, somewhat ironically named Serafim, on train, to go survival camping in the middle of the Siberian wilderness. Admittedly I am being a little judgmental in my next assertion, but I am guessing this was Dad's idea. I say this not because I understood any of their conversation (I haven't picked up a single word of Russian beyond Geoff Klock's famous "komputerlab"), but because Mom had on hotpants and her hair remained effortlessly and perfectly coifed the entire trip, and Dad looked like a shaved blond grizzly bear. Or that guy from Rocky 4. He was one of those been-in-the-Army-since-the-Army-was-Red kind of guys (literally). Camouflage. Incredibly intricate government-issue gear. Spent the entire trip reading a textbook about how, if one finds oneself in the middle of the Siberian wilderness with only a pen knife and extra pair of socks, to use said items to carve a tree into your perfect dream cabin, and an escape raft, a hangglider... You get the idea.

Despite the fact the the man's sheer bulk worried me a bit, he seemed to be a nice enough guy. Never bit me. Handy at opening things. Plus when the riff-raff wandered by (there wasn't much for guys to do one this train but drink enough vodka to point they thought it was a good idea to see if the American girls were interested in sleeping with them), Red was amazingly effective encouraging them to go ahead and fuck on off back to car 6. All and all, not a bad guy to have around.

The family was also wise enough to bring enough rations to feed the Red Army, though not quite the little boy, who consumed, on a daily basis, more calories than his father. I once saw him polish off an entire can of liver pate with mushrooms in a single sitting. He would sit at the little table, bang his survival spoon and scream "MORE FOOD! MORE FOOD!" until his mother found something for him to eat. I don't even want to get started on the riot that we set off by eating ice cream before dinner in front of him. Which brings us to our diet. Our "rations" were six packets of Raman noodles and a box of granola bars. So we were a little bit at the mercy what we could buy through the train windows during our infrequent stops. Like ice cream. Meat on metal skewers. Cheese blintzes. Strawberries. And lots and lots of deep fried cabbage and dough.

But we didn't starve and eventually arrived in Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia. That is somewhat of a generous statement, but I am willing to buy it considering that we had already passed through the Las Vegas of Siberia, the Viennia of Siberia, the Milwuakee of Siberia, and the Flint, Michigan of Siberia. Okay, I made the last one up, but it makes sense if you see it.

And the train wasn't as bad as I am making it out to be. It was actually quite relaxing. I read a couple books, including a 700 page poorly written biography of Rasputin (subtitled "The Last Word"). Slept 12 hours a days. Ate fried dough and ice cream. Watched the Volga, the Urals, and endless endless Siberia drift by out the windows. Not bad for a vacation.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


So I just got back from a long weekend in former imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Built by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, it has a number of features that are generally lacking in the current capital of Moscow, such as non-Stalinist architecture, breathable air, and some sort of basic logic to their road system. A nice change.I also got back to my backpacker roots and stayed at a hostel. They are still the same. Bunk beds, shared bathrooms, some long-haired idiot in homemade shoes playing the mandolin.
Most of my time was spent hanging out with a group of current and former Harvard students (by hanging out I mean getting stupid drunk), and walking around the city. It is really easy to get drunk in St. Petersburg because it never gets dark. You just look out the bar window and it looks like it is late afternoon - plenty of time for another round - when it is really 2 am.

In between hangovers, I was able to see most of the main sights about town. Specifics included both the Winter and Summer Palaces (opulent and opulenter), Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (gorgeous onion domed cathedral built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was killed by wealthy landowners who where exquisitely pissed off when he freed their serfs), Cathedral of St. Issac (built because city officials wanted to be the unquestioned center of worship for *someone* and therefore selected this character - lovely views from the roof though), Blockade Museum (a surprisingly tasteful Soviet memorial of the blockade of Leningrad during WWII when pretty much everyone starved to death but still held off the Germans), and the Yusupov Palace (lavish palace of the richest pre-revolution family in Russia, best known as the place where the mystical shaman of sex, Rasputin, met his end. Not easily I may add. He was, in succession, and on the same night, poisoned, strangled, shot multiple times, thrown down the stairs, beaten beyond recognition, and bound and tossed in a mid-winter canal. He died of drowning.) We also saw the Kazan Cathedral - recently resurrected as a church after riding out the Soviet years as a Museum of Atheism.
The other main activity in Petersburg, with its numerous rivers and canals, are boat tours. Camera toting tourists are steered along by some stoned teenage boat driver to see the main sites of the city. And I will say from experience, this all works much better with 30 of your friends and a couple shopping bags full of beer. I think I took some nice pictures before getting weaving drunk. Also, generally these boat trips are designed to highlight the raising of the bridges. All of the main bridges in town are draw bridges that are raised for three hours each night in the summer to let the larger boats pass. What is fun about this is that the whole road tips up 80 degrees, leaving things like street lamps jutting out at weird angles. Bizarre to watch, particularly in the alcohol-soaked state you are in by 1:30 am when this all goes down.
I am back in Moscow now, packing and killing time before my train to Irkutsk, a clearly reasonable 4-day, 5000 miles away on the Trans Siberian Railroad.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

From Russia With Love

So when I last posted, I was in Kenya getting licked by a giraffe. I am currently sitting on my friend's couch in Moscow. In getting from A to B, I had high tea in true Nairobi colonial style with my buddy Johnny Norseman, went on a mini-safari with same, presented findings to Ministers, got project plans approved, spent every waking hour in the World Bank office, been the victim of identity theft, bought new sneakers, flown back and forth across the Atlantic on consecutive days, and am now in Russia on vacation until the end of the month.

And I am going to be honest, vacation feels pretty damned good. Moscow is nothing like I expected it to be. It is as European as Paris, and as expensive as New York. Driving a Bentley is hip here. I am not sure I had ever even seen a Bentley.

I have been on the no-rush tourist schedule here because I am going to try to relax a bit. This means sleeping late, lingering over my lunchtime bowl of borscht and a good book, eating dinner late at outdoor cafes and drinking it the sun goes down (which, conveniently, pretty much never happens this far north in mid-summer.) I have managed to see a couple of the major sites though. My first day was the Tretyakov gallery, which had all the highlights of the Russian painters throughout the ages. Next day it was the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. The convent was nice, all gold dome and tsarist intrigue, but I like the cemetery better. Famous poets, authors, performers, writers, Boris Yeltsin, all buried here. The Yelstin memorial looks somewhat worryingly like a overweight drunk guy sleeping under a Russian flag, but it might just be the New Russia sense of humor that I don't always get.

The following day I felt like I was hitting my tourist stride and made my way down to Red Square. The square itself is massive (a somewhat expected characteristic in a place formerly used to parade tanks). It is bordered on one side by St. Basil's Cathedral (the terribly iconic and photogenic onion domed church), one side by the Kremlin (which looks like a very nice 1970's office building, with a really nice palace and old churches out back), and, in true New Russia style, on two sides by shopping malls. One, GUM, is famous for being the place where us little capitalist children would be sent for punishment in the 80's if we didn't stop whining in Toys R Us. Cold, long lines, nothing on the shelves, waiting hours, with nothing but moldy potato in our bellies, to maybe have the chance of spending a month's salary to buy a yo-yo or pair of boots. It is somewhat different these days. Everything still cost more than I make in a month, but that's because they are selected for the Bentley driving set. The historic building (from the early 1900's) has been restored, with ornate iron walkways, fountains, and a glass roof. (If there is a heaven and my sister Katie gets to go, this is pretty much what it would look like.) Then I filled in the afternoon with a couple of the Lesser Known Onion Domed Churches around St. Basil's, and with a trip to the Kremlin armoury (home of the famous Faberge Eggs). Then I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to sort out my "dokuments" (which I feel will be a continuing theme in my life here...)

The next day started off with a return to Red Square to visit the Lenin Mausoleum. My two minute walked by the preserved Soviet hero allowed me, along with visiting Mao in 2001 and Ho Chi Mihn in 2004, to pick up the Embalmed Communist Leader Hat Trick. Life goal #923874, CHECK!

Then I poked around the Kremlin grounds for a few hours, with their churches and office buildings and guards. The visit was punctuated by Mercedes with blacked out windows screaming past a full speed, lest we forget that this is the center of a working government. (Side note: One thing I have learned since being here in Moscow is that if you, as a pedestrian, gets hit by a car, it's your fault. No matter if it is in the road, on the sidewalk or in your front hall. Your shattered femur means nothing against a bumper scratch on a Bentley.) I spent the rest of the day walking around town, working on my "dokuments" and trying to eat. I am having a bit of a rough go at eating here. I speak no Russian and can only very rudimentarily make out the Cyrillic alphabet. I have resorted to eating mostly in cafeteria-style places, where I can at least point to edible looking items. And I have been eating a lot of beets. I really like beets.

That is pretty much it for now. I took a ride on a boat down the Moscow river today to pick up any last lingering onion domed churches that I may have overlooked, and am headed out to St. Petersburg on the 2 am train tonight. There are four of us headed up to celebrate the 4th of July weekend. I am excited. I am never in the United States for the 4th (twice in the last 10 years), so there is usually no one to celebrate with. Last year I spend the day in rural Tanzania declaring my independence from the British kid at the office.