Tuvan cowboys and bachelor pads

I’m sitting at a low makeshift kitchen table, made of a slab faux-cherrywood countertop balanced on a cardboard speaker box. It’s the only clean surface in the apartment. Balanced against the wall beside me stands a mountain bike. The Kruschev-era, meal-colored wallpaper is peeling in places, revealing cheap plaster underneath. It’s hard to tell what is original and what is a half-finished “improvement” – the half-tiled windowsill, the plastic insultation bulging from gaps in the windowframes, the puckered linoleum tile. Everything is covered – not in a film of dust, but in a film of filth.

And then there’s the bathroom. <shudder>

On the other hand, the bare living room is half-filled with a giant flat-screen TV and stereo. There’s another flat-screen mounted to the wall in the shabby bedroom. And then there’s the fast fast computer sitting next to me on this table, its hard drive filled with video games.

But the per-night cost is right (free). And there’s a washing machine, currently on its second load.

Marina, my new Tuvan buddy, is letting me use her boyfriend’s apartment while he’s off in Tomsk taking is final exams for law school. At 36, it seems he is still living the lifestyle of a 26-year-young bachelor. So my inelegant surroundings are a combination of his lack of concern for things like, say, glasses (there are none), and the fact that the apartment is in what is known as a Kruschev special – cheaply-built 5-storey apartment blocks built mostly in Kruschev’s time.

—–

Yesterday Ayan Shirizhik,¬†a member of the Alash throat-singing ensemble I met through Sean Quirk (see previous post), took me to his brothers’ horse farm about 100 km south. Unabashed and cheerful, he played proud tour guide for the day, despite his limited English. As we drove across the treeless, grassy steppe he expounded on such topics as the names of the various mountain ranges surrounding Tuva, the Indian music playing on his radio (Shaakti – check it out!), Russian politics in the formerly independent state of Tuva, how great Obama is (a Tuvan favorite), how bad Bush is, the animist/Buddhist mishmash that makes up most Tuvans’ religion, how many horses his brother has, how much pot American musicians smoke, and so on.

As the snow-capped Tangde Mountains (sp?) came into view, his face beamed with child-like delight. “This is my country!” he grinned. After Lake Cheder, a small salt lake where people come to roll aound in the smelly “healing” muds, we turned west off the main southbound road. With each passing kilometer the road degraded. We passed through the remote village where his parents and a few siblings live and were soon creeping along a heavily rutted dirt path. To our north sparkled Lake Chagytai, named for Ghengis Khan’s son. To the south rose another snow-capped mountain range whose name I now forget. To the east, the direction we were driving, were the Tangde Mountains. The horse farm – a few wooden shacks dating from his grandfather’s time – stood on the eastern shore of the lake, framed by the mountains.

The whole scene – the remote grassy steppe, the mountains, the lake named for the son of a feared warrior, the chanting, guttoral throat-singing on the radio (we had changed CDs), the warm sun and clear blue sky – was a fairlytale.

His brothers also live bachelor-style, in an unspeakably shabby wood shack. It was furnished with three ancient, sagging spring beds with dusty coverlets, a few half-broken wooden chairs, and a large clay stove. A half-dozen wool coats hung from wooden pegs along one wall, with a neatly paired series of shoes lined up underneath. Outside, two vicious dogs stood guard – I wasn’t allowed to go into the yard alone, or else they might have attacked me. There be horse rustlers in them thar hills.

One brother, Merguen, took Ayan and me for a horse ride. Now, I’ve ridden plenty of horses before. Tourist horses. These were definitely not tourist horses. My mare immediately sensed my lack of confidence. She first tried to brush me off her back by walking along a fence. Then she sneaked out of the yard while the brothers were still mounting their horses and started wandering away, completely ignoring my entreaties and my amateurish yanks on the reigns. Merguen quickly caught up, took her lead rope, and I spent the whole ride being led along like a child. Sigh. At least she didn’t take off at a canter and try to break my neck.

After the ride and having some tea, Ayan and I drove down to a BBQ spot on the lake to make shashlik – shishkebob – for lunch. While the meat was cooking he took out his flutes and played – for me, but also for the lake and his country. He loves coming back to the farm, to where his ancestors lived, but his work ( in addition to Alash, he plays for the Tuvan National Orchestra) and his family (wife and two kids) keep him in Kyzyl.

I could say so much more about Ayan, throat-singing, the Tuvan countryside, and the whole day, but I would go on for hours. I’ve fallen in love with Tuva. I’m not even gone, and I already want to come back.

[By the way, Alash is touring the east coast of the US this summer. They’re playing in Boston, New York state and New Jersey. Sean tells me they might play Brooklyn, too. I encourage everyone to go see them if you can! Tour schedule here.]

Mojo: from bad to good

Greetings from the local radio station in Tuva.

Krasnoyarsk, my first stop in eastern Siberia, killed any mojo I had built up in Tomsk. After arriving on the train on Sunday at 11 am I spent the entire day looking for a room – all the inexpensive places were full. I even took a bus ride 20 minutes outside of town to a hotel near the nature reserve I wanted to hike the next day, but it was closed until summer. In the end, I overpaid $115 for a night in a boutique-style hotel that didn’t quite cut it. (The shower, for instance, was more warm-ish than hot.)

The next day I had arranged to meet the Aussie cousins I had met on the train for a hike in the Stolby Nature Reserve. Finally! Nature! But alas, it was raining – not quite pouring, but more than drizzling. I begged off to go the museum (I had decided to take the train out that night, and didn’t want to be wet and muddy) but they soldiered on to the reserve.

A mere 2 hours later the three of us sat consoling ourselves over cheap beer in a deserted but pleasant basement bar. Krasnoyarsk, it seems, is closed on Mondays: the museums, the parks, the zoo. So while I saw nothing of Krasnoyarsk, I did have a nice time chatting with native English speakers (yay) about life, travel and Russia.

Here in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, my mojo is back in full effect. I took the overnight train south from Krasnoyarsk to Abakan in the neighboring republic of Khakassia, arriving around 6:15 am. That’s where I found the marshrutka – a sort of minivan shared taxi – and took it 6 hours over the Ergaki Mountains to the steppes of Kyzyl.

While checking in at Hotel Kottedzh (Russian transliteration of “cottage”) I met Marina, a lawyer who works in some office here doing some sort of administrative paperwork (not clear what). She speaks excellent English, and offered to the next day (Wednesday) off to show me around. I also received a text message from Sean Quirk, an American who lives here (he’s married to a Tuvan). On the advice of Lonely Planet, I had sent him email inquiring about throat-singing performances.

So on Wednesday morning Marina and I went to the local music school to see Sean’s throat-singing ensemble play for a graduation ceremony. It was beautiful. The orchestra played a few traditional Tuvan guitar-like instruments, a harpsichord-looking thing, and xomye, these twangy instruments that look like an extra-long saxophone reed that they flicked with a finger and held to their mouth. There was some normal singing, and during one song some of the band whistled like songbirds. And then there was the throat-singing. How to describe it? It’s a deep, almost inhuman sound that vibrates in the singer’s throat. It’s like a very talented baritone frog, chanting. Amazing.

Afterwards I spoke with Sean briefly (he had to run). I’m supposed to meet with him again today. He also says he’ll arrange for a bandmate to take me to his brother’s horse farm out in the countryside. So more on Sean and throat-singing later.

After grabbing a Tuvan pelmenyi lunch Marina and I went to the local museum. The 200-ruble ticket seemed like an outrageous sum to pay for what amounted to snapshots of locals (including the builders of the new, just-opened museum building), some stuffed animals and crappy local art. That is, until we met Radju. I had just made a snarky comment to Marina, like “I’m glad we paid 200 rubles to see the curators’ diplomas” when suddenly Radju, a museum guide, came up to us and started explaining things for free. (He didn’t speak English, but maybe he overheard my tone and felt guilty?) It was clear that Radju loves his job. His eyes sparkled as he told us all about the nearby Arzhaan archeological digs, where scientists had unearthed Scythian burial sites (called kurgany). In colorful, energetic detail he told us about the burial rituals, the history of the area, the scientists who worked on the digs (including the archaeologist who had found the site and started the dig, who had been sent to a gulag during Stalin’s purges before he could finish), and so on.

Interspersed in the explication were questions about myself, Marina and about US politics – he’s Obama’s #1 fan in Tuva. He studied history here in Kyzyl, and says he knows the history of the whole world. He was quizzing me on US history, showing off his knowledge of Native American tribes. His name, he says, means “tsar” in Indian (India Indian, not Native-American “indian”.). He wants to learn Spanish and go to Central America. In fact, he says, he wants to travel the world. But, like Marina, he loves Tuva and wants to live here, despite the general lack of opportunity in this economically insignificant corner of Russia.

After the museum Marina went home and I went for a walk along the river Yenisey. As luck – or my Kyzylian mojo – would have it, I happened upon preparations for a shaman ritual. I had noticed the shack with the yurt and the “shaman” sign out front on an earlier walk, and assumed it was a Disney version of real shamanism, which is still practiced and believed in the area. Naturally I stuck around to watch – evidently you can pay a shaman a few thousand rubles to see the spectacle, so I was getting a show for free. (I gleaned from a brief, broken conversation with a local that some Norwegians had indeed paid the shamen (women, actually) to perform some sort of rite.) Dozens of Tuvans had come out, whether to see the show or participate, I couldn’t tell. Once the performance (I hesitate to call it a ritual) got started, I found that my suspicions were valid. It really did look like a bunch of women in silly costumes banging drums and twirling amid incense. A tourist attraction.

But Marina’s aunt is friends with a “real” shaman (another woman). Last year Marina and her family went to see her, and now Marina is convinced of the shaman’s power. She says she’s going to try to help me meet the shaman in Abakan. We’ll see.

So you see, all of a sudden I’m having some ad-hoc, interesting experiences. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m away from the normal tourist track, or that I’m not meeting with officialdom (businesspeople, others I met via Esther), or what. But there’s something about Kyzyl – an architecturally awful, Soviet purpose-built city in the middle of beautiful rolling hills – that appeals to me. Marina has convinced me to stay until Monday, and has invited me stay with her and her mom over the weekend.

I’m not even perturbed by the fact that the hot water is out in all of Kyzyl until Friday. I just took a “shower” by heating 6 liters of water (in three batches) in the electric kettle provided by the hotel, pouring it into a plastic tub the maid gave me, and doing a combo of cold-water shower and hot-water splashing to get clean.

UPDATE: Looks like I am going to go to that horse farm/yurt camp about 100 km south of Kyzyl tomorrow. Exciting! Will post more when I can….

Kyzyl foh shizzle

It was 6:45 am, Eastern Siberian Time. I was in a minivan with nine laughing Mongolian-looking young men who I had just met at the train station. As we rattled along the road out of Abakan, our chain-smoking driver pulled out wrap-around shades to block the sun that had squeezed its way through the thick clouds.

It wasn’t until five hours later, as we descended out of the snow-capped Ergaki Mountains into the rolling steppes outside Kyzyl, that it occurred to me that I should be scared. I mean, I just jumped from a train into a van with ten strange men with whom I didn’t share a language, to drive hundreds of km from the nearest city, towards the Russian border with Mongolia. But it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.

Naturally, it was fine. The driver dropped me at my hotel, I checked in to the cheapest single so far (800 rubles!) and went to find the only internet cafe in town – here at the local post office. Kyzyl is the center of Tuvan throat-singing (some of whom with perform at the Lowell, MA Folk Festival in July!), a place Richard Feynman was obsessed with, and a built-from-scratch Soviet city. Should be interesting.

Plenty has happened since I last posted, of course – I went bowling in Tomsk, discovered that all of Krasnoyarsk is closed on Monday (museums, parks, even the zoo), and spent that rainy Krasnoyarsk afternoon drinking cheap beer with two Australians I had met on the train. I’ll see if I can write a better post on my laptop and USB it onto this computer. But at the moment I can’t write too much – there’s a little girl who insists on opening and closing the creaky, squeaky wrought iron door and my nerves are wrecked.

The short-version plan: I hope to *finally* find someone to take me on a hike, or rafting, or ANY place out in some natural setting to get some fresh air and see the country without a train’s pane glass separating us. Even the van ride, on a real Russian road with real Russian air blowing through the windows – felt better than the train. Perhaps that’s been my disconnect so far – I’ve only been in cities and large towns, and I want to see some NATURE.

So if I can find that, I’ll say here for about a week. If not, I’ll stay 3 or 4 days, and then either backtrack through Abakan for a train to Irkutsk, or fly direct to Irkutsk from here.

OK really gotta run. My teeth are grinding.

Sleepy in Tomsk

It’s rather ironic, how exhausted I seem to be after these long overnight/multi-night train rides. Having spent three days doing basically nothing, all I could manage today was to go on a halfhearted wander through town and then to take a nap. The good news, for me, is that the energetic 22-year-olds I met on the train are also too tired to meet today. So don’t call me too old quite yet.

At the moment, it’s 6 pm Tomsk time, 3 pm Moscow time, and 7 am New York time. I have no idea what to do with myself. To keep everyone sane across all seven time zones, Russian trains all run on Moscow time. This means traveling across Russia becomes a sort of time warp. Going east, chronological time accelerates as you hurtle towards dawn. Yet this acceleration happens much more slowly than it would in an airplane, so as to be unnoticeable. Like watching a person grow older.

Then suddenly, inside the Moscow-pegged time capsule of the train, “lights out” is well after dark and dawn breaks around 2:30 am. Your watch becomes a mechanism to measure only the passing of time; it’s no longer an accurate indicator of a particular moment or time of day. Unlike in an airplane, the passage of time isn’t mimicked by the closing of the shades, the showing of a film, the serving of breakfast. Nor do your fellow passengers share your exact experience. They get on and off the train at all hours, engaged in their own individual time warp. There’s always at least a few people sleeping, while others are eating lunch or dinner or whatever.

Then you debark, stepping out of the time capsule and into reality. You find you’ve warped two or three or even seven hours ahead, depending on how far you’ve come. Suddenly it’s past lunch time, whereas a half-hour before you had your morning coffee.

It’s no wonder your body wants to sleep – to hit the reset button and start again from morning.

———

A few of you have asked about my state of mind. I’m trying to keep the ratio of navel-gazing-to-description fairly low, so forgive me if my blog is sounding aloof.

Also, to be honest, I’m trying to remain cheerful in the face of bewilderment.

Every other time I have traveled, within a day or at most two I snap into my happy travel place. I devour historical and current newspaper accounts about the country. I seek out strange and new places and foods. I return to my room late, exhausted and happy.

But here, on this trip, it ain’t happenin’. I feel like I’ve been close – there has been metal-on-metal, but the snap refuses to lock into place. I don’t know if it’s Russia, or if it’s what I feared – that going on an open-ended trip would be different, that I would fret more about where and when and why and how much. In any case, I feel like in some places – Kazan, for instance – I’m going through the motions rather than fully engaging in my travel. I am – dare I say – bored at times. On more than a few occasions, all I wanted to do was return to my room and read or write.

Which also makes me wonder – perhaps this is just built-up desire to do these other things I love – reading and writing – that I had to forego, for the most part, in the months leading up to my departure. During that time I was either engaged in logistical planning – visa, apartment, the disbursement of my belongings – or I was deliberately distracting myself from thinking too hard about what I was doing – giving up my life! leaving New York! – for fear of succumbing to self-doubt and despair. So I read guide books, investigated PO boxes and storage options, and, in lieu of drugs or bottles of booze, I watched the most ridiculous reality TV I could find (in a close race, MTV’s “From G’s to Gents” won over Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker“).

So you see – my state of mind is a jumble. I’m neither sad nor happy. I’ve had moments of delight and frustration, both of which have been fleeting. So far, Russia and I aren’t communicating. But is it that Russia has nothing to say to me, or that I’m not listening? Stay tuned.

Welcome to Siberia

I just arrived in Tomsk, a university town just off the Trans-Siberian railway line. After a one wet, cold night in Yekaterinburg (aka Sverdlovsk) between trains, Tomsk is sunny but markedly colder than the other side of the Urals.

The train has been interesting so far. I’ve spent days in silent reading, with all my compartment-mates ignoring each other. I’ve had raucous, communal compartments where my phrasebook gets hard use and where it’s impossible to refuse offers of food and drink. And then, on yesterday’s train, I’ve had a remarkably unfriendly babushka, who deliberately placed her luggage on the bench where she had slept (bottom bunk) but which we were supposed to share as seats during the day (I had top bunk). When I offered to move her luggage to the storage bins so I could sit down, she growled at me and pointed to my cramped bunk. Feh.

Anyway, afterward on the train I met about 10 students on linguistics heading to Tomsk for a conference on “inter-cultural communication.” They’re all women, about 22 years old I’d say. They *all* want to practice their English with me, so I’ve agreed to meet them for coffee today.

Also here in Tomsk, I will be well taken care of by a Olga, a director of some sort at the Polytechnic University, who I was introduced to by a man I met through Esther in Moscow. (Confused yet?) Anyway, she sent her employee, Natalia, to pick me up at the train and has instructed her to show me all the sights.

In short, I’m glad to be here. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Now I’m going to run and get my first real, non-cup-o-soup meal for three days.

Kazan, Kazan.

Kazan, Kazan. I’m not sure about this place. I came here because it’s the capital of Tartarstan, one of many semi-autonomous republics of the new Russia. Its history is complicated – I’ve read about it a few times, and I’m still confused. The originals, I think, are Bulgars (kin in name, at least, to modern Bulgarians, who were absorbed into the native Slavic people after migrating to the western shores of the Black Sea). The area was converted to Sunni Islam by an ambassador from Baghdad in the 10th century. Then there are the descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde, which sacked the city in the 13th century. In the middle they mixed it up with some Finno-Ugric people – the same people who settled Finland and Hungary. Ivan the Terrible burned everything down and started Kazan over as a Russian settlement in the 16h century. And finally, both Leo Tolstoy and Vlad Lenin famously got kicked out of the local university due to their political activities.

The modern architecture is as big a mish-mosh as its history. Half-burned wooden houses, severe Soviet concrete megaliths, 19th-century brick buildings crumbling into karst sinkholes – a result of the limestone earth and the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers, I’m told. And now, it seems, each new building boasts whatever architectural style suits the project architect.

In my short walk around the original Tatar settlement and current “muslim area”, separated from the town center by a small canal, I saw remarkable extremes. On the one hand, the area is dilapidated, strewn with buildings with collapsed roofs and piled high with trash. At rush hour, the rutted roads are clogged with Ladas, Volgas, trams and new buses, all kicking up dirt from the streets and spewing greasy exhaust. But among all this ruin sparkle crisp new structures – mosques, hotels, office buildings. This part of town feels like a Third World city that has recently come into some serious cash.

The people also consist of an inscrutable jumble of ethnic groups and opinions. Along with the inevitable Russian Orthodox (and atheists), there is a large Muslim population who practice an easygoing brand of the religion. I haven’t heard a single call to prayer, and few women cover their heads. Every third building, it seems, is a ministry or government office of the “Tartarstan Republic” or of “Kazan.” Souvenir shops sell green, white and red flags of the Tartarstan republic. Adding to my own confusion, street signs are in both Tartar language and Russian.

All this ethnic pride, however, doesn’t seem to translate into a desire for independence from Russia. Shakirova Dilyara, the president of a private business school I met with yesterday, talked about Russia’s future. Tatiana Kamaletdinova, the director of the Junior Achievement program here, spoke proudly about Tartarstan’s great wealth of natural resources and industry…in the context of its place within Russia.

Beyond these cultural insights, I haven’t found much of interest here in Kazan. Sure, the Kremlin is lovely and the town is good for a wander. But honestly, it’s kinda boring.

I have yet to be delighted by any particular place in Russia. I don’t know if it’s my expectations, or what. I have high hopes for Tomsk, which by all accounts boasts a vibrant cultural scene fed by the dozens of local universities and institutes of learning. Off the main Trans-Siberian route, it maintained its culture through Soviet times, while escaping the fate of most other non-Trans-Siberian towns, which have faded into ghost towns.

We’ll see if Asian Russia appeals more than European Russia has so far. Tonight I leave Kazan by overnight train, passing the arbitrary border between Europe and Asia on my way to Yekaterinburg. Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, is famous for many things. Most noteworthy, I think is that it the city where Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks and tossed into an old mine. I’ll only stay there for about 12 hours – a layover between the Kazan train, which arrives at 14:00, and the train to Tomsk, which leaves at 3 am and arrives in Tomsk 36 hours later.

It’s going to be quite a three days:
May 16 at 20:00, leave Kazan. Arrive Yekaterinburg May 17 at 14:14.
Hang around Y-burg.
May 18 at 02:57, leave Yekaterinburg. Arrive Tomsk May 19 at 05:56.

In other words, don’t expect to hear much from me before Tuesday, unless I find an internet cafe in Y-burg (which I will try to do).

Read the NY Times….

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/travel/17journeys.html?_r=1&ref=travel

They cut a bunch (notably my LSD reference) but still….cool to see the story out there! I guess it’ll be in the Sunday Travel section, too.

In other brief news, I’m taking the train from Kazan to Tomsk tonight, via –£ekaterinburg. I arrive in Tomsk Tues am. I’ll try to post details from an internet cafe that doesn’t suck, as this one does.

Moscow…..a haze

[I just added links to this post, but then had the effing internet run out on me mid-post. so the whole effing things was lost. so now I’m reposting sans links. I’m annoyed.]

——-

I’m sitting in a student cafeteria in Kazan, the capital of the Russian Tartarstan Republic and the so-called Istanbul of Russia. I arrived here yesterday morning by overnight train from Moscow. I spent yesterday wandering about in a daze, not quite recovered from the whirlwind that was Moscow.

In the end, I liked Moscow more than I thought I would, but still not enough to love it. It is much more of a city that St. Pete, which in hindsight (and in comparison) felt more like a very large town than a city. You could feel the NYC-like buzz on the streets of Moscow. Important things were happening right now, whereas St. Pete was more about important things that had happened in the past.

It’s hard to write about it now that I’ve left, but somehow I couldn’t find a spot to write while I was there. The hostel where I stayed, Home From Home, was decent – better than Cuba – but still cramped, noisy and a bit dirty. Anyway, let me try to write about Moscow.

I arrived the day before May 9, the day Russians celebrate their victory in WWII. Any Muscovites with any sense and a dacha left the city, leaving it…well, as quiet as Manhattan on July 4th weekend. Though I missed the parade itself – tanks rolling through Red Square – the city was littered with WWII vets in full regalia, chests dripping with badges and medals, receiving gifts of flowers and posing for photographs with passersby.

That night (Saturday May 9) I went to a dive bar/club with Nikki and Russell, two Brits I met at the hostel. We didn’t know what to expect – the listing fro Djao Da, the bar, only said “live Russian music.” It was…fantastic. Mind-blowing. The most pure fun I’ve had in quite a while. The show consisted of three-piece band – drums, guitar and bass – who quickly faded into the background as a parade of wild, outrageously dressed singers took the stage. They sang 50’s and 60’s style songs in at least four different languages (I recognized Russian, English, French and Spanish). The singers – all women except for one Canavan-like man – rotated on and off the stage, changing outfits between each song – poodle skirts, gold catsuits with silver “rockets” on their back, Mod micro-minis, Liberace lace and rings, and more. Holding it all together was a tiny, frenetic Janis Joplin-like figure, in Lennon shades and a fake sheepskin coat, who sprang around the stage and small dance floor shouting and cheering and getting the crowd to dance.

We had a wonderful time drinking vodka and beer, dancing, and marveling at the spectacle. We took a taxi home around 2:30, sweaty, happy and reeking of cigarette smoke.

The following day was my Kremlin/Red Square day. The weather was perfect – sunny but not hot, the trees vibrant green, the flowers in full bloom. The Kremlin was indeed impressive – the churches, the old Soviet buildings, the impossibly young guards ensuring no one got too close to the Senate buildings (and in one case, kicking a troop of Japanese tourists out of a garden of tulips, where they had been tramping about posing for photos). I’ll upload pics as soon as I get the chance.

Esther arrived that night. We met for about a minute at her hotel – she hadn’t gotten much sleep on the plane – and made plans to meet up again in the morning. Thus began my race-around-Moscow-with-Esther-and-meeting-amazing-people portion of my time in Moscow. Monday morning I watched her get interviewed by Evgeny Savin, who is filming a documentary series on Russian entrepreneurship and venture capital. We had lunch with Bas Godska, a Ukranian-Dutch man who is the deputy-CEO (possibly the silliest title ever) of Ozon.ru, Russia’s Amazon.com. Bas is a great guy – easygoing, full of energy, very clever. After lunch he kindly agreed to meet with me again the following day, to further discuss Ozon, Russia, and other things.

After lunch Esther and I took the subway/bus to Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow where Esther had spent about 6 months training to be a space tourist as Charles Simonyi’s backup. Esther thought of it more as being “embedded” – in the practice of science, and in a vestige of the old Soviet system. She approached it, she says, as a learning experience and a challenge. Esther is maniacally protective of her time. Over the years she has learned how to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute of the day. Pretty much anyone who has met her more than once has experienced “Esther is done with you now” – the moment at which her eyes lose focus and wander over your shoulder, or at which she impatienly starts to cut you off to end the conversation. (I say this with love, of course.) To her credit, Esther realizes her impatience and obsession with pure time efficiency. It was this force that would go up against a Soviet-style system, one in which, she says, “They didn’t take anyone’s time seriously. Not even their own.” I’ll write more about her experience separately.

As for us, we couldn’t go into the training area, because Esther no longer has a pass. So we toured the living area, including Esther’s old room. We climbed the bell tower of the new Orthodox church, being built by Muslim craftsmen from Uzbekistan, and rang the St. Peterburg-made bells. Happily, we ran into Al Drew, NASA’s director of operations in Star City, who invited is to dinner in the NASA cottages. So we had a lovely spaghetti dinner with some gregarious NASA guys, one of whom is going up to the Space Station at the end of May. I must admit, I was pretty psyched to meet real live astronauts. I told them all I expected to retire on the moon, so to get crackin’ making that happen.

The next day Esther gave a speech to a committee meeting at the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. The co-director, Ron Lewin, is a guy I had met 15 years ago, when I was still Esther’s assistant, during her East-West High-Tech Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was funny seeing him again – now all grown up (so to speak), married with children, etc.

After that meeting we met Andrey Kortunov, the head of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow and without a doubt the most impressive person I met during my days with Esther. He spoke eloquently and insightfully about the state of Russian/American relations and Russian politics, education and health care. I just listened and absorbed. I still need to do some research about New Eurasia, but it sounds like they are trying to find some private means to work with and/or get around goverment ministries in order to improve life in Russia.

Incidentally, we had had some trouble finding the office, on the 5th floor of an unmarked modern walk-up building. The rent on the 5th floor was cheap, Andrey explained. What he didn’t explain, but what I was to come to understand, is that the lack of signage was one of many ways that organizations and business try to…well, sort of “hide” from the Russian government – tax police, zoning officials, registration officials of various agencies, all of whom may make the life of an organization miserable, if the appropriate palms aren’t greased or asses kissed. Again, Andrey didn’t say any of this directly. This is just what I picked up as I have listened to businesspeople, educators, travelers, and others.

For lunch we met Sergey Kravchenko, the President of Boeing Russia-CIS. A large man who has known Esther for years, he greeted her warmly and talked about old friends, politics and the price of oil. He also told a great story about meeting Sakashvili, the president of Georgia. Sakashvili had insisted that they have a private meeting. At the end of the meeting, he said, “I want to give you a gift.” Sergey says, “It was the strangest gift I have ever received.” Sakashvili handed Sergey a framed, signed, photograph of himself. Like a soap star meeting a fan.

Though he was clearly an important man who understood his importance, Sergey made sure I was part of the conversation, teasing me about the “danger” of traveling alone to the Russian East. I shrugged, not knowing, but suspecting, that he was teasing. As he left, he shook my hand grinned, saying, “I was just kidding. The Russian people are very friendly and wonderful.”

The next day (Wed) Esther had a board meeting. I checked out of my hostel and met Stephen O’Connor for lunch. Stephen’s an old friend – I met him in Bratislava as well, and then knew him in Budapest, where he was an owner of the Budapest Business Journal (where Andrea DiCastro worked!). Now he’s married with children as well. His family lives in the US and he is back in Moscow, working in commercial real estate development.

After lunch I went to SW Moscow to meet Nina Kuznetsova, the head of Junior Achievement Russia. I had contacted her through a guy from HP who I had met at the AmCham meeting. Jr. Achievement, an international organization, is teaching entrepreneurship to children and young adults – from 6-20 years old. It was interesting to hear about how the program had to be adapted to Russia, where the idea of a free market was only a theory in the early ’90’s. She promised to put me in touch with regional directors as well, so I can see the program in action. As a matter of fact, I’m going to meet the head of the Kazan office in about an hour.

So that’s it – a quick review of what I’ve been doing.

I’m finding it harder here than in SE Asia to find places to write and post on a regular basis. I’ll try to be better about it! The plan at the moment is to stay in Kazan through the weekend and then go to Tomsk, on Monday or so. I have a feeling I’m going to love Tomsk, so I’ll probably stay about 5 days. Then I’m going either straight to Irkutsk, on Lake Baikal, or first down to Kyzyl, in the Tuva Republic, before going to Irkutsk. I’ll spend about 2 weeks in the Bailkal area. I’d like to try to get to Yakutsk, northeast of Baikal, for a summer solstice festival there on June 20th or so. Then the plan is to go to Khabarovsk, (possibly Sakhlin Island) and Vladivostok before heading into China.

Gotta run!

Moscow

Yes, I know I haven’t posted in a while. But I’ve been busy!

I’m sitting here in the hanging out room of the Home from Home hostel in Moscow. The gargantuan “maid” is sitting in her usual spot, watching the Eurovision competition, being broadcast live from right here in Moscow. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t write too much – the music is too awful to describe.

As a matter of fact, given that she just TURNED UP THE VOLUME, I’m going to post this little hello and move upstairs, where the guitar singalong seems to have broken up.

Oh, privacy and quiet, how I took thee for granted.

Staraya Russa

ed note: I wrote this a day ago, in SR. I’m actually in Moscow now – just arrived by overnight train. I couldn’t post this from SR because the internet cafe there was disgusting and I didn’t want to spend any time there. and no wifi. anyway…here it is. more about Moscow when I’ve got it.
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Staraya Russa, the little town south of Novgorod where I’ve spent the past few days, is a Russian reinterpretation of the Three Little Pigs. The oldest part of town, where the Dostoevsky family lived until Fyodor died, is filled with lovely wooden houses. Some are kept up beautifully, while others tilt and sag at odd angles for lack of a foundation. Each house sits on a small plot of land, most with a neat garden for tomatoes, potatoes, or what-have-you.

The other end of town, towards the bus and railway stations, is slightly more urban. The buildings are larger and closer together, built of brick beneath painted stucco facades. Between these two, unfortunately at the center of town, sits a decaying, colorless ghetto of unmistakable Soviet blocks, their cheap concrete crumbling into trash-strewn paths.

Originally I wanted to come here to seek some quiet, to try to read and write and clear my head. “A 19th-century village along the river” seemed like the right sort of place. As it turns out, I also needed to clear my sinuses (see previous post). So after a day in my Novgorod sick bed, I took the 2-hour bus ride here to finish getting better. I’m glad I did. Novgorod was too small to be exciting and too big to be peaceful. Like the American suburbs.

I’m staying at the Hotel Polist, a friendly place in the center of town. It also happens to be the only decent place to eat. It seems my arrival – a foreigner! who doesn’t speak Russian! – spread quickly through the staff. During my first trip to the restaurant I was immediately handed an English-language menu (thank god – I was still too sick-headed to try to decipher the menu in Russian). Word of my tea-needs also spread: When I show up with my travel mug and tea bag, the waitress on duty nods and takes it from me, knowing to fill it with hot water and return it to me before I finish my meal. After a day of consomme, sleep, and gallons of tea, I feel like myself again.

Yesterday (May 6) I visited the Dostoevsky Museum. It’s just his old house furnished with his things – his writing desk, photos of his children and wife. But it was peaceful and comforting, somehow, to see how he lived and where he wrote, looking out large windows at weeping willows sagging into the molassas Porusya River.

All around me, since I arrived, spring is doing its thing. When dad and I were in St. Petersburg, the trees were bare, the landscape a thousand shades of nothing. A week later, on my first walk through Staraya Russa, I noticed some early buds, still bashful, at the tips of each tree branch. Overnight the buds became leaves, and from then on, seemingly with each passing hour, the leaves grow larger, changing color from lemon to summer green. I keep doing double-takes: “Is that the tree that had such delicate, tiny leaves this morning?” Perhaps it’s my years in the city, but I’m taken aback by what I’m witnessing here. It’s like watching grass grow, but actually seeing it grow.

As wander the town, my eyes stinging from exhaust fumes and pollution despite the new greenery, I’m transported back to my first year in Hungary. I keep wanting to greet babushkas with “keszi csokolom” (“I kiss your hand” in Hungarian). When I enter a cafe or restaurant, it takes all my control to not ask for the “etlapot” (menu). I can’t shake the feeling that I’m simply traveling in a part of Hungary I’m not familiar with. But then I’m confronted with Russian cold stares, grudging service, and bursts of language I don’t understand, and I know I’m a bit too far east for that. I’ll just have to crack the Russian code.

St. Petersburg seems like a dream, a blur. It was all too much to absorb – the new culture and language, the almost excessive art and architecture – given my frayed state of mind. I will have to go back, with perspective.

Indeed, over the past few days I’ve come to terms with the too-muchness of Russia itself. There is so much history and complexity here, impossible to unravel. What’s the phrase? A riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma? Reading my guidebook and other travelogues (Through Siberia By Accident, by Dervla Murphy, and, at the moment, In Siberia by Colin Thubron) I feel like an overexcited puppy yapping at nothing and everything: I’ll go to Murmansk, on the Arctic! I’ll go to Astrakan, to see the Caspian and the land of sturgeon! I’ll go to Kazan, for East-meets-West and the Volga! I’ll go to Suzdal, for ancient Rus! I’ll go to the Altai Mountains, to hike! I’ll go to Elista, to see Russian Buddhists! It goes on and on.

Like my writing, my travels need editing. I only have three months, after all. (Less than that! In 2-1/2 months, on July 22, I’ll be in Wuhan, China, for the eclipse.) And before you scoff at “only three months,” consider that the world’s largest country covers 13% of the globe. A telling opening line from a Lonely Planet chapter: “Just 260 km from Novosibirsk…”

Beyond the physical vastness of the country, there’s the complex political and cultural history of both Russians and the many minorities that form the patchwork of distrcits, autonomous regions, semi-autonomous territories, and so on of the new Russia. (As an aside, I’m a bit mortified and how ignorant I am about this country. While it’s fine that I didn’t know much about, say, the hill tribes of Southeast Asia before I went there, my lack of knowledge about some basics of Russian history is ridiculous. All we learned in school was essentially, “USSR = bad!” And I never filled in the details. Sad.)

Anyway, I remembered last night that I’m seeking the offbeat, the odd Russia. So I’m ditching my half-assed idea to do the Trans-Siberian from Moscow in Vladivostok in one go (I’d miss too much!) and I’m doing it in chunks. At the moment the plan is to take the train to Moscow tonight, spend about 5 days there, and then leave European Russia behind. I’ll go to Kazan (capital of Tartarstan), then Tomsk (in western Siberia) and then…probably all the way to Irkutsk. I’d like to have at least a week – maybe two – in the Lake Baikal region. I want to get up to Yakutsk, especially if I can be there for their summer solstice festival (June 21-22). Other planned highlights would be Kabarovsk and some combo of Sakhalin Island, Magadan and/or Kamchatka (all along the Pacific coast). Then to Vladivostok and China.

Already that’s too much for the 10ish weeks I have left. But it’s only the first round of editing…