Third post B4 Vladivostok

It’s after midnight in Ulan Ude. I’m back from my frustrating journey north. I’ve had two large beers, so I’m calm.

The bus dropped us at the train station instead of the bus station ( “It’s Russia!”), but this time Russian logic worked to my benefit. I walked in and bought the first ticket to Vladivostok. Yay!

So in 12 hours I will be boarding train number 8, heading east. Sixty-two and one-half hours later (that’s almost three days) I will debark in Vladivostok, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet. It was a carefully closed-off city during Soviet times, and more recently the most wild of Russia’s Wild East. I will apply for my Chinese visa, tour the city while waiting, and then leave Russia. I think I’ve had enough.

I’m kinda delighted that I’ll be spending July 4 in such a place.

See ya’ll on the East Coast.

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Thwarted in Russia

[posted from Ulan Ude. It’s sort of a day-in-the-life-of type post. Enjoy.]

Chuckle chuckle. How my fortunes can change, in just a day! I was in the middle of writing a frustrated report from Ust-Barguzin. It was going something like this:
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If I write a book about my travels in Russia, the working title will be “Thwarted.”

I endured a 7-hour bus ride here, to this miserable and dusty little town, because it is the perfect staging point for hiking trips to the Holy Nose Peninsula, the Ushkanny Islands (home to the rare Nerpa seals), and the Barguzin Valley. Alex Betekov was recommended (again, both by LP and the Aussies!) as the man who would get me there.

Our email exchanges didn’t gain me much – no precise options for tours or hikes, no information about groups I might be able to join. Instead of doing a broken-English battle via email, I took his advice and just told him when I was coming. We would discuss details in person.

Of course, there are no details.

There are no groups to join. (“One group left today morning,” he said. “Too bad you not come one day earlier.” ARGH. “But I asked you about groups, and you didn’t tell me,” I replied, trying to remain calm. “I could have come earlier.” Alex either didn’t understand, or didn’t want to. “Yes, too bad you not come one day early.”

There are no one-day hikes – he’s got a straight job now.

There’s nothing to do, but wait.

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But now – a miracle! No other tourists have appeared. Still no groups to join. But suddenly Alex has a friend who can take me on a 3-day trip, at the exceptionally (suspiciously) low price of 1500 rubles/day (about $50). I don’t know if it’s because I told them I’m a travel writer (in the Russian conversations about me, I kept hearing the word “pisatilnitsa,” which means “writer”) and they’re worried about bad press. If only they knew.

Anyway, a bearded Ulan-Ude native called Victor is going to take me on a tour. We’ll kayak from UB out to the Holy Nose peninsula. Then (I think) we’ll hitchhike (with the kayak!?) across the neck to the opposite bay. At some point we’ll camp for the night. (This part isn’t so clear.) But assuming we make it, we’ll then kayak to Snake Bay, a secluded but popular destination for Russian tourists and fisherman. I’m told there’s someone there who might be able to take me diving (?) for fish (?). Again, unclear. Anyway, we camp again. The next day we reverse the road back to UB. Again, the return trip is a bit hazy – will we catch a ride? Will we kayak?

I realized, while having this very vague conversation with Victor about itinerary and costs, that my growing frustration wouldn’t get me anywhere. It certainly wouldn’t get me to the Holy Nose. So I took a deep breath and said, “Eff it. Why not.” The trip might suck. Despite Victor’s assurances, it might cost a lot more than 4500 rubles (plus food). But then again, if all goes well it could be pretty fucking amazing. So I’m smiling and nodding and rolling the dice.

THE NEXT DAY
Ha….hahahaha. It’s just too funny. I’m writing this in UB, but I’ll post it in about 8 hours, when I get back to Ulan-Ude. “What?” you may be asking. “No trip?”

The squishiness began almost immediately after Victor and I had sorted out a plan. Within just two hours, we went from “we’ll leave at 11 in the morning” to “we’ll leave at 7” to “we’ll leave at 9.” But the day dawned cold and rainy. At 8:56 Victor called. “We will wait one or two hours to see about the rain. I will call you.” OK. By 11:30 the rain had stopped (though the clouds were still low and threatening), but I hadn’t heard from Victor. So I called him. “Yes, you can come meet me and we’ll go.”

Um…so why were we waiting? Why hadn’t he called me? How were decisions being made? Victor’s English wasn’t good enough, so I called Alex, whose English is marginally better. I explained that I was confused. Alex called Victor to see what was up. He called back. “Yes, he told me he is ready and waiting for you to come.” I explained again that I didn’t really want to go out into the wilderness with a guy who seemed so nonchalant, so infuriatingly vague. And what happened to the problem with the weather? Though it hadn’t improved much, somehow now it was OK to go? I could imagine three days of me trying not to strangle him. Alex said he’d call Victor again to discuss.

Ten minutes later, Alex was back on the phone. “Christina, you are right. Victor is not ready to go. So I think maybe you should find another plan.” It was already in the works: Svejta would arrange a seat for me on the 2 pm bus to Ulan Ude. Enough of this!

To cap it all off, about 15 minutes later Victor called again. “Christina, Sasha [Alex] tells me you are having doubts?” I was silent, stunned. What is reality, what is true here in Ust-Barguzin? What had been said, really, between Alex and Victor? Yes,” I said. “So you will cancel?” asked Victor. “Yes,” I replied. He sounded angry – I couldn’t believe that HE was the one who was angry. “Fine, you are canceling. I wish you good luck,” he replied. Derisively? Sullenly? Hard to tell.

But I don’t give a shit. I’m getting out of Ust-Barguzin, and frankly I think I’m ready to get out of Russia. I think I’m going to skip the planned day in Khabarovsk, go straight to Vladivostok, get my Chinese visa, and get out. Make like a store, as we say in Hungary, and bolt.

PS – the sun just came out. ha! hahahahaha.

PPS – The working title is back and better than ever.

The invisible city

Lonely Planet calls it “one of the most likeable cities in Eastern Siberia.” The Australian cousins sent me email giving me tips: “If you go there – and you HAVE to go there…” they liked it so much. Either there are two Ulan Udes, or they are crazy, or I’m missing something.

You know the old saying that Boston city planning involved dropping a handful of toothpicks on a piece of paper and then making each toothpick a one-way road? Ulan Ude is worse (though unlike Boston, it least offers foreign wanderers street signs). First, it’s much, much uglier – mostly old Soviet concrete and some new steel/glass awfulness. And (due to the fact the city is built on steppe, I think) everything is on different levels – sidewalks lower than the street, the street lower than the buildings. It’s impossible to see anything – where you are, what’s in the shops – never mind to see where the road might lead you. It’s like trying to get from point A to point B in one of those Escher prints we all had on our walls in college.

From what I could discern there is only one walkable road from the north part of town (where I stayed) and the south part (where all the stuff is). I tried to find another way, but I kept getting funnelled into the maze-like dead end of concrete apartment blocks, where the notion of “sidewalk” and street” and “empty space” are all interchangeable. You put your life on the line, trying to walk through one of those complexes. And you’ll definitely get hopelessly lost.

Anyway, as I was saying, there is only one road, and it is full of diesel-exhaust-spewing Ladas and Kamaz trucks in a GREAT RUSH to get places. Much honking and gunning of engines and screeching of tires. The sidewalk itself would undergo wild transformations from block to block: sometimes it was nicely concrete-tiled and at road level, separated from traffic by a line of trees; sometimes it was a dirt path that meandered closer to the buildings, set about a meter higher than the road; sometimes it was a narrow strip of broken concrete right by the road, lined on both sides with high concrete barriers that led you halfway down a sidestreet before you could cross to the next block south, across what seemed to be a busy highway off-ramp (again, impossible to see exactly where all those careening vehicles were careening from).

As for the buildings , their placement was equally chaotic. No promenade of grand structures here. There would be concrete hulks of offices right up against the road; whitewashed concrete shopping malls set back from the road, up some stone steps and a piazza-like area dotted with ice cream vendors; stucco-covered concrete ex-Soviet hotels set at an angle to the whole street. Sometimes the view was just a concrete hill leading 30 meters up to the unseeable road above. Visual chaos.

Then suddenly the sidewalk became broken stone stairs that led you into a wide-open, mostly unused main square, in which you had to choose which direction to continue. And let me tell you, no matter which direction you choose, you never feel like you get anywhere. UU isn’t so much sprawling as uncentered. There’s a recurring nightmare I have: I’m walking along (or climbing a hill), thinking the unnamed thing I seek is just around the next bend, just over the next hill. It must be! But every time I get around the bend or over the hill, all I see is another curve. (Doesn’t take a genius to armchair-psych that one.) Well, UU is my living nightmare.

Even the pedestrian zone of ul. Lenina (every town in Russia has one) is uninteresting for the average tourist: mobile-phone shops, children’s toys. There was one overpriced cafe, but it was well-hidden enough that I didn’t find it until I had already accidentally found a nice cheap shwarma place attached to an equally well-hidden shopping mall. I mean, how does a city’s pedestrian zone not have, like, a billion cafes? Answer: Siberians don’t go out to eat much, and this is a city for Siberians, not tourists.

Of course, when you go to Ulan Ude – and you HAVE to go there – you will discover why it’s worth it. The aforementioned (I hate that word, but there it is) otherwise unremarkable main square is adorned – dominated – by the world’s largest Lenin head. Yup, you read right: it’s a statue, of only Lenin’s head, on a plinth. And it’s HUGE. Inadvertent Soviet surrealism at its best.

Sucks to be alone

Sometimes.

This morning I took a 7-hour bus ride from Ulan-Ude north to Ust-Barguzin. There’s this guy here, called Alex Beketov, who has a homestay and purportedly can arrange hiking trips – no matter if you’re alone! he said by email. Feh.

His proposal is for me to borrow his tent and to hike alone to the top of Holy Nose Peninsula, camp there, and then hike back. “The trouble is, you might lose your way. The way is marked, but sometimes people miss it.”

Um, no thanks.

The other option is that maybe there will be a Russian-only group doing the hike tomorrow. He’ll know by 9 pm. We’d leave tomorrow at 7 am. Yes, this is last-minute Russia at its finest.

If I had someone to go with, in theory I could do this intriguing hike (scroll donw to Stop 3), but it’s not really something to do on your own. At least not if you’re a girl who doesn’t speak Russian.

The good news is that if this turns out to be a bust, I have a backup plan: On the bus I met a Russian woman who is an English-language teacher in Moscow. She’s in a village about 30 km away visiting her mother for the summer (with her German boyfriend). She says the beaches there are nice, and there are thermal springs and whatnot. She gave me her phone number and invited me to come stay. So we’ll see.

OK gotta run – I’m using Alex’s internet and his friend who is putting me up for the night (Alex’s place is being renovated) will be home soon.

I love love love to travel alone. If I wasn’t alone, for instance, it’s less likely I would have met the English-language teacher. But if you’re trying to book a tour or go hiking, it can be a pain in the ass.

Oh I’ve got a whole post to write about Ulan-Ude, by the way. What a crazy place. I’ll write it tonight and try to post tomorrow.

Sleepless in Irkutsk

Providing a neat book-end to my time in western Baikal, I am again awake at 6:30 am, sitting at the kitchen table of Baikaler hostel. In two hours I’ll be on a train to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia and the biggest city on the east side of Lake Baikal.

This time, instead of my sinuses keeping me awake it’s my brain. Last night I visited with Anton, my hiking guide and (I hope) new friend. We talked about many things, including the birth of his truly adorable 3-month-old named Polly. But the thing that’s kept me awake most of the night is sustainable tourism and Russia (I’m trying to put together a story proposal), and his very convincing pitch for me to go to Severobaikalsk (on the north shore of Baikal, and difficult to get to from Ulan-Ude) and to come back for an ice trek across the lake for my birthday in March.

All of a sudden I’m seriously considering skipping Mongolia entirely and just doing it next year, after coming back to Baikal. Because I need to be in Wuhan for the eclipse July 22, I’ll need to go straight from Vladivostok to southern China, then back up to Mongolia, then back down through China to Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. Pain in the ass. If instead I just do Russia/China/Vietnam/Malaysia for the diving season/back to Russia in March/Mongolia….hmmm. But that means Mongolia in April/May time, which isn’t ideal weather.

The other option is to skip Vladivostok this time and head straight to Mongolia after UU/Severobaikalsk, stay in Mongolia for just two weeks and then hightail it down to Wuhan. Then I can hit Vladivostok when I come back next March. This has the benefit in Mongolia of being the right season for and overlapping my time there with Nikkie, Nikki and Russell. But then only 2 weeks (instead of a month) in Mongolia. And…I *have* to make sure I go to Vladivostok, which (rather oddly) has been on My List since I was a little girl.

Someone, please tell me what to do!

Also, after all my ambivalence about Russia, I trust everyone is making note of the irony of me planning a return visit so soon?

As I said, Anton is very convincing. But also…I’ve realized that Baikal has me hooked. It’s beautiful and difficult and rugged and complex and intriguing and always-changing and grumpy and breathtaking and boasts a list of superlatives: biggest freshwater lake, biggest unfrozen fresh water source, deepest lake, oldest lake, home to a number of endemic flora and fauna, and so on. You can swim in it, dive in in (in theory), search for sunken treasure, drive, walk or bike across it, rock- or ice- climb along it, etc.

And most people have never heard of it.

Everyone thinks I’m crazy

“You came here all alone?” Their eyes form perfect, bugged-out circles. “Alone?” they repeat, hoping I’ve made a mistake, that a friend or husband or (best of all) a tour group, complete with a guide carrying a red umbrella, is just around the corner. “You aren’t afraid? it’s dangerous!”

I’ve had this same conversation – almost verbatim – with at least ten people, from St. Petersburg through Kazan to Kyzyl. While I’ve heard it from time to time in other countries, this sentiment has never been as prevalent as it is here in Russia. So naturally, I’ve developed a theory, based on my observations and what I’ve learned so far.

First, most tourists in Russia are Russian. I don’t know why it took until now to realize that “tourist season” would mean *Russians* taking up the hotel rooms and crowding the sights. Um, duh. It’s as silly as not anticipating American tourists in line for the Statue of Liberty ferry. So the trains, hotels and restaurants have been filled, so far, with vacationing Russians, Russians on bizniz trips, and Russians off to visit babushka in her dacha.

As a sort of corollary, there are relatively few foreign tourists in Russia. (I say relatively.) Those that do come stick to the basics – St. Petersburg, Moscow, maybe one of the towns in the Golden Ring. So other than the few foreigners I met in Piter and Moscow hostels, the only other non-Russian tourists I saw anywhere were the Australian cousins I met on the train from Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk. Think about that for a sec. After a month in this country – well, three weeks if you don’t count the week with my dad – doing the backpacker thing, touring the tourist sights, I haven’t come across more than a handful of foreign tourists. Gaggles of Russian tourists, but no Germans, Japanese, French, Brazilians, or anyone else.

[I think this contributed to my lack of enjoyment outside of Tuva and Lake Baikal. I feel very alone. I’m a freak wherever I go. Which is fine, but I wasn’t expecting to be the only tourist in town. So I’ve got to make the mental adjustment.]

Thirdly, of those foreign tourists, only a small percentage are really independent travelers – staying in the cheapies, doing the “show up, find a room figure it out” thing. And frankly, Russia has no idea what to do with us. I think there are maybe 4 or 5 city tourist offices in the whole country (St. Pete, Moscow, Novgorod, Kazan…one more?). Private tour agencies cater to groups…and specifically to Russians. Few employees speak any English, and there are few English-language materials. (Don’t even get me started about the general lack of maps.)

In other countries I’ve visited, even the weird out-of-the-way places, you always can find the Swiss transplant, American ex-hippie, or enterprising local who’s the center of backpacking activity. Not so here. Instead, those on tight budgets all use Couchsurfing.com to find homestay accommodation or locals hoping to practice their English by showing tourists around their town. Once again, the Internet helps people self-organize around shared/complementary needs! (The trick, of course, is to find one of the dwindling Internet cafes in the first place – everyone’s gone handheld-device, so I-cafes aren’t as necessary or crowded as just a few years ago.)

[Another aside: I started writing about this before coming to Baikal. In Irkutsk and now Listvyanka, there are many more foreign tourists and more tourist infrastructure. I stepped off the train in Irkutsk and saw a half-dozen backpackers waiting with me for the tram into town. My hostel was full of foreigners, as opposed to the Piter and Moscow hostels that housed mostly Russians. So here, at this watery jewel in the middle of Siberia, they’ve figured out how to attract tourists and make us happy. Now it’s a matter of attracting more of us….]

So. Why the lack of tourists?

The obvious starting place is the visa requirements. You all read about my frustrating and expensive adventure in visa-acquisition. That tale, with a few variants, has been repeated to me by many of my fellow foreigners.

Next, foreigners have to register once they are in Russia, and in every town where they stay for more than 72 hours. In many places the hotel/hostel will do this for you, sometimes for a small fee (100-150 rubles). So far I’ve avoided having to go to the OVIR visa-registration office myself. But this requirement just adds to foreigners’ confusion and dread: Like most rules, everyone seems to have a different opinion on whether to take registration seriously. After my visa fiasco I’ve been diligently registering everywhere I go, but I’ve met quite a few people who just shrug the whole thing off. They might be right – so far, despite many warnings in Lonely Planet that the police can stop you and demand your passport and registration at any time, I haven’t so much as made eye contact with any cops. We’ll see what happens at the border when I leave.

These two bureaucratic remnants are evidence of the biggest factor of all: for so long, Russia was a closed country. Tourists traveled as a part of a group, escorted by an Intourist representative. Even for Russians, movement around the country was tightly controled and monitored. Now, in the tourist infrastructure of the New Russia, there’s there’s still an undercurrent of suspicion directed at strangers. Three times I’ve been asked if I’m a spy. (My favorite: the impossibly young director at the Tomsk SEZ asked me, “Who is funding your trip?” I looked at him blankly, confused. His colleague laughed and said, “Is it the CIA?” I smiled and replied, “No, I assure you that I am funding my own trip.” I pulled the collar of my shirt towards him. “But can you please speak a little louder?”)

Despite 20 years of openness, Russian people and institutions still can’t get their collective heads around the notion of simple independent travel.

It’s dangerous. Crazy, even.

From Russia, with frustration

I’m back in Irkutsk after three days of not diving Lake Baikal. The dry suit was too big, the weather too poor, the dive shop too disorganized. Thwarted by Russia once again!

Since my delightful detour into Tuva, which felt like I left Russia for a week, it seems my ambivalence about Russia has not changed. I escaped the shaman in Abakan (I can’t stop saying that – it’s too funny), only to I find myself back in plain old dour Russia. I think I’ve found a big reason for my ambivalence, however: Russians are also ambivalent about themselves, about their country.

Over my 8 weeks here I have spoken with businessmen (as opposed to Russian biznesmen, who are closer to mafiosos than entrepreneurs), administrators at nonprofit organizations, educators, university and high school students, tour operators, lawyers, retirees, and dozens of others. They come from all over Russia – Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, northern Siberia, eastern Siberia, Tuva. As you’d expect from such an enormous country, I’ve gotten dozens of different impressions about the state of Russia, and what it needs. The one unifying thread is that things are not going well, that the people are struggling to find a good way – a Russian way – to live; the whole country is searching for a Russian identity. Dilyara Sharikova, the head of a private business school Kazan, was eloquent and remarkably blunt: “I am not optimistic about Russia. It needs a very long time – not even money – to find our own way of living. Now we are living half in the Soviet system, half in the US/European way. We need to find a synthesis. We have American, Asian, Soviet, Communist concepts. We need our own, new concepts. This will take a long time – 100 years. Our mentality is very conservative. Too conservative.”

For 70 years Russians were told that they are a world superpower. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, they were suddenly left staring at the shriveled old man behind the curtain instead of the Great and Powerful Oz. While they rubbed their eyes in bewilderment, oligarchs stole much of the country’s riches and deposited the profits in offshore accounts while the same old politicians donned masks of democracy yet continued to rule as before. And most people I’ve spoken with don’t really believe in democracy, or don’t understand or feel the power it may give them. They view voting as a joke – they already know who will win an election before it happens.

The people I’ve spoken with are angry and frustrated at the loss of the only positive aspects of the Soviet times – full employment, free health care, good education. They’ve been left with no safety net, and no rules or examples for how to make a life. Most Russians I’ve met live in the shade on either side of the fence between legal and illegal. Honest entrepreneurs from Moscow to Irkutsk make daily choices between doing business legally – standing in absurdly long lines for a rubber stamp on an absurdly long form, paying exorbitant random fees for basic banking transactions, and so on – and spending time actually running a profitable business. Parents “bribe” their kids’ teachers for good grades or a passing mark on an entrance exam; they have to, because there are limited spots and teachers have no choice but to supplement their meager incomes to survive.

In the meantime, Moscow spends the Federation’s money on show projects – Olympic facilities in Socchi; a bridge to nowhere in Vladivostok, in advance of the Asean Summit to be held there; Special Economic Zones, where in the name of innovation and entrepreneurship a few hand-picked companies get huge tax breaks and other benefits in closed office park-like facilities.

It’s all quite depressing. As I write this, it occurs to me that I haven’t met a single happy, contented or optimistic Russian. It’s a country running scared, covering up their emotions with stoicism, maliciousness or heavy drinking.
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I write all this with a giant caveat: I’ve only been here 8 weeks, for god’s sake. Anton the hike guide was right when he said my fellow tourists and I would never understand Russia. This is true of any country I visit, but I think it’s even more true here. First of all, as I said Russians themselves don’t know what they are. But also there are at least two Russias, and probably more: European Russia and then Asian Russia, what most people incorrectly lump into Siberia.

In my travels I keep thinking that Lonely Planet needs to make many different guides for Russia – there is too much to see, too much convoluted history, too little tourist information in every oblast or independent federation or other section of Russia to fit into one 800-page guidebook.

As I travel east I find people’s perceptions about themselves as Russians are as complex and varied as each section of Russia. I wonder what it’ll be like in China – another huge country split into a rich, powerful section (the east coast) and a poorer, neglected section (the west).