Last day in Russia

I only just realized that today is my last day in Russia. I had been avoiding thinking about it, because I was expecting the worst RE my Chinese visa. But here it is – a bit over 11 weeks after I flew into St. Petersburg and was overwhelmed with its beauty and history, I’m about 10,000 km east, on another ocean, in another lovely historical Russian city – though one less enchanting.

I just stopped at the little shop downstairs to buy a couple of final Russian beers. I’m proud to say that the whole exchange, though extremely basic, took place in full-sentence Russian. (“Two Sibirskaya Korona Klassica, please” “Klassic?” “Yes” “Two?” “Yes” “58 roubles, please” “Here ya go” “Um…” “Oh! Didn’t I give you two roubles?” ” “Ay! Here you go.” “Thank you, goodbye.” “Goodbye”)

My neurotic feelings about neurotic Russia have not changed. I’m very sad to leave – and already plotting my return – despite the disappointing (and needless) failures I’ve had in many of my attempts here.

This country has *so* much potential. It’s overwhelming. Forget oil & gas – this country possesses abundant and beautiful nature-al resources. Enough to keep eco-tourists, adventurers, culture addicts, and most anyone occupied (and spending money) for a long, long time. But Russia is squandering this natural resource.

And then there are the people. They are deeply cynical about politics. They are frustrated by bureaucracy that is so all-pervasive that they can’t even see most of it. They must choose which rules to follow and which to ignore, because it’s impossible to follow all the rules and still live a life. They are not cheerful, but they know a thousand jokes.

The Russian people that I’ve met are deeply thoughtful and engaged with the world around them. Some are very ill-informed and/or susceptible to conspiracy theories – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if the CIA was really behind 9-11, or if the Fed deliberately caused the current global economic crisis. But still, they are much more curious and “informed” than the typical American.

What they lack is optimism, a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s a noticeable characteristic of Americans. It’s the reason I think the US can climb out of the econ-crisis faster than most other countries. It’s the reason we Americans are willing to take risks – as entrepreneurs, as investors, as home-buyers. It’s the reason, I think, that I was able to divest myself of my New York life and hit the road, with only a small amount of trepidation. I believe that “Things are going to be OK.”

Optimism can change your life. It can change your country. It’s necessary for democracy. It’s what’s behind civic action and civil disobedience. It’s what got Barack Obama elected, and it’s in this speech he gave at a Russian civil society conference while he was in town.

If Russians, somehow, find some optimism….watch out. It could be the next China!
——-

Meh, now I’m babbling, so I’ll stop. This is what you get when I can’t edit because my poor little HP is broke!

I’m going to pack. Then, if I can get back on the computer, I’ll write another post about Vladivostok, where the bus drivers all look like ex-Marines, smoke like chimneys, and have Barbie stickers on their speedometers. (I’m not kidding.)

Half a glass of wine

Half a glass of wine. That is what my clumsy hand spilled into the keyboard of my beloved HP Mini yesterday evening. As I leapt from my chair for a towel to sop up the mess, my little computer made a sad little mewling sound, and died.

All my attempts to revive it have failed. As you might imagine, I’m in the initial stages of mourning – shock and denial. So I’ll get my visa, go to China tomorrow, and then see if the warranty covers wine-spilling. Will I have to send it to some Official HP Repair place in the US? Can it even be saved?

Alas, alas!

For Henry

This morning (yesterday evening, your time!) I was chatting on IM with my friend Henry. The gist of the conversation was, “Where are you? What have you been doing? When the hell are you going to post again, you no-account layabout?”

The short answer is: I’m still in Vladivostok, waiting for my Chinese visa, which should be ready tomorrow morning. That means if all gos as planned, I’ll leave for China Saturday morning and arrive in Beijing Sunday evening local time.

[The trainspotting types among you might be wondering why it takes 36 hours to get to Beijing. “There’s a direct train, isn’t there?” you must be wondering. In theory, there is. Only it takes a gobsmacking 40 hours just to get to Harbin, the transport hub of northeast China. I could get halfway through Siberia in that time! The reason for the time delay is shrouded in mystery. Evidently on this route the Russian and Chinese officials each take about 8 hours to do their border thing (that’s 16 hours on a train, without a toilet). Plus the wheels of the train must be switched out (or something?) because Chinese tracks are a different size. So what should take about 20 hours, takes 40. No one can explain why trains on the Trans-Manchurian line, which enters China further west, don’t suffer the same delays. Either no one knows or they don’t feel like telling me. Personally, I blame the North Koreans.

Instead, I will take a ridiculously complicated bus/train route and save myself about a day: I’ll go northwest from Vladivostok to Ussuriysk by bus – 2 hours. Then west from Ussuriysk (RUS)/Suifenhe (CN), the Chinese border town, by another bus (3ish hours, depending on the border process). Then I have to hang around Suifenhe for about 5 hours waiting for the overnight train to Harbin (8 hours). Finally, if I make the tight connection, I can take a fast day train from Harbin/Beijing (8 hours), arriving around 5:30 pm Sunday. Crazy!]

So, what of Vladivostok? My initial good feeling about the place is still there. It’s a pleasant, surprisingly green city on gentle slopes that jut at odd angles into various bays of the Pacific. The city center is especially nice, featuring pre-revolution architecture, some of which has been restored.

But the weather! I can barely see anything, the fog is so thick. I only know I’m by the ocean thanks to the unmistakable scent of salt water and sight of statues splattered with seagull shit. It’s damp and cool. Sometimes the fog becomes rain, ending any attempt at wandering. Then suddenly the fog lifts, and for a few hours I can scurry around in the bright sunshine, taking photos and climbing to viewpoints. And then, just as suddenly, the fog sweeps in and all is grey once again.

Since I’ve been here I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Eugene, the just-graduated Russian student I met on the train from Ulan-Ude. His mother grew up here and he spent his first 10 or so years here. When his mother lost her job the family – parents and two boys – was forced to live in a one-room flat. After a few months of that, they decided to move to Tomsk, where they had family, though the father didn’t want to go. Now Eugene, his brother and his mom are here putting the papers together so they can sell their old one-room flat.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about Eugene. He’s remarkably focused, for a 22-year-old. At the moment he works for Gazprom, the Russian oil & gas company, doing some sort of logistical project management. But he wants to work for a foreign company, because they have a clear career path laid out. At Gazprom, I guess, your promotions are left to the mercy of the moods and popularity of your direct boss. But Eugene is going places, and wants to see exactly where his job will take him, and how long it will take to get there.

I was shocked when I met his mother, who looks Buriyat (ethnically similar to Mongol). He must, I thought, take after his father 100% – this very tall, very blue-eyed, very white Russian betrays no Asian blood. In fact, his mom is only half-Buriyat: her father was Buriyat and her mother, believe it or not, was Jewish. So this little Asian woman is a Russian Jew, and only recently told her sons that they, too, are Jewish. It’s as outlandish as some Irish guy from the Bronx named, say, Patrick Canavan, being Jewish. Oh wait…

For his part, Eugene seems proud and excited and curious about his Jewish heritage, and is planning a visit to Israel. He wants to get his Israeli passport.  I could be wrong – I’m neither Jewish nor Russian – but I have a feeling he hasn’t quite grasped the discrimination that I fear is coming his way. I hope I’m wrong.

So I came all the way to Vladivostok expecting Russian sailors, concrete ugliness, and lots of Chinese & Korean immigrants (and illegals). Instead I found American sailors, European architecture and Russian Jews. That’s Russia!

OK, I must run out and get some fresh air and groceries. I promise to post again today, at least once. I’ve had various things running around in my foggy head, only some of which are at all interesting. I’ll try to pick only the interesting bits to write about.

In a fog

I’ve been in foggy Vladivostok for 5 days, with great wifi internet access, but for some reason I haven’t posted. There’s so much to say about my train ride here, about this beautiful city full of American sailors (!), about the people I’ve met here.

But I’m afflicted with fog of my own – unable to write, to concentrate. It’s hard to be “always on” – to be constantly figuring out where to go and how, meeting new people from different countries, becoming acquainted with a new city, planning future itineraries…and writing, too. Every once in a while I’ll need a break.

So for the past few days I’ve been laaazy. Yeah, I applied for my Chinese visa (ready on Friday!). Yeah, I met American navy guys who are here for a week on a sort of friendship-exchange mission. Yeah, I met up with my new friend Eugene, who I met on the train, where he played interference between me and various vodka-fueled Russian army recruits. Yeah, I stayed out late drinking beer with a couple I met here in the hostel while they waited for their 3 am train. And I’ve wandered around a good bit of Vladivostok as well.

I might write about these people and experiences in a later post. In the meantime, though, I’m going to read about Steve McNair’s sad end and Sarah Palin’s ineloquent Nixon impression and other trash.

I love Vladivostok

I’ve hardly seen it, but…it feels right. It’s much more beautiful than I thought – I expected lots and lots and lots of Khrushchev Specials, but instead I find slightly crumbling 19th- and early-20th-century structures on rolling tree-green hills. All surrounded by the Pacific.

Of course, this is an initial, sleep-deprived impression. We shall see what’s what tomorrow.

In completely off-topic news, how about those LogMeIn guys ? I’m too sleepy to wait for the market to open, so I’ll just say: Good luck with the IPO, my dear Magyar (and Magyar-inclined) friends! As someone who’s trying to spend her life Remotely Anywhere, I’m terribly excited for you all. (I probably only think that joke is funny because of sleepy delirium. So off to bed.)

PS – Did I mention that I spent the last almost 3 days in a train half-filled with Russian army recruits? It was…smelly. More l8r.

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.

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:
——————–

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.

————-

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.