The shortest longest eclipse

I haven’t really posted much about China. Yeah, I know. Between the Great Firewall, slooooowwww connection in Shanghai, and a lack of a computer, it’s been painful even to check email.

There’s much to say, but I shant say it now. Because I know what you’re wondering: How was the eclipse? So I’ll postpone more general China posts and tell ya.

This eclipse was unlike the other two I’ve seen. Of course, the other two (Hungary in ’99 and Ghana in ’06) were also different from each other. As I told a TV reporter from a local Wuhan news network (!), eclipses are like children (I suppose): You love them all equally, but as individuals.

In the days leading up to July 22, the SEML (solar eclipse mailing list) was manic with worries about a storm (’tis the season) and extraordinarily detailed weather reports from Jay Anderson, the eclipse-chasers’ Al Roker (sans annoying cheeriness and yoyo weight loss).

As it turns out, people’s fears were justified: Shanghai got rained out. As you read before (in my NYT article), I was joining Rick Brown, a native NYer who runs eclipse tours on the side. He had arranged a private viewing area at the Wuhan Bioengineering University. (A big huge THANK YOU to Rick for inviting me to join them. Fun times!)

Though we didn’t get rained out, we did get cloud cover that seemed to thicken right at totality. In other words, we saw the early stages (where the moon slowly moves across the sun) fine, because the sun’s rays were strong enough to pierce the thin clouds. But when the eclipse went total, we couldn’t see my favorite part: the firey black hole in the sky.

However, about a minute before totality ended, the clouds thinned and – gasps, cheers and roar of the crowd – we saw it. I grinned like an idiot and stared. Al Drew, a decorated officer and ex-Special Ops in the US Air Force, ex-test pilot, and current NASA astronaut who flew STS-118 and spent 13 days in space (including 10 on the International Space Station), was flabbergasted. “There it is!” he chirped, like a wide-eyed child who’s meeting a real live astronaut. “That’s it! Is that it?” (He was much more eloquent when interviewed later by the swarms of local media, which was thrilled to have a real live astronaut (and a black man to boot!) in their midst.)

So yes, even if you’ve been in space, and spent your down time on the flight deck of the space shuttle, with all the lights turned off, watching the stars and the earth – even then, a total solar eclipse blows your mind.

I was disappointed, of course. But we still saw all the key moments: the odd underwater light, a 360-degree sunset, the edge of the moon’s shadow hurtling towards us as totality neared its end, the diamond ring, and then the truly remarkable speed at which late dusk returns to mid-day as the moon moves away from the sun.

I do not regret traveling all this way to see it. Neither did Al, who flew from Moscow (actually Star City, where we met via Esther) via Beijing on a 36-hour turnaround for the occasion. It’s funny – any “New York Times writer” fame I might had had with Rick’s crowd was quite easily trumped by “real live NASA astronaut!” So while Al patiently dealt the the swarm of tour-groupees and local media I got to take in the whole scene.

Of course, spending 36 hours with Al was fascinating in its own right. We drank Tsingtao by the Yangtze, discussed everything from US foreign policy to farting in a space suit, and ate a lovely meal at a table for 10 in a local restaurant that was roughly the size of hangar.

So yes, I’d say that the eclipse was a success.
Now I’m back in Beijing and leaving for Mongolia early Monday morning, having cut short this leg of my China time. I’m still getting too frustrated here to have a good time on my own. I’m hoping that a month of cheering up in Mongolia will provide me with a good reset with China. I’ll try again when it’s cooler and when I haven’t been ripped off as I cross the border. Reset my Chinese karma, if you will.

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, Russia’s 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!

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.

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…