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.

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).

Nothing to see

[I wrote most of this post two Fridays ago from Olkhon Island, before my hike. Forgot to post it.]

After a Thursday of 34-degree Centigrade weather (that’s 93 F) in the fine Siberian city of Irkutsk, Friday morning dawned drizzly and cold. Nikkie (he spells his name with an “e”, so that’s how I’ll differentiate between the Dutch man and the British woman named Nikki.) and I took a mini-bus 6 hours northeast from Irkutsk. About 4 hours in we caught our first glimpse of the mysterious Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and home to the rare Nerpa freshwater seals. We took a 10-minute ferry across to Olkhon, the largest island in the lake, and about 90 minutes later the van deposited us at the house of Olga Zereova, the homestay hostess who has been accommodating travelers for more than 10 years.

Over the past week or so I’ve realized how little attention I’ve been paying to what’s going on outside the window of the trains I’ve been taking. Only on the marshrutka ride to and from Kyzyl, and on the bus ride here today, have I really studied the landscape. On the train, it seems, what’s going on in the compartment is much more interesting. There’s usually at least one 2-year-old running up and down the aisles, being chased by mama or babushka. There are curious Russians who quiz me: Where are you from? Where are you going? Aren’t you afraid to travel in Russia? Do you have a family? Why not? There are scenes with the provodniks, the train carriage attendants who run the effing show: they check tickets, hand out linen, clean the bathrooms (and lock them at stations), bring you tea (for a fee), and yell at you/tease you/ exhort you/etc. if you break a rule. Sometimes they’re pleasant, and sometimes…there are scenes.

And then there are my fellow passengers to study: students returning home from Moscow, families going to stay with babushka for the summer, soldiers go to or leaving their service, drunk construction workers on leave from building the Olympic facilities near Socchi, mean babushkas who won’t let you sit on the bench/their bottom bunk, nice babushkas who show you photos of grandkids, young couples kissing and gazing into each other’s eyes. Very very very very very few non-Russian tourists. Like, none. I don’t know where all the backpackers are, but they’re not on the Russian trains.

(As it turns out, they’re all in Irkutsk. Comparatively, the city is teeming with them.)

But the main reason I haven’t been looking out the window is that there is nothing to see. The landscape switches from grassy farmland to sparse forest (the famous taiga has been clear cut away from the train lines) and back again. Sometimes the land is flat. Other times – exciting times – there are some minor hills. Every hour or so we pass a small village of wooden shacks, or a largish industrial town, shrouded by pollution in the middle of nature. But that’s it. That is Siberia from the Trans-Siberian.

The Siberia of poetry is one of isolation, desolation, stark nothingness. Looking out the train window, I yearn for such poignancy. Instead I see a blur of drab green and brown forms, with no jarring angles or colors or contrast. They might as well replace the windows with screens that use the old animator’s trick of repeating backgrounds during a chase scene.

The classic unhappy suburban youth complaint – my own included – is that “everything here is the same. everyone is the same.” Well, kid, welcome to Siberia. Or at least southern Siberia. But the vast majority of Siberia lies north of the Trans-Sib line, stretching hundreds of miles to the Arctic Ocean. I’m hoping that if I manage to get north to Yakutsk, I’ll find the real Siberia. If I’m still at all interested.

In the meantime, I’m gathering my strength for the 7-day, 6-night trek that Nikkie, Nikki, Russell and I start on Tuesday. I’ve got a lingering sinus cold – a less severe version of what I had earlier in my trip. But this time the runny nose is accompanied by searing sinus headaches. I’ve used up all my medicine and haven’t had a chance to go to an apteka to get anything more. So I’m having visions of traipsing up a rocky cliff with a heavy backpack while blowing my nose and squinting to alleviate my sinuses. For 22 km/day for 7 days. Egads.

Mysterious Baikal

Jeez it’s been almost two weeks since I posted! Well I have an excuse: yesterday I returned from a 7-day hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal. On the trip I learned many things, including that hiking up fairly steep hills after spending the past 6 weeks just sitting around on trains means lots of huffing and puffing, and seriously sore hamstrings and butt.

The group was a perfect size: 4 hikers and two guides. Nikki and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow; Nikkie, the Dutch man they had met in Yekaterinburg; Anton, our guide; and Anton (aka Father Frost), who drove the supply car containing our backpacks, food, tents and so on.

The tour started with a Russian banya, a steam sauna right next to the lake. Our final cold plunge was a squealing splash and dunk in Baikal, which I had been told is about 4 degrees centigrade at the moment. After drying off we had a traditional post-banya shot of vodka, and then shashlik for dinner. Mmm.

The next day, which I’ll call “Hills,” we started hiking. Oooh boy. I had no idea I was so out of shape. But the views over the lake were spectacular enough to be worth it. Over the next few days we climbed up and down rocky hills, through pine forests, across low grassy hills blooming with hardy wildflowers, and along mesmerizing monotonous steppe. At night we camped – usually by the lake.

And the lake. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world. It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water reserves. And it is remarkably, unbelievably unpolluted – in a country with a pretty terrible environmental record and in an area that is clearly the tourist epicenter of Asian Russia. If we needed to refill our water bottles – go to the lake. If we needed water for tea or soup or washing – go to the lake. If we needed to wash our filthy hands or feet, or cool our faces after a long sunny hike – go to the lake.

Our guides and caretakers were Anton and Anton. Clearly we needed a nickname for one of them, which came quickly enough on the first evening. After we tourists had our banya, the Antons did as well. It was a cold-ish night, so after drying ourselves we bundled up in layers and hats and scarves. But not Anton the driver/firestarter. As we sipped vodka in winter gear, he ate salami and cheese in nothing but his Speedo and some sandals. Thus we dubbed him Father Frost (the Russian Santa), or sometimes “Mr. Frost.”

The other Anton, our guide, is a native of Irkutsk who has been running his tour business for about 10 years. He’s got a muscular frame, sandy brown hair and light hazel eyes surrounded by crows feet whose depth age him well beyond his 29 years. (I had guessed he was in the 35-38 range.) He spends all of his time working – either guiding hikes/rafting/dog sledding/etc. or organizing trips for the freelance guides who work for him.

As you might imagine, he’s in great shape. Even Nikkie, the most gung-ho of all of us, struggled to keep up with Anton’s walking pace, especially up hills. Between the rugged scenery, our number, and the fact that we spent days just walking fast, I felt like I was a fellow in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Anton was clearly “Strider” – the character more colorfully described in the book than depicted in the film. I, of course, was Samwise Gamgee – “the fat one,” as Gollum put it. But hell – I am 10 years older and less fit than the rest of our party, so just the fact that I kept up makes me feel OK.

Over the seven days we shared many funny and wonderful moments – the tea bag fling (get yer mind outta the gutter, Andy Sullivan); Anton splitting logs for the fire using a WWF body-slam method; odd head gear to battle the strong sun; a sandy beach camp so isolated that we had to hike up a hill to get our tents, etc. because the truck couldn’t make it down to us; Father Frost and his 6 lumps of sugar in every tea; blisters, splinters, burns and toothaches; and much more.

So yes, I had a wonderful time. But I think I would have enjoyed it more with my friends. I like the Antons, the Nikki(e)s and Russell, but I’m not really connected to them. I kept thinking things like, “I bet Michele would love this!” and “I bet Lis could keep up with Anton” and “I can picture Henry betting Sean and/or Andy that he can [insert ridiculous and potentially dangerous act here].”

I guess I miss my friends.

On the last night, we camped on a small grassy plateau above the lake. Nikki and I hiked down to the small rocky beach below and I went swimming – not just a dunk, but *swimming*. I couldn’t resist. It was freezing, but so nice to float a bit – not to mention to wash off a few layers of the dirt, sweat, DEET, sunscreen, etc. that had gathered on our bodies over 6 days with no shower.

Before, during and after dinner we shared two small bottles of vodka. It’s interesting, what happens to cheerful Russian men after a few shots. All of a sudden Anton was bitter, scoffing at our questions about life in Russia (“You can never understand what it’s like to live in this place, where nothing works. You are thinking like a European, where the system takes care of you” etc etc). As he described the difficulty and uncertainty of life – from running a business to getting decent health care – dusk set in. Occasionally he would flick a knife into a makeshift wooden table in frustration. The discussion turned into a monologue – Anton ceased to listen to our explanations and protestations, wanting only to express himself.

(This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me – Jack, the owner of the hostel I’m staying at in Irkutsk, had spewed another bitter, pessimistic monologue at Nikkie and me after a few beers about a week earlier.)

It’s a complex dynamic. On the one hand, we are, in fact, (relatively) rich tourists who do not know what it’s like to try to eke out an existence in the New Russia. On the other hand, there we were, paying a 29-year-old 345 Euro each to do what he loves to do, to finance the house he is building (himself) for his wife and baby daughter. I don’t know if he was expressing jealously or frustration or pessimism…or otherwise well-hidden disdain for (perhaps) naive foreigners who think they can learn something of the Russian mind by asking a few questions of a Russian man on a desolated hilltop. Anton, I think, has already lived a few lifetimes (he studied podiatry, but being a doctor doesn’t pay; now he started a business, but the responsibilities of managing a growing business are weighing on him). It’s not just the constant exposure to sun and wind that has creased his face so prematurely.

I went to bed angry – it’s a pet peeve of mine to be accused of being a rich tourist. I can’t help where I was born and the circumstances of my life. I appreciate the freedom that my stable life gives me, and I try not to take it for granted.  But I’m not exactly running around the world, staying in 5-star hotels and paying for air-conditioned bus excursions to see stage-managed poverty. I said as much – angrily – to Anton before retiring to my tent.

The next morning I realized how silly it was for me to have gotten angry. By the end of the night we had all been talking past each other, each grappling in our own minds with knotlike complexities and cultural differences, and with our own individual limitations and fears.

Over breakfast, all seemed to be forgotten. After a fantastic expedition into an ice-crystal-encrusted cave, we piled ourselves and our bags into the SUV for the 4-hour ride back to Irkutsk. I rode shotgun and gently probed Anton for his mood, asking neutral questions about the flora and so on. I have no idea what he was really thinking, but it seemed to me that the previous night’s argument had broken a layer of reticence. He seemed cheerful and relatively chatty and (for the first time) asked me a bit about myself and my ongoing travel plans. When he dropped Nikkie and me off at our hostel, we hugged goodbye and he seemed genuinely happy to have met us. Personally, I’m sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know him better. I have a feeling we would be great friends.

Then again, perhaps had and I will meet again. There’s a  ice trek across frozen Lake Baikal that he runs in the winter. You camp on the lake in a teepee-like structure. The best time to visit Baikal, he says, is in March. So…maybe a Siberian birthday? If not next year, perhaps for my 40th (egads!)?

Until then, however: today I am catching up on email and uploading pics. Tomorrow I am going to Listvyanka, a village situated right on the lake, about about 70 km away from Irkutsk. I’m going to get certified to SCUBA dive using a dry suit, and then…diving Lake Baikal! I can’t wait. I’m going with Three Dimensions Dive Club, recommended by the very friendly, helpful and cool folks at Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk. The best-run hostel I’ve found in Russia so far!

Shashlik smells yummy. Shaman stinks.

It’s 6:30 am in Irkutsk, about 40 km from Lake Baikal. I’m at the kitchen table at Baikaler Hostel, a remarkably friendly, clean, well-run place owned by a native Irkutskian. Seems like I had to come 2000 km east of Moscow to find some decent backpacker accommodation. My sinuses have me up before everyone else in the hostel. But it’s quiet, so I can finally write a bit.

When I last posted, I had returned from a wonderful day in the steppes with a Tuvan throat-singer. A few days later, on my last night in Tuva, Sean Quirk invited me to his home for a family BBQ. (The word “shashlik” seems to mean both BBQ in general and shish-kebab in particular, since that’s all people BBQ here.) Sean, his Tuvan wife (whose name I already forget), their two daughters, and wife’s grandmother live in a small, low-ceilinged wooden house in Kyzyl. In the dirt yard sits a well-preserved 30-year-old Russian car with a recently busted tranny.

I arrived before his cousins, so Sean and I could chat. We sat in his tiny kitchen making pork, mutton and beef kabobs while Sean told me how and why he came to Tuva. The short version: he was a bike messenger in Chicago, got a throat-singing CD as a gift from his roommate, taught himself to throat sing, decided he wanted to go to Tuva to learn more, applied for an received a Fulbright to do so ($18k!), and off he went. That was 6 years ago. He met the members of Alash, who had just started the group, joined the band, met and married a Tuvan. A familiar story of boy meets throat-singers.

Now he works playing for the Tuvan National Orchestra and Alash, scraping together a living in the same way as any other Tuvan. Sean has gone native.

As we put the second round of shashlik on the tiny grill, the wind kicked up. Dirt from the yard swirled up and “seasoned” the meat. Sean’s two-year-old cheerfully tottered about, climbing on everything. Soon a swarm of cousins arrived, brought the kitchen table out to the yard and began cutting salad and bread. Someone brought a pizza. And vodka. We had a lovely time, and I was sad to leave.

I came home late, smelling of shashlik, vodka and happiness.

The next day, the first day of June, I caught a ride with Marina’s cousins to Abakan. She had arranged for me to meet her aunt’s friend, a shaman. Thus began my period of confinement.

At around 2 pm, the cousins rather unceremoniously dumped me in front of Svejta’s house, across the river from Abakan proper. I was alarmed at first, but then Svejta cheerfully waved me in, instructing her sons to help me with my bags.

Svejta is a big fat Kazakh shaman. She wore white patterned stretch pants and a tattered t-shirt with holes in the armpits. Her blue eyes sparkled when she was joking around (often) but went dull when she was serious. Her presence, physical and otherwise, filled her tiny kitchen. She introduced me to her sons: Andrei (a tall, red-headed, befreckled 21-year-old), the middle kid (a chubby-going-fat 16-year-old who most resembled his mother), and Peter (a skinny 9-year-old with an evil streak – his toys consisted of two fake uzis and a soccer ball which he kicked, hard, in my direction while I had my back turned and almost took my head off. Twice.). Then I met Sasha, her wiry and rather dim 30-year-old husband (her third), on whose crappier-than-promised English I had to rely for translation. Svejta herself is 40.

Though I’d love to, I can’t go into all the details of the next 24 hours here. It’s…just too much. I told Svejta I was interested in learning about shamanism, and after a short chat she invited me to stay the night (or two) in her home. I accepted, curious. So it began:

Svejta could see in my soul/body that something is not right, and it’s ruining my energy and my life. Do I have headaches often? (No.) I had a traumatic experience when I was 18 or 20. (Nope. So then her guesses became more general.) Unrequited love! (Um, who hasn’t? I just blinked at her.) This is causing bad circulation. I must have varicose veins! (Nope.) I was instructed to stand on a stool at the table, life my pant legs and turn around so she could inspect my calves. Yes! There! Under the skin! “In 5 years, your legs will be full of varicose veins, because of this problem,” she told me, gravely. “But I can help.” She advised me to come to her for healing – 10 days of intensive therapy, complete with shaman rituals and chiripractic-sounding realignments. I just smiled and said nothing.

Sasha probed to see what I believed. On the computer he showed me photos of shaman excursions (!), a short video promo of “The Secret” (“the power of thinking positive!” he gushed), photos of a magic cave in India, and, inexplicably, an animated Pixar film, dubbed in Russian, about a sheep who learns to “stay positive” even after all his fleece is shorn.

Seeing that I wasn’t into the idea of a 10-day treatment, Svejta offered to do a shaman ceremony for me the following night, to help me find a husband – my “love half” as Sasha put it. She would do this for free, because, eveidently, she and I were sisters in a past life. All I had to do is buy the spirit offerings, which would be lamb meat and other things and which I would throw into a fire at the appointed time. The ceremony would take place after midnight, on the edge of the River Abakan, which means “bear blood.” Again, I smiled and was noncommittal. By now I had given up trying to journalistically find out about shamanism. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Interspersed with all this craziness were these prolonged, painful attempts to translate some rather odd questions from Svejta – questions that had no reasonable answer. “What do you think about network marketing?” (huh?) “Tell me some things that are amazing in USA.” And my favorite: “Can mothers rent cars in America?” (uh…what??)

That night, without asking me first (and in a clear attempt to convert me), Svejta did her shaman thing. As I got ready for bed, she entered my room with these kooky dolls and a sparkly blue piece of cloth. As she arranged the dolls along the wall, on the cloth, Sasha came in and explained that the dolls were alive and would “heal” me overnight. “Don’t be scared,” he said. My devolution into a Stephen King short story continued as Svejta and the middle son continued to bring in shaman stuff – her shaman costume, drums, flails, a monkey paw, some old bone, and other paraphanalia. The son lit incense.

Then I was instructed to sleep naked. (“You must not be confined,” explained Sasha.) When I said I’d be way too cold, they brought another blanket and a big, loose-fitting  t-shirt. When I was appropriately dressed and under the covers, Svejta came in again – this time with three lit candles and some chimes. She told me to close my eyes, and rang her chimes over my feet, torso and head. Then she sat down, noisily – she’s a large woman – and began chanting and beating a drum. This went on for about 15 minutes.

For my part, I was fucking exhausted (I had slept just 3 hours the night before, and had been awake for about 22 hours by then) so I just tried to go to sleep, thinking through a plan to escape this craziness as soon as possible the next day.

Finally the “ceremony” ended, and I was allowed to sleep. I’ve got pictures of the whole set up, which I will upload as soon as I can.

The next day, they asked, “How do you feel this morning?” Fine. “You slept well?” Yes. “You don’t usually sleep so well, right?” It depends. (In hindsight, I’m kinda surprised they didn’t try to drug me or something.) They gave up their questions. Pleading work-related needs, I told them I had to go to the internet cafe in town, instead of to a nearby forest (a magic forest, of course) to collect birch branches for our planned trip to the banya later that day. I had to be very firm, but finally they agreed to let me go. Escape! I logged on, checked the train schedules, walked to the train station and bought a ticket for that night. When I returned to Svejta’s, I explained I had to get to Irkutsk by Thursday “for work” and that I would be leaving in a few hours. I showed them my train ticket. They couldn’t argue. No midnight shaman ceremony by the river!

So after insisting on a quick trip to a friend’s banya (a Russian sauna), they dropped me off at the train station.

I have to work on this story – it’s crazy, crazy, crazy – but I haven’t had much time to write. Later this morning I’m going to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal with Nikki, a Dutch man I met here. He had met Nikki (female) and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow, in Yekaterinburg. They three arranged a hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal next week, and Nikki the Brit emailed me to see if I wanted to join. When I arrived to the hostel here (the Brits come in a few days) Nikki the Dutchman heard me talking about the hike and introduced himself. Funny! Anyway, we’re spending the weekend relaxing on the island instead of sitting around in the hot hot city. I hope to finally be able to write more, but I have a feeling we’ll be exploring the island instead.

OK running out of battery. More soon – I hope!

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.

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!