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.

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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.

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.

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….