Thwarted in Russia

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

Chuckle chuckle. How my fortunes can change, in just a day! I was in the middle of writing a frustrated report from Ust-Barguzin. It was going something like this:
——————–

If I write a book about my travels in Russia, the working title will be “Thwarted.”

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

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

Of course, there are no details.

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

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

There’s nothing to do, but wait.

————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The invisible city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sucks to be alone

Sometimes.

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

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

Um, no thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepless in Irkutsk

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

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

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

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

Someone, please tell me what to do!

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

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

And most people have never heard of it.