Last day in Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Russians, somehow, find some optimism….watch out. It could be the next China!
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Meh, now I’m babbling, so I’ll stop. This is what you get when I can’t edit because my poor little HP is broke!

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

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For Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a fog

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

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

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

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

I love Vladivostok

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

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

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

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

Third post B4 Vladivostok

It’s after midnight in Ulan Ude. I’m back from my frustrating journey north. I’ve had two large beers, so I’m calm.

The bus dropped us at the train station instead of the bus station ( “It’s Russia!”), but this time Russian logic worked to my benefit. I walked in and bought the first ticket to Vladivostok. Yay!

So in 12 hours I will be boarding train number 8, heading east. Sixty-two and one-half hours later (that’s almost three days) I will debark in Vladivostok, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet. It was a carefully closed-off city during Soviet times, and more recently the most wild of Russia’s Wild East. I will apply for my Chinese visa, tour the city while waiting, and then leave Russia. I think I’ve had enough.

I’m kinda delighted that I’ll be spending July 4 in such a place.

See ya’ll on the East Coast.