Friday, October 31, 2014

Pretty Russian girls on The Trans-Siberian Railway

I board the famed Trans-Siberian Express at the railway station in Irkutsk. Small open cabins comprise the car; four bunks, two per side, atop which are bed sheets which have clearly served thousands of customers.
pretty Russian girl with daughter on Trans-Siberian Railway
An old disheveled man on the opposite aisle hacks away, a smoker's cough, while another lightly snores in the bunk above. The woman seated across from me passes her time knitting, glancing up at me dubiously.
I shuffle forward, finding an open cabin for myself, laying my bags beside me as I fall into a light sleep. Unclear as to the the frame, but I'm woken by movement around me; a young mother and her five-year old daughter settling down for the ride.
She's very pretty, and we stiltedly flirt back and forth for a few minutes, but alas she speaks no English, and my limited Russian isn't enough to maintain even the semblance of a conversation. Queue a twenty-year old Russian soldier, on his way to report for monthly duties, to bridge the gap as our interpreter. His English is only a touch better than my Russian, but somehow collectively we manage to turn charades into a fun and vibrant chat, as I answer questions about America and they about Russia and their lives.
We share food, sweets, and smiles, and I'm grateful for their company as we traverse Lake Baikal and head towards the southern regions of Siberia.
I find Russians born after or near the end of Soviet Communism a much more hopeful bunch than the preceding generations.

I've heard from various travelers that the train stops for 12 hours on the Mongolian border, and it's much faster to get off in Ulan Ude and take the bus across. As we approach my stop I'm highly tempted to switch my plans and offer to journey with the woman, who's let me know in no uncertain terms she's single, back to her village.
Unfortunately the language barrier is just too great. I wave good-bye to her and her little girl as I disembark the train, my heart both warmed from their company, and yet, as I take their leave, a touch sad to parting so quickly. Such an occurrence is not uncommon as we travel through life. Take the chance and beautiful meetings for what they are, knowing in small way, you've enhanced each others' lives, and be grateful for this exchange of energy. Then embrace whatever is to come next with with open arms. Wherever you are pretty girl, thank you, for while our words were few, the energy exchange was lovely.

Next- Kicked out of Russia, and crossing the Mongolian border on foot

Missing the Train out of Irkutsk- Stranded at the Station

I get back to Irkutsk later than expected. having to take the slower of two boats from Baikalskyoke as the limited number of tickets for the fast one were sold out.
Irkutsk train station
I walk into the apartment, my host absent, and my hopes to escape from Russia a night early by train seem dashed as the Internet is down city-wide.
I'm already packed, but the few words I speak in Russian are simply insufficient to get me where I need. Right before I am about to give up hope, Tatiana walks in with her daughter. We've used Google Translate to communicate with each other, but tonight we're forced into a game of charades.
Eventually she calls me a taxi, walks downstairs with me, and instructs him on where to take me.
"Am I going to make it?"
"Ten minutes to station."
Either I misunderstood her, or she's flat wrong, it's in excess of twenty minutes to get there, When the car in front of of us doesn't make a left hand turn at a long light, I groan in the back seat. My driver takes it personally, imitating me in exaggerated tones, letting me know his life isn't perfect either. I'm in the wrong here, but I don't have the words to  explain this, so I just shut-up.
At last we arrive at the train station, we're late, I'm hoping the train is as well. Alas, it's departed. Bye-bye. Now what? Internet is down everywhere so I have no Skype, and no one at the station speaks a word of English, and trust me I asked many people.
here is my sad at experience with Siberians 

So now I am frustrated. No train, no net, wasted taxi fare and time, unfriendly Russians, possibly out the still prepaid night I have at Tatiana's. Maybe the security guards ... they're the only employees not behind glass, they have to pretend to try and help me ... I walk outside ...
A shake of both their heads. The pantomine begins. Several minutes later I've successfully communicated my predicament, show them Tatiana's number, who they call and explain (hopefully) what's happened.
"She's coming to get you," they communicate.
Great .. wait a second ... Tatiana doesn't have a car.
"Coming, coming," they reiterate.
I want to make it easy for her to find me, I put my bags in front of the station and sit on the steps. "Nie, nie," exclaim the security guards, the outside of the terminal must remain passenger and luggage free. They shoo me inside and assure me that they'll bring her to me.
There I wait a half-hour, doing my best to clear my mind, attempting to meditate, gazing around silently wishing the people whose daily reality it is to live here, blessings and joy. It's an exercise I do when I find myself out of sorts.

Thirty-five minutes later agitation grows inside me once again. Still no wifi, I have no choice but to wait. Ten minutes later, Tatania finds me. Gratefully I embrace her. She takes me to purchase a ticket to Ulan Ude for the following morning, a task which would have been next to impossible on my own.
I pay the cab fare back to her apartment, and reimburse her the cost for coming over, plus some extra.
It's hard when you don't know the language to express your gratitude in words, but I'm positive Tatiana was aware of my feelings. Spaciva Tatiana, spaciva.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Incredibly Remote Siberian Village of Baikalskoye, on Lake Baikal

approaching Baikalskoye by foot
Accessible only via boat or the 20km trek we've just completed, the Siberian village of Baikalskoye is so remote I tried typing it into Google Maps and the response came back: "Where? ... Why?
The steep cliffs which turn Lake Baikal into into a bathtub larger than the size of Belgium, have given a moments respite to a small amount of flatter land where the hamlet has been able to grow. 

the main road through town 
what once was the town truck, brought by ferry, now looks like the remnants
of an Imperial Walker downed by rebel forces in Star Wars

The village has one (yes one) shop; make sure to close the door behind you to keep out the flies. Snickers bars, some fruit, alcohol, along with smoked fish, fish scones, fish heads, fish bait, fish stew, are what we sell (have any idea what the economy is based on?) 
Remote location combined with monopoly status keep prices high, so stick with the fish which is by far, and unsurprisingly, the best value.    
I'm surprised to see a small group of horses by the bank (lake bank silly), and I'm approached by the beauty in the photo above. He nuzzles up to me, reaching his snout towards my hand several times, hoping for food, but coming up empty. Now, here's where you listen to your instincts, I'm on his side, petting him, and now he sort of awkwardly attempts to change position to get me behind him; this is weird, I take two steps back and the horse raises up on his two front legs and attempts to use his rear hooves to kick me. if I don't follow my instinct, I'm seriously injured there. The fucker trots off. I felt like turning him into the butcher.   

the village of Baikalskoye- video

This place is so remote and even given "village" status, so uninhabited is it, that not wanting to wear any wet clothes in the chilled Siberian air, I decide to wash off from the hike via a skinny dip in the lake. I jump into the icy waters and all goes according to plan until I get out and there's a Dutch girl standing 30 feet away. Oh NO, "Shrinkage!" I yell to the bewildered woman. 
Well, maybe not, considering that she starts chatting with me. Turns out she's owns a tour company and has brought her group here from the Netherlands, and honestly would have convinced me to joining them onwards to their next destination; North Korea- except for the fact that they're heading in from China by train and Americans are only allowed in to Pyongyang via air ... 
We finish our chat in adventure-ese, and feeling hungry, I go back into the store and inquire if they have any horse meat for sale. I'd gladly pay the price. 
view of the wilderness from the boat back

View of Baikal's banks from the boat 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dangerous Trekking Around Lake Baikal- the world's largest body of fresh water

Lake Baikal and her early morning fog
7:30 A.M.
A voice cries out my name in heavily accented Chinese. I emerge from the cabin and see my Chinese companions behind the small fence. "We must go, it will take more time than we thought," they explain.
I leave the fee for the night on the sink counter and head out. We're leaving an hour ahead of schedule to hike the almost 20km to the next village on Lake Baikal, otherwise accessible only via boat. Given the uninhabited wilderness between, I don't blame them for wanting to allot more time. 
We stop and buy some bread and candy bars for fuel, and head out, quickly finding the entrance to the national park.
Video of Lake Baikal + her early morning fog
the entrance to Baikal national park
A Russian somewhere had a sense of humor
(by the park entrance)
We start our hike, the trail steep, we ascend quickly. It's just us, there's no else for miles. The air is chilled and the silence broken only by our occasional conversation. Aside of birds, we see no wildlife.
Siberian forest
the sea of Baikal
Reaching the top, we now descend back down, a much more difficult task safety wise. We ping-pong from tree to tree, using them to break our downward momentum, praying we don't trip and fall.
we have to hike all that, not a soul in sight
the Lake from above, trees adding perspective
At last we reach the bottom. Due to the challenging topography, it's taken us hours to go 7km. We stop briefly and munch on our snacks looking out over the vast lake.

Noting the time, we start up again. Not more than 5 minutes later, we have our first contact with a human being since we left, and if you were watching us in a movie, it might portend a very ominous fate for the heroes.
A 75 year old diminutive Russian woman with a backpack and a small dog is resting on a stone. 75 years old, in the middle of this long, arduous trek. 
I haven't met a soul in Siberia who speaks beyond a few words of English, and elderly Russians in particular speak zero, and this is the middle of nowhere, and we're talking about the middle of nowhere for Siberia, and I kid you not, she speaks flawless English. 
My Chinese companions are awed, and as she is unable to understand their heavily accented English, I act as interpreter (English to English). 
Not out of rudeness, but out of sheer surprise and amazement my friends are gawking at her as though they've discovered Bigfoot; she obviously feels uncomfortable from the treatment and declines posing for a picture with them. 
Realizing they've overstepped their bounds, my amigos non-verbally apologize, turn, and head back towards the trail leaving me with her. I smile and nod respectfully, half-apologizing for them. She recognizes my intention.
"Take care of them," she implores me, "Be careful, up ahead, very dangerous."
"Dangerous?" I ask a tad surprise, up to this point the trail's been steep, but that's it.
"You'll see, be careful," she warns. 
I thank her, and take leave, walking quickly to catch up to my cohorts. 

Ten minutes later her warning rings true. the trail narrows like an artery in a fat man, and death blows his icy breath in our ear. One slip and you're falling straight down onto jagged rocks 35 feet below and rolling into the freezing water. Even if somehow you don't instantly perish, there is absolutely no way back up, and no one to call for help. (See the video below to see how my friends faced this challenge) 

How my cohorts tried to get through the dangerous part of the trek
it doesn't do it it justice, but that is straight down. Fall and it's bye-bye

the cliffs edge- different angle
Look back and see just how steep the edge of the lake is
here's why no civilization exists on Baikal

I'm not here to tell you it was as dangerous or difficult as K2 in the Himalayas, but it did require every ounce of our concentration to safely traverse.
After 2 long km of treacherous trail, it levels back off and becomes easier. Though periodically the pernicious cliffs return, we kept our pace up, wanting to make it to the village of Baikalskoye with time to explore. 
more thick forest not to be lost in!
a pier, we must be close! 

Almost there- a couple km from the supremely remote village of Baikalskoye
At long last late in the afternoon, the village is sighted. It's not the Columbus expedition perceiving the new world for the first time, but it is a welcome sight.   

The Boat to Lake Baikal + the Village of Listvyanka, rural Siberia

Lake Baikal is located in distant and rural Siberia, the city of Irkutsk offering the closest access point, still 65 kilometers away.
Not sure where I'm going, I walk into various shipyards along the river. Guard dogs emphatically communicate I've entered the wrong area, lunging at me, frothing at the mouth, held back only by the chains attached to a weak looking structure.
Eventually I locate the boat service to Baikal and purchase a ticket. It's an hour til departure, but I remain by the dock; there's really nowhere else to go.
the riverbank headed to Lake Baikal
The boat departs, quickly the surroundings morph into Siberian wilderness, thick forests lining the riverbanks.
 Two hours later we enter into the mouth of the giant lake, often referred to as the Sea of Baikal. How large is it? Baikal holds 20% of the world's supply of fresh water, and is in excess of 31,000 square kilometers. Let me put that in perspective for my fellow Americans, this "lake" is 10 times the area of Rhode Island, substantially larger than the entire state of New Jersey, and equal to the area of Maryland, and that's the just the surface of the water. Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world, extending to the depths of 1,642 meters (5,400 feet) ... try holding your breath and swimming to the bottom. I'm not sure I'd manage.
All the water in the Great Lakes combined approximates the amount of water held by Lake Baikal.
near the entrance to Baikal
 The boat drops us at the dock, via 10% intuition and 90% miracle, I find my lodgings not too far from the town's road (singular.) I shed my bags at "Olga's Guesthouse," a cabin behind an old, worn down wooden house where Olga and her family live, and set-off to explore.
An adventuresome Chinese couple and I agree to rent some bikes together for a couple hours. The quote at the second place is higher than the first so I ask if he'll match.
"Their bikes are inferior, made in China," he retorts.
"I'm, Chinese," deadpans my new friend. Clearly the vendor is never going to earn an A in salesmanship. Embarrassed, he quickly matches the price.
crystal clear water of Baikal- photo taken from road above
crystal waters of Lake Baikal

smoked fish sales by the road
We venture off together, stopping periodically to snap photos of the lake. Villagers sell smoked fish at various stands we pass, the natural asset in most plentiful supply.  The path abrupt end, mountainous forest taking over.  
me standing on a tiny pier
Thirsty? Just drink straight out of the lake. It's some of the cleanest water on earth, filtered by tiny crayfish who abound in the waters. I fill up my thermos for later, and take the plunge into Baikal and her icy waters.
swimming in freezing Lake Baikal

Recovering from the chill saps much of my energy. I walk up the hill to my lodgings, watch the sun set over the lake listening to the harmony of silence around me.
Sleep soon overtakes me and I dream of a perfectly cut stone which I skip over the lake. There are too many jumps to count, but it disappears into the horizon and I hear the echo of it hitting a rocky beach on the other side. Unfortunately, there was no one on the opposite beach to bear witness. The area is simply too remote for that, even for a dream.

Trekking around remote Lake Baikal 

Oddly Beautiful Moment in Grey + Remote Siberia

Babuska- lunchtime
The architecture is grey, shoddy, and without artistry. It's the height of summer, but the intermittent rain, chilled air, and feel of the people matches that of winter. The Hangover of Communism is etched across the disgruntled faces of the population of Irkutsk.
I munch on some black currants I purchase at a farmers market, my hands stained by their dark juice, for the moment sustaining me as I explore the streets.

Somewhere in the distance- the vibration of music. Though it sounds like an eerie lamentation, I'm drawn to it nonetheless.
In the middle of this city with a heavy negative energy, I witness the human spirit swimming upstream against the current.
A younger mustached man in a plaid shirt and an elderly Asian woman, seated, her cane resting between her knees, both semi-awkwardly sway their bodies to the music. It's not close to ballet, but this flow of expression draws my singular focus. My body tingles with the recognition of the blessing they're unconsciously offering others .
I film them for a minute, then pocket my camera and join them. For two minutes we sway and groove together, a smile spreading across their faces, Heads turn from those walking by, perhaps via our vibration, we'll help rouse and awaken the same energy of joy which exists inside each of them.
The song ends and I nod at my fellow dancers in thanks and acknowledgement. They beam smiles back to me and the old lady takes my hand and holds it dearly to her face. I offer them some currants, then watch as they eat the ripe fruit, the juice staining their hands, bonding us.
I walk away in gratitude for this beautiful moment shared.
This is them dancing as I first arrived

Russian band performs in a commercial center of Irkutsk- another example of breaking through the dark clouds

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Remote Siberian City of Irkutsk- a look + feel

Soviet architecture
I type into my browser, and turn the screen towards my kind host, Tatiana, who giggles in understanding. Her fingers glide over her keyboard, then rotate her laptop for my view across the table. It's a slow but enjoyable conversation; thank you Google Translate- bridging communication and cultural divide around the world.

I head out from the apartment walking in a random direction. A couple kilometers later, a very odd looking building prompts me to investigate.
I climb its stairs. Located above a small grocery store I discover a hotel of all things. In a comical exchange of words and gestures, I'm advised to take the bus to the town center.
Walk outside, look around for the bus-stop, I see nothing. A van pulls across the street. The hotel's manager, apparently with nothing else on his plate, has been watching me like a KGB guardian angel. He yells and motions from the balcony that this in fact the "bus" I should get on.
sculpture of a broken cello and empty hat I feel both fitting and oddly beautiful
I hustle to attract the driver's attention, board, and pay 12 rubles (33 cents) for the ride. He pulls away from the dusty stop onto the road pulling over every couple minutes to drop off/ pick-up new passengers.  
The chasm in language too wide to bridge, I merely guess when I feel we've arrived at the center of town; Correctly.
I spend the rest of the day avoiding sudden downpours and exploring the area.
Below you will find photos and videos meant to give you an image and feel for this distant and remote Siberian city.

Soviet style ugly ass buildings abound

commercial stands in the center of town 

a look at some of the faces of Irkutsk

downtown Irkutsk

a vegetable market downtown 

tilted old wooden house

downtown Irkutsk

catch a trolley
Playing cards on the street. Many Asians here, especially given relative proximity to Mongolia

bride cutout downtown unsmiling- why would she

Babuska having lunch

shopping area- the equivalent of 3rd St Promenade in Santa Monica

finally a little bit of color versus the normal grey Soviet city

it's the former Soviet Union alright

relatively well upkept hotel

not a fan, Vlad

Monday, October 27, 2014

4 AM, Middle of Siberia, Taxi Cold + Lost

My plane lands at 3:45 AM in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. The only person in town who speaks more than 5 words of English helps arrange a taxi; I'm paying a flat fee of 300 rubles ($9.)
I lug my bags from the small, dingy terminal. Outside it's cold and drizzling.
oddly beautiful statue in Irkutsk I feel
represents the feeling of the people, yet holding out hope

Faces here are hardened by the harsh winters and lack of opportunity, the Hangover of Communism, strong.
I have no idea how old my driver is, but I'm betting he's aged more quickly than the candles on his cake.
He lights up as we leave, "No, no, no," I protest. He rolls down his window, I'm hit by a blast of chilled Siberian air. Taking a large drag, he holds the smoke in his lungs, then blows it out into the night, tossing his lit cigarette behind us as he winds up the rusty, manual window crank.
Oncoming headlights, rare to begin with, are now are non-existent. Pulling to the curb, my driver motions for me to leave. The area feels abandoned, the housing decrepit. Instinctively I feel something is amiss, and quickly decide I won't relinquish the relative safety of the cab for streets too dark to be called shadowy.
similar to the area he tried to drop me
"No, no. Call, call," I state several times pointing to the number on my screen. Finally understanding, he reluctantly pulls out his cellular and dials.
Turns out we're a scant ten miles from the correct address. Muttering to himself, he presses the accelerator and pulls away from the curb like a Formula One driver, tires screeching, performing a sharp U-Turn, anxious to make up lost time.
The old, worn down taxi weaves its way around potholes as rain slickens the roads. 15 minutes later we pull into a parking lot amidst several Soviet style apartment buildings.
With a grunt he indicates our transaction is complete. "Call, call," I repeat firmly again. He sighs, obviously frustrated, and pulls out his phone.
Imagine being in the middle of an ocean and the skipper telling his only passenger to jump off the boat into darkness- not until I'm positive there's land underneath my feet, especially considering last time the command was barked there were only sharks.
His eyes roll to the back of his head as he stares out the window,
Three minutes later my AirBnB host emerges. To both our surprise I tip my skipper 100 rubles; it earns me a half-smile. My host leads me into the hollowed out barren halls of the building, the walls scraped up, ancient lead paint chipping away.
Elevator, 8th floor, door opens, "Spaciva, spaciva, (thank you)" Throw down my bag. Lay down, Sheets uncomfortable, but much warmer than the Siberian street. Instincts- trusted. Grateful. Sleep quickly overtakes me.
Here's the area I stayed in. Buildings- not so nice

Friday, October 24, 2014

Amazing Peterhof Palace- Russian Versailles in St. Petersburg,

There are certain places you'll see that are so beautiful and impressive that you're better off letting them speak for themselves. Peterhof Palace, often called "Russian Versailles," not far from the city of St. Petersburg, is such a place.
Originally built by Peter the Great in the early 1700's, each succeeding czar kept adding onto the palatial complex, today full of fountains, canals, and gardens.
Ravaged by German troops during the Second World War, thanks to the work of military engineers and over 1,000 volunteers, most of the Peterhof 's major structures had been fully restored by 1947. Interestingly, many of the valuables were buried on the grounds of Peterhof, and remained hidden from the Nazis, and were unearthed after the War.
Below you'll find photos and videos of the vast palace, gardens, and fountains which make up Peterhof.
The statues of Peterhof

canal behind me, decent distance to palace 

paths through a forested garden
The beautiful grounds, fountains and castle of Peterhof

Galina, Alice and myself

beautiful ornaments at Peterhof 
here you'll find fountains that seem to detect motion, and soak those trying to get through them

A palatial view of the fountains and gardens of Peterhof

Music plays to a crescendo as the Peterhof fountains shut down for the day

twas a fun day