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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Soviet Style

I don't even know if Psy could do Soviet style justice. Yes, my friends, it still exists, 20 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist (on the map, but maybe not completely in the Russian mind).

This morning, I dined with a stuffed bear over my shoulder. I am staying in the Radisson Slavyanskaya--a property surely converted from an old-school Soviet hotel. The public areas are immense, but dark and ill-decorated (note the bear). The staff is generally unhelpful and looks at you as if every question asked is the stupidist query in the world. For example, this morning, I asked a concierge and two bellmen where to find the AeroExpress ticket booth in the neighboring Kievskaya Train Station. This question seemed like a no-brainer--I imagine half of the people staying here do so because the hotel sits adjacent to the rail station, from which the express train to Vkunovo airport departs. Not one of the three had a clue. Now, to be fair to Radisson, it's not the brand. For the two previous nights, I stayed at the Radisson Blu Belorusskaya, a new-concept design hotel, and the visit, from the decor, to the staff, to the food, was just lovely.

(I would have stayed on, except the Belorusskaya did not have what the Slavyanskaya has....location, location, location...by the Kievskaya train station. Plus, for an English speaker laid up in bed for 24 hour straight (namely me), the Slavyanskaya certainly had more options on TV, including CNN, CNBC, TCM, BBC, and English versions of NHK, RT and CCTV, plus Eurosport. That said, I found myself drawn to a game show on the Italian RAI. My understanding of the wacky goings-on seemed to prove that the part of the brain that translates languages, once stimulated in a foreign environment, brings to the forefront previouly learned information. Look at me, a writer doing scientific experiments on the fly.)

But, after that digression of a parenthetical paragraph, you, dear reader, may question whether I am actually a writer. Back to our thesis. While you might not realize it from walking down Moscow's main shopping drags, now lined with the stores of luxury brands ranging from Hermes to Mikimoto, or by walking through GUM, the formerly glum shopping mall of chronic Soviet shortages, which is now a deluxe capitalist mecca, but Soviet style still exists, mainly in the form of the service mentality....or lack thereof.

Back in the days of the USSR, yessir, you had a job for life, regardless of your attitude. So, whether you were a hotel clerk, a waiter, or a flight attendant, it didn't really matter if you did your job well...or with pleasure. In talking with some Marriott executives in Moscow, they acknowledged that training staff to have a Western manner of hospitality is still a challenge. Actually, it wasn't a direct acknowledgement as much as a chuckle of agreement when I mentioned the rather dour attitude of the Russian staff that served the Trans-Siberian Express. Indeed, the representative from Lernidee, the operator of the tour, said that the German company does try to train the Russian staff it is handed at the beginning of the tourist season. But old dogs (even if they are young) don't easily learn new tricks....or new mentalities... overnight. With centuries of oppression, current day challenges and a Debbie Downer DNA working against them, it is not, as our tour guide Valeri pointed out, in the Russian nature to be smiley or effusive--especially if not fortified by vodka.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Packing List

People often wonder how I can pack so light. True, I was unable to fit my gear into a carry-on for the three-week trek from Beijing to Moscow, but I still had less baggage than my fellow passengers. And I am heading back to the USA lighter than I started (suitcase--3 pounds lighter; body-10 pounds lighter) largely because 1/4 of my suitcase was reserved outbound for gluten-free snacks. All needed to be consumed for sustenance. And because I purchased no Monopoly games on this jaunt (more on that disappointing development in another post), I am heading back with space to spare.

Here's the packing list:

3 pairs of pants
2 pairs of shorts
3 dresses
2 pairs of sandals
2 pairs of loafers
1 pair of heels (necessary for one 2-hour business meeting-ouch)
6 T-shirts
2 long-sleeve tops
2 sweaters
1 windbraker
1 leather jacket
1 silk robe (not worn during trip--robes supplied on train and at hotels)
1 bathing suit (not worn)
Socks, underwear
2 pairs of comfy yoga pants

I also brought a shoebox full of hotel-sized amenities like shampoo, body wash and conditioner, most of which I didn't need to use.

I had 5 books with me--a Russian language book, which I studied diligently for an hour a day; Lonely Planet Moscow (albeit circa 1993); Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian (a new edition--not LP's greatest work); Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (my plane read on the way to Beijing); and Travels to Siberia by Ian Frazier. The latter was my train read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Other than that, I had an umbrella, sunglasses, glasses, drugs and potions, a neck pillow, a butt supporter, mini-headphones, and a few notebooks....plus iPad,cameras, batteries, chargers, adaptors, credit cards, an ATM card, and my passport.

All were packed in a 26" Biaggi foldable suitcase, a small rucksack, and a purse.

Yes, I did break my three-pairs-of-shoes rule, largely due to my two-hour need for heels (I actually could have done without one pair of sandals--but they don't take much room, anyway). But other than that, I have to pat myself on the back for another packing job well-done.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Housekeeping Notes

Shower, no towel

When will I get a new towel? I started this train journey on May 16th with four towels--two hand-size and two bath-size....if you are a size two...which I am. During the past week, towels have fallen by the wayside, variously being used to clean me, to mop up the floor after a shower (the bathroom does not have a separate shower area), etc. I am now down to one towel (plus the one I "borrowed" from the Beijing Kempinski in anticipation of a towel shortage on the train). Because I packed a silk robe bought in China years ago (and rarely worn), I am now contemplating using the terry-cloth robe supplied by the train company as a fifth towel.

A priceless bottle of voda
Water is another thing. Included in the $10,000-plus price tag is one bottle of water a day. That's right, one bottle. Mind you, the train's water is not potable, so one has to brush one's teeth with bottled water (and a toothbrush, of course), as well as using the liquid for hydration. If you want more water, you can buy it on the train or stock up during stops. Okay, fine. Except that the first three days of the train ride, our first-class cabin wasn't even getting its one measly bottle of water. Every night, we would beg and plead with the cabin attendant, who would look at us askance, but finally cede to our demands. I will say that the past two days, one lone daily bottle of water has appeared without incident.

On a very positive note, these cabin attendants are right on top of things when it comes to cleaning the compartments. The minute you head to breakfast, they are in your room stowing the bed and cleaning the bathroom (albeit without leaving new towels behind). They are very good about cleaning the waste basket throughout the day, which is an especially good thing as you are not allowed to flush toilet paper in the chemical toilets.

Tried to shave my legs this morning as the train was moving. Truly a feat of derring-do. That said, it was one of the few times when I didn't end up nicking my legs. Go figure.

TaTa Siberia, Hello, Tatarstan

Friday, Kilometre 780
Kazan, Tatarstan

After passing the divide between Asia and Europe in the midst of nightfall, we arrive in the capital of the Tatar capital of Kazan one and a half hours late. However, as we have a full day's program here, the relatively short delay causes no distress.

Despite this being our first official stop in the European part of Russia, it feels like we are still in Asia....or perhaps the Middle East. Muslims, who first came to this city in 925 AD, live peacefully side by side with their Russian Orthodox neighbors, as their houses of worship, located in the city's massive Kremlin, compete for attention.

A couple of notable occurrences here in Kazan--I had my first complete conversation in Russian. It went like this:
Me: Kak Delat? (How are you?)
Androgynous Andrei the Local Tour Guide: XopaIIIo (Harasho--Good). Kak delat?
Me: XopaIIIo.

That's it.

We were also regaled with music. At the retro Karavalle restaurant, we were treated to videos of Tom Jones from the 1970s and Madonna circa 1983. Afterwards, a visit to a music school provided the backdrop for a delightful series of impressive performances from young virtuosos. The 10-year-old violinist stole the show, but the other strings, the pianists, and the reeds were equally refined. It was lovely to sit back and listen to the classical music, without worrying about taking pictures or running the video camera. That said, I did capture a few snippets.

Finally, we saw the ubiquitous Lenin statue. In the Lenin slept here category, Kazan's claim to fame is a classic case of foreshadowing. The great revolutionary was expelled from Kazan University for his rebellious ways.

And now, ta ta Tatarstan. On to Moscow.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Tsarry, Tsarry Nights

Thursday Night, 9 PM (again)
Ekaterinburg, 1814 Kilometres

After more delays, totaling five hours, we reach Ekaterinburg or Yekatinburg at 9 in the evening. This time, though, we can actually see it. It doesn't get dark here until 11:30 PM.

Although still on the Asian side of the Urals, this is a very European city. People are fashionably-dressed, in terms of what passes as fashionable here (shorts worn with hose; many women sport stilettos, but unlike the Italians, they haven't quite mastered the art of walking without wobbling). 20-somethings are skateboarding, and at sunset, young lovers stroll the romantic walkway lining the city pond. It seems a very modern city, despite that fact that during the Cold War, the presence of the military and weapons manufacturing made this a closed city over which Boris Yeltsin presided in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, it was called Sverdlovsk, named after one of Lenin's right-hand men.

The country's fourth largest city is best known for its pivotal role in 20th century Russian history. Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, was exiled here with his family after being deposed. The Bolsheviks then knocked off the last of the Romanovs here in 1918.

In the ultimate display of Catholic guilt, Nicholas was canonized after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The impressive Church upon the Blood was built in 2003 as a form of repentance, confession, and remembrance.

The pcitures above: That resembling the Washington Monument is an unfinished television tower. Its claim to fame is that it is the world's tallest unfinished TV tower. The green building serves at Vladimir Putin's home away from home when he visits Ekaterinburg, which happens about every other year.

One Night in Novosibirsk

Wednesday Night, 3343 Kilometre

One of the things I love about traveling behind the former Iron Curtain is that so many quirks still exist from those rather surreal days. Last night's stop in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, provided that sense of deja vu as yet unexperienced in Russia.

As noted in a previous post, the visit itself was delayed for five hours. What was supposed to be a day-time city jaunt turned into a twilight and post-twilight tour. At 9 PM, we arrive at the very impressive train station, shaped like a train by Constructivist architects who apparently took their marching orders quite literally. Build a train station, they were told, and they built a station resembling a train. We stepped out in the damp cold to watch a cultural performance while standing in puddles. Although I have never stood in a puddle to watch such a performance, it nonetheless reminded me of the ones that were de rigueur on tours designed by Intourist, Cedok, Orbis and other state-run tourist agencies.

Actually, the performance was quite pleasant, as those things go. But the odd thing was when the performance ended, one of the girls picked up a pail and solicited donations. Now, THAT would have never happened in the Soviet Union. My companions and I thought it rather beyond the pale for a luxury trip. I have never observed performers, hired by a tour company to sing for their supper, passing the hat.

Dark Lenin
Moving along,
our bus couldn't get out of the parking lot for several minutes, as the gate was closed. So, by the time the city tour by bus started, it was 9:50 PM. First stop--a statue of Alexander III next to a span of Trans-Siberian Railway bridge. With light rapidly diminishing, we then drove through what dimly appeared to be a nondescript city. By the time we got to the main attraction, the largest theater in all of Russia, it was nearly pitch black. Apparently, there was a statue of Lenin in the courtyard, along with other sculptures
we couldn't see, except in dark silhouette. But our guide acted as we had night vision, pointing out details impossible to spot.

Then there was the propanganda pitch singing the praises of Novosibirsk as the country's third largest city, its third largest cultural center, and its third largest educational center. Apparently, it is also a Russian mecca for scientific research and the ballet school there is state-supported. We were encouraged by the guide to stay for a month, so that we could go to the ballet and opera and see 25 different performances for as little as 30,000 rubles (or $100) total. I do not recommend this idea.

My overall impression of Novosibirsk-- all in all, there really is nothing to see here, which is a good thing, because we couldn't see it.

Are We There Yet?

The next two posts are marked with the days they were written. However, no Internet connection has been available for nearly three days, so I am uploading them on Friday in Kazan. We are less than 900 kilometres from Moscow.

Wednesday, 5185 Kilometres: Today is the first long slog of this Trans-Siberian adventure and it's getting sloggier by the minute. Actually, the slog started yesterday at noon, when we boarded the train after an overnight at the Courtyard by Marriott (really) in Irkutsk. In the afternoon, there was an entertaining and educational vodka tasting, followed by rest and dinner.

Because we set clocks back two hours before bedtime, we had extra time to sleep in...to the point where when the figurative breakfast bell rang at 7:30, we were all ready to eat. We were then informed that, in addition to the two new hours gained in this time zone, we had fallen behind three hours overnight due to something or other on a bridge. I didn't really get it. But the bottom line is that our next excursion off the train... a visit to the drab Siberian capital of Novosibirsk...would be delayed from 4:00 to 7:00PM. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but as the day wore on, we got further and further behind schedule. Getting to this industrial center seemed to be becoming a pipe dream.

At 7 PM, our original departure time FROM Novosibirsk, we were informed that construction...or a derailment...or something...had caused a traffic jam on the tracks. But we would arrive in Novosibirsk..'round about 9 PM. We should be there any minute....or not.

That said, spending today, of all days, train-bound wasn't such a bad thing. For one, it's been raining all day. For two, the germs festered by Typhoid Marty, who had been hacking into the communal food since Day 1, had now reared its head in many of our throats. Third, my period came....of course. So, all in all, if 35 hours straight had to be spent on the train, this was one of the better times to do so.

After our stop tonight, our next stretch is scheduled for 21 hours. I shall write more during that time....about Novosibirsk, the Siberian Tea Party (not affiliated with the American political wingnuts), and about good housekeeping.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pun Linguistics Redux: Crime and Pun-ishment

In honor of my very first steppe in Russia this weekend, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of my Top 10 finish in the O. Henry Pun-Off, I reprise my Soviet soliloquy presented there.

My entry in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.
Results below the fold. YouTube performance here.

During the Cold War, I had a Soviet boyfriend. CYRIL LICked the competition in college. He got high MARX He was a well-RED SQUARE even POLISHing off LENIN'S TOME. But when PUSHKIN to shove, he was STALIN about going to GRAD school. IVAN TERRIBLY for him to MATRYOSKALATE, as did his BARENTS. But he didn't like the RIGA of the POGROM.

He could have been a STURGEON, or another BELUGAtes. But he didn't want to MAXIM-ize his PROSPEKTS...to STEPPE out of his comfort zone.

Still, I loved Him. He made me feel SAFIN he was good at his KORBUT a little off-balance. But there were CAVIARs.

I won't beat around the BABUSHKA. At ANASTASIA relationship, things change. I had my Sista' SOLZHENITZYN moment when I realized the guy was a PUTSCH.

Let's CHEKHOV the list. He never MINSKED words. He could BORIS to tears. He was a bit GORKY. It IRSKED me that he was always working ENGELS. He was a snob, acting all SIBERIA. It went beyond the PALE.

I remember ONE PARTY when he drank so much Stoli that he couldn't get his BERINGs STRAIT. I was PETROV-ied he would go ANDROPOV the face of the earth.

He was a K-G-Beast. He was SOCHI-ep. He was rather VOLGA. And a bit of a SLAV. Plus, he was always ROMANOV, going PIEROGI on me. I started RUBLE-ing the day I met him.

One time, while doing TASS like IRONing CURTAINS when I said to him, "Don't UKRAINE on my parade." He replied, "CRIMEA river." That was it. I said, "I'm FINNISHED. TATAR."

All the signs should have RAISA a red flag. But I was young and TSARry-eyed and fools RUSSIAN to love.URAL looking for a moral? Y'ALTALLINN you, when you are fishin' for love, the KIEVery time is to MIRly cast a MIG NYET SOYUZ don't make the same mistakes I did. No BOLSHEVIK.


According to my reading of the scoreboard, with this ditty, I finished #8 out of 30 for Punniest of Show. So-VI-et. I believe my downfall was artistic impression. Certainly, on technical merit, with more than 60 puns in less than two minutes, I should have skated along with a slate of 9s and 10s. Too bad there was no Russian judge. Given the cryptic nature of the language, I believe I needed a judge familiar with the territory. For example, I ended up taking out sentences like "He was oblast and had good kama" due to obscurity.

Meantime, congrats to the champion, one Jerzy Gwiazdowski from the NYC POLITeBURO of Queens. His geographic riff won the day.

Dear reader, did I miss any Russian puns? You can always do a GOGOL search and offer suggestions. Please speak up. After my mediocre FINNISH, I am needing a whole LADA love.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Don't Get Sick in China

As part of a government-run tour of China back in the mid-1980s, we made various obligatory stops at communes, factories, and a hospital. At the time, the latter seemed like a place of torture, as patients laid around undergoing procedures like cupping and acupuncture--treatments that seemed archaic at the time, but, in retrospect, rather ahead of their time. The sanitation conditions at the hospital weren't all that keen. Pity the poor Westerner who might fall ill and end up in one of China's health centers back in the 1980s.

Or pity the poor Westerner who falls ill in 2013...namely, me. It's an extremely hot May day in China. We have spent a long morning sightseeing at The Summer Palace. The afternoon is reserved for the concrete-clad Tiannamen Square and the expansive Forbidden City. It's 95 degrees, not counting the heat emanating from the pavement below. It is 2:00 PM--high time for Chairman Sun.

All is fine until we enter the Forbidden City, inside of which beverages for sale are verboten. I start feeling the effects of heat exhaustion, a condition from which I have suffered three times previously (the last after a torturous Bikram Yoga session). My heart starts palpitating, I go pale, and my mouth dries up like the Gobi. I know from experience that at this point, I am too far gone. I sit against the walls of the Forbidden City, knowing that it's a long walk to get out.

One of my colleagues runs outside the walls to buy beverages. Mostly water--which I later learn from the doctor makes matters worse--a version of Chinese Water Torture. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. I commandeer a wheelchair and ride through the rest of the Forbidden City, nearly crashing into people, rickshaws, and bicyclists along the way. But I get back to the awaiting bus one hour after the symptoms began and now feel a bit better.

That feeling was short-lived, and I knew an IV drip was the only cure. It took two hours to get through traffic to a hospital that ostensibly had an International Travel Clinic. Ostensibly, I say, as no one seemed to speak any language other than Chinese, and the toilets in the waiting area were definitely Eastern-style (not to say that some of the visiting foreigners might not be most proficient using said squatters).

After another hour, at 6 PM, I met with an English-speaking doctor and told him I believed I was suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. He ordered blood tests. Let it be said that Chinese nurses are not gentle with their needles, which are the old heavy metal types. After being jabbed in the wrist several times, I was finally wheeled back for an IV. I should add that my blood pressure was never taken, nor was my temperature. Furthermore, I was not given the ability to change out of my clothing, stained with sweat and, ahem, other bodily fluids.

Two young ladies from the Chinese outpost of Zarengold Tours stayed with me throughout the night and thank goodness. There was no accessible button to call the nurse. There were no regular rounds--I didn't see a doctor nor a nurse for hours at a time. When I had to take a bathroom break, my lovely ladies would grab my IV bag and hook it above the toilet. The dfacility, while Western-style, did not come equipped with toilet paper nor soap. No soap in a hospital? Not very encouraging.

Also not very encouraging--the first charge on my bill was for 6000 RBM--the equivalent of $1000. Then, each time they would run a blood test, they would take my credit card again. I can't wait to see the total.

I was dismissed at 7AM the next day, with nary a word from the on-duty doctor. My wrists were sore from the needle punctures, but at least I seemed to be rehydrated. And hopefully, my lovely TravelGuard insurance policy will cover all of the medical expenses, along with the extra hotel night I needed to stay in Beijing before rejoining my group in Mongolia.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

7 Things to Remember When Traveling to China

It's been 27 years since I was last in China, and boy oh boy, have things changed.

The airport is new and shiny, with Western style toilets (hooray).
The city outskirts and innards are now lined with high-rises and highways.
Cars have replaced bicycles as the main form of transportation.
And I am sure more will be discovered during my next three days here.

But for now, let me provide 7 pieces of advice to first-time travelers to China.

1. Just because you feel overwhelmed upon arriving, remember that the basic rules of international airports still apply. Do not get money at the currency exchange located near baggage claim. Instead, wait until you are in the main terminal and use a bank ATM. You'll get a better rate. Also, don't fall prey to gypsy cab drivers, who are lurking in the arrivals terminal. The one who tried to tackle me first offered a ride to the Kempinski for 400 RNB. Noticing the scorn on my face, he reduced it to 200. In fact, the ride in the LEGAL cab cost 80 RNB.

2. Don't expect cab drivers will know English. Always print up the address of your destination in Chinese so that your driver takes you to the right place.

3. Unlike in the USA and many other Western countries, smoking is still common in China. Always request a non-smoking room. The regular rooms have an ingrained stench, even at nice hotels.

4. Sorry, no Facebook. You'll have to wait to share your posts and pix until you get beyond the Chinese borders.

5. Similarly, GMail is iffy at best. While you can do searches on Google's main page, access to Gmail and other Google apps (Blogger, Maps) is often blocked by the Chinese government. I have tried to get into GMail scores of times since arriving. I made it through twice, once through the backdoor of google.co.uk. If GMail is your main email account, prepare to forward those messages to another service before leaving home. HotMail, for example, is working fine here.

6. Even if you are traveling first-class, it's still BYOTP in many tourist toilets. What's more, said toilets may not be the, ahem, comfortable thrones to which Westerners are accustomed.

7. Avoid ending up in a Chinese hospital. More on that in the next post.

BTW, this post was uploaded in Mongolia (see #4)