Oct 24 2010

Beautiful Tibet I

We’re currently in Hanoi, way behind on our blogging. In an attempt to catch up, here are some of our favorites photos from Tibet, courtesy of Peter.  This set is from the train from Xining to Lhasa and Lhasa itself:

Lhasa — and Tibet in general — is a truly fascinating place to visit. I’ve been in China several times before, including a trip to Yunnan province, where I visited some villages that were formerly part of Tibet. But I’d never fully considered how much the people of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region are a. not autonomous and b. do not identify themselves as Chinese. I’d highly recommend that anyone planning an extensive trip to China visit Tibet, ideally by the train (one of the most stunning rides I’ve ever taken). It’s an expensive place to travel (you have to have a guide and driver), and the paperwork is absurd, but it was worth it.

Oct 22 2010

Belated Videos

YouTube is blocked in China, so I wasn’t able to include any videos in our recent posts — which is a shame, since it’s tough to convey Chinese top spinning competitions, ox-cart rides, and throat singing purely in words. But we’re now in Vietnam, a land of unfettered access to home videos, and here are some I meant to post before.

First, a quick glimpse from Mr. Bold’s ox-cart, during a particularly smooth patch of the ride:

Second, Chinese tops in Nanjing.

And, lastly (but certainly not leastly), Mongolian throat singing. All those noises are coming out of one person. Crazy.

Oct 17 2010

One Month Later . . .

Oct 9 2010

Peter’s Permanent

When we arrived in Beijing, exhausted from our Mongolian adventures, we decided to take it easy for a bit. I spent some time researching our train tickets, and we ventured out just for two things — food and  Peter’s main errand in Beijing: getting his hair cut.

I have gotten my own hair cut in Beijing before, and was subjected to thinning shears. So, while I was supportive of Peter’s need for a trim, I was also a bit wary of what a potential hairdresser might have in store. My wariness intensified when I saw the young men at the salon Peter had chosen: they all had long haircuts with bangs swept across their foreheads; some of them had gone a step further and styled it upwards to create poufy pompadours. They looked like what would happen if Ashton Kutcher stuck his finger in a socket.

But how difficult could a normal haircut be? After explaining in broken Chinese that Peter had hair and that he would like it cut, not too short but not too long, I asked them if they had a book of hair cuts so we could choose a picture. They did indeed — but the models all looked like the guys in the shop. We picked the least offensive one and showed it to the stylist. He nodded and got to work.

In retrospect, there were many indications of impending disaster. Like, for example, the fact that the guy in the photograph had highlights. And also, the model’s hair was wavy.

But I didn’t have a chance to really think about that second point because the owner of the salon came up to me and started trying to sell me a deep conditioning treatment for my split ends. “It’s from Germany!” he told me. “It is good for hair!”  He picked up a loose strand of my hair and inspected a frayed end as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, pale and tired, with flat, limp hair that clearly was in need of some professional attention. But still. Twenty bucks for German conditioner? I’ll just put it up in a bun.

I kept saying no, and he kept pushing. I didn’t want to be rude but I also didn’t want his conditioner, so I was relieved when he said a word that I recognized from my previous time in Beijing: massage. I’d forgotten that in China, haircuts usually come with a head rub. And I love having my head rubbed! As Peter’s stylist snipped away, I negotiated a rate for a head massage, sans German treatment.

“Will you be okay?” I asked Peter.

“Sure,” he said, eyes still closed. I followed a young woman to the back of the room.

Over the next fifteen minutes, I received a nice massage and again was encouraged — one might even say pressured — to try the German conditioner  I chatted with a young massage therapist and was offered a back rub. When it was over, I walked to the front of the shop, expecting to find Peter waiting for me by the door.

But Peter’s fifteen minutes had been very different from mine. He had not received a head rub. Nor was he waiting for me. Instead, he was sitting under a heat lamp. His hair was twisted into foil-covered spikes and covered with saran wrap.

He was getting a permanent.

I leave you alone for fifteen minutes. . . .

I took one look at his head and started to laugh.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I do,” I said. “You’re getting a perm.”

Peter looked at me as if I were crazy — which was ironic, given that he was the one with tin foil on his head. The rotating circular heat lamp, combined with the spikes, made him look like some sort of punk angel.

“He asked if I wanted tall hair.”

Clearly there was a gaping hole in Peter’s knowledge of salon treatments. I have never gotten a perm myself — but I know one when I see one. And while Peter assumed that he was just going to end up with a temporary curl or two, anyone who saw the vertical rise of his foil-dreds would know that the stylist had something different in mind.

“They’re making it stand up,” I told him, glancing at the other men in the salon. I’d assumed that they had achieved their gravity-defying styles with massive use of product, but upon closer inspection, I couldn’t see any tell-tale signs of hair goop. “They’re making it look like theirs.”

At this point, Peter started to get a little worried, especially when I asked the young man how much longer he would be spending under the heat lamp, and he said a half an hour.

“But I can just brush it down, right?” he asked. “It won’t last long.”

“Peter,” I said. “It’s a permanent.”

By this time I was starting to get a serious case of the giggles, but I didn’t want to insult the young stylist dutifully keeping track of the heating lamp’s orbits. I stared at my lap for a bit, then out the window. Eventually, the young man removed the lamp and saran wrap and began unwrapping the foil.

The effect was reminiscent of a porcupine — sharp little spikes of hair sticking up in neat rows from his scalp. It didn’t get much better when the stylist fluffed it — Peter’s hair not only stood up straight in the air, but its texture had changed. It looked fried.

The stylist then pulled out the male version of the German conditioner, a treatment that we refused both because of cost and out of fear that it might add additional permanence. The hairdresser seemed genuinely concerned — were we crazy? This stuff was essential! — but when we continued to say no, he reluctantly led Peter back to the sink for a final wash.

The water didn’t matter, though — his hair just popped back up again. I managed to hold myself together till the street, then burst into laughter that resumes any time I think about what his hair looked like from the side. We raced back to the hotel and Peter scrubbed his hair twice more in the sink — which made it look a little better, but could do nothing to change the fact that it felt like a shag carpet.

Here’s hoping it grows out fast.

The aftermath.

Oct 6 2010

Nanjing: It’s the Tops

Nanjing, China, was not on my list of places I must see before I die. Peter and I ended up here because of a logistical snafu — we were hoping to go overland by train from Shanghai to the western city of Xining, but the trains were sold out. We had to buy plane tickets, and the easiest place for us to leave from was Nanjing.

My previous knowledge of Nanjing was as follows:

1. Nanjing is one of the “three ovens” of China — the hottest cities in the country.

2. Nanjing’s most famous recent historical event was The Rape of Nanjing — the horrific incident in 1937 when Japanese troops raped and murdered tens of thousands of civilians.

For what it’s worth, it’s also a former capital of China, and is supposed to have pleasant tree-lined streets, a big park, and the mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen.

Peter and I arrived here exhausted after our supposedly relaxing two days in Suzhou and checked into the Jiangsu Hotel. If the picture on the hotel brochure is to be believed, it is the only tall building in the city. The brochure is not to be believed — but that’s not to say that the hotel doesn’t have its charms. For example, the selection of toiletries on sale in the bathroom includes not just a toothbrush, but a pair of “exquisite article lady’s pants” and a vibrating condom. When we woke up this morning, someone had slipped an ad for call girls under our door.  We didn’t place an order — but that didn’t deter the brochure delivery guy. He slipped another one under the door about an hour ago; I looked up from the desk to find it had magically appeared on the carpeted floor, the Jiangsu equivalent of nightly turn-down service.

Here is something else I didn’t know about Nanjing: unlike most cities in China — most notably Beijing, where the communists destroyed the city’s magnificent walls and built a big road — its Ming-dynasty walls are largely intact. It’s pretty amazing, given that they were built during the 1300s. According to our guidebook, they’re over 30km long, and each brick was supposed to have been stamped with the name of the workshop that made it, so that any poor quality materials could be traced back to their source.

I recently read a book about modern China (Jan Wong’s “Beijing Confidential”) that described the Chinese obsession with walls. She hypothesizes that China’s love of walls demonstrates its desire for safety and security — a desire so extreme that it trumps the potential for expansion. These walls range from absurdly huge (the Great Wall) to the everyday (building courtyard homes that only have windows facing inside). Looking at Nanjing’s wall really brought that obsession to life. Once you build something like that, you’re going to think long and hard before expanding the city’s boundaries.

Anyway. Once we’d gotten outside the walls, the traffic and noise of the city melted away into a beautiful lake-side park. We were considering renting a paddle boat, but then stumbled upon one of those amazing, unexpected spectacles that one can only find in China — like early morning ballroom dancing, or limber 80-year-olds gathering for their evening stretches. It was a bunch of people, many in uniforms that looked like gold pajama suits, playing with tops.

Actually, “tops” isn’t the right word. Having just done a bunch of googling, it seems the closest term is “Chinese yo-yo.” That sounds like a derogatory term, but in fact refers to a toy “comprised of two identical discs attached together by an axle at the centre. Two sticks with a piece of string attached to the ends of the sticks are also required to use the toy. The yoyo is used by holding a stick in each hand while spinning the yoyo on the string attached to the sticks.”

This is probably easier to explain with a photograph.

When we first approached the yo-yo plaza, there was only one woman practicing. Wearing a red t-shirt and loose pants, she was spinning her top back and forth on its string as she performed a tai-chi influenced series of poses, culminating in a descent into a split. I thought she must be busking, but then we noticed that there were dozens of other yo-yos (tops, not people) on the plaza, resting on the ground and steps. In fact, the crowd gathered around her wasn’t really watching; they were getting ready to warm up.

Peter, having caught sight of an enormous top — maybe three feet in diameter — suggested we grab a seat on the steps. “This is going to be amazing,” he said. And he was right.

After finishing their metamorphosis from civilian clothing to golden pajama suits and other team outfits, the toppers, as I’ll call them, gathered in a row of lines. Alternating between attentiveness and boredom, they listened to announcements broadcast from a microphone held by a pot-bellied, baseball-cap wearing man, who had the air of an overly invested coach of a little league baseball team. This went on for quite some time. “Let them spin!” I cried in mock protest. “We want to see them spin!”

Eventually, the coach guy finished his monologue and the performance began — following cues from his whistle (and a small flag), they began entered the plaza in small groups. Each performance was set to a different piece of music, ranging from traditional Chinese songs to what sounded like Chinese hip hop.

I would have thought that watching people spin tops on pieces of string would soon become boring — how many tricks can you possibly do — but it was not. Not only did every person have a different style, but their actual tops differed, from those the height of a shampoo bottle to the enormous top Peter had seen lying on the plaza (it was somewhat anticlimactic, since the top snapped the string). Also interesting: the length of the strings and poles used to propel the tops ranged from your standard length-of-your-armspan variety all the way up to 20-foot-long strings that the toppers controlled with sticks the length of fishing poles, creating a captivating sight: tops whizzing across the plaza on elegant trajectories as if being controlled by some invisible force, the top spinner gracefully dancing beneath them.

The tricks themselves were impressive, but what I enjoyed the most was the pride and joy of the people doing them. I mean, let’s face it: top-spinning is a little ridiculous. But these people loved it, and it showed. That’s something I enjoy about China — whether it’s ballroom dance or spinning tops, there’s a lack of irony here. Why not devote hours each day to playing with a top? Why not gather with your topper friends on a lovely afternoon and put on a show? Men, women, old and young — everyone seemed to genuinely be having a wonderful time (with the possible exception of the lady doing splits — she seemed like a tyrant). As I watched a young woman with a scraggly pony tail and imperfect teeth proudly stand in the middle of the plaza, simultaneously spinning tops around her neck and around her knees before jogging off, top still spinning, I actually got tears in my eyes.

We watched the toppers for several hours before finally moving on, strolling along the wall and enjoying the view of the lake and the refreshing trees. Not too far away from the toppers, a semicircle of young people sat on the ground, listening to what appeared to be trivia questions being asked by a woman on a microphone (as anyone who has had to share space with a Chinese tour group can attest, they are very into megaphones). I was captivated: I could understand perhaps 50 percent of each question, and what I could understand made me think (perhaps erroneously) that I knew the answer. There was something about two trains, and another question regarding the sun and the time of day. The closest I got to an actual answer was in response to a question about the English alphabet. I imagined raising my hand, demonstrating to the crowd my expertise both in Chinese and knowledge available to the average American kindergartener. But unfortunately, I didn’t know what she was asking about the alphabet, so I stayed quiet.

I was focused so intently on the questions that I didn’t hear Peter calling for me. Peter, for those of you who do not know, was the Nutmeg State Badminton Champion  in the early 1990s, and he had set a goal for himself: to play badminton in Nanjing. (He even had me stop a guy on the street who had rackets in his bag and ask him where he intended to use them.)

When I finally did hear Peter’s shouts, I turned around to see that across the path from where I was standing was a small badminton court. Peter was holding a racket. I ran over and watched with wifely pride as he didn’t just keep up with, but trounced, his friendly opponent. (“I was the Nutmeg State Champion,” Peter reminded me when I praised his performance.)

And then, back to the hotel, for a dinner of steamed buns and warm beer. (The previous night we’d gone out in search of non-Chinese food and ended up at a supposedly Thai restaurant where the menu looked suspiciously Chinese, and the same plaintive love song was on repeat for the entire two hours we were there.) I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to Nanjing — but I’m very grateful for its toppers.

Sep 7 2010

Lake Baikal

True to his word, Sergei arrived at our cabin at 5am to wake us up for our 6:15 arrival in Irkutsk, our first official stop in Siberia. I was hoping for a little affection from Sergei — or at least a smile — upon our departure. We’d been through so much together. Station stops. Shower rental. A halting conversation about whether our ticket included meals.

But Sergei is not an emotional man. He bid us farewell with a gruff nod and continued on his way to Vladistovok as we stumbled into the cold Irkutsk morning, hoping to figure out a way to find the hostel where we could leave our luggage.

I think that arrivals are one of the most stressful parts of travel: you’re dropped off with heavy bags in some place you don’t know, often suffering from a lack of sleep, and are thrust into the merciless hands of the local taxi driver population. It’s like lambs to slaughter. But just as in Moscow, no one mobbed us at the Irkutsk gate — it seems that Russian taxi drivers are often just as content to stand around train stations chewing on sunflower seeds as they are actually driving their cabs. If you don’t want to pay their tourist rate, they don’t want to bother.

But this time, I was the one with a target: a young taxi driver in bright red pants had responded to my offered fare with a friendly wave, and I had a feeling that if he didn’t find another paying customer soon, he’d be ours. Sure enough, the train’s passengers melted away and, faced with no customers and no sunflower seeds, he agreed to take us.

We then learned something funny about cars in Irkutsk (and Ulan Ude and Ulaan Baatur, it turns out): there are no rules for where the steering wheel goes. Some cars have them on the left, American-style; some of them are on the right, like England. This one was of the right-hand variety, which Peter did not notice until, getting into the cab, he accidentally sat down in the driver’s seat.

Oh, the driver thought this was funny. Between his red pants and his friendly giggles (and my own fatigue) I decided he was my favorite cab driver of the entire trip so far — especially because he deposited us precisely behind the unmarked apartment building that contained the hostel. Thank you, red-pants taxi driver!

Our goal that day was not Irkutsk, however. We were on our way to Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. It’s an amazing place, with several species of animals that lived only there (a special type of seal, for example, and a fish distantly related to salmon) — not to mention a population of hard-working sponges that, combined with the lake’s size and relative lack of pollution, made the water safe to drink.


We had planned to spend several days on Olkhon Island, located in the middle of the lake’s south end. Getting there required a seven-hour minibus ride there and back — and I will say that if you decide to visit Lake Baikal, you might want to think twice about the island. There are other lovely access points that do not require spending fourteen hours in an overcrowded van. Our minibus was home to a cast of characters including a young couple from Holland (who were lovely), a blonde Russian woman in sunglasses who reminded me of Joni Mitchell till she started screaming into her cell phone, and (among many other people) a young couple with two small children, who proved that the rules for child safety in automobiles are quite different in Russia than America. Who needs a seatbelt! The young boy’s father did an admirable job of supporting him with one hand and nursing a beer with the other — which ensured that they were both in good spirits for the duration of the ride.

The first section of the road to Olkhon was paved and flat, giving our minibus driver a chance to participate in what I’ve observed is one of minibus drivers’ favorite activities: passing other cars. Oh, how they love it. It occurred to me, as we leap-frogged our way up a line of about fifteen cars, that I have never in my life seen a minibus driver who is not in a rush. Except when they stop, that is. Our driver was quite fond of leisurely cigarette and dumpling breaks, and enjoyed pulling into a rest stop just when he had reached the front of the line of traffic.

The quality of the road gradually disintegrated (and the number of road-crossing cows increased) as we got closer to the ferry crossing for Olkhon. By the time we reached the island, all semblance of a normal road was gone, and instead we were following unpaved ruts that criss-crossed the hills around us — anything that vaguely resembled tire tracks qualified as a road, and since Olkhon drivers enjoy off-roading, there were plenty of tracks to choose from.

We bounced our way 40-or-so kilometers up the island before finally reaching the town of Khuzir, which is really more of a collection of ramshackle wooden houses scattered along oddly wide dirt boulevards. Our destination was Nikita’s, a “homestead” recommended enthusiastically by Lonely Planet. At Nikita’s, said the good old Lonely Planet, we would stuff ourselves on delicious homecooked meals in a lively guesthouse run by a former table tennis champion.

Part of that was true: the place was lively. In fact, it was overrun with international backpackers, all hanging out on the dining hall front stoop, or wandering between the on-site banyas, or eating an umpteenth meal of sticky rice, imitation crab salad and the omnipresent omul. (Perhaps omul can be delicious, but it was not so at Nikita’s.) Despite there being well over a hundred guests, there was no running water in the rooms, and the shower required you to heat up a bucket of water with an electric coil (“Caution!” read a sign, indicating that you should unplug the coil before you electrocuted yourself) and then pump it out of the handset by stepping back and forth between two plastic buttons on the floor. (It turns out that it is very difficult to bathe while marching.)

It was an interesting reaction on my part, since everyone was friendly enough, and hey — it’s not the kitchen staff’s fault that they only appeared to have four ingredients to work with. But just as a cat’s hair stands up if it gets within ten feet of a dog, as soon as I walked into Nikita’s, my hackles were raised.

But in retrospect, it didn’t really matter. Lake Baikal was visible right outside Nikita’s back door, and the sight of it — a shimmering expanse of blue, almost inconceivable in size — more than made up for the smell of the shared bathroom.

Almost more unbelievable than the lake itself is the fact that during the winter, it freezes enough that locals drive their cars across it. That means that, despite the fact that we arrived in August, it was freezing. And that meant that, naturally, Peter wanted to swim in it. So one afternoon we scampered down a steep hill to its shore, dodging shards of glass and piles of trash (environmentalism has not quite made it to your average Russian tourist), and he waded in for a dip as I stood on the shore, just up to my ankles.

I hesitate to say that the water was “ice cold,” since that’s physically impossible — but if I were to order a giant glass of ice water, perhaps a Slurpy, that would be approximately the temperature of the water. As soon as I stepped into it I could feel my blood rushing away from my toes; it was so cold that it actually hurt.

Peter plunged in anyway, emerging with an enthusiastic shout. (Supposedly swimming in Lake Baikal will add 25 years to your life.) I had no intention of following him, so instead I just stood at its edge, trying to see if my feet would acclimatize. When they no longer hurt, I took another step in. And another.

This is a big difference between me and Peter: he is a diver, able to jump into any body of water that hasn’t frozen solid. I prefer the slow, painful entry, working my way in inch by inch until at last I have no choice but to dunk my head. It’s a really stupid method — and it’s what happened at Baikal: after inching forward for upwards of ten minutes, I finally decided to go for it, and dropped under water for what has to have been one of the shortest dunks known to man.

My verdict? It was cold. Take-your-breath-away, give-you-a-heart-attack cold. But I could use those 25 years.

Tired of Nikita's food, we bought lunch in town -- and were presented with a hot omul in a bag, no plate, no fork. Turns out the skin peels off easily, and the spine pulls out. But your fingers will smell like omul for at least eight hours. Trust us.

One of our "delicious" lunches. Can you see the fish eyeball?

Aug 27 2010

Rasputin’s Remains

In his series of articles in the New Yorker about traveling through Siberia, Ian Frazier laments that the town of Pokrovskoye does not have a museum dedicated to its most famous son, Grigory Rasputin.  Born a peasant, Rasputin was the sex-crazy, self-proclaimed visionary who moved to St. Petersburg and gained influence over the royal family by supposedly curing the bleeding of Tsarevitch Alexey, Nicholas and Alexandra’s hemophiliac son. Soothing, compassionate, and blessed with what I’ve heard described as a particularly well-placed wart, his influence over the royal family was matched only by his influence over aristocratic women, whom he convinced could find salvation by having sex with him.

“Rasputin, it was said, gave off a powerful odor of goat,” writes Frazier. “What a museum you could make about a guy like that! Oh, well.”

There may not be a tribute to Rasputin in his home town, but it seems that Frazier – busy as he was making an epic over-land journey across Siberia in a sour cream delivery van – missed page 268 of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia. There, in a box titled “Off-beat St. Petersburg,” is a small blurb that reads “Inspect Rasputin’s Penis – the mad monk’s meaty 30cm-long member is the chief attraction at the otherwise eminently missable Museum of Erotica, housed in a venereal disease clinic.” Perhaps this reflects poorly on our priorities,  but Peter and I made it one of our first stops.

According to a set of complimentary Rasputin postcards that we received along with our tickets, the Museum of Erotica’s formal title is actually “the Museum of Erotics, Center of Prostatology, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.” It’s an imposing title for an institution housed in the basement of an unremarkable building about a mile east of the Summer Gardens, whose stairway leads to a large cardboard cutout of a tanned, buxom woman wearing nothing but a white bikini  and a stethoscope. Next to it hangs a poster of the clinic’s founder – Dr. Knyazkin – sitting in a chair and dressed in white, glaring as he takes notes on a red clipboard. He is surrounded by women dressed in costumes that would be described on Halloween packaging as “slutty nurse,” complete with stiletto heels and giant, suggestively positioned syringes. A dignified entrance, it is not.

This would be weird enough if the place were simply the Museum of Erotica. But it really is a functional venereal disease clinic. In addition to detailing the circumstances behind Rasputin’s death (“March 24th, 1917, 2 to 7am: Rasputin is cremated in the furnace of a heating boiler at the Polytechnic Institute”), my postcard pack also lists some of the available services, including urology and “andrology,” gynecology, laboratory and functional diagnostics and, most intriguingly, “sexology and sexopathology.”  And there were customers: as proof that Russia has very low expectations for patient privacy, the erotica museum doubles as the clinic waiting room; we saw embarrassed-looking men sitting on benches in front of cases filled with porcelain figurines of copulating pigs. Occasionally, a side door would open, revealing examination chairs and what looked like legitimate medical equipment, albeit equipment staffed by women with larger than normal cup sizes.

Once we’d made it past the entrance, we approached one of these large-breasted slutty nurse figures, a friendly young woman who was sitting behind a desk in what looked like a normal hospital reception area, but for the abundance of genitalia on the walls. Looking us up and down, she correctly guessed we were there for the museum, not the clinic. Then she gave us pairs of blue booties to put over our shoes.

While I would never describe the museum as “eminently missable” – how could that be true of a place that features a large poster of a woman in leather boots, red bra and military hat with the title “The Cold War Just Got Hot”? – I will say that I don’t remember many of its exhibits. But that’s probably because the display I do remember has been etched in my mind in such clear, painful detail that it is likely to haunt me in my sleep: the enormous, brown and bloated penis of Grigory Rasputin, floating in a jar.  Pointing downward, it sits calmly suspended in clear fluid, beckoning the viewer with tentacles of wispy hair. It is repulsive, the penis, the sort of thing that fills you immediately with visceral disgust even as you inspect it for signs of its legendary warts (I couldn’t find them). But here is what I did gather about its history, taken from my un-fact-checked postcard collection and a laminated piece of paper next to the exhibit titled “Brief History of Founding Rasputin’s Penis.”

-At the age of 19, Rasputin was married to a girl from the neighboring village. He had three children with her, though he was prone to “alcohol abuse and vagabonding.” At the age of 30, he supposedly gave up smoking and drinking and converted to vegetarianism. He did not, however, give up his sexuality; rather, he brought it with him to St. Petersburg where, surrounded by impressionable (and repressed) female admirers, he successfully convinced many of them to have sex with him.

-In between affairs, Rasputin gained influence over the royal family by, as noted above, supposedly curing their hemophiliac son. This influence earned him enemies and would-be assassins, among them the syphilitic Khionia Guseva, who approached him in his native village posing as a beggar and stabbed him in the stomach. He survived.

-Prince Felix Yusupov Count Sumarokov-Elston was a man who, according to my postcards, liked to “sing on stage in the woman’s attire.” He approached Rasputin seeking a cure for his homosexuality, but then fell in love with him. Alas, his unrequited affection morphed into hate, and he conspired with a different lover, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, to murder Rasputin. (Pavlovich later emigrated from Russia, married the daughter of an American railroad tycoon, and entered the champagne business.)

-Yusupov and Pavlovich, working with another assassin and, possibly, help from the British, lured Rasputin into Yusupov’s palace on December 30, 1916. They fed him poisoned wine and sweet cakes stuffed with cyanide. Neither worked. Rasputin eventually figured out there was something funny going on with his breakfast and tried to flee, at which point all three of his would-be killers tried to shoot him. One succeeded — though there are still rumors that Rasputin didn’t actually die until his assassins threw his body into an icy river.

-Fast forward to 1999. A small box was found in an abandoned house in a Parisian suburb that used to belong to Akilina Laptinskaya, Rasputin’s secretary. According to my postcards, the casket contained photographs, letters, “and some mummified hairy shrunken object, which turned out to be Rasputin’s penis.” How the penis got there – or, for that matter, how it was identified — I do not know. The postcards only offer this tease: “The full story of the phallus and the occasion on which it was cut off the body is explained in the ‘Big Rasputin Book’ by Dr. Knyazkin (DEAN Publ., St. Petersburg, 2007).”

-The museum obtained the box (and penis) in 2000. But what do you do with a shrunken phallus? Again, my postcards: “Before the unique penis found its place in the exhibition of the first Russian Erotic Museum, the staff of the Centre of Prostatology had to restore it scrupulously. The organ was steamed, the sticking together hair was detached, the wounds were sutured and the penis was filled with gel. What came to hand [!] was semi-erected phallus 24 cm long, which is kept in the special solution in order to be preserved forever.”

I left the museum with many questions – about penis rehydration, about why it was cut off in the first place and, perhaps most of all, about the story of Dr. Knyazkin, the founder of the clinic, author of the history, and the keeper of the artifact. All over the museum were posters featuring his face. Most notable was the one in the exit hall, framed above a display of letters – perhaps from fans. It is a photograph of  Knyazkin and his prize. Staring into the camera, he clutches the base of Rasputin’s penis with his left hand, its mass dwarfing the microscope that sits behind it on the table. Knyazkin’s right index finger delicately pushes its head toward the camera, as if he is a parent coaxing a shy child. The look on his face indicates he is performing work of grave importance.

There are many things about Russia that I don’t understand.

The good doctor, striking a different pose.

It was even worse in person.

Aug 17 2010

Sleepless in St. Petersburg

August 8th: Our last night in Finland before getting up at 6 for a train to St. Petersburg. Neither one of us falls asleep before 1:30 am.

August 9th: First night in St. Petersburg. Quickly discover that the city’s reputation for mosquitoes – it is, after all, a former swamp – is justified.  In our hot and humid room, we both spend the night fighting off small, agile dive bombers, too nimble and fast for our clumsy swats. Peter spends part of the night watching mosquitoes fly into our room through the window, circle the ceiling like planes in a landing pattern, and then fly back out to invite their friends. We learn one of the Catch 22s of our room:  the sheets keep off the mosquitoes, but it is too hot to sleep under sheets. Both of us get about five hours of restless sleep.

August 10th: The worst night of not just Russia, but the entire trip.

9:35 pm: Return to our room, already exhausted from a lack of sleep the night before. With the window closed, we spend about 35 minutes on a search-and-destroy mission. Kill about seven mosquitoes, including one that is so attuned to vibrations on both walls and air that it evades us for a full 25 minutes.

10:00 pm: I take a shower. As I’m standing in the tub, I notice that it would be very easy to lose my balance and fall out of the tub, crashing onto the floor below and seriously hurting myself. Make a mental note to hold onto the wall while washing my feet.

10:07 pm: Peter takes a shower. About five minutes into it, I hear a loud crash. Peter has fallen out of the shower while washing his feet. Luckily, his only injury is a jammed thumb. But the same is not true for the shower curtain, which came tumbling down with him and is now broken on the floor. We write Dmitry an apology note.

10:30-11:30: Watch the latest episode of Mad Men, trying to ignore an ominous flying object that occasionally darts across our screen.

11:35-12:15: Round two of Operation Mosquito Kill. At some point, Peter gives up and just begins reading, claiming that a combination of ear plugs and Tylenol PM is going to help him and the mosquito co-exist. I refuse to admit defeat, spending an additional fifteen minutes inspecting the walls as if I am a psychiatric patient.

12:16: Catherine: 1. Mosquito: 0.

12:25 am: After noting that the temperature on our alarm clock reads 88 degrees, we turn off the light. Peter has a balaclava on his head; we both are wearing socks. I lie spread eagle on my bed, trying to expose myself to as much air as possible while still under a sheet. I pull out a device I bought in the Milan airport advertising itself as “the world’s tiniest fan” and duct tape it to the night table, just in case.

12:26 am: Despite the fact that the window and door are closed, there are more mosquitoes. Where are they coming from? Can dead mosquitoes reproduce?  Regardless, they want blood.

12:47 am: Zombie fuckers.

1:07 am: I feel like I am suffocating. I try turning on the fan, but it sounds like a small propeller plane. What’s more, I am convinced that letting it run for more than five minutes will break its tiny engine, depriving me of future tiny fannage in days to come. I turn it off. Even in my exhaustion, I still retain my tendency to hoard.

2:23 am: The air is thick and hot. Caught between wakefulness and sleep, I have a flashback to fire safety class and decide that clearly the best thing for me to do is to lie down on the floor.

2:24 am: Peter: “Why are you on the floor?”

Me: “Because it’s cooler here.”

Peter: “Really?”

Me: “No.”

Peter: “Okay.”

I get back into bed.

2:39 am: HOW IS IT ONLY 2:39 AM?

3 am: For the first time in my life, I wish the night away. Peter is still awake as well. We make a group decision to risk further mosquito invasion by opening the window. I take the duct tape from under my fan and use it to tape the lace curtain to the ceiling in an attempt to improvise a screen, not caring that the holes in the lace are more than large enough for mosquitoes to fly through, entire families at a time.

Peter's attempts at defense.

3:15 am: Discover that what we thought was a Catch 22 might not in fact be one – the room is both hot and mosquito-filled at the same time. No need to choose! At some point Peter gives up on his own sleep and decides, in his delirium, that the least he can do is try to protect me; I wake up to find him standing above my bed with a headlamp pointed at my face, swiping at the air. This doesn’t strike me as odd.

4:15 am: A group of loud, drunken men decide to have a fight directly below our window.  “Go down there!” I command our mosquitoes. “Fresh blood!” They take no notice.

5:20 am: It is still hot. So, so hot.


7:49 am: Mosquitoes: 39. Peter and Catherine: 0.

Peter in the morning.

We wake up bleary-eyed at ten, having gotten a total of about three hours of uninterrupted sleep. Dmitry asks us how we are and Peter somehow gets Dmitry to bequeath us his fan, a treasure that we had glimpsed in his room the day before and which Dmitry has unwisely relocated to the front hallway to keep him cool while eating breakfast. In a different context, this might have made me feel guilty. But instead, as soon as Dmitry leaves for work, Peter and I grab the fan and put it in our room.

Dmitry: 0. Peter and Catherine: 1.

Aug 8 2010

Farewell, Estonia! (Subtitle: This Post’s For Doug)

I cannot believe that it has already been more than a week since water aerobics (thank god I didn’t read this article before attending). Peter and I are now in Helsinki, Finland, contemplating whether it is really a good idea to follow through with our plan to go to Moscow on Wednesday, given that the city is not just in the midst of its worst ever heat wave, but is also blanketed by what’s being referred to as “choking smog,” thanks to hundreds of wildfires burning near the capital. (According to Russian health authorities, an hour outside is the equivalent of smoking 60 to 70 cigarettes.)

This could be us.

This is a photo from a Moscow webcam this morning. I am not kidding.

It’s giving me flashbacks to our night spent downwind of the Iceland volcano. Except, oh, wait, we escaped the ash cloud by driving for ten minutes. Apparently all of Moscow is covered. What’s funny, though, is that I’ve been emailing some Moscow hotels, trying to place some place that’s air conditioned, and they make no reference to what’s going on. “Hello, Catherine! Yes, we have a room available. You may choose from a deluxe room with king bed or standard room with queen. Thank you for your inquiry!”

Now, I understand you don’t want to scare off your potential customers, but given the current situation, wouldn’t a little acknowledgment be nice? Nothing too dramatic — maybe something like “I am typing this email with a wet rag over my face” or “I must go now for the air is too thick to breathe”? I mean, come on, people. There’s a smog-choked elephant in the room.

Anyway. We’re going to see what to do about that. But first, our Baltic finale. After Riga we took a detour to the Estonian islands of Muhu and Saaremaa. It’s been a couple days now, and my memories of being in spandex shorts are quickly fading, but here is what I can tell you about them:

We spent our first night in Muhu, in a random guesthouse on the side of the road run by an Estonian woman who spoke absolutely no English. With her daughter-in-law translating, we established that Americans do not often come to Muhu (“An American? It is like you are from Mars!” she exclaimed), that she had an abundant supply of cucumbers and fresh peppermint that she was willing to share, and that she had a surprisingly nice badminton and volleyball court in her yard, along with a water feature, that is apparently used by people who rent the guesthouse for family reunions. We really liked this woman, who wore a smock-like dress and was so generous with her vegetables. She apparently liked us, too, and as she showed us around her miniature sports complex, we all engaged in a very peculiar human behavior: continuing to speak our native languages to each other even though we had no idea what the other person was saying. Perhaps this says something about the superficiality of most human conversation, but the fact that we didn’t understand one another didn’t really matter.

Her: Estonian Estonian Estonian Estonian [pointing at a swing set] Estonian Estonian.

Us: What a lovely badminton court that is. Do your grandchildren know how to play?


I don't think she was used to having strangers in bike clothes put their arm around her shoulder.

The previous evening the bike ride from the bus station to her house had been beautiful — except for one part where the GPS led us through what was basically a bramble (Peter was eaten by mosquitoes; I ended up with leaves stuck in my gears and a very confused inchworm on my water bottle).

This is a road?

Having planned a route on mostly paved surfaces, we thought the ride to Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa, would be beautiful — if, at 100km, a bit long. Oh, but we were wrong. The road was mostly just through trees, with no view on either side. Far worse, though, was the wind: Saaremaa is hit with powerful winds from the southwest, and we were biking right into them. .

The causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa. The prettiest part -- and also the windiest.

Oh, the wind. It’s funny – when you’re in a car, you don’t think much about air resistance. But trust me: when you’re biking, you think about the wind. And when it’s blowing in your face for 100km, it sucks. Making things worse, part of the road we were supposed to bike on was in the process of being repaved, which meant that for the time being, it was only partially covered in asphalt, leaving behind patches of rocky gravel that got kicked up by passing cars. What’s more, for reasons I haven’t figured out, it smelled like beef jerky. For at least 10km, I felt like I was in a Slim Jim factory.

After a light lunch of boiled frankfurters, sauerkraut and potatoes (for me) and beef stroganoff that Peter referred to as “cow snot” (for him), we were back on the road, into the wind, for a few dozen more kilometers to Europe’s most accessible meteor crater. Left behind a couple thousand years ago, the spot is now marked by a small round pond, a deli and a long hallway of local women selling handicrafts. I bought a doily.

We pulled into the island’s capital, Kuressaare just in time to get caught in a downpour on our way to dinner, where we engaged in one of my least favorite activities in the Baltic States: trying to get the attention of the waiter. I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be some sort of regimented training program here for people in the restaurant business called “Never Make Eye Contact.” It does not matter how long you sit at your table. It does not matter if you turn yourself around in your seat, disengage from conversation, and devote your entire attention to trying to bore holes in the waitress’s back with your eyes. She will not look at you. Nor will she bring you menus. Despite this, when she finally does stop by your table – fifteen, twenty minutes after you have sat down – she will try to take your order, then act irritated when you point out that you have no idea what the restaurant serves (what a horrible feeling it is to see her walk away). But if you get up to fetch your own? Forget about it.

This skill even extends to counter service. Peter and I have both taken turns standing in front of a cash register as the person behind the counter – literally two feet away – makes cappuccinos, rearranges chocolates in the display case, washes dishes, all without ever acknowledging that you are standing there. In the worst instance, I made the mistake of asking a young woman if it was all right for us to sit down before waiting the requisite five minutes until she maybe decided to look up. She became gravely offended – who did I think I was? A paying customer? — turning her back to me, finding solace in the espresso machine, and refusing to turn back around even when specifically ordered by her boss. (We then waited a half hour before someone arrived to take our orders.)

But anyway. Kuresaarre. A nice town, made even nicer when we decided to ditch the bikes for a day and rent a car so that we could see the other side of the island. Go Estonian coast!

Still windy.

Our prepubescent sense of humor are in full force

And then, thighs still aching from our adventure in the wind, we took a bus to the town of Haapsalu, a former spa resort favored by the Russian monarchy that is now best known for its impressive castle.  What I know it for, however, is its spiders. As we walked around on our first evening in town, I made the mistake of looking up at a lightpost. There, stretched between it and a nearby wall, was an intricate web. And on that web clung not one, not two, not three or even four, but upwards of 20 spiders. Big spiders. Meaty spiders. The kind of spider that can make you worried, even if you’re not usually particularly arachnophobic, that one is going to crawl up your nose in your sleep and make a little nest there before biting you with poisonous venom that travels straight to your brain, leaving its countless babies to devour your corpse from within. Or, you know, something like that. (It does occur to me that the main reason I’m not normally scared of spiders is that I’m not usually surrounded by them.) And it was hardly just that light post. Rather, there were spiders everywhere we looked – hanging in door jambs, off bus stops, clinging to walls. We were staying in an ancient guesthouse which we’d previously considered charming and quaint for its rough wooden walls and exposed brick. But those nooks now seemed like nests; I made Peter thoroughly check the area around our tiny bed to make sure there wasn’t anyone who might be tempted to take a nighttime stroll across our sheets. Luckily – and truly bizarrely – there wasn’t. And I will say this: Haapsalu did not have many mosquitoes.

Those black dots are all spiders.

Big ones.

This is before we noticed the spiders.

And so we were off to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where we spent several days relaxing in the cobblestoned streets of its Old Town and wondering where the hell all the Americans had suddenly come from. (Cruise ships, it turned out.) I also made a point of finding a local gym and signing up for a “Body Combat” class (Peter politely declined), where a young blonde woman led the class – all female – in rounds of punches and kicks narrated mostly in Estonian, but broken up by key phrases that suggested that aerobics might really be the next universal language (“Thai box!” “Tai chi!”). Most of my attention was taken up by trying to kick myself far away from the woman next to me, who had body odor so bad that it eventually infused the room – but I was still surprised when our perky and friendly instructor pretended to hold someone down on the floor and punch them in the face (we followed along to the beat). I have gone to many an aerobic boxing class in my day, but that is a move I have never seen.

Next up was Helsinki, which we got to via a 3.5-hour ferry, with its very own karaoke bar on board. (My favorites were a very gruffly sung “My Way” and “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for, though this kid’s Elvis gave them a run for their money.

Helsinki is a city known, at least by me, for its salmon soup and exorbitant prices on, well, everything. Dear lord, people – it’d have been expensive in dollars, let alone Euros. Inspired by hotel rates, we decided to make our first foray into “Couch Surfing,” an organization in which people volunteer to let you stay a night or two, for free, in their homes. We happened to get lucky – after a meterologist didn’t get back to me, I found a couple right in downtown who enjoyed good food, good company and, most importantly, were willing to let us have the keys to their apartment for two nights. So nice! We spent yesterday taking a walk around the city, and were surprised to meet these guys, a group of young men dressed up as tuba-playing babushkas who we had seen before both in Riga and in Talinn (they must have been doing their Baltic circuit).

And then in the evening, we met our hosts for dinner at their country cottage, which was located pretty much in the middle of the city.

Let me clarify: apparently at some point in Helsinki’s past, maybe the 1920s, the government decided to set aside some land so that poor people could grow vegetables on small plots of land. Tiny, tiny cottages were built, surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees, and while the rest of Helsinki was modernized, these enclaves were not. So a twenty minute tram ride from the heart of downtown will now take you to this sunken green area (apparently it used to be a swamp used to bury horses) where narrow gravel paths lead past these tiny red wood homes, each with little outdoor cooking areas and beautiful flowers and vegetables. I have never seen anything like it. I have also never seen a wild hedgehog – but as we walked up the path toward their house, there one was.

Well, hello there.

The house – which is basically one room – was so small that there was no running water inside or, for that matter, toilet (there was an “eco-loo” up the path), which I suppose might get annoying if, like our hosts, you spent the summers there. But it was lovely for a night – and despite the modern buildings around it, it only took a few minutes to completely forget where we were.

I like food.

And now we are on the train to St. Petersburg, technically already in Russia. We just got our first whiff of the so-called “acrid smoke” blanketing much of the country – and, I’ll admit, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Here’s hoping for rain.

Our first moments in Russia.

Jul 25 2010

The Cold War Vs. A Cold Lake

Here is what the Lonely Planet guidebook has to say about the abandoned nuclear missile site in Zemaitija National Park:

“Deep in the forests of Zemaitija National Park resides a former secret Soviet underground missile base that once housed nuclear missiles with enough power to destroy most of Europe. . . . Tours, which take about 30 minutes, explore the heart of the base: you see the control room, heating room, enormous diesel engine used to power the place and, most disturbing of all, one of the 27m-deep silos where a warhead once stood ready. It is cold underground so bring a warm jumper. Sturdy shoes are also recommended; 30 years of abandonment renders the bat-infested site hazardous.”

Considering that we’re a. supposed to return our bicycles to a shop in northernmost Estonia on August 1st and, b. we’re still in Lithuania, we’re a little pressed for time. But how often does one get to see abandoned missile silos, let alone ones that are infested by bats? We decided the detour was worth it, and woke up early yesterday morning to take a day trip to Plunge, a town about 25 kilometers south of the national park where the base was hidden.

Thanks to a local cycle map, we knew that there was an untrafficked way to get between Plunge and the park. We hopped off the bus, got onto our bikes, set out for the road . . . and discovered it was unpaved. Not like, unpaved in a hard-packed dirt kind of way (those aren’t too hard to ride on). Not even unpaved in a random-pockets-of-wheel-catching-sand way (those can be treacherous but are manageable). This road had occasional sand patches, but worse, it was ridged. You know the rumble strips on the sides of the highway, which are designed so that their vibration will jolt you awake if you start to veer off the road? They were kind of like that, except much bigger, bumpier, unavoidable, made of gravely dirt, and were on a shadeless road that was eight kilometers long. There weren’t many cars, but the few that did roll by left behind large clouds of lingering dust. Needless to say, I was eager to get to the park.

Once we were on paved road, the route took us through beautiful pine forests, between sparkling lakes, and past innumerable signs for guest houses. We had planned to ask for help from the park information office, but after passing a guesthouse on a shore of a particularly attractive lake, at the edge of which we could see a row boat and a swimming pier, we decided to stop, you know, and just see if they might have a room.

They did. What’s more, it was cheap, it was cool inside, there was a shared kitchen, a lovely yard and, oh, wait, according to the friendly English-speaking owner, a woman from a local hospital was coming by that evening to give massages to the guests. “They are 20 litas, maybe 30,” she said. “Not much at all. You want, she can give to you, too.”

Oh, we wanted. Convinced we had discovered paradise on the side of a Lithuanian road, we dropped off our bags and biked the remaining six kilometers into town, plotting what the fastest possible route would be between abandoned missile silos and our bathing suits. Our guidebooks had warned us that we needed to make arrangements for an English-speaking guide, so we popped into the National Park information office, where a friendly, English-speaking park employee informed us that the missile site was closed.

You mean like, for the day? No. For two years. Apparently they are “renovating it” (one hopes not too much) and turning it into a Cold War museum. Interesting – and relevant – information that would have been even more useful had we known it say, before we took a two-day detour to a random Lithuanian lake town. Now, given the guesthouse situation, I wasn’t complaining too much (in reality, a refreshing swim sounded great). But I would like to point out to the research team at Lonely Planet and Rough Guide that if you come out with a brand-new version of your guidebook (published in 2010 and 2009 respectively) and you have a half-page feature about a particular site in an otherwise unremarkable location that is a pain in the ass to get to, you might want to check to see if it’s still open. I know their manuscript deadlines were probably a while back, but the museum isn’t scheduled to open till the fall of 2011 – unlike the original existence of the base, I don’t think its closure was kept secret.

But anyway. We recovered from our pseudo-sorrow by buying groceries at a local shop, stopping for gross gyros on the side of the road (dear Lithuania: sometimes it’s okay to not put sugar in your garlic yogurt dressing), and then high-tailing it back to paradise. The lake lived up to its promise – we floated around happily for a half hour before retreating to our room for a quick shower before our other mandatory activity of the day: our massages.

Peter went first, and when he returned, the look on his face told me that something had not gone according to plan. (No, not like that! This woman was a nurse!)

“How was it?”  I asked. “And why were you only gone fifteen minutes?”

“It was an hour-long massage squeezed into fifteen minutes,” he said. And then, in response to my questioning look, “You’ll see.”

Now wary, I found the woman waiting for me in the main area of the guest house, a massage table set up at the head of the room. She, speaking about as much English as I speak Lithuanian, motioned for me to take off my shirt and lie down. I gestured toward my shoulders and back and she nodded. Then she grabbed a bottle of baby oil.

As soon as she began the “massage,” I knew immediately what Peter had meant. You know how Swedish massages are always described as having long, smooth strokes? This was not a Swedish massage. The woman took to my back like I was a piece of particularly dirty laundry that needed to be scrubbed. First, she ran her hands up and down my back, quickly and hard, spreading the oil around as she summoned the first of many rushes of blood to the surface of my skin. Next, she switched to her knuckles, running them up, down, and occasionally over my spine, using the same quick back and forth motions you’d use to get out a tough stain. The massage table creaked from side to side as she worked; from my face-down vantage point, I could see the ground shift beneath me. Who was this woman? I wondered. And what kind of nurse? I suppose I could see this “massage” technique being a good way to increase the circulation of bed-ridden patients, but I couldn’t believe that they enjoyed it. I imagined my white-clad assailant as a sort of Nurse Ratched patrolling the halls, bottle of baby oil in hand, as her victims cowered in their beds. “No, please! Not my daily massage!”

Or maybe that’s just what was going through my head – for the first time in my life, I was actually yearning for the massage to be over. She had moved on from her laundry work to a quick up and down the spine sweep that reminded me – in speed and technique – to a pizza cutter slicing through a pie. Up, down. Up, down. My neck, which had been mildly tense, was now rigid, achieving approximately the same degree of relaxation one would expect to have if anticipating being rubbed with a sharp blade. Just when I thought I might have to actually excuse myself from my massage, she stopped what she was doing and paused, hands in the air. And then? Hitting!

It says something about the massage that being pummeled by her fists was actually the most enjoyable part of the treatment – but unfortunately, it didn’t last. Instead, she went for a finishing round of briskly rubbing my back with the palms of her hand as if trying to start a fire. My spine was aching; my skin felt like it was developing rug burn. When she finally finished — indicated by a slightly lighter touch and something chirpy in Lithuanian, I leapt off the table as if recoiling from a hot stove.

This morning, when I got up and touched my back while applying sunscreen, I noticed that my upper spine is bruised. I’m glad I tried my Lithuanian spa treatment, but I think I agree with what Peter said when he returned to the room after his massage: “Fifteen minutes is long enough.”

The guest house had a rowboat.

And the rowboat attracted swans.

Mean swans.