Sep 19 2010

Thoughts from Ulan Ude

This post is out of order — Ulan Ude was our last stop in Siberia before taking the bus to Mongolia. I just didn’t get a chance to post it till now. More on Mongolia soon!

There were several other notable things in Ulan Ude — a city in eastern Siberia — in addition to the giant Lenin head:

1. Our guesthouse was about two blocks away from the train station as the crow flies. However, thanks to a horrible lack of city planning, there is no direct way to get from the train station to the guesthouse – we had to take a ten-minute taxi ride to get there. This wouldn’t be that notable except for the fact that while we couldn’t walk to it, we could hear the train station. Every few minutes, an announcement was broadcast over a very powerful loudspeaker, and each announcement began with a series of tones that sounded exactly like the first line of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” followed by train information in Russian. Making this more disconcerting, the final note of “Christmas” was abruptly cut off, as if a caroler were being strangled.

2. Olga. She is the proprietress of our guesthouse, which is technically her apartment, and both she and it are quite nice. She also happens to be a retired French teacher, which meant that we actually had some chance of understanding her. After greeting us with a hearty “Bonjour!” – and with no questioning of whether we understood French – she moved on to an enthusiastic welcome tour to her apartment. Here was the bathroom. We would be joining her for breakfast at 8:30. She could do laundry for us, but it would cost five dollars a load. It seemed that perhaps we might like to take a nap so she, Olga, would let us relax in this, our lovely room. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Online reviews of Olga’s raved about the breakfasts, so we woke up the next morning excited about the homemade blini that we expected to find waiting for us at the table. But alas, perhaps Olga felt less inspired by us than by previous guests – our breakfast consisted of a white bread pastry cut into quarters, a bowl of milk candies, pretzels, cheese slices, and a small bowl of cottage cheese-like curds that came from the cows of Lake Baikal, topped with crystalized strawberry jam. It was a diabetic nightmare (though the cheese was quite tasty). Luckily, the food selection was more than made up for by the conversation. Since neither of us speak any Russian, we hadn’t been able to ask anyone questions about the country. Now, with French as a go-between, we could finally get someone’s opinion on how things were. It turned out Olga’s father had been a forestry minister for the Communist party, which explained why her apartment was so nice (it was one of three buildings that had been set aside for government officials back in the day). Her father = not that psyched when the Soviet Union dissolved.  And Olga, for her part = not that psyched about Russia’s current government. Things were better now than under the communists, she told us, but money and power were going to people with connections, and Siberia was at the rough end of an already rough deal. When we asked her if she thought that Medvedev had any real power, she laughed. Then she invited us to bring our families to her dacha on the eastern edge of Lake Baikal, so that we could relax and eat food from her garden. “The next time you’re in Siberia!” she insisted.

Olga, je t'aime!

3. A note on the unexpected kindness of strangers: on our train ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude (which included several hours in which the train hugged the coast of Lake Baikal – an unexpected bonus!) we made a brave foray into the dining car in search of the potato pancakes and tea our compartment-mates had eaten for breakfast. As I tried to explain our order – a difficult task, since I didn’t know the Russian word for “potato pancakes” and no one spoke English – I noticed a seemingly drunk young man at the table next to us casting glances my way. Every time I glanced over Peter’s shoulder, I got a smile. At some point he raised his tea cup  (filled with vodka) and offered a toast. Distracted, he then began flirting with the waitress.

We eventually got our pancakes, but the real challenge was tea. After a long process in which I  kept mispronouncing whatever the Russian pronunciation is for “chai” (to the great amusement of the drunk guy) the waitress explained they didn’t have any tea bags available, only boxes. Oh well. We went back to our cabin to read, stretched out on our bunks.

About an hour or so later, I was very surprised to feel someone tickling my foot. Or, rather, grabbing hold of my big toe and squeezing. I looked toward the door. There was my drunken friend, smile on his face. “Shit,” I thought to myself, casting a glance at Peter. What could this guy possibly want? Or, rather, what could he possibly want that I would be willing to give him?

But I had judged the guy too quickly. Instead of moving on to grab other parts of my body, he extended his other hand and presented me with an entire fistful of tea bags. Then, still smiling, he waved and walked away.

I eventually found him again, arms around our waitress, and gave him a postcard of the Empire State Building as a thank you. He seemed very pleased – though then again, he was tipsy enough he probably would have had the same reaction if I’d handed him a tissue. Nonetheless, I appreciated it. I’m not sure if the same can be said of the waitress – she was down a box of tea.

Not a bad view.

How to tell you're in the middle of nowhere.

Sep 14 2010

A Whole Lotta Lenin

After a seven-hour minibus ride back from Lake Baikal, we spent an afternoon wandering around Irkutsk before taking the train to Ulan Ude, a Siberian city best known for having the world’s largest Lenin head. I had read about this Lenin head before we arrived, how it was erected in 1970 and is thought by some to either a. be cross-eyed or b. perhaps in a snub to the party/tribute to the local population, have eyes that are vaguely Asian. (Fans of the statue claim that birds never poop on it, out of reverence for the deceased communist leader.)

I can’t speak for the birds, but I can tell you this: if Ulan Ude’s Lenin head is not the world’s largest, then lord help the place where that Lenin head is. Peter and I had arrived in Ulan Ude feeling a bit disoriented and were worried we might not be able to find our way to the statue. But we needn’t have feared – the statue, set in the town’s main plaza, is so big that I wouldn’t be surprised if its metal skull creates some sort of magnetic field. You wouldn’t know that the statue was a tribute to socialism, though – when we got there, kids were using the plaza to skateboard.

While definitely the most impressive, I should note that Ulan Ude’s statue head is far from the only Lenin head in the country — it is impossible to spend time in Russia without spending time with Vladimir Ilych.  We saw our first when our train from Helsinki arrived in the St. Petersburg station just in time for Lenin’s bust, prominently displayed at the end of the main hall, to be illuminated by a beam of sunshine – and our sightings haven’t stopped since. On our tours of the Moscow and St. Petersburg metro systems, we saw numerous Lenin heads scowling at the end of station platforms, plus freizes, carvings and mosaics of the great leader sprinkled liberally around station platforms (along with happy workers and pictures of Ukranians celebrating their inclusion in the USSR). There is Lenin giving a speech from atop a tank! There he is again with rejoicing proletariats!  Occasionally he is joined by Joseph Stalin, but for the most part it’s a one-man show.

Ulan Ude might have the largest, but the most impressive Lenin of them all has to be Lenin himself, who is on permanent display in a mausoleum on the side of Red Square. Having missed out on my chance to see the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao (on the day I visited, he was having a “rest rest,” a guard explained) I was insistent on seeing Lenin, despite the long line and the fact that on the morning we set aside for the Kremlin, the air had once again filled with smoke from this summer’s fires. And so, as Peter set off in search of tickets to the Armory (he didn’t share my need to see a dead body that particular morning), I waited for my meeting with the Bolshevik leader.

A bit of background: Lenin died from a massive stroke in 1924. He actually requested that he be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg, but Stalin, noticing the endless lines of mourners waiting to see the body, decided his predecessor might make a useful icon. So he had a tomb built in Red Square, and issued a political order to a Russian biochemist and anatomist, instrucing them to figure out a way to prevent the corpse from decomposing.

Whatever Stalin wanted, Stalin got – and so after several months of frantic research (plus some upgrades to the body itself, like bleaching dark spots, stitching its eyes and lips closed, and removing the brain so that it could be studied for secrets to his genius) they eventually came up with a secret method, which my Lonely Planet reveals as follows: “the body is wiped down every few days and then, every 18 months, thoroughly examined and submerged in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax” (apparently people can now pay $1 million to have this done to themselves). For a brief time after his own death, Stalin joined Lenin in the tomb (what’s creepier than one embalmed communist leader on display? Two of them!) but at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, an old Bolshevik named Madame Spiridonova announced that Lenin had appeared to her in a dream saying that he didn’t like having Stalin as a roommate (let’s be honest, who would?). So he was relocated to a plot behind the tomb.

I had plenty of time to absorb this history, since the line for the tomb moved extremely slowly –every person had to go through a metal detector and, despite the fact that there were three of them in use, the guards were only letting one person through at a time. By the time I finally was let in, an hour had passed, the air had gotten smokier, and if I hadn’t been so focused on making it out in time for our timed entrance to the Armory, I might have noticed that the woman in front of me didn’t seem to be doing so well. Pudgy and short, she was walking slowly with a handkerchief pressed to her face, supported by a man on her side. As we entered the mauseoleum, she collapsed on the steps – perhaps from the smoke, perhaps because it was too dark to see the stairs. When she stood up, I noticed that her handerchief was soaked with blood.

But there was no time for medical emergencies – the line of people continued to process down the stairs, past more barely visible guards, and into the room where Lenin lay in a glass box, eerily illuminated by yellow light. The oddest thing about this – besides, of course, the fact that there was a corpse in a display case – was that none of the visitors paused. They just kept walking through the room and out the other side, as if somewhere in the process of waiting on line, they had forgotten what they had come to see.

Perhaps they were intimidated by the presence of the guards – I got the feeling that they didn’t like people to linger. But I still made a point of stopping. The verdict? For someone who’s been dead for 86 years, he looks fantastic. But I’m not sure if it’s really necessary to see the guy in person. It turns out that the giant head is quite accurate – and much less creepy.

Sep 9 2010

Soviet Subway Series

The metro stations and platforms in St. Petersburg and Moscow are amazing.  More often than not, you descend underground and find yourself in what seems to be a 19th century ballroom.  Coated in marble and full of chandeliers, you expect everyone to start waltzing.  Combine that scene with heavy-handed Soviet propaganda and you’ve got the wonderfully weird mix that is Russia’s subway system.

The subway is so beautiful that our first attempt to enter it was blocked by this throng of enthusiasts.

Some considerably quieter moments:

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?

Sep 6 2010

The Train, Day 3

I’m not sure when I woke up this morning – I think it was 10 local time, which at that point would have been 6 in Moscow – but time has definitely not slowed down. In fact, we just gained another hour, and Sergei has informed us that he will come by our cabin to wake us up a full hour before the train pulls into Irkutsk. That’s 12:16 am Moscow time. I haven’t walked more than a block in the past three days and I’ve eaten more ramen than I have in my entire life, but still – I can’t believe our train ride is almost over.

Today’s main event was taking a shower – who knew you could get so gross just from sitting? Sergei had told me to find him when I wanted to bathe, so I did so, tucking 150 rubles into my pocket to pay for the privilege. But no one asked for my money. Instead, Sergei exchanged quick words with the attendant from the car next to ours and led me to an unmarked door, which he unlocked with a compartment key (all the keys are the same – a triangular head that I hear is an exact replica of those used for British gas meter cupboards).

Inside was a rather spacious room, empty except for a small bench, a rag on the floor, and a shower tucked into the corner. A black garbage bag hung from the rod in place of a shower curtain, but except for the fact that the drain emptied directly onto the tracks (you could see them rushing by), it was just like the shower you might find at home.

Actually, there was one more difference: the faucet. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. There was a normal-looking faucet, but when I turned it on, nothing happened. A different spigot-like handle was affixed to a pipe at eye level, so I turned it as well, realizing after about four tries that it actually just raised the showerhead up and down. I stood there, naked and perplexed. Was the water off because we had just pulled into a station? That seemed unlikely; Sergei is very good about warning us about such things. I really didn’t want to put my clothes back on and disturb Sergei – who was sitting in his darkened compartment watching bootleg DVDs against a background of religious icons – so I decided to give it one more go. In so doing, I accidentally pushed a button beneath the main faucet – a button that looked like it should control the drain – and leapt back in surprise when water started to spurt from the handset.  Also, hot and cold were reversed – and, adding to the difficulty, the water only ran for five seconds at a time before the button reset, little dribbling pulses that made me think I’d never successfully get the soap out of my hair. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that you could get around this problem simply by holding down the button; instead, I washed and rinsed my hair in five-second increments, feeling around for the button with my eyes closed every time the water stopped.

The only other thing of note that happened today was a station stop in Ilanskaya (km 4375). There were no handmade scarves on offer, but the selection of products was the most eclectic we’ve seen. In addition to the usual snack foods, bottles of beer, smoked fish and ice cream cones, there was everything from peanuts and playing cards to sauerkraut and DVDs. Women sat in front of trays of homemade potato and meat dumplings, cooked chicken thighs, and large discs of bread – but there were also things I’ve never seen before, like tubes of caramel wrapped in waffle cones, and large baskets of pinecones. (After much thought, Peter and I realized that that’s where pine nuts come from. I should have bought one!) Peter asked a woman if he could take a photo of her display and, though she said yes, she seemed quite confused. What could be picture-worthy about a spread of two kielbasa, a smoked fish in a plastic bag, several pens, two razors, a garbage bag of black sunflower seeds, cigarettes, and a packet of instant coffee labeled “Golden Eagle” and decorated with the American flag?

One of the funniest things about train life is that everyone dresses in tracksuits or pajamas and doesn’t bother to change for the station stops – which results in a platform full of people who look like they were evacuated from a hotel in the middle of the night. (I’m wearing black capri pants, white ankle socks, and brown plastic sandals.) That’s how I discovered my favorite person on the train: a beefy, middle-aged Russian man who was standing on the platform this morning in a calf-length light purple bathrobe, smoking a cigarette. I’d have thought that perhaps this was just his evening attire, to be replaced by a track suit in the morning. But no. After finishing his cigarette and shaking the hands of some soldiers on the platform, he retreated to his compartment – which is several doors down from ours — where he and a very rotund friend passed the rest of the afternoon sprawled on their couches, drinking beers and eating smoked fish.That’s just how he rolls.

Sep 5 2010

The Trans Siberian Railroad — The Journey Begins

It’s official: we are on the Trans-Siberian railroad! After nearly a year of anticipation, our journey by rail is finally beginning – we’re going from Moscow to Irkutsk, Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, and eventually Ulan Bator all the way to Beijing.

On the night of our departure, Sunday the 15th,  we found our way to the Moscow train station and waited in a hot departure hall until we finally saw a track number appear for the #2 train from Moscow to Vladivostok. (Vladivostok, should your Siberian geography be rusty, touches the Pacific just above North Korea — we’re taking it to Irkutsk and then switching to the Beijing line.) The platform was crowded with people carrying large bags and vendors hawking food, but Peter and I ignored them, pushing our way through the throng with one goal in mind: to see our compartment. Having had many months to anticipate the journey, we both had elevated – if delusional — visions of what comforts it might include. A private sink, for example, or maybe a hallway shower. At very least we were expecting some fancy red curtains, a private samovar, and maybe some carved wooden accents  – something that would befit the train’s reputation for old world elegance.

Unfortunately, none of that was present. Instead,  our cabin was a blue and white, modern-looking space with two narrow beds separated by a small table. There was no sink; the samovar – which is really more of an industrial-sized water heater that dispenses liquid so hot you need to be careful not to burn yourself – was down the hall. But what the car was lacking in charm it made up for with air conditioning – a luxury not included on the older trains. That alone was worth the lack of wooden accents.

With our bags stowed, it was down to business. Peter, concerned that his afternoon spent soaking in a Russian banya had left certain parts of his anatomy a bit chafed, decided to change his pants. He pulled the door shut, hit a button that we thought must be the light, and started taking off his clothes.

Perhaps we hit the call button by mistake; perhaps the car’s attendant just happened to be walking the hall at that particular moment to check tickets. Regardless, just as Peter slid off his boxers, we heard a light knock on the door and the door began to slide open. There was no place to hide. Panicking, Peter leapt on top of his bed and stood frozen in the corner like a frightened animal. Far from providing cover, this actually just put his hips at eye level.

The door continued to slide open to reveal a gruff-faced Russian man in a white shirt and slacks: our carriage attendant, the person whom we were supposed to butter up if we wanted the toilets to stay clean. He took one look at the scene that greeted him — me standing defensively in the doorway, Peter naked on top of the bed — and quickly closed the door.  This gave Peter a chance to grab his pants and shirt and gather enough of his composure that when we opened the door again to see the man still standing there, we all could act like the incident had never occurred.

His name turned out to be Sergei, and despite The Lonely Planet guidebook’s assertion that most carriage attendants are women (it describes them as “she who must be obeyed,” and says they’re likely to sport “the most distinctive hairdos you’ll come across this side of a drag queen convention”), Sergei was definitely male, had normal hair, and, to his credit, did not acknowledge our initial introduction. Explaining – via limited English – that he spoke limited English, he gave us a basic tour of the train.

“Toilet,” he said, pointing down the hallway to his right.

“Restaurant, one, two, three,” he said, pointing to the left and indicating its distance in train cars.

“Hot farter.” He pointed toward the hallway samovar.

Sergei explained that if we left our car to go to the restaurant car or to poke around a station, we should tell him and he would lock our door. He then retreated to his small compartment at the end of the car to watch DVDs.

And so here we are, about to go to sleep for our third night on the train. I’m not bored; rather, I almost feel like time is moving faster than normal. That’s partially because time is moving faster than normal – in the past 48 hours or so, we’ve gained five time zones on Moscow. Confusingly, though, all the train stations still reflect Moscow time – both on tickets and station clocks. This means that not only is it hard to tell when to eat lunch, but instead of arriving in Irkutsk at 6:15 in the morning – already a painful hour – it is actually going to feel like 1:15 am.

Not birch groves.

For now, though, I’m just watching Siberia roll past my window. It reminds me of a conversation we had with a guy who had spent a year teaching in Siberia and had gone on this train ride himself. He said that after a certain point, the settlements begin to die out, and all you see is the occasional tiny blue house, which looks so like the tiny blue house before it that you begin to wonder if you are just watching a looped movie of the Siberian countryside. Sounds good to me — right now I’m just watching an endless loop of birch groves.

Here are some other observations so far:

-We have seen a number of men with weed-whackers standing in the middle of endless fields of grass. Weed-whacking in Siberia. Really?

-The restaurant car is two cars down from ours, which one would think would mean there would be heavy foot traffic past our room. However, there is none. Peter and I have walked through the car three and two times, respectively. Neither one of us has ever seen anyone using the restaurant car to eat. On his first trip through, Peter watched a man loading boxes into the refrigerator that dripped with blood.With that said, however, the car contains lovely art-nouveau woodwork, with booths adorned with stained glass decorations backed by mirrors.

-Guidebooks for the railroad wax poetic about the abundance of food that will be available at station stops. Entire villages will turn out, offering you boiled potatoes and eggs, homemade pancakes, and fresh vegetables, they say. Combined with the generosity of your Russian traveling companions, you may regret having packed so much food yourself.

This is sort of true. We have passed through two stations – Balyezino (1194 km from Moscow) and Barabinsk (3040 km) – where vendors did indeed flock to the train. Some stood behind pushcarts full of beer and snack foods; others walked up and down the platform with baskets of dried fish and small plastic bags of cucumbers and tomatoes, freshly made pancakes stuffed with sweetened cottage cheese, dense apple pastries, hardboiled eggs, and the occasional bag of herbed, cooked potatoes. Those were the good stops – I even found a woman who sold me a beautiful hand-knit scarf for $6.

But what of Vyatka? Or Omsk or Novosibirsk or, for that matter, Perm 2? (No, I’m not sure where the first one is.) There, the platforms were empty but for several small newsstands selling delicacies like cigarettes, stale chocolate bars, and shrimp-flavored snack crackers – leaving us reduced to our third meal of ramen in two days. As for our Russian traveling companions, we had forgotten that we are actually in a two-person bunk, and while there are indeed some Russians in the berths around us, they don’t seem to have much food to share. Rather, they’ve eyed our noodles with looks that suggest they wish they’d remember to pick some up for themselves.

But right now we’re in good shape – the stop in Novosibirsk was long enough for me to run into the station itself, where I found a woman at a deli case offering a random assortment of foods including dried noodles, chocolate yogurt, and fresh bananas. Since everything was behind the counter my attempts at shopping required a little game: her standing on a chair reaching up toward the display of instant coffee, me waving my hands to one side and the other to indicate if she were hot or cold. The biggest prize of all was the coffee creamer – our Finnish cappuccino powder is nauseating, so instead I’d been drinking rooibus tea that tastes like a scented candle. I’m very excited about having some real tea tomorrow with milk – so much so that when Peter pretended to steal two of my creamers, I pretended to kick him in the shin.

-A problem: when it stops, the train gives no warning before it pulls out of the station. No whistle, no announcement, nothing. According to our guidebook, numerous passengers have been left behind – the author even recounts a story when a carriage attendant was almost abandoned in a remote Siberian village in the middle of winter. This is making me very paranoid; I can’t stay out of the train for more than five minutes without casting cautious glances back at Sergei to see if he has gone inside.

-There is a sign on top of the toilet that says “!The request, in a toilet bowl to throw! NOTHING!” accompanied by crossed out cartoons of disobedient patrons. I’m not quite sure what will happen if I throw paper into the bowl – it doesn’t actually empty onto the tracks – but it scares me, especially because one of our guidebooks says that the toilets occasionally spray their contents into the air.

-Speaking of toilets, on our previous ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I was about to flush when I noticed that what appeared to be the flush button was right next to what looked like a red emergency light, with a warning printed above it in Cyrillic. It was the logical place for a flush button but, then again, it was also the logical place for one of those emergency call buttons you see in handicapped bathrooms. Was this going to flush the toilet? Or stop the train? I was concerned enough that I used a paper towel to close the seat so that I could look for any alternative flushing buttons – there were none – before eventually pushing the button. The toilet flushed. No conductor arrived.

-The shower. There isn’t one, at least not in this car. This morning, Peter decided to wash his hair in the bathroom’s miniscule sink – a move that was not lost on Sergei (he knows everything), who knocked on my door just after Peter left and told me there was a real shower available in the next car. “But you must pay,” he said, rubbing his fingers together with a look of disgust, not at me, but at the idea that the next car might charge for such a privilege (Sergei would not charge you to bathe; the man came through our car this afternoon with a miniature vacuum cleaner). “150 rubles,” he added. Five bucks for a shower. It’s beginning to sound  like a pretty good deal.

Sep 4 2010

Moscow Madness (and a little St. Petersburg, too)

Editor’s note: We’ve spent a few weeks with poor internet access so I’m way behind on my posting. Apologies for the forthcoming barrage!

First: Arrival in Moscow. I’d heard beforehand that train stations were the epicenters of all things sketchy in Russia, so when our train pulled into the Moscow train station, I was a bit apprehensive about finding our way to the hotel. If Moscow were anything like Beijing, we’d be mobbed by aggressive cabbies trying to, both literally and figuratively, take us for a ride. But instead, the opposite happened. No one approached us at all – and it was left to us to find a cab driver with whom we could negotiate a price. Our hotel had told us to pay between 350 and 500 rubles, so when the first cabbie announced that he wanted 1500, we laughed. Not even attempting to bargain, he snorted back at us and resumed playing cards with his friends. So much for the official taxi stand. We tried a few other labeled cabs, to no avail, and then I remembered a piece of somewhat disturbing advice that I’d read in our guidebook: for the right price, any car in Moscow can be a cab.

This didn’t make me feel particularly calm, the whole “find an unmarked car and ask a guy to take you somewhere in a city you’ve know nothing about”  approach, but I’d seen it used by a young woman in St. Petersburg, so we decided to try. Sure enough, after a few more failures, Peter stumbled upon a tanned, muscular guy in a white tanktop and dark sunglasses who seemed up for the challenge. Never mind that he spoke no English and didn’t quite know where the hotel was. He agreed to 500. We hopped in.  I spent the next twenty minutes trying to memorize the birthmarks on his back, just in case I needed to later identify him in a police line-up. Luckily, this was not necessary – the guy wasn’t ill-meaning; he just didn’t have a particularly good sense of Moscow geography. Several phone calls and questions to pedestrians later, and we were there.

Second: some words about Russians and vodka. They really do treat it like water. My favorite vodka sighting was in a big tourist gift shop across the street from Peter the Great’s log cabin in St. Petersburg. The shop is a long hall stuffed with endless marshrutky (nesting dolls), enameled boxes, keychains and fake fur caps – and at the end of the room, next to a samovar, there was a plate full of free vodka samples, plain or cranberry-flavored. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that a. this would never happen in America and b. free vodka samples are an excellent way to increase sales.

Our second vodka run-in – this time more deliberate – was at the vodka museum in Moscow, and it proved that I learned nothing in St. Petersburg. You see, the vodka museum happened to be located directly next to the Izmaylovsky craft market (which, incidentally, you get to from a subway station featuring floral bas reliefs decorated with AK-47s) and, being efficient travelers, we decided to combine them into one trip. I enjoyed my initial wander around the craft market, which sold everything from the ubiquitous marshrutky to antique propaganda posters, icons that you’d never be able to get through customs, and all sorts of communist trinkets. But I enjoyed it even more after our visit to the vodka museum where, after receiving a 20-minute guided tour of the one room exhibition, our guide led us to the museum restaurant and gave us three shots of vodka – a rough, cedar variety from Omsk, a vodka from a bottle designed to look like a nesting doll, and Kalashnikov vodka, which our guide said was sold in a numbered, gun-shaped case. After some snacks of cheez spread wrapped in bologna and several pickled garlic cloves, she gave us a small glass of a sweet, smoky plum-flavored liquor, which she said was popular with the ladies.

Not only was this, without a doubt, the most vodka I have ever consumed in a museum, but it was likely the most vodka I’ve ever consumed in one sitting, period. The result? The craft market got a whole lot more fun. I looked through endless stacks of propaganda posters, hoping to find one I’d seen in a friend’s house that shows a babushka-wearing ear of corn above the caption “To dislike corn is to be an enemy of the people” –despite the fact that I have no way of carrying home even an extra doll, let alone a fragile vintage poster. I made friends with some guys selling salmon shish kebabs, who told us how much they wanted to come to America. (“We hope to see you there!” I encouraged them, as we bought a bottle of water.) I bought a set of hand-painted Christmas ornaments from an excellent saleswoman named Tamara, who greeted us by saying, “I like money! And if you give me money, I like you!” And at a stall on the market’s upper level, I bought my favorite souvenir of them all: a hand-carved space shuttle launching from a piece of bent coat hanger. I love it.

Space dog!

I’m being serious. The Russians are obsessed with all things space-related, as evidenced by cosmonaut museums in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. They’re also obsessed with space dogs — especially Laika, the first dog to ever have been sent into orbit. (Peter bought a Laika t-shirt, only to discover that it had different length arms.)  I like dogs, too. So imagine my delight when the maker of said wooden space ship popped open the carving to reveal a hollow interior containing not one, but two tiny wooden dogs.  It was pretty much the tackiest thing I’d ever seen. But it is also kind of amazing.

One of these sleeves is not like the other.

A last Moscow observation: if you have a chance, by all means, visit the All Russian Exhibition Center, known as Vystavka Dostinzheny Narodnogo Khozyaysta SSR (VDNKh) – the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition.

Created in the 1930s but expanded in the 50s and 60s, the VDNKh was intended to show the world the economic achievements of socialism. Its grounds are 2 km long and 1 km wide, with dozens of buildings and pavillions constructed to celebrate socialist accomplishments in everything from education to health, technology and science. I’m fascinated by socialist realism to begin with (you must depict reality! But an idealized form of reality that does not yet exist!) and am fond of clashes between communism and capitalism, especially those that involve camel rides. So I was pretty much in heaven.

VDNKh’s funding was cut off in the 90s, and what was built as a soaring tribute to socialism is now a combination of amusement park and shopping mall. I mean both literally. You enter the complex through a giant arch topped by a socialist-realist sculpture of a triumphant peasant who’s since been joined, a bit lower, by a banner advertising cheap fur coats. Beyond the arch is a cartoon-themed tourist train, which makes loops of the immense grounds – though if Tommy the Tank Engine is not your style, you can also rent bicycles or, better yet, in-line skates. The tourist train and rollerbladers zig and zag along a promenade leading to one of the main buildings, with a beautifully decorated white facade set behind an enormous statue of, you guessed it, Lenin. (We actually saw a man get down on one knee before it – he remained there so long and with such intensity that we worried he might be about to blow himself up, especially when he started reaching around in his bag, but he emerged with a black umbrella to use as a parasol).

Lenin with Ferris wheel.

There are merry-go-rounds, there are games of skill and chance. There are hot dogs and ice cream cones, a miniature race track, a display of sand sculptures in the face of Soviet leaders – and yes, there are camel rides. And that is just outside. Inside the magnificent halls is the very world they were intended to rebuke: they’ve all been turned into shopping malls. As the occasional pigeon flies overhead, you can shop for everything from spiked collars to Siberian birch boxes to cameras to manicure supplies. One particularly impressive hall, a large arched space that ends in a now-shrouded portrait of Russia’s first cosmonaut, has been turned into a gardening center.

As we wandered past ice cream vendor after ice cream vendor, we wondered what Lenin would think. I assumed he would roll over in his glass coffin. But Peter pointed out that if he were to simply drop by with no historical update, he might actually be thrilled: the place was packed with happy people enjoying the smog-free afternoon. Someone would just have to make sure he didn’t go inside.

I bought things from this person.

I did not buy things from this person.

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 26 2010

To the Banya!

Peter and I travel remarkably well together, partially because each of us is usually willing to follow along with whatever uncomfortable and/or unpleasant experiences the other can come up with, like Latvian water aerobics, or a homestay with Mongolian nomads. But it took a bit of prodding to get him to accompany me to a banya, a traditional Russian bathhouse where people partake in the sadomasochistic practice of baking in a hot steam oven before beating themselves with branches.

“Why would I want to do that?” he asked me. “And are you sure I don’t need my bathing suit?”  It was a good question. Not only did the concept itself sound unpleasant, but we were visiting Moscow during the midst of what some meterologists have called the worst heatwave in a thousand years, which was accompanied by a smoke cloud caused by nearby wildfires. It was not a day that made one want to voluntarily get even hotter. But it was our last afternoon in Moscow before we got on the Trans Siberian railroad that night. We – by which I mean I – had to do it.

After several days of great weather, the smoke had returned.

We’d considered going to a central, famous bath called Salduny, but upon learning that it was nearly $50 a piece just to enter – plus the fact that according to my friend Christine, the men’s half contains all the fancy stuff and the women’s half sucks – we found a recommendation online for a different bath slightly out of city center for half the price. Na Presne, I think it was called. The bath was pretty close to an easy-to-reach subway stop. But as we’ve learned over the past few days, “pretty close” in Moscow can easily be ten or fifteen New York blocks – the city is big. What’s more, the street signs tend to only be in Cyrillic, and only tell half of the story: blocks in Moscow are so large that they often have entire mini-neighborhoods inside of them, complexes of apartment buildings and shops in what you’d think would just be a courtyard.

The bath was in one of those courtyard mini cities, and it took us a good fifteen minutes – complete with several wrong turns and interactions with security guards – to finally find it, a large, brick building with a blue logo that looked like “Bath” and separate men’s and women’s entrances. After wishing each other luck, we parted ways, both a bit apprehensive about what lay in store.

After I paid the entrance fee, an attendant gave me a voucher for a towel and led me to the changing room/lounge area. It was an open room with cartoons on the wall of happy bathers sitting in wooden tubs; the bath attendants and several customers lounged at small tables watching what appeared to be a Russian version of Scrubs on a TV dangling from the ceiling. There were curtained-off changing rooms, but apparently my ticket was only good enough for an open stall right next to the television, which made it seem like the entire roomful of people was watching me change.

I’ve been to baths before, but I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect in the Russian banya. My first challenge, it turned out, was finding the parilka – the steam room that’s the essence of the Russian banya experience.  After taking a shower to rinse off, the first room I came across was an open space filled with rows of benches and buckets of water, presumably to soak your venik, the bundle of birch branches you beat yourself with to exfoliate and stimulate your skin. I would imagine there are times when the room is filled with row upon row of bathers, but with the weather being as it was, there were only a few women standing around, lathering their bodies with various beauty treatments. Nearby was a tub labeled “hydro-massage,” where a woman lay submerged as an attendant worked on her back.

A door led to what I assumed was the parilka – a mint-scented sauna with stadium-like rows of wooden benches and a large bucket of water next to a metal-doored brick oven. No one else was in it, the door was open, and the two bath attendants who came in to sweep leaves off the floor and refill the water politely indicated that I might want to leave. Something clearly happened in this room, but not now.

So I decided to buy time in the Finnish sauna, a room next to the parilka that was so hot that I couldn’t breathe through my nose without worrying about singing my nose hair. This was a dry, penetrating heat; I managed only several minutes before realizing that if I stayed any longer, I might actually pass out. So I escaped to the final room: a large plunge pool, totally empty, with three water spigots – one that looked like a large round showerhead, one with cascading water like a gentle waterfall, and one that was just an open pipe (useful for massage). The water was freezing, but I took the plunge, and was rewarded by the feeling I remembered from the Russian Baths on East 10th street when I’d dared to pour a bucket of freezing water on my head: shock, breathlessness, and then exhilaration. I realize I sound like a soft drink commercial, but there’s no other way to say it: it was deliciously refreshing.

But this was not what I’d come for. Eventually I heard an announcement in Russian over the loudspeaker and saw a small parade of women entering the Russian bath. I followed, taking a seat on a bottom bench as I observed the people around me – a variety of ages and sizes, naked except for sandals, sheets, and very silly bell-shaped felt hats, which are popular as a way to protect your hair from the heat. How exactly they protect your hair – or from what – was unclear, but the effect was to make it seem like I was bathing with a group of nudist female Robin Hoods. As was perhaps appropriate, these Robin Hoods were braver than I, and several of them spread their sheets on the top layer and lay down upon them, face down, as if sunbathing in an oven. Others simply reclined, their sheets falling to their waists. I sat wrapped prudishly from armpit to knee, waiting to see what might happen next.

Soon thereafter, a bath attendant entered the room. A round woman, also with a felt cap, she was wrapped in a special sheet, one decorated with cartoon figures of people soaking in a banya and beating themselves with branches. I could tell right away that I liked her, even as she pulled the door shut behind her. (I remembered a review I had read online of these particular baths, which claimed that the attendants actually locked you inside until the heat became unbearable – I was grateful that it seemed she had simply closed the door.)  Glancing around at the women under her care, the attendant pulled on two heavy gloves and cranked open the oven, which let out a disconcerting creak. Working quickly, she then began ladeling water from the nearby bucket onto the fire, each splash landing on the hot rocks with a hiss. I counted 113 ladles before she pulled the oven door shut and turned back to face us. As the steam spread, the room became much hotter; several women in the top row groaned.

Next, the attendant picked up a bowl of water that had been sitting by the door and carefully measured several drops of scented oil into it – the source of the peppermint smell that permeated the room. Warning us with what must have been Russian for “watch out!” she began turning in a circle, flinging ladles full of the water around the room. Droplets of mint-scented water hit the walls and our heads, adding to the room’s already refreshing smell.

The attendant walked to the middle of the room. Assuming a warrior-like stance, she picked up a different cartoon sheet and began swinging it in circles above her head to spread the heat. Please take a moment to imagine this scene: a short-haired, rotund woman clad in nothing but sandals, a sheet and a bell-shaped felt hat, violently swinging a towel around her head like a lasso. Waves of scalding air hit my back; sweat began to flow. This was the real deal.

But she wasn’t done; instead, the attendant dripped mint oil onto two bunches of branches sitting on a bench by the door. Picking them up, she worked her way around the room, waving them above each of our heads as if anointing us with delicious, mint-scented steam. She even gave one bather a playful smack on the back. I loved the attendant and her silly felt hat. And, truth be told, I wasn’t even that hot. This was nothing compared to the Finnish sauna.

That turned out to be because I was on the bottom level; when I returned for a second round and dared to go higher, the heat quickly became unbearable. But that first time, I remained pleasantly warm as the attendant put down her branches and opened the oven again, ladeling in more water beore eventually leaving us to steam on our own.

I alternated between steam room, sauna and plunge pool, realizing at some point (I believe in the cold room) that I was completely content: my aching feet had temporarily stopped hurting, I could feel my circulation pulsing through my body, and the contrast between heat and cold was leaving me feeling delightfully calm. It was a shame, I thought to myself, that no such tradition exists in the United States, a place where it is considered weird to sit naked in an incredibly hot room with strangers and have people beat you with branches.

My only regret was that I didn’t buy a bundle – something had gotten lost in translation in check-in, so instead I merely watched with envy as several fellow bathers slapped their thighs and backs. But I can live vicariously through Peter.  He entered the Russian sauna at the same time as a couple of others and apparently felt the need to prove his manhood by engaging in a one-sided battle of the baths (I don’t think the other men knew they were playing). After lying with the men on the highest, hottest level for 10 minutes, Peter was about admit defeat when the men threw an additional challenge, standing up  from their bench and beating themselves with their branches. Intimidated, but not wanting to appear so, he joined in.  By the end, his birch bundle – which he subsequently christened “Ivan the Terrible” – had left small red welts all over his back.  Still, as we emerged from the baths, rosy-faced and refreshed, we both decided it was worth it.

The outside of the baths.

Moscow, we still love you!

Aug 21 2010

Welcome to Russia

Peter celebrated our arrival in St. Petersburg by listening to the patriotic anthem that is Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” It seemed a fitting way to mark the transition between the easy part of this trip (Iceland, France, Italy, the surprisingly comfortable Baltic States) to the lands that lie ahead – Russia, Mongolia, China, and beyond. Gone are the days of toilet paper-stocked public bathrooms and potable tap water. From now on, I’m going to have to think twice before rinsing my toothbrush in the sink, and have a high – if not guaranteed – chance of getting severe diarrhea before I return to American soil.

Despite having spent time in China, I wasn’t quite prepared for the culture shock of Cyrillic, which we first encountered on a train across from the platform at the border. Being surrounded by characters is disconcerting and frustrating, to be sure, but there’s a certain comfort that comes from having absolutely no comprehension – after a while, you stop thinking of them as words, and they become more like interesting decorations on everyday sights like grocery stores and pharmacies. But with Cyrillic, there are just enough letters in common to make you feel like you should be able to read it – oh, look! An “M” — but enough differences to ensure that you can’t. Making things worse, the letters that do look similar are pronounced differently – “H” sounds like “N,” for example, a backwards “N” is “I” (as in “ee”) and “P” is “R.” Also, many of the letters are written, from an American perspective, backwards. The effect is to make me feel not just illiterate, but dyslexic.

Eat, pray, what?

We were met at the train station by a woman named Tatiana, who coordinated the homestay program we signed up for  — a cheaper and potentially more interesting arrangement than a typical hotel in which you stay in a local’s spare room. Our local was Dmitry, a friendly electrical engineer who shared an apartment with his mother on the bank of the river, just across from the Hermitage. It was in a fantastic location, though when Tatiana first led us to the apartment, we had our doubts: its entrance was inside a Soviet-style courtyard, in a building with crumbling steps, a decrepit-looking elevator and, perhaps most disturbingly, large piles of bags of concrete rubble stacked on each landing. (Dmitry later told Peter that the rubble was there because they were demolishing the top floor of the building in order to add some luxury penthouses. “But we are worried it may make the building fall down,” he commented, in what we hoped was a joke.)

This was right after they took away the rubble bags.

The apartment was basic but relatively spacious – three rooms sharing a foyer with a bathroom, shower, and small kitchen. The only problem was that it was warm – St. Petersburg was in the midst of a heat wave – and there was no air conditioning (in fact, when we asked if most people had it, Tatiana laughed). More on that later.

And there was one other weird thing: the entire city was covered in smog. Granted, there are hundreds of wildfires burning in Russia right now and Moscow is currently covered in a thick layer of smoke. St. Petersburg, however, is hundreds of kilometers away. There was not supposed to be smoke or smog. But there it was – thick enough that it was obscuring the skyline, and smelling slightly sweet, the distinct smell of burning wood. We found this curious, and so tried to get a local explanation.

“Is it usually like this?” we asked Tatiana, as she drove us to the apartment.

“Yes, this is the weather,” she said, enigmatically.

We had no further luck with Dmitry.

“So, is the visibility usually this bad?” asked Peter.

“It is not usually this hot,” replied Dmitry.

“Can you normally see farther?” I asked, wondering if perhaps he had misunderstood.

“I hope that perhaps it may cool down.”

No smoke here.

But from what I can tell, this denial of environmental contamination may be a cultural thing. How else to explain the crowds of bikini-clad bathers blanketing the banks of the Neva – the large river that flows through the center of St. Petersburg – happily plunging their children into the water despite the fact that, according to Lonely Planet, all of European Russia’s main rivers have viral and bacterial levels that are 10 to 100 times higher than permitted? Or the fact that Dmitry returned to the apartment one night proudly clutching a bag containing a fish he had caught – and which he intended to eat – from that same river? Who cares that the tap water in St. Petersburg is sometimes tainted with giardia, that water-borne parasite responsible for stomach cramps, nausea, and incessant diarrhea?

Fresh from the Neva.

The water's great!

Needless to say, Peter and I did not jump in. Instead, we walked across a long bridge to the main part of town, where we paid our first foreigner’s ticket price (Russia, like China, has the irritating habit of charging foreigners much more than locals for many sights and museums) and went into the gruesomely named Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, which is decorated floor to ceiling with fantastic mosaics and, on that particular day, had a light layer of smoke floating beneath its ceiling’s vaults. It  is also across the street from a craft and souvenir market, which gave us our first chance to stare at hundreds upon hundreds of Russian nesting dolls, some painted traditionally, others decorated with rather unflattering images of Putin, Britney Spears, and Barack Obama. It was there that I first experienced one of the paradoxes of travel: the desire to buy things that you would never want if they were available at home. Am I honestly going to decorate my office with Russian nesting dolls? And, if I were, am I really going to take them all out and line them up in a long row to prove how many there are inside? The likely answer is no – which means that I either don’t really care whether the doll has 5 parts or 20, or that I don’t need a nesting doll to begin with. But I still am probably going to end up with one.

First day verdict? I like Russia.