Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good Russian tradition!

You may want to listen to some Gogol Bordello while reading this...

Sitting in a Russian bathhouse in Ulan Ude
It don't matter how much we sweat, we just cant agree.

Vladimir, who is running the Baikal Ethnic Hostel in Ulan Ude together with Tania, invited us for a true Russian banya experience. A banya is something very close to a Finnish sauna, although a Russian and a Finn would probably have a lengthy argument why exactly it is not.
So we sat down on the wood in the hot room and Vladimir started pouring water on the stones of the oven that is heated by a fire. Steam filled the room. He poured a second scoop from the bucket and it started to get hotter inside. The third scoop was filled with beer. "Russian tradition", Vladimir said. He insisted we sit on the top bench. When the sweat was running he took leaves of white birch trees out of a bucket and started hitting us with it. "Good Russian tradition" were his words. He started hitting the arms, then legs, then chest and back and finally the soles of the feet. "Very good tradition".
Vladimir kept on pouring water on the stones and hitting us with the birch branches while continuously saying "good Russian tradition" or "very good tradition".
It felt like Populärmusik från Vittula. 

It became unbearably hot.


More water on the stones.


More hits with the birch branches


I had to storm out and stood in the cold Ulan Ude night for a while staring at the red marks on my body..

..and I thought the 29 °C on the train from Irkutsk was hot.

We repeated the procedure 2 more times.
It actually is a good Russian tradition.

Other things to do in Ulan Ude when not sweating in a banya include:

Taking a trip to the Ivolginsky Datsan and listen to the chant of Buddhist monks in Siberia, an interesting mix of Buddhist temples and Siberian style houses in which the monks live.

Spinning some prayer wheels. Clockwise.

deciphering this writing on the hill (any guess???)

Meeting the locals

visiting the ethnographic museum

finding out that your head actually IS smaller than Lenin's!

I crossed from Russia to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia by now, checking out some tours to the countryside for the next days.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The ice we drive upon is getting pretty thin...

It was a cold and long winter in Siberia this year.
Travellers at the hostel who came in from Lake Baikal reported that the lake was still frozen, so a few of us decided to go to the lake and on to Olkhon Island. The shortest distance from the mainland to the island is probably a 3 km wide stretch of the lake. When we got there we were told that the ice was getting too thin now to drive across at this part of the lake, so we were handed over to two "ice guides" who showed us the way to walk across. It was a lot of fun walking until the ice cracked and one of us fell through but got pulled up again. We were probably midway by then and suddendly everyone was getting very serious and concentrated about the walk. Another one fell through the ice and had to be pulled out again. This was the moment when I was happy to travel with a trolley that I could just let go and not a backpack that would probably pull me down. Finally all reached the other side and everyone started cracking jokes again, happy to have reached the shore.

We checked in at Nikita's Guesthouse. The Island is a place where you can get away from it all. The whole 72 km long island has a population of 1500, 1200 of which live in Khuzir, its main settlement. No bank, no hospital, no police. Olkhon was connected to electricity just in 2005, no landlines, just recently mobile telephony arrived covering Khuzir and around. No TV, there's an Internet cafe which is closed. A shop (supermarket would be the wrong term here) sells the basics and uses an abacus to do the math. There's a few guesthouses that cater for those who come here (mainly Russians in summer, French and Germans who want to camp on the ice during winter). No toilets with a flush, no hot water, no showers. There's a banya (something very close to a Finnish sauna) where you can mix very cold and very hot water to wash yourself.
Besides our little group there was a Spanish guy from Asturias who is staying for 3 months on the island to work with the local carpenters at Nikita's and a French girl, staying for three months as well, who is writing a novel here. Apparently there is another frenchman on the northern shore of the lake who is writing a book as well. About solitude.

The next day we charted an old Russian minibus and visit some of the smaller islands around. It does feel a bit weird driving on ice, but after a while you get used to it. It is actually a quite bumpy drive, since the ice breaks up and freezes over again and the driver tries to avoid the cracks wherever he can. The island is a centre for Shamanism and Buddhism so we go and visit some of the sites, have lunch on the ice and a tea. Main diet is "omul", a fish that only lives in Baikal. It is served for lunch and dinner everyday and is really tasty. We pass a "fishing village", which is in fact about 20 cars parked in a row who cut holes into the ice and set up tents and all.

On Friday most of us wanted to return to civilisation as we had onward trains booked. It was not easy arranging for transport. Due to the ice there are no ships going yet. The safest option would be a hovercraft, but it appeared to be undergoing repair. Walking back across the way we came is no longer recommended by now since the ice is melting. Also a story goes round that a car last week broke through the ice. I get slightly worried about this, but we are assured, that the ice is still good enough for driving in another part of the lake. Once on the lake our Russian minibus packed with 11 gets rather quiet.
I think about what happens if the ice would break. I sit next to the exit, but would it be possible to open the door?
I have a strange urge to listen to "swim until you can't see land" by Frightened Rabbit that I cannot explain. Maybe if you can swim the water would be resonably warm. How deep is the water here anyhow? The world's deepest lake, that holds an impressive 20% of the worlds whole fresh water resources goes down to 1637m, but I guess as long as it's deeper than the height of the bus it doesn't really matter...
I usually don't get worried, if an airplane gets into turbulences, but this was scary!
When we finally made it to the shore (the drive was probably 20 minutes, but seemed like ages to me) everybody started cheering and hugging the driver. He's my hero.

I am back in Irkutsk and off to Ulan-Ude today, my last stop before leaving Russia!

Crossing lake Baikal by foot

Buddhist Stupa on a small Island next to Olkhon

Cliff next to Olkhon

A fishing village on lake Baikal

Our cars on the ice

Evening entertainment at Nikita's: Nicolai plays his accordeon and sings in Russian, Tajik, Belarussian, English, Spanish... and is clearly enjoying what he is doing. Listen here

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Trans-Siberian Railway

That's right. Railway. Not Express. There is nothing fast about this train. And it is actually not THE Trans-Siberian either. It's a network of trains with different destinations. The most known route is propably the one that takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok in 7 days. Then there is the Trans-Mongolian, that branches off after Ulan-Ude and crosses Mongolia on its way to Beijing. The Trans-Manchurian goes around Mongolia and takes in Harbin on the way to Beijing. Then there is the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM or Baikal -Amurskaya Magistral) that take a more northern route around lake Baikal to the pacific coast.
All trains no matter where in Russia's eleven timezones are running on Moscow time. It can be a bit mindboggling to figure out when they are actually leaving. The trains are surprisingly punctual (you go and have a look, nederlandse sporwegen!) and they won't wait. All trains are identified by a number, the lower the number the better the quality and the service generally. Odd numbers are headed to Moscow, even numbers take you away from the capital.
Each wagon has its provodnitsa (carriage attendant). They make sure everyone's on board when the train leaves, wake you up when you should get off the train, and provide some hot water for tea (make sure to bring a cup, some tea bags or instant coffee).

Don't worry if you don't speak any Russian, just get on board! The Russians are extremely hospitable, everybody shares food and drinks with you and tries to communicate with you. I was travelling in off season and trains were not too packed, sometimes I was the only foreigner on the train. Once word has spread that a foreigner is on board I was politely asked if I may be spoken to, only to find myself minutes later surrounded by English teachers, professors of the Russian acedemy of science, icehockey players and officers from the Russian army, asking me for my email and whether I was on facebook or linked-in.

On the last leg from Ekaterinburg (also referred to by its old name Sverdlovsk) to Irkutsk I ended up sharing a compartment with two officers from the Russian army. After a while Michail put a bottle of Putinka Vodka on the table and started pouring three glasses. We cheered. We drank. You don't mix vodka with anything. It's against the law. Also, you don't say spasiba (thank you) everytime they pour you a glass. We're here to drink, not to talk. Right. You drink what has been poured in one shot if you're a man, women may take it in sips. You drink some orange juice afterwards. You buy some snacks to have with your drink and share it. Only a fool drinks without eating. Whatever is on the table is for everyone. Good philosophy. At the end of the day you learned some more russian proverbs and the Russians insist that you accept some tacky presents. Then the laptops come out and you look at family pictures for the next hour or so. You return some less tacky presents. You learn the Russian word for friend is drug. The Russian hospitality is a drug. You return some probably less tacky presents and you're asked to sign them for your new drugs.

Other things to do on a train:
Learn Russian with a podcast.Or Mongolian. Or Chinese
Read Anna Karenina
Solve a Sudoku
Make new friends
Play cards or a game of chess
Practice yoga
Share food and drinks with your new friends
Write your journal, blog, postcards
Brush your teeth
Change your watch twice a day to local time as you pass through the timezones

The cheapest way to get tickets is through the website of Russian Railways. It's in cyrillic and you need to open an acoount first. But it's doable even if you don't speak any Russian, there are some sites that tell you how to work through the pages.
Some travel agencies offer tickets, they apply a service charge of course but it's the easiest way to arrange a trip by yourself.
And then there are tour companies that provide full service including visa support and all. Obviously that's the most expensive alternative but also the least hassle.
Tickets go on sale 45 days before departure.

For any trip on any train to anywhere check out this great site by the man in seat 61.

some impressions from the rail:

Buying some smoked fish at the station

The samovar providing hot water, bring a cup with you!

Dining in style at the train restaurant

some railroad nostalgia

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A night at the conference hotel

Besides the main tourist centres, like St. Petersburg, Moscow, Lake Baikal etc., the concept of a hostel is still in its infancy in Russia, which leaves the flashpacker with no other choice than checking in at a hotel. Western style hotels are ridiculously expensive (starting at US$ 200, sky's the limit), so I usually go for the cheapest experience. In Yekaterinburg which is also referred to by its old name of Sverdlovsk, I checked in at the "Sverdlovsk Conference Hotel" right opposite the train station. These places remind me of the hotels where I used to stay when I visited the "stans" 8 years ago and are a true communist experience. After checking in at the reception you are not given a key but instead a card with your room number written on it. With this card you can go up to the floor where your room is located and receive a key in exchange from the dezhurnaya (floor lady) which is usually a babushka (grandma) sitting at a reception desk on each floor. You better stay on good terms with her, she supplies hotwater for tea and laundry services. The rooms have hot water for most of the day, are reasonably clean and the TV has some 10 Russian channels and besides MTV the rest of the channels are all Russian, which sometimes feature Hollywood movies that are dubbed in a strange way. The characters start out talking English and one usually catches the first two words or so when the Russian voice takes over and continues until after the person stopped talking. No lip sync here. It can be fun to try and follow such a movie and make up an own storyline.

The taste of the food at the breakfast buffet is a bit bland, but the selection is quite good. What the smörgåsbord lacks in taste it make up for by giving the dishes great names such as "Pan Cakes Tasty", "Sour Cream Village", "Boiled Rice Golden", "Steamed Vegetables Creative" and my favourite "Black Coffee Grande Espresso" (which couldn't have been further from it).

As opposed to the hotels, going out for food is often a pleasant surprise. Besides great Russian cuisine there is a wide selection of international food in all cities available, sushi seems to be the most popular and it's served everywhere at quite decent quality. At the "Cuba Libre" in Kazan, they serve probably the best fajitas and mojitos this side of the Volga and when the tables are removed the whole place transforms into a salsa club where not only Shakira's but also Tatyana's and Anastassia's hips don't lie.
At a scottish pub in Yekaterinburg the waiters are wearing kilts (not sure whether with or without undies) and there are 12 beers on tap.

Don't get your hopes up too high, the maxi-bar in the corner is empty.

Enjoy the luxury of a private bathroom:

The door is equipped with a security lock.

It's a long walk if your room is located at the end of the corridor.

The desk of the "dezhurnaya"

and in case you are missing some great German food, go to Ratskeller:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flashpackin' the USSR!

Railed in all the way from Minsk, Belorussky
didn't get to bed last night.
All the way the paperbag was on my knees.
Man, I had a dreadful ride.
Flashpackin' the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are, boy...

Once in Moscow I hit red square in need to get some money since my Belarussian roubles (also referred to as "rabbits" by the Russian) are worthless here. I found an ATM at the GUM which is where Moscow's nouveau riche spend their petroroubles. As opposed to Minsk there is no luxury brand that cannot be found.

The first evening I witnessed Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, a ticket I bought on the internet more than a month in advance and that cost me an arm and a leg. It was worth it. The acoustics and the venue are amazing and the ballet is just spectacular. Have a listen here for some impressions and to hear the audience shout their "bravos".

I spent 5 days/4 nights in the capital and could have easily stayed some more weeks to explore the place. And while the Kremlin, Red Square and all are great sites not to be missed I went to see some rather odd attractions as well:

The History of the Gulag Museum presents the dark history of Stalin's days where people were detained for little or no reason. A 17 year old boy was sentenced to 7 years of correctional labour camp for a teenage prank of stealing a bottle of vodka. Camps were all over the country and had no name but only numbers. Many of these camps were placed in the north where Stalin had the mental idea to build a railroad above the arctic circle. Prisoners "lived" on 300 g of bread a day while being forced to work 8 hours on the railtracks. The guards were awarded extra homeleave if they shot an escapee. When someone asked to step out to take a leak from the working area and walked into the woods a guard shot the "escapee" for an extra day at home. After work before returning to the baracks the prisoners were strip searched by the guards to make sure they did not steal anything (there was nothing to be stolen obviously). It was -40 degrees outside. 
The project was never finished. It proved to be impossible to build tracks on the permafrost ground of the north. What was built during winter was washed away when the snow melted and all work was lost. Shortly after Stalin's death the camps were closed, although some continued operation under a different name operated by the KGB.
The Museum has artwork of released prisoners on display as well as items from the camps and a model of the cells. It's as depressing and shocking as it is interesting. English and history student Olga from MoscowMania works part time at the Museum can give you lots of additional information.

A place that was not opened until 2005 to the public is a bunker 18 flights of stairs down from the ground and protected by a fake building of 6 meters of reinforced concrete which is now the cold war museum. After both sides of the iron curtain started to build up massive stacks of nuclear weapons, the Russians began to build underground places from where the control could be kept alive for up to 90 days if a strike would hit the city. The fake building would have windows where light was turned on and off to make it look inhabited, while underground a whole different thing was going on. Even people working there were not aware of what was going on beyond their checkpoint. Access was through the building and - at night when the Moscow Metro stopped operating - the bunker had its own secret metro station. It's a whole city under the city. The visit itself is admittedly a bit touristy but nevertheless interesting. Once you stepped down the 18 flights of stairs you get to see a movie about the history of the cold war. From a Russian point of view. You also get to see the communication sites, can use some old phone switchboards, dress up in Soviet Uniforms, hold and AK-47 and have a shot. Of vodka.

The bunker close to Taganskaya Metro station is the only one known and open to the public, visits are only possible by appointment, so call ahead, they do have one English speaking guide. There are obviously more of these facilities, probably still in operation...

Quiz time:
Since I have a strange obsession with embalmed socialist leaders I had to go to see Lenin in his Mausoleum on Red Square. There are four socialist leaders that can be visited (it used to be five, but poor Stalin is now burried six feet under in a simple grave next to the Kremlin's walls. What a loser. Big FAIL here). Two of them I will manage to see on this trip. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (who looks quite pale by the way) is number one and Mao will be number two once I get into Beijing. The first person to name the remaining two will receive a postcard of the chairman. The two I am missing are a bit more difficult to achieve. At number three you are not allowed to wear shorts. Number four requires you to wear a suit and pretend to cry, once you managed to enter the country which is a challenge by itself. Enough said.

I will leave the capital of Tatarstan where I spent the last two days tonight and head to Yekaterinburg to cross the border between Europe and Asia.

...flashpackin' the USSR
Hey, you don't know how lucky you are boy...

I was lucky enough to run into Romain, who also prays in the church of Canon and shares my passion for photography, so we went out at night with our tripods and kept on changing lenses. 

moscow by night:

She got Red Square, say what you will I don't care, I couldn't resist it!
Skirts are short and heels are high and I wonder how the moscovitas manage to step over the cobblestones...

Lenin Mausoleum

more red square

my comrades and me on red square:

Thursday, April 08, 2010


A Russian proverb says: Better seen once than heard a hundred times.

Reason enough to spend a holiday in Europe's last standing dictature!

I was apparently the only tourist who was not (A) visiting the Tshernobyl kids he was taking care of or (B) seeing his Belarussian Internet date for the first time. All other people I met fell into either category (A) or (B).

The great tourist attractions such as "the island of tears" and a massive collection of stalinist architecture are not the only pleasure Minsk has to offer for the eye. The National Library that President Lukashenko had ordered to be built looks more like the death star than a library building. In order to have a look inside the death star I had to become a card-carrying member of the library. It's impressive (not thatg I could read a single book, though)

It's also probably the last escape where shopaholics can go into rehab. There is one cinema. One. Tickets are sold out for the next month to come. There is one Mc Donalds and one Mango. That's it. In the rest of the department stores is nothing really you would want to purchase. There is also no advertisements in the street. Busstops are decorated with posters of Belarussian girls in their traditional costumes harvesting corn or proud Belarussian metro conductors in their uniforms.
I walked through Minsk when the orthodox easter celebrations were held in the churches. The queues were impressive and people brought cake and eggs (and some vodka) to have it blessed by a priest.

On the train to Moscow at night I shared a compartment with Vasily. We had some issues communicating in the beginning until I could tell him in my limited Russian that I come from Germany. He replied in fluent German from then on. Vasily served during the cold war in the German Democratic Republic and that's where he learned the lingo. Since they did not accept Belarussian roubles in the restaurant car and I did not have any Russian money he insisted that the Vodka was on him. When we arrived in Moscow he came with me and got me on the right metro. As we took the escalator down what felt like at least 100 m undergroud he told me that this is only the official Metro and that there is a second secret system. I never found out what his job was, but I guess he was an apparatchik and he knows...

In Moscow I checked into the filthy hostel where Spanish women complain about the cleanliness of the showers and Russians play online poker all night. I share a dorm where one is always snoring, another one comes in drunk in the middle of the night from a pubcrawl and yet another person has the alarm set to 6 o'clock to catch an early train and takes an hour to pack everything in noisy plastic bags. Red Square is a five minute walk, the staff is extremely helpful and there's always a cold beer in the fridge. Unshaved and smelly backpackers who just got off the Trans-Siberian are happy to have the first shower in 5 days.
En bref: It's paradise. Life couldn't be better.

Not the yet to be opened Apple store of Minsk, but the National Library a.k.a. the death star.

Worth checking out:
What's on in Minsk
Everbrite's Belarus page
Travel Europe's Belarus Travel Guide
Wikitravel Minsk

some restaurants my colleague Anna recommends:
This one is on the way from Trinity Suburb to Independence avenue, a bit behind the town hall
Фрески (Freski)
площадь Свободы, 23 (Ploschad Svobody/Liberty Square)
open 10:00 - 01:00

This one is close to the metro Oktyabrskaya at the Independence avenue and it is next door to the McDonalds
Абрикос (Abrikos)
проспект Независимости, 23 (prospekt Nezavisimosti / Independence avenue )
open 11:00 - 00:00

Another one a bit further away in the direction of Victory Square
Госцi (Gosti)
проспект Независимости, 25 (prospekt Nezavisimosti / Independence avenue )
open 11:00 - 01:00

Even though two restaurants above have house numbers 23 and 25 they are not so close to each other!
It's about 150 meters away!

This one is very close to the station, so you can eat there before the depature
Эль Помидоро (El Pomidoro)
улица. Кирова, 6 (ulitsa Kirova / Kirova street)
open 09:00-23:00