Almaty’s Apples of Affluence

     Kazakhstan! That’s K-A-Z-A-K-H-S-T-A-N. New country! Maybe #107. Maybe.
     What do I know about Kazakhstan? I know it’s the largest country I had yet to visit, #9 in the world. (Algeria, you’re next.) I know never to utter the word “Borat.” I know that the sports world went berserk about the beauty of this Kazakh volleyball player. I know very little, is what I am trying to say. I don’t know much more after spending five days in the former capital, Almaty, one little urban corner of this massive land.

almaty sign

     My head started spinning and I had to lie down when I looked into the etymology of the word “Almaty”, but everyone can agree “place of apples” is a good compromise. The “alma” part of the word piques my interest. It means apple far beyond the region: “elma” in Turkish, and good old “alma” in Hungarian. Hungary, let’s not forget, began with a wayward, errant tribe from somewhere around these parts. It was fascinating at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan a couple of weeks ago that the entire Hungarian contingent arrived in full medieval garb for the opening ceremonies and for the big show at the ethno village, they had an unexpectedly prominent role at the end of it.

     It’s tempting to say that Almaty is a more evolved, prosperous and progressive version of Bishkek, but I feel uneasy asserting that. We all hope Bishkek will someday see the light and replace its smoggy marshrutkas (vans) with buses, but the two towns feel different. Almaty is more Russian, yet I see more Kazakh language on signs here than I do Kyrgyz in Bishkek. Why is that? Is there a stronger sense of trying to maintain Kazakh identity? I had plenty of questions, but I managed to meet up with only one Kazakh. I wish I had made more of an effort to see who on Couchsurfing wanted to meet. (Much-maligned Couchsurfing is still the best way to meet locals quickly, I reckon, outside of bars.)
almaty market

     Dried fruit and nut sellers at the Almaty Green Market.

     When I heard an authoritative American voice in the Green Market, I raced over to accost him and ask if I really had to register with the police. His name is Dennis Keen and he runs walking tours in Almaty. I thought I was doing him a favor when I said I would mention him on my blog, but upon further research he seems to be synonymous with the city. His quirky website is obsessively detailed—my kind of guy.

     Steven Seagal, we meet again. I had been trying to enjoy the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan unmolested a few weeks ago, but there Mr. Seagal was, a guest of honor at the opening ceremony. Here he is seen being feted for making the arduous five-minute cable car ride up to this viewpoint, Kok Tobe. Gerard Depardieu, another of his ilk, got the same red carpet treatment. It’s a clever gambit by these guys to cozy up to Putin and the region’s rulers. I can’t wait until I am fat and formerly famous. I’m halfway there.
     When I try to explain to locals how Steven Seagal is perceived in the West, they look at me with disbelief. Out here he is a demigod. Tickets to see his band(!) in concert in Bishkek were $100—and it was sold out!

expensive cognac

     Will you look at this? 140,000 tenge for 7/10 of a liter of Hennessy XO cognac from a cafe with a nice view on Kok Tobe. That’s US$410! I checked, and you could fly to Bangkok for $300 and then probably still have enough money to buy the same thing once there. Rich people are freaks.

     I read that Almaty was once ranked the 30th most expensive city in the world for expats by Cigar Aficionado magazine or I don’t know who does these ratings, but they mean almost absolutely nothing to travelers. These lists make me crazy. They are for people who refuse to make an attempt to live like locals. It’s for people who can’t live without tacos no matter where they are in the world—whoops! bad example, as that would be me. It’s for people who have an irrational craving for weekly sushi—another bad example—look, the point is that it is for rich expats, not us common folk. Yes, I just insulted us.
tornado almaty

     I love this accidental tornado pic in the Green Market.

kok tobe girl

     I felt bad bothering this girl, but I had to have something to drink. There were actually two girls on their phones like this under the counter; you can’t quite see the other in front.

almaty painting

     I went to the uninspiringly-named A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts in town, half from an interest in seeing what Kazakh art was and half to deny that I might be a philistine, and I was very impressed, staying much longer than I anticipated. In fact, I went through it twice, the second time when I realized I could take photos.

kz plate

     Kazakhstan license plate

kz border

     The border. I used to be shy about taking border photos as guards can get tetchy, but lately I just go for it and apologize later, which will serve me well when I am a minor celebrity overseas prisoner that President Trump will bargain hard for my release in 2025.

lego man

     I haven’t been in Lego circles for many years. Is this normal these days? Looks pretty cool to me.

market slime

     Some sort of processed slime at the market. I was in a rush to take this pic because photos are not allowed.

skating lesson

     Another out-of-focus pic (You’re welcome!) but you can see how this could be a killer photo, right?

     Many countries now get a 15-day tourist visa, which is ridiculous for such a huge country, but I’ll take it over not being allowed to come. If you fly in you have to register with police—always a sure sign that a country is highly ambivalent about tourists. More info is at It used to be the resource, but the info might be dated by now.
     I stayed in an Airbnb place for $11 a night, and then moved to the cheapest hotel in town, the Turkestan, right behind the Green Market for 4500 tenge, about $13 including breakfast.
     The Airbnb place was great, but out of center. I caused a kerfuffle when I reset the router in the house, not realizing that the password had to be reset on the adminstrator’s computer, which I couldn’t explain in Russian to my hosts. (Yes, I grew up in Silicon Valley and worked for tech companies and everything.) Customer service had to be called to the house to “fix” this, which cost 2000 tenge, or about $6. I don’t know if the $6 house call is more remarkable or the fact that he arrived in an hour.
kok tobe frame

     The hazy view of Almaty from Kok Tobe.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Back to Basics in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

apples in trunk

     If Bruce Springsteen grew up in Kyrgyzstan he would write songs about having a trunkful of apples and meeting his baby by the railroad tracks.

cabbage car

     If Bruce Springsteen grew up in Kyrgyzstan he would write songs about having a van full of cabbage and meeting his baby by the railroad tracks.

bishkek train tracks

     You just missed Bruce and his baby.

     “Kyrgyzstan” is derived from old Turkish and means 40 tribes, but it has been posited that it also means 40 girls. In any case the flag has a 40-ray sun. End of history lesson.
     I’ve been gone over five months now. Major milestone coming up if I can make it to six. Kazakhstan and Russia follow. Also, it will be four straight months of the Cyrillic alphabet. Call me a fan.
homemade sprinklers

     Homemade sprinkler heads! Who doesn’t love this ingenuity? Who?

brutal shop

     I asked if they carried lavender soap and essential oils and security threw me out.

bishkek roller

     Still my favorite place in Bishkek is the roller skating rink, an evocative, full blown nostalgia trip even though I never rollerskated as a kid. For the life of me I can’t get one decent photo in its dim light. I took some friends with a decent camera and they might publish something. Stay tuned if you can handle the suspense!

painted car bishkek

     A sloppily paint-brushed old car that wouldn’t appear to dream of faraway places.

english only

     They take their English learning very seriously in Bishkek. 10 som is about 15 US cents.

     In Bishkek I took a couple of people to the Osh Bazaar, the main market in town, and I warned them about what happened last time I had been there three years ago, that a fake policeman flashed an ID and tried to shake me down for money. We weren’t there more than 30 seconds when it happened. I shooed him off. Every subsequent visit I had my camera ready to film the guy if I came across him, but it can also happen that I get in over my head and I am followed out of the market and jumped or who knows what.
     For the three people who care about flea markets in Kyrgyzstan:
     There are two flea markets in Bishkek. Easily the better one is on weekends at Ortosay Market far south of the center. Osh Bazaar, way on its southwest corner, on the left bank of the river in a depressingly dusty lot also has a weekend market, but it’s grim stuff. People try and sell the most depressing junk that can scrounge, including anything that wasn’t nailed down the last time they were in a hotel.
stroller parts

     An impressive display of used stroller parts.

stamps bishkek flea

     American and British stamps found at the Bishkek flea market in Ortosay. I paid $1.50 for these. They have to be worth $20 or so. Now I just need to go to England.

kyrgyzstan license plate

     A Kyrgyzstan license plate. Haven’t checked what they go for on ebay or the flea markets of America.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

The Spectacularosity of the 2016 World Nomad Games

3 kyrgyz kids

     I was thrilled to come across these kids and take this photo, but no one else could pass them without wanting a photo either, and they were dead tired of posing by the end of the day.

     No one, absolutely no one, has uttered a bad word about the Second World Nomad Games, an all-time event. I hemmed and hawed about coming because I had been to Kyrgyzstan before, and for visa reasons land-locked Kyrgyzstan is like an island, not on the way to anywhere else. In the end I was enticed by the photos of my friend, Stephen, from the last Games two years ago and I managed to procure an all-access press pass, so I went for it. I had nothing else to do anyway.
     I purposely didn’t do much research before I came, preferring to have it unfold around me. I became a big fan of the unexpected circus sideshow stuff. This was my favorite four seconds. I love how Sledgehammer Man grabs all the glory while the poor guy on the ground must be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute!” (Video here if you can’t see below):

stuntman weights

     Opening act. The guy on the ground is just the facilitator for everyone passing by with whatever they happen to be carrying.

     Gymnastics archery above. This was about #34 out of 5000 times on this day where I said to myself, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting this.” These two women do handstands while shooting arrows at a target in front of a crowd, though it looks deceiving since the crowd is farther back than it appears. Their Instagram feeds that I may or may not rabidly follow are @aida_akmatova and @madimkulova_ . Look how beautiful they are. Kyrgyz girls are stunning.
     Everyone was stunning. There were so many people who come from so many places, and a Central Asian face is an amalgam of so many cultures and identities, I could stare at them until a restraining order has been implemented. The best thing about the event is that everyone had their best traditional clothes on AND were open to having their picture taken. These days how often does that happen? No one cared if you had a press pass or were a tourist—and it was all free and open to everyone. It was dizzying how much there was to see. I’ve never taken more photos in a single day in my life.
woman on camel
     There were two main spaces for the World Nomad Games: the sports events at the hippodrome and arena in the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-Ata that I disliked last time I passed through three years ago, and a cultural “ethno-village” that was set up in the Kyrchyn Gorge in a beautiful setting about 50km away. The village comprised hundreds of yurts and tastefully-constructed little subsections for each region in Kyrgyzstan, so you could see, for example, each region’s style of shyrdak, which is a thick handmade felt carpet and the background to my Twitter page.

     A shyrdak spread

     Beyond that, other countries had their yurts: Qatar, Kuwait, the Emirates, Denmark had a tacky corporate tent, and USA had a big stage where the kok boru guys were dragged on to talk about cowboy life in America and do lassoing and whip cracking demonstrations even though they were dead tired. We also, and I regret reporting this—our hearts are in the right place, I promise—but we tried to teach a bunch of local kids how to play American football. We decked them out in uniforms, pads and helmets, and it just seemed very out of place with everything else going on.


     Part of the Kyrgyzstan government’s reasoning in giving me a press pass is to promote awareness of nomadic people and their cultures. Even Mr. Traveler here needed this awakening, and I had already been in this area before. (Get ready for a name drop.) It reminded me of the last time I was in Syria at the Damascus Airport arrival hall and I saw the whole of the Middle East arrive. A local who knew everyone by the way they dressed did a play-by-play for me of the pageantry: here come the Lebanese Druze Christians, the Gulf Arabs, Saudi sheikhs, those are Palestinians because of the headdress, that’s an Egyptian-style robe…
     I needed the same commentary here. I couldn’t identify everyone, and there were so many distinctively dressed people it should have been easy. Every face looked like 100 stories. I do know I saw more Turkmen than I will ever see as long as their country remains reclusive, and southern Kyrgyz proudly told me they were from Osh or Jalalabad or Naryn.
     I wonder why the Games aren’t run every year; is trying to organize nomads akin to herding cats? In this part of the world “nomadic” doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the fringes of society. In almost two-thirds of China’s land Han Chinese are in the minority, though the Chinese government is quickly trying to change that by encouraging westward migration.
     In Russia, which I just passed through, I was surprised to come across all the “republics” and pockets of non-white Russians: Buryatia, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and the many ethnic Kazakh enclaves in southern Siberia.
kalpak boy and man
     The government gave me a press pass and they also gave me a place to stay for six nights and fed me three meals a day if I agreed to go back to the hotel for lunch, which I never did. They apologized at the first press conference that many of us would have to have roommates, but mine never materialized, thankfully. Everything was basic and fine. We had transport to the venues, but it was maddeningly unorganized and I hitchhiked a couple of times and took the public shuttle, too.
     I had wondered why the Kyrgyz government would accept a blogger—if that is what I should call myself—without the big audience as other, more well-established people on in the travel community. I am not a popular blogger in any case. I don’t have advertising on my site; I am not exactly an influencer. It was generous of the government to accept me.
     There was a funny moment when I saw perhaps the real reason I had been accepted. A group of us press were in a van headed to the Kyrchyn venue. Security was tight—Steven Seagal, hello?—and our driver and assistant had to keep saying, “Press, press” in Russian to let us through each roadblock checkpoint, but as we got closer they weren’t so quick to let us through and it became, “Press, press…American.” Even that wasn’t enough farther on and they fabricated stories about us bringing satellite equipment.
horse drag

     This was the moment when they took the blogger who complained the most about the hotel food in the last World Nomad Games and dragged him across the venue. Big belly laughs all around.

     There was an outdoor press conference at the Kyrchyn venue and as I walked by I heard the speaker say the budget for the games was $500,000 dollars. Someone in the audience asked where that money came from, and there was a pause before she said, “From members of the CIS states,” meaning Russia, I assume. Next time she might as well go full-evasive and say, “From countries that commonly appear on world maps.”
horse on fire

     This was the moment when they took the blogger who reports on the underbelly of the Games’ finances and ignite him. Huge crowd-pleaser.

boiled sheep

     In the back of dozens of yurts people were boiling sheep to feed the crowds. They would toss it all out on a table and everyone ate medieval-style. This made me rethink my plans to sell tofu and fair trade arugula and hummus sandwiches at the next Games in 2018.

huge bread

     Singing the praises of giant bread.

spice merchant

     A friendly spice merchant from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan in deep relaxation.

pikachu man
wng fashion

     Everyone was stylin’ for the event, but those aren’t antennae sprouting from his hat. See the yurt in the background? I have been fascinated by yurts since I was in Mongolia last month, and they had a yurt-building competition as part of the Games (winning time was under 11 minutes) but I hardly spent any time checking it out since there were dozens of other things going on.

     An unexpected benefit of being on a press junket was meeting the press from other countries and some of the other bloggers who are among the most popular in the game. It was like meeting an advanced version of my species. These are professionals; they don’t need to do anything else in life to survive. I had imagined that they were going to be full of themselves and unapproachable, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Among them were:
     I’m kind of a loner as I don’t swim in these circles, so it felt like going to a high school reunion and seeing your shining peers. At the end of the day, though, there is really no difference between them and me other than my lack of talent and ambition. None!
kalpak boy
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Headless Goat Carcass Polo at the World Nomad Games

     In case you missed the last blog post, the government of Kyrgyzstan gave me a press pass for the Second World Nomad Games, a sort of Nomad Olympics for countries near and far from Central Asia. I’ve never done anything on a press pass before. The primary benefit of it is simple: access, access, access. (They did pay for my food and lodging; I will go into the details next time.)
     Let’s start with what the government wants you to know about circumcision:


     This is from page 92 of the informational booklet distributed to the press. Now I see what I have been missing from being a member of the press all this time! A hidden world has opened up! I’d like to see information booklets across the world jazzed up this way. Good on ya, Kyrgyzstan.

     In more practical terms, having a press pass allowed me on the side of the field for all kok boru matches, kok boru being the national sport of Kyrgyzstan and the feature event of the games. Wikipedia starts by saying it is the national sport of Afghanistan and shows its more common name, buzkashi, but Kyrgyzstan thrashed Afghanistan in the semi-finals and should seem to garner more respect, but maybe if the game was played in Afghanistan with Afghan horses, the result would be different.
     I call it headless goat/sheep carcass polo, as the object is to take said animal and toss it into a pit. Here is a breakaway kok boru goal (in case you can’t see the video below):

     A good chunk of the sport is simply trying to pick up a 33kg (72lb) goat carcass off the ground while on horseback, and rarely do you have an open shot at picking the goat up. The other team is trying to prevent you from doing it, and it’s easy to imagine—because it’s hard to see what is going on in the scrum—that as you are bending down, a horse is coming right at your head. In the final that happened to a Kazakh and he was taken on a stretcher to the hospital.
     When you do have a handle on the goat, the other team is trying to wrestle it away from you. Check out this mess:

     Each match required a freshly slaughtered goat or sheep, so a pen was kept out back. The head and hooves were cut off, and I guess much of the body is drained of blood because I never noticed it. They used a goat in the semi-final but a sheep in the final for some reason.
team usa kokboru

     Team USA only became Team USA about two weeks before the competition. Someone at the American embassy or whomever thought it would be a good idea to compete. Someone knew someone who knew Creed Garnick, an actor who is also a horseman, and he called his friends across the country who were good on horses to come out. None of them had heard of kok boru or had much experience at picking things off the ground while on a horse—American saddles aren’t made for that, it was explained to me—but to their credit they were game and hopped on planes to get here.

kokboru player

     One of the guys from Team USA, Scott Zimmerman.

     I arrived early for Team USA’s match against Kazakhstan and we were all surprised to find that they switched the starting time to two hours later, so I had a chance to hang out with them and see their reactions watching Russia vs. China. (In “Russia vs. China” don’t expect to find anyone named Boris or Wang. They are all ethnic cousins of the Kyrgyz—read: no white Russians or Han Chinese. Besides, they couldn’t find any Chinese who could hold a goat and text at the same time—rimshot!) They were an affable, seemingly ego-less bunch, thrilled to be there.
kz kokboru

     Before the last preliminary match the coach of the powerful Kazakhstan team came over to tell the Americans through their interpreter that this was going to be a friendly match. This was wise. He could see that the Americans were unskilled at the game but were full-on gung ho and probably good horsemen, and he didn’t want his own players hurt, I’m guessing.
     The guys knew what they were up against. One team member described it as bringing a Kyrgyz guy to America to play football for the first time and he has to go against the Denver Broncos. It’s an apt comparison.

bloody horse

     The US team was keen to continue training for the sport back home, which they likened to rugby on horses, to return for the next Games in 2018. It’s hard to imagine kok boru taking off in America, though; the whole thing is a PETA nightmare. Someone mused that maybe wild mustangs could be trained specifically for this, but it’s rough on the horses in any case, not to mention the issue of throwing around headless animals. Before the match I asked one of the guys, “How’s the condition of the horses?” and he shook his head in amazement at what they go through, saying, “No comment.”
     This picture is from late in the Kyrgyzstan vs. Kazakhstan final of a horse bleeding from its mouth. Is the way you look at this purely a cultural difference? I would bet that any Kyrgyz or any other participant would say they loved their horses deeply, that the horse is a symbol of their nomadic existence, and they don’t see it as mistreatment.

kokboru crowd

     It was surreal to be at a monotonous press conference in the afternoon while they showed the frantic USA-Kazakhstan kok boru match in the background. Here the crowd is being amused by the Americans. I like the faces. Kazakhstan beat USA effortlessly, and then Kyrgyzstan beat Kazakhstan handily in the final.

wrestling upside down

     There were also a myriad of wrestling events next door to the hippodrome. This would have been my first Pulitzer if I had a decent camera.

     This is called mas-wrestling, a newly-exposed sport to me. (That wasn’t a circumcision joke.) The premise is simple: try and pull the stick away from the other person. A short video:

arena silhouette

     A silhouette of spectators along the top row of the packed wrestling arena.

prize minus tax

     This is given to the first place winner in one of the wrestling categories, but notice the fine print, that it doesn’t include income tax. 75,000 som is about $1100. I wonder how much they take home.

     My practical information suggestion is to try and get a press pass. If they give one to me, they might give one to anyone. Many events have a website where there they explain how media can get accredited.
     In such a case, try to have more than a phone camera. Often I had officials look at my phone, look at me, look at my phone…if I had a legitimate camera, I could get away with more. In their eyes a smartphone is hardly better than a disposable camera. I thought of bringing a shell of a nice camera just to throw them off my scent.
     The next World Nomad Games blog post will be a barnburner. Even with my crappy non-camera I have some killer pix.
mass of bags

     At the press center they made all the volunteers work on these zillion fake gift bags, and then they hand you a real bag that has a key chain. Pretty cool for me, pretty mind-numbing for the volunteers.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Breaking: World Famous Blogger at World Nomad Games

     What do the President of Turkmenistan, “world famous actor” Steven Seagal, and The Dromomaniac have in common? We are all here for the opening ceremony of the Second World Nomad Games! It’s all very heady stuff. I’m here reporting—I’ve got my press pass and everything—and typing away Hemingway style: shouting at underlings, swearing profusely, drinking to excess, scandalizing local women, and insisting that everyone calls me “Papa.”
     I love the press release announcing Steven Seagal’s arrival. If you are truly world famous, do you need to say so? Does anyone say, “World Famous Actor Robert DeNiro?” No. Maybe they are on to something, though. For the purposes of this event, from now on I am World Famous Blogger, Kent Foster. Already I have had people look me up and down, see my Samsung Galaxy S4 (a hopelessly out-of-fashion smartphone) with the cracked screen and wonder what I am doing here.

press pass

     With press pass

     I am ensconced at the Ayan Resort in Cholpon Ata, the word “resort” being used very loosely. I think “resort” in this part of the world means “we put a fence around it.”
     Getting here was an adventure. The police are out in full fierce force. I can’t remember the last time I have seen so many military and police in one place. (The President of Kyrgyzstan is coming to hang out, too.) We had a police escort for the 4-hour drive east, and the entire way there were police on the side of the road raising their batons at attention. This will be the first and last time I will manage to pass through busy Bishkek without stopping.
kent and leeza

     I flew from Vladivostok to Bishkek via Novosibirsk on S7 Airlines for $275, which doesn’t have me dancing on table tops, but in Vlad you are not rich with choices. However, for some reason S7 put me in business class for the first leg with a 12-year-old girl flying alone, to our collective astonishment.
     Look how adorable she is. She screwed up the courage to try and speak English with me, and we became fast friends. I ordered cherry juice, and she did the same. I ordered fish and rice; she did the same. When I got out my sudoku booklet, she got out hers. When I proposed a selfie, she showed me how to share it via Bluetooth to her phone, and then she cropped herself out and made my face her phone wallpaper. I was kind of hoping the plane would crash with us being the only survivors so I would have to adopt her, and then I remembered that her family was waiting for her at the airport.

obama bar

     Three years ago I thought the Obama Bar and Grill was a novelty, but they have doubled down and moved to a more upscale location.

     This is my second time in Kyrgyzstan. The first was three years ago. I wrote several award-losing blog posts about my triumphant visit, starting with this one about my favorite place in Kyrgyzstan, the retro roller skating rink.
     Kyrgyzstan might be on edge a titch. The World Nomad Games is a big international event, 53 countries participating (“country” also being very loosely defined; Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia is a country?) which comes a few days after Independence Day, which came two days after a suicide bomber drove into a barricade at the Chinese Embassy here in town. He was my favorite kind of suicide bomber, the kind who manages to kill only himself. Well done. Encore!
bishkek policeman

     I arrived in Kyrgyzstan on it’s 25th anniversary of independence and raced downtown to watch the military parade. One of the policemen guarding the route tried to make small talk with me. He encouraged me to take a photo of him and he kept saying, “What’s up?” which flummoxed me until I realized he was saying, “Whatsapp.” He wanted me to send him my photos. We chatted until his supervisor came by and scolded him for not paying attention.

     Coming from Russia it’s funny to see young couples kissing and hugging in Bishkek. You almost never see public displays of affection in Russia. Russia is curiously conservative, but here in this ostensibly Muslim country, people just gotta smooch. (The other extreme is Hungary. In any city park, by the time you finish a sandwich you have witnessed half a dozen babies being conceived.)
     I envy the Kyrgyz boys. Kyrgyz women are very striking. Very. I love the neither-here-nor-there moon-faced look, the mix of ethnicities on every face. I don’t have the chutzpah to run up to every woman and ask for a photo to show you proof, but with my press pass and my honest journalistic intent…we’ll see.
     The women are stunning while the men are humdrum. I recognize this, and then I wondered if there is any country in the world where the men are considered to be more handsome than the women are beautiful, and I can’t think of one. Italy? Nah. See? We men have it tough.
yelena moon face

     A last-minute photo addition of a “colleague” who is half-Kazakh, half Russian, so maybe a half-moon face?

     I’m heavy on Instagram only because it is quick, if you want to follow along with photos and short videos.
     My friend, Stephen Lioy took great shots at the last World Nomad Games as you can see here on his website.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Saving the Best of Russia for Last: Vladivostok

     I’ve got something to say about this trip. It’s really no big deal to travel in Russia as I did. The visa is the hard part, and then any jackass—no offense, Ryan Lochte—can buy train and bus tickets. Hitchhiking has risk, of course, but that’s just my thing. Russia has an abundance of hostels, Airbnb, couchsurfing, and cheap hotels like most other other countries and plenty of buses, trains and Blablacar rides like most other countries. Communication is a problem, but not frustratingly so (Google Translate is your friend, maybe your BFF) and certainly not a legitimate reason to avoid coming. Give Russia a chance.
     I might experience Russia in a vacuum. I’ve seen an idyllic Russia. My experiences are different from others I’ve meet and the stories I’ve read. I’m not going to dwell on it.

hitchhiker statue

     A statue of a hitchhiker? That’s all I need to see: Vladivostok is my favorite town in Russia! There, I said it. Rub the thumb for good luck.

     I created a public trip on Couchsurfing to see if anyone would host me, but instead a Serbian girl getting her Masters here wrote to ask if I’d like to meet in town. When Saturday came around and the weather was good, she proposed we hike to a beach she had heard about. It was the ultimate in fortuitous timing, as we went to a cape I hadn’t known about and doubtful I would have tried to have go to on my own anyway as there were no signs. It was the prettiest place I have seen in all of Russia: Cape Tobizina.
     We took a bus to the end of the line, then I told her in a moment of bluster that we could hitchhike to the trailhead, which we did quickly and easily, to her and my surprise, then we hiked in for 3 or 4 kilometers. I took this 36-second panoramic video from one of the best vantage points. (Link is here if you can’t see below.)

     A quick thing about this: where else in life is a girl half my age inviting me to the beach for the day? She was interested in the amount of traveling I had done, but still. Couchsurfing acts as the conduit, but that kind of engaging spirit is impressive and not easily found these days. Big fan of Serbia all of the sudden.
cliff jump

     “The Cliff Jumpers of Tobizina” is a pretty good movie title. They are pretty brave. I learned all kinds of Russian profanities when they emerged from the water.

tobizina bay

     Cape Tobizina. I thought this was pretty, but then I kept going…

tobizina view1

     Had to do my Christ the Redeemer pose for this view.

tobizina posing

     Can you see the guy on the left taking pictures of his girl on the big slab of rock? Russian women LOVE posing. It’s a national obsession, more than sprinkling dill on all food.

tobizina stones

     We laid on these bird-crap-streaked rocks and watched paddleboarders come around the bend, cliff divers leap into the Sea of Japan, and women contort themselves in various positions. It was bliss. The weather hasn’t been the same before or since.

tobizina view2

     Late in the day the greens get a little washed out, but it was vibrant! Have you noticed I don’t use filters or alter my photos? Maybe I should.
     There must be some great little hidden inlets and quiet beaches dotted around the Vladivostok region judging from the map. Some people have whispered that the area south towards North Korea is picturesque, and then what about that North Korea coast? If that ever opens up…

putin shirt

     This is what I got at the Vladivostok flea market: a t-shirt that says, “PUTIN IS ALWAYS RIGHT” and some sports postcards from the 1970s, the holy grail the one on the top right of the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball team, which is a very sore subject for Americans as we were fleeced in the final. Fleeced! 200 rubles ($3) for everything here.
     I don’t know if wearing the t-shirt in public is a good idea or not. It’s telling that few Russians want to talk American politics, as it would easily lead to talking about Russian politics, which no one wants (dares?) to discuss openly.

vlad bridge

     Two new bridges in Vladivostok have reinvigorated the town, I read. You can see warships on the left side. Vladivostok was of such strategic importance that it was a closed city to foreigners from 1958-1991. Putin is coming in a few days for an economic conference, and the town is being spruced up.
     I’ve always wanted to come to Vladivostok ever since my first time in Russia in 1996 when I heard about a 3-day music festival called “VladiRockStock.” It has an enticing location on the map, hemmed in by China and North Korea. Solid name, too, and great translation of that name which is “To rule the East”.

vlad sunset

     Vladivostok sunset after a storm.

     There’s a Whatsapp English-speaking group called “Vladivostok English” that gets together every Sunday at 5pm at Travelers Coffee in town. My Airbnb host brought me. It’s always a good idea to attend such meetings to meet new people. Always.
     Tomorrow I fly to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games. My friend, Stephen, took amazing photos from the last one two years ago. My plan is to visit Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and then go back to western Russia before escaping the cold weather altogether.
     It’s a good thing I am going to a backwater like Bishkek (via Novosibirsk). Otherwise, in summer you can get stuck here. Flights can be cheapish to South Korea, but boats aren’t cheap to Korea or Japan and you can’t fly to so many places from Vladivostok.
     This is my route in Russia if you can’t see the map below. 12,500km (7700 miles).

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Sochi to Vladivostok: Hitchhiking the Last 1000 Miles

     Yes, Yes, YESSS! I am finally here!
     Greetings from Vladivostok, the East Coast of Russia! Pacific Ocean! 100 short miles from North Korea! SEVEN time zones away from Moscow and Sochi where I began over two months ago. I’ve traveled 12,500 km (7700 miles) in that time. (I’m including Mongolia and Abhkazia.) The map of my route is on the bottom.
     Wow, I wasn’t tired before I typed that, but suddenly I feel exhausted. That’s a long way.

belogorsk sign

     I had had enough of trains and buses and I decided to put my hitchhiking clothes on again and try to go from Blagoveshchensk to Khabarovsk, an 800km (500-mile) jaunt southeast. “Hitchhiking clothes” is a bright colored t-shirt, which Russian men don’t wear. I’ve got a whole weird theory about how I want to present myself in Russia while hitchhiking.
     I’d like to meet the schizophrenic who placed these road signs. Khabarovsk is 629 km from here. As you drive on, the next sign will be 644km, then the next one will be 612, then the next 633…

qashqai and train

     The last driver before Khabarovsk was a woman in this very nice Nissan Qashqai SUV. When she stopped and lowered the window I did my, “I speak little Russian” thing in Russian. She put her best border control impersonation face on and said “Dokumyent.” Document? “Passport” she said tersely. Oh. I handed it over, staying close to the car in case she decided to take off with it, but her mood brightened in an instant when she saw I was American and even more so, Californian. I’m telling you, the currency of being from California is immeasurable.

narrow room

     I stayed with two Couchsurfing hosts in Khabarovsk, and then this is the future in cheap hotel rooms: narrow. This was about a meter and a half wide (4.5 feet.) The bed was so narrow and so short I had to put the mattress on the ground. 900 rubles ($14) with TV. America needs this.
     I can’t get a break at hostels or hotels. At this place I had a single room, but I had people talking loudly next door until 5am. It’s always someone. Once, a guy thought it was a great idea to fog the dorm room heavily with bug spray, leaving it inhabitable for hours. The only horrible Russians I meet are in hostels. A switch goes off inside some of them and their worst, inconsiderate selves blossom.

khabarovsk amur

     The Amur River has followed me from Blagoveshchensk to Khabarovsk. Couldn’t I have taken an inner tube and floated here?

khabarovsk carving

     A wood carving based on a famous Russian story, so famous I haven’t heard of it.

khabarovsk tram

     A Khabarovsk tram dreaming of its former glory.

     I had one last leg in my Russian journey: Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, 750km south. Everything has been going reasonably well hitchhiking, so much so that if I had to do this trip again, I would definitely hitchhike the entire way. It had all been going so well.
     Maybe once or twice a year when hitchhiking I have a fatalistic, “This is how I’m going to die” moment of reckoning. I knew these people below were bad news the moment I got in the car. I had a premonition when I first saw the car swerve and nearly hit another car as it made an illegal u-turn to go to the gas station I was standing next to.
     They were from Irkutsk, many days away, and they were kind enough to let me go with them, I kept trying to tell myself. They said they were going 500km, and I gleefully squeezed in the back seat next to a guy who I instantly realized was fully drunk. At 9:30am.
     I have a low tolerance for drunks. Let me rephrase that: I hate drunks. What can I do with them? They’re always repeating their dumb jokes, forgetting everything or remembering and fixating on one small thing they can’t let go of, offering beer again and again. You can’t reason with them, their mood swings go up and down on a whim, they’re trying to be best buds, yelling, singing, spilling beer. It’s all a colossal mess. I’ve yet to meet the happy drunk.
crazy russians

     These nutjobs, you can tell who the driver is, right? Days later I can still remember their names: Nastya, Dima, Natalya, Vitaly.

     This drunk was no different, and he was excited by my presence, as was the driver, Dima. Dima wasn’t drunk, but he didn’t seem altogether there, either. Had he not slept the night(s) before? It was too late to ask. He drove fast while trying to narrate a video selfie of us in the back seat, having his girlfriend take the wheel while he attempted this. Really? I put my seat belt on, and was chastised for it, but then we had a close call and the drunk gave me a thumbs up.
     Manic Dima was all over the place, trying to do one thing after the other every few seconds. He would blast the music as high as it would go, and turn it back down a few seconds later to say something, then back up again, then back down to get a cigarette, then up, then down because he was hungry, then up, then down to ask if I want a chunk of the kielbasa being passed around, then up…
     The SUV was right-hand-drive, so passing cars required a level of precision I wasn’t sure Dima had. It was nerve-wracking. When not trying to passing cars Dima was so preoccupied with phone calls and telling his friends that an American was with them that he had to have his girlfriend take the wheel several times.
     Throughout the drive they bickered, made up, had harsh words, laughed it off; it was like a roller coaster ride of emotions and it was all too much. Young Kent Foster would have stuck it out to the bitter end. These days I am pickier about how I want to realize my mortality, and I was wondering what excuse I was going to use to get out of the car. If I said blood was gushing from my ears from the speakers, they’d check, and want video selfies.
     We got stopped at a highway police checkpoint. This will be interesting, I thought, especially since Dima couldn’t find a paper and the drunk kept haranguing the officer: “Hey! We have an American here!” and other gibberish I couldn’t understand except “American” being a prominent part of each sentence.
     The officer was curiously detached. He merely looked off into the middle distance while patiently waiting for Dima to come up with the paper, and then let us go. Let us go?! He couldn’t smell the beer? He couldn’t see all the bottles? What is going on in today’s Russia?! These highway police checkpoint guys used to be infamous for their rapaciousness, fleecing drivers with impunity for the tiniest problems, real or imagined, just to cadge a few rubles to augment their miserable salary, and now they’re like Sweden. Mystifying.
     I could only handle 200km with the Wack Pack. When they made a stop to throw all their garbage on the side of the road, hurling bottles into the forest, and to pee, I told them I was going. Dima looked crestfallen, but it was a moment of clarity for him and he understood.
     Escaping them meant I probably wouldn’t make it all the way to Vladivostok in one day, which was 750km south. I didn’t mind. I felt liberated.
hitch usa fan

     The antidote to the Wack Pack was the next driver, this mellow college student. He said I was the first American he had met and said, “America is my favorite country.”
     He couldn’t think of why, so I asked, “Not Russia?”
     He thought this was funny, saying, “I’m not a patriot.”
     He said he had a USA flag at home. He said it conspiratorially, like it might be a crime. He wanted me to go with him to a spring to get some water, but I had a long way to go and declined politely. 15 minutes later he drove back to bring me a big bottle of the mineral water.

hitch vlad ride

     This guy saved my hitchhiking butt, picking me up in a very bad spot and driving me for hours and then out of his way to a cheap hotel I found in Ussuriysk, about 85km north of Vladivostok. Then he gave me a watermelon as a gift.

     What would Russia do without used Japanese cars? These aren’t Japanese cars you see in America or Europe. These are cars brought over on the boat from Japan, the Galapagos of the auto world; oddball cars you don’t see anywhere else. They are in top condition as that’s how the Japanese are with everything they own—Japanese flea markets are sublime—and few people would want a new Russian car over a used Japanese car, even if the Japanese cars are all right-hand-drive in this left-hand-drive country. For safety’s sake, Eastern Russia should just drive on the left side of the road since the vast majority of the cars are right-hand-drive.
     The Japanese sell way too cheap. I know that because I have a friend in Japan that sells these cars. The spigot has been turned off for now, as Russian has blocked used imports older than five years, if I am not mistaken.
     It’s jarring to see these specific-to-Japan cars all gone through the wringer here in Russia, beat up and dusty. Nonetheless, descending south into Vladivostok with its bucolic landscape and odd Japanese cars, it felt like descending into Kagoshima, Japan, the end of the line in southern Japan.
hitch salt earth

     The next morning I hitched from Ussuriysk to Vladivostok in two rides, the first was this true salt-of-the-earth type who didn’t care about our lack of a common language, he was going to talk anyway. No Japanese car for him, no Sir!

vlad good road

     This is the best road I have seen in Russia, and it is in the Far East?!

     I got accepted by a Couchsurfing host for two days in Vladivostok, and then when I was looking for an Airbnb host for two other days, I coincidentally managed to book with the same woman, so it looks like I am staying in the same place as a CS guest and as an Airbnb guest. The difference is that as a CS guest I am going to fit in with her schedule and try and spend time with the host. As an Airbnb guest, I can be as asocial as I want.
     This is my route in Russia if you can’t see the map below. Next I’m going to Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games and Kazakhstan.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram where I am quite active, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Reading Tolstoy on the 325 to Belogorsk, Russia

carls jr russia

     Quick quick quick! What is this? (Waiting…) It’s a Carl’s Jr (“Karls Dzhunior”) restaurant in Chita, Russia in the middle of nowhere. (The map of my path is on the bottom.) Actually, Russians might call Chita “The Gateway to Nowhere.” For me, it’s another example of globalization—let’s call it what it is: Americanization—gone very wrong. However, if it were a California-style burrito place, I would call it a triumph of globalization.

     I woke up in Chita, already quite eastern Russia, dreading what lay ahead of me; Eastern Siberia leading into Far East Russia is a lot of blank space. The “Lonely Planet Russia” book can’t come up with anything to say for 1000 miles. The funny thing about it is I chose to tackle the distance in the strangest, riskiest way: hitchhiking. My idea was first to see if I could hitchhike at all, and if I managed to go any distance, I’d take an overnight train from wherever I ended up.
     I met actual, real-life hitchhikers who had come the other way. They were a Russian couple in Ulan Ude who had just hitchhiked in from Khabarovsk—four days with a truck driver, sleeping in the truck the whole time. It doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. Besides, it is almost something other than hitchhiking when you are with a beautiful blonde girl; it’s too easy. I mean, you could see she was a pretty girl from 50 meters away, or as Woody Allen would say, “Her body was a set of parabolas that would cause cardiac arrest in a yak.”
siberia gas station

     This is what a Siberian gas station looks like. Think no frills. Ready for another can’t-miss free business idea? A simple highway gas station rest area with hot food, snacks and toilets. There is hardly anything on the roads. I don’t understand it. Everyone would come. Everyone. As it is, there is almost only no-facility stuff like this the whole way. I’m pretty sure the weather is nice and balmy year-round, so why not resettle here? Another FREE business idea from The Dromomaniac—and I blog for free! Incredible…

     I went for it. I took a local bus to the edge of Chita, and then I got a short ride 5km outside of town where I wondered if I was making a mistake. It was quiet, eerily so, the silence punctured only by the occasional passing car. As I pondered this, my mortality, and the diminishing value of my baseball card collection, someone stopped and took me 150km, at which point it’s game on.
     The 150km driver wanted me to observe his windshield wipers in action. After spraying water and watching the wipers smear the bugs in nice rainbow stripes across the windshield, he pointed and said, “Vodka!”
     It turns out that he puts vodka instead of water or cleaning fluid in his windshield wiper tank, claiming that it works better. Maybe it doesn’t freeze in winter? I couldn’t tell, but it makes for a great anecdote.
siberia hitch sign

     Chita, 250km behind me. I should have used a Russian “FROM CALIFORNIA TO KHABAROVSK” sign while hitchhiking, but paradoxically, I don’t like drawing much attention to myself. Smarter might have been to have some bug spray to combat all the hungry critters trying to feast on me.

     I got some more rides, then a young dude drove me a big chunk to Mogocha, 800km (500 miles) from Chita. Closer to Mogocha felt more like the Siberia I had been waiting to see, even if the birch tree taiga is ever-elusive. The villages all had houses with sturdy fences to keep out pests, and every bit of space was taken for growing potatoes. Beyond that, I saw a lot of soy, but overall the land is uncultivated, unsettled and coarse—all traits that have been used to describe me, so I felt quite at home.
     Siberia’s roads are better than you’d guess. They are largely paved and smooth and there’s less traffic, but the problem is that the road buckles, and instead of fixing them they put warning signs to slow down or you bottom out. The unexpected nature of these hazards is similar to Outback Australia, where you think that it will be a nice relaxing drive but then you find yourself dodging kangaroo carcasses all day and dreading to try and pass ultra-long road trains.
     My driver was tired, but when we got to Mogocha he drove me out of his way to check on every hotel in town for a place for me to stay. All were full save for one, but the cost of it was the same as my overnight train, so I opted for that. I regretted my choice. Mogocha looked worth exploring, even if it resembles nothing like its Wikipedia page. I spent 1900 rubles on a ticket for the 325 train to Belogorsk, 17 hours east.
bed blood stain

     Blood stains in the middle of the mattress they provide on the train. Good thing they supply sheets.

     I can’t get a break on Russian trains. I know it’s platskart, the lowest class, all Auschwitz-style open bunks, and I’m not hoping to be put together with the Russian women’s Olympic beach volleyball team, but how about an old woman not coughing in my face for a change? How about a little less body odor from the guy next to me fanning himself? Can it not be avoided in the hot and stuffy train?
     Everyone, coughers and stinkers included, is generally friendly and helpful to people like me who don’t yet fully know the culture and etiquette of the train. It’s a safe environment, too, more than I would have guessed. People charge their phones on the public electrical outlets and leave them unattended, including conductors. (The modern day clarion call for Russian trains arriving is everyone’s cell phones beeping to life as we approach a town.)
     The grind of platskart was wearing me down so for an overnight train once I paid the extra money and got the more deluxe “kupe” class. I then had the displeasure of a family whose two kids—I don’t know what they fed them—had to take a dump every 10 minutes. They didn’t go in the train toilet, no, no, no, perish the thought. The family brought a small bucket that they would squat on. The parents set it between my legs in the cramped compartment and the kids would stand right in front of me, turn, drop their pants, and squat. Good thing I paid extra for this show. I predict a bright future for them on reality TV.
     What do you do in this situation? You make the most of it by distracting yourself. I dug out from the bottom of my backpack my Tolstoy book of short stories I have been lugging around since Tyumen. I read “Family Happiness.” There wasn’t much else to do.
gold lenin

     In Belogorsk I stepped wearily out of the 17-hour hellride to be blinded by Freddie Mercury Lenin in gold lame. I perked right up.

blag amur

     Blagoveshchensk—in the east every town is a mouthful—sits in a funny place geographically: right on the border with China, separated by the fast-moving Amur River, and two hours south of the main Trans-Siberian train/road in Belogorsk, which is a very long way from anywhere else.
     I took a short cruise on the Amur, but Russians can’t help but spoil the mood by blasting horrible techno music. (They do this all the time; it’s a countrywide pandemic, much like the habit of sprinkling dill on all food.) It would be so nice to just enjoy the serenity of the river, but something about the Russian psyche can’t accept it.

blagoveshchensk wood houses

     I can never get a good picture of these wooden houses that are peppered all over every city in Russia. I want to get close enough to show the detail, but far enough to see their incongruity in the urban landscape. In this photo I manage to accomplish neither. You’re welcome. This is in Blagoveshchensk.

hot water pipes

     This is another common sight in the east: hot water pipes. I think the idea is that it’s cheaper to build them above ground and easier to fix.

     Here’s a question: in every country they show on local TV those Olympic sports which they excel at. That’s a shame. Weightlifting, for example, is high drama, but who shows it? So, from which country is it best to watch if you want to see a wide variety of everything? I am going to guess England is the best, with the added bonus that they have, by far, the best announcers. Dominoes is riveting with a British announcer.
     I was several days too late in tweeting to the three USA swim teammates Ryan Lochte abandoned in Rio that just because they take away your passports doesn’t mean you can’t leave the country. There’s no passport control between Brazil and Paraguay at Foz de Iguazu. #nexttime
     Chita is the red marker. If you can’t see the map below, here is the link.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Crossing Siberia with One Pair of Pants

     Hey, Russian border control, do you think for once, just for once, you can look at my passport, stamp it, and let me in? Does it really have to be an event where I have to stand out of line, calls have to be made, colleagues summoned, etc.? No, it doesn’t. I have nothing to hide.

mongolia tugrik

     OK, I did have something to hide, but only in the sense that I didn’t want to have to explain it. I collect small denomination money from around the world. The more worthless, the better. All of this Mongolian tugrik in the photo is worth about $3. The high point in my worthless money smuggling career was in Somaliland: 7kg (17 lbs) of money worth $20.

russia mongolia border

     The Russian side of the border with Mongolia. As always, it’s a weird scene. The Russians have a woman who does nothing but take video of people in their cars as they come through. (You have to be in a car; you can’t walk across the border even though it’s less than 500 meters. Still, it’s faster to show up on foot and the guard will put you with a car, making your wait much shorter.) See that truck with Swiss plates? He agreed to take me all the way up to Ulan Ude, but for some reason Russia wouldn’t let him pass through.

     This will only be a little about hitchhiking, I promise. It might bore many of you, but for me hitchhiking is adventure and an authentic way to meet Russians. It’s a shame it’s all but dead in my country. The problem with hitchhiking in America is that there is no culture of it any more; it is two generations removed by now. In most countries in the world, when they see someone on the road, hand extended, they think “hitchhiker” or if that is a pejorative word, someone who simply wants a ride. In America, the first thought is “homeless drifter” or “prison escapee”, or, worst, “reality show contestant.”
baikal hitch girl

     This girl and her parents picked me up hitchhiking from Lake Baikal back to Ulan Ude. The people who pick me up hitchhiking are normal, calm drivers, completely unlike marshrutka (minibus) and blablacar (rideshare) drivers.

     I’ve been obsessed with the lack of taiga in Russia. I tell anyone who will listen that before I came I had been reading about endless birch forests, and I still have not seen it save for small patches. (To a Russian ear when I try and say this I think it comes out as, “On America, my book, big taiga. Here, no taiga. Where?” I still speak Russian like a Neanderthal. I haven’t been diligent in studying Russian for Free.)
     Russians shrug and say it’s beyond a mountain range or it’s farther north, just never where I am.
lenin big head

     The world’s biggest Lenin head in Ulan Ude. Ulan Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, ethnic cousins to the Mongols down south. I’ve got a thing for round-faced Central Asian women, especially when fluent western languages come out of their mouths. It’s very alluring. I can’t explain why. Maybe I’m talking too much.

lake baikal

     This isn’t Lake Baikal at its best. The weather had been awful for a week. Before that there were fires in the area. Before that, a problem with algae. I read that you can drink right from the lake, that it is famously pure, but there’s also a sad amount of garbage strewn about. I wasn’t reaching for my straw. It’s amazing to think that this massive lake freezes over in winter and you can drive on it.
     I did not enjoy Lake Baikal, but my misery was compounded by getting stuck in a nightmare of a party place where vacationing Russians were on fire, making it impossible to sleep, the owner impotent to do anything. I had flashbacks to the only worse situation, Lake Naivasha, Kenya. That was awful AND frightening. If I die before 90, now you know why.


     Sign epidemic in Goryachinsk on Lake Baikal.

     Crossing Siberia with one pair of pants is no big deal. It’s been warm aside from the first few days. The point is Siberia was such an unknown for me that that everything is a revelation. I don’t know what the Far East will bring, but Siberia has been a highlight of Russia so far, maybe the highlight.
     I should point out that I have only been in southern Siberia, and only along the main road/train line. The so-called real Siberia and all the gulag stuff extends faaaar north. That’s where true travelers go while I sip my lime and mint water.
     Several times now I have found myself at a cheap hotel in the Slav Hotels chain. They are always big, monolithic, Soviet-style buildings but OK-enough single rooms can often be had for $10-$12. It helps if you don’t mind tacky linoleum floors.
     Most travelers pass through Ulan Ude on their way down to Mongolia. At the bus station (the train is much more expensive and much longer) I saw these prices (64 rubles = $1): Ulan Bator 1500, Darkhan 1200, Sukhbaatar 1000, Altanbulag (the Mongolian border) 900. Kyakhta (Russian border) to Ulan Bator was 1000.
     Thanks to Jen who sent me this link showing the funny bus stop architecture of the Soviet-era. It’s my kind of thing.
long russian name

     That’s quite a title. It means, “Shoe Store.”

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

How to Do Mongolia Completely Half-Assed

mongolia sunburst

     Mongolian sunburst. Imagine how startling it is to go from the empty grasslands to being surrounded by 1.5 million people in the capital, Ulan Bator.

hitch mong women

     The woman without the hat, the girls’ aunt, lives in Australia as a mining expert. It’s rare enough to be a woman in the mining industry, but an Asian woman, and a Mongolian woman, and a very attractive woman all at the same time, can you imagine the scene in the mines of Broken Hill, New South Wales? I asked how many times a day the miners asked her out. She didn’t quite say, or the number hasn’t been invented yet.

     This above was the fastest and funnest ride hitchhiking. I had just gotten out of one car when this next one stopped. They were two sisters and two kids, 12 and 6 years old. I sat in the back with the girls as they sized me up. The older one said, “Excuse me, Sir, but you have a big nose.”
     The younger one next to me with an excellent vantage point also chimed in: “You have so much hair in your nose! The holes in your nose are so big!”
     I warmed to these precocious kids immediately. They claimed they spoke English from watching cartoons.
     “I don’t believe you,” I said. “I wouldn’t learn Mongolian from watching Mongolian cartoons.”
     “There ARE no Mongolian cartoons,” the older one snapped.
     I gamely tried to think of American cartoons. “You mean, like, Dora the Explorer?”
     “Um,” she paused, trying hard not to take the insult. “That’s for younger kids.”
gas station chair

     When your job at the gas station is to tell people there is no gas today, you want to be comfortable.

     I have been staying here and there with Yasu, the Japanese guy on the motorcycle traveling around. The Japanese crack me up. I ragged on him about using his phone in the middle of the night—I at least got him to mute his keypad—to which he accuses me of having “low blood pressure.” He woke up one morning complaining that his small intestine was hurting.
     It’s incredible how many foreigners drove here from Europe or other far-flung places. I saw a car with Chile license plates. Chile! I saw a South Dakota motorcycle plate. At the border I stood in the rain with an Estonian guy debating whether Tartu was nicer than Tallinn. I stayed a couple of nights with a guy who rode here from Spain. Mongolia really has a hold on the imagination of many, but this is also because it is the end of the road. You can’t take your vehicle into China without some sort of local guide. Can’t let western mores influence the Chinese and their famously fabulous driving skills.
     I’m surprised by the lack of a Chinese presence in Mongolia. In Ulan Bator there are some Chinese restaurants, but they are dwarfed by the number of Korean restaurants. Not many Chinese goods are in stores. The only Chinese person I met was a pimp in Bayankhongor. I think he makes sure to meet everyone by hanging out in front of the supermarket. “The Chinese Pimp of Bayankhongor” might be the title of my first novel.
abandoned police post

     An abandoned police post on the outskirts of Khovd at dawn.

     I learned a couple of things that had been nagging me from the Aussie owner of the fabulous Fairfield Guest House in Tsetserleg:
     —The government subsidizes Toyota Priuses which explains the glut of them, but the Japanese can’t throw them a bone and make them left-hand drive?
     —It’s rained plenty and I have passed many big rivers, so why is there no agriculture, no irrigation, no greenhouses? There are, I learned, some greenhouses and some light irrigation, but the problem is that the growing season in this harsh climate is 100 days. Corn, I was told, takes 110 days.
mongolia chevy

     Ever wonder what happens to new cars that don’t sell? They get sent to Mongolia! How are 2014 Chevy Trucks selling in Ulan Bator? Hard to say. Probably not well. I wonder if Mongolian car salesmen put on the action slacks and go into full huckster mode because it’s an American car: “My friend, I can put you in this baby for 74 million—no, tell you what I’m going to do. Don’t tell my boss, but because I like you, I’m going to slash this price right now, right here, down to 62 million…” (2100=$1).

camel pack

     I can’t convey in this photo how many camels were here and how amazing it was to see them. They were densely packed in tight. It’s incredible to come across this after hours pushing through the steppe, far, far away from everything.

2 camels

     These two camels were checking me out. Can you see how if I had a real camera, this would make a great shot instead of having washed-out colors? Nevertheless, I can’t ever foresee traveling with a real camera. It’s too much weight and too much space.

mongolia do not enter sign

     Mongolians don’t seem to obey many traffic signs on the roads, so it’s doubtful that they would on a grassy hillside.

police ulan bator

     It’s amazing the police put up with these numnuts. I would have pistol-whipped them.

     How is Mongolia done completely half-assed? By not getting off the main roads. They are hardly “roads” in the traditional sense, but the way to see Mongolia is to hire 4×4 transport and get out into the Gobi Desert, say, or the mountain range behind Olgii, or there are so many little-explored places in this massive land.
     I know the perfect comparison. It is like if a foreigner came to San Diego and drove I-5 up to Seattle, never veering far away from the road. (I-5 is the boring highway that bypasses the best sights: the California coast, San Francisco, etc.) On the other hand, maybe the foreigner still enjoyed himself with what he saw and the people he met. Who’s to say it was a mistake?
     On the third hand, I could have joined a tour and seen some stuff. I still have some Yahoo money and it’s unlikely I will come back to Mongolia when Africa is screaming my name.
     This is the kind of thing I dwell on. Often.
     At the train station they told me the cheapest ticket on the Trans-Siberian to Beijing is 255,000 tugrik and to Moscow, 426,000 tugrik. (2100 tugrik = $1.) There is a different price if the train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, with Chinese being the cheapest and Russian the most expensive, but the difference is small.
north korean restaurant

     Another dramatic difference between Ulan Bator and everywhere else is the food. The menu in the countryside is limited, let’s say. I don’t mind it; I have a strong capacity to eat the same stuff day after day, but I was also hoping to find good-looking bananas for under $4 a kilo.
     I read about all the international foods in the capital—even Mexican food is now in town—but I ate Mongolian food every meal. I made one exception: I went whole hog exotic once and tried North Korean food at Pyongyang Restaurant. I felt a little bad contributing to Kim Jong Un’s coffers all in the name of an experience, but there were only two other people in the restaurant, so I think they lost money on this night.

north korean food

     This isn’t exactly North Korean food—but how many people can say for sure? Maybe they eat chili cheese dogs for all we know. This is more like Chinese mapo tofu. I haven’t had tofu in forever, so I flinched. It was bland. I am going to claim racial profiling; white people can’t handle spicy, they must think. $10.

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